Their time in the library passed nearly unnoticed as Belle read King Arthur to the Beast. She was overjoyed to be revisiting the story that had such a marked point in her life. It was the last book she had read with her dear friend Clarice; as she read it again, she found herself recalling those endless hours they had spent reading to each other. Sometimes, when the story was particularly enchanting, Papa had to remind them to eat something. So when Cogsworth waltzed into the library announcing that dinner was served, she couldn't help but laugh. The Beast looked at her curiously and Belle tried to explain.
"I always seem to forget that I'm hungry when I'm reading a good book," she confessed. As if on cue, her stomach gave a less than subtle rumble.
"I forgot, too," the Beast agreed, his surprised smile warming her heart. She was so glad he was relishing the book as much as she was. Belle had been uncertain the Beast would be willing to sit and listen to her read for so long, but his excited outbursts more than proved he was enjoying himself.
"We'll continue this tomorrow, if you want," she said, placing a ribbon in between the pages to mark where they had left off. The Beast nodded and quickly agreed before escorting her to dinner.
"When Guinevere heard that Arthur was slain," Belle read the following day, the Beast once again silently listening to her. "She stow away to a convent and no one could ever make her smile again. The end," she sighed and slowly closed the book, unable to help the small tear that formed in the corner of her eye. Poor Guinevere, she thought miserably.
"What a beautiful story," the Beast breathed. Belle opened her eyes again, wiping the tear away as she smiled at him.
"I knew you would like it." At least, she had hoped he would.
"Do you want to start another one?" he asked, still sitting in the chair across from her, leaning on its arm as he eagerly listened to her read. She couldn't help but laugh at his position, like a boy asking for a sweet.
"If you don't mind, I'd like to wait a bit before starting a new book. It sounds a bit silly, but I need to let the story settle for a little while. It almost feels like I'm doing the characters an injustice by moving on to another story too quickly." The Beast raised a confused eyebrow at her, but he nodded in agreement if looking a bit disappointed.
"I was wondering. . ." she started as the Beast started to stand and stretch. He paused and turned to look at her again, his gentle, soft blue eyes giving her his full attention. "I was wondering if there was anything you like to do. A hobby, I mean." Belle swallowed nervously, still unsure if she could ask such personal questions of her host.
"No," the Beast grunted, clearly trying to dismiss her question, but Belle would not give up so easily.
"There must be something," she reasoned. "You spend all your time in the castle, isn't there something you like to do to pass the time?"
"I—" he paused and took a breath as if to steady his nerves. "I used to play the piano," he finally admitted and immediately busied himself with stoking the fire unnecessarily.
"Used to?" she pushed gently, staying where she was to avoid making him more uncomfortable than he already seemed. Rather than answering her directly, the Beast stood and spread his large paws for her to examine. The thick fingers were clearly too large to pick out notes on a keyboard, but then how had he learnt to play in the first place?
The answer was clear to Belle, even if it seemed impossible: the Beast had once been human.
She had suspected such a thing since her first dinner at the castle. The enchanted objects, so desperate for something to do, were obviously longing for something that had been taken from them. They could easily have been human themselves until they ran afoul of some sort of enchantment.
But the Beast had been harder to picture as a victim of the same enchantment, at least at first. His perpetual gruffness and anger made him seem too close to an animal to even hint at any humanity. But now, as Belle looked into his beautiful, sorrowful eyes, she could see that he mourned the reminder of a past he could no longer relate to. A past where he had been a human. Belle recalled what the Beast himself had said about his mother building the library. He confirmed that this castle was his own. Suddenly, Belle longed to examine the portrait she had seen in the West Wing; the torn canvas that held the image of a boy with blue eyes all at once seemed connected to this enchantment.
It was clear that the Beast had no intention of discussing his past, but she hated to see his sadness at the reminder that he was no longer a human.
"You know," she said thoughtfully, standing up and taking one of his paws in her hands. "You're claws are only a little bit thicker than my fingers. Have you ever tried to play with the tips of your claws?" The Beast was silent, seeming to contemplate what she had just said.
"No," he finally replied, his voice hesitant. "I didn't think it was possible."
"Would you be willing to try?" The Beast looked pained, as if she had just asked him to fly through the air or set himself on fire to please her.
