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After-Party Conversations

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“Blondie Lockes reporting here, live from the biggest post-winter bash in fairytale history!”

“Hey!”

“That, of course, excludes the very well-loved annual Spring Coming dance hosted by Briar Beauty.”

The pink-rose princess nodded in acceptance of this correction, then returned to her conversation with Ashlynn Ella. Blondie sighed in relief and turned to her news cast, having her helpful Winter elf assistant hold the camera just a little bit higher (they weren’t the just right height she needed for this). “We have with us here two of the brave explorers who hunted for the Royal Roses of the Seasons, Briar Beauty and Ashlynn Ella. Ladies, may I ask for comments on tonight’s festivities?”

“This party is wicked cool!” Briar replied promptly, smiling at the pun while she continued to devour her shaved ice (which was apparently the Top of the World’s version of a punch bowl drink).

Ashlynn had similar thoughts. “Yes, it’s always so magical here. And not just because of all the winter magic.” She was petting the head of a little penguin, trying to get lessons on its language. “The people are so nice. They don’t even mind being turned into Penguins.”

“So you aren’t bothered by the lack of actual living plants?” Blondie asked. “As we all remember from the offical MirrorCast reports, you did have a minor meltdown mid-travel from days on end without interactions with nature, a very important part of your character.”

Cinderella’s daughter winced at the reminder of her “outburst”, but didn’t completely drop her smile. “Well, I can say that I don’t plan to spend the summer holiday here. Not until they invest in a proper green house. But Briar and I have visited many times in our childhood for weekends. Right, Briar?”

“Yep,” Sleeping Beauty’s oldest nodded, licking her spoon of it’s charmberry syrup residue. “I had my first snowboarding and speed skating lessons up here.”

Blondie would have liked to inquire more about past years’ adventures in the Far North, but Briar had become speechless as her tongue was now stuck to her spoon and while Ashlynn was assisting her in getting free, Blondie wandered away to other interviews.

“There were many brave members of the Epic Winter exploration group, including yours truly. However, for my account of the story, you can tune in tomorrow for Blondie’s Epic Winter Highlight reactions,” the heiress of Goldilocks made her way around the dance floor filled with twirling elf couples, heading up to the stage where the royal thrones were located. The King and Queen of Winter were there, taking a rest after hours of dancing, and looking very respectable in their beautifully carved thrones. On a throne of a smaller scale but given the special middle position for the event, was Crystal Winter. Crystal was holding the royal ice scepter as handed on to her by her parents.

“King, Queen, and Princess Winter,” Blondie greeted them, bowing as a fellow royal (in her heart) to the family. “Would you mind answering some questions for our Post Epic-Winter Mirrorcast?”

“Blondie,” Crystal laughed good naturedly. “You already snowed us with questions just an hour ago. Let us chill out for a bit and enjoy the party. You should, too.”

“But I am enjoying it,” the journalist insisted, gesturing to the grand ball room. It had already been made up in glittering crystal pillars and columns, but now it positively sparkled in the addition ice decorations and snowflake designs they had added for the party. The “Thanks For Saving Our Frozen Bacon Bash”. Well, at least that’s what someone had suggested, but they’d been ignored and instead it was just “Post Epic Winter Ball”. These people had no imagination for headlines.

“At least tell me this,” Blondie asked. “Do you feel it was unfair of Headmaster Grimm to hold back Faybelle from coming to the party?”

The snow princess winced and looked aside. “Well, she did nearly doom the whole of the realms to eternal winter because of a selfish act, which was just a consequence of her trying to avoid punishment for previous chaos she did cause…so…”

Crystal trailed off, not good at handling good vs evil on a philosophical level, and turned to her parents for help. Her dad gave her a hand. “We do regret her missing out on the ball, as we reserved a place at the banquet table in her honor,” the no-longer-evil Snow King answered, “However, we will be holding Crystal’s coronation next week and we will be happy to give her our proper thanks then.”

“If you don’t forget to invite her,” Blondie pointed out.

“Indeed,” the Snow King agreed seamlessly.

The daughter of Goldilocks, seeing they wouldn’t be offering her much else, decided to move on once more to other targets. And honestly, they were the ones she’d been most excited to talk to.

“Well, there you have it. Faybelle, this is your royal invitation, so serve your detention and hold back on the wicked-fairy business for this week.” Blondie winked at her camera, before switching gears into her Relationship Rumor-cast voice. “But now, viewers, it’s time for something we all wanted to dive into by unanimous popularity on our comments section. A fiery new romance that’s been warming up this adventure in the snow.” Blondie playfully fanned herself. “That’s right. We’re talking about the unexpected yet so right love affair between Daring Charming and Rosabella Beauty.”

