Now that Belle was allowed to leave the castle to roam its grounds, she had come to somewhat enjoy the garden. An overgrown hedge maze had claimed the yard, clearly neglected; it was wild, scraggly, most of its corridors grown shut. On the other side of the castle, cracked stone paths took her through bushes, these too unruly, but navigable. The Beast had apparently had servants to tend to his garden, but he had forbidden them to take care of it years ago. He preferred it to stay and grow, another obstacle between his castle and the world. Belle found the sight both sad and alluring, and didn't mind making her way through the sprawling hawthorn and bramble, even if she wondered how all this would look like in full bloom.
In any case, today it was far too dreary to walk outside if she didn’t want to get herself wet in the rain. “You’ll catch your death, dear,” Mrs Potts said.
Belle explored the castle further instead. She’d already seen the kitchen and the pantry; all the corners of the library; the West Wing and the East; had peeked into each and every bedroom, none of which had seen life in years, for the Beast entertained no guests beside her.
There were the modest stairs leading upstairs into a tower which she had yet to enter.
“What’s there? Is it a secret too?” Belle asked, glancing at the Beast who had accompanied her this time.
“It isn’t off limits. Merely of little interest.”
Belle didn’t quite agree: the stairs took them up into a large room filled with little pyramids and crates: a storage for paintings, some finished and some not—an atelier, she realised. The high windows were heavily curtained.
“I used to play hide and seek here with Lumière as a child. It is rather impossible now.”
“Is he too small now? Or you too big?” She had to smile at the thought of the miniature maître d' bouncing after a barely disguised prince.
“No. But the candelabras all whisper to each other and let him know.” The candles on the walls had the decency to look chastised.
Belle imagined Monsieur Lumière quite enjoyed having an excuse to avoid a children’s game now that he had one, albeit the most strange kind.
“Would you play a game now? We can ask the candles to go out. Surely they’ll humour me.” She had become friendly with the servants; some of the candlesticks in her room even enjoyed her reading them bedtime stories before they nodded off. “Count to ten.”
Belle had always been both adept and lousy at hide and seek. As a child, she’d enjoyed the game with the village kids from time to time. She’d gotten quite good at finding the most imaginative hiding spots, in fact, just so she could slip her latest book out of her pocket. Thus she was often the last to be found, perched high on a tree branch or crawled into the narrowest of crevices, contentedly immersed in a tale. But when it came to her turn to be the seeker, she was terrible at it, failing to check the easiest spots, her mind distracted, so a special rule was devised—even when Belle was the first to be found, she didn’t have to play seeker if she wasn’t up to it. Thus the game could continue, keeping everyone happy.
It had been a handful of years since she had last played this game, but her old tricks came to her now. It wasn’t difficult in the atelier, filled as it was with easels with curtains thrown over them. She snatched a cloth from one such yurt, dropped to her hands and knees in the near dark and and hastily wrapped herself in it, a parcel of her own making. The crumbling fabric smelled like dust and her cheek pressed against the cold floor.
The Beast couldn’t move very quietly on the stone floor; his giant claws scratched the floor as his paws thudded around. Belle held her breath, wondering if he’d pass her by. Just when she was about to sigh in relief, the wrapping around her dissolved as the Beast yanked the fabric off.
Motes of dust rained on her, like dry snow.
“That was quick.” Belle shook herself, trying to get the dust off. It was stuck in her eyelashes.
“It was your scent that gave you away. I would have felt foolish pretending I didn’t find you.” A gust of warm air brushed her face and removed some of the dust as the Beast crouched down to help her sit up, then proceeded to nearly lick her face, but his muzzle only bumped against her cheek. “I’m sorry -”
He sounded apologetic, for both things, but Belle smiled.
”No need. You’ll be the one to hide next time, then. I have no such advantage over you.”
It took them a while to play hide and seek again. They had spent the whole morning in the library; she’d advanced to guiding him through some poetry, verses new to her as well. But the Beast’s eyes drifted towards the frosty window.
“As much as I am fascinated by... ” He squinted, staring at the name engraved on the book, “Lady Beatriz...”
In truth the wintry outside called to Belle, too. They were reading about spring and summer—it filled her with longing—and she wanted to forget about such things because they were out of reach just now. It had been a while since she remembered liking winter for its own sake, though she used to love curling up in a chair by the fire with a book, being flown away on the wings of her imagination. She enjoyed it now, too, especially as she could climb in the Beast’s lap and be warmed by him as well. But it was a beautiful, clear day, and when they exited the castle, she had to exclaim in wonder. Sunlight bounced off snow everywhere, like a fine dusting of diamonds covering the whole land.
“A game of hide and seek, perhaps?” She glanced at him. It was her turn to best him, after all.
She closed her eyes and slowly counted to ten.
