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Always Tried To Be A Good Girl, But I Can't Really Say That That's True

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It's been four years since Tobit Beecher's worn anything but slip-ons, but within ten minutes of slipping her dusty Louboutins back on, they feel pretty much exactly like they used to: like armored extensions of her legs, deforming her stride, making her sway and strut. The coat-dress she wore in court for sentencing still fits, with maybe a scootch of extra room in the waist where her post-Holly gut used to be before Vee Schillinger bullied it off her, making her do crunches 'til she wanted to puke and kicking her gently in the side every time she felt like passing out. 'Cause None of MY gals put on weight, Vee used to boast, with her usual rumbly pride; I run 'em like soldiers, make 'em eat healthy, stay active; just have to mind me, and you'll leave here in better shape than the day you came in. Always said I'd take care of you, and wasn't that nice of me? Now...

(...say thanks, you high-toned junkie slut.)

And: oh, will do, ma'am. Will do.

It's so weird not to have Vee always hovering in the background anymore, telling her what to do, or not to. It's almost as weird as knowing she can leave the room anytime she wants, or that when she finally walks outside, she'll see the sky.

And Chris, Chris too, of course. It's weird to know she won't have to worry about Chris from now on, either...unless she wants to.

Giles meets her at the gate, smiling the exact same too-apologetic way she used to and treating her like she'll break if he presses too hard, like she's just been diagnosed with something fatal but they've agreed to pretend she hasn't. All of which makes her want to either punch him in the face, break down crying or maybe just have recklessly unprotected payback sex with him right there in the Oswald Maximum Correctional Institute parking lot—and since none of those are exactly great options, she does her level best to switch off, to redirect. Put herself elsewhere, the way she always did whenever she “had” to settle a debt the Sisterhood had incurred, something that couldn't be solved through mere application of violence or free legal consultation, or seal some other deal she ostensibly wasn't allowed to cut on the side; something done under the table, beyond the scope of Vee's authority to support or deny. It wasn't a lot of times, comparatively, she supposes...but then again, it might have been, by most people's standards. She's so used to reckoning things by Oz's sliding moral scale, at this point, it's become sort of difficult to tell.

Sister Peter Marie, from one of their last sessions: “What would you say is the single worst lesson you’ve learned in here, Tobit?”

Toby remembers pausing before answering, thinking it out. “That...all affection is conditional, just like all sex is transactional. Then again, I was a lawyer, so I guess I probably sort of knew that before—theoretically.”

“And now?

“Oh, it very much fucking is, Sister, on both counts; no question. Makes it just a little bit hard to say 'I love you,' from now on, with anything but irony.”

She remembers the Sister throwing her one of those looks, then, soft yet sharp, cutting through the rhetoric. “Even to your children?” she asked.

A shaky breath, followed by yet more silence. “…I don’t want to talk about that, thanks,” Toby remembers saying, at last. “Don’t even want to think about that, actually. Can we not, please?”

“All right, Tobit. You will have to talk about it to somebody, though. Eventually.”

And: Yeah, she might have replied, if the buzzer hadn't interrupted. But not you, from now on.

Not anymore.

***

It takes three hours to drive “home,” Giles's new place, the one she's never seen before. First thing she does is hug her kids as hard as she can without hurting them, second thing is take a bath, long and hot enough to feel like she's going to pass out. Third thing she does, an hour or two after, is palm a plastic knife from their celebration Thai dinner so she can start making a shank out of it, something small enough to slip inside an unpicked seam, something that'll go through a metal detector. Just in case.

“Do we have any plastic wrap?” she asks Giles, rooting around in the kitchen drawers; he smiles again at the question, happy to see her taking an interest in normal stuff, and hands it to her. She covers over the dishes, then pulls maybe four feet more of it to stow away in the bathroom, where she can use it to sculpt a cutting edge with: wind it tight 'round the blade in increments, cook those soft and black with Giles's lighter, then scrape it against the tiles until it'll saw—or punch—through flesh.

Better to have it than need it, that's what Vee would say, she thinks; Chris as well, given who she probably learned to make one from. Wondering why the fuck she should even vaguely care what either of those two bitches would say about...anything, for Christ's sake; given where she is, given—the situation. Given I'm out, I'm out, I'm finally fucking out.

