Everyone born in the Land of Fairytales has a story etched upon their skin. The mark of a sword, for those who will find their story in war. The mark of a home, a promise of a quiet life that will only glancingly touch those about whom the story is told. The mark of magic, a glow dangerous as the ones who bear it. The mark of blood, a warning of death and villainy.
In the one thousandth year of the United Realms, a girl is born with the mark of the heart blooming on her skin. Beside it is the sword, and with her comes a ripple of excitement. There has not been a heart in many years, not since Mulan, poor dear, who never quite grew into hers and left to live with the historians instead. The hearts are rare, and the ones that grow into fruition even rarer.
The Land Without Magic sends camera crews to catalog the little girl’s childhood, prepared for an epic tale. The Land of Eternal Dance offers a home to the overwhelmed parents. The Land Above the Stars promises a reward to any young men who might win the girl’s heart and the story to come. Love stories– the ones that fairytales are built from– are rare and precious, and baby Emma Swan is precious, too.
Emma grows up and knows that she is destined for war and for love, for fairytale endings and the story of a thousand lifetimes. Her family is proud, her mother entertaining the slew of heroes and princes, of handsome visitors hoping to be the one who will be her fairytale.
But something curious happens to little Emma Swan, would-be romantic hero. When she is introduced to princes, her eyes wander to their sisters instead, to the girls who dance in the marketplace and who are sent to be her companions. She kisses a vagabond named Lily one day at the market and is flushed with it, with the stirrings of want that she’s never felt before.
Her mother catches them under the apple trees and sobs, holds Emma close and says, you mustn’t, you mustn’t, this is not who you are –
“It’s who I want to be,” Emma says shakily, and she dreams of Lily’s lips and of soft, warm bodies with curves she craves to touch.
Her mother says, “What you want in secret is irrelevant to your fairytale. But you must never act on it. No girl can ever be your love story.” She straightens, this good and kind woman whom Emma has always loved, and she sounds strained and different now, wounded. Emma drowns in remorse. “You must find your hero.”
And Emma nods, a little piece of herself shuttering in that moment as her mother smiles again.
There are no other girls. Oh, there is the promise of them, of Emma watching them from her carriage and of the moment in ballrooms when she can stand back and see them, breathless and flushed and alive. But Emma has a heart etched on her throat and she can never forget that, can never be something wrong that will bring horror to her family instead of pride. She is to have a fairytale, and every fairytale has a prince.
The Queen had the Savior when they’d united the realms, didn’t she? The Savior had been a prince, yellow-haired and bold and the only hope of the ancient lands, and the Queen had loved him so much that they had raised the Author together. In the Land of Fairytales, Emma has grown up praying to the Savior and his Queen, hearing their legends from her tutors and dreaming of a world before the United Realms.
Emma searches for her yellow-haired Savior prince, for a boy who might awaken in her the feelings that lie stubbornly dormant, but instead she finds nothing but handsome smiles that make her want to flee. She trains instead, hopeful that her fate will be in war instead, and she learns to wield the weapons of every realm that will take her, every glorious land that wants a part in her fairytale.
Her mother says, exasperated, “You will be in a war, but you shall be the queen at the front of it or the princess they fight for. There is no reason for you to learn these swords and consoles, bows and blasters.” But Emma learns them all, and she fights as beautifully as any of the greatest warriors with a sword on their necks. She is sought for her skills, not only her heart, and she is glad to fight for the forces of good.
And it is as a warrior that she meets a force of evil.
The Evil Queen , they call her, a testament to her power and to her malice. Emma has been called to a ship in the middle of the sea, had been warned that they are under attack by a witch who has bent the ocean to her will. She flies out on a dragon, dodging sheets of rain as the wind bruises her skin, and she shouts out, “Witch! Show yourself and heed my challenge!”
A challenge should mean something, shouldn’t be met with dry laughter, but instead, the air around her is alight with mirth. A whirl of energy around her, and Emma spins on her dragon, whispering a silent prayer to the Savior and his Queen to steady her hand. “Little girl,” the witch drawls, and she is so close to Emma that Emma whips around and sees nothing but the wind. “Do you think you are any match for me?”
“I think I can surprise you,” Emma says, and she waits, tracks the source of the laughter, and then leaps with her dragon and blasts the witch.
She is using an energy weapon, and there is only a flash of light and then the ocean falling silent. The sun brightens, the ship sails onward, and Emma’s blaster hasn’t struck the witch at all, only the fabric of her cape. Still, she has stopped the villain in her tracks. The witch hovers in mid-air, her eyes wide and startled, though the humor has yet to fade.
And oh , Emma had expected a witch of ancient age and crooked teeth, of wickedness that has wizened her into sallow skin and stooped back. Not this woman just a bit older than Emma is, her eyes rich and so bright that Emma is lost in them for a moment before she jerks herself out of her stupor. “Who are you?” Emma demands. She can see the patterns on the witch’s neck, the drop of blood beside the high-backed collar of the witch’s dress and the glow of the mark of magic just barely in sight. “Where did you come from?”
