DISCLAIMER: All the characters used within this story are the property of either Shed Productions or the BBC. We are using them solely to explore our creative abilities. Lyrics belong to the Beatles.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.
BETAED: by Jen.

A Question Of Guilt
By Kristine and Richard

Part One Hundred and Seventy One

Karen stared sightlessly at her favourite black suit, which was hung up ready for her to slip on. At some time last night, she must have got it out ready for the morning but she couldn't remember doing it. It seemed ages ago that she had worn it even though it was only a week, no more than the average holiday break that she took throughout the year. The only thing was that what she had gone through was no holiday and she wondered if she had come down to earth again.

Instantly, a panic reaction overtook her, as she was starting to wonder if she could face the outside world. The next second, a contrary impulse drove her to reflect that she had to be back at work as soon as possible, immediately. She would be more at home there than anywhere else. It gave her life some sense of shape that moping around at home wasn't going to give her. To hell with it, she finally snapped and she was pleased that adrenaline reaction finally kicked in and drove her to get moving. She had a prison to run and god knows what had happened to the place, her office, her files, the duties to be performed, the deadlines that only she knew about. Everyone else's job was somehow covered at Larkhall but hers.

She hurried with her makeup, grabbed hold of all her personal effects that she had taken home and bundled everything in the car boot. She shoved her foot on the accelerator and headed off down the road. Once back in the hurly burly of rush hour London traffic, she started to feel better about herself as she sat back in the car. She suddenly swung out of a side road onto a major road with a cursory glance to the right and right out of nowhere a car horn blared and the car right behind her swerved past to overtake. That adrenaline rush turned into alarm as she could swear that her eyes hadn't deceived her. After that, she drove more slowly for the rest of the journey with almost exaggerated care to get control of herself.

The tension in her eased as she pulled off into the familiar side street and the prison gates and walls were reassuringly normal as she pulled up in her usual place.

With a huge breath of relief, she pulled out all her personal belongings and somehow locked up her car.

"Feeling better, Miss Betts? We were all sorry to hear about your son. We weren't expecting you quite so soon," Ken's words and his honest face greeted her.

"Looks like I've done myself out of the red carpet greeting," Quipped Karen, and added on a softer note. "Thanks, Ken."

"Do you want someone to give you a hand with all your stuff? I'd do it myself if I didn't have a gatehouse to look after."

"Don't worry, I'll manage."

Ken looked a little dubiously but let her carry on, as it wasn't a good idea to persist in disagreeing with such a forceful, determined and pleasant boss. He picked up the phone and dialled Nikki as he was instructed to.

"Hey, it's Miss Betts back," Julie Johnson called out. "It's great to see you, miss."

As Karen strode rapidly forward, she came up to the crowd to which Denny and Lauren were soon added.

"I loved your card," Karen was able to get in as a hubbub started. A foolish smile spread over her face as she was bathed as if in a scented bath in all the glow of human generosity and well-being. It could not have happened at a better time when she had felt so hollow and drained inside. While she was away, she had not thought of the pleasurable side of human contact, only the deadlines that were building up. She could not remember what they were in detail, only the panic feelings.

"We understand how mums feel and you're one of us that way."

"You know that Yvonne would say the same if she were here, probably said it already,

Silly me."

"Didn't think you could do a card like that," grinned Denny after the two Julies had spoken in rapid succession. "You've got my present to you in your office."

"Hey Julies, I know you all mean the best, but give Miss Betts a bit of space," Nikki interrupted. She could see the expression in Karen's eyes start to glaze over as she was bombarded with sheer good will. She could tell that it was all overpowering her. Unknown to Nikki, Julie Saunders' casual use of the word 'mum' was like an arrow in her heart that if Ross were dead, what did that make her?

"We're all really glad to see you back from the newest prisoner to…whoever they are," Nikki finished vaguely as the mode of comparison escaped her. "Want me to come with you to your office?"

Karen nodded her initial agreement, as she wanted company. Then she realised that

She wanted to get back in her little version of home that was at work and to arrange all the little bits and pieces, which appealed to her nesting instinct. After a quick mental flurry, she made up her mind.

"Give me half an hour to tidy up the room and then come unless I phone if I want more time."

Nikki knew that Grayling's visit plus some collective head scratching from her and the other wing governors made her room perfectly tidy but she kept quiet. There was restlessness about Karen that was obvious to her.

"Your appointment book is with your secretary, Karen. Looks clear for today but it's bound to fill up."

Karen smiled briefly at Nikki's thoughtfulness and nipped off to her office.

"Do you reckon Karen will want any visitors to make her welcome, Nikki?" Gina asked in passing.

"Let her settle in and I'll check that out."

Both of them obliquely referred to what was blindingly obvious that Karen wasn't her normal self, that is, the Karen Betts they both knew before the recent tragedy.

Karen's first glance fell on the beautiful potted plant at the corner of her table. That was what must have been the present from Denny that she mentioned. Her feelings were a mixture of pleasant surprise that her in tray wasn't overflowing with files and worry that whatever had passed through her office was done right. She stopped herself from looking round and, instead, spread all her personal effects all round the office to make it feel lived in. The one thing that appeared to be missing however, was her picture of Ross. Where was it, and who had moved it? Her desk seemed almost desolate without it, as if the last twenty two years of her life hadn't existed. When she was done, she felt happier and had settled down to a morning relaxing cup of tea, the Englishwoman's traditional and unique solace and comfort.

She then went on to switch on the computer and dread the volumes of E-mails to come pouring out of cyberspace. Surely, that couldn't have been taken care of as well? Again to her surprise, a mere trickle of messages begged for her attention. This was becoming a total mystery. How could her job managed to run itself for a week, apparently smoothly?

While she was brooding over this she smoked her first cigarette of her working day. She had just finished it when there was a polite knock and Nikki entered the room.

"Bet you're surprised to see everywhere so spick and span," Nikki grinned.

"I know that Neil and I backed you to the hilt when you went for the wing governor job but I've got more than I bargained for. I swear that 'working miracles' wasn't part of your job description," Karen laughed. The sound of it felt strange to her ears.

"I didn't do this all by myself. The other wing governors mucked in. Neil very kindly spent a day last Thursday blasting through your E-mails, which had piled up. If you look at the sub folder marked 'Adam', that's what he's done. He's lobbed in anything he's marked for deletion as junk mail and anything else that he's replied to. He enjoyed it over here for the day. He told me it was like riding a bike, you don't forget the knack."

"So exactly what did Neil think in his judgement was junk mail?" came Karen's mock severe reply to Nikki's nonchalant tones and her grin.

"In his very words, anything from Alison Warner."

Karen shook her head in wonder at Grayling's brazen cheek. She wondered if John's inclination to be brazenly disrespectful to pompous authority was starting to rub off on him.

"He did a very nice line in being calm and reassuring when one of us came across something we didn't understand. He would be brilliant on any phone advice line you care to name if he chose a different way of making a living," Added Nikki enthusiastically. "I don't know what we would have done without him and I must say that Gina took some of my work off me. All the wing governors mucked in as well so it wasn't me being a one woman band."

"I must make a point of congratulating every one of you for all the help they've given me ……………….and to G Wing prison officers for the lovely flowers and the prisoners for the card and this pot of flowers. When you are down, or at least not at your best, it's little things that mean so much."

It was curious how Karen's speaking tone softened up momentarily and so markedly as she switched in her gratitude from the official to the personal.

"So you needn't have worried quite so much about us while you were away."

"That's not the point," Lied Karen a little. "I mean what I said about you, Nikki, most of all. I can see straight away who has taken on the main responsibility. I like to think I know you pretty well by now."

Nikki smiled in a self-effacing way at Karen's fulsome praise. She found it a little hard to give way to praise, thinking it no more than her duty. Living with Helen and her own background explained that mindset.

"Nikki," Karen asked eventually. "Where's my picture of ross?" Nikki looked a little uncomfortable at this, as it had been her decision to remove the picture from plain sight in the first place.

"We weren't sure if you'd want to see it, as soon as you walked through the door," She said quietly. "It's perfectly safe, in the second drawer down." Opening said drawer, Karen removed the photograph in its small, wooden frame, and placed it back on the desk, taking a moment to gaze at the happy, youthful face, and to try to forget the cold, dead one she'd seen last.

"I must phone Neil as well. He's performed wonders and you don't know how it feels to know that someone in authority is watching guard over you."

I know very well, thought Nikki, I've got Karen.

"Suppose you bring me up to speed on everything, Nikki. I want to get into the driving seat as soon as possible."

"Karen, are you ready to take it this quickly?" blurted out Nikki with real concern.

"If I weren't ready to deal with this, I wouldn't be here. It's very kind of you but I'm the best judge of what I can take on. I've been doing it a long time," Came the answer, ringing with false confidence.

Nikki sighed and gave in to the inevitable. She had no choice but to let Karen have her way. In that way, she has the same as before even if Nikki questioned her wisdom, which she would not have done before. She lit a cigarette and ran through everything that had happened in the last week and had to give it to Karen that her mind was sharp and alert in picking up on anything that was not clear with total precision.

"I'm really grateful for the way everything has been handled, Nikki. I've had my share of emergencies, you name it, I've dealt with it but this is a new one. I won't forget what you've done, both personally and officially. You can now lay your burden down."

Karen's soft sincere words made Nikki feel good about herself inside and it crossed her mind that Karen might not be so lucky. In contrast, Nikki felt that she had always had a very clear, brightly defined guiding light inside her and had taken the rough with the smooth. Karen appeared tough on the surface but knew only too well that appearances can be deceptive.

"I would like to talk longer but I fear that it would be wrong of me if you have your own wing to run. I think I can take care of everything now."

"Are you up for visitors or do you want a bit of time to get settled in first?"

"Nikki, I've only been away a week. I'll be fine. Let 'em all come if they want," Karen's confident tones answered Nikki's solicitous concern for her health. Jesus, last week felt like the longest week of her life, running her off her feet. She smiled in a shame-faced fashion and slipped out.

"Right everyone. Karen's got stuck in at work and has told me that it's business as usual. She said," emphasised Nikki in deliberate tones, "that if any of you want to visit her, you'll be welcome……"

"And what do you think, Nikki?"

"If you want my personal opinion……"

"Which we do, as always."

"You see her as she'd like the company." Nikki grinned at the cross talk banter with Gina which got straight to the heart of the situation, "you'll go easy on her in terms of time and numbers. She's keen to get back to work but if you have any real concerns, I want to hear about them. In the meantime, we back her up as best we can. Got that?"

The prison officers started to file out of the room. Throughout the meeting, Bodybag was uncharacteristically quiet and deep in thought. Just as Nikki was about to leave, she made a sudden decision.

"Err, ma'am, Miss Wade, Nikki,"Bodybag stumbled into the conversation. "I want to ask you for a little advice."

Nikki was utterly taken aback by the words from the other woman and how they were phrased. This must be a real first in her life but that thought from her past was pushed out of sight by her sense of responsibility. She smiled in welcome just before Bodybag would have turned away from her in anger at Nikki and herself.

"It's about Miss Betts. I wondered from what everyone was saying if I can help …….oh, it doesn't matter."

"From the sound of it, it certainly does matter and so do you."

"I know that Miss Betts and I haven't exactly seen eye to eye over the years but I was only wondering…."

"Go on, Sylvia."

"I ought to call in on her and offer sympathy that only a mother can. I have three children of my own, you know…….."

Bodybag's words were strangely bashful and proud and this was not lost on Nikki.

"You do it, Sylvia. I can't put it into words to say why but I know that it will do her a lot of good coming from you."

Bodybag was flustered and embarrassed and fished in her bag for a tissue and blew her nose to cover her embarrassment. She didn't say another word but headed off down the wing. Nikki watched her go with a strange feeling inside her that this was a side of her that she had never seen before.

For the rest of the day, Karen worked in sporadic bursts as Gina and Dominic popped in to have a pleasant chat. Out of politeness, her impulse to find work and overdo it was discreetly restrained as both of them chatted pleasantly and inconsequentially about nothing in particular. They did not go in for any heavy-handed sympathy but handled the situation with delicacy and tact. She was glad of the company and at the same time, glad that she had made her presence felt, both to herself and others. It was as good a first day back as you could get.

Most surprising was a third knock at the door and Sylvia, of all people, put her head round the door. She had never been known to go out of her way to seek out her company in her office. That was the place where she had been known to be torn off a strip at regular intervals.

"Sylvia. What do I owe this call?" Karen said in friendly tones.

Bodybag shuffled over, fidgeting with her hands and, very unusually for her, smiling at her.

"I just wanted to call in to wish you my condolences and anything I can say to make you feel better," The other woman stammered.

Karen was really touched, the more so as it was such an unexpected move.

"You know, that's really kind of you."

"In anyone's hour of troubles, you need those around you like your family. All of us spend most of our waking hours at this….I mean at this prison and you share so many of your waking hours here. It wouldn't be right for any working mother here not to get support."

Bodybag was known in her secondary occupation to utter clichéd sentiments like a cheap card bought in any supermarket checkout but Karen could tell that this time, these words came straight from her heart, that softer side that only peeked out at rare intervals behind the solid armour plate of her callous judgement exterior.

Surprisingly, Karen found herself reaching for a tissue and dabbing her eyes briefly. She couldn't speak but she smiled in gratitude. For once, Sylvia held back until Karen had collected her wits. Her old fashioned ways of not showing displays of emotions were not a million miles away from Karen's values.

Karen set foot out of the prison gates with Nikki and Gina a little way behind her. She swung open the heavy wooden door which opened out into a ……nightmare.

Suddenly, she came right up close to a crowd of people who started flashing white light into her eyes at close range.

"Miss Betts, why did your son kill himself?"

"Miss Betts, is there any truth in the rumours that your son was a heroin addict?

"Miss Betts, how do you feel about the death of your son?"

Karen stood frozen to the spot in sheer panic. Nothing in her life had prepared her for the prospect of being doorstepped by the paparazzi and questions being fired at her in such an insensitive way. Why would any newspaper be interested in her life, her tragedy? She had worked all her life anonymously in the public services.

"Cut it out," Shouted Nikki's carrying voice from behind. "She has no comment to make. All she wants is to be left in peace. What's wrong with you animals? Have you no feelings."

"You push it further and you'll get banged up."

"Oooh, promises, promises," Sneered what appeared to be an adolescent brat who ought to be sent home and be grounded by his mum for a week. Was he some reporter for a national rag, Gina wondered.

"In a men's nick of course. Now move it, muppet."

"Miss Betts, what are you going to do with your future?

Nikki and Gina backed up by Dominic who heard what went on , flanked Karen and pushed and shoved their way through the crowd and escorted her to her car. Flash bulbs were being fired off in all direction but they were oblivious to it. All they wanted to do was to get Karen away from them.

"Miss Betts, what do you feel about being a single mum, bringing up a child. What would you say to the readers?"

"Same as any single mum. We deal with them every day or haven't you noticed?" sneered Nikki with utter contempt and loathing.

Karen slid into her car and only saw mouths opening and closing as she started the engine. The view was nightmarish. Only her prison officers, true friends were deserving of her time. She saw Nikki reach for her mobile and guessed that she was phoning the police. . She gunned the engine and edged her way through the crowd until the way was clear and shot off down the road. Why did they do this to her, why did they do this to her, why did they do this to her, the mantra ran round in her panic stricken mind. She had to run for her life.

Part One Hundred and Seventy Two

On the Thursday afternoon after finishing in court, George thought that it was about time she took matters into her own hands. Karen had gone back to work on Monday, and it had clearly been too soon. George had tried to offer her support, but apart from wanting the occasional cuddle, which she seemed to feel guilty for needing, Karen was making every attempt to keep her and everyone else at a distance. George had stayed with her on Tuesday night, but after spending most of the dormant hours tossing and turning, and quite obviously keeping George from her own sleep, Karen had said that it would probably be better for her to be alone for the time being. George knew that Karen didn't really want to push her away, but that it appeared to be the only way she could keep on going. George had tentatively tried to persuade Karen that perhaps it might be too early for her to go back to work, but Karen had flatly disagreed with her. So, alternative measures were now called for.

