Chapter Twenty-Five;

In Which There is Love

Once upon a time, in a small and beautiful French village, there lived a simple and happy grocer. Though he had lost a great fortune and a fine manor in the city, he had found contentment in his four wonderful children. The two oldest were twin sisters of strong wills and proud temperaments, both having made fine matches and were starting families of their own. The middle child was the grocer's only son, who had recently returned home after a harrowing adventure, and helped out at his father's store without complaint. Now, the youngest daughter was a sweet-natured, intelligent woman named Beauty, and it seemed to her that the day's work was never done. No sooner had she finished washing the dirty dishes than the sink sprouted new ones, and still the rugs needed beating and the table scrubbing, before she could even think of going into town to take lunch to her father and brother.

She preferred country life to that of the city, and enjoyed the hard honest work; but she did sometimes wish that there wasn't quite so much of it.

Later, when the chores were all done and a haunch roasting in the oven for dinner, Beauty set off for town with a substantial basket of food and a feeling of accomplishment. Sunlight poured through the cracks in the heavy clouds, the day newly washed as if fresh from a bath. The occasional raindrop pattered down, and robins hunted merrily for worms everywhere she looked. The main road gradually began to emerge from the little brown path, until eventually the dirt gave up entirely and her sensible shoes clicked against the cobblestones. She crossed the town center through the hustle and bustle, trading polite nods with the baker's wife.

A young man - a farrier, from the looks of him - nearly walked face-first into a post, he was too busy watching her pass by to mind his own feet.

Her cheeks grew warm. Beauty kept walking as if nothing had happened, allowing the farrier to regain his dignity in peace. In this town she did not lack for prospects, as her sisters had always referred to men they considered to be good enough for marriage, if she wanted them. There had been plenty of suitors who had come to call after the d'Aumales had first moved into their little cottage, provincial men both young and not-so-young eager to snap up a courtly city-bred wife, even if her talents lie in embroidery and ballroom dancing rather than in useful skills like milking a cow or darning a sock. No doubt she could have her pick of men to wed. But Brendan had been right; that wasn't what she wanted out of life. The world often wasn't kind to bright or ambitious women, but Beauty was certainly bright enough to hide that she had any ambitions at all. As much as she enjoyed country life, a country husband did not fit into those ambitions one bit.

The bell jingled cheerfully as she pushed inside her father's shop. Three heads immediately turned her way, making her the center of their very focused attention. "Goodness! I feel quite like a dragonfly that's blundered into a frog pond."

"Ribbit," said her father with feigned dignity, taking her basket and guiding her to a chair. "I do apologize for our intensity, my dear, our appetites got the better of us. We've worked up quite an appetite during the morning rush." He flipped the sign in the window to 'closed' and began laying out the basket's contents, setting up a very respectable luncheon.

"We must have had half the town in here already, seems like," said Brendan in his low, musical voice. "It's been a busy morning." Out of the corner of her eye Beauty watched her brother as he gathered some mismatched glasses from under the counter and poured them all some wine. He looked good with his hair short, she finally decided. It made him look older, more mature, while at the same time bringing out the line of his jaw and the color and clarity of his eyes. Though she supposed it was somewhat narcissistic to think that, as the two of them shared that particular feature - a gift from their departed mother.

A third man was peering longingly into the basket, and with a smile Beauty handed him a cloth-wrapped package. "I made a sandwich for you as well, Jasper."

The man took it gratefully. "Oh, you are too kind, mademoiselle. Too kind." Slipping the sandwich into his coat pocket, Jasper gathered up a tightly bound stack of papers. "I'll just run these over the clerk's office now, shall I sir?"

Etienne glanced up and waved a hand vaguely. "Very good, thank you, Jasper."

The little manager put on his hat and doffed it respectfully to Beauty before trundling out the door, the bell ringing behind him.

Beauty took the wineglass her brother proffered. "So, ah," he began, and she looked at him sharply, immediately catching the nervous timbre in his tone, like an instrument with one note off-key. "The twins might come by for a visit," he ventured.

"Oh?" asked their father around a bite of ham. "What for?"

With a forced shrug, her brother answered a little too breezily. "I mentioned we'd be having lunch. I thought a family get-together would be nice."

"Hm." That surely could not be the only reason. After hearing the fullness of his tale, at last understanding everything Brendan had been through during the winter, she supposed he was entitled to a bit of mysteriousness. "Well, I think there will be enough for everyone," was all she said, letting things lie for now. Besides, she could always wrangle an answer out of him later if he was still acting so odd.

They spoke and ate for only a handful of minutes before the bell gently chimed again, and the twins came scurrying in, untying their bonnets and shaking the light rain off their cloaks. Greetings were shared, extra chairs were found and two more glasses of wine poured. They joined the rest of their family, remarking on the dreariness of the weather and the new fabrics Beaumont's had gotten in that morning. Catherine declined the wine to sip at water instead, explaining sourly that Gustav had insisted spirits were bad for the baby.

"All the other pregnant women drink wine," she grumbled. "It's all this silly nonsense about medicine he natters on about. He's even making me eat things, like iron filings, for the vitamins." Her mouth twisted on the word like it tasted, indeed, of metal.

"You married a doctor, you know," Brendan added with a slight rolling of his eyes, though Beauty noted he still sat a little too stiffly in his chair. "What else would he 'natter on' about but medicine?"

Etienne patted Catherine's hand consolingly. "There, there, my child. He seems a sensible chap. I'm sure he has only your best interests at heart."

Marguerite huffed a low laugh. "If Jeremié tries shaving off bits of horseshoes into my food, I can tell you it will not go well for him. However do you manage it?"

"Well, it's only a little bit. And not every day," Catherine conceded.

"Isn't this nice!" exclaimed Beauty over her sisters' grousing. "Such a good idea, Brendan." She smiled warmly at him before nibbling delicately at a biscuit.

Fondly, Etienne's eyes crinkled at the corners. "A very fine idea indeed. It does my heart good, having the whole family together again." Brendan's hand snuck up to pinch the bridge of his nose, as if he were vainly trying to stave off a nasty headache. What on earth was bothering him so much? Beauty wondered.

"Yes, well," he said, smoothing his napkin several times, despite the fact that it had nary a wrinkle in it, and realization struck her. It seemed he had made his choice, after all. Her heart swelled with pride, though tempered with just a smidgen of worry. There was always the possibility that this time, when he left, he'd never return.

"I actually had an ulterior motive for asking you all here," Brendan finally forced out. The others turned their heads curiously, and Beauty tried to prepare herself.

"What is it, son?"

