nancefics: (Ruby (OUaT))
[personal profile] nancefics

Title: somewhere east of Taliesen (can't get there from here)

Author: [personal profile] empty_marrow

Rating: R (language, mentions of some violence and sexual situations)

Characters/Pairings: mainly Ruby and Granny; mentions of Ruby/OFC/OMC, Ruby/Billy and Ruby/Whale; appearances by most of the rest of the Storybrooke crowd

Word Count: 9,179

Warnings: spoilers up to and including season 2 episode 9, "Queen of Hearts"

Summary: She can still feel the longing of the little girl she never was as she fell in love at first sight with the skyline of a city she never set foot in. Irony, not!Ruby whispers in the back of her brain, can be a real bitch.






“The present is the ever moving shadow that divides yesterday from tomorrow. In that lies hope.”

--Frank Lloyd Wright


+

When she’s ten years old, Ruby Lucas falls into epic True Love with the city of Boston. She finds it beyond unfair when her grandmother tells her no, she can’t leave Storybrooke and move there.

"But it's so beautiful," she protests, squinting to get a better view of the jagged silver skyline glowing beacon-like in the distance as their old pickup truck shimmies down the Mass Turnpike.

"That's because you're looking at it from a distance, child.” Granny, ever the multi-tasker, manages to keep the truck steady in its lane as she pores over the Massachusetts map that’s spread across the dashboard. “You’re not close enough to see the gritty details. There’s crime, dirt, traffic – not to mention way too many people crowded together.”

“Can’t we at least drive through it? Just for a few minutes?”

“No, we’re late already. If we don’t make it to Doorbridge Farms before six the place’ll shut down for the season and I won’t be able to get those dried truffles for another year. The townsfolk will have my head if Granny’s Secret Soup is missing its secret ingredient this winter.”

“But Granny –”

“No buts.” There’s a familiar finality to Granny’s tone, something she knows all too well. “You’ll just have to believe me, Ruby, you’re not missing much. One day you’ll realize there’s no steel cage of a high-rise could ever compare to life in a town like Storybrooke.”

“That’s why I want to live in the cage,” Ruby mutters to herself. Granny merges onto the exit to Doorbridge and she twists in her seat, watching the gleaming glass and metal until it disappears behind them.

When they get home, she uses the last of her allowance money to buy a picture book of Boston.

(One of the ironies of the curse, she thinks now, is that even today, even now that she’s Red-not-Ruby, she still retains so many of these memories of things that never happened, and none so sharp as that one hopeful day, where she can feel the longing of the little girl she never was as she fell in love at first sight with the skyline of a city she never set foot in.

Irony, not!Ruby whispers in the back of her brain, can be a real bitch.)

+

By the time she’s fifteen she can sketch out all of the buildings of the Boston skyline to scale, as well as the skylines of New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Her old Boston picture book and The Big Book of Buildings for Children have given way to beginner’s architecture texts and anything she can read about the architects themselves. Ruby finds the creators almost as eccentric and fascinating as their creations – Frank Lloyd Wright makes her look at nature in a new, different light; Howard Roark is kind of an asshole and she’s glad he’s a work of fiction, but she wishes his skyscrapers were real.

Granny tries to be supportive, but she just doesn’t get it.

“It’s impractical,” she pronounces when Ruby tries to explain Wright’s Fallingwater to her. “All those open spaces right next to so much rock and water – you’d never be able to keep the mold out. And it doesn’t even look like a proper house.”

“But that’s the whole point, Granny.” Ruby launches into an impassioned explanation of Wright’s philosophy of nature and his use of cantilevers, complete with visual aids sketched quickly in the corner of one of the paper placemats. She winds down to see Granny taking it all in with a bemused smile.

“The only point I see here, Missy, is that this diner would be a whole lot cleaner if you paid as much attention to floor wax and silver polish in Storybrooke as you do to brick and mortar hanging over some cliff in God-knows-where. Now come join me in my philosophy of unloading the dishwasher.”

"Why are you so interested in building skyscrapers, anyway?" Ashley asks her one day as they're sitting behind the high school sneaking a shared cigarette.

"I don't know, I just am."  Ruby pauses with the cigarette halfway to her lips, frowning in thought.  "You start with the most basic elements of nature, you know, like wood and ore and sand?  And then you change them into steel and glass, and you end up with something that's totally different from where you started.  It's like you've taken something wild and given it a structure."

"I always knew you were a control freak," Ashley laughs.  "Don't you think a big building would be kind of out of place in a little town like this one that's surrounded by woods?"

"Who says I'm spending the rest of my life in Storybrooke?"

"Seriously, you'd leave?"  Ashley's blue eyes widen in shock.  "I can't imagine why anyone would ever want to live anywhere else."

"Yeah, but you can't imagine why anyone would ever want to go anywhere they couldn't ogle Sean Herman's ass in his football uniform," Ruby says affectionately, smirking at the squeak and the blush that provokes in her friend.  Not for the first time, she ponders that her life would probably be a lot less complicated if her dreams revolved around keeping house with a handsome quarterback.

She takes to carrying a small drafting notebook with her at all times, tucked into her purse or the pocket of her waitress' apron to pull out whenever inspiration strikes. Mr. Gold catches her that way one morning as he comes to collect the rent during one unusually slow Saturday breakfast shift. Ruby’s perched on a stool at the far end of the lunch counter, so caught up in sketching the crown of the Chrysler Building that she doesn’t even hear the tap of his cane until he’s beside her.

“You have some real talent, Ruby,” he comments at her ear, causing her to jump and bisect the crown with an inadvertent pencil stroke. “It would be a shame if you don’t put it to use one day.”

“Land sakes, don’t encourage her, Gold.” Granny hands him a thick envelope stuffed with the month’s rent, hovering nervously between them. “She’s got enough silly notions rattling around in her head already. Don’t just stand there, Ruby, get the man some coffee.”

Ruby watches the patterns in the cup as she pours, black liquid pooling over white ceramic, and realizes that she feels it daily now: Storybrooke pulling at her like a weight around her ankles, its flat little cottages and flat little people with their unbroken routines growing ever more suffocating as the years go by.

+

Granny hits the roof when Ruby drives up in the bright-red Camaro. Literally – she’s so busy standing in front of the diner screaming about how Ruby’s going to get herself killed in that scarlet-colored death-machine that her Four-Alarm Chili bubbles up to a violent boil and splatters all over the ceiling. That starts a second round of screaming, but by now Ruby’s had eighteen years of pushing her grandmother’s buttons with her lifestyle choices; she merely rolls her eyes, locks the car and heads for the cleaning-supply closet.

It’s later that night, when it’s just the two of them at home and she admits she needs the car to drive to Boston and the college that just accepted her into its architecture program, that Granny freaks the fuck out on a whole new, scary level.

“Ruby Lucas, what the hell were you thinking to go running away to Boston? Are you trying to get yourself killed and drive me insane?”

And Ruby’s pretty sure this will be the talk of the town tomorrow, because there’s no way that didn’t just get heard by every single tenant in the rooming house.

“Granny, I’ve done a lot of research –”

“Research on where all the best parties are held, I’m sure,” Granny retorts sharply. “And where do you expect to live, hm? How do you expect to eat?”

Ruby doesn’t even try to conceal the eye-roll, because, really? This is the impression the woman has of her own granddaughter?

“Gee, Granny, if I don't make enough money walking the streets I guess I’ll just have to live on campus with the rest of those freaky party animals who’re trying to get an education. There are dozens of restaurants and diners in the neighborhood, so what I don’t get in scholarship money I’ll make up for by waitressing. And I did get a scholarship, by the way,” she says, and can’t help adding, “Somebody out there apparently thinks I have a future that doesn’t involve rotting in Storybrooke.”

“And the damned fools’d get the business end of my frying pan if I could lay my hands on them!” Granny halts her pacing around the living room floor to pantomime exactly what she’d do with the pan. “It’s not right, filling a young girl’s mind up with such folly and fantasy, fooling her into thinking she could even survive in a place like that. Well, you can forget your road trip, young lady. I forbid it.”

She didn’t exactly expect a rousing send-off, hardly thought Granny would start believing she had any potential this late in the game, but the words still sting. By the end of the evening, any tenant listening in has determined that Ruby’s eighteen and will do whatever the hell she wants, thank you, including driving her car all the way to Boston stark naked if she damn well feels like it, and that Granny isn’t about to pick up the pieces when Ruby inevitably screws up and gets arrested or killed by an axe-murderer or comes down with an STD, and don’t think all three couldn’t happen to her in that godforsaken city.

And then they hear nothing at all, because the two don’t speak to one another for the final two weeks of the summer.

+

She’s packing the car with her last suitcase when she gets the call. It’s Mary Margaret Blanchard phoning from the hospital, and when Storybrooke’s ultimate optimist sounds this rattled she knows whatever comes next is going to be bad.

“It’s your grandmother, they think she had a heart attack. Ruby – you really need to come right now.”

Granny looks – deflated, she thinks. Like one of her soufflés that wasn’t handled properly and just folded in on itself until it was nothing more than a small ruined thing. She’s pale even against the hospital sheets, and there are tubes and needles going into places Ruby doesn’t even want to contemplate. For the first time in the eighteen years she’s known her, her grandmother looks old and scared and incredibly mortal.

Granny glances up past the throng of white coats hovering around her and catches a glimpse of Ruby’s face as she rushes into the room.

“Land sakes, child, I’m sorry about this. Are you alright?” she croaks out, and Ruby loses it on the fucking spot.

Somewhere amidst the hugs and the “I love yous” and the blinking through tears and wrecked eye makeup, she hears Dr. Whale informing Granny that she dodged a bullet.

“As much as an infarction can be called minor, this was it,” he says as he flips through the bedside chart. “You’ll need cardiac rehab and a month or two off work to recover, but you should end up good as new.”

“I can’t take that much time off from the diner,” Granny says, struggling to sit up without pulling her IV tubing. “I’ll be bankrupt! You have to give me the all-clear to go back to work tomorrow, Whale.”

“It’s OK, Granny,” Ruby cuts in. “I’ll be there to pick up the slack – you can be more of a supervisor until you’re back on your feet again.”

“But Boston –"

“—will still be there,” Ruby finishes, squeezing her hand. “This is more important.”

“You’re a good girl, Ruby,” Granny smiles up at her through hazy eyes as Whale’s prescribed sedatives start to take effect. “And you made a good choice.  Believe me, you’ll see that things work out for the best.”

“I’m going to hold you to that ‘good-girl’ thing once the morphine wears off,” Ruby snarks at her fondly, but Granny’s snoring peacefully before she even finishes the sentence.

