DISCLAIMER: I am a thief. Yes indeed, a character thief. What, we're surprised? They belong to Shed Productions, except for Trigger who belongs to Kristine and Richard and belongs in their marvellous story The Gunpowder Plot. I suggest you read it. Hey, where are you going...?
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Lauren Atkins stood up, looking the picture of calm and confidence in the dock, alongside her escorts Di Barker and Sylvia Hollamby. She traded a significant look with the head juror; a silver-haired man in his mid fifties who looked decidedly uncomfortable. From her place in the gallery Yvonne smiled. Her darling daughter had followed in her dad's footsteps in more ways than one - she had nobbled the jury.
"On the charge of Grievous Bodily Harm, how do you find the defendant Lauren Atkins?"
The head juror cleared his throat before nervously saying: "Not Guilty."
"On the charge of Demanding Money with Menaces, how do you find the defendant Lauren Atkins?"
Again he said: "Not Guilty."
The courtroom, filled as it was with Lauren's friends and people from the business, erupted in cheers. Yvonne dimly heard the judge declaring that Lauren was free to go as she hurried to congratulate her daughter.
"Mum!" Lauren exclaimed as she was enveloped in a warm hug.
"Well done, darling," Yvonne whispered in her ear before giving her daughter a kiss on the cheek. Lauren pulled back and smiled cheekily.
"You haven't been nosing around in my room have you?"
Yvonne laughed. She hadn't seen her daughter in nearly four weeks, ever since she, Yvonne, had been released early from HMP Larkhall. She'd had the house in Chelsea to herself since then. With Charlie dead, Ritchie gone God knows where and Lauren on G-Wing the old place had seemed horribly big and quiet. Prison wasn't exactly a quiet place and, in the years she'd been incarcerated, Yvonne had got used to constant noise and company. That was one reason she'd spent a lot of her time out of the house. The other was her girlfriend, G-Wing governor Karen Betts.
"No," Yvonne replied, linking arms with Lauren. "Whatever dark secrets you've got stashed in that room of yours are still safe."
Even as she was saying this Yvonne could feel eyes boring into her back. She turned sharply. Di and Bodybag were standing behind her; Di grinning inanely and Bodybag looking as though she'd swallowed a wasp.
"Atkins," said Sylvia. "I thought we might see you here - looking like the cat that's got the cream."
"Well, if it isn't my favourite prison officer!" Yvonne said with a large grin. "And here I thought I'd never see you again. Ah well, I suppose my luck couldn't last forever."
Sylvia managed to screw up her face even more at that remark. "You may have the tabloids fooled, Atkins. But to me you're nothing but a criminal - and you'll never be anything else."
Yvonne pretended to look hurt. "Sylvia!" she said, holding her hands over her heart. "I'm wounded, I really am." Then she smiled. "Since we're having this little heart to heart - to me you're nothing but a bitter, sad, pathetic old bitch - with less brains than God gave the Cocker Spaniel."
Bodybag's face turned beet red as Yvonne and Lauren began to laugh. "Well-" she spluttered, incoherent with rage.
"Oh, fuck off Bodybag," Lauren said, leaning against her mother for support. Yvonne was practically doubled over herself by now and she only laughed harder when Bodybag shook her head and waddled off, Di tagging meekly along behind her.
"Oh, God," Yvonne wheezed, wiping tears from her eyes. "I'm so glad I got a chance to see to that old cow." Lauren nodded happily.
"Come on," she said, grabbing her mother's arm. "Let's go home."
The steps of the courtroom were swarming with reporters and they were ambushed by a group of them as they tried to make their way to Yvonne's car. They weren't really there to see Lauren - although she did garner some interest, being Charlie Atkins' daughter - they were there to see Yvonne. She was flavour of the month in the press at the moment thanks to her 'Heroic Rescue' (The Mirror); 'Brave Self Sacrifice' (The Guardian) and 'COR BLIMEY, COURAGE!' (The Sun.) What the papers didn't know was that her role in the rescue of Karen Betts from the blazing Larkhall Library wasn't exactly altruism. It was pure self-interest, in fact. Yvonne didn't think she could live without Karen, it was as simple as that.
"How d'you feel, Yvonne?" shouted one hack as Yvonne steered Lauren towards her Jag. Yvonne waited till Lauren was inside before turning back to the reporters and flashing a dazzling smile.