Blondie, walking carefully, approached the dance floor where she’d last seen the couple. “If you’ve been keeping up with our previous string of episodes, you know that Daring Charming, formerly believed to be the destined Prince of Apple White, learned in a big reveal that Snow White was not his Legacy Story. Dramatic, right? We were all worried if Daring’s book had been closed for good. But, in a strange twist of circumstances, our dashing prince of the school had fallen under his own curse by the manipulated Snow King: he became a beast! No one saw that coming.” Blondie ducked out of the way as a couple of elves glided past in their elegant waltz. “What we did see, though, was the romance that flowered between him and Rosabella, daughter of the legendary Beast himself with a legacy story just right for the transformed Charming. By the time that curse was broken, it was safe to say that Daring and Rosabella had officially begun something magical and I don’t mean just roses and mirrors. Let’s get a word from them right—!”

The exciting reveal Blondie had been building up was cut off in an anti-climactic squeak when the corner of the ballroom she gestured to with such flourish was shown to be vacant. Unoccupied. Empty! “Hold the page,” Blondie exclaimed, placing mitten-covered hands on her hips. “Where did they go? I just saw them here!”

The elf cameraperson shrugged. The two students had indeed been dancing there since the dinner party had started, being the first to join the floor after the King and Queen with a very romantic ballroom dance. It had been very cute.

But what Blondie didn’t understand was how they could have snuck out and no one notice. Daring wasn’t a hulking beast anymore, but with a face as gorgeous as his, people tended to doubletake when he passed. That he could go anywhere without being noticed was a shock.

This was not just right. Where had they gone to? And what about her interview?!

 

Peeking through a crack in the grand ballroom doors, the “missing” teens watched as Blondie sulked over their disappearance and began interrogating others in the area for their whereabouts.

“I admit, you were very right,” Rosabella observed, turning to Daring with a grateful smile. “Blondie really did have us in her sights.”

“Of course she did,” Daring nodded, quietly shutting the door before their voices could be detected. “She’s been hounding me for weeks about the failure of Dapple. It was no mystery that the rise of Darabella was going to catch her attention.”

“Darabella?” the princess questioned, holding a hand to her mouth to muffle some of her giggles. That was a cute couples name. “Who decided on this title?”

The prince shrugged, unfazed. “Blondie, I assume. That or she stole it from someone on the MirrorNet.”

Still snickering, Rosabella looked back to the little pixie behind them, a Snow Owl species, who’d been kind enough to provide an escape route out of the ballroom without Blondie catching them. She’d need to thank the other pixies for keeping their secret. Plus the Snow Queen for her suggestion of escape.

Daring joined her as they followed their pixie guide away from the ball room to the location the Queen had suggested to them. A nice little place to get some quiet and have a conversation that was long coming. One better had outside of hearing from nosy journalist and teasing cousins.

 

“We should tell Ashlynn about this place,” Daring stated as he admired the view of the castle’s hidden oasis. “She might not look like she’s shriveling up if she saw all these plants. Even if they are just snow and ice sculptures.”

Rosabella nodded, also caught up in the beauty around them.

They were in the Snow Queen’s private snow garden where she crafted and kept her favorite sculptures. From what they’d learned from Crystal, the Snow King was gifted by his scepter with mystical power of weather patterns and transformations. But the Snow Queen had a deeper ingrained magic that she didn’t need a wand to bring out like her husband and daughter. Their castle itself had been crafted by her and she remained a true artist with ice creations.

Amidst rows of snow sculptures shaped to look like flower beds, the two found a garden bench complete with fluffy fur pillows and took a seat. Crystal had assured Rosabella that all fur lined materials in her kingdom were made from the shedding coats of their polar bears, collected harmlessly and with their full permission to be recycled.

Feeling comfy and glad to rest her feet from all that dancing, Rosabella looked out over the winter garden and considered how perfect this moment was. She had always felt best when surrounded by flowers, be them real or fake. Probably because of her story setting.

More than that, though, present company was a part of her contentment. It surprised her, how suddenly things had changed. She and Daring had only ever been sort-of friends, not surprising with how rough their first few introductions had gone. Still, they’d eventually come to an understanding (made up mostly of having a mutual friend present) and while they hadn’t considered themselves Best Friends Forever After, they were honest with each other.

When she’d approached him about the “not-being-Apple’s-prince thing”, she’d done so as a friend worried about another friend’s well-being. She’d honestly thought that, if he would have changed his way of acting, he could have been Apple’s prince despite everything. She should have known that he, being a Royal, wouldn’t have seen things the way she did as a Rebel. In his eyes, his kiss hadn’t worked, thus it wasn’t his destiny. Book closed.

If they’d known then what they knew now…

Rosabella turned her eyes towards Daring, who was also looking out over the garden, smiling. If she didn’t know better, she’d say he was happily enjoying the garden and her company, too. But she did know better.

“Daring,” she called to him, playfully tapping his ankle with her boot. “You can admire your reflection another time. We came here to talk, remember?”

