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Property of Wentworth

Chapter Text

Gazing down from her office window onto the activity yard below, Vera frowned. This was it. She had no other choice. As soon as she arrived, the Governor would have to go directly into protection.

No, not the “Governor.”
Just Ferguson.
Prisoners held no titles.

 

There was really no other option, she thought, turning back toward the desk. She may hate Ferguson now, but she would never willingly put an inmate in obvious danger. And the Gov— Ferguson, dammit, Ferguson— would be in danger if she was housed amongst the general population. Vera rubbed her temples. Really, it was a ridiculous situation. No ex-guard should ever be housed in the prison she served, and particularly not an ex-governor. One would think that would be obvious.       

But what was equally obvious was that Ferguson had enemies. Many, many enemies. And they were gleefully vicious in their vengeance.

There was that guard from Blackmoor, who had provided testimony about Jianna. Two more guards and an ex-prisoner from Barnhurst had also testified at the trial. Then Fletch, Will, Linda, Bridget Westfall… and Vera herself.

But she didn’t want to think about that.

The aspect that still confused her was Derek Channing’s testimony. Vera knew that Channing loathed Ferguson, and that he had already tried to remove her once. But Channing’s statements about Ferguson had been strangely bland. She had expected him to bluster on about Ferguson’s monstrous acts, and instead he had simply denied knowledge of many of the events.

And then there was the nod. Vera had watched the proceedings carefully, and had noticed that Channing avoided looking directly at Ferguson. As he stepped down, however, Vera had seen him glance over to Ferguson, and Ferguson had nodded. The nod was brief, tiny—almost imperceptible—but Vera was sure that Ferguson had acknowledged something. And Channing had obviously and immediately relaxed, wearing a smug smile as he returned to his seat.

There was something there, something strange—even complicit—between Ferguson and Channing, but Vera didn’t know what it was. She suspected it had something to do with the parolee files that she had helped Ferguson sort, but she had never known the outcome of that little moment of detective work. Ferguson had simply told her that it was “taken care of.”

It was yet another mystery surrounding the ex-governor.

           

Now Ferguson was coming back to Wentworth, and would be under Vera’s care.

She felt a jolt of… something. Her hands shook a little. She laid them flat against the desk.
Her desk.
She sat down in the governor’s chair. She smoothed her hands over her uniform jacket.
Vera was the governor now.
And Ferguson was her property.

Chapter Text

Vera clicked “save” on the final changes to the staffing roster. This should have been the Deputy Governor’s job, of course, but Linda couldn’t know about Ferguson. None of the old staff could know. Vera—and Vera alone—would be present to put Ferguson into protection. From there, it was just a case of making sure that the protection cells were staffed solely by new, obedient guards—with Vera occasionally checking in to oversee the prisoners, of course.

She had hired the perfect guard just yesterday. The woman was young, frumpy, timid, and dull. She would do whatever she was told, without asking questions. There was the chance that Ferguson would try to manipulate her, but the girl was so decidedly boring that even Ferguson would find her tedious. Vera hummed to herself. She had already made several similar hires, and now the protection unit would be adequately staffed without the rest of the officers ever being aware of Ferguson’s existence. It had the bonus of being fiscally responsible, too, since she could hire these young guards at cheap rates. Even Channing couldn’t disagree with that.

Vera glanced at her watch. It was near midnight. Ferguson would be arriving soon. She felt a jolt of excitement. Maybe it was petty, but she was planning on enjoying each and every moment of Ferguson’s lifelong incarceration. She wouldn’t intentionally make her suffer, of course (that would be wrong), but she could revel in the downfall of the woman who had used her, abused her, outed her as “diseased.” The woman who, more than anything, had betrayed Vera; who had made it clear that Vera was nothing to her.

No. Ferguson cared for no one but herself. And now, Vera thought, as she straightened her pens on her desk, now Ferguson would have no one but herself.

Vera would watch her crumble.

***

It was twenty minutes past midnight.

As instructed, the call came to Vera’s mobile phone, rather than through the prison switchboard.

Ferguson was here.

Ferguson was here.

Suddenly, for all her anger, rage, and excitement, Vera wasn’t ready. She had spent weeks planning for Ferguson’s arrival, going over every detail of how to keep her presence unknown to the prisoners and to most of the staff. She had created a clever false name for her. She had chosen Ferguson’s cell. And she had imagined what she would say when at last she confronted her.

In fact, she had imagined that scene many times, with numerous resulting scenarios. Sometimes she would scream at Ferguson. Sometimes she would simply remain silent, as if Ferguson was beneath her. And sometimes she would pull out her own black leather gloves, and she, Vera, the “mouse,” would slap Ferguson so hard that tears would come to the older woman’s eyes. Then, maybe then, Ferguson would understand just how much she hurt her.

(And sometimes, in the dark quiet of her bedroom, she would imagine herself standing very, very close to Ferguson, so close that only millimetres separated their bodies. She would reach up toward that wretched bun and pull—hard—on the back of Joan’s head until her face was forced down to Vera’s level. Then she would stare into those dark eyes as she captured Joan’s lips with her own, savouring them, biting them, drawing blood.

In the morning, the remembrance of that particular scenario would make her feel alternatingly hot and cold, then confused and ashamed. She would get up quickly and go about her morning routine, trying not to think about her imaginary body’s reactions to Joan. She would be careful to focus on her anger, instead).

But none of those imaginings had been real. What was real was that Ferguson was actually here. She was sitting, handcuffed, in a van. Out there. The doors would be opened, and Ferguson would look at her with that look of utter contempt that Vera knew so well. The one that continually suggested that Vera was weak, that she was below the Governor, that she was nothing.

Vera was breathing too fast. She couldn’t catch her breath. She slid down to the floor and put her head between her knees. She repeated her mantra: “Joan Ferguson is a monster. Joan Ferguson betrayed me. I am the governor. I will see that she is corrected.”

The clock was ticking. Ferguson was waiting.

Vera’s breathing slowed. She stood up and adjusted her uniform. She smoothed her tightly-twisted hair.

“Joan Ferguson is a monster. Joan Ferguson betrayed me. I am the governor. I will see that she is corrected.”

Vera left to meet Ferguson, closing the door to the Governor’s office behind her.

Chapter Text

The transport guard was waiting for Vera under the lamplight, smoking a cigarette.

“She’s in the back,” he said. “You got the cash?”

Vera handed him an envelope. It was from her personal savings account. She couldn’t exactly expense this particular transaction to petty cash. Still, she deemed it a good investment.

“Thank you for doing this,” she started. “I know it’s unusual, but—”

The guard cut her off abruptly. “I don’t ask questions when I come here, and I don’t tell. Your business is your own. Even with this one in the back.” He nodded toward the van.

Vera gave a tiny nod in acknowledgement. She turned her full attention to the van’s back doors. This was it. The monster was about to be unveiled.

It felt like her heartbeat was shaking her entire body.

She drew in a deep breath.

“All right, then. Open them.”

 

Inside was… nothing. Darkness. No sound, no light.

The guard approached. “Well? Out you come, Guv’na.” He glanced back at Vera. “Oh… right. Sorry.”

Vera didn’t even acknowledge him. She continued to stare into the darkness, straining to see Ferguson.

Finally, she heard a sound. It was metal. The rustling of chains.

And Ferguson came into the light.

 

“No!” Vera whispered. “What?” She turned to the guard, pointing an accusatory finger at him. “What happened? What did you do?”

“She was like that when I picked her up. I don’t know what it’ll be like for her in there,” he flicked his cigarette toward the prison, “but it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t have any friends out here.”

Vera turned back to Ferguson. She had practiced for this moment, but she couldn’t remember any of her speeches. She was confused—she had expected to be confronted with her tormentor, the women who had vowed to annihilate her. She was ready to fight, to yell, to scream. She was not ready for… this.

Joan Ferguson had obviously been beaten. One eye was swollen shut. Her lip was split. Bruises bloomed across her skin. Her hair was half falling out of a long plait. She attempted to climb down from the van, but her swollen eye was doing no favours for her depth perception. She stumbled, falling forward onto her knees, then onto her handcuffed wrists.

She lay still on the asphalt.

 

This was not how it was supposed to be.

Vera felt her anger build.

This was not how it was supposed to be. It was her right to confront Ferguson—the real Ferguson—not this pathetic battered woman lying on the ground.

She moved to stand directly over the prisoner.

“Well?” she asked.

Again, there was silence. Then slowly, ever so slowly, Ferguson craned her neck back, and raised her head. Her face was blank, but Vera swore she could see something glimmer in her remaining dark eye.

That was Ferguson, all right.

Vera’s smile was disturbing.

“Welcome home,” she said.

Chapter Text

They walked the intake corridors in silence.

They met no one. Vera had assigned the skeleton staff to other areas of the prison. There would be no witnesses to Ferguson’s intake processing.

Vera paused when they arrived at the painted black photo identification square. She turned to direct Ferguson as to where to stand to have her photo taken, but Ferguson moved into place without instruction. She faced front, then turned to present her profile. The reality of the situation suddenly struck Vera. Of course Ferguson needed no instructions. Ferguson knew every practice and policy within this prison. She had written many of them. Vera may have carefully and meticulously planned for Ferguson’s arrival, but that’s all any of it had been: plans. In that moment, she finally understood: this was the new reality.

 

Vera slowed as they neared the strip search room. Ferguson continued ahead. It was against protocol for Vera to allow her to do so, of course, but the whole situation felt far past protocol. Far, far, far past protocol. Protocol was in the next prison over. Vera let out a sound that seemed to be equal parts giggle, snort, and gasp. She knew she sounded hysterical, and maybe she was. It was all so ridiculous. She was about to strip search Joan Ferguson. Joan Fucking Ferguson. The woman hadn’t spoken a word in this entire process, and now she was standing there at the door to the strip search room, looking back at Vera, waiting, and still showing no expression whatsoever.

Well, this was just another part of the process that Vera had already imagined several times. She wasn’t about to let Ferguson intimidate her simply by standing beside a door. After all, it was Vera’s door now, just like it was Vera’s duty to correct Ferguson.

Yes. Correction.

And that would start with a long, invasive search of Joan’s body.

Chapter Text

As soon as they stepped inside the strip search room, Ferguson began methodically removing her clothing. First came the earrings and that long necklace Vera had seen her wear before, when she had brought dinner to Vera’s house. That had been the first time that Vera had ever seen her out of uniform. She remembered feeling special and (cringe) even cared for, because the Governor had thought to bring her food. She snorted ruefully at her past self. She had been so pathetically trusting and naïve.

Ferguson looked up briefly, then continued removing items. She stepped out of her shoes, pushing them neatly to the side. Staring straight ahead, at a point just above Vera’s head, Ferguson unbuttoned her shirt, drawing it from her body and holding it out to Vera. She unzipped her pants, bending as her long legs stepped out of them. As she straightened up, her eyes locked fleetingly with Vera’s before they returned to staring at the wall above Vera’s head. Joan slid the straps of her bra off her shoulders and undid the clasp, releasing her breasts. She bent over and removed her underwear.

Vera stared. She had searched many women in this very room, but this situation was different. Vera knew that the strip search room was only partly about looking for contraband. In participating in Bea Smith’s search, Ferguson herself had demonstrated that it was really about emphasizing who wielded the power at Wentworth. And so, instead of proceeding with the search, Vera held her hand up to stop Ferguson. She took her time in allowing her eyes to survey Joan’s body, slowly circling around her, establishing her dominance. Vera gazed at Joan’s long neck and graceful collarbones. Her eyes dropped down to breasts that were surprisingly full—not overly large, but fuller than Joan’s uniform or loose shirts had indicated. Vera surmised that they would feel firm yet soft. Her gaze flowed down and around, over Joan’s back, Joan’s waist, her hips, her well-trimmed pubic area. Her legs were remarkable: long, and toned; even her feet were elegant.

Slowly, leisurely, Vera allowed her gaze to ascend back up. She found herself pausing again on the apex of Joan’s thighs, and on her breasts. She stared at the soft skin. Even with the yellow and purple bruises blooming all over Joan’s body, she remained oddly smooth and white, as if she were some ancient alabaster statue come to life.

Oh God. Had she just waxed poetic over Joan’s skin? What was wrong with her?

Vera’s gaze finally returned to Joan’s disfigured face, only to find Ferguson staring intently back at her. Vera cleared her throat. “Well, you know what to do next. Ears. Hair. Get on with it.”

Joan pulled her ears forward, moving her head from side to side. She unwove her plait, untangling the thick dark hair, leaving just the front area pulled back.

“Wait. Let your hair out fully.”

It was Joan’s tiny, almost imperceptible hesitation that warned Vera. Joan reached up, holding the front part of her hair and pulling out the hair elastic that had held it in place. She lowered her hands, then began to turn around for the final aspect of the search.

“Stop,” Vera commanded. Protocol said that guards were not supposed to touch prisoners while in the strip search room, but Vera reached up to part Joan’s heavy hair. There was a section that was matted, just at the area the hair elastic had covered. She pulled the hair clump apart just as Joan subtly flinched. Vera brought her gloved hand down to discover blood on her fingers. “What’s this? Did someone cut you?”

Joan did not respond.

“Ferguson,” Vera barked. She was annoyed. “Answer me.”

Joan continued to stare straight ahead.

Vera gave a loud sign of frustration. “On your knees.”

Joan turned very slowly and stared at her.

Vera flushed. “I can’t see the injury on the top of your head,” she explained. “You’re too tall. You have to kneel so I can examine the cut.”

For a moment, Vera thought Ferguson would refuse to comply. Then, finally, Joan kneeled on the cold concrete floor.

Vera carefully pulled apart the matted hair, searching for the wound underneath. She could see something metallic hidden within the hair, digging into Joan’s scalp. Vera carefully pulled the piece of metal out. It was one of those removable blades that you find in a box cutter.

“Ferguson, did someone hit you with a box cutter?” Vera asked.

There was no reply.

Suddenly it became clear.

“It was you,” Vera whispered. “You did this to yourself. You’re trying to smuggle the blade into Wentworth.”

Vera circled Ferguson until she stood directly in front of her. Leaning over, forcing Ferguson to once again crane her neck back to look up at her, Vera held the blade aloft.

“You brought a weapon into my prison. A weapon.” She moved the blade directly in line with Ferguson’s good eye. “Stand up!” she shouted.

Keeping her gaze locked onto Vera’s, Ferguson slowly rose from her knees until she was standing again, towering over Vera.

But Vera would not be cowed. She may have—briefly—felt the smallest amount of pity for Ferguson as she had watched her beaten body fall and lie still on the hard pavement, but now her anger was back in full force. She should have known. Even as a prisoner, Ferguson would never follow the rules. She deemed them beneath her. Just like she, Vera, was beneath her.

But no longer.

Trembling with anger, Vera looked at the blade held between her fingers.

Then she looked at Ferguson’s body in front of her.

Vera’s hand moved forward.

Chapter Text

They stood together silently, unmoving. Vera had expected Ferguson to resist, but Joan simply watched her.

Vera held the blade at the side of Joan’s neck. “This is where it happened,” she said. “This is where the syringe nicked my skin. This is where the hep C entered my body.”

Vera swayed slowly forward, toward Joan, then back again.

“And you did nothing to stop them.”

She stared at the blade against Joan’s neck.

Forward, back. Forward, back.

“You know, “ Vera started, almost conversationally, “at first I thought the worst part was when you pulled your hand away. There you were, trying to convince me that you cared, but as soon as you realized that I was “diseased” you pulled your hand away. It happened so quickly. And even after I left, I still tried to give you the tiniest benefit of the doubt. I mean, I knew about your phobia of germs. I said to myself, ‘she can’t see past the disease, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t care. She needs help with her own problems.’”

Vera watched intently as her hand ghosted the blade down from Joan’s neck, across her collarbones. Her fingers touched Joan’s skin, but the blade didn’t cut.

“But you just don’t have it in you, do you, Ferguson? You can’t care. You’re incapable of caring. You can only manipulate.”

She drew the blade downward, towards Joan’s right breast.

“And then you outed me as diseased. Infected.”

Slowly, very slowly, Vera circled Joan’s breast.

“You know how much this job means to me, and you used this illness against me. You used my own confession against me.”

Vera looked up, into Ferguson’s eyes, and drew the blade lower, lower.

“But you’re in my prison now. And I want to be very, very clear.”

The blade came to a halt on Joan’s pubic mound.

Vera whispered, “you’re worthless. You’re pointless. You’re nothing.” She smiled. “No one misses you.”

She removed her hand from Joan’s body, raised the blade between them, and dropped it into a plastic evidence bag.

“And no one cares.”

Vera sealed the bag shut.

Chapter Text

Vera had watched Joan’s left eyebrow slowly work its way higher and higher as she listened to Vera spit the words she had learned from the transcript of Jodie Spiteri’s meeting with the ombudsman. She had watched a tiny smirk bloom on Joan’s face as she informed her that “no one cares.” The smirk had seemed dangerously close to pride, and that was the moment when Vera realized the truth: she had gone too far.

“Remain here,” she directed Ferguson. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

The instruction was redundant, of course; the strip search room was a cell in its own right, and Vera held the bag that contained the only weapon in the room.

She stepped through the threshold, turned to ensure that the door was indeed locked, walked seventeen steps down the hallway, turned into an adjacent alcove… and collapsed on the cold concrete.

“What have I done? What have I done?”

She wasn’t a monster; she knew she wasn’t, but what she had just done to Ferguson was… even Ferguson hadn’t done that to Smith. No, what Vera had just done was unconscionable. She had wanted to assert her dominance, but instead… It was borderline sexual harassment. It wasn’t even borderline. It was assault. She was the governor, but she had assaulted her own prisoner.

She held her arms around her knees, rocking back and forth.

Even if the prisoner was Ferguson, and even if she hated her, she should never have wielded the blade like that. And no, she never let the blade actually touch Joan’s skin, but she had touched that skin with her fingers, and… and… she had touched her there.

Vera flushed hot and prickly with shame.

What she had just done was illegal. What she had done was wrong. She was supposed to correct prisoners, but she was also supposed to protect them, not abuse them.

She thrust a shaky hand across her cheeks, swiping at tears.

The fact that she hadn’t realized how far she had gone until she saw Ferguson’s smirk… when had she become this person? She wasn’t Ferguson. She wasn’t anything like Ferguson. And yet Ferguson had looked somehow proud, as if she had always perceived the monster in Vera that Vera had never known, as if she had been waiting for the monster to emerge, as if she wanted the monster to emerge.

As if—

As if she wanted the monster to emerge.

Vera breathed out, attempting to calm herself. She leaned back against the wall. She needed to think.

Ferguson had brought a blade into Wentworth. She had hid it in her hair. Even handcuffed, she could have reached up at any point, removed it, and assaulted any guard in the area. Lord knew she was strong enough to seriously wound someone—or even kill.

But she hadn’t done that, so she wasn’t after the guards. She wasn’t after Vera.

It could be a defensive weapon. Ferguson likely knew where she was coming. She knew that she’d be attacked as soon as she entered Wentworth. The other prisoners would have killed her on the spot if Vera hadn’t intervened to secret her off to an unused protection unit.

Yet Ferguson would have known that she would be strip searched. She knew that said search included hair.

Vera shook her head. Had it been—could it be—about her? Vera? Was Ferguson still playing games, even as a prisoner? Was it because Vera held her job now? Was it jealousy or vengeance or… something else?

Vera rose from the floor, brushing off her skirt. She rubbed her eyes, trying to get ride of any evidence of her tears. She patted her hair, making sure that the twist was still in place. As she walked back down the hallway, pocketing the bagged blade, swiping her keycard on the door, she thought of only one thing.

It was time to finish the strip search.

Chapter Text

Joan was standing in the same spot that Vera had left her, but her arms were wrapped around herself. They dropped as soon as Vera entered the room, but not before Vera saw the defensive, self-comforting pose.

Vera closed the door and approached her. She was determined to be professional. She had performed hundreds of strip searches over the years. Yes, she had allowed her anger to overtake her during this one, but no longer. She was in control of her emotions now. Ferguson could do nothing to break her. Vera held all the power.

“I’m back,” she announced unnecessarily. “Let’s finish this.”

Ferguson made no reply, but by this point Vera hardly expected one.

“Turn around,” she said tonelessly. “Bend over.”

Ferguson raised her chin. Vera almost laughed. It was such a typically Ferguson mannerism that had the woman not been standing naked in front of her, she could have pictured her standing behind her desk in the Governor’s office.

Vera’s office, now.

“Don’t make me repeat myself, Ferguson.”

Ferguson peered down at her from her good eye. Head still held high, she turned. Then slowly, achingly slowly, she bent over.

Vera stared.

Neither moved.

Finally, Vera whispered, “cough.”

After a pause, Joan coughed.

“We’re done. You can get dressed.”

Ferguson straightened up, then turned around. She locked gazes with Vera. Slowly, purposefully, Ferguson took another step toward her, into her personal space. Vera could feel the heat radiating from the tall woman’s naked body. She tried to stand immobile, to hold her position, but she couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t. She took a step back from Ferguson, trying to cover it by moving to the side to pick up the pile of teal clothing waiting on a nearby table. She didn’t miss the tiny smirk that appeared at the edges of Ferguson’s lips.

“Here,” Vera said, rallying, thrusting the pile at Ferguson. She smiled. “I hope you enjoy your new uniform. I’ve heard that teal complements every skin tone, even one as pale as yours.” She allowed her eyes to once again flow over Joan’s body, demonstrating her dominance.

The smirk disappeared from Ferguson’s face, but not because of Vera’s perusal of her body. Indeed, when Vera finally looked back up to Joan’s eyes, she saw that they weren’t even watching her. They were fixated on the teal tracksuit. Joan’s face was carefully impassive, but she made no move to take the clothing from Vera’s hands.

“It’s not like you can stay naked, Ferguson.”

Joan’s eyes snapped back to Vera’s, then right back to the tracksuit. She still made no move to remove the items from Vera’s waiting hands.

“Ferguson! Take these,” Vera shook the clothes. “Are you going to make me dress you?”

Ferguson’s eye twitched.

Vera hadn’t considered how much the prisoner’s uniform would affect Ferguson. She watched as Joan’s eyes moved from the tracksuit to Vera’s own uniform, pausing on her name badge, before returning to the teal bundle. Joan finally reached out, gingerly taking the clothing. Vera wasn’t sure if she had seen a tremor in Joan’s hands, of if she had imagined it.

Ferguson turned away. As methodically as she had removed her own clothes, she now donned the uniform of an inmate of Wentworth Prison. She remained with her back to Vera.

Eventually, Vera silently reached around Ferguson to present her with her new shoes. It was strange, she considered as Ferguson donned the rubber soles, that no one would ever again hear the ubiquitous click of Ferguson’s low heels as she strode through the prison.

Vera glanced over at the pile of clothes left on the table. They were all that remained of Joan’s previous identity. “What do you want to do with these,” she asked, gesturing to the clothing. “Donate them to charity?”

Again there was a long pause, followed by Ferguson’s curt nod. She remained with her back to Vera, not looking at the clothes.

Vera glanced up at the clock. Almost three.

“Okay, then. I’ll see that they’re donated. Let’s get going. The last stop is Medical, and then I’ll take you to your cell.” Vera opened the door and stepped out of the room.

Ferguson followed her, slowly, a tall vision in Wentworth teal.

Chapter Text

Vera had counted on the infirmary being deserted. She let out a relieved sigh as they rounded the corner and spotted the darkened room. She felt Ferguson glancing down at her.

Once inside, Vera instructed Ferguson to sit on the edge of the examination table. Protocol mandated that a certified healthcare practitioner should perform a basic medical exam. Vera knew the rules, but it was three a.m., there was no one else around, and she was obviously breaking them.

What made her nervous was that Ferguson knew that she was breaking them, too.

Still Joan said nothing.

The bruises, although numerous, were not likely to be life threatening. There was always the danger of heavier internal bleeding, but Vera would make sure that the guards notified her if Ferguson mentioned any complaints. In the meantime, she rummaged through the supplies to find the cold packs, sterilized tongs, antiseptic ointments, and cotton balls that she had seen the medical staff use on the many split lips that inevitably appeared during prison fights.

Ferguson sat quietly on the edge of the table. She continued to hold herself rigid, but her head dropped forward slightly. She was obviously exhausted.

Formidable Joan Ferguson is human, Vera thought. She broke a cold pack, wrapped it in a towel, and handed it to Ferguson.

“For your eye,” she said.

Joan held the cold pack against her swollen eye.

Vera couldn’t hold back the taunt. “I guess now you have a miniscule sense of what Jodie Spiteri felt,” she said, looking at Ferguson’s remaining good eye.

No reaction. Ferguson simply looked back at her.

Vera sighed and applied antiseptic cream to a cotton ball. She moved forward, gently patting it against Ferguson’s bottom lip. Joan jerked back, then settled forward again. Vera frowned. Placing the ointment beside Ferguson, she reached up with her left hand and held the back of Joan’s neck steady, just where it met her head. Her right hand continued to softly pat Joan’s lips.

Vera felt oddly calm. This gentle act of patting, of cleaning the wound, was strangely soothing. She could focus entirely on Joan’s lips. It wasn’t that she was forgetting her anger, or that she could ever forgive Ferguson, but she could let it settle to the side for this brief moment. Vera was tired, too.

She looked up when she felt an increased pressure in her hand. It wasn’t much, but Joan was leaning into her, ever so slightly. Her bad eye remained covered by the cold pack. Her good eye was closed.

Ferguson gave the quietest of sighs.

Vera dropped the tongs and cotton ball into the metal tray, startling both of them. Ferguson jerked forward.

“I think that’s all I can do for now,” Vera announced. “I’ll just get you a few extra cold packs for your bruises, and then we’ll head to your cell.”

They left the infirmary a few minutes later, Ferguson clutching cold packs, Vera making sure to turn off the lights, both heading to Joan’s new home.

Chapter Text

It was quiet as they walked the hallway, side-by-side. Wentworth at night was somehow less institutional, less antiseptic than its daytime counterpart. The raucous yells and whistles that so often filled the background noise of the day were missing, replaced by the lulling hisses and occasional knocks of heaters and pipes and fans. The only jarring sound was Vera’s footsteps echoing along the empty halls. Ferguson’s steps were now silent.

Vera glanced sideways at the taller woman, who continued to hold her head high, her gaze determinedly fixed in front of her. The effect was somewhat marred by the cold pack she held against her eye, not to mention her teal tracksuit and rubber-soled shoes. Walking alongside her, Vera felt oddly like she was seeing something she shouldn’t see; like Joan was suddenly exposed in a way that far surpassed her previous nakedness.

But she refused to feel pity for Ferguson.

When they reached the juncture at the end of the hall, Joan turned sharply to her left, heading toward General, while Vera turned to her right, expecting to take Joan toward Protection. Their bodies collided, the cold packs falling to the floor, Vera stumbling slightly backward.

“Oh! Sorry—” Vera automatically apologized before she could stop herself. She looked up to see Ferguson’s arms, stretched out to her, suddenly falling back to Joan’s sides. A look of something—concern?—followed by bewildered confusion crossed Ferguson’s face before her impassive mask fell back in place. She knelt down to pick up the fallen cold packs.

Vera knelt, too. “You thought I was taking you to General, didn’t you?” she asked, handing a pack to Ferguson. She stood, looking down at the prisoner. “You really believe that I would do that to you. You still think that I’m the one who betrayed you.”

Ferguson looked fleetingly up at Vera, then quickly away, down to the cold packs at her feet, then to the hallway that led to General.

I wouldn’t do that to anyone, Ferguson,” Vera stated emphatically. “You know those women would kill you. And it wouldn’t be fast. All your phobias of germs, all your fear of disease… do you think they would take that into consideration as they cut you and raped you with God knows what?”

Ferguson stared at the floor.

“Oh get up,” Vera exclaimed, reaching down to pull Ferguson’s arm. “You look pathetic.”

Joan stood, slowly, cradling the packs in her left arm. At full height, she suddenly lunged forward, grabbing Vera’s jaw and yanking it upward, staring forcefully into her eyes.

“Ferguson!” Vera yelled, trying to twist her head away, but Joan held firm, seemingly searching Vera’s eyes for something. Her hot breath ghosted across Vera’s face as her good eye darted back and forth between Vera’s eyes, gazing intensely. At last Joan relented, releasing Vera’s jaw.

Vera was livid. “How dare you? You will never, ever touch me again! You are the prisoner. Do you understand that? You are the prisoner, and I am the governor. You will do exactly as I say, or so help me I will move you to General. And then I’ll watch from the comfort of my office as the women close in on you. And I’ll do nothing to protect you, just as you did nothing to protect me when they held that infected syringe to my throat!

“You think I’m a monster?” she continued, breathing hard. “Just watch me.”

Vera’s eyes were locked with Joan’s. She breathed in lungfuls of air.

“Go,” she directed, deflating, suddenly weary. She pointed down the hallway toward Protection. “Go that way. I just want to get you into your cell so I can end this miserable night.”

Ferguson abruptly turned and headed down the hallway.

Vera rubbed her temples, trailing after her.

Chapter Text

Wentworth housed several protection units, each with individual cells and small communal areas. Most of the time, the inmates who were accommodated in these units were the refuse of the prison system; the laggers, the child abusers, the people who were shunned from the general inmate population. Now Wentworth could add “ex-governors” to its list of unwanted outcasts.

For Ferguson, Vera had chosen the protection unit that was both empty and farthest away from any populated area. No one would hear noises as they walked past the unit on their way to some other place, because no one would ever be near the unit unless they were specifically posted there. It was, essentially, a vacuum within Wentworth; a void; a place to wait for… nothing.

A place to be forgotten.

Vera stood with Ferguson on the threshold of the unit. She surveyed the meager contents: a table with two chairs, a small couch, a tiny kitchenette at the back. The door to one side led to a shower. The other two doors were cells, both empty.

Everything was concrete. Everything was green.

In a way, Vera thought tiredly, it’s like living underwater. Or in a fish tank.

She stepped through the gate and moved toward the two cells. The first was empty. The second looked exactly like the first, with the exception of standard prison-issue bedding.

“Well?” she asked, turning to Ferguson. “You’re home. I’ve put you in the second one,” she said, gesturing to the open door.

Joan slowly stepped through the gate, but she didn’t approach the cell. Instead, she skirted the outer edge of the unit, stopping behind the table, keeping it between her and the cell. She put the cold packs down, then turned toward the only window and looked out into the night.

Vera was exasperated with Ferguson and, if she was honest, with herself. The prisoner was now inside the unit. She didn’t actually have to be inside her cell in order for Vera to leave, and yet Vera couldn’t simply walk away while Ferguson stared out the window at nothing.

Oh, for the love of—

“Ferguson,” she called sharply. “Ferguson, turn around and get yourself into this cell so that I can go home and go to bed!”

Joan didn’t move.

“Argh!” Vera exclaimed inarticulately, losing patience. “I’m tired,” she said, walking toward Ferguson. “Exhausted. It’s past three in the morning. You have to be feeling it, too.” She stopped beside Joan, staring out the window, then looked up. “Honestly, I—”

Vera abruptly stopped speaking.

She stared.

Joan Ferguson was crying.

It wasn’t normal crying, of course. It was just a single tear, but Vera watched as it rolled down Joan’s cheek, curving towards her mouth. It slowed, eventually rounding under her chin.

Joan remained immobile, staring, doing nothing to brush it away.

The tender part of Vera, the part that fed stray animals and gave money to that homeless man who sat near her grocery store, the inner girl who just wanted everyone in the world to feel safe and loved and welcome… that Vera almost reached up to wipe the tear away, to put her small arms around Joan’s shoulders, to try to make it better.

But Vera ruthlessly tamped down on that urge. That softhearted Vera was gone. She had been destroyed the moment Ferguson removed her hand and wiped it on her napkin. Governor Bennett was diseased, yes, but she was also powerful. And Ferguson was a monster—a manipulative monster who deserved this punishment. This… correction.

Vera turned away. A tear didn’t mean remorse. A tear didn’t mean that Ferguson regretted anything that she had done. No, a tear was just another form of manipulation, and Vera refused to fall for Ferguson’s manipulations again.

She walked back towards the metal gate.

“You’re here now. Go to bed or don’t, I don’t care.” She pulled the gate shut and turned to leave.

“Wait.”

She paused.

The voice was weak, but Ferguson had finally spoken. Vera turned, arms crossed.

“Vera—”

“That’s Governor Bennett to you, Ferguson.”

They stared at each other for a long moment until Joan dropped her gaze.

“Governor,” she whispered, then stopped.

Vera waited impatiently for Ferguson to continue, but she had fallen silent again.

“Fine. I’m leaving. You can say whatever you want to say to the guard tomorrow.” Vera turned again, but Ferguson suddenly rushed toward the gate.

“Wait. It’s…” she breathed in. “The baby. About Jianna’s baby. I have to know, I—”

“What is wrong with you?” Vera shouted. “It’s Doreen, not Jianna! Doreen’s baby! Jianna’s dead. The prisoners killed her because of you!”

Ferguson visibly recoiled, backing away from the gate.

“No, no,” she whispered, “that’s not what I—”

“Shut up! Just shut up! I don’t want to hear it!” Vera shook the gate, hard. “Get it through your head that you’re in here now. Forever! Jianna, Doreen, the baby… I don’t know what your obsession is, but you’ll never see any of them again. This is your life now. These walls. This is it!”

And then Vera walked away.

She didn’t wait for a reply. She didn’t look up to see Ferguson’s stricken expression, or to check that she was okay.

She left.

The only sound that remained was the echo of her footsteps as she walked down the hall, leaving Joan behind.

Chapter Text

Vera felt like shit. She was too old to stay up until the early hours of morning and then drag herself into work. It would have been one thing if she had managed to sleep once she got home, but her brain wouldn’t stop replaying every interaction with Ferguson. Every move, every glance… Joan’s battered, naked body, Vera’s shame in assaulting her, Joan’s intense stare into her eyes…

And then leaving her. Dumping her into the protection unit and running away.

Oh, but she had been angry. As soon as Ferguson mentioned the baby, as soon as she said “Jianna,” Vera had been livid.

But now, as Vera sat at the governor’s desk, rubbing her temples, now she wasn’t sure why Ferguson’s confusion of Jianna with Anderson had made her quite so angry. It was hardly the first time Ferguson had confused the two. And it explained the ice cream, and Ferguson’s overreaction to the garden project. Really, it wasn’t about Anderson at all. She was just a stand-in.

Which also suggested just how fucked up Ferguson was.

The Jianna story had come out at the trial. Vera had already known parts of it from Ferguson herself, of course—Ferguson who hadn’t denied Fletch’s accusations, who had openly admitted to what she had done at Blackmoor—but it was Will’s addition that made it all the more tragic. That Ferguson had loved a prisoner, and that the prisoner had been murdered because of that relationship…

Well, Vera thought primly, there’s a reason there are rules about relationships with prisoners.

Ugh. She put her forehead on the desk. She didn’t really mean that. Of course there were rules, but love…

She turned to stare out the window, cradling her head against the desk. Had it truly been love? It was… strange… to think that this younger version of Joan Ferguson had honestly loved Jianna. What had the girl been like, to attract Ferguson’s attention, to merit love?

Vera gently stroked her hair away from her temple. How had it started? Was it all based on a sexual attraction? She sniffed, wrinkling her nose. That didn’t seem likely. Oh, there were times when Vera had wondered about Ferguson’s sexuality—particularly during that strip search of Smith, or her cavity search of Doyle—but those moments all seemed to revolve around displays of dominance. Vera suspected that Ferguson was more sexually attracted to power than to any single person.

But love. Love was different. And the fact that she had gone on a fifteen-year-or-so vendetta against Will Jackson suggested that Ferguson’s love had been strong.

God, Vera groaned, sitting up. Why was she still thinking about Ferguson?

***

Vera was laboriously slogging her way through paperwork when Derek Channing tapped on the door and breezed into her office.

She found herself repressing an almost Joan Ferguson-like bark at the man to Get Out.

“Vera,” Channing said, nodding at her.

“Mr. Channing,” she replied, plastering a smile on her tired face.

Channing dropped into a chair. “So?” he said, glancing quickly toward the door. “Did she arrive?”

Vera also glanced toward the outer office, making sure that it was empty. “Yes. I’ve placed her in a protection unit under an assumed name. Only the new junior staff will be guarding that area.”

“Good, good. Tell me,” he said, flashing her a smile, “did she, uh, ‘go quietly,’ as they say?”

“Mostly.” Vera leaned forward. “Did you know that she had been beaten?”

“What?” Channing asked, alarmed.

“Yes. Rather severely, in fact. She has bruises all over her body. Her right eye is blackened and swollen shut. She has a cut lip.”

Channing seemed somewhat dazed. “I… I didn’t know any of that had happened.”

Vera leaned back and clasped her hands together. “Mr. Channing,” she started, looking down at her hands. “I need to ask… That is, it’s strange to me…”

Channing sighed. “Just say it, Vera.”

“Why do you care so much about Ferguson? You made it fairly clear before that you were trying to get rid of her. Yet you said nothing at the trial. And now you’re actively helping me to hide her in Wentworth. I don’t understand.”

Channing adjusted his tie. “I have my reasons, Vera. Let’s just leave it at that. Plus, as much as you and Ferguson both seem to think that I’m utterly immoral, even I think it’s wrong to place a governor into a prison that she ran. It’s idiotic, and it’s cruel.”

Vera nodded, almost believing him.

“Well,” she said, smiling again, “we agree on that. I can’t bring myself to forgive Ferguson for any of her actions, but I will protect her while she’s here.”

“Good,” he said, standing up to leave. “That’s all we need to do.”

Chapter Text

Vera stared at the paperwork in front of her. It was a form that she had half-filled out. The name at the top of the page said “Joan Riley.” Beside it was a polaroid of Ferguson.

Part of the normal intake routine at Wentworth included a mandatory psychological assessment of all new inmates. Vera had already circumvented Ferguson’s medical examination, but doing so made her feel nervous. There were policies and procedures for a reason. And if anyone ever found Ferguson, or knew that Vera had ignored protocol while performing her intake…

Well. Vera definitely did not want to discuss the special particulars of Joan’s intake.

Ferguson must therefore undergo the psychological assessment. And she must do so, Vera thought, fiddling with her pen, whether she wanted to or not.

Right.

Absolutely.

She stared out the window.

Oh hell, she sighed, dropping the pen on the desk. Ferguson would probably just sit there like a stone, refusing to say anything. Still, Vera could record the fact that the assessment had taken place, regardless of its outcome. That would be good enough.

And if she were lucky… if she were very, very lucky, then maybe Ferguson would actually talk. And maybe this new psychologist she had found—this Dr. Roberts—would finally be able to explain to her the inner workings of Joan Ferguson.

At least as much as anyone could understand those inner workings.

***

Vera looked up as Linda tapped on her door.

“Morning, Vera. There’s a Dr. Roberts here to see you,” she stated, her eyebrows raised in question.

Vera smiled. She had learned from Ferguson that the nice thing about being governor was that she didn’t have to explain herself.

“Thank you, Linda. Please show him in.”

Vera had to force herself from groaning audibly as Tom Roberts walked into the Governor’s office. He was tall. He was handsome. He was self-assured. And he was young.

Ferguson would rip him to shreds.

For a brief moment, Vera wished that she could use their regular psychologist, or even bring back Bridget Westfall. She had been one of the few whom Ferguson could never seem to intimidate.

But for all that, for all that Westfall had been the first to warn her about Ferguson’s pathological tendencies, Vera didn’t trust her to be objective. Yes, Vera had believed her when she had diagnosed Ferguson as a psychopath, and Vera herself was certainly no psychologist, but… It just seemed too easy, didn’t it? To declare Ferguson a psychopath, as if a single diagnosis could ever sum up a personality as obviously complex—and damaged—as Joan Ferguson’s?

There had been another psychological assessment, of course. It had been completed directly after the fire, while Ferguson was waiting for her trial. Indeed, it was the document that declared her sane and fully competent, fit for trial. That assessment should have come with all the other paperwork when Ferguson entered the prison, but Channing had somehow sealed it before it ever got to Wentworth.

Vera still didn’t know why.

So she wanted another opinion, and this Dr. Tom Roberts had seemed perfect, at least on paper. He had absolutely no history of working with prisons or the police, which meant that he should have no history with Ferguson. He did, however, have a solid background in working with young offenders, so he should be used to dealing with people in closed institutions.

Vera had done her homework. She had vetted him thoroughly. Except for, well… well-dressed, well-groomed, smile-too-bright him.

But there was nothing to be done. She reached out to shake his offered hand.

“Governor Bennett,” he greeted her, his smile at full wattage.

“Dr. Roberts,” she returned. “Welcome to Wentworth.”

***

“I don’t understand,” Roberts said, shaking his head. “I’m here to assess this, uh…” he glanced down at the file, “this Joan Riley, but you refuse to give me any information regarding why she’s been incarcerated, or what she did before she entered the prison?”

“That’s right,” Vera said cheerfully. “Look, Dr. Roberts, I know this may all seem strange, but it’s for your protection, as well as Riley’s own.”

“My protection?”

Vera leaned forward, dropping her voice. “You understand that some prisoners must be protected because of… information that they know… dangerous information…”

Roberts leaned in, too.

“Is it,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “mafia?”

Oh, this was glorious. Really, this was far too much fun. There must be something wrong with her, Vera thought, that she was enjoying messing around with this poor man as much as she was.

She sat back in her chair. “You know I can’t say.”

He nodded. “I understand. But you also understand that anything that she tells me will be kept in the strictest confidence.”

Vera smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Chapter Text

When Vera arrived with Dr. Roberts, Ferguson was sitting ramrod straight at the table, staring out the window of the protection unit. Her long hair hung disheveled around her, a sight that unnerved Vera. Joan Ferguson was nothing if not fastidious in her appearance, and yet here she sat in a rumpled teal tracksuit, hair falling across her face, black eye still swollen. Her lip, at least, looked slightly better.

As Vera and the psychologist entered the unit, Ferguson turned to face them, silently watching their approach.

“Well!” said Vera, too brightly, too cheerfully when they stood in front of her, “it’s time for your psychological evaluation!”

Ferguson turned back to the window.

Vera cleared her throat. “Dr. Roberts, I’d like to introduce you to your patient: Joan…” she paused for a brief moment, turning her full attention to Ferguson, then continued in an almost malevolent tone, “…Riley.”

Ferguson’s body jerked. It was subtle, but Vera had been watching closely for a reaction. She felt briefly vindicated when she recognized that her use of Jianna’s surname had struck Ferguson, had penetrated Joan’s control.

Ferguson turned slowly back. She raised her head and stared at Vera. Hard. Vera watched as Joan’s jaw worked back and forth. She looked down and saw Ferguson’s hands clenching.

But when she looked back into Joan’s eyes, she was startled by a sudden falling of Joan’s carefully controlled mask; the crumbling façade ever-so fleetingly revealing what Vera could only identify as intense pain. Vera stepped back, feeling physically winded, as if someone had punched her in the stomach. She suddenly recognized the cruelty of her choice of alias. At the level of Joan’s name—and thus Joan’s very identity—Vera had single-handedly forced Ferguson to be forever connected to and reminded of the tragedy of her dead lover.

It was… horrific.

Just as quickly as it had slipped, Ferguson’s mask slid back into place. Her face was once again bland.

But Vera was shaken. She had chosen the name to punish Ferguson, yes. She knew that it would hurt Joan. But for all her careful planning, she hadn’t realized the sheer depth of Joan’s emotions. She had chosen the name as a stranger, an outsider—someone who had never known Jianna. Someone who had never known Ferguson with Jianna. To Vera, Jianna was an idea, a person from the past. To Ferguson, she was real.

Vera could feel herself flushing with shame. Just like last night, when she had run the blade along Ferguson’s body, she realized that she had gone too far. She turned to Dr. Roberts, who in the space of Vera’s sudden understanding was still smiling a greeting and reaching out his hand to offer it to Ferguson.

“Ms. Riley,” he said, hand outstretched.

Vera flinched.

Ferguson stared at his hand, then looked up at him.

“Dr. Roberts,” she acknowledged, not taking his hand.

Roberts’s smile faltered slightly as he dropped his hand to his side.

“Um,” said Vera, somewhat incoherently. “I’m just going to… that is, I think I should, uh, I’ll just leave you…”

“Yes. Please leave us, Governor,” Joan drawled. “I’m sure that Dr. Roberts can give you a full report of our conversation after we’re done.”

“Oh no, oh no, no, Ms. Riley. Let me assure you, whatever you say to me will be completely confidential,” Roberts explained earnestly. “I’ll give the governor a general assessment of your overall mental health, but any details will remain strictly between us. In fact, I always like to tell my patients that—”

Vera was no longer listening to the doctor. Her eyes were locked with Joan’s as he prattled on, unaware that neither woman was paying any attention to him.

Ferguson’s gaze was one of barely-controlled rage. Her face sported a polite smile for the psychologist’s benefit, but her eyes expressed a different story. Vera now knew that there was a line at the edge of punishment and correction across which no one should tread.

And she had crossed it.

She turned and fled, banging the gate behind her.

Chapter Text

Vera did her best to slow her steps as she walked down the empty hallway. Each click of her heels echoed, projecting her distress to anyone who could be listening. Anyone like Ferguson.

She turned a corner, then leaned against the nearest wall, pulling in deep breaths. Calm. Calm. She had to calm herself. She pressed the palms of her hands flat against the concrete wall, feeling its coolness, its solidity.

Calm. She was in control of herself. She was calm. She would think about what she had done to Ferguson later.

For now, she had to go back. She needed to listen to this interview.

Furtively looking around, she bent and slipped off her shoes. She glanced down at the two-way radio strapped to her belt. She couldn’t turn it off. Something might happen, and she needed to be in contact with her staff. The way things were going, there could be a fight, or even a riot. She needed to be connected to maintain control of Wentworth.

And yet… what if someone called her? What if Ferguson heard the tell-tale beep of an incoming call?

She would turn it off. Just this once, she would turn it off. And pray that nothing went wrong.

Quickly, before she lost her nerve, she switched off the radio, tip-toeing back to the protection unit. The hard concrete under her toes was painful to her already-tired feet, but Ferguson mustn’t hear her approach. Ferguson must believe that Vera had truly left, that she was now alone with Dr. Roberts.

Ferguson must be able to say the things that she would never say in front of Vera.

Reaching the edge of the gate, Vera pressed herself against the wall, listening hard.

“—So yes, you’re right that I’ve never actually worked with a patient housed in a prison, but you can see how my past background with young offenders has given me a strong background in helping young people who are more or less incarcerated.”

Vera could practically hear Dr. Roberts’s attempt to flash his charming smile at Ferguson. She waited for Joan to start in on him, to flatten him with a single deadly insult.

“Ah, I see, I see,” Ferguson’s voice floated out to Vera. “So I hope you don’t mind me asking, Dr. Roberts, what is it that you find interesting about working with prisoners? Why leave your previous job helping young people to come chat with…” Ferguson paused, then dropped her voice suggestively, “dangerous older ladies like me?”

Dr. Roberts chuckled. “Dangerous older lady, hmm? Well, let’s just say that I’m an idealist. I like to hope that I can help anyone who needs it.”

“As I’m sure that there are many who appreciate your help.”

Vera had to actively stop herself from peeking around the gate. What the hell was happening? Ferguson wasn’t ripping the psychologist to shreds; she was being nice. Ferguson was being nice. And—here Vera felt a hysterical giggle rise in her throat—had Joan Ferguson just flirted with the man? Seriously: ‘dangerous older lady?’

Vera silently placed her shoes on the floor before she dropped them.

“So, Ms. Riley,” Dr. Roberts started.

“Please. It’s Joan. Just Joan,” Ferguson interrupted.

Vera felt the need to sit down. Just Joan? What the fuck?

“Why thank you. Joan, then,” he replied. “Here’s how we’ll proceed. We’ll go through a series of questions—”

Ferguson had once given Vera permission to call her Joan. She had felt so proud, thinking that Ferguson recognized her as an equal, a kind of partner in their joint crusade in Corrections. She remembered the excitement of finding someone who valued her, and how she had needed to share it with someone, anyone, eventually enthusiastically telling her mother.

Vera absently smoothed her skirt across her lap.

If she were brutally honest with herself, she would admit that there remained some small part of her that missed those early days with Joan. It was flattering to be noticed, to have someone acknowledge how hard she worked, how dedicated she was to this job. And Joan had seemed so… competent. Really, truly competent, in a way that suggested total confidence in her own abilities and decisions. Vera, who had never felt truly competent—or confident—in her life, found herself fascinated by Joan, watching as she deftly handled prisoners, staff, even the press.

No, Vera had never met anyone like Joan.

“Let’s get started, then.” Dr. Roberts stated.

But those memories were in the past. Vera yanked herself back to the present.

“Why do you think you’re in prison, Joan?”

Oh God. Vera rolled her eyes.

“To be punished,” Ferguson replied.

To be corrected, Vera amended.

“Do you think that prison can be about rehabilitation instead of punishment?”

There was a pause. Vera leaned closer to the gate.

“Yes… in some cases, I think it can be about rehabilitation. I think that my incarceration is about punishment.”

“Why is that?”

“You would have to ask the Governor.”

Vera tensed. Ferguson wasn’t going to tell the doctor who she actually was, was she? Or what Vera had done to her since she entered Wentworth?

“I’m asking you,” Dr. Roberts pushed.

Ferguson again paused. “What do you know about me?”

“Here, take a look at your file for yourself,” the doctor replied. Vera could hear a rustling of paper as Dr. Roberts passed the file across. She knew perfectly well what the file contained: nothing.

“As you can see,” the doctor continued, “your history is sealed.”

“Interesting.”

“So I repeat, Joan: why do you think you’re here to be punished, as opposed to rehabilitated? Why are you really here?”

There was silence. Vera wished she could see Ferguson’s face. She wished she could know what Joan was thinking.

The silence continued.

“Betrayal,” Ferguson said at last.

Vera froze.

“Betrayal,” Dr. Roberts repeated. “Do you mean that you were betrayed? Or that you betrayed someone else?”

There was a pause. “I was betrayed,” Ferguson said slowly, “but I’ve come to realize that someone else thinks that I betrayed her. She’s wrong, of course.”

“And why would she think that?”

Another pause.

“Because she thinks she’s weak. She’s not weak, but she’s constrained by conventionality. She refuses to look at the bigger picture. I had decisions to make. They were difficult decisions, but I was the only one who would make them.”

Ferguson paused again, then her voice floated directly to Vera, loudly, clearly: “I never betrayed her. I thought only of the greater good.”

Vera was breathing heavily. She found that she had turned over onto her knees, facing the wall, her palms help up, caressing its coolness.

None of what Ferguson was saying was new. She had heard a similar litany before, when she had announced that she had recommended that Ferguson be removed as governor.

Yet… Ferguson’s admission that she wasn’t weak… that was different. ‘Constrained by conventionality’—yes, that would be what Joan thought of her, but she no longer saw her as weak. She was no longer a ‘pathetic little mouse of a prison officer.’

Vera abruptly pulled her hands away from the wall. Why did she care that Ferguson didn’t see her as weak?

She shook her head, pressing her fingers to her temples.

Very softly, she sighed.

As for betrayal…

Ferguson had betrayed her. That syringe, at her throat… but that wasn’t the real betrayal. Not really. The real betrayal had come when she pulled back her hand.

Because it wasn’t just Joan’s fear of hepatitis C. It wasn’t. It was her confirmation that she didn’t care.

She had made Vera believe that someone cared for her, someone special, and then she had taken it back.

Vera realized that she was silently crying. Again. She moved her fingers to her cheeks, feeling the wetness.

People shouldn’t be able to trick other people like that, to manipulate them. And they shouldn’t be able to take it back.

She delicately turned around, pressing her back to the wall, stretching her legs out in front of her.

Everything had gotten worse after that. The mysterious photos of Jianna, Ferguson’s vow to annihilate her, the way she announced Vera’s hep C to the entire staff…

Ferguson refused to believe that she had betrayed Vera, but she had.

She had.

Vera wiped her cheeks on her sleeves.

She had.

Vera tilted her head toward the gate, straining to hear more.

Chapter Text

“So, Joan,” Dr. Roberts was saying, “let’s step back for a moment. Why don’t you tell me about yourself?”

“Really, Dr. Roberts,” Ferguson drawled lightly, “I’m not that interesting.”

