It had been a week since the Beast had given her the magnificent library. After exhausting herself the first two days exploring every last shelf, she was able to properly settle in to the waiting stack of books the Beast had helped her sort. On that seventh day, however, Belle sat in the library, Grimm's fairy tales waiting in her lap but she found herself too distracted to read. The conversation she and the Beast had after he presented her with the library was still fresh in her mind; the guilt of unknowingly belittling him still held strong in her chest. Though she was glad of the chance to explain herself, she couldn't ignore the fact that the Beast had not entered the library since.
She did not let his absence from the library or her guilt keep her from her new books, though. She spent many hours that week pouring through the piles she and the Beast had created. Belle was worried that the Beast might resume his grumpy, harsh mood in light of her poorly chosen words despite her apology, but she had nothing to fear. Though it was true the Beast went nowhere near the library, he had sought her out several times that week. They had shared many meals together as a result, chatting comfortably with each other and twice taking a stroll around the chilly, snow-covered grounds.
As she sat in the library at the end of the week, she felt her guilt ebb and her frustrated frown turn into a thoughtful smile as she recalled the walk they had taken just last evening.
They had eaten a pleasant dinner together, sitting across a small table that allowed comfortable conversation, but was still large enough to keep any splatter from the Beast's side reaching her own. She was surprised how quickly she had gotten used to the Beast's. . .unorthodox style of eating. It created a bit of a mess, but she understood that his jaw and paws were suited for little else. And he had been improving, with some gentle prodding on her end.
"I'd like to go for a walk," she said when dinner was finished. "Would you like to join me?" They had done such an activity earlier that week, but somehow that night felt different, though she couldn't say just how. The Beast's ears perked up excitedly and agreed, waiting while Belle donned her cloak before following her out to the grounds.
"How's your leg?" he asked as they followed shoveled pathways, the setting sun painting gold and crimson rays across the snow.
"Almost healed, I think. I took the stitches out, so now it's only a small cut. I'm afraid it will leave a bit of a scar, though." Belle didn't really mind the vivid scar that marked her leg, especially since it was unlikely anyone would see it, but she had heard that old scars had a tendency to ache in the cold and rainy weather. While the wound was still too new to test that theory, she wasn't eager to find out if it was true. "How's your arm?" she said when the Beast was silent.
"Fine," he grunted shortly.
"Can I look?" She reached for his arm and he obliged her, pushing up his sleeve and placing his forearm gently in her tiny hands. She was pleased to note that the hide had closed completely and his fur had grown over it evenly to hide any of his own scars. "You healed nicely," she said and ran her hand over the fur on his arm so it lay smoothly. His fur was silky and warm despite the chilly air and she found it difficult to take her hand away.
"You're better at healing others than you are yourself," he grunted again, but she heard a lightness in his voice that suggested he was laughing at her.
"I could say the same for you," she retaliated merrily, recalling how he had cared for her when she was ill and yet neglected himself. Belle lifted her head to look at him, craning her neck back further when she realized how close they were. The Beast looked as though he wanted to say something in reply, but he seemed to have thought better of it and only sighed, his warm breath washing pleasantly over face and causing her to shiver.
"Are you cold?" he asked. Belle nodded, unable to explain why his warmth was truly the cause. "Let's go inside," he suggested and turned back they way they had come. He paused mid-step, however, and turned back to her to hesitantly offer his arm. Surprised at this courteous action, she placed her hand in the crook of his elbow and allowed him to lead her inside.
Belle sat in her library, her hand caressing the book in front of her as she remembered that somehow alarming interaction. She couldn't quite place what is was, but something between them had changed after the Beast rescued her. He was so gentle now, so eager to see that she was comfortable and happy. Though he still had bouts of his flaring temper, they were far fewer than before and were short lived.
Giving up on the book as impossible, she left the library and walked the halls restlessly, unsure where she went but too distracted to care.
"Hi, Belle!" a small, friendly voice broke through her thoughts.
"Hello, Chip," she replied, smiling at the adorable little teacup. The other teacups were still too shy to talk to her, but she was glad of Chip's persistent joy and forwardness. "What's new today?"
"Nothin' much I guess," he said slowly, apparently trying to recall his day. "Mamma gave me a bath of course," he grumbled. "And the Master was looking for you earlier."
"Do you remember why?" Belle asked, wondering why none of the other servants had told her.
"Nope, sorry! It was awhile ago now, so I don't know if he's still looking for you. Belle, do you like the Master?" he asked suddenly, catching Belle off guard.
"I—well I barely know him, Chip. He's very secretive," she added with a sudden idea. "Is there anything you think I should know about him?" She bent down to be closer to the little cup, hoping that he might inadvertently tell her something about what kind of enchantment was obviously enshrouding the castle.
"Um. . .well he's kinda—"
"Chip! There you are!" Mrs. Potts called as she hopped down the hall. Belle inwardly sighed, wishing that Mrs. Potts had held off just one more minute. The servants were so unwilling to talk about the castle, always changing the subject whenever she brought up the enchantment or their past. Chip was her only realistic hope of letting something slip that would give her a clue. "Belle, dear I believe the Master was looking for you earlier."
"Yes, Chip just told me. Do you know where he is?"