"I'm ecstatic that my daughter has cleared her name. I hope that the legacy of my late husband has begun to dissipate with today's ruling - Lauren is living proof that the Atkins name is no longer saddled with Charlie's gangland reputation. Now I'm going to take my daughter home where we can both get on with our normal, law-abiding lives." She waved. "Thank you! No more questions!"
Yvonne climbed into the driver's seat of the Jag and pulled into traffic, followed by reporters flashing cameras until she was well into the left hand lane. She shook her head and flashed a small grin at Lauren. "I feel a bit like a rock star," she said.
"Don't let it go to your head," Lauren replied. "And don't sing!"
Yvonne raised an eyebrow and grinned mischievously. "Oh yeah?" she said, then cleared her throat. "Let's rock, everybody, let's rock! Everybody in the whole cell block, was dancin' to the jailhouse rock!"
Lauren covered her ears. "La la la, I can't hear you!"
Yvonne laughed. "I'm not that bad am I?"
Lauren just looked at her. "Mum," she said seriously. "I've heard fighting cats hit better notes."
Yvonne put on an affronted air. "I'll have you know Karen says I have the voice of an angel."
"Yeah, well, Karen has to say stuff like that or she might not get a shag."
Yvonne shot her daughter a significant look as she changed gears. "Now, now Lauren," she said. "Grown-ups call it 'making love'."
Lauren screwed up her face and shook her head, as if to clear an unpleasant image. "For God's sake mum, I don't want to know the details!"
Yvonne, who had been expecting this reaction, simply laughed. They lapsed into a pause for a moment before Yvonne continued. "Speaking of Karen," she said. "We're going out tonight - she's finally feeling up to celebrating my release - and we were wondering if you'd like to come?"
Lauren frowned. "Going out on the town with my mum and her girlfriend? Watching them going all mushy over each other? Are you trying to put me in therapy?"
"Oh, come on," Yvonne cajoled. "Cassie'll be there."
Lauren perked up. "Cassie?" she said with interest. Then her voice flattened. "And Roisin?"
"Well...yeah, Roisin too."
Lauren smiled sadly. "I don't think so, mum."
Yvonne shifted uncomfortably, suddenly wishing she hadn't brought Cassie up. "Were you...serious about Cassie?" she asked gently.
Lauren sighed and stared out the window. "I could have been," she sighed. "I'd really rather not see her and Roisin acting all mushy either."
Yvonne nodded sympathetically. "Fair enough."
They passed the rest of the journey to Chelsea in silence.
Yvonne tossed her car keys into a bowl by the door before she was overcome by a flying mass of legs and fur. "Trigger!" she shouted. "Down!" The dog did as he was told, panting happily, but he was off again when he saw Lauren.
Lauren laughed as she wrapped her arms around the pet's neck. "Trigger!" She ruffled the fur on his head and neck. "You haven't forgotten me then?" Trigger answered her with a large, wet lick.
Lauren stood, laughing and wiping her face. Yvonne smiled, glad to see her daughter in a good mood again after the rather sullen ride from the court. "George brought him back a couple of days ago. I think she was sorry to see him go."
Lauren looked down at her expensive Armani suit which was now covered in dog hairs. "You don't say."
Yvonne laughed as she grabbed her daughter's hand. "Come on," she said. "Let's go and get some lunch."
Half an hour later Yvonne finished loading the last plate into the dishwasher and walked through to the living room where Lauren was sitting, stroking the dog. The dog who just happened to be sitting up on the sofa. Yvonne stopped in front of them, hands on her hips. "Has someone been changing the house rules since I've been away?" she asked with a raised eyebrow. Lauren looked sheepish as she urged Trigger off the furniture. Yvonne took note of the dog hair all over the upholstery and wisely took a seat in the armchair opposite.
"So," she began breezily. "How does it feel to be home?"
Lauren smiled slowly. "Bloody fantastic," she replied. "No more Fenner, no more Bodybag, no more stodgy porridge, no more lock-up, no more-"
"Okay, okay, I get it!" Yvonne interrupted with a grin.
"Yeah, I suppose you feel the same way, huh? Except about ten times more."
"Yeah, you could say that," Yvonne replied. "I'm not in a hurry to go back, put it that way."
