"I thought you didn't approve of playing with your food, Edward."
Edward turned with a hiss and shoved Bella behind him. She peered around, surprised to find a beautiful woman with hair the color of flames in the doorway.
"Victoria. What are you doing here?"
"You left the door open. I thought it must be a sign. Haven't you heard? It's the season for old acquaintances, my dear. For foolish vampires such as yourself, who torture themselves with thoughts of souls and sin, to pay up for past wrongs. So I've come to free you from your prison."
Victoria strolled forward, red eyes alight, and Bella could feel the tensing in Edward's muscles as she clutched the back of his shirt.
"You did disappear well, Edward. So many years it took me to find you, hiding out here in the middle of nowhere, feeding off the blood of filthy animals like some kind of woodland creature."
"Our debt was settled long ago by the Council," he responded. "I've done as promised, fulfilled my penance."
"Penance?" She threw back her head and laughed. "You stupid vampire, you think exiling yourself for killing my mate is sufficient because the all-mighty Council approved it? Because they believed you, that you were merely stopping a vampire gone rogue? He was mine. My mate. My love. And you took him away."
She cut him off as she paced across the room, her agitation clearly growing. "All's fair in love and war, isn't that how it goes, Edward? We haven't had a good war in a while, but what's that I smell?" She made a show of sniffing the air. "Is that just your precious roses, or dare I say it, could it be love? Have you gone and taken a mate now, Edward? A human one at that?"
She turned back to the doorway and called into the hall. "Riley, precious, you must see this. A little human, and a sweet smelling one at that."
Edward leaned down quickly, pulling her close as he whispered in her ear, "When I say your name, I need you to run. The window behind us will open to the outside. Go through it and the back gate, and keep running, as straight and as fast as you can until you reach the highway. Please, Bella, I can't fight them both with you here."
She nodded, trying to stop her hands from trembling as he brought them to his lips and kissed them as he had so many times in her dreams.
He stepped away from her as a tall, light-haired vampire walked into the room, looping his arms around Victoria.
"Well, Edward, who's your little plaything there?" she asked. "Do introduce us before I get to know her better. After all, isn't a mate for a mate fair? You've just never had one to take before."
"Bella," Edward said, and she turned and ran, tangling herself in the drapes as she shoved the window open and scrambled across the casing. She cursed her lack of shoes as her feet hit the ground, the snow that lingered soaking through her socks, but she pressed on as she'd promised, trying to ignore the sounds of the fight behind her as she ran through the night.
Her father had been shocked when she'd arrived on this doorstep shortly after midnight, exhausted and wearing a pair of borrowed sneakers a half size too big, loaned by the girl who'd picked her up alongside the road, shivering and half-frozen.
She'd seen the fear in his eyes, and knew that her father, despite what he'd seen, would never believe her story if she told him the truth. He'd never believed in fairy tales; why would he start now? She spun a tale of how Edward was a wealthy eccentric with a rare skin condition who lived alone, ashamed of how he appeared. She spoke of how he'd treated her well, and had determined to send her home early for Christmas out of a sense of remorse for what he'd done. Her bedraggled condition was explained by her claim that she'd gotten turned around and lost in the woods on her way home. She doubted that her father believed much of it, but his relief at her safe return overshadowed such trivialities.
She sat sleepless by her bedroom window as the night waned, wondering what had happened after she left. The odds of two against one weren't good, and there had been a hatred in the redhead's eyes that bordered on insane. She knew he was strong and fast, but the other pair had seemed to be as well. Was there any chance that he'd survived?
She covered her face with her hands, trying to sort through the past few hours, days, week. So much had happened in so little time, and yet she felt as though her world was altered forever.
He hadn't lied when he'd told her he was a monster. The woman, Victoria, had said he was a vampire, and he hadn't denied it.
Who would willingly stay with a monster?
Edward was a vampire. A vampire. What did that even mean? Did he kill people, drink their blood? She had a difficult time reconciling the man she'd come to know, who gently nurtured delicate flowers to life, with some bloodthirsty killer run amok, some dark fiend lurking in the shadows.
But did he really need blood to sustain him? The memory of the stag's blood gushing onto the snow in his arms played before her closed eyes. Could he live off of animals instead of humans? Did he?
