Once, there was a story of a girl that was spread only in whispers, on the wind or stammered behind cupped hands into eager ears. Daniel was fifteen when the gamekeeper’s son strained the tale through his teeth: the tale of an old miller who liked to try his hand at cards, but with a tongue too fast for his fingers gambled away his only daughter on the back of a queen of hearts—a sure win, he had thought—and on the assurance of her having a touch so delicate that it could spin straw into gold. A lie, of course.
The miller’s daughter carried the tattered card with her, pressed into her soft hand by her father on the last day she ever saw him, with the wish that it would bring her more luck than it ever had him. They said she kept the token tucked away at her breast, but even its well-meaning worn paper edges could not grant her father’s promise to the Earl. When he brought her bales of hay to turn to riches, the strands turned on the wheel, brittle and worthless, snapped off too easily and fell to the stone floor, light as a feather—as straw.
The Earl was a man known for his kindness, but even the miller’s daughter had heard of how the promise of gold made even the most generous souls desperate, and desperate men were none too inclined to forgive deceit. She had read as much in her father’s watery gaze, his trembling fingers, his wish for luck, because, truly, there was only luck left, only wishes whispered against the naked flame of a candle. There was no window in her chamber to let her see the stars, else she might have wished on them, and the story might have run differently, then.
“Hello, dearie,” a voice had said close behind her, so close that it had shivered in her ear and down through her spine. She had coiled away. It was no fairy that heard her wish.
“Did I frighten you?” asked the imp, and his eyes shone an earthy green against the orange glow of the flame. “Forgive me,” he said, and placed a filthy palm against the bust of his silken garments. He moved towards the wheel, an almost feminine grace in his wiry frame, picked up a single strand of straw, and span it. When he returned his attention to the miller’s daughter, she did not shrink from him this time as he tied it at her neck. It was cold against her skin, gleamed from her chest in the light. Golden.
“Who are you?” asked the miller’s daughter.
The imp answered with a thin-lipped smile, but not a name.
“Will you help me?” she asked this time.
“If you will help me,” the imp agreed.
For three nights the imp returned to her, sat at her wheel and whistled an old song as threads of gold coiled at the spool and yet more pooled at his tapping feet. The price of so much gold would be high, but she could think of nothing she would not sacrifice for the comfort of her ailing father.
In the mornings, the imp would vanish as quickly as he had come, and the Earl would return, run the treasure across his palms and smile. On the third morning, he promised to take her as his wife, and that she and her father, and the rest of their family too, would never know anything less than the most blissful comforts, that she would never need spin again and that he and his aching bones could finally get the rest they so needed.
She kissed the queen of hearts on the faded lines that drew her face, and accepted the Earl’s hand.
She would not see the imp again until nine months after the night of her nuptials, when he came to collect. He demanded her child, the wriggling babe that suckled at her breast, a beautiful girl with eyes already darkening. But she, the miller’s daughter knew now, could not be bought for all the gold in any world, spun from straw or dug from the earth—not even whole kingdoms touched by Midas. The imp would not have her.
Some say the imp recognised the light of a parent’s love behind her eyes, that he had once lost a child too and the pain of it is what bore him onwards, and that that is why he agreed to strike a new deal with her. Others say it was that he thought he could not lose and merely wished to torture her, to hold her up with false hope only to aggravate her pain further when the child, indeed, became his. But he gave her a chance—or three chances, really—to guess the name that he had never offered her, three attempts to sound a single word that could make the child hers forever.
The miller’s daughter had learned from hers and her father’s mistakes, however, and insisted they each sign a contract, a roll of parchment clearly stating the terms of their agreement. The imp, so certain of his impending victory, agreed, conjured the parchment from his right hand and a quill from his left, and was the first to mark the bond with a flourish of his wrist before handing it to her, where she followed suit.
“Your name,” the miller’s daughter said, as the imp rolled the parchment and slipped it into his waistcoat, “is Rumpelstiltskin.”
The name echoed off the stone walls of her chamber like a curse word. Realising how he had been tricked, the imp cried a horrible shriek that was heard throughout the castle, crashed a fist so hard against the infant’s cradle that the wood splintered and split right down the middle, and he swore that if the child would not be his then her heart would never know happiness, and if it ever dared to love then such love would rot it where it beat in her chest.
