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There's No Question

Chapter Text

"Stanley- haven't you washed that stuff off yet?"

Dick’s voice interrupted my people-watching as I tried to wipe off the previous night's lipstick from my face. My elaborate pink dress and powdered wig had oddly, magically disappeared. Tom, Dick, and I were back in our normal clothes.

Around us, forgotten family members were reappearing to some of my fellow Villeneuve residents. For me, all of this was too odd, too surreal to talk about. So I just went along with Dick and Tom, as usual. Good old easygoing Stanley.

I had to admit to enjoying some of it, though. A party atmosphere was beginning to come around the fine castle grounds on this sunny summer morning.

The Lost Prince was back. People from our pasts- who’d gone long ago to serve at the castle- had returned to our lives.

"Thomas!" screeched the high-pitched voice of a girl. At first I assumed it was one of the triplets, but instead it was a different young mademoiselle, in a maid's apron and bonnet. She ran up to Tom and embraced my friend.

"Therese? Ma petit! My baby sister isn't a dream? You're alive?"

"Oui! Tom, you look good for one so old now!" Therese teased, poking Tom in his paunchy middle. She had left to work at the castle as a maid for the Prince when she was only fifteen years old, ten years before. Being poor peasants of Villeneuve, as Tom, my elder brother Dick, and I were, it was often necessary.

My memories of Therese came back to my own fuzzy head. She had frequently teased me when I was little about my love for smelling 'eau de parfum.' I often snuck the cheap bottle of fragrance from her bedroom when we went to Tom's house, and dabbed it on my own wrists. Even back then I was a most peculiar garçon.

Tom and his long-lost sister embraced and laughed, along with Dick and me. They began to discuss all of the strange occurrences of the previous night- including the fact Dick had a bruise on his arm from where Therese- formerly an enchanted soup ladle- had hit him during the battle.

"I'm terribly sorry, Richard. If I'd known it was you-” she said with a slightly amused look.

"It's okay, Therese. What I'd like to know is, what was it like to be...well, a soup ladle?" Dick asked her with his toothy grin.

"It was a dull, boring existence. Except for the evening we were able to put on a show for Belle! Oh, it was grand! Fireworks, fine food, dancing, and Lumiere sang a wonderful song! Though Belle barely touched the food we prepared," Therese explained.

"She's always been kind of odd," Dick remarked. Therese made a stern face at him.

"Don't talk like that about Belle! If it weren't for her, we all would have died!" she snapped.

Dick raised his hands apologetically. "I'm sorry. We owe her a lot. We have you back! We want to invite you back to Villeneuve. You've never met your nephews!"

"I have nephews and nieces?" Therese asked Tom, overjoyed.

"Two little nephews. And Dick has a little girl," Tom replied.

Therese beamed, and at that moment her cute face pinkened as she turned her attention and gaze...to me.

"Stanley...do-do you have a..."

She was stammering. It was adorable. But it did nothing for me. A vice of guilt and shame clenched my heart.

I shook my head and gave her a polite smile. "Non. No wife." I said quietly.

And just as I suspected, Tom's sister blushed even harder. I could practically see the hearts explode within her eyes.

I sighed as I felt six pairs of eyes boring into mine. Here we go again, I thought. Another ‘prospect.’

Tom would be beyond thrilled to have me as a brother-in-law. Therese was a downright pretty mademoiselle, too. Short and curvy, with blue eyes and light brown curls tucked beneath her bonnet. Her Cupid's-bow lips were the kind that most men would be thrilled to kiss.

But unfortunately, not me.

I began lapsing into my vintage-Stanley, girl-envying-fashion musings. In other words, I was wondering what her ruffled white bonnet with peach rosettes would look like on my own head.

"Have you heard the whole story of the breaking of the curse?" Therese asked us then.

"Not everything, no," said Tom, shaking his head. "So the Beast must have been slaughtered after all. Gaston did it! He killed the Beast and set the demonic forces on the castle free!"

"Non! No, Thomas, dear brother! You have it all wrong. The Beast is our Prince! He is free from the spell!" Therese continued to explain everything to Tom, Dick and me. She said that Belle was the true heroine, for her love had broken the curse and saved them all from certain death.

"But what about Gaston?" I cut in. "Where is he? Did he know the Beast was the Prince?"

"I remember that name!" Therese exclaimed, her eyes widened. "I haven't seen him in ages! Handsome boy who went off to the war long ago? Oh, we all had such a crush on him, Elise and Eliana and..."

"Therese!" Tom interrupted sternly. The girl looked hurt, until he patted his younger sister's shoulder. "This is serious, Yes, Gaston was here last night. He led us all to the castle and disappeared up the tower! Have you heard what became of him?"

"No, I haven't." She shook her head in confusion.

I frowned, and asked her another question. "Around the time we were...dressed up by your wardrobe friend, I saw Gaston abandon his best friend, who's my friend as well. Lefou. You remember him?"

"Yes!" Therese said, nodding. "How could I forget the boy who used to follow Gaston like a lost puppy? I saw Lefou this morning and he looked so unhappy and upset, I was curious. He was running to the stairs leading to the courtyard. He's barely changed, hardly any taller. He was wearing a blue coat, and he looked so, so...devastated. I saw Belle speaking to him in the parlor before that, and it looked as if she had told him someone was...dead!"

The three of us hung our heads in sorrow. This could mean only one thing. The great Gaston, the war hero, had perished in the battle. His ego had driven him to regicide, but he was no match for a Prince in the form of a monster. The news pained us, though it was a bittersweet feeling.

Gaston had brought this all upon himself.

"He's dead. That's...so hard to believe," Dick said in a tense whisper.

She nodded, her face concerned. Her bubbly giddiness seemed to deflate as the grim news of a casualty overcame her. "He was an unforgettable man...I'm sorry."

"Did you see where Lefou went after Belle told him?" I asked her.

