Before she went inside, Erica swore to herself that she wouldn’t allow life in prison to change her. Erica was a woman who liked to keep her word, but she wasn’t in orange for very long before she realized that she had made a promise to herself that she would not be able to keep.
In the past she had been fond of saying, “You can take the girl out of the south-side, but you can’t take the south-side out of the girl.” After joining Charlie’s team, it had become clear to Erica that while it was possible for a con to take off the orange, the weight of the jumpsuit remained on their shoulders.
Inside, you learned to guard what was yours. You learned to protect your people, protect your shit and watch your back. This wasn’t an altogether unfamiliar concept to Erica. Avenging her own was why she was inside after all. But for most of her life she’d had support. She’d had her father and her brother watching her back. Inside she only had herself. Inside she watched her front, she watched her back, she watched her flanks and she hit before she asked questions. Inside, if you came at her back, she hit, if you came at her front, she hit. Inside she hit for pretty much anything else as well. She kept her own council, and for the most part she kept to herself. After two months in orange, when the pretty red-head from two bunks down had entered the showers the same time as her and joined her under the same showerhead, Erica didn’t send her away, but she did go back to her bunk alone, and she didn’t spend any of her money buying perfume or scented lotion for her new ginger ‘friend’.
It wasn’t ideal, but she adjusted to life behind bars, and eventually it became her norm. She looked after herself, she kept others away from her bitch, she kept her bitch at arms length, she didn’t make promises, she didn’t owe anyone shit, and she stayed off of everyone’s radar as much as possible.
It was when she was on the outside that things got messy.
When she put on real clothes, breathed fresh air, drank coffee from a paper cup and ate with metal utensils … it made her feel like a person again. When the call came in, and the transport showed up for her, she suddenly had responsibilities again.
Ray and Charlie, Shae, Jules, even Lloyd, became people she was accountable to and for. She’d made a promise to Charlie and she was indebted to him for the chance he had given her to work down her sentence and for the opportunity he’d given her to see her daughter.
When she was outside, when she kissed Jules it wasn’t to facilitate getting off as soon as possible. When they had rare moments alone together, sometimes Erica wouldn’t even try for sex because it felt so good to just hold her.
The last time she had gone back to Maybelle with the scent of Jules on her fingers and the taste of her on her lips, Erica had talked to some of the other inmates voluntarily. She made deals and shook hands in order to secure enough funds to buy a pair of leather boots to replace the ones Jules had sacrificed to help catch the last con.
Erica broke almost all of her rules, and she should have been furious with herself for that, but when Jules had smiled at her and blushed before hugging her after Erica presented her with her gift, Erica hadn’t regretted a thing.
She had outside feelings and inside manners and she wasn’t sure if she would ever really be able to reconcile the two sides of her life. She was quick to act and slow to feel, and when she couldn’t deny her emotions to herself any longer she was even slower to admit to having them out loud. Her first instinct was still to hit first and talk never, and she had trouble not thinking in terms of what belonged to her and what didn’t … which was how she found herself in the small break-room beside Charlie’s office with her hand to Lloyd’s throat in the middle of their latest case.
“Listen to me,” Erica said, slapping Lloyd’s cheek warningly. “Look at me,” she demanded tapping him again until he lifted his eyes to meet hers. “You don’t touch her,” Erica continued when she had his full attention, jerking her thumb in the direction of office beyond the door. “You don’t touch her ever. When she dismisses you, you go … immediately. Your two cents are not of the utmost importance. You don’t follow her where I can’t see you,” she went on, her voice steady and calm though her eyes burned with intensity. “She’s mine. Understand that. Break my rules and I promise you pain will follow. Are we clear?”
Lloyd’s Adam’s apple moved against Erica’s hand as he swallowed nervously and his eyes darted away from her as he inclined his head slightly.
“Say we’re clear Lloyd. I want to hear it.”
“We’re clear,” Lloyd muttered, glancing up quickly to meet Erica’s gaze before hastily looking away again.
“Good,” Erica said loosening her hold and then stepping back.
Though she was no longer touching him her muscles were still tense, still coiled; still ready to launch an attack.
“Go,” she said tersely, motioning her head towards the door.
Lloyd had no great desire to be around her for any longer than necessary and left the room with haste. Once he was gone, Erica sighed and breathed in and out deeply, releasing a weary sigh before she leaned forward and rested her hands on the ledge of counter she’d had Lloyd pinned against a minute before.
She shouldn’t have done that.
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
Erica closed her eyes as Jules’s soft voice reached her ears.