The witch smiles, baring her teeth beneath sinfully red lips. “The Land of Bitter Ends,” she says, and she unleashes a tornado around Emma, throwing her to a realm far away.
The Land of Bitter Ends is where the villains of fairytales come from, where Emma’s villain will come, too. And Emma is at once sure that she’s found her. “She was…imposing,” she says when she struggles to describe her. “She laughed like the whole world is a joke. Like I was a joke. She was…”
Beautiful , she thinks, and she shoves that from her mind. There are princes here today, brought in at the news that Emma has returned from a mission with scrapes and bruises. They love a damsel in distress , her mother sighs, and she gets that starry-eyed romantic look in her face. Emma has been cleaned, of course, her scrapes handled delicately so they don’t mar the beauty of her face but make her look vulnerable. She’d washed one out and earned an exasperated sigh and a line of red ink drawn to enhance it instead.
A prince says, “She sounds like she needs to meet the end of my spear,” thrusting his chest out with confidence.
“Or my gun,” says a senator’s son. “Since a spear is basically prehistoric.”
The third man, dressed in a jumpsuit, scoffs at them both. “We have tech in my realm that could fry her brain with the tap of a keypad.”
Emma says, “You are all so skilled,” and does her best to sound adoring instead of bored. Her best, as it turns out, is underwhelming. All three men look miffed. Emma’s mother looks disapproving, and Emma clears her throat. “I am just so afraid of the witch,” she says, her voice bland and deeply unafraid. The room is claustrophobic, too small, all these men and expectations hovering around her. “I would like to walk in my gardens and recover.”
The men’s eyes follow her as she steps out, curtsying gracefully. In the gardens, she is met with blessed quiet, and she lets a finger trace the silky petals of brightly-colored petals as she savors her solitude. The men will not leave– they never leave, only hover, and Emma’s mother waits with bated breath for her to find her grand romance– and this is as far from them as she will be allowed to go.
She reaches for a blue hibiscus, struck by the color, and a hand reaches past her and plucks it. Emma freezes, her hand going to the dagger at her waist, and she turns as a deft hand slips the flower into Emma’s hair. “There,” drawls a voice that has haunted Emma’s dreams. “Now you look like the pretty little princess you are.”
“By the Queen and Savior!” Emma curses, taking a step back. The garden path is narrow, and the witch is directly in front of her, eyes glimmering with delight at Emma’s outrage. “What do you think you’re doing?” Emma demands, flustered. “This is my home.” She raises her dagger, and the witch traces it with her eyes. “If you have come to hurt my family–”
“What about those dolts in the receiving room?” the witch asks interestedly. “You don’t care if I kill them, do you?”
Emma’s hand clenches around her dagger. In an instant, it is at the witch’s throat, and the witch looks delighted. “Kitten’s got claws,” she breathes, and Emma takes a step to her, her breath hitching as she presses herself to the witch. The witch lifts a hand to close it around Emma’s, and Emma shivers, even though the witch’s skin is soft and warm. “Tell me, my dear hero,” the witch murmurs, her voice silky, “What will you do with me now?”
Emma doesn’t know. She has not killed, and she had never intended to. The threat of a villain to her story has always been easily shrugged off; and now, faced with a woman who must be it, Emma is lost. The witch is warm and beautiful, is more alive than the pale, wealthy men inside, and Emma’s heart clenches at the idea that she could take this woman’s life.
“Tell me your name,” she says instead, her hand tightening around the hilt of the dagger.
And then– a shout, and a gunshot. The senator’s son’s shot goes wild, but the witch recoils, and she takes a step back from Emma. Her hand slides from Emma’s, her touch like a shock of energy, and Emma feels the loss and mourns it.
The witch watches the man with the gun, her eyes cold and unfriendly, and Emma tightens her hand on her dagger and hopes desperately that no one will die today. And the witch, as though she can see that on Emma’s face, smiles. “Regina,” she says, and she vanishes in a whirl of purple smoke.
She leaves behind nothing but the flower tucked in Emma’s hair, and Emma touches it and is breathless.
Regina is relentless. Fires range through the night as she burns down buildings, and Emma is forced to race into them to scoop up children and rescue their parents. She destroys an entire beanfield in the Land of the Giants and puts a corporation set in the Land Without Magic out of business, and Emma can’t save it in time. The witch seeks only destruction, is deadly when she’s furious, and Emma makes it her business to stop Regina.
Word spreads– as word does, through news reports and gossip at trading posts and the Internet– about the heart girl’s nemesis, a witch who is a match for Emma and every prince who might try to win battles for her. Emma wishes the princes wouldn’t come along, wouldn’t keep throwing themselves in the way, but they are too enamored with the idea of being her hero.
“The Queen fought when she must, but the Savior protected the Queen,” reminds a swarthy warrior from the Land of Unfinished Stories. “It is a man’s duty to protect a woman as beautiful as you.”
“Do you also protect the ugly ones?” Emma asks, mostly just to watch him sputter. Within an hour, they are caught in a whirling black hole that sucks star-faeries in, and Emma has to dive in deep to save the warrior. The world turns empty and blackened around her, and she can feel the tug into the depths, threatening to take her forever.
