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The Master of My Fate

Chapter Text

She's never coming back.

The phrase reverberated in the Beast's mind like a mocking chorus as he watched Belle and Philippe disappear into the woods. He'd finally freed her after all these weeks; sent her back to her village and to her father, leaving him to suffer his fate alone once more. For in a few hours, the rose's last petal would fall, and he would be a beast, forever. There would be no more wishing, no more waiting, no more agonizing over that small chance that he could be human again. Instead, he'd remain the beast he'd always been, while Belle would be blissfully reunited with her father, her experiences at the castle soon to become an unpleasant footnote at the back of her mind. Everything would be as it should be.

The Beast wanted to say that he was anguished and heartbroken over his decision to let Belle go and truly, he was all these things and more. For in the past few days, he'd genuinely believed that she could have saved him. They'd formed a special connection during her time here, one that had sprung from their deepest pains and vulnerabilities; and somewhere between all the snowball fights, book-reading sessions, and relearning of basic table manners, he'd fallen helplessly in love with her. Not because she was beautiful or intelligent—although these were good reasons for any man to want her—but because she was the only one who'd seen him as more than a beast. It was because of her and her unwavering kindness that he'd tried even harder to become the man she deserved.

But it was all for naught now. She was gone, never to return. And mentally, the Beast was kicking himself, wondering how he could have let his feelings blind him from seeing the truth. He'd known from the first day she'd arrived at this castle, terrified, but boldly demanding for her father's freedom, that she didn't belong here. Her mind was too bright, her spirit too free. Now that she was gone, all the Beast had left were the memories—a small ball of light to hold on to before the impending darkness swallowed him whole. It wasn't what he'd hoped for, but it was the best he could do.

He closed his eyes and let the events of the past few weeks bleed together like a blurry watercolour painting. He saw her holding Lumière up to his face, eyes as wide as dinner plates as she took in his monstrous form. He saw her in the woods after the wolf attack, draping her cloak over him as she begged him to stand so they could return to the castle. He saw her gaping at the size of his library, teaching him how to handle Philippe, wishing on the Enchantress's book to go to Paris and find out what had happened to her mother...

The book.

The Beast opened his eyes. It was strange how little he'd thought of the Enchantress's last gift until now. In the early years of the enchantment, he'd used it to escape from the castle for hours on end; travelling to distant countries and cities he used to visit with his parents as a child. But as time passed and the disconnect between him and the outer world grew bigger, he decided to shelve the book, content to spend the rest of his days as a recluse. The last time he'd brought it out was when Belle had wanted to visit her birthplace; but seeing how unhappy the experience had made her, he'd shelved it again afterwards, never bothering to ask if she wanted to "run away" with him again. In all those instances, he'd used the book to travel to specific places, but never to a specific time. But was it possible that it could do both? When the Enchantress had first cursed him, she'd told the Beast that the book was a way for him to go to wherever his heart desired. So, if he desired to travel back to a specific moment in his past, would the book grant his request?

He scratched his chin pensively. What did he have to lose by trying? It would only be a few hours before the last petal fell. The servants would all be downstairs, too busy mourning their master's decision to see what he was doing. He had sentenced them all to this undeserving prison—the least he could do was find another way to set them free.

Decision made, he turned away from the ledge and made his way back down the castle's many dark, spiral staircases.

As the Beast entered the library, another pang of heartbreak washed over him. Everything looked as it did the last time he'd been here with Belle. He trudged over to their table and saw that it was still cluttered with their empty glasses, books, and scrolls that they'd perused a few days earlier. He looked to the balcony and half-expected to see her emerge from the shadows, gushing about finding "the most wonderful story" that they just had to sit down and read together. But of course, no one was there, and the Beast kicked himself for getting his hopes up again. After being in Belle's company for so long, he knew that her absence would take a long time to adjust to.

Happy for an excuse to distract himself, he retrieved the magic book from the cabinet beside the fireplace. He opened its metal clasps, turned to the page with the glowing map and set it on the stand on the table. Then, he placed his paw on the page, feeling a little sheepish as he thought to himself, I wish to go back to the day I refused the Enchantress's gift.

Nothing happened. The Beast growled in frustration. Of course it wouldn't work! That bloody Enchantress had never made things easy for him. He should have known better than to wish for something that would never be.

Oh, you mustn't give up so quickly, master, said a voice in his head that sounded vaguely like Lumière. Gather your thoughts. Think everything through carefully. He must have forgotten to do something, but what? What had he told Belle all those weeks ago?

"Think of the one place you've always wanted to see. Now find it in your mind's eye, and feel it in your heart."

The trouble was, the Enchantress's visit was not an experience the Beast had ever cared to see in his mind's eye or feel in his heart. On the contrary, he'd spent years trying to forget it, destroying all the portraits, mirrors and material possessions that reminded him of that night. He hadn't even set foot in the ballroom until today; so afraid that it would trigger a memory that would send him spiraling into madness.

But thinking of the servants, the Beast reluctantly allowed himself to wiggle back into the mindset of the man he'd been all those years ago. He remembered his excitement and arrogance at the prospect of throwing the most lavish ball in France, filled with the most beautiful women—the loveliest of them who'd become his concubine for the night, provided she wasn't a disappointment. It shamed the Beast to think that he'd once thought of women that way, but as he'd learned from Belle, accepting his past was one of the first steps to moving forward. He thought ahead to the ball itself and tried to picture all its details in his mind's eye; the men in black suits, the women in ornate white dresses; Maestro Cadenza on the harpsichord as Madame de Garderobe sang that gaudy aria. What were the words again? He should have remembered them since he'd been the lyricist:

"Oh, how divine
Glamour, music and magic combine
See the maidens so anxious to shine…"

Suddenly, golden stardust bled out from the Beast's fingertips on to the page. It's working! He thought, heart beating wildly in his chest. He felt a familiar spinning sensation as the library faded away to reveal a starry sky filled with silver clouds. Only instead of sinking down to his destination like he usually did, the Beast remained suspended in place. He watched curiously as the night sky grew lighter, the moon descending under the horizon as the sun rose to take its place. Then, the sky grew dark again as the sun set and the moon rose once more. On and on this cycle of night and day continued, growing faster with every rotation, until the Beast had to hold out an arm to stop the flickering light from hurting his eyes. Finally, a cold blast of wind smacked him in the face and everything was motionless. The Beast was still looking at the sky, only now it was covered by dark, stormy clouds. He descended into one of them, and when the fog lifted, found himself in the West Wing, standing in the corner between his bed and the fireplace.

Except this West Wing was different from the one he'd left a few moments ago. It was no longer gloomy and ominous but filled with light. Candelabras occupied every space along the walls; making the room at least ten times brighter than usual. Suddenly, the Beast sensed movement in his peripheral vision and spun around, only to see his alarmed reflection staring back at him from a mirror. They were everywhere, he realized, these candles and mirrors, and he vaguely remembered that that was how he'd wanted it at the time. For as a prince, the Beast had been so obsessed with his outward appearance, he'd turned his room into a shrine where he could admire himself constantly. He was in the West Wing as it had looked exactly five years ago. Which meant…

The Beast looked past the bed. Standing around his vanity, too absorbed in their work to notice their intruder, were his servants. His human servants. He watched, mesmerized as they applied the finishing touches to their master's costume for tonight's supposed ball. Then, unable to contain his curiosity, he peered around the bedpost to look at the Prince himself. Oh, he was so pretentious back then. No doubt about it. He looked like a vulgar clown with all that white powder and rouge, and the gold and blue accents around his eyes reminded him of a mandrill he'd seen in a book on African wildlife once. What on earth had he been thinking? The only thing that stunned the Beast more than seeing his past self, was the revelation that he'd actually managed to travel back in time. The book must have taken him back to the castle less than an hour before the curse had taken effect.

The servants finished applying the master's makeup and stepped aside; save for Chapeau, who came forward to slip the Prince's grey wig over his head and dust it with a bit of powder. If the Beast remembered right, Cogsworth was going to enter the room in a few minutes and announce that it was time for him to welcome his guests. Which meant he had to act fast if he wanted to change what happened here tonight. But how?

Several scenarios played through his mind, each one more outlandish than the next. He could knock the Prince unconscious and hide him somewhere in the woods. By the time his servants found him, maybe the Enchantress would have already moved on. Or maybe he could find a way to delay the ball until the Enchantress arrived and order a servant to take her up to a room so she and the Prince would never meet.

But will that really solve the problem? The Beast knew little about manipulating time, but he had a feeling that it wasn't something to toy with lightly. He remembered that in the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, Oedipus and his parents had spent most of their lives trying to prevent a prophecy from coming true, only for it to fulfill itself through all the things they'd done to prevent it. No, if the Beast wanted to alter his fate, he would have to do it in the least invasive way possible. He would have to stay in this room. He was going convince his younger self to change the past for him.

Slowly, the Beast stepped out from behind the bed, placing the book on the mantelpiece as he did so. He intended to sneak up on the Prince, but the room's bright lighting combined with his massive form put him at a slight disadvantage. He wasn't even a few feet away before he cast a long shadow over the vanity, causing the master and his servants to spin around in alarm. They all gazed at him in horror, or in the Prince's case, horror mixed with disgust, and the Beast seized the half-ruined moment to introduce himself.

"Good evening, Your Royal Highness," he said in his deep, baritone voice.

The reaction was instantaneous. Chapeau dropped his powder brush to the floor. Plumette screamed and grabbed Lumière's arm. Another female servant fainted. The Prince fell off his stool, and when he sat up again, the Beast was amused to see that his wig was slightly askew.

"Guards! GUARDS!" the Prince shouted at the top of his lungs. "Seize this hideous creature at once!"

The doors swung open and the Beast spun around to see two men in matching military outfits run into the room with their swords drawn. Curious, he thought. I haven't seen these men in a while. Most of his guards had transformed into wall ornaments or inanimate suits of armour during the curse; making the castle free for intruders like Belle and her father to break and enter as they pleased. But seeing what they were up against, the guards stopped in mid run to gape at their enemy's impossible form. The Beast rolled his eyes. Far too easy. Taking advantage of their distraction, he lifted his arms and swatted them away like they were mere flies. The guard on his left crashed into his wardrobe, while the one on his right struck his head against the bedstead. Neither of them tried to get up again; either in too much pain, or too much shock to think about going at him a second time.

Confident that he was no longer in danger, the Beast returned his attention to the Prince. "Is that the best you can do?" he asked him cockily.

His past self trembled and fell to his knees. "Oh please, monster," he pleaded. "I will give you anything you want. Only spare my life. Please!"

"I'm not here to kill you," the Beast replied. "I only wish to seek an audience with you." He looked up at the servants. "Alone."

The Prince took one glance at the Beast's killer claws and razor sharp teeth and knew that he had little say in the matter. "Leave us," he demanded, turning back to his servants.

"Oui maître," Chapeau replied. He took a moment to revive the unconscious servant while Plumette, Lumière and the others went to help up the guards. Once everyone was on their feet again, they turned back to the master, bowed and quickly exited the room. Beast and Prince were alone at last.

The Prince shakily got to his feet. He lifted his stool and sat down again, trying to regain his composure as he asked, "You've come for my soul, haven't you? You're one of Lucifer's servants, come to drag me down to hell?" He stared at the Beast, and in the candlelight, his green-blue eyes looked fierce and accusatory. "Well I can assure you, demon, that I am a descendent of God Himself, and as such, your master has no power over me!"

The Beast rolled his eyes again. Not only did his younger self look like rubbish, but his head was clearly full of rubbish, too. It was about time that someone corrected that. "It's not hell I come from, but the future," he replied in his booming voice. "And I've come here today to deliver a warning. During tonight's festivities, an old woman will come to your castle to offer you a single rose, in exchange for shelter from the bitter storm. You must accept her gift, no matter how ugly you think she is, or how ridiculous you find her offer to be. If you don't, she will reveal her true form and punish you and your servants with a terrible curse. You'll become a prisoner of your own castle and there will be no escape for you."

The Prince narrowed his eyes. "How do you know all this?"

"Because I'm your future self, you dolt!" he growled, leering his ugly face at him. "I'm the Beast you'll turn into if you refuse her proposal. So if you don't fancy looking like this for the rest of your life then you'd do well to heed my word!"

The Prince blinked slowly. Then, he laughed a shrill, mocking laugh. "Old women don't go wandering into castles, turning princes into beasts," he replied. "How am I to know that this isn't a trick, and you and this old crone are conspiring to overthrow my castle?"

"You need proof that I'm you?" said the Beast, ruffling his mane in frustration. "Fine!" He paced the floor. "I know that you still have nightmares about your mother. I know that you're afraid that one day, everyone will see you for the fraud you really are. I know you can't stand the idea of ugliness, in fact just picturing it makes you sick. I know you hate it when people say that your hair colour is red instead of blond. I know that no matter how many balls you throw, you always come out of them feeling even lonelier than before…"

The words flowed from him endlessly, like water from a broken dam. In the span of a few minutes, he revealed the Prince's innermost fears and insecurities… anything that he was sure only his past self would know about. And it seemed to be working, for the Prince grew smaller and smaller the more he listened.

"And finally," the Beast concluded, "your full name is…"

The Prince let out a cry of rage as the Beast uttered his forbidden name. Its loudness could easily rival one of the Beast's roars on a good day. "Never say that name in my presence!" he said, pointing an angry finger at him. "I damned my father to hell for giving me that accursed title!"

"You'll believe me, then?" asked the Beast, raising an inquisitive brow.

The Prince slouched his shoulders and bowed his head. His formerly arrogant expression was now shaky and unsure. "If I don't let this old woman stay at my castle, then this is truly what I am to become?"

"Yes." The Beast nodded. "And the years to follow will not be kind. There will be no more music or light in the castle. No more of these extravagant parties you love to host. In fact, everyone outside your household will forget you even exist. You'll look for any form of comfort or escape, but there will be none. You will simply have to embrace a life of loneliness, with no hope of redemption."

The Prince pursed his lips into a frown. He looked even less like a proud prince now, and more like a scared little boy playing dress up. It was as though for the first—no, the second time in his life, he'd realized that his actions came with consequences. "Very well," he said decisively. "If what you say is true and this old woman comes to my castle tonight, I will graciously offer her a room." He looked back up at him. "Is there anything else you wish to tell me?"

Yes, thought the Beast. In the town of Villeneuve, there lives an amazing young woman named Belle who will change your life. You must seek her out, bring her to your castle and…

He bit his tongue. He was here to stop his curse, not talk about Belle. Bringing her up would only complicate matters. "I know your—our father hurt and abused you," he said instead. "It's because of him that you've learned to hide your pain behind all this perfection. It's the only way you feel in control. But know this." He paused. "Only you are the master of your fate. It's never too late to change who you are. Don't let your mother's wisdom and kindness go to waste. Spend the people's taxes on the poor, not on these frivolous parties. Treat your servants with better respect. And in time, you may finally find the happiness you desperately crave."

Another uncomfortable expression crossed over the Prince's face. The Beast had told him what he already knew but had been too selfish to act upon. "It's difficult to turn your back on something you've known your whole life," he remarked quietly.

"You'll figure it out. Believe me, anything is easier than looking like this."

A knock on the door startled the Prince and Beast from their conversation. "Master, are you well?" Cogsworth called from the corridor. "Your guests have arrived. They're all asking about you."

"Five more minutes, Cogsworth!" the Prince shouted back. He looked in the mirror and cringed at the sight of his crooked wig and smudged makeup. "I need to get ready for this party," he told the Beast, grabbing a brush to fix up the damage. "I suggest you make yourself scarce before my servants return. My guests won't approve of me keeping a beast inside my castle. Even if that beast is technically my future self."

"Oh, believe me, I have no intention of staying," the Beast replied. "I've already seen what happens here tonight. Now it's up to you to change it."

He walked back to the fireplace and recovered the magic book from the mantelpiece. As he flipped through its pages, he looked back at the vanity to see the Prince staring blankly at his reflection as he added more powder to his face. He had a feeling that tonight's incident would weigh on his mind for a long time.

Once he found the page with the map on it, the Beast placed his paw on the book, closed his eyes and thought of the present.

When the spinning subsided and the Beast opened his eyes, he found himself back in the library. Like the West Wing, its appearance had changed. There were no books on the table. There was a fire burning in the hearth. And although it was nighttime, the room seemed lighter somehow, like a dark shadow that had lingered here for years had finally lifted itself.

Intrigued, the Beast looked down at the Enchantress's book, then dropped it with a start. He'd expected to see paws holding up the map, but instead, he saw hands. Smooth, human hands. He held them up in disbelief, then turned them around. Ten fingers with ten perfectly filed nails looked back at him. His heart drummed painfully against his ribcage. Could it be? Was it really possible?

He raced to the closest window and looked at his reflection. A man's face, his real face stared back at him in shock. He placed his hands on his cheeks, amazed to feel soft skin there in place of fur. He patted his chest, marvelling at how much smaller it was now that he was human. He wore no wigs or makeup, and in place of a garish suit, was dressed in a light green dressing gown and a white night shirt. Like he'd wandered in here before bed to do some late-night reading.

The only thing that astonished the Prince more than seeing his human self, was seeing the changes to the castle grounds. For the surrounding forests were no longer covered in snow, but rich with fresh grass and lush leaves. Summer, which had been absent from the castle for years, was now at its peak. Meaning… the Enchantress's curse had never come to pass. The Beast had saved himself from his own cruel fate.

He let out a vivacious laugh which echoed across the library, not caring who was around to hear. It had been too long since he'd last heard his human voice, too long since he'd felt such immense joy and relief. Now that he was free, he couldn't wait to tell Belle and…

Except Belle still wasn't here. Remembering this, the Prince's laughter faded. He'd almost forgot. In fact, in this timeline, he and Belle would have never crossed paths at all. For it was out of vengeance that the Beast had imprisoned her father, and because of his imprisonment that Belle had come here to find him. Without these events, Belle was probably still living in Villeneuve, still reading that clergyman's same ten books over again, and still stuck in that naïve mindset that Romeo and Juliet was the best play in the world. Then at night, she would lie awake, wondering what had become of her mother and why she couldn't fit in with the other villagers in her provincial town.

But you could change that, said a nagging voice at the back of his head. Belle had had plenty of reasons to refuse his dinner invitation during her first night here. But surely it would be a lot harder for her to refuse an invitation from a prince? He could make up an excuse; tell her that he needed her and her father's services for some task at the castle, which would require them to stay here for several months. Then in time, the Prince would open up to her and court her the way he should have all those weeks ago. With none of the time constraints of the original curse, they would have plenty of time to get to know each other.

But even as he imagined this hopeful scenario, another, different image to mind. It was one of Belle standing next to him in her yellow gown, a questioning look on her face as she asked, "Can anyone be happy if they aren't free?"

The Prince bowed his head. In all their conversations about dreams and freedom, Belle had always spoken of a desire to visit far off places and go on exciting adventures like the characters in her books. Even if she agreed to work here of her own volition, who was to say that in a few months, she'd grow tired of him and castle life and want to pursue those ideals again? As a Prince, he couldn't abandon his duties to travel with Belle to all the places she wanted to see, as much as he wanted to. Maybe through that impasse, they would eventually part ways, taking him back to where he'd started. No, I've already wasted her time once, he resolved. It would be wrong of him to do it again, even if it was in another universe. Tonight, in the old timeline, he'd given back her freedom. Now he'd erased all her memories of him and her imprisonment. It was the last gift he'd ever give her.

And in the meantime? If the Prince would have to learn to live without Belle's love, so be it. Remembering the lessons she'd taught him, he would strive to be a better man instead. And he'd start by fixing whatever mistakes his past self had created.

With a deep breath and heavy heart, the Prince picked up the Enchantress's gift and tucked it under his arm. He then turned on his heel and made his way back to the West Wing for the night. Everything was as it should be.

Chapter Text

He woke early the next morning to bright sunlight filtering in from the far windows of his bedroom. He immediately groaned and pulled his pillow over his head, trying to block out the irritating light. 

It was a dream, he told himself firmly. I dreamt that I used the magic book to go back in time and convince myself to let the Enchantress into the castle so I could be human. When I open my eyes, I'll still be cursed and Belle will be back home with her father.

Suddenly, there was a loud knocking on the doors. And there's Cogsworth, about to give me today's "morning report," he thought with a sinking heart. Just the idea of facing him made him want to burrow his head deeper into his pillows. Maybe if he pretended he was dead, he would go away. He wasn't sure he could face his staff ever again, knowing he'd failed them all.

But then, it dawned on him. If the spell really was permanent now, no one should be capable of knocking on his door, period. The Enchantress had made her conditions very clear. If the Beast failed to break his spell in time, his servants would lose their conscience minds and become inanimate objects forever. The only way someone could be knocking on his door right now was if the spell had reversed itself. Or if Belle had returned...

He quickly pulled his head out from his pillows and opened his eyes. The West Wing had changed again. It was cleaner and brighter now, and his furnishings were arranged slightly differently than they were last evening. He instinctively looked to the windows, only to see that the enchanted rose was missing. He then shifted his gaze to the mattress, where he saw the corner of the Enchantress's book peeking out from his blankets, next to his very human hand.

His eyes widened in realization. Last night hadn't been a dream after all! He really had changed the past. Meaning he was still living here, as a human, in this altered timeline...

Another round of knocking broke the Prince from his reverie. Now that he knew last night wasn't a dream, his curiosity to know who was at the door quickly increased. He carefully slid the book back under his blankets and sat up from the bed.

"Come in," he called out to his visitor.

The doors opened. Into the room stepped a woman in a regal white and yellow dress, her hair skillfully woven into an elegant updo. She turned to face the Prince, and his mouth dropped open in shock. For the face that stared back at him was the face of someone who was no longer of this world; the face of someone undead. Except she carried none of the traits of the undead creatures the Prince had read about in mythology and folktales. In fact, the only physical qualities that separated her from his childhood memories of her were age-related. Her once blonde hair had now dimmed to a golden brown, and there were faint wrinkles on her face. But even with these small imperfections, she was still very beautiful.

Seeing him lying there, the Prince's mother smirked. "Still in bed, are you? I should have known."

He continued to gape at her, at a complete loss for words. "M-Mère?" he said at last.

"Yes, it's me, my love. Did you really think I'd let you sleep in on such an important day?"

A part of the Prince wanted to ask exactly what was so important about today. But his dead mother's seemingly normal appearance here had taken priority.

"But I don't understand," he rambled on. "You died of consumption thirteen years ago! I saw you on your deathbed. Everyone said you wouldn't wake up."

If this was a dream, which he was sure it was by now, he expected that this would be the part where his mother would reveal herself to be an evil spirit or another enchantress come to test him. Instead, her expression softened into one of sympathy. Then, as though it were normal for her son to deny her existence every morning, she stepped closer to him and said, "Oh my poor dear. Of course I didn't die of consumption! I've been here for you this whole time. I've always been here. You must have been having another nightmare."

An uneasy chill ran down the Prince's spine. He knew for a fact that this was a lie, and had several memories to prove it. He opened his mouth to share them all but found it impossible to speak. As he quickly realized, it was much harder to tell someone they were supposed to be dead when they were standing there, looking very much alive and smiling at him so lovingly.

"Well… I don't know," he confessed instead. "I think I might still be dreaming."

The Queen laughed at that. Then, she wrapped her arms around him affectionately, her body warm and smelling faintly of roses. "Oh my love," she cooed. "I know you're nervous about today, but I'm sure that you and the Princess will get along just fine. I wouldn't have picked her out for you if I didn't think you'd be a good match."

"Wait. Who are we talking about now?"

"Goodness me!" She pulled away from him in concern. "You really are a scatterbrain this morning, aren't you? I'm talking about your intended, Amandine de Lanzac, of course! The princess you're going to marry next week?"

I'm getting married? The Prince widened his eyes in shock. Of course, he knew that a marriage wasn't an entirely illogical route for him at this point in his life. As the sole child of his late father, he knew he'd have to extend his family's lineage sooner or later. He just never imagined it would happen so soon, especially considering that he was still recovering from the nightmare of being a Beast for half a decade. He looked back at his mother, wanting to voice his impressions, but seeing the concerned look on her face, changed his mind again.

"Oh, of course," he lied. "I was merely testing your memory, Mère. It would be a pity if you brought the wrong princess over for such an important meeting."

She tilted her head to the side. "That was a joke, wasn't it?"

"Of course it was!"

She let out a melodious laugh. The Prince, feeling awkward, forced himself to join her. He had to admit that it was strange, but oddly delightful to laugh with someone he thought he'd never see again. But no amount of jesting could dispel his unease about his present circumstances. In the span of a few minutes, he'd learned that his mother was somehow alive again, and he was arranged to be married. What else had he changed by avoiding the Enchantress's curse last night?

The doors opened again and in came Cogsworth, accompanied by a flock of the Prince's personal servants. He assumed they were his servants anyway, for he didn't recognize most of their faces.

"Ah, good morning Your Majesties," Cogsworth said, acknowledging the Prince and his mother with a courteous bow.

"Good morning Cogsworth," the Queen replied. "And how are the preparations coming along for our guests this morning?"

"Just peachy, mistress. Tonight's dinner is sure to be an unforgettable delight. Chef Cuisinier is cooking up several regional dishes and adding his own 'oomph' to them so they'll really stand out to our guests. All that's left is to decide on which napkins to use for the dinner table."

"I can help you with that. Shall I leave my son in your staff's good hands while I go and review the selections?"

"Absolutely, mistress. We'll get him ready straight away."

The Queen bent down and kissed her son lightly on the cheek. "I'll see you downstairs shortly, my love. Remember to smile and have courage."

Once she left the room, Chapeau served the Prince a tray of hot breakfast, which he barely had time to finish before his servants whisked him out of bed to prepare him for his intended's meeting. They stripped him of his sleepwear and put him in a white shirt with frilly sleeves, a green silk jacket with metallic threads and dark, knee-length breeches.

Guess I'm still going through my "green phase" in this timeline, the Prince concluded as he examined the finished ensemble in the mirror. Not that it was a bad outfit, but seeing it on him somehow made him nostalgic for the blue suit he'd worn when he danced with Belle last night. The one he'd left in the old timeline.

"Chapeau?" he asked his valet as he sat him down at the vanity to brush his hair.

"Yes, master?"

"Last night—I mean, five years ago, before I hosted that big debutante ball in the castle—do you remember someone coming into the West Wing to see me? Somebody… unexpected I mean."

"Hmm. Depends on what you mean by 'unexpected,' master," the valet replied. "I seem to recall that there were many young ladies who were dying to a have a tête à tête with you; pardon the expression."

The Prince shook his head. "It's not a woman I'm talking about, but a man. A man with a bit of a… beast-like disposition if you know what I mean."

Chapeau looked as though the Prince had just spoken to him in a different language entirely. "Erm… I'm afraid not, master," he confessed, tying his hair back with some black ribbon. "But then again, I can't say my memory of that day is the greatest. All I know is that it was a very busy day for everyone involved. You wanted nothing but perfection for your mother's celebration ball, welcoming her back to France after her eight-year retreat to Guadeloupe. Why do you ask?"

"Uh… no reason," the Prince replied. But internally, the wheels in his head were turning. If Chapeau's memories of the ball had been overwritten with a celebration of his mother's return from Guadeloupe, that must have meant his memories of the Beast had been erased too. But who had erased them? The Enchantress? All the Prince knew was that something pivotal had occurred in the time he'd travelled back and forth in time, and now the only person who seemed to really remember the Beast's visit and his mother's death was him.

Cogsworth re-entered the West Wing and announced that it was time for the Prince to come to the drawing room to welcome his guests. Still disoriented, but sensing it would be out of character for him to refuse, he followed the majordomo downstairs.

He found his mother waiting for him outside the drawing room doors, eyes gleaming in excitement. She shot him an encouraging smile as Cogsworth stepped into the room to announce them to their visitors.

"Ahem. May I present Her Majesty, Queen Marie-Henriette de Bauffremont, and her son, His Royal Highness, Prince Thomas-Alexandre Adam de Bauffremont."

The Prince tried his best to hide his discomfort at hearing his old name as he followed his mother into the room. He hadn't gone by that title in nearly eight years—clearly not enough time for it to lose its cringe-factor. At the very least, he hoped that his current self still preferred to use it as a formality instead of a casual name. He hadn't heard anyone call him by it directly yet, so he assumed that was the case.

In the drawing room stood a middle-aged man in a grey suit, and a much younger lady, who the Prince assumed was the Princess. She was a very pretty girl. Not as pretty as Belle, and not to the same high standards of beauty as the women he used to invite to his private balls, but pretty, nonetheless. Her long mahogany-coloured hair was pinned behind her head in a partial updo. Her eyes were hazel and almond-shaped and seemed to study him with intense curiosity as he approached her. She wore a magenta dress which lacked the embellishments that were all the rage in the French courts but looked flattering on her just the same.

Once they were close enough, the Princess smiled demurely at her fiancé and lowered herself into a perfect curtsey. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness," she said. Even her voice was fitting for nobility, soft and carefully modulated.

"The pleasure is all mine, Princess Amélie," the Prince replied with a bow.

"Amandine, my dear, not Amélie!" Henriette hissed from behind him. Seeing how concerned the Princess's chaperone looked, she quickly added, "Do forgive my son, Your Majesty. His memory this morning is a little shaky on account of his nerves."

"Ah," the nobleman replied in understanding. "The same with my Amandine. She spent the better part of our trip here deciding on the best way to present herself."

Amandine's cheeks turned a dull shade of pink.

"Why don't we sit down?" Henriette suggested. "You both must be exhausted from your journey."

After Plumette had laid out the tea and biscuits, she curtsied and exited the room, leaving the two families alone to chat. The Prince tried his best to look engaged as his mother asked Amandine and her father, François, questions about their journey and life back in their home kingdom of Claircomble. She and François led the bulk of the conversation, so apart from the occasional head nod or grunt of sympathy, the Prince didn't have to talk very much. At first, he found this to be a relief being that he'd been out of conversational practice for nearly five years, but as time passed, began to grow restless. After years of being able to walk freely around his castle, he wasn't used to sitting still for long periods of time.

Eventually, he leaned his elbow against the armrest next to him, glad that everyone was too engrossed in their discussion to notice his impropriety. His eyes began to wander around the room. Just above the mantelpiece was a portrait of him and his mother that looked to have been painted quite recently. In it, they were wearing matching purple outfits and looked very happy together. He then looked to the sofa across from him where Princess Amandine sat with a saucer and teacup in hand. Unlike the Prince, she kept her back as straight as an arrow as she listened to Henriette and François's conversation. He tried to get a sense of her personality by studying her countenance, but it was difficult, for she seemed skilled in hiding herself behind a mask of polite interest at all times. But he did notice that she liked to raise her pinky finger whenever she drank from her teacup. Just like a typical princess would.

"I sense my son is getting bored," Henriette said suddenly, startling the Prince from his pondering.

"What?" He looked back at her in alarm. "No I'm not!"

"Oh please!" She waved her hand dismissively. "I know that face when I see it. You're not obligated to listen to us 'old people' ramble on about municipal taxes all morning you know! Why not take Princess Amandine outside and show her the gardens?"

The Prince turned back to his fiancée. "Would you like to see the gardens, Princess?"

Amandine set down her teacup and nodded. "I would like that very much, Your Highness."

"It's settled then." Henriette clapped her hands together. "My son will show Princess Amandine the grounds, and then we'll meet back in here at noon for luncheon."

The warm summer breeze almost felt surreal to the Prince after living in eternal winter for five years. Once he stepped outside, he took a moment to soak it all in—the buzzing of insects, the smell of the fresh air, the rich greenery of the lawns and hedges—before turning to look back at the castle. It was completely white and intact now; a stark contrast to the shadowy ruin he'd lived in only a day ago. Just another explicit reminder that he now lived in an uncursed world, where instead of finding true love, marrying a princess was his top priority.

"Your Highness?" said Amandine, breaking the Prince from his thoughts.

"Huh?" He looked back at her in a daze.

"I was just saying, you have a lovely castle."

"Oh." He rubbed the back of his head, embarrassed that he hadn't been listening. "Thank you, Princess. But um... I'm sure your estate in Claircomble is just as lovely."

"Well,"—she lowered her head bashfully—"I wouldn't say that exactly."


"A castle surrounded by a four-hundred-year-old moat doesn't offer the same benefits as a forest," she elaborated. "The view doesn't look half as nice either. I imagine you must have an abundance of game to hunt in these parts as well."

He shrugged. "I suppose. We do have the wolves to worry about though."

"Wolves?" She looked back at him, eyes wide with alarm.

"Yes. Wolves," he repeated. "Nasty things. They always travel in packs and won't hesitate to bite your head off if you're not careful. But, uh… they usually only come around here in the wintertime," he added tactfully, noticing how pale the Princess's face was turning. "They move further out West in the summer."

"Oh." Amandine relaxed slightly at that. "Well, they certainly sound dangerous. Still, I wouldn't mind seeing a glimpse of such a creature myself—provided it was from a safe distance. That's one thing my father never let me do back in Claircomble you see: go hunting with him. He always said it was an improper pastime for a young lady." She fiddled with her brown hair self-consciously. "I'm not talking too much, am I? I know it's not very becoming for a princess to be talkative. I can stop if you like."

"Of course not! It's a conversation. We're getting to know each other. You can talk as much as you like."

She blushed and smiled at him in relief. "Thank you, Your Highness. I greatly appreciate that."

The Prince continued to exchange small pleasantries with his intended as he showed her around the castle hedge mazes. He could tell, based on her manner of speaking, that she had little to no experience courting members of the opposite sex. Her phrases, while eloquent enough, lacked the coquettishness and ambiguity that was so common with the ladies of the court. Instead, the subjects she spoke of were simple, juvenile but genuine in nature. Not that the Prince saw that as a bad thing—far from it! While he still was on the fence about marriage, he knew that given the choice, that he would rather marry an honest princess than a two-faced one.

At last, they reached the colonnade at the edge of the castle grounds, which guarded the Prince's prized white rose bushes.

"My goodness!" Amandine said as she stepped inside to look around. "Are those really roses up on those vines? I've never seen them so white before. They're beautiful."

The Prince said nothing. His eyes were fixed on the empty bench at the center of the colonnade, lost in a not-so-distant memory...

"I never thanked you for saving my life," Belle said, looking up at him with a sheepish grin on her face.

"Well, I never thanked you for not leaving me to be eaten by wolves," he replied.

She giggled at that. Suddenly, they heard an echo; shouts of laughter coming from inside the castle. The servants, it seemed, were having a nice fête.

"They know how to have a good time," Belle noted.

"Yes," the Beast agreed. "When I enter the room, laughter dies."

"Me too. The villagers say I'm a 'funny girl.' I'm not sure they mean it as a compliment."

"I'm sorry." He bowed his head in sympathy. "Your village sounds terrible."

She snorted. "Almost as lonely as your castle."

"Your Highness?" said Amandine, bringing him back to the present. "Are you alright?"

"Call me Adam," he replied absently.

"Adam? But I thought your name was—"

"I know what my name is!" he snapped, turning back to her.

She instantly jumped backwards, shrinking away from him in fright. He realized his mistake a second later.

"Sorry," he apologized, ruffling the back of his hair self-consciously. "It's just that... my name is a bit of a delicate subject. My father gave me three names, but Adam was the only one I ever felt was my own. And it's the only one I'm really comfortable going by, to be honest."

"I... understand," Amandine said softly. "Forgive me. I shouldn't have assumed..."

"You didn't assume. You just didn't know."

An uncomfortable silence fell between the two of them. Then, Amandine took a tentative step towards the Prince and said, "Your High—I mean, Adam? If I may be so bold… before I came to your castle, I heard certain… rumours from my cousins about your past reputation. I was wondering if there was any truth to them or not."

"What were these rumours?" Adam asked curiously.

"Well." She paused. "For one, they say that you used to host a lot of parties. And you used to invite the most beautiful people from all over the world to attend them. Especially... women." She looked back at him with an uneasy expression on her face. "Is that true?"

It was the Prince's turn to look uncomfortable. One of the rare benefits to his curse was that it had erased all his subject's memories of him, including their memories of the materialistic lothario he used to be. But in this universe, he still had to bear those old scars, playing a further impact in how his future spouse would think of him. Way to go, you dolt, he thought, sending a curse out to his younger, powder-faced self.

"It is true," he admitted. "I did host a lot of parties when I was younger. But after a while, I stopped."

She looked at him curiously. "Why?"

"Because..." He paused, trying to think of a convincing story with what little information he knew about himself in this universe. "I realized that they never really made me happy. The women, the fancy costumes, the music. It was all for show. What I was really wanted was a connection—someone I could truly be happy around. But it wasn't until Be—I mean, my mother returned from Guadeloupe that I realized, maybe I didn't have to look outside to find that happiness, but inside, with my family."

"My mother has always meant the world to me," he went on. "But I didn't know how much I missed her until she came back home. After that, I stopped throwing the parties, realizing it was better to spend that time connecting with someone who really mattered than several people who didn't. I've been a happier man ever since."

The Princess smiled. "It sounds like you and your mother are very close. She must be very lucky to have you."

"Thank you." He stared wistfully back at the bench before suggesting they return to the castle to join their parents for luncheon.

"So, Amandine," he said once they were a safe distance away from the colonnade. "Tell me a bit about yourself. Do you have any hobbies? Singing? Dancing? Reading?" he added hopefully.

"Well, I do like to read... a little," Amandine replied, flattered that Adam was inviting her to talk about herself. "But what I love the most is the arts. Painting and music. Especially the opera." She looked back at him. "Do you like the opera, Your Hi—Adam?"

He thought back to a time he'd watched an opera by Grétry when he was seventeen and frowned. He remembered little of the performance since he'd been fixated on eating a delicious bowl of pastries for the most of it. "Not terribly," he replied. "No."

The Princess lowered her head in disappointment.

"But uh… our court composers, Maestro Cadenza and his wife, Madame de Garderobe are both exceptional musicians," he added discreetly. "I'm sure they'd be honoured to perform some of your favourite arias for you if you wish."

She smiled. "That would be lovely. I'd love to hear them sometime."

After many long hours of entertaining Amandine and her father, the two guests finally retired for the night, leaving Adam with uninterrupted alone time at last. Once he'd retrieved the magic book from the West Wing, he made his way back to the library to do some late-night reading. Now that he knew he'd succeeded in changing the past, his mind was buzzing with questions about his mother's inexplicable resurrection, the nature of the Enchantress's book and time travel itself. Had he really visited himself last night? If so, how could there be two of him, and where was the other version of him now? If time only moved in a forward direction, how was he able to travel back to the past, and then back to the present so fluidly? Who really was the Enchantress, and how was she able to bring back the dead and give away relics capable of controlling time itself?

Eager to know the answers, the Prince took to the shelves, pulling out books by philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Descartes, and Rousseau. Some of them talked about time being a strictly human concept, but none of them could offer insights into how humans could manipulate it, or what would happen if they did. The Prince sighed in frustration. If only Belle was still here to help him. She'd always had a knack for finding the most interesting books in this library, and he'd had years to browse through everything before her arrival.

Tired of reading through the same Socratic dialogues, Adam put the books aside and returned his attention to the Enchantress's gift. Driven by a sudden burst of curiosity, he flipped to the page of the map, placed his hand over the parchment and closed his eyes. I wish to go back to the night I danced with Belle, he thought. He let the images of last night fill his mind's eye: the ballroom scrubbed clean and lit with hundreds of candles, Belle's dress floating around her like a golden halo as he twirled her around the dance floor, Cadenza playing an uplifting waltz on his keyboard accompanied by various enchanted brass and string instruments carved into the walls...

But nothing happened. The Prince was still in the library.

He tried again, this time thinking of a different memory: the night his mother had returned from Guadeloupe. Once again, nothing happened. It seemed that the book could only take him to events that occurred in this timeline or events he had an emotional connection to. As he had no memory of his mother's return, the book was unable to take him there.

Discouraged by this revelation, Adam set the book back on the table. As he did, he noticed a fragment of text on the page behind the map. That's strange, he thought. The book had never had words in it before. He'd examined it for years, and every single page was blank, except for the two pages with the atlas on it. He turned over the map and read intriguingly:

Once upon a time, in the hidden heart of France, a handsome young prince lived in a beautiful castle. Although he had everything his heart desired the Prince was selfish and unkind. He taxed the village to fill his castle with the most beautiful objects and his parties with the most beautiful people.

Then one night, an old beggar woman arrived at his castle seeking shelter from the bitter storm. As a gift, she offered the Prince a single rose. Although the Prince was repulsed by the old woman's appearance, he took pity on her decrepitness and offered her a room to stay in for the night. The stranger was pleased with the Prince's offer and let her outward appearance melt away to reveal a beautiful enchantress. She explained to the Prince that she had really come to the castle to test him, as she had heard from many of his reputation as a cruel and avaricious tyrant. But seeing that he had shown sympathy for her plight instead of disgust, she was willing to reward him by granting him his heart's deepest desire.

The Prince thought long and hard over the Enchantress's offer. He already had everything he wanted, so what more could he wish for? But then he recalled his dear mother who he'd lost to an illness many years ago and loved more than anyone else in the world. He asked that the Enchantress use her magic to bring her back to him.

The Enchantress smiled sadly at the Prince's request. "I'm afraid my dear prince," she said, "that although I have many powers, recalling the dead is not one of them."

"Are you an enchantress or not?" was the Prince's scoffing reply. "I asked you to bring my mother back, and now I demand that you grant me my wish!"

Once more, the Enchantress repeated her statement, but the Prince was adamant. Finally, she offered him a compromise. Instead of resurrecting his mother, the Enchantress would use her magic to create a replica of the Queen, with all the same mannerisms, memories and appearance that the Prince's mother had had in life. The only major difference was that this Queen would have no memories of dying from an illness. Instead, the Enchantress would fill her mind with false memories of staying in the Southern colonies for eight years to recover from her sickness. To further solidify this story, the Enchantress also promised to place a powerful spell over the whole kingdom, so all the Prince's subjects would believe in the same tale.

The Prince was greatly pleased with this arrangement. For with the Enchantress's magic and ability to alter his subject's memories, it would be as though his mother had never passed away.

But before the Enchantress completed her transaction, she left the Prince with a warning. Although her magic was indeed powerful, it was not eternal. Eventually, there would come a day when the magic would end, and the Prince would find himself mourning his mother's death a second time. While the Enchantress understood the Prince's pain, no replica of the Queen could ever replace the one he had lost. Sometimes it was best to move on and accept grief as a normal part of the human condition.

Suddenly, Adam heard the door to the library open followed by footsteps. He quickly hid the Enchantress's gift among the book pile just as his mother, or rather, his imposter mother, appeared around the corner. Speak of the devil.

"I didn't expect to find you here," she said with a smile. "What are you reading?"

"Oh,"—he shrugged—"just some books…"

She bent down to examine the cover closest to her. As she did, the Prince studied her closely, trying to find a flaw in her appearance that coincided with the story he'd read, but there was nothing. If the Enchantress really had replicated his mother, then she had done so to a tee.

"Plato's Symposium?she said. "I didn't know you were into philosophy."

"Well it's never too late to start a new hobby," he replied pointedly.

"I suppose not." Her blue eyes stared at him pensively for a moment. "There's something... different about you today."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, I don't know." She shook her head dismissively. "You just seem... off, somehow. You talk and hold yourself differently. And I noticed you were very withdrawn all through dinner today too. Is there something on your mind? The Princess?"

"Oh no!" Adam insisted. "Princess Amandine's fine, Mère. She's a very polite and sweet girl. I'm sure she'll make a fine… wife," he finished lamely.

"Something else then?" She sat down in the chair across from him. "You know you can tell me anything, Adam."

For one long second, the Prince wondered if it was best for him to be out with the truth. He tried to compose an explanation in his head: "Actually 'Mère,' I just wanted to tell you that I come from another universe where you died, and I got turned into a hideous Beast by an enchantress because I refused to let her into the castle. Obviously that left me miserable and mentally scarred for several years until I discovered this magical transportation book she'd left me, and used it to go back in time to change the past so I wouldn't be a beast anymore. Oh, and by the way, you're not really my mother, and I'm not really your son. I'm just an alternate version of your son possessing his body, since I used the book to escape from my original timeline."

Alright, so maybe that did sound a bit crazy. Thinking about it further, perhaps his mother-imposter would misinterpret his story as an excuse for him to back out of his marriage to Princess Amandine by pretending he was from another universe. Even though she wasn't really his mother, she still had her title and influence, and could choose to quarantine Adam or send him away if she thought his sanity was at risk. If he was sure of one thing, it was that he hadn't changed the past to become a prisoner again.

"How did you feel when you married Père?" he asked her instead.

Imposter Henriette's whole aspect changed at once. A wistful expression fell across her face. "Nervous, of course," she admitted. "I wondered if he would be handsome or as loving as the men in my fairy tales. He wasn't exactly the Prince Charming I imagined him to be, but we both respected one another which was important. And he gave me you. I know I wouldn't take that back for anything."

She looked back at him and smiled. "Oh, my son. I know that those years you had to live without me were… difficult, but I have to say, I couldn't be prouder of the man you grew up to be. Just as I couldn't be happier that I could live long enough to watch you settle down and get married."

She reached over the desk and pinched him on the cheek. Adam smiled sheepishly in response.

He knew he had a good life here. He wasn't a cursed beast anymore, forever doomed to live in the shadows of a careless mistake he'd made. True, it was a bit unsettling to be living with a copy of his deceased mother, but the Enchantress had captured her likeness quite accurately, and she was useful to have around while Adam was still readjusting to being human. And while the Prince's relationship with Princess Amandine wasn't love at first sight, he hadn't exactly fallen head over heels in love with Belle the first time they'd met either. Who was to say, after he'd spent more time with the Princess, that he might develop feelings for her, too? True she didn't have Belle's strong-willed independence or outspokenness, but she was polite and cultured—hardly reasons for a suitor to find fault with her.

He'd left Belle to live her own life, and now he was free to live his. What more could he have wanted?

Chapter Text

The next few days dragged along in a slow and unremarkable fashion. Adam passed the time by relearning old hobbies he'd abandoned as a beast, like fencing, playing chess and horseback riding. He couldn't deny that he enjoyed having the freedom to ride into the woods whenever he wanted, without dwelling on who and what he was.

But at the same time, the Prince felt bored, like a part of him was missing something. And he didn't have to be a genius to pinpoint what that something was. Belle. In the past few days, he'd been thinking about her far more than he wanted to. Whenever he walked through the castle, his eyes would look to all the places he used to find her, only to feel a sad longing in the pit of his stomach when he realized she wasn't there anymore. When he'd close his eyes at night, he'd see her smiling at him from across the dinner table, a book in one hand and a spoonful of tomato soup in the other. It was as though he were mourning a loss, but a loss he had no physical evidence of, a loss only he remembered.

There's no use moping over something you can't change, he kept telling himself. So in an attempt to put his old love behind him, the Prince tried to focus on his courtship and upcoming marriage to Princess Amandine. But even this turned out to be a chore more than anything. While Adam was confident that Amandine didn't have a single bad bone in her body, she still lacked the fire and critical mind that had drawn him to Belle all those weeks ago. Just a day after her arrival, Adam took Amandine to the library to read aloud from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Amandine understood the plot easily enough, but when Adam tried sharing his insights into the Duke's ulterior motives and the play's political undertones, she grew confused and overwhelmed, preferring to agree with him instead of challenging his thoughts as Belle would. The whole experience left Adam greatly unsatisfied. He hadn't realized how much he'd enjoyed having literary debates with Belle in the time they'd spent living together. Next to that, quiet evenings with a wife who was too polite to speak her mind did not feel like much of a trade-off.

On more than one occasion, Adam had entertained the idea of using the Enchantress's book to travel to Belle's village, just to catch a quick glimpse of her. He hadn't realized how lonely and disconnecting it could be to live in a new world, and perhaps the sight of her familiar face was what he needed to find closure on the whole ordeal. It wouldn't be too difficult either. With the right timing, he could travel to Villeneuve, see Belle, and return without anyone noticing his absence. But almost immediately after considering this idea, he chided himself for being so capricious. He'd never been a master of self-control, and couldn't trust himself not to let one visit escalate into several, making him just as bad as Lancelot or Macbeth in his inability to resist temptation. If there was one thing his old curse had taught him, it was to avoid making impulsive decisions that would cause negative consequences for him down the road.

But while Adam had sworn off using the book to see Belle, he could still use its magic for other purposes. Each night he would read a little more of the mysterious story hidden in its pages. Its fragmented fairy tale-like prose couldn't tell him everything that had happened in the last five years, but it was enough to update him on the essentials. Through it, Adam learned that he'd spent the last few years touring Europe with his mother-imposter; his old spending habits and womanizing tendencies were a thing of the past. His decision to marry a princess from another kingdom was his way of renouncing that old life for good. It was a decision his former self may have wanted, but Adam still wasn't sure if it was what he wanted.

Four days after arriving in the new timeline, Adam was gazing idly out the West Wing window, wondering if he could see Belle's village if he ordered someone to cut down all the trees, when Cogsworth entered the room.

"Master?" he said. "The Queen would like me to remind you that dinner will begin in fifteen minutes time. Please don't be late."

"I won't," the Prince promised. He continued to look out the window as the majordomo shuffled around the room to collect his laundry.

"If I may speak openly, Master," he continued as he completed this task, "I couldn't help but notice how you've seemed more… reclusive as of late. Is everything all right?"

"Yes, Cogsworth. I just… I have a lot on my mind."

"Courting a fiancée is no small feat," the majordomo agreed in sympathy. "Still, I must say that the two of you make a highly agreeable couple. Princess Amandine is a lovely young lady."

"Indeed. She's everything a prince could want in a princess. I just…" He hesitated. "I just don't think that I love her."