They say the miller went missing, not long after that. His gifts from the Earl were found abandoned in the home he once shared with his daughter, with not a trace of life to be found, but for a small snail crushed into the carpet.
The miller’s daughter, knowing now the true power of a name, named her own daughter for a queen: Regina.
“They call her the fairest in all the land, the girl who escaped the clutches of the Dark One,” the gamekeeper’s son concluded. “And they say that beneath her beauty lies something rotten, cursed flesh, the misery of a thousand lifetimes. And she lives in that castle.”
The gamekeeper’s son pointed to the towering grey building.
Daniel shrugged. “It’s just a story,” he said. “That’s all.”
Regina’s father said that her mother had once possessed the softest touch of any woman he had ever known, before she turned her hand to the magic that roughened her palms and swelled her joints. It was an almost cruel tale to tell, when such magic had made the once lax leather of his belts curl around her and all but slice her flesh open right in front of him, but he wrapped his gentle arms around her aching body and whispered the story against her shoulder in ragged breaths that sounded almost like a prayer for forgiveness. Sometimes, to forgive was all she had the power to do.
His apology was interrupted by her mother sounding his name from across the room. He pulled away from her instantly, and at a single sharp look from his wife, left the room with one final round-eyed glance back.
“Regina,” Cora exhaled.
“Mother,” Regina said, averting her eyes to the floor.
Regina heard the sound of her feet against the rug, felt her mattress move under Cora’s weight as she sat down beside her. A calloused fingertip brushed lightly against her forehead as she swept a strand of hair out of Regina’s face.
“Look at me, Regina,” she said.
Regina looked up to see her mother frowning, her mouth an angry thin line.
“I don’t want to hurt you, dear,” she said, running her hand down the side of Regina’s face until it reached her jaw, where she lifted it gently.
“You are such a beautiful young girl,” Cora said, running a thumb across her still raw cheek from where she had been struck by a silk-gloved hand. Even now, the brief contact made her wince. Cora did not often strike her directly, not with her hands—that part was newer, reserved for a particular kind of anger. “But your insolence does not become you. No man will marry a woman who does not know her place.”
“Daddy says someone will love me for who I am,” Regina murmured, hardly believing that she was daring to argue, even if so meekly. She clenched her jaw, readying herself for her mother’s next admonishment.
The curious thing was that her mother’s face almost seemed to soften at her words. She even looked scared. The hand she had at Regina’s chin lowered, and came to rest on her chest, wherein her heartbeat had quickened.
“Your father and his stories,” Cora sighed. “Sometimes,” she began, and then fell silent for a beat, her eyes trained where her hand sat at Regina’s breast. “Love is weakness, Regina. It won’t make you happy, in the end.”
It was all very well, Cora disapproving of the tales her husband told, but she always left her own unfinished—unstarted, even. The most Regina ever got from her were allusions.
“Get some sleep now, Regina,” Cora ordered, her softness evaporating as quickly as it had appeared. “No one will marry you if you look tired.”
The sun shone brightly above the grounds by their tree. That was how he had come to think of it: their tree—a daring thought for a boy with nothing to his name but the yellowing shirt on his back. But if he could have lain claim to anything, it would have been every inch of that tree, from the thick roots that cracked the ground to the deep low curve of its boughs—and he would have shared it all with her. He could have died there—by Regina’s side, sheltered beneath the tree’s branches where flecks of sunlight peeked through the leaves and danced a pattern across her cheeks—and he would have found it hard to be sorry.
Their tree. It could have stood there for a hundred years, and maybe it would for a hundred more. As for them, they had an hour today, maybe one stolen moment tomorrow pressed up against the rough bark of its years-fattened trunk. He wondered if the tree’s groaning timbers remembered the birds that once slept in its branches, if it would remember them in the years to come when their bones would sleep in the ground at its feet. If he had ever learned to write, he might have carved their names there, that they might not be forgotten.
“I think I want to be buried here,” he said. “When I die.”
Regina hummed lightly, leaning over and stopping his mouth with a kiss. “Don’t speak of such things.”
Daniel laughed, sat up enough to rest on his elbows and looked out to the horizon. Mist rolled over the slopes of Firefly Hill; a storm brewed in the distance. It would be here by nightfall, the rain, when Regina was sheltered in her tower and he was shut away in the servants’ quarters, the whole stretch of the castle between them. On a clearer day, Daniel thought, he would take her to the peak of Firefly Hill, show her how small the breadth of the castle looked from afar, how all people became like ants, even her mother.