By mid-afternoon the diner staff knows they’ll be working on a smaller modified menu for the rest of the week while Ruby figures out how to manage things until Granny gets home, and the college staff knows she won’t be coming to Boston in September. Ruby unpacks her car and throws away her admissions material; the Fundamentals of Architecture texts go to the back of her closet, but she leaves her drafting notebook on her bedside table.

Boston will still be there when life settles down again, she tells herself that night.  And just because she's staying in Storybrooke for now, it doesn’t mean she has to fade away into the background.

The next day she buys the brightest shade of lipstick she can find and dyes long red streaks in her hair that perfectly match the Camaro.

+

“This will not end well,” Emma sighs over her cosmopolitan as they watch Mary Margaret and David awkwardly orbiting one another on the corner of Main Street. “This star-crossed lovers crap is way over-rated.”

“Everything remotely related to Valentine’s Day is over-rated,” Ruby agrees, sipping her own drink. The Fairy Dust Lounge is filled with an assortment of couples celebrating the holiday and single people clustered at the bar trying to avoid it. Perched in front of the large front window as they are, she and Emma have a ringside view of the Main Street lovebirds, whether they want to or not.

“I wish Mary Margaret could've fallen for someone without a wife," Emma complains. "I think the only one having a good night is Ashley."

"Oh yeah, if I know my girl, Ashley’s having a quickie in her true love’s truck before he has to go back to work."  Ruby grins over her drink.  "So here we are, at the ass-end of the Holiday of Love, and only one out of our four girls’-night-out gang seems to be getting lucky.”

“’Welcome to Storybrooke, where the odds suck.’” Emma smirks and clinks her glass against Ruby’s, then glances down quizzically. “Hey, is that supposed to be San Francisco?”

“What? Oh, yeah.” Ruby follows her gaze and realizes she’s been doodling on the paper napkin that had been under Ashley’s drink, where the San Francisco skyline now frames out the “Storybrooke’s Own Fairy Dust Lounge” logo. “Yeah, it’s kind of a hobby. I always liked buildings.”

“That is scarily good,” Emma says, visibly impressed. “Did you ever travel there?”

“Haven’t been there, haven’t been anywhere.” She hopes she sounded more drunk than bitter with that comment, decides she’d better order another cosmo just in case. “I have a lot of shit on my bucket list.”

“You should go there. I spent time in San Fran a few years ago and it was amazing. Of all the places I’ve been – oh hell, look at that.” Emma gestures toward the window and Main Street, where David's throwing anguished gestures toward Mary Margaret's back as she walks briskly away from him in tears. "Way to go, Loverboy.  I swear the last person who celebrated this damned holiday right was Al Capone.  Do you mind horribly if I abandon you? I think Mary Margaret’s odds just started to suck more than the average. Tonight might require ice cream and chick flicks.”

“Make sure it’s good ice cream,” Ruby says, and Emma quickly drains her drink and heads out to do a little heartbreak damage control.

The bartender sets her new cosmopolitan down on the napkin she’d sketched over, and she plays with the stem for a moment, watching the drops of condensation roll slowly down the base of the glass until they seep into the paper. The little buildings melt away one by one, until all that’s left is a nondescript smudge of ink bleeding into “Storybrooke’s Own.”

She feels herself being watched, and looks up to meet two sets of eyes at the far end of the bar. Holiday hold-outs like herself, she figures, straddling the lines between drunk, bored, and waiting for it to finally be February fucking fifteenth. The man is tall and dark-haired with surprisingly pale blue eyes; the woman is petite, Asian, and wearing a shade of brick-red lipstick that perfectly matches Ruby’s dress. Ruby smiles slowly, plays with the stem of her glass in a very deliberate manner, and takes note of the responses. Interested, she thinks, and interesting.

She slides unhurriedly off the stool and peels her drink away from the ruined napkin, moving to join her new-found friends. She watches them watching her and gets a sudden burst of sensation (rush of cold air crunch of the snow her heart beating with the hunt and the prey so close she can feel the blood pumping) -- then just as quickly it’s gone. Bizarre, she thinks, but probably just a little too much alcohol in her system.  And definitely not enough to prevent her from getting up close and personal with those blue eyes and brick lips tonight.

Maybe girls’-night-out won’t be a total wash after all.

+

“You’re not drawing much anymore,” Billy mentions casually one day as he’s grappling with the undercarriage of the Camaro.

“Yeah, well, there’s not really much to draw in Storybrooke, is there?” Ruby flips a page of the fashion magazine she’s not reading and settles a little more comfortably onto the workbench. It’s not strictly within the occupational safety codes for her to be sitting out here surrounded by automotive equipment, but Billy’s pretty consistent about bending the rules where she’s concerned, and they both seem to like the company.

“So don’t draw Storybrooke,” Billy says as he rolls out from under the car. “You should keep up with that foreign landscape thing you were doing. Something that good –” he gestures to the wall behind her with one grimy glove “—you could really go places with that kind of talent, Ruby.”

She glances up and over her shoulder at the drafting paper taped to the cinderblock, eyes flicking over the repeating triangles of the Bank of China Building. She’d been on a Hong Kong kick earlier that year, and she’d obsessed over getting each element of the skyline over Victoria Harbour perfectly rendered; Pei’s iconic landmark had been a real mother to get right. When she finished she gave it to Billy as a token of gratitude for hanging out on so many lunch shifts and listening to her bitching over all the revisions she’d slogged through. He’d put it up in his work area the same afternoon.

These days the urge to rip it down and tear it to pieces is so strong that the only thing holding her back is the reaction she knows she’d get from him.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Billy,” she sighs, smoothing her skirt as she climbs up off the bench, “but I’m afraid the only place I’m going these days is back to the diner.”

“Hey.” Billy pulls his gloves off and gives one red-streaked strand a gentle tug before tucking it behind her ear. “You won’t be stuck in Storybrooke forever, Ruby. Don’t stop doing what you love.”

“What are you now, my cheerleader and my mechanic?”

Billy grins and gives her a chaste kiss on the cheek as he hands her the car keys. “It’s easy to cheer for someone you believe in.”

Billy is cute and sweet and funny and gainfully employed and head over heels for her – a solid Storybrooke citizen and someone even Granny would be hard-pressed to disapprove of. Perfect boyfriend material, basically.

And that’s why she’ll never sleep with him, she decides then and there.

Billy deserves someone whose happily-ever-after resides right beside him in Storybrooke. He doesn’t need some stupid girl who flirts and snarks and dreams of jagged skylines and drags through her days thinking of all the places she’ll never see.

Because really, who’d cheer for that?

+

The straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back is, oddly enough, a lemur.

August W. Booth is as close to a man of mystery as you can get in a place like Storybrooke, and if he hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about why he’s here now, he has no trouble sharing stories of where he’s been. Ruby finds him attractive in a stoic, stubbly kind of way.

She decides he’s less attractive and more of an asshole a few days later, when he clearly figures she’s stupid enough to believe a tall tale of how he went to Nepal to study a colony of lemurs – she just manages to stop herself from asking where he found all those little lemur-sized parkas to zip them into so they wouldn’t freeze their little lemur asses off that far from Madagascar. Instead she smiles winningly and bats her eyes, leaning into him just enough to give him a glimpse of the red lace bra framing her cleavage. She gets a five dollar tip on a three dollar coffee-and-bagel order, and decides playing dumb has its advantages.

Granny is less than amused, and lets her know it by screaming at her in the middle of the breakfast crowd.

And somewhere in the midst of the resultant hail of verbal bullets and loudly lobbed references to drag queens and slave-drivers and loose women and Norman Bates’ mother, Ruby decides she’s done.

Maybe she can’t afford to leave Storybrooke right now, but she can sure as hell escape from the diner and Granny and the blue-plate-special suck-fest that her life’s turned into. It’s time to make her own adventures with her own damned lemurs. The slam of the diner’s door behind her is like a benediction, and so what if she feels a little twinge of guilt over abandoning Granny to the lunch shift? She’s put her life on hold long enough.

She figures Emma initially offers her the job as sheriff’s assistant out of a sense of sympathy and friendship, but she ends up being surprisingly good at it.

She has no idea how she managed to find and rescue David Nolan before he died of exposure in the Storybrooke woods, figures it must have been a combination of dumb luck and good timing; but the fact remains that she helped save someone’s life, and it feels amazing. For the first time in ages, she feels useful and talented and, to quote Henry, bad-ass, and it beats the hell out of slinging hash browns while customers ogle her rack. Ruby thinks this bad-ass thing could have a future.

The bad-assery lasts right up until she unearths a human heart in a box. Then all the praise and self-confidence and rainbows and puppies in the world won’t convince her to develop that particular skill-set any further, because Kathryn Nolan’s probably dead and David’s definitely devastated and Mary Margaret’s in jail and Ruby just found a human heart in a fucking box.

She wants to do important things, feel accomplished at the end of the day, but not in a field where a good day means that somebody’s life just got ruined. She’s not cut out for chasing down that kind of lemur.

She says as much to Granny at the diner that evening, expecting at least some degree of mockery and an “I told you so” or three. The warm welcome home makes her feel oddly worse, like a spoiled child who didn’t realize she had a good deal until it was gone.

“I’m hard on you because I want you to reach your potential, Ruby,” Granny says as she hands back her apron. “After all, who else am I going to leave this place to? I want you to be able to run it without any worries when I’m gone.”

Visions of hospitals and heart attacks fill her head at her grandmother's words. “You’re not allowed to go anywhere anytime soon,” Ruby admonishes.

“Neither are you,” Granny shoots back, a smile and a wink softening her words as she turns back to planning tomorrow’s menu.

Ruby shoos Granny home to bed early and spends a couple of extra hours alone in the diner after closing time, straightening out the pantry and doing some general prep for tomorrow’s breakfast shift. As she’s pulling off her apron she feels a bulge in the pocket, and she retrieves her old drafting notebook, forgotten in the chaos of the past few days. She stands there in the dark for a moment, thumb running down the spiral spine and along the worn cover, making the decision.

Dreams are nice, she thinks, but they’re just dreams. People grow up, life goes on.

She straightens the pile of menus one more time, then drops the notebook in the trash on her way out the door.

+

There was a curse, and then there’s not.

In the span of a handful of seconds, Ruby Lucas pauses sweeping the leaves off the threshold of Granny’s Diner to stare at the wave of purple smoke flowing over Storybrooke, admires the way the swirls of color frame the old clock-tower in the town square, and ceases to exist.

Red shakes her head slowly from side to side, blinks a few times, and briefly wonders where she is and why she’s staring at an old clock-tower so intently.

Then she’s too busy to care, because she’s hugging Granny and Snow and she’s half-laughing, half-sobbing and running into the town square with them because they have to set things right, because there was a curse and now there’s not and she remembers.

+

Charming – David – says they’re all different now, that their original selves are all mixed up in their Storybrooke selves and that’s a good thing.

Red’s not so sure.

