Prince Charming rode through the forest, feeling gloomy. He looked every inch the heroic knight, from his shining armor to his noble steed to his impressive lance. Under his helmet, his feathered blonde hair was perfectly coiffed. Normally that simple knowledge alone was enough to put him in a good mood, but now even his impeccable appearance could not lift his spirits.

He had failed. Not that it was his fault, he hastened to add mentally. It was all that bloody ogre's fault. To think of all the effort Prince Charming had put in to win Fiona and gain his rightful kingdom! It was he who had chanced the perilous journey through blistering cold and scorching desert, traveling for many days and nights, risking life and limb to reach the dragon's keep and rescue the fair Fiona – only to be told that a hideous ogre had stolen his princess!

And then, returning home, he had done everything his dear Mummy had told him to. He had pretended to be that dreadful ogre, he had been as charming as he knew how to be, but Fiona had simply refused to accept him. She might have done, in time, but of course, that horrid creature had burst in on their wedding ball and ruined everything. Charming had lost Fiona, the kingdom…even his dear Mummy, he thought, with tears in his eyes.

He had nothing now. So, he was doing the only thing he knew how to do: traveling around to faraway lands, looking for noble quests to go on and dragons to slay, and hoping that somewhere along the way, he might find a princess in distress that he could rescue and marry, and so finally get the kingdom he knew he deserved.

He was in France at the moment, and evening was drawing near. He decided to stop at the village up ahead. It didn't look like a promising place to find dragons or princesses, but at least he could rest and have a drink. He could use one.

He entered the tavern and went up to the bar. "Greetings, my good man. Do you have a wine menu?" he asked the bartender in his cultured English accent.

The bartender stared at him. "We have beer, ale, and whiskey, pal. That's about it."

Charming shrugged. "Ale, then." The bartender poured the drink.

Charming pulled off his helmet and hairnet and shook out his hair, letting his lustrous golden locks bounce to full effect. Immediately, he heard excited squeals from across the room and turned to see what was happening.

On the far side of the room, he saw a black-haired, musclebound peasant showing off his strength, lifting full barrels of ale to the admiration of three beautiful, identical blonde girls. But Charming's dulcet tones had caught their attention, and now the girls were ignoring their former idol and staring in unabashed lust at the stranger.

"Oh, my God! Who is that? He's dreamy!" said one blonde, swooning. "He has a face that looks like it was carved by angels!"

"And I just love that accent!" sighed another.

"My, what a guy!" squealed the third.

Charming smiled his most dazzling smile. He was accustomed to this kind of adoration, but he never got tired of it. "Good evening, ladies," he said graciously. "You wouldn't happen to be princesses, would you?" It wasn't likely, in a tiny provincial village like this, but it never hurt to ask.

The three blondes swarmed around him. "I'll be anything you want me to be!" the first one cooed, batting her eyes at him.

The black-haired muscleman scowled at seeing his fans' attention diverted. His mood was not improved when his lackey, a tiny fellow, piped up, "Gosh, Gaston! That guy is just as handsome as you are!"

Gaston automatically punched him in the face without looking at him. "Shut up, LeFou," he snapped. "No one's as handsome as Gaston!"

He strode over to Charming angrily. "Who the hell are you?" he demanded.

"Prince Charming, at your service," Charming said coolly. The girls "oohed" and "aahed" at the realization that there was an actual prince in their midst.

Gaston's scowled deepened. "A prince? Of what? Where's your kingdom?" he challenged.

Charming's smile faded. That was a bit of an awkward subject. "Well…I don't have one, actually," he admitted. "It's a long story." It really wasn't that long: a king had slept with a woman who was not his wife, and Charming was the result. His mother insisted on calling him a prince, since he was the son of a king, but he was illegitimate and unacknowledged and had no rights to anything. But he certainly wasn't about to spill his sad story to some belligerent peasant.

"I'll bet," scoffed Gaston.

Charming looked his adversary over. He was about six foot four and 250 lbs., his long jet-black hair tied back with a ribbon. Charming had to grudgingly concede that the fellow was handsome, in a rough, uncouth sort of way. Of course, his chiselled, square-jawed countenance was nowhere near as attractive as Charming's own sensitive, delicate features, Charming thought. And the stranger's big, square, muscular hands were a far cry from the prince's long, elegant, perfectly-manicured fingers. If Charming had the face of an angel, this Gaston had the look of a lumberjack. Still, some women did go for that primitive, caveman type, Charming supposed.