There, he'd finally said it. And saying it was like revealing an ugly sin to the world. But it was the truth. As much as he'd tried to keep an open mind about Amandine, deep down he knew that he was only fooling himself. He could never feel for her what he'd once felt for Belle. He looked back at the majordomo in guilt. "Is that…normal?"

Cogsworth looked surprised, but not repulsed. "I think the real question, Master, is: do you need to marry for love?" he replied. "From my experience, love is a childish notion that can lead to ridiculous flights of folly. Not to mention thoughts and feelings most unwelcome, unsavoury, and… well, nauseating." He wrinkled his face distastefully. "Yes, it's far better to marry someone you respect, even tolerate, than somebody you 'love.' Such feelings will only distract you from your priorities. Which must come before all else, including loved ones, as cruel as that may sound. Such is the duty of a prince."

"I suppose you're right," Adam agreed reluctantly. He wondered if he ought to bring up the fact that his parents had entered a loveless marriage which had ended in disaster. But surely that wasn't true of all marriages? If the only success criteria for a civil union was that the husband and wife respected each other, then he supposed that he and Amandine were perfectly matched. "What about your wife?" he continued. "Did you marry her because you... 'tolerated' her?"

Cogsworth's face turned beet red. "Well now, that's a different story. You see, when I met Clothilde, I was, well, I was… I think I'd better check on Cuisiner to see how the dinner's coming along, yes?"

He scurried out of the room, forgetting to pick up one of Adam's shirts in the process. Adam sighed as he watched him leave. He knew that Cogsworth wasn't the best person to seek marital advice from, but there was some truth to what he was saying. Had the Enchantress never cursed him, Adam probably wouldn't have given a second thought to whether he loved Amandine or not. But after emotionally investing himself in Belle for so long, he now had feelings for her that he couldn't wish away. The question was: how long could these feelings last before they became more than an out-of-hand infatuation? And what should he do if they did last that long?

Dinner with Henriette, Amandine and François was a quiet affair. Adam had run out of things to say to the Princess, and Amandine hadn't been saying much to him either, apart from the occasional greeting and rigid small talk.

"Adam," Henriette said after the servants had cleared their appetizer plates, "François and I have been thinking. Perhaps, considering the warmer weather, you'd like to give Princess Amandine a tour of the local villages?"

Adam let out a sputtering noise, nearly choking on the wine he'd just swallowed. "Erm, but some of them are quite far from here aren't they?" he replied once he could speak again. "It might tire out the horses to make them travel so far."

"Don't be ridiculous, dear," Henriette said dismissively. "We used to tour the towns all the time when you were a boy, and none of our horses ever suffered for it! Besides, when's the last time you've travelled outside the castle? The fresh air will do you some good."

Adam turned to his fiancée reluctantly. "Amandine? Would you like to see the rest of the kingdom?"

"If His Highness wishes it, then I would be happy to go," the Princess replied.

"Of course he does!" said Henriette. And with her word, the trip was set.

Adam and Amandine set off on their tour of the kingdom first thing in the morning. Accompanied by Adam's driver, Ambroise, the two of them boarded the royal carriage and rode off into the woods. Less than an hour later, the small hilltop community of Villeneuve appeared on the horizon.

"That's Villeneuve, the closest village to our castle," Adam explained, eager to distract himself from the queasy feeling that had been building in his stomach since he'd woken up that morning. "It's a farming community and our main provider of food. Most of our servants' family members live in this village. Some of them also choose to retire here after they've grown too old to work at the castle."

"It sounds like a lovely place to live," Amandine replied admiringly.

The carriage turned into Villeneuve's main street and the Princess peered out the window, hazel eyes widening as she took in the town's distinctive sights and sounds. "Oh, what adorable little houses! Is that a goat? And... a pig?" She let out an uncharacteristically girlish laugh. "And is that…" She gasped. "The marketplace?" She looked back at the Prince, face glowing in excitement. "Adam, would you mind if we took a look around here for a little while? I've always been curious to know what the markets look like in these little towns. Sometimes you find the most interesting wares."

"Believe me, there's not much to see," Adam replied, trying to sound indifferent. "All the villages here sell the same things. Houseware items, livestock, clothing, produce..."

"But surely they wouldn't sell the exact same produce as they do in Claircomble?" she countered. "Just a small peek? I promise not to delay the rest of our trip."

Adam sighed. Truthfully, he didn't want to stop in this village because he was afraid of the possibility of running into Belle. But then he remembered the lecture his mother had given him the previous night about putting on "a good face" for his guests and relented. It wasn't right to refuse Amandine a tour of Villeneuve on account of his own irrational fears.

"Ambroise," he said, sticking his head out the carriage window, "stop here, please."

Villeneuve's marketplace was like a painting in motion. Citizens in brightly-coloured clothes walked among the stalls, chattering loudly to each other as merchants called out to them to look at their goods. But at the sight of the Prince and Princess, the citizens ceased their noise, stared at them in wonderment and bowed before clearing a path for them. Amandine nodded and smiled politely at everyone as she passed them. Adam, feeling uncomfortable, forced himself to do the same.

He followed Amandine to each of the stalls, keeping one eye on the crowd and one on his fiancée as she made small talk with the merchants. Despite his reservations about marrying her, Adam found himself impressed with Amandine's ability to put a smile on the people's faces through her charisma and kind words. She clearly had a genuine interest in connecting with her subjects; something Adam couldn't say about the women he used to mingle with in the days before his curse.

Twenty minutes later, the Prince and Princess returned to the carriage with bouquets of flowers and other free samples the merchants had given them during their visit. There'd been no sign of Belle in the marketplace, much to Adam's relief. Maybe she doesn't live in this town anymore and I got myself worked up for nothing!

But as he waited for Amandine to board the carriage so they could continue their tour, he heard a man shouting from the church behind them. His voice was booming and boisterous, making his words impossible to miss.

"Belle, I've done my best to play nice with you, but enough is enough! When are you going to wake up and realize that your father's music boxes will never provide enough income to live properly? I know how much you dote on him, and your daughterly devotion is certainly commendable, but face the facts: how many years does he have left in him? Once he's gone, you'll have nothing. Stop living in this senseless existence and accept that I'm the only future you have left!"

"I'm sorry, Gaston, but for the hundredth time, my answer is no."

That voice. Just hearing it sent shivers down the Prince's spine. He hated himself for turning around, knowing who he would see before he'd even laid eyes on her. There, standing in front of the church, basket on her shoulder, hands on her hips and a tight-lipped scowl on her face, was Belle. She was dressed in a simple blue working dress, similar to the one she'd worn in her early days at the castle. The object of her scowling was a man in a brown and red jacket, his jet-black hair slicked back into a small pompadour. Another few feet away from them was a portly man in a blue coat, who was watching the confrontation with an uneasy expression on his face.

"You're only saying that because you're in denial of your feelings for me," the man with the booming voice continued. "Believe me, I understand. But I'm here to tell you that you don't have to hide your feelings any longer. Just drop the stubborn act and you'll see that you and I truly belong together."

"Feelings?" Belle laughed. "Gaston, you're a very accomplished hunter, and I'm sure you were brilliant in the war, but I just don't love you. And I'm quite sure you don't love me, either. You're just in love with the idea of me becoming your devoted wife."

"Oh, come on, Belle," Gaston retorted, pursing his lips together in a pout. "You know that's not true! I want to marry you because I care about you and think we'd be very happy together."

"Well we'll have to agree to disagree then, won't we?" Belle countered. "Because I've pictured our future together and it doesn't interest me at all." She tried to step away, but Gaston grabbed her arm, pulling her closer.

"Belle, you know there's nothing I couldn't give you," he said, his voice now low and serious. "I'd never settle for anything less for my perfect wife. All I'm asking is for one little word in return."

He leaned closer to her until their faces were inches apart. At the same time, Adam felt his face flush as an uncontrollable rage took hold of him – something he hadn't felt in a long time.

"Adam?" Amandine called out to him in surprise. "Where are you going?"

"Give me a minute," he replied.

He stormed over to the couple. Belle was visibly uncomfortable and trying to back away from Gaston, but despite her efforts, the gap was closing fast.

"What is the meaning of this?!" the Prince shouted.

At Adam's unannounced appearance, Belle and Gaston's eyes widened in shock. "Your Highness!" they both exclaimed, separating from each other faster than two flies about to be crushed with a boot.

"I don't need anyone causing trouble in my kingdom," Adam continued firmly. "Would you care to explain what the commotion is about?"

"Prince Adam – what an honour it is to have you in our village," Gaston said smoothly, pouring on the charm. "I'm sure you know who I am: the army captain who so bravely defended your father's lands in the war and won so many battles. Why, if it weren't for me, even your own castle might have been taken by the invaders!" He paused a moment, clearly expecting thanks. When Adam remained silent, he looked a bit miffed, but went on. "This young woman has taken my fancy, and I have done her the great honour of requesting her hand in marriage. Her prospects are poor: her father's sole income is making music boxes, and she has no dowry. She is also considered rather odd in this village – there are no other suitors on the horizon. I don't know if you're aware, but unmarried women in this town face a bleak future of poverty and begging in the streets. I am trying to save her from that dire fate!" He smiled and leaned closer to Adam, as if talking one man to another. "As a royal, you understand more than anyone the vital importance of making the right match, one which will bring practical benefits to both parties. Perhaps you can help her see reason?"

Belle looked at the Prince nervously as Adam looked back at her in pity. "I'm afraid that a woman's mind is her own, monsieur," he replied coolly. "If she refuses a marriage proposal, then there's little I can do to sway her opinion."

"Exactly!" Gaston nodded in agreement. "You hear that, Belle? Even the Prince thinks that—Hey, wait a minute!"

"But I may be able to arrest you for harassment, seeing as you tried to kiss the poor girl without her consent," Adam continued.

Hearing this threat, Gaston's face turned white as a sheet. "Oh no no no. Please forgive me, Your Highness," he apologized, lifting his hands up defensively. "I only meant to..."

"Oh, believe me, monsieur. I saw enough from my carriage to know what your intentions were. Now go about your business and leave the young lady alone."

As stubborn as he was, Gaston knew better than to pick a fight with a prince. He slouched his shoulders and scowled in defeat. "Come on LeFou," he said to the stout man standing loyally nearby, "we're leaving."

It wasn't until Adam had watched the two men disappear behind the church that he focused his attention back on Belle.

"Thank you, Your Highness," she said to him graciously. "That was very kind of you."

"That man had no right to treat you that way. Who is he?"

"Gaston Légume. He's a war hero with an oversized ego. He thinks he's entitled to anything. Or anyone," she added under her breath.

"I'm very sorry. Are you all right?"

She fixed her dark eyes on him curiously, as though she'd never been asked this question before. Then she replied in a guarded tone, "Fine for now, thanks." He noticed that she was holding a book, and tilted his head to read the title: Romeo and Juliet. Belle's favourite Shakespeare play.

The Prince felt a rush of hope, seeing an opening. He missed their Shakespeare discussions so much! Gesturing at the book, he smiled and said, "Wonderful book you have there!"

But instead of looking pleased, Belle's eyes narrowed skeptically. "That's exactly what Gaston said—except it turned out he'd never read it, or any other book, for that matter."

"Oh," Adam replied, thrown off-guard. "Well, I've read it."

"That's good to hear. I'm glad there are still some men in the world who appreciate literature." Belle curtseyed. "Well, thank you again for your assistance, Your Highness. I should be heading home now."

"Erm... May I walk you back to your residence? In case Monsieur Légume and his companion... follow you?" he proposed nervously.

She tilted her head at him in suspicion. "Surely you have better things to do than escort a simple farm girl like me back to her house?"

"It's no trouble," he lied. "My driver is stopping to water the horses anyway."

"Well... if you insist." She bit her lip. "My name is Belle, by the way. Belle Gagnier."

"Prince Adam de Bauffremont. But um...I'm sure you knew that already."

Belle smiled sheepishly and headed for the direction of her home. Before Adam followed her, he turned around to see Amandine staring at him from the carriage. You idiot! he thought. In his haste to speak to Belle, he'd almost forgotten about the tour.

I'll be right back, he mouthed to her.

Amandine looked confused, but graciously retreated back into the carriage to wait for him.

It wasn't long before Adam regretted his decision to escort Belle back to her house. Not only because he felt guilty about leaving Amandine behind, but because being alone with Belle was causing unwanted feelings to resurface. He couldn't ignore the uncomfortable pounding in his chest or the sweaty sensation in his palms as he followed her down a cobbled side street and past several shops leading to the outskirts of the village.

"So, um... Mademoiselle Gagnier," he said, trying break the awkward silence between them. "What do you do in this village? Aside from read books, I mean."

"Well…" She paused. "I suppose you could consider me something of a homemaker. I invent things. Simple machines mostly, to help me complete my chores. It's not much, but it does make the housework quicker."

Adam smiled. At least that part of Belle's history hadn't changed in this universe. "That sounds like a productive way to pass the time. And you live with your father?"

Belle perked up at the mention of her beloved father. "Yes, his name is Maurice Gagnier," she replied. "He's an artisan, and his specialty is in crafting music boxes. He's hoping to make a business out of it soon."

"I see. And how's that been working out for him?"

Her expression fell. "Truthfully, Your Highness, it's been a slow start," she confessed. "My father went to La Fontaine a few weeks ago to sell one of his best boxes to a merchant there, but it was damaged shortly after he arrived in the city. It took him days to return home, and another several weeks before he received all the parts he needed to repair the box. He's hoping to reassemble it by the end of the week so he can return to La Fontaine."

"Hmm. Well I wish him well in his second attempt," Adam replied. "May I ask what he's planning to do with the money he makes from this music box of his?"

"We're hoping to use the profit to move to a new town," Belle explained. "Perhaps someplace bigger, like Racine or Molière."

"Why? You don't like it here in Villeneuve?"

"No. I mean uh, yes!" she stammered. "Forgive me, Your Highness. I would never speak ill of one of your villages. It's just that my father and I have spent most of our lives living in small towns, making ends meet. But I believe that my father's new music box will be the start of a new life for us. A chance for us to run a business in a town where people can buy my father's crafts at a reasonable price. And perhaps for myself… maybe…"

"You'll find someone there who likes to read as much as you do?"

She looked at him with an incredulous expression on her face. "Yes, actually. How did you know?"

"A lucky guess," he fibbed. "If I were in your position, living among braggarts who care more about marital life than fine literature, then I too would want to move somewhere where people understand and appreciate me. But I'm sure won't have to look far." He smiled at her encouragingly. "People will admire you wherever you go, Mademoiselle Gagnier. Admire your interest in books and inventing machines, that is."

Belle returned his smile, albeit hesitantly. "Thank you, Your Highness. I appreciate that."

They approached a narrow brick and mortar house at the edge of the village; its ashen colour offset by a small green garden at the front of the property. Adam's eyes widened at the sight. He'd had an idea of the type of house Belle lived in based on her background and social standing, but he hadn't expected to see this: a dreary-looking shack, no larger than the stables back at the castle.

"It's so small," he said in disbelief.

"Well, from a certain point of view, I suppose that it would be," Belle replied. There was a tinge of bitterness in her voice, and Adam was unsure if she was jesting with him or patronizing him.

"You're right," he apologized. "Please forgive my uncouthness." He cleared his throat. "I'm glad to have met you, Belle Gagnier."

"You too, Your Highness." She smiled at him again. "Enjoy the rest of your day."

"You as well." He bowed politely and watched as she climbed the stairs up to her house, a grin plastered on his face that lasted just a bit too long.

"Who was that girl you were speaking to?" asked Amandine. She was sitting across from Adam in the carriage, Villeneuve rapidly shrinking into the distance as their driver chauffeured them to their next destination.

"Oh, just some artisan's daughter," Adam replied, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible. "She got into a skirmish with a man by the church who was trying to force her hand. She seemed shaken from the ordeal, so I thought it only right to walk her back to her house."

"The poor dear." Amandine clasped a hand to her chest in sympathy. "I'm sure she appreciated your chivalry."

"Yes. I believe she did." He forced himself to look back at the Princess. "What about you? Did you enjoy your tour of Villeneuve?"

"Oh yes!" Amandine replied, smiling brightly. "It's full of vibrant and interesting people. I'm very much looking forward to becoming their queen one day."

Adam's expression fell. "I'm… glad to hear that."

You fool! he chided to himself. You should be spending your time with Amandine, not with some peasant girl who doesn't even remember you! Didn't you swear you would leave her alone once you changed time?

He knew he should be ashamed of himself for breaking his own rule, but he wasn't. All he could think about were those exhilarating five minutes he'd spent alone with Belle in the village, seeing her face, hearing her voice again, feeling things for her that he shouldn't be feeling at all. These emotions, marred by the uncomfortable awareness of his current responsibilities, left him conflicted, and so he was silent for the rest of the trip.

That evening, after Adam and Amandine had returned to the castle, Henriette called them into her bureau for an emergency meeting about their upcoming wedding ceremony.

"I'm afraid I have some bad news," she began somberly, a roll of parchment in hand. "I've just received a letter from the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de La Tour du Pin, announcing that they're unable to attend the engagement ball next week. It seems that the date of the ball conflicts with the Comte de Beaulaincourt's christening ceremony, which is occurring on the same day."

"The Vicomte and Vicomtesse de La Tour du Pin are a load of busybodies anyway," François said indifferently. "We'd be far better off without their company. Besides, that's just one invitation. Surely we have enough guests to continue with the festivities?"

"I wish it were so," Henriette replied. "From reviewing the RSVP list from Cogsworth, it looks like most of our invitees have also deferred their invitations in favour of attending the Comte's ceremony. Out of the one hundred invitations we sent out, only a fifth of them have written back to say they will be coming next week."

"What?" The King looked flabbergasted.

"It is disappointing, but I can understand their logic," Henriette went on. "Many of the nobility in this part of France find it more convenient to travel to estates that have paved roads and are easily accessible by carriage. Our castle, situated deep in the woods, provides neither of those luxuries."

"But surely there must be something we can do to amend the numbers," François insisted. "My daughter's wedding cannot proceed without a proper celebration!"

"I concur, François, but I'm afraid that our options are limited," said the Queen. "Given the lack of invitees, we may well have to cancel our children's ball or reschedule it for another date."

Amandine tensed, clearly unhappy at the prospect and Adam frowned. As a prince, he was well-aware that a wedding between two members of the French monarch would be very anticlimactic if there wasn't a proper audience to receive them. And rescheduling the wedding would only complicate matters, as François was leaving the castle after the ceremony to attend to affairs in his own kingdom. Meaning that next week was the only available time they had to host the engagement ball.

Then, an idea struck him. "What if we invited the townspeople from Villeneuve?"

Henriette looked at her son in surprise. "You would invite the common people to an aristocratic function?"

"Yes." Adam cleared his throat. "But hear me out, Mère. You've always said that the worth of a ruler is not in how he treats his equals, but by how he treats his subjects. What better way to practice that principle than by inviting the villagers to celebrate with us? They live close enough to the castle, so transportation won't be an issue." He turned to his fiancée. "Amandine, you liked speaking with the citizens in the marketplace, didn't you?"

"I enjoyed making their acquaintance, yes," Amandine admitted. "And they do seem to be a pleasant group of people."

"I think it's a marvellous idea!" Henriette agreed. "Inviting the villagers will be a great way to strengthen our rapport with them and introduce you as the future King and Queen. François, what do you think?"

"It's certainly unconventional," the King replied. "But as long as the celebrations will continue as planned, then I have no objection to inviting the villagers to the wedding."

"Excellent. It's settled then." Henriette smiled and clapped her hands. "I'll have Écrivain write a new set of invitations to send out to the village. With any luck, we'll have them ready by the end of this week. Thank you for your quick thinking, Adam."

The Prince couldn't believe his own luck. He was going to see Belle again, less than a week after running into her in Villeneuve! If she comes at all, said a nagging voice in the back of his head. She'd expressed her insecurities about mingling with her fellow townsfolk in the past. What if she was afraid that she wouldn't enjoy herself if she attended a ball with them? What if she was afraid she'd be ridiculed for showing up? What if she chose to decline her invitation because of that?

He had just the idea to win her over.

It took him no time to find the first volume of Shakespeare's works in the library, tucked between a translated copy of Christopher Marlowe's The Massacre at Paris and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. Just seeing the old leather-bound tome was enough to fill him with a strong feeling of nostalgia. He'd lost track of the number of times he'd seen Belle pore over its pages in the old universe, amazed that one playwright could create stories with such intricate characters and captivating prose. If this book wouldn't make Belle jump with joy, then Adam didn't know what would.

He hurried to his writing desk, grabbed a quill and scribbled on the first page underneath the title:

To the girl who reads Romeo and Juliet, please accept this humble gift.

Prince Adam de Bauffremont

Then, he closed the book and went to find Écrivain to ask him to include it with the Gagniers' wedding invitation.

Chapter Text

"I, Prince Thomas-Alexandre Adam de Bauffremont take thee, Princess Marie-Amandine Victoire de Lanzac to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse: for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to… to…"

"Love." Père Robert prompted.

"Love." Adam cleared his throat. "Thank you. To love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy law; and thereto I give thee my troth."

Amandine smiled. With her hand held in her fiancé's overly sweaty palm, she replied, "I, Princess Marie-Amandine Victoire de Lanzac take thee, Prince Thomas-Alexandre Adam de Bauffremont to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse: for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy law; and thereto I give thee my troth."

"Bravo!" Henriette exclaimed, clapping loudly as she stood up from the front pew. "Much better."

François, who sat beside the Queen, soon imitated her applause. Taking advantage of their interruption, Adam released Amandine's hand and wiped the sweat from his hands. For the past three hours, he and his fiancée had been rehearsing their vows with Villeneuve's chaplain in the castle chapel while the King and Queen watched on attentively. It was a tedious procedure and truthfully, Adam would rather be doing anything else. All this ceremony was giving him a small headache, and seemed to serve as a painful reminder of his impending marriage, which was now less than a day away.

Thankfully, the Prince was saved from yet another mind-numbing run down of the vow exchanges as the chapel doors opened to reveal Cadenza and his wife, Madame de la Garderobe.

"Buongiorno, Your Majesties!" the Maestro said, approaching the King and Queen with a courteous bow.

"Bonjour Maestro Cadenza. Madame de la Garderobe," Henriette replied. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"

"With your permission, Padrona, we would like to use the organ to practice the processional music for tomorrow's ceremony," the Maestro explained. "But only if it is convenient for you, of course. If you still need the chapel for rehearsal, then we can always come back at another time."

"I believe I speak for everyone when I say that we've been rehearsing long enough," said François. "Besides, it's almost noon and I'm famished! I wouldn't object to having some of that delicious bouillabaisse for luncheon right about now."

"That can be arranged. Consider the chapel yours, Maestro," the Queen declared. She turned to the chaplain. "Père Robert, thank you for taking the time to rehearse with us today. Shall we see you back here tomorrow for the ceremony?"

"Of course, Your Majesty," Père Robert replied with a bow. "I would never miss out on the opportunity to preach at the royal family's wedding."

"Grazie, Padrona," Cadenza echoed as the chaplain closed up his books and exited the chapel. "And believe me when I say that you will be highly impressed by the restorative work Maestro Forte has done to the organ. Its new set of golden pipes sound absolutely magnifico! Your son should try it out himself some time."

"Thank you for the invitation, Maestro," Adam replied, embarrassed. "But I will leave all the serenading to you and your wife."

"You play?" Amandine inquired, turning to her fiancé with interest.

"A little." He shrugged. "I took harpsichord lessons as a child, but I quit years ago."

"A pity too," said Henriette, putting an arm around him affectionately. "He had the makings of a fine prodigy. He may have even rivalled the likes of Mozart himself, had he applied himself."

"You exaggerate, Mère. I was… an adequate player at best." He grew silent as an unpleasant memory came to the forefront of his mind. But before he could fully dwell on it, François changed the subject, and the vision slipped away as quickly as it had come.

As Adam accompanied Henriette, Amandine and François to the dining room, he began to mull over the complexity of his current circumstances. He was getting married tomorrow, but all he could think about was the possibility of seeing Belle at his engagement ball. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd caught himself fantasizing over their hypothetical meeting in the past week; wondering if she would fall in love with him the same way Cinderella had with her Prince or Juliet with her Romeo. These imaginings came from the idealistic side of him—the side that Belle had inadvertently rekindled when he'd imprisoned her. The realistic part of him knew it was foolish and useless to indulge in things that would never be. Or else there would be hell to pay.

"My word!" Henriette said, startling Adam from his thoughts. She had stopped to stare at a painting on the wall; the family portrait that used to hang in the West Wing to be precise. "Well here's a portrait I've not seen in a while! Adam, do you remember how old you were when we commissioned this? Ten, eleven years old?"

"I suppose," Adam replied dully. He'd noticed the family portrait was missing from the West Wing and had been happy not to be reminded of it until now.

"Oh, what a sweet-looking boy!" Amandine remarked as she took a closer look at the painting. "Much better than the portraits they used to make of me back home. They were beautiful of course, but they never looked quite like me."

"And I presume that the dark-haired man on the left was Adam's father?" François asked curiously.

"Yes," Henriette confirmed. "His name was Louis-Thomas Antoine de Bauffremont. He died of a fever when Adam was only eighteen. Unfortunately, I was in Guadeloupe at the time, so I couldn't pay my respects until I returned home."

Adam hesitantly approached the canvas, hands clenching into his fists as he studied his father's image. It was amazing how a simple portrait could show more soul in that man's eyes than he'd ever shown in life. If he still had claws, Adam knew that he'd gladly slash his father's face apart all over again.

The hour of the engagement ball arrived all but too soon. Adam's stomach twisted into knots as he studied his reflection in the West Wing mirror. He'd requested to wear something blue for the ball, and his tailors had certainly delivered. Adam was wearing a powder blue jacket with delicate stencils of leaves and silver-threaded fastenings on the lapels. A matching waistcoat and silk breeches completed the ensemble. For cosmetics, he'd chosen not to wear a wig, instead letting Chapeau tie his hair into a simple ponytail and add a few curls to the top of his head. His face remained clear and shaven. The only powder he wore was to hide the minor blemishes on his skin. He certainly looked impressive enough to host an engagement ball, but would it be enough to impress her?

"Are you feeling quite well, Master?" Chapeau asked as the Prince continued to examine himself in the mirror. "I haven't seen you this flustered for quite some time."

"It's my first time inviting commoners to a royal function, Chapeau," Adam explained. "Under the circumstances I… well I suppose I'd like to know that I'm making a good impression."

"I'm sure they will be more than impressed by you," the valet said reassuringly, stepping forward to adjust his bowtie. "You are their Prince, after all."

"A Prince who would be nothing without his servants," he countered. "I don't know if I've said it before, Chapeau, but I truly and sincerely thank you for everything you've done for me."

"Master?" Cogsworth called from the doorway. "It's time!"

"That's your cue." Chapeau let go of Adam's bowtie and smiled. "Bon courage, Maître! Have fun tonight."

Taking a deep breath, Adam inspected his reflection one last time before he exited the room, ready to greet the masses.

"Mesdames et Messieurs," the majordomo announced to the waiting crowd. "May I present His Royal Highness, Prince Thomas-Alexandre Adam de Bauffremont and his fiancée, Her Royal Highness, Princess Marie-Amandine Victoire de Lanzac!"

With a smile plastered on his face, Adam took Amandine's hand and stepped into the ballroom. Many guests had arrived. Men and women of all ages, dressed in a plethora of colours and designs filled the room. Years ago, Adam would have cringed at the lack of proper colour coordination among his invitees, but he had more pressing things to focus on now. He carefully examined his subjects as they bowed and curtsied, searching for the one guest he was most anxious to find. He saw Gaston dressed in a crimson jacket with brass buttons, and beside him, his portly companion dressed in a dark blue waistcoat and burgundy bowtie, but no BelleThe Prince's smile faded. Maybe she didn't like the book I sent her and chose to defer my invitation after all.

But remembering his commitment to keeping up appearances, Adam bottled his disappointment, acknowledged his guests with a nod, and turned to his fiancée. If anyone was to be the "belle of the ball" tonight, it was her. Amandine was dressed in a floral, cream-coloured mantua dress with long, lacey back cuffs. She wore a string of pearls around her neck, and her hair was pinned up into an elegant, but not over-the-top updo. She looked radiant, dignified and regal in her appearance, but at the same time predictable. As much as Adam wanted to appreciate her beauty, a part of him couldn't stop thinking about how her outfit paled in comparison to the yellow gown Belle had worn during their first dance together. It may have been simple and unconventional by court standards, but so uniquely Belle in its eccentricity. He would give anything for the chance to see her in that dress again.

From the corner of the ballroom, Maestro Cadenza cued the music for the night: a series of string quartet pieces by an Austrian composer named Haydn, which Amandine had selected herself.

"May I have this dance, Princess?" Adam asked of his bride-to-be.

"You may," Amandine replied politely.

Hand-in-hand, the Prince and Princess danced across the floor to prescribed steps they'd rehearsed the day before. Amandine moved like a cloud in her elegant dress, showing off her noble upbringing as though it had been tailored to her feet. With such poise and grace, Adam was starting to wonder if there was anything she could do wrong.

"Can you believe it?" she asked him as their guests partnered up to join in on the dancing. "Only one day left."

"One day left until what?"

Her eyes widened, as though he'd thrown her an unintentional insult. "Why, until we're married of course!"

"Oh." The Prince's face grew warm. "Of course. Forgive me. I was merely… thinking."

"About what?"

"Is there anything you've ever wanted to do? More than anything else in the world?"

"Well…" Amandine bit her lip pensively. "I suppose that I wouldn't say no to travelling to Hamburg to hear what a real German opera sounds like. And to wear my hair down and try riding astride every once in a while. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, I don't know." He shook his head. "Curiosity, I suppose. For a princess as talented and intelligent as yourself, you've come so far from home to marry me. It's quite a sacrifice, isn't it? Leaving your family and kingdom behind. Don't you think you'll… miss them?"

"It will be sad to no longer see my family in Claircomble," Amandine agreed. "But all princesses need to make sacrifices for their kingdom. We wouldn't be fulfilling our duty otherwise. True, it may not exactly be the 'happily ever after' we read about in fairy stories, but we can take comfort in knowing we have the power to make a difference in our people's lives through our words and actions. What about you, Adam?" She fixed her eyes on him curiously. "Do I make you… happy?"

Adam opened his mouth, searching for words that wouldn't come. A part of him wanted to be honest with Amandine. To tell her that while he deeply admired and respected her, he couldn't be completely happy with her while his heart belonged to somebody else. It wasn't her fault—he'd simply shown up at the wrong place at the wrong time. But despite all the reasons why Belle stood out to him as his better match, Amandine still remained at heart, a perfectly good and decent person. And it was that good-natured aspect of her that made Adam afraid of hurting her feelings. It was a strange concept, he thought, to worry about upsetting someone when he couldn't have cared less about it before.

Thankfully, the Prince was saved from initiating that uncomfortable conversation as a newcomer entered the ballroom. Whoever she was, she was quite pretty, wearing a peacock blue dress with billowing skirts and a cream-coloured petticoat. He turned around to get a closer look at her face, and all the air left his chest. It was Belle.

Belle wasn't the best dressed of his guests, but neither was she the worst. Aside from her petticoat, the only distinguishable features of her outfit were the lace on her sleeves and a silver locket which hung a few inches above her square neckline. Her caramel-brown hair was pinned sensibly behind her head and she wore no lipstick or rouge on her face. Her outfit would be acceptable for a commoner's Sunday best, Adam supposed, but its plain and cheap material would barely pass as casual wear for a woman of nobility. But none of that mattered. Belle was still beautiful, and always would be, no matter what she wore. As though in a trance, he moved closer to her, stopping only when he realized that he was accidentally dragging Amandine along with him.

"Excuse me," he said absently, breaking off his dance with her.

Belle looked into the ballroom in awe and amazement, as though she'd never seen anything so incredible in her entire life. Her expression reminded Adam of when he'd shown her the library over a lifetime ago. He'd considered it a token gift then, a small act of charity for a girl whose only knowledge of literature had been through those saccharine romances she borrowed from Père Robert. He certainly hadn't appreciated the delight on her face then the way he did now. Stopping in front of her, Adam cleared his throat and said, "Good evening, Mademoiselle Gagnier."

Belle turned around with a start. Her expression brightened at the sight of the Prince's familiar face. "Your Highness!" She curtsied. "Thank you for inviting me to your engagement ball. It's an honour to be here."

"The honour is all mine, Mademoiselle," Adam replied with a bow. "I'm glad you could make it."

"Well, at the very least I had to come and thank you for sending me that book," she explained. "It was yours, wasn't it?"

"Yes." Then he added, a little overzealously, "Did you like it? How much have you read?"

"Well, I've started the first act of A Midsummer Night's Dream," she responded. "But I'm afraid I haven't had time to read the rest of it because I've been so busy packing. My father and I are moving to Diderot tomorrow, see."

Adam's expression fell. He felt as though the happy bubble growing inside him had suddenly received a puncture. "You're... leaving?"

"It is sudden, but yes," Belle confirmed excitedly. "See, my father managed to find a buyer for his music box in La Fontaine. And not only that, but he was able to get in touch with a proprietor there who owns some shops in Diderot. He's willing to lease one out to us, but we need to claim it before the end of the week or it will be sold to somebody else."

It took every bit of Adam's willpower to hold his tongue. You knew this could happen, he told himself. A headstrong, independent woman like Belle had every right to choose where she wanted to live her life, even if that choice didn't involve him. Wasn't that why he'd changed time? To give her back the freedom he'd stolen from her when he was a beast? He should be happy for her, but instead, all he felt was a bitter disappointment. Still, he forced himself to smile. "Well, congratulations. That's... wonderful news," he said with fake enthusiasm. "I wish you and your father every success with your new music box venture."

Belle smiled. "Thank you, Your Highness."

Gesturing to the crowd, the Prince continued, "Would you care to dance?"

"Me? Dance?" Belle laughed nervously. "Well, I'm not too sure about that. I've never danced to this kind of music before. I'm afraid I... may not be very good."

"Nonsense. Something tells me that you're a wonderful dancer," Adam said dismissively. "It would give me great pleasure if you would join me."

He smiled again as he extended his hand to her. Belle hesitated, looked up at the Prince's trusting face, then reluctantly accepted his invitation.

Dancing with Belle as a human was similar, but at the same time, different from when Adam had danced with her as the Beast. He was closer in height to her now, and that size difference allowed him to see several aspects of her that he hadn't noticed before. There were faint creases on her forehead and freckles on her cheeks. He could even make out some golden strands in her hair—perhaps she'd been fair-haired once like his mother had been before her illness. He no longer felt like his monstrous body was overwhelming hers—in fact, he quite enjoyed the ease in which her fingers entwined around his and how he didn't have to worry about stepping on her toes with his oversized feet. He was smiling again, and considering everything he'd been through, he supposed that it was inevitable.

"So, Mademoiselle Gagnier," he said, eager to start any sort of conversation with the girl he'd been waiting to see for over a week. "What do you like the most about Shakespeare's works?"

"Hmm. Well, I suppose it would be his tragedies," she replied after a moment's thought. "In Romeo and Juliet for example, I find it so endearing how two people can fall for each other in impossible circumstances, giving up their families and their lives for the sake of love. I wouldn't condone their actions in real life of course, but something about their story feels so…" She paused. "Heart-rending and poignant. Not like Villeneuve." She looked away in disdain. "Nothing interesting ever happens there, and when someone does get married it's always out of convenience rather than love. But I'm sure this must all sound quite mundane to you, coming from a simple farm girl."

"Not at all." Adam shook his head. "There's nothing wrong with wanting to marry for love. What I find most ironic about Romeo and Juliet is that both of them could have lived if one little event had played out differently. If Romeo hadn't been so reckless for example, or if Juliet had fled to Mantua to see Romeo herself, or if Friar John had delivered the letter to Romeo in time, they may have found a way to make their parents accept their union, and the play would have ended very differently."

"Why, that's exactly what I think!" Belle replied, staring at the Prince in amazement. "What other books have you read aside from Shakespeare, Your Highness?"

"Several." He puffed up his chest proudly as he named them all. "The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Le Morte D'Arthur, The Divine Comedy, One Thousand and One Nights... but there's not a lot of romance in them I'm afraid. They're more… the action and adventure type. You know: knights and men and swords and things. I'm not sure if you'd care for them very much."

"Oh no, those all sound wonderful!" Belle replied with wide eyes. "I love reading adventure books just as much as I love reading romances. You'll need to make a list for me so I can see if any of the bookshops in Diderot sell them."

"I could…" Adam paused. "Or you could look for them here."

Belle cocked her head in confusion.

"Belle—" he began nervously. "I mean, Mademoiselle. I know we've only just met, but believe me when I say that we have a lot more in common than you realize. If you stayed here at my castle, I would treat you and your father as my honoured guests. My whole library would be at your disposal. You'd be well looked after and have whatever your heart desired. On my word as a prince."

He expected Belle to be surprised or touched by this out of the blue offer. Instead, she narrowed her eyes in suspicion. "And what exactly may I ask would you want in return for me staying here?"

"Well... nothing, of course," he replied, taken aback by the unexpected sharpness of her words. "Except for your company. And your promise that we make time to read together every once in a while."

Belle said nothing. She'd suddenly become very interested in studying at something at the far side of the ballroom. She raised her eyebrows and her face grew quite pale.

"Your Highness," she said loudly, turning back to him. "I am truly... flattered by your most generous offer. But I'm afraid that I can't accept it. I'm leaving Villeneuve tomorrow to start a new life with my father. And you're getting married to Princess Amandine. On my good faith, I cannot offer my services or 'company' to a man who will soon be lawfully married to somebody else."

It took a moment for Adam to realize what Belle was insinuating. Now it was his turn to look uncomfortable. "Mademoiselle, you misunderstand me. I only wanted to..."

"Oh, I think you've explained yourself quite well, Your Highness," Belle interrupted. Although she sounded angry, her face was flustered and agitated-looking. "And as much as I appreciate you taking an interest in my hobbies, I think it's best that we live our lives the way they were they were meant to be lived. Again, I thank you for inviting me to your ball tonight. I must be on my way home now. Goodbye."

Then, before Adam could utter so much as a syllable, Belle had flown from his grasp, rushing to the exit like Cinderella rushing to get back to her stepmother's house before midnight. And that wasn't the only thing he had to worry about.

When Adam turned around, he saw Amandine, Henriette and François standing at the far side of the ballroom; a mixture of shock and anger on their faces at the scandal they'd just witnessed.

"'He was a charming man,' she said. 'A charming man looking for a nice wife to settle down and produce an heir with.' I should have known that it was all a ruse to cover up his disgusting, sacrilegious, womanizing… habits!"

Fifteen minutes had passed since the end of Adam and Amandine's engagement party. Adam was sitting on the sofa, watching François pace the drawing room angrily with a glass of wine in hand. Amandine was standing by the window; seemingly unsure of whether she should be sitting down herself or not. Her face was downcast, but she wasn't crying—Adam didn't know whether to interpret that as a good or a bad sign.

"Adam?" Henriette said gently. She was standing across from the Prince, brows raised in deep concern. "Have you met this woman before?"

"Just once," he replied uncomfortably. "Back in Villeneuve, I—"

"Bah! Of course he's lying," François interrupted. "Don't listen to a word he says, Amandine. It's obvious that the peasant girl he danced with tonight was one of many of the many sleazy whores he's been hiding behind our backs this whole time!"

"She's NOT a whore!" Adam snapped, rising to his feet.

"Adam!" Henriette shouted, stepping between the two men with the speed of a young doe. "François! That's quite enough! I'd like a moment to speak to my son, alone please."

The King rolled his eyes, but compliantly waved his hand and turned around, leaving mother and son to talk in peace.

"Adam," Henriette began intently. "Have you been meeting with this woman in secret?"

"No," Adam replied.

"Have you been sending her letters or favours of any kind?"


"Have you engaged in any sexual relations with her?"

"Of course not!"

"Then what, may I ask, is your relationship with her?"

Adam took a deep breath. His gaze shifted from his mother, to François, to Amandine as he thought of an appropriate answer. Should he let the cat out of the bag and reveal the true nature of his relationship with Belle? Or lie and act like what they'd seen tonight was completely harmless?

He knew that the former option wouldn't sit well with any of them. With no one to defend his story about curses and time travelling, they'd all think he'd gone mental, or created an elaborate fabrication to justify why he couldn't marry Amandine. Either way, it would get him into a heap more trouble than he already was in. And he would gain absolutely nothing from it. He bowed his head in defeat.

"Nothing," he fibbed. "She was just an artisan's daughter I met in Villeneuve last week. She mentioned that she liked to read, so I sent her a book with her ball invitation to… encourage her passion. She came to the castle tonight to thank me and tell me that she and her father would be moving to Diderot tomorrow to start a new business. I asked her to dance with me to celebrate the good news. That's it."

The Queen raised an eyebrow in skepticism. "And I trust that whatever transpired between you and this... artisan's daughter won't interfere with the wedding ceremony tomorrow?"

"No." He shook his head. "Absolutely not. She's leaving and she's not coming back."

"Well then,"—She turned to address Amandine and François with a stilted smile—"I think there's nothing more to worry about here. It was all just a big mix-up. It won't happen again."

"It better not," François replied sharply. "As you know, I don't pick out husbands for my daughter lightly. If I hear or see another incident that involves your son cavorting with these wanton peasants, then consider us out of the arrangement."

Amandine met eyes with Adam, but said nothing. He almost wished that she was the one yelling at him instead of her father. Any word from her was better than silence.

Henriette escorted Adam to the West Wing for the night, despite his insistence that he was perfectly capable of walking there by himself. She said nothing to him the entire way, which made him feel both guilty and uncomfortable. He tried several times to voice an apology to her, but the words died in his throat every time.

It wasn't until they'd reached his bedroom that they finally exchanged words.

"Thierry. Defraine," the Queen said, addressing the guards standing by the West Wing doors. "Guard my son's room tonight and ensure that he doesn't leave."

"Yes, Your Majesty."


Henriette turned to her son. Her face was tired and sorrowful now, a stark contrast to the composed demeanour she'd put on for their guests downstairs. "I'm very sorry about this, Adam," she said. "When your father sent me to Guadeloupe all those years ago, I had no idea of the cruel and selfish person he'd twist you up to become. I swore when I returned that I'd do everything in my power to break you of his bad habits. But it seems I didn't try hard enough. Just… stay in your room until the wedding ceremony tomorrow. It will put my mind at ease."

The Prince opened his mouth in outrage. "But I'm your son!" he insisted. "Why would I ever think of leaving you?"

"I don't know, Adam, I don't know." She shook her head. "All I do know is that tonight, you were dancing with a… common girl when you should have been staying by Amandine's side and setting an example for your people. Think of how humiliated that poor girl must be right now! And imagine what those villagers from Villeneuve think of their Prince, now that they've seen him favouring the attention of some artisan's daughter over his future bride. All well-wishing aside, you knew that it was wrong to be mingling with her so close to your wedding day! A reckless act like that can't go down without a punishment." She put her hand on his shoulder. "Just stay here tonight and focus on getting your rest. We'll talk things over in the morning."

Once he was alone and confined to his room, Adam kicked the closest table in a fit of rage.

Well done. You've really done it now, he thought. Why couldn't you control yourself? Why couldn't you keep your big fat mouth shut? Why did you even remotely believe that asking Belle to stay here would be a good idea?

In the deepest darkest recesses of his mind, he knew why: because he was desperate. Because despite all the freedom and opportunities that were open to him as a prince, none of it gave him any real satisfaction. But she did.

But what had it all amounted to? Nothing. Belle was leaving tomorrow—again—never to return. And Adam was going to spend the rest of his life waking up and falling asleep next to a woman he didn't love, trapped in an unhappy marriage, just like the one that had destroyed his parents. Then he'd eventually have to sire children to continue his legacy, and the same miserable cycle would start all over again. It wasn't fair to him, it wasn't fair to his future descendants, and it wasn't fair to Amandine.

If only I could make Belle trust me. If only I can convince my mother that I really do love Belle, and don't just see her as "another conquest." It's Amandine who's the one who's wrong for me, not Belle!

But there wasn't enough time.

And the one thing that would give him more time was lying on a desk in the castle library. And the only way to that library was blocked by the guards standing outside his bedroom door.

Desperation growing, Adam hurried to the balcony, wondering if he could climb up the roof to reach the book that way. But one look at the closest turret and he knew it was impossible. It was one thing to scale walls and leap from rooftop to rooftop with a bear-like body and razor-sharp claws. But to do it as a human would not only be crazy, it would be suicide. Adam may have been desperate, but he wasn't stupid.

Options spent, the Prince returned to the West Wing and sat on his bed, wringing his hands in despair. He'd left his old world to escape one dead end, only to stumble straight into another one. All he could do now was dread the long long night ahead of him.

Chapter Text

The servants came to the Prince's chambers at six o'clock in the morning to prepare him for his wedding ceremony. They dressed him in a white suit with golden threads on the lapels and sleeves, and black buckled shoes that had been polished until he could see his face in them. Despite their best efforts, no amount of concealment powder could hide the dark circles under his eyes. He hadn't slept a wink last night—not that anyone bothered to question why. Adam doubted that any man could get a good night's sleep before their wedding day, regardless of whether the bride was someone they wished to marry or not.

After what felt like years, Henriette, wearing her finest dress, entered the room and whisked away the servants to share some private words with her son before the ceremony. Her face glowed with motherly pride as she straightened his cravat and searched his outfit for loose threads and stray pieces of lint.

"Chin up, Adam," she said as she moved a tea set from his bedside table to the dresser behind him. "I know this isn't the... easiest choice, but a marriage isn't the end of the world. Think of it as a new beginning. Amandine will be a good wife. She'll give your life a new purpose. As long as you have her, you'll never be alone."

Adam stared blankly at his mother's reflection in the vanity mirror. He felt as though the wool had been lifted from his eyes, and he was seeing her—truly seeing her for the first time.

"You're not my mother," he said bluntly.

Henriette turned around. "What was that, love?"

"I said, you're not my mother," he repeated firmly. "My real mother died of consumption thirteen years ago. You're just a shadow of her. You're a wish granted to me by an enchantress because I refused to accept her death. But... I've moved on from my loss. I don't need you anymore."

A crack appeared on Henriette's left cheek, glowing with a strange yellow light. The sight startled Adam, and he turned around to gape at her in shock.

The Queen winced and placed a hand over the blemish as though it had physically wounded her. When she opened her eyes again, her expression was one of hurt and betrayal. "How could you say such a thing?" she demanded. "You don't need me anymore? But I am your mother! If you cast me away, who else will be there to look after you?"

"I did have someone once," Adam replied quietly. "She raised me for thirteen years. She sang me lullabies every night. She showed me what it was to love and be loved in return. Not a day goes by when I don't think about her and those precious moments we shared." He looked back at Henriette. "But she just isn't you. You're a dream I've clung to for far too long. And now, I have to wake up before it completely destroys me."

More light appeared on the false Queen's body, spreading to her arms, torso and lower limbs. She held up her glowing hands, eyes growing wide with fright. "No, Adam, wait!" she cried, extending an arm to him. But before she could muster a full scream, the lacerations engulfed her, and she disintegrated into a burst of golden dust.

Adam stood up, utterly bewildered as he watched the remains of his mother-imposter evaporate into the room. The Enchantress had warned him that he would lose his mother again one day. He just hadn't realized that verbally accepting her death was the key to undoing her magic.

It wasn't until the dust had settled that he realized he was shaking.

"Goodbye, Mère," he said before he hurried to the doors and slipped into the corridor.

It took Adam ages to get to the library, no thanks to his high-heeled shoes, which served as a perfect slipping hazard on the polished floors. He knew that the Enchantress had bewitched his subjects into believing that his real mother was still alive. But now that her double was gone, would their memories of the real Queen return? Or, if the memory spell was permanent, would they all believe that the false Queen had been murdered, and frame Adam as the prime suspect?

He had no time to question it, and no time to dwell on the implications of what he'd done. All he knew was that he had to get to the book and fast.

He heard doors opening behind him, followed by startled voices and exclamations. The noise sent him into a panic, so he hastened his speed, not stopping until he reached the library. Once inside, he slammed the doors behind him and breathed a deep sigh of relief.

The trouble was, someone was already there. No sooner had Adam locked the doors when he caught sight of Amandine standing behind the table beside the fireplace. She stared at him in wild-eyed bafflement.

"Amandine!" Adam said, sounding equally surprised as she looked. "I thought you would be down in the chapel by now."

"So did I," she replied quietly.

She was already in her wedding dress; a white robe de français with golden vines embroidered into the petticoat, likely designed to match the accents on the Prince's own wedding suit. Her mahogany-coloured hair was pinned up into a sophisticated bun, though she wore no veil, making Adam wonder if she had discarded it, or run off before her servants had finished attaching it to her. If it was the latter scenario, Adam knew he was in trouble. Not only would the servants be looking for him, but they'd be looking for her, too.

"I want to apologize for that appalling display I made at the ball last night," he said in a half-hearted attempt to lighten the mood. "It was entirely improper and—"

"You love her. Don't you?" Her hazel eyes surveyed him knowingly.

It took several seconds before Adam responded, so taken aback by the lucidity of her words. "How did you know?"

She slid around the table, giving him a good glimpse of the Enchantress's book tucked under her arm. Suddenly, her reasons for being in the library became perfectly clear.

"Adam," she said. "I know I may have a... reputation for being soft-spoken and demure, but I'm not a simpleton. I saw the way you looked at that artisan's daughter back in the village. You had this… lively, animated look on your face and you were smiling. I'd never seen you look at me that way before. Or anyone." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I admit that at first, I didn't understand it, but last night, when I saw you together again at the ball, it all made perfect sense."

She looked down at the book. "Is the Prince in this storybook you? Did you really make a deal with an enchantress to create a false version of your dead mother?"

