A/N: This was inspired by MonumentForTheDead's Cinderella stories. Fair warning-it's a little...twisted. Of course I would appreciate feedback!
He is so kind to her.
His every word is so soft, his every touch so gentle, his every look so full of love.
And oh! How she loves him for it! How she loves him for giving her the love she thought she'd left far behind her. How she loves him for showing her that her life did not end when her father died, that she can be happy again.
Her life is a dream come true. It is better than a dream come true, for she could never have dreamed up something half so lovely.
How on earth could she find cause to feel unhappy?
She isn't unhappy, not really. She's blissfully happy. Happier than she ever dreamed she could be. Sometimes she feels so happy that it makes her giddy and light-headed. Sometimes she is so happy that she feels the need to sing and dance for no reason at all. This life, this world he has given her is more than she ever could have dreamed.
And still, other times, she feels a tiny, nagging emptiness inside her.
One evening, she finally puts a name to it. At supper, she is leaning over to whisper something to her husband while the king is rambling on about something. He smiles and laughs, and she laughs, too, and she is so caught up in watching him laugh that, when she reaches for her teacup, she misses and knocks it right off the table.
Like a reflex, she jumps to her feet, clasps her hands together, and bows her head in submission. "I am so sorry," she mutters over and over, and she trembles in terror for what will come.
But what comes is not what she anticipates.
"Oh, no, Your Highness! I am so sorry!"
"Sit down, Ella, dear, sit!"
"I shall get you a new cup at once!"
Cinderella dares to look up, dumbstruck, as a handful of servants clear away the broken teacup, pull out her chair, and present her with a new teacup. She glances between them, feeling a strange mixture of confusion and inexplicable sadness, and finally, slowly, sits back down and takes a sip of her fresh tea.
Her husband whispers something to her, but she hardly hears him. Later that night, when they are making love, she finds herself strangely dissatisfied. She pulls him ever closer, holds his hands tighter, and presses her own hands harder against his body in an attempt to communicate the ineffable quality she is suddenly acutely missing.
But he is so soft, so gentle, so full of love for her. Her strange, searching actions make no sense to him, and she has no way of putting her needs into words.
About a month later, the king holds a dinner party for several branches of their extended family, and he insists upon inviting Cinderella's family, as well. She is unable to sleep peacefully for a week beforehand.
Her stepsisters aren't cruel, not really. They are spoiled and entitled, and they love to cut one another down and to bicker over insignificant things, but they aren't truly cold-hearted people. She wonders sometimes whether, deep down, beyond their constant cries for wealth and dresses and jewels, they both secretly long for the same love and affection that Cinderella now has.
When Lady Tremaine enters behind them, Cinderella considers once more how curious it is that her stepsisters should both be so awkward. Her stepmother is a tall woman with a perfect hourglass figure. With every step she takes, she exudes grace and poise. One would think that she would have beaten these traits into her daughters by now, but she has never managed.
Cinderella thinks Lady Tremaine has always been cold to her, but she can't really remember. The changes which led to Cinderella's life of misery happened in rapid succession. Her mother died, her father remarried, her father died...and Cinderella finds that she has mostly blocked the memory of her parents from her mind in an effort to avoid the crushing sadness such thoughts used to bring with them. She remembers that her mother shared her strawberry blonde hair, but nothing else comes to mind. She remembers that her father loved her tremendously, but she hardly even remembers the colour of his hair.
Cinderella does her best to forget about the dozens of eyes upon her as her husband's extended family arrive one after one and sit down for tea. She already knows she has three particularly critical sets of eyes upon her, and that is all she can bear without cracking under the pressure. What she finds oddly chilling is that, when she invariably commits some mortal faux pas, these people will not yell at her, or reprimand her, or rap her knuckles with their walking sticks. They will judge her in silence. They will go home to their castles by the sea and they will whisper about the lowly servant girl the prince has taken for a bride, and what a shame it is that he's so touched in the head.
Cinderella is suddenly possessed by an idea which is positively mad, and the sheer force of it causes her to drop the tea tray she is holding. Again, a flurry of servants appear out of nowhere to clean up her mess, but she ignores them. She glances surreptitiously at her stepmother. Though Lady Tremaine's expression is schooled into haughty neutrality, her eyes are burning, and the sight of them sends a familiar jolt of terror coursing through Cinderella's body.
And to her dismay, she finds that this-fear, or perhaps anticipation of punishment-is indeed the feeling she's been missing.
Cinderella deliberately uses the wrong fork at dinner. She asks for a second helping, even though she isn't really very hungry, simply because it is unladylike to be seen eating too much. Though she is not naturally talkative, she struggles to think of superfluous things to say, simply because she knows she ought to hold her tongue. Mid-sentence, her meaningless words catch in her throat as she catches sight of Lady Tremaine's bright green eyes, looking like she'd love nothing more than to murder Cinderella right on the spot.
"What were you saying, darling?" asks her husband.
Cinderella finds it difficult to name what she is feeling, and trying to define it takes all of her concentration. "What?" she blinks twice and glances over at him. "Oh. Nothing. Nothing, really," she says. She bows her head. When someone else picks up the conversation, she ventures a glance in her stepmother's direction to find that Lady Tremaine is still watching her intently, lip curling ever so slightly into a sneer and eyes still ablaze with contained fury.
A little later, when the guests are moving from the dining room into one of the sitting rooms, Cinderella steals away for a moment to collect herself. She finds that the most important thing she has learned in her short time here is which rooms are never used, and by extension, where she can go to ensure a moment of privacy.
