A light patter of rain fell on the garden, silver needles flashing through the small bands of light cast by the lamps along the pathways. Hundreds upon hundreds of perfect circles overlay one another repeatedly in the ornamental pool, the tiny sounds of drops hitting the water adding to the music of the gentle rain. Now and then the shadows ran and shifted, sometimes it was from the moon peeping through the clouds for a moment, or through a thin veil of mist between clouds; sometimes the shadows matched no light source, did not flow along the ground at the same pace as the moonshadows of branches dancing in the night breeze.
Sitting at her window seat, casements open so that she could hear and smell the rain, the uncanny perfume of the magic that imbued the gardens still sifted up to Beauty’s second-floor window, making chills rise upon her skin. It wasn’t like being cold, more like being touched by something that her senses could not understand; even after all this time she still hadn’t decided whether she liked or disliked it.
One of the shadows, more solid than the others, caught her eye and she watched with slightly widened eyes as the dark shape slowly resolved into one that had become almost as familiar as her own. A wild, dark mane hid much of that large head; long tangles trailing down to float upon the surface of the pool like strange water weeds. Counter-ripples radiated outward from where an unseen muzzle must have been touching the water, tongue no doubt lapping up the cool, clear liquid. Powerful shoulders bunched, claws extended to curve over the edge of stone, haunches covered in dense, dark fur which did not really hide the conformation of the muscles beneath, her Beast crouched to drink.
He rarely ever allowed her to see him thusly, in his savage state, without silks and velvets to maintain the illusion of humanity. No matter what she has said, he won’t believe her insistence that he can trust her not to be horrified or disgusted; the only time he gave her an answer she knew was genuine, he roared in vexation, “It is myself I do not trust, foolish girl! Now let that be an end to it!” After that, he stalked out and slammed four doors that she could hear before distance muffled whatever else he did.
She did not see him for the better part of a week, and when he re-appeared at the dinner table he was sullen and uncommunicative. He had still asked her to marry him, as he did every night they supped together, but he asked it as if the words cut his tongue coming out, as if they burnt his lips, and she could only shake her head, eyes on her fine china plate as her stomach roiled with a dismay whose source she had not known.
That was over two months before, maybe more, since Beauty had never been quite certain how time worked within the enchanted castle with its enchanted master who was also an enchanted prisoner—it depended on how one viewed the matter, she supposed. Now he was below her, fur and hair, teeth and claws, perhaps having hunted—again she was forced to suppose, because that he refused to tell her, no matter how she badgered and wheedled—and no sign of a scrap of silk, lace, or velvet to be seen.
Beauty could not see him clearly, but she saw him better than she ever had in his night-time prowling, and without his clothing to hide behind. Despite the fact that she, too, wore the gorgeous silks and satins and velvets, some part of her felt they were more than costumes; perhaps some kind of elaborate ingredient in a hidden enchantment within the greater enchantment, forcing them both into paths of behavior that they would not have otherwise followed. That same part of her had accepted him, her Beast, into her heart, would answer his nightly question differently if she could trust that he asked it for himself and not for the sake of fixing some curse. Such had been the case since she returned from the disastrous visit to her family, returning barely in time to keep the Beast from dying of her absence; an absence that had shown her the truth of her own feelings.
Love, it must be. Though she had only known the love of her father, her sisters, she still recognized love when she felt it; even if she had not noticed its approach. A hundred proofs filled her mind when she thought about her Beast. How his rumbling voice was now threaded throughout her dreams; how his face was the one she saw when she danced through billows of rose petals or through shafts of colored sunlight pouring through impossibly high windows, and his hands—backed with fine fur, leathery palms and finger-pads like the supplest glove-leather, and retractable claws—holding her own smaller hands so gently, as he always did, and spinning her till she shouted with laughter; how she could not imagine never again walking in the garden with him, speaking of dozens of things in a long, intricate, daisy-chain of a conversation that might take them from theology to horticulture to astronomy and on to ancient mythology or more modern prose.
Toying with the end of her braid, she watched him, smelling a warm, slightly-sweet and musky odor that reminded her of nuzzling a kitten that had been playing in the sun. The moment she realized the scent must be her Beast, his head lifted, wet locks of his hair slapping his arms as he lifted his face to the damp night sky and inhaled deeply. Mist puffed forth and he turned his head as he stood, legs formed more like an animal’s, chest and shoulders broader and deeper than a human’s, and his proportionately thicker neck still somehow graceful as it supported his horned and muzzled head. Brow lowering, his eyes reflected the light like a cat’s before he growled and turned away.