She escapes with a jet pack from the Land of Marvels, yanking the warrior with her, and she emerges and comes face-to-face with Regina. Regina tugs at the threads of the black hole to widen them, and Emma draws a sword and swings it in slow-motion in Regina’s direction. “Better luck next time,” she taunts, and Regina smiles coldly.
“Next time?” she echoes, and then there are invisible hands on the warrior’s throat, choking the life out of him. Emma rushes at Regina, swings once in a desperate attempt to stop her, and slices a cut across Regina’s stomach. Her richly tailored clothes are shredded open, the blood staining them redder than they’d been, and Regina flinches back as Emma recoils.
She doesn’t want to hurt , even Regina. And she is overcome with fury, with despair and frustration. “Why?” she demands. “Why can’t you just stop ? What made you into this monster ?” She jabs her finger at the tear-shaped drop of blood on Regina’s neck, just barely outside her collar. “Why didn’t they lock you up when they saw that ?”
Regina’s eyes are opaque, and her smile has faded. “They tried,” she says, and her voice is measured, the silky seduction gone. “Of course they tried.” Emma stares at her, her heart wrenching, and she can’t quite tear her eyes away from the growing stain on Regina’s abdomen. “I fought back,” Regina says, and she is suddenly very close, her long fingers closing around Emma’s throat. “I always fight,” Regina hisses, and Emma hears something else in the quiet anger in her voice.
She thinks of what it might mean to be born with the mark of a villain, to be damned from childhood and to never have a chance to be anything else. She tries to imagine fighting while knowing that a mark has decided your destiny, while knowing that you will lose in the end, and she is overcome with so much sorrow for her enemy that she lets out a sob before Regina squeezes.
“You cry for yourself, but not your prince?” Regina says coldly. “You are as much a selfish brat as I thought you would–”
“I cry for what you have endured,” Emma whispers, and Regina lets out a shout of fury, throws Emma back and releases her and disappears in a burst of magic. Liar , says an impossible wind, sparkling through space. Liar! , and Emma is thrown into a nebula of color, silhouetted in the dark as the onslaught continues.
“No,” Emma says in the silence, and she nearly forgets the warrior when she presses the button to call her escape pod to her.
Regina is dark and moody and a killer, the perfect nemesis for someone as bright a warrior as Emma. The media loves them both, snaps photos and videos and makes a fortune off the stories of their battles. Emma doesn’t care about any of it. She only wants to keep people safe, and Regina will never let her rest.
She resents Regina, or tries desperately to hate her. But instead, there is only a sharp discomfort when Regina is in her vicinity. It’s because Regina is evil , unapologetic about it and willing only to destroy everything that Emma would protect. Because Regina is smug when she wins and lurks too close, and Emma is flushed and warm when they confront each other.
She doesn’t like what Regina’s proximity does to her. It recalls Lily , her mother’s disappointment and the way that her mother had become someone else entirely when Emma had broken the rules. Emma is a heart girl, and she isn’t meant to feel this way, to flout destiny so flagrantly.
Regina does not awaken that in her, she decides. It is only that she is tired from fighting so hard, from protecting people who will only become Regina’s targets again. What she wants is love , not this false thing that would never be hers.
And she does want love, though it seems elusive with the men who flock to her to be her fairytale. “Please,” she whispers to the Savior and his Queen when she prays to them at the shrines. “Please, creators of the United Realms, give me a love like you had. Like I am meant to have. The love that we write epics about.”
She is beginning to believe that the fates might have erred when they’d put the heart on her skin. Why not on her parents, who adore each other? Why not on the happy couples she rescues from the wrath of the witch? Why Emma, who smiles prettily and entertains the heroes of a hundred realms and never once feels a flutter of attraction toward them? She has been made wrong, is a disappointment for the world, and the heart on her neck is a mistake.
She is a warrior. Maybe that is her great love, the people whom she protects. Maybe she is only meant to be Regina’s nemesis.
She stops an attack meant to fry an entire power grid in the Land Without Color and glowers when she sees Regina seated on a roof across the street, her profile just as striking in black and white. She tilts her head in challenge, and Emma feels that flutter of desire that accompanies each battle.
This is what she’s made for, she decides, and she draws her sword and leaps toward Regina.
They talk. Well, they always talk, but sometimes it isn’t just taunts and jeers. Sometimes it is…conversation, whiling away the time before Regina attacks and Emma defends. Sometimes it is almost like having a friend, albeit one who tries to kill her on occasion.
There is a caravan in the desert below, and Regina is going to do something terrible to it. Emma knows this, had seen Regina lurking at the high base of a mountain, and she had run, fleet-footed, across the sand and up the mountain to sit beside her. “I’ll stop you,” she says, sitting down beside Regina. “I always stop you. Why do you even bother?”
“I like it when they scream,” Regina says, her eyes glittering with malice. “I like it when they fear me. As they should.”
