Authors: Nicole Dreadful
His rough voice froze her in place, and she looked down at his spasming body. When she saw a chance, she knelt down and, though she had never touched him before, took his head onto her lap. She smoothed her hand through the warm, dark fur on his forehead. It was as soft as a cat's. "I won't leave you," she said. He grew a little quieter at her touch, but still moaned. Beneath the fur, his skin felt very warm, and even through the layers of her dress she could feel the heat.
Soon he began to pant with pain, his mouth half open over his swollen tongue. His golden eyes had narrowed to mere slits. "Beauty," he rasped again. The heat of his head in her lap continued to increase, and had begun to grow painful, but still she held on, wishing she could better comfort him. She leaned forward over his upside down face and kissed him.
She missed, of course, and kissed his dry nose, or perhaps his chin. Nonetheless, a great arcing shudder went through his body, and he cried out a third time: "Beauty!" Then he lay very still and made no sound.
Beauty began to cry. "I have killed him," she said to herself. The heat grew more intense and she felt that the skin of her hands would begin to burn. But whatever pain he had endured had surely been ten times worse, she thought, and so Beauty kept her hands cupping his face. She felt his shaggy fur become dry and brittle, and closed her eyes when she saw his skin begin to crack, gritting her teeth so she would not scream. Between her fingers, she felt him crumble away. Tears ran down her cheeks from her tightly closed eyes, but she did not dare move a hand to wipe them away.
After an age, the dreadful heat began to subside. There was still something solid between her palms, but she did not dare to open her eyes, fearing that it would be only a grinning skull. But then she felt him stir, and the head in her hands jerked forward in a dry cough. Her eyes flew open and she saw a face that she knew well, though it was covered with a fine grey layer of ash. "Oh," she cried, "but you're in the portrait gallery."
He coughed again and reached up to wipe at his face, smearing the ash around. "Of course I'm in the portrait gallery," he said weakly. "It's my house." With some effort, he rolled into a sitting position and held out his hand to her. "My name is Caledon."
Beauty took it and they shook solemnly. "My name is Felicity," she said. "Pleased to meet you."
He raised one eyebrow at her. "Not Beauty?"
"Everyone has always called me Beauty, but my name is Felicity."
"Then you will be Felicity to me from this day forward," he said. "Though Beauty is a name that suits you well."
She looked down at her sooty lap, blushing. When she looked up she saw that he had slumped against one of the walls of the arbor and closed his eyes. His fine featured face was much too tired to be arrogant now. She crept towards him on her knees. "Can you stand?"
He shook his head, but managed to pull himself up the framing of the arbor. Felicity put an arm around him, and they made their slow way back to the manor house. Inside she was not surprised to find a new hallway and a set of rooms she had never seen before. Caledon directed her to a bed chamber, though by the time they reached it he was wavering in and out of consciousness. A few stumbling steps into the room he passed out completely and she staggered under the sudden weight of his limp body.
Felicity eased him down to the floor as gently as she could and looked over the man who had been the Beast.
The transformation had not been kind to his clothing. His brocade vest was a smear of charcoal on his bare chest, and his leather pants looked uncomfortably crisp. The invisible hands, which had always been so helpful, did not now come to her aid though she wished for them loudly and repeatedly, but as she looked around she saw that they had provided a large wash basin. Perhaps if she simply left him lying on the floor they would clean him up and put him to bed. But no, she could not walk away, she reminded herself, for he had asked her not to leave him.
She pulled the washbasin closer and moistened a clean cloth to wipe the ash from his skin. She was grateful that it was only soot, and nothing remained of skin and fur. She washed his face first, and smoothed his hair, which was the same deep brown-black as it had been when he was the Beast. He was still whiskered, but no more than any other man, and a full mouth now overrode her initial objection to kisses from a lipless Beast.
To think that this handsome man had been beneath the rough skin of the Beast! She took up the cloth again and smoothed it across his broad chest, revealing a light covering of dark hair. His shoulders and arms were well muscled. She held one of his hands in hers, considering the feel of it. Would he touch her with these long fingers? It was a delicious idea, but Caledon did not stir under her hands and she tried to push the thought from her mind and focus on the matter at hand.
The dark hair of his chest continued in a narrow line from his belly button downward, disappearing under the charred remains of his breeches. Felicity contemplated following this trail, but turned instead to his feet. His soles were hard and calloused, for he had never worn any shoes as the Beast, and his nails wanted cutting. That would wait, though, for now she would just get him clean. She washed the ash from his calves, finding them also lightly furred, and moved up to his thighs.
As she returned again to the center point of his body, Felicity felt her heart quicken. If she were the one lying helpless on the floor, she would be quite embarrassed to know that he had uncovered all her most secret places.
Yet she had already cleaned away the ashen coating from his ears, the crease of his elbows, and from in between his toes. And there was very little left of his breeches, anyway. She put her hand on his brow, reassuring herself that he was lost to the world. Perhaps he would believe that the invisible hands had ministered to him, or perhaps he would not remember anything when he woke.
Gently, she pulled away the scorched leather. It came easily, crumbling in her fingers. She wet her cloth again in clean water, and smoothed it down his flat belly, following the trail of hair from his navel. It led to a dark thatch of hair, and nestled within, his male part. At her touch, it stirred and began to grow.
She was blushing furiously now, but since she had started, she would finish. She gently rubbed the swelling member and the soft pouch of skin below it with the cloth, pausing now and then to consider its novel shape. The times she had dreamed of his phantom hands on her body rose in her mind, and she felt a gentle throb between her own legs. She turned away to wring out the cloth, feeling her heart pounding. She wanted to explore his body, now, as she had touched herself. She wanted him to wake and touch her in turn, but save for this one part, bobbing its pink head at her touch, Caledon did not rouse. She spread a new cloth over his waist, and looked around the room. In the wardrobe she found a loose pair of pants and pulled them onto Caledon's body, taking care to lift the waistband over and into its proper place.