Puts the kids to bed, Holly and Gary, so much larger than she remembers them; every time she looks around she finds them staring at her, like they just can't believe themselves she's really here, at long long last. Like they don't want to shut their eyes, even to sleep, for fear they'll wake up and find her gone again.

Then it's just her and Giles, getting ready for bed themselves. She kicks the shoes off, curls her toes in the carpet, unbuttons the front of the dress and shrugs it off, looking at herself in the vanity mirror: four years since she's worn a bra with underwire in it, either, for fairly obvious reasons. Squints a bit more and realizes she can see her own nipples through the lace, which in turn sets her wondering why she ever thought it was okay to go into court like this, let alone anywhere else. Why on earth it wouldn't have occurred to her when she picked them out that morning that if things went the exact wrong way, as they indeed turned out to do, then the very next place she'd be walking into wearing this ridiculous fucking excuse for a set of underwear would be Oz.

Walking in from the bathroom, Giles gives some weird sort of noise, making her look up—she meets his wide eyes, staring down, and it takes her a good long second to realize what it is he must be reacting to: the top of her up-thrust breast, silk-cradled and lace-trimmed, with its well-defined ridges of scar tissue and ink. Feels her hand fist in memory, Vee's fingers knit with hers throughout the whole procedure, folding Toby hard against her chest as though she was trying to synchronize their heartbeats together while that biker chick from Unit B ran her rig back and forth, back and forth, sponging the blood away with a cloth soaked in homebrew on almost every pass, so it wouldn't scab up more than it absolutely had to.

And: “Toby,” Giles asks, voice strained. “What...is that?”

Been a while since she's thought about it, really. But she quirks an eyebrow nevertheless, voice flattening, all dry disdain. Replying, with no particular emphasis: “Well, that...that would be the letter V, Giles; it was this or a swastika, so I think I chose fairly well. Any other questions?”

***

Next morning Toby comes awake at six, right before count, caught up in the same bad dream she's had every night for the last four years: waking, sleeping, whatever. Same one she woke up under Vee's bunk still crying from in those first few months, curled in and hugging herself, throat raw; same one she woke up still weeping hard about into Chris's shoulder three years later, hurting all over, like she'd been trying to crack the other woman open and bury herself inside. Nothing helped then, and nothing will help now, either—she closes her eyes only to find herself back behind the wheel, singing along to the radio, too pleasantly drunk to register that flash coming around the next corner 'til it actually hits her.

Because it just doesn't matter where Toby is, or with who—not Vee, not Chris, not Giles. She could go out, get drunk, pick up some random man or woman, cross state lines, sleep in a penthouse or the back of a fucking car; she'd still wake up to that horrifying screech and thump, Kent Rockwell's blue eyes staring vacant down at her through the glass, his completely avoidable death smearing itself across her windshield without leaving even a crack, any visible trace behind. Hear his mother's voice screaming yet once more in her ear, through the visiting room partition's receiver: I hope you die in here!

God knows, there's been times she wished she would too, since. But she's always known she'll never be that lucky.

And here's Sister Pete's voice come murmuring again, sympathetic yet practical, much like the psychiatrist-nun herself: What's done is done, Tobit—you can't ever take it back, so all you can do is learn to live with it. To pay the price, do your penance, then stop punishing yourself.

Ah, yes. 'Cause that's the system's job, right?

A beat. Supposedly, yes, Sister Pete eventually replied, looking down at her desk. A task best left to the professionals, one way or the other—because sometimes I think you actually sort of like punishing yourself a bit too much, for it to be anything like effective.

And: Oh Sister, Toby'd thought, at the time. You really do know me so well. At least as well as the other two had come to, over time; at least as well as Giles apparently never did, poor bastard...but whose fault is that, after all?

Mine, of course. Just like everything else.

Unable to get back to sleep, she gets up and showers instead, then stands in the kitchen making slice after slice of French toast, piling the result up on that silver platter her parents gave them for their five-year anniversary, covering it to keep it warm. She makes whipped cream from scratch and sprinkles cinnamon sugar on it, combines two types of berries in a bowl, sets out the maple syrup. By the time Giles finally wanders in, yawning and combing his hair with his fingers, she's already dishing out an equally huge plate of crispy-fried bacon. “Made you coffee,” she tells him, gesturing to the carafe steaming on the counter.

“Oh, hon, you didn't have to do that.”

“I know. I wanted to.”