"He was running really fast to the stone staircase from those gardens." She pointed to the west side of the castle. "That doorway you see? It leads to the old courtyard. A bridge collapsed high above it from the tower floors, and if Gaston was up there, he could have fallen!"

"Guys...Therese, can you excuse me for awhile?" I apologized. I turned away from my brother, Tom, and Therese, and rushed through the gardens she had pointed to until I came to an arched dooway. I walked through it and found a flight of dark stone steps inside, lit by torches along the wall. I descended the musty steps to another arched doorway, which led back outside to a courtyard, bordered on each side by the high walls of the castle.

Near a mess of broken stones and boulders- the remains of a crumbled castle bridge- sat a lone figure of a man. The short and stout form, blue coat, and messed, windblown dark curls were clearly recognizable as the friend I had always wanted to be closer to...but could not, because his attention had always been monopolized by the tall hunter.

Lefou stood up slowly and turned around to face me. He looked exhausted; he could barely stand up straight.

"Stanley?"

"Lefou!" I called out, running down to stand at Lefou's side, extending a hand out to him in an awkward gesture of reconciliation. Last night, Lefou had switched sides against us and went after some of my fellow Villeneuve townsmen, armed with a scalding pot of tea as a weapon.

"Have...have you found him?" I asked him, gently and tentatively.

Lefou’s face broke my heart. Shock, confusion, and grief which I have never seen the merry boy express before, and with that I felt a guilty pang of annoyance towards the dead man. His forehead glistened with sweat, and he was nearly panting from physical exertion.

A scattering of stones and broken masonry lay near him, separate from the rest of the remains of the bridge. It was apparent that he had been trying to move the stones, to find what he believed was the dead man beneath the rubble. The stones were now thrown apart; none were piled enough to cover a body.

"N-no. She...Belle...she said he fell here," he said between gasps. "The Prince...he said so too. I've been digging. But he's not here!"

Lefou heaved a loud intake of breath, turning into sobs that he immediately tried to hide with his sleeve.

"We'll do everything we can. You need to rest. I'm so sorry," I blurted out. I pried one hand from his reddened face, damp with tears, and squeezed it. His hand was freezing cold.

"Stanley, don't. I have to keep look-"

His words were muffled as I pulled Lefou into a tight embrace. His head came only up to the top of my chest, something else I secretly adored about the man. I felt him relax against me after a moment of tension. All I wanted to do was get him away from here, to let him grieve Gaston in privacy.

The place was empty, desolate, without flowers or gardens. There were only a few marble statues and a gate. The courtyard was surrounded by high walls, blocking the sun. I did not like this place. It made me think of stories where people who had offended the King had been executed. This was likely the old venue used for that very purpose.

Yet there was no body to be found. It should be here!

The other man's sobs brought me back out of my confused thoughts. I was holding him in my arms, something I've always secretly longed to do. His dark curls were just below my chin, and I instinctively began to caress them with my right hand.

“I have to find him,” Lefou’s muffled voice came in hot breaths in my chest. “Stanley, you have to help me! Gaston did terrible things, but I can't let his body be abandoned-”

Lefou pulled his face from my chest and looked me in the eyes. He was a literal mess of tears and distressed babbling.

“She told me the Beast was the Prince, but I don’t get it! I don't know what she meant, I don't know what that thing Belle had in the mirror was, but...I...I just know Gaston lied, Stanley! He promised he'd always be there for me, back in the war and all, but he abandoned me, he...Why? Why did I ever believe-”

"Shh...just sit here. Please, mon ami. Sit down..."

When I was able to get him seated upon a flat boulder, he squeezed his eyes shut in despair. A big tear fell to his left sideburn. I wiped it away with my palm.

"Will you keep helping me search, Stanley?"

"Yes. I will help," I replied, but it seemed rather difficult.

"If it wasn't this courtyard, then...he could still be on a rooftop..." His words dissolved into sobs again, and I let him cry in my arms.

After several moments, he quieted. I could still feel his soft sniffles and gasps, warm against my shirt. I felt awkward, not knowing what to say. I could not speak ill of the dead, and I couldn't give him any hope that Gaston could be alive, either.

After a while, he raised his head up from my shoulder. "Stanley...do you think he might've survived if he's not here? Maybe...maybe he's still alive!"

It was almost déja vu, to hear him say that. I glanced up at the dizzyingly high castle walls that surrounded us on all sides. "I'm sorry. No one could have survived a fall from here. And if he did, he'd be lying here, barely alive and dying, Lefou," I said as gently as I could.

"But Stanley! There's all this magic happening! With all of the haunted objects...they were all people! So...the Prince was the Beast! He'd been shot by Gaston, but the magic brought him back to life! So...maybe it brought Gaston back to life, too!"

"Lefou...but, you see..." It was hard to tell him the honest truth- everything I'd heard from Tom's sister just earlier. "The Prince was brought back to life...because Belle told him she loved him. It was all part of his enchantment. Gaston wasn't part of this like they are, you see? He only came here to kill the Beast, and he brought his own fate upon him."

His face fell; a hint of anger and bitterness coming over his expression. "I know. But...the last thing I wanted to tell him was that our...our friendship was over. No more 'Le Duo.' That I'm 'Le Single' now. But I never even got to tell him that!" Lefou's voice was shrill in the cool morning air; his despair seemed to echo through the lonely courtyard.

"I wish...I wish I could turn back time and try harder! Try to make Gaston control his temper...help him to be better somehow. I wish-"

I clutched his shoulder firmly. "Lefou! Stop it! You were never meant to change Gaston! It was HIS jealousy that killed him! You couldn't change this no matter how hard you tried!"

"But...he depended on me to..."

He shook his head, eyes scrunched shut. Another tear coursed down his reddened cheek. I wiped it away with my finger, and caressed the side of his face.

"You're trying to play 'God,' mon ami. You're only human. No one has the power to change another person."

Lefou nodded. He was somehow comforted by my words. I guess I'd said the right thing.

