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Tale as New as Time

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Adam knows this is the absolute height of stupidity, but he’s never quite learned how to keep that absolute prick Gaston from getting under his skin, and today Gaston was being even more unbearable than usual, so...here Adam is, in the middle of the forest, with night coming on, having sworn not to return to the village without a trophy far more impressive than any of Gaston’s stupid collection of antlers.

Oh, and also he can hear wolves.

A wolf pelt would be a pretty decent trophy, but Adam only has three crossbow bolts and he can hear a lot more than three wolves. He heads deeper into the forest, away from the howls, trying hard not to make any noise. It’s not working, but he is trying.

It gets darker, and the wolves get closer, and Adam starts thinking about climbing a tree, when suddenly he runs smack into a pair of enormous iron gates. He stands there blinking at them for a moment in utter confusion - who sticks a pair of gates in the middle of a forest? - and then notices that the gates are set into a high wall. And they’re slightly ajar.

He has to drop his crossbow to wriggle through, but the wolves are very close now, and a crossbow is a small price for a life. He flings himself against the gate as soon as he’s through the gap, straining to close it, and for a long terrible moment he thinks it’s not going to work - the gate is heavy, the hinges rusty, and it doesn’t want to move - and then someone puts a hand on the gate above his head and shoves, and it screeches closed as the wolves burst into sight.

Adam turns around to thank his savior and wonders if the wolves might not have been the better choice. His savior is…

Well, for starters, they’re a good eight feet tall and approximately that broad across the shoulders, and in the dim moonlight Adam can see the gleam of fangs in their mouth and talons on their vast paws, and also they’re furry. It’s like someone took a bear and a lion and a wolf and a couple of other things - are those horns on its head? - and mashed them all together. And then put it in a long smock of undyed linen, for the last little note of utter insanity.

“I suppose you’d better come in,” the monster says, in a woman’s voice.

Adam can feel himself gaping, but honestly he doesn’t think he can be blamed. The thing is female? And - and not trying to eat him?

The monster turns and walks away, towards - towards a castle, how did Adam not know there was a castle in the forest, why is there a castle in the forest, why is there a beast in a castle in the forest? The castle’s door creaks open, spilling warm yellow light across the ground, and Adam decides that if nothing else, being inside before it gets really unpleasantly cold is probably better than being out here listening to the wolves slaver and snarl. He follows the beast into the castle.

The door creaks shut behind him without anyone there to close it.

Oh, shit.

But the beast doesn’t turn, doesn’t begin to gloat that now he’s in her trap, doesn’t do anything much besides continue down the broad hall at an easy pace. If Adam still had his crossbow…

She’d be a trophy even Gaston couldn’t match.

On the other hand, trying to kill a beast with a magic castle might not be the brightest thing Adam’s ever done, so it’s just as well his crossbow is out with the wolves.

The beast turns and leads the way down a side hallway, and Adam follows for the lack of any better ideas. She’s probably not leading him to an abattoir. He hopes.

In point of fact, she’s leading him to the kitchen, and Adam has a really bad moment of wondering whether he’s about to be cooked before he’s eaten. But she opens a cupboard to bring out a loaf of bread and a round of cheese, and rummages about in a different cupboard for a cured ham, and places them all on the table in front of him, followed by a plate and a knife and a bottle of wine and a glass. Adam blinks at the spread.

“Eat and be welcome,” the beast says, and leaves him there.

Adam sits down and eats. The bread is good, fresh this morning if he’s any judge, and the cheese is sharp and pungent, and the ham is rich and delicious - it’s a better meal than he’s had in a while, actually. Far better than his own attempts to cook rabbits.

The beast comes back when he’s almost done, and beckons him to follow when he finally wipes his mouth on the provided napkin. She leads him up a flight of stairs and down a short hallway to a door standing open, which proves to lead to a stunningly well-appointed bedroom, with - if Adam’s eyes aren’t deceiving him - an ensuite bathing room half-visible through the door on the far side.

