|Queen to Bishop 6
Author: ParadigmFilter PM
Now AU: What if Regina had actually played the Belle card earlier? Speculations on the nature of the curse. Eventual Rumbelle, with much meandering. Features other characters with less air timeRated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Humor - Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold & Belle - Chapters: 36 - Words: 123,434 - Reviews: 217 - Favs: 99 - Follows: 143 - Updated: 05-10-13 - Published: 04-23-12 - id: 8053075
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
In which freedom is not what it seems
"Reserve Tempo" (Def.): In chess, a move that although superfluous to the game position, may have great effect by virtue of passing the turn to one's opponent.
The woman in the carbon-gray business suit shuffled the stack of forms across the diner's Formica table, and Ella examined the first page. She eyed the photograph in the right-hand corner suspiciously. The disheveled senseless creature that looked back, dull blue gaze unfocused and glazed over, hair a tangled nest of wiry unwashed strands, her complexion simultaneously sallow and oily was not going to win any beauty awards. To aggravate matters, the practically illegible cursive scrolled under the single neatly typed word "Diagnosis" did not inspire optimism. What she could make out did not make much sense, although when she strained her memory, she found that her brain provided some basic reference points, enough to know that paranoid schizophrenia in conjunction with dissociative identity disorder did not bode well at all. She looked up at the dark-haired woman who had signed her release papers three days ago. She had refused to show her the file at the time of Ella's discharge from the psychiatric ward, saying that they needed it to complete some paperwork, but that they could meet in a few days, and she could have a copy. The name next to the photograph said "Ella French." If it's on file, then it must be true, or so people seemed to believe.
Since she had been released from the psychiatric ward, Ella had felt lost and miserable, but that didn't mean she wasn't very slowly putting life back together. Not HER life, whatever that was, but a life, and that was a start. Sometimes, all you could do was put one foot in front of the other, then repeat, until you found yourself walking. While most of the town - or at least those that she had so far encountered - quickly averted their gaze when they saw her, sometimes actually crossing the street just to avoid walking by her, she had found two surprising and unexpectedly fierce allies. Well, maybe not entirely surprising: she had been taken in by the town harlot and the town drunk. Fitting, since she was the town crazy. That first day when Ella had shuffled into the diner, for lack of anywhere else to go, in clothes that weren't hers and with thoughts that made no sense, the redhead took one look at her and apparently decided that Ella was in need of adoption. "Can you cook?" No introductions, pure pragmatics. The diner's line cook said he wanted to take time off that very morning, and Ella had approached the redhead about filling out an application. She could cook, and what she didn't know, she'd learn. She was on a mission: she needed income and a place to stay. She'd think of the rest later. See! One foot in front of the other. No problem. To Ella's delight and utter surprise, they had settled it quickly, and even the stone-faced old woman that was Red's grandma didn't seem to object.
Then there was Leroy. By the end of Ella's first day in the kitchen, the man was the last customer, and he was well and drunk.
" - So, you're the basket case from the looney bin, huh?" he challenged, assessing the fries Red had deposited in front of him like it was a new and interesting species of flesh-eating insect. Ella had just finished her shift.
She examined Leroy, and smiled.
" – Yep, and it's your lucky day."
Leroy raised his eyebrows at her.
"— How'd you figure that, sister?"
"— You know those pink elephants you've been seeing..." she leaned over to him conspiratorially. "Now, someone else can confirm that they're really there. And that one in the corner..." she pointed her thumb over her shoulder. "Is Bob."
Leroy stared at her for a few seconds in total dismay, and then guffawed, shaking his head. Then, when he found out that she didn't have anywhere to stay, he shrugged, gruffly, and said she could stay at his place while he was working on his boat. He'd be staying there, he said, for at least a week. It'd give her time to find a place and get on her feet. Then he downed his beer in one long draw and tossed her the keys with a parting "I hope you're not obsessive compulsive, sister …it ain't the cleanest in there."
She'd begun to tidy Leroy's lair, after bribing a gruff permission out of him with some left-overs from the diner that she had taken to his boat. For some reason, Red and Leroy had simply accepted her, no questions asked, like she was an essential element in the grand scheme of things.
