Belle wasn't magical--but her husband was, and he was missing.
Cogsworth and Lumiere exchanged glances and stammered and explained. It was just one of the master's dark moods of course--until Belle said that she was not going to put up with her husband vanishing into thin air, and if he wanted to go off in one of his "dark moods" again, he was going to have the decency to at least let her know he wanted to be alone. That was how she learned that they didn't know where he was or when he'd left either.
She still hadn't gotten used to having someone help her put her clothes on, but Belle was in too much of a hurry to argue with Mme de la Grande Bouche. And she still wasn't sure about the cape, but Mme de la Grande Bouche said it was just the thing for fighting evil, and Belle didn't have time to argue about that either.
She'd just finished pulling her boots on when the delivery came. She felt numb, which worked out very well since now she definitely didn't have any time to cry. "Tell Lumière and Mrs. Potts we won't be having dinner tonight," she said and strode past Cogsworth. Cogsworth would never argue with the young master and mistress--but he usually wanted to protest. He did so, following Belle all the way out to the stables.
"Don't let anyone into the castle," said Belle. "Don't accept any other messengers."
Fortunately the person responsible liked attention. She didn't make it difficult to find her--or at least her potential henchman.
"Show me the man leaning against the wall, under the withered tree," said Belle, then turned her magic mirror so Briar Rose could see his face.
Rose nodded. "That's him."
"We've met before," said Briar Rose.
Belle didn't ask. The answer was always the same.
Briar Rose wasn't necessarily the best person to bring with her, but Belle found her easier to get along with. Rose had been born a princess, like most of the team, but she hadn't grown up as one. (And she did not get defensive when Belle suggested that there might be inventions that could keep people from having to waste their time cooking and cleaning. Belle'd had to do her share of sweeping and scrubbing around the house, but she'd never say that she missed it, and she had a hard time believing that Cinderella actually did either.)
"Shouldn't we wait?" Briar Rose asked.
Belle put the mirror back in her bag. "Would you want to wait if it was Phillip?"
Briar Rose held out a hand. A cardinal landed on her wrist and chirped. "Find Cinderella. Or Ariel. Tell them we've found one of Cruella's men."
The bird chirped again and flew off. "Please hurry!" Briar Rose called after it.
Belle was one of the only team members who couldn't talk to animals. Well, she could talk, but she couldn't understand the answers or even tell if they listened.
As she and Briar Rose crept towards Cruella's henchman and possibly her hideout, Belle wondered what exactly she'd been thinking when she joined the other princesses. She was intelligent. She could follow a blueprint and build just about anything (although, like her father, it sometimes didn't work out when she tried to be innovative). But she was completely and utterly human--no magical blessings at her christening, no fairy relatives. No military training.
She certainly couldn't clean an entire house in an afternoon like the ice blue blur that moved past them. Belle's hair fell in her face; Briar Rose's enchanted golden locks settled back into place (probably after looking dramatic or charming in the breeze. Belle tried to remember how excited she'd been to meet an actual fairy tale princess--just like one of her favorite stories--as she re-did her ponytail).
They saw Cinderella and heard her incantation. Then there was the unique sound of something larger--a tall, thin, gangly man--becoming something smaller. (The wand had been a wedding present from Cinderella's fairy godmother. Belle had been trying to figure out a possible work around for the "at the stroke of midnight" limitation.)
"We don't know if there are more," Belle said once they'd reached Cinderella. Even she could smell the magic.
Cinderella smiled sweetly--which could mean anything. She'd grown up having to smile no matter how she was treated. "If there were, we'd be taking care of it now," she said. "One chore at a time."
"You're still using too much magic," said Briar Rose. Parts of her costume had turned blue. "Is Ariel coming?"
"She's busy," said Cinderella. "She said we wouldn't understand."
"Because we married in or--" She glanced at Briar Rose. "Sorry." Rose only shrugged.
"Because we live here," said Cinderella. "She was upset."
Which meant that Ariel had probably raised her voice. Belle sometimes wondered what it was--she and Jasmine and Ariel had all come from very different places, but they seemed to get angry in ways that some of the others didn't.
Cinderella turned her attention to the sparrow in her hands that had once been human. "Who are you working for?"
All Belle heard was a tweet, but it sounded surly.
"Please, I've heard worse from my stepsisters," said Cinderella. She looked at Briar Rose. "Don't you have the Gift of Song?"
"I think it just means I can sing," said Briar Rose.
Belle and Cinderella exchanged a glance. Briar Rose had similarly dismissed her Gift of Beauty. Apparently she was oblivious to the way others looked at her. She could cry beautifully--her eyes never got too red, her face never flushed, and her nose didn't run. Sometimes, even when there wasn't any light hitting it, her hair actually glowed (not like Rapunzel's, but still...)
"It's worth a try," said Belle.