And did he live all alone, buried with his books and flowers and music, because of what he was? Because he'd killed the redhead's mate? Were there others of his kind he could be with?
Why was he so lonely? Why had he hid himself from her, kept his beautiful face cloaked? Why had he wanted her to come to him?
Why had he made her feel things for him? Things one wasn't supposed to feel for monsters.
His face, finally revealed to her, was etched into her brain. The face she'd dreamed of for so many years, her fairytale prince, was a monster in disguise. She felt the hot tears leak from her eyes as she curled onto the bed. The adrenaline and fear that had carried her out of the forest and home began to ebb, and she drifted into a troubled sleep.
Her mother's scent, soothing lavender, was so familiar. She knew where she was. Her mother's room, the shades open to let the light spill in for a few hours, dancing across the soft comforter and the bottles of pills that littered the nightstand and did little to ease her mother's pain. They were cuddled close as her mother began her favorite story.
"Once upon a time, there lived a little girl named Bella Rosa. She was a beautiful girl, as sweet as she was smart, and she loved to play in the forest."
"It's pretty there," her seven-year old self interrupted. "I wish you could still walk in the forest, Mommy."
"Yes, it is," her mother agreed. "And I wish I could too."
"Tell me more."
Her mother drew a labored breath, then continued. "Bella Rosa would walk in the woods, gathering wood for the family's fire and plucking the wild roses she found there. None of the animals bothered her, instead, they would come to her, the deer to let her pet its soft nose, the tiny rabbit to have her stroke its fuzzy ears."
"Rabbits are soft," she said.
"They are," her mother agreed. "Bella Rosa lived with her mother and father in a small cottage beside the forest. Her father was a brave man, and her mother . . ." Her mother's voice cracked as she discreetly tried to wipe away the tear that threatened to fall. "Her mother wasn't well, but she loved her daughter so very, very much."
Her mother hurried on. "Bella Rosa grew strong and tall, but she still loved to walk in the forest each day. One day she came upon a bear. He was like no other bear she'd ever seen. He was large, with sharp claws and teeth, but his eyes were soft and golden and he had thick cinnamon fur. Bella Rosa wasn't afraid, for all the animals of the forest had only been kind to her, so she watched the bear as he approached her. But she was surprised when the bear stopped, and spoke to her in a man's voice."
"The bear talked?" she asked.
"He did," her mother replied. "He asked Bella Rosa her name, and when she told him, he plucked one of the wild red roses she loved from a nearby bush and gave it to her, telling her she was as lovely as her namesake. And then the bear disappeared."
"Did she see him again?"
"Not right away. But that winter, when the snow was heavy on the ground, Bella Rosa heard a knocking on the door of the cottage late one night after her father and mother has gone to bed. She opened the door, and who did she find but the bear. The bear said to Bella Rosa, 'May I come in and warm myself by your fire?'"
"Did she let him?"
"She did. The bear came inside and curled by the fire that night, and every night that winter, talking with Bella Rosa late into the evening. And then one morning, the bear told her he would not return, for summer had come."
"He just went away?"
Her mother nodded. "For a little while. She was sad that he was gone, however, so Bella Rosa began to roam the forest again as the weather grew warmer and the roses bloomed, searching for her friend. And then one day, she came upon a man in the forest, digging furiously beneath a tree."
"What was he digging for?"
"Bella Rosa didn't know, and because she'd never been afraid of anyone in the forest before, she went up to the man, and asked him. When he heard her voice, he turned, startled to find a girl so deep in the forest. He saw that Bella Rosa had spotted what he'd been digging. Beneath the tree there were bags and bags of gold coins. As soon as the man saw that Bella Rosa has seen the treasure, he became even more enraged, and he raised his shovel as though to hit her."
She gasped. "Did he hurt her?"
Her mother gave a small laugh. "Patience, sweetheart. You can't rush the story. Just then, there was a great crackling and tearing through the forest, and the bear that had become Bella Rosa's friend burst into the clearing and tackled the man, knocking him far away with his giant paw. Bella Rosa gasped and ran to the bear to thank him. But before her eyes, the bear suddenly changed form, rising onto two legs and standing before her as a man. He was handsome, with a beautiful smile, but she knew he was still her friend, the bear, for he had the same golden eyes and cinnamon hair."
