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Grasp the Thorn

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But he that dares not grasp the thorn

Should never crave the rose

Anne Bronte

 

Phillip walked out of the castle, needing fresh air and a break from the oppressive cheerfulness and expectation of King Stefan's court. Of course, the front courtyard wasn't the most restful place to escape the impending weight of inevitable fate pressing down on him.

Two plaques, one somber ebony, one shiny silver, prominently bracketed the entrance to the castle. On the left, inscribed on ominous black stone, Maleficent's dark promise glittered with foreboding.

"The princess shall indeed grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know her. But, before midnight on her sixteenth birthday, she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die."

On the right, Merryweather's bright words sparkled with hope for all to read.

"Sweet Princess, if through this wicked witch's trick a spindle should your finger prick a ray of hope there still may be in this the gift I give to thee. Not in death, but just in sleep this fateful prophecy you'll keep and from this slumber you shall wake when betrothed's kiss the spell shall break."

A reminder of the true reason Phillip was here. Not because of a promise made by his father when he was five or because of some signed accord between kingdoms. It wasn't about a betrothal agreement or politics. It didn't matter that Phillip didn't know his bride to be or that he had no interest in getting married.

It didn't matter that Phillip didn't want to be king or that his twin, Ferdinand, would make a much better monarch. That he was as ill-suited for a role in politics as his younger brother was for his role as Royal Marshal of the Army.

It was about a handful of magic words that had sealed Phillip's fate to Aurora's. In a few hours, her welcoming feast would begin. Two hours later, when the last of the midnight bells rang, she would be returned to King Stefan's court. This was the most dangerous time. If anything happened to the princess, Phillip would be the only one who could save her because of an offhand rhyme.

Tonight, he would be ready to protect her from any last minute machinations of the evil enchantress. And in three days, on his twenty-first birthday, their official engagement party would take place. Chaining them together for the rest of their lives, despite the fact that they'd never met and might not even like each other.

The sound of pounding hooves galloping up the bridge drew Phillip from his glum thoughts. Ferdinand, normally exuberant, grinned and bounced from his perch on Samson with even more energy than usual.

"Is that Ferdinand? Finally." King Hubert walked up behind Phillip, blustering with his usual gruffness. Underneath, though, their father was always amused and proud of his twin sons. "That boy. Important day like today and he's out gallivanting in the woods."

Phillip watched heads whip back and forth between him and his twin when the crowd of staff and guests milling in the courtyard caught sight of the two princes. The people in Stefan's kingdom had been doing that double take for two days as they realized how completely identical the two young men were. Same dark hair and eyes, same aristocratic features, same sword-work honed build. Truly, the only difference between them was a single birthmark that very few ever even saw. Yet, that stained patch of skin on Phillip kept them from simply trading places and taking the lives cruel fate had denied by accident of birth order.

Ferd saw them as soon as he past under the portcullis. He smiled even brighter, angled Samson towards them and leapt from the horse before his hooves skidded to a full stop.

He landed lightly in front of their father and scooped the king up in a hug.

"I've found her, Father. The girl of my dreams." Phillip laughed as his brother danced the rotund king around the courtyard babbling about peasant girls and waking dreams and singing animals until their father was sputtering with confusion.

It was one of their favorite tactics. Overwhelm the king with exuberance until he was too befuddled to deny them anything.

Finally, King Hubert planted his feet, stuck his hands on his hips and refused to move. Ferd laughed, his face lighting up with an easy pleasure neither of the twins had felt for several years. Not since they'd left the school room and started training to take their individual places in the kingdom. His younger brother hugged their father again, still humming a cheerful melody.

"Enough of this, Ferdinand. What is the meaning of all this rambling and dancing about?"

"I've met the girl of my dreams. The girl I'm going to marry."

Exasperated and indulgent, their father smiled through his sigh and tucked his hands behind his back. "How can you have met the girl you're going to marry, when I haven't even finished going through all of the matrimonial offers, yet?"

Ferd's smile flashed into a frown and his eyes sparked in annoyance and familiar frustration. After the debacle with Aurora, his father had hesitated to sign a match for Ferdinand. But recently, he'd been receiving offers from Royal families of kingdoms all over the Continent. Seemed their generation had a dearth of princes and kings were starting to fret about the possibility of marrying off their excess daughters. Ferd had believed that, if he'd be forced to take the role of Royal Marshal General, he'd at least get to pick out his own wife.

When the offers had started pouring in a few months ago, in anticipation of his twenty-first birthday, it had become a serious source of agitation to Ferd that their father was even considering them. He recognized the scowl and darkened eyes his brother turned on their father and was getting ready to intervene when Hubert untucked his hands and held them up in supplication.

"Let's start by you telling me of this paragon of virtue, hmm?"

His brother began to glow again, a light of contentment and happiness that shone from somewhere deep inside of him.

"She's beautiful. And sweet. Charming but feisty, as well. She has the voice of angel and impeccable manners despite being a peasant girl. The animals flock--"

"Peasant girl?" Hubert interrupted, choking a little on the word. "But, there are alliances on the table..."

Ferd laughed but there was steel resolve under the lighthearted sound.

"You made the alliance of the century when you betrothed Phillip to Aurora sixteen years ago. In six months, Phillip will marry into the only other kingdom on the Continent that can rival our own. We won't need any other alliances."

Phillip winced. Accurate as the description was, he felt a little twinge of anger and hurt at his brother's offhand dismissal of Phillip's future. For someone who balked at his own arranged marriage, he wasn't very considerate of his brother's impending shackles. Then again, with his statesman's heart and political mind, Ferdinand would have considered becoming heir to two powerful kingdoms a fair trade-off for a potentially unhappy marriage. Phillip did not.

He was sure Aurora was a lovely girl, blessed by fairies and all, but his tastes ran in another direction completely. Unfortunately, he'd been raised with full knowledge of his duties and responsibilities as well as the consequences should he fail. It wasn't his own life he had to consider but how his choices and actions affected his entire family as well as the entire kingdom.

"C'mon, Father," Ferd implored, stretching his arms in a dramatic gesture. "You can afford to indulge your second son in a love match. The commoners will think it romantic and adore you all the more for your beneficence."

A muscle twitched at the edge of their father's mouth and Phillip knew Ferdinand nearly had him. A small shadowed part of his heart resented Ferd's freedom but, mostly, he was happy for his brother.

"Alright, Ferd. Tell me more about your peasant girl."

He continued to extol the virtues of his intended until both Phillip and Hubert's eyes glazed over. Phillip only half listened, giving Samson's nose a rub and finding a spare sugar cube in his pocket.

"...and she lives in the old woodcutter's cottage in the glen, deep in a completely uninhabited part of the woods..."

"A-hmm. A-hah. Wait, what?" Hubert, who'd been making appropriate noises suddenly startled mid-nod and focused completely on his younger son. "Woodcutter's cottage? Deep in the woods, you say?"

Something suspicious blinked in his father's eyes and something edgy spiked in his voice but Ferdinand missed the grave concern as he continued talking with a lovesick fever.

"I wasn't supposed to, of course, but I followed her home at a distance so she wouldn't see me. Just to be sure she made it safely there. She lives with three maiden aunts. They seemed a bit ditzy to me, but..."

"Three? Ditzy you say?"

Hubert asked, a little breathless. Ferd, blithely oblivious to their father's hand inching toward his heart, face flushing red and purple, eyes widening in dawning horror, continued to ramble on about his newly discovered beloved.

Unable to keep out of it any longer, Phillip stepped forward, placing a steadying hand on Hubert's shoulder. "Father?"

Startled, the king broke free of his silent, shocked paralysis with a full body tremor.

"Absolutely not!" He shouted, drawing the attention of the entire courtyard with his volume. "I forbid it."

Ferdinand smiled, though the indulgent look he shot their father was underpinned with hardened resolve.

"You'll love her, you'll see." He turned quickly and mounted Samson. "I promised to meet her this evening. I have to go."

"Ferdinand. You must not. You don't understand. The Welcoming Feast?" King Hubert's demands trailed into a plea as Ferd moved swiftly away.

Already moving toward the gate, Ferdinand shouted over his shoulder. "Don't worry, Father. I'll be back by ten for the feast." He leaned forward, whispering something about oats and Samson leapt ahead, disappearing down the bridge with surprising speed for a horse that balked at a canter.

Phillip couldn't help laughing at his brother's enthusiasm. But when he turned back to his father, Hubert was pale and still and staring after his youngest son.

"Father?"

Hubert shook his head and gave his eldest a half-hearted smile. "Nothing to concern yourself with, Phillip. I simply must think on this. I must prepare. We'll talk when your brother returns."

He patted Phillip on the shoulder and headed back into the castle.

#

Ferdinand hummed as he rode Samson along the forest trail towards the cottage. He was a little annoyed with his father's petty objections but they weren't completely unexpected. Hubert was old-fashioned, after all. But Ferd and Phillip had almost always been able to bring him around to their way of thinking.

He winced a little as he considered his twin. He'd been thoughtless in his enthusiasm back at the castle. Up until that very day, he'd have gladly switched his fate with Phillip's. But Phillip was the one who was betrothed to Aurora. And he was the one who would need to rescue her tonight if things were to go wrong.

The cottage came into sight, peeking among the trees, pulling Ferd's attention away from his family and focusing it fully on the task at hand. Winning the affection of his unnamed beauty and approval from her three guardians. The clearing and the small building were quiet when he dismounted.

Glancing around and seeing no place to secure the reins, Ferdinand patted Samson's white head and said, "Stay close, buddy."

Sampson snorted and dipped his head, nibbling on the lush green grass.

Ferd knocked and a smooth feminine voice invited him in. The door swung open to a dimly lit room. A small shiver of apprehension curled through him but he ignored it, stepping fully inside.

What did he have to fear from three sweet biddies and a delicate peasant girl?

As soon as he was fully inside the darkened interior, though, the hot pain of a blade bit into his side with tearing agony. Something hit him hard in the opposite hip then a second something... someone?... rammed into his shoulder. The impact sent him stumbling and struggling to stay on his feet as he freed his sword.

After that, the attack became a blur of bodies and blows and blades coming at him from every angle in the dark. His head rang, his side burned and his body ached from dozens of cuts and impacts. Ferd fought back with all that he had, knowing he was outnumbered and alone.

Eventually, his eyes adjusted enough to see his attackers. Short and squat with animal faces and wide yellow eyes. In the corner a slim, dark figure silently watch the attack.

Finding a corner to protect his back gave him a brief moment to catch his breath and think through the fog of pain and adrenaline. A swift glance showed no sign of his beloved in the small cottage. And no sign of previous struggle. He could only pray she and her family had escaped unscathed.

A shrill whinny and pounding hooves shook him out of the fighting fugue enough to realize he needed to get out and away while he was still on his feet. Swinging his sword in a controlled arc, he sidled toward the door.

Samson waited for him just outside the cottage and Ferd dragged himself onto the saddle. In the process, he took a couple of more blows from behind as the goons tried to snatch him back. Then his the horse wheeled, kicked off the last of the attackers and galloped into the thicker forest beyond the cottage.

"Let him go." The voice behind him ordered wit a harsh and feminine voice. "The horse is running directly for even more dangerous territory. I doubt we'll be seeing him again."

A sinister laugh followed him as his vision faded.Ferd fought to understand the words but the wound and exhaustion overwhelmed him. His eyes closed on the gathering gloom of twilight.

When they opened again, the forest was dark and much cooler than he expected. Not only because of the long set sun. Even in his confused and feverish state, it was obvious from the bare, twisted trees and heavy atmosphere, that they'd crossed a magical border between kingdoms. Wherever he was now, it felt cursed.

Samson jerked abruptly to avoid something and the sudden movement sent a jarring slice of pain through his side. He closed his eyes and let the world fade to black again.

The next time Ferd came to, Samson had stopped moving outside a tortured, forbidding looking castle. Ferdinand knew it was a bad idea to seek shelter in a place like this but Samson was heaving for breath and froth covered his neck. His own wound was still seeping and burned. It needed to be cleaned and bound. With trepidation, he eased Samson into a walk and headed for the front gate.

Dismounting with slow caution, it still jarred every wound. Once again he asked Samson to stick close, knowing the loyal, well-trained horse didn't even really need the asking. He snagged a handful of clothes and a small flask of whiskey out of the saddle-bag, steeled his will and headed in.

 Chilly darkness swallowed him inside the heavy stone walls. Faint flickers of light cast shadows from somewhere farther along the hallway and Ferd followed the glow until he found a room with a fire burning brightly in the fireplace. He glanced around, intending to ask someone for shelter and help but, other than a large chair and a single table in front of the hearth, the room was empty.