She’s still obsessed and a little paranoid over her ability to control her impulses after they were locked away from her for twenty-eight years, and who could blame her after she was almost framed for murder the first full moon after the curse?

It doesn’t mean she’s lost affection for the wolf. She still loves the sharp mix of pleasure/pain as her skin and bones mold across their animal scaffolding, still runs through the woods until it feels like her heart will burst, just because she can. The wolf senses return to her a little more each day, bringing back memories of all those past moons and the rush of emotions they inspired. She remembers those first feelings of vague, fuzzy confusion early in her teens, then terror at her loss of control, and finally the joy at accepting a last, vital piece of herself. She hadn’t been lying when she’d told Snow how good it felt to have the closure of finally being able to choose her own path.

What she doesn’t remember is feeling such emptiness and anger before the curse, and it’s the emptiness that scares the shit out of her.

She gets the anger. She wants to hunt Spencer down, one predator to another, and leave him scattered in bloody pieces across the forest floor for what he did to Billy (Gus, she reminds herself, although it’s really Billy she’s mourning because Gus died almost as soon as she met him).

Granny notices, merely shakes her head at her over the breakfast counter one morning with a terse warning: “David doesn’t need to be dealing with more blood on anyone’s hands right now, child.”

Red drops the matter and puts her plans on the back burner, because Granny’s right, the last thing David needs is another distraction pulling him away from his efforts to get his wife and daughter back from wherever the hell they’ve gone. She puts her faith in her Prince and the plans he’s putting together to save his family and the town, and forces her anger down to a dull simmer as she focuses on trying to fill up the emptiness.

Ruby always had lots to do in her down-time, but Red finds herself at a loss when she’s not working at the diner. With Emma and Snow gone, she really doesn’t have much of a social life; as welcoming as Belle is, Red feels awkward and in the way at the library, and she still doesn’t have the heart to go to her old Main Street haunts because the route takes her past Billy’s garage.

Ruby’s red lips and mini-skirts feel wrong on her now, a costume designed for some random stranger, and she takes pains to tone down her appearance into something quieter. She strips the red from her hair one weekend and wakes up that night in a panic, clutching at thin air like a lifeline that’s slipping away. The next day she puts the red streaks back in, hidden a bit more subtly under the brunette but still visible if she combs her fingers through the layers. She feels like some ridiculous damaged thing when she’s able to sleep straight through the next night.

She takes to walking the trails in the woods at the Storybrooke border, hoping to recapture the sense of wonder of the teenage girl who escaped her diner shifts to sit and read about Frank Lloyd Wright equating God with Nature, who watched the sunlight slanting over rocks and trees and dreamed about staking her own claim in the world with wood and glass and metal. The woods are the same, but the hopeful teenager is long gone/never was, just another fragment of another false memory.

She feels Ruby Lucas’ absence with an ache that’s almost physical.

She runs into Mr. Gold on one such early winter afternoon, looking very much Gold and not at all Rumpelstiltskin as he leans heavily on his cane and stares past the “Leaving Storybrooke” sign. He’s smoking, she notices in surprise, and there’s a kind of resigned weariness to his posture that she’s never seen before. He seems irritated by the disruption of his solitude.

“Red,” he greets her curtly. “You know it’s still not safe for anyone to cross the border.”

“I know,” she says with a nod. “It doesn’t hurt to look, though.”

“And what is it you're looking for all the way out here?” he asks around an exhale of smoke, eyes back on the horizon.

She shrugs, at a loss. “I don’t know. Just…answers, maybe.”

The laugh that earns from him is a lost, hollow little sound that echoes through the woods. “You can’t get there from here, dearie.”

“No,” she concedes, “I suppose you can’t.”

She accepts the proffered cigarette, a holdover addiction she’ll blame Ruby for later, and they stand side by side in silence, watching the smoke trails curl up into the sky past the bare grey branches until they disappear.

+

She’s not the only one who feels the disconnect.

Sometimes the tells are subtle – Archie Hopper pauses in the middle of a sentence as he grasps to recall a psychiatric term he used to rattle off without a second thought; Leroy hesitates over ordering a second drink when he would’ve been on his fifth and not giving a rat’s ass about it just a few short weeks ago.

And then there’s Dr. Whale, slouched at the dark end of the bar at the Fairy Dust Lounge, wearing a leather coat and wrinkled scrubs and drinking straight vodka, who’s a sight less than subtle. He’s also sitting in her spot.

Red slides onto the stool next to him, eyeing him skeptically. “I hope you’re not due back at the hospital any time soon.”

Whale makes a dismissive gesture. “They can all survive without me for one night. After a day like today, I deserve a little recuperation time.”

“Recuperation?” She watches him pour himself another shot – apparently he’d decided to save time and just buy the entire bottle of Stoly. “What, did you bruise your ego trying to pick up one of the nuns?”

He clearly still has enough coordination to roll his eyes at the sarcasm. “Funny, and no. This was more of an on-the–job thing.”

As he speaks he flexes his neck, shrugging his left shoulder as if he’s working the stiffness out of it. The movement causes his coat to drop open enough for her to see the dried red stains coursing down the left side of his scrub top. The blood’s several hours old, her wolf senses supply, it belongs to the man sitting beside her, and there’s a lot of it.

“Holy shit, Whale!” Red doesn’t curse as a rule, but the sight is enough to kick her into Ruby mode for a moment and leave her swallowing against a wave of nausea as the memories of bloody hearts in boxes come sailing back. “Are you crazy? What the hell are you doing sitting in a bar? Get up, I’ll drive you to the hospital.”

