Eva's Roses

A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast

@~%~

I looked at the roses and sighed softly.  This was a good place to die.  The smell of the flowers was sweet and peaceful.  The petals made a soft, silken bed for my body.  I rolled over onto my back, reaching up with great effort to touch one of the blossoms.  It shivered a little, swaying from even that gentle touch.

I was dying of a broken heart and I was going to die in the roses that he had loved so very much.

I was far too weak to stand up, but I turned back onto my belly, resting my heavy head in between my forepaws.  I tried to raise my head to look above the canopy of roses, but I was not even strong enough for that.  I only had a few minutes left and I knew it.

"Eva's Roses," I murmured softly.  That was what he called them.  But they weren't really my roses.  They were his.  He took care of them and loved them.  I was merely their temporary guardian.  But he was gone now.  And, without him, both the roses and I would die.

I lay there, waiting for the end, waiting for the roses to disappear from sight as my eyes closed that one last time, I couldn't help but remember the beginning.  This sad story began the way that it ended.  With a bed of roses.

As a child, there was only one word to describe me.  Brat!  Usually prefaced by spoiled, self-centered, willful, horrible, and the like.  There were two types of people in my worldview: me and those who were there to please me.  My father, the King, had spoiled me, his first and only daughter, too much and for too long.  I barely had to whisper my demands for them to be answered and, when I did not get my way, I could scream to wake the dead from their graves.  And so I was denied nothing.  Not even the throne.

When I was fourteen years old, my father passed away.  The rumor among the servants was that he had died to get away from his daughter.  I refused to believe that.  My Daddy loved me!  After all, wasn't this the man who had acceded to my every whim?   I was not all that upset by his death, though.  He had never really been anything to me other than the hand that held the gifts.

And so, at age fourteen, I ascended to the throne.  By fifteen, I was bored with ruling my own little country.  There was no fun in simply having a country run the way it was supposed to and I wasn't cruel enough to try and make life interesting for myself by disturbing everyone else's lives.  I knew enough about politics to know that it was a one-way ticket off the throne and six feet under.  Granted, it was entertaining for a while, but I quickly got sick of it.  Much like all my other toys.  And so I ignored my duty, leaving it to the advisors who did all the work anyway and signing the occasional document when I wasn't flirting with the younger courtiers.  A few months after that, disaster struck.  From my perspective, at least.

It was a bright and sunny day.  I was out riding my horse that I ingeniously named Horse.  I was not a very creative child, as far as putting a name to my possessions went.  All of my creativity was dedicated toward my ideas and schemes for attention.  There were rumors of a castle inhabited by a powerful fairy located about an hour's ride into the woods and I had extravagant plans for what this fairy could give me.  The thought of magical trinkets and marvelous baubles filled my thoughts, leaving no room for trivialities, such as how I was going to find my way home, whether or not there was a path I could follow or even where I was going in the first place.  And so, I decided that, instead of spending the day running away from my royal advisors, as was my wont, I would go out and find this castle.

After about a little more than an hour's worth of hard riding into the woods, I reached a strange looking stone archway.  On either side of the stones were trees, but through the archway, I could see a green meadow with a castle standing tall on the horizon.  I had no caution to throw to the wind, but I spurred Horse on through the archway and into the meadow.

I reached the gates in the castle courtyard only to find that the door was heavily barred from the inside and there was no way I could open it.  I shrugged.  I was not going to be dissuaded that easily.  I backed Horse up before kicking him into a run to build up enough momentum for him to leap over the wall.

Horse flew up, over the gate and landed on the dirt path in the beautiful garden on the other side.  I was jolted off his back when we landed and I fell into a bed of roses that were planted on the side of the path.

"You stupid Horse!" I yelled, getting to my feet and stomping over to Horse, crushing quite a few roses in the process.  I grabbed his bridle and made him face me.  Then I smacked his nose.

"Bad Horse!" I said, and then hitting him again for good measure, I repeated the admonishment.

"You know," came a conversational voice, "Hitting the horse isn't going to help you stay on any better."

I spun around.  "And who are you?" I asked angrily.

"Oh," said the young man that I was facing, "No one, really.  I'm just the fairy who owns this castle."

I felt the first prickling of worry.

"I'm going to have to punish you for hurting my roses," continued the fairy.

"I couldn't care less about your stupid weeds," I said meanly.  "I'm glad I crushed them!"

"And for your utter disrespect for everyone and everything," the fairy added.  "I know a lot about you, Eva."

I gaped.  How in the world did he know my name?

"You're self centered, bratty and positively inhuman.  You behave like an animal, only caring about yourself.  So I'm going to teach you what it's really like to be an animal."

The man in green snapped his fingers.  My world began to swim around me.  I screamed and shut my eyes.

When I opened my eyes, my world looked all wrong.  I was on my hands and knees.  And my eyes weren't seeing correctly either.  I tried to get up, but my feet weren't working properly.  I tried to use my hands to pull myself up, but something wasn't right with that either.

"You might want to take a look at yourself in the pond over there," said the fairy cheerfully.  I padded over to where he was pointing and looked in the water.

"AHHH!" I screamed, but the scream turned into a roar.  Looking me in the eyes was the reflection of a large, black panther.

"What did you do to me?" I howled.

"Since you can't seem to behave like a human," said the fairy, "I turned you into an animal.  And if any of my roses get damaged again, you will receive ten lashes per blossom."

"You can't do that!" I howled again.

"I just did," he replied, green wings sprouting from his shoulder blades.  "See you later!"

"NO!" I shrieked.  "You can't leave me like this!"