Lifting his chin a fraction, Brendan said, "I have an announcement to make." He looked at each of them in turn, and only Beauty noticed the faintest of tremors in his hands. "I'm going back to the castle."

There was an immediate outcry. "Certainly not!" cried their father.

"What? That's ridiculous!" from Catherine.

"Whatever for? You must be mad, Brendan!" from Marguerite.

Her brother held up his hands beseechingly, attempting to calm them into silence. "I know you all probably have questions-"

"Damn right we do!" Marguerite slammed down her glass so hard that wine sloshed over the table. "After everything that happened to you there, what on earth could possess you to go back to that horrid place?"

Red-faced, Etienne shot to his feet. "I absolutely forbid it!"

With a rueful smile, Brendan shook his head. "Father," he began gently. "I'm nearly twenty. My decisions are my own."

The twins stood up as well, and out of ingrained courtesy Brendan followed. Beauty remained sitting; she may as well finish the last biscuit, since nobody was paying any attention to her. She picked off a raisin and took a bite as above her head Catherine railed incredulously. "You're going back? To that… that monster?"

"He's no monster, Catherine. Just a man."

Their father stared at him, aghast. " have pity for that creature?"

Brendan met his gaze calmly, "No. But I do care for him."

Mouth gaping a few times, Etienne finally managed to say, "I don't understand. I have seen the Beast, with my own two eyes! I know the danger you are proposing to walk back into! I have experienced firsthand his barbarism, his cruelty."

"He is my friend, Father." Confusion written in careworn lines on Etienne's face, he fell quiet. Marguerite sucked in a shocked breath, trading a glance with Beauty, who did nothing aside from very slightly raise up one eyebrow, and finish her biscuit.

"Beauty!" Catherine flapped her hands at her erstwhile silent sister. "Have you nothing to say? Tell him what you think of all this!"

"Safe travel, brother." Beauty said softly.

He smiled down at her. "Thank you, Beauty."

Catherine gawped at Beauty. "How can you be so calm? After all we went through? You yourself must have made a dozen trips into the forest trying to find him! Now, he's just going to go skipping back, and you're all right with that?"

Unruffled, Beauty sipped her wine. "I hardly think he'll be skipping, Catherine." Hands on her hips, Catherine huffed with exasperation.

Marguerite lowered her hand from her mouth and set it to her heart, her shock fading into something else. "Are you really sure about this, Brendan? I mean, really, truly, completely sure?"

Without a shadow of hesitation, Brendan nodded. "I've never been more sure of anything in my life."

Catherine pursed her lips and stared at her brother for several long heartbeats. Finally, she sighed, throwing up her hands in resignation. "If you insist upon this foolish endeavor, you must at least make me a promise. Promise you will come back to us someday." She placed a hand on the swell of her stomach. "I don't want him growing up without an uncle." She glanced away, cleared her throat to mask the roughness of her voice. "So when are you leaving?"

"Right away. Tonight."

"But you can't!" Marguerite burst out, near tears. "What if you miss my wedding? We need you!" Brendan turned to Marguerite with surprise. He shook his head with a fond smile.

"No, you don't, Mar. None of you do." He leaned forward and brushed a kiss to her forehead. "You'll all do fine without me."

Etienne's posture was slumped in defeat. "But...what about the shop?"

Brendan gave a low, self-deprecating chuckle. "Father, you and I both know that I'd be a useless shopkeeper. I'm glad to have helped out, but you'll do fine. Better than fine."

"But...I still don't understand." At the tone of her father's voice, how completely lost he sounded, Beauty felt a pang of sorrow. Judging by Brendan's expression, he felt the same way she did - regret, but regretting the necessity of the decision, not the decision itself.

"I know, Father," he said feelingly, "and I am sorry for that. I do not mean to cause you any distress. Any of you. But you all have found your callings. You've made your choices and are living your lives. It's time I do the same."

Beauty got to her feet and reached for her cloak.

"Beauty, you are leaving? Where are you going?" Etienne asked, bewildered.

"Home," she said briskly. "I think you four might still have some things to discuss. And I think somebody ought to pack my dear brother something to eat for his trip, don't you?" The smile Brendan gave her could have lit up a darkened room.

As she picked her way around puddles, hearing the voices of her family rising behind her, Beauty shook her head and smiled. The others may rant and rail all they wished; Brendan would not be swayed, if the adamant set of his stance was anything to go by, but nevertheless, Beauty was sure that her brother's eloquence would be put to the test.




Night softened, giving ground to the ineludible approach of morning, the forest still slumbering around him.

The very first time he had made this trip, it had been all freezing rain and cloudy skies, sharp winds and muddy roads. The second time he had been so numb he barely remembered it, as if he had ridden through a thick and clinging fog.

But this time, every step of the journey was made in crisp clarity. He followed the thin road through the ancient forest till it was naught but a slim ribbon of dust cutting through the grass, all the while strikingly aware of every fleeting detail. The susurration of branches swaying overhead, the weaselly tang of some distant skunk, the steady jolts of Jean-Luc's hooves against the ground. He was alive; as present and aware as if he had just awakened from a long and stifling sleep.

He had no idea what to expect when he returned, none whatsoever, and in some measure, that very uncertainty was welcome. Perhaps Beast would be glad to see him. Perhaps he wouldn't. Perhaps he would be furious, or penitent, or grateful, or perhaps a hundred unpredictable, shadowy outcomes - but all Brendan could do was follow each step with another. The future would have to sort itself out. The feeling was extraordinarily freeing, each step forward a decision remade.

Trepidation was still there, caution that perched in the back of his mind, but it was a tiny and unimportant thing compared to the absolute certainty that this was the right decision; perhaps even the only decision. Since he'd left the castle, running home clutching the pieces of his broken heart, he'd been lost and adrift, a bit of flotsam atop the white-cresting sea. It was only now, going back, that he could feel the waves pushing him to land, the sandy shore under his feet.

Even if every bladed word Beast had said that night in the garden had been true, and even if it had been by his magical arts that Etienne had fallen ill and Brendan driven away, that didn't change the truth. His place was with Beast. There was nowhere else.

He let his hands rest loosely on the reins, trusting in the horse to remember the way and praying fervently that the magic wouldn't turn the road back on itself and deny him entry.

Through the evening he rode, into the night, through those small still hours of gray that prefaced the dawn, and remembered the color of Beast's eyes as they opened to the morning, endless brown lit up with gold like tiny sparks of sunlight.

At last he saw the towering shape of the great iron gates appear at the end of the uneven path, and he breathed out in relief, kicking Jean-Luc into a hasty trot. As he drew nearer, he pulled up short with surprise. The gates appeared to be tangled in vines, thick ropes of vegetation climbing up the bars with leaves as wide as his outstretched hand.