She pushes the door of one such room closed behind her and leans against it, closing her eyes and heaving a sigh of relief. This is a large room, as far as CInderella is concerned. The floor is that of a room meant for dancing, and there are several entrances, but everything is covered in a thin layer of dust. It hasn't been used in some time.
"Cinderella," says Lady Tremaine, voice barely above a whisper.
Cinderella nearly jumps out of her skin in surprise. She feels chills all through her body and she shivers visibly. No one calls her Cinderella anymore. She is Ella...or darling...or my love...or Your Highness...
"Stepmother," Cinderella breathes.
"I do hope you're pleased with yourself."
Cinderella doesn't dare meet her stepmother's eyes. "What?" she asks, her voice tremulous.
"I hope you realize," Lady Tremaine elaborates, "that you are not only mocking me with your latent incompetence, but your husband and your kingdom. Is that what you intended, pinnacle of goodness that you fancy yourself?"
Cinderella looks up, distracted from her fear by her surprise. "Oh! Oh, no, I didn't mean to..." Caught off guard by the intensity of her stepmother's piercing green eyes and half-formed snarl, Cinderella chokes on her words and bows her head once more. "I didn't mean to mock you, Stepmother. Or my husband, or my kingdom."
Lady Tremaine chuckles insincerely, a sound which has always chilled Cinderella to the bone. "Of course not," she says sweetly, making her way slowly and gracefully to the door. She pauses just over Cinderella's shoulder and whispers into her ear. "I should like you to know, you stupid, insolent girl, exactly how fortunate it is for you that you are no longer under my care."
Before she can catch herself, Cinderella inhales sharply. She feels Lady Tremaine's presence, looming just over her shoulder, but she does not dare move away. "Supposing I were kind enough not to send you out onto the streets to starve to death," Lady Tremaine continues, "this blatant display of disrespect would be the last straw. I would see to it once and for all, Cinderella, that you learned your place."
"My place..." Cinderella echoes half-consciously.
She does not realize she is trembling until Lady Tremaine places her hands upon Cinderella's arms firmly, and she feels her stepmother's breath against her ear. "And you know just as well as I that your place is not on a throne."
Cinderella shakes her head sadly before she fully realizes what she has done. She is not fit to be a queen. She is not even fit to be a princess. She is fit to be a servant.
Lady Tremaine catches Cinderella's chin in her hand and turns her to meet her eyes. A tear rolls down Cinderella's cheek, and Lady Tremaine wipes it away, but her expression stands in stark contrast to the gentle motion. Her eyes are burning and her lip is curled into a sneer.
She examines the wetness on her long finger. She has the hands of a pianist, Cinderella notes idly. Cinderella's hands are small and somewhat clumsy on the keys, but her stepmother plays, not only with skill and precision, but with a kind of deeper musicality one wouldn't expect of her. Or perhaps Cinderella is being uncharitable.
Cinderella registers the sharp, stinging pain in her cheek before she hears the loud clap of her stepmother's hand against her cheek. Cinderella's own hand flies up to her cheek in surprise and she turns wide eyes upon her stepmother, whose expression is impassive.
She reaches out slowly, and Cinderella flinches in anticipation, but Lady Tremaine instead strokes Cinderella's hair gently. The pleasant tingling sensation this touch engenders sends Cinderella's head spinning with confusion. She doesn't know whether to be upset or to be happy or to try to run away or to stay right where she is...where she belongs.
"You aren't going to stop me," Lady Tremaine murmurs, twirling a tendril of Cinderella's hair around her finger. Cinderella's eyes flutter closed without her permission.
"What would you do, I wonder," she continues, "if I were to make good on my promise? Would you, Your Royal Highness, the Princess, allow me to take you over my knee? To beat the fear of the gods into you? What would you do?"
She holds Cinderella in place by the shoulders, long, bony fingers digging into the exposed flesh, but of course Cinderella wouldn't be able to convince herself to move, anyway. Cinderella thinks more tears might have made their way down her cheeks, but she cannot be certain.
"I shall tell you what you would do," says Lady Tremaine with a cruel smirk. "Nothing. Just as you're doing now. And do you know why?"
Cinderella sniffles and shakes her head, blinking away the bleariness only to see her stepmother's smile widen. "Because you know it would be exactly what you deserve."
Suddenly Lady Tremaine has let go of her and backed away to a respectable distance. Cinderella's face, left side still stinging, is hit by a gust of cool air from the force of the distance her stepmother has put between them, and she quickly reaches up to dry her tears.
"Shall I tell your guests that you are indisposed?" asks Lady Tremaine coldly.
Cinderella looks up hopefully, but the glimmer in her stepmother's green eyes quickly extinguishes the hope in Cinderella's.
"Of course not," Lady Tremaine answers for her. She turns on her heel and makes her way to the door. "I'm certain Princess Ella will be along shortly. Perhaps she was merely overcome by a moment's homesickness."
When Cinderella returns to the gathering, she skillfully avoids meeting the eyes of her stepmother and stepsisters. She sits close to her husband and squeezes his hand tightly when he offers it.
He seems a bit taken aback and pats her hand lightly in response.
Every touch so gentle. She remembers how she once relished it. He is so kind to me, she thought. And so full of love. How I shall love him for it!
Now, she looks at his handsome face, notes the mild confusion in his eyes. She looks around the room at all the lovely faces and suits and dresses and walking sticks, and she reminds herself that this life and this world he has given her are more than she ever could have dreamed.
She bites the inside of her mouth until she tastes blood, and she feels the nagging emptiness inside of her transform, with a gradual, elegant crescendo, into a long, silent scream.