As the weeks passed, Belle and the Beast fell into a comfortable routine of shared meals, walks along the grounds, and reading in the library. As Belle became absorbed in the day to day activities with the Beast, she slowly let the knowledge of the castle's enchantment slide to the back of her mind. It no longer mattered that the Beast had once been human and she no longer attempted to see him as such. The Beast was only just that: her Beast.
Each morning she found herself looking forward to seeing him, not for the sake of her own loneliness, but because it was pleasant to be with him. She enjoyed his boyish behavior towards playing in the snow or a particularly entertaining story. But the Beast just as readily showed a gentle seriousness when they would examine the stars in the night sky or Belle would tell him stories of her past. The Beast never spoke of his own past, something Belle couldn't blame him for after what happened with the piano, but she yearned to get to know him better.
He seemed so unsure of himself now that he abandoned his anger, but it was that uncertainty that Belle couldn't help but find rather endearing. She found herself seeking out the Beast more and more as the weeks passed, eager to discuss an idea she had or the chapter of the latest book they read. She avoided thinking about why she sought him out, focusing only on the simple fact that she enjoyed his company.
It seemed that he was growing more comfortable around her, too. There came a day when Belle began a new book to read to him, curled up on one end of the sofa that stood before the fireplace. Rather than sit in the armchair across from her or even lounging on the floor as he sometimes did, the Beast sat at the other end of the sofa with her. There was enough space for an entire person to sit between them, but Belle couldn't help the small smile at the Beast's shy action to be closer to her.
As a snowstorm blew outside and Belle dove deeper into the book, the Beast seemed to relax more and allowed himself to sit more comfortably, one arm resting on the back of the sofa and one leg crossed over the other. She was glad he was so comfortable near her, but found that she envied his fur. Despite the merrily crackling fire, Belle found that she could not subdue the goose bumps on her arms and was helpless against the occasional shiver that shot through her.
"Can I get you a blanket?" he offered when he clearly noticed her shivering.
"No, I have a better idea," she replied and boldly slid across the sofa so the space between them disappeared. She curled up in the curve of his side, knees drawn up to her chest and her bare, freezing toes tucked under the edge of his thigh. "Is this all right?" she asked, looking up at him from her new position. They were so close she could feel his gentle breath on her face and see that his blue eyes had a darker circle of blue on their outer edges.
"Of-of course," he replied with a small smile. She snuggled into the warmth his bulk and fur provided and resumed her reading. As she turned the page, she felt the Beast's arm come down from its spot on the back of the sofa to wrap around her legs, successfully encasing her in his warmth as she sat curled up beside him. Belle smiled, her heart tightening pleasantly at the embrace, and continued to read, a warmth spreading through her that went beyond mere body heat.
"Of-of course," he replied unsteadily to Belle's question. She was so close to him, willingly curled up beside him. He could feel her toes beneath his thigh and was amazed at how cold they were, like little icicles. It was clear she was seeking warmth, but she could have easily gotten that from the blanket he had offered to get. She had chosen this. He felt his heart beat faster at this unfamiliar closeness, pleasantly tight. Eventually, he even had the courage to bring his arm down to wrap around her, telling himself it was for the sake of warming her and not because he desired to hold her close to him. Her only response was to snuggle closer to him, which he took as a sign that his arm may remain where it was.
After a time, Belle sighed and closed the book.
"Is something wrong?" he asked, coming out of the comfortable mindset he always sunk into when Belle would read her books to him.
"No, I just need to give my voice a rest," she said and placed the book on the sofa beside her. "I'll read some more in a little while."
"Only if you wish to," he said. He was about to move his arm to let her up, much as he did not wish to do so, but Belle twisted under his arm to rest her head on his shoulder. "A-are you comfortable?" he could not help but ask as his heart beat wildly. He felt Belle nod her head and a grin spread across his face.
"Will you tell me something about you?" he heard her ask and his smile fell. Something about him? What could he tell her that wouldn't reveal too much, that wouldn't make her hate him?
"It doesn't have to be something big," she said when he was silent for a little too long. "Your favorite color or something like that is fine. I just know so little about you." He glanced down to see her beautiful brown eyes staring up at him and he gave her a crooked sort of smile.
"Blue," he replied, picturing the dress he first saw Belle in, that she still often wore around the castle despite the dozens of new dresses she had at her disposal. Belle smiled at him before resting her head on his shoulder once again. They were silent for awhile, watching the flames dance in the hearth, the Beast trying to calm his wildly beating heart.
After a little while, the Beast felt Belle's head loll slightly against him. "Belle?" he called softly, suspecting that Belle might have fallen asleep. When she did not respond, the Beast smiled and resisted the urge to stroke the hair that fell over his arm. Instead, he leaned his head on the back of the sofa and enjoyed the knowledge that Belle was so comfortable with him that she could fall asleep in his embrace. His heart skipped again in renewed joy and allowed the sound of Belle's gentle breathing to lull him to sleep as well.
