Who lives and who dies?
Who holds on to all our lives?
Time and time and time again,
Will they tell your story in the end?
—The Roots, Who Tells Your Story
She thought she was ready.
She promised herself she would be ready.
But at the first sound of footsteps on the tower stairs, Regina bolts upright with vomit rising in the back of her throat, her heart pounding.
She’s not ready. She’d been sitting on the dusty ground watching a spider spin its web in the corner of her cell. Now, she races to the bench by the narrow window, sitting with her back straight and her hands folded—the way her mother taught her.
They will not see her weakness. They will not see her beg. She will deny them that pleasure if it is the last thing she does.
She looks out the window to stop herself from glancing at the top of the stairs. For the first time in over a week, it’s sunny outside—yet another turn of bad luck. She’d hoped for rain on her execution day. Anything to spoil the pleasure of the throngs that will surely gather, eager to witness her demise.
By now, she really should be used to not getting what she wants.
Regina forces herself to not turn her head until the guard reaches the top of the staircase. He’s unarmed, and his heavy black armor is sliding around on his scrawny frame. This must be Snow and Charming’s final insult. Without her magic, Regina has no way of fighting off even one puny, defenseless guard. She’s helpless, and they know it.
The guard removes his helmet to reveal… long blonde hair and a perky face. A woman. At least Regina doesn't recognize her, though she doesn’t doubt that her guards switched sides after she was captured.
The guard removes her chestplate to reveal another surprise: green fairy wings. So, Snow is sending fairies to do her dirty work. Another humiliation, no doubt. Regina pushes down her rage and contorts her face into a smile. “Well, well. What brings you here so early?” she asks, her voice as sickeningly pleasant as she can make it.
“Early?” The fairy tilts her head in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
The obvious mockery gnaws at Regina’s patience, and she drops the facade. “Snow said the execution would be at noon. I realize you’re eager to kill me, but you could have at least kept your word. Isn’t that what you heroes are supposed to do?”
“I’m not here to kill you,” the fairy says. “My name is Tinkerbell. I’m your fairy godmother.”
Fairy godmother? Regina stares at her earnest face, framed by the dusty bars of the prison cell. “In that case, you’re late.”
“I know. I’m sorry,” Tinkerbell says.
“Apology not accepted. Now tell me what you want from me, or get out of here.”
“I’m here to free you, of course.”
Regina laughs before she can stop herself. It’s not a joyful laugh—more of a cackle, but hoarse and lacking her typical flair. “Why the hell would you do that?”
Tinkerbell’s eyes widen, clearly in shock that someone would dare question her good intentions. “Because you never got the chance to be the hero you were always meant to be.”
What pathetic nonsense is this? “I got my chances,” Regina says, slipping closer to the bars and lowering her voice to a menacing growl. “And I made my choices. What makes you so sure I was meant for anything more than this?” She waves her hands to indicate the prison surrounding her.
“The book does,” Tinkerbell says, as though that should mean anything to Regina.
“Book? What book?”
“The Blue Fairy has it in her quarters. I was just looking for my wand. She took it away from me, and I wanted it back, because I needed to cast a spell, and—”
“Get to the point. I don’t have all day.” Literally.
“And I saw this book, and I read it. All of the heroes, all the true love stories, they’re all in there. And the heroes, they always get happy endings! The villains never do. They always die,” Tinkerbell says, eyes widening as though she’s imparted a great secret.
“And let me guess,” Regina says, raising a tired eyebrow. “I’m a villain?”
Tinkerbell nods so vigorously, Regina wonders if her dainty little head will pop off. Sadly, it doesn't. “The book decides who’s a hero and who’s a villain! It’s why nothing ever worked out for you. None of your evil plans ever succeeded, did they?”
Regina bristles. “I was doing just fine until—”
“Until you were captured, imprisoned, and sentenced to execution?” Tinkerbell asks.
She has a point about that, but Regina’s far from convinced. “I didn’t lose because of some mysterious book. I lost because I allowed myself to be taken by surprise.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered if you had done it differently,” Tinkerbell says. “Sooner or later, your destiny would have come for you.”