"Belle told me that Agathe's power was how the Prince survived and changed. It was all her doing," he blurted out.

"Agathe? The beggar lady? What power could she have?" I was shocked by this. Therese had only made reference to an 'Enchantress.' I had pictured some great, celestial being. Not the old ragged lady who panhandled around Villeneuve.

Lefou nodded. "Yes! It was her all along! She made the Beast. Or more accurately, um, she turned His Highness into that monster long ago. To help change him, but she needed Belle's help. She's a powerful, magical person. And I'm...not." He slumped down and put his face in his hands in exhaustion.

"Should we go back to Villeneuve, ami?" I decided to ask after a moment. "We can come back here tomorrow. You need some rest."

The grieving man let out a long ragged sigh, and he gave a little nod. "Yeah. Okay," he whispered.

Chapter Text

I lead the way back from that sunless courtyard, as Lefou was still reluctant to leave. We went to the same flight of stairs I had descended before. Three official-looking men came rushing down the steps as we walked up. They looked as if they were searching for something; my gut instinct told me that they, too, were searching for the man who had died here last night.

"Monsieurs, were you just down in the courtyard?" the one in the lead asked, pointing where we had come from.

"Oui," I replied.

"Are you two Villeneuve residents?"

"Yes," Lefou said, looking down at his feet, likely embarrassed for them to see his swollen, reddened eyes.

"Gentlemen, unfortunately...there was a fatality last night. We need to search this area to locate someone who fell from the tower. Please stay out, for your own safety."

"I searched already! He isn't there!" Lefou replied in a distressed voice. The man glanced down at my shorter friend with narrowed eyes.

"Just allow us to search. The Prince's orders."

"But-"

"Please allow us, we are the Prince's men. When we find the victim, we will let you know so you can make arrangements. We will do all we can to locate your fallen friend. We are terribly sorry for your loss."

"Merci," Lefou whispered, nodding politely, and I nodded as well in thanks. I would much rather avoid seeing the mangled and crushed remains of our great town hero. My own opinion of the man was irrelevant now.

The bright sun made me squint as we walked back out into the castle gardens. Few people were still there; I assumed many had decided to go inside the castle. I was curious about it all, but first I wanted to get my exhausted friend home. He was walking on heavy legs, at a nearly stooped posture.

"Are you going to be okay, mon ami?"

"Back hurts a little..."

"A 'little.' Lefou, you were crushed by some musical instrument, then you were running around with a teapot, and not long after you screamed something about a haunted toilet! And this morning, you spent hours moving boulders! And your back only hurts a 'little?'"

"My back can heal." His voice came out more low-pitched and flat; he barely sounded like himself without his characteristic lilting, sing-song tenor.

"And other things...can't. Like your heart?" I found myself blurting out. It was the truth, after all.

He looked down at his shoes with pained eyes. "Yeah."

I nodded sadly, it was another awkward moment. "Shall we find our horses? I sure hope they weren't transformed into anything!" I tried to joke.

"Ami's already a beast." I caught a hint of a smile on Lefou's face; albeit a sad one.

We found our horses at the side of the castle where we'd dismounted last night. A few stable boys were trying to herd them about, and I realized it must have been a bit of an annoyance to them. Nearly half the populace of Villeneuve had left their horses to mill around on His Highness' castle lawn. I recognized one large stallion as Gaston's horse, Magnifique. A stable boy was trying to guide him; he reared his head at him and snorted angrily. He could sense things were different, his master was not back.

"Magnifique-" Lefou said softly, approaching the horse who calmed at the presence of someone familiar. "Hey, it's okay, I can take him now," he said to the nearest stable boy. "Ami! Wait! Where are you going?"

Lefou's own small, stout horse, Ami, had taken off and started running away, past the gate and to the road leading down the mountainside forest to Villeneuve.

"I am not dealing with him this morning. It's been a long night," said Lefou, with an apologetic look the stable boy. "Um, were you...one of the things?" he asked him.

"One of the 'things?'" The young man threw his head back and laughed. "Yes, in fact! I'd rather not tell you what."

"I hope you weren't a toilet, like that other guy! I mean, this castle's so big there must've been-"

"You mean you met someone who was cursed as a toilet?" the fellow exclaimed, shocked. Lefou's face brightened a bit; he seemed to be getting a little of his good humor about him again. The man was iron, both physically and emotionally. A feeling of great affection for him tightened around my heart like a vice.

His eyes were sparkling so much in that moment, even under such grief! Sunshine. This man was literally sunshine personified. He was before last night, and he still remained so.

"Yeah. Early this morning! The guy looked like he'd lost his mind! Uh...not the best smell, either. Said he had to go brush his teeth. I think he needs more than that!" A little chuckle escaped him, and he tossed his head to the side, sweeping a lock of raven hair from his sweet face.

I couldn't help but smile a little at his ability to joke under the circumstances. I listened to their conversation as I located my own horse- Rosie, my mare. She was glad to see me.

"Thank my lucky stars I was a water bucket! Here, I thought I had it rough! Whew!" the stable attendant said. "Can I help you?" he added, gesturing to Magnifique.

"Okay, um, thanks. What's your name?" Lefou asked the young man, who firmly held Magnifique's stirrups still. Lefou tried unsuccessfully two times to hoist himself atop the very tall horse. I walked over and gave him a boost up by pushing my palms on his upper right thigh. Once he was mounted on Magnifique, he looked at me sheepishly. His face was flushed, probably from embarrassment or more exertion.

"Thanks, Stanley."

"No problem, Lefou." I replied, giving him an embarrassed smile. I knew I shouldn't be smiling under the circumstances myself. Gaston was dead. I felt my cheeks warm up a little out of awkwardness. I ought to feel worse about the great man being gone- but from what he had just told me- about what Gaston did, I couldn't force a single tear from my eye. I sincerely wished that I could.

"Nice to meet you both, Stanley, Lefou," the stable attendant said politely. "My name is Michel."

