I saw empressmarina's AU challenge list. Challenge accepted.
Can work for both Pioneer and Through Their Fingers. Set in the universe of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.
At first, the only thing Jack knows about the new Handmaid is that she's shorter than the last one. The previous Ofmartin had been almost six foot tall and thin as a reed, and that may have been why she'd been sent away. This new one is about five foot two, and much curvier from what he can tell. Her dress is pretty shapeless, of course, but it doesn't stop him looking. There aren't many ways for a low-status male to get his kicks these days.
He finds out more as the days go by and he completes his work around the Master's house. He learns that the Wife is no happier with this girl than she had been with the last one, he hears her venting about it to her husband almost every evening. She thinks the girl has ideas above her station and regards her with contempt. Jack likes her already.
Her eyes are blue.
Ice-blue, and so sharp they feel like they're physically piercing him when she looks into his eyes.
Or maybe he just feels like that because she's not supposed to look at him directly, or any man in fact, and it's been so long since anyone has looked him in the eye.
And yet, here she is. She's waiting on the side of the street to meet her shopping partner, (Ofrichard, as if it matters) and Jack is coming around the side of the house to wash the windows at the front, and she looks up and their eyes meet.
He can't move, just stands there with his bucket and squeegee. He's so used to being in the background, to having people just ignore his existence, that being the subject of her scrutiny just pins him in place.
Then she smiles, and he feels himself melt. It's a small smile, no teeth, just a quick upturn of the corners of her mouth and it's gone within a moment. But it's so risky to be smiling at a man full stop that he can't help himself, he smiles back.
Ofrichard calls to her across the street, and she's gone. But he feels the smile tugging at his heart while he goes about his work for the rest of the day.
He sees her from time to time. She's confined to the house except for when she goes shopping with Ofrichard, and the Wife keeps her on a short leash even in the house. She spends most of her time in her room, and he catches sight of her lying on her bed staring at the ceiling or looking out the window with her head resting on her hands.
Once, while replacing some tiles on the roof, he sees her on the patio with the Wife, doing some sort of aerobic exercise while the Wife barks orders at her. The look on her face is murderous, so it's a good thing she's not facing the Wife.
Replacing the roof tiles takes a few days, and he's on the roof until it gets dark. One night he comes down the ladder and she's at the open window.
The red robes are gone, she's dressed in a thin white nightgown and nothing else. Her head is covered by that ridiculous white habit at all times, so seeing her hair for the first time is shocking. It's a riot of bright red curls, a joyful shout of colour.
He can't help it, the sight of her bare shoulders and unbound hair sends a spike of lust straight through him. Even the slight rise and fall of her chest as she breathes is unbearably sensual.
She turns her head suddenly because she's realized she's being watched, and for a moment they just stare at each other. Most Handmaids fret when they feel a man's gaze on them, not least because they could be accused of tempting the man and adultery is punishable by scourging, but she doesn't seem bothered. She doesn't even attempt to cover herself up, or retreat into her room.
He tests her; he smiles and holds her gaze. She smiles back, a proper sunny grin this time, and he feels an odd sense of victory.
But then her demeanour changes, she gets flustered and tries to wave him away. Confused, he shrugs his shoulders. Frowning, she leans further out the window and whispers some words to him. He can't hear her so he moves to the very edge of the ladder and gestures to his ear.
"Fuck off, someone's coming!" she hisses at him.
He practically slides down the ladder as her bedroom door opens and one of the Marthas enters with a tray. He hears the Martha scold her for being so undressed, and laughs quietly to himself.
He thinks about her all the time. Life in Gilead for a low-status man is boring, and he has to occupy his thoughts with something. He was a very young child when the United States fell and Gilead rose to take its place but he can remember reading books with his mother, seeing movies, watching TV, talking to girls on the street. All of these things are forbidden to him now, there is only work and sleep and long stretches of nothing in between.