Whale rolls his eyes again. “And as fun as it would be to try to operate on myself, seeing as I’m the only one who could do it in this godforsaken hole, it’s already been taken care of. See?” He rotates his arm for her benefit. “Good as new, and all I had to do was renounce everything I ever stood for. Fun times. Fucking magic.” He pauses to knock back half of the contents of the shot glass, then glances over at her appraisingly. “But thank you for your concern. I should buy you a drink.”

“It’s not necessary,” Red says, but he’s already waving the bartender over, so she commandeers a second shot glass and reaches for the bottle of Stoly.

He makes a surprised “hmm” sound as she pours for both of them. “And here I was thinking you’d order something pink and frothy.”

“Well, that’s the thing about me, Dr. Whale,” she notes blandly. “Scratch the surface and I’m just full of surprises.”

“Victor,” he says quietly after he swallows the vodka.

“What?”

“My name. You can call me Victor.”

“You know, I was never even sure that you had a first name, Victor Whale.” She rolls it around on her tongue experimentally.

“The last name isn’t – never mind. So you’re going by Red these days?”

“That’s who I am, after all,” Red replies, and she really has to learn to put a little more conviction behind those words.

“You always struck me as more of a Ruby.” She expects him to leer at her after a line like that, is somewhat surprised to find him studying her quizzically instead. “So tell me, Red, is your friend Prince Charming really going to find a way to fix this town so we can all get the hell out of it someday?”

Of course he will, she wants to answer. He’ll find his true love and they’ll fix everything and it’ll all work out in the end, because good always triumphs over evil.

“I don’t know,” she hears herself saying. “He’s trying his best.”

“’Trying his best’ isn’t a lot of data to hang a hypothesis on, my dear.”

“Sorry, it’s all the data I’ve got,” she snaps, annoyed at his condescending tone. “You’re supposed to be the scientist here, do you have any brilliant advice?”

“Advice on how to leave Storybrooke? I've got nothing.” Victor peers into the dwindling bottle of Stoly as though it holds all the answers. “Pertinent life lesson of the day? Yes – don’t reanimate corpses if you want to keep both your arms.”

She blinks a couple of times at that proclamation, then downs her second shot. “You know, when I was Ruby I used to want to be an architect. I think I picked a much less dangerous field than you did.”

Victor nods seriously, and suddenly they’re both bursting into boozy laughter. They pause to find the bartender and half the lounge staring at them, and they wind up snickering behind their hands like guilty schoolchildren. Knowing Whale’s reputation, they just provided fodder for the Storybrooke rumor mill - at least they would have when he was Whale and not Victor, and clearly the alcohol's messing with her mind tonight because this is getting confusing - but it feels so exotic and good to laugh again that Red can’t bring herself to care all that much.

Victor blinks blearily at his watch. “I should probably stagger home while I’m still upright. Thanks for the company. It made my shitty day end on a much better note.”

“Good luck with your arm,” Red offers.

“Good luck with your hypothesis of a happy ending,” he responds with a small smile. “Goodnight, Ruby.”

“It’s Red,” she reminds him. “Ruby doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Are you so sure about that?” He looks at her pointedly for a second, then nods a final farewell and takes his leave.

She contemplates the set of his shoulders and the sway of the leather coat as he retreats, rotating slowly on her barstool. The cold, dry winter air has turned her hair soft and staticky, and as she smoothes it back she tugs one of the red strands between her fingers, looping it around and around and watching the colors shift in the light.

A few feet away from her, Leroy and Astrid are sitting at a tiny table, holding hands and smiling shyly at one another like two kids on their first date, which she supposes they kind of are. At the other end of the lounge Marco and Archie are doing a little male bonding beside the dart-board, laughing at something Doc just said and raising their beer bottles to him in a humorous salute. They’re all trying, Red thinks, they’re all stumbling toward normal as best they can, finding their comfort in darts and dates and other safe, familiar things.

And she gets it – she does – but she’s getting a little sick of playing it safe.

She catches up to him as he’s stepping off the curb in front of the lounge.

Victor turns toward her as she loops her arm through his (the right arm – magic fix or not, she’s still a little freaked out about the left one). Backlit against the dim streetlights and the Fairy Dust neon, he looks strikingly monochromatic, a collection of sharply-sketched variations in grey and black as he stares back at her. His expression is equal parts want and amusement, an unspoken I-told-you-so.

She manages to bite the last trace of the smirk off his lips before they even make it to his place, and once there he proves he has two healthy arms by using them to slam her up against the wall, holding her in place as she wrecks his hair with her fingers and wraps her legs around his hips. They end up on his bed, a canopied monstrosity that looks more like it belongs in some Victorian novel than an upscale apartment in Maine. He makes sure he gets her off twice before he comes himself, and she decides that in the balance of pros and cons to life in post-curse Storybrooke, Victor is one of the upgrades.

At 5 AM she untangles herself from the sheets, pulls her clothes on as quietly as she can, and creeps out without waking him. Comfort’s a temporary thing, she thinks as she shivers in the cold winter air, and life and the breakfast shift go on.

+

The good news: David comes through as always, and Storybrooke has its Princess and its Savior back again. The bad news: magic is still different here, and they’re still stuck within the town boundaries.

The worse news: there’s a war coming, something evil that threatens to make their old curse look like a minor inconvenience. Red realizes how serious it is when she sees Emma and her parents sitting at the same table with Regina and Rumpelstiltskin, conferring together quietly without anyone throwing a single spell or sharp object at anyone else.