At first it was easy to follow paw prints, but suddenly they disappeared. He must have climbed a tree and leaped to the next: a clever trick, she had to admit. She tried to gauge the trees for claw marks, following them until they too stopped.
Belle inspected the little mountain of snow under the tree instead. The snow here was too smooth, its jewel-sparkle gone.
She jumped, hoping she wasn’t merely making a fool of herself and plunging into a pile of nothing but snow.
Not so: mid-jump, she found herself wrapped in the tight hold of the Beast’s arms as he sprung up from his hiding place, turning in the air so he landed on his back with her cradled against his chest.
A squeal escaped Belle’s lips, soon turning into peals of laughter.
“Tell me, did you ask Mr Balai,” Belle nodded towards the broom leaning surreptitiously against a tree some yards away, “to cover you up?”
“Is that a strike against me?”
“No, I applaud you for creativity.”
“I concede your victory, in any case.”
“And what gift awaits the victor?” She brushed some snow off his brow.
“Whatever you wish.”
Their breathing was white mist in the air, mixing. His body was warm under and around her, and she felt his heartbeat through the layers of their coats and his fur, but her cheeks tingled with the cold.
“I am rather freezing. I could do with a return inside.”
They did, giving themselves over to Mrs Potts fussing over them and fixing them both a steaming cup of tea.
They played hide and seek once more, in the garden. The early summer air was cool on Belle’s cheeks and shoulders as they made their way down after a night spent on the ballroom floor and strolled down a paved path.
“Oh!” She had yet to see the swift work done on the castle’s grounds by the servants. Gone was the dark forest of autumn, the blocked paths and the unkempt bush. Grass had burst out in slender blades, and the tender little flowers were just closing their eyes for the night. The hedge maze, so unwelcoming the last she saw it, now stood trimmed; a wooden gateway led into it, covered in vine and pale pink roses.
Struck with an idea, her head as light as bubbles in a flute of fancy sparkling wine, Belle slipped her hand from her dancing partner’s paw and glanced at him.
“Count to ten!”
She sprinted into the maze, barely mindful of the yellow silk of her frock. A playful growl followed her before she heard the first number spoken in the Beast’s rumbling voice.
The trimmed hedges offered a challenge to Belle, but she found a clearing with a little wooden pavilion. Crouching in its shadow wasn’t the best she could do, but perhaps it would take him time to track her path...
No such luck, and he bounded, a grin on his face, around the corner.
“It seems you have found me.” She stepped out. “My scent again?”
“Your shoes.” He had picked up her slipper and held it gingerly by one sharp claw. She’d dropped it with its twin somewhere behind.
The grass was cool but dry and soft under her stockinged feet. They were under a cloudless sky, guarded only by moonlight and the stars, and Belle felt freer than ever during her stay—or before it. There was no one else here: for the first time, they were truly alone. As she let her gaze rest on the Beast’s face again, his eyes, too, sparked softly.
“Would you help me get rid of these as well?” Belle felt bold as the words left her mouth, and she extended her gloved arm.
“You’re setting me quite a task.” He wasn’t wrong—his paws were far too clumsy to focus on her slender fingers—but he was inventive: he took her arm and brought her hand up, then snatched the fabric covering a fingertip between the tips of his sharp teeth. A few tugs, and her arm was free of the sheer cloth’s constraints.
Degloved, Belle reached up, touching his ear, which twitched under her fingertips; his brow and horns; his cheek and the tip of a tusk. When she brought her hand down, he clasped her fingers, covering them. She pressed her thumb in the middle of his paw. His claws came out.
He snatched his paw back with a look of embarrassment. “Belle—I’m unfamiliar with this. I cannot trust myself to be like a real man.”
She took him by the wrist and gently pulled his giant paw to her chest. Her blood was heavy in her veins, her heart a hammer, striking slow but deep. He had to feel this fire in her. She could have sworn she heard his heart thrum in time with hers.
“I trust you to be yourself.” She closed her eyes.
He touched her again. The sharp tip of a claw made its way down the side of her neck, the valley above her collarbone, its bump, then above her breastbone, the dip where her blood beat steady and sure. She held her breath when it stopped there; just a gasp, a twitch, and it would nick her.
Instead, he pulled gently at the fastenings of the bodice—though not careful enough, as it fell open, leaving her in her undergarments, the fabric streaming down into a pool of gold. Opening her eyes to find him looking apologetic, Belle silenced his words with a kiss to his muzzle.
“You can apologise to Madame Wardrobe later.”
It was easier for her to unravel his kerchief and free him of his tails and vest and to unbutton his breeches. Finally, completely nude, Belle trembled in the velvet embrace of the night, soon replaced with the Beast’s similarly uncovered body. Then her world was bordered only by his touch, one paw cradling her neck, the other on her shoulder. She was held in place, but it was safety, not capture. He sniffed her hair and ear; this wasn’t the first time, but where before it made her tickle and laugh, it now made her shiver, as did the brush of his hair on her exposed breasts and belly.
