When Worlds Collide
Alix stood before the mirror and bit her lip. Babette stood further back, one hand resting on her hip as they both surveyed the maid's handiwork. True, it was not Babette's handiwork alone, but she had led the charge into Alix's wardrobe in search of a gown fit for a princess and, more importantly, a gown that the princess would fit. Most of the dresses that had languished for so long in the castle dressing rooms had belonged to Alix's mother, back when she had been a young woman and first caught the eye of the grand and dashing Prince. Alix was shorter than her mother and differently shaped to boot—the Princess Georgiana had been tall, willowy and blond, while Alix leaned more towards short, darker haired and hourglass-shaped. Babette had pointed out, not altogether tactfully, that the extra material from the hem could be used to enlarge the bust, but Alix had refused and, when pressed for a reason, answered that it was because could not bear the thought of cutting up her mother's dresses, even for such an important cause as making sure she was well turned out today.
In the end, Babette despairingly suggested that they cut down the dress Alix had worn to her private ball with Ger and Alix readily acquiesced.
"What is wrong?" the ex-featherduster asked, noticing that her princess did not seem quite as pleased as Babette had anticipated. She advanced on Alix with a decidedly swishy motion. "You look lovely, tres magnifique!"
Do I? Alix asked her reflection silently. It didn't answer. Babette seemed convinced, but Alix, after years of hating the mirror, was not so sure if she was ready to trust it. It was not even that she disliked the figure in the mirror – Alix may not have been the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, but she was certainly attractive – it was just that the figure in the mirror somehow didn't seem to fit with how she saw herself. A side effect of having spent so long covered in fur, Alix assumed. It made her feel antsy in her own skin.
"You still need a tiara," Madame de la Grande Bouche reminded her. Alix had already donned her mother's sapphires and, this time, she had picked out the matching rings, bracelets and earrings to wear as well.
Her long, curls were piled up and artfully arranged on her head in a style that was just shy of gravity-defying. One pin out of place and Alix was sure the whole thing would come toppling down. Babette had cautiously suggested a wig, as rumors from the world outside the Chateau du Lac intimated that they were just coming into style for women in order to achieve hair styles that were, as Babette had put it, beyond belief. Alix, thinking of what Ger would say if she came in wearing a wig of any sort, much less of the extravagant kind that were being suggested, firmly vetoed the idea. Her hair was more than long enough for what was needed.
Alix looked at the two tiaras resting on their cushions in front of her. Once again, it was down to diamonds or waves. Perhaps she should just close her eyes and point.
There was a quiet knock on the door.
"Who is it?" Alix called out. She heard her not-yet-father-in-law's voice and left her boudoir with its shining mirrors to meet him in her sitting room.
"Ger sent me," he said by way of explanation. "He wanted to make sure everything was alright." It was a fair concern, she was supposed to have been downstairs with Ger, waiting for the arrival of her aunt and entourage over half an hour ago.
"Everything's fine," Alix said, wishing she could manage to sound a bit more convinced. "I just can't decide which tiara to wear." She winced. Now she sounded like a petulant infant.
Maurice laughed a little. "My late wife tended to have a similar problem," he added, once he saw the look on her face and needed to reassure Alix that he was not laughing at her. "Not with tiaras of course, but with indecision regarding clothing matters."
Silence lay between them, an awkwardness that neither felt able to dissipate by speaking further.
The past month had been an edifying experience for everyone, but especially for Alix and Maurice. Their first introduction had gone smoothly, both sides making painfully polite conversation while Ger looked on, clearly trying to ensure they got along by sheer force of will.
Alix was more than willing to try, but really, what was there to say? Sorry for locking you in the dungeon, I was having a bad five years?
Maurice, as far as Alix could tell, seemed to feel much the same way about the absence of possible ground on which to approach one another, although his coolness seemed to be slowly melting. Alix found him turning to watch her every so often, as if trying to make her out and finding her completely beyond his comprehension, even shaking his head at her once or twice.
She had asked Ger about it once, to see whether he could explain what his father was thinking.
"Don't worry," he had told her with a smile, to which Alix returned a skeptical look from beneath her eyebrows.