An unlit candelabra and a mantle clock looked out of place on the table but he didn't have time to worry about eccentric decor choices. Instead, he moved forward and gratefully sank into the chair, soaking up the warmth of the fire. After a minute of chasing the chill away, Ferd stripped out of his blood soaked shirt dowsed it with the whiskey and used it to clean up then bind the cut running from his rib to his hip.

It probably needed to be stitched. Beyond that, it probably needed more than a bloody shirt and some cheap spirits to clean it but that would have to do for now.

Ferdinand couldn't dally long. He needed to get back to Stefan's kingdom and warn them that someone with goons was loose in his kingdom. He needed to find out what had happened to his woodland beauty and her family. And he really should be there when Phillip met his bride for the first time but he was afraid it might already be too late for that.

The burn in his side, the ache and exhaustion of his entire body, though, begged for a few minutes of respite. He'd rest here long enough to catch his breath and allow Samson some time to recover.

"Who. Are. You?"

The angry growl reverberating through the room spurred Ferdinand from his seat, ignoring the burn and pull of his wound. He reached for his sword while turning to face the threat but his hand closed over empty air. His weapon must have been lost somewhere in his unconscious flight through the woods.

Charm and flattery it would have to be, then. Ferd gave his best 'trust-me-I'm-a-prince' smile and spread his empty hands wide.

"The name is Ferdinand."

Before he could jump into spinning his tale of woe or make a sympathetic plea, the shadow in the doorway growled again.

"What are you doing on my land?"

Ferd squinted into the shadows, trying to see but all he got was an impression of immense size and bulk.

"Just passing through, hoping to find a little hospitality and respite before--"

"LIAR." The roar shook the room and Ferdinand dropped into a crouch. "No one 'passes through' this cursed land. Those who come here are noble hunters seeking trophies, looters seeking treasure and silver-tongued bards seeking thrills and fame and fodder for their ballads."

"Look," he fought to keep the shake out of his voice, to sound sure and confident and trust-worthy. "I just need to rest--"

Words deserted him as the figure stepped into a sliver of light and Ferdinand saw his host for the first time. Eyes stretched and mouth went dry as Ferd gaped at the beast looming over him.

"Hospitality? You came here to stare, like they all do. I'll give you hospitality. We'll see how you enjoy the hospitality of the tower."

Roars rattled the room again then the giant figure grabbed him and threw him over its shoulder.

The candelabra flared to life, all three candles lighting at once before it jumped down from the table. Behind it, the clock waddled to the edge and tipped itself over in a much less graceful tumble. They followed quickly as the beast carried him from the room.

The candelabra caught up first and Ferdinand realized he must be feverish from the wound as it started to speak. Delusion from a spreading infection was the only explanation.

"Master, 'e's barely more zan a boy."

"That's what you said about the bard and look at how that turned out." The growl was even more frightening when Ferd could feel it shake through him as well as hear it. "If the cursed forest will not deter gawkers then perhaps the threat of lifetime imprisonment will."

The monster punctuated his pronouncement by tossing Ferdinand into a cell lined only with a thin layer of straw. He bounced once against the hard stones underneath and the jarring movement sent spasms of agony radiating until he gave in and passed out again to escape the pain.

Ferd woke but did not know if it was minutes or hours later. He knew, however, that he was still feverish. Mostly because his shirt was pushed up, while the candelabra leaned over him stitching up his wound. It, he?, paused long enough to push a vial into Ferd's hand.

"It will help with ze healing. Drink it." The whole thing was so surreal he obeyed without thinking.

 In the grate of the cell door, the clock muttered about the master worriedly. When a feather duster pushed past the anxious timepiece and announced there was someone in the castle who looked exactly like the prisoner he prayed it was a delusion. He wanted Phillip well out of the danger the crazy castle posed.

#

Phillip felt the first twinge of something wrong just before sunset. He tried to tell himself it was only the descending pressure of the day. The constant anticipation of whatever Maleficent's last ditch efforts might be to disrupt the Welcoming Feast and hurt Aurora.

But he couldn't shake the impending sense of danger and disaster hovering. As the last rays of sunset gilded the castle with a rosy gold glow, Phillip found himself on one of the balconies, vainly searching the horizon for a sight of his brother. Ferd had promised to return by the beginning of the feast at ten, but Phillip really hoped he'd come back sooner, if only to ease one of the multitude of burdens preying on his mind.

As he looked for his brother, he couldn't help but notice the procession sneaking around the bottom of the castle and under the bridge to the main gate. Three brightly dressed older women escorting a fourth cloaked and cowled figure to a secret entrance wasn't exactly subtle or understated. Especially when a pale blue ball gown kept peeking out from under the cloak as they walked.

Still, at least one worry was off his mind. Aurora had made it safely to the castle. With the amount of security and extra mercenaries Stefan had hired to be on hand for the event, whatever threat Maleficent might have posed to the evening's festivities was over now. He wouldn't be called upon to administer a kiss in front of the nobility of two kingdoms in order to save a life.

With no sign of Ferd, he ducked back into the dining room before his father sent a search party looking for him. But as the evening dragged on and ten o'clock approached, the feeling of unease grew until it gnawed at his insides and his skin prickled with fear. He couldn't ignore the feeling that his brother was in danger any longer.

Stalking his father, he managed to pull him aside when Stefan turned to deal with a drunken minstrel.

"Something is wrong. I have to go find Ferdinand."

Hubert looked torn, biting his lip and squinting one eye at Stefan.

"But the princess..." he whispered half-heartedly.

"Is fine. She arrived safely at sunset. I saw her and her fairy guardians sneak in a servant's entrance. The danger to her is past. I'm sure I'll find him before midnight. No one will miss me in the excitement of the Aurora's return. My important part isn't until the engagement soiree in three days."

"Aurora has been here for two hours? And your brother's not back yet?" His father blinked owlishly at him then paled a little. Phillip wondered how much of the wine he'd been drinking if he couldn't focus on the conversation. "Yes. Yes, yes. You should go find your brother."

Phillip didn't wait, heading out the door before his father could sober up and change his mind.

His horse raised her black head and nickered at him as soon as he entered the stables. Delilah and Samson were brother and sister, a rare double birth. His father had thought it poetic to acquire the twin mounts for his twin sons when they turned eighteen. The horses had different temperaments to match their opposing coloring.

Delilah was easy going, eager to please and always up for an adventure. Unlike Samson, she never had to be bribed or coddled in order to follow him on an escapade. Like her brother, though, she was sturdy, built with sleek lines that made her both strong and fast. Oddly enough, one of the few quirks the twin horses shared was a fear of storms.

Luckily there were no clouds in sight tonight.

She whinnied again when he started saddling her, pawing the ground and nudging him with her head.

He laughed and nudged back. "Eager to go for a run, are you Del?"

She snorted in agreement and he laughed again, but the claw of concern sunk deep in his heart wouldn't let him dally for long.

"Then let's go," he said, leading her outside and mounting up as soon as they cleared the stable door. They made their way out of the castle keep with a stealth and quietness born from three years of clandestine late night rides together.

Thankfully, his brother's eagerness to see his pretty peasant girl had left a trail through the woods a blind man could follow. Phillip slowed when the cottage came into sight, dropping off of Delilah's back and approaching cautiously on foot. The ground was disturbed with a mix of hoof prints, footprints and paw prints he couldn't identify.

The door was wide open and the inside was pitch black. After stumbling and feeling around in the dark, he managed to get his hand on an over turned lantern and lit it.

The first thing he noticed was the blood. Splatters of red-brown human blood and thicker pools of darker green-black that said his brother had fought some kind of magical construct or goon. At least it looked as if Ferd had held his own. The next thing he noticed was the wanton destruction. Everything had been shaken out, over turned and shredded.

Nothing left inside, however, told him what had happened to his brother and he headed back toward the door. On the way, he tripped over a torn up sewing basket. The shimmery scrap of blue fabric immediately caught his attention. He'd seen it just a few hours ago, peeking out from under a heavy cloak.

His father's reaction to the details as Ferdinand rambled about his peasant girl suddenly made sense. As did the abrupt change in demeanor when King Hubert realized the princess had arrived at the castle but there was no word from his younger son.

Hubert knew, or at least had an idea, that this old woodcutter's cottage was where Aurora had been hidden away. It appeared Maleficent had found it too late since Aurora was safely behind the walls of Stefan's keep. But Ferdinand had walked into the middle of whatever the enchantress had planned for the princess.

Outside, Phillip looked more closely at the muddy prints. Samson's trail led off into a deeper part of the forest and the others turned back in the direction from which they'd come. So Samson had escaped and they hadn't bothered following. Phillip could only hope Ferdinand was with the horse and that, despite the blood, he wasn't to desperately hurt.

The trail left by the panicked horse through the dense foliage was even more obvious than the one Phillip had followed to the cottage. As he chased in his brother's wake, he couldn't help cursing the cruelty of fate, once again. Ferdinand found the girl of his dreams only for her to be the bride Phillip had no choice but to marry.

The boundary between Stefan's kingdom and the next was abrupt and stark. On one side, lush dense woods thrived in late summer warmth. On the other, dark twisted trees reached and overshadowed everything, leaving a chill in the bones sharper than the onset of winter. Clear skies gave way to angry, low hanging clouds.

He pulled his dark cloak tighter around him and lifted its hood to cover his cap in an attempt to keep from shivering right out of his saddle. Eventually, the shadow of a gothic castle cast its pall over everything but Phillip pushed on, across the bridge and right up to its front door. Samson nickered from the shelter of a dilapidated building off to one side and Phillip led Delilah over to join him. Most of the walls and a roof were still intact and it would offer shelter if the threatening clouds let loose.

He patted Samson to reassure the nervous horse, admonished them both to stay put and headed in to find his brother.

Inside, the silence and oppressive atmosphere of the unlit entrance hall slowed him down. Every shadow held a potential threat as he eased among them looking for some sign of Ferd. A flurry of whispers drew his attention to the faintest flicker of candlelight where someone moved ahead of him. He stealthily followed the mysterious person down the hall, through a doorway, up a curving set of stairs, to the top of a high tower.

The stairway opened into what was obviously meant as a prison. Whoever he'd been following they were nowhere to be seen but they'd left the candles burning in a high alcove. Cautiously, he inched toward the first heavy wooden door and knelt down to peer between the bars.

"Ferdinand." He stared in horror at his brother, lying covered in blood and bruises on the ancient straw, blood soaked clothes on the floor, fresh stitches criss-crossing his side.

"You're wounded." It was stating the obvious but it was such a shock to see his normally fastidious and image-conscious brother in such a state.

Bleary eyes opened and took several seconds to focus. Then Ferd was struggling to sit up, panting with exertion. "Go. You have to go. Get out before he sees you."

"He? He who?"

Before Ferd could answer a low growl shivered its way up Phillip's spine. He whirled, placing his back against the door and faced a hulking shadow. Around him, the candle flames shrank and paled as if huddling in on themselves.

"Leave. Now." The sounds, barely words, were pitched so low they were more visceral sensations than language.

Phillip swallowed hard against the primal fear. He came here for a purpose and he wouldn't be intimidated. "Not without my brother."

"He goes nowhere. He is my prisoner and will set the example of what happens to intruders. You will spread the word. He will never leave this castle again."

Again the voice sent shivers through Phillip, leaving him feeling primitive and stripped bare. His legs wanted to run but his sense of duty and loyalty held him tight in place. A single thought echoed through him. Ferd deserved to live. Deserved to be king. Deserved to have the princess, the girl he loved, as his bride.

"Take me instead." The words were out before he even thought them through but nothing would ever make him take them back. It was the perfect solution to all of their problems.

The shadow froze, looming closer but no clearer in the shadows.

The anger was a second beat in the voice now, over taken with surprise. "You'll take his place? You'll promise to stay here? Forever?"

A shiver of primordial fear crawled through Phillip once more as he wondered why the aggressor hid in the shadows but he did not hesitate. A glance at his wounded brother lying on a cold stone floor steeled his resolve.

"Yes. I'll stay. Forever. You have my word."

Then the man--

Beast.

Monster.

It moved into the light for the first time and Phillip instinctively tried to step back more to protect his brother but the solid door gave him no place to go.

It was huge. A mix and mash of many predators that reminded him of old tales of chimeras their arm's instructor told. Tales that made them shiver with pleasant fright before being sent off to bed.

Except there was no demi-god hero to come rescue him. He'd just agreed to remain its prisoner.

"Then we have a deal."