“This is yours while you are here,” the beast says. “You’re welcome to explore the castle, except for the West Wing, and there’s always food in the kitchen. Nothing in the castle - except in the West Wing - will harm you. But I’m afraid I can’t let you leave just yet.”

Adam swallows hard. “Why not?” he asks, trying to sound bold and angry instead of slightly intimidated. She’s so large, and her claws are longer than Adam’s hunting knife…

“If I let you leave, you’ll come back with hunters,” the beast says. Adam blinks. That’s...quite accurate, actually. If he got back to the village and told Gaston about this, there’d be a hunting party put together within hours. A trophy like this doesn’t come along every decade.

“But we’ve almost fixed it,” the beast adds hastily. “As soon as we’ve fixed it, you can leave. It’s just for a little while - a month, at most.”

“What if I try to leave anyway?” Adam asks.

The beast sighs. “I mean, we have a dungeon,” she says. “I just thought you’d prefer a bedroom, and the freedom of the castle.” She eyes him thoughtfully. Her eyes are brown, and they’d be quite pretty if the pupils weren’t slitted like a cat’s. “Give me your word you won’t try to leave until I let you go, or I suppose I will have to put you in the dungeon.”

Adam swallows. But - apart from being terrifying - the beast hasn’t actually done him any harm. Rather the contrary. She’s saved him from the wolves, she’s fed him, and now she’s offering him a truly luxurious place to sleep and the freedom to explore an entire castle - minus the West Wing, apparently - and, possibly best of all, an entire month without having to deal with Gaston.

“I give my word,” he says firmly. “I won’t leave until you tell me I can.”

“Thank you,” the beast says, smiling, which would be a more pleasant look except that her fangs are horrifying. “Goodnight, visitor.”

“Adam,” Adam says before he can think better of it. “My name is Adam.”

“I am...hm, no, that would be a little too ironic,” the beast says, chuckling to herself. “Call me whatever you please, for now.”

“Goodnight, Beast,” Adam says, and the Beast chuckles again and gives him a little...curtsey, it’s distinctly a curtsey.

“Goodnight, Adam,” she says, and leaves.

*

The next morning, Adam finds a little heap of clothing outside his room - nice stuff, sturdy and well-made, in good-quality fabric. It doesn’t fit him perfectly, or anything, but it’s nice to get out of his forest-begrimed trousers.

The Beast doesn’t appear, so Adam ventures down to the kitchen and finds, as promised, that there is an abundance of food in the cupboards. He’s not quite sure how a Beast has managed to make fresh bread - surely it would end up with fur stuck in the dough? - but there’s a loaf of bread, and some good soft cheese in a cupboard that’s inexplicably cold, and several jars of preserves, and a pitcher of cold clean water on the table. Adam makes a much better breakfast than he usually does at home, and sets out to explore the castle.

It’s...empty. There’s no one here, he realizes slowly, except the Beast, and she is probably in the mysterious West Wing. But even an empty castle is fascinating, and he pokes his nose into long galleries full of paintings, and a vast ballroom with a floor polished so smooth it’s like ice, and a library full of more books than Adam knew existed in the entire world, as well as half a hundred bedrooms and sitting rooms and rooms he can’t quite deduce the purpose of.

Everything’s very tidy, and most of the furniture has been covered by sheets to keep the dust off. It looks almost as if everyone decided to close the castle up and go elsewhere, very calmly, and left things tidy for when they came back. The only rooms that look really lived-in are the kitchen and Adam’s bedroom, which...if he had to guess, actually, he’d guess that the Beast went off and made up the bedroom while he was eating dinner. Which was…

Kind of her, actually. Startlingly kind, given that she is a beast, and also has said outright that there are dungeons here. He hasn’t ventured down the slightly ominous stairs that he expects leads to the cells. Surely it would be easier for her to keep him here if she just flung him into a cell and brought him bread and water once a day. Easier still to have left him for the wolves. She wouldn’t even have had to do anything, just...not come out to help him close the gate, and let the inevitable happen.