As expected, his shoulder jolted and he turned his eyes away from whatever reflective ice had been holding his gaze to bring bright blue irises back to her. Well, no, actually, Rosabella corrected herself while sitting up straighter. As she’d learned over the last few days, Daring’s eyes weren’t actually blue.

It was hard to notice when they were regular human size, so it was easy to think he had the same bright blue eyes as his brother had (though not with Dexter’s enchanting qualities), but Rosabella had spent a lot of the last three days looking at Daring in his beast form and with those wide, puppy eyes of his, she’d seen the hidden shades of lilac purple in his irises. She’d thought maybe it was from his being spelled, a sign of a curse. Yet, as she held his attention now, she could see that yes, the base color of eyes was indeed lilac.

Why did he always insist his eyes were blue?

“Well,” he inquired, pulling her attention away from his eyes and back to the conversation they were supposed to be having. “Did you want to begin or should I? Because if I’m being honest, I’m still a little confused about what I want to ask, so it might be beneficial for you to begin.”

“Oh, right,” Rosabella nodded, getting back on track. She should not be getting distracted by him now. They had important things to talk about and if she didn’t keep them on track, they’d never get to it. “Well, for starters, tell me how you feel, Daring. About the curse and the adventure and everything.”

He thought about it, eyes turned upwards to the dark sky lit with the aurora of Top of the World. He shrugged. “I feel…okay. I’m surprised, honestly. I mean, I never even considered that I might be a beast for my story. It’s a very surreal idea to me.”

“Well, you know, being a beast isn’t a bad thing,” Rosabella said, offering a smile on the outside. Inside, she could feel her nerves combatting with her nervousness. On the one hand, she didn’t want to hear him say he didn’t like the role because she had really grown on the idea of him being her beastly prince. On the other hand, she could feel her temper rising, waiting to pounce if he said something snide about the position that had once been her father’s. She pushed back both sides and tried to keep her tone light. “From what we learned in Good Kingdom Management, it’s one of the oldest kind of fairytale plots there are. To be transformed and changed into a new form.”

“I suppose,” Daring admitted, tapping a finger to his strong chin. She almost asked how his hands weren’t cold without gloves but, looking down at her bare fingers, she would only guess it was their magical fairy garments keeping them warm. Hers came from Faybelle, where were his from? “There are certainly less…opulent roles. Can you imagine if I had been the future Marsh King, instead? What an idea!”

Rosabella couldn’t help but smile at Daring’s dramatics, rolling her eyes as was becoming a habit these days. Still, that answer didn’t satisfy either of her internal sides so she chose to bite the wand and asked, “Daring, you don’t hate this role, do you?” She’d get mad if he said something mean, but she couldn’t force him to like it. Compared to being the prince of Apple White and future ruler of the realms, the role of Rosabella’s prince did seem like a step down.

Daring looked at her, surprised by her words. “What are you talking about?” he asked, his voice scandalized. “How could a person hate the role they were destined for? Such thinking is unprecedented and very unconstructive. When Destiny chooses a path for you, you accept it with valor and prepare yourself for your fate.”

“Prepare yourself?” Rosabella parroted, already feeling her irritation spike at the implication of that statement. “You mean like it’s a bad thing?”

“In some cases,” he agreed, not reading her mounting anger. “Like, say I had been chosen to be the Marsh King. That would involve a lot of muck and grime, and no shampoo to speak of. There are few roles more nightmarish than that if you were to ask my opinion. And if I had to accept that as my destiny, it would take quite a bit of mental training and fortitude, plus…”

Rosabella bit her tongue, hard, holding back the many things she wanted to say. Instead, she did the only sensible thing that wouldn’t end this meeting of theirs with her lecturing him. She stood up from her seat and walked off, letting him continue his one-sided conversation while doing her best to tune him out.

Wow, did this feel familiar, she thought, scowling as she stomped through the sparkling crystal flowers. "Aggravation" was what she was used to when she was around Daring Charming, more than that “content” feeling.

Daring says something insensitive, Rosabella tries to reason with him, then he says something more insensitive and she has to walk away before she says something they’ll both regret. She hates having to back down from things; the beast inside of her wants to charge forwards without a care for what anyone thinks and roar what she has to say for all to hear. But the princess-politician in her knows better. You can’t gain support for a cause when people are scared to speak to you and as she’d learned the hard way, people typically feared her after being on the receiving end of her temper. It was annoying and unfair, but she had no other choice than to “play by the social rules” if she wanted to change the social status. And that meant not blowing her top when someone, especially Daring Charming, upset her.

She could no longer hear Daring’s voice, lost as she was among the pretend flowers, and tried to calm herself by counting to ten. Like her father taught her: walk away, calm yourself, then come back with an argument they can’t ignore. She would go back and explain again to Daring why a destiny as a beast was not something to be discouraged about. If possible, she’d really want him to feel proud of that destiny. To want it as much as she wanted him to want it. Not that she could control his emotions, even if she could see them.

