The Enchantress had moved to the middle of the library to address all those assembled there. "I'm sure don't need to remind you of the terms of the spell. There's no point in beating about the bush – the last petal fell from the rose over half an hour ago."
There was a collective gasp. Though nobody had voiced it, every one of the servants had begun to share the hope that the girl might save them after all. The Master loved her and had said as much. But it seemed now that it had been too little too late.
Belle was puzzled. "Petals?" she asked Maurice in a low voice.
The Enchantress looked at her. She seemed to have remarkably good hearing. "You don't know about the rose? It was a timing device, sweet. Think about well-known curses through history – they have to have a time limit. Maleficent's cursing of the baby princess Aurora is a benchmark, really. My tutor was very impressed when he heard. A hundred years – that was a very good curse for its age." She sighed. "Of course, it was a curse made improperly because it had no basis in change. Maleficent was just vindictive."
Belle stared at her. It was one thing to meet someone who even knew these old stories, quite another to find that they were real.
"Anyway," the Enchantress continued, briskly. "I gave your friend here ten years and a magic rose as a marker. His time ran out earlier this evening."
The Beast was looking down. Belle tried to read his expression but she couldn't. She stood up and went once more to stand beside him.
"What does that mean?" she asked the Enchantress.
"Well, I'm afraid it means that the curse is now permanent and I can't lift it. At least for him." She looked at the servants, who were regarding one another miserably. "I've got a bit of a confession to make," she announced. "Ten years ago I was still an apprentice. In order to complete my apprenticeship, I was given one task." She pointed at the Beast. "Him. He had a file from here to next Tuesday, all the usual spoilt prince stuff. It was nice and easy, actually, but I messed it up." She blushed, suddenly looking like a guilty teenager. "I don't know how best to explain this, but... I was only supposed to curse him. Young Enchantresses often have magic surges that they can't control and – I got the rest of you with residual magic. It's complicated. I went back to my tutor expecting him to shout at me about all the time he'd have to spend cleaning up the mess I'd made and instead he handed me my new wand. Apparently he thought it was a stroke of genius." She sighed. "Anyway, I came back a year later and I realised that having the lot of you included in the curse could well be a force for good. Guilt was a good motivation for your Master. At the same time, though, I could see we were in for a long haul with him, since a year as a Beast had barely changed him. So I cast a spell. From then on, you stopped ageing. I realise that's hard for crockery, cutlery and furniture to quantify, but you may appreciate it in a moment. You've spent ten years under the curse but you can have those years back. You see, your part of the spell I can completely reverse."
For the most part, the Enchantress' speech had been quite unintelligible. This part, though, they understood. Freedom!
She smiled, raising her hands above her head. Between them, a ball of light began to grow, getting bigger and brighter with each passing second. A moment later, she hurled it into the midst of the assembled servants.
Belle jumped in surprise, looking at the Beast for reassurance.
"It's all right," he said, though it sounded as though he were having trouble getting the words out. "Watch."
Belle turned and watched. The servants were engulfed in light, now, light that seemed to be rising. As she watched, she saw feet and hands form, bodies stretch and grow, and all their expressions were of bliss. As the light faded, she saw that where there had once been dozens of objects, there were now beaming, delighted people. And she recognised them, too – there were Lumière and Babette, already wrapped around one another. Mrs Potts looked down at her little boy, Chip, and Madame twirled long tresses of blonde hair in her hands. Belle felt herself smiling – they were free. On an impulse, she ran to them, touching the human hands of her friends, throwing her arms around them.
After a few moments of blurred embraces, however, she turned back to face the Beast. He stared at her with an expression so forlorn that she felt suddenly as though she were about to cry.
"Enchantress!" she cried out, running to her.
"What is it, sweet?"
"Is there nothing you can do for him?"
The Enchantress looked at her carefully for a moment. "The curse could only be broken according to the terms I gave him. He had to learn to love by the time the last petal fell – and the love needed to be returned."
Tears stung Belle's eyes. It wasn't fair. He was good. She had been his only chance and it was through no fault of his that she had sworn not to love him. It wasn't fair that everything had rested on her. "It's my fault!" she blurted, suddenly.
The Beast stepped forward. "Belle-!"
"It's true!" Belle was crying now. "It's my fault that I was sneaking around and listening at doorways. It's my fault that I misjudged you and wouldn't give you a chance." She turned back to the Enchantress. "Please," she said, more quietly. "There has to be something."
The Enchantress didn't respond immediately. She looked at Belle and the Beast for a moment. Then she moved to stand in front of the Beast, looking into his eyes. She formed the question in her mind. What do you want?
She stared at him for what seemed like an age, then smiled. "I think we can work something out." She snapped her fingers, producing a long, thin wand. She twirled it absently, thinking out loud. "I can't remove the curse, but I can change it. You see, when I chose your new shape, I took it from the monster inside you. I've seen the state of the future as it would have been if things had continued as they were, and fanged and hairy doesn't begin to cover it, believe me. However, if something were to weaken the curse, a bit of magic might see to it that your status became a little less... solid. That is, I can make it so that you will appear as you truly are. If you are not at all altered, we will see no change in your appearance." She turned to Belle. "What do you think?"