"Yes… and no," Adam replied nervously. "I did make a deal with an enchantress to bring back my mother. But that was a different version of me. This reality… it isn't mine. In fact, I'm not supposed to be here at all."

Amandine pursed her lips, willing him to elaborate. Knowing he had little choice, Adam hesitantly revealed the story about the world he'd come from, one where he'd refused the Enchantress's offer and she'd turned him into a beast as punishment. In a last-ditch attempt to become human again, he'd used the book to travel back in time to stop the curse from happening. A decision that had brought him here.

If Amandine thought that Adam was pulling her leg, she certainly didn't show it. Maybe she had already suspended her disbelief in his story after reading the Enchantress's book. Or maybe his peculiar actions in the past week had convinced her that he was telling the truth.

"I thought that by changing my past, I could make a better future for myself," Adam concluded. "And it was better here, to a point. But then I began to see so many things that were wrong with my life, and I realized… that this wasn't really what I wanted at all."

"So then… you never really wanted to marry me?" asked Amandine. Her voice was sad, but not heartbroken.

"Amandine." Adam crossed the room and placed his hands on her shoulders. He vaguely noted that this was one of the most intimate gestures they'd shared since they'd started courting a week ago. "You are truly one of the most amazing women I've ever met. But we're just too different. You like going to the opera and painting. I like books and horseback riding. I know society says that love isn't a prerequisite for marriage, but I don't believe in that for one second. All I know is that if I marry you today, I'll be living a lie for the rest of my life. And worst of all, I'll be dragging you along with me."

"There is someone out there who's right for you," he continued. "Someone who will inspire you, move you, make you happy and change your world for the better. Whoever that someone is, he will be the luckiest man in all of France. But that man isn't me. And that's why I can't let this marriage continue, knowing it will ruin my—both our chances of finding people who truly love us. Do you understand?"

"I…understand." Amandine nodded reluctantly. "But I'm also confused. If that's really how you felt about me, then why didn't you say so in the first place?"

"Because I didn't think anyone would believe me," Adam confessed. "And I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings by telling them the truth. Especially my mother—or rather, the thing I pretended was my mother. She'd been waiting so long to see me get married… I suppose that deep down, I was afraid of disappointing her. I should have been more honest with everyone, especially you. Can you ever forgive me?"

A loud knocking on the doors interrupted the Prince and Princess from their conversation. It seemed that the servants had discovered Adam's hiding place.

"Blast!" Adam cursed as he turned back to his ex-fiancée. "Amandine, I need to find Belle. She's leaving Villeneuve today, and if I don't act now, I'll lose her forever. That book is the only way I can get to her."

Amandine lowered her eyes. "What do you want me to do?"

"Distract my servants. When they come in, tell them that you never saw me. Convince them that I was never here."

She bit her lip, nodded compliantly and passed the book to him.

As Amandine headed to the library doors to meet the servants, Adam flipped to the book's map and set it on the nearest table. He paused before putting his hand on the page, lost in thought.

He knew that the book could easily transport him to Villeneuve if he asked it to. But then? It wasn't like he could magically earn Belle's trust again, not after the poor choice of words he'd used with her at the ball last night. And revealing his real reasons for wanting her to stay at the castle would only frighten her more.

What he really needed was a clean slate. A chance to win Belle's favour without the social pressures and bad decisions he'd made in this timeline. But how? All he knew was that the book could take him back to events he had a strong emotional connection to, as long as they were events that had occurred in this timeline. Meaning, that if he wanted another chance to be with Belle, he'd have to change another part of his past. Something that had happened before the Enchantress's arrival and would guarantee that he'd still be human and still have access to her.

It was a tall order to fill; not to mention the risks involved. But if it meant seeing Belle again, it was worth it. Compelled by this idea, Adam closed his eyes and searched his past for a suitable memory. Despite having twenty-one years of experiences to explore, he found himself focusing on one particular conversation from yesterday's rehearsal.

"He had the makings of a fine prodigy. He may have even rivalled the likes of Mozart himself, had he applied himself."

"You exaggerate, Mère. I was… an adequate player at best."

It was all coming back to him now. He saw himself playing a piece by Handel on the harpsichord, the sheet music growing blurrier and blurrier with every mistake he made. He saw his father's angry face leering down at him as he knocked over his prized chessboard, the pieces scattering in all directions across the floor...

A clicking noise, followed by the sound of a key turning in a lock startled Adam back into the present. The servants would be here any second, and he only had one memory to work with. It wasn't exactly a happy memory, but it was better than nothing.

He placed his hand on the book and let its magic pull him into that realm of flickering suns and stars once again.

When he was back on solid ground, the Prince found himself standing outside the entrance to the bedchambers he used to dwell in before he'd inherited the West Wing. A quick glance out a nearby window told him that it was almost sundown. The sky was orange-tinged, and there were long shadows of shrubs and trees scattered across the grounds.

"I just don't know what we're going to do with you, boy," said an angry voice coming from inside his room. A voice Adam knew all but too well, even after eight years. "Your performance this afternoon was absolutely pathetic. The Comte and Comtesse de Maillard thought you were ill, you played so poorly! Do you have any idea how humiliating it is, to know that my own son is incapable of playing a simple movement from one of the greatest composers of the century?"

"I'm sorry, Père." That was the voice of Adam at age thirteen. Even hearing his younger self was a surreal experience for the present-day Prince. He hadn't really talked that way back then, had he? "I practiced the Allegro with Maestro Cadenza all week, I swear! But seeing all those people watching me, it made me nervous."

"That's no excuse," his father replied dismissively. "A true prince always knows how to keep up appearances, no matter the circumstances. He always maintains an air of constraint and discipline around his subjects. That means showing no fear, no emotions!"

"No emotions?" the young Prince repeated, sniffling. "Then to be a prince is to not be human?"

"Silence!" barked the King. This was followed by a sharp slapping noise, and a grunt of pain coming from the young Prince. His father must have struck him in the back of his head or on the cheek… Adam couldn't remember now.

But he did remember this conversation, despite it happening half a lifetime ago. It had occurred a few weeks after his mother's funeral when the flowers were still growing over her grave and her loss was still fresh in the young Prince's mind. His father had invited some of his favourite nobles to the castle for an afternoon soirée, forcing Adam to be their entertainment. It was a day that was destined to end in utter disaster.

"Look at you, crying like some miserable, suckling babe," his father continued disgustedly. "You're thirteen years old for goodness sake! Monsieur Dupré tells me you haven't been paying attention to your etiquette lessons lately either. What good is spending all that money learning court mannerisms and social protocol if you can't even stand up straight? Are you even listening to me? Look at me when I'm talking to you, Thomas."

The young Prince muttered something that Adam couldn't hear. The King must have missed it too, for he asked, "What did you say to me?"

"I said, my name is Adam, not Thomas," the young Prince repeated. "I never wanted your stupid name."

BANG! That was his father knocking over the chess table. And that clinking noise was the sound of thirty-two chess pieces rolling across the floor.

And now came the worst part of all. Adam didn't have to be in the room to see it; his father's ugly face bearing down on him, full of hatred and rage. He'd seen his father angry many times before, but never like this.

"How dare you!" the King growled.

"I-I'm sorry!" the young Prince stuttered back.

"No son of mine will ever use that language with me!"

"I didn't mean it! I swear!"

"It's all your damn mother's fault, making you all soft and undisciplined. Well, it's high time I show you what happens when you don't respect your elders!"

Adam's heart beat wildly in his chest. He knew exactly what happened next. He'd tried to make a run for the doors, but it was no use. His father had blocked the exit, and he was so much bigger and stronger than him. In what seemed no time at all, he grabbed him aggressively by the shoulder and pinned him against the wall, his arm outstretched as his open hand came flying towards him…

It was one thing for the Prince to experience what had happened in that room thirteen years ago. And another for him to hear it: flesh hitting against flesh followed by agonizing, blood-curdling screams. It was an inhuman sound, one that rattled him to the core and left him paralyzed with fear. This was where it all began, he thought, the sharp insults, the letdowns, the senseless abuse; everything that shaped him into that… loathsome form the Enchantress had condemned him to for all eternity.

But this time, he didn't have to be the helpless child at his father's mercy. He was a grown man with the power to stop what was happening in that room. Armed with this knowledge, Adam clenched his teeth and forced himself towards the doors. He didn't know what his action plan was exactly… only that he had to do something. His hand hovered over the doorknob, blood pounding loudly in his ears…

"No, Lumière! Wait!" Cogsworth shouted.

Adam recoiled with a start. He hadn't realized that the servants could hear his younger self's cries, too. Nor did he know what the consequences would be if they saw him standing out here; an unfamiliar aristocrat, dressed far too formally to be attending a small dinner party. Instinct told him that it would be unwise to find out.

There were footsteps coming around the corner. Adam frantically searched the remaining length of the corridor for a quick getaway. A tapestry of his family coat of arms hung to his right-hand side. It wasn't big enough to conceal all of him, but it would suffice. He hid behind it, mere moments before the footsteps loudened and stopped in front of his bedchambers.

"Lumière, wait!" Cogsworth shouted again. He was grunting and panting heavily as though he and the maître d' were in the middle of a scuffle. "Don't go in there!"

"But Cogsworth," Lumière retorted, "he's hurting Master Adam!"

"And you're about to lose your job," Cogsworth said sharply. "It's not our place to interfere with the Master's disciplinary methods, no matter how much we disagree with them."

"Do you not hear what he's doing to him?" Lumière countered. "If we don't act now, the boy could end up incapacitated or grow ill just like his mother!"

"I'm sure it won't come to that," Cogsworth replied, though his tone of voice betrayed a hint of uncertainty. "Come. Let's go to the kitchens and see how Chef Cuisinier is making out with tonight's dinner. The Master will be down to eat with his guests soon. You know that he doesn't like to be kept waiting."

"If you say so, mon ami," Lumiere said reluctantly.

It wasn't until the servants' footfalls had died away that Adam released the breath he'd been holding. He'd suddenly remembered something he'd overheard Mrs. Potts saying in the old timeline: "When the Master lost his mother and his cruel father took that sweet, innocent lad and twisted him up to be just like him, we did nothing."

Yes, the Beast had been awake when Mrs. Potts had shared his tragic backstory with Belle in the West Wing. Normally he would have been furious that she'd disclosed such sensitive information without his permission, but instead, he'd felt relief. At least he didn't have to worry about revealing the sob story to the girl himself now. And given that Belle had already seen his torn family portrait, she'd probably jumped to her own conclusions on why he'd damaged it anyway. Mrs. Potts had got one small detail wrong however and that was her confessing her guilt over doing nothing to stop his father's abuse. For what power did a group of servants have against their own master; a man who could fire them all at a moment's notice or execute them for challenging his authority? No, this wasn't the servants' fault at all. Adam could never blame them for choosing silence over his own well-being.

Less than a minute after Lumière and Cogsworth's departure, the doors to the bedchambers opened. The Prince peered out from the tapestry to see his father, donned in his classic black wig and suit, walk in the opposite direction of his hiding place. A turmoil of emotions washed over Adam as he watched him; fear and anger being the strongest of all. He didn't know what he wanted to do more: beat the living daylights out of him or strangle him. Still, he waited until the King had disappeared behind the corner before slipping out from behind the tapestry and returning to the bedchamber doors.

Inside the room, young Prince Adam was crying. He would continue to do so until he'd fallen asleep. Adam wished he could say something to himself before then, but what? It wasn't like he could offer him some Mrs. Potts-worthy words of wisdom to cushion him from the years of misery he'd face at his father's hands. And a visit from his future self was more likely to frighten his younger self than comfort him. No, if the Prince really wanted to end the abuse, he'd have to attack it at its source. He was going to face the man he hated and feared most of all: his father.

For once, Adam was glad that the King used to follow such a rigid schedule in life because it made it easy for him to determine the best places to catch him alone, and at what times. His dinner with the nobles would take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half. After that, he would retreat to his study for the evening to answer some letters from his correspondents. It was in that room where Adam had the best chance of confronting him.

A secret passage near his old bedchambers allowed Adam to bypass a large section of the castle without being seen. Even when he had to sneak through the main corridors again, he was surprised to find the place deserted, with no guards or servants in sight. Perhaps everyone was too busy tending to his father's dinner party downstairs. Or perhaps they just happened to be working in another part of the castle at the same time he was sneaking to the study. Whatever the reasons, Adam was grateful for the added convenience it provided him.

At last, he reached the doors to his father's bureau. He twisted the doorknobs earnestly, only to realize that the room was locked. Damn. He thought. What am I supposed to do now? Skip the study and try sneaking up on him in the West Wing? But then he remembered that he had the magic book with him and kicked himself for being so daft. Of course! He put his hand on the map, conjured a mental image of the office, and seconds later, found himself standing on the other side of the entryway.

Like all the things he'd possessed in life, King Louis-Thomas's study was a place he'd took great pride in maintaining and showing off to his visitors at any opportunity. Tall vertical shelves covered the walls, filled with costly knickknacks, small marble busts of deceased ancestors and books by various French philosophers and historians. To the left was a fireplace, which was already lit in anticipation of the King's arrival. On the mantelpiece was a small clock, and on the wall above it was a portrait of Adam's grandfather, Alexandre-Benoît, who regarded his grandson with a judgemental scowl. As a small child, Adam remembered asking his father why their ancestors never smiled in their portraits, to which his response was that no one would take them seriously if they did, and to stop wasting his time with silly questions. No silly questions—that was the key to a maintaining a peaceful relationship with his father back then.

The right side of the office was decorated with a Persian carpet that the King had purchased from a foreign merchant before Adam was born. On this carpet sat an armchair with a gold-painted frame and a writing desk covered with papers. Knowing that he had some time to kill before his father arrived, Adam walked to the desk to take a closer look at its contents. Most of it was fairly uninteresting: letters from distant kingdoms and invoices from places the King had done business with, but one item did stand out from the lot. It was a small portrait of his mother. I've seen this portrait before, Adam thought as he pulled it from the pile intriguingly.

It was an engagement portrait, one that Adam's maternal grandparents had sent to his father shortly after his betrothal, so he could see what his future spouse looked like. Henriette was in the prime of her life then, her cheeks rosy and her golden hair curled into luscious ringlets that stopped just short of her collarbones. Adam remembered looking at this portrait with his mother once and telling her how beautiful she'd looked, to which her response was to laugh and say that beauty didn't pay if it meant sitting in the same uncomfortable position for hours. He didn't understand her words at the time, but now, after spending half of his life being forcefully groomed in the same manner, he did.

Why did my father keep it? he wondered. Since his mother's death, he'd always acted as though she'd never existed. This portrait seemed to suggest otherwise.

As Adam set the painting back on the desk, his foot struck against something hard sitting on the floor. He looked down to see a half-finished bottle of whisky rocking in the space between the desk and the wall. There was another bottle next to it. Three, four, five, six... Adam counted at least a dozen whisky bottles in various states of emptiness behind his father's desk. He creased his brows in disbelief. He'd always thought of his father's study as a place both prestigious and clean, the image of a king who had all his affairs in order. Little did he know that his father had been putting on a show for him all this time. This was not the room of a proud king, but a broken man.

The search for cracks in Louis-Thomas's perfect life continued. Adam combed through the drawers of his writing desk next. The first drawer contained nothing but some spare parchment and writing utensils, but the second drawer contained a dagger. Père always liked to keep a weapon close by in case of an attack, he recalled. Too bad the tables are turning on him now. He carefully picked up the blade and tucked it into his jacket pocket.

The next item of interest was a letter. But this one was different from the others on the desk because it had Adam's name in it. He picked it up curiously and read:

To His Most Excellent Majesty, King Louis-Thomas Antoine de Bauffremont,

May it please Your Majesty,

To permit your brother-in-law, His Grace, Jean-Christophe Étienne de Breil de Pontbriand, Duke of Pré-sur-bois, to speak on the subject of your son, Prince Thomas-Alexandre Adam. With utmost respect for your mourning period for my beloved sister, I wish to remind you again of the offer I extended to you at her funeral regarding Thomas-Alexandre's future guardianship. Rest assured that my intent was not to question your capabilities as his father, but to offer you an alternate means of raising the boy, should you find the process too overwhelming on top of your many royal commitments.

I am confident that Thomas-Alexandre will be well taken care of, should you choose to send him to live with me and my family in Pré-sur-bois. My son and daughter, Vincent and Léa, are very fond of his company, having greatly enjoyed visiting him at the Château de la Rose in the summers when they were children. They see him as a brother-figure and would be more than happy to welcome him into our household pending your decision.

As you are aware, my estate is less than a day's journey from Paris, which is home to the Sorbonne, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in France. My son Vincent will be attending the school next semester and would be happy to have a companion join him in his studies. Should Thomas-Alexandre decide to pursue the life of a scholar at the university, he will learn not only the same curriculum he would have learned from his tutors but receive a more rounded education in all areas of the humanities. He will be more than prepared to run the kingdom once he becomes of age, a notion that I'm certain you will find most agreeable.

I implore you to respond to my letter at your earliest convenience. However, if it is still your intent to raise Thomas-Alexandre on your own, then no further action is required, and I will cease any and all further communications on the subject.

I wish His Majesty long life and happiness,

His Grace, Jean-Christophe Étienne de Breil de Pontbriand, Duke of Pré-sur-bois

It took some time for Adam to register that the letter he held in his hand was real. He'd never known that his uncle had written letters to his father after his mother's death. Or rather, he'd never known because his father had never told him.

Christophe was Henriette's older brother and Adam's uncle by blood. Like his late sister, he had a warm and gentle disposition that the Prince felt was sorely lacking in his own father. He used to visit the castle every summer with his family; Adam vaguely remembered playing games with his cousins in the grounds when they were small children. That was back when his mother was still in good health and his days were filled with sunshine and laughter. But then Henriette passed away, Adam's days in the sun faded to nothingness, and his uncle's family stopped visiting him. He'd always assumed they'd wanted nothing to do with him after his mother's death. But was it possible that his father had wanted him to think that way this entire time?

The sound of a key turning in the door startled Adam from his thoughts. He hastily stuffed the letter back into the drawer, shut it and pressed himself against the wall beside the door frame. Moments later, the door opened and in walked the oblivious King. Adam's body filled with adrenaline as he drew the dagger from his jacket, waiting until the door had shut before speaking.

"Against the wall. If you make so much as a cry for help, I'll slit your throat."

King Louis-Thomas turned around with his start. His blue eyes bulged in their sockets as he caught sight of the intruder standing by the door with a dagger in hand. Not so tough when you're up against someone your own size now, are you? Adam thought with a satisfied smirk.

Dumbstruck, the King held up his hands and pressed himself against the wall. The Prince followed him across the room with the blade pointed firmly at his neck.

"Wh-who are you?" the King stammered. "What do you want?" He briefly took in the stranger's lavish outfit and his eyes grew even bigger. If Adam was a ruffian who planned on holding him hostage or stealing his valuables, he certainly didn't look like the part.

"Let's just say that I'm a messenger," Adam growled. "And I've come here tonight bearing grave tidings from the future. Your son is in danger. With every passing day, he grows closer and closer to eternal damnation. And it's all your doing." His voice began to shake. "What kind of sick person harms his own flesh and blood? You'll only hurt and frighten him, and to what end? By the time he comes of age, you'll have turned a perfectly sweet and innocent boy into a vile, irredeemable monster. He'll become a prisoner of his own castle, all thanks to you."

"Thomas-Alexandre is weak," his father replied bitterly. "He's overly sentimental, unmanly and impulsive. I can't have him wearing his heart on his sleeve when he inherits the throne. He needs to learn self-control, or he will never be a good ruler."

"He can be a far better ruler if he knows love!" Adam argued, choking back angry tears. "Since his mother passed away, the only things he knows are your curt remarks and the back of your hand. All that will teach him is to be cold and unfeeling. So cold that by the time he inherits the throne, he'll have no compassion for anyone—not for the ones who care about him, and not for the ones who need him the most. And do you know what the worst part is?" He inched the dagger closer to his father. "All those years of your bloody 'tutelage' will mean nothing, because by the time your boy sees the error of his ways, it will be too late for repentance. He will commit a crime so heinous, that by the time he can pick up the pieces, no one will even remember his name. He will die alone, anonymous and invisible to the world. And once he realizes this truth, your name will be the first he curses."

Louis-Thomas's mouth dropped open in horror. But whether it was for his son's bleak future, or for inadvertently bringing about the death of his own legacy, Adam didn't know or care.

"What must I do?" he asked him quietly.

"You have two options," Adam replied. "Number one: Treat your son the way a loving father should, not as a cold tyrant. You're all he has now. Comfort him when he grieves for his mother, don't condemn him. Or if you don't have the heart to do that, then why not send him to people who will? Let him stay with your brother-in-law for a few years. He can go to school in Paris and get an even better education than he'll get from Monsieur Dupré. Then, once he turns eighteen, he can move back here, and you can teach him all he needs to know to take over the throne. Think of what your wife would want."

The King didn't respond at first. His attention had shifted to Adam's eyes. His mouth dropped open again in realization. "Thomas?"

The Prince glowered. "My name is Adam, you filth!" he shouted. Then, he punched his father squarely in the face. Louis-Thomas let out a grunt of pain and crumpled to the ground, clutching at his nose in agony. When he pulled his hands away, he was shocked to find them stained with blood. Serves him right, thought the Prince. Hopefully his blood permanently stains the carpet, so he won't forget what happened here.

"And believe me, if you ruin my life again, I have my ways of returning," he threatened. "I'll come back and kill you in your sleep. Meditate on that the next time you're in this room, drinking away your sorrows, Père."

With that, he chucked the dagger into the floor so that it was mere inches away from slicing into the side of his father's head. The King barely flinched at the attack. He seemed to have forgotten how to move he was so shocked.

"Lord Almighty Jesus Christ," he muttered, eyes wide and unbelieving. "What have I done? What have I done?"

His repetitive muttering made Adam feel vaguely uncomfortable, so he exited the room, taking the magic book along with him.

So maybe I acted a bit harshly, he thought as he stood in the hallway and turned to the page of the map, but it's nothing he doesn't deserve. One punch to the face was nothing compared to the hell his father had put him through for five years. And if it meant that he'd saved his thirteen-year-old self from years of abuse, then it was worth it. For without his father's cruel influence, Adam was certain that he would live a better life, one where he could be a decent man and pursue a proper relationship with Belle…

Hoping for all these things and more, the Prince placed his hand on the map, closed his eyes and thought of the present.

Chapter Text

Adam awoke to find himself warmly nestled under the blankets of his bed in the West Wing. He was momentarily confused; having no memory of going back to sleep, before the day's earlier events came rushing back: travelling back in time to when he was thirteen, confronting and punching his father in the face, saving his younger self from years of needless suffering…

As he recalled these things, an image of the King; bloody-nosed, mortified and muttering to himself on the floor appeared in Adam's mind's eye. At first, he'd felt uncomfortable to see his father so vulnerable after punching him, but now he felt surprised and strangely, sad. Does that mean I pity him? he wondered. He quickly banished the thought. He refused to feel any pity for the man who had single-handedly destroyed his childhood. The man deserved what he got, and Adam had no reason to dwell on the matter.

Putting his thoughts of his father behind him, the Prince stretched his limbs and rolled to his side, content to spend a few minutes enjoying the warmth of his bed before getting up and acclimatizing himself to this new reality. But as he peered over the mattress, he noticed something strange lying on the floor. It was a frilly black and white dress… and not far from that, an assortment of ladies' undergarments.

His eyes widened in shock. That isn't supposed to be there.

Now wide awake, Adam turned to the other side of the bed to see a tuft of frizzy black hair sticking out from the blankets. Is someone… in the bed with me? He pulled away the covers to find a woman with dark skin, thin brown eyebrows and full pink lips sleeping on the other side of the mattress. He recognized this woman. She was...

"Oh!" Adam shouted in alarm. He jerked away from the sleeper so fast that he fell straight off the bed. If his bedmate hadn't been woken by his shout, then she would have most definitely been woken by the loud "thud" sound he made as he hit the ground. Sure enough, as the Prince fought to free himself from his blankets, he heard the bed creaking, followed by a mellow voice asking, "Maître? Are you alright?"

After a moment's struggle, the Prince succeeded in pulling the blankets off his head. Peering down at him from the mattress, with an expression of utmost concern, was Plumette, the former castle feather duster and Lumière's longtime sweetheart.

"P-Plumette?" the Prince stammered as he gaped at her in disbelief.

"Plumette?" The maid scrunched up her face in confusion. "Why, no one's called me by that name since I was a little girl. My name is Babette, Your Highness."

"Oh. Well, then… Babette." It suddenly dawned on the Prince that he wasn't wearing any clothes. He hastily gathered up his blankets to cover up his nether regions, while hotly embarrassed that his maid had probably seen everything already. "What are you doing here?" In bed? With me?

Babette tilted her head in confusion. "You asked for me last night? After the dinner party?"

"I did?" He blinked. "I mean, of course I did! And Lumière agreed to such an arrangement?"

"Lumière?" She frowned. Then, her eyes lit up with recognition. "Ah oui, Lumière, the old maître d'hôtel! He stopped working here years ago. Why would he need to agree with me staying with you?"

"No reason," Adam replied. But internally, he couldn't shake the feeling that something was very wrong with this picture. Lumière no longer worked at the castle, and from the sound of it, Plumette—who now called herself Babette—was the Prince's courtesan; a position he'd never forced on any of his servants before, even when he was at his most selfish.

"Perhaps you hurt your head when you fell," Babette said, pursing her lips thoughtfully. "Shall I send for the physician?"

"Oh no no no,"—he shook his head dismissively—"that won't be necessary. Just a bad dream, that's all. Where are my clothes?"

Babette gestured to a pile of crumpled garments lying in front of the bed. Among them was a lilac-coloured dinner jacket. Adam grimaced, wondering what would possess him to wear such a repulsive colour, but reminded himself that anything was better than wearing nothing right now. He crawled over to put on the clothes, Babette's uneasy gaze following him the entire time.

He had just finished getting dressed when he heard a knock on the door. Happy to distract himself, as Babette was starting to make him feel very uncomfortable, he got up to answer it. On the other side of the doorway stood a portly man with a wide chin and dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. He was dressed as a servant, and although he seemed familiar to Adam, he couldn't recall seeing him in the castle before.

"Good morning, Master!" the servant said with a loud and buoyant-sounding voice. "You're looking considerably bewildered and bedraggled on this fine Wednesday morning."

"You." Now Adam knew why this man was so familiar. "You were with that soldier when he proposed marriage to Belle back in Villeneuve. What on earth are you doing here?"

"Hmm... well I think someone had a bit too much Chardonnay to drink last night," the servant replied, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "Allow me to introduce—or should I say, reintroduce myself. My name's Yannick LeFou and I'm your maître d', remember?" He emphasized every word slowly like he was speaking to a small child. "Can I get you anything? Some breakfast? Tea for you and the mistress?"

Utterly exasperated and unsure of how to respond, Adam shut and backed himself against the door. What the devil is going on? He'd expected to encounter a few differences from altering the past, but he hadn't expected things to change this much.

LeFou knocked on the door again. "Um… also, your uncle's waiting for you in your study," he added hesitantly. "He'd like a word with you… sometime today preferably."

Adam barely had time to process this new information before he sensed movement coming from the bed. He looked up and let out a startled shout. Babette had just rose from the blankets, exposing more of her female anatomy to him than he'd ever cared to see before.

"Good lord!" he exclaimed, turning away and placing a hand next to the side of his face in sheer mortification. "Put some clothes on. Please."

"Bien sûr Maître!" Babette replied. She darted around the bed to retrieve her dress and underclothes without a moment's hesitation.

Adam didn't know what he wanted to do more: vomit into the closest chamber pot or summon Chapeau to draw him a bath. Most likely vomit first.

One very confusing half-hour later, Adam found himself sitting in his study, across from a now middle-aged Uncle Christophe, who appeared to be very unhappy with his only nephew. It was difficult for Adam to understand why, due to the fragmented nature of his uncle's rambling, but from what he gathered, he'd partaken in some reckless drinking the week before that had got him into serious trouble. Christophe had sent Adam to Germany to meet with the Queen of Eisenten, who owned a plot of uncleared land near the French-Germany border. Adam was supposed to explain to the Queen his reasons for needing her land and to negotiate the terms of its ownership. Instead, he'd gotten extremely drunk at dinnertime, spending the evening making inappropriate comments at his hosts and flirting with the Queen's daughter, well aware that she was already engaged to someone else. Needless to say, the Queen was not impressed. The negotiations for her land never took place.

"It serves me right for letting you go to Germany unchaperoned," said Christophe, putting a hand over his face exasperatingly. "Here it was, a perfect opportunity for you to finally do something to benefit the kingdom, and you couldn't even do that right! When are you going to stop acting like a child and start taking your responsibilities seriously? You're a prince of France for goodness sake, not a silly drunkard!"

"You're right, Oncle."

The Duke looked up at his nephew in surprise. "What did you say?"

Adam shrugged. "You've articulated your points clearly enough. I should focus on establishing a good rapport with our neighbouring kingdoms, not on superficial things like drinking and flirting with young women. The display I made back in Germany was disgraceful, uncouth and completely disrespectful of my hosts, whom I'm sure put a great deal of time and effort into welcoming me to their kingdom. In fact, I intend to write a letter to Queen Wilhelmine today, expressing my sincerest apologies and to ask her for a second chance to discuss an agreement for the ownership of her land."

Christophe's mouth hung open in shock. "Who are you, and what have you done with my nephew? You know what? Don't bother answering that question. I don't want to know! As it happens, Queen Wilhelmine will be visiting Versailles next week for the Emperor's birthday celebration. You'll have one more chance to smooth things over with her then, provided that she's willing to speak with you again first."

"Then I will ensure my next impression on her will be better than my first," Adam declared.

"And I'll eat my hat when that happens," the Duke replied sarcastically. "LeFou!" He gestured to the maître d', who was standing diligently by the bureau door. "Summon my carriage for me, please. Pré-de-bois awaits."

"Your wish is my command, Your Grace," LeFou replied with a bow.

"LeFou?" Adam quickly added. "Would you ready my horse for me as well?"

LeFou gave his master a quizzical look. "But what about your meeting with the Comte de Crevoisier? He'll be arriving at the castle in less than an hour."

"Tell him to wait," Adam replied dismissively. "I have urgent business with an artisan in Villeneuve regarding… a new commission for the castle. I must get there with all possible haste."

"And since when have you had any interest in doing business with your subjects?" Christophe inquired, who now looked just as surprised as LeFou. "The last time we spoke, you said that they reminded you of 'unintelligent pigs who roll in the muck all day, unaware of their own filth.'"

"I do partake in things outside of excessive drinking and complaining about the cleanliness of my subjects, you know," the Prince replied dryly.

LeFou let out a loud guffaw, then silenced himself upon seeing Christophe's dumbstruck expression. After a moment, the Duke rolled his eyes and shook his head.

"Keep an eye on my nephew, will you LeFou?" he said as he rose to his feet.

"For you, Your Grace, I will keep two eyes open."

The Duke pat LeFou on the shoulder and exited the room.

Meanwhile, Adam leaned back in his seat and sighed in relief. There was obviously some new history between him and his uncle in this timeline that he hadn't uncovered yetbut he'd look into that later. Right now, finding Belle was his top priority.

The journey to Villeneuve seemed to take forever. A part of Adam wondered if it would have been safer to go by carriage instead of horseback. But at the same time, he wasn't in the mood to be drawing unwanted attention to himself and riding alone would be quicker than riding with a driver anyway.

Upon reaching the village square, the Prince realized that he had no idea where Belle's house was. He'd been so engrossed in their conversation the last time he'd been here, he hadn't thought of memorizing its location in case he needed to find her in the future. Too embarrassed and proud to ask the villagers for help, he decided to retrace his steps by leading his horse in the general area he last remembered walking with her.

Several wrong turns and backtracks later, he finally came across the tired-looking house at the edge of the town.

But it was different now. The doors and windows were boarded up by wooden planks. There were shingles missing from the roof. The front garden, which was previously filled with fresh green cabbages, was now barren and empty. All clear indicators that no one had lived here in a long time. Adam's stomach lurched unpleasantly. If Belle doesn't live here anymore, then where is she?

He heard a peal of laughter and turned to see Gaston walking with his arm draped over a dark-haired woman in a frilly pink dress and bonnet. Looking more closely at the woman, Adam noticed that she had a powdered face, pink cheeks and dark red lipstick, making her resemble more of a doll than a human being. Adam fidgeted with his hands nervously. He couldn't say that he was terribly fond of Gaston since he'd seen him trying to kiss Belle back at the chapel. But at the same time, he was probably the only person in his vicinity to know anything about her whereabouts. He swallowed his pride and approached the party apprehensively.

"You there! Monsieur... Légume, was it?"

"Your Highness!" Upon seeing the Prince, Gaston stooped himself down into a low bow, forcing the woman to do the same. "It's such an honour to have you in our village. How do you know my name?"

"Well, you have to know these things when you're a prince, you know."

"What's my name, Your Highness?" said Gaston's partner, taking a step towards Adam and gazing at him with wide eyes.

"Umm…" Adam wrinkled his nose. "Marie?"

The woman gasped. "Gaston, he really does know everything!"

"Indeed. How may we be of service to you, Your Highness?" Gaston asked jovially. "Is there a traitor running loose in the kingdom? Is our country on the brink of war with the British? I don't mean to brag, but I served as a legendary captain in the war against the Portuguese twelve years ago. I would be more than willing to serve and fight against any fiends who may be a threat to our kingdom's safety."

"While I greatly appreciate your past contributions to defending France, I'm afraid that that war is not what I've come here to discuss," Adam replied awkwardly. "I'm looking for information on the whereabouts of a Maurice and Belle Gagnier who used to live in the house behind me. Do you have any idea what happened to them?"

"Maurice?" Gaston raised an eyebrow. "He passed away over a year ago. He's buried in the cemetery behind the church. And as to his daughter Belle, well who knows what happened to her? She left town a few months after her father's funeral and no one's heard of her since. A pity, too." He frowned. "She was such a pretty thing. I proposed to her many times, telling her how our marriage would save her from a life of spinsterhood and homelessness, but the stubborn girl kept refusing me."

Marie cleared her throat.

"Um, but of course, her beauty could never compare to my darling Marie-Élise's," Gaston added, turning to his companion tactfully. "She is the true love of my life. The only one worthy of being my wife and bearing my future children."

"Oh, Gaston." Marie-Élise giggled. "You flatter me."

"Come here mon petit chou." Gaston grabbed Marie-Élise's hand and trailed several kisses down the side of her arm, eliciting more delighted giggles from the young woman.

Not wanting their flirtations to become more awkward than they already were, Adam quickly asked, "Do either of you happen to know where she went?"

"Ah, yes," Gaston replied, releasing Marie-Élise's arm. "I believe it was to—what was the name of that town again...? It started with an 'R.'"

"Rabelais?" Marie-Élise suggested.

"That's the one! Last I heard, Belle had gone there to work for a carpenter or someone of that nature. Never did catch the name, unfortunately."

"Carpentry is a filthy occupation if you ask me," said Marie-Élise, crossing her arms distastefully. "But then again, that girl never seemed to act the way a proper lady should. She was always walking around town with her nose stuck in a book or building the most unsightly-looking machines. Villeneuve's been a much better place without her."

"Thank you both for your information," Adam said with a curt nod. "I'm afraid I must be on my way now."

"Wait, Your Highness?" Gaston said before he took off. "If you ever find yourself in need of a new captain of the guard for your castle, I would be more than happy to oblige you!"

It took every ounce of Adam's self-control to not roll his eyes. "Thank you," he replied. "I will send word if there's ever a need." Hopefully never!

After parting ways with Gaston and Marie-Élise, Adam walked his horse to the open field behind Belle's old house, thinking about everything he'd just learned about. He immediately felt a deep sense of pity for Belle, knowing that she had lost her father in this universe. While he knew little of the man himself, he did know that Belle thought the world of him. If losing Maurice to eternal imprisonment was painful enough, then losing him forever must have been utterly unbearable.

At the same time, Adam was glad that Belle hadn't let her father's death stop her from pursuing her passions. Perhaps she was in the middle of designing the world's next great invention right now or travelling the world to see all the places she'd read about in her books. He wished he could know for certain, but Rabelais was a big city with many different carpenters. Without knowing the exact name of the carpenter who had apprenticed Belle, it could be ages before he could track down her whereabouts.

If only I still had the mirror, he thought regretfully. If he did, all he'd have to do was ask it to show him Belle, and he could piece together enough clues from her reflection to find her current location.

But while he didn't have the mirror anymore, he did have the book. He looked pensively out at the green pasture in front of him.

He had never used the book to transport him to a person before. Come to think of it, he couldn't remember if the Enchantress had ever said that he couldn't use it for that purpose. All he remembered her saying to him was that the book could transport him to wherever his heart desired. What if that rule didn't just apply to times and places, but to living things too?

Curious to know if there was any truth to his speculating, Adam retrieved the magic book from his horse's saddlebags and turned to the page of the map (He'd moved the book there for safekeeping after finding it wrapped in his blankets that morning). Then, realizing that it would be unwise to leave an expensive horse in the middle of a field while he magicked himself to Belle's location, he turned to his steed and put a hand on his neck.

"Sorry, Magnifique," he apologized sheepishly. "This might get a little... strange."

He conjured a mental picture of Belle as she'd looked at last night's ball, dressed in her blue Sunday dress with her hair pinned behind her head. Almost immediately, starlight bled from his fingertips on to the map, and then the world began to spin rapidly…

When the spinning stopped, and Adam could see clearly again, he and Magnifique were on the empty outskirts of a large city. Beside them was a dirt road that led to a cluster of tall buildings. Across from the road was a small, three-storey structure with the words "La Bouteille Bon Marché" painted in faded gold letters above the entrance.

Adam furrowed his brows in confusion. The book hadn't taken him to a carpenter's shop as he'd expected it would. It had taken him to a tavern.

Why would the book bring me here? Belle didn't strike him as the kind of person to engage in the rowdy activities that went on in these establishments. Maybe she was meeting someone inside? Or maybe she was travelling, and this tavern was a side stop to some bigger, more important destination?

There was only one way to find out. Adam left his bewildered horse in the stables beside the tavern and headed inside.

A strong smell of tobacco and ale reached his nose as he passed through the front doors. He was in a dimly-lit room with a counter on one side and a staircase leading to the upper floors on the other. As it was still early in the day, there were only a handful of patrons sitting and conversing with each other at the tables. Their chatter immediately died down upon seeing the Prince, who stood out like a sore thumb in his overly expensive attire. He flashed them an awkward smile to break the tension. If Belle really was somewhere in this tavern, he hoped that she wasn't planning to stay long.

"Why good morning Your Highness!" said a cheerful-sounding voice. A middle-aged woman with flyaway blonde hair and a tray of beer tankards approached him. "What a pleasure to see you in our tavern! My name is Madame Lefevre and I'm the co-owner of this fine establishment. How may I help you today? If it's a drink you're craving, may I recommend the Hefeweizen? It's a nice and refreshing beer imported straight from Germany."

"Thank you, Madame Lefevre," Adam replied courteously. "If it's not too much trouble, I would like a private word with someone in this building. Her name is Belle Gagnier."

Madame Lefevre seemed to know exactly who Adam was talking about, because she turned to the back of the tavern and shouted, "Oi, Belle! Viens ici!"

A barmaid scrubbing a table at the far side of the room lifted her head curiously. It took a moment for Adam's eyes to adjust to the shadows so he could see her face clearly. His jaw dropped.

It was Belle.

Only she didn't look like Belle anymore. Her dull, greasy hair was tied up into a loose bun, and she was wearing a tightly-fitted salmon pink dress that drew a great deal of attention to her shoulders and cleavage. Her face was pale and gaunt and there were dark circles under her eyes. She looked a lot thinner too, and not in a healthy way.

Upon seeing the Prince, Belle's eyes widened in shock. Then, her expression darkened into something that looked like revulsion.

"Well, I'm not paying you to spend all day gawking about," Madame Lefevre said, staring at her impatiently. "Get your rear end over here before I kick it for you!"

This remark was enough to bring Belle back to her senses. She tucked her washcloth into her apron and walked rigidly to the front of the tavern, hands shaking from where they hung at her sides. This struck Adam as odd. It was normal for his subjects to gape at him whenever he made a public appearance. But Belle seemed to be more afraid of him than fascinated. Why is that?

"Good morning, Mademoiselle Gagnier," he said in an attempt to lighten the mood. "I'm sorry to pull you from your work."

Belle said nothing. Her eyes were fixed on the floor, as though she was waiting for it to swallow her whole.

"Belle!" Madame Lefevre said sharply. "His Royal Highness just said something to you. Aren't you going to respond?"

"Not at all, Your Highness," Belle replied quietly. "It's a great… honour to be in your presence."

"Much better." The landlady smiled approvingly. "Belle, today is your lucky day. Prince Adam is in need of your services. He's requested a private appointment with you."

Belle looked up in alarm. "A what?"

"Are you deaf, girl? This is your job now, whether you like it or not! Now go upstairs and get yourself ready. And don't you worry about finishing the tables. I'll leave Béatrice and Marie-Françoise to take care of them."

"Yes, Madame," Belle replied, though her tightly pursed lips seemed to say that she'd rather do anything else. Still, she curtsied and headed upstairs, letting out several hacking coughs along the way.

"Why do you speak to her so harshly?" Adam asked once she was out of earshot. "She's only a girl."

"A girl she may be, Your Highness, but she still needs to know the ways of our business," Madame Lefevre replied matter-of-factly. "Belle's new to our tavern, see. She's only worked here for a few months and still holds this high and mighty notion that she's better than everyone else. It's all those books she used to read I tell you. That, and not having a mother to raise her and teach her the mannerisms expected of a young lady. If not for her pretty looks bringing in extra customers, I would have sacked her ages ago. But enough with my blabbering." She looked to the stairs. "She's in room number six when you're ready. If she's any trouble at all, just let me know."

The way Madame Lefevre worded her last sentence made Adam wonder how much trouble Belle had had trouble with customers in the past. It was only slightly less disconcerting than knowing that she was having private appointments with themappointments that from the sound of it, went beyond the simple business of cleaning tables and serving them food. 

Adam climbed the stairs and passed through a dingy hallway with a dusty red carpet. Room number six was on the right-hand side. He knocked on the door.

"Come in," Belle called from inside.

Opening the door, Adam found himself in a bedchamber that was even smaller than the crumbling, dusty attic he had explored with Belle back in Paris. Even more shocking than the room's tiny size was the fact that it was devoid of any decorations that would give insight into its owner's personality. There were no books, no sketches, no prototypes of future inventions lying around, nothing that shouted out to him as uniquely "Belle." All there was was a vanity, a bed with unwashed bed sheets, a small window and an open wardrobe containing some battered-looking dresses. It was a room that could belong to any working girl he supposed, but not to her.

"Well, aren't you going to undress?" Belle asked impatiently.

She sat on the bed with her legs crossed. Now that they were alone, she seemed to have no qualms about looking angry again, for reasons Adam still didn't understand.

"I beg your pardon?" he replied.

"Undress?" She cocked an eyebrow. "That's how this works, right? You take your clothes off, you take my clothes off, we do our little 'horizontal dance' in bed until you get bored of me and toss me aside like a used handkerchief? Isn't that how you treat all your whores?"

"I'm not here to bed you," Adam said quietly.

"Really?" There was a flicker of disbelief in her eyes, but then her expression hardened again. "Then... why are you here?"

"Because…" He paused, searching for words and kicking himself for not preparing a good cover story. "I wanted to ask you a question. Which is… how would you like to work for me at my castle?"

Belle crossed her arms, clearly unimpressed with the idea. "Tired of laying with your concubines, so now you have to scour village taverns to find new girls to keep your bed warm? How embarrassing for you."

"This isn't for a job as a… sex worker," Adam replied tactfully. "It's for a job as a librarian. I'm looking for someone with a bright mind and a passion for literature to help me re-organize the books in my library. A… very reliable source told me that you would be perfect for the job."

"A reliable source?" Belle let out a laugh, followed by another series of coughs. "I'm sorry to say, Your Highness, but your sources are running on outdated information. I gave up on believing in fairy tales and that 'adventure in the great wide somewhere' rubbish ages ago, once I realized that it wasn't going to help me put bread on the table."

Adam frowned. He could feel that he was losing her and didn't want to after everything he'd gone through just to find her again in this universe. "Mademoiselle Gagnier, I can assure you that I will double—no quadruple whatever wages Madame Lefevre pays you here," he insisted. "And not only that, but all your meals will be covered as part of your expenses. You'd work with a kind and supportive staff and have comfortable clothes and a proper room."

"It does sound convincing when you put it that way," Belle agreed. "But you've left out one key detail. I'd never serve, so much as live with the man who killed my father."


"Oh, come off it! Are you really that oblivious? Do the words 'horseback riding' and 'old man on the road' ring a bell to you at all?"

"You'll need to... enlighten me."

Belle stood up and paced the floor. "Last June, my father and I were travelling to La Fontaine," she began. "We were going there to sell a prototype for an invention we'd built together, one that would have made us a lot of money. But as we were passing through the woods near your castle, one of our trunks fell out of the wagon. My father walked onto the road to retrieve it. And who should have shown up but you." She looked back at him. "You and that... ruddy cousin of yours, Duke something-or-other. You were both riding your horses at breakneck speeds, right into my father's path. He tried to get out of the way, but he wasn't fast enough. Your horse knocked him over as you rode past him." Her voice grew angry again. "You didn't stop, didn't even look back."

Adam listened in dumbstruck horror as Belle continued to outline the aftermath of his accident with Maurice. He assumed that she either hadn't told anyone this story before, or was looking to get a load off her chest, because her words were vivid and full of detail. The impact of his horse had thrown Belle's father off the road; quite hard it seemed because when she ran to him, he was bleeding badly and could no longer feel his legs. It took her hours to hoist him back into the wagon and rush him back to Villeneuve. By then, she was too late. The doctor took one look at Maurice and told Belle that his injuries were too severe to treat. If he did end up surviving, he would be crippled and in great pain for the rest of his life. Maurice tried to put up a good fight, but despite his efforts, died three days later. Naturally, Belle put all the blame on the Prince.

In the months after her father's death, Belle tried to make money from selling vegetables in her garden and doing odd jobs for her neighbours. But as summer turned to autumn, she realized that she wasn't making nearly enough money to sustain herself. She couldn't even rely on her prototype invention as a source of income anymore, as she had left it in the woods to lighten the wagon when she'd taken her father back to Villeneuve. Gaston had come calling for her many times in this period, trying to convince her to marry him, but she refused. Despite her financial difficulties, she was determined to find another way to provide for herself, one that didn't involve spending the rest of her life with a boorish, brainless man she didn't love.

One day, as Belle was going through a box of her father's possessions, she discovered a letter from his old friend, Alain Monteil, who worked as a carpenter in Rabelais. Belle remembered that Monsieur Monteil often took on apprentices to run his shop and wondered if he would be willing to take her, given his past relationship with Maurice. She sent him a letter, and some weeks later, received one back, saying he would be delighted to have her as an apprentice. Belle was ecstatic. She sold her house, took what few possessions she still owned, and moved to the city.

For the first few months of her apprenticeship, Belle was happy. Monsieur Monteil was a great mentor and was quick to defend her from the more bigoted apprentices at his shop, who believed that carpentry was no place for a young woman. Belle hadn't even worked at the shop for a full season, however, when Monsieur Monteil died from an unexpected heart condition. The shop passed on to his son, who, unlike his father, refused to take on a lady apprentice. Belle was curtly dismissed. Because she had no money to travel back to Villeneuve, she took on another job as a seamstress at a dress shop in town. Only the head seamstress was highly mistrustful of her, and after finding her reading some "unsavoury" literature (which was really just an innocent book of children's stories), declared her unfit to work at her business. Unemployed once more, Belle was left with one last option: working as a barmaid at a tavern on the outskirts of Rabelais.

At first, Belle's responsibilities at La Bouteille Bon Marché were limited to cleaning tables, serving drinks to customers and cooking meals. But once she realized that she was running out of money to cover her apartment rent, she'd pleaded with Madame Lefevre to give her a raise. Instead, the landlady gave her a proposal. She would increase her wages and offer her a room at the tavern if she agreed to engage in sexual favours with customers during her work hours. Belle was revolted. She refused her offer, but as the weeks passed, and the price for her rent increased, realized she had no other option.

Belle did not go into the specifics of what her first sexual encounter was like, but Adam could guess from her facial expressions and body language that it was a horrible experience; one that she desperately wanted to forget. She'd been living and working here ever since; a lowly barmaid-prostitute, barely a shell of the person she used to be.

By the time she had finished her story, Belle was on the brink of tears. "Do you why I had to give up my books and inventions?" she asked him. "Do you know why I have this disgusting job? It's all because of you. Because you didn't stop for my father in the woods."

"I'm sorry," Adam apologized. "I had no idea—"

"Of course you wouldn't!" she snapped. "Have you ever cared about your subjects or seen them as anything more than personal objects? You may look like a prince, but I see right through that stupid façade of yours. All you are is a spoiled and selfish beast. And if my words make you angry, so be it. Drag me to your castle. Make me another one of your sex slaves. Sentence me to death for all I care. I've lost my father and my pride. It won't be much longer before I lose everything else, too."

"I can fix this."

"Really?" She coughed. "How? Can you bring back the dead? Can you turn back time and stop your bloody horse from knocking over my father? I don't think so." She glared at him. "I hate you, Prince Adam. I hate you and I will never forgive you!" With that, she fell to the ground, sobbing loudly as she succumbed to her grief.

Adam slowly approached her, trying to hold in his own despair as he reached down to touch her on the shoulder. But Belle smacked his hand away before he could. "Leave me alone!" she shouted.

