AUTHOR'S NOTE: There's depressingly few of Phesmeralda fics in this fandom, so I decided to make up for that.
This is mainly based on the 1996 film with some influences from the book. I already wrote a fic based on the stage musical, and so wanted to challenge myself to write something primarily in the film's universe. Also, the only thing I've seen of The Hunchback of Notre II is the trailer and, well… Let's just say a reference to one character is the only thing that's making it into this fic from that movie.
The title is from "Beautiful Tree" by Rain Perry.
Esmeralda doesn't love her husband.
Pierre Gringoire isn't the worst man she could have ended up with. But the sixteen-year-old married him because she had to, not because she wanted it. He writes her poetry, at least, but it does nothing to stir passion within his wife. He doesn't seem to adore her either, so share equal amounts of cool indifference.
She discovers that she is with child soon after the wedding, and it is the first thing that has gone right in her marriage. And though Esmeralda doesn't want to be a wife, she finds herself looking forward to being a mother as the months pass. Their offspring should not have to pay for the lack of love between his or her parents. She will give the child the affection she cannot show Pierre.
And after hours of Esmeralda screaming herself hoarse, her son falls into the midwife's hand. Pierre, of course, is not in the room with his wife. But the boy's cries are as loud as his mother's, and as Esmeralda holds him for the first time, she finds herself hoping he has more heart than her husband. Let the infant grow into a poet, by all means, but she privately thinks that she wants their son to be more like her than like his weak father.
Pierre prefers Djali over Esmeralda.
She is glad her husband cares for their son; she would never wish a distant or cruel father on any child, let alone her own. Pierre was of course overjoyed that she had given him a male heir, but part of her wishes she had had a girl. She wouldn't have to share a daughter much with her husband, but she does a boy.
But regardless of the divide between his parents, Djali grows into an enchanting child. She chalks his speaking early to Pierre's poetic side, and the boy seems to have inherited his father's brains. But Djali looks and acts like her; he dances and sings and is earnestly just and fair, and has her coloring and his father's blue eyes. Esmeralda pours all her love into him and tries to tolerate her husband more for their son's sake.
But when Djali is five, Pierre dies.
Esmeralda does not cry, and instead wipes away her son's tears and moves in with her brother Clopin. Djali adores his uncle, and for once Esmeralda is glad to have someone take the child off her hands every now and then. She has never like relying on anyone, but that was before she became a mother.
But as Clopin is the leader of their people, he is often called away to run the Court of Miracles. Only now does his sister find herself missing Pierre. Not their marriage, but at least having someone to help look after Djali. When Pierre died, she was sure she would never remarry.
But now with her son turning into more of handful as each day passes, she thinks having a husband of her own choosing might not be so bad after all.
Djali is ten when Esmeralda meets the knight.
Impractical though his gold armor might be, the man is handsome, with hair as yellow as his breastplate, and strong, kind features. She may or may not have swayed her hips in his direction while dancing; she's been a widow for four years, and by the stars she's allowed to find a man attractive. Djali, in training as a lookout, stares in awe at the knight like he is a hero stepped out of a story.
But she probably wouldn't have thought about the man again if he hadn't helped her. If he hadn't put his horse in the way of the other knights. If he hadn't picked up the money she dropped and quietly slipped the coins to her later. If he hadn't looked at her with both attraction and respect instead of just ogling her.
She dances as always at the Festival of Fools, teases Judge Frollo, and is thrown enough money to buy Djali new shoes. She is taking off her red dress and changing back into her normal attire when she hears the crowd jeering and cries for help. It is the deformed young man she had just crowned the King of Fools, now being pelted with tomatoes and roped like an animal. She instantly looks for Djali, sees her son safe with Clopin – who cannot intervene without losing his nephew in the unruly crowd – and then she shoves her way through the mass of people.
After she frees the bell ringer, the knight in the golden armor does send men after her on Frollo's orders. But she hears him say that she is not be harmed, and for that she is grateful as she easily flees the other knights. After a simple slight of hand, she vanishes from view. She slips through the crowd, whispers to Clopin to take Djali home - they can't let her son be connected to her, now there's a warrant with her name on it - and sees the bell ringer retreat into the cathedral.
She follows to find Quasimodo, but someone else follows her.
She's often targeted by society for simply being of the Romani race, and now a mother, so of course she notices the knight behind her. No matter if he was kind earlier, she still takes his sword, because he has orders to arrest her and she will never see Djali again if she goes to prison.