"And I'm not just saying that to mollify you, I truly believe you have nothing to worry about." Ger shrugged. "He'll come around in a little while, I just think he needs a chance to get used to you as you."
Ger was right, to a degree. Maurice was attempting to reconcile the quiet young woman whose two loves were books and his son with the monstrous beast he remembered—a monster who had, perhaps, been built up in his memory to a level she had never quite reached in real life. He looked for signs of that creature in her, catching them in a moment's irritation when she would dig her nails into the nearest surface and then withdraw them, ruefully. Or noticing when someone displeased her and a cutting remark would begin to make its way out of her mouth, only to be stopped and replaced with something that was, if not tactful, at least fair and not wholly destructive.
Maurice knew the content of a few of those remarks, as she had a habit of muttering them to herself as she walked away and he had caught one or two. She was witty, especially when she forgot that he was in the room and allowed herself to speak freely with Ger. She was funny as well, when Ger was around to draw her out. He did not even notice he was doing it, but she blossomed around him. There were moments when Maurice found himself forgetting that she had been the same person he had met on that dark, wet night.
Moments like this, for example, when she made him think of the daughter he and his wife had never had and he found himself responding in kind.
"Do you have a favorite?" Maurice asked, looking at the two tiaras.
Alix gestured to the plainer of the two. "That was my mother's favorite," she answered. "She always said the other one was too elaborate for her."
"But what about you?" Maurice replied after a moment spent trying to work out what Alix might actually have been saying. "Which one do you like best?"
Alix looked bleakly at them. "I can't tell," she answered finally. "I can't...separate them from what my mother thought of them." She took a deep breath. "They died when I was nine years old," she said, surprised at how calm her voice was. "My parents, that is. There was a fire. No one knows how it started." Alix stared almost blindly ahead. "My father carried me out," she continued, "And he told me Mama was right behind us, but then, once we were outside, she wasn't there anymore. He went back in to find her."
Maurice laid his hand atop hers and felt the tightly clenched muscles. He had not been expecting this. "My dear, I am sorry," he said quietly, the only thing he could say.
Alix nodded. "Sometimes, it's as though I can barely remember them. But then there are days like today, when I'm looking at her gowns and wearing her jewels and..." She trailed off.
Silence rested between them, settling in as though it belonged even as Alix struggled to say what she wished to say.
"I have not given them much to be proud of over the years," she finally continued. "I grew cold and spiteful after they died. Spiteful enough to turn away an old woman seeking shelter one night. I may have even deserved what she did to me, though I was young and foolish and did not know any better. I'm fairly sure she did not consider that enough of an excuse."
Maurice looked at Alix, uncomprehendingly.
"It appears that that old woman was an enchantress. She turned me into a Beast to teach me a lesson," Alix finished. " I was cursed to look like a monster until I could find someone to love and love me in return. Presumably, that would teach me to be the kind of person who could love and be loved despite looking like the unholy cross between a wolf, a lion and heaven only knows what else. It seems to have worked—I'm no longer the brat I was then. But it made me worse for quite a while afterward. It felt like fate, who had already dealt me a cruel blow with my parents, was now twisting the thumbscrews."
What could he say, he wondered, still looking at Alix who still stared resolutely at the jewels in her lap. And why was she telling him this?
"You were the first person to come to my door after that," Alix said, finally getting to the point. She had not quite meant the conversation to take this direction—she had not meant there to be a conversation with him now at all, but there were all these things that she had been meaning to say at some point, when the time was right. The time was probably not right, yet she found the words slipping out nonetheless. "And you frightened me. Admittedly, not as much as I'd frightened you, but you were so unexpected. And so human; I had not seen another human being in over seven years. This is not an excuse," she added hurriedly, "Just an explanation. I already told Ger all this, but you deserve to know too."
She did turn to face him them. "I am sorry, Monsieur Dupont," she said. "I know such words are inadequate, not to mention pathetic at this point, but I am sorry."
Maurice was flabbergasted, to say the least.