Yvonne paused. She'd been wanting to discuss the business with Lauren for a while but it never seemed to be the right time. "Lauren-" she began but Lauren held up her hand to quiet her.
"I know what you're going to say, mum," she said, running a hand through her hair. "You know, being in prison - even for such a short time - really made me think. I don't want to go back. I don't want either of us to go back. But in this business it's kind of an occupational hazard." Yvonne opened her mouth to speak but Lauren silenced her again. "Which makes me think we should change our business. We make plenty of money from the legit side as it is. And since dad died I've cut back on all the seriously illegal stuff. It won't take much to complete the separation."
Yvonne was silent for a moment and then she smiled. "Wow. You really did know what I was going to say."
Lauren laughed. "Well, I figured you wouldn't want any more to do with the dodgy stuff now we've got a screw in the family."
Yvonne sobered. "D'you mean that?" she said. "About Karen being part of the family, I mean."
"Of course! I thought you said you and her were in it for the long haul?"
"We are," Yvonne assured her. "It's just...well, I suppose I didn't expect you to accept her so quickly. Like you said - she's a screw."
Lauren shook her head, smiling softly. "She's one of the good ones, mum. The only good screw I've ever met, actually. And she's obviously been good for you. Mum - I've never seen you as happy as you are with her."
Yvonne smiled slowly. "Really?"
"Really," Lauren assured her. "And besides - she's a bit of alright. For an older woman, I mean."
Yvonne laughed and threw a cushion at her. "Oi! She's the same age as me!"
Lauren caught the cushion easily and threw it back. "Exactly!"
A good-natured pillow fight ensued which Yvonne won, proving that she wasn't quite over the hill yet.
"So," Lauren said when she got her breath back. "Where is Karen today?"
"At home," Yvonne replied. "I told her I probably wouldn't see her until tonight."
"Because I'm here?"
"Well, yeah," Yvonne said.
Lauren smiled gently. "Actually, mum," she said. "I wouldn't mind having the house to myself for a while. You know what G-Wing's like, never a moment's peace. It'd be nice to be by myself for a bit."
"Is this your way of saying 'get out of my hair'?"
Lauren considered her response for a moment before finally saying: "Yes."
Yvonne laughed. "Okay then. I suppose I'll go and surprise my girlfriend."
Yvonne stopped on her way to Karen's flat to buy a very expensive bunch of flowers and a less than expensive box of Maltesers. Back when Karen had been in hospital Yvonne had showered her with expensive gifts, including chocolates - Belgian, Swiss, milk, plain, liqueur, soft-centre, hard-centre, you name it. Karen had been appreciative but Yvonne couldn't help but notice the almost orgasmic delight with which she had greeted Ross' gift of Maltesers. 'What can I say?' Karen had said. 'I'm common as muck.'
Yvonne had replied that Karen was one of a kind which had earned her a very nice kiss and the promise of more when Karen was better. Yvonne smiled at the memory as she parked her car on the corner of Karen's street, thinking she would sneak in and surprise her. Karen had given her a spare key while she was in hospital and hadn't asked for it back so Yvonne used it to quietly open the front door.
All thoughts of a romantic surprise were abandoned as soon as Yvonne got through the door. She could hear the sounds of a fight coming from the living room and suddenly an ear piercing female scream rent through the air. "Karen!" Yvonne shouted, dropping her gifts and bursting through the living room door, fists clenched, braced for a fight.
Karen looked up in shock as Yvonne flew through the door. "Yvonne? What the hell are you doing?"
Yvonne got her balance after a momentary pause and looked around. "It sounded like you were being murdered or something!" There was no-one but Karen in the room but there was something bloody and violent on the TV and a Playstation controller in Karen's hands. Yvonne pointed. "What," she said, "is that?"
Karen coloured slightly. "Um, Resident Evil?"
Yvonne raised an eyebrow. "Are you asking me?"
Karen grabbed the remote and turned the TV off, mercifully silencing the heavy-breathing zombies. "I thought you weren't coming round today. I was bored." She put on her most charming smile. Yvonne shook her head and went back out to the hall to retrieve her gifts.
"These were a bit more impressive before the stalks got all bent," Yvonne said, proffering the slightly battered flowers.
Karen accepted them with a sheepish smile. "Thank you," she said. "They're absolutely beautiful." Yvonne tried to stay grumpy but it proved to be impossible when Karen decided to show her appreciation with a gentle kiss.