His lower lip trembled. "I'm sorry, Mademoiselle." He dropped a bag of coins on her vanity, the sound of her cries still ringing in his ears long after he'd left her room.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, in the hidden heart of France, a handsome young prince lived in a beautiful castle. For most of his childhood, the Prince lived a happy and carefree existence. He had everything his heart desired, spending his days in the company of his devoted servants and his beloved mother, who cherished him more than life itself.

But everything changed in the Prince's thirteenth year when his mother died from an unexpected illness. The young Prince barely had time to come to terms with his grief, when his father decided that his son's childhood had come to an end. He sent him to university to receive the education necessary to become king.

While the Prince looked forward to the opportunities open to him as university student, he was also greatly confused by his present circumstances. He couldn't understand why his father had sent him away so suddenly, whereas before, he'd intended to teach him how to manage the kingdom himself. Perhaps the Prince was being punished for not living up to his father's expectations? Or maybe his father's promise to mentor his son been an empty one, one that had no meaning to him now that his wife was gone?

Determined to prove his worth to the King, the Prince buried himself in his studies, coming top of class in many of his courses. But despite his accomplishments, his father never visited him nor wrote him any letters acknowledging his hard work. As time passed, the Prince eventually lost interest in his academics. He grew increasingly sad and bitter, feeling that his father had abandoned him. While he did have a supporting aunt and uncle to stay with outside of school, he always felt that he was a burden to them and that their reasons for taking him in were more from charity than from wanting another son. They assured him many times that this wasn't the case, but it still wasn't the same as belonging to a real mother and father.

In his fifteen year the Prince began to spend his time with his cousin and a group of schoolmates who enjoyed frequenting the local brothels and taverns in the streets near the university. It was there, outside of his father's watchful eye, that the Prince soon became well-acquainted in the ways of drinking and debauchery. These activities became more than a sport to him; they became a refuge from the years of loneliness, hurt, rejection and loss his parents had given him.

When the King passed away unexpectedly when the Prince was seventeen, he was forced to drop out of university to take over his responsibilities. Only he had no idea where to start. His father had left him with no instructions, no words of wisdom on how to rule a kingdom. Against the advice of his uncle, closest servants, and royal advisors, the Prince chose to revert to the reckless lifestyle he'd led in university, drinking excessively with guests at his castle and taking young women to bed every night. Deep down, he knew that what he was doing was wrong, but had no idea how to improve himself. He was a boy trapped in a man's body, caught in a downward spiral, one that he could not escape from.

Unable to read any further, Adam closed the Enchantress's book and flung himself down on the mattress. Moments later, the doors opened behind him.

"Oh, welcome back, Master!" said the upbeat-sounding voice of Yannick LeFou. "You came back earlier than expected. Did you get what you wanted from Villeneuve?"

When Adam didn't answer, LeFou continued, "Just so you're aware, the Comte de Crevoisier is here to see you. But no pressure or anything. If you want to stay up here for a little longer, I'll tell him you're busy."

The Prince pressed his hands over his eyes and groaned. "I'm a fool," he muttered.

"Begging your pardon?"

"I said, I'm a fool," he repeated. "I'm an overgrown child with paternal issues who's spent the last eleven years drinking and sleeping with women I don't give a damn about. I don't deserve the throne. I'm hardly even deserving of being a prince."

"Alright, this is unexpected," LeFou said perplexedly. "This isn't because of what your uncle said to you this morning, is it? You know you shouldn't take it personally. He's just been under a lot of pressure lately, what with dealing with you and dealing with your cousin back home. I wouldn't be too happy either if I was in his shoes."

"What difference does it make what my uncle said or not?" Adam snapped. "Anyone can see that I'm a despicable, self-absorbed aristocrat who cares nothing about the wellbeing of my people." If Belle had said it herself, then it must have been true.

"Oh, come on, you're not that bad," LeFou said reassuringly. "Besides... I like you."

The Prince cocked an eyebrow. "You… like me?"

"Of course!" He nodded. "I mean, I don't like like you, but as far as princes go, you're the crème de la crème. Just think about it. Some princes spend all their time locked up in their offices, answering letters, talking with heads of state, overseeing regional trials. So boring. But you, you like to throw big parties with lots of music and food. You know exactly how to have fun! That, and you've got a great fashion sense." He subtly gestured to Adam's ugly purple jacket.

Adam failed to see how anything of those things made him better than a prince who actually took his job seriously, but on the upside, at least LeFou had his attention now. "LeFou," he said as he sat up from the bed, "forgive my forgetfulness, but exactly how long have you worked as my maître d'?"

"Hmm, I'd say about seven years." LeFou counted on his fingers thoughtfully.

"And you lived in Villeneuve before?"

"Born and raised."

"Did you happen to know a Belle Gagnier when you lived there?"

"Well of course I knew Belle! Everyone did," LeFou confirmed. "Very pretty girl, but a bit touched in the head if you get my French. She was always walking around town with her face behind a book. Some of the villagers said she was doing it on purpose because she wanted to avoid small talk. Can't imagine why though. Sure, our town wasn't swimming with intellectuals and university professors, but it's not like we'd done anything to offend her." He looked back at Adam. "Why are you asking?"

The Prince shrugged. "I heard someone mention her when I was at the village and thought she sounded like an interesting character," he lied. "But... she doesn't live there anymore. She moved away a year ago to work as a carpenter in Rabelais."

"Hmm... didn't know that," LeFou said with mild interest. "But then again, I haven't really been following the going-ons in Villeneuve since I started working here." He tilted his head inquisitively. "You aren't thinking of making her your next conquest, are you?"

"Oh no!" Adam's face grew warm. "Nothing like that. I was just… curious."

"I see. Well then, Monsieur Curieux, do you still need some more time to brood? You know that I'm an expert at inventing cover stories if you want me to tell the Comte something to buy you time."

"No, that won't be necessary. Tell the Comte... I'll be down soon."

"If you say so." LeFou bowed. "Oh, and Master? I may not understand why you're feeling so self-deprecating today but take my advice. If you're really unhappy with yourself, then why not find a way to change? Take me, for example." He put his hands on his hips. "One day, I decided that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life working as a meagre barman in a town no one's ever heard of. If I was going to spend the rest of my life serving people, I wanted to at least serve them in style! So then I heard there was a position open for a maître d' at your castle, went to apply, and before I knew it, I got the job! So if I could find a way to make myself feel better by changing one thing about myself, I'm pretty sure you can too."

Adam looked back at the Enchantress's book, wishing he shared LeFou's optimism. So far, every "change" he'd made to his past had only made things worse. He'd convinced his past self to let the Enchantress into his castle, only to find himself clinging to the shadow of his dead mother and trapped in a betrothal to a princess he didn't love. He'd tried to change his childhood so that he'd never been raised by his abusive father, only to find out that he'd grown up just as careless and unthinking as he'd been before. To top it off, he was an unconvicted murderer, and Belle hated him for it. After all the terrible things he'd done in this reality, it was a huge mystery to him why the Enchantress hadn't cursed him yet. Perhaps she thought that being an irresponsible drunkard wasn't as bad as being an overtaxing tyrant obsessed with power and physical appearances. Or perhaps she'd never discovered him in this universe and gone off to find another unfortunate soul to curse. The Prince was no expert on time travel, but he was beginning to notice that every time he changed the past, he was changing several other lives in the process. Maybe it wasn't too much of a stretch to assume that the Enchantress could have been one of them.

Adam knew what he really wanted to do, of course. He wanted to get Belle out of that tavern and convince her that he wasn't the beast she thought he was. But how well would that turn out? It didn't matter if he shut down her workplace or dragged her out by force. If Belle already hated him, she would only see him as a captor, not an ally.

At least she has a roof over her head, he thought, trying to reassure himself. While he still shuddered to think of Belle's current line of work, maybe she would have a different opinion of him if he gave her some time to consider his job offer. At least, he hoped that was the right way of solving the problem. He didn't know what other alternatives he had.

The Comte de Crevoisier's meeting was a simple affair. The nobleman had come to ask the Prince to lend him some funds to remodel an estate they shared in Valnoir, which Adam did with little difficulty. Despite the impersonal, business-like nature of their meeting, it felt good to focus on something that didn't involve Belle or wondering how he was going to fix the universe for a change. Or maybe it just felt good to exercise some of the responsibilities he'd lost from being a beast for five years.

After the Comte's meeting, instead of taking the more direct path back to his room, Adam decided to detour past the servants' quarters—something he hadn't done since he was a young boy, looking to pass the time on the days his parents were too busy to pay attention to him.

Upon passing through the main corridor, Adam noticed that the door to the kitchen was hanging ajar, and Mrs. Potts was talking to someone inside.

"I'm not sure what he was on exactly, but from what Babette described, he was acting very strangely," she was saying. "He fell off the bed and looked at her like he'd never seen her before. Then he called her by a different name and asked about Lumière."

"È strano," Maestro Cadenza replied with shared confusion. "That might explain why he was behaving out of sorts when he met with Duca Christophe this morning too. According to LeFou, he barely flinched during his uncle's lecture, and didn't even try to argue with him when he accused him of being immature and irresponsible."

Realizing that the servants were talking about him, Adam peered through the small opening in the door to listen more closely. Mrs. Potts, Cogsworth, and Maestro Cadenza were eating together at the wooden table at the center of the room, presumably on a shared lunch break.

"Perhaps he's coming down with the same sickness his father had," Cogsworth speculated. "It could well be that that particular brand of madness runs in the family."

"I have to respectfully disagree, Cogsworth," Mrs. Potts responded. "The Master has none of the symptoms his father had when he was ill. Besides, I don't think it's fair to diagnose someone based on the way they behaved in the course of one morning. Perhaps he's just had an epiphany."

Cogsworth snorted. "If that's true then about time! The Master's been in dire need of an epiphany for a good nine years if you ask me. The Sorbonne may have filled his head with books and knowledge, but it did nothing to develop that moral character of his."

"Or… perhaps he's just having an off-day," Cadenza suggested. "Everyone has those every now and again. Heaven knows how many times I've played a passage perfectly in practice, only to sound as incompetent as a tree stump on the day of the concert. Sfortunatamente, a musician's life is never easy. Why was Lumière fired anyway?" he added curiously. "Carlotta and I were on tour in Austria when it happened."

"He made a big fool of himself, that's why," Cogsworth replied, crossing his arms resentfully. "He was lucky enough to be fired for what he did. I was almost certain that he'd receive the death sentence."

"Cogsworth!" Mrs. Potts retorted. "You know you don't mean that. Lumière did a more noble thing for the Master than any of us combined, and that's the honest truth of the matter."

"And what exactly did he do?" Cadenza inquired.

Mrs. Potts sighed. "I suppose, to explain it fully I'd have to go back to the year the Master's mother passed away. You remember of course when the King organized that grand dinner party after the Queen's funeral and made the Master play the harpsichord for his guests?"

"Si." Cadenza nodded. "I must have spent hours teaching him how to play the Allegro from Handel's Suite in G minor for the occasion. But it was too soon for him to be performing after his mother's death. He just... wasn't ready. When he lost his confidence at the recital, his father was furious, and the boy was so ashamed of himself, he refused to touch a keyboard again."

"The King wasn't furious, he was livid," Cogsworth corrected. "Lumière and I heard him lashing out on the boy after the party, and it was positively frightening. Which was why his behaviour the next day came as a huge puzzle to all of us. It was as though he'd had a great revelation, or someone had turned a switch in him."

"All we know is that after that night, the King was dreadfully frightened of his son, to the point that he refused to speak with him or be in the same room as him," Mrs. Potts elaborated. "Then, as though to distance himself further, he decided that he would postpone his son's tutoring, and send him off to be educated at the Sorbonne. Naturally, we were all surprised by his decision, but not as much as the Master was. The poor boy thought his father was sending him away to punish him! He'd write him letters every month, hoping for a chance at reconciliation, but the King never wrote back. He'd simply forward the letters to Lumière, saying he was too busy to read them, and he could reply in any manner he wanted."

"And did he?" Cadenza asked curiously.

"For a time," Cogsworth confirmed. "Lumière was very close with the Master, see. He considered it a great honour to support him as he transitioned to university life. But as the years passed, and Lumière realized that the King had no intention of writing a letter to his son, he did the unthinkable—against my good discretion, I may add. He confronted him. Called him a coward, said that he deserved to treat his son better. And for a man as proud and self-centered as the King, you can imagine how well that turned out." He shuddered. "He was so furious, he fired Lumière right on the spot."

"And not long after Lumière left the castle, the King became dreadfully ill," Mrs. Potts finished sadly. "Not even our best physicians could find a cure. He passed away when the Master was in his last year of university, and well… the rest is history."

"The poor Master." Cadenza shook his head. "Growing up with a father like that, it's no wonder he turned out to be so... autodistruttivo. But what about Lumière? Was he able to find work after the King fired him?"

"Last we heard, he'd managed to secure a job in the Prince de Mailly-Nesle's household in Courbecour," Mrs. Potts confirmed. "He used to send us letters every month, though we haven't received anything from him in quite some time now."

Adam turned away from the door, a new feeling of guilt weighing on his shoulders. Now he understood why Lumière had stopped working at the castle. It was because of him. The maître d' had tried to stand up for Adam, and his father, being the unfeeling arse that he was, had turned around and fired him in an instant. Oh, Lumière, why didn't you bite your tongue? Adam lamented. It wasn't worth losing his job because of him. He knew he wouldn't have done it if he were in Lumière's shoes. But then he remembered the way Lumière had rushed to defend his thirteen-year-old self from his father's abuse to the point that Cogsworth had had to physically struggle to hold him back. After years of putting up with a tyrannical master and being powerless to stop it, perhaps it was only a matter of time before the former maître d' would snap and rebel.

The sound of a door opening at the far side of the corridor startled Adam from his musings. He turned to see Babette emerge from a storage closet with a feather duster in hand. His face grew warm again, still not over the embarrassing experience of seeing her naked a few hours earlier. At least she was in her uniform now, but he would prefer not to have another awkward encounter with her if he could avoid it.

Thankfully, there was a statue beside the kitchens that was just large enough for Adam to hide behind. He squeezed himself behind it, mere seconds before Babette strolled down the corridor, humming to herself as she dusted the candelabrum on the opposite side of the hall. As Adam waited for her to leave, he was struck by another revelation. Since Lumière had lost his job, he'd likely never known Babette as anything more than a colleague in this universe. The castle's virtuous "star-cross'd lovers" had never existed, all thanks to Adam's time meddling.

But it doesn't have to stay that way, he realized. LeFou had said that the best way for Adam to feel better about himself was to change something about his current lifestyle. He didn't know how to do that yet, but maybe he could do it for someone else. Two someones, if he was really lucky.

"Erm, Master?" said LeFou. "Remind me why you wanted to come here again?"

"To see an old friend," the Prince replied.

It had been three days since Adam had narrowly escaped his marriage to Princess Amandine and used the book to change the past again. In that time, he'd been trying his best to keep a low profile, avoiding anything that would cause his servants to raise further alarms about his "out-of-sorts behaviour." Which wasn't exactly easy to do, as Adam wasn't really sure how he was supposed to act in this universe. He had no energy to host a party, no interest in continuing his carnal relationship with Babette, and couldn't speak rudely to any of his servants without feeling guilty. In the end, he decided to spend the majority of his time holed up in the West Wing; something that was apparently normal for him to do this reality, despite all the socializing and whoring he took part in on a regular basis.

But today was different. Today, Adam was visiting Lumière's new household, to mend the bond his father had broken all those years ago. He just hoped that the former maître d' would be willing to accept his apology, given how long it had taken Adam to discover his real reasons for leaving the castle.

The Prince de Mailly-Nesle's castle resided on the outskirts of the city of Courbecour. It was a modestly sized estate made of white brick; its exterior a mixture of late Gothic and early Renaissance architecture. Once they arrived at the front steps, Adam stepped out of the carriage with LeFou and knocked on the castle's main entrance. A man donned in a powdered wig and brightly coloured suit reserved for domestic servants promptly answered them.

"Oh, good afternoon, Your Highness," the servant said, stooping himself down into a quick bow. "I regret to inform you that my master is away in Luxembourg until the fourteenth. If you wish to leave him a message—"

"That's quite alright, Monsieur," Adam replied. "I'm actually here to speak with one of your staff members. His name is Jean-Eugène Lumière."

The doorman raised an eyebrow in confusion. "Lumière was fired months ago for failing to perform his work duties," he replied. "Is this an urgent manner?"

"I'm afraid so," Adam responded, taken aback by this bit of unexpected news. "Do you know where I can find him?"

"Regrettably, no. But we may still have his home address written in our record books if you would like me to retrieve them for you."

"I would greatly appreciate that."

The doorman nodded and escorted the Prince and LeFou into the castle's sitting room while he went to pull up Lumière's information. Fifteen minutes later, he returned with a slip of paper bearing directions to Lumière's home address. According to their record books, Lumière lived in an apartment in Courbecour and was a mere fifteen-minute walk from the castle. Adam thanked the doorman for his time and returned to the carriage with LeFou, determined to reunite with his former maître d' once more.

Unfortunately, the apartment address only brought the Prince to another dead end.

"We kicked him out months ago," the landlord said, after Adam had inquired about whether he had ever rented a room out to a man named Jean-Eugène Lumière. "He stopped paying his lease and made a complete mess out of his apartment. It must have taken us weeks to get rid of the smell, mon dieu."

"And I don't suppose you know where he went after you evicted him?" Adam asked in desperation.

"Afraid not."

The Prince left the apartment with his shoulders slouched and his fists clenched. He felt discouraged and frustrated by his lack of progress. All he'd learned from the doorman and the landlord was that Lumière had neglected to take care of his apartment, pay his rent and fulfill his work duties—qualities that didn't sound like Lumière at all. And worst of all, Adam still had no idea where to find him.

"Why don't you try a tavern?" LeFou suggested in an attempt to support his visibly disheartened master. "Bartenders are pretty good at remembering names and faces."

Adam was about to ask LeFou where they could find a good tavern in the city when he became distracted by the sound of a man singing a raspy, off-key folk song on the side of the street. His dissonant-sounding voice was accompanied by a tinny-sounding string instrument, which also seemed to be in dire need of a tune up. Adam turned his head towards the noise, feeling a strong urge to make a comment about how someone with such awful musicianship skills shouldn't be allowed to perform in public, then stopped himself.

The man playing the atrocious music had to be somewhere in his mid to late thirties. He sat on the curb with his legs crossed, a battered-looking guitar in his lap, some bottles of ale on his left and a tricorn hat containing a few coins in front of him. He wore a brown, threadbare waistcoat, cotton shirt, and britches, all of which were in dire need of washing and mending. His dishwater blonde hair was long and disheveled, and he was sporting a shaggy beard, which Adam assumed was common to men who lived on the street with no access to razor blades.

But the one aspect of the man's appearance that really caught Adam's attention was his face. For as he turned his head, Adam caught sight of a droopy nose and blue eyes that were strikingly familiar…

"Hey, Master!" LeFou shouted. "Wait for me!"

Adam strode towards the beggar, who immediately ceased his singing upon seeing the important-looking nobleman standing in front of him.

"Well good afternoon, Seigneur," he said jovially, a noticeable slur in his voice. "Spare some coin for a poor soul like me?"

"Lumière," Adam replied incredulously. "It's me."

Lumière squinted his bloodshot eyes in suspicion. Then his mouth dropped open with realization. "M-Master Adam? I-Is it really you?" His voice grew thick with emotion. "Why, you've grown so tall and handsome! What brings you to see me?"

"I've come… to take you home, of course," Adam responded awkwardly.

"H-Home?" Lumière repeated with a hiccup. "But Courbecour is my home now. Besides... the King, he fired me."

"Well then, I am officially unfiring you," Adam declared. "Lumière, you stood up to my father when no one else would. You were the only one who bothered to write to me when I was away in university. I can't let you live on the streets like this; wearing rags, begging for money, playing this… music."

"And what's wrong with my music, eh?" said Lumière, demeanour quickly changing as he tightened his grip on his guitar. "I'll have you know that if not for poor entertainers like me, rich people like you wouldn't exist! Besides, it's not all that bad, being homeless. I sing when I want, I sleep when I want, I drink when I want, I piss wherever I want. I'd much rather live outdoors and be my own man than work as a—"

Lumière's sentence was abruptly cut off, as he proceeded to vomit some bright yellow bile on to the pavement. Adam and LeFou stepped backwards in disgust.

"Master, are you really sure you want to take this guy back to the castle?" LeFou asked hesitantly.

"Absolutely," Adam replied. "Now help me lift him up."

Lumière tried to keep the Prince and LeFou back with a few feeble swings of his guitar but was too sick and inebriated to do any real damage. In the end, he weakly allowed the two men to carry him back to the carriage, muttering incomprehensible curses and protests the entire way.

By the time Adam and LeFou had returned to the castle, Lumière had thrown up at least three more times. The Prince was quite certain that the carriage's carpet and upholstery would have to be replaced, but all of that was inconsequential in the grander scheme of things. As long as he had Lumière with him, he would be one step closer to fixing this disaster of a universe he'd created. That was really all that mattered.

While LeFou went to find the castle physician, Adam led the semi-conscious Lumière out of the carriage and into the atrium, ignoring the shocked stares and gasps from his servants as he did. He guided Lumière into the closest bedchamber and anxiously waited for the doctor to arrive.

"It appears that the gentleman's sickness is a result of his excessive drinking," the physician declared fifteen minutes later, upon performing a physical examination on the former maître d'. "His temperature is also quite warm. I suspect he's acquired a fever from prolonged exposure to the elements. For now, I'd suggest we give him some fluids and let him sleep off his drink."

There was a knock on the door. Adam looked up to see Babette standing in the threshold with an uneasy expression on her face, as though she wasn't entirely sure what she was doing there.

"You wanted to see me, Master?" she said, addressing the Prince with a curtsey.

"Yes, Plu-I mean, Babette," Adam replied, beckoning her into the room. "I'd like you to meet Jean-Eugène Lumière, my old maître d'."

Babette looked down at the haggard man passed out on the bed and raised her eyebrows in pity and concern. "He looks dreadful," she noted. "What happened to him?"

"It seems that he had a bit too much to drink," Adam replied. "I found him muttering nonsense and begging for money while I was travelling through Courbecour with LeFou. He had nowhere to stay, so I brought him back here." He looked back at Babette. "Would you mind looking after him for me while he recovers?"

"Well... I suppose," she replied, fidgeting with her hands nervously. "But I'm a bit confused. Wouldn't you want someone with more medical expertise to look after him, like Angélique or Véronique?"

"No, no. I'm sure you'll do just fine." He had no idea who Angélique and Véronique were anyway.

"Well then." She bit her lip. "I would never deny a request from His Royal Highness."

"Merci, Babette. And um, one more thing." He stepped closer to her, in the case the doctor overheard him. "This relationship we have. Do you... enjoy it?"

Babette tilted her head in uncertainty. "You've lost me, Master."

"Do you like... being with me?" he elaborated. "Or do you only sleep with me because I ask you to?"

"Oh." Her face turned slightly red. "Well, I'm not sure if it's really my place to answer that question, Your Highness. After all, I'm only a servant girl."

"Right. And that's part of the problem isn't it?" Adam rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. "Babette, I've decided that... I no longer wish to employ you as my courtesan. It's nothing personal... it's just—I can't see myself continuing this relationship with you if—when I initiated it out of force. Your wages won't change," he added reassuringly. "You'll still be given the same pay, and you'll still be responsible for all your other household duties. You may even engage in relationships with other men in my household, if you so desire. But I will no longer ask you to spend the night with me, and if I do, you have every right to refuse. Do you understand?"

Babette widened her eyes, looking startled but relieved at the same time. "Of course, Master. If that is your wish, then I shall gladly honour it."

"Excellent. I will leave you to your task then."

She curtsied again and drew a chair up next to the bed, beginning her reluctant watch over the poor, drunken maître d'. Adam wondered if she had any idea that her life and Lumière's were about to change for the better.

Chapter Text

Dear Mlle Belle Gagnier,

First of all, I wish to apologize for my uncalled-for visit to your workplace last week. My intention was to offer you a job at my castle, one that I believed would be of interest to you, based on stories I'd heard from your former townsfolk in Villeneuve. I now realize that I should have been more tactful in speaking with you, as I did not realize that you were still grieving for the loss of your father. Nor did I realize that I was directly responsible for his death through my own reckless behaviour.

I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me, as I truly believe that your sharp wit and intellect would be a valuable asset to my castle staff. Furthermore, I think that you and I could…

Adam furiously scrunched up the letter and tossed it into the fireplace to burn with the others. Oh, what's the use of trying? he thought, slouching in his chair despondently. He'd been going at it for an hour, and every letter he'd written to Belle only sounded worse and worse. She probably wouldn't even bother reading whatever apology note he sent her; only roll her eyes disdainfully before ripping it to shreds. It was time to face the music: there was nothing he could do—no way of convincing Belle of his sincerity in asking her to work for him, just as there was no way for him to go back in time and prevent Maurice's death. He'd reached yet another stalemate in his time travelling ventures, and this time could think of no way of fixing it.

A knock on the bureau door startled the Prince from his thoughts. It was Chapeau, standing in the open doorway with a nervous expression on his face. "Bonjour Master. I'm sorry for interrupting, but Duke Vincent is here to see you. He's waiting for you in the drawing room."

"Duke… Vincent?" Adam repeated slowly.

"Yes, Master. Duke Vincent de Breil de Pontbriand. Your cousin?" Chapeau emphasized, seemingly accustomed to his master's sporadic lapses in memory by now.

"Oh, that Vincent," Adam replied. "Right! Well then, I'll be straight down."

Of course, the Prince would never admit that he actually knew very little about his cousin in this universe. He hadn't seen him since his mother's funeral; no thanks to his heartless father, who'd deliberately cut his son off from anything or anyone that would distract him from becoming his vision of a perfect prince. All Adam knew about the Vincent in this universe was that he'd gone to university with him and that they'd visited each other's castles several times in the past few years. Vincent also seemed to have a reputation for being a notorious troublemaker, based on what Adam had learned about him from LeFou and the Enchantress's book. Knowing this latter detail, he wasn't sure if he was going to enjoy this encounter with him or not.

It was a strange experience for Adam to see Vincent ten minutes later, sitting in the drawing room in a dark blue dinner jacket and breeches. He was no longer the gangly, freckled-face boy Adam remembered from childhood, but a grown man of twenty-five years of age, with broad shoulders, long brown hair and grey-blue eyes. Adam verbally greeted his cousin before he sat across from him, so they could speak face-to-face.

"I hope you don't mind if I camp out here for a little," Vincent began, helping himself to a plate of custard tarts the servants had left for them on the table. "Père and I had another row yesterday. You know how it is. He said that I'm tarnishing the family name, embarrassing him with my excessive drinking and gambling habits." He rolled his eyes and made a face. "As if he was any better when he was my age! He just won't admit it. Anyways, to add more salt to the wound, he's now asking me to go with him to the Emperor's birthday party next month to pick out a potential bride. He thinks it will 'mature' me up somehow, having a wife to look after who can continue the family legacy." He sneered. "If he thinks that a marriage is going to change anything, he's even more of a fool than I thought."

"Well… do you at least have someone special in mind?" Adam asked, unsure of whether he was supposed to sympathize with his cousin's situation or support his search for an "eligible fiancée."

The Duke laughed. "Of course not. I've already been to all the parties in Paris, coz. I know who's available, and quite frankly, there's no one there that interests me. Take the Comtesse de Bruc for example. Her complexion is fair enough, but her eyes are far too bright. The Vicomtesse de Nompère de Champagny has no curves to speak of. And the Baroness de Vassal de La Barde has enough pimples on her face to look like her skin is made of porridge, especially when she tries to cover it up with all that powder. It's positively ghastly."

Still, I bet that courting someone with a face that looks like breakfast is easier than courting a beast, Adam wanted to say. But he kept his thoughts to himself. After all, he was no saint when it came to judging women for their outward appearances. In fact, if it wasn't for the Enchantress, he would probably still see them the way his cousin did; superficial objects whose sole purpose was to make men happy. He had a horrible feeling that the Adam of this universe continued to think of women that way, based on the way his cousin was speaking to him right now.

"Maybe if you engaged one in conversation, you'd have more to judge her on than just her physical appearance," he suggested, unsure of what else to say.

"Oh, coz. We'd all like to think that, wouldn't we?" The Duke smirked. "The truth of the matter is that the ladies of court have nothing of value to talk about. Believe me, I know. Père's made me dance with one every year, and the subject of their conversations is always the same: either a boring joke, a scripted social remark, empty compliments, something about the weather, the food, the music, the ballroom. It's terribly dull. Dull enough to make a man drink himself senseless all night; not that you haven't done that before."

He flashed the Prince a knowing smile, to which Adam bowed his head self-consciously. "Well then, what should a woman talk about?" he asked.

"Oh, I don't know. How about... anything?" his cousin replied exasperatingly. "Their likes, their dislikes, their interests! Something that drives them crazy. Something that they can build a real conversation from. Something that will make them stand out in my mind as more than a painted face in a gigantic dress." He paused, lips suddenly lowering into a frown. "But what are the chances of finding a girl like that, eh? We both know that today's noblewomen are far too demure and fragile to ever dare to speak their minds. I'd be better off letting Père choose an empty-headed bride for me and taking a mistress or two on the side. Speaking of which, is Babette—?"

"—no," Adam cut in, eager to shut down whatever his cousin was trying to say on the subject of his ex-courtesan.

Vincent tilted his head inquisitively. "Oho, keeping her for yourself now, are you? Is this l'amour I'm sensing?"

"No, no. It's not that." He shook his head in embarrassment. "I've... given Babette a special job to do. She's busy nursing a former servant of mine."

"Oh. Well that's a pity," Vincent replied disappointingly. "I was looking forward to having some fun with her while I was here. But no matter." He shrugged. "I suppose I'll settle for taking my horse out for a ride in the woods instead. Or... we could see that opera performing in Lorraine on Saturday. It's called Alceste. Have you heard of it?"

"You know I don't like the opera, Vincent," Adam replied in disinterest.

"I know." His cousin grinned. "But that doesn't mean I won't stop persuading you to go."

They sat in silence for a minute, Vincent helping himself to some more custard tarts while Adam let his mind wander. His conversation with his cousin had reminded him of something Belle had said to him in the tavern: "As we were passing through the woods near your castle, one of our trunks fell out of the wagon. My father walked onto the road to retrieve it. And who should have shown up but you. You and that... ruddy cousin of yours, Duke something-or-other. You were both riding your horses at breakneck speeds, right into my father's path."

"Vincent," Adam said aloud, "refresh my memory for me. Did we ever do any horse racing when you visited me last summer?"

"Did we ever!" Vincent confirmed. "You're quite a show off on that Arabian horse, you are. Why? You're not thinking of going again, are you? Because I can assure you that I've got a lot of practice in since then."

"Not... exactly," Adam replied. "Vincent, when we went racing… was there ever a moment where we saw an old man in the woods with curly hair and glasses? And did I ever… run into him with my horse?"

"Certainement." Vincent nodded. "We got a good laugh out of it too. I mean, what kind of fool stumbles onto the road, right into the oncoming path of two noblemen on horses? He had to have either been blind or daft to pull off a silly stunt like that."

Adam clenched his hands into fists, angered and disgusted by the casual manner of his cousin's words. "I found out last week that he died because of me," he confessed. "And... he left a daughter behind."

Vincent stared at his cousin in shock. Then, he laughed. "Goodness coz, is this why you're acting so serious? So what if you killed an old man? You're a prince—it's not like the authorities can arrest you for murder! Besides, it was his fault for being on the road when he wasn't supposed to be. He was already asking for a death wish! And maybe you killing him was better for him in the long run. You might have stopped him from suffering from a slow, painful death."

He gave him a chilling smile, one that did little to lift Adam's spirits. This was Belle's father Vincent was talking about, after all. Maurice may have made a mistake, but he was also a good man and a talented artist, one who'd spent years protecting his daughter from the harsh realities of the world. He didn't deserve to die the way he did. But why would I care? Adam realized. Like Belle had said, all he was in this universe was a spoiled and selfish beast. And a spoiled and selfish beast would think of Maurice as nothing more than a disposable item. He never thought he could hate himself any more until that moment.

Luckily, Vincent soon changed the subject, sharing a story about his sister Léa and his recent visit to his new brother-in-law's estate in Vertemuraille. While it was interesting to hear that Léa was married now, Maurice's death continued to weigh on Adam's mind for the rest of their conversation.

Later that day, Adam went to visit Lumière in his temporary bedchamber in the East Wing. He was relieved to see that he was awake now and that the sickly pallor from his face was gone, replaced by a healthy flush to his cheeks. Adam greeted him warmly before taking a seat next to his bed.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

"Much better, thank you," Lumière replied with a smile. "I haven't felt this well-rested, since… well, I can't remember to be honest."

"I'm glad to hear. I presume that Babette has done a good job taking care of you?"

"Oh, she is a perfect ange, Master," Lumière agreed fondly. "I've must have thrown up almost a dozen times by now, and she's never complained once. She carries herself with such poise and grace, like... a swan about to take flight against a stormy wind. I've never seen that much beauty and conviction in a woman before."

"Why, Lumière," Adam said, cocking his head in feigned surprise. "If I didn't know better, I'd think that you're starting to have feelings for my maid. Is that true?"

A dull blush crept onto Lumière's face. "O-Of course not!" he insisted. "I simply think that she is… an admirable nurse is all." He lowered his head and sighed. "Fine. You've caught me. But what does it matter? A pretty jewel like her could do far better than a disappointment like me."

"Oh, you mustn't give up hope, old friend," the Prince said encouragingly. "For all we know, she could already be interested in you."

Lumière perked up his head hopefully. "You really think so?"

"Well, not for certain, no. But surely it wouldn't hurt to talk to her and find out?"

"You're right." He nodded. "My name isn't Jean-Eugène Lumière for nothing after all! I charmed plenty of women in my younger years. I'm sure I still have some of that old 'spark' in me." He placed his hands over his chest, face alight with newfound confidence. "Yes. Once I've regained my strength, I will show Mademoiselle Babette who I truly am. I will find out what it will take to win her affections or die trying!"

The Prince chuckled. "Now you're starting to sound like your old self."

"Grâce à vous, Maître. Oh, and by the way, I want to apologize for whatever I said to you back in Courbecour. I didn't mean any of it, really. After all that ale I drank, I just... wasn't myself."

"I understand," Adam replied in sympathy. "Believe me, I know a thing or two about what it's like to be on the wrong end of the bottle. But what happened to you exactly? I tried to find you at the Prince de Mailly-Nesle's household, and all they said was that you'd been fired for failing to perform your work duties."

Lumière lowered his eyes. "I'm afraid it's true," he admitted shamefully. "But you must understand, Master. I wasn't in a good place there, not for a long time. Just imagine it: I'd spent years serving your family's household, building a home, community, and title for myself. Then, with one word from your father, I lost everything. I had to pack my things, find a new job, start all over again. And the new workplace that hired me was nothing like the one I left behind."

"The Prince de Mailly-Nesle wasn't a terrible employer," he went on, "but there was no room for me to be myself in his household. His majordomo must have changed my job position so many times, I eventually stopped caring. There were a lot of foolish things I did in my last few months of employment there that I regret doing now." His eyes looked off into space for a moment, haunted by old memories. Adam hated to see him look that way.

"Well… I'm glad found you when I did," he said in an effort to cheer him up. "I—We could really use you here."

Lumière focused his gaze back on the Master and smiled. "Thank you, my Prince. Rest assured, I am more than willing to serve you again if you'll have me. Call me an old sap, but this place has been more of a home to me than any other place I've lived in or worked in before. If you didn't bring me back here, I fear I may have lost my wits completely." He stopped for a moment to wipe some emotion-driven tears from his eyes. When he finished, he changed the subject saying, "Master... forgive my curiosity, but I've been hearing rumours from the others—well, whispers really that you haven't been acting yourself lately."

Adam raised an eyebrow, pretending to look shocked. "Really?"

"Oui. They say that you seem unsettled about something, but they don't know what. I would never pry into your personal affairs without your permission of course, but is there anything I can do to help?"

Adam reluctantly crossed his arms. While he could easily evade Lumière's question if he wanted to, he felt that he could trust him with the truth; more than he could with LeFou and the servants anyway. Lately, they'd all been treating him like an explosive, set to go off at any minute. He didn't like it one bit. "It's difficult to explain, Lumière," he began. "Recently, I learned that I… wronged someone in one of the worst ways possible. I've apologized and compensated them for what I did, but they still won't forgive me. I don't know what else I can do to make things right."

"Ah, if only we could all forgive and forget as easily as the saints do," Lumière said in warm understanding. "But I suppose it's only human nature for some to hold on to grudges longer than others. Take Cogsworth, for example. He still hasn't forgiven me for staining red wine on the dining room carpet, and that happened over ten years ago!" He rolled his eyes in annoyance. "All I can say is that if you've already apologized to this person and given them compensation for it, then there's nothing more you can do, except forgive yourself and move on."

"But what if I can't?" asked Adam. He'd changed time so he could have a fresh start with Belle. He couldn't sit here now, knowing that door had already shut before he'd had a chance to see what was on the other side.

"You are my Prince, Master. I know you can," Lumière said reassuringly. "Oh… you've always been so down on yourself, even when you were a little boy. Do you remember when your father took you out into the woods to shoot your first buck? It couldn't have been a cleaner shot, but you were too scared to pull the trigger. You returned to the castle in tears, and your father was furious."

"My memory isn't that terrible, Lumière," Adam said pointedly. "Also… it was a doe, not a buck."

"My mistake." He shrugged his shoulders. "So then, do you remember what your mother said to you after?"

The Prince rested his chin on his hand, thinking. "She said… not to be discouraged," he recalled. "And that maybe I wasn't meant to be a hunter, but I would find my own special talent one day. And when I did, it would make the kingdom a better place."

"Exactly." Lumière smiled. "You still have that potential, Master. I believe in it, and I know the others do too."

"It's not that I disagree with you, Mr. Potts," Adam overheard Cogsworth saying as he was passing through the atrium later that day. "But you know how the Master feels about having uninvited guests at his castle. Lumière is one thing, but he hasn't even met this girl before! We have to think of a way to ease him into the situation, or else he might—"

The majordomo immediately cut himself off as the Prince turned the corner. His eyes grew wide with alarm. "Ahem. Good afternoon, Your Highness," he said in a fast and high-sounding voice. "I must say... you're looking exceptionally dapper today."

He flimsily tried to shield the Prince from the display behind him, but it was no use—Adam had already seen everything. Mr. Potts stood in the foyer with a cluster of servants, most likely bystanders to the conversation that had occurred between him and Cogsworth a few moments ago. In Mr. Potts's arms was what Adam first assumed to be a pile of large, dirty rags, but upon closer inspection, realized was an actual person. And not just any person. It was a very sickly and malnourished Belle. She lifted her head a fraction and smiled at the Prince in weak recognition. "Hello, Your Highness," she said, her voice as raspy as dry leaves. "It's not too late to accept your job offer... is it?"

Adam's heart skipped a beat. It felt as though Belle had become the center of the universe, and all he could do was gape at her, unable to believe that she was here, and appalled at how quickly her health had deteriorated in the short time that had passed since he'd seen her in the tavern. "Take her to one of my guest rooms," he said aloud, "and find the physician."

"Right away, Master!" Mr. Potts affirmed. He adjusted his hold on Belle and gave her a reassuring smile. "Come now, Belle. We're going to get you some help."

They were out of the Prince's sight in an instant, accompanied by a reluctant Cogsworth and an entourage of worried servants, eager to do whatever they could to help the poor newcomer.

It had to be one of the longest waits of Adam's life. He stood anxiously outside of Belle's temporary bedchamber as the castle physician and a handful of female servants tended to her inside. His only company was Mr. Potts, LeFou, and Cogsworth, who waited attentively by the bedchamber doors. Whether this was out of concern for their Master or concern for Belle, Adam couldn't tell.

"Master, I'm sorry for bringing the girl into the castle without your permission," Mr. Potts rambled, removing his hat and twisting it in his hands nervously. "It's just… she had nowhere else to go. Her name is Belle Gagnier, and she used to live in my village. I went to Rabelais this morning to pick up a shipment for the castle when I saw her wandering the streets, begging for money and coughing something dreadful. She said she'd been fired from her job at the local tavern for not satisfying enough customers or summat." He slouched his shoulders sadly. "It broke my heart to see her in such a state. I knew I couldn't leave her that way. So I took her to the only place I could think of where she'd be safe."

"You did the right thing, Mr. Potts," the Prince said encouragingly. In fact, I ought to thank you for finding her, or else I may have never got another chance to make amends with her.

The doors to Belle's room opened. Out came the physician, M. Pomme, with a tired and defeated look on his face.

"How is she?" Adam asked him in worry.

"Not good, Master," M. Pomme replied. "The girl appears to be suffering from an advanced stage of consumption. It's a miracle she's managed to last this long without seeing a doctor. All I can suggest is that we let her rest while I read up on some possible remedies."

Adam bit his lip. If Belle had consumption, then she was even sicker than he thought. He knew how serious that condition could be, having seen it take his mother's life all those years ago. "You have my permission to provide her with her whatever she needs to be comfortable," he told the doctor, vowing not to lose Belle the same way he'd lost Henriette. "If there are any medicines she needs, I'll cover all the expenses for them."

"Master, forgive my intrusiveness, but are you really suggesting that you would spend your resources on a common girl you've never met before?" Cogsworth asked, tilting his head in confusion.

"I'm… trying to be a Good Samaritan," he explained lamely. "Besides, it sounds like she's been through quite a lot already."

He would have gladly waited outside Belle's bedchambers until she was well enough to see him, but royal duties took priority. He spent the rest of the day reading and signing some papers in his study, before having dinner with Vincent and joining him in a game of chess.

It wasn't until the next morning that M. Pomme deemed that Belle was well enough to see visitors. Adam made his way to her room without a second thought, stopping momentarily at the doorway to watch her sleep.

She looked so fragile and tiny, even from a human's perspective. Her hair, which she'd always braided or pinned behind her head, now lay loose and lifelessly around her shoulders. There were dark circles under her eyes, and her skin was as pale as the white pillows she was sleeping against. Whatever fullness she used to have in her face was gone; replaced by sunken eyes and hollow cheekbones. Adam almost didn't want to believe that this was the same Belle he'd danced with so long ago, but it was.

Belle slowly stirred and opened her dark brown eyes. "Your Highness?" she said hoarsely.

"Uh, good morning Mademoiselle Gagnier," Adam responded, forcing himself back into the present. "I hope that everything is to your liking."

"Well of course it is," she replied, furrowing her brows, as though she found something perplexing about his comment. "Thank you for letting me stay at your castle. I've never slept in a more beautiful room before. I reckon that it's even larger than my old house in Villeneuve."

The Prince forced himself not to laugh. He didn't have the heart to tell Belle that his own bedchamber was twice the size of this one and that he could easily move her into a larger room if she wanted. "I... wanted to apologize again," he said, moving closer to the bed, "for what I did to your father. I truly never meant for it to happen. In fact, I've been regretting it every day since you told me."

"What's done is done, Your Highness," Belle replied, her voice full of unexpected warmth and compassion. "I forgive you now."

He tilted his head, unsure if he'd heard her correctly. "You… do?"

"Well, there's nothing for it, really," she admitted. "At my last confession in Rabelais, the priest told me that I have to let go of personal grudges I have against people. Under the circumstances… I suppose it's only right that I start with you."

"You still went to church," the Prince noted with surprise.

"Just because I was a prostitute doesn't mean I stopped believing," she explained. "My life at the tavern was just another job, one I had to do to survive." She suddenly let out a shuddering cough, one that shook her body to the core and drained whatever colour was left on her youthful face. She quickly grabbed the handkerchief next to her pillow and placed it to her mouth to muffle the sound.

When the coughing subsided, Belle withdrew the cloth. It was now covered in fresh blood stains, much to Adam's horror.

"Oh, your servants have been so kind to me," she continued, tossing the bloody handkerchief aside as though it were nothing. "They gave me all these wonderful books to read, but I'm not sure I have enough strength to keep my eyes open for longer than a few minutes at a time." She gestured to a pile of fiction books on the bedside table, which the servants had brought from the library as per their master's request.

"I could read something to you if you wish," Adam offered.

"You could?" She quirked an eyebrow. "But you're a prince. Don't you have more important things to do?"

"I do. But not for another hour at least." Technically, he wasn't lying. He had promised to go horseback riding with Vincent after lunch, though he'd much prefer to stay here and talk with Belle. He hadn't had a conversation with her in ages and hadn't realized how much he missed sharing these quiet moments with her until now.

"Well,"—she bit her lip pensively—"if it's not too much trouble."

"Not at all." He moved to the bedside table to look at the selections. "What shall I read to you? Something with a bit of romance maybe? Heartache? Pining?" He smirked at his own joke.

Belle coughed again. "Anything is fine with me, Your Highness."

In the end, he chose the book on the top of the pile: an illustrated collection of fairy tales by Charles Perrault. He took a seat next to Belle's bed and turned to the first page, which contained a drawing of Cinderella in rags with a broomstick in hand. He looked up at Belle, who was waiting patiently for him to start reading. Except this wasn't story he wanted to tell her. Not now, anyway.

So instead, he told her a new story. One about a beauty and a beast.

He had to change a few details, of course. Belle's name was now Judith, and instead of living with her father, she lived with her father, five sisters and six brothers in a derelict part of the French countryside. Her father wasn't an artist, but a merchant, who'd been forced into poverty after losing all his wealth at sea. He'd met the nameless Beast at his enchanted castle, while en route to pick up a surviving shipment at a distant city.

After that, the tale very much aligned with the one the Prince had lived through in the original timeline. He recounted how Judith had boldly taken her father's place as the Beast's prisoner, and how she and the Beast had initially regarded each other with disdain, which changed to mutual respect after they'd saved each other from a pack of wolves in the forest. Not long after, they discovered their common interest in literature, and spent hours in the Beast's library, sorting through old books and reading passages aloud to one another. It was at this point the Beast began to develop feelings for the unconventional, yet beautiful peasant girl who'd traded her freedom for her father's. He began to find excuses to spend more time with her, joining her for meals and accompanying her on long walks in the castle grounds. He even organized a private dance for the two of them, one that he hoped would end with them confessing their love, so he could break the spell that had held him and his servants captive for so many years.

But the moment never came. After the dance, Judith admitted how terribly she missed her father, and out of pity, the Beast allowed her to use his magic mirror to see him. The mirror showed them a sick, dying old man calling out for his beloved daughter. It broke Judith's heart to see her father in such a state, just as it broke the Beast's heart to see Judith in so much pain. And so, he made one of the most difficult decisions of his life. He let her return to her father with no strings attached. She was his prisoner no longer.

By the time he'd reached the end of the story, Belle had fallen asleep again. Adam softly closed the book, wiping a stubborn tear from his eye as he returned it to the table. He'd never known that recalling the past could take such an emotional toll on him. Just as he'd never known that giving up Belle could leave him so heartbroken and empty. He was so absorbed in his thoughts, that he nearly jumped as he heard Belle cough and speak again.

"Wait. That's all?"

He turned back to her with a start. "What?"

"The Beast let Judith go back to her father, and that's it?"

"Well… of course. That's how the story ends."

Belle narrowed her eyes in befuddlement. "But what about the spell? I thought the Beast needed to earn Judith's love to become a prince again."

"He did," he confirmed. "But in the end, he decided that it didn't matter anymore. It was never really about becoming human again, you see. It was about learning to let go. All his life, the Beast had thought only of himself. When he was a human, he cared only about outward appearances, collecting beautiful things and spending his company with the most beautiful people. Even when he was a Beast, he continued to run his household with the same self-entitlement he had as a prince. But that night was the first night he realized that someone's needs were more important than his own. He let Judith go, understanding that even though he'd never have that chance to be human again, she'd be happy and free. That was his real transformation."

Belle pursed her lips, thinking. "I still think she would have come back."

"Really?" He looked at her in surprise.

"Well, not immediately, but after a certain amount of time, yes. The Beast was kind to her, and they seemed to have a lot in common once they got over their initial differences. Maybe she just needed some time away from the castle to sort out her feelings. I mean, she went to the castle to find her father first of all. I doubt she expected to fall in love with his captor, much less a talking beast. Maybe in time, she'd realize that she did feel something for him and go back to..." Her voice trailed off, and her expression suddenly grew sad. "Oh, what am I saying? I'm no love expert. I've never even been in love before. And now I never will be."

There was an extra measure of remorse in her last sentence that pulled at Adam's heartstrings in a way he didn't know possible. He felt a strong urge to take her hand and comfort her but realized how inappropriate that would be and stopped himself. "There's still time for you, Mademoiselle," he said instead.

"No." She coughed again. "I don't think there is. I've heard Monsieur Pomme talking about me and how far my infection has spread. It will be a miracle if I last the week."

"You're… not afraid?"

"To die?" She snorted. "Everyone dies at some point, Your Highness. It won't be that bad. At least I'll see my Papa again. And my Maman. I never knew who she was, you know. She died when I was just a baby. My Papa used to paint all these portraits of her and tell me all these wonderful stories about her, but the one story he refused to tell me was how she died. When I'm in heaven, maybe I'll finally learn the truth."

But you did know, Belle, Adam wanted to say. Your mother died of the plague back in Paris. We travelled back to your old home together and saw everything: your cradle, your baby rattle, the doctor's mask. You were so upset, and you asked me to bring you home... But once again, he realized how inappropriate that would be, and kept his mouth shut.

"Maybe this is God's way of punishing me," Belle went on. "Maybe I should have accepted Gaston's marriage proposal when I still had the chance."

