Disclaimer: I do not own Once Upon A Time. Neither do I own Phantom of the Opera, from which I got the title.
Welcome! I've had this basic idea in progress for three years and the fanfic for several months, so I'm very excited to finally share it with you. All you need to know is that in this AU, all the characters from Once Upon A Time are normal people living in a normal town. Hope you enjoy :)
Thanks to the most epic beta ever: elli.O. She's amazing. Seriously
Lisabelle French took the key from the lock and returned it to her pocket. It had been a usual day. Nothing special. The Storybrooke Library was quiet most of the time. There weren't too many readers in the small town. Locking up always made her rather sad in a way. Turning the key on the books and leaving them behind in the night was like leaving a whole group of her dearest friends. She knew it was silly, but she'd always had a connection with books and stories.
Belle pulled her jacket a little closer against the light drizzle that had been falling all day. The walk from the library to Granny's diner was only a few blocks, so her best friend Ruby had asked her to stop by after work. Belle wasn't sure why Ruby was still a waitress there. All she did was complain about her grandmother's rules.
Ruby had always been a free spirit of a sort. She wore skin-tight, skimpy clothes and heavy makeup. The streaks in her hair changed color every few weeks—usually varying shades of red, her favorite color. She said what she thought and was perfectly happy to flirt with any man who walked her way. She hadn't ever had a steady boyfriend, but Belle was certain she'd been nursing a crush on Archie Hopper, the town psychiatrist, for a while now.
The diner was busy for a Tuesday night. It seemed that every seat was full and there was a small line at the register where Ruby seemed to have recruited Ashley Boyd to help.
When Belle walked in, Ruby waved to her over a customer's head, gesturing with her head towards an empty booth in the back. Belle grinned and gave Ruby a thumbs-up. She headed back to her seat, pausing to greet most of the people there. She was friendly with almost everyone. Granny and Billy the custodian both waved. Marco tipped his hat to her on his way out. Even Leroy gave her a smile (though that might just have been due to intoxication). She pulled out a book from her purse—Le Fantôme de l'Opèra by Gaston Leroux— and settled down to wait.
"So," Ruby announced a few minutes later, sliding into the booth with two glasses of iced tea.
Belle placed her bookmark in and set the paperback down on the table. "Yes?" she asked. Ruby had a habit of starting conversations like this.
Ruby grinned and tugged her red-streaked hair out of the bun she'd kept it in for work. "Iced tea? You'll have to pay for it, but…"
"I'll take it." Belle tore the end off the straw wrapper and blew it at Ruby. She ignored her friend's protests about having to clean it up later and said, "Did you have something to tell me? Or did you ask me to come by for no reason?"
"Does a girl need a reason to want to see her best friend?" Ruby showed off her mastered fake pout.
"There's always a reason with you, Ruby Lucas," Belle said. "And don't think I don't realize you're making me pay for my own bribe with the iced tea."
"Alright," Ruby said, leaning forward and giving Belle a wide conspiratorial grin, her eyes shining with excitement. "There's someone new in town."
"Oh?" Belle said. She didn't want to sound too interested—Ruby could get the wrong idea from anything—but it was rare news for there to be strangers in Storybrooke. It was a small town miles off the main highway. No one came there if they didn't intend it as their destination. And there wasn't much in the way of tourist attractions around.
"You'll never guess who." Ruby sat back and grinned at Belle's confusion.
"I know them?"
Ruby nodded. "And let me just say: someone grew up well."
Belle laughed. There weren't many people she knew who had left Storybrooke, and even fewer who would consider returning. It narrowed down the possibilities for sure, but she had no clue who Ruby was talking about. "Just tell me!"
"Hey, guys! Sorry I'm late. Did I miss anything?"
Belle scooted over on the bench to make room for the third of their little trio of best friends, Mary Margaret Blanchard. She was tiny—though not so much as Belle—and her nearly black hair was cut in a cute pixie style. She still wore the slacks and a cardigan ensemble she wore for her job as a teacher at the town's elementary school.
