Author's Note: I'm so sorry for how long it took me to upload. I've been attacked by a vicious and unrelenting beast that's clawing on my back whenever I try to write. Apparently, it's called writer's block. Then suddenly, I was bored in French class and my Czech brain tried to form some English sentences. I still hope you haven't forgotten this story yet (hah!) and will enjoy it nonetheless. (And again I feel like I've crossed a line, but I guess that's what I always think and then realize I really didn't do anything at all.)

Chapter 3: Winterhearted

Listen and run, run and listen. Keep listening, keep running. The castle was a gray rainbow painted monochrome by the claws of darkness.

Don't let yourself get distracted; it's a luxury you cannot afford. Just fly.

Butterfly wings fluttered above her head. "Princess Snow! Princess Snow!"

The brunette awoke with a jerk and supported herself against the side of the bed to regain balance. Dark circles under her eyes spoke a thousand words she, in her stubbornness, would never let escape her mouth. Matted hair fell on her shoulders, refusing to stay put and sticking out in all directions. It had acquired a peculiar but most bothersome quality, bearing a resemblance to many separate braids branching out into coal rivers without any effort having been wasted to make it so.

"What is it, Tink?" the woman asked and anyone with sense of perception good enough to distinguish warm from cold could tell from her absentminded expression that the fairy's distress was the least of her worries.

The thin wings fluttered faster as if trying to express the urgency of the message. "I heard a wish unlike any I've ever heard before, princess," she blurted out and circled Snow's head two times. "It was strong and unrelenting – almost deafening – Princess, it was the savior's wish!" She traced another halo above Snow's head and the princess looked like a Pietà cradling her dead Jesus next to the sleeping James. Snow White sprang to attention and her eyes shimmered like fallen icicles in white cotton. "What did she wish for?"

Tinker Bell's green leafy dress whistled as she sat down on her friend's shoulder, delicately, basking in the irony of the fact that Snow in her fragility, although much hardier at first glance, might be the one to shatter. "Hope."

"I'm sorry."

She had been repeating it for so many times the collocation had lost all meaning for the Seventh Swan. Sometime in the past, apologies used to be the one spark of vulnerability she used to allow herself to display for the sake of making things right. Apologies – expressions of regret – had been the last attempts to make painful memories subside and fade before their time comes; not hers, but recollections of the ones she had hurt. This time, apologies were vain, miserable tries to catch and hold onto that one last straw of hope.

"I'm so sorry," she repeated again when steel met skin but her voice was a still, emotionless river.

Her hair was painfully pulled back and she found herself face to face with the Queen. "Who are you?"

The words sounded all the same. The Swan was oblivious to her requests because by then, the only thing she could hear was apologize if you value your life, echoing through her head so loudly it felt like a thousand church bells chiming in her ears. She honestly didn't know why, but her spontaneous reaction suggested she did not take this life for granted. For some incomprehensible reason, she pushed forward in her efforts, again and again crying "I'm sorry." Dry salty brooks ran pale down her face and she could no longer gather the will to mean what she was saying. "I'm sorry." Warm blood dripped from a fresh cut that connected her collarbones, providing twisted comfort to the freezing skin lacking feeling underneath. "I'm sorry." Looking into her eyes, even the distant, winterhearted Queen recognized the absent grayness she saw.

"Assemble the Council, Tink. Tell Grumpy to ring the bells; we need every spare hand."

Soon the castle was abuzz; Tinker Bell's wings fluttered here and there as she hurried to carry out Snow's wishes. More than anyone, she knew there was little time to waste as not only had she heard the wish, but she could also sense the circumstances. Much like on the day the curse struck the land, warriors and mages, dwarves and fairies, even simple friends gathered around the round table and waited for their princess to silence the chatter with a wave of her hand, except this time, one person was missing in the crowd.

"Snow, calm down. We need to think this through. There is no way we can rescue her if we just barge in there with swords and flails in hand like a bunch a' barbarians," grumbled Grumpy under his breath.

"Maybe we don't have to – we need a distraction."

"Distractions are for dwarves like Stealthy – dead dwarves. Let's get back to the fighting thing," he growled and punched the surface of the table at his own mention of his dead comrade.

