All Along

Disclaimer: I do not own Beauty and the Beast, or its characters. That belongs to Disney.

When the morning's celebration with the servants was over and the reality of the previous night's changes was starting to sink in, Belle and her former Beast strolled into the gardens. Cogsworth looked as though he might have wanted to stop them, but out of the corner of her eye Belle saw Lumière put a hand over his mouth. She was grateful for the interference. There was a lot to talk about.

Neither Belle nor the young man who walked straight and stiff-backed beside her said anything until they were well away from the castle. Clearly he had no idea where to begin. She had things to say to him, too, but could come up with no graceful way to voice them. So they remained awkwardly silent until she was settled on a bench under a bare rose trellis and he stood in front of her and slightly to one side.

Both opened their mouths at the same time. Then they both said, "You first."

Belle laughed, and he actually did too. She inclined her head to indicate that she would not speak until he was ready to say something.

"I suppose you've got a lot of questions, Belle," he said at last, running a hand through his now-sandy hair and beginning to pace.

The familiarity of the gesture gave her heart. "Maybe…well, possibly less than you think."

"What do you mean?" He paused to stare at her.

"I…I've known you weren't exactly what you appeared to be for awhile," she admitted. She was afraid to look at him, but when she snuck a glance through her lashes he didn't look angry. Just surprised.

"How could you have known? The servants swore they'd never breathe a word…"

"They didn't, I promise."

"Then how…"

"Here, sit down. You're going to wear out a patch of grass at that rate." Belle patted the stone of the bench beside her. He sat, but he didn't look at her, staring instead at his knees. She forged ahead despite this slightly discouraging response. "Listen, it wasn't hard to figure out something strange was going on. A castle out in the middle of nowhere, manned by talking objects who have a Beast for a master…and a realm that's missing a prince."

His head came up at that. She held up a hand to stop what he was going to say. "Yes, I'd pretty much figured out who you were. A vanished castle is enough to excite local comment at the least. A vanished prince gets even more attention. I might have still been a girl at the time, but I remember the gossip. We were living in Paris then; it was hard to get around. People eventually came up with their own theories about what happened, but the story was always there at the back of my mind. I sometimes wondered about the prince. He was…is…only a year or two older than me."

"You never said anything." Now he looked back at his knees, looking so much like the Beast when he was put out about something that Belle almost laughed. Almost.

"I always figured you'd tell me when you were ready," she said gently. "But then…well, things…they got in the way." This gross understatement attempted to take in her father's illness, the Beast's release of her, the mob, and the fight with Gaston. And that terrible, terrible moment when she was afraid she would lose the man she'd come to love forever.

"They certainly did that," he agreed. The pair looked at each other, and then away. Belle felt her own face heat up, and she could only imagine what he must be thinking given how shy she knew he was at heart.

They were silent together for a minute or two. At last, he said, "So you knew about the spell."

"Pretty much from the first night. I've done a lot of reading about this kind of thing. Magic spells, princes in disguise. You know." She tried a smile.

"I know." Her reward was a small grin of his own, and he scooted closer to her on the bench until their arms were touching.

"I guessed the entire castle was enchanted when I met the servants and got over the initial shock of objects that could talk. I wondered if…please don't be angry with me when I say this," she said quickly.

"How could I be angry with you, Belle? Whatever else you've done, you've saved me and everyone in my household," he said, tracing her cheek with one finger.

She leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder. "That's one of the things I don't understand, and I'll be happy to hear your explanation for in a bit. But to continue: I wondered if you were the one behind the spell."

"Me?!" He pulled back sharply, and she could tell he was trying not to yell, or at least growl. Belle held her ground, and after a moment he relaxed. Slightly. "I trust you have a reason."

"Not a very good one, I'll admit," she confessed, her cheeks burning again. "I'm sorry. I was judging by my first impression of you, which was of a tyrannical monster."

"I take the blame for that," he said, relaxing even more into wry humor. "I was a tyrannical monster. You're perfectly justified in that regard. But please, continue. I'm curious now how you came to that conclusion."

"We've read fairytales together, remember? So many times there's a wicked ogre or some such creature who plagues the land until the brave hero comes to the rescue. I wondered if, as impossible as it seemed in reality, that might be the case. Perhaps the Beast had killed the prince, and enslaved his servants. That night I was in your room in the West Wing? I was wondering if you might keep the key to the spell hidden there, and that was the reason you'd it forbidden to me."

"Hmmm." He arched an eyebrow as he digested this. "I think it's understandable, when you put it that way."