“Wait, please!” She had no idea she had spoken until the words floated down and caught him, halting him as if she had some power over him.
“I told you that I will not allow you to see me thus,” he rumbled, keeping his back to her, only turning his head, short muzzle showing in profile, water still dripping from it.
“Too late. I have seen you.” She clambered up onto the windowsill, bunching her gown about her legs and letting her satin-slippered feet hang over the edge. “I have not yet run screaming, have not turned in repulsion, and you don’t seem inclined to eat me.” He had encouraged her to speak plainly, enjoyed discussing the thoughts in her head and the books that she read in his impossibly grand library, but she knew sometimes he regretted that permission to be blunt. Like now. She was willful, more than she had ever been at home, but he was only partly the cause.
“It is dark, and you are out of reach.” He tossed his head, snorting a gust of vapor into the chilly air. The rain was a mist now, barely qualifying as rain. “You have no idea what I am inclined to do to you.”
A little thrill moved through her and Beauty was convinced that the night grew entirely silent for a moment as she inhaled in surprise. Why did his words bring a tingle to her belly? Lifting her chin, she scooted further forward, judging the distance before calling in a firm tone, “Beast.” He turned to look at her at once, having clearly trained himself to as much attentiveness to her as she had to him. “Catch me.”
“Beauty, no!” He gasped—more than half a roar—as she let her slippered heels rest on the little ornamental ledge below her window for long enough to see him moving forward before she bent her knees and leapt outward. Turning, she fell face-up, as if flinging herself onto her big four-poster bed instead of out of a second-storey window.
Two bands of steel, barely cushioned by flesh—or so it felt—caught her around the back and beneath her thighs, and she gave a grunting ‘OOF!’ as the air was forced out of her. Catching at his shoulders, she unintentionally gripped a handful of thick, damp hair and could only lie there, holding on, gasping for air again, almost as surprised at herself as he was.
“What madness has taken you?” the Beast snarled, upper lip curled back to show his sharp teeth, though he held her close to his chest, glaring darkly. Yet she was not at all afraid; wary of his temper, perhaps, but certain he would not harm her despite his angry words. “You might have been seriously hurt or killed!”
“You are faster than I am, far stronger, and it was not that long a drop,” she told him calmly; well, as calm as she could sound while still a bit breathless. “If I took the time to come down the usual way, you’d be gone.”
“Never do such a thing again!” Whatever she expected, a shaking, being dumped onto her feet and sent inside like a recalcitrant child, she could not say, but in no way had she expected him to fold her close, burying his muzzle in her hair, breathing as if he had been running for his life. “Never again. Promise me or I shall brick up those windows, lock you in your room, and lose the key!”
The vibration of his voice, though it was softer now, rippled through her like a touch. She could feel and faintly hear his great heart beating rapidly. Beauty smoothed his damp mane back, gently finger-combing through the tangles, burying her own face in the warm place beneath his jaw. “I promise, Beast. I’m sorry. I never meant to frighten you.”
“Well, you did.” He moved his head and she felt a cool, very slightly damp touch at her temple, his nose? “If you had been hurt, I would never have forgiven myself… or you.” Another touch, rubbing subtly, and then he exhaled, which told her that he had been touching his mouth against her skin. A kiss of a sort, she supposed, and turned her face to press a soft kiss to the corner of his wide jaw. A shudder went through him.
“I do apologize,” she said contritely, sincerely. “Only, I get so frustrated when you push me away, refuse to allow me to know you.” A slight rocking movement became his swaying steps as he carried her to a bench and sat down with her still in his arms.
“You wish to know the parts of me I fear will disturb you most,” he told her, voice still a quiet rumble, and he settled her upon his thighs. “I would spare us both you trying to pretend you are not disgusted.”
Making a frustrated little sound, Beauty sat upright within the circle of his arms and put both hands up to his furred cheeks, gripping the tufts of longer hair that grew in a line from his cheeks to partway along either side of his jaw. His golden eyes met hers as she urged him to face her. “Do I look disgusted?” She straightened and kissed his dark, triangular nose. “Do I act disgusted?”