A voice called out from the sea of heads and colors. "Do you even have the right to decide this without the prince?" Suspicious whispers and shouts followed; 'Does she?' 'When is prince James coming back?' 'Whose fate are we compromising today?'

"During his absence, I am to make all decisions that will affect our kingdom and its residents in his place," Snow answered, unfazed, holding her chin high. "Besides, she saved my life, yours, and possibly the lives of all in the land, and didn't even get a grain of gratitude for her deeds. It is our duty to return the favor."

"Snow, if I may," interrupted Tink, hovering in front of her, and waited for a nod of approval from the brunette. "There is much more to it than that. If the Queen gets the Swan's heart, we will all face the same danger we were once saved from. Time is of the essence; she needs her heart to re-enact the curse and she'll stop at nothing to get it."

Snow's brow furrowed in a frown. Her stepmother had had an unhealthy obsession with hearts, but as far as Snow had noticed, there was no order in it. There was no order anywhere around the Queen; only chaos. "Why hers?"

"She ripped out the heart of the thing she loved most the first time. Now that that attempt has essentially been wasted, all she feels is anger – a rage so relentless, so merciless, spurred by her own breaking – as unbelievable as it may seem. All this hate has run loose, directed at the one person who stole her pride. She's balancing on the thin line between love and hate because of the Swan, so it's only fitting she should be the one to fill the void. Love and hate are both equally powerful forces, ones that can pay double the cost of magic. Ultimately, her power has only grown."

And again the whispers, frightened whispers, gasps and cries shook the solemn atmosphere of the room. Clutching a basket, Red Riding Hood squeezed her grandma's shoulder.

Snow White's eyes closed as she contemplated her options, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "I know her ways. She isn't going to just rip out her heart; if it were that simple, she would have been dead before she could even make a wish – and all of us would go along with her. The Queen wants to project her feelings into this woman. She wants to break her first so that her revenge can be complete." Unexpectedly, tears welled up in her eyes and a jabbing pain swirled in her chest at the mere vision of such boundless cruelty. She couldn't allow that to happen, not to her – their savior – whoever she was – she trusted her. "Tink, you're the one to fulfill wishes. You must have an idea what we can do."

"The Queen's magic is strong, but so is mine. If we can convince the genies to cover the Queen's castle in a mist of illusion, maybe we can fool her long enough for the Swan to escape. However, the stronger the aid, the higher the price."

"Leave that to me," Snow responded firmly, a familiar glimmer of determination in her eyes. "I'm good at bargaining; they'll think twice before jeopardizing a mission to save all of our lives."

High heels paced back and forth and dark curls of cloth followed close behind. She just couldn't wrap her mind around how someone could appear without warning and turn the tables with impunity. All the hard work, the deals – in vain. In merely trying to delived justice, the Queen had initiated her own doom.

But there would be punishment. The culprit would suffer at no other hands than her own. She would pay a thousand times for all the ones she had wrongfully saved without having any idea of their wretched sins. It was only fair.

Finally, the Queen came to a halt, closing her eyes and inhaling deeply as if she were listening to the dungeon's silence, talking to it, luring it. The castle provided her with serenity, soothing her rage when nothing else could. The silence enveloped her, whispering in her ear: 'Look at her.' Her eyes snapped open.

Maybe that was part of why she always surrounded herself with pain. Living beings simply looked more beautiful when broken and fragile. There was an exquisitely tragic quality to their pitifulness that made blood run faster in her veins.

Having seen wounds open and close repeatedly on the same body, all-encompassing darkness was looming over the Swan's eyes darkened by exhaustion and blissful apathy. Just another reason for the Queen's hatred; what she had been trying to avoid for as long as anyone could remember, her pathetic nemesis had embraced. The Seventh Swan was a display of pure, ultimate, irrefutable acceptance.

It was a sight to behold.

"What is it that makes you resist me even when you've lost everything?" It was now genuine curiosity, not boiling anger speaking. What was the secret to this woman's untouchability, she had to know. There was no answer; but an idea, yes.

