cruiscin_lan: (it's like somebody slipped something int)
cruiscin_lan ([personal profile] cruiscin_lan) wrote2010-02-28 09:31 am

FIC: There is a Balm

Title: There is a Balm
Rating: PG-13
Pairings/Characters: Quinn/Rachel (slashgen)
Spoilers/Warnings: No spoilers, contains mature themes.
Disclaimer: I do not own Glee or any of its characters.
Summary: After a devastating civil war, a new republic is formed within the borders of what used to be the United States. In this new theocracy, Quinn Fabray and Rachel Berry are reunited under strange circumstances.  Based on the universe in Margaret Atwoods' The Handmaid's Tale, although it's not required reading for this fic.
A/N: Originally written for the gleefics exchange. Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] kathrynthegr8 and [livejournal.com profile] becca_radgg for the beta!
 
I

 
She hates wearing red.
 
In spite of all the ways her life has changed for the worse, for some reason it's the red that gets to her the most. It's a visual reminder - a striking one, at that - of the way things used to be. Red was one of the colors that represented McKinley High. She wore it as a cheerleader. She wore it as a member of the glee club. It represented something to be proud of.
 
Now she wears it as a symbol, a scarlet letter, of her role in society, an honorable role she'd earned - but never once has it felt that way.
 
Quinn Fabray is a handmaid.
 
Or, rather, the woman who used to be Quinn Fabray is a handmaid. Her name was erased when western Ohio was absorbed into the expanding republic. Now her name changes from one assignment to the next, even though her role as handmaid in each household is the same. Now that her second assignment is over - unsuccessful, as was her first - she's being moved to yet another household for another year of this strange servitude.
 
It's the first time in months she's even ridden in a car. Gas is rationed nowadays, and many cars have been scrapped to be recycled into tanks and other weapons of war, still taking place through much of Illinois and Kentucky. There are even some hold-outs in Columbus and Toledo supposedly, but the only news on the radio is news that's good for the republic, and Quinn knows they're not telling the whole story.
 
She rests her head in her gloved hand and leans against the window, peering outside. The landscape is eerily familiar. It's barren and burnt and smells of death and decay, but the lay of the land - the gentle slopes of the hills, the scars of old roads in the distance - is recognizable as what used to be part of Lima, Quinn's hometown.
 
She never thought she'd come back to this place. She thought, in fact, that this place had been thoroughly destroyed in battle. She wants to ask the guard where they're going, but speaking to men is forbidden, and so she sits up straight in her seat and folds her hands anxiously in her lap. She'll find out soon enough, as long as she's patient.

Patience is not only a virtue; it's a skill she learned in training.
 
They turn down a new road, one that didn't exist when she was growing up, and it leads to another, and then another. For a quarter of an hour they drive through these new streets, past buildings and shops whose names are represented pictorially on large wooden signs. This is because, in the new republic, most of the shopping is done by women, and none of the women are allowed to read.
 
Quinn glances at them all, trying to guess. A sign with a pig, a cow, a chicken must be the butcher shop; a picture of vegetables represents the farmer's market.
 
Another turn down another road, and they've gone from the shopping district into a more residential area. The car pulls up to one of the nicer homes in the neighborhood. It's not something that can be determined by expensive decor or size of the home, but rather by how much property it sits on - how far the house is from the street is a good indication - and by how well the lawn is maintained. It's an indication of status; the more land one has, the higher command they hold in the republic's forces, for example, and if it looks good too then they probably have an extra guard or two to help with the labor.
  
The guard from her previous assignment walks her to the door. It swings open before they even reach the front step; someone must have been keeping an eye out for them already. Quinn expects to see a servant or a housekeeper - usually an older woman, dressed in green - but she's shocked instead by who greets them.
 
It's the wife of the household, wearing blue, but that's only half the surprise. Quinn's gaze flickers up automatically, just for a moment, before she realizes her place and redirects her eyes toward the ground, but it only takes a moment to recognize her.
 
It's Rachel Berry, standing in the threshold squarely, as though trying to block Quinn's entrance. Her arms are crossed, and her foot taps impatiently on the linoleum as she addresses the guard. "You're half an hour late."
 
"All apologies, ma'am," he replies without inflection. He'd carried Quinn's bag to the door, a suitcase made of red carpet, and he drops it unceremoniously on the cement step beside her.
 
"You can go now," Rachel says to the guard curtly, and without so much as a gesture of farewell to either of the women, he's gone back down the walkway and disappeared into the car, driving away, never to be seen by them again.
 
Quinn's staring intently at the ground, waiting for a cue, an invitation.
 
"Well, come in then," Rachel finally says, as though she, too, had been waiting for a cue, but had decided to improvise out of impatience. She didn't have the same training Quinn did.
 
Quinn's chest tightens as she picks up her bag and steps into the foyer; Rachel releases the door and lets it slam shut behind her of its own accord. The first meeting between handmaid and wife has always been strange for Quinn, but this is a twist she hadn't been expecting, hadn't been prepared for in the least.
 
In all her sleepless nights of speculation about people she once knew, she never once imagined Rachel in this role. She liked to think everyone else had escaped in time, that only she was caught up in this strange new world; it was the only way to imagine "gender traitors" like the Hummel kid or her old friends Brittany or Santana might still be alive.
 
It was even more unnerving that Rachel was treating this meeting so nonchalantly. There was no indication at all that she even recognized Quinn - it made her seem robotic, alien, not at all like the Rachel she'd once known. She rocked nervously on her feet (heel-toe heel-toe heel-toe) and clutched the handles of her bag until her knuckles turned white, waiting for some spark of recognition, but Rachel's face was sullen and dark and serious.
 
"This is your second assignment?"
 
"Third," Quinn answers.
 
"Well," Rachel huffily replied, sinking into a plush chair in the nearby living room. "You may be relieved to know that my husband is currently at the battlefront, so until he returns, your time here won't count against you."
 
Quinn knows she shouldn't be grateful for a reprieve. "Yes, ma'am," she replies.
 
Just then one of the servants enters, taking Quinn's bag and beckoning her to follow. Rachel is still sitting in the living room, her chin cupped in the palm of her hand, and so Quinn follows the servant to her new room.
 
II

 
She's sitting on her bed, praying or meditating or perhaps just staring into space vacantly when there's a light tap at the door. The knob turns; the hinges creak slightly, and Rachel quietly steps in and shuts the door behind her. "Quinn," she says, by way of greeting.
 
It's the first time she's heard her name out loud in years. Years. If this was high school again, she'd have come back with "man hands" or "RuPaul" or the reliable "geek," but the instinct to snap back has long been dormant, and all that's left is her training. "Ma'am."
 
"Cut that out, Quinn, it's creepy coming from you," Rachel replies, her voice a harsh whisper. "You can call me Rachel."
 
Quinn doesn't dare lift her gaze to meet Rachel's. She's too afraid already. Maybe Rachel's a spy. Maybe Rachel's just trying to provoke her. And even if she's sincere, there might be someone waiting just on the other side of the door, listening. "But what if -"
 
"I sent them all out," Rachel interrupts. "They're running errands." Still, she steps lightly on the woven rug, and sits down beside Quinn on the edge of the mattress as quietly as possible. She repeats, "Call me Rachel."

Quinn's heart is racing for reasons she can't explain, not even to herself. She runs her tongue across her dry lips, mouthing the word as though she needs to practice the pronunciation. "Rachel," she says finally, and Rachel sets her hand on Quinn's in an encouraging way.
 
"I'm sorry I was cold when you first arrived," Rachel says. "If they knew that we've known each other before, they'd have never let this happen in the first place, and I didn't want to risk the guard's suspicion."
 
