"I love you", Belle says to the Beast, shivering and sobbing and soaked through up on the roof, and then everything is bright sunlight and suddenly there's a human man gazing up at her, all honey-spun hair and cornflower eyes. He says, "Belle. It's me", but she still has to take a long moment, studying those eyes and that expression and his posture, oh-so-familiar from sharing long days in the snow and the library and at dinner, before she finally believes him. Yes. This is he.
Different, yes, and he's delighted by his new - old? original? - form, he laughs out loud with joy to look at his hands and bare feet, and he pulls her up and dances around and around right there, and she is happy too, she is so pleased for him, because he is happy. Later, they find him fitted clothes and brush out his long, fine hair together, until it shines.
Gaston had said, "why would you love a monster when you could have a man like me?", and she had fallen in love with the Beast, of course, but this man, he is not Gaston either. He is still soft-spoken and kind; he brings her wine as she's reading and he has the newly-human kitchen staff make up a batch of her favourite apple tarts. He seems to sense her hesitation, and he gives her space and doesn't push, and she adores him for it.
He throws open long-abandoned wardrobes and brings out capes and doublets, velvet and silk, and shows off each style for her as she reclines on the bed, book in hand. They pass newly-uncovered mirrors in the halls and, even weeks later, he cannot help but stop and stare in wonder, cannot help the enormous grin that spreads across his face, and her heart swells with happiness for him.
When they make love, she buries both hands in his long hair and closes her eyes. When his hands clench against her hips as he gasps out in climax, she remembers the sharp, wicked claws that had fought off wolves for her that one night. She had run her fingertips across their razor edges that same evening, and had never felt quite as safe. She had felt so reassured, and at peace, at finding someone with darkness to match her own.
She had fallen in love with the Beast, and this man is not him, but he is also not unlike him. She can learn. She will try.
He opens up the castle gates and sends the staff to dusting and tidying, putting on fresh paint and filling the halls with flowers. He has been a long time hidden, and there are ambassadors of state to entertain and alliances to reforge. There are meetings and negotiations taking up the days, and sparkling, crowded balls with a hundred men and women, all peacock-bright, in the evenings.
Mrs. Potts instructs Belle in etiquette, polite conversation and the correct dance steps, and she gamely entertains the women during the meetings, and circles the dancefloor with her lover in the evenings, cautious to not trip over her dress.
(Dancing had been easy, just the two of them, alone and both a little unsure in their steps. Now, he is graceful and poised, and she struggles to not feel as though she's showing him up with her imperfect feet and newly-learned posture.)
One of the women titters to the group, "over to the west, we'd heard he'd transformed into some sort of monster! Quiet in so long, the people will spread all kinds of rumours, but can you imagine?", and Belle laughs politely along with them, catching the eyes of her lover looking proudly to her from across the room.
For all his encouragement, and Mrs. Potts' lessons, the constant socialising tires her. She locks herself in the library - alone, now, even the servants occupied with the new workload - with the books he had given her. She re-reads the stories they'd shared, of lost princes and far-off lands, and gazes out of the window, daydreaming of walking with him in the snow.
There are no portraits. She runs fingertips over his eyebrows and the places from which those thick horns had sprouted, and smiles quickly to him, lands a kiss above his lips.
Gaston had asked her how she could love a monster, and had never understood that she was also a monster. He had seen her beautiful face, and chosen to ignore her unwillingness to socialise and her love of stories, her daydreams of a great wide somewhere and her unflinching loyalty to her father, even on his strangest of days.
Her lover is good at this, she realises, watching him greet every guest with their name and easing smoothly into conversation. He must have been good at this before, and become quiet and solitary only under the spell.
When she tells him she is leaving, the both of them cry. They hold on to each other, and he thanks her for everything, and she kisses his forehead and thanks him in kind. He helps her load up her horse, and promises he'll check in on her father in the village every week.
One of the books in her bag is a collection of her favourite adventure stories, reminding her to explore and to be brave. The other is a series of maps. She rides down to the village - quiet, now, in the early evening - and goes straight through, heading to the roads that'll lead her to the larger route, winding north towards the bigger towns.
She crests the hill overlooking vast plains, from which she can see the big road in the distance, just as the sun touches the horizon. She looks back once more, to her little town full of little people, to the great castle up on the side of the mountain. Then, she faces north and heads down the hill, and as the sun bathes the fields in the rich gold of the evening, her heart lifts up and up, and she smiles and breaks into a gallop.