Blank Slates and Brown Eyes

The books have already been organized (by another her, in another life). But long weeks have passed since Belle, and dust has reconquered the building. It coats everything, muffles the colours of cloth-bound spines with a haze of grey, deadens the shine of polished banisters and bookshelves and tiles. It peppers the air and spirals lazily through beams of light, and she intends to master it.

She starts with the windows. (There is an old toolbox in a janitor's cupboard and she arms herself with a hammer and a crowbar to pry the boards away.) She mops the floors. (A broom and mop in the same cupboard, and a bucket on wheels with a bit of soap and vinegar.) She cracks open the front door for extra air, and ties a cloth around her mouth and nose… and then she dusts.

She cleans the furniture first. Most of the chairs are plastic, or wood, or faux-leather armchairs tucked in the corners, and those can be wiped off easily enough. But there are also beanbag chairs in the children's section (colourful and lumpy and filled with pores). So she takes those out onto the sidewalk and beats them with a broom handle until they send up reams of dust like false-smoke. Until it must look, from a distance, like she's lighting things on fire and watching them smoulder.

She will reclaim the building from dust and disorder. (She will reclaim her life.)

And then she will open the library.

xxxx

It takes her three days to reach the bookshelves. But she does, little by little, in frenzied little bursts of cleaning and long stretches of grit determination. Polished railings and oiled door hinges, a second thorough beating of the beanbag chairs, a futile attempt to get the elevator to work—and she is ready to confront the endless rows of dust-coated books. She clenches a clean cloth between her teeth like a pirate scuttling up a ship's rigging, and climbs the ladder. Except instead of a weapon, she carries a rag. And instead of pillaging and plundering, she intends to dust the shelves.

She's cleaned half the gardening section when she hears footsteps.

Her heart stutters. Nearly stops.

Against the silence of nothingness, the steps echo.

It's probably nothing (it's Ruby, or Emma, or Archie or her father), but habitual and indistinct terrors make it so hard to focus—so very hard to concentrate or reason or use her mind for anything but conjuring a worst case scenario – hard to do anything except to torment herself with images of pirates and fireballs and car crashes and gunshots. But somehow, in the midst of it all, she finds the will to speak.

"I'm sorry," she says, and her voice is self-assured and confident (whereas she is trembling and gnawed down to the bone with fear), "but the library's closed."

A moment's pause. And then a voice.

"It's Mister Gold. May I come in?"

(Mister Gold. Rumple or Rumplestiltskin or whatever-his-real-name-is, and she can't tell if she's relieved or terrified to hear him. She's shaking so violently, it could mean either.)

She leans her forehead against the cool wood of the shelf, focusing on breathing . Focusing on the ladder, and balance, and not toppling head first into cold tile. Focusing on the hesitant, tentative question he asks (a question because it is her choice to let him in, because it was Belle's library and he gave her the key).

"Miss French?"

She wants to hide. She wants to hide and not reply and not come out until Ruby drives up in a red mustang and takes her to Granny's for lunch. But he'll find her, if he cares to look. And he'll wonder why she hides, when he's only been kind to her and careful with her, as if he knows she might break. The answer is easy: she hides because she's afraid.

She hides because she is afraid, but she is also determined. And she is trying to be brave. And she wants answers (about him, about the world, about everything) more than comfort. More than safety. And so she makes her choice.

"I—" Her bravery fails on the first attempt. But she clears her throat and coughs (and pretends it's from the dust) and presses on. "I'm over here. In 'Gardening'."

His footsteps resume, restart, begin to scuffle-clack closer. Her hands grip the ladder. She presses her lips together—but when he rounds the corner… his appearance is oddly anticlimactic. No jolt of panic. No cold sweat, or terror buzzing in her brain like the hum of electrical wires. For the first time, her mind perceives him, not as a monster (with fire in his hand and hate in his tar-black eyes) but as a quiet old man with a cane and a picnic basket slung over his arm.

It's a relief (and there's her answer, she's relieved to see him).

He stops abruptly at the sight of her on the ladder. His hands are unsteady as he slings the picnic basket from his arm and onto the floor. He takes three steps forward, and his hand is on the middle rung, steadying it (and she didn't know it was shaking, she didn't know she was so close to losing her balance) until she scrambles down and finds her footing on solid ground once more.

"Thank you," she says quietly.

"I didn't mean to startle you." It's another apology. She has a pretty collection by now, it seems. (She's not sure if he errs more than everyone else, or just tries harder to admit it.)

"It's—it's fine," she says. And it really is. Because she'd rather it be him than the pirate. Him than some unfamiliar terror. Him because he's dangerous (but not to her). She wipes dusty hands on her dusty skirt and asks, "What can I do for you, Mister Gold?"