"I saw you on the news earlier," Karen said as she disappeared into the kitchen to get a vase for the flowers.
"Just remember the camera adds ten pounds," Yvonne replied. Karen laughed.
"I think you're getting delusions of grandeur," she said. "'Thank you, no more questions!'"
"Well, if you're going to have delusions they may as well be good ones," Yvonne replied, sidling up behind her lover and slipping her arms round her waist.
"Mmmm..." Karen sighed as Yvonne kissed her cheek. "Not that I'm not ecstatic to see you," she said. "But what are you doing here? Lauren got off, didn't she?"
"Mmm hmm," Yvonne confirmed.
"So, she wanted some peace and quiet. That's the one thing you can't have smuggled onto G-Wing."
"Please, don't tell me anything else. I am in charge of that place, remember?" Karen placed the vase full of flowers on the countertop and turned in Yvonne's arms. "Did you ask her about tonight?"
"Yup. She doesn't fancy it. It's not good for her image to be seen with old fogies like us."
Karen smiled as she kissed Yvonne sweetly. "Darling," she whispered against her lips. "You don't look a day over twenty-one."
"Flattery'll get you everywhere," Yvonne replied, trailing her hand down Karen's side. Karen's breathing hitched as Yvonne's fingertips brushed against her breast.
"Think we can make it to the bedroom this time?" she said, with some effort.
Yvonne pulled back slightly and grinned. "Race you."
Yvonne lowered Karen carefully onto the bed, mindful of her recent injury which, despite a remarkably speedy recovery rate, hadn't quite healed. They hadn't been so careful with each other when Karen had first got out of the hospital - and they had paid for it in pain the next day. The lesson had well and truly been learnt.
"You're wearing too many clothes," Karen whispered, tugging at Yvonne's silk blouse.
Yvonne smiled as she reached down to hold Karen's hands in her own, stilling her movements. "Maybe we shouldn't..." she began hesitantly. "I don't want to hurt you-"
"I trust you," Karen interrupted.
Yvonne was silent for a moment. "Do you mean that?" she said seriously.
Only a month previously Karen had genuinely believed that Yvonne was setting her up in a plot to escape from Larkhall prison. Karen had been devastated while Yvonne was hurt that Karen didn't trust her enough to see that it wasn't true, despite their relationship. All that had been pushed to the side in the aftermath of the fire, what with Yvonne's unexpected release and Karen's injuries. But Karen's moment of mistrust had constantly been at the back of their minds. Yvonne understood what had prompted it...but it still hurt.
Karen reached out and pulled her lover closer. "I do," she promised.
Yvonne swallowed convulsively, her eyes pricking with unexpected tears.
"Hey," Karen said, wrapping her arms round Yvonne. "What did I say?"
"You said exactly the right thing," Yvonne managed to whisper.
Karen kissed the top of Yvonne's head as she held her lover, wisely keeping silent. She hadn't realised till now just how badly she had wounded Yvonne on the day of the fire. Yvonne had forgiven her, and she was grateful for that, but she was even more grateful that she had begun the process of healing that wound today.
"I love you," Yvonne whispered, wiping her eyes. Karen replied with an achingly gentle kiss.
Somehow they managed to divest themselves of clothing without breaking the contact and before they knew it their bodies were locked together. Yvonne remembered the harsh, desperate quality of their lovemaking just after Karen's release from the hospital. The urge to reconnect with each other after all that had happened had superseded all other concerns, even their injuries. They had been gentler with each other since then and Yvonne promised herself they would be just as gentle this time.
So when Karen suddenly rolled Yvonne onto her back and pinned her to the mattress Yvonne was more than a little surprised.
"What the-" she begun but Karen cut her off with a kiss.
"You always take over," she said gently. "I just want to make love to you."
Yvonne could see absolutely nothing wrong with that.
The sun was low in the sky when Karen stirred from a deeply satisfied sleep, many hours later. She yawned and stretched, though gently so as not to wake the woman sleeping beside her. She turned to Yvonne and smiled. Her lover really was beautiful in sleep - not that she wasn't beautiful all the time but when she was asleep she seemed younger, more carefree.