"Technically," the fairy called down from a couple of yards in the air, "I could.  But since I'm in a good mood today, I'll do you a favor."  He grinned at me wickedly.  "If you can find someone to fall in love with and if he loves you back, then you'll return to your former state."  The fairy started to lift higher.  "But he's got to say it and mean it.  Thoughts don't cut it here.  See you around, Blackie!"  And then he flew out of earshot.

I watched in shock as the small dot that was the fairy finally disappeared.  Well then, let him have it his way.

I walked over to Horse to go and demand that he take me home.  I barely got his name out of my mouth when he shied away from me before turning on his heels and leaping back over the wall.  I was about to follow him, but then I stopped.

"Why bother?" I asked myself.  "Horse doesn't even recognize me.  Why should anyone else?"

I sniffled a little.  Very few of those people really meant anything to me.  But it's nice for a person to know that they're missed.

"Ah," said a nasty little voice in my head, "But you aren't a person anymore, are you?  You're a monster."

A tear fell from my liquid yellow panther eyes.  The voice was right.  I was a monster.  And so I turned toward the fairy's castle, my tail between my legs, and walked slowly inside.

Time passed at an extraordinary rate.  I would stare out the window for days at a time, watching the sun rise and set twelve times every twenty-four hours.  I was trapped outside of time in the castle of a fairy that I had only met once.  The castle was pretty, until I ripped all the decorations and furniture to shreds.  The food was delicious, but I had no appetite and ate little.  The beds were soft and comfortable, but I tossed and turned at night, never able to sleep without being haunted by my nightmares and caught in my fears.  There was only one escape for me; reading.  Before my transformation, I had appreciated and enjoyed reading books, but now that I was a panther, I devoured them.  Figuratively, that is.  I became a vociferous reader of fiction and I especially loved Fairy tales.  The best part about them was the way that everyone always lived Happily Ever After.  And it seemed like I was now in a fairy tale and so this became my only hope of achieving a happy ending for myself.

Three years in the castle passed, thirty-six years outside.  I was very lonely.  And, worse, I was beginning to give up hope that anything could ever change.  In point of fact, I could not have been more wrong.

It was some time around the eighth sunset of the day that I felt something wrong outside the castle.  I got up from the couch where I was lying and padded to the door, nosing it open.  To my shock, I saw a woman standing in the garden, clutching a freshly plucked rose.  She began to walk away when, suddenly, she stopped in her tracks with one foot raised, as if she were poised to continue.  I looked up.  The birds were frozen, in mid-flight and even the roses were not moving, they were caught wherever the wind had been blowing them last.

"What's happening?" I asked, moving my own forepaw to make sure I still could.

"I just froze time," answered a young man in a green toga.

"You!" I growled.

"You bet, Blackie," he answered as a whip came down, hard, on my back.  I yelped loudly.

"I told you this would happen if you let any of my roses get hurt," the fairy continued.

"But I didn't hu- Ow!" I yelled as the whip cracked down again.

"I don't care if 'you' hurt them or not," he answered, as it whistled through the air once more.  "They were injured and you're their guardian."  Another hit.  "You've taken good care of them so far, so I'm being gentle with this beating."  And another one.  "Only five left."

The other five fell in quick succession.

"Tootles," said the fairy, disappearing in a flash.  I stalked out toward the person, who was still unmoving.

"Oops," said the fairy, reappearing.  "I almost forgot!"  He snapped his fingers and Time started up again with a jump.  Then he disappeared for good.  I was right behind the woman.  She was in serious trouble!

"What are you doing?" I growled softly.

The woman spun around and screamed, dropping the flower, which I caught neatly in my mouth.  I wasn't risking any more beatings.

"Don't eat me!" she shrieked.  I rolled my eyes.

"I won't eat you so long as you cooperate," I replied, still growling menacingly.  "Now, who are you and what were you doing?"

"I am just a passing traveler," she answered, clutching her skirts and looking down at the ground.  "I mean you no harm, I swear.  I just saw your beautiful garden and I was overcome with awe.  I wanted to get one for my son.  He loves roses so."

She was babbling and she knew it.  I stopped her.

"Your son loves roses?" I asked. 

"Oh, yes," she gushed.  "He's wonderful with plants.  He cares so much for them.  And he's such a wonderful boy, his vegetable garden at home is so beautiful."

'What a sissy,' I couldn't help but think to myself.

"Very well," I heard myself say.  "Then he's the one who caused my pain.  And so he will be the one to fix it."

She looked up at me stricken.  "Oh, no!" she gasped.

"You will bring him to me in thirty six days," I said, mentally noting what time it was so that I would know how late he would be.  "Otherwise, I will come after you and your family."

"No," she sobbed.  "Please, no!"

"Part of doing something wrong is paying the price," I said harshly.  "Next time, be careful who you steal from, thief."

"I only thought to give him a gift," she whimpered.

"You will," I said softly, waving my paw around the garden.  "You're giving him a rose garden.  Now, go!  And take the rose with you!"

She knelt at my feet and grabbed the rose, before racing off to her horse that was grazing in the pasture.

"I see we still have a while to go," said the fairy, appearing with a sigh.

I felt a pang of guilt in my chest.  "Well, maybe I can make it a little easier for her," I said aloud to the fairy.  He quirked an eyebrow at me.  "Could you fill her saddlebags with gold, jewels, et cetera?  I feel bad for taking away her son from her."

"You think gold will make up for her son?" the fairy asked.

