ptahrrific: Woman with a notebook (Default)
Erin Ptah ([personal profile] ptahrrific) wrote2011-09-10 11:49 am

United States of Tara: Gimme Shelter

Title: Gimme Shelter
Fandom: United States of Tara
Characters/Pairings: Tara and the alters; canon pairings
Rating: R
Warnings: As with the show: deals with rape, child abuse, violence, language, bodily fluids.

Vaguely AU to Season 3, heavier on the listening and comforting, lighter on the shouting and gratuitous pseudo-violence. Also, with no alter!Bryce.

Instead of flailing around blindly when it comes to dealing with her system, Tara's trying to approach them with something like sidian3's 5 Steps to Cooperation (communication, reassurance, understanding, structure, and cooperation). Gimme-centric, but everyone gets their moments.

Written for my [community profile] hc_bingo card, prompt "major illness" (DID). Alice's book is Four Little Puppies (1935).





***


Gimme lives in a cave.

Even Tara, who's always had a thing for dark, enclosed spaces, doesn't see the appeal of this one. It's rank-smelling and drippy and the floor is uneven and that low crevice in the wall can't be comfortable. But sure enough, in the dim light she spots what could be the glimmer of eyes in the shadow.

She takes a step closer, and is met with a wordless, feral hiss.

"All right, all right, I'm going!" exclaims Tara, stumbling backward. "I just wanted to see if you were in there. And, clearly, you are, so I'm out."


***


"I don't know why you're wasting your time with that creature," sniffs Alice over the half-frosted batch of cupcakes.

In a fresh sweatshirt, damp hair tied back in a ponytail, Tara pulls a chair up to the counter. "The doctor said things would calm down if I could reassure you guys. And I figure Gimme needs the most reassurance."

Alice looks like she could have hissed herself at that implication, if she weren't much too polite. "Just promise me you washed up before coming in here."

"Full-body shower, I swear." Tara presses her hand to her heart, then reaches for one of the pink-iced cupcakes, dotted with a careful swirl of white sprinkles. "Are these ready? They look good."

"Put that down!" snaps Alice, smacking her wrist hard enough to sting. "You'll spoil your appetite."

Tara cringes, chastised.

Then she uncringes.

"You know what, Alice, I get it," she says, adjusting her posture—no wonder her back's messed up if part of her is cringing on the inside all the time. "We needed a good mom, and it's great that you handled that when we were young, but I'm an adult now, okay? I can manage my own appetite. If you don't want me having a cupcake, that's fine, but say it like you're talking to a grown-up."

Alice's lashes flutter in astonishment, rosy mouth formed into a perfect O.

"And no more hitting!" adds Tara.


***


Flush with her surprise victory, Tara decides to see what she can do with Buck.

She expects the guns; she expects the plaid; she didn't expect but isn't surprised by the hunting trophies, stuffed heads of deer and moose and elk and at least one bear. What throws her for a loop is the row of photos on the mantel.

"Impressive, ain't they?" says Buck, nodding to the mounted pair of antlers that hangs over them. It can't belong to any animal Tara's ever heard of; it's too big. "Bagged that one in Montana three years ago. Took almost a whole clip to shoot the thing down."

"I was looking at the pictures, actually." Tara points to a blurred, almost artsy shot of a woman's naked torso. "Is that—?"

"Don't touch that!" Buck's taller and broader than she is, lean for a guy but with plenty of muscle packed into his frame. It's easy for him to shove her aside, to knock the picture flat on the stone shelf. "That's private, personal guy stuff. Not fit for a lady's eyes. What're you here for, anyway?"

"I, uh, just wanted to talk."

"So talk."

Tara stammers something. A work of soaring, captivating rhetoric, it isn't.

"I think you better go," says Buck, and Tara wouldn't have heard the catch in his voice if she weren't listening for it. "A man needs his space."


***


Shoshanna, it turns out, gives good massages.

Her room is full of fringed curtains and smells like patchouli. When Tara gets up from having her back (or mental-perception-of-a-back, or whatever the technical term for this is) straightened out, she's going to have to take a closer look at some of the beadwork hanging on the walls, because some of it is freakishly intricate and she certainly didn't design it.

"Whatcha doin'?"

"Hello, Chicken," says Shoshanna calmly, as the gangly child with sun-bleached hair skips into the room. "It's called a massage. When adults feel stress, it helps to relax them."

"Is it just a grown-up thing, or can kids have it too?"

Tara tries not to wince under the girl's inspection. At least there's someone else around to deal with the kid, while she tries not to move, not even to breathe....