The last weak rays of the sun were shining on Yvonne's back as she lay face down, illuminating the burn scars she had suffered in the fire. Karen knew Yvonne was self-conscious about them, thinking they were ugly, but Karen couldn't have felt more differently. She remembered an ex-boyfriend had gotten a tattoo of her name once. He'd said it would be a permanent mark of their love. Karen hadn't been convinced, and she was right to be sceptical since they broke up about a week later. But Yvonne had got those scars helping to save Karen's life. She'd willingly put herself at risk because she loved Karen. Yvonne had got those scars for her. For her. They were a sign to Karen, better than a promise, better than a vow, better than some stupid tattoo, that Yvonne loved her and would do anything for her. Because of that, Karen couldn't help but feel that Yvonne's scars were the most beautiful part of her lover's body.
Karen reached out and stroked Yvonne's back gently, causing her to stir.
"Mmmph," she mumbled.
"Yvonne sweetheart? Time to wake up."
"Hmm..." was the response.
"We're meeting Cassie and Roisin in an hour," Karen prompted, grinning as Yvonne opened her eyes blearily.
"What?" she said, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
"Cassie? Roisin? An unforgettable night of fun? Ring any bells?"
"Come on, Yvonne, this was your idea. Now get up!" With that Karen flipped the duvet off Yvonne's body, exposing her naked form to the air.
"Okay, okay, I'm awake," Yvonne grumbled.
"What's the name of this place anyway?" Karen asked, getting up and rooting through her cupboard for some towels.
"Um...I think Cassie said it was called The Nick."
Karen stopped. "You aren't serious?" she said, raising an eyebrow. Yvonne shrugged.
"Cassie thought it was ironic."
Karen shook her head, amused, then threw Yvonne a towel. "You take the first shower."
Yvonne grinned evilly. "You know we could save time by showering together..."
"Uh uh," Karen said. "If we do that we'll never leave this house. Now go!"
Yvonne flashed Karen her most charming smile as she made her way to the bathroom.
Despite their cab driver's impeccable knowledge of every single short-cut and back street in London, Karen and Yvonne still managed to arrive twenty minutes late. Karen blamed Yvonne for this since every time Karen had finished applying her makeup Yvonne would kiss her, forcing her to do her lipstick all over again.
"We were about to send out the search party," called Cassie, spotting Karen and Yvonne at the end of the street.
"Oh come on, Cass," Roisin joined in the teasing. "We're lucky they dragged themselves out of bed at all."
"Ah, the joys of love," Cassie said, holding her hands over her heart.
Karen looked at Yvonne and winked before she turned to Cassie with a murderous look on her face. "Shut it, Tyler, or you'll be down the block faster than you can say 'on report'."
Cassie on Roisin stood frozen for a moment until Yvonne burst out laughing. "Will you two look at yourselves? Newsflash girls, this ain't Larkhall!"
Roisin snapped out of it first, smiling and reaching out to hug first Yvonne, then Karen. Cassie followed suit quickly.
"How are you Karen?" Roisin asked warmly. She'd had a soft spot for her former Wing Governor since she'd helped her get her children out of the clutches of her twisted mother-in-law.
"Not bad," Karen replied, smiling. "Thanks to the three of you."
"Hey, it's not like we didn't get a reward," Cassie chimed in. They'd been transferred to an Open Prison immediately following their release from Larkhall's hospital wing, and their official pardon had been confirmed just a week before.
"Ah yes, how's freedom treating you?" said Yvonne.
"It's bloody fantastic," Roisin replied. "But I bet I don't need to tell you that."
Yvonne grinned, slipping her hand into Karen's. "No, you don't."
Cassie nodded her head towards the door. "Shall we go in?" The other three nodded their assent and they entered the heat and noise of the pub. Cassie and Roisin went to the bar to get the first round in, leaving Yvonne and Karen to find a table.
"They look really good," Yvonne said, shouting slightly to be heard. The music was quite loud but not overwhelming - she had been worried it would be one of those places where you couldn't hear yourself think and you were practically deaf for three hours after leaving.
"Yeah," Karen replied. "Freedom suits them. Aha! I think I've spotted a table."
They settled down at one of the few free tables in the place and slung their coats over the backs of their chairs. Yvonne took the opportunity to scan the room, pleasantly surprised to discover a fair smattering of women her own age dotting the room. She had expected to find a bunch of girls Lauren's age out on the pull, but it seemed that this place had a nice varied clientele.
"Here we are girls," Cassie smiled as she put their drinks down in front of them.
"That was quick," Yvonne said, grabbing her glass.
"Good service," Cassie explained. She noticed Karen looking around with slightly wide eyes. "This your first time in a gay bar, Karen?"
Karen blushed slightly. "Uh, yes actually."
Cassie smiled indulgently. "I bet you've never seen so many lesbians in the same place, huh?"
"Not even in prison," Karen replied.
"Well, if it'll make you feel a bit less overwhelmed, I'll let you into a little secret," said Roisin. "Half these girls are straight."
"How can you tell," Yvonne scoffed.
"Easy," said Cassie. She pointed at the small dance floor on the other side of the room. "See those two?" she said, pointing at two girls who were slow dancing together, even though a fast song was playing. "They're gay."
"Obviously," Roisin added.
"Those two," Cassie continued, pointing at a couple who had their fingers entwined but were dancing several feet apart. "They're straight. Notice how they avoid letting any part of their bodies touch."
"And they're not looking at each other," Roisin piped up.
"Clearly straight," Cassie concluded.
Karen and Yvonne looked on, amused. "Well," said Yvonne. "Thanks for the education."
Several rounds of drinks later, which Cassie and Roisin had so far insisted on paying for, the four of them were significantly more loosened up. Karen had got over her initial discomfort and was enjoying the feeling of freedom, and the ability to kiss Yvonne any time she wanted without worrying about someone hassling them. Not that she would ever feel too worried with Yvonne around.
"So I said: 'Rearrange these words to form a sentence. Bitch, off, fuck.' And I slipped past her while she was trying to work out what I'd said."
Cassie laughed as she slipped an arm round Roisin's shoulders. "That's my girl," she said, kissing her cheek.
"Oh, what I wouldn't give to have seen Albert's face when she worked it out," Yvonne wheezed.
Karen was biting her lip in an effort not to laugh. "I think I'll go and get some more drinks," she said, standing. "Before I hear any more stories about the women in my charge."
"Get me a double babe!" Yvonne called as Karen walked away. Karen smiled to herself as she made her way to the bar. She was having fun. She was actually having fun. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had a girl's night out and she'd forgotten how much fun they were. She stood with her back leaning against the bar, surveying the crowd, picking out straight girls with relative ease. They were actually quite easy to spot, now that Cassie had shown her what to look for.
"What can I get you," came a voice from behind her. She turned round, ready to give her order.
Karen saw her own flash of recognition and shock mirrored in the other woman's eyes. They were both frozen to the spot and then they spoke together.
Helen Stewart stood rooted to the spot, staring at the very last person she would have expected to see, on this night, in this bar. Her mind involuntarily flashed back to the last time she had seen this woman - standing in her office, resignation letter in hand. She had been forced out of the prison service by Fenner, who had also been there, smirking his way through the entire meeting. Helen and Karen had not parted on the best of terms, largely due to Karen's relationship with Fenner and Helen's insistence that he was the king of all bastards.
"Uhm...fancy seeing you here," Helen said weakly, forcing a smile onto her face.
Karen laughed a little but stopped quickly. "Ditto," she said.
"You do realise what kind of place this is, right?" Helen asked uncertainly.
Karen managed a genuine smile this time. "Hmm, no men, girls dancing together, Melissa Etheridge on the sound system? I've a fair idea." Helen smiled nervously. "Do you...work here?" Karen continued.
"I own it," Helen replied. "Well, with my partner."
"Nikki?" Karen asked, watching the shock ripple over Helen's face.
"How did you know that?"
Karen shrugged. "The evil one," she said. "Fenner, that is."
Helen smiled, feeling like she had her footing back for the first time in the conversation. "You've seen the light then?"
"In more ways than one," Karen confirmed.
Helen smiled widely, pulling off her apron. "Jen," she said to the harried looking barmaid on her left. "Sorry, I'm taking off for a bit. Got to catch up with an old friend." She set the apron down behind the bar and slipped out to the other side. Then they were facing each other and it was as if all the bad feeling and bitterness had never happened. Suddenly they were just the good friends they had been before Fenner had spread his insidious poison into their relationship, along with everything else he came into contact with.
"God, Helen," Karen said, enfolding her old friend in a hug. "It's so good to see you."