The man called Phoebus isn't spineless, she'll give him that. He knows how to handle himself in a fight, but he's not cruel either. He knocks her off her feet once, yes, but it's only to get his sword back and he doesn't club her over the head with it. He actually praises her self-defense skills, and she can't remember the last time a man complimented her for anything other than her looks.
As they talk over clashing swords and candle stands, he turns out to be kind of… decent, actually. He is polite, asks only for her name, and even says he isn't going to arrest her in a church. She finds herself thinking that maybe there's finally one man in all of France who isn't a complete waste of time–
And then Frollo burst in and orders Phoebus to arrest her. The knight tells her to claim sanctuary, but all she can think of is losing her son forever and how much she wants to punch his teeth in. Prison will swallow her whole and never spit her back out.
But then Phoebus lies for her.
It's been a long time since anyone did anything for her. Clopin always has had her back, but Pierre only did the bare minimum, and every other man she's ever met puts themselves first. But Phoebus now has helped her escape prison twice in one day, and she can't fathom why. But she is grateful all the same. Confused, but grateful.
She doesn't have time to thank him, because the archdeacon is taking Phoebus to the door. Esmeralda is already thinking of how she'll get back to Djali, because of course Clopin will look after him, but will her brother tell the right stories to put Djali to bed with-
And then Frollo is twisting her arm behind her back, smelling her hair, and using far too many possessive words. He doesn't try to touch her again after she shoves him away, but even after the church doors slam behind him, she can still feel his fingers on her neck.
She's always wondered about the French people's God, but only now does she try to pray for the first time. She needs help, honestly, and a lot of it. Help for the Romanis, for that bell ringer, for her family, and for herself. She's always been a fighter, but sometimes always battling the world can get to be too much, and today is a prime example. After she prays in a corner of the sanctuary away from the aristocratic churchgoers, there's a lightness in her chest and the weight on her shoulders lifts.
Then she spots the bell ringer, and follows Quasimodo to his quarters in the bell tower. He's different, to say the least, from anyone she's ever met, but he's also sweet, innocent, gentle and everything Frollo is not. She knows Quasimodo will treat Djali kindly if they ever meet, but the blushing bell ringer is barely more than a boy himself. For all his virtues, he is not the father figure Djali needs. And though there is only five years difference between herself and Quasimodo, it feels like a millennium. But he helps her escape the cathedral so she can go back to her son, and as she makes her way through the dark streets of Paris, she adds Quasimodo to her short list of decent people that she knows.
Djali tackles her the moment she enters the Court of Miracles. It's not easy to get him to sleep that evening, given how energized he was by the festival and then anxious about her absence, and as she sings him a hundredth lullaby, she finds her thoughts drifting to Phoebus. Quasimodo might have helped her leave the church itself, but the knight saved her life inside it. Without Phoebus, she would already be chained up in a prison, never to reemerge and never to see her family again. She owes Quasimodo her freedom, but she owes Phoebus her life.
Esmeralda still doesn't like to rely on others, but it's a pleasant surprise to find two people to help her when they have no reason to. And wasn't that what she's been wanting? Someone to lean on instead of going through life alone?
But the peace doesn't last, because the next morning Clopin sends his sister to hide with a miller on the edge of Paris. There is no longer just a warrant on her head; Frollo is actively looking for her and tearing apart Paris in the process. As she hides in a cellar beside the mill with other Romanis, feeling like foxes being hunted by hounds, she begs the God she only just barely believes in to save her son. She doesn't want to die, but she'd rather it be her than Djali. No one outside of the Court of Miracles knows that they are related, and hopefully it will stay that way.
But then she and the other Romanis smell smoke, and they decide to face Frollo than burn alive. Yet when they leave the cellar, she sees a man in familiar golden armor dive through the window of the burning mill. She can't breathe as she waits for him to reappear, and prays just as hard for Phoebus as for Djali's life. The minutes stretch on, the flames grow higher, and fear courses like ice through her veins. He finally emerges carrying two children, the miller and the miller's wife at his heels, and Esmeralda finally breathes again.
But then Phoebus is secured for execution by two knights, while a third raises a sword to cleave his head from his body.
The stone she throws at Frollo's horse interrupts the beheading, and Phoebus escapes on the fleeing animal. She breathes easily, for he will live for another day, and she can focus on staying alive herself and returning to her son.
But then there is a rain of arrows, and one sends Phoebus into the Seine.
Frollo and the knights move on fairly quickly, but it is true that Phoebus' armor will drown him better than any arrow could. The other Romanis try to hold Esmeralda back from going to the river, but she shoves them away and runs. She dives into the literally freezing water, the January cold paralyzing her, but then she sees gold at the bottom of the Seine. The impractical color of his armor has never been more useful than it is now.
