III: Of Beasts And Gentlemen

Belle continued to struggle long after most would have given up, hung their pretty heads in defeat and waited for their heroes to come save them. Xaldin watched dispassionately as she strained against the thick ropes that bound her tightly to an old wooden chair. Its legs were unbalanced, causing the chair to rattle noisily against the floor as she squirmed, the only noise in the dusty, otherwise silent room besides Belle's somewhat unladylike grunting as she tried to free herself. Some of the other members of the Organization might have feigned annoyance at the unrelenting noise—some of the more superficial emotions, such as irritation, being within their capabilities—and demanded that she stop, but Xaldin simply observed her coldly. Several long, tense minutes passed like this, and when he finally spoke there was no annoyance or irritation in his tone, but perhaps a hint of real curiosity.

"Why don't you just give up?"

Belle glanced up at him, eyes narrowed, and for a moment the incessant rattling stopped. Xaldin noted that a strand of brunette hair had fallen out of place from her ponytail and now hung in front of her left eye, marring her perfect appearance slightly. "Because that's what you want," she replied curtly. There was a ragged quality in her voice that indicated she was a bit out of breath from her efforts. "What are you going to do with me?" She demanded.

Xaldin smiled lightly, eyes glittering and cold. "Oh, don't worry, my dear. I don't plan to do anything with you if your hero and the Keyblade Master come to save you. Of course, that is if they do come and save you…" Xaldin crossed his arms over his chest and gazed at her silently for a moment, during which she resumed her hopeless attempts at escape. Something about this girl intrigued him in a way he was quite unaccustomed to. Something about her demeanor brought to mind certain things he thought he had long forgotten—not memories, exactly, but memories of memories, ghosts of dead emotions he'd thought had sunken to the bottom of the black, empty depths of his consciousness.

"You remind me of a woman I once knew," Xaldin said suddenly, startling both Belle and himself simultaneously. Xaldin did not usually divulge his thoughts to anybody unless he was required to, especially not to strangers such as this girl. She was a mere pawn in his plans, and he was fully aware she wasn't worthy of such attention. But yet, this thing he was experiencing in her company, this memory of a memory, was so fleeting, yet at the same time, persistent, that Xaldin felt the need to make it real somehow, to speak it aloud, so he continued. "She was so like you, clever, courageous, lovelier than any flower…" He trailed off. Belle eyed him suspiciously, as if she thought he might be playing some sort of trick, but as Xaldin continued her expression began to soften.

"I remember," he murmured, the words becoming true as they passed his lips, "I remember we used to sit in the garden together, and she would ready poetry to me. The works of Shakespeare; Romeo and Juliet was her favourite. Her voice inflected the words with a beauty beyond measure or comparison. I think…" he hesitated once more, though he decided in a moment it was needless; these things had happened long ago, and they could no longer hurt him, so if he felt the need to speak them aloud there was nothing to hold him back. "I do believe I loved her."

"What was her name?" Belle asked softly.

"Grace." A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth, though it quickly flickered and died. "She was taken by the Heartless. The creatures thrive on strong hearts, and hers attracted them. They infested her home. She died trying to protect her family."

Belle lowered her gaze to the floor. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. Wordlessly Xaldin bent down on one knee and knelt before her, studying her closely, and she glanced up at him quickly. She still regarded him with a certain degree of wariness, but it was different now. He could see pity and empathy shining in her eyes, and as he gazed into them, Xaldin saw himself transformed, no longer the monster who had kidnapped her and tormented her beloved but perhaps something a little more than that. No longer just a monster, but a man. He realized suddenly that this was what he had wanted from her all along. He'd needed her, needed her to remind him that he had once been more than this, if only for the simple reason that he didn't have a heart… but she did.

"May I ask you a question, Belle?" He inquired politely, surprising them both once again. His tone sounded slightly odd even to him—he had become so accustomed to voicing threats, orders, and demands that he had nearly forgotten his manners. (There were no gentlemen in the Organization, after all.)

"I—well," Belle stuttered, "You've told me something very personal about yourself, so now I can't imagine saying no."

"Very well. How is it that a young lady as lovely as yourself can put up with the beast that lives in this castle?"

In a flash the empathy in Belle's eyes was gone. Her mouth set into a firm, hard line. "He's under a curse. That's the only thing about him that makes him beastly."

Xaldin smirked. "I beg to differ. Surely you're not that naïve, my dear? You are a more beautiful person, inside and out, than he will ever be. No matter what form he takes, man or beast, deep down there will always be that part of him that is beast, that will be cold and aloof, that will turn away at your affections, that will hurt you, and continue to hurt you for as long as you both shall live, all the while failing to appreciate how truly beautiful you are. Surely you know that, princess?"

Belle glared at him. "Perhaps you shouldn't be asking me. Maybe you should be asking yourself why Grace put up with you."

Before he even realized what he was doing, Xaldin slapped her across the face. Her head twisted to the side with the force of his gloved hand on her cheek, and she winced in pain. When she recovered she glared at him once again, defiance shining in her eyes along with startled tears, knowing she had won. There was an angry red mark blooming on her face where he had hit her. Xaldin wished dearly that he felt something, some sort of remorse or even the tiniest twinge of regret knowing he had harmed the perfect creature tied helplessly to a chair before him, but, as usual, he felt nothing.

Nothing, nothing, nothing at all.

Author's ramblings: Hmm, that was finished quicker than I thought. Xaldin is an interesting character in his own right, so that made him easier to characterize than I would've imagined—easier than Xigbar, actually. What intrigues me about him is that here you've got this scary-looking guy (whom my sister calls "hairy") who looks like someone you definitely would not want to meet in a dark alley—hair done up in black braids, crazy eyebrows and fuzzy sideburns, is one of the more muscly members of Organization XIII, wields SIX, count 'em, SIX lances—but he has this refined manner of speaking that gives him an almost gentleman-like quality.

Kudos goes to my sister for giving me the idea to write crack Xaldin/Belle, which I am now actually unintentionally shipping. I knew this challenge would make me break out of all my usual conventions. I guess it's only Xaldin/Belle if you want it to be, though. Whatever.

I'd like to thank my reviewers thus far, Kairi the Strong, L'Opalnoir, and Somebody's Dreamer. Again I encourage one and all to review, as I'll admit I enjoy feedback as much as the next writer, and I'm quite eager to hear people's reactions to my portrayal of Xaldin. Love it? Hate it? Thought it was a tad off? If you have thoughts, I would love to hear them.

If you DON'T have thoughts, well, I'd love to hear your non-thoughts, too. :P