But she rescued him, and fed him, and gave him a room. That’s...the sort of kindness Adam doesn’t see much of, actually, in the village. Nobody goes out of their way to be kind to the strange orphan in their midst, and given that Gaston thinks of Adam as an interloper to be crushed, and everyone else thinks of Gaston as the best thing since the invention of bread, Adam doesn’t exactly have any friends.

It’s a very odd thought, that a beast is kinder to him than the perfectly normal humans in the village. Adam doesn’t quite know what to do with it, so he shoves it down and heads for the kitchen. It’s almost lunchtime, anyhow, and maybe he’ll try to cook something. Failing abjectly at cooking will distract him nicely.

To his vast surprise, the Beast is already in the kitchen, and she is cooking. An omelette, by the looks of things. She has her mane tied back with a thick leather strap, and is handling the heavy cast-iron pan as though it’s as light as an arrow. Well, Adam already knew she was absurdly strong.

“There you are,” she says, when he pauses in the doorway, trying not to gape at the astonishing scene. “Would you slice some bread, please?”

“Certainly,” Adam says after a moment, and finds the bread and some butter and preserves, setting the table for - for two. How is the Beast going to manage a fork, he wonders half-hysterically, and then notices on the side of the drawer beside the perfectly normal forks and butter knives and spoons, a set that’s almost three times as large. Sized for paws, he realizes, and sets her place with those. They’re very heavy, and a little clumsily made, as though - as though she made them for herself.

She divides the omelette and slides it onto their plates, and sits down carefully in the larger chair. Adam shrugs and takes his own seat, and gives her a courteous nod. “Thank you for cooking,” he says. “I have no skill in it.”

“I could teach you, if you like,” the Beast says slowly, tapping one enormous claw on the table in thought. “It’s sometimes a little complicated, with these claws, and the fur, and all.”

“I...would like that,” Adam admits, astonished. Learning to cook from a beast, what next? A beast who is startlingly good at it, he realizes as he takes a bite of the omelette. It’s rich and cheesy and full of ham and vegetables, and he devours his portion like a beast himself.

And then, eyeing the Beast’s claws and the thick fur on her arms, he offers, “I could do the dishes.”

“Would you?” the Beast says, eyes lighting up. “The soap gets stuck in my fur, it’s dreadful, I start bubbling every time I get wet.”

Adam bursts into laughter at the image. “I will definitely do the dishes,” he promises. “I’m fairly good at that, at least.” He is, too, from his years as a pot-boy at the inn - the only job available to an orphan stranger.

“Thank you,” the Beast says, quite sincerely if Adam is any judge. “And - if you’d like to meet back here around dusk, I’ll teach you to make a casserole for dinner.”

“I will be here,” Adam says, and the Beast rises and gives him another little curtsey and heads off - towards the West Wing, Adam would bet. He gathers up the dishes in a very thoughtful frame of mind.

*

The Beast is, as promised, waiting for him in the kitchen at sunset, and coaches him through putting together a casserole with calm, quiet instructions and occasional demonstrations. The oven is what baffles Adam - it heats itself without needing a fire stoked beneath it.

“One of my father’s inventions,” the Beast says, in a tone that suggests it’s supposed to be an explanation. “It runs off of caged lightning.”

Adam gapes at her. “Caged - how do you cage lightning?”

“Very carefully,” the Beast says, with a grin that bares far too many bright teeth.

“Is your father - also -” Adam trails off, not sure how to ask also a monster in a way that won’t offend his startlingly amiable hostess.

“He isn’t currently a beast, no,” the Beast says, and then looks - abashed? Sad? “Will your parents be missing you?”

“They’re both dead these fifteen years,” Adam says bluntly. “There’s really no one in the village who cares if I come back.”

“Oh,” the Beast says. “I’m sorry.”

Adam shrugs. “It is what it is,” he says. “What do we do while the casserole is cooking?”

“Wash up,” the Beast says, accepting the change of subject gracefully. “And set the table. Wine?”

