Blank Slates and Brown Eyes
She goes by Jane now, though half the town forgets.
It doesn't fit her. She doesn't feel like Jane any more than she feels like Belle. She doesn't remember to answer when people call the name from across the room, and she needs to remember that she is Jane and not just… she. But it hardly bothers her anymore. (One name represents who she used to be, and the other represents who she wants to be—and the more she learns of Belle, the more she thinks that perhaps the two aren't so very different after all.)
Boredom bothers her.
Patronization bothers her.
Curiosity bothers her (and so do people who evade her questions and act as if she's too stupid to notice the bizarre flavour of the town, who treat her like she's… crazy… for wondering where the mayor is or why she saw the sheriff walking down the street with a sword or why the whispered name of Cora seems to send the population of Storybrooke into a collective fit.)
And so she spends her days at the library instead of the hospital—working instead of just reading. Organizing and learning how to use a computer database (and that takes a week on its own). She reads a book on fixing books, and carts volumes back to the hospital to fix cracked spines and torn pages. She locates the cleaning supplies and asks Emma if the job is still open (and what the salary is, because she intends on paying for her own hospital room and, eventually, for the apartment. Whether Mister Gold wants her to or not.)
This is her life. She'll make her own way.
Doctor Whale thinks it's healthy. He waves to her when she leaves and checks up on her when she comes home. Sometimes he brings her a new book to read from his personal collection, or a coffee, or a handful of pills and a bottle of water when the memories of the asylum grow too strong to ignore and she spends the night rocking in the corner. Sometimes he brings Archie Hopper in to talk to her the next morning, and sometimes he sits in the chair beside her bed and listens to her fragmented fears until his pager goes off.
She has good days and she has bad days—but slowly, ever so slowly like the creeping November frost or the first thaw of spring, the good outnumber the bad.
She finds herself at Leroy's tiny house at ten o'clock at night, standing at the front door with the hip-flask of bourbon in her hand and a hundred questions and a hundred fears bubbling together in her mind.
It has been a bad day.
She was late for work (because yesterday was a bad day too and the medication makes her sleep), and when she walked into the lobby, he was there. The man who shot her. The pirate. She felt confident and smart and brave, in a pair of red heels with a fantastic grey skirt and a blue silk blouse, and he saw her and her knees turned to jelly and she nearly screamed. She felt confident and smart and brave, and he looked at her like she was nothing. Like she was a deer and he was the hunter. (Jane Doe after all.) Like he would gladly shoot her again and again.
Like they were at war, and somehow he'd already won.
She doesn't remember much else except Emma apologizing and David dragging him away into a squad car, and Doctor Whale lowering her gently into a chair beside the coffee machine. (And Mister Gold in the corner of the lobby, hands folded on his cane and watching her like a gargoyle, like a stone angel in a graveyard, like her own personal spectre of vengeance).
She hasn't left her room until now, and only because she's not quite desperate enough to drink alone.
She swallows and clears her throat and takes a breath and tightens her hand over the silver flask. She looks up at the porch-light, and up at the stars, and reminds herself that she is free. And then she knocks.
Leroy opens the door a moment later, grey sweatpants and a loose black t-shirt and no hat (his bald head gleams in dim light). His mouth is set in a scowl, but his eyes unclench when he recognizes her. He holds a television remote in his hand and peers into the darkness behind her, as if to check that she's not followed. (Perhaps by Cora.) "A bit late for a social call, don't you think?"
She holds up the bourbon with a shaking hand. "I thought maybe we could share?"
His frown unfolds into a smile (albeit, not much of a smile), and he steps barefoot onto the porch to give her room.
She steps inside, swathed in a loose sweater and jeans and flats because she could barely crawl out of her pyjamas, let alone make herself presentable. He shuts the door behind her.
"Rough night, huh?"
He follows the hallway, past the small living room where the television blares, to the kitchen. He has a bar counter (and she's not surprised). He pulls out a couple of short squat glasses from a cupboard. She stares at the glasses, and he stares at her, and he tosses the remote onto the counter.
"Do you wanna talk about it, or should we get straight down to business?" He nods towards the glasses. She doesn't answer, but he understands her well enough when she holds out the hip flask and takes a seat on the nearest stool.
He divides the amber liquid between the two glasses without spilling a drop. His hands are rock steady. She's not even sure if she can get the cup to her mouth.