"Also," she added, "I probably could have picked a better time to have sprung my confessions on you." Though she was not entirely being honest there. Her confession had nothing to do with her present predicament, but it was a weight off her chest that she had been carrying around for so long, she did not even notice it until it was gone. "It just seemed as though it was time for you to know. Past time, really."
"Thank you," Maurice said finally. It was a lot to take in, even if it did clear up almost all of his questions about Alix. He was a kindhearted man, and her story resonated with him. He remembered, after all, how it had felt when his wife had died. If he hadn't had Ger then - someone who needed him - he did not know how he would have survived the experience. And for that to happen to a young girl who was old enough to understand what had happened, but not old enough to accept it, he could just imagine how she must have felt.
It was easy to forgive her, easier than he had thought it would be. He offered her a smile.
Alix accepted and smiled slightly back.
"So," she said, clearing her throat slightly, "Which one shall I wear?"
It took a moment for Maurice to remember what she could possibly be speaking about, but then he looked down at the tiaras, one in each of her hands, and his mind drifted back towards the original conversation.
"You still have not told me which one you like better," Maurice pointed out.
"The wave pattern," Alix answered, promptly this time, "But it seems, somehow, wrong to wear it." As if she was trying to resemble her mother, not remember her. It had been fine when she'd been a Beast, there had been no human form beneath the tiara to remind her of the last woman who had worn it. It had been a way for Alix to say 'Look, Mama, I'm doing something right!' But now that Alix was human again and minutes away from meeting her aunt for the first time in years, not to mention asking said aunt, who just so happened to be the Queen of France, for her blessings to marry, she rather wished that her mother was here with her, to look tall and imposing and beautiful so that Alix didn't feel like she was stepping into shoes far too big for her feet to fill.
She was not going to start crying, she told herself pointedly. Babette would never forgive Alix if she had to have all her makeup reapplied.
"You could wear neither," Maurice suggested finally.
Babette reemerged from Alix's dressing room at this point. She had come out a minute or two into Alix's confession, but immediately left so as not to interrupt a conversation that the servants, privately, thought needed to have happened weeks ago. Lumiere thought, and Babette agreed, that Alix had been avoiding her father-in-law-to-be unnecessarily, as the older man showed every sign of being much less frightened of her than would be expected. Babette had her own theory about this, one that seemed to be borne out by the way everyone else in the castle behaved. Her sharp eyes had observed a tendency to treat Alix as though she was not quite the same person she had been when she was bestial. It was as if her fellow servants had not so much forgotten the events, but dismissed them as belonging to not-quite-the-same entity as their current mistress.
And perhaps it was true—her Grace certainly seemed a reformed character and Babette had no doubt that, while Alix would always be just a little bit prickly and apt to judge, she was not the same girl she had been seven years or even seven weeks ago. Yet she was willing to bet that the only person who could still see the Beast when he looked at Alix was Ger...though perhaps it would be truer to say that the only person who had truly seen Alix when he looked at the Beast was Ger.
It was probably best that way, Babette mused. In any event, there were far more worrisome thoughts to occupy her mind, like the fact that her mistress was seriously considering Maurice's proposition that she not wear a tiara.
"She will most certainly not wear neither," Babette said, hurrying over. "That lovely hair of yours requires equally lovely jewels."
Alix sighed. "Which one do you recommend, then?"
"The diamonds," Babette replied promptly. "They are more beautiful by far and show off your face."
Alix looked dubiously at the winking gems, then back at the waves. Then back at the diamonds. Babette was looking at her exasperatedly, but was not going to insist on her choice, though she seemed tempted. Perhaps she could just close her eyes, spin around a few times and point.
"If I may make a suggestion," Maurice offered diffidently, "Perhaps there is something else you could wear instead, something more to your taste."
"Like what?" Babette and Alix asked at the same time, though the former's voice had a tone of disbelief that the latter's entirely lacked.
Maurice shrugged, and looked around the room as if it might provide him with inspiration. Alix and Babette did the same.
