A plot bunny that hit me after reading meta about Gold's line in Broken. "A fate worse than death." It start me thinking and that's never a good thing. Also, thanks to thehinkypanda for help on a character.
This is not happy. It's also a little… odd. I don't know. Not my usual style, but I have to admit that despite the tears I'm happy with it.
Trigger warning: cutting and death. I've also been told that this is 'the saddest thing ever.'
People didn't die, in Storybrooke, at least not until Emma Swan had arrived in town, and the curse began to weaken. No one died because no one aged and nothing ever changed, the town caught in an eternal loop of frozen time.
It might have seemed pointless, for a town without death to have a coroner, but they had one. Perhaps Regina knew that he would be needed, one day. Perhaps it was a concession on her part; not even she had power over death. Either way there was a man, Lethe, who spent his time unneeded in Storybrooke, until time resumed. No one called him friend, but that was nothing new for him. No one came to visit him. No one really remembered that he existed, until he was needed.
It was the sheriff, who was the first brought to him, his body perfectly preserved except for the minor detail of a missing heart. He couldn't write that on the paperwork, of course; people couldn't live without hearts. There would be questions, and it made little difference. Graham Humbert, the Huntsman, was dead, his body a shell, his spirit at rest. It was the first time the man had been free in decades, and Lethe only felt no sorrow as he pushed the morgue drawer closed. There was no sorrow in death, only change. It was the lack of change that had made his skin itch, these last twenty-eight years. Now he could breathe again, as things began to move forward.
There were rumors, even in his dark corner of the town, about a heart in a box. A woman dead. Lethe knew death, though, and tasted the lie. No one else had died in the town. They still stood at one death and one birth, a balance.
Until they brought him the body.
She was a pretty girl, even if her skin was too pale and her eyes now unseeing. He could imagine how she'd looked, with a sparkle in her blue eyes and a smile curling her lips. He'd met her mother, so many decades ago, and the daughter was even lovelier. Her name suited her.
His hands were as gentle as a lover's as he undressed her, frowning at the cheap white cotton. It did not suit her, this girl that might have been a princess in some other place. Might have been a princess here, too, had her world not been shrunk to fit in a single room.
"You're safe now, little one. Not a prison made can keep you." It took care, to pull the sleeves free from the skin, dried blood sticking them together. The wounds at her wrists were jagged. Not hesitation marks, as some might think; this girl had known what she was doing, and why. No, her trouble had been with the efficiency of her tool, its blade too worn to cut cleanly through flesh. In the old world he might have been able to do something about the pain the girl had felt, to numb her mind and give her a measure of peace. All he could do here was tend to her body afterwards, and rejoice that she was no longer in the poor broken husk.
It wasn't until he'd peeled away the shirt, the assistance of a sharp pair of scissors being necessary, that he learn the whole of her story. She was so much braver than even he had understood, and bravery deserved its reward. He picked up his phone and made a single call. The man on the other end did not speak, but Lethe did not need words. He understood that the girl's final message would be sent; all that remained to be seen was if it was accepted.
People rarely came to see Lethe, but when they did they moved nervously, shifting as if their feet were trying to take them out of the room and only willpower made them stay. No one wanted to stay with death any longer than necessary; it did not matter to them that all he kept here were the empty shells, and that people had long since slipped away to peace before coming to him.
The man stood perfectly still in the doorway, leaning heavily on his cane. Only the blinking of his eyes and the slight rise and fall of his chest marked him as different than the bodies that usually came to him. And the pain. The dead did not feel pain, but this man glowed from it, all but surrounded by an electrical storm of dark emotions. Magic bled from his every pore, even if he couldn't see it or use it.
"You'll want to come with me, sir." He held open the door to his inner sanctum, his head bowed in a show of respect for the grief that weighed so heavily on the man that he couldn't stand upright. Gold, he was called here, but it was not his true name. He had many. Lethe prefered 'Spinner.' They had met, a few times, the thread of fate twining them together but not ready to be cut. Not for him. Already, though, for his love.
"Belle." A single sound that fell from his lips and shattered on the ground with deafening silence. Once beside the table the man was just as still as he'd been before, but the black cloud around him threatened to engulf them all. Not since home had he tasted so much grief and anger and regret; it was bitter against him tongue. He hated the taste, but bore it for the sake of the woman.
"She loved you." He was not, usually, a romantic, but this man could tear worlds apart and that would serve no one well. He would temper that, as much as he could.
"You knew her?" It was an accusation, as he turned those fierce brown eyes on him. He could hear the swirling thoughts 'why didn't you stop this' and 'you could have saved her.'
"Know." Not the past tense. He hadn't known this girl, this prisoner. But he'd learned her, today, and few could think to know her better. "I know her, here, in this place. She has a story to tell, if you'll listen."
"She'd dead." His whole body shook, as if he forced the words out with every fiber of his being.
"And she wanted you to know why." He had bound her wrists, carefully, after cleaning them. There was no reason for anyone to see that, the work of her last minutes, her private grief. It was just between them, and would serve no purpose to upset. The words were the story. He curled his fingers around the edge of the sheet that covered her and peeled it away with as much caution as one would use for a blushing virgin. It was a virginity of kinds, the first time she was revealed to this man as she was now, not as she had been.
He flinched and closed his eyes, the Spinner. "What are you doing?"
"Look. It's what she's asked from you. Her last request." He stood close enough that he could feel the man fighting himself. He felt, too, the moment that the battle was over and his eyes were about to open. That was the moment Lethe turned and left the lovers alone. Some things were never meant to be witnessed, and this was one of them.
An hour passed. And another. Not a sound came from the other room, but Lethe did not interfere. He waited, head bent over his desk. Only the light of a single lamp kept the room from falling into shadows completely. Lethe didn't mind; he was more comfortable in the almost darkness than he was in bright lights. A little light, though, was a comfort. No one knew what came in the night so well as he did.
When the Spinner emerged from the room the dark cloud of almost magic that had surrounded him was gone. Everything was gone, his frame a broken and almost empty thing as he limped from the room. There would be no more death today, no vengeful murder. The girl had stopped a bloodbath. Lethe wondered at the price. Men could live without their hearts, he knew, even if science said it was not possible. But sometimes 'living' was nothing more than movement, breathing and walking, eating and talking. Sometimes living was a worse curse than death, when someone took your heart from you and had no way to return it. The Spinner's heart, Lethe knew, was still here in the arms of a dead woman.
"You'll wait for him, little one, won't you? The shores of the river are a calming place, and you'll have a peaceful rest until he comes." Lethe stood beside the body, after they were alone again. The blade that she'd used on her wrists had been used before, perhaps the reason it was dulled. 'Won't be a weapon,' she'd written on one thigh, long enough ago that the marks were beginning to scab over. 'Forgive me' she'd carved into her other thigh, a vivid red against the pale skin. The inside of her left arm begged 'Don't hate.'
The deepest cuts, though, were above her heart, almost hidden in blood until he'd tenderly washed it away earlier. 'Love you forever.' Three words, meant for a man who was even now stumbling through the dark, the light he hadn't even known he had suddenly snuffed out.
Lethe wondered how long it would be before he saw the Spinner here again, or at least the shell of the man. More than three centuries, he'd kept away from making his final deal. No man could run forever, though. Every man eventually sought him out.
He would be waiting when the time came with gentle hands and a kind word. And on the shores of the river Styx a girl with blue eyes and a brave heart would be waiting too.