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"You'll be all right," Belle begs, pleading with the Beast, with the universe, with anything that will listen to her. "We're together now. Everything's going to be fine. You'll see."

The Beast sees. Pain from his wounds has given him a new clarity. He had kept Belle prisoner in case she could learn to love him; but that isn't what love is.

Love is setting her free.

Talking hurts; but he has to speak. "At least I got to see you," he murmurs, even though that, too, is fading. He gets to see her, and he gets to love her, and he gets to set her free. "One last time."

The Beast is vaguely aware of her taking his giant paw and lifting it to her face. His eyesight is blurring (rain, it's just rain) and hazy with darkness (nighttime, time to sleep) and all he can see is Belle's face, and it's the most wonderful thing he's ever seen.

He doesn't hear Belle desperate crying, pleading with him not to leave; he doesn't hear her say "I love you"; but it wouldn't have mattered anyway. It's too late. The last petal of the enchanted rose has fallen; he can feel it deep inside, just before he lets go.

The servants are unusually quiet and subdued as they help Belle prepare the Beast for a proper funeral. They wash off the blood, and dry him, and dress him in his finest clothes, and sprinkle the fallen rose petals over him, and then have a moment of silence.

In the middle of that, the Beast mutters, "I'm not dead, you know."

The servants explode in panic. Lumiere shrieks and jumps on top of Cogsworth, who dives for cover behind the Wardrobe; Chip gives a whoop of delight, shushed quickly by his mother. Only Belle, disbelieving, steps forward and kneels by the Beast's side, and his face turns blindly towards her like a sunflower seeking light.

"Beast," she whispers, oblivious to the clattering behind her. "You're alive."

"Belle." His voice is hoarse, barely above a whisper. "Why did you stay?"

The question flummoxes her. When she doesn't respond, one of the Beast's eyes slits open, a glimmer of blue like winter sky. "You thought I was dead." The words make him cough, and the cough makes him hurt, and he gasps for breath amidst the ocean of pain. "You were free. Why did you stay?"

"Well, I could hardly leave when--" Belle stops, and her eyes narrow. "You wanted me to think you were dead?"

"Not exactly," the Beast admits. "I didn't do this on purpose, you know. But -- it's finished." His arm shifts slightly, accompanied by a grunt of pain, so that he can grab a pawful of rose petals and crush them. "I'm still a beast," he says.

"Well, yes," Belle says, perplexed; "of course you are. Why wouldn't you be?"

The room is perfectly silent, and perfectly still; none of the servants dare move, the Beast can't without hurting, and Belle isn't going to.

"Ah," the Beast says, and sighs, and winces.

The story takes several days to come out, spinning out in reluctant embarrassed fragments here and there between caring for the Beast's wounds and tending to everyday life; but Belle eventually gets the gist of it.

"That's hardly fair," she said, stomping her foot. "I mean, none of it's fair, but to put a time limit on it! Oh! "

The Beast shrugs philosophically. "I hardly had a choice."

"You do now." Belle jumps up and begins to rummage, muttering, "where is it? I know it's here somewhere-- ha." She bounces back to the Beast's side with the magic mirror and hands it to him.

He looks blankly at it, then at her, and his face scrunches into a baffled frown.

Rolling her eyes, Belle snatches it back. "Show me the enchantress that did all this," she declares, and as the mirror shimmers, she hands it back to the Beast, who is gaping at her. "Didn't you ever--?"

"Didn't think of it," he says finally, and then frowns down at the mirror. "Huh. I mean. Hello."

The image in the mirror isn't one he recogizes; not a surprise with a shape-changing enchantress. "What do you want?" she says, obviously irritated, equally obviously not recognizing him.

"I, uh." He looks up at Belle. "What should I say?" At her glare, he flinches and directs his gaze back to the mirror. Haltingly, awkwardly, he explains the situation. Who he is, and what he needs: the restoration of his humanity, of his people, of his castle.

The enchantress shakes her head. "Can't," she says, and starts to turn away.

"Please!" the Beast begs. The word makes her hesitate, but she shakes her head again. "Please--"

"It is not my choice to make. You brought this curse on yourself; you kept it; now it is yours for all time."

Belle makes a frustrated noise and grabs the mirror away. "I love him," she says fiercely, "and he loves me, and he's changed, isn't that the point of the whole thing? He's learned his lesson, what more do you want?"

"Child." The enchantress gives her a pitying look. "Lessons like this are never fully learned."

"But it isn't fair--"

The Beast wraps his paw around her hand, giving a careful squeeze of comfort before liberating her of the mirror. "Please," he says again. It isn't a word he's used to saying, even with Belle around, but each time it's a little easier. "Forever is a long time."

"Yes," the enchantress says coolly, "it is," and she waves her hand and vanishes, leaving the Beast staring at his own horrid reflection.

But then there's a flash of beauty -- Belle, wrapping her arms around his neck in a hug, face pressed against his fur. "It'll be okay," she whispers. "It will." She's crying, and he doesn't know what to do.

He never does.

"Does that mean we won't ever be human, mama?" Chip asks in a whisper.

"I don't know." They had all thought Belle would be The One, and they had spent so much time dreaming of being human again that none of them had stopped to consider the what-if of it not working. "I don't know," she says again, and, feeling helpless, brews some more tea.

Sunsets are glorious from the top of the castle. The Beast has learned that around suppertime, if he can't find Belle anywhere else, he will often find her sitting on the balcony of the west wing, hugging her knees and staring out at nothing.

He makes the mistake, once, of asking her what was wrong; she gives a sharp "Nothing!" and then ducks her head starts crying, harsh angry sobs that wrack her whole body. And when he stammers something more, she gives him a white-faced red-eyed glare and tells him to go away.

He's learned, since, to say nothing. To crouch next to her, and wait quietly, and if she leans into him he puts a cautious arm around her, and if instead she pulls away he gets up just as quietly and leaves her to herself. When she comes inside, she will put a cold hand in his paw, and sometimes kiss him, and almost never explain.

Once, he does say, "If you are not happy here--" but the rest of the offer is cut short by Belle shaking her head. He sighs. "You could have the world, if you wanted, not this--" A sweep of one paw encompasses the castle and himself all at once.

"I want you," she says, fiercely. "That's all. I don't need anything else."

"Why?" The Beast knows he shouldn't ask, but he can't help himself. "Why me, when you could have someone--"

"Normal?" Her body goes tense with anger. "Like Gaston, I suppose"

"--someone human," he finishes quietly, miserably. "Belle. You know that I won't ever be -- can't ever -- I mean --" He gives a helpless grimace. "Maybe it's not so bad in the dark; but every time the sun rises, this face is what you'll see."

"Shush," she says, and leans snuggling against him. "It's all right. I promise."

And he almost even believes her.