Perplexed, Brendan slid out of the saddle and approached the gates. He reached out and touched an iron bar through a wild spray of ivy, his fingers coming away with flakes of brown rust on them. "What is this?" he muttered. This is...wrong, he thought. There hadn't been one speck of rust on this gate when I'd left. Wrapping his fingers around the bars, he swung the doors open. Or rather, he tried to. The hinges creaked like an old woman's complaints, but did not budge an inch. Brow creased in consternation, Brendan set his boots firmly against the path and pulled at the gate with all his might. He may as well have been trying to yank down the moon.

Panting with exertion, Brendan stopped. Foreboding traced goosebumps up his spine. Something was very, very wrong. Was there some trick to this, some hidden latch? Suddenly he remembered being in the kitchen with Beast murmuring against his ear, and shivering with the words, I do believe you have demonstrated a few tricks of your own. He tried to shove the memory away, fix his attention on the present.

After another appraising look at the gate, Brendan turned back to his horse and stroked the stripe on his broad forehead. "I think I can squeeze through, but there's no way I'm getting you in there. Think you'll be all right out here, boy?" The gelding whickered softly and put his velvety nose into Brendan's palm. "Good boy." He tied up the reins on a bit of iron and left his bulky cloak draped over the saddle.

It took some careful maneuvering to slip between the iron bars, but with a few minor scrapes he was through, brushing bits of rust from his clothes.

Brendan looked up. A choked gasp died on his lips.




Beast stood, head bowed, at the castle's tallest tower, the jutting spire still standing from the original stronghold. Long ago, each brother had been given a piece of territory to rule as their own. This land had once belonged to a great-great-great uncle as a country hunting lodge, each generation adding as their holdings grew, their wealth increased, the noble lineage thinning as royal blood grew scarcer.

So many had gone before him in this very castle, trod upon the very stones he now stood, and he had treated it as his personal pleasure house, wherein everything and everyone had existed merely to keep him occupied and amused.

How empty he had been.

How empty he remained.

A mere husk, a shell, a twisted body given to shape the ugliness he had always truly been.

He had sent the servants away, no longer able to bear the brunt of their silent accusations, hoping beyond hope that when the inevitable finally descended upon him, they at least, might be free.

This tower, this castle, this land, was irrevocably his. He was its lord absolute, with power unmatched.

And it was nothing. He held nothing in his hands but his own regrets.




Brendan stared. The castle was a ruin, weathered and crumbling as if it had been doing so for years beyond counting. The beautiful stained glass windows that had once looked out like gemstone eyes from the castle's face were all smashed and yellowed. The grounds lay in a careless mess as if neglected for decades. Weeds and saplings grew up through the cracked cobblestones leading to the main stairs, and all flanking it the red roses were dry and withered on the bush, like old drops of blood. The air felt dead, quiet, like a graveyard.

It looked as if time had forgotten this place for hundreds of years. A sudden fear gripped his heart, fear that everything had been some kind of dream, a hallucination, that his memories of fine marble and grand gardens had been some sort of mad delusion, and all that had ever stood here was the broken bones of some long forgotten keep.

"Beast," a whisper slipped from his lips unbidden. The sound jolted him from his frozen horror, and he started to run towards the doors. He had to find Beast. He would never have allowed his castle to fall into such disrepair, never, not unless he...

He shook the thought from his head violently, falling against the doors in his haste. The great wooden doors had slid off their hinges and keeled against each other. He reached for a knocker, but it fell off at his feet with a hollow thud, more rust than metal.

"Beast!" he called out, near frantic. "Let me in! Please! Beast? Anybody!" Not a sound, not a whisper. Not even the whisk of movement of one of the servants. He tried tugging at the fallen doors, but as with the iron gates, they would not move. They only groaned ominously, as if they would topple over on him.

"Beast!" He beat upon the door with his fists, the sound swallowed up by the plants that were choking their way up the castle stones. How had they grown so much in only a few weeks? Why was nobody answering the door?

With a frustrated growl, Brendan tore himself away, dashing alongside the wall. He recalled there was a side door, past the hedge maze and the sculpture garden, near the stables. If he could just get there, then surely he could find his way inside the castle, and Beast would be okay and everything would be fine and...he drew in a shuddering breath. Damn it, why had he been gone so long? Mother Mary, is this my fault? He snorted, furious at himself. This castle stood for centuries until I interfered! Somehow, I am to blame for this. He circled the reflection pool, barely recognizable to him as the same one he had almost drowned in without its concealing blanket of snow. He could see now that it was surrounded by fountains, dry as bones and falling apart. If Beast is hurt, or worse, if he is...he shied away from the thought, unwilling to even give the terrifying possibility a name - If he's hurt, and I am responsible...

The thought went unfinished. Instead he remembered a crooked grin cast across the salle, Beast twisting his rapier with careless grace.

Roots and brambles seemed to spring up under his feet, several times nearly tripping him as he rounded the corner. As he approached, he had to slow down, weaving through thornbrushes to get into the sculpture garden. Corinthian pillars flanked the path, once proud, tall columns the color of parchment, but now as dirtied and worn as old Roman ruins. He once walked this garden with Beast, and he remembered the way Beast had held his hand, unsure and bold in equal measures.

The air felt eerily too cold, the fine hairs on the back of his neck all prickling up, and he caught the slight scent of a lighting storm.

A woman stepped out from around a crumbling column. It was instantly apparent that she was not entirely human. Though she had the usual assemblage of arms and legs and so forth, and they were arranged in a very beautiful manner, her eyes had the high unnatural shine of polished onyx and her black hair moved like weeds underwater. "Honestly," she said, clarion voice ringing strangely, echoing where no echo should sound. "What do I have to do to get you people to do as you are supposed to?"




This was as good as any place to lay down. He let his mind drift. It had been such a short time, really – just one winter out of two hundred – but that one winter had held the only days of his entire life that he had been truly happy.

Grateful even to be left memories, Beast closed his eyes with weary acceptance.




"Why didn't the girl come, instead of you?"

Brendan froze and eyed the sorceress warily, for he knew without a shadow of doubt that this must be her; she was exactly as the book had described her, silver-black and gossamer-clad. After a long pause he managed to find his voice. "I am very stubborn."

Her head tilted slightly in acknowledgment. "That is readily apparent." She looked like a woodcut, all ink and blank paper.

Brendan swallowed his apprehension, muscles tightening in his jaw. "What have you done to him?" If she had hurt him, if Beast was harmed in any way...