“I’m glad I wasn’t looking back there,” she muttered, to herself but also to the flowers. “If I’d looked at his true self and he’d been something like ‘petrified’ or ‘unwilling’ I would have lost it for sure.” She crouched beside a bush, hands folded on her knees while she balanced upon her haunches. “I just don’t understand him.”

“Rosabella?” Daring’s voice called out, having finally noticed she wasn’t with him anymore. She could hear the crunch of his sneakers on the powdery snow ground while he came to look for her. She wasn’t in a mood to talk to him yet, so she stayed where she was, hidden by the crystal bush, until he passed her by on the other side of the hedge rows. She’d always been good at hide and seek in her family garden. This was no different.

As his footsteps faded away, she sat up a little. Petting the sculpted petals of the snow-roses, she continued her speech to the unhearing plants as if they were confidantes of her heart. “Sometimes he can be so nice and sweet and adorably goofy. I know he cares about things from the depths of his heart. Things like his family and his friends, even his fan group.” This thought brought another smile and eye roll to her expression. But then her smile turned sad. “And I’d like to think he cares about me, like that. He seems like he does. But I have to wonder if…” she gulped, feeling a lump in her throat at the thought, “If he cares about me for me or just because his ‘destiny’ tells him he should.” She frowned. “Plus, I question if I should be getting so excited at the thought that Daring Charming is my prince. Yes, he has a lot of good qualities but he has some not so good ones, too, and those have caused me a lot of grief since we first met.”

Collecting shards of ice dropped by the imitation branches around her, she made a tally list of these qualities as she went along. “He’s stubborn, and he doesn’t listen when it’s not about him. He’s caught up in his looks, and thinks everyone is just dying to be his fan. He doesn’t notice anyone else’s feelings. And what’s worse, he assumes everyone thinks like him and that that’s how things should be. Everyone thinking the same way about everyone else.”

The princess huffed, folding her arms and she letting her anger stew. She was past a desire to calm now. She was on a roll and her frustrations that had been building like a snowball down a mountain were coming to the surface. “You try to give him advice, he laughs at you. You try to guide him, he insists he has it right. You comfort him in his time of need, all he can think of is to go running to Apple, and only come running back when he embarrassed himself because you’re the only one who didn’t cringe away. He should have realized that from the start.”

She scowled, not caring if it left wrinkles like the White Queen warned them in Princessology class. “And not once, not even once, does he thank you for it. Three days on the road in a sleigh with Ashlynn’s flower anxiety, and Briar’s solo adventures, and Faybelle’s pranks, and Blondie’s questioning, and Crystal’s insecurities, and…!” Rosabella grit her teeth to keep from growling out loud. She shifted her glasses to pinch the bridge of her nose, remembering the many headaches she’d had during that adventure. “And you try so hard to keep it all together and keep up group morale, and all he can do is be a royal pain like you told him not to do, and just add into it all by whining about having to pull the sleigh – even though his strength is enough to pull the whole student body – and how the snow is going to mess up his skin – even though you have to repeatedly remind him he is all fur now!”

Turning back to her little cons list, seeing all the tic marks against him, she huffed with some regret. “It isn’t fair to say this, but charm it all, he is by far the most infuriating prince I’ve ever met.”

“Well, excuse me for living!”

Rosabella squeaked, clapping her hands to her chest and wobbling on her haunches at the sudden shock. From the bush directly in front of her, Daring had popped up like a weasel, despite that it was a bush of snow roses instead of mulberries. Did that make her the monkey? She’d never heard him coming, so caught up in her thoughts. The prince, insulted by her solo conversation, looked on with an annoyed pout. Caught like a dear in the carriage lights, Rosabella froze. She didn’t move as he elegantly leaped over the bush and came to stand on the same path as her.

She thought he would immediately complain against her unfair statements or even storm off in annoyance. Those are what she would do if the situation was reversed. However, rather than tower over her, he knelt down into the snow so he was on her level before speaking back.

“It’s unprincely to say so, but you are not what one would call the most flawless of princesses yourself, despite your intentions.” Then, just like she had, he had a handful of ice twigs and began to tally out a list of her flaws. “You’re very pushy about things, always wanting people to think like you do and then getting upset when they don’t. You don’t take into consideration that not everyone has a beast father and thus, why would they automatically see the world like you do? It’s natural to need working up to new ideas. You always have something to complain about; rarely do you say nice things if they aren’t about something that relates to beasts. You never want to talk about anything fun. It’s always beast trouble here, environmental trouble there, people can’t take care of themselves because they can’t take care of beasts. And it’s like you can’t do one thing in your presence without you having some kind of critique of it. If you feel like saying anything at all. Otherwise you just stand there in your own world and let people do things alone.”

