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Shades of Bittersweet

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His foot was on fire, but that was the least of his worries. He had become accustomed to pain--or what was left of that particular sensation--ever since Lumiere snapped. Besides, he told himself firmly, he was just a clock now, and what he was feeling was merely a memory of a feeling and nothing more.

Cogsworth ticked on, eyes shut in apparent slumber, and Lumiere drew his flame away and let the wicks go out. "Let him sleep," Lumiere growled to himself. "Fat son of a bitch. You give up?" he added, raising his voice. "Happy to be a clock?" No response. "Fine! Go on being useless. Nobody cares what time it is anymore."

Lumiere leapt like a mountain goat, mantel to chair, chair to footstool, then clattered to the floor and began the long trek to the kitchen. Twenty years and he still felt like an idiot every time he had to hop anywhere an inch at a time. Once upon a time he had prided himself on his movement, able to gracefully sidestep and sneak whenever and to whomever he pleased. Once upon a time he had been able to have sex, he thought ruefully as a maid-cum-featherduster swept by him. Truth be told, he had no idea which one was Babette anymore--not that it mattered.

He shook his waxy head to see just how spotless the castle was despite itself, and with one of his tarnished branches he seized the passing duster by the waist. She squeaked, alarmed, but he paid it no mind. "Why do you still bother to clean?" he demanded of her, already knowing the answer.

"Be-because," she stammered, "there is nothing else to do."

He released her. It was the only reason to do anything now. It wasn't as if the master cared what any of them did, as long as they stayed out of his way. At night they could hear him stalking about the west wing, growling and breaking things and being a general nuisance. He was up there, all right, even when Lumiere could barely hear him over Forte's very special moonlight sonatas, and if he wasn't up there he was out in the snow ripping apart animal carcasses. "And why should I care?" Lumiere muttered to himself. "I am hardly any better." He half expected some response from the maid, but she had already scurried away.

Cogsworth opened one eye to see Lumiere making his way out of the drawing room. A very small and distant part of him felt something like regret, but he buried it before it could swell up and make him uncomfortable. Back to business, he thought as the candlestick clattered into obscurity. Tick tock. Tick tock.

*

In the darkest, hottest part of the castle, Forte wheezed to life. "Bellows, boy, the bellows," he coughed to whomever might be awake and listening. It was a badly rusted piccolo that came to his aid, and though most of the wind instruments were far too light to be of much help, the behemoth pipe organ was soon in playing condition by dint of furious hopping and more wheezing on Forte's part.

The organ sighed lustily, savouring the stale air in his cracked and mended pipes. He didn't need to breathe, and he couldn't--not really--but there was something incredibly satisfying about that first deep intake of air whenever he could be bothered to rouse himself. He still whistled in places (some days he swore they were whining, "Stupid girl, stupid girl ..."), but the master had been thorough in piecing him together again. What he hadn't had the patience to finish, Forte's apprentices had made up for in terror.

"Enough, enough!" he cried, and with a mighty blast the castle's deep underbelly was set ringing. "Let the savage beast be soothed!" With that came a barrage of sound, cacophonous at first but then swelling into something vaguely reminiscent of music. Gone were the solemn hymns and dirges of a brighter age; free from the pretty little conventions of fine court life, the composer could run wild through his own nightmarish visions. Trapped in a body that was not his own, he found he could travel farther than he ever had before, and he relished it, snatching up ragged branches of blackened trees with a flourish, cantering over tumbling stones in a furious arpeggio.

It was true that the master had ceased to ask him to play, but he had never asked him to stop either. And now he never had to.

*

"No!"

Belle sat up in bed, chest heaving furiously. For a moment she feared she had actually cried out, but a glance down at her still-slumbering husband suggested otherwise--though he was a heavy sleeper. She swung her legs over the side of the mattress and quickly replaced the blankets around his hulking form. He hated a cold bed.

The bedroom was dark, but when Belle stepped out into the hall she could just make out the first faint traces of morning light snaking their way from the picture windows of the adjoining sitting room. It was an enviable hunting lodge, to be sure, but in that moment she did not envy herself--not with the dreams she had been having. She cursed her imagination. She was a woman now, nearly thirty years old, and she chided herself for falling prey to her own vivid fantasies at such an age. "Really," she whispered aloud, "there is nothing to be afraid of--nothing at all."

And it was true. The children were safe, all four of them. She knew it the moment she opened the door to the nursery, where they all slept soundly, not a quilt misplaced. She knelt to pick up a bear that had fallen from Josephine's bed, tucked it back in alongside her second-youngest, her only daughter, and settled down on the floor beside her. Obedient to her station, she had given Gaston three strapping boys, every bit as boisterous as she knew her husband must have been at their age, but she had Josephine for herself: a beautiful little girl all her own to teach and love.

The mirror is broken, she reminded herself as she sat there, nightgown and robe pooled around her knees, idly stroking Josephine's hair as she slept. And we are now so far away. He can never find us. Then, inevitably: He can never find me. A dreadful ache caught in her chest, and she swallowed furiously until it went away. She desperately recalled the recurring nightmare, the epitome of everything Gaston had ever warned her about, the very reason he had moved the family even further into the obscurity of the countryside. She shut her eyes and forced herself to imagine her own beautiful Josephine torn apart like the wolves in the snow.

Without warning there came warmth behind her and arms around her, and she was suddenly in another place entirely. Gone was the snow, and in its place were hardwood and tapestry and the intoxicating smell of crumbling paper. There was the vivid memory of low, rumbling laughter and a crackling fire nearby--and then there was the jarringly clear voice of her husband, barely familiar after ten years of marriage. "Come back to bed," he pleaded. She declined. His embrace fell limp.

The dreams were worse than the nightmares.