It’s tempting to believe that her situation isn’t entirely her fault, that there were larger forces at play. But Regina’s never been one to blame someone or something else for her own poor decision-making, whether that’s another person or the hand of the universe.
“Think about it,” Tinkerbell says. “Have you ever heard of a villain who found happiness? The heroes always win.”
It’s true. Regina’s known a handful of villains who were merely banished to some horrible realm, or stripped of their power and made to live alone. Most are not so lucky. But if she’s a villain, as everyone believes, then what makes her any different? “This is a cruel joke. Or a trap.”
“If I wanted you trapped, all I’d have to do is leave you where you are now,” Tinkerbell says. “I still can, you know.”
Regina narrows her eyes. “No. If you’re here helping me, it means you’re trying to escape something even less pleasant.”
“Of course not!” Tinkerbell says, but her gaze shifts so that she’s no longer meeting Regina’s eyes. Regina smiles in satisfaction.
“Tell me, what did you do to incur the wrath of the Blue Fairy? Step on a flower? Forget to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you?’” Regina gasps in mock horror, clutching a hand to her chest. “Did you wear the wrong colour gown to dinner?”
“She saw me find the book,” Tinkerbell mumbles. “I’m… sort of on probation.”
“And your punishment was to help the Evil Queen. How sad for you.”
“No! I wasn’t assigned to help you at all. They don’t even know I’m here.”
“You came in secret?” Regina’s almost impressed. Sneaking off from a band of fairies is brave… and foolish. Fairies are not known for leniency among their own kind. “Why the hell would you do that?”
“Because I found this,” Tinkerbell says, reaching into her pocket and rummaging around. Regina expects her to pull out some sort of prophecy or curse, something to justify the urgency in her eyes.
Instead, Tinkerbell produces a neatly folded sheet of parchment, which she unfolds to reveal a drawing. Regina’s too far away to see the picture clearly, and stepping closer would imply curiosity, would imply weakness. As far as she can make out, it’s a picture of a man and a woman, vaguely familiar, who are kissing in what looks to be a tavern.
“What is this supposed to mean?” Regina asks sharply. If this is some sort of taunt, it’s awfully weak. She’s already well aware that others have gotten their happy endings while she has not. “Who are these people?”
“Don’t you see? That’s you,” Tinkerbell says, pointing at the woman, who does look somewhat like Regina. “And that,” Tinkerbell points at the man, “is your soulmate.”
The word sinks into Regina’s consciousness slowly, the way a stone sinks into water. “Only heroes have soulmates. Everyone knows that.”
“Don’t you see, Regina? You were always meant to be the hero. For some reason, there must have been a mistake, and you never got a fairy godmother to bring you to your soulmate. Your destiny went wrong. But you can fix it!”
“If you fall in love with your soulmate, that will fix your destiny! Only true love is powerful enough to let someone rewrite their fate.”
Tinkerbell rambles on about love and fate and destiny and soulmates. Regina takes in none of it. She’s still fixated on the picture of two people kissing in a tavern, the picture that should be impossible.
How could this have happened? She’s a villain. Everyone says so. If what the fairy is saying about villains is true, Regina forfeited her right to happiness when she turned towards darkness all those years ago.
Except… the page still exists. The fairy still found it. If Regina really was meant to be the hero, then maybe it isn’t too late.
Maybe she doesn’t have to die.
Regina looks up from the page to see that Tinkerbell hasn’t stopped talking.
“You can become the hero you were always meant to be! You just need to find Robin.”
“Robin?” Then Regina remembers where she’s seen that face: the Wanted posters currently plastered on every tree in a 50-league radius, on her orders. Her small bubble of hope bursts. “Robin of Locksley? You’re telling me my soulmate is the most notorious outlaw in the realm?”
“He’s not a bad person, really! He’s just… misguided,” Tinkerbell says, hands fluttering. “He’s clever, he’s quick, he’s nimble, he’s—”
“A giant pain in my ass. No matter where I traveled, how many guards I brought with me, somehow he was always there, stealing from right under my nose. Getting in my way.”
“Because fate was bringing you together!”
If Tinkerbell really believes that, she’s more naïve than Regina realized. Which is truly saying something. “Or because I’m a queen with jewels and gold and he’s a thief with no moral compass.”