Looking up from this equally sizable list, he looked her in the eyes, honey brown to lilac blue. Despite her shock as his retaliation in pointing out her shortcomings, too stunned to work up a proper snit, she noted he still looked more annoyed than angry. He also wasn’t finished. “And you weren’t exercising all that much ‘calm’ yourself during that long trip. Yes, I admit I was whining about the pulling and the snow and my hair. It was heavy, even if I could manage it and it was cold. But you were spending the whole time jumping in and out of the sleigh every time you thought you heard some animal in trouble in all that snow. And of course that put the whole mission on halt because Ashlynn would follow your lead, and Briar would tag along because the trip makes her restless, and Blondie would go hoping to record something for her MirrorCast. Crystal was not entertained by this, I can tell you that, and neither was Faybelle as we now can understand why.”

The princess felt heat rising to her face at his words. She had forgotten about doing that. Okay, so maybe she did go off regularly to aid creatures. It couldn’t be helped. It was supposed to be summer and none of them were adapting fast enough to the sudden weather change. They needed assistance in locating their homes and finding food. And anyway, that’s what he should have been doing, since he was a hero. He should have helped her, not be lecturing her.

In a rare display of intuition, Daring read her thoughts and added another tally against her. “And you never want to admit you did something wrong, either. You always justify yourself when the motives make sense to you.”

“That’s not true,” she denied, outraged.

“And you never say you’re sorry,” he added calmly, another tally.

“Now that is a giant-sized lie!” she explained, pointing a finger at him in accusation. “I would always say I’m sorry.”

“Oh really?” he challenged, narrowing his eyes. “Like when you gave away my plan to trick North Wind and nearly got the others caught? I never heard you apologize.”

Rosabella opened her mouth to disagree. And it stayed open while her brain fought to recall exactly how she had apologized to Crystal and her friends for her mess up. And then her mouth was starting to cramp as she couldn’t come up with any knowledge of making such an apology.

Seeing he’d stumped her, Daring folded his arms with a smug grin. Now it was her turn to pout. “Okay, so you’re right about that,” she admitted. “I’m…I’m sorry.” Wow, that actually had been hard to get out. Did she really not apologize for things that much? Must be because she was always acting for the good of others; rarely did that come with hurting someone else.

“And I’m sorry, too,” Daring followed, his posture relaxing from smug to honestly apologetic. Apparently, apologizing came much easier to him. “I didn’t thank you for what you’d done for me. That wasn’t right.”

He unfolded his arms, reaching for her hands and taking them in his. “You stood beside me through this whole mess; through my whining and complaining, crying and pouting, and those unprincely temper tantrums. And I never told you that I really appreciated having you there.” He gazed bashfully down at his knees, squeezing her hands a little. “It has not been an easy few weeks for me, you know that. And, unlike some other people,” he said this with an edge in his voice that didn’t seem natural for him, “You didn’t tell me to just ‘turn the page’.”

“Of course not,” Rosabella said, frowning at such insensitive advice. “Daring, you’d lost your story. Even as a Rebel, I understand how much that would hurt you. I would be devastated if I was suddenly told I couldn’t have my story, whether or not I intend to follow it exactly. To have everything you’ve ever known ripped out from under you, and in front of the whole school at that…” She shook her head, saddened just to imagine what that must have felt like. “Of course you’d be depressed.” She looked him in the eyes, showing him her honesty. “I hated to see you like that, looking so sad and lost. You weren’t you. Weren’t the confident, passionate person you always were and it…it hurt me. Here.” She took back her hand to place over her heart. “We weren’t good friends, but to see anyone in so much pain, whether or not they were a beast, was awful. Everyone else thought you needed space to come to terms with it, but I thought maybe you needed someone to talk to. Someone who wouldn’t judge you based on your story or lack thereof.”

“Is that why you stayed by me? Even after everything I said?”

“Of course,” she smiled. “Did you think that a little temper tantrum would drive me away? Do you know what my temper is like when I’m not being nice all the time?”

He snickered. “I do, actually. You pretty regularly fussed at me when we bumped heads in the past. That, or walked off in a huff.” He raised an eye brow. “Why did you always walk off, anyway? It’s clear to me that you can stand your ground against the mightiest of foes. Even ice giants, armed with only snowballs. Why did you always retreat when you fought me?”

“That was a tactical maneuver,” she explained. “I didn’t want to scare you off by losing my temper and yelling at you. I needed your support for my cause, not to have you cowering whenever I came close.”

He laughed. Loud and heartily.

“What’s so funny?” she demanded, snatching back her other hand as she glared in annoyance. She’d just told him something very personal and he was laughing at her. Again!

“You… you thought you’d scare me off…by getting mad at me?” he gasped between words, finding this idea beyond hilarious.

Rosabella’s anger spiked and, in a very out of character act, she reached out and gave him a hard shove. The prince wobbled, managing to stay upright, though his laugher did quiet.

