A Change In Me

Chapter 17

Belle's POV

Belle flew back to her room, lifting the skirt of the beautiful golden dress to keep it from catching her ankles. She had no wish to leave the Beast, but her father needed her. Perhaps she could come back when she could be sure her father was well again. The thought of it eased her mind, but somehow it wasn't enough.

"Belle, what's going on?" Madam Armoire asked as Belle burst into the room and started pulling off her gloves. "Didn't you have a nice night?"

Belle paused in her frantic attempts to undo the bindings of the dress to look at the wardrobe, knowing time was precious but needing her to understand. "Tonight was the most wonderful night I've ever had," she said truthfully. "But the Beast's mirror showed me that my father's in trouble. I have to go find him before it's too late." She resumed undressing, careful not to ruin the gorgeous gown as she lay it across the bed once more. Belle donned her familiar blue dress, feeling the magic of the night leaving her as she did.

"But you can't leave now!" Madame Armoire protested.

"I have to. I'm so sorry," she said as she grabbed a satchel to carry the mirror in, leaving it on the floor while she fetched her hair ribbon and her shoes. "You were all so kind to me, but Papa might be dying! I'll come back if I can, I promise." She secured her hair ribbon, picked up the satchel, and after one last look around her room, bolted down to the stables to find Philippe.

In moments she had him saddled and was riding him out of the castle gates. Behind her, she heard the Beast's roar echo in the night and she couldn't stop the tears that fell from her eyes, flying past her as she sped towards the forest. She regretted her words in the West Wing when the Beast said she was no longer his prisoner. She knew she was not forcibly kept there, knew that the Beast would have let her leave if she chose, but she was so startled to hear him telling her to go. I'll apologize when I come back, she assured herself and forced herself to concentrate finding her father.

Unsure where to look, she headed in the direction of the village, hoping to come across footprints in the snow patches that would guide her to him. The longer it took, the faster her heart beat in terror, knowing that the time she spent looking could be precious moments in her father's life.

"Papa!" she called into the trees, hoping no wolves would hear her. Now that spring was here, food would be less scarce for those vicious creatures and hopefully leave her and her father alone.

An hour or so later, Belle finally spotted human tracks in the snow. She followed them and gasped when she saw her father sprawled on the forest floor, just as the mirror had shown.

"Papa!" she screamed and dove off Philippe to kneel at his side. He was breathing, to her immense relief, but his skin was hot with fever. "Papa?" she called gently, shaking his shoulder to rouse him. He moaned and shifted and Belle sighed in relief at the movement, little though it might be.

Standing, she led Philippe close to her father's side and bid the horse to kneel. She managed to rouse her father enough to coax him onto the horse's back. Philippe stood easily and Belle lightly vaulted up to sit in the saddle behind her father, holding the reins on either side of his body to keep him from sliding off.

Belle toyed with the idea of returning to the castle with her father and taking care of him there. But she knew the village was much closer to them now than the castle was, and she needed to get her father warmed up as soon as she could. It was still with a heavy heart that she turned Philippe towards the village, wishing vainly that her father had made it just a bit closer to the castle to justify going back.

It took an hour of careful riding for them to come in sight of their cottage. How small and empty it seemed to her now, as if it no longer belonged to her. She slid off the horse and helped her father do the same. Fortunately he was conscious enough to walk inside under Belle's support. Once inside, she removed her father's damp clothes and slid his nightshirt over his head.

"Rest, Papa," she said softly as she put him to bed. She wasn't sure if he heard her, but he was able to climb under the covers. Before he lapsed into complete unconsciousness again, she gave him something to drink and saw that he was warm.

Belle drew a chair by his bedside, putting cool clothes on his forehead while he slept and trying not to remember how the Beast had done the same for her when she had been so ill.

It was starting to get late before her father finally woke. Belle was just thinking longingly for her own bed when her father moaned her name and his eyes flickered open.

"Shh. It's all right, Papa. I'm home," she reassured him, so relieved to see him finally awake and aware of his surroundings, but surprised to discover that what she said was a lie. This place was no longer her home; her home was elsewhere, hidden deep in the forest.

"I thought I'd never see you again!" Maurice exclaimed and sat up to embrace his daughter.

