Disclaimer: At last! I get to control what happens to the characters! Of course, parts or all of them still belong to Disney, but I'd like to think I have a little more say in them this once.

One Month Later

"Are you certain about this?" Belle asked, putting a gentle hand on the shoulder of the young Nipponese man who knelt with his back to her, carefully filling an open cedar chest with folded clothes. She marveled, as she often had in the past month, that this tall, serious man was truly the Beast she had known for seven months in his hidden oshiro. But then he straightened to look at her and she was assured, as she always was when she saw his fire-colored eyes, that man and Beast were one and the same.

"Kirei-san," he said, smiling that special, secretive smile that always seemed to be on his face when she came into his view, "I did not hear you."

"I'm very quiet when I want to be, with no nightingale floor to alert you," she retorted, causing his smile to broaden briefly. "I asked, are you certain about your decision?"

He looked away, a sure sign he would rather not talk, but Belle was not put off so easily. "If you're not certain, then why leave?" she asked quietly in French, leading him over to the low table in the corner of the room he had been given in the Shogun's Edo palace when they had secretly arrived a week ago.

"I am certain, Kirei-san," he answered after a moment. "That does not make it any less difficult for me. You know better than anyone the pain of difficult decisions made for the correct reasons."

"That's true," Belle conceded, seating herself opposite him and looking him right in the eye, "And I do not regret making them, now. If you truly believe you are doing the right thing, then you also will not regret your decision later. But tell me why you chose as you did."

He sighed and tilted his head in thought, a gesture he had still not lost after only a month in a human body. He reflected a bit and then began. "You know now that I am my father the Shogun's only son, and my true name was—is—Tokugawa Katsuro. For as long as I was human, I was to be his heir. He built the oshiro outside Nagasaki to protect me from assassins, and he was grooming me from afar to be the next Shogun." He paused, and then went on, eyes carrying a hint of the interminable sadness they had once held as a dragon, "But then the yuurei cursed me, one winter night ten years ago. For me, and my servants, time and the outside world stopped. But for everyone else in Nippon—it did not. My father…" he faltered, glanced at her understanding face, and continued, "my father thought I was killed by the Beast. Getsuru and the bookseller told you that story. It was the most logical explanation for my vanishing and the Beast's abrupt appearance in my former residence; how could anyone have believed otherwise?

"And it is dangerous, deadly dangerous, to be Shogun in Nippon without a clear successor. As dangerous for the current Shogun as for any who might aspire to replace him. My father had no choice, though it broke his heart to formally acknowledge that I would never return. He named one of my cousins, the son of his younger sister, to take my place as heir."

"And is he the heir still?" asked Belle, curious at this glimpse of a foreign society's politics.

"Yes. Though he has survived numerous assassination attempts, as I did as a child, he is still alive and is poised to become Shogun. As we discovered when we arrived here, my father is quite ill and is not expected to live out the year." His face twisted. "Oh, Kirei-san, you don't know what it's like, returning as if from the dead, to find that when you enter your father's bedroom he believes you are omen of his own impending end. And the younger cousin you taught to shoot a bow is now years older than you, and in the place you once occupied."

"I've been meaning to ask," Belle said quickly, hoping to distract him for a few moments so that he could regain his dignity, "Is this," she waved her hand to indicate his body, "exactly how you looked before the curse?"

Katsuro glanced at his hands, as if to reassure himself they were still there and no longer clawed dragon's talons. "Nearly," he admitted. "This is just how I was ten years ago, a month or so past my twenty-first birthday, but for the scars," He shifted the flap on his robe to reveal a long scar on his chest and a small, shiny penetration just below it, all that was left of Nightingale's fatal attack on its master. He thought for a moment, then added, "And the eyes. They were once the same shade of brown as my father's, as I recall. It is my belief that the yuurei allowed them to remain as they were when I was a Beast as a reminder. So I never forget how dearly I once paid for my arrogance."

Belle reached across the table for his hand. Taking it in hers, she said quietly, "Your eyes are also what remind me every time I look into them that the Beast I fell in love with is still with me, no matter what shape he now wears."

He blinked, absorbing this, and then smiled for the first time since they had sat down. "Kirei-san, you have always amazed me with how you manage to take something horrible and turn it into good. I never regret all the curse took from me when I remember that it brought you into my life as well."