The citizens of Storybrooke take the cue from their leaders. They do their best to settle old grievances and make uneasy truces with one another, the results of which are mostly successful and occasionally bizarre – Red’s pretty sure she’ll never forget the “please kill me now” look on Belle’s face when she’s sitting at the counter between Gold and her father. They all prepare as best they can, no easy feat when nobody knows exactly what they’re preparing for, and then they wait.

And wait some more.

As the days roll by Red starts to wonder if this isn’t part of the curse itself, this vague sense of impending doom that leaves everyone anxious and jittery and stuck.

“I wish whoever or whatever it is would just get here already,” she seethes one afternoon, punctuating the words with a few vicious swipes of her cleaning rag over the counter. “At least then maybe we’d have an answer, we’d have something meaningful to do!”

“There’s plenty to do right now, child,” Granny admonishes her. “It’s called going on and living our lives the best we can in the meantime.”

“Then somebody please tell me how to do that!” Red snaps, throwing the rag on the counter. “Tell me how to start doing that in the first place!”

She runs through the woods at the next full moon, heart bursting and legs pumping, ecstatic to finally let the animal part of her brain take over and do the living for her. She wakes up huddled at the Storybrooke border, and she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry that even the wolf knows she doesn’t belong in this place.

+

As time goes on she finds what little peace she can under the shadow of the “Leaving Storybrooke” sign. The border becomes a sort of sanctuary for her, a place to escape to for a few minutes or a few hours when she can’t pretend she’s OK anymore. Sometimes she brings lunch and a book, settles against one of the trees and has a solitary picnic. More often she just sits and stares into the horizon, down the road she can’t travel.

The day Granny joins her that’s exactly what she’s doing. Red turns at the sounds of footfalls and snapping twigs, and her eyes widen in surprise at the unexpected company.

“Granny, what’s wrong?” she asks, hurriedly jumping to her feet. “Is the diner—”

“The diner’s just fine,” Granny says, depositing the basket she’d been carrying with a huff. “Diego’s been whining at me to give him more responsibility for months now so I figured I’d let him take the lunch shift while I share some hot cocoa with my granddaughter. Now help an old lady sit down, child, I don’t bend as well as I used to.”

Red helps her settle against one of the softer spots on the side of the road, and Granny starts fussing with the contents of the basket.

“So this is where you’ve been coming all these months,” she says, pouring liberally from a thermos and handing Red a filled plastic cup.  “The view’s nice enough, I suppose. Can’t say much for the seating arrangements.”

Red smiles wanly over the cocoa's steam trails. “You get used to them if you sit here long enough,” she says. “Granny, I’m sorry if I worried you.”

“You don’t have anything to apologize for, Red.” Granny sighs. “Seems more like I'm the one who should be apologizing to you.  We’re all a little crazy nowadays, running around trying to remember things that happened twenty-eight years ago and worrying about something that might not happen for another twenty-eight. Before long a body forgets the things she ought to be focusing on here and now. It finally got me to thinking and...well, I've been holding on to something for you."

She reaches into the basket and hands over a small package wrapped in brown paper. Red frowns in confusion at the familiar size and heft.

“What is it?”

Granny rolls her eyes in mock exasperation. “The wrapping’s meant to be opened, girl.”

She opens it wrong-side-up, the brown paper tearing to reveal the back of a drafting notebook. Red’s frown turns hesitant; then her breath catches in her throat when she turns it over and sees the battered cover.

“I…” She swallows against a dry throat, tries again. “I threw this out a long time ago.”

“I know. I found it there in the trash the next day."  Granny looks a little uncomfortable at the admission.  "I’m sorry if I was wrong to keep it, and if you want to toss it out again I won’t interfere. It just seemed to me that a time could come when you might regret getting rid of it.”

Red flips the cover open, thumb running over the spirals as she looks at Ruby Lucas' renderings, some still crisply inked and others faded and coffee-stained. Her eyes mist over when she comes to the pages of drawings of the Hong Kong skyline.

“So, Emma  and Henry have been teaching me all about the Internet," Granny continues.  "It has its uses, I suppose.  I still don't get the appeal of all those cat videos, but I was finally able to look up that Frank Lloyd Wright fellow you were so wild over.  I have to admit, he was quite the character - his girlfriend was murdered, his house was burned down, and he still went on to make a name for himself with all those buildings.  Quite the survivor, that one.  Nice head of hair, too.  It's a pity he's dead, we could use a man like that in Storybrooke."

“Granny, I still don’t understand,” Red tears her gaze from the notebook and regards her grandmother in pure confusion. “You never wanted me to be an architect in the first place."

“That was the other thing that got me to thinking.  I never told you the back-story that the curse gave me, did I?” Granny asks lightly, looking beyond Red at the horizon as she sips her cocoa.

"No, it never came up," Red says, and she wonders again at the oddities of a curse that had left everyone so oblivious to those kind of details for so long.

“Seems I came up in the world at a time when little girls were expected to look pretty, get their chores done and not make any waves. I had a nice enough husband who expected the same thing. It didn’t bother me, it was just what our generation did. He got me as far as Storybrooke and died too young – seems there wasn’t much you could do about bad hearts in those days either.  Before he died we had a daughter."
 
"Anita," breathes Red, her own set of painful memories flooding back at the name.