"Speak of the devil and he shall appear. Or at least, his sister will," Ruby said, smirking more than ever now.
Belle's mouth dropped open. "No," she said. "It can't be."
Ruby turned to Mary Margaret. "I was just telling Belle about our newcomer," she explained. "I've heard from… reliable sources that he's turned into quite the looker."
Mary Margaret giggled at Belle's expression. "I thought he was gone for good. Done with this town. All that. What happened?" Belle said.
"There was a bad ending to a relationship," Mary Margaret said. "He hasn't told me everything yet, but I haven't really seen him much."
"Seriously?" Belle said. "Your brother is back in Storybrooke?"
Ruby nodded. "Graham Blanchard is back in town. And he's already been given the position of Sheriff."
Belle took a long sip of her iced tea to give herself time to think. She hadn't seen Graham since he graduated from high school and left to go off to college and later, a police academy in Boston. Mary Margaret had seen him plenty over the years (late night Skypes, weekend trips to Boston, family gatherings) but he had never been around at the same time her two best friends were.
Graham had always been different. He was a bit of a loner and had preferred martial arts and archery to video games. He had never been happy staying put in their small town. Mary Margaret had often described him as having an insatiable wander-lust. He had settled down in Boston years before, working as a policeman. But now he was back. Suddenly, unexpectedly, and—according to Ruby—all grown up.
"Have you seen him?" Belle asked.
Ruby shook her head. "Not yet."
"Then how do you know what he looks like?"
"That's the good part." Ruby's grin only grew wider as she leaned over the table closer to Mary Margaret and Belle. "I was talking to Madelina Dormante when she came in for coffee this afternoon—you know her, she's the curly blonde who was always hanging around Regina Mills."
"Yeah, I think I've met her," Mary Margaret said. "She used to work at the Sheriff's station, right? She was the secretary."
"Right," Ruby said. "But she's not the secretary anymore."
"Why not?" Mary Margaret asked.
"I dunno. Maybe she got a job offer doing something else. It could be anything. But the new secretary in the Sheriff's office?" Ruby paused a moment for dramatic effect. "Is Regina."
"No," Mary Margaret gasped. "How'd she get that?"
"It makes sense," Belle said. "Her mother's the most powerful woman in town. Cora Mills gives Regina whatever she wants."
"It doesn't really matter," Ruby said. "The point is that she's the new secretary."
"But what does Her Royal Harpyness' new job have to do with Mary Margaret's brother?" Belle asked. She loved Ruby to death, but sometimes her explanations got a little off topic.
"Because Madelina also mentioned today that Regina simply cannot stop talking about a certain new superior of hers. Apparently, he's very handsome indeed."
Mary Margaret's face turned to one of disgust. "Regina is checking out my brother?"
Belle grinned into her tea when Ruby's eye took on a mischievous glint. "Just because he's your brother doesn't mean the rest of us can't find him attractive, Mary Margaret."
"I don't mind if the rest of you are looking at him," Mary Margaret said. "But Regina…"
Ruby shook her head. "Trust me: we're looking."
"Maybe I didn't need to know that much. He is still my brother…"
"Now," Belle said, grinning at Mary Margaret's obvious discomfort with the topic of conversation, "what we really need to know is if the rumors are true. Is your brother this handsome?"
Mary Margaret opened and closed her mouth several times, trying to find something to say. "I mean, I suppose he is," she said. "Handsome, I mean. He's my brother. I don't really…"
"Mary. Margaret. Blanchard," Ruby said, her eyebrows rising into her hair and her lips twitching in their attempt to hide a smirk. "Just because you're his sister doesn't mean you don't have eyes. Is he as hot as everyone's saying?"
Belle looked back and forth between the two girls. She was usually the spectator in these sorts of things. Ruby and Mary Margaret were so different—sometimes it was hard to understand how they were even friends—and Belle was always much better at relating to books than people.
Mary Margaret was saved from having to answer Ruby's question when Belle giggled and nodded to the door of the diner. "He's as hot as everyone's saying all right."