Belle's eyes glittered with tears. "He's beautiful," she whispered, loud enough only for the Enchantress.
"Right, that settles that, then." The Enchantress lifted her wand, facing the Beast. "You see, the curse is weakened. I trust you remember what you said to Belle before she awoke?"
He froze. "How did you...?"
"Word gets around," she said, dismissively. "Anyway, that did the trick. Are you prepared to face the consequences of this spell?"
He swallowed, still not sure if he should allow himself to believe what was happening. "I am."
"Good," she said, and shot a jet of light at him.
Belle looked on in amazement. This transformation was not like that of the servants. No engulfing in light or dramatic twisting and changing. He just sort of... shimmered. She blinked – and the Beast had become a man.
"I've removed the perception barriers," the Enchantress told Maurice, conversationally. "Unbound by conventions of optical illusion, you can now see him for what he really is."
The Prince took a moment to register what had happened. He looked at Belle to find that she was staring at him, shocked. He looked down. Human hands, pink and furless. He looked at his bare chest. It was rippled with scars from the fire, but it was unmistakably human. He touched his face. Human, all of it!
"Come on," said Mrs Potts. "Let's give them some privacy."
Belle and the Prince looked at one another as the servants filed out into the corridor, followed by Maurice and the Enchantress, who were suddenly deep in conversation. Suddenly, they were alone.
"H-how do I look?" he asked, falteringly.
She nodded. "Good. Handsome." She looked away.
"What is it?"
"Nothing. I'm happy for you."
He took her hand. "Belle, I don't know how I can can ever thank you enough. You've saved me twice, I owe you everything."
She looked up. His eyes were the same, she noticed. Bright and blue. "I was glad to help you." She drew her hand back and noticed that she had managed to smear her blood on him. "What did you say to me after ..." She gestured at the patch of blood on her dress.
He blushed. "I... well – n-nothing."
"Oh," she said, and turned away. "I'll go and find my father. We might make it home before..."
He closed his eyes for a moment. "Belle," he said to her retreating back. "I love you."
For a moment, he thought she was going to ignore him. Then she turned on her heel and ran toward him. She threw her arms around him and they embraced. "I love you too," she whispered in his ear.
This surprised him. He pushed her away, gently. "You do?"
"Yes," she said, slightly bemused. "How long have you loved me?"
He thought about it. "I think," he said, slowly, "that it really started when you pointed out that I behaved like a monster towards my servants." He frowned. "That's a bit odd, isn't it?"
Belle shrugged. "Most things are."
"How about you? How long have you loved me?"
"I don't know," she confessed. "I just realised that if anything bad happened to you, I'd be miserable for the rest of my life."
There was a voice from the doorway. "Well, thank heaven for that." It was Cogsworth. Lumière, Babette and Mrs Potts were clustered round him.
"Dieu, I thought the Master would never get his act together!" Lumière commented. "It would have been too obvious for him to declare his love before now and save us all a lot of worry, non?"
"Oh, Lumière," sighed Mrs Potts. "You know the course of true love doesn't run smooth."
Chip peeped into the room. "Mama?"
"Is the curse broken now? Forever?"
"Yes, love. Unless the Master goes back to his old ways." She glanced at the Prince. "If he does that, who knows what he'll become."
"Which is why," said Cogsworth, addressing Belle, "it is our fervent hope that mademoiselle can be persuaded to stay with us for some time."
Belle shrugged. "I'll stay if my father can." She turned to the Prince. "That is, if you want me to."
"I do," he answered. "More than anything else."
"Then I'll stay."
The Prince, after watching some elaborate miming from Lumière, knelt before Belle. If this wasn't a good moment, he didn't know what would be. "Will you marry me?"
"Yes," she said, holding his hand, tightly. "I will."
It was an inauspicious ending, compared to what might have been. It was the Enchantress' custom to include fireworks for the end of her spells, so they had missed out on something there. Overall, though, those concerned agreed that they were more than happy than the way things had come together. The reappearance of the missing prince was greeted throughout the kingdom with comments along the lines of "Did he now? You know, I was never sure if it was Emeric's nephew or Emile's cousin that disappeared. Maybe they're the same person."
The wedding was a quiet affair, followed by an almost obscenely sumptuous ball at which Belle was introduced to the Prince's relations, a few of whom he had actually met himself. Cogsworth worked himself up into an unprecedented frenzy over the whole thing and Lumière bought him a new watch to remember it by.
Maurice divided his time between his daughter and his inventions, successfully inventing an infinitely useful Thing that was able to reduce the impact of the explosions caused by his attempts to invent other Things. This was heralded as a great success until it blew itself up.
Gaston wasn't seen in his hometown for over a year. When he returned, he was married with an infant son and able to converse with his fellows on such subjects as marital friction and projectile vomiting. He was present at several Enchantress sightings and appeared to have all the adoration he needed.
The prince and princess honoured their vows to love one another for the rest of their lives. Occasionally their tempers and shared stubbornness would cause arguments, but since the Prince began to grow claws if he remained in the wrong when it mattered, disputes were easily solved. For the most part they lived, as Chip suggested at their wedding ball, happily ever after.