"Of course not!" I said.  "But it will help support her when he's gone and, when he returns home, he'll have an easier time.  I'm not planning on keeping him here forever.  Just long enough for me to talk to him for a bit.  I've been alone for so long…"

I trailed off.

"Will do," said the fairy.  "You know, Blackie, maybe there's hope for you yet."

I looked up at the green clad man, but he was already gone.

The next three days passed with excruciating slowness.  I was excited for this new arrival.  In fact, I was excited for anyone I could talk to other than the flowers and myself.  It had been a lonely three years.

It was soon the eighth sunset of the third day.  I waited by the door of the castle.  He had two hours until it was the end of his day and I would have to go and fetch him myself.  I was growing restless.  This waiting thing wasn't at all fun.

Finally, I caught a glimpse of someone in the meadow.  I grinned broadly.  He was here!

I bounded out of the doors of the castle to go and wait by the gates.

He advanced slowly to the gates, leading his horse.  I took a deep breath and prepared myself for his arrival.  Here it goes!

He walked up to the gate and knocked loudly.  The door swung open and I stepped behind it, concealing myself from view and waiting for him to turn around and notice me.

He began walking down the path, but stopped in his tracks when he saw the roses.  He bent down, brushing one of the blossoms gently.  The dewdrops twinkled against the pale pink petals from the light of the noonday sun.  He looked to be about twenty-three, twenty-four at the most.  He had light brown hair and blue gray eyes.  His hair was long and tied at his neck.  He was tall and slim, his thinness accentuated by the baggy tunic and breeches he wore.

"These are beautiful," he murmured softly, fingering each petal.  "Absolutely beautiful."

"You like them?" I couldn't help but ask.  He stood up, but didn't turn around, choosing instead to talk to the air.

"I like my home better."  I sighed softly.  This just wasn't my day.

"Welcome to the castle," I said, choosing to ignore his former statement.  "It's your home now.  Would you like me to show you around?"

"I would like no such thing," he replied icily.  "I would like you to leave me be."  The fur on my back bristled.

"Very well," I growled, walking around him so that I was facing him before rearing up on my hind feet and putting my paws on his chest so that I could look him in the face.  His eyes were locked on mine, frozen in shock.

"Your apartments lie in the West wing of the castle, next to the portrait of the Red Queen and White Queen in a jousting match.  The dining hall is located through the third door on the right when you walk into the Entrance Hall from outside.  I will see you there at the tenth sunset, three hours from now.

"Yes, oh Beast," he said, pushing me off his chest.

"My name is Eva," I snarled softly.  "And you will show me proper respect, farm boy."

"My name is Joseph," he replied, just as heatedly.

"Well then, Joseph," I said, "Farewell."

"Farewell," he responded mockingly and I heard him mutter under his breath "Beast."

I stalked away, tears prickling at the corners of my eyes.

Three hours later, I was pacing the dining hall, waiting anxiously for Joseph to show up.  I heard footsteps coming and I moved out of view of the doorway.

He walked in, looking around in wonder as the candles lit themselves.  I, however, was used to being surrounded by fairy magic and bizarre displays like this did not faze me in the least.

Joseph walked up to one of the candelabras and passed his finger through the flame.

"It feels real," he murmured.

"It is," I said, stepping out of the shadows.  "Please, take a seat."

He did, sitting at the place set at the table.

"There's only one place set," he noted, about to get up.  "Don't you want to eat?"  He looked a little nervous.  "You're not going to eat me, are you?"

I couldn't help but laugh.  Joseph looked at me, hurt.  "I'm sorry," I gasped.  "I didn't mean to laugh at you.  I had lunch earlier and I'm not hungry now.  But don't let that stop you.  Please, take whatever you want."

"Alright," said Joseph, serving himself a large portion from all the platters.  I sat across from him, waiting for him to finish.

"Why did you bring me here?" Joseph asked suddenly, in the middle of a chicken wing.  "You can't really be so petty as to steal my life in return for the theft of a rose."

"I was lonely," I answered finally.  "It's been so long since I've seen anyone else.  I haven't had anything to talk to besides the roses."

"So you brought me here to entertain yourself?" he yelled, getting to his feet.

I nodded miserably.  "Will you stay?" I begged, willing myself not to cry.  "I can't be alone anymore."

He looked at me, the angry scowl slowly fading from his face.

"Please?" I asked softly, the first tear falling.  The light was too dim for him to see, though.

"Yes," he answered, sounding more than slightly grudging.  "For now, at least."

"Thank you," I whispered, dropping my head onto the table.

About half an hour later, Joseph got up.

"Goodnight," he said, nodding to me.

"Goodnight, Joseph," I replied.  "Will you marry me?"

He turned around in shock.  "No Beast," he whispered.  "I cannot."  And he ran from the room.

'What in the world prompted me to do that?' I wondered.  'Oh well.  At least he promised to stay.'  And I got up and went to sleep on my couch in front of the fire.

About twenty days passed.  Joseph spent his days out in the multiple gardens around the castle, growing the plants.  He had something special about him, a green thumb as I'd heard it called.  He could coax plants into growing, the way that some people could bring others out of their shells and make them sprout.  As time passed, I grew bolder and would occasionally go out and join him in the garden and he would explain what he was doing to me as I watched his deft hands tie a twining vine to a stake.  I was fascinated by the amount of care and effort it took, not to mention how beautiful the results were.  The more days that went by, the more time I spent crouched at his side, watching.  And, every night, we would sit together in the dining room and I would watch him eat, always taking care to have eaten before he did, and talk.  And every night, before he would leave, I would ask the same question.

"Joseph, will you marry me?"

