Part One: Blank Slates and Brown Eyes
She hears "Belle?" called out in Doctor Whale's voice and nearly forgets to answer.
(Belle means nothing to her. Belle is a ringing, tinkling, gonging object – not a person. Not her.)
"Can I talk to you a moment?" he asks.
She bites her lip and pulls the thin blanket higher up her legs, wiping her palms on the soft cotton. Looking up, she finds she can't meet his eyes. Opening her mouth, she finds she can't speak. So she nods instead and stares at the whiteness of his coat.
His voice is soft, and quiet, and she's not sure if it's soothing or pitying (but right now she thinks either might be okay because there's been far too much screaming lately.) He takes one step forward. But only one, because her hands grip the blanket white-knuckled and her jaw tightens and he's an observant man. Three days of hospital life has given her time to study him, and the details of 'Doctor Whale' are uncluttered in her mind because her mind has nothing with which to clutter them.
"Belle," (jingle bells and cow bells and the resounding music of church bells from a great cathedral) "I want to be clear on something. You don't have to see anyone you don't want to, okay? Use this time to recover. The bills are taken care of, so take as long as you need."
She wants to leave. She wants to get as far away from here as she can, but here is the only place she knows (although it's so much lighter and whiter and brighter than the dark empty cave she's inhabited for such a long time) and here is the only place she might be safe. She was outside and she was shot, after all. A man was run over and she (apparently) forgot her memories and perhaps it's her own fault. She was outside and chaos reigned. "Okay," she says.
"It's your choice." She hears a caveat approaching with the inevitability of an out of control car. There's a long pause. "But Mister Gold has been asking to see you."
A jolt through her body like electricity, fear and anger and confusion. A knee-jerk reaction, her eyes flick up to Doctor Whale's and blue meets blue and she shakes her head. "No. I don't—" she very nearly flinches, "—I don't want that man here."
She nods, and it spills hair (dark and long and gently curled, matted and knotted and in need of a wash) in front of her face. "He needs to leave."
Whale nods. "Okay," he says. His lips press tightly together, nostrils slightly flared and eyebrows creased in thought, and he makes a move to the door. But then he stops, turns to face her. "Can I offer you a suggestion?"
It's a strange question.
For as long as she can remember (approximately seventy two hours), she's only been told. Ordered. Instructed. She's been force-fed details of her past, and force-fed tranquilizing medication when the walls closed in and she started to scream, force-fed the saccharine smiles and assurances that 'it will all be alright' and 'you just need to give it time'. (She's been healed and kissed and had a broken teacup shoved in her face.) Nobody's offered her a choice, until now.
"Okay," she tells him.
"May I sit down?"
A momentary hesitation. But he is kind to his patients (if not always to everyone else) and he has offered her a choice. "Okay."
He pulls up a plastic chair from beside her bed and takes a seat, keeping a comfortable distance between them. She feels vulnerable. Exposed. Ratty and unkempt like a discarded doll. But he doesn't stare at her gown or her mussed hair. He merely offers a thin smile and folds his hands in his lap and says, "You will see him. Gold. Around town." She opens her mouth and he waits for an answer, but she has none to give. So he continues. "I know you don't want to—but it's an eventuality you're going to have to face sooner or later. All I'm trying to say is that it might be easier to face here, rather than out there."
Here, where it is safe and a single scream can bring a team of orderlies running in to push him away. Where there are no crowds and no guns and no cars and no fireballs dancing in open palms. (Here, where she belongs.)
She studies Whale's face for a long time, and he leaves his expression neutral. Gentle. Soft enough to avoid scaring her eyes away. "Do you know him?"
"We've worked together on occasion."
"Is he dangerous?"
"Sometimes." A small half-smile. A creased forehead. "But not to you."
She looks from Whale to the door of her room, remembering the mysterious grey-haired man who nearly broke apart when she asked him to leave. "That's not reassuring."
He laughed. She hadn't meant it as a joke, but his smile is wide and toothy. Despite herself, she feels her lips twitch.
"Maybe it shouldn't be," he says. "He's a strange man, Mister Gold… but I don't need to know him well to realize he'd do anything for you."
"Except leave me alone?"
Whale raised his eyebrows, conceding her point. "Do you want me to ask him to go, then?"
"I—" She should say yes. Her heart is beating and her palms are sweating and she knows if Mister Gold walks through the door the terror will flood into her with the heat of red-hot iron and the bite of icy handcuffs. And she knows she will break his heart and his agony will leave her feeling sick. And she knows she can't be who he wants her to be. (Can't be Belle. Belle is not her.) "I don't know."
"That's fine. That's perfectly fine, Belle."
She wrings her blanket between her hands and musters up the strength to speak the words forming on her tongue. "Ask me again tomorrow."
It takes several 'tomorrows' before she has an answer for Mister Gold.
She hasn't gone out (though Ruby has offered to show her around town) because she knows he's there. In the lobby or in his shop (he owns a shop) or on the streets, he's waiting for her answer. Waiting for her. The very thought of it sends her legs all to jelly. But she has a suitcase of clothes now, and a stack of books she's been reading, and Doctor Whale is letting her stay as long as she needs because her room has been paid for (and there aren't many sick people in Storybrooke clambering to take her place).
And she's recovering.
Not her memories. Not 'Belle'. But in some ways, she's getting better.
