She gets the tattoo as soon as she can find someone willing to overlook how young she is and how little she can actually pay. The man who does it has eyes full of understanding and pity and while she shies away from the first, she’s well practiced in ignoring the second.
(It’s a buttercup; clean, simple lines, no colour, and just large enough to cover what she needs it to. She picks it to remind herself that little orphan girls don’t get happy endings and what lies beneath the new ink is a childish fantasy she’s better off forgetting. Rubbing her thumb over the faintly raised skin, she clenches her jaw against the tight feeling in her chest and tries to ignore the itch of her lie detector crawling under her skin.)
Neal’s wrist contains only a smudge, like the name was there and then wiped away while the ink was still wet. When she asks, tactless and prickly in their first few days of acquaintance, he shrugs it off with a laugh and a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.
(When she asks again months later, soft and sweet when they’re curled together in bed, he sighs and says only that his father took far too much from him to ever be forgiven. She shudders inside to think what could do that to a mark and resolves never to bring it up again.)
(It doesn’t come up again anyway. Two days later he leaves her with a box of stolen watches and a child growing inside her and all she can think is ‘like father, like son’ without even knowing his reasons. She tells herself she doesn’t care and is proud when she finds that that, at least, is not a lie.)
She gives Henry a deadpan look, pointedly not looking to her wrist. Henry’s own is bare and she tries not to feel simultaneously despairing and jealous of his freedom. “I used to believe in magic, kid, but that well dried up a long time ago.”
“Where there was water once,” he says with deceptively mature solemnity, “there can be water again.”
The whole town freaks her out in a creepy horror movie way but it isn’t until she meets the sheriff for the first time that she realises why. Almost no one has a name on their wrist; she’s never seen so many people in one place with no destined partner. Those that do are either blurry or written jerkily, almost as though someone had forged them all poorly and then tried to conceal the fact and only made it worse.
(Mary Margaret’s left arm is only pale skin and delicate bone, but she’s fallen hard for a man whose wrist spells out Kathryn Holt in inky, shaky cursive and Emma watches in amazement as David appears to pay more attention to Henry’s teacher than he does his own wife. She wonders, for the first time in her life, if all the studies are wrong and the names don’t mean your best match.)
(Graham’s says Regina Mills in the most decisive signature in the whole town, but something about it seems off anyway. She still pushes him away when he tries to flirt with her but, as time goes on and Henry’s story becomes more and more believable, she begins to wonder if she still has a chance to have what David and Mary Margaret seem to be heading towards. For the first time in what seems a lifetime, she doesn’t think of the half-letter burned on her own wrist, buried in ink and heartbreak.)
Graham dies in her arms with a stuttered ‘thank you’ and she wants to scream at the unfairness of it all.
(She loops his shoelace around her wrist to remind herself - how did she ever let herself forget - that her chance died long before it began and it’s no use opening herself up to more heartbreak.)
She breaks the curse with a kiss like life is actually the fairytale Henry’s been insisting on this whole time. Even saving him, finding out that Mary Margaret and David are actually her parents, frozen in time like the rest of the town, can do nothing to ease the ache in her heart when she checks beneath the worn leather of Graham’s bootlace. The rest of the town’s names have shifted back into clarity - some even spontaneously appearing like the David Nolan scrawled elegantly across Mary Margaret’s pale skin - but hers remains a single slanted line, not completely buried under her childhood tattoo.
(Stupid, she’s so stupid. Hadn’t she just learnt this lesson? It takes all her strength not to simply claw the skin from her wrist when the name refuses to fade in completely. She ties the strap around her arm once more and tells herself she’ll never remove it again.)
(It only feels like half a lie, and that hollows her chest further.)
(Buried in amoung the relics and treasures lining Mr. Gold’s shop, the fingers of a severed hand twitch as a name appears on the stump of its wrist. The loops and strokes form slowly, sluggishly, but eventually they settle into the skin as though the name Emma Swan has always been there.)
(No one is around to notice.)