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it's harder than you think (telling dreams from one another)

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These fragile-feeling, post-curse days are, weirdly, the time not to ask complicated questions.

Ruby’s kneeling down in the children’s books section, dust gathering on her bare knees, exclaiming over battered paperbacks. “I loved Nancy Drew when I was a kid, I used to want to solve crimes and, like, stalk people around town.”

She looks up, catches Belle’s expression. “Well,” she adds, quick, defensive, “someone had a childhood like that, anyway. You don’t have a shitload of fake memories floating around?”

Other people do, Belle knows this; people let things slip, reminisce about things that simply weren’t possible for fairies, queens, dwarves, crickets. She’s not sure that she does: most of her memories are of white walls, of crying for hours while no one came.

She shrugs, non-committal, and Ruby lets it drop. She doesn’t pry into Belle’s past, not about the real or the fake parts or the bit when the curse stopped and her life felt real but was apparently just as fake as always. Belle isn’t sure if she’s grateful or not.

-

Ruby sits on a stool at the counter, swinging her legs, and Belle watches her grandmother watching her, something fond, something sad in her eyes. It must be nice to have family like that, she thinks, then switches that thought off immediately because that route leads to nothing but disappointment and bitterness, and she’s trying to experiment with other emotions these days.

Ruby’s mostly watching Dr. Whale, who sits at a table with a coffee and a half-smile lilting his mouth. He doesn’t look up, and Ruby’s not really trying to capture his attention, if you ignore the fact her skirt is shorter than anything Belle thinks she’d be brave enough to wear, and anyway Belle still gets a little nervous around doctors, hiding shaking fingers in her palms because she’s braver than that, she knows she is.

Belle tries to focus on her book, the words swimming, the pages full of references to things she still hasn’t quite managed to get into order; Ruby showed her how to work Wikipedia so she wouldn’t have to feel embarrassed about asking, but there’s too much here that isn’t going to be clarified on a webpage.

Dr. Whale gets up and leaves, spilling a tip big enough for Belle to see and raise an eyebrow at; Ruby’s mouth is a thin red line and she slides from her stool, grabs the coffee pot for refills. Belle swallows something uncomfortable in her throat, tries to focus on what she’s reading, not on Ruby’s heels on the worn linoleum.

Really, Belle's pretty sure she’s still got a lot to learn about love.

“It’s difficult,” Ruby offers, sliding into the booth opposite her, pushing her bangs out of her eyes, “and painful, and kind of awkward, and also there’s this thing called ‘herpes’.”

Belle blinks a couple of times.

“Actually,” Ruby corrects herself, “that was mean. Herpes has nothing to do with love at all.”

Belle looks it up on her phone once she’s gone anyway, having to correct the spelling a couple of times until she gets it right, and winces a little.

-

Henry comes by on a semi-regular basis to get lost in the stacks, sometimes alone, sometimes with a worried-looking Charming, sometimes with Ruby. The library is starting to have regular visitors now; people are tentatively starting to look for stories that aren’t their own, to trust Belle despite her relationship – or whatever she’s supposed to call it now – with Rumplestiltskin.

Charming – James, David; he seems lost in a sea of names – flicks aimlessly through the card catalogue, something in the slump of his shoulders. It’s not despair, because Belle knows despair, but it isn’t a good emotion. Belle stays where she is behind her desk, straightening stamps and memos, listening to the shuffle of people among the shelves, whispers drifting from anywhere. Books have a magic of their own, and it isn’t like any magic that’s bruised them all so far.

She waits, and watches, until Charming’s head lifts, his eyes catch hers, and he comes over, hands in pockets, mouth lilting.

“I haven’t thanked you for this,” he tells her, spreading a hand, encompassing her library. “I wanted to.”

“You don’t have to thank me for doing something I love,” Belle replies, tries that smile she’s been practicing that looks real, that doesn’t sting when she wears it. It’s not quite there yet, and sometimes, attempting it for herself in her room at Granny’s, it splinters completely, the middle collapsing and leaving her feeling closer to tears.