Getting ahold of himself, he stuck his tongue out at her in retaliation for the shove, then said, “Rosabella, I’m positive there’s nothing you could have said to me that would have driven me to disavow you as a friend. I’m friends with Sparrow Hood, for charming’s sake!” He shook his head, letting gold blond hair rearrange around his temples. “And more than that, I’ve been living under the threat of quite a few people’s tempers. I’ll admit that I get upset easily, but not by what someone would say to me, or about me. My ego isn’t something you could just blow down with a huff of harsh words.”

Rosabella contemplated this, seeing his point, but asked, “Whose tempers are you talking about? I would think you only ever heard praises from people.” That was certainly what his unwavering self-pride would suggest.

Daring laughed again, though this one was small and a little self-deprecating. Again, very unlike the Daring she thought she knew.

“Well, my father for one thing,” he remarked, thinking back. “He often had a bit of a temper about things, probably because of his whole ‘birth-order’ issue he wouldn’t let us talk about. He was very strict about us all behaving as we were supposed to. He’d scold Dexter for reading instead of hero training and he’d scold Darling for hero training instead of damsel training.”

“And what about you? You weren’t hero training?”

He paused here, his eyes far-off and contemplative, seeing something she wasn’t. “I thought that I was,” he said quietly. “But something that happened recently makes me wonder if I always was. If, some long time ago I wasn’t…different.” As he said this, his hand wandered up to his scalp, pressing against his hair in memory of some long-gone headache. “I had this dream that showed me in a different way. A way I don’t remember of myself and yet, it felt so familiar. I can’t make sense of it even now.”

He shook his head, afraid of this thought, then turned back to Rosabella. “All I know is that, whatever it was, it had me on Dad’s radar for some time. Everything I did was criticized until eventually I just stopped being what he didn’t like and was only what he did want. Then he eased up on me.”

“That’s horrible,” Rosabella remarked. She was about to go into a speech about parents and the fragility of a child’s self-image, but he stopped her with a wave.

“I don’t remember it well, but I don’t think he changed me. I did that all on my own. I grew up into my Charming genes and it was all just natural to me. I wasn’t forced into any mold, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Rosabella looked aside, blushing again. Was she that predictable?

“After my father, though, there was Snow White,” Daring continued. “We’d all thought I was Apple’s destined prince, so she made it her mission to assure I was perfect for Apple in every way. Being a hero and being charming wasn’t enough. She had very high standards and I had to rise to every one of them to ensure I was doing my part to be the future King White. And when I wasn’t…” the boy winced, “Well, I can see how she went toe-to-toe with the Evil Queen for all those years. She’s not a person you want to be on the bad side of.”

Rosabella winced as well. Yeah, she could see that. This was the person who gave the Evil Queen a pardon from lifetime Mirror Prison just for a publicity stunt in the name of Apple’s popularity. It didn’t seem farfetched that Snow White would put her future son-in-law through the ringer for Apple, too.

“And what’s more,” Daring wasn’t finished, “I’ll have you know my bravery is quite admirable. I face down every manner of bea-, uh, I mean rambunctious combatants quite regularly.” He managed to catch himself this time and noted the look of gratitude in Rosabella’s eyes. He did learn from his mistakes. “Who else would have the fortitude to train the dark dragons into manageability? By now, I’m the only one they almost listen to.”

“And how,” Rosabella agreed.

“So you see, a few stern words wouldn’t have devastated me.” The prince smiled, teasing as he gestured down to their tally contest. “They wouldn’t have then any more than they could now.”

Rosabella felt ashamed. “You heard all of that.”

“Your voice is very loud. It carries for long distances and it was easy enough to track you while you were lost in your filibuster of my less charming character traits.”

The princess pouted. “Well, I guess you can put my loud voice as another bad quality for me.”

She waited for him to add the tally, but he surprised her by using his hand to cup her cheek. “Why would I do that? I like your voice.” She blinked. “Because it’s like mine. I enjoy speaking loudly and being heard, too, so I’m glad that you do as well. It’s something that we have in common.”

In common. The statement sent a rush of happiness through her. They actually had something in common.

She mirrored him by touching his face as she had when he’d broken his own curse. “I am sorry for all those things I said,” she apologized, not quite as difficult the second time. “I didn’t mean all of that. I was just mad.”

“I know. But I know some of those things were right, too. Believe it or not, I like to learn from my mistakes,” he grinned before slipping into a more somber expression. “I was being childish and selfish, focusing on my own issues to the point I wasn’t even taking notice of people around me anymore. I know I can get distracted, but I was being unforgivable. I deserved to get cursed, just from saying what I did to the Snow King. This whole thing has really opened by eyes to a lot of things.”

“And…about being the beast…” she tried to ask but couldn’t work up the nerve. She didn’t want to lose all the progress they’d made so far.

