Sometimes Laurel wonders what her father would make of this new world. She thinks he got out, somehow, thinks he used a not insignificant amount of his staggering personal wealth to seek asylum in Cuba, the tables now ironically reversed and all the lazy, capitalist Americans fleeing across the straits to the socialist worker’s paradise. She hopes so. She may not like her father, maybe think he’s about a half step away from a monster, but Laurel loves him nonetheless, still, loves him even more now in the brave new world that somehow sprang up overnight, that crept up on them so slowly she didn’t notice until it was far too late, frogs in the pot.
Still though, she hopes her father made it out. The last she heard he was making a run for it, tried to convince her to come with him. He was always preternaturally good at sensing when the danger was coming, the direction it would come from, slip the noose just as it began to tighten. Laurel never had that skill, always waited that extra beat too long. She was shit at kickboxing, she was shit at getting the hell out of dodge.
But the one thing she’s always been good at, and she’s fairly certain she has her father to thank for that too, is surviving. She may not be able to avoid the hit, may not even have the strength to counterpunch, but she’s a damn good hand at making it out alive, at surviving to fight another day. Sometimes she wonders what her father would say about that, the things she’s had to do to survive this place, this nightmare world.
She imagines sometimes, imagines the kiss he’d place along her temple, imagine his rough whisper in her ear as he did, in Spanish of course, because fuck these gringos who think they’re saving the world, who think they’re serving their lord. I’m proud of you mija, she imagines he’d tell her because he started telling her that as soon as he sensed the first signs of danger, like he could feel in his bones the place where things were headed, sense the rumblings of the earth. I’m proud of you. You have seen all this before, righteous thugs with guns making demands of you. You survived them once, you will survive them again.
She imagines he doesn’t know the truth of course, the horrible truth, that this is far more than the wholesale kidnapping of an entire gender, an entire country. But even in her imaginings she can’t, won’t tell her father the truth. She can barely face it in her own mind. She had thought the kidnapping at sixteen was the worst thing that could happen to her, had just clenched her jaw and prepared for more of the same when the Eyes took her. It hadn’t been the same. She’d been foolish and naïve, underestimating these sniveling, terrified little men, the things they would do in the name of their god, the things they would do to never feel powerless again.
Laurel sometimes wonders if there’s some kind of objectivity to the world, if slavery is always worse than rape, if murdering someone is always worse than mutilating them. She has a lot of time to wonder now, a lot of time to sink down into the dark corners of her mind and contemplate the broken bits, sit there with split fingers and superglue, trying to fit things back together. Once she might’ve bought that line, that some crimes are objectively worse than others. Now she knows the truth, that each is horrible in its own way, each builds upon the last, growing and growing like a snowball, that each crime committed by these tiny, cowardly men with righteousness on their tongues a crime that can never be undone, be rectified.
Some wounds will never be healed.
She’s not sure, even if everything went back to the way it was, even if this was all just some horrible dream, whether she could even go back to life, to something approaching normalcy. Or, well, what normalcy was, once, back before. There’s a new normal now, one that still fits strangely around her shoulders, clothes just a fraction too tight. She’d feel strange now, she thinks, in any color other than red, feel strange to flip the worn edges of the pages of a book through her fingers, feel its old, solid weight in her hands, strange to type out an email, strange to see a coffee shop much less go into one alone. And that’s just the simple things, the little things. She’s not sure the big things would ever come back to her, that they wouldn’t forever feel like sandpaper against her skin, like an itch at the back of her neck she just couldn’t scratch. The idea of fucking anyone ever again, of wanting to, sends a shiver of nausea up her spine, the very thought of going back into a courthouse, of trying to argue the law, trying to argue for something like justice makes her shake with something cold and sharp like grief.
Laurel just doesn’t think she could do it, isn't sure she’d even want to try. Which is fine, because she’s never going to get the chance to find out. She expects some of the others probably think this is all just some strange, brief dream, that it’ll all be over soon, these fanatics ground into dust before everything goes back to the way it was before. The girls who think that, she suspects darkly, are all anglos, all girls who have lived in what was once the States their whole lives, their parents too, and grandparents. They’re all girls who no longer have the institutional, the genetic memory of the terrible things that can happen when men with guns in their hands and faith in their hearts decide they want to make a better world.
All empires fall of course, and this one will be no different, whether in a year or five or fifty or five hundred. All empires fall. Its what comes after for the people who survive the fall that Laurel cares about. She’s survived one fall, she intends to survive another if she can. And she intends to survive what comes after, whatever strange new empire is crafted in the place of this one, god’s glorious kingdom on a hill, if she’s so lucky as to outlast it.
She rather suspects she won’t be, the problem being that Americans, or the people that were Americans before they were told they were citizens of Gilead instead, for all their talk of fierce independence, of rugged individualism and whatever else they got taught in school, secretly trust in institutions, in the people in power who tell them everything is fine, everything is alright.
Yes, they had two civil wars, because technically, Laurel supposes, rebelling against England was a civil war, and now they’ve gone and had a third, and there was some ninety years between the first two and nearly double that before the third and Laurel isn’t too optimistic that this time the union, as it were, will prevail.
And what the hell can they rebel against anyway. They have no fucking weapons, they don’t even have any fucking pencils half of them, aren’t even allowed to socialize outside the watchful eyes of, well, the Eyes, beyond the sight of guards and mistresses and the other handmaids who want nothing more than to show that they’re loyal, that they’re good, that there’s nothing fucking to see here. No one wants to lose a hand, an eye, no one wants to be strung up from city hall and left to rot in the sun and everyone is willing to backstab and betray to avoid it. And Laurel, Laurel’s not so sure anymore it wouldn’t just be easier. Because this, this is no way to live.
But its life, isn’t it, and she’s still not entirely convinced death would be preferable, not entirely convinced its not the coward’s way out and she can still hear her father's voice, low and deadly in her ear telling her that she’s his daughter and she’s strong and she’s a survivor and she’s made it through worse. She tells herself these men are cruel, these men are full of righteousness and their god’s terrible love but they are still just little boys playing soldiers, playing at being king. They are still men just like all other men. And Laurel, well, Laurel’s met men and she’s met true monsters, may even be a monster herself, and she’s survived them, survived them all. She will survive this too.
Starting to get a lil bit of plot now...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
She’s not Laurel now, of course, not to anyone else at least. She’s Ofsam, which is a fucking stupid name if anyone’s asking, which they’re not. The believers never realize how ridiculous they look, how ridiculous they are with their perfect divine certainty. Ofsam. She’d hate it even if it wasn’t so fucking discordant. She’d hate it because she’s not a person anymore, she’s an object, a thing, like a fucking lamp. Sam’s laptop, Sam’s car, Sam’s sex slave. Even the goddamn dogs get real names. But not her. She’s not a fucking person anymore.
Even Bonnie gets to keep her name, Bonnie the Martha who cooks and cleans and glowers at Laurel like her entire existence is an affront. Which, Laurel thinks, it might be, Bonnie half in love with their master, Commander Keating, and half in love with Annalise, his wife, their mistress. So no matter how Laurel skins it, Bonnie hates her. Bonnie who kept the name she was born with, Bonnie with her scowl and her soft hands and her sharp tongue. Bonnie who can’t quite decide where her loyalties lie, because she can’t have it both ways, can’t choose both Sam and Annalise, not in this strange terrible world where its every single man, woman and child for themselves, struggling for life, for freedom, for any little crumb of power they can grasp.
She wants to tell Bonnie its not her fault, that she never chose this, never wanted it. She doesn’t want to be raped every month, doesn’t want to have Sam’s thin little prick shoved inside her as she lies against Annalise’s thighs, Annalise’s fingers tightening around her wrist with every thrust until she leaves bruises along her skin. Laurel still hasn’t figured out whether Annalise does it to keep her in place, keep her from fleeing or out of her own frustrated rage, to keep herself from screaming.
She’s figured out the lot of them, figured out how to survive in this brave new world, but she hasn’t figured out Annalise yet.
She wants to assure Bonnie, wants to promise Annalise that she didn’t choose this, never would’ve made the choice to be a handmaid, a sex slave, that its not her fault she’s here. She doesn’t mean to betray them, doesn’t mean to rub it in their faces every month, because she thinks that’s what Bonnie thinks, that she’s rubbing it in her face, that she’s a handmaid, that she’s fertile, that Commander Keating slips his skinny little cock inside her and flails until he comes and Bonnie will never even be allowed to touch him. She doesn’t mean to be a constant thorn in Annalise’s side, doesn’t want to be a constant reminder of the things she wants most, the things she can’t have, the perfect life she has that’s nothing more than a disguise, wallpapering over the holes, the rot.
She doesn’t know what good that’d do, but she wants to tell them anyway. Except its not quite that easy, because she didn’t choose it, that much is true, but she won’t give it up, not without a fight. She’s a fucking handmaid now and it’s the only thing still keeping her alive and she’s not going to get dragged off to the dead zones. No, Laurel Castillo, because that’s who she is, that’s who she will be until her last goddamn breath, not Ofsam, or Ofpatrick before that, Laurel goddamn Castillo is a survivor. She survived her mom, survived eighteen years in her father’s house, survived nineteen days chained to a radiator, and hell, she survived law school too, she’s not going to be taken out by a bunch of children playing at being kings.
She didn’t choose this but she’d never choose death, not yet at least. Its not that bad yet, not something she can’t survive, can’t learn to live with. Frogs in boiling water and all that, temperature increasing so slowly she doesn’t notice, so slowly it kills her without a fight. She didn’t choose it but what choice does she have really. Its that or death, after all.
And really, Laurel thinks, feminism may be dead and gone in this new world, shot and strung up like every other corpse they’ve suspended from the walls of City Hall, may have no place in this world of men and their living toys, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to be going around apologizing for things that aren’t her fault, for decisions that aren’t her own, that have been completely stolen from her. She’s not going to pretend this world is anything other than what it is; a nasty, brutal place where all choices have been stripped of her except one. The only choice she gets to make every day is, is this worth it to stay alive. And the answer is always yes, every single fucking time, every single horrible, brutal thing that’s done to her, the answer is always yes. Every terrible thing they ask of her, every strike with the cattle prod, every rape, they’re always, always worth it to stay alive.
And Bonnie may hate her for the things she thinks Laurel has, may hate her because the Commander fucks her, rapes her every month, tries and fails to put a baby in her, but fuck Bonnie then. Because fuck Bonnie for not realizing its never a choice, for not realizing the pathetic ragged disguise these men have tried to stitch over everything. There’s nothing divine about anything here, there’s only coercion.
Back, before, Laurel didn’t have much time for the conventions of monogamy, and she never would’ve apologized for sleeping with a married man. Everyone has agency, she thought then, before that was proved to be a pathetic lie, everyone makes choices and she’ll never apologize for the choices someone else makes. But now, well, things have been so twisted up and the enemy is so big, so much more powerful than they are that they’re all, her and Bonnie and maybe Annalise too, sniping at each other, stepping on each other and backbiting and just trying to grasp every little sliver of power, of control they can find for themselves, rats in the pit uncaring of who they crush, who they grind into dust as they try to escape. Its useless, and Laurel knows it, because nothing will change until they go after the real enemy. But they have guns and Eyes and Laurel has nothing, just Bonnie’s glares and Annalise’s fingers bruising the skin of her forearm and the constant apologies that tumble from her lips, apologizing for things she does, for things she’s forced to do, for things other people force on her.
She apologizes because she will do everything she needs to do to stay alive and one of the things she’s learned about this new world is that its always, always the woman’s fault, always the fault of the person with less power. Its her fault there’s no baby, even though the abortion back in law school following that single, traitorous broken condom proved she was more than capable of getting knocked up, its her fault when Annalise decides to punish her for something that Sam did, strikes or starvation following an evening where Sam returns home late with a strange, secret smile or when he flashes her his patronizing, placating smile and assures Annalise she has nothing to worry her pretty head over and Laurel’s not sure which one is worse. Strikes and starvation will always follow, like somehow its Laurel’s doing, and maybe it is, because once Sam realized that he could have a woman that smiled and nodded and recited the pretty lines he demanded of her, who opened her legs at his command and never had her own thoughts, never talked back, always looked exactly how he wanted, once he realized he could have a woman who was not a woman at all, who was just a silent, compliant fantasy, well, Laurel suspects he probably decided that the real thing was a pale disappointment.
And its her fault when Bonnie’s late with breakfast or when there’s no fish for dinner, always Laurel’s fault as though she can summon Chilean sea bass on command, even though every time Bonnie requests it, Laurel wants to tell her sea bass is a trash fish. She never does, saves her scoff and the roll of her eyes for later and prays the market will have some, prays that the punishment won’t be too severe when they don’t. Laurel has no power at all, and yet somehow she has all the power, absurd, unlimited power, the power to make fish appear, power to make men good husbands, power to make Commander Keating shoot more than blanks. She’s always apologizing because somehow, somehow, there’s never a kiss from Sam to his wife when he returns in the evening, there’s never sea bass, there’s never a baby. And its always Laurel’s fault.
She apologized the other week for the scrape on her palm, for bruising a few of the apples when a bunch of Eyes burst from a van and knocked her over so they could race down an alley after something, Laurel’s not even sure what, doesn’t care what or, most likely, who, doesn’t care because it doesn’t concern her. Once she would’ve, once she wanted to fight injustice in the world, wanted to give power to the powerless, once she would’ve cared who the Eyes were after, would’ve tried to intervene, to help. Laurel was always trying to save the world.
Now, well, now she has no power herself and she couldn’t give a shit about anyone else. Now the only person she wants to save is herself. Funny how loss changes a person, funny how it stripped her of everything Laurel thought she was until she’s become nothing more than a dog, coming back tail between her legs, her only concern being the bruised apples and the blood she got on her dress. She still hates herself for it, desperately, with a deep, gnawing loathing she’s not sure she’ll ever shake, hates herself for not trying to help, hates herself for caring about the stupid bloodstained dress, the meaningless, fucking bruised apples. She said nothing about her wrist, sprained she thinks in the fall, says nothing about how it still sometimes troubles her, twinges when she moves it suddenly, moves it wrong. She said nothing because no one cares, because its her fault she injured it, because she doesn’t need her wrist to be a sentient incubator. Hell, she’s not even sure they really need her to be sentient. And Laurel hates herself, especially, for the apology that tripped, automatically from her lips, not even a moment’s hesitation until a second later, when Laurel’s brain caught up with what she’d said. God how she’d hated herself in that moment, hated the sniveling, pathetic, cowardly creature she’s become, the broken thing she’s been forced to become, hated how she almost meant it.
She hates herself for it still, every time she looks at herself, feels the itch of the scab as it begins to heal, the dull ache in her wrist, every time she looks at Bonnie, she hates herself just a little more. She’s not sure what she’ll do if she makes it out of here alive, not sure how she’ll stand the sight of herself, not sure how she’ll ever let herself be more ever again.
Its strange, of course, how she still thinks of more, of later, of some bright, distant future where all this present can become just a slowly fading nightmare. Laurel wonders if that’s normal, suspects it probably is. How else would anyone make it through horrors too brutal to speak of, how else would the human race have made it through anything, made it through to the other side. It has to be that small, misguided hope that manages to survive, carry through to some better, brighter future.
Time plods on and eventually all empires must fall and Laurel's one, singular hope is that she someday gets to see it, somehow manages to survive until the end. Every day a little more of that hope is stolen from her, every day just a little more is flayed from her skin. It’s a race against time, she supposes, and she’s no longer quite so confident she’ll make it through.
Its probably the same misguided hope that keeps her deciding every day that she’s going to survive until the next one, that keeps her plodding along, keeping her head down, apologizing to Bonnie so she doesn’t complain about her to Annalise, get her sent out to the colonies to die for being disobedient or unrepentant or just looking like a royal bitch.
“That’s new isn’t it?” a voice suddenly cuts through Laurel’s thoughts. She has so much time to think now, in this new, terrible world, spends so much time lost in her own thoughts its sometimes like trying to swim in molasses to get herself free of them, return to the real world.
“What?” she asks automatically, coming back to herself.
“That building they’re putting up,” Ofasher, her shopping partner says, pausing in her walk to point down the cross street,
Laurel’s pace faltering as well when she realizes Ofasher wants her to stop, to look, to comment. “Just down Sansom.”
There’s a crane, she thinks, which is what must have made Ofasher stop because the sight of it is almost jarring after so many years of tearing things down, the Catholic churches and the bars and god, even the fucking gyms, tearing down all the idols the sinners of modern society once worshiped. Now, Laurel supposes, they’re confident enough in their new world order, in its stability to begin to create it again in gods image, so craft the world into the shape of their horrible fantasy.
Laurel hums, decides to take a risk. She doesn’t trust Ofasher, not one bit, she can’t because to do so would be to risk everything. She will be doomed if she risks wrong. But sometimes, sometimes, she thinks, she ought to try. Ofasher is just too perfect, too pious, too soft and obedient and submissive, too kind for it to all be real. She knew a dozen girls just like Ofasher in law school, so Type A, so controlled and collected and with smiles like grimaces, always so tightly wound they seemed on the edge of snapping. She knows its all an act, or well, she suspects. It’s the uncanny valley of god’s glorious kingdom. And Laurel’s feeling daring, feeling dangerous. So she takes a cautious step into the black, murky water, hopes there’s nothing lurking beneath ready to take her under.
“I’m more used to them tearing buildings down,” Laurel hazards, trying to keep her voice as neutral as possible, as non committal, waiting to see if Ofasher responds, how Ofasher responds.
The other woman turns slowly, regards Laurel directly, dark brown eyes meeting Laurel’s instead of looking at her out the corner of her eye, sidelong around the blinders provided by their stupid winged caps. There’s a tightness around her jaw, her eyes, lines suddenly appearing in her dark, usually flawless skin like she’s weighing the danger of responding, of reaching out across the great divide between them, of taking the risk that Laurel could maybe, possibly be an ally rather than her betrayer.
When anyone could be an Eye, every kindness, every outstretched hand could be the knife, the noose, the end of the line.
“Yes,” Ofasher says noncommittally. “Praise be. Its wonderful to see reminders of life.”
Laurel decides to press on, decides to be bold. She’s always been quiet, cautious and watchful, always been good about weighing the risks. But here, in this new world she finds she’s changing, finds she wants to take risks she’d never have dared before. Her intuition, her instincts have never done her wrong and if she wants to get anywhere, wants anything she needs to be the one to take risks, reach out across the chasm.
“Under his Eye,” she responds automatically, like it’ll provide her a cover for what comes next. “D’you think that means they’re winning? The army?”
“I don’t know,” Ofasher says at last, though her eyes swing to the sides like she’s trying to figure out who might be listening. Finally she sighs and continues, like she’s about to take a great, shattering plunge. “I hope not.”
Laurel’s heart beats furiously in her chest. Finally, finally a reaction, something, anything from this girl who’s walked beside her for six months, something that maybe means she’s normal, she’s not like the rest of them, that she’s willing to be. “Me too,” she says, giving Ofasher a smile she hopes is open and friendly and totally, completely non threatening. “Fuckers.”
Ofasher lets out a sharp bark of laughter, looks half surprised at herself before she swallows it back, swallows it down in case anyone else is listening. There’s no place for laughter, for joy in this new world, only duty. Laurel thinks that if this really was a divine paradise, a true heaven on earth, there would be more fucking laughter instead of everyone looking like they’re in need of a good dose of Prozac, instead of everyone looking like they’re waiting for a bullet in the back of their heads, for the other shoe to drop. She wonders if anyone really wants to be a part of this new world, even its architects, if this is really what anyone wanted when they set out to create god’s kingdom. She wonders if everyone’s just so fucking scared of the Eyes, of being turned in, if they’re all just half suspecting everyone else is in on the joke, is a true believer but no one, not a single one of them really is.
She’d dare to ask if she thought it’d get her anywhere, stand in the middle of Rittenhouse Square and scream, demand to know if anyone is truly happier now than they were three years ago before it all came crashing down, if anyone really believes that Gilead is a more perfect union, is god’s paradise come to earth. She’d dare to demand an answer if she wasn’t certain that she’d be killed before she could get half the words out, killed by someone who felt as she did, who hated this terrible nightmare country but wanted to prove their loyalty, prove their belief, take the heat off them, prove that they weren’t like Laurel, they were loyal, holy, that they were a believer.
That's the worst part, Laurel thinks, how everyone is an enemy, how everyone’s played off each other, anyone an Eye, anyone a loyalist and not an ally. There’s no one she can trust because any pair of hands can hold the knife. Even Ofasher, even despite her smile, her laughter, Laurel could walk home and find herself staring into the shiny black void of the Eyes because of the things she says to this woman.
But, she thinks, maybe not. Maybe her risk was worth it, maybe throwing a message in a bottle out into the abyss finally nabbed her a response. Maybe.
“That’s,” Ofasher starts, falters again, like she’s not sure what she can say, how much she can say. The other woman looks half shocked, half surprised and maybe, maybe a little pleased. “Yeah. Fuckers.”
They continue on for a few paces as Laurel stifles the urge to knock her shoulder into Ofasher’s, to take any action to cement their new status as tentative allies, as the closest thing they can ever be to friends.
“Bet you were saving that curse up, huh?” Ofasher asks, her grin surprisingly sweet for the situation but just a little sharp, just a little dangerous. Laurel wonders, not for the first time, who Ofasher was, before, whether they might’ve been friends. She suspects she and Ofasher might’ve been a good influence on each other, Laurel getting the other woman to loosen up, to be a little reckless, and Ofasher forcing Laurel to stop carrying around so much anger, so much long festering guilt and focus on the things ahead of her instead of the long dead things that still stalk her heels.
Laurel grins, crooked and daring. “I was,” she tells her. “Just for you.”
“Can I just tell you,” Ofasher sighs then, something mischievous in her words even though Laurel can’t see her anymore, their winged caps cutting off all her peripheral vision, forcing her to rely on her hearing, her instincts. “I’ve been hoping for months you had a personality behind those dead eyes. You play it well Ofsam, I gotta hand it to you.”
“You too,” Laurel assures her because she doesn’t really know Ofasher, doesn’t really know her at all, but she’s smart enough to realize that someone like her will strive to be the best at anything she does, even being the best goddamn handmaid out there, the best at faking perfect, holy piety. And then she sucks in a breath, lets it out and takes another terrifying step forward, towards trust, towards almost certain doom. “Its uh, its Laurel by the way.”
“Laurel,” Ofasher repeats like she’s tasting the name. “You mean your mom didn’t christen you Ofsam?”
“Nah,” Laurel quips. “Wanted to go with something a little less popular. Guess she didn’t want me to be one of like five other Ofsam’s in my kindergarten class.”
"Smart,” the other woman says. The continue on in silence for a block, then two and Laurel is sure that she’s not going to get anything more from Ofasher, that she’s not going to dare reciprocate with her own name, not going to dare to let her guard down to Laurel again, that one slip up enough to send Ofasher into a spiral of panic, certain that it’s the slip up that spells her doom, certain with every knock, ever creak of the floorboards, ever black van that passes her house, its her slip up and Laurel’s betrayal coming for her, finally.
That’s the reality of this new, terrible place, this divine kingdom, everyone is an enemy, every word could be your last. But it was worth it, Laurel thinks, to touch humanity again, to know that she’s not the only one left even if Ofasher’s buried her real self down so deep now she’ll never find it again.
They get to the Keating’s house in silence and Laurel goes to push the heavy wrought iron gate open. As she does, she feels Ofasher’s soft hand against her elbow.
Laurel pauses, turns half a degree, enough that Ofasher knows she’s listening, but not enough that anyone will notice, not enough that she’ll draw anyone’s attention. “I was, I mean I am, I mean my name’s Michaela.”
“Well Michaela,” Laurel says with a small, thin grin she just can’t contain, tasting something strange, something like victory against her tongue, heart pounding in her chest. “This is my stop. But we should do it again sometime. I haven't had so much fun since last month’s Ceremony.”
“High praise,” Michaela murmurs with a quirk of her lips that almost, almost becomes a smile. “I’ll try to do better next time. Surpass the last time you made it out to the bars.”
“Speaking of bars,” she says, not wanting to leave, not wanting to let this brief, unexpected connection end. This is the first sign of life she’s had in nearly six months, she thinks, time running together until she’s not sure if its been days, months, years since anyone else acknowledged the things that came before, the people they once were. “That building they were putting up. Wasn’t Oscar’s there? Back before?”
“Oh my god,” the other woman exclaims, hand going to her mouth. “You're right. I used to love Oscar’s Tavern.”
“I used to love a lot of things about Philly,” Laurel says before she can help herself. It feels almost like too big a risk to admit, too bright and bold an admission; that there are things, here, in this new place built on oppression and submission and god’s glorious love that were better before, that Gilead is not the perfect shining city on a hill, that Laurel would trade this world for the old one in a heartbeat.