“Oh, I beg to differ. You’re a ‘dangerous older woman’ in prison with a black eye and a split lip. I’d say you’re very interesting.”

“Yes, well…” Ferguson paused. “I don’t like to talk about myself.”

Vera huffed silently. That about summed it up. Ferguson manipulated everyone around her to gain information, but rarely revealed anything about herself.

“And why is that?”

Ferguson sighed audibly. “People who talk about themselves aren’t listening. They’re not observing.”

“And does that make them bad people?”

“It makes them sloppy. Sloppy and emotional. Uncontrolled.”

“Is control something that is important to you, Joan?”

Another long pause.

“I think I’m finished answering your questions, Dr. Roberts.”

“Oh, come now, Joan. We’ve only started!” he protested.

Silence.

“How about this: I’ll ask you very basic questions about yourself. You simply respond with whatever comes to mind.”

More silence.

“Joan, with all due respect… it’s not like you have anything better to do. Humour me.”

Once again, Very wished she could see Ferguson’s expression.

“Okay then, let’s start. Do you like to drive?”

“What?”

“Do you like to drive a car?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Nothing, really. Not all questions have hidden meanings. I just want to get to know you.”

Again, there was a pause. Vera wondered how much of this Joan would allow.

“…Yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes,” Ferguson stated. Vera could hear the condescension in her voice. “I like to drive a car.”

“Okay,” replied Dr. Roberts. “Which day of the week is normally your favourite day?”

“Monday. And these questions are asinine.”

“Mm-hmm. Do you like to drink wine?”

“Yes.”

“What kind of wine?”

“A nice shiraz.”

Vera rolled her eyes.

“Did you like where you used to live, before you came here?”

“Yes.”

“And what did you like about it?”

“It was clean. Uncluttered. Functional, yet beautiful. And I liked my bed.”

“Do you miss your home?”

“Of course I do.”

“And do you miss being governor?”

“Of course I—” Joan abruptly stopped talking.

Vera froze.

What had just happened?

“I asked,” Dr. Roberts said slowly, “if you missed being governor?”

Vera felt panicked. How did he know? Who could have told him? No one but Channing knew that Ferguson was here. And she hadn’t told Channing about Dr. Roberts.

None of this made sense.

Joan’s voice was barely above a whisper. Vera cupped her ears with her hands, straining to hear.

“She told you.” Ferguson stated. Her voice sounded dazed. “She actually told you.”

No! Vera wanted to shout. She hadn’t told him. She purposely hadn’t told him anything. She had been trying to protect Joan. She had been doing her job.

“I assume you’re referring to Governor Bennett? Does it matter to you that she told me?” Dr. Roberts asked.

But I didn’t! I didn’t! Vera wanted desperately to run into the protection unit, to make it clear that she hadn’t told Roberts anything.

“Yes,” Joan responded slowly, “it matters. It matters a great deal.”

“Why?”

Silence.

Vera had drawn her knees up to her chin. She sat against the wall, arms clasped around her legs, hugging herself. She hadn’t told him. She hadn’t told him.

Dr. Roberts sighed. “She didn’t tell me,” he informed Ferguson. “The file I showed to you is all that she gave me. In fact, she even hinted that you were hidden here because you’re connected to the mafia.”

He chuckled.

Vera wanted to punch him. Hard.

“No,” he continued, “I recognized you from the photos that came up when I researched Wentworth. I just wanted to know about the prison before I came here, then suddenly I found myself reading all about your trial. It’s intriguing, from a psychological standpoint. But I had no idea that you were here until I saw the photo attached to your file.”

“And now that you know,” Ferguson started, “what do you plan to do with that information?”

“Nothing. At least, not for now.”

“Not for now,” she repeated.

“No. But… I would like to collect you.”

“Excuse me?”

Vera felt a new flush of fear creep over her. What did he mean, “collect her?”

“You’re fascinating, Joan. I mean, you came to this prison to slowly torture the man who took your lover’s baby away. You killed at least one inmate and tortured another. You hired a hitman to murder a fellow prison guard. And yet you tell me that another woman—who I can only guess is Governor Bennett—feels betrayed by you, but that you did everything for the ‘greater good,’ whatever that means in your head.

“Don’t you see?” he continued, “you break the mold. You’re obviously a careful planner, you’re obsessed with control, and you appear to have no guilt regarding what you’ve done. You could be a textbook psychopath, except that you obviously care about what Governor Bennett thinks of you, which leads me to question whether you may actually care about the Governor herself. Do you? Would you even be able to recognize such caring if you did?”

Vera felt herself shaking. This was too much. She couldn’t handle these questions.

Then she heard Joan’s voice. She turned all of her focus to that voice.

“So, Dr. Roberts,” Ferguson said slowly, lightly, “you seem to have me all figured out.”

That tone… Vera shivered.

“No, but I would like to study you. I want to understand your mind.”

“Well,” Joan replied in the same light, yet slightly menacing tone, “it’s such a pity that you won’t have the opportunity.”

“I won’t?”

“No. I think not.”

“Pardon me, Joan, but I don’t think that you’re in a position to dictate whether or not I study you. Let me be clear: if you don’t allow it, I’ll let slip your current location to some journalist friends. I’m sure that they’d find the story of an ex-governor jailed in her own prison to be fascinating.”

“That’s your prerogative, of course,” Ferguson replied, “but I wonder what those same journalist friends would think about finding out that their psychologist friend, the admirable Dr. Roberts who works with juvenile offenders, had been fired for inappropriate relations with one of those offenders?

“What?” Roberts asked.

What? Vera wondered.

“You have no proof of that,” Roberts whispered.

“Oh, doctor, doctor. You’re all the proof I need.”

Vera could hear the smile in Joan’s voice.

“You come here with your expensive suit and well-groomed hair and charming smile,” Ferguson stated, “but your fingernails are bitten down to the quick. You fidget. Your knee hasn’t stopped bouncing up and down this entire time. Don’t you see? Your fear is showing at the edges.

“‘But what is the source of that fear?’ I asked myself. Then I considered: why are you suddenly taking on a new job working with a brand new type of client? What forced you away from working with your precious juvenile offenders?

“And then there’s the ring,” she continued. “The ring that isn’t on your finger. The ring that left an indent in your skin, the ring that you’re continually stroking, even though it’s no longer there.”

Joan paused.

“Your wife has obviously left you,” she informed Roberts. “So who was it? Was it one of the girls? Did she look up to you, the charming young psychologist who held all the power? Did she make you feel good, stroking your ego, telling you how safe she felt with you, how much she appreciated everything you had done for her?

“Or maybe,” Joan emitted a low chuckle, “maybe it was a nice boy; clean, but with that hint of an edge, that suggestion of danger. Maybe he fulfilled all of those fantasies you had dreamed about but had never dared to act out. Did he? Did he do that for you?”

“As I said before,” Roberts responded quietly, “you have no proof.”

“But I have access to a telephone. Even in prison, I have access to a telephone. I know journalists, too. They can call your previous employer to get the full story. They can call your wife. A sex scandal involving a psychologist and an institutionalized minor under his care is always tabloid fodder. You obviously avoided a court case—I assume the young man is now of legal age?—but that doesn’t mean that your story won’t follow you wherever you go. And I will make sure that it does. I will make sure that it haunts you.”

Vera sat, unmoving. That was the Ferguson she remembered, not the silent, beaten woman she had escorted inside just last night. This was Ferguson the monster, the master manipulator who could twist any situation to her own advantage. Vera tried to summon the familiar anger that came with remembering Ferguson’s manipulations, but she found that this time that anger was tinted with awe. How had Joan done it? How did she always manage to do it?

Once again, Vera strained to hear through the silence. Finally, Roberts spoke.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Ferguson replied. “At least not right now. You will file a report saying that we performed the required psychological evaluation. You will note that I am fully in charge of my mental capacities, and that I am the model prisoner. And then you will leave. If and when I have need of you, I will contact you. Until then, I don’t want to see you.”

“But the Governor may call me back—”

“No. That will not be the case.”

“How do you know?”

“That doesn’t matter. We’re done here. You can wait at this table until the guard comes to escort you back. I’m going to my room.”

Vera heard a bare grunt of acknowledgement from Roberts.

“Oh, and doctor?” Ferguson called. “Try not to underestimate me. Do you think I’m new to this? I’m a prison governor. I’ve seen it all. You, on the other hand, have absolutely no idea what you’re doing. Remember that.”

Vera heard the cell door shut.

The psychological examination was over.

Chapter Text

Vera tiptoed back down the corridor, rounded the corner, and once again leaned against the wall. She switched her radio on and listened: nothing. Good. Reaching down, she slipped on one shoe, then the other, all the while pondering what to do.

What should she do with Ferguson…

First, she obviously had to get rid of Dr. Roberts. Holding the radio up to her mouth, she pressed the “talk” button. “02 to 09. Come in 09.”

The radio crackled, then a voice answered immediately. “This is 09. What would you like, Governor?”

Vera smiled. So dull, yet so prompt. This particular officer, Melanie Miller, was one of her perfect new hires: obedient, yet completely disinterested—even apathetic—concerning her surroundings. She would never think to question Dr. Roberts as she removed him from Wentworth.

“I need you to escort a visiting psychologist out of the building. Meet him at Protection Unit L.”

“Acknowledged.” The radio crackled, then went dead again.

Vera looked around. She didn’t want to be here when Miller came by, and she certainly didn’t want to interact with Roberts right now.

Her eyes settled on the utility closet. Well, why not? It wasn’t like she was particularly high on dignity today. She’d already spent the last half hour sitting on the floor, crying, and eavesdropping on a private interview between a psychologist and his patient.

Yes… dignity obviously wasn’t one of her top priorities today.

She scuttled across to the closet, swiping her keycard, closing the door behind her. Now, to wait.

And to figure out what on earth had just happened back there.

***

It was nice, here, in the dark, in the closet. It made her feel somehow safe, protected; like she was somehow removed from everything.

I should come here more often, she thought, sinking down to sit on the floor.

And I’m obviously losing it.

But those were cover thoughts. In truth, Vera recognized that her real thoughts were fixated on three points: first, on what she had done to Joan in forcing her to use Jianna’s surname; second, on Joan's admission that she didn’t think she was weak; and third…

The third point was the one that was confusing her the most. Dr. Roberts had said that Ferguson was basically a psychopath, except that her… caring… for Vera questioned that diagnosis.

If she actually cared, and Vera wasn’t sure that she did.

And even if she had, the rage in Joan’s eyes after Vera had forced her to use Jianna’s surname might negate any feelings…

And then there was Dr. Roberts’s point about whether or not Ferguson could even recognize her own emotions…

And why did any of this matter, anyway, since Ferguson was a murderer and a monster and Vera hated her, and…

And, and, and.

Vera sat with her knees up. She leaned her forehead against her knees and wrapped her arms around her legs. She hugged herself.

She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what to think.

And above it all, she didn’t know if she could trust Joan.

And that thought hurt. It wasn’t a new thought, or a new hurt; after all, how long was it now that she had she recognized Ferguson for the monster that she was? But the ache remained. And Vera simply had to accept that nothing would change that.

She must be strong. Ferguson could never be trusted. She must remember that.

No matter how desperately she wanted to forget.

Chapter Text

Officer Miller had come and gone, taking Dr. Roberts with her.

Cautiously pulling the door open, Vera peeked out. As always, there was no one in the corridor.

Exiting her little sanctuary, Vera found herself once again removing her shoes and tiptoeing back toward Ferguson’s protection unit. She wasn’t sure why she still felt the need to hide her presence from the other woman. She wasn’t even sure why she was returning to the unit. She could simply turn around, head back toward her office, and get on with her day.

But something drove her forward.

She stopped just before the gate, at the same place from which she had eavesdropped during Ferguson’s meeting with the psychologist. She again leaned against the wall, listening. She didn’t know what she expected to hear—after all, Ferguson was alone in there—but she needed to listen.

She put her ear to the wall and heard her own heartbeat.

And then a voice, so close, like it was just on the other side of the wall, like her cheek pressed against the wall was actually pressed against another person, asked, “why don’t you just come in?”

She started. Ferguson knew she was here.

Vera didn’t bother to put on her shoes. Dangling them from her fingers, she walked two more steps until she was standing in the middle of the barred gate.

Ferguson stood in the same position, on the other side of the gate.

“Vera,” Ferguson stated.

“Joan,” she replied.

They stared at each other. Vera was once again reminded of the sheer physical presence of this woman. Even behind bars, even wearing a teal tracksuit, even with a battered face, she radiated authority.

“So it’s come to this,” Ferguson said.

Vera looked up at her, at Joan’s dark eyes. She gazed at her forehead, her cheekbones, her lips. It’s come to this. So much meaning in such a simple statement. Yes, it had come to this.

And it hurt, because she knew that she couldn’t continue her anger indefinitely, no matter how much Ferguson had hurt her. And once the anger stopped, Vera would be hurt even more.

And then what would be left?

She let her shoes fall from her fingers, onto the floor. They clattered against the concrete, but neither woman paid attention. Still staring into the eyes gazing back at her, Vera lifted her hands to the bars, grasping them.

On her side, Ferguson did the same.

They stood there for some time, mirroring each other, hands grasping the metal bars. Vera allowed her mind to float freely. She didn’t focus on her anger, or her pain. She didn’t focus on anything but Joan’s face. They simply looked at each other. Just looked.

And then Ferguson stated, “you’ve been crying.” She reached her hand out, through the bars, to Vera’s face. Vera could feel warm fingers against her cheeks, cupping her face. She felt Joan slide her thumb across the apple of her cheek, where the tears had fallen.

“Joan, I—” she started, but she stopped. She didn’t know what to say.

“I know,” Ferguson replied. “Too much has happened.”

And it was true. Too much had happened. They couldn’t go back to those early days when Ferguson had first arrived at Wentworth, offering to mentor Vera; when Vera had felt like she was part of something special. Too much had happened. Too much had changed.

They stared at each other from two different sides of the metal bars.

They were at an impasse.

 

Chapter Text

Finally, it was Vera who spoke first.

“You knew I was here the whole time.” It was not a question.

Joan’s hand fell from Vera’s face. She drew it back through the bars. “Yes,” she replied, simply.

Vera took that in. She looked along the empty hallway, then down at her abandoned shoes. She felt the loss of the warmth of Joan’s fingers, but tried to ignore it. “How?” she asked, looking back up into Ferguson’s face.

Joan tilted her head slightly. “Because I was the governor. I know that it requires you to have complete knowledge of everything that happens within the walls of this prison.

“And because I know you,” she finished.

There was a pause.

“Or, at least, I thought I did.” Joan suddenly turned away from the bars, away from Vera. She walked over to the window.

“You’ve changed,” she continued, staring out into the sunlight. “You’re not the person I thought I knew.” She paused, then slowly turned her head to face Vera. “Maybe I never really knew you.”

Vera shook her head. “How can you say that? I was an open book. You read everything about me.” She shook the metal bars in frustration. “You convinced me to tell you things I should never have told you. You knew everything.”

“No,” Joan whispered. “I never knew you were cruel.”

Vera felt like she had been slapped, but this slap stung far more than the physical blow she had once received.

“I’m not cruel,” she stated.

Ferguson turned her face back to the window.

“I’m not cruel,” Vera said, louder. She fumbled with the keys, unlocking the gate, pulling it open. She stumbled over her abandoned shoes, kicking them to the side. She walked to the window, standing beside Ferguson.

“I’m not cruel,” she whispered.

Joan looked down at her. “You are,” she replied.

Vera stared out the window.

***

Eventually, Joan pulled out one of the chairs from the little table. Sighing, she sat down.

“It’s not your fault, Vera,” she stated.

Vera rolled her eyes, pulling out the chair across from Ferguson, sitting down with a huff.

“You were weak,” Joan specified. “You were too weak to be an effective prison guard. I made you stronger, but perhaps I made you cruel, too.”

“Oh, here we go again,” Vera scoffed. “You made me. You molded me. You, you, you.” She leaned across the table, towards Ferguson. “Has it ever occurred to you, Joan, that it’s not all about you?”

“Isn’t it?” Ferguson asked slowly.

“Oh my God!” Vera exclaimed, throwing her hands up. “Just how arrogant and self-centered are you?”

“I am what I have to be,” Joan replied. She leaned towards Vera. “I am what you’ve wanted me to be.”

Vera shook her head. “I don’t believe this. You are insane.”

Ferguson reached across the table, pointing at her. “You wanted a mentor. You wanted someone you could watch, someone you could follow around like a lost puppy.” Joan’s gaze was intense. “You wanted someone you could obsess over. And you did, didn’t you, Vera? You thought about me all the time. What would I do? How could you please me?” She rose out of her chair, leaning over the table, her face close to Vera’s. “You murdered your own mother because of what I said.”

“No! No,” Vera shook her head emphatically. “I didn’t! She was in pain! She—”

“You did, Vera,” Joan held her gaze. “Don’t deny it. Be proud of it.”

Vera pushed away from the table, knocking over her chair.

“Proud?” she uttered hysterically, “proud?” She backed away from the table. “How can I ever be proud?” she spat.

“I’ve told you this before,” Joan replied, calmly standing up and walking toward Vera. “Because you made the difficult decision. You made the right decision.”

“No!” Vera shouted. “No! You won’t twist this! You won’t twist me!”

“Oh, Vera, Vera,” Joan replied. She reached out, tenderly grasping Vera by the shoulders.

She looked into Vera’s eyes.

She smiled.

“I already have.”

Vera’s eyes went wide. She turned and ran, from Joan’s grasp, from the protection unit. She stopped long enough to scoop up her shoes and slam the gate shut.

As she looked back, she saw Ferguson staring at her, an amused smile on her face.

Vera fled to the sound of Joan’s slow, deep chuckle.

Chapter Text

Three weeks passed until she saw Joan again.

In that time, Vera’s anger renewed itself tenfold. She castigated herself for having turned back that day, for crying, for allowing Ferguson to touch her face. She replayed their conversation over and over, in the shower, driving to work, staring out into the activities yard. It was like Joan refused to leave her alone. Touring the halls of the prison, barking orders, she would suddenly catch a glimpse of Ferguson out of the corner of her eye. Her heart racing, she would hurry after the spectre, round a corner, only to find… Ferguson wasn’t there.

Ferguson was never there. She was locked away in protection.

But she was haunting Vera’s mind.

And the worst part—the part that she would only admit when things got really, really bad—was that all of her anger and hatred were simply a gauzy cover, a smokescreen designed to conceal a much greater pain: the sadness that attends a great loss.

But… no. She refused to consider that loss. No. Once again, Vera focused instead on her old friend anger, embracing it. Anger motivated her. It kept her determined, attentive, controlled.

It kept her away from Joan.

And she needed to stay away. Sometimes self-preservation entails running away from your problems. And so Vera ran.

Hard.

***

Amidst Vera’s inner turmoil, daily life continued at Wentworth. And part of daily life was Officer Melanie Miller—dull, reliable, dependable Officer Miller.

Really, Vera was beginning to appreciate her quite a bit.

Except when she came with requests from Ferguson.

The first time it happened was exactly a week after Joan’s meeting with Dr. Roberts. Vera was sitting at her desk, cross-checking vacation requests against the work schedule—the “daily minutiae” of the job, as Joan had once called it—when Miller tapped on her office door.

“Governor?”

“Hello, Ms. Miller,” Vera invited her in. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, Governor, it’s about the prisoner in Protection Unit L—Joan Riley.”

Vera managed to conceal her flinch at Miller’s use of Joan’s “new” surname.

“Yes, I know the prisoner,” she replied tersely. “What about her?”

“Two things. First, she wants to see you.”

Vera didn’t even pause to consider the request. “No,” she stated forcefully. “Next?”

Miller looked vaguely surprised, but continued. “The other thing is that she wants a typewriter. And a copy of the Yellow Pages.”

“She wants… what?”

“A typewriter. Well, really she wants a computer and a printer, but she said that you were unlikely to approve that request, and that the computer and printer together would probably overload the electrical wiring because it’s really old in that part of the prison. I’m not really sure how she knows that… unless she’s an electrician or something?”

Vera sighed. “Go on, Miller.”

“Okay, um, Riley said that she could make do with a typewriter, as long as it was properly oiled and cleaned. She was very insistent on it being cleaned.”

“I’ll bet she was,” Vera responded dryly. “Did she say what she wanted this typewriter for?”

“Well,” Miller replied slowly, “to type things, Governor.”

Vera was starting to alter her opinion of Miller.

“Yes,” she uttered in a strangely clipped, Joan-like tone, “I had assumed that. What does she want to type?”

“I don’t actually know, but I think letters. She asked me for paper and a pen on my first day, and sometimes when I bring her a meal she’s sitting at that little table and writing them.”

Letters? Who on earth was Ferguson writing to?

“Has she asked you to post any of these letters, Melanie?”

“Not yet. She just writes them, then adds them to a little pile.”

Vera tapped her pen against her clipboard for a moment. Letters. Letters. Why letters? She looked up sharply. “If she does ask you to post them, I want you to bring them straight to me. Do not put them in the regular mail screening outbox, and definitely do not post them. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Governor. I’ll bring them directly to you. What do you want me to tell her about the typewriter and the Yellow Pages?”

Vera stared out the window. “I think, for now,” she said slowly, turning back to Miller, “you can tell her that I will take her request under advisement.”

***

The next message from Joan came two days later. At Miller’s knock, Vera looked up from obsessively monitoring the increasingly dangerous activities yard.

“Yes, Miller?” she asked, rubbing her temples.

“Morning, Governor. I have…” she hesitated, “another message from Riley.”

Vera sighed.

“She still wants to meet with you…”

“No.”

Miller nodded. “And she’s still requesting the Yellow Pages. She, um…” Miller stopped, looking down at her feet.

“She what, Melanie?”

“She asked me to remind you that—okay, this is really awkward, you know? But she’s so forceful, somehow, and I couldn’t say no, even though she’s a prisoner, and I know that that’s a failing, and I promise, Governor—I promise that I’ll get better at that. I know that I’m the officer and she’s the inmate—”

“Melanie,” Vera cut her off. “You can tell me. I’m on your side. I…” Vera trailed off.

I’m on your side. She was using the same words. She could even hear Joan’s voice. Vera, I’m on your side.

Vera shook her head. “Sorry. Headache. What exactly are you trying to tell me?”

Miller took in a deep breath. Straightening, she reported, “Riley asked me to remind you that under the Correctional Services Act of 2006, she has legal right to textbooks and resource materials, and that the Yellow Pages would count as said resource materials, and that…” she trailed off.

Here it comes, Vera thought. “And that…” she echoed.

“And that the Governor should know these things if she’s doing her job properly.”

“Ah. I see.” Vera stared up at the ceiling.

“Oh, and she still wants the typewriter, too,” Miller added.

“Of course she does” Vera said to the ceiling.

Miller paused. “What should I tell her?”

Vera finally dropped her gaze. “You can tell her that I will take her request under advisement.” She smiled dangerously.

***

Three days later found Vera staring through the observation window into medical. On the bed lay a heavily-wounded inmate, cuts etched along her arms. Another prisoner had already been escorted to the hospital in an ambulance, her entire left side marred by deep stab wounds.

Vera was losing control of this prison.

As she headed toward her office, she saw Miller walking towards her.

“Governor,” Miller nodded in greeting. “She wants—”

“A meeting,” Vera supplied. “The answer is still no.”

“And the Yellow Pages?” Miller asked.

“I’ll—”

“Take it under advisement. Understood.” Miller moved on.

***

After four more days, Vera outwardly cringed when she heard Miller’s hesitant knock on her door. She continued to stare at her computer monitor, on which multiple budgets—budgets from which she was desperately trying to find money to hire more and more guards—were projected in all their spreadsheet glory.

“Governor…”

“I’m not meeting with her, and she’s not getting her request,” Vera stated waspishly, not even bothering to look up.

Vera could hear Melanie fidget.

“Governor, I don’t mean to add to your workload, but I think there’s something wrong with Riley.”

Vera smirked. “Oh, there are many things wrong with Riley,” she replied sardonically. She didn’t see Miller’s eyes narrow. Sighing, she looked up. “What do you mean, exactly, that there’s something wrong?”

“I think she might be depressed.”

“Depressed?” Vera barked a short laugh. “No. She’s not depressed. Look, Miller,” she gestured to the young guard to sit down. “I understand that you’re assigned to her unit, and thus you’re starting to get to know her—or so you think, at least—but you have to understand that Riley is a master manipulator. She’s not depressed. She’s using your emotions against you to get what she wants.”

There was silence for a moment while Miller played with her hands in her lap. Finally, she leaned forward, towards Vera’s desk.

“Governor, I’ve thought a lot about this. I don’t want to be disrespectful to you, but they also taught us a lot during officer training about duty of care. And I… I don’t think you’re fulfilling your duty of care towards Riley.”

Vera could feel her eyebrows rise. Who was this dull slip of a prison officer to question her? Especially about Joan Ferguson. Her temper flared, but she maintained control. “Why don’t you tell me what concerns you,” she suggested.

Miller smiled earnestly. “Thank you. It’s just that… well, she’s all alone in the protection unit.”

Vera tilted her head to the side. “That would seem to be the point of protection…” she stated slowly.

Miller nodded. “Yes, and I understand, but in this case protection is pretty close to being the slot.”

Vera shook her head. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that Riley doesn’t have anything. She has prison-issued clothing, bedding, toiletries, and that’s all. Oh, and the paper and pen I brought to her. That’s it. I think she’s bored out of her mind.”

“That may be true,” Vera responded dismissively, “but that’s also the point. This is about punishment.”

Miller looked at her strangely. “You always tell us it’s about correction.”

“That’s what I meant,” Vera stated, flustered. “Correction. That’s what I meant.” She turned back to her computer. “Thank you for informing me of your opinion, Officer Miller, but as you can see I’m very busy right now. We’ll talk about this later.”

“Yes, Governor.” Miller stood, walked to the doorway, then paused, looking back at Vera. Sighing softly, she shook her head, a concerned expression on her honest face, and exited the Governor’s office.

Vera didn’t even bother to look up.

Chapter Text

Five days later, Vera finally saw Joan again.

It had been a particularly bad day. An inmate had died in custody, ostensibly from an accidental overdose. Vera had spent most of her shift dealing with the police, filing paperwork, and reporting to the board. When she wasn’t busy with those duties, she was desperately trying to avoid the media—particularly Hayley Jovanka, who was tormenting her with telephone calls and refusing to leave her alone.

Vera rubbed her tired eyes. She wasn’t cut out for that end of the job. She had tried to channel Joan, offering Hayley a deal: Hayley would ignore this story—or at least temper it—and Vera would give her advanced notice of future happenings at Wentworth.

“Vera, with all due respect,” Hayley had responded, “you’re not Joan Ferguson.”

And that was that. The story would be on the evening news. Drugs were back in Wentworth. Inmates were dying.

And Vera felt totally and completely inept.

***

As the late afternoon sunshine filtered into the governor’s office, Melanie Miller knocked on Vera’s door.

“Governor? I thought I’d better let you know that Riley is refusing to eat.”

Vera looked up. Ferguson wasn’t eating? What was that about?

“When did this start, Ms Miller?”

The guard looked down. “About five days ago, Governor.”

Vera shook her head. “Five days? And you didn’t think to tell me about this earlier?”

Miller sighed. “I think she’s still drinking water. She just lies there all day, every day. She only comes out for the count. And, uh…” Miller moved her eyes back up to meet Vera’s, “frankly, Governor—and with all due respect—you made it fairly clear that you didn’t want me to continue to report to you about Riley.”

Vera felt herself flush. She hadn’t meant to give that impression—truly, she hadn’t—but she could see why Miller may have thought that. “Melanie,” she said slowly, tiredly, “I am sorry if I made you think that I didn’t care about Riley. Yes, I do need to know if a prisoner is suddenly not eating, or self-harming in any way. No matter how we feel about these prisoners personally, we must ensure that they are healthy and safe.”

Melanie nodded, fiddling with the button on her uniform jacket. “So… do you want me to take her to the infirmary, then?”

“No!” Vera said, a little too vociferously. “That is, no. Thank you, Ms Miller, but I’ll take care of Riley. In fact… why don’t we go see her right now?”

Melanie bobbed her head, smiling. “Thank you, Governor.”

Vera nodded, but didn’t reply. She was already contemplating how to confront Ferguson regarding this latest stunt. She had too much to worry about without… well, without whatever Ferguson was up to. She couldn’t maintain control of this prison and play Ferguson’s little games.

She had to shut this down. Fast.

***

They walked through the halls together, Vera nodding occasionally when they passed other guards. The prisoners cleared out of her way, but Vera remained conscious of the fact that they never scattered like they had for Ferguson. They would move for Vera, yes, but slowly, in their own time.

Even the sound of her heels on the tiles sounded timid, less confident than Ferguson’s striking footfalls.

Vera sighed.

“Long day, Governor?” Melanie asked sympathetically.

Vera looked up at her. For all that she had hired her for her dullness, Miller was a good guard.

“You know what happened this morning?” Vera asked her.

“Yes,” Miller nodded. “I think everyone knows. I wouldn’t want to be you today, Governor.”

“Frankly, Miller, I don’t want to be me today,” she replied.

They turned a corner, heading to the protection unit. Vera slowed down, then stopped. Miller did the same, turning to her questioningly.

“Miller—Melanie…” Vera hesitated, “I need to know: what are your feelings toward Joan Riley?”

“My feelings?”

“You seem particularly worried about her.”

Miller paused, looking down the hall. “I am worried, Governor,” she said, turning back to Vera. “You’ve practically assigned me to her—you know that I see her every shift.”

Vera nodded.

“I feel like I’ve gotten to know her a little. Not much—she doesn’t share much, does she?—but a little. I know enough to see that she’s not like she was three weeks ago. It was like she had a purpose, then. Now she doesn’t. She just lies in bed, all day, every day. When I get her up for the count, I’m not always sure that she’s entirely conscious. She mumbles things, as if she’s talking to people, but there’s no one else there.”

Vera felt her stomach drop. Fletch had told her about Ferguson’s imaginary conversation. She remembered when Joan had confused Doreen with Jianna. If Ferguson was losing it again…

On the other hand, Joan was also Joan, with all the scheming that implied.

“Joan Riley is a manipulative woman, Melanie. She can be charming, yes, but you have to be careful around her. She’s in here—and in protection, specifically—for a reason. Do you understand?”

“I do, Governor, I do. Only…” Miller trailed off.

“Only?” Vera prompted.

Melanie squared her shoulders. “Look, Ms Bennett, it’s like this: I know I’m not a smart girl. I was never good in school. I take a long time to think things through. I suspect you hired me simply because I wouldn’t ask questions about this particular prisoner, and you’re right. But, with all that,” she paused, rubbing the back of her neck, “with all that, I think that I have a good sense of people. I watch. I listen. And I get the sense that you’re very angry with Riley, and that she’s angry with you. I don’t know what happened between you, but the anger is evident in the way that you both talk about each other. I mean, you don’t say anything, but your tone…”

Miller sighed. “Here’s the thing, Ms. Bennett. I grew up with an abusive father. I hated him. I ran away from home as soon as I could, and then I stayed away, living with friends, other relatives, and sometimes just on my own. The things he did to me… I don’t think I can describe just how much I hate him.” She looked down, kicking at the floor with her shoe.

“But then my mom got sick. She called me. She was still living with him, but he couldn’t care for her. No one else would help them. So I finally came home. I helped her through the chemo and the radiation. I was with her when she made the decision not to continue. I saw her when she seemed to get better, and I was with them when she died.”

Miller looked up. “And through it all, I continued to hate my father. I refused to speak to him. I wouldn’t acknowledge him.

“But that didn’t mean that I didn’t see him. He was devastated by my mother’s illness. He fell apart after her death.” She grasped her hands together.

“I know I’m being long-winded here, Governor, but I guess my point is that… well, you don’t have to forgive someone to recognize that they’re hurting. Joan Riley obviously did something to you, and I have no doubt that she’s as manipulative as you say, but I can also see a woman who is deeply hurting. I know that Wentworth houses rapists and murderers and who knows what else, but if you truly believe that our jobs here are about correction—not just punishment—then I think we have to look past our own hatred. I’m not saying that we have to forgive, but we do have to help. We have to be the better people.”

Vera stared at her. Melanie smiled nervously. “Have I overstepped?”

“No…” Vera replied slowly. “No, actually, I think I needed to hear that. I think I needed someone to, uh… correct me.”

She looked down the hallway, towards Ferguson’s protection unit, then back at Melanie. “You’re not what you seem, are you?”

Melanie’s smile grew broader.

“Is anyone?”

***

In truth, Vera suspected that Melanie was right, but Miller didn’t know everything. She certainly didn’t know the real Joan Ferguson.

Was helping Joan the right thing to do? Or would she simply be falling into one of Joan’s manipulations again?

They arrived at the protection unit. Miller swiped her card and opened the barrier, and suddenly Vera found herself walking across the room, facing the door to Ferguson’s cell.

She peered through the small window. Ferguson appeared to be sleeping, at 4:30 in the afternoon.

Vera could admit… this was worrying. Ferguson was never inactive. Even building little circles of pencils, obviously losing it, Ferguson was never idle.

She reached for the doorknob, then stopped herself. Instead, she knocked swiftly on the door. She paused, listening. Melanie stood silently beside her.

Eventually, they heard a belated “yes?” from inside. Vera opened the door, gesturing to Melanie to remain in the doorway.

The first thing that Vera noticed was the smell. There was an unpleasant mustiness that permeated the room, as if something were alive and living there, but hadn’t moved around for days.

Which, Vera thought to herself, was basically the truth.

The room was murky in the late afternoon shadow. Vera flicked the wall switch, but the dimness of the overhead light only made everything more washed out.

She looked around. Miller was right. She had practically put Ferguson into the slot. There was nothing in the cell—no photos of loved ones, no posters, no well-thumbed paperbacks… nothing.

It was as if the cell was devoid of life.

Ferguson hadn’t moved when she entered. Looking down at her, she found Joan’s eyes staring at her from beneath her blankets.

“Vera,” Joan stated flatly.

“Joan,” she replied.

Neither woman noticed Miller’s eyes widen at their greeting.

“Joan, Miller’s been telling me that you’re not eating.”

Joan’s eyes flicked from Vera to Melanie, then back to Vera.

“Why aren’t you eating?” Vera pressed.

There was silence.

Vera sighed. “Can you at least sit up when I’m talking to you?”

More silence, then “I want to sleep. Let me sleep.”

Vera felt equal parts frustrated and anxious. She turned toward Melanie. “Ms. Miller, would you mind waiting out in the other room for us? I’d like to have a word with Riley in private.”

Miller looked worried, but responded with a prompt “yes, Governor,” before shutting the door behind her.

Vera knelt next to Joan’s bed. Reaching out, she pulled the bedding away from Ferguson’s face, revealing matted hair falling over her shoulders.

The musty smell became stronger, mixed with body odor. Not only was Ferguson not eating, she obviously wasn’t washing, either.

There was something decidedly wrong. Joan Ferguson was nothing if not a germaphobe. Vera knew that first hand. The Joan Ferguson she knew would wash her hands multiple times a day, and probably showered at every opportunity.

“Joan,” she whispered. “What’s really going on?”

There was no reply.

Vera sat back on her heels.

Now she was truly worried.

Chapter Text

Vera knew, logically, that the human body could go a few weeks without food, as long as it was taking in water. She tried to think: Melanie had said that Joan was drinking water, right? Her eyes flew frantically around the room, looking for a glass, a bottle—any sign that Joan was drinking water—but she couldn’t see one.

She turned back to Ferguson. Joan wasn’t sleeping. She was lying lethargically against her pillow, watching Vera.

“MILLER!” Vera barked, reaching down to pull the blankets back up around Joan’s neck, tucking them in.

The door opened almost instantaneously. “I’m here, Governor. What do you need?”

Vera gestured toward Joan’s prone body. “You said that she’s been drinking water, right?”

Miller nodded slowly. “Yeah, I’ve been bringing her milk and water with her meals, and they’re always empty when I collect the tray again.”

Vera sighed softly in instant relief. Okay. Okay. It was all right. As long as Joan was hydrated, she would be okay, even without food. Vera glanced down at Ferguson again. But… this was Joan, who was always in control… Joan, who was never less than meticulously clean… Joan, who likely plotted and schemed in her sleep… Joan…

Oh no.

Vera turned suddenly to Miller. “Melanie,” she said urgently, “I want you to think very carefully. Have you actually seen Riley drink anything in the last couple of days?”

“Yes, I…” Miller frowned, looking down at Joan. “I…” she paused again, then turned terrified eyes to Vera. “Oh shit. Oh shit! Ms Bennett, I didn’t realize! I mean, I saw her drinking water, but I think the last time was like two or three days ago! I just assumed…”

Vera nodded. “Stop, Melanie. You did nothing wrong. Riley is nothing if not devious.” She glanced back down to see Joan watching her. “Fetch some water,” she directed Miller. “We’ll see if we can at least get her to drink.”

Miller ran from the cell, toward the small kitchenette at the back of the protection unit.

Vera knelt again next to the bed. “Joan,” she sighed, pulling down the covers slightly. “Joan. Why are you doing this?”

But Ferguson simply looked at her through dark eyes, saying nothing. Vera’s hand reached out tentatively, allowing the tips of her fingers to rest ever so lightly on Joan’s cheek.

Joan blinked.

At that moment, Miller pulled the cell door open, entering with a large glass of water. Vera snatched her hand away from Joan’s face.

“Okay, let’s try to sit her up,” she said to Miller, who put the glass on the nearby surface. Together, the women grasped Ferguson by the shoulders, half-lifting, half-pulling her to a seated position.

“No!” Ferguson shouted, her head shaking vociferously back and forth, her arms trying to free herself. “No! Leave me alone! I just want to sleep!” She succeeded in pushing Vera away, but her body was far weaker than normal, and Miller held strong. Joan glared at Melanie as Vera darted back in to wrap the blankets around Joan’s shoulders and torso, effectively straight-jacketing her.

Joan’s eyes narrowed in rage as they flicked toward Vera. “You have no right!” she spat.

“I have every right to restrain you,” Vera responded angrily, “as you well know.”

The two women stared at each other.

Suddenly, Joan laughed. It was a disturbing laugh, higher-pitched than her usual low voice. To Vera, it sounded almost maniacally gleeful, but it held a dangerous edge.

“Oh, Vera!” Joan chuckled elatedly, “and here I always thought that you wanted me to be the one who tied you up!”

Vera’s eyes widened as her jaw dropped.

“But only if you asked nicely,” Joan added with a smile and a flutter of her eyelashes. “And, for the record, dear, I’m never against having an audience, but I prefer to be consulted first.”

Vera could feel the heat of the bright red flush as it suffused her skin. She glanced sideways at Miller, only to find that she was similarly red-faced, staring determinedly at the spot where her strong hands held the blanket firmly closed, binding Joan.

“Is she secure?” Vera asked Miller.

Melanie nodded, still staring at the blanket.

“Right,” Vera said, grasping the glass of water. “You need a drink, Joan.” She leaned over Ferguson, her left hand grasping the back of Joan’s head, her fingernails digging into flesh. She tugged slightly, forcing Joan’s chin up. Ferguson stared furiously at her. Vera lifted the glass to Joan’s mouth, but Joan refused to part her lips.

“Open your mouth, dammit!” Vera cried as, still holding the glass, she tried to push her right thumb between Joan’s lips.

Melanie whispered a worried “uh, Governor?” and Vera suddenly realized what she was doing. She yanked her hand away, spilling some of the water.

“WHAT, Ms Miller?” she yelled. “What? What is it?”

Melanie looked at her levelly. “It seems,” she said slowly, “that Riley does not want to drink the water. I do not believe that we can force her.”

Vera looked at the glass in her hand. Miller was right. The state did not have the right to force prisoners to eat or drink against their will. And she, as Governor—as the representative of the state—could not violate Ferguson’s basic human right to self-governance over her own body.

Vera put the glass down.

“Joan,” she said, once again staring into Ferguson’s dark eyes, “I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to keep you alive.”

She glanced down at Miller, still holding the blanket shut. “Release her,” she murmured quietly.

Vera looked back at Joan. “I’m trying to keep you alive,” she repeated.

Joan regarded her thoughtfully, then shook her head. “No one wants that, Vera.” She lowered herself so that she was lying on the bed again, her head resting on the pillow. She closed her eyes.

“No one.”

Chapter Text

If there had been someone appropriate to admit it to, Vera would gladly have shouted it: she had no fucking clue what to do about Joan.

She was tempted to correct Ferguson, to tell her that she cared, but she stopped herself. Because she didn’t care. She didn’t. Joan was just another prisoner. Vera only cared about her insofar as it was her duty to watch over and care for all of the inmates.

Except… that was a lie, wasn’t it?

And lying to oneself was just pathetic. Pathetic, Vera. Pathetic.

Vera stared at Joan. She gazed at her thick, dark hair, now matted and disheveled. She looked at the soft curve of her cheek, at her unexpectedly girlish nose, at the eye that was still surrounded by traces of yellow, belying the now-healed bruising. Finally, Vera considered Joan’s surprisingly full lips. She absently reached out with her index finger, running it over Joan’s bottom lip, where the cut had been. It felt chapped, which made sense, Vera surmised, considering that Joan must be feeling quite dehydrated by this point.

Ferguson’s eyes flew open.

Melanie made a sound that was halfway between a gasp and a cough.

Vera pulled her finger away, turning it to stare at the pad that had stroked Joan’s lip.

“No,” she said.

Ferguson’s eyes flicked from Vera to Melanie, then back to Vera.

Melanie’s brow furrowed. “No, Governor? No… what?”

“No,” Vera repeated, still staring at her finger. “No… to all of this. I do not accept this.”

“Accept? I’m—I’m sorry, Governor, but I just don’t understand what you’re saying.”

Vera turned her gaze back to Ferguson. “I do not accept,” she said slowly, “that Joan… Riley… is suicidal.”

Melanie fidgeted with her uniform buttons, but said nothing.

Ferguson closed her eyes.

“No,” Vera repeated, louder. “Joan,” she said, “do you hear me? You are not suicidal. You—okay, you may be depressed, but you are Joan Fer—um,” she snapped her gaze to Miller, then back to Ferguson. “You are Joan Riley, and you are in control at all times. That is what you do. That’s who you are.”

And Vera suddenly froze.

Joan was in control at all times.

At all times.

“Miller!” Vera barked. “Leave us. I’ll call you if I need you.”

Melanie hesitated. “Are you sure, Governor? If she hasn’t had water, she could be getting very sick very quickly. I can help, somehow…”

Vera didn’t have time for this.

“No,” she replied forcefully. “We’re fine. Just leave the protection unit.” She turned back to Ferguson, lowering her face so that it was on the same level. “Joan and I are going to have a private little talk.”

***

Vera heard the door close behind Miller, then the sound of the gate. They were alone.

She took off her uniform jacket, placing it over the dry sink. She tugged her tie away from her neck, then added it to her jacket. She kicked off her shoes.

Joan watched her.

Finally, Vera sat on the floor. She tucked her legs under her and leaned her head on Joan’s pillow. Joan shifted so that she could see Vera.

“How long have you gone without water?” Vera asked.

Her question was followed by such a long silence that Vera assumed Joan was refusing to answer. Finally she heard a low “two days.”

“Are you in pain?”

Another pause. “Yes.”

“Are you hallucinating?”

“…Possibly.”

“You’re not a stupid woman, Joan. You know what the end result of this is.”

Silence.

“Why are you doing this?” Vera asked. “Truly?”

Joan closed her eyes. “You know why.”

Vera shook her head. “I really don’t.”

Ferguson made an odd sound, almost like a hiccup. She turned so that she was lying on her back, staring up at the ceiling.

“You left me alone,” she whispered.

“What?” Vera asked, startled.

“You left me alone in here, with nothing. And then you wouldn’t talk to me. I had to ask Miller over and over again, and you wouldn’t come. You just left me here.”

“Joan, I…” Vera stopped. This was crazy. Joan sounded like a child. A lost, lonely child.

She looked around the cell again, taking in its emptiness. “Why haven’t you had someone bring you personal things? You know what you’re allowed to have in here. It doesn’t have to be so bare.”

“Don’t,” Joan spat, furiously. “Why are you asking that? You know the answer already.”

In that moment, Vera realized the truth: she did know why the cell was bare.

Joan had no one to bring her anything.

“You poor, pathetic thing,” Vera said slowly, reaching up and tracing the curve of Joan’s face with her fingers. “You really are completely alone, aren’t you?”

Joan turned back to her side, glaring angrily at her, but the pain beneath it was obvious. Vera removed her fingers.

“And you’re not?” Joan replied.

“No, I’m—” Vera stopped. She was. Well, she was pretty sure that someone would bring her photographs and novels if she were locked up in prison, but…

“You always inflict pain when you’re hurt, don’t you?” she asked Ferguson.

“I believe that’s you,” Ferguson rejoined.

The two women stared at each other.

Vera looked away first.

Chapter Text

Vera glanced down at her watch. 6:00pm. She was fairly certain that Joan had fallen asleep, and that worried her more than anything that Ferguson had said. Joan didn’t seem like the type of person who would willingly fall asleep with another person in the room. To her that would likely signal a lack of control.

Except with Jianna, Vera reminded herself. In all likelihood, she must have fallen asleep with Jianna.

The thought irritated her for some reason.

She shifted her head against Joan’s pillow, turning to observe the other woman. Joan still lay on her side, her body curled in a foetal position. Her hands lay together under her cheek. She looked soft, vulnerable, except that her eyebrows were pulled tightly together, and her lips were clenched. Even in sleep, Joan apparently felt no peace.

Which perhaps was why she seemed hell-bent on killing herself.

Vera pulled her knees to her chest and let out a little sob. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t let Joan just… do this. Just waste away, starving herself. But she couldn’t stop her, either. She should be taking her to medical, to keep her under observation or something, but that wasn’t an option, either.

Or was it? Should she reveal Joan to the prison, all in an effort to… what? To save her? No doctor could force her to eat or drink, either.

Vera started crying openly. Her small shoulders heaved with tiny, gasping sobs. This was too much. She had moved Joan up here to protect her, and she was going to die…

And it was her fault. It was Vera’s fault. She should have found another way… She should have done something else…

She felt cold tingles spiking through her body. She felt suddenly dizzy. Her heart seemed to want to pound its way out of her chest.

She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe!

“I— I—” she tried to shout, but she couldn’t get anything out. Her whole body felt like it was being squeezed inside out.

And then she heard a voice. “Vera. Vera!” Joan’s voice. It was right there. She turned blindly to it.

She felt hands on her shoulders.

“Vera!”

She was gasping now, trying to suck in giant gulps of air.

“Vera, you have to… you have to calm yourself. You’re having a panic attack. Listen to me. Breathe in.”

Vera breathed in, then choked, coughing.

“Breathe out,” Joan continued. “In… and out. In… and out.”

Vera did as she was told. Slowly, her gasps turned to smaller breaths, interspersed with hiccups.

She was shaking. It was like she was cold all over.

She felt Joan lightly pull at her, then the hand fell away.

“Vera, I… it appears that I’m not strong enough to… you require assistance, and I…” Joan let out an exasperated growl. “Just get up here. Now!”

Vera found herself suddenly lying on Joan’s narrow bed, with Joan behind her, reaching over Vera to pull the blankets around her.

And it smelled, because Joan hadn’t washed, but… somehow, Vera didn’t care. She lay against Ferguson, seeking her warmth, and she just breathed. In… and out. In… and out.

Her body stopped shaking.

In… and out. In… and out.

Her eyes closed.

Vera drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

When she awoke, it was dark outside. A yellow glow streamed in through the window, reflecting the floodlights that surrounded the walls of Wentworth. The dim overhead light still burned, glaring down from its home on the ceiling.

Vera lay still in her warm cocoon against Ferguson, listening to the sound of Joan’s breathing. It sounded… haggard. Rasping.

“Joan?” she whispered.

There was no answer from behind her.

Vera rolled over, so that she was facing Ferguson. She was surprised to see that Joan’s eyes were open, staring at her from only inches away. Even in the murky light from the overhead light, Vera could see that they were ringed by dark circles.

“Joan,” she breathed. She felt a tear well up, then fall. “I don’t want you to die,” she stated, her voice tiny in her own ears.

Joan nodded. She reached out to lay her hand over Vera’s, where it rested between them. Her thumb slowly traced circles across the smooth skin on the back of Vera’s hand.

“I know,” she whispered back. “I know.”

They lay quiet in the narrow bed. After a moment, Vera felt Joan’s lips fall against her forehead, leaving a ghost of a kiss. It felt, she thought, like a benediction.

“In fact,” Joan continued after a long pause, “I’m counting on it.”

“Counting on… what do you mean?” Vera asked.

Joan sighed and removed her hand from Vera’s. “I mean that you have a choice to make, Vera.”

“A choice? What choice?” Vera felt muddled. “You know I can’t force feed you. I have no choice.”

“There is always a choice,” Ferguson replied. “You can fulfill my requests.”

“What requests?” Vera rolled away from Joan, slinging her legs over the side of the bed and sitting up. “Are you still talking about the typewriter and the phone book?” she asked incredulously, looking over her shoulder at Ferguson.

“Yes,” Joan answered, “those, as well as others.”

“Others?”

Ferguson nodded toward a shelf. “Over there.”

Vera followed her gaze. She could see papers. She reluctantly left the edge of the bed and padded across the cell. Grasping the papers, she stepped back to the middle of the small room, reading in the light from the overhead fixture.

It was a list, written in Joan’s precise and elegant script.

 

Requests

1. Vera Bennett will provide Joan Riley with a) a well-cleaned typewriter; b) the Yellow Pages, or an equivalent telephone listing. Said document must include entries for both residential and governmental addresses.

2. Vera Bennett will retrieve Joan Riley’s house keys from storage. She will enter Joan Riley’s house, where she will obtain the following items and bring them to Joan Riley:

  • the photograph currently located on the sideboard, next to the dining table
  • the photograph currently located in the bedside table
  • books from the study (see appendix)
  • CD player, headphones, and CDs from the study (see appendix)
  • underwear and bras, located in the top shelf of the bedroom dresser

3. Vera Bennett will set up a post office box. She will post and collect letters for Joan Riley through that address. Under no circumstance will she open or read any letters written by or intended for Joan Riley. In return, Joan Riley guarantees that none of the letters written by or addressed to her will contain illegal material.

4. Vera Bennett will visit Joan Riley in her cell at least two times per week, for a minimum of one hour per visit. If extenuating circumstances cause Vera Bennett to miss one of these meetings, then she shall visit Joan Riley for one extra hour per missed visit.

The next two sheets revealed the list of books and CDs.

Vera dropped the hand holding the papers to her side. She stared at Joan. “You have got to be kidding,” she announced.

Ferguson looked firmly back at her.

Vera rolled her eyes. “Why on earth would I get these things for you? And why do you even want them? You’re starving yourself, Joan.” She raised her fist, shaking the papers. “You hardly have time to read the Great Fucking Gatsby, or whatever you’ve put on this list!”

“I told you that you had a choice.”

“A choice between what?” Vera shouted hysterically. “Between letting you die with or without these things? Between—oh my God,” she stopped herself. “This isn’t a request list, is it?” She stepped back to the bed, kneeling so that her face was level with Ferguson’s. “This is a threat.”

Joan closed her eyes. “It is an opportunity.”

“Are you—” Vera paused to control her breathing. “Are you,” she started again, “threatening to kill yourself if I don’t do these things for you?”

Joan opened her eyes and looked steadily at Vera. “That’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Vera stared. Her eyes widened in sudden understanding. “You’ve been planning this,” she stated conclusively. She stood up, backing away from the bed. “You made me think it was my fault—that I had done this to you, because I had left you here, because you were alone—but all along it’s just another one of your plans!”

She stared at Joan. “How could I have been so stupid? How could I have… have trusted you, believed you?” She felt her entire body shake with anger. “Everything that comes out of your mouth is a lie!”

“Not everything, Vera,” Joan answered. “Not everything.”

Vera slumped down to the floor. “You’re insane,” she whispered. “You’re truly insane.”

“No,” Joan responded. “I’m dedicated.”

“Sure,” Vera spat back, “dedicated to suicide.”

“Only if necessary. Vera, Vera…” Joan shook her head, “don’t you see? No, I suppose you can’t right now, but I’m doing this because it’s needed. I’m doing this for the greater good.”