It was Belle's turn to look down, trying to hide her blush at the compliment. "I can't do that with everything," she reminded him, "I only sometimes bring out the good that is already there. If you want proof, look at Getsuru." The samurai had awoken to discover Belle, and a man holding Nightingale, standing over him. Recognizing the vanished prince, and thinking himself utterly mad, he had fled as fast as his feet could carry him into the forest. No one had seen or heard anything of him since then. Belle, much as she despised him, could not help feeling some pity at what must have gone through his mind when he opened his eyes to find the man he had believed he was avenging holding a sword and looking as if he would have liked nothing better than to gut him with it. She almost smiled at the memory. She did miss the oshiro, but though the wind that had accompanied the end of the curse had put out the fires set by Getsuru's men, the castle itself was it was beyond repair. Katsuro and the rest of his household had been living in Nagasaki until they had received a private summons in response to a very secret message sent to Edo informing those in power of Katsuro's return.

Belle and Katsuro were silent together for a few moments, fingers still entwined on the table, each thinking their own thoughts. At last, he shifted slightly and said, "To continue: my cousin is now the heir, which leaves me in a very…interesting position. If my father were well, it would have been difficult enough for me to regain my old place with him. I would have had much to learn of the events that have transpired over the past ten years. But now…my cousin has been frank with me, and I with him. I told him the entire story in private, and though he believes me because he knows I would never lie to him he is concerned at the…difficulties…I might cause. It would not be good for the stability of the country if a new heir were to suddenly appear on the eve of the reigning Shogun's demise, even if he were the Shogun's own missing son. My cousin will have enough trouble putting down rivals and keeping a firm hand in power as it is. If I were to formally take up my claim, Nippon could easily be split by civil war. Which is the last thing either of us wants."

Belle nodded thoughtfully. All of this made sense.

"And then there is you."

Belle's head came up. "What about me?"

"Surely you must understand that you present a unique political problem as well, were I to attempt to regain a place in my father's court with you at my side as my wife."

"A unique political…hardly sounds complimentary," she joked, inviting him to share in her amusement as well as let him know that she wasn't insulted.

Once, a remark like this would have triggered a reaction of concern and a bit of anxiety from him, afraid he had offended her, but now his eyes only smiled silently as he said, "My cousin's words, not mine. However he makes a true point: there is a firm legal barrier against any foreigners living or mixing with the people of Nippon. There can be no exceptions."

"I don't care," Belle replied firmly, "I won't leave you now, no matter what anyone else says."

"I am glad you feel so; I feel the same, and have said as much to my cousin. He suggested that if our feelings for one another are so strong perhaps it might be possible for us to separate, permanently, for the good of one another. He said, 'I am not the Western scholar you are, my cousin, but I have heard the gaijin story about the bird that felt passion for a fish and then puzzled about where they might build a home together.'"

"I've heard that one too," Belle answered, wondering if this was so. She had never thought of her relationship with Katsuro in such a way. Could it be that they were too different, even now that he was human, to make a happy life together? "It is true that we may be scorned in Brussels, perhaps permanently by some circles, if we were to arrive as an Eastern husband and a Western wife," she mused aloud, then immediately regretted it as his face darkened.

"Is this, then, what you wish? That we separate forever, and love from two sides the sea?" he asked. His voice was steady, but she could hear the same preparation for hurt and rejection that she had once overlooked when he offered to release her to her father. She knew would not make the same mistake again.

"No," Belle said with quiet certainty. She looked straight into his eyes as she spoke. "I would never willingly part from you, not when I've nearly lost you twice already."

Katsuro smiled broadly, and leaned across the table to kiss her forehead. "Thank you, Kirei-san. It means a great deal to me to hear you say such things. Knowing my own feelings as I did, and daring to believe that I knew yours, I have informed my cousin of my decision. As you know, I formally renounced all claims to my place as my father's heir as well as a position in my cousin's new court. When you and your father depart on the ship for Europe in a week's time, I will be standing beside you on the deck."

Inside, Belle was silently rejoicing, but she kept her face steady, knowing what the consequences were for him. "But that means you will not be able to tell your father goodbye," she said, very softly.

His fiery eyes were sad. "That is my one chief regret about leaving Nippon, and my old life, behind forever. But the curse changed everything for me. I am not the same man the yuurei visited ten years ago, I feel in many ways for the better. And my father no longer recognizes me. I was unable to convince him that I was not the spirit of his dead son, appearing only to inform him that the time had come for him to join me."