And every night, he would answer the same way.

"I'm sorry, Beast.  I cannot."

One morning, around the twenty-first day, I awoke to see the fairy at my bedside.  He was holding a whip.

"Blackie, my dear," he said softly, "You are in for it."

I leapt out of bed and ran to the window as the first blow fell between my shoulder blades.  I cringed and pushed aside the drapes so that I could see out the window.  Joseph was sitting in the bed of roses, calmly pruning the blossoms.  The ground was riddled with those he had cut already.  I looked at the cut blossoms and whimpered.  I was going to be beaten to death.

Crack!  And another lash fell.  I ran out toward the garden afraid that Joseph would never stop his cutting and, therefore, my punishment would never end.  In the time it took me to descend the stairs, fifteen more lashes had landed on my back.

"Stop!" I yelled to Joseph, hurtling through the door with the fairy right on my tail, whip poised for another strike.

"Why?" he asked curiously, looking up.

"Eighteen," said the fairy as the whip came down again.

"What are you doing?" Joseph yelled, getting swiftly to his feet.

"Blackie's job is to keep the roses safe," the fairy answered.  Swish, crack!  "It's ten lashes per blossom injured."  Swish, crack!  "So she still has a long while to go."  Swish, crack!  Swish-

"No!" Joseph yelled.  I heard the crack, but never felt the blow.  I looked up.  Joseph stood, glaring defiantly at the fairy, the whip wrapped around his wrist.  He yanked on the whip and the handle came flying out of the fairy's hands.

"If you knew anything about roses," said Joseph coldly, "You'd know that pruning them doesn't hurt them, it helps them grow better.  And, anyway, if I was the one who broke the rules, I should be the one receiving the lashes.  Not Eva."

For the first time since I had known him, the fairy was speechless.

"Alright," he said finally, sticking his tongue out at Joseph.  "Have it your way."  And he promptly disappeared.

"Are you okay?" I asked him worriedly as he unwrapped the whip from around his wrist.  He threw it to the ground and spat at it.

"Of course," he said, rubbing my head gently.  I winced as he touched one of the cuts.

"I'm sorry," he said, dropping to his knees.  "Can you forgive me for hurting you?"

"I should be thanking you," I said, shocked.  "You saved my life."

"I endangered it in the first place.  Eva, I swear, if I had known what would have happened if you… cut… a … rose…. Now I get it!" he said excitedly.  "That's why you were so mad at my mother for plucking a rose.  You must have been beaten for that too."

I nodded, looking at him.

"Eva, why do you let him hurt you?"

"This is his house," I answered.  "I am, I guess, the tenant."

"So these are your roses now," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

"No," I protested.  He just laughed.

"Come with me," he said.  "I know something that will help heal the cuts on your back."

I nodded and padded after him as he walked purposefully toward one of the gardens.  He stopped in front of a cactus like plant and broke off one of its leaves.  Then he squeezed some of he sap out onto my shoulders.  I grinned.  It felt so good.

"What is this stuff?" I asked as he began to spread it all over the cuts.

"It's called Aloe," he answered.  I sighed softly.

"It's my new favorite plant," I murmured idly, making him laugh.

"Thank you," I said a few minutes later once he had finished.  He smiled and stroked my head.

"You're quite welcome," he replied.  I got to my feet.

"I'm going to the library now," I said.  "Would you like to come?"

"I guess," he mumbled, looking down at his feet.

"What's wrong?" I asked.  "Don't you know how to read?"

"Yeah, but it's not really approved of in my house.  My mother discouraged it."

"Do you like it?" I pressed.

"Yeah," he admitted.

"So why not?" I asked logically.  "After all, it's not like you have anything else to do."

He shrugged.  "Alright, Eva.  Lead the way."

I started walking and it was only then that I noticed he was no longer calling me Beast.

"Well," I said, as we reached the end of the hallway where the library was located.  "Here we are."

He pushed open the door and gasped.  It was floor to ceiling books.

"How do you pick one to read?" he asked.

"I'll give you one of my favorites," I said, nosing The Complete Works of Shakespeare at him.  He picked it up and flipped open to the table of contents before choosing a story at random.  Then he started reading.

About thirty seconds later, I interrupted him

"What story did you pick?" I asked.

"Romeo and Juliet," he answered.

"Read it out loud!" I demanded, before adding in a small voice "please?"

He laughed.  "I have a better idea.  Why don't we take turns reading?  It is a play, after all."

"Okay," I said, leaping up next to him.  He slid an arm around me.  I tensed in shock.

"You're touching me," I said, surprised.

"I'm sorry," he said contritely, removing his arm.  "I didn't mean to offend you."

"I'm not offended," I said.  "I liked it.  It's just, you usually avoid touching me."

He smiled and put his arm back around my shoulders.

"I'm beginning to learn that there's more to you than meets the eye, Eva.  Now, do you want to start reading?"

I nodded and began.

"Two houses, both alike in dignity,

(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,)

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life.

Whose misadventure'd piteous overthrows

Doth, with their death, bury their parents' strife.

The fearful passage of their death marked love,

And the continuance of their parents' rage,

Which, but their children's end, could naught remove,

Is now the two hours traffick of our stage;

The which if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend…"

Hours passed without our noticing.  Finally, around the ninth sunset, Joseph read

"A glooming peace this morning with it brings.

The sun, for sorrow, will not show its head.

Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;

Some shall be pardon'd and some punished.

For never was there a story of more woe

Than that of Juliet and her Romeo."

"So what did you think of it?" I asked him anxiously.