All three pairs of eyes came to a stop on the rose sitting on an end table in the middle of the room. Unlike its predecessor, it was an ordinary rose that sat in an ordinary crystal vase, neither levitating nor requiring a bell jar to shield it. Alix had requested a rose with which to decorate her suite, claiming that it looked empty without a flower there.
In reality, it was her own personal reminder of how far she had come and how dangerous it was to forget what she had been.
Alix's lips curled in a smile. "Excellent idea," she said, marching forward to take the vase.
Babette shook her head. "You will get water all over your gown," she said, well aware she was fighting a lost cause. "And it does not match. Red will never go with that shade of blue."
"Perhaps a white rose, then," Maurice replied, having seen the look on Alix's face and recognized what it meant to her.
Alix nodded. "I'm sure one of those can be procured, no?"
"As my mistress commands," Babette said, if a bit sulkily, as she returned the tiaras to their rightful places.
And, five minutes later, Babette had rearranged her hair (again) and tucked the white rose behind Alix's ear, securing it with a simple arrangement of two pins that Alix suspected she could not have duplicated on her own with twenty.
She studied herself in the mirror again. So this was who she was now—Alix, Princess of France. No great beauty, but no small one either. She would have to get used to her own appearance one day and be comfortable in her skin. It would have been nice to have been devastatingly lovely, though. Then again, Alix's mother had always said that a beautiful woman was one who held her head high and her back straight and believed firmly that she was beautiful. Alix could only imagine what her mother would have had to say to her now. She would probably have laughed, pulled a strand or two of hair free to frame her face, and sent Alix out of the room to face her fate with a smile. Well, Mother wasn't here anymore, so Alix was just going to have to do it herself. She straightened up and gave herself a pointed look. I will be beautiful, she said firmly to her own, still querulous thoughts, and turned to stride from the room.
"May I offer you my arm?" asked Maurice courteously.
"Thank you," Alix said, accepting gracefully and trying to ignore the fact that he was a full head shorter than she was and they must have looked rather silly.
Alix led Maurice, who was still occasionally getting a little lost in the castle, to the drawing room where Ger waited.
He had been sitting in there for close to an hour, trying to read and, more often than not, finding that the words on the page were inadequate distractions for his current state of mind. The past month had passed like a dream—admittedly, a very strange dream in which the last vestiges of magic were still fading from the castle and the staff was learning that they didn't always quite remember what it was to be human. Ger spent a lot of his time keeping Chip entertained, when he was not spending time with Alix, of course.
He grinned, then laughed at himself. Sooner or later, he would have to stop smiling every time her name came up. Or maybe not. He liked the idea of spending the rest of his life smiling whenever he said her name.
It seemed so strange, to think that he was in love with a Princess. Oh, he had not been such a fool as to think that Alix was not nobility – she was mistress of a castle and the servants did occasionally slip and address her by her title. But niece to the King of France? That had been higher than he had thought.
Yet Alix never really seemed to notice her own rank or, when she did, she viewed it as a necessary evil. When she'd been cursed, she had been far too young to have taken on any actual role in ruling her lands, but now...
What would they do?
They had, once or twice, discussed returning to Paris for their marriage, though Alix was manifestly in favor of getting married first and then reappearing in court. Ger found the idea of Paris to be intriguing—he could return to University, except this time without any worries about paying for his rooms or board.
On the other hand, he liked this solitary life (as solitary as life with fifty odd servants could be) and was not sure if he was ready to give it up.
And then, of course, there was Alix. What sort of effect would these proposed changes to their lives have on their relationship? In some ways, he had to acknowledge, things were much easier when she had been a Beast and they could just spend all day having snowball fights and hot chocolate and enthusiastic discussions.
Though, presumably, hot chocolate and discussions could happen in Paris too. He doubted that snowball fights on the grounds of Versailles were acceptable, though.
This was not to say he was not glad she had been returned to her human form. It had saved a lot of awkward questions when the townspeople had returned to the castle and found it occupied by a grand Princess who gravely told them that the Beast had been killed and they did not need to avenge Genevieve.
Ger shook his head. Idiot girl. She almost deserved her death.
It was a relief to have left Molyneaux behind. He had been looking to escape that town ever since he set foot in it. Of course, he had not planned to do so by falling in love with an enchanted princess, but it worked.
