Due to popular demand, I'm pleased to present part two of the Beauty and Beast retelling - your feedback on the first part was such a delightful surprise! You can read Part I here and see the storyboard that inspire this story here. Enjoy, friends.
Alina came to gradually; her eyes flickered, refusing to open completely. Everything was still dark. Ow. Her memory rushed back with the screaming pain in her head. The subway. Blood splattered everywhere. The men who attacked her – something that attacked them. She forced her eyes open. A dirty concrete wall stared back, inches away from her face. She was slumped on a dingy floor on her side, somewhere dry. Not the subway.
A pair of voices cut through the haze and shadows - hushed but heated, as if arguing.
"Zvijer, are you crazy? What is she doing here?" a young male voice hissed behind her.
"It's all right.” Deeper and rougher, almost a low growl.
"No, it is not all right - you brought a girl here! You're endangering both of us and her -"
"What was I supposed to do, leave her there? They would have killed her! She'll be fine here.”
"That's what you said about the last one. And look how that turned out."
A short growl followed his words. "That – won’t happen again.”
"Of course. Tell that to this one's parents when she's dead."
There was a taunt pause for a moment; the first voice continued, sounding distracted.
"Couldn't you at least pick an attractive one?" A snort. "I'd think you of anyone would want a bit of beauty around here...she's not even close to a looker."
Alina inhaled sharply, a slight hiss of hurt piercing the air like the faintest sound of a pebble falling against stone.
She held her breath, willing them to continue.
"Are you finished?" said the deeper voice, his voice still curt and rough as jagged rock.
The other didn't bother to reply, but must have made a careless gesture. His footsteps echoed and faded away.
Alina instantly shut her eyes, trying to still look unconscious or at the worst, asleep. She was alone with the rough voice now.
"I know you're awake."
She kept her eyes shut, still pretending. Maybe, maybe if she was perfectly still enough, he would think her asleep and leave - and then all of this would only be a nightmare.
The voice's owner shattered her desperate wish. "You're shaking."
She tensed, but knew there was no use in pretending any more. He might come closer if she did. But...she wasn’t dead. Whoever he and the other voice were
"Who are you?" she whispered without moving, her own voice rough with fear and disuse.
A bark cut through the air. If it had contained humor, she would have thought it was a laugh.
"Someone without a name...I had one. Once."
There was the slightest pause.
"But if you really want to know -" his voice deepened even more, so rough she had to strain to hear - "...why don't you take a look?"
A tumult of emotions swirled in her stomach and rose up, snatching the strength from her limbs. Squeezing her eyes shut momentarily for courage, Alina pushed herself up slowly and looked over her shoulder.
Her breath lodged in her throat.
Dark hair, tanned skin, and so many scars, intersecting and twisting together over a narrow face, as if beaten badly and put back together with a shaky hand. Dark eyes glittered with something she did not understand, watching her keenly like a hawk.
Alina blinked dazedly at her surroundings, feeling her grip on reality slipping – a dilapidated, empty warehouse; cold air stealing through the threads of her sweater; her long hair stuck to the side of her neck; head smarting...and a tall scarred man in a battered leather jacket and boots staring down at her.
His mouth pulled in what might have once been a grin. “Brave, aren’t you?”
“Wha – what happened? Where am I?” She backed up into the concrete wall behind her, stealing reassurance from the solidness against her shoulders.
He crouched down slowly, as if she was a wild animal he wanted to approach. “You were attacked...do you remember anything?”
She stared at him. “They killed someone. On – on the tracks. Then...” Alina’s voice failed, her throat tightening.
The man held up a reassuring hand. “It’s all right, you’re safe now. They’re not going to hurt you again. I made sure of that.”
Her eyes widened. The shadow that had sprung at the men – a deep roar.
“That was you?”
Inscrutable dark orbs gleamed in the faint warehouse light. “The next time a gang tries to attack you, they’ll think better of it.” He stiffened, an undercurrent of anger tinging his voice. “You’re bleeding.”
Horrified, Alina clutched her head and hissed. Not smart. Wet stickiness stained her hand.
“Don’t worry about this – it’s just a pressure point,” the man said, leaning forward before she realized what was happening. His hand gripped her shoulder, his thumb pressing deeply above her collarbone.
“Hang on, I’ve got you,” she dimly heard him say; she fell forward, slipping into oblivion.
Alina opened her eyes. Gold and brown filled her vision.
She had to be dreaming. Either that or she had finally died, because the gorgeous sight that greeted her could only be heaven. Gleaming mahogany shelves towered above her, endless rows holding books with spines of faded sage, burgundy, and saffron; an enormous fireplace with a mirrored wall above it reflected the fading light from arching windows on the opposite side of the room.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.
An elegant grandfather clock murmured sympathetically in the soft, blanketed silence that wrapped around her securely. She lay stretched out on a brocade chaise lounge chair. Grunting with effort, she sat up, her head swimming.
“Feeling any better?”
Alina tensed, turning towards the rough voice’s inquiry from the doorway. The man stood there expectantly, as though he’d heard her wake up.
She reached up to feel her head and blinked with surprise, feeling raised sutures on her left temple.
“You needed a few stitches. I thought it’d be less painful if you weren’t conscious for that part.”
She found her voice. “Thank you,” she stammered. “Where...am I?”