Emma shakes her head. “So you have the mark on your neck and you decided to throw in the towel? That’s it? You’re just going to be the bad guy?” She’s disappointed. It’s so… one-dimensional of Regina, who had always seemed nuanced before now. “That’s so boring .”
“We can’t all spend our days entertaining boors who think you’ll make them famous,” Regina scoffs. “I’m not boring.”
“You are! You’re like a cartoon character from the Land of Virtual Reality!” Emma is outraged. “You’re supposed to be my big nemesis and this is your motivation? Not some tragic backstory or dark influence but just chaos ?” She wraps her arms around herself. “My story’s going to be the worst . I can’t fall in love with a prince and my villain doesn’t have layers.”
“I have layers!” Regina says, just as much on the offensive. “ You don’t have layers. You’re an airheaded golden child who only fights because a mark on her neck told her to.”
“You’re one to talk about what marks on your neck tell you to do,” Emma snaps, stung, and they sulk in silence until Regina uses her magic to send the caravan astray into the desert and Emma has to lead them home.
“My mother had the blood mark on her neck, too,” Regina says quietly. It is a month later, and their fight-not-fight has been simmering for weeks. It doesn’t change anything– Regina is just as vicious and Emma just as quick to stop her– but it leaves a bad taste in Emma’s mouth, Regina’s silence and glowers instead of that mocking laugh.
Today, Regina has encased a castle in ice, freezing everything within it, and Emma has set fires around it to thaw it out. They are watching the progression of the fires together, standing across the moat with Regina in a flowing purple cape and Emma dressed in a ballgown. She’d escaped from a ball in her honor when she’d heard about the frozen castle, and she feels silly and awkward in the puffy gown and the petticoat beneath it, especially next to Regina’s sleek dress. It hugs her curves and dips low at her cleavage while it’s high at the back of her neck, and Emma’s mouth goes very dry before she tears her eyes away.
Regina’s admission comes as a surprise after the month of silence, and Emma peers over at her again, traces the fine lines of her profile and dares to ask, “What was she like?”
Regina shakes her head. “A nightmare,” she admits. “There’s your dark influence, I suppose. Maybe your tragic backstory, too. She trained me to kill. To manipulate. To destroy. To hate your realm and its picture-perfect endings, unlike anywhere else in the universe. She wed me to a king thrice my age when I was seventeen and forced me into his bed for seven years until I was able to kill him.”
Emma stares at her, at the matter-of-fact way that Regina states each horrific bit of information. “You…not King Leopold,” she says. King Leopold had been from the Land of Fairytales, a cousin of her mother’s who had died only a few months ago. Emma’s mother had often boasted of the match, the beautiful young queen that she had found for her cousin, and Emma hadn’t thought much of it until his death. “Regina–”
“I found you to avenge myself,” Regina murmurs. “Leopold was gone, but the woman who had made the match had a beautiful, perfect daughter, a heart girl. I wanted to take everything from that woman. I wanted her to suffer.”
The ice is melting into a magical mist, floating away as guards outside the castle begin to move again. The night is chilly, and Emma in her ridiculous ballgown is too cold to move away, to turn from Regina and flee from the warning she’s been given. She feels the absurd urge to apologize for her mother, who rushes too quickly to make matches and believes that love can emerge from any man and woman if given enough time. Instead, she says, “I wish I’d met you before. When you were…when we could have been friends.”
Regina regards her, her head shaking slowly, and she says, “How is it, Emma Swan, that you can still surprise me every time you open your mouth?” Emma only watches her, shivering in the night, and Regina surprises her, too. She detaches her cape from her long collar and sets it around Emma’s neck, a little burst of magic keeping it in place. “There,” she says with satisfaction. “Wouldn’t want you to freeze to death, would we? That isn’t written on your neck.”
Emma pulls the cape tighter to her, her heartbeat quickening and a new warmth rising with the sensation of the soft fabric against her bare arms. “Maybe we put too much stock in our marks,” she says, and her heart is thumping hard, is struggling to break free of her rib cage.
Regina raises a delicate eyebrow. “You want to freeze?” she inquires, casual as a query about the weather.
Emma sputters. “That’s not what I meant. I was saying– your blood mark– ugh ,” she says, and she sees the amusement in Regina’s eyes a moment too late. “Never mind. You’re the worst , you know that?”
“That’s what they all say,” Regina says lightly. “I’ve been offered a reality show in the Land Without Magic, which is really the best sign that I am every bit as terrible as you believe.” She throws back her head and laughs, and the last bits of ice shatter into fairy dust around them, sparkling in the night. Regina pays it no heed, and Emma watches her, gripped by the way she moves when she laughs, the flow of her gown and the light in her eyes.
Regina turns, and she lifts a hand to cup Emma’s cheek. Emma doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe, and she wants to lean into the touch. She stops herself, forces herself to stay very still, and she waits for Regina to move. “I told them that I’m not done with you yet,” Regina breathes, her thumb swiping against the corner of Emma’s mouth, and Emma stands rigid, terrified of what might happen next.
