"Papa?" Belle pushed open the door to the gallery where her father could most often be found these days, as its windows let in the best light of any room in the castle, and stepped in for a quick look. "Are you in here?"
A slightly dishevelled head of gray hair leaned into view from behind the ubiquitous easel. "Belle? Back from your school already?" Maurice's hair wasn't the only thing dishevelled; Belle's mouth tugged up in a smile at the streak of bright paint staining the curve of her father's cheek and the spare paintbrush tucked away behind his ear. "Surely it can't have been that long. You only just left!"
"I'm afraid so, Papa," she chided him warmly, lifting the meal tray some kind soul – probably Mrs. Potts – had left just inside the door, and carried it over to the ornate little table by his elbow. It had probably once been a quite lovely little piece of furniture, slightly old-fashioned but more expensive than the entirety of their home in Villeneuve; now it was littered with paints, stained rags, pencils, and other tools of the artist's trade, with a small cleared space at one edge where other trays had come and gone. "I take it you've been at it all day, then? What are you working on that has you so engrossed?"
"Well – see for yourself," he smiled back at her, gesturing to the canvas. "I'd already finished the official commission for the ball, but I thought it lacked ... a certain something. So this is by way of an experiment."
An experiment? Belle's father was a skilled artist in several mediums, but his gift lay in recreating lifelike scenes from memory, particularly of his young married years before Belle's mother had fallen ill; he had very seldom varied the theme. He and Belle might not have been a part of Villeneuve or the castle's staff when the original curse had been laid down, but getting tangled up in its resolution seemed to have woken parts of Maurice that had been sleeping for years, as much as Lumière or Cogsworth or any of the others. She often felt as though she was getting to know her father all over again since the curse had broken; not that that was a bad thing, just one more change among so many others. It grew a bit dizzying at times.
Curious, she turned to look at the canvas – and immediately caught her breath in unexpected pleasure. Her father had obviously set out to capture the scene at the ball, but not as it had actually been; as it might have been, overlain with the magic of what had come before. Belle picked out the image of herself, dancing in Adam's arms, but her dress was wound with vines of actual flowers, not Madame Garderobe's talent with needle and thread. And Adam himself was not the blond prince who'd drawn the sighs of every girl who'd previously spent them on Gaston, but the Beast he'd been when Maurice and Belle had first met him, his dear, fanged face gazing down at her in artfully captured delight. In the background, Plumette's skirts and carefully arranged locks were tufted with pale feathers, and candleflames danced from the wrists of her partner; a suggestion of steam lifted from the upraised arm of Mrs. Potts; and ... was that Stanley dancing with LeFou? She'd seen them keeping company in the village as well lately, finally out of the long shadow of their still-recovering, much-diminished former patron.
The figures were so small against the larger backdrop of the room, spread across the canvas; how was it, then, that mere daubs of paint still managed to convey so much? She'd had a similar thought, lifting a forgotten pencil sketch of her and her mother in that crumbling Paris attic; such simple lines capturing so much love.
She smiled warmly, turning back to her father. "It's wonderful, Papa. I adore it."
His face lit up, the fine lines around his eyes crinkling in pleasure behind his working glasses. "I thought you might. Hopefully the prince will, as well; I wasn't sure whether it would remind him too much, you know."
"No, I think it's just right," Belle assured him, thinking of that brief space of time between her first two attempts to leave. The unsuccessful one, prompted by the Beast's anger and interrupted by wolves, and the successful one, prompted by Gaston's attempt to send her father to Bedlam and actually encouraged by Adam himself. There had been bright spots during those days in the enchanted castle as well as dark ones; laughter and wonder and adventure that were worth remembering, now that the curse was gone. "I'm sure he'll love it too. And don't worry, I won't spoil the surprise. Make sure you eat something while you work, though; it's still a while until supper, and Cook will start to feel unappreciated if you keep sending these trays back full."
Her father looked at the tray as though surprised it was there, and reached for something – then blinked at the state of his fingers, and picked up a rag to wipe at the paint instead. "Off to the library, then?"
"Of course; he did say it was mine now, after all, and the new deliveries do need to be catalogued. I need to pick out a few new books to take down to the village school, as well; the younger girls are well supplied, but I need something new for the older ones." Many of them might still be new to reading, but variations on children's tales were not enough to keep them interested, and she thought it might hold their interest better to share stories that they didn't already know. And Adam had quite a lot of stories and more scholarly texts on his shelves to choose from.