He looked at her and, with a small smile, answered, “I’m not ashamed of it.” He received a look of disbelief. “Well, not anymore. I was ashamed when I was cursed, and I did want to turn back as soon as possible. But, honestly, about halfway through the adventure…” he blushed, becoming bashful as he admitted his secret, “I was actually feeling very comfortable in a beast form. Like it was natural for me. I didn’t feel like I was spelled anymore; I felt like I was released. For the first time in my life, I stopped being Prince Charming and I was just… Daring.”

“Daring who whined about being a sled dog,” Rosabella teased, patting his cheek patronizingly.

“Daring who pulled a sleigh of four princesses, a journalist, and a fairy across the fairytale world in a blizzard for three days straight,” he corrected, pinching her cheek in retaliation. He laughed when she squawked and gave her face a playful tug. “Daring who dug out shelters, scrapped through snow banks for vegan-safe foods, and carried clumsy princesses who broke their skis.”

Though her mouth was skewed from the pinching, Rosabella could still gripe, “Who’s the clumsy one; not certain beasts who go chasing rabbits and get stuck in snow banks?”

“Touche,” he conceded, releasing her and smiling while she rubbed her sore cheek. “But yeah, I don’t mind this idea of being the next Beast. I can’t say I’ve fallen in love with the role yet, but I think I could learn to really like this. I was being honest when I said that I like your Legacy story.”

Rosabella stopped rubbing her cheek to smile at him bashfully, remembering that and the romantic moment it had turned into. She wondered if, maybe, she could recreate that moment here, away from their previous intruders. A gorgeous snow garden was more suited for such a mood than a royal kitchen.

Just like she had then, Rosabella took Daring’s hand in hers and he responded by laying his other hand on top. His beast paws had completely engulfed her hands back in Cinderella’s kitchen, but his human hands were still large enough to wrap around hers warmly.

He took it a step further, pulling her hands to his chest where she could feel his heart through his coat and sweater vest. It was beating hard, just like her own. Another thing they had in common.

“Rosabella...” he said her name softly, uncertain. He didn’t know what else to do. This wasn't something they'd covered in Wooing 101.

But she did. She’d seen it in a dream. She closed her eyes and tilted her head, an unmistakable sign of her permission to him.

Then she was surrounded by his presence.

 

“Ah-hah!” Blondie exclaimed, pushing open the garden doors to reveal the open expense of the Snow Queen’s garden terrace. Her journalist instincts had led her here, still on the hunt for the elusive subjects of her latest celebrity gossip cast. Yes, she had told Cerise she was tired of doing them, but that was for all the old couples. This was a new, unexpected couple and a Legacy Pair at that! How could she resist!

Unfortunately, even with her surprise entrance, followed by her acquired camera crew, she still didn’t spot her prey- uh, subjects.

The Royal pouted. “I know you guys are here somewhere,” she called, stomping through the hedge rows and looking for where the duo might be hiding. “You can’t escape the watchful eyes of Just Right.”

That was what she said but after searching the whole of the garden, she still found nothing. Any footprints were long disappeared by the magical snow. All she found was some weird tally charts, which could have been made by some of these winter pixies that were all over the place. Now thoroughly annoyed, she stormed back towards the castle door. But not before shouting, “I’ll find you eventually; you can’t keep hiding. I know where you go to school!”

And with that, the ice doors slammed shut and the grumbling of an unsatisfied reporter faded away.

 

“Okay, she’s gone,” Daring declared as he peeked down from the surprisingly-sturdy snow-apple tree. He was glad he hadn’t followed his first instinct to hide in the igloo. It was the first sculpture Blondie poked her head into when she didn’t find them in the flower beds.

Rosabella, perched on a branch on his opposite side, sighed in relief. She could finally unfold her face from these frozen leaves. “I’m glad we escaped her again. That could have really been a bad time to get caught.” It was already a bad time to be interrupted, the princess thought begrudgingly, but that wasn’t something she’d linger on. “But Daring, how did you know she was co—?”

The princess trailed her eyes over to her companion and swallowed her words as she caught sight of him, a sudden rush of déjà vu coming back. While Daring’s eyes remained fixed on the door to be sure that Blondie was gone, he didn’t seem to have noticed something very extraordinary had happened to him. Extraordinary in the manner of two very fluffy white ears now perched on top of his head that had not been there before he’d whisked them up to this hiding spot.

Catching her odd tone of voice, the prince glanced over with a confused look, making the ears on his head twitch as they adjusted to her direction. How did he still not notice them? It was almost as bad as missing a giant muzzle sprouting from your face!

“What’s wrong?” he questioned, seeing her weird look. “Do I have something on my face again?!”

She silently shook her head no, but he was already rubbing his cheeks and nose to find any abnormality he though had caught her eye. If he wasn’t so distracted by the idea of looking bad, he’d notice her eyes were on his head. Should she tell him? How should she tell him? She don’t understand what she was seeing. Was the spell not actually broken? Daring would be crushed!