Quinn turns and bravely meets her eyes. "So you're not really a believer?" she asks, unable to mask her hope.
 
Rachel draws in a deep breath. "They gave Jews the choice to convert or be expelled to Israel. The first few ships that went out made it safely, but after that... It was convert or die." There's a lot missing from her explanation, but the gist of it isn't lost on Quinn. She squeezes Rachel's hand in comfort, or support, or something, and her mind wanders to Noah Puckerman, the Jew with whom she'd made a baby, and she wonders what might have happened to him when Rachel interrupts her thoughts again. "You're not a believer, are you?"
 
"A believer in what?" Quinn asks before she can censor herself.
 
Rachel lowers her voice. "This is your third assignment," she says gravely. "I know what'll happen to you if it doesn't work out."
 
But Quinn shakes her head. The possibility of failure, the consequences of failure, are too dire to even consider, and to protect herself she instinctively pushes the possibility to the back of her mind, where the thought can only haunt her when she sleeps. "It'll work out."
 
"I can help you," Rachel insists, putting her hand on Quinn's. The physical contact is electrifying. "Let me help you."
 
"It'll work out," Quinn repeats.
 
It'll work out is a painfully optimistic outlook, and both Quinn and Rachel know it. Rachel, knowing she's not going to convince Quinn yet, sighs and shakes her head. She leaves just as quietly as she entered, but she's left Quinn with a maelstrom of uncertainty and insecurity that she doesn't know how to handle.
 
III

 
The next day Quinn rises, bathes, dresses, and receives her shopping tokens and basket from the housekeeper without ever encountering Rachel.
 
She considers herself lucky. Whatever Rachel wanted to suggest was likely risky, and illegal, and the consequences of being caught are just as serious as the chances of being caught.
 
Every town, every assignment, it's the same routine. The handmaids walk in pairs, presumably for protection, but also to keep one another in check.
 
They walk side by side, rarely speaking. "Good weather today," Quinn says, just to hear something besides the tapping of their feet against the concrete sidewalk.
 
"Praise be to God," the other replies.
 
Quinn doesn't know how to respond to that, and she chews on her lip until they reach the shopping district. Neither of them have any items to purchase besides groceries, so they go first to the butcher's and then to pick up produce.
 
As they leave the produce shop, there's a clamoring outside that draws in Quinn's walking partner, so she follows. A crowd has gathered on the sidewalk, restless for reasons that Quinn can't determine, not from so far back, on the outside. She jostles a little, shoulder to shoulder with a blue-clad wife, who looks in Quinn's direction and sneers. It's an injury, sure, but it's also an opportunity, so Quinn leans forward and cranes her neck to catch a glimpse of the center of attention.
 
A handmaid, heavily pregnant, is climbing out of the car.
 
As the driver helps her to her feet, there's a small wave of polite applause. Some of those who've gathered around can't help themselves from gushing, including Quinn's walking partner. "Oh, God bless," she says, her eyes glistening with tears of joy. "Blessed be the fruit."
 
Quinn brings her hands together in two, three, four languid claps, but she can't hide her cynicism entirely. The world around them is polluted in so many ways, whether from imprudent agricultural practices or wafting in from faraway chemical warfare, and the chances of anyone delivering a healthy child are slim.
 
Children have become a commodity in this post-war world. That's really the only reason handmaids exist at all.
 
And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins.
 
This is what God had said to Jacob - Jacob who had two wives and two handmaids, and twelve sons and countless daughters between them. This was the precedent the legislators (all of them men) relied on when writing the roles of the modern-day handmaids into law. Of course, they had their own limits: each low-ranking citizen is allowed a wife, but no handmaid, and those of higher rank can apply for one handmaid, and one handmaid only, to help add children to a household in case their wives couldn't.

Maybe if she hadn't been knocked up in high school, Quinn could have been a wife instead of a handmaid.
  
It might have been better that way.
 