“You’re one to talk about lacking a moral compass.” Tinkerbell shakes her head, disappointment clear on her face. “I really thought you might want to change. Don’t you want a second chance? Isn’t that better than death?”
“There are no second chances. Not for me.” She’d learned that lesson many, many times. From her mother, of course, but mostly from Snow White—that so-called hero who dangled redemption in front of her like a carrot in front of a mule, only to snatch it away once she realized Regina would never measure up to her hypocritical standards.
“If you can’t take a chance for your own sake, do it for his,” Tinkerbell pleads. “He has no way to be happy without you. His life was ruined just as much as yours.”
Just as much as hers? That’s difficult to believe, unless Robin has also been imprisoned and sentenced to death. Which, frankly, would serve him right.
And yet, Regina’s curiosity is piqued. “If Robin’s life is truly so miserable, why didn’t you approach him with this ludicrous offer? Surely you couldn’t have thought I would be the more agreeable of the two of us.”
Tinkerbell hesitates. “Well, there’s a tiny problem.”
Nausea creeps into Regina’s stomach. “He ran, didn’t he? When you told him he’s my soulmate.”
“No! No, it’s nothing like that.” Tinkerbell shakes her head. “I actually haven’t told him.”
“Then what is the problem?” Regina asks, her suspicions rising further.
Tinkerbell takes a deep breath before answering. “Robin is not here,” she says, as though it’s a horrible confession.
Regina rolls her eyes. “I can see that.”
“I don’t mean that he’s not in this room.” Tinkerbell wrings her delicate hands. “Robin is actually not in this… realm.”
“You can’t be serious,” Regina says, raising her eyebrows.
“I tried to find him,” Tinkerbell says desperately, “but I was too late. He’s gone.”
Crossing realms is never an easy task. If Robin is in the wrong realm, it’s unlikely he’s there for a vacation. “So where is he?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” This gets better and better.
“All the pixie dust can tell me is that he fell through a portal at Lake Nostos, some time ago. No one knows exactly where the portal goes. All we know is that in the realm it leads to, there are no happy endings. Robin must be in great danger,” Tinkerbell says, her eyes wide.
“And you want me to embark on a rescue mission? You may not have noticed this, but I don’t do heroic quests. Especially for criminals I’ve never met. I’m not going to die in another realm for some stranger when I can die perfectly well right here.”
Tinkerbell looks scandalized. “But he’s your soulmate! You must want to help him. You’re not a bad person, not deep down.”
When Regina rolls her eyes, Tinkerbell only becomes more animated. “Come on! You’re a person like any other! You must have hopes, and dreams, and regrets…”
Well, she’s not wrong about that. Regina shuffles closer to the bars and hangs her head. “Come to think of it, I do have one regret,” she says quietly.
“What is it? Murder? Vengeance? Torture?” Tinkerbell looks at her expectantly.
Regina looks around her cell. “I regret lowering the cleaning budget for the prisons. This place is filthy,” she says in her normal voice.
Tinkerbell just sighs. “I know you’re lying. There’s a hero in you, Regina. You just have to find it.”
“You’re wrong,” Regina says. “I have no desire to be a hero.”
“Everyone wants to be a hero,” Tinkerbell says softly. When Regina shakes her head, she says, “You must have wanted it at some point. When did you stop?”
“When I realized it would never get me anything,” Regina says. “It would never make me happy.” The words come out bitter.
“And being a villain made you happy?” Tinkerbell asks.
Regina wants to say that yes, it made her happy, but even she cannot carry off a lie that bold. “It made me strong,” she says instead. “That was close enough.”
“It made you weak. Only love can make you strong.”
“Love is weakness.” It’s her mother’s line, but as Regina says it she thinks instead of her father, the only person who has ever truly loved her and still the weakest person she knows.
“Love is not weakness. True love is magic, the most powerful magic of all!” Tinkerbell holds up the page with Regina kissing Robin as though it’s proof. “Finding Robin is the only way you can be happy.”
When she sees Regina is not moved, Tinkerbell changes tack. “Come on, what do you have to lose?”