“Please,” Adam says, and the Beast vanishes down the stairs towards the cellars as Adam scrubs down the bowls and cutting boards they used, and very carefully cleans the knives. She re-emerges with a bottle of wine and cobwebs stuck in her fur, and Adam has to resist the sudden, startling urge to go and help her dust herself off. What is he thinking? She may be amiable, but she is still a beast.

The casserole is delicious, and so is the wine.

*

The next few days go by almost like a strange dream. Adam explores the castle, eats lunch with the Beast, learns to make dinner from her, makes quiet conversation that’s easier every night. He is, he learns, allowed out into the grounds as well, and he spends the afternoons mucking about in the vast vegetable garden or getting lost in the hedge maze or climbing trees in the orchard, returning to the castle with a handful of late apples and twigs in his hair. Watching the Beast eat an apple is...slightly disconcerting, but no worse than that.

He’s getting used to her, he realizes after their third dinner together. He no longer flinches when she smiles, or leans away from her clawed paw as she reaches out to demonstrate how he ought to be chopping carrots. She can still startle him if he comes upon her in a dim hallway unexpectedly - eight feet of furry monster is a bit discombobulating - but if he knows she’s there, he can treat her like - like he’d treat any normal person, really.

That worries him. Has he been bewitched, to adjust so quickly to being the companion to a beast? But the Beast hasn’t shown any sign of magic - well, beside the “caged lightning” of the oven and the fact that she’s a beast, and the improbable abundance of food that he knows the Beast isn’t making or going out to buy. Alright, yes, there’s definitely magic at work here.

Probably in the mysterious West Wing.

But Adam is not quite stupid enough to go into the West Wing when the Beast is in there, and the only times he knows she isn’t are mealtimes. And he doesn’t really want to outright lie to her, for some reason. It would be simple enough to claim illness, to curl up in his bed and tell her he can’t join her for dinner, and then go sneaking down while she cooks and cleans up again, but -

Well, it seems wrong. He doesn’t want to lie to her, when as far as he can tell she hasn’t lied to him. And he didn’t promise not to go into the West Wing, the way he promised not to leave. So sneaking into the West Wing wouldn’t be breaking his word, precisely. But sneaking, not lying. There’s a difference.

He doesn’t get a chance for another three days, three calm days of meals with the Beast and exploring the castle - he’s starting to get a little bored of room after room of dust-sheeted furniture, but there’s still interesting things hidden away, trinkets on the tables or magnificent tapestries in corners, beautifully-worked candelabra and the possibility of secret passages. On the fourth day after he decides he wants to know what’s in the West Wing, though, the Beast finishes her lunch and says, “I will be in the library all afternoon, if you need to find me.”

“Doing research?” Adam asks, and the Beast nods.

“We think we’re close to the solution, but - well - I think there’s something I’m missing, and Fraser might have it. Or maybe Grimm.”

“Good luck!” Adam says, and clears up after lunch just the way he always does, and then skulks very carefully along to the library and peers through the half-open door to see that the Beast is curled up in an overstuffed armchair, poring over a thick leatherbound book, with a stack of tomes at her elbow. She looks like she’ll be there a while.

Adam makes his way as quietly as he can to the enormous ironbarred door that marks the West Wing.

It opens silently under his hand - she didn’t lock it, and clearly keeps the hinges well oiled - and he slips through, tugging it gently shut behind him. The hallway is well-lit, with oil lamps rather than candles, and Adam pads down it, peering in through each doorway. Most of them are dust-sheeted like the rest of the castle, bedrooms and sitting rooms and offices, until at last he reaches the last doorway, right at the end of the hall.

There’s a huge room past the last doorway, full of tables heaped with alchemical equipment and incomprehensible tools, strange machines in partial stages of construction, heaps of notes in a scrawling, messy hand. There are other notes, too, on very large sheets of paper, that look like they might have been written by someone dipping a claw into a pot of ink and printing very carefully.

And on the farthest table, beneath a dome of clear glass, is a single, glowing rose.

Something skitters, somewhere in the vast room, and Adam freezes, but after a long moment, when the sound does not resume, he decides it was a rat - or perhaps his imagination - and turns his attention back to the room and the rose.