"Cataloguing; is that what they call it, these days," Maurice murmured under his breath, then grinned at her. "I was young once too, you know."
Belle felt her cheeks warm in self-consciousness. Before meeting the Beast, the only sources of romance in her life had been Gaston's persistent attempts to woo her and whatever books she could find in Père Robert's small collection. Given everything that had happened, moving to the castle after the lifting of the curse had been the least complicated option for everyone involved, including the highly flustered villagers, and there certainly had been no want of occupation for her and her father as the prince had begun to revive his court from its long slumber – but it had also thrown her and Adam much together under the eyes of a great many very amused chaperones. She had swiftly discovered that life after becoming the heroine of a romantic tale was not quite as effortless as the books made it out to be.
She wouldn't trade it in for all the world, though; funny how their small corner of it no longer felt so confining. She leaned up on tiptoe to kiss her father on the cheek, then headed back out the door, brushing at the chalk and dust on her skirts and letting down the hem where she'd tucked it up at the waist for riding up from the village. Adam wouldn't mind, she knew, and no one else's opinion truly mattered; but she liked to look at least slightly presentable in front of the staff. They took such pride in 'the young master's true love'.
Cogsworth was just passing the library as she approached, a familiar long-suffering expression on his face as he strode down the hall; on impulse, she leaned up and bussed his cheek as well, then let herself into the book-lined rooms as he sputtered. Adam was already there, elegantly embroidered blue coat thrown over a chair by the fireplace and shirt-sleeves rolled up to his elbows; he had the Enchantress' book laid out in front of him on its stand, a slight frown on his face as he stared down at its open pages.
His golden hair was down today, curled loosely at the ends but not up in the crisply pressed, time consuming style it was ironed into on days when he had public business to conduct. It wasn't quite the same shade as the fur he'd been covered in as the Beast, but it still attracted the touch of her fingers as though it had been magnetized.
"Problem?" Belle asked as she approached, reaching up to tug at one of those curls.
Adam started as he turned toward her; he'd evidently been too engrossed to notice her entering the room. "Belle! You're back."
He took one of her hands as she approached and pressed a kiss to the back of it, then glanced distractedly back down at the illuminated book. "No, no problem – it's just, I noticed today that this book retained its enchantment when the rest of the curse dispersed. I used to think it was the cruellest trick the Enchantress played ... but now I wonder. If it retains its magic still, then it can't have been part of the same spell. It makes me wonder if I've been thinking about it all wrong, all this time."
"You know the easy way to answer that question already – ask Agethe," she replied, absently. Personally, she'd thought from the beginning that the enchanted volume was the jewel of Adam's vast collection, not a curse, even after he'd used it to show her the bittersweet Paris of her childhood. But she supposed even the most wondrous artefact might pall with familiarity and negative associations. "In lieu of that, though ... I don't suppose...."
He looked up again, a bright smile lighting up the blue eyes that had stayed the same between Beast and man, and finished the question before she could. "...You would care to go on another adventure? Just to make sure? Surely there's somewhere else you'd like to see."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Belle temporized, studying his face. He'd been thinking of something himself before she arrived, she was sure; whether he wanted to share it was the question. They were still very new to each other, for all that they'd met, fallen in love, and broken a curse together within the space of one very busy week. That had been enough time to see past the resentful depression and deeply ingrained negative behaviour his curse and his privileged upbringing had burdened him with, to the intelligent, good-hearted man beneath ... but not enough to reveal every secret, or expose every sensitive place to one another's view.
And nor should it have. She could imagine nothing more boring than spending a lifetime with a man who held no surprises for her – that had been one of the many, many reasons she had never even considered taking Gaston up on any of his offers. But it did make some conversations tricky to navigate without causing unintended hurt.
"We went where I wanted last time; isn't there anywhere you want to show me? Or ... any when?" she prompted him.
"Any when?" Adam furrowed his brow at her. "What do you mean?"