"Amelia was her name in this land," Granny responds.  "She was the prettiest thing, looked just like you at your age. She didn’t have a whole lot of use for this town. She used to say she couldn’t breathe here, that she had to go spread her wings and see the world. Only she took herself off with some drug addict and ended up with the same bad habits."  She pauses and frowns into her cocoa as if she's trying to shake off the bad memories.  "She came home once or twice, managed to bring me a beautiful granddaughter,” she regards Red with a smile, “but it always ended up the same way.  She'd start feeling all suffocated again and she'd have to hit the road to go find herself."

Red concentrates, tries to dig through Ruby’s memories, but nothing’s there. “I don’t remember her.”

“You wouldn’t,” Granny says. “She left one day when you were about a year old and never came back. Died of an overdose somewhere in California. And from that day on I vowed that history would never repeat itself in this family. I was hell-bent on protecting you from all of the evils in this world, no matter if you didn’t understand it was for your own good. Now I think of it, it wasn't all that different from how I raised you before the curse.   I was going to turn you into a smart, strong woman who wouldn't make her mother's mistakes and who'd grow up to be able to do whatever she wanted. Problem was, I didn’t know what to do when you ended up not wanting the same things I did."

Red shifts where she sits, feels a sudden need to grab hold of something to keep from falling as the words sink in.  "I...didn't know.  I didn't know any of this."

"How could you, Red?  I never told you, and look what it's done to you.  Please forgive me for that."  Granny turns back toward her then, eyes bright with emotion and unshed tears. "I’m sorry, child, but I was so afraid to go through it again. I was sure if you spread your wings you’d end up like your mother, and I was too much of a coward to open my eyes and see that you were a completely different person.”

The thought of her grandmother ever being labeled a coward, in Ruby’s life or her own, is beyond her ability to grasp. “Am I, Granny? I don’t even know what kind of a person I am anymore.”

“Then let this old lady tell you.  You’re my pride and joy, Red, and you're a survivor.” Granny reaches over and grabs her hand, squeezing tight with work-roughened fingers. “You have brains and a good heart and so much talent, as Red and as Ruby, and when we’re able to leave this place – and we will one of these days, you mark my words – you’re going to go out and light up this world. If you only listen to me one more time in your life, you listen now.  Don’t you dare lose those dreams, little girl. They’re one of the things I love best about you, and you're going to make them reality one day."

Red looks at the notebook, where drops of water are splashing onto the Boston skyline, and realizes they’re her tears. "Thank you for believing in me, Granny," she whispers. 

"Always, child," says Granny, and they barely miss spilling cocoa all over the place as they pull one another into a fierce hug.

"I'm almost afraid to say this now," Red admits as they're pulling apart and wiping their eyes, "but I'm not sure I could just walk away from Storybrooke forever, Granny.  For all the ways I don't fit in here there's still a lot about this place I love -- starting with you."

“Land sakes, child, there’s nothing that says you can’t come back!” Granny looks affronted at the thought. “My door will always be open to you."

"What about the diner?"  Red feels a pang of renewed guilt.  "I know how much it means to you to keep the business going."

"And it'll keep going as long as I feel like it," Granny says.  "When I'm ready to rest on my laurels I'll sell it to Diego - well, Remy's his real name, did he ever tell you that?  Seems he owned a restaurant in Paris before the curse, and he remembers how to do a whole lot of fancy French cooking.  I didn't know they let rats do that sort of thing in France, but there you go.  I figure I'll take him on as a partner and between us we can concoct a menu the likes of which Storybrooke has never seen, so don't you go worrying about Granny's diner, missy.  And we'll always need someone to cover the breakfast shift, so don't think you're getting out of that just because you get your name on a skyscraper someplace."

"I wouldn't dream of weaseling out of my obligations."  Red rolls her eyes and grins. "I guess we should probably go back and see how your new partner  is handling the lunch shift?"

“I suppose we'd better, at least before he blows the place up or installs one of those stupid cappuccino machines Gold's been pestering me about." Granny packs up the basket and lets Red help her up. “Truth be told, I’ve been thinking that with all of the changes coming to Storybrooke we’re going to need more space soon. The old place next door has been vacant for ages now – if I can talk Gold into the deal what do you think about designing an addition to the diner?”

“Sounds good,” Red agrees, and then the words hit her. “Wait, what? You want me to design it?”

“Why not? You’re the architect in the family, after all.”

“Granny, I haven’t even gone to school yet!"  Red stammers.  "I don’t know how to take something on paper and actually turn it into wood and bricks and – we’ll need zoning papers, contractors, structural engineers…”

“In case you haven’t noticed, the Mayor’s trying to get on everyone’s good side these days,” Granny says with a crafty smile. “So I don’t think zoning’s going to be a problem. As for the contractors, I have six bored fairy-dust miners who don’t have anything to mine at the moment and who’ll jump at the chance to work with you. Hell, child, throw on one of your mini-skirts and they’ll be willing to turn Granny’s into the Taj Mahal.”

“Granny!” Red laughs. “Come on, I’m taking you back to the diner before I fall over in shock.”

“You young people are way too easily scandalized nowadays,” Granny says with a smirk, and Red links arms with her as they begin the trek back toward Main Street.

A light breeze ruffles her hair and creaks through the tree branches as they walk, and she thinks a hot cup of Granny’s Secret Soup will taste really good by the time they get back. She looks once over her shoulder as the town boundary fades out of sight over the horizon, and feels something newer and lighter start to take the place of the old emptiness. She’s leaving the road less traveled to return to Main Street for awhile, but it’s OK.

She and Ruby will be back.
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