"Nothing."

"Then what do you want?" The words tumble from her mouth, coated in suspicion, washing away the veneer of polite behaviour. But he doesn't chastise her, or tell her to behave, or to mind her tongue. And he doesn't threaten her with sedatives for being (hysterical) uncivil.

He only smiles a sad little smile and picks up the basket. "I just wanted to give this to you." He makes no move to force it upon her. He doesn't step forward, or reach out, or speak—just stands there with it slung over his arm. (It's so out of place, light wicker against a navy suit.) He's silent and still and he waits.

Something about his patience settles her nerves.

"Okay," she says, and he reaches across the gap between them. Even when their hands meet (accidentally, because the handle isn't big enough and she needs to use both hands to lift it from his arm), he keeps to himself. For a moment he looks like a wounded animal (big sad eyes staring at his hand, as if the touch frightened him more than it frightened her). But then he curls his hands around the handle of his cane, lets his fingers dance atop the gold, and he swathes himself in control and quiet confidence once more. But she notices he still doesn't look at her.

She bites her lips and tears her gaze away. (He can't look at her, but she can't seem to stop staring.) She glances down to the basket. The lid is fastened with a tiny metal latch, and when she pulls it open with fumbling fingers to reveal plastic-wrapped sandwiches, cookies, and an assortment of fresh fruit and vegetables, she frowns. "You brought me lunch."

He smiles, inclines his head. "If I recall correctly, cleaning always gave you quite the appetite." His eyes flick away, though his smile never wavers. "I thought you might be hungry."

She is hungry.

And she is supposed to be meeting Ruby for lunch at two.

But there is something in his quavering, hesitant smile that depends on her answer, something hopeful and delicate and too easily crushed. (And her breath catches at the thought of seeing it die—because she's broken too much of his already.)

So she carries the basket to the table.

The tension eases out of his shoulders.

She pulls out three different sandwiches, each carefully halved, and a plastic container of carrot sticks in water. An apple, an orange, a banana, and a luscious bunch of grapes. A water bottle and a vacuum flask. Chocolate chip cookies in plastic wrap. More than enough food, even for someone with quite the appetite. She arranges the food into a small lineup, presented for inspection, and looks to Mister Gold out of the corner of her eye.

He watches her without really watching her. Gazes from a distance, careful glances measured and divided between her surroundings. His eyes flitting over the shelves, the chair, the floor—and then resting on her, so feather-light she hardly notices—and then back to the windows, his shoes, his hands.

She realizes another choice hangs in the balance. (Another choice that makes her hands tremble and jaw tighten and stomach roil.) She opens the vacuum flask and draws her nose close to catch the scent of iced-tea. (Another choice could well determine her fate. Carve out a new path in a new direction.) She pulls out the single plastic cup from the basket and fills it. And then she slides it across the table in front of an empty wooden chair. (Another choice that will make her brave.)

"Would you care to join me?"

Behind his measured expression, his eyes flare to life, joy and sadness and gratitude like a bonfire. Like a fireball. Restraint and not-quite-hope and inconsolable pain staring back from the depths of an endless dark tunnel. It wounds him, and it frightens her, but he says 'yes, of course' and he crosses the floor with the slow, halting steps of a man in a daze. They sit across from one another at the small wooden table and she unwraps the sandwiches.

"Thank you for inviting me," he says.

"You sound surprised."

He gives a shrug and does not answer. She pushes the container of carrot sticks across the table, and pulls several from the dripping water. Long, delicate fingers that can't quite hide a tremble. And she realizes that he is terrified-or-possibly-relieved, just like her.

She wonders—and before she can quell the urge, her thoughts become words. "If you didn't expect to stay, why did you make so much food?"

"I didn't know what kind you liked," he says.

"That's—" That's not the answer she expected. (But it's the truth.) "That's very kind of you," she says.

"Now you sound surprised."

"I suppose I am." She likes all the sandwiches well enough, so she takes a half of each and slides the remaining halves over to Gold. She decides to trade him, honesty for honesty. "I was—I am—a little afraid of you, you know."

He accepts the sandwiches (and her admission) without a word, and takes a sip of iced-tea from the little plastic cup.

"But I think I'm getting better." She glances down to the table, adjusts her sandwiches and lines up the edges of the crusts. She folds her hands into her lap to keep from fiddling and looks up at him, studying him with a tilted head and narrowed eyes. "You know, you seem… different... than I expected. Considering what everyone says about you."

"And what do they say?" He asks the question with a tiny smirk curling at the edge of his lips, like he already knows the answer.

(That he's cruel and heartless and conniving and she's heard so many rumours it makes her head buzz just to think of them all.)