He's allowed to move around with relative freedom though, which is something Ofmartin doesn't have. She seems young, probably straight out of the Red Center into the Master's household, and before that she was probably raised in one of the state orphanages because girls from high status families don't become Handmaids. That said, she could have been taken from a high-status family if her parents had committed treason. Either way, it was likely unpleasant.
He prefers not to think of her and the Master. What he knows of the ceremony he knows simply from word of mouth and from seeing pregnant handmaids on the street with proud Wives escorting them, displaying them like trophies. That's why she's in the house, that's her purpose. She's here to get pregnant with the Master's child.
Sleeping with the Master is not an attractive prospect; he's severely overweight and has an odd smell around him all the time. The Wife isn't much better, and Ofmartin is expected to have intimate contact with them both while trying to get pregnant.
Jack frequently thanks the Lord that he wasn't born female.
They find ways to communicate.
She's forbidden to read or write, but she's capable of both. She is permitted to sew, and since she spends most of her time cooped up in her room she sews constantly. She cuts scraps of cloth and sews messages into the folded scraps, securing them with holding threads he has to cut to read the message. These she puts under a prised-open slat in the wall beside her window and he collects them when he washes the window.
Mostly the messages are short, and they're usually statements about her state of mind.
There's butter in all the food here. They put butter in the tea!
Ofrichard is a simpering fool.
He writes back to her using paper he salvages from the garbage and burned-out matchsticks. He wants to make her laugh, to ease the monotony of her life just a little.
The Wife ran into a friend and her knocked-up Handmaid today. She was smiling, but you could tell she wanted to claw her eyes out.
One of the Marthas mistook salt for sugar when she gave the Master his coffee. Did you hear him yelling?
I'd be a simpering fool too if I had to listen to her Master's speeches in person.
She gets the messages at night when everyone else is safely in bed; he watches from the roof of his flat, to see her reaction. He thinks she knows he's watching her, because she always leaves her habit off when she's at the window now.
She's been there for three months when he hears a knock on the door of his flat in the middle of the night. He assumes it's a Martha looking for him to fix an emergency plumbing issue, so when he sees her on his doorstep he just stares at her, thinking it's a dream.
She huffs and looks around nervously, and he realises she's actually here.
"Well, can I come in or no'?" she asks.
Speechless, he holds the door open and ushers her in. She's in her nightgown with a wool blanket around her shoulders, barefoot with her hair unbound. If someone was to walk in, they would both be in big trouble.
So for her to take this risk, something must be very wrong.
"What's going on? Are you okay?" he asks her. These are the first real words he's ever spoken to her.
"Oh yes, I'm just fine and dandy," she answers in a singsong lilting accent he has never heard before, even on TV. "That's the problem."
He realises that she's shaking.
"It's been three months. I'm not pregnant. And I'm not going to get pregnant."
"Um, well…" he begins, unsure of how to react to that. "Have they brought you to the doctor….?"
"Problem's not on my end, I'm healthy as a bloody horse," she bites out. "It's him. He hasn't seen his own cock in years, how am I supposed to get it in with a veil over me head? Even if he's not sterile, there's no way he's getting any babies the way he does it."
He feels awful for her. The Handmaids are under so much pressure and it's unlikely any of them really enjoy doing their duty with the Masters, but Ofmartin's situation seems even worse than most. If she doesn't conceive, all the blame will rest with her.
"I'm sorry," he says, because it's all he can think of to say.
"Don't be sorry yet. I'm here because you can help me."
It takes a moment for him to grasp her meaning, but when he does he's horrified.
"No, no…" he starts. "If they catch us…."
"It was the Wife's idea," she tells him. "She's desperate. I'm their fifth Handmaid and still no baby. She doesn't even know we've been talking, she just said I should go to you because you're fit and healthy. Can't argue with that logic."
He's still horrified, because he's walked past the bodies hanging from the government buildings, and he's seen the televised executions, but now he's also morbidly excited. It would take a long time for a man like him to rise to the level that could give him a woman of his own, and this one is throwing herself at him. If she doesn't get pregnant, she'll be passed on to another family and another Handmaid will take her place. He'll never see her again.
"And…the Master really can't get the job done?" he asks, just to be sure.
