by Trudi Rosenblum

Disclaimer: Disney owns these characters. I don't.

Author's note: The novel "Precious Bane" was published in 1924. I realize that this means Belle could not be reading it in the 1700s. But it seemed appropriate, so please forgive the anachronism.

Belle slipped into her bedroom and closed the door with a sigh of relief. She was glad to be back in her quiet room and away from the frantic, bustling activity that permeated every corner of the castle.

The last week had been such a whirlwind of emotions for her. First, the romantic dance with the Beast in the ballroom; then seeing her dear father sick and lost in the woods; the Beast unexpectedly letting her go; nursing her father back to health, only to face the threat of him being committed to an insane asylum; the villagers storming the castle; and that horrible, endless moment when she thought her Beast was dead and lost to her forever.

And then, the shock of seeing him, not merely alive, but transformed into a prince.

He had scarcely had time to tell her of the spell he had been under before Cogsworth had whisked him away. "No time for talking, Sire, there's much to be done!" Messengers had been dispatched to inform the Prince's uncle, who had been acting as king in his absence, of the Prince's return, and to invite him and all the royal court to a celebratory ball three days later. The castle was buzzing with activity as the newly-human servants polished every surface, prepared a banquet, decorated for the ball, and made elaborate arrangements for the wedding the following week. The Prince was so busy with Cogsworth, re-learning all the royal etiquette he needed to know and catching up on 10 years of politics he had missed, that Belle had hardly seen him since the transformation. Belle herself had been taken over by Madame Le Grand Bouche, the former Wardrobe, who kept her busy with measurements and fittings for her wedding dress. "This will be the most beautiful wedding the kingdom has ever seen!" Madame Le Grand Bouche promised.

Her wedding. Belle sighed. Everything was happening so fast. The king was arriving today, the big celebration and ball was tonight, and her wedding was scheduled for next week.

She felt so confused. All her life she had loved fairy tales. Now she was living one, but it wasn't what she had expected. It was so hard to wrap her mind around the idea that this handsome prince was really her Beast. The fact that she had hardly seen him at all in the past three days didn't help.

And yet, next week she was to marry this man. This prince, who looked like a stranger to her.

As always when she was unsettled, Belle took refuge in books. She had slipped unnoticed to the library, found a volume by an author she'd heard of but hadn't read, and escaped to her room.

She was glad that her room, at least, was relatively untouched by the transformation. The rest of the castle had become unrecognizable, changing from a dark, gloomy ruin full of cobwebs and gargoyles to a shining silver palace. Now sunlight streamed through airy rooms, revealing vases of flowers, colorful rugs, graceful draperies, and statues of angels and cherubs. It was much pleasanter, Belle had to admit, but the immensity of the change was dizzying.

Her room, however, was mostly the same, aside from the fact that the wardrobe was gone. It had been a pretty, feminine room before, and it remained so. The walls were still the same shade of lavender-pink, the rug was still blue with a gold border, and the canopy bed still wore its rich, wine-colored draperies. Its familiarity was comforting to Belle.

She settled on the bed and opened the book: "Precious Bane" by Mary Wells. She began to read. The protagonist, Prue Sarn, was a girl who had been born with a harelip. She was a good and kind person, but the villagers shunned her because of her deformity. She was certain that no one would ever love her, because no one could see past her ugly appearance.

Belle sighed and closed the book. It was well-written, but the theme hit too close to home. Belle wanted an escape from recent events, not a reminder of them.

There was a knock at the door. Belle looked up. "Come in," she called.

The door opened, and he was there. Her Prince. It was still such a shock, seeing those familiar blue eyes looking at her from a human face.

His shoulder-length, wavy light-brown hair was tied back neatly. He wore a ruffled white silk shirt, royal blue velvet trousers with gold trim, and black boots that had been polished till they gleamed. He a prince, Belle thought. No one would ever imagine that just a short time before, he had been a ferocious-looking beast, all bristling fur and razor-sharp fangs and deadly claws.

"I hope I'm not disturbing you," he said, coming toward her.

"No, not at all," said Belle, putting the book aside.

He looked at her, this incredible girl who had transformed his life. She was wearing her simple blue dress with a white apron, her hair in a loose ponytail. She was so beautiful. He had never known he could care about someone so much, or feel so devastated at the thought of losing her.

For the umpteenth time, he considered holding his tongue. It would be so easy. Their wedding was only a week away; then she would be his forever. He could just keep quiet.

But no. He knew he had to do this, even if it meant losing her. He owed her that much.

"Belle, I need to talk to you," he said seriously.

"Of course," said Belle, wondering what was going on.

He ran his hand over his hair, a gesture she recognized from before. He often did that when he was at a loss for words. He sat down on the end of the bed. "Belle," he said finally, "you know our wedding is scheduled for next week."