"Good. I'm glad you can at least see a little bit of what I was thinking that night. I can barely come up with a credible explanation for myself. I saw the rose, and I thought all my suspicions were confirmed. It must be the magic talisman you were using to keep the servants prisoner. I thought if I could figure out how to destroy it, they might be released."

"But it was just the opposite," he pointed out. "If you'd destroyed it, then we'd all have been trapped forever."

"I didn't know that." She looked at her hands, which were twined in her lap. "It's a good thing you found me when you did. Though I don't think either of us thought it good at the time."

"No, I certainly didn't," he agreed. "My heart almost stopped when I saw you about to touch the rose!"

"It sounds silly to say it now, but when you caught me I was honestly terrified you'd put the spell on me too now that I'd found out about it. That's why I completely ignored my promise to you. I wasn't thinking clearly at all." She sighed, and glanced at him, but saw only understanding on his face. "I completely changed my mind when you saved me from the wolves. I saw then that you had a good heart underneath everything else. I realized you must be the prince, transformed, and you were likely as trapped by the spell as your servants. The rest of the time I spent in the castle, I was constantly trying to figure out how to break it, without anyone finding out what I was up to. I never did."

He smiled and nudged her shoulder. "You managed anyway."

"But how? I don't know what I did, but everyone keeps acting like I did something. Are you sure I had anything to do with it at all? I mean, maybe the spell lifted because you were…" she swallowed. This was still hard to think about without tears. "...dying," she finished, very softly.

"Oh, no, Belle! You had everything to do with it!" He turned on the bench so that he was facing her with his hands on her shoulders. He looked away briefly, then back. "I guess I should tell you the whole thing now. It's not an easy story for me to get out, but it's time you knew."

He took his hands away and ran them through his hair again. "As you seem to have guessed, I was once a prince of France. My father was the third son of the King, but both he and my mother died not long after I was born. Ten years ago at Christmastime, an old woman knocked on the castle doors and requested shelter. It was cold and snowing that night, but I turned her out. She offered payment of a rose, but still I refused. I…" He faltered, and Belle could see he was struggling to hold in tears. She put an arm around his shoulders, digging in her apron pocket with her other hand until she found her handkerchief. Wordlessly, she offered it to him. He took it, but clenched it in his hand instead of using it to wipe his eyes. "I was such a fool," he continued huskily. "If only I could have imagined the consequences. But nothing had consequences back then. Not for me."

Belle couldn't say she understood, not yet. That would have been dishonest, and that was one thing she wasn't. So she offered what comfort she could while waiting for him to be able to continue. After a moment, she ventured, "What happened?"

"The front doors burst open," he said, his eyes now glazed. She knew he was seeing that moment again. "The hag was still there, but her eyes were glowing. She sort of shimmered, then tossed aside her cloak and there was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. She still held the rose, but it was glowing, too. She told me my cold heart had deceived me by only seeing outward appearances and not the potential beauty within. And for my cold-heartedness she must punish me.

"I begged—something completely new to me. I asked for her forgiveness, told her that had I known who she was I certainly would not have refused her. She said that it was too late, and that forgiveness must be earned."

He shuddered, and was silent again for a few moments. At length, he whispered, "I was still on my knees when she cast the spell. The change—it was incredibly painful. I think the worst part was hearing my own screaming becoming that of a wild animal. While I was still recovering, she changed the servants as well. The next time I looked at them, they were—well, you know how they looked. They were objects. Things. I still didn't know exactly what she'd done to me, but I could feel it. I knew what I was without needing a mirror. A monster." He shuddered again.

"I'm sorry," he said. "This is the only time I've ever told anyone. But I re-lived that day over and over again for so many years until I thought I'd go mad. I kept thinking if only I'd been wiser a little sooner—" Now he did use the handkerchief.

"I don't know what to say," said Belle, her own voice shaking, "except I'm sorry. I wish you could have been spared that."

He sighed, and scrubbed at his eyes. "I can't change it now, much as I might wish to. Anyway, after she transformed my servants she told me I had until I turned twenty-one to break the curse. The rose would serve as a marker, and if I failed by the time it wilted then I would remain a Beast forever."

"Failed to…?"

"I had to fall in love, and find someone to love me in return."

Belle gasped, remembering what she'd said to him as he lay dying. As the last breath left his body. I love you.

"Oh, God," she whispered, horrified. "I was almost…too late. If only I'd known…"

"Please don't say that!" he said quickly. "You sound too much like me." They both grinned watery grins at this, and he wrapped an arm around her own shoulders so that they sat side-by-side, intertwined. "I'd like to think that you were just in time. And how could you have known? How could I ever have told you, even if you had admitted you'd guessed about the spell? Telling you the conditions would have ruined everything. You'd have felt obligated to me, at best. At worst, used. And that was the last thing I would have wanted, not only for my own selfish reasons. Falling in love was hard enough knowing everything depended on me. I would never have wanted that burden for you."