The truth is, Regina has nothing left to lose. She’s already lost her power, her magic, and her dignity. Soon, she will lose her life. There’s no reason to prolong the inevitable by embarking on a wild-goose chase to another realm only to be eaten by a carnivorous mushroom or some other such nonsense.
Robin’s fate is not her problem. She’s no hero, ready to gallivant off into the unknown to save a stranger—soulmate or not. She turns away from the bars with finality. Tinkerbell huffs behind her, sounding less angry than disappointed.
Regina means to sit by the window again, at least until Tinkerbell leaves, but she’s too agitated. Instead, she paces the length of the small room, which is much brighter than it had been when Tinkerbell arrived. Noon is approaching.
There’s a rustle of paper from behind her. Regina looks back to see that Tinkerbell has poked the page with her and Robin kissing through the bars and slid it towards her. She walks over and snatches up the paper, intending to push it back through, but there’s no point. Tinkerbell has walked away and is no longer looking at her.
Before she can stop herself, Regina examines the page in her hand. The version of her in the picture is much younger, probably in her early twenties. Still more a girl than anything. And she’s happy, deliriously so. Happier than the real Regina has ever been, although that’s hardly saying much.
Of course she would be taken in by all of Tinkerbell’s fairy nonsense, her promises of soulmates and happy endings. Of course she would leap at the chance to save some no-good, rotten thief who has never caused her anything but grief. The girl in the picture still wants to be a hero.
Regina doesn’t want to know what the girl in the picture would say if she saw her now.
It’s a terrible idea, but Regina slowly finds herself nodding. “All right.”
Tinkerbell whirls around. “You’ll do it?” she asks, her eyes shining. “You’ll come with me?”
“I just said I would, didn’t I?” Regina snaps. “Now get me out of here before I change my mind.”
To her credit, Tinkerbell planned their escape well. Using her wand and a pouch of pixie dust, she was able to put all the guards to sleep and steal a pair of horses. Now, she uses it to melt the iron bars of the cell, which fall away like water. Regina never put much stock in pixie dust, but now it’s clear why the fairies guard it so closely.
The journey to Lake Nostos, which would normally take only forty-five minutes on horseback, takes almost two hours because they keep hiding from other travelers. More than a few times, they’re nearly caught and Tinkerbell uses some precious pixie dust to cloak them. Before they’re even halfway through their journey, the pouch of dust is dangerously thin, as is Regina’s patience.
Despite that, Regina enjoys the ride. It’s been a long time since she was on horseback with her hair tied back in a simple loose ponytail and no armor weighing her down. And after days in prison, the scent of pine needles and the breeze on her face are more welcome than ever.
“So where exactly is this portal going to take me?” Regina asks once they seem to be in the clear.
“We don’t know much about the realm,” Tinkerbell says. “No one who’s travelled there has ever made it back alive.”
“What makes you think I’ll succeed?” Regina asks. “Or is this just another death trap?”
“Don’t worry,” Tinkerbell says. “I’m coming with you. I’m going to make sure you’re safe.”
Regina looks over at her companion, who looks back at her kindly—and then almost drives her pony into a tree. “That’s reassuring.”
“I know,” Tinkerbell says, then frowns. “Wait. You were being sarcastic.”
“Of course not.”
“You did it again! Stop that.”
Regina navigates her horse around a copse of scraggly trees. “Why are you so eager to come with me, anyway? Is fairy probation so terrible?”
In her peripheral vision, Tinkerbell shrugs. “It’s more than that. I’ve always felt that the fairies could be doing more for people, you know? Not just the heroes. And I’ve never been much good at most of the fairy jobs, so I thought—”
“Never mind,” Regina says, already regretting the question. “I prefer silence.”
Tinkerbell huffs beside her, but thankfully, she stops talking.
When they finally reach the lake, Tinkerbell frowns in confusion. “There was a portal here a week ago. I saw it.”
Regina gestures to the smooth expanse of water. “Well, there doesn’t seem to be one now.”