“Yeah,” Michaela replies, her voice soft and sad and she reaches out again, squeezes Laurel’ arm just above her elbow, the only touch she can allow herself. It speaks of so much more than any words, her own regret, her own sorrow and fear, all the things this rotten place has bred into them, that turns them into shells into haunted, hunted creatures. “Me too.”
“Well,” Laurel says with a shrug because they only have a few more seconds, she knows, before it begins to look suspicious, before anyone watching will think they’ve been talking too long, whispers and spies everywhere, always watching. “Here’s to Oscar then. Gone but not forgotten.”
“May he Rest In Peace,” Michaela echoes. “Wherever he is.”
So Michaela is gonna sorta/kinda be filling the Ofglen spot in this jawn, mostly in that she and Laurel are gonna be tentative friends. I’m gonna leave it to be seen whether she also winds up being part of mayday (or if mayday will even exist at all in this universe)...gonna have to wait an see :)
Bonnie is, of course, glaring when Laurel gets back.
“Where were you?” she asks with a not insignificant amount of suspicion, glaring at Laurel across the kitchen.
“Shopping,” Laurel says curtly, feeling unusually bold after her conversation with Michaela, the first conversation it feels like she’s had in months. “Like you asked.”
“Any sea bass?” Bonnie asks, mouth doing that thing where it gets a hopelessly pinched, where she just looks disappointed in everything Laurel does.
“No,” Laurel says, trying not to snort, to roll her eyes. Always the fucking sea bass, always that stupid trash fish that she’s going to be blamed for not finding. “No sea bass this week. But I got some salmon."
Bonnie hums, though her mouth goes tighter and Laurel knows there’s more she’ll have to apologize for later. “Well,” she tells Laurel shortly with a sigh that reeks of disappointment, like Laurel’s a badly trained dog that just shit on the rug again, can’t ever learn, can’t ever do anything right. “Let me see the rest.”
Laurel hands over her netted satchel, hopes Bonnie doesn’t find anything else inside that displeases her. Its just so much easier to be ignored, left alone. Laurel’s had plenty of practice at being ignored, overlooked, she almost prefers it to anything else. She's well suited to this brutal place, perhaps better suited than to any other world. She’s dealt with men like these before, maybe not ones that cloak themselves in holiness, but small men made big through fear. She’s been held captive by men like these, stared down the barrels of their guns, she’s made herself into who they want her to be, smiles and contrite silence and anger buried so deeply inside herself she can barely tell its her own.
“No peppers?” Bonnie asks, the pinched look growing more pronounced.
“Only green,” Laurel replies, desperately wishing that she gets dismissed, that she gets to leave, escape. She wants to be anywhere else but here, doesn’t want to put in more time with Bonnie, risk further wrath. She was told to get peppers and they only had green which they both know Sam hates. And so Laurel was left in a Catch 22 and no matter what she did she could leave Bonnie with an excuse to get angry, to punish her if she wanted.
It’s a strange dynamic, Laurel thinks, her relationship with Bonnie, the relationship of all handmaids to all Martha’s.
Technically, the handmaids have higher status, are revered as the only ones capable of giving the Commanders, their wives, children, venerated for being able to fulfill their divine, womanly purposes. And yet, and yet, all of that reverence, all of that respect, it all hinges on actually providing a child, which, so far, she hasn’t. Without a child, she’s a failure, a disappointment, without a child, she’s simply a burden, a useless immoral woman. And without a child, Bonnie can order her around, can treat her as little better than a fellow servant and a useless, lazy one at that.
But Laurel’s certain of the truth, that Bonnie is hopelessly, horribly jealous, envious of Laurel, of her status as a handmaid, that were there a child Bonnie would devote herself to Laurel, to the baby fully, totally, as she’s devoted herself to Sam, to Annalise. She wishes she and Bonnie could be allies, could find some common ground, isn’t sure that will ever occur. Because she doesn’t want a baby, god does she fear a baby even as she knows its her only hope of survival, even as she knows Sam is her second strike and she will only get one more.
This is not a world for children. Laurel’s not certain of much but she’s certain of that. She had never regretted the abortion, not really, but there’d always been a little twinge of something that was like the reverse of nostalgia, longing for something that never was, never would be. She’d sometimes wonder about what that impossible child would’ve been like, whether it would’ve been a boy or a girl, have Wes’ dark curls or something lighter, more like her own hair, be tall or short like her, hate peaches or tomato sauce or peanuts.
But since it happened, since the world changed, well, Laurel stopped regretting anything. All of that doubt has vanished now, all of it gone, replaced with certainty, with staggering, breathless relief. She’d never want a child to grow up in this world, would never want to bring a child into this chamber of horrors. Except she doesn’t have a choice, does she.
A child is all that will keep her alive, but it would be so, so cruel, so cruel she can barely stand to breathe around her grief, around her guilt. She can’t wish for a child, can’t wish for her own death. And so she’s trapped. Its not like any of its in her control, not like its her choice, which makes it both easier and harder to live with. She doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do.
Bonnie sighs tiredly, shoots Laurel a glare that honestly shouldn’t startle her quite as much as it does. “Make sure to get peppers next time you go shopping,” she tells Laurel. “Or I’m going to have to tell Mrs. Keating you can’t even handle that much.”
Laurel reminds herself not to glare, not to let any reaction slip across her face and nods. “Of course.”
She stands there a few more seconds, unwilling to leave before she’s dismissed by Bonnie. Its another one of her tricks of course, getting upset when Laurel leaves on her own, getting upset when she lingers. But Laurel’s smart and she’s observant and she’s figured out Bonnie is less upset when Laurel remains behind, less upset when Bonnie believes Laurel is deferring to her, giving her some kind of muted respect in waiting for Bonnie’s word to leave. So she waits.
Bonnie methodically puts away most of the groceries, the fruits and the vegetables and the bread before pulling the fish off the counter and into the sink.
“What’re you still doing here?” Bonnie snaps after a moment, turning away from the sink where she’s washing the fish.
Laurel shrugs. “Nothing.”
“Don’t skulk,” Bonnie snaps. “You’re useless in here and I’m not feeding you, so go make yourself scarce.”
Laurel grins to herself when Bonnie turns back. “Under his Eye,” she says, trying and failing to keep out the edge of sarcasm from her voice as she leaves. She knows it’s the little rebellions that will get her killed, the little tics and tells that make it clear she’s a reluctant participant in this little national charade. She wishes she were more like Ofasher, no, like Michaela, better able to school her face into something perfect, something blank and sculpted like a block of marble. But that’s never been Laurel, not really. She can make herself hidden, make herself unnoticed, but she’s never been very could about keeping her thoughts from her face. For anyone who knew what to look for its as bad as if she was shouting. She can think of very little, virtually nothing, in fact, about being a handmaid that she likes, that she would ever choose for herself, can’t ever manage to fake it in a way that doesn’t seem completely obvious.
And that’s half of what makes this lie work, she supposes, that everyone grins and bears it and pretends they’re so fucking happy with this new world, smiles down the barrel of a gun and proclaims their eternal happiness, proclaims they’ve been saved from the sins of greed and pride and gluttony and and sloth. But there’s nothing pure here and no one is free of sin, its just taken on new form, new life.
They’re all just as sinful, just as corrupt as they were before, craving the same things, money and power and women. She sometimes wonders why her father didn’t try to stick it out, he was a master at obtaining all three and Laurel’s sure he could have faked it if he wanted, faked a religious conversion and gone on living as before, piety just a disguise for his darker, baser desires. But well, her father was always stubborn and for all his many sins, for all his constant questions about when Laurel was going to settle down, find herself a nice boy and get married, he always, always wanted the best for her, wanted her to succeed and conquer.
So her father flees and these boys with guns pretend that its not greed that drives them, that they’re not consumed by lust, these small men who are not satisfied with their wives, who trade handmaids like playing cards, who dress them up and make them smile while they’re raped and beaten and told its for their own good. She may have hated her father, but he was a man who knew real power and never let it diminish him, never let it make him small and petty. These men, these leaders of the brave, new world are still sniveling cowardly creatures, still grasping for more, more power, more wealth, more respect and the mantel of holiness they need to affix to everything they touch.
They are so uncertain of themselves, of their place in the world, they can only feel powerful, feel strong by making others weak, by stripping them of their power. Its not a zero sum game, Laurel thinks, its never been a zero sum game. They always think it is though, the powerful people in every world that’s come before, convincing themselves that stealing the power anyone else has does anything other than diminish them as well. Its no different now except now there’s not enough power to go around, like somehow its been turned into a finite resource. Now she has nothing and these men, these terrible, weak men, they’re spending their stolen currency too fast. They’re going to have to find more from somewhere, and soon, but no one else has anything left to steal and soon, Laurel is certain, they’ll be reduced to turning on each other. She can’t decide whether she intends to survive long enough to see that point, to see them all fighting like rabid dogs over the last few scraps.
She’s not sure where that leaves her.
There’s very little she likes about this new world, though Laurel supposes one of the advantages is how much time she spends alone, how completely she is ignored except when her cunt is needed for their rituals. She’s always been quiet, always been invisible and this world is perfectly suited to the skills she was born with, the skills she spent decades honing. She could be worse off, she supposes, could be driven mad by the silence, by the thousands of hours she spends alone, taken out and unboxed like a prized doll.
That’s the thing, Laurel thinks, the catch, the place where this whole thing fails, where their carefully constructed façade crumbles into the dust and lies its been built from. These absurd, pathetic, hateful men, they can’t conceive that women are people, can’t conceive that they have minds and inner lives and wants just as strong. They think women are dolls, vacant and empty, simply there to satisfy the whims, the desires of whatever man controls her. Or they think women want to be dolls, want to have every thought and feeling, every last decision stripped from away, want to be left with no troubles, no worries.
They think that’s what will make them happy, think that absence is the same as happiness.
Laurel’s never been less happy and she’s spent most of her life teetering on the edge of abject misery. She’s never been happy, but at least back before she had choices, at least back before it was partly her own fault, the work of her own anger, her own guilt. Now the only choice she has is whether to kill herself or not and its looking more and more attractive by the day.
She’s glad her mother is still in Mexico, can’t imagine what this world would be like for her. Her mother’s life has been defined by her lack of choices, ever since Laurel was ten, eleven and her mother’s mind fractured like glass, ever since reality warped into a shape no one else could puzzle out. But something about this new, terrible world, something about the sinister cunning of its architects, somehow she thinks it would rub particularly wrong against her mother. Laurel’s father was not a good man, and he was certainly not a good husband, but when her mother’s mind shattered he did what he could with the only thing he had, and while she was never free again, never master of her own fate, his money did ensure that her cage was gilded, that she was allowed as much freedom as the ebbs and flows of her disease allowed. Still, though, Laurel sometimes wonders if this is what her mother felt, feels, like she’s slowly going crazy, trapped in a small, airless room and nothing she says will be able to spring her free.
She wonders if she’ll ever get used to the shrinking walls around her, wonders if she’ll be like death row inmates, getting used to the feeling of four walls crowding in around her, find herself reeling when she’s let out of her cage. She wonders if she’s just another animal in a pen, a cow to be bred and then slaughtered, accustomed to being unable to stray. If she had any choice, and she has no choices here, she’d probably never eat meat again, too much overlap, too much sympathy for the animals she’s becoming more and more like with every passing second.
But at least she’s left mostly to herself, mostly in silence. At least she’s used to the silence, hasn’t yet begun constructing elaborate fantasy golf games in her mind like she read about a POW in Vietnam doing to keep his mind occupied. She has, however, taken to attempting a painstaking recollection of every detail of Jurassic Park, taken to choosing a scene and trying to reconstruct it in perfect, absurd detail, tries to count the leaves on the trees, count the creases and mud stains on the kids’ shirts, though she still can’t remember if the little boy was Timmy or Tommy. Its consumed hours of her life and because Laurel is becoming more and more certain this, this whole shrinking pinpoint is the full extent of the rest of her natural life, she refuses to move on to a different movie. She’s already picked it out though, already decided she’ll try with the Lion King, not for any particular reason but because she can’t think of a reason why not.
Its better at least than what she did at first, spending hours, days, months recreating the steps that brought her to this place, trying to spot the instant when it all went wrong, the fateful decision that made her hesitate just a second too long, prevented her from jumping ship, escaping back to Mexico or from hopping a flight to France, that finally, irrevocably trapped her here in this nightmare. She would lie awake at night staring at the walls, the ceiling, trying to work out when the mistake was made, when she should’ve left, when her fate was sealed. Every moment, she eventually decided, every moment she didn’t leave, every moment she ignored the twist of fear in her stomach, every time she convinced herself it would get better, or that this was the worst it would get. There were a hundred thousand moments where it all went wrong, where Laurel convinced herself things weren’t as bad as they seemed, that the world really wasn’t the place she thought it was, all just a trick of the light, just her still paranoid mind warning her there were enemies where there were only shadows.
Laurel always trusted her instincts, trusted them right up until the point where she didn’t and it doomed her. It was all of the moments she balked and none of them and now she’s here and now all she can do is try to piece together Jurassic Park in her mind because the alternatives all lead to her slashing her wrists or stepping out in front of the Eyes and telling them to fuck themselves and fuck their god. She doesn’t know how she can ever forgive herself for all the decisions that led her to this place, doesn’t know except that winding up here is punishment enough, might be more than she can bear.
But still, the silence, she supposes, is nice enough.
She does her time by doing time, by counting the days and the hours and the minutes, counting down, counting forward, waiting for things that never come to pass, waiting for things that happen like clockwork. The Ceremony comes and goes and her period comes and goes and there’s never a baby, never a rescue. There’s just semen and sweat and blood and the tears she hasn’t yet been able to choke back, the tears that she hasn’t been able to harden her heart to. She’s angry, so fucking angry but she’s sad too, sad its come to this, that her life has been reduced to this room and these people and these tiny, pathetic freedoms that are nothing but an illusion.
She’d tried so hard, so fucking hard not to be reduced to her biology, not to be just another rich girl who never did anything but have babies and here she is, here she is with no options other than to have a child or be killed, here she is reduced to her uterus and nothing else, told that her only purpose, her only option is to get knocked up. She’s living her own personal nightmare, left with nothing to rely on but the things she’s spent her whole life trying to prove don’t matter, aren’t important. Her brain doesn’t matter, her heart is useless, all she’s good for is her ability to stay silent and turn sperm and egg into a living, breathing human.
She hates it, isn’t sure she could hate anything more, isn’t sure she could imagine a worse nightmare for herself, a nightmare where all she is is an incubator for a child she never wanted. Laurel’s half certain she could live through anything but this, anything but this systemic reduction of her entire life to nothing more than a vessel. She can never quite decide whether she’s being used, as claimed by all the men with god on their tongues, as simply a conduit for more children, for living children.
But she has a sneaking, nagging suspicion that she’s no longer going to ignore, no longer going to pretend doesn’t exist, that handmaids are for more than reproduction, more than the continuation of the species. Handmaids are for power more than anything, for making small men feel like giants, for stripping women of everything but their lives. More than anything handmaids are for the perverse fantasy she’s seen in so many men, the fantasy that women don’t matter as anything more than what men want them to be, what men allow them to be.
Its control, it’s the most degrading form of domination and it gets these disgusting, cowardly men thinking they finally have real power, can degrade women the way they’ve felt like they’ve been degraded, dismissed their whole lives. Its revenge, plain and simple, revenge and fantasy all in one and if Laurel had read about it in some history book instead of being doomed to live it, she suspects she would’ve laughed, scoffed at how childish it all is, at how consumed by their own feelings of inadequacy these strange men of god are.
Its always been about men and their illusions of power, their grasping for more of it once they’ve had a taste. That’s all its ever been when men tell a group of people they don’t deserve to be free.
Laurel just wants it all to be over.
She’s a girl who spent days, weeks really, chained to a drain pipe trying to work out a way free, a way to escape, who was so stubborn she rescued herself when her father decided his money was more important than his child, who didn’t even flinch at the idea that it was up to her to save herself. But here, in this horrible nightmare world Laurel can’t seem to find a way free, can’t seem to find the trap door. And she’s not sure she wants to anymore, not sure the world is a place she even wants to live in anymore. The rest of the world seems foreign now, seems like somewhere she’s no longer suited to.
And even if she wanted to test it out, see if she could still survive out there, she’s got no damn idea how she’d make it out, no way of getting to Canada or Mexico or hell, even the borderlands between Gilead and what’s left of the U.S. She’s a rat stuck in a trap that she pretends is a maze, but really there’s no way out, the walls and turns simply curve back on themselves, all lead to the same dead space, all lead to the same inescapable fact that this is the new world and the only choice Laurel has is whether to live or die in it.
In which a wild Annalise appears...
sorry still no Franky-d tho...he’ll be by soon tho...
She’s nearly managed to sneak up back to her room, nearly managed to make it back to the one piece of safety, the one refuge she has when Annalise intercepts her. Its all an illusion really, because nowhere in this house, nowhere in this world is safe, is hers. It all belongs to someone else and Laurel’s only allowed the use of it. Only sometimes, only when she’s been good, when she’s managed to please them by being silent, by being compliant. And yet, and yet, Annalise could find her in her room, could come seek her out anywhere in this world that is more hers than Laurel’s. And yet she doesn’t, she at least allows Laurel the illusion that her tiny little garret is her own. She will seek her out anywhere else, will give her orders if she finds her. And yet, Annalise will at least give Laurel the pretty lie of thinking her room is the one safe place she’s been allowed.
Its not true, of course, its never been true, and sometimes when Laurel thinks about it too long, too hard, it makes her want to spit with anger, nearly chokes her with a rage that stoppers her breath. Because even the small freedoms, even the things she holds most dear in this terrible new world are ones she’s allowed, just enough of a leash that she doesn’t chafe from it. Even the best parts of her life now are the worst parts, because her freedoms only exist because of her compliance, a dog or a prisoner rewarded for good behavior, rewarded just enough that it ensures her complicity, her further compliance. She hates it and she hates herself more for allowing it, for not resisting more, for allowing them all to maintain the lie that she’s not a slave, not a prisoner at all.
And so Annalise catches her on the stairs, clearly waiting until she retreats from the kitchen, heads back to her room.
“Ofsam,” she calls in that soft, low tone she always uses, gentle and yet hinting at something that was once fierce, commanding. She’s heard, somewhere, she can’t actually remember anymore, or maybe she knew from back before, that Annalise was once the best defense attorney in the city, that once she left half the city shaking in their boots. Once she was more powerful than her husband, once she could make the entire city fall to its knees.
And now. Now. Now she is something else entirely, something that reminds Laurel just a little too much of her mother, soft and brittle and full of a hurt that Laurel is certain can’t be soothed. She’s angry too, an anger so deep it originates in sadness. That’s another thing Laurel hasn’t been able to pinpoint in her new mistress, the place where her anger comes from. Is it the loss of her power, is it Laurel’s mere presence in the house, in her bed, is it that Laurel can have children and Annalise can’t. Laurel doesn’t know, can’t know. She’s not even certain its not all three and something more at that.
“Ofsam,” Annalise calls just as Laurel’s about to step off the last step onto the second floor, like doing so would let her pass out of Annalise’s control, would take her beyond her reach.
“Yes, Mrs. Keating,” Laurel calls back, resisting the urge to simply pause at the landing and instead turning back, coming down two or three steps so that Annalise can see her, see that she’s complied. She’s careful too not to phrase her words as a question, careful to make sure that her obedience is clear.
“Would you like to come help me in the garden Ofsam?” Annalise asks, one hand on the bannister and the other carrying her wicker gardening basket, filled with hand tools, trowels and rakes and shears. This too, Annalise is careful to phrase as a question, both of them playing their parts, both of them acting like Annalise is giving her a choice, like Laurel has a choice at all, that she can do anything but obey.
“Of course, Mrs. Keating,” she murmurs, hands balling into tight, careful fists, slow enough she thinks Annalise will miss it, tight enough her nails score deep lines into her palms. “Praised be, we have such good weather today. Perfect for gardening.”
“Praised be,” Annalise echoes, glancing away sharply like the words stick on her tongue. Laurel wonders sometimes at Annalise, wonders if she believes quite as ardently as she pretends, if she really, truly buys into this new world. She wonders too if Annalise can see what this is, see that at its core its slavery, its misogyny dressed up in religion that no one really seems to believe in. She wonders if Annalise hates her life as much as Laurel does, if they could have been friends in some other, better world. She’s not sure why their paths never crossed in the strangely small, strangely insular world of the Philly legal community, but she couldn’t be more grateful that they never did.
Laurel doesn’t know what she would’ve done, how she would’ve survived being placed in a house with people she knew, having to lower her eyes and bite her tongue and let herself be treated like a prized breeding cow by people she had known back before, how she could debase herself in front of people she had liked, joked with, people she had seen get drunk at a conference or into a fight outside the courthouse after a particularly vicious hearing. She doesn’t know how anyone can live in this world, knowing there was a world before.
Laurel can barely survive it and her life was nothing to speak of before, nothing interesting or important. But it was hers and she loved it, had spent her entire adult life crafting it, cultivating it until it was something she loved, something she was proud of, proud to call her own. She’d fought for her life, for a good life with her narrow little row house in Port Richmond, her friends, her coffee shop on the corner where the baristas had known her, known her usual order, her job with the PDs office where she didn’t have to take her father’s money, could let herself think she was doing something good, the boyfriend she’d thought she’d wind up marrying if things continued on as they’d been going. It’d been a good life, a small, soft life, full of things only Laurel cared about. It had been boring sometimes, and frustrating and it had been perfect and simple. It had been hers.
And if she misses what she had, her hopelessly dull, hopelessly small life, she can’t imagine how Annalise doesn’t miss what she had, money and prestige and a position as a professor at Middleton and cases that made the papers, made the headline news each night, how she doesn’t miss the thrill of a good argument, of a winning argument, of destroying someone's position with nothing but her words, reducing them to rubble. Laurel doesn’t understand how Annalise can’t wish she had her old life, her old world, how she can be content in this house, with these people, these rules.
But perhaps she’s only seeing what she wants to see, perhaps she’s projecting her only thoughts and feelings into what she imagines are the tight smiles Annalise sometimes wears, the tense lines of her body. Perhaps there is nothing there at all, only Laurel’s own wants. But she can’t help but think that Annalise tries to be kind on the days before the Ceremony, tries to distract Laurel’s mind so she isn’t focused on the frigid shivers and nausea that wracks her body, sends her on errands that don’t really need to be run, asks her to help gardening or to help Bonnie with the meals when Bonnie clearly needs no help. She can’t decide whether its kind or cruel, can’t decide whether she wishes she was simply left in her room, left in her mind.
She never really knows what she wants, not in this new, nightmare world.
And so, and so, gardening. Laurel never had any time for it before, barely has any time for it now, only when she’s forced, only when Annalise either takes pity on her or tries to make her life worse. Laurel’s never sure of anyone’s motivations anymore, is never sure that kindness is really kindness and not a hidden knife. That’s the problem with this new world, one of many, one of a hundred thousand, that no one can trust each other anymore, that no one can ever know why anyone does anything, consumed with suspicion and doubt and fear. She hopes that Annalise is being kind, hopes mostly because there is too little kindness in this terrible new world, too much that is blackened and withered and corrupt, too much she simply cannot live with if its true. She used to think people were mostly good, mostly, and now she knows that lie all too well.
And still she hopes Annalise is being kind, where she can, when she can. Because Annalise’s husband rapes her once a month, sticks his dick, his dick that she lies and calls puny, shriveled inside her while she’s nestled between the other woman’s thighs and pretends her body is not her own, pretends she’s watching some sick, uncomfortable movie, and she’s not sure what kind of person can sit there and watch that and not want to do something, god, do something to stop it, to make it better, to set it right.
But she sits there, she takes the things Sam does to her without complaint, without a fight. She’s too tired to fight, to weak and so she lies there, silent and unmoving and without resistance, lets Sam fuck her with his cock, his cock that still feels strange inside her after months that feel like years. But there’s nothing she can do, nothing Annalise can do, nothing anyone can do except offering her gardening, errands because Annalise is powerless too, powerless in a different way but powerless all the same, constrained by the same terrible rules, the same terrible laws that suspend her in place like a mosquito in amber, afraid to move in case she loses them, is left with nothing.