"That you're a monster," she says. But he doesn't seem like one. Not now, anyway. Not when his eyebrows raise in sardonic amusement, and his eyes twinkle with secrets. Not when they're sitting in the library together, with sandwiches and carrot sticks spread out before them like a grand feast.

"Appearances can be deceiving," he says. He picks up a carrot and twirls it between his fingers. "What else do they say?"

"That you're dangerous."

He laughs—or at least, she thinks it's a laugh. It's a quiet sort of scoff, air through his mouth and a cruel twist of his lips. "Of course they do." Bitter and sardonic.

"Are they lying?"

A shake of his head, a gentle sway of his hair around his face. "No." His eyes drop to the table, and he sets the carrot back on the corner of his plastic-wrap, flicking a droplet of water away. "Not about that, no."

"Oh." It's all she can think to say. "Why are you telling me this?"

"You asked," he says.

Silence clatters down like a toppled-over ladder.

She takes a bite of her first sandwich (tuna, though she barely notices how it tastes because everything is coated with fear and confusion and relief, and everything is sawdust in her mouth) and tries not to stare at him as she chews. But it's difficult, because he is an enigma. He is (maybe) a monster who (maybe) still loves her. And (maybe) if he loves her he's not a monster after all.

And for the first time she wishes Mister Gold was more like her father—all stories and chatter and sucking the air out of the room. Because maybe he overwhelmed her and crowded her—but at least then she could let herself be swept away in the conversation. At least then she wouldn't have to scramble to fill the silence. Because if Gold was like her father, she wouldn't notice how wounded and bleeding and quiet and old and so very sad he looked. And it would be easier.

Another question bubbles to the surface of her mind. She snaps a carrot stick in half and stares down at it—bright and over-saturated after a lifetime in a hospital (and the endless hours of dust). She presses her thumb nail against the carrot and leaves a dent. "Why are you doing all this for me?"

"Do I need a reason?"

"I think everyone has reasons for what they do."

(It's her opinion. Her very own.)

"I made a promise," he says after a long moment.

She looks up. "With Belle?"

A nod.

"What did you promise her?"

He looks uncomfortable. It's a personal question. A prying question. But he's only ever been honest with her and so he tears off a corner of his sandwich and answers, "I promised I'd protect her."

"And… that's why you're bringing me sandwiches?" It's a question, but her voice dips at the end as her brows crinkle together.

He stares at the broken piece of bread in his hands, turns it slowly with long fingers. He shakes his head. "No," he says. His voice is a whisper, his voice belongs in the hush of the library (except the library should be a place where she feels happy and safe, not like her heart is being tugged from her chest with razor wire). "I'm bringing you sandwiches because I couldn't keep that promise."

The metaphorical razor wire does its work. She folds her arms across her chest, as if it might keep her heart in, the cold out, as if it might stop the words from burrowing into the back of her mind and haunting her nightmares. (And she doesn't remember—and it feels like getting shot all over again—so she can only imagine how it must hurt him.)

She manages to untangle her arms long enough to take a sip of iced-tea, straight from the flask. (If Leroy had brought her lunch, there'd be something stronger. She thinks she could use something stronger.) "It was… an accident."

"No," he says. His voice is all edges and broken glass (and he is dangerous, she knows, and this time she believes it). "No, this was no accident. This was a tragedy." The sandwich drops onto the plastic wrap and he stabs a finger into the table hard enough to make a 'thud'. "And I was powerless to stop it."

He's right. It is a tragedy. Her entire life is a loss, from the start. She exists because another woman was snuffed out—Jane for Belle, and she doesn't think it's worth the trade. And it hurts to recognize it. It hurts to realize that she's walking around town like Belle's ghost and Belle's (forgotten) memories and everyone else has to live with the bereavement of a woman she can't even remember.

It hurts to know that he (Mister Gold or Rumple or Rumplestiltskin) sees the face of the woman he loved looking back at him with tears and terror.

She wants to touch him. (It startles her, as sudden and unexpected as her first laughter or his appearance in her library long minutes ago.) But she wants to touch him because nobody touches him—because he needs touch almost as much as she needs not to be touched. Because his face is still and his eyes are cast down, but she can tell he's being torn apart by a thousand shards of shrapnel and maybe a touch will help stop the bleeding.

But she isn't brave.

And she isn't Belle.

And she doesn't think her touch will make enough of a difference, when the brush of his skin against her fingertips will bear such a heavy price. (But maybe her words can help.) "Do you think she'd forgive you?" she asks, careful to keep her voice quiet and gentle and hopeful and kind.