As she drew her car to a stop outside Cleland House, the headquarters of the prison service, an evil grin of malevolence crossed her face. What if she should run into Alison Warner? Oh, dear, now that would give her something to worry about. Locking her car and walking in through the automatic doors, George noted with satisfaction that there didn't appear to be anyone behind the reception desk, which as far as she was concerned, was all to the good. She didn't especially want to have to go through the fuss of someone contacting Neil Grayling in advance, because she didn't want to give him any excuse to refuse to see her, not that she really thought he would. Following a sign for the area management for women's prisons, George walked up the carpeted stairs, and along the elegantly decorated corridor, the richly coloured carpet dulling the sound of her shoes. All the polished oak doors very helpfully bore brass nameplates, making it child's play to find Neil's office.

When Neil heard the polite yet authoritative knock on his office door, he bade the person to enter with a certain level of curiosity. He wasn't expecting anyone, and he didn't recognise the knock.

"Hello," He said, when George pushed the door open and moved into the room. "This is a nice surprise."

"I've just lost an appeal in The Strand, so I thought I'd come and pay you a visit," She said, letting the door close behind her. "I need to ask you a favour," She said, taking a chair opposite his desk.

"Ah, well, before you do," He said, rummaging in the top drawer of his desk. "I've got something for you. Did I ever tell you that my partner, Marcus, is a recording engineer?"

"No," George replied, hoping against hope that this wasn't going where she thought it was.

"I persuaded him to discretely record the performance of 'The Creation', and you remember that group photograph we had taken afterwards, well, we played about with it a bit and created a cover. You look pretty good on the front of a CD case," He added with a broad smile, thoroughly enjoying her discomfort.

"I do hope you're joking," She said ominously, though knowing he wasn't.

"I'm serious," He told her. "And the sound is wonderful." Retrieving a CD from the drawer, he held it out to her. Wondering just what she was letting herself in for, she took it. On the front of the case, along with a proclamation of what was contained on the CD, there was a photograph of George, standing between Neil and Monty, and with John as leader and Joe as conductor standing on either side of the three soloists.

"My god," She said in wonder. "I really do look happy."

"Is that such a surprise?"

"Like you wouldn't believe," She said dryly. "My father would probably like a copy of this."

"It's available for anyone who wants it," Neil said, wondering if she would eventually have the guts to listen to it.

"What I really came here for," George said, after putting the CD in her handbag, and vowing to keep it out of anyone's reach. "Is to ask you, if there is any way you can force Karen to take some time off."

"That's not something I would want to do, unless absolutely necessary," Neil said seriously.

"She's exhausted," George said worriedly. "Is spending every possible minute at work, and using every excuse in the book not to talk to anyone. I know it's perfectly natural, after everything that's happened, but I'm worried about her. I think she's going to work herself into the ground, as a way of hiding from everything." It touched Neil to see such sincere concern in George's eyes, and he got up from his chair and began pacing in front of the window, wondering what would be his best course of action.

"I wonder what Fenner would have thought of all this," He astonished George by saying.

"Precisely what, has Fenner got to do with any of this?"

"He was a father, George, and if there was one, sincere feeling Fenner had, it was his love for his children. That was the only time I ever saw the really human side to Jim Fenner. I remember one time, I offered to cook him dinner, and he said no, because he refused to break a promise he'd made to watch the football with his son."

"What was it about Fenner, that managed to thoroughly ensnare so many people?" George asked into the ensuing silence.

"I've got absolutely no idea," Neil said ruefully. "There's no doubt whatsoever that he was an abuser of vulnerable women, but he was a father, and when he thought like a father, he was briefly human." The quiet hung between them, both of them wondering in their different ways how they could possibly help Karen through this.

"I will talk to her," Neil said eventually, bringing them both back onto safer ground. "But it took a long time for Karen to trust me, and I'm not about to ruin that by suspending her, if I don't have to."

"Thank you," George said sincerely. "Because listening to anything I have to say on the subject, appears to be the last thing she wants to do. But then, I do have to wonder if Karen has ever taken any real notice of anything a lover might be urging her to do, especially when she doesn't agree with it." Then, clapping a hand to her mouth in disgust, she added, "No, don't answer that," Clearly thinking of the man they'd just been discussing.

"I think that's probably always been Karen's response to a crisis, to push people away," Neil said gently. "You should have seen the way she dealt with Mark."

"I feel as though I've forgotten how to get through to her," George said despondently, amazed that she was saying all this to him.

"She'll sort herself out eventually," Neil said with far more certainty than he actually felt. "And if she doesn't, I will consider putting her on gardening leave." Before George could respond, there came a perfunctory tap on Neil's door, followed by the entrance of Alison Warner, who stared at George in gob smacked astonishment.

"I didn't realise that we required your presence or assistance, Ms Channing," She said rather coolly.

"You don't, as far as I'm aware," George said coldly, though with a glint of wicked amusement that forced Neil to hide a smile. Slightly floundering, Alison handed Neil a bundle of forms that were at least two inches thick.

"These need filling in by next week," She said curtly, dropping the stack unceremoniously on his desk.

"Oh, joy," Neil said sardonically, once his boss had left.

"If she ever gives you any trouble," George told him conspiratorially as she rose to her feet. "Feel free to remind her of the little bombshell I still have at the bottom of one of my filing cabinets, after which I'm sure she will leave you alone. Mrs. Warner would do anything, to ensure the co-operation of an enemy within her closely guarded camp."

When he left the office at around six that evening, Neil took another copy of the CD with him, using it as an excuse to drop in on Karen. He thought she would still be at work, and sure enough, her car was still there when he arrived. As he walked towards the gate lodge, he saw that Nikki was on the point of leaving for the day.

"How's G wing these days?" He said as he approached her.

"Ticking over quite nicely, thank you," She said with a smile.

"Good," He said stopping in front of her. "And how's Karen getting on, in your professional opinion?"

"I'm not sure I've been in the job long enough to have one," Nikki said guardedly. "She's working like there's no tomorrow, but what's new."

"Can I borrow your keys?" Neil asked, eyeing the jangling bunch she was about to hand over to Ken.

"Karen would sack me on the spot if I did that," Nikki said seriously. "Even if you did used to be governor here."

"In that case," Neil said with an approving smile. "Would you mind escorting me up to her office?"

"So that she can't say no to seeing you, without a very good excuse," Nikki deduced. "Sure." When they arrived at the last gate before Karen's office, Nikki turned on her heel and gave him a wave.

When bidden to enter, Neil pushed the door open, it always seeming odd to him that here was someone else, existing in his old workspace.

"Neil," Karen said, looking up in surprise. "How did you get in?" Nice to see you too, Neil thought wryly.

"Don't worry," He told her. "Nikki escorted me up here. How are you?"

"Why is it," Karen said disgustedly. "That being away for only one week, makes one's desk look like Mount Everest? I'm only just beginning to see the top of it again, and that's in spite of your extremely welcome assistance while I was away, for which I am incredibly greatful."

"Paperwork, wasn't what I came to talk about," Neil said quietly, taking a chair across from her, trying to ignore the fairly full ashtray in his previously smoke free office.

"I'm okay," Karen said unconvincingly. "At least I will be, if I keep on working. I've never previously thought of budgets and home office statistics as being even vaguely therapeutic, but I'm beginning to change my mind."

"And just how healthy do you suppose that is?"

"Oh, not in the slightest," Karen said airily. "But it's working for me."

"Are you sure about that?" Neil asked gently, seeing that she was clutching at straws.

"Neil, why are you here?" Karen asked, avoiding answering his question.

"Because I'm not all that convinced, that being at work, is really the best thing for you right now," He said slowly, anticipating the barrage of justifications that was to come.

"I don't agree," She said simply. "Neil, if I wasn't here, doing the one thing I've usually managed to get right, I would go mad, believe me. Yes, I am struggling to keep it together, but being able to work, having some sort of a purpose, is the only thing that's keeping me afloat."

"All right," He reluctantly backed down. "But if you should change your mind, and feel that taking some time out would do you good, just say so. On a slightly happier note, I've got something for you," He added, handing over the CD of 'The Creation.' As Karen gazed at George on the cover, and Neil filled her in as to its production, a faint smile just touched the corners of her mouth. "Karen, just promise me one thing," Neil said as he got up to leave. "Don't try too hard to push everyone away."

"You sound as though you've been talking to George," Karen said a little cynically.

"I just remember how you were with Mark," Neil replied gently, not wanting to reveal the conversation he'd had with George that afternoon.

"That was different," Karen said quietly.

"Yes, I know it was," Neil agreed with her. "But you're doing exactly the same thing as you did then, you're hiding. But you won't be able to do that for ever."

Part One Hundred and Seventy Three

Karen sighed in despair when she pored over the latest set of paperwork that her secretary had discreetly left in her in tray. She knew that she had been exaggerating when she had complained to Grayling that "being away for only one week, makes one's desk look like Mount Everest." The reality was that , deep down, the clear desk had unsettled her when she had got back and made her feel vaguely guilty and cheated. She had really wanted to be buried in work when she returned to give herself no time to brood. That never helped her, never would.

It was that sort of throwaway comment that she was tending to come out with these days. It disturbed her partly as she prided herself in being not only fair minded but precise as well, as befitting her training from once being nurse right up to the rarefied heights of Governing Governor. Another reason for that deep down unease with herself was that whoever was closest to her tended to be on the receiving end of such comments, if there was such a person who could be described that way . It all suggested that she felt that she hadn't got the grip on herself and her surroundings. She instinctively reached out for the obvious solution to work just that bit harder and longer each night. It was, after all, not unknown to her to work barbarously anti social hours as a nurse and somehow squeeze in her home life, such as it was. It was what she knew best and what she was most comfortable with.

Her respite had not lasted more than the first day and a bit as all points, north, south, east and west intuitively grasped that Karen was back and could be communicated by E mail or post. She certainly got what she wanted out of life anyway in very short order and she could feed that work oriented almost masochistic streak in her, which she needed to indulge in. For example, messages in their profusion emanated from Alison Warner and Karen had not got that breezy self confidence to, in effect, tell her to get stuffed as Grayling's actions had done. Much though she admired his nerve, she could not emulate it. In fact it gave her the perfect unconscious excuse to bury herself all the more securely in work. The other wing governors, even Nikki, saw less of her than they were used to. Right from early in the morning till late at night she slaved away. She was doing a brilliant job, so she reasoned to herself, in coping so well. She would somehow get her way through her present grief in the way she was most comfortable with.

As she neared what passed for her lunch break, Lauren Atkins's file came to the top of the pile and, for once, the latest report gave her a pleasurable duty to perform instead of a series of purely mechanical chores. It had escaped her attention but her sentence time had been calculated and it gave a date of discharge as Tuesday August 23rd 2005. That sounds pretty soon to her, Karen thought vaguely as she ran her hand through her hair and blinked her eyes. There was a wall calendar on the side of the wall to her left and she studied the numbers. Jesus, that's ten days away. It surprised her but should not have done, as the number of days was simple to calculate. Lauren's record had been spotless, astonishing to the likes of Sylvia, apart from the borderline case of the cannabis cookies. As a result, she got the standard remission and the figures followed logically on from there. She studies the slim file with satisfaction. Her mind went back to the trial and the dramatic finale when John's infinitely understanding mercy decreed the second stage of Lauren being leased back into the community. With a five year suspended sentence hanging over her, her freedom was not without strings. She reached for the phone to start in motion Lauren's future psychiatric care. It would have been nice to entrust her to Helen but she knew that this was not to be the case. She had to see Lauren in person to explain matters to her and ensure that her future would be charted and guide mapped even if her own wasn't. She knew that she could handle the interview just fine as she was talking about someone else, not herself…….

"Lauren, you're wanted in Miss Betts office."

"What's it about?" asked a distracted Lauren who was chatting to Kris. Denny was busy committing her soul to paper and paint at the arts class. This was something that she did not want to miss for love nor money as it enabled her to bask in the feeling of being worth something.

"You never know. Perhaps you've won the lottery," Kris retorted with something more to humour and less of her periodic moodiness.

"I wish," Grinned Gina. "Come on. Can't keep the boss waiting."

Lauren entered the office confidently enough and was reassured by Miss Betts' pleasant smile though she noticed the way that her blue eyes were not quite so prominent as normal. Her eyelids kept periodically drooping down.

"Lauren, I've been looking through your file and can you guess what significance August 23rd 2005 will have in your life?"

Mum's birthday, Lauren immediately decided before dismissing it out of hand. What on earth would she be doing reminding her of something that was etched in neon lights in her mental diary? There had to be another reason and she searched her memory for what on earth Miss Betts could be driving at and gave up. She was never into quizzes and had a low patience threshold.

"I give up. It's mum's birthday of course but that's nothing new."

"I have some good news for you personally. It's also your date of discharge so that you can be at home on Yvonne's birthday."

Lauren's heart did several back flips and a huge beaming smile spread right across her face. For one second, she was tempted to give the other woman a huge hug but remembered her position and her place. She sank back into the chair, drained of all energy.

"It can't be that soon?"

"It is. I've double checked the dates and they fit exactly."

"I'd better get on to mum and give her the good news. It will just make her day. There's Trigger as well who I've really missed."

Lauren started to chatter away as excitement welled up in front of her. This good news was phenomenal.

"I've had a better idea. Why don't we keep this back as a surprise present for her. I don't suppose her last birthday was up to much with you awaiting trial and ….."

"I know what you're thinking," Lauren said quietly.

"Still , I remember the previous year when Cassie lured us all on to play 'spin the bottle.' How could any of us forget?"

In answer to Karen's fond, nostalgic smile, it hit Lauren that the other woman was really called Karen. That was how she had first got to know her, after all. How times have changed. In her mind's eye, she could still see the image of that spinning bottle, that wheel of destiny, the sweetness of that champagne and the exquisite sight and feel of women kissing, her with Cassie and her mum with Karen as she was then. It was definitely a girl's night in and Karen was one of them. She could still hear the sound of Annie Lennox playing for them and regretted that she had not been emotionally ready for what was softly beguiling. If she had, life might have been different. Lauren opened her eyes from that bittersweet memory and she was still there in front of her, more careworn, more tired, dressed formally in her uniform and both of them were in her office and she was the prisoner. She looked at Karen or Miss Betts or whoever she should call her and the light of life that was there then in her eyes had been now blown out and she seemed more fragile now than she was then. It was only her will that enabled her to conduct the interview so capably.

"Still, we can't dwell on the past, however pleasurable it might have been," Added Miss Betts in her official tones. She cast a sideways glance wearily at the rest of her in tray, a look that Lauren spotted.

""All right, I'll keep it as a surprise," Lauren eventually decided after mulling the idea over before the words popped out of her mouth. "Are you all right? You look as if you could do with a rest. You should remember what I was like after Ritchie died except that I know you'll manage better than I did."

Lauren was suffused with intense feelings of sympathy and she hoped that her words had reached out to the other woman who was clearly suffering, however good a job she was doing in disguising it.

"What doesn't break us only makes us stronger, Lauren," came the stoical, slightly stiff reply with a brief smile to soften it and to thank her. Karen instantly rejected that disturbing comparison though in the nicest possible way as Lauren had meant well. "Don't worry, I'll cope."

Lauren was escorted back to the wing with a spring in her step as if she were walking on water as, the full impact of the news was only then just starting to hit home. Before then, she had not dared think of when she was due out but had subconsciously thought that she would wait till whoever came to her cell and told her to pack her belongings and mum would be waiting at the gate for her. That distant dream had sustained her throughout all the dark moments.

"You've had good news, Lauren. Tell sis all about it."

Denny had just come out of her arts class and just by the way Lauren walked, she could tell that she had good news.

Even in her ecstatic frame of mind, Lauren had enough presence of mind to realize that Denny might not exactly be overjoyed. It was always known that Lauren would be out before Denny was but she had to broach the matter delicately.

"I've been called to see Miss Betts. It's good news for me but I'm not sure how you'll take it."

"Go on."

A sinking feeling came over Denny. This was the sort of way that they told you news that wasn't just bad but really shit. It was that look of embarrassment, which was the dead giveaway.

"Shall we go back to our cell?"

Denny nodded and trudged off unenthusiastically.

"I've just been told that I'm getting out on August 23rd. It's stupid but I never realized it was so soon."

"That's brilliant news for you, Lauren," Denny interrupted, her lips smiling. That leaves me on my own….again.

"I feel kind of bad in telling you this one."