"And you," Helen said sincerely, tightening the hug briefly and then releasing. She pulled back but kept hold of Karen's forearms. They lapsed into silence for a moment, not quite sure what to say to each other. Karen was the one who broke the silence.
"I'm sorry," she said. "For everything. You were right about Fenner."
"I know," Helen said cheekily, successfully putting Karen at ease. "And you did say you'd seen the light."
"Definitely," Karen confirmed. They sat down on a pair of barstools, facing each other.
"So," Helen said. "I take it you're here with a woman."
Karen froze for a fraction of a second then thought what the hell? "Yes," she confirmed.
"So you've really seen the light," Helen grinned. Karen nodded. "Anyone I know?" Helen continued.
Karen debated her answer for a moment, reasoning that if anyone were to understand her situation, it'd be Helen.
"Yes, actually," she said.
"Well?" Karen prompted when Karen made no move to elaborate.
"Let's just say that you're not the only Wing Governor to break the rules in the name of love," she said.
"Ex-prisoner," Karen amended. "Although she was still inside when we got together." She paused, watching Helen's mind work. "It's Yvonne," she said finally, putting Helen out of her misery.
"What the hell's keeping her? said Yvonne, craning her neck to look at the bar. She couldn't see Karen anywhere.
"She's probably been propositioned by some sweet young thing and run off," Cassie said, winking.
"Ha ha," Yvonne deadpanned.
"What are you worrying about, woman," Roisin scoffed. "She'll have gone to the bloody loo!"
Yvonne shrugged and tried to look less worried. She'd had to put up with Cassie's 'true love' speeches more than once that evening and she didn't feel like sitting through another.
"Anyway," Roisin said. "I'm glad we've got you to ourselves for a bit. We wanted to talk to you about a little idea we've had about what to do with the rest of our lives."
Yvonne leaned back in her chair, intrigued. "Fire away."
"Okay," Cassie said. "Remember on the Open Day when we were handing out those leaflets about mums in prison?" Yvonne nodded. Like she'd forget - that was the last thing that had been happening before the whole place blew up.
"And you said we should get it to a wider audience?" Roisin continued. Again, Yvonne nodded.
"Well," said Cassie, beginning to get excited. "We want to do just that."
"What Cassie means is we're planning on setting up some kind of organisation to bring the issue to the public's attention."
"And maybe to help mums and their kids while they're inside, and help them get started again when they get out."
"Like a charity."
"Or a pressure group."
The two of them finished their prepared speech, smiling widely. "So," Cassie said. "What do you think?"
"What do I think?" Yvonne repeated, pretending to consider the question. "Well..." she trailed off, taking in Cassie and Roisin's worried faces. "I think it's a bloody fantastic idea."
"Really?" said Roisin, relief pouring off her in waves.
"Of course I do, what did you think I'd say?" Yvonne replied, leaning down to fetch her handbag.
"We-" Cassie began, then shook her head. "Never mind. We just haven't discussed it with anyone else yet, and we were worried you might think it was stupid or something."
"Well, I don't," Yvonne replied. "Now, you'll be needing some money to get this off the ground." She pulled out her chequebook. "How does a hundred grand sound?"
Cassie and Roisin lapsed into a stunned silence. "Yvonne," Roisin choked when she found her voice. "We can't ask you-"
"You're not asking," Yvonne interrupted. "I'm offering," she continued as she filled in the figures on the cheque. "And besides," she said as she tore it off and handed it to them. "I can afford it."
Roisin took the cheque in trembling hands and the two of them stared at it as if it might disappear if they took their eyes off it.
"Signing your life away?" said a voice from behind them, a voice immediately recognisable to two of the table's occupants. Yvonne spun round.
"Nikki!" she yelled, leaping up and enveloping her old friend in a massive hug.
"Okay, steady on," Nikki laughed, wrapping her arms round Yvonne's waist.
"How the hell are you?" Yvonne exclaimed, pulling back and taking Nikki's face in her hands. "And what happened to those letters you were supposed to be sending me, eh?"
Nikki blushed a little as she laughed. "Sorry," she said. "Things were...well, a lot happened after I got out." She gestured around her. "I own this place, you know." A soft cough came from behind Nikki and she leaned back to put her arm round Helen's shoulders. "We own it, I mean," she said.
"Miss Stewart?" Yvonne said, not quite prepared to see two old faces in quick succession.
