Velvet glanced around the empty house, making sure once more, just in case, that she was alone before pulling a book off the shelf. It had a beautiful cover—a man and a woman, a prince and a princess, decorated in gold flakes and water colors that swept the princess’s long dress and red hair across the page.
She flipped it open, touching the worn pages gently. She didn’t like to admit it when Arthur or Laphi asked, but this was her favorite book: a fairytale. In it, as silly as it sounded, a woman fell in love with a beast and turned him into a beautiful prince once again. Velvet knew the story by heart, so she just flipped through the pictures. She wasn’t sure who had painted them. Celica hadn’t been very artistic, so maybe it was their mother, or maybe someone bought it from someone else, but it didn’t matter.
Velvet traced the outline of the princess’s face with her fingertip. This was the page where she first met the beast. The older Velvet got, the expression on this page seemed to shift. She once knew for a fact that it was fear she was looking at, but now, studying the picture, she could have sworn it was resolve.
A knock at the door sounded, and she put the book away.
How long had it been?
Velvet pushed open the door to her old home, the door scraping on the floor as it threatened to fall off its hinges. They had broken the spell Melchior had cast over them, and now the house was in as much ruin as she’d inititally expected to find it in. Velvet gritted her teeth as she stepped through what used to be the kitchen, now overgrown with wildlife entering through the broken window. Everyone else was waiting outside. She hadn’t asked them to stay behind, but she guessed they knew. She wanted to be here alone for a while.
She walked through the house, memories of her human life slapping her in the face over, and over. She almost couldn’t handle it. That was how it was supposed to be, but it never happened that way. Arthur betrayed her, betrayed them all—and she was the sole survivor of Aball. She carried the guilt of an entire town inside of her heart.
Velvet sat at the edge of the old wooden table in the center of their home, her eyes roaming the shelves until a familiar gilded edge caught her attention. She knew what it was immediately, the story rushing back to her. She couldn’t believe that she had forgotten.
She pulled the book off the shelf, brushing the dust from the surface to reveal the beautiful prince and princess of her old storybook. It hadn’t changed at all, unlike her. The cool shade of the shelf it had been resting on all those years had kept the pages from yellowing, or the sun from bleaching the cover’s rich colors. She flipped it open, and it landed on the page that had complexed her as a girl.
The princess’s drawn brows, her wide eyes, expressing something that was always just beyond her reach. Velvet sighed at the picture of the beautiful woman, tracing her long, red hair. When she was a girl, she dreamt of being the princess. But now… As Velvet turned the pages with her demon arm, black beneath the bandages she wore to cover the ugliness that was her reality, she knew she was the beast.
But the princess, who she had fantasized about as a young girl, was familiar to her as well. The look in her eyes was one she saw every day in Eleanor’s. It was a mix of bewilderment, fear, and strength. Eleanor pushed through her fear on a daily basis, determined to fight past it and do what she had set out to achieve. Which was, in its own way, just like the princess in the storybook. She was the heroine of the novel; and Velvet was just a beast. A wicked, evil beast with a heart that needed melting.
There was a knock at the door, and Velvet quickly shut the book. Eleanor stepped through, her green eyes wide as they searched the abandoned home. They landed on Velvet, and the closed book in front of her.
“Hey,” She said quietly. “Are you alright?”
Velvet furrowed her brow. She hated that question, and Eleanor knew that. Of course she wasn’t okay, but of course she was dealing with it. As Velvet wondered why Eleanor had asked her that damned question, she felt the emotions building inside of her rise to the surface. A tear slipped down her cheek, escaping from the corner of her eye no matter how hard she swallowed and tried to push them back.
Eleanor could tell she was emotional, and of course she could. That was why she asked—because there were no better words to get Velvet to open up to her.
“I’m fine,” Velvet choked out, clenching her fist on the table.