“I can make one. Just let me remember the steps.” Tinkerbell screws her face up, concentrating. “I think I have to carve the sigil of Valdmir—no, the herald of Merlin…”
“You start with the symbol of Ehwaz,” Regina says, rolling her eyes. “It’s a universal symbol for transportation. Then, beside it, you carve the sign of Iagu. And then—”
“You know how to make a portal? From scratch?” Tinkerbell asks in surprise.
Regina scoffs. “I studied magic for years. I know how to do many things.”
“It’s a closely guarded fairy secret,” Tinkerbell says, narrowing her eyes.
“It’s also common knowledge among practitioners of advanced magic. Believe it or not, you fairies are not so clever as you think.”
Regina assumes they’ll get started on creating the portal right away. Instead, Tinkerbell points her wand at Regina. “Close your eyes and think of your favourite outfit.”
“Seriously? Don’t we have bigger problems than what I’m wearing?”
“You can’t meet Robin in that.” Tinkerbell gestures at Regina’s dirty, shapeless prison gown.
“I suppose not,” Regina says grudgingly.
“Besides, it’s traditional,” Tinkerbell says.
Regina sighs, closes her eyes, and pictures the outfit that gives her the most comfort. Tinkerbell’s magic ripples over her, turning scratchy cotton into smooth satin. A cold weight materializes on her chest, and Regina opens her eyes to see her favourite diamond necklace—a birthday gift from her father. Despite herself, she smiles.
Her shred of good mood vanishes when she looks at Tinkerbell, who is staring with her tiny nose wrinkled in distaste. “That’s your favourite outfit?”
Regina glares at her. “What’s wrong with this?”
“Nothing!” Tinkerbell puts up her hands. “Except… don’t you think it’s a little intimidating? I mean, that’s a lot of black.”
“It’s supposed to be intimidating. And it’s comfortable. It has pockets.”
Tinkerbell smiles uncertainly, evidently deciding the argument isn’t worth it. “Well, I’m sure Robin will love it. Although, you probably won’t run into him right away.”
“Why the hell not?”
“I don’t know where the portal’s going to come out.”
Well, Regina’s still wearing the outfit. Regardless of what she told Tinkerbell, her dress is not actually the most comfortable, but she’s certainly not about to change because a fairy thinks she should.
They kneel together by the lakeside. As the sun beats down on them, Regina traces runes in the sand with her finger, and Tinkerbell traces over them with her wand before sprinkling them with pixie dust. It’s a time-consuming process, and Tinkerbell’s not quite finished tracing when Regina sees a trail of white magic curling towards her chest. A locator spell. Her stomach clenches.
“How long will this take?”
“Just a minute,” Tinkerbell says.
Regina turns. In the distance, an army approaches on horseback. Snow and James are there, along with a platoon of archers and a tiny blue dot that must be the Blue Fairy. “We don’t have a minute.”
“Halt!” James’ shout is barely audible across the plain.
Regina glances behind her. The portal is still not ready. Their only weapon is the sword from Tinkerbell’s guard costume, which is useless at this distance.
“Ready!” Snow yells. The archers nock arrows. Regina reaches for her magic, but it’s still weak from the restraining spell they put on her in prison. The restraining spell that was meant to last until just after noon...
“Aim!” The bows rise up, pointing straight at Regina. She glances at her shadow, tries to discern what time it is. She can’t tell. Is it too early? It’s certainly too late to run, too late to duck...
The arrows fly at her, whistling through the air. Regina throws up her hands, reaches into her gut, braces herself—
Not ten feet from her, the arrows hit a purple barrier and explode into pieces, many of them catching fire before they hit the sand. The archers shout and break ranks, turning and galloping away once they see that the Evil Queen has her power back. James’ mount bucks him off in the chaos, and Snow immediately wheels her own horse around to check on him. Even the Blue Fairy reels backwards in surprise. Regina stands tall, scowls, maintains the illusion even as an echo of the impact crashes through her, making her dizzy. All magic comes with a price, and defensive magic always takes a greater toll. At least for her.
Behind her there’s a roar. Regina turns to see that the portal is finally forming, the smooth surface of the lake broken up by choppy ripples.
“Something’s wrong,” Tinkerbell says, raising her voice over the noise of the portal. “It should go faster than this.”