"It'll look better in the morning." He rounds the counter and pulls up a stool beside her. Her glass rasps against the linoleum countertop and she thanks him without shifting her eyes from the faux-marble pattern. "Or after three or four glasses of this, whatever comes first."
He's not joking. And though she has no intention of spending the night curled over a toilet and sobbing (Ruby warned her about overdrinking when they spent the night at the White Rabbit a few weeks ago, and she does enough sobbing while sober as it is), his words are comforting. It's nice to know he's on her side. It's nice to know he has faith in her, even if he doesn't bring her lunch like Ruby or bring her books like Doctor Whale. They sit a while in silence, to the sound of the furnace rumbling in the background and the tv still chattering away in the other room and the clink of his cup when he rests it on the counter. (She wonders how they met, the librarian and the town drunk. She doesn't think it matters.)
"That was a bad call," he says, after he's finished half his drink and she still hasn't taken a sip.
"What- what was? Coming here?"
"Naw. They should'a told you they were moving him. Doesn't matter if you were supposed to be out. You deserve to know." His voice sounds gritty, like sand on pavement, and his scowl matches his tone.
She hasn't told him about the pirate—she hasn't told him anything, actually, because her mouth isn't working and the thoughts in her mind are too jumbled to properly sort through—but news spreads quickly in this town.
"What you don't know don't hurt you? That's a load of garbage if I ever heard it." He takes another sip and keeps talking without looking at her. "What you don't know can hurt you the most. It can sneak up on you."
(What you don't know can leave you an empty shell of a person with nothing but nightmares and false hopes to fill the void.)
She finds her voice because he's not looking at her and he's not touching her and he doesn't expect anything. Doesn't treat her like a child or a mental patient or his best friend or his lost love. He is and she is and they drink. And so she asks, "Where are they taking him?" and her voice sounds stronger than she expects.
"It's supposed to be some sort of big secret. My guess is they'll shuffle him around for a few days to throw everyone off his scent and then toss him in the loony bin in the basement." She flinches, and he swears under his breath and takes a long swig of bourbon. "Sorry, sister."
She curls her hands tighter around her glass and nods, spilling hair into her face. "No—it's fine."
"It don't look fine."
"It will be." (She hopes.) She sips from her glass and the smell burns her nose and the taste burns her tongue and her throat like liquid fire. She coughs and Leroy attempts to hide a smirk and she pushes her hair out of her face.
"A bit stronger than iced tea, huh?"
Her eyes water and she stifles another cough, wrinkling her nose and grimacing. "A bit."
"It'll get better," he says, and she's not sure if he's talking about the bourbon or her life.
She wraps her hands around the glass, sloshing the liquid inside and watching it swirl. "Who are they hiding him from?"
He laughs, bitter and biting as the alcohol. "Sister, just about half the town wants his head. And the other half wouldn't exactly cry themselves to sleep if he went missing."
"Including… Mister Gold?" She says it like a question, but it's more of an assumption. More of something in need of confirmation than answering. Something she knows and fears (and wishes she could forget.) Because she remembers his face in the corner of the lobby, the pitiless eyes, the tight lips. The vague and foggy terror-laced memories of asphalt and yelling and a fireball and 'murder is a bad first impression'. The anger beneath the anguish, as thick and dark as blood.
"You have no idea."
"Because he shot me?"
"More than that. Sounds like they've got quite the history."
She nearly laughs (because she has no memories and it's obvious even to her that they have 'a history'.) But it's no laughing matter because Mister Gold tried to kill someone, because Mister Gold is dangerous and she's seen it in his eyes. (Eyes that looked black instead of brown, cruel and hard and unfamiliar in a hospital lobby. Eyes without tears. Eyes that could never belong to someone who smiled at her and called her Belle and apologized a hundred times.) "If he's so dangerous, why'd he stop?"
"Who knows. But I'll tell you this much…" He drains his glass and sets it down on the counter with a 'smack' of heavy glass. "If he changes his mind and decides to kill the pirate, there ain't nothing any of us can do about it."
"You really think he'd…"She pauses. Beneath her loose sweater, she's trembling all over. Knees, elbows, fingers… every inch of skin afire and itching as if it might split open and leave her covered in sores. As if she might shake free of it as easily as a cloak, and be left as exposed and bare as she feels. (But she needs to have control of something, and so she takes a moment and a sip of bourbon, until her voice evens out and she doesn't sound as crazy as she feels.) "I mean, murder's pretty serious."