She has to go to the surface for air a few times as she struggles to remove his armor underwater. It is through sheer force of will that she gets them both out of the Seine, but it is the blue color of his face that gives her the strength needed. He is barely conscious, hardly breathing, and has an arrow in the back of his shoulder when she drags him onto the bank, but she is just grateful he is still alive at all.
Being underwater so long takes more of a toll on him than even she had expected. He does not wake during the entire trek to the cathedral, and she barely gets him to the bell tower without being spotted. He does, however, wake when she removes the arrow and when she sews his skin together. And then Phoebus is talking about Cupid's arrows and thanking her for saving his life. She's more shaken over his near death than she expected, and then, even though he needs all the air he can get, she kisses him.
No one's ever said she's not impulsive.
He responds with more strength than she expects from someone who almost drowned. He's not hesitant like Pierre was, but isn't forceful like other men are. And it is a kiss of not just want, but need and gratitude – and it keeps going on. She's sure she never kissed Pierre anywhere near this long, but even after everything, she allows herself to enjoy being wanted by someone she wants in return.
She moves back – he does need to breathe – and he smiles at her as his eyes flutter closed. She'd be humiliated that she kissed him hard enough to all but knock him unconscious again, but she doesn't have time for embarrassment. Quasimodo sends her down a back flight of stairs, and she runs into the night again, content in the knowledge that Phoebus will live. She'll figure out what he means to her later.
Now it is time for her to go back to her family.
If Djali had been anxious to see her after the festival, that is nothing compared to now. He runs into her arms the moment she returns to the Court of Miracles, and she holds him tight, thanking God that she had another day to be with her son.
But diving into the Seine in winter wasn't the smartest idea. Esmeralda quickly ends up shivering under a mountain of blankets in Clopin's caravan. Djali hovers by her, chattering away, and her headache turns into a migraine. And so when cheers are heard further in the Court, she gives her son permission to attend whatever is going on and tries to get some sleep.
But then he returns shrieking for her, something about the knight and the funny-looking man from the festival and a hanging. Esmeralda forces her cold-numbed limbs to move and sprints to the entrance of the Court of Miracles, only to see her brother about to kill Phoebus and Quasimodo.
It is her turn to scream.
She's exhausted and half frozen and barely able to think straight, but Phoebus is alive beneath her hands. She normally wouldn't hold a man she barely knows, but it's been a long day. His arms are strong and sure around her, and for the first time in her entire life, she feels safe in someone's embrace.
When they step apart, Djali is staring at the knight again, and Esmeralda introduces her son to Phoebus and Quasimodo. The bell ringer's eyes are wide, as if the thought of her having a child baffles him, but the knight takes the news in stride. He talks to Djali with respect – even though the boy is half-Romani and Phoebus is practically blue blooded – and even makes her child laugh, a sound she hasn't heard since Pierre died. Djali is more innocently curious than cruelly inquisitive to Quasimodo, but it is Phoebus who holds the child's attention. And maybe this is Esmeralda's exhaustion talking, but she finds herself thinking that Phoebus just might be the father figure Djali needs, and the man that she herself needs as well. True, she hasn't known Phoebus long, but she met Pierre on their wedding day.
And then Frollo arrives.
She puts herself between Djali and the charging knights, but Phoebus puts himself between her and the men he had once served with. Frollo's army overpowers the Romanis, and in the ensuing chaos a man grabs Djali. Rage that Esmeralda has never known before rises with in her, but before she can claw out the eyes of the man, Phoebus punches him and pulls Djali away. But once she, Phoebus, Djali, and all of the Romanis are restrained, Esmeralda takes a split second to think that the knight who once wore golden armor is proving himself to be what she wanted.
That night in the prison, Esmeralda decides it is worse to hear Djali crying than to be jailed alone without him.
If she was imprisoned by herself as she had always feared, she would only imagine her son's distress far away from the jail. But now he is here with her, and what's worse, he is in a different cell. She can see him diagonally across the hall with Clopin, but Phoebus' cell is directly across from her family's. As Esmeralda leans against the bars, she listens to Phoebus talk to Djali for hours, distracting the boy and even somehow making him laugh. Phoebus weaves stories of brave knights and noble steeds and heroic battles, and for a time her son seems to forget everything else. Tears spring to her eyes when Phoebus tells Djali that the child can be as courageous and stronghearted as the knights in the tales, and her son promises to try.
Past the end of her rope, Esmeralda lays aside her stubbornness and independence for once her life and calls out into the hall for Phoebus. She asks him to look after Djali if Clopin dies after his sister, and Phoebus promises to raise her son as if the boy was his own.