The beast pushed past him, brushing him away as if he were a fly, opened the cell door and swooped up his brother with a single hand.

"No. Phillip. Don't." Ferd struggled weakly but was no match. "Don't do this."

"I have to. The princess is safe at the castle. It's up to you to take care of her now."

If his brother made a response, it was lost when the monster lunged down the stairs in a blur of strength and speed. He could only hope Ferdinand would understand what Phillip meant once he saw who the princess truly was.

Phillip sagged, closing his eyes when the last glimpse of his brother disappeared beyond the curve of the stairs.

The sound of a throat clearing startled him into opening his eyes and wrapping his fingers lightly around the hilt of his sword. The sword he hadn't even thought about drawing when confronted with the beast.

He swung his gaze from side to side but he was still alone. Then the sound came again. From near his feet. He looked down.

Then he blinked and looked again. Then rubbed his hands over his eyes.

"You've got to be kidding me," he muttered, wondering how much of the delusion was from stress and how much from exhaustion.

 But when he looked for a third time, they were still there. Looking up at him. With little, human-like features. A candelabra and a mantle clock.

"'E's not so bad, you know." The candle said, carelessly waving a flaming... arm. "Ze Master, I mean. 'E's just had bad experience with... unexpected guests."

#

When Beast reached the front of the castle, two horses peeked out from what was once a guard shelter. He dumped the intruder on the pale white stallion that inched its way out of the building and gave its hindquarters a smack to send it galloping out into the night.

He hurried back up to the top of the tower, though at a slightly less breakneck speed.

When he returned, it was to find his new prisoner blinking down at his butler and his majordomo. Phillip. The other intruder had called him Phillip.

As soon as the young man caught sight of movement however, he was turning to face the threat. The move was graceful, perfectly executed to put him in a defensible position while giving his limbs plenty of room to maneuver.

The scent of fear that had encased him earlier had faded and now fatigue and frustration seemed to dominate as Phillip turned dark eyes to glare at Beast.

"Where did you take him? Where's my brother?"

"I put him on a horse and sent him on his way. That's what you wanted isn't it?" He growled back though it held more surprise than anger.

"Yes. But you could have let me check his wounds first." Phillip dropped his head, sagging a little as he swept off the pointy hat and ran fingers through the ruffled chestnut hair. He sighed and be spoke more to himself as he turned to look at the now empty cell. "You could have let me say goodbye."

The two men, the first intruder and this one, were identical in looks. Same dark hair, dark eyes, square jaw. The same height and sleekly muscled build that spoke of both strength and grace. Yet there was a spark in this one that was different from the first.

Defiant. Strong. A warrior.

Not the glib, silver-tongued charm trying to deceive with soft meaningless words and false smiles. The other one had angered Beast with his arrogance and his ease. This one, this Phillip, drew him with his confidence and his anger.

Lumiere nudged at his feet and Beast recognized the considering spark in his former butler's eyes. He nearly groaned, knowing the candelabra was seeing more than he wanted to show.

"Sir, he is tired. He has given his word. Perhaps you could offer him a room."

And just like that, the last of his righteous anger bled out. The reason for it probably half the forest away by now. He was left to face the consequences of actions taken on instinct and emotion.

He shuffled his feet and dipped his head. "If you come with me, I'll show you to your room."

Phillip turned slowly and stared at him with wide eyes then pursed his lips and settled hands defiantly on braced hips. "My room? Aren't I a prisoner?"

Embarrassment raised Beast voice and shortened his control. "Do you want to stay in the tower?"

Nostrils flared but Phillip was better at managing his temper than Beast. "No. Lead the way."

And so he did, trudging through the halls without a backward glance or single word. Cogsworth filled the silence with descriptions and history of the architecture and artifacts they passed. Occasionally, Lumiere would jump in with a tidbit of history or a suggestion of something Phillip would like to see.

"Tomorrow, when you have rested, we will take you on a grand tour. Show you everything, yes?"

Beast stopped abruptly and roared at the candle holder. "Not the West Wing." Then he turned to fix a hard stare on Phillip. "You are not allowed in the West Wing. Stay out of there."

Phillip tensed at the roar and stepped back but now held his ground. "West Wing. Off limits. Got it. Can I sleep sometime soon?"

Pivoting on his heel and already regretting the outburst, Beast continued to trudge through the halls, trying to think of a way to make it up to his guest.

When they reached a suitable room, he gesture toward the door, words deserting him completely as he tried to figure out how to speak to the castle's newest resident without sounding like a monster.

Lumiere nudged his foot yet again. "Dinner, Master. Ze boy looks hungry. Invite him to join you for a meal."

Dinner. Good idea. Everyone had to eat.

"I'll be dining in an hour," he announced, just as Phillip reached the threshold of the door. "You will join me."

Phillip paused to glare back over his shoulder. "Did you invite my brother to dine with you?"

"Of course not. He was my prisoner."

Dark eyes narrowed to slits and broad shoulders stiffened. "Then I'll make do with whatever bread and water you were going to spare him."

The door slammed shut behind Phillip's parting words.

Anger ripped through Beast and a raw howl followed it, his paws pounding hard against the door before he even knew what he was doing. In the back of his head, he knew this would only make things worse but fury pushed the words out before he could call them back.

"You will be downstairs for dinner in one hour or you will starve."

Managing to get a little control back, he whirled and flew down the hall before he could say or do anything to prove even more how much of a beast he had truly become.

#

Phillip stood one stride inside, back still to the door. His fists curled in tight enough to make his fingers ache. Anger and frustration seethed while he listened to the roaring, the pounding and eventually the retreating thunder of footsteps.

"The Master's in rare form tonight."

He jumped straight up, heart thumping heavily in his ribs at the unexpected voice in the empty room. It probably shouldn't have surprise him when the heavy oak wardrobe spoke in a deep bass rumble. But, really, how was one supposed to get use to furniture and accessories carrying on conversations?

With a deep breath, Phillip forced his hands to uncurl and eased his body out of the fighting stance he'd automatically assumed when he'd landed.

"You mean it's not always like this around here?"

The dresser eyed him from its top drawer before giving a little shiver he took as a head shake.

"Most of the time, it's fairly quiet, but the Master, well, he has his moods. My name's Morris."

"I'm Phillip. I guess we'll be sharing this room, then?" He very much wanted to sit down now that the anger and fear were wearing off, but he eyed the bed suspiciously.

"Don't mind me, after tonight I'll find another room. Trade out for one of the inanimates." A deep chuckle filled the air. "Speaking of, the bed is just a bed, no need to worry about it complaining if you jump on it."

Phillip eased out a breath before shrugging out of his cloak, unwinding his swordbelt, then carefully hanging everything up. Then, gratefully, Phillip sank down, relieved not everything was going to watch him or talked to him in the privacy of his own room. A soft knock on the door made him tighten up in caution yet again. Then it opened on its own and the candelabra trotted in followed by a dark brown bottle scooting across the floor.

The candles bowed deeply. "Lumiere at your service, monsieur. Anything that you need, feel free to ask." He waved a flaming appendage at the bottle beside him. "This is Mr. Bowmore, Master of Spirits for the castle."

A glass appeared from behind the bottle which tipped over to pour a liberal serving of golden liquid.

Lumiere made a drink up gesture and Phillip didn't wait to be asked twice. The whiskey was smooth and sweet and burned just enough to take the edge off of his entire day.

"Monsieur Bowmore doesn't speak much but 'e never runs dry. 'E is a good man to have in a crisis."

Taking the hint, Phillip held the glass out and got another generous splash. When the glass met his lips, Lumiere began to speak again.

"I know ze Master, 'e seems a bit harsh. But the few guests we have had in the past few years, well, zey were not what zey seemed. It's left ze Master a bit jaded."

He let the liquid heat run its course before speaking. "Oh, so the impulse control and anger management issues are no big deal? I should just ignore it?"

Lumiere sighed, his wax drooping a bit but he tried again to explain. "'E was an only child. Pampered and spoiled and indulged. And 'e was still very young when the fever swept ze kingdom and took his parents, leaving him with subjects and servants and little in the way of a guiding hand."

"Zen, of course, zere was ze curse. It tapped into the more primitive and uncontrollable side of him. 'E wears everything 'e feels right up on ze surface all ze time, now."

"Curse?" Phillip's mouth went a little dry in sympathy. Considering the impact a curse had on his entire life when it hadn't even been directed at him, he understood how it could take over. A little twist of empathy tightened in his heart.

"You may have noticed how everything is darker, here, and a little twisted. Zen, of course, zere is us."

The burning wave encompassed Morris, Bowmore and Lumiere.

"What caused it? Who did this?"

The candles became a little straighter and the flames dimmed a little. "Zat is a story ze Master should tell you himself. Maybe you could ask him over dinner? Ze hour is almost up. Perhaps we should head downstairs, now?"

Phillip stiffened, remembering he had no room for sympathy and refusing to be pulled in by his own curiosity.

"I am not having dinner with him. I may have given my word to stay but it's not like I was given much choice. As far as I'm concerned, I'm a prisoner. I won't sit down to a nice meal with my captor and pretend it's any different."

"But I thought you understood. Ze curse, it makes things..." The words trailed off and a candle arm made a circular motion Phillip didn't quite understand. And didn't care to.

He flopped back onto the bed and stared at the canopy overhead.

"There are very few people in any of the kingdoms on the Continent who can't claim some heartbreaking tale of magical misdeeds. It doesn't mean I want to eat dinner with them, either."

#

"Dear, have you considered our new guest might be the one?"

Beast paused in his pacing and tried to glare at Mrs. Potts but she just bubbled on, unperturbed.

"Babette said he was handsome and dashing. A swashbuckler's physique and serious eyes. He sounds like just your type."

"Like that bard Lumiere talked me into letting stay? He was handsome and charming? Everyone thought he could be the one." Including Beast, though he was quickly disabused of that notion. His chest burned with embarrassment and hurt at the memory.

He sublimated it with a surge of frustration at his guest's stubbornness. A glance at Cogsworth showed less than ten minutes remained in the allotted hour and still no sign of Phillip.

"Pish posh. That wasn't love. Just twisted lust and a desire to seek his fame by taming the Beast and finding fodder for his ballad."

Beast snarled and turned abruptly in his pacing to avoid looking at the pity on her porcelain face. He'd been a fool to fall for soft words and slick lies and physical pleasure.

Ignoring her didn't stop her from speaking to him with a soft sadness.

"Not everyone who comes here is like him."

"No." The vibrations from his bellow nearly knocked Cogsworth off the mantle. "No, some of them are treasure seekers and trophy hunters. People who want to steal my possessions or my head sneak onto my lands and into my castle, as well."

Beast wanted to believe this one was different. Had seen a difference right from the start. No glib tongue. No lying eyes. Just burning forthrightness and sharp honesty. He was one of the few people ever to stand up to Beast rather than try to con him or flee from him as fast as they could.

Of course, Phillip loathed him and that sincere honesty expressed his hatred and anger with strong conviction. Still, Beast had time. The rose was withering but there was still weeks before it faded completely. If dinner went well...

The sound of the door creaking slowly open arrested his attention but the quick spin only revealed Lumiere. Alone. Beast let his shoulders sag and his head droop.

"Where is he?" Beast snorted and the hot blast of air extinguished the butler.

"'E's not coming. 'E says 'e has no intention of being friendly with 'is jailer."

 The brief bubble of hope that had started to form burst into bright shards of pain. The hurt and rejection blistered up inside him and he let rage smooth it out and numb the pain.

His roar echoed through the castle as he flew through the halls.

At the door, pounded, demanding.

"You will come out."

"No."

"Come out, now."

"No."

"If you do not eat with me, then you will STARVE!"

Dead silence met his top volume proclamation. For a brief second, he hoped it had worked. Then faint words made their way through the door.

"Fine. I'd rather die of hunger, anyway."

Twisting to face the small group that had yet again witnessed his humiliation, Beast stiffened and reminded himself he was still Master of this castle.

"I want a guard here night and day."

He marched off with his spine straight though he really wanted to slink back to the West Wing with his tail between his legs.

#

Phillip lay on the bed, arm thrown over his eyes, thankful Morris had been content to sit in silence since the Beast had roared his ultimatum outside the door. By all rights, he should be exhausted. But sleep refused to grant him the peace of a few hours of mindlessness.

One day down. A lifetime to go. In a way, it was a relief to have only himself to worry about. Aurora had made it safely to the sanctuary of her father's castle. In a few minutes it would be midnight and she would be presented to the court. Ferdinand might even make it in time to see his beloved's entrance.

