Ashlynn Ella returned to her mother's home, the same place she had known forever. The same empty halls, the quiet kitchens, the same stables, so clean it seemed like nothing was ever there. She had signed the Storybook of Legends, her heart as heavy as the hand she signed with. Her destiny, sprawled across two pages like a story she never wanted to read. But did she really have a choice? Did any of them?
Even when she was a child, her destiny was fed to her. You will work hard, you will be hated, and then you will find true love. Over and over again, she had heard that story so many times she could recite it without even trying.
True love…but was that really true.
Ashlynn knew her mother, how she floated around the castle like a specter, a ghost looking for something that had been lost a long time ago.
"True love Ashlynn. You will get true love."
The dream of every girl, and the hope of every woman, that's what her mother said. But there were nights when Ashlynn would sneak out of her room, and through the halls of the castle, there were days when she saw the heavy looks on her mother's face, as if the world were somehow melting her body. Flesh sagging from bones. There were the evenings when her father came home and kissed her mother's cheek, but Cinderella simply wiped it away while he wasn't looking. There were mornings when her mother and father wouldn't even say so much as a "Good Morning" to one another. No, they simply looked past each other, too tired to care, but too jaded to change it.
Ashlynn walked through the castle halls, looked at the portraits depicting the story she would be forced to follow. The wonderful pumpkin coach, the beautiful dancing hall, the glass slipper that promised an ending fit for a fairy tale.
A fairy tale she never wanted.
Even Apple White smiled at the thought of Ashlynn's story.
"You're so lucky!" She would say, "You're ending is simply enchanting. You get a prince, and a kingdom, and everything you could ever hope for."
Ashlynn walked through the hallway and peered through the kitchen, the light from the windows pooled over a woman's tired shoulders.
"Mom," Ash whispered, too low for even the mice to hear her.
Her mother was a thing of beauty. Skin so pale, and lips to red, and hair that caught the sunlight. Yet it was that same look, that tired expression, Ashlynn remembered most about her. That promise of flesh sagging from skin like a gown that was too large. That same expression that seemed to say, "What have I done?" That same expression Ashlynn dreamed about when the sun hid beneath the horizon. That same expression Ashlynn saw in her father's limped smile.
What have I done?
She had resigned herself to that fate, a true love that meant nothing, an ending that spoke of lonely nights; a love without love.
Until Legacy Day. That one moment when Raven Queen ripped her life from destiny's grip. She had defied. She had dared. She had delivered herself from her own fate.
Ashlynn felt her skin grow cold just thinking of it. Through that one act…Raven had set them all free. For the first time in her entire life…Ashlynn was no longer trapped. Was that how her mother felt on her legacy day? Trapped into a love she never wanted? And what of her father, what of his crooked smile, and lonely eyes? What of his cold demeanor and empty kisses? Had he dreamed of someone else before he signed his life over to "True Love"?
What had I done? All in the name of true love?
Could it really be true love, when your nights were spent alone? Could it really be true love, when your days were filled with blank stares? Could it really be true love when the chill of winter was warmer than an embrace?
Ashlynn sighed and placed her hands against the door. Apple White's words echoing through her body. "You get a Happily Ever After."
But she didn't want that. She didn't want some prince to place a glass slipper on her foot. She didn't want a carriage made from a pumpkin and drawn by white horses. She didn't want to spend her nights dreaming of someone she had given her heart to. She didn't want to spend her mornings looking back on a life that she could never have. She wanted something real. Something she could wake up with, and hold on to, and kiss good night. Something that would warm her when the nights got too cold, and soothe her when the days grew too long.
All she wanted…
"I love you."
…was true love.