Title: Stepmotherhood
Author: Caitrin Torres
Fandom: Into the Woods
Rating: G
A/N: Written for shinealightonme for Yuletide 2008.


Being a stepmother was nothing like Cinderella had imagined it might be, but how could she have known? Stepmothers were molded from cold and evil and poison and indifference. All the stories said so, and her own stepmother had certainly been no different. Indeed, as a girl, Cinderella had solemnly sworn that she would never grow up to be so vile a creature. No, she decided, if she could not be a proper mother or perhaps even a princess, it would be better to not marry at all and grow up to be a spinster than to marry a widowed man and force another poor, innocent child to suffer at the hands of a stepmother as had she. The stories told her so.

But now, with the Baker and his son and Red and Jack, Cinderella did not feel as a stepmother should. Perhaps it was because she had fallen into the role by chance. After all, it was not as if she had set out to seduce a widowed tradesman, especially with she herself only just separated from her husband. Such nonsense was the stuff of her stepsisters' gossip and late night conversations and was hardly suited to real life, but what else was there to do in the aftermath of the giant but to band together? None of them had anywhere to go or anyone to go to. They retreated as a group to the Baker's house -- barely more than a hovel at the time -- to plan their next steps, and as days turned to nights and weeks to months, they all began to fit together.

How could she have left? She could have left, she supposed, and struck out on her own, but it was not in her nature to leave people who needed her. The Baker and Jack were so busy rebuilding the house and the ovens, and someone had to cook for them if they were to have the strength to continue. And Red, the poor thing, was so young and so ready to take on the world, and someone had to take the place of her lost mother and grandmother and show her the way. And the baby... well, the Baker was a lovely man and a wonderful father, but everyone knew that men were a bit hopeless when it came to young children. It was why her father had remarried so quickly, after all. What could she do but stay?

There were no stories, or at least none that she had ever heard, about stepmothers and their sons, and she wondered if perhaps that might be the difference. Was there something about little girls that poisoned their stepmothers against them? Cinderella cooked and cleaned and mended and taught and laughed and sang, and in between it all she cared for the Baker's son. He loved to watch as his father kneaded dough and he delighted in playing with a little lump of his own. She watched them together and despaired of ever getting the sticky dough out of his wispy hair, but secretly she loved it. Loved him. Loved them both. Loved them all, all four of them, to be honest, although when Jack and Red fought it was difficult to remember at times.

The seasons changed and the anniversary of Red's birth passed and that night Cinderella held her as she cried. She let the girl tell her all about her mother and grandmother and childhood, and when her tears slowed, she whispered into her hair, "You have us now. You have me. I'm not going anywhere."

Perhaps the problem was not little girls, after all.

The baby learned to walk during the long days of winter, but it was not until spring that he finally began to talk. Oh, he was happy to toddle about and babble all day long, and one spring day when Cinderella had left him with the Baker in the bakery so that she might do the wash, she came back to find no baking whatsoever being done and a great battle with dough for ammunition being waged all across the room. The Baker and his son froze as she walked through the door, and before she could even think to open her mouth to scold the Baker for encouraging such behavior, the baby flung a bit of dough in her direction and cried out.

"Ma!"

Cinderella felt her face grow as pale as the flour that coated the room. "Ma!" the baby called again, and there was nought she could do but flee.

She was not his mother. She could not be his mother. He had a fine mother, dead she may be, and Cinderella was nobody's stepmother. She loved him too much for that.

She sat on the edge of the woods for hours, lost in thought, and when it grew dark, she heard Jack's voice calling out for her. "Cinderella?"

She bit her lip and, realizing that she could not hide forever, stood to meet him. She had faced a giant, after all. She could face this.

At home, she was met at the door by Red, smirking, and the Baker, who looked terribly nervous. Supper -- oh dear, she realized, she'd forgotten to make supper -- was leftover stew. "It's only a little burnt!" Red pointed out happily as she dished it up, and Cinderella couldn't help but smile. The girl was learning.

The baby was cheerful that night, and he kept up a steady stream of babble. Every time he said, "Ma!", though, conversation dimmed and the Baker looked from him to Cinderella with an expression on his face that she could not read.

After supper, she rose as usual to start the cleaning up, and the Baker jumped out of his seat and gently pressed her back into hers. "Wait!" he said, and he fidgeted when everyone looked at him. "I baked a dessert."

She sat, and watched as he hurried into the next room and returned with a tray. On the tray was a loaf of bread, but it was not any loaf. This loaf was made with currants and nuts, just as she loved. It was braided and shaped, and it resembled nothing so much as a--

"I can't afford much," the baker was saying. "Certainly nothing fit for a princess."

"I'm not--" she started to say, but he would not let her interrupt.

"I wanted to do this properly," he said, "but nothing about this has been proper. And I wanted to--"

He tended to ramble when he was nervous. Cinderella loved that about him, but this was a time when she very much wanted him to get to the point. She laid her finger on his lips and waited, eyebrow raised, for him to quiet. "Yes?" she asked.

"Will you be my wife?"

And on that night, she looked around the table at her family -- a fine young man, a lovely girl, a wonderful man who considered her his princess, and her darling stepson -- and she decided that maybe, just maybe, the stories were wrong. This was happy ever after.