"The prince? Not a thing. I have done nothing more than endeavor to weave a tale, child. It is what I do." She watched him the way cats watched garden voles; circling around with amused indifference right up until the time came to pounce. "Though I find myself curious, stubborn boy. What exactly would you do, if I was intending to do something with the prince?"

A good question. Though unsure of how exactly he would accomplish it, one thing was certain. "I'd stop you," he responded flatly.

"Would you really?" Thinly the woman smiled, her perfectly even teeth glinting like ivory. "Are you a sorcerer, by chance? Know you the hidden, eldritch ways of magic?"

He shifted slightly from one foot to another. "I can wiggle my ears, a bit."

She stared at him, this cold apparition of a woman. Then she threw her head back and laughed in a way he had never heard a lady do before, loud and unself-conscious. Her black stone eyes warmed, and the ground at her feet started to sprout little seedlings. "The prince must have had his work cut out for him with you around."

Brendan didn't like the way she spoke of Beast in past tense, and his eyes narrowed, suddenly keen as steel. "If you've hurt him, witch, I will end you."

Silence stretched taut in the air, his hands closed into fists. "This little scholar suddenly turned warrior before me, hm?" The sorceress studied him with the same intensity people gave horses they were considering for purchase. "Perhaps you were well chosen, after all," she said, almost to herself.

Realization suddenly coursed through him. "You…you did all this." He felt like a fool for not thinking of it sooner. Of course, Beast hadn't made his father sick; she had. The one responsible for everything. The sorceress who had set the entire thing in motion. The one playing games with Beast's life. "You made my father sick. Sent Beauty the dreams. I suppose you are to blame for the state of the castle, as well."

"You mean this?" She indicated the decaying grounds around them with a dove-white hand. "No. The spell itself despairs, and falls under its own weight. This happens, sometimes, when spells get very old and they adopt some measure of autonomy. I had no part of it. I have no wish to see my own work wasted. As for your other suppositions, yes. I arranged matters with your family."

Something ugly roiled in his gut, and his eyes flashed. "My father almost died."

Her hand made a gentle, brushing motion like a falling feather. "No. My spell would not have claimed his life. It was only necessary for a short time."

"Why?" he asked roughly.

She shrugged one elegant shoulder. "My reasons are my own."

"How, then?" Despite the dire circumstances, curiosity nipped at him like a harrying dog. "How did you do...well, any of this?"

Her lips curved slightly. "There are powers far more ancient than your sacrificed god and your virgin goddess."

Somewhat taken aback, Brendan irrelevantly rejoined, " I... What? Mary isn't a goddess."

"Is she not?" The sorceress looked amused. "As you say." She turned her gaze to a nearby statue, marble in cloven chunks at its base. "Nothing is truly eternal, not even the strongest magic. You can see that." The full weight of her inhuman eyes bored into him. "The proof is all around you."

His eyes quickly flicked from the broken statue back to the woman. "Your point?"

"Magic fades, like memories. Neither one so quickly or so easily as we tend to believe; but they do. In time it will fade for you, Brendan." He barely masked his reaction, jerking back as she spoke his name. She watched him knowingly and went on. "This place will crumble into earth - no magic now can keep it standing - and you will forget."

Anger momentarily stole his voice from him, and as he struggled to regain some measure of control, blood pounding in his brain, the sorceress took a gentle, fawnlike step forward.

"I have upset you. You misunderstand me. I am offering you a gift."

Incredulously, "A gift?"

"You came here to save the prince. You could not have known that what you chose was an impossible task. When a ship sinks, no mere man may deprive the ocean of its prize. There is no reason for it to drag you down as well."

She leaned towards him, her words a conspiratorial whisper. "I can make you forget. You can return to your life; to your fine, loving family, to a new life, to an open world of endless possibilities." Her face expressed only sincere, earnest kindness. "It is what he would want."

With throat parched, he said, "You act like you know everything. Like you know me. You don't." He shook his head. "I didn't come here to save Beast. I came here to be with him." He fixed her with an even, razor-edged glare. "And nothing you say can dissuade me. Keep your gift, sorceress, and let. Me. Pass."

The sorceress looked at him as if she could see right through him, saw his heart beating beneath clear, glass skin. She sighed, her expression changing, sphinxlike and inscrutable, to reflect some unspoken decision. She inclined her head towards him, respectfully, as one did when meeting an equal. "Sometimes, one has to trust in the magic. That is an old wisdom, the very first lesson that is taught to my kind. It is one I may have neglected to consider."

"What you have neglected to consider," he returned heatedly, "is that time is wasting. I know Beast is here somewhere, and he may be dying, and yet you still stand in my way." Her eyes raked over him, taking in his raw anguish, pain that underlay an unshakeable strength.

"You know," she mentioned thoughtfully, "I do not think you were chosen, after all." Brendan drew himself up and squared his shoulders. He couldn't begin to guess what sort of things she might be able to do to him, but he was ready for whatever she might try. She did nothing more than put her head to the side, and with a crescent-moon smile said, "I think you were the one who chose."

Brendan shook his head, wanting only to get past this strange colorless woman and find his Beast. "I do not know what you mean."

"I would not expect you to." She watched him for another moment with her head half-turned, like a bird. "It is rare for anyone to pen their own story." She tapped finely carved fingers against her wrist musingly. "I believe there is a common saying about curiosity. It would seem that I am as susceptible to it as any feline. I will not hinder your passage."

With an arch of his brows, Brendan asked, "Is this a trick?"

"No," she said simply.

He let out a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding. "Then let me pass."

Without any further conversation, she stepped aside delicately, the hem of her filmy gown flowing around her bare feet like water. Still leery of chicanery and trickery both, Brendan edged along the path, not daring to take his eyes off her.

Just as he was ready to turn, she spoke. "May I impart some wisdom to you?"

Warily, Brendan nodded.

"Remember this; sometimes once a thing is done, it can never be undone. That is the second lesson that is taught to my kind."

Puzzled, but suspicious of her soft sorrowful tone, he turned from her and stepped out of the sculpture garden onto the grass. He turned back for a moment, but of course, she had disappeared.




Moving was laborious, so he stopped. He was so, so tired. Each breath brought with it new regrets, harpstrings cutting sharp and discordant through his heart.


Every endless second, Beast ached for the slightest touch of his hand, the merest whisper of his voice, the smallest glimpse of those clever-long fingers or that chestnut-rich hair.

If fate was kind, far kinder than it had been to himself, Brendan would live out his days happily, making music and visiting libraries and laughing low and sultry over a candlelit dinner with someone far better suited for him than some broken antiquity.