She thinks of her mother, of the heart on her neck, of the Savior and his Queen disapproving of where her skin craves to be right now, and she trembles and chokes out, “I have to go.” Regina watches her, eyes narrowing, and Emma turns and flees, races into the wind until she finds the portal that will take her back to the ballroom.
She mustn’t. She can’t . And when a handsome prince extends a hand to her and asks for a dance, she puts her hands in his and spins with him, Regina’s cloak fanning out behind her like she’s flying.
She gets engaged. It happens quickly once she sets her mind on it, when she finds a man she doesn’t hate and decides to give him a chance. He is charming, but not to the point that she feels wariness, and he is kind. When he touches her, her skin crawls, but she tamps that down and forces herself to lean against him, to fight the way she is repulsed at his touch.
Her mother is thrilled. Her father tells her that he’s proud of her, as though she has accomplished something great instead of only surrendering to her fate. The prince comes often to take her on walks, besotted with her, and Emma enjoys their conversations and lives in fear of each moment when he steps toward her like he might touch her, like he might kiss her.
The news spreads, and there are photoshoots and holograms of them, are grand celebrations in some realms and fireworks in others. Her mother has only one fear, shared by everyone else in the realm. “The witch is going to attack. This is your fairytale. Something tragic will happen, and your story will begin.”
“I think my story began a long time ago,” Emma says wearily, but she is dismissed. Regina hasn’t attacked since she’d gotten engaged, and it should be a relief. She should be more afraid of her villain than she should of her fiancé’s touch, but the fear that thrums from Regina’s proximity is one she craves.
But Regina is absent.
Emma travels the realms, leaps into worlds she’s never visited and searches for crises that might be of Regina’s making. But there is nothing, the world moving on quietly without Regina’s interference. Emma searches and searches as the wedding plans continue, and when she can find nothing, she ventures instead into the grim depths of the Land of Bitter Ends.
It is a sad, decrepit place, destroyed by angry villains and the fury of those they’ve crossed. Emma picks through the rubble and thinks that it is no wonder that its inhabitants are doomed to infamy, when this is their world. The Savior and his Queen would have never wanted this when they’d united the realms, she’s sure of it.
Maybe someday she can change it. She is only a minor noble now, but she will marry a prince soon, and he will make her a queen someday, too–
She bites back the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach and focuses instead on what she might do as a queen. Nothing as grand as what the Queen had done, of course. But small steps.
She finds a broken estate, crumbling with ivy and with rolling hills of dead grass, and she knows suddenly that this is Regina’s childhood home. “Regina,” she calls, and Regina emerges from the broken-down stables.
She doesn’t look Emma in the eye, which is unnerving. “You shouldn’t be here,” she says. “This is not a place for a heart girl.”
Emma twists her fingers. She wishes she’d thought to bring the cape, to claim that she’d only come to return it, but the idea of that cape leaving her room, leaving her grasp, only fills her with despair. “Where have you been?” she says finally. “I’ve been…I kept waiting for you.” Her voice is small, and she hurts, hurts, longs for things she doesn’t dare acknowledge.
Regina puts a hand on her neck, a high-collared cloak appearing with magic around her. Emma, who had been too distracted staring at her face, mourns the missed opportunity to see the other mark on Regina’s neck, the sign of magic. “I decided to give you a vacation,” she says, her voice abrupt. “Consider it my wedding gift.”
Emma’s face burns, and she can’t say why. “Regina…” The words stick in her throat, and she swallows them back. “Will you come to the wedding?” she says instead.
Regina sneers at her, but she can’t seem to hold it, and it fades into a look of bitter pain, enough that it steals Emma’s breath away. “I am your worst enemy, Emma. I am not your friend,” she says, and it only sounds very sad. “I will ruin you.”
Ruin me , Emma thinks with a surge of longing, and then she quiets her mind, forces yearning from it, and tries to remember the prince’s face when he laughs. It isn’t unpleasant. He is a good man. Her heart doesn’t twist around him like this, and maybe that is for the best.
Here, there are only bitter ends.
The wedding day is bright and beautiful, and Emma has a spitting headache and stomach pains until her mother reminds her it’s just nerves, you love him, don’t you? and Emma nods and smiles with as much enthusiasm as she can muster. She thinks about the wedding night and feels a deep, protracted horror, and then she is sick again, sobbing in a corner of the grand hall where the wedding is supposed to be.
Her ladies-in-waiting comfort her, remind her that she is going to have a wonderful, beautiful fairytale. You will see him and remember how perfect he is , one promises. The nerves will fade away after you are wed , says another, and Emma wraps her arms around herself and smiles desperately, prays so long to the Savior and his Queen that there are whispers of admiration at how devout she is.
Let this be right , she whispers. Let me find joy and love . But when she walks down the aisle, it feels like a descent to hell, to destruction–
–Or perhaps that is because of the flames that appear around the hall, as though beckoned by her prayers. There are screams, and the prince draws his sword. “It’s her!” someone shouts. “The witch! She has come!”