Lumiere had reassured him that other fixtures had seen the Beast deposit his twin on a white horse. Phillip had every confidence Samson would get his twin home safely. And thoughts of his brother's horse reminded him of Delilah. He should check on her. Any excuse, really, to get out of this room.

Not to mention the hollow rumble of his stomach reminding him he had some trail rations in his saddlebag. With quiet steps, Phillip eased out of the door and started stealthily down the hall, trying to remember the layout as best he could. But both his dash up to the tower and the procession to his room were a bit of a blur.

When he stepped out of his door, a soft giggle called his attention to the twitching tapestry near his room. A quiet masculine murmur definitely held a French accent.

Phillip bit his lip. Should he risk being sent back to his room by asking for help? There was no way he'd make through the castle without a guide. If he tried it, he' only end up running into Beast with his luck.

He cleared his throat but the only sound that greeted him was another giggle. Phillip smiled to himself, thinking how many times he'd actually gone through the same scenario with Ferdinand. Neither the maids nor the stable boys had been safe from his brother's charm. Though, in the past year, his twin had grown tired of meaningless trysts and talked more and more about finding the one he could share his life with.

Shaking off melancholy thoughts of the family he'd never see again, Phillip cleared his throat once more, putting a little more emphasis on the sound. A feminine gasp was followed by two figures fighting through the tapestry. The duster squeaked and took off as soon as she saw him

"Monsieur Phillip, what are you doing out here? I mean, you look tired, you should be resting."

"You mean I traded in a cell for a bedroom prison because I don't want to play nice. Look, I need to check on my horse." It was still disturbing to see the candle's eyes go wide and its mouth open in protest, so Phillip cut it, him, off before he could speak. "I'm going whether you show me the way or not. It would probably be better for all of us, though, if I don't get caught."

"Right, of course. Let's take care of your 'orse, zen."

It took much less time with Lumiere's help to find his way out of the castle than he could have managed on his own. The building where Del had taken shelter was in better shape than he remembered. Three walls and the roof were still completely intact and part of the fourth wall stood, giving her plenty of shelter from the wind and cold night air.

As he worked to remove her gear and make her more comfortable, the candelabra disappeared. Several minutes later, he reappeared with two pitch forks, one carrying a bucket of fresh water and the other a generous portion of hay.

When Lumiere saw that Phillip intended to sate his hunger with jerky and dried fruit he'd tutted and ushered Phillip back inside to be fed a hearty dinner by Mrs. Potts and the various kitchen implements.

Cogsworth tried to object and Phillip couldn't help agreeing with him silently. He didn't want to be around, either, if the Beast discovered his will thwarted. But Mrs. Potts waved away the concern and Lumiere started singing.

The food was filling and delicious but the music and dancing started to give him a headache. During a particularly loud and complicated portion of the choreography he snuck out to do a little exploring and better familiarize himself with his new home.

#

Outside, the first hints of a storm hummed with distant thunder while Phillip explored his new home. The castle was immense and filled with generations worth of art and relics and luxuries that spoke of an old, old family lineage and a great deal of wealth. Walking through the halls was like walking through history. Phillip was especially drawn to the suits of armor and weapons displayed like pieces of art along the walls. Some were examples of things he'd only ever seen in books and tapestries.

Of course, the first time a knight's helmet turned to look at him with mild disdain, he'd learned to appreciate with his eyes and keep his hands to himself.

Eventually, Phillip's wanderings brought him to the base of a large staircase. Refreshed by a full stomach and having gathered his bearings after his latest trip through the castle, his internal compassed told him this must lead to the infamous West Wing.

His hesitation last only a moment before he put his foot on that first step. He'd promised to stay, he hadn't promised to obey. With a self-satisfied smile, Phillip took the stairs two at a time and headed up into the forbidden.

At the top it was like he'd stepped into another world. One where the castle had been invaded.

Nothing remained intact. Furniture was shattered and strewn like kindling. Pictures and tapestries and every hint of fabric that once decorated the hall were now nothing more than scraps and memory.

At the end of the hall, ominous doors dominated. Huge gouges scored the wood along with dents and missing chunks. Phillip hesitated outside the partially open door then glanced back at the destruction behind him. He needed to know what he was living with.

The only light in the room came from a glow somewhere toward the back, leaving the rest in sinister darkness When his eyes adjusted, Phillip realized the destruction was even worse inside the room. He carefully picked his way through rubble until a badly shredded portrait, one of the few still hanging on the wall, caught his attention and stopped him in his tracks.

Blue. Blue eyes so deep they reminded him of the magical fountains back home. A hint of amusement and a hint of confidence in the azure depths stared back at Philip from between two jagged rips in the canvas. A hint of wavy auburn hair, a suggesting of regal bearing, but not enough to really see the man who once stood still for the artist.

Yet, somehow, Phillip wanted to know more about the man. Wanted to know who he was. Wanted to know what he truly looked like. Wanted...

The faint glow was brighter here, closer to the balcony. On a far table something red captured in glass gave off its own soft light. Curious, Phillip started to move forward, hand stretched out when a roar assaulted his ears. A monstrous shadow leapt over him, placing itself between Phillip and the glowing object.

"What are you doing here?" Glass rattled in its casing as the angry volume echoed the thunder threatening outside the castle. The dark shape resolved itself into a furious looking Beast. "Do you know what you could have done?"

Phillip swallowed hard against the hammering heart beating hard in his throat. Despite the shaking, he did his best to shrug casually. "I was bored. Thought I'd explore."

"I told you to stay out of the West Wing."

"Yeah, well, I don't take orders from my jailer all that well."

"I am not your jailer!"

Another tremor shuddered through the room and Phillip wasn't sure if it was the thunder or Beast's growl. He couldn't see much of Beast's face in the shadows cast by the light behind the hulking figure but he figured he was probably pushing his luck. The Master of the castle wasn't use to having anyone talk back to him and, as good as Phillip was, he knew he was no match for Beast's size, speed and predatory instinct.

He shrugged again, biting his lip to hold back more sarcasm. He may not want to bow to the Beast but antagonizing wasn't a great idea, either.

In the glass of the balcony door, Phillip noticed the snow falling. Big heavy flakes falling fast. He'd never heard thunder during a snowstorm. Unease swept through him as the thunder rumbled again, closer and louder this time. Delilah...

Lightning flashed, stark and bright, leaving him blinded with whitewash for a second followed almost immediately by a ringing crash.

The sharp sound of a frightened horse reached his ears over the whipping wind. Then the chilling sound of wolves howling.

Fear gripped Phillip and he moved, pushing past a surprised Beast to rush out onto the balcony. Far below, he could see the frightened black horse running in frightened zig-zags through the freshly fallen snow.

"Del!"

His scream was ripped away by the howl of wind but he was already flying back inside and tripping his way to the door, praying he could remember his way out of the castle.

Behind him a startled Beast demanded, "Where do you think you're going?"

Phillip didn't pause or look back just shouted his answer as he wrenched open the door and ran for the stairs.

"To save my horse."

#

The world around Phillip blurred on his run from the West Wing to the forest where Delilah had bolted in her panic. When he reached her, he pressed against her side and she calmed instantly at his touch. Her fear, though, was still a palpable thing around them.

The wolves were circling, closing in faster as if sensing their prize might get away. Too late, Phillip realized he left his sword, along with his cloak and his hat, inside. Instead, he picked up a hefty branch and swung it back and forth keeping the closest animals at bay. A soft sound to his left had him whirling a second too late as another wolf launched itself at him.

He brought the branch up, too slow, he knew, to protect himself but a huge body met it in mid-air with a bellow. Beast landed on his feet and the smaller body tumbled through the snow before scurrying back and away from the larger predator. Another wolf went flying at a swipe of the large paw and Phillip turned back and tightened up on the branch to face the onslaught from his side.

They fought, side by side holding the huge, hungry pack at bay, protecting the frightened horse and each other.

"Look out!"

Before he could even glance around to see the threat, Beast pushed him down. Face first in the snow, he felt the bite of rough wood and splinters as he landed awkwardly on the branch.

Lifting his head, he blinked snow out of his eyes to see four of the larger wolves covering Beast. Teeth ripping, claws shredding.

Phillip struggled to his feet but held the branch in check, afraid to swing for fear of hitting Beast. His heart constricted and he fought through the paralysis, trying to figure out what he could possibly do to save the struggling Beast.

Then the animals went flying in all directions as the Beast shook free with a thunderous growl. He crouched down, fur raised all over his body and teeth bared by peeled back lips. A continuous snarl vibrated the air as he stalked toward the backpedaling pack until they finally broke and ran.

As soon as the last of them disappeared into the darkness, Beast collapsed into the snow.

Phillip felt like doing the same. He dropped the branch and bent over, hands on knees to gasp and catch his breath.

When Beast finally lifted his head and their eyes met, Phillip gave a small nod to signify he was alright at the unspoken question. Beast returned the tip of the head and something quiet passed between them.

#

Beast led them, tired and trudging through the snow directly to the castle's stable. Like most of the outbuildings, it needed some care and maintenance, but it was in much better shape than where Del had taken shelter before. Phillip fussed over the horse and whispered reassuringly while checking over every inch of her.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Beast draw aside the two pitch forks talking fervently and sternly to them. They scurried off and Beast folded his arms, leaned against an out of the way corner and disappeared into the shadows. A skill he shouldn't be quite so good at, considering his size. The stable pitchforks returned with fresh straw, a clean horse blanket, a bucket full of oats and pretty much everything a horse could need.

Eventually, he had Delilah settled and left her to the care of the stable hands. Inside the castle, the front hall glowed with light and Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts all waited nervously. A cacophony of questions greeted them as soon as they walked through the door. Phillip didn't hear a word of it, his eyes caught on the gashes and blood matting Beast's fur.

"Enough!" He surprised everyone, including himself, with a roar that rivaled Beast's. "Can't you see your Master is hurt? I'll need rags and hot water to clean the wound. Whatever healing herbs you have and bandages to treat and bind the bleeding."

The three stared at him in shock as he took Beast by the arm and stepped forward, intent on finding someplace comfortable to take care of the cuts. He glared back at the accessories. "Well, hurry up."

Mrs. Potts scurried toward the kitchen, Lumiere in the opposite direction and Cogsworth led him to the main parlor where Phillip pushed a stunned Beast into the singe chair in front of the fire.

As soon as he had everything he needed, he began to clean and treat the wounds. That's when Beast shook off the stupor and began to whine and flinch, often before Phillip even touched the wound.

He couldn't help laughing, reminded a bit of his brother. Among the many reasons Ferdinand hated his training to become Royal Marshal of the Army, top most was because he made a terrible patient. And the physical training required left him seeking treatment often.

With the practice of dealing with Ferd his whole life, Phillip bit back the laugh and schooled his voice into a scolding tone.

"Stop being a baby. And stop squirming."

"But it stings." The word dragged out the way a five year old would say it.

"Of course it stings. That means it's working. It wouldn't hurt as much if you stay still."

Beast snapped at him but his eyes were wide and it was obvious he couldn't think of a retort.

Phillip let a small smile of satisfaction smirk across his lips as he fastened the last bandage in place.

Finished with he attempts at nursing, Phillip yawned, ran a tired hand through his hair and stretched.

Beast's hand shot out, grabbing his wrist and pulling Phillip close. A low rumble of displeasure vibrated between them. The grasp, though, was surprisingly gentle and the words, when spoken were soft and a little sad.

"You're hurt, too."

Phillip blinked down at the arm that had riveted his host's attention. He hadn't even noticed the ripped shirt or the smear of blood underneath.

"It's just a scratch."

"Let me," Beast mumbled, still holding the wrist while his other paw reached for the rag and the water.

It was almost comical, the careful way Beast's huge hand cradled his, the way he held the rag tentatively pinched between two claws and dabbed at the wound with a tight look of concentration.

Then he dabbed on the healing balm, managing to cover a good inch around the wound as well, before wrapping a slightly haphazard bandage thickly around Phillip's arm.

Beast frowned at his handy work, his eyes flicked to Phillip then away to stare pensively at the fire.

"Sorry. It's not as good as yours." He held up the paw not still wrapped loosely around Phillip's wrist. "These aren't exactly meant for delicate work."

Phillip grinned at him, surprising them both with the first, real smile he'd shared with Beast and patted his shoulder, careful to avoid the bandage there.

"It great. Perfect. Besides, it really wasn't that bad. None of the wolves ever got to me. Or to Del. Thanks to you."

#

Beast stared at the long, slim fingers resting on the fur of his shoulder. Felt the warmth and comfort of it. Wanted to lean into it. Into Phillip.

Then he realized he was still practically holding Phillip's hand and carefully let go. He already missed the feel of soft skin and strong muscles under his fingers.