"Nice to meet you, too, Michel! I'm...uh, glad you're not a water bucket anymore! It must feel nice," said Lefou in his typical amiable manner.

Michel nodded. "Yeah, it feels great! Well, have a safe ride back to Villeneuve! Do you two have relatives here in the castle?"

"Non," I said, shaking my head. "But my friend Tom's sister Therese is a maid here."

"Non, I did not," said Lefou. "But, a long, long time ago, I had a great-grandfather here who was the Royal Fool for the King. 'The Fool.' He passed his name down to me."

"Oh, I get it now! I was just thinking your name doesn't suit you, Monsieur." Michel glanced from Lefou over to me. "Therese?" He furrowed his brow, eyes to the sky, trying to remember if he knew anyone by that name. "Is she pretty?" he suddenly asked with eagerness.

"She's lovely," I replied with a grin. "Go introduce yourself sometime. She's probably in Villeneuve today with her brother and her whole family. They're probably planning her nuptials...to me."

Michel's face fell in disappointment. I quickly glanced over to Lefou and he had the same, pained expression. But then, that could just be the grief over Gaston.

I looked at Michel and grinned a little. "But I'm not the marrying type," I quickly added. "I'd much rather see the sweet little soup ladle with a handsome water bucket."

Michel's grin came back again. He was a nice-looking fellow, with a goatee and lean build, medium-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. I couldn't imagine what it felt like to be turned from a water bucket back to a man in three seconds flat. "Go introduce yourself when she gets back! She works in the kitchen," I encouraged.

"Well, All right, then!" Michel laughed a little, in good spirits. "Au revoir, and safe travels, Stanley and Lefou!"

"Au revoir, Michel! Thanks for taking care of Magnifique and Rosie!" Lefou called back to him as we took our leave of the castle grounds and crossed the large iron gate.

"Are you worried about Ami?" I inquired Lefou about his horse.

"No. He's a devil horse and he'll scare away any wolves still about. Don't worry, he'll remember his way back."

"Are you certain?"

"He has a good sense of smell, Stanley. He can smell the baker's shop in town from five miles away, believe me."

"Speaking of smell, tell me about the Toilet Man," I said with a little grin.

Lefou smiled back gently. "Not much to tell."

"Do you have enough energy to ride Magnifique all the way to town?" I didn't want him to collapse off Gaston's great horse, or for us to encounter- Heaven forbid- any wolves between here and Villeneuve.

He shrugged. "Yeah. I guess. I dunno." He glanced down at Magnifique and patted his mane. A shadow of pain and grief passed over his face again. "Your master's gone now...I'm sorry," he whispered.

"Do you want to talk about it? About...him?" I asked.

"Please, Stanley...I'd rather not. Not now."

I sighed. "Neither do I."

We rode our horses in silence from then on, until we reached Villeneuve about an hour later. The streets were much quieter than they usually were this time of day. I guessed that part of it was because some residents were still at the castle. Many were likely just back at home, sleeping the night off, still in shock that Gaston did what he did, led us to a nightmare which ended in happiness for many...but grief for some. It was a brilliant sunny day, almost at high noon. I could hear the birds chirping in the trees as we left the main center of town. Rosie's hooves made clip-clopping sounds; she seemed content to be almost home. Magnifique, with Lefou riding him just behind me, gave an impatient snorting noise.

"The blackbirds and warblers are out," I heard Lefou comment from behind; more to himself, or perhaps Magnifique, than to me. "Almost as if things are the same. How could the birds even be singing?"

I lowered my head and frowned. I wanted to make a comment, but there was nothing I could think of to say about that.

"Do you want to stop at your place first?" I asked.

"Yeah. Sure, thanks, Stanley."

Lefou lived in a small cottage at the other side of town, and he'd said once he'd grown up there. I knew that his parents had been dead for a while. His mother had died when Lefou was growing up, and his father passed away more recently, about seven or eight years ago. His name had been Jacques; he was a candlemaker. Lefou's father had been quite advanced in age at death, so he must have been roughly fifty or more when his son was born. I wondered if Lefou had siblings, either in town or away.

I dismounted Rosie and helped him dismount Magnifique. "I'll go stable the big guy for you, give him some water. You go get some sleep, okay?"

"Okay." He walked on exhausted legs to his front door and took off his blue coat in the warming sun. "Stanley?"

"Yes?"

"Thanks."

"You're welcome. Now you go rest, mon ami!" I insisted, waving him off with my hand. He nodded sadly and shut his door.

I took Magnifique and Rosie to my own stable, behind my house where I still lived with my mother, only two doors down from where Dick and his wife, Martine, lived. It was good I was still a bachelor. I was taking care of Maman, after all. Of course, Maman would rather have me and my nonexistent wife and nonexistent babies living with her. She fantasized about it every day. She already had one beautiful granddaughter, a two-year-old girl named Cecile who belonged to Dick and Martine. But she wanted one through me as well.

I went into my house and checked in with Maman, who was in her chair knitting something, as usual. When she saw me, she stood up fast and began talking excitedly.

"Stephan, honey, you're back! Are you all right? I heard some strange things happened! The Prince is alive! How could we have forgotten about that great castle? My old dear friend Beatrice was there, Jean Potts' wife? I've missed her so much! I'm so worried that tyrant will go back to taxing us to starvation, and-"

"I think Prince Adam has turned a new leaf, Maman. I didn't see Beatrice, but I did see Therese, Tom's sister. She told us that the Prince is changed, he is a new man!"

"I'll have to see it to believe it. So was the horrible Beast killed? Was it the reason the castle was abandoned? I am just so glad you're all right! You could have been killed!" Maman rushed over to me and hugged me around the waist, and I hugged her back, feeling comforted; at home. She was a soft, plump woman, with light brown hair and fair features. Dick took after her, while I had taken after my late Papa physically. Papa- only fifty-nine, tall, dark-eyed, swarthy and rugged- had died last year by some sudden illness involving an infection in his stomach. It had been very hard for all of us.