"Last I saw, he was headed towards the library," she said and Belle laughed at herself having come all this way just to have to turn around again.
"Thank you," was all she said before heading back the way she had come. Sure enough, as she approached the library's doors she heard the now-familiar thud of the Beast's heavy footsteps.
"Oh," he grunted in surprise at seeing her as he appeared around a corner.
"Mrs. Potts and Chip said you were looking for me," she prodded, trying to get him to say something.
"That was hours ago," he growled and Belle sensed his temper starting to rise.
"You could have come found me yourself," she reminded him gently. "But you've found me now, so what did you need?"
"I—uh, mostly I just wanted to apologize," he stammered, suddenly very nervous.
"For what?" Belle couldn't think of anything he need apologize for.
"For, uh being a bit too. . .forward last night. I don't want you to do anything you don't want to, and that includes being so near me. It can't be comfortable for you to be near something like me." Belle frowned slightly as she realized that the Beast had thought about the previous night in a far more negative light than she had.
"Oh," was all she could say. How could she convince him that he wasn't repulsive to her as he apparently assumed? And, above all, he was not a thing. Perhaps instead of saying something that might embarrass both of them, she could do something instead. "Would you like to join me?" she said simply, motioning to the doors beside them. "I was thinking about starting King Arthur, perhaps I could read it to you?"
"All right," he agreed readily and started towards the doors. Belle stood her ground and cleared her throat, causing the Beast to turn back to her.
"Aren't you going to offer me your arm?" she asked innocently. The distance between where she stood and the library chairs was hardly enough to merit such an action, but she hoped it would do the trick to ease his mind. The Beast paused for several heartbeats before walking back to where she stood and extending his arm towards her. Again, she placed her hand on his arm and smiled inwardly at the Beast's open grin.
As they walked arm in arm towards the waiting fireplace, Belle realized something very important: she was no longer a prisoner. If she had asked him, this gentle Beast would have let her go. But she had given her word that she would stay. And, if truth be told, she was intrigued by how the Beast seemed to be changing.
She wanted to be near him, he elated to himself as he walked with her towards the library's chairs. He has spent a sleepless night tormenting himself by playing over the night in his head, thinking of a thousand possible ways he had ruined everything by standing so close to her, by suggesting with his impulsive gesture that she touch him. But that worry had been for nothing.
He sat in the armchair across from her, watching as she sifted through the pile of books for the right one. The Beast was a bit unsure about having to sit for the entire length of a book. What if he became restless or hungry or thirsty? Would it be rude to call for Mrs. Potts for a drink in the middle of the story? He had very little frame of reference for this sort of thing; the last book anyone had read to him was a story book when he was a small boy and no one minded if he dozed off in the middle of it.
But when Belle began to read, his fears melted away as he felt himself sinking into the tale. Belle's words flowed easily and soon they became images in his mind. He watched as the boy named Arthur went through his adventures with a wizard named Merlin. Though at first he made uncomfortable connections to his own past, being turned into a beast by the enchantress as Arthur was turned into a fish and a bird by Merlin, the story's adventures soon left his own problems faded in the distance.
"Knowing not that this was indeed the legendary sword of Excalibur," Belle read, "Arthur tried to pull it from the stone. He tried once, but to no avail. He tried a second time but still he could not pull it out. Then, for the third time, Arthur drew for the sword and—"
"So that must mean he's the king!" the Beast exclaimed, nearly rising from his chair in anticipation.
"Wait and see," Belle said with a giggle. The Beast realized that for the first time in years he had forgotten about his own cursed life in light of this book.
"I never knew books could do that," he confessed softly, wondering at his own reaction to the tale.
"Do what?" Belle asked, putting down the book to look at him with real curiosity.
"Take me away from this place, make me forget for a little while."
"Who I—what I am," he admitted, spreading his hands to motion to his beastly form. To his surprise, Belle sighed and shook her beautiful head.
"You are more of a who than many people I know," she said sternly, apparently disapproving of what he said. "There's a goodness in you I don't think you realize is there. In the town where I come from, there's a man. . .Gaston."
The Beast felt his eyebrows knit together at the mention of another man's name. Was this a beau of hers? How dare she mention another man in front of him. Yet something in her tone suggested that this Gaston might not be all that desirable to her. He recalled when Belle had been ill and was having a nightmare; she had called the name Gaston with clear terror, begging the Beast to save her from him. No, this Gaston was definitely not a beau.
"He's strong, admired, and admittedly one of the most handsome men in the village," she continued with a clear note of disdain. "But he has no humanity, no sense of any joy but what he gives himself through his admirers. If anyone could be considered a what, as you put it, it would be him."
He tried to absorb what she was saying, what it meant. Could it be true that this beautiful woman before him no longer saw him as a monster? Yes, she could stand to be in his presence for days now, even tolerated his touch, but that he had a soul to her? He could think of nothing to say to that, admittedly overwhelmed by this new information. So he merely smiled in what he hoped to be a grateful manner. Belle smiled in return and turned back to the book.
"For the third time, Arthur drew forth the sword, and there arose from the people a great shout: Arthur is king!"
"Told you so," he said proudly, leaning towards her to emphasize his point. She smiled prettily at him and his heart fluttered.