"Could have been worse. Could have been Bodybag rubbing my face in it. Course I'm dead pleased for you. You ought to have been given a bleeding medal for offing Fenner instead of being banged up."

"Not that way," Shuddered Lauren. She still couldn't get her head around exactly what was going on in her mind when she did that. "Mum and I will carry on visiting you in Larkhall, Denny. That will give Bodybag two visitors to make her sick of and really piss her off."

Denny laughed briefly at that idea.

"I'll help you get packed, Lauren. Promise."

Part One Hundred and Seventy Four

On the Sunday afternoon, Karen drove over to Cassie and Roisin's. She'd rung them on Friday, to say that she had some very good news to give them, and Roisin had asked her over for Sunday tea. Karen wanted to see the children, knowing that she had to get over that particular barrier as soon as possible. Being with two growing children would no doubt bring a lot of memories back for her, but she hoped that they would mostly be pleasant ones. Michael was twelve now and Niamh nine, and Michael was about to begin traversing those abominably difficult teenage years, that would probably drive even the mild mannered Roisin to distraction. Karen smiled as she tried to imagine Cassie dealing with a typical adolescent strop. But when she pulled up in their driveway, Cassie was pruning the hedge at the side of the front garden, singing along to the music that was coming out of the living-room window. Karen stood and watched her for a moment or two, thinking that she'd only ever seen such a rapt expression on this woman's face, whenever she'd been plotting one of her numerous pieces of mischief.

When Cassie eventually looked up and saw the wry smile on Karen's face, she dropped the hedge clippers on the lawn and stretched.

"Bet you never thought you'd see me gardening, did you," She said with a smirk.

"It suits you," Karen found herself saying, knowing that the responsibilities of family life had significantly calmed Cassie down over the last two years.

"As much as being filthy and sweaty ever suited anyone," Cassie replied, pushing her fringe out of her face. Karen held open the rubbish bag for her, whilst she began gathering up the clippings that seemed to be strewn all over the garden.

"You look knackered," Cassie said, after a while of talking of nothing too close to home.

"Now I know why I never take time off if I can help it," Karen said ruefully. "Because it's all there waiting for me when I get back."

"And you're probably trying to do everything at once," Cassie told her seriously, finally straightening up to look at her.

"You're starting to sound like George," Karen said almost fondly.

"Yeah, well, maybe she's got a point," Cassie replied, tying up the rubbish bag and dropping it beside the garage. Leading the way into the house, they found Niamh and Roisin in the kitchen, making a fruit salad for pudding. Saying she needed a shower, Cassie left them to it and went upstairs.

"We've both been trying to work out what you've got to tell us, since you rang on Friday," Roisin said, trying to stop Niamh eating all the grapes before they could end up in the bowl.

"It's worth the wait, I promise," Karen assured her, taking a seat at the kitchen table. As she watched Niamh carefully hulling the strawberries, she filled Roisin in as to the recording of the performance of 'The Creation', and talked to Niamh about what she was doing with her summer holiday.

"They're both going to stay with Aiden tomorrow," Roisin said a little dejectedly, though knowing that their father did have a right to see them once in a while.

"Michael doesn't want to go," Niamh said as she washed the strawberries.

"Well, unfortunately, he doesn't really have any choice, unless he wants his father to start up the custody battle again," Roisin told her. "Your father doesn't see the two of you very often as it is."

"He doesn't want to go, because he doesn't like Grandma's cooking," Niamh stated knowingly.

"Well, I can't blame him for that," Roisin said with a smile. "I never liked her cooking either, but don't you tell her I said that," She added conspiratorially to Niamh. "Or I'll be accused of having a bad influence on the pair of you, not that I'm not already."

A little while later when Michael came through the back door, with his hair all over the place and the evidence of sunburn on his cheeks, both Karen and Roisin took in the sullen, slightly screwed up face.

"Were you playing football?" Roisin asked, knowing that he'd been at the local park with his friends all afternoon.

"Mum," He replied in disgust, barely acknowledging Karen's presence. "You don't play football in the summer, you play cricket."

"Yes, I'm sorry, I forgot," Roisin tried to placate him. "Did you win?"

"No," Michael said belligerently, slumping down at the table opposite Karen. "Some stupid tosser bowled me for six."

"Michael Connor, I won't have words like that from you. Is that clear?" Roisin told him sternly.

"Cassie says it," He replied sulkily.

"And Cassie isn't twelve-years-old," Roisin argued back.

"Who's taking my name in vain?" Cassie asked, strolling into the kitchen, her hair still wet from the shower.

"Michael here is learning too much of your delightful vocabulary," Roisin slightly admonished her.

"Michael, you shouldn't say something unless you know what it means," Cassie said reasonably.

"And please don't say anything like that in front of your father," Roisin told him.

"Mum, how many times," Michael said furiously. "I am not going to Grandma's."

"Oh, and what am I supposed to say to him if you won't go?" Roisin demanded.

"I don't care," Michael responded dismissively. "All him and Grandma do is whinge about everything we say and do anyway. It's not like they actually want to see us."

"Michael, your father may have his faults," Roisin tried to convince him. "But he does love you."

"Well, I don't love him," Michael insisted vehemently.

"Michael, go and cool down," Cassie said firmly, clearly demanding no argument. When Michael had slunk angrily out of the kitchen, Karen couldn't help but smile.

"I know," Cassie said ruefully, "We've got it all to come, haven't we."

"I'd like to be able to tell you it gets easier," Karen said in fond memory. "But I'd be fooling you if I did."

"How on earth are we going to get him to go with Aiden tomorrow?" Roisin said worriedly, as she placed the bowl of fruit salad in the fridge to chill.

"Oh, don't worry," Cassie said confidently. "I've got a plan. It's really irritating him that he has to borrow someone else's cricket bat. So, if he agrees to quit swearing and go to Aiden's, we could think about getting him one of his own."

"You're a genius," Roisin said approvingly.

When the three adults were sitting in the sunny back garden, with tall glasses of ice-cold Pimms, that Cassie had whipped up with the leftovers of the fruit, Karen told them her news.

"Seeing as Lauren was fast approaching her time of release, it's going to happen on Yvonne's birthday, as a surprise for her fiftieth."

"But that's..." Cassie said, working it out. "...A week on Tuesday!" She finished with a delighted squeal. Karen suddenly found herself enveloped by one of Cassie's impulsive hugs.

"Are you serious?" Roisin asked in wonder, not quite able to believe it would be so soon.

"Very," Karen said with a broad smile. "She's kept to pretty much exemplary behaviour, apart from the cannabis cookies, so getting out early for good behaviour means it would have been some time soon anyway."

"I can't believe this," Cassie said, brief tears of sincere joy rising to her eyes.

"I know it sounds stupid," Roisin said. "And I know she was only given two years, and that she'd already served one of them, but I think we both thought this day would never come."

"So Yvonne doesn't know any of this?" Cassie asked, having recovered herself.

"Nothing, but Lauren does," Karen told them. "I can never think of what to get Yvonne for her birthday, and as this is a bit of a special one, I thought this might be a suitable surprise."

"Are you kidding?" Cassie said with glee. "It'll be fantastic."

"That isn't just why you're doing this, is it," Roisin said quietly, fixing Karen with an understanding gaze. "You want her to have her child back."

"Yes, I do," Karen said simply, knowing that as she had put Lauren behind bars in the first place, by giving Jo her name, it had always been her responsibility to get Lauren out of there and back with her mother as soon as possible. In less than ten days, Yvonne's daughter would be back home, back where she belonged.

Part One Hundred and Seventy Five

"I'm ever so sorry, Denny," Gina apologised profusely. "Your VO was definitely sent out to Yvonne at the same time as Lauren's was. I know as I've double-checked the record and it was definitely sent out. Some muppet at the post office must have messed up so that Yvonne's received only one VO and not both. Until I get that back, I'm stuck. I'm really sorry Denny but there it is."

"You'll get time more with mum. It don't matter, man. There's always a next time," Denny offered generously.

Lauren was pleased that Denny took it that way and kissed the other woman on the cheek.

"You're sure you're all right?"

"Course I am. Now push off or you'll be late."

Lauren walked away down the corridor with Gina to the visitor's room in a cheered up frame of mind. She was all the more relaxed and confident as Tuesday August 23rd 2005 was fixed for her release date, a mere seven days away. Ancient superstition had not dare let her think too much of her release date up till then in case anything would go wrong at the last minute. Besides, by that time she had spent inside, she had been mentally trussed her up in to a secure routine so that the outside was unimaginable. She did not see the expression on Denny's face as she was left behind. In Denny's downcast eyes, Lauren was living in a world where the jail bars were made of bleeding rubber that were softening up and she was already starting to move away from her. She slunk back to her cell in a disconsolate manner to lie on her bunk.

Lauren, on the other hand, was feeling on top of the world and she chatted away to Gina who handed her over to wait with the others till the door opened. This was the moment when Lauren was at her happiest. Talking on the phone was all very well but her mother's voice was never enough for her, not when she had to occasionally cup her hand over her right ear to block out the sound of the TV in the background. Her mother's wide smile greeted her as she always did as she approached Lauren. That image was fixed in her mind after so many months and she had had to get used to one intense dose of mothering, usually shared with Denny when this was the one chance of human contact.

"I'm real sorry about Denny," Yvonne apologised. "I know that Gina tried to move heaven and earth to fix it up for Denny. How did she take it?"

"She was disappointed of course but I think she took it well. She knows that there's another time," Lauren offered brightly.

Yvonne gave herself in to a huge sigh of relief. It would be so much better if they were both under her roof and they could be where they were meant to be. She visualised it all so clearly in her mind. Still, one of hers was going to be sprung out of prison, thanks to the judge with who she had, ironically had a bust up when she was only walking the dog in the park and bumped into him, as you happen to do.

"So you didn't go to the funeral?" Lauren asked in a tentatively rhetorical fashion. After Ritchie had died, such a word had a nasty feel to both of them but there simply wasn't another word they could safely use.

Yvonne drew heavily on a cigarette and finished it off.

"Can't stand funerals," Yvonne said in a tight, hard voice. "I've seen my share. I did my bit in looking after the kids of those who did go. I didn't need to go. Not after Ritchie's"

Yvonne put her hand on the table and turned it upwards. Very faint tracery lines were still visible of those three lines where she had gashed her hand when two years ago, news had been broken of her Ritchie's suicide. She had been holding a glass and had shattered it under pressure. Ironically, it was Karen who had nursed her wounds that night but they were still there, just buried. She knew how Karen felt all right.

"That was a pretty crazy time in our lives," Lauren admitted.

"You can say that again."

A hush fell on the visiting room as though the assorted conversations had been turned off like a TV remote control of an irritating programme that they wanted to distance from themselves. The two women were truly alone with their thoughts.

Lauren could remember only vague sensations of that night except that she must have put away an awful lot of booze that night.

"Have you seen much of Karen recently?"

"Not much," Lauren replied laconically. "Before…..all this happened, she always put in an appearance on the wing and laughed and joke with us from time to time. Since she's been back, we've hardly seen a trace of her. She must be shutting herself away to grieve by herself."

"That figures," Yvonne agreed. She had done the same for as long as time let herself. Karen is simply using her office as Yvonne's equivalent of her bed.

"Do you realise," Lauren said slowly and thoughtfully. "I've not had a drop of alcohol since I came in here. I used to get so pissed sometimes, especially when……"

"You're slipping, Lauren. I got my regular supply of miniatures…." Yvonne joked in a low pitched voice, effortlessly sliding the conversation onto safer ground. She was about to mention that the Costas do pretty well in their line in gin and tonic but checked herself in time. Her dormant prison instincts kicked in at precisely the same time as Lauren's foot pressed on hers just to warn her. She wasn't used to watching her words, far less her thoughts, in case they were overheard. She was slipping, not Lauren.

"It doesn't matter any more. Certainly not for the present."

"But aren't you out in a bit? Can't keep track of time these days but it can't be long."

"No one's said. Anyway ask me when I'm out and then I'll tell you how I feel. That's assuming I'll know how I feel. I'd sooner face that then and not before. You know what it's like……."

Sensible Lauren, thought Yvonne. She remembered how she felt when she first got out.

"….besides. I put away more booze that night than I care to think of. I felt so broken up inside but I reacted in typical Atkins fashion by taking it out on Karen, Miss Betts I mean……."

Lauren shook her head in confusion as the image of her mother's lover dropped out of her memory banks and the combined feelings of hatred and insecurity that she felt for her, which went with the memories, that fear of losing that one protectress who she was that good and stable factor in her life.

"……….it wasn't what happened to Ritchie that freaked me out, it was the whole Atkins thing. Mum, I'm afraid of facing everything in me when I come out. Everything's secure here in a funny way. At least I know who and where I am. I'm top of the pile here as, after all, I am an Atkins."

Yvonne pressed her still wounded hand against Lauren's to pass on that strength to Lauren who was going through that momentary flicker of uncertainty and fear for the future. Yvonne knew as surely as she knew anything that Lauren wasn't top dog on G Wing because of Charlie's violent streak and his psychopathic cruelty. No, Lauren had influence because of her own quiet wisdom and strength in her, not even because she was her daughter. Any decent screw could tell that Lauren worked for them if they only treated her with respect. Above all, Nikki and Karen were there in the background and held the strings of power in their very capable and all knowing hands.

"That's because you're my daughter," Yvonne's incredibly tender voice caressed the younger woman as much as if she had held her close. "I've watched over you since you were born from the moment the nurses at the hospital gave you to me to hold."

"I'm being silly," Lauren confessed, her mood switching and smiling suddenly in that touchingly childlike way. "I'm lucky, luckier than I dare think before the trial, luckier than……."

Both of them knew that Lauren was referring to Denny. Yvonne glanced at the clock on the wall, saw that the time was marching inexorably forward and carried on while there was still time.

"Don't forget what the judge said, Lauren. If I remember rightly….."Yvonne paused for thought as the words slid into place from her faultless memory banks. "…..'You

must receive whatever psychiatric treatment that may be recommended for you. However, to ensure that you sufficiently learn your lesson, the day of your release, will be the start of a five year suspended sentence. This means, that if, at any point during the ensuing five years, you commit any crime, you can be recalled to prison immediately, and this will be non-negotiable.'"

Lauren's face fell. That spectacular moment of joy and gratitude had obliterated the fine print of the judgment. She remembered the moment as if it were yesterday, standing in the dock, feeling very exposed looking up at that very kindly, wise grey haired man dressed in his red regal robes and speaking in his sonorous tones. He was the only man she had come to respect.

"The judge knows what he is doing, well most of the time. You'll bite the bullet and I'm sure that Karen will be on the ball and get everything all fixed up when your time comes up," Continued Yvonne in firm tones.

"You're sure, mum, the way she is right now?"

Yvonne had a flickering moment of hesitation and then dismissed it.

"I know Karen. She'll dot the i's and cross the t's of everything she comes across and she'll work bloody hard for you even if she's falling apart inside, too bloody hard for her own good. That's what she's like……."

Yvonne's feelings were suffused with that anxious wish to be there for her, for that woman whose strength and toughness was perilously likely to work against her

"I wish I could help Karen right now but I know she probably won't let me," She added.

"It's not because the two of you aren't together any more, are you." Lauren asked anxiously.

"Definitely not, Lauren. It's just that she is not the 'being helped' kind. You must know that. She's worse than I ever was …....."

Yvonne gave a short laugh, which wasn't really one. Being stuck with being an Atkins wasn't exactly a bleeding joke. Karen had never talked about her family to her but it crossed her mind that the clue to her must surely lie there.

"It's just that she was there for me….that was a first in my life," she added in bitter reflection of how inadequate Charlie and past lovers before him had been. "She helped me through the worst of losing Ritchie and I owe her so much in return."

"Why don't you phone her or see her?" Lauren asked simply.

Yvonne shook her head. If she was emotionally devastated as she suspected as she was, she didn't know which Karen Betts would pick up the phone or answer the door. It wasn't as easy as that.

"Tell you what, I'll talk to Nikki about her….while I'm still here. She's close to Karen."

"Do that, Lauren."

"Roisin and Cassie give their love as always, and Michael and Niamh. I ought to warn you that he's in danger of becoming a teenager," Yvonne ended on a humorous edge after a rather depressed silence.