She tangled her fingers in his chest. She’d caressed his fur, but not here; his arms and back were more like a dog’s, but here he was soft. She felt him against her, the hot shape signaling his desire. Suddenly, she was flooded with giddy excitement, and on instinct bit a mouthful of his fur and ruffled, pushing—or rather pulling—him down by his broad shoulders.
His chest rumbled and he went, taking her with him, rolled on his back on the grass and let her climb astride him. She felt his member between their bodies, slid fingertips down the length, the heel of her hand pressing against herself, her fingers on his flesh. Oddly, her own hair was coarser than his fur, though there were only little thatches of it under her arms, more between her legs. His underbelly was silky in comparison. Curious and boldened by his submission to her exploration, she moved back a little so she could feel the shape of his sack; the skin here was silken too and lightly hairy.
He spoke her name in a soft murmur mixing on her skin with the night breeze when she moved back up. Her now aching sex pressed against his—beasthood, she supposed, the word making her smile. As she rocked her hips, it sent a wave of warmth down her thighs and up her belly; delighted with the ease with which her slick skin slid against his, she did it again.
Now that she could properly drink her fill, she took in the sight as well as the sensation. He wasn’t as hard as she’d thought, but yielding, his flesh giving way to hers, letting her mold him as she ground down and pushed her fingers into the curls of his chest. He wasn’t canine here, either, though she wasn’t sure if he was quite human—she’d only seen illustrations in anatomical books—and it was ludicrous to think he’d fit inside her, like she had half-dreamed of in the dark of the night, not yet daring to explore this feeling inside her. It felt natural now to satisfy her curiosity this way, and he seemed glad she did.
“Belle.” The timbre of his voice was warm like the night. Moonlight glinted off his exposed teeth. His big paw held her by her waist, nearly spanning the entirety of it. His breath reached her breasts, raising the skin into gooseflesh and enticing her rosy nipples into hardness. The shallowest scratch of his claws sent delicious little sparks all over her.
Suddenly, she felt like soon she wouldn’t be able to control her movement, and knew deep down that signaled an end, and with some difficulty forced herself to stop. The Beast’s blue eyes flashed.
“You wish to stop?” he panted, passions clearly warring inside.
“No! Not in the—ah—least,” she hurried to say, demonstrating with a tug at his lower belly, hair now wet there. “I just—oh, there must be something else.” She was certain he’d want to discover it with her.
“Please,” she said, trapping his paws against her sides, pushing until she felt the claws again. “Whatever you wish.”
He growled, then, and she was lifted up and handled effortlessly, turned around until she was on her hands and knees on the soft ground. Her gown lay near, and her hand reached for it, fingers tangling in it as she felt his hot breath on the soles of her feet, and then, on the bend on her knees, and then higher.
She yelped, then outright giggled—he licked her thighs, tongue sweeping up between them, tasting her.
She suddenly wished that press of slippery heat were higher, where she still burned like a furnace, but instead she shivered as his touch guided her to spread her legs, and then—they both exclaimed. Their flesh met again like earlier, but now he pushed his hard member between her thighs from behind, so it rubbed against her with both an exciting speed and a maddening lightness; she couldn’t guide this time, only push her forehead down against the yellow silk, move her hips to get some more stimulation. His length reached up to her belly, she could see it from this position, the glistening head just out of her reach were she to try to press her lips on it, as she suddenly thought she might. Excited by this fantasy, she opened her mouth, let beast-like sound escape her throat, pushed out every time he rocked into the squeeze of her thighs, his flesh sliding over the sweetest spot in her over and over again.
And then, the angle of his pistoning and that imagination had Belle tremble inside in some place heretofore unknown to her, and she bit the shiny fabric between her teeth, and his growls drowned out her high-pitched noises. Something warm spread on her belly, reached all the way up—down—to her neck and jaw. She licked her lips, now covered with a sticky substance. It wasn’t very delicious to the taste but that only served to make it exciting to swallow.
Quite spent, Belle let herself fall prone on the pile of stained cloth and grass, only to find herself cradled into the Beast’s familiar lap and cleaned up with his gentle tongue.
“I’d say this worked out well,” she said, throwing her arms around his neck and breathing in his scent. “Just being ourselves.”
They retreated to the pavilion, not bothering to dress just yet, as the Beast’s body kept them both warm. Belle wondered if they might read some books like this now, perhaps curled up in the bed together. His digits, claws hidden, combed through her hair. His voice stayed low and tender, but suddenly the Beast spoke seriously.
“Belle, I must tell you—my self—you may see it changed some day.”
“You needn’t worry.” She slid her fingers down his cheek, not quite grasping the reason for the sudden note in his voice, but fiercely certain he’d explain later, knowing he knew her now, all of her, and that he could trust her. “No matter where you are, no matter what you look like, I’ll always find you.”