Disclaimer: "Beauty and the Beast" and all its characters belong to Disney.

Dedicated to Lyssa (thinkofme), whose comments on the BATB LiveJournal inspired this story, and special thanks to Val (Shigatsusama) for suggesting the title.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Gaston and Belle – crazy, no? It happened this way: I was intrigued by a discussion on the LJ about Gaston's attraction to Belle, and I was also thinking about the fact that in most other fanfic categories there are stories about all kinds of romantic pairings, even unlikely ones. And I started to wonder: "Is it at all possible to write a Gaston/Belle story that's actually believable and in character?" The idea intrigued me, and thus a story was born. But I want to emphasize that I really am a Beast/Belle shipper. By writing this story, I am NOT seriously arguing that Belle SHOULD have ended up with Gaston in the movie! This is totally AU, and totally just for fun, to see if I can pull it off convincingly. Oh, and let me state right off the bat that the Beast/prince does not exist in this story. I'd hate to be responsible for depriving poor Beast of his true love. :) As I said, AU. I hope you enjoy it!

Gaston slipped his arm around Belle's shoulder. "What do you say you and me take a walk over to the tavern and take a look at my trophies?" he suggested, leading her in that direction.

But Belle pulled away. "I'm sorry, Gaston. Maybe some other time. I have to get home to help my father."

Gaston watched with annoyance as Belle hurried off. "What is wrong with that girl?" he fumed to LeFou. "Is she blind? Can't she see I'm the handsomest man in town? She should be begging to spend time with me!"

LeFou shrugged. "She's crazy, Gaston, just like her father. What do you expect?"

Gaston shook his head. "It's all those books she reads – that's the problem. Her head is so full of ridiculous stories, she can't see what's right in front of her face!" He slammed his fist into his palm in frustration. "I've tried to make her see reason. I keep telling her it's not right for a woman to read, that she should pay attention to me instead. But she just doesn't listen!"

"Honestly, Gaston, I don't know why you care about her so much," said LeFou. "I think you should go for one of the triplets. They all love you! And they're really pretty, too."

"Not as pretty as Belle," Gaston said firmly. "Belle is the most beautiful girl in town. She's the one I want. And I always get what I want."

"That's true," LeFou acknowledged.

Gaston paced, trying to think. "There has to be a way to get her interested in me. But how?" He stopped short and looked at LeFou. "What do normal men do when they want to impress a girl? Men who aren't irresistibly strong and handsome, I mean?"

LeFou screwed up his face with the effort of thinking. "Well…sometimes they buy them presents," he offered.

Gaston's eyes lit up. "Great idea! I'll buy her a present! I'll get her flowers! No…that's too common. Any idiot could pick some flowers. What else…I know, I'll get her jewelry! A diamond necklace! That will get her attention!" Gaston beamed in satisfaction.

"I don't think that will work," LeFou said doubtfully.

Gaston scowled and grabbed LeFou, glaring at him. "What did you say?" he said threateningly.

LeFou winced. "I just meant that Belle doesn't seem like she'd like jewelry," he explained hastily. "She wears really plain dresses, she always has her hair in a ponytail…Not like the other girls, always fussing with their hair and buying pretty things. Belle doesn't seem to care what she looks like. Like I said, crazy."

Gaston let him go. "You're right. I've never seen her wear jewelry. It has to be something else, then. Something she likes." He frowned. "The problem is, all she likes is books."

"So get her a book," suggested LeFou.

"A book?" Gaston burst out laughing. He cuffed LeFou on the head for such a ridiculous suggestion. "Why would I want to get her a book? I hate books!"

"I know you hate books. So do I. But Belle likes them," LeFou pointed out, rubbing his head.

Gaston thought about that. "That's true," he said. The wheels in his head were turning, albeit slowly. "Belle likes books. So if I give her a book, she'll like me!" He grinned. "It's brilliant! I'm a genius!"

"But it was my—" LeFou abruptly snapped his mouth shut. Nothing good could come of finishing that sentence.

Gaston rubbed his hands in anticipation of winning Belle at last. "All right. I'll see you later. I'm off to the bookstore!"

Gaston strode to the bookstore, slammed the door open and marched inside.

The elderly bookseller stared in astonishment. Gaston was the last person he had ever expected to see in his establishment. "May I help you?" he asked politely.

"I need a book," Gaston proclaimed in his booming voice.

"Certainly. What kind of book?" asked the bookseller.

Gaston paused. He hadn't thought that far ahead. But he quickly came up with the answer. "Whatever Belle likes."

