In the Time Before
Belle sat, her fingers twirling the lacy napkin in her lap. She should have known better. Nothing here ever seemed simple.
"…as last year's Thanksgiving colors were maize, burnt umber and cranberry, we want the decorations this year to be more in the sage and harvest wheat family…"
It had been like this for hours.
Minutiae of epically small proportions parsed even tinier as every single detail of the upcoming year's celebrations were discussed, seconded and finalized. It was her first time attending this annual event, open to all the ladies of Animasia. And she understood why they only held them once a year.
It was catatonically boring.
She had almost forgotten what she had planned as her head swirled with a mesh of pixie-lit evergreen trees, fresh-laid multi-hued Easter eggs and mildly-levitating Halloween punch.
She looked down at her tablemates and was a little relieved to see that Ariel's eyes had a glassy, unfocused haze over them and that Maid Marian and Lady Cluck were passing each other notes discreetly under the table and covering their giggles with their napkins.
"…any new business before we close?"
Belle's hand shot up.
The clatter of silverware and china cups ceased immediately. There was never any new business decided upon at these gatherings. The entire reason for the Annual Ladies Luncheon and Tea was to decide on already existing and pressing issues, such as who would host next year's Thanksgiving Feast and Chirstmas Gala? A new order of business…? Unheard of. But…that was just like that new Kingdom…girl. What was she, anyway? She wasn't a princess, because she…well, could we really expect her to be married to her…ahem…prince?
Belle read the expressions on the faces of those around her as clearly as the text of a book. Her face flushed from the attention of the spotlight, but no one stopped her as she slowly stood. Ella, surprised as most everyone in the room, still knew all the rules and decorum of the luncheon had not been breached, and nodded for Belle to continue.
"I have a motion," Belle said clearly and without hesitation. "Animasia should institute a school of learning for its children."
The silence stretched into nerve-wracking territory.
"Brilliant. I second the motion," Mrs. Darling announced.
That finally snapped the group into an appropriate frenzy.
"-we've never had-"
"-who does she think-"
At the podium, Ella delicately began clinking her crystal-stemmed water glass. "Order, please, order! Ladies! This is most unbecoming!"
The fracas settled down, but tension buzzed amid the silver candelabras and pastel petit fours. Ella paused before directly addressing Belle, "This is a tremendously weighty item you've proposed, Belle. We all certainly appreciate the vitality you have brought since you and your Kingdom have entered Animasia, but this is…well, quite frankly, such an action has never been attempted."
"Exactly. And it seems like the perfect task the ladies of Animasia would want to associate themselves with. What could possibly be more important or noble than assisting our youth with the pursuit of knowledge?"
Seated directly below the chairwoman's podium, Snow White took this opportunity to stand. "You are far too young to understand what you are proposing. You are practically an infant to all of us here. What could an infant possibly have to teach adults?"
Knowing she was treading dangerous waters, Belle couldn't let the insult slip. "What does any woman here know about infants?" she asked quietly.
The collective gasp this time was sharper and far more pained. Belle knew she had crossed the line, but she also refused to be cowed before a woman who had smaller thoughts than any of the mice that dwelled in Animasia.
Though at opposite ends of the pavilion, the distance between Snow and Belle could have been mere inches as they stared each other down. "Don't even pretend you know what you are speaking of," Snow White warned.
"I wouldn't dare pretend. You are right that I am young. But I am also aware of the responsibility that lies with us, those that the magic of this realm chose to create as adults. We have an obligation to the children of Animasia to guide them, to teach them so that their minds may grow."
"Why?" Snow looked around at the assembled, then up at the satin ivory canopy overhead, softly rolling with the springtime breeze. "What good will it do them if this is all they will ever know?"
And suddenly everything made much more sense to Belle.
The princesses, maids, ladies and peasantry of Animasia did not congregate in palace courtyards and dwell on seasonally appropriate napkin folds because they wanted to. They did so because this was all they had to look forward to.
Snow White had lived the same day for 55 years with only the occasional ball or gathering to change the day's routine. There were no illnesses, co crises, no surprises.
No children in her kingdom.
Belle understood much better now.
She also refused to accept the world around her.
"You are right," Belle repeated, softer now. "I am young. But what if this isn't all that Animasia's children will know? What if the day comes and the Doors to the Outside will open? Why not give them goals? Why not give them hope?"