She knelt before the younger woman, cradling the Swan's face in her hands, and wrinkles formed valleys on her forehead. "You must be tired, you poor, poor thing," she cooed, her voice dripping honey and sugar. "I can make it go away, dear," she continued, brushing a strand of wet hair (whether it was blood, tears, dirt or sweat or a mixture of all of the above, one couldn't tell) behind the blonde's ear. "Although it is in my power, this doesn't have to go on forever. Give yourself to me and I will ease your pain. Give me what I want and I will make it go away." For the first time in hours, their gaze met, and remains of the Queen's heart skipped a beat in ecstasy at the silent promise of extinguishing this newfound glimmer of hope. The question didn't have to be voiced in order to be heard. As if on cue, the Queen leaned in and gently pressed her lips to the Swan's.

Just a whiff, just a taste; and she tasted like blood and leaves of vanilla, oh so sweet. The touch was intoxicating. Perhaps it was her lack of strength that made the Swan show no resistance; perhaps she couldn't feel it at all. The Queen didn't allow herself to get too used to the feeling, didn't let the warmth linger and pulled away out of fear of being poisoned. It had always been too easy for her to get caught up in a moment, so whenever she felt that familiar fire in her gut burning at the sight of scarred beauty – such as wronged victims, or even past lovers as bitter betrayal shone in their eyes – she would be careful to restrain herself and put it out before it was too late. It broke her heart over and over again, gazing upon naked wounds bleeding, and at the same time, it took her breath away.

Time stopped as a smile spread across her face, warm and inviting, almost as if she were trying to substitute the cold dungeon with an illusion, turn stone to wood and breeze to a fireplace. "I don't want to hurt you. I just want – I need the truth so I can be happy again. I don't think that makes me evil," she whispered, her face a mask of concern as she supported the blonde's chin with her middle and index finger. "Do you?"

Sure enough, she must have done something unspeakable, the Swan thought, if the horrors she was being put through were to serve as a medium for happiness. Tears welled up in her eyes long, long after she started thinking the Queen had sucked her dry. "No."

The brunette's smile broadened. "Good." She brought her lips to her victim's ear to murmur a soft whisper; "I'll show you how good I can be to you, if you let me."

Her hand ran from cupping her face southward, down the Swan's neck and between her breasts, much like the ever-wandering blade had. But it didn't stop there, no – nails clawing at her shirt and pulling at the strings that ran over one another in crosses and tied the two halves of the cloth together, it roamed lower still, until it reached its destination between the blonde's legs, caressing the younger woman through the fabric. Her lips curled into a twisted half-grin at the sudden sharp intake of breath echoing in her ears. She moved slowly, methodically, pressing down every now and then, and listened as the Swan's breathing got progressively faster. "Doesn't this feel better, now?" she hummed, planting a feather light kiss on the Swan's smooth jawline. "Doesn't it?"

A soft moan that escaped the blonde's lips involuntarily served as her answer.

The sound of boots clicking on the stone tiles disturbed this mostly quiet little conference. "My Queen," saluted the head of the castle guard upon entering.

"What is it?" the Queen responded without as much as a turn of the head to take a look at the newcomer; instead her hand moved to sneak into the Swan's brown leather pants. "I told you I was not to be disturbed under any circumstances." She was no longer sugar and honey. Now her words sounded like deadly poison seeping through her body, looking for everybody's weakest spot, and the transition was so rough that if the Swan didn't know better – or could stop to think about it at all – she would have thought there was another person in their presence. But she was tired, oh so tired of assumptions, conclusions and the sharp jab in her lungs whenever she tried to breathe.

"My deepest apologies, my Queen, but Gur'hak the troll requests your audience. He says he has brought you Snow White as a sign of good will, but shan't let us see her without speaking with your majesty first. He's awaiting your reply in the dining room."

The Queen sprang to attention, kneeling frozen before the prisoner with the tips of her fingers disappearing mysteriously under the other woman's belt. Her breath felt like a thousand cactus needles on the blonde's neck for an eternity while she hung, limp and praying in some remote, distant part of her consciousness.

"Pity." The metaphorical clock struck midnight.

"My Queen, I must advise you—"

"Silence, you fool. I know as well as you do that the chances of him speaking the truth are slim. But Gur'hak has never meant me harm and his goods have always been top notch quality. I'm interested in what he has to offer." With that she half-heartedly stood up, turned on her heel and departed together with the guard in black armor, leaving the Swan dismissed in a place where her only desire was to numb the pain and fall into slumber.

Tears streamed down her face anew, for it was only now that she was truly alone, abandoned to the wolves of her scarred heart.