“The greater good,” Vera repeated sarcastically. “You’re threatening to kill yourself if I don’t bring you these items, and you’re doing it for the greater good.” She threw up her hands.

They stared at each other in silence.

Suddenly Vera rose to her knees, crawling the short distance to Joan. She leaned over the bed, leaned over Joan. “And what if I say ‘no’ to these requests, Joan? What then? What if I just let you waste away…”

She put her lips to Ferguson’s ear. “You said yourself that no one wants you alive,” she breathed. “No one cares about you. No one will care if you’re dead.”

Joan turned her head so that her own lips were directly beneath Vera’s. She gazed penetratingly into Vera’s eyes. “But that’s not exactly true, Vera, is it?” she whispered back. “You care.”

And she reached up, catching Vera’s lips with her own, bruising them in a forceful kiss.

Chapter Text

Vera gasped into Joan’s mouth. She wrenched her head back, away from Joan, then flung her body from the bed. She found herself standing completely still in the middle of the cell, the fingers of her right hand pressing against her mouth, still feeling the sensation of Joan’s lips. She stared at Joan.

Joan gazed back, one eyebrow raised, a small, smug smile appearing on her face.

Vera turned and ran.

She didn’t bother to close the door to the cell, or the gate to the unit. Her left hand still clutching Joan’s “requests,” her right hand still pressed against her lips, she stepped into her shoes and simply ran away, away from Joan, away from the impossible choice that she was forcing on her.

Instead, she ran straight into the solid front of Officer Miller, walking up the hallway.

“Governor?” she asked, reaching out a hand to steady Vera’s shoulder. “I was just coming to complete the count for Riley. Are you—are you okay?”

“Obviously not!” Vera shouted, shaking somewhat. Miller backed away from her, her eyes wide, as if Vera was a wounded animal about to attack.

Which, some part of Vera considered, was rather an apt analogy for her current state.

“Wait—” she said, “I’m sorry, Melanie. I’m sorry. I’m fine. I just… I’m fine.”

Miller did not look convinced.

“Anyway, why are you still here?” Vera continued, confused. “Shouldn’t your shift have ended hours ago?”

“I’m doing a double. I’m—well, Governor, I’ll be honest. I’m worried about Riley. I want to be here for her.”

Vera started to laugh. It wasn’t a pleasant sound.

“Oh, she has us all wrapped around her finger, doesn’t she?” Vera’s laughter became higher, louder; her shoulders shook with disturbing mirth. “We all care so much about Joan! We’ll do anything for her, won’t we?”

Miller now looked truly concerned. “Governor,” she said, grasping Vera’s hands as they flailed around in her hysterical laughter. “Vera.”

Vera stilled abruptly. Miller had never called her by her given name.

Melanie blushed.

She cleared her throat. “Governor,” she repeated, “what is going on? What’s happened? Why are you,” she gestured vaguely toward Vera, “behaving like this?”

“Oh, Melanie,” Vera sighed, slumping against the hallway wall. “This is Joan Riley. This is what Joan Riley does.”

Miller’s brow furrowed. “Riley is formidable, yes—you know that I couldn’t really say no to her when she asked me to ask you about the typewriter and stuff—but, Governor, with all due respect…” Miller fell silent.

“Yes?” Vera asked tiredly.

“With all due respect… she’s a prisoner. You’re the governor. You hold all the power.”

Vera smiled. “You’re a good person, Melanie. I can tell. But,” she said, straightening from her position against the wall, “you have a lot to learn about who holds the power at Wentworth.”

Chapter Text

Once again, Miller was gazing at Vera with an expression that suggested a veneer of polite agreement masking a deeper confusion and, Vera was surprisingly touched to realize, genuine concern. She smiled up at Miller. “On your way, then, Melanie,” she said, nodding in the direction of Joan’s unit. “Go on. I won’t keep you from her. But be careful," she warned. "Remember who you’re dealing with.”

Miller nodded and turned to go, then stopped. Looking back at Vera, she paused. “I just want to say,” she started, hesitantly, “that I think that caring for someone is a good thing, even someone you don’t like. Even someone,” she swallowed nervously, “even someone you think you hate.” Her lips curved into a luminous smile on her plain face. “You told me that I’m a good person, but you’re a good person, too, Vera Bennett. Whatever happens, I hope you remember that.”

Miller turned back. Vera watched her walk away from her, treading ever-onward toward Ferguson.

Like a lamb to slaughter, she thought, then grimaced.

It felt dangerously apt.

She turned her back on Miller, on Ferguson, and started the slow walk back to the Governor’s Office.

***

Sitting down in her tall chair behind the big desk, staring out into the security lights surrounding the walls of Wentworth, Vera considered the likely scenario that she was in shock.

She was too calm. This last “request” of Joan’s, this threat… the… the kiss… by all rights, Vera should be on the floor, howling in hurt and terror at being forced to make an impossible choice. And it was impossible; if she did as Joan asked, then she would be breaking numerous laws, acting as an accessory to God-knows-what little plans and devious manipulations Ferguson was setting up through those letters, and ultimately revealing the fact that she held no true power over Joan.

And if she didn’t acquiesce to Joan's "request"… Ferguson would die.

As ridiculously dramatic as it all was, Vera knew that Joan wasn’t bluffing. This was her vying for complete control over the situation, and if obtaining that control meant killing herself in the process, then she would. It was ridiculous, it was insane, but she would. Vera knew: to Joan, control was everything.

But that didn’t mean that Vera had to give in.

She stood up and paced around the office. Ferguson had said that there was always a choice. She could do what Ferguson wanted, or she could watch her die. It was like a game. Vera raises her thumb up: Joan lives; Vera turns her thumb down: Joan dies. Thumb up, thumb down. Live. Die.

She stopped pacing, finding herself staring at her own reflection in the window, watching herself once again touch her mouth where Joan’s lips had pressed viciously against her own.

Why had Joan done it? Why had she kissed her? Was it simply to manipulate her? To demonstrate, once again, that Joan held all the power?

Vera turned back to the desk, falling into her chair, staring unseeingly the papers containing Joan's list. She thought about those dreams she sometimes had, about kissing Ferguson, dominating her. Teaching Joan Ferguson a lesson. And then she thought about the other dreams, the ones in which Joan held the power, when she would use it to control Vera, but after, after… she would be tender as she held her, bathed her, stroked her hair. She would take care of Vera, make her feel safe and cherished, like she was someone special, someone significant to Joan.

She had felt that way—even if only briefly—this afternoon, as she had laid in Joan’s bed, curled up against her, feeling Joan pull the blanket around her.

Vera shook her head. That had been a manipulation. It wasn’t real. And neither were those dreams, which she hated, because they weren’t dreams at all. They weren’t products of her subconscious mind; they were fantasies, and she actively, willingly imagined them.

She sobbed, laying her forehead against the coolness of the desk.

She enjoyed them.

There it was. She was sick—well and truly fucked up—on so many levels.

The worst part of it, the part that she was only now realizing, was that Joan Ferguson already knew all of this.

She knew all of this.

And she had known it for a while.

Chapter Text

Vera’s two-way radio beeped twice, followed by a frantic-sounding Miller. “09 to 02! Come in, 02!”

Vera knew, suddenly and surely, that her decision-making time was at an end.

“This is the Governor. Go ahead, Miller.”

“Governor, you need to get up here right away! Please! I—something’s very wrong!”

“On my way,” Vera replied, attaching the radio to her hip. She took a final moment to glance down at Joan’s list before swiftly depositing it in the back of her desk drawer, directly above a tin containing eleven red pencils, left by the previous governor.

The symbolism was not lost on Vera.

***

She could hear Joan yelling before she even reached the gate. “I am not weak! I am in control! No, you will listen to me!”

She wondered what Miller had done to anger Ferguson to this degree, until she walked through the gate and saw Miller standing frozen, just outside Joan’s cell.

Melanie was crying.

Vera grew suddenly angry. “Has she hurt you?” she demanded. “What has she done to you?”

“No, no Governor,” Miller gestured with her hands, “I’m fine. It’s her. She’s talking to people, but there’s no one there. She’s hallucinating. I think… I think she may be near the end.” Miller sniffed, running her sleeve across her face. “And… she’s saying terrible things…” Miller faltered. “I didn’t even know she knew Bea Smith…”

Oh God. What was Joan saying? What had Miller heard?

“Melanie,” Vera grabbed her arm. “Listen to me. Focus. I want you to run down to the infirmary and get one of those sports drinks—the kind with electrolytes.”

Miller wiped the tears from her face. “Of course, Governor, but… I tried to get her to drink some water already,” she explained. “She refused.”

Vera’s expression was grim. “She won’t be refusing any more,” she stated. “Now go, Melanie. Run!”

Miller ran.

***

Vera stepped into the cell, closing the door behind her. Joan had quieted, but she was obviously exhausted. Her blankets had been thrown against the wall, and she lay shivering in her narrow bed, whispering to an unseen spectre.

As Vera stepped closer, she realized that Ferguson was clutching something to her chest.

“Joan?” she asked, reaching toward the navy object. “What have you got there, Joan?”

Ferguson gave no response, except to pull the item closer to herself.

“I thought I knew you,” she whispered to the small mass in her arms. Her voice sounded hoarse, raspy. “Even though you betrayed me, I thought you would understand this. Why it’s so important. Why can’t you understand?” she demanded of the object. “Why?”

And Vera suddenly recognized what Joan was cradling against herself.

It was Vera’s uniform jacket—the one she had taken off when she visited the cell so many hours ago. The one she had left when she fled.

She knelt at the side of the bed. Reaching over, she grasped Joan’s head between her hands. “Joan? Joan, can you understand me?”

It took a few moments for Ferguson’s eyes to focus on Vera.

“You look like my Vera,” she announced in a small voice. Her lower lip trembled. “I’m so thirsty, so very thirsty.”

“I know you are, Joan,” she replied, glancing over at the abandoned glass. “Why don’t you drink some water?”

Ferguson tried to shake her head, weakly. “I can’t… I can’t until she says yes. And she’s not going to say yes. I thought she would, but…”

Still gently but firmly holding the sides of Joan’s face, Vera leaned in closer. “Do you mean me, Joan? Because I’m saying yes. I will fulfill your requests.”

Joan paused, narrowing her eyes, peering at Vera. “Noooo,” she said, shaking her head against Vera’s hands. “You’re not really here. You ran away.” She stroked the jacket. “You left me.”

“I’m here now,” Vera replied, firmly. She startled, hearing running footsteps entering the unit. “Joan. Joan!” she whispered urgently, “it’s me!”

Ferguson didn’t reply.

“Dammit, Joan, it’s me!” she continued to whisper, panicking. “I’ll do it! I’ll do it!”

She frantically pulled Joan’s face to her own, pressing her lips against Joan’s. “I’ll do it!” she repeated.

Vera jumped up and away from Joan just as the cell door opened. Miller stood on the threshold, holding two bottles of Gatorade and panting from her run through the prison. She was staring, mouth hanging open, at Ferguson.

Vera followed her gaze, only to see Joan wearing an absolutely beatific smile.

“Thank you, Miller,” Vera said briskly, pulling one of the bottles from Melanie’s hands. She knelt again by the side of Joan’s bed. “Do you think you can drink this now?” she inquired to a still beaming Joan.

Ferguson nodded.

Vera rose so that she was sitting on the edge of the mattress, near Joan’s head. She laid the bottle in front of Joan, then lifted Joan’s head into her lap. Unscrewing the cap, she gently pressed the bottle to Joan’s mouth.

“Sip, but only a little,” she directed, leaning over Joan’s face. “We have to do this slowly.”

Joan’s head was in an awkward position for drinking, but she gazed up at Vera, taking a sip, followed by another.

“Slowly,” Vera cautioned.

Still staring up at her, Joan allowed her head to rest in Vera’s lap. They continued the pattern of sipping and resting until Joan had drunk half the bottle.

“I think that’s good for now,” Vera announced, handing the remainder to Melanie and gently shifting herself from beneath Joan’s head. “Rest now,” she directed Ferguson, reaching down to softly brush Joan’s hair away from her face.

Vera turned to Miller. “Stay with her,” she directed. “Try to get her to drink small sips every half hour or so.”

Miller nodded. “Yes, Governor. What should I do if she refuses again?”

Vera glanced down at Joan, who appeared to have fallen asleep, still smiling.

She turned back to Melanie. “Somehow,” she said, “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem any more.”

Chapter Text

Vera found herself staring at Joan's house keys, now sitting benignly in her hand. They were plain; just a set of keys, no tacky keychain denoting a holiday memory or a beloved pet. The rest of Joan’s personal effects were similarly austere: a small transparent bag, a plain black wallet, and a dead cell phone were all laid across the governor’s desk.

She absently opened the wallet. Inside were credit cards, identification, and a surprising amount of cash. Vera wondered if Ferguson always carried that much money, or if she had been planning to pay for something before the fateful fire. She snorted darkly. Maybe she was going to pay off the thug she hired to kill Fletch.

She paused. Oh God—that might actually have been the case.

She sat down abruptly in her chair.

What was she doing? Joan Ferguson wasn’t some run-of-the-mill criminal. Joan Ferguson was a murderer.

A murderer who Vera had agreed to help.

No. This was it. This was the true test of her ability to govern Wentworth. It didn’t matter if Smith and Proctor burned the prison down between them; she would pass this test. She would defeat Joan Ferguson. And if that meant thinking like Joan, becoming Joan… who, really, knew her better than Vera?

She would find out even more, she thought, staring at the keys in her palm. She would play along with everything, would let Joan think that she was in control. In the meantime she would observe and research and immerse herself in the mind of the monster.

Vera smiled, closing her fist around the keys.

Shameful dreams and kisses aside, she would destroy her.

***

Vera glanced down at her watch. Midnight. She was tempted to drive straight over to Ferguson’s house, but she didn’t want Joan to think that she had capitulated easily. No, better to leave it for a day, to make Joan wonder if she would truly uphold her end of the deal. Yes. That was the key: she would do things in her own time, not in Joan’s.

She yawned, stretching her tired limbs. She needed to go home, but first… she needed to become Joan, right? She had done it before, but now she needed to do it totally. So why not start in her office?

She glanced around. The office was almost exactly as Ferguson had left it. Vera simply hadn’t had time to redecorate. Some items had been removed—including the multiple cell phones in the safe—and locked into evidence. The rest, however, remained just as Joan had left it.

Vera walked over to the cabinet against the far wall. Inside were files and books, as well as Joan’s degrees and awards. Vera hadn’t known what to do with them when she had taken over, so she had simply yanked them off of the wall and shoved them into the cabinet. Now she removed them, looking at each one in turn. What did they tell her? First, that Joan was clearly ambitious—but that was already obvious. Vera moved her fingers across the “summa cum laude” on Ferguson’s undergraduate degree. Second, that she was also highly intelligent—also already obvious. Third… what? Degrees and awards, degrees and awards… what did they really say about a person?

Vera closed the cabinet and walked over to the now-unlocked cabinet beside the desk, where Ferguson kept her fencing gear. She avoided the mask, reaching instead into the large black bag. Pulling her hand out, she realized that she was grasping a chest protector, its curvature designed to fit around Joan’s upper torso and breasts. This, Vera thought, running her hand over the obvious curves, was somehow typically Joan. Here was a symbol of blatant femininity, molded to protect, but hidden beneath an outer layer, and used in a sport known for its strategies and aggression.

She replaced the protector in its bag, then turned to look around the room again. The problem, she thought, was that the room held very little that gestured to an actual person.

But maybe that was it. Glancing back to the cupboard that held the awards, she considered: maybe it wasn’t what was in the room. Maybe it was what was missing.

There were no personal photographs. There were no juvenile little desk toys or quirky office supplies. The only artwork was the Wentworth crest.

And then Vera realized it: the reason why she had been able to move into the workspace so easily was because Joan had never really been there.

Oh, she had filled it, all right—but she had filled it entirely with her personality. The lack of artwork, of personal objects all meant that Joan became the sole focus of anyone who ventured into her office.

It was the ultimate home court advantage: gain all the power while giving away nothing.

Vera sat back at the desk. She didn’t possess Joan’s intimidating character, but she could rig things to her advantage. The first was height. Her lack of height was a problem. She scrambled off her chair and manipulated the levers, raising the seat from its current height. There. She would be forced to dangle her feet well above the floor, but the desk would block that from anyone’s vision. Now she could sit as tall as Ferguson, glowering down at anyone who sat in the lower chairs before her.

She leaned back, surveying her domain.

There was one thing still missing.

Reaching into the desk drawer, she removed five yellow pencils. She placed each one into the electric sharpener, listening to the violent whirring as it chewed up the wood. When the last pencil was filed to the sharpest of points, Vera gathered all five together, placing them side-by-side in a straight row: her little yellow soldiers, waiting to attack.

And that was it. She was complete.

Now she would be ruthless and manipulative.

Now she would truly become Joan Ferguson.

Chapter Text

Vera did not visit Joan the next day, although she did instruct the daytime officer assigned to Ferguson’s cell—Donelson—to work at increasing Joan’s fluids, eventually introducing broths and, by evening, liquid-based food.

But she would not visit Joan.

***

Nor did she go to see her the following day.

That evening, however, as she sat at her desk compiling the latest incident report, she was interrupted by a knock on her office door. Miller, back on the night shift, poked her head through the doorway.

“Oh good—I wasn’t sure if you’d still be here. She wants to see you.”

Vera didn’t need to ask who the “she” was.

Fine, then. It was time.

“Let’s head up now,” she instructed Melanie.

***

“She’s still very weak,” Miller stated as they walked the hallway toward the protection unit. “But she’s urinating again. I had to help her to the toilet. She was not pleased.”

Vera sported a wry smile. “No, I don’t doubt that you received an earful for your trouble,” she replied.

Miller grinned. “She was silent the whole time, actually, but I could feel her glare even as I turned away to let her do her business. It was reassuring, like she’s back to normal.”

Vera glanced quickly at her. “Careful there,” she warned. “There is no normal when it comes to Joan Riley. She sets her own standards. Don’t be…” she hesitated, “don’t be lulled.”

The grin disappeared from Melanie’s face. “Yes, Governor,” she responded.

They continued down the corridor in silence.

***

“Vera,” Ferguson said, nodding as they entered her cell. “Ms. Miller.”

“Joan,” Vera replied, nodding back. She looked carefully at Ferguson, who was lying on the bed, her hair still obviously matted, the dark circles still apparent around her eyes. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

“In control,” Joan replied, staring levelly at her.

Vera snorted. “Of course you do.” She wrinkled her nose. “So in control that you haven’t even bathed yourself.”

She watched, inwardly delighted, as for the first time in their conversation, Joan failed to meet her gaze.

Miller jumped in. “Governor, I’m sorry—that’s my fault,” she said, glancing sympathetically at Ferguson, who in turn slightly furrowed her brow, as if she was not sure what Miller was going to say.

“Riley wanted to take a shower,” Melanie continued, “but I pointed out that she wasn’t strong enough to stand for any length of time yet.”

Vera had to admit that Miller had a valid point. It was important that Joan was clean, but Vera couldn’t risk her falling and hurting herself. She couldn’t take her to Medical.

“If only,” Joan said meaningfully, “there was a bathtub available somewhere.”

“There’s one in Medical,” Miller pointed out helpfully.

“No!” both women declared simultaneously.

Melanie looked confused, glancing back and forth between them.

“It’s a good idea, Miller,” Vera affirmed patiently, “but remember that Riley is in protection for a reason. It’s best that she not be seen by other inmates.”

Melanie’s puzzled expression remained, but she nodded in acknowledgement.

Ferguson was still gazing intently at Vera, one eyebrow raised in question.

Vera sighed, glancing at her watch. Nine-thirty. The count was done, the prisoners should be locked in their units, all guards except the skeleton night-shift crew would be gone. She made a decision. “Ms. Miller, please go find a wheelchair.”

“A wheelchair?” Melanie questioned.

“Yes,” Vera replied shortly. “We’ll wheel Riley to the only other bathtub.”

Miller looked perplexed. “There’s another bathtub?”

Vera nodded. “The one in the bathroom attached to my office.”

Tonight, Joan Ferguson would be returning to the Governor’s Office.

***

They stared at each other while they waited for Miller to return.

“You haven’t fulfilled any of my requests yet,” Joan abruptly stated.

“No,” Vera replied simply.

Ferguson sounded aggrieved. “And are you planning to do so, or do we have to go through this all over again?” she asked acidly.

“I told you I would do it,” Vera responded, “but I’ll do it in my own time.”

Ferguson rolled over, onto her back. She stared up at the ceiling. “‘In your own time,’” She mimicked. “Bea Smith said something similar to me once, and then she betrayed my trust.”

Vera sat on the edge of the bed. “That’s your fault for making a deal with a prisoner.”

Ferguson rolled back to her side, raising an eyebrow. “Oh, the irony.”

They continued to stare at each other.

***

Miller returned with the wheelchair. Together, she and Vera helped Joan into it. As they neared the gate to the unit, Vera put her hand on Miller’s arm, halting her progress in pushing the wheelchair.

Miller turned toward her questioningly. Vera pulled her away, toward the back of the unit.

“Melanie, it’s important that no one see us. No one,” she stressed. “That includes the other guards.”

Miller brought her hand to her forehead, rubbing her temples. “Governor, I’m really confused about all of this,” she admitted. “You don’t want Riley to use the bathtub in Medical because you don’t want other prisoners to see her—which is weird to me, since if she’s in protection something obviously happened between her and the other prisoners, and they know that she’s here somewhere. And now you don’t want the guards to see her, which is just… It doesn’t make any sense.” Miller shook her head. “Why does it matter if the guards see her?”

Vera tried desperately to come up with a plausible reason.

“Preferential treatment,” she said suddenly. “It’s a sizeable breach in regulations for a prisoner to use the governor’s bathroom. I don’t want anyone—prisoners or guards—to get the wrong idea. You do understand, don’t you, Melanie?” she asked imploringly, moving closer to place her hand on Melanie’s arm.

Miller’s expression softened, and she patted Vera’s hand with her own. “Of course, Governor,” she replied. “I’m sorry. I should have thought of that.”

Vera smiled back at her. “I’m glad you understand,” she said, removing her hand. “Now let’s get going.”

They turned back, together.

In front of them, Joan Ferguson observed their interaction with interest.

***

Miller pushed Ferguson while Vera walked in front, scouting the halls for any guards. She let out a long breath when they reached her office without incident. Swiping her keycard, she pushed the door open, walking across the threshold and turning to assist Miller with Ferguson.

Vera halted abruptly, startled by what she saw.

Joan’s face had lost all colour. She seemed to be staring at her old desk, fixated on it. Her knuckles were white with the effort of gripping the sides of the wheelchair. But her expression…

Her expression was one of intense longing and absolute misery. And then, as Vera watched, it was replaced by Ferguson’s now-typical blank expression.

But Vera had seen the real Joan, if only for a second, and now she knew.

She locked gazes with Ferguson. She smiled.

“Welcome to my office.”

Chapter Text

The bathroom was just off of the small kitchenette where Joan had once mixed them drinks. Vera let the memory of that night play through her mind as she watched Miller navigate the doorframe, guiding Joan’s wheelchair safely through. Even then, Ferguson had manipulated her. She realized it, now, but at the time she had been so infatuated with the notion of a mentor that she would have told Joan almost anything—and, in fact, she had. Joan had always possessed all of the information, all of the knowledge, while Vera still relied on whatever tiny scraps Joan allowed her to see (when she allowed her to see them). Vera thought back to Joan’s house keys, now sitting in her purse. Perhaps, very soon, that situation would change.

She stood in the doorway as Miller halted the wheelchair beside the tub, locking the wheels in place.

“Thank you for your help, Ms. Miller. I believe I can help Riley from here,” she said, dismissing Melanie.

Joan held up her hand. “Come now, Vera,” she interjected smoothly, “I’m sure you have more pressing matters to attend.” She tilted her face toward Melanie. “Perhaps Ms. Miller would be willing to assist me?” she asked, a smile forming on her lips. “That is, if you have time?”

Miller beamed. “I’d be happy to help—”

“No,” Vera stated abruptly. “I mean…”

“I hardly think that you want to bathe me, Vera,” Joan retorted sardonically. “Ms. Miller will be a perfectly adequate aide for this chore.”

Melanie nodded.

“Right,” Vera said, feeling oddly flustered. “Fine. I’ll just, uh… I’ll leave you to it. Melanie, there are extra towels in that cupboard right there. I’ll be at my desk.” She backed out of the bathroom, pausing in the doorway. “Call me if you need anything,” she instructed, watching as Joan’s hand ghosted over her breasts, slowly pulling down the zipper on her teal hoodie.

Vera exited the room, pulling the door closed behind her.

Back in her office, sitting behind her desk, she heard water gush through the taps, filling the bathtub. She stared at the paperwork in front of her, willing herself to focus on it. She drew circles with her pen. She rearranged her five pencils.

The water stopped.

She could hear voices, then, one low and methodical—Joan’s—the other slightly higher, quicker. They seemed to be having quite the conversation, she thought, vaguely annoyed.

Staring at the wall, Vera mentally pictured what she would see if she could see through to the room on the other side. Joan was obviously in the tub by now. Was Melanie turned away from her, standing near the door, giving her privacy? Or was she looking at her? Maybe Melanie was sitting on the lid of the toilet, chatting while Joan bathed, looking like she participated in this kind of easy domestic scene every day?

Vera dropped her pen.

What if… what if Miller was actually bathing Joan? What if she was lathering soap in her hands, then spreading it over Joan’s body, massaging it against her smooth skin? Vera could picture Melanie kneeling next to the tub, shirt sleeves rolled up, running her hands over Joan’s clavicle, her shoulders, circling her breasts…

She groaned. Why was she thinking about this?

Her thoughts were pierced by a new sound: a laugh. They were laughing. There was Melanie’s high, excited laugh, and underneath it was a low, slow chuckle that obviously came from Joan.

Joan Ferguson was laughing. Or chuckling, at least.

Joan Ferguson did not chuckle.

Or… she didn’t chuckle with Vera.

Then again, she also wasn’t being bathed by Vera; she didn’t have Vera’s hands running over her body, lathering her, rinsing her skin…

The water was turned on again, this time accompanied by a hiss that must be the shower head.

Joan’s hair. They must be rinsing Joan’s hair. She pictured Melanie’s fingers parting the dark waves, massaging Joan’s scalp.

Vera absently reached her hand to the back of her neck, twirling a piece of hair that had fallen from her twist.

Joan’s hair will smell like mine, she thought.

The water stopped with a squeal of pipes. She listened to the low sound of their voices again, chattering away.

And then the voices suddenly stopped.

There was nothing—only silence.

Vera frowned. What were they doing?

She hopped down from her chair, rounded her desk, and placed her ear to the wall. Nothing.

What was it? What was going on? She had to know.

She quickly tip-toed through the kitchenette to the bathroom door, grasping the handle, slowly turning it… then stopped. What was she doing? She couldn’t just walk in.

Or, actually, she could. She was the governor, after all. And isn’t that exactly what Joan would do? Simply walk in, taking control of whatever she found on the other side?

Vera let out a long breath. She stood tall, squaring her shoulders, placing her hand on the door handle.

And then she pulled the door open and walked in.

Chapter Text

Vera entered onto a tableau she hadn’t expected. Joan sat in her chair, fully dressed but motionless, staring with a knowing look into Vera’s eyes. Melanie stood equally immobile behind her, holding lengths of Joan’s hair in one hand and a comb in the other. Her skin flushed a distinct shade of pink.

Vera cleared her throat. “I, um, just wanted to see how you were getting on.”

“Thank you, Governor,” Joan replied silkily. “As you can see, Miller is helping me to comb the tangles from my hair. It’s been so neglected, you know.”

Behind her, Miller went back to gently pulling the comb through Joan’s dark mane. A slow, small smile spread across her face as she methodically combed out the tangles, smoothing her hand over Joan’s hair after each stroke.

Although she tried to mask it, Vera was decidedly unnerved by the fact that Ferguson—who actively disliked being touched, who did everything for herself—was allowing Miller to stroke her hair in such a… such a… an intimate way. What other intimate touches had Joan allowed?

Had… had Melanie actually bathed her? Run her hands over Joan’s skin?

Vera abruptly stepped forward and snatched the comb from Miller’s hand. “You’re a prison guard, not a hairdresser,” she said sharply, tossing the comb—her comb, she noted—onto the countertop. “I believe we’re done here. You may take Riley back to her cell.”

Melanie turned even redder, jerking her hands away from Joan’s hair. “Yes, Governor,” she whispered, lowering her head before reaching down to unlock the wheels of Joan’s chair.

Joan turned toward Vera. The knowing look was still on her face, but as she locked gazes with Vera, it was joined by a slow smile.

Miller pushed her chair forward, and Joan turned away.

Vera remained stationary for a moment more, feeling as if she had somehow been played, but not knowing how.

***

“Stop,” she called out as Miller pushed Ferguson past her desk. Remembering her home court advantage, Vera walked around behind the desk, seating herself in her raised chair. Even with her petite stature compared to Joan’s tall one, the elevated seat allowed her to stare down at Joan as she sat in the decidedly lower wheelchair.

Now it was Vera’s turn to smile.

“Now that you are clean and eating again, I expect that we will have no repeat of your little ‘performance?’” she asked, her voice dripping with condescension, secure in the knowledge that Ferguson couldn’t say anything openly in front of Miller.

Ferguson’s eyes narrowed. “As sure as my name’s Joan Riley,” she replied.

Vera blanched, quickly dropping her gaze to her desk. “Yes, well… then that’s fine,” she said quietly. She looked up again, but found that she couldn’t meet Joan’s gaze. “Ms. Miller,” she said, directing her attention at Melanie instead, “I think that’s it. Please take the prisoner back to her cell.”

Miller nodded, pulling Joan’s wheelchair backward from its place in front of the desk. As Vera watched, Joan glared intently at her, mouthing a silent, exaggerated word: “tonight.”

Vera nodded.

Tonight she would fulfill Joan’s requests.

Tonight she would go to Joan’s house.

***

It was almost eleven by the time Vera reached Joan’s home. She stood in front of the red door, the keys laying in her hand, and thought about the last time she had been here.

It was not a pleasant memory.

She swiftly turned the key in the lock, and walked in, closing the door behind her. Darkness. She fumbled along the wall, finding the light switch and illuminating the room.

For some reason, she half expected Joan’s house to be in a state of ruin, as if it had been abandoned years ago, ravaged by time and nature, waiting for Joan to show up once again to claim and restore it. And clean it.

But, of course, that wasn’t the case. Joan really hadn’t been gone that long, and the house was as immaculate as ever.

Vera gazed around at the sanitized surfaces of glass and chrome, at the surprising warmth provided by the various deep woods and textures. She saw a little dish on the table to her left, and placed the keys in it. Glancing down, she found what must be Joan’s slippers.

She went quite still. Slippers. They meant nothing, and yet they somehow represented a side of Joan that she had never seen. A domestic Joan; someone who came home and put on slippers. Someone whose feet hurt, whose feet needed comfort and warmth.

Someone human, just like every other person.

Only not, because these were Joan Ferguson’s slippers, and Ferguson was (as Vera found herself constantly—and disturbingly—having to remind herself) a murderer.

Vera stepped carefully around the slippers.

She glanced ahead, at a fishbowl that stood on a little table, next to a kind of atrium. “Oh, no…” she breathed, hurrying forward.

She was obviously too late. Half of the water had already evaporated out of the bowl, leaving the dead goldfish floating in the middle, between worlds.

Vera tried to tell herself that it was only a fish, but she still felt an ache that it had been abandoned like this, simply because there had been no one to take care of it. If she had known, or thought about it…

But she hadn’t thought of the fish. She had thought only of herself, of testifying at the trial, testifying in front of Joan. She had been full of anger, and nothing else had seemed important.

Now she was in Joan Ferguson’s house, staring at Joan Ferguson’s dead goldfish. She had shared a bed with Joan. She had shared a kiss with her. Two. And now she was trying to become Joan Ferguson, to defeat her.

Vera picked up the fishbowl and went in search of the bathroom.

It was time to dispose of the goldfish.

Chapter Text

Vera replaced the empty fishbowl on the table, pulling Joan’s list from her jacket pocket. It was late; she was tired. It would be best to retrieve these items for Joan, then come back another night to take a closer look. It wasn’t like Joan would ever know…

She headed toward the sideboard, next to the table. She remembered staring at these objects the last time she was here, thinking that they told a story she couldn’t understand: a violin, a photo of a fencing instructor and a young girl, and artwork that suggested a possible Indigenous background. Joan chose to display each of these items, of course, but what did they mean?

She picked up the photo. That was a young Joan. It had to be young Joan! She had the same intense expression, but she was smiling so openly…

Vera stared at the fencing instructor. He actually looked a little bit like Joan. Could he be related?

Wait—could this be Joan’s father?

Vera flipped the frame around to the back, removing the small pins that held it together. She gently pulled the photograph out of the frame. There was a date on the back: 1973. Nothing else.

She gently replaced the frame on the sideboard, sinking down into a chair to stare at the photograph again. She traced her finger over young Joan’s face. She looked so happy here, and proud, as if she had just accomplished something wonderful. Her father—or whoever that was—appeared to be similarly pleased.

She also looked… well… girlish. Like someone still at the beginning, firm in her belief that the good things happening would continue, that life would be whatever she made of it. She didn’t yet know that she would become a prison guard, that the woman she loved would be murdered, that she, in turn, would become a murderer…

Vera looked away, staring at the brick wall across from her. Or did Joan know? Was the seed of evil already present in an adolescent Joan? Had she always been this way?

There were so many questions. What had happened to this mysterious fencing instructor, this man who could be her father? Of all the photographs that Joan must possess, why was this one, taken over forty years ago, so important?

The more Vera learned about Joan Ferguson, the more she realized she knew nothing.

She left the photograph on the table, turning toward the stairs to fetch the remaining articles on Joan’s list.

***

Upstairs, she found the study. Like the rest of the house, it was immaculate. What surprised Vera were the shelves and shelves of books. She had never really considered what Joan did in her free time. She knew about the fencing, of course, but in this room she could suddenly imagine Joan sitting upright in the leather chair, a glass of something—her ever-present vodka? Or maybe something smoother, like cognac?—on the little table beside her, the light from the lamp shining on her book as she slowly turned the cream-coloured pages.

It was strangely domestic. And not something that Vera would ever have associated with Joan Ferguson.

Vera found herself settling into the chair. It was surprisingly comfortable. She tucked her feet under her and turned on the lamp. A book lay on the table beside her. She picked it up, stroking its thin spine. Poetry. Joan read poetry? That seemed… well, it seemed so unlikely. But then she thought about the opera, about Joan’s surprising love of that genre. Vera closed her eyes. There were answers here, somehow. The problem was that she didn’t know the right questions.

She opened her eyes and read from a bookmarked page:

Then it is this simple. I felt the unordinary romance of

women who love women for the first time. It burst in

my mouth. Someone said, this is your first lover, you

will never want to leave her. I had it in mind that I

would be an old woman with you.

Vera closed the book abruptly. She suddenly felt inordinately sad. What was Joan thinking as she read these words? Was she—and Vera didn’t want to think about this, but she knew that she must, if she truly wanted to understand Joan—was she thinking of Jianna?

She flipped forward a few pages, reading again:

She look like a boy in that dress, my big

sister say, a lyric and feminine correction from a

watchful aunt, don’t say that, she look nice and pretty.

Nice and pretty, laid out to splinter you, so that never,

until it is almost so late as not to matter do you grasp

some part, something missing like a wing, some

fragment of your real self.

Maybe this was the real Joan. Had her childhood been something like that? Maybe with Jianna she had found some fragment of her self, only to be lost again when Jianna was taken from her. Maybe, even now, she was still searching for that missing fragment that would make her whole.

No, no, no. Vera dropped the book back onto the table. She was making Joan into some kind of tragic figure. And—okay, yes, the whole story was fairly tragic—but she had to remember that Joan then went on to set up Will, murder Simone Slater, torture Jodie Spiteri, try to kill Fletch, and, and…

Refuse to love Vera.

NO! There was no love. Love didn’t come into any of this. Why was she thinking about love?

She rose from the leather chair, pacing in front of the shelves full of books. Just being here was turning her mind into a mess. She would quickly gather the books and CDs on this list, and then she would go.

***

The final room on the second floor was the bedroom.

Joan’s bedroom.

Vera paused at the threshold, looking around. Her own bedroom, while neat, was a strange mish-mash of her adult self and her past self. There were a lot of floral elements, and a lovely old dressing table.

Joan’s bedroom, in comparison, was simple. A large bed—a very large bed—stood against the far wall, flanked by tables. A dresser stood against another wall. There was a chair with a table beside the window.

That was it. Unlike Vera’s room, there was no artwork or photographs displayed on the walls. The top of the dresser was clear.

There was also, Vera slowly realized, circling the room with her eyes, no mirror. In a house of chrome-like reflections and glass, there was no mirror in this room. She could see one, if she looked through the doorway into Joan’s bathroom, but there was no mirror in the bedroom.

Odd, she thought as she made her way to the dresser, her steps softened by thick, plush carpeting. Pulling the top drawer open, she found another item on her list: Joan’s underwear.

She giggled.

Everything was neatly folded and colour-coded into three categories: white, beige, and black. It was very… utilitarian.

She giggled even more. What had she been expecting—lacey, flaming-red thongs?

She reached into the drawer and pulled out a pair of black cotton panties. She held them up. She stretched the elastic.

She reached in and poked delicately at the crotch.

Then she slid to the ground, laughing hysterically as she leaned against the dresser.

Because Vera Bennett, Governor of Wentworth, was having far too much fun fingering Joan Ferguson’s underwear.

God, she needed a drink.

Chapter Text

Vera stood in front of the dresser with several of Joan’s bras hanging from her left arm and a large stack of Joan’s underwear balanced carefully on her right.

She decided that it was good that there were no mirrors in this room. Otherwise, seeing herself, she likely would have erupted into a giggling fit again. And (here she imagined Joan speaking in a serious voice) One Must Not Giggle over Joan Ferguson’s Underwear.

She collapsed to the floor with the underwear, laughing all over again.

***

Eventually, after she had found a small suitcase in which to deposit the books, cds, cd player, headphones, and underwear, Vera turned to search for the remaining item on Joan’s list: “the photograph currently located in the bedside table.”

There were two bedside tables. The first held only a flashlight, a candle, and some matches. Apparently, this was Joan’s “emergency” drawer.

Vera moved to the other side of the bed, tentatively sitting on the edge. She slowly drew open the drawer of the table, finding three objects inside.

Her breath caught.

Reaching inside, she drew out a small, worn stuffed animal. She suspected that it had once been a rabbit, but it was so threadbare that it was difficult to tell. One eye and its nose appeared to be long lost, and both ears were mangled, but it gazed up at Vera through its remaining dark, wary eye.

Vera stared at the rabbit. It presented an idea of a youthful Joan that she couldn’t yet reconcile with the Joan she knew. She placed it on the bed beside her.

Once again reaching into the drawer, her fingers curled around a small, cheap metal frame. She held it up to the light. Inside was an old polaroid of a young woman holding a smiling baby. The woman’s face wasn’t visible; she was turned toward the baby, her long, straight dark hair falling over her left shoulder while her right hand presented a small stuffed animal to the baby.

A rabbit.

Vera’s hands shook slightly as she turned the frame over, gently pulling it apart and removing the photo. On its back was a single word, written in blocky, childish handwriting.

“Mum.”

No. It was all too much. She kept the photograph, but quickly put the rabbit and the frame back into the drawer. She didn’t even look inside the third item, a box. Silently closing the drawer, she swiftly backed out of the room, turning off the lights. It was all too personal. She couldn’t handle a Joan Ferguson who was human, who read sad poetry, who kept remnants of a long-lost childhood in her bedside drawer.

Vera grabbed the suitcase from the hallway, placing the photograph into one of its pockets before dragging it down the stairs. She stopped just long enough to add the photograph of the fencing instructor before racing out of Joan’s house, locking the door behind her. She had what Joan requested.

That was all she could handle tonight.

Chapter Text

Vera took a rare half-day off from work. She ran errands that culminated in setting up a post office box. She pulled the latest telephone book from its shelf in the kitchen. She climbed into the attic, retrieving her mother’s dusty old typewriter. Finally, as she sat at the kitchen table, cleaning the machine, she peered again at the photo of Joan’s mother.

Without her face, it was difficult to tell how old she had been. She was certainly youngish—perhaps in her twenties, or even in her thirties—with a slenderness that suggested such youth. The way she held her daughter, the way she presented the little rabbit… Vera was fairly certain that baby Joan had been wanted and welcomed by her mother.

Vera maneuvered her small fingers toward the carriage rail of the typewriter, carefully cleaning it with rubbing alcohol. She glanced at the photo again.

Joan has her mother’s hair, she thought.

She sighed, capping the alcohol. Mothers, daughters. Here she sat, oiling her mother’s typewriter. She had loved her mother, for all that she hated her, too. Had Joan loved hers? She thought about the clumsily-printed “Mum” on the back of the photograph. Had Joan even known her mother? Why hadn’t she kept a better photo of her—one that showed her face?

Vera carefully, methodically oiled every joint, every moving part in the typewriter.

Joan was a daughter, but she’d never be a mother. Neither would Vera, in all likelihood. There was something sad about being the end of a line (and here she gave a particularly rigorous rub to a key), but there was something freeing, too.

Vera sat back, looking at the shiny typewriter, thinking of her mother.

Freedom is so very rarely free.

***

Vera was decidedly disturbed by the ease with which she transported the suitcase and the typewriter into the prison. The guard in charge at reception had simply looked at her questioningly when she presented the two items. “Special arrangement for a prisoner,” was all that she had said (which was true enough), and he had nodded his head as he half-heartedly poked through the contents.

She was similarly dismayed to note that she could pull the suitcase and heft the typewriter through the actual halls of Wentworth without anyone ever questioning her. If she had known it was this easy to bring in big stuff, she would have been far less fearful when she had smuggled in small packages for Jacs Holt.

Finally, she arrived at Ferguson’s protection unit.

Joan sat primly at the little table, hair pulled back into a ponytail, teal tracksuit looking somehow starched and bizarrely professional. She was writing.

Vera unlocked the gate, pulling the suitcase through and placing the typewriter on the table. “I’m here for my ‘visit,’” she announced sarcastically.

Joan lifted one eyebrow, gathering her papers into a neat pile. Gesturing to the other chair, she replied, equally sarcastically, “why hello, Vera. How are you? I’m fine, thank you. Do sit down.”

Vera rolled her eyes, but sat nonetheless.

They stared at each other in tense silence.

Vera was the first to break it. “I’ve brought you the items you requested,” she stated, unzipping the small suitcase, revealing its contents.

All of the items?” Joan inquired.

“All of the items,” Vera affirmed.

They gazed at the case.

Joan sniffed. “Yes, well… feel free to close it for now. Not everything needs to be on display.”

Vera suppressed a giggle as she poked Joan’s underwear back within the confines of the suitcase.

They stared at each other again.

Finally Joan, exasperated, announced, “this isn’t going to work if you don’t make the effort to at least say something, Vera.”

“Me?” Vera asked, frowning. “Why should I be the one making small talk?”

“Because you’re the one with a life outside of these four walls!” Joan exclaimed vehemently. “Theoretically, at least,” she added.

Vera rolled her eyes again. Her gaze fell to the front pocket of the suitcase. Reaching down, she pulled out the two photographs. “Why don’t we talk about these,” she suggested.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Joan replied abruptly.

Vera picked up the photo of Joan’s mother, watching as Ferguson carefully reached out to collect the other picture.

Vera held up the photo, pointing at the baby. “This is you,” she stated.

“Yes.”

Vera moved her finger to the woman. “And this was your mother.”

“My,” Joan drawled, “your deductive skills are masterful.”

Vera decided to ask the blunt question. “Why don’t you have a better photo of your mother?”

Joan seemed taken aback. “I beg your pardon?”

Vera gestured to the photograph. “You can’t see her face. You can only see her side and back. Surely you have a better picture!”

“I…” Joan sputtered, “I… No. Give me that,” she said, forcefully reaching for the photo.

Vera held it back, just out of Joan’s grasp as she stretched across the table. “What happened to your mother, Joan? Why don’t you have a better picture?”

“We don’t talk about these things!” Joan exclaimed, hitting her fist against the table.

“Why?” Vera asked, continuing to push. “Why won’t you talk about her? What did you do to your mother, Joan?”

I did nothing to her!” Joan shouted. She sat back in her chair, breathing heavily, visibly attempting to regain control. As her breathing regulated, her eyes narrowed. She suddenly smiled.

“After all,” she said, her smile growing wider as she reached her hand toward the smaller woman, “I’m not you, Vera.”

Chapter Text

They glared at each other.

“You know it wasn’t like that,” Vera whispered.

“I do,” Joan replied, sighing. “No one else in the world may understand, Vera, but I do.”

Vera refused to think about that statement. Instead, she pushed the photo across the table to Ferguson.

Joan carefully placed the image of her mother next to that of her teenaged self.

Watching Joan’s delicate handling of the photos, Vera couldn’t help but ask, “is that your father?”

“Yes,” came the short reply. “But I don’t think you really want to ask me about my parents, do you, Vera?” Joan continued.

Vera was confused. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“The box…” Joan prompted.

“What box?”

Joan rolled her eyes. “You’re honestly telling me that you found my picture of my mother, but you didn’t look in the box that was sitting right beside it? Really, Vera, how gullible do you think I am?”

“And just how nosy do you think I am, Joan?” Vera replied indignantly. “I respected your privacy.” There was no point in admitting that she was planning to go back to look in the box, to tour more of the house. “I retrieved the items you asked for, and I brought them to you. That’s it.

“Oh, and I flushed your goldfish,” she added viciously.

Joan looked away.

***

They had lapsed into silence again. Joan stared out the window. Vera gazed at the table.

“Where did you get the typewriter?” Joan asked abruptly.

“It was my mother’s,” Vera replied. “It was in the attic.”

Joan nodded.

“You’re welcome,” Vera added sarcastically. Joan simply looked at her.

Vera sighed. “Why do you need the typewriter and the telephone book, any way? Who are you trying to contact?”

Joan didn’t reply.

“Are you going to blackmail someone?” Vera asked mockingly. “Start up a correspondence with some poor prisoner-lover? Purchase more fish by mail order?”

Still Joan remained silent.

Vera huffed in frustration. “I could take them away, you know,” she stated. “They’re a privilege. I could easily take them away.”

“Yes,” Joan said slowly, “but you won’t.”

“And why won’t I?”

“Because it would make me unhappy,” Joan responded simply.

Vera pushed her chair away from the table. “You think I care about your happiness?” she asked, her voice rising. She stood, leaning over the table toward Joan. “You think I want you to be happy?” she asked incredulously.

“I think you’re deeply conflicted about what you want,” Joan replied calmly. “In fact, I think you’re so conflicted that you can’t even see what’s happening.”

“Oh?” Vera asked, putting her hands on her hips. “Then why don’t you just tell me, Joan? Use your ‘special insight’ to tell me just what is happening!”

Joan uncurled her tall frame from the chair. She stalked over to Vera, towering over her, entering her personal space. This time, Vera refused to move. Instead, she scowled up at the much taller woman.

Joan smiled down on her.

Suddenly, in a flash of movement, she captured Vera, turning her backwards, pulling her into her own body. She cradled Vera hard, her strong arms forcing Vera’s back to press unforgivingly against Joan’s front.

Joan lowered her head, further curling her body around Vera’s small frame. Her breath blew hot against Vera’s ear. Vera’s own breath came out in small pants. As Joan continued to hold Vera against her body with one arm, her other hand came up to gently stroke the side of Vera’s tender neck.

“Because, Vera dear,” she whispered, her fingers caressing the smooth skin, “you’re not ready.”

And Joan bit the sensitive skin of Vera’s neck, sucking on it.

Vera gasped.

As suddenly as Joan had captured her, she let Vera go. Stooping to pick up the suitcase, Joan walked briskly to her cell. “I’ll unpack this now,” she called over her shoulder. “You can send Miller for the case later.”

The cell door closed.

Vera stood shaking in the middle of the protection unit, one hand pressed against the side of her neck, the other pressed against her breathless chest.

What the hell had just happened?

Chapter Text

Vera sat at her desk, legs dangling from her too-high chair, contemplating Joan’s words. Joan said she wasn’t ready. Wasn’t ready for what, exactly?

She absently ran her fingers over her neck, still feeling Joan’s bite.

And that whole “you can’t see what’s happening” thing—what was that about? What was happening? Nothing was happening. She was just doing her job.

Vera sighed. She was lying to herself again. She did know what was happening—or at least her side of it. This strange… attraction (she cringed at the word) was growing. She had been so busy trying to get into Joan’s head, when apparently what she actually wanted to get into was Joan’s—

Her thought was mercifully interrupted by a knock on her office door. Linda Miles strolled in.

“Hi Vera. I’ve got those reports you wanted,” she said, placing multiple folders on the desk.

Vera groaned. More paperwork to go with more prisoner outbursts. It was getting worse.

She looked back up, expecting Linda to leave, but instead the blonde woman was staring at her, a smile spreading across her face.

Correction: she was staring at her neck.

“Fucking hell, Vera,” Linda exclaimed, leaning across the desk to get a better look. “That’s one hell of a hickey you’ve got going there! What have you been getting up to?”

Vera clapped her hand over the spot. “That’s none of your business, Linda,” she replied primly.

“Oh, come off it! Look at that thing,” Linda laughed, pointing. “That’s fresh, Vera!”

They were both startled by the sound of a small crash. Looking over, Vera saw Miller in the doorway, kneeling down to pick up her dropped two-way radio.

“Sorry, Governor,” Melanie said, not meeting Vera’s eyes. She stood, safely latching the radio to her belt. “You wanted to see me?”

Vera wondered if the day could get any more bizarre. Linda was still laughing mirthfully while Melanie had turned positively red again. Vera wondered just how much Miller had heard.

None of that mattered, she reminded herself. No one would connect the sore on her neck to Joan Ferguson. She was safe (although she would probably have to invent another fake boyfriend…)

“Thank you, Ms. Miles,” Vera said repressively to Linda, effectively dismissing her. Linda shrugged, gave one last wiggle of her eyebrows, and headed back to the prison proper.

Melanie remained standing in the doorway.

Vera casually put her hand over the hickey, rubbing the back of her neck as if it were tired. “Thank you, Miller,” she said finally swiveling to face Melanie. “Someone brought Riley some items for her cell, so I’d like you to retrieve the suitcase when you have a minute. You can add it to her storage.”

Miller nodded. “Of course, Governor.” She didn’t move.

“Was there something else you needed?” Vera inquired.

“No. Uh… no,” Melanie paused, then rushed her words, “but concealer might help, Governor. The heavier stuff. Cover it right up. So no one asks who gave it to you.” With that, she hastily turned and fled from the office.

Vera groaned aloud. Could everyone see this damned thing?

Turning back in her chair, she was suddenly frozen by a terrifying thought: Miller didn’t suspect the hickey came from Joan, did she?

Of course not.

Absolutely not.

Vera thumped her head against the desk. Oh, fucking hell. What, exactly, did Miller know?

***

Vera told herself that she wouldn’t go to Joan’s house that night. She drove home. She made dinner. She drank some wine. She flipped through terrible television shows. She drank more wine. She cleaned her kitchen. She ate some old cheese. She tried to read a novel.

At ten, she grabbed her keys and headed over to Joan’s house. She had to know what was in that box.

It was still spotless inside the house, but not as antiseptic as she had remembered it from their brief dinner together. As she had the previous night, Vera closed and bolted the door behind her, dropping the keys into the little dish that was seemingly waiting for them. She glanced down at the slippers, taking care to step over them. This time, however, she kicked off her own shoes, placing them beside the slippers. She tried to ignore the slightly hysterical voice in her mind that giggled that the slippers no longer looked lonely.

She made her way to the stairs, then changed her mind, heading to the kitchen and searching through Joan’s cupboards. It was odd to think that Joan had cupboards. It seemed too… domestic. Too ordinary. It was like trying to picture Joan doing laundry, or cleaning a toilet.