"Very well," he grunted. "This way." The Beast stalked out of the library, leaving Belle to follow in his wake. She was a bit frightened of what she had just asked him to do. This could end very badly if the Beast did not give himself a chance. The fact that he was willing to try at all was amazing and she couldn't help but smile at the knowledge that he did so to try and please her.
He led her to a small room very near the West Wing. Though it was tidy and well dusted, it had the musty atmosphere of being unused for a long time. The small room was almost entirely taken up by a beautiful grand piano, its dark wood glistening in the light from the hall. Belle immediately went to run her hands along its surface, but she noticed the Beast did not give the instrument so much as a glance as he went to open the curtains that covered the one small window and closed the door.
"I'd rather not have the servants hear," he explained as he did so. Belle nodded, but she felt a little uneasy at being in such a small room alone with the Beast. The Beast took a seat on the bench in front of the instrument; it groaned a bit under his weight but stood strong. "You sure this will work?" he asked uneasily, looking up at her with his eyes filled with near anguish.
"If you have the patience to let it," she warned. "You don't need to try, if you don't want to."
"Do you know how to play?" he asked elusively, clearly trying to put off the moment where his claws would meet the ivory keys.
"I never learned, no. Clarice could; I loved to listen to her play when we tired of reading, but I was never clever enough to pick it up myself." Belle supposed the Beast would have liked some help reuniting with the instrument, but she had nothing to give him.
She watched as the Beast gazed at the keyboard, staring at it as if it were a dangerous animal ready to strike. She realized in that moment what she had asked him to do; he was going to try and regain his humanity physically when he was just learning to do so emotionally. Belle knew that if he truly tried, his claws would be a perfect substitute for the slender fingers playing a piano called for. But the sharp appendages could just as easily tear the beautiful instrument apart, and her along with it in the close proximity of the room.
"Just keep it simple," she suggested, hoping her sudden nerves did not reflect in her voice. The Beast nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on the keyboard, and slowly lifted his paw to meet the keys. Belle held her breath and watched as he arched his fingers so the tips of his claws met the surface of the keys.
The first hesitant note echoed around the small room, surprisingly in tune and quickly followed by several others in what Belle understood to be a scale, one note following the one beside it. She watched as the Beast's expression lightened to one of surprise and brought his other paw to join the first on the keys. She closed her eyes as the individual notes became a first a melody and then a recognizable song, melding into each other to create a beauty Belle had never encountered before in her life. It was as if the music became a part of her very soul, lifting her up into the stars and caressing her with its soft resonance.
A sour note brought her crashing back to earth and she opened her eyes, suddenly afraid how the Beast might react to his mistake.
"That was beautiful," she sighed, realizing as she spoke that she was repeating the Beast's sentiment after they finished King Arthur. The Beast said nothing, only looked at his paws in a way Belle could not decipher. "Beast?" she said hesitantly, taking a step towards him.
Instantly she realized it was a mistake to move. The Beast jumped like a startled deer, his paws convulsively closing as if somehow ashamed of what he had just done. Before Belle could do anything, the Beast stood and hastened out of the door in a whirl of his cloak. Belle slowly sunk to the bench the Beast so hastily vacated, wondering what on earth just happened.
He bolted to the West Wing, dropping to all fours to reach his sanctuary all the faster. Once the door slammed behind him and his solitude was assured, he roared in agony, wishing he could rip off his paws as easily as he tore off that foolish shirt. The shreds of fabric floated down to the floor just as another petal from that infernal rose fluttered to the table's surface.
"What have I done?" he moaned to himself, holding his head in his paws. He had tried to please her, to do what she asked him to do, but he could not deny the reality of the creature he was. Human hands that once flew easily over the keys of a piano now stumbled and suffered through every note with their animal clumsiness. How could she expect him to do something so. . .so human?
With a bout of fury, he swiped at the broken remains of an old wardrobe, sending wooden shards flying across the room. It did nothing to satisfy his anger, so he continued to strike any object that blocked his path, splintering wood and thunderously roaring like the animal he was until his rage had at last begun to subside.
Filled now only with shame, he sank to the floor amongst the new rubble he had created, wishing bitterly that this girl had never come to taunt him with dreams and then so mercilessly show him what he will never be again: human.