She follows the other woman out to the front of the house, to the little garden that’s taken over what Laurel supposes was once a wide, neat yard, now being used to grow flowers and vegetables and herbs, anything to distract from the torture, the tedium of life in this place, so bright it blinds, so bright none of them can see for it, burnt up before they understands the terror they’re living. She knows Bonnie is grateful for the garden and Laurel is too, where she can be, with the little she allows herself to be grateful for anything. She’s grateful for the vegetables she doubts they’d otherwise have; arugula and artichokes and heirloom tomatoes that Annalise somehow salvaged the seeds for. They no longer live in a world with heirloom tomatoes, with kale and chard. All god’s creatures no longer include anything beyond crops that require intensive labor, that can’t produce large quantities in small spaces. They no longer have that luxury, they no longer have the luxury of pleasure.
Annalise had talked of building a beehive once, idly, when Laurel was lingering the kitchen, when she couldn’t bring herself to return to her room, sought out company because there was nothing else, no other reprieve from the unending tedium, the relentless terror of her existence. Annalise is her jailer, but she’s also her only family, her only friend. Its strange, its terrifying but its true. Laurel wishes it wasn’t, but she’s always prided herself on staring hard truths in the eye, refusing to flinch and she can’t deny the truth.
Annalise hands her a trowel, always a trowel, never anything useful, never anything she can really help with, because anything that can split the earth can split Annalise’s skull just as easily, they both know that, are all too aware of what Laurel could do should she finally, finally choose to remember her humanity, finally make that last, final choice.
“Are you mulching the vegetables today Mrs. Keating?” Laurel asks, not really caring, not really even knowing what that means. She’s just parroting back the things Annalise sometimes says to her, nothing more than a good, obedient dog trailing at her master’s heels. “Or planting the sunflowers?”
“Sunflowers today I think, Ofsam,” Annalise tells her, already sinking to the ground. “Its so beautiful out, I think the garden should reflect that, don’t you think.”
“Under his eye,” Laurel recites. She’s still only half sure when and where these ridiculous phrases should be used. She sprinkles them into her speech like she used to sprinkle Spanish or curses, throwing them in when she’s lacking anything else to say but know she must speak, must give some sort of polite, dutiful response. Not even her words are her own anymore. They’ve taken that from her too. They’ve taken everything.
Annalise gives her another one of her strange sharp looks, like she can hear how little Laurel really means the things she says, like she can read Laurel all too well, can feel the anger, the desperation humming beneath Laurel’s skin.
“Sunflowers are one of my favorites,” Annalise comments, making quick work of the earth, scooping out a nice, clean hole before Laurel has even dropped to her knees. “Lilies too.”
She seems to be waiting for some kind of response in kind but Laurel doesn’t know how to answer. Her first thought is to tell Annalise that her abuela always said that lilies are only for funerals, but she bites that back before it makes it anywhere near her lips. Her second thought is to say that everyone always assumed she liked laurels, because of her name. She wants to tell Annalise she hates laurels, but Annalise doesn’t know her name, doesn’t care what her name is, or what her name was once, before this, before Sam. She’s Ofsam now, not Laurel and well, that makes her hate laurels even more. She doesn’t like any goddamn flowers she wants to snap, because there is no room for beauty in this horrible place, in this brave new world of god and fear and hate.
But another thing that doesn’t exist in this world is the truth, no room for her honesty, so Laurel arranges her snarl into a smile, tries to think of any flower she can. “I rather liked orchids Mrs. Keating,” Laurel tells her, realizing once she’s done so that she’s probably answered wrong, somehow, because orchids are delicate, pretty and nothing else, not suited for this world of god and duty, too fragile to be any good to these men of god.
Annalise smiles then, widely, strange on a face that Laurel so rarely sees in anything but a frown, in pursed lips. She nods more to herself than Laurel. “Orchids are special,” she agrees, with another vehement scoop of her shovel. “But why did you say ‘liked?’ Do you not like them anymore?”
“I…,” Laurel starts, not sure how to course correct, not sure how to recover her mistake. She doesn’t love anything anymore, doesn’t remember what beauty, what pleasure look like. There’s nothing like that allowed to her, like its been amputated from her completely. “I find my pleasure elsewhere now, Mrs. Keating. My eyes have been opened to the true beauty of god’s kingdom here on earth and creating it through my piety, through my good works, not through ephemeral things.”
There, Laurel thinks, there. That will be a satisfactory answer, it must be. Its all she has, those lies, those words. Piety and faith and sacrifice. Abnegation. They’re all she has keeping her alive, they’re the blades she rakes across her skin to keep the firing squad at bay, to satisfy the bloodlust of her masters.
“My nana always told me you find god in the beauty,” Annalise tells her with another sharp look. “Sometimes you have to look hard for the beauty, but that’s where god will be.”
There's no god here, Laurel wants to tell her. There’s no beauty and there’s certainly no god. But instead she just widens her frozen smile. “Blessed be the fruit,” Laurel murmurs instead, turning her face away, staring intently at the dirt. “There must be god in all that we do then.”
Annalise’s lips twist sourly like Laurel said something wrong and she gives her another long, sharp look. “Do you really believe that Ofsam?”
“Of course Mrs. Keating,” Laurel replies smoothly, trying to pretend her heart doesn’t pound in her chest at getting caught in the lie. She doesn’t want to have anything questioned, doesn’t want her faith, her piety doubted. She doesn’t want to give them any excuses to send her away, to decide she’s outlived her usefulness. “My eyes have been opened to the wonders of the lord that have been created here in Gilead.”
“Yes,” Annalise says, with a particularly violent thrust of her shovel. “We truly have created a blessed nation with the lord’s guidance.”
She sounds like Laurel feels, like she’s reciting lines to a badly written play, lines she doesn’t really believe in. But Annalise can get away with her doubts, Laurel doesn’t have any more rope to hang herself with.
“Blessed be,” Laurel murmurs, digging halfheartedly at the earth, digging herself a nice little hole. She wants to dig herself a hole six feet down, bury herself in it, dig all the way to China, dig all the way to a new world. Instead she goes two, three inches down, repeats the hole six inches to the left.
Annalise had been keeping sunflower seedlings in tiny pots tucked close to the house, keeping them warm, keeping them safe until she can plant them in the real garden, until they’re strong enough to survive on their own. Its more care than anyone gives to any other living thing in this world and it almost makes her like Annalise, almost makes her think that maybe she could almost live with the idea, the reality of Annalise raising a child Laurel was forced to conceive, forced to give birth to. She thinks maybe Annalise would be kind to Laurel’s child that was not her child in any way that mattered.
She thinks maybe Annalise deserves a child, deserves to be a mother. She thinks that’s what Annalise wants most of all, to be a mother, to have something rely on her completely, to have an outlet for the way she so desperately wants something, someone to care for, to guide. If she wants a child, Annalise deserves to have one. In a just world she’d have one. Laurel just wishes it didn’t need to be her child too.
I which i kinda fudge Laurel’s background for vague plot purposes
Laurel thinks about history too. She thinks about the Disappeared and the Children of the Disappeared and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, thinks about Argentina most of all.
Laurel’s mother was was Argentinian, sort of, her mother’s mother French, but she’d followed a boy she liked, a shy, clumsy Argentine exchange student across the Atlantic, back to his home, to Córdoba, where they’d had just enough time before things went south to marry, to have a daughter. Laurel’s mother was born too early to be one of them, one of those stolen children, but her parents had vanished, had been stolen from their homes in the middle of the night, shot in the head or dumped in the sea, never to be seen again. Laurel’s mother had been sent to live with a maternal aunt back in Marseilles after that, had been sent back to where everyone felt it safest, but she’d been cut off from her family, from her life and she’d suffered from her doubts, her nightmares, the empty spaces inside her that had been with her since she was six years old. It had broken her mind, broken her heart. Laurel thinks it was the not knowing that did it, always wondering and knowing she would never find an answer.
She thinks about the scars left on the entire country, the scars that decades and generations hadn’t begun to heal, thinks of the children who's lives were stolen from them twice. She knows that someday this will all end, this whole violent house of cards will collapse around the ears of its architects and that thought brings her some comfort. But not enough, never enough.
Because the pain and blood that these weak men’s god has demanded in tribute is too high, too terrible a price to pay. What this god has demanded has created scars she’s certain will never heal, scars that will ripple across the universe until time finally ceases.
What doesn’t comfort her is knowing the children that will remain after all this finally falls, the children who's history will have been stolen from them, their origins shrouded in mysteries and silence and the press of a knife, who will have to learn the terrible things that created them, the monsters that loved them and raised them, the brutal things that were done so that they were brought forth into the world.
Laurel can’t imagine someday having to explain to a child that she’s his mother, her real mother, that her son, her daughter was stolen from her, never allowed to know her, that his father was not a good man, not to Laurel at least, that he ripped a child from her mother’s arms because of god’s twisted word. She doesn’t know how she’ll ever be able to face her child, now grown, tell her the truth of her birth, tell him or her it was nothing like love, nothing like holiness involved in its creation, just coercion, just violence and violation.
She doesn’t know how she will ever be able to shatter the illusion in a child should this terrible world ever end. She doesn’t know how she can let herself hurt anyone in the way she will have to if she confesses the truth. Laurel can’t bring herself to think that she’ll let herself commit such terrible violence, such terrible trauma against another person, not after its was done to her, to her mother, a further generation of stolen lives, stealing their identity for the sake of truth, forcing them to understand the true horror of the world.
Its echoes and echoes and echoes, she thinks, forever resonating and never truly fading, lessening. What was done to her grandmother is done to her, what was done to her mother will be done to her child, rippling out forever, an unending genetic curse.
She thinks she will let the lie stand if it comes to it, would let her child believe that he was not the child of a handmaid, not created from violence and terrible fear, hadn't had her whole identity, her whole history stolen and covered up and lied to, over and over. Laurel would let the lie stand, let her child live in ignorance, except she thinks that would make her complicit, make her a part of this terrible crime, be more theft, more a betrayal of her child, her mother, a betrayal of everything she loves.
It helps that if Sam knocks her up, manages to put a child inside her half the job will have been done for her. The child will clearly not be mixed race, clearly not be Annalise’s. And that, that small insignificant fact will at least demand some measure of truth be offered to her child that is not her child, never was her child. She doesn’t know what they’ll say, doesn’t know how they’ll explain but she knows it won’t be the truth, not really. Nothing in this world approaches the truth.
Its different somehow too, in that the truth that is given to these stolen children will be warped and twisted and ugly, will be corrupted by the terrible god who watches over this awful place. If it ends, this terrible world, the children will only know the holy, blessed truth, will have unlearn everything they know, everything they’ve been told.
What a terrible place, Laurel thinks, when even its fall will destroy lives, when even the ending will not cease the hurt. She needs there to be a child so she can live, she needs there to never be a child so she can live with herself. And she doesn’t know what to do.
But really, there’s nothing she can do, and that almost provides a measure of comfort. Whatever happens at least its not her fault. At least she didn’t have a choice in it. Except she did, really, didn’t she. Laurel chose to stay alive, chose not to kill herself on the faint hope that someday she would be free, chose to put her faith in the world and the people in it, believe that she would live to see the other side. Its becoming more and more unlikely, less and less worth it and yet she can’t find it in herself to end things, to rip open a vein or wrap a sheet around her neck and jump or step in front of one of the Eyes’ Hummers. She can’t, not yet. She wants to, but not badly enough, not yet.
Its her trump card, hidden in her back pocket, but she doesn’t want to play it, not yet, not when she still has a sliver of hope left to her, hope or something like it. So she waits, for what she’s not sure, a baby, a death, a salvation, none of them are coming, none of them are hers but she waits anyway.
She sinks her fingers into the rich, warm earth, feels the sunlight and the grit in her fingers, wishes that she and not the flowers could sink beneath the dirt, rest there until it was safe to emerge back into the day. But instead she just drops a handful of seeds into the hole she’s dug, covers it up again.
Its all seeds and life and hoping for strange, sprouting miracles. Laurel hopes that nothing she touches creates life, hopes the garden, beautiful as it may be, turns barren, hopes that the corruption, the rot inside the Keating’s house finally reflects itself on the outside. And yet, a dark place inside her betrays that hope, wishes for sunflowers and lilies and tulips surging up into the sun, wishes for beauty to exist even in this terrible place.
It’s a pathetic urge really, one Laurel hates even as she thinks it and yet that doesn’t stop the wanting. There’s so little that is good, that is simple and pure and beautiful in god’s new paradise on earth that Laurel is willing to accept the little she is offered.
“Maybe we’ll harvest some of the herbs when we’re done here,” Annalise murmurs idly as she shovels another shallow hole into the earth. “Give Bonnie a little treat to work with this evening. Something special before the Ceremony.”
“Under his eye,” Laurel recites, knowing that no matter what is served, no matter what gourmet dish Bonnie sets in front of her, Laurel won’t be able to eat, nothing special about the Ceremony, nothing exciting, nothing but stomach churning horror and dread and nausea settling in her bones. It has been months or years or longer and she still hasn’t gotten used to it, still hasn’t hardened herself to the casual brutality of the Ceremony, of the way her body is treated like an object, little more than Sam jerking off into a cup, a sock, like Laurel herself isn’t even there. Every month it fills her with a dread that feels like cinderblocks around her ankles, every month she thinks will be the month she finally cracks, screams, will be the month her silence ends. Every month she proves herself wrong, proves herself more cowardly than her own internal loathing could ever begin to guess at.
“Maybe Bonnie can add some mint to that yogurt sauce you like,” Annalise suggests, her voice still gentle, like she can see in the clench of Laurel’s jaw, the movements of her hands just how hard she’s trying to keep herself together, keep from shattering the illusion that she’s some plaint little doll.
“That would be,” Laurel begins, falters. She doesn’t want any fucking yogurt sauce, doesn’t want any mint added to it. Bonnie’s a good cook, a damn good one, Laurel knows, and yet everything she makes tastes like sawdust and ashes and hate on Laurel’s tongue. Nothing in this world is real, not when its built on blood and slavery and a holy love that has always felt like hate. So she just clenches her jaw, forces a small smile across her lips and tries again. “That would be most kind.”
Annalise gives her a long, sharp look, assessing and shrewd. “I hope it is,” she tells Laurel. “I hope you’ve been enjoying your time here.”
“I am,” Laurel lies without even a moment of hesitation. She was always a good liar, practically from birth, she’s her father’s daughter after all. But the Laurel of before has nothing on who she is now, the lies she tells that almost become the truth as they pass her lips. “You’ve been very kind to me Mrs. Keating. You and Commander Keating both.”
“And we both hope you will be kind to us as well Ofsam,” Annalise says, pausing and rocking back on her heels, bringing her hands together in front of her, clasped tightly. “You and God.”
“Blessed be the fruit,” the response comes instantly, comes automatically even as it twists its way through her chest. Annalise wants, craves a child so badly, Laurel can hear the hope in her voice, real and true cutting through all the layers of lies, of posturing holiness and she almost feels bad. Annalise holds her cards close to her chest, twenty years in front of judges and juries crafting a poker face for the ages and normally Laurel’s unable to get anything like a read on her, figure out whether she’s a true believer or just complying with this new world out of self preservation.
She doesn’t know, she can’t know, but Laurel knows, down to her marrow, that when Annalise speaks of her want of a child its real. She wants the child because Gilead tells her she should, because god commands it of her, but she wants that child for herself too, craves it like she craves air and light and water. And its Laurel’s sacred duty to somehow call that child into being.
It’ll have to be a goddamn virgin birth, she thinks, because fucking Sam is clearly shooting blanks, Bonnie letting slip that the Keatings had been through three handmaids before Laurel and not a whiff of a late period between them. She’s not gonna be the fourth disgraced handmaid, because this is her second fucking strike and she’s not about to leave it to the last one. She’s gonna get herself knocked up somehow because well, she doesn’t have much of a fucking choice now does she. Literally.
She was raised Catholic, sent to prep school since she was four and she still doesn’t have even half an idea about how Mary did it, that bitch. She admittedly wasn’t paying all that much attention, but Laurel would’ve thought at least some of the imparted wisdom would have made its way into her skull, osmosis or something like it. But Catholicism is heresy now, there are no saints, no transubstantiation, no blessed virgin, no water and no wine, no body and no blood. There’s just this foolish, vengeful god and his foolish vengeful laws, the foolish vengeful men who create them. And so really is it all that bad if she pulls off a reverse immaculate conception, if she does what she has to do to survive?
It’s a good thing for Frank then, she supposes. Frank, the only other man who even glances her way. The only other man besides Commander Keating who’s allowed to. And glance is all he does. But that’ll have to be enough, she knows, enough to somehow craft what she needs out of thin air and desperation. Frank, Commander Keating’s driver, better not be shooting blanks too because he’s her only hope through this world and out the other side.
Frank isn’t half bad, she muses, all things considered. He’s broad and muscled and were this the old world she would’ve craved the feeling of his beard scraping across her thighs, over her cunt. Now she just hopes he’s quick, now she just hopes he’s pliant and as good at keeping his goddamn mouth shut as she suspects. And most of all she hopes he knocks her up, saves her life.
She snorts before she can help herself because it sounds like the plot to a shitty porno from back in the old world. Man must impregnate woman to save her life. Too misogynistic she would’ve said, rolling her eyes when really she’d’ve mostly skipped it because it sounded so incredibly boring. Laurel would’ve skipped right on over that plot description, moved on to some low budget shaky cam porno about aliens with cocks for hands. She wishes that was the strange alien world they were living in instead, cocks for hands and all the men wearing mittens because they were too sensitive about size.
Annalise looks up sharply at Laurel’s choked laugh, the curve to her lips that too closely resembles a smile. Laurel doesn’t even have the freedom of feeling, of showing whatever emotions she might feel. She’s a blank slate, a body, a ghost of a woman to these people that own her. She’s losing herself, fading away like an overexposed image, washing away in the rain.
“Sorry, I…” Laurel shrugs, can’t come up with any kind of adequate explanation. She’s certain to smooth anything like laughter from her face, blank and clear like glass, like a mirror, simply reflecting back whatever Annalise hopes to see from her. “Bug?”
“Was it an aphid?” Annalise asks her, stabbing her trowel back into the dark dirt. “I thought I saw one yesterday but was hoping I’d imagined it. We’ll have to clean everything if it was.”
“I…” Laurel begins, stops because she doesn’t know what the right answer is. She doesn’t even know what an aphid is. “I don’t think so?”
The other woman hums, brows furrowed as she looks around, checks the plant closest to her.
“I think it might just have been a fly,” Laurel supplies hopefully, hoping Annalise takes that as the explanation, doesn’t particularly want to spend the next few days going through the garden searching for non existent aphids just to satisfy Annalise’s paranoia.
If she could stand to think about it, if it didn’t hurt almost as much the loss of Laurel’s own career, of her love of the law, she’d hate seeing Annalise this way, reduced to this woman puttering around in her garden, fixated on aphids, concerned with nothing of any consequence. It hurts, it really does. She hardly knew of Annalise by more than reputation, by the sharp, confident figure cutting through the courthouse, eyes never straying to the side, to the people left gawking in her wake. And now, well now Annalise is this woman in a ratty skirt and gloves up to her elbows obsessing about her garden instead of precedent and mandatory minimums and coerced confessions.
Its tragic, the true definition of tragedy, how Annalise has been stripped down of everything about her that was staggering, beautiful and terrible in its own way. If there were a god, a real one, he would never want this, would never want her wings clipped, would never want her crippled like this. If there was a god, he would never ask for this sacrifice, no god would be so cruel.
Laurel’s own career in law was short, unremarkable, she barely had time to get settled, to start making an impact before she was told the courtroom was no place for her but she still feels the loss, keenly, sharply and achingly and she’s certain it will never go away. She knows it must be worse for Annalise, wonders how the other woman can even stand it, can smile and trim her roses and plant her cabbages without taking hedge clippers to someone’s neck. Laurel can barely stand it sometimes and well, sometime she suspects Annalise is no less a prisoner.
Unless she chose this, unless she betrayed them all, her whole gender for this perfect, immaculate future. And then, then, Laurel doesn’t think she could ever forgive the woman, doesn’t think she could do anything but hate her. Laurel hopes she didn’t, hope she’s a victim the same as the rest of them, a victim in a gilded cage, but a victim nonetheless. She could never smile, could never answer politely and lie, never sit at a table next to a woman who chose this life, who allowed it to happen.
Some things are unforgivable, Laurel thinks, and asking for this slavery is one of them.
A knife is still a knife, a threat is still a threat no matter how its dressed up, cloaked in lies and beatific smiles. She only hopes its not true because Annalise tries to be kind and much as Laurel wants to hate her jailer, she wants to like her too, when she can.
But Laurel’s too smart, to canny to think that just because Annalise is kind it makes her a good person. Her father was kind, her father loved her but her father was a cruel, hard man, a man who loved her only enough to use her, to hurt her worse than the men with guns and zip ties, with greed and murder in their hearts. If there’s anything like faith left to her, Laurel hopes that Annalise is different, that she may be Laurel’s jailer, but that she’s trapped just as thoroughly, a victim of circumstances and this strange, fanatical world same as Laurel. The only difference is their position in it, slaves the both of them all the same.
She has to believe its true. It’s the only way to survive, really, the only way to keep from choking on the things like hate that fester in her heart. Laurel can only hate so many people and she’s not sure she can stand one more. And there are so, so many people she hates in this world filled with god’s perfect, unspoiled love.
Sorry i’ve been so bad about updating, life gets in the way sometimes...but here are two chaps just for the hell of it...
They’re nearly done with the planting when Frank emerges from the house, shirt rolled up to his elbows and his grey slate waistcoat buttoned across his chest. He’d be attractive Laurel thinks idly, if literally everything about the world were different.
In the old world he would’ve been just her type, beard and smoldering blue eyes and cocky smirk and suits he clearly didn’t grow up wearing.
She would’ve loved picking him up from a work event, a bar, taking him back to her place or just dragging him to the nearest bathroom stall, fucking him against the wall. She had plenty of men like him in the old world, men who came from nothing and were always, always so eager to please. She would’ve delighted in taking him to brunch, after, if there was something more than sex there, would’ve loved maybe taking him to dinner too if things went well.
The old Laurel was always a woman who knew what she wanted and she wanted men who challenged her, men who weren’t impressed by her name, by her father’s money but who were perfectly content to help her spend it. She thinks Frank might’ve been different, would’ve demanded at least they go Dutch, because she can tell just by the way he carries himself, assured and confident, held held high and almost defiant, that he’d probably have tried to keep up the illusion that he could compete with her father’s money. He would’ve wanted to take care of her, spoil her. He would’ve been so fucking chivalrous.
And that, Laurel thinks sourly, that’s the rub.
Frank holds no interest for her now because she knows the horrible truth, that he is the reason they’re here, in this new world, or at least part of it. That he’d be ashamed of her money, would let that shame fester and grow and eat at him until he became a man who thought it wasn’t so horrible an idea that women be stripped of their money, their ability to earn it. It would all be in the guise of wanting to take care of her, of course.
She sees where that thought begins, where it ends, and it ends with them here. It begins with boys being told they are strong and stoic and they must provide, that it is their duty to do so, that if they fail at that task they are not men, not real ones at least. And then it becomes rage and shame and loathing when their efforts are not appreciated the way the man thinks they should be, becomes thinking that providing for another person entitles them to certain things, twisted and ugly and corrupted.
It begins innocently enough. And it ends with them here. And so there is nothing attractive about Frank at all. Nothing but her own loathing now.
But still, he will have to do. He’s all she has, her world so narrow, so desperately tight she can barely breathe for it. Its like that fucking trash compactor in Star Wars, the walls slowly closing in, except none of them noticed until it was too late, none of them noticed until their chests were being crushed to dust. Her world is so small, so narrow it feels like its weight is crushing down on her, strangling her. Home, market, the walk there. Commander Keating, Annalise, Bonnie, Frank, Ofasher, no, no goddamnit, Michaela. There is no one else. There are no more hookups in bar bathrooms, there are no more hookups at all, no casual flirtations over beers, her smile curling slow and sharp like smoke. There are no more brunches, no more dinners, no more soft sheets and rough jaws. There is sea bass and the Ceremony and planting sunflowers. There is Frank.
She wonders if he’ll be pleased, to finally be needed by a woman, finally, after all this time, having the thing he craved for so long handed to him on a silver platter. It doesn’t come the way he was probably expecting, but he will have it all the same. A woman who needs him.
It makes her hate him a little bit, more than she hates everyone, hates the world, a low, vicious hate her default in god’s holy kingdom, makes her hate that she needs him, that she’ll have to go to him begging, grovel before him for his help. She’s been brought low by this place too many times and the thought on being on her knees again makes her nearly shake with fury. She needs him and she hates that she needs him.
And she’s debased herself before, begged and cried and made herself small, weak, pathetic. It was what it took to survive Mexico, it will be what it takes to survive this hell too. Laurel will do what she has to because she is strong and fierce and cunning. She is a survivor and at the end of all things she will be the one left standing. That is what being her father’s daughter taught her, what Mexico taught her, that it is survival that matters, not what it takes to get there.