Charming’s expression gets thoughtful, and Belle thinks: no, oh please no, please.

“I’m not trying to…” he trails off, and she briefly thinks about those princes she imagined before she ever met them; the ones from the pages of books who were going to fall in love with her, the ones who didn’t have sad eyes, frantic grimaces, brittle speeches. “I’m not trying to get involved in something I don’t know enough to understand,” he manages at last, “but he does love you, you know.”

Belle’s fingers knot in her skirt, compulsive, and she knows Charming isn’t trying to hurt her. “Sometimes love isn’t enough,” she says, because she’s learning things she would never have learned if she’d been left in the Enchanted Forest.

“No,” Charming says, and his face is so crushed that Belle reaches for his hand before she even thinks about it.

-

Thursdays are for early closing, and Belle hears Ruby come in while she’s turning off the lights, checking the corners even though she knows everyone is gone. The front doors were locked, but that’s never seemed to stop Ruby; she claims misspent youth, and she’s never stated where that took place.

When she gets back downstairs she finds Ruby leaning against the desk, inspecting her hair for split ends, legs encased in leather pants that make them look twice as long as they actually are.

“Good day?” she asks, and Belle finds herself smiling for no real reason; perhaps it’s because she’s never had friendship like this before, something this simple, where truths are ignored instead of hidden. It’s a relief.

“…yeah,” Belle decides at last, shrugging into her jacket, picking up her purse.

Ruby smiles, even and real.

“I guess now your dad’s not trying to kill you and you don’t have a probably-psychopathic boyfriend, all you have to worry about is Disney suing you for copyright infringement,” she muses.

“I understood maybe three of those words,” Belle says.

“Oh.” Ruby’s smile changes, and for a moment it’s easy to remember that she’s a wolf. “Well, your afternoon’s about to get super educational.”

She takes them by the store for popcorn, and then up to her rooms, where she throws open a cupboard and reveals more DVDs than the library has – which admittedly wouldn’t be hard; apparently the curse didn’t believe in furnishing the library with a proper audio/visual section, and it turns out Amazon doesn’t deliver to Storybrooke, even if Belle was interested in stocking it – and says: “so, Disney.”

Belle already knows about the way this world has adopted them all as stories, things that were never real, because Rumplestiltskin explained it to her. Some days, this makes her feel better; on other days she still feels like she’s a story, unreal and battered by the hands of an unidentified narrator. She’s googled a few variations of her own apparent story, found a couple on the shelves, the pictures making her prettier than she is, and one night, when she should have been sleeping and instead found herself in the library again, she stained one of the pages with sticky awkward tears.

Still, the DVD Ruby hands her feels strangely heavy in her hands, and she looks down at the drawing of the woman with curls spilling over one shoulder and tells herself she isn’t shaking.

“They’ve made one of these for all of us?” she asks, when she can trust her voice again.

Ruby shrugs with one shoulder. “Not everyone,” she says. “They never made one about me. I guess it’s hard to wring a happy ending out of, well, all that.”

“They have happy endings?” Belle asks, and the words don’t feel like they belong to her.

Always,” Ruby says firmly, and then says: “oh my god, I have to show you the way they drew Jefferson, he’s so pissed, it’s amazing.”

-

“…the teapot is singing,” Belle remarks, carefully, because she doesn’t know whether she wants to laugh or scream or throw up or what. She turns to look at Ruby when she doesn’t get a reply. “Are you crying?”

“Shut up,” Ruby says thickly. “It gets me every time, okay.”

-

Belle cries herself later, slumped in Ruby’s lap, while her onscreen lying counterpart whispers I love you and tears scatter down her cheeks. But her crying is perfect, and Belle’s is ugly, aching, utterly confusing.