Opening the freezer, she found what she wanted: a bottle of vodka and six perfectly aligned, perfectly chilled glasses. Okay, so maybe she didn’t actually like vodka, but tonight was a night that required a drink. She poured herself a shot, slinging it back with gusto.

Now. To find out what was inside that fucking box.

As she sat on the edge of Joan’s bed, cradling the stuffed rabbit and holding the box, she paused to wonder if this was a good idea. She wanted to know what was in there, of course, but she couldn’t get past the fact that Joan had mentioned it. Had she done so because she was ashamed of whatever was in there, or was it because she wanted Vera to look inside? Was this Vera’s Pandora moment? What fresh hell might she unleash by pulling off the lid?

She stared down at the rabbit. No. The box had been placed with two symbols of Joan’s childhood—two symbols that seemed particularly important to Joan. Whatever was in that box must be equally important.

Taking a deep breath, Vera pulled off the lid.

 

Chapter Text

The first thing she saw was a small, metal key. She didn’t think much of it, other than to put it aside, because under the key lay dozens and dozens of photographs.

The first several were of a baby, its hair dark, its cheeks round as it waved a pudgy fist or sucked on a blanket. But this baby wasn’t Joan; this baby had darker skin than hers, and these photographs were in glossy colour. They had been taken within the last twenty years or so.

Vera’s breath hitched. It couldn’t be…

She flipped hurriedly through the images. Now the baby was a toddler, taking his first steps. Here he had some kind of food smeared all over his face. This one showed him on his first day of school, carrying a book bag, looking tiny and somewhat forlorn. A later one—obviously a school photo—showed a little boy with curly, black hair and a wide grin that proudly displayed two missing front teeth.

Vera felt like her heart was about to beat its way out of her body.

Shuffling through the photos, she watched as the boy grew older. He celebrated birthdays. He posed with friends. Here he was at the beach. Here he played a half-sized violin.

There were photos of accomplishments: bright red ribbons, certificates, even a picture of the boy holding aloft a small trophy, pride evident in his face.

She could tell at once when he hit adolescence. His face elongated, pimples sprouted here and there, and his once wide, toothy, joyful smile settled into something that resembled more of a grin. There were fewer of these photos.

Vera paused when she reached the last one. In it, the boy looked to be about fifteen. He still gazed at the camera, but the smiles of his childhood had disappeared.

Was this what he looked like now? Or had something happened to him?

She was certain that he was Jianna’s son, and the fact that Joan kept these photos beside her childhood rabbit and picture of her mother made Vera’s heart ache. This wasn’t Joan Ferguson the monster. This was an entirely different Joan, a Joan that seemed at odds with the ex-Governor of Wentworth.

Staring at the photos, she realized the obvious: she should have known that Joan would never give up that child. Not really. Yes, he had been taken away, and yes, he had lost his mother, but that didn’t mean that he had lost Joan. He was Jianna’s son, and Joan had loved Jianna—awkwardly, obsessively, perhaps—but it was love, nonetheless.

Even Vera could see that.

It made her wonder: did Joan love the boy, too? Did she know him? Did they meet? Had she given him birthday or Christmas presents as he grew up? Did he call her by her first name?

It was possible that there was a whole other life in Joan that Vera had never known about. To know that that life wasn’t about grasping for power, or hurting people…

Once again, Vera started to feel overwrought. She slipped to the floor, grasping the rabbit in one hand and the box of photographs in the other. She could feel silent tears running down her face, but she didn’t know if she was happy, or sad, or angry, or all three. She had just flipped through a life in photos—a whole life—that Joan had obviously carefully collected and concealed. She held in her hands evidence of Joan’s love; evidence that Joan was capable of love, that her love was intense, and that, perhaps most pathetically and most honorably, that she was unyieldingly faithful in that love.

A thought that Vera had tried to suppress suddenly rose up and overwhelmed her.

What was it like to be the recipient of love like that?

What was it like to be loved by Joan?

***

Sniffling, she got up from the floor, intending to put the rabbit and the box back into the drawer. Her movement was halted when she spotted the key.

It was a small one, plain, made of metal. It looked like the kind of key that would fit into a desk, or a cabinet, or a—

A file cabinet.

Vera left the rabbit and box and dashed back to the study. She had been so astounded by the shelves full of books that she had never really investigated the other furniture. Sure enough, lined up neatly against the far wall stood three wooden file cabinets.

The adrenaline surging through her was making her hands shake. Would the key fit? Was she about to learn more about the mystery of Jianna and Joan?

She carefully placed the key into the first lock, but it refused to turn.

The next lock wouldn’t accept the key at all.

Vera practically slammed the key into the final lock. Holding her breath, she attempted to unlock it.

The key turned. She heard a click.

She breathed out, pulling open the drawer…

And froze. Glancing through the contents of the cabinet, Vera suddenly realized that Joan’s love for Jianna was more complicated than she had understood.

Much, much more complicated.

And she had been utterly wrong about Joan.

Chapter Text

The cabinet was filled with folders. Dozens of folders, each neatly labeled. The first held a photocopy of a birth certificate for a David Riley, born 26/06/2000. Jianna’s birthdate was also listed, and Vera did a quick calculation to note that she had been about twenty-four when the baby was born.

Vera paused. If the baby had been roughly a year old when he was taken away, and if Jianna had died soon after, then she would only have been about twenty-five when she was murdered.

Twenty-five. So young.

She looked again at David’s birthdate. She didn’t know how old Joan was currently, but she would guess that she would have been in her late thirties or early forties when Jianna died.

That thought startled Vera. Joan would have been around her own age—perhaps a touch younger, but not by much—when the full tragedy happened. Was Vera what Joan had been like, back then? Before fifteen years of vengeance had twisted her into her current self?

She shut down her mental math. These comparisons were getting her nowhere. And it was dangerous to compare herself to Joan.

Glancing again at the birth certificate, she noticed that a line had been drawn through the father’s name, with a “No” written beside it.

“No?” What did that mean? That the father was a deadbeat dad? That he was dead?

There were still too many questions, and not enough answers.

She moved on to the next folder. Flipping it open, she found years of copies of report cards. Young David seemed to have been a smart little boy, well-liked and curious. His marks were in the higher ranges until he was fourteen, when they suddenly plummeted. Vera looked closer and noticed an increase in school absences. What had happened? Why the sudden shift?

She started to look more quickly through the folders. One held a chart, filled with names, dates, and monetary amounts. The number of names and amounts listed increased substantially from 2013-2015. She also recognized one name that had been paid at least twice a year since 2001: Nils Jesper.

She was confused. Wasn’t he Joan’s hitman? What did he have to do with Jianna’s son?

The situation started to become clear when Vera found photocopies of arrest reports and court cases. They all focused on drugs. It looked as though young David had gotten himself onto a bad path, and yet the court cases never found him guilty. The closest call was when he was found with a marketable quantity of heroin, and was forced to do community service and a six-month stint in a centre for young offenders—some place called Rookwood.

That name stuck out in Vera’s mind, but she couldn’t figure out why.

She pulled out the next folder, opened it, then dropped it as if it scalded her. She kneeled on the floor, staring at the contents. The papers were weekly accounts of David’s mental state while he was housed in Rookwood, and every single one was signed by the same psychologist.

Dr. Tom Roberts.

The psychologist whom Vera had hired to examine Joan.

The psychologist whom Joan had so effectively manipulated, claiming that he had had inappropriate relations with the institutionalized minors under his care.

Had Joan already known him? Had she recognized him?

Oh God, Vera thought, thinking of the little boy with the joyfully wide, missing-tooth smile. Please let that be a coincidence. Please don’t let David be involved in… in that.

And if he was… please don’t let Joan know about it.

She felt another tear fall from her eyes as she shuffled the papers back together. She told herself that she was being silly—she worked every day with women whose stories of childhood abuse and neglect were just as bad as David’s, if not worse—and yet she felt strangely protective over the little boy she had never met. The boy who was all that Joan had left of her beloved Jianna.

Returning the file to the drawer, she noticed that all but one of the remaining folders were labeled with what seemed to be crossed-out names. Some were of people, others seemed strange, like “Tigers” or “Family Ferrante.” When she saw the word “cartel,” she realized that some of these folders must be about gangs. Opening them, she found that each one was filled with photos of locations and people she didn’t recognize.

Vera had no idea what to make of those files. Joan’s intense demonization of drugs—not to mention David’s obvious trouble with them—did not make her a likely candidate to be somehow tied up with drug dealers or cartels. That just didn’t fit. And the names of each dealer or cartel were crossed out on the folders. What did that mean?

At last, Vera turned to the final folder, hoping that it would contain some answers. She took it over to Joan’s desk. Tucking her legs underneath her, she sat at the desk, consciously breathing slowly. The amount of information that she had just revealed about David was overwhelming. She had to keep focused to make the connections between all of these files. She had to find the answers.

There was a single sheet of paper in this final folder. It was a list. Running her eyes over the words, Vera realized that it was a list of all of the names that she had just read on the previous group of folders. As on the folders, each of these names had been crossed out.

At the bottom was a single statement, written in block capitals, and circled multiple times in dark black ink.

Vera’s breath caught as she felt her heart drop.

The statement was simple: “WHERE IS HE?”

Chapter Text

Vera ran her finger around the “WHERE IS HE,” tracing the many circles of ink that surrounded it. She felt weary after going through all of the files, but also stubbornly resolute. The information she needed was here, surrounding her. She could feel it. She just needed to figure out how it all worked together.

She opened Joan’s desk drawer and found a fresh, unused pad of paper. Reaching for a pen, she wrote “Questions” across the top of the page.

Right. She had done well in school. She was a good student. She would be methodical. She would figure this out.

So… question one: who is ‘HE?’

Vera placed the end of the pen in her mouth. She was fairly certain that ‘HE’ must be Jianna’s son, but it could be anyone—David’s father, some drug dealer, someone not even listed in any of the files.

Frustrated, she wrote “David” under the question, then added “Other.”

Not much help there.

Staring again at the file in front of her, she wrote the next obvious questions: “what does the list mean?” and “why are all of the names crossed out?”

The list was somehow connected to drug activity—she had already figured that out. And each name had a file of its own, with photos of people and locations. Was Joan Ferguson single-handedly taking down a network of major drug dealers? She did hate drugs, although Vera had always suspected that that hate was aimed more at her disgust with people who refused to “control themselves” than at actual drugs. Joan didn’t seem to understand addiction overly well.

Unless she understood it too well?

No, she was moving off topic. Think, Vera, think. Why would someone make a list of names, then cross them all off? If it wasn’t a list of people that Joan had somehow killed or taken down, then…

She stared again at the “WHERE IS HE?”

Oh! Could it be…? She rushed back to the file cabinet, pulling out all of the files. Dumping them on the desk, she separated them into two piles: those of the drug dealers, and those that were related specifically to David.

One file remained: the chart of names, dates, and monetary amounts. She flipped open the first drug dealer folder, labeled “Tigers.” Rummaging through its contents, she noted that each photo was carefully dated, and spanned a week. She turned back to the list of monetary amounts. The date of the final photo corresponded to a date on the money list, when Joan had ostensibly paid Nils Jesper.

Vera closed the “Tigers” folder and opened “Family Ferrante.” It, too, contained approximately a week’s worth of photographs. Again, the final date matched a payment to Nils Jesper.

Vera would bet that every other drug file contained photos whose final dates matched a payment to Nils Jesper. And since she hadn’t heard reports of a one-man killing spree of all the drug dealers in this area of Australia, Vera was fairly certain that she understood what this list of names meant.

It was a search list.

Jianna’s son was missing, and Joan had been methodically, relentlessly searching for him amongst the worst drug cartels in the country.

And she hadn’t found him.

***

Vera continued to stare at the list of payments. Many were to Jesper, but not all. Thoughtfully, she pushed aside the drug files and opened the folder of arrest reports. Sure enough: the names and dates on the arrest reports matched the names and dates on the money list.

Joan had paid Jesper to search for David. She had also paid numerous police officers, judges, officials, etc. to maintain David’s “innocence.” She guessed that the only instance in which Joan had failed had been David’s sentencing to Rookwood.

To Dr. Roberts.

But again, Vera didn’t know the extent of the doctor’s involvement with David—or, for that matter, Joan’s knowledge of the psychologist. Roberts may simply have been David’s doctor, and Joan may never have seen him, much less met him. Their interaction within Wentworth suggested that he, at least, hadn’t known Joan from his Rookwood time. No, Dr. Roberts only knew Joan from the research he had performed for his new job. But Joan’s knowledge of Roberts’s scandal… did that stem solely from her observations of him? Or did she possess background information from David’s incarceration at Rookwood?

Vera leaned back in Joan’s chair. There were still so many questions.

And then there was the money. Staring at the list, Vera noted that the amount of money that Joan had doled out in the last two years was staggering. Joan’s position meant that she was relatively well paid, but still… Unless Joan was somehow independently wealthy, Vera suspected that the majority of her salary must have gone into these payments—and then some.

Vera rose, feeling somewhat in a daze. She left her short list of questions on the desk, but carefully put back all of the files, locking the file cabinet.

Why did Joan do it? Was it only because of Jianna? Or was it for David himself?

Was it possible that Joan loved David as, as… as her own son?

The thought was startling. It made Vera wonder just how much Joan was willing to do to protect David—how far she might be willing to go to find him again.

She found herself trudging back to Joan’s bedroom. The rabbit and box lay where she had abandoned them on Joan’s bed. She stared at the first photo of a chubby, happy baby David.

Things had gone so wrong for him. Had he ever really had a chance, even with Joan watching out for him?

She dropped the key into the box before placing it back in its home within the bedside table. Glancing at the clock, she saw that it was now well past two in the morning.

Vera stared at Joan’s bed. Before she could change her mind, before she could fixate on what she was doing, she pulled off and dropped her clothing on the floor. Naked, Vera climbed into Joan’s big bed.

She reached over and shut off the light. Rolling over, her hand bumped an object: the rabbit. She clutched it to herself.

Her last thought, as she drifted off to sleep within the darkness of Joan’s bed, was to realize that she was lying exactly where Joan would have lain, had she been there with Vera.

Chapter Text

Vera awoke early, the morning sun falling across the crisp white duvet that covered her. She was tired—far too tired to be up this early, having gone to bed so late—and yet, as she lay cocooned in Joan’s bed, she felt a strange peacefulness. She finally had some answers. They may not be correct, but they were… something. This last month with Wentworth—with Joan— had been so full of emotional highs and lows (and more lows) that Vera had almost forgotten what it was like to simply exist, to let go of all the fear and confusion, to… release.

She smiled gently, watching the pattern of the sun fall across Joan’s bed, lighting the bright room. It was a surprisingly lovely space. It made her feel welcome and warm, like something new. Something good.

She stretched languidly under the covers, settling herself contentedly against Joan’s pillow. She imagined, briefly, that she could smell Joan’s scent.

Release, she thought again. Breathing out, she allowed her hand to slide down her body, slipping over her soft skin, to the apex of her thighs.

Release.

***

Vera showered in Joan’s bathroom, taking time to poke among the soaps and shampoos. Beside the obvious antibacterial theme, there was a surprising luxuriousness to the products that Joan used, even to the bathroom itself. Drying her body with a remarkably fluffy towel, Vera curled her toes in the thick bath mat. Everything in Joan’s inner sanctum was soft, bright, clean, and calm. The cleanliness was a given, of course, but Vera would have expected Joan’s most personal space to feel cold and sterile. This was not the bathroom of the Joan she thought she knew.

This little insight troubled her.

Who, exactly, was the real Joan Ferguson?

***

Miller was just exiting the protection cell as Vera approached.

“Miller,” Vera nodded, smiling warmly.

Melanie blushed, her skin once again suffusing with redness. “Governor,” she acknowledged, bobbing her head and producing a small smile before scurrying away.

Vera turned, following her progress. What was that about?

She shook her head, deciding to forget about Miller’s bizarre behaviour for now, and turned to the protection unit.

She abruptly halted.

Joan.

She was sitting at the table. The typewriter sat in front of her. Beside it lay a perfectly-formed stack of envelopes, obviously ready to be posted.

She looked up, and Vera was confronted with the memory of their last encounter, when Joan had… had…

Well, when Joan had bitten her.

Vera mentally snorted. That hadn’t just been a bite. That had been…

No. Her mind scuttled away from the thought.

She felt the heat of a blush rise into her face. God, she thought. I’m as bad as Miller. Vera squared her shoulders, lifted her head, and opened the gate.

***

“David,” she stated, standing in front of the table, looking down at Ferguson.

Joan looked at her levelly.

“You don’t seem surprised,” Vera added.

“That you looked inside the box?” Joan snorted. “Hardly. I believe your little perusal of Mr. Fletcher’s journal established that you’re unable to respect boundaries.”

Vera narrowed her eyes, but refused to take the bait.

“You paid to keep him from being arrested.”

“Yes,” Joan affirmed simply.

“Which in and of itself is a felony,” Vera added.

Joan continued to stare at her.

Vera pulled out the chair across from Joan, sitting down. She picked up one of the envelopes and flipped it over. “He’s missing,” she said quietly, examining the envelope.

“Yes,” came the whispered reply.

Vera raised her head. They stared at each other for a long moment.

“I will help you,” she said, finally.

“Good,” Joan replied.

***

Vera held up the envelope. “This,” she said, gesturing to the letters and the typewriter, “this has all been about him, hasn’t it? It’s always been about him.”

“He is… very important to me,” Joan responded, slowly.

“Why didn’t you just tell me? Why did you go through all of this scheming?

“You think you hate me,” Joan stated simply.

Vera nodded. “I do. I do hate you. I’m not doing this for you.” She added the envelope back to the stack. “Just so that we’re clear. You’re a monster. I wouldn’t do anything for you. I’m doing this for him.”

Joan nodded. “I understand.”

“Yes, well,” Vera repeated, running her finger in a slow circle over the smooth tabletop. “So we’re clear.”

Joan sighed, straightening the stack of envelopes.

Vera’s radio crackled.

They both looked away from each other, staring out the window.

Vera suddenly leaned forward. “That first night—your first night in here. When you mentioned Jianna’s baby—you were talking about David, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” came the curt reply.

Vera dropped her eyes to the tabletop, watching as her finger continued to trace circles. “I yelled at you. I thought you were confused again. I thought you were asking about Doreen’s baby.”

Joan’s hand moved across the table, covering Vera’s, stopping her circles. Her thumb slowly stroked the back of Vera’s hand.

“I know,” Joan replied.

Vera looked up, into Joan’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Joan gazed back at her, expressionless.

Chapter Text

“I’d like you to post these letters,” Joan said, still stroking Vera’s hand, still gazing at her with an unreadable expression.

Vera looked at the stack of letters, then at the thumb that was stroking her hand.

She sighed.

“Everything is always part of some kind of mission, isn’t it, Joan?”

Ferguson’s thumb stilled.

“You need my help,” Vera continued, “so you do… this,” she gestured vaguely toward their hands, “whatever… this… is. And I follow along. I allow it. I even apologize to you.”

Vera stood, backing away from the table, turning toward Joan’s cell.

“Why do I do this?” she asked the room, expecting no answer. Indeed, there was none. Joan remained silent.

She turned back to Ferguson. “You know, don’t you? I mean, you really know, somehow. You’re the most socially inept person I’ve ever met, and yet you can see into people. You can see into me.”

She crossed the room again, stopping directly beside Joan, leaning over her. “I hate you,” she whispered.

“I believe we’ve established that,” Joan replied coolly, seemingly unperturbed. She rose slowly, her body climbing in height against Vera’s. Her full stature allowed her to tower over Vera. “Now let me be clear: I don’t care if you hate me, or if you suddenly decide that you desperately love me. I care that you do what you promised to do.”

They glared at each other.

“Fine,” Vera spat. “But I want you to know that—”

She was interrupted by the sudden wailing of the alarm. “Code blue, code blue” came Linda Miles’s voice through the speaker. “Lockdown in progress. Prisoners are to remain in their units.”

Vera grabbed her radio, sparing a quick look at Ferguson. Joan gazed back smugly, raising one eyebrow.

“Sierra Two to Sierra Three. Report.”

“There’s been another shivving, Governor. It’s Maxine Conway. The ambulance is en route.”

“I’m on my way,” Vera said, turning to leave.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Joan’s voice called from behind her.

“What?” Vera turned back. Joan was holding the stack of letters.

“Oh, for the love of—” Vera muttered, snatching the envelopes.

“Oh, and Vera? That would be, what… three code blues in the last ten days? Do you have any control over these prisoners?”

“Shut up, Joan,” Vera called over her shoulder, slamming the gate to the protection unit behind her.

***

Joan’s house had somehow become an addiction—a dangerous addiction.

After a long day, Vera once again found herself on Joan’s doorstep, letting herself into the house. She dropped her bag on the floor, placed the keys in the little dish, and hung her coat on the door. Kicking off her shoes, she stared for a moment at Joan’s slippers.

No. The thought of pushing her foot into Joan’s slippers still felt wrong, somehow. And yet sleeping in her bed feels just fine, Vera pondered, rolling her eyes at herself.

She started toward the kitchen, but halted, turning back to retrieve Joan’s letters from her bag.

As she walked toward a much-awaited glass of wine, she poked through the letters, noting names and addresses. Most she didn’t recognize.

Her hand halted on a letter addressed to Dr. Tom Roberts.

Plucking it from the pile, she placed the letter on the counter, staring at it. She reached for a glass, retrieving a bottle of wine she had found. She stared at the letter again. She poured the wine. She flipped the letter over. She took a long sip of the wine. She flipped the letter back again.

Finally, she filled the kettle with water.

As she waited for the water to boil, Vera contemplated what might be hidden within the envelope. Was it evidence that Joan did, indeed, know Dr. Roberts? Why would she write to him about David? Did she think that the psychologist would know where David was now?

Steam rose from the kettle. Vera refused to think about the ethics of what she was about to do. There were no ethics when it came to monsters, and the fact remained that Joan Ferguson was a monster.

She was.

Even if Vera constantly had to remind herself of that fact.

She slowly moved the envelope back and forth over the steam. Finally shutting off the kettle, Vera carefully, carefully unsealed the envelope.

Pulling out and unfolding the paper, she found a single sentence, written—not typed—in Joan’s perfect handwriting.

She stared at the words.

She could hear Joan’s voice uttering them.

“When will you stop being such a disappointment, Vera?”

Chapter Text

The next morning, Vera made a detour to post Joan’s letters—all of the letters, that is, except one. That one remained crumpled in a ball in the middle of Joan’s kitchen, where Vera had thrown and then abandoned it.

She had considered steaming them all open. It would serve Joan right, for Vera to open all of the letters—or, even better, to simply refuse to post them. But this morning, after she awoke in Joan’s bed with a headache left over from crying most the night, Vera realized that she needed to play Joan’s game. She would post the letters this time. She would get Joan to trust her. And then, when Joan stopped being so careful…

Then Vera would strike.

Or at least steam open more letters.

Besides, there was David to consider. Something made Vera genuinely want to help him. He was the product of a tragedy that should never have surrounded him.

Placing her fingers over the place where Gambaro had held the syringe to her throat, Vera realized that she could sympathize. Horrible, terrible things happened to innocent people all the time. That baby should never have had to suffer because of what his mother and Joan had done.

Arriving at her office, Vera made a decision. She picked up the telephone, dialing the switchboard of Walford Prison.

“Yes, hello,” she replied to the rough greeting. “This is Governor Bennett of Wentworth. Please put me through to the Governor. Immediately.”

***

Vera spent most of the afternoon processing the never-ending paperwork continually being generated by the slow increase of fights and overdoses. Even though she was focusing the majority of her time and energy on Wentworth, every day seemed to bring some new emergency.

Bea Smith and Kaz Proctor were at it again, and they were bringing the entire prison with them. Fights were popping up in unexpected places. Weapons were emerging seemingly out of nowhere. There had always been gangs and cliques and alliances, but Vera had never seen such an obvious divide within the inmates. It appeared as though half the prison population supported Bea Smith as top dog, and the other half was determined to usurp that title, replacing Smith with Proctor.

God, she actually missed Franky Doyle.

Vera dropped her pen on the desk. She absently re-aligned her scattered pencil soldiers.

Truthfully, she was procrastinating. She had to do this work, of course—and it was becoming overwhelming—but her focus wasn’t really on it.

No. Her focus was on the crumpled letter informing her that she was still a disappointment.

As if she had always been a disappointment. As if there had never been a time when she wasn’t a disappointment.

Vera rubbed her eyes.

In a way, that was true, wasn’t it?

She had always been a disappointment to her mother. She had never brought home the right friends. She had never been the daughter her mother wanted.

She had always been a disappointment with boys. There had, actually, been a few potential boys who liked her, but she had never even gotten to a kiss.

She had been a disappointment to Fletch. She had been… inadequate, that first time. She still didn’t think that it was her fault—and, indeed, she was aware enough to recognize that he had essentially assaulted her—but under her anger, she still felt like she had been a disappointment.

And she had failed as governor, that first time around. She had been replaced by Erica, for God’s sake.

And then… Joan. Joan had told her outright that she was a disappointment. Multiple times, if you counted being sent home, that moment in her office, and now this letter.

The fact that she was a disappointment to Joan somehow hurt more than all of the other moments combined, even if Joan was a murderer, even if Vera shouldn’t care what Joan thought of her.

Vera groaned aloud. If only she could be someone who accepted herself, faults and all. Someone like… like… Miller.

Miller, who knew her limitations, who so often surprised Vera with her insights. Miller, who was dull, but reliable, honest.

Miller, who told Vera that she was a good person.

Vera smiled.

Life would be simpler if she could be like Miller.

She swiveled in her chair, hopping down from her too-high perch.

She wasn’t Melanie, and she wasn’t a simple person. There was nothing else she could do; she would have to confront Joan about the letter. Yes, it would mean giving Joan the satisfaction of knowing that she had been right about Vera; that Vera had, indeed, steamed open a letter not addressed to her.

But she was inhabiting Joan’s mind, now. She would openly acknowledge her wrongs, and in doing so would gain Joan’s trust. She knew the plan would work. After all, Joan had implemented it against Vera often enough.

And then, when Joan’s trust in Vera was completely restored… then she would attack.

She had learned from the best.

***

Vera arrived at the gate to the protection unit to find it slightly ajar. She frowned. She’d have to speak to Miller—the gate should never be left open.

Excepting the one time that she, herself, had left it open… but there had been extenuating circumstances. Plus Melanie had arrived soon after to lock it.

Vera slipped through the gate, looking around. Joan was nowhere to be seen, but the door to her cell was mostly closed. Maybe she was sleeping?

As she approached Joan’s cell, she realized that she could hear noises. They sounded like… panting?

Vera flushed. Was Joan… could Joan…

Vera felt hot all over. Was she listening to Joan masturbate?

She stopped, staring at the door. She shouldn’t look. If Joan was doing… that, then it was a very personal moment, and Vera shouldn’t look. She really shouldn’t.

Her own breathing was coming quickly.

She wanted to look. She was longing to look.

The idea of Joan Ferguson losing control, of watching her caress herself, finger herself…

Vera felt a hot jolt fire through her.

Gulping in air, she tiptoed to the door’s window, peeking inside.

***

Joan was inside her cell, all right, but she wasn’t panting.

Miller was panting.

As Vera watched, horrified, Joan sat on her bed, leaning against the wall. Melanie was sitting with her back pressed against Joan’s chest, positioned snugly between Joan’s legs, Joan's arms enveloping her.

Joan was entirely dressed, but Melanie…

Her shirt lay strewn on the floor across the room, her forgotten bra thrown atop it. Her trousers appeared to be missing entirely.

Vera watched, transfixed, as Joan licked Melanie’s neck, gently biting on her earlobe. She could suddenly remember the feeling of Joan’s hot breath on her own neck, of Joan biting her.

Vera continued to gaze as Joan’s left hand massaged and cupped Melanie’s breast, eventually playing with her nipples. A loud gasp suddenly erupted from Melanie’s throat, startling Vera with its intensity.

Her gaze fell lower, to where Joan’s right hand was moving between Melanie’s naked legs. She was spread open for all the world to see, and Vera felt yet another jolt as she watched Joan pump her fingers in and out of Melanie, pausing to focus on rubbing her clitoris.

Miller was moaning now, bucking her pelvis into Joan’s hand. Finally, just as Melanie came with a guttural “uh, uh, UHHHHHH,” her body shaking as Joan’s fingers continued to pump in and out, Vera looked back up to Joan’s face.

Only to find Joan staring back at her, one eyebrow raised, smirking.

Chapter Text

Vera staggered back from the door. She could still see into the cell, could still see Joan’s eyes watching her, following her, the smirk still visible on Joan’s face.

It was too much. All of Vera’s feelings toward Joan, all of her hatred and desire and pity and anger and envy surged up at once, shaking her tiny frame, overwhelming her. She ran to the other cell, clutching the sides of the toilet as she fell onto the floor, knees hitting the concrete, vomiting what she could no longer hold inside of her.

It was not enough, this physical purging. It was not enough.

She wrapped her arm over the toilet and leaned against it, closing her eyes. She knew she had to get out of there—who knew when Miller would walk out—but she couldn’t move. All she could think was that if she just stayed in this one place… if she were very, very quiet, if she didn’t move, if she didn’t think or breathe or even exist, then she could handle it.

‘Quiet as a mouse,’ her mother used to call it. She’d drag Vera to the stairwell, screaming at her as child Vera ran up the steps as fast as her short legs could carry her. Her mother would shriek that Vera had “better be quiet as a mouse, or you’ll get it, and good!”

She just needed to be still. Quiet. Cease to exist, for just a little while.

Not be.

Not feel.

But then there was a quiet knock, followed by a timid, “Governor?”

Vera opened her eyes to see Miller, dressed, looking at her in concern. Melanie reached toward her.

The bile threatened to overwhelm her again.

“Get out,” she whispered.

Miller pulled back, wavering in the doorway. “But…” she uttered, her face a mask of misery, “Vera…”

“Get out,” Vera repeated when Melanie didn’t move. “Get out! GET OUT!” she screamed, launching her small body at Miller, shoving her backward out of the cell, slamming the door.

She heard Miller fall, but she didn’t care.

She turned back to her toilet, resting her head on her arm, closing her eyes.

Eventually she heard the unit gate open, then close. She heard the click of the lock.

She kept her eyes closed. She stayed silent.

She ceased to exist.

***

It was dark when Vera opened her eyes again. Her arms ached from clutching the toilet. She sat back, rubbing them.

“I didn’t get dinner, you know.”

“What?” Confused, Vera whipped her head around. In the darkness, she could barely make out Joan sitting on the bed.

“I didn’t get dinner,” Joan repeated. “Because of you. Melanie didn’t bring me dinner.”

There was an astounded pause, then: “This is what you say to me?” Vera yelled, shrilly. “This? I catch you doing… that… to Miller, and this is what you say? That you didn’t get your fucking dinner?”

“I’m simply keeping my end of our deal. I promised you that I would eat.”

“I can’t… I can’t…” Vera threw herself at the bed. She punched it, screaming. She punched again, and again.

Ferguson sat calmly at the other end.

Eventually Vera’s punches slowed. Her shoulders shook. She cried, hot, fat, ugly tears spilling down her cheeks, dropping from her nose.

Joan reached over and pulled her to her, her right arm enveloping Vera, pressing her against her side, Vera’s face resting in the hollow between Joan’s shoulder and collarbone.

Vera struggled briefly, but Joan held her tightly.

She rocked her.

“I hate you,” Vera whispered into Joan’s skin.

“Yes.”

“I want to hit you. I want to strangle you. I want to hurt you. I want you to suffer.”

“Yes,” Joan repeated.

“How could you do that to me?”

There was a pause. “I have my reasons.”

Vera sat up. She stared into Joan’s impassive face. She watched Joan's eyes gaze back at her. Raising her right hand, she struck Joan’s cheek, slapping her as hard as she could.

Joan’s expression remained impassive as the red outline of Vera’s hand became visible on her skin.

“Can you feel that?” Vera asked.

She slapped Joan again, this time across the other cheek. Joan remained silent.

“Can you feel that?” Vera asked again, her voice rising, becoming shrill. She slapped Joan again. Then again. And again. “Do you hurt yet?” Vera screamed, her entire body shaking as she pummeled Joan, slapping her wherever her hand could land on Joan’s body.

“Enough,” Joan stated finally, grabbing Vera’s arms and forcefully pulling them into her, causing Vera to stumble against Joan’s chest, falling to Joan’s side. Joan continued to hold Vera’s arms tightly.

“Yes, you hate me,” Joan stated, shaking Vera to emphasize her point. “Yes, you want to hurt me. But why, Vera? It’s not because you think I’m a monster. Ask yourself why you’re so angry after you saw me with Melanie.”

Joan released Vera’s arms, pushing Vera away from her. Vera fell against the bed.

“Think about that,” Joan emphasized, rising, leaving the cell. “Think about that,” she repeated as she closed the cell door behind her.

Vera curled into the mattress and sobbed.

Chapter Text

It was still dark when she awoke. She lay quiet on the mattress, listening to her breathing. It was even, steady. She turned her head, listening for sounds of Joan in the next cell. She heard nothing.

She sat up, putting her feet on the floor. Her feet hurt, and she realized that she hadn’t kicked off her shoes when she had lain down.

Her fingers could feel the crusty remnants of tears on her cheeks.

She didn’t try to scrub her face or adjust her uniform. These things were not important. None of it was important.

Vera reached down and slipped off her shoes. Her feet felt free, now.

She opened the door to the cell, quietly placing the shoes outside. She looked over at Joan’s cell. The door was closed.

Slowly, silently, she opened it.

Vera stood in the doorway, watching Joan sleep. Ferguson was illuminated by the floodlights surrounding Wentworth. They cast an anemic glow over her pale skin.

Vera had no idea how long she stood there, watching Joan. It didn’t matter. Joan’s little “lesson” was starting to sink in. Vera had been betrayed—again—but she was also coming to realize why she wanted to wound Joan so badly. Why she wanted to make Joan hurt as much as she hurt.

And she hated herself for it.

She turned, closing the cell door silently behind her. She picked up her shoes. She left Joan.

***

No one said anything as Vera left Wentworth, although the guard on duty did glance surreptitiously at the clock as she signed out.

Five in the morning.

The sun would be coming up soon. It was a new day.

Vera didn’t notice.

She drove home—to her home, not to Joan’s. She dropped her bag in the entryway. She pulled off her clothing as she walked across her bedroom, throwing it on the floor. She climbed into her own bed, in her little floral room with the pretty vanity. She slept.

She did not dream.

***

The Minnie Mouse hands of her childhood clock informed Vera that it was ten in the morning. Sunshine fell across her bedding. She briefly remembered waking up to similar sunshine in Joan’s bed. She had felt welcome and warm, like something new. Something good.

She didn’t feel that way any more.

She wondered, vaguely, if anyone at Wentworth noticed that she hadn’t reported for work. Would they say anything?

Did they care?

Did she care?

She rolled back over, pushing her face deeper into her pillow, closing her eyes.

None of it was important.

***

She awoke again to a persistent ringing. Telephone. It was the telephone.

It seemed to be ringing a lot, she thought idly.

She rolled over again, covering her ear with a pillow.

***

By one, her bladder was straining. She reluctantly rose from her bed, padding out to the hall bathroom. It was nothing like Joan’s luxurious retreat. No, the entire bathroom—from the “dusty rose” flowers to the chipped sink—screamed of Vera’s mother.

She hated it.

She left as soon as she was finished.

***

Around three, she heard someone knock on her door. She ignored it.

After a pause, the knocking persisted.

“Go away,” she mumbled into her pillow.

There was a pause again, and then the knocking turned to pounding.

“Fuck off!” Vera yelled, but the pounding continued.

Swearing, she hauled herself from the bed, pulling on worn old sweatpants and a sweatshirt. She dragged herself down the stairs and the hallway, finally wrenching open the front door.

And came face to face with Miller.

Chapter Text

Miller’s face became all eyes, wide and terrified. Her hand was still raised to pound on the door. It hung in the air, as if unsure what to do.

“Why are you here?” Vera demanded. She felt a sudden panic. “Has something happened to Joan?”

“What?” Melanie’s eyes widened impossibly further. “No. Not that I know of.”

Vera stilled, gripping the door. “Then why are you here?” she asked again.

Miller dropped her hand. She looked at the door frame, at the ground—seemingly everywhere but Vera. She seemed incapable of answering.

Vera found that she had no patience, and that she didn’t care. She looked at Melanie closely. Miller fidgeted. Vera nodded, then slammed the door in Melanie’s face.

“Fuck off,” she whispered to the door.

She turned and laboriously climbed the stairs, back up to her room. Back up to her bed.

She didn’t need to deal with this shit.

***

Vera was startled by a low voice.

“Governor,” it said quietly. Then “Governor!” more loudly.

She rolled over. Miller was standing above her.

“Now you’re breaking and entering?” Vera asked, tiredly. “What are you doing in my house, Miller? What does it take to get you to leave me the fuck alone? I don’t want to deal with you!”

Melanie looked her over. “This isn’t you,” she announced decidedly. “You care about things. You care about the women. You don’t not show up for work.” She sighed. “This is about me. This is my fault.”

Vera looked her in the eyes. “Yes it is,” she said slowly. “It is your fault." She felt her anger build, a rage forming in her chest. "It’s your fault for fucking a prisoner. It’s your fault for fucking Joan Ferguson!”

Miller suddenly went very, very still. “So it is her,” she whispered. “I wondered…”

Vera sat up, grabbing and wrenching Melanie’s arm. “You fucked her, and you didn’t even know who she truly was?” She shook Miller. “Well, it was just a gold star day yesterday, wasn’t it? You fucked a convicted murderer!” she heard herself scream. “You fucked someone who has killed, who has tortured, who is completely morally bankrupt! ARE YOU PROUD OF YOURSELF?”

“No,” Melanie whispered, falling to the floor, twisting her arm away from Vera. “That’s what I came to tell you. I—”

“I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT,” Vera roared, louder than she had ever been in her life. She clamped her hands over her ears.

“Please,” Miller begged, imploringly, reaching toward Vera. “Please, Vera…”

“You will not call me by my first name!” Vera yelled, swatting Miller’s hands away. “You have lost that right. I am Governor. I am Miss Bennett. And you are nothing to me but a pathetic employee.” She smiled, watching as tears started coursing down Miller’s cheeks. “You’re nothing to me,” she went on, her smile widening. “You’re no one. You’re weak. You’re a loser.”

Miller was crying harder, curling herself into a ball on the floor at the edge of the bed.

Vera reached out, smoothing Melanie’s hair, running her fingers through the strands. “And,” she added, almost as an afterthought, “you’re a rapist.”

“What?” Melanie whispered, head flying up. She stared at Vera. “What—”

“Why can’t guards have consensual relationships with prisoners?” Vera asked, still smoothing Miller’s thin locks, caressing the side of her face. “Why, Melanie? You know the reason. I know that you know.”

Miller shook her head, looking down.

Vera reached out, using both of her hands to grasp Melanie’s face. She tilted it back, forcing Miller to look at her. “Why, Melanie. Why?”

Miller sniffled pathetically, tears continuing to stream down her face. “Because they can’t give consent,” she whispered. “Prisoners can’t give consent.”

Vera pushed Miller’s head away from her, hard. Melanie fell back with a gasp.

“They can’t give consent,” Vera repeated, lowering herself back into the bed. She pulled the covers up over her. “You’re the rapist of a murderer,” she stated, a disturbing chuckle gurgling up from her throat. “You were supposed to be dull, Miller—below her attention. And yet you, of all people. You fucked Joan. You.” Vera shook her head, as if amazed. “You.”

She turned on her side, staring at Miller.

“I didn’t—” Miller started to say, not moving from her position on the floor.

“Don’t be here when I wake up,” Vera informed her. “I don’t want to see you again.” She rolled over again, placing her back to Miller, shutting her out. Vera closed her eyes.

Melanie continued to lay crumpled on the floor, weeping.

Chapter Text

It was twilight when Vera woke. She turned onto her back, staring at the ceiling, remembering everything: seeing Miller with Joan; slapping Joan; slamming the door in Miller’s face; running her hands through Melanie’s hair, caressing her cheeks before calmly informing Melanie that she was a rapist.

She threw off the covers, and ran to the hallway bathroom, making it just in time to vomit the pitiful remaining contents of her stomach into the toilet bowl.

As she once again found herself leaning over a toilet, heaving finally subsiding, Vera realized that she had to face the truth.

One: she felt betrayed by Melanie.

Two: she was jealous of Melanie.

Three: she had become as much a monster as Joan.

Each thought hurt. Each thought raised new levels of anger and shame and self-hatred. And then there was the despair—that she had never been good enough for Joan, that she would never be good enough for Joan, that Joan had somehow made her into a monster, that…

Her self-loathing was interrupted by a quiet tap on the door. Startled, Vera looked up. “You’re still here?” she asked.

“I am,” Miller answered carefully.

They stared at each other, their bodies equally tense. Miller crossed her arms defensively. Finally, she broke the silence. “I made dinner,” she said.

“What?”

“I made dinner,” Miller repeated, slowly. “Food. For us to eat.”

“I know what dinner is, you idiot!” Vera growled. “I don’t know why you’re still in my house, after, after—”

“After you informed me that I was a rapist and that you didn’t want to see me again?” Melanie supplied.

Vera glared.

Miller, surprisingly, glared back.

Vera blinked. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll eat the food.”

Miller turned and marched down the stairs. Vera stared at the toilet bowl, not wanting to move. She contemplated going back to bed, pretending that Miller wasn’t downstairs in her house, that none of this had ever happened, that Miller hadn’t been the one to feel Joan’s touch, that it had been her, that—

No. NO. This… attraction, or whatever it was… This desire was sick. Vera wasn’t a lesbian. She wasn’t bisexual. There was just some weak, pathetic part of her that wanted Joan, that… but it wasn’t sexual. Or, yes, okay, it was sexual, but not in a normal way. It was something that Joan was doing. Some kind of manipulation that she was performing on Vera, making Vera want her, want to touch her, to run her fingertips across her cheeks, over her lips; to feel the smooth skin of her shoulders, her collarbone; to feel that weight of Joan’s breast—a woman’s breast, heavy but soft in her hand…

Vera screamed: a long, primal cry coming from somewhere deep, deep inside her, and erupting from her lungs, from her throat, filling the room with all of her hate and rage and desire and pain.

She lay back against the bathroom wall, exhausted, just as Melanie sprinted up the stairs.

“Vera!” Melanie rushed to her, grabbing her shoulders. “Vera,” she repeated, trying to look into Vera’s eyes. “Are you okay?”

Vera didn’t say anything. She just shook her head, no.

And Melanie; poor, dull, Melanie Miller, betrayer, employee, and—it seemed—only friend, wrapped her arms around Vera, enveloping her, and held her tight.

“I know,” Melanie whispered, rocking her. “I know.”

Downstairs, the food grew cold, forgotten.

***

“Why are you doing this?” Vera finally asked, sniffling, still cuddled into Melanie’s body. “Why are you being nice to me, after what I did to you, and what you did to me, and…”

Miller sighed. “Because you’re a good person, Vera Bennett. I told you that once before.”

Vera stilled, remembering.

“And I also told you that I think that caring for someone is a good thing, even someone you don’t like,” Miller continued. “And I don’t particularly like you right now, Governor, and I know that you hate me—or think you do—but…” Miller pulled her arms back, gently pushing Vera away so that she could look her in the eye. “But I also think that you’re not currently yourself, and that you’re confused and in terrible pain.”

Vera dropped her gaze to the floor.

“I know pain, Vera,” Melanie whispered to her. “And I know hate. And you don’t hate me. Not really.” She reached forward, grasping Vera’s cheeks. She leaned in, gently kissing Vera’s forehead.

“And you don’t hate Joan Ferguson, either.”

Chapter Text

“And you don’t hate Joan Ferguson, either.”

Vera raised her eyes, ready to deny Miller’s statement, but Melanie’s lips were once again brushing her forehead, bestowing a slow, tender pressure. Joan had once kissed her like that, Vera remembered. Joan’s lips on her forehead had felt like a benediction. It had been just before she revealed her threat to starve herself if Vera didn’t smuggle her letters.

The memory brought a sharp pain. Why was she only ever someone’s tool?

As Melanie started to move away, Vera found herself suddenly reaching up, grasping Melanie’s head. She needed… She needed to feel…

Her lips found Melanie’s. They were soft and warm and felt like acceptance. She sighed into those lips. She let her body fall further against Melanie’s, knowing that she would be supported. She realized that she could find happiness there, if only she could forget J—

Miller stiffened and gently pushed Vera away. “No,” she said, looking down. “I can feel you remembering her, thinking about her, even as you kiss me.”

“I’m not—” Vera started.

Melanie looked levelly into her eyes. “You are. You know you are. And I’m not strong enough to compete in whatever this… this sick thing is that you two have.”

Vera’s anger flared. “What, like you’re some kind of innocent bystander? I saw you, Melanie. I saw you shake and come apart as Joan plunged her fingers inside of you!” She watched as Miller’s face flushed a deep red. Melanie’s eyes dropped to the floor.

“Stop,” Miller whispered.

“You sat there naked, spread for all the world to see, while Joan wrapped herself around you and kissed you and put her hands all over your body…” Vera’s voice broke. “You! Not someone else, not, not… She chose you!”

The bathroom went silent. Melanie stood up, moving toward the door. She turned back, leaning against the doorjamb. “Do you want me to say it?” she asked, tiredly.

Vera’s head was leaning against the wall. “Say what?” she asked sullenly, her eyes closed, shutting out Miller, shutting out this horrible room in this horrible house.

“Fine,” Miller said, crossing her arms. “You’re just jealous,” she spat.

She left Vera on the bathroom floor, closing the door behind her.

***

“I’m not jealous.”

Vera stood in the threshold to the dining room. Melanie was seated at the table, plates and silverware for two arranged in front of her. She made no attempt to eat.

“Of course you’re jealous,” Melanie retorted.

“No, I—”

“Sit down at the damn table, Vera,” Miller interrupted.

“Excuse me? It’s Gov—”

“Sit your ass on this chair, Governor,” Melanie said slowly, gesturing across the table, “before I make you sit.”

Vera huffed, but sat down. She glared at Melanie, who glared back.

“Oh, this is completely ridiculous!” Miller exclaimed. “Look. I’m just going to lay it all out there.”

Vera raised one eyebrow in question.

“And don’t fucking try to look like Joan. You’re not Joan,” Miller added. She sighed. “Okay. You’re angry, because you saw me sharing a very intimate moment with Joan. And you’re jealous, because you’re in love with Joan—no, don’t interrupt,” she held up her hand, stopping Vera. “Just listen. You’re in love with Joan, only you can’t quite accept it yet.” She watched Vera. “Well?”

Vera stared back, saying nothing.

Miller sighed again. “And what you don’t know—because you don’t care—is that your love for Joan hurts me, because…” Miller faltered. “Because…”

“Because you love Joan, too,” Vera supplied wearily.

“What?” Miller asked. “No! Dammit, why are you so obtuse?” She looked down at her empty plate. When she looked back up, Vera could see that her eyes were wet. “I like you, Vera. I care for you.”

Vera shook her head, bewildered. “I don’t understand. Where is this suddenly coming from?”

“Exactly,” Melanie replied. “You think this is something new. You haven’t even noticed my feelings for you. And it hurts, because… because you don’t even care. All you care about is Joan Riley. Or Ferguson. Or whatever the fuck her name is. The murderer.”

Melanie pushed her chair back. She stood, then started pacing across the room.

“You tell me that I’m supposed to be dull—that I’m supposed to be below Joan’s attention. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel?” she asked, turning briefly to Vera. “To know that that’s obviously how you view me: dull, beneath attention. Dull, dumpy Melanie Miller.”

“I don’t…” Vera’s protest died on her tongue.

“You do,” Miller asserted. “But it doesn’t matter. None of it matters.” She drew in a long breath. “You’re in love with Joan, and she’s clearly obsessed with you.”

“What do you mean?” Vera asked quickly, leaning forward. “What do you mean that Joan’s obsessed with me?”

Melanie stared at her, hard. “I am not going to talk about another woman’s feelings for you, Vera. Even you can’t be that selfish.”

Vera felt a familiar flush of shame creep up her neck.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Melanie sniffed, but eventually sat back down. “I know you are,” she said resignedly, “because I know that underneath this obsession, you’re still a good person. I’ve told you that.”

Vera nodded, unable to meet Melanie’s gaze.

“But, Vera… you have to be careful of Joan. There’s something not right there.”

Vera’s eyes snapped to Melanie’s. “Excuse me? You’re telling me that? You let her touch you, and… she had her fingers inside you, Melanie!”

Now it was Miller’s turn to look away. “I know, and… that was a mistake. But you have to understand, Vera,” she stated imploringly, “I just wanted—I needed to know what pull she had over you—what made her so special that you were so entirely fixated on her, even when you thought you hated her. And when she said…” Miller stopped.

“When she said what, Melanie?” Miller shook her head. Vera rose from her chair, coming around the table to sit next to Melanie. She covered Miller’s hand with her own, gently rubbing her thumb across Melanie’s soft skin. “What did she say?” she asked, softly.

Melanie looked at Vera, then down to their hands. “She said that she could show me what you wanted,” she said, her voice small. “She knew that I was a… virgin. I suppose it’s obvious,” she added, trying to smile.

Vera’s heart felt like it was breaking all over again. “Oh, Melanie…”

Miller shook her head. “She was kind, really. She said that we could practice doing… stuff… and that she knew you well enough to know what you’d like, and that one day, if things went well, then maybe you and I would…” she trailed off, crying. “I’m so stupid! I am dull, just like you think. I just wanted so badly to know what it was about her that you love her so much, and to know how to please you! And I know that none of it makes any sense. I know!” she slammed her other hand against the table.

Vera moved to put her arm around Melanie.

Miller shrugged her away. “No. Please don’t. It hurts too much, now.”

Vera nodded, removing her arm.

Miller swiped at her eyes, trying but failing to wipe away her tears. She took in a big breath, smiling at Vera. “Anyway none of this”—she gestured to herself— “matters. There was never any question. You’ve always been hers.”

Vera found that she had no energy to contradict that statement.

“But Governor,” Miller continued, hesitantly. “Can we… that is, are we going to be okay now? I know you’re still angry with me,” she added hastily, “but I’m hoping that you can kind of understand… or, even if you don’t, I’m hoping that at least you don’t hate me. I couldn’t handle it if you hated me.”

Vera was almost able to smile. Somehow, in this whole, horrible night, she found that Miller had once again become her steady, dependable friend. Her jealousy remained, roaring in her head—and she suspected that it would continue—but it was tempered by a newfound respect for the woman seated beside her.

“I don’t hate you, Melanie,” she assured her. “I could never hate you. I’m still very upset about what I saw, but I know Joan, and... I don't think that I can lump the blame entirely on you," she noted darkly. “As for the fact that you care for me… I care for you, too,” she said, squeezing Melanie’s hand, “but I think we both know that I care for you as a friend, not as anything more.” Vera snorted ruefully. “Honestly, Melanie, my life would be so much better if I did love you as something more, but…”

Miller nodded again. “I think you need to say it,” she nudged.

Vera gulped, suddenly fearful. “But…” she continued, now in a whisper, “but I think… I think I’m in—I think I care for Joan Ferguson.”

Vera went still, listening; she half expected a sudden strike of lightning, or an eclipse, or some sort of ancient response to her revelation.

“And God help me,” she added.

Melanie nodded soberly.

Chapter Text

Vera looked around at the food spread across the table. “Let’s reheat all of this,” she suggested to Melanie. “There’s no point in letting it go to waste, and,” she smiled shyly, “I want you to know that I appreciate it. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me tonight, Melanie.” She squeezed Miller’s hand.

Miller beamed, and Vera felt her gut wrench that such a simple statement could make Miller so happy. Why couldn’t she care for Melanie? What was wrong with her that she chose the sick and twisted Joan Ferguson instead?

Vera looked down at her hands. It wasn’t fair. None of this was fair.

“There’s a reason you chose her,” Melanie stated quietly. “You can’t judge it. You just have to see it through.”

“Are you clairvoyant?” Vera asked, only half joking. “How do you just know these things? How are you so wise?”

Melanie gave a small smile. “It’s easy to know what people are thinking when you’ve spent an inordinate amount of time watching them.”

Vera found herself blushing.