Regina looks back at the Blue Fairy, who is waving her wand in a complicated series of twirls. “That damn fairy is messing with us.”
“I’ll hold it steady,” Tinkerbell yells. “You go without me.” She thrusts the page into Regina’s hand and points her wand at the portal, sending a stream of green magic into its centre and calming it.
“Go without you? Are you out of your mind?” Regina shouts. The only thing worse than going to an unknown realm with this incompetent fairy would be going on her own. Without a fairy godmother at her side, what chance does a villain have in a land with no happy endings?
The Blue Fairy momentarily ceases her interference with the portal and sends a blast of magic at Regina’s shield. It hits harder than the arrows did, and although the barrier holds, Regina almost falls in the slippery sand. She shoves the page into her pocket before she drops it.
“The fairies have a saying,” Tinkerbell says. “As long as someone believes in you, you’re never alone. And I believe in you. You can fulfill your destiny, Regina, I know it. This is what you were meant to do!”
Everything in Regina screams at her to run, take her chances now that her magic is returning. If she gathers her strength, she could teleport away, find a place to hide, stay there until....
Until what? Until destiny comes for her again? Until the heroes find her, trap her, sentence her to death once more? A worse death than before, certainly. Execution by firing squad in her own courtyard is far from the worst punishment they could inflict.
Tinkerbell is right: Villains don’t get happy endings. As long as she remains in this land, without Robin, she’s doomed.
Snow’s arrow hits the magic shield, making it crackle and flicker. The impact smashes Regina in the chest, much stronger than before. She staggers backwards, struggles to reclaim her balance. She can smell blood, and when she swipes at her nose, her hand comes away red. The portal is pulling at her, the force of it trying to suck her in. She can’t take much more of this.
Still, she hesitates.
“What are you waiting for? Go!” Tinkerbell yells. The portal is finally large enough for her to jump through. Her pursuers are close enough that she can make out Snow’s determined grimace, the Blue Fairy’s cold fury.
“Stay where you are!” the Blue Fairy shouts. Her tone is commanding, but edged with agitation. She’s not as confident as she appears.
“You can do this, Regina,” Tinkerbell says, sweat pouring down her face as she strains to keep the portal open. Blue is more powerful than Tinkerbell and Regina combined, and as she approaches the portal, her interference grows exponentially stronger. Regina has only seconds.
She meets Snow’s eyes through the purple haze of the barrier. There’s a puzzled expression on Snow’s face, as if she can’t understand why Regina isn’t leaping through the portal, eager to keep fighting for her happy ending. Fighting for her life.
Snow readies yet another arrow, and the barrier falls away, the last of Regina’s strength going towards keeping herself standing. Tinkerbell is screaming in her ear, something about destiny and soulmates and ruining lives, but Regina doesn’t care. Nothing matters anymore except the two of them, standing twenty feet apart in the sand, Snow’s arrow pointed at Regina’s heart.
They look at each other steadily. Regina’s black dress is covered in sand, there’s blood dripping from her nose, and she's barely holding herself upright. Snow is cloaked in white armor and her stance is perfect, even majestic. Regina’s mother would approve.
Snow hesitates, lowers her bow but keeps her arrow nocked. Regina doesn’t move. Heroes destroy villains, everyone knows that, but Snow’s always thought herself above that sort of thing. Forcing Snow to kill her could be a satisfying end. Instead of throwing herself into a quest that will surely end in disaster, she can die knowing that her blood is on Snow’s hands.
It would be so easy, and she’s so tired.
Snow’s expression changes from puzzlement to comprehension, as though she knows why Regina isn’t taking the obvious route to freedom. She raises her bow again, more determined this time, and Regina understands: If Snow kills her now, she will not see it as murder. It will be an act of mercy, like a farmer putting down a lame horse. A kindness.
Regina doesn’t jump so much as allow herself to fall backwards into the portal. Snow’s final arrow whizzes past inches above her nose. A blast of magic explodes above her, the Blue Fairy’s last stand, but it’s too late: She’s already falling.
Just before the portal takes her, Regina sees angry clouds gathering in the sky. Apparently it will rain today after all. She allows herself a moment of petty satisfaction.
And then she sees nothing but black.