"I have to respectfully disagree, Mademoiselle," Adam countered. "I've met this Gaston fellow before, and he's quite the brute. He has no sense of personal boundaries and has an ego big enough to rival that of Narcissus." He grimaced. "There are so many better suitors to choose from."

Belle stared at him intriguingly. "Did you just reference a character from Greek mythology, Your Highness?"

"Well, I did have an expensive education."

Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. It came from Père Robert, who was peering through the doorway with a bible in hand. "Oh, good morning, Your Highness," he said with a bow. "Forgive my interruption, but I'm here to deliver Belle's last rites and confession."

The Prince raised his brows in confusion. "Why are you doing that? She's not dying."

"It never hurts to be cautious, Your Highness," the chaplain replied with a sad smile.

Adam reluctantly saw his point. He knew that it wasn't right to deny Belle her personal time with the Lord, even if he'd rather spend that time with her instead. "Very well." He turned back to Belle. "It was nice talking with you, Mademoiselle Gagnier."

"Likewise, Your Highness." She smiled. "Thank you for the nice story. I've actually never heard of that one before. Did you say what it was called?"

"I didn't. It's called, um… Beauty and the Beast."

He stood up and left the room to give Belle and Père Robert their privacy.

Adam spent the afternoon racing his horse through the forest with Vincent, letting him win a couple of times to make him happy. Along the way, they passed by the old game trail Adam had taken with his father fifteen years ago to shoot his first deer. It was such a peculiar memory for Lumière to bring up, and Adam couldn't help but wonder how he still remembered it after all these years.

There was one major piece of the story that the old maître d' was missing of course, and it was a part that Adam had never disclosed to anyone before. The truth was, he hadn't been scared to shoot that doe because of the way it looked at him, but because of what it looked like.

The doe had shimmering golden eyes. The more the Prince stared at it, the more he sensed that there was something powerful and mystical about it, and that something bad would happen if he tried to kill it. He turned to his father to voice his fears, but the King curtly dismissed him. He said that he was making excuses and to "shoot the damn thing already." In his eyes, there was nothing wrong with the animal at all.

The Prince had never told a soul what he'd seen ever since.

Adam and Vincent returned to the castle after sundown, moving their horses into the stables before entering the atrium. A shaken-looking Cogsworth was there to greet them.

"Ahem. Good evening Your Highness. Your Grace," he said, addressing the two nobles with an odd sniffle. "Mrs. Potts has informed me that your dinner is about forty-five minutes behind schedule. The girl, Mademoiselle Gagnier, she…"

His next few words sent a terrible chill down Adam's spine. No. It's not true. It can't be!

But it was.

He sprinted to Belle's room, to find her lying in bed with the same unnatural stillness he'd seen in his mother thirteen years ago. Her hands were clasped over her chest, her face was as white as pearls and her lips were tainted blue.

He could only silence his internal screaming long enough to hear M. Pomme explain how she'd stopped breathing a couple of hours ago and fallen unconscious. He'd tried his best to resuscitate her but gave up after her heart had stopped beating.

"It was a peaceful death, Master," he said, trying to reassure him. "Quick and painless. Not like the other patients I've treated."

But Adam didn't care. He wasn't sure if he could care about anything anymore. The Lord had taken Belle away from him, leaving only an empty vessel of the woman he loved and would never have.

Chapter Text

"My brothers, sisters, and esteemed nobility of France," Père Robert began. "We are gathered together on this sad day to mourn the loss of Anne-Isabelle Gagnier, who has joined our Father in heaven after a long and arduous battle with consumption. While not in line with the traditional ways of the funeral mass, I would like to begin our service with a reading from William Shakespeare, one of Belle's favourite playwrights."

He cracked open the spine of an old copy of Julius Caesar, set it down on the church podium and read:

"Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come."

"What a powerful passage," he finished, looking back up at the congregation poignantly. "Belle once thought so too. For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare's worksthe meaning of the verse is this: A coward who runs from their fears dies many times. This fear runs so deep that it haunts and torments them until the day they actually do die. But a valiant person dies only once. They think of death only when it arrives and do their best to live their lives as fully as possible until that day comes. Brothers and sisters, our Belle was valiant."

"As we all know, Belle encountered many hardships in the past year," he continued. "She lost her father in a tragic accident, and through him, lost all her chances of moving to a new city to start a business as an up-and-coming inventor. But despite her losses, she still found a way to adapt to her new circumstances. She moved to Rabelais to work as a carpenter's apprentice and worked many other jobs in the city until her sickness got the better of her.

I know that you all have your own special memories of Belle. Some of you may remember her as the girl who would wander through our marketplace with a dreamy far-off look and her nose stuck in a book. And some of you may think of her as the girl who would share her groceries with the poor or spend her time in the village square, teaching your children how to read. These are all wonderful memories; ones that I would encourage you to reflect on and share with each other in the upcoming weeks. But most of all, I would ask you to remember Belle as a fearless and valiant individual, who, when faced with adversity, held on to her faith and handled everything as best she could. These are qualities that are good and pleasing to the Lord, ones that we all must strive to achieve. Let us pray."

And so, the funeral commenced; a long train of prayers, bible recitations, and hymns about eternal life that all fell on deaf ears for the Prince. He'd been trapped in a perpetual haze since Belle had died, disconnected from everything, unsure if he was awake or dreaming. His servants, Vincent and Père Robert had all tried talking to him before the funeral, and he'd regarded them all with the same empty evasiveness, assuring them that nothing was wrong with him and that he just wanted to be alone. They probably couldn't even tell if he was mourning or not, because he hadn't shed a single tear since Belle died. At least when his mother had died, he'd felt something. But with Belle, it was as though he'd lost the ability to feel completely.

One of the only requests he remembered making in the last two days was to pay for Belle's funeral. If she really was dead (and a part of him still believed that she wasn't), then he knew he owed it to her to give her a proper send off. After some debating, he'd asked for the funeral to take place in Villeneuve. He knew that Belle hadn't been happy living in that poor provincial town, but it had been her home once, and it was where her father had been buried. After separating them for so long in life, Adam thought it only right that he should bring them together again in death.

As the church keyboardist led the congregation in a singing of some traditional funeral hymns, the Prince's eyes wandered listlessly around the chapel. Beside him sat Vincent. He was uncharacteristically subdued, dressed in a black funeral suit that he'd borrowed from his cousin's wardrobe. In the pew behind them sat Adam's servants: Babette, Cogsworth, Clothilde, LeFou, Lumière and Mr. and Mrs. Potts. Lumière and Babette were sitting beside each other—whether this had happened deliberately or by coincidence, Adam couldn't discern. Cogsworth, Clothilde, LeFou and Mr. and Mrs. Potts had handkerchiefs stuffed loosely in their pockets, their eyes in various states of redness. Unlike in their cursed lives, they'd known Belle personally in this universe, having lived in Villeneuve at the same time she had. Adam couldn't help but be jealous of them for that reason. At least they had had real relationships and experiences with Belle to cherish and hold on to. He had nothing.

The rest of the chapel was flooded with townspeople. Across the aisle and a few pews away sat Gaston, Marie-Élise and two other women whom Adam assumed were Marie-Élise's sisters. They looked near-identical to her—or were dressed identically to her at least. A part of him wondered if the villagers had come to the funeral to mourn Belle, or if they had come to get a glimpse of the prince and duke sitting at the front of their church. It wasn't every day that the aristocracy attended a commoner's funeral after all. He could have investigated the matter but was too mentally exhausted to bring himself to fully care.

At last, Père Robert concluded the prayer of commendation and Adam, Mr. Potts and some burly men from Belle's village came forward to carry her coffin to the cemetery. The procession mutely followed them out of the church and into the humid July air, which contrasted starkly with the overcast sky above them. Once the pallbearers had lowered Belle's coffin into the burial plot, everyone came forward to deposit their flowers into her grave. Among the colourful mixture of lilies, gladioli, carnations, and chrysanthemums, Adam left a single white rose that he'd picked from the castle gardens a few hours before the funeral.

The congregation lingered around Belle's grave to pray and pay their respects. But eventually, they all returned home, except for Adam.

"Master?" LeFou called out to him. "I think we should head back to the castle soon. It looks like it's going to rain."

The Prince slouched his shoulders, too absorbed in his thoughts to acknowledge his servant's words. "This is all my fault," he muttered. "I'm the reason she's dead."

"Belle was sick for a long time, Master," Mrs. Potts replied behind him in sympathy. "You mustn't blame yourself for what happened."

"No." He shook his head. "You don't understand. None of you do. She would have never been sick at all if it wasn't for me."

And then, because he couldn't bear to keep the secret any longer, he turned around and revealed to them the awful truth, exactly as Belle had explained it to him in the tavern. He told them how he'd killed Maurice a year ago by knocking him over with his horse, leaving Belle near-destitute and forced to work as a prostitute to survive. He'd hoped to make amends with her by giving her a job at the castle, but she'd died from her illness before that hope could be realized. All because of him.

"It's not fair," he croaked, voice distorted by the painful pressure building in his throat. "She was so young. So bloody young. She had a whole life ahead of her, and I was trying to help, but I was too late. I just wanted her to get better so that she could… we could—"

"—Master listen to me," Cogsworth interrupted gently. "Mrs. Potts is right. No matter what you may believe, you are not entirely responsible for this outcome. You gave Belle a place to rest and recover under proper care and supervision. You provided her with a funeral befitting an equal in every respect. You did everything you could to reconcile yourself in her memory. Any debts to her have been paid, I assure you."

"This wasn't about repaying debts, goddamnit!" Adam growled. "I was trying to save her."

The pressure in his throat reached its peak as he let out an anguished cry. And it didn't end there. Suddenly, his body became racked by uncontrollable sobs as his face grew damp with ugly, snotty tears. He couldn't have been more ashamed of himself. Gone were the years he'd spent under his father's tutelage, mastering the art of hiding his emotions behind a mask of cold indifference. Instead, he was a vulnerable thirteen-year-old boy again, mourning for his dead mother and now, for a love that would never be. He didn't understand. How could Belle have died so senselessly, without anyone realizing how special and wonderful she was? Why was it, that despite his efforts to use the magic book to fix his relationship with her, he still ended up alone every single time?

Suddenly, someone wrapped their arms around his chest, startling him from his grief. "There there now, love," Mrs. Potts cooed from underneath his chin. "It's all right now. It's all right."

Her hold on him was surprisingly strong, despite her smaller stature. Adam stood motionless, unaccustomed to the sensation of being hugged by one of his servants before he slipped his own arms around her and returned the gesture. He doubted that she would let him go, even if he'd resisted. They remained that way until his sobs subsided into dry hiccups, after which Mrs. Potts pulled away from him and smiled. Somehow, she'd known that that "sweet innocent lad" was still in him somewhere. It was only a matter of time before he would show himself again.

After they'd finished hugging, Lumière came forward and offered the Prince a clean handkerchief to dry his eyes with. "Let's get you home, shall we?" he said, putting a hand on his shoulder.

Adam nodded wearily, suddenly feeling like he could sleep for a thousand years.

As LeFou predicted, it started to rain just as the royal household left the village. Adam stared pensively out the carriage window, observing the vastness of the passing countryside like he'd never seen it before. There was so much beauty to behold in those surrounding hills and trees, but what did it matter, if Belle was no longer here to admire them for herself? How could the world keep turning; how could his subjects continue with their day-to-day lives when the most important person in his life had been taken from him? It was sad and unfair, but at the same time, he wondered if it was all he deserved for being so selfish.

The carriage passed into the woods, where the open meadows turned into a dense foliage of trees and shrubs. Once again, Adam was reminded of the day he'd gone hunting with his father when he was eleven years old. Had he really imagined that the doe he'd seen in the woods was magic? Or was her appearance a symbol of something more, something that would play a critical role in his future, only he hadn't realized it at the time?

His hands impulsively felt for the Enchantress's book, which he'd kept tucked in a drawstring bag next to him. Ever since his almost-wedding to Princess Amandine, he'd made a point of keeping the book close to him, never knowing when he'd need to use its powers again. Now, as he looked out into the woods, an idea came to him.

If that doe really was enchanted, then maybe she's connected to my curse in some way, he reasoned. Maybe changing that moment is the only way I can prevent Belle's death and stop myself from becoming a beast again.

Compelled by this idea, he carefully removed the book from the bag, sneaking a glance over at Chapeau and Vincent as he did. They were sitting on the opposite side of the carriage, too engrossed in a conversation about the speed of thoroughbred horses to notice what he was doing. Hopefully it would stay that way.

Adam opened the book, put his hand on the page of the map and closed his eyes. He forced himself to remember as many details from that day as he could. He imagined his father shaking him awake at the crack of dawn, his servants helping him change into his hunting clothes, his father's rowdy band of friends greeting him in the atrium before they went to the stables...

And then, he felt a sharp pulling sensation as the book's magic carried him to the past once again.

When the mist cleared, Adam was standing alone in the forest. The air was surprisingly cool now. He had to hug himself for warmth as he studied his surroundings. The grey rain clouds had made way for a pale blue sky, and the gold, orange and red leaves on the surrounding trees indicated that it was now mid-autumn. Behind him was a large, twisted oak tree that marked the halfway distance between the castle and the river on the north side of the forest. Adam remembered how his father used to take him there when he'd first started hunting, claiming that it was the easiest place to find game for beginners.

The sound of galloping horses startled the Prince from his reminiscing. He quickly hid behind the oak tree, peering through a dense growth of berry bushes to observe the oncoming riders. There were eight of them in total, all clad in red and gold garments befitting a royal hunting party. In the lead was King Louis-Thomas, sitting proudly atop his Friesian horse. Next to him, looking absolutely miserable on his Arabian Palomino was the then eleven-year-old Prince Adam. Adam's heart immediately went out to his younger self. Even back then, he would have much preferred to spend his time wrapped up in a storybook than go hunting with the King and his obnoxious band of nobles. He'd never seen the appeal in killing animals for sport, especially when forced to do so with a man as impatient and ill-tempered as his father.

"Halt!" Louis-Thomas shouted, raising his fist in the air.

The horses' footfalls grew silent as the hunting party stopped beside the old oak tree. Adam took a few steps back from the path. While he doubted that the men had stopped because they'd seen him, it still paid to be cautious.

"You see this big old tree here, Thomas?" The King said, pointing it out to Adam's younger self. "This marks the halfway point between the castle and the river. You can use it as a marker to help you navigate the woods if you ever get lost."

"Right," young Prince Adam replied in half-hearted interest.

"Your Majesty, look!" One of the hunters pointed to something on the ground. "Deer tracks."

Louis-Thomas followed the man's gaze and smiled. "Very observant of you, Chrétien. And what's more, they appear to be heading straight to the river." He looked back at his son. "What say you, Thomas? Are you ready to bag your first kill of the day?"

"What?" young Prince Adam replied. Until today, his only experiences with hunting had been setting snares and examining the woods for different types of tracks. He'd had some practice using a rifle but had never killed with one before.

If his father detected any surprise in his son's reply, then he didn't react to it. He'd already dismounted his horse, determined to follow the deer's trail before it went cold. "Well don't just sit there!" he snapped, turning back to Adam. "Do you want to learn to be a hunter or not?"

It was a rhetorical question, which was to say, a question that Adam wasn't allowed to say no to. He silently dismounted his horse and joined his father on the path.

"That's my boy." The King pat his son on the back approvingly. "Gentlemen, stay here and look after our horses. We won't be long."

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"Bonne chance, mon prince."

The hunting party bid their farewells to the two royals as they disappeared down the path. Adam knew that his father was going to spend most of the walk sharing some mumbo jumbo about the finer points of tracking an animal, and how proud he was to have this chance to teach his son how to be "a real man." What a load of rubbish, he thought, rolling his eyes disdainfully. He wondered if he ought to follow them, but he also knew that he couldn't do that without exposing himself to the hunting party standing beside the tree. Besides, his father and his past self weren't the real targets here. It was the doe.

There were a few ways to get to the river from Adam's location. But the closest one to the deer and the one with the best view was through an elevated plateau on the opposite side of the water. It had a perfect overlook of the surrounding forest and was covered with enough trees and undergrowth for Adam to see everything without worrying about someone seeing him in return. Normally, one couldn't reach the plateau without crossing the river, but as luck would have it, Adam had a magical book with him to speed up the process. He put his hand on the map, conjured a mental image of the plateau, and moments later, found himself sitting directly on top of it.

It was truly a breathtaking sight. While not the tallest landmark in the forest, the plateau was high enough for Adam to see where the river bent to the east to connect with the streams in the nearby valley. Enclosing both sides of the river, stretched as far as the eye could see, were waves of deciduous trees, all flecked with the bright fiery hues of autumn. As he studied the view, Adam felt a small pang of regret. He wished he'd thought of showing this place to Belle when she'd still been his prisoner. He was sure that she would have enjoyed being here even more than he did. But the threat of the wolves and unpredictable winter weather would have made it far too risky.

Suddenly, the mysterious doe emerged from the forest, snapping the Prince back to the present. He watched, transfixed as she waded into the river, bowing her head as she took a long drink from its shimmering waters. Adam moved closer to the edge, hoping to get a glimpse of the doe's golden eyes, but her back was turned to him, making it impossible. From his limited perspective, the doe seemed perfectly ordinary.

Two more minutes passed. Adam noticed something red flash through the edge of the woods—the King and his younger self, perhaps? His assumption proved correct, as a moment later, he saw them sneak out of the trees and hide behind a cluster of shrubs. His father would likely be urging his younger self to take the shot by now. He couldn't hear them from this distance, but his memory of that day was sharp enough to recall what the conversation would sound like.

"There she is, son. What a beauty. You couldn't have asked for a clearer shot."

Adam shakily aimed his rifle at the intended target. He didn't want to shoot an innocent animal, but what choice did he have? If he didn't, his father would have one more reason to call him a failure, and Adam had failed him far too many times already. If he killed the doe, at least he'd have a chance of getting into his good books... for once.

A gust of wind blew across the river, sending dark ripples across the water's surface and rustling the leaves of the nearby trees. The doe lifted her head and flared her nostrils, detecting a strange new scent in the air. Then, she turned her head and looked straight at the Prince.

All at once, Adam became paralyzed with fear. For the doe's eyes, which he'd expected to be black, were glowing an unnatural shade of gold.

"What's the matter, boy?" His father hissed beside him. "Shoot her! Before she runs off."

"Père… there's something wrong with her," the Prince replied, turning back to his father in worry. "She's not normal. Her eyes… they're glowing." He was instantly reminded of those shapeshifters he'd read about in the library, magical beings who took on the form of animals to tempt humans into performing evil acts. What if this doe was a demon? Would it possess Adam if he tried to kill it, or put a curse on him and his father?

"What is this nonsense?" Louis-Thomas scowled in disdain. "There's nothing wrong with her. It's just the light playing tricks. Now stop making excuses and shoot the damn thing already!"

Adam knew that it was pointless to argue, especially when his father raised his voice like that. He reluctantly turned back to the doe, but before he could squeeze the trigger, she fled across the river and disappeared into the trees. The Prince looked on with pure devastation. Once again, his chance to prove himself to his father had crumbled into dust.

Louis-Thomas had never looked so angry before. He turned to his son, veins practically bulging through his temples as he said, "You see what you did?"

He shouted an expletive and Adam winced, as though his words had physically slapped him in the face.

"I-I'm sorry, Père," he stammered. "I'll-I'll do better next time. I promise."

"You'll do no such thing." His father growled. "If you can't kill a simple doe then you're better off staying at home! What a bloody waste of my time. Come on."

Adam lowered his rifle, eyes brimming with tears. He hadn't even been outside for an hour and was already done for. Not for the first time, he began to wonder if life would have been easier for him if he'd been born a girl instead of a boy. At least girls didn't have to go hunting or live up to the impossible expectations that their fathers enforced on their firstborn sons. Did all fathers treat their heirs this strictly? When Adam thought of the way his Oncle Christophe treated Vincent, he doubted it.

Presently, Adam watched as his father and past self emerged from the bushes, the King storming angrily back to the hunting party while the Prince followed behind him with his head bowed. This was where Adam's memory of his first hunt ended. But with the help of the magic book, he could now watch the doe from the other side of the river and determine if his prediction about her magical existence was true or not.

Adam moved to the left side of the plateau, which looked out to the forest on his side of the river. The doe was still there surprisingly—it seemed that she had only run far enough to stay hidden behind the wall of trees in front of the water. She stood with her ears erect for several long minutes, before turning around. And as she did, Adam jumped back with a start.

The doe had begun to glow with a strange golden light. Her ears and muzzle shrank back into her head, her body contorting into an upright position as her back legs grew longer and her front legs grew shorter...

Then, the light faded to reveal a woman in a dark green travelling cloak. She briefly looked over her shoulder and Adam let out a stifled gasp. For the woman's face belonged to someone he'd seen only once, but never forgotten. Her impossible beauty, long fair hair, and haunting blue eyes had constantly plagued his nightmares, ever since the day she'd set foot in his castle over five years ago. The Enchantress.

Dozens of questions raced through his mind. What was the witch's purpose for being in the woods that day? Had she been spying on him? Had she been scouting him out, trying to determine if he would be a good candidate for her little "beast experiment?" And if so, why had she chosen to curse him and not his father—the man who'd really been responsible for making him the heartless person that he was?

Then, from the Prince's pondering came a stunning revelation. If I'd shot the doe that day at the river, then my curse would have never happened.

He gritted his teeth in rage. He couldn't believe it. The Enchantress had been less than twenty feet away from him, and he could have killed her right then and there if he hadn't been so hesitant...

But you can still change all that, said a voice at the back of his head. If you kill the Enchantress now, then you'll never be a beast.

The possibility dangled precariously before him, like a carrot on a string. The question was, could he really do it?

The Prince had been a cruel man once. But he'd never been a murderer—not a conscious murderer at leastHaving grown up reading the Bible and countless books on moral conduct and ethics, he was well aware of the consequences of ending an innocent person's life.

But the Enchantress isn't innocent, he reminded himself. She wasn't even human! She was a powerful sorceress who'd barged into his castle uninvited and condemned his servants to an eternity as household objects, never to see their loved ones again. She'd taken away Adam's freedom, and in turn, had taken away Belle's. True, the Beast may have incited Belle to trade her freedom for Maurice's, but he would have never imprisoned either of them if he hadn't been cursed in the first place. And what had the Enchantress really accomplished by bringing him and Belle together? Heartbreak, bad memories and time that neither of them would get back. Even now, the remnants of the Enchantress's spell continued to torment the Prince as he tried repeatedly to use the book to fix a world that seemed utterly unfixable. How many more lives would that horrible witch go on to destroy if her magic continued to thrive?

Suddenly, killing the Enchantress wasn't just an act of vengeance to Adam. It was an act for the greater good.

But he couldn't commit an act of greater good without a proper weapon.

The Enchantress pulled up her hood and disappeared into the trees, completely unaware of the Prince watching her from the plateau. But they would meet again. Adam would make certain of it.

He put his hand on the enchanted book, pictured where he wanted to go in his mind's eye and vanished into thin air.

The book transported him back to the oak tree, at the start of his hunting memory. But this time, instead of waiting for his father and younger self to reappear, Adam made his way to the royal supply shed, which was a five-minute walk from the trail. He used the book's magic to bypass the locked door, and moments later, found himself standing inside with unlimited access to the traps, firearms and ammunition his father used to keep stored away for emergencies. The Prince spent some time examining the rifles on the back shelf before remembering that any acts he committed in the past had to be as inconspicuous and traceless as possible. Bearing this in mind, he grabbed a bow and a quiver of arrows from the wall next to him. An arrow wasn't as fatal as a bullet, but it was quieter, and therefore more suited to his purpose. He put his hand on the map, closed his eyes and transported himself back to the plateau.

The Enchantress was already drinking from the riverbank when Adam returned to his hiding place. Taking advantage of her distraction, he removed his constricting black jacket and cravat and climbed down the plateau, using the grooves and rocks embedded in the sides to guide him. Once he reached the bottom, he crouched behind the underbrush and waited for the Enchantress to return to the place where she would transform into her human self.

Adam waited and waited and waited. And just when he was beginning to worry that he'd gotten his timing or position wrong, the doe burst through the line of trees in front of the river. Her pacing slowed and she turned to look back at the water.

The Prince watched the Enchantress with bated breath. It's now or never, he told himselfHe carefully notched an arrow into his bow and aimed for the side of her chest, just behind her front legs. He straightened his elbow and drew back the bowstring until it was grazing the side of his nose. It couldn't have been an easier kill.

But suddenly, the Enchantress turned her head and fixed her golden eyes on him, as though she'd known he was there all along. The bow trembled in his hands. He had an uncanny feeling that she was looking into all of him: his past, his present, his future, the bad things he'd done in life and the good. And that terrified him.

Do I really want to do this? he wondered, plagued by an odd sense of guilt. The Enchantress had put him through hell, yes. But she was also the one who'd brought Belle to him and shown him what it was to love both selflessly and unconditionally. All his life he'd been surrounded by riches and splendour, with no idea of how meaningless it all had been until the day he'd become a beastCould he really kill the Enchantress in good faith, knowing she'd helped him realize those things? Moreover, if the Enchantress was immortal, then how could Adam even stand a chance of defeating her with a flimsy bow and arrow?

The sound of a gunshot in the near distance startled him from his thoughts. It might have been one distraction, but it was enough. His hand impulsively released the arrow, sending it whizzing through the air, straight into the Enchantress's chest.

By the time Adam looked back and realized what he'd done, the doe had already fallen to her side. Her legs flailed wildly as a pool of blood gushed out from the place where the arrow had struck her.

His mouth dropped open in horror. "No," he muttered. He discarded his bow, in half a mind to run to her, but then stopped as he noticed his hands. They were glowing.


But before he could make sense of it all, the woods rapidly dissolved around him. He was back in that floating celestial world, the sun and moon rising and setting so fast, he felt like he was going to be sick. What's going on? The book had never taken him anywhere without his permission before...

Quite suddenly, he found himself sitting in the carriage again. And he was in pain. Something scathingly hot was sitting on his lap—he let out a cry of agony as he pushed it to the floor. He looked down, expecting to see a boiling kettle or an iron, but it was the Enchantress's book. Only something was wrong with it. He watched, dumbstruck as its pages and cover blackened and curled in on itself, as though scorched by an invisible fire. Then, the entire tome disintegrated into a pile of ash and smoke.

A bead of sweat trickled down Adam's brow. He didn't know what had just happened, or why. All he knew was that his portal to the past was gone, and now he was completely and utterly ruined.

Good Lord. What have I done now?

Chapter Text

The carriage drew to a halt. Adam nearly fell out of his seat as an unfamiliar middle-aged man with a scruffy beard opened the door. His black tricorn hat and brown cape coat were damp from the rain. This struck Adam as significant, as it had been raining before he'd travelled back in time. Had the book transported him to the present again?

"Master?" the man said in alarm. "Is everything alright? I thought I heard screaming."

Adam blinked in confusion. "Who are you?" he asked.

The man frowned. "Why, I'm your coachman, Silvestre Boissel, of course."

"Right," Adam muttered, unsure of what he was supposed to do with this information. He looked around the carriage again. To his surprise, he was no longer dressed in his black funeral attire, but a brown jacket and white shirt with ruffled sleeves. He was also the only one in the coach. Vincent and Chapeau were no longer sitting across from him. But what surprised him the most was when he looked back at the floor and realized that the magic book was gone. Even its ashes hadn't managed to leave a trace on the carpet.

"My Lord?" Silvestre repeated. "Is everything alright?"

"Yes." Adam lied. "My apologies. I thought I saw a spider…" He looked back at Silvestre. "Did you just call me 'My Lord?'"

"Well of course," the coachman replied in confusion. "That is your title, after all. Thomas-Alexandre de Breil de Pontbriand, Comte of Droitebrume?"

No, it isn't, Adam thought. Why was his coachman addressing him as a count instead of a prince? And why was he going by mother's surname instead of his father's?

"My Lord, would you like some air?" Silvestre said, noticing his master's distressed expression. "It's raining outside, but I can find somewhere to pull over if you need to—"

"—No, that won't be necessary," Adam interrupted. "Just take me to… where are we going exactly?"

"The Chatêau de la Rose, sire. To see your brother?"

Adam looked at the coachman with a dumbstruck expression on his face. "I don't have a brother," he stated plainly.

"Desolé, Mon Seigneur. A poor slip of the tongue I'm afraid. I meant your adopted brother."

Unfortunately, this didn't help Adam understand his new situation whatsoever. He needed more information, and fast. "Would you consider yourself loyal to me, Silvestre?" he asked, changing the subject.

"I'd like to think so, Master."

"Then would you kindly answer these questions for me?"

"I'll try my best."

"Who is my adopted brother?"

"He is Gaston, My Lord," Silvestre replied diligently. "He reigns as king over this part of France."

Gaston? Isn't that the name of that soldier who was trying to court Belle? The Prince—technically "The Count" now—shook his head. Gaston wasn't that uncommon of a name. Silvestre was probably referring to a man who had the same name as Gaston. Probably...

"How long has Gaston been king of this region?" he continued.

"For eight years, sire. He took over the throne after your father transferred your title and inheritance to him on his deathbed. Erm... but I guess I shouldn't have mentioned that," he added awkwardly, "what with it being a sore subject for you and all."

Adam ignored Silvestre's comment. "What is the purpose of my visit to my brother?" he continued.

"Well, it's not my place to question the business of my betters, My Lord. But I believe you mentioned something about going there to request an allowance raise from His Majesty?"

Adam took a second to make sense of this information. Based on what Silvestre was telling him, he'd been disinherited, demoted to a count, and now some adopted brother of his named Gaston was ruling the kingdom in his stead. He hadn't just created a simple mishap by shooting down the Enchantress. He'd created a complete and utter disaster.

"Is there anything else you'd like to ask me, My Lord?" Silvestre asked through chattering teeth. "It's getting awfully cold out here."

"Oh no," Adam replied, suddenly aware of how drenched his coachman was becoming. "That's all I needed to know. In fact," he added, trying to make light of the situation, "the purpose of my questioning was to test how sharp your wits are under the elements! I can't just have some silly simpleton driving me around everywhere you know. So, congratulations! You've successfully passed my test."

Silvestre looked as though his master had completely lost his mind. Still, he nodded thoughtfully and said, "Well, thank you, I guess. Does this mean we can go to the castle now?"

"Of course we can!" Adam continued with an exaggerated grin. He knew he was acting ridiculous, but there was no use in dropping the façade now that he'd started it. "Take me there straight away. And then, once we return to Droitebrume, you will be rewarded handsomely for your time."

"As you wish, Master," Silvestre replied, shaking his head incredulously. He shut the door and returned to the front of the carriage.

Once they started moving again, Adam's cheerful expression turned to one of dread. He hadn't even been here for five minutes and desperately wanted to go back. But with the book gone, it was next to impossible. All he could do now was face whatever mess he'd created and hope that things weren't as awful as they appeared to be.

Fifteen minutes later, the carriage arrived at the iron wrought gates of Adam's castle. Former castle, he corrected himself. It looked the same on the outside; white and ornate, with pointed towers that reached towards the heavens. But it was what was happening on the inside that really concerned him.

Silvestre stopped the carriage beside the castle's front steps, where LeFou was waiting to greet them. He was dressed in a yellow suit and brandishing an umbrella to keep out the rain. Adam relaxed a fraction upon seeing the portly man. He couldn't say that LeFou was his favourite servant, but his familiar face and overly cheerful disposition was exactly what he needed at a time like this.

"Good afternoon, My Lord," LeFou said as Adam exited the carriage. "How wonderful to see you again! The King is in the throne room. I'll take you to him straight away."

"Thank you, LeFou," Adam replied. He followed the bumbling man into the castle atrium, which also seemed unchanged from its previous reality. The floor was decorated with the same checkered tiles, the pillars engraved with the same oversized pieces of ivy that he'd come to resent during the enchantment. But what struck him as different was how silent and empty the place was. That's odd, he thought. He couldn't remember any point in his life, beast or human, when he hadn't seen the staff bustling about, cleaning up the castle or preparing for some pressing social event. The absence of them and their incessant chatter put him slightly on edge.

"I hope you had a nice trip?" LeFou asked as he escorted his master's brother to the throne room.

"It was… decent," Adam replied. "And how is His Majesty these days?"

"Oh, he's doing great, My Lord!" LeFou beamed. "His trading business in Africa is going swimmingly. Ships come sailing into the harbour every month overflowing with sugar, ivory, and tobacco. We're never without honey and cigarettes in this castle, that's for sure!"

"I'm… glad to hear it," Adam replied. Only he didn't exactly mean it. He'd never approved of the French-African trading business, not since his mother had told him about the harsh labour its slaves had to endure to produce such expensive products. It was because of her that Adam had never invested in the trades or kept any slaves after his father's passing. It had made perfect sense to him at the time, but clearly, Gaston didn't share the same opinion.

A few minutes later, LeFou and the Count arrived the castle throne room. Unlike the atrium, this room looked very different from how Adam remembered it. The walls were painted crimson and accented by golden chandeliers and picture frames hanging from the walls. The remaining wall space was covered by the stuffed heads of wolves, bears, foxes and other wild animals Adam couldn't identify by name. There were so many of them that he wondered if someone had hunted down half the prey in the forest just to put them there.

Feeling uneasy, especially with the Enchantress's death still on his mind, the Count turned his attention to his host. He was sitting at the back of the room with the three dark-haired women that had attended Belle's funeral earlier. One of them was massaging the King's shoulders. Another was massaging his biceps. Marie-Élise was massaging his feet.

"Oh yes, that's it," King Gaston said with a satisfied moan. "That's the spot."

The women exchanged disgusted expressions but continued to tend to their needy king like nothing was wrong. Adam assumed that they worked here as Gaston's servants or as his courtesans. Either way, he already felt sorry for them.

"Your Majesty?" LeFou cleared his throat as he and Adam approached the throne. "The Comte de Droitebrume has arrived."

King Gaston clapped his hands. The three girls stepped away from the throne, allowing Adam to see his host's face for the first time. His mouth dropped open in shock. It was impossible, but at the same time, that shiny black hair and smug expression were too distinctive to belong to anyone else. The King really was Gaston—Belle's old suitor.

But how could he inherit the throne? he wondered. Last he'd checked, Gaston was a peasant who'd earned a name for himself after serving in the war for a few years. He didn't have a drop of royal blood in him.

"Thomas," the King said with an affectionate drawl. Adam wrinkled his nose. He'd always hated when his father called him that, but coming from Gaston's mouth, it sounded ten times worse. "How wonderful to see you again." He fanned out his arms to reveal his crimson overcoat, which was lined with white fur on the sleeves and buttons. The Count had to resist the urge to cringe. This was truly a man who loved his animals. Only a narcissistic fool would wear that much fur in the middle of July.

"Good day, frère," he said aloud."I've come to ask you for an… allowance raise."

"Again?" Gaston cocked an eyebrow. "But didn't you ask me for one last year?"

"Well, obviously whatever you gave me wasn't enough. Or else I wouldn't be here again, would I?"

"All right, all right." He frowned. "No need to be so snarky. Cogsworth!"

The majordomo appeared beside the King in an instant. "Yes, Master?"

"Fetch me a quill and some parchment, please."

"Of course, sire. Right away!"

Cogsworth scrambled out of the throne room and returned a minute later with the requested parchment and a quill made from a blue peacock feather. But rather than look pleased by his servant's promptness, the King raised his brows in horror. "Blue with red, Cogsworth? Are you trying to kill me? That doesn't match with my outfit at all!"

"O-Of course! Dreadfully sorry, Your Majesty," Cogsworth apologized. He ran out of the room again to replace the unsightly quill.

"Servants." Gaston sneered as he turned back to Adam. "Can't they do anything right?"

Adam wanted to tell his "brother" how petty he sounded, making a fuss about a quill that didn't match with his ridiculous outfit. But he knew he couldn't do that without sounding like a hypocrite. After all, how many times had he said similar things to his own staff, never giving a damn about whether he hurt their feelings or not? He hated to admit it, but in this situation, he and Gaston were one and the same.

A minute later, Cogsworth returned, this time with a quill with a white feather.

"Much better," Gaston said approvingly. He took the stationary and scribbled something on to the parchment. "So, Thomas, I'll raise your allowance to… two gold coins a year."

"Two gold coins?" Adam replied in disbelief. "I could barely hire a new servant with that kind of money!"

"Then perhaps you should fire some of your staff," Gaston suggested coldly. "Surely you don't need that many to run that puny estate of yours? Anyways, two gold coins. That's my final offer. Now take it or leave it."

Adam doubted that his present self would travel all this way for such a meagre allowance raise. He was about to voice this to the King when the doors opened behind him with a loud bang. He turned to see Chip chasing a large sheepdog across the room, laughing at the top of his lungs.

"Come here boy, come here!"

The dog circled around a wooden pedestal supporting a china vase at the side of the room. As Chip hurried to follow him, he tripped and fell on the carpet, sending the ornament toppling from its stand. The vase might have fallen right on top of him if it weren't for Marie-Élise, who caught it just in time. Chip looked startled but otherwise unharmed by the incident.

Gaston, on the other hand, was red in the face with fury. "MRS. POTTS!" he bellowed.

The doors flew open again. Mrs. Potts sprinted into the room, eyes growing wide upon seeing her son lying on the carpet. "Oh my goodness! Chip! Are you alright?'

"I'm fine, Mama," Chip replied, standing up shakily. "I just had a bit of a slip, that's all."

"Mrs. Potts, what have I told you about letting your son run around the castle while I'm conducting business with my visitors?" Gaston demanded. "I almost lost a priceless vase because of him!"

"I'm so sorry, Master," Mrs. Potts stammered. "Chip's always been such a good boy. I thought I'd let him play with the dog for a bit while I prepared your luncheon, but then I turned around and—"

"ENOUGH!" Gaston shouted again. "I've had it with your bumbling excuses, woman! I expect my servants to maintain a certain level of propriety in this castle, and when they don't, you'll find that I can get very very angry." He jeered at Mrs. Potts, making her jump back with a frightened squeal. "So as punishment for your son's insolence, I'm cutting your wages in half. Your wages... and your husband's."

"Cut our wages?" Mrs. Potts's face grew as pale as a porcelain teapot. "But Your Majesty, it was only one mistake!"

"And it's a mistake that will cost you your job if it happens again," Gaston replied indifferently. "This is a castle I'm running, not a bloody nursery."

"But sir—"

"I'm sorry, Mama," Chip whimpered, eyes growing wet with tears.

"That's it," Adam interrupted, taking a step forward. "I've heard enough."

The King turned to his brother in surprise. "What's gotten into you, Thomas? You aren't actually trying to defend this old crone and her good-for-nothing son now, are you?"

"Chip is just a boy," Adam countered, crossing his arms defensively. "Yes, he made a mistake, but there's no reason to dock his parents' wages because of that."

Gaston looked as though his brother had punched him in the face, he was so shocked. Then, his dark brows drew together in rage. "How dare you," he said through gritted teeth. "You have the nerve—no, the audacity to tell me how to discipline my servants?"

"Not at all... Your Majesty. I'm simply saying that you can't hire a young boy to work in your castle and expect him to sit still all day," Adam explained. "He's a child, not an adult. If you had an ounce of empathy in you, you would let Chip and Mrs. Potts off with a warning instead of a punishment."

Rather than consider his brother's point, Gaston only became more enraged. "I should have known," he said darkly. "You're making jabs at my leadership skills because you're jealous. You're upset because Père made me the heir instead of you."

"Of course not. I just said that—"

"GUARDS! Take this fool to the dungeon," Gaston commanded. "Let's show him what happens when he dares to challenge my authority."

"Um, begging your pardon, sire," Cogsworth cut in nervously, "but do you really think that's the wisest idea? The Comte is your brother after all."

"Indeed. And Joseph in the Bible put too much trust in his brothers and look where he ended up. They dropped him down a cistern and sold him into slavery!"

Adam was about to point out that Joseph had then worked his way up from a slave to the Vizier of Egypt, but two guards came to apprehend him before he could. He wondered if he should fight them off, but then he saw the weapons strapped to their belts and thought better of it. He was unarmed and didn't have the advantage of brute strength on his side like he did when he was a beast.

Before the guards took him away, Adam looked back at Mrs. Potts and Chip in pity. "I'm very sorry for both of you," he said quietly.

He'd mistreated his servants many times before the curse. Only now was he beginning to realize how ugly it looked in somebody else.

The cell doors closed behind Adam with a loud clang.

"By order of His Majesty the King, you will remain detained in this dungeon until further notice," the guard behind him said importantly.

Adam looked back at his captor in disdain. "I don't suppose you know how long that will be, do you?"

The guard shrugged. "Maybe a couple of days. Maybe a few weeks. It all depends on the King's mood. Still, you did make him awfully mad back there. I'd start saying your prayers now if I were you."

With that, he marched down the stairs to begin his patrol for the day. Adam indignantly shoved at the barred doors before storming over to the man-sized window on the opposite side of his cell. Now that he was alone again, he had more time to reflect on his current situation. He'd shot the Enchantress with an arrow, most likely killing her in the process. And now he was trapped in an alternate reality where Gaston was a king and he was a prisoner in his own castle. Worst of all, there was no magic book to bail him out.

Feeling increasingly distressed by this new reality he'd created, Adam looked from the window to the great abyss that separated him from the bottom of the dungeon tower. His sadistic great-great-grandfather had constructed this place with windows that were large enough for its captives to escape—escape through a one-hundred-and-fifty-foot drop to their death. Even though there was a staircase visible from Adam's cell, the gap between them was too wide to cross safely. He knew this because no prisoner that had attempted the jump had lived to tell the tale.

The more Adam took in the gravity of his mistake, the more he wondered if he'd be better off throwing himself off the tower to join the others. It doesn't matter what I do to fix my past, he reasoned. I just keep making things worse. I'm a fool to think I could make things better for myself. Just as I'm a fool to think that I ever had a chance at earning Belle's affections.

"Not much of a view, is it?"

Adam jumped and turned to face the unexpected voice. He couldn't believe his eyes.

Belle's father—who was supposed to be dead and buried in the cemetery behind Villeneuve's church—was sitting against the cell wall with an attentive expression on his face. Despite his bloodshot eyes and disheveled grey hair, he looked very much alive.

"Oh my! I'm sorry if I scared you," Maurice apologized, mistaking Adam's dumbstruck expression for fear. "I've been cooped up here for so long, I haven't had anyone to talk to in days. My name's Maurice by the way." He held out his hand for Adam to shake.

The Count found his voice again and stepped forward. "Adam," he replied, shaking the hand of his former prisoner.

"Adam," Maurice repeated inquisitively. "Forgive me, but your accent and bearing are very... distinctive. Would I be correct in assuming that you are a member of the French nobility?"

Of course I'm a member of the French nobility, Adam thought. I'm only the Prince of this castle after all! But then he remembered himself. He wasn't a prince anymore. In fact, he had an uncanny feeling that in this universe, Maurice didn't know that he and Gaston were even related. "You have a sharp mind," he replied simply. "I'm a count from Droitebrume."

"Curious," Maurice remarked. "I knew that Gaston had a habit of locking up his subjects. But I never knew that he could lock up counts, too."

"I'm a... special case," Adam explained. "I came to speak with His Majesty about a financial matter. But then he had me arrested after I accused him of mistreating my—his servants."

"Hmm. Well no surprises there," Maurice remarked. "King Gaston's never been good at handling criticism I'm afraid. My daughter said something similar last week when she refused to become his courtesan. That's how I ended up in this prison cell."

Adam's mouth dropped open in disbelief. Not only was Maurice still alive, but so was Belle. Maybe I haven't ruined everything after all…

"You look surprised," Maurice noted curiously.

"Oh no. I'm just… confused," Adam clarified. "If your daughter refused to become the King's… courtesan, then why are you the one who's locked up instead of her?"

"Oh, I'm afraid that King Gaston can be very manipulative when he wants to be," Maurice explained sadly. "You're not from these parts, so I suppose you're unfamiliar with his way of blackmailing citizens… especially when they refuse to follow his ridiculous commands."

"Regretfully no," Adam replied, already not liking where this conversation was heading.

"Well then, allow me to illuminate you," said the old man. "Every few months or so, our King comes to Villeneuve—that's the closest village from here—to find unmarried women to work for him at the castle. Last week, he came for my daughter. His proposal was decent enough—he complimented her appearance and then asked her to become his courtesan in exchange for a lifetime of wealth and happiness. But my Belle refused. And when he tried to convince her that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, she told him that he was a pig and that she'd rather be executed than be his 'pet' for the rest of her life." The old man chuckled bitterly. "Well, you can imagine how well the King reacted to that. He became so angry, that he decided to lock me up and will only release me if Belle agrees to his proposal."

Adam felt like he was going to be sick. It seemed Gaston's obsession for Belle remained constant, no matter what reality he travelled to. And now that he was a king, there was nothing to stop him from conducting such a vile and dishonourable act. "You don't think she'd really agree to that arrangement... do you?" he asked Maurice nervously.

"I hope not." The old man frowned. "Belle is very stubborn, but selfless too. In my heart, I hope that she'll find the strength to go on without me. But truthfully, I have no idea what her decision will be."

Adam scratched his chin, thinking. He couldn't change the past again. But there was still one thing he could try to remedy Belle and Maurice's predicament.

"Don't worry, Monsieur," he declared. "I'll get you back to your daughter before she agrees to the King's offer."

"You will?" Maurice looked at Adam in surprise. "But how? There's no way out of this prison cell. I've been trying for days."

"I'll think of something."

Adam would rather die than see Belle surrender herself to Gaston. And after wrongfully imprisoning Maurice as the Beast and separating him from his only daughter, this was the best way that he could make it up to both of them.

The trouble was, getting out of the cell was next to impossible. There was nothing to pick the lock with and climbing out the window was far too dangerous. Adam and Maurice deduced that even if they made a rope out of their clothes, it wouldn't be long enough to lower them safely to the bottom of the tower or swing them to the staircase across the window. There was nothing they could attach the rope to either. Tying it to the door would make it too short while tying it to the chamber pot or the stool—the only two pieces of furniture in their cell—would not be able to hold all their weight.

By noon, the rain had stopped and the prisoners had exhausted all their options. Adam was beginning to grow desperate. Every minute he wasted in this cell was another minute that Belle could be accepting Gaston's terms to release her father. There was no way he could let that happen.

Luckily for him, help was already on the way. Less than three hours after Adam's imprisonment, two guards arrived at his cell again, bearing two bowls of lumpy grey porridge.

"Bon appetit," the first guard said mockingly as his partner unlocked and opened the door.

But before they could deliver the food, two loud clanging sounds filled the air. The guards grew limp and fell face first onto the ground, shattering the bowls and spilling their contents everywhere.

"And that, Lumière, is how you take down a guard," Cogsworth said proudly as he emerged from the shadows holding a sturdy-looking frying pan.

"Alright, alright," Lumière grumbled beside him. "You win."

"Cogsworth. Lumière," Adam said incredulously. "What are you doing here?"

"Rescuing you, of course," Lumière replied. "We couldn't let you rot in here after the way you stood up for Chip and Mrs. Potts. We owe you nothing less than our gratitude."

"Master Thomas, you must leave here at once," Cogsworth interrupted urgently. "Your brother is plotting to murder you!"

"Murder me?" Adam raised his brows. "For what? Telling him the truth?"

"Well, to put it plainly sire, the Master has not been of sound mind for quite some time," the majordomo explained, fidgeting with his hands nervously. "In these past few months, he's grown increasingly paranoid that someone or something is going to overthrow him. Your meeting with him today was the straw that broke the camel's back so to speak."

"C'est vrai." Lumière nodded. "Now that the Master has you under his boot, he's waiting for the perfect opportunity to squish you flat. Figuratively, of course. Not literally."

"Well, as of now, we can't be certain of that, can we?" Cogsworth pointed out.

"What? I was trying to be optimistic!" Lumière shot back.

"I'm thankful for your help—both of you," Adam cut in. "But there must be something I can do in return. I can't just leave the castle while you continue to serve that despicable man."

"Not to worry, Master Thomas," Lumière reassured him. "We have our own means of escaping when the time is right. Besides, what's the life of a servant compared to the life of the late King's son? Our main concern is for your safety. Let us escort you to the secret passage on the fifth floor. From there, head to the stables where you'll find our fastest horse saddled and ready for you. You need to get out of this region as quickly as possible. Leave the country if you can."

"Um, pardon me, Messieurs," Maurice interrupted. "But did you just imply that this man is the son of the late King?"

"Well of course he is!" said Cogsworth, as though it would be an insult to think of him as anyone else. "His rightful name is Prince Thomas-Alexandre Adam de Bauffremont, the blood son of King Louis-Thomas and Queen Marie-Henriette."

Maurice glanced at Adam with wide eyes, as though he were seeing him clearly for the first time. "Your Highness!" he exclaimed with a clumsy bow. "Forgive me. I had no idea."

"Thanks, Cogsworth," Adam said dryly. "But I'm not a prince. Not anymore."

"You still could be," argued Lumière. "If you looked for supporters, you could organize a coup against your brother and restore the throne."

"And what makes you think I'm fit to sit on the throne?" Adam argued, crossing his arms irritably. "Clearly Père didn't think I was right for the job. Why else would he pick Gaston to rule instead of me?"

"Pour l'amour de Dieu, who cares what your father thought?" Lumière said, waving his arms exasperatingly. "It's certainly not the first time he's had a bad lapse in judgement."

The Count sighed. "Fine. I'll consider it. But first, I need to help this gentleman"—he gestured to Maurice—"reunite with his daughter. His reasons for being locked up here are just as unjust as mine. It would be wrong to leave him here."

"Understood, My Lord." Cogsworth nodded. "There should be room on the horse for both of you. But we all need to leave at once."