"I missed you so much," Belle said, returning the embrace eagerly. She was so glad to see her father again, alive and well. Nearly well, anyway. His forehead still burned with fever and his cough had not yet gone, but he was alive. Everything else could be dealt with.

"But the Beast!" Maurice demanded and gently pushed her away. "How did you escape?"

Belle sighed, knowing this would be difficult to explain. "I didn't escape, Papa. He let me go."

"That horrible Beast?" Maurice shook his head in disbelief.

"But he's different now, Papa," she insisted. "He's changed somehow. I know it's hard to believe, but he's not the same beast who locked you in the dungeon. He's good and kind, and so unsure of himself." Her mind drifted to just a few hours ago when she had reminded the Beast how to dance. His paws had been shaking, but he had followed her lead just the same.

She couldn't help but recall those wonderful moments spent dancing with the Beast, her heart fluttering as she remembered the feel of his hand around her waist. Belle felt a blush creep into her cheeks as she recalled her spontaneous act of placing her head on his chest as they danced. It had felt so right, so comfortable leaning into his embrace, his heart beating gently in her ear. She would give the world to return to that perfect moment.

"Everything seems to have changed here, too," she added, coming out of her thoughts to look around the familiar cottage that no longer fulfilled her longings of home. "It's as if. . .as if my childhood dreams are no longer what I want."

"It seems to me, Belle," Maurice said, giving her a knowing smile. "That there's been a bit of a change in you, too. You've always been a dreamy thing, even as a child, but now there's a new light in your eyes, as if you've found what you're looking for. If this Beast is really who you say he is, I suppose I'll believe you. I don't understand it, but you've never been wrong before about these sorts of things."

Belle smiled at her father, not sure what he meant by finding what she was looking for, but glad he accepted her defense of the Beast. She was actually surprised she won him over so easily, knowing what the Beast had done to him, but she wasn't about to argue. Before either of them could say another word, a strange rustling came from the satchel Belle had placed at the end of her father's bed. They watched it move and wiggle until it tipped over and burst open, spilling out the magic mirror and Chip along with it.

"Hi!" the little teacup exclaimed once he stopped spinning.

"Oh, a stowaway," Belle laughed as Chip bounced his way up the bed and into Maurice's hands. She was concerned about what Mrs. Potts would do when she saw her son was missing, but Belle couldn't help but think of Chip's presence as the perfect excuse to return to the castle soon.

"Why hello there, little fella. Didn't think I'd see you again," Maurice chuckled. The teacup smiled, but soon put on a very serious face and turned towards Belle. She tried to restrain her laughter since it was evident Chip was trying to look dignified, but it was hard to take the teacup's expression seriously. That is, until he began to speak.

"Belle, why'd you go away? Don't you like us anymore?" Any semblance of a smile was wiped from Belle's face as she tried to think of a response the teacup would understand.

"Oh, Chip, of course I do. It's just that. . ." She was interrupted by a knock at the door. "Now who could that be at this hour?" she wondered out loud. "Stay inside, you two. Especially you, Chip," she directed, terrified what might happen if he was discovered. Chip nodded and hopped onto the nightstand to hide behind the lamp.

Convinced he was out of sight, Belle rose and opened the door to see Monsieur D'Arque standing on the other side. Confused at what this could mean, she tried to keep her voice steady. "May I help you?"

"I've come to collect your father," Monsieur D'Arque informed her easily, as if her father were no more than a rug being taken away.

"My father?" she demanded. What would the owner of the asylum want with her father?

"Don't worry, mademoiselle," he said smoothly sounding more menacing than reassuring. "We'll take good care of him." He moved to motion to a crude, enclosed cart behind him with bars on its windows and doors. Surrounding the cart were many of the villagers, holding torches aloft to illuminate her property with an eerie glow.

"My father's not crazy!" she said angrily, her hands balling into fists in her rage. How dare these villagers come to threaten her and her father! What was the meaning of all this?

"He was raving like a lunatic," Le Fou put in from where he stood at the base of the steps. "We all heard him, didn't we?" His question drew resounding cheers of assent from the crowd and Belle realized what must have happened. Her father probably returned to the village thinking she was locked in the dungeon of a monster's castle. He wanted to save her, but when he inevitably described the Beast. . .well what simple-minded villager could believe such a thing without proof?

"No," she said, waving away the men from the asylum who approached the house. "I won't let you!"

