Professor Thatch finally says, “Okay, you’re dismissed,” and Belle grabs Aurora’s arm, jerking her awake.
Aurora rubs her eyes and says, “Is class over already?” Belle huffs out a sigh and grabs her hand, dragging her out of the auditorium.
“I can’t believe you fell asleep again,” Bell huffs, annoyed. “Professor Thatch’s lecture was absolutely fascinating!”
“Belle,” Aurora sighs tiredly, “not everyone finds the linguistics of Old English as fascinating as you.”
“I don’t know why not,” Belle grumbles.
Suddenly, Aladdin pops up between them, throwing his arms around their shoulders as he exits an adjoining classroom. “My dearest and loveliest friends! It’s Friday: let’s drink.”
“Amen to that,” Belle says fervently. “You would not believe the week I’ve had at the library. Freshmen are the worst.”
“Agreed,” Aladdin says. “But not as bad as the overenthusiastic kids who take the tours, I bet.”
“I’ll call Ariel,” Aurora volunteers, perking up. “Her dad called last night and she’s kind of in a funk.”
Belle and Aladdin wince in unison. Ariel’s father is nice enough, but a little overprotective. Every time she gets out a conversation with him, she has a mini nervous breakdown.
“Okay,” Aladdin says firmly. “We’re definitely having a night out.” He releases them and gives them finger guns. “Meet at the Cauldron at nine?”
“I’ll call everyone,” Belle says and they part ways, heading to their respective dorms and apartments for naps and dinner.
The Black Cauldron isn’t exactly the most upscale bar in town, but it definitely has the best food and the best service. Ella greets them at the door, her blond hair neatly swept up into a ponytail.
“Hey guys,” she says brightly, beaming at Belle and Aurora. “How many tonight?”
They exchange glances. “Well,” Belle starts, “Meg said she’d come and I think Alice and Jane are coming too –”
“I’ll just get you the back booth,” Ella interrupts. She hooks her arm through Auroras and leads the two of them back to the booth. Aurora is blushing furiously, which Belle definitely doesn’t giggle at. They slide in together and Ella goes to get their menus.
Aladdin arrives a couple minutes later and throws himself into the booth next to them. “Okay, so I had a meeting with my advisor,” he says and they both groan.
“He’s never going to let you ask him out,” Aurora says matter-of-factly. “I’ve known Philip since I was born, he takes his job too seriously for that.”
“I can change advisors,” Aladdin suggests. “He’s only three years older than me, it’s not a big difference.”
“He would still be a staff member and you would still be a student,” Belle points out, crossing her arms. “Not gonna happen.”
Aladdin sighs and drops his head into his hands. “I need to get laid.”
“Gross,” Aurora says.
Ariel arrives after they’ve received a basket of fries, compliments of Tiana, who had heard they were there. “I’m nineteen,” she grumbles as she sits down next to Aurora. “My father keeps treating me like this swimming thing is like my metal phase in high school.”
“You had a metal phase?” Belle asks.
Ariel gives her a look. “I’m the youngest of seven girls, I went through every phase imaginable.” Aladdin passes her his beer silently and she takes a long draw before passing it back. “Daddy keeps trying to tell me that if this swimming thing doesn’t work out, I can always fall back on my voice, but I don’t think he understands how good I am.”
“He needs to see you compete,” says Belle. “Maybe that would change his mind.”
“I hope so,” Ariel sighs.
They spend the night getting drunk together. Jane, when she arrives, is utterly frazzled and muttering about thesis papers, and spends the night nursing a tumbler of scotch. Alice is already a little stoned when she shows up and expounds on her story for creative writing to anyone who will listen. Meg and Mulan both call to say they can’t make it; Meg has a date and Mulan is busy trying to convince the football captain to let her play for the team.
Belle stumbles home to the apartment she shares with a French exchange student named Babette and a boy named Chip and passes out almost immediately in her bed.
She wakes up the next morning to an email telling her that her work-study job at the library has been terminated due to lack of funds.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do!” she tells Mulan and Tiana when she goes by the diner where Tiana works during the day. “I needed that job really badly.”
