And finally, knowing that you've all been waiting for it….
"That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet."
—Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
The girl blinked in the early morning light that was streaming in through the window, and sat up from where she'd lain on the stone floor, curled up beside the large four-poster bed. Not far away, a man lay still, sprawled on his back, longish silver hair mussed, the worn-out elegance of his clothing slightly baggy around his spare frame. Wincing at muscles sore from a night sleeping on solid stone and praying that she wouldn't find him dead, Belle crawled over.
"Please, please, open your eyes," she murmured, putting a hand to his shoulder and shaking gently. There was warmth under her palm and his chest rose and fell softly. The man's eyelids flickered, and opened slowly, dazedly, revealing the dragon's eyes – glittering silver, tinged with purple flame.
The voice was a croak, but odd – not the deep, nearly subsonic boom of the dragon, but still gravelly enough to be recognizable. The man – Julian – frowned, startled by the different timbre of his own voice. The frown eased when Belle nodded, but deepened again when he saw tears of relief and joy gathering in her amber eyes.
"No, Belle, don't cry," he lifted a hand to her cheek, and froze at the sight of a hand where a paw had been for so long. With something like awe etched into his angular face he curled and uncurled his fingers, amazed to see skin. His eyes, greening with shock, sought hers.
"Is—is this a dream? Have I died? Why are you here?"
She grasped his hand and pulled it to her face before answering.
"No, this isn't a dream—or if it is, we're sharing. And you certainly haven't died. You're alive."
With a hoarse laugh, he sat up and tugged her into his arms, and clung as tightly as she.
"You did it, Belle—had you any idea? You've ended Shaiya's curse," he murmured to her hair, reveling in being human, and in holding her. "You've saved me."
Belle held him, her head spinning.
"Curse? What cur—Grand-mére cursed you?" She pulled away, eyes wide and demanding answers.
"That's what happened? That's horrible!" She was shocked. How could Grand-mere do so cruel a thing?
He chuckled softly, framing her face with his hands, brushing newly reacquired thumbs softly over her cheekbones.
"Belle, you've heard the story. Shaiya was grieving, and angry, and young."
"But you were betrothed! How could she—"
"Belle," he stopped her tirade with a word, amusement in his eyes and voice. "Belle, I wasn't a…a nice person when she cursed me—I was rather a lot like your friend Poulinrey. Admittedly, the fault was not entirely mine—my parents share some of the blame for that—but essentially, I was an unkind, uncaring person. Shaiya and I had been friends as children, before we were betrothed. She formed slightly deeper feelings for me.
"Not love," he assured her, when she would have broken in again. "Whatever it was, it wasn't love. I was more or less indifferent to her, though. I was far too busy attempting to embarrass my parents with a lifestyle of hell-raising and debauchery to care much. That was a prick to her pride, I imagine."
"But…" Belle protested weakly.
"By the time my father and hers went at each other with rapiers, we were completely disenchanted with each other, Belle. After that, the betrothal was dissolved, and we were at war. We weren't star-crossed lovers by any stretch of the imagination. It was simply my ill luck and her brother's—your great-uncle, I suppose—that killed him, and her grief that, ah…changed me."
"Why aren't you terribly angry about having been changed?" she asked.
"A hundred years is more than enough to damper any personal grudge. Besides, what good would it do me? Shaiya's been dead for eleven years."
She blinked. "How did you know that?"
"The mirror, Belle. I saw her funeral, and you, though I didn't realize at the time." A thoughtful look crossed his face. "She really did an excellent job of it, didn't she? The curse, I mean. I was a dragon for long enough to change, and in time to meet you."
He took her hands, and then frowned at the iciness of her flesh.
"Belle, you must be freezing in those damp things. You'll warm up, and then we'll talk." He turned to the fireplace, drawing in breath, and stopped, feeling very foolish.
"This will take getting used to," he muttered, standing unsteadily, and pulling her up beside him. "Come on. Let's go down to the library—it's warmer down there, and I believe there's tinder and flint hidden somewhere."
A crashing sound from outside stopped him. Shouting, clanging, and singing all poured through the window. With a frown, the ex-dragon reversed his direction, and padded over to the window instead, moving fluidly for someone who'd spent the majority of his life on four paws. He gave a low whistle at whatever he saw, and turned back to her.
"Belle, my dear, have you any idea why the population of your village is here? They seem to be singing an old battle hymn, and are brandishing assorted weaponry."
Belle gasped, and hurried over to stand beside her…man. The village was indeed singing an old battle song, and bore a variety of makeshift weapons. They'd already burst through the gates, and were bearing down on the front doors with a battering ram made of a tree trunk. To the side was Guy, perched on a bay gelding, shouting them on. Beside her, Julian—his human form had always been Julian to her—cocked his head to the side, considering the scene below him.
