Belle was nervous as she approached Gaston's house that night. Would the Enchantress really appear, as she had promised? For that matter, was she even real? Her visit seemed almost like a dream, born of Belle's desperation.
Inside, the Beast was worried too. Unlike Belle, he knew all too well that the Enchantress was real. But he didn't entirely trust her. She could be capricious. And after all, it was she who had cursed him in the first place. She had wanted to punish him then - why would she be willing to help him now? He only hoped that the Enchantress saw how good and kind Belle was, and would want to reward her for her kindness. But he couldn't help fearing that it was all a trick.
Gaston, on the other hand, had no such qualms. He was cocky and confident as he answered Belle's hesitant knock. "Come in, Belle," he said, leading her down the stairs with a swagger in his step.
Belle was relieved, although surprised, to see the Beast looking much better than he had yesterday. He seemed to have miraculously healed from his wounds. He and Belle exchanged a worried look as Gaston sat down and looked at her expectantly. "Have you come to give me your answer?" he asked.
Belle swallowed. "Well, I...that is..."
To Belle's immense relief, a sudden flash of light spared her having to finish. With a magical shimmer, the Enchantress appeared.
Gaston rose, grinning. "Enchantress," he said with a bow. "I've been expecting you."
Belle and the Beast stared at him. "You know her?" Belle asked.
"Of course," said Gaston smugly. "We're good friends, aren't we, Enchantress?"
The Enchantress ignored the question. "We all have much to discuss, and I have an important spell to perform," she said. "Last night, each of you asked a boon from me. It was most enlightening."
All three of them were startled to hear this. Each had thought that he or she was the only one to be visited. They looked uncertainly at each other.
"Belle," the Enchantress continued. "You wished for the Beast to be free, back in his castle and safe from Gaston. In exchange, you were willing to become Gaston's wife."
"Yes," said Belle quietly, lowering her eyes.
"No!" said the Beast. He looked at Belle pleadingly. "Belle, you can't marry him. You can't throw your life away for me."
"If I may continue..." said the Enchantress. "Beast, you wished for Belle's freedom. In exchange, you were willing to remain Gaston's prisoner, and for Belle to lose all of her memories of you, so that Gaston would not be able to pressure her."
Belle was upset. "Beast, how could you ask for that? I would never want to forget you!"
"I thought...you'd be happier that way," the Beast said softly.
Moved, she reached through the bars and touched his paw gently. "I wouldn't," she said simply.
The Enchantress cleared her throat. "Now, then. I must tell you that I have no intention to granting either of those wishes."
The Beast sighed. A trick, as he had feared.
Gaston grinned. She wouldn't grant those wishes because she would grant his wish instead. He knew it. She was just toying with those sentimental fools. Good for her.
Belle protested. "But you said--"
The Enchantress held up her hand for silence. "I'm not going to grant them because, truthfully, you don't need me," she explained. "You were both willing to give up your lives for each other. That is your strength. You already have the power to make your own wishes come true."
"We do?" Belle was confused.
The Enchantress turned to the Beast. "Ten years ago, I told you that if you learned to love another, and earned her love in return, your curse would be lifted. Back then, you thought only of yourself. You had no love in your heart. Now, you are willing to give up your life for this girl, and she is willing to do the same for you. It seems that you have achieved what I asked of you. All that remains is for her to say the words. So..." Her voice softened. "Why haven't you asked her?" she asked gently.
The Beast looked away, avoiding her eyes. "I did hope, once," he admitted. "But when she left to be with her father, I realized I was fooling myself. She wasn't coming back. She had stayed only because she gave her word. And she was kind enough to pity me, and to befriend me. That was all. And it was more that I deserve. I have no right to ask any more of her."
Belle's eyes filled with tears. "Is that what you think? That I just felt sorry for you?" She went into the cage and gently put her hands on his face, turning him to look at her. "You're the only one who's ever listened to me, really listened, and cared about what I think and how I feel. When I told you about my books, you genuinely wanted to know why they were important to me, and you shared them with me. And, you changed. You seemed so fierce and angry at first, but when I got to know you, you let me see who you really are. Of all the people I've ever met, you are the most...human."
She stroked his cheek tenderly. "And the most noble, and brave, and generous. You let me go to my father even though you thought I wouldn't come back. You risked your own life to save me. I could search the world over and never find anyone as special as you. And by the way, you were wrong - I would have come back, once my father was well. I couldn't live my life without you."
He looked at her in surprise, hope dawning in his blue eyes. "Do you mean...?
She smiled at him. "Yes. I never really realized it before, but I do now. I love you."