The crackling energy in the air dissipated and Belle felt the tide turning. Snow kept a wary gaze on Belle as she sat down, but said no more. Ella took control once more. "The motion to institute a school for Animasia's children has been moved and seconded. Any objections?"
"Very well. Belle, in three months time, you will meet with the Events Committee to outline your proposal for starting a school. That gives you until July 20th. If you do not have a proposal, your idea will be forfeit. Understood?"
"Excellent. Well then, any other matters to address?"
No one would have dared by this point.
"Then the Annual Ladies Luncheon and Tea has concluded. We look forward to seeing everyone for Easter at the palace."
"Hopefully with the same chocolate eggs they had last year," Ariel said dreamily as Belle sank down into her seat to process the last several minutes. "They were as big as starfish and filled with lavender-laced whipped cream. So what made you think of teaching? That was the most interesting luncheon I've ever been too!"
"I guess it's a calling."
"Wow. No one here ever feels called for something important."
A non-committal, "Mm-mmm," was the safest answer Belle could give.
Belle's head was still spinning as she walked down the dusky lane toward the cottage. She kept thinking of lesson plans and projects she would have the children do, all the while knowing she was getting ahead of herself, and that it was far more important just to figure out how to get all the children into a classroom. The Lost Boys in particular could be a real problem…
Beast was waiting for her on the steps to her home. Her heart fluttered giddily once she saw him. He looked particularly magnificent as the last rays of the sun gilded the edges of his fur, though it was his smile upon seeing her that truly made her go just the tiniest bit weak in the knees.
He remained sitting on the stones as she walked up to him, not out of a lack of courtliness, but because he was just about eye level with her. "New dress?" he asked, watching in approval as the evening wind wrapped the skirt around her legs.
She grinned. "It would have been the height of vulgarity to be seen at the Ladies' Luncheon in a previously worn garment."
"How did it go?"
With a thoughtful shrug, she slid down into his lap and rested her head on his chest. "They've taken it into consideration. I need to write a proposal, and other official things. It…actually got pretty tense for awhile. I'm afraid I don't play the part of demurely domestic damsel very well."
"I should hope not."
They sat together in comfortable silence as the sun set. As the first evening stars flittered into view, Belle asked, "Was my father at the castle when you left?"
He nodded. "His courtship to Mrs. Potts seems to be…speeding up." When she didn't answer, he tilted his head down to look at her. "Does that bother you?"
"Hmm? No. No, I'm really happy that they have each other." She bit her lip. "Does it bother you that their relationship is progressing much faster than ours?"
"I didn't realize we were in a race," he said with a smirk.
"No," he answered in a much more sober tone. "Any time I have with you is all I could ever ask for."
Belle relaxed into him. "Good. Because I…I love you, Beast."
The words slipped out, but they couldn't have felt more natural. She had never spoken them before and yet now wondered what had taken her so long.
"Belle," he whispered as he began to stroke her hair, "…you have no idea…how much I love you."
She smiled. "I think I have an idea," she murmured. "But…I'm not ready to be married yet."
His hand froze in mid-stroke. "I don't remembering asking."
"No. It's just…I realized something today. There's a lot of…weariness in the Kingdoms. I love you far too much to ever take you for granted. And I love saying 'I love you.' I never want to get tired of saying that."
"So…you want to go against the tradition of getting married within the first two years of arriving in Animasia? Forgo the parade of engagement parties, showers and ceremonies and instead spend more time getting to know your beloved and deepening your bond with him?"
His face split into a wide smile. "That sounds perfect. On one condition."
She eyed him with mock suspicion. "And what would that be?"
"Move into the castle."
"You will have your own room," he said with mock exasperation. "There's only a couple hundred to choose from. You'll be close to the library this way, which is something any new teacher should have access to."
"And closer to you?"
"Hadn't thought of that."
She smiled. "I would love to."
"Well…then…what do you need to pack?"
"We're doing this right now?"
She thought about that. "Well…all right! Let's go pack. I'll just need to take care of the animals tomorrow."
"We'll send a cart. Everything will be fine."
"Okay. Okay. I guess I'm moving in with you. Sort of."
"Are you sure?"
She kissed him in response, a quick, reassuring peck that lingered long after it was broken. "Yes. I'm sure. I want to be with you for always."
A sigh of contentment rolled over him. "Likewise, my dearest friend."