"Your friend there has delusions of grandeur, Belle. This is the second time he's attempted to storm my castle in as many days. I think that I should have hit him harder," he murmured regretfully.
"Yes," she replied, anger curling in her belly, remembering what Guy had done to him. "Yes, I think you should have."
The man-who-had-been-a-dragon glanced at her. "Easy, love. 'Sweet are the uses of adversity,' you know. Let's go greet our…guests."
"I don't see how," Belle responded, following as he led her down to the front hall. "I'd prefer to have Guy simply drop dead."
"Ah, Belle, my love, there is nothing more that I would rather show you, now that I am human again, than why patience is a virtue. Well, perhaps not a virtue…" he shook his head, his lips tugging into a crooked smile. He had been so careful about suppressing any thought of Belle in such a way as a dragon; it was good to know that he could feel it now. The idea of lusting after her when he'd had the form of a dragon had horrified him in ways he hadn't realized he could be horrified. To think, he reflected, amused, a rakehell with sensibilities!
"However, first you are going to have to accept my proposal, and your father is going to have to be convinced that he doesn't want to tack my hide above the mantle."
Belle didn't have a chance to get any further than that, though, because they had reached their destination, and the man was already by the doors. He threw them open, his slender body belying a wiry strength.
There was a sudden collective hush at the sight of a man, and not the promised dragon. There were gasps when Belle, more composed now, walked over to stand beside Julian. Guy was spluttering atop his bay at the sight of the two of them. Armel, who she'd left to his own devices after pulling the saddle and bridle off, was being held by her brother-in-law.
"Good afternoon. May I help all of you ladies and gentlemen?" he asked, quite congenially. Only Belle realized just how much control he was expending to keep from laughing. He always grew more polite as he struggled against laughter. She supposed he would find this amusing; to have been un-cursed only minutes before one was confronted with a mob prepared to kill the monster.
"Uh," the baker said succinctly, "Uh, wasn't there supposed to be a dragon? Guy said…"
The dragon-man blinked. "A dragon? I doubt it." His hands locked tightly behind his back, the only outward sign of his humor. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Julian DesRosiers. I've only just come back to check on my family's holdings a week ago—I met Mademoiselle Belle in Paris not long before we both returned," he added. Mutters broke out, as people remembered the DesRosiers name—the Marquis's family that had disappeared abruptly, a hundred years before.
"She didn't say nothin' about you," a gruff voice called out.
Guy seemed to snap out of his stupor. "That's because he wasn't here! There was a dragon—a big silver dragon with black eyes! I stabbed it, I tell you!"
Julian ignored Guy as one ignores a small, obnoxious child that had just interrupted a very important conversation. "I had asked her not to, yet—The castle is sadly in need of repairs, and I'd wanted to assess the damage before I hired laborers or staff. I was worried that the place might be dangerous, and that people might enter before I had arrived."
Faces cleared, grins broke out at the prospect of high-paying work, or potential artisan customers. Guy looked enraged.
"You lie! There was a dragon—I fought it myself!" He yelled, raving.
Julian's eyebrow rose, both disbelieving and mocking. "Really? I suggest you see a doctor, if you're seeing such things—such delusions must be detrimental to your health." He frowned, keeping up the pretence of concern, and worked to dispel any lingering doubts. "There has been no one in the castle except for myself, and Belle, briefly, when the weather forced us in out of the rain."
Sheepishly, the crowd started to disperse. There was obviously no dragon—old Rhys had apparently been into his cups again, and Guy…well, everyone knew he'd always demanded the spotlight. No one much paid him any attention these days. Not really.
Guy was clearly not swayed. With a clumsy heave, the man swung from the bay, and stomped up to Julian, who merely watched the younger man with narrowed eyes.
"There was a dragon here, not even a day ago—I know; I killed the beast myself. Now tell the truth, knave," he spat, shaking with fury.
Julian chuckled, completely without humor. "Forget me so soon, goose-boy? I'd think you'd remember who you stab," he mocked quietly, eyes changing to gilded silver.
Guy's face went white, then grey, then green. "You—you're—?"
"You'll find I am even more difficult to kill in this form, my dear goose-boy," The former dragon told him, almost challenging him. "And you couldn't kill me here, in front of these people, anyway."
With a cry, Guy lunged forward, swinging wildly with his fists, nearly crashing into Belle as he charged. Completely unfazed by the careening fists, Julian stepped to the side, seized the boy's wrist as his stumbled passed, and wrenched it up behind his back, nearly to breaking point, the only thing belying his fierce anger were his eyes, which were slipping to orange.