Briar Rose started to sing. The bird squirmed and struggled. Cinderella tightened her grip on it, and Briar Rose sang, and soon the bird was singing answers (or at least Belle assumed that's what they were).
Since she couldn't understand half the duet, Belle decided to check her mirror. "Show me the prince," she said. The mirror flickered, cycling through hazy images of Phillip, Eric, both Charmings, and Naveen. Belle scowled at it. "Show me my prince." The mirror went blank, then showed her her own expression. Belle pushed a strand of hair back in place and thought about Cruella's message, a bouquet of wilting roses and a note:
By the time the last petal falls, I'll have a gorgeous new coat!
Cruella de Vil
Belle's hands were shaking as she ordered the mirror, "Show me the Beast."
"You can't?" Briar Rose was saying.
Cinderella shook her head. "I haven't figured out how to change anything back."
"We have a problem," said Belle. She held up the mirror. "Cruella's working with someone magical."
The list was Belle's idea. It gave her something else to think about, and they did need to figure out who it might be.
"My step-mother's dead," Snow White said with a strange smile. Technically, so was she--she'd been awakened by true love's kiss like Briar Rose, but Snow White hadn't had any protection spells.
"You're sure?" Cinderella asked.
"Oh, yes," said Snow White. "I'm absolutely positive!"
"Jafar is immortal," said Jasmine. Her pet tiger put his head in her lap. She absently scratched behind his ears. "I don't know if it's possible to kill him."
"He's a genie," said Belle.
"Yes," said Jasmine.
"Then he'd be under the control of whoever held--"
Jasmine started laughing. "The djinn can be quite literal when it suits them," she said. "But Jafar isn't the man who was my father's Grand Vizier--even if he was a disgusting, sleazy liar. He's not even a man anymore."
"But he'd have to do something for her if Cruella owned his lamp," said Belle.
"Ye-es," said Jasmine. "There's just no way of knowing what he would do."
"Far as I know, Facilier's still in another dimension or another plane of existence or something," said Tiana.
Four glowing lights flew in. Three of them grew to human size, the fourth landed on the table, and Cinderella's fairy godmother simply appeared in an empty chair.
"Thank you for coming," Briar Rose said as she hugged Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.
"Of course, Rose," said Flora. She flicked her wand, and Briar Rose's costume was entirely pink again. Merryweather scowled and turned it blue. "We still aren't certain about Maleficent."
"We did everything we could," said Fauna.
"Who can tell with that old witch?" said Merryweather. "That no good, sneaky--"
"Yes, thank you, Merryweather, dear," said Flora. "If she isn't dead, then she can't be killed."
"At least not for very long," said Fauna.
"But she could go to another kingdom," said Merryweather. "Since she can't do anything to Briar Rose."
"The enchantress," said Belle. "The one who cursed my husband."
The fairies shook their heads. Tinkerbell rolled her eyes and threw up her hands. "Oh, no," said Cinderella's fairy godmother. "No one would ever repeat a curse. Not if it had been broken."
"Can it be repeated?" said Belle.
The fairies were willing to explain. It made Belle wonder why they were so willing to answer her questions when none of them seemed to be willing to write books about how their spells worked or what the rules were.
Apparently no one could put the same curse on Prince Adam again. "But they could use a different one," said Belle.
"Absolutely," said Cinderella's fairy godmother.
"Practically anybody could change him into a beast without bothering with another curse," said Flora.
"Yes, the curse is the tricky part," said Fauna.
Merryweather pointed her wand.
"Hey!" said the frog in the center of Tiana's clothes.
"It was just an example," said Merryweather.
Tiana reappeared. "You mean," she said, "I have got to spend the rest of my life watching out for anybody with a magic wand? Just because I felt sorry for some smug frog?"
"Yes, but you should probably do that anyway," said Flora.
Belle only half-listened. It no longer mattered who Cruella'd gotten to help her: Cruella might be able to do it herself if she'd managed to get a pair of dragonskin gloves. Anyone with even a hope of doing magic could wave a wand or snap their fingers, and change her husband's body.
She realized they were talking about who was going to hunt down Cruella. The fairies couldn't be directly involved--except possibly Tinkerbell, who didn't want to. "I'm going," she said.
Cinderella gave her the polite smile. "Belle--"
She would've thought it was because she'd grown up having to haul her own well water and with only a weekday dress and a Sunday dress--except Cinderella'd been a slave in her own home--but Belle didn't want to be regally polite. "A madwoman is going to skin my husband," she said. "I'm not going to sit here staring at a magic mirror and waiting for someone else to bring him back."
"Show me how to find the Beast," said Belle. The mirror almost seemed to hesitate. She repeated the command, and it obeyed.
There were few guards, no traps or wards--at least none that were obvious or fatally subtle. There were a few things she had to crawl through or squeeze past, but it was almost too easy until she felt a spear at her back and heard a deep voice growl, "Halt," as she started down the dungeon stairs.