With the last vestiges of his strength, he wished only for another's happiness.




Finally his feet found the riding path that he knew would lead him back to the castle. As Brendan passed the stables he remembered the way Beast had often stilled under his touch, had to be gentled like a skittish colt.

At last, after what felt like ages, he came to the door. It was completely hidden by briars. He tore at them, grunting as thorns pierced his skin. The door itself was warped in its frame, but he managed to wrench it open, the hinges wailing in protest.

He burst through the doorway, yelling Beast's name at the top of his lungs.

The shadowed hallway devoured the sound of his voice, and he faltered. Deep cracks crept up the walls, bits of plaster fallen and rotting on damp, threadbare carpets. Stunned, he walked on. Everything was in ruins. Lamps did not light as he passed them, no gentle nudges directed him, and every little absence only amplified the sensation that this castle had been long since abandoned.

It was dark, only the faintest of pre-dawn light sneaking its way in through filth-encrusted windows. He moved as if walking in a nightmare, legs too slow to respond, like slogging through thick mud. He passed the doors to the library, paused, and pushed them open. There was a good chance that Beast might be in there.

A portion of the shelving had collapsed, and books were scattered over the wooden floors, leather covers curled back with some long-ago dampness, now so dry they were disintegrating as he watched. Had circumstances been less dire, at any other time, Brendan would have mourned their loss, so much knowledge now only appreciated by dust-motes and booklice. He remembered sitting in this library as Beast laughed with surprise, as if his own amusement was unexpected, as Brendan joked about long-dead authors over the dregs of a wine bottle.

He backed out of the room, shaking his head in disbelief. Where else, his mind raced, where could he be? The greenhouse? The solarium, his bedroom, the music room? The castle possessed more rooms than he could begin to count, and probably dozens more that he'd never even known existed. Without question, he would search each room, each hall, every parlor and foyer and in every last cobwebbed corner if he had to...but what if he was already too late?

He put his face in his hands, forcibly holding back a shaky sob. Why had be waited so long, why had he spent so many foolish days agonizing over the decision to come back? Too indecisive to leave his old life behind. Too proud to go back to someone that had hurt him so deeply. Too much of a coward to hear the man he loved turn him away again.

Drawing in a deep, fortifying breath, Brendan let his hands fall to his sides. Not this time. I will find him.

There was a light touch on his arm, like the brush of a spider, and he spun around with a startled gasp, seeing nothing but a dark and dusty hall. After a breathless second, his heart moved from his throat back down to its proper place, and he exhaled heavily with relief. There was the familiar brush of air that always had heralded the presence of one of the servants, a welcoming ambience he had unknowingly become accustomed to. He grinned widely, nearly giddy at the company.

"I am so glad so see you. Well, not see, exactly, but..." Something odd caught his eye, and he tilted his head to the side. Actually, he could see something, when the light shifted. Like an outline - a thin, oily haze where the edges of a body might be. "What...what has happened to you?"

Something grabbed the cuff of his sleeve and pulled him away from the library doors. He nodded curtly. "Right. You know where Beast is? Take me there. Is he all right?"

Without warning, the servant staggered, the grip on his sleeve weakening. Brendan automatically tried to reach for the invisible, but grasped only shadows. Concerned, he asked, "Are you hurt?" He couldn't catch the servant's smoky outline; it was only visible when the light was just barely there, still half-shadow. After a moment the grip became firmer, the servant regained its footing, yanking insistently at his sleeve. All Brendan could do was follow.

The hall opened to a narrow chamber cluttered with an armory's debris, Brendan picking his way carefully over rusting suits of armor. Prone on the tiles, they lay like soldiers that had simply given up their vigils and laid down at their posts. He stepped over a red-plumed helm, a hand on the wall for balance. Skimming his fingers across the exposed plaster, he remembered being pushed up against the wall of the portrait gallery, Beast's kisses stealing the breath from him.

"Is it much farther?" he rasped. The servant paused at a doorway, twisting from side to side as if unsure which direction to take. With a pang of worry, Brendan tried to lean in towards his unseen guide. As frantic as he was to get to Beast, this servant did not seem well. Briefly he wondered if it was the same one that had kissed him, once upon a time, but dismissed the notion as unlikely. The castle had so very many servants. "Stop a moment. You seem confused. Are you unwell?" He craned his head and squinted, trying unsuccessfully to see the faint haze where the servant stood. "Is there anything I can do for you? To help you?"

The fingers on his sleeve wrapped around his wrist and squeezed, as if to comfort him, then pulled meaningfully. He managed a sort of lopsided smile. "Okay, okay. Let's go." The servant led him through a moldering parlor, down another darkened hall, to a small and unremarkable door. It was flanked by twin sconces bearing unlit torches, which was odd. Most of the castle had at some point been outfitted with newer lamps and chandeliers. Perhaps this part of the castle was older than the rest, or had just never been important enough to change it from its medieval fittings.

The thick plank door opened to a long set of steep and narrow stairs, winding upwards to a tower Brendan had never seen before.

His boots scraped against the slab steps that curved up and around the central pillar, thin arrow slits letting in slivers of the rising dawn. In between the spaces of shadow Brendan could sometimes catch sight of the servant's shape, undefined but certainly there.

The hand guiding him trembled, sliding off his arm. Brendan stopped and took a step towards the invisible. He could barely make it out, a mere suggestion of shape bracing itself against the outer wall.

"Take it easy," Brendan said anxiously. "The spell is failing, and you're a part of that, right? You shouldn't waste your strength-"

A hand set itself on his shoulder and pushed him hard, urging him up the stairs on his own. "Is Beast up there?" More firmly he was pushed again. "But...will you be all right?"

Two hands shoved him this time, as if to say just go, you idiot! Seeing the wisdom in this, Brendan lingered a moment more only to utter a fervent, "Thank you."

He dashed up the stairs as fast as he could, taking two or three steps at a time. It was a tall tower, and by the time he reached the top his lungs burned, and he propped himself against the arched doorway, struggling for breath.

The stairs opened into a circular room, all stone and open windows carved like delicate lace, perhaps at one time a watchtower or observatory. A breeze ruffled freely in his hair through the arched windows, the rafters of the pointed tower creaking slightly above him. The room stood empty except for a solitary heap of cloth and furs in its center.

The heap moved. A shallow breath in. Out. And in again.

A singular second stretched for an hour, every muscle in his body locked fast. When he was finally able to move, Brendan ran and collapsed to the floor. "Beast," he whispered, throat too tight for anything louder.

A sharp indrawn breath, and dark amber eyes blinked open.