"Well, now, that's up to Tara," says Shoshanna, smooth as ever.

Great.

"Uh, sure," stammers Tara. "You could probably use a break on me anyway. Let the kid have a try."

The couch is afghan-draped, embroidered with colorful splashes of flowers: comfort personified, but Tara's nerves all stand on end as Chicken lies face-down on the table. She trusts Shoshanna. Of course she does. But, but—

There's no mention of taking off the girl's yellow sundress, just long-fingered hands kneading her shoulders and back over the straps. That makes it better, a little.

After what can't have been more than a couple minutes, Chicken announces, "I'm bored. I'm gonna go play Barbies now."

"You do that." Shoshanna smiles after her as she runs away.

"That kid's never had to worry for a minute, has she?" asks Tara. "She's living the life I could have had. The life my kids should have had, if their mother hadn't been too fucked-up to protect them."

The other woman regards her with an even silence, long waves of hair framing her face in a waterfall. "She's been living that life for years. Haven't you ever wondered why she doesn't grow up?"

"Uh...because that's the age I created her at? Because of the...you know. Why would she grow? The rest of you don't! Right?"

Shoshanna pulls one of her infuriating cryptic smiles. "Think on it some more."


***


"I'm not going to come closer," says Tara out loud. "I know you're not used to being able to rely on people, so I won't promise you anything big right now. Just that I'm going to stand right here, and not come any closer, and then turn around and leave. Okay?"

The hissing stops. Probably the closest thing to an answer she's going to get.

"I'll keep talking, so you know where I am," continues Tara, brushing stalactite dust off her arms. "Do you know who I am? My name's Tara. Tara Gregson. Maybe you'll recognize me when I say I used to be Tara Craine...."

Snarling, Gimme lunges out of the darkness, a feral little poncho-clad tornado.

Tara slams the door between them not a second too soon. (Yes, the cave has a door. She's given up trying to force logic onto the slapdash nature of her internal world.) Her heart runs a mile a minute as Gimme claws and scrabbles at the far side.


***


Instinct tells her to check on the girl. Tara's trying not to automatically fight her instincts these days.

The bedroom door ghosts open at her touch. Chicken sleeps soundly with a floppy plush rabbit under her arm, the picture of chubby-cheeked innocence. Her limbs hang askew, legs splayed wide and flowered nightie bunched up around her thighs.

The sight makes Tara wistful, then sad, then...angry. Not at her parents, not at Bryce, not even at whatever abusers drew a twelve-year-old into the cycle in the first place. It's at Chicken. The hot rush of fury is aimed squarely at a child doing nothing less innocuous than drooling on a unicorn pillow.

Tara slams the door closed and stumbles backward, shaking.


***


She's too terrified to do anything but hide in Shoshanna's closet for a while after.

Shoshanna leaves a pot of herbal tea outside the door.


***


T shows up just as the brownies are coming out of the oven. She complains that they're not the fun kind, then eats three anyway.

"I do wish you'd choose shirts that were a little longer in the hemline, dear," frets Alice. "People on the street will think you're a loose woman."

T, being T, responds by arching her back to bare as much skin as possible, from the underside of her hot-pink bra to the butterfly etched on her hip. "Better loose than uptight. Or frigid," she adds, with a pointed look at Tara.

Tara cringes and uncringes in record time. "Is that a new tattoo?"

"Fuck no. Been there for years. You really don't pay attention to anything but yourself, do you?"

This cringe takes longer to come out of. "I'm trying to be better about that, okay? I just wanted to say that I like it. Eye-catching, nice colors...it looks good. And...and you're a good person."

T looks at her like she's grown a second head. "What are you smoking and how long have you been holding out on me?"

"I mean it!"

"Did you forget how many guys I've banged behind your hot husband's back? And you don't even know about—"

"I don't think this is appropriate conversation for the dinner table!" snaps Alice in a thin, strained voice. Her body has gone stiff, manicured nails lined up in a neat little row on the counter.

"Sorry, Alice. We'll talk about this more later." Tara's about to change the subject, but she can't ignore T's snort of disbelief. "I mean it! I want us to be able to talk about stuff. Especially when it's, you know, important to you."

T rolls her eyes. "Important? Who do you think I am? Buck?"


***


It's still hard for Tara to fit the pieces together.

She's not a lesbian. She's not even the least bit bicurious. If Buck's an extension of her, or a cartoon figure she dreamed up, then there's no reason for him to have any interests in that direction beyond her sketchy understanding of What Men Like. The idea of him feeling something because he feels it is...counter-intuitive. In much the same way that a blue whale is somewhat big.