Beast felt the heat rise in his cheeks and, for the first time in a long time, was thankful for his fur. It would hide the hot, bright blush staining his cheeks.

Clearing his throat, he ducked his head and tried to think of something to say.

"Uh, yeah. Well, you were pretty good out there, as well." Good was an understatement. He'd moved with a smooth, deadly grace Beast would have enjoyed watching if the circumstances hadn't been quite so dire. "You've trained as a warrior?"

Phillip tipped his chin down, a blush echoing the one Beast had kept hidden. There was also a sadness in his eyes and a longing he quickly closed off.

"Yeah. Some." He huffed a sad little laugh. "I wasn't supposed to. My father had definite ideas. I was supposed to be the statesmen and my brother was supposed to be the soldier. Age determined our place and the fact that we were both ill-suited to our roles didn't matter at all. We traded places as much as we could. I went to his sparring practice nearly every day for a year before we got caught."

Beast stared, trying to think of something to say to the melancholy confession. Before he could find any words, though, Phillip was yawning again.

"It's time, I think, for both of us to get some rest, wouldn't you say?" Beast asked, relieved not to have tripped over any of the emotions Phillip seemed to pull out of him.

Then he heard himself continue to talk without thinking about the risk of rejection.

"Maybe, in the afternoon, after we both get some rest, we could try sparring together?"

He cringed inside, though he tried to remain stoic, ready for the same vehement refusal that had met his dinner invitation.

So the soft, grateful and sleepy smile took him by surprise. "Yeah. I think I'd like that. But you'll have to go easy on me. Goodnight, Beast."

Phillip was out of the room and out of sight before Beast managed to blink in surprise.

#

Phillip stared morosely out at the fresh snowfall completely covering the gardens. As well as everything else outside the castle.

It had snowed several times in the three days he'd been at Beast's castle but this was the first time it had stuck around until the afternoon, ruining the daily rhythm they'd quickly and easily fallen into.

Battle, and the subsequent tending of each other's wounds, had smoothed something between them. The anger and angst and frustration they each held had eased. Beast had even learned to hold onto his temper a little longer.

It had been almost cute, that first morning. He stood outside Phillip's door and, with a little coaching from Mrs. Potts, had carefully, tentatively, gently asked if Phillip would like to join him for brunch.

Later, they'd spent the entire afternoon in the garden sparring. Phillip using a variety of implements, both sentient and not, as weapons while Beast had used only what nature equipped him with. The hulking predator, however, had still gone easy on him. While Phillip carried quite a few bruises from bad falls, he had not received even an inadvertent scratch from Beast.

By the time dusk had fallen, they'd been tired in that healthy, alive way and Phillip hadn't been able to stop grinning. It was so rare that he just got be himself and go all out. As Prince Phillip, he was supposed to concentrate on books and people and politics. He had a Royal Marshal and an army for defense. When he was pretending to be Ferd, which had become more and more difficult as their father and instructors had caught on, he'd had to hold himself back to his brother's level of skill.

It was nice, with Beast, to just let go and have fun. After sparring they'd settle in for the evening meal together. Then they sat by the fire and talked late into the night about anything and everything.

Phillip told him about Aurora and the arranged marriage bound tighter with threads of fairy magic. He told him about growing up with Ferdinand and how they somehow were born in the wrong order and had been stuck in the wrong lives.

Beast told him about his childhood and losing his parents and the way Lumiere and Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts had tried to be surrogates though he was already a spoiled brat. But he never said a single word about the West Wing or the obviously magic, glowing object it held. And all he would say about the talking furniture was that he'd been spoiled and vain and ungrateful and that he'd deserved whatever curse befell him. He just wished the others hadn't been punished alongside him.

The next day had been much of the same, with a snowball fight in the morning and a prank on Cogsworth in the evening. They'd set all the other clocks in the castle ahead one hour and watched him run around like mad trying to figure out where he'd lost time. They'd laughed so hard they'd ended up rolling around on the floor of the parlor. And rolling into each other. Beast's arms wrapping instinctively around Phillip to hold him still. Hold him close.

Phillip ripped his attention ruthlessly away from the window and his wayward thoughts. Tried once again to focus on the borrowed book he'd been trying to read. Truthfully, though, he was bored. And maybe a little bit lonely. He and Beast had spent every waking minute of the past two days together.

Then, at lunch, when it was obvious they weren't going to get to spar together outside, Phillip had asked his host what they could do instead. Beast had stared blankly at him in silence, then suddenly looked down at his plate a muttered something about a project he'd forgotten he had to do. The dishes had barely cleared themselves before Beast was out of the chair, dragging Lumiere and Cogsworth with him.

It stung that Beast hadn't invited Phillip along. He'd thought they were becoming close. Becoming friends, of a sort. It surprised Phillip, how quickly the animosity had morphed into a comfortable rapport.

And how quickly he was adjusting to life in a uniquely alive castle. If Phillip were honest with himself, he'd admit he was happier than he would have been if he had returned to King Stefan's castle and the stifling, cookie cutter life waiting for him there.

He did miss his brother, though, and wished he knew for sure that Ferd and Aurora were alright. He sighed and flipped the page even though he hadn't read it. Unlike some princes, his impossible wishes weren't going to come true.

"Is something wrong?"

Phillip startled and sat up straighter, warmth curling through him at the worry and concern in Beast's question.

"No, I-I was just thinking about my brother."

Blue eyes clouded over. "You wish to return to him."

"No I..." It was on the tip of Phillip's tongue to say he wanted to stay with the Beast. That he enjoyed his new friends company more than most of his father's court. Instead he went with the simpler answer.

"It's better this way, for everyone. Ferd will make a much better King. And he loves Aurora. I didn't even want to get married, let alone be king."

"You and your brother, you're identical, aren't you?"

"Yes, except that I was born ten minutes too early and with a distinctive birthmark."

Without thinking he shrugged off his shirt in an old habit to show his shoulder to Beast. "It got to the point where if anyone even thought we were switching places we were ordered to strip to the waist. We pretty much spent our entire thirteenth summer shirtless."

He grinned at the memory. Then shivers rocked him as he felt the soft, gentle touch on his back. Beast was stroking the birthmark with the pad of one finger, claws carefully retracted. He traced the outline, brushing over Phillip's skin and raising goosebumps in his wake.

"It's a rose." Hot breath brushed against his skin and Phillip gulped hard to control his own breathing when he realized just how close Beast was.

He could turn his head and touch fur. Their cheeks would rub together. And maybe even their lips.

Swallowing against the sudden dryness of his mouth, he kept his head still and facing forward as he pushed words through parched lips.

"Yeah. Yes. Kind of a girly thing to mark me as a king, huh?" The laugh he added was forced but Beast didn't seem to notice.

"No," he whispered, still leaning close. "Not at all."

The finger traced again, stopping to stroke where Phillip had been told there was a faint, perfect outline of a thorn. His blood heated and he twisted his hands to keep from reaching back. Touching back.

Then Beast was pulling away, shifting back and leaving cold air to replace the inferno of his touch and breath.

"I almost forgot why I came in here. I have a surprise for you."

#

Beast couldn't help glancing at Phillip out of the corner of his eye every few steps. His heart throbbed heavy in his throat and he couldn't keep his hands still. They kept curling and uncurling, twisting and untwisting as he walked.

Phillip looked curious but not nervous. And a little amused at Beast's fidgeting. It shouldn't matter so much that that Phillip looked relaxed and happy just to follow him through the castle. It shouldn't mean so much to him that the young prince would like his surprise.

But it felt like an anchor dragging against him, this anxiousness.

The way Phillip's face had fallen when he'd realized there would be no sparring in the garden because of the weather had twisted a knot of tension deep in stomach. All through lunch, Beast had watched layers of tension, stoic resolution and disheartened withdrawal wrap around the prince. Seen that angry-edged aloof mask he'd worn the first night slip back into place.

Beast had known, then, that he'd gotten to see more of the real Phillip in the past few days than most of the people in his other life. Probably, especially, including Phillip himself.

That's when Beast had remembered the fighting salon. He remembered learning from and watching his father train there when he was young. He hadn't been in there in years. Not since his parents... not since he'd decided he was good enough and didn't need any more training.

But maybe he'd avoided painful memories long enough. Maybe he and Phillip could change the memories and the weight of the past and the constraints of responsibility. This friendship growing between them wasn't what Beast really wanted it to be. What he needed it to be. But it's more than he thought he could have. In a few weeks, he'd turn 21 and be stuck in this form forever. If he could at least have Phillip's friendship, it would be enough.

When they finally reached the door, Beast took a deep breath and said, "Close your eyes."

Phillip snorted a little laugh but did it without protest. Whatever that sneaky feeling in Beast chest was whenever Phillip was around, it tightened at the prince's easy compliance. There was no doubt, no fear, no worry. Just an unthinking trust.

Beast opened the door on the salon, freshly sparkling and clean since he'd wrangled Lumiere and Cogsworth and half of the staff into getting it, and the attached rooms, presentable in record time.

His hand settled low on Phillip's back as he maneuvered the man carefully through the door. Once they were positioned precisely in the middle of the room, Beast reluctantly pulled his hand back.

"Okay. Open your eyes."

Phillip did, slowly sweeping his gaze around the room, turning as he took it all in.

Beast tried to see it through the prince's eyes. A huge room with gleaming hard wood floors and mirrors lining one wall. A small pile of padded carpets stacked in one corner for wrestling and fall training. Practice weapons of all kinds in wood and metals lined the walls, some inert, some blinking sleepily.

Bouncing on the balls of his feet he tried to read the expression on Phillip's face but, beyond awe, he couldn't figure out the myriad of emotions that streaked across it in rapid succession.

Beast pointed to the archway and the set of stairs heading downward off to their left.

"That leads down to an indoor archery range. There are all kinds of bows, crossbows and even throwing knives." He turned to the right. "That's the armory. It's also a sort of museum tribute to the more famous weapons of my ancestors."

When Phillip continued to remain wide eyed and silent, Beast began to wonder if he'd made a mistake. Unfamiliar doubt crowded him and he started to babble just to keep it at bay.

"It's just, you looked disappointed. About not being able to spar this afternoon, I mean. Then I remembered this place. It was a mess, though, so we had to clean it up some. If I was wrong... I mean if you don't want to spar with me you don't have to... or if you just want to train on your own..."

Phillip's dark eyes turned from the room to lock on Beast and he ran out of words. He swallowed hard and curled his claws in against the pad of his paw.

"You did this... for me? Just because... for me?"

It wasn't the reaction Beast had begun to fear, but it hurt in a different way all the same. Phillip had talked enough about his life and his family to understand the surprise. No one did things for Phillip just because. They did it for the prince. For favor or because it would push Phillip farther into the role they wanted him in. His brother was the only unconditional person in his life and Beast had...

"Thank you." Long, muscled arms wrapped around his shoulders. Strong, lean body pressed tightly against his. "Thank you."

Beast's arm wrapped around Phillip, pressing his temple against the soft chestnut hair and whispering quietly into his ear. "You're welcome."

Then he closed his eyes and decided not to think or analyze or rationalize. He just held the prince and enjoyed the embrace for as long as it lasted.

Eventually, though, Phillip stiffened very, very slightly against him, the pliable body going just a little rigid. Beast took the hint and stepped back, reluctantly letting him go. Phillip looked as if he was struggling to find words and Beast shamelessly distracted him.

"So what would you like to see first the archery range or the armory?"

As, he expected, brown eyes glowed in anticipation. "Armory. Definitely."

Wandering through the room was like walking through the history of warfare. Beast's family lineage stretched back into nearly forgotten annals of time and it appeared as if every single weapon they'd ever owned had ended up here.

When they got to the back of the room and the display cases filled with the various enchanted weapons collected over the centuries, Phillip touched the glass with reverence. So Beast scoured his memory, trying to give the prince every detail of every piece.

When they got to the portrait of a knight fighting a massive dragon, Beast smiled at his most famous ancestor.

 "And, of course, Great-great-uncle George." He gestured to the bastard sword and round shield that flanked the portrait. "The Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue."

"Are those..." Phillip eyes flickered from the arms to the painting and back again.

"Yep, the same ones he used to take down five different dragons."

"Wow. Ferdinand and I use to take turns pretending to be George. Of course that meant the other had to be the dragon, but still. That's amazing."

He turned to face Beast head on, the smile wide and bright and completely open.

"Thank you. This is the best birthday I've had in a long time."

Beast felt his eyebrows rise. "It's your birthday?"