It had snowed twice more before signs of spring overwhelmed the winter and Belle discovered a new activity within the castle: spring cleaning. The servants were in an uproar shaking out drapes, dusting away the cobwebs, and washing every surface until it gleamed. Though Belle had not noticed the gloom for some time now, it was as if a cloud had lifted off the castle and she was seeing it anew.
"Do they do this every year?" Belle asked as she walked with the Beast, a dustpan and broom scurrying across their path.
"No. This is the first time in years they've done more than just a few rooms," he admitted and Belle noticed he sounded surprised by the servants' activity.
"Have they ever done your room?" Belle dared to ask.
"No." The answer was blunt, just as Belle had predicted.
"Well, maybe it's time they did. Everyone seems to want a fresh start for spring, perhaps it would do you some good as well." The Beast glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. She had tried a similar technique to get him to celebrate Christmas and she could see the Beast had realized that. It had worked, hadn't it? She reasoned with herself. After a while, anyway.
"I don't think that's a good idea," he said hesitantly. "It's been a long time."
"All the more reason to do it," she pressed. The Beast had become better than what the West Wing portrayed him to be. It was time he believed that, and if she had to tell him to make him see it, then that's what she would do. "The room that I saw belongs to something you aren't anymore. But how can you see that for yourself unless you look for what's underneath?"
The Beast looked startled by her words and was silent for a long minute. Belle was so afraid that he would take what she said the wrong way, find some sort of insult where there was none. "You really believe that?" he said finally, halting their walk to look at her.
"Yes, I do," she confirmed, returning his disbelieving gaze steadily.
"All right," he sighed, his breath coming in a puff of defeat. "I'll give them permission to clean it out."
"I think you'll like how it comes out," she assured him. "Would you like to meet in the library in a little while?"
"Uh, sure. I'll meet you there." Belle watched him walk in the direction of the West Wing, knowing this was a good thing for him to do. The Beast had changed so much; the room of scattered bones and broken furniture was the reflection of an animal, not of her Beast.
"Mrs. Potts almost didn't believe me," the Beast said as he joined her at one of the tables in the library a short time later. "I had repeat myself three times." Belle laughed at this news, trying to picture the teapot's face when she finally gained permission to clean that mess of a room. It must have been a sore spot for the tidy teapot. Not to mention Cogsworth, as a seneschal or steward of sorts, must have been up in arms about the mess of the West Wing.
"What did you want to read today?" he continued, glancing around for a book on the table they might read.
"I'm not sure," she said honestly. "We've gone through the pile you helped me separate."
"Already?" he asked and Belle giggled at his surprise. "How is that possible?"
"A good book disappears quickly, doesn't it?" she replied and the Beast nodded, still in clear astonishment. "Is there one you would like to read again, or should we find a new one?"
"I think I'd like to find a new one," he decided. "You've got plenty to choose from, after all." Belle looked around at the hundreds of shelves that surrounded them, wondering where to start.
"Will you help me again?" she requested.
"If you like," he agreed and followed her once again amongst the shelves. It wasn't long before they had a proper pile once again. This time Belle found Shakespeare's works and picked out her favorites, among them was Romeo and Juliet. Though logically she thought the young love struck pair were rather silly, she couldn't help but get caught up in their story.
"Let's read this one first," she suggested, holding up Romeo and Juliet.
"Very well," the Beast agreed and settled in to listen.
He listened intently to the tale of two young people, doomed from the beginning by their feuding families. It was a sad tale, to be sure, but he couldn't help but become as engrossed with this story as he had with all the others. He did very much enjoy the swordfights, but he was equally transfixed by Romeo and Juliet's love affair. It was with disappointment then that he discovered it was a much shorter tale than the others and was over far too quickly.
"Could you read it again?" he requested as Belle closed the book.
"Did you like it?" she asked, though by her smile it seemed she already knew the answer.
"Yes, but it was much too short. And very sad."
"Shakespeare did write a lot of sad tales," she sighed. "But they're all such wonderful stories." The Beast gently took the book from Belle's hands and idly examined the cover while running the story through his head again, wondering if anything could be as sad as those two, how was it put, "star-crossed lovers."
"Would you like to try to read it to me?" Belle suggested, her tone cautious.
"Oh, uh, I don't know. . ." The very idea of it terrified him. He didn't like to deny Belle anything, but this seemed like an unachievable task, even more so than the dark day she asked him to play the piano.
"I'll help you," she offered and slid her chair closer to him so they might look at the book together. Her fearless presence was enough to make him pause, during which Belle took the opportunity to open the book to the first page. "Let's start here," she said, pointing to the first words.
Hesitantly, the Beast picked out the letters of the first word and tried to recall his lessons so long ago. T—W—O—"Tuough?" he started shakily.
"Two," Belle corrected gently.
"Oh, I see," And he truly did, which gave him enough confidence to keep going. Slowly his childhood lessons came back to him as he read for Belle. Though he stammered and mispronounced words many times, he made it through first the page, then the first scene, and at last finished the first act.