“Oh, I knew this would happen,” Emma’s mother says fretfully. “I knew she couldn’t let you have this fairytale–” But Emma is turning in her voluminous white dress, her heart light with hope, and she sees Regina descending from the sky with her makeup severe and her black dress like a shroud around her and reaches for her.
Regina’s eyes run over her in her dress, an unreadable expression on her face, and then she says, “Sorry I’m late,” and scoops the prince up, outstretched sword and all, and sweeps out of the room before anyone can speak another word.
Emma slips a dagger out from the depths of her dress and slices off a dozen layers, hurtling from the room in a furious burst of speed.
And beneath it, a quiver of traitorous relief.
Regina isn’t in the Land of Bitter Ends this time, but in the castle that she’d inherited when she’d married and killed a king. It rises sharp and severe against the landscape, and there is an aura of danger around it. None of that stops Emma, and she stalks through the castle with an energy sword drawn and her wedding dress in tatters around her. “Regina!” she shouts. “Regina, I know you’re here!”
At last, she finds her in the dungeons, the prince hanging from the wall with his wrists in chains. Regina stands opposite him, face disinterested, and she spins around when she hears Emma coming. “ This ?” she says, jerking a thumb to the prince. “This is your fairytale? A dull little man who can’t even swing a sword like you do?”
Emma fumes. “You can’t just swoop in and grab my fiancé because you think he’s boring!” she snaps. “If I say that this is my fairytale, then it’s my fairytale!” She charges forward, cutting the prince free with her energy sword and taking a protective stance in front of him. He touches her arm, and her skin ripples with disgust.
Regina catches her recoil, and her eyes narrow. “It’s a sham,” she says. “You don’t love him.”
“Of course I do,” Emma says, defiant, but it feels like she’d just stabbed herself in the heart. The prince has a grip on her and it burns, hurts, even though it is gentle. “I’m going to marry him.”
Regina waves a hand and the prince disappears in a puff of purple. Emma can breathe again, and she blinks away tears that make no sense. “Why?” Regina demands. “Why will you marry him? What is it about that boor that makes you think he’s your fairytale?”
“Because I chose him,” Emma snaps. “Haven’t you seen my neck? Don’t you know what this fucking heart means?” She taps it where it sits, prominent against the bodice of her wedding dress, and she can feel the tears beginning to spill. “I’m a heart girl , Regina. I’m supposed to have a fairytale!”
Regina laughs. Laughs and laughs, unlike any of the times that she’s laughed before, desperate and wild and lost. “What the hell does any of that mean?” she says, and she yanks at her collar, turns it down so Emma can see the marks against her smooth, perfect neck. The drop of blood that marks her as villain. The little whirl of color, purple on Regina, that shows her magic.
And there is a third mark. An impossible mark, one just behind the whirl of color. Emma stares at it, her chest heaving and her eyes still blurred with tears, and she blinks, certain that she’s misread it.
But it is there, a heart etched against her skin, as bright and visible as Emma’s heart. “You’re a heart girl,” Emma whispers. “You’re like me.”
Regina snarls, “I’m nothing like you,” and Emma lurches forward, puts a hand on Regina’s neck, and kisses her.
Her body sings, and Regina lets out a strangled noise and kisses her back, holds her tightly as Emma clings to her. Kissing Regina feels right, like nothing has felt right since childhood, since she had been warned– you mustn’t, this can never be your love story – and Emma is floating, is overwhelmed with sensation, this forbidden, impossible thing that is hers–
No , she reminds herself, and she kisses Regina again, tries desperately to wipe away the intrusive reminders of what this can’t be. No , she thinks, and she sobs helplessly, cries saltwater into their kisses. No , she tries to say, and Regina is so warm, is staring at her with tears in her eyes, and Emma staggers back and to the floor, stumbles away and runs, runs, from this awful decision that she can never undo, from the world shattering around her.
The prince is there when she returns home, the wedding party dispersed but safe, and Emma tries to kiss him and vomits instead, empties her stomach onto his royal garments and runs to the shrines to find a clarity that never comes.
She doesn’t find Regina this time. Instead, she sits dully in her quarters at home, refusing to speak to anyone. Her ladies-in-waiting coo over her, irritating her, and her mother comes in and sits with her and holds her in silence. “He wasn’t right for you,” she murmurs, and Emma feels a breath of relief at that, at her mother’s agreement instead of disappointment. But then, her mother says, “We will find you another man. Someone better suited for you. You will have your fairytale,” and tears spill from Emma’s eyes, the sobbing noise like a strangled, protracted gasp.
“I will never have my fairytale,” she says, and her mother stares at her, uncomprehending. “I will never find a man who is better suited for me.” She waits until her mother’s eyes clear, until her mother remembers and understands, and she sits in misery and awaits judgment.
Still, her mother does not speak. Emma continues, desperate for something . “I know you…you wanted this for me. But I think I will have to be alone. I can be alone. I’ll have you and Dad, and I have my mission– my villain–” She chokes on that, sits in misery again, and her mother watches her and says nothing.