“You know, you’re not anything like what they s—” he began, then faltered. “What I expected.”
But Regina was too smart for him—though he knew that already—and caught his original comment behind the words he actually spoke.
“What do they say I’m like?” she asked.
“There are rumours,” Daniel admitted—because if he couldn’t speak freely with her, then what was the point of all this—“that your beauty is like the gold from your mother’s dowry.”
Regina raised her eyebrows.
“That it’s just the effects of magic, and that its cost is dear. That beneath… you are cursed. They say rotten, sometimes. It’s why you have so few suitors.”
“Then perhaps such rumours are a blessing,” Regina sighed, resting her head back on the grassy bank. “But you don’t believe them?”
“How could I?”
Regina graced her fingertips over blades of grass until they found his hand where it rested nearby, and locked their fingers together.
“You are beautiful though,” he told her.
She shushed him, her cheeks flushing. He rolled onto his side, and reached out to cup her face in his hands.
“It’s true,” he insisted. “That’s the only part they got right. You really are the fairest in all the land.”
And she smiled for a moment and then dared to reply, “I love you.”
The years of her marriage were a patchwork of her own insufficiencies. The stitches were weak; the memory of the dead wife of the King slept restlessly in the seams. The incomparably beautiful dead queen.
For all of Cora’s provisions, all the plans that had spanned Regina’s entire life, she did not think to prepare her for what would be expected of her on her wedding night. Under Leopold’s unexpected weight, Regina was crushed. She pressed her hands against his chest; the rough silver hairs there curled between her fingers. The ones on his chin scratched against her face, turning his kiss into an insult.
(Daniel had always been so very young. It’s strange how she only really realised this later, when she had the touch of an old man to compare with his. Now that she had come to think of it, Regina didn’t even suppose Daniel could have grown a beard as thick as Leopold’s if he had tried.)
Leopold spilled the name of the dead queen into her with a heavy grunt. When he left for his own chamber moments later, she bled it into the sheets.
After breakfast the next morning, Snow White grinned at her from across the table, and then ran around it to meet her, grasping her hand tightly.
“You look beautiful,” she said. “I am so glad you’re here.”
With some effort, Regina conjured a smile from somewhere within her, and stared at the lovely, beaming face of the child that couldn’t keep a secret. They said she was a mirror of her mother already, that the comeliness of the dead queen resounded through her.
(Perhaps Daniel had been wrong about beauty. Perhaps it really did only ever conceal a sleeping monster.)
“Me too,” Regina said. Her voice was hollow.
She’s still cleaning up when David comes back less than an hour later. This part, the aftermath, was always easier before, when she had servants or magic. There’s her housekeeper now, of course—a noblewoman from the old world knocked off her pedestal who had been nothing to Regina, but… well, the curse was for everyone—but there’s no explaining away the dull red smear of wine across the wallpaper and Regina just knows she won’t be able to bear the inevitable stares. It’s one of the consequences of leaving them all with at least a little of themselves: they all still know how to judge her.
She might have had some chance at keeping up appearances if he’d knocked a little louder, but she’s too absorbed in gingerly picking at the shards of glass to hear him coming. He’d accidentally left the door on the latch, leaving in as much of a hurry as he had, and he’s at the steps already when he says her name.
“Regina.” It’s soft enough, but she still jerks suddenly in response, and slices the tip of her finger on a sliver of the wine glass’s stem.
“David!” she says, instinctually taking the finger into her mouth and tasting the metal of her blood roll over her tongue, the stinging pain pulsing in her fingertip. It’s not entirely unwelcome, the sharp, focussed feeling, the raw reminder of her own heartbeat. It’s better than the nothing everywhere else, somehow. It is something.
Oh. That is a thought she has had to quash before.
“What happened?” David asks, already crouching beside her with his pale eyes shining with concern, reaching out a hand towards the glass himself.
Regina stops it with her own uninjured hand. The contact, the back of her fingers against his bare wrist, is brief, but it’s enough to rain that heady silence, the awkwardly frozen stances of before back down on them.
David softly clears his throat.
“It’s nothing, David, really,” Regina manages. “Just an accident. I’ve got the mess covered; there’s no sense in us both… getting hurt.”