"I'm fine. There was one fatality, though, Maman."

"Who?" Her eyes widened with anticipated grief.

"Gaston." I sighed as she put her hands to her mouth and shook her head in disbelief. "Gaston? Our war hero? Non, not him! He was so strong, so invincible! How?"

I shrugged my shoulders. "In battle, against the creature. I just got done taking Lefou home."

"Ohh! That poor, poor boy!" She sighed in empathy. "He must be devastated! You must invite him over sometime, Stanley!"

"I know. I will. I'm going to go over to Tom's today. Dick and Martine are there. Do you want to come with me? Tom's younger sister Therese is back."

Maman nodded. "Yes. I will. I remember now that Thomas had a sister. I forgot he had one, but now I remember. Stanley, this is so strange! I forgot about Beatrice! I forgot about the tyrant Royal Family, their castle, I forgot Thomas had a sister...what is all of this about?" She picked up her bag of knitting before joining me out the door. When we left our house, the great tower clock struck noon.

...

We only had to walk a short way to Tom's house. The baker and the fruit and vegetable sellers were now rushing out and getting their wares on, though they looked exhausted. Maman took coins from her bag and bought some croissants from M. Cuire. He thanked her with reddened and bleary eyes.

I knocked on the door of Tom's cottage, and both his wife Marie and my sister-in-law, Martine, answered quietly. Marie and Martine were sisters themselves, and looked very much alike. Martine, Dick's wife, was a cute woman of about thirty, with freckles and fair hair. At her skirts was my little niece Cecile, a tiny blonde whose eyes lit up upon seeing Maman and I.

"Gra-Mere! Unka 'Tan-wey!" she squealed. I reached down and she jumped into my arms.

"Oui! Uncle Stanley is here! How's my pretty girl? I love your bow!" I said to her in a singsong voice while fiddling with the big blue bow in her flaxen locks. My smile faded when I saw my brother and Tom sitting at the kitchen table, holding tankards of beer. It was only lunchtime- and they were drinking already. Our great loss was now starting to sink in.

They nodded to me in greeting. "Hey, Stan."

"Bonjour." I noticed Therese standing near the other two women. She gave me a huge, friendly smile, but she didn't say anything. Her delicate little hands fluttered about, fixing the skirts of her peach and cream-colored dress, smoothing her bodice. Her cheeks were bright pink. "Bonjour again to you, Therese!" I said.

"Hello, Stanley," she replied with a shy smile. She glanced at my mother and smiled. Marie and Martine greeted Maman, and took her basket of croissants for the lunch.

"I'm glad you're catching up with the family!" I told her. "This is my Maman, Joelle," I introduced her. "Nice to meet you, Madame...Laurent," she greeted Maman. Therese had already memorized my surname.

My mother's eyes widened in joy at meeting the girl. It was as if a torch was lighting up over her head, a realization that Therese was roughly my age, single, pretty, sweet, and gracious. Her mental boxes of what she wanted for my prospective wife were being ticked at the moment. Tick. Tick. Tick.

I set Cecile back down. "Beer?" asked Dick, pointing to a barrel near the kitchen table.

"Non," I replied, lowering my head in the solemnity of the moment. Little Cecile grasped my hands. She wanted me to flip her in a somersault like I always did with her. I obliged, pulling her up and flipping her into a somersault. She giggled as she turned upside down and righted back up. "Again, Tanwey! Again!"

"Not right now, ma petite, okay? Uncle Stanley's kind of tired." I glanced back at Dick and Tom, whose eyes were on me like daggers, wanting to know the answer to a question they didn't have to ask aloud.

"He...the body hasn't been located yet. The Prince's guards were doing a search around the castle. Um-" I cleared my scratchy throat- "Ahem...they said that they will let us know as soon as possible, so a memorial service can be performed."

Dick and Tom's faces fell. Dick shook his head and took a swig from his tankard. Tom's two young sons, Jean-Thomas and Oliver, looked at me wide-eyed from the bench they'd been sitting on.

"Papa? You sad?" Cecile said as she toddled over to her father. Even at two years old, nearly three, she could sense tension, a troubled air, among the adults in her life.

Dick set his beer back on the kitchen table and took Cecile in his lap. "Oui, my little bonbon. We are all sad. Someone died last night, Cecile."

"Who?" She didn't likely understand that death was permanent, but she knew that it meant that someone was hurt very, very bad.

"It was Monsieur Gaston."

Cecile's face scrunched up; she was trying to remember who that was. Gaston had paid no mind to Villeneuve's children. He didn't touch their lives in in any memorable way. The schoolboys, including eight-year-old Jean-Thomas, admired the town hero from afar, but Gaston barely paid attention to them.

"Do you remember the man in red? Who rides a big horse?" I asked her. "He's Monsieur Lefou's best friend. Monsieur Lefou always rides the little horse with him."

"Oh! Fou! The candy man!" Cecile exclaimed. She knew right away who that was. "Him die?" she asked, her eyes suddenly wide in worry. Lefou was known for buying candy for small children and giving the sweets to them at random. Anyone in Villeneuve ten years old or under was especially drawn to him, with his pocketful of treats and infectious laugh.

"No, no! He rode his horse into town with me. He's at home," I replied. My niece's face relaxed, and she leaned into her father's arms. Dick hugged his daughter close, an expression of pain on his face as he held his own child like a lifeline. Grief and loss were no strangers to Dick and his wife. Before Cecile was born, they had a baby boy...who only lived about a month until he was taken by a fever.

The atmosphere remained somber through lunch. Marie and Martine had fixed a nice meal of roast venison, vegetables, and long rolls of bakery fresh bread in addition to the croissants Maman brought. I was famished, since I didn't recall having eaten since about five o'clock yesterday, at home. There had been a big rainstorm late in the afternoon and into evening. That was when I went with Dick and Tom into the tavern- when all this hullabaloo started about poor old Maurice accusing Gaston of attempted murder, Gaston accusing Maurice of lunacy, Maurice's missing, oddball daughter Belle's arrival, and the sudden turn of events leading to our march to the castle after a Beast.