When her mother speaks, her words are careful. “You must do what is best for you,” she says gently. “I don’t understand it. I don’t think I ever will. But I do love you, far more than I love fairytales. Maybe even more than I love the Savior and his Queen,” she admits in a hushed voice, a wry smile on her face, and Emma stares up at her in gripped hope. “We can get through this.”
When she leaves, Emma lies in bed and thinks about never having to touch another man. For the first time in days, she breathes, and the air feels fresh.
And when she next has a visitor, it is a woman who comes in through her window, sans the cloak and dressed in a simple green dress that leaves all of her marks bare on her neck. “You have come to find me so many times,” Regina says, and her eyes are sad and warm. “I thought I might find you this time.”
Emma takes her hand, her skin tingling at the touch, and they disappear together.
“Where are we going?” she says, her voice shaky.
Regina laughs. “I thought today I would cause an earthquake beneath the libraries in the Land of the Historians. Truly make an impact. Wipe out a thousand years of history. Watch.” And she throws out a hand and cracks appear on the ground beneath a series of buildings ahead of them, ancient and weathered and noble.
Emma says, horrified, “You villain . No!” She charges forward, unarmed, and she digs into her pocket to find the trinket she’d once gotten from the terraformers in the Land of New Worlds that is meant to steady the ground. She finds it, and she types orders into it frantically, struggling to remember the code that will save the libraries.
When the cracks in the earth finally smooth again, she turns, smug, and feels like herself for the first time since the wedding. “Nice try, Regina,” she sings out, wheeling around. “Better luck next…”
Her voice trails off. Someone else has found Regina, a woman who stands tall and holds a sword to Regina’s neck. Emma’s heart skips a beat, and she freezes, terrified to do anything that will hurt Regina. “Thank you for your assistance,” the woman says formally. “I have this under control. The libraries are under my protection.”
And on the woman’s neck, proudly displayed, is a heart and a sword.
Emma knows her as well as she knows any of her predecessors, and she gapes and says hoarsely, “Mulan?”
Mulan stares at her. “Emma,” she says at last. “The other heart girl.”
“There are many of us,” Emma admits, and Mulan’s eyes move to Regina’s neck. “I think just…just some of us are noticed.” She takes a careful step forward, and she says, “Please don’t hurt her. She was…in her own way, she was trying to help.”
Mulan tosses a wary glance at Regina. Regina says, “I love history. Marian and I are old friends,” and Mulan’s sword lowers.
“Marian?” Emma says, bewildered.
“The chief historian,” Mulan murmurs, and there is a secret smile at her lips now, a hint of a flush to her cheeks. Emma gapes at her, and Mulan says briskly, “Well, then. I will bring you both to her.”
Marian is a lovely woman who smiles at them and hugs Regina. “I thought that was you starting chaos outside,” she says easily. “Surprised Mulan spared you.”
“You could have mentioned you knew me,” Regina says, sounding miffed. Emma follows behind her, dazed and uncertain. “I only wanted to show Emma something.”
“I thought you were trying to destroy–” Emma starts, and then she stops short, because something impossible has happened. Mulan, heart girl who had never gotten her fairytale– Mulan, who cannot be real, not like this– Mulan comes in behind them and kisses Marian as easily as a husband might kiss a wife, smiling that secret smile again.
There is a glow between them, a love that mustn’t , a love that is reserved for casual friendships and racy stories and not heart girls , not the destined ones chosen by the Savior and his Queen, and Emma takes a step back, horrified. “What are you…how can you…?”
Marian and Mulan exchange a look. “Is there a problem?” Marian says, and her voice sounds deceptively calm, on the verge of a fight. Regina puts a hand on Emma’s arm, and Emma trembles.
“No. I– you’re a heart girl ,” she says finally, beseechingly, to Mulan. “A fairytale girl. The heir of the love story between the Savior and his Queen. How can you– you abandoned it? You can just abandon that?” Emma has prepared herself to be alone, to live a fairytale where there is no prince, but this is something unholy. This is heresy from a heart girl.
Marian laughs, and now it is sharp and bitter. “Fools,” she says, and Emma recoils. “All of them, in the Land of Fairytales and beyond. They drown in their ignorance and are so smug about it, and they never once–”
She whirls around, and she pulls a scroll from a shelf. “Here,” she says, thrusting it out to Emma. Regina takes it, her eyes fixed on Marian. “A painting, circa three hundred years after the United Realms.” She digs into another shelf, emerges with a book. “Fifty years after the United Realms,” she says, and slams it onto the table. “Eleven years after the United Realms,” and a file is stuck into a computer, flickers onto the screen on the table. “The evidence is all there, but no one learns from it, just shoves it into the Land of the Historians so they can forget the past. Here, a portrait from the day the realms were united,” she says, and she unrolls her scroll across the table for them to see.
It is a painting, intricately drawn, the Queen beside the Author and beside them– a blonde, dressed in casual clothing of the Land Without Magic, eyes glinting with humor. A woman , clad as the Savior prince is clad in every statue in the shrines.