The woman sitting across from her, one Regina Mills, who Ella had discovered was the mayor of the small town, was another matter. She sipped her espresso daintily, a small smile playing on her full, perfectly painted lips. Ella took a sip of her tea, winced a bit at its flat, bitter taste, extracted the teabag by the tail and plopped it down on a saucer. She would kill for a cup of proper tea, although she couldn't remember the last time she had tea that didn't come in a paper sock on a string, but beggars couldn't be choosers. Beggars who were certifiably nuttier than Granny's Pecan pie were especially unlikely to get past toothpaste selection in the choice department.
There wasn't much Ella was sure of since she had been suddenly released from the psych ward. Her time there was a blur of identical days, punctuated by cycles where she regained some level of awareness, only to be plunged back into a foggy complacency where nothing seemed particularly important. Some of her wits returned at short intervals, once in the morning, when she just woke up, and once towards the evening, just before the last meal of the day. There had been medication, small little pills in a cup, sometimes two, sometimes more. The pills had made the world flat, and did something strange to her short-term memory, making her wonder whether today was, in fact, the same day as yesterday. Her long-term memory also felt alien to her, like a story she read, or someone had told her, about a girl growing up with her father, who was a florist down on his luck in a small town.
There was nothing interesting or exceptional about her life, and there was nothing interesting or exceptional about the world itself - one long, predictable, bland story full of cardboard people that said things that sounded rehearsed, and did things that seemed meaningless, day in and day out. People who had small, bland pleasures, and chased after banal goals, only to be thwarted at every turn even in those minuscule endeavors. But then, between the four green walls of her cells, there had been dreams - magical, bright, terrible, full of strange and wondrous creatures, furiously, feverishly alive. Dreaming had been the one thing she revelled in. She would collect the dreams, memorize them upon waking, and turn them into stories she told herself. But more pills came, and made the dreams slip away and fog over, and then her mind didn't have the energy to hold on to them anymore, and she was back to her four walls and memories that tasted of cardboard. Then, something happened when she suddenly began to feel time. She theorized that her body had developed an immunity to the pills, and while the feeling of being IN time was uncomfortable, she had discovered that it was more, for lack of a better word, interesting. Something told her not to show that anything had changed, especially when the dark-haired woman would come by and check on her. Ella had managed to remove a loose screw from the leg of her cot, and the hole was just the right size to squeeze a pill through. Hearing the pills' quiet little clinking as she fed them into their new hiding place had felt oddly satisfying. Slowly, the fog was lifting.
"— Ms French!"
Apparently, Regina had been talking to her, and Ella forced herself to focus on the mayor. There was something odd about Regina Mills' expression: her lips were smiling, but it never seemed to reach her eyes. It made her look a little unhinged herself, as if the top and bottom parts of her face were not on speaking terms. Ella tried to stiffle a smile. No need to antagonize the good mayor by being easily amused, she thought.
"- It is very important that you continue to take your medication, Ms French. You understand that remmission is a very precarious state, and you have quite a serious disorder. And while I am convinced that you will do everything in your power to avoid institutionalization, others might not look upon your condition as kindly, or with as much understanding."
Ella's shoulders hunched a bit, and she pulled the ends of the burgundy shawl Red had let her borrow a bit tighter around herself. Regina noticed, and straightened her shoulders, looking pleased.
" – Your father thought you needed professional care, and I backed him up, since it's my duty as mayor to ensure the security of this community and its members."
Ella nodded, and looked towards the file again. There were other photographs the mayor had brought her. One was of her father, the other of a young man with dark hair and what looked like a permanent scowl. His chin jutted out funny, she thought, examining the picture. She looked from one photograph to the other and felt nothing.
"— Ms Mills, do you remember who this was?" Regina leaned against the back of the booth, tapped the tiny coffee spoon against the side of her cup, and deposited it on the napkin. Ella focused on the photograph.
"— Uh…" she strained, inarticulately, and her memory spat out a name, something rather unhelpfully incongruous like Gaspar, or Casper...
"— Gus Tonner, your high school sweetheart. You got engaged after your graduation. Tragic, what happened to him. The doctors think that your grief was the trigger for your condition."
Ella eyed the rather dull looking fellow on the photograph, and tried to imagine herself in love with him, enough so that she would consider marrying him. She failed. She raised her eyes to the other woman.
" – What happened to him?"