Phillip frowned and Beast ached a little that he'd said something to shift the smile away. Then Phillip shrugged and the grin was back. "Think so. I may have lost track of time, but it's close enough. So, thanks."

"You're welcome. But if it's your birthday, we have to celebrate." He turned, knowing his staff was someplace close by, eavesdropping. "Mrs. Potts, come here, we have a birthday to plan."

Phillip tried to protest but Beast just shook his head. He was going to keep giving his prince whatever it took to keep getting those smiles. It was more than enough.

 

 

 

#

Ferdinand lay curled up on a broken bed, clutching a shredded stuffed owl and watched the afternoon light filtering into the ruined cottage. His side twinged a little but was healing well after three days with no sign of infection.

That was the only blessing Ferdinand could count.

And since his entire life lay in shards at his feet, he wasn't even sure he wanted to count still being alive as a blessing.

Ferdinand remembered as little of his second flight through the forest as he did of the first. Eventually, Samson had gotten him safely back to Stefan's castle, though, and he'd rallied himself. He'd marched inside ready to demand two rescue parties. One to save his brother and one to search for his missing peasant girl.

Except, what he found was as horrifying and unfathomable as anything else he'd endured that night.

Everyone in the castle was deeply, soundly asleep. Every. Single. Person.

This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. It was just the princess. And she was safe. Phillip had told him she was safe.

In desperation, he'd searched the castle room by room praying to find one conscious person who could explain or some magical answer that could fix everything. Instead, he found the tower bedroom.

She lay, unmoving and barely breathing. A familiar face in unfamiliar trappings. Ball gown. Tiara. A single drop of dried blood on her finger. His beautiful beloved.

Ferdinand had dropped to his knees by her bed, wrapped his hands around her delicate fingers, pressed his head to the coverlet and let the sobs burst out of him.

What a cruel and twisted sense of humor fate had. His brother had known. Must have known and sacrificed himself so that Ferdinand could take his place with Aurora. Not that Ferd would have left his brother in those monstrous hands. His eyes burned from the tears, his stomach seized and muscles locked into rigid aches of anger and fear.

Knowing it was futile, knowing exactly what the enchantment said and who was needed to break the curse, Ferdinand still couldn't help himself. He pressed his lips to the cool, lifeless ones of the princess. Though he stayed and prayed and tried as hard as he could, his beloved remained unmoving.

Aurora was lost to him, for now. But Ferd realized he could rescue his brother. Once Phillip was safe, according to the fairy charm, the eldest prince, Aurora's betrothed, could save her from the endless sleep. It might destroy Ferdinand to see the two people he cared most about be forced into a loveless marriage but at least they'd be alive and safe.

That plan, however, had failed as soon as he reached the cottage. Sorely he regretted never listening to old Elbert the huntsman when he'd talked about scouting prey or tracking a trail. That had always been Phillip's thing. Ferd could see where Samson crashed through the underbrush. But when he followed it a hundred yards further in, two game trails split in opposite directions and nothing looked familiar to Ferd. He'd followed both trails until he got turned around and ended up back at the cottage again and again.

That night he'd curled up for the first time in the wrecked cottage trying not to give into despair. The next day, he'd tried to track the odd, two-legged animal prints hoping they would lead to Maleficent. If he couldn't save his brother or Aurora, he could at least kill the bitch who had destroyed everything. But that proved to be another fruitless search. The tracks disappeared as soon as they entered the heavy underbrush and fallen foliage, leaving him wandering and lost again.

After another wasted day, he'd again found himself back at the cottage with nothing to show for his labors. Exhausted and hurting despite the healing wound and completely out of ideas, here he was, still curled up on the destroyed bed long after the sun had risen. Clutching a toy that may or may not have belonged to his beloved and feeling sorry for himself. He wasn't giving up. He couldn't, wouldn't ever give up. He was just out of ideas.

The creaking of the door had Ferd stilling and reaching under the pillow to clutch the kitchen knife he had hidden there. He'd found it under the dumped contents of the entire pantry and it was the only weapon he had since losing his sword.

Three women bustled in, chattering away and completely oblivious to his presence. They talked over one another in a way that made him doubt any heard a word the others were saying. Then he saw the wands. And the wings.

Not women, then. Fairies.

The two taller, in green and red, rambled on in an almost constant stream of noise.

"...searched the entire castle..."

"...what will we do?..."

"...not a sign nor hair of him..."

"...may never find him..."

The shorter, rounder one in blue had stopped to stare at him with pinched lips and piercing eyes.

"Oh, yes we will," she said with an authority that belied her jolly build.

"Merryweather, dear," the red said with condescension. "I appreciate your uncharacteristic optimism but I'm afraid we have to face reality and make contingency--"

With an eye roll and a wand jab she pointed at Ferd. "He's right there."

The other two whirled to stare at him. Then the red one collected herself and smiled. "Prince Phillip. We're so glad to see you. We were so worried. You have to come to the castle. Once you kiss the princess, we can fix everything."

"No.

They all quieted with surprising speed, shock apparently making them mute. But only for a heartbeat.

"You're the only hope..."

"Phillip, you must--"

"What do you mean 'no'?" The blue one glowered fiercely and pointed her wand at his heart.

With a sigh, he released the knife, sat up and ran a hand through his unkempt hair.

"I mean, I'm not Phillip. I'm Ferdinand. I tried anyway. I kissed her with my heart and my soul and every fiber of my being willing her to wake. But it was no use. Phillip is gone. Lost to us. And all hope with him. Because of me."

When the next round of unintelligible chatter died down, Ferd settled in to tell them the whole story, from meeting the peasant girl to ending up on a broken mattress in the old woodcutters cottage.

#

Phillip had been both amused and really touched by the eagerness Beast had displayed at throwing him a birthday feast. For such a fierce and hulking first impression, his host had shown himself to be one of the most sensitive and generous souls Phillip had ever met.

Now, though, he was panicking a little as he tore through the meager clothing he'd had packed away for emergencies in his saddle bags. It was rough and worn. He'd only heard bits and snippets as Mrs. Potts and Beast had put their heads together to plan but what he had heard made him think that patched breeches and stained linen weren't going to be up to snuff for the elaborate feast.

"Ahem."

The gruff clearing of a throat made him look up to find Morris hovering in his doorway. The dresser had made good on his word and moved to an empty room down the hall the first morning.

"Morris, come in. What can I do for you?"

"Actually, I thought I might be of help to you."

A drawer about mid-way down slid open to reveal trousers and a cut-away coat in dark grey, a red silk waistcoat and fine linen shirt. When he had gathered everything out of the drawer, it shut with alacrity and the one above it popped open. Stockings, shoes and all the accessories a well put-together young man would need for an elegant evening rested inside it.

"Morris. I don't know what to say. Thank you doesn't even begin to cover all of this."

The top half of the dresser pressed in on itself. An approximation of a shrug that Phillip was beginning to recognize.

"It's just gathering dust in me. Better put to some use. Now, go get ready." The gruff command was filled with affection and Phillip patted the wood before heading into the dressing room with his arms full.

Half an hour later, he met Beast on the stairs and lost his breath at the gorgeous sight. Blue and black and gold fitted and displayed muscles and strength that Phillip knew was their but had never really looked at before. The wild mane was tamed in a neat bow.

Phillip had stopped thinking of Beast as an animal the first night. Seeing him decked out and gorgeous standing on the top step just drove home how beautiful he was, inside and out.

He finally remembered to breathe when Beast stood in front of him giving a slight bow that Phillip returned by rote. For a second, he thought Beast was going to offer him his arm as they headed down the last set of stairs together. And was ridiculously disappointed when he didn't.

Dinner was an amazing spread of delicious food. Venison and pheasant, a medley of vegetables that combined a dizzying array of seasons, fruits and cheeses and fresh, warm bread. There was also the promise of cakes and tarts. Phillip had no idea how he was going to eat any more.

Between bites, they laughed and told story of childhood dinners where faux pas and pranks were more entertaining than a perfectly presented fish course. Phillip loved the sound of Beast's laugh, rich and honest and unrestrained.

As they began to take longer and longer between bites, Beast glowed and grinned at him.

"So, are you having a good time for your birthday?"

Phillip couldn't help the wide, uninhibited grin that burst forth.

"Yes. Very much. Thank you. Much better than the betrothal ball I'd be enduring right now."

As soon as he said it, a shadow of unease swept the table. It was a reminder that he wasn't truly here of his own free will. That this growing friendship was predicated on something darker.

"I know you miss your family," Beast said with a quiet solemnity. "Is there anything else you miss?"

Not wanting to ruin the pleasure of the evening, Phillip put away melancholy thoughts and considered for minute.

"Dancing. I do miss the dancing." With a hint of embarrassment he ducked his head. "It was one of the few proper heir things that I was good at."

"Dancing?" The way Beast's eyebrows nearly disappeared off the top of his head brought back Phillip's laughter.

Lumiere tugged at Beast's sleeve, whispering something in a fast paced French accent that Phillip couldn't follow while Mrs. Potts hummed a familiar song, though what it was eluded him at the moment.

Beast cleared his throat and talked down to his plate. "We have a ballroom and musicians. Er. Instruments. I'm... we could dance. If you like."

Phillip had never danced with anyone but silly, vapid noble girls of one sort or another. He'd never danced with a man. Although he'd thought about it more than once.

"Yes. Yes, I think I would like that." He stood up and held out his hand in a silent invitation.

Beast only hesitated for a second before engulfing it with his paw and leading him out of the dining room.

The ballroom was huge and glittering and elegant. The music started up almost immediately. The same song that Mrs. Potts had been humming in the dining room. Then Beast tightened his grip on Phillip's hand and slid the other arm around his waist. Instinctively, Phillip placed his hand on Beast's broad shoulder and took a step in closer.

It was odd, at first, as they spun smoothly around the dance floor, not to be the one leading. But Beast's steps were sure and his arm felt warm and tight and surprisingly comforting so Phillip let himself be led. He forgot the past and the future, his former responsibilities and the uncertain tomorrows and just let himself get swept up in the music and the moment. Let himself lean on Beast and hold on tight.

He wasn't sure how many songs they danced through before his feet began to ache and the need to rest began to outweigh his need to stay close to Beast. His partner sensed his need for a break and led them from the ballroom to the cooler air of the balcony.

They sat very close together on the low railing and Beast kept Phillip's hands in his paws. With easy silence they rested together, looking at each other under the beauty of the star-filled night sky. When Beast leaned closer, Phillip lifted his head and licked his lips, hoping and offering...

The sound of buzzing behind Phillip's head made him twitch and Beast's focused switched from his eyes to something just beyond his ear.

He turned in time to see three tiny bugs flitting in the air. Red, green and blue. Then they shimmered and began to grow.

When the sparks of magic disappeared the three fairies of Stefan's kingdom stood on the balcony.

Beast surged to his feet growl already ramping toward a roar as he pushed Phillip behind him.

Three wands gestured threateningly and Phillip knew this could get badly out of hand very, very quickly. He placed a calming hand on Beast's shoulder and whispered, "It's okay. I know them."

#

Beast felt the familiar rage building inside him. Unexpected intruders always made him angry beyond reason. What was unfamiliar was the instinct to first make sure Phillip was safe.

The hand on his shoulder and soft whispered words pulled him back from the edge of black-tinged violence starting to well up inside him. He had to curl his fists in tight enough for his claws to draw blood when Phillip stepped around him to greet the women who were obvious magic-users. Beast had little use for enchantresses and even less trust in them. But Phillip let his hand trail down Beast's arm and curled long fingers around his wrist in a steadying gesture. So Beast bit back on his urge to throw the women back over the balcony and waited patiently for signs of a threat.

"Welcome, ladies," Phillip greeted them. "What brings you so far from home?"

All three began babbling at once, a cacophony of sound that hurt Beast's ears.

"...must come at once..."

"...terrible, terrible tragedy..."

"...our only hope..."

"ENOUGH!" Beast roared when he couldn't take it anymore.

The two taller ones stared at him with affronted shock. The small, round one scrunched her nose and curled her lip, face heating with frustration and wand circling threateningly. Beast decided he could almost like her.

"You," he jabbed a claw at the one in blue. "Explain."

And so she did, laying out all the details of what had transpired in the neighboring kingdom the past three days. Beside him, Phillip grew paler and tenser with every word and Beast had no idea how to help the prince.

"... Maleficent feeds on the grief and pain. We had to put the kingdom to sleep in order to stop her from draining the life force of everyone who would grieve for Aurora. Before, there was always hope and Maleficent couldn't get into their hearts. But with Aurora asleep and you missing, there was no hope. So, you see, you are the only one who can fix things. You must come back with us immediately."