Melanie’s smile turned sad. “As for wisdom, it’s not particularly wise to fall in love with your boss—especially when your boss can’t figure out if she’s straight or gay or bisexual or whatever, and extra especially not when your boss is in love with her own boss, who also happens to be a murderer.” She smiled ruefully.

Vera shook her head. “It’s insane, isn’t it?”

Miller nodded.

“And she’s not my boss,” Vera added.

Melanie looked suddenly serious. “Isn’t she?”

Vera stilled. Melanie turned away, focusing instead on the table. “Don’t mind me. I… worry about you. Anyway,” she said brusquely, reaching for dishes, “I’m just going to pop these into the oven to warm them.”

Vera sat at her mother’s table and tried not to contemplate Melanie’s words.

***

They ate companionably, lightly gossiping about the prisoners. “And then I found Jenkins tied up with the yarn,” Melanie was laughing. “How can anyone actually tie themselves up? With yarn?”

Vera giggled. “Was she yelling?”

“Was she ever! It was all ‘fuck this, fuck that,’ interspersed with some bizarre mantra about puppies. Apparently Birdsworth had gotten sick of her whining about knitting, and had just left her there. I cut the yarn and untangled her,” Miller added, “but she looked absolutely murderous as she headed off to look for Birdsworth.”

Vera smiled, imagining it all. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be Liz that day,” she stated.

“Definitely not,” Miller agreed, shaking her head.

Vera watched as her smile faded, and abruptly disappeared. “What is it?” she asked, softly.

“Things are… bad, aren’t they, Governor?”

Vera shifted uncomfortably. “Bad?” she inquired.

Melanie shot her a level look. “You know what I mean. The prisoners. It’s getting serious.”

Vera sighed, putting her knife and fork on the plate with a clank. “Yes. Yes, it’s getting bad.” Her eyes flicked up to Melanie, then back to the plate. She fiddled with her glass. She didn’t want to reveal that she had no idea what to do about the situation.

She listened to her grandmother’s old clock tick in the silent room.

Melanie cleared her throat. “Governor? There’s something else I need to tell you.”

The tone of Miller’s voice made Vera feel instantly nervous. She said nothing, but tilted her head, looking questioningly at Melanie.

“It’s about Joan,” Miller added ominously.

Vera clenched her hands in her lap. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to hear any more revelations that concerned Miller and Joan.

“I know that you’re going to be upset…”

“Spit it out, Melanie,” Vera growled.

Miller’s face had flushed red. “I’m so sorry, Governor. I know you told me to bring all of her letters to you, but…”

Vera was alarmed. “You posted letters for her?”

“Just a few,” Miller responded quickly. “And I know that they weren’t anything bad!”

Vera bit back her frustration. “How? How do you know? Did you read them?”

Melanie shook her head. “No, but they were all legitimate, Governor. They were all addressed to the same bank.”

Now Vera was confused. “She’s sending letters to a bank?” Why on earth would Joan be posting letters to a bank?

“She said they’re about her house,” Miller informed her. “Or about her mortgage, actually. She’s selling her house.”

Vera was flabbergasted. She sat back hard against her chair. Joan was selling that beautiful house? That… that refuge from Vera’s daily life, from Wentworth, from this mausoleum to her mother that she called her own home?

Miller was watching her apprehensively. “Are you upset? I know I should have brought the letters directly to you, but they’re obviously above board. I mean, she’s here for life without parole. It’s not like she’ll ever be able to see her house again. It only makes sense to sell it.”

Vera didn’t answer. She felt chilled by the threat of loss. Somehow, without her realizing it, that house had come to mean something to her. She loved to curl up in Joan’s chair in the study. She loved to sleep in Joan’s bed.

Why was Joan doing this to her?

Vera tried to shake herself from her daze. But of course, Joan didn’t know that she kept returning the house. She knew that she had been there at least a couple of times, but she couldn’t have known that she had slept there… that she had showered in Joan’s bathroom, or brushed her teeth in her sink…

She looked up to see Miller watching her quizzically.

“You seem… oddly upset that she’s selling her house,” Melanie stated. Her eyes widened. “Oh! Of course. You’ve been there.”

Vera felt herself flush.

“But that must have been a while ago,” Melanie added. “I mean, before the fire and the trial and all of that.”

Vera nodded slowly.

Miller’s eyes narrowed. “It was before the fire, right?”

Vera opened her mouth to agree, but was abruptly cut off by Melanie’s gasp. “You’ve been going there!” Miller exclaimed.

“No!” Vera almost shouted. “Of course not! I—”

“Vera Bennett,” Melanie said sadly, “you’re lying to me.”

“What are you,” Vera spat, “a human lie detector? And who do you think you are, to question what I do?”

“I’m the person you called a rapist for being, um, touched by Joan Riley,” Melanie replied wryly. “And in this moment, I appear to be your conscience, since your own obviously isn’t working.”

Vera pushed her plate away, dropping her head into her hands. “What am I doing?” she asked her palms. She looked up, into Melanie’s eyes. “What am I doing?” she repeated.

Miller stared at her steadily. “I don’t know,” she said eventually. “I think it’s something that is equal parts tormenting yourself and obsessing over Joan. But,” she leaned forward, “what you’re doing is wrong, Vera. So very, very wrong. And I don’t just mean in terms of breaking a bunch of laws—which you are, of course.”

Vera cringed.

“You are not Joan Ferguson,” Melanie stated slowly, emphasizing each word with a tap on the table. “Be… be in love with her, fine,” she gulped, looking down, composing herself. After a moment, she raised her eyes, gazing steadily at Vera. “But you’re not Joan. Don’t try to be her to get close to her. It will only hurt you more.”

Melanie sat back against her chair. “I’m sorry that I posted those letters, Governor,” she said earnestly, “but I’m glad that Joan’s selling her house. I think it’s the best thing for both of you.

Vera nodded, but didn’t look up.

There was no way in hell she was going to give up that house.

Chapter Text

The next day at work was blessedly uneventful. Vera arrived on time, wrote reports, held a staff meeting, wrote more reports, returned emails, declined interviews, and generally went about the business of the day. She took an impromptu break to travel the halls of Wentworth, getting a sense of how the women were feeling. It was… tense. There was no other word for it. The prisoners were on edge.

The one area she avoided was Joan’s protection cell. She needed to keep her wits about her for her trip that afternoon. She already knew that she would be angry. She couldn’t afford to be further rattled by Joan.

Vera shook her head, clearing it, forcing herself to focus. Realigning her yellow pencils, she turned back to the latest stack of paperwork.

Focus, and planning. From here on out, it was all focus, and planning.

***

The privilege of being Governor was that she could come and go as she pleased. Thus, by three she was on her way to Walford Prison.

She wasn’t sure what to expect from this meeting. It would be difficult. She would have to control her emotions. It was also possible that it would lead to nothing. In fact, it was more than possible—it was likely.

But still. If he could help her, if he knew…

She pushed harder on the accelerator.

Nils Jesper was waiting.

***

“Well,” Jesper stated as she sat down on the other side of the window, “if it isn’t the little Governor of Wentworth.”

Vera was startled. She had counted on her anonymity. “You know who I am?”

Jesper sat back against his chair. “Of course I know. I know everyone at Wentworth. But she was always very clear about you. You,” he pointed his finger at her, “were my abort button. I could take out Matthew Fletcher in any way, but I had to make sure that nothing implicated you. Or hurt you,” he added as an afterthought.

Oh. Her surprise quickly turned to anger. “But you could do whatever you wanted to hurt Fletch."

Jesper was unperturbed. “That was the job,” he stated simply.

Vera felt her fury start to grow, but she ruthlessly tamped down on it. Yes, this was the man who tried to kill her friend, but right now she needed him. She needed to know what he knew.

“Relax,” Jesper stated. “It was just a job—not personal. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”

Vera was again disconcerted. “How do you—”

“You’re either working for Ferguson, or against her,” he replied. “But since she’s already in prison for life, I’d bet that you’re working for her. So ask your questions. But take your time,” he added, with a grin. “Your little favour from Walford’s governor has gotten me out of a nasty work assignment. I’d rather not return any time soon.”

“Okay, then,” Vera answered, leaning forward, businesslike. This was what she had come for.

She looked Jesper straight in the eyes.

“Tell me what you know about David Riley.”

***

Jesper was silent for a long moment. “I didn’t think she would have told you about him,” he stated finally.

Vera gazed back at him, waiting.

Jesper sighed, looking down.

“Do you know where he is?” Vera prodded.

Jesper nodded.

Vera felt sudden hope. He wasn’t missing! Jesper knew, all along!

But… why hadn’t he told Joan?

Vera’s eyes narrowed. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Jesper looked back up. He stared at her with surprising intensity. He suddenly shifted his body forward, toward the window separating them. “What you have to understand about Ferguson—about Joan—is that she’s very, very strong. She’s driven. She’s focused to an obscene degree.”

“Really? Joan Ferguson?” Vera questioned sarcastically. “I never would have guessed…”

Jesper smacked his fist against the table. “No. Don’t make this into a joke,” he stated forcefully. “You don’t know what she went through. You didn’t see…”

“See what?” Vera probed. What had happened to Joan?

“No,” Jesper shook his head. “It’s not my story to tell. But it made her this way. I mean, she always had this weird, intense focus—even as a little kid—but she wasn’t always so hard or so driven.”

“You knew her as a child?” Vera asked with interest.

Jesper waved her question away. “Yeah. We’ve known each other for a long time. But that’s my point: Joanie’s strong, all the time, but it’s a built strength. She’s had to construct it. It wasn’t always there.”

Vera sighed. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me.”

“It’s like this,” Jesper replied. “Joan has her shield up, her armor in place all the time. But there’s a chink in that armor. If you get through it, you destroy her. Nothing will bring her back a second time. She can’t reconstruct herself again.”

“And David is the chink in her armor,” Vera stated, slowly.

Jesper nodded.

“Then why won’t you tell me where he is?” Vera asked, becoming exasperated. “Where could he be that is so terrible that it will destroy Joan?”

Jesper stared at her.

“Buried in the ground,” he stated, finally.

Chapter Text

“No,” Vera whispered. She felt as if time had suddenly stopped, leaving her in a strange void. Everything was suddenly so clear. David was dead. Joan’s last link to Jianna was gone. This was the information that would defeat Joan. This was the information that would kill her.

And now Vera would be forced to make a decision: to tell Joan, or to keep Jesper’s secret.

“No!” Vera repeated, but this time as a shout. She slammed her hand against the window that separated them. “Damn you!” she wailed as her hand fell slowly against the glass. “Why did you tell me? Why couldn’t you have lied to me like you lied to her?”

Jesper looked at her with something like pity. “Now you know what I’ve been carrying with me,” he informed her. “But I’ve transferred it to you. It’s like a virus that slowly eats away at you. Now you have to decide what to do with it.” His hand mimicked Vera’s against the glass.

“I’m sorry,” he added, and Vera realized that he meant it. “God knows I’ve spent my life surrounded by secrets and lies,” he acknowledged, “but this secret was drowning me. I couldn’t tell her. I…” he stopped, looking down at the table. When his eyes lifted, they stared straight into Vera’s. “I can… kill people… and not blink,” he stated slowly, “but I’m not strong enough for this. I’m not strong enough to tell her. So now the choice is yours.”

Vera stared at him. She felt an enormous sadness threatening to overwhelm her if she gave into it.

Her hand curled into a fist. She would not give in to this sadness, to this… loss of the curly-haired little boy in the photo. To Joan’s loss…

No. Not yet, at least.

Her voice was low and menacing when she finally spoke. “You’ve dropped this burden on me, so now you’re going to tell me what you know. And I mean everything. I need to understand before I decide whether… whether…”

“Before you decide whether or not to tell her,” Jesper finished for her.

Vera nodded.

Jesper tilted his own head in acknowledgement. “I’ll tell you all I can.”

***

“David had disappeared before, you know,” he started. “This wasn’t the first time, so she wasn’t overly worried. But you know Joan. She couldn’t handle not knowing; not being in control. So after she called, I started in on his regular hangouts. I thought he was just doing the drug dealer thing again—you know, dropping away from the world for a couple of days while he worked to get a bigger supply, or hiding from another petty dealer he had crossed. I’m pretty sure it broke her heart every time it happened, but she never interfered. She would just send me out to find him, and then I’d clean him up, give him a lecture or try to scare him, and send him on his way.

“You have to understand: he was a good kid. It really wasn’t his fault that he got pulled into the drug scene. He had everything working against him, and only Joan working for him. And she always kept her distance. She maintained constant tabs on him, of course, but she never once spoke to him directly—at least, not to my knowledge. The one time I paid his miserable foster family to let me take him to her—when he was still just the tiniest pup—she refused to hold him. As soon as she saw him, she reached for him, but she stopped herself. I think that was probably the last time she saw him in person.

“When he was little, he used to call me Santa Claus. I would show up at various times and give him the gifts that Joan sent. He thought they were all from me. He never knew about her.”

Jesper roused himself from his reverie. “Anyway, as I said, we weren’t overly worried this last time that he disappeared. But then I couldn’t find him. I checked with all of his regular contacts, and no one had seen him. I finally beat up one slob who told me that word on the street was that he had crossed one of the big drug gangs, but he didn’t know which one.

“That’s when we started the search in earnest. We drafted a list of all known gangs and drug cartels in the area. I’d track them, surveil their actions, try to find signs of him. I was methodical, giving a week to each gang.

“And on the third week, I found him.”

Vera sat up, surprised. “So soon?”

Jesper nodded. “It was easy, once I understood what had happened. He had crossed the Family Ferrante. He had taken their drugs, and then he’d lost them. Lost them! He left them on a goddamn bus somewhere!

“It had been a substantial amount. They had just allowed him to raise his normal volume. He had told them that he had tapped a new market or something.

“Anyway, he shows up to them, but he doesn’t have the money or the drugs. Apparently he begged them, and—let me tell you, I still can’t believe this part happened—they forgave him. He still had to pay them back, of course—with interest—but against all odds they didn’t hurt him. It was like some kind of fucking Christmas miracle. He was always stupidly charming.

“And then he got caught in the middle of a long-term sting op. He wasn’t even there to deal; he was just going to see a buddy of his in the Family. He didn’t have any drugs on him, and he was small time enough that the undercover guy didn’t care about him. So he got off, but the Family Ferrante thought he had been a part of it. They thought that he had informed on him, and that the lost drugs had been evidence against them.

“Their vengeance was swift; the leader was arrested, but he got word out within an hour. An hour after that, David was lying in a pool of his own blood. Most of his bones were broken. The back of his skull was bashed in. He’d been bludgeoned to death, then left to rot in some alley.

“They took his ID, so he became a nameless dead kid. I only found him because I was tipped off by a coroner Joan had bribed.”

Jesper stared into an imaginary distance, as if at something that Vera couldn’t see.

“I held a funeral for him. It was just me, a priest, and two guys who lowered the casket into the ground. The priest said kind things, but of course he had never known David. He asked me if I wanted to say anything, and I just cried. Me, the tough hit man. I hadn’t cried in goddamn fifty years, but I just stood there, weeping. I was thinking about the kid, but I was also thinking about Joan—about all the tragedy that she had already experienced, and about how this would ruin her.

“Do you understand, now, why I couldn’t tell her? I had watched that little boy grow up. I brought her his report cards, his medical reports, photos of his birthdays. I’ll never be a father—never even come close—but sometimes… I liked that I could look out for him. And the pain, when I identified him, and when I buried him… I couldn’t do that to her, put her through the same kind of pain. I just couldn’t.”

Vera nodded.

They both sat in silence.

“What did you do with the money Joan paid you?” she finally asked.

Jesper snorted. “I used it to pay for the funeral and the cemetery plot. The rest I donated to drug prevention groups.” He gave a wry smile. “It seemed oddly fitting.”

Vera nodded again, returning his wry smile with a sardonic one of her own. She sighed.

“Well, thank you, Mr. Jesper, for finally telling me the truth.” She rose to leave.

“Wait!” Jesper exclaimed. He narrowed his eyes. “I promised to tell you everything.”

Vera sat back down, waiting. What else could there be?

Jesper leaned forward.

“You need to know about Channing,” he said.

Chapter Text

“Channing?” Vera asked, surprised. “As in Derek Channing? GM of Wentworth? My boss?”

“That would be the one,” Jesper replied.

Vera’s brows narrowed in confusion. “What on earth do you know about Channing?”

“Quite a bit more than you do, I’d wager,” Jesper retorted.

Vera sighed, slumping slightly in her seat. “I don’t understand,” she stated bluntly.

Jesper gave her a small smile of pity. “I know. There was a lot that she—Joan—didn’t want you to know. But—” he leaned forward with tension, “one thing... one thing, I think you need to know.”

Vera nodded. “Please,” she said, gesturing with her hand, “just tell it to me straight. I don’t think I can take many more surprises today.”

Jesper regarded her steadily. “You’re going to have to take one more.”

***

“First,” Jesper started, “did you know about the brothels?”

“Excuse me?” Vera sat up straight. “Brothels? What brothels?”

“She really didn’t tell you anything, did she?” Jesper drawled.

“Apparently not,” Vera retorted shortly.

“Okay, here’s the short version: Channing has been using parolees to work in his brothels. Joan found out about it and confronted him.”

Vera suddenly remembered examining parolee files on Joan’s desk. She recalled the feeling of standing very close to Joan, feeling the heat and excitement that had seemed to radiate from the other woman. She could almost feel the strange tingle that had shot through her own body as she had looked up at Joan, trying to answer her question about commonalities between the files, finally admitting that all of the women were attractive. Joan had agreed, adding that they were also young. But… had there been more? What had happened afterward? Joan had simply said to leave the files with her—that she would take care of them. Vera had never learned the outcome of Joan’s investigation.

Now, it seemed, she had. So those parolees were working as prostitutes for Channing. It was disgusting. Parolees were incredibly vulnerable. The thought of it made her sick.

“And Joan confronted him? She made him stop preying on these women?” Vera asked.

Jesper looked surprised. “Stop preying on them? No….” He looked closely at Vera. “What would Joan gain from that?” he asked meaningfully.

“What do you mean, what would Joan gain?” Vera retorted angrily. “It’s not about what Joan would gain! It’s the right thing to do! It’s…” she paused, searching for words, “it’s for the greater good,” she finished haughtily.

“The greater good, eh?” Jesper nodded. “I’ve heard those words before, too, you know. But remember this, Miss Bennett: what you think those words mean, and what Joan thinks those words mean, are two very different things.”

Vera fell back against her chair, feeling once again defeated. Oh God. When would she learn?

“What did she do?” she whispered.

“Nothing,” he replied, watching her carefully. “At least, not in terms of what you mean. She didn’t do anything to help those women. But she did confront Channing. They made a deal: she wouldn’t tell anyone about his ‘employees,’ and he would be her person on the Board.”

“That’s why she wasn’t more heavily reprimanded after Smith escaped,” Vera whispered with dawning comprehension. “That’s why the Board hadn’t known about the riot…”

Jesper nodded.

Vera felt a crippling headache start to descend upon her. That also explained the look she had seen when Channing had testified during Joan’s trial—that look of complicity between them. She should have known. She really should have known.

Vera shut her eyes, willing the headache to go away.

“But Joan already knows all of this,” she ground out. “So skip to the point. What do I still not know? What is this last thing that you’re still not telling me?”

Jesper once again regarded her steadily, seemingly assessing whether or not to tell her. Finally, he leaned forward. “Joan was never supposed to be housed in Wentworth. She was supposed to go to Silverwater. Wentworth hadn’t even been an option!” He pounded his fist against the tabletop. “No one in their right mind would send an ex-governor to the prison she ran. No one!”

“So how did—” Vera started to ask.

“Channing,” Jesper interrupted. “Derek Channing arranged to have Joan Ferguson transferred directly to Wentworth, under his control.”

***

Vera blinked. “No, that can’t be,” she stated insistently. “Derek Channing visited me in my office. I remember it clearly. He was shocked that she had been mistreated. He wanted to make sure that she was safe. He even said that it was cruel to place a governor in a prison that she had run.” She paused, thinking quickly. “No, none of it makes sense. Why would he be so concerned for her health, if he’s the one who put her in Wentworth in the first place?”

“Because,” Jesper replied simply, “she’s his insurance.”

“I don’t understand,” Vera growled. “How is she insurance? Insurance against what?”

“Insurance… against me.”

***

Vera lost her patience. She jumped from her chair, pounding the glass with her fist. “Explain!” she demanded. “None of this makes sense! How is Joan his insurance against you?”

Jesper sighed. “You’re not the only one from Wentworth who has come to visit me,” he informed her. “Channing came here. It was just after I got here, but before Joan’s trial was over. He wanted to know what I knew about him.” Jesper crossed his arms. “He wanted to know if I was a threat to him.”

“Threat… how?” Vera asked, continuing to stand, looking down at Jesper.

“He didn’t know how much Joan had told me. He didn’t know if I knew about the brothels, or their arrangement. But he’s not a stupid man. He figured out that I was the one who found the parolees in the first place.”

Vera nodded. Of course. How else would Joan have found that information?

“If I knew, then I was a threat to him. But my trial was over. I was already in here,” he stated, gesturing to his surroundings. “Walford Prison, my protector,” he uttered sarcastically.

“So then he couldn’t do anything to you.”

“Not directly, no. Even Channing doesn’t have that much power in another prison. But he wanted to make sure that I stayed silent. And that’s where Joan comes in. As long as I stay quiet about the brothels, he’ll keep her safe. If I say anything, then he whispers the right words to the right guards or prisoners, and your secret is out.”

“Mutually assured destruction,” Vera muttered.

“Exactly,” Jesper agreed. “And here’s the thing, Governor. He doesn’t even have to do anything. I assume that you’ve placed her in protection? That no one knows her true identity?”

Vera nodded.

“Then her only true protection is if her existence remains secret. And that’s quite a feat to carry off.”

Vera was silent. The precariousness of Joan’s situation washed over her anew, especially now that Melanie knew…

“But there’s something else that you should consider,” Jesper interrupted.

Vera shook her head. “What else can there be?”

He raised his eyebrow. “Joan herself. Don’t you think it’s odd that she’s still playing along, when she could give him away? She’s hardly above a little revenge.”

Oh. Right. In her mind’s eye, Vera pictured that tiny nod of complicity in the courtroom. Why hadn’t Joan revealed Channing’s secret?

She looked at Jesper questioningly.

Jesper stared back, hard. “When was your promotion to Governor made permanent?”

“It was the same day that we all testified at her trial… when Channing testified…”

Vera stopped abruptly. Oh. Oh.

Oh my God.

“That’s right,” Jesper nodded. “You finally understand. Joan knew that she would be found guilty, just as she knew that Channing would transfer her to Wentworth. But instead of using her information to remove Channing from power—to effectively save herself from Wentworth—she made another deal.”

Vera’s hand shook as she reached out to Jesper, pressing her palm against the glass.

“For me,” she whispered. “It was a deal for me.”

Jesper nodded.

“She made sure that you would be the Governor of Wentworth.”

Chapter Text

Vera drove home in a daze, her thoughts continually circling back to two points: David was dead, and Joan had made her governor.

That beautiful little boy was dead.

Joan was the reason she was governor.

Vera’s knuckles were white as she gripped the steering wheel.

There were so many questions. Should she tell Joan about David? Should she use her knowledge of his death against her? Did Joan’s interference mean that she wouldn’t have been promoted? Was she a fake governor? Why did Joan even want her to be governor?

She wished, now, that she had never visited Jesper.

When she finally stopped the car, she was both surprised and not to realize where she had driven herself.

Sighing, she locked the car and headed into Joan’s house. It was time to curl up in Joan’s big chair and make herself utterly, hopelessly drunk.

***

Vera woke up the next morning still in the chair. A half-empty bottle of wine sat on the little table beside her, next to Joan’s box of photos. On her lap lay David’s school photo—the one with the curly hair and the wide grin that was missing two front teeth.

She gently traced the outline of David’s face. He had been so young. He had never known either his mother or Joan, or any of the things that Joan had tried to do for him.

He must have felt so alone.

She sighed, leaning her head against the back of the chair. She was fairly certain that she had all of the information, now. She knew about Channing and the brothels and Joan’s deal with him. She knew why she had been named governor, even though the Board was aware of her Hep C status. She knew what had actually happened to David, and why Joan was still so desperate for information about him.

What she didn’t know was what to do about it all.

***

“She wants to see you,” Miller informed her from the doorway to her office.

Vera sighed. She didn’t need to ask who the “she” was.

She gestured Melanie toward the seat across from her, then stared out the window. “What do I do?” Vera finally asked, turning back toward Miller.

Melanie shrugged her shoulders. “You can avoid her for days, maybe even weeks. But if you pull that, you know that she’ll pull something of her own. Maybe not eat again, or self harm in some kind of way.”

Vera nodded slowly.

“Or,” Miller continued, “you can go talk to her now.” She smiled sadly. “Clear things up. Put us all out of our misery,” she added.

Vera reached across the desk. “Melanie, I…”

“I know,” Miller stopped her. “It’s not your fault that I like you. I just have to get over this crush. That’s all there is to it.” She stood up, pushing back the chair. “But, uh, Governor?”

Vera looked up at her questioningly.

“Just… be careful. I know you don’t want to hear it, but there’s something fundamentally broken in Joan Riley. Or Ferguson,” she corrected herself. “Broken people can be dangerous.”

As she watched Melanie leave, Vera pondered her statement. Just how broken was Joan Ferguson? And was Vera about to break her more?

She straightened her pencil soldiers, patted her pocket, and left the Governor’s Office, making her way to the protection unit.

***

Vera stared through the gate of the protection unit, but saw no one. She opened it quietly, slipping through and locking it behind her.

The door to Joan’s cell was surprisingly ajar. Again, Vera entered silently. She was surprised to see Joan sitting on her bed, eyes closed, her ears covered by headphones, listening to music.

Joan obviously hadn’t realized she was here.

Her distraction gave Vera time to examine her. She stared at Joan’s face, at its planes and angles, her full mouth, her long yet girlish nose. Her skin looked clean and warm and soft. She gazed at Joan’s dark hair, pondering the way it always looked so black, and yet was actually a very dark brown. Her eyes moved over Joan’s long neck, across her strong shoulders, down to the swells of her breasts. She studied Joan’s hands as they rested in her lap, the fingers elegant and somehow intelligent in their own right.

Vera allowed her gaze to move to the bulletin board hanging behind Joan. The photos of her mother and father had finally been neatly pinned to it. The rest of the cell remained relatively Spartan, but it was finally clear whose cell it was.

This was Joan Ferguson’s cell.

Vera felt the familiar hot-cold tingle of fear wash over her as she once again remembered the precariousness of Joan’s position. The only thing standing between Joan and annihilation was Vera, or, more specifically, Vera’s ability to maintain the secrecy of Joan’s identity.

Only Vera could protect her.

When her glance returned to Joan’s face, she was startled to find Joan’s own eyes staring back at her.

Joan removed her headphones, raising one eyebrow questioningly.

“I know about Channing,” Vera stated without preamble.

Joan’s expression didn’t change. “And what is it that you think you know?” she enquired.

Vera huffed. “I know about the brothels and about why you weren’t more heavily chastised after Smith’s escape.”

Joan continued to gaze at her levelly.

“And I know that you’re the reason that I’m Governor” Vera added.

Joan blinked. “And what is the source of this… information?”

Vera felt suddenly tired. She stepped over to Joan’s bed, sitting uninvited upon it. Turning to Joan, she stated her source: “Nils Jesper.”

Joan’s eyes narrowed. “Nils told you about Channing,” she specified.

Vera nodded.

“Why?”

Vera shook her head. “You’d have to ask him,” she replied.

Joan rolled her eyes. “You know that’s impossible for me to do. Besides, even if I could get a letter to him, you and I both know that you read all of my post.”

Vera crossed her arms in annoyance. “Or you and I both know that I don’t read any of your post.”

They sat in silence.

“You and I also both know,” Vera added, “that I’m not the only one sending letters for you.”

A slow smile spread across Joan’s face. “Ah, you’ve been talking to Officer Miller. She’s a… lovely person, don’t you think? So helpful. So… willing to learn new things…”

Jesper was forgotten as Vera struggled against the urge to slap Ferguson again. “How could you do that to her, Joan? How could you just toy with her? You knew what she felt! You knew—”

Vera stopped, trying to gain control. She unclenched her hands, placing them flat along her thighs. “Miller is a good person. She’s a genuinely nice person. You had no right to… to… to pervert that!” Vera spat.

Joan again raised a single eyebrow. “Yes, I’m sure that Miller is a good person, a nice person,” she stated mockingly. “And I rather… enjoyed her. But she’s expendable. Choices must be made. Action must be taken. In war, there is always collateral damage.”

“So is that what this is, between us, Joan?” Vera asked. “War?”

The air felt thick and heavy between them.

“Everything is war,” Joan said, finally.

***

“Right,” Vera nodded. “So I’m your enemy.”

Joan said nothing.

“Aaagghh!” Vera cried in frustration. “You are absolutely infuriating!” She stood, pulling an item from her pocket. “Here,” she said, throwing it at Joan, watching as it fluttered downward.

Joan made no move to touch the photo that had fallen in her lap. It was the picture of David that Vera loved so much—the school photo with the curly hair and gap-tooth smile.

“Why?” Joan asked in a small voice, staring at the photo as if hypnotised. “Why are you giving this to me?” She cleared her throat, speaking in a louder voice, finally glaring up at Vera. “Why did you bring this here, to this place of… of… filth?”

“It’s not a place of filth, Joan,” she responded, sighing. She lowered herself to sit on the bed again. “It’s your home now, and… I just thought that you should have a photo of someone you loved. Love,” she amended hastily.

“I don’t love him,” Joan retorted immediately.

They looked at each other, each recognizing the lie for what it was.

“Well…” Joan stated. “Well.” She finally picked up the photo, staring at it. “He’s too good for this place,” she whispered, the statement seemingly pulled involuntarily from her.

Vera said nothing. She moved closer to Joan. Together they sat in Joan’s cell, staring at the photo of a dead boy.

Chapter Text

“I only saw him once again, after he was taken from me,” Joan stated, still staring at the photograph. “Taken from… Jianna.”

Vera noted the way Joan seemed to pause on Jianna’s name, stumbling over it.

“Nils brought him to me,” she continued, recovering. “It was just after Jianna had… after Jianna had died. Nils held him out to me, but I knew I couldn’t hold him. Not ever again.”

“Why? Vera asked softly.

Joan’s eyes flicked to Vera’s face, then back to the photo. “Emotions lead to mistakes,” she stated severely. “My control helped him far more than my emotions ever could. My emotions are worthless.”

Vera wanted to deny Joan’s statement, to point out that her love for David would have been far better for him than her silent, invisible watching. But this was Joan Ferguson. For all her insight into manipulating people for her own aims, Joan seemed unable to grasp the fundamental human need to be loved.

“Why are you like this, Joan?” Vera whispered. “What happened to you?”

Joan looked at Vera from the sides of her eyes. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she replied, standing up and moving toward the barred window.

Vera sighed. She looked down at the photo of David, now lying on the blanket. She carefully wedged it into the edge of the bulletin board, below the photos of Joan’s parents.

“It’s like a family tree,” she uttered softly.

Joan turned around briefly to look at the photos, then turned back to the window. “I don’t have family,” she stated impassively.

Vera drew in a breath. It was moments like these, when Joan seemed so aloof, and yet so surprisingly vulnerable, that made something in her want to reach out, to help her in some way. She remembered feeling something similar on that first night, when Joan had allowed a single tear to fall as she looked through the bars of her new home, out into the night.

She moved to stand beside Ferguson, boldly slipping her hand into Joan’s. “You’re not alone, Joan,” she whispered up to her.

Joan’s body went rigid. She turned to Vera, staring hard as she jerked her fingers away. “I’m not alone? I’m not alone?” she repeated, her voice rising higher. “That’s true enough! I’m never alone!” She laughed mirthlessly, almost maniacally. “But that’s not what you meant, Vera, is it?”

Joan moved toward her, leaning over Vera, placing her body against hers. “We’ve never talked about my father, or about the people I see, have we?” she asked. She tilted her head to the side, examining the smaller woman. “I know that Mister Fletcher told you what he heard. I know that you know. But that hardly fits your little picture of me, does it?”

Vera felt a frisson of fear lick down her spine.

“No,” Joan hissed, running a single finger up Vera’s neck and along her chin, forcing her head back as she gazed down at her. “No, you want the embodiment of what you don’t have—the control, the power.” Vera found herself pressed backward, the backs of her knees hitting the bed as Joan advanced toward her. “You want what Jianna had,” she stated, her voice low. “What Melanie sampled. You’re so jealous, it kills you.”

She pushed Vera roughly down onto the bed.

“You’ve wanted me from the beginning, since that first day I offered to mentor you,” she continued, staring down at Vera. Suddenly, she threw one knee over Vera’s prone body, smoothly lowering herself to straddle Vera’s thighs, trapping Vera’s small body between her strong legs. “You want to know what it’s like to feel the intensity of my focus, to be in my control,” she whispered, reaching forward, pinning Vera’s wrists on either side of her head. Finally, Joan lowered her body onto Vera’s. “You want me to love you,” she uttered hotly into Vera’s ear.

Vera felt like she might explode from the conflicting emotions racing through her. She wanted Joan—yes, she would finally admit that to herself. She wanted Joan entirely—body, mind, and, and… love. She wanted to be Joan’s obsession, for her to be as consumed with Vera as she was by Joan.

Joan stared expressionless into Vera’s eyes. Slowly, slowly, she lowered her face to Vera’s, pressing her lips against Vera’s own.

No, Vera thought, shivering. This wasn’t right. Joan’s eyes were too blank, too unreadable. This wasn't the Joan she wanted—she wanted the softer Joan, the vulnerable Joan. She wanted the Joan who had loved Jianna.

She felt Joan’s heavy body pressing her into the mattress, Joan’s strong hands pinning her arms, Joan’s tongue thrusting into her mouth. She groaned, sucking on Joan’s tongue, entwining it with her own. Was that even true? Was she lying to herself again? Was it the imagined, softer Joan that she wanted, or did she secretly long for this Joan, this aggressive, dominant Joan who was kissing her hard, making her groan aloud?

And Vera gave in, to her struggles, to Joan. She moaned into Joan’s mouth as Joan moved her thigh between Vera’s legs. Vera found herself grinding against Joan’s strong thigh.

It didn’t matter, in the end, which Joan she wanted. This was the Joan she had, this was the one she… this was the one who possessed her. Vera drove further into the kiss, biting down on Joan’s lip.

Joan gasped, releasing Vera’s swollen lips. She rose, staring down at Vera, then lowered herself again to kiss and lick Vera’s soft neck, tracing it with her tongue, leaving a trail of bites.

Vera wiggled under her, trying to push her body more firmly against Joan’s weight, trying to gain more friction as she rubbed herself against Joan’s thigh.

Joan suddenly let go of Vera’s wrists, using her nimble fingers to unbutton Vera’s jacket, followed by the white shirt underneath. She untied the black tie, drawing it slowly from its place around Vera’s neck. At last she pushed open the fabric of the jacket and shirt, revealing Vera’s taut tummy and white cotton bra.

Joan took her time now, tracing a lazy finger over Vera’s shivering skin. She dipped the finger under the cup of Vera’s bra, circling Vera’s breast, finding her stiff little nipple. Smiling wickedly, Joan pinched and rolled the nipple hard between her fingers as Vera cried out and bucked against her thigh.

“Oh yes,” Joan continued casually, as if she was having tea with Vera, rather than straddling her half-naked body, “this is what you want.” She pulled Vera up, pushing the jacket and shirt off of her arms. She reached behind Vera to deftly unhook her bra, pulling it from her body and tossing it on the floor.

“Joan…” Vera pleaded, shivering.

But Joan didn’t respond. Instead, she simply took her time, languidly surveying Vera’s breasts.

“Yes,” she murmured. “This is what you want.”

She lowered her face to Vera’s needy, waiting breast.

Chapter Text

“Why are you doing this?” Vera whispered. “Why? Why now?”

Joan paused in her ministrations to dart a glance up at Vera, then quickly resumed licking circles around Vera’s nipple, occasionally flicking it with the flat of her tongue.

Vera’s groans were becoming more and more guttural as she savoured Joan’s hot mouth on her breast. Almost of their own accord, her hands reached for Joan’s head, weaving themselves into Joan’s hair.

Joan suddenly stilled, releasing Vera’s breast from her lips. “Remove your hands,” she growled.

“What?” Vera asked, confused. “I—”

“Remove them!” Joan thundered, pulling away from Vera, sitting back on Vera’s thighs. She glared down at Vera. “You will not touch me,” she informed her quietly.

Vera shook her head. “I don’t understand. I want to touch you! I want to feel you. Why won’t you—”

“No,” Joan declared, once more interrupting her. “Do you want me to stop?”

Vera closed her eyes.

“Ah,” Joan said softly, dangerously. “Now you’re faced with a choice, aren’t you?” She ran her fingers over Vera’s temple, around her smooth cheek, cupping Vera’s chin. “Until now, you could blame me. You could tell yourself that you were passively experiencing my body on yours.” Joan lowered her hand to gently circle the swell of Vera’s breast. “That you weren’t feeling my mouth on your nipples.”

Vera sighed.

Joan suddenly dropped her other hand to Vera’s mons, pushing against Vera’s skirt as she ran her finger roughly up Vera’s fabric-covered cleft. “You could tell yourself that you weren’t grinding against my thigh like a little bitch in heat,” she whispered.

Vera felt a jolt rock her entire body.

Joan leaned her long frame over Vera. “But that’s not true, is it?” she asked huskily. “You know exactly who you are, who I am, and where we are. And yet you still want this.”

“No, no,” Vera mewled, eyes still closed as Joan once again pushed her strong finger against her cleft, trailing it upward.

“Oh yes, Vera, yes,” Joan breathed. “You’re sick.”

“No!” Vera gasped. “I’m not! I…”

Joan reached behind the curve in Vera’s lower back, finding the zipper on Vera’s skirt. She pulled it, roughly tugging Vera’s skirt over her bum and down her thighs. “Oh yes, Vera. You hate me, remember? Or have you suddenly forgotten?”

Joan smoothly rose from her knees, stepping back onto the floor beside the bed. She pulled the skirt toward Vera’s ankles.

Vera was silent, watching her.

“Yes,” Joan repeated, pulling off Vera’s shoes and placing them neatly on the floor. She folded the skirt on top. “Yes, you hate me so much that you’re letting me do this,” she said as she reached forward, yanking Vera’s stockings, pulling them slowly and caressingly down Vera’s legs before tossing them away.

Vera hissed. “I do hate you! This is… this is just you manipulating me!”

Joan rose to her full height, staring down at Vera’s nearly-nude frame. “Always the victim, aren’t you?”

“Always the Governor, aren’t you?” Vera spat back petulantly.

They stared at each other for a beat before Joan abruptly swept down to her, placing her arms on either side of Vera’s head. “Oh, I am, Vera,” she breathed, her voice low as she stared into Vera’s eyes. “I am the Governor.”

Another jolt swept though Vera, bringing both pleasure and shame. She could feel her heart beating against her chest as she stared into Joan’s dark eyes. Feeling small, humiliated, she finally voiced her desire. “Fuck me,” she whispered.

Joan’s smile was feral.

Still staring into Vera’s eyes, Joan stretched one long arm down Vera’s body, smoothing it over her belly, reaching lower. Finding Vera’s thin cotton underwear, Joan maneuvered her fingers just under the waistband, pushing the fabric away from Vera’s mound. She yanked her gaze from Vera’s, moving her body toward the centre of the bed. “White cotton,” Joan mused, pulling the garment from Vera’s legs, fingering the fabric. “As if it could have been anything else.” Her gaze drifted back to meet Vera’s. “You’re virtually pure, aren’t you, Vera? An unsatisfying fumble here and there with Mister Fletcher, but otherwise a virgin, untouched.” She narrowed her eyes. “Unloved.”

“Stop it,” Vera whispered.

“Stop what?” Joan asked innocently. “Stop this?” She suddenly cupped Vera’s mound, feeling the heat radiate from her body.

Vera moaned.

If Joan’s movements had been slow and controlled until this point, they suddenly became fast and fierce. She roughly pulled Vera’s knees apart, climbing onto the bed, kneeling between them. “Mmmmm,” she hummed, surveying Vera’s exposed mound. Leaning forward, she used one finger to brush up and down Vera’s cleft, parting her puffy outer lips. “Oh Vera,” she murmured. “If only you weren’t… diseased. I’d love to run my tongue between these delicious lower lips of yours.”

Gasping, Vera tried to clamp her legs shut, but Joan held them open. “Why would you say a thing like that when I’m… I’m… open!” she exclaimed. “Exposed!” She could feel tears stinging her eyes, her earlier arousal rapidly fading. “Why do you keep trying to hurt me?” She attempted to wiggle away from Joan.

But Joan clamped her strong hands onto Vera’s hips, preventing her from moving. “Because you keep forgetting who you’re here with,” she replied roughly, swiftly moving her hand to stroke up and down Vera’s inner lips. She drew lazy circles around Vera’s clitoris. Her other hand moved from Vera’s hip to massage her breast, playing with her nipples. Narrowing her eyes, watching Vera’s face, she suddenly flicked Vera’s clit.

Vera groaned as a jolt of pleasure radiated through her body. “I know who you are!” she gasped, trying to rub herself harder and harder against Joan’s fingers. “You’re a monster!”

“Yes, that’s right, Vera,” Joan replied, circling her fingers faster around Vera’s clit. “I’m a monster. I’m an aberration.” She removed her other hand from Vera's breast, pressing it against Vera’s sternum, forcing her back into the mattress. “And you love me for it!” she jeered as she slowly, carefully, inserted a single finger into Vera.

Vera cried out at the sudden feeling of fullness. “I hate myself for loving you!” she exclaimed, the thought finally wrenched from her as her body reveled in pleasure.

“Yes!” Joan hissed, circling her thumb on Vera’s clit faster and faster. She turned her finger upward, angling it into Vera’s G-spot. “Now tell me you’re mine,” Joan commanded. “Tell me you’re my property!”

Vera was on the edge, nearly losing herself in the warm jolts flowing through her. It was like she was feeling the most exquisite kind of itch, only it was just beyond her reach.

Joan continued to pump her finger in and out of Vera, each time angling up at the spongy tissue. She suddenly pushed down hard on Vera’s clit.

“Now, Vera!” Joan demanded. “Now!”

“I’m yours!” Vera shouted as sudden hot waves of pleasure washed over her body. “I’m your property, Governor!” She arched back in ecstasy, her inner muscles fluttering hard.

Hearing Vera’s words, Joan abruptly froze. Suddenly, a low, guttural grunt was ripped from her throat. Her eyes rolled back as her body shuddered. She made no other sound as her shoulders trembled and her torso quivered.

“Joan?” Vera asked hesitantly, coming down from her own orgasm. “Did you just… was that an—”

“You’re mine!” Joan roared in triumph, cutting Vera off as she roughly pulled her into her arms, kissing her forcefully.

“You’re my property,” she stated vehemently.

Chapter Text

As quickly as Joan had pulled Vera to her, she roughly pushed her away. Vera fell back against her pillow. She lay still, watching the triumphant expression on Joan’s face as Joan moved about, tidily collecting Vera’s discarded clothes.

“You know,” Vera mentioned timidly, “I don’t have to go right away. We both know that there’s enough room here for you to join me. Not—not to make love again,” she stumbled over the term, blushing, “but just to lie here. Just to… cuddle?”

Joan straightened up from the other side of the cell, her back to Vera. She turned slowly, her face expressionless.

“I mean,” Vera fumbled on, “maybe not cuddle cuddle, but… just to be together, or something.”

Joan arched one eyebrow.

“I won’t touch you!” Vera exclaimed, half exasperated. “I know you don’t want to be touched. But you could touch me. You could hold me. Just so that I can feel close to you.”

Joan remained standing on the other side of the cell, her hands automatically folding Vera’s clothes. “Make love?” she asked finally.

“Yes. We did,” Vera replied, smiling. “Or—oh! Do you mean… go again?” She blushed furiously.

“No,” Joan responded, still not moving. “You said “make love.”

Vera’s euphoric feeling was starting to fade. “Well… yes,” she answered in confusion. “That’s what it’s called. Making love.”

“You think we made love,” Joan stated slowly.

Vera’s happiness was quickly becoming replaced by nervousness. “Joan?” she asked. “What’s going on?”

Joan was smiling now, but it wasn’t a pleasant smile. “You think we made love,” she repeated, stalking toward the bed.

Vera rolled her eyes, but it was for show. “Joan,” she admitted in a small voice, “you’re making me nervous.”

Joan neatly placed Vera’s clothing on top of her shoes. She lowered herself to the bed, pulling Vera into her lap, wrapping her taller frame around the smaller body, pressing Vera’s back against her chest. Enfolding Vera’s still naked body in her sweatshirt-covered arms, Joan gently rocked both of them.

“Oh Vera,” she hummed, her mouth just behind Vera’s ear, her hot breath sweeping across Vera’s neck. “You think that what we just did—what I did to you—was making love.” She gently placed a tiny kiss behind Vera’s ear. “You still don’t understand, do you?”

Vera settled back against Joan’s body, allowing her worries to ease. This was how it should be: Joan holding her, rocking her, making her feel safe and loved. She reveled in the feeling of Joan’s strong hands as they wrapped themselves across her belly. This was how it should always be. “Don’t understand what?” she asked, sleepily.

“This wasn’t making love,” Joan stated, nuzzling her nose against Vera’s throat.

Vera’s eyes fluttered closed. “It wasn’t?” she asked, letting out a contented sigh.

“Oh no,” Joan responded lightly, tracing little circles with her finger on Vera’s belly. “This wasn’t love. This was annihilation.”

Vera froze, stiffening in Joan’s arms. “What do you mean, Joan?” she asked guardedly.

Joan continued to trace her circles on Vera’s body. “I warned you, you know,” she stated conversationally. “I told you that if you used Jianna against me, I would annihilate you.”

Vera suddenly felt icy prickles creep up her spine. She broke free of Joan’s arms, pulling herself quickly away from Joan to the other end of the bed. Grabbing her pillow, she tried to cover her nakedness. “What are you talking about, Joan?”

“You remember, Vera.” Joan smiled her dangerous smile again. “I know that you remember. It was the same day that you papered the walls of my office with Jianna’s photo. It was the day that you betrayed me.”

“The day you slapped me,” Vera replied in a daze, unconsciously moving her hand to rub the abused cheek. “The day you demoted me.” Her mind was a whirlwind of confused thoughts.

Joan’s smile widened.

“So you’re telling me that what I view as making love,” Vera said slowly, trying to understand, “you perceive as annihilation?”

Joan nodded placidly.

Vera looked away, confused, then back at Joan. “That’s… insane,” she uttered. “That makes absolutely no sense.”

“Vera, Vera, Vera,” Joan said, shaking her head. “Think. I trusted you. I mentored you. And then you turned on me. You used Jianna against me. You went behind my back to the Board. Did you think I simply meant to destroy your career? Did you think a little demotion was enough? Anyone could do that. You’re practically doing it all on your own!”

“But,” Vera spluttered, “you’re the one who made me governor! Jesper told me!”

“I did,” Ferguson agreed, “because it was the most expedient way to destroy you.”

Vera simply stared at her. “I thought you wanted me to be governor so that I could protect you," she whispered. "Because you believed in me." She felt the sting of tears starting to well up in her eyes, but she refused to allow them to fall. "Instead, you’re saying that all of this—the governorship, your deal with Channing, the… the… sex—all of this was to destroy me?” Vera’s voice rose hysterically. “Well, you failed, Joan! I’m still here! I’m still the Governor!”

“And you still love me,” Joan retorted.

Vera went silent.

Ferguson suddenly lunged forward, ripping the pillow away from Vera, gripping her chin with her strong fingers. “You hate me. I’m a murderer. I’m a monster. But you love me, Vera. And that love is completely of your own making.”

Vera tried to look away, but Joan gripped her chin tighter, her fingers digging into Vera’s fragile skin.

“True annihilation, Vera,” Joan whispered, breathing into her ear, “is making you love me against your will.”

She drew her index finger down Vera’s torso, drawing circles around Vera’s breasts. “It’s making you lose yourself to me.”

She sat back, smiling triumphantly. “And you see? I succeeded!”

Her smile became maniacal. “More than ever, you’re my property, now!”

Chapter Text

“No,” Vera whispered, her small frame shaking. “No!” she suddenly shouted, pushing with all of her strength against Joan’s larger body, shoving her away. “I am no one’s property!” she yelled viciously, hurling the pillow at Joan.

Ferguson reclined languidly where she had been shoved, a smug smile playing across her lips.

Vera jumped off the bed and raced to the other side of the cell. She stood naked, panting with anger, her fists clenched in barely-contained fury as she stared at the self-satisfied expression on Joan’s face.

“Vera, Vera, Vera” Joan chanted in a singsong voice. She returned the smaller woman’s gaze, seemingly unconcerned by the force of Vera’s anger. “Of course you’re my property. Your very being revolves around me.”

Vera stamped her foot against the hard concrete floor. “It does not! I am my own person! I’m the Governor! I’m in charge of you! You’re my property!”

“Look at you,” Joan continued, ignoring her words. “You’re impotent with rage. You want to hurt me. You want to slap me, punch me, kick me.” She stood, seeming to take up all the space in the cell. She suddenly lunged forward, pushing Vera roughly against the far wall, uncaring of the hard concrete. She forced her knee between Vera’s legs and pinned her arms against the wall. Leaning forward, into Vera, she breathed into her ear, “but you want to fuck me, too.” She licked Vera’s neck, from the midpoint to her jaw. “Only we wouldn’t be fucking, no. You want to ‘make love’ with me.”

Vera glared icily into Joan’s eyes. “You think you know everything, don’t you, Joan?” she asked dangerously. Her entire body burned with a sudden flame of righteous anger. “You think you’re better than everyone else. Better than me!”

“I don’t think that, Vera,” Joan replied, staring down at her. “I know it.”

“But you’re not!” Vera shouted triumphantly. “You’re not! Because I still know what you don’t know! I know that—”

Vera abruptly silenced herself.

She couldn’t tell Joan about David.

She stood there, naked, humiliated, livid in her rage, but for once the line was clear. For once she knew that she couldn’t cross it.

Because it would destroy Joan. Totally and completely destroy her.

And Vera, suddenly composed, no longer shaking, allowed a single snort to escape from her. Telling Joan about David would annihilate Joan… which was exactly what Joan had tried to do to Vera.

Vera pushed Joan away from her. Surprisingly, Ferguson allowed it, backing up. Vera shuffled over to the side of the bed, kneeling to retrieve her clothing. She took her time putting on each article. Joan watched silently from the other side of the cell.

When Vera had buttoned her shirt and smoothed her skirt into place, Joan finally spoke.

“And what do you think you know that I don’t know?”

Vera looked up at the arrogant face watching her and sighed. “I know that I never used Jianna against you,” she said quietly, replacing her previous thoughts with another truth that had long bothered her.. “I know that the first time I’d ever seen her photo was when you waved it in my face and vowed to ‘annihilate’ me.”

“That’s not true,” Joan countered, shaking her head. “You were on the night shift," she stated factually. "You entered my office at 3:46am. You taped her photo over all of the walls and windows. She was… she was everywhere, staring at me.” Joan abruptly sank onto the bed. “Her face was everywhere. And it was you. You were the one who did it. You took my Jianna and…”

“Who told you it was me?” Vera interrupted.

“What?”

“Why did you think it was me?”

Joan rolled her eyes. “It was obvious! You wanted my job. You wanted to get rid of me. You had a whole little plan…”

“Joan,” Vera interjected, “everyone wanted to get rid of you. What, exactly, made you think it was me? Was it because of our dinner? Was it simply because I had worked the night shift? Or did you just want to get rid of me?”

I trusted you!” Joan shouted, finally revealing her own anger.

“Then why did you decide to blame me?” Vera shouted back, matching Joan’s anger.

“It was recorded! It was in the system! It was your key card that was used to enter my office!” Joan stood, once again using her height to tower over Vera. “And unless you’re as incompetent as Mr. Fletcher,” she hissed, “then the only person with access to that key card was you!”

Vera blinked up at Joan. She refused to be cowed. “And you checked the computer yourself? You typed in the time and location, and it revealed that my key was used?”