Lumière and Cogsworth escorted Adam and Maurice from the dungeons to the secret passageway on the castle's fifth floor. Before he slipped through the hidden wall panel, Adam exchanged parting hugs with his servants and promises to stay safe. It felt oddly emotional to say goodbye to the two people that had looked after him for most of his life. He wondered if he would ever see them again, or what the consequences would be if Gaston discovered that they'd helped him escape. For their sakes, he hoped that their punishment would not be as severe as his own.

"I didn't know that King Louis-Thomas had another son," Maurice said as he followed the Count to the stables. "Of course, my daughter and I moved to Villeneuve after Gaston became king, so we would have missed out on any rumours about his coronation by then. Why did your father make him the heir anyway? Seems a strange thing to do if he already had you."

"I don't know," Adam replied.

"You don't?" The old man tilted his head in surprise. "Why not? Weren't you there when it happened?"

"I was," Adam fibbed. At least, I assume that I was. "But it's not an experience I care to remember or talk about." He knew it was a poor excuse. But it was only one he could think of that would stop Belle's father from asking too many questions.

"I …understand," Maurice replied in sympathy. "Though in my opinion, bad experiences, as painful as they are, can make us stronger and wiser. But then again, I am only a simple music box maker. Not a politician."

Adam had to resist the urge to laugh. If only the old man knew how many times he'd failed at being a prince already, he was sure he wouldn't be as quick to criticize him. The first time, he'd made one careless decision and became a beast as punishment. The second time, he'd turned down a marriage to a perfectly decent princess, because his feelings for Belle got the better of him. The third time he'd become an irresponsible womanizer and drunkard who had no interest in committing himself to the throne. Given how many times he'd neglected to fulfill his responsibilities, he half-wondered if losing his title in this reality was a blessing in disguise.

Once they exited the secret passage, Maurice and Adam made their way to an unguarded exit at the side of the castle. From there, they snuck around the perimeter to the stables. A brown thoroughbred horse was waiting for them by the entrance, groomed and saddled, exactly as Lumière had said he would be.

They had just enough time to mount the horse and exit the stables when the castle's front doors opened. Out stepped Gaston accompanied by an entourage of rifle-bearing guards. Upon seeing his prisoners, the King flew into a murderous rage.

"I knew it!" he shouted. "I knew they would betray me! Guards, kill them! Kill those bloody bastards!"

"We need to get out of here," Adam urged Maurice, who was sitting at the front of the saddle. "Now!"

The old man obliged. He forced their horse into a gallop as the guards scrambled towards them. Together, they raced across the muddy courtyard, the sounds of gunshots echoing loudly behind them. Then, just as they passed through the gates, Adam felt something hot pierce through his right shoulder. He slumped forward and grunted in pain.

"Your Highness!" Maurice shouted in alarm. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," Adam said through watering eyes. "Keep going."

They continued to ride into the woods with no destination in mind, other than to shake off Gaston's guards. The forest had better coverage than the castle grounds, but Adam could still hear shouts and hoofbeats behind them, indicating that their pursuers weren't far from their trail.

Finally, Maurice was forced to pull to a stop as they reached a fork in the road.

"Which way do I go?" he asked, turning to the Count frantically. "I've never been to this part of the woods before."

Adam tried to find his bearings, but the growing pain in his shoulder made it difficult to think clearly. Something warm and damp was sticking to the back of his shirt, and he was starting to feel dizzy. I don't know how long I can last, he thought. What happens if I can't help Maurice find his daughter?

"This way! On your right!"

Adam snapped back to attention. "Did you hear that?" he asked Maurice.

"Hear what?"

Adam searched the woods for the strange man's voice but saw nothing. He shook his head. I must be going mad. Still, he felt inclined to tell Maurice to follow the unseen speaker's command.

They sped through the road's right fork until they reached a clearing. No sooner had they entered the glade, when, much to Adam's alarm, the trees behind them twisted together to form a sturdy wall. Seconds later, he heard hoofbeats again, followed by the whinnies of several startled horses pulling to a halt behind the barrier.

"Where did they go?" asked one of the guards. "This is a dead end!"

"They must have slipped past us," another guard replied in frustration. "Come on, let's turn around. They can't have gotten far."

The sounds of the horses grew fainter as the guards returned to the path. The Count sighed in relief. Whether by magic or divine intervention, it seemed that he and Maurice were out of Gaston's grasp—for now.

"Belle," Maurice whispered earnestly.

Adam turned around. He'd been so concerned about the guards, he hadn't noticed that they weren't alone. At the center of the clearing was a simple-looking cottage with a front porch. Standing on this porch was a man with shoulder-length blond hair and a bushy goatee. He surveyed Adam with piercing blue eyes, eyes that were filled with a wisdom that seemed both familiar and unnatural.

Then, the Count saw the figure running towards them, and all his questions about the stranger were put on hold.

There was Belle, dressed in her blue pinafore dress, her eyes wide and her lips pursed into an expression of disbelief.

Adam let out a breath he didn't even know he was holding. He might have accidentally killed the Enchantress and turned his kingdom upside down. But none of that mattered, because Belle was safe, she was alive, and she was beautiful.

It was his last coherent thought before the ground rose up to meet him and the world went black.

Chapter Text

When he came to, he found himself lying on a soft surface with his head propped up against some sort of cushion. There was a dull throbbing in his right shoulder. He vaguely remembered that he'd been shot when he'd tried to escape from the castle. And why had he been trying to escape from the castle? To help Maurice find his daughter and to run from Gaston, who had somehow taken over his inheritance and become his adopted brother. They'd managed to find Belle, but after that, his mind was a complete blank. His eyes flew open.

He was in the small, cluttered bedroom of what he assumed to be some sort of cottage. Every corner of the room was occupied by worn-out cabinets, bookshelves, and desks—the latter of which was covered with empty flasks and piles of scrolls. His nose wrinkled as he detected a pungent smell in the air. Turning to his right, he realized that it was coming from some dried-up herbs hanging from the window next to him. Through this window, Adam could see a glimpse of a bright overcast sky, indicating that it was sometime in the mid-afternoon. He now had a rough idea of what time it was, but he still had no idea where he was, or how long he'd been here.

His attention shifted from the room to his wound. Someone had removed his shirt while he was unconscious and wrapped a long strip of linen from his right shoulder to his waist. He sat up a fraction to test the pain, but surprisingly, felt nothing. Either he'd been healed by a very gifted physician, or he'd been lucky enough to sleep through the worst of his injury.

Suddenly, the door across from him opened. In walked a blond-haired man carrying a tea set—it took a second for Adam to remember that this was the same blond-haired man he'd seen on the porch before he'd collapsed. Judging from the noticeable lines on his face, the man was somewhere in his forties or fifties. But his eyes were filled with a wisdom that made him seem years older. Adam knew he'd seen someone with eyes like that before, but where?

"Ah, good. You're awake," the stranger said, shutting the door behind him with a friendly smile. "No need to worry about your shoulder by the way. The bullet was lodged in there pretty deep, but I was able to extract it and use some salve to seal up the wound. The whole thing took less than an hour which is a new record, even for my standards! You'll be sore for a few days, but you'll live."

He said everything so matter-of-factly like he was talking about doing the laundry or completing a minor house repair. Adam creased his brows in confusion. He was no medical expert, but he doubted that anyone could mend a bullet wound as quickly as the man had described. But when he studied his injury again, he noticed that there was no blood seeping through his bandages and that the pain in his shoulder was significantly less than it had been before he'd fainted. This man was more than a gifted physician. He was practically superhuman.

"Who are you?" he asked, looking back up at the stranger curiously.

"Name's Agathon. Villeneuve's local herbalist, à votre service," Agathon replied with a curt bow. "I've been looking after you and the Gagniers for the past couple of hours."

"Belle and Maurice are still here?" The thought brought Adam relief and a guilty sense of anticipation. "How are they?"

"Fine," the man replied as he put down the tea set on the table next to him. "Worried about you, but fine. You can go see them later if you like. But I believe you have some explaining to do first."


Agathon snorted. "First of all, you can stop with the clueless façade, 'My Lord.' You might have fooled everyone back at the castle, but you can't fool me. The real Comte de Droitebrume would have never had the guts to stand up to his brother, much less save a peasant girl from an unhappy life of harlotry. Either you're an impostor, an extremely talented actor, or you've discovered the delightful horrors of time travel."

At the mention of "time travel," Adam's mouth dropped open in shock. "How did you know—?"

"—That you're a time traveller?" Agathon finished with a willful smile. "Let's just say that I've been keeping a close eye on you for the last fifteen years. It's given me plenty of time to dig up the dirt on your circumstances. Like how you're the reason why this kingdom's in complete shambles. And it all started after you went back in time to kill my twin sister, Agathe."

"Your… twin sister?"

"Come on, man! You can't tell me you don't remember Agathe? Flowing blonde locks"—he tussled the ends of his hair exasperatingly—"magical shapeshifter? Instills fear into the hearts of men with one look of her piercing blue eyes? That Agathe?"

It took a few seconds for Adam to put the pieces together. He suddenly recalled the strange series of events that had occurred before he'd reached the glade: the disembodied voice, the trees twisting together to form a wall, even the unnatural speed in which his wound had healed itself. He looked at Agathon's blue eyes again and the truth immediately dawned on him.

"You're... the Enchantress's brother."

"That's right. We have a winner, ladies and gentlemen!"

"If that's the case, then I'm sorry for killing your sister," the Count continued, lowering his eyes in shame. "If you're trying to draw a verbal confession out of me so you can turn me into a beast, then go right ahead. I take full responsibility for what happened. It's all I deserve, and I graciously accept my fate."

"As enticing and refreshingly sincere as that sounds, I'm not interested in turning you into a beast," Agathon replied calmly. "'Punishment by transfiguration' isn't really my style. Besides, I've already thought of a much better use for you."

"And what's that?" Adam inquired, unsure if by "better" the man secretly meant worse.

"I'll get to that later." He turned his attention back to the tea. "We have lots to discuss first, and so much time to do so! In case you don't remember, King Gaston's sent half of his guards into the woods to look for you. Meaning that you're not going anywhere anytime soon."

Adam bit his lip as he considered the implications of this. It was one thing to be cursed and imprisoned in his own castle. And another to be a fugitive with no place to go entirely. "Does he really want to kill me that badly?" he asked Agathon in worry.

"Well, when you're next in line for the throne and insult a king with an ego as fragile as a raw egg, then yes. Good job by the way."

Adam shook his head in disbelief. He would have never guessed that an obnoxious soldier in one lifetime could be a king with the mind of a petty child in the next. But then again, he hadn't counted on a lot of things to happen since he'd started meddling with the past. "So then, what do you want to talk to me about?" he continued.

"For starters, some closure on a fifteen-year-old mystery would be nice. I saved your life, so it's only fair. You tell me everything you know about my sister's death, and in return, I'll tell you everything you need to know about this reality, to fill whatever gaps you have in your memory. Sound like a deal?"

Adam didn't think he had much of a choice. Maybe Agathon wasn't interested in turning him into a beast like his sister. But there could be many other unpleasant curses in his "magical repertoire" that he could try on him if he didn't comply. That wasn't a risk that he was willing to take.

For the next quarter of an hour, Adam told Agathon everything. He started from the moment Agathe had turned him into a beast, to how he'd discovered the magic book's time travelling powers and used them to find a reality where he could live a normal, curse-free existence with Belle. Agathon made a few disparaging comments—mostly directed at his sister—and asked Adam a few questions, but otherwise, he was genuinely interested in everything he had to say.

While Adam found it oddly cathartic to share his story with someone who already knew about his predicament, there were still some moments he hesitated to talk about because of the emotional weight they carried. The first was when he told Agathon about going back in time to stop his father from abusing his thirteen-year-old self. As he described how he'd confronted Louis-Thomas alone in his bureau, his old feelings of anger and resentment resurfaced, causing his voice to falter and his body to shake.

Sensing his distress, Agathon handed him one of the cups of tea on the table. "Don't worry, it's not poison," he assured him. "It's elderberry. It will calm your nerves."

Adam took a cautious sip of the concoction. After a minute, the pain of the memory faded, and he felt his strength return. He moved on from the point he'd left his father bleeding on the bureau floor, to finding himself in a new timeline where Maurice was dead, and Belle was a battered prostitute who'd eventually died of consumption. In a desperate attempt to bring her back to life, Adam had travelled back to the day he'd tried to kill his first doe in the woods, only to learn that that doe was really Agathe in disguise. He'd initially planned to kill her for cursing him, but after remembering how she'd brought him Belle, changed his mind. It was the sound of a gunshot that had startled him and made him release the arrow by accident.

"That foolish woman," Agathon said derisively once Adam had finished his story. "Giving you a magic book and a mirror? What on earth was she thinking?"

"I could be wrong, but you don't sound terribly upset about her death," the Count noted curiously.

"You wouldn't be either if you knew her as I did. Agathe was a talented enchantress without question, but she was also very meddlesome. She always had this crazy notion that she could 'fix' humanity with her powers when other enchanters would leave well enough alone." Agathon made a disapproving clicking noise with his tongue and shook his head. "I warned her that her actions would come back to bite her one day, but she never listened! Yes, I am sad that things ended for her the way they did, but at the same time, you can't always lead a horse to water."

"I think I understand." Adam nodded. It was an awful like when Belle had snuck into the West Wing, despite the repeated warnings she'd received from the servants not to do so. If there was one thing Adam had learned from his journey through time, it was that some people's natures never changed. "You mentioned earlier that you knew I killed your sister," he went on. "But how? The book brought me here as soon as I shot the arrow."

"I have my ways." Agathon smiled wryly. "All magic leaves a trace, and in your case, I just had to perform some tests on that bow, cravat and jacket you'd left in the woods to find out exactly where you'd come from and when you'd be back. I didn't know who you were yet though. I got that information from my sister's journals. She'd taken quite a bit of interest in you in the years leading up to her death, see."

"You don't say. Well, that would certainly explain why she was spying on me in the woods."

"Oh, she'd been doing that for years," the Enchanter replied with a nonchalant wave of his hand. "To cut to the chase, Your Highness, shortly after you were born, my sister had a vision of a future where France would be at war with herself. The working class would turn on the upper class, and hundreds of thousands of people would be arrested or die in the most horrific ways imaginable. My sister, being the 'virtuous enchantress' that she was, knew that she had to do whatever she could to stop it. She consulted every form of divination under the sun and they all told her the same thing: that her best chance of preventing the war was through you."

"Me?" Adam raised his brows in surprise. "But how? I would have only been a baby at the time. What would I know about starting a war?"

"It wasn't so much about your age or experience, as the impact you would have on those around you," Agathon clarified. When Adam still looked confused, he continued, "Consider a bowl of rice. You couldn't remove one grain of it without altering the shape of the entire meal. To my sister, you were the grain of rice she needed to stop her vision from becoming a reality. She thought that if she could somehow steer you away from your father's cruelty or make you… 'disappear' for a certain number of years, the people's desire to fight against the crown would diminish, and the war would never take place. It's a simple idea in theory, but very difficult to perfect."

"I should say so," Adam agreed. "If Agathe thought I would be the cause of this… supposed war, then why didn't she try to warn me about it herself? Wouldn't that be a lot easier than turning me into a beast and making everyone forget I existed?"

Agathon laughed. "Do you really think you would trust the word of a filthy beggar woman? Or that your father would let you near someone who looked like that for that matter? No, Agathe knew that whatever she did, it had to leave a lasting impact. She liked to be… impressionable that way."

"Well, she certainly did a splendid job there," Adam replied sarcastically. "Thanks to her, I lost five years of my life that I'll never get back! It's a pity that I'm the reason all her work backfired. Now Gaston owns my castle, and I still have no idea how it happened."

"I'd be happy to show you," Agathon offered. "But I have to warn you… it's not a pretty picture."

"Please," he pleaded. "I have to know the truth. If I'm the reason Gaston is king, then I at least want to understand why."

"As you wish." The Enchanter shrugged. "I'm just saying, it won't be pretty." He stepped away from the bed and opened one of the cabinets at the side of the room. Adam heard him mutter a few curse words as he rummaged through what appeared to be a large amount of clutter, before returning with an ornate, bronze mirror in hand.

"Recognize this?" he asked, holding out the mirror for Adam to see more closely.

"Yes," the Count replied, staring at his reflection in amazement. "It looks just like the one your sister gave me."

"That's because it is. It was entrusted to me after she passed away. Now show us how King Gaston rose to power."

The face of the mirror swirled magically. Within moments, Adam's reflection had been replaced by an image of a flock of geese flying high above a forest. Suddenly, the sound of a gunshot disrupted the formation. The goose at the head of the skein squawked loudly, before flailing its wings and falling out of frame…

The glass grew foggy again. When it cleared, Adam saw two dark-haired village boys who looked no older than thirteen or fourteen, standing around the dead bird. The first boy was tall and lean, with a pointy chin and ears that protruded from his head like a mouse. He had a blunderbuss in his hands and a quiver of arrows over his back, likely indicating that he was the one who'd killed the goose.

The second boy, in contrast to the first, was short and stout, with rosy cheeks that hadn't quite outgrown their baby fat. He stared bug-eyed at his companion and the goose for several seconds, before shouting, "Wow, you didn't miss a shot, Gaston! You're the greatest hunter in the whole village!"

"I know," the younger Gaston replied, beaming confidently and cocking his head proudly.

"Even Richard Blanc hasn't killed that many geese in one day, and he's almost twice our age!"

"Exactly!" Gaston agreed. "Which is why I think it's high time that I take my marksmanship skills to the next level. Just picture it, LeFou. Next year, I'll finally be old enough to join the army and bring real honour to this country! Not just spend all day in the woods, hunting for our next meal."

"You mean, we'll bring honour to the country. Right, Gaston?"

"Of course!" The lean boy nodded thoughtfully. "There's no way I'm going anywhere without my best friend. We're le duo! We'll come back as heroes of war and be admired by all of France for our good deeds. People will write our names on plaques, statues, in books and plays—they'll talk about us for years!"

"I can't wait," LeFou said with a dreamy look on his face.

"Le duo" bagged up their game before moving east towards the river and—Adam gulped nervously—the plateau where he had seen Agathe turn into her human self. As the boys reached the line of trees that divided the woods from the water, they stopped abruptly.

"What in the world?!" Gaston exclaimed.

The perspective of the scene changed, allowing Adam to see what the boys were seeing: a dead doe—Agathe, lying in the same place the Prince had killed her only moments earlier.

"Wh-where's the hunter?" LeFou asked nervously.

Gaston's eyes shifted warily across the woods, clearly just as clueless as his friend was. It was almost unheard of for a hunter to leave a valuable piece of game unattended. They waited in tense silence for the mysterious archer to appear, but nobody showed up. Unbeknownst to them, they would not meet him for another fifteen years.

Suddenly, they heard the thundering of hooves coming towards them and jumped. The King's hunting troop had crossed the river, this time without the young Prince.

"You there!" King Louis-Thomas shouted, pulling his horse to a halt in front of the startled boys. "Which of you is responsible for killing this doe?"

"Uh… what?" LeFou replied, gazing at the King's fine clothes as though he'd never seen anything so exquisite in his entire life.

"His Majesty just asked you a question," a huntsman snapped impatiently from behind them. "Which of you killed the doe?"

The boys exchanged nervous glances. LeFou shook his head at Gaston, indicating that he was at a loss for an explanation. Using this as an opportunity to show off his bravery or perhaps his foolishness, Gaston turned back to the King and said, "I did."

Louis-Thomas raised his brows and pursed his lips in suspicion. "You're quite bold to be hunting so close to our borders, boy. What is your name?"

"Gaston, sir. Gaston Légume of Villeneuve," the young hunter answered with a bow. "And I know I was close to the border, but I didn't mean to go that far! I just saw an opportunity and I decided to make the best of it."

"You did make quite an impressive kill," the King admitted, looking down at the carcass intriguingly. "Am I right in assuming that you shot her with only one arrow?"

"Just one," Gaston lied. "One's all you need when your aim's as good as mine! I'm the best hunter in my village, you know."

"I see. And how exactly do you plan to carry your prize all the way back to Villeneuve?"

"Well... my friend is going to help me, of course. He's the one who bags all my game."

LeFou looked over at Gaston in alarm, and Adam could understand why. The boy was so diminutive in stature that he doubted that he could lift a keg of beer off the ground without toppling over.

The King seemed to think the same thing, for he asked, "Where is your horse?"

"Horse?" Gaston repeated. "What horse? I came here on foot!"

Louis-Thomas exchanged some baffled glances with his hunter friends before turning back to the boys. "I'll tell you what, Monsieur Légume. I'll arrange for my men to bring your trophy down to the village so you can do with it as you wish. In return, I would kindly request the presence of you and your friend at my castle tonight for dinner."

Gaston and LeFou's stared at each other in wide-eyed disbelief. For a couple of undereducated villagers, dining with a king at his castle was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

"You really want to have dinner… with us?" LeFou asked incredulously.

"Of course!" The King nodded. "It's not every day that I meet a hunter who's as young and talented as your friend is. Now, what say you?"

"We accept sir—I mean, um, Your Majesty!" Gaston agreed instantly. "We'll be there for sure!"

Grey fog filled the mirror's glass once again. When it cleared, Adam saw Gaston and LeFou sitting in the castle's main dining room wearing slightly fancier clothes, their faces washed, and their hair neatly combed. Adam's younger self sat across from the boys, though he paid them no attention as he focused on picking apart his roast venison. His mother and father sat on the opposite ends of the table.

"So, Monsieur Légume," Louis-Thomas began, setting down a glass of red wine. "Tell us about yourself. How long have you been a hunter?"

"Well… my father started taking me out when I was around six," Gaston replied proudly. "At first, he'd make me watch him while he hunted, and I'd help him build snares and carry his kills back to the village. Then, on my eighth birthday, he gave me my own rifle! It had to be one of the best days of my life."

"I'm sure it was." The King smiled. "He must be very proud of how much you've accomplished since then. Imagine taking down a deer with only one arrow, at only fourteen years of age! My son could learn a thing or two from you, couldn't you Thomas?"

Eleven-year-old Prince Adam looked up and nodded, his face turning red in embarrassment.

"I appreciate the compliment, Your Majesty," Gaston replied. "But unfortunately, my father's been dead for two winters now. He fell through a frozen lake and drowned while he was trying to take down a pack of wolves with his friends. And my mother died giving birth to me, which makes me an orphan now."

"Oh, you poor thing!" Henriette exclaimed, clasping a hand to her chest in pity.

"It's not that bad," Gaston went on with a shrug. "I still have my friend LeFou. His parents took me in after my father passed away, and now we're as thick as thieves."

"LeFou? That's a bit of an unfortunate-sounding surname, isn't it?" the King inquired.

"Actually, it's 'Leclerc-Fourtier'," LeFou corrected after swallowing a mouthful of potatoes. "My grandfather was making a sign for his tannery shop, and he didn't have enough space to paint out his full last name, so he shortened it to 'LeFou.' It worked, except everyone in our village thinks that that's our real name now. But I don't mind. I barely know how to spell my first name anyway, so it just makes things easier."

The King chuckled, as though he found something amusing about the simple-mindedness of his citizens and their illiteracy. "Do you have any family outside of Villeneuve, Monsieur Légume?" he continued, turning back to Gaston. "Grandparents? Aunts? Uncles? Cousins?"

"I don't know," Gaston answered. "If I did, I've never met them, and my father never mentioned them to me."

Louis-Thomas and Henriette stared at each other across the table, seemingly thinking about the exact same thing.

More magical swirls filled the enchanted mirror. When they cleared, they showed scenes of Gaston engaging in the same activities that Adam used to take part in with his father. He watched Gaston accompany Louis-Thomas and his younger self on a morning hunting trip, followed by scenes of Gaston joining them in archery, horseback riding, and fencing lessons. It wasn't long before Adam noticed a clear progression to these meetings: Gaston and the King were getting closer together while the Prince grew further away. In one image, Louis-Thomas was meticulously correcting Gaston's posture during an archery lesson, while the Prince watched enviously from the sidelines. When Gaston finally hit his target, the King gave him an approving pat on the back. Young Prince Adam then followed up by hitting the centre of his own target, but the King and Gaston were too busy glowing in the latter's success to notice. Adam's younger self tossed his bow to the ground in frustration. His father had never given him any pointers or praise during his archery lessons, so why was he suddenly showing so much attention to an orphaned peasant boy?

In the next scene, Gaston stood on a wooden podium in Villeneuve's town square with Adam and his parents. His plain village attire was gone, replaced by fine silver breeches, shiny black shoes and a red jacket embroidered with golden leaves. He had grown out his hair, so now long it was long enough to tie back into a ponytail. He looked every inch a prince, as Cogsworth announced to the waiting crowd a moment later.

"Be it resolved that Their Majesties, King Louis-Thomas Antoine de Bauffremont and Queen Marie-Henriette de Bauffremont have decided to adopt citizen Gaston Légume as their official ward," he read aloud from a scroll of parchment. "From this point henceforth, he is to be known as His Royal Highness, Prince Jean-Gaston de Bauffremont!"

The crowd cheered and bowed to the new Prince, who smirked in approval. Even though he was only fourteen or fifteen, Adam swore that he could already see something sinister and unkind hidden away in his dark, beady eyes.

Dense fog obscured the glass again. When it disappeared, Adam saw his thirteen-year-old self pacing around his mother's bedchamber, while his sick, bedridden mother watched on in pity. This must have taken place a few months before her death.

"It's not fair!" his younger self cried out in frustration. "I never wanted a brother."

"Come now, my love," Henriette cooed softly. "You don't mean that. Remember how upset you used to be whenever Vincent and Léa had to return to Paris? Now you have a companion who will always be there to spend time with you."

"Yes, but he's not like them," Adam argued. "Gaston's mean, and he always plays tricks on me! Yesterday, he hid a snake in my writing desk, and it made me spill ink all over my jacket. Père was so angry! He thought I did it on purpose."

"I'll talk to Gaston about the snake," Henriette conceded. "I don't deny that his behaviour yesterday was inappropriate, but have you considered that that could be his own way of trying to get to know you better? You aren't exactly the most approachable little brother, especially when you spend all your free time cooped up in the library."

"That's because it's the only place Gaston doesn't like to be in!" Adam countered. "And I don't see why I should get to know him better when he's such a jerk. He's always flirting with the maids or sucking up to Père, and now he spends more time with him than he does with me! Whenever I do anything with them, it feels like I'm invisible."

"You aren't invisible, Adam," his mother assured him. "Your father's just… enthusiastic about spending time with someone who enjoys gentlemen pastimes as much as he does. That doesn't mean he loves you any less."

"It doesn't really feel that way."

"Well, I love you," she emphasized. "Is that enough?"

Adam looked back at his mother, and his eyes filled with tears. "Oh, Mère, what am I going to do if you leave?" he whimpered. "If I'm all alone with Père and Gaston… you just have to get better, you have to!"

"I'm doing my best, love," the Queen replied, echoing her son's unhappiness. "But death isn't something we can control. If the Lord says that it's my time to go, then it's my time. Will you promise me that you'll give your brother a chance? You never know when you'll need him as your ally one day."

"I'll try." The Prince nodded reluctantly.

The scene changed again. Thirteen-year-old Adam was standing in the castle chapel, watching his father introduce Gaston to a group of nobles by the main doors. Everyone was dressed in black, likely indicating that this had occurred during the Queen's funeral.

"Master Adam?" Lumière said, suddenly appearing beside the Prince. "You shouldn't be alone after a funeral service! Why don't we find Cogsworth and take a stroll out in the grounds?"

"Thomas," Adam hissed, eyes still fixed on his brother and father.

"Begging your pardon?"

"I said, my name is Thomas," he repeated louder. "It's my father's name. He gave it to me because I'm his son."

Lumière considered this. He looked to where Adam was looking, and his face crumpled in sympathy. "Right. Master Thomas," he corrected without missing a beat. "My apologies. What do you say we find Cogsworth and go for a walk?"

This seemed to bring Adam—now "Thomas"—back to his senses. He nodded and followed the maître d' out of the chapel.

Next, the mirror showed Adam some snippets of the Princes as young adults. They were attending a ball where Gaston was enjoying the attention of some beautiful young debutants while Thomas stood by the refreshment table, downing several glasses of wine. Then they were competing in a fencing match organized by the King, and Thomas was losing miserably. But no matter how many times he fell over, or how many times Gaston bested him, his father kept forcing him to get up and try again. Thomas's moves grew sloppier and sloppier until he finally collapsed from exhaustion. As the servants rushed to help him, the King left the room, cold disappointment etched upon his face.

The image changed again, and now Thomas and Gaston were standing next to their father on his deathbed.

"Père," Thomas said sadly, his love for the King—or rather, his desperation to be loved—reflected in his green-blue eyes.

Louis-Thomas scoffed at his son in disgust. "You dare use that name on me, boy? I should have known that Henriette would be unfaithful to me. How else could she have brought such a weak-willed, disappointing child like you into the world? You are no son of mine!"

Prince Thomas shrunk backwards. "Père, I swear to you that—"

"—Leave my sight!" the King interrupted. Even when dying, his voice had lost none of its power.

Thomas knew there was no point in arguing. He walked out of the room with his shoulders slouched, trying his hardest to hold back his tears. Now Gaston and Louis-Thomas were alone.

"Come closer, my child," the King said, as Gaston solemnly took his hands in his own. "It has been such a privilege to have watched you grow from a boy into a man these past seven years. You are not my son by blood, but you are everything I could have wanted in one and more. That is why I know you will do what is necessary to carry on my legacy. Here. Take my ring." He feebly held out his ring finger. "The throne belongs to you now."

Tears of grief, or maybe joy trickled down Gaston's face. He carefully removed his father's royal insignia ring and placed it on his own finger. "Thank you, Père," he replied. "I won't disappoint you."

The images that followed were the most disturbing of all. After his father's funeral, Adam watched Gaston become king in a coronation ceremony that should have been meant for him. He saw Gaston evict his younger self from the castle, followed by a scene of the now ex-Prince exchanging mournful goodbyes with the servants on the castle steps.

He heard heralds from nearby towns make announcements about the King's decision to raise taxes and shut down schools and other unneeded businesses. Thriving cities became decrepit and full of beggars. Every day, the Marshalcy arrested citizens for not keeping up with their payments. Adam winced as he watched them pull a single mother away from her newborn child for being two days behind on her rent. She begged the men to give her one more day to produce the money, but they didn't listen. They threw her into a barred carriage with the other prisoners, her baby's cries echoing loudly in the street. And all the while, King Gaston sat on his throne, basking in this terrible new kingdom he'd created.

The picture of Gaston's greedy face faded away, and now all Adam could see was his horrified expression in the glass. He turned away from Agathon in shame. He knew he'd be in for a mess, but what he'd seen… it was even worse than he'd imagined.

"It's amazing what a single piece of rice can do, isn't it?" Agathon said from behind him. "Your father, unhappy with the son that couldn't live up to his expectations, saw an opportunity that day in the woods—an opportunity to mould Gaston in his own image. Gaston, who'd spent his whole life dreaming of greatness, relished at the idea of living that dream through your father. Every action big or small always comes with a consequence."

"I was just a tool to him," Adam muttered bitterly. Out of all the things he'd seen in the mirror, this was the hardest truth to bear. His father had never cared about him, had never seen him as anything more than a means to an end. And if he wasn't good enough, then he would find someone else. A few anguished tears seeped from his eyes into his pillow. He wished that he still had the Beast's strength so he could smash something. He would prefer that to lying here, weeping and feeling sorry for himself.

"I have to do something," he resolved at last. "I need to go back and stop all this from happening. But how? The book is gone. It burned to pieces after I killed Agathe."

"If the book was destroyed, then there'd be no sense in trying to recover it now," Agathon said remorsefully. "It's one thing to use its powers to see the world or explore the past. But once you use it to commit an unnatural act like murder, it self-destructs and takes you back to your original location. Something that my sister forgot to mention when she was giving you her big 'introduction to being a beast speech,' I'm sure."

"So… there's really no hope in getting it back?"

"Afraid not."

"But you're an enchanter." He looked back at Agathon. "Couldn't you use your magic to make a new one?"

"What do I look like, a genie?" Agathon snapped, putting his hands on his hips. "A book like that can only be crafted by a very gifted enchanter, and while I am good, I'm not that good! Even if I tried to get a new one, the elders in our community destroyed them all after Agathe passed away. They believed that they were too dangerous to keep around after what happened. But lucky for you, I've done a lot of research in the last fifteen years, and there is one alternative."

He picked up a leather-bound book from the shelf beside him and began to flip through it earnestly. "The pages of my sister's book were crafted from a special tree that can transport you to any place and time." He turned the book around to show Adam a stenciled illustration of a tree with swirls and stars floating between its branches. "It's known as Acer Nexus or 'The Nexus Tree' in plain French. If you were to touch the trunk of this tree and wish to go to the past, it could transport you back to the moment before you killed Agathe. From there, you could use the book to travel through time and undo all your other realities, until you'd finally return to the night you let Belle go back to her father."

Adam ruffled his hair nervously. It sounded like quite the intricate plan. But if it was the only way to stop Gaston and Louis-Thomas from meeting, then what choice did he have? "Where is this tree?" he asked Agathon.

"You won't have to look far. It's here in France, in the enchanted forest of Brocéliande."

"Brocéliande?" He quirked an eyebrow. "I thought that place was a myth from Arthurian legends."

"Oh, it definitely exists," Agathon confirmed. "But it's well-hidden. See, after the death of Merlin some five-hundred years ago, the place became a wasteland for enchanters to perform all kinds of nasty experiments and hide dangerous cursed artifacts and bits of magic gone wrong. Eventually, it got so out of hand that the elders decided to seal the place off from the general public. Now only a select few who own a magical amulet can enter the forest, and only if they've received approval from the council, first."

"So, if I want to go back in time, I'll need to find an amulet and a tree," Adam deduced.

"Nope. Just the tree," Agathon corrected. "I was lucky enough to buy one of those amulets off the black market a few years ago—though it nearly cost me an arm and a leg. I'm willing to give it to you, but you must promise me that you will only use it to find the tree, and nothing else. There are lots of dodgy things hiding in that forest, and none of it is worth a second of your time."

"Of course," Adam agreed. Anything to stop Gaston from being king!

"That's what I like to hear." Agathon smiled. "Now, have some more tea, and then we'll see about getting you out of bed so you can talk with Belle and Maurice. They'll be delighted to see that you're awake."

"Why are you helping me?" Adam questioned. "If anything, you should hate me for killing your sister, or want me dead. I know I would if I were you."

"Because, as shocking as it sounds, I'm just as responsible for killing Agathe as you are," Agathon replied. He lowered his eyes as his expression grew sad and remorseful. "See, shortly after my sister had her vision, she came to me, begging to help her stop it. But I refused. I thought that if a war between men was to happen, then we had no business in changing it. If I'd helped her or tried harder to stop her, then maybe she would still be alive."

"When Agathe died, I looked into all the possibilities, trying to see if there was any way that I could go back in time to save her life," the Enchanter continued. "But in every scenario I tried, the fates kept pointing me back to you. You are the best hope we have in ending Gaston's regime and bringing back my sister. Now all I can do is pass you the torch and hope that my years of research weren't in vain."

He looked up at Adam with the eyes of a man who had everything to lose and almost nothing to gain. Adam hoped he wouldn't fail him, but the odds weren't exactly stacked in his favour. He could barely trust himself, so how could Agathon trust him?

Adam fiddled with the sleeves of his borrowed shirt as he exited Agathon's bedroom. Before him was a spacious dining area, complete with a stone fireplace and wooden crockery shelf. Several cooking utensils lined the walls, while a multitude of different herbs hung from the ceiling.

At the centre of the room was a rectangular table where Belle and Maurice sat in deep conversation. Belle was smiling with a fist propped under her chin, while Maurice was making some animated gestures with his hands. Upon seeing the Count, the two of them rose to their feet.

"Your Highness! Thank goodness you're awake," Maurice exclaimed, shaking Adam's hand vigorously. "You scared us half to death when you fell off the horse. I'm glad to see you're alright."

"So am I," Adam replied. "I see you found your daughter in one piece."

"Thanks to you," Maurice smiled graciously. "Which reminds me,"—he turned to his daughter—"Belle, I'd like you to officially meet His Royal Highness, Prince Thomas-Alexandre, the man who helped me escape from the castle. Your Highness, this is my daughter, Belle."

Belle stepped forward and politely shook Adam's hand. "Thank you for bringing my father back to me, Your Highness. You've done us both a great kindness."

The Count opened his mouth, wanting to say something witty and chivalrous in return. But the longer he looked at Belle's face, the more the memories of their last meeting resurfaced. Suddenly, she looked exactly as she did on her deathbed; unnaturally pale with blue-tinged lips, hollow cheekbones and eyes sunken in by disease...

Adam blinked rapidly, but the disturbing image of Belle's dead self didn't go away. He released her hand and averted his gaze. "You're—you're welcome."

"Gather round, Mademoiselle et Messieurs," Agathon interrupted as he stepped out of the bedroom. "We have a mighty big puzzle to solve! Your Highness feel free to help yourself to the food on the table. The rest of us have already eaten, so whatever's left over is yours."

Adam drew his attention to the modest selection of fruit, bread rolls and sliced cheese sitting on the table. His stomach rumbled indignantly—he hadn't realized how hungry he was until now. Even though it was unconventional for an aristocrat to do so, he took an empty plate and began to fill it with food.

"You three are in a lot of trouble," Agathon began as he joined Belle and Maurice at the table. "King Gaston doesn't take kindly to traitors, especially those who are smart enough to escape his castle. I wouldn't be surprised if he's already sent his guards to wait at your homes for a chance to snuff you out. You should consider yourself wanted criminals now. The question is: what are you going to do about it?"

"I say that we fight the king while he's still smarting from his losses," Belle declared. "He's been pushing us around for far too long. Things will only get worse if he continues. He needs to pay for what he's done."

"You've got spirit, girl. I like that." Agathon smiled. "But it won't be enough to take down His Majesty, I'm afraid. In case you've forgotten, King Gaston has an entire army of trained soldiers at his command. Your prince friend was lucky enough to be shot in the shoulder—a few degrees more and it could have been the back of his head! Unless you've sketched out some blueprints for a trebuchet or read some instructional books on how to build explosives, you're fresh out of luck. We have to act with discretion here, not with passion."

"So then, what do you propose we do?" Belle asked impatiently. "Seeing as you know an awful lot about how to take down a king?"

"I don't," Agathon elucidated. "But I know someone who does. In the village of Corneille, there's a group of citizens recruiting people from all over the country to form a resistance against King Gaston. If you're interested in joining them, you'll need to travel to their tavern and tell the barman that you're looking for Monsieur Régnier, and Agathon sent you. Once you do, they'll escort you to their safehouse, where you'll meet the resistance and learn everything you need to know about taking down His Majesty."

"That's the answer then," Belle proclaimed. "We'll go to Corneille and join the resistance."

"What about you, Your Highness?" asked Maurice. "Will you come with us?"

Adam lowered his head, determined to focus on his food instead of the people sitting around him. "I can't," he said quietly. "I have… other things to take care of."

Belle shifted in her seat. Adam could practically picture the disbelieving look on her face as she said, "Things that are more important than helping your own kingdom?"

"Well, he's going to appeal to the other kings of France, of course," Agathon cut in tactfully. "If he can garner their sympathies, they can revoke his brother's position so he can earn back his title. No torches or pitchforks necessary."

Belle let out a frustrated "tut" noise. "How can he do that if he has no resources or connections?!" she exclaimed. "If Gaston has already put a bounty on his head, then he'll be lucky if he makes it out of this kingdom alive!"

"Then what do you suggest he do?" Agathon asked calmly, as though they were having a casual discussion over tea instead of an escalating debate.

Adam could feel Belle's eyes on him again. "He should come with us to Corneille, of course," she replied. "It's always safer to travel in numbers. Then, once we meet the resistance, he can find some capable people to escort him through France. It will be a far better alternative to travelling alone."

"Interesting proposition. What do you think, Your Highness?"

Adam looked up from the table and wished that he hadn't, because Belle's dead face was looking straight back at him. He dropped his half-eaten piece of bread on to his plate and stood up from the chair. "I'm... going to check on the horse."

He exited the cottage through the door behind him without saying another word. His brown thoroughbred was tethered to a post at the side of the house, along with a white stallion he instantly recognized as Philippe. He crossed the lawn and ran his hands through the former horse's mane, desperate to banish the memories of Belle's death from his mind.

Suddenly, he heard the door open and shut, followed by fast-moving footsteps and a skirt rustling against the grass.

"Prince Thomas!" Belle exclaimed. "Wait!"

"My name is Adam," Adam grumbled under his breath.

Belle scoffed indignantly, as though addressing the Count by his preferred name was hardly something to worry about at a time like this. "What on earth is the matter with you?" she demanded. "You're King Louis-Thomas's rightful son! You're the one person who can make a real difference in improving the welfare of this kingdom. And here you are, standing around, acting like you don't care at all!"

When Adam didn't respond right away, she continued, "Look, I understand if you're scared, especially after the awful way your father and brother treated you. But just think about the hope you could bring to the resistance if you stopped by and showed them your face. You'd have more than enough supporters to overthrow King Gaston and reclaim your inheritance."

Adam bowed his head, wishing that he still had the magic book so he could transport himself as far away from Belle as possible. "I can't," he said softly.

"Why not?" She paused, as though she were considering something, and then she continued, "You're not planning to appeal to the kings at all, are you? You want to run."

Adam opened his mouth to defend himself, but Belle beat him to it.

"Do you have any idea how much your people have suffered?" she thundered, completely raising her voice at him now. "I've seen good families lose their homes and businesses because they couldn't afford to pay the King's unreasonable taxes. My father was taken away from me because I refused to become His Majesty's next conquest—"

"—And I brought him back to you," Adam interrupted sharply. "Don't assume that I don't care about my people's suffering, Mademoiselle. I know quite a bit about being treated unfairly after the fifteen years I've lived in my brother's shadow. But I also know that there's much more at stake here than... appealing to a simple rebellion or dethroning a king."

"Like what?"

"It's none of your business!" he bellowed. "Look. You got your wish. You want to overthrow King Gaston, well lucky for you, there's a resistance out there that wants the exact same thing. I hope that you find them, and I hope that your plan to defeat my brother is a success. But I will not be joining you."

Belle took a step back and exhaled sharply. Adam could feel the anger radiating off her like the heat of the summer sun as she said, "Fine then."

She trudged across the grass—slower this time, then slammed the cottage door with a loud bang.

Seconds later, he heard her shrill voice drifting out from the window beside him. She was unleashing her fury on Maurice and Agathon, ranting about how unbelievable it was that King Gaston's brother—the one man who had some serious potential to turn this kingdom around—had no interest in joining the resistance.

Adam buried his face in his hands. He hated to fight with Belle like this, but it was the only way he could distance himself from her. The more she hated him, the better. The more she hated him, the safer she'd be. Whenever he looked at her now, all he could see were the mistakes he'd made, mistakes he could have easily prevented if he hadn't been so obsessed with cheating fate. He'd thought that by changing the past he could make a better future for the two of them, but he'd only succeeded at ruining her life every single time. He would not take advantage of her like that. Not again.

Even if he never saw her face again, even if he spent the rest of his life as a beast in his original timeline, at least she'd be safe, and she'd be alive. That was all that mattered to him now.

He gave his horse one last rub under the neck before he went back inside to face the storm.

Chapter Text

They decided to head out after sunset. Not because it was the safest time to leave, but because the darkness would provide them with the best cover from Gaston's guards.

Outside Agathon's cottage, Adam, Belle, and Maurice assembled their horses for their respective journeys. Belle hadn't spoken another word to Adam since their fight, which was perfectly fine by him. He feared that if he said anything more to her, he would compromise their relationship, or accidentally fool her into thinking that he'd changed his mind about joining the resistance. He'd said what he had to and had no intention of going against his word. Still, he couldn't help but sneak a few glances at her as he packed his saddlebags with Agathon's supplies. This would be the last time he'd see her, both in this timeline and the next. He might as well make the most of it.

He'd just finished fastening the collar to his horse when he heard a loud snapping noise. Startled, he looked up to see that the trees, which Agathon had previously enchanted into a sturdy barrier, had now broken out of their formation.

"What on earth?!" the Enchanter exclaimed, stepping forward and raising his brows in alarm.

No sooner had he asked this question, than a frigid gust of wind struck the group in their faces. It was so strong that it caused several leaves to detach from the nearby trees and fly towards them. Adam began to shiver and hugged himself for warmth. Even after sundown, a gust of wind like that was far too cold for summer.

Then, adding to his growing confusion, several pricks of light began to emerge from behind the trees.

"Look!" an unknown man shouted from the darkness. "There's something over there!"

"Damn," Agathon cursed as he turned back to the three fugitives. "Gaston's men must have found us. Belle! Maurice! You need to get out of here. NOW!"

Belle and Maurice didn't need to be told twice. They hopped onto Philippe's back and galloped away from the lights, which were getting larger and larger by the second.

Once they had disappeared into the woods, Agathon turned his attention back to Adam. "I'm very sorry, Your Highness," he said in an urgent whisper. "I would have accompanied you to the tree, but it seems that something or someone has cut our road trip short. If I don't stop whoever's out there, then you may not be out of Gaston's grip for much longer. Now, listen very carefully. The forest of Brocéliande lies within Paimpont Forest, near the Château de Comper. Do you know where that is?"

"Yes." Adam nodded. "In Brittany." He remembered visiting the area a few times when he used to travel around the country with his parents.

"Bien." Agathon passed him a leather satchel. "Go to the forest and take this with you. It contains the magic mirror and the amulet you'll need to enter Brocéliande. The mirror is your map. Once you reach Paimpont Forest, ask it to show you how to find Brocéliande, and it will give you directions. Once you reach the barrier, put on the amulet and you'll pass through safely."

Adam obediently slipped the satchel over his back. "How can I ever thank you?"

"By getting to the tree and not getting killed. That's how," Agathon replied sharply. "Now GO!"

At his urging, Adam mounted his horse and sped across the clearing. The last thing he saw before he vanished into the forest was Agathon, raising his hands towards the approaching lights. He hoped that he knew what he was doing.

Adam feared that he would draw too much attention if he lit a torch, so he could only depend on the light from the crescent moon to guide him through the dark. But even this didn't provide him with much visibility. He could hardly see anything in front of him. If not for the grayish silhouettes of passing trees and underbrush, he would have thought that he'd accidentally rode his horse into oblivion. As time passed, he began to wonder if the encompassing silhouettes weren't in fact from trees, but from the whiskers of a colossal demon from the nine circles of hell…

Snap out of it, he told himself firmly. This wasn't the time to let his childish imaginings get the best of him. The important thing was to keep riding north until he reached the main path out of the kingdom. Once there, he could begin his three-day journey to Brittany, and to the tree...

A women's scream startled him from his thoughts. It came from somewhere off the trail, not too far away from him.

"Well, well, well," an unknown man was saying haughtily. "Looks like we've got ourselves the catch of the day."

"Stop! Don't come any closer!"

Adam tensed and stopped his horse upon hearing that second voice. It was Belle.

"What's the matter, petite fillette?" a second man replied mockingly. "Scared now that your precious daddy's not here to protect you?"

The two of them laughed as Adam gripped the reins of his horse nervously. He'd promised himself that he wouldn't get involved in Belle's life again. But those strangers didn't sound particularly friendly, and Belle could be in some serious danger. He would never forgive himself if he let something bad happen to her, again…

Before he could change his mind, Adam dismounted his horse and made his way towards the voices. He spent a minute stumbling blindly downhill until he caught sight of a lantern flickering in the distance. He meandered around a tree to get a closer look, and nearly gasped at the disturbing display in front of him. Belle was lying helplessly on her back, eyes wide with fear. Surrounding her were two men wearing shabby civilians' clothes and black tricorn hats—Adam assumed that they were ruffians or townspeople. The shorter of the two was holding the lantern, while the taller one had a rifle pointed at Belle's face. Maurice and Philippe were nowhere to be seen.

"Come on now, up you get," the taller man said, flicking the muzzle of his rifle at Belle lazily. "The King's going to have a lot of questions for you, and Maxime and I certainly aren't keeping him waiting."

"C'est vrai," the man named Maxime agreed with a gleeful nod of his head. "Once we hand you over to King Gaston, we're going to be filthy rich!"

"Well you can tell your King to sod off," Belle said boldly, despite the uneasy expression on her face. "I'd rather die than tell him anything."

"You're in no place to be making decisions, girl," the man with the rifle snapped impatiently. "Now get up before we make you."

"And how exactly do you plan on doing that?" she challenged, crossing her arms defiantly. "Threatening me with your scary rifle? Beating me into submission? As the King's future courtesan, I'm sure he'll be very pleased to see all the bruises."

"She does have a point, Perducas," Maxime said, stepping closer to his companion nervously. "The King said we have to bring her back unspoiled if we want the full bounty."

"Shut up, Maxime! I'm the boss around here, not you."

Adam took advantage of this lull in the conversation to make his "daring entrance." He emerged from the trees and approached Belle's captors with his hands raised. "Stop!" he shouted. "It's me you want, not the girl! Let her go and take me to the King instead."

Maxime furrowed his brows in suspicion. "Who in the blazes are you?"

"Are you daft, Maxime?" Perducas replied, smacking his partner on the side of his head. "That's King Gaston's brother! The one he's sent his guards all over the kingdom to look for? His Majesty will give us anything we want if we turn him in."

"Oh." Maxime's eyes widened with realization. "Then what are we waiting for? Let's get him!"

They had their backs turned to Belle now, leaving her free to escape unnoticed. But rather than flee the premises, Adam watched dumbstruck, as she reached for a thick branch on the ground and rose to her feet. As the bounty hunters slowly gained on Adam, she snuck behind them and clubbed them in the back of their heads with all her might—first Perducas, then Maxime, who grunted in pain and released the lantern. The impact sent the two of them tumbling to the ground; the lantern shattering into a nearby shrub, which immediately burst into flame.