"It was good," he admitted.  "But they were both stupid, killing themselves like that."

"I think it's the kind of thing that true love can drive you to do.  A love so strong that you can't live without your beloved.  And that's what drove them to death.  But you're right.  It is a little dumb."

"Love doesn't do much when you're dead," Joseph said critically.

"Well, you're not much of a romantic," I muttered.

"You're right," he laughed, ""I'm not."

I nodded and laughed too, walking along with him.

We reached the dining hall and Joseph gave a start when he saw two places set instead of one.

"Forgot to eat lunch today?" he teased.

"Actually," I said, "yes."

His food appeared on the table and a mound of roast beef appeared on my plate.

"Take some," he said, pointing to the dishes in front of his plate.  They did smell good.  But my table manners weren't quite up to par.

"I only eat meat," I said, indicating the food on my plate.

"Are you sure?" he pressed, eyeing me suspiciously.

"Positive," I said firmly.  He just kept his eyes on me, looking down every so often to take another bite of food.

"Joseph," I said softly, "Could you not watch me while I eat?"

He looked down quickly, blushing slightly.

"Thanks," I said softly.  "I don't particularly have good manners when I eat."

He laughed.  "Don't be silly.  I know enough about you not to judge you on your table manners."

I ate a piece of meat.  "Really?  What do you know about me?"

"I know that you're a lot nicer than one would think, that you love flowers and books and that I'm almost glad that I was brought here."

"Are you really?" I asked happily.

"Yes," he said with a grin.  "I really am."

I giggled a little.

After dessert, Joseph got to his feet.

"Goodnight," he said and looked at me, waiting for my customary response.

"Goodnight, Joseph.  Will you marry me?"

He took a deep breath and smiled sadly.

"I'm sorry, Eva.  But I still cannot."  And he walked slowly out of the room.  I waited a few minutes before following him out.  I padded into my room and went to sit down on the window seat.  Up until now, his habitual answer had never really disturbed me.  After all, it wasn't as if I had been hoping for anything else.  But that night was different.  I had never wanted anything more in my life than for him to have answered yes.  "Silly Eva," I said softly to myself.  "You've fallen for him, haven't you?"  There was no point in answering myself.  It was as clear as day.  I was in love.

I stared out the window, not really focusing on anything as I mooned over Joseph.  I was startled out of my reflections by a large boom.  I looked out the window just in time to see forked lightning strike one of the gardens.  As thunder crashed, it burst into flames.  I leaped to my feet and ran to the other side of the room, shivering.  I had never really liked storms when I was little and ever since I came to the fairy's castle, the weather had been very amenable, raining five times a month with a good downpour that took care of most of the plants.  There had never been anything like this before.

I started sobbing quietly from fear.  One of my recurring nightmares had been being trapped outside in a thunderstorm and getting hit by lightning.  There was another flash of light, followed by what sounded like a loud crash of drums.

I bolted out of the room, my fur standing on end.  I raced down the stairs and took the first left when I reached the entrance hall.

I ran down the hallway, skidding to a stop at the picture of the jousting queens.  Next to it was a door.  I pawed at the door, trying to get it to open.

"Joseph," I howled.  "Joseph!  Where are you?"

He opened the door and, in a heartbeat, was kneeling next to me on the floor.

"It's the storm," he said immediately, resting a hand on my head, "Isn't it?"

I nodded my head.

"Come on in," he said, getting up and moving to the side.  "We'll wait it out together, okay Eva?"

I nodded again, slithering in on my belly.  He sat back down on the couch and I curled up into a small ball on the floor.

"Eva," he said, his voice sounding amused.  "You look like an overlarge kitten curled up over there."

"Don't make fun of me," I sulked.  That just made him laugh a little, but he sobered up when he saw I was serious.

"I would never make fun of you," he said seriously.  "Come sit up here with me."

I got up onto the couch before dropping back into the position I had adopted earlier.  Joseph ran his fingers through my fur absently.

Another crash resounded.  I jumped and even he looked a little spooked.

"Does this happen often?" he asked me.  I shook my head.

"This is the first time."

"Do you think it might have something to do with that fairy?" he suggested.  "I mean, I probably offended him and you did say that he owned this castle."

"You're right," I said.  "It probably is him.  Oh, no!"

"What?" Joseph asked, concerned.

"Do you think it's ever going to stop?" I asked in a small voice.

"I think it'll be gone by tomorrow morning," Joseph answered.  "In the meantime, you should try to sleep."  I just looked at him.

"I mean it, Eva," he said.  "The storm will be over much faster if you sleep through it.  You know that as well as I do."

I shrugged, but obediently closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

"Sweet dreams, Eva," he said, stroking my back slowly and rhythmically.  I drifted off to sleep, lulled by his touch.

I awoke to a beautiful sunset shining through the window.  My fears from the night before seemed silly and pointless in the beautiful vermilion light of the new day.  I looked at the grandfather clock in the corner of the room.  It read ten-fifteen, I assumed it was still morning..  I stretched languidly before leaping lightly down from the couch.  I looked around the room for Joseph, but there was no sign of him. 

"Joseph?" I called quietly, afraid to wake him in case he was asleep.  I padded over to his bedroom and cautiously nosed open the door.  He wasn't in there and the bed didn't even look as if it had been slept in.

"Joseph?" I called again, leaving his rooms and trotting down the halls toward the gardens.  On the way, I stopped to check in the dining hall, in case he had decided to eat breakfast in there.  He usually ate in his rooms, but since I had been asleep in there, I thought that maybe he would be eating elsewhere.  I was, however, mistaken.

