Loose stones crunch beneath the tires of Viktor's silver Camry as he pulls onto the side of the road.
Orange spray paint slashes across the black asphalt, and she's glad it's sunny (because the darkness and the rain bring bullets and screaming), but part of her wishes it was dark (because at least then she could hide from Whale's patient, prying eyes).
"Are you ready?" he asks.
(No. Absolutely not. Not remotely.)
"Yes," she says.
"It'll help." Whale taps his fingers on the steering wheel and looks at her (like he wants to put his hand on her arm, like she's his friend and a glorified psychological experiment all at once). "Trust me."
"You said that already."
"And it's still true."
He gives her a smile, and she gives one back (though his is eager and hers is a wobbly-lipped, uncertain kind of smile).
"Alright," he says, as if the matter is settled. "I'll wait for you outside."
She follows a moment later (because the Camry is small, and her seatbelt is tight, and—even with the windows open—she can feel the walls press in around her). She can't sit here forever, and even an asphalt nightmare is better than a slow strangulation.
He slides on a pair of sunglasses from his breast pocket, and together they walk towards the line.
Five paces. Ten paces.
"So this is where it happened?" Whale asks.
She doesn't know exactly where. (She doesn't remember the precise square metres of pavement where she lay, and the rain has long since erased any traces of her blood.) All the asphalt looks the same, dry and unthreatening in the high afternoon sun. "Yeah," she says.
"Does it still frighten you?"
She shrugs. The road is cracked and gravelly and just like every other road, but her mouth is dry and her palms are damp, so she nods. "Yeah."
"Tell me what you remember."
She already has (at least, she thinks she has), but talking is better than silence and so she begins with the beginning.
"I fell forward," she says, "into a man's chest. That's the first thing I remember. He grabbed my arms so tightly that he bruised me when he tried to hold me up. We landed on the pavement. My shoulder hurt. The stones cut into my palms."
He nods encouragingly and lays a gentle hand on her shoulder. (She flinches, but neither of them pull away.)
She pieces together fragments of broken sentences in a feeble attempt to describe the disorientation of being born into chaos, of screaming and pain. A burst of purple magic and a fireball. (She'd left that part out of the story before, but Whale doesn't look surprised so he must know.) She talks of the pirate, the sheriff, the long ride back to the hospital with a wound that didn't hurt and didn't bleed and a mind filled with fragments of nothing but the asylum and rain. The terror that hasn't left. The terror that eats at the back of her mind every day, forcing her to fill her mind with happiness and her address book with friends and stay up all night baking chicken pot pie and banana bread instead of sleeping. Eventually, her words run dry.
In the silence that settles between them, the sound of tires crunching gravel crackles through the air like radio static.
A black car pulls up to the line… from the other side.
She stares at it. The tinted windows obscure the face within. "Who is that? Is that Doctor Hopper?" (She doesn't entirely believe it is.)
"If I told you, it would ruin the surprise."
"Viktor please," she says, smiling nervously to disguise up a sudden spike of panic, "what's going on?"
"It's alright, Jane. Nothing to worry about." His voice sounds cold and disinterested and his hand on her shoulder weighs as much as Atlas's globe.
The car door opens. A woman steps out. (It's impossible not to recognize her. Not to recognize the red lips and the dark hair, the expression of harshest amusement and eyes as black as the blouse she wears.)
Regina Mills crosses the line into Storybrooke with her hands tucked into the pockets of her slacks, and smiles. "Hello, Miss French."
For a moment, all Jane can do is stare. The air seems too thin (like the articles she's read in National Geographic about Everest or the Chilean mountains), as if the oxygen levels are too low and slowly starving out her brain. She swallows hard and takes a deep breath that leaves her head spinning. She tries to pull away, but Whale's hand tightens on her shoulder.
"What do you want?" She stares at Regina, turns to Whale. "What's going on? Why are you doing this?"
"My my, you ask a lot of questions." Whale smiles, thin-lipped. Something glints in his eyes. "Come with us, and we might even answer some of them."
She flinches away. His fingers find a tighter grip by digging into the muscle between her shoulder and her neck.
"No," she says.
