Ella can't remember the last time she got a proper haircut.
At home, a haircut meant a rusty pair of kitchen scissors.
At the palace, a haircut meant a staff of handmaidens and a royal bath.
In the mirror, Ella can see no traces of the ragged servant girl with dirt on her face. She has been scrubbed thoroughly, there has been no spot of skin left unwashed, all the way from behind her ears to the tips of her toes. It's odd, she has to admit, and a bit uncomfortable, to have people groom her. There was someone assigned to clothe her, someone to do her hair, and more for each of her needs and wants. Ella figures that there's someone to feed her as well, if she wished.
Truth be told, Ella finds it a little unnecessary.
A lady with rosy cheeks flashes a pair of silver scissors and asks her sweetly what she wants. Ella only shrugs, smiles, and says, "Surprise me."
Gold locks fall to the tile in small clumps. She watches as they roll off her shoulders, dead ends being thrown away for a fresh start.
She only gets a few inches cut. Her hair sways past her shoulders in clean curls. It's not a noticeable difference, but it is one that Ella can feel. She thanks the rosy cheeked lady graciously and runs her hands through her hair.
For the first time in a long time, she feels clean.
(But she still prefers to bathe herself).
There has got to be at least a hundred dresses in her new closet.
Every imaginable dress is there: shade, length, style, color, frill, they all hang patiently on smooth hangers, ready for whatever she wants, whenever she wants.
The blue day dress she wore tirelessly at home is pushed to the deepest end of the closet, so much so that she has to swim in fine cloth until she can see it. The staff had wanted to throw it out, but Ella could not part with it for reasons she did not know. Maybe it was a token for all the memories with her father. Maybe it symbolized the adversity she endured under her stepmother's care. Whatever it was, Ella had asked for the dress to be kept.
The range of dresses travels from the longest nightgown to the brightest ball gown. Ella picks a yellow day dress that isn't entirely too stuffy. The sleeves are simple and light, and the skirt twirls around her legs. She doesn't know what she did to deserve such fortune, so she makes sure to say a quick thank you to whatever higher power is listening.
(And even though she knew it wouldn't be there, Ella checks her closet for a deep blue gown with a million shimmery diamonds, just because).
Kit doesn't stop smiling at her, can't stop holding her hand, won't hide the happiness from his face. With his advisers, his strides are confident and calculated; with her, he matches her pace and links their arms together.
When he sees Ella in her new dress, his face lights up and she feels a blush grow uncontrollably.
"My queen," he says and bows low.
She rolls her eyes. "I'm not queen just yet." He raises an eyebrow.
"You will be," he says, voice soft. It's a promise.
Ella is certain that her face is brighter than a tomato. She pulls him up and kisses him right there, right in front of the dining room entrance, right where anyone could walk in on them. She finds she doesn't care.
After they break apart, he offers her his arm and she doesn't know whose smile is bigger.
(Kissing Kit, Ella decides, is her new favorite thing in the world, right next to glass slippers).
Ella cannot wrap her head around that word.
Not a word, she corrects herself. A title. A responsibility. A person.
Ella is not a queen. Ella is an honest country girl who loves to ride horses, who talks to mice, who sews hems. Ella is the girl who slept by the fireplace and woke up with ash on her face. Ella loves her mother and father and country. Ella loves Kit.
Her mother’s words are with her everywhere she goes. She carries them in her heart and head. They remind her of the strength she possess, the priceless magic she can perform. They ground her and steady the thoughts running wild through her head.
Out on the terrace, the night sky is hung with stars and the breeze is still. She breathes in the autumn air, smiles, and feels a new chapter in her life open up to her.
She will be queen. She will also be Ella.
(Courage and kindness. Courage and kindness).
Champagne is Ella’s favorite new drink.
There are heavier beverages and more exotic wines to choose from, but Ella likes how the bubbles move around in the golden liquid. She also really likes how Kit’s hand feels in her own, how skin moves against skin and how he doesn't have to wear his gloves to the reception.
She can feel herself getting lighter and lighter as the night continues. Her dress is perfect; all the flowers, the hem, the veil, the skirts, Ella has to pinch herself every now and then. Any moment that passes could be a moment closer to waking up, a moment away from this fairy tale. Her wedding is glorious, so much so that there’s a lingering fear of dreamfulness, that this is too good to be true. In a blink of an eye, she could be wrapped up in moth-eaten blankets on her mattress in the attic, a hundred miles from this night and her Kit.