"I hope they'll remember what I look like," Lauren asked anxiously as her face softened with real affection. Her most innocent pleasure was to play with their two adorable children. Their cards and messages over the months were her treasured possessions in her cell to be carefully read and reread. They had not changed, as they existed as how she had last seen them. They had been good for her and had helped her escape into a second childhood.

"I wish I knew then what I know now," Lauren suddenly burst out as other memories of Cassie and Roisin came to the surface. They were in their little private island, isolated as they were from the random chatter between other visitors and prisoners, dressed in their identical red bibs, which made them look alike when their lives were anything but. She remembered how she lay in bed with two pairs of warm arms, which carried her off safely to sleep that night. She had known that if this were all she ever had from these two women who had come in to her life it would do her just fine. It was months later on that when they romanced her into their bed. She would never forget that image of that bedroom which was lit by a single lamp, which cast long shadows across the room and the tender way they made love to her.

"Don't we all."

The tone in Yvonne's voice was bittersweet with knowledge of life's chances wasted and those she had not let slip through her fingers. There were only so many chances, that's all.

Part One Hundred and Seventy Six

In the middle of Tuesday afternoon, Karen was standing at her open office window, taking a brief break from the interminable red tape, to allow the August breeze to wash over her face. The admin block looked out onto one side of the main exercise yard, the other three sides bordered by G wing, the hospital wing, and the mother and baby unit. There were two other exercise yards, but these were out of sight on the other side of the prison. Being three floors up, Karen had a good view of everything that might be going on down there, as did Nikki in her office one floor below. A few inmates, including Kris, Denny and Al, appeared to be playing football, and other more sensible women were taking advantage of the hot afternoon sun. Karen could feel the warmth of it on her cheeks, but it didn't seem to be able to penetrate further. She still felt cold inside, dead, as if she might never be entirely alive again.

When the knock came on her door, she drew in a long, tired breath and bade the person to come in. It was Gina, carrying a large bunch of flowers.

"I was just coming in, when these arrived for you, so I said I'd bring them up."

"They're beautiful," Karen said in awe, taking the lily-white roses from Gina's hands.

"Do you want me to find a vase for them?" Gina asked, wondering who had sent them, and only just restraining herself from enquiring.

"Yes please," Karen replied, retrieving the letter that had been tucked into the top of the bouquet. When Gina returned, and between them they transferred the flowers from paper to water, Gina glanced out of the window.

"Jesus," She said with a smile. "You'd think some of them were still kids, wouldn't you."

"On a day like this, yes, you would," Karen agreed with her. "You're on the late shift today, aren't you."

"Yeah, for my sins. Still, as long as Dominic doesn't forget to video Eastenders for me, I don't care."

When Gina had gone, Karen picked up the letter that had accompanied the flowers, and sat down on the couch across from her desk. Something seemed vaguely familiar about the writing on the envelope, which had clearly been written by the sender, not the florist. Slitting open the envelope with a paper knife, she slid out the thick, very expensive notepaper. Glancing down to the end of the letter to see who it was from, she felt incredibly touched to see the simple words, Joe Channing, left in the slightly shaky scrawl, that had liberally adorned the margins of the conductor's score.

"Dear Karen,

First of all, please allow me to offer you my sincere condolences. I cannot begin to imagine how you must feel after losing your son. Losing my wife was difficult enough, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't miss her. But I found that having a ten-year-old George to take care of, gave me something to focus on, a reason to stop me from entirely disintegrating. I threw myself into work, as I suspect you are doing now, but I would urge you to be careful of making the pursuit of your profession, your only focus in life.

I have waited until now to write to you, because I have had to grapple with my conscience, in order to arrive at a particularly difficult decision. At the risk of possibly ruining the beginnings of a very interesting friendship, I feel that to be entirely honest with you, is the only course of action I can and must take. I too knew of the situation your son was in, as John sought my advice on whether or not he could break the confidence. I wish with all my heart, that I had not known of this, and that I had not therefore been forced, by virtue of the law, to keep such knowledge from a fellow parent. John knew that he couldn't tell you, but he came to me just to make absolutely sure. He was vehemently opposed to keeping this from you as, inwardly, was I. John told me that day that he felt culpable, as if he was directly increasing the hurt that you would inevitably one day feel. It is extremely rare that I actively disagree with the law as it stands, but on this occasion, I did. The day on which you told me that your son was the result of a misspent youth, I also felt culpable, as it would have been so simple for me to tell you, then, as on other subsequent occasions. I have never before felt the deep-seated desire to break the law, but in this instance it became almost unbearable, as I know it has been for John.

I have reached the point where I should ask for your forgiveness, though I am not entirely certain that such a request would either be welcomed or appropriate. All I can do is to offer you my sincere apologies, and to hope that in time, you may come to understand why an old man foolishly acted as he did. I believed you when you said that you loved my daughter, and I would not want this to have any effect on your relationship with her. I may not understand a relationship that exists between two women, but George appears to be happy with you, and I would not want to jeopardise that.

If you should ever require a willing ear, please do not hesitate to make use of the above address or phone number. As John would no doubt testify, I will do my best not to be too judgmental.

Yours sincerely,

Joe Channing."

Karen hadn't realised she was crying, until one of her tears dropped onto the expensive paper, slightly smudging the s of sincerely. Holding it away from her to avoid any further smudges, she stared at the bleary words in front of her. No one had ever written her anything so heartrending as this, and especially not a man. She could feel the pain and the regret he must have felt for her, almost exuding from the paper itself. He'd said that both he and John had felt culpable, in some way responsible for her grief. She hadn't spoken to John since the funeral, both of them avoiding each other, because neither had the first idea of what could be said. Karen didn't blame him, and she certainly didn't blame Joe, but she could see how they might think she would. But how on earth did she go about putting that right?

Being utterly submerged in the contents of the letter and her reaction to it, she hadn't heard the tap on her door, but becoming aware of Nikki's presence, she glanced up at her, trying to wipe away the tears.

"Do you want me to go?" Nikki asked gently, never having seen Karen in such a state before.

"No, stay," Karen said, trying to get herself under control.

"Who are the flowers from?" Nikki asked, moving towards the desk.

"George's father," Karen told her, holding out the letter. "He wrote me this." Hesitantly taking the letter from her, and feeling as though she really shouldn't be reading something so personal, Nikki read it, seeing that Karen wanted her to do so, immediately realising why it had affected Karen so much. When she eventually reached the end, she put the letter back on the desk, and regarded Karen with concern, seeing that the cracks in her emotional armour were far more visible than they had been up to now.

"You're wondering who else knew, aren't you," Nikki stated simply.

"Just a bit," Karen said bitterly. "Tell me, Nikki, did you?"

"No, no, I didn't," Nikki reassured her, taking one of Karen's hands in hers, gently smoothing her thumb over the knuckles. "Probably because Helen knew I wouldn't be able to keep my mouth shut."

"Do you think anyone else did?" Karen asked almost desperately, badly needing to know the answer, no matter how devastating it might be.

"I can't be certain," Nikki said carefully. "But I don't think anyone else, apart from Helen, the Judge and George's father knew. Most of us wouldn't have been able to be that restrained, and there wasn't any need for anyone else to know."

"I just wish..." Karen stopped, knowing this was utterly futile. "I just keep thinking that if I'd known, I could have helped him."

"I know," Nikki said gently. "And part of you probably always will."

"I'm sorry," Karen said, grabbing some tissues from the box on her desk, and furiously scrubbing at her face. "This is hardly a very professional state to find your boss in, now is it?"

"Karen, you're not just my boss," Nikki said sincerely. "You're my friend, your Helen's friend, and that means far more than a couple of extra Governor grades any day."

Part One Hundred and Seventy Seven

Nikki continued to keep a discreet eye on Karen as much as her duties permitted as last Tuesday's conversation taught her that Karen was walking on eggshells, emotionally speaking. However, there was little she could do except watch and wait and to be as supportive as she could be. The hurly burly of her job swept her onwards throughout the week and severely restricted her time in deep contemplation of any personal cares on the job.

Thank heavens Karen was now spared any further intrusion soon after the nightmare of Karen's first Monday back at work and that nightmare had come to pass. For the first time in her life, she had popped into a newsagent and had picked up a couple of the trashier rags and had nearly gagged when she had read the cheap, tawdry, voyeuristic language in which the stories were phrased in. As for the headline, that was there to cynically cash in on human tragedy and boost sales- "Top Screw's Junkie Son Dies". That was the first and last time she bought anything like that again in her life, she resolved. Welcome to the favourite rag of the ignorant, the prejudiced and, last but not least, the homophobic. She puzzled the newsagent by picking up a copy of the 'Guardian' to restore some sense of sanity. She threw the coins down on the counter and glared briefly at the surprised newsagent who, after all, was only selling newspapers and kept the favourite sellers available for the public. She slunk out of the shop furtively as if she were buying pornographic literature and in the privacy of her office, glanced through them. At her weekly meeting, she took the bull by the horns and expressly forbade anyone bringing in any of the newspapers, glaring at Di Barker especially.

"Can't the Home Office put out some sort of public statement?" she had asked of Grayling when she snatched up her phone right after the meeting.

"Regrettably no. Believe me, Nikki, that it would give me perfect pleasure to screw up a copy of that rag and ram it down the mouth of that bastard in the Sun who wrote that piece but you're talking about the Home Office. I know that they are running scared of anything that could be remotely construed as adverse publicity at the best of times. I guarantee that their attitude will be to rely on the fickleness of the gutter press and its short term attention span and it will be yesterday's news as they find someone else to doorstep, hound and victimise."

Grayling's restrained fury and scorching words came loud and clear down the phone and Nikki reluctantly had to agree. She had not known Grayling long but it immediately struck her that he was not normally known to swear.

It was two months since she had started at Larkhall and she was gaining confidence and certainty now in a surprisingly short time, partly due to the events surrounding Karen's week off. She could rely more on instincts to get her way through the working week and now, she had a matter crop up that was more pleasure than business and that was Yvonne's birthday and the surprise present in store for her. She finished work a little early having arranged to meet up with Helen in a quiet bar. At this hour, it was deserted and she found a backroom where they could talk in private.

"Hiya, Nikki," Helen greeted her with her sparkling smile after which they sat down with a glass of wine each.

"So what plans have you got to celebrate Lauren's release? If it is anything like Yvonne's lavish idea of a party, it should be a night to remember."

Nikki looked thoughtful now that she had time to detach herself from the cares of work. It didn't feel right somehow.

"I don't know, Helen. Can you remember the first night after I got out of Larkhall……"

Nikki started to say and grinned as the irony of the situation struck her.

"Yes, I know what you're thinking but every prisoner who has done time finds the outside world very weird. I was at the club with Trisha just before you showed up and I was still expecting someone to lock me in at night, that everything I did from when I woke up in the morning wasn't mine to decide but someone else's. It got to be almost a comfort blanket once you used to stop thinking of the outside world. Once you come across it again you can't deal with it to begin with……..I know that I'm coming to the very same place, day in day out, but this time around, I can make the decisions and I can pass through any set of bars that I please. It's a big difference. I went home with you to our flat that first night, I mean our second night together not only because that I wanted to show you a good time as I once promised you….." Here Nikki's eyes softened at the memory of all that physical desire between them that was let loose like a dam breaking. "……..but because I honestly couldn't have faced anything more than to spend the night in with you. It wasn't just that I wanted to get out of the club as soon as possible for the obvious reasons, I simply would not have been capable of spending the night on the town with any club."

"So what are you suggesting?"

"Let's make it a quiet night in with those that Lauren is comfortable with, me, you, Cassie and Roisin and Josh and Crystal, a few drinks, company and just be around her. If it's obvious that Yvonne and Lauren want time on their own, then we slide off."

"Sounds fine to me. I'll get phoning around and fix it up."

Cassie heard the mobile bleeping and let it go to the sixth bleep as she was lazing back and studying her complexion in the mirror for any minor improvements on perfection. She missed the kids around like crazy and worried if they were going to manage in Aiden's care. There was the prospect that, especially with Michael, there was going to be a blip when he would take out his anger against them when he got back. Everything about him exudes narrow-minded moralising Puritanism at an age when Michael was starting to be vulnerable to peer pressure. She had been a right little madam when she started to become an adolescent and had given both her parents hell. That was what worried her.

"Hi, it's Cassie," She yawned into the earpiece.

"I thought you working parents are supposed to be run off your feet. You sound as if you've just got out of bed," Nikki teased.

"The kids are away with Aiden so I've a chance to catch up with the more decadently lazy side of my personality."

"Listen, Lauren's due out of Larkhall next Tuesday and I was wondering if you'd be part of a welcoming party for her."

"Any party sounds tempting, especially if it's at Yvonne's and involves Lauren. She is such a babe and anyway Roash and I have really missed her……………."

Cassie let drop her devil may care exterior in these last words and let her real softness and affection show through.

"………OK so what's the deal?"

"This is meant to be a surprise as Tuesday is Yvonne's birthday and this is our present for her," Explained Nikki.

"Do you want someone to fetch her from Larkhall because Roash and I can do it."

"Please. That would be a big help because I'd really hate it if someone wants my attention just when Lauren wants to be free of the place and I'd be keeping her hanging around," Nikki answered, in her best forward thinking delegating duties wing governor style.

"And when we all get there, that's when the orgy starts," Teased Cassie in total contrast.

Nikki laughed out loud but felt duty bound to ask Cassie for once to be serious.

"You think about when you and Roisin got out. You might have wanted to make a beeline for bed like Helen and I did but Lauren wants to be reunited with Yvonne. It'll probably be more low key than the sort of thing that your vivid one track imagination is thinking up. Just a quiet night in if that doesn't sound too boring. Can you live with that? It would be for Lauren's good."

Cassie gave way to Nikki's sensible entreaties though a wicked streak in her was fantasising of other ideas.

"Seriously, Nikki. We'll be there for her, no probs. You can count on us."

"Such a show off, Cassie," Nikki grinned affectionately at Helen." Now it's time to try Crystal and Josh.

"Yeah, Nikki, we'll be there," Josh said straightaway without thinking.they had been there for Lauren's trial and he could still remember being the lowly odd job man, mending fuses and clearing drains and that very cool, self possessed woman who paid him very generous for errands like taking Julie Johnson's children to visit her. She was very kind to him and had natural class. To Crystal, she was Yvonne's daughter for a very big start.

"But Josh, we'll have to check if your mum or mine will babysit for Daniel and Zandra," Crystal's voice of reason could be heard in the background over Daniel's very loud exercise lungpower.

"I'll phone you back, Nikki, once we get sorted out. Got to rush," Josh's answer could just be heard.

"Well, what's the news," Helen asked expectantly.

"He's got to get babysitters sorted out. I guess that becomes part of your life if you want to go out anywhere."

"They'll make it," Helen said confidently. "So how's Karen these days?"

"Not good. She's trying to pretend that the loss of her son, whatever he was like, could be just filed away and forgotten and to pretend that with willpower, she can blast through anything. It wouldn't be an idea her coming along as a sheer change of scene but that is a complete no hoper the way she is right now. She's the world's worst in taking advice, even more pig headed …."

"…..than me. Go on, say it."

Nikki smiled at Helen's little joke but the memories that rolled back from the years were not so pleasurable as lounging in a back room of a pub. She remembered only too well that getting Helen to see that one of her single minded campaigns was fine on principle but short on practicalities was like a dentist wrestling with an obstinate back tooth that refused to be dislodged from its roots. Helen had mellowed over the past few years but Karen was still prone to that defect and her dogged refusal to grieve made matters worse.

"So I'll make my way straight over to Yvonne's if as I imagine, Lauren will be picked up at lunchtime at the latest if my memory serves me right."

Nikki hastily nodded her agreement as her mobile phone rang. Thankfully, it was Josh.

"We're sorted Nikki. Not sure when mum can come over but we'll be there but we might be late," answered a harassed Josh.

"They really love it all," Helen said fondly and affectionately. "I'm sure it makes them feel needed and complete."

"There can be a downside, Helen," Nikki gently reminded her. The house sounded like bedlam on the other side of the phone but then again, any house with babies is hardly going to be like the Ideal Home Exhibition, everything neatly in place. She could relate to that.

"Come on, let's head for home."