Regina pulls her hands from her pockets. "Unfortunately for you, that wasn't a suggestion." (Jane has only heard her voice through steel doors and in nightmares, but she doesn't think she'll ever forget the way it sounds.) A flick of Regina's wrist (accompanied by splayed fingers and a cruel smile) and Jane's legs snap together. Invisible shackles curl around her wrist, pinning her arms to her side. A part of her wants to run, but another part of her knows this feeling, knows the futility (knows that there's nothing left to do but bide her time until an opportunity arises). She struggles, but Regina's magic lifts her off the ground until the toes of her nude pumps scuff against the pavement, and so she settles on glaring as menacingly as possible through the tears that sting her eyes.
Regina and Whale approach the line, dragging Jane behind them. Every few feet she tests the bonds, wiggles a little, but they don't give (and she earns herself an invisible cuff to the side of her head that leaves her ears ringing).
Regina stops just before the line. She lowers her hand slowly, and Jane's feet touch pavement. Whale, however, does not stop. He doesn't even break stride. He merely steps over the line and… shifts.
It happens instantaneously, as though Whale falls away (like a cast off cloak or a discarded newspaper) and a woman finishes his step. Inches of height vanish in the blink of an eye, curves impose and mannerisms alter. Blonde hair turns red.
The woman spins on her heels; her face is dominated by piercing black eyes and a smile that could chill the surface of the sun. Jane has no doubts as to the identity of this woman.
It's a nightmare. (It's real.)
She's asleep. (She's awake.)
"Cora," Jane says, barely able to hear her own voice over the sound of her thudding heart.
Cora folds her arms over her chest (red camisole peeking from beneath black blazer) and widens her smile.
Jane glances between Cora and Regina (and the resemblance between them is striking, despite Regina's dark hair). "What do you want with me?"
Cora laughs airily and tilts her head in a way that makes Jane feel like a child. "Oh, my dear, what makes you think we want anything with you?"
"Well," she says, effecting confidence despite the quaver in her voice, "you are kidnapping me."
Cora's mild surprise (expressed in a single raised eyebrow and a few superfluous blinks) shifts into a more predatory expression. "Yes," she says. "We are."
Before she has the opportunity to reply, Jane feels strong hands on her shoulder blades. Cora gives a nod to Regina, the invisible shackles release, and Regina pushes Jane across the line.
Not the nothing of memory loss (vast empty darkness and swirling confusion), but the nothing of nothing, of no change, of no magic and no pain. Of nothing but a vague sense of shock the settles into anticlimactic numbness. (Heavy breathing and heart pounding and wide eyes looking up into Cora's satisfied face.)
"Fetch her bag," Cora says, looking over Jane's shoulder to talk to Regina. "And hide the car."
"Rum knows you're here," Jane says. She hopes it sounds menacing. (She hopes it sounds like a threat.) "I'm supposed to meet him for breakfast tomorrow. He'll know I'm gone. He'll come find me."
"I'm counting on it."
Jane says nothing.
Cora continues, shifting her posture and clasping her hands in front of her, using the tone of a queen delivering a formal speech to an audience of peasants. "You see, when two people both want something the other has, a deal can always be struck." She pauses, and then shrugs slightly. "He has something we want… and now we have something he wants."
It's a trap. (Of course it is, of course it's a trap, because a magical dangerous pawnbroker means infinitely more than his amnesiac librarian girlfriend.)
"I'll warn him," Jane says. "I'll find a way. I'll sneak out in the night." She can contact him. Maybe she can get her phone.
"Regina said you were spirited… but not stupid. Try and run, and I'll have my daughter put bullets in both your knees."
"Go ahead," Jane says. Cora looks slightly surprised at Jane's answer. (Which makes sense, since Jane surprised herself.) She doesn't feel brave. Her hands shake and her voice trembles and she feels cold, despite the warmth of the afternoon. "I won't stop fighting."
"I'll get away. Or I'll die." (She's not brave, but hope is the only thing she has left, and she wants to spit in this horrid woman's face). "Either way, you'll have nothing."
Cora makes a short 'hmm' of disapproval in the back of her throat.
At the sound of footsteps, Jane turns to see Regina cross the line, carrying Jane's purse tucked under her arm. A second glance reveals no sign of Whale's car in the distance. Likely either hidden or removed by magic.