“Oh, honey,” Tiana says sympathetically. “I can ask around if you want, but I think most of the jobs around here filled up at the beginning of the year.”
“I’ll ask too,” Mulan promises. Her hair is cut short now, no doubt part of her crusade to join the team. “Hey, if you’re not busy today, do you want to come help me with the football thing? I’ve done some more research and I could use some back-up.”
“I don’t know much about what you’re doing –” she starts, but Mulan just waves her hand dismissively.
“It’s all right, we’ll get through it.” She grabs Belle’s hand and pulls her upright. “Let’s go.”
Mulan drags Belle down to the athletic fields, blowing past Ariel and Alice on the way. The cheerleaders are practicing on the edge of the field. Tiana’s friend Lotte almost falls off the hands supporting her as she waves at them enthusiastically.
“Hi girls!” she shouts cheerfully. “Gonna try again, Mulan? Best of luck!”
Mulan turns red as all the cheerleaders turn to look at her, but she squares her shoulders bravely and says, “Yes.”
“What a dyke,” says Vanessa loudly, crossing her arms. Belle blinks, anger rising in her chest. She opens her mouth to say something, but Mulan grabs her arm.
“It’s not worth it, Belle. Let’s just go talk to Shang, okay?”
Belle closes her mouth reluctantly and follows Mulan to where the football team is practicing. The captain, Li Shang, groans audibly when he sees Mulan.
“Ms. Fa,” he says in a long-suffering tone, “we have been over this. You are not permitted to play with this team. What more is there to say?”
“Did you actually look up my statistics like I told you to?” demands Mulan, crossing her arms combatively. “I’m a good quarterback, Li. My record speaks for itself.”
Belle tunes out their subsequent argument. Hercules, the huge, godlike lineman, jogs up and says, “Come on, Shang. What harm could it do?” He chugs a bottle of water, then nods at Belle. “Hey, Belle.”
“Hi, Herc,” Belle says. She’s hung out with him before, thanks to his on-off relationship with Meg and her own ex-boyfriend. He’s nice, if a bit dim on occasion. “How are you?”
“I’m all right.” He looks at her again and says, “Is something up?”
“They lost the funding for my job at the library,” she tells him. Hercules will understand; he’s going to college on a football scholarship. “I lost my work-study.”
“That sucks,” Hercules says sympathetically. “I hope you can find a job soon.”
Belle spots her ex-boyfriend heading across the field towards them and she turns her back towards him so she doesn’t have to look at him. Hercules sees what she’s doing and pats her on the back. “Robbie really misses you, you know,” he says quietly. “And I know he’d help you out if he knew you were in trouble.”
“I’m not accepting help from him,” scoffs Belle. “That’s the same as admitting he’s right about something.”
“You have to get over it at some point, Belle,” Hercules says practically. He pats her on the shoulder. “He really does mean well, you know. He didn’t mean to –”
“To what?” demands Belle. “Didn’t mean to fly off the handle every five minutes?”
“He’s gotten a lot better with his temper,” volunteers Chin Po as he passes. “The coach almost never benches him anymore.”
“Great,” says Belle dryly. She glances over towards Mulan, who looks like she’s winding down with Shang, and says, “I’m going to go, I think.” She starts to leave, and that’s when Robbie catches her arm.
“Bella, babe,” he says and she jerks her arm away from him.
“Stay away from me, Beast,” she hisses, turning his nickname back on him, and snags Mulan on her way out of the field.
“Look,” Meg says, after sucking a cherry off a stick. She lounges on the couch in Alice’s spacious loft and flicks her hair. “Beast isn’t really that bad, after you get to know him. Sure, he’s got a pretty bad temper and he used to be kind of an asshole, but ever since you two went out sophomore year, he’s gotten a lot better.”
“You’re one to talk. Hercules definitely still loves you.” Belle raises her eyebrows at Meg, who makes a face. “Just because you have issues or whatever.”
“Thank you very much,” Meg says sarcastically. “Herc is sweet, but he’s too naïve, Belle. I know you agree with me on that.”