Part One Hundred and Seventy Eight

On the Monday evening, Karen was sitting at her desk, finding anything remotely dull and tedious to do, so that she wouldn't have to go home. Going home to an empty flat was something she just didn't want to do. She knew it was ridiculous, Ross having not lived at home for years before he died, but the emptiness was far too big a reminder of what she'd lost. But she felt so tired, her limbs almost weighing her down, yet whenever she tried to sleep, she would spend the whole night tossing and turning. Nikki had been trying to persuade her to take some time off, but time to think wasn't what Karen wanted right now. Time to think, meant time to dwell on what she could have done, on all the times she'd refused to give him money. When she heard the knock on her door, she looked up hopefully, anything resembling a distraction from her thoughts being a welcome intrusion these days. It was Nikki, which now Karen came to think about it, wasn't all that much of a surprise. Nikki had taken it into her head to keep checking up on Karen, because she could see her gradually disintegrating.

"You shouldn't still be here, you know," Nikki said gently, when she saw that Karen was still sitting at the computer.

"I could say the same about you," Karen said mildly, knowing Nikki meant well, however irritating her concern might be. "It's after eight," She said, glancing at her watch. "You should be at home with Helen by now."

"And you'd have George to go home to if only you'd let her in," Nikki said quietly, and immediately regretted it.

"Is that right?" Karen said carefully, just about managing to keep a lid on her anger.

"Karen, you can't go on like this," Nikki said, still trying to chisel away at Karen's brittle armour.

"Really," Karen replied, the bitter edge of depression giving her words the texture of flint. "Let me ask you something," She continued. "Is my work suffering in any way?"

"No, but your health is..."

"Thank you," Karen cut her off mid answer. "So, let's just leave it at that, shall we?"

"I'm clearly not getting anywhere," Said Nikki determinedly. "So I'll find someone who might be able to knock some sense into you." Before Karen could object, Nikki had walked out.

George was sitting at her dining-room table, with John seated opposite her, both going through the civil case George was due to begin prosecuting the week after.

"Oh, come on, John," She was saying. "We both know Legover, and we know he'll throw this out of court at the earliest opportunity."

"And if I were in his shoes, I might do the same," John countered back, always willing to play devil's, or in this case, judge's advocate if she wanted to work out her strategy in advance. He wouldn't have dreamt of doing this if he'd been about to hear the case, but as he wasn't, it wouldn't do George any harm to have a little refresher tutoring.

"You need to have the rulings you intend to use, thoroughly worked out and learnt parrot fashion in advance. You remember the Diana Hulsey case? One of your arguments for trying to force me into recusing myself, ended up shooting you in the foot because you hadn't done your homework properly."

"Yes, sir," George quipped back with a grin.

"Do you want me to go through your argument with you, or not?" He asked slightly sternly.

"Yes, of course I do," she said seriously.

"Well then, if Legover or the defence tries to throw this out of court, refer to this, this and this," He said, holding up three photocopied extracts of Halsbury's Laws. "And if either one tries to push for an adjournment, which I'm assuming your client won't want because your clients never do, use these," gesturing to yet more printed pages. "But you must, must, must know them backwards. That's what brought you down in the Diana Hulsey case. You can't just pick a relevant quote and hope that the judge you're before isn't familiar with the authority. You've got to painstakingly read, learn and inwardly digest every word, so that if, for some reason there is a hole in your argument, you'll discover it before you get into court."

"Message received and understood," George said seriously, knowing he was right, but still loathed to admit it, even after all these years.

"You could have done with a spell as my pupil," John said teasingly. "It didn't do Jo any harm."

"Oh, really," Said George a little scathingly. "I doubt Jo would see it like that."

"We're all right now," He protested.

"Yes, maybe, but only after a good few years of heartache, most of it Jo's."

"I still say that a year or so of my teaching would have done you the world of good."

"I've had enough years of your particular kind of teaching to last me a lifetime," she said with a broad smile. She was about to continue speaking when the phone rang. Stretching out a hand to the cordless that lay somewhere under a stack of papers, she was surprised to see what looked like the number for Larkhall on the display.

"George, it's Nikki," She said when George answered.

"Oh, hello," George said with a smile. "How are you?"

"I'm fine, but Karen isn't. That's why I phoned you."

"What's happened?" George suddenly looked incredibly worried.

"Nothing, as yet," Said Nikki, trying to calm her down. "But if she keeps going on like she is, she's going to work herself into the ground, and I've got absolutely no idea how to stop her."

"The short answer," George said slowly. "Is that you can't. You know Karen almost as well as I do, and you know that when she's determined to do something, nothing or nobody will get in her way."

"But I can't just leave it like this," Nikki insisted. "She's just about keeping on top of the job, but she's exhausted." George took a moment to stare thoughtfully at the enormous tome of Halsbury's Laws, which she'd been using as a paperweight whilst working in the garden earlier.

"Nikki, if Karen won't listen to you or to Helen or Yvonne, I really can't promise that she'll listen to me."

"Apart from the Judge," Nikki replied. "I don't know who else might be strong enough to make an impression. She's got to start listening to someone."

"Well, John's here, but I suspect Karen wouldn't give him the time of day right now for exactly the same reason as she won't want to listen to Helen."

"So, will you try?" Nikki asked, praying that George would agree.

"Of course," George said with a rush of feeling. "I'll do my best, I'm just not sure that my interference will be all that welcome. But," She said, straightening her shoulders and stiffening her resolve. "Karen hasn't yet come up against my version of stubbornness. If I can't make her take a good, long look at what she's doing to herself, then nothing will."

"Thank you," Nikki said in relieved acceptance.

"Is she still at work?"

"Yeah, that's where I'm calling you from."

"Right, I'm on my way," She said, getting to her feet. "Will you come down to the gate lodge to let me in? The closer I can get without Karen being aware of my presence, the better."

When Nikki had hung up, John said,

"Precisely what are you planning to do?"

"To persuade her to come back here, to give her something to eat, and to let her sleep for as long as possible. I'd say that was a start, wouldn't you?"

"That's what I've always done for you when you've been on course for self-destruction," He observed.

"Where do you think I got the idea from?" She said over her shoulder as she went to find her car keys.

"Is she really not letting you get close to her?" John asked.

"No, not in the slightest," George replied as she returned to the lounge for her handbag. "And until now, I haven't known what in the world I can do. But if I've got anything to do with it, Karen will not, under any circumstances, be going anywhere near work for the rest of this week. I'm working at home for the next few days, so I can make sure she doesn't."

"You do realise that it might turn into a battle of wills."

"And living with you for nine years gave me no end of practice," Was George's curt rejoinder.

"Do you want me to stay or go?" George stood and contemplated him.

"Stay," She finally said after reaching her conclusion. "Karen might not want to hear a word from you on her emotional welfare, but I think she'll stand to be in the same room as you. Besides, you haven't finished putting me in my place regarding my choice of authorities." As she walked out of the front door, John couldn't help but smile. He loved seeing that spark of determination and sheer stubbornness in George, when it was directed at someone else that is. But she'd been right in what she'd said to Nikki, if George couldn't break through Karen's defences, no one could.

After phoning George, Nikki went down to the gate lodge to wait for her. She tapped her foot in impatient nervousness, and just hoped that Karen wouldn't sack or demote her for this. When George's car pulled swiftly into the car park, Nikki went forward to meet her.

"She'll kill me for doing this," Nikki said as George walked towards her.

"As long as she doesn't attempt to kill herself," George said matter-of-factly. "We're both quite capable of dealing with a verbal slap on the wrist."

"You don't seriously think she would, do you?" Nikki asked as they walked through the gate lodge.

"Right now," Replied George. "I'd say anything's possible." Nikki jerked a hand in Ken's direction to let him know George didn't need to be signed in. They walked quietly up to Karen's office, nothing needing to be said. When they reached the last gate, Nikki let George through and then locked it behind her. George gave her a smile in lieu of a thank you, and walked quietly towards the closed door of Karen's office.

When Karen heard the controlled but authoritative knock on her door, she at first thought it must be Nikki again. But that wasn't Nikki's knock. If she didn't know better, she would have wondered if it was Grayling.

"Come in," she called, turning half away from the computer to see who would enter. When George opened the door and moved into the room, Karen stared at her with a mixture of surprise, irritation, and resigned acceptance progressing across her face. George could see in an instant that Karen wasn't pleased to see her, but she wasn't going to stop now.

"This is a surprise," Karen commented lamely, noticeably not saying whether it was a nice one or not. "Did Nikki ask you to come and stop me working?"

"Yes, she did," George said neutrally, walking over to the desk. "She's worried about you, as am I, and as is just about everyone who knows you." Now really taking the plunge, she walked round to Karen's side of the desk and simply stood next to her chair.

"I'm just dealing with this in the way I know best," Karen said quietly.

"But it isn't working, is it," George stated gently.

"And do you have any better suggestions?" Karen asked bitterly, showing George that the cracks were even more visible than they'd been a few days ago.

"I might have, if only you'd talk to me." Karen took a breath to speak, and stopped when she realised that George was right.

"It's not quite that simple," She said regretfully.

"I know," George said softly. "You are after all talking to one who has, in the past, hidden things even from John." Perching on the edge of the desk, George looked Karen straight in the eye. She did look terrible, with dark circles under her eyes and with her forehead marred with lines of stress and tiredness.

"Doesn't look that good, does it," Karen said, interpreting her glance.

"Darling, come home with me," George suggested. "You are clearly working yourself into the ground, and I can't just sit here and watch. Come back with me, have something to eat, and go to sleep."

"Sleeping isn't all that successful these days," Karen said quietly, and George caught the full force of the strain it was for Karen to keep maintaining her outer professional exterior.

"We can sort that out, for tonight at least," George said confidently. "I don't keep a bottle of sleeping tablets in my bathroom cabinet for nothing, and right now, sleep is what you need above everything else." Karen suddenly had an overwhelming urge to cry, to clasp this beautiful, loving woman to her and to howl her eyes out. George was being so wonderful to her, when she, Karen, had been such a cow to live with lately. Standing up, she drew George off the desk and into her arms. They simply stood, holding each other desperately close, closer than they'd been for nearly a fortnight. Karen laid her tired, drawn face against George's soft, beautiful one.

"Come on," George said after a while. "Switch off the computer and leave your bars behind for a while." Giving her a small smile, Karen did as she was asked. As they walked through the endless maze of corridors and Karen let them through one gate after another, George said,

"I hope you don't mind, but John will probably still be at home when we get there. He was helping me with a case."

"Are you sure you want me there if you've got company?"

"Not that kind of company," George said to reassure her. "It's not the right time for that kind of company. He was just helping me with a case I've got to prosecute next week."

"No, I don't mind, as long as I won't get in the way."

"You won't. He's probably written the opening speech for me by now."

They were quiet in the car, Karen lost in the work she'd left unfinished, and George painfully aware that Karen was only half there.

"If I'm staying," Karen said into the silence. "Can we drop in at my flat so I can get some clothes?"

"Yes, of course," George said, turning off the road they were on.

"George, I'm not sure that this is such a good idea," Karen said as they approached her flat. "I'm not very good company at the moment."

"No one's saying you have to be," George replied, pulling up in Karen's driveway. "As things stand, I'll be perfectly happy if you stay alive and vaguely sane. Whether you're good company or not really isn't important."

"I'm not about to go the same way as my son," Karen said quietly, a little taken aback at George's perceptiveness.

"And I'd rather be far more certain of that than I am at the moment," George said seriously, having realised that only a blunt approach was going to penetrate. "Darling, I haven't wanted to let you out of my sight for the last couple of weeks," She continued, her tone becoming gentler. "But I've tried to keep my distance, because I know that opening up to anyone, especially someone you're sexually involved with, just isn't your way of doing things. But you need to let me help you, even if it's only to let me take you home with me, to stop you from staring at the four walls with nothing to distract you." Again, Karen felt the almost crushing weight of the tears that she couldn't seem to allow herself to shed. It touched her greatly that George was being so honest with her. Everyone, Nikki and Yvonne included, had trodden very delicately around her lately. But here was George, telling her how it was, and pleading with Karen to be allowed to help her. Karen briefly wondered if this was because George had been there herself. She knew that at times, things did get pretty bad for George, the anorexia occasionally taking over every other aspect of her life. So, maybe she did know how it felt to feel so empty, that getting out of bed in the morning seemed pointless.

"I don't deserve you," she said as their arms instinctively reached out for each other.

"Remember at the end of April, when I was going through one of my phases of self-destruct?" George replied, leaning forward to gently place her lips on Karen's. "When I haven't eaten for a week, and barely maintained an adequate intake before that, with the only functioning part of my brain being work-related, believe me, the balance is well and truly even."

"Stay here," Karen said, giving George one final kiss. "And I'll be back in a minute." She didn't want George to see how untidy her flat was. She'd neglected a lot in the last couple of weeks, and she didn't want anyone to know about it. But when she was back in the car, they drove quietly across London to George's house, both feeling slightly happier with the situation.

When George opened the front door, she called to John.

"In here," Was his response, from the room George used as her home office. "I was bored, so I started writing your opening speech."

"I said he would, didn't I," George said, fondly rolling her eyes. Karen left her overnight bag in the hall, and they went to see what John was doing, George immediately moving over to the computer, and Karen standing in the doorway watching them.

"Not a bad start," George commented after reading what was on the screen.

"And that's what I get for doing you a favour," He said in mock disgust.

"You enjoy it really," George affirmed. "Pulling a case of mine to pieces allows you to step back into the ring for a while."

"And do you agree with this?" John asked, turning to face Karen.

"This is you we're talking about, John," Karen said quietly with the ghost of a smile.

"Quite," Said George, always thankful to have another opinion to back her up where John was concerned. "So, how hungry are the pair of you?" Karen contemplated the thought.

"Not hugely," She replied.

"That depends what's on offer," John said, hedging his bets.

"Home made Bolognese out of the freezer."

"If it's your Bolognese, then I'm definitely hungry," He said with a smile.

"Is Mimi still out in the garden?" George asked as she moved towards the kitchen.

"She was, last time I looked," Confirmed John. After saying this, he got up from the computer and walked across the room to stand in front of Karen. They just looked at each other. They hadn't spoken for over a fortnight, because Karen had been immersing herself in work to blot out the pain, and John, like everyone else, had been receiving a distinct vibe telling him to keep his distance. But John, in the same way as Helen, had a reason to give Karen as much space as she wanted. They had both known about Ross's drug problem before he'd died, Ross having been one of Helen's patients. Karen hadn't ever specifically blamed either of them for not having told her about it, but it had given both of them a reason for being particularly wary of her need for space.

"Are you all right?" John asked quietly, immediately feeling an urge to kick himself for the inanity of the question.

"Not really," Karen replied just as quietly, not quite knowing what to say to this type of enquiry.

"Karen," John began, feeling very much out of his depth. "I...I am so sorry."

"Don't," Karen pleaded quietly.

"But Karen, I..." Karen held up a hand.

"I mean it, John," She said interrupting him. "I haven't got the energy to fight with anyone, least of all you or Helen. So please, don't make me feel even more guilty than I already do." It cut John to the core to hear her talk like this. She had nothing in the world to feel guilty about, but he knew that saying this wasn't going to make it any better. Putting out his arms, he gently pulled her to him, holding her closer than she'd let him since the night Ross had died. He softly kissed her cheek, feeling an immense surge of protectiveness towards her.

"Well, at least that's one thing sorted out this evening," George said from the doorway of the dining room. They both looked round at her.

"Did you do this on purpose?" Karen asked knowingly, as they both put out an arm towards her.

"Well, let's just say that when Nikki phoned me, it occurred to me that forcing you two to at least be polite to each other for a while, wouldn't be such a bad thing." When she moved into their outstretched arms, they all held each other close.

"I'm sorry I've been so difficult to get anywhere near recently," Karen said, feeling an enormous amount of comfort and support coming from both of them. John flashed a smile in George's direction.

"You're not as difficult as some I've known," He said conspiratorially.

"Oh, thank you, Darling," George said, correctly interpreting his meaning. "And you've got absolutely nothing to be sorry for," She said seriously, gently kissing her. John had obviously seen them kiss each other before, but not at quite such close quarters. When he realised that he was about to find this scene far too disturbingly erotic, he detached himself from them, trailed his hand wanderingly across George's back at waist level, and walked towards the kitchen.