"Is she always this much trouble?" Cora asks her daughter.
"Not always," Regina says. "But the short answer is 'more or less'."
"A change of tactics, then." She turns back to Jane. "If you escape, Rum might be able to protect you, it's true." She says Rum like it's the punch line to a joke, with derision and a smile. "But he can't protect everyone." It's not a subtle threat. Cora makes it even less subtle by continuing. "If you make our lives difficult, we will return the favour, starting with Doctor Whale and ending with Miss Swan. On the other hand, come along willingly, and we'll have no reason to involve the citizens of Storybrooke."
She should run. Now. She's not tied up and she should run. (There's no magic over the town line—she knows, Rum told her—but they'll snatch her up the moment she steps back over the boundary.) She could take off into the woods, but she has no food and no water and no map, and no way to warn the town.
No way to save Doctor Whale (who called her 'Jane' when 'Belle' was still an open wound). Or Ruby (who gives her iced tea and smiles even when Granny glares at her lunch dates). Or Leroy (who drinks Scotch and everything else in sight, but still has time to talk of love and gentle things). Or Emma (who tells the truth and tries hard to make sense of a senseless world).
Unless she stays. And then (just maybe) she can save them all.
"I accept," she says, "if you promise not to harm them."
"I promise," Cora says, and Jane doesn't believe her in the least.
There is only here. (There is nothing else because she is here and this is all there is and all there will ever be.)
But she is here because, in some small way, she chose to be here. (Because her friends deserve a chance to live and maybe Belle would do the same thing and maybe Belle would be proud.) And so she carries herself like a princess, like an unbreakable spirit, when they move her from the car to an abandoned cabin far outside Storybrooke. When they chain her to a radiator with only a thin scrap of blanket and a tin of cold soup (and it gets so cold, and when it begins to rain the floor leaks). But she doesn't scream. And she doesn't cry.
She is here. (She has always been here.)
But it is temporary. (She will always be here.)
Rum will save her (or she will save herself) and she'll have her chance at life (at love) again, and she'll open the library and live out the rest of her days in a pink house where magic is real and a man with brown eyes and a fireball will guard the front door.
Unless maybe everything was a lie and a figment of her imagination, and maybe she's back in the asylum and maybe she invented Emma and Ruby and Mister Gold (the same way as she imagined that man in the red-dragon coat with the scales and the funny laughter, such a very long long long time ago).
Or maybe this is real.
And if this is real, maybe they've done her a favour.
Because, despite months of learning and living (and love), she didn't know who Jane French truly was.
And now she does.
(Jane French is a hero.)
And Belle (jingle bells and cow bells and the resounding music of church bells from a great cathedral) would be proud.
End of Part One: Blank Slates and Blue Eyes.
A/N: Hey everyone! Thanks so much for reading. Sorry this is a day late—the chapter was giving me a bit of drama. A huge thanks to Bee (beeinyourbonnet on tumblr), Clockwork-Mockingbird, and of course, Anti-Kryptonite for helping me solve the problems. They're the best. You should read their stuff while I am… ON HIATUS! WHOO! –throws confetti-
It's probably less exciting for you, to be honest. But I'm pumped. My to do list includes: writing new chapters of this (so that I have a buffer and don't stress out every time I'm late), rewatching some eps of OUAT (I've seen season two only once through and I really could use a refresher on some of the characters), finishing filling prompts (that I took in April and then never got to finish), working on my next Rumbelle story for when FMN is done, and replying to PMs and reviews! Hopefully I get all that done. It's a pretty ambitious hiatus, but I'm pretty determined. Haha. I honestly don't know exactly how long it will last, but when I DO come back, I'll have the next part of the story (likely 10-15 chapters again) updating every single week. And you'll all be replied to, if you review. Haha.
Anyway, thanks so much. This is the end of part one. Next time we'll begin part two, which is from Emma's POV, and entitled 'Loopholes and Legalities'. I love you all and will see you soon. In the meantime, if you want, you can follow me on tumblr (roberre) or send me messages if you feel like keeping in touch. I'd love to hear from you. THANKS AGAIN.