And so, I walked up to the door of the castle and entered the gardens.  As soon as I saw them, I gasped.  Joseph's beautiful masterpieces were destroyed; completely razed to the ground.  One of the trees had been hit by lightning, setting in on fire and the fire had spread to all of the gardens.

"Oh no," I gasped, looking around for anything that might have survived the inferno, but the only thing left was the bed of roses, which looked untouched since yesterday.  I walked over to them, smelling the sweet scent of the blossoms.  I smiled a little as I saw the words spelled out in petals in the earth in front of the flowerbed.

"Eva's Roses," I read aloud.  This was definitely Joseph's work.  Which meant that he had been out here earlier this morning.  But where was he now?  Now that the smoke was clearing, it was easy to tell that he was not anywhere out here.  So where could he possibly be?

"The library!" I shouted as soon as I thought of it.  He had to be there, he didn't know how to get anywhere else in the castle.  I bolted off in that direction.

I raced into the room, shouldering open the door and skidding to a halt, panting for breath.

"Joseph?" I called.

"On the couch," he answered morosely.  I walked around the couch, leaping up onto the furniture next to him.

"Did you see the gardens?" he asked, staring straight ahead at a perfectly ordinary bookshelf.  "They're all gone."

"I saw," I answered softly.

"There's nothing left," he said flatly.  "All of it, utterly destroyed."

"If it's any consolation," said the fairy, appearing in the nearest armchair, "The lightning was never supposed to hit anything.  Especially not any of the trees or flowers."

Joseph looked up at the fairy, bleary eyed.

"You're right," said the fairy promptly.  "It's not much of a consolation at all.  And, unfortunately, my powers aren't strong enough to bring back the gardens."

'You're powers only seem to be strong enough to destroy people's lives, not to fix them,' I couldn't help but think.

"But, I can give you this.  If you ever need me for something, anything at all, just call my name."

"Great consolation," Joseph muttered under his breath.  I was the only one who heard him.

"What is your name?" I asked, since it was clear that Joseph wasn't going to deign the fairy with a response.

"Thillil," he answered.  "And don't fret so much Romeo," he said to Joseph with a wink in my direction.  "This isn't a life or death situation."  And he promptly disappeared before Joseph could grab the nearest glass ornament from the table and fling it at Thillil's head.

"What an idiot!" Joseph groaned, resting his head back in his hands.  I giggled softly.

"Don't you dare laugh at me," he growled, wagging a finger at me, which just made me laugh even harder.

"Oh, all right," he grumbled.  "I am funny.  Go ahead, laugh all you want."

"If you insist," I said with a smile.  He swatted at me, but I ducked his hand and avoided him easily.  He got to his feet, grinning along with me and started chasing me around the room.

"Slowpoke!" I teased, jumping over the couch and landing on the other side.

"It's not fair," Joseph pouted.  "You have a huge advantage over me."

"That's life," I said, slipping away and running toward the other side of the room until I was stopped in my tracks by a well-aimed missile that struck me square in the head.

"No fair!" I howled, turning to Joseph who was standing on the couch with another pillow in his hands, ready to throw if necessary.

"That's life, Eva," he said with a sneaky grin.  "Truce?"

"Truce," I agreed grudgingly.  "Do you want to read another play?"

He nodded.

"Any suggestions for me?" he asked.  I pushed The Complete Works of Shakespeare back into his lap.

"Read Hamlet," I suggested immediately.  "It's my all-time favorite."

"It isn't another one of these pathetic love stories, is it?" he asked critically.

"Start reading and find out yourself," I suggested.  He flipped open the book to the right page and began reading.

The day passed swiftly, as did the subsequent seven.  And everyday that passed saw me falling further and further in love with Joseph.

I woke up one morning, about nine days after the fire and looked out the window.  The first thing that I noticed was that the sun was behaving very strangely.  Well, perhaps normally is the better word.  It was in its usual position for nine o clock in the morning, instead of predawn, which is where it usually was at that time in the fairy castle.  The second thing I noticed was Joseph.  He was out in the roses, cradling something in his hands and crying.  Thillil was hovering next to him, looking somber.  My heart leapt into my throat.  I nearly flew down the stairs; I was in such a hurry to get outside.

"Joseph?" I said, my tone questioning as I walked slowly over to him, tempering my anxiousness.  "What's wrong?"

"She's dying," he hiccoughed.  "My mother's dying!"

"Oh no," I breathed.  "Joseph, how do you know?"

"Thillil," he answered with a sniffle.

Thillil tapped me on the shoulder, taking the mirror that Joseph was holding and placing it down in front of me.  I looked into it.  A black panther with yellow eyes looked worriedly back at me.

"It's a magic mirror," he said softly.  "It can show you anything you wish to see, anything at all."

"And Joseph asked to see his mother," I sighed.  "Can I take a look?"

"Of course," answered Thillil.

"Show me Joseph's mother," I demanded before remembering to add "please" in a small voice.

I looked in the mirror and watched as my reflection rippled and dissolved, flowing into a moving picture of a woman who was sick in bed.  I could tell that she was the same woman who had arrived at my castle a little more than a month ago, twelve months in the real world, and broken off a rose to take to her son.  She coughed and I could tell from her facial contortions that she was in a lot of pain.  I reached out, wanting to comfort her.  She was surrounded by servants and a physician, who seemed to be whispering to one another, the universal language for a dangerous illness.

"Eva," Joseph whispered with a soft sob.  "Eva, she needs me.  I have to go home."

I was expecting this, but, still, I was speechless.

"Eva," he pressed, a little louder.  "I have to go."

I nodded, fighting back tears.

"Of course you do," I nodded.  "Go home."

Joseph kneeled next to me, smiling sadly.

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"It's not my decision," I replied.  "I can't keep you here and, even if I could, I wouldn't.  You should go back to her."

He hugged me tightly.  "Thank you, Eva."

"You're welcome," I responded.

He got to his feet and started walking toward the gate.

"Wait!" I yelled.  Joseph turned around.  "You wont forget about me?" I asked sadly.  "Will you?"

Joseph smiled and beckoned me closer to him.  I walked slowly toward him, shaking a little.

"I will never ever forget you, Eva," he said gently, brushing away my tears.

"And you'll come back?" I pressed, rearing up on my hind legs so that I could rest my forepaws on his chest and look him in the face.

"I'll make a deal with you," he said.  "I will be back here in one week, no matter what!"

"B-but, what if-" I stuttered.

"Seven days," he said, shushing me with his hands.  "No more.  After that, I will come back here, even if it's only for five minutes."

"Promise!" I insisted.

"I promise."

If you don't, " I said, still sad, "I'm going to die."

He kissed the top of my head gently.  "I won't let that happen.  I'll be there."  He let me get back down onto all four feet.

"Goodbye," said Joseph.

"Take the mirror," I said suddenly.  "So you don't forget me."

I saw him about to argue with me, but he took one look at my face and stopped.

"Alright, Eva," he said, taking the mirror.

"Would you like a horse?" offered Thillil.

Joseph nodded.

"It's waiting for you outside the gate," Thillil replied with a shrug.

"I'm going now," said Joseph, walking through the gate.

"Goodbye," I called.  "Don't forget me!"

He waved back at me and rode off.

"Don't forget," I whispered.

"Goodbye, Blackie," said Thillil, winking at me.

"Wait," I called as he took off.  "What's wrong with the sun?"

"I'm going off to keep an eye on Romeo," he said.  "So I'm putting the castle back into the world of people.  I wouldn't want you locked in the realm of the fairies for all time."

"That's possible?" I asked curiously. 

"Almost definite, if you're here and I'm not," he answered.

"So you've been here-"

"All three years," he finished for me.  "Yes, I have.  Keeping my eye on you, Blackie, and all that.  I hope you appreciate what I do for you."

I rolled my eyes.

"For burning the gardens?" I asked sarcastically.  "Yeah, I'm really grateful for that!"

"You have changed, Blackie," he said, one eyebrow raised.  "There was a time when you would have been much more concerned with yourself, than someone else."

"What's your point?" I asked crossly.

"Nothing," he said.  "See you later, Blackie."

"Wait!" I called out again,

"What is it this time?" he asked.  "I do have a job to do."

"Is he going to come back?"

"Blackie, don't worry," he replied, flying down next to me.

"But I do worry." I answered.  "Is he coming back?"

Thillil groaned.  "Blackie, I can't read the future.  Your guess is as good as mine."

"If I die," I whispered, "Will you tell him that I loved him?"

"Eva, you're not going to die," he tried to say forcefully, but I could sense the worry in his tone.

"Go follow him," I ordered quietly.  Thillil laughed and took flight, flying off into the horizon after Joseph.  I padded slowly back into the castle, the gloom of being alone settling back on me, heavier than it had ever been.

"Remember," came Thillil's disembodied voice.  "If you need me, just call."  And then he was really and truly gone.

"I don't need you," I whimpered to myself.  "I need Joseph."

I padded back into the castle, walking automatically to my rooms, my mind elsewhere.  I lay down on the hearthrug in front of the fire and looked out the window, watching the sun move inexorably across the heavens.  And every cycle, I would make another mark in the ashes in front of the grate, counting down the days until Joseph returned.

It was the morning of the seventh day.  I had not been out of my rooms in one week.  During that time, I had neither eaten nor slept, living only on an all-consuming desire to see Joseph again.

As soon as the first ray of dawn peeked over the horizon, I crawled out of my rooms and to the gates.  I was determined to be there to greet him.  And so I sat down in front of the entrance and waited.  I waited through the morning's gray drizzle, the clear skied of the afternoon and the dusky evening.  But he never came.

Night fell, casting a gloom over the whole landscape.

"Joseph," I cried quietly.  "You promised!"

And I crawled off to lie in the rose bed.  I stayed there all night, watching the gates in case he was delayed and would be coming sometime during the night.

As soon as the sun rose, I was back in front of the gates, trying to find some way to explain Joseph's absence.

'Maybe he thought that it was seven days since his first day home, not from the day he left," I thought.  'Then he'll be here today!'

And so I waited all day by the gate.  But my waiting was in vain.  There was no sign of him.

When night fell again, I crawled back to the roses, despondent.  He wasn't coming back.  He was happy at home, and didn't want to return to the Beast locked in the castle, doomed forever to solitude.  And I couldn't blame him.  After all, who would want to voluntary put themselves in my position? I was shocked he had stayed as long as he had.

And so, the eighth night drew to an end and, as a blood red sun rose on the dawn of the ninth day, I was too weak to rouse myself from the roses.  I had lost all hope and, with that, I lost my will to live.  I had nothing left.  And so, I curled up in the roses and waited for my end.

My eyes were closed.  I felt like I was falling, falling into a gentle oblivion.  The pain in my head from too long without food and sleep would finally be gone and the pain in my heart would stop torturing me.

I lay in the roses and I knew that my life was over.  And I was grateful.