It might not have been.
 
IV

  
When given the choice between life and death, Rachel had chosen to live - but she hadn't taken into account just what kind of life she was choosing.
 
To the eyes of others - the handmaids, the servants, the men of society - Rachel appears to have it made. As the wife of an officer, she's purely decorative. She's not required to do the housework, outside of what she chooses to do. Since her husband's rank is high enough to merit a handmaid, she's not even expected to bear her own children. All she would have to do is raise those borne for her.
 
But to Rachel, it's maddening. She's not allowed to read, or write, or express herself. She can't leave the house unattended, and she barely knows the man she married. It wasn't her choice, after all.
 
The law states that the word of three women is equal to that of one man. It's no coincidence that most officers' households have four women.
 
The one thing she has left is her voice. In the beginning, it was her salvation. As a convert from Judaism, there was a good chance they would have made her a handmaid or worse, a jezebel, but someone had once heard her sing and decided that it would be a shame to waste such a beautiful gift from God. So she was quickly converted and married off to a man who, though he was well-respected and had accomplished a lot in the republic's military, was three times her age. While he oversees battles and plans strategies most of the time, Rachel sings hymns of praise at mass weddings and conversion ceremonies.
 
She sings almost well enough to convince herself of what she's singing, sometimes.
 
She can't recall exactly how she fell in with the resistance. It happened so swiftly, so subtly that she couldn't pinpoint the exact moment when she realized she could make her life worth living when she started saving others - not in the religious sense of the republic, but in the actual, physical "get the hell out of here" sort of way.
 
In reality, Lima is less than fifty miles from the republic's poorly stationed western border. To the south, it is less than one hundred. Not only that, but it isn't far from either Toledo or Columbus, and so many of the holdouts there find it a convenient place to stop en route to freedom. Rachel's home is one of several that formed a loosely-structured network - a modern-day underground railroad.
 
It's dangerous - if she's caught helping others escape the oppression of this new society, she could face imprisonment, or a slow death in the colonies. Still, she's managed to keep it secret even from members of her own household (or, if they know, they've turned a blind eye to it).
 
Her last handmaid had been a believer. Rachel didn't even broach the topic of escape to her, and it still sometimes causes pangs in her heart when she considers it. The woman had bought into the republic's lies, hook, line, and sinker, and Rachel was too afraid for her own safety to try to convince her otherwise. She'd been a lost cause.
 
But even though she was forbidden to read, she'd thumbed through the sheaf paperwork that preceded her next handmaid's arrival while her husband was away.  Even though the woman's name had been blotted out, removed, erased, Rachel recognized a bit of someone she used to know in the pages, and steeled herself to the possibility that her new handmaid might be that someone. If anyone suspected that they had a history, they'd be separated in no time, and Rachel was afraid that she might be Quinn's only hope of escape.
 
V

 
Quinn's room is small and barely furnished. There's a bed, there's a chair, there's a dresser, there's a rug. While there are homey touches (the rug is handwoven from rags) the environment still feels very sterile, very stoic. All the rough edges have literally been smoothed out; anything sharp, or anything that lends itself to the possibility of hanging, has been removed.
 
She's laying her mattress with her feet propped up on the chair, the thoughts in her head churning so violently that she doesn't notice Rachel's entrance. "May I sit down?" Rachel asks, and Quinn's suddenly on her feet and shaking with surprise. "I didn't mean to scare you," Rachel adds, and takes the chair without waiting for an answer.
 
Quinn's heart beats more rapidly, and her throat tightens. She can't explain why this happens - even if she knows it to be perfectly safe, meeting with Rachel like this makes her pulse pound in her ears. It's not that wives and handmaids are forbidden from interacting, but if they do it's not supposed to be clandestine like this. They should be meeting in the living room, the wife's domain, or at least in the kitchen, where the servants could act as silent arbiters. The fact that Rachel insists on meeting Quinn in her room means that something is going on, something inherently wrong that must remain a secret from everyone else.
 