“I get it, and it's wonderful—but it's wonderful just to have you home, you know that, right? And from now on, you don't have to do anything you don't want to, ever again.”

Rushing to assure her, arms warm as he folds her close, voice trembling slightly; Don't make promises you can't keep, she feels like saying, but doesn't. Replying, instead—lightly, as though it's a joke: “Sure, I understand. Aside from see my P.O. tomorrow, that is...”

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow; for as long as it takes, whatever it takes. Because she can't go back inside now, not after having done so much to get back out—has far too many people counting on her, for that. Her kids, Giles, her parents, Sister Pete. Wouldn't want to fuck Tim McManus's overall recidivism stats up any worse than they're fucked up already, would you, Beech?

Noooo, wouldn't want to do that. Not me, boss.

He goes to get Gary and Holly, leaving her alone again; Toby stands there looking out the back window into the yard as the sun comes up, vaguely wondering why everything out there—and in here too, to be frank—looks so amazingly colorless, so flat, so fake. Thinking: Maybe THIS isn't home either, any more than Oz was. Or maybe I just wouldn't know “home” if I saw it, either way.

Welcome to today's exciting episode of Let's Play Normal Theatre, starring Your Mom Who Doesn't Know How to Anymore! It's no Miss Sally's Schoolyard, but it'll do, in a pinch.

***

Slumped over in the quad next to the TV bank, her wrist in a sprain cast from that latest beat-down Simone Adebisi had laid on her for talking back, being a mother who'd killed another mother's kid, existing; that was where the meet-cute in question had happened, as Toby studied a family photo Giles had mailed her, a bare half-week in. She remembers squinting hard to overcome the loss of her glasses (broken over a discussion of where not to sit on Day Two, by nineteen-year-old gangstress Kendra “Brick-house” Wangler) and trying her level best to remember what being that smiling, bespectacled person had felt like, one arm hugging Holly to her and the other slung 'round Giles's own waist while Gary made a face, suitably horrified by his parents' icky PDA—way back when, in the good old days before she'd been a murderer, convicted or otherwise.

Former mob wife Dina Ortolani, supposedly her “sponsor” into McManus's vaunted Emerald City unit, had turned out to be the very first one to jump on the Fuck Beecher Up bandwagon. It started when she suddenly paused in the midst of giving Toby advice—keep your head down, wise up, stop fuckin' smiling—and narrowed her gorgeous black eyes slightly. Then said: “Hey, wait—Beecher. Ain't you that bitch ran over that other bitch's little boy?”

Caught off guard, Toby's immediate reaction had been to just...shrug, arms held out apologetically to either side and a ridiculous non-look of acknowledged guilt on her face, like: why yes, Mrs Ortolani, I would indeed be that bitch. After which Ortolani had waited until the hacks looked away, then stomach-punched her so hard she had to sit down quickly to avoid just folding over; Toby'd crouched there holding her abdomen with both hands, fascinated not just with the pain—she hadn't been punched since kindergarten, at least—but also by her own complete lack of surprise. I've been waiting for this, obviously, she remembers realizing; something subtextual yet there from the start, much like how the minute Judge Lima handed her sentence down, she'd immediately started wondering who amongst the next bunch of people she'd run into was likeliest to rape her first.

“Need to stay the fuck away from me from now on, kid-killer,” Ortolani told Toby, before walking away. And Toby'd just nodded, biting her lip, as she'd watched her go, thinking: No friends for me in here, not from now on; not for the whole next five to fifteen, probably. And just as well, I guess.

(Wasn't sure what she did or didn't deserve, really, at that point. But if coffee was for closers, friends definitely weren't for people too fucking arrogant to put other people's children's safety above their immediate, imperative “need” to get drunk and/or high.)

And: “Sweet,” a voice had commented from behind her as she studied Holly's bright face, low enough that for a moment, Toby almost couldn't figure out if it was female or not. “Your kid, I mean. She's what, five, six?”

“Seven,” Toby'd answered, not turning.

“That's a great age. Pretty little thing—all that blonde hair. Gets it from you, huh? I always wanted a daughter, somebody to dress up, like a doll, but all I got is boys.” Then, tapping a finger on the photo, grazing Gary's head: “Mmm, and one of each, too. That's lucky.”

Toby nodded. “The classic family model, yeah. It's like we were intelligently designed.”