Those eyes widened and his lips parted on a silent gasp. It took him three breaths to reply. “Not yet.”
“What must I do? What can I say?” She pulled him down further—and he let her, because she could not have moved him otherwise—touching a gentle kiss to one corner of his mouth, then the other, and then on the soft line of his dark-skinned lower lip. “You are my friend, my companion, my Beast, and if you opened those magical gates out there right now, even if my leaving wouldn’t harm you, I would not leave.”
“Do not say that!” Turning his head aside within the gentle cage of her hands, he closed his eyes, fingers curving against her, catching the fabric of her nightgown in bunches.
“Why not?” Beauty was shocked at the stab of pain that went through her. “Would you make me go?”
“No, it’s… you cannot mean that, Beauty,” he whispered, shaking his head, her hands following the motion before she gripped the fringes of hair at his jaws again and tugged to get him to look at her. Perhaps he winced, she wasn’t certain, but he did turn his eyes to her at last.
“I mean it with all my heart, Beast.” She felt the sting behind her eyes and resisted surrendering to tears. “I never want to leave you again. Visiting my family nearly killed you, but…” Petting the sides of his face, smoothing the fine dark hairs she had tugged upon, she shook her head. “Did you never realize that it almost killed me, too?”
“Beauty.” The Beast closed his eyes, pulling her tightly to him, burying most of his furred face in the curve where her neck and shoulder met, the elegant curve of his nearer horn brushing against the side of her head. “Say nothing more, I beg of you.”
“Why?” Holding him snugly, petting his damp mane, her face hidden in the half-dry, finer strands that sprang from his nape. “I thought if I loved you it would break the spell?”
“If you agree to marry me, it will break the spell,” corrected the Beast in a quiet, careful tone. “I cannot tell you how many decades… perhaps centuries… I have been under this enchantment.” A soft press of his inhuman mouth against her neck, barely felt, made goosebumps dance across her skin. “Since you came here, I have been thinking on the matter. When it finally breaks, it is as likely that I may crumble to dust on the spot as turn back into the man I was. The sorceress was evil and hated my family; that’s the sort of trick someone of her ilk would play.”
“You don’t know?” Beauty gasped, horrified. “What a horrid, horrid spell!” Tightening her arms, as if she could somehow keep him safe, she shook her head. “Then I shall never, never marry you!”
“Then I shall never be a man again,” he replied in a voice like defeat and doom.
“Beast?” Not lifting her head, almost afraid to speak, she asked tentatively, “would you rather do that? I would rather have you like this than possibly dead, but it’s your fate, your life… I couldn’t refuse if—“
Quickly, as he had always been faster than she, the Beast interposed his hand between them and pressed a blunt-tipped finger to her lips. “No. I would rather stay like this, with you, than die as a man I can no longer remember. I have been this… what I am now… for far longer than I ever was human.”
“But you hate it,” she mumbled against his finger and he lightened his touch, stroking across her bottom lip before merely resting his fingertips upon her cheek, claws velveted.
“I think…” He lifted his head, rearing back and looking down at her, golden eyes speculative. “I think that is mostly habit now, I hardly remember what it was like to be human. Only… don’t you want a handsome young man at your side?”
“The only handsome young men I ever knew were vain, empty-headed fools or bullies,” she said and pursed her lips to kiss the finger he still held at her mouth. “I don’t think I would care for one very much now that I’ve known you.”
“Beauty…” the Beast sighed, looking suddenly defeated and she knew what he would say before the words formed in his mouth. Knew he could not stop this part of the enchantment. “Will you marry me?”
Smiling mischievously, running her hands along his face and down his mane again, she leaned up and kissed his nose once more, as well. “No, my dear, dear, Beast, I most definitely will not marry you; however, I will happily love you with all my heart and live here with you for as long as this enchantment will allow. Will that suffice?”
“Oh, yes,” rumbled the Beast as he squeezed her to him once more, though just short of too tightly. “That will…” he choked on a laugh or a sob, she couldn’t be sure, “that will more than suffice. Beyond my dearest hopes. Oh, my Beauty, how I do love you so.” A shudder moved through him and he rubbed his head against hers, nuzzling her cheek and neck again, then sighed, making as if to scoot her off his lap.
Beauty made a little confused sound and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“I… you should go up to bed now.” He put his hand under her legs again, starting to actually slide her to her feet.