"I know," she said, watching him closely.

He took a deep breath. "I want you to know that..." He hesitated, then took the plunge. "You don't have to marry me if you don't want to."

Belle was startled. She didn't know what to say. "What's going on?" she asked. "Did they tell you that you have to marry a princess?"

"What? Oh. No, it's not that," he said.

" don't want to marry me?" she asked.

He looked shocked. "Oh, no, Belle!" He took her hands in his. "You mean everything to me." He saw her confusion and sighed. "Belle, you have to understand."

He stood up and began pacing, searching for the right words. "The night the Enchantress cursed me was the worst night of my life. You can't begin to imagine how it felt. It was like living in a nightmare...a nightmare I couldn't wake up from. When I was a child, I sometimes dreamed that a monster was chasing me. I'm sure you've had that dream." She nodded. "But now, I was the monster. I couldn't hide from myself. I couldn't escape what I was."

He stopped pacing. He was looking straight ahead, but not seeing the room. His blue eyes were full of remembered pain. "I destroyed all the mirrors in the castle, except the enchanted one. I couldn't bear to see the hideous creature I had become. But I saw it in the eyes of my servants. The horror on their faces when they looked at me. The way they trembled and hid when I raised my voice. They were never afraid of me before.

"And the rose..." he went on, a trace of anger creeping into in his voice. "That accursed rose. It mocked me with what I could never have. I often wished the Enchantress had not put in that escape clause, that false hope to torment me. I could break the spell and get my life back...if I could get someone to love me. It was a cruel joke. No one could ever love such a monster."

He trailed off into silence, remembering. Belle couldn't bear to see that haunted look in his eyes. She went to him and squeezed his hand reassuringly. "But someone did love you," she reminded him, wanting to draw him back from that dark place.

It worked. He turned quickly, his eyes focusing on her, and smiled. "Yes," he said. "Someone did love me. And I changed back to myself. I finally had what I'd wanted for so long." His smile faded. He looked troubled. "But wasn't what you wanted. You didn't know about the curse. You never asked for this. You fell in love with the Beast, exactly as he was. And as soon as you did - he was gone. And now there's just...there's just me. And maybe that's not what you want."

Belle flushed guiltily. She had had some fears along those lines these past few days, though she had tried to ignore them.

"I hated myself for being a monster," he said softly. "I prayed for an end to it. But you, loved that monster. And I took him away from you."

Abruptly he turned away from her, not meeting her eyes. "I once forced you to promise you would stay with me forever," he said quietly. "That was wrong, and selfish. I swore to myself that I would never do that to you again. So..." He closed his eyes briefly. "If you don't want to marry me, I understand. It's all right. You can go back home to the village. You don't owe me anything."

Belle was speechless. She could see what it cost him to say this. His eyes were as sorrowful as on the night he had released her to be with her father - that look that told her he was determined to do what was best for her, even if it tore him apart.

Belle felt a rush of love for him flood through her. Her Beast. So dear, and so unsure. How could she have doubted him?

Mistaking her silence, he sighed heavily. "I'll have the servants pack your things, and order a carriage to take you to the village." He started to move toward the door.

Then he stopped abruptly, turning to her. His hands clenched into fists, and she saw a flash of the old fire in his blue eyes. "But this I swear," he said fiercely. "If it is the Beast you love, I would gladly take back the curse forever. I would search the whole world over to find the Enchantress and make her change me back, if it means you would love me again."

Tears came to Belle's eyes. "I would never ask that of you," she said softly. She was inexpressibly moved to know that he would willingly re-enter his own personal hell, if it was what she wanted.

Gently she took his hands and led him back to the bed. "Come, sit with me," she said. He complied, his eyes searching her face.

"This is a big adjustment for both of us," Belle said. "Everything has changed so much, and things are happening so fast. But there's one thing you need to remember. And that's what the Enchantress told you."

He looked puzzled. She reminded him, "'Do not be deceived by appearances. True beauty is found within.'" She was ashamed to think of how easily she, too, had forgotten this.

She reached up and touched his cheek gently. "I didn't fall in love with fur or fangs," she explained, her voice tender. "I fell in love with a person. Someone who risked his life to save me from the wolves. Someone who was so delighted when a little bird hopped into his hand. Someone who sat with me by the fire for hours, sharing my favorite books with me. Someone who played with me in the snow and danced with me in a ballroom."

She smiled up at him. "I looked into the Beast's eyes, and saw a good soul. I saw someone who was trying so hard, so very hard, to be a better man. That's who I fell in love with. And that was you. And it will always be you, no matter what you look like."

He looked at her with wonder, unable to speak.

