Previously on 'Answer's longest ever fic that she keeps taking ages to update': Belle and the Beast stop to hang out with Belle's childhood friend (now a career criminal) and his dad. Belle gets kidnapped.
As always, I'm very sorry, real life continues to kick me vigorously in the butt, blah blah blah, on with the story!
About half an hour later, pipe in hand, Joe the Bandit resurfaced in the clearing following a moonlit stroll. Coming upon the fallen Beast, he surveyed the scene for a moment, smoking thoughtfully. Eventually, and after deep thought, he said "Ah" in a philosophical sort of way. Tomorrow, he suspected, was going to be a long day.
The Enchantress had an idea.
This was good and bad news. On the one hand, powerless desperation had not agreed with her, and it felt good to be able to see a means of altering the situation for the better. She hated to fail. Ever since Gaston had walked into her cottage and disrupted what had been a pretty satisfactory status quo, she had been overwhelmed with frustration at her own impulsive stupidity, not even just when casting the transformation spell in the first place. Why had she listened to him? She knew Gaston, had known him all along – not personally, of course, but she had been watching him in the mirror years ago, since it had started to dawn on her that the prince was never going to take his destiny into his own paws and that she was going to have to arrange for some girl or other to practically trip and fall into his lap. The day the mirror found Belle was the day Gaston had arranged to marry her – and propose to her. It hadn't entirely eased her conscience about interfering with an innocent life, but it had uncomplicated the issue significantly.
But Gaston... he tempted her. He was – as he would no doubt have put it himself – a prospect far too good to pass up. In that little village he was a prince in all but name, and if anyone needed a magic lesson in basic humanity, it was him. And that was what she lived for. She could just picture the moment of dumb horror on his smug face as the transformation started... but his wasn't the only face that haunted her. The magical tribunal loomed three days away, in three days she would have to stand in front of a group of the most powerful people in the world, in front of Kestral, and tell them what a fool she'd been. She could ill-afford to start casting new spells when all her energies should have been focused on fixing the mess she made of that first one.
Well, she'd tried everything else, hadn't she?
And this would hardly be unrelated.
The fact that it would feel so good was neither here nor there.
In any case, she'd suffered a severe career hiccup and run into an unpleasant former lover in the same week. She deserved a treat.
There, she'd talked herself into it. The question now was what exactly it should be.
Not another Beast. The last thing anyone wanted was for what passed for Gaston's mind to be making itself at home in eight feet of solid muscle plus pointy bits, and Kestrel might notice two of them wandering about in the local countryside. No, it would have to be more subtle than that. Something... something like...
Aha! She snapped her fingers. That was it.
As she paused at the door to put on a thick woollen travelling cloak, she paused to observe that what she was about to do had all the hallmarks of A Bad Decision.
She didn't care. A week of feverish, sleepless thinking had been insufficient to produce any good ideas and this one had a certain internal logic. Gaston had got her into this mess, and now he was going to get her out.
Gaston was hunting. It wasn't going well, largely because he wasn't giving it his full attention. It was as well for him that he'd decided to go alone that day, because even he wasn't completely sure that he could have spun the moment he'd tripped over an exposed tree root at a critical moment and frightened off a boar into a feat of heroism.
He was furious. Really, that was all there was to it. It had been three days, three days since he'd handed over a bag of good silver to that wretch to have him find her. His information had been very clear: Belle and that creature-husband of hers had set off alone into the countryside. How hard could it be to track a monster and a woman? He'd have done it himself without breaking a sweat, but Lefou had pointed out that Belle, being prone to fits of a kind of self-respect that were ill-suited to the fairer sex, might have seen his role in separating her from her husband as a bad thing. Instead, he was expecting a messenger from the band of thieves to let him know when he could happen to encounter their party on the road and do the only thing a man of honour could: pretend to rescue the princess from a group of men prepared to lie down and look dead in exchange for the rest of the money he'd promised them. Three days had passed. No messenger.
It took him a while to realise that he was in an unfamiliar part of the forest. This was, in itself, unsettling. He knew the whole forest like the back of his hand and had done since he was a boy. Except... well, there had been the matter of the castle in the middle of it. When Belle had told the villagers about the Beast, it had sprung instantly to mind. He'd known there was a castle deep in the forest. He'd always known it. He just hadn't been sure that he'd always known it a moment ago.
The feeling he was getting now was similar. To the untrained eye, this was just another bit of the forest – more trees, more rustling noises and birdsong. But his eyes were not untrained. He was the greatest hunter who'd ever lived, at one with his surroundings, unflinching in his...
He stopped short, then snapped his head right and left to make absolutely sure that no one had been nearby to hear his involuntary strangled shout. He was definitely alone. That established, he returned his attention to the road ahead.