Gaston, meanwhile, was sneering at the thought that his harem was actually giving this sissified dandy the time of day. Of course, Gaston was vain about his appearance too – how could he not be, when he was so perfect in every way? But to his mind, no real man would spend that much time on his nails, he thought. And his lips…"Is that glitter?" he asked disbelievingly.

"Why, yes," said Charming. "Cherry-flavored, actually." He grinned at the blondes. "Want a taste?" They swooned again.

That was the last straw. "All right, that's it. Get out," ordered Gaston.

"Pardon me?" said Charming, aghast. Was this common peasant daring to order him out? The noble Prince Charming?

"You heard me. Get out," said Gaston threateningly.

"I think not," said Charming firmly.

"Fine. Then I'll make you get out," Gaston said, getting in his face.

Charming drew himself up, affronted. "Are you challenging me to a duel?"

Gaston rolled his eyes. "Not a duel, you idiot – a fight! You know what a fight is, fancy boy? Where you hit each other with fists?"

"Of course!" snapped Charming. "I'm well versed in all forms of hand-to-hand combat! And I'll have you know, I never lose."

"I never lose either!" said Gaston. He glared at Charming. "Come on, then." They went outside, followed by the curious villagers.

Charming took off his armor, to the appreciative whistles of the girls, revealing his custom-made leather jerkin and expensive breeches. They headed toward the town square, where there was more room, ready to pummel each other.

But as they passed a cart selling pots and pans, they both got distracted by the glorious sight of their reflections in the shiny surfaces. They stopped, mesmerized. Charming tossed his head, enjoying the sight of his exceptionally soft and shiny hair bouncing and settling. Gaston checked to make sure his teeth were as dazzlingly white as ever; they were, of course. Both of them smiled at themselves in a smug, self-satisfied way, two men with a single thought: God, I'm gorgeous!

Then the kitchenware vendor pushed the cart away, and the spell was broken.

"Right, then," said Charming. "Let's get on with it."

He and Gaston circled each other, fists up.

But at that moment, she walked by. The most beautiful girl Charming had ever seen – more beautiful even than Fiona. She had long, dark brown hair and big brown eyes. She wore a simple blue dress with a white apron, and she was reading a book as she walked, ignoring the combatants.

Charming forgot completely about the fight, all his attention taken by the girl. "Wow!" he said in admiration. "Who's that girl?" He lowered his fists and headed in her direction.

"Hey!" Gaston sputtered in outrage. Belle was his property! "You can't just—"

But the prince had already walked in front of the girl and was flashing his most charming smile at her. She looked up questioningly. "Yes?"

He quoted dramatically,

"O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter

When he appear'd to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!"

Gaston looked annoyed at the meaningless gibberish. "What the heck was THAT?"

But Belle was delighted. "It's poetry! Christopher Marlowe! You like poetry, monsieur?"

"Oh, yes," lied Charming. In reality, he found poems boring, and rarely understood what they meant. But his mother had forced him to memorize enough classical literature, famous quotations, and poetry to appear educated and well-spoken, as a prince should be. And he had discovered on his own that quoting romantic poetry was a sure-fire way to make any girl melt. It certainly seemed to be working on this one.

He took her hand and kissed it. "And what, pray tell, is your name, fair maiden?"

"Belle," she said, smiling.

"Ah, Belle. Beauty. A fitting name for one so radiant," Charming said gallantly. "And I am Prince Charming, your humble servant."

Belle's eyes widened. "Prince Charming?"

"You've heard of me?" Charming said, pleased.

Belle shook her head. "No, but that's incredible! The hero of the book I'm reading right now is called Prince Charming." She opened the book and pointed to a page.

He moved next to her and, under pretense of looking at the book, took advantage of the proximity to slip his arm around her, ignoring Gaston's murderous glare. If looks could kill, Charming would have been stone cold dead on the spot. "Indeed! What an extraordinary coincidence. Surely it means that destiny has brought us together."