The thought of the Beast having been the long-lost Prince of our region was something that I had a terrible time wrapping my mind around. Just like everything else that happened last night, the concept knocked around in my brain like a weird, waking dream, having no semblance of reality.

Like the wardrobe with the lady's voice. Did that really happen? Did she literally throw out women's garments by some magic and dress us up in them? With fancy ladies' wigs on our heads?

I loved that so much. Yes. I admit it, again. That would be the sort of thing I would have a happy dream about. I loved her operatic voice, singing out to me to be free, calling us her 'pretty boys.'

I glanced over at my brother and Tom. I wanted to ask them about it, to ascertain that it was an actual event and not merely my dream. Tom was chugging another beer. He drained it, set the tankard down with his sleepy eyes closing, and pushed back his empty plate in satiation. Dick was hunched over the table with his head in his hands, rubbing his forehead.

I decided I'd better not.

I looked over to Therese, whose eyes were fixed on me. When I sought her eye contact, she averted hers right away and fiddled with the ruffle on her sleeve. She then put her hands around a warm cup of tea and sipped it daintily.

"Therese?"

"Oh, yes, Stanley?" She turned her blushing face back to me again.

"Would you like to take a walk outside with me?" Her overjoyed expression told me that I was in for a sticky situation. My own Maman, as well as Martine, Dick, Tom, and Marie, looked pointedly at Therese, then back to me with optimism. I only wanted to talk to Therese to discuss more about the castle events. I would also have to think of a kind way to let the girl down as far as this marriage prospect thing was concerned. I took a deep breath.

...

Chapter Text

I walked with Therese out the back door, past a hedgerow of bushes bordering Tom's backyard. We went past several neighbors’ cottages and out to the outskirts of the village, verdant with rolling hills and forests in the distance. Yesterday's storm had left a pleasant smell of earth in the air, and it was neither hot nor humid, as it often was during midsummer in Villeneuve.

I took her arm around the elbow in a gentlemanly way. We walked through the field, not saying much at first. To anyone who could have seen us, we looked like a young courting couple. I painfully wished that could be the case.

For a moment I thought...why not? Why not court Therese, and marry her? Give Maman more grandchildren, and Cecile some little cousins to play with?

I looked down at her; her petite height, feminine little hands, her golden brown curls twisted into a bun and tucked beneath a lace cap, and my heart sunk. I felt a sense of protectiveness toward her- like a man should have toward a woman- but I felt as if she were my sister, just like she was to Tom. I did not have any desire to do...the kinds of things a man would do with his new bride in the privacy of their marital boudoir. I did not want to see her 'sans garments.' I did not want to touch or caress her skin. She deserved to have her husband burn with the desire to do those sorts of things.

And no, it wasn't just Therese either.

Even Belle, the 'most beautiful girl in the village.' The one who Gaston constantly cajoled and pestered and the one person who’d been bruising his immense ego for at least a year or more now. I did not desire her feminine beauty. I know that to be true, because I even recall an encounter with that strange- and downright irritating- girl about six months ago.

...

It was at my work. I had taken my tape measure to fit her for a Christmas dress last winter, in my duty as a tailor's assistant under M. Aiguille. When I wrapped the tape measure around her slender waist, then around her soft and delicate bust, I had no lecherous feelings that another man might have felt in secret. It was like dressing a doll.

I remember thinking she'd do nicely in a blue dress with red sprigging, and even helped her pick out the fabric. She’d sensed my lack of 'more than platonic' feelings, and so she felt relieved and free to babble out loud to me about a book she'd read. She asked me if I read much, and I said I only read Scriptures. When my Aunt Sophie, the seamstress for ladies' garments, left the fitting room of the tailor shop, I was stuck alone with her for several minutes.

She quoted a verse of Proverbs to me, the one about the woman clothed with strength and dignity and having wisdom. I nodded politely, indicating I knew of it. It was one of Maman’s favorites. Then, Belle asked me if I had ever read 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' by some great Englishman who shook a spear. I replied I had not.

She took it to be a great tragedy what literature I was missing out on. I, on the other hand, took it to be a great tragedy that she wasn't acting like a proper Villeneuve girl should. For instance, marrying our village's most eligible, dashing Captain and keeping house. But I kept my mouth shut.

I was also perplexed by Belle's habit of tucking her skirt up in her waistband so her floral-patterned pantalettes were showing. It was bordering on indecent, and certainly odd. I remember trying to untuck her skirt so it would fall properly after I took her measurements. She practically slapped my hand away in annoyance.

'I didn't ask for your help with that,' she said. She then realized she'd been rude to me. At least she had some sense of a girl's proper manners.

'I beg your pardon, Monsieur. It's just that prefer my skirt that way so I can move more freely and make a pocket to carry my books wherever I go. I find reading makes dull moments go by so much faster, like when I’m doing my wash. It's much more entertaining!' she told me in a friendlier voice.

'Oh,' I said. Back to 'book talk' again. Our lovely Belle, bless her educated little heart.

'Some of my dearest friends are illiterate,' I told her. "You're fortunate to have learned what you did by whoever taught you."

"My Papa taught me," Belle replied, in a firm tone that expressed that I not dare judge Maurice for his views. I nodded and kept quiet then, charging Maurice's account for the fabric and sending her on her merry way. When I watched her walk down the street, she took out a book and started to read it as she walked.

I couldn't understand what it was about her that Gaston wanted so badly, and neither did Lefou, for that matter. It was a sentiment I seemed to share with him, though Lefou and I never actually talked about it between ourselves.