There wasn't a road here. Gaston knew that for certain. If the words "categorical" and "absence" had been in his vocabulary he would have applied them to the road situation without a moment's hesitation. And yet, there it was.
"Excuse me, young man."
And there was an old crone on it, addressing him.
Gaston wasn't afraid. Gaston laughed in the face of fear and then punched it for good measure. But he didn't like this. He didn't like it at all.
He took a tentative step towards the crone. She had a face like a bad dream and stood hunched, vulture-like in her tattered black cloak. There was a large sack beside her and she was gesturing towards it.
"Young man, will you help me? I must get this sack of, er, rocks to market. For I am but a poor old, er, rock-seller with not a penny to my name and if I do not sell my... my rocks, I will surely die of starvation. But I am a poor, feeble old woman with weak legs and a nasty cough –" Here she broke off and coughed "—and it is many miles to the specific market I have in mind. Please, have pity-"
Gaston frowned. "You want me to help you carry a bag of rocks?"
"To market, yes." The Enchantress massaged her now-ageing temples. She had a feeling that this story wasn't going to stand up to close scrutiny. Luckily-
"You're not going to help me?"
"Even though I am a poor feeble old woman with an aching back and some very suspicious-looking sores?"
Gaston wrinkled his nose and took a step backwards. "No. Go away, you wretched old hag."
"I thought as much," rasped the crone. Thrusting both palms towards the sky, she suddenly seemed to hold in her hands a ball of almost painfully bright white light. It melted over her, cascading down her arms and over her body, washing away the form of the crone and leaving behind a straight, shapely form with glossy golden hair and an expression of concentration.
"Gaston le Chasseur," she declared, her voice now so clear and loud that it seemed to come not from her throat but the very trees themselves. "You have shown yourself, over the course of an ill-spent life, to be spoiled, selfish and unkind. Until you have helped to right a wrong, I place upon you... a curse!"
Gaston had been backing cautiously away and was preparing to spring into hasty retreat when the sensation caught him. It was as though the air around him had caught fire. Pain infused every part of him. He closed his eyes, fighting to block it out – and suddenly, it was gone. He opened his eyes again, wheeling round to look at the witch.
He couldn't see her. He was engulfed in something red, above which was the sky and... and there she was. Above him. A long way above him.
The Enchantress approached him, careful about where she put her feet. She knelt, pinching the hunter's torso between her thumb and forefinger, and lifted him to her eye level.
"Remember me?" she asked him, whispering so as not to overwhelm his tiny eardrums.
He thrashed around, surprisingly strong at four inches tall. She was compelled to gently close her fist around him from the neck down.
"What have you done to me?" he demanded.
She raised an eyebrow. "I'm surprised you can't infer that from context."
"I shrank you. Until you—"
She rolled her eyes. "Don't yell. Your tiny voice is piercing. I don't know why you're so surprised. It's not like you didn't know I could do magic."
Gaston had never felt like this before. Belittled. Everyone, sooner or later, comes up against a force more powerful than his or own will. Everyone is made to feel small. With a lifetime's inexperience in this area behind him, all he could do was fume.
"Now, listen," the Enchantress continued. "I think you're familiar with how these curses work? You have to redeem yourself within a set amount of time or the curse is permanent. I'm on a deadline here so I'm giving you three days. If, in that time, you can help the prince and princess to break the curse that you were so keen to have me recast, you'll be your old self again. Fail, and you'll be stuck like this forever. Do I make myself clear?"
Gaston's brain churned. Several courses of action presented themselves but they all involved his having the capacity to tear the witch limb from limb with his bare hands. He didn't speak.
"I'm going to take that as a yes." She straightened. "Right, now, I've arranged for you to be transported in a few minutes to somewhere you'll be able to do some good. In the meantime-" She unclasped her fingers a little and Gaston was suddenly very aware of the cold "-I suggest you fashion yourself some rudimentary garments out of leaves or something. Here." She set him down on the branch of a tree. "Good luck."
A moment later, she was gone, and Gaston was left screaming tiny expletives on the branch of a tree beside a road that didn't exist. Which, incidentally, no one did like Gaston.
OMG you guys, another twist! Once again, I didn't know I was going to do this. What's cool about it is that I've basically plundered an old unfinished story of mine called 'Choices', which was an AU in which Maurice makes it to the fair without getting lost and, without a girl turning up on his doorstep, the Beast is forced to head out on a roadtrip looking for love. Meanwhile, upset by Gaston's proposal, Belle is travelling through the forest to join her father and meets a mysterious old crone, to whom she tells her woes. Later that day, Gaston is transformed into something small and fuzzy and the only way he can break the spell is by helping the Beast break his. I really liked the idea but I couldn't make it work as a story, so I'm excited that it fits in here without seriously changing what I was already going to do. And with all these elements, this story is going to have one heck of a finale (so no pressure or anything). I really hope you guys are still enjoying it!