“He was acting like a maladjusted creepo panty-sniffer, as usual, and it made you uncomfortable,” Erica responded without turning around.
“He’s harmless,” Jules said as she moved towards Erica.
“No convict is harmless,” Erica replied turning around. “Nobody gets twenty-five years for being an innocent, perfect little angel. He caused someone harm which is why he’s in prison. He’s not harmless, Jules. Don’t ever think he’s harmless.”
Jules was silent for a moment, considering Erica’s words and then inclined her head to acknowledge that she understood.
“He could get you in trouble,” Jules finally breathed out, instinctively reaching out to take Erica’s hand.
“He won’t tell,” Erica responded, allowing Jules to take her hand, and truth be told relieved that Jules still wanted to. “He might get in trouble too and Lloyd always looks out for Lloyd. The only thing he’s truly committed to is himself.”
Jules lowered her head and nodded before stepping closer to Erica, a soft, content sigh escaping from her throat a moment later when Erica pulled Jules against her body and wrapped her arms around her.
“That’s not really the point,” Jules murmured a few moments later as Erica buried her nose in her hair. “You can’t do things like that out here … and I’m not your property.”
“I know you’re not and I know I shouldn’t. It’s just hard sometimes. I’m not really out, not yet. I can’t get soft. When the bastard we’re looking for is caught, I’ve got to go back in there. Inside, that’s how you show you care. You hurt anyone who threatens what you care about or you lose it. You protect what matters to you.”
“Out here the threats make you lose things. This,” Jules said covering the hand Erica had on her stomach with her own, “is how I know you care. This is how you keep me.”
Erica nodded and pressed her lips to Jules’s temple.
“I’m trying,” Erica breathed out, squeezing Jules a little more tightly.
“I know,” Jules whispered, placing both of her hands over Erica’s on her stomach. “And …” Jules paused and blushed at the thoughts running through her head. She was getting better at asserting herself and expressing her feelings, but she was still learning and sometimes needed to gather her courage before she could speak, even with Erica. “I … I like that you want to protect me. I like that you can protect me. I just don’t want that to end up taking you away from me.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Erica promised. She’d make sure it didn’t. “What exactly do you mean by ‘like’?” she asked a few seconds later, a playful, naughty tone entering her voice as nuzzled Jules’ neck.
“Like,” Jules murmured shyly, though she was smiling widely.
“’Like’ like you like those little candy cinnamon hearts, or ‘like’ like you like it when my mouth is …”
“Erica!” Jules exclaimed, her face bright red with embarrassment though her chest was rising and falling quickly, giving away the arousal Erica’s words had inspired in her.
“What?” Erica asked teasingly, kissing Jules’ cheek. “You have no problem with me doing it, but I can’t talk about it?”
“You can talk about it,” Jules whispered, “I love the sound of your voice and … the things you say with it,” she continued, her voice dropping even lower as she admitted that she liked the dirty way Erica occasionally talked to her, “Just not when I can hear Lloyd explaining his Dirty Underwear Scheme to Ray in the next room.”
“Ugh,” Erica groaned making a face.
“Gross and unsanitary as his schemes may be, they’ve worked for him so far,” Jules remarked, even though she too wished that Lloyd wouldn’t share quite so many of his secrets of survival with them.
“You do what you gotta do,” Erica murmured shrugging, knowing that it was impressive for a guy like Lloyd to have avoided being turned out for so long.
She was lucky, she’d always been able to handle her shit and being in for murder gave her enough of a rep that women wouldn’t mess with her without cause – which she didn’t give – but she knew that being dirty was a small price to pay for being left alone, and that Lloyd did what he had to.
Jules squeezed Erica’s hands supportively and Erica took a shaky breath as warm, pleasant emotions the likes of which she had almost forgotten before meeting Jules washed over her.
“Are we okay?” Erica asked when she felt she was in control of her emotions again and could speak without tears escaping from her eyes.
“We’re okay,” Jules said, breaking the loose circle of Erica’s arms so that she could place a gentle kiss on her lips.
Erica sighed into the kiss in relief, and when that soft kiss broke, she drew Jules into another, more passionate one, immediately.
She had outside feelings and inside manners, and Erica didn’t know if she could reconcile the two, but she knew that she was going to keep trying.
She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t change before she’d gone inside. She hadn’t been able to keep that promise. Failure had always galled Erica in the past, but as she drew Jules into a hug and felt the blonde’s lips tenderly brush against her neck, Erica was happy that she had failed because in this case change was good. Change had brought love and hope into her life, and if she was very lucky, being with Jules would continue to change the both of them for the better.