“Almost the same age, looks like—a year's difference?” Another nod. “Irish twins, my Old Man'd call it.”

“I'm...not Irish.”

“Nope, you're all Anglo-Saxon, aren't ya, counsellor? Which is good. Makes it easier to figure out where to pledge.”

That last part, baffling as it initially seemed, was enough to make Toby finally look up. The person behind her turned out to be an older woman with pale, narrow eyes—grey from some angles, blue from others, much the same way Toby's could seem almost yellow in a certain shade of light—and a mock-mild smile, built like a middle-aged Valkyrie; she had her slightly greying sandy hair cut in what looked like a sort of an angled bob, layered and brushed straight back with her bang-tips brushing her collar. What Toby would figure out later on was that Vee usually wore it in a short pony-tail to reveal her skull's shaven sides, along with the easily-hidden scalp tattoos marking her out as Aryan Sisterhood—something to save for the second date, definitely, especially with anyone she'd assumed might be a particularly skittish customer. Prison-cut blackwork turned bluish with age, slightly keloided, much like the White Power sigil between her shoulderblades, or the lightning bolts underneath her collarbones: a blood drop cross behind her left ear, discreet but distinct, plus the Futhark rune Uruz behind her right.

She'd probably chosen the latter because it could be seen as corresponding to “V”, even though that was one of the letters Futhark didn't really cover; it actually meant dross, or rain, or an aurochs, depending on which system you went with. Toby found the last potential interpretation the funniest, not that she'd ever tell Vee that—yeah, you basically labelled yourself forever as a prehistoric giant cow, no big deal. The aurochs is proud and has great horns/It is a very savage beast, a roamer of the moors/It is a creature of mettle...

“Do I...know you?” she'd asked, slowly, fearing the worst; that their paths might have crossed during a drunk, for example, or that she might have handled—mis-handled—a case of Vee's during the first years after she passed the bar, her brief flirtation with criminal law, before to deciding to specialize in corporate contract negotiations. To which Vee had simply shaken her head, assuring her: “Nope, I heard you comin' in, with Ortolani; you're pretty loud when you're tryin' to make a good impression, might want to work on that.”

“My husband's shrink says it's social anxiety,” Toby offered.

“Huh. Take anything for it?”

“Booze, mainly. Up 'til now.” A pause. “But I guess that's going to change.”

To which Vee basically just nodded, like: Guess so. Then cast a pointed look at the empty chair at Toby's elbow, eyebrow raised, waiting patiently for Toby to give her consent before ankling it out and sitting down; for somebody who'd barely graduated high school, she was good at this stuff, as Toby would later be forced to admit. “So...you never been inside before, I bet, not even to visit, am I right? Yeah, 'course I am. And here we are in max security, about as far away from Club Fed as you get; must have you feelin' pretty vulnerable, law degree or not.”

“If you're looking for a consultation, I feel it's only fair to warn you I've been disbarred, miss...”

“Mrs. And I know all about that, counsellor; not a lot of secrets, in this place. No, I'm just doin' welcome wagon duty, before you start parking yourself in wrong place and racking up demerit points. 'Cause gangs aside, it's really the hacks you have to be careful about; they're the goddamn worst, believe you me. Take any excuse do a cavity search, then plant shit on you just so they can get you alone, which is when one thing does tend to lead to another. Bastards treat this place like a singles bar, at the best of times; catch their eye and they'll violate you for fun, lit and fig.”

“I'd heard that.”

“Yeah? Well, it's all true. 'Specially the niggers.”

“...excuse me, what?

“You heard me. Sweetpea.”

Later on, Toby remembers Jill Robson boasting about how Vee once fought a (black, male) hack hand-to-hand, trapped between contact doors—only lasted maybe three minutes, during which he broke her nose and blacked both her eyes, but she'd eventually managed to get him in a choke-hold after he bounced his stick off the wall trying to crack her skull, disarming himself accidentally; they'd wrestled back and forth 'til the SORT team separated them, him trying to smash her free against first one door, then the other, while she just held on grimly and wound his radio's cord around his neck. Tapped by Brotherhood sources, the Klan had apparently sent her a good enough lawyer to stop her from being slapped with felony assault afterwards and get her only six more months added in on top of her original bid, mainly by painting her as an institutionalized victim and the guard as a system-jacking abuser. Because there were obviously more than a few Separatism-minded people out there who remembered her late husband, Mr Arlen Schillinger—martyr for his own Self-Segregationist Cause, which was now Vee's—almost as fondly as she did; nice to have people looking out for you on that level, Toby could only assume, even if it was just on the basis of mere shared prejudices.