Satisfied with distraction she'd created, Belle darted past Adam and clambered up the hill he'd just come from. "Come on, run!" she shouted back at him.

Adam turned back to the bounty hunters, who were already struggling to get away from the rapidly growing fire. Maxime was crying out in panic as he tried to put out a flame that had caught on his sleeve.

"Perducas! Help me! My jacket's on fire!"

"Then take it off, you idiot!" Perducas shouted back at him. "And make it snappy. Our bounty is getting away!"

Seeing this as his cue to leave, Adam followed Belle back up the hill, catching up to her just as they reached his horse. He jumped on to the saddle and lowered his hand to help her up, but she purposefully ignored him and climbed up herself. Adam rolled his eyes. So much for chivalry.

He kicked the horse in the sides and led them into a full gallop down the path. Belle's hand lightly brushed against the back of his leg as she gripped the saddle, causing him to sweat nervously. He'd known that Belle's added weight would slow down the horse. But he hadn't counted on the closeness of her body being such a noticeable and awkward distraction.

They hadn't travelled long before they heard fast trotting behind them. Perducas and Maxime had emerged on to the path on their own Andalusian horses, and they were furious.

"There they are!" Perducas shouted. "Don't let them get away!"

"Oui oui, mon capitaine!" Maxime replied.

Adam groaned. "Those two can't take a hint, can they?"

"We need to get off the path," Belle urged as she gestured to her left.

"What?" He looked back at her in disbelief. "That's insane! The forest is a maze at night! If we leave the trail now, we may never find our way back."

"Do you want to live or not?" she snapped back at him. "Do as I say!"

Adam rolled his eyes again. He was beginning to wonder if rescuing Belle was worth all this trouble if all she was going to do was boss him around and nag him. But since he could think of no other reasons to object to her solution, he veered the horse off the path, back into the darkness.

Under the shadowy cover of the trees, Adam had no idea where he was going. The bandits remained hot on their trail. Even with Belle shouting arbitrary directions at him to shake them off, they still continued their pursuit.

Then, he saw an opening in the trees ahead of them. Finally, he thought with a grin. Maybe there was a literal "light at the end of the tunnel," after all! He rode through the opening, across a flat, rocky plateau, and straight towards the edge of a steep cliff.

Belle let out a high-pitched scream. For a few terrifying seconds, Adam saw nothing but a treacherous-looking river below him. Then, his wits returned, and he coaxed his frightened horse back onto solid ground. I guess we aren't getting out of the woods that way…

To make matters worse, when he turned around, he saw Perducas and Maxime pointing their rifles at them menacingly. They must have followed them out to the cliff.

"End of the line you two," Perducas snarled. "I'll make this quick and easy. I can kill you both right here, or you can quietly hand yourselves over so we can get our reward money. Your choice."

Adam looked nervously back at Belle. "Got any more brilliant ideas?"

She examined her surroundings before her eyes settled on the cliff. "The river. We need to jump."

"Are you mad?! There's no way we can make that jump! We could drown, or-or have our bones mashed into a pulp."

"Do you have a better solution?"

"Last warning!" Perducas shouted, cocking his gun.

"I'm sorry," Belle said decisively. "I'm not going to stand for this." She dismounted the horse and walked towards the edge of the cliff.

"Hey, wait a minute!" Maxime cried out in panic. "Don't you dare take a step closer to that cliff, girl. HEY!"

BANG! The explosive sound of a gunshot filled the air, causing Adam's horse to whinny and jump up on his hind legs in fright. Adam tried to hold on to the mane, but it was no use. With one wild fling of the horse's neck, he went flying out of the saddle, straight past the edge of the cliff.

The fall seemed to take forever. Adam wildly flailed out his arms, searching for something, anything to hold on to, but there was nothing. A deep sense of panic began to set in, not only for his situation but for Belle's. Where was she? Had she managed to jump into the river before Perducas had fired his rifle? Or was she still on the cliff, wounded and at the mercy of those two heartless crooks?

He landed in the water with a tremendous splash. For a few seconds, he couldn't see anything, only feel the weight of the freezing water surrounding him and the power of the river's current, which was quickly dragging him downstream like a limp rag doll. Using the power of his arms and upper body, he forced himself back up to the surface. It was a relief to be able to breathe freely again, but that relief was short-lived. There was nothing to hold on to in the darkness, and the current was so strong and fast, that any efforts to swim towards the closest bank would be futile. All he could do was try keeping himself afloat, but even this grew more strenuous as time progressed. His head bobbed up and down like a cork, he sputtered as a large amount of water forced its way into his mouth, and then he fell under the surface again, seeing nothing but the rippling crescent moon above him, hearing nothing but the harsh roaring of the water in his ears…

This is it, he thought in despair. He was going to die here, alone in this dark, freezing water. If he was lucky, his body would be washed up on a riverbank for an unfortunate passerby to find, and then he'd be buried in an unmarked grave where nobody would remember him. Worst of all, all his efforts to stop Gaston's regime and undo this timeline would be for nothing. He had failed Agathon, he had failed his servants, and he had failed Belle…

Water entered his nose, then his throat and chest. His insides began to constrict against the foreign substance, but he had no air to breathe that could relieve the pressure. In his last moments of life, he tried to think of something comforting. Eventually, he settled on a memory of his mother singing him a lullaby that he still heard in his dreams, even though it had been thirteen years since she'd had passed away…

Days in the sun
When your life has barely begun
Not until my own life is done
Could I ever leave you…

He awoke to semi-darkness, and an intense burning sensation in this throat. Moments later, he doubled over and vomited violently on the rough ground.

Once his bout of nausea had passed, Adam leaned back and took in his new surroundings. It looked like the current had transported him to a shallower part of the river, though how much time had passed since he'd lost consciousness, he couldn't say. The water lay an arm's length away from him, while behind him stood the billowing silhouette of an unknown forest.

He crawled backwards, then stopped as his hand touched a thin piece of fabric. Turning around, he saw Belle lying face down on the ground next to him. Thank God. She must have jumped off the cliff just before Perducas had fired his rifle.

"Mademoiselle?" he asked hoarsely as he moved towards her. "Mademoiselle Belle? Can you hear me?"

There was no reply. Starting to become very worried, he turned her over, patted her cheeks and then forcefully shook her shoulders. "No. No no no," he muttered frantically. "Please don't be dead. Not again."

Suddenly, she coughed loudly and turned her head toward him. Adam sighed in relief. She's still alive.

He quickly moved away to give her some space. Given their currently-sour relationship, he doubted that she would appreciate him sitting so close to her. Not to mention how inappropriate it would look.

"Are you alright?" he asked her as she slowly sat up from the ground.

"I think so," she replied weakly. "Where am I?"

"I'm not sure. The current must have washed us miles away from the cliff."

She anxiously studied her surroundings. Then she said to herself more than to Adam, "Where's Papa? Papa? PAPA? PAPA?!"

There was no answer. Only the dull burbling of the river and the wind rustling through the trees.

"No," she moaned miserably, burying her head in her hands. "I should have stayed with him. After we fled Agathon's house, we heard a gunshot, and it scared our horse. We fell off the saddle, and before we knew it, bandits were coming at us from all directions. My father ran one way, I ran the other way…"

"It's not your fault," Adam said consolingly. "You were running for your life. You couldn't have done anything to save him."

Belle dried her tears and looked back at Adam. "You have to help me find him," she pleaded.

"What?! You can't be serious. We just narrowly escaped certain death from the river and from those bandits back on the cliff. And you still want to go back?"

"You would do the same thing if he was your father," she insisted. "I can't leave him behind to become the King's prisoner. Not again."

"Mademoiselle, it's not that I'm trying to undermine your concern for your father," Adam clarified. "But what you're asking me to do is complete and utter suicide!"

He couldn't see her eyes clearly in the dark but had the strangest impression that she was shooting daggers at him. After a moment, she stood up resolutely and said, "Fine."

"Wait. What are you doing?"

"I'm going to find my father on my own."

Adam blinked, unable to believe what he was hearing. "And how do you plan on doing that?" he demanded. "We don't even know where we are!"

"Simple. I'll follow the stars and keep walking upstream. I'll have to get back to the cliff at some point."

Adam gritted his teeth in rage. He couldn't tell if Belle was being serious or not, but either way, her stubborn air and vindictive tone were making his blood boil. "That is the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard of!" he shouted aloud.

"Sorry, can't hear you," Belle replied as she walked briskly away from him. "I must have some water stuck in my ears. Don't you have something better to do anyway? Like fleeing France, pretending that this isn't your problem?"

Adam seethed with an anger he hadn't felt since… well, since the days when Belle still lived in the castle as his prisoner. He briefly wondered if he should let her go and be stupid on her own. But when he weighed that against the very viable possibility of her being raped and murdered, he knew that he couldn't be that cruel. He wanted Belle to be safe, not to be left for dead, again. Even with the fate of the kingdom resting on his shoulders, her well-being still meant everything to him.

"Wait," he called out in defeat as he stood up from the ground. "I'll help you find a way to get back to your father. But that's it. I can't get involved after that."

Belle's footsteps slowed and she turned back to look at him. "Why, thank you, Your Highness," she said appreciatively. "You know, perhaps there's a heart beating inside that chest of yours after all."

He scoffed. "Says the girl who I just rescued from those bounty hunters in the forest."

"I was perfectly in control of the situation, thank you very much."

"Oh, yes. I could see that as you were lying defenselessly on the ground, cajoling your enemies and luring them into a false sense of security."

"The point is, one act of chivalry is hardly enough to earn you a place in my good books," she explained, crossing her arms defensively. "I will always think unkindly of any man who puts the needs of himself before the needs of his kingdom. But since I can't do anything to change your mind on that particular decision, I suppose it's best that we drop the subject. Now, shall we be off?"

Before Adam could answer her question, she was already marching past him, searching for a quick way to cut from the riverbank into the forest. The Count took a deep breath before he followed her. Keep it together, Adam. It's not worth wasting your time bickering with Belle when she'll only be stuck with you for a couple of days at most.

Still, he couldn't deny that he was taking a big risk in agreeing to help her. As long as he played the role of Belle's travel companion, his plan to reach Paimpont forest and find the Nexus Tree would have to be put on hold. Which wasn't exactly the wisest decision, given his status as a wanted enemy of the King.

As he looked back at the river, Adam noticed that Agathon's satchel was lying at the edge of the water. He hastened towards it and opened the clasp, relieved to see that the magic mirror and amulet were still inside. He slipped it over his shoulder before returning to Belle.

The walk through the woods was quiet and awkward to say the least. Adam felt a bitter sense of irony for his current circumstances. He'd always dreamed of the day he could be alone with Belle as a human. Now that day had come, but instead of feeling elated, he felt terrible.

Belle hated him; no question about it. An apathetic, self-centred, aristocrat like himself was the last person she'd want as a travel partner. Once she found a way to return to her father, she'd take off and never look back. Just like she had when the Beast had freed her in his original timeline. He would never be good enough for her, would never leave a lasting impact on her no matter what reality he travelled to. And he deeply resented that.

"Mademoiselle," he said after they'd been walking through the woods for about fifteen minutes. "I know you don't want to listen to my advice right now. In fact, I'm quite sure that you don't like listening to anyone's advice but your own. But surely it wouldn't be unreasonable for us to find someplace to spend the night? We won't make much progress looking for your father in the dark."

"Absolutely not," Belle replied firmly. "The King could already be sentencing my father to death for all I know. I can't afford to waste any time."

Adam sighed. There was clearly no easy way of getting around Belle's headstrong attitude, no matter what he said or did.

"Look," he said, in another half-hearted attempt to reason with her. "There's no sense in going back to the castle without proper food and rest. Besides, we're going to catch a cold in these wet clothes unless we find a place to dry off. I'm sure your father wouldn't want you to come and rescue him, only for you to die of pneumonia straight afterwards. He'd be devastated."

Belle paused, considering Adam's logic. Then she said, albeit reluctantly, "Well... I suppose we could stop for one night. But just one. After that, I can't afford to stop for anything."

"Of course not," Adam agreed. "Quite frankly, I'm convinced that you wouldn't stop for death even if it was staring you in the face."

"Very funny, Your Highness." She crossed her arms and scowled. "So, seeing as it was your idea, where do you suggest we stay for the night?"

"First of all, if we're going to be travelling together, I must insist that you call me Adam," Adam replied. "Not 'Your Highness.' Not 'My Prince.' Not 'Thomas-Alexandre.' Not… whatever other silly nicknames I may go by. And I think our best bet is to find the closest town from here. We might be able to acquire a horse and seek shelter for the night."

"Whatever you wish, Your High—I mean, Adam," Belle agreed reluctantly.

They continued to walk in stilted silence until they reached a signpost by a crossroads ahead of them. As they stepped closer to read the names, they heard the sound of rapid hoofbeats coming from their left.

Adam's heart began to race, thinking of the two bounty hunters they'd encountered earlier. He quickly placed himself in front of Belle to shield her from their pursuers.

But instead of bandits, a beautifully decorated carriage emerged around the bend. Its windows and roof were accented with golden vines, likely indicating that it belonged to a member of the French aristocracy.

The coach's driver was a middle-aged man wearing a simple cloak and tricorn hat. Upon seeing Adam and Belle standing beside the road, his eyes widened, and he pulled the horses to a halt.

"What on earth?!" a male voice shouted from inside the carriage. "Samuel, why have we stopped?"

"Sorry, Your Grace," the coachman named Samuel replied. "It's just that there's a man and woman standing by the side of the road. Likely village folk from the looks of it."

The unseen man let out an exasperated "tut" sound. "Village folk have all sorts of reasons for being out in the woods late at night, Samuel. Hardly something we need to waste our time investigating."

"But Your Grace… they're all wet and the lady is missing one of her shoes," Samuel asserted. "What if someone mugged them? What if they're lost and need our help?"

The man sighed. "Fine. I'll go out and take a look. But after that, no more stops. We're late enough as it is."

The carriage door opened. Out stepped a young man with shoulder-length brown hair and grey-blue eyes. His outfit—a dark blue suit with brass buttons—was just as opulent-looking as his carriage and reminded Adam of something he would have worn in his pre-cursed life.

"Can I help you?" the nobleman asked, looking at Adam and Belle curiously.

Adam's eyes widened in recognition. "Vincent?"

The man blinked at Adam in surprise. "Cousin?"

He stepped closer to get a better look at him. Then, a huge smile broke across his face. "Good lord, it is you!" he exclaimed, fixing him in a tight embrace. "How long has it been now? Eight? Nine years? What are you doing here? And what on earth are you dressed as?"

"It's… a long story," Adam replied awkwardly.

"Well, could you at least tell me who this fair young maiden is?" He stepped away from Adam and gestured to Belle. "Your courtesan?"

"Oh no no no." He lowered his head in embarrassment. "This is an acquaintance of mine, Mademoiselle Belle Gagnier. She's a peasant girl from a village near my old castle. She was separated from her father and I'm trying to help her find him. Belle, this is my cousin, Duke Vincent de Breil de Pontbriand."

"Good evening, Your Grace," Belle said with an awkward curtsey.

"Ravi de vous connaître, Mademoiselle," Vincent replied with a bow. "I still have no idea what's going on, but it's nice to see my cousin spending time with someone other than his dogs for a change."

"Dogs?" Adam tilted his head in confusion.

"You know. Your hunting beagles," he elaborated. "Don't you keep over a dozen of them in your estate?"

"I've… lost count," Adam replied. Truthfully, he had no clue what his cousin was talking about.

"Well, I suppose it doesn't matter anyway," Vincent went on. "Still, the question remains. What are you doing so far from Droitebrume, soaking wet and travelling through the woods with this peasant girl?"

Adam knew it would be pointless to avoid an explanation. Vincent may have had obtuse opinions about certain subjects, but he was also quite perceptive, which made him difficult to lie to.

He exasperatingly recounted the day's events: going to see Gaston to propose an allowance raise, getting arrested for challenging his brother's leadership, escaping the castle, meeting Belle, fleeing from Gaston's guards again, only to nearly drown and end up on the edge of a riverbed…

"Bless me! It sounds like you've had quite a day," Vincent replied once Adam had finished speaking. "I always knew that your brother had a mean streak in him, but I never expected him to be that awful. I guess that explains why I saw his guards when I was passing through Grange-sur-bois earlier this evening."

"He sent his guards to Grange-sur-bois?" Adam asked perplexingly. That village was nowhere near his old castle. In fact, it wasn't even part of his kingdom.

"Yes," Vincent confirmed. "They were making an announcement to the villagers in the town square. I assumed it was for some sort of new bylaw, though I did think it a bit strange that they'd be delivering that news outside of Gaston's territory. Based on what you've told me, I'm guessing that they were telling the people to be on the lookout for you."

"If that's true, then that completely rules out our chances of finding someplace comfortable to spend the night," Adam replied in dismay. This news was troubling, to say the least. Now that Gaston's army was searching for him across the country and spreading word about his notoriety to passing villages, his list of places to hide was quickly running thin.

"Well, that's not a problem," Vincent said reassuringly. "You and your lady friend can come with me."

"Why? Where are you going?"

"To the Château de Vivecolline, to see the Princess de Lanzac. It's her birthday tomorrow, and she's invited me and some other nobles in the region to celebrate."

Adam raised his brows in surprise. "You're... going to see Princess Amandine?"

"Oh. You know her?" A worried expression appeared on Vincent's face.

Adam had never seen his cousin look so anxious before. Not wanting to bring up the fact that he'd almost married Princess Amandine in another timeline, he replied, "Well, I know of her, though I've never met her in person. I don't think so anyway."

"Oh." Vincent instantly relaxed and lowered his shoulders. "Well, I know for a fact that the Princess's family isn't terribly fond of King Gaston. Ever since he insulted them at a dinner party a few years ago, they've wanted nothing to do with him. I'm sure they wouldn't object to taking you in as their guest. And as long as you stay in their castle, Gaston can't arrest or execute you without their permission. It would be a perfect place to seek refuge… unless you have somewhere else in mind?"

Adam looked back at Belle, half-expecting her to voice her opinion, but she only stared at him politely and waited for him to speak. He looked between her and Vincent before making a decision. "Fine. We'll go with you to the Château de Vivecolline and ask Princess Amandine if we can stay with her. But only for a little while."

He didn't know if it was the best choice, especially if it meant prolonging his journey to the tree, and his promise to help Belle find her father. But what was the alternative? Gaston's men were on the move and were getting closer from what Vincent had described. All things considered; Amandine's castle was the safest place to be right now.

Chapter Text

Adam and Belle joined Vincent in his ornate carriage and soon were riding through the woods again; past gnarly trees and dense underbrush. It wasn't long before the forest began to thin out into a luscious meadow. In the distance stood a great castle with pointed spires and grey walls that harkened back to ancient times of war. It was nowhere as large or as impressive looking as Adam's old chateau, but stunning to look at, nonetheless.

When they arrived at the main gates, Samuel announced himself to the guards, who let him pass through without question. The three passengers dismounted the carriage and entered the castle's main atrium. There, they were greeted by a stern-looking housekeeper with dark skin and a tall, imposing figure.

"You're late," she said, putting her hands on her hips as she surveyed Vincent with judgmental eyes.

"I'm… dreadfully sorry, Madame," Vincent replied, bowing nervously. "A wheel on my carriage broke when I was riding through Calmetertre, and I had to stop to get it fixed. I also ran into two travellers when I was passing through the woods. This is my cousin, Thomas-Alexandre Comte de Droitebrume, and his companion, Mademoiselle Belle Gagnier."

"Hmm." The housekeeper gave Belle and Adam an inquisitive looking over. "It's very improper to bring outsiders into a castle without an invitation. Still, it's not my place to say who gets admitted into my masters' household and who doesn't. Have a seat in the salon. The Princess will be with you shortly."

She led them into a room off the main atrium which was decorated with a crystal chandelier and several handsomely crafted pieces of furniture. Not wanting to dirty the armchairs with his wet clothes, Adam elected to stand in a corner as he waited for the Princess to make her appearance. To his surprise, Belle and Vincent decided to do the same.

A few minutes passed before Amandine entered the room. She was just as regal and refined as Adam remembered her, dressed in a peach-coloured gown with a floral print on her bodice and skirt. Her long brown hair was tied into a sleek half bun.

"Duke Vincent," she said, addressing Adam's cousin with an enthusiastic smile. "It's such a pleasure to see you again."

"The pleasure is all mine, Your Highness," Vincent replied with a bow. Adam imitated the gesture. At the corner of his eye, he was pleased to see Belle curtsey. At least the girl isn't completely without manners.

"But you've arrived so late," Amandine continued, lifting her brows in concern. "I was beginning to worry that you'd lost your way or decided to defer my invitation."

"Nothing would ever stop me from seeing you, Princess," Vincent replied, an uncharacteristically dreamy expression on his face. "Ahem… for the purpose of celebrating your birthday, that is! But I did get sidetracked a couple of times." He gestured to Adam. "This is my cousin… what do you call yourself now anyway? Thomas? Adam?"


"Right. My cousin, Adam, Comte de Droitebrume," Vincent said importantly. "And this is his lady friend, Mademoiselle Belle Gagnier."

"Good evening, Princess," Adam said with another bow. "I'm sorry for the intrusion, but we are in desperate need of your help. My brother, King Gaston, has set a bounty on me and Mademoiselle Gagnier for offending his fragile ego. He's sent his guards all over the country to arrest and possibly kill us, simply because we disagreed with his forceful leadership methods. I am asking—no, begging—for your permission to stay at your castle until his men have cleared the area."

Amandine didn't answer at first. Her attention turned from Adam to Belle, who looked every bit a mess now that her dress was torn, and she was missing one of her shoes.

"Mademoiselle Gagnier!" she said in alarm. "What happened to your clothes?"

"Oh. This?" Belle fidgeted with her skirt, a flustered expression appearing on her face. "It's nothing really. We—that is, the Count and I—were chased by bandits in the woods and had to take a detour through the river."

"Through?" Amandine repeated in confusion. "What do you mean 'through?'"

"The bandits chased us out to a cliff," Belle explained with the same nervous expression. Adam didn't blame her… she probably wasn't used to being the center of attention. "And because there was no easy way of getting past them, we had to jump into the river to escape. That's how we ended up here."

"My goodness." Amandine raised a hand to her mouth in surprise. "That sounds positively dangerous! Why were those bandits chasing you to begin with?"

"They were trying to hand me over to King Gaston for a reward," she replied. "See, His Majesty approached me a week ago to ask me to become one of his courtesans. When I refused, he tried to force me into saying yes by arresting my father. Only my father escaped, so his only other option was to take me by force. If Comte Adam hadn't found me and rescued me from the bandits, I would probably be a prisoner myself right now."

Adam glanced over at Belle in disbelief. Was that gratitude he was hearing, from the same girl who'd scoffed at his gallantry less than an hour ago?

Princess Amandine considered Belle's story; hands clasped together in thought. "Geneviève," she said aloud.

In stepped the stern housekeeper Adam had met in the foyer earlier. "Yes, Mistress?"

"Prepare two more bedchambers for our guests, please. And get them both some clean clothes while you're at it."

"Absolutely, Your Highness." Geneviève curtsied and exited the salon.

"Yes, of course you can stay here," Amandine said, turning back to Adam and Belle. "A King Gaston may be, but he is no friend of ours. I'm sorry that you got involved in such a dreadful mess. It's appalling to think that a man with so much influence would use his crown to separate an innocent family and put a bounty on his own brother."

"He was never my brother. Not really," Adam corrected. "Just an orphaned peasant boy that my father groomed into taking my place."

"Then why not challenge him to your right to the throne?" Vincent suggested. "It's not like anyone would miss him anyway. He has terrible manners and clearly isn't very popular amongst his subjects. I'd fight by your side any day."

Adam looked at his cousin sheepishly. "I… appreciate your support, Vincent, but I'm not sure if that's the best idea."

"Why not?"

He tilted his head curiously, while Belle observed the change in conversation with an amused expression. She was clearly waiting for Adam to crack, but there was no way he would give her the satisfaction—not after the way she'd ridiculed him back at the riverbank.

"Because well… have you seen his armies?" he said instead. "King Gaston has endless resources and an army of trained guards to boot. Even if I did get past his defenses and attack his castle, there are servants there that I've known since my childhood. If some harm were to come to them because of me, I could never forgive myself. I agree that something must be done, but it must be done discreetly and tactfully."

"Well, that sounds fine and all," said Vincent, crossing his arms, "if you think your subjects are willing to wait that long."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing. It's just that, after hearing Mademoiselle Gagnier's story, I have to wonder how many other citizens are suffering from King Gaston's tyranny, too. What if they grow impatient? What if they start to question why it took so long for you to act, or if you really have the kingdom's best interests at heart? If I were you, I'd want to do something to assure them of your loyalty, sooner rather than later."

"I'm no war expert, but I believe that a rebellion of any kind requires some sort of planning," Amandine added thoughtfully. "Perhaps this is something we could talk about tomorrow, after my birthday celebration?"

"Of course, Your Highness," Vincent obliged. "Which reminds me… is your father still awake? I was hoping to give him my regards."

"Unfortunately, he's away in Italy for the next two weeks," Amandine replied, looking mildly disappointed by this unexpected turn of events. "He's left me in charge of the household in his absence. I admit that I'm a bit nervous. I've never hosted my own birthday party before."

"You'll do a fine job," Vincent said instantly. "You are one of the most honest, intelligent and genial princesses that I know. As long as you act yourself, no one will say a bad word about you or your party. I guarantee it."

Although the room was dimly lit, Adam could still see the blush on Amandine's cheeks as she smiled politely and looked back at his cousin. "Thank you, Your Grace. That's very kind of you to say."

Later that night, Adam sat on the bed of one of Amandine's guest rooms, wearing a clean nightshirt that smelt faintly of lemons.

Agathon's satchel was still wet from the river and would have to be discarded. Adam made a mental note to ask a servant for a new one before he headed out again. But on the upside, at least the magic mirror and the amulet were still intact. He laid them out on the bedside table and examined them closely.

The amulet was no larger than his palm and hung like a necklace from a thin black string. It was circular in shape and glistened with overlapping hues of green and yellow. Adam had never seen such an unusually-coloured stone before, and vaguely wondered if it was natural, or if its magical properties made it look the way it did. His younger self would have loved to have added a trinket like this to his collection, but right now, he was happy just to use it as a key out of this crazy reality he'd created.

He placed the amulet in a drawer and turned his attention to the mirror. To his surprise, a white light was glowing from the underside where the reflection was. "Prince Adam?" a voice whispered. "Are you there?"

Adam turned over the mirror. Bearing down at him through the glass was an unflattering image of Agathon's face. It was impossible to know where the Enchanter was exactly, for his surroundings were very dark. Harsh shadows covered his nose and forehead, making him appear more ghost than human.

"Agathon?" Adam said in astonishment.

"Oh, thank goodness!" Agathon sighed in relief. "I've been trying to reach you for the past two hours and got nothing. Are you safe?"

"Yes," Adam confirmed. "Belle and I are spending the night at—"

"Shh!" He hissed. "Don't tell me where you are! She might be listening."


"Aye. Do you remember how my barrier spell came undone in the clearing? Well, that was from no ordinary gust of wind. Gaston has an enchantress working for him now, and she's one that you want to stay clear of at all costs. Her name is Médée; the most sadistic sorceress to grace this side of France in the past century."

"Brilliant," Adam said with a sarcastic drawl. "Just when I thought I couldn't get any more popular. Can you at least confirm that she's not planning to turn me into a beast?"

"I wish I could pass along the good news, but unfortunately, I'm just as clueless to her intentions as you are. All I know is that Médée's alliance with the King is very strange. For years she was notorious for using her magic to torture humans for sport, not ally herself with them. About fifteen years ago, the council tried to arrest her for killing a family of farmers in Pontfranc. My sister was a witness and was supposed to testify against her during her trial. Except—"

"—I'd already killed her?" Adam finished.

"Correct. And since the council had no other evidence, they were forced to clear Médée of all her charges. No one's seen head or tail of her since. Not until today at least."

Adam shuddered. Until now, he'd assumed that Agathe's death had only made him lose his throne to Gaston. Now he had a rogue enchantress to deal with, one with a history of murdering and torturing humans for fun. Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse. "You mentioned that she might be listening in on us," he continued. "Why is that?"

"Maybe you can't see it from the mirror, but I'm currently serving time in your 'charming' brother's castle," Agathon explained, gesturing to his shadowy surroundings. "After you fled into the woods, Médée came marching into my clearing with the King's guards, demanding that I tell her where you were going, and why I'd been helping you. Of course, I didn't tell her squat. So then she got angry and locked me in the dungeons for being a traitor to the crown."

Adam's face softened in guilt. "I'm very sorry." It shamed him to think that he'd put another person's life in danger, all because of his own recklessness.

"Hey, no harm done." Agathon smiled. "This isn't the first time I've been locked in prison against my will. Médée may be a powerful enchantress, but her barrier spells are sloppy to say the least. It will take a few days to break out of the defenses she's put around my cell, but certainly not impossible."

"Oh. Well, that's good to hear," said Adam, sobering slightly. "Could you use your magic to spy on Médée and Gaston in the meantime and figure out what they're planning?"

"I would, but it appears that Médée's already two steps ahead of me. She's put a cloaking spell on herself and the King, so no one can eavesdrop on either of them. You can try for yourself if you like."

Adam held the magic mirror aloft. "Show me Gaston," he demanded.

Darkness filled the glass and nothing more. There was no pompous King in sight; not even a hint of his booming voice to indicate where he was or what he might be doing.

"You see?" Agathon forced his image back into the mirror. "As long as that spell is in effect, spying on Médée and King Gaston will be next to impossible."

"Hold on," Adam interjected. "If you can use your magic to see me, does that mean that Médée can see me too?"

"No." Agathon shook his head. "I put my own cloaking spell on you, Belle and Maurice the moment you arrived at my cottage. No one can see you or trace your whereabouts—no one you consider to be your enemy, at least. If Gaston and Médée want to find you, then they'll have to do so by non-magical means. I wouldn't get too comfortable though. That spell wears off in a week, so you'll need to move fast if you want to get to your destination in time."

"I understand." Adam nodded. "There's just one small problem. Belle is here with me. She was separated from her father in the woods, and I promised I'd help her find him. Except… I have no idea where to start looking."

"Do you have a magic mirror or not?" Agathon snapped. "Maurice is perfectly safe. Just talk to the mirror and you'll see for yourself. Or even better, show it to Belle if it will put her mind at ease."

"What?!" Adam exclaimed. "That's preposterous! I can't just waltz over to Belle and show her the mirror. Then she'll know—"

"—the truth?" Agathon raised his brows inquisitively. "Is that really such a bad thing? Look, Your Highness. I know how you feel about Belle. And I know that you want to hide your past from her to protect her and compensate for all the bad mistakes you made in your other timelines. But you forget, this is no ordinary peasant girl we're talking about. This is a girl who would have barged straight into King Gaston's castle to free her father if I hadn't intervened. She's got more nerve and brains in her than some men combined. And sooner or later, she's going to figure you out. I wouldn't be surprised if she's starting to put the pieces together already. Why hide what's already inevitable?"

"Because…" Adam hesitated. "There are too many risks. If she gets captured and tells Gaston the truth about me, I'll be ruined. She might get hurt. She might…" Start seeing me as a friend instead of an enemy.

"There's always going to be risks involved in this sort of thing," Agathon agreed. "But you may find the benefits outweigh the dangers. If you gave her the chance, Belle could be a very useful ally."

There was a sudden echo of heavy footfalls coming from behind Agathon's cell. He looked tensely towards the noise, then turned back to Adam. "Sounds like the guards are coming back up to start their patrol. We should end our conversation now before they get suspicious."

"Wait," said Adam. "What do I tell Belle about her father?"

"That decision is yours to make, Your Highness. You do what you feel is necessary. Just remember, mirror or no mirror, you only have a week to put an end to King Gaston's regime. So use your time wisely, and no dilly-dallying! We'll talk again once I've broken out of Médée's defenses. Bonne nuit."

Agathon's image faded away, leaving Adam's uncertain reflection staring back at him from the glass.

He set down the mirror and contemplated the Enchanter's suggestion. In many ways, it would be so much easier to go to sleep, say nothing to Belle and keep playing the role of an honourless prince. He was sure that Belle would find her father eventually; regardless of whether he showed her the mirror or not. That wasn't his problem to worry about, was it?

The fact that he couldn't say yes to his own question made him nervous. He remembered how heartbroken Belle had been at the riverbank when she'd realized that she'd lost her father a second time. It was the same heartbreak he'd seen in her after their first dance, and after she'd made the decision to take her father's place as prisoner. No matter what reality Adam travelled to, Belle's love for Maurice remained constant. She probably wouldn't get any sleep tonight, too busy worrying about where he was, or if he was still alive. Adam couldn't leave her in the dark like that. Not anymore. He loved her too much to ignore her pain.

Taking a deep breath, he picked up the mirror and stood up from the bed.

Belle was staying in the room across from the Count's. He knocked on her door and waited. A part of him wished that she wouldn't answer because then he could back out of this awkward conversation before he regretted it. If she was already asleep, then she wouldn't even know that he'd stopped by to talk to her. But then he heard the floor creak, followed by Belle's wary voice behind the door asking, "Who's there?"

"It's me," Adam replied nervously. "Adam."

Belle opened the door. She had changed out of her ripped pinafore dress, into a dark blue negligée that modestly covered the nightgown she was wearing underneath. Her hair was woven into a thick braid that stopped just a few inches past her shoulders.

Upon seeing the Count, her eyes narrowed into a dark scowl. "Don't they teach royals manners? This is hardly an appropriate time to be calling on a young, unmarried woman."

Adam's cheeks grew warm with embarrassment. Of course he was aware of the implications of visiting Belle so late at night. But this was the only time he could speak to her in private. Maybe he had imagined being intimate with her on a few occasions, but certainly not like this. "Look... I would never dream of doing anything to hurt your honour, Mademoiselle," he promised. "I'm here because I have some information about your father's whereabouts. If you let me in, I'll be happy to share with you all I know."

Belle considered Adam with the same suspicious glance. She clenched her jaw like he was a challenging math equation she was trying to solve. Then, admitting defeat, she opened the door to let him in.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," she muttered once he stepped into the room, closing the door behind them. "Well, go on then. What have you learned about my father?"

Adam wordlessly showed her the mirror. Belle took one look at it, then looked up at him in disgust. "Is this some kind of joke?"

"No. This is a magic mirror. It will show you anything you wish to see."

"Right." She snorted. "And I'm secretly half-fairy. Are you touched in the head?"

"I'm telling you the truth, I swear!" he replied exasperatingly. "Here, let me prove it to you. Show me… Vincent."

The face of the mirror lit up to reveal the inside of a bedchamber that looked similar to Adam and Belle's. Bent over a lit candle, wearing a white nightshirt and striped housecoat, was Duke Vincent. He was holding a book in his hands and reading its contents aloud with a dramatic bravado:

"Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear,
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear..."

"Is he… reciting Shakespeare?" Belle asked perplexingly.

"No idea," Adam replied awkwardly. Perhaps choosing to spy on his cousin wasn't the best idea in hindsight. But at least he had Belle's attention now.

"Here," he said, passing her the mirror. "You try."

Belle bit her lip skeptically before grasping the mirror's metal handle. In that moment of closeness, Adam caught a whiff of the soap she'd used to bathe herself with earlier. She smelt of lavender, and it was heavenly.

"I'd like to see my father," Belle said, looking straight into the glass.

Almost instantly, her reflection was replaced by an image of Maurice, sitting alone at a wooden table. Judging from the brick wall and plain looking beams and braziers behind him, Adam deduced that he was in some sort of tavern. There was a bowl of soup and a glass of water in front of him, but he wasn't eating. His bloodshot eyes were fixed on something in the distance; something that Adam suspected only existed in his mind.

Suddenly, there was a sound of a door opening, causing Maurice to snap back to attention. Footsteps creaked across the hardwood floor, indicating that someone else had entered the room.

"Well?" Maurice said, addressing the unknown person with a raspy voice. "Have you found her?"

"I'm sorry, Maurice." The speaker was male, and his tone was remorseful. "We searched the forest as best we could and couldn't find a trace. We have informants at King Gaston's castle who can tell us if she was taken prisoner, but we won't hear from them for another two days at least. With the King sending his guards out to look for his brother, we have to tread carefully."

Maurice nodded, then banged his fists on the table in rage. "It should have been me," he cried despondently. "I promised my wife on her deathbed that I would protect our daughter with my life… and I failed. Now I have no idea where she is. I don't even know if she's still breathing."

"Maurice," the man said consolingly. He walked around the table and hugged him from behind, allowing Adam to get a good look at his face. The stranger appeared to be around Adam's age, with long red hair tied back into a simple ponytail and a freckled complexion. He was simply dressed and well-built; if Adam were to guess, he'd spent his life in some rigorous occupation like farming or blacksmithing. There was an air of confidence about him—not the same cocky confidence that Gaston had—but confidence that seemed bright and dignified… like a natural leader.

"You can't lose hope, Maurice," the man continued. "You said she's smart… maybe she got away from the bandits on her own. Maybe a Good Samaritan found her and took her in for the night. Maybe she's on her way to Corneille this very minute. What I can promise you is that the moment we hear any news about her whereabouts, we'll deliver it to you straight away. Vous avez ma parole."

Maurice wiped his nose, comforted by the man's words. "I just hope he's with her," he said.

"Who's that?"

"The Count… Prince Thomas. He was the one who nearly died helping me escape from the castle. Belle didn't care for him very much; but then again, the same goes for a lot of young men she's met in Villeneuve." He chuckled. "There was something about him though… some sort of noble air that I couldn't help but trust. It sounds bizarre, Renaud, but I believe that she'd be better off with him than on her own."

"You could be right," Renaud agreed. "It's always safer to travel in numbers. In any case, you should eat and get some rest. We need you to be healthy if you want to be part of our resistance. Charlotte's prepared a room for you upstairs when you're ready."

Belle's eyes glistened with emotion as she continued to observe Renaud and Maurice's conversation. "Papa's in Corneille," she said, smiling in relief. "He's staying with the resistance. Oh, but he misses me so much! Don't worry, Papa." She looked at him hopefully and placed her hand on the glass. "We'll be together again soon."

She passed the mirror back to Adam. As she did, she stared at him intriguingly. "Where did you get this?"

"It was a… erm parting gift from Agathon," he explained self-consciously "Let's just say that there's a lot more to that man than he lets on."

"He did give me that impression, actually," she concurred. "I saw what he did to those trees back in the clearing. So then why would he entrust this to you?"

Adam ruffled his hair nervously, trying to think of a convincing cover story. "He… wanted me to have it so I'd always have a way to look back at the kingdom," he vacillated. "In case I ever changed my mind about leaving."

"Well, then, have you?'

"Have I what?"

"Changed your mind about leaving? Or were those things you said in the salon just a bunch of words?"

"I did mean what I said. But that doesn't mean that I want to be part of it. There are many good reasons as to why I'm unfit to lead a rebellion. Reasons that I'm under no obligation to share with you."

"I see." She pursed her lips, thinking. "Well then, if you don't plan on using the mirror for anything useful, why not give it to me? It could help me find safe passage to Corneille. The resistance might put it to good use, too."

"No!" he snapped. He instinctively pressed the mirror against his chest.

Belle's mouth opened into a silent "O" shape. She tilted her head down and smirked at him knowingly. "There's more to the story, isn't there? Another reason why Agathon gave you the mirror?"

God be damned. Adam bowed his head in shame. Of all the girls I had to fall in love with, it had to be the one who can sniff out my lies like a bloody hound dog. "I… need it to help me find something for Agathon," he replied stiffly. "A sort of… secret weapon that can stop Gaston from being King."

He heard her breath hitch and imagined the thoughts running through her head: the whispers of adventure, ending Gaston's regime, realizing that her rescuer wasn't everything he said he was…

"What is this weapon?" she asked curiously.

A knock on the door interrupted their conversation. Geneviève entered the room, holding several colourful dresses in her arms. "Sorry for the late intrusion, Mademoiselle, but I just wanted to leave some of my mistress's old clothes in your armoire. You can try them on for tomorrow's—"

She stopped mid-sentence as she noticed Adam standing in the room. "Oh, M-My Lord!" she stammered, curtseying as best she could while still holding on to the Princess's clothes. "Forgive me… I didn't realize… I can come back later…"

"No, that's quite alright," Adam replied, feeling just as uncomfortable as Geneviève looked. "I was just having a word. We're finished now."

He turned back to Belle and bowed swiftly. "Goodnight, Mademoiselle Gagnier." Then, before she could say anything in response, he turned on his heel and marched out of the room.

He was determined to dispel any rumours about Belle being his courtesan, especially after what Vincent had said to him back in the woods.

Once he returned to his bedchamber, Adam threw himself onto the mattress and pressed his hands over his face. Good job, Adam. You've really done it now.

Now that Belle knew the truth—that he wanted to save the kingdom instead of abandon it—she would undoubtedly be peppering him with questions for the next couple days. Of course, there were a few ways he could avoid her. He could sneak out of the castle… and straight into Gaston's army, or dismiss Belle's memory of their conversation as a dream… which she wouldn't believe in the slightest. Both solutions were full of flaws and sounded less promising the more he considered them.

At least she knows where her father is, he reasoned. It felt good to give her that small piece of comfort, even if it was only a piece. To see her smile like the old Belle had smiled had warmed his heart in ways that riches never could.

Still, it wasn't enough to overpower his uncertainty. By revealing his real reasons for abandoning the kingdom, Belle might start looking at Adam with favour instead of resentment. He would have given anything for her to see him that way once, but now, after ruining her life so many times, knew that he had to avoid it at all costs. Belle couldn't get close to him. She couldn't know that he wasn't the real Thomas-Alexandre of this universe, and she couldn't know about the terrible things he'd done to bring himself here. He was just a man on a mission—a mission that Belle was to play no part in, no matter what Agathon or Maurice said.

He closed his eyes, content with his decision—or maybe not. For when he fell asleep, he dreamed that he was back in his old ballroom, twirling Belle around in her golden, feather-light dress. There were some differences between this dream and the reality though: in this dream, the spell was broken, Belle was here to stay, and they were deeply and happily in love.

It was a dream that would torment him until the end of his existence; or at least until he trained his heart to stop hoping for things that would never be.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Adam awoke feeling just as disgruntled and unsatisfied as he'd felt the night before. As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, Martin, the manservant who'd been assigned to him, entered the room with some freshly laundered clothes.

"Good morning, My Lord," he said cordially.

"Good morning," Adam replied. "What are those?"

"The King's old wardrobe, sire. I made a few alterations to fit the size of your old shirt and trousers, as per my mistress's request. They're a few seasons out of fashion, but I'm sure you'd prefer them to those old rags you came in last night."

"I can't say those old rags will be missed," Adam agreed. "Thank you, Monsieur."

"Of course." Martin bowed. "The Princess is hosting a breakfast for her guests and has invited you and Mademoiselle Gagnier to join her. Feel free to head downstairs once you're ready."

"Thank you," Adam responded. "I'll get ready straight away." He was hungry, but also nervous about seeing Belle again after last night.

He came downstairs a half-hour later wearing his new outfit: a black waistcoat and breeches with a red cravat. He heard laughter as he entered the dining room and turned to see Amandine and Vincent sitting together at a long table with whom he assumed to be the other party guests.

Belle was sitting between Amandine and the visitors, a polite smile plastered on her face. It took a second for Adam to confirm that she was Belle because she was wearing a light pink robe à la française adorned with lace. He found this surprising, given Belle's clear distaste in wearing such fancy gowns in his old timeline. She'd made it clear from her first day at his castle that she wouldn't come within ten feet of anything that resembled a corset, pannier or wig. So now that he saw her dressed like this; looking more like a noblewoman than a peasant, he couldn't help but admire how pretty she really was. Maybe high fashion wasn't in Belle's tastes, but she did look awfully good in it.

"Cousin!" Vincent exclaimed, startling Adam from his musings. "How nice of you to join us."

"Ahem." Adam cleared his throat. "Good morning, Vincent. Happy Birthday, Your Highness."

"Thank you, My Lord," Amandine replied pleasantly. "Allow me to introduce you to my guests." She gestured to the people sitting on the right side of the table. "This is Duke Denis de Truchis de Lays, Vicomtesse Adeline de Béthune Hesdigneul and Marquesse Cassandre and Caroline de Forcade de La Grèzère. My friends, this is Count Adam de Droitebrume, a cousin of Duke Vincent. He and his friend Mademoiselle Gagnier are staying here as my special guests."

"Enchanté," Adam said to the nobles with a bow, wondering how he was possibly going to remember so many names.

The nobles greeted him back with polite salutations of their own.

"Please, have a seat, My Lord," Amandine continued. She pointed to the last available chair at the table, which happened to be across from Belle. Belle glanced at Adam once as he sat down, but apart from that, there was no acknowledgement on her part. Perhaps it was better that way.

"We were just getting acquainted with your lady friend, Mademoiselle Gagnier," Vincent was saying. "Cousin, you must bring this girl around with you more often! Did you know that she's familiar with the works of the English playwright, William Shakespeare?"

"Well... only a few of his plays," Belle corrected bashfully. "At the church in my village, the chaplain keeps a small collection of books open to any villager who wants to read themHe's always wanted to add more, but it's impossible with His Majesty raising the taxes every year. It's a shame really because with all the money the King's taken from us, he could easily build a library for every town in the kingdom. But I guess he has to put that income to more important things. Like what kind of champagne to serve at his next dinner party, or what kind of fur coat to wear to his next formal function."

Adam would have laughed at that, if not for the fact that he'd spent the people's taxes just as carelessly once.

"That is a shame," Vincent agreed. "Still, a peasant girl who can fight against those odds and teach herself to read Shakespeare is an absolute marvel! Wouldn't you agree, coz?"

"Hmm?" Adam looked up from his plate. "I suppose."

"Mademoiselle Gagnier, if you like Romeo and Juliet, you'll adore the opera Orpheus and Eurydice," Amandine added eagerly. "It's such a tragic love story but told with such lovely music. It's about a lyre player named Orpheus who journeys to the Greek underworld to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice. The only condition is that to rescue her, he can't look at her until they return to earth. But Orpheus is unable to resist the temptation and eventually looks at his wife, causing her to die again. After that, he sings the most heartbreaking aria and vows to kill himself to join her, until Amour, the God of love, stops him. Amour sees that Orpheus's love for Eurydice is true, so she brings her back to life and they live happily ever after."

"Goodness gracious, Amandine. You've just spoiled the entire plot for her!" Vincent teased. "Anyway, Orpheus and Eurydice is a fine opera without question, but it can't hold a candle to Handel's Acis and Galatea. That opera is an absolute masterpiece."

"Oh, that one is beautiful," Amandine said fondly. "I especially love Acis and Galatea's duet before Polyphemus arrives. You can practically feel how strong their love is, not only in their words but in the way their voices mingle and complement each other so harmoniously."

"And alongside Polyphemus's jealous rage, what a contrast!" Vincent added. "The counterpoint between the three of them created so much tension, I was on the edge of my seat. What about when Galatea mourns Acis's death? Her singing is so solemn and ethereal, like something from a dream. It's no wonder that Acis fell in love with her."

"Those high notes that float over the chorus are exquisite," Amandine agreed.

"Indeed. As are those delicate little trills and melismas she sings in her first aria."

By now, the table had gone completely silent as everyone's attention turned to Amandine and Vincent's animated conversation. They both spoke so passionately about their favourite parts of Acis and Galatea, it was as though they'd forgotten that there were other people in the room with them. Belle herself was so startled that she let a piece of her waffle slip from her fork without noticing.

It wasn't until a servant entered the room with a tray of smoked sausages that the two nobles came back to their senses.

"Yes… well. Pardon my enthusiasm," Amandine said, bowing her head shyly. "I simply wanted to make the case that opera can be just as compelling as literature. Everyone ought to see at least one performance in their lifetime if they have the means."

"No need to explain yourself, Your Highness," Vincent replied with an affectionate smile. "For what it's worth, I like your enthusiasm."

The Princess giggled at that. Meanwhile, Adam pressed a serviette to his mouth, wondering how he was going to keep his food in once it arrived.

After breakfast, Amandine took her invitees on a personal tour of her castle. Adam and Belle were saved from talking to each other by the other party guests, who engaged them in separate conversations as they traversed the castle's many winding corridors and stairs. Adam had yet to stay in a castle that surpassed the grandeur of his own, and the Château de Vivecolline was no exception. But he still could appreciate its unique features, including its high vaulted ceilings, an interior courtyard with stone columns and a hallway of old tapestries that dated as far back as the early sixteenth century. It wasn't until they reached the art gallery—a spacious marble chamber decorated with numerous sculptures and paintings—that he found himself alone again. While Vincent and the other visitors admired the different art pieces around the room, Adam spotted Belle examining a painting of a man and woman staring at each other across a low brick wall, a large white castle in the distance.

"Oh, Papa would have loved this," she said longingly. "He always complained that there wasn't enough inspiration for him back in Villeneuve. Sometimes he'd talk with the other artists when they came to paint the meadow behind the village, but it wasn't the same."

"You never know," Adam said encouragingly. "Perhaps he'll come back with you one day and see these paintings for himself."

"Perhaps," she agreed. "If the Princess has reason to invite me here again first. So,"—she looked back at Adam—"are you going to tell me more about this secret weapon of yours?"

Here we go, Adam thought with a roll of his eyes. Crossing his arms over his chest, he replied, "What more is there to tell? It's a secret. S-E-C-R-E-T."

"Sure. So is it a magic sword, like Excalibur?"


"The holy grail?"


"Red shoes that make you dance to your death when you put them on your feet?"