Kit squeezes her hand which brings her back to the wedding. His cheeks are red from the alcohol but Ella’s sure her face is worse. He leans over and his mouth misses hers and he ends up kissing her nose. Ella laughs loudly and takes his face in both of her hands, her fingers smoothing the sides of his hair. His eyes are a brilliant blue and his grin is endearingly dorky, and any irrational fear she had now slipped away, out of sight and out of mind. This was real. Ella drinks in his features and the music and laughter in the background and she smiles widely. This was now. She will live for the now.
(They take to the dance floor again, and he steps on her feet more than usual. She laughs the whole time).
Her dress, while beautiful, is starting to suffocate her.
He’s kissing her senseless, though, so it’s either stop and take off the dress herself, or let him figure it out.
But he’s persistent and his hands have already found the string, so she opts for the later.
“You’re my wife,” he says against her mouth. His hands are everywhere and his leg is pressing into her skirts.
“You’re my husband,” she says. She moves her hands behind her back to find the string of her bodice. “And this dress is choking me.”
He laughs deeply and Ella gets lightheaded because she realizes she’s going to hear that sound for the rest of her life.
They end up sprawled on the bed, Kit’s nose on Ella’s neck and their legs intertwined. She’s laughing at the face he makes when he tries to undo her corset when he says, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” which only makes her love him even more.
“Neither do I,” she says. She pushes back a flop of hair from his face.
“What do you want to do?” he asks. He laces his fingers with hers and their wedding bands clink together. He watches her face carefully before planting a kiss on her cheek.
She closes her eyes into his touch. The buzz from the champagne hasn't completely gone away and her corset is slowly driving her mad.
“I want to fall asleep next to you,” she whispers. “But before that I want to take this thing off.”
Kit grins, all white teeth and perfect and young. “Whatever you want.”
He doesn't take her corset off, he only loosens the strings. “Better?” he says, his voice sending shivers down her spine.
“Much,” she says and breathes a sigh of relief.
She falls back onto the sheets and he follows. They snuggle close to each other, legs and hands and arms connecting until there was no space in between. Ella’s face is inches from his. She reaches for his hand and brings it under her chin.
“I’m tired, Mister Kit,” she says. “Today has been an absolute dream.”
Kit pushes a strand of hair from her face. “It has been more than I could ever ask for,” he says.
“It felt like magic,” she murmurs.
The last thing she sees before she closes her eyes is Kit’s face outlined by the moonlight.
(The next morning is unforgettable. Ella doesn't stop blushing for days).
The winter melts into spring, spring fades into summer, and it is a June morning when Ella finally returns to her home.
Besides the dust and cobwebs, it is exactly how she had left it, sans her stepmother’s things. While the furniture stayed, the overflowing closets of Anastasia and Drizella were cleared and the house resembled a skeleton of its former self.
Ella wastes no time in cleaning it up.
She changes into her old blue day dress and apron and ties her hair back. In the cellar, she fetches her broom and pan and sweeps till noon, gutting out the webs in the corners and the dirt musking up the halls.
Kit rolls up his sleeves and flashes her a smile before plunging his arms into soapy water to wash windows. Together, they rinse away the grime and filth the house had collected and work to restore what Ella had lost.
For lunch, they eat sandwiches out on the front porch and she tells him stories of her childhood. Some of it’s hard to talk about, but Kit’s steady gaze is encouraging, so she tells him about Mister Goose and Gus Gus, and the blackberry jam her mother would make.
Ella brings back what little possessions she had kept in the attic down to the drawing room. Lady Tremaine had sold most of Ella’s father’s old things, but what she had kept Ella cherished.
They wash dishes side by side in the kitchen. They dust old paintings. Ella shows him her favorite books. She explains every nook and cranny of the house. Kit takes an interest in her father’s travel logs, and he comes to learn the place where she had grown up.
Near sunset, they collapse at the foot of the stairs slumped against each other and content with listening to each other’s breathing. The last strands of sunlight filter through the large windows and splash the hall in warm light.
“You’re a hard working queen.” She feels him wrap his arm around her middle so she takes his other hand in her own.
“You’re not too bad yourself,” she says. “Cleaning is more enjoyable in the company of others.”
“I always enjoy your company,” Kit says.
“You better.” Ella pokes his side. “We’re going to be stuck together for awhile.”
Kit throws his head back in mock exasperation. “What have I gotten myself into?” She lightly smacks his chest even though she’s laughing.
“That’s what happens when you marry for love.”
The lines around his eyes crinkle when he smiles. “Best decision of my life.”
“And mine,” she agrees.
“I love you,” he says.
“I love you too, Mister Kit.”
They sit on the steps until the sun disappears. And through pumpkin carriages and glass slippers and midnight dances, Ella decides that the best magic comes from some place smaller, some place quieter.
(Magic, she thinks to herself, is happening right here, right now).