“I’m sorry,” Ruby says, fingers in Belle’s hair, and Belle takes a shuddering breath and chokes it back out again.

“Her beast was a good person,” she manages at last. “Well. He learned to be.”

Ruby hums, soft, and her arm tightens a little around Belle.

Belle doesn’t need to say mine never was, and she knows that she must be a mess, because Ruby doesn’t bring up the phrase Stockholm Syndrome like she usually does at this point. The last time, she decided Belle needed to learn about tequila, which was a terrible choice and an experiment they haven’t repeated, and Belle tried to punch her in the face and fell over before she ever reached her.

This world has so many things in it that their own world doesn’t, but Belle’s not sure how many of them actually count as better.

-

In general, Ruby communicates through more body language than Belle thinks she knew existed before; in the subtle shifting of hips, the movement of her mouth, the way she wraps curls of hair around her fingers. Half the time, Belle isn’t sure who she’s trying to seduce; life’s different, when you work under the assumption that true love is not only not the be-all-and-end-all, but also possibly a lie.

“This shit is ridiculous,” Ruby remarks, flicking through an issue of Cosmopolitan, amusement creasing her features, “seriously, do not turn here for answers.”

“Who says I’m looking for answers?” Belle asks, swallowing down the urge to blush.

Ruby rolls her eyes and goes to rummage in the card catalogue, heels echoing through the library, and comes back with three cards.

“Your options are: It’s Called a Break-Up Because It’s Broken, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and: He’s Just Not That Into You,” she announces, spreading them out in front of Belle like she’s about to perform some kind of sleight of hand trick. “And no, I am not kidding, and yes, if these are the ones Regina’s magic provided then she probably has a whole bunch of issues. Aside from the well-publicised crazy, I mean.”

Belle looks down at the cards and then back up at Ruby. “Have you read these?” she asks.

Ruby shrugs. “My brain thinks I have,” she replies.

She considers this. “Cosmopolitan says I should just eat marshmallows,” she says at last.

“Do you like marshmallows?” Ruby asks.

Belle shrugs.

“I guess that’s tonight sorted, then,” Ruby remarks brightly, half-sashaying over to flip the careful open sign Belle had made to closed.

“Are you doing this kind of thing for Charming?” Belle hears herself ask.

Ruby freezes, fingers pressed to the doors, and doesn’t turn around for a moment. “No,” she says at last. “I mean, he’s at least got Henry to focus on.”

“I’ve got my library,” Belle protests.

“Yes,” Ruby allows, “but your library can’t hug you, so, that’s where I come in.”

She loops fingers through Belle’s, pulls her out into the street. In the morning, head a little the worse for wear, still largely ambiguous about marshmallows, Belle will find the cards still lying on the desk, and she will go and put them back. She’ll memorise the Dewey Decimal numbers anyway.

-

Belle gets back from work one day to find a present bag with a sparkly bow on it outside her room; she takes it inside, momentarily anxious, and isn’t sure if she’s relieved or disappointed when it turns out the gift is just from Ruby.

Inside is a bottle of wine, a box of Kleenex, and a CD with Adele written on it in Ruby’s scrawling writing.

She goes downstairs and waves the CD at Ruby. Jefferson’s sitting at the counter with his daughter, both of them drinking milkshakes; he looks at the CD, frowns a little, and then stifles something that might be a smile.

“Oh, shut up,” Ruby tells him, and gently pushes Belle toward the stairs. “You’ll understand later,” she explains, “just go enjoy your present.”

There’s a boombox in Belle’s room, and she can’t remember if it’s always been there or if it just turned up for whatever Ruby’s decided is a good idea now. She frowns down at it for a while, then puts the CD inside.

In the morning, she finds Ruby doing the morning shift.

“I am never talking to you again,” she says, and slumps into a booth. “We are not friends anymore.”

Ruby puts a plate of pancakes and a giant mug of coffee on the table in front of her. “That’s a shame,” she says, “Jefferson said he’d bring you Grace's Taylor Swift CDs.”