It was difficult to want to stop then. Between Belle's nearness and his own pride at reading so well, as far as he was concerned the afternoon was one of perfection.
"You did wonderfully!" Belle praised him when he finished the first act. "And you said you couldn't read," she scolded merrily, her smile ruining any attempt to seem cross.
"I guess I forgot that I could," he admitted, his pride growing with Belle's compliment. He was glad Belle had been there to help him, for he never in his life would have attempted such a thing on his own. It was comforting to have her sit so close beside him and he found himself eager to remain beside her. He wanted to be by her side always.
"Would you like to keep going?" he offered, thinking that would keep her close to him for at least another hour if nothing else.
"Yes, but I would like to ask you something first," Belle said and to the Beast's surprise she looked nervous. Belle was rarely nervous in front of him; she was always the calm one who handled every situation with grace. But he could see that her hands were now visibly shaking.
"What's that?" he asked tentatively, unsure what she would ask him to do now that would make her so nervous.
"Would you have dinner with me tonight?"
"Don't we usually?" He was confused. They had shared nearly every meal for the past several weeks, hadn't they?
"Yes, but. . .I found this gorgeous golden yellow ball gown and I—I would love the excuse to wear it. . ." It sounded as if she wanted to say more, but she left her sentence unfinished.
"Oh, you mean a nice dinner," he figured out, remembering that a formal dress meant a more formal evening. He thought of himself stuffed inside a restraining suit and refrained a grimace, but he could see how excited Belle was at the very idea of a formal evening with him. "Oh—oh yes!" he agreed happily and was rewarded by seeing her joy redoubled.
"Would you like to finish the next act?" she asked through a wide smile. "Then I'll go get ready for tonight." He nodded his consent and tried to calm his suddenly wildly beating heart. Why had Belle suddenly wanted to spend such a night with him? Was it truly because of her discovery of this golden dress, or was there something else? Whatever the reason, it was the Beast's turn to become nervous, causing him to stumble over the words worse than before. But Belle was patient as always and helped him along.
When he finished, though it was still hours before dinner, Belle went to get ready for that night.
"I'll see you soon," she promised with a smile that sent his heart soaring as she vanished behind the library doors into the hall. The Beast sat stunned for a moment, wondering what on earth he had gotten himself into. Realizing at once that he probably needed this time to prepare himself as well, he jumped from the seat as if shocked and dashed to the West Wing.
"Lumiere!" he shouted as he went. "Cogsworth!" If he was going to make any sort of impression on Belle tonight, he would need their help.
He burst through the doors of the West Wing to wait for Lumiere and Cogsworth to make their way to him, but paused in shock. At first he thought he had walked into the wrong room, but the glowing rose at the far end proved to him that this glistening, tidy room was his own.
The Beast momentarily forgot his panic over dinner to take in his new surroundings. Gone were the bones of the animals he hunted in his youth. The cobwebs had been wiped away, the floors and windows washed. The servants had replaced the drapes and rugs he had torn to shreds. Even his bed, which he had diminished to little more than a nest of rags and feathers, had been replaced with a handsome frame and mattress.
The Beast straightened up unconsciously and couldn't help the sense of pleasure that grew in his chest. This was the room of a prince, not a monster. This was what Belle meant when she said that the room he had did not belong to him. She was right; he was not a monster anymore.
"Master?" The Beast turned to see both Lumiere and Cogsworth standing at the threshold of the West Wing. They looked nervous, as if anticipating his anger as the state of his room, but he didn't have time to reassure them.
"Belle wants to have dinner," he explained hastily, excitement welling in his chest once again. "She found my mother's yellow ball gown and wants to wear it tonight."
"And you're allowing her to, Master?" Cogsworth asked. The Beast frowned momentarily at Cogsworth's tone, as if Belle was not worthy of such a dress.
"Why not? Mother never wanted it, after all. She always said the color of the dress was too close to her the shade of her hair. But can you imagine how beautiful Belle's going to look in it?" If he was paying more attention, the Beast would have seen Lumiere and Cogsworth exchange meaningful glances at the Beast's last words, but he had begun looking through the new wardrobes in his room for something to wear and did not see.
"So you want to wear something formal as well," Cogsworth deduced, but the Beast sighed in frustration.
"More than that," he insisted. "This night has to be special. Belle wants a formal dinner, but I want to give her more. Something she won't forget." He halted his search of the wardrobes and pictured Belle's glorious smile, the special one that she reserved only for him. He would give the world to have her smile at him like that again tonight.
"Fear not, Master," Lumiere announced. "I shall take care of all the arrangements. Cogsworth, mon ami, get a bath prepared for the Master at once! I shall return in but a moment." The Beast watched Lumiere hop out of sight and wondered what he might be cooking up. Lumiere had a knack for romance, so the Beast was sure whatever Lumiere did was bound to be marvelous. All the Beast had to do now was find the courage to face the night ahead of him.