And somewhere beneath it all Regina almost smiles at the irony of her own words, but can’t quite manage even that, because there had been sense in hurting them all—there had been justice, and what greater sense was there than that?
David’s eyes flit from where the frame still hangs, down the pale splash of colour on the walls and back to Regina again. If he looks like he wants to probe the obvious issue at hand, it dies quickly and he smiles sideways. (It reaches his eyes.)
“Of course,” he says. “I just wanted to… I left so quickly earlier. I just wanted to make sure we were okay.”
There’s something familiar about David, something that reminds her of something distant, unidentifiable, like a forgotten word lingering on the tip of her tongue while her mouth can’t quite seem to form the sound. It’s not Charming: he had been little more to her than a symbol of all her losses and all of Snow’s triumphs, not someone she’d known well enough to recognise even if all this were his true self shining through. She knows this David Nolan far better than she had the reluctant prince, with his broken brain and his ceaseless doubts, the charismatic cartoon devil on his shoulder, and his ever-fumbling attempts to try and try. Regina, despite all better judgements, finds herself liking him for that strange familiarity, for his soft gaze, his naïve desire to trust and his quiet determination to be better. It’s Snow—Mary Margaret, even—who keeps giving up on them entirely, here, after all. Regina almost wants to tell him that, but… Well. They are who they are. She keeps it in.
Instead, she brushes down her skirt and stands up straight, and David’s pushing himself up from where he’s crouched immediately after.
“We’re fine, David,” she says. Her finger throbs as if in protest.
But then David eyes the mirror’s frame again, and all those doubts with which Regina had so delighted in designing to plague him turn on her.
“That wasn’t… was that because of what happened earlier? Is that because of me?”
“No, don’t be… I told you it was an accident.”
He nods, but he’s frowning like he knows how full of shit she is, and she almost wants to laugh because finally someone is seeing right through her. Strange, how there’s part of her that wants that, that wants the exact opposite of what she has so carefully crafted.
“Right, well. Um. We should talk about it anyway.”
“David, please. There’s no need.”
“It’s not that you’re not… attractive,” he persists anyway, glancing at the mirror so quickly he might not even be aware he’s doing it. And there it is.
Regina purses her lips and makes the mistake of averting her eyes to the floor. She catches a glimpse of her own dark eye staring back in a piece of the mirror, but it’s deformed like a drop of water rippling across her reflection in the surface of a still pool. She presses her eyes shut, at that, breathes in deeply.
“This really isn’t necessary,” she says, spreading a deliberate smile across her face and looking back towards David.
“I’m doing this all wrong,” David sighs. “I just wanted you to make sure you know I meant what I said earlier. I like being friends.”
“I’ve got it. Thank you, David.”
“I shouldn’t have left as quickly as I did.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“But I am,” he says. “Worried about it, I mean. I think you think people are only nice to you when they… want something. And maybe they are, but… that’s not what I was doing, Regina.”
Oh, God. Regina can’t think of anything to say to that. She can only will that he’s got everything off his chest now so they can move on.
Of course he hasn’t. “I just mean that… you’re a good person, Regina. And Henry’s a good kid; he’ll see that eventually.”
“It’s getting late,” she blurts, and thank the gods her instincts are kicking in again and are trying to get her out of this conversation. She really doesn’t need a man she cursed to eternal misery reminding her of her inner decency. That kind of irony is only sweet when she’s the one dishing it out. “Didn’t you say you had an early start tomorrow?”
“Oh, right. Yeah, of course,” David says, all of his sheepishness returned to him. “I’m sorry, Regina, I didn’t mean to overstep or—“
“David. Really, stop apologising. You haven’t done anything wrong. But my son will be home soon and there’s a safety hazard all over the floor.”
He smiles. “Right, sor—Um. I mean—I’ll get going then. Thanks again for dinner and everything.”
“Well, thank you for being… a friend.”
He looks relieved. “Okay. Good. I’ll, um, see you soon then?”
“I look forward to it.”
It’s only as he’s leaving, as the door swings shut behind him—locking, this time—that Regina realises who he’s been the mirror of all evening. She manages to finally whisper the word that had been bursting to be recalled, the only other man who had ever been so certain she was more than she is, in whose name she had damned her whole world.
And it’s cruel, knowing now how much David is an echo of Daniel, how she and Snow had loved so similarly, and yet Snow’s pain never quite seems to balance the scales.