If they could reach each other, she would let herself collapse in Phoebus' arms and finally allow someone comfort her. But she can't, no matter how much she wants to.
Dawn comes too soon.
She's always been an early riser, but she has never hated the sunrise more than today. Djali sobs in Clopin's arms as his mother is led away to be killed, and she tries to ask the guards to leave her son in the prison to shield him from watching her execution. But she receives only a slap to the face for her plea, the blow so hard it splits her lip open. Djali screams for her, Phoebus bellows at the guards for harming her, and she tells Djali she loves him for surely the last time as she is dragged away.
When she is tied to the stake, she sees the barred prison carts arrive with the Romani prisoners. Phoebus is caged too, and she hears him calls out to Djali over the din of the crowd. Then Frollo approaches her with a torch, his dark gaze roving over her body as if she has been laid out on a plate for him like a boar's head. When he asks her to choose him, she spits in his face not only for her own sake but for Djali's, hoping that her final action alive will show her son to keep fighting no matter the odds.
Then Quasimodo appears as the flames lick at her. Esmeralda, weakened from the smoke, does not protest as he puts her over his shoulder. She wakes next in the bell tower to see Frollo battling the young man he had raised, and Quasimodo carries her out the door. She has almost no energy to help her friend, and so everything is left to him to keep them alive. Then both Quasimodo and Frollo are hanging over the edge of the cathedral, and she uses her last remaining strength to try to keep the bell ringer from falling to his death. The judge makes it onto a sturdy drain spout gargoyle with a manic laugh, and Esmeralda prays that Djali won't be able to see Frollo plunge his sword into her. Then the drain spout gargoyle crumbles, taking Frollo down with it, and she knows in her soul that God had broken the gargoyle to save them.
But then Quasimodo's hand slips from her grasp, and her scream echoes across Paris as he falls. But then she sees someone catch him at another railing below. As she sprints to find them, she doesn't care if it is ten enemy knights that had grabbed him; at least Quasimodo is not in a crumbled heap on the cobblestones. Yet when she reaches the bell ringer, he is not surrounded by the enemy, but with Phoebus.
She embraces Quasimodo first, because she needs to make sure he is real and alive and not a figment of her imagination. But then she and Phoebus slam into each other – how is she so blessed that they both survived all this – and she weeps against the knight's broad chest. He holds her as she shakes, running a hand through her hair in a way Pierre had never done, and she kisses Phoebus with tears running down her face. She pours all her gratitude and relief and maybe even love into the kiss, and when they finally break apart it is her turn to be lightheaded.
But now she needs to find her family, and Phoebus and Quasimodo follow her down the steps. As she exits the cathedral, Djali runs out of the crowd, and she sweeps him into her arms. She sees Clopin nearby, but her focus is on her son and her son alone. She can barely think straight, hardly able to process that all of her loved ones survived this nightmare and she is not dead or alone as she thought she would be.
It takes time to encourage Quasimodo into leaving the cathedral and stepping into the light, but then the battered group finally heads for the Court of Miracles. As they make their way through the streets of Paris, she coughs incessantly, and Phoebus puts an arm around her. She leans against him as they walk, and even though they've known each other for a few days, this feels right.
Phoebus is with her when Zephyr is born.
Her second husband refuses to leave her side when her pains begin, and he keeps his promise. They both shed tears when their firstborn child enters the world, and Phoebus is enchanted by their son.
Clopin soon arrives with Djali, and Esmeralda's sons are introduced for the first time. As Phoebus gently instructs his surrogate son how to properly hold Djali's half-brother, she thinks back to her eldest child's own birth twelve years earlier. Pierre had been nowhere in sight and she had hoped their son would not take after him. But now as she watches her current family, she hopes Zephyr will be the spitting image of his father - not just in looks, but in personality. Satisfied that Djali isn't about to drop his half-brother, Phoebus returns to her side. Her new husband drops a kiss to her sweaty hair and then to her hand as he weaves his fingers through hers, and tears of happiness well in her eyes.
Quasimodo shows up next to meet Zephyr. As the infant looks at the former bell ringer - now an artist and carpenter by trade - without fear, Esmeralda dwells again on how perfectly her patchwork family of misfits has settled into her life. It isn't conventional, but it is what she needs.
The world may still not be perfect, but she has friends and family and a husband of her own choosing, and she is finally content.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I know especially movie!Esmeralda is a Strong Independent Woman Who Doesn't Need A Man but… parenting is hard, folks. I'm not a parent myself, but it's not a cakewalk.