Then again, at least Vee'd known better than to even try and steer her own defence, even in her original trial—aggravated assault in the first degree, eight years, possibility of parole in five. Which definitely put her ahead of Toby in the I Got Fucked By The Legal System (And It Was My Own Damn Fault) sweepstakes.

Anyhow: It's a good story, and Toby thinks it's as likely to be true as not, from what she's observed of Vee since; she's certainly always been quick enough to knock fellow cons down and stomp on them for infractions as simple as looking at her (or Toby) wrong, even palm a shank from somebody else and perforate anybody who really got in her way, make sure they were in no condition to give conflicting testimony, then use her own weapon as a drop piece. Must be pretty hard to fingerprint prison blades overall, or Vee'd still be in jail.

Which she isn't, not anymore—out there somewhere walking around, instead, with her boys. Probably not getting into trouble, at least not yet, in and between recruiting for the RaHoWa; trying not to, anyways. Trying to stay out for just as long as she can, before her own nature inevitably betrays her, and sends her orbiting on back to Oz.

I did that, Toby knows, whenever she lets herself think about it; unleashed the widow Schillinger back on an unsuspecting populace, let her walk free, even with all I know about her—what I've seen done, what I've helped cover up, what I've allowed to happen. What I've colluded with, inside and out.

As if she could ever have really chosen not to, though, and had any chance at all of walking away free herself—free to come back to Giles, to the kids, to anything even slightly resembling “real” life. As if.

***

When she went to McManus to ask him to let her transfer to Vee's pod from Adebisi's, the man had stared at her outright. “You do know who Vee Schillinger is, right, Beecher?”

“The first person in Em City who hasn't tried to knock me down and steal my phone card number, at least not yet?” Toby'd shot back. “Yeah, I know. But it's not like I have a whole lot of other applicants promising to keep me safe, let alone teach me how to keep myself safe.” Unable to quite keep from continuing on, with a tiny flare of spite: “For damn sure haven't been much help with that yourself, in actual fact, thus far.”

It was easy to make McManus color up simply by pointing out where he fell down on the job, she'd already found, given how often he did. On the one hand, the guy was juggling so many different plates, it was amazing he remembered to zip up after bathroom breaks; on the other, his standards for good behavior did seem pretty fucking skewed half the time, considering the parameters he was already operating within. But whenever you pressed him on it his first impulse was always to get pissy, and today was no exception: “Yeah, well, can't exactly expect people to give you the benefit of the doubt around here, considering—I mean, they all know what you did, and half of 'em have kids themselves. You're never gonna be popular.”

Without thinking: “I have kids too. And it was an accident.

“A shoot-your-gun-off-into-a-crowd type 'accident,' uh huh—get Sister Pete to explain why that really doesn't let you out of shit, next time you two have a heart to heart. At any rate: okay, I'll put it through, but no take-backsies; she and her neo-Nazi sewing circle happen to do something offends your delicate sensibilities, you're still on your own for at least the first six months. 'Cause I'm not a fucking travel agent, you get that, Beecher?”

“Duly gotten, sir.”

“Fine. Then clear the hell out of my office.”

Walking out, she'd spent maybe a second wondering if McManus really thought she was being manipulated rather than choosing which way to jump, if he was really so gender presentation-blinded he actually couldn't see she was walking right into this...arrangement with coldly open eyes, like any other of the many fine marriages she'd brokered between two equally sociopathic corporations. How after so many days of constant panic, adrenaline sparking every time someone looked her way—of wondering when getting beaten up was inevitably going to escalate into getting screwed with the nearest handy object, then beaten up again for good measure—it had actually been a positive relief to finally be moved on, especially by somebody who said they didn't like to share. Toby didn't want to be shared, so that seemed like it should work out well, except in certain situations.