Adam creeps closer, eyes wide. The machinery is baffling, the notes incomprehensible, but the rose - that’s magic, or he’ll eat his best hat. It’s beautiful, too. Very carefully, Adam lifts the dome away, and breathes in the heady perfume. The rose shouldn’t still smell this good, but - magic. Who knows how long it’s been here, perfectly preserved, as though it fell from the bush mere seconds ago?

He reaches out with one shaking hand to see if the petals are as soft as they look, and behind him, a great stentorian roar rises, loud enough to shake the stone: “DON’T TOUCH THAT!

Adam leaps a foot into the air and whirls about to see the Beast framed in the doorway, mane bristling, looking far more terrifying than she did at lunch. He squeaks embarrassingly and scurries backwards until he thumps against the wall. The Beast hurries forwards to snatch up the glass dome and lower it carefully over the rose again, and then turns to Adam. He swallows hard, eyeing her and the doorway and wondering if he can beat her to the hallway, if he can escape whatever terrible punishment she is bound to want to inflict for his disobedience.

And to his utter shock, her shoulders slump, and a clock comes skittering down from her shoulder to land on the desk. It’s got a face, not a normal clock-face but eyes and a mouth, and it walks forward to the edge of the table and says, “You mustn’t touch the rose!”

Adam sits down, hard. A glowing rose is one thing - a talking clock is quite another.

“I am sorry for yelling,” the Beast says. “But the rose is dangerous.”

“What is going on,” Adam croaks, throat dry with terror.

The Beast sighs and settles to the floor, and the clock jumps down into her hands. She cradles it in her paws tenderly. “It’s like this,” she says softly. “My father and I are inventors. We make - oh, all sorts of things.”

“Ovens that run on caged lightning,” Adam says.

“Yes,” the Beast agrees. “And a carriage that goes of itself - that’s how we get food, actually, we’ve got a standing order with a grocer in the nearest city, and he loads up the carriage whenever we send it with money. A cupboard that stays cold inside indefinitely. Better oil lamps, that don’t spill and give more light. All sorts of things. But we got…” she trails off.

“Arrogant,” says the clock. “It was my fault, my dear.” It pats one of her paws with a brass arm, and sighs. “I thought, since I had mastered the elements, I could master magic as well. I bought the rose.”

“We were going to study it, to try to understand it,” the Beast says. “And that was fine as long as we didn’t touch it. But when we did…”

“It apparently has a sense of irony,” the clock says. “I was a clockmaker of great skill, and many of my inventions relied on clockwork.”

“So it made you into a clock,” Adam says, seeing the horrible logic.

“Exactly,” the clock says. “And my daughter, my lovely Belle…”

“Into a beast,” Adam says.

The Beast sighs. “It’s not so bad except for the claws, honestly,” she says. “But I’m so much clumsier with them - it takes much longer to do anything, and delicate clockwork just...isn’t possible.”

“So you’re...trying to find a way to change yourselves back,” Adam says.

“We think we’ve almost got it,” the Beast says, nodding. “Well. We hope.”

Adam stares at them - Beast and clock and rose - for a long, long moment, and then he shakes himself, and says, “How can I help?”

The Beast and the clock both stare at him. “You want to help?”

“Well, I’m here until you’re not a beast anymore,” Adam points out. “And it sounds more interesting than poking around the castle by myself all day.”

“You’re...pretty good at taking instructions,” the Beast says thoughtfully. “If you’re willing to learn clockwork -”

“Perfectly willing,” Adam says. “All these machines look fascinating.”

“Then...thank you,” the Beast says softly, and stands, putting the clock down on the table, and holds out a hand to Adam.

It’s the first time she’s offered to touch him, but Adam doesn’t hesitate, just takes her hand and lets her haul him easily to his feet. “Where do we start?” he asks.

“Well,” says the clock, “let’s show you what we’ve tried already, and then we can show you what we’re working on right now.”

*

Adam doesn’t realize how long he’s been in the West Wing until his stomach growls, sounding a lot like a beast itself, and the Beast looks up at an enormous clock on the wall and says, “It’s nearly midnight!”