“Yes!” Joan exclaimed, then looked briefly perturbed. “Or no. Miss Miles looked it up. But I supervised.”

“Miss Miles,” Vera repeated, staring levelly at Joan. “Linda Miles.”

Joan suddenly appeared uncomfortable.

“The woman who tipped you off on your first day regarding how drugs were entering Wentworth, and had obviously known for a while.”

Joan looked down, but said nothing.

“And you believed her over me!”

“The evidence—”

“The evidence can be corrupted!” Vera exclaimed. “You of anyone should know that!”

Joan suddenly looked at her strangely, searchingly.

“Which means it was a choice,” Vera concluded. “You know Linda. You know me.” She slowly placed her arms into her uniform jacket, pulling it on. “You chose to believe her over me.”

Joan raised her hand to Vera’s chest, fingering the shining badge bearing the words ‘Vera Bennett, Governor.’ “Perhaps I did,” she admitted slowly, polishing the badge with her finger. “Just as you chose to betray me. You went to the Board. You collected evidence.” Her eyes narrowed. “You even fabricated evidence.”

“What?” Vera stuttered. “I didn’t—”

“Lucy Gambaro.”

The two women stared at each other.

“Did you think I didn’t know?” Joan asked.

Vera was silent.

“You called in the medical emergency. Before that, you escorted Gambaro from the education centre—a fact that was corroborated by Mr. Bakula—and wheeled her to the stairwell. You avoided that camera, yes, but you were caught on several others while en route.”

Joan turned away from Vera, sitting heavily on the bed. “Since you don’t normally abuse inmates—aside from me, that is—I can only assume that it was Gambaro’s blood that caused your diseased state. After all, you’re not above a little revenge, are you, Vera?”

Vera stared at her. “Why didn’t you say anything?” she finally asked. “In the trial—”

“Hah!” Joan snorted. “How would it serve me? There were too many other counts against me—Gambaro’s accusation was minor in comparison. Revealing the evidence would only serve to make you lose your job. And I didn’t want you to lose your job,” she added. “That’s far too mundane an outcome for you. Besides, I’ve worked out other ways.”

“Other ways… to do what?”

Joan’s expression was hawkish. “Why Vera dear, don’t you understand? When I annihilate, destruction is total.”

Vera huffed, rolling her eyes. “Yes, yes, yes. I hate you but I love you, I’m your property, on and on and on…”

Joan smiled. “Those things are true,” she said, reaching for Vera’s hand. “You do love me, even as you hate yourself for it.”

Vera snatched her hand away.

Joan shrugged. “But really, that’s just a bonus. My true…” she paused, inhaling with excitement, “joy… is the knowledge that soon you’ll be joining me here.”

“I’m already here, Joan,” Vera replied drily. “I can hardly visit you more often than I already have, lately.”

“Ah, but that’s just it!” Joan was fairly shaking in ecstasy. “Soon you’ll be joining me here in protection all the time,” her smile widened. “As an inmate of Wentworth Correctional Centre!”

Chapter Text

Vera stared at her, her heart racing. She knew that she had… done things… things that were wrong. She had smuggled illegal items into the prison. She had threatened inmates like Doyle and Gambaro. She had used her power in illegal ways…

But were those things enough to build a case against her? To turn her into an inmate?

And then there was her mother…

But no. She stared at Joan, who continued to smile smugly. No, she repeated inwardly, calming herself, suppressing the panic. There was no evidence of… that… or of anything. Joan didn’t know about the contraband she had smuggled for Jacs Holt. She didn’t know about her original deal with Jacs, or how she had simply been trying to create a situation in which she looked good. Joan certainly didn’t know that Vera had threatened Doyle’s parole—and it wasn’t like Joan hadn’t done the same. And as for her mother… well. Joan had proof of nothing.

Her mother had been a very sick woman, in a great deal of pain.

That was all there was to it.

She watched Joan watching her. Joan’s own breathing had become quick and harsh as she gleefully observed Vera mentally catalogue her sins. Joan seemed, Vera suddenly realized, almost orgasmic.

“You still haven’t figured it out, have you, Vera?” Joan finally asked, the delight obvious in her expression. Indeed, it was as if her entire body was quivering, waiting for Vera to understand.

Vera stared back at Joan, crossing her arms across her chest. She said nothing.

Joan’s eyes narrowed. “Well then,” she said, “why don’t I give you a hint?”

Vera continued to remain silent.

Joan rose from the bed. Standing directly in front of Vera, she uttered a single word: “Miller.”

Vera was shocked. Miller? Melanie had something to do with her supposed future imprisonment?

No. That was… No. Impossible.

Vera looked up at Joan watching her. She snorted. Then she chuckled. Then she full-on started to laugh. “Miller?” she asked, almost hysterical. “You honestly think that I would believe that Melanie Miller will somehow get me imprisoned?” She suddenly pushed Joan hard against the sternum. “Melanie would never do anything to hurt me!” she exclaimed, staring fiercely into Ferguson’s eyes. “Melanie loves me,” she added, triumphant.

But her feeling of triumph faded as she watched the maniacal smile bloom once more across Joan’s lips.

Joan shook her head. She raised her hands to the sides of Vera’s shoulders, squeezing them, rubbing them in a caricature of comfort. “Oh Vera,” she said, her eyes appearing large and sympathetic, “that’s what makes it all so very tragic. That Miller should love you, but be the one to betray you…”

Vera batted Joan’s hands away from her shoulders. “You’re embarrassing yourself,” she announced. “Everything you say is a lie.” She stepped back toward the bed, finally slipping her feet into her shoes. “You have no hold over me,” she added, turning toward the door of the cell.

“A lie?” Joan questioned. “I suspect the Board will see things differently. Not to mention the police.”

Vera turned around to stare at her.

“After all,” Joan added, her eyes widening, “embezzlement is a rather serious crime.” Eyebrows raised, she turned and walked to the window.

Vera stared at Joan’s back, trying to understand what was happening. For all her sins, she knew with certainty that she had never embezzled any money.

“Stop,” she ordered. “Just stop. You and I both know that I’ve never stolen money from Wentworth.”

“Mmmm,” Joan agreed, staring outside. “Of course we know that.” She turned, facing Vera. “But the Board won’t see it that way. Neither will the police. Not with so much evidence.”

“Evidence? There’s no evidence!”

“Oh, Vera,” Joan responded, shaking her head. “There’s so very much evidence. And my correspondence with the bank outlines exactly where to find it.”

Vera froze, an icy chill washing over her. “With the bank…”

Ferguson grinned.

“Melanie…” Vera whispered.

Joan’s grin grew wider.

“Melanie was taking letters to the bank for you,” Vera continued. “But those letters were about your mortgage! They were about selling your house!”

Joan tilted her head, observing Vera. “Yes, I suppose I’ll have to sell it some day,” she mused, “but not now, Vera. Not with you practically living in it.”

“What? How did you know—”

“We’ll wait on selling until you’re in here, with me,” Joan finished.

Vera could feel panic—true panic—start to wash over her. Breathing heavily, she doubled-over, her hands wildly searching around her for some means of support. Finding the mattress of the bed, she moved towards it, falling onto it. She pulled her self against the wall, bringing her knees to her chest, hugging herself. She sat for several silent moments, eyes closed, breathing, feeling nothing but the bed beneath her and the wall supporting her back.

When she finally opened her eyes, she was unsurprised to find Joan watching her. “Tell me everything,” she ordered.

Ferguson nodded. “I thought you’d never ask."

***

“The money was required for Jesper,” Joan explained, settling herself on the bed next to Vera. “My salary is obviously good, but it’s not that good. Jesper is a professional. It was only right that he be paid accordingly.”

Vera struggled to reign in her anger. She needed to know whether Joan’s threat of annihilation was real. “You’re talking about a hit man,” she spat. “Not some accountant or lawyer. He shouldn’t be paid to murder at all, much less ‘paid as a professional!’”

“Don’t comment on what you don’t understand, Vera,” Joan snapped.

Vera threw her hands up.

“As I was saying,” Joan continued, “Jesper had to be paid. The answer was beautifully clear: take the money from Wentworth. Take the money from the criminals and the drug addicts, and use it to help find someone good. Someone pure.”

Vera barely refrained from pointing out that David had been far from pure. In a strange, twisted way, however, she understood what Joan was saying. She turned, looking at the photo of the smiling curly-haired boy with the missing front teeth. There was something in that little boy that asked to be helped, to be treated fairly, to be given a good life. That none of that had ever happened wasn’t his fault; it was his tragedy.

But that didn’t make Joan’s actions right.

“How did you do it?” Vera finally asked, turning away from the photo. “I continually went over all of the accounts. I would have noticed.”

“You did notice, Vera. You even pointed it out.”

“What?” Vera couldn’t remember any such event happening. “When?”

“It was just before a staff meeting,” Joan informed her. “You mentioned that you didn’t think we were going to meet the overtime budget for that month.”

Vera remembered that moment with surprising clarity. She had been sitting in the staff room, preoccupied by thinking about Bridget Westfall’s intimation that she was the victim of abuse—of Joan’s abuse—and she had been startled when Joan had joined her. It was just before the meeting about Jodie Spiteri.

“I remember,” she responded slowly. “You said that we could bleed into the next month’s budget, as long as we were right by the end of the quarter.”

Joan raised her eyebrow. “And you never thought to wonder why the overtime budget seemed so depleted, particularly since several members of staff—Mr. Fletcher included—had returned, negating the need for overtime?”

Vera stared.

“But taking from a single account… now that would have been noticeable,” Joan continued. “Continually transferring smaller amounts between internal accounts, however… no one notices that. Not even with the inmates constantly whining about the sudden cheapness of their food. No,” Joan smiled proudly, “I skimmed from just about every internal account, but I kept it all hidden in a continual transfer. And eventually, all of those small amounts filtered into transfers made to a food vendor that never existed; a vendor I controlled.

“And you, Vera,” Joan persisted, her smile turning malevolent, “you signed off on every single transfer.”

Vera was dazed. She felt sick. That this had all happened, that she had seen it all, but not realized…

“But it was you,” she mumbled, the panic rising again. “None of this was me. It doesn’t implicate my directly.”

“The fact that the food vendor has been continually transferring money to an account in your name implicates you, I would think,” Joan answered.

“What?” Vera asked, shocked.

“Oh yes,” Joan smirked. “Didn’t you know? You’re a rather wealthy woman, Vera.” She paused. “Not that it will help keep you from imprisonment within these walls." She reached out, running her finger softly along Vera's cheek. “Not that it will keep you from me.”

Chapter Text

“You’ve framed me,” Vera whispered, staring at Joan in shock. She felt Joan’s finger on her cheek, but she didn’t move away. She didn’t move at all. She merely sat there, staring, unable to process what was happening.

Joan’s smile seemed almost tender. “Yes,” she replied simply.

“You’ve ruined my life,” Vera continued.

Joan nodded. “Such as it was,” she stated offhandedly.

Vera felt suddenly winded, as if Joan had punched her with her words. “Such as it was,” she repeated in a whisper. This was Joan telling her that her life was pointless—that she, Vera, was pointless. Worthless. But she wasn’t. Maybe her life hadn’t become what she had wanted it to be. Maybe her personal life was practically non-existent (except for Joan and Melanie), and her career high was based on a sham. But she had worked hard to get here. She had (mostly) been a good person all her life. She (usually) did the right thing. She was likeable. She had had fun with Linda a couple of times. Fletch had obviously been interested in her, and she had tried to be a good friend to him after his accident. And Will—well, she was never entirely sure that Will had forgiven her for her knowledge of Meg’s affair with Fletch, but they were generally friendly. They worked together well enough.

And Melanie loved her.

Melanie Miller, who was probably the best person she knew, loved her.

The thoughts flew through Vera’s mind in seconds, so that she still felt Joan’s finger on her cheek as she came to a final realization.

She, Vera, was worth loving. And her love, in return, was valuable. It was important.

She was important.

She reached up, pulling Joan’s hand away from her face. “I matter,” she informed her. “My life matters.”

Joan’s eyebrows narrowed briefly before her face smoothed back into its placid expression. “Of course it does,” Joan drawled condescendingly, dropping her hand to her lap.

“Yes,” Vera retorted sedately. “It does.” She pushed herself away from the wall, shuffling forward on the bed. Her legs dangled as she sat on the edge of the mattress.

Joan watched her carefully, saying nothing.

Vera felt that she should be angry. She should be screaming, ranting, kicking at Joan. She could feel the rage, the fury—they were there, they were trying to get out—but right now she just didn’t want to feel them. Instead, she listened to the silence of the room. It was so quiet—almost lulling. There were no shouts or chairs scraping on concrete or the endless murmur of hundreds of women penned in together. No, here it was almost soundless.

It was odd, this feeling of separation from herself, this form of numbness, as if nothing was real. Vera wondered, absently, if she might be in shock. She found that it didn’t really matter.

Her eyes sought Joan’s face, watching her eyes, the muscles around her mouth, the flare of her nostrils. There was so much movement in what at first seemed immobile. She reached her hand toward Joan, not actually touching her. She let her hand float in the air between them.

“I was so happy,” she stated slowly, hearing her own voice as if it came from a great distance. “It wasn’t when we were making—it wasn’t the sex. It was that moment when you held me, rocking me. You wrapped yourself around me, and I thought, ‘this is how it’s supposed to be. This is how I should always feel. This is happiness.’”

She brought her hand back to her chest, cradling it, staring down at her fingers like she had never seen them.

“But you killed that happiness, Joan,” she continued, sliding off the bed, refusing to look at Ferguson. “You killed it because you threw my love back in my face.” She allowed her hand to fall. “You don’t see me as a person. To you, I’m pathetic. I’m the ‘little mouse’ you claimed to mentor while you used and manipulated me.”

She sighed, making her way toward the door of the cell. “I was right, you know,” she said, her hand on the door handle, finally turning back to look at Joan. “Do you remember? During that terrible dinner? I told you that you didn’t care. That you had never cared. And I was right.”

Joan remained on the bed, watching Vera, her smug smile replaced by a guarded expression.

“And so we come to this,” Vera continued. “I tell you that I love you, and you use my love against me. You use it to annihilate me.” She felt something in her shift as her numbness started to abate. She could feel the oncoming pressure of her anger. “You tell me your plan, a plan that will take away my freedom, that will force me to become like you, stuck forever in a tiny, shitty little cell, all alone.” She suddenly pounded her fist against the doorjamb. “But that won’t be my fate, Joan,” she exclaimed fiercely, pushing the door open fully. “I am nothing like you. I am liked. I am loved.” She stepped backward through the doorway. “I will never be your property!” she shouted finally, turning and slamming the door behind her, feeling her rage threatening to overtake her.

With the rage came tears. Her body shook as she ran to the unit gates, her fingers fumbling with her key card as she tried to open the gate.

She heard the door fly open behind her.

“You,” Joan thundered, “ will always be. My. Property!”

Vera turned, her back pressed against the gate as Joan ran toward her, stopping only as she pressed her tall body against Vera’s. “You’re mine!” Joan shouted.

“I’m no one’s,” Vera hissed, pushing at Joan. “You don’t care about me! You don’t care about anyone but your precious Jianna, and she’s dead!”

“Don’t you say her name to me!” Joan roared, slamming her hands at the bars on either side of Vera’s head.

“Jianna! Jianna! Jianna!” Vera shrieked hysterically, her rage overtaking her completely. “She’s dead! You killed her! You! It was all your fault!”

“Stop!” Joan yelled back, her hands suddenly encircling Vera’s neck. “You will not say these things!”

Vera felt Joan’s hands tighten on her neck. She tried to gasp, struggling for air. “Joan!” she tried to shout, but nothing came out.

As suddenly as Joan had attacked her, she pulled back, her eyes wide, snatching her hands from Vera’s throat. Vera fell to the floor. Joan followed, kneeling beside her, reaching toward Vera. “Vera, I—”

“Get away from me!” Vera screamed, still heaving from trying to catch her breath. She struggled to pull herself to her feet, scrambling to get away from Joan. “You tried to kill me!” she cried accusingly, her entire body shaking.

Joan was still on the ground. She reached imploringly up to Vera. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “Vera! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

“No you’re not!” Vera shouted back, her entire being contorted in rage. “You are a monster! You only care about Jianna! You’re incapable of caring about anyone else! And you know what?” she paused, shaking with fury, ready to deliver her ultimate blow.

“Jianna’s dead!” Vera screamed maniacally, “and so is your beloved David!”

Chapter Text

Ferguson knelt frozen on the ground, staring, her hands still outstretched toward Vera. Her jaw worked up and down, her mouth gaping open and closed like a fish. No sound emerged.

Vera’s chest continued to heave from her outburst, her hands clenched in fists at her sides. She stared down at Joan, her rage still obvious in her flushed face.

And yet, Vera was struggling. She wanted that hate, that fury. She wanted to hold them close to her, to fuel them, so that she could maintain the righteous anger that had flooded her after Joan had started to strangle her. Here knelt her abuser, whom she had finally overcome.

But she had wielded the truth like a weapon…

She had vowed never to tell Joan. She had known that it would destroy her.

Joan’s body was trembling. Still staring at Vera, she shook her head back and forth vehemently. No, she seemed to cry, without voice. No. No. NO!

“Yes,” Vera said.

A guttural sound finally thrust itself from Joan’s throat, followed by another. They became a repeated “uh, uh, uh,” each sound shaking her body. Joan’s hands fell to the floor before her arms rose again, wrapping tightly around herself, her fingers digging forcefully into her own shoulders. She pulled her knees up and into herself.

Vera stood frozen, staring down at Joan with both rage and growing horror. As she watched, Joan started to rock herself. A low moan replaced the guttural sounds, only to be followed by a sound Vera would never be able to define. It was somewhere between a plea and a scream, low and high simultaneously. Joan’s entire body jerked forward, as if the inhuman cry were being ripped from her.

It was the sound of pain—a pain so deep, so true, that it pierced Vera to hear it.

She had thought that she had known pain in her life, but it was nothing, nothing, compared to this. Nothing compared to Joan’s pain.

And Vera, too full of rage and shame, opened the gate and ran, leaving a broken woman behind.

***

Miller found her on the floor of her office, shaking, spilled pencils littering the floor around her.

“Vera?” she asked quietly, kneeling beside her.

The small body didn’t move.

“Oh, Vera,” Melanie whispered. She rose swiftly, hastening into the bathroom and returning with two large towels that she carefully wrapped around the shaking woman. “Stay here,” she ordered softly before hurrying from the office. She turned in the doorway, pausing to look back at the small figure.

Vera neither moved nor acknowledged her.

Melanie, terrified, ran to call someone to replace her on her shift. She was needed elsewhere tonight.

***

Vera had remained silent as Miller had smuggled her out of Wentworth (“she’s sick, poor thing. Obviously the flu. Better keep your distance”), as well as in the car. Only when they pulled up to her house did she acknowledge that she was aware of her surroundings.

“No,” she said.

Miller frowned. “You don’t want to go home?”

“This isn’t my home.”

Melanie regarded her carefully. “An address,” she said, finally. “I need an address, or I’m taking you to my apartment. And I have roommates.”

Vera gave her a number and a street name.

By the time they parked the car and walked to the red door, Miller had a fairly good sense of whose house this was.

And it hurt. It hurt deeply that Vera was bringing her here, of all places.

But Vera seemed unconscious—or uncaring—of the pain she was causing. She pulled the keys from her transparent purse, unlocked the door, and stepped inside, casually dropping the keys into the little dish as if she did it every day.

Miller trailed after her, closing the door, glancing down at the slippers waiting for their owner, at an empty fish bowl ahead. She startled as she felt a small hand slip into her own.

“Come,” Vera said, leading the way to the stairs.

Frowning, Melanie followed.

***

When they reached the threshold to Joan’s room, Vera suddenly turned and pressed her body into Melanie’s. She reached up, running her hands over Melanie’s shoulders and up her neck, dragging her head down toward her waiting lips.

Miller stood frozen as Vera caressed her, kissed her, ran her hands all over her torso. She caught Vera’s hands as they started to undo the buttons on her shirt. “What are you doing, Vera?”

Vera didn’t answer. Instead, she struggled against Miller’s grip.

“Stop, Vera. Stop this,” Melanie admonished, attempting to hold her in place.

Vera stepped closer into Melanie, inserting her thigh between Melanie’s legs. “You want this,” she informed her in a low voice. “I know you want this. And I want—I want to feel loved. There’s nothing wrong with that,” she added defiantly, still failing to meet Melanie’s gaze.

“No,” Melanie said after a long pause. “No, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel loved. Why don’t you come with me over here, first,” she directed, leading the way to the bathroom.

Inside, Miller turned the shower on full. As the hot water rushed out, steaming the air, she turned back to Vera. “Let’s take off these clothes, mm?” she suggested, reaching for Vera’s tie, pushing her blazer off her shoulders. Her slow fingers carefully unfastened the buttons of Vera’s shirt before she pulled it open, exposing Vera’s chest and abdomen to the moist air.

And Vera, suddenly remembering the sensation of a different set of hands undressing her only hours ago, froze. She turned wide, panicked, shame-filled eyes toward Miller. “No,” she whispered. “I… I can’t.”

Melanie sighed, nodding. “I know,” she murmured, pulling Vera into her, surrounding her with her strong arms. “Oh, Vera, I know.”

Safely embraced by Melanie, Vera finally allowed herself to sob.

Chapter Text

Vera stood numb as the warm water slid down her back. She turned to face the showerhead, tilting her chin upward to allow the stream to cleanse her eyes, to wipe the tears from her cheeks. She wanted the water to erase her, to let her start over again.

Turning off the shower, Vera reached for the large, fluffy towel that Melanie had laid out for her. She dried herself, wrapping the towel carefully around her body. She turned, and found herself staring at her reflection in the mirror.

This body, that was so different from Joan’s, or from Melanie’s… this body was her. This body was Vera, whatever that meant.

She pulled the towel away, dropping it carelessly on the floor. Looking into the mirror, she stared at her skin, at her arms, breasts, waist, hips, legs. She held her hand up, inspecting her fingers. Slowly, she raised her hand higher, pressing her nail against the side of her neck, in the place where she had once felt the syringe pierce her, in the place where she had once held a blade against Joan’s skin. She pushed harder, drawing her nail down the same line that she had drawn the blade down Joan’s body. She hadn’t cut Joan, but now she allowed the force of her nail scraping against her skin to create a long, ugly red mark, bisecting her torso.

She knew the mark would eventually disappear. It didn’t seem like enough.

She was startled by a knock.

“Vera?” Melanie called, her voice muffled by the bathroom door between them. “It sounds like you’ve finished. Are you okay?”

Vera cocked her head to the side, still staring at her reflection. Was she okay? That was the question, wasn’t it? Was she okay? Would she survive Joan’s “annihilation” of her? Would she survive prison, if it came to that?

Would she survive hurting Joan?

“Vera?” Melanie repeated, her anxiousness apparent through the door. “Say something!”

Vera continued to stare at herself.

“I’m coming in,” Melanie announced, carefully opening the door and entering. She stopped short, seeing Vera naked. “Vera?” she asked again, softly, averting her eyes.

Finally Vera turned, seemingly unconcerned by her nudity. Melanie lifted her eyes, her gaze roving over Vera’s body, spotting the long red line on her torso. She frowned. “What did you do to yourself?” she asked.

Vera shook her head.

Melanie glanced around the room. Spotting Joan’s robe hanging from a nearby hook, she stepped toward it, then hesitated.

“She’s already had her hands all over me, and in me,” Vera said, almost absently. “The robe makes no difference.”

Melanie squeezed her eyes shut against the sudden pain that threatened to overwhelm her. She pulled the robe from its hook, holding it out to Vera, not looking at her. “When?” she asked finally.

Vera pulled the robe on. “Today,” she answered. “A few hours ago.”

A tiny mewl of hurt escaped Melanie. She leaned against the wall for support.

Vera turned again to look at her reflection. The robe was ridiculously long on her. She looked like a child playing in her mother’s clothing.

“My mother was abusive,” she announced, the thought seeming to come from nowhere. “It took her death for me to acknowledge that,” she added offhandedly.

After a long pause, Melanie finally looked at her. “Why are you telling me this?” she asked.

Vera leaned over the counter, placing her face closer to the mirror. She stared into her eyes. “I’ve been surrounded by abusive people all my life,” she stated in the same detached tone. She pulled back, turning to face Miller again. “I seem to love my abusers.”

Melanie drew in a long breath, swiping at the tears that had fallen in her pain. “Come here,” she said, holding out her arms.

Vera moved forward without thinking, and soon found herself again enfolded in Melanie’s safe embrace.

***

They lay on Joan’s bed, Vera cocooned tightly in Joan’s robe and a blanket, Miller still dressed in her guard uniform. It took all of Melanie’s fortitude to listen as Vera told her about her visit with Jesper, about giving the photo of David to Joan, about how Joan had kissed and stroked her and brought her to orgasm. She told her about Joan’s coldness after, and then her revelation about her plans to annihilate her.

She did not tell Melanie that Joan had almost strangled her, or that she had finally informed Joan of David’s death.

Through most of it, Melanie held her. She listened. She made appropriate sounds at appropriate places. If Vera could have removed herself from her own pain long enough to really look at Miller, however, she would have seen the anger and hurt that continued to engulf Melanie.

At the revelation of her own unwitting part in it all—by transporting letters for Joan—something in Miller hardened. “I didn’t know,” she said, sitting up suddenly. “I knew that I shouldn’t have sent those letters, but I thought I was helping… I thought they were just about her mortgage…”

“Nothing Joan does is ever as it seems,” Vera replied.

They fell asleep soon after, each exhausted by her own thoughts.

***

Vera screamed herself out of sleep. She flung herself upright on the bed, her chest heaving. She struggled to catch her breath.

“Vera?” Melanie asked, her own adrenaline racing from Vera’s cry.

Vera threw herself from the bed, rushing to the bathroom. She vomited into the toilet.

Melanie said nothing as she followed her, holding her hair, stroking her back.

Vera finally settled back from the toilet bowl.

“Are you done?” Melanie asked.

Vera nodded. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and then suddenly turned wildly to Miller. “We have to get back to the prison. We have to go back to Wentworth right now.”

“Vera, it’s—” Melanie glanced at her watch, squinting in the darkness, “it’s two in the morning. We need to go back to sleep for a few more hours—”

“No!” Vera exclaimed, cutting her off. “We need to go now!” She stood, wobbling slightly, then ran back to the bedroom, back to her clothing. Throwing off the robe, she hastily donned her underwear.

Melanie, standing in the doorway to the bedroom, still wearing her uniform, sighed. “I guess we’re going now,” she stated wearily to herself.

Vera zipped up her skirt as she ran for the stairs.

***

The drive back to the prison felt far too long.

“Why are we going back now?” Miller asked, but Vera didn’t answer.

“This has something to do with Joan, doesn’t it?” Miller tried again. “I don’t know that I’m ready to see her right now, Vera,” she continued. “And… I’ll admit it. I’m worried about what you’re planning to do.”

“I’m not planning anything,” Vera finally replied after a long pause.

Carefully keeping her gaze fixed ahead, on the darkened road, Melanie tried one more time. “You’ve just told me that Joan has emotionally abused you, and is threatening to frame you for fraud. Do you see why I’m concerned that you’re going to try to hurt her in some way? You don’t have to do that! We know her plan now. We can protect you from her.” She glanced quickly at Vera, then back to the road. “You don’t need to do anything you’ll regret.”

Silence.

“Fine,” Miller said, frustrated. “But we’re only doing this because you seem absolutely panicked, not… not… I don’t know. Not murderous or something. But I warn you, Vera: as much as I hate Joan with all my being right now, I won’t let you hurt her.”

“I already have,” Vera whispered, staring out the passenger window.

Melanie didn’t hear.

***

Miller slowed as they approached the gates to Joan’s protection unit, but Vera hurried ahead.

“Why are these open?” Melanie asked, staring at the gates. “These shouldn’t be open. Vera?”

But Vera didn’t answer. She was panicking, staring at the wrecked contents of the unit. The table was turned over. A chair was smashed. She ran to the cell, flinging open the door.

The damage here was worse. Papers were strewn everywhere. The mattress had been pulled from the bed and flung against the wall. Sheets and pillows were ripped apart. The sink was cracked.

In the middle of what had been the bed lay the picture of David, ripped in two.

Melanie finally entered the cell to find Vera shaking, crying, carefully picking up the two halves of the photograph.

“Vera?” she asked again, her voice now marked by alarm, “where is Joan Riley?”

Chapter Text

Vera looked up, her eyes wide. She mutely shook her head, her fear obvious on her face.

“I’m checking the shower room,” Melanie stated, running across the unit.

Vera dropped her gaze to the photograph. She gently aligned the two halves, running her finger along the seam, trying to repair the photo. Trying to make David whole again.

“She’s not here, either!” Melanie shouted from the other room.

“We have to find her,” Vera mumbled, still staring at David.

“What?” Miller asked, now standing in the cell doorway.

“We have to find her,” Vera repeated forcefully. She stood quickly, gently placing the photograph in her jacket pocket. “Before…” She stepped toward Melanie, urgently grabbing her arm. “You don’t understand what they’ll do to her. It won’t just be death. It will be pain. Pain and humiliation.” She took a quick, deep breath. “It will be torture.”

Miller nodded. “I… understand,” she stated, her pause signaling to Vera that she understood the unspoken subtext of just what kind of pain and humiliation would be involved. “So. You’re Joan Riley. You find yourself suddenly free within Wentworth. Where would you go? What’s your plan?”

Vera drew her hand back from Melanie’s arm. “She won’t have a plan. Not this time,” she muttered, looking down.

“Okay,” Miller agreed. “She won’t have expected anyone to leave the unit gate open, so she’s proceeding without a plan. She knows that she can’t just walk out the visitor’s entrance. Where would she go?”

“No,” Vera shook her head, her anxiety building. “You don’t understand. She won’t have a plan because she’s… not herself right now.”

Melanie frowned, now turning to face Vera fully. “Vera Bennett,” she asked slowly, “what have you done?”

***

“There’s no time!” Vera exclaimed, trying to push past Melanie to exit the cell.

Melanie stood firm. “What have you done?”

“Agh!” Vera shouted in frustration. “It wasn’t my fault! I hadn’t planned to tell her, but she… annihilation… she strangled me!... and—”

“She strangled you?” Melanie interrupted, horrified. “Are you okay? Did you pass out? Do you need a doctor?”

Vera waved her questions away impatiently. “I’m fine. But I was angry—absolutely furious. And I wanted her to hurt,” she stated, emphasizing her words. She stared fully into Miller’s eyes, her gaze intense. “I wanted her to hurt as badly as she had hurt me. And so… I told her about David. I told her that he was dead.”

Melanie looked away, but didn’t say anything.

“And it seemed to kind of… break her,” Vera continued. “She let out this… noise… and then she folded herself into a ball on the floor and started rocking herself. And that’s when I left,” she finished simply.

Melanie still wasn’t looking at her. “I’ll run to check the security cameras, in case I can find her somewhere,” she announced to the wall. “I’ll call you if I find her.”

“Melanie? You have to understand. She hurt me! I was so angry, I—”

Miller slowly turned her head back to Vera. “I think,” she responded, “that you need to stop talking and go find Joan Riley. Right now.” Miller turned on her heel and left, leaving Vera behind.

***

Vera ran through deserted hallways, feeling her panic build. She had to find Joan. She had to get to her before anyone else—before any inmate, and definitely before any guard.

She turned a corner, stopping to lean against the wall, panting.

What if they already had her? What if they were already doing horrible things to her?

Vera held her hand to her chest, trying to catch her breath.

She was still so angry, so absolutely furious that Joan had framed her. Underneath, however, she knew that the real source of her fury was pain; pain that Joan was trying to take away her freedom, pain that Joan was using her love against her…

Pain that Joan didn’t love her.

She broke into a run again. None of that mattered right now. She, Vera Bennett, needed to save Joan Ferguson.

***

And then, suddenly, there she was.

Vera spotted her at the other end of the hallway. She went to call out, but stopped herself, fearful that someone might hear.

Joan was walking down the corridor, staggering slightly. Her hoodie had come off one arm, and was dragging behind her as she walked. Vera could hear her mumbling. Perhaps most strangely, Joan was holding her hands on either side of her eyes, effectively cutting off her own peripheral vision.

Vera slowed her steps, approaching her cautiously. “Joan?” she called softly.

Joan stopped, but didn’t turn around.

“Joan,” Vera continued, carefully walking forward. “It’s me. It’s Vera.”

Slowly, Joan turned slightly, still holding her hands one either side of her eyes.

Vera gasped. Blood was smeared on Joan’s face and clothes. Her cheeks were red, as if they had been slapped and scraped. Her fingernails were obviously bleeding.

Vera finally reached her. She gently placed her hand on Joan’s arm. “I’m going to take you back now, okay, Joan?” she asked, her voice too high, too light.

“No, I can’t. I told you. I can’t trust anyone!” Joan whispered. “No!” she shook her head in agitation. “I told you already! Not even her!”

It took Vera a moment to realize that Joan wasn’t talking to her.

“Joan?” she asked again, “who are you talking to?”

This time Joan turned her whole body—her hands still at her eyes—to stare at Vera directly. “My father,” she replied. “He says I should go with you, but I can’t. I can’t trust you now.”

Vera decided not to point out that there was no one else in the hallway. “Come on,” she said instead, “let’s go back.” She reached for Joan’s arms, attempting to pull them down. “And drop your hands. You can hardly see!”

“NO!” Joan shrieked loudly, pressing her hands more tightly to the sides of her eyes, twisting her body away from Vera.

Vera froze, listening carefully for any signs of movement beyond the two of them. Thankfully, she heard nothing.

She reached up again to place her hand on Joan’s arm, but this time she made no attempt to pull Joan’s hand away from her eye. “Why are you holding your hands like that, Joan? Can you drop them and come with me?”

Joan shook her head vigorously. “I can’t. I have to block what I see.”

Vera’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Why, Joan?” she asked gently. “Why do you have to block what you see?”

“Because,” Joan said, her voice full of anguish, her eyes imploring. “What if I see him?

“What if I see David?”

Chapter Text

Vera’s mouth fell open as she stared at Joan, unable to say anything in response to Joan’s obvious fear. She knew that Joan… saw people—people who weren’t really there. She remembered Fletch’s description of Joan’s… well… insanity. But that description was nothing like this. Joan had still been Joan, in a way, even as she railed at her father. This Joan, however…

“Joan,” she whispered, but Joan was focused on something else—something that only she could see.

“I tried,” Joan stated emphatically to the unseen presence. “I tried to protect him. You know I did. I couldn’t save her, but I tried to protect him. I made sure he had everything he needed— No! I couldn’t give him that! You know how hard it was for me not even to hold him!”

Vera reached up, placing her hands over Joan’s as they remained on either side of her head. She gently pulled until she knew she was the only figure in Ferguson’s vision.

“Joan,” she repeated sternly, “look into my eyes. I want you to listen carefully. No one else is here. You’re talking to people who don’t exist.”

Joan seemed to be listening, but Vera wasn’t sure that she was getting through to her. “We must go back to your ce—to another part of the prison. Quickly. It’s not safe here.”

Joan’s gaze bore into her own. “Nowhere is safe, Vera,” she replied sadly.

Vera wasn’t sure if Joan meant that literally or metaphorically, but they didn’t have time to find out. Vera was startled—even terrified—by this other Joan, this broken Joan. She had to get her back to the protection unit before anyone saw them. As it was, they were standing dangerously close to—

H Block.

They were on the edge of H Block.

Oh no.

“Joan!” Vera whispered urgently, her hands tightening around Joan’s, still clasped around her eyes. “Did you go into H Block? Did anyone see you?”

But Joan had come unfocused again. She broke away from Vera, muttering “Jianna and the baby. Jianna was feeding the baby.” She abruptly turned to the wall. “Stop! Stop saying that! It hurts! He’s gone!” she punched her damaged hands at the wall. “He’s gone! He’s gone! My baby!” she slid to her knees. “He’s gone!” she wailed.

Vera stood staring at the pathetic figure before her, guilt washing over her anew. She had known that telling Joan about David would destroy her, but she had done it anyway. She tried to bring up her anger and hatred again—her armour—but it was more difficult. She was still furious with Joan for attempting to ruin her, but…

This woman wasn’t Joan.

Not really.

Or maybe this was the real Joan, under all the scheming and conniving ways.

Vera desperately wanted to scream her frustration. She pressed her hands against the side of her head. How could she hate Joan so much, but still desperately want to comfort her? It made no sense! It was insane! It was—

Love.

Vera snorted. Love.

Well fuck love. Love was making her as crazy as Joan.

None of this mattered anyway. What mattered was that she get Joan back to the protection unit right now.

“Joan!” she whispered. “Joan!”

Joan continued to whimper, her eyes closed as she sat on the floor.

Vera knelt behind her, wrapping her shorter arms around Joan’s shoulders, holding her with as much force as she could muster. She pressed her cheek against Joan’s, slowly rocking both of them.

“Shhh,” she murmured, “shhh. I’m here. I have you.”

And Joan Ferguson wrapped her own hands over Vera’s arms, and cried great, heaving sobs that seemed torn from her very soul.

***

Vera didn’t know how long they stayed in that position. She was sure that at any moment Will would walk around the corner, or Linda would spot them on the security cameras.

But no one came.

She couldn’t even remember if they were working tonight.

She wondered what had happened to Melanie.

Eventually Joan settled, although she continued to rock back and forth with Vera.

Her knees in pain from kneeling on the concrete, Vera finally gave Joan one last squeeze, then stood up.

“Joan,” she stated quietly. “You’re not going to see him. I promise. He’s at peace, now.” She held out her hand. “Come with me.”

Joan gazed up at her for so long that Vera was sure she’d never take her hand. “Come,” she repeated.

Slowly, finally, Joan placed her hand into Vera’s smaller one. Still staring at her, Joan stood up. She didn’t let go of Vera’s hand.

And so Vera silently led them back through the corridors of Wentworth, back to the protection unit, Joan’s hand clasped safely within her own.

Chapter Text

As they neared the protection unit, Vera knew that she should feel relieved that they had somehow magically escaped detection. And yet, and yet… why hadn’t they been caught? Where were the guards?

They approached the gate, Joan’s hand still held within Vera’s smaller one. Vera pulled out her swipe card to open the gate, then hesitated.

“I’m sorry for this,” she said simply, staring up into Joan’s dark eyes, “but… you’re a murderer, Joan.”

And there it was. It was a truth that she had repeated many times. For Joan, Wentworth would never be about correction. She couldn’t be “corrected.” For her, Wentworth was about punishment.

Vera blinked, trying to prevent the tears that were threatening to fall. She unlocked the gate.

She still held Joan’s hand.

Joan had been silent during their long walk back. When Vera had glanced back to check on her, she had noticed that Joan stared straight ahead, never once deviating from her path. She no longer held her hands beside her eyes like blinders, but Vera was certain that other, uh, “presences” were still there.

Joan glanced down at her. She gently smoothed her thumb across the apple of Vera’s cheek. She crossed back into the unit.

It was a mess. Vera had forgotten the state in which she had found it. Instead of heading into Joan’s cell, she pulled Joan toward the other one. “We’ll need to clean everything up, but for now… It’s very late.” She motioned to the mattress. “Sit down there.”

Joan sat, her quiet acquiescence unnerving Vera more than her manic conversations with dead people, or her current terrifying appearance.

Vera pulled out her phone and dialed Melanie. Joan would need new sheets for the night.

No one answered.

Vera frowned, her unease increasing. She left a short message on Melanie’s voicemail. Hopefully she had simply left her phone turned off. It was too bad that she didn't have her two-way radio with her, but she wouldn't have wanted to use it, anyway. Vera didn't want to alert any other guards as to who was in protection.

She turned back to Joan. Vera gently cupped her chin, lifting her face into the light. Areas of her skin were red, and there were scratches all over. She let go, picking up each of Joan’s hands. The fleshy areas around the nails were cut and torn. Her hands were obviously the source of most of the blood.

Joan was a mess, and Vera was fairly certain that her wounds were self-inflicted.

“I’m sorry, Joan,” she whispered. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Finally making a decision, Vera leaned over Joan. She slowly reached down, pulling the remaining sleeve of Joan’s open teal hoodie from her body. “We need to clean you off, Joan,” she said quietly, calmly. “You’ll feel better after a warm shower. I—I had one earlier tonight, and it made me feel better.” She flashed to the events that had taken place earlier that evening—pouring out everything to Melanie, scratching her own body after the shower, trying to seduce Melanie to forget about Joan… and then she thought about the events only a few hours before that: telling Joan about David, being strangled by Joan, finding out about Joan’s plan to ‘annihilate’ her, finding happiness in Joan’s touch…

Vera’s hands shook with her conflicting emotions. So much love and so much hate. So much hope and so much betrayal. So much rage and so much shame.

Tossing aside the hoodie, Vera grasped the base of Joan’s shirt, pulling it up Joan’s torso, over her head, away from Joan’s long arms.

“Do you think you can do the rest on your own?” Vera asked.

Joan nodded.

Vera turned to move away, but was surprised when Joan’s hand suddenly grasped her own.

“Stay with me,” Joan whispered. “I can’t be alone with them.”

Vera smiled sadly, nodding.

She held Joan’s hand all the way to the tiny shower room.

***

As Joan showered, Vera tried to contact Melanie again. This time the call went directly to voicemail. Where was Miller?

***

They sat cross-legged on the bed, facing each other. “Tell me what happened to him,” Joan said.

So Vera did. She told Joan about Nils’s investigation, about the Family Ferrante, about David forgetting the drugs on the bus. She told her about the undercover operation, about the Family’s suspicions, about his death. Then she told her about the burial.

At some point in the story, Vera pulled Joan toward her, so that Joan lay curled up on the bed, her head in Vera’s lap. Vera stroked Joan’s hair, her cheeks, her shoulders, as Joan wept.

Every time Joan cried “my baby!” Vera’s heart broke a little more.

Melanie had been right: you don’t have to forgive someone to recognize that they’re hurting.

Chapter Text

Vera woke to find Melanie standing in the open doorway of the cell, staring at her.

Correction: at them.

Joan still lay with her head in Vera’s lap, dried tear tracks visible on her cheeks, Vera’s hands still gently resting on her hair.

Miller didn’t say anything. She just stared. Her expression was shuttered, and Vera felt a jolt of shame to realize how much unhappiness she had caused her.

“Melanie—” she whispered.

“No.” Melanie shook her head. “Don’t say anything.”

Joan shifted. She slowly sat up, looking back and forth between the two of them, watching. She said nothing.

Vera’s sense of unease grew as the silence stretched. She wished she knew what Melanie was thinking. She wanted to explain—if Melanie would just let her explain! She leaned forward, parting her lips in preparation. “I—”

Melanie held up her hand. “I don’t want to hear it,” she said, wearily. “I don’t want to know it, I don’t want to be a part of it.” She turned her gaze to the window, staring into grey light of the early morning sunrise.

Vera glanced over at Joan. She was staring at the wall opposite her. Once again, she showed no expression. Vera wasn’t sure if this was an improvement from the broken Joan who had sobbed her heart out last night, or a deterioration.

“You’re selfish people,” Melanie continued, still gazing out the window. “You have this bizarre obsession with each other. Everything is about you, you, you. You don’t care about anyone else around you.” She finally turned her gaze back to them. “You don’t care who you hurt.”

She took a step forward, handing Vera an envelope. “I’ve had enough,” she stated. “This is my resignation. I’ll give you two weeks, but then I’m getting far away from you—from both of you. This…” she waved her hand in a vague circle, encompassing them, “this is unhealthy. You may destroy each other, but I refuse to let you destroy me.”

Vera held the envelope, making no move to open it. She looked up at Melanie imploringly. “Please don’t go,” she whispered.

Melanie’s expression softened slightly. “I have to,” she responded quietly. “You know I have to.”

Vera blinked up at her, then nodded sadly. She carefully placed the envelope beside her.

Miller glanced at Joan. “How is she?”

Vera also looked at Joan. “Today? I don’t know. Last night was… I’ve never seen her like that. It was like she was ruined—completely broken.”

Joan continued to stare at the wall as if completely unaware of the conversation.

“And you?” Miller asked, turning her attention back to Vera. “How are you, now?”

Vera shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she said simply. “Nothing has really changed from what I told you yesterday. So…”

“One thing has changed,” Melanie interjected quietly. “Will Jackson knows about Joan.”

“What?” Vera cried, fear obvious in her voice. “No! She tried to frame him for the murder of Harry Smith! Will must hate her!” Vera glanced anxiously over at Joan. She was momentarily distracted by the smug smile that was slowly spreading across Joan’s lips.

Melanie was watching the smile, too. She frowned. “Yes. That’s why I couldn’t answer your calls. He found me in the surveillance room just as I spotted Joan. I tried to distract him, and it worked, at first, but I couldn’t keep it up. He got suspicious. He saw you running along the corridors, and then he saw her.”

Joan let out a long, seemingly contented sigh.

“Joan?” Vera asked suspiciously, “this is dangerous. Why are you so happy about this?”

But Joan only shook her head enigmatically, the smile remaining on her face.

Vera frowned, returning her attention to Melanie. “So what does this mean? He knows she’s here in Wentworth. What did he say? Is he going to tell others?”

“No,” Melanie replied confidently. “We had a long talk. I didn’t tell him about your… relationship… but he knows that Joan is in the protection unit. And he knows that she’s… unwell.” Melanie shrugged. “He could see that well enough on the monitors.”

They both turned to Joan again.

“He obviously has a lot of anger,” Miller continued, “but I don’t think he’ll try to hurt her. He said something like Joan Ferguson being locked in a cell of her own prison was a greater form of torture than anything he could have invented.”

The smile was gone from Joan’s face.

“One other thing, Vera,” Melanie added, her voice full of warning. “I rewound the surveillance. She spent a good fifteen minutes talking to someone in H2. I couldn’t see who it was—you know the cameras don’t actually enter the living space—but the corridor camera caught her talking through a gate.”

Vera sprung off the bed. She knelt in front of Joan, reaching up to grasp her face, forcing Joan to look at her. “Last night,” she stated urgently. “Last night you talked to someone in H2. Was it your father, Joan? Or was it an inmate?”

Joan gazed at her steadily, but said nothing.

“Dammit, Joan! This is for your own safety!” Vera wanted to shake her. “Who were you talking to in H2?”

Joan tilted her head. “Jianna,” she finally replied, lifting a finger to once again trace the curve of Vera’s cheek. “Jianna was feeding the baby.”

“Jianna,” Vera repeated, visibly relaxing. “There was no one there,” she informed Melanie, craning her head to look up at her. “Jianna’s de—not here. She was talking to people who weren’t there—people who are only in her mind.”

Miller nodded. “I remember. The same thing happened when she stopped eating and drinking. She had whole arguments with her father.”

Vera sighed, dropping her hands from Joan’s face and standing. “We were lucky.”

“You were very lucky,” Melanie retorted.

They both observed Joan, still sitting on the bed.

“He won’t take away another baby,” Joan suddenly stated assuredly to the wall, ignoring them, the slow smile reappearing on her lips. “Jianna’s fear will see to that. And now he’ll know,” she paused, as if savouring the moment, “he’ll know that I’m the one behind it!”

Chapter Text

Vera shivered as a chill swept over her.

“‘He won’t take away another baby,’” she muttered, repeating Joan. “Another baby?” Her eyes widened in comprehension. “You’re talking about Will!”

Melanie frowned, confused.

Joan stared beatifically at the wall.

Vera continued to dissect Joan’s words. “And the baby… the baby is Joshua!” She turned frantically to Melanie. “She’s not talking about Jianna at all—she’s talking about Anderson! Doreen Anderson and her baby, Joshua!”

Melanie held up her hand. “Wait. I don’t understand. Why would Will take away Doreen’s baby? Does Will even have the power to do that?”

Vera shook her head. “Not directly, no. He’s no longer a social worker. But he could file reports stating that the baby is in harm’s way.”

“But why would he do that?” Melanie asked. “Joshua is fine. Well… as fine as a baby can be, in prison.”

They exchanged glances, both silently considering the current state of Wentworth.

“It doesn’t matter what that man thinks,” Joan suddenly stated, startling them. Her smile had become downright devious. “What matters is what Jianna thinks. And Jianna will do all she can to protect the baby against him. This time, Jianna will win!” she added triumphantly.

Vera again glanced at Melanie, who was giving Joan a look of pity.

“Oh, Joan,” Vera moaned, sitting on the bed next to Joan. She took her hand. “Joan, Jianna isn’t here anymore.” She paused, watching Ferguson’s face for any sign that she understood. She squeezed her hand. “Jianna’s dead,” she whispered.

Joan’s face suddenly crumpled in pain. “I know,” she whispered. “I know she’s dead. And… and David is too. They’re both gone.” Her head dropped.

Vera wrapped her arms around Joan, leaning her head against her shoulder. Miller sighed, but stepped forward to gently rub circles on Joan’s other shoulder.

“But I…” Joan continued, slowly looking up, her face twisted in hatred, “I will make that man pay for what he has done!”

***

Melanie abruptly stepped back from Joan, staring at her in shock. Vera continued to hold Joan, but she, too, was dazed by the ferociousness of Joan’s outburst. She knew Joan hated Will—since the trial, everyone knew Joan hated Will—but she had failed in her attempts to ruin him. Vera had assumed that she had just… given up—especially considering her meticulous plans to “annihilate” her.

But this was Joan Ferguson.

Joan Ferguson never just “gave up.”

Vera felt suddenly angry with herself. “I should have known…” she whispered to herself. “I should have been prepared…”

She was startled by Melanie’s strong arms yanking her roughly away from Joan, throwing her onto the bed. “What?” her mouth fell open.

“I’m sick of all of this!” Melanie exclaimed. “Don’t you dare try to comfort this woman, Vera!” She pointed at Joan. “All she does is manipulate you, and you don’t care! You take it and take it and you don’t bother to look outside your cozy little bubble of two!” She stalked toward Joan, grasping her by the shoulders. “But I know her. I know her better than she thinks I do. And I think it’s time for answers.”

Melanie abruptly pushed hard, forcing Joan’s shoulders to smack against the concrete wall behind her. She climbed over her, holding her in place against the wall.

“Melanie…” Vera whispered nervously, shocked at Miller’s sudden behaviour.

Joan twisted her head to the side, staring at Melanie. “Well now, this is new,” she stated, smiling viciously into Miller’s face.

But Melanie smiled back. “Oh, it was always here, darling. It’s just that some of us are able to control ourselves.”

Joan’s eyes narrowed.

***

Miller shoved her again, pushing her hard against the wall. “First question: are you seeing people who aren’t there?”

Joan glared at her, but finally answered with a clipped “yes.”

“Are any of these people telling you to kill people?”

Joan rolled her eyes. “No.”

Miller glanced significantly at Vera, but Vera shook her head. “I don’t think they’re those kinds of presences,” she said. “If anything, they seem more connected to fear, or to feelings of guilt.”

Joan appeared briefly disconcerted.

“Fine,” Melanie acknowledged, turning back to Joan. “You said that ‘he would know that you’re the one behind it.’ Behind what? What are you planning to do?”

But Joan slowly shook her head, her smug smile returning. “I’m not planning to do anything,” she said. “I don’t have to.”

“WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?” Melanie shouted, suddenly shoving her forearm against Joan’s throat.

“Melanie!” Vera cried, pulling at her. “Stop it! What are you doing? What’s happened to you?”

She’s happened to me!” Miller replied, glaring ferociously at Joan, her arm slowly pressing into Joan’s throat. “Because you won’t do the right thing and stand up to her!”

Vera climbed on the bed and threw herself against Melanie’s arm, her body awkwardly falling between the two women as Miller was pushed to the side.

Coughing, Joan caught Vera, steadying her as she scrambled to her knees on the bed.

Vera stepped back onto the floor, coming up next to Melanie. Miller was now standing rigidly by the window, her arms clasped protectively around herself. Vera pulled Melanie to her, hugging her tightly. “I’m sorry,” she whispered into Melanie’s ear. “I’m so sorry—for all of this.” She rubbed gentle circles on her back. “I know that you’re correct. I’m not doing the right thing. I’m so wrapped up in Joan that I’m losing the entire prison. But I don’t know how to stop, Melanie,” she pulled back to look into Melanie’s eyes. “I don’t know how.”