*

In the adjoining apartment, more shack than suite, two people were already wide awake: one who was supposed to be there, and one who wasn't. Maurice sat opposite the cup he never drank from, idly nibbling at a thick slice of stale bread made palatable by his daughter's best preserves. "Well, my boy," he said jovially, "what shall we work on today?"

Chip hopped across the table, examining the sketches that weren't obscured by breakfast. "Hmm." Using his handle, he overturned several leaves of paper until he found the one he wanted. "How about this?"

Maurice craned his neck forward to peer at the crudely pencilled diagram and gave a chuckle. "That old thing? I thought you were tired of it. What changed your mind today?"

Chip tilted back on his base--his way of shrugging. "I don't know. I just have a good feeling about it today."

Making short work of his breakfast, Maurice pushed his chair back and began to root around in his junk bin for the dusty components of "that old thing," which happened to be a tiny merry-go-round for Chip's dollhouse-sized domicile in the back of Maurice's workshop. It was already filled to the rafters with contraptions that had to be carefully concealed whenever his grandchildren came out to visit. "Chip," Maurice called over his shoulder, "do you remember where I put that set of red springs?"

"The ones with those yellow doohickies on the ends? I think we used them all in the cup-coaster!"

Maurice paused and rubbed his chin. He could hear Chip rustling around in the more porcelain-friendly bin of rubber-coated wires and other softer gadgets. "What about the green ones?"

"Found 'em!" With a flick of his handle, Chip was full of machine parts. He rode up to meet Maurice at the workbench on the narrow conveyor belt that circled the entire apartment (a device that, Maurice asserted to the uninitiated, was merely part of a breakfast machine he had never got around to finishing, though it was nearly always on). He patiently endured Maurice's trembling fingers fishing through his cup, though it tickled, and soon the two were chattering animatedly over doohickies, thingymawhatsits and other very important matters.

Both Chip and Maurice knew magic--real magic--but inventing held its own kind of enchantment. There were things that simply didn't matter as long as the tools were out. It didn't matter, for instance, that Chip was just a teacup. It didn't matter that Gaston kept one wary eye on his father-in-law whenever Belle or the children were about, or that they were rarely about in the first place.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, it didn't matter that Chip would live forever--or that Maurice would not.

*

Hungry and not-hungry. Those were the two feelings that mattered now, more visceral and satisfying than emotions ever had been. What good had they done him? First they had made him frightened and angry, and then they had made him terribly lonely. The fleeting happiness in between was inconsequential. Hungry was easy to fix, and not-hungry was delightful--a perfect substitute for joy. Hungry meant bursting bodies like soap bubbles, making jolly red polka-dots in the white, white snow. Sometimes he brought back extras, and the smell of his kills all around him made him feel rich--princely, even. It was a good feeling.

Sometimes there was another feeling. He didn't know what to call it, and he didn't like to think about it too much because it didn't fit in neatly like hungry and not-hungry. It wasn't easily satisfied like hungry, and it wasn't pleasant like not-hungry. It felt like many feelings all at once, but if he tried to focus on any one of them, it darted away like a gnat flitting between outstretched claws. For a long time it had frustrated him, but after a few years he had learned that it went away if he just kept smashing things.

So, just to be safe, he had made it a regular practice to smash things whenever he wasn't just hungry or not-hungry. The west wing was full of things: glass things, clay things, cloth things, wooden things. Things, things, things. He had no use for things anymore. He certainly didn't care what any of them were called. He only cared that they made a great shattering sound when he hurled them against the walls--like the heavy porcelain thing he had just lobbed up towards the rafters and had come splintering down in colourful shards. He wasn't quite sure what he would have called it, as there was nobody left to call it by its name, but it wasn't important--not really.

There was nobody left to call him by his name, either, which was all right with him. He hardly remembered it himself. He was no longer Adam, would never be Adam again. He was the Beast. And he was starting to feel a bit peckish.

*

Gaston stalked heavily back to bed, his bare feet slapping noisily against the cold floorboards. Day after day, year after year, he had come to the same realization over and over again: she was the woman of his dreams, but he wasn't the man of hers. The sting of it never went away, not even when he was remembering it for the tenth or hundredth or thousandth time. He winced, feeling the icy void Belle had left in the mattress as he slipped back in between the covers. It seemed to him in that instant that her warmth was more memory than substance, and a weak one at that; if not for the children, he would scarcely believe he had ever lain with her at all.

Of course, he couldn't have dreamed of anything as heartbreakingly beautiful as making love to Belle. He had imagined it more times than he cared to admit, but it had always been a rough draft of a fantasy, never reaching the height or the depth of the real thing. He never could have guessed just how white her skin was in the moonlight, or how her eyes flashed like an animal's as she consented to be tamed but not broken. He had wanted to kiss her, wanted to make her feel beautiful, like the prize she was, but in ten years he hadn't made her feel anything--not love, not warmth, not happiness. There was only duty.

Ten years ago he would have argued that a dutiful wife was the only kind worth having, but now he wasn't so sure. She had given him children. She had gone away with him to the countryside. She had let him smash that mirror and all its hideous magic. She had even started oiling his boots every night. But what good was it if she didn't love him? What good was anything in the world if she could love some gargoyle over an honest Frenchman? Oh, he would have loved to kill it and have its head for a trophy, but the little he had to lose was far too great to consider it. At least she looked him in the eye when he touched her.

He had never meant to make a prisoner of her, but she had made a jailer of him. He watched her as she went about her self-appointed duties. He watched her cook, watched her clean, watched her play with her sons and read with her daughter. And sometimes, as he watched her dainty white fingers curl fitfully while she slept, he wished that the Beast of her dreams would leap from the shadows and tear him to pieces.