She smiles, and it's slightly predatory.
"Nope. I'm as pure as the day I left the Red Center."
With that she drops the blanket and pulls the nightgown over her head, and really, it would take a much stronger man to refuse her.
They do it twice, rest for a while, and do it twice more. At first it's as awkward as one could expect from two people who have hardly touched another person's naked skin before, and he's ashamed when he doesn't last long. But by the third attempt they've gotten comfortable with each other and gotten a rhythm going.
They trade stories between the sex. She tells him about the Red Center and shows him the scars on her feet she'd been given by the Aunts for insubordination. He tells her about his widowed mother becoming a man's Econowife and being sent away the day after they married to work for the Master at just ten years old.
He asks about her accent and wishes he hadn't. She tells him about how her family had been tourists from some faraway land she couldn't remember the name of when the United States fell. They were stuck in the new Gilead for a long time while her father tried to secure the means to get them out, and they were preparing to leave shortly before her sixth birthday when her paperwork went missing, or perhaps was stolen. Her parents were forced out of the country but she was taken away from them at the airport. She was raised at the state orphanage until she was old enough to enter the Red Center.
He learns her real name, the only thing she can remember. Merida.
They have sex twice more before she leaves. Within days the news filters through the house to him that she's pregnant.
As she becomes more visibly pregnant, the Wife parades her around in front of her friends. The Master hangs around her more too, the viable proof of his virility. Both of them touch her all the time, a hand on her thickening belly or an arm slung around her shoulders. Jack wants to march over and rip their hands off of her.
Now, things are so different. Before she'd been remote, a fixture of the house as much as the roof and the pipes he was always fixing. Now he knows her voice, he knows the feel of her skin under his fingertips, he hears her little sighs and moans when he's lying in bed alone. He's too close, and seeing anyone else touch her makes him furious.
And that's his child growing inside her. Once she's had the baby, his baby, it'll be taken from her except when it needs feeding, and as soon as the baby is old enough Ofmartin (Merida) will be sent away to become Ofwilliam or Ofgregory and to bear another child that'll be take away from her.
He can't let that happen.
Finding the resistance is hard, but not impossible. As a man he's free to roam about as long as he doesn't approach any women and knows his place, and he's always been good at ferreting out information by eavesdropping. It takes three days of wandering around and asking double-edged questions before he gets a lead.
The source gives him a number of options for escaping Gilead, all of them risky. He could try to cross the border into Canada or Mexico, or he could take a seafaring route on a fishing boat with a hefty bribe. But when he mentions he wants to take a pregnant girl with him, the source tells him in no uncertain terms that it's impossible, that no-one with an interest in helping him would even consider trying to smuggle out one of Gilead's most precious commodities.
He starts saving anyway. The Master is careless with his inventory, so he takes spare valuables when he sees them. Tinned food, alcohol, jewellery that he knows the Wife won't miss. Credit slips, whenever he finds a spare one. He's still mostly invisible in the household so they never notice.
By the time he thinks they're ready to go, Merida is five months pregnant and it's impossible to disguise.
They decide to take the sea route because it's the most remote, lots of wilderness between the city and the boat. They leave on the day of a Salvaging, in the chaos of the executions Merida manages to slip away. She's almost caught by an Aunt but she wrestles her to the ground and knocks her out, the Aunt being too mindful of her pregnant belly to tackle her properly.
Their source, although he thinks Jack is crazy even attempting to get a Handmaid out of Gilead, picks them both up in a disguised Angels truck and drives them as far as the next state over. The word is out now that she's missing, they hear it over the radio. They're dropped off at the outskirts of a forest with a map and a compass, carrying their smuggled goods on their backs.
It's peaceful and pleasant, even in the worst of weather. Merida has a strange instinct for the outdoors and builds excellent lean-tos for shelter, and is happy wading through the rivers and streams catching fish. Jack plots their course and climbs the trees looking for helicopters, and is delighted to see there are none on the horizon.