"Will you shut up?" he snapped. "It's none of those things. I'm not even sure if it exists. It may not even work for that matter."

"Well, you obviously have some faith that it does," she argued. "Or else why would you be so interested in finding it?"

"Why do you keep asking me about it?"

"Because I happen to care about improving the well-being of my kingdom, unlike some people that I know. And well… maybe there's something I can do to help."

"You, help?" He scoffed. "I don't think so. Besides, what could you do that would be remotely useful? You're too, too…" Important. Precious. Valuable to lose.

"Too what?" she demanded.

He bowed his head. "Nothing."

But Belle, being the short-tempered person that she was, was already calling his bluff. "It's because I'm a woman, isn't it?" she said accusingly. "You think I'm not capable of handling myself because I'm 'the weaker sex.' Well I'll have you know that I've been through far worse than you. While you've had servants at your beck and call every day, I've spent my whole life getting up at the crack of dawn, doing chores, looking after my father, trying to make ends meet. Don't you dare suggest that I don't know what I'm getting into. I know far more about the harsh realities of the world than you."

"I wasn't going to say that you're weak," Adam countered. "What I meant to say is that you're too... involved with your father's well-being. Yes. That's it. Do you really think you could go on some dangerous adventure without him worrying about you? You saw how devastated he looked in the mirror last night. Besides, this is a mission that can be completed by one person, and one person only. It has to be me."

"Says who? Agathon, or your ego?"

"Says me," he growled. "This place… this reality, it was never supposed to happen. I was supposed to be king. Gaston was supposed to stay in Villeneuve and serve in the war as a soldier; not become my father's ward. The whole reason he's king now… the whole reason the kingdom is the way it is is because of me."

"You know that's not true," Belle disagreed. "It was your father who made Gaston his heir and refused to see the worth in you. He made a mistake, not you."

"You still don't get it!" Adam snapped. "Gaston and my father were never supposed to meet at all. But I did something. Something stupid, that changed the course of everything. And I'm the only one who can change it back."

"I don't understand."

"Good. Then we can finally drop the subject."

He stormed away from her, wondering why he'd bothered to talk to her in the first place. Even in an alternative reality, Belle still had a way of getting under his skin like nobody else. It made her so unbearable to be around, and at the same time, so irresistible.

Adam distanced himself from Belle for the rest of the day. When evening arrived, and the time came to attend Amandine's birthday celebration, he chose to stand next to Vincent in the ballroom, pretending to look busy. Which would have worked better if his cousin was actually in the mood for conversation. After spending most of the afternoon with Amandine, the Duke seemed content to watch from a distance as she greeted her party guests, a faraway look in his eyes. It was an embarrassing situation for Adam, if not a bit creepy. Surely he hadn't looked that conspicuous when he'd fallen in love with Belle for the first time?

"I see you and the Princess are getting quite chummy," he said to his cousin in jest. "Is an engagement soon to be in order?"

"What?" Vincent replied, breaking out of his stupor. "I mean... no, of course not! I just happen to appreciate her love of opera and fine art, that's all. Besides, with a dowry as high as hers, her father will only hand her off to the best. She deserves to be with some rich prince fellow… not a 'lowly duke' like me."

"Never say never, coz," Adam said optimistically. "He might bend a few rules if he sees her with someone who makes her happy. Marrying someone for their status is important, but finding your true love is an even more valuable gift."

"Well, look at you, being all poetic," Vincent smirked. "And as much as I'd like to agree with you, we both know that that's not how things work in the French court. The only reason we marry is to advance our wealth and legacy. Anything else would be a distraction and a waste of time. Besides, why are we talking about my love life? Why not talk about that lovers' quarrel between you and Mademoiselle Gagnier back in the art gallery?"

It was now Adam's turn to look embarrassed. If Vincent had been watching him then who else? "That was not a quarrel," he said defensively. "We were simply… disagreeing about something."

"Right." Vincent quirked an eyebrow. "You know coz, I'm beginning to suspect that there's another reason why you're not in a big hurry to reclaim the throne from your brother."

"Why's that?"

"It's because of your lady friend, isn't it? You feel something for her. And you're afraid that once you become king, she'll distance herself from you because she'll think she's unworthy of your royal status."

Adam furrowed his brows in confusion. "That's—"

"—Preposterous, I know!" Vincent finished with a grin. "But look at it this way. When you become king, you can court any woman you want. You could make Mademoiselle Gagnier's father a baron with a wave of your hand and no one could say anything to the contrary. Nothing is stopping you from marrying the girl if that's what you want."

Adam's face flushed red at Vincent's proposal. Maybe there was some truth to his cousin's words. But that didn't mean that he was going to follow them. Belle was off-limits and would sooner marry an illiterate braggart than marry him anyway. The chances of her becoming his wife in this reality were slim to none. "First of all, Belle's not just 'any woman,'" he argued, trying to regain his composure. "If she could refuse to become King Gaston's courtesan, then she could just as easily refuse a marriage proposal from me. And secondly, I don't have feelings for her. I'm just helping her get out of harm's way until she can reunite with her father."

"Well, you certainly fooled me," Vincent said, crossing his arms. "Couldn't you assign her a bodyguard if her safety means that much to you? It seems like you're putting in an awful amount of effort to protect one person."

"Look, I'm not doing this to impress her!" Adam insisted. "I'm doing this because I promised I would help her and am therefore obligated to fulfill that promise. I'm acting out of honour, not love."

"And yet it's amazing how often the two coincide," Vincent joked. Adam raised his fist at him, so he put up his hands and added, "Fine, fine, I yield! But if there's even a small chance that you feel something for the girl… well, let's just say that I wouldn't object. I mean, you haven't exactly had an easy life, coz. After your mother died, my father tried so hard to persuade your father to let you stay with us, but it seemed he wanted you all to himself, even with that bigheaded hunter under his wing." He looked away from Adam for a moment, like he was uncomfortable talking about such heavy subjects. "Given everything that's happened to you… I think you've earned the right to a bit of happiness. So, if Mademoiselle Gagnier makes you happy, then I see no reason why you shouldn't pursue a relationship with her. I mean, she is quite a remarkable girl. For a commoner."

"That's touching, Vincent," Adam said dryly. "But I can assure you that nothing is going on between us."

"Then I shall say no more on the subject," Vincent vowed. "Although…" He paused and stared at something across the room. "That looks like trouble, doesn't it?"

Adam looked to where his cousin was pointing. Belle, who had previously been talking with Vicomtesse Adeline, Marquesse Caroline and Marquesse Cassandre, was now walking briskly away from them—or as fast as she could walk in her new ballgown. Amandine had wasted no expense in making sure that Belle looked just as presentable as her other party guests, and so had given her a satin magenta dress to wear with long flowing sleeves. No one would ever suspect that she was really a peasant girl; except for the fact that she was struggling to walk gracefully in her big hoop skirt and high-heeled shoes.

The two noblemen continued to watch her as she slipped through the glass double doors that led into the castle's back gardens.

"Well don't just stand there," Vincent said, nudging his cousin's arm. "Go talk to her!"

"Why me?" Adam demanded, feeling like he'd just been asked to bring a wild horse to heel.

Vincent rolled his eyes. "Do I have to spell it out for you? You brought her here, so she's your responsibility! And don't try to use me as an excuse. I know how to find my own dance partner, thanks."

Adam groaned. He hated to admit it, but Vincent was right. As Belle's "technical chaperone," it would be improper of him to leave her outside by herself.

He followed Belle through the doors, into a stone terrace with stairs that led down to the gardens. Belle was standing in front of a balustrade, gazing at the sunset with a discouraged look on her face. Almost instantly, any harsh or condescending words Adam wanted to say to her died in his throat. He imagined how homesick Belle must have felt, being so far from her father and forced to mingle with strangers who lived completely different lives from her own. It filled his heart with pity, but also understanding. He too knew what it was like to feel that emotional disconnect from everyone. It was something he'd suffered through at every ball he'd hosted before the curse.

"Mademoiselle?" he called out to her.

Belle turned around and her sad expression immediately hardened into a sharp glare. "What are you doing here?" she snapped.

"I uh, saw you walk out and thought I'd follow you," he answered, clasping his hands together nervously. "It's not exactly proper for a young lady to be outside unchaperoned."

"What am I, a house pet?" she sneered. "This is hardly the first time I've been outside on my own. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, thanks."

"I know."

She blinked at him in confusion.

"Ahem. I mean… I know that Princess Amandine would be upset to see one of her guests walking out on her party," he corrected.

"Really?" She raised her brows in feigned surprise. "Because I honestly thought I was doing her a favour. I'd be better off serving as one of the Princess's chambermaids than spending all night strutting about in this uncomfortable… cage." She gestured to her ballgown in disgust. "I'm not a noblewoman, and everyone in there knows it."

"So what if they do?" Adam questioned. "That doesn't mean that they're looking down at you because of it. You're one of the Princess's special guests, remember?"

"More like a charity case." She sighed. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't say harsh things like that. I am truly grateful that Princess Amandine has been so kind to me, especially when she barely knows me. It's just… I feel like I don't belong there. Which is a silly thing to feel, because I've never belonged anywhere really."

"Why do you say that?" Adam asked curiously.

She looked over the balustrade and sighed again. "The people in my village call me a 'funny girl.' Only I'm not sure if they mean it as a compliment. They think it's odd for any woman to have ambitions outside of marrying and bearing children. I feel the same way about this ball. Everything, from how you dress, to what you say matters. And if you go off-script even once, people will look down at you forever." She glanced back at him with a perturbed expression. "How can you stand living your whole life like that?"

"I don't," Adam admitted, joining her at the balustrade. "I'm just very good at pretending that I can. Balls can indeed be superfluous, and aristocrats judgmental. But it's all a necessary part of diplomacy. Besides, the dancing isn't too bad."

"You can dance?"

"Well,"—he cleared his throat—"being an ex-prince and all, I suppose you can say that it was part of my formal education. That and how to sign contracts. And how to translate Latin and Greek."

Belle smirked at that. Feeling that she was beginning to open up to him, Adam continued, "If it makes you feel better, I know what it's like to live in judgement. I spent my whole childhood learning how to be king. My father wanted me to be exactly like him, there was no room for error. And then when I became a… second fiddle to Gaston, I was desperate to do anything to stay in my father's good graces. I spent so much of my life trying to meet his expectations, that there was never any time for me to learn to be myself. So… in a roundabout way, I know how it feels to be trapped between two identities. And I know how lonely that can feel."

Belle nodded, understanding his plight. Then she said, "Could I ask you a question if you'll give me a straight answer?"

"It depends on the question."

"It's just… I feel that there's something very strange about you," she admitted, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "Since the moment we met, you seem to barely look me in the eyes or talk with me for longer than ten minutes at a time. Do you act this way around all your female subordinates? Or have I done something to offend you?"

"You haven't done anything to offend me."

"Then why won't you tell me anything about Agathon's mission?" she persisted. "Or at least explain why you don't want anyone to help you? You were clearly willing to save me and my father from the King's guards, but you refuse any aid for yourself. I don't understand."

Adam sighed. By now, Belle's obsession with his quest was more than a slight inconvenience. It was downright irritating. "The only thing you need to 'understand' Mademoiselle, is that this is none of your concern!" he snapped back at her. "It's not because I dislike you or think you'd be a bad fit for the job. It's because I strongly believe that definitely, under no circumstances should we be working together."

"Why not?" She pursed her lips together, thinking. "Is it because you're afraid of me?"

Her question caught him off-guard. He hesitated before stuttering, "N-no. Of course not."

Once again, Belle saw straight through the lie. "That is it, isn't it?" she said, stepping closer to him. "You're scared of me. Why?"

Because of what I've done to youBecause of what I could do again…

Adam bowed his head in shame. He was moments away from making one of the biggest mistakes of his life. But what was the alternative? Belle had him pinned to a corner. And if he was completely honest with himself, he was tired of lying to her and pretending to be someone he no longer was. "Have you ever done something in your life that you regretted?" he asked her. "Something so awful that you would give anything to change it?"

"Doesn't everyone?" she replied. "Is this related to my question, or are you trying to change the subject?"

"I'm answering your question. So... if you could undo one mistake from your past, what would it be?"

She pursed her lips, thinking. "Nothing."

"Nothing?" He stared at her in surprise.


"But... why?"

"Because... if I'd never made any mistakes, then I wouldn't have learned how to make things right again."

Adam snorted. Typical Belle. With her inventor mentality, she likely believed that there wasn't a problem in the world she couldn't solveHe loved and resented that quality about her. "I wish I shared your optimism," he told her. "I've made many mistakes in my past. I've stepped on people and cast them aside, never once thinking about how my actions affected them. It wasn't until someone showed me the error of my ways that I finally came to terms with what I'd done. I had to suffer a punishment worse than death… until I found a way out."

Belle stared at him intriguingly as he continued.

"Everything I'm about to tell you is going to sound very strange. So, before I begin, you need to understand that magic can do more than heal bullet wounds or show you moving images in a mirror. It can also change parts of your past and bring you to alternative presents. I'm from one of those alternative presents. And I've met you." He looked back at her. "I've met you many times."

Slowly and reluctantly, he told her the story of his real past: how he'd lived his life as a spoiled and arrogant prince until Agathon's sister had punished him by turning him into a hideous beast. He couldn't bring himself to tell Belle that the curse was breakable—that would lead to uncomfortable explanations that he wasn't ready to disclose just yet. So instead, he told her that she'd lived with him as his temporary prisoner, to pay for her father's crime of stealing a rose from the castle gardens.

"Wait a minute. You imprisoned my father because he stole a rose?" Belle said in disbelief.

"Like I said, I wasn't a good person back then," Adam admitted remorsefully. "I had a lot of anger issues and thought that everyone was out to get me, including your father. Anyways, you weren't treated like a prisoner. More like a guest. My servants made sure you had the best of everything: a nice bedchamber, comfortable dresses, good food to eat, full access to the castle library. But in spite of all these things, I knew that your life with me was a poor substitute for the one I'd taken from you. I saw how much you missed your father and it made me feel well… ashamed of myself. So, when your sentence was up, I decided to, to…"

"To what?"

"To take action," he finished nervously. "Not sit on the sidelines and embrace eternity as a monster but find a way to undo my past. I discovered that Agathe's book could travel through time, so I used it to go back five years and stop my curse from happening. That way, you and your father would never become my prisoners, and you would have no memory of those terrible days I forced you to live apart from each other. My servants would have another chance at freedom. And as for me…"

"... you could be a human again, unburdened by your past mistakes?" Belle finished curiously.


A flicker of fascination appeared on her face. "So then, what happened next?" she asked.

"Well, as you can see, it didn't work out. Yes, I was able to use the book to convince my past self to let Agathe into the castle. But everything that followed went from bad to worse. I found myself betrothed to a princess I didn't love and had no way of escaping my fate. And when I changed the past again, I saw that you,"—he looked at her and then looked away again—"you were not much better than where you were before. I tried going back once more but ended up destroying the book in the process. Now, the only way I can fix this timeline is if I find something called the Nexus Tree in a forest in Brittany. That's where Agathon has sent me, and that's where I need to go."

"And the weapon?"

"Huh?" He looked back up at her.

"You said Agathon had sent you to find a weapon. Not a time-travelling tree."

"The weapon is the tree. You see, the reason my father found Gaston is because I killed Agathe in the past—by accident. So if I use the Nexus Tree to go back in time and prevent her death, then the two of them will never meet. Gaston will never become king, and his reign of tyranny will never come to fruition. Everything will go back to the way it should be."

"Uh huh." Belle bit her lip again. "Well, I have to say that that's quite a story, even for me. I'm not entirely sure if you're telling me a falsehood or not."

"Believe me, I wish I could make something like this up," he replied. "But it's true, all of it. How else could I know that your favourite book is Romeo and Juliet? Or that your father taught you how to dance? Or that you always ask him to bring back a rose when he goes to the city to sell his artwork?"

"Papa could have told you any of those things when you were in the dungeons," Belle argued, folding her arms over her chest. "You don't need a book with time-travelling powers to figure that out."

"Fine. Forget that. How about the fact that you've always wanted to travel and see the world but can't bear the thought of leaving your father behind?" he continued. "Or that you've always wanted to know how your mother died, but don't have the heart to ask your father how it happened? Or that your greatest fear is to be trapped in a poor provincial life until you grow too old and frail to fulfill your dreams of adventure? I'm sure your father would know everything about that."

Belle blinked rapidly. Her expression was firm, but not firm enough to conceal the disbelief in her eyes.

A sudden disturbance in the ballroom interrupted their conversation. The orchestra, which had been playing dance suites all evening, came to an abrupt halt. In its place came a crescendo of startled chatter and exclamations, though they were too far away for Adam and Belle to know what they were saying.

"What's going on?" Belle asked.

"I don't know."

No sooner had they reached the glass doors, when Vincent appeared at the threshold, face as white as a sheet. "You better get in here fast," he said urgently. "King Gaston and his men are coming."

Chapter Text

Adam felt like his heart had dropped straight into his stomach. Gaston is here already?

He followed Vincent back inside, Belle following closely at his heels.

Amandine was speaking with two of her guards at the front of the ballroom. Judging from the way she was fretfully wringing her hands together, the conversation wasn't going well at all.

"It's true, Mistress," Adam heard one of the guards saying as they drew closer. "Bellec and I saw him riding up to the castle with over a dozen armed men. We asked them to wait outside until we could get a hold of you, but the King was insistent that he speak with you immediately. He passed straight through our defences and is on his way to you this very instant."

"Then we have no time to lose," Adam declared. "Belle and I must leave at once."

"Don't be stupid," Vincent interjected. "We're not even sure if Gaston's here about you! For all we know, he could have heard that Amandine was throwing a birthday party and was offended that he didn't get an invitation. And while it's none of my business, something tells me that it would take more than a few minutes to get Mademoiselle Gagnier out of all her petticoats so you can make a clean getaway." To make his point, he gestured to Belle's bulky dress. "Is there any place in the castle where we can hide them?" he addressed to the Princess.

"Yes. Yes!" Amandine clasped her hands to her chest and nodded. "The wall panels in this room are detachable. We often use the space behind them for storage. Count Adam and Mademoiselle Gagnier could wait in there, just until we figure out what King Gaston wants."

"Is that an order, Your Highness?" the guard asked with a tilt of his head.

"Oui, Bernard. Hide them behind the walls, but make sure they're in separate places. We don't want to make it too easy for King Gaston to find them."

"Understood, Mistress."

Following the Princess's command, the guards escorted Adam and Belle to the opposite sides of the room. Bernard pulled aside one of the wall panels for Adam, revealing a musty and cobweb-infested cavity on the other side.

"I know it's not the most dignified place to hide, My Lord," he said with a sympathetic frown. "But it's for your safety."

"It's not like I have much of a choice," Adam muttered. He stepped inside and was soon immersed in darkness as Bernard replaced the wall in front of him. Only a small gap between his panel and the one next to him allowed him to see what was happening on the other side. He pressed his eye to the crack and watched as Amandine and Vincent engaged in a heated discussion on what to do once Gaston arrived.

"Amandine, it's up to you now," Vincent was saying firmly. "If the King asks about Adam, look him straight in the eyes and tell him you never saw him. Say that you didn't even know he was on the run until now."

"I can't do this, Vincent," Amandine replied, clenching her fists and shaking from head to toe. "My father knows how to deal with these sorts of people, not me!"

"Amandine, listen to me," Vincent said, placing his hands on her shoulders. "Your father isn't here. He's given you full control of his household, so you have to greet the King in his place. I'll be with you every step of the way, but I can't do the talking for you. That's your responsibility, not mine."

Amandine looked into Vincent's blue eyes for a moment before she bit her lip and nodded. "All right. I'll try."

The orchestra restarted their latest suite as the guests returned to conversing and dancing around the room like nothing was wrong. Even so, Adam could feel the tension in the air rise as he observed the uneasy expressions on everyone's faces. Regardless of what the other aristocrats thought of his brother, he was sure that they weren't very thrilled to have him barge in uninvited to spoil their night of fun.

The King entered the ballroom a minute later. In true Gaston fashion, he was wearing a brown fur coat on top of a crimson waistcoat and breeches. Behind him was an entourage of soldiers, all in red uniforms with Adam's family crest—though technically, Adam supposed that the crest belonged to Gaston now. Amandine's housekeeper, Geneviève, had arrived to announce the King to the guests, but the formality seemed unnecessary and almost silly. Gaston's presence practically spoke for itself.

"Your Majesty," Amandine said, approaching the King with a dainty curtsey. "What a pleasant surprise."

"Bonsoir Princesse," Gaston replied with a suave grin. "My, my. How pretty you've grown since our last meeting! It's such a shame that your father won't permit me to court you. We could make some lovely looking babies, you and I."

Amandine wrinkled her nose in disgust. But it was only for a moment before she went back to looking just as sweet and unassuming as she had before. "My captain of the guard mentioned that you wished to speak to me about something urgent?"

"Oh, it's urgent all right." Gaston nodded. "In fact, it's so urgent, I think that ALL OF YOU SHOULD HEAR IT!"

If the King didn't have the room's full attention before, he certainly had it now. The orchestra stopped playing at once. Everyone fixed their eyes on Gaston as he glided to the center of the floor with his arms outstretched, like an exalted champion in a gladiator tournament. "My fellow aristocrats," he announced in his booming, authoritative voice. "I have come to your Princess's castle tonight seeking information on my brother, Thomas-Alexandre de Breil de Pontbriand, Comte of Droitebrume. He is a dangerous outlaw who has recently been charged for the crimes of assault and battery, breaking out of prison, theft, and conspiracy to overthrow his king. I have it on very good evidence that he fled my kingdom last night and crossed over into your charming region of Vivecolline. He may have also been in the company of a peasant girl named Belle Gagnier and her father, Maurice. If any of you have seen them or have information on their whereabouts, I will reward you generously. Or at least—" He narrowed his eyes derisively as he looked around the room—"throw you a better party than whatever you call this pigsty."

"Comte Thomas-Alexandre of Droitebrume?" Duke Denis, one of Amandine's party guests repeated with a perplexing tilt of his head. "Isn't he that harmless recluse who raises dogs and paints roses in his manor all day? Why on earth would he want to conspire against you?"

"Good question, my lesser-dressed friend," Gaston replied, eyeing the Duke's outfit like it was made out of skunk hide. "I was quite surprised when I learned the truth myself. For eight years I've let Thomas stay in my smallest estate and given him a modest allowance to live on, purely out of the goodness of my heart. I thought that that would be enough for him, but it wasn't!" He clenched his fists in rage.

"Yesterday afternoon, Thomas came barging into my castle, demanding that I increase his allowance, yet again. And when he didn't like the new amount I proposed to him, he lashed out at me, saying that I was an unfair ruler and didn't deserve to be king. I should have known." He scowled. "Thomas was never interested in my money! All he wanted was to insult my leadership and prove that he would make a better king than me. Well, I couldn't have an ungrateful miscreant strutting around in my castle, no sir! So, I locked him up in my dungeons to teach him a lesson. I would have released him eventually, only he escaped on my best horse a few hours later. It confirmed my greatest fear." He put a hand to his chest and looked up at the ceiling dramatically. "My brother wants to seize control of my throne! He's been plotting it for years but hadn't the courage or supporters to back him up until now. That's why I need to find him, to snuff out his little rebellion and prove that I will always have the upper hand. It's what's best for me, and my kingdom."

"Hold on," Vincent said, narrowing his eyes skeptically. "You're saying that you've come all this way to arrest your brother because of a failed negotiation and because he challenged your competencies as king?"

"Why, of course," Gaston replied, looking astonished that someone would question him about an obvious act of treason.

"Well, that's a bit of an extreme reason to accuse someone of treachery, isn't it?" he went on. "It sounds to me like you and your brother quarrelled, and you got upset after he said some things to hurt your ego. Why not put aside this senseless vendetta and work things out with him over a nice bottle of wine? That's a far better way to mend a dysfunctional sibling relationship, don't you think?"

Gaston looked as though the Duke had punched him in the face, he was so stunned. "What is your name, fool?" he asked.

"Duke Vincent de Breil de Pontbriand, Your Majesty."

"De Breil de Pontbriand, eh?" He sneered. "You must be one of Thomas's cousins. That would certainly explain the vacant look on your face. Well, I'll have you know that I don't take advice from lowly dukes like yourself. You can't possibly know the terrible burden of associating with a vexatious sibling for the past fifteen years."

"Actually, I have a sister—"

"Silence!" The King thundered. He looked around the room again, disapproval written all over his face. "Very well. If none of you will help me, then we'll have to do this the hard way. Theriault—" he gestured to one of his guards—"have your men do a thorough sweep of the castle. No one is to leave this ballroom until we've investigated every nook and cranny for clues to my brother's whereabouts. Do you understand?"

"Perfectly, sir."

The room began to fill with restless noise and energy. This was not how the night was supposed to go at all! Adam felt his own heart pick up speed, knowing that his hiding place would soon be compromised. He imagined that Belle, hiding in the opposite side of the room, was thinking the same thing.

But then, a high feminine voice broke out across the din. "You can't!"

The room fell silent once again. Amandine stepped forward, breathing heavily and face flushing red as though she'd just frightened herself by speaking out of turn.

"Begging your pardon, Your Highness?" Gaston said, unable to make sense of the Princess's strange behaviour.

"I said you can't," she repeated boldly. Her voice was strained and breathy, but the anger behind her words was undeniable. Adam had never seen her so livid before; not in this reality and definitely not in the one where he'd almost married her. "You are in the territory of King François-Xavier de Lanzac. But since he's away on business, it falls to me to manage the castle on his behalf. And I say that you are not welcome here, King Gaston. You have insulted my birthday party and my guests and have therefore insulted me. I will not have you tearing my family's estate apart to find clues on your brother's whereabouts. Besides, there would be nothing to find. I haven't seen the Count, and neither have my guests. I must ask that you leave at once."

The King snorted. "You and what army, Princess?"

Amandine snapped her fingers. Instantly, her castle guards sprang into action, drawing their swords and advancing towards Gaston and his men. Another group of guards appeared behind the ballroom doorway, surrounding the intruders from all sides of the room.

Gaston's men looked very uneasy now. The King himself was at a loss for words. "Touché... my dear," he said, turning back to Amandine with a weak grin on his face.

Everyone was waiting for him to make the next move. He hesitantly reached for his sword, then thought better of it and shook his head.

"Fine," he declared. "I'll seek elsewhere for information on my traitorous brother's location. But I'm warning you." He looked back at the guests intimidatingly. "You won't be seeing the last of me. Sooner than you know, I'll be ruling over all of you. And then you'll curse the day that you chose not to take sides with me!"

He turned on his heel and marched out of the room, his soldiers following suit. Amandine's guards trailed cautiously behind them.

Barely anyone moved a muscle for the next ten minutes. Only the orchestra members resumed their playing, but it was merely a ploy to make Gaston think that his entrance hadn't affected them. No one was in the mood for dancing while a hostile king remained under their roof.

Finally, Bernard returned to the ballroom with an update. Gaston and his men had left the castle. They were currently riding out West towards the town of Maisonbasse.

All the nobles burst into cheers. At the same time, a guard removed Adam's wall panel, allowing him to step back into the room and breathe freely again. He watched in bewilderment as Vincent lifted Amandine into the air and spun her around the room. They continued to laugh and cling to each other like giddy schoolchildren, even after the Duke had set her back on the ground.

"Amandine," he said breathlessly. "That was… well, that was amazing!"

"Do you really think so?" Amandine replied bashfully. "I was shaking so badly. I was so sure that King Gaston would see right through me."

"Not a chance." He shook his head. "He'll think twice before bothering you again. The same goes for any sleazy suitor for that matter."

Amandine laughed. "I couldn't have handled him at all if you weren't there to encourage me. Vincent—" she lowered her gaze, cheeks glowing a dull shade of red—"I have something to confess."


"I care for you. As in, more than just a friend."

"Ohh." Now Vincent was turning red in the face.

"Do you feel the same way?" she continued, staring at him hopefully.

To Adam's surprise, instead of answering right away, Vincent turned to look at him. It was as though he was a stage actor who'd forgotten his lines and was expecting his cousin to prompt him.

"Go on," the Count mouthed, at a loss of how else to advise him.

Vincent took a deep breath and turned back to the Princess. "Amandine," he said nervously. "I would be lying… if I said I didn't have feelings for you. When I'm with you, it's like my heart could sing. I love the way you talk about opera. Not just on a superficial level, but about all the little nuances that make it truly wonderful. You've taught me so much about Gluck and Mattheson in the past year and I've enjoyed every minute of it. You're so kind and clever and wonderful and beautiful... but won't your father disapprove of us? I mean, he wants you to marry a prince, doesn't he?"

"I may know of some ways of turning him around," she replied coyly. "I mean, you did stop a mentally unstable King from ruining my birthday party for one. Perhaps you could pay a visit here next month so I can introduce you properly?"

"I'd like nothing better," Vincent replied with a fond smile.

Amandine giggled, then kissed him straight on the lips. The Duke seemed a bit surprised, but then he closed his eyes and compliantly kissed her back.

Well, that's that, Adam thought, looking away from the couple awkwardly. He let them enjoy their romantic moment as he watched the guards help Belle out of her hiding place. It had taken them longer to get her out of the wall on account of her big hoop skirt. Now she looked rather rumpled and had some grey cobwebs sticking to her hair.

Once Vincent and Amandine had separated from their embrace, Adam came forward to speak to them in private. "Ahem. In light of tonight's circumstances, I think it's better if I don't prolong my stay here," he told them. "I'd like to leave by tomorrow morning at the earliest, while I still know where my brother is heading. The last thing I'd want is for him to find some reason to come back here and make life a living hell for the both of you."

"Where will you go?" Vincent asked, raising his brow in concern.

"I haven't been entirely honest with you," he admitted. "The truth is, I do have a plan to stop my brother. It involves travelling to Brittany to investigate a weapon with the power to dethrone him."

"A weapon?" Amandine said, intrigued. "What kind of weapon?"

Adam pursed his lips to stifle the sigh that arose. Belle had already tried his patience on this subject. "I wish I could tell you more, but I don't want to put either of you at risk by giving you too much information," he explained simply.

"Can we at least ask who you're working with?" Vincent asked. "Is it the resistance?"

"I'm not working with anyone," Adam replied. "This is a… quest, if you will, that only I can undertake."

"I would imagine you would need some sort of help!" Amandine insisted. "I can grant you a few of my men to guard you on your way."

"That is… a very kind offer, Princess," he refused as gently as possible. "But it is best I remain discreet. The less conspicuous I am on the road, the less likely I am to be discovered by Gaston and his army."

Vincent and Amandine exchanged uncertain looks.

"Well, I suppose that's for the best then," Amandine finally conceded. "Can I at least provide you with anything for the journey?"

"Just a horse, clean clothes and some travel supplies will do," Adam responded. "I'll figure everything else out as I go." Looking to Belle, he added, "Mademoiselle Gagnier also has reason to believe that her father is staying with a group of rebels in a town called Corneille. She'd appreciate some means of getting there, if possible."

"Of course," Amandine agreed. "I'll speak with my coachman as soon as the party's over tonight."

"Thank you, Your Highness," Belle said with a gracious curtsey. She turned to Adam and smiled at him in equal appreciation.

Adam stayed for one more dance number before telling Vincent and Amandine that he intended to turn in early for the night. Belle decided to do the same, so they both ended up walking side-by-side through the atrium to get back to their rooms.

"So, did you get all your excitement in for today?" Adam ventured to ask her as they climbed the stairs to the castle's upper floors.

"Not really," she admitted. "I mean, I'm glad that the King's gone, but I'm still trying to process the story you told me back on the terrace."

He feigned a gasp. "You mean, I haven't convinced you that I'm a complete lunatic yet?"

"Maybe." She looked down at the stairs. "Maybe not. I just want to understand one thing."


"What was the nature of our relationship when I lived with you?"

"We were acquaintances, of course," he lied. "We barely spoke to each other at all."

"We were acquaintances, but I told you about my mother?" She creased her brow skeptically. "I mean, I'm sure you took a lucky guess with those other facts, but that—that's... pretty personal."

"Fine." He sighed. "Maybe we did talk a few times... but it wasn't like we ever had a heart-to-heart conversation. It was more like a one-sided ramble. You'd turn up from nowhere spouting all sorts of mumbo-jumbo about your life. It was all 'my village is terrible this, love is winged Cupid painted blind that, oh and did you know that Guinevere and Lancelot is actually a romance?' It was a bit annoying, really."

Belle widened her eyes intriguingly. "I said all that?"

"More or less." He grunted. "I suppose you thought there wasn't much harm in blabbering your thoughts out to someone who looked like your pet dog. I mean, who else would I tell, apart from the mantle clock or the china set?"

She snickered. "Was that a joke? Are you making jokes now?"

"Um, no?" He stopped mid-step, confused by her odd enthusiasm and struck with a strange feeling of déjà vu. "Anyway, I honestly don't care if you believe me or not. Quite frankly, I have no interest in wasting my time convincing you of matters that aren't your concern. I have to leave this region tomorrow before Gaston finds me. In the meantime, enjoy your comfortable carriage ride to Corneille and rejoice in the fact that our fellowship is finally over."

He turned around and bounded up the stairs two steps at a time, leaving Belle to manage the rest of the walk on her own.

That was the best way to end it, he told himself before he went to sleep that night. To Belle, Count Adam was just a loony outcast, trying to blame a big time-travelling conspiracy for his brother's rise to power. The years of abuse and isolation had driven him to a point where he was more fit for a madhouse than a throne. Once he and Belle went their separate ways, he would become nothing more than a tragic story to share with her future grandchildren. Beast or man, he would always mean very little to her. There was no sense in changing that fact now. In fact, he took comfort in knowing that it was exactly what he needed to keep her away from him.

He got up the next morning around seven o'clock. Martin had laid out a set of plain travelling clothes on the chair next to his bed. Their simple fabrics were more suitable for a commoner than a nobleman, but it was for the best. He couldn't afford to draw attention to himself while he was on the road. He changed into the clothes, took breakfast alone in Amandine's dining room, then made his way to the stables with his new satchel of valuables in hand.

"Adam!" someone called to him as he waited for the stable boys to prepare his horse. He turned to see Belle running towards him, dressed in a new blue pinafore dress and a dark grey cloak.

"Belle?" He blinked at her in disbelief. "What are you doing here?"

She said nothing, merely motioned to an empty stall, away from the servants' prying eyes and ears. Adam looked at her dubiously, then, against his better judgement, followed her into the smelly space. He was standing uncomfortably close to her now, and tried to focus only on her words as she said, "Will you promise me, that when you use the Nexus Tree to restore your timeline, Gaston will no longer be king?"

"He won't," he vowed. "Of course, he'll still be an insufferable narcissist who thinks that the world revolves around himself, but his ego will never extend past your little village. I guarantee it."

Belle nodded. "Then," she declared, "I'm coming with you."

"What?!" He gaped at her in shock. "No. Absolutely not."

"Listen to me," she said firmly. "I've thought about it all night, and this is the better option for both of us. First of all, what are you thinking, travelling to Brittany all by yourself? Even if this tree is just a myth, you're still our best hope of bringing order back to the kingdom. It's like you're the only piece on the chessboard that can call 'check' on Gaston's king. But if he finds you, we'll lose all our chances of getting him off the throne. You need someone to protect you."

"Hmph." Adam crossed his arms. "And I suppose you think that you're the one to do it?"

"Better me than your cousin," she pointed out. "Both of you are family, so it would be much easier for King Gaston to find the right pressure points if he discovered that you were working together. But we have no relationship, aside from our desire to see His Majesty removed from power. He wouldn't know how to react at all if he heard that we were conspiring together."

Well, that's not exactly true, Adam thought. Gaston will have found a huge pressure point if he discovers my true feelings for you.

He dismissed the thought. There were other ways of discouraging Belle from coming along with him; ways that didn't involve pouring his heart out to her like some sentimental fool. "But what about your father?" he questioned. "He'll be worried sick."

"Yes," she agreed, biting her lip hesitantly, "but he'll also be safe. If Gaston tracks me to Corneille, he may not only capture us but the rest of the rebels at the safehouse, too. They'll be trampled before they have enough numbers to fight back. I love my father more than anything, but I could never forgive myself if I destroyed our second-best chance of stopping the King. That's why it's best if I stay away from Corneille for a little while. Just until the danger has passed."

"You don't even know if Gaston will find you," Adam argued. "The resistance has likely prepared themselves for such an attack anyway. It would be a perfect opportunity for them to get off their backsides and show the King what they're made of. Anyhow, my answer is still no. If Agathon's right, the forest where this tree lives is like nothing any man has seen before. It's far too dangerous for an antisocial bibliophile like yourself."

"But that's exactly why I want to come," Belle persisted, interestingly taking no offence. "I'm tired of sitting at home all day reading books and dreaming about far-off places. I want to go on an adventure of my own! Look, I know that I haven't been the most agreeable person to be around, and I'm sorry. And I also know that you're uncomfortable with me because of our supposed history. But Adam, at some point, you've got to move on! Your life with me as a beast is in the past. This is now, and what matters is that we get you wherever you need to be to stop the King. Just accept that you need my help so we can get this over and done with."

Adam stared at Belle, slack-jawed. He should have been firing another rebuttal at her. But all he could think about was how attractive she was when she had her mind set on something she cared so much about.

"Cousin?" Vincent said, startling Adam from his thoughts as he abruptly poked his head into the stall. "I just wanted to—Oh, I'm sorry! Am I interrupting something?"

"No, Vincent," Adam replied, turning away from Belle in embarrassment. "What is it?"

"I just wanted to bid you farewell before your journey. And give you this." He held out a rapier encased in a black sheath. "It's mine, but something tells me you'll need it more than me. Seeing as you didn't come here with your own weapon."

"Oh." Adam stared at the gift in surprise. "Well, thank you, coz. That's very generous of you."

As he stepped forward to accept the sword, Vincent startled him by wrapping his arms around him in a tight hug. "Write to me, whenever you get the chance," he whispered in his ear. "Maybe once all this drama with your brother has died down, we can finally have a long-awaited family reunion. You could bring Mademoiselle Gagnier along with you, too."

"All right," Adam agreed reluctantly. If only he could keep that promise. It suddenly occurred to him that Vincent would have no memory of him once he returned to his original universe. It was a bittersweet realization, as his cousin was one of the few people from Adam's old life that he wouldn't mind seeing again.

Vincent pulled away from Adam and turned his attention over to Belle. "Mademoiselle Gagnier, good to see you again!" he said with a grin. He cocked his head as he regarded her in her simple travelling clothes. "I thought you weren't leaving for Corneille until this afternoon?"

"Oh. Well, I—"

"Actually, Vincent," Adam cut in, "she's coming with me."

"Really?" He turned back to his cousin, brows raised in interest.

"Yes. Well, she's made a very compelling argument," he elucidated. "If I am to arrive safely in Brittany, I'll need at least one person to accompany me. Ideally, someone inconspicuous who won't draw unnecessary attention because of their high status and is familiar enough with the area to guide me around safely. It so happens that Mademoiselle Gagnier is an exceptional map reader and is very familiar with the French countryside from the number of times she's moved from place to place with her father. Not only that but if there's any information she picks up about Gaston's forces along the way, she can share it with the resistance once she gets to Corneille. It's a brilliant solution really."

"A captain and his quartermistress, about to set sail for the high seas," Vincent said intriguingly. "Well I can't say that that's how I expected you two to end up together, but it's a start."

"Wait," Belle interjected, "what?"

"He's joking. It's a joke!" Adam chirped. "Anyway, Vincent, I'd appreciate it if you didn't go around mentioning us to your inner circles. You never know how much of it will go back to Gaston."

"You have my word," the Duke promised. "If the subject comes up, I'll make up something crazy. I'll say I heard you eloped with a mystery girl and left the country. That'll keep them talking."

Adam snorted. He'd prefer it if his cousin laid off on the eloping part. But any story to get Gaston and his supporters off his back was better than nothing. "Goodbye, Vincent," he said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "And all the best with Princess Amandine. You two seem very… good together."

"Thank you, Adam." Vincent smiled. "I wish you all the best with your quest as well."

Once his cousin had left the stables, Adam turned his attention back to Belle. She was beaming ecstatically, as though he'd just told her that he'd gifted her a second library. "Did you really mean that? I can come with you?"

"Yes, you can come," he grumbled. "But I'm warning you. This won't be some fun midsummer day picnic. You stay with me, and you can consider yourself a wanted fugitive. Gaston may want you dead just as badly as he wants me. But since you're so insistent—"

"You can count me in," Belle declared.

She walked out of the stall with a purposeful spring in her step. Adam couldn't help but smile at her despite himself. Although he still had reservations about bringing Belle along with him, it did feel good to have her on the same side again. And maybe Agathon was right. Maybe he did need her help.

Belle and Adam spent the next several hours on the road, stopping only to stretch their legs and water their horses before resuming their journey. It wasn't until the sun went down that they agreed to make camp for the night. In a small clearing a few miles off the trail, they settled their horses and gathered some wood from the surrounding forest to make a fire.

Despite the extensive travelling they'd done that day, neither of them particularly sleepy. They'd run into very few travellers en route and had seen no trace of Gaston or his men anywhere. It was almost too easy to Adam—a fact that he found more unsettling than reassuring. Agathon hadn't contacted him by the mirror again either, which only added to his concern. He hoped the Enchanter was doing all right.

After they finished eating, Belle and Adam sat around the fire and began to talk. First, it was idle chatter, then talk about Belle's inventions back in Villeneuve, then theories about future modes of transportation and which ones would be most likely to replace horse-drawn carriages in the next century.

"That's the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard of!" Adam declared, midway through a discussion about the practicability of flying machines. "Who'd ever think of building a contraption to fly to other places around the world?"

"You'd be surprised," Belle smirked. "I once heard of a physics professor who'd been commissioned to build a balloon that could carry three farm animals across a courtyard in the Palace of Versailles. If his experiment is a success, think of how easy it could be to do the same thing with humans! We could fly across France in less than a day, and across Europe in less than a week. Maybe we could even fly to the moon."

"The moon?" Adam stared at her, unsure if she was pulling his leg. "What reason would we have to go to the moon?"

"Why to see what's on it, of course!" She laughed. "According to a novel I read by Cyrano de Bergerac, the moon's inhabitants are four-legged creatures with musical voices and highly advanced pieces of hunting technology. Think of how fascinating it would be to meet such creatures face-to-face."

"Or how dangerous," Adam countered. "I don't know, Belle. I'd rather keep my feet on the ground than use a flying machine to travel to my next royal function. I wouldn't mind sending Gaston to the moon though." He grinned mischievously. "Perhaps these supposed moon people are of the human-eating variety."

"Oh no," Belle scolded, "don't even joke about that! For all we know, they might think that Gaston's a god and make him their idol. Then he could take over the whole moon and declare war on us poor earthlings."

"'Gaston the Moon War Chief?'" Adam put a hand to his forehead. "Good lord."

Belle laughed again and it was like music to his ears. It felt so good to talk to her like this; all formalities and prejudices aside, like they were friends instead of enemies. He'd missed these conversations with her more than he wanted to admit.

Which is why it was only fitting that her next comment would instantly spoil the mood.

"I'm finding it so hard to picture," she said, putting her hands under her chin pensively. "You as a beast."

Adam's smile faded. Joking about Gaston and moon people was one thing. But sharing intimate details about his beastly past was quite another. He looked at the fire and muttered, "Yes. Well, it definitely wasn't my best look. After all, I was hideous."

"I know… but what kind of beast were you exactly?" she goaded. "I mean the word 'beast' can mean so many things. Were you a bear? A wolf? A wild boar? Did you have a tail or antlers?"

"What do you think?!" he snapped. He turned to her with his teeth bared, causing her to recoil from him in fright. He realized his mistake a second later. His temper cooled and he took a few deep breaths through his nose before speaking again. "I'm sorry. It's just that... this is a difficult subject for me to talk about," he confessed. "All I can say is that the moment the witch cursed me, I wanted nothing more than to go back in time and accept her gift. You can't possibly know how horrible it is to be trapped in a body that's no longer yours. No matter where you go, or what you say and do, people will only see you as a monster. There's no deeper pain than that. Except perhaps—" he glanced over at her instinctively—"losing someone you love."

Her eyes remained fixed on him as his words dawned on her. He could see she hadn't truly taken his curse very seriously, which he could hardly blame her for. In a way, he should have expected it.

Brows knitted with concern, Belle mumbled, "I'm... sorry too. I didn't mean to pry into your past like that. I guess I'm still trying to make sense of your situation. I mean, it's not every day you meet an aristocrat who claims he used to be a beast. It's sort of like being in a fairy tale, isn't it?"

"Sure," he replied bitterly. "One of the bad kinds." He stared into the fire again. Talking about the curse had just reminded him of something: once he returned to his original timeline, he would be giving up his humanity again, forever.

"You must have been very lonely, confined to your castle for five whole years," Belle said, trying to continue their conversation. "No friends. No family."

He shrugged. "It's not like I had much of those to begin with. All my so-called friends fled the castle the moment the witch cast her spell on me. And my father—may he burn in hell—showed his horse better affection than he ever showed me. When I really think about it, I've been on my own since the day my mother died when I was thirteen."

"That must have been hard," Belle sympathized. "I'd give anything to remember even one thing about my mother. What was yours like?"

"She was kind, beautiful and happy," he recalled. A lot like you. "We used to do all sorts of things together: plant flowers, sing songs, visit the local villages. My father never paid me much attention as a child, but my mother—she would coddle me like there was no tomorrow. It made it even harder to say goodbye when she… when she..."

"Died?" Belle finished softly.

He nodded. "And I never got over it either. When I got older, I'd try to fill her absence by throwing expensive balls and parties every month, but it never worked out. It figures." He snorted. "You can't find happiness with others if you aren't happy with yourself first."

"Surely there must have been a time when you felt a bit of happiness," she reasoned. "Even a little?"

When I was with you, he wanted to say. But common sense held him back.

"During the curse, I would sometimes go to my library to read books," he said instead. "There were so many stories and worlds to explore in there. They helped me forget what I was… if only briefly. I suppose that's why I lent them to you when you became my prisoner. I thought they'd be a better use of your time than to be stuck in the company of an ugly, despicable creature like me."

Belle chuckled. "I'm sure you weren't that bad."

"Oh no, I was very much a brute," he disagreed. "You would bring it up constantly. In fact, on your first day in the castle, you told me you'd rather starve than eat dinner with me."

"Well, that might have been what I thought about you then," she acknowledged. "But that's not what I see in you now."

"Hmm?" He stared at her curiously. "And what do you see?"

"I see a man with a troubled past who's made a lot of bad mistakes," she answered truthfully. "But he's also doing his very best to fix them. Not to mention that he's saved me from King Gaston twice already. I never properly thanked you for that, by the way."

Adam raised his brows in surprise. "You don't have to—"

"Oh yes, I do," she insisted. "You've done so much for me in these past three days, and all I've done is yell at you. I've been immature and ungrateful, and I apologize. I guess Papa was right when he said that I'm not very good at letting go of grudges or admitting when I'm wrong."

"That makes the two of us then," Adam remarked. "And if you're going to apologize, I suppose it's only right that I apologize to you, too. I should have been more honest with you about my past instead of shutting myself away."

"I can understand why you did though," she conceded. "Not many people would believe a crazy story like that. But I appreciate you explaining it to me all the same."

Another moment of silence passed between them. Adam began to blush as he stared at Belle and prayed that she didn't notice. She was just so... beautiful. The firelight cast a rosy glow around her face and made her dark eyes shimmer as brightly as the starry sky above them. He briefly imagined breaking the distance between them so he could feel the softness of her hair and the warmth of her lips against his. And what scared him more than thinking about it was realizing that he could. He was a human now, not a beast. No one was watching.

A loud "pop" from the campfire brought him back to his senses. There were barely any more flames rising out of the kindling; just smoke and a few glowing spots here and there. "Well, would you look at that!" he exclaimed, getting to his feet sharply. "We're almost out of firewood. I'm... going to go get some more."

"Oh," Belle stared at him curiously. "I didn't even notice. Would you like me to come with you?"

"No no." He shook his head. "That's quite alright. It's better if you stay here and watch the horses. I won't be long."

He marched into the woods before she could say another word. Once there, he wandered through the trees for several minutes before stopping to catch his breath.

Get a hold of yourself, Adam, he told himself as he propped his hand against the trunk of a nearby beech tree. He'd already broken his rule about letting himself get involved with Belle and telling her about his past. He'd be damned if he let himself act on his feelings for her now. The only reason they were staying together was because of the mission. Belle was his helper. Their relationship was no different from that of Dante and Virgil, Christian and the Evangelist, Odysseus and Athena. The characters in those old stories never fell in love. Once their journeys were over, they continued to live their lives as though they'd never met each other at all. Adam's story with Belle would end the same way.

But why was it so hard to control himself around her? He rubbed his temples in frustration. They'd only been on the road for a day, and already he was dying to hold her, touch her and shower her with all the physical affection that had been off-limits to him as the Beast. It's just a stupid feeling, he told himself firmly. Nothing more than an unpleasant side effect of being deprived of physical contact for the past five years. He would have to learn to keep the impulse to himself, for both their sakes.

Suddenly, he saw something stir in his peripheral vision and tensed. It could be Belle coming to check on him. Only their camp was on his right side, and he'd seen the movement coming from his left. Something wasn't right.

In a flash, he drew his cousin's rapier and spun around; coming face to face with a row of bayonets. The wielders were all wearing the same uniform as Gaston's men back at the Château de Vivecolline.

"Hello, My Lord," the marksman in the center sneered. "Looks like we finally found you."

Adam's mouth hung open in panic. His cousin's sword was flashy and all but would be of no use to him in a gunfight. He dropped it and put up his hands in quiet surrender.