She had put some thought into the subject after their last trip through the book. The fact that she'd been able to take the toy rose from their destination, a real enough treasure for her father to touch and marvel over, had briefly confused her ... but, well, it was magic. Some things simply defied explanation
"That attic in Paris, as much as I had always wanted to see it, can't have been the real one, not as it exists right now. I can't imagine it remaining intact over so many years; it wasn't fixed in time the way your castle was. Someone would have stripped it bare – or burned it, if it became widely known that someone who'd contracted the plague had lived there. Not to mention, there wasn't nearly enough dust. But if we were somehow seeing it as it had been right after my father and I left, as I had often wished for...."
Adam caught his breath at that, his expression turning inward; then he gave her a rueful smile, and cupped her cheek before leaning down for a kiss. "Brilliant," he said. "I never realized it before, but though there was occasionally someone else there when I used it to travel to some distant location, no one ever responded to me ... I usually went at night, so I thought perhaps the magic was concealing me, or that they were refusing to notice me. But your theory makes much more sense. It's a magical construct, isn't it? And if it can faithfully recreate anywhere one might imagine ... then there's somewhere I want you to see, as well."
He gestured to the exposed page, lifting one eyebrow in a dare; she lifted her both of hers in return. "Without a chaperone?" she teased. "Goodness, what will the servants think?"
"Nothing they haven't thought already, I'm sure," he teased back, chuckling at her renewed blush. "Not that they'll share it with anyone who shouldn't hear it; you've quite won them over."
"They quite won me over, too. Between Lumière and Mrs. Potts and everyone ... not to mention this library ... more than half of your wooing was done for you, you know."
"Believe me, I know how blessed I am. Now," he grinned at her, and leaned down for another kiss. This one went on rather longer than the other, until her toes were curling in her shoes and a tingling sensation ran through her from head to toe; she broke away at last with a sigh and pulled back a prudent step.
"I as well. I only wish we didn't have to wait so long to marry," she lamented. There were certain formalities and ceremonies involved in an artist's daughter marrying into the aristocracy, even at such a distance from the main French court.
"Soon," Adam promised, a low, familiar growl underlying the words; then he shook himself and glanced back to the book. "But in the meantime ... my own childhood has been much on my mind of late. When you first came here, and we walked in the gardens, I saw this place and its beauty again as if for the first time; it made me wonder how much I missed back then because I was too young to understand it, or because sadder memories later drowned out the details. Would you be willing to share those memories with me, in exchange for yours?"
He placed his hand on the open page, offering the other to her with a beseeching look.
Belle had wondered from time to time – now that she knew who Agethe really was – if the Enchantress had diverted her father into the woods on purpose the day of his market trip, barely more than a week before the last petal was due to fall from the enchanted rose. Papa had confided in her, later, that he hadn’t recognized the road beneath Philippe’s hooves even before the lightning strike diverted them toward Adam’s castle, inadvertently – for his part – setting the events in motion that would change their world, forever. The fact that she'd come to his rescue later, after Gaston had left him to the wolves, had been further fuel for speculation.
There was only one explanation she could think of; that Agethe had been watching them, the only people new to the area in quite some time, and had decided Belle might have a chance to break the curse ... if only she could be given a reason to approach the castle. Belle had pieced together from various things the villagers had said after their memories had been restored that Agethe was more or less the 'fairy godmother' for their area of France, and that the curse had come about in the first place after they'd cried out for help under the burden of the King's young cousin's excesses. But the Enchantress hadn't meant to be cruel; she'd only meant to teach the prince a lesson, one that would have been wasted if the opportunity never arose for him to meet its condition.
Now he was restored, the people of Villeneuve had never been happier, everyone's fortunes were on the rise except Gaston's ... and yet the magical book had remained behind, like a wedding gift and apology in one. Belle remembered Adam saying, back when she'd first met him as the Beast, that he'd imposed a life sentence for a rose on her father because that was what he'd received ... and so he had, so all of them had, if in a different way than he'd assumed.
A lifetime of joy; of wisdom and growth. Of learning that a provincial life wasn't really all that bad ... and getting 'the great wide somewhere' thrown in with it, too. Embracing change, and all the wonders that came with it. And yes, falling in love with a not-so-fictional Prince Charming in disguise, too. What more could a girl ask for?
Finding something within herself that hadn't been there before, and sharing it with another.
Belle let Adam take her hand, then placed the other next to his, the shifting pattern of the illustrations casting a faint golden glow beneath their fingers.
"Lead on, then," she said, and held her breath as the magic lifted around them in a dazzling swirl.