"Leave this village, Poulinrey. You are a nuisance, a pest I find reluctant to share breathing room with. I'm sure there is some other village you can annoy."
"You can't just evict me! I live here!" Guy snarled indignantly; face burning bright red from the humiliation. The villagers had stopped their retreat, turned to watch on interestedly, waiting to see what this noble new-comer would do.
"Watch me, goose-boy. And if you ever come near Belle again, I'll be sure to kill you very, very slowly. Do I make myself clear?" Julian inquired softly, so that only Guy could hear.
Guy nodded furiously, terrified of the silken intimidation in the man's voice, knowing from experience that he'd back it up.
"Excellent. Asha, perhaps, would be a good start. I advise you go. Now."
He fled once released, without a single look back, and scrambled onto the bay he'd left waiting. With a shout and a kick, the horse sprang away, into a wild gallop that would likely kill one, or both, of them if they weren't careful.
Belle came up beside Julian. "What did you say to him?"
Another peculiar smile flitted around the man's lips as he looked at her, one she would have recognized as the twitch of his tail as a dragon. "Things better left unrepeated, my dear," he murmured, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips unashamedly.
"Belle, will you marry me?" he inquired softly. He didn't know what he would do if she refused. Somehow, though, he couldn't see her refusing.
"M-Marriage? But—" the girl stammered, half-ecstatic, half-terrified with love. Her mind rushed, thoughts of a home, children, life with the dra—Julian, bounding and colliding within her. His eyes held hers, glowing purple; his hand was warm on hers, holding it inches from his lips. At her protest, his head cocked to the side, the beginnings of anxiety nipping at his gut.
"You weren't afraid when I was a dragon, but now that I'm a man, you are."
She blanched at the flat statement. "No, it's not that—really, it's not," she insisted at his dubiously raised eyebrow. "I think you must be mixing up gratitude and love, and I don't want us both to be miserable. I don't think I could stand it if we discovered a year from now that we couldn't stand each other," she finished, staring at the ground at their feet.
A hand slipped under her chin, easing it up, so she would look him in the eye. She could see confusion, and unease tinting the purple fire of his irises with silver and green flecks.
"Belle, we've coexisted for nearly four months and managed to become friends. We are in love with each other." He smiled at the jolt she gave, a reassuring smile still tinged with the slightest bit of fear. "The only way to break the curse was to love and be loved, truly. The curse is broken. What's left is the love." But she could see that he was beginning to doubt her feelings.
When she still did not smile back at him, his smile dropped away, and took both her hands in his.
"Why don't you wish to marry, Belle? Can you tell me that, at least?" Julian lifted them to his mouth again, pressed a not-quite chaste kiss to the center of each. The touch sent tingles of awareness through her system, and made her stomach tighten.
"I—I don't know. It's—I—" she blushed miserably. "I'm frightened."
"Ah, Belle, don't you know? I am too. It is part of being in love, I think." He leaned forward, pressed another kiss to her forehead. Relief that it was fear and not revulsion that had her hesitating rocketed through him. Fear he could deal with. "I would rather be a monster with you than a man without you, Belle. You know that, yes?"
"I—yes, alright," Belle finally said. His smile was sudden and brilliant, displaying teeth that were still just a bit sharper than a normal man's might be. "But I want to wait a few months before we marry," she added, stopping him when he would have drawn her closer to him, still just a bit in awe that he could love her.
"You'll see, Belle. I love you," he grinned, and added, "I'll simply keep saying it until you believe me."
Belle smiled finally, the warm smile that had caught his heart, and rose on her toes to kiss his cheek. Seeing him smile like that, hearing happiness in his voice, and knowing she had a part in it, convinced her of his feelings and hers. She pulled away, and enjoyed the look of slightly stunned pleasure on his face.
"I've always like summer weddings," she laughed, and laughed again when Julian swooped down to steal another kiss from her, pulling her close to him. The crowd of villagers broke through their little bubble of romance with cheers and whistles for the already popular new couple, bringing a bright blush to Belle's face, and a sheepish grin to her fiancé's. She smiled up at him, linking her hand with his.
"I'd like that," he murmured, tucking an arm around her waist as they began to walk towards the villagers. "I'd like that very much."
THANKS VERY MUCH to PlusSizeAngel, beelzemongirl, Lotte Rose 37, cucumber fairy, Clara Spencer, Kyra Gwin, PenInk, Pimpernel Princess, cluts808, Tk, Lauren, Smiling Pancake, and anyone else who commented, for being so patient, and liking my story. 3