Thus it was that the very next morning, when Wangler furled her lip at Toby at breakfast and sneered: “You the Aryans' bitch now, huh, lawyer?” Toby was able to reply, with a cool approximation of hauteur and barely a backwards glance at Vee, who she nevertheless knew must be watching her newest acquisition's attempt to posture with both arms crossed and head cocked, from the comfort of a favored seat amongst her converts: “One Aryan's bitch, yes. Maybe you know her.” And see the depth-charge go off in the kid's eyes, same way she'd seen a weird ripple go 'round the card-tables a few days earlier, after crazy old Bertha Rebadow had beckoned her to come sit down next to her and Gussie Hill—who'd immediately flipped her dreads back, given her wheels a spin to re-angle herself, then asked Beecher: “They put you in with Adebisi, right; big African bitch with the shaved head, blacker'n me, doin' her best to look like a man?” Adding, when Beecher nodded: “She show you that Pringles tube she packin' down them draws yet, or what?”

Second night in, it turned out, on that one—right after she'd stolen Toby's watch, but before she'd turned her Walkman on high and stretched out for the night, assuring Beecher: I won't be focking you tonight, leetle feesh-belly; wahnt you to theenk about eet a good long time, first. Which maybe might've formed a sort of pattern for Simone, one Vee was well aware of; like any other predator, Beecher could only assume she probably tracked her competition's hunting methodology pretty closely, if only to avoid fighting over the same piece of meat. Like those rhetorical flourishes Toby'd so admired during their initial conversation, the interruptions followed by elaboration which tricked even an initially uninterested listener into wanting to participate, it was all part of Vee's arsenal—something Beecher, as a fellow career bullshit artist, found distressingly easy to admire.

Back to Vee during that first pitch session, then, laying a hand on her bad arm, heavy yet gentle. Observing: “Looks like everybody in here's got a crack in already, huh? That sucks. Why don't you fight back?”

“Not exactly my area of expertise. Besides which, what they all think I've done? I did it. So maybe...it's justice.”

Another shrug. “Of a sort, sure. And I think you do feel guilty, way I hear you cryin' every night, through the wall.” She gestured, connecting the dots, and Beecher realized Vee's pod was basically right next door, which she supposed made a creepy sort of sense. “But that's why you need to get the hell outta there, not to mention start learnin' how to defend yourself and quick, so you can live to re-brand.”

Toby looked down again, that sarcastic little cat-sneeze laugh Giles always claimed he thought was cute tearing out of her, before she even had a chance to try and suppress it. “Oh, that's catchy. You say that to all the girls?”

My girls? Bet your ass.” As Beecher shot her the skeptical side-eye: “Still, what d'you think you are to Adebisi, right now, exactly? Furniture she's revving up to get high and fuck sometime soon, that's what. You good with that?”

“Not particularly, but...oh, waaaaait. This is just because you don't want a front-row view of some white chick getting turned out by some big black stud.”

Vee huffed. “Wouldn't be able to call myself much of an Aryan, I approved of that happening, Right now, though, what I need is more in the order of free legal advice—and you're qualified for that, right? Went to Harvard and everything.”

“I'm a corporate litigator...was. I've never done appeals.”

“Yeah, well, you're better than nothing.”

Beecher turned, gave her a long stare, trying to reckon her sincerity. “Is the advice for you?” she asked, finally, to which Vee shook her head, explaining: “Naw, it's for one of my kids. Not out there; my prison kids.”

Another nod: “Right, right—your gang, your click. So...is that what I'd end up as, if I say yes? Or is it more like you're the Dad, looking for a brand-new Mommy?”

Vee drew herself up, full-size. “No Dad in my family,” she said, voice dipping even lower. “Dad's dead. That would've been Mr Schillinger, murdered six years back, by cowards who didn't like what he preached—or what I do.”

“Which is?”

“Consanguinity, counsellor. Blood, that's the most important thing, inside or out. You make your family where you can find it, and the closer the blood, the closer the trust.”

“That...actually makes a lot of sense, give or take the whole Hitler Was Right thing.”

A grim smile. “Yeah, well, there's a reason we recruit in jails. Anyhow, in my family, I'm the Mom, and you—you're whatever you want to be, basically, 'long as you agree to help my gals out.”

Seemed too good to be true and probably was, so Toby opened her mouth to object again, then closed it: what the fuck was she objecting to, after all? She already knew what would happen if she went back to Adebisi's, and this would be—well, fuck, it wasn't like she really knew, on the scale of goddamn bad indeed to potentially even worse. But if nothing else, she was fairly sure it'd at the very least be different.