Helen laughed. "It's just Helen now, Yvonne," she assured her. "I ran into Karen at the bar and she told me you were here together."
"And Helen told me," Nikki finished. "I didn't believe at first actually. Whatever happened to the straighter than straight Yvonne Atkins I know and love?"
Yvonne laughed, shaking her head. "She fell madly in love with the chief screw."
Nikki smiled. "We always did have a lot in common."
The three of them stood there smiling at each other for a moment before Yvonne came back to her senses.
"Oh!" she said, suddenly remembering they weren't alone. "These are our friends, Roisin Connor and-"
"Cassie," Nikki finished for her.
Roisin, Helen, Yvonne and Karen who had just returned with a tray of drinks shot Nikki a puzzled look.
"Do you two know each other?" Roisin asked Cassie who looked a little uncomfortable.
"Uh...yeah," Cassie admitted, forcing a smile onto her face. "We went out together for a while a few years ago."
"More like twelve years ago," Nikki elaborated, turning to Helen. "Just before I met Trisha."
Karen frowned, doing some mental calculations. "Nikki!" she exclaimed when she worked it out. "You bloody cradle-snatcher!"
The tension was broken as the group burst into laughter. "Okay," Nikki said, sitting down. "Tell me what's been going on. And I want to know everything."
"And then that smarmy git Grayling came in and started making nice," Yvonne was saying. Helen smiled, thinking about the time she had met Grayling at a conference. Smarmy git was a very good description in her book. "And he says he'll fix it so I can get out."
"And what was the catch?" said Nikki, who knew the prison system too well to believe Grayling might have done it out of the kindness of his heart.
"Well, you probably read all about it in the papers," Yvonne said.
"Yup," Helen confirmed. "The three of you were the biggest popular heroes since Robin Hood."
Yvonne smiled. "Well, Grayling wanted me to use my popularity with the press to paint a nice rosy picture of Larkhall for him."
Nikki had just taken a sip of her drink and had to fight to avoid spitting it all over the table.
"Nikki?" Karen said, patting her on the back. "Are you all right?"
Nikki coughed and spluttered for a few more moments before she could speak. "Jesus Christ," she said. "Haven't you see the paper today Karen?"
Karen frowned. "No. Why?"
"Well, Yvonne's interview was printed. And let's just say it doesn't exactly paint a rosy picture." Yvonne was grinning evilly.
"Yvonne," Karen said, rounding on her girlfriend. "What did you tell them?"
"The truth," Yvonne said simply. "Every shady deal that went on, every corrupt screw, every nasty little home truth Grayling wouldn't want coming out. Oh," she added. "And speaking of Grayling coming out..."
Karen tried to be angry but Yvonne's last words had her in hysterics before she knew what was happening.
"You didn't," she wheezed.
"I did!" Yvonne confirmed. "And I told them all about Fenner running Virginia O'Kane's knocking shops, and about him and Dockley, and him and Rachel Hicks. And they were really interested in Bodybag's private canteen, not to mention the way she treated Maxi's body. Somehow I doubt you'll have to worry about those two when you get back to work."
"That's if I still have a job after all this," Karen pointed out.
"I wouldn't worry about that, love," said Yvonne. "I made sure you came out smelling like roses."
Karen shook her head, trying to take it all in. No more Fenner. No more Sylvia Hollamby. And oh, no more Fenner!
"Yvonne," Karen said slowly. "I could kiss you."
Yvonne laughed. "I'm not stopping you," she said.
The others looked on in quiet amusement as Karen did just that. When they hadn't parted several moments later Helen coughed loudly. "If you two don't stop that soon I might have to escort you from the premises," she said cheekily. "Or else just suggest that you get a room."
Karen and Yvonne separated bashfully. Helen took Karen's hand and dragged her to her feet. "I can see I'm going to have to separate you two," she said. "Come on. Let's go and have a dance. That is, as long as you don't mind me dancing with your girlfriend, Yvonne."
Yvonne smiled, grabbing hold of Nikki. "Only if I can dance with yours."
The four of them made their way to the dance floor, giggling happily.
"So," said Nikki as she and Yvonne began to dance. "You told us all about the fire and your heroic deeds. How about telling me when you decided to switch teams?"
"Ah," said Yvonne. "Well, that's a long story. It all began in the laundry..."
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