“Oops,” Adam says, and puts down the sheaf of notes he’s been deciphering. “Dinner?”

“Dinner,” the Beast agrees, and scoops the clock up onto her shoulder, leading the way out of the West Wing. Adam follows. She leaves the door open behind them, and shrugs when he gives her an odd look. “No point shutting you out when you’re helping us,” she says. “I was really just trying to keep you from the rose.”

“I don’t really want to know what it would turn me into,” Adam says, shivering. “How long have you been - transformed?”

The Beast glances at the clock, who shrugs expressively. “At least a year?” the clock says.

“At least a year,” the Beast agrees.

“What happened to the servants?” Adam asks.

“Oh, we didn’t have any,” the Beast says. “Papa bought the castle for a song, years ago, so we’d have somewhere to do our experiments safely. Sometimes they blow up, and that’s awkward in a town. The previous owners left everything behind, I’m not sure why.”

“It had been a Sleeping Beauty’s castle,” the clock says, “and by the time she woke up, the crown had gone through two cadet lines, so she ended up going to her husband’s kingdom. The king didn’t want a castle with such a bad history, but there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a bit big for two, I suppose.”

“Oh,” Adam says. That’s much less dramatic than he was imagining. “I had no idea it was even here.”

“Well, we didn’t get out much before the rose,” the Beast says, “and then after, well, I didn’t think it was wise for me to leave the castle. I look a bit too much like a bear.”

“There’s at least one hunter in the village I came from who’d want your pelt on his wall,” Adam says, grimacing. “Staying in the castle is probably the safest course.”

“It’s not so bad, except I can’t get out to the bookshops in the city anymore,” the Beast says. “I didn’t much enjoy society.”

The clock shakes his head sadly. “I feel I have done you a disservice, my dear,” he says.

“Oh Papa,” the Beast says, laughing. “What is there to enjoy about parties full of people who don’t know a thing about inventing, and think I’m an empty-headed bit of fluff, and only want me for my face or the hoard of money they think you have? I had far rather be at home with a book, or a new bit of clockwork.”

“So high society parties are a lot like a village dance, only more so?” Adam asks, having several vivid and unpleasant memories of the sort of backstabbing matchmaking that went on at the few parties he’s been to.

“Pretty much, yes,” the Beast says. “Only with less energetic dancing.”

“Well, that sounds...unpleasant,” Adam says. “I can’t blame you for not enjoying it.”

They reach the kitchen, and the Beast begins pulling out bread and cheese; Adam goes for some jars of very good chutney and slices of salty ham, and a handful of apples. It’s a simple meal, but the food is good - he has to wonder how much they pay, for a grocer to be willing to load food into an empty carriage and send it on its way - and the company is…

The company is wonderful, Adam realizes. He likes spending time with the Beast and the clock a lot more than he’s ever enjoyed time with anyone in the village. The Beast is sweet and clever and kind, and the clock is brilliant and prone to going off on fascinating tangents, and it’s just...fun, talking to them.

Which might say more about the village than the Beast, come to think of it.

*

The days go by much faster now that Adam is spending them in the West Wing, helping the Beast and the clock build a...thing. Adam doesn’t understand all of the details, honestly, but he’s learning to attach wires and adjust gears, and he is learning a great deal about what doesn’t work when it comes to clockmaking. And he’s enjoying himself. The Beast is a good teacher, and very good company, and the clock is frankly hilarious in between moments of sheer genius, and Adam is…

Well, he’s starting to wonder if they’d be willing to keep him around after they get their transformation reversed. He likes it here, likes spending hours working alongside them, and he doesn’t particularly want to go back to being the butt of Gaston’s jokes and the derided orphan of the town.

