Title: All the Difference
One Winter's Night
AU. With no magical spell to hinder him, Prince Vincent's spoiled, selfish, and unkind ways are legendary throughout the kingdom. Can the prince learn to become a true king, or is magic really the only way to reform the beast within?
Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by the Walt Disney Company. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

All the Difference
Prologue: One Winter's Night

Prince Vincent was not amused. At all.

Slumped in his seat, his shirt not even tucked in, Vincent shook the present in the air with disapproval. "A story book? You call this a present?" he demanded, glaring at Lumière first and then at the others. Every servant dropped their gaze from his piercing one, and Vincent felt the familiar satisfaction from the power he held over them. He didn't, though, enjoy it nearly as much now as he usually did. He dropped the present on the floor in disgust. The servants winced when he kicked the book away, but he ignored their reaction.

Of all the things in the world to gift him with on Christmas Day, why would the servants give him a book? He already had a library at his disposal, as they all very well knew, filled with volumes ancient and new alike. In Vincent's mind, that was more than enough, thanks very much. They'd also overlooked one tiny, insignificant fact: he was a prince, and as such needed things equivalent to his station. Things like finely bred horses, or specially forged rapiers!

Any peasant could have a book, Vincent thought with a roll of his eyes, and I deserve more than what any peasant could ever have.

He then glanced over disdainfully to Forte. Of all the servants, Forte was often the one who got on his master's nerves the least. But Vincent's voice was threatening nonetheless. "I hope you have something better for me, Forte," he warned.

Forte gave one of his oily, sycophantic smiles and swept a deep bow. Vincent tried to stop himself from rolling his eyes at Forte's theatrics and managed. Barely. "Of course, master," Forte said smoothly. "A moment, please." He walked away, toward the pianoforte, and Vincent slumped in his seat ever lower.

This was turning out to be quite some Christmas. Definitely unmemorable. Not like last year's Christmas at all. Last year, Vincent received a polished wooden sword and his own rifle - gifts worthy of a great prince like himself. (Of course, he'd ended up breaking them both in a flying fit of fury when the servants tried to convince him to attend to his lessons. But that was beside the point.) Vincent's princely musings, however, came to a screeching halt when he suddenly became aware of an awful, haunting melody.

"What was that?" Vincent said incredulously, straightening up in his seat abruptly.

The servants collectively winced again, and even Forte looked ruffled by the interruption this time. "A small piece I wrote - in your honor, sir," he tried to explain, but Vincent cut him off by slumping in his seat again.

"Ugh. I hate it. Forte, it's Christmas! Why are you playing depressing songs like that?" Vincent crossed his arms moodily, and Forte bowed and made his excuses. Vincent's scowl only deepened.

Did none of the servants understand at all that a prince like him needed - well, princely things? He blew a frustrated breath out between his lips, and it ruffled his long bangs slightly. What happened to putting thought into the presents that you gave others? (Not that he had to give presents to other people often, but Mrs. Potts particularly liked to say that to everyone during the holidays... Ugh. The old matron just couldn't stop mothering other people.)

A thought crossed Vincent's mind. Perhaps the servants were all secretly intent on making his Christmas miserable. Maybe that's why he hadn't gotten a decent gift all day so far. Vincent considered the possibility. It was definitely possible. He had heard some of the scullery maids complaining about his demanding ways, and the laments of his tutors that he would make a terrible ruler once he was older...

Vincent nodded decisively. Yes. They would all have to go, and be replaced immediately. He had no use for servants who didn't understand their master's needs. They could take their childish storybooks and gloomy compositions elsewhere, and -

Raps on the doors of the castle echoed in the halls, disturbing Vincent's train of thought.

He groaned. Ugh. Not again! He was a prince, darn it, and his thoughts should at the very least be allowed to be completed before these commoners interrupted him. "Who dares to disturb my Christmas?" Vincent demanded, irritated. When no one answered, he groaned again, stood up, and stalked angrily toward the castle doors. "Lumière, I thought it was your duty to lock the gates and keep those petty peasants off of the castle grounds!"

Lumière trailed after Vincent, just a step behind. "But master, it's Christmas -"

Vincent waved Lumière away. "I'll deal with this," he grumbled. Vincent's hands grasped the ornate handle and gave it a heave to open the oak doors of the castle. A gust of the chilly wind outside pushed its way into the hallway, a swirl of cold, snow, and the promise of something powerful, and Vincent shivered despite having stayed inside all day. He squinted, blinking to adjust his eyes to the dark and the movement of the snowstorm. For a moment, he couldn't see who knocked on the doors, but when he lowered his gaze, he saw a shivering old hag. He involuntarily recoiled at the old woman's haggard appearance, and the tense atmosphere suddenly swelled.

The woman's bright eyes locked with his, and slowly, her bony and decrepit hand reached into the folds of her cloak. When she pulled it out again, a delicate but vibrant red rose was in her hands. It caught his attention, and, stunned by its beauty, Vincent forgot momentarily about his distaste and moved closer to get a better look at it. At length, the old hag broke the heavy silence with a croak. "Please, sir... take this rose in exchange for shelter. It is bitterly cold -" Her voice was thin, and the howling winds carried away the rest of her words. Her face tilted upward expectantly up at him.

Vincent's gaze snapped away from the beauty of the rose and focused again on the hag's horribly wrinkled face, disfigured by time. His mouth twisted unpleasantly, repulsed by her appearance. "I don't need a rose. Go away, you - you wretched old hag!" he all but snarled, stepping back slightly to get away from her commonness.

"Ah, but sir," she said slowly, her voice growing slightly stronger. Vincent raised an eyebrow. Were his ears deceiving him, or did he hear an undertone of warning within her voice? "Do not be deceived by appearances, for beauty... it is found within." The old hag paused before lifting her hands, offering the rose again. The air crackled with an unseen energy.

He shuddered from the cold but began to sneer, preparing to turn the old hag away again. As he opened his lips to cast her away, the slight pressure of a hand rested on his shoulder and froze him in place. "What's going on here?" a mild voice inquired pleasantly.

Vincent hesitated, studying the old woman's appearance. With reluctance, he turned and said petulantly, "She wanted shelter from the snowstorm."

Vincent's father, King Thibault, fixed him with a stern look, and Vincent looked down at the ground. "And you attempted to turn her away? In this weather?" The king lifted his hand off of Vincent's shoulder and opened the door a little wider. "Please, excuse the behavior of my son, madam, and come in to warm yourself by the fire."

Vincent looked up to scowl at the hag, who gave the facsimile of a curtsy to the king. "My liege. I offer you this rose in gratitude - "

King Thibault waved a hand generously. "Oh no, none of that now. It is Christmas, madame, the season of giving! There is no payment required for enjoying the hospitality of my castle. Now, come in before you catch cold."

The hag took a step toward the doorway, and Vincent shrank back. Her eyes and his locked again, but this time, she smiled. Vincent was startled to see that the old woman's smile was almost predatory. He shivered instinctively in apprehension, and the hag's smile grew.

"You are very lucky indeed, young prince," she murmured as she passed him to follow King Thibault.

Vincent stared after her and only then realized that his fists were tight and his heart was beating furiously. He swallowed thickly.

Why did he get the feeling that he just narrowly avoided disaster?

Post Script:

As always, thanks to Trisha for patiently listening to me while I worked and ranted about this for days. This is my first foray into the world of Beauty and the Beast fanfiction as a writer, so I sincerely hope that I do the characters we all know and love justice. Please don't hesitate to let me know if I've made a mistake somewhere, since any feedback to help me improve will be greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading!

- T.