Cinderella's POV, post-act II.
Only she hadn't been awakened by a kiss.
No, she had been awakened by death and betrayal. She considered the price that she had paid well worth it, but did she have the right to benefit from the suffering of others? She had not asked for them to go through what they had, but she knew she would not have this life and this family if they had not. There were times when she would forget, watching Red and Jack playing at cards or dice in the evenings, and it seemed so normal, as if they had always lived this life together. She would remember, though, those times when the baby woke her in the middle of the night. The muffled sobs through the too-thin wall as she soothed him indicated that the boy had awoken someone else, as well.
She did not even know his name. He had always been the baker to her, and after all they had been through, she felt the time to ask "What is your name?" was long past. She only called him 'dear' - because, quite simply, he was. Then again, he always called her 'princess,' and cringed when he heard Jack or Red call her 'Cinderella.' It was a rather horrid name - a name from her nightmare days of sleeping in the ashes - but 'princess,' her title from the days of her fevered dream, was not any better.
The days were too full for her to dwell on it, thank goodness. She rose early to feed the baby and to start breakfast for the others. The baker was up before her, starting the day's bread; he would be busy all morning with that, as well as his other duties - setting up for the afternoons' baking, checking the state of supplies, tending the sleek cats that kept the mice and rats out of the flour, and taking care of customers. Custom from neighboring villages and towns was just enough to keep them going; they all were certain that, once they saw the small family living there in peace, the residents of this village would return and rebuild the place. Red and Jack would rise later, tumble down the stairs, and eat and play. It was a job in itself to get Jack to leave his daydreaming for a moment to continue repairs on the house, and to coerce Red into putting her tomboyish play aside to help Cinderella tend the vegetable gardens and small pack of livestock they had collected from the destroyed village's runaways. She thanked the heavens that the runaways had included a gentle young cow, generous with milk; the child was too young to be weaned, and although Cinderella had started to lactate from the child's continual suckling, it still was not enough to keep the boy fed.
Cinderella had, without any discussion of the subject, ended up as the child's caretaker. Red and Jack were too carefree, and the baker too busy, to care for him. Not that Cinderella minded. She had always wanted a child of her own; she had never borne one for the prince, and although it might be that one of them was barren, it might very well have just been how they coupled. After the first time, which had been as uncomfortable as she had been warned it would be, Cinderella found that she rather enjoyed coupling, and played with the act as she would any other game, to enhance her pleasure. The prince's joy had seemed to lessen as hers had increased, however; he claimed that he did not wish to harm her, but she never felt even vaguely harmed, and what good was coupling if he always spilled his seed outside of her? Still, it had been something, a warm body next to her to caress, and she missed that terribly, at times.
Options existed, of course. She knew this from the times she took a few days to go to the neighboring town for supplies, with Jack for company, leaving the child with the baker and Red. The baker always told her to enjoy herself and not hurry, as he tried to calm the child who never rested easily in his arms. The miller's son who hauled the sacks of flour into her donkey-drawn cart worked shirtless in the summer heat, and he always smiled at her with gentle welcome. Or the wine merchant, who wore fine muslin and would invite her in for a cup of chilled white on her way out. Yes, there was invitation there, so why did she never take it?
She always went home - yes, that cottage was home, at last - with some degree of haste, eager to see her own bed again, the child, the baker. That strange, butterfly feeling that had made her stomach deliciously sore whenever the prince grasped her hand or placed his lips on hers - was that love? Or was it just fevered desire, and was this sense of comfortable belonging love? She had nobody to ask; her mother's grave was silent, with the tree gone, and Red and Jack were unlikely to offer her anything useful.
Did she even have the right to desire him, as strangely tangled in his life as she was? She remembered his wife well, a fiery, vivacious woman, intelligent, strong of will and body. /Not faithful/, some part of her would nag, but she knew all too well what a spell that prince's charm would cast; she was not one to condemn a woman for bedding the man she had fallen for, certainly not when she wanted to bed that woman's husband, now.
Fairy-tales are supposed to have happier endings, aren't they? she pondered, as she sat down in her wooden chair with its goose-down cushion, sighing at the relief of resting her feet after an unusually long day's work. The boy was starting to crawl, and Red had become quite taken with him; she encouraged his rolling four-legged plods around the room by waving a rag doll she had made from brightly colored scraps of cloth. Jack sat with his back to the fire that October's cool night breezes had made necessary, his brow furrowed as he tried to learn to read from the dog-eared book he had picked up on their last trip to the village. Well, happy endings were just that - endings, static, the days in the castle that were all the same and all superficially pleasing, gilded soap bubbles instead of solid bedrock. Real life, she mused, had no happy endings until the last ending of all; strange twists, bittersweet joy, happiness that was all the more substantial for being earned.
The baby flopped onto its belly and started to cry, and Cinderella stood and picked him up. "Ah, you've worn him out, Red. Bed-time for him. And for you, too, my dear! Jack..." she tapped Jack with her foot, and he looked up, startled, as if not realizing that hours had passed since he had sat. "Put out the fire, would you?"
"Yes, ma'am!" he said, getting to his feet and kissing her on the cheek. Red delivered a too-rough hug, then tossed the rag doll in a corner and helped Jack bank the fire, with her way of helping that made every task take twice as long. Cinderella giggled at their bickering and jostling as she mounted the stairs to her room.
"I could look after him," said a voice behind her, one that jounced as the owner trotted up the stairs. She turned and smiled at a pair of earnest brown eyes. "So you can sleep better - you look tired," he continued. He quickly added, "Well, not that you look horrible... I mean, you look quite nice. I just thought you could use a good night's..." He trailed off with an uncomfortable shrug, realizing that he had no good end for the thought.
Cinderella smiled as she gently rocked the now-cooing baby. He had grown old enough to sleep through most nights, which might have prompted the baker's offer. On the other hand, perhaps something else had prompted it, and she was quite ready to explore that possibility. "I could," she replied. "Come in for a moment."
Settling the baby in the cradle in the corner of her room, tucking him in, and soothing him with a song and rocking all took some time, and the baker stood in the doorway, still, but radiating nervousness. "Please, dear, sit," she said, indicating the bed, the only place in the room to sit. He did so, uncomfortably stiff.
As soon as the boy had drifted to sleep, she walked around to the other side of the bed, slipping out of her shoes and crawling onto it. She crouched down on her knees behind the baker, and set her hands on a back that was as unbending as the wooden board he used to slide his goods in and out of the oven, and far more knotted. "You are too tense, dear," she murmured, rubbing his shoulders gently. She worked her hands, patiently, until she could feel his back start to relax, and some of the knots become unraveled. She leaned forward, put her lips to the side of his face, and kissed his cheek; his lips, when he turned his head to hers, once, twice, three times. He ducked his head, afterwards, and put her arms aside, standing.
"I'm sorry... princess," he said, quietly. "I - am tired."
She looked down at her own hands. "My name is Ella. That's who I was, back before the cinders and the princess. I think I'd rather like to be her again." She looked up in time to catch him looking back at her from the doorway; he smiled shyly, nodded, and left, closing the door quietly behind him.
She undressed and slipped under the covers. Yes, this was no fairy-tale, where a kiss turns her baker into a prince, and they all live happily ever after. Thank the powers for that. No, her baker would remain a baker, and a kiss would be sweetness enough in itself, without magic or dwarves or golden harps. There would be no endings - instead, there would be a future, and there would be hope.
No princess could have more than that, she thought as she fell asleep.