For Buck, of course, it's natural as breathing. "You don't know what it's like. You women, you're so beautiful, strong even when you're fragile, and you can't even see it. You have no idea how much we love you for it."

"And you loved her," says Tara.

Buck runs his calloused hand over the photograph of Pammy with as much tenderness as Tara's ever seen. "Like you wouldn't believe."

Tara swallows. "You think maybe we could talk about it?"


***


It's almost like a family dinner: Tara and Buck talking over cinnamon raisin bread, while Alice flutters about with offers to freshen their drinks (cheap soda and cheaper beer, respectively).

The conversation goes still when Chicken bounds in. She waits until Alice's back is turned, then grabs two thick slices and tries to cram them in her mouth all at once.

Before Tara can figure out what to say, Alice snaps, "Put that down right away, young lady!"

Chicken shrieks like a banshee and bolts from the room, leaving a spray of crumbs in her wake.

"That girl!" tsks Alice after her. "I've told her again and again, children ought to be seen and not heard."

"Is that why you kept her shut up in her room?" asks Tara.

"Don't you take that tone with me, missy. You know what a little troublemaker she is! Who was going to deal with her? You?"

An idea, fully-formed, flashes into Tara's mind. She could run it by Shoshanna first, just to be safe, but—

"Alice? Quit messing around with the dishes and sit down for a minute. I want to ask you something."


***


Tara walks their body to the local library, tries to listen to her instincts while they browse the children's shelf, and ends up with a stack of picture books sitting beside her at the window.

She reads out loud under her breath, trying to commit them to memory.

Chicken flops down on a beanbag chair next to Tara, on her back with her spindly legs kicking idle loops in the air, and watches her upside-down through a feathering of white-blonde hairs. Her ponytail's coming loose; there are grass stains smudging her knees.

Tara looks up from the first few pages of Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel. "Hi, Chicken. Do you want to come closer, so you can hear better?"

"'Kay." Chicken scoots her beanbag right up to Tara's side. Tara's barely drawn breath to read the next line when the girl adds, "I don't like this book. It's boring."

"Tell you what. We'll compromise. You wait quietly while I finish this book, and I'll let you pick the next one. Deal?"

Chicken fidgets like anything for the rest of the story, and grabs Where The Wild Things Are almost before Tara finishes. It's still the longest Tara's ever seen the girl sit still.

She can't see Alice, but she doesn't miss the barely-there hem-hem of disapproval when Max puts on his wolf suit and sneaks out.


***


With Buck as her wingman she stands on the rough granite, speaking over the sound of dripping to introduce him.

This time when Gimme barrels out, they're ready. Tara gets a bite on the arm and a bruise to the shins in the process, but once Buck has Gimme secure in a hold he claims he learned in 'Nam, she's out of danger and he doesn't seem to mind. Gimme wriggles and thrashes and screams, the crackling poncho poncho making an unholy racket all by itself, to no avail.

"He's not going to hurt you!" yells Tara. "Nobody's going to hurt you. All Buck's going to do is hold you in place, so you can't hurt us. Or yourself."

Gimme spits on her. A different sort of hiss follows, accompanied by a sudden rank smell that cuts through the stale miasma infusing the air.

When Tara tries to apologize, Buck shakes his head. "You think I ain't seen nastier? Besides, this kid's been through her own personal trenches. Anyone who doesn't piss on themselves a couple times after that is a fuckin' robot."

It's the last volley in a limited arsenal. Wrung out, exhausted, Gimme slumps in Buck's arms with a broken animal howl. In spite of that, Tara gets her first clear glimpse of the face swaddled in the orange plastic: a child, hair matted and features smeared with dirt, but a human child nonetheless.

"We brought you some food," she says gently.

Buck adjusts the hold so Gimme can get a hand free. She grabs the slice of cinnamon raisin bread and crams it all in her mouth at once—Tara fully expects her to choke. Crumbs rain down her chin and skitter inside the poncho.

"I'm going to give you a choice now," says Tara, marking each by holding up a finger. "One, you can come with us and get washed up. Two, you can go back into your room. What you're not allowed to do is hurt anyone, including yourself. Got that? One, come along and get washed. Two, go back inside. You get to choose."

Gimme bolts for the darkness the instant Buck lets her go.


***


"We compromise," Chicken announces to a stunned Alice. "You pick a book, then I pick a book. Deal?"