“That doesn’t mean you should just stop seeing him.” Belle flags Ella down and says, “Did Tiana make gumbo today?”
“You bet she did,” Ella says, beaming. “I’ll get you a bowl, on the house.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Belle protests, but Ella waves insistently and waltzes off into the kitchen.
“People like to help,” Meg says, patting Belle’s hand. “And I know Beast will want to help you, if he knew.”
“Don’t tell him,” Belle says. “Please, I don’t want him to pity me.”
“That stupid boy has been in love with you for almost two years now, Belle,” Meg says matter-of-factly. “Give him the chance to show you that.”
Belle crosses her arms and says, “We broke up for a reason.”
“I’m not saying you should necessarily date him again,” Meg says, “but if he wants to help you out…”
“You’re a very bad person,” Belle tells Meg.
When Belle answers the door to her apartment the next morning and finds Robbie standing outside, she realizes that she was an idiot to think that Hercules wouldn’t tell him. “Hi,” she says, crossing her arms across her chest to hide the embarrassing slogan for hushpuppies emblazoned on her sweatshirt. “What do you want?”
Robbie shifts nervously, which juxtaposes oddly with his hulking frame. She remembers abruptly why she had found him charming and scowls to hide the rush of old affection. “Bella,” he says softly. “Herc told me that you lost your job.”
“That idiot,” Belle says and she opens the door wider to let him in. He sidles through the door, hunching to make himself seem smaller. “So you came here to make me feel better?”
“I came to offer you a job.” Robbie lifts his hand before she can protest. “My family owns a bookshop in town and one of the clerks just quit.”
“You never told me your family owned a bookstore,” Belle says, irrationally focusing on that part.
“I don’t read that much,” Robbie reminds her.
Belle rolls her eyes and points out, “But I do and you never told me that while we were dating.”
“Don’t make this about us dating, Bella,” Robbie says, sounding annoyed. “I just want to help you out. Let me at least show you the store before you say no,” he adds, seeing her open her mouth to refuse.
“Okay,” she says tiredly, “you can show me the store. Let me just change clothes.” She pads into her bedroom and closes the door behind her. Her reflection in the mirror on the back of the door looks at her skeptically.
“Yeah, shut up,” she mutters and she yanks open her dresser drawer.
Robbie drives her downtown, letting the radio play quiet classical music to cover the silence. His knuckles are practically white on the steering wheel of his car; he must be nervous about seeing her again. She leans against the window and watches the town pass.
The bookstore looks kind of shabby from the outside, the sign reading Benson’s faded and peeling. She looks skeptically at Robbie. “It doesn’t look like much.”
“Not on the outside,” Robbie agrees, “but you should see the inside.” He parks his car on the street and gets out, going around to her side to open her door. She’d forgotten about his odd sense of chivalry.
“You should get the outside painted,” Belle tells him as he unlocks the front door.
“Ever since the manager quit, we’ve been running on a shoestring budget.” He holds the door open for her and she steps inside. It’s dark inside, and she blinks, trying to make her eyes adjust. “I’ll get the light,” Robbie says from behind her and he flicks the switch.
The lights come on throughout the store and Belle gasps, astonished. The store is much larger than it appears from the outside and the rows of shelves stretch out far in front of her. “This is amazing, Robbie,” she says, looking up with wide eyes. “I can’t believe you never brought me here before.”
Robbie smiles shyly, fiddling with his keys. “So do you want the job? The salary will be some from my parents, but a lot from what you sell.”
“I can make this a place people will come,” Belle says confidently. She steps into one of the rows to look at the spines of the books, running her fingers along them gently. Robbie follows her, awkwardly hesitant. She turns to him and rises up onto her tiptoes to press a kiss to his cheek. “Thank you, Robbie.”
“I’m glad to help.” He smiles at her and asks hopefully, “Do you want to get lunch together?”
She looks at his earnest expression and then nods. “Okay,” she says. “Why not?” His smile widens and he offers her his hand, which she takes after just a second of hesitation.
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