"Eva!" came a far away voice, but I was almost too far gone to hear it.

"Eva," it came again, sounding like the whispering of the wind through the trees.  And I slipped off into oblivion and heard no more.

***

I woke up to the feeling of someone shaking me.

"Wake up," came a familiar voice.  "For heaven's sake, wake up!"

I opened my eyes and the world swam before them for a few moments before my vision returned to its usual clarity.

"Eva?" came the voice from before, sounding very tentative.  I was awake enough to place it now.

"Joseph!" I gasped, sitting bolt upright.  I was still in the bed of roses, but something felt oddly different.

"Who are you?" Joseph asked.

I nodded, and my head felt like it was in the wrong place.

"It's me," I said, reaching out to touch him.  As soon as I did that, I noticed what was wrong.  First of all, I was able to move my arms like that.  Second of all, I was reaching out for him, not with a black paw, but with pale, skin colored hands.

"It's broken!" I yelled excitedly.  "The curse is broken!"

"What curse?" asked Joseph confused.  "Who are you?  And where's Eva?  What have you done with her?"

I laughed softly.

"Joseph, I am Eva!"

"No you're not," he said stubbornly.  "Eva's a large, black panther.  And she was here a minute ago.  Except then she disappeared.  And you took her place!  What did you do with her?"

"Nothing, Joseph, nothing," I said soothingly.  "This is what I really look like.  I was put under a spell that locked me in panther form until the curse was broken."

"Prove it!" he demanded.

"For never was there a story of more woe

Than that of Juliet and her Romeo." I quoted to him.  "Joseph, believe me.  Please!"

He looked unsure.

"What did I call these roses?" he asked, testing me.

"Eva's Roses," I answered with a smile.  "Even though they aren't really mine, they're Thil-"

"Eva!" he yelled, pulling me tightly into a hug.  I hugged him back, just as tight.

"Told you so," I whispered smugly into his ear.

He laughed quietly, but when he pulled away, his face was wet with tears.

"Why are you crying?" I asked, reaching out to brush away the tears.

"I thought I lost you," he whispered harshly, holding me close again.

"Why didn't you come?" I asked him.  "I was afraid you'd never come."

"I was delayed," he answered.  "My mother didn't want me to leave.  She convinced me to stay an extra day.  And so I did.  That night, I looked in the mirror and I saw you, lying in the rose bed.  I remembered what you said about dying without me and I panicked.  I left my mother a note and rode back here.  It wasn't easy to get back.  And I couldn't find the castle.  Last time, it had just been here.  But, this time, it took me all night and half a day to find you.  When I got here…" he gulped.  "I thought you were dead.  I have to admit, I think I understand what drove Romeo much better now."

"Don't say that," I said softly.

He smiled.  "That's all over now.  So, tell me about this curse you were talking about."

"Well," I began, "About thirty six years ago, a spoiled brat of a queen disappeared and no one ever heard of her again."

"That's an old myth around here," said Joseph.  "My mother used to tell me that story when I was little when I asked for too many things.  She would say that the Queen was kidnapped by the fairies for being selfish and, unless I wanted to be kidnapped too, I had better be quiet."

"Your mother wasn't that far off," I said ruefully.

"That was you?" he asked in shock.  I nodded.

"I made the mistake of falling on Thillil's roses," I said, "And I wasn't exactly pleasant to him.  So he turned me into a Beast to teach me some manners.  And the spell could only be broken when…"

I trailed off.

"When what?" Joseph prompted.

"When I fell in love with someone and they said aloud that they love me back," I said in a rush, my cheeks coloring.

Joseph blushed too, but he was grinning from ear to ear.

"Hello Blackie, Romeo," came a cheery voice.

"Thillil," I said, not looking very pleased to see him.

"Don't sound so angry, Blackie," he said.  "You know, you're much happier now than you ever would have been as a spoiled queen with no one to love."

He had a point.

"And you," he said, turning to Joseph.  "You would never have been content to live your life helping out on your older brother's farm.  You needed something more.  And you needed a girl who was interested in more than just a steady life on a homestead."

Something went 'click' in my head just then.

"You planned this from the beginning!" I accused.

He shrugged.  "How?  I told you, I can't see the future."

Joseph and I looked at each other.

"Knowing you," Joseph said darkly, "You'd find a way."

"Perhaps," said Thillil, "But you'll never know.  Goodbye!"  And he started to take off.

"Good riddance," I muttered after him.

"I almost forgot!" Thillil said, reappearing.  "I owe you two a wedding present."

"A what?" we yelled at the same exact time.

"So, I'm going to give you the castle and grounds," finished Thillil.  "I don't really use them anyway, except for people like you, so you might as well take it."

We looked at him, too surprised to speak.

"Don't worry," he said happily.  "I'll leave it on normal time for you.  Goodbye, Romeo, Blackie!  Best of luck!"

And he was gone.

"If I live to be a thousand," Joseph muttered, "I will never understand that creature."

I laughed.

"It's not even worth trying," I told him.  "But what did he mean, about a wedding present?"

"I think I know," he said.  There was a pregnant pause.  Then "Eva, will you marry me?"

I was so used to being the one to ask that question, that is was a little strange to hear it directed to me.

"Yes, Joseph," I answered without a moments hesitation.  "I will."

"Thank you," he whispered, before giving me my first kiss.

"So," I asked, leaning my head against his chest, smiling, "We get to live Happily Ever After now, right?"

He stroked my hair gently, sitting next to me in a bed of roses.

"Of course, Eva," he said.  "Of course."

~%~@ The End @~%~