Miller gazed down at Vera. “You have to leave her,” she said urgently. “You’re in a kind of… I don’t even know what to call it. It’s like a kind of thrall." She reached up, clasping Vera’s face between her hands. "Who are you anymore, Vera? Do you even know?”

Vera shook her head, tears forming.

“You’re more than this obsession,” Melanie informed her, peering searchingly into her eyes. “You need to remember that. You need to save yourself.”

Vera nodded mutely.

Melanie sighed, leaning into her. She gently, tenderly brushed Vera's lips with her own. Finally releasing her, she pushed her away. “Now go. You need to tend to your prison.” Nodding toward Joan, she added, “I’ll take care of this.”

Vera glanced between Miller and Joan, worried. “What are you going to do?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Melanie responded, casually seating herself on the end of the bed. “Riley and I are simply going to have a little chat. Aren’t we, Riley?”

Joan smiled dangerously in response. “I look forward to it.”

Vera crept out of the cell, throwing nervous glances at each of them.

Chapter Text

Vera glanced continuously at her office clock. In the moments when it felt like the hands had stopped moving, she clicked on the computer on her laptop. Both machines confirmed that time was, indeed, proceeding… but where was Melanie? What had she said to Joan? And how had Joan responded?

Should she have left them alone?

Aagh! She stood up, pacing in front of the windows. What about Will? Joan had said that Will would know that she was the one behind it—but behind what, exactly? And what did it mean that Joan didn’t have to do anything herself?

There were too many questions. It was impossible!

She turned to run back to the protection unit before viciously tamping down on that impulse. As much as she may want to hear their conversation, Melanie was correct: she needed to focus on her prison.

Hopping up into her tall chair, Vera listlessly pulled at one of the piles of papers now consuming her desk. The title said “Accruement of Annual Leave.”

Fascinating.

She tapped her pen against the charts.

No. She simply couldn’t concentrate. What if Joan was doing something terrible to Melanie? She was capable of virtually anything.

And what if Melanie was doing something terrible to Joan? How well did she really know Melanie?

Vera sighed, shaking her head. She re-aligned her pencil soldiers. This was a moment of trust: she had to trust that Melanie was able to handle herself. She had to trust Joan’s control.

What was left of it, at least.

***

When she wasn’t worrying about Joan and Melanie, she was debating whether or not to go visit Anderson. She was desperate to know what Joan had said to the woman and, more importantly, whether Doreen had told the other inmates about Joan’s presence in Wentworth. If she had…

No. She couldn’t think about it. If the other inmates knew of Joan’s presence, it would lead to chaos—chaos that would make the riot that killed Meg Jackson look like play time.

Vera felt pathetically grateful to be interrupted by a knock on her door.

“Governor,” Linda Miles nodded, entering and passing folders to her. “New inmate files.”

Vera took them briskly, adding them to the pile of unprocessed paperwork that cluttered her desk.

Linda pulled the third file out of the pile, placing it back in front of Vera. “I think you’ll want to see this one.”

Vera frowned. “Why?” she asked, pulling open the file, revealing its contents. “Who’s so important that—”

She halted abruptly, her hands clenching around the heavy paper. “No…” she uttered. “Not now!” She looked up, wailing, “for fuck’s sake! Not now!”

Linda simply smiled, shrugging her shoulders. “What can you do?” she asked rhetorically, walking to the doorway before turning back to Vera. “Life’s a bitch,” she added, closing the door behind her.

“Fucking hell!” Vera shouted in frustration as she threw her pencils across the room, completely oblivious to the fact that her predecessor had once made the same gesture.

From her photo in the opened re-offender file, Franky Doyle smiled insolently at her.

***

Her thoughts were looping as she stooped to pick up each pencil.

Pencil. Franky Doyle couldn’t come back. Not right now.

Pencil. Had Anderson told the other inmates about Joan?

Pencil. What if Joan and Melanie were fighting?

Pencil. (What if Joan and Melanie were making love again?)

The pencils fell to the floor.

***

She fled her office. Instead, she stalked the halls, guilt and fear gnawing at her. The tension in the corridors was palpable. She had experienced bad times before—the last riot, for example, when she had contracted her Hepatitis C—but this was so much worse. This felt like something final, something inevitable.

It was more than a fight between Smith and Procter for top dog position.

This felt like war.

Vera stopped in the middle of a hallway intersection, startled. She scanned the women ahead of her, then looked behind.

It was happening.
The inmates were traveling in packs. They walked closely together, warily, always monitoring the space around them. They didn’t talk. They didn’t laugh. They simply moved to wherever they had to go.

Why hadn’t she noticed this before? She couldn’t see a single person who walked the corridors alone.

The evidence was obvious: they were protecting themselves from a danger that she couldn’t see.

Vera Bennett had lost control of her prison.

Chapter Text

She should tell Channing. She should report this to the Board.

But what would she say? That the inmates appeared to be traveling in groups? That was hardly proof of… anything.

And it would make her look bad. It would make clear the fact that she was a fraud, an imposter; that Vera Bennett should never have become Governor of Wentworth.

But she had been a good governor, dammit! No, she hadn’t ruled like Joan, but she had been sensitive to the inmates’ needs while continuing to maintain firm policies. And while there had been a slow escalation in violence (which Joan had of course pointed out), all of that had stopped in the last couple of days. The overdoses, the shivvings, all of that had stopped.

But she hadn’t done that, she suddenly realized. They had stopped on their own. She had either been with Joan, or thinking about Joan.

Melanie was right. She was obsessed.

And it was sick.

The violence stopping on its own wasn’t a good sign at all. She could see that, now that she was away from Joan. The lack of violence simply meant a waiting period before the explosion.

She had to end whatever was happening, and she had to do it quickly—before Franky Doyle arrived.

But how?

A thought flashed through her mind: Joan would know. But she couldn’t go to her. Not about this. She had let Joan Ferguson ruin her life. She wouldn’t give her control over her prison.

***

Miller was waiting outside her office, fidgeting with her tie. She kept loosening it, pulling it away from her neck, then suddenly tightening it.

She looked like she was trying to choke herself.

“I need to talk to you,” Melanie stated as Vera approached. She left the tie loose.

Vera felt relief flow through her. Melanie was okay. What about Joan?

“I can’t talk about her here,” Melanie said abruptly, as if reading Vera’s thoughts. She checked her watch. “I need to be outside of this… this place. The parking lot—come to the parking lot.”

Vera nodded, turning to follow Miller as she led them through the locked doors and long corridors of Wentworth, moving toward the outside.

They both signed out at the desk, Vera uttering a curt “I’ll be right back” to the officer on duty.

Miller walked across the parking lot, to the far side. As Vera watched, following her, Melanie again looked at her watch, and again fretted with her tie.

“Stop that,” Vera said, finally making it to Melanie’s side. She reached up, pulling the tie from Miller’s neck. “Melanie,” she addressed her, lightly putting a hand on her shoulder. “Tell me what’s going on.”

And Melanie Miller burst into tears.

“Oh God!” Vera exclaimed. “What did she do to you? What has she done?”

“No, no,” Melanie said, shaking her head, her voice thick with crying. “I mean, yes, she did something, but it’s not what she’s done!”

Vera moved her hands around Melanie’s back, pulling her to her and hugging her tightly. “Tell me what’s going on,” she whispered. “Tell me why you’re crying.”

But Melanie only cried harder, sobs shaking her body. “I can’t do this!” she wailed. “It’s too wrong!” She suddenly broke from Vera’s embrace. “You have to go back!” she told her urgently, gripping Vera’s shoulders hard. “You have to go back inside right now. You have to stop it!”

“Stop what?” Vera asked, bewildered.

But Melanie wasn’t listening. She was staring at her watch. “Thirty minutes,” she mumbled. She looked back up at Vera. “It’s not supposed to happen for thirty minutes. You have time! You have the time to stop it if you go in now!”

Vera caught Melanie’s hands, squeezing them. “Stop what, Melanie?”

Melanie’s face crumpled in misery. “The riot,” she whispered.

***

Vera told herself that she refused to panic at Melanie’s words. “Joan knows that there’s going to be a riot,” she said instead, slowly, “and she told you, and it’s going to happen in thirty minutes. Why didn’t she tell me?” she asked, looking into Melanie’s eyes. “And why didn’t you just tell me that inside? If it’s true, we’re wasting time out here!”

“Oh, Vera…” Melanie cupped Vera’s face. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!”

Vera pushed her back. “We don’t have time for this!” she admonished urgently, turning to run back into the prison. “We need to stop it!”

“Yes, just—you have to know that I’m sorry!” Melanie blurted. “You have to understand! She made me bring you out here. She made me!”

“What?” Vera demanded, stopping abruptly.

“I’m supposed to keep you out here until it happens! Until you can’t get back in!”

Vera turned slowly.

“I’ve been working for her!” Melanie wailed. “For Joan. I have been for a little while. It’s not by choice,” she added anxiously. “She… found out about something. She made me do things…”

Vera felt suddenly winded. Melanie, her only friend. Melanie, who she had thought loved her. “You’re working for her…” she mumbled.

“No! Not any more!” Melanie cried as she fell to her knees. She wrapped her arms around Vera’s torso, staring up at her imploringly, tears coursing down her cheeks. “I’m so, so sorry, Vera! I’m so sorry! Please say you’ll forgive me!”

Vera tried to push her away. “I have to get inside—”

“Please! Forgive me!”

Vera broke free. She turned just as Wentworth’s powerful siren shrieked, filling the air with a piercing screech.

“No!” Melanie exclaimed, horrified. “It’s early!”

“She knew you’d betray her,” Vera called over her shoulder as she ran back toward the prison.

“Please, Vera, please!” she heard Melanie shout. “Please forgive me!”

Vera ran.

As she hurriedly pulled open the doors, she threw one last glance at the pathetic figure crumpled on the ground, staring after her. “I forgive you,” she whispered.

She entered a prison under siege.

Chapter Text

“Report!” she barked as she entered, not bothering to sign back in as she hurried across reception to the security area. She walked through the metal detector, huffing with impatience when she realized that she still carried her phone in her pocket. Backing up, she quickly dropped it in a waiting tray.

“Lockdown, Governor,” the guard on duty replied as she stepped through the detector. “Two separate events, one in H block, and one in D block. Code blues. I don’t know more than that yet.”

“Secure this area and liaise with the outer gate unit,” she replied shortly, turning to sprint toward the inner offices. “I don’t want any visitors even getting to the parking lot until we know what’s going on,” she called over her shoulder as she swiped her card, pushing through the heavy metal doors.

“Right away, Governor,” the guard responded, hurrying toward the intercom to the gatehouse.

Neither noticed Vera’s cell phone, forgotten in the little tray.

***

She found Linda Miles in the camera room, yelling orders into her two-way radio. “I don’t give a fuck, Bakula! You stay with her until the ambulance arrives.”

Vera raised her eyebrows.

Linda turned, slamming her radio on the desk. “Fuck, Vera, don’t do that. You look like Ferguson!”

Vera ignored her. “What’s happened?”

“Two shivvings—Conway again, and Lucy Gambaro. Conway is in Medical, but Gambaro will need an ambulance. It’s on its way.”

“No one else?” Vera asked. “No signs of group fighting? No… no riot?”

“Riot?” Linda shook her head. “I sure as hell hope not. No, it’s just two shivvings.”

Vera frowned, adrenaline still coursing through her. Two individuals were hurt—which of course was terrible—but that was it. Where was the riot? Was Melanie wrong?

“The shivvings happened separately?” she asked Linda.

“In two separate blocks,” Linda answered, nodding.

“Hm. I wonder if they’re connected.”

“Seems unlikely,” Linda shrugged. “That would take some coordination.”

“Nothing’s unlikely when it comes to these women,” Vera replied heavily.

***

Vera surveyed the monitors, her heart finally beating at a normal pace. Things seemed calm for now. The prison remained in lockdown, and she decided to keep it that way. The women could handle one uncomfortable night.

She idly watched one of the monitors. Will Jackson was patrolling H Block.

Vera sighed with frustration. It was obvious that there was more going on here than was apparent. She needed to get herself together. Think, Vera, think! If she could believe Melanie—and, with everything else, she thought she still could—then Joan believed that a riot would start in roughly twenty minutes. But how would the riot start? Where would it start? Should she call in the SESG now?

No. No, she would lose the governorship if she called in the SESG. Between the expense and the embarrassment to the prison, Channing would fire her in an instant. Joan may be about to ruin her, but she refused to ruin herself.

So. She just had to work out for herself what was going on.

First, the obvious question: how did Joan know that there would be a riot?

She switched her attention to the camera outside Joan’s protection unit. Joan’s only contacts—as far as she knew—were her guards, and anyone she had spoken to last night.

Oh. Anderson.

Vera shifted her attention to the cameras showing H Block. Had Doreen told Joan about the riot? She could have—there would have been enough time—but why would she do that? As far as Vera was aware, Anderson had no love for Joan. And if Doreen had told anyone else about Joan—which seemed likely—then why would Joan not want Vera to stop the riot? After all, Joan herself would be killed. That would hardly be helpful to her “greater good.”

No, nothing was adding up. And Conway and Gambaro—those shivvings didn’t make sense, either. Getting rid of Conway was a way to get to Smith. That was clear. But how did Gambaro fit into that?

She watched as Melanie re-entered the reception area, straightening her uniform. There were simply too many things that didn’t make sense. And Miller seemed to be right in the middle of it.

Vera glanced again at her watch. Fifteen minutes. She looked back at the monitors. What should she do? Was there anything she could do, other than wait? The women were in lockdown, security was tightened, no visitors could get in…

She needed to talk to Joan, Anderson, or Miller.

Joan would never give her a straight answer, and Anderson was too much of a risk.

Her eyes narrowed. That left one person: Joan’s new employee…

Melanie.

Chapter Text

Melanie met Vera in the governor’s office, having been called by Linda.

Vera sat in her tall chair, staring at the other woman. Miller remained standing in front of the desk. Her head was bowed.

Vera considered idly that Melanie looked miserable. Well. Served her right.

Except… she meant it when she whispered that she had forgiven her. Vera knew better than anyone that morals could be corrupted when Joan Ferguson was involved.

Still, she needed to know information, and she needed it now.

“Ten minutes,” Vera stated, glancing at the clock. “There are ten minutes left before this so-called riot. Tell me what you know.”

Miller shook her head. “I don’t know anything,” she said despairingly. She scrubbed her hands over her face. “Truly, Vera, I—”

“That’s Governor,” Vera interrupted savagely, correcting her.

Melanie paused, then sighed. “Yes, Governor. I only know that she told me to make sure you were outside, so that you couldn’t stop the riot from happening.”

“That’s it?” Vera asked. “Nothing else? Not who is leading it? What’s going to happen? How she even knows about it?”

“Nothing,” Melanie whispered.

“Sit,” Vera barked, pointing to a chair. Melanie sat.

“I find it difficult,” Vera started, walking around her desk to stand directly behind Melanie, “to believe that you have no knowledge about any of this. You’ve already admitted to working for her. Who knows what else you’ve been up to?” Vera leaned over Melanie, hissing into her ear. “You could be Joan’s lover, for all I know! Maybe you’ve just been playing me, this whole time!”

“I wouldn’t!” Melanie cried. “Oh, Vera,” she reached around, suddenly wrapping her arms around Vera’s torso, her face pressed against Vera’s belly, holding tight. “You have to know that I would never do anything to hurt you! I only did it because she forced me! But I would never hurt you!”

Vera sighed, gently brushing the hair away from Melanie’s face. “I do know, Melanie,” she relented. “But I need you to tell me everything. I don’t care what Joan has on you, but I need to know everything else.”

Melanie hiccupped, nodding. She continued to hold tightly onto Vera. “It’s only been a little while—just a few days, maybe. She’s had me report to her about you—how you seem to be, whatever you’re thinking, what you’re doing. That kind of thing. Other than that, the only two things that she’s made me do are to pull you outside today, and to take notes to Kaz Proctor.”

Vera startled. “Proctor? How does she even know she’s here?” She thought back to the days surrounding the fire. Proctor was only arrested when the fire broke out. She wouldn’t have been transferred to Wentworth when Joan was still in charge.

Melanie shrugged miserably. “I don’t know, Governor,” she said. “I was just supposed to take the notes to her, and to bring Proctor’s notes back.”

Vera considered this. “And did you read any of these notes?”

Melanie shook her head. “I tried! Honestly, I did! But they seemed to be written in some kind of code.”

Vera sighed. Of course they were. “So Proctor has known that Joan was here all this time… Why didn’t she tell anyone?” Vera tried to think through what she knew of both women. “What’s in it for Proctor? Why wouldn’t she see Joan as a monster, just like the other women? Surely she’s heard them talking about the Freak.” She gently removed Melanie’s arms from her middle, pulling away from her. She walked toward the window, staring out at the vacant exercise yard. “Kaz said nothing to you?” she asked, turning back to Miller.

“No,” Melanie stated, “but I don’t know her well. You know that I spend most of my time with Joan. The only thing I noticed about Proctor is that she gets sort of excited whenever I bring a message—kind of giddy. But maybe that’s just because they’re planning something.”

Vera glanced up at the clock. “Three minutes,” she stated quietly.

The two women stared at each other. “What do we do?” Melanie asked, after a pause.

Vera gazed out the window. “I don’t know,” she answered honestly.

***

The three minutes finally passed… and nothing happened.

“Was it all just a trick?” Melanie asked, frowning.

“Maybe,” Vera replied, “but why? Why bother to get me out of the prison?”

“Well… I didn’t really get you out of the prison, did I?” Melanie returned. “I mean, you’re still in here. The prison is on lockdown. Maybe whatever she heard didn’t happen.”

“Mmmm,” Vera responded absently. “But this is Joan Ferguson.” She glanced down at the pencils lying in disarray on her desk. “Or maybe,” she thought aloud, slowly re-positioning them into their proper line, “this isn’t about what she heard, at all.”

“What?” Melanie asked, confused.

“What if this wasn’t just Joan passing information to you, Melanie? We’re assuming that Joan is somehow just the middleman, as if she heard something from Anderson, or from Proctor.”

Melanie nodded.

“But this is Joan Ferguson,” Vera emphasized again. “She’s never just in the middle of things.”

Miller bolted to her feet. “We have to go check the cameras!” she exclaimed.

Vera was already ahead of her, hurrying to the door. “I’d bet my governorship—whatever is left of it—that this is all part of her plan.”

Chapter Text

As Linda Miles pointed out, there was clearly nothing out of the order on the monitors.

“What exactly are we looking for?” Melanie asked, scanning intently.

Vera sighed. “I wish I knew. Something that is different.”

“Should we rewind?” Melanie suggested. “Maybe there was something we missed?”

“Maybe…” Vera frowned. Everything was about timing and focus and control when it came to Joan. Whatever had happened was leading to something. She just needed a hint…

“There!” Melanie interrupted her thoughts, tapping on a monitor. “Zoom in! What is that?”

Vera and Linda both leaned forward, straining to identify the unknown object in the monitor. Something was showing just on the edge of the camera’s range.

“Where is this?” Vera asked, trying to gain context.

“D Block,” Linda responded. “It’s just inside the gates of the living area.”

All three tried to make sense of the grainy image.

“Oh my God,” Vera suddenly exclaimed. “They’re feet—it’s a body! An officer’s body!” She grabbed Miller’s radio. “Officer down. Medical attention required in D Block immediately.”

“Look!” Miller cried, pointing at a different monitor. There were inmates—obvious even in the black and white image—furtively running through the halls of Wentworth, ducking in and out of doorways and corridors. Their faces were covered.

“But we’re in lockdown,” Melanie stated, watching.

“They obviously have the fallen officer’s key card,” Vera replied. “But where are they going?”

They watched with growing horror as the pack of inmates moved through the hallways.

“H Block,” Linda stated, exchanging a worried look with Vera.

“Of course,” Vera replied, her voice low. She pointed toward the lead figure, whose face covering had come loose. “Look. Right there. Kaz Proctor.”

“What are they going to do?” Melanie asked.

“Isn’t it obvious? She’s going to kill Bea Smith.”

***

Vera all but grabbed Miller’s radio. “All back-up officers report immediately to H Block,” she stated tersely. “Riot gear is required. Primary officers remain at your posts. Wentworth remains in lockdown.”

Watching as Kaz again made her way through a locked door using her stolen swipe card, Vera quickly turned to Linda. “Can you identify whose card just unlocked the gate to corridor 32?”

“Hold on,” Linda replied. “It’s a different system—I just have to log in.”

Vera tried not to fidget with frustration as Linda punched her fingers at the keyboard.

“Found it,” Linda stated. “Oh… It was Will Jackson.”

Melanie gasped. “No!”

Vera leaned heavily on her hands, nodding stiffly. She couldn’t think about a fallen friend right now. “Notify Medical that the officer is Will. Can you deactivate his swipe card?”

“I think so,” Linda answered, “but it will take a few minutes. I’m not exactly a tech expert.”

“Use your Year Ten Computer Science,” Vera threw back, sarcastic in her fear. “Just get it done.” She tossed the radio back to Melanie. “You’re with me,” she stated. “We need to get to H Block now.”

***

Traveling through Wentworth during a lockdown was an eerie experience. The building felt unnaturally still, as if it was holding its breath, waiting for something terrible to attack it. There was no sound of soft-soled footfalls, no squeals from carts whose wheels needed to be oiled. As she ran, her own hard heels making a cacophony as they hit the floor, Vera felt her anxiety rise. For all that it was a prison, Wentworth was a place of life—or at least where people lived. This lockdown felt like death.

No time to think about that.

Rounding the corner, they entered H block.

Here, too, it was quiet.

“Where are the inmates?” Melanie asked in a hushed voice.

“And where are the guards?” Vera added.

They entered H2, looking around warily. It was empty.

“Stop,” Vera ordered suddenly. She froze, listening.

“Crying,” Melanie whispered.

They followed the sound to one of the cells. Vera gestured at Melanie to stay back as she opened the door. She carefully peeked inside.

Sitting on the floor, rocking and sobbing, was an inmate.

Doreen Anderson.

She looked up as Vera entered the cell.

“I didn’t mean it!” Doreen whimpered through her tears, holding her baby tightly to her chest. “I didn’t mean any of this to happen! I was just trying to protect Joshua!”

“Doreen,” Vera asked, “is the baby okay?”

Doreen nodded, still rocking herself.

Vera knelt beside her, placing her hand on Doreen’s shoulder. “I believe you,” she told her. “You didn’t mean this to happen.”

Doreen shook her head. “I didn’t! I didn’t! I swear, Ms Bennett!”

“I understand, Anderson. But I need you to tell me something.”

Doreen blinked against her tears, focusing on Vera’s next words. “Yes,” she said emphatically. “Anything.”

“Good. Now: what the fuck is going on?”

Chapter Text

Doreen swiped her hand across her cheek, trying to blot away the tears. “It was me,” she whispered, clutching Joshua tightly to her. He wiggled, pushing a pudgy baby hand toward Vera. “I told Kaz about Bea’s plan. I needed to stop Will Jackson from taking Joshua, and I knew that Bea would never do anything to Mr. Jackson, so I needed someone who would, and—”

“Okay, okay, Anderson,” Vera said soothingly. She sat fully on the floor, throwing a significant look toward Melanie, who followed suit. “I need you to slow down for me,” Vera continued. “First: Smith had a plan, and you told Proctor about it. What was that plan?”

Doreen nodded, sniffing. “Bea was finally going to take out Kaz. She had to show her that she was the true Top Dog. Everyone knew it was coming, though, so she knew she had to create a distraction or Wentworth would go into a full-on riot. Bea actually doesn’t want that kind of thing, you know,” she said, looking earnestly at Vera. “She really doesn’t. But you have to do things in here to stay Top Dog…”

Vera nodded knowingly.

“Anyway,” Doreen continued, smoothing Joshua’s hair, “Bea had arranged that Maxine and Juicy Lucy would create distractions, while she went after Kaz. She didn’t tell me about the distractions, or what she was going to do,” she added quickly. “She only told me about the timing of all of it because she wanted me to keep Joshua safe. You know, just in case.” She started crying again. “In case things went wrong…”

“Anderson,” Vera said sharply. “Doreen,” she added, more gently. “I need you to keep going. Smith told you about this plan. What happened next?”

Doreen looked away, burying her face against Joshua. “The Freak,” she whispered.

Vera and Melanie exchanged glances.

“Can you tell me what you mean by that?” Vera asked, carefully avoiding direct mention of Joan. It seemed fairly obvious that Joan had, indeed, spoken to Anderson, but…

Suddenly Doreen lifted her head, pointing her finger at Vera. “You let the Freak in here,” she stated accusingly. “She’s been here all along, and none of us knew! And she told me things, and I believed them, and… and… maybe she’s right! I don’t know!” She stood abruptly, backing away from Vera. “Who can I trust, anymore?”

Vera stared, mouth open, unable to think of an appropriate response. It was Melanie who stepped in, gently placing her hands on Anderson’s shoulders. “Us,” she said emphatically, looking closely into Doreen’s eyes. “You can trust us.”

Doreen looked like she desperately wanted to believe her. “But you’re screws,” she sobbed quietly. “You’re on the other side!”

Vera stepped forward. “Yes, we’re officers,” she said, “but our primary mission has always been about the welfare of the women. We’re here to protect you,” she said, trying to convey her earnestness. “We want you to be safe—all of you,” she added, gently stroking Joshua’s head. She pointed to the bed. “Come. Let’s sit down and get the rest out.”

Doreen carefully glanced at Melanie, then slowly sat down, Vera joining her. Melanie knelt beside them on the floor, holding up her hand to allow Joshua to grasp her finger in his chubby grip.

Vera cleared her throat. “Yes. You’re right, Doreen,” she stated, finally revealing the truth. “Joan Ferguson has been housed at Wentworth for some time now. She’s been in Protection, both to keep her safe from the women, and,” she quickly glanced at Melanie, “also to keep the women safe from her. She is a master manipulator, Anderson. You can’t trust her.”

Doreen looked down, but didn’t say anything.

“Tell us,” Vera asked. “You obviously saw her last night, when she wasn’t supposed to be out. Tell us everything. What does Joan Ferguson have to do with what happened?”

“I came into the common area to feed Joshua,” Doreen started slowly. “It’s helpful to be able to sit up in a proper chair, you know, instead of the bed. I wasn’t paying much attention to anything, but I suddenly felt like I was being watched. When I looked up, she was standing there, right outside the gate. She was staring at me.”

Vera felt her nervousness rise.

“I got really scared. I didn’t know she was here, and she looked deranged—seriously,” Doreen shook her head, “I could tell that something was very wrong with her. I kind of froze. But she kept staring at me, and she got this smile. It was a genuine smile, Ms. Bennett. She was so happy, just standing there watching me feed Joshy. And so I kind of relaxed. We just stared at each other for a while.

“Eventually Joshua finished, so I started to burp him. That was when she reached out to me, through the gate. She whispered, but it was quiet, so I heard her. She just said, ‘Jianna,’ and ‘please.’ And it was so sad. I know what happened to Jianna. But I also know how Ferguson felt about her. She loved her, Ms. Bennett,” Doreen looked at Vera, wide-eyed. “The Freak really, truly loved her. And she loved that baby.” She looked down at her own child. “And it was like I just forgot how evil she is. She looked at Josh so longingly…” Doreen kissed his head.

“So I walked to the gate, and I held him where she could see him. I didn’t realize she had blood on her hands until she went to touch him, and then I pulled him back. I said, ‘your hands are bleeding,’ and she looked down at them, and then she started to cry. That’s when I knew that things were really, really wrong. She was staring at her hands, crying, and then she got this creepy smile, and it was like she was talking to someone who wasn’t there. She kept saying something about blood and ‘for the greater good.’ She was crazy! I swear, she was completely insane!”

Vera nodded, vividly remembering how she had found Joan. “Keep going,” she prodded. “What happened next?”

“She was scaring me, so I started to back away, but she saw me. She called to me to wait. She said something like ‘I saved him! I saved him like I couldn’t save David. But you have to save him, too.’ And I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about, so I asked her who she saved. It was Josh! She said she saved Josh! Is that true, Ms. Bennett? I thought Bea saved him!”

Vera looked uncomfortable. “Technically, Ferguson did save Joshua from Warner.”

Doreen’s brow furrowed as she processed that information. “So she was telling the truth…”

Vera held up her hand. “She’s no hero, Anderson. She may have saved Joshua, but she also started the fire that almost killed him. She was trying to cover up the evidence that she murdered Warner.”

“But she saved Joshua,” Doreen repeated. “She found him, and she saved him from Jess.”

Vera again exchanged a worried glance with Melanie.

“Which means that she was right,” Doreen continued, now seemingly talking to herself. “She’s always been careful to protect Joshua, once he was born. She was there for that, you know,” she informed Vera.

“I recall,” Vera stated tersely.

“After she told me that she had saved Josh, she warned me about Will Jackson. She said that he was the social worker who had taken Jianna’s son away. That’s true too, isn’t it?”

Vera paused, nodding slowly. “But you have to remember that he was doing what he thought was best for the baby. He thought he was doing the right thing.”

“Taking a baby away from his mother is never the right thing,” Doreen snapped. “Is Ferguson the only person who understands that?!”

Vera suddenly understood. “No one is going to take away your baby, Doreen,” she said soothingly.

“Not now,” Doreen agreed quietly.

Vera’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean by that, Anderson?”

“Nothing,” Doreen mumbled. “I did what I had to do to protect Joshua. That’s all that matters.”

Vera’s voice became sharp. “And what, exactly, did you do?”

Doreen looked up, her eyes clear. “I listened to Ferguson. She was right. I made a deal with the one person who recognized the threat for what it was. Bea wouldn’t listen. She’d never go against him.”

Vera contemplated Doreen’s words. “You made a deal with Proctor,” she interpreted slowly, “because Bea wouldn’t do what you wanted her to do.”

Doreen didn’t deny the statement.

“And the threat—the person who Kaz hates, and who Bea would never go against… it’s Will Jackson, isn’t it?”

Again, Doreen didn’t reply. She leaned into Joshua, breathing his scent.

“You fool,” Vera exclaimed, her anger rising. “You couldn’t see that this was exactly what Joan Ferguson wanted?”

“Ferguson warned me to protect my baby!” Doreen cried in return. “That’s exactly what I’m doing!”

“By killing an officer? By starting a riot?”

“I didn’t kill anyone, and I didn’t start the riot! It was never supposed to get that far!”

“Anderson,” Vera ground out, “just tell me what you did.”

Doreen adjusted Joshua, again pulling him close to her. “I did what Ferguson told me to do. I told Kaz about Bea’s plan so that she could take out Maxine and Juicy Lucy and put Wentworth into lockdown. When Mr. Jackson came to patrol the blocks, Kaz and her gang would lure him in and scare him! And then he would leave Josh and I alone!”

“Scare him,” Vera repeated.

“Of course,” Doreen replied. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone. But he had to know that he couldn’t take my baby away."

“And now he’s lying on the floor, likely dead.”

“What?” Doreen asked. “No! They were just supposed to scare him! Like they scared you…”

“They fucking injected me with Hepatitis C-infected blood!” Vera yelled, livid. “That’s what you mean by ‘scaring me?’ Just like killing Will is ‘scaring’ him?”

“No, no, no!” Doreen started to rock herself again. “No! It wasn’t supposed to be like that…”

“And what about Conway and Gambaro?” Vera asked. “Did you give one thought to their safety? I thought that Conway, at least, was your friend?”

Doreen cried harder. “They weren’t going to hurt Maxine too much—just enough to make it a big show, and to put Wentworth into lockdown. That’s all!”

“You stupid, naïve little fool,” Vera spat, standing. “You’re just a pawn in their games, and you think they’re helping you. You gave Kaz Proctor the perfect opportunity to take out Smith’s main hench, and then to go after Smith herself.”

“No!” Doreen repeated again, sobbing, as Joshua started wailing.

“And you did everything based on the instructions of the only one person who hates Will Jackson more than Proctor,” Vera added furiously. “Joan Fucking Ferguson!”

Chapter Text

“No!” Doreen cried. “It wasn’t like that!”

“Then tell me what happened!” Vera shouted in return, livid.

Melanie placed a warning hand on Vera’s arm, then turned to Doreen. “May I hold him?” Miller asked, gesturing to the screaming baby.

Doreen nodded, crying. She carefully passed Josh to Melanie, who rocked the wailing baby, trying to soothe him.

Doreen tracked Miller and the baby with her eyes. “They came here,” she stated slowly. “Kaz and her gang. I didn’t see any of it because I was in my cell, but I heard them. Everyone was surprised, because they thought they were protected by the gate. But Kaz’s gang got in.”

“They used Will Jackson’s key card,” Vera supplied.

Doreen nodded, looking down and swiping tears from her cheeks. “That’s what Kaz told Bea. It was bad,” she added. “They didn’t follow any of the rules. It should have been just Kaz against Bea, but suddenly everyone was fighting. Liz ran into my cell to yell at me to stay here, but then she ran back out again, and I haven’t seen her since. I haven’t seen any of them, Ms Bennett!” Doreen’s large brown eyes were filled with fear. “Someone yelled that the screws were coming, and then all hell broke lose!”

“Do you know where they went?” Vera asked urgently.

“No!” Doreen shook her head. “But I think Bea was winning. Boomer yelled something about Kaz’s gang running away.”

“Okay, so Smith has retained power for now, but we now have at least two gangs of prisoners on the loose, one fallen officer, and multiple missing officers,” Vera quickly summarized. She suddenly reached for Doreen’s hands, grasping them tightly. “Please, Anderson,” she said in an anxious voice, “to protect Josh—to protect everyone—I need to know if there’s anything else. Anything else you haven’t told me.”

Doreen looked wildly from Vera to Joshua, seemingly making up her mind about something. “Ferguson,” she stated finally, reaching out her hands to Melanie for her baby. “You have to protect Ferguson.”

Vera felt her heart race. This last—and greatest—of her fears was here, and she was too late. She felt her breathing quicken as the panic began. They would torture and humiliate and ultimately kill Joan.

She felt Melanie’s hand on her shoulder, followed by a whispered “keep it together.”

Melanie was right. She had to keep it together. She had to stop this riot.

She had to save Joan.

“Who knows about her, Doreen?” she asked, overriding her fear to focus on getting all the information. “Who else did you tell?”

“Bea,” Doreen whispered. “Bea knows. And she knows that Ferguson is somehow connected to Kaz. And…” Doreen trailed off, once again burying her face against Joshua.

“And what, Doreen? What?” Vera struggled not to shake the other woman.

Doreen finally looked up. “Just before everyone ran away, I heard Bea. She sounded like she had completely lost it. She was yelling about getting Kaz, and then she shouted they were going to ‘get the Freak,’ and that it would finally all be done!”

Vera turned helplessly to Melanie.

“I’ll call it in as soon as I get back to the secure area,” Melanie informed her. “We can’t use the radios in case they’re listening. I’ll tell Linda to get the guards to regroup and to check the CCTV. You… you go to her. I know that I can’t stop you.”

Vera looked at her gratefully. “Call me on my phone as soon as you find any of them on CCTV—Smith, Proctor, our guards—anyone. As far as we know, the rest of the prison is still in lockdown. We can’t let them change that.”

Miller nodded. “And Ferguson? How will you protect her if they know that she’s here?”

Vera already knew what she was going to do, but she couldn’t tell Melanie. Not this time. “Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that,” she said instead. “Focus on finding the two groups of missing prisoners. Once we re-capture them, Joan—and everyone—will be safe again.”

Melanie looked hard at her, and Vera had the impression that Melanie already knew what she was planning. Still, Miller said nothing, only giving a terse nod.

They left the cell, leaving a frightened mother and child staring up at them. “We’ll move you to Medical as soon as we know that it’s safe to do so,” Vera gently informed Doreen as she turned to shut the cell door. “In the meantime, stay in your cell. We’ll lock the gate again. And… be careful, Anderson.” She closed the door fully, making sure it was secure. “And let’s pray that we shut this down quickly,” she added in a whisper.

They silently closed the gate, locking it behind them. As they stood in the corridor, desperately listening for any signs of movement, Miller suddenly pulled Vera to her, embracing her tightly. “I hate that you’re risking yourself for her,” she whispered into Vera’s ear, “but I understand. Go carefully. And—” she pressed a quick kiss to Vera’s lips, “go with my love.”

Melanie turned and sprinted away.

Vera was alone in a prison under siege.

***

She had slipped off her shoes. It hurt to run on the concrete floor, but she couldn’t risk anyone hearing her. She had to get to Joan before they did. She had to.

She ran through the corridors, but her progress was slow. She was forced to pause and listen at every turn, at every intersection. She could only hope that more fighting between the inmates would give her time to get to the protection unit. Maybe, if she was really lucky, the guards had already spotted the prisoners, and they had all been safely detained.

But no one had called her, so that seemed unlikely.

Refusing to wince as her soft feet struck the cold, concrete floor, Vera spared a moment to recognize the insanity of what she was doing. She was the governor of a prison. She should be ushering orders, ensuring that this riot was quenched. Instead, she was rushing to try to save the woman she loved.

It was insane. A different kind of insanity from Joan’s, but insanity nonetheless.

Still, she wasn’t completely irresponsible. She would call in the SESG as soon as she got to Joan. She promised herself that. Just… not yet. She needed a few minutes first to make good on her plan before the special forces arrived. What she was going to do ensured that she would lose her job—and likely be imprisoned herself, if she was caught—but the women would be safe. And Joan would be safe.

That’s what really mattered.

But first she had to get to her.

Chapter Text

It was quiet here—only the typical sounds of Wentworth itself, not the shouts and screams she had passed several minutes ago. This was not a type of riot she had experienced before. This was pain and chaos and madness. The other riots had felt organized, in comparison. This was full-on war, with inmates fighting each other for survival.

She had to call in the SESG.

But first she had to get to Joan.

Thankfully, she had seen no one. It was only the sounds, echoing through the corridors, that informed her that the fighting seemed to be concentrated in the other end of the prison.

Small mercies.

(For her, at least).

She rounded the final corner. There, ahead on her right, stood the gate to the protection unit. A strange part of her mind noted that it looked calm, as if it wasn’t at all bothered by the oncoming storm.

Right. The gate looked calm.

Clearly she was losing it.

Finally reaching the gate, she swiped her keycard, pulling it open the tiniest amount—just enough to allow her to slip through, before quietly pushing it shut behind her.

The clanking lock of the gate felt ominous in the silence.

She looked around. “Joan?” she whispered, quickly scanning the common area, absently noting that the room had been neatened, although the furniture remained broken. “Joan?”

She rushed to the first cell, only to find it empty. Hurrying to the second, she threw open the door. “Joan!” she exclaimed. “You have to come with me! Now!”

Joan was sitting calmly on the bed. “Vera,” she stated pleasantly.

Vera lunged forward, grasping Joan’s arm. “Now,” she stated urgently. “We have to get you out of here right now!”

Joan allowed Vera to pull her arm, but otherwise didn’t move. “Get me out of here?” she asked slowly. She smiled at Vera, seeming to examine the hand that pulled her arm. “There’s no need for that, Vera.”

Vera shook her head, frowning in frustration. “You don’t understand, do you?” she asked, sighing. “You’re still fucked up from last night.” She released Joan’s arm, grasping her by both of her shoulders. She spoke loudly and slowly. “Joan. We need to leave. We need to leave right now. Stand up!”

But Joan remained seated.“No, Vera,” she returned, the strange smile still on her face. “I think it’s you who doesn’t understand. I’m exactly where I should be.” She patted the bed. “Why don’t you sit down right here? You look exhausted. And why aren’t you wearing your shoes?”

Vera let out a cry of frustration. “Please, Joan! Please listen!” she exclaimed, bending over the other woman, her face close to Joan’s. “The prisoners know about you. We have to get you out of here! They’re coming for you!”

Joan’s look turned to one of sympathy. She reached toward Vera’s face, gently running the back of her fingers along Vera’s cheek. “I know they are, Vera,” she said, smiling softly. “I know they’re coming.”

Vera snatched Joan’s hand away from her face. “Then why the fuck aren’t you moving? They’re going to torture you, Joan!” she cried, “in inhuman ways! And then they’re going to kill you!”

Joan turned her face away. “I am where I should be,” she repeated. “I’m fine, Vera.” She abruptly turned back to the small woman. “But you won’t be. You need to leave.” Joan suddenly stood, grasping Vera, turning her toward the door. “You need to put on your shoes and scurry back to your office.” She gave Vera’s bum a gentle push. “Go on, Governor. Go back to where you belong.”

“I—” Vera opened her mouth, shocked. “No!” she cried, turning back to Joan. “I have to save you!”

“Save me?” Joan asked, raising her eyebrows mockingly. “You have to save me?”

“Yes, dammit!” Vera yelled. “I fucking have to save you, because you’re too fucking insane right now to understand that you’re about to die! They are going to kill you, Joan!”

Joan simply smirked at her, one eyebrow raised.

And then, suddenly, Vera understood. “Oh. You want them to come,” she gasped. “You’re expecting them to come.” She looked around the room that had been tidied, at the neatly stacked books and cds. She looked at Joan’s hair, carefully pulled back into a ponytail. “You’re waiting for them to come!”

Joan tilted her head, watching her, her smirk still intact.

Vera moved forward, placing herself directly against Joan. She reached up, grasping Joan’s head in both of her hands, forcefully pulling it down toward her. “But what you don’t seem to understand, Inmate Ferguson, is that your precious Kaz Proctor isn’t in control.” Vera stared hard into Joan’s eyes. “It’s Bea Smith who’s coming for you!”

Joan Ferguson blinked.

Chapter Text

Joan blinked, breaking away from Vera’s hold. “Smith?” she asked, her voice carefully neutral.

“Your little plan failed,” Vera stated viciously. “I just talked to Doreen Anderson. Proctor’s group took out Will Jackson—don’t, don’t smile, Joan, dammit!—and then they came to H block. But Smith and her crew overpowered them, and Anderson heard Smith yell that she was going to get Proctor, and then she was ‘coming for the Freak!’”

For once, Joan looked perturbed. “Anderson heard that?” she inquired. “Is the baby alright?”

Vera bit back her frustration. “Yes to both,” she said, watching as Joan started to pace the small space.

“But Anderson doesn’t know for certain,” Joan added as if to an unvoiced thought, turning mid-pace to confront Vera.

“Well, no,” Vera replied. “But that’s what she heard. It sounds pretty definite to me, Joan.” She pulled on her arm. “Come on! We have to get you out of here.”

Joan ignored Vera, shaking off her hand and continuing to pace. She drummed her fingers on her temple. “What to do, what to do?” she mumbled to herself.

Vera watched helplessly. She simply didn’t have the physical strength to bodily remove Joan herself. “Joan!” she whispered, her panic becoming obvious. She wanted to cry. “Joan, please! They’re coming!”

Joan stopped to stare at her. Vera threw herself at Joan, grabbing at her teal clothing, desperately trying to pull her toward the door. Joan stood immobile, watching.

“Please!” Vera cried, tears now flowing over her cheeks as she stared into Joan’s face, her panic threatening to overtake her.

Joan’s expression remained inscrutable, but she ran a thumb across Vera’s cheek, removing the wetness of her tears. “Yes,” she said simply, seemingly coming to a decision. “Yes. We must leave.” She lunged to the board above the bed and carefully removed the photos of her parents before faltering. She had no pockets.

“Here,” Vera said, gently removing them from Joan’s grasp and adding the photos to the torn one of David that she already carried. “I’ll keep them safe,” she informed Joan earnestly, staring up into her eyes. “I promise,” she added in a whisper.

Joan nodded curtly. “I know,” she said. “Run.”

Vera did exactly that. Finally knowing that Joan was with her, she scrambled out of the cell, dashing toward the gate. She pulled out her keycard, swiping it hastily—

And suddenly the lights went out.

“They’ve cut the electricity,” Joan observed needlessly.

“No!” Vera whispered, still desperately swiping the keycard against the gate. “No no no NO!” She continued to swipe until she felt a hand stopping her. She turned to Joan. “It won’t work! Without electricity, it won’t work!”

There was silence. “Call Miller,” Joan ordered.

“What?” Vera asked. “Oh! Oh, yes! Melanie can get us out!” She fumbled in her pockets for her phone. “Maybe she can override the system, if it’s the guards who have cut the power.” She frowned, patting her pockets, systematically re-checking them. “Or I suppose that she can come with a manual key, worst-case situation.” She continued to fumble, her hands shaking with adrenaline. “No…” she whispered. “Please, God, no…!”

“You don’t have your phone,” Joan announced tonelessly.

Vera looked up, her panic obvious. “I think I left it at security!”

Joan turned away, walking into the darkness. After a moment, Vera heard a low, disturbing chuckle. “Of course,” she heard Joan say. “No phone, swipe card not working. Of course it happens again!”

“Joan?” Vera asked, fear raising the pitch of her voice.

Joan emerged from the darkness. Swiftly passing Vera, she grabbed the bars of the gate, rattling, attempting to heave them open.

The gate didn’t budge.

Joan leaned her forehead against the bars, the disturbing laugh again flowing from her throat. “This is not the first time this has happened to me, Vera,” she explained wryly. She suddenly slammed her fist against the bars. “And what are we to do now?” she seemed to ask the air around her. “What are we to do?”

But there was no answer.

The little governor and the tall inmate stared at each other across the darkness.

“We’re trapped,” one said.

“And there’s a riot coming,” added the other.

There was nothing to do but wait.

Chapter Text

Vera’s fingers curled around the bars of the gate. “Trapped,” she whispered, “riot coming… trapped… riot...”

Joan silently watched her.

“Trapped,” Vera repeated, louder. “Riot. Trapped!” Her small body started to shake as her breathing accelerated. She clutched desperately at the bars. “We’re going to die!” she cried wildly, shaking and hitting the gate. “I wanted to save you, but instead we’re both going to die!”

“Stop,” Joan ordered authoritatively, moving behind Vera, grasping her shoulders firmly from behind. “Stop this. Panic won’t help.”

“Panic is all I have, Joan!” Vera wailed. “If you were human, you’d be panicking too!”

Joan’s fingers abruptly fell from Vera’s shoulders. She turned, walking away from Vera, toward the window.

“Joan?” Vera called, feeling the loss of Joan’s hands. She spun around, searching for the tall woman. “Joan?”

“I am human,” Joan stated quietly, staring at her reflection in the darkening window.

Vera felt shame wash over her. “Oh, Joan—I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it like that!” She carefully walked to Joan’s side. “I know you’re human,” she said softly, looking up at Joan’s face as she stared at reflection. “I just don’t understand how you can be so… so… so fucking calm right now! We’re going to be tortured, and then we’re going to die, and you’re just standing there!”

“I am in control,” Joan informed her. “Panic accomplishes nothing.”

“Neither does pretending to be in control when you’re obviously not!” Vera exclaimed. “Accept it, Joan! In five minutes, ten minutes, we’re both going to be brutalized and raped and God knows what else!” She grabbed Joan’s hand, forcing it to the side of her neck. “My Hep C, which they injected into me here? That will be nothing compared to what’s coming to us when the women get through this gate!” She wrapped her fingers around Joan’s hand. “And then that will be it,” she stated, her tears flowing freely. “This is how we end: trapped in a shitty protection unit, murdered by insane prisoners in fucking Wentworth Correctional Centre!”

Vera breathed out unsteadily. She turned to join Joan in staring at their reflections. “It’s not fair,” she whispered, sniffling, swiping at her tears. “I tried to do good by them. I instituted programs! I was a good governor.” She paused. “It’s not fucking fair.”

Joan’s eyes shifted from her own reflection to Vera. She gently ran her thumb over the fingers that were still clutching her hand against Vera’s neck. “Nothing is fair, Vera,” she responded quietly.

Vera had no reply.

Their hands dropped to their sides, but they stood together, staring at their reflections in the darkening twilight.

***

“Where are they?” Vera finally asked the fully darkened room. “I haven’t heard a thing from the corridor. I wonder… Do you think… Have they been stopped?” she inquired hopefully.

Joan sighed. “No.”

“But how do you know?” Vera persisted. “They couldn’t have been that far behind me. They should have been here by now, but they’re not!”

“Do you want your death to come that quickly, Vera?” Joan asked.

Vera huffed. “You know what I mean. The fact that the inmates haven’t come for you yet—or for me—gives me hope that the guards have won!”

Joan sighed again. “Think, Vera. The lights are still out.”

“Thank you,” Vera returned irritably. “I’d noticed that.”

“Let me make this ridiculously clear,” Joan started. “If the guards were in control, the electricity would be back on. Look around, Vera,” she said, gesturing to the room. “It’s complete darkness. Even the backup generators are offline. The only light is coming from the external floodlights, which you and I both know are powered by a separate, offsite system.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Yes, right. If the guards were in control, the electricity would be back on, and the inmates would be safely housed in their blocks, hopefully under the longest lockdown in the history of this prison.”

Vera sniffed. “Fine. So… it’s not over,” she stated, her tone flat and defeated.

Joan hesitated, then reached between them for Vera’s hand. She held it gently if awkwardly, lightly caressing it with her thumb. “That doesn’t mean that there’s no hope, Vera,” she added quietly.

“But there’s not much,” Vera blurted in response, trying to quell her rising panic by focusing on the feeling of holding Joan’s hand in her own.

Joan’s tone was surprisingly gentle. “It all depends on who shut off the electricity,” she explained patiently. “You told me about Mr. Jackson’s keycard, and about the missing officers. It’s only logical to deduce that the inmates have access to multiple keycards—or, at the least, that the guards think they might. If the officers are the ones who turned off the electricity, they did it to stop the prisoners’ movements while Channing considers what to do next.”

“Oh,” Vera said. “That makes sense.”

“Thank you,” Joan responded dryly. “I try.”

Vera looked down toward their clasped hands, trying to make them out in the pale light from outside. “And if the prisoners shut off the electricity?” she asked.

“That’s… trickier,” Joan replied.

“Because it depends on why they wanted to shut it down,” Vera thought aloud. “So… if they’ve already opened primary gates, it could be to prevent them from being re-locked.”

“Yes.”

“It could also be to cause as much chaos as possible,” Vera suggested.

“Also a possibility.”

Vera contemplated Joan’s responses. “You think there’s another reason, don’t you?”

Joan tilted her head. “I don’t know, Vera, but… if the inmates are at the point of shutting down electricity—either because they have access to the controls, or because they’ve taken a hostage and Channing has stupidly bowed to their demands—then they have control over the majority of Wentworth. They have the power. So what is the one thing that they don’t want?”

“Well,” Vera considered, “obviously to lose that power?”

“Yes,” Joan agreed. “And what would be a threat to that power, but also something that relies on electricity?”

Vera stared out the window, trying to see into other Wentworth cells. She could see nothing. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “The cameras! Except… wait. The cameras aren’t a direct threat to their power. They just allow us to watch the inmates.”

Joan smiled slightly at Vera’s unconscious inclusion of her with the guards. “It’s a panoptic system, Vera. We rely on the fact that the prisoners know that they’re being watched, and thus police themselves to act accordingly. Wentworth couldn’t function with so few guards if the prisoners didn’t think that they were constantly being watched.”

Vera nodded. “So without electricity, they can’t be seen…”

“Right. This isn’t a simple case of shaving cream on one or two cameras. This is a total wipeout of the entire CCTV system.”

“Which means the prisoners now have the power to do anything,” Vera finished. “Absolutely anything. And the guards won’t have a clue what is happening.”

They stared at each other.

“This is bigger than an hour or two of rival gangs fighting each other, isn’t it?” Vera asked.

“Much,” Joan replied, turning back to the dark window. “This is much bigger.”

Vera felt Joan’s hand suddenly grip hers tighter.

“This is war against Wentworth itself.”

Chapter Text

After a while, Vera turned away from the window, walking back to the gate. “It turns out that I’m the worst governor,” she stated. “I’m worse than Erica. I’m worse than you, and you’re a fucking murderer.”

Joan made no reply. She continued to stare out the window, into the dark.

“Well?” Vera asked. “Aren’t you going to caw over my failures? ‘There goes Vera! She’s a complete failure! She’s such a disappointment!’”

Joan finally turned. “Self-pity does not become you. Nor,” she added, “is it helpful.”

Vera ran her hand along the bars. She said nothing.