Immediately the air began to shimmer and glitter with magic. Belle gasped as the Beast seemed to float, and then transformed before her eyes into a young man. The heavy chains and thick cuffs fell off his slim wrists and ankles.
He took her hands in his. "Belle, it's me," he said, his voice so familiar, but missing the growling undertone she was used to.
Belle hesitantly reached out and touched his shaggy brown hair, so like the Beast's mane, and gazed into his warm blue eyes. "It is you," she said in wonder. "Was this the curse she was talking about?"
He nodded, smiling down at her.
Gaston, on the other hand, was not so happy. "What's going on, Enchantress?" he demanded. "What about my wish? You said you'd give me a spell!"
She nodded. "And so I shall, never fear."
Gaston was not mollified. "Who on earth is that?" He jerked his thumb at the newly-transformed young man, who even now was gazing lovingly at his girl.
"That," said the Enchantress, "is the long-lost Crown Prince who mysteriously vanished ten years ago. He has been under a spell all this time."
Gaston gulped as he realized the ramifications of this. He had kidnapped and tortured the Crown Prince - the heir to the throne! He would certainly be beheaded, or worse. He fell to his knees. "Y-your Majesty, I beg your f-forgiveness," he stammered in a panic. "I had no idea--"
"Calm yourself," said the Prince, still gazing at Belle. He didn't bother to look at Gaston. "I am far too happy at the moment to entertain thoughts of revenge. Leave my sight; you are free to go. But if you ever dare come near Belle or myself again, there will be consequences."
"Thank you, your Majesty," said Gaston, bowing hastily and backing away. He quickly headed for the stairs.
But the Enchantress suddenly appeared in front of him, blocking his way.
"Just a moment," she told him. "You and I have unfinished business."
Gaston glance nervously behind him at the Prince. "Never mind my wish. It doesn't matter now."
"That's good, because I'm not granting your wish," she said. "I never said I would grant it. What I did say was that you are worthy of an elaborate spell that would bring you all that you deserve. And so you are."
She studied him thoughtfully, and sighed. "You have been blessed with so many gifts," she said, shaking her head sadly. "Physical strength, pleasing looks, a marksman's eye. You could have been a true hero. Instead, you use your talents only to glorify yourself and dominate others. When you were offered the possibility of a magical wish, you wished only to fulfill your own selfish desires while ruining two other lives. You sneer at kindness and gentleness, equating them with weakness. You are vain, conceited and selfish."
Gaston shifted uneasily. He didn't like the sound of this.
The Enchantress tapped her wand against her chin, pondering. "You have so much to learn: empathy, compassion, selflessness...But most of all, you need to learn humility. So that is where I will begin." She tapped Gaston's head with her wand.
Immediately, the air begain to shimmer. Gaston felt himself changing. His body felt like it was shrinking, twisting. He heard Belle gasp in horror. "What have you done to me?" he cried.
The Enchantress produced a mirror and handed it to him. Gaston screamed. In place of the tall, strong, handsome man he had been, he saw a bald, ugly dwarf.
"You-you can't leave me like this!" he gasped, horrified.
She tilted her head, looking at him. "I will give you the same chance I gave him," she said, gesturing at the prince. She waved her wand, and a golden hourglass appeared, floating in the air. Inside it, multicolored sand glittered and sparkled.
"The sand in this hourglass will mark the next ten years," she explained. "As it flows through from the top to the bottom, it will magically disappear.If you can learn to truly love another, and earn that person's love in return, before all the sand is gone, then the spell will be broken and you will return to your true form. If not, you will remain in this form for all time."
She placed the hourglass in the dwarf's hands. "Now, go. I wish you luck."
Stunned, Gaston turned and stumbled out, clutching the hourglass.
There was silence in the basement for a moment. Then the Prince ventured, "Enchantress...as much as I despise that man...still, wasn't that a bit harsh?"
"No harsher than what I did to you," she pointed out."His life will be hard, 'tis true. The world can be cruel to those who are different. You know that better than anyone. But perhaps in that form he will finally learn humility. And in a cold world, he may come to appreciate the value of kindness and compassion. If he opens his heart to the lessons he needs to learn, he may escape his curse, just as you did. Either way, he will be punished for his crimes, so justice will be done. He fate lies entirely in his hands."
She smiled at the couple. "Now, you two have much to do. Your servants await you at the castle for a celebration. Their curse has been lifted too. And the kingdom awaits the return of its prince."
"Of course," said the Prince. "But first I have something more important to do."
He embraced Belle, and they kissed at last.
Author's note: I hope you liked this story! There is also a sequel to it, called "A Man of Stature," which is about what happens to Gaston under the curse - you can click on my profile page to see it.