Phillip stared down at his feet and Beast watched as he made a valiant effort to pull himself back together. The selfish, spoiled part of Beast wanted to keep Phillip, to make him stay. But that part had faded quickly in the past three days. Had faded in the honest friendship and open affection the prince had offered him.

So he had the 'yes' ready on his tongue for when Phillip gathered himself and asked to be released from his promise.

The prince lifted his head, eyes filled with determination and shoulders drawn back in rigid attention. "I have given my word to stay here, forever. I cannot break my word. I cannot leave."

Beast was as shocked as the fairies. Phillip considered his promise to a beast, a promise given in duress, as strong as his ties to his kingdom?

The fairies were babbling about betrothal promises and charms and whether a father's promise was binding on the son. Beast ignored them and stared at the pain etched on Phillip's face. The self-loathing already burning in his dark eyes. He couldn't let this continue. Couldn't let Phillip hurt like this a second more.

He stepped in front of the prince, effectively blocking him from the three rambling ninnies. Sliding two fingers along Phillip's jaw, claws carefully retracted, Beast stared into those deep brown eyes one last time.

"I release you. You're free to go whenever you wish."

Phillips hand came up to curve around Beast's. "Thank you."

"Ooh. We must hurry then. Before Maleficent finds a way around our spell." The red one bustled forward.

Phillip squeezed then nodded and stepped back. "Alright, let's go."

Brain catching up through the fog of pain and emotion flooding his heart, Beast put his hand out.

"Wait."

"What is it, now?" The feisty little one demanded, tapping her wand into her hand.

Beast ignored her. He grabbed Phillip's hand and dragged him down to the armory. The fairies trailed behind, moaning about lost time the entire way. He ignored them and pulled Phillip all the way to the back display cases then broke the last one open, shoving George's sword and shield into Phillip's hands. "Take these."

"I c-can't," Phillip stuttered. "They're heirlooms. Priceless."

"I've heard about this enchantress Maleficent. You'll need the magic imbued in them. Here, they're just decoration. In a fight, they could save your life. Take them and be safe."

"Thank you. For everything... I..." For a moment, they stood there locked in unspoken words. Then the red fairy called again and Phillip hurried out to save the day.

#

At the edge of the forest, Ferdinand waited next to Samson. As soon as Phillip saw him, he jumped from Del and headed straight for his brother. The hug was tight and long.

"Sorry. The fairies made me wait here. I wanted to come but they couldn't sneak me in the same way they were going."

Phillip leaned back and grinned, so relieved to see his brother looking hale and hearty. "It's alright. You're here. And you look good."

"So do you. I was so afraid I'd never see you again." Ferd gave his shoulder a hearty pat. "I had no idea what the horrible animal would do to you."

Phillip frowned at his brother and shook his head. "He's not an animal. He's so much more than he seems at first sight."

Ferd just arched an eyebrow in disbelief but didn't argue. He was already gathering his reins. "Well, whatever, the fairies freed you from him. Now we need to free the princess."

"Actually, he freed me himself," Phillip murmured, but Ferd was already mounting Samson. There was no point in arguing it now. Later, when everything was settled, he'd set his brother down and explain that the Beast really wasn't anything of the kind.

Instead, he handed over his old sword to the weaponless Ferdinand. The Sword of Truth now a comforting weight across Phillip's back.

Together, the twins kicked their horses into a run and headed into the forest. Red, green and blue streaks followed closely behind.

#

Beast retreated to the West Wing instead of trailing out to pathetically watch the last glimpse of Phillip's back while he rode away. He stood at the table staring over top of the fading rose and out into the night. His heart felt shrunken and raw in his chest. Three days. He shouldn't have become so wrapped up in someone else in three short days.

It didn't take nearly long enough for his senior staff to find him.Then again, he doubted he'd feel like seeing anyone tomorrow. Or a week from now.

The creak of the door behind him barely announced another presence before Lumiere was chattering away. "Dinner went well. And ze dancing, zat was inspired, if I do say so myself."

He heard a little jostling then the precise cadence of Cogsworth's voice. "Yes, well, I believe the Master's skill had more to do with the young man's pleasant evening than you. Where is the lucky young man? Did you tire him out with all the waltzing?"

Cogsworth chortled to himself though no one else laughed. Beast gripped the edge of the table hard, no doubt leaving claw marks in the wood as he hunched further on himself. Under the glass another faded petal drifted down to pool beneath the floating rose. Not much time left now.

"I let him go."

The words were quiet. Little more than a whisper but they felt as if they'd been ripped out of his throat. Out of his soul.

He heard Mrs. Potts soft gasp and Cogsworth's sputter and Lumiere's outraged cry. "You what? How could y--"

His demand cut off mid-word. No doubt because of a nudge from Mrs. Potts.

"I had to." His voice shook, remembering the resolve battling the pain on Phillips face. "I had to."

"But, why?" Cogsworth sounded genuinely confused and Beast couldn't blame him.

"Because I love him." Beast closed his eyes when he said it. It was the first time he'd even admitted it to himself. It was both comforting and cruel.

"Well, zen, zat's it. Zat should break the spell."

Beast's throat closed tight and he could only shake his head.

It was Mrs. Potts sad, steady voice who said what he couldn't.

"No. Phillip has to love him in return." Then she quietly shooed the other two out, leaving him alone with his heartache and his memories.

While the man he loved rode off into battle, alone, against a monstrous foe.

Beast threw back his head and the roar echoed back at him, doubling the sound of futility and pain.

#

Relief coursed through Phillip when Stefan's castle came into view. He still had no idea what they were going to do, beyond waking Aurora and the rest of the castle. He really didn't want to think that far ahead. If he was honest with himself, what he really want was to wake the princess then sneak off back to Beast's castle while everyone was still rejoicing.

But without his oath holding him, he could not bring himself to shirk the responsibilities drilled into him for a lifetime. No matter how much he wanted to.

The squawk of a raven startled Phillip out of his thoughts and he squinted up into the night sky, barely making out the bird shaped shadow crossing in front of the stars as it squealed another alarm.

The forest erupted with Maleficent's goons boiling out all around them. Half the size of a man, they had the strength and speed and muscle of the animals whose faces they wore.

Phillip and Ferdinand sliced through the hoard and Samson and Del trampled more under their hooves. Despite the numbers and tenaciousness, it didn't take long for the twins to fight their way through the goons.

Just when they thought they were clear, though, a green column of fire erupted on the bridge to Stefan's castle, resolving itself into the menacing form of Maleficent.

The black clad enchantress raised her staff in a clenched fist up to the sky, swirling it until a vortex of ominous clouds and lightening appeared above her.

 

"A forest of thorn shall be their tomb. Born through the skies on a fog of doom. Now go with the curse and serve me well, Round Stefan's castle cast by spell!"

 

The spell echoed with the crackling of the thunder and the vortex expanded to engulf the castle. Lightening streaked out of the heavy darkness, striking the ground and stones, walls and bridge. And wherever the crackling energy touched, thick, thorny bushes sprung up. Twisting and engulfing everything in their path.

Phillip pulled up on Del to keep her from crashing headlong into the thorns, then started sawing away at the vines. Ferd was at his side, progress slower with his ordinary short sword but determined and ferocious all the same.

Soon they fought their way through to a clear spot, though they had to leave the horses behind when the thorns grew too thick. They paused to take gasping breaths before pushing on. And then Maleficent appeared directly in front of them. Another pillar of green fire wrapped itself around her and stretched toward the sky. Maleficent's shape continued to stretch and grow, morphing into a dark monstrous shape with glittering teeth, cold scales and leathery wings.

Dragon.

Phillip choked up on his sword a little and sent a silent thanks to Beast. He shifted so Ferd was on his left just in time to lift his shield and ward off the blast of fire issuing from the huge snout.

They stumbled backwards when a second blast crashed into the bridge and destroyed the stones where they'd been standing a second before.

The dragon inhaled sharply and Phillip managed to swing his shield to deflect the green flame once again. Phillip stumbled back under the onslaught and Ferd grabbed his sleeve, dragging them both back into the relative safety of the thorns.

Snapping teeth and glowing eyes tried to follow them in but the dragon was defeated by her size and the sharp thorns.

When the fire came again, it lit up the briars all around them beating them further back with unbearable heat and choking smoke until their backs were against unyielding stone.

Flora hovered above their head, waving her wand agitatedly. "Up. Up this way."

They scaled their way up the difficult cliff face. Phillip and Ferdinand dragged each other up and over the side but the dragon was already there, ready and waiting for them.

Phillip pushed Ferdinand one way while he jumped the other and the stream of hot green sliced between them. Phillip hopped back to his feet and saw that Ferdinand was still struggling and the dragon was readying for another strike. He dove, rolling to get his shield up in time once again.

His body ached and he could feel fatigue starting to slow his reaction. He didn't know how much longer he could keep it up before he could no longer dodge fast enough. But Maleficent had learned and wasn't given them a chance to regroup anymore. She kept pressure on them with short blast after short blast not allowing them to move out from under the shield. Phillip couldn't fight and protect them from the flames at the same time.

Then a roar came from nowhere, distracting the monster and the twins alike. Beast leapt over the edge of the cliff, launching himself at the dragon. Maleficent reared back but was too late. Beast landed squarely on her neck, swinging around to sink ripping teeth and tearing claws into the base of her skull. She shook her body and scraped at the pest on her back, forgetting for a moment, her former foes.

The distraction was enough to give Phillip and Ferdinand time to scramble to their feet. The fairies descended around his sword chanting another one of their rhymes.

 

"Now Sword of Truth fly swift and sure,  That evil die and good endure!"

 

The weapon glowed and sparkled. Phillip pulled back and let it fly like it was a throwing knife rather than a bastard sword. It flew straight and embedded itself halfway to the hilt in Maleficent's vulnerable underbelly. The world slowed as the monstrous lizard collapsed vertebra by vertebra. Beast jumped free seconds before the giant body tumbled over the cliff to be consumed by the fire still burning below.

Beast landed lightly, just in front of Phillip. One paw wrapping around the prince's waist to steady his wobbling form.

Phillip smiled though it was ruined a little by the choking cough that followed it. "That was a timely entrance. Over dramatic, maybe, but timely."

Beast smiled and his hand tightened a little where it rested on Phillip's hip. "Are you alright?"

"A few new scrapes and bruises. Nothing I haven't had before. You?"

Before Beast could answer, Ferdinand was at his side, clapping him on the shoulder.

"We must hurry. We still have to find a way to get into the castle quickly. Aurora waits." He gave Beast a wary, suspicious look but at least Ferd did not say anything to offend him. Then his brother headed back to the fairies.

The smile had left Beast's face and he looked down at Phillip with a blank expression.

"What will you do? After?"

Phillip didn't have to ask what he meant by after. He shrugged and swallowed around the tension gripping his throat in a choke hold. "I don't know that I'll have many choices."

"Duty and responsibility." Beast said, understanding and sadness slipping into the depth of his blue eyes.

"Yes. I can't leave them," he waved in the general direction of the castle. "Like that. And once it's fixed, well, there are promises and expectations and an avalanche of obligations waiting to happen."

Beast's hand tightened one more time then he withdrew it and nodded. With nothing left to say, they turned to rejoin the others.

Phillip bit his lip when he saw the stiff way Beast held himself. Obviously, he'd been hurt more than he'd let on. But there was nothing that Phillip could do about it now, with no supplies. They'd have words about it, though, when the crisis was behind them.

#

Eventually, the fairies changed the remaining thorns into harmless grape vines that braided themselves into a make shift patch for the bridge.

It was a solemn group that hurried through the castle. Ferdinand reached the door to Aurora's chamber first but he paused and let the fairies go in ahead of him. Phillip caught sight of his brother's face and bit back a gasp at the anger and resolution.

"Ferdinand? Are you alright with this?"

He snorted but the rough temper still stormed hot in his eyes.

"There is no 'alright' about this. The woman I love is in there in an enchanted coma. The only way to save her, an entire kingdom and our father is to watch my brother kiss her. Then stand silently by while they get married."

Phillip glanced toward the top of the stairs where Beast hung back, letting the brothers have a moment of privacy. He was feeling as angry and stressed and hopeless as his twin.

"Maybe, after this, we can convince them there is another way." He said half-heartedly, wanting to believe it but knowing it was no use."

"Right. After this, they'll probably have you married off tomorrow, considering your victory a good omen that has to be acted on immediately." Ferd paused then and tilted his head back toward Beast without actually looking. "Are you alright?"

He should have known that Ferd would see through him. His twin always saw the things that no-one else ever saw. But Phillip was as stuck by fate as any of them. Duty. Responsibility.