"I don't know," he says. She can hear almost-tears in his voice, even if his eyes are dry and locked onto a plastic-wrap-platter of picnic lunch.

She wishes he had a better answer. It would help her understand Belle—what she wanted and what she liked, what type of person she was. What she thought of Mister Gold is important—because it could speak volumes of him (and volumes of Belle, and offer her an encyclopaedic understanding of their common loss).

But he doesn't have an answer. And so she decides to give him one. (And she hopes she's right, because it would break her heart to lie to him after all the truths he's given.)

"I think she would," she says, finally.

His head snaps up. (And why is it that every sudden action reminds her of the sound of a gun, why his head snaps up as if he heard a gunshot instead of as if she spoke unexpected words?)

She shudders, and her breath is shaky (and her words come to her in fits and starts and porcelain fragments). But he needs those words, and so she tries to piece them together.

"I don't know much about her—I mean, I don't remember—but I think she would. Forgive you. If you're trying, and if you're sorry…" It's a foolish thing to say because of course he's sorry and of course he's trying. Anyone who looks at him can see that, plain as day. But she thinks he needs to hear it (and she thinks he needs to be touched, but she keeps her arms where they are). "I don't think she could ask for more."

Tight lips, shimmering searching eyes across her face, and he rips another corner off his sandwich even though he hasn't eaten a single bite.

"Thank you," he says. "For saying that."

"You're welcome," she says.

He lifts the torn sandwich into his mouth and chews. She pops the remainder of her carrot stick into her mouth.

They eat lunch together.

He's quiet, but they both relax after half a sandwich and half a thermos of iced-tea, and she finds she can coax little stories and little jokes out of him. And it's not as bad as she had feared, not strained or terrifying or agonizing. In fact, it's almost comfortable, because he occasionally smiles and she occasionally laughs. Because he's funnier than he lets on, (and maybe eventual hamburgers aren't such a bad idea after all).

When they finish lunch, he helps her clean the table. She returns his (nearly empty) picnic basket, and walks him to the door.

Her heels clack on the tiles. His cane makes a rubber-stopper squeak.

"Thank you," she says again.

"You're most welcome… Jane." The word seems to stick, but she hardly notices the hesitation because it's the first time he's called her Jane. (And it takes a moment to remember that Jane is her name because his mouth always calls her Miss French and his eyes always call her Belle.)

"Will you—" She swallows, tightens her hands over her sleeves (over dark grey dusty sleeves, and she wishes she was wearing something brighter). "Will you come back?"

He turns slowly to face her, keeping his distance still, with a picnic basket on his arm. His lips twitch, an almost-smile of almost-hope (and she almost-smiles back), and he asks, "Do you want me to?"

She doesn't know. (But she thinks she might.) She shrugs. A quick glance up to him, teeth catching her bottom lip. "Do you want to?"

"That's not what I asked," he says.

She rallies her strength. And then she nods.

"Okay then," he says. "I'll suppose I'll see you later." His accent is thick, and the 'r' at the end of the word rolls away from him. "Good luck with your cleaning."

Her mind is already backpedalling, spinning wild and panicked thoughts through her head, flooding her veins with jittery ice water. But she remembers he tells her the truth. She remembers he is kind to her. She remembers she has a choice.

And for a moment (and maybe a moment is all she needs), she is brave.

She looks up at him and smiles. "I'll see you later, Mister Gold."

His smile turns sad, but it's still a smile (and this is the first time she's given him reason to smile at their parting) and it ignites a flicker of courage inside her. "Goodbye, Miss French."

When Mister Gold disappears into his shop across the street, she closes the door and slides the deadbolts into place.

When the clock strikes two, she pulls her phone from her pocket and texts Ruby for a rain-check.


A/N: HI PEEPS. Mister Gold and a smidgeon of happiness, as promised. :)

Thank so much for reading, reviewing, faving, etc. chapter six, also affectionately titled 'GOLD'S LUNCH'. (with capital letters, always.) Of course I enjoy writing for myself (and for AK, mah darling beta and friend who is awesome), but writing for you guys is a huge part of it too, and I'm so gratified that everyone's continuing to tune in each week! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. Hopefully it was worth the wait!

Also, I'm continually sorry for not replying to anyone. I basically just suck at life, and the explanation is that 1: I was failing German so 2: I spent so much time on German that now I'm not failing it 3: but now I'm not doing SO great at my other stuff because I spent so much time working on German and 4: it's a toss up between writing, sleep, and replying to people, and I'm kind of lazy so sleep usually trumps and writing comes next. So my apologies. I haven't forgotten. It just might have to wait until after exams, unless I can get my act together.

BUT I LOVE YOU ALL AND YOU ALL ROCK. Peace out.