Eleanor didn’t believe her for a second, shutting the door firmly behind her before crossing the room in long strides. She didn’t say anything, didn’t ask anymore questions. She just opened her arms and took Velvet in as she started sobbing. Eleanor stroked her hair gently, pressing her cheek against the other woman’s head.
Eleanor wanted to tell Velvet it would be alright, that they would all be fine, but she knew she couldn’t. Velvet hated when she said that, for one, but also because she didn’t wish to lie to her. It was very probable that some of them might die, if not all of them. So instead she just clutched her tighter to her chest, shushing her cries and smoothing her hair in the way she liked.
Velvet pulled back, her face red from crying, the tears still flowing forth. She tried to speak, but her ragged breathing wouldn’t let her. The sharp inhales of breath between her sobs cut into Eleanor’s heart, the fact that she had nothing to say grinding it even deeper.
“Shh, Velvet,” She said quietly, cupping her cheek gently. Velvet leaned into it, holding her wrist with her own hand. “You don’t have to say anything.”
Eventually, Velvet’s sobs softened. Eleanor pulled out two chairs for them from the table, leading Velvet to sit beside her. Eleanor held both her hands on her knees, rubbing her thumbs over the fingers of one hand and the bandages of the other. She had told Velvet before that she didn’t have to wear the bandages. The black arm with its deep, blood red lines looked no different than the markings on Rokurou’s face, and he was almost proud of them.
But Velvet kept them hidden. She wouldn’t tell Eleanor why, but it was too simple for her to put into words. She didn’t like looking at them. She didn’t like—or need—the constant reminder of what she was. They made her ugly, and as much as she knew that she was a disgusting creature, there were times when even she wanted to feel beautiful.
But she was just a beast.
Eleanor’s eyes fell to the book on the table. The half-dusted cover told her everything she needed to know—she’d seen this fairytale before. She knew it well.
“You know,” she said slowly, lifting the book with a hand. Velvet’s eyes widened as though she was afraid. This book was some sort of secret to her. It was intensly personal and, honestly, a little embarrassing, but Eleanor continued to talk. “I had this book when I was a kid, too. I never understood why the princess chose to stay with the beast.” Her eyes flitted to Velvet, who looked like she was about to cry again, so she spoke more quickly. “But now, I think she’d have to be an idiot to have left.”
Velvet wasn’t expecting that. Her heart snapped up, her expression hopeful behind the clouded, skeptic gaze. “She could have died,” she whispered, her throat dry.
“I don’t care, and she shouldn’t either,” said Eleanor. “When you see someone in need, someone conscious of their actions like the beast was, you don’t just leave them behind!” Eleanor was getting heated, her voice filling with passion. She held Velvet’s hand tight. “I didn’t understand why she stayed, or why she fell in love with the beast, or why they were both beautiful in the end, butI understand it now.”
Velvet and Eleanor stared into each other’s eyes, and Eleanor reached up to Velvet’s face, pushing tear-dampened strands of hair out of her face. “She had a duty as a compassionate human being.”
“And the beast?”
“What beast?” Asked Eleanor. “It was nothing but a curse. His heart was human—and that’s the only part that mattered.” Eleanor leaned forward and Velvet followed her lead, their lips meeting gently in a kiss. “Their love didn’t make them beautiful in the end,” she said. “It just brought out the beauty in their hearts.”
They stayed together for a while longer, their foreheads pressed together in silence and their fingers intertwined. After a while Velvet sighed and stood, pulling Eleanor to her feet as well. She wiped her face with the back of her hands, ridding herself of the last traces of tears. She cleared her throat. “All right,” she said. “Shall we move on?”
Eleanor smiled. Velvet was back to herself.
Velvet looked longingly at the book on the table, reluctant to leave it behind, but Eleanor picked it up. “Is it okay if I take this?” she asked. “It would be better if I was the one to bring it along, right? Wouldn’t want to ruin your image or anything.”
Velvet got a smile out of that. “Thank you, Eleanor.”