And Frank will get here there, even if the thought of fucking him turns her stomach, of having to fake it enough that he thinks she actually wants to fuck him, of stroking his ego, his cock so that he thinks he’s special and not just the only goddamn option in her entire pathetically limited world. She hates that she can’t just present him with the truth, tell him ‘I need a baby so I’m not murdered by religious fanatics and I’m hoping you’re not shooting blanks,’ instead of pretending like the whole idea of fucking anyone, of having anyone’s cock inside her doesn’t make her want to vomit, to scream, to tear her fucking fingernails out at the roots.
The idea of touching anyone with anything approaching kindness makes her bite at the inside of her cheek until its bloody. But she needs him, and so she’ll offer him everything she has left to give. Whatever it takes to survive. She learned that long ago, long before this terrible new world. She survived that, that terrible prison of concrete and steel and blood. And she’ll survive this too. And, well, she only needs his cock after all.
Frank approaches, sidling up to Annalise. It takes her a moment to notice him, to finish her planting and turn and raise her eyes to him. In that time Frank’s gaze tracks to her, fixing on her as he waits for Annalise to turn. Laurel can feel it, feel the heat of his gaze against her skin. She always feels when someone’s staring at her now, feels their eyes tracking her body. In the red centers they taught her to avert her eyes, that she should be meek and pliant and fix her gaze inward, towards god.
Laurel thinks its merely that the architects of this kingdom, these small, cowardly men never want to be confronted by the cruel reality of their twisted creation, want to go on pretending that the women they’ve enslaved are no more than lifeless dolls. They don’t want to have to admit that handmaids like Laurel are real, are people. They want to continue to believe in their own blessed fantasies. So Laurel is commanded to avert her eyes, to smile and murmur and always be obedient. But that doesn’t mean the danger has passed. And so she’s taught herself to sense danger like a snake tasting the air.
And Frank, Frank is always staring at her. He shouldn’t, she knows, that is frowned upon too. She is Commander Keating’s handmaid, his property, and other men are supposed to avert their eyes from her, avoid her when they can. Even Frank, even a member of Sam’s house should make the effort. Her body is for Sam alone.
It makes something sickly twist in her gut that he doesn’t, something she likes and hates in equal measure. She likes that he flaunts the rules of this strange, new place where he can, that he tests the membrane of this world, attempts to puncture through it, that he has the confidence to test the strictures and the holy commandments, win back a little freedom, a little autonomy for himself. And she hates it too, hates Frank’s freedom because its one she’ll never have, one bestowed upon him simply because of his male body, his privilege that he’s won only because he has a cock and she has none. She hates him because he has what she craves so desperately, anything approaching the illusion of freedom.
And she hates it because she knows how easy it will be, the things she has to do. Laurel knows she’s caught his interest somehow, that something about her body or her eyes or her smile has hooked him, not deeply yet, but still tugs against his chest. It will be so easy to get what she wants from him, these falsely pious men, these men with such predictable things on their mind, power and sex and dominance. Nothing has changed about the world since it was remade in god’s holy image, nothing. Men are men and god is nothing more than a projection, a justification for the basest desires of men to weak to seize what they want by force.
Her father never needed god, may have been a terrible, brutal man, but he taught her well. He taught her that the truly powerful have no need to justify their actions, the truly powerful simply take what’s theirs. And Laurel, well, she’s not powerful, not here, not in this shining city on a hill, not on paper at least. She’s never had less power. And yet, and yet men are still men and men still want her. Men like Frank.
Laurel knows she should avert her eyes, turn her face away because that’s what’s expected of her, but she doesn’t, she can’t bring herself to pretend to be meek and cowed. So she holds his gaze, scowls at his attention even as he smirks at her, offers her a smile she suspects attempts to be sympathetic. Its not, makes her blood churn beneath her skin because she doesn’t want anyone’s pity, not here, not like this. Pity means they think she’s lost and Laurel’s certain the fight hasn’t even begun.
“What’s up boss?” Frank asks Annalise when she pats down the final little mound of earth, looks up at Frank, shading her eyes with a gloved hand. He holds Laurel’s eyes for just a beat too long, like he can’t quite tear himself away. Annalise doesn’t notice, but Laurel, Laurel does.
“You have the hose?” she asks him, voice clipped. Their dynamic is strange, Laurel has always thought, friendly at times, even though it shouldn’t be, and adversarial at times, like they’re both competing for Sam’s attention, like they’re both competing for more power, for their places in the house. She doesn’t understand it, much as she tries, and so she shies away from it, from the danger it could pose. Getting caught in the middle of whatever game their playing means she’ll inevitably be shot from both sides.
Frank nods, eyes flicking back to Laurel, something softening in them. Laurel notices, she has to notice, notices any opening, any chance she has. She has to notice if there’s any chance of success.
“You’re done washing the Commander’s car?”
“Not yet,” he replies, flashing Laurel what she decides is intended to be a friendly, conspiratorial grin, like they’re both put-upon employees, overworked and underpaid and taken for granted. Laurel wants to rip out his throat with her teeth. They are nothing alike, she wants to scream at him. She’s a fucking slave, a prisoner, she can’t just walk away, she can’t just roll her eyes at Annalise. She’s not fucking here by choice. And she hates Frank for pretending she is, for maintaining the lie, the thin veneer of legitimacy to the chains around her ankles, for pretending Annalise is anything but her jailer.
“Could you water the new plantings first?” she asks him, brushing off her hands on her skirt, rising to her feet. “Just enough to get the ground moist.”
“Yes ma’am,” he tells her, shrugging as he passes a hand over his beard. “Absolutely. Squash’re lookin good Mrs. Keating.”
Annalise smiles, a grin really, wide and proud at the praise, at being called Mrs. Keating, having her place acknowledged. “They do look pretty good. Cukes too.”
“How’re the pumpkins coming along?” he asks and Laurel can’t entirely tell whether he’s just being polite, just sucking up to his boss or if he really cares, is really interested in the vegetables. “They were crazy big last year.”
“They’re coming along,” she assures him, grin nearing something like teasing. “I’m hoping all the sun we got last week will help.”
Laurel looks away, can’t stand to see them joking, can’t stand to see anyone happy or pretending to be happy, drives her nails into her palms hard enough her ring finger punctures the skin, sets a trickle of dark red blood pooling in her palm. She hates this, hates their smiles, their pleasure, she hates that there’s any beauty in this world, for anyone, hates that they don’t see the rot, see the violence that props up the illusion of this perfect new world. She wants to burn down the entire world, tear through the sterile veneer they erect to cover over their violence, their coercion. She wants them all to see what she sees, she wants them to acknowledge their crimes. Laurel knows they’ll never apologize but she wants them to at least admit they’re crimes at all.
None of them will, she knows, not Sam, not Annalise, not a single damn one of them. Because to them, the creators of this world, they’re not crimes at all. Their strange, hateful god has sanctioned their brutal greed, their grasping fear and the things they do are divine commandments from their god, not brutal crimes, not torture and rape and slavery.
“Do you like pumpkin Ofsam?” Annalise is asking her, startling Laurel’s thoughts and making her clench her fist even harder, trying to hide the wound in her palm. They’re both looking at her, Annalise and Frank, Annalise’s gaze attempting something like softness, like real warmth. And Frank, eyes narrowing slightly like he can see her rage, her hesitation, the lingering things in her chest like pain, scowl marring his face.
“I haven’t eaten much pumpkin I guess,” Laurel offers, never sure what the right answer is, never sure what Annalise wants from her. She wonders sometimes if Annalise wants to befriend her or just wants to make herself feel better about the things she does, the ownership she claims over Laurel’s body, her life, make herself feel better about the sheathed knives hung over Laurel’s head. And Laurel, well, Laurel lies because she’s all too aware of the knives, of the power Annalise has over her life, her future. Laurel will only survive if Annalise allows it. “But I…I can’t wait to try some Mrs. Keating.”
“Get Bonnie to save you some seeds,” Frank urges her with a crooked smirk, his voice low like they’re conspirators, like he’s sharing some great secret with her. Tell me how the fuck to get out of here, she wants to demand. If he’s going to share secrets with her that’s the only one Laurel wants to know. “She roasts them with paprika and salt and something secret. They’re amazing.”
“I…,” Laurel starts, eyes swinging desperately to Annalise, judging her reaction. The other woman’s face is unreadable and Laurel knows she’ll have to rely on Frank, hope that he won’t steer her wrong. “I’m sure the pumpkins will be just as good as the rest of Mrs. Keating’s vegetables. Praised be, I’ve never had such good food.”
Annalise blushes, her grin proud and Laurel wants to snap that her abuela would scoff at these fucking squash, would consider them pathetic and mealy and little more than scraps for dogs. She wants to wipe that fucking grin of Annalise’s face, speak the goddamn truth for once in her life. T’ere's just no place for truth with this god and his followers. “It is all the Lord’s blessing. He rewards our faith with fruitfulness.”
“Under his eye,” Laurel recites, hating how everything comes back to her body, to her ability to produce a child, how that’s all she is to them, just a womb, a body. They don’t even need to say it, don’t even need to hint at it, Laurel’s lived in this world long enough to know Annalise is hinting at the baby, or the lack of baby, Laurel’s great failure. Not Sam’s, never Sam’s, the failure is hers and hers alone. And it’s a failure, shameful and dark, it’s a mark against her, a sign that god has seen fit not to bless her.
“Can I help with anything else?” Frank asks before either Laurel or Annalise can say more. He stuffs his hands into the back pocket of his slacks, rocks on his heels like he’s uncomfortable, shoulders curling inwards. “Or just the hose?”
“Just watering for now,” Annalise tells him.
“Perfect,” Frank replies, flashing them both another slanted grin. “Commander Keating asked me to wash the car today, so that’s two birds with one stone I suppose.”
“Yes,” Annalise laughs softly. “Sam’s very partial to that car. Without a baby, he has nothing else to spoil.”
Laurel bristles but says nothing, hating the dig, hating the constant reminders of how she is failing, how close she is to being disposable, worthless in the eyes of Annalise and Sam. She’s hanging onto this life, pathetic as it is, by a thread, by the promise and potential of a baby that she knows is far more hope than reality.
“All in good time though,” Annalise sighs, though Laurel can’t fail to notice the furtive glance she shoots her, accusing and disappointed.
“The lord rewards the faithful,” Frank tells her as Laurel tries to figure out whether he’s simply reciting the things he’s supposed to say or truly believes. She’s never been able to figure Frank out because they’re all of them cloaking themselves in the false piousness necessary to remain alive. “But firsts he tests them. Blessed be the fruit.”
Laurel swallows down the impossible compulsion to snap that god doesn’t exist and if he did he wouldn’t give a fuck what the lot of them do. He wouldn’t care about the pathetic wantings, the meaningless desires of the ants that populate the earth. If god existed, he’d never let this happen, never let this horror be done in his name. And every day it gets harder and harder for Laurel to hold her tongue, to let them continue the illusion that they’re acting at god’s command. “May the lord open,” she recites instead.
Frank’s mouth twists into something that resembles both scowl and smile, crooked and sharp, holding her eyes just a beat too long.
“Praised be,” Annalise says, before turning her attention to Laurel. “Now lets go see to those herbs Ofsam and leave Frank to it.”
Laurel nods automatically, follows after Annalise towards the driveway and the little patch of herbs along the walk. And as she goes she feels Frank’s eyes against her back, raking over her skin, warm and curious. She revels in it, lets him stare.
Frank is her escape, her survival and she needs him to want her, need her as much as she needs him. She wants him to crave her like breath, wants him to believe that he can’t survive without her, desperately and urgently. Frank is her survival and she needs him to believe the same thing about her, needs him to want to throw his life away, risk everything for the promise of her body, her touch.
She wants to drive him to madness, wants to become his god so that he forsakes all other idols, so that he worships her instead of the brutal demanding god unleashed in this terrible new world. She wants his loyalty to be to her, not Sam, not Annalise, not this nameless bloody god, this god who demands blood and sacrifice and suffering. She wants to supplant his beliefs, tear them down and replace them with a worship of pleasure, of flesh, of avarice and greed and lust. She wants him to give in to all of the seven deadly sins, wants him to commit every crime for her, tear down every god for her.
Laurel needs him to save her and she needs him to believe it was his own idea, needs him to be willing to betray everything, his god and his masters for her, for the paradise she offers. And this, his interest, his gaze, his attention, this is the first step.
In which frank and laurel exchange words...
Laurel should like the Keating’s ceilings. She doesn’t. They’re old and ornate like everything else in the house, dark wood and probably hand carved molding where it meets the walls. Its old and classic and tastefully rich, nothing like the gaudy monstrosities her father once surrounded himself with in order to prove his wealth. She ought to like the ceilings, like everything about their house. She fucking hates their ceilings.
She has spent too much time on her back staring up at them, Annalise’s hands like vices around her wrists and Sam, fucking Sam fucking her, jerkily thrusting his hips into hers until her comes, breath ragged and shaky and the sweat just beginning to bead around his forehead, along his collar. She’s memorized each and every inch of the ceiling in Annalise’s bedroom, the only space in the house the other woman owns, mapped it first and then committed every line and curve and divot to memory.
And she hates it, hates what it means, that she’s forced onto her back like she’s a breeding animal, pinioned and made still with threats and hidden blades. She hates it because all she wants to do is close her eyes, turn away but they won’t let her.
They want to pretend that what they’re doing isn’t rape, isn’t slavery and so her eyes must remain open, remain fixed on Sam, or close to it, she must pretend she is a willing participant in her own assault, that she chose it, asked for it. She doesn’t kick and scream and cry, she doesn’t fight and that means they can pretend she wants it, pretend Laurel doesn’t have a blade hanging over her head, a noose looped around her neck, pretend she could refuse if she wanted. It allows them to forget their crimes, pretend that there’s no coercion, no violence cloaked in silence, pretend that she has a choice and she chooses this, this Ceremony. Her silence lets them pretend they are still good people. It’s the worst twisting corruption of everything she once fought against and it makes her sick every time.
Her eyes fix on the ceiling above her, focus on the effort it takes her not to vomit, not to curl her limbs into a ball and simply focus on the act of breathing, not to launch herself at Sam, at Annalise, attack them with everything she has. She doesn’t of course, her survival means more to her than any petty act of revenge, but she wants to, god she wants to. In a just world she would.
She hates the fucking Ceremony, hates that fucking ceiling more.
But there is no baby, not this month, and so she takes a deep, unsteady breath, same as last month, and leans back into the cradle of Annalise’s thighs, leans back against her hips as Annalise’s fingers close around her wrists, the cuffs wrapping around her, tightening.
She was cuffed once, for nineteen terror filled days, still has soft lines running across the curve of her wrists, white and faded where they dug bloody trenches into her skin. She is no stranger to this, to being chained, being trapped. But this, this is worse than those nineteen days, so much worse. Because this will be unending, no hope of death or reprieve. This offers her the illusion of freedom, tempting and false. It is worse than any of the things that came before.
It is worse because Annalise can read her history on her skin, see the lines marring her wrists, has run her fingers over their curves and yet she still goes forward with this brutality every month. She’s a prisoner too, in her own way, but she still allows this to continue. They’re all complicit in these crimes.
There’s a knock, Sam’s, asking to gain entrance and Laurel hears Annalise sigh above her before she responds. The snick of the door as it opens is like a gunshot and before Sam steps into the room, she feels Annalise’s hand leave hers, feels her fingertips brush along Laurel’s hairline, soft and tender as it cards the fine wisps of hair there. She hates it, clenches her jaw and stiffens her spine to suppress the flinch that burns through her, the overwhelming desire to twist away from Annalise’s touch.
But in this godly hellscape her body is not her own, it belongs to her masters and they can do to her anything they desire, fuck her or touch her with what they believe is kindness, try and comfort her. She has no say over her body, not autonomy.
The only thing left to her is her mind. Laurel just hopes that will be enough. She’s certain it won’t be.
She can hear Sam enter before she sees him, fumbling with his belt, his zipper, fumbling like the weak, pathetic man shaped thing he is. She hates him, she hates them all, the thing inside her chest burning with a rage she thinks might never fade, will continue burning long after she’s dead.
She read about a coal fire somewhere deep under the earth, somewhere near Allentown or Scranton, one of those strange, far off parts of Pennsylvania she always intended to visit but never bothered with, a coal fire in one of the old, deep mines that has been burning, unchecked, for something like fifty, sixty years. She thinks she read somewhere that it was expected to burn another thousand until it finally exhausted itself, burned itself out.
Laurel feels like that coal fire sometimes, the rage, the hate inside her burning so brightly, so hotly it buckles the earth, sends strange, hellish vents into the air, the fire burning long after she’s faded into dust, continuing to turn the land around her into a wasteland, strangling the life out of everything she touches.
She wishes that fire near Allentown or Scranton or wherever would spread all through the seams and tunnels beneath the earth, wend its way down the Schuylkill, creep towards Philly until the ground fractured, until it opened and swallowed them up and strangled them in clouds of burning steam and poisonous gas. She thinks it’s the least they deserve, all of them, for hell itself to be unleashed on all of them, fire and brimstone and buckling early and carbon monoxide. The architects of Gilead think they’ve created god’s holy kingdom, followed his word to create earth in his perfect image, a paradise on earth, but they’ve really just unleashed hell, unleashed the devil into the world and all his greed, his dark anger.
Hell is empty, Laurel thinks, and all the devils are here. She wants the world to reflect that, wants these sniveling, holy men to stop cloaking themselves in suits and slicked hair and poisonous smiles, in the veneer of politicians, of businessmen, of family men, wants the world outside to reflect the evil in men’s hearts. She wants them all to suffer as she’s been made to suffer.
Laurel bites the inside of her cheek, stares at that hated ceiling as Sam hitches her skirt up around her hips, strips her underwear down her legs. Annalise’s fingers begin to stroke along her wrist, softly, like she’s trying to soothe Laurel. She knows Annalise can feel the pounding of her pulse through her skin, and loathing churns through her gut, for Annalise, for Sam, for herself, for the things inside herself she can’t contain, for the ways her body betrays her.
Its made worse because Annalise knows, can feel through her skin how much she hates it, that even now she’s still afraid. There Ceremony is not a wound that will scar, callus over, it’s a new wound they rip into her skin every month, a new, horrible violation made worse by all the ones that came before.
She tries to burn a hole through the ceiling, fixes her eyes on a spot and refuses to look away, not even when she hears Sam push his pants down his hips, not even when she hears his hand glide over his dick, pumping himself to hardness, not even when he thrusts himself inside her without even the decency of a warning. He never does, because he doesn’t care about whether Laurel’s ready, because he doesn’t care about her. She’s not a person to him, just a body, a vessel for his seed. She’d say she’s used to it by now, but that would be a lie. She’ll never be used to the way she’s been stripped of every ounce of personhood, the way it simply doesn’t matter if she’s ready, if she’s wet, if his cock tears its way through her when he decides he’s ready.
Laurel may not be used to it, but she’s forced herself to learn his tells, his patterns, forced herself into awareness so that she can almost, almost always brace herself in time, feel the shifting patterns of the Ceremony and know when she must force herself to relax, force her mind elsewhere so that it doesn’t feel the things his body does to hers. Maybe they’re right, Laurel thinks, maybe she is just a body, because sometimes her mind is able to leave it far behind, go somewhere outside herself or deep within, her body just the empty vessel they imagine it to be. She doesn’t know whether to hate herself for proving them right or pleased that she’s able to escape the horrible things.
She doesn’t hiss though, she doesn’t flinch as he buries his cock inside her, just ignores the feeling of burning, tearing as he begins to move, ignoring, as he always does how dry she is, how there’s nothing approaching pleasure for either one of them.
Laurel forces herself from her body, stares at the ceiling and tries to turn her skin to stone, to diamonds. She can’t, she never could, not well enough that she doesn’t feel Annalise’s fingertips whisper over her wrists, feel Sam’s hips knock against hers as his cock drags through the dryness inside her, the shudder of his breath and the way Annalise begins to clench as they realize how close Sam is, her thighs tight around Laurel’s shoulders. It happens every time, every month, Laurel can feel Sam’s climax approach more through Annalise’s body than his, feels it in the way the other woman practically braces for the end.
And then he comes, spills inside her and all three of them draw in low shaky breaths, though Laurel still refuses to move her eyes from her chosen divot in the ceiling, refuses to move until Sam pulls out of her, until he lifts his pants again, zips them up. She doesn’t look away until its safe to pretend this abomination, this corruption of everything good and holy never happened. She doesn’t look away until she can pretend it was something that happened to some other girl. Except she can’t, she never can. Laurel can still feel him inside her, still feel his come sticky on her thighs, dribbling out of her. No, she can pretend it happened to some other girl, but it happened to her. And it will happen to her again next month, and the month after that until she runs out of second chances or until she summons a child out of thin air and desperation. And then, once that child is born, it will start all over again with some new Sam.
She wants to curl into a ball, wants to hug her knees to her chest and pretend that she’s somewhere else, anywhere else, curling into nothingness until she can gather the strength to move again in weeks, months, years, burrow beneath the earth until its safe to emerge.
Sam goes first, turns on his heel and stalks away, the door shutting softly behind him, the silence echoing like canons though the bedroom. Laurel moves next, she’s learned her lessons well, knows she is forbidden from lingering in Annalise’s room once the Ceremony is over. They are not allies, they’ve never been allies, and while the other woman makes some strange, strangled overtures at kindness, the minutes following the Ceremony are not the moments for kindness. Not after Sam has fucked her while Annalise watches, not after god and religion and torment demand this betrayal of the thing Annalise once thought she swore to Sam, thought Sam had sworn to her.
There is no kindness to be found when Laurel’s thighs are still sticky with Annalise’s husband’s come and though there remains a little voice inside Laurel that demands she point out she had no choice, that she was forced and raped and unable to resist, she keeps quiet. Because Annalise believes she has a choice, believes that Laurel has somehow made the choice to be in this position, be a handmaid, because she’s a terrible, fallen woman, loose and unbelieving, because she willingly chose this life instead of certain death. She had no choice, not a real one, but the illusion is enough for Annalise, enough to make her hate Laurel for the few meager, pathetic things she has that Annalise doesn’t.
So Laurel goes, pulls her dress down around her hips, the material falling down to the floor, disguising her pain by moving slowly, cautiously. She knows Annalise can see the lie, can see the pinching in her face, the way she moves like her bones are made of glass, like her insides have been scraped raw. They have, though Laurel agrees to the lie Annalise tells herself, pretends that’s not true, tries to pretend she’s fine, that there’s no pain.
She’s complicit too, sometimes, in pretending that what takes place behind these doors isn’t rape, violation, isn’t full of pain and muffled gasps. She can’t stand to acknowledge the hurt, the weakness in her bones and so she lets them get away with the lie. Some lies she tells because they’re easy, other lies are needed for survival.
Laurel limps back to her little garret at the back corner of the house, curls into a ball and breathes muffled sobs against her hands until she can hear silence envelop the house. She knows she should force them to confront what they do to her, the crimes they commit and tell themselves are divine orders, but her pride is too great, the low, constant anger inside her is too powerful. She refuses to let them see her in pain, too stubborn, she’s too committed to being the perfect real doll, silicone made flesh and breath, a living creature stripped of all desires except the ones her masters command of her. It’s the only way to survive, so Laurel will pretend its true.
When the house settles in for sleep Laurel leaves her bed again, forces her breath to steady and her tears to dry. Her attic room is too small, too stifling after the Ceremony and every month Laurel feels the walls begin to close in around her, tries to bury herself in sleep and silence but always winds up too restless, too hot, like little ants have been buried beneath her skin, crawling across her bones. So she leaves her bed and silently tracks through the house, finds her way out the back door and into the night.
She knows the risk she’s taking, knows how thoroughly she’ll be punished if she’s caught out of her room, caught roaming in the night. She’s not even allowed that freedom, not even allowed movement, restricted and pinioned in every way that matters. But it’s a risk she can’t help but take, a restlessness within her that seeks the only outlet left open. And so she sneaks out, sneaks out into the darkness and seeks out whatever solitude she can.
When the night air hits her face another sob rips itself from her throat, one of relief, like sinking down into cool water. She forces her hands to unclench, forces her eyes to the sky so she can ignore the house behind her and pretend she is alone, pretend she is free, pretend its just her and the darkness and the far off stars.