"Do either of you want a glass of wine?" He asked over his shoulder.

"Yes please," George replied, momentarily releasing Karen's lips.

"Not for me," Karen said. "Or I'll be asleep before I've sampled your, er, Bolognese," She finished in an undertone to George. George's eyes widened, this being the first time Karen had made any sexual suggestion since Ross had died.

"Whilst that thought is extremely tempting," She said between kisses. "Anything remotely erotic is well and truly off the agenda."

"Actually, that's probably a good thing," Said Karen with a soft smile. "Because right now, I'd probably fall asleep half way through."

The evening being warm, though definitely threatening rain, George left the French windows open, letting in the soft, August breeze, and meaning that Mimi could wander in and out as they ate. Knowing that she was working at home for the rest of this week, George couldn't quite face moving all her papers off the dining-room table, so they ate in the kitchen. She heated up some fresh pasta to go with the Bolognese, briefly wondering just how much Karen had been eating recently. Karen wasn't especially hungry, but made a concerted effort to eat a vaguely healthy amount to please John and George. After years of having to avoid the critical gaze of too many people, George made no comment when Karen left almost half of what George had given her. As if realising Karen's plight, Mimi sat down next to her chair, gazing mournfully up at her, and occasionally plucking at Karen's knee with a fluffy front paw.

"I don't think you'd like Bolognese," Karen said to her with a smile. John laughed.

"She'll try anything once, but I'd rather you didn't encourage her to beg at the table." When Karen ignored and continued to ignore the little Whippet, she turned her attention to John, giving him her huge, sorrowful eyes that had won him over on many occasions. But it seemed that tonight, he wasn't remotely willing to put up with her antics. Flicking her smartly on the end of her tiny pink nose, he said, "You don't beg at the table, Mimi, you know better," In exactly the same manner as he might use on a recalcitrant barrister.

"He'll feed her if he thinks no one's looking," George said with a wink at Karen.

"Oh, I know," She agreed. "I've seen him do it."

"So," He argued. "She's got to learn when it's acceptable to ask and when it isn't."

"John," George said in disgust. "Mimi is a dog, not a child."

"Doesn't mean she can't learn," He persisted. When they'd finished eating and Karen began collecting the plates together, George said,

"I'll do that. Go and sit down."

"Actually, if you don't mind, I'm going to go and have a bath," Karen replied. "I've spent so much time in that place recently that I think it's quite literally getting under my skin." When she'd collected her bag from the hall and gone upstairs, John and George did the washing up between them.

"Do you think she's all right?" John asked, his hands immersed in soapy water.

"No, she's not anything like all right. At least when I was that emotionally unstable I'd take quite a lot of it out on you."

"Don't I remember it," John interjected with a wry smile. George playfully flicked him with the tea towel.

"But Karen isn't doing that. Well, not yet anyway." Then, after a pause, she added, "I think I'm finally realising just what a juggling act you were forced to perform all those years ago." George's words knocking him slightly askew, he remained silent until they'd finished the washing up. Then, taking the tea towel from her to dry his hands, he said,

"Sometimes it felt as though you did want me to listen, and at others that you didn't. The trick was interpreting how you felt when you couldn't put it into words. It took me all those years with you, to learn that words aren't always good enough to express how one feels."

"I'm sorry you had to put up with everything you did from me," She said quietly.

"We both put up with an awful lot from each other," He reminded her gently, putting his arms round her and kissing her. "So I'd say we're probably quits." They'd often stood like this in this particular room, the stone flagged floor under their feet, after dinner necessities often having led to far more pleasurable pursuits. This thought must have occurred to George as she stood there, enfolded in his arms, her lips tangled deliciously with his, because she suddenly pushed him away, a flush of slight arousal clear in her face.

"Please don't," She said, backing away from him. "Or I'll want what I can't have."

"You always did want it more when you couldn't have it," John said, smirking at her.

"And before this three-way thing started, that's exactly what you were like with Jo, "George countered back.

Karen lay upstairs in the large marble bath in George's en suite, the warm, scented water lapping around her, gently easing some of the physical wear and tear from her body. If only her soul could be cured so easily, she thought. She'd put some soft music on in the bedroom, allowing the mixture of sound, smell and touch to begin to relax her. She still wasn't entirely sure what she was doing here, making George take time away from her work, and from John. As the music and the water lapped around her senses, Karen began to see the downside of relaxing. Until now, keeping herself going, working all the hours she could, had meant that she wouldn't be in any danger of emotionally giving way to her grief. But now, now that she had been persuaded to abandon work for a little while and to concentrate on her own needs, it made her all too aware of the building constriction inside her, the force of grief begging to be let out.

When she'd scrubbed away the feeling of Larkhall, and had finally dragged herself out of the bath, she put on a plain cotton nightie and slid under the duvet on George's bed. It might be a summer evening, but her extreme tiredness had reduced her to shivers once she'd emerged from the warm water. Glancing at the clock on the bedside table, she saw that it was about a quarter past ten, meaning that she'd stayed in the bath for getting on for an hour. She couldn't be bothered to restart the CD when it reached its end, so she lay listening to the birds through the open window. She heard John leave not long after half past ten, with George mounting the stairs soon after.

"I wasn't sure if you'd still be awake," George said, seeing that Karen wasn't remotely asleep.

"Did you get your case sorted out?" Karen asked as George began removing her clothes.

"Yes, just about. He does enjoy playing the role of tutor." Karen laughed.

"Wasn't that how he met Jo?"

"Yes, and I don't think she's ever entirely recovered," George said dryly as she walked towards the bathroom. Karen listened as George took a quick shower and cleaned her teeth, marveling at just how comforting these normal sounds could be, compared to the silence of an otherwise empty house or flat. When she too got into bed, Karen knew the moment had come for them to talk.

"Have I been hell to be with lately?" She asked, though being fairly sure of the answer.

"No, not really," George said carefully.

"George, tact really doesn't suit you," Karen said with a tight smile.

"The hardest thing is not knowing what I can possibly do to help you," George clarified. "And I know there's probably nothing I can say or do to make it easier, but that fact sometimes feels a little too apparent."

"I'm sorry," Karen said, putting her arms round the woman who meant more to her than anyone else in the world.

"Darling, you don't need to be sorry," George insisted gently. "Just, try not to push me away quite so much." They lay there for a while, simply holding each other and occasionally kissing.

"And I'm sorry we haven't, made love, for quite a while."

"Is that what you think this is about?" George asked, sitting up with a mixture of hurt and anger in both her face and voice.

"No, of course not," Karen said placatingly. "It was just an observation, that's all."

"Good," George said as she lay down again. "Because you mean far more to me than that."

"I'm sorry I keep pushing you away," Karen said as the tears finally rose to her eyes. "It's just, there's part of me that doesn't want to burden you with everything I'm feeling, and another part of me that is well aware that for some wholly unfathomable reason, you are slipping away from me, and that you were even before this happened." For a brief, terrifying moment, George simply stared at her. How could Karen have worked this out? George had been aware for a while now that her relationship with Karen was gradually approaching its end, but she'd thought she'd been pretty successful in keeping this from Karen. But clearly, she didn't know the first thing about keeping something from someone as perceptive and intuitive as Karen. However, George realised that this wasn't the most pressing concern. Putting her arms round Karen, she held her, trying to soothe away the tears that she'd only ever seen twice before in her.

"I'm sorry," Karen said as the frantic gasps racked her entire body. "I just hate feeling like this. I'm lucky if I can get more than a couple of hours sleep a night, and even then I keep dreaming about Ross. Yet when it comes to getting up in the morning, everything feels so heavy that it's an enormous effort just to get out of bed."

"I think that's what depression does to you," George said, Karen's pain bringing a few tears to her own eyes.

"And I know I'm pushing everyone away from me, but it's only because I don't know how to let them in."

"Shh, I know," George said softly. "And I know that the last thing you want is to take some time out, because the more time you have, the more you'll be forced to think. But you're so exhausted that you won't be able to go on functioning if you don't."

"I never wanted you to see me like this," Karen said after a while when she was beginning to calm down.

"And I never wanted Jo to see me like that either," George told her. "The day I fainted in court, Jo managed to wring so many tears and so much disgust and self-loathing out of me, that I thought I couldn't possibly have any left."

"How is it that things like that come in never ending supplies?"

"Because when horrific things happen to you, or perfectly natural, normal things don't go quite according to plan, negative feelings are the easiest things in the world to keep regenerating. Jo told me something that weekend, something that I initially took with a pinch of salt. She said that it wasn't wrong to cry, it wasn't wrong to get angry, and that it wasn't wrong to need people."

"They sound like pearls of wisdom," Karen said dryly, reaching for the box of tissues on the bedside table.

"Yes, they might be. Jo thoroughly believes in that sentiment, but she doesn't always adhere to it."

"There's a lot you and me need to talk about, isn't there," Karen said with an air of finality.

"Yes," George said regretfully. "But not now, and not any time in the next few days. You might think I'm slipping away from you, but I'm not going that easily. At the moment, my greatest concern is you, which is why you are going to take some time off work, and why you are going to do absolutely nothing in the foreseeable future. Is that understood?"

"It might not be quite that simple," Karen said, an immense feeling of affection washing over her for this beautiful, loving, and at times belligerently caustic woman who, even though she might be looking somewhere else, still cared a great deal for her.

"It will be that simple, because it is what is going to happen," George said firmly. "I am not allowing you to work yourself into an early grave."

Part One Hundred and Seventy Nine

Lauren had finally made it through to the other side. Denny had been as good as her word and had helped her to pack all her belongings into two anonymous plastic bags.

"I don't like public goodbyes. They do my nut in," Denny had said as they stood looking in the cell they had both shared for so long. The wardrobe looked half empty as Lauren's clothes were packed away and only a few of Denny's pictures were pinned up on the wall instead of the joint array of both of their personal mementoes.

"I'll be around, always," Lauren had assured her. "I feel dead strange right now."

"You'll be sorted. I knew you would be from when you first came here."

A few tears ran down Lauren's face when those few tough clumsy words brought back that incredibly caring side of Denny that she always seemed embarrassed by. She would never have survived if it hadn't been for Denny and, above all, she knew more than ever that she wasn't as hard as she thought she was. It took being banged up to finally teach her that one. She hugged Denny for a long time even though she seemed curiously stiff and unresponsive.

"Now push off, Lauren. I'll be all right. You have one on me first time you're out in some fancy nightclub."

Denny turned her face away while, reluctantly, Lauren stepped forward into what seemed the lengthy red tape by which the prison service finally let go of her. She then went through the emotionally overwhelming experience that first Nikki and then Yvonne had gone through on their release, that procession past some incredibly loving women and a group of prison officers who, in their more restrained way, gave their respects as well. Finally, Nikki turned the tables on her past and shook Lauren's hand in a fashion totally alien to her.

"Good luck, Lauren. You know that I never want to see you again, at least this side of the prison bars," She quipped in her inimitable way. "Karen would send her best wishes if she were here. You know that."

Lauren nodded her head, speechless for words.

"Come on. I'll walk you to the car. Someone is waiting for you who I think you'll know."

Nikki casually unlocked the last of the bolts and bars and bright sunlight shone through the gap between the stone walls. The way lay open for her. Together they strolled in the sunlight and Lauren looked backwards to where she knew Denny was somewhere entombed in the building. A lump formed in her throat and her blessings extended onwards to the judge, the only real man that she had ever seen in her life, who was giving her a second chance on life. She could not let him down and also so many others. Lauren saw Nikki chat normally to Ken on security and swing the door open wide and beckoned her over to her future.

"Letting someone out of prison has got to be a first for me, Lauren. I used to watch others get out like Monica Lindsey and Crystal. This has to be the best bit of the job, seeing others get free."

"Well, of all the old lags from this dump, Nikki, you did the best of all of us..……"

There were tears in Nikki's eyes as the full emotional weight of the moment hit home where past and present sat side by side. There simply wasn't anything in the prison rules, her training course, her experience as a wing governor or her previous three years as an inmate as to the written rules governing the code of conduct of a wing governor who was also ex-inmate towards a prisoner being given her freedom. As with so much in Nikki's life, she made it up as she went along. Lauren's heart went out to this very strong woman who had more than paid her dues and she hugged her back.

"Well, you're not indispensable round here so don't be late for the party as you'll have Yvonne to reckon with. You get going as soon as you can."

Nikki smiled brightly and let her walk in the direction of Cassie's bright red Ford. The door the driver's side was wide open while Cassie lounged back in the car seat, her legs outstretched outside the car. Roisin could be seen in the back seat.

"Don't be late, Nikki. You remember what I said on the phone earlier on."

Nikki laughed out loud even while her emotions still choked her up inside.

"Helen is making her own way early to Yvonne's and I'll be as quick as I can."

She waved at the three of them and stood while Lauren popped her bags into the boot and got in the front passenger seat.

"Well, you are a sight for sore eyes, babe," Cassie grinned while the bewildered Lauren blinked at finding herself on the outside of the prison. She slumped in the seat while Cassie twirled the car round and Roisin waved at Nikki's steadily decreasing shape, which waved back.

"Isn't it just such a long time that we've seen you," Added Roisin.

"I know you of old, Cassie," Grinned Lauren. "You've got something planned for me."

"The general idea," quietly emphasized Cassie with that 'butter wouldn't melt in her mouth' look, "is that the three of us, your mum, Nikki and Helen and Josh and Crystal will have a nice chill out evening in. Nothing flashy or decadent unless you have other ideas."

Lauren felt rather bemused. Everything whizzed past her window and Cassie was driving ridiculously fast. She wasn't really here, she was in some dream that she was awake for, wondering what she was going to do when she got out of prison. The only thing was that when she shut her eyes for a moment or two and opened them again, the dream remained switched on. This was weird.

"I'll let you guys decide."

Crystal was already at Yvonne's. Her mother had lectured her firmly that God's Will meant that every human being should look after their friends and neighbours and insisted that she should look after Zandra and Daniel for the afternoon as well as the evening. That enabled her to act as advance guard for the rest of them. Spending an afternoon in Yvonne's company was something that Crystal relished as a change of scene from being stuck in the house. She knew also that it gave her a mother a chance to indulge her grandchildren shamelessly and that was fine by Crystal. Yvonne was rather down as her fiftieth was something to mourn and not exactly to flaunt. Fortunately, everyone had anticipated Yvonne's wishes for ordinary birthday cards. Seeing the numbers spelt out in all their pitiless finality was a present she could do without.

"Fifty bleeding years old. I don't feel like it, Crystal."

"You're only as old as you feel," Crystal laughed.

"You're only saying that because you've got a long way to go. Even forty was easy peasy in comparison."

Crystal sensed that Yvonne felt it keenly that her Lauren was away from home a second year running and it was especially hard for her to keep quiet. Yvonne couldn't keep track of the passing of time properly but she thought that Lauren would be out soon. She would have thought Karen would have phoned and said so either way, in any case.

At that moment in another place, Helen's phone rang in between appointments and she grabbed at it eagerly.

"The present is arriving, Helen," Roisin intoned the message into Helen's ear

"Great, Roisin. I'll be over and Nikki will make her way over when she's clear."

Everything was starting to go according to plan.

Denny didn't wait to see Lauren's long drawn out goodbye ritual. It would have hurt her too much. She was breaking up inside and no one knew it, first that Lauren was getting out and then that screw up over the VO. Why can't Lauren or the Julies or Nikki see how she felt? They've all known her for ages? Then the cynical, hard side of her rose to the surface and a voice inside her head started talking to her 'Why should they bother about you? You're not worth shit just like you always knew you were?'

'You always were trouble. Right from when you were born. I never wanted you.'

That same dream went round and round in her frigging head, those slurred words and her mother's mad eyes swivelling in every direction, pissed out of her brain. She said afterwards that she says all sorts of things when she's drunk but she never believed it in her heart of hearts. It all came back to haunt her right now.

"Have you got a spare razor blade, Buki?" she had asked one time in the most innocent way possible.

"What would you be doing with that thing"?

"Only some twat who's pissed me off. That Natalie Buxton. I've heard that she fancies being hard. I'll give her hard if she starts anything," Denny had said, in menacing tones.