"Beast!" Brendan rolled the limp figure onto its back, his heart a tangled tumult of relief and fear and happiness and dread.

Beast's head lolled towards him. "Another one," he croaked, the words dragged out painfully.

Eyes flicking desperately, searching for any injuries, Brendan could barely hear him. "What?"

Again, this time a little clearer, "Another one. Dream. This is a...strange one, though." The sentence seemed to exhaust him, and his eyelids shuttered. Brendan leaned over him and cupped that proud face between his palms. He kissed him once, lightly, just proving to himself that this wasn't a trick, some kind of leftover illusion the sorceress had left as a cruel joke. But the mouth beneath his own was familiar, the same lips that had been haunting his dreams for every night he had lain awake in his cramped little attic room. A part of him melted with relief. At last, at last, his mind chanted. This was real, he had finally found him. His Beast was safe.

"Hey, hey, don't fall asleep. I'm here, I'm here." He tried to keep his voice soft and soothing. "I'm not a dream, Beast. I'm here." When Beast finally turned to look at him, he smiled, though it felt shaky. "I came back."

Beast grunted, sitting up a little.

"Are you injured? Where are you hurt?" He ran his hands over Beast's body, seeking the source of his ailment. "We have to get you down from this tower, get you somewhere warm-"

"Not hurt." A hand came up and gently caressed Brendan's cheek. He went still, feeling like the wind had been knocked from his chest. Finally he closed his eyes and leaned into the touch, sliding his own hand atop Beast's.

For a moment, everything was perfect.

When he opened his eyes Beast was staring at him, some of his lucidity returned. "You're here," he grated, as if just realizing it for truth.

Brendan bit his lip, nodding. "I'm here, Beast."

Leonine features hardened with something, regret and anger mixed. "You shouldn't be. I told you to go. Why? Why didn't you listen to..." Shutting his eyes against a wave of weakness, Beast swallowed thickly.

He tried to shape a feeble smile. "I never do what you tell me to, remember?"

Beast's laugh twisted into a cough. "Your one flaw." Brendan laughed too, hearing the low, hysterical edge of it. "Shouldn't have come back. Seen me like this."

Brendan shook his head fiercely. "I had to."

"Didn't think...after what I said..." Beast turned his face away in shame. With a soft touch Brendan turned it back, and with one meaningful glance told Beast that all had been forgiven. Beast's next breath came a little lighter, as if a weight had been removed.

"I had to come back," Brendan told him, voice hushed and breaking. "My life is empty without you, Beast. I love you."

Beast's eyes squeezed shut, as if the other man's words caused him physical pain. "Brendan…"

"Shh. You shouldn't talk. Just…just take it easy, I can go get help-"

"Please." The word, so plaintive and so rarely heard from that tongue, gave Brendan pause. He listened.

"I have done so many bad things in my life, Brendan. So, so many. Made so many mistakes. But right now. My only regret." Again his furred hand came up, skating over Brendan's cheekbone, tracing the line of his jaw. The red dawn painted his eyes until they burned golden fire. "My only regret. I never told you...never told you that I-"

"Shh," Brendan insisted desperately, covering Beast's lips with his fingers, head shaking in refusal. The words were killing him, ripping him apart piece by painful piece, when Beast's every labored breath was saying goodbye. He couldn't bear it, the finality in that splintered voice. "You don't have to say it. You shouldn't speak, you need to rest, you need-"

Beast weakly moved Brendan's hand from his lips, held it fast. "Need to tell you," he whispered. "My only regret is that I never told you I love you."

And his eyes fluttered shut, his head sinking to the stones.

In that great chest a breath rattled, then went still.

Beast's hand fell limply from his grasp.

Too stunned by grief to move, to think, to even breathe, Brendan remained beside his lover's body, the cold seeping into his knees and a clamor of silence ringing in his ears.

This wasn't how things were supposed to go.

This couldn't be the way it ended.

Disbelief held him still. Silence roared.

"Wake up, damn you." He wasn't even conscious of speaking, bare skeletons of words that scratched their way from his throat unbidden, his hands moving to grip Beast's collar without waiting for their owners' consent. He crouched over his lover's prone form, the only sound rising to the rafters his own strangled breaths.

"Wake up," the whisper barely audible, back bending till his forehead came to rest on Beast's unmoving chest, as he had lain only a handful of times before, lost in the steady thrum of his lover's heartbeat while counting the minutes and wishing they would last forever.

The book, the fish, his sister, the witch, all of them had lied. This wasn't how the story was meant to end, an abbreviated inksplotch drying on a blank and uncaring page.

No blood stirred that heartbeat. No sound. No breath. He stayed there, no intention of ever being moved from this spot; let the castle crumble, the tower fall, the earth swallow them up, let night descend forever, it didn't matter.

Nothing mattered. Not anymore.

He took no note of the handful of dried leaves that blew in though the open windows, or of the sudden gust that sent them skittering in circles on the stone floor.

The dawn spilled in brightly as if the wind carried it. It built in strength like a flame on a fresh lampwick, spreading until it touched every stone and crevice of the circular room. The light glared so bright that it shone red through Brendan's closed eyelids. Reluctantly, he slowly raised his head from Beast's still body. The breeze abandoned the dancing leaves and tugged instead at his clothes, so strongly that it could not simply be a trick of the wind, and with none of the telltale gentleness of the servants.

He sat up, alarmed. An unseen force began to pull Beast's body away from him, drawing it up off the ground. Beast's head hung back limply, russet hair trailing across the stones as he inexorably rose. "No!" Brendan exclaimed, lunging forward. "You can't take him from me!" He clawed desperately for Beast, for an arm or a scrap of tattered clothing, but it slid from his grasp as Beast was lifted higher and higher. Light separated into vines or tendrils of brilliance that oozed around the body and wrapped it tightly within them, their glow swelling tenfold.

The light grew so burningly bright that he had to shield his eyes or go blind.

There was a sound like the world breaking, a soft, soughing shatter.

As suddenly as it had arrived the gale died down, and the glare faded, once again only the gentle sunlight of dawn.

Blinking spots from his vision, Brendan turned back. He was relieved to see that Beast's body was still there, and no longer floating ethereally.

Then the shape moved, and Brendan's heart stopped.

Hope welled up within him. "Beast!" he cried, quickly scrambling over to Beast's side.

"Brendan?" muttered Beast, weakly, but alive.

Alive, praise every saint he'd ever heard of, and even those he hadn't. Elated, Brendan draped himself over his lover and began scattering kisses over his face, his hands, anywhere he could reach.