Now- Tom and Dick? They made comments about her all the time at the tavern. Partly about how good-looking she was, as men are apt to do when their wives aren't around, but often in mockery. Dick once put on his deadpan face, cocked an eyebrow, and said- and I quote- 'That girl is under the grand delusion that the privy behind ‘er cottage smells like a garden of roses.' I couldn't help but smile and shake my head, while Tom burst into laughter and sprayed out his beer, hitting Eloise's skirt as she walked by. She gave all three of us a look of impending doom. It was only after we calmed ourselves that my brother cracked a smile himself.

So, Belle didn't seem to like me and my friends all that much, and we didn't like her much either. I admit to following along with the cruel pranks that Tom, my brother, and others played on her, such as dumping her laundry. But that was only because there’d been so many complaints about her behavior at the fountain by the other ladies.

Belle always came off as annoying; a tad snobby. She seemed, by her actions and tone, to look down on our local wives for the way they spent their time, and she would thumb her nose at every social more and tradition in our village's society. She behaved in ways that girls typically do not do- reading and studying, inventing gadgets, hitching her skirts up and riding astride with legs splayed.

Personally, I thought her hitching her skirts up and refusing to ride sidesaddle was the worst.

But, here’s my confession. I wouldn’t want anyone knowing it was because I longed to wear a flowing skirt to my ankles and ride a horse sidesaddle. Belle could behave inconsistent to her gender and be called odd. If I behaved inconsistent to my gender, it would earn me a one-way ticket to the Maison des Lunes.

Yes, that all relates to me- my secret longings, my feelings of not fitting in. I've spent the last twelve of my twenty-five years of life on earth trying to ignore it, stifle it, and simply be 'one of the boys.'

...

Which brings me to that afternoon with Therese, as I walked arm and arm through the countryside with her. I only met her that morning. Which meant I didn’t know her well- and yet my family had decided on the unspoken but glaringly obvious notion that I be her suitor.

Therese gazed over at some wildflowers growing in the sloping meadows, yellow and white blossoms, a few scatterings of red. Mainly daisies. I actually love daisies, though they don't smell as nice as roses. After she looked longingly at them, she looked back at me. I knew that I was expected to do what a 'courting gentleman caller' was supposed to do, and that was to pick some of them and give them to her. Perhaps even take one from the bunch and tuck it in her hair, and tell her she looks beautiful.

"Nice flowers out there, oui?" I said, breaking the long silence.

"I love the yellow ones," she replied.

"C'mon, let's go pick some!" I said cheerily, and set myself loose from her elbow, rushing to the spot where the yellow daffodils grew the thickest. She happily quickened her step and ran along with me. I stooped down, and picked about a dozen of the golden daffodils while she watched, her face glowing with joy.

It was then that my stupid fantasy took over my mind. Instead of Therese running through the wildflower fields with me, and me picking the daffodils for her, it was Lefou.

Instead of me plucking a flower from the bunch and tucking it behind Therese's ear, I was tucking it behind Lefou's ear. He'd blush and give me a look like pure sunshine, I was certain of it. Though yellow wasn’t quite his color. I would choose red.

"Here you are, mademoiselle. For your dinner table," I said, giving her a bouquet.

"Merci! Thank you, Stanley!" Therese exclaimed. She took a step toward me, a dreamy, longing look on her face.

I had seen that exact same look on someone's face a thousand times before. I recognized it so, so well. It was as familiar to me as the lines on the palms of my own hands.

Lefou made that face. All the damned time.

And the person who he made it for is- WAS- a clueless, arrogant ass who pined after 'Little Miss Nose-in-a-Book, I Flash My Pantalettes Because if a Man can have Pockets for Stuff, Gee, I Should! I Ride My Horse Straddle-Style! I Invent Strange Gadgets in the Middle of the Fountain and Annoy Everyone Else within a Ten-Foot-Radius! Oh- Haven’t You Heard of William Shakes-a-Spear?'

I hate my life.

Well, not really. I have it decent. It's just hard sometimes.

Therese was still gazing at me lovingly. But she JUST MET ME. Why? Is it only because she thinks I'm handsome?

Merde! Sorry for my French. But does it always have to be just about looks?

Is that what he saw in Gaston? A set of biceps, jet-black hair, a firm jaw and an intense pair of olive-hazel eyes? Sure, I could see the attraction. I had eyes, too. Gaston was a sight to see; magnificent. But inside- his attitude towards Lefou (that Lefou excused and brushed off as 'a mood'), his attitude toward others, his sour temper, even his pushiness towards Belle, who I wished would just accept him. That comment Dick had made about Belle and her backyard privy? I had almost wanted to follow it with telling him the same thing could be said for Gaston, so that meant they were made for each other. I thought it, but being cowardly me, I did not say it.

"So, Stanley, where would you like to walk now?" Therese asked, pulling me out of my thoughts again. She was at least a quiet girl, not chatty or babbling like some others. Like my cousins, the insufferable Eloise, Eliana, and Elise.

"Oh, we could just walk back to Tom's I guess." She looked disappointed.

I needed to be brave and honest for once. I needed to get real with her, so she could find a beau or suitor who really loved her the way she deserved. I could tell she was a sweet, decent person, from what little I knew of her.

"Can I tell you something, Therese? It's something that might disappoint you, but I want to let you know before you get hurt."

"What is it, Stanley?" Her smile faded.

"It...it seems like Tom, and my family, well, they are all wanting us...you and me-" I gestured from her to me- "to see each other. But...I can't date you, Therese. I want to be your friend, but I can't be your suitor."

She blinked two or three times, looking down at the flowers in her hands with disappointment. Poor girl- why does it have to be this way?

Stupid me. Stupid me and my 'feelings.' I hate it. Hate it, hate it.

"All right," she said sadly. "Is there another girl? It's okay if there is."

"No, no, there isn't another girl! I have no girl!” I said emphatically. “And it isn't that you're not pretty. You're a very pretty lady." She brightened a little. "I'd love to be your friend, to have you in my family! Because Tom's like family to me anyway. So I like having you around. It's a pleasure to meet you. But here's the thing, though, Therese. It's about me. I'm just not interested in ANY girls right now. No one. I just can't."