The bed looked inviting, but the mattress was waist-high in the frame, and Caledon outweighed her easily. She didn't see how she could manage to lift him to it without injuring herself, or him, in the attempt. The heat had gone out of him, and gooseflesh had risen on his bare skin. She was pulling one of the blankets from the bed when she had an idea. If she couldn't bring him to the bed, she could bring the bed to him. She pulled the pillows and bedding into a pile and began to tug on the featherbed. After several minutes work she had it on the floor and Caledon on it, wrapped in a coverlet. Then there was nothing to do, but wait.
It was a full day before he woke, and two more before he could stand shakily on his own. Felicity sat with him, reading and talking, and wrestling with a confused tangle of thoughts. She thought she had grown to know the Beast quite well, but Caledon was both strange and familiar. She watched him sidelong, her eyes always drawn to his hands, or his full lips, wanting to feel them on her skin. She remembered the shape of his naked body, and wanted to press hers against him, to learn what their bodies might do together. Kiss me, she wanted to say to him, touch me, and let me touch you, but the words stayed in her mouth. He did not ask for another kiss, and she found herself blushing whenever he caught her looking at him. He was handsome now, and rich, she thought. He might go to town and have his pick of the girls there.
But he betrayed no more interest in leaving the manor than in kissing her, and they fell into the same pattern as before, reading together in the morning and talking in the evening, though now Caledon arrived early enough to dine with her. Gradually she learned of his life before he had become the Beast. As the only son of a local nobleman, he had been as spoiled as her brothers, and perhaps more so. When his father had died in a hunting accident, Caledon had inherited the title and all the powers which came with it. He had not used them well, he admitted, despite the counsel of his mother.
That worthy woman carried in her some Fairy blood, not much, but enough to bind Caledon and the whole of the manor for over a century after a transgression he was reluctant to discuss.
"A hundred years?" Felicity asked with surprise, for he looked no older than her brothers.
"Yes," Caledon nodded. "For a hundred years I lived here alone, building up the gardens and reading when I could convince the fairies to handle the books for me."
"And you never had any other creature for company, besides the fairies?"
"No living creature would come near me," he said. "Not even a bird in the garden. I used to love to ride, and to hunt, and so the fairies have kept up the stables and the kennels, though they're empty."
Eventually they returned to the rose arbor. The invisible hands of the fairies had straightened the silken pillows and cleaned away any trace of the ordeal of transformation. The book Felicity had dropped was neatly on the little table in the corner of the arbor.
"Why did you stay?" Caledon asked, sitting down on one of the benches. "You should have run away."
"No," Felicity shook her head. "I had to help you."
"You should still run away," he said, turning his gaze on her. Though his body was a man's, his eyes remained golden yellow, with unsettling slit pupils. "Do you think that I cannot hurt you now?" He flexed his fingers as if he could still gouge splinters out of the wood beneath his hand. "I am still more beast than man."
"You would never hurt me," she replied confidently. Caledon kept many of the habits of the Beast, and now she made a bold guess. "You are still enchanted; you cannot touch me unless I give you leave."
"May I touch you?" he asked. "May I kiss you, Felicity?"
She had often put these words on his lips in her own fantasies, but now she shook her head. "Not when you speak of hurting me."
Again he made the clawing motion, then put his head in his hands in a more human gesture and let out a low moan. "I have killed a woman," he whispered through his fingers, not raising his head. "I was a Beast then, and I will always be."
Felicity said nothing, though her heart somersaulted in her breast at his terrible words.
"Will you not run from me now?" he said, looking up. Felicity shook her head mutely. "She ran," Caledon said. "She ran from me and I pursued her. I hunted her until I trapped her, and she had no way out. But she found a way, and she cursed me before she jumped. My mother heard her dying words, and bound me with them, to live as a Beast."
"But you are no longer a Beast," Felicity said.
"I will always be a Beast inside."
"But when you were a Beast, I saw that inside, you were a man." Felicity moved to kneel before him and look up into his downturned face. "Promise that you will be gentle with me."
Caledon blinked his yellow eyes. "I promise," he said without hesitation.
"Then you may touch me," she said, taking his hands in hers. "So long as you keep your promise."
He came trembling to kneel with her among the cushions. His hands were hot on her skin as they moved up her arms to cup her face. "May I kiss you?" he whispered.
"Yes," she whispered back. "You may."
She closed her eyes and felt his mouth brush against hers. Instinctually, she parted her lips as he did the same, and she felt his tongue slip into her mouth. The sensation was more exquisite than she had imagined. He no longer smelled of ash and smoke, but of something deeper, like warm earth beneath the trees on a hot summer day. She put her arms around his neck, pressing herself closer to his body, but he pulled away. His vertical pupils were wildly dilated, and they were both breathing heavily.
"Why don't you run from me?" he asked again, ragged edges in his voice.
"I promised I would stay with you." He began to stand, but she clung to him.
Caledon put his hand to her throat. "I am dangerous."
"If you were going to hurt me," Felicity said, "you would have done it long ago." She reached out her own hand and touched her fingers to his cheek. He shivered, but did not look away. "You chose not to harm me, or my father. You've already chosen to be a man, not a beast." His hand was still on her neck, a soft pressure against her throat. Again she felt him quiver, and wondered if he would begin to burn again. Instead he dropped his hand and walked away.
She did not try to follow. She knelt for a long time, feeling the ghostly touch of his fingers on her skin while tears ran down her cheeks.