"Besides," she added, trying to lighten the mood, "if all I wanted was a big hairy animal with a bad temper, I would have married Gaston."

He grinned at that. Then he took her in his arms. "I love you so much, Belle," he said, and kissed her. It was a deep, passionate kiss, and she felt herself responding, her arms going around him and holding him tightly. She found herself thinking of their wedding night, a week away, and wondering if they could possibly move the date sooner.

He released her. She saw his body relax, the tension and worry draining out of him. He lay back on the bed next to her, his hands behind his head. "This is all a big change for me too," he confessed. "I was raised a prince, but it was all so long ago. Those years under the bad as it was, I became used to it, somehow. The darkness, and the silence, and the was just the way things were. And now everything is bright, and so noisy and crowded. I feel like my head is spinning."

"I know!" she exclaimed, relieved that someone understood how she felt. "It's beautiful, of course, but everything changed so fast. It's hard to get used to."

He nodded in agreement. "And then there's Cogsworth, drilling me on all this royal etiquette that I've forgotten. I'm still just trying to get used to being human again. I can't keep track of whether an earl is higher in rank than a duke."

She laughed in commiseration. Then she sobered. "Since you bring it up...there is one thing that worries me."

He pushed himself up on his elbow, looking at her with concern. "What is it?"

"Well," she said, a little self-consciously. "It's just that I'm not a princess. I don't know if I'll measure up to what people expect. I'm just a girl from a tiny village. I don't know which fork to use, or the right way to curtsey."

He laughed and squeezed her arm affectionately. "Don't be silly. You'll be wonderful. You're more warm and gracious than any princess I've ever met. You have a way of making people feel at home. They'll love you." He had an idea. "But if you're worried about it, you could join me in my lessons. I'm sure Cogsworth would love to have another captive audience."

She smiled. "Maybe I will. Just to keep you company."

"I'd like that," he said, smiling.

They sat in companionable silence. Then he said, "I made a decision today. When my uncle comes tonight, I'm going to tell him I want him to remain king."

Belle was surprised. "Aren't you next in line for the throne?"

"I am," he agreed. "But my uncle has been in charge for 10 years, and apparently he's done a good job. I think it would give the kingdom stability to have him stay on. And I don't feel ready to run a kingdom yet. He has no children, so I'll still become king when he passes on. Hopefully by then I'll have learned what I need to know."

"I'm sure you would be fine even if you took over tomorrow," she assured him. "But I think it's a good idea. It will take the pressure off you."

"Yes," he said. "And Belle, I was thinking...after the wedding, maybe we could take a honeymoon trip around the world. Would you like that?"

Her eyes lit up. "Oh yes!" she breathed. "All those years in that little village, every day the same, I always dreamed of seeing far-off places."

He nodded. "I know what you mean. I haven't been off the castle grounds in 10 years. I'd love to see some different sights."

"But won't the kingdom be upset if you leave again, after being gone for so long?" she asked.

He considered this. "We'll say it's a diplomatic mission - visiting other heads of state and other kingdoms," he decided. "We'll probably have to sit through some dull formal dinners in each place, but the rest of the time will be ours. We can spend some time alone, explore exotic places, maybe have some adventures."

She sighed and snuggled up next to him. "It sounds wonderful."

They lay there, lost in their own dreams. Then Belle said, "What time is it?"

He looked at the mantel clock. So odd to see it sitting there, unmoving, no eyes or mouth. "It's 4:00. Why?"

"Well, the dinner and ball start at 7:00, but Madame Le Grande Bouche wants me in her chamber at 6:00 to dress me and do my hair." Belle made a face. "Imagine that? An HOUR to get dressed? Please tell me I don't have to do that every day."

He chuckled. "No, dearest. Just for special occasions. You can wear your blue dress and your ponytail every day if you want."

"Whew! That's a relief," said Belle. She had a thought. "We have two hours. I was thinking..."

"Yes?" he asked with interest.

She looked at him shyly. "I got a new book today. Would you like to read it with me?"

He smiled warmly. "I'd love to. I've missed that."

He put his arm around her, and she snuggled close to him and opened the book.


That night, everyone oohed and aahed as Belle danced with the prince. "Such a beautiful couple," everyone agreed. Belle was stunning in her yellow ball gown, and the prince was so handsome in his blue tailcoat.

Belle sighed with contentment. She rested her head on his chest, closing her eyes. Her best friend. Her beloved. Her Beast. Her Prince. He was all that and more, she thought.

Off to the side, Mrs. Potts held her little boy and watched the couple with happy tears in her eyes.

"Are they gonna live happily ever after, Mama?" Chip asked.

Mrs. Potts hugged her son. "Of course, my dear. Of course."