"It's just so wonderful to meet someone else who likes to read!" Belle said eagerly. "Everyone in this village thinks reading is odd."

Charming clucked his tongue in commiseration. "It is dreadful, isn't it, the way people like us are so misunderstood?" he said, pulling her closer.

"Tell me, who are your favorite authors?" Belle asked enthusiastically.

Charming, who had been leaning in for a kiss, was thrown off by the question. "Well…" he said uncertainly. "I…I don't have a favorite. I like all of them."

"I see," said Belle slowly. She was gradually beginning to suspect that this silver-tongued Lothario was not, in fact, the book-loving scholar she had originally thought. "Well, let me ask you this then. In the poem you quoted, why do you think Marlowe used the phrase 'Arethusa's azur'd arms'? What do you think he was trying to convey?"

"Um…well…it could be a lot of things," said Charming, floundering. Gaston snickered.

"Yes," said Belle, detaching her arm from his. She sighed with disappointment. Just a wolf in sheep's clothing, she thought. Or rather, a Gaston in prince's clothing. "Well, I'm afraid I have to go now. It was nice talking to you."

"Wait!" said Charming. "Just one question: are you a princess?" He needed to know if it was worth the effort to pursue her, or if he should just pack it in.

"A princess?" asked Belle in confusion. "No, of course not."

"Right. Okay, carry on then," said Charming, shrugging his shoulders.

Belle looked miffed, but headed back to her house.

Charming turned back to Gaston. "Ready to fight?"

"Finally!" said Gaston.

Charming paused. "Oh, but one rule. No hitting in the face. I bruise easily."

Gaston made a show of sneering, but inwardly he was relieved. He certainly had no wish to have HIS perfect features marred either. "All right."

Charming lifted his fists and danced around, showing off the fancy footwork he'd learned in his lessons. Gaston stared at him incredulously for several long moments. Then, with a shrug, he hauled off and punched Charming hard in the stomach. Charming crumpled to the ground.

"Hey!" said Charming, curled up in a ball, holding his stomach. "That hurt!"

"It's supposed to hurt!" retorted Gaston. He flexed his muscles proudly. "Well, now we know who's the best," he said smugly.

"Not so fast!" snapped Charming, getting up. "No one's better than me at swordfighting!"

"I'm the best at everything," Gaston said confidently.

"Then you won't mind proving it," Charming insisted.

"Fine with me," said Gaston. "Get some swords."

Once armed, they raised their swords. Gaston had only fought with swords once or twice in his life, but with his overwhelming ego, he was confident that his natural talent would easily bring him victory. But to his chagrin, he was no match for Charming's 10 years of intensive knighthood training. Charming had learned swordfighting from Far Far Away's top fencing expert, and there was none better.

Within 10 seconds, Gaston had lost both his sword and his smirk, and the sharp point of Charming's weapon was pressing against his throat. Now it was Charming's turn to gloat. "Who's the best now?" he taunted.

Gaston glared at him. "All right. You've won this round," he conceded grudgingly. "But no one can beat me at archery!"

"You're on!" said Charming.

The contests went on far into the night. Gaston won the archery contest; Charming won the horsemanship event. Gaston was the better swimmer; Charming was the faster runner. Gaston beat Charming at cards; Charming beat Gaston at checkers.

The villagers had long since gotten bored and drifted away, yawning, to their homes, leaving the egotists to their pointless rivalry. The two men continued trying to one-up each other for hours more, but by midnight, even they were getting fed up with the game.

"Tell you what," Charming said finally. "What say we call it a draw?"

"A draw?" Gaston said, thinking it over.

Charming nodded. "I'm leaving the village anyway, so it hardly matters. And I shan't be back," he added, looking around disdainfully. A tiny, obscure backwater village like this was certainly not worthy of a prince's presence. He needed to be in a large, prosperous kingdom. Preferably as its ruler. "I only stopped here in the first place to get a drink. I would have been gone hours ago if you hadn't distracted me with all this nonsense."

The wheels in Gaston's head were turning. If Charming was leaving, then Gaston could claim anything he wanted; Charming wouldn't be here to deny it, after all. He could tell all the villagers that he'd trounced the upstart prince soundly and chased him out of the village, warning him never to return. Gaston liked that idea.