She takes a few shaky steps forward, down the steps and out onto the grass, letting her bare feet sink into the cold, dewy earth, letting a fraction of tension slough from her shoulders, fall to her feet like discarded clothing. She’s not ok, nowhere near ok. It’ll take another month for her to get anywhere approaching ok just for it to start all over again, but this helps. The solitude, the darkness, the coldness of the breeze as it whips through the thin cotton of her nightgown. It’ll be enough for now, enough to pretend that the pain at the juncture of her thighs can be ignored, that she can’t still feel Annalise’s fingertips against her skin, restraining her through mere warning alone. It’ll be enough because it has to be.
She drops to the ground, lays back, letting her fingers card through the grass, letting the cold dew sink through the thin material of her clothing. She wants to lie there until dawn forces her back inside, until the stars fade and the ground warms. Laurel lies there staring at the stars, at the black sky, letting her heart rate slow, letting the iron bands around her chest ease.
She still hurts, still feels tears pricking her eyes, but feeling the grass, the breeze, against her skin, it helps, lets her feel something other than pain, than fear and rage. It helps her forget, helps her pretend that she can make it through another month, another Ceremony, can maybe keep herself going another day, another week, another month.
And then she hears the back door creak open.
There’s nowhere to hide, she’s lying exposed on the grass and there’s nothing she can duck behind, nowhere she can flee to.
She’s going to be seen and so she doesn’t bother to move, just continues to lie against the earth, waits to be spotted, waits for whatever punishment is coming to her.
She turns her head slightly, just enough to see the silhouette of the figure that emerges from the house. It’s a man, she can tell that simply by the size of the shadow, either Sam or Frank, she’s not initially sure. Either one spells danger.
But then she sees the body move through the darkness and she knows. Frank. She knows the lines, the movements, the cadence of Sam’s body, and she knows by the unfamiliarity of this patch of darkness that it must be Frank who has stepped out onto the brick steps. She has learned Sam, she’s had to, studied him and taken his measure. She’s had to, her survival demands it, demands knowing her enemy almost better than she knows herself. And Sam is her enemy, he always will be, his her her jailer and her rapist and, someday, her killer.
But Frank, she has not learned Frank yet, memorized the patterns of his bones, his muscles. Frank is her enemy just as thoroughly as Sam, but the danger he poses is more muted, less immediate. Frank is a servant, a long time one, a trusted one, but a servant all the same. He can hurt her, but his power only goes so far as to tell Sam and Annalise about her, betray her to them. They are the ones that decide how she may be punished. Frank can hurt her, but not with the same immediacy, the same power. She could betray him too. And so she has been learning him, slowly, furtively, but she doesn’t know his body yet.
But she knows its Frank that emerges from the house into the cool, crisp darkness.
Laurel’s breath catches, stops, her heart pounding heavy in her ears as she waits for him to spot her, waits for him to raise the alarm. She doesn’t move, barely even breathes as she waits for it all to end. He is her enemy and he is going to hurt her and at the end of the day, its all her fault for not studying him, for not learning where his weaknesses are so that she can betray him as throughly as he's going to betray her, now. She focused too much on Sam, on Annalise, even on Bonnie, on learning their tells and ticks and now, now she is left to fumble through the darkness, to hope that the end comes swift and sudden for her. Its all her fault.
“Ofsam?” she hears him whisper through the darkness, soft and uncertain. She watches as the dark shape of his shadow moves through the night, moves down the stairs towards her. He pauses at the bottom of the steps, lingers there like he’s not sure he should edge closer to her. He moves and then pauses like he thinks of her as a cornered animal. She is. But there’s a difference between a cornered rabbit and a tiger. Laurel hopes that when it matters most she can be the tiger.
“Frank,” she replies as her stomach sinks, clenches tightly. She curls her hands into fists but doesn’t move. She won’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her fear, if she’s going to be punished for leaving her room, leaving the house, she’ll draw out every last moment of freedom she can before that happens, savor what small liberties she has before they’re stolen from her.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he asks, his voice so, so casual, so unconcerned that she’s escaped her room, that she’s stolen out into the night, could very well be halfway through an escape plan to get herself up to Canada. Frank must surely be thinking of possibilities like that and yet he doesn’t move, doesn’t shout, he just asks her about sleep as though they were any two people from back before, back from the old world.
“No,” she murmurs, her voice coming out too high, too breathy and she hates the way it trembles with fear. She’s a fucking tiger and she will not show him any fear. She wants to say more, thinks she should, that Frank somehow expects it of her, but she can’t think of anything, the fear still pounding hot and roiling through her veins. She can’t think of anything to say that won’t make it obvious how terrified she is.
She can hear Frank huff out something like a laugh. It makes her want to laugh, the sound so absurd, the sound so startlingly unfamiliar that it makes her want to echo the sound, confirm it was real and not some hallucination she’s concocted. “Me neither.”
Laurel keeps waiting for him to raise the alarm, keeps waiting for Frank to tell her she can’t be outside and have her dragged back inside or, worse yet, dragged away by the Eyes. But he doesn’t, he doesn’t say anything, just sits down heavily on the bottom step, rests his weight on his elbows as he leans back.
“I can’t ever sleep on Ceremony nights,” he says it softly, so softly Laurel can barely hear it, barely louder than a whisper, like a confession he didn't entirely intend her to hear.
But she did and she doesn’t know what to do now that she has. She wants to scream at him that he doesn’t have the right to sleeplessness, not because of the Ceremony. Its not his, she wants to spit, he has no right to be driven from his bed because of it. He doesn’t see it, doesn’t have to be in that room, doesn’t have Annalise’s clumsy attempts at comfort, balanced against her corrosive burning hatred of Laurel, doesn’t have Sam’s fetid breath, his clammy, fumbling hands, and Frank has no right to hate the Ceremony, not the way Laurel hates it.
He’s a fucking bystander to the Ceremony, gets to walk away unscathed, gets to ignore the worst of it, not even a witness to the horrors that take place behind the heavy door to Annalise’s bedroom. He’s a fucking bystander and he has no right, no goddamn right to sleeplessness. It makes her hate him, powerfully and overwhelmingly, because it is not his burden to bear, the things they face on Ceremony nights cannot be compared.
And yet, it sets a little niggling seed of something like hope unfurling in her chest because maybe, just maybe she’s found an ally, maybe she can find sympathy in Frank. She will need him, she knows, if she wants to survive and maybe, maybe this is what she needs to make an ally out of Frank, this strange presence in this house of horrors.
“Yeah,” Laurel sighs, turning her head even more so she can watch him, gauge his reaction to her words, to the tentative offering she extends him. “Me neither.”
Her eyes begin to adjust to the sight of him, legs kicked out in front of him and his elbows curled against the steps, holding most of his weight. She watches him and he watches her, a strange stalemate that she’s not sure she has the power to end.
But then he shifts slightly, reaches behind and pulls something out, something that shines in the soft moonlight. A flask, she realizes as she hears the metal twist of the cap, sees Frank raise it to his lips.
“You want some?” he asks after he’s taken a long swallow, holding out the flask to her.
She wants, god how she wants. She hasn’t felt the burn of alcohol in fuck, in years now, didn’t realize how desperately she craved it until she it was offered to her, until Laurel realized how close it was, tantalizingly, temptingly close. She wonders what he’s drinking, wonders if its straight or mixed, whiskey or rum. She knows it will be dark, can’t imagine Frank drinking anything that isn’t dark, smoky, caramely. She settles on whiskey and god how she’d love a good whiskey right now. But she can’t, she can’t. Because this is a test of some kind, she knows it, can feel the expectation hanging heavy in the air. She knows Frank is testing her and that her answer can save or doom her, save or doom her plan for him, for the child she knows they will create.
Its too big a risk if Frank’s an Eye, which he very well could be, a driver in a Commander’s house. He’s caught her out, of bed, of the house, but still she can walk that back, somehow, find some excuse or some words that will be enough for him, turn his suspicion of her into pity instead, into disinterest. She still has a chance of she says nothing. She’s been a prisoner in this world long enough to know that any words will doom her, innocent or not, truth or not. She’s used silence as her shield since before these men of god came and told her that she was a wicked liar, that any words she spoke were from a serpent’s forked tongue, and silence comes as second nature to her now.
Other people would explain, justify, beg for mercy. Not Laurel, Laurel simply waits. If she’s done something wrong, if she’s doomed herself, if Frank is an Eye and has decided to take her for her crimes, well, anything she says will only make the situation worse. All she can do now is wait, wait and pretend there’s nothing to her nighttime escape, hopes somehow Frank does the same.
“I really shouldn’t,” she demurs, gritting her teeth so the words don’t stick on her tongue. “Its not good for a baby…” she trails off, not capable of any more lies, not capable of resisting any further. There’s no baby, they both know it, there’ll never be any baby, not from Sam at least. It’s a weak, stupid excuse, but Laurel must keep up the lie, must pretend, at least for now, that she’s the perfect, pious handmaid, that she doesn’t have bigger, darker plans for herself and Frank than getting tipsy in the Keating’s backyard when sleep chases them from their beds. She has greater designs on Frank than this. And so she forces herself to smile, tells him no.
Frank shrugs, casual and dismissive and Laurel can’t really interpret the gesture, doesn’t know what he means by it until he speaks. “We both know there’s not going to be any baby. Not for you, not with him at least. Commander Keating. He wasn’t able to give her a baby, Annalise, not back before all this happened. Never did knock up Bonnie either, and they certainly tried in their day. Not any of those girls that came before you, Kelly and Rebecca and Lila. You’re not gonna be the exception. So have a drink with me, ok?”
He’s drunk already, Laurel thinks, though she can’t hear any slurring, any hesitation to his words. It’s the way he speaks, the heavy certainty, the dark finality like he can’t keep the truth buried inside him any longer. He’s drunk and that makes him unpredictable. But it also makes him honest.
Laurel knows she can use that. Silence has always been her weapon of choice, but she’s resourceful, will use what’s available to her. And tonight, it’s the words Frank speaks to her.
“You’re right,” she tells him cautiously, offering him the truth and hoping that she will be rewarded for it. “There’s not going to be any baby.” Not Sam’s at least. Maybe mine, she thinks though the words go unsaid, maybe yours too.
Her admission hangs in the air, heavy between them and Frank laughs mirthlessly. She watches him take a long drink, listens for the sloshing of the liquid in the flask, can hear that its less than half full now, thinks this probably isn’t his first round draining it. “I knew you were a smart one. You might just be the one to make it out of here.”
She waits for him to say more, tell her what he means, but Frank doesn’t bother to elaborate. Laurel supposes its obvious after all. None of them made it out, she knows, not any of her predecessors, the three Ofsam’s that preceded her. None of them left alive. Maybe she will, he’s telling her, maybe she won’t, but she has a better chance than the others, all the women who’s ghosts once inhabited her life.
It hits her suddenly, strikingly and she sucks in a breath she’s sure he hears but it only just ripples into the dark, faint corners of her brain, finally penetrated through her caution and fear. He used their names, the girls that came before. Kelly and Rebecca and Lila, the first time she’s heard anyone say the names of the ghosts who came before her, the Ofsam’s who failed.
A shiver runs up her spine, something that tastes of fear when it hits her eyeteeth, of anticipation. He called them by their names and she doesn’t know what that means, how he would’ve known them in the first place. Unless he’s an Eye. Unless it was his word that eventually doomed them. Unless he does this with every Ofsam, try to get them to drop their guard before betraying them.
Unless. Unless. Unless he’s not so perfect and pious as he pretends.
Laurel only knows their names because they’re carved into the far back corner of her closet, down as far away from prying eyes as can be, in a place where only the Ofsam’s that came after might see. They’re dug into the wood with a desperation, a frantic violence that Laurel knows she doesn’t understand, not yet at least. She tried not to add her name, tried so, so hard, convinced herself until her clenched jaw, her clenched fists ached that she would be different, that she didn’t need to add her name because she would be the one that survived, wouldn’t be just another girl to die in the house. She’d managed to resist for three months before adding her name, scratching it into the wood beside the others, just another Ofsam, just another body that once had a name and now doesn’t need one.
She just doesn’t know what it means that Frank knows them too, if he’s seen the gouges torn into the wood or if he somehow does this to every woman who files into, and out of, the Keating’s house. She doesn’t know which she finds worse.
And so Laurel flashes him a smile, more like a snarl, her teeth bared and sharp. She wants to tell him she’s going to make it out, make it through this disaster zone of a world, going to make it out the other side, see them all punished, see this terrible new world torn down around their ears. She wants to, but she doesn’t. Laurel thinks he knows anyway. “Give it here then.”
She sits up, one arm behind to brace herself, extends her other out to Frank. She watches him push himself up to stand, shuffle towards her on feet that are steadier than she expected. He approaches, towering over her, and Laurel’s suddenly painfully conscious of the coarse, white material of her nightgown, the thinness of limbs beneath the fabric, conscious of how she’s certain he can see every line and curve of her body, every play of muscles between her skin.
She’s painfully conscious of her own body in a way that she hasn’t been in years now, ever since ownership of her skin was taken from her, ever since she was forced to split herself apart, fracture her mind from her body in order to keep herself sane.
The things done to her body are things that happen to someone else, some other girl and so she barely things of her body as more than a shell, more than a disguise she wears anymore. But Frank, his dark, smoldering gaze, it suddenly makes her conscious of her limbs again, too thin, too angular, makes her aware of all the sharp places on her skin, the arc of her collarbones and her hips, the pucker of her nipples in the cool night air and the way the strands of her hair brush against her chest. Her body is no longer her own, hasn’t been her own for years now, but she wants to shield herself from Frank’s sight, the thought queer and sour and fluttering in her chest.
She steels herself, tries to keep her hands from trembling as she takes the flask from his grasp. Frank gives her a slanted smirk as she does, his fingers lingering along the metal so that her skin must brush his as she takes the container. A little thrill of something, needle sharp arcs through her as their fingers connect, confusion tumbling beneath her skin as she sucks in a breath she didn’t know she was holding.
“What is it?” she asks him, sniffing at the lip of the flask. She doesn’t care, not really, she’s going to drink it whatever it is. But she wants to keep Frank engaged, keep him talking to her. Its almost too easy, its harder than anything she’s ever done.
Frank huffs out a sudden laugh, his face breaking into a wide, crooked grin like he’s discovered some wonderful joke only he gets. “I knew there was a reason I came out here,” is all he says, waiting and watching her with that same tilted grin.
“You’re not gonna tell me?” she asks, low heat of her temper beginning to flare in her chest before Laurel douses it, tempers it back into nothingness, into the cool placidity she’s crafted so perfectly for this brutal life. She sniffs again, can’t quite tell what she’s got in her hand, too long without booze, too long confined, the answer prickling away at the back of her mind, just out of reach.
“Nah,” Frank answers easily, still grinning like a madman, rocking back on his heels. “But it should be obvious.”
She holds his eyes, tries to suppress the urge to glare, doesn’t think she quite makes it, tries to figure out the truth from his statements, from his grin. Eventually though, Laurel just shrugs, takes a long pull. Oh, she thinks as the burn of the alcohol hits her tongue, the back of her throat. Of course.
She wants to grin, she wants to bare her teeth to him because how does he even know. How does he know like he knows Kelly and Rebecca and Lila. He shouldn’t know and that makes him dangerous.
“Yeah,” Frank drawls as he nods slowly, his grin turning teasing. “Commander got it from that Mexican delegation rolled through a couple months ago, right after you first came here. He hates the tequila, so…”
“So he gave it to you,” Laurel finishes, taking another long swallow so she can hide her expression, smooth it over before her anger bubbles to the surface.
Because fuck that delegation, fuck those diplomats who knew, knew she was a Mexican national and didn’t do a goddamn thing to help her. She’d told them as much, or she’d tried to, wrote tiny messages in Spanish and had pressed the paper into the hand of one of the aides as he passed through the hallway, lost. She’d wrote the same message and tucked it under a teacup on the breakfast tray Bonnie was bringing to one of the delegates one morning. She’d written so many messages, cast out so many messages in so many bottles and nothing. Not a damn thing. No one came to rescue her.
No one has ever came to rescue Laurel. Not fifteen years ago in a cinderblock room in a basement in Mexico City, chained to a chair and tortured and beaten and held for a ransom that would never emerge. Not now, held by stranger chains and by captors who have no interest in ransom. The only thing the same is that no rescue ever comes. If Laurel wants rescue it must be by her own brutal hand.
Frank nods. “He did. And now I’m sharing it with you. Fitting don’t you think?”
“The only Mexican left in Philly,” Laurel says with more bitterness than she really ought, than she ought to let Frank hear in her voice.
“Not a citizen of our glorious kingdom of Gilead?” Frank asks with what she eventually decides is the bitter tinge of irony.
“Can’t I be both?”
“No,” Frank answers slowly. “Not anymore.”
Laurel hums, takes another slow sip so she doesn’t have to respond before passing back the flask. Their fingers meet again as they trade the container, the little thrill of something sharp and electric running across her skin, little magnets in her blood urging her closer, driving her away.
“Salute,” he tells her, holding up the flask in an ironic toast.
“Saluti,” she replies pointedly, because just as he knows she’s Mexican, she knows he’s Italian, wants to let him know, send him something of a clouded warning, a shot across the bow in case he means her harm. She knows she has no power, knows she has no teeth behind her threats, but she tries anyway, makes the attempt. Laurel doesn’t understand his intentions yet, but she needs him to understand she won’t just stand by.
He laughs again, surprisingly soft, almost tender. “I deserved that I suppose.”
She nods but doesn’t dare voice her agreement. Laurel still isn’t sure what Frank’s playing at, what his intentions are. She doesn’t dare risk anything that can hurt her further, hurt her plans for Frank. And she still has plenty of plans.
He drops to the ground then, kicks his legs out in front of him and props his weight up on one elbow as he holds the flask in the other. A tightness in her chest she didn’t know was there lessens as he stops towering over her, as he falls into place beside her, throws another smirk her way.
“This stuff any good?” he asks then as he takes another swallow, as she sees him fight against the burn.
Laurel shrugs. “Tastes good at least,” she offers because she doesn’t know nearly as much about tequila as she does about whiskey, about scotch. She knows her father’s particular vices and his particular vices have always skewed decidedly Anglo.
He’s always shied away from tequila, from rum, always like the particular affectations of dark wood and smoky backrooms and heavy, amber whiskey.
“It does that,” he agrees, laughter murmuring across his voice, almost, Laurel thinks, like they’re sharing some kind of secret, some kind of joke that’s for the two of them alone. He reaches out, offers her the flask again.
Laurel can already feel the alcohol whispering through her blood, feel the pleasant numbness that she used to seek with the fervor of a fanatic, a penitent, knows she should step back but doesn’t quite get that far, feels herself taking the flask from him again, bringing it to her lips. Its been too long since she’s had anything to drink, too long since she’s been allowed the pleasant catch of it in her throat and she no longer knows how to steel herself against the whiskey inside her.
“Thank you for this,” she tells him softly, nodding as she indicates the flask. She is, she realizes, almost shocked to find that she means it, grateful for the whiskey and his company, grateful he doesn’t ask her any questions, doesn’t demand any answers.
“Don’t mention it,” he answers with another little shrug. “I’m glad I can do something.”
“There’s nothing for you to do,” she says, an edge creeping into her voice. She doesn’t want his pity, doesn’t want him to look at her like she’s glass, like she’s a fragile little doll. She doesn’t want him to look at her like she’s sure he looked at Kelly and Rebecca and Lila, all of them stripped down, all of them destroyed by the relentless crush of this godly torture. “Its not something you can solve.”
“I know,” he admits quickly, his smirk screwing up into a scowl. His voice is low and soft, almost soothing. “I know.”
“And there’s not any reason to,” she says quickly, careful to cover her tracks, careful to make sure she can remain the perfect handmaid, the perfect thoughtless body. She forces a smile, hating that she has to comfort him, stroke his pathetic little ego, feed into his need to do something, to be the hero. He is the reason they’re here, in this terrible world, this strange male need to be in charge, to be needed. “Its just a little insomnia.”
He stares at her for a long moment, something sad about the cast of his mouth. “Its not though. You and I both know that.”
“You don’t know anything then,” she tells him, no mistaking the warning in her voice.
He surprises her by shaking his head, chuckling softly. “That parts always been true.”
She offers him the flask again and he scuffles closer, almost close enough that his body touches hers, only a few sparse inches separating them now. Its too close, far too close, what once would have been perfectly innocent is now practically obscene here in this world of rigid commandments and holy orders. If anyone saw them they’d both be punished, too close, too casual, flaunting everything about the rules of this godly kingdom.
“You know,” he says after a long moment, long enough Laurel can almost imagine that she’s alone again, that there's no strange, jarring body beside her. Except she can’t forget, can’t pretend that Frank isn’t there, the sudden presence of a male body after so long in isolation, after so long being told that her body is not her own, is reserved and held sacred for Sam and Sam alone. It makes her hands clammy, her throat tight and rough and her heart thudding beneath her skin. She wants him gone, she wants him closer, she can’t quite decide. “You know your window pushes open to the roof. You don’t have to sneak down here next time.”
“My window’s painted shut,” she responds automatically, not even caring that he knows she’s checked it, tried to pry it open, that the first thing she did after being rechristened Ofsam was to check her escape routes. She tried all her avenues of escape, found that there were none, the window painted shut, the glass shatterproof. She tried any method of escape, found she was trapped.
“It was,” Frank tells her slowly. He takes a long sip of the tequila before speaking again, expelling a heavy sigh along with his words as he scrubs a hand through his beard. “I was the one who painted it shut. But it opens. Because I made sure of it. And I think you deserve to know.”
“Why?” she demands, breath tightening. She doesn’t understand Frank, she can’t, because he cannot be telling her what she thinks he is, offering her a means of escape should she choose to take it, should she be daring enough to try. She’s not sure what he means by it, not sure he’s not going to betray her as soon as she takes another step forward. This is not a place for risks, for faith, not the kind that will save her anyway. She just wants to know what his aim is so she can protect herself, use him however way she must.
“Because you deserve it,” he repeats vehemently. He drinks from the flask again then presses it into Laurel’s hand, carefully and deliberately, curls her fingers around the cool metal. He gives her a small, comforting smile as he stands, brushes his hands along the knees of his pants. “Goodnight Ofsam.”
“Its Laurel,” she blurts as he turns to head back inside. It shocks her, her words and she wants to take them back as soon as she’s heard the words leave her lips. She’s given away her most closely held secret, her name, her identity, like its nothing, twice in one day when she has barely even spoken her name in months. In this world, where truth, where identity, where reality itself has been erased, blurred into meaninglessness, information is power, with information comes the power to hurt her, worse than she’s already been hurt.
She wonders if she’s cracking, breaking apart under the stress, the trauma of this nightmare she can’t escape, splintering into a thousand little pieces, no longer able to pretend she’s someone else, someone meek and pious and compliant. She wonders if this is going to be her act of defiance, screaming her name into the void until someone, anyone finally listens. She took a risk with Michaela, she’s going to take that same risk with Frank. It has to start somewhere, the plans she has for Frank, and, Laurel supposes, it looks like its going to start here. With her name. It paid off with Michaela, but her survival depends on it paying off with Frank.
And what better way to convince him he’s special, convince him of whatever it is he needs to feel like he’s special, convince him to throw caution to the wind and fuck her, fuck his master’s property. The easiest way to convince him to risk everything is for her to do the same. So she does. “Not Ofsam. Laurel.”
Frank turns back, gives her a long, unreadable look, his eyes soft as he regards her in the darkness. Finally though, he nods, the corner of his mouth turning up into something almost resembling a smile. “Laurel,” he repeats like he’s tasting the words. “Goodnight then Laurel. I hope sleep finds you soon.”
Its another month before Laurel tries the window. She holds the secret close and safe against her heart, keeps it like a talisman against danger. She doesn’t dare to try the window, try and test the truth of what Frank’s told her, doesn’t think she can survive finding out that he was lying, that the flame of hope she held tight against her chest was for nothing, that there’s no opening, no slim escape, no widening of her narrow, pathetic world.
She makes it another month, a long month until the night of the next Ceremony, long after it becomes clear there will be no child, not this month, not any month to come. She makes it two weeks until the dark red stain between her legs makes it clear that hope has no place in this world, in her heart, and then two more until its time for Sam to try and fail again, try and fail to put a baby in her, a baby that will never come.
Its been seven months now, seven months without even the hint of what could someday be a child, seven months of the Ceremony, of her period following some two weeks later. Seven months and now she’s past the halfway point in her time in the Keating’s household, her time as their property. She has been given a year, a year to give them the child they long for, a year to prove she’s worthy, holy. And if she doesn’t then she’ll be taken somewhere else and the cycle will begin again, just like it did when she was Ofpatrick and her year ended without a child in her belly. Except the third time will be her last chance, her third strike. She can’t rely on that final chance playing out any better than the first two have.