"The fact that you haven't aged in more than ten years likely didn't help matters," Belle said, more to herself than to him. She was imagining the scene, and how unbelievably painful it must have been for Katsuro. She had gotten a small taste of such a reaction from the bookseller when she returned to the Dutch quarter from the Beast's oshiro. What would she have done if her own father had refused to believe she wasn't a ghost?

"Precisely." Katsuro shook himself slightly, as though to banish the terrible memory of that meeting from his mind. "All things considered, I believe I am making the correct and honorable choice to return to Brussels with you and create an entirely new life. That does not make it any less painful of a decision."

At last Belle understood fully his mood when she had first entered the room. "No. It doesn't. But know that you'll always have me beside you, just as I'll have you. There will be dangers on the road home to Brussels, just as there will be challenges to be met once we arrive. But I want to overcome them knowing that we are two parts of one whole, and that I will always have someone at my side who loves me for who I am. I can't ask anything more or less than that from you."

Katsuro took her other hand in his so that they were holding hands across the low table. "And I swear on my sword to give you all that you ask of me now, and more, until the day we part in death," he said in careful French.

"I, too, swear on my own blade to return to you all that you have now sworn to give me, in full measure, until that day comes," Belle replied in Nipponese, feeling as if they were forming a contract more sacred than the marriage vows they would say someday quite soon.

0 0 0

One week later, as Katsuro had promised, he stood beside Belle and Maurice as their ship pulled away from the Dutch quarter dock. With them also stood Dai, his mother, and a few of the other former onii who had refused to leave their Master and new Mistress, even if that meant also leaving Nippon forever. Dai especially had been insistent on accompanying them, saying that they would need him if they ever planned another jailbreak. Belle still had trouble connecting the eager thirteen-year-old boy who stood a few paces away from her now with the small, one-armed, blue creature who had been her companion, student, and friend, until he turned to wink at her. She always knew it was him when she saw the mischievous twinkle in his eye. If nothing else, Dai had landed on his feet after the curse had been broken, happily completing all the duties and activities that had once been impossible as a tiny onii with one arm.

Belle had been a little concerned when a group of ten or so of the servants had come to Katsuro and requested to continue to serve him in exile. "How are we going to feed them all?" she had privately asked her father in a bit of a panic. "We don't even have enough for their passage…"

"My cousin gave me money to pay their passage, Kirei-san," Katsuro had said, happening to overhear. "He was so grateful not to have another rival for the throne that I believe he might have paid to have my oshiro shipped to Brussels stone by stone if it meant I would leave in peace."

"And I recently received a letter from a bank in France," her father added. "It informed me that some of the money that had once belonged to your lady mother's family has been recovered from the bank fire that originally ruined them. Not all, mind you, there were many old gambling debts left to pay and so on, but a sizeable amount nonetheless. As your mother's sole heir you are the rightful claimer of that money. It should be enough to keep us all very comfortable, and I'll be able to do quite a business with the Nipponese wares I was able to get in trade with the Shogun's courtiers this past week. My future son-in-law," he had indicated Katsuro, who stood with his back to them, "Has promised to help by running the business while I'm off trading and you run the household. So don't you worry, ma petite, it will all be taken care of."

Belle had smiled and not said anything more.

Now, slipping her arm around her new husband, whom she finally had married two days previous in the tiny Dutch quarter church, she watched the remaining figures on the dock begin to slip out of sight. She knew that among them were Koru and the bookseller, who had both been quietly pardoned by Katsuro's cousin and elected to remain in Nippon. Belle would miss them, but they had chosen their own paths, just as she had chosen hers.

This path certainly wasn't what I pictured when Papa first brought up the subject of a journey to Nippon, she reflected, resting her head on Katsuro's shoulder and watching the shoreline begin to vanish into the haze behind them. If someone had told me that I was going to make a deal with a dragon, fall in love with him, and watch him become human again before my eyes because of that love, I would have…well, likely I would never have believed it. Maybe it's like Katsuro said, not long ago. Maybe, I, too, have been reforged.