Belle remains mutinously quiet, and Ruby lays a hand on her shoulder for a long moment before she goes to pick up another order.

-

“The thing is,” Ruby says, and she’s waving her margarita glass so extravagantly that Belle is a little worried that she’s going to spill her drink everywhere, “my BFF is horribly missing. You can fill in though, right?”

Belle can never figure out if Ruby is unknowingly insensitive at times, or if she’s actually kind of a bitch. This is funny right now, though, because cocktails are definitely more fun in this world. Well. More existent in this world; there weren’t a lot of drink options in the Enchanted Wood, and none of them came with maraschino cherries.

She shrugs in response to Ruby’s question.

“Great,” Ruby says cheerfully. “How much do you know about really poor life choices, slutty lingerie and flavoured condoms?”

Belle blinks a few times, and tries to filter the words backwards through the vodka and then through the things that Cosmopolitan managed to tell her before Ruby confiscated her supply.

“What’s a condom?” she asks in the end.

Ruby puts her head in her hands, and when she raises it again her mascara is smudged. “Well,” she remarks to no one in particular, “this just took a turn for the oh-dear-God.”

-

Ruby sends Archie out the door with a coffee and a smile and Belle’s pretty sure she was flirting in that way that Ruby flirts; like how she breathes, and Belle doesn’t know if it’s deliberate or how she even asks about it. Belle, after all, has someone she loves or doesn’t love and that gives her something to try not to focus on; she doesn’t know what Ruby does with those long hours in the middle of the night when something sets in that feels like madness or despair or loneliness so great it makes her want to tear her own skin off.

It’s not a new feeling, this one; Belle remembers it from her old life, and her imaginary life. From the lives spent behind doors that only opened from one side.

“Our shrink used to be a grasshopper and is basically just as traumatised as everyone else,” Ruby remarks, sitting down beside Belle. “So that’s good. I’m really pleased about that.” She tips her head. “Shouldn’t you be going to work?”

Belle shrugs a shoulder. “You want to see a psychiatrist?” she asks.

Ruby looks momentarily uncomfortable, but she shakes her head slightly, and the expression goes like it was never there in the first place.

“I thought he could help Charming,” she lies, then drops her gaze to her hands, back up again. “Well. You know. We all have problems.”

“You mean like how the man I love wants to keep me in a gilded cage and also kills people?” Belle suggests. She means it come out flippant and it doesn’t quite, but it’s not a bad start and it’s also the first time she’s managed to phrase it aloud in a long time. That’s probably a good thing, according to the books she refuses to admit to having read. Or something.

Ruby’s mouth twists a little. “I ate my boyfriend,” she offers, in the same not-quite-as-light-as-it-should-be tone. “Actually,” she adds, expression thoughtful, tapping her pen against her lower lip, “we could probably use some kind of support group.”

“That’s a terrible idea,” Belle says quickly.

“It’s a great idea,” Ruby corrects her. “Like, we’ve got a whole bunch of broken-hearted people who’ve lost their person or never had them in the first place and have just remembered it after, like, years of not knowing. We can all help each other.”

Belle arches an eyebrow. “If your next sentence is going to have the word ‘tequila’ in it-”

“My next sentence was going to be about how Granny will definitely make us cookies,” Ruby says primly. “The sentence after that was about the tequila.”

Belle smiles, despite herself. “We’re not holding it at the library. Absolutely not.”

Ruby pokes her tongue out, sharply childish, and enough to make Belle laugh, pressing the sound into her hands like she’s trying to keep it.

When she looks up, Rumplestiltskin is by the counter, waiting for Granny to bring him his morning tea.

For a long moment, Belle has no idea what to do with her face. In the end, she settles for a half-smile, and after what seems like too long, he finally looks away.

“Support group,” Ruby says quietly, firmly, and squeezes Belle’s wrist as she gets to her feet.

-