When Tara checks in, she finds them together on Alice's powder-pink couch. Chicken's knees are pink from a recent scrubbing; Alice is reading a book Tara doesn't recognize. At first glance the black-and-white photos look like the exact opposite of Dr. Seuss on the kid-friendliness scale, but apparently it's working for this kid.

Buck's already standing guard outside Gimme's door, so Tara gives T the okay for the girls' night out with Kate: a scheduled one for once, not a night that was supposed to be for mother-daughter bonding but got hijacked by triggers along the way. Then she retreats to Shoshanna's and relates the whole story.

Shoshanna's smile is no more or less enigmatic than it ever is, but once she's been brought fully up to speed she says, "I'm impressed."


***


Alice insists on giving the hallway a thorough scrubbing, so T handles baking the corn muffins in the meantime, while Tara handles making sure nothing extra gets slipped into the dough. T refuses to let her do anything else; somewhere along the line the task has become a personal challenge.

She hands out the steaming, golden-brown muffins with a pride that is thoroughly obnoxious. And she's earned it. They're delicious.

Alice sets her muffin on a little gilt-edged plate and leaves it on the gleaming floor beside her. She's not a fan of the beanbags, but none of them felt like hauling a couch all the way out here, so she sits on hers as primly as possible. Chicken flops down beside it, snuggles up against Alice's side, and hands over Madeline's Rescue, while her own muffin sheds crumbs all over her shirt.

Buck finishes his off in half a dozen bites, swipes a napkin across his stubble, and opens the door on the darkness. T backs up as fast as she can without dropping the tray.

The silence is such an anticlimax that none of them trust it, except Chicken, who doesn't seem to notice.

As the quiet from the cave's yawning mouth drags on, though, one by one they start to relax. By the time Madeline has taken in the stray dog who saved her life, everyone except Buck is starting to really get into it. And when Gimme does appear, nobody notices until a low, wheezing sniffle interrupts the school trustee ordering the dog to be sent away.

Alice, classy as ever, finishes the sentence before closing her mouth and raising one prim eyebrow at Tara. Chicken huddles closer under her arm, eyes huge as she finds the orange blot hovering in the shadows.

"It's okay," says Tara. "She's allowed to listen as long as she doesn't hurt anyone. She's also allowed to have a muffin, if she wants one."

"Only if I don't have to hand it to her," snaps T.

Buck takes a muffin and passes it into the cave. Gimme darts forward into the light long enough to grab it, then retreats until there's no sign of her but the sound of muffled gobbling.

Tara looks pointedly at Alice, who gives her the world's most polite eyeroll before continuing, in a voice raised to be heard over the racket: "I mean - it's a perfect disgrace / For young ladies to embrace / This creature of uncertain race! / Off with you! Go on - run! scat! Go away and don't come back!"


***


The dog comes back.

In the next book Alice tsks over such frivolous hues for eggs and ham. In the one after that, Buck declares Mike Mulligan to be a stand-up guy.

They go through the stories of a dozen Disney movies as stripped down to 32 pages (Tara suspects T enjoys the princesses to a thoroughly un-cool degree), and a dozen different varieties of pastry (with real-world implications: one night Max says to thank Alice for something Tara baked). Chicken orders another reading of Where The Wild Things Are, followed by the book with the black-and-white photos, which turn out to be of adorable puppies acting out the story. Hard to get kid-friendlier than that.

Shoshanna joins them once in a while. Mostly she just listens to Tara's secondhand reports, not offering advice so much as a sympathetic ear for the tangled skein of observations and hopes and fears.

And then, one afternoon, Chicken looks into the darkness where Gimme is gnawing on an apple cruller and says, "Is she allowed to come out?"

"Who'd want her to?" says T, with only slightly less snark than usual. "She bites! Remember?"

"If she didn't bite," amends Chicken. "Could she come out then?"

"We have a rule," explained Tara. "If she lets someone wash her up, and doesn't hurt anyone, then she's allowed to come join us."

Gimme hisses.

Chicken, who by this point has seen Buck wrestle Gimme down a couple of times, picks herself up from the story nook and half-skips, half-meanders over to stand next to him. "You should have a bath!" she yells, as if Gimme's on the far aside of a canyon rather than about ten feet away. "I don't like baths either, but you smell, so you need one!"

The snarl shapes itself into words, gravelly and cracked, but unmistakable: "No touch!"

Tara looks from Buck to Alice in shock. "Is that—?"

"I ain't never heard her talk before," confirms Buck, staring at the crouched shape in wonder.

Alice gets over her own shock almost too quickly to see before getting down to business. "Well, we certainly can't have her bathing all on her own. She's only a child."