Author's Note: Aaaaaa! It's over already! (sniff, sniff) It's been a GREAT time. Now you can all make up your own gory ways for Getsuru to die (or not, as you please!) OK, acknowledgement time. I'll make this as painless as I possibly can; I don't want to miss anybody.

Marissa (and Mordred): my content previewer(s) during the early chapters. You let me know that this idea might actually work when I conceived it while bored at my internship.

TrudiRose: My very first reviewer. She is semi-godmother to all of us who write for the Beauty and the Beast section, and though I don't know her personally her faithful reviews and honest criticisms are always much appreciated. You are the best!

jarethsdragon: I've thanked you many times already, but there can never be enough. The story evolved a lot due to the information you sent me about sword etiquette and so on. Because of you, this story was much less of a clone of the Disney movie than it was originally conceived as. You should be very proud, since you had a large part in (vicariously) shaping the later chapters. I hope you enjoyed the final result as much as I enjoyed writing it.

aphrodite's dragon: Only you could catch my few spelling errors. Glad you like, and good luck with taking over the world! I know you'll succeed someday!

CalliopeMused: one of my best reviewers. Sorry if I insulted anyone in your family with the Mickey Mouse ears comment. It seemed like a logical thing Disney lawyers would wear. Curmudgeon!

Kayasuri-n: Thanks for being a faithful reviewer of all my later chapters as well as a big fan. The nice promotion of Nightingale in your profile makes me feel warm and fuzzy. As for the editing book you mentioned in one review, I am a self-editor/perfectionist by nature. All the stuff I know I picked up in school and from a book (rant) on punctuation called "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lynne Truss. You will never be confused about when to use an apostrophe, semicolon, or anything else after reading it!

born2drama, arieslilie, AngerManagementIssues45, and K9 the First: while not always my most articulate reviewers, they are AWESOME for their faithful reviews to many chapters. K9 and arieslilie: thanks for putting Nightingale as one of your favorite stories. It means a lot.

Lotte Rose 37: Hopefully I've done your own sword a fitting tribute. I don't do martial arts, but I have great respect for anyone who can wield a sword. Or a weapon of any kind. I also hope chapter 20 didn't give you a heart attack!

RaptorChicky: glad to meet a fellow reader of the Tales of Otori. Hopefully this has a bit more of a cheerful tone than they do.

KuraiShinzo and aureusangel: my 2-time reviewers, early in the story. Hope you liked the final outcome, if you're still reading.

dancing katz, bnanachild, PurpleKangaroo, vashgirl, Lioness of Dreams, vixon 1, emeraldoni, and Annie Forest: My one-time reviewers deserve to be acknowledged as well. Thanks for all your input!

AureliusXsoul: better late than never!

Global eXchange Services: What can I say? An employer who gives me nothing to do should be given some credit for the consequences. As mentioned in the Prologue disclaimer, they technically own large sections of this story because I had to sign my soul to them for the summer. Anything I created as an employee is theirs…so though they will likely never know it, my supervisor and his staff get an Honorable Mention for giving me long chunks of time with my laptop to spend as I chose.

Other sources: Though of course Disney's Beauty and the Beast was what I based this story on, there are a few other non-human sources. The first is the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha", which provided me with some imagery for Nagasaki as well as ideas for chapter 14. Next, Lian Hearn's "Tales of the Otori" trilogy, which specifically gave me both the nightingale floor and the fate of Koru's father, as well as general atmosphere for all the scenes that are not set in the Dutch quarter. The sword Nightingale is loosely based on Lord Otori's Jato. Lastly, Miyazaki's movie "Spirited Away", the soundtrack of which I listened to constantly while writing. You can see traces of Haku in my Beast/Katsuro (which, btw for any budding etymologists, means "Victorious Son").

All My Japanese Language Sensei over the years: Mooreman Sensei, Hiraga Sensei, Yonezawa Senesi, and Hogan Sensei. Most of what I know about Japan (Nihon), the Japanese people (Nihon-jin), and the Japanese language (Nihongo) comes directly from them. There are so many details in this story that I picked up from classes that it would be impossible to list them all.

Hopefully that's everyone, and my Oscar speech is about over. Once again, domo arigato gozaimashita to everybody who had a hand in this process. If I ever get an idea for a sequel that would make sense and not be totally cliché'd and cheesy, I may try to post it. Send me ideas if you are so inclined!

Sayonara (deep bow of gratitude to all).

Over and Out.