A/N: Thank you so much to Dream Unique for beta reading this and for your feedback and suggestions.
Emily Blunt and James Corden apparently referred to the baker and his wife as Geoff and Margery while on set, so I decided to run with those names here.
Written for the If You Dare Challenge for the prompt 'Where I Belong'.
The crowd jostled around her as they clambered to get a better view of the procession. A particularly smelly man intruded into her personal space in his attempts to manoeuvre his young daughter into a better position, and she winced at the stench. One thing that she was still getting used to about living as a peasant was the general lack of hygiene; even when she'd been treated like a slave in her childhood home, they'd expected her to be relatively clean and presentable so as not to sully the house. Alas, the bakery's customers were not always afforded that luxury.
Pain rushed through her as a memory of her stepmother's proclivity for mind games surfaced. On a rainy day a few short weeks after Ella's father had died, after the girl was given responsibility over most household tasks but before she had realised the full extent of her new guardian's relentless cruelty, the woman had suggested that she let some of her bird friends stay in her room for overnight. The offer had been made under a false veneer of compassion, with the only proviso being that the girl had to clean up any mess they made. Ella, gladdened by the prospect of having company and of protecting her friends from the rain, had gratefully accepted. That night, however, her stepmother had opened her bedroom door while she was asleep and tried to entice the birds out of the room. When they had proved immovable, she had instead lured the cat in. Ella had woken to the sound of panicked chirps and threatening hisses as Lucifer tried to catch her friends; if it hadn't been for her speed at opening the window to let them out, he would have likely succeeded. That had been the moment that the horror of her new life had truly hit her.
Time had dulled the memory's edges, but it still cut her as it forced its way to the surface. You know better than to think about such things, she scolded herself as she drew closer to her husband, taking comfort in the arm he wrapped around her shoulders.
"Are you sure you're up to this?" he asked, tilting his head towards her ear so that no one could overhear him. The chance that anyone was paying enough attention to them to care about his words was exceptionally slim, but he didn't want to risk it. "The children would understand if we needed to leave early."
"I don't know," she admitted, trying to ignore the tingles his warm breath was spreading across her neck like butter on bread, "but I have to be here for it. It wouldn't feel right otherwise."
Geoffrey eyed her in concern. "Perhaps we should go to that little knoll after all. It's further away, but we could still see, and we would avoid the crowd."
"I'm fine," Ella reassured him, reaching a hand up to grasp his. "There's really no need to worry."
Trumpets trilled out the arrival of the entourage, and the crowd became pushier in response. A pair of guards led the march, their left hands gripping the hilt of their swords in a ceremonial display of power. The carriage followed them with a sedateness that juxtaposed with the crowd's bustling activity. As the bride and groom looked out at the people, waving politely in acknowledgement of their presence, Ella couldn't help but remember when she was the one housed within the moving vehicle on the way to her wedding. She had been so hopeful of the life awaiting her, so enamoured with the prince who had scoured a kingdom to find her, so naïve in thinking that it was all going to work out like one of the fairy-tales her parents used to tell her when she was young.
Soon, both the carriage and its protectors had reached their destination. The land's charming prince climbed out of the carriage before holding out his arm to assist his lady friend. A young woman with hair as yellow as corn – No, not quite, Ella thought, remembering her late sister-in-law – accepted it as she too disembarked. She looked out at the gathering of townsfolk with a kind smile but, as the sunlight lit up her violet eyes in a display that made the people around Ella and the baker collectively suck in a deep breath, she started to blink furiously as if she was not used to its rays.
"Is she alright?" Geoff asked, frowning in concern.
"The royal family makes a habit of rescuing damsels in distress," Ella told him. "It endears them to the people, and it gives them a chance to – Well, she wouldn't be the first young woman a prince has rescued and then married."
Geoff was about to answer when the prince's voice boomed out across the clearing. "My dear people," he began, "this is not the first time I've stood before you to be wed. A mere year ago, when the giantess attacked and ransacked our kingdom, my beloved first wife declared that she would not leave the town until everyone was safe. She risked her life to slay the giant and, tragically, she was asked to pay her wager."
"May she rest in peace," the townsfolk chanted as they bowed their heads in recognition of her deeds. Awkwardly, Ella and Geoff copied their movements.
As she straightened herself up again, even though she was just one face among many, the prince who was once hers met her gaze. Ella expected him to pretend he hadn't seen her; their whole charade – the secret divorce on the grounds of infidelity and then the public declaration of her death so as to avert public scrutiny – depended upon his acting ability just as much as it did on hers, after all. Still, his face lit up with pleased recognition at the sight of her face. "I don't know what happens after one dies," he continued sombrely, even as he ran his gaze up and down her figure as if inspecting her before glancing at the baker standing beside her, "but, wherever she is, I hope that she's happy."
Ella smiled at him as she nodded, wanting him to know that she too now viewed their failed marriage with fondness rather than bitter resentment. She would never forget how badly his infidelity had hurt her, how it had crushed her as surely as if she truly had been caught beneath the giantess' foot. Tinges of bitterness still sometimes flared up when she considered his deceptions and subtle cruelties and how easily he had moved on from her, and she knew that she would never fully shake off how disappointed she felt in him. Her faith in his ability to lead the kingdom had also been irrevocably shattered. Nevertheless, she could now also tenderly remember the joy he had once brought to her. Her rose-tinted glasses may have been abandoned, but they had not been painted black.
I am happy, she thought. I really am.
Turning away from her, the prince beamed at his new bride with the full force of his captivating smile. "As am I," he said. "I never expected to remarry; I swore to myself that I wouldn't, in fact. It seemed impossible that another woman could even begin to compare to my Ella. Apparently my oaths are like dew, however, because they evaporated like water exposed to the blistering sun the moment I saw my dear Aurora's face."
"He was talking to us," Geoffrey whispered, his voice laced with surprise. "I think he realised we're together."
"How do you feel about it – about this?"
"I'm happy for him," she replied sincerely, watching as the delicate princess-to-be simpered at her once-husband. Ella had felt compelled to attend the wedding, almost as if it were the final scene of a story that desperately needed to be finished. While her main motivation had been to close that book, however, part of her had been curious about whether or not it would hurt to see him promise another woman things he had once insincerely pledged to her. To her relief, she was, on the whole, honestly alright with it. He had torn through the dream she'd been living in as if it were nothing but paper and illusions, and that realm of fantasies held nothing for her anymore. "For her sake, I hope he doesn't stray, but I'm glad he's found another."
"I think Margery would be happy for us, too," Geoffrey admitted. "She liked you."
"She was a lovely woman. I will always be grateful that she hid me from the prince twice when we happened across one another as I was fleeing the ball." She looked up at her husband and, gripping his hand tighter, whispered, "I love you."
"I love you too," he replied. The statement was automatic but utterly sincere.
"I think we can leave now. I have my closure." She twisted around so that their clasped hands hung between them like a piece of string. Dipping her free hand down to protect her swollen stomach, she followed him as they made their way through the crowd in search of Red, Jack, and her stepson, Jeremiah.
Her faraway prince had found yet another love, and she had found her somewhere in between.