"Sure, Denny"

She had studied that clean sharp edged blade in fascination first thing in the morning and words that Buki said to talk about why she used to cut up. It used to sound like a pile of bollocks once but, in Denny's state of self-loathing, they started to exert a horrid fascination. She had always had those rages inside her which had made her want to smash anything in her path when something or someone asked for it. She used to make herself feel better by making someone feel worse and that worked, especially when Shell persuaded her to. If someone who had the looks and brains like Shell would pick her out to be her best mate, then she was worth something and if Shell wanted her to act hard, then she would as well and, if anyone suffered, she couldn't give a shit. It was all so simple then.

Then everything changed. When Yvonne wanted to be her mum, it made her feel feelings, good or bad. It was dead scary but in the end, she got to like herself for the first time in her life. When Lauren came, it was even better.She made believe that she had a real sister. She felt so good about herself for so long that something within her didn't want to face the fact that sooner or later, Lauren would be getting out. When Lauren told her, she felt as if her world was falling apart. She couldn't exactly tell Lauren, she wished she were staying longer, could she?

Everything told Denny where she was in the scheme of things and that, once Lauren was out, she would be back where she belonged. Only Denny didn't want that anymore. She had to let that rage out only she couldn't be the old Denny and do over someone who deserved better. Perhaps, if she cut her skin, it would let everything out and she would be at peace. Better still, what better place was there to escape but on the roof. She had watched Zandra do that. Why didn't she try for herself? That was a brilliant idea and she had one of those mad manic moods come over her. Only trouble was, how was she going to get the frigging keys. Her mind, rapidly ticking over, picked out Bodybag as easily the most stupid screw around. She darted all over the deserted area of the wing, her eyes flitting everywhere till she saw the two people she wanted, Bodybag in the distance, glowering into space and Al dead close. Terrific. This was her big chance.

"Al, I want you to help me play a trick on Bodybag over there."

"Aye? What do you mean?" Al's eyes glazed over as Denny kept dancing from foot to foot in front of her.

"Pretend to fight so she'll stick her nose in and I can pinch her keys. Nikki will come down on her like a ton of bricks. Serve her right"

Al grinned at that one. She hated her guts for the way she looked at her in a funny way and looked down her nose at her, treating her like scum. Anything that got Bodybag in trouble had to be good. She trusted Denny and it didn't cross her mind that it would potentially put them in the firing line as well. Anything to stop Denny going all hyper all around her.

Bodybag deliberately kept away from the celebrations. All she knew was that there was one less Atkins on G Wing, much though it grieved her that some lily livered liberal namby pamby judge had let her off with a slap on the wrist instead of sentencing her to her just deserts of as near hard labour in Her Majesty's Prison that could be contrived. She glanced suspiciously at two reprobates over there, Blood and that thug McKenzie. They spelled trouble on their own, doubly so when they were together.

"Give it back, bitch," Denny yelled, that psychopathic look on her face.

"No way."

Immediately, Denny threw the first punch and they were wrestling with each other, trying to land one on the other.

"Now then, break it up," She yelled wondering why everything should happen when all the other prison officers were watching the cabaret. At the back of the crowd, Colin heard what was going on and saw Bodybag suddenly become embroiled in the struggle.

"That's enough," He yelled. "You two should know better."

Surprisingly easily, the two of them stopped the fight as he got to the scene of the struggle. They both looked apologetic and Denny apologised to Al who calmed down quickly. Colin knew that they were mates but both of them could be edgy and fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. They were quick to apologise so Colin decided to let it go.

"Next time, you two, I'll send both of you down the block and throw away the key," a very dishevelled Bodybag blustered.

"We're really sorry miss."

"Yeah, just a misunderstanding," chimed in Al after Denny.

They promptly disappeared out of harms way and Colin and Bodybag had better things to do to watch out for the assembled crowd of prisoners to flood back on to the wing.

"Easy, peasy," exulted Denny in a manic way, a glint in her eye and her razor tucked away in her trouser pocket. It was almost like the old days and just like kids stuff when Shaz was with her except that….Shaz was dead. That realisation made Denny shut her eyes and all that directed rage turned inwards on herself and mixed with those feelings of grief, which she'd never got over. She was emotionally all over the place except for that fixed desire to get onto the roof. Where had Zandra told her to go…oh, yes, into the medical wing, through the door where there was an area where five doors opened out, pick the one on the left and there the first set of barred doors are. Open them, as she did though the clanking sound scared the shit out of her and round and round the metal spiral staircase and right onto the roof. Her hands were shaking as she unlocked the top gate and that bloody rusty chain, swing back the gate and….freedom.

Cassie pulled up in the drive outside Yvonne's house and Lauren automatically got out of the car as she had so many times in the past and she gasped in total astonishment. The house stretched upwards into the sky and the width was enormous. The cars in the front, including her mum's red Ferrari were unbelievably luxurious and the trees at the back were like something out of a stately mansion. She stretched her shoulders and took in deep breaths of air. She was free and she was home even if the realisation of her dormant dreams was bewildering.

"Where's everyone else got to, Crystal? It ain't my birthday every day?"

"They must be held up. You know how it is," Crystal answered with a lopsided grin.

At that moment, the front doorbell rang loudly and Trigger pricked up his ears after lounging around on the rug. This needed investigating.

"Surprise, surprise," Yelled the two-part disharmony of Cassie and Lauren.

Just for a second, Yvonne was speechless and then Lauren ran into her arms and the two women embraced in an enormous hug for what seemed like ages while tears of gratitude streamed down Yvonne's face. For once, she was oblivious of her appearance. Trigger barked uproariously running round in circles and chasing his tail. This was a double birthday as far as he was concerned. He had missed his mistress and had heard her step two feet from the door.

Yvonne flopped into a chair, utterly gobsmacked.

"This isn't bleeding Cilla Black you complete and utter…….bloody wonderful friends of mine. Don't ever pull a stunt like that. I nearly had a bleeding heart attack……what do you want to drink, Lauren? Must be forgetting my manners."

Cassie poured her a generous measure of her favourite drink and collapsed back in an armchair, unbelievably soft and luxurious. She tasted her first taste of freedom.

Some time later the party was in full swing.

"What's happened to Nikki?" Yvonne asked. Either the alcohol or shock was going to her head as the room was starting to get fuzzy in the most delightful way.

"You know Nikki. She won't leave the place unless she's dragged away. I can tell the symptoms already. She'll come when she's good and ready as she hates letting people down. Besides, she won't miss out on your company." Laughed Cassie.

Once up on the roof, Denny blinked at the sight of all that city in the far horizon. She had forgotten that there was so much space outside the walls. A tear rolled down her cheek as she was sure that she would never get there. That distant memory when Miss Betts took her out for the day was just that. It wasn't real. It was there like Yvonne being mum for there, to be snatched away when she needed it most. It was bullshit. Everything was bullshit. She was sick of life and might as well give up on it. Let's face it, everyone else had given up on her.

She tottered her way to the front where a glimpse of the sheer drop below made her reel. It was a frigging long way down. Why are you worrying, Denny, a voice inside her started to tell her. You've got the choice of topping yourself with the razor or stepping off the edge. Why are you bothering any more? She decided to reach for her razor instead……..

Nikki was ready to leave. She had finished everything and was ready to set out on her way to a lovely reunion. She strolled across the yard and was heading for the lodge to drop her key in before getting into her car and phoning Helen to tell her she was on her way. She had a cursory glance behind her at the prison block, swung her gaze sideways to the hospital block and there, etched against the skyline, just clear of the roof, there was a sight that made her blood run cold and bring back a similar drama right back to the present.

"Jesus!" She yelled. Her wits were scattered. What in hell was she supposed to do?

Part One Hundred and Eighty

Karen didn't wake until after ten on the Tuesday morning, George's sleeping pill having knocked her out for nearly eleven hours. As she drifted into consciousness, she could hear the singing birds through the open window, and see the curtains gently flapping in the breeze. Dragging herself listlessly out of bed, she took a long, cool shower, hoping the temperature of the water might help to fully wake her up. Her limbs still felt like lead, and her brain was still very muzzy with sleep, but she did feel a little more rested than she had done the previous day. Going downstairs, she found George sat at her computer, clearly on the phone and arguing with her client. Seeing Karen's reflection in the monitor, George gave her a smile. As Karen made them both a coffee, she looked out at the garden, the sun practically begging her to come and sit out in it. Placing George's mug on the desk beside her, and briefly touching her cheek in lieu of a kiss, Karen took her own coffee outside, and reclined comfortably on one of the sun loungers. She'd picked up a copy of The Guardian from the coffee table in the lounge, but found that nothing inside it could hold her concentration for long. Her eyes would linger on a sentence for minutes at a time, until she eventually put the paper down in disgust. This wasn't her, this wasn't the Karen Betts she knew. She'd always been able to keep her mind on anything she pleased, so why not now? Had the death of her son wrought such horrific changes in her? This must be depression at its worst, she thought cynically. Well, at least as bad as it gets, before the temptation to off oneself finally kicked in, and that was no way to be thinking on a day like this. She gazed up at the endless blue sky, trying to let her mind go completely blank, trying to blot out all the images that swam unbidden in front of her eyes.

When George had finished her infuriating phone call, she took her coffee outside, and perched on the sun lounger not far from Karen.

"That sounded like a difficult one," Karen observed, as George took a long, grateful swig of the coffee.

"Most of my clients are," She replied cynically. "They think that just because they're dealing in millions, they can expect me to perform miracles. Mind you, I should come out of this one with at least half a million, so I suppose it's worth it. How do you feel this morning?"

"Erm, flat," Karen eventually said, not entirely sure how to describe the empty feeling inside her. "Are you sure you don't mind me being here?"

"No, of course not," George reassured her, feeling that a sort of polite distance had risen between them, probably since the previous night, when Karen had raised the subject of George's possibly wandering affections. "I phoned Neil this morning, and told him where you were, and he said for you to take as long as you need."

"Meanwhile, precisely who is taking care of my prison?" George couldn't help but smile at Karen's possessiveness.

"Darling, they can manage without you, at least for a little while."

"I know it sounds stupid," Karen admitted sheepishly. "But I almost wish they couldn't." Putting her empty mug down on the patio, George moved over to Karen, leaning over her and tentatively putting her arms round her. George knew that the distance between them was entirely her fault, and at least for now, she wanted to rectify that. Karen needed her to be strong, stable, there for her to lean on, not to be moving away from her like a piece of floating drift wood, that appeared to be forever out of reach. When their lips met, gently exploring the mouths they knew so well, Karen's arms came slowly round her, holding George to her just for that short while.

"Thank you," Karen said softly into her hair.

"What for?" George gently enquired with a smile.

"Just for being you," Karen told her, which made George feel an almost unbearable twinge of guilt, for what she must put Karen through in the fairly near future. Yes, any progress between her and Jo might have been put on hold for the last few weeks, because Karen's plight had seemed to put everything on hold for a time, but it couldn't stay like that forever. George was tempted to stay there for the foreseeable future, half sitting, half lying on the sun lounger with Karen, but hearing the phone ring brought her out of her contemplation. Groaning theatrically, she gently disentangled herself from Karen and got to her feet.

"John said he would drop in for lunch," She said, making her way back to the house, wishing that they could have maintained that brief feeling of togetherness, something they hadn't felt for far too long.

At just after one, as duly expected, John arrived, bearing the fabulous home made sandwiches that only the delicatessen near the court knew how to make, plus a punnet of peaches. George was yet again in the middle of an argument with a client who clearly had far more money than sense, so John went straight out to the back garden, after depositing his purchases in the kitchen.

"She sounds harassed," He commented, sinking gratefully down onto the garden bench.

"It's been like that for most of the morning," Karen told him.

"Well, if she will insist on representing the likes of Tim Listfield, she's only got herself to blame," He said loftily, making Karen smile.

"Oh, I don't know," She slightly teased him. "I think even you might defend this one, if you were likely to get half a million out of it."

"Typical," John said disgustedly. "I practiced law to achieve justice, not to increase my bank balance."

"At least she's honest about it," Karen found herself defending George.

"Who is?" George asked, emerging out through the kitchen door with their lunch.

"You, and your defense of utter scoundrels, all in the name of financial gain."

"And precisely what else would you have me do it for?" She asked, pouring them all some freshly squeezed orange juice. "And no," She said, holding up a finger and wagging it at him. "I don't need one of your speeches about the sheer delight of achieving justice for some poor, cash strapped individual, because I've heard it all before."

"That bad?" He said with a broad smile, not rising to the bait.

"Yes, and getting worse by the minute. I thought that working at home, might mean I could take the odd five minutes to relax, but no chance." Karen listened to them fondly bickering, loving the sheer familiarity of it. She was amazed that Jo ever managed to get a word in edgeways when the three of them were together. Now where had that thought come from, the three of them together? She was about to begin analysing it further, as she took a long and satisfied drag of her after lunch cigarette, when the phone rang, where George had placed it on the garden table.

"George Channing," She answered, obviously expecting it to be one of her infamous clients. "Nikki, calm down," She added, putting Karen immediately on the alert. There was a short silence, followed by George's resounding words of, "Absolutely not. Nikki, I don't care what's happened. Karen isn't going anywhere near that place for the foreseeable future, is that clear?" Knowing that Nikki would never have disturbed her unless it was a matter of severe importance, Karen swiftly removed the cordless from George's hand, earning herself a glare of monumental proportions for her trouble.

"Nikki," She said. "What's happened?"

"Denny's on the hospital wing roof," Nikki told her. Instantly, all the blood drained from Karen's face. Not now, she thought in horror, not today, please! "Karen, are you still there?" Nikki demanded, and Karen could hear the concern in her voice.

"Yes, I'm here," Karen said, trying to bring her scattered wits under control. "How long has she been up there?"

"I don't know, but not longer than half an hour. The thing is, we think she went up there with a razor blade."

"Shit," Karen said in response. "This just gets better and better."

"I'm sorry to have phoned you, but I really didn't know what else to do."

"Don't be silly," Karen reassured her. "You've done exactly the right thing. Now, I need you to get everyone banged up, and you need to pass that round the other wings. I don't want anyone in the exercise yard who doesn't need to be. The prison is on complete lock down until this is sorted out. On second thoughts, keep the Julies and Tina, because their encouragement from the ground wouldn't go amiss. What about Lauren?"

"Cassie's picked her up already."

"Yvonne mustn't know anything about this, not until we know where it's going. Do we know why Denny might have done this? Oh no, hang on, stupid question, Lauren's getting out today will have sparked this off. Don't do anything else till I get there." When she'd switched off the phone, both John and George were staring at her, neither of them having seen that light of determination in her since Ross had died. "Denny's up on the hospital wing roof, with a razor blade of all things," Karen told them.

"And you're planning to go and talk her down," John said succinctly. "I can see it in your face."

"Yes, if I have to," Karen told him without demur.

"No way," George said firmly. "You are not doing anything so stupid as to put yourself in danger like that."

"Oh, and just what else do you suppose I should do?" Karen demanded hotly. "Allow Nikki to do it, someone who's only been in the job just over two months?"

"Karen, this is the last thing you should do," George tried to plead with her, avoiding answering the question.

"Tough," Karen said curtly, getting to her feet and walking towards the house. "Because it's what I must do. Can I borrow your car?" She asked over her shoulder, remembering that hers was still sitting in the prison car park.

"Would you like me to give you a lift?" John asked her, seeing that she wasn't going to be dissuaded from this reckless course of action.

"Yes, if you could," Karen agreed, finally feeling the beginnings of the surge of energy she had always known.

As he drove, John could feel the almost palpable adrenalin coursing through Karen's veins. Here, now, she had a purpose, something that directly required her to be the incredibly clever and sensitive woman he knew her to be, and he could see that this was what she needed.

"Precisely what are you planning to do?" He asked her, though thinking that he could probably guess.

"If I tell you before we get there," She said with half a smile. "You won't take me the rest of the way." Now knowing that he was right in his estimations, John rang Coope, telling her to cancel court for the afternoon, because something had cropped up that he had to deal with.

"But what reason shall I give the court officer, Judge?" She asked, hating it when he put her on the spot like this.

"I don't care," John said, turning into the road where Larkhall stood. "This is very important, so please just do it."

"And so's this trial, Judge," She said disapprovingly.

"Not more than this it's not," He countered back. "One afternoon won't do any harm." When he'd switched off the phone, Karen said,

"You didn't have to do that," Knowing that he was fully intent on coming with her into Larkhall.