“I wish I still had my mirror on me,” he groaned, feeling around his jacket pockets and upset to find his usual hand mirror missing. Well, not so usual anymore. To be honest, he hadn’t carried a hand mirror much since that very uncomfortable Mirror Prison incident. He pouted. Why do you always leave home without the things you need the most?

As he contemplated his dilemma, becoming all consumed by it, he never noticed the fluffy ears on his head vanish and relocate back to his temples as his regular human ears. He also didn’t notice Rosabella’s wonder-struck gaze at this change.

“Rosabella, we must return to the others posthaste,” he stated, drawing her attention away from his features. “I must inquire unto Briar for the use of her miniature pocket mirror. While not as large as I would like, it is better than the constant fear that some part of my visage has come out of place once more.”

“Uh, sure,” she nodded, still very confused. That was odd. Very odd. She wouldn’t tell him about it now, but she’d definitely be asking Baba Yaga some questions when they got back to school!

It seemed like their private time was finally up. They couldn’t outrun Blondie forever and the sun was going to rise soon, so they’d need to get back eventually. Anything else they’d have to say to each other would have to wait for another conversation. She’d like to think they said the most important things, but there was one more issue to address…

“Daring, did we ever get to talk about what you wanted to ask me?” she requested out of nowhere.

The prince, halting in his motions to climb down from the tree, considered this. “Oh, no, we didn’t. Well, it can probably wait.”

“No, really.” Rosabella placed a hand on his shoulder, stopping him. “If there was something you wanted to ask me, I want to hear it. You answered all of my questions, the least I can do is answer one for you.”

“Alright,” Daring nodded, “then, I wanted to ask…”

She nodded her head encouragingly.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

The red-rose princess blinked. “A...a what?”

“A boyfriend,” he repeated. “Someone else who was in line to take the beast role. It was bothering me since I started to suspect my new story, so I wanted to ask but could never find a good opportunity.”

“Uh, well, no, I don’t have anyone like that,” the princess assured him. “Usually, it’s the Beast role that passes down my Storyline; I’m the first one to be born a Beauty. I’m currently the only character because I hadn’t found my beast until, well, until I found…you.”

Daring nodded, understanding, then smiled happily. “Okay, that’s good to know. I’m glad to hear the position is still open.”

“Well, I can tell you it’s not a popular role among the Fairytale job panels,” she stated lightly. “Being turned into a beast isn’t the kind of task that has people begging to join my story.”

“What?” Daring questioned, mid-shimmy down the tree trunk. “Oh, I wasn’t talking about the beast role.”

“Then what were you referring to?”

He didn’t answer that, just giving her another teasing smile. “And you say I don’t pay attention to people.”

With that, he slid the rest of the way down, laughing she demanded he explain this remark. He didn’t, though he did catch her as she slid down the smooth arboreal sculpture too quickly to stop herself.

With her boots on the ground and her clothing readjusted, Rosabella looked up at Daring with a stern expression. He stuck his tongue out her again and chuckled, having too much fun teasing her.

“You joke around a lot more than I thought,” she stated, not letting his infectious smile change her mood.

“I can’t help it,” he responded, rocking on the heels of his sneakers. “You’re just like my siblings and roommate. So much fun to tease. At least Dexter and Hopper will play along with me.” Seeing “the look” she had on, the same she’d used to interrogate him about his beast form, he finally calmed down. “But I promise, no more teasing. For now. We have to stick together, after all, if we want to survive Blondie’s wrath.”

The princess rolled her eyes, surprised they haven’t become stuck this way yet, but nodded her agreement. “Yeah, you’re right about that.”

Daring, taking on his usual gallant grin, offered her his elbow in a sign of princely valor. “Shall we go, then?”

Anyone else would have taken the elbow gratefully and let themselves be escorted. But Rosabella would have no such thing. They were in this together and they would be walking together, too.

So, she lightly bat his elbow until he dropped his arm, then took his hand in hers with a firm squeeze. “Yes, we shall,” she said, smiling as brightly as she could, trying to imitate him. And Daring, caught off guard by this foreign style of walking together, gave his newly-discovered shy smile. The one that made him look so very much like his brother.

So he was embarrassed by openly affectionate displays, Rosabella noted. She’d remember that in the future. It’d be a good tactic to tease him back.

Hand in hand, the two left the snow garden behind them. It was beautiful, no doubt, but it was still just snow and ice sculptures. Rosabella hoped that, with Ever After now defrosted, she might get a chance to invite her friends to her house again to check out the full beauty of her family’s garden. She would especially like to introduce it to Daring and show him not just her home, but her parents and the ex-Beast father she was so proud of. Because he was right when he said she forgets about the importance of background experiences. Not everyone had a beast father like hers to set examples and share life lessons and change how you look at the world’s many people.

She hoped that, if Daring could see him, he’d feel more secure about his role as a beast. She hoped he would even grow to like it.

But that was a topic best broached another day, in another conversation.