The man who had just walked through the door was tall and tanned. His light brown hair curled a bit and he had a short beard that gave him a rather rugged look. He was still wearing his work clothes: blue shirt, brown vest, tie, and badge with a leather jacket thrown over the top. Gone was the skinny, misfit teenager that had left for college sixteen years ago. He looked more self-assured too, Belle thought. He had more confidence and sense of self in the way he walked and moved. He had grown up.
"What?" Ruby twisted around in her seat to look at the man who had just entered the diner. When she turned back around she looked straight at her two friends and said, "No. He's much hotter than everyone was saying."
Belle tried to stifle her giggle and hide her smile in her iced tea while still sneaking glances at the new sheriff, who was ordering something to-go at the counter. It wasn't working too well. Belle hadn't had much experience with men. She'd dated a bit in high school and college, but after a few bad experiences had stopped trying to attract someone. And once she moved back to her hometown, there wasn't really anyone new to be interested in. Ruby was the one to talk about this sort of thing. Belle kept her love life confined within the pages of her books—where True Love won out and one always knew who was going to end up together far in advance. She'd had a few crushes and found enough men attractive to keep Ruby happy when she started an interrogation, but mostly stories were it for her. And mostly, she was fine with that.
Mary Margaret had a grin on her face as well as she watched Graham, but it wasn't the appraising one Ruby wore. It was pure, innocent love. Graham was four years older than her, but the two had always been close. Even when he was a senior and she just his tag-along kid sister, he had always made time to hang out with her. Belle could remember them going out for movies and ice cream. He'd always pay with the money he made from his part-time job and let her hang on his arm. Sure, they had their fights (red-faced, waking-the-whole-neighborhood fights) but they were best friends.
"At least it's the two of you and not Regina," Mary Margaret muttered, failing to sound truly annoyed with them.
Ruby nodded, not taking her eyes from Graham. "See? It's not that bad. At least Belle and I have hearts in our chests."
"I'm sure Regina has a heart," Mary Margaret protested. "It's just… hidden… deep, deep down somewhere…"
Belle shook her head at Mary Margaret. She really was too kind sometimes. Sure, Belle would love to believe the best of Regina. But past experience had made that rather difficult.
Ruby tore her eyes from Graham for a minute to give Mary Margaret a pitying look. "Don't try to excuse her. She's done nothing but try to make your life miserable since we were children."
Mary Margaret opened her mouth to start the same old argument over again—Belle didn't know how many times she'd heard them discuss Mary Margaret's kindness to Regina—but thankfully they were cut off by a low, male voice with an Irish accent.
Iced tea almost came spurting out of Belle's nose at the shocked and awed expression on Ruby's face. Belle was impressed as well and now infinitely glad she hadn't humiliated herself at first meeting. His voice was lovely. Belle didn't know where he'd picked up the accent, but it was gorgeous and Ruby obviously agreed.
"Graham!" Mary Margaret jumped up from her seat and threw her arms around her brother. He was a good six inches taller than her and lifted her up effortlessly to spin her around. He set her down gently on the floor and grinned.
"Do you want to join us?" she asked.
He shook his head and held up the brown paper bag of food. "I thought you and I could hang out tonight. It's my evening off."
Mary Margaret looked nervously back at Ruby and Belle. Belle grinned at her. "Shoo. Go hang out. We'll be fine here."
Ruby nodded. "Go have fun."
"Thanks guys." Mary Margaret turned back to Graham. "I'd love to hang out."
He grinned at his sister, his affection for her written clearly on his face with an equivalent of blue sharpie. Belle thought it only made him look more handsome.
Graham offered his sister his arm. "Then your carriage awaits you, princess."
Mary Margaret took his arm and walked with him out of the diner to the sheriff's car parked outside. Belle was rather impressed that he remembered the game they had played as children. It hadn't been often that the three girls had managed to convince Graham to play with them—he was much older and often either too cool or too busy. But the few times he had joined them, he had been the prince in their fairy tales. Or the dragon. Or the evil sorcerer. Or, one memorable time, the huntsman from 'Snow White'. Mary Margaret had always been a princess, with Belle and Ruby filling in whatever parts they needed.