Leroy gives a shrug, as if it's enough to explain everything. "He's a real piece of work."
She takes another sip of her bourbon, and it's still strong and it still makes her cough. "I get that impression."
Leroy turns to her, eyes searching her face. "You want another?"
She looks down at her still half-full glass and shakes her head.
"Well, I do." He hops down off the stool. (It's high, and he's not much taller than her, and his legs only reach the bottom rung. So it really is a hop.) He rounds the counter and pulls open a cupboard.
"Can I ask you something?"
He rummages through the stash of bottles. "Sure."
The noise, clinking glass and sloshing liquid, stops. He pulls his hand away. Turns and looks at her with his brows knit and his jaw tight. "How do you know about her?"
"I don't. That's why I'm asking." The look on his face discourages her. It looks almost like disgust. Almost like anger. Almost like Cora is something so foul it overpowers the taste of alcohol and leaves Leroy feeling sick— and she's the one who brought the name into the house and so it's all her fault. (But under the weight of his eyes, the heft of his sneer, she nurses a tiny flicker of hope because maybe he'll be the first one to answer her questions without dodging away like she's wielding a firebrand. And maybe it's a question worth the asking.)
"Why is everyone so afraid of her?"
He grumbles something she can't hear.
He turns back to the cupboard and begins transferring bottles from cupboard to shelf, reading labels and occasionally shaking the bottles to check the volume of liquid left inside. "I'm going to need a lot more to drink before we get into that conversation."
"Will you at least tell me who she is?"
He sighs and pulls down a small squarish bottle. He opens the lid and gives it a sniff and takes it back to his glass. "Regina-"
The name sends a jolt of panic, like electricity, down her spine. "The mayor. The woman who locked me up."
He nods. "Yeah. Cora's her mom."
The shaking starts up again and it bleeds into her voice and she can't bring herself to care. "Better or worse?"
He dumps a mouthful of liquid from the bottle to his glass, from his glass to his mouth. He makes a face and gives a little sigh and says, "Yup."
"You're not going to tell me anymore, are you?"
"I wish you would."
"No you don't, sister. You'll just have to trust me on that one."
She wants to. She wants to forget about the rumours and fears and talks of town lines and whispers of magic and sit here and enjoy a drink with an almost-friend. She wants to believe him when he implies she'd be better off in a problem-less dimension where this tiny American town was idyllic and quaint instead of filled with secrets and pitted with harm. She wants to settle into a provincial life. But she can't.
Because the town isn't idyllic. The town is filled with secrets and dangerous people. The town has people named Mister Gold who says his name is Rumplestiltskin—and she hides behind her books, but that doesn't mean her ears don't work—and she's heard more than Rumplestiltskin, she's heard Snow White and Frankenstein and Hook and Evil Queen and Cora. And maybe it's real or maybe it's an elabourate hoax or a science experiment or maybe she's just losing her mind.
But either way, she wants to know. (She's been left in the dark far too long.)
She finishes her drink.
Leroy leads her down the hallway, past the flickering-chattering television room, onto the porch. The air is cold and she's pleasantly tired and maybe she'll sleep tonight if she doesn't dream of magic and monsters. He offers to drive her home but she waves him off (because she has no home, only a suitcase in a hospital room) and the night is agreeable and she'd rather walk. And so she does. Through the silent town on silent sidewalks. Past the library and Mister Gold's shop (and there's a light on inside, and he must be working) and Granny's diner and the bar and all the familiar-unfamiliar places she's grown to know over the last several weeks. Past the places that remind her she is outside (if not free) and she is alive (if not sane) and she is here (if not safe).
She slips in through the lobby long after midnight. She walks to her room with her gaze locked on the tiled floor because she can still feel their eyes (pawnbroker and pirate, brown and icey blue) boring into her like intravenous syringes of panic. She crawls under her too-thin blankets, and curls against a pile of clothes she wishes was another human being, and does not sleep.
It's been a bad day.
But she will fix herself, like she fixes library books, and Jane French will be more Eyre than Doe.
A/N: Everyone, thank you so much for the great response! I'm completely honoured. I really hope you continue to enjoy the direction I'm takig the story, and thanks so much for the great feedback. I'll do my best to reply to the reviews ASAP, but if you don't hear back from me in a couple of weeks, please send me a message and remind me! Also, thanks to AK for being da bomb. As always. Much love, dearest.