"And if you're going to do what I think you're going to do, I would far rather be nearby, actually trying to give you some support for a change." Realising that he was indirectly referring to how he'd dealt with his knowledge of what was happening to Ross, Karen briefly rested a hand over his where it lay on the gear stick.

"Thank you," She said, immensely appreciating the fact that he was prepared to put everything on hold just to be there for her.

As he followed her as she moved rapidly through the gates and corridors of Larkhall, he could see her brain working feverishly away, clearly amassing all the things she would need for her mission. The association area of G wing was deserted, but they could hear the sound of voices from the exercise yard. When Karen went outside, she was immediately greeted to the sight of the Julies and Tina, with Nikki, Gina, Dominic and Sylvia looking up to Denny, sitting far above them on the hospital wing roof. Taking in the scene with a practiced glance, Karen was forcefully reminded of the first time she'd come to Larkhall, when she'd stood here with Simon Stubberfield, watching as Zandra was doing precisely what Denny was now. When Nikki came over to her, she didn't bat an eyelid at John's presence, but continued talking to Karen as they made their way back to G wing's officers' room.

"Has she said anything whilst she's been up there?" Karen wanted to know.

"Not as far as I know," Nikki replied. "Which isn't good. If she was doing this purely for the sake of protest, we'd have heard something out of her by now."

"How's she been over the last week?"

"The same as normal," Nikki said in obvious bewilderment. "Absolutely no sign that this was going to happen."

"Dominic's her personal officer these days. What about him?"

"He knows no more than you or me."

"And you say she's got something up there for cutting? When the hell did that start? Denny's never been a slasher, at least not as far as I knew."

"God knows," Nikki said resignedly. "We only know that because Buki told one of the Julies. It was Buki she got it from."

"That figures," Karen said disgustedly. "Buki knows more about self-harming than I do after years of nursing." Grabbing the wing's first aid kit from the shelf, Karen began going through it, making sure it held everything she might need to deal with any self-inflicted wounds Denny might have. Watching her do this, Nikki suddenly realised with blinding clarity precisely what Karen intended to do.

"Karen, you can't," She said in horror.

"Try me," Karen replied, not meeting her gaze.

"Don't be bloody stupid," Nikki said vehemently. "You would be putting yourself at one hell of a risk."

"Tell me," Karen said, turning to face her with the first aid box in her hands. "Didn't Helen do something similar, on my very first visit here, if I remember rightly?"

"And do you have any idea how terrified I was when she did that?" Nikki threw back, not caring that they had John there as an audience. "Every bloody minute she was up on that roof scared the living daylights out of me."

"Then lucky for me I don't have an unrequited lover, or should I say a lover of any kind, waiting for me to come down safely." There was a slightly stunned silence as she said this, and Karen knew, as if a light had suddenly been switched on in her brain, that this was true. That's why she and George had been drifting apart, because George was no longer hers to lose. She wasn't just John's any more; she was John's and someone else's. But this was hardly the time for dwelling on such things.

"Karen, please just be careful up there," Nikki said gently, feeling the undercurrent in the conversation and not entirely understanding it.

"The only consideration here is Denny," Karen said quietly. "And if I don't get her down from there in one piece, Yvonne will never forgive me." As Karen walked out of the door with the first aid box under her arm, Nikki suddenly grabbed one of the two-way radios from the cupboard and rushed after her.

"At least take this with you," She said, catching up to Karen and slipping it into the pocket of her skirt. "That way you can at least call for back up if you need it." Back in the office, Nikki turned to John.

"Why didn't you try to stop her?"

"Because as reckless and dangerous and stupid as this course of action may be," John said quietly. "I think she needs to do it."

"What did she mean, Yvonne would never forgive her?"

"That's not something I can tell you, Nikki," He said, unwilling to break Karen's confidence. He knew why, because he could all too clearly remember that day, that day on which George and Jo had questioned her so ruthlessly, that day on which Karen had given them Lauren's name, handing her over to the justice system for punishment.

"I've got to tell Grayling about this," Nikki said, seeing that she wasn't going to get any more out of him.

"After which I suspect he will suspend her," John said meditatively. "Which in the circumstances may be no bad thing."

As Karen climbed the numerous staircases, she began automatically cataloguing the precautions she would need to keep in mind whilst up on the roof. Denny would very likely be in a highly volatile state, in which anything could quite literally push her over the edge. Karen had absolutely no idea where her sudden surge of energy had come from, but it felt as though she had finally reconnected herself to her own private source of electricity. Just how had Denny got up there in the first place? She must have stolen someone's keys. Well, woe betide whoever's keys they had been. As she approached the bottom of the last narrow flight of stairs, that would take her up to the roof, Karen slowed. She didn't want to surprise Denny, but she also didn't want to give Denny too much warning that someone was coming up to her.

When Karen finally stepped out onto the narrow ledge, she saw that Denny was sitting forlornly against the steeply rising slate, with her hands resting in her lap, and with something, presumably the razor blade clutched in her right hand. Karen simply stood there, assessing her surroundings, gradually waiting for Denny to notice her presence. Eventually, seeming to sense that she was no longer alone up here, Denny looked up.

"What're you doing here?" She asked, though with no malice in her tone.

"I might ask you the same," Karen said, though not moving from where she stood. "Can I sit down?"

"Sure," Denny replied. "Ain't as if it's my roof. Zandra was the last one to come up here, and that was ages ago."

"Do you know that Zandra's roof protest, was the very first impression I had of Larkhall?"

"That was the first thing you saw when you came here?" Denny asked, a little stunned by this revelation.

"Yes," Karen said with a wry smile. "And yet I still came back."

"You're crazy, man," Denny said, wondering why Karen always seemed to appear when she was going a bit off the rails.

Down on the ground, John and Nikki now joined the little group of officers and inmates, after Nikki had phoned Grayling to put him in the picture.

"Grayling's on his way," Nikki told Gina as they joined her, all gazing up at where Denny sat. They observed as Karen at first stood off to one side, waiting for Denny to speak to her, and then as she sat down and they began talking. In the unnatural hush of the exercise yard, they could hear clearly everything that was being said between Karen and Denny. There weren't even many shouts from the banged up prisoners, because the vast majority of them were gazing out of their windows, all trying to catch glimpses of Denny, and most of them eager to hear anything they could. John couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. Their Karen was, sitting up on the roof, at least four floors up, as coolly and calmly as if she were still sitting out in George's back garden. This was Karen at her most effective, he thought to himself, this was Karen doing the thing she did best. They all watched as Karen lit two cigarettes, handing one to Denny, who briefly put down the razor blade in order to take it.

"Are you going to tell me why you're up here?" Karen eventually asked, thinking that at least Denny had chosen a nice day for it, meaning that they could stay up here for hours if necessary.

"I just wanted a bit of peace, innit," Denny told her miserably.

"Peace from what?"

"This place, my waste of space life, everything. Only it don't quite work like that, does it, because there ain't no one that can escape from their thoughts." A particularly philosophical thought to come from Denny, Karen reflected. "I just want to not have to think any more." You and me both, Karen silently agreed with her. Slowly moving her hand towards the razor blade, Karen moved to take it, but Denny's hand closed over it first.

"I didn't know you'd started cutting," Karen told her, wondering just where this sudden urge had come from.

"I ain't done it for ages," Denny replied. "I just felt like it."

"Why did you used to do it?"

"I ain't no good with words, and no one ever listens. Cutting's just a way of saying stuff I don't know how to say."

"In the same way as your painting does?"

"Yeah." Glancing at Denny's left arm, Karen could see that Denny had already begun carving tiny indentations into her skin, long before she'd got there. The scratches weren't deep, and the blood loss was extremely minimal, but the two or three superficial gashes were evidence of how bad she was feeling.

"How do you feel about Lauren getting out?" Karen asked, knowing that this was at the heart of the problem.

"It had to happen some time," Denny said dismissively; almost distractedly beginning to move the blade over the skin of her left arm. "The judge only gave her two years, and she's done over eighteen months, so it was obvious she'd be getting out pretty soon."

"That doesn't tell me how you feel about it," Karen said, slightly impressed at Denny's avoidance of the question.

"How the bloody hell do you think I feel?" Denny demanded furiously, turning on Karen and virtually scorching her with her anger. "She left me here to rot, just like every other person I've ever cared about. What is it with people always leaving me here? Even my own mother did it, but then that wasn't the first time she'd ever left me. She preferred the vodka bottle over me, do you know that? She'd rather go to the pub, than stay home and look after her kid. I was nine when the social took me away, and she didn't even bloody notice! Then when she saw me in here, she didn't even bloody recognise me. I asked her if she had any kids, and she said no, said they was more trouble than they're worth. She came to visit me a couple of times, after she got out of here, but then she went back on the drink. I told her I didn't want to see her for a year, to give her a chance to dry out, but when I started trying to find her again, she died. My mother, Shaz, Shell, Zandra, Lauren, they've all either died, or got out, or been sent to a place like Ashmoor, but either way, they're all gone." During the whole of this diatribe, Denny had been randomly digging the blade into her skin, occasionally drawing blood, and at other times simply leaving the faintest of marks. It was as if she were painting with her blood, drawing the abstract, wavey lines of her thoughts into her flesh. Her arm was bleeding freely by this time, but Karen knew that it may be fatal to stop her, any interference possibly causing her to do something far more drastic. Using the tip of a finger as one might a particularly delicate brush, Denny began drawing vague symbols in the blood on her skin, giving Karen the incredibly disturbing thought, that Denny was finger painting, just as Ross had done when he was a child, and as perhaps Denny had done herself.

"You still have Yvonne," Karen told her quietly, seeing that Denny's fear of no longer having this mother figure, was what had led her up here in the first place.

"No, I don't," Denny said with far too much certainty. "She don't need me now, not now that she's got Lauren back for good. Lauren ain't like me, because she'll never come back here. Killing Fenner might have been the best thing she could ever have done for plenty of people, including you, but she ain't stupid enough to do anything like that again. Lauren learnt her lesson, was 'Successfully rehabilitated'," Denny added with utter scorn, clearly a phrase she'd heard uttered by what Sylvia would call some wishy washy liberal. Down on the ground, Nikki quirked a smile in John's direction, receiving the ghost of one in return. "So," Denny continued, oblivious of her audience. "Yvonne don't need to come back here any more now, does she."

"Denny," Karen told her gently. "Yvonne isn't going to forget you, just because Lauren's been released. You mean far too much to her for that."

"Yeah, right," Denny said disbelievingly, the tears now coursing down her cheeks, thinning the gradually coagulating blood on her arm. "She don't need me any more, that's obvious."

"She came to see you, long before Lauren ended up in here, didn't she," Karen tried to reason with her.

"Only because she was trying to get to know you a lot better," Denny replied disgustedly, trying to show that she wasn't falling for Karen's tactical manoeuvres. Karen laughed.

"Denny, Yvonne could have got to know me just as well, without coming here to see you, I can promise you that. She cares about you, a great deal, and Yvonne doesn't give her affection easily. You know as well as I do that it has to be earned." They were quiet for a time, and Karen wondered just how she would go about persuading Denny to at least let her patch up her arm.

"Is it such a crime to want to be dead?" Denny eventually asked. "Is it really so bad, to want to not have to feel like this any more?"

"Maybe for you, it doesn't seem such a bad thing," Karen said quietly, wishing she could have had the opportunity to say half these things to Ross. "But to those left behind, it's something they never forget. Denny, to lose someone you love in that way, it's something you never get over. No matter how much you try to push it to the back of your mind, so that living, and getting on with your life become bearable, it never entirely goes away."

"Are you saying that because of Ross?" Denny asked, only just realising how much all this might be getting to Karen.

"No," Karen told her simply. "Because I haven't got to that stage yet. What happened with Ross, is still the first thing that hits me when I wake up in a morning, and still the last thing I think about before I go to sleep. But I do know that that's what it's like for Yvonne. You know how she lost Ritchie, so you ought to know how it would affect her if she lost you. I know someone who lost his mother in a similar way. He might usually continue to function as a perfectly normal human being, but that doesn't prevent him from occasionally dwelling on all the unanswered questions." As John listened to her describing him, his slight gasp of surprise brought Nikki's eyes on him. So, Nikki thought in dawning realisation, the Judge was who Karen was now talking about. "That's what losing someone like that does to you, Denny. It leaves you with so many questions that will never be answered in a million years. That's why the person's memory can never quite be put to rest."

"But Yvonne's got a daughter," Denny persisted, still unconsciously drawing vague impressions in her own blood. "Lauren's alive, she's out there, with Yvonne, when I'm stuck in here. Why would she need me, now that she's got Lauren back?"

"Because continuing to care for the people who mean an awful lot to her, is one of the things Yvonne does best," Karen told her, knowing just how true this was. "She wouldn't ever forget you, no matter how many other children, real or otherwise she had." Seeing that Denny's resolve was finally broken, Karen swiftly removed a pair of gloves from their packet and put them on. Reaching forward, she gently tried to take the razor blade from Denny's fingers.

"No!" Denny shouted, realising what Karen was doing.

"Let go of it, Denny," Karen urged, the warning tone of intention all too clear. Trying to stop Karen from what she intended to do, Denny struggled to move closer to the edge of the roof. The feeling of brief anger that welled up in Karen, made her determined not to let Denny go through with her wish. Wrapping her arms round a furiously struggling Denny, Karen held onto her with all the strength she possessed.

"Don't you dare," She said furiously, dragging Denny away from the edge. "I refuse to sit here and watch you throw away everything Yvonne has ever done for you, do you hear me. You are not going to do this to her, to Lauren, to anyone. Is that clear?" When Denny shouted, and began moving towards the edge of the roof, John held his breath, only distantly noticing that Grayling was there, and looked as though he'd been there for some time. They could all hear what Karen said, and every single one of them could tell that it came straight from the heart. When Denny eventually stopped struggling, and simply leaned against Karen, the sobs wracking her body, Nikki briefly touched John's arm.

"It's all right," She said quietly. "You can start breathing again now."

Karen held Denny for quite a while, but then moved a little away from her, to begin assessing what damage Denny had done to herself.

"Will you let me patch you up?" She asked, receiving a slight nod in return. As she cleaned away some of the blood, and covered the wounds with a sterile dressing, Karen could feel her own nerves singing with tension. Talking down a self-harming, suicidal, frightened young girl hadn't been something she'd thought she would end up doing today. Wrapping the bloody gloves in their empty packet, Karen noticed that her clothes hadn't escaped unspattered, probably due to the struggle.

"You know what Zandra always said about being up here?" Denny said, eventually breaking the silence. "She said that it made her feel free. She felt like no one could touch her up here, that if she thought hard enough, she could just fly away." Karen could understand how someone might feel like this after being up here, because they would be able to see across all the prison buildings, over the razor wire to the world outside, a world beyond bolts, bars, and even worse, badly maintained ideals.

"I'd like to take you down from here," Karen said, feeling that it was about time they left this far too seductive resting place. Picking up the bunch of keys that lay beside her, Denny held them out.

"You might want these," She said, freely handing them to Karen. "They're Bodybag's." Hearing this undeniable assertion, Nikki turned a furious and threatening glare on Sylvia, who couldn't entirely meet her gaze. Getting very carefully to her feet, Karen held out a hand and slowly pulled Denny up to join her. Only then did Denny look down on their audience, seeing the Julies, and Tina, as well as Sylvia, Dominic, Gina, Nikki and Grayling. But the person who caught her eye, was John.

"What's he doing here?" She asked without rancour, being simply curious.

"He was with me when I got the call about this," Karen told her, as they made their way inside. "So he gave me a lift, and probably got far more than he bargained for."

"I'm sorry, Miss," Denny said as they descended the stairs.

"Just promise me one thing," Karen asked her. "Promise me never to do anything as stupid as that again. You won't always be in here, Denny, although I know it might sometimes feel that way. Yvonne will always be there for you, because if she makes a commitment to someone, she doesn't go back on it." As they walked through the corridors back to G wing, Karen wondered if, by bringing Denny down safely, she had finally managed to atone for figuratively putting Lauren behind bars. On the day Yvonne's daughter had been freed, Karen hoped that she had at last, been able to free herself from that particular question of guilt.

Part 181

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