Quickly Beast seemed to regain his strength, and began returning the kiss with enthusiasm, his tongue scraping over Brendan's lower lip, a hand moving up to entangle in his hair.

Abruptly Beast pulled back, eyes scanning the other man as if seeing him for the first time. "You cut your hair," he said with a slight frown.

Brendan gaped incredulously, then laughed in pure and undiluted joy. "Is that all you have to say?"

"'s short," Beast said with surprise.

Blue eyes twinkled. "Do you like it?"


Again he laughed. "You were dead and now you're not, and all you can say is-" he began, but Beast dragged him back down and caught his mouth with his own, pressing up into him hot and ardent.

"Was I really?" Beast murmured into the kiss. Brendan nibbled ecstatic bites across Beast's lips with a questioning noise. "Was I really dead?" Beast clarified, a touch of hesitation clinging to the query.

Brendan stilled, his hands spasming hard enough to bruise, able only to answer with a shaking "Yes."

Beast stroked Brendan's hair, the way one reassured a frightened creature. "Hey. I'm okay. Never felt better." He pressed his lips to Brendan's temple. "You're here." Brendan melted against him and they fell into a deep, jubilant kiss. Beast drew the tips of his claws down the back of Brendan's neck, and he shivered and broke out of the kiss with a light moan.

"Wait," Beast interjected, his heavy brows drawn together, and he pulled back his hand in alarm. In one smooth motion he got to his feet, and mystified, Brendan clambered up with slightly less grace.

Beast stared down at himself in disbelief. He let out a low growl and brought up his hands, flipping them from back to palm repeatedly. ", this isn't right." Beast looked up from his claws frantically. "The spell broke. I can feel it, the difference, I am no longer bound by it, and..." His head shook forcefully. "It...this is wrong. The spell said I would have my true shape restored to me. What...what is this?" He looked down at his taloned feet and his lashing tail with an expression of betrayal, then up at his lover with broken anguish.

"No, it didn't," Brendan breathed.

Beast's brows shadowed his eyes with confusion. "What?"

"It never said that at all."

"Brendan, what in God's name are you talking about?"

"I saw the book. It said, 'like a beast he shall remain, until he learns to love and is loved in return.'" He slowly shook his head, a wry smile on his face. "That tricky bitch," he added with a sort of twisted admiration.

"I don't…I don't understand." At his lost, forlorn tone, Brendan took his hands, reveling in their warm heaviness, the silk of their golden pelt.

"'Once a thing is done, it can never be undone.'" Still seeing no glimmer of understanding, Brendan smiled gently. "This is you now, my love."

Beast took a step back, shaking his head in refusal. "But I'm still a monster!"

"No," insisted Brendan. "You aren't. I think monsters, and beasts, only exist in here," and he placed his hand over Beast's heart, where he could feel it flutter like a frightened bird. Beast looked deeply into his eyes, then slowly wrapped his powerful hands around Brendan's and held him close.

"This is your true shape now. This," he held Beast's cheek in his cupped hand, "this is who I fell in love with. And you're still that same man." He flashed him a smile. "I must admit, I'm actually relieved."

A disbelieving snort through that curved, aristocratic nose. "Why the hell would you be relieved?"

Wordlessly the young man slipped into his arms, and despite his distress, Beast clung tightly to him. All that time spent in a waking nightmare, wanting and regretting, telling himself over and over that the right thing had been to drive Brendan away, telling himself that he would never get the chance to see Brendan again, to touch him, - some deeply lost core of himself at last found anchor in the firm body he held within his arms. He placed a wondering kiss at the crown of Brendan's cropped hair.

"I'm relieved because it would be like…like kissing a stranger." He nuzzled into Beast's neck, breathing deep his comforting scent, wildness and warm velvet.

Beast's arms unconsciously tightened. "No kissing strangers."

Brendan pulled back and grinned. "I faced an enchanted forest, crumbling ruins, and a very intimidating sorceress to reach you, and already you're questioning my fidelity?" He had meant it lightly, but he faltered as Beast's eyes locked on his own, great and dark beneath the arches of his golden brows.

His face, normally so well-controlled and every expression shuttered, was as bare and open as he had only seen in their most intimate moments, when their bodies had been joined. "I lost you once, Brendan. It nearly killed me." His breath caught at the faint tremble in the words, the naked honesty of them, and before he could answer he was caught in a hard, searching kiss.

When their lips parted, both gasping slightly, Brendan spoke, voice going rough at the edges. "You won't lose me again." A glad rumble emanated from the broad chest pressed against him. It was very nearly a purr. "No matter what shape you're in, Beast, I won't be parted from you again."

Searching, Beast's eyes bored into his own. After a breathless span, Beast found the truth he sought there. "Well," he husked before claiming another kiss, "I suppose I can live with that." Brendan laughed between kisses, gladness painting everything beautiful.

"I love you," Beast whispered against his lips, sending a spark of electricity through Brendan's every waking nerve. " still love me?" A touch of uncertainty, still, after everything?

"Yes," Brendan answered with a small smile of exasperation. The last bit of tension went out of Beast's shoulders, and he grinned brightly, fangs and all.


Gently disentangling from their embrace, Beast looked out the windows at all the castle wreckage, at all he'd known of life now in rubble and ashes around him. "But…what now?"

Brendan went over and stood beside him. In the horizon the sun was rising warm and golden over the roses and brambles. "How do you feel about Prague?" Brendan asked.

Beast quirked an eyebrow in puzzlement. "Prague?"

"Always wanted to see Prague," Brendan continued lightly.

Though he found the idealism certainly endearing, Beast couldn't help rolling his eyes at the impossibility of it. He flexed his claws out in exaggeration, touching his other hand to the tips of his pronounced horns. "Splendid idea. You know, if I wear a collar, we might merely be hanged instead of burned at the stake."

Brendan cast him a grin so sly that he could have stolen it off a fox. "You remember when you showed me the blueberry trick?"

"The...blueberry trick?"

"You made it into a strawberry." Brendan looked at him expectantly. Beast felt quite dense, not catching on. Brendan rolled his azure eyes heavenward. "To be more precise, you made it look like a strawberry. Correct?"

Beast stared at him blankly, an amazed smile slowly dawning on his face. "You…you're brilliant."

Brendan grinned. "Then you think you can manage an illusion on something a bit bigger than a piece of fruit?"

As he had told Brendan before, he was certainly no wizard, but he had learned a few useful tricks during his long solitude. And some tricks were too good not to use. "With practice, I believe so." He shook his head in admiration. "As I said, you're brilliant."