"There is no 'alright' about this." He echoed his brother's earlier words, the same anger and frustration bleeding through. "But we do what we have to do. Don't we?"

Unable to stand thinking about it anymore, Phillip turned and headed into the room. There was nothing left to do but seal his own fate.

Behind him, he heard Ferd and Beast enter quietly and hang back. The fairies hovered in excitement and concern. He thought about all the fear and pain and heartache contained in this room caused by Maleficent. The bitch hadn't suffered nearly enough before she died.

Phillip strode across the floor forcing himself to go quickly and not look back. Otherwise, he might very well bolt for the door and never return.

Kneeling beside the bed, Phillip bent and gently brushed his lips over the still, rose-red mouth. As soon as he pulled back, blue eyes flutter opened and soft lips curved into a smile when Aurora looked up at him.

"You. It's you."

#

"You. It's you." Her breathless whisper and welcoming, warm gaze twisted Phillip's stomach and made him flinch.

"Uh, not exactly."

Her cupid bow lips pulled down into a frown. "I don't understand." She pushed herself up then, looking lost and confused and still a little sleepy. Then she looked past Phillip and gasped. He felt Ferdinand step closer to his back then hesitate.

Phillip sighed and ran shaking hand through his hair. "Let's start from the beginning, okay?"

She nodded, her eyes flicking between the twins.

"You were betrothed to Prince Phillip on the day you were born."

"Yes, they told me that, right before they brought me here." She looked sad but resolute. "I know I must marry but I'm just glad to see you, both of you, one last time, before I have to marry him."

Phillip stomach twisted again and he swallowed down the bile. It could never be easy, could it?

"It's more complicated than that. I am Prince Phillip, eldest son of King Hubert and this is..."

Before he could introduce Ferdinand, Aurora launched herself at him kissing his cheeks and his lips and she babbled and Ferd growled behind him.

"Oh, that's wonderful. We can be together after all. I was so sad..."

She stopped abruptly, then looked away from him to Ferdinand. And back to him. "It's not you, is it? The prince from my dreams."

"No."

She stood up then and straightened her skirts, before stepping around him to hold out her hand to Ferdinand. He took it carefully and knelt before Aurora with an expression of awe and love.

Feeling out of place and in the way, Phillip scooted out aside. He turned to find the three fairies were the only other occupants in the room.

"Where's Beast?" He didn't even think about what it meant or how it would be taken, that desperate demand.

"Why, he left as soon as you kissed the princess, dear." It was the one in green, Fauna, who answered.

"He was hurt. He was hiding the stubborn oaf but he shouldn't have gone anywhere until I could tend it."

"I think he wanted to get out before the castle started waking up." Flora said.

"For the best." Merryweather wrinkled her nose. "Some of Stefan's guards have rocks for brains. They might've stabbed first and asked if he was friend or foe later."

Now that it was pointed out to him, Phillip could hear the sounds of movement floating up from below. It was only a matter of time before some castle resident stumbled over them. A matter of minutes before the final shackles of destiny closed around him. Around all of them.

He turned back to warn Ferd and Aurora but the words caught in his throat. They were wrapped up in an embrace so tight it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Her head rested on his shoulder and his nose was buried in her hair. They murmured soft words and clung to each other.

"How can I tear them apart? Damn it. Why can't they be together? Why does it have to be me?"

Phillip didn't realize he was shouting until all eyes in the room were staring at him.

"Well, you are identical," Merryweather pointed out. "Why can't you just trade places?"

"The birthmark." Both twins answered.

"We would have switched ages ago but my birthmark gave us away." Phillip added.

"If you switched, you'd be giving up the throne? Are you willing to do that?" Flora asked, examining him closely.

"In a heartbeat." He answered without hesitation.

"But what would you do? If you stayed, you risk being exposed."

"I-I'd go back to the Beast." He didn't know how to say he'd been more himself in his three days as 'prisoner' than he'd ever been in his life.

"Alright, boys, come over here and take off your shirts." Merryweather twirled her wand imperiously.

Neither one moved, instead they exchanged confused glances.

Merryweather wiggled in impatience but Flora spoke up. "What she means is we can give Ferdinand a copy of Phillip's birthmark, if that's what you both want?"

Ferdinand started moving first, crossing the room to stop inches from Phillip.

"Are you sure you want this?"

Phillip thought of lonely blue eyes and a chance for neither of them to ever be alone again.

"More than ever."

"Thank you, brother." They clasped each other in a close embrace then stepped back and started removing clothes.

When he was bare to the waist, Fauna circled around and gasped in surprise.

"Merryweather, dear, when you gave Aurora the blessing to alter Maleficent's curse, why did you chose to word it betrothed's kiss rather than the more traditional true love's kiss?"

"I don't know. It just came out when I was... Oh." She'd flown around behind Phillip and stopped abruptly.

Phillip tried to twist his head around trying to see what all three fairies were staring at behind him.

"Your birthmark, it's the mark of a Curse-breaker."

"Curse-breaker? What's that mean?"

"Well, they're rare so we don't know for sure. Some have only ever broken one curse. Others have traveled the countryside and left broken curses in their wake."

"Oh." He thought of twisted trees and gloomy castle corridors and servants trapped in furniture. And suddenly the itch to get back to Beast became a burning need.

In moments, the spell was done and Ferdinand had a perfect replica of the rose, right down to the starkly outlined thorn.

"Be well, Phillip. And find a way to get word to me, if you can. I don't pretend to understand but I do want you to be happy."

"I will be. And knowing that you will be, too, makes leaving easier. Try not to let father worry about me. You. Us."

With nothing left to say, Phillip wrapped himself in his cloak then followed one of the fairies down a back staircase and out a secret door before anyone could see him.

He found Del and rode off into the beginning of sunrise. He headed straight for Beast's lands and, hopefully, a happy future.

#

Exhaustion dragged at every inch of Phillip, mind, body and spirit. But he refused to stop, pushing himself until he finally, finally let himself through the door of the West Wing.

"Beast? Where are you?" He called out to the darkened room. Lumiere and Cogsworth had said the Beast had come directly up here when he returned and locked himself away. Of course, Phillip had charmed the spare key out of the resistant clock.

The room appeared ominously empty until a sound from the balcony drew him out there.

As soon as he caught sight of Beast, prone and still, lying on the balcony floor his heart twisted in fear. The sound came again and Phillip realized the pitiful rumble was a moan of pain.

He ran then, dropping to his knees, one hand reached up to stroke the soft fur while the other hovered over the wide gash along Beast's side.

The blood was dry but Phillip could feel the heat pouring off of it. There was already a scent of infection wafting up from it and something black crusted the edges. What noxious substance had Maleficent had on her claws? Would the bitch ever stop destroying lives?

"Damn it. Why didn't you stay? Why didn't you let us try to heal you?"

"Phillip?" Beast's face scrunched in pain before his eyes fluttered open. He smiled but pain and sadness pulled at the edges of it. "Phillip. You came back."

A giant paw reached up and cradled Phillip's cheek. He turned his face into it and nuzzled the gentle touch.

"Of course I came back." As much as he didn't want to leave Beast's side, he knew he had to go get help and supplies. He gripped Beast's hand and pressed it closer. "I'll be right back..."

"No. Stay."

"But you need help. Let me..."

"Too late. Poison on her claws. Can feel it all through me." He coughed a little, his voice getting raw. "Her last curse."

"It's not too late." He couldn't, wouldn't face that, damn it. "Please, Beast. Don't leave. Please."

He clutched harder at the paw against his jaw and sank the other hand into the soft fur by Beast's ear.

"Adam. My name," he coughed, the action shook his whole body. "My name is Adam."

"Adam." Phillip leaned forward and whispered it again. A caress. A prayer. A plea. "Adam."

Adam smiled, thumb caressing over Phillip's skin. Then he groaned, his eyes rolled back and closed. The paw in his hand went limp.

The first tear escaped Phillip's control to roll down his cheek and he angrily wiped it away. Then he wrapped his both arms around the limp body and cradle Adam close.

"Don't you dare leave me, Adam. Damn it. Don't you dare." He rocked them both.

Inside a faint movement caught his attention. A glowing petal fell off a fading rose. And things began to click in his head. Curse-breaker. Maleficent's last curse.

Kissing Aurora had broken one of Maleficent's curses. Maybe it would work again.

"I love you, Adam," he murmured then brushed his lips against the cool unmoving ones. Unlike with Aurora, he didn't keep it brief. He kept trying and praying that the mouth under his would respond.

But nothing happened and finally a sob forced Phillip to break the kiss. Tears streamed down his face unchecked. Through the water blurred vision, colorful streaks began to rain from the sky leaving trails of sparks and smoke wherever they landed.

The smoke began to twist around them, wrapping around the unconscious body in Phillip's arms. Then it wrenched Beast away from his arms. Frantically he scrambled to his feet but Adam was already floating out of reach, spinning faster and faster until the cloaked twisted around him and obscured him from sight.

Blinding light started at Beast's fingers and toes and expanded until Phillip had to close his eyes in order to protect them.

When he finally dared open them and blinked away the residual auras, Beast was on the ground, still wrapped up in his cloak but struggling to get up. What, who, rose wasn't Beast.

It was fully human, yet seemed familiar. Auburn hair waved around his face. He was taller than Phillip and broader through chest and shoulders.

The strange reached out but Phillip took a step back. The man frowned, looked at his hand still outstretched, then back down at his body. Eyes wide with surprise and wonder, he grinned before reaching out again.

"Phillip. It's me."

Blue eyes met his, filled with joy. But there was still the too familiar memory of painful loneliness in them, as well. Phillip knew him. No matter the shape, he was sure he would always know his Beast. His Adam. And he vowed to do everything he could to erase that shadow from his eyes someday.

Phillip reached for him until they were wrapping themselves up in each other. This time when lips met lips there was no doubt. Phillip covered Adams mouth with searching need and was consumed in return. Tongues danced and discovered as they desperately tried to learn every nuance and taste of each other.

He had no idea how long they clung to each other but when the need for air finally drove them apart, the entire world had changed.

Or, at least, the castle and its residents. No longer dark and gothic, the castle was bright and filled with old world charm. A tall skinny man, a shorter, squat man and a round-cheeked woman peeked from the doorway. Despite the drastic change in appearance, Phillip had no doubt who they were.

"Wow," he murmured, still clinging tight to Adam. "This is different."

"Do you like it?" A note of apprehension strained the question.

"Of course. It's beautiful."

"Good. How long can you... will you stay?"

Now there was fear and restraint mixed in with hope and Phillip tilted his head back. He wanted to look in Adam's eyes and make sure there were never any more doubts.

"Didn't you hear me say I love you? I'm here for as long as you want me."

"Forever, then."

Adam made it sound like an order before sealing their lips together again. One command Phillip wouldn't argue with as he shifted closer and lost himself in his very own beloved.

EPILOGUE

Adam couldn't stop smiling, the joy and relief were foreign feelings but he never wanted them to end.

Lumiere had suggested a ball for the entire staff, to celebrate their return to real life. The castle once again filled music and food and dancing. The halls rung with joy and laughter and high spirits.

And Adam's day had been filled with Phillip.

He glanced down at the man, one arm tucked around Adam's waist as they stood tiredly leaning against the wall watching the castle's staff and inhabitants blowing off years of stress.

Phillip gazed up at him, looking relaxed but contemplative as his free hand came to rest on Adam's now healed side.

"What is it?" Adam asked. "You look pensive."

"Not pensive. Just..."

"Just, what?"

"I'm kind of going to miss the Beast. Not that this body isn't gorgeous. It just might take a few days to get used to it."

Adam threw back his head and laughed before dragging Phillip down a hallway to an old family portrait gallery.

He stopped in front of a picture that held a place of prominence in the middle of the room. Animals of all sorts, including chimeras and those long lost in myths lounged together with a group of men and women. Most with auburn hair and blue eyes.

Phillip stared at the picture for a long time before frowning at Adam with his eyebrows drawn together. "Alright, what am I suppose to be looking at?"

Adam pointed to a corner where a figure stood partially obscured by foliage. Caught halfway between human form and wolf.

"I come from a long line of shape-shifters. The enchantress didn't force the Beast form on me so much as trap me in my other form. And lessen the control I would normally have over its instincts. Not that I exercised much of that control when I was younger."

The smile that got him was blinding. "So, I'll still see Beast from time to time?"

"Whenever you want, love."

He sealed the vow by sliding his hand behind Phillip's head and pulling him into a deep, promise-filled kiss. One that pledged happily-ever-after.