Joan observed her briefly before walking over to the smashed furniture. She carefully pulled out a chair with a broken arm. Sitting gingerly, she turned to face Vera. “Just out of curiosity,” she asked, “where exactly were you planning to take me when you came running in here, threatening to save me? There’s no safe place in a prison during a riot.”

Vera leaned desultorily against the gate. She found that she couldn’t look directly at Joan. “Someplace safe,” she mumbled.

“What?” Joan asked.

“Someplace safe!” Vera stated louder, abandoning the gate and turning to Joan.

Joan frowned. “I believe I’ve just established that no such place exists in the prison, Vera.”

Vera moved toward the broken furniture. She selected the other chair. Looking at it doubtfully, she gradually lowered herself onto it. It was rickety, but it held her.

“Where?” Joan asked, more gently.

Vera looked down at her hands. “Outside,” she stated quietly. “I was going to take you out of Wentworth.”

Joan was silent.

“Well?” Vera asked. “You have nothing to say to the fact that I was going to break the law, as well as possibly giving up my job and my freedom, all to save you?”

Still Joan said nothing. She stared at Vera in the half light. “We should sleep,” she stated abruptly.

“Sleep,” Vera repeated.

“Yes, Vera, sleep,” Joan retorted, standing before heading toward the cell. “It’s that thing I found you doing earlier this morning, when you were lying unconscious with your little eyeballs moving under your eyelids. Sleep.”

“Joan. This is a crisis! We may be dead by tomorrow. I just told you that I tried to break you out of prison… and you want to sleep?” Vera asked incredulously, throwing up her hands. “Unbelievable!”

“Don’t be so dramatic, Vera. Nothing will happen until the morning. In the meantime, we should make sure that we are as rested as possible.”

Vera jumped from her rickety chair, scurrying forward to grasp Joan’s arm. “Wait. What do you mean that nothing will happen until morning?”

Joan sighed. “The likeliest scenarios are thus: first, the guards manage to gain control of the prison. They will not even attempt to do this until they can arrange for a shift change of fresh officers, which will not happen until tomorrow morning.”

Vera considered this. “Okay, yes—that seems logical, even if they call in the SESG. But what if the prisoners are in control?”

“Vera, the inner hallways will be pitch black,” Joan reminded her. “Could you navigate your way through them—silently—while trying to protect yourself from being attacked?”

Vera looked doubtful. “There’s always fire,” she suggested.

“I wouldn’t put it past them,” Joan replied, “but I think it more likely that the main groups are camped out in different areas of the prison. They won’t move to attack each other until first light.”

“So this is it, then,” Vera stated baldly. “We have one last night.”

“It would seem so,” Joan replied, seeming suddenly awkward. “One last night.” She looked down at Vera’s hand on her arm.

“And then…?” Vera tentatively stroked her thumb against Joan’s arm.

“And then.”

Neither wanted to define what “then” would bring. Joan looked back up.

They stared at each other.

One last night.

Chapter Text

“Well,” Joan stated abruptly. “Good night.” She marched toward her cell.

“Wait!” Vera called. She looked at Joan, confused. “Why are you saying ‘goodnight?’”

Joan cocked her head, turning from the threshold of her cell. “I believe that is the traditional utterance upon leaving someone to go to sleep,” she pointed out dryly.

“Leaving someone?” Vera asked. “You mean I’m not sleeping with you?”

Joan looked away, studying the darkness. “And why would you be doing that, Vera? There are two cells. Each one has a perfectly less-than-adequate bed.”

“Oh,” stated Vera, feeling suddenly winded. “Oh.” She sat abruptly on the chair.

Joan turned back, observing her.

Vera leaned over, staring down at her hands, fighting back yet another onslaught of tears. “Why do I keep doing this to myself?” she asked rhetorically. “This always happens, and I know that this will always happen, and yet I stupidly believe, over and over and over…” she trailed off. Finally she looked up at Joan, tears glistening in her eyes. “Why, Joan?”

“Why? I don’t know why you do this to yourself,” Joan replied. “I suppose it’s pathological—”

“No,” Vera said, cutting her off. “Why won’t you love me?”

Joan stood like a tall sentinel of teal. “You cannot make someone love you, Vera,” she stated, watching Vera closely.

Vera stared back at her. That was true: she could never make Joan love her. But… She blinked her tears away. “But that’s not actually our problem, is it Joan?” she asked, suddenly rising from the chair, slowly stalking toward Joan. “It’s not actually the case that you don’t love me,” she stated with sudden clarity, approaching the tall woman.

Joan looked wary. “You don’t know what you’re talking abo—”

Vera interrupted her. “Oh, I’m very aware of what I’m talking about,” she stated, moving her body so that she stood but a hair’s breadth from Joan. “In fact, I finally understand. I’m more aware of how you feel, Joan, than you are yourself. I know what you feel.”

Joan stepped back. “This is preposterous,” she stated. “You know no such thing. Do not presume to tell me what I feel,” she sneered, reaching to close the cell door.

Vera smiled, blocking her movement. “No. You can’t shut me out anymore, Joan. I know. I know!”

“You know nothing!” Joan spat, pushing Vera’s shoulders, forcing her back. Joan slammed the door in Vera’s face.

“I know everything,” Vera whispered to the closed door.

***

Without the light from Joan’s cell, the protection unit became suddenly darker. Vera squinted at Joan’s door for several moments before slowly making her way to the other cell. She lay down on the mattress, staring unseeingly at the ceiling.

Joan loved her. She was certain of that. It had taken her a long, long time to see through all of Joan’s layers and machinations, but she knew it to be the truth.

She rolled over onto her side, clutching at the pillow. The problem was that she really didn’t know what Joan thought. Did she understand that she loved Vera? Could she?

Vera thought back to Joan’s brief interview with the horrible Dr. Roberts. He had told Joan that she was a “textbook psychopath” except that she obviously cared about Vera. But then he had asked the question that Vera now contemplated: would Joan be able to recognize this caring?

That really was the question, wasn’t it?

Vera lay on her back in the darkness of the cell, waiting for her fate, contemplating how to make Joan Ferguson aware of her own emotions.

***

Vera didn’t know how much time had passed when she tiptoed back to Joan’s cell. She knocked quietly on the door. As she expected, there was no response.

She placed her hand on the door, as if trying to feel what was on its other side. Then she pushed it open.

Joan sat on the bed, staring at her.

“Why did you use Anderson?” Vera asked, apropos of nothing.

“What?” Joan asked, brows knit in sudden confusion.

“You’ve been in contact with Proctor,” Vera clarified. “You already know that she hates Will Jackson. You didn’t need to use Anderson. You could have left Proctor to figure out Smith’s plan on her own.”

Joan looked toward the window. “That would not have been efficient,” she stated.

“But neither was using Anderson,” Vera persisted, fully entering the cell. “You didn’t know how she would react to learning about Will’s history with David. You guessed, but you didn’t know,” she emphasized, closing the door behind her. “Her loyalty to Smith may have been greater than her trust in you. She could have chosen not to believe you.” She paused. “Plus you had gone batshit crazy,” she added.

“She wanted to believe me,” Joan retorted, turning back to Vera. “Since that baby’s birth, she knows that I’ve only worked to protect him.”

“Protect him?” Vera asked. “You probably planted those drugs on Anderson’s partner!”

“But I’ve protected the baby. I saved the baby. And…” Joan looked suddenly uncomfortable. “And she already knew about Jianna. She knew that babies could be taken away…”

“But that was years ago, Joan! That would never happen, now!” She shook her head. “And what you never seem to acknowledge, even to yourself, is that Will took David away because he genuinely believed him to be in danger! Do you not recognize that David could have been hurt, or, or… even killed?”

“I would have protected him!” Joan thundered.

Like you protected Jianna?” Vera yelled in response.

Joan suddenly lunged toward Vera, her arm raised. Vera instinctively threw up her own arms to protect herself. Joan froze. She stared at her arm as she lowered it, then stared at Vera.

Vera stared back, lowering her own arms. “It’s okay to love, Joan,” she said, reaching for the tall woman. “Your love for Jianna was never a weakness. It was your strength.”

Joan’s body silently started to shake. She fell to her knees, folding in on herself. “He said emotions lead to mistakes!” she muttered. “Over and over, he said that emotions lead to mistakes!”

Vera curled her own body around Joan’s, wrapping her in her limbs. “Emotions lead to life, Joan” she stated quietly. “Emotions lead to living.”

Joan raised her head, staring fearfully into Vera’s eyes. “I want to feel again, Vera,” she whispered, her body heaving as tears coursed down her cheeks, “I want to feel again!”

Vera held Joan, stroking her hair, her back, her sides. “You already do, Joan,” she told her over and over. “You already do.”

Chapter Text

Joan slowly stopped shaking, becoming still. Vera continued to hold her, stroking Joan’s body as her breathing grew softer. “Shhh,” she whispered into Joan’s ear. “You’ll be okay. Shhhh…”

They both knew it was a lie. If Bea Smith arrived in the morning, neither of them would be okay. Yet, in a way, Vera also knew that it was true. Something had finally changed in Joan. For possibly the first time, she had a chance to change—to leave the enormous rage and hatred that bubbled under her thin veneer of control; to be free.

Slowly, she felt Joan silently lean into her. A tiny smile graced Vera’s face as she held her lover.

“Come,” she said, finally standing up. She held out her hand. “Let’s go to sleep.”

Joan stared at the hand for a long moment before batting it away. “I’m fine, Vera,” she stated almost angrily. “I’m sorry that you saw… that, but I don’t need your pity.”

Vera could see Joan’s barriers falling into place. She watched as Joan’s spine straightened, as her head arose. This time she refused to accept them. She refused to be pushed away. “It’s not pity, Joan, and you know it,” she stated, reaching down, grasping Joan’s hand forcefully, pulling the taller woman to her feet. Once Joan was standing, Vera carefully maneuvered herself into Joan’s chest. Clasping her arms around her, Vera tightened her grip, squeezing Joan, her face pressed just above Joan’s breasts. “It’s love,” she informed her, “and I’m not going to let you escape into your world of barriers and control. For tonight, at least, you’re with me. And…” she looked up into Joan’s eyes, trying to put all the weight of her emotion into her gaze, “and you’re free, Joan. You’re free.”

“I’m free,” Joan whispered. She pulled back from Vera, turning away from her.

Vera frowned, watching Joan. Her arms seemed to waver awkwardly in the air, as if Joan suddenly didn’t know what to do with them. As Vera walked around Joan, reaching for those arms, she looked up to find Joan’s mouth open in a silent cry, tears coursing down her cheeks. “Oh, Joan…”

Joan’s wail finally emerged, long and harsh. Vera gathered Joan in her arms, leading her into the cell, once again wondering what had happened to the woman to make her this way, to block all of the pleasure in her life and to replace it with an unending drive for revenge.

She sat Joan on the edge of the bed. Bending down, Vera untied Joan’s white shoes, slipping them from her feet. She was careful to align them together, placing them tidily just under the edge of the bed. She scrambled up onto the mattress, maneuvering until she was behind Joan. Placing her hand at the base of Joan’s ponytail, she gently pulled away the hair elastic that held it in place, allowing Joan’s locks to fall to her shoulders.

Joan started to cry harder.

“Shh, shh,” Vera repeated, stroking her fingers through Joan’s hair.

Joan gulped, obviously trying to calm herself. “No one has ever done that,” she whispered.

Vera frowned. “What? What I’m doing with your hair?”

Joan nodded. “Stylists comb it, and Miller helped me to wash it that one time, but…”

“But it’s not like this,” Vera finished for her.

“No,” Joan acknowledged quietly.

Vera continued to run her fingers through Joan’s hair, marveling at the smooth thickness of it. She found herself absently thinking of Melanie, realizing that she held no jealousy for her interaction with Joan.

She contemplated the pleasure of having her hair stroked.

“Joan?” she finally asked quietly. “What about your mother? Didn’t your mother ever do this for you?”

There was a long pause, then, “I can’t remember my mother,” Joan admitted in a low tone.

Vera decided not to push her. There would be another opportunity to ask her, if… well. Just if.

She exhaled happily, smoothing her hands over Joan’s crown. She placed a small kiss on the back of Joan’s head. Turning behind her, she reached under Joan’s pillow, grinning as she found a pair of neatly-folded pajamas. She didn’t see Joan’s hand rise and touch the spot where Vera had left her kiss.

Vera crawled off the bed, coming to Joan’s front to present her pajamas. “Here,” she said. “You’ll feel better in these.” She placed the clothing in Joan’s lap.

Joan stared at the pajamas, her hands hovering over them, but not touching them.

“Joan?” Vera asked, concerned. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”

Joan didn’t look up. She continued to fixate on the pajamas.

“Joan?” Vera asked again, her worry escalating.

“Why are you doing this?” Joan finally asked in a whisper, still not looking up.

“What?” Vera frowned, kneeling in front of the seated woman.

“Why are you being like this? Why are you… why are you caring?” Joan finally looked at Vera.

“Because I love you, Joan,” Vera replied complacently. She covered one of Joan’s hands with her own. “You already know that.”

Joan nodded slowly. “I… I do… I’ve known for some time…”

Vera smiled.

“But I’ve done horrible things to you,” Joan continued. “I’ve threatened to ruin your career, to take away your freedom… I… I touched you… and now you’re here, in this… situation… because of me…”

Vera nodded. All of this was true. “I know, Joan. You’ve been cruel to me. You’ve been malicious.”

Joan looked down.

Vera gently placed her fingers under Joan’s chin, pushing it up until Joan’s eyes met her own. “I forgive you, Joan,” she said simply.

Joan’s eyes widened. “But you shouldn’t!” she uttered.

“Why shouldn’t I?” Vera asked.

Because I’d do it all again!” Joan cried, pulling Vera’s hand away. “I’m a monster, Vera! Don’t you understand that? You betrayed me, and I wanted you to suffer! It didn’t matter how much I lo—” Joan cut herself off.

“How much you loved me?” Vera asked.

Joan returned her gaze, but said nothing.

Vera sighed. “I know all of this, Joan. I know.” She sat heavily on the bed next to her. “And of course I wish it was all different. I wish you had never planned to ‘annihilate’ me. I wish you hadn’t hurt me so much. I wish you weren’t a murderer.” She turned to stare out the window. “I don’t honestly know if I could be in a true relationship with you. You’re abusive, and I’m sick of being your victim.”

She felt Joan tense beside her.

Vera turned back to look at her. “But I also know that I love you, and that you love me, and that there’s a fucking good chance that we’re both going to die tomorrow morning.” Vera rose, moving to stand directly in front of Joan. “And I’m terrified. So I say to hell with it all. I want one night with you, one night in which none of that matters. One night when there’s no planning, no scheming.” She leaned over Joan, her face hovering in front of Joan’s. “I want one night in which it’s just us, free from everything that we’ve done, and from everything that may come tomorrow.”

“One night,” Joan repeated.

“Of freedom,” Vera confirmed, swiftly throwing the pajamas from Joan’s lap before lowering herself into their place, straddling Joan’s knees. She placed her hands along Joan’s cheeks, pulling Joan’s face toward her, pressing her lips to her own.

After several moments, she broke away panting, staring into Joan’s eyes. “One night,” she whispered.

“Of freedom,” Joan agreed, and pulled Vera in for another kiss.

Chapter Text

They were awkward, at first. They reached for each other’s clothing, falling back, suddenly shy. Vera felt like she was fumbling, blushing, giggling inanely. Even Joan’s movements showed a hesitance that Vera would never have associated with the formidable Joan Ferguson.

In some ways, she knew they were being ridiculous—they had, after all, each seen each other naked before—but this was different.

“We could just… leave some on,” she finally offered, “if it’s easier. Maybe leave on our underthings.”

“No,” Joan stated immediately, decisively. “I want to see all of you, Vera.”

Something about Joan’s words, about the obvious desire behind them unlocked Vera’s confidence. She pushed Joan onto the bed while she stepped back. Standing tall, holding Joan’s gaze, Vera slowly unbuttoned her shirt. Pulling it open, she tossed it on the floor, watching as Joan’s gaze left hers to stare, seemingly transfixed, on her torso. Vera silently reached around her back, unhooking her bra, letting it, too, fall to the floor.

Joan stared, saying nothing. After a minute, Vera self-consciously wrapped her arms around herself, covering her breasts.

“No,” Joan murmured, reaching to pull Vera’s arms back to her sides. “Don’t cover yourself.”

Vera searched Joan’s eyes, trying to perceive what Joan was feeling. She glanced down at Joan’s own statuesque torso, still covered in teal. “I’m very small,” she said, self-deprecatingly.

Joan stood hesitantly, awkwardly pulling Vera toward her before folding her into her arms. “You’re perfect,” she whispered.

Vera closed her eyes and smiled.

***

After a while, Vera worked her small hands under the edge of Joan’s shirt and hoodie. “It’s time,” she whispered, looking up into Joan’s eyes. “I want to see you.”

Joan returned her gaze, reaching for the zipper on her hoodie.

“Wait,” Vera said, placing her own hands over Joan’s. “Let me.”

Joan’s hands slowly fell to her sides as Vera pulled on the zipper. She once again pushed Joan down, until she was sitting on the edge of the bed. Leaning over her, Vera pulled the sweater from Joan’s body.

“You were… unwell… the last time I did this,” Vera informed her. “This time is different.” She pulled Joan’s white shirt up her torso, over her long arms. Folding it neatly and placing it to the side, Vera pulled up her own skirt, settling herself on Joan’s lap, straddling her. She reached behind Joan, hugging her silently before fumbling with the clasp on Joan’s bra. With a grin of accomplishment, Vera slid the garment from Joan’s arms, freeing Joan’s breasts.

Vera stared. “How did I ever think I was straight?” she wondered aloud, giggling, desperate to touch Joan, to run her fingers over the silky skin she saw before her, to grasp as much of Joan as she could in her small hands.

Joan arched a perfect eyebrow. “It’s just a label, Vera.” She pulled Vera against herself. “You and I are so much more than labels.”

Vera melted against her, sighing happily. “So much more,” she repeated, thinking of all of the labels she had for Joan: mentor, monster, murderer. Lover. None of them could adequately express Joan—her Joan. Perhaps nothing ever could.

“So much more,” she whispered again, pressing herself close.

***

She thought she had never felt skin so soft.

“I’m addicted to your skin,” Vera mumbled as she once again drew her fingers around Joan’s shoulders. She smiled at the warm, exquisite smoothness under her fingers. She pressed a small kiss into it, her smile widening as she brushed her lips against it.

She wanted to giggle, to laugh. All of their clothes lay discarded in various states of disarray or tidiness on the floor, depending on who had pulled what off of whom. If someone—inmates or guards—should find them now… But it didn’t matter. Not really. In this last long night, Vera Bennett was living only in this moment.

Looking at Joan’s half-closed eyes watching her, she suspected that Joan was, too.

This is the happiest I’ve ever been, she suddenly thought. I’m going to die, and I’ve never been so happy.

She laughed aloud, feeling Joan’s arms encircle her, holding her tighter.

She wrapped herself around Joan, pressing her breasts against Joan’s, nuzzling her face into that perfect place between Joan’s neck and shoulder. She breathed in deeply, tightening her hold, trying to merge her body into Joan’s.

She hadn’t known. With Fletch, even that first time with Joan… she hadn’t known that it could be like this. She hadn’t understood what it felt like to be this close to another human being, to want to meld entirely with another.

And it was Joan. Joan, who was manipulative and evil, but… but… everything. Joan was everything to her.

Vera moaned as Joan’s hand hesitantly caressed her, finding her breast, massaging it. She felt Joan’s thumb graze her nipple, felt the jolt that followed.

“Joan,” she whispered, smoothing her hands across Joan’s back, making her way toward Joan’s sides. She had been careful only to touch Joan’s shoulders and back. But she wanted more—so very much more. “Joan, I want to touch you. Properly, this time. Is that okay?”

She felt Joan suddenly tense.

Vera looked into her eyes, willing her gaze to convey her love, her earnestness. “I won’t hurt you,” she whispered. “I promise.”

Joan gazed back silently for a long time. Finally, she gave a tiny nod. “If you must.”

Vera paused, frowning. “If I must?” she repeated. She reluctantly sat back from Joan, the giddy smile slipping from her face. “I don’t understand,” she admitted.

Joan looked down, away. “I don’t get pleasure from… that.”

“From being touched?”

“Yes. No. Yes.” Joan shook her head.

Vera’s frown deepened. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand.” She leaned in, pressing a kiss to Joan’s lips. “Help me, Joan. Help me to understand.”

“I don’t need—” Joan stopped. “No one has ever—” she stopped again. She shook her head, falling silent.

Vera considered Joan’s staccato utterances. “Has no one ever made love to you, Joan?”

She could feel Joan withdraw from her, turn into herself. She tried to hold her gaze, but Joan refused to look at her. Vera sighed. Kneeling on the mattress, she pulled back the blankets on the bed. She scooted inside, back against the wall, fingers gently pulling at Joan’s shoulders. “Please join me,” she entreated quietly.

Joan silently turned to look at her. Vera smiled encouragingly, still pulling gently on Joan’s arm. Joan’s eyes swept from her face down her exposed body, then back up. Ever so slowly, she pulled back the covers, lowering herself into the bed.

Vera snuggled up against Joan’s back, wrapping herself around Joan. She snaked her hand over Joan’s side, letting it rest gently on Joan’s belly, holding her. “This is called ‘spooning,’” she murmured, a giggle obvious in her voice. “I’m the big spoon!”

She somehow felt, rather than saw, Joan’s wry grin.

“Ridiculous,” Joan stated, but Vera could hear the affection in her voice.

Vera fell silent, contemplating how to address the issue. Finally, she simply asked. “Not even Jianna?”

Once again there was a long silence. She felt Joan’s muscles tense. “Jianna… liked to be touched. She did not like to touch me.”

“What? But at the trial—Kelly Bryant said—”

“She saw me pleasuring Jianna. She did not see that action reciprocated.”

Vera tried to make sense of the situation. “But you wanted her to? You wanted Jianna to make love to you?”

Joan sighed. “It wasn’t that simple.” She fell silent for several minutes, staring into the darkened cell. “Jianna never loved me,” she whispered finally. “Not really.”

“Oh, Joan…”

“I don’t want pity,” Joan warned sharply, rolling over, turning to her other side to face Vera.

“This isn’t pity, Joan,” Vera replied, feeling the loss of Joan’s warm belly under her hand. “This is sadness that you didn’t get what you deserved. You deserve to be loved.”

“I deserve no such thing.”

Everyone deserves to be loved,” Vera shot back. “Everyone, Joan.” She reached around Joan’s back, pulling her closer to her.

Joan suddenly wrapped Vera in her arms, encircling her, holding onto her tightly. “I wanted her to love me,” she breathed. “I tried and tried, but…”

Vera hurt for Joan—for the anguish that she still obviously felt. “You can’t make someone love you,” she whispered, echoing Joan’s earlier words.

“You should be able to!” Joan exclaimed, “if you love them enough!”

Vera held the taller woman. “I know, Joan,” she whispered. “I know.” She placed tiny kisses against Joan’s skin. “But it’s time to move on. Tonight I’ll show you what it feels like to be loved.”

Chapter Text

They were tender and unhurried, as if the slowness of their actions could somehow stave off the coming morning.

The darkness helped. Vera wished she could see Joan better, but she reveled in the darkness. When morning came—when the light came—they would be forced to return to reality. But for now, darkness meant freedom.

Vera ghosted her fingers over Joan’s neck, her sternum, toward Joan’s breasts. She felt Joan’s hands trace her sides, moving back up to her own breasts, massaging them. She pushed herself into Joan’s hands, sighing happily. She loved the way Joan held her.

Suddenly, mischievously, Vera wrenched Joan’s arms up and over her head. She leaned over Joan, pinning Joan’s wrists against the bed.

Joan’s eyes widened as her eyebrows crept up.

“I want you to concentrate entirely on the way I make you feel,” Vera whispered hotly into her ear, her hands still working hard to hold Joan’s wrists against the mattress. “You will stop fighting me,” she ordered, licking the rim of Joan’s earlobe, pleased to feel Joan shiver beneath her. “You will do what I say.” She pulled the lobe of Joan’s ear into her mouth, sucking on it.

Joan gasped.

Vera smiled. There was something unbelievably sexy about restraining Joan Ferguson, about holding her at her mercy. She felt a jolt of pure lust surge through her. She had total control over Joan. She could do anything she wanted with the long, soft body laid out beneath her. And the way that Joan had responded—was it possible that the former Governor of Wentworth secretly enjoyed being dominated?

“Do you like this?” she asked, whispering in her ear. “Do you like me pinning your arms above your head, forcing you to feel things, keeping you in my power?”

Joan smiled, her eyes half-lidded. “Oh, Vera,” she breathed, suddenly rolling them both over so that she was on top, straddling her, easily holding Vera’s hands pinned above her head, restraining her far more effectively than Vera had accomplished. “That’s your desire,” she replied softly, leaning down to kiss the sensitive skin behind Vera’s ear, her voice low and sultry, “but you know I love the competition.” She bit the lobe of Vera’s ear.

Vera cried out in pleasure.

***

She stared up as Joan leaned confidently above her, her arms on each side of Vera’s head, her breasts falling tantalizingly close to Vera’s face. She remembered the feeling of Joan’s mouth on her own breasts, of how Joan had licked around her nipples, flicking them with her tongue. Tentatively, she raised her head, placing a gentle kiss on the soft curve of one breast.

Staring down at her, Joan slowly lowered herself, allowing Vera’s mouth better access.

Vera pressed her face into Joan’s breasts. They felt wonderful—so different from her own, so much fuller and heavier. She continued to kiss Joan, sometimes sucking, sometimes leaving tiny little bites, always avoiding the rosy centres. Finally, slowly, ever-so-lightly, she licked Joan’s nipple.

“Oh!” Joan gasped in surprise.

Vera smiled, happily restrained as Joan continued to hold her hands bound above her head. Deciding to experiment a little further, she carefully sucked Joan’s nipple into her mouth. She heard Joan gasp again. With an impish grin, Vera suddenly bit down on Joan’s nipple—hard.

Joan yelped—there was no other word for it.

“Are you okay?” Vera asked anxiously. Had she hurt her?

“Do it again!” Joan commanded. “Now!”

Apparently not.

Vera grinned, happy to oblige.

***

They pressed against each other, never apart, their bodies seemingly indefatigable in their need to maintain contact with each other. Joan’s hands and tongue had lost their hesitancy, and instead they roamed Vera’s body persistently, bringing her pleasure wherever Joan licked and nibbled and caressed. Vera’s orgasm, when it came at Joan’s fingers, was warm and long. It wasn’t as intense as the first time Joan had fingered her, pushing her over the edge, claiming ownership, but it was sweeter and longer and somehow mysteriously deeper.

Seeing Joan’s ridiculously smug smile made it even better.

“Proud of yourself?” Vera asked teasingly.

Joan quirked an eyebrow, holding up her hand and proudly waggling her long fingers in front of Vera’s face.

Vera rolled her eyes, grinning. She turned onto her side, reaching for Joan. “And now for you!” she announced excitedly.

Joan’s expression became suddenly serious.

“What?” asked Vera.

“I don’t know that I can… if I’m able…” Joan looked away.

“Able to what?” Vera asked, before the meaning of Joan’s hesitance became clear. “Oh! Oh… you don’t know if you’re able to come?” Vera asked.

Joan frowned in distaste.

Vera relented. “To orgasm?” She placed a protective hand on Joan’s belly, rubbing soft circles. “Fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself, you know,” she whispered playfully.

Joan frowned. “Where have I heard that drivel before?” she asked archly.

“It’s from Harry Potter—wait!” Vera exclaimed, breaking into slightly hysterical giggles, “you’ve read Harry Potter?” She watched in fascination as a slight blush suffused Joan’s cheeks. “I don’t believe it! You’ve read Harry Potter! All of the books?”

The blush became deeper. “It’s important to maintain an interest in cultural trends,” Joan explained.

Vera cocked an eyebrow in response. “Cultural trends, huh?”

Joan’s small smile turned sad. “The first one was Jianna’s favourite book,” she whispered.

Oh.

Vera gently grasped Joan’s face, tilting it toward her. She looked earnestly into Joan’s eyes, finally giving voice to an anxiety that had been lurking for months. “I can’t compete with Jianna,” she stated. She had to push the words out, fearful of Joan’s response. “I can’t compete with a dead woman,” she declared softly.

Pain flashed across Joan’s face before she rolled onto her side, away from Vera.

Vera fell back into the mattress, hurt. There it was. In this most intimate of moments, Joan had turned away from her. Always, always, Jianna would come first.

She felt a flare of anger. Joan herself had admitted that Jianna had never really loved her! But Vera did—and she showed Joan that love over and over again. Why was it never enough?

Vera suppressed a sob. Lifting the corner of the blanket, she sat up, the sudden cold uncomfortable against her naked skin. She had thought they could have one last night of happiness—one night of freedom before… before… whatever was to come.

She should have known better.

She tiredly groped through the darkness for her clothing, her feelings of giddy happiness replaced by hurt and fear.

She finally understood: regardless of whether or not Joan Ferguson loved her, she was truly alone.

Chapter Text

“Wait,” Joan ordered.

Vera felt Joan’s hand clasp her wrist. She heard Joan’s voice speak haltingly from behind her.

“I have… trouble… understanding parts of myself, Vera,” she said slowly. “It is not easy for me to talk about Jianna...”

Vera stilled, listening, not yet ready to turn around, to face Joan. “I know that,” she stated slowly to the cell, “but you have to try. You have to do better.”

There was silence behind her.

“I can’t live on these—these scraps you toss to me, Joan. The sudden kisses, the love bites when you choose to mark me, your need to make me your ‘property.’” She finally turned back to face Joan. “You either love me for myself, as your equal, or you don’t.”

Still Joan said nothing.

They stared at each other.

“I hate your fucking silences,” Vera stated, roughly shaking her wrist from Joan’s grasp. She rose from the bed, picking up her clothing and opening the cell door.

“You hate my silences?” Joan called just as she passed through. “I hate what you’ve done to me.”

“Excuse me?” Vera replied, turning around in the doorway to face Joan.

“You heard.” Joan rose from the bed and walked over to her, her naked skin almost opalescent against the murky darkness of the cell. “You were never supposed to mean anything to me. You stood there on that first day, making excuses for that sorry excuse of a previous governor. You were a mouse, bossed around or mocked by your mother, by the inmates, by the other guards. Don’t you remember that, Vinegartits? Don’t you remember what you were like?”

Vera crossed her arms, glaring at Joan. “Stop it.”

“That’s right,” Joan continued, ignoring her, stepping closer. “You were nothing until I decided to mentor you. I taught you how to have presence, how to take charge of the women.” She hissed into Vera’s ear. “But it was never for you!” Joan’s hands clutched Vera’s shoulders, her fingers digging into Vera’s skin. “You were simply a tool to help me get what I wanted,” she whispered, her breath hot in Joan’s ear, “nothing more.”

Vera stared at her, saying nothing as tears fell silently down her cheeks.

Joan abruptly pushed her away. Turning, she walked back to the window. “But then you did something to me,” she stated, her voice so low that Vera had to strain to hear it, even in the silence around them. “Suddenly, I found that I trusted you—not just in farce, to get you to reveal all of your secrets—and you were keeping some good secrets, Vera—but because I wanted to trust you. And you made me… feel things… and suddenly I was questioning myself, asking myself if I was in deficit, torturing myself with Jianna’s file…”

She turned from the window, finally facing Vera. “And when I needed you most, when I was suddenly being swarmed by those precious emotions that you say mean I’m ‘living’—that’s when you turned on me, Vera. That’s when you went behind my back to Westfall, to the Board.” Joan’s eyes narrowed. “I ended up here, and I swore that I would follow up on my vow to annihilate you. I sat, and I stared at these disgusting walls, and I planned. I planned every little detail. I knew all your weaknesses. I knew how to bring you down on every level.”

She sat down heavily on the bed. “But I neglected to examine my own limitations. Yes,” she said, glancing up at Vera, “I recognize that I have limitations. I do not make friends easily. I do not… care… easily. But you preyed on that, Vera.”

“What?” Vera spluttered, crossing her arms. “I never—”

Joan nodded. “You did. First you wouldn’t visit me, and I felt the loss of you. Then you promised to help me find David, and you made me feel like you cared.” She paused. “You made me lose control,” she stated angrily, staring at the smaller woman. “More and more my plan to punish you became less about how to bring you down, and more about how to keep you here, with me.”

She rose, pacing back and forth in the small cell. “Now you want to know if I love you, as an equal. You’ve made me weak, and messy, in a way that Jianna never did. Even tonight, when we should be sleeping, all I want to do is be with you—hold you, feel your body, be close to you.” She pointed her finger emphatically at Vera. “But you bring her up, taunting me with my failure to protect her, and you tell me that you can’t compete with a dead woman. But what you’re talking about is my failure! I failed her! I failed David! I failed them because I loved them!”

Joan abruptly turned away, staring out the window. “And tomorrow morning either Smith, Proctor, or the guards will arrive.” She held her hand up to the bars on the window, not quite touching them. “You ask me why I’m not panicking, and you inform me that I’m inhuman for not expressing my fear. But I know—better than you—that if it’s either Smith or Proctor, you will be hurt.” She turned back to Vera. “And it will be my fault, because I will have failed you. Don’t you understand?” she plunged suddenly forward, toward Vera. Grasping her tightly by the shoulders, she shouted, her voice made raspy by pain and desperation: “don’t you see the pattern? The people I love most are the people I fail to protect!”

***

In the past, Vera thought—even a month ago—she would have tried to comfort Joan. She would have informed her that Jianna’s death, David’s death—even Vera’s own potential death—were not Joan’s fault.

But Vera understood things better, now.

“It’s still always about you,” she stated, stepping backward, removing herself from Joan’s grip.

Joan’s hands fell uselessly to her sides.

“You tell me that I was just a tool, that you started to care for me against your will,” Vera continued calmly. “Do you think I hadn’t figured that out? That you had no sense of your own feelings was obvious in the moment you pulled your hand away from mine during that ridiculous dinner. But that was your fault, Joan, not mine. That was your fault for purposely ignoring a part of yourself.

“You say I make you weak, and messy. Then you state that you fail to protect the people you love the most. Am I supposed to take that as some kind of twisted declaration of love? What, you love me against your will, and therefore you’ll fail to protect me?”

Vera advanced toward Joan, unconsciously mimicking Joan as she pointed her index finger at Joan’s sternum. “But when did I ask you for your protection, Joan? When did I ever say ‘save me, oh great and mighty Joan Ferguson!’” She pushed her finger, pressing into Joan’s skin. “I am not Jianna, nor am I David. Maybe they needed your protection, but I have control over my own life. I’m the fucking master of my fate, Joan! I’m the captain of my soul!”

Joan raised an eyebrow, but otherwise said nothing.

“And while I’m at it,” Vera continued, “I don’t care if you have an orgasm or not, because it’s not about that! You know you’re capable of it—I’ve seen you, remember? For all I know, you can only orgasm when you achieve total domination over another person—and I’m never going to give that to you again, Joan. Never. What I wanted you to experience with me wasn’t about reaching some kind of end goal. It was about feeling my love, Joan. I wanted to give you pleasure, to help you feel my love.”

Vera finally collapsed on the bed, tired of trying to explain herself to Joan. Her anger dissipated, leaving her with only a longing sadness. “I’m not asking you to forget about Jianna,” she said, pulling her knees to her chest, clasping her arms around them. She laid her head against her knees, staring absently out the cell window, into the floodlights. “I just want to know that I’m important, too.”

Her final statement rang in her ears, pushing against Joan’s obvious silence. Vera looked back at Joan. “This is when you could tell me that I’m important to you, too,” she pointed out, sighing.

Joan was still.

Vera sighed again, stretching out to lie in the bed. She pulled the covers over her. “I’m going to sleep now,” she stated wearily. “You can go sleep in the other cell.” She closed her eyes, vowing not to cry—promising herself that she wouldn’t let Joan see her cry again. Maybe all she had left was her tattered pride, but she was determined to keep it.

The cell was once again silent. She wondered if Joan had, indeed, left to go sleep in the other cell. It hurt even more—that Joan would simply give up, and leave her.

A tear slipped down Vera’s cheek.

“You’re important to me.”

Vera opened one eye, straining to hear the whispered voice. “Am I?” she asked.

Joan sighed, sitting down on the edge of the bed, next to Vera’s prone body. “I don’t want to give her up. I won’t give her up—not even for you. No amount of jealousy will stop that. But,” she paused, her fumbling search for words obvious to Vera, “I do… care… for you. You are important to me.”

Vera cocked her head, considering. “Do you know,” she whispered wonderingly, “I think I finally believe you.” Joan’s words were, indeed, enough. It was strange how much she had thought she needed to hear Joan say “love.” She raised her hand to stroke the side of Joan’s cheek. Now, the word itself no longer seemed as important.

“Good,” Joan said brusquely, placing her hand over Vera’s. “You should. I’m telling the truth.”

“How novel,” Vera replied.

Joan rolled her eyes. “As for novelty… ‘I am the fucking master of my fate,’ Vera?” she asked, quoting.

Now it was Vera’s turn to blush. “I loved that poem. When I was a teenager, I used to quote it to myself whenever things got bad with Mum. It just sort of… came to me.”

“Mmm,” Joan replied, staring back into the darkness. “Out of the night that covers me/ Black as the pit from pole to pole, / I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul.” She pulled Vera’s hand down, holding it. “Seems surprisingly fitting for tonight,” she uttered quietly.

Vera stared at Joan’s profile in the half light. “It’s fitting for you, Joan,” she stated, surprised. “I should have thought of it before. That’s you.”

Joan turned her face back to Vera. “No, Vera,” she replied. “That’s you.” She leaned down, pressing her lips to Vera’s cheek. “You are the master of your fate.” She kissed her forehead. “You are the captain of your soul.”

Smiling, Vera peeled back the covers, holding them open invitingly. “Come back to bed, Joan,” she said. “Let’s try again.”

Chapter Text

Slowly, dreamily, Vera explored Joan’s body. She experimented with different touches, different weights, different parts of her own body. She did her best to assess what Joan liked, what made her smile, what made her jolt.

Through it all, Joan watched her.

Vera didn’t falter under Joan’s intense gaze. Instead, she returned it every so often, breaking off from whatever delicious bit of skin she was discovering to drape herself over Joan, staring into her eyes, nibbling at her lips before kissing her fiercely. In those moments, Joan would hold her tightly, seeming almost to want to pull Vera into her own body.

And then Vera would break the kiss with a gasp, grin widely, and wiggle down, happily returning to whatever part of Joan she was busy stroking and nipping and kissing.

She wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but she was determined to be thorough in showing Joan her love.

Eventually, after a rather giggly examination of Joan’s belly button, Vera’s fingers drifted down to Joan’s centre. Joan immediately stilled. Vera rested her fingers on Joan’s sex, but didn’t move them. She simply allowed Joan to feel the heat of her hand. “What do you want, Joan?” she asked her, quietly.

Joan opened and closed her mouth. She stared at Vera, helplessly, and Vera could see the internal war battling within her.

“It’s okay, Joan,” she whispered. “It’s okay to want this. And it’s okay to tell me what you want.”

Joan turned her face away before quickly turning it back. “I can’t,” she finally managed to whisper. “I can’t…”

“You can, Joan,” Vera stated emphatically, smiling at her lover. “It’s your body. You can tell me whatever you want.” She waited patiently, neither pressing down with her fingers, nor moving them away.

Joan’s face crumpled in the ravages of her internal war. “I want… I want…”

Vera gently kissed the lower parts of Joan’s belly.

“I want you to touch me!” Joan finally exhaled in a whoosh of breath.

Vera smiled. “Do you mean here, Joan?” she asked, tracing her finger along Joan’s slit with the lightest of touches.

“Aaah!” Joan gasped, her body jolting. “Yes! There! There!”

Slowly, gently, still cupping Joan’s pubic mound, Vera pushed a finger between Joan’s puffy outer lips, running it up and down.

“Ohhhh” Joan uttered, her eyes fixed desperately on Vera’s face.

“More?” Vera asked.

Joan nodded, her teeth biting her lower lip.

Vera continued to draw her finger up and down, until she felt the beginning of a hard little nub. Smiling, she started to rub it more vigorously, circling it with her fingers.

Joan emitted a guttural sound. Vera watched with delight as Joan’s thighs relaxed, spreading further open to allow Vera better access.

Her eyes firmly connecting with Joan’s, Vera drew her fingers lower. Using just one finger, she gently pushed at the entrance of Joan’s vagina.

“No!” Joan yelled, slamming her thighs together. Vera saw a look she had rarely seen on Joan’s face: panic. She quickly pulled her hand away.

“What?” she asked, unnerved. “Are you okay?”

Joan breathed fiercely in and out, turning her face away from Vera. “I thought I could…” she whispered.

Vera lay down next to her, trying her best to encircle Joan with her arms. “Shhhh,” she said, kissing Joan’s hair. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Joan’s breathing slowly returned to normal, but Vera noticed that she still wouldn’t look at her. “Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

Joan shook her head. “There’s nothing to say,” she whispered.

Vera nodded, still holding her. She wasn’t sure what this was about—was it because Joan was a virgin? Or—she didn’t want to think about this—had she been abused in the past?

Tentatively, she placed her hand on Joan’s cheek, drawing Joan’s face toward her. “I don’t need to enter you, Joan. We don’t need to do that.”

Joan wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“There are so many other things we can do!” Vera continued, trying to move them forward, past this sudden stumbling block. “Was there any part that was pleasurable?”

After a pause, Joan nodded almost shyly. “When you were… circling…”

“When I was circling your clit with my fingers?

Joan nodded again.

“Would you like me to do that again, Joan?” Vera asked, purposely dropping her voice to whisper in Joan’s ear. “Would you like me to draw little circles around your clit?”

Joan shivered. “Yes,” she breathed.

Vera sucked on Joan’s earlobe. Her hand moved down again, but was suddenly halted by Joan’s vice-like grip.

“But don’t… don’t…”

“No penetration.” Vera saw Joan flinch. “I understand, Joan,” she said more soothingly. “I won’t do anything that you don’t want me to do.” She kissed her, long and deep, and was pleased to see Joan’s eyes half-lidded when she pulled back.

Patiently, Vera’s fingers gently circled Joan’s clitoris, sometimes pushing down, sometimes running the length of Joan’s slit, but always being careful to avoid the entrance to Joan’s vagina. Vera loved it when Joan pumped her fingers in and out of her—she felt so deliciously full, and the friction… but Joan obviously felt differently about that part of her body, and Vera respected that.

Sometimes Joan’s body would jolt, and sometimes she’d simply lie back, relaxed, a smile hovering on her lips as a moan escaped.

Eventually, Joan’s hand covered Vera’s, forcing it to stop its ministrations. “Thank you,” Joan said, placing a kiss on Vera’s lips. “That’s all I need.”

“I can keep going,” Vera responded earnestly. “Really, Joan—I want you to come!” She grinned. “To orgasm,” she corrected herself.

Joan smiled in return. “I require no further assistance,” she stated formally.

“But—”

“Vera,” Joan explained in a low voice, “I’m over fifty..."

Vera’s brow furrowed in confusion. “I know that, but…”

A blush once again suffused Joan’s fair skin. “So things don’t work for quite as long…”

“What?” Vera asked. “Oh!” she cried, finally understanding. “Oh! Yes! I had, um, noticed that you weren’t as wet anymore…”

“Oh God, Vera!” Joan exclaimed in embarrassment.

“But I could—Joan! I could, um, use my tongue…”

They stared at each other, Vera’s offer hanging in the air between them.

“Are you ready for that?” Joan finally asked.

Vera nodded. “I think I am. And—just so you know—I looked up Hepatitis C transmission rates. There’s no evidence, Joan.” Her smile widened. “There’s no evidence that Hep C can be spread through oral sex! So… I think I’m ready,” she stated proudly.

Now it was Joan’s turn to gather Vera into her arms. “I know you are,” she whispered into her hair, pressing a kiss to the side of her forehead. “But I’m not.”

Vera nodded, burrowing closer into Joan’s body. “It’s there if you want it,” she whispered.

They held each other in a warm silence, bodies pressed closely together, slowly caressing each other.

Neither noticed when sleep claimed them.

Chapter Text

Vera awoke with a scream, thrashing, trying to free herself from whatever was binding her. This was it. She hadn’t saved Joan. She hadn’t saved herself.

They were going to die.

But… it was quiet. As her panic subsided, as the adrenaline pounding through her body finally receded enough to allow her to hear, to see, Vera realized that she wasn’t being held by the prisoners—she was being held by Joan.

Joan was rocking her, her strong arms securely embracing Vera. She was alternately whispering “shh, shh” and singing softly.

Vera stilled.

She had never heard Joan sing.

It was beautiful.

She let her head drop back against Joan’s shoulder. Safely held in Joan’s arms, she allowed the first tears to fall.

Joan fell silent. Laying her own cheek against Vera’s forehead, she slowly moved one hand to wipe away Vera’s tears.

“Please don’t stop,” Vera whispered.

For a moment, Joan was quiet. Than, holding her even tighter, Joan took a breath. Her song was soft but clear. “When I am laid, am laid in earth…”

Vera’s tears spilled faster.

Joan continued to stroke her cheek. “May my wrongs create no trouble, no trouble in thy breast…”

Vera felt her body start to shake. It was wrong—all of this was so very, very wrong.

“Remember me, remember me…”

They had found love. They had created love. Shouldn’t that matter, somehow?

Shouldn’t it protect them?

“But ah! forget my fate…”

They didn’t deserve to die. Joan had done… terrible things… but she didn’t deserve to die. Nor did Vera! They should be able to live—even if it was right here in this cell, a life sentence in Wentworth, they should be allowed to live!

“Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.”

She sobbed, feeling her heart break for the future they would never have, and the past that they had squandered.

***

When Vera could cry no more, when her sobs receded and her body stopped shaking, Joan turned Vera’s face to her own. “That’s the last time you’ll cry about this,” she informed her sternly.

“What?” Vera asked, confused, trying to wipe away the remnants of her tears.

“That was the last time you’ll cry,” Joan repeated. “No matter what happens—whether we both live or die, whether you survive and I don’t—those were the last tears you will shed for us.”

Vera stared into the face of the woman who was both her monster and her lover. “I’m not strong enough for this,” she whispered.

“You’re strong enough for everything,” Joan replied.

***

Their lovemaking was not gentle. It was fast—desperate—as they frantically tried to feel every part of the other, to imprint the other’s body forever in their minds.

To make the other feel their love.

When Vera climaxed first, urgently chanting “I love you, I love you” over and over as she came, she thought she couldn’t bear to open her eyes again, to face the future and a possible world without Joan.

But Joan kissed her eyelids, and Vera forced herself to see.

And when Vera slid down Joan’s body, kissing the soft thighs before placing her mouth on Joan’s core, she was glad that her eyes were open. She could not have lived without the sight of Joan’s flushed face glowing in ecstasy.

Joan orgasmed silently, her entire body shaking.

Vera made no comment about it, but simply crawled back up Joan’s body.

They clung to each other as Joan’s breathing returned to normal.

***

“I didn’t send the letter,” Joan stated abruptly.

Vera frowned, turning over to wrap her arm across Joan’s belly. “What letter?”

Joan gently caressed the arm. “The letter that implicated you in the embezzlement. The letter that would have destroyed your career.”

“And my freedom,” Vera added.

Joan said nothing.

“Why?” Vera asked. “Was it because of us?” she gestured back and forth between the two of them.

“Not consciously, at first…” Joan paused, thinking, “but maybe. I had had it ready for a while, but I never sent it. I think I couldn’t do it.”

Vera shifted to look into Joan’s face. “Couldn’t?”

Joan stared back. “Wouldn’t,” she whispered. “I wouldn’t. Yours was the first vow I took that I broke. I had vowed to annihilate you, but… I chose not to.” She looked away, toward the window. “I tore up the letter this morning. No one will ever know.”

“They’ll find the money,” Vera replied sadly. “They’ll see that it was all deposited in my name.”

“Will they?” Joan asked, turning back. “Even if the account is registered in a different name?”

Vera frowned. “But you said—”

“I lied,” Joan retorted simply.

“But then how were you going to pin it on me?” Vera sat back on her knees, looking down at Joan lying before her.

“The letter instructed my… helper… at the bank to change the name on the account, but to erase any evidence that he had done so. It was to appear as if your name had always been the primary account holder.”

“And this person would just do that? Could just do that?”

“He has special skills, as well as a certain—shall we say ‘incentive’—to do what I instructed him to do. He knows his job.”

Vera sighed, snuggling back into Joan’s side. “I don’t know what you want me to say, Joan—are you expecting me to thank you for not ‘annihilating’ me?”

Joan kissed Vera’s forehead. “I wanted you to know,” she said slowly. “I didn’t want you to think… I wanted you to believe that I chose not to hurt you. I… understand more now, about you, and about myself. And if I should—”

Vera quickly placed her finger on Joan’s lips. “We will not speak of that,” she stated firmly. “If I’m not allowed to cry, then you’re not allowed to refer to your… your…”

“My death,” Joan stated into Vera’s finger, wrapping her own fingers around Vera’s hand and gently bringing Vera’s palm to her mouth. She kissed it slowly, breathing against the warm skin.

“That,” Vera whispered, blinking her eyes against the pain of unshed tears.

They gazed into each other’s face.

“I love you,” Joan stated clearly.

“I know,” Vera replied, reaching to bring Joan’s face to her own, finally celebrating Joan’s long-awaited declaration with a deep, desperate kiss.

***

They lay wound up in each other, watching the gray that signaled the pre-dawn light. Vera buried her face below Joan’s shoulder, breathing in the scent of Joan’s skin.

“It’s time,” Joan stated expressionlessly.

Vera nodded. She gave one last frantic squeeze of Joan’s body before she rose, standing barefoot on the cold concrete floor of Joan’s cell. She looked around at the clothing scattered on the floor. She looked at her lover, now rising from bed. “I can’t do this,” she whispered, her voice high in panic.

“You must,” Joan replied, handing Vera her underwear.

Vera slipped the tiny garment over her legs, willing herself to hold down the vomit that continually threatened to rise from her gut. Joan was right. She must. She could spend her final moments throwing up, panicking, or she could force herself to be calm. She could force herself to concentrate on the short but infinitely precious time she still had with Joan.

They dressed in silence, occasionally helping each another to pull on a shirt, fasten a zipper. Joan brushed her thick hair, pulling it into its now-accustomed ponytail. She handed her brush to Vera, who made no comment when she saw it tremble. She pulled her own hair into its tight twist.

Dressed, they stood together: the Governor in black; the prisoner in teal.

***

In the unit’s common area, hands clutched tightly, they watched the sun rise over the outer wall of Wentworth.

“Remember me,” Joan quoted suddenly in a whisper, staring at the morning light, “but forget my fate.”

Vera craned her head to look up at her. Her mind was swiftly flooded with memories of Joan—of the first time she saw her, her uniform spotless, her hair arranged in her perfect bun; of listening to Joan’s first speech to the guards, and then creeping away to the toilet to silently repeat phrases of it to herself, marveling at the forcefulness of this new governor; of having drinks in Joan’s office, and gladly spilling all of her secrets, because even then she would happily have given anything—everything—to Joan. She remembered the delirious ecstasy of Joan’s offer to mentor her; of the moment in which she suggested that Vera use her first name; of Joan arriving at her house bearing food and simply, in her utterly confident, competent way, taking over Vera’s kitchen.

But this was Joan—complex, complicated Joan—so she remembered the bad things, too. She felt again her shame in failing Joan, in being Vinegar Tits; her dark despair when she revealed her hepatitis status, only to have Joan pull her hand away; her mortification when Joan demoted her from deputy governor, publically humiliating her.

Her delirious happiness when Joan held her after making love to her.

Her misery and desolation when Joan revealed their lovemaking to be part of her ‘annihilation.’

Vera gazed at the familiar face. This was Joan: arch, sarcastic, hurt, bewildered, controlling, scheming, charming, manipulating, loving Joan.

Vera’s Joan.

With a cry, Vera pushed herself against Joan, pulling her tight, kissing her with a fierceness that tried to convey everything she had ever felt about the other woman.

Outside, from the hallway, they heard sounds coming toward them.

Joan kissed her fiercely back.

Finally breaking their kiss, they stared at each other, each understanding the other’s love.

Together, they turned to face their fate.