"Was he a prince?" she asked.
"He was indeed. The man explained to Bella Rosa that he had been cursed for his selfishness to roam alone in the woods as an animal until he put someone else's life before his own. In saving Bella Rosa's life, he was freed. Bella Rosa was happy for the prince, but sad that she would never see him again when he returned to his father's castle."
"He left her?"
Her mother shook her head. "Bella Rosa turned to walk away, but the prince called her name. He walked to her, and held out a single, beautiful wild rose. He told her that he'd grown to love her during the long winter nights she'd opened her home to him, and asked her to marry him."
"And did she?"
"She did, because she had grown to love the prince as well, even before she realized he was a man. And so they lived happily ever after."
"Mommy, am I Bella Rosa?"
Her mother lifted a hand, wasted and wan from her illness, and carefully stroked her hair.
"You are, my dear. My beautiful rose."
"Will I have a prince someday? Like you have Daddy?"
"You will, Bella. You will. And when you find him, remember that the most beautiful part of your prince is what's in his heart."
She woke with a start as the first light of morning crept into her room, the dream fresh in her mind.
The most beautiful part of your prince is what's in his heart.
"Thank you, Mommy," she whispered, her doubts finally laid to rest, and her answer to his question finally certain. She only needed him to ask it again.
Her father was waiting for her at the breakfast table, his Santa hat in place, but his eyes were bloodshot and he looked as tired as she did. When breakfast was over, she asked for the car keys. He shook his head in resignation, but let her go.
She drove back along the highway, trying to find the spot where she'd emerged from the woods, hoping that she could find her way back. Hoping that there'd be something there to find. She slowed at the first mile marker she recalled seeing when she'd found the highway, pulled to the side of the road, and began to walk.
Nothing seemed the same for the longest time, and she experienced the same sense of disorientation she'd had when Edward had led her through the forest only the week before, the sense that she was almost going in circles despite her attempts to follow a straight path. Finally she heard the sound of running water. Elated, she followed the stream until she could see a glimpse of the grey stones ahead that marked the wall.
She moved faster as she drew closer, then stopped at the stream's edge, horrified at the sight of smoke rising before her. The house was still standing, but the roof had caved in, and the beautiful paned windows lay shattered and broken on the grass. She found the gate, her hands shaking as she swung it open to view the full extent of the destruction.
And then she saw him, standing by the greenhouse, carefully pulling a rose bush, broken and damaged, from the rubble. His head was bare, his arms uncovered, and as he stood slowly, turning his face up to the sky, she understood why he always covered himself. His skin caught the light, refracting it so that he almost appeared to glow in the sun.
She saw him turn, his eyes lighting as he saw her running up the pathway.
"Bella, you're safe." He opened his arms as if to embrace her, then stopped, fists clenching as he stepped back.
She tried not to flinch at his rejection. "What happened, Edward?"
He glanced back at the house. "They're gone."
"Gone for now, or gone forever?" she asked.
He looked her in the eye. "Gone forever."
She nodded. "I'm glad. But your beautiful home, your roses . . ."
He shrugged. "I've rebuilt before. I can again."
There was a long moment of silence and then she stepped closer. "Today's my last day." He started to protest, and she shook her head. "So I think there's something you need to ask me."
He met her eyes and saw the determination there. "Bella, would you willingly stay with a monster?"
She reached down and plucked one of the red roses, curling it between their hands. "If his heart is yours? I will."
He lowered his head and she smiled as her prince kissed her for the very first time.
A/N: I truly appreciate the reviews that you've been kind enough to leave for this story. Beauty and the Beast has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, and I enjoyed playing with those themes intertwined with the Twilight characters in this story. I'd especially like to thank Feisty Y. Beden for the prompt that gave me the idea for this story in the Twilight Gift Exchange, and again to SassenachWench and Project Team Beta for their help in making the story presentable. And finally I'd like to thank the wonderful mods who put together the Twilight Gift Exchange - If you haven't, I'd encourage you to check out the many, many fantastic complete stories you can find at the twi_exchange LJ.
I'm being shipped out of town for work-related matters this week, so my next bit of story rambling will start around the first of April. See you then.