"Okay." Tara swallows hard, fights back a cringe at all the history behind those two little words, and crouches at Chicken's side. "Okay, Gimme, listen to me. We can compromise. We're all safe people, but if you want to do the scrubbing yourself, that's okay too. As long as you have a grown-up in the room."

"No grown-up," hisses Gimme, snapping her teeth.

"There has to be a grown-up. To make sure you're safe. But there only has to be one, and it can be any one of us you pick."


***


Which is how Tara ends up in the bathroom with a grubby urine-stained poncho crumpled on one side of her and a naked three-year-old hiding behind bubbles on the other.

The bubble bath provides Gimme some sense of cover, making it that much more likely she'll accept more baths in the future, which is key, as Tara's pretty sure no single scrubbing is going to do the trick. The child's hair is matted into stringy clumps; a wealth of odors seem to be soaked into her skin. The infusion of baked goods has filled out her formerly bony frame, but she's not going to transform into a blonde-curled and rosy-cheeked cherub any time soon.

She's also bruised. Tara knows that without a doubt, though it's impossible to pick individual bruises out from the dirt. If she hadn't sworn to do this if Gimme picked her, she would have bailed on this long ago. Let Shoshanna take the memories in stride; let Alice act as if cleanliness of body would fix everything; let Buck mutter a stream of threats toward their abusers. That's what she has alters for, right? To deal with the shit she can't.

But she's working on dealing with her own shit these days. And anyway, Gimme's not shit.

The child hissed earlier when Tara offered her a dress, so when the first round of muck has been sluiced down the drain and she declares the bath complete, Tara hands her a miniature Snuggie.


***


There's a new beanbag sitting just inside the doorway of the cave. It's safe and relatively clean there, especially now that Alice takes it upon herself to keep the entrance swept.

Gimme perches on top of it, cozy in her pink Snuggie with only a couple of food stains down the front, eating a peanut butter sandwich with her hands. Her hair is still tangled and her nose is running, but she looks halfway to the kind of child Tara would gladly cuddle, if and when she's ever ready to be cuddled. For now, the rest of the group sits at their usual distance, in a semicircle with plates of spinach lasagna.

Instead of picking their book for the day, Chicken addresses the youngest alter. "You need a new name. 'Cause Gimme's a good name for a poncho goblin, but it's not a good name for a sister."

Gimme instantly looks to Tara, who shrugs. "Do you want a new name? You can change it if you like, but you don't have to. It's up to you."

"Dog," mumbles Gimme.

"That's an even worse name than 'gimme'," huffs T.

Gimme hisses at her. (T doesn't hiss back; Tara makes a mental note to praise her for it later.) "Book dog."

Alice sniffs. "We are not calling you Wags, Tags, Rags, or Obadiah."

"I bet she doesn't mean them," declares Chicken. "I bet she means Genevieve."

Gimme hunches down in her Snuggie and nods. "Book dog."

"I think we can do that," says Tara. "What do you think? Can you all remember to call her Genevieve?" Nods all around. "Great! Fantastic. That's everyone except Shoshanna, and I can just tell her next time I see her."

All of a sudden nobody's looking Tara in the eye. Well, except Chicken, who scrunches up her face in confusion.

"Whoa, hang on, things just got weird. What's going on here?"

"Ain't you even noticed?" asks Buck. "When was the last time you saw Shoshanna?"

"Um..." Come to think of it, Tara skipped the last couple of post-book debriefings, and hasn't needed a massage for a while...but surely it hasn't been that long....

"I suppose you'd better see for yourself," says Alice, and pulls a compact out of her pocket. "Look at your face."

Tara looks.

It's still her own face, thank god. (Now that would be a horror-movie twist, to have her features overwritten with a low-res author photo from the back of a borrowed book.) In fact, at first she doesn't think she looks any different. It takes a moment to process the lack of panic in her eyes, the lines of strength in her jaw, the way she isn't in the least bit cringing.

"I want a new name too," butts in Chicken, apparently fed up with the long pause. "'Cause I'm not a chicken. I'm brave, like Madeline. I wanna be Madeline."

"Fine by me," says Tara, still distracted. She quirks her lips, not out of any particular happiness, just experimenting.

A cryptic smile greets her in the mirror.

"Are we reading, or what?" demands Madeline.

"Yes! Yes, sorry, we're reading." Tara passes the compact back to Alice and gives her a genuine smile before turning it on the girls. "As soon as we settle on a book. Madeline, would you mind if we let Genevieve pick?"