"Oh," said the bookseller in realization. "It's a present for Belle?"

Gaston nodded.

The bookseller wasn't sure what to make of this. He knew that Belle disliked Gaston, and he didn't blame her one bit. The vain hunter was the diametric opposite of everything Belle valued in people. He wasn't sure if he really wanted to help Gaston in his efforts to woo her. But then again, a book was exactly the kind of present that would make Belle happy. He couldn't in good conscience fault the man for actually doing something right for a change.

He went to the shelves and drew out a handsome, leather-bound collection of fairy tales. "This just came in today," he said. "I was waiting for Belle to come in so I could show it to her."

"How much does it cost?" Gaston asked.

"Well, it's not cheap," the bookseller admitted. He named the price.

Gaston didn't blink an eye. "Fine." He handed the bookseller a few gold coins and took the book.

"Do you want me to wrap it up for you?" the bookseller asked.

Gaston looked pleased. "That's a good idea. Make it really impressive."

Package in hand, Gaston knocked on Belle's door. She opened it. "Oh. Bonjour, Gaston," she said politely. "What a pleasant surprise."

"Isn't it though? I'm just full of surprises," he said smugly. He presented the package to her with a flourish. "This is for you," he proclaimed proudly.

"Oh," she said in surprise. "A present. Well…thank you." Her tone was doubtful. Hesitantly, she opened it.

But when she saw the book, her eyes lit up. "Oh!" she cried. "This is wonderful!" She began flipping through the pages eagerly. "Thank you so much!"

"You're welcome," said Gaston, grinning. He was delighted at her total change in demeanor. His plan was working perfectly – he was definitely scoring points with her.

Belle looked up at him questioningly. "Why did you get this for me? I thought you didn't like books."

He shrugged. "I don't," he admitted. "But I know you do. I wanted to get you something you'd like."

"Oh," she said. "Well, it was very thoughtful of you. Thank you."

He took the book from her and glanced through it. It had so many pages! It would take years to read, he thought. "But honestly, Belle - how can you read this? I mean, what's the point?" he asked.

Belle knew it was a waste of time to try to make him understand. But it was nice of him to get the book for her, so she gave it a try. "When I read books…it takes me away from here," she said slowly. "I get caught up in the story, and I feel like I'm in a far-off place, where exciting things happen."

Gaston looked confused. "But why would you want to be in another place? This is a good village."

Belle sighed. "It's just that every day is the same here. I want to see new things, different things." She tried to think of a way to put it in terms he'd understand. "When you go hunting, why do you do it?"

"What do you mean?" Gaston asked, puzzled.

"Well, what do you like about hunting? Why do you enjoy it?"

"Well…" Gaston had to think about it. "I like going into the forest, not knowing what's out there, what I'll catch that day. I like looking for the signs, tracking down the game. I like seeing a deer far off in the distance, and aiming just right, and making the perfect shot, knowing that no one else could have done it. I like bringing home a trophy and showing it to everyone."

"So…would you say that each hunt is different? That it's exciting, an adventure? You don't know what will happen?" suggested Belle. "And that you like testing yourself, facing a challenge and triumphing over it?"

"Yes!" said Gaston. "That's it." She had a good way of putting things into words, he had to admit.

"Well, that's how my stories make me feel," Belle said. "Here in the village, all there is is cooking and cleaning and sewing. It's the same routine every day. But in my stories, there are adventures, people doing exciting things and overcoming great challenges. And I feel…swept away by it, like I'm really there."

"Hmm," Gaston said. It sounded like crazy talk to him. He looked at the book. "But it's just words, BelleIt's not real."

"I know," she said. "But it feels real, when I read." She looked at him curiously. "Did you ever try to read, Gaston?"

He shrugged. "In school, when I was a kid. It was boring. It took forever to get through one page. I was glad to be done with it."

"Well, that's how it is when you're not…" She stopped herself. She had been about to say "when you're not good at it," but she realized that Gaston would be offended at the idea that there was anything he wasn't good at.

"…when you're not used to it," she amended. "At first, when you try to read, it IS very slow. You have to sound out the words. But after you've been practicing a while, it comes easily and goes very fast. And that's when you start to really see the pictures in your mind."

Gaston looked skeptical. Belle suddenly had an idea. "Wait. I'll bet I can find a book that even you'd like." She headed to her bookcase and ran her finger along the spines, searching for the right one.

Gaston laughed. "I don't think so!" But he was enjoying himself. This was the most successful conversation he'd had with Belle since he'd met her. She was actually paying attention to him, looking into his eyes, talking enthusiastically to him, instead of pulling away and making excuses.