His eyebrows raised – was that amusement beneath the scars? “My house.”
Alina stared at him.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I realize it’s a little early to be bringing you home when we haven’t even been on a date, but why drag things out? That was a joke,” he said hurriedly at what must have been a look of terror on her face. “I brought you here since I could hardly take you to a hospital -”
“Besides, the farther away you are from that subway, the better.” He stared at her intently – again, as if she was some wild specimen he’d stumbled upon.
She shifted, heat rising in her cheeks like always when she felt someone looking at her. At it.
“It’s not from them,” she said abruptly, unable to bear it any longer, her fingers jerking up to cover the left side of her mouth.
He frowned, suddenly growing taller; his dark eyes flashed. “What isn’t?”
“My scar. I’ve – had it for a while.” She pressed her fingers against the jagged, raised line that started by her nose and crossed her lips, curving down her chin.
He stared at her, something in his expression sharpening. In the next instance, it was gone.
“I’m hardly one to judge.”
Without meaning to, her gaze flew to his face, scanning the thin, faded pale lines overlapping his skin.
“Gang initiations are anything but pretty,” he said abruptly. “Then when you’re chosen as the new leader...” The man shrugged his shoulders again, stepping further into the room and sitting down in a chair by the chaise.
In the back of her mind, Alina knew she should feel stunned - frightened for her life, even, but adrenaline must have rewired her reactions. Nothing seemed shocking now.
“What type of gang exactly?” Alina looked around at the luxurious room.The words came out of her mouth before she could stop them. “It must pay well.”
His mouth twisted crookedly. “Not quite. I had the good fortune, you might say, to be born into a family with old money.” His tone was bitter. “Now they’re all gone, so it’s just Lee and I. You heard his voice earlier. He’s one of the few original members who’ve stayed loyal.” He looked around at the hushed room also. “It makes for a good hiding place. When we’re not on the streets.”
“The person who killed that man...”
“Iain,” he finished quietly. “He was initiated a few years ago, not long after I took over. He’s always had...anger issues. Doesn’t like taking orders. So he decided to start giving his own – and go after my men.” His face hardened. “It wasn’t just any hate crime you saw. You walked straight into a city-wide war.”
That alarming fact should have made her head swim, but instead all she felt was curious.
“What side are you on?”
He paused, surprise flickering beneath the twisting scars. It vanished and he stood up, offering her his hand. “Mine. Let’s get you home – before you stumble anywhere else you shouldn’t.”
With one last regretful look at the unreal library, Alina followed him out of a door by the mirrored fireplace. She pointedly avoided looking at the reflective surface – as did he.
She followed him into a sprawling hallway, past gorgeous dark wood stairs and out through a small side door. A labyrinth of ivy greeted them, brushing down against their heads and winding up the sides of the door. Thickly entwined in the deep mossy green mass were flecks of crimson – rosebuds.
He plunged forward on the barely visible brick path, striding quickly through what she realized was the back garden. Alina turned and her mouth dropped. The outside of the house was enormous, even grander than she suspected from the library – an old brownstone, no doubt once a treasured historical building, but now overgrown with explosions of ivy and grey, twisted vines and dead twigs. As if the house was slowly being encircled and overcome by an ancient, sinister enchantment. She shivered.
“Here, you need this.”
She turned back to him, a million questions on her lips and promptly forgot all of them at the black motorcycle parked behind him. He held out a scuffed helmet.
“I’d rather not redo those stitches.”
Feeling slightly weak and wanting nothing more than to sleep in her own safe bed, Alina shut her mouth and took it. She gave him the bookshop’s address and climbed on behind him.
They roared off, speeding down the street, away from the desolate, enchanted house. She shut her eyes, gripping his leather jacket tightly as the streets and sounds blurred around her, cool air whipping against her hands. The rain had stopped...the sun was setting, pulling down streaks of obsidian shadows.
Breathe. In. Out.
Hours (or was it minutes?) later, the motorcycle’s growl faded and they screeched to a stop. Alina swayed, looking up at the familiar, tiny shop. Her father’s red and brown-painted sign Barra’s Books and Binding swung above the door, an old-fashioned carved piece that beckoned instantly to ardent literature adorers. The street was closed down for the evening, the shops and businesses all locked up.
She dug in her jean pockets for the key and slid off of the motorcycle, almost falling as the street tilted beneath her feet. Strong hands clutched her arm and he was suddenly beside her.
A touch of amusement softened his rough voice. “Easy – you might think you’re a hardened street person now, but you’ve had a long day.”
Two quick strides and he had her on the doorstep of the shop, his other hand secure around her shoulders.
Alina grasped the door knob for support, pressing her hand against the window pane in the door. She looked up at the glass and stilled suddenly.
“Who are you?” she breathed, fingers frozen on the glass – smooth, cold, and hard as ice against her skin.
His eyes flickered to his reflection and he froze, any warmth in them vanishing at her question. He stepped back, moonlight spilling upon his face. The scarred lines seemed to deepen with a bitter acceptance. He stared at her in the glass, the silence pressing in around them, heavy and smothering.
She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. Just stared at the dark eyes boring into hers with a sharp blackness she’d never seen before.
“You don’t want to know.”
Then he was gone, leaving her staring at the reflected empty street dipped in rain and shadows.
Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand.