I climbed down to the dresser where Tess and her sister Hailey lived and found Robby there, cleaned off and resting in Tess's bed, with Ben looking on at his bedside.
Ben saw me as I reached the dresser and gave me a little nod. I took a seat at the edge of Robby's bed and looked at him. His eyes appeared to be open, but he was very still and breathing heavily, so I assumed he must be asleep.
Before long, Ben came to join me at the foot of the bed. "You most likely won't be able to get a response from him for these first few days. I'm keeping him heavily medicated to allow his body some time to relax and recuperate."
"Should I not talk to him, then?" I asked.
Ben shook his head. "It shouldn't be a problem to talk to him, as long as you're not expecting anything back. Perhaps your voice will help soothe him."
Ben shifted his feet. "Belle," he began hesitantly, "I'm afraid I owe you an apology."
"For what?" I asked, wondering what on earth this could be about.
He looked embarrassed. "For...my behavior several weeks ago. I should have been more polite, or at least explained myself."
I was completely lost. "I'm sorry, I don't..."
He adjusted his cravat. "I had just found out that day about Marguerite and Raoul being transferred to the curio, and it was rather distressing to me. That, and the fact that Marguerite looked as happy as ever, even in captivity." He looked miserable. "It made me realize how hopeless my own situation was."
Slowly, the strains of our conversation came back to me. Of course! He was apologizing for his rudeness on the day Robby and I had quarreled. With everything else that had happened, I'd completely forgotten about it.
"It's all right," I responded. "All is forgiven."
"Thank you," he said with relief. "You are much kinder than I've ever been."
I turned back to Robby, wishing that he would wake up and talk to me, but of course he didn't. I looked out over the rest of the room, wishing I could somehow reverse time. If only I'd been able to catch him before his outing yesterday! Maybe he wouldn't have gone out. We still didn't know what had happened to him out there in the first place.
I was unaware that Ben had been watching me through all of this, but I suddenly felt his hand take hold of mine.
"You really are so lovely, Belle. I don't know how I didn't see it before."
I turned and looked at him in complete shock. What on earth? Part of me actually wanted to laugh. I hadn't touched my hair since the day before, and I knew it was wild. So was he delusional, or what?
Then I saw the way he was looking at me. There was an expression of sudden recognition in his face, as if he was really seeing me for the first time.
I wanted to laugh...or perhaps cry...at the irony of it. This was what I had been waiting for and dreaming about for the past several months: the moment when Ben would finally realize that perhaps I could be someone who could complete his life. Now it had happened, but all I could think about was the doll lying feverishly in the bed beside us. The one who had always been there for me, no matter what, who had most likely pined over me all of those times I was pining over Ben. The one who knew me better than anyone else, who saw my faults and loved me anyway.
I think there are times in life when you can have what I call a "thunderclap moment'. You know, one of those times when a thought hits you and you think, "How could I have missed this before?"
My thunderclap moment was the day that Ben took my hand next to Robby's sickbed. Yes, Ben was handsome and exciting and mysterious...but he wasn't my friend. He didn't climb trees or explore the outdoors. He didn't sing like a Rogers and Hammerstein star...he didn't even know my favorite color! But I knew someone who did, and I knew right then and there that I didn't want to spend my life without him, not for all of the handsome, brooding princes in the world.
"Ben," I said carefully, "I think you should know that I...I love...Robby."
He lowered my hand and nodded soberly.
"I'm sorry, Ben," I continued. "I didn't really realize it until now. I thought he was just a good friend, but...he's more. A lot more."
Ben gave me a brave smile. "He's a lucky doll," he said generously. He cleared his throat. "I think I should...um...give Beast'sbelle an update on his status. Why don't you keep an eye on him for me?"
I nodded in agreement, and Ben made his escape.
Slowly, I walked up to the head of the bed where my friend was lying. "Hey Robby," I began quietly. "Ben said it would be okay to talk to you. I know you can't hear me right now, but...please just get better, okay? I have something really important to tell you when you do."
I watched him sleep for a moment longer and memorized the details of his face. I truly couldn't imagine life without his companionship. I realized that now. All that remained was figuring out the best way to confess my discovery.