No, she has to seize whatever chance, whatever opportunity comes her way. She has to rescue herself, again, as she always does, has to grasp her freedoms with both hands and refuse to let it go. And since its become more and more clear that Sam isn’t going to supply the necessary assistance, she’ll have to solve things herself.
Still though, she had hoped. She had hoped this would be the month, despite all evidence to the contrary, hope crawling through her, worming its way back into her heart no matter how Laurel tried to seal off the entrances to hear heart, no matter how she tried to strangle that hope until its dead.
She had hoped she wouldn’t need Frank, need to use him, need his body. She had hoped she wouldn’t have to fuck anyone else, maybe ever. She hates Sam, hates his touch, hates the Ceremony, but its not like Laurel’ll be able to avoid it, even as she puts her plan into motion. She doesn’t relish the idea of fucking Frank, of fucking anyone, of having to grit her teeth and lie there or fake her desire, the idea of another man’s hands on her body, another man inside her making her skin feel like it’s a size too small, like it doesn’t quite fit her bones, like it rubs her raw in all the wrong places. The idea of having to put her plan into motion makes her cringe, makes her sick, but she’s willing to do whatever it takes, whatever keeps her alive.
Laurel holds out what hope she can for four weeks, that it will all fall into place, that somehow Sam will succeed where he’s failed so many times before. But hope is a luxury Laurel knows she can’t really afford in this new world and so when she can feel the terror, the revulsion creeping back beneath her skin, feels the dread and disgust that comes before every Ceremony, the nausea building in her gut, she takes the risk, takes the chance on Frank having told her the truth, offered her some measure of honesty in exchange for her own.
So, she tries the window. She’s been banished to her room by Annalise, furious and despondent that Laurel has failed again, punished for things that have never, will never be her fault. Or not her fault alone. She’s been told that she should spend the week before the Ceremony praying, making herself holy, asking for god’s blessings, his forgiveness. Laurel has done nothing of the sort, has spent much of the past week running through a list of reasons why Samuel L. Jackson is the best part of Jurassic Park. She still thinks Goldblum was better though, has spent a week on the question and still failed to convince herself. She would relish the solitude if it didn’t sometimes feel like the walls were closing in, didn’t sometimes make her wonder if she would ever be let out again.
Her world is so narrow, so limited that the loss of what little freedom she has is to have lost everything. Bonnie barely tolerates her presence, Frank is a cypher and yet she misses them, desperately, misses the few minutes each day when the three of them pass each other in the kitchen, when they make talk of the weather and Bonnie’s cooking and try to prove that each is the most devout, the most committed to their masters. She misses Ofasher, no, she misses Michaela too, misses their walks to the store, the tentative, careful connections they’re forging while still, mostly, consumed by distrust. She misses the sun and the breeze and the rain, misses seeing anything but the cold walls of her room.
And so she takes the risk, takes the chance that Frank was telling her the truth. She’d tried to hold out longer, tried to keep his confession to her as something of a talisman, something she could hold onto, hold close when everything else was shit, save it like something sacred, something precious for when she needed it most. Well, Laurel decides, she needs it now.
And so she inspects the window, tries to lift the sash, finds that it slips up with barely any resistance, that, as Frank had told her, the paint over the window is only for show, not closed and painted shut at all.
Laurel’s breath sticks in her throat as the sash goes up, as the gentle breeze drifts in through the window. She knows Frank’s done very little in the grand scheme of things, has done nothing that can be traced back to him. If anyone finds out she’s opened the window it won’t come back to Frank, it will only come back on her, no proof tying him to what she’s done other than Frank being the one to paint the window shut. But its still an offering to her, still a hand out through the darkness. Its something, not much, but its something. Its some small measure of hope.
She doesn’t dare do more, doesn’t dare to go out on the roof, to stick her head out, doesn’t even dare to keep the window up for more than a few moments, slips the window down again. Those risks are too great in this world of spies and betrayals.
She sits back on her bed instead, her breath still catching in her chest, shocked and stunned, her heart pounding a dangerous tattoo.
But Laurel finds herself smiling so broadly her jaw aches, so broadly she barely understands what she’s doing, doesn’t think she’s smiled this widely in what feels like a lifetime, so widely she wasn’t sure she was even capable of it. Its not much, its not really anything at all, but its something to her, it matters to her. She’s still caged, still trapped, still a slave, but it’s a breath of freedom. It makes her think maybe she has a chance.
She’s still sitting there on her bed, still stunned and shocked and grinning like a fool when she hears a key in the lock, hears the door creak open behind her.
“Ofsam,” Bonnie calls out, pausing in the doorway.
Laurel keeps her back to Bonnie of a long moment, schools her face into a placid, neutral mask, steels her shoulders and stiffens her spine before she turns around, regards the other woman with long, slow blinks. She hopes there’s nothing Bonnie can detect in her face, nothing like hope, like joy in her eyes, nothing that hints at the secret she’s found. “Bonnie.”
“Mrs. Keating wants you to go to the store. We’re low on flour.”
Laurel nods, jaw tight. She should be feeling a little flare of excitement, a little flare of relief that she’s free, at least for an hour, free in the only way she can be in this world where no one is free. Instead she feels nothing but weariness, nothing but exhaustion. The thought of the Ceremony later has sucked any joy from her marrow, what little scraps of joy are even to be found in her miserable, narrow life. “Alright.”
“Frank will drive you and Ofasher,” Bonnie tells her, voice clipped. “Its raining.”
“That’s not necessary,” Laurel says quickly, getting to her feet. She doesn’t think she can face Frank again, not so soon after discovering he was telling her the truth, doesn’t think she’ll be able to keep from thanking him, from doing something to expose what took place between them. But the truth must remain a secret, can’t see the light, not in this terrible world of darkness. “The walk will be refreshing.”
Bonnie’s mouth twists but she shrugs in response, still waiting in the doorway, not daring to step forward. It strikes Laurel as strange, queer somewhere in the back of her mind. Bonnie has never had qualms about invading the small spaces nominally reserved for Laurel’s use, never had any illusions about Laurel’s ownership of space, never any hesitation about invading her room that isn’t her room at all, just the space where she’s kept, like a broom kept in a closet until its ready for use.
“Anything besides the flour?” Laurel asks carefully as she collects her cloak from the hook by the door. She knows there will be more, there’s always more, always more demands.
“Just the usual,” the other woman tells her stiffly.
Laurel glances sharply at her. “Is there a list?” she asks, something niggling at the back of her mind, something like a warning she knows she should pay heed to but can’t quite figure out why. There’s something about Bonnie that sets off goosebumps prickling along the back of her neck, but she still isn’t sure why. Bonnie is always assuming Laurel can read her mind, can predict the things the household needs. She can’t and quite frankly she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t have the energy vein on the best days.
The other woman lingers in the doorway, hugging her elbows as her eyes fix somewhere on the floor between herself and Laurel, somewhere in the no man’s land between their feet. When she doesn’t answer, Laurel pauses, waits patiently for Bonnie to summon whatever she needs to summon, answer Laurel’s query. There’s something about the other woman’s words, something about the lines of her body, suddenly uncomfortable, suddenly nervous, that set alarm bells ringing through Laurel’s mind.
“What is it Bonnie?” Laurel asks quietly, doubting the other woman will confess anything but certain she must ask, certain that asking will give more away than her silence. She’s tired of being silent, tired of being passive, just a body, a shell.
Bonnie scowls again, lips twisting and her eyes skittering away from Laurel once again. “They’re sending you to the doctor.”
Laurel startles before freezing, before forcing everything inside her to stillness, to silence and watchfulness and caution. “What do you mean?”
“Because there’s no baby,” Bonnie says stiffly, a note of anger undercutting her voice. “They, they want to make sure everything’s ok.”
Will they be checking Sam too, she wants to snap, will they be looking at his sperm count and motility and all the things that could be preventing the child they all so desperately crave. But she doesn’t, because the answer is obvious. Its not even a question worth asking. Not in Gilead, not in this bizarro world where everything that happens, everything that comes to pass is her fault.
It would be funny, she thinks, fucking hilarious, if it wasn’t so deadly serious. She thought they’d been through this all before, hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Henry the goddamn eighth and two beheaded wives, two more divorced for the sin of failing to give him the princes he craved so greedily. She thought they’d gotten past that pathetic, impotent fury at things that are never the woman’s fault, never in any of those famous cases, and not in this one that will never be remembered by anyone who matters, this small, pathetic life with these small, pathetic people. She thought they’d all collectively come to their senses and accepted biology as immutable, but well, the world has been turned on its head, has been burned to the ground in the years since monarchy begat democracy was replaced with theocracy, since god’s great kingdom of Gilead was established.
“What else?” she demands, her voice low and almost deadly, says it with enough force that Bonnie takes a quick step back, blinks up at Laurel, surprised.
The other woman shakes her head. “Nothing else. Just that,” she replies quickly. “Mrs. Keating just wants to make sure there’s nothing more we should be doing.”
“Of course,” Laurel says then, not daring to point out that out of all the many things they could be doing, they will all come back on her, will all be things that Laurel is forced to do. She leaves it unstated, hopes Bonnie can hear the things that lie heavy between them, the truth that surrounds them.
“Frank will drive you,” Bonnie says again, this time leaving no room for argument, no room to insist that no, Laurel would much rather walk. She can’t resist these forces even at the best of times, can’t stand in the way of the overwhelming forces acting against her. Frank is going to drive her, and there is nothing Laurel can do to stop that, just like there is nothing she can do to stop being a handmaid, stop the Ceremony, stop this entire world and get it back to the way it was before, fucked up and horrible and yet so, so much better than this torture, get back to a world that’s livable.
“Of course,” she repeats, fastening the ties of her cloak around her neck and edging past Bonnie, out into the hall, feeling the other woman turn and follow behind her. She hates that she’s always watched, that she can’t be trusted to move through the world, hate how thoroughly her body is controlled. She hates that not even her body is her own, the only thing not owned by Sam, by Annalise, by Bonnie, by Frank, the only thing not publicly owned is her mind. And she’s not sure how long she’ll be able to keep that, keep her thoughts from fragmenting, splintering apart and cracking under the pressure of this terrible world, these terrible people and their terrible god.
But then Bonnie reaches out, grasps Laurel’s hand as she passes, stops Laurel’s progress down the hall.
“Ofsam,” Bonnie says softly, hand still around Laurel’s wrist. Her eyes are wide, her voice trembling and Laurel’s stomach clenches around nothing, certain the other woman is trying to give her a warning, certain that when she emerges from the house she will be met not by Frank but by the Eyes, by a bag over her head and a gunshot through the back. She’s certain, forces a deep breath, forces steel into her veins, into her spine, prepared for whatever terrible warning comes her way.
But when Bonnie speaks, her words are nothing like what she expected, everything Laurel ought to have expected. “The Lord will reward your faithfulness, I know in my heart that he will. The Bible is full of women who were rewarded for their belief, blessed with children for keeping with the lord through many tests. This is just one of yours, Ofsam, but I know the lord has chosen you. I know there will be a child, for all of us. Blessed be the fruit.”
“May the lord open,” Laurel recites, pulling her hand from the other woman’s fingers, clenching her jaw until her eyeteeth hurt, desperate not to give her anger away, give away how little she cares about Bonnie’s words, how false they ring in her ears. She swallows down the burn of bile, of nausea because the last thing she could ever want in any universe is a child, certainly not in this house, in this universe of slavery and brutality and god without godliness. Laurel doesn’t believe in god, she is faithless, exactly the godless heathen they accuse her of being, and she will not be rewarded for faith because Sam is impotent. The only rewards she will receive are ones of her own making, are the ones she seizes and refuses to relinquish, fights with teeth and nails and with every ounce of her strength.
“It will be alright,” Bonnie tells her and Laurel thinks, through her rage, that Bonnie is simply trying to reach out, trying to be comforting, forge some kind of connection with Laurel. The other woman just doesn’t know how, they don’t share anything like a common language. “This is a test, but God’s love is powerful, He will provide.”
Laurel nods because there’s nothing she can say, nothing she wants to say in response. She doesn’t believe that, not in any atom of her body. This god, the god that allowed Gilead to flourish, these wicked men to flourish, he is not a creature with anything like love inside him.
Frank is waiting for her by the door when she and Bonnie descend the stairs to the ground floor, Sam and Annalise nowhere to be seen. He glances up at them, eyes initially darting to Laurel, brows furrowing and a tightness lingering around his mouth before his attention fixes on Bonnie. Whatever it is, she thinks, he looks unhappy, frown creasing his face and his hands crossed over his chest. He’s leaning against the door jamb, trying to look casual, but she can see the way his arms are tight, the way his jaw is tighter.
“Everything good to go Bon?” he asks her as though Laurel isn’t there, as though she doesn’t matter. She doesn’t, not really, all he is is a body, a walking incubator. Her opinion, her voice don’t matter.
“Yeah,” Bonnie replies. “Have her back by 5 if you can. Mrs. Keating’ll be back from the Miller’s by 6.”
Laurel glances sharply between them, at the conversations that seem to pass unsaid between them, spoken in silence and glances and narrowed eyes. She wants to ask if Annalise, if Sam have any idea she’s being taken to the doctor, why this whole trip is being conducted in what is starting to appear to be total secrecy from their masters. She wants to ask if Bonnie, if Frank have good intentions or ill ones, why she too is being kept in the dark.
“Cool,” Frank nods deliberately, turns to Laurel, though nothing about his words makes it sound like he thinks any of it is cool at all. “Lets go then.”
“Is this…,” she hazards, hands twisting nervously, unsure of the best way to phrase her questions, the best way to get the answers she seeks. “Did Commander Keating ask for you to do this? Or Mrs. Keating?”
Frank grimaces, eyes darting away from hers and fixing on a point somewhere between their feet, refusing to meet her gaze.
So, she thinks, its up to Bonnie, though she too looks guilty, chews nervously at her lip like she’s trying to decide on the right words, the right things to say to Laurel, like trying to gentle a spooked creature. “This is for the best,” she tells Laurel vehemently, pleadingly. “Please, Ofsam. Just go with Frank. Speak with the doctor. Please.”
It’s the last please that gets her she thinks, something low and insistent, edging almost towards desperation. Laurel watches Bonnie, watches the way her eyes flick to Frank’s, the way she seems to draw strength, encouragement from him. Not for the first time she wonders what the relationship really is between Bonnie and Frank, the strange undercurrents and eddies and shifting sands between them. There’s more between them, she’s certain, than she can even begin to guess at, histories and universes contained within their glances.
And if I refuse, she wants to ask, what will you both do to me if I refuse? But she doesn’t, because she has no power, she knows it and they do too. There’s a hierarchy in this new world and she’s at the bottom, all three of them know it. She must go along with their demands, again a hostage, again a body to be moved and touched and tortured, again compliant because she knows she needs to survive. She survived it once before, she will survive it again.
Laurel feels like she’s been telling herself that over and over and over again, repeating it to herself on and endless loop, hoping that it will make things better, make them bearable. It never does and the only purpose it serves is to remind her what she had once hoped, had once been convinced would be the worst thing that ever happened to her, the worst thing she would ever have to face. How naïve she was, once, some strange and distant Laurel, some silly optimistic creature. She doesn’t know that girl, wouldn’t recognize her were that Laurel staring her in the face. This is so, so much worse and every reminder of the her terrible past only serves to contrast with this, this unending terrible future, this nightmare she can never quite wake from.
“Relax,” Frank finally says, throwing her a crooked smirk, scoffing a little as he watches her asses him, asses Bonnie, watches her play the odds in her mind, ready herself for some unknown battle. He holds his hands up to her, palms out in something like surrender, shoots her what she thinks he hopes is a soothing smile. His words only convince her more that whatever they have in mind, whatever they have planned, its something Laurel herself doesn’t want, something that spells no good for her.
He tries to be calming, tries to soothe her fears, but the more she’s told to relax, to be calm, to just go with Frank and trust him to protect her, to have her interests at heart, the more Laurel can feel the clamminess of her palms, feel the steady drumbeat of her pulse, feel the low note of panic singing across her blood. The more she wants to flee, to fight. “Relax kid. No one’s gonna kill you. Not today. Promise.”
But that, she wants to tell him, that’s the least of her worries.
The plan doesn’t emerge when they reach the doctor, when Laurel’s told to get on the exam table, put her legs in the stirrups. It doesn’t emerge during the perfunctory exam by the doctor with surprisingly warm hands. Laurel almost wants to compliment him on his hands, forces back the urge to tell him he’s the first gynecologist who’s hands haven’t forced a shiver up her spine, made her cringe and flinch when he touched her.
But Laurel stills her words, realizing, almost too late that its not even really that his hands are warm, not especially gentle or kind, but that he’s the first body that has touched her with anything like warmth, like comfort in what has now totaled years. Its clinical, its businesslike and yet the man touching her doesn’t wish her ill and so, by comparison, the feeling is almost nice. It doesn’t make discomfort glide along her skin like blades and she almost lets herself relax. Almost. Because she never lets her guard down now, not ever, not when every second can bring more pain, more betrayal, more crushing limitations on what little freedoms she still has.
No, Bonnie and Frank’s plan, whatever it is doesn’t emerge until the exam is over and the doctor snaps off his gloves and Laurel can hear him roll his stool back across the floor, unable to see him through the stark dividing curtain, shielding her from sight, shielding her from knowing anything about the man on the other side. It all becomes suddenly, blindingly clear when he pauses, clears his throat.
“You’re with the Keatings, yes?”
Laurel nods until she remembers how useless that gesture is with the curtain thrown up between them. “Yes.”
The doctor hums but says nothing more for long, long moments. “And you’ve been with them how long now?”
“Seven months,” Laurel answers cautiously. She can sense the hesitation in the man on the other side of the curtain, sense his intentions. Its obvious isn’t it, she thinks, though she forces herself to wait, forces herself to hear the doctor’s offer.
Everything suddenly shifts into focus, blinding and sudden, though Laurel wants to laugh at how completely obvious it is. Everything boils down to this, doesn’t it, she thinks, everything boils down to the child that isn’t, with bringing that child into existence in whatever way they can. “Praised be.”
“Seven months,” he repeats. “That’s a long time. And everything’s in working order on your end. Have you…”
“Have I what?” Laurel grits out when the man pauses, refusing to be the one to ask, refusing to take that step. She’s not sure whether this is a test or an offering, betrayal or gift. She half expects the Eyes to burst in at any moment because this, this tentative attempt at conversation, at sedition, is probably enough to get her sent to the colonies, get them both sent to the colonies.
“Considered that maybe its not you.”
“No,” Laurel forces herself to say. “I’m certain its my own unworthiness.”
The doctor hums again. “What if I could assist with that?” he asks her cautiously, his voice low as though if he whispers it, keeps it between them, secret and safe, his words won’t come back to doom them both, ruin what they have. “What if I could…what if I could make sure you were worthy?”
How, she wants to ask, how would you do that, tell me, I’ll try anything. I’ll do in-vitro if you have it, and if you don’t you can just find someone to fuck me the old fashioned way, someone with living, swimming sperm. But she doesn’t because the risk is too great. She’s going to take a risk with Frank, but this, this is unknown, she hasn’t calculated the variables and the odds, has no idea who this man is, if there’s any sliver of trust to be found in him. This risk is too great. She can’t.
“How do you know Frank?” she asks instead.
The doctor laughs, pats Laurel’s bare knee. She jerks away in surprise, flinches from the touch. No one has touched her there since, god, since Wes probably, sweet, kind Wes who’s fate she never learned, who’s probably dead somewhere if there was any mercy. Wes wouldn’t survive this world, she knows, heart clenching and her eyes stinging with something like tears, and so it is better he is dead. She wishes that every thought of him, every memory didn’t sting, even the memory of his hand against her knee, of curling into his side as they watched Netflix together, falling asleep to the sound of his heartbeat, of his soft laughter.
“We went to high school together,” the doctor relies, pats her knee once more and Laurel jerks away again, certain that his touch will start to erode, erase the memory of Wes, of the way she loved him once. She loved him and he is gone and every day takes more of him away, what was once a great monument now ravaged by wind and time, broken down to nothing more than crumbling dust. Ozymandias, king of kings. “Me and Frankie. I trust him, he trusts me. You can trust both of us, alright.”
“This was Frank’s idea?” Laurel asks instead of saying yes, because she can’t, she knows it, the risk too great for a single month, a single attempt at knocking her up. Frank is the better solution, the long term solution. Frank is the best play if she wants to make it out alive. He’s always there, always available. She can fuck him as many times as they can sneak away, as many stolen five minutes as they can both find and now she knows that the lack of baby is a problem they both want to solve it will make putting her plan into motion that much easier, that much simpler to convince him that she doesn’t need this doctor, she needs him.
Or well, what’s to say she couldn’t use both of them, use anyone willing to fuck her, give her a baby as long as it could passably be Sam’s. Beggars, as they say, can’t be choosers so why can’t she let this doctor give it a go, try and get her pregnant, why can’t she then try again with Frank, with her own dark plan. Why not, she thinks, why not both.
“Nah,” the man replies and Laurel thinks she can detect the shake of his head through the curtain, an undercurrent of laughter threading through his words. “Nah, I think this was all that Martha. Frankie’d never do this without some woman telling him to.”
Laurel wants to ask more, ask what the man means, but the risk is too great, it always is. She wants to ask about the blasphemy, clear and dangerous, that the man just spoke, ask if he doesn’t care, ask what he means, ask him how he got to be so bold. But the answer is right there, obvious, and Laurel doesn’t bother with extraneous words; he’s a man, he’s a fertility doctor. He can say what he wants because no one will punish him. Laurel utterly lacks that luxury.
“So?” he asks and Laurel hears the rustling of his lab coat, his belt and suddenly every impulse in her that screams at her to go for it, to commit to Bonnie and Frank’s plan for her, to let this doctor fuck her, try to get her pregnant, it all vanishes in an instant. Because this man, this doctor who’s face she can’t even see is claiming ownership of her body, claiming a right right to it without anything from Laurel herself, anything approaching consent, ready to take what he thinks is rightfully his, fuck her and spill himself inside her and maybe, just maybe, give her a child and he doesn’t even stop to consider what Laurel wants, what her intentions are.
All urge inside her to say yes shrivels and dies, desiccated and rotten. She can’t say yes to this, to more rape, more silence. If she fucks someone else for a child it must be by her choice, her own hand. She can’t do this, not this, not when she’s just another body again, just something Bonnie and Frank can toss around, manipulate until it gets them what they want so they can better serve their masters. She can’t, she won’t. She gets this choice at least.
“No,” she tells him, softly at first and then forcefully, urgently. “No, I can’t. Stop.”
It doesn’t matter of course, it hasn’t mattered what Laurel’s wanted for years now, not since these terrible fanatical men seized power, told her that nothing she did, nothing she said, nothing she wanted was worth even half as much as what a man wanted. And so she’s not surprised when she feels the doctors hand, still warm, sliding up her thigh, forcing her legs apart as Laurel tries to close them, tries to scramble away from his touch.
“Don’t move,” he tells her, his voice still low and now laced with urgency and threat. His voice barely rises above a whisper, a hissed threat that he believes is no threat at all. “I’m trying to help you. Don’t move and it will be over soon.”
So she doesn’t, because its no longer worth fighting, because fighting won’t get her anywhere, like bashing her head against a brick wall, like trying to swim up a waterfall. She can’t fight this one man because fighting him means fighting the entire world, this new, disgusting world where a man, any man is entitled to her body, who can claim ownership of her with no impunity. She could scream, she could fight but there’s no guarantee she’ll be believed, that anyone will take her side over this man, this respected doctor, this fertility doctor, one of the most prominent, important men in child starved Gilead.
It is too great a risk to do anything but allow it to happen. And so she does. She does nothing, she’s always just doing nothing, gritting her teeth and telling herself she can live through this one thing too, piles it onto the other things she forces herself to bear. Its just one more punishment for the crime of being a woman, of having enjoyed sex, once, of having been smart and outspoken and dedicated to her job, her clients, of having been unapologetic on the things she wanted, the things she didn’t want.
So she forces herself to relax, forces her mind to go blank, distant, ignores the body fucking her body, the sharp, burn of pain as he fucks her. He’s bigger than Sam, thicker and the unfamiliar cock inside her hurts far beyond what she’s grown used to with Sam. It makes it harder to pretend she’s somewhere else. But its over soon enough, it always is, this impotent little cowardly men, one minute men all of them. He comes inside her with a shudder, a groan, collapsing against her thighs, her hips, his clammy, slick skin sticking to her own.
Get off me, she wants to spit, get the fuck off me you fucking rapist pig. But its not rape, is it, not here, not now, not anymore. In this world of pathetic cowardly men, of brutality shrouded in religion, her body belongs to the nation, her body is no longer her own. Anyone can take it, do to it what they will because its only that, a body and Laurel is not a person. Fucking her is like jacking off into a cup, a sock, meaningless and barely worthy of note.
The doctor, nameless, faceless, just a cock like she’s just a body, pulls out of her, buckles his pants. “Talk to Frank,” he tells her, breath still uneven and rushed. “See if he can get you back next month if you still need my assistance.”
I won’t, she thinks, I don’t care if they tell me I have one more month to get pregnant before I’m shipped off to the colonies, I won’t need your help, I don’t want your help, ever, ever, ever. You fucking rapist pig, she thinks, you pathetic, disgusting worm of a man. But she says nothing, swallows back the words until she chokes on them, until the urge to sob grows and grows in her chest until she can’t breathe for it, until her eyes burn with tears she refuses to let fall.
The doctor steps back, steps away. “You’re good to go,” he tells her. “I’ll tell Frank you’ll be out in a second.”
Laurel hears the door open, hears it close behind him, lets her eyes shut, lets a few hot tears leak from her eyes, just a few, just for a second. She won’t allow herself any weakness, won’t allow herself any pity, any sorrow or disgust. Instead she slips off the table, lets her skirt fall across her hips and slips her underwear on as she ignores the thick, stickiness of his come as she does, stands on shaky, liquid limbs.
And then she leaves.
Frank meets her right outside the door, hands balled nervously and his eyes instantly flicking up to her. She thinks she catches him mid pace, like some man in an old movie, shut out of the strange, unknown world of women’s health, making laps across the floor in front of the door, wearing trenches into the ground.
She wants to claw his fucking eyes out, she wants to sink her teeth into his neck and rip his jugular open, spilling blood everywhere, bathing in it, she wants to snap his goddamn fingers like twigs. Because he let this happen, he enabled it and its all his fucking fault. Frank is not allowed to be concerned for her when he’s fucking complicit.
“All good?” he asks, still standing there nervously, raising his arms so that they cross over his chest, then running a hand through his beard, not sure what to do, not sure what to say to her.
“Lets go,” she snaps instead of all the things she wants to, curling her hands into fists, letting her nails drive deep into her palms. She feels her nails pierce her skin, feels blood start to well up from the wounds. She can’t even fucking look at him. “I’m done.”
Frank nods, trails after her, worried and hovering and nervous, like he knows, like he can tell something terrible has happened, can see it in her face, but isn’t sure what, isn’t sure how to fix it. She wants to wipe the scowl off his face, the little furrow of concern between his brows. She wants to destroy him utterly.
They’re silent until they get to the car, Frank opening the door dutifully for her before slipping into the driver’s seat. Laurel slumps against the seat, leans her head back against the headrest, shuts her eyes and pretends she’s somewhere else, anywhere else. But then she realizes they’re not going anywhere at all, that Frank hasn’t even bothered to start the car, turn the engine over and take them home, take them away. She waits a beat, flicks her eyes open and lowers her head so she can stare forward at Frank, at the driver’s seat, drive her eyes through his skull like nails.
He’s turned around, staring at her. One hand on the wheel like he’s trying to pretend he’s going to start the car at any second, but his eyes fixed on her and a scowl still mars his face.
“What happened in there?” he asks, voice soft, soothing. Except it grates against her ears, her skin. She can’t stand to hear his concern, not now, not when its his fault.
“Nothing,” she tells him dully. She doesn’t want to think about it, she doesn’t want to speak about it, she just wants it all to be over. Laurel wishes she could fade away, stop feeling the dull ache between her legs, the tightness in her chest that feels like the incoming tide of the panic attacks she hasn’t had in nearly ten years. She shuts her eyes, tries to remember to breathe, tries to forget her body entirely.
“You’re not ok,” Frank states flatly. “What happened? What’d he do?”
“You know exactly what he did,” Laurel growls, her eyes flicking open just long enough that she can glare at him across the narrow space of the car. She just wants to forget, she just wants to go home. But she can’t and its all Frank’s fault. “You and Bonnie and your stupid plan came up with it. You know exactly what went on in there.”
“I don’t,” he starts, swallows hard and falls silent, his face falling as something like a realization passes across his eyes, a dark shadow that saps everything but anger from his face. “Did he hurt you?”
Laurel doesn’t answer such a stupid, obvious question, doesn’t even dignify it with a response. She hates him, she fucking hates him, his cowardice, his studied, deliberate ignorance. She hates that he gets the luxury of ignorance.
“Did he fucking hurt you Laurel?” he asks again, voice strained and tight, his eyes blazing with an anger, a fire she doesn’t think she’s ever seen in him before, his knuckles going white around the steering wheel.
“He didn’t do anything,” she grits out. “Not anything you and Bonnie didn’t sign me up for.”
“What can I do?” he asks her, reaching out almost like he wants to touch her but then letting his hand fall limply between them like he knows what a terrible idea that is, how little she wants his hand against her skin, how little she wants anyone’s hand against her skin. Not now, not ever. “Please tell me what I can do to help.”
“If you wanted to fucking help,” she snarls, pitching forward in her seat, pitching forward and straining against the seatbelt, fighting the impulse to lash out, strike him. They should be fucking allies, Laurel and Frank and Bonnie, all slaves in one way or another, they should all be working together. And instead, instead they’re working against her, working with their captors, their masters, working to give them all the terrible things they crave. That’s how they stay in power, she thinks, Sam and Annalise and the rest of these terrible architects of this terrible new world, how they keep their control; by pitting those with no power against those with crumbs of it, keep them all fighting for scraps and ignoring the real villains. They’re fucking complicit, Bonnie and Frank, fucking betrayed her for a few heartbeats of power, of safety. “If you really fucking wanted to help, you’d fuck me yourself. Not take me to some fucking doctor to do it. You’d fuck me and solve the problem yourself. Like a fucking man.”
Frank freezes, the only movement his rapid, shocked blinks as he stares at her, hands still wrapped around the steering wheel, his knuckles suddenly bloodless. “What?”
“That’s what you two want isn’t it?” she demands, too far gone now to care how dangerous her words are, how damning. She doesn’t care if the fucking Eyes take her, doesn’t care if they shoot her in the head or ship her off to the colonies to die. She doesn’t care right now. Laurel had thought she’d known the score, known the price she had to pay to stay alive, the terrible toll it would take on her. She had no goddamn idea, naïve and ignorant of all the other varied ways her life could be made worse, the thousands of possible permutations. She thought at least, at least Sam would be her only rapist, thought being a handmaid at least offered some level of protection, meager and pathetic. She thought maybe getting to choose it, walk into it with open eyes would be better. Does choosing a rape still make it rape at all? Yes, every atom in her body screams, yes.
But there are different gradations of horror, Laurel knows, different methods of torture. And this, this is not one she planned for, anticipated, this is not one she steeled herself against, had the time to turn her body to stone and her heart to iron. She is raped every month like clockwork and yet this, this violation is the worst of them all. This, she didn’t even get the luxury of pretending she had chosen in some twisted devil’s bargain. No, this was something else entirely, something her brain cannot yet seem to justify. Laurel’s not sure it ever will. “You wanted to get someone to fuck me, knock me up because Sam can’t? Why don’t you just fucking do it then?”
“Ofsam,” he starts, falters as he realizes his mistake and she watches him bite the inside of his cheek, sees Frank’s teeth sink into the flesh there like he’s trying to stop himself from doing something he’ll regret. “Laurel…”
“I mean it,” she demands, too late to stop now, barreling forward towards what she thinks is probably certain doom. She just doesn’t care anymore, just can’t care, its too late. She can’t bite her goddamn tongue a second longer, not when Frank and Bonnie have given her up to more brutality, more violence, more erasure of her personhood. She can’t stay silent one more goddamn second. She won’t, doesn’t care what it gets her, doesn’t care about her inevitable punishment. She’s a goddamn person and she’s not just a fucking body and she won’t let herself be erased. Not this goddamn time. Every second of every day feels like she’s slowing fading, slowly being washed away and she’s not, she’s not. She’s Laurel fucking Castillo and she’s a goddamn survivor. “If you want to get me pregnant so bad, just do it your goddamn self Frank. Stop being a damn coward and fuck me yourself.”
His eyes flash with something like anger, she can see the jump in his jaw as his teeth grind. “Laurel," he grits out.
“I mean it,” she snaps. “You don’t think I mean it, but I do. I’ve got to get a baby, you know that or you wouldn’t’ve done what you did, bring me here at all, but I want to choose, I want to fucking decide. Not you, you understand. Me. And if you want to give me a baby, you give it to me yourself.”
“Laurel,” he repeats, voice strangled before she cuts him off again. She doesn’t care what he has to say, because nothing can make up for today, for what he and Bonnie have done. She doesn’t care what he has to say because words are meaningless in this prison of a world, just sounds that people say to justify themselves, their base desires.
“Now you know how it feels Frank,” she hisses. “Not having a goddamn choice. Being told what happens to your body. You don’t want to fuck me, no one’s gonna force you, you lucky fucking bastard.”
“Is that what you want?” he asks, throwing his hands up in something like exasperation, though his voice reeks of pleading, of begging, a desperation in there that she can’t begin to untangle. The lack of anger in his voice nearly robs Laurel of her own, takes the wind right out of her sails. She wants a target for her rage, for all her hurt and she wants Frank to fight back, she wants a reason to scream at him, to kill him. “If that’s really what you want, I’ll do it. Anything you want from me.”
“Yes,” she hisses, though everything inside her screams that no, no its nothing she wants. But it doesn’t matter what Laurel wants, doesn’t matter to anyone, to the universe itself. All that matters is what she needs and she needs a child.
Frank sighs, runs his fingers slowly through his beard. “You sure? Just say the word an we’ll stop if you want that too.”
“Frank,” she demands because she cannot stand his sad eyes, his soft frown, the way he looks at her with a churning mix of fear and pity, a combination she can’t begin to untangle, doesn’t have the strength to try. “Shut up.”
He nods, jaw going tight, but then he shifts in his seat, pulls himself through to the backseat. He’s careful to avoid touching her, careful to position himself as far away from Laurel as he can in the cramped backseat. He watches her though, once he’s sitting next to her, body curved against the window so he can face her fully, regard her with that same trepidation, that same soft concern.
He must see whatever it is he’s looking for in her face because he nods, just once, tugs free his belt and unzips his pants, quick, perfunctory, all business. Exactly what she wanted, exactly how she anticipated he’d be. Somehow that grounds her, reassures her that she was right, right to choose Frank, right to want him as part of her plan. Laurel feels like she’s spinning out of control, barely able to think straight against the churning panic in her chest, but it settles the fear, the things that taste of sharp, coppery grief, knowing she was right, that her plan was the best plan, that she choose her mark correctly. Fuck Bonnie, fuck Frank for thinking they knew better, for thinking they could solve this on their own, without her.
Even in this strange, terrible world, she knows the things she needs to do to survive, still has the strength to do them. That, even though she feels like all strength has been sapped from her, stolen from her, gives her the reserves she needs to go on, to do what must be done. She’s going to survive this world and now, now she has Frank’s help to do it.
Because nothing in this fic is nice or easy.
It’ll get better (sort of) but i think its important that it remain largely dark and profoundly uncomfortable at most (all times)
Like, even something necessary and something that Laurel might want/have wanted at some other time/in some other circumstance is tainted
It all goes according to plan, all goes exactly how Laurel had imagined it until he tries to touch her. That was not part of the plan, never a part of it. Frank’s got his pants pushed down his hips and he’s sitting back on his knees in the center of the backseat and Laurel’s turned so that she’s leaned against the window, knees curled up to her chest, though they both know she’s not really done it to protect herself, shield the rest of her body.
But then he reaches out and his fingers catch at the blood red material of her skirt, pushes it up so that the rough fabric catches around her hips and that’s fine, that’s fine, her breath only hitches a little, tightens a little around shards of panic, but then his fingers trail, softly over the skin of her knee, up across her thigh and Laurel jerks away from his touch.
“Don’t,” she demands, the only word she can grit out.
“I…,” he starts, falters, looking confused, looking hurt, his expression a combination of a hundred things he has no right to feel, that she has no right to see. “I…you’re not gonna be wet. I was trying…”
“I don’t care what you were doing or trying to do or wanted to do,” she rasps. “Don’t. Just fuck me.”
Frank rocks back on his knees again, nods. His jaw remains tight, his expression hard like he’s steeling himself from everything he wants to feel, walling himself off so he can complete this unpleasant task. “Ok.”
She’s been stripped of all autonomy, all right to control who sees her body, who touches her body and suddenly she’s been allowed to make demands of Frank, tell him to touch himself, tell him he can’t touch her. It should make her feel powerful, should make her dizzy with sudden victory. Instead it feels hollow, guilty, like she’s no better than Sam, than Annalise, making demands down the barrel of a gun. She doesn’t want to be like them, doesn’t want to force anyone to do anything, doesn’t want to watch him if he doesn’t want, doesn’t want him to fuck her if he doesn’t want to.
But Frank has a choice, that’s the difference. He can tell her no, can tell her to buckle her seatbelt and to shut up and then drive them back to the house. He can give her a sad, crooked smile and tell her thanks but no thanks, can betray her and have her taken away by the Eyes, beaten to within an inch of her life by Sam or Annalise. He has all the power, to say yes, say no, to deny her the things she demands that are more like pleas than anything else. Its his choice still, its always his choice. Any power Laurel thinks she has is mere illusion. And so she watches, because its all she can do, because she can’t let him touch her, not anymore than necessary, she knows she can’t bear the press of his fingers.
He pushes his boxers low over his hips then, takes himself in hand. Laurel isn’t sure whether she should politely look away, isn’t sure whether she wants to. So she doesn’t, just watches the slow strokes of his hand against his cock, the way his thumb slips and curls over the head, watches curiously at this man touch himself because she demanded it.
He’s cut where Sam isn’t, a little thicker she thinks and a bit bigger and, she realizes as he begins to swell, he curves more than Sam. She’s forced to look away then when Frank raises his eyes to hers, when the shadow of a challenging smirk flits across his features, though there’s something hollow there too, something almost mournful.
“You sure?” he asks, voice tight with tension, the tendons in his neck strained and hard as the passes of his hand over his cock increase in speed, as his other hand drops to his balls for just a moment. He’s close she thinks, fully hard now, his head beginning to weep, slick with precome. She wants to snort at his concern, at even bothering to ask her what she wants, at taking the time to care. She doesn’t care if she’s wet, it hasn’t mattered before and the thought of Frank, of anyone, turning her on enough to get her there, well its almost laughably absurd, the farthest thing from her mind. Still, Laurel decides guiltily, it was a nice thought. He meant well. He tries to be a good man, as good as anyone can be in this world where everything’s tainted.
“Yes,” she tells him, certain. “Just get it over with, alright.”
Frank grimaces and the pace of his hand falters. She can tell she’s taken him out of the moment, set them back minutes at least but he keeps on, doggedly and determinedly until he’s close again.
“Is it safe here?” she asks, wishing she’d thought of the question minutes ago, but needing to know, needing to know this won’t come back on either of them.
Frank nods stiffly and when he speaks his voice is tight and low. She thinks he might be even closer than she thought, right on the edge of coming. A strange swell of gratitude edges at the corner of her mind, that he did what he could to make the whole thing quick, dirty, painless. Or as much as he could, trying to give her only what she wanted, his come, and nothing more. “Windows are tinted enough no one can see in. Long as things stay quiet we’ll be fine.”
He stops, pauses the stroke of his fingers and regards her curiously for a long, heavy moment. He looks at her curiously, his brow furrowed and his eyes wide, like suddenly, suddenly everything’s shifted into place, like all the pieces have suddenly come together to form a pattern, an image, like he suddenly understands an equation he’s been working away at for hours.
He looks at her like he suddenly understands her. Frank watches her a beat longer, like he’s still trying to get past his shock, understand the things he’s seeing. “But I don't think silence has ever been a problem for you, has it?”
For the first time in what feels like years, Laurel allows herself to grin, sharp and ironic, but a grin all the same and she opens her legs for him, spreads her hips as wide as she can in the cramped backseat, offers herself to him as he did for her and Frank nods, once, his eyes still hard and his jaw still tight and his hips pitch forward to press against hers, his hand guiding his cock inside her, slowly enough it doesn’t hurt they way she’s expecting, the way she’s braced herself against. Its not much, she thinks, but its something. There won’t be any pleasure, but at least there won’t be pain.
It takes both longer and shorter than she expects, both better and worse than she expects. He comes softly, jaw clenched and his eyes slipping closed, comes with barely a cry and Laurel finds herself fighting the compulsion to stroke her fingers through the short hairs at his temple, press a kiss to the corner of his mouth. She fights the feeling of something like hazy affection for him, for his strange, fumbling concern, for the first stirrings of anything like empathy she’s seen in this strange land. The thought churns strange and uncomfortable in her gut as he pulls out of her, sits as far away from her as he can in the cramped backseat.
“Was that?” he starts, eyes fixed on the seat in front of him, refusing to look over at her, though he doesn’t bother to pull his boxers, his pants up his hips, doesn’t bother to shield himself from her eyes. It still strikes her as odd, as uncomfortably murky the way he actually seems concerned with her, with her feelings and thoughts and needs. She isn’t sure what his angle is, what he expects to get out of giving a damn. It doesn’t matter though, because he’s not getting a single thing out of her, not anything she doesn’t want to give. She’s been stripped of so many things, had so much taken from her down the barrel of a gun that she’s giving nothing away to Frank just because he pretends to be kind. Kindness, empathy, she’s learned quickly they’re nothing more than paper thin disguises over the rot inside people’s hearts. “Was that ok? Or, I dunno, what you were looking for?”
She nods carefully because she doesn’t know what he means, doesn’t know what his intentions are in asking. She doesn’t know what Frank wants from her. She’s suddenly not sure what she wants from him. She had been so fucking certain and now, and now, she isn’t sure she would choose this path again. “Yes,” she replies, knowing she must. “It was. Thank you.”
“Uh, sure thing,” Frank answers, hand running through his beard, his eyes still refusing to meet hers, his scowl so deep she worries the lines across his face will be permanent. “I’m, I dunno, glad I could help I guess. Make up for earlier. Or, well, not that. Cause it can’t, I know that. There’s nothing can make up for that and I’m so fucking sorry. Bonnie, she…no, it doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter what Bon said to convince me, I still went along with it, like an asshole. I just…I hope it helped. I hope it gets you what you need. To make all this stop.”
She nods, and now her own eyes swing away from Frank, fix on her hands, balled in her lap. She thinks maybe he understands, at least a little, understands why she asked him. She hopes at least. Laurel doesn’t know if she can stand it if he doesn’t understand why she asked him, chose him, why she needs him more than she needs anyone in this world. She thinks he gets it, the way the corner of his mouth twitches, curls up into something almost approaching a smile.
She’s done a terrible thing to him, she knows that, almost as terrible as the things done to her, but she thinks he understands why. She had to, they both know it, or she hopes so at least. She needs a child, and Frank is the one who can give it to her.
Laurel’s just not sure it matters, not sure it makes up for demanding that he fuck her, clinical and detached, barely gave him a choice in the matter. It’s a terrible, pathetic thing when she’s forced to use the violence, the tactics of her enemies to survive, when she's forced to treat her body as a tool, a weapon, a bargaining chip, when Frank is reduced merely to what’s between his legs, to what he can do for her. She hates that she’s no better than them. It was a terrible thing, but they all do terrible things in this new holy land. They all do terrible things to survive.
And he does owe her, for bundling her into the car, taking her to that doctor who took from her something she didn’t even realize she had left to steal, for doing it without even warning her what was happening, for thinking she wasn’t worthy of being included in the plan. This cruel country is transactional now, nothing but thefts and bartering and debts that climb higher and higher. Frank had owed her and he’s repaid his debt, its that simple. And next month, next month if he has to help her again, next month she’ll owe him. Next month she’ll have to use her mouth or her hand to get him hard, she’s sure, next month she’ll have to allow him to touch her, pretend he’s able to turn her on, get her somewhere in the same universe as close. Its inconceivable right now that she could fake that, fake something so intimate, something so completely opposite to what she actually feels, but she will, Laurel knows, she must. Frank will want it because all men want it, want to feel wanted, needed, feel important and powerful and virile and she will try to offer it to him, no matter what she herself feels, because she will owe him. Its that easy, its that cruel.
“I’m sorry,” she offers, the words mumbled as he fixes himself, zips his pants and buckles his belt and its like they’re back to normal, like nothing happened between them at all, like he didn’t just come inside her and she can’t feel his body, lingering against her skin. “I just…I can’t do this anymore. I can’t pretend it’ll happen, a baby, without you.”
Frank’s silent for longer than she can bear, still keeping his eyes fixed forward, fixed somewhere on his knees like he can’t quite dare to look at her, isn’t sure what he’ll see if he does. “Why me though?” he asks finally, his own voice soft and frayed.
It would be easy to lie, Laurel thinks, so, so easy. It would be so easy to give him the things men want, make him feel important, make him feel special, stroke his fucking ego. But another thing she owes him is the truth. “Because you’re the only other man I know besides Sam. And I’m really hoping you’ve actually got some working swimmers. And you told me about the window even though you didn’t have to, so even though I hate you a little bit, I’m not sitting here wishing I could kill you.”
He huffs out a little laugh, more of a chuckle than anything else and Laurel’s struck by the fact that she can still think of laughs as having flavors, distinct and unique. Laughter’s been so absent in this world, she wasn’t sure there was even a difference anymore. With Frank there is. “I’m glad you don’t want to kill me,” he tells her, laughter still threading through is words. “Though I’d suggest just knocking me out, stealing the car.”
“I wouldn’t make it to Canada,” she replies instantly, because she can’t say its not a thought she’s had before, not something she’s contemplated on her darkest days, somehow finding a way of killing Frank, taking the car and hightailing it north as fast as she could, hoping to avoid the checkpoints and the Eyes and every other pitfall between Philly and the border. “Never mind the Eyes, I’d run out of gas before Albany."
“That’s not the quickest way,” Frank points out, like the words slip from his lips before he can think them through, realize the admission he’s making. He’s still not looking at her but he must glance over occasionally, regard her out of the corner of his eye, must catch the look of confusion on her face because he shrugs. “Quickest route from here to Canada takes you through Syracuse actually. It looks shorter to go straight north, but its not.”
“And how exactly do you know that?”
He ignores her question, though his lips curl just enough it looks like the shadow of a smile. “Best plan, honestly, would be for you to take me hostage somehow. I’m a man, I’ve got all the passes for the checkpoints in the city, I can probably get away with gassing up. You’d just have to be sure I didn’t turn on you.”
“And how’d I’d be sure of that?” she asks and the question is serious and a joke and its snarled and teasing and Laurel wishes she knew what she was doing, wishes she knew the dangerous, dark pool she just dove head first into, the depth and the contents and whether doing so will wind up with her dead and yet she doesn’t care one bit. She doesn’t care cause she thinks it was all worth it.
Frank hums, his eyes darting over to her once more. “That’s a good question,” he tells her, finger tapping against his chin. “Loyalty or debt, most likely.”
“There much of a difference nowadays?” she asks bitterly, eyebrow raising.
“Not much,” he admits with a little hitch to his shoulders. “Wasn’t much before either. So, how you gonna get me Laurel?”
She gives him her own shrug, cocky and nonchalant. “Still think finding a gun’s my best shot. You got one?”
Frank hums and flashes her a grin, crooked and smirking like they’re sharing some kind of secret she can’t even begin to guess at. Its dizzying and burns its way across her skin, makes her flush and sink her teeth into her lower lip so she doesn’t grin back. It makes her hate him just a little bit more, for being able to temper the rage inside her, just a little, just for a moment. “Its not a gun in my pocket if that’s what you’re asking.”
She doesn’t want to laugh, she really, really doesn’t, but the snort that slips from her lips has other thoughts and she can’t contain the sound, her lips curling into something she knows too closely resembles a smile. “Seriously?” she asks, trying to sound stern.
“Hey,” Frank tells her, his grin widening. “We just fucked. I am absolutely entitled to make that joke.”
Its so, so like it was, once, back before, back in that old, dead universe, casual and easy, a place where sex didn’t always mean something more, sometimes it could just be something people did because they wanted to, because they wanted to feel good, because the person they were fucking was hot and funny and maybe smiled just the right way after just one too many drinks. Its easy between them, strangely easy, nothing changing in the way they speak to each other, relate to each other, still tentative and cautious, still finding a strange, unexpected camaraderie in his presence. They’ve barely talked in the seven months they’ve lived beneath the same roof and yet, and yet, there’s something that roils between them, that flashes hot and blinding and takes root with every moment they spend beside each other.