"All right, we'll call it a draw," he agreed cheerfully. "Speaking of drinks, I could use one myself. You want one?"

"Please," said Charming. Gaston unlocked the tavern door and they went inside. Gaston poured drinks for both of them.

"Cheers," said Charming. They drank in silence for a few moments.

"So what are you doing in France, anyway?" Gaston asked.

"I'm looking for a princess," said Charming.

"Oh," said Gaston. "She lives in France?"

"Not necessarily," said Charming. "I just need to marry a princess. It doesn't matter where she's from." He took a drink of ale. "I had a princess once," he said gloomily. "I was supposed to marry her. But she married someone else instead."

Gaston looked him over, puzzled. "Why?" he asked curiously. "You're a handsome guy…not as handsome as me, of course, but good enough. And you said you're a prince. What did this other guy have over you?"

"I don't know!" wailed Charming in frustration, the ale making him morose. "It made no sense! I'm a prince, and he…he was an ogre!"

Gaston was baffled. "What do you mean, ogre?"

"I mean ogre!" said Charming impatiently. "Big, ugly, green, rude manners, foul stench, and all!"

Gaston stared at him incredulously. "Let me get this straight. The girl you wanted to marry picked an ugly monster over you?" He burst out laughing. "God, that's pathetic! How can you ever live that down?"

"It wasn't my fault!" said Charming petulantly. "It could just as easily have happened to you!"

Gaston smirked. "Me? Never!" He took a swig of ale.

"Don't be so sure," said Charming darkly.

Gaston grinned, looking smug. "Anyway, I already know who I'm going to marry: Belle."

"That girl with the books?" Charming wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Why would you want a girl who reads all the time?"

"She's the most beautiful girl in town. That makes her the best," Gaston pointed out. "And don't I deserve the best?"

Charming thought about that. "Well, she is beautiful, I'll grant you that. So what's your plan?"

"Plan?" Gaston said.

"I saw that girl," Charming reminded him. "And from what I saw, she's not going to give you the time of day."

"She's just playing hard to get," Gaston said defensively. "She'll come around. They always do."

Charming rolled his eyes. "Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that, mate."

Gaston scowled. "Well, what do you think I should do?" he said challengingly.

"Well, she's a girl. Girls like flowers and poetry and all that rot. You have to win her over. Make some grand, romantic gesture that will really sweep her off her feet," Charming said.

Gaston looked blank. "Like what?"

Charming shook his head condescendingly. Stupid bloody peasants. "You really have got no imagination at all, have you?" His brow furrowed in thought. "All right. Let's see…" He snapped his fingers. "I know! You arrange the whole wedding right outside her house – cake, musicians, guests, the whole lot. Then you knock on her door and propose. When she sees all the trouble you've gone to, she'll be so impressed she'll have to say yes."

Gaston's eyes lit up. It was exactly the kind of flambuoyant, attention-getting spectacle he adored. "That's a great idea!"

"I know," said Charming smugly. "It's bold, it's romantic, it makes a statement. And besides, she can't very well say 'no' in front of a whole village of guests, can she?"

Gaston laughed. "No, she can't. You're right! I'll do it tomorrow."

"Great." Charming downed the last of his ale, wiped his mouth, and stood up. "Well, I'd best be off." He donned his armor and went to his horse.

"Where will you go next?" Gaston asked.

Charming shrugged as he mounted the horse. "Right now I'll just go to the next town and get a room at the inn. I could use a few hours shut-eye. Then tomorrow, I thought I'd head over to the kingdom of Somnambula. I heard there's a princess there under a sleep-spell, who can only be awakened by love's first kiss. That's really more my cup of tea."

"Good luck," Gaston said.

"You too," said Charming with a wave, and rode off.

Gaston headed back toward his house, feeling cheerful. That Charming really wasn't such a bad fellow – even if he was so pathetic that he had lost his girl to a hideous beast, he thought with a smirk. Still, the guy had given him a brilliant idea to win Belle's hand. First thing tomorrow, he would make the arrangements for the wedding outside Belle's house. By afternoon, he would propose and marry her on the spot, and by tomorrow night, Gaston would be enjoying his honeymoon. It couldn't fail.

Everything is perfect, he thought smugly. Just like me.