" – You don't recall?" Regina adopted a solicitous expression. Ella didn't buy it. Then a thought occurred to her. She had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Maybe her reaction to Regina was in fact a sign that the diagnosis had been accurate. She shuddered, and quickly pushed the thought aside. Then again, maybe Regina really was out to get her.
"—I must have..."
Ella considered how to phrase it, so that the mayor would not find her suspicious. Some of the jargon the nurses and doctors used had apparently absorbed. "…blocked it out. As too painful?" she finished, looking at Regina with what she hoped was an appropriately bereft expression. The mayor seemed satisfied.
" – Yes, that seems right. Well, Ms French, he drowned" the woman announced, reaching over to Ella's forearm in a sympathetic pat. Ella withstood the contact, clenching her teeth a little, but forcing a small smile and a nod.
" – It was a tragedy, really, a great loss for everyone." Ella felt no sense of loss, not even an inkling of it. Maybe she really was psychologically damaged, she thought. Sociopathic tendencies - yes, that was on the diagnostic laundry list too. Or maybe she had in fact blocked it out, dissociated herself from it to the point of not being able to remember ever knowing him, let alone caring.
She felt her mind strain dangerously, felt it trying to double on itself. One part, the logical part, the one that had a grip on reality, realized that there was no reason for Regina to lie to her, that the woman was trying to help, and that judging by the looks she had been getting around town from the other inhabitants, she really was Storybrooke's token nutcase. That logical part of her mind insisted that all the evidence she had at her disposal suggested that she, Ella French, was fundamentally and irrecoverably broken. The other part, however, refused to accept the obvious, and stubbornly insisted that she was nothing like her description in the file, and that everyone around her was living a lie, that they were either deluding themselves and not seeing the big picture, or, like Regina, trying to pull the wool over her eyes. Which, according to her file, was precisely the kind of thought pattern one would expect from someone with her diagnosis.
Ella sighed. She had to stay focused. Whatever the case might be, she did not want to go back to the four walls. So staying in the mayor's good graces, and acting as one might expect from someone on the road to recovery was important. She'd burn the other bridges when she crossed them. Regina smiled and gathered her purse.
"— Well, Ms French, best of luck to you. Do not hesitate to contact me for anything, and of course, weekly consultations with Dr Hopper and monthly with Dr Whale. I'll be keeping an eye on your progress."
It sounded ominous.
"—I'll arrange for the hospital to transfer your prescription to the pharmacy." The mayor got up to leave. Ella closed the file and pushed it towards Regina, but the woman shook her head.
" – Keep it, Ms French. You know what they say - once warned, twice ready." She smiled. Ella didn't know who "they" were, or why they would say such bizarre things, so she shrugged and nodded. She suspected Regina wanted her to keep the file to better impart on Ella the gravity of her condition.
The bell above the diner's entrance clanked, and drew Ella's attention from the mayor to the man who walked in. She noticed Regina nod at him on her way out then glance back at Ella quickly before turning away. Something about the mayor's expression changed for a split second, and she looked smug, triumphant even. Then it was gone, replaced by a veneer of perfectly neutral civility. Ella's eyes returned to the newcomer, whose face she could now see, and had a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, her heart thumping heavily, almost painfully, in her chest. She felt herself edge instinctively towards the corner of the booth, where the man's view was at least partially blocked by the plush back of the seat.
The man hadn't noticed her. He went up to the counter and ordered a coffee, propping himself up on his cane to land on the tall bar stool. He extended what was obviously his bad leg and let it rest against the bottom of the stool next to him. In spite of the cane, there was a lightness and precision to his movement, a kind of coiled energy. His clothes, like the mayor's, looked expensive and tailored to fit him flawlessly. He was older, but with a kind of ageless quality, as if time wasn't something he was used to wearing. The thought was odd, but somehow made sense, so Ella let it go. She watched the other customers, although the diner was almost empty in its mid-morning lull. A weird cloud of discomfort seemed to settle on them, as if the man's presence drained the room of any levity. It was as if he was encased in an invisible bubble most people would be very reluctant to breach. She knew who he was, of course, and that might account for the intimidation factor.
The logical, sane part of her knew a lot about the town, remembered its history and its inhabitants, although the knowledge was dry and theoretical. Apparently, the cardboard cut-outs came equipped with a legend, because she knew that the man sitting at the counter was the town's pawnbroker and principal landlord. The weird, dangerous part of her that refused to buy into the world, fluttered wildly at the sight of him, screaming that he was, somehow, at the heart of it all, that he was the only real thing in the place. That part also had very intense and confused feelings for this man, but ones that she couldn't really unravel or understand. A heaviness there, like guilt, or rancor, only with a tinge of something else, something darker and more desperate. Ella was used to watching her emotions play across her mind, like shadow puppets on a wall. They had been her only companions in the four walls, and she had learned to watch the play without getting too involved in it. The rational half ventured an explanation to account for the unreasonable one's agitation.
Mr Gold - that, she recalled, was the pawnbroker's name - had apparently ruined her father and then beaten him so severely Moe French had ended up in the hospital. Certainly, that should be sufficient - but she fully realized her reaction didn't "match." Here was another tangled web she wasn't sure how to unweave. Her father had gotten her committed. She didn't feel sane, exactly, but she certainly didn't remember doing the crazy, violent things that her file had mentioned. But if her own father had been sufficiently afraid of her to sign her off to the looney bin and misplace the key, then she wasn't going to run back to him hoping that he'd suddenly had a change of heart. Besides, there was something else about her father that bothered her. She realized that she ought to feel something where the big empty hole sat in the middle of her chest, but it remained - well, empty. The man who was her father - although it was easier to call him Moe French - should have known better than try to go back on a deal with the pawnbroker. Something told her that this Mr Gold was the obsessively exacting kind, one that might, in fact, come for his pound of flesh if he thought it was his due. What on Earth would one want with that proverbial pound of flesh, anyway, she wondered suddenly. The stories never specified. You certainly couldn't sell it back to cover the debt you were owed - as collateral, it seemed royally useless. Or the first born child, for that matter, the monster always wanted the first born, but to what end? To eat it, maybe? But then, why the first born? Would the sequence really make any…culinary difference, if that was indeed the goal? As her thoughts ran, wild and undisciplined, chasing down after the random insights, Ella was suddenly startled by the realization that the man at the counter had turned his head and was staring right at her. She stopped breathing.
A strange shadow passed across his face, and settled in his eyes, while his lips tightened for a split second. She stared at him openly, her mind contorting itself to try to fit him against a strange image, a mask she didn't quite recognize but felt was missing. It slipped off the edge of her consciousness, a memory from a dream that wasn't hers, and there was only a man with sharp features and dark eyes, not handsome, exactly, but oddly riveting, his face molding into an inscrutable barrier between her and what went on in his head. Then he turned away, but with just a fraction of hesitation. This wasn't a man who averted his gaze from the town nutbag, furtively, as if she might turn out to be contagious. There was something else there.
Ella clasped her hands in her lap and stared down at her short nails. It was almost time to return to work from her break, but she wanted to catch his gaze again, just to see if she had imagined the strangeness between them. She gathered her courage and looked up, only to see the door close behind his back.
Maybe she really was insane.
Regina left the diner, fighting the urge to take one last peek through the windows. She thought at first that the scrawny waste of space that she had kept so carefully stashed away might prove to be a problem - sadly, the girl wasn't as dimwitted as she looked - but her plan had been risky, and long to implement, so she couldn't afford any glitches. The file had been a stroke of genius, of course. She'd have to thank Sydney, he gave her the idea. After all - and Sydney himself was the ironic proof of that - the best cage is never the one we see, but the one we carry in ourselves, invisible. The universe, Regina thought with a smirk, had a sense of humor that was as perverse as it was abundant.
She strolled leisurely towards her car, enjoying the brisk air, and looking up at the deep blue sky. She smiled. How fortuitous that the old devil had decided to visit the diner just then. The sad little fiend would discover his lost treasure, and Regina was pretty sure that if she provided a long enough stretch of rope, he just might stick his scrawny neck in the noose and go dangling. With his precious pet there to unwittingly kick the stool from under him, if Regina played her hand right. She had arranged almost all her chess pieces, and was pleased with the results. It was an effective solution to all her recent problems, the blighted Sheriff Swan included, but more importantly, it was elegant. With a small nod to no-one in particular, she walked on.
At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box.