She sleeps in his arms at night, curled protectively around her bump. He saves the best of their food for her, to keep her going as they trudge to the border from dawn till dusk. When the snow begins to fall, he takes off his own coat to throw over her.
They live for a month like this, and by the end of it she can't keep pace with him anymore. She's seven months gone now, and exhausted.
They are picked up by contacts of their source and whisked away on horseback, of all things, through a hard mountain trail. There's a panicky moment when a squadron of Angels set up a checkpoint at the end of the trail, but there's a cliff on the other side of the trail and while Jack and the contacts go through the checkpoint, one of the men straps Merida to himself and abseils down the side of the cliff. Jack is pale and shaking the whole time she's gone from his side, and the relief he feels when she meets him again on the coast nearly makes him faint.
Gilead disappears from view like a bad dream. Once they're on the fishing boat and they've paid their bribes, they are transferred to a merchant ship, and then an English Navy boat. That's where they discover that Merida's accent is Scottish, and she is in fact a Scottish citizen. The sailors are enraged that Gilead had held her captive and swear to see her safely home.
They find her family astonishingly fast, so fast that they're waiting for her when the ship pulls into Edinburgh port. It's hard to mistake her parents as anything but, she has her father's colours on her mother's features. Her mother cries out when she sees her, a cry that's a mix of joy and anguish. Their eyes see everything at once, their ragged clothes, their hollow cheeks, her swollen belly.
Her father scoops her up as though she weighs nothing, her mother kisses her face, and for the most part Merida just accepts it with an air of bewilderment. She barely knows these people, and the rush of love radiating from them is almost terrifying after Gilead's emotional desert.
Jack stands away from them, content to bask in their happiness.
She's expecting twins, which would have made her a saint in Gilead.
It's all over the newspapers within days. The inner workings of Gilead had been a closely kept secret, but Jack and Merida are happy to blow it wide open. Merida's mother gives a heart-rending interview that goes into painful detail about how they wrenched her daughter from her arms and carried her away screaming, and bundled them onto the plane away from her at gunpoint. She'd resisted going to the papers at the time for fear the state would take their anger out on her daughter.
The world seems to turn on Gilead then; sanctions are raised by their previous allies and there are reports of inner turmoil from within.
At first, Merida's parents can't bear to talk about her condition, until Merida snaps and tells them that Jack is the father. Jack has been repeating his invisible routine in their house until he can figure out what to do with his life, but once she's said it all eyes are on him.
"Is this true?" her mother asks, aghast.
"Um, I'm afraid so," he answers.
"I asked him to," Merida tells her, ignoring her father's mortified groan. "The Master wasn't getting the job done, so I had to look elsewhere. Jack obliged."
"Merida, please don't talk like that!" her mother admonished.
"Talk like what? It's the truth! And if he hadn't done it, they would have sent me off to some other Master until I got knocked up. I'd still be there now!"
She can't storm off the way she'd like to, so she has to settle for awkwardly waddling away muttering obscenities under her breath. Jack wants to leave the table too, but he's got a full cup of coffee in front of him and he still feels like someone will take it away from him if he leaves it alone for too long. He feels that way about almost everything.
She sneaks into his bed at night, most nights. Sometimes it's because she's lonely, sometimes the kicking keeps her up and she feels they should suffer together. Sometimes it's for awkwardly-positioned-but-incredibly –satisfying sex.
Her parents come around to the idea that they can't be separated now. In their own way, and though they'll never say it beyond the cursory thanks, they are immensely grateful to him for bringing her back. They're footing the therapy bills for both of them and they aren't trying to get him to leave any time soon.
After she's gone into labour and delivered two healthy little girls, he proposes to her in the hospital ward and she accepts, but he makes plans to ask again in case her acceptance was just the drugs talking. He goes home and tells her parents, and is surprised when they happily accept him as their son-in-law. Their only stipulation is that they live in the manor with her family. He's slightly worried about the influence Merida's three hell-raising brothers will have on his little daughters, but the feeling passes.
He's just eighteen, she's seventeen, and the future stretches ahead of them, long and hopeful and full of promise.