He likes his companions far more than he ever liked any of the townsfolk. Especially the Beast. She’s sweet and sincere and clever, and she laughs at Adam’s jokes, and he wakes up every morning eager to see her again, heart pounding not with fear but with joy when he meets her in the kitchen, when she smiles bright-toothed at him and wishes him goodnight. It’s dizzying, and glorious, and he has no idea how she might react if he told her, so he keeps his mouth shut - about that, at least. He asks endless questions about everything else, because the Beast and her clock-father are always happy to answer them. He learns a lot about clocksmithing, and caged lightning, and which books are actually useful resources and which - “Pliny was very silly,” the Beast scoffs - are simply curiosities, not to be trusted.

It’s most of the month the Beast promised before their current attempt at a solution is finished. It’s a machine, of sorts, and Adam doesn’t understand half of it and the half he does understand appears to mostly be tiny tiny gears, all of which he had the privilege of putting into place, given that he has the only actual human fingers in the castle. The clock thinks it should drain the magic back into the rose, if it works.

“Is this dangerous to you, if it doesn’t work?” Adam asks warily, as they eye their completed masterpiece.

“I’m not sure,” the Beast says. “It might backfire, and that would be...unpleasant.”

Adam wants to say, Be careful, wants to say, Surely there’s another way?, but he’s not the one who’s stuck in the shape of a Beast - or a clock, for that matter - and if the Beast thinks it’s worth the risk, well...as much as he wants to stop her, he really can’t. So he takes his place beside the big switch, and the Beast and the clock finish arranging the rose on the iron plate at one end of the machine and step into the specially-made chamber on the other end.

“Do it,” the Beast says, nodding briskly to Adam, and Adam throws the switch.

There’s a great snap, like lightning striking, and a flash.

*

The Beast falls like a tree, not bending at all, just keeling over to land with a resounding thump on the stone floor. Adam crosses the space between them in three long strides and drops to his knees beside her, patting at her still face with anxious hands. She’s not breathing, and there’s a horrid smell like singed fur.

“No,” he says desperately. “No, you can’t die, Beast, you can’t, I love you -” the first time he’s even thought those words, much less said them aloud, but they’re as true as cold iron and ringing silver, as true as the breath in his lungs. He remembers, abruptly, something the village healer told him years ago about rescuing a drowned child, and bends to put his mouth on the Beast’s, breathing out as hard as he can. “Live,” he says desperately against her lips. “Beast, please, I love you.”

There’s a long, cold moment where nothing changes at all.

And then the rose begins to glow brighter, and brighter still, until it is as though a young sun lies on the iron plate, and Adam has to shield his eyes, hunkering down behind the Beast’s bulk. The light is visible even through his hands and closed eyes, bright as noon and then brighter, and there’s a soundless flash, and a feeling like the earth has shifted sideways.

Adam blinks the spots from his eyes and finds that he is kneeling beside -

A young woman, beautiful as a midsummer’s day, and an older man with messy white hair and a face made for smiling. There is no sign of the Beast, or the clock.

The young woman blinks, blinks again, and tries to sit up. Adam offers her a hand in half-instinctive courtesy, and she takes it and smiles up at him. “Adam,” she says, and he knows her voice.

Beast?” he asks incredulously.

“Belle, actually,” she says, and Adam finds himself beginning to smile.

“Belle,” he says. “You’re you again!”

“Yes,” she says, blinking down at her very human form, and then reaching over to shake the older man’s shoulder. “Papa, wake up!”

The older man mumbles something incomprehensible and puts both hands to his head. “What happened?”

“I’m not sure,” Belle says. “I think our machine failed - it hurt -”

“You...fell,” Adam says softly, and Belle looks up at him with very familiar brown eyes, no longer cat-pupiled. “I. Um. I...sort of...kissed you? And said I love you? And then the rose...did something, and you were human again.”

“Of course,” Belle breathes. “Magic needs a magical cure, and true love’s kiss is the oldest cursebreaker there is.” Her smile is radiant. “Thank you, Adam.”

“I had to,” Adam says. “I - I couldn’t bear to see you die. You’re - I - I love you.”

Belle takes his hands in both of hers, still smiling like a sunrise. “Of course I love you,” she says softly. “But I could hardly court you as a beast.”

“You might have been surprised,” Adam says, and Belle laughs, and it’s the loveliest sound in the world.