"Listen," Rachel begins, her voice low. "My husband is most likely sterile. Most of the men that have been involved in the war are; they just can't admit it." In the Bible, it's always the women who are barren, and never the men. "There's no way you're going to get pregnant by him."
 
Quinn is afraid of where this conversation is leading. It's a catch-22 many handmaids have faced before. They conspire, on their own or with the help of collaborating wives or servants or guardians, to get pregnant any way possible. "I won't do it at the doctor's," Quinn stammers. "And I won't do it with anyone else. I've known handmaids that have done that, and if they get caught..."
 
"If they get caught they get sent to the colonies," Rachel finished her sentence, and added a bit of her own: "Just like you'll be if you don't fulfill your duty."
 
The emphasis on the word "duty" worries Quinn. She wrings her hands subconsciously, rubbing her knuckles with the pads of her thumbs. It's a habit she's developed over time; it looks like her hands are clasped in desperate prayer.
 
Rachel's voice is steady and solemn. "You need to escape."
 
The word escape - so strange to hear, such a relief. Quinn feels every tense muscle relax at the sound of that word, but the solace only lasts a moment."But what about you?" she asks. "Don't you want to leave, too?"
 
"You know what they do to anyone who's different? They call them heretics, or blasphemers, or gender traitors. There's so many that need help, Quinn. I can't go."
 
They're both silent. There's no way of telling how much time passes before Quinn reaches over, places her palm on Rachel's shoulder. It's a daring gesture - a gesture of support. "Then I'll stay with you," she says firmly. "I'll help you."
 
But Rachel shakes her head, her hair falling out of its tightly-wound style in wisps. "I have the position, the status, and a husband who's barely around to notice. I help people because I can, Quinn," she explains. "You don't have that advantage."
 
Quinn doesn't like what she's hearing. She shivers a little, averts her eyes, breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth. "I'm scared to go alone."
 
VI

 
Another day of shopping, another day of inane tasks, and suddenly it's interrupted by a radio report, blasting from the speakers in the store.
 
Usually these reports are biased in the republic's favor, enumerating all the ways in which the battles are successful, but this is different. Instead, this report has a different bent. It starts with a brief explanation of battle, and then announces the number of casualties.
 
It's a large number, and even though she doesn't agree with the republic or anything it does, Quinn feels her guts sink.
 
The report has had its intended effect.
 
Then, as though to rub salt in the wound, the voice on the radio then reads aloud the names of all those dead or missing in battle. Everyone in the shop pauses, some rocking gently back and forth on their feet (heel-toe heel-toe heel-toe) out of nerves.
 
When Quinn hears a name she recognizes, she cries out wordlessly. When she hears her own voice, she quickly covers her gaping mouth with her hand, trying not to draw attention to herself. It's too late, of course - everyone is staring at her, but for once they're looking at her without judgment but with sympathy instead.
 
Rachel's husband - Rachel's husband killed in battle.
 
She grabs her walking partner by the sleeve - she can't leave without her, after all - and drags her out of the store. "I have to get home," she says, her voice wavering, and thankfully the other handmaid requires no further explanation and simply follows.
 
There's already a black car at the curb outside the house. Quinn contemplates going to the front door, but she fears interrupting bad news already in progress, and goes around to the back. She knocks, but no one answers, so she lets herself in and sets her empty shopping basket on the table. The servants are lingering near the kitchen door, obviously eavesdropping, and although they've barely interacted before, one of them holds her finger to her mouth, warning Quinn to be quiet, while beckoning her with her other hand. Quinn tiptoes to the door, and listens intently.
 
The conversation is hushed, but the gist of it is clear.
 
"He fought bravely," a man's voice says. "It should be a comfort to you that he died for his country."
 
"We think it would be good for you to sing at his service," another interjects. "We can understand if you decline, but it would show your strength and continued support for the good of the town."
 