Brendan shrugged. "It doesn't have to be Prague, of course. We could start somewhere closer. Or stay in the country. Or-"

He stopped as Beast took his hands, his eyes so searing in their intensity that Brendan felt as trapped in them as a fly in honey. Beast gave him a small, candid smile like it was a gift. "I don't care where we go. As long as we are together." With that he pulled Brendan into his arms and caught him in a scorching kiss. A fire raced back and forth between them, giving and taking in equal measure.

Brendan gasped under his open mouth, the warm wet drag of his tongue, burying eager fingers into Beast's thick mane of hair. His lips traveled a burning path to a pointed ear, and let his voice hit that deep throaty register that never failed to make Beast shiver; "Always."

Beast murmured in agreement, and they stood simply wrapped up in each other for minutes or perhaps hours. Reluctantly Brendan turned, light footsteps taking him to a lacework window. He looked out at the vista of broken marble and overgrown hedges sadly. "It's such a shame about your home, though."

Beast shrugged carelessly, the sensation of being free and unfettered nearly as intoxicating as the young man next to him. "Let the castle be forgotten. Its time is done." Beast looked over at him and smiled. "Ours is just beginning."

He extended his hand, waiting.

Grinning, Brendan took it.

"Shall we, then?"

And they left the castle together.




Somewhere in the world, two scaly shapes chortled, smug as only fish could be, their bodies twining so closely as to appear as one.




Some Time Later, Greece

In the privacy of their rented room, with no need to wear his manufactured illusion like a familiar, well-fitting jacket, Beast stood by the dresser and folded his shirts. No matter how long he had been attempting to master the skill, no matter how often he practiced, he remained persistently terrible at it. His shirts always ended up creased in places that it shouldn't have been possible to crease. Nevertheless he was determined to learn how do things properly, without the benefit of servants. Once Brendan had offered to do it for him, to which he had gruffly replied, "You aren't my wife." Brendan had laughed that same open, honest way that had always driven Beast a little bit crazy, and suggested they hire a valet instead. A single, scoffing snort expressed what he thought of that idea, and so Beast continued to obstinately mangle his clothing by himself.

A fancy scrolled mirror hung over the dresser where Beast stood, and in its reflection, just over his shoulder, he could watch Brendan lounging bonelessly in a plush chair, absorbed in reading a sheaf of music. Every few seconds he would hum quietly to himself, unconsciously swaying his finger like a conductor.

Beast couldn't help smiling at the sight. Brendan set down the papers with a tired sigh and rubbed at his eyes.

"Nervous about playing for the symposium?" he inquired. It wasn't Brendan's first concerto by any degree, though it just might be the largest. And word on the street was that a visiting daughter-in-law of some Ottoman sultan was planning to attend. There was no shame in being a little jittery at the prospect; Beast himself felt the occasional quaver of nerves on his lover's behalf.

"Oddly, no." Brendan stood, stretching out the stiffness in his back with a catlike grace. He crossed the room and wrapped his arms around Beast, nestling as high as he could reach against the back of his neck, warm breath tickling Beast's mane. "After all, one of us has to make some money," he murmured teasingly, nipping at Beast's pointed ear lightly.

Abandoning his hopeless task, Beast snorted, trailing his large hands over the slender forearms encircling his middle. "We have plenty of money, love," he said fondly.

He could feel Brendan's smile against the fur of his shoulder. "It's always good to have more to send to the nieces and nephews."

"Hmm. Perhaps this time, we will have reached the magic amount that will finally endear me to your sister."

"She'll come around eventually," Brendan assured, "Father did."

"Only after we had that fight. Do you suggest I try the same strategy with Catherine?" He leaned his head back against Brendan's, mouth in the bare twist of a smile.

Against him Brendan shook with mirth. "I most certainly do not. Father backed down; she definitely wouldn't."

He made a soft sound of agreement, and stood still for a minute, basking in the comforting presence of his lover, letting the tips of his talons trace slow caresses against bare wrists. Brendan broke the companionable silence with a hesitant cough. "There is, ah, something I wanted to talk to you about, mon coeur."

Beast met those blue eyes in the reflection of the mirror. "That sounds ominous."

Worrying at his lower lip nervously, Brendan started with, "Now, I don't want you to panic."

"Oh, that definitely doesn't sound good." He raised his eyebrows in alarm.

Reaching up, Brendan unlaced the neck of Beast's loose linen shirt. Beast growled lightly, the touch instantly tantalizing and electric. "Is this just a cunning attempt to seduce me?"

"No! Well. Maybe. We'll see." With an impish grin, Brendan pulled down the collar of the shirt and dug his fingers into the thick mane trailing down Beast's chest. He was unable to bite back a low, rumbling purr. Brendan chuckled, propping his chin on Beast's shoulder. "Hey, pay attention, you. I'm trying to break some bad news to you, and you are making it very difficult."

He threw the other man a skeptical, lopsided smile. "What is more likely, Brendan, that there is bad news buried in my chest hair, or that you are just looking for an excuse to get your hands on it. Again."

"I need an excuse now?" Brendan answered sweetly. "As much as I do enjoy fondling you, mon coeur, look here." Obligingly Beast followed the path of his fingers in the mirror and nearly jumped back in shock.

He looked down, just in case the mirror had made a mistake, but no, there it was. A single gray hair, curling brazenly from the golden thatch of his chest.

He stared in open amazement as his heart eventually started beating again.

A gray hair.

He had a gray hair.

Elation coursed through him, heady and rich like a wine made of promise. He wasn't stuck forever in some prison of a static stagnation. He would not watch the world pass by while he remained changeless forever. This was utter, irrevocable proof that the spell was finally, truly, broken.

They could grow old together; he could grow old.

Practically drunk on happiness, he scooped Brendan in his arms and swung him around the room in a big hug, his lover putting up only a token protest before melting into his glad embrace.

"Well, I hope you don't expect me to be this thrilled when I get my first gray hair," Brendan said with a laugh, and kissed him joyfully.

And they lived happily, not 'ever after', as eternity is an unkindness to wish on anyone, but very happily indeed.

The End





To those that have been there since the beginning, and to those who joined along the way, thank you.

Grateful acknowledgements to my betas, Renchan and Saltwater, for their inestimable insight and indefatigable patience.

Amanda, my friend, we began this path together, despite skin-eating and afro-whores. A thousand thanks.

In the coming months I will be seeking to make Brendan and the Beast available as a book, both print and digital. If you'd like to follow that process, receive news and updates as I trip merrily along the path to self-publication, please see my blog at { http :/ / brendanandthebeast. wordpress. com/ } (minus the spaces, of course...inconvenient ffnet formatting!)

Thank you so much for reading!