He wondered why he'd never thought of this strategy before. He should have remembered that in a hunt, different game required different approaches. Chasing down a rabbit with a pack of baying hounds was completely different from sitting silent and still in a tree stand for hours, waiting for the deer to show themselves. He might not like books himself, but it was the right bait to draw Belle into his snare, and that was what mattered.

Belle found the book she was looking for. "Here we are!" she said triumphantly. She showed it to Gaston. "The Legend of Hercules."

He looked at the book. The cover showed a huge man with rippling muscles, fighting a creature with nine snake heads. "He looks pretty strong," said Gaston. "But not as strong as me," he added with a smirk.

Belle smiled. "Here, sit down."

Gaston looked panicked. "You don't expect me to READ this, do you?" The thought of having to actually slog through a book by himself filled him with dread.

Belle laughed. She had a lovely laugh, he thought. Like music. "No, I won't put you through that torture," she said in amusement. "Just sit down, and I'll read it to you."

"All right." He sat down on the sofa. Belle sat down on a chair facing him, opened the book and began to read. Gaston paid no attention to the words. He was too busy enjoying the sound of her voice, and the sight of her as she read. With her eyes focused on her book, he was free to gaze at her as much as he wanted, and he took advantage of it.

He was astonished at the change in her as she read aloud to him. It was so different from the cool, forced mask of politeness she usually wore when speaking to him. Her eyes were sparkling, her voice was animated, her expression was so lively and radiant. She practically glowed. She was the most beautiful, irresistible woman he'd ever seen. He wished he could grab her and kiss her right now.

Belle looked up. "Gaston! You're not paying attention!" she scolded.

"Yes, I am," he protested.

She glanced at him sideways, a look that said she knew better. "Close your eyes."

"Why?" he asked suspiciously.

"Don't ask questions. Just do what I tell you." She reached out and touched his eyelids, gently closing them.

The light touch of her fingers sent a thrill through him. Normally he would have bristled at anyone daring to say to him "Just do what I tell you." But hearing it in a teasing tone from a woman he was so attracted to…it was strangely exciting. He kept his eyes closed. "All right. I'm at your command," he said jokingly. "What now?"

"Now, just listen to the story," Belle said. "Try to see the pictures in your mind." She wondered why she was even bothering. He was never going to appreciate literature. But she couldn't pass up the opportunity to at least try to get someone in the village to enjoy books, even if it was only Gaston.

Gaston sighed, allowing himself a moment to wish that she would do something much more enticing to him with his eyes closed than merely read. He heard pages rustling as Belle opened the book.

With his eyes closed, there was nothing to do but listen to the story. Gaston slouched back against the sofa cushions, prepared to be bored out of his mind.

"…but Hera was jealous of the infant Hercules," Belle was saying. "She sent two poisonous snakes to kill the baby. The snakes slithered into the cradle, ready to strike with their wicked fangs. But in a flash, the baby seized both snakes in his chubby fists, and squeezed them with unbelievable strength. When his parents came into the room, they were shocked to see Hercules, laughing, with the two dead snakes dangling from his hands."

Gaston sat up straighter. Despite himself, he was interested. Belle saw that she had his attention, and smiled to herself triumphantly.

She quickly summarized the next part: about Hercules growing up, being driven into a temporary fit of madness by Hera, and murdering his wife and children. It was dramatic, but she didn't think Gaston would relate to it. But soon she reached the part she was looking for: Hercules' twelve labors for King Eurystheus of Mycenae. If anything had a chance of getting Gaston interested in a book, this was it.

"King Eurystheus decided Hercules' first task would be to bring him the skin of a monstrous lion which terrorized the hills around Nemea," Belle read. "But when Hercules got to Nemea and began tracking the terrible lion, he soon discovered that his arrows were useless against the ferocious beast. Its skin was so thick that no spear or arrow could penetrate it. Hercules picked up his club and went after the lion. He followed it to a cave which had two entrances. The lion slipped inside. Hercules was ready to follow – but how could he vanquish the invulnerable monster?"

Belle paused for dramatic effect. Gaston was listening intently.

"Hercules blocked one of the entrances, then crawled inside the other," Belle continued. "Slowly he approached the fierce lion, which roared and leaped at him, ready to slash him with its sharp claws and deadly fangs. Hercules grabbed the lion in his mighty arms and, ignoring its powerful claws, he held it tightly until he'd choked it to death."