It is impossible. It is beautiful, is everything that Emma’s ever dreamed of, and she takes in a gasping breath and feels as though the world itself is shattering around her. The Savior looks out at her as though she can see her, as though she understands her. The Savior is a warrior whose love story has rewritten the world itself, and she is…
“It’s hard to track down an exact date when the Savior was rewritten into a man,” Marian says, businesslike. “There is a gap in art about five hundred years ago, and everything since then has been consistent. But you can see the originals here, and they are very clear.”
Regina unrolls the scroll, and the woman Savior looks back, her arms around the Queen and her lips to her cheek. Emma opens the book and sees the Savior, a feminine warrior as lithe and athletic as Emma herself. The picture on the screen is of the Savior and Queen, fighting together with magic spilling from their hands. “The Savior was a woman who loved a queen,” Marian says fiercely. “So don’t tell me that we’re abandoning the love story that the goddesses gave Mulan. We are the only ones living it.”
“Not the only ones,” Regina murmurs, and she touches the mark on Emma’s neck. Her touch is soft, tentative, and Emma turns as though she is still in a dream, stares at the woman opposite her and takes stumbling steps from the library.
Outside, the grass is cool and wet, and the sky is bright. The world has not changed, but Emma rocks in place and slips, stumbles for purchase and stares up at the statues that tower over the Land of the Historians. There is the Queen, there is the Savior, but unlike any Savior she’s seen before, this tall and strong and beautiful figure.
There is a woman who loves a woman, and epics have been written about them for a thousand years.
She goes to the place Between-Lands, the town that joins the Land Without Magic with all the other Lands, and she walks the streets that the Savior and the Queen had once walked. She doesn’t know what she’s searching for. Clarity, perhaps, but there is none here, only broken old streets made of weathered concrete and a few museums.
She hears the whispers as she walks down the road, sees averted glances as passersby point at her heart mark and murmur to each other. She stands tall, and she doesn’t flinch away from them. She is the heart girl, and she is only beginning to understand what that means.
A man approaches her– men always approach her, see her as a treasure to be dug up and savored and a story that will be theirs, and she is so tired of being theirs to take– and Emma tenses. “Hello, heart girl,” he says, and his face isn’t malicious or cruel, isn’t the face of someone who would hurt her. He is only a man who reaches out to touch her, and she dodges him and holds up a taser before he can reach her.
“Don’t touch me,” she says, her voice trembling, and he scurries away.
“You would think,” muses a voice behind her, “That someone might notice that you’re a sword girl first and a heart girl second.” It is Regina, of course, and Emma twists around to stare at her, at the way that her smile grows more beautiful when it is more genuine. “How about it, sword girl?” Regina drawls, and she cups her hand and builds a fireball in her palm. “One last fight before you go back to your fairytale?”
It is a challenge, a quiet question from a woman who has swiftly become the most integral part of Emma’s story. There is no last fight for them, just as there is no fairytale, and Emma says, “Did you know? About the Savior? Did you know all along?”
Regina regards her, eyes grave. “I felt it,” she says quietly. “Did I know it? No. But I suspected. The legends were incomplete.”
Emma takes a step forward, her taser still in her hand. Regina’s fire burns small and bright, and Emma tucks away her taser and closes her hand around Regina’s, snuffing out the flame. “Tell me the legends,” she says, and she feels breathless, renewed with purpose. “Tell me about the Savior and the Queen.”
Regina closes her eyes, and she looks so little like a villain anymore. There had been villainy early on, Emma remembers, a determination to punish the world for the evils wrought upon her, but it has been so long. More and more, Regina seems to attack only to see Emma defend. More and more, Emma has waited for Regina’s onslaughts with anticipation instead of grim determination.
Has Regina ever been her villain? Or has she only been another heart girl, searching for her story in a place where stories have never come before? “Once upon a time,” Regina says in a whisper, and Emma feels as though she might float away into the wind.
Regina breathes, “There was a queen, and there was a savior,” and when she touches Emma’s hand, Emma tugs her close and kisses a legend into her lips.
In the Land of Fairytales, there is one story that has risen to prominence. It had been met with chagrin when first revealed, but there are many realms watching now, enough that some embrace the tale and popularize it. It is the tale of the hero and the villain, created in the image of the Savior and his Queen, of Emma and Regina and a love that defies destiny.
But with time, with movies and plays and legends and a dozen epics written of their love, even the Land of Fairytales grows to appreciate the story that has emerged from their realm. And the stories spread through downtrodden realms, through hopeless worlds devoid of every kind of love, through places where love is impractical but still ever-sought.
The whispers begin soon after, the rumors and the doubts. Some say that the Savior lives on through Emma, that the Queen is Regina, that there is more to their gods than the ministers have admitted. Some tear down statues in the shrines and rebuild them, and imagine another, better way. Some tell the legends differently now, and they are written as those know to be true for all to read here.
And sometimes, as Emma Swan stares out from the home she shares with her wife and children and beholds the world that they fight for together, she whispers up a prayer to the Savior and her Queen and thinks, for a time, that they would be proud.
And I can tell you that they are.