"Belle?" she heard her father's voice call from the doorway and Belle inwardly groaned, wishing her father would have listened to her and stayed out of sight.

"Maurice!" Le Fou greeted him slyly. "Tell us again, old man. Just how big was the beast?" Belle went to her father's side, glaring at Le Fou for the injustice he was doing.

"Well, he was—he was enormous!" Maurice said. "I'd say at least eight, no, more like ten feet!" Belle knew that what he said was true, but it wasn't going to keep him from being dragged away by the mob. As she predicted, the mob laughed and D'Arque motioned for his men to take her father away.

"No!" she cried and grabbed hold of D'Arque's arm. "You can't do this!" He made no reply, only jerked his arm out of her grip and walked towards his wagon where her father was being forcibly carried.

"Poor Belle. It's a shame about your father," a familiar voice said from behind her. Gaston! She and Gaston had never been on the best of terms, but surely he would do something to stop this madness.

"You know he's not crazy, Gaston," she said, clinging to him in desperation. He was her only hope of stopping the mob from taking her father away.

"I might be able to clear up this little misunderstanding," he said nonchalantly, then looked at her meaningfully. "If. . ."

"If what?" Belle asked, not sure she liked the way this conversation was going.

"If you marry me," Gaston said simply.

"What?" Belle was disgusted. It was blackmail! He would try to force her to marry him to save her father?

"One little word, Belle. That's all it takes," he cooed, pulling her close to him and bending so their faces were level. His breath reeked of beer and she did not bother to hide her disgust.

"Never," she said, pushing away from him with all the strength she could muster.

"Have it your way," Gaston said carelessly, motioning one hand towards the wagon her father was being forced into.

Frantically, she sought for a way to save her father, to stop this injustice, to get the villagers to leave them alone. The mirror! She dove back inside and grabbed hold of the magic mirror.

"My father's not crazy and I can prove it!" she called to the crowd. "Show me the Beast!" she asked the mirror and turned its face to shine upon the mob. The villagers gasped and screamed, one woman even fainted, but Belle could only hear the Beast's miserable roars coming from the mirror. He was in such pain, pain that she had caused.

"Is it dangerous?" someone called out.

"Oh no! No he'd never hurt anyone!" she insisted, climbing back down the stairs to talk to the mob. "Please, I know he looks vicious, but he's really kind and gentle." She turned her gaze back to the mirror, looking upon the Beast's image fondly as she spoke. "He's my friend." Her own words sounded false in her ears, as if 'friend' were not enough to describe what the Beast was to her. Before she could properly name it, however, Gaston grabbed hold of her shoulders and turned her to face him.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think you had feelings for this monster," he scoffed and Belle thought for an instant she saw jealousy in his eyes.

"He's not the monster, Gaston, you are," she spat angrily and backed out of his reach. Gaston's blue eyes gleamed with fury, cold and unfeeling where the Beast's were gentle and deep. He pulled his hand back as if to slap her and she stood fast, but a gasp from the mob brought to his eyes the realization that if he hit her now, Gaston would ruin the high regard he had from the village.

"She's as crazy as the old man!" Gaston announced to the mob, forcing the mirror from Belle's hands. It was in that moment Belle realized what she had done. She had shown a skilled hunter, an arrogant, dangerous man, the ultimate prey. She had just sacrificed the Beast's safety to save her own father!

As Gaston moved about the crowd, showing the Beast's image to everyone he passed and telling monstrous lies about him, Belle tried to console the crowd. She insisted that the Beast was kind, that no harm would come to any of them, but Gaston's popularity and her reputation as being odd ensured that her voice was drowned out as Gaston called for the Beast's head.

"No! I won't let you do this!" she said, taking hold of Gaston's hand and trying to pry his fingers off the mirror. He took hold of her wrist and pulled her off as if she were no more than a rag doll. Belle struggled against his fingers, but his grip was like iron and would not budge.

"You're not with us, you're against us," he said, his eyes gleaming with anger and the thrill of the hunt Belle had unknowingly provided him. "Bring the old man!" Gaston forced Belle unceremoniously into the cellar after her father was tossed in, closing and locking the cellar door. Belle tried to force the doors open, but it was useless. She could only listen as the sounds of the angry mob drew further and further away, doubtless to find the castle and her Beast. They were going to kill him, and it was all her fault.

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