Speaking of princesses, he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. He shut the book in his lap, not even bothering to mark the place – it was not as though he had actually been reading it – and rose to his feet.
"My lovely lady," he said, rising and bowing to her. Maurice stepped back a pace, ceding his place at Alix's side to its rightful owner.
"Stop it," she said irritably, though a small smile tugged at her lips.
"Well," he said, "Perhaps not officially mine yet, but you are undeniably lovely. Even lovelier than the last time I saw you in that dress."
Alix snorted. "No flirting in public," she scolded him even as she flushed with pleasure. "It's unbecoming."
"I wasn't flirting," Ger protested, "I was being truthful." He took her hand. "Thank heavens I'm so good looking, otherwise I'd feel a fool standing next to you."
"You are an arrogant twit," Alix said fondly, the lingering traces of nerves melting like winter snow in the face of Ger's approbation. And, after all, no one else really mattered.
"Yes, but you love me anyway," Ger answered with a laugh.
"Are you ready?" Alix asked him.
He made a face. "To meet your aunt and subject myself to familial scrutiny? I suppose so. If ever she makes it here."
As if on cue, there was a rap on the door and Lumiere poked his head in. "Her Majesty, Queen Marie of France has arrived."
Alix and Ger shared a glance. "Show her in," Alix said, her voice remaining (mostly) calm.
Ger squeezed Alix's hand. "Don't worry," he said with an affectionate smile. "The hard part is over, remember?"
Alix shook her head, but didn't reply. The hard part, as Ger put it so succinctly, had barely even begun. She had not dared to consider how awkward it would be to explain to her aunt what had been going on for the past seven years, or how she came to meet Ger, not to mention what would happen if her aunt were to insist on Alix marrying someone of her own rank. Alix hoped she wouldn't. At worst, she could always terrorize the woman again, but Alix liked to think she was above such tactics. Unless they were really necessary of course.
Don't go borrowing trouble, her father had always said. Wise advice, especially at moments like this.
"Alix," Ger said, his voice gentle as he turned and rested one hand on Alix's cheek. "I'm serious. We'll be fine."
"I promise," he answered, and kissed her.
Inevitably, that was when Cogsworth announced "Her Majesty, Queen Marie of France," and Alix and Ger sprang apart like the guilty lovers they were.
Alix glared at Ger, who only winked back at her as the Queen strode regally into the room. An auspicious beginning indeed, Alix thought wryly as she walked forward to make her bows. But, it was, after all, just the beginning.
Oh, hey, look! I finished it! Well, as far as it's going to allow itself to be finished. The goal of the epilogue is, as far as I can tell, to wrap up the actual loose ends of the story and sort of point in the direction that the story is going to take. And you would not believe how hard this chapter was to write. Ugh, it was like pulling teeth, trying to get the right words on the page. I think I wrote 15 pages worth of words over the course of the last five weeks and then cut 7 of them. Yeesh. Although the fact that it took me five weeks was another problem. I'm sure you're all bored of my perennial apologies for not being able to stick to my own schedules, but here's another one anyway. I'm sorry – I hadn't realized until after I posted the last chapter that I had no idea what the epilogue was going to be. Figuring that out took...blood, sweat and tears? Well, not blood. Sweat, tears and time, perhaps
Anyway, part of that cutting was, once I finally worked out that the epilogue is not necessarily going to be fully satisfying, in terms of happily ever after-ness, that it should, at least, provide some grounds for it, I had somewhere to go. It's as much closure as I could muster without wanting to tell the story of their marriage for the next god knows how many years. But that's not this story. This story, this chapter in their lives is over.
Wish them the best.
Any lingering questions can be directed towards me and I may even answer them.
In the meantime, thank you, thank you, thank you, to the many people over the past (Dear God) three years who have read, reviewed and enjoyed this story. I could not have finished it without your encouragement, your ideas and your kindness.
I hope you've enjoyed reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it (and hopefully with less moments of hair-pulling torture than it occasionally gave me).
I remain, your obedient author,