Once, she thinks, once they could have been friends. Now all they can be is allies, striking tentative truces as they work towards common goals, common survival. There’s nothing like friendship in this world controlled by cruelty and greed, nothing like loyalty, but once, once Laurel thinks she and Frank could have found it. Once she thinks they could have been good together. Now they just have to be effective.
Laurel lets herself pretend, pretend they’re friends, pretend they’re two people who just fucked and are trying to sort through whether they like each other enough to be something more, what’s booze and lust and what’s something genuine, something true. She lets herself pretend they’re living in some other, simpler universe, some other, simpler past, lets herself roll her eyes, grin exasperatedly at him. Yes, she thinks, they might’ve been good once, he might’ve made her laugh and taken her to hole in the wall restaurants where everyone knew him by name and Laurel would’ve taught him bad Spanish and urged him to go back to school and made him café con leche until he started to like the taste, tested out her closing arguments on him the night before trial. They might have been friends once, too, discovered that they were terrible as lovers, much better as friends, gone to baseball together and gotten drunk after messy breakups and fallen asleep with their feet tangled together, listed each other as ‘numbnuts’ and ‘betch’ in their phone contacts.
She wishes that was their past, their present, their future, wishes she and Frank existed in a universe where that could have been true. Instead, in this terrible, cruel world, the best she can hope for is that he becomes her child’s father, for them to be temporary allies in securing her survival.
It makes rage burn through her skin, settle comfortingly against her heart. She allowed herself a moment to pretend but its passed now. They aren’t friends, they can’t be friends and pretending otherwise is a luxury she can’t afford, a weakness she can’t allow. Her anger is what keeps her alive, her refusal to flinch away from the hard truths, the brutal facts. Pretending with Frank is a lapse in focus she can’t afford. They’re not friends, she barely knows him, and Frank can betray her at any moment. She can’t let herself forget that, not ever. Every interaction with him beyond the perfunctory is one that can get them both killed, brutalized, every interaction is a risk she takes so that maybe, just maybe, she can outlive this hateful place.
There’s no restaurants that have known him since he was a child, there’s no cell phones, no café con leche, there’s a vengeful god who commanded that Laurel was a godless fallen woman, and weak, grasping men entitled to her body, to control her simply for the great achievement of having been born a man, for thinking she and all other women were their justly earned reward for that great luck of fate.
She cannot forget that, can never relax enough to forget that immutable truth. She is not a person in this world, not something capable of enjoying herself, of friendship. To the weak, covetous men who crafted this world she is a body, to survive it she must be a weapon, sharp and honed and deadly. There can be no softness, no kindness inside Laurel. Her enemies will show her none.
“Hey,” he says then softly, and she watches his fingers track along the seat, creep towards her like he wants to take her hand, use his body to comfort her. She sees his hand fall back against his thigh too, falls into the great chasm between them, reminded of her command that he not touch her. Something tight like a fist closes around her throat as she realizes, belatedly, that he’s listened to her, listens to her still, that he doesn’t touch her just because he can, because she wouldn’t be able to stop him if he tried, because he feels entitled to her body. Its so simple and its still so fucking stunning, that she asked him not to touch her and so he doesn’t touch her, that her needs and wants are something that matter and Frank doesn’t ignore them just because he can, just because he thinks he’s more important. “Look, you don’t gotta feel guilty about all this, I promise. If anything, I’ll finally be able to do my ma proud. She was certain I’d die childless. Get to prove her wrong now, I guess.”
“Not sure this is what she had in mind,” Laurel tells him fighting the urge to grin, to tease him more, fighting the urge to let her guard drop, just a touch. This world is a dark, vicious place, built on greed and fear and crawling hate and there can be no softness, no trust. She has to fight the urge to forget, to let herself hope there can be something more. There can’t be, not ever, but the crawling, furtive hope still wends its way across her skin, makes her want to believe in absurd, pathetic possibilities.
“No,” he agrees ruefully. “Probably not. But I was never great at listening to her advice.”
She hums, a sour twisting in her gut, scowling even as she tries to resist it. She was never great at listening to her father’s advice either and look where it got her. Her father’s probably sipping Cuba Libres in Havana, smoking cigars and selling cars and probably contemplating a political run. And she’s here, still, trapped on the wrong side of her choices, of her hesitation and her tragic optimism. “Yeah, me too.”
“Cheers to that then,” he tells her, corner of his mouth twitching as he shifts closer to her, almost close enough they could touch, if they wanted to. She still wants anything, anything else but that. “Disappointing our folks, even in the middle of all this madness.”
“Is that what this is?” she asks him sharply, suddenly needed to know, suddenly realizing that it is so, so important that she know. It doesn’t matter now, not at all, because she’s taken the plunge and if Frank is going to betray her, well, she’s handed him all the ammunition he needs to have her bagged and hauled off and tried and convicted and sentenced. She didn’t care when she was fucking him and now, now it doesn’t matter because her fate is sealed. One way or another. And yet, she wants to know, wants to know if she was right to trust him, if there might more to their alliance than just a hypothetical, eventual child. “Madness?”
Frank looks at her like he’s seeing her for the first time, very quiet and very still, watching her like she’s going to vanish at any moment, like she’s going to change into some terrible, snarling creature. “What else would you call it?”
“Not madness,” she tells him carefully. “Madness implies its not calculated, not controlled. This, whatever it is, this is deliberate.”
Life’s been a lil cray-zee recently, sorry
The Ceremony is the same as it always is, leaving an ugly, twisting horror inside her in the days following, the sting of grief behind her eyes, pounding along her temples, a dull drumbeat that screams out NO. Knowing what she did with Frank, that she’s created a chance for her salvation does nothing to ease the ache inside her bones, the lingering scars.
They let her out of her room though, whoever it was that decided to lock her away in the first place when her body betrayed them all, went another month without the promise of a child, deciding that she has faced enough punishment for her traitorous body. Annalise, probably, Laurel knows, knowing Sam wouldn’t bother and none of the rest of the household, Bonnie or Frank, have the power, the desire. No, Annalise is the one that did it, the only one that really wants a child for its own sake, the only one whose bones sing out for a baby, a new life. Bonnie and Frank just want to keep their charges happy and Sam, well, Sam just wants to fuck the bodies he’s captured, just wants ownership of the spoils of his holy war.
But they let her out of her room and that’s enough. Laurel’s used to small, meager victories, to reveling in the smallest of offerings. There are only small victories here.
Michaela smiles dully when Laurel meets her at the gate the morning after. But there is something off, Laurel can tell at once, something strained and forced about her expression, even more so than usual. But she can’t ask about it until they’re nearly home again, too many eyes, too many Eyes, too many chances of discovery.
“Are you alright?” Laurel asks, eyes straight ahead and her expression neutral, not even capable of turning her head, watching Michaela to make sure she’s fine. Her whole life has been spent reading silences, reading glances, tasting the air like a snake, feeling around in silence for all the things others leave unsaid, all the lies they tell even to themselves. And now, now everything is silence, everything is pauses and glances and she doesn’t even have the luxury of being able to turn her eyes where she must, to read the things she must to secure her survival.
She hears the other woman’s sharp inhale, like its done around a sob. She gets information where she can, even if it feels vaguely like she’s trying to read a book with the odd numbered pages torn out, like trying to understand a conversation held partially in Telegu. “There was,” she begins, takes a long, steadying breath, gestures vaguely, dismissively in the air. “There was a baby…and then there wasn’t. While you were…”
“Oh,” Laurel breathes, fighting against the things inside her that urge her to take Michaela’s hand, the sudden need to wrap her arms around the other woman. “Oh god. I’m sorry Michaela. You were so close.”
Out of the corner of her eye she sees Michaela nod, draw in a shaky breath against what she knows are tears. “I was so close,” she echoes distantly. “I even let myself hope. I was so, so stupid.”
“But now you know he’s good for it,” she tries gently, though she knows nothing she says can make up for the loss of that great, magical hope. “Commander Millstone.”
Michaela nods robotically and Laurel knows she’s not really listening, not really present at all, her mind back on those few days, that week when she had dared to imagine, dared to see the possibilities opening up before her, dared to think of a child, a future. Her voice is tight, controlled and Laurel can see from the jut of her chin that Michaela is walling herself off, just enough so she can speak, grit out what needs to be said and no more. “There’ll be next month. There’ll be a baby eventually. At least they know I’m good for one too, maybe. But I didn’t want there to be a next month. Not again.”
“I’m sorry,” Laurel tells her again, useless and meaningless, fisting her hands at her side. None of them deserve this, this terrible fate where their lives depend on men who couldn’t care less about them, who just want their bodies, possessions to collect, dolls to hide behind glass and show off to friends, rivals, enemies. “But you’re tough and you’re smart, I know that much about you. You’ll outlast us all.”
“I just wanted it to stop,” Michaela confesses softly.
She nods around a grimacing smile. She can understand the feeling. That’s her one constant in this new world, Laurel thinks, just wanting it all to stop. “Yeah.”
She half thinks about confessing to Michaela what she’s done, with Frank, the strange truce they’ve struck up now that they’ve laid some of their cards on the table. Frank found her, again, after the Ceremony, pressed a nearly full flask into her hand with a bitter grin, the two of them resuming their drinking in silence until this time it was Laurel who turned and left, overwhelmed by the strange, disfigured thing growing between them, urgent and forceful and demanding. It was a strange, comforting silence though, filled with something like trust, like understanding. He didn’t push her to talk, didn’t push for anything really, barring the one time he gave her a little disgruntled scoff when she kept the flask too long, forgot to pass it back. He didn’t demand more from her than she was able to give, didn’t want anything really, content to sit beside her if that was all she wanted, offering of himself whatever Laurel was brave enough to take.
She half considers telling Michaela all this, telling her that she’s put her plan into motion, increased her odds of the longed for child springing into existence, conscripted Frank to her cause, meager as it is. She doesn’t though, that’s a measure of trust the other woman hasn’t earned yet, that Laurel can’t quite allow her. Not even after her own confession about the baby that wasn’t. Its far too risky a move for someone she only barely trusts not to betray her, sell her out to the Eyes for some small advantage, some stay of her own punishment.
“I promised I wouldn’t I wouldn’t let myself hope,” Michaela confesses, face crumpling in grief, so stark, so naked that Laurel stops, turns Michaela’s compliant body away from the street, puts a hand to her cheek and turns her face to the ground so that no one can read the things that flash across her face. “But I did, I couldn’t stop myself.”
“Michaela,” Laurel hisses urgently, trying to shield the other woman from sight, from anyone else passing on the street. She wishes she could be soft, be kind, wishes she could fold the other woman into an embrace and let her tears soak through her skin. But she can’t, that kind of comfort is impossible here and Laurel’s never been one for softness even at the best of times, sharp and flinty, barbed in all the places she should be smooth. “You can’t do this here. Not here, you understand? You gotta keep it together.”
The command fails utterly, nothing masking the sorrow in Michaela’s eyes, the fear. Anyone passing by on the street would have no trouble seeing it and Laurel tries again to shield her somehow from sight. If anyone notices how upset Michaela is, they’ll be suspicious and all attention is dangerous attention. Its not just their bodies that are owned, Laurel thinks, its their thoughts, their feelings. They’re not allowed to be upset, be angry or sad or even happy, everything must be kept hidden tight inside their chests.
Unless their masters demand otherwise, they remain perfect blank masks, their thoughts neutral, their faces placid. These small, vile men want handmaids who resemble dolls, who don’t feel anything at all and only live to serve. They can’t be reminded of the truth of what they’re doing, enslaving women, and so they force their victims to pretend they’re nothing at all, not even people at all. It’s a complicity that makes Laurel sick with rage at the best of times and now, now, when Michaela can’t even grieve for the things she lost, the future she thought she’d fought for, she wants to tear the whole fucking planet to the ground, reduce it entirely to rubble and then set fire to the ashes.
“Michaela, please,” Laurel pleads, though her voice remains cold, commanding and sharp, barely louder than a whisper because they can’t risk being heard, being detected. “Put your head between your legs. Now. Act like you’re getting sick ok. Do it now.”
Laurel’s hand at her back is like a prompt and the other woman bends at the waist, drops down to sit on her haunches, her breath now coming in shuddering gasps, eyes wild with panic and confusion.
“Deep breaths, ok,” Laurel whispers, trying to sound soothing though comfort is so far beyond a foreign concept to her she’s not sure what it might sound like coming from her own mouth. She focuses instead on breathing slowly in and out, exaggeratedly, hoping Michaela will copy her. She doesn’t know how to be soft, to be kind, but she knows how to stop a panic attack. She’s a fucking champ at that, has had more practice at stopping them, her own mostly, sometimes beautiful, sad Wes’, than probably most people on the planet. “Deep breath in, now deep breath out.”
She tries to match her breathing to Michaela, just a hair slower so the other woman attempts to copy her, fighting the edge of her own panic lingering in the darkness, just waiting to spring free. Laurel tries to keep her attention focused on Michaela, on keeping her breathing steady, on trying to ease the rising tide of fear and grief inside her, but her eyes can’t help their wild swing to the sides, can’t help checking their periphery, watching who’s watching them. So far no one has given them too long, too suspicious a glance, Laurel’s body shielding the worst of things, but she’s not sure what to do if anyone decides they’ve stood in one spot long enough. There’s always a risk of detection, of suspicion, they’re never not at risk. But Laurel has long learned to deal with each crises as it comes and so she breathes for the two of them, sets the pace until Michaela’s breathing comes down, until she’s almost at a normal rate, forces herself to push her other worries deep into the back of her mind.
“Good,” Laurel tells her softly, still letting out exaggerated breaths, still demanding Michaela follow her lead. “Just like that, in and out. Slowly. You’re doing perfect.”
If anyone asks, Laurel thinks, concentrating on her own breathing, soothing back the things that make her want to follow Michaela spiraling out of control instead of bringing her down to earth, if anyone comes to close, acts to suspicious, the easiest lie is morning sickness. If anyone asks, that’s what she’ll say. Morning sickness. It plays to all their strange, terrible obsessions; fertility and children and the bodies of the women they control. Its an easy lie to believe because these men understand nothing, not a single thing, about the women they’ve enslaved. They’ll believe the lie because they want to.
It doesn’t take Michaela long for her breaths to slow, no longer gulping at air like its vanishing from the world. Her body straightens on its own, ensuring there’s no detectable weakness inside her, that no one can accuse her of being anything other than the perfect handmaid.
“Don’t stand up till you mean it,” Laurel tells her, almost like a warning. They can’t move until Michaela’s ready, but she doesn’t want them drawing any more attention to themselves, doesn’t want Michaela moving before she’s ready and setting them both back, keeping them here longer. Laurel hates how utterly selfish she is, how thoroughly her worry centers on herself alone. But there’s nothing to be done, there is no room for mercy, for kindness and selflessness. Its every man for himself in this brutal, twisted nightmare world and Laurel can only spare so much breath on saving anyone else. She would have left Michaela long ago, she tries to tell herself, if being a lone handmaid out on the street didn’t put her in more danger than staying to help.
Laurel knows that’s a lie of course, something buried deep inside her that she’s tried to kill so many times compelling her to stay. She wishes she could kill it dead, strangle the life out of it so that her only concern was making it through to the other side, her only mission survival. But she only just discovered Michaela could be more, an ally, perhaps, only just discovered her name and she wants so, so badly not to lose her again.
Michaela sucks in a long, shuddering breath, eyes coming back into focus as she nods. “Yeah,” she tells Laurel distantly. “Yeah, ok. I’m fine.”
“You’re not,” Laurel counters softly, reaching out and taking Michaela’s hand just for a second, just long enough to squeeze her fingers, try and convey some form of comfort across the distance, the silence between them. “You’re not and that’s ok. But you gotta keep your shit together right now. Ok. Not out here. Not in front of them.”
She gives Laurel another shaky nod, swipes her thumb under her eyes before looking up. And just like that, Laurel thinks, Michaela’s a new person, guarded and poised, haughty even. It almost shocks her and more than that, it makes her proud. Its disgusting, its sickening that they’re all trained so well, such perfect little dolls, so thoroughly indoctrinated that they can bury their real feelings as though they didn’t exist at all. And it makes her proud that Michaela’s such a quick study, how perfectly she does what needs to be done, turns herself into just a body, perfect and pure and blank.
Laurel thinks that were having a baby a test, Michaela would ace it, would knock the baby test out of the ballpark. She’s so fucking controlled, more controlled than Laurel ever feels, presenting the perfect façade and covering up all the things she really feels. If pregnancy wasn’t so much a matter of luck, of random chance, she thinks Michaela would have aced it, already would have gotten knocked up as soon as she knew it was necessary.
But it is, just random fucking chance, even when Laurel takes her own steps to try and raise the odds, to try and nudge them in her favor. Its still random fucking luck.
“Thanks,” Michaela whispers, offering Laurel a small, tentative smile as her spine straightens. “That’s, I shouldn’t care, I shouldn’t. But I’m so tired. I’m so tired of all this.”
“It’s gonna end,” she promises, wondering if she’s lying, wondering if these are vows she can make at all. Laurel can’t control anything in the world, in her life, how the hell can she make promises to anyone, think that she can keep them, that her word is anything but a lie. She tries out a prompting, urging smile, trying to tug a corresponding one from the other woman. She takes her hand again, presses it between both of hers, just for a moment, as though to press the truth of her words into Michaela’s skin. “I swear. I swear to you Michaela. But until it does, you gotta keep it together. You’ve gotta be stronger than they are, ok. And you are. And I only just met you, the real you, and I can’t spend six months working up the courage to introduce myself to a new shopping partner. Ok? So you gotta handle your shit.”
Michaela nods again, smiles against the tears she blinks away. “Who were you before?” she asks with a wet smile.
Laurel shakes her head, little shrug hitching her shoulders, fighting against the urge to grin, roll her eyes. “I was no one.”
She wasn’t, she was no one special before, no one worthy of notice. But she had a good life, one she loved, small and all her own, one she’d carved out with care and devotion and the closest thing she’d ever come to faith. It hadn’t taken much to destroy that life, just a few matches and the whole thing was burned to the ground, just a few minutes and her life was reduced to ashes. It had hurt all the same, losing the few things she had, the few things that were all her own.
Michaela smiles, fixes Laurel with a look that makes her think that Michaela herself was someone, once, someone important and fierce, formidable, someone big and bold, someone who demanded to be noticed. In some ways she still is, in some ways Michaela’s impossible to miss, even in this terrible, uniform world. She thinks maybe she’d’ve liked Michaela in the old world too, liked her even before they were forced to become allies out of necessity, survival. She thinks, like Frank, she might’ve been able to love Michaela once, back when loving her wouldn’t have been a crime.
“I don’t believe that for a single second.”
Laurel shrugs, fights off the need to laugh. “Whoever I was, I’m not that person anymore.”
And now its Michaela’s turn to fix her with a look that’s just a little too sharp, a little too cunning and yet somehow tinged with pity. “Yeah,” she assures Laurel softly. “That’s exactly who you are.”
She pulls the mask back into place, strides forward like she didn’t just spend the last ten minutes with her head tucked between her knees, haughty and perfect and Laurel remembers why she spent six months thinking Michaela was a true believer, why it took her so long to risk showing her hand.
And all Laurel can do is trail after her.
They’re mere blocks away from the Keating’s when Michaela pauses again, not enough to stop, not even really enough to notice, just a slight hitch to her steps. Laurel notices of course, because suddenly she’s half a step ahead of the other woman instead of half a step behind.
She glances over at Michaela out of the corner of her eye, prompting and inviting.
“I…,” she starts, hesitates like she’s not sure Laurel can be trusted with what she’s going to say. Laurel wants to scoff because she just risked her own skin to bring Michaela down to earth and its pretty cold that that doesn’t rate her at least some measure of intimacy. “It wasn’t about the baby, not really.”
Laurel’s silent, waits for Michaela to continue. It takes another block and a half.
“While you were…gone, sick, whatever…I saw my best friend. On the walls.”
“Shit,” Laurel breathes, stomach sinking. Goddamnit. She checks, every time she goes past, she checks, prays that she doesn’t see someone she recognizes, prays that she does just so she knows their fate, has some brutal form of closure. She checks for so many people, for Natalia and her husband, for Katie and Mischa and James and Nic and Noor. She’s never recognized them. Not with their bodies swollen and rotting, not with their heads bagged. Not yet. She wonders how Michaela did. She doesn’t ask. “That’s, I’m really fucking sorry.”
“He had, he had this weird little birthmark, on his ankle,” Michaela blurts out, her words rushed and breathless, like a confession. “I glanced up and there it was, just swinging there on the walls of City Hall. And I knew. I knew it was him. No one else.”
“What was his name?” Laurel asks instead of all the other things she wants to ask; what’d they get him for and how had he tried to run, how far and how fast, and how had they caught him, all the things that matter to the living, the things she knows don’t matter to the dead. They matter to Michaela though, Laurel knows that and so she asks, smothers down all the questions that matter, resolves to ask the ones that don’t instead. That’s the best memorial she can give this nameless dead man who was once Michaela’s best friend.
“Conner,” she whispers, like his name’s a secret and maybe it is. Maybe it is something that needs to be kept close, held sacred so that it can’t be taken from her. Laurel’s not sure she’d share Wes’s name if the tables were turned, not sure she’d be willing to share that part of herself, the Laurel of before, the small, golden life she’d had with him. “Conner Andrew Walsh. We’d gone to school together. I was Best Man at his wedding. Best woman. Whatever.”
“I’m sorry,” Laurel murmurs again, brushing the back of her hand against Michaela’s as they walk, the touch so light, so quick it could almost be accidental. She hopes it looks that way to anyone who might be observing, hopes Michaela knows the truth. “He didn’t deserve that.”
“No,” the other woman agrees softly. “He didn’t. I thought he’d made it out, made it up to Canada. He was from Michigan, Lansing I think, so it was close. I thought he’d made it out.”
She doesn’t say it, can’t bring herself to say it, to ask if Michaela thinks her friend was trying to find her, if he came back for her. She doesn’t, she can’t. It’s a thought too painful for words, an accusation too brutal and a wound too deep to open up.
But Michaela knows, or at least can sense that’s the question on Laurel’s mind. She’s seen too many people killed for sentimentality, taken a stupid risk to save someone else and found they’ve traded their life for someone else’s. Laurel’s always been mercenary, bloodless even, certainly after Mexico she’s had no pause for the fates of others, even before this last, brutal reckoning.
“He came back for his husband. I know it. I don’t know it like I knew it was Conner up there, but it was Ollie up there next to him. I’m certain.”
Ah, Laurel thinks, though she has the sense not to say it. That’s what they got him for. The husband. They got him for the sin of loving who he loved. “At least they were together,” Laurel offers, though she knows the sentiment rings false. Dead is dead is dead, it doesn’t matter the person you die next to. Every body dies alone. And it probably hurt worse, knowing that death was coming, knowing it was coming for his husband too. But Laurel doesn’t point that out, doesn’t mention it, hopes
Michaela’s thoughts don’t veer in that direction, hopes she thinks only of them being together, being loved, at the end.
Sometimes that’s the best there is, sometimes that’s all there is.
It’s a nice thought, she supposes, nice and empty and meaningless. Laurel would much rather survive, fight through and come out the other side. But love might be a nice consolation prize.
Michaela’s lips purse together and she blinks rapidly against what Laurel knows must be tears. “That would’ve been good,” she agrees hollowly. “That they were together. They loved each other so much. They would’ve been strong together at the end.”
And dead is dead is dead, she thinks, thinks it over and over and over again like a drumbeat through her skull. That’s why she and Wes split up, there at the end when things were really starting to go to hell, knew they couldn’t save themselves if they were trying to save the other. Or Laurel did at least. Wes had wanted to stay with her, face whatever came together. Maybe it would’ve been for the best, maybe they would’ve been shot and strung up against City Hall together, bodies swinging side by side. Maybe they would’ve escaped. Either way they’d’ve been together. Either way she thinks she’s made the better choice.
She left Wes behind, beautiful, kind Wes, whom she loved in her own way, left him behind because she knew he wouldn’t survive this cruel, dark world. She cut her losses, unsentimental to the last, walked away and left him behind. If he’s alive somewhere, she knows, he’s looking at the walls every time he passes, looking for her body, praying he doesn’t recognize her scars, her freckles, the marks that form distinct constellations along her skin, signposts that point only to her.
Laurel never looks. She doesn’t know if Wes is dead, doesn’t care, not really, because either way he’s dead to her, excised as thoroughly from her life as though he were. She hopes he’s happy wherever he is, hopes his death was painless. But it doesn’t matter to her where he is, not really, because this is her life now, Sam and Annalise and Bonnie and Frank. Her life is Ofsam now and Ofsam never knew a boy named Wes Gibbins who liked thrift store button downs and sad French movies and a girl named Laurel Castillo.