He believes the touch of her small hands to be hallucinations as he passes in and out of consciousness. As the pain and exhaustion give way into restful slumber he dreams of her:
Belle drenched with rain, stroking his face and pleading with him in desperation, brown eyes dark and beautiful and a backdrop of rumbling storm clouds. The inventor's daughter in a golden confection of a dress, the loose embrace of shimmering fabric against her arms accentuating her bare, pale shoulders and her hair swept into a loose, elegant bun. The blush of winter's chill on her cheeks on a bright, snowy day, her full lips smiling.
Later, when he wakes at last, she sits beside him – no dream. It takes mere moments for him to understand she's been with him throughout his recovery. Faint, bruise-colored shadows beneath her eyes betray her. His heartfelt smile stretches across his prominent tusks.
"Belle. You're exhausted. Please rest…"
"Now that you're alright, I will," she vows. His heart stutters as she rises to lean in and press her lips against his jowl, leaving a kiss on his fur.
Over the next three days he regains his strength and returns to his routines. Depression hangs over him, though he dare not betray it to the woman who despite mortal danger has remained by his side. His twenty-first birthday has passed, and he is forever a monster.
Belle is too perceptive to fall for the ruse. They sit in front of the fireplace, the book they've been reading set face down to retain their place. Her eyes reflect the flames dancing on the crackling logs. She shuts them. He fears her next words, for she appears as a woman preparing to say some difficult thing. He knows it's time for her to return to her village and embrace her life's potential. At last, she looks at him, eyes clouded with not-unexpected emotional conflict.
"Beast, may I ask why you're so sad?"
"Need you?" he wonders quietly. She waits, gaze never shying from his own. He has no desire to burden her with the tragedy of his folly. "You've given me more to be happy for than I ever expected, but the time I could have offered you joy in return has passed."
Belle surprises him, because she smiles.
"I only wish I knew what convinced you the world is as bad as you think! You and my father both live. Our friends fill the castle. It's almost spring…and until it is, there's a library of adventures to keep out the cold."
He shakes his head. Surely she can't imagine to stay here through the spring.
"I appreciate your offer of companionship, but it's time you returned to the village. You belong anywhere but a dark, molding castle."
"The castle's dark because you keeps the curtains shut and leave the candles unlit, and it's molding because you never let Cogsworth air it out."
Belle's optimism and practicality only remind him of his rarely-dared imaginings that once freed of his curse he might sweep her off her feet in the grand romantic tradition of the novels she adores. Those fantasies lie in the past when hope, however slim, yet lived.
"You don't understand," he laments. "It's too late for me."
She lays a hand on his paw, her delicate brow riddled with concern.
"How can it be too late?"
"I haven't always been a monster, Belle," he confesses, wishing only for her to comprehend the bleak future that awaits him. "I was born as a prince and raised with every luxury. And I was cruel and callous and cold-hearted…and I crossed an enchantress."
"…who changed your shape," she supplies, familiar with such stories. "But curses can be broken."
"She gave me until my twenty-first birthday to make amends, and that passed the night Gaston and his men invaded the castle." He sees Belle is hanging on his words, and his heart aches, for she loves tales of magic but there's no hope to offer. Her hand tightens against his paw, an offer of support he scarce deserves.
"How did she expect you to make amends?"
He refuses to allow her to believe she shirked some responsibility to show him any greater affection than he deserved, so he smiles to reassure her.
"It no longer matters, Belle. I am as you see me, now and forever more."
How strange, he thinks, that he no longer shies away when she lifts her hand to stroke his mane.
"I see a man who's sometimes shy, who loves to listen to the stories I love and act like a child with me in the snow. He's temperamental, and a little selfish, but he knows right from wrong and makes every effort to learn from his mistakes. I wish I knew why he believed he was so undeserving of friendship and affection and love…"
The clarity of her brown eyes amazes him, as does the beauty of her smile. Truly she's deserving of her name.
He forbids her, "Don't speak of love...speak to me of anything but love."
"Because you no longer command armies as a prince? Because I brought my own horse, and he's a sorrel Belgian draft? Beast, I love stories with armies and white horses but there's more to love than love at first sight and evil stepmothers." As she speaks, her thumb traces his lower lip. He can barely remember the pleasure of such a touch, and never from a woman who meant so much to him. "Love stories are about finding something you never expected, and I found you."
She's radiant in the firelight and for the first time the Beast truly begins to believe she intends to stay by his side. Their first kiss is a careful exploration, he nuzzles her lips and she kisses his, he reciprocates as best he knows how but gently. He doesn't know of any stories that end with the beautiful maiden embracing the monster…
Save his own.