Ruby turned in her seat to watch them—or rather, Graham—go. Once the door swung shut behind them, Ruby turned back slowly. "He. Is. So. Hot."
Belle burst out laughing. There was no better reaction, especially because she had been thinking the same thing.
"Seriously! Who gave him the right to have a voice like that?"
Belle only laughed harder. After a minute, she calmed down enough to say, "But what about Archie Hopper? The psychiatrist? I thought you were interested in him."
"I am. But you know Granny would never let me date him. She'd say he was too old."
"He's not that much older," Belle said. It was true, he was maybe a year or two older than Graham, but it wasn't that bad. At least it was better than—no, she wouldn't even think of that. She sometimes thought Ruby had a talent of mind-reading when it came to men. Even thinking about him would tip her off.
"Still, she'd come up with something wrong with him." Ruby twirled her straw around in her as of yet untouched iced tea.
"You'll find someone eventually," Belle said. "It will all work out in the end."
"Ruby!" Granny called from across the diner. "Ruby!"
Ruby cursed under her breath. "Speak of the devil," she muttered. "Coming, Granny!" she then called.
"I'll see you later, then?" Belle said, covering Ruby's hand with her own.
"Yeah." She got up. "Here. Take my iced tea. I don't want it anymore."
"Bye," Belle said, but Ruby had already left. She drained the last of her first iced tea before transferring her straw to Ruby's. Sighing, she pulled her book back out.
She barely got the chance to find her place again before someone slid into the bench opposite her.
"Hello, August," Belle said without looking up. August W. Booth alternated between her best friend and the bane of her existence on a regular basis. He was annoying and arrogant and entirely too mysterious for his own good. But at the same time, he was the only other person in Storybrooke who seemed to understand her love of books. Like Belle, August was a writer.
"I suppose it's a good book," he muttered.
Belle set her book down on the table, keeping her finger between the pages to mark her spot. "What do you want, August?"
"I was just wondering if you'd made any progress on finding an idea."
Belle sighed. She'd been trying and failing to write for years. She'd get an idea and start it, but nothing ever stuck for long. She just couldn't find something that she was excited about. She had hundreds of unfinished manuscripts in her closet and even more scraps of paper with a few words that were never enough to get a story. So instead of a novelist, Belle was the town librarian.
Writing was her passion, but she just couldn't get something she was happy with. The few times she'd actually finished something, she'd gone back and fallen into despair over terrible writing or weak characters. There was just something missing, some spark that she still needed to find. But it was coming. She knew it. So Belle hoped and prayed that soon she would find the missing piece.
"Not really," she told August. "I'm still searching."
"I'm sorry," he said. Belle tried not to be angry at him. Mr. I've-got-a-book-published. It was nice of him to be so supportive of her, but sometimes she wished he'd stop pitying her. She didn't need or want his pity. No, what she needed and wanted was an idea.
"I keep writing little snippets of things, but they never turn out to anything." She took another sip of the iced tea, letting the cool liquid float over her tongue. She really shouldn't drink so much of the stuff, but it was irresistible.
August sat back in his seat. "Well, what do you want to write about?"
"That's the problem. I don't know. I don't even have a favorite type of book. I just like everything."
"Have you ever thought about doing something with fairy tales?"
"Fairy tales. You probably heard them as a kid. Disney movies. All that. I actually remember you and your friends acting some of them out as children…"
"I know what fairy tales are," Belle interrupted.
August smirked. "I remember you having a particular love for them. So why not write a story that has fairy tales worked in?"
It was a good idea. Belle had always worked so hard to come up with a completely original idea—a feat that had proved difficult. All the ideas she came up with seemed to have already been used somewhere. But retelling one of the tales that had enchanted her childhood was a powerful notion indeed… if only she could figure out a good way to go about it…
"I'll think about it," she said. Sticking the bookmark in her spot, Belle replaced the paperback in her purse. "Thank you, but I really need to get going."
"Good luck," August said with that infuriating smirk of his. It was like he knew she had just fallen in love with his suggestion and also knew she didn't want to give him that satisfaction of telling him, but he was taking satisfaction anyway because he was just too damn smart.
So Belle left him at the table. She got the rest of the iced tea to-go from Ruby and left the diner for her small apartment on the other side of town. The sun had completely set and the drizzle had let up, but the sidewalk was still slick with rain. She walked carefully, so as not to slip, but it was difficult to concentrate on her feet while her mind was flying.
She was captivated with the idea of a story based on fairy tales. She had adored them as a child. She had read nearly every adaptation of "Beauty and the Beast" written. She had Andrew Lang's Fairy Books lined up on her mantelpiece at home. With all the love and inspiration she had gotten from these stories as a child, why not? She could even ignore the irksome fact that August had given her the idea.
Pieces of characters and plots swirled around her in her head. She could see the people that would be there. Snippets of conversations and ideas from long ago now surfaced and began to weave themselves together in the back of her mind. She wasn't sure where all this was coming from or how it got there or even how any of it related to the rest, but it was there. The onslaught tore through her mind at dizzying speed, each thought coming up with new ideas. More and more. It felt like a burning in her chest, and she was lightheaded like she was high on something.
This was why she loved writing. She remembered that now.
She got out her cell phone to call Mary Margaret to tell her about this idea, but then stopped, a grin spreading on her face. No. She would write this first. As beautiful as it all seemed right now, she didn't want to ruin her chances by spilling the beans too early. She would go home and write. She'd tell everyone once she had a start.
She hurried home, a secret smile on her face, not even thinking to sneak a glance into the shop on the corner to see if he was still there.
Mr. Gold spent most of his evenings in his pawn shop on the corner of Main Street. He had no reason to close up early and head home—there was no one there anyway. So he meticulously dusted and polished the objects in his care, occasionally nursing a drink as he worked.
He was polishing an ornate, square, brass hand-mirror when she walked by that night. He didn't know much about her, this Lisabelle French. She was a writer and a librarian. Her brown hair curled down her back and she wore skirts and had the loveliest blue eyes he'd ever seen.
And she would always look in the window of his shop.
Gold knew even though she tried to hide it. She'd sneak a glance and then pretend to have never looked at all whenever she walked past on her way to and from the library. But her eyes were always too fixed on the sidewalk in front of her, her gait always too stiff for it to really be believable.
And he would always look back through the window at her.
Her cheeks would redden with a delightful little blush when their eyes met. His lips would quirk up and bit in a half-smile. But then she would force her eyes away and back toward the sidewalk, trying to hide her own smile. If she was carrying a book—she often was—she'd clutch is closer to her chest, as if it would protect her from her own emotion. He would shake his head once she was gone, but he would not completely be able to banish the sight of her from his mind and return to his work.
Those were rare days. Often, their eyes didn't meet as they snuck glimpses at each other through the pawnshop window.
But tonight her head didn't even turn in his direction.
She was staring at her feet, trying to manage her heels on the wet pavement. (He had never understood how she could wear those things. Yes, she was a small girl, but the heels seemed an awfully heavy price to pay for a little more height.) Her jacket was pulled tight around her body, but it was no help for her bare legs below the knee-length skirt she wore. Her hair was especially frizzy with the damp, but he found it endearing more than anything else.
Yet all of that paled compared to the expression on her face.
It was like a brilliant light had been lit behind her eyes. Her mouth barely curved up, but Gold could tell it was all she could do to restrain her exuberance. Her lips moved quickly—she was whispering to herself. He could practically hear her mind whirring.
He knew that look.
She had the idea.
It had all begun.
Thank you so much and hope to see you soon for Chapter Two. I'd be happy to answer any questions you have and please leave a review before you go!