Beauty wrapped her arms about his neck and scowled at him. “I will not until you tell me why.”
“Beauty,” the Beast levered her legs off his lap, which left her standing before him, arms still locked around his neck, and she stepped in closer, standing between his legs as he sat there on the bench. “I… my dearest Beauty, there are some aspects of what I am that are the same, beast or man, and I do not want to distress you. Please.”
Tilting her head, Beauty frowned at him and suddenly understood. She looked down his lightly-furred chest and belly, to where he looked more like the horses in her father’s stables than a man—granted, she had only ever seen one male fully undressed, and that had been a neighbor boy when she had happened upon him swimming in the lake—but she saw enough to know how men differed from animals; he was not so very large, but the same general configuration. Just then, with the skirts of her thin nightgown half-draped over his lap, she could see that his sheath was a little more prominent than it had been. Something about it, about knowing she affected him so, made another little tingling flutter blossom in her belly.
“Beast, you do know I was raised on a farm,” she said in her most practical tone. “I know how these things work.” Though she did not know, precisely, how it was with men and women, she knew breeding practices well enough as regarded her father’s horses. “Plus,” she added when he looked about to speak, “I have two elder sisters who have had perhaps a few more adventuresome balls and weekend hunt-parties than they ought to have done.”
“Beauty, that isn’t…” The Beast hesitated, looking down at the muted colors of the ornamental tile, now dewed with water from the misty rain, which had stopped at some point while they had been speaking.
“My sisters told me,” Beauty went on reaching down and taking up his large hands, placing them, all but unresisting, upon her waist, “about kissing and touching. About how their beaux would caress them and make them feel tingly and excited.” As she spoke, her Beast’s hands slid down slightly, resting upon her hips. At the last words, his grip tightened a tiny bit.
“You do not know what you are asking. You… you would not want such things from a Beast, my dear Beauty,” he said, nearly whispering the words, and his ears lowered as his eyes closed, as if he were in pain.
“There is no one else I would want such things from, silly Beast,” she told him smilingly, bringing his face up again; with him sitting upon the bench and slumped down, he was still almost her height. “Did you not say you love me?”
“More than my life,” he avowed with a nod, opening his eyes and looking at her with a mingling of woe and hope.
“And I love you,” she added next, planting another kiss upon his nose and smoothing the fur on his cheeks. “What else is there to know?”
“I might hurt you, my sweet Beauty.” It sounded less certain, however, and she tutted at him, shaking her head.
“Nonsense. You never have yet done so, even when I’ve made you shout and slam doors and break things. Why would you now?” She was relieved when he huffed out a soft snort of amusement at her words. “And I promise to be very patient with you.”
“Oh, my sweet love,” the Beast rumbled, pulling her to him tightly, half-laughing as he spoke. “I don’t know if it’s even possible, but you make me want to try.”
“Of course it’s possible.” She pressed tightly against him, loving his warmth and the velvet of his fur. “Now, unless you’ve some other silly objection, I suggest we start sorting it out right away.” She felt the bulge of his sheath, now pressing against her thigh more firmly, and knew her words had something to do with it. “I understand it involves a lot of touching and cuddling and kissing without clothing.”
“Gods, Beauty!” The words barely a low rumble, he tightened his grip upon her again, fingers of one hand splaying at the small of her back.
“We might have more trouble with the kissing part,” she murmured lifting his head and pressing her lips to his lips, then rubbing her cheek against his cheek. “But I’m sure we’ll manage somehow.”
“You’re determined, then?” asked the Beast, his expression still almost smiling, ears pricked forward now, and Beauty nodded eagerly. “Very well, then.” He set her back a little and rose to his feet. “But, however we sort it out, we’re doing so in a bed.” With a sudden move, he bent and swooped her up and over his shoulder.
Beauty squealed in surprise and delighted amusement, kicking her feet a little and holding onto his mane. When he turned toward the nearest entrance and shifted her to open the door, she tried to twist around a bit to see where they were going, but he lightly spanked her bottom and growled, “stop wriggling, you.”
With another, quieter squeal and a token kicking of her legs, she stopped wriggling, but was giggling helplessly by the time he had climbed the stairs to her room.
As Beauty expected, they did, indeed, sort it out. In fact, they sorted it out so successfully that neither the garden nor the library saw them for several days and nights. And they managed somehow, happily ever after.