"I can sing," Rachel offers. "I can do it." There's a believable tinge of sadness in her voice. She sounds as though she's been crying, but Quinn can't really believe that Rachel would be this upset over the death of a man she barely knew, much less liked - she wonders if it's all for show.
 
"Excellent," the first man replies. "The service will be held on Wednesday. Following that, you will be relocated to widow's quarters, and your household members will be reallocated appropriately."
 
There's no response. Instead, there's a shuffling of footsteps and the creak of the front door. The three women hovering near the door exchange glances for a moment, waiting for some sort of cue, a hint of what to do next.
 
"You can come in," Rachel calls from the other room. "I know you're there."
 
They enter, blushing, with their hands folded in front of them and their gazes fixed on the floor. Quinn raises her eyes for a moment, trying to gauge the genuineness of her grief. There are tears on Rachel's cheeks, glistening in the sunlight that pours in askance between the curtains.
 
"Well, you heard them," Rachel says. "You should begin packing as soon as possible. I imagine they'll have your new assignments shortly." She wipes away her tears with the heel of her hand, sniffling.
 
Rachel is really, truly mourning. And it's convincing.
 
Only Quinn realizes it's because it's not her dead husband she's mourning for.
 
VII

 
Quinn is not sleeping; she's lying in bed, half-conscious, with her eyes closed and the covers drawn to her chin, her mind racing. She doesn't stir when the door to her room opens and a slice of light from the hallway invades. She steadies her breathing, fearing they might have come for her already, fearing she might be instantly whisked away to her next assignment without being afforded the chance to say goodbye.
 
"It's now or never."
 
When she recognizes Rachel's voice, her eyelids flutter open. "What is?" she asks, her voice raspy.
 
"We leave," Rachel says. She's dressed not in her nightclothes, but in a nondescript dark dress. She tosses an identical one to Quinn, who fails to catch it. It slides to the floor, but Rachel takes no notice. "We leave together. We need to get out of Lima before sunrise. If we reach the last border station as the guards switch duty, we might be able to cut a day or two off the walking distance."
 
It is not until that moment that the possibility of escape seems real to Quinn. Suddenly it's not so scary anymore, and her heart pounds as she rises from the bed as quietly as possible, hurriedly undressing and redressing. Rachel stands watch by the door.
 
Lima in the gray light of dawn is almost beautiful. The world is quiet, still asleep, and Rachel and Quinn tread lightly to keep from waking it. Rachel somehow knows the way, clasping Quinn's hand and leading her through adjoining yards and thick shrubbery until they reach the edge of the population center. From here it's barren, empty fields, with trees to break the wind lining acres and acres of the unusable farmland. It's to these trees that Rachel and Quinn cling to, hoping to escape notice. They're far enough from the major roads to go unseen in the shadows, and even up close their movement might be mistaken for that of wildlife. Still, they take no chances; they huddle and hide in the underbrush when necessary.
 
The stars fade into the sky as the morning sun burns away last night's fog. As the sun climbs higher into the sky, Quinn's skin starts to itch beneath the thick gabardine of her dress, and Rachel moves a little more frantically in the daytime, as though every movement is amplified by adrenaline. Rachel is worried; this is her plan, she's responsible for its outcome. Both of their fates now rest on her ability to navigate their way across the border. She hasn't spoken a word since they left the house, afraid to jinx their journey. They have so very little with them, and so very far to go. But Quinn almost doesn't care if they're caught; it's worth it for the thrill of escape, the sense of freedom that she hasn't felt in ages.
 
When night falls, the temperature drops.
 
They hold one another for warmth.


 

Readers, do you mind indulging me with this poll? I'm trying to decide whether I should continue using them.

Also, if you have any concrit (about anything, no matter how nitpicky) please feel welcome to leave a comment or PM me. Thanks!

[Poll #1531662]

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