In that moment, under Vee's deceptively clear gaze, she knew she'd already made the choice which would dictate the rest of her sentence. So: “...well, okay, then,” she replied, at last. “Why the fuck not?”

***

So now I pay you back, right? Toby found herself whispering from the bottom bunk that night when the lights snapped off, only to feel Vee shake her head instead, assuring her—as though giving her an easy out—

People are gonna assume it's happening either way, but up to you, I guess.

I dated a girl before once, at Harvard, Beecher offered, but Vee didn't seem too impressed. Oh, uh huh? she replied. That's nice. Whatever you 'n' me do together if we do it, though, you can take it from me—it ain't gonna be like DATING.

Toby remembered flushing, feeling ridiculous; she turned on her side, trying her level best not to feel rejected. Said, after a minute: I know. I just...all I'm saying is, considering the show I put on for McManus today, what makes you think I care what people think of me?

Vee chuckled. Observing: That was really true, counsellor, I don't think you'd've turned out to be a drunk... Then concluding, after a long pause: ...but hell, I'm only human.

It was a smart way to play it, Toby eventually figured out, long after it was way too late to make any difference. But then, Vee liked to make you think things had been your own idea all along, if she could; she wasn't as good at it as Rhea O'Reilly overall, or even as Chris, but in the latter case you could certainly see where Chris might've gotten her first lessons about lying as a way of life.

Vee liked to talk, for sure—liked the sound of her own voice, even though Toby could only assume most of what she preached probably came straight from the late lamented Mr. S's lectures. And maybe it made her feel closer to him to parrot his words, given how persuasive she could be with them, but part of their arrangement from the start had been that Toby'd made it fairly clear she wasn't ever going to consider herself an Aryan per se, except genetically; not her business, as she too often had to reiterate to other Sisterhood members, Robson in particular. Yet Vee didn't argue, so long as Toby agreed not to contradict her in public.

Then again, in Oz, almost everything was done publicly, down to and including Beecher and Vee's nightly “business.” It stopped bothering her sooner than she'd ever expected it to; sheer gratitude splash-over from no longer having to worry about poachers, or handily replacing one addiction with another, the kind that wasn't as likely to gut her allowance or fuck with her chances of getting parole as letting her anxiety build up until she was “forced” to get big-ass drunk on 100-proof hooch made from stolen cafeteria fruit and vegetables. Not to mention that the dynamics were...well, a modicum of performative dominance/submission sometimes took the sting out of things, oddly enough, especially when played through with someone who didn't mind all too much if you sometimes marked your limits by biting them, since—on some very basic level—they kind of liked the pain.

“Who did your hair?” Giles asked her, during their first contact visit, studying that ridiculously elaborate coif of French braids Vee had wrestled Toby's blonde mop into; “My cellmate,” Toby remembers replying, watching him closely. And: “Oh, well...she's good,” was all he could apparently come up with, after a moment. “It looks...you look good, Toby. Really.”

“Not drinking must agree with me,” Toby agreed, nodding. Biting back all the other things she could have said instead at the same time, like: Yeah, she IS good, isn't she? Wouldn't think so, considering she runs the local Neo-Nazi faction. Anyhow, she likes to dress me up like a doll because she never had a daughter, and she knows I have kids but I think she doesn't consider me a fit mother, given I ran over somebody else's child when I was drunk, let alone a real live adult. Also we fuck almost every night and all the people around us get to watch, because the walls in Em City are made out of plexiglass, for some insane reason...

Anyway, how are you, baby? How's Gary? How's Holly? Give them my love.

So many things she still doesn't want to tell Giles, even now, or any of the rest of her family. Like: "Yeah, basically the two people I got to know best inside Oz were a woman who literally thinks black people are a different species and her friend, who she willed me to like a freaking piece of jewelry after she got parole before I did—this girl Chris, who's sort of like Aileen Wuornos, the sexy version..."

"...that doesn't sound so bad," she can almost hear her father saying faintly, and feels her stomach lurch. Knowing she would have to answer, if she was anything like honest: "No, Dad—just wait."

Vee never really did give up on her fixation with Toby's hair, either—made for a nice stress reliever when they were sitting around in the quad, she supposes, something for Vee to play with while Toby used her thigh for a back-rest and studied other people's parole applications, as well as under other circumstances: combing it, re-sectioning it, carding it with one iron-fingered hand like a cat kneading bread. Using it for reins in their pod at night, a nice little extra method of control, knotting it 'round her fist so tight Toby's eyes started to sting: You gonna do what I tell you, sweetpea, or not? Think you can back-talk me just 'cause we're alone?

Like anywhere in Oz was really private, for Christ's sake, or for more than five minutes at a stretch. Like anything they “had” couldn't be randomly taken away at any given fucking time, for no very apparent fucking reason.

You know what I need, Toby would snarl, mid-wrangle, knees burning, so give it to me, already! And Vee would just laugh, less annoyed than amused by her mainly performative rage, her truncated toddler spasms of acting out, no matter how much she might enjoy punishing them. Replying: Yeah, I guess I do by now, at that. You contrary little shyster bitch.

Mommy Vee, with her strong-pumped arms and her strangely comforting embrace, her flattish breasts a far softer place to land than most, even when she finished up the hug by sticking her tongue in Toby's mouth and grabbing her by the pussy, making a weird little lioness's growl. Prison Click Mentorship 101 with a side order of White Power cant, gently threatening cunnilingus and extremely well-practiced finger- to fist-fucking, none of it very optional at all—the funny part being, of course, that it was Toby who kept on not only initiating those third and fourth options but also driving that aspect of it, in most cases. Because she needed something to make her feel alive and alert, some sort of punishment to feed the guilt monster and get her straight enough to plead cases, to work with the Legal Aid Project first on behalf of Vee's “kids,” then on behalf of Vee herself, so she could get back to her actual progeny. Because, as Vee so often said: I don't wanna start a race riot in HERE, you morons—I wanna get back out THERE, and help win a race WAR.

(Toby face-down between Vee's legs with Vee's head between hers, rotating her first three fingers inside Vee while frisking the hood over her berry-red button between two knuckles of her other hand, feeling for the g-spot like she was picking a lock; Vee sticking both thumbs inside Toby and pulling horizontally, laughing through her nose as she watched her interior lips open wide, give a series of wet, swollen pulses, blooming like a rose made from meat. Letting the overflow drip down into Toby's ass-crack before licking it clean over and over, bottom to top and deeper each time, like a mother cat cleaning some particularly dirty kitten—what an honest-to-God SLUT you are, counsellor, she liked to announce, to no one in specific, the wider Toby gaped or the harder she whined for punishment: Christ, just stick it in and TWIST it, Verena! Give me bruises, bite me, make it fucking HURT—

You'd like that, huh? So everybody knows you're mine?

...yes, uh, YES...

Slapping her tattooed breast hard enough to make it sting, then, blush even redder than the rest of her: Like this isn't enough, all on its own? Shit, you're greedy. To which Toby'd just snap back, panting: 'Rich girl,' remember? So take it out on me, you White Trash bitch, just for the satisfaction of feeling Vee's teeth on her clit, sucking like she aimed to pull it out at the root.)

I picked a bad bitch that day, turns out, Vee'd murmur into the back of her neck, on more than one occasion. And that's fine with me, you just keep to your place; less work on MY plate, lookin' after you. Which sounded suspiciously gangsta to Toby, not that she was about to point that out.

Work hard, play hard—that was another of Vee's mottos. She knew enough about history to believe devoutly that the Vikings had done the same, and better yet, her years inside had taught her she didn't need to alleviate whatever feelings of helplessness she might be wrestling with internally by making somebody else feel helpless, especially the person she was sharing a pod with. There was more than enough potential combat to go around.

The ugly truth was, it was Toby—more often than not—demanding that Vee give her orders and set her rules, then enforce them, to both their satisfaction. While Vee just huffed and said: Man, you remind me of this friend I had back in the day, Sasha Ross—that hooker would fuck anything that moved and most things that don't. Kind of born whore who'd flash you her snatch for a hello, then tell me I had ten minutes to get my hand out of her pants. And you a stuck-up little Harvard girl, too, cupcake; Ivy League education really did YOU right, from what I can see.

And: So just pull back out, you don't like the result, Toby would spit, mainly to get her skull rapped, hard enough to make her weak eyes cross. While Vee would grunt, by way of reply: Think you're getting off THAT easy? Bitch, please.

But: We all got our fetishes, baby, Chris Keller would tell her, later on. And shit if that wasn't true, as Toby already well fucking knew already, by that point.