Gaston smiled. I could do that, he thought smugly. He pictured himself as Hercules, fearlessly going after the lion and killing it with his bare hands. In fact…with a bit of embellishment, that might make a good story to tell the others at the tavern, he mused. They were always eager to hear about his exploits, and he had no qualms about exaggerating them.

Belle went on to say that Hercules wore the lion's skin as a cloak, which made Gaston think of his own bearskin rug at the tavern. This Hercules was his kind of guy, he thought.

"The second labor was to kill the many headed, monstrous Hydra," Belle read. "From the murky waters of the swamps near a place called Lerna, the Hydra would rise up and terrorize the countryside. A monstrous serpent with nine heads, the Hydra attacked with poisonous venom. Nor was this beast easy prey, for one of the nine heads was immortal and therefore indestructible. Hercules drove to Lerna and by the springs of Amymone, discovered the lair of the loathsome Hydra.

"First, Hercules lured the coily creature from the safety of its den by shooting flaming arrows at it," she continued. "Once the Hydra emerged, Hercules seized it. The monster was not so easily overcome, however, for it wound one of its coils around Hercules' foot and made it impossible for the hero to escape. With his club, Hercules attacked the many heads of the Hydra, but as soon as he smashed one head, two more would burst forth in its place! To make matters worse, the Hydra had a friend of its own: a huge crab began biting the trapped foot of Hercules. How could he defeat it – or for that matter, escape with his life?"

Belle stopped reading. Startled by the sudden silence, Gaston opened his eyes. "Go on," he urged. "What happens next?"

Belle closed the book, very casually. "Oh, I thought we could finish it tomorrow," she said lightly. "It's getting late."

"No!" Gaston stood up. "Finish it now! I want to know what happens."

"But Gaston," Belle said teasingly, "it's just a book. It's not real. And books are boring, remember?"

Gaston scowled. "All right," he conceded grumpily. "This one is good. Now finish it."

"I'm very glad to hear you say that," Belle said, smiling. "But it really is getting late. My father will be coming upstairs from his workshop soon. I have to get dinner started. But why don't you come back tomorrow? We can finish the book then."

Gaston started to get angry. He had ordered her to finish reading the story, and she had refused! How dare she?

But then the realization penetrated his brain that she had actually invited him to her house tomorrow. Belle – the girl who couldn't spend two seconds in his company without squirming away and making up some hasty excuse why she had to leave. She had spent the whole afternoon with him, apparently enjoying herself, and now she was willingly inviting him back. He hadn't even needed to suggest it.

True, he could force her to finish the story now – but if he did, he would lose the golden opportunity of coming back the next day. He'd be foolish to do that.

So instead, he nodded. "All right. Tomorrow then."

As she walked him to the door, Maurice came up the stairs. "Oh, I didn't know we had company!" he said. "Hello, Gaston."

"Hello, Maurice. How's the inventing going?" Gaston asked. Privately, he thought Maurice was a nutcase, but he figured it wasn't a good idea to let Belle know that. She adored the old buffoon.

Maurice beamed with delight at being asked about his work. "Oh, fine! Fine! There are a few more kinks to work out, but I think I just about have it licked!"

"Good, good," said Gaston absently, not paying attention.

He took Belle's hand and kissed it. "I had a good time today, Belle."

"I did too," Belle replied, sounding amazed to hear herself say it.

"I'll see you tomorrow." With a wave, Gaston left. Belle closed the door behind him.

Maurice sat down at the table as Belle went to get dinner ready. "That's nice, that you had a visitor," he said cheerfully. "What did he want?"

"He brought me a present, actually," said Belle. "A book."

"A book!" said Maurice. "Well, that was nice of him."

"Yes, it was," said Belle slowly. She stirred the soup absently, trying to figure out just how she felt about the afternoon. Gaston's motives were transparent; it was obvious to Belle that he had gotten her the book purely to get on her good side. He had been pursuing her for months without success, so apparently he'd decided to switch tactics. That was all. He was still the same conceited, arrogant oaf he'd always been.

Still…it was a refreshing change from him lecturing her about "proper womanly behavior" and pulling her books out of her hands. It actually had been a surprisingly enjoyable visit, which was something she never would have imagined possible in Gaston's company. She felt a sense of triumphant satisfaction in recalling how he had been caught up in the Hercules story despite himself. At least she had proven her point – that books could be exciting, even to someone like him.

And at least it was something interesting for a change. Belle had always been so restless and bored in the sleepy village, where every day was exactly like the one before. But today…today had been different. Today had been surprising and unpredictable. As Belle sat down to eat, she found herself smiling.