She raised her hands above her head.
"Turn around. Let's get a good look at you."
Belle rolled her eyes. Unfortunately she was far too familiar with the tone--but she did it anyway.
She didn't recognize his livery. A dwarf--the actual non-human kind, not the seven short men Snow White knew. He was standing a few steps above her, but he was still small enough that Belle could easily kick him in the face and grab his dropped spear.
Mulan could make a fight look like dancing. Belle swung the spear like a club until the dwarf tumbled down the steps.
She left him where he was, crumpled in a heap. If he was dead, he was dead, but if he wasn't, Belle wasn't going to kill him.
Her husband was in a cage, chained to the floor with a collar around his neck and shackles on his ankles.
"Belle!" he said as she knelt to examine the lock on the cage. "You shouldn't have come here. If--"
"Adam, you know I never listen when you forbid me to go somewhere." Belle was so angry her hands were shaking as she pulled the lock picks out of her boot. It'd been a project she'd helped her father with--he was trying to build a better lock, and she helped test them.
It took a few tries, but eventually the lock fell into her hand. And, she realized as she stopped into the cage, if she could change him back, she wouldn't have to worry about the rest of the locks--the chains were too big for a human.
She loved him no matter what he was, and he'd be stronger as the Beast--but he hated that shape, and someone had forced it on him just to hurt him, and then locked him up until that madwoman was really to kill him.
Belle put her arms around him--or at least as far around him as she could--and thought about how much she loved him. She stood on her toes and practically had to pull herself up with his fur to kiss him.
The change seemed faster this time, but it was still so bright that she had to shield her eyes with her cape (Madame de la Grande Bouche had been right after all, even if it hadn't been the right sort of weather for it).
The collar was heavy and awkward--it took both of them to lift it off his shoulders, and even then they still dropped it as soon as it was clear. Even before it hit the floor he had his arms around her and was kissing her.
Belle realized it was probably a very good thing that she'd told the others to take care of Cruella and whoever her friend was--she couldn't even imagine how Cinderella or Snow White might react to Belle enthusiastically kissing her half naked, wild haired husband in a dungeon.
She put her cape around his shoulders and pulled off one of her gloves. "Don't let go," she said as she took his hand. "I don't think you can be transformed again as long as I'm here."
"Belle, if it happens, I can protect--"
"You can protect me when we get home," said Belle.
There were still no guards and no traps. This is too easy, Belle thought as they reached Phillipe, still waiting patiently just where she'd left him. Her heart was pounding. No sign of Cinderella or the others, which should mean that someone would try to stop them, but Belle and Prince Adam were almost through the trees, just before the border to their kingdom, when a woman blocked their path.
"Do you know who I am?"
Belle looked up at the woman, tall and white, dressed in furs and followed by a trail of snowflakes. "No," she said, shrugging off her husband's hand as she dismounted. She gave him a look to let him know that she was going to start roaring if he started swaggering and posturing. It was a look that reminded him that, right now, they were both normal human beings, but she wasn't exhausted from having her entire body change shape. "Are you the one who took my husband?"
The woman sneered at her--even her anger was completely cold. "I am just as important as all of you," she said.
Belle thought she might have read a story about her--maybe in one of the books Tiana had given her, or maybe it'd been one of the stories her grandmother had told.
"Did you think you could get away?" She had started to tap a wand against her palm. "The others didn't. They'll never be able to leave. And neither will you."
"I'm the only one left," said Belle. She started to smile.
Belle was just an ordinary human girl who'd fallen in love with a beast and married a prince. But she knew how stories worked.
"Impudent girl," said the woman who may have been a White Witch or a Snow Queen or maybe just a nameless sorceress from another kingdom who wanted to be a Villain.
And Belle smiled because she was the Last Hope, the Ordinary Person who became a Hero when it really counted. It might not be easy. She and Adam might be limping home, battered and bruised, but she was going to win in the end.
At just the right moment--before her husband could do something stupid like leap in front of her--Belle held up the magic mirror, and the woman, whoever she was or had been, was turned to stone by her own spell.
She looked at the stone face, frozen in a scream. She wanted to get back on Phillipe and ride straight to her castle. Maybe there was a secret passage (Belle assumed there had to be. All the castles she'd ever read about had secret passages). They could sneak into his rooms, and she could tell him he needed to rest, and they'd probably find out he wasn't really that tired after all...
But Belle knew how stories worked, and part of finding a way to defeat the evil witch meant she had to help her friends after she'd rescued the prince.
She could see in his eyes that he knew that too. "Go home," she said. "And go straight to bed. I'll be there as soon as I can."
Belle wasn't sure if the wand would do any good, but she took it anyway. And she wasn't sure if she'd find statues or more slightly dark, slightly dank cells, but since she knew how stories worked, she knew everything would turn out all right.