Belle stared at him, a broad smile creeping over her face. "Has anyone ever told you what an amazing person you are?"

"No, pretty recently it's been quite the opposite. In fact, for some reason 'person' never seemed to enter into the equation."

They shared a much-needed laugh, and Belle felt the mood lift. Even the breeze felt warmer as it curled around them.

"May I ask you a question?" His soft voice broke Belle's reverie.

"Of course."

"Did it make it any easier to fall in love with me? Knowing I wasn't really, um, ugly and hairy?"

Belle considered, searching her own feelings. She hadn't particularly thought about it in quite that way. "Yes and no, I guess. I mean, it was bit of a relief to know there wasn't something wrong with me, that I had feelings for such a, well…"

"Creature," he finished for her.

"Yes. But on the other hand, even though I guessed you were under a spell, I had no idea if it even could be broken. For all I knew, you might have stayed that way forever."

"I would have, if you hadn't come back when you did."

"Yes, but in that sense it wouldn't have mattered, would it? I fell in love with the personality I saw underneath the fur and fangs. What you looked like stopped mattering to how I felt about you a long time ago."

He looked at her with wonder. "Belle, you're pretty amazing, too, did you know?"

She laughed and kissed him. For awhile they didn't need to talk, they just sat with arms around each other enjoying the knowledge that the one they loved was near. Belle actually found herself drifting off to sleep, her head on his shoulder. The excitement and exhaustion of the past few days was rapidly catching up with her.

Suddenly he stiffened beneath her, bringing her fully awake. "What is it?"

"Listen."

Distant shouts reached their ears. It took Belle only a moment to recognize Cogsworth's voice among the others.

"Drat," the prince muttered. "I was hoping he'd leave us alone a little longer. I was just starting to get comfortable."

Belle listened again. "It sounds like he's got half the castle out looking for us. What on earth could possibly be that important? Or does he think you'll get lost in your own garden?"

"You know Cogsworth. 'There are things that must be attended to.'" Without the growl in his voice, he managed a decent impression of the fussy Englishman.

Belle giggled. "You do that very well."

"I should hope so, after all those years listening to him."

"Well, let's not fray the poor man's nerves any more." She untwined herself from his arms, stood, and shook out her blue skirt.

"Belle, wait," he said when she would have started towards the voices.

"Yes?" She turned back to find him still on the bench.

"You know Cogsworth will want to organize some sort of vast formal event to celebrate the end of all of this. Would you mind terribly if…if we made it our engagement party as well?"

Belle eyed him, trying to keep her face sober. "Does this mean you're proposing to me? Now?"

"Yes. I think so." He looked at her hesitantly. "I know there's some sort of proper way to go about it, but I honestly can't remember what it is, and there's no Cogsworth, Lumière, or Mrs. Potts around to tell me. But I figured there's really no better time to ask. You don't have any objections, do you? I mean, to marrying me?"

"Only a very small one," Belle replied. "You haven't told me your name."

"My name?" He looked confused for a second, then slightly suspicious. "Don't you already know that, if you knew I was the missing prince all along?"

"Maybe. But I want to hear it from you. Since there were a lot of other things you never got the chance to tell me."

His face cleared, and he broke into a smile. "Vincent. My name is Vincent."

"Vincent," she repeated. "Yes, I'd like nothing more than to become your wife. And this time, when I promise to stay forever, I mean together, forever."

He rose and came to stand facing her, so that she was looking straight into those dear, familiar blue eyes.

"Done," he said quietly.


Author's Note: This piece is just a small experiment, to answer a number of questions that have bothered me off and on about the Disney movie. The first and foremost being: a prince, his castle and household just disappeared, and nobody noticed? Really? Especially smart, perceptive, well-read Belle? Didn't she ever guess? And what would be the consequence if she did? Other fanfiction authors have tried out their own theories on these themes. For another version that's quite different from mine, try Answer's wonderful story "Dropping Eaves."

Going off of that, I also managed to answer a few other questions: what did Belle really think she was going to find in the West Wing? And why was she so willing to break her promise to the Beast right after that? There are tons of very logical explanations to this, I know, but I took it upon myself to rethink things just a little.

Several reviewers have mentioned this, so I'm going to address it. Apparently the Prince's 'official' name is Adam. I've heard it equally as often as Vincent, so I figured it was perfectly plausible to choose between the two. I think if I had to pick one of them to name a child of mine I'd pick Adam, but in this instance Vincent just seemed to fit better. But thank you for pointing it out!

SamoaPhoenix9