She travels to the cafeteria for breakfast and coffee. Ruby brings over lunch most days; she has conversations with David and Mary Margaret; she takes walks with Emma (she feels safe enough to travel the gardens with the tall, silent woman who has a gun and an attitude strong enough to scare off any danger). She's spoken to Leroy, who brought her flowers and smuggled her in a hip-flask of bourbon (which is tucked into the bottom of her suitcase but calls to her like a siren when the nightmares hit), and to Archie Hopper, who is kind enough to come to the hospital whenever she needs him (and spent half their conversation thanking her for things she doesn't remember doing).
And she thinks she's ready to face Mister Gold.
She takes a shower. She combs her hair. She rummages through her suitcase and marvels once again at how many dresses and skirts this woman owned (and wonders how she could stand to wear them when they're so open and so like a shapeless hospital gown) and finally decides on a pair of black jeans and a massively oversized knitted sweater. It's not classy. It's not pretty. But it's warm… and she needs warmth.
She hides a pager in her hands, hides her hands inside the droopy sleeves, and walks to the cafeteria in a startlingly high pair of heels that give her the confidence she needs.
He's already there (waiting for her answer, like she knew he would be), but his eyes are locked onto a paper coffee cup from the vending machine and he doesn't see her come in.
There's still time to leave.
There's still time to run.
She can still escape.
But she has her sweater and her heels and the pager, and the angles of his back are weighed down and his bad leg sticks out from beside the tiny table, and she is getting better.
So she crosses the cafeteria with heels clacking against the tile floor. He hears her, and he looks up, and she meets his eyes. (They are brown. They are sad and much older than she expected.)
He stands, using the table to push himself up and giving a slight almost-hop to accommodate his leg. "Miss French."
It takes her a moment to reply, but she takes a breath and blinks and fights against the tension in her jaw and says, "Mister Gold, right?"
He nods. "Would you like to sit down?"
He waits until she settles herself before sitting again. He takes a sip of his coffee. He's formal, in a business suit, with a business tone. "I suppose you're wondering why I'm here."
She feels as though she should straighten her back. Sit prim and proper and use her manners (and use her words to say something like "Yes, the thought did cross my mind" to show she has control over her own life). But she folds her arms across her body and stares at the table and nods instead.
"I came to apologize."
"For kissing me."
His brows twitch in an expression that looks almost like a wince. "Yes. And for other things, as well."
She waits, but he doesn't seem inclined to elaborate. "Okay," she says. She purses her lips and gives a tiny shrug. "I guess it's not really a great situation for any of us."
He spreads his hands out on the table, long-spider fingers with buffed nails and (tiny flecks of gold?) a turquoise ring. "I'm sorry for frightening you." A good start. "I'm sorry I didn't listen to you when you asked me to leave." His hand clenches, unclenches, presses hard against the table until his knuckles turn white. He purses his lips and shakes his head. "I'm sorry for a good many things, Belle."
Perhaps if Belle was here, she'd forgive him.
"I never meant to hurt you," he says in a whisper.
"I know." But he did, nonetheless.
His eyes flick to her, and he straightens his back slightly and uses one of those tense clenching-unclenching hands to raise his cup to his lips and take a sip. She recognizes the action as a rallying point of courage. "I was afraid," he says.
It's not what she expects to hear. "Afraid of what?"
He sets the cup down, hand still curled around it, and scans the cafeteria. The lines around his mouth are tight, and his gaze flicks from table to table as if searching for predators. For the first time, she realizes that he's as uncomfortable as she is. That the crowds of people—to her, chattering and comforting and real— press in on him like asylum walls. Finally, he sighs. "I was afraid of losing you."
She drops her eyes to the table, unfolds her arms long enough to rub her sleeve against a stain. Not that she expects it to come off—and it doesn't—but it provides a moment's distraction. A moment to breathe and pretend that he isn't looking at her. A moment to rally her strength. She looks up.
"…I'm sorry I broke your cup."
All light disappears beneath the liquid-brown of his eyes, like a torch extinguished by mud. Exquisite pain stares back at her. "No no, don't apologize." He holds up a hand and presses his fingertips to his chest. "It was my fault."
"The hospital staff… they kept the pieces. If you want them." She scrubs at the stain again. "They're in a box somewhere. A storage room, I think."
"I asked them to." She leaves the stain alone and sets to rubbing her arms. Her whole body's gone cold. Her head aches. She feels dizzy and her heart beats fast and she finds herself rubbing her shoulder in the place where she was shot and where it bled until he crawled over and waved his hand and the pain was gone and-
She's not crazy.
She's not crazy and he's not going to hurt her.
"I should go," he says, and she's glad—because if he'd waited a split second later, her nerves would have given out and she'd have run from the table without thought for appearances or her ridiculous high heels. He picks up his cane and drains the remainder of his coffee and heads towards the doors like a man pursued.
She watches him in silence.
Doctor Whale draws up behind her a moment later, worried eyes and gentle hands on her shoulder, and pries the pager out of her shaking hands.
A/N: First of all, thanks everyone for reading and reviewing. :) It means a lot to me. A special thanks to the guest/anonymous reviewers! I can't really reply to you guys individually, but I appreciate your feedback.
Secondly, THANK YOU AK (Anti-Kryptonite) for betaing this for me and cheering me on and being generally a lovely human being. You should all read her stuff and follower her on tumblr and send her Valentines day cards because she is a beautiful human being an a fantastic writer and a good friend. Another giant thanks to tardisinwonderland for helping me work through some of the rough spots of my plot. I appreciate it tons. (Read her stuff too. -nodnod-)
Thirdly, I hope you enjoy the rest of the story. :) It'll be broken up into three parts, with several chapters per part. I'll do my utmost to update once a week.