Babbling idiot. I thought it would come out as compassionate and suave. But no.

She looked at me a little confused, maybe wondering if I was just making an excuse for myself. After she took a deep breath, her voice lost its sweetness and took on a hurt, irritated tone.

"So...so are you one of those men who only likes to...play the field? I'm not naive. Even though I've been a kitchen object, I've listened to enough people- well, they weren't people exactly-” She gave an amused little laugh, and I could see the resemblance of Tom’s jovial expression in her mouth, though she did not look like him otherwise. “They talk about those things. Are you what Monsieur Cogsworth calls 'a philandering cad?'"

It was my turn to feel a little hurt now. "No. I'm not. I've...I've barely even had much experience with..." I felt myself blushing then. I was getting flustered and embarrassed. "I'm just...too busy with work, and other things, to do much with girls. I don't know, maybe I'm lazy, maybe it's too much work to court a girl. It seems like it is around this town!"

"I'm sorry," she apologized. “I didn't mean to offend you, Stanley. But wait!" She gave me an exasperated look. "I never said I wanted to be 'courted' by any men right now either! Courting is supposed to lead to marriage! It sounds like your family is determined to pick out your wife!"

"Ah, I did not notice that. Did you notice that?" I raised my eyebrows. She laughed.

"You're sweet, Stanley. Really sweet. I couldn't help but like you."

"I like you, too, Therese. I just don't want...I don't want to be tethered to any...girl right now. I'm not the marrying type, and I'm not the philandering type, either. I don't know what I am. Do...do you want to know the honest truth? Sometimes when I'm in church, and I listen to Pere Robert give Mass, I think I might actually like to enter the priesthood."

This was the absolute truth. I had considered that. The only thing keeping me was that I'd have to give up sewing clothes and devote my life to God and studying Latin and Scriptures and presenting sermons- which wasn't in my comfort zone, either.

Yet, it wasn't the entire truth. That just couldn't be brought to the light of day, since I valued my life, my family and my good name. I chose to ignore that as always.

She smiled warmly. "Really? I like you even more now. But like a friend. Or another brother. Because you are so...pure. Like a pure soul. That is the sweetest thing. And, thank you for picking me flowers, by the way."

”Merci. And you’re welcome, Therese. Shall we go back and tell them the courtship plans are off?”

”Oui, Stanley! I could sense the...high expectations back there during lunch. It made me uncomfortable too. I want to get used to life being human again, and I’d like to get to know different gentlemen, here and back at the castle. Thank you for being honest, Stanley.”

She gave me a hug, a sisterly hug. I hugged her back, and we headed to the village proper, to Tom’s place.

“You’re back!” my mother said when we returned to Tom’s. “How was the walk?” she asked with unveiled excitement.

”It was very pleasant, Maman. Beautiful weather, don’t you think, Therese?” She nodded. “It was,” she replied. We didn’t say much else as we rejoined the rest of our families; the card game had already started at the table, where Tom and Dick were still nursing their beers.

”Join us for cribbage, Stan?” Dick asked, holding up his handful of cards.

”Sure.” I sat at the table with them, and as soon as I did, the ladies- Maman, Martine, Marie, and Therese- left the kitchen to the back sitting room to ‘work on knitting.’ How much knitting would be done was dependent on how much the womenfolk wanted to discuss personal issues- and this evening I guessed it would be very little. I gave Therese a look of compassion as her eyes met mine. She rolled hers a little.

I was left alone with Tom and Dick then. Tom swept all the cards off the table. “I win again!” he said. He shuffled the deck with loud snapping sounds, re-dealing the cards among the three of us. I looked at the clock, and guessed we’d play maybe two games in Tom’s kitchen before it struck five. Five was when the tavern opened for the evening social hours, and they would want to take the card game there.

I looked down at my hand once my cards were dealt; I had two fifteen combinations, which was good to start. I glanced up and saw Dick and Tom grinning at me.

”What?”

”Well...how’d it go?” asked Dick.

”How’d what go?”

”Are you that stupid?” Tom said, gesturing out to me as if to slap my head. He lowered his voice. “How’d it go with Therese? It’s obvious she fancies you. She’s a good cook, and she showed your Maman something she sewed, a ‘sampler’ or whatever it is they call it. So all you have to do is give her a few months, spend some time with her, then ask!”

I sighed and fidgeted with my cards, pulling out my 7 and 8 of diamonds and slapping them to the table, then my 10 of clubs with 5 of spades. “Fifteen-two, fifteen-four.”

”Stanley!” Dick hissed.

”What?”

”You’re an idiot!”

”I know. But I’m an idiot with two fifteen combos.” I moved a peg on Tom’s old wooden cribbage board. “I don’t think I can join you tonight, by the way. I’m going back to the castle as soon as possible. To help them with the search.”

”Should we join you? Do they need help?” Tom asked, sobering. He realized that maybe getting his sister and me married was less important at the moment than finding the town hero’s body on the castle grounds.

”No...no, you guys don’t need to come. The Prince has a whole group of servants looking. Just have a nice time at the tavern tonight. I won’t be there to smoke you at cribbage.”

Tom shrugged his shoulders. “Okay. I understand they don't need the whole village there,” he said, nodding solemnly along with Dick. We played a few games of cards, the first of which I won and the second Tom won. When five o’clock came, they left for the tavern. Once I bid a polite adieu to Therese and the other ladies-accepting some leftover food- and walked my mother back home, I headed over to Lefou’s cottage on the other end of town and knocked on his door, bearing some bread, cheese and fruit. I knew the grieving man was in no mood to fix himself dinner.

I hoped he had enough sleep. I was certain he would not want to go to the tavern this evening. I knew if I waited too late to check on him, he'd take off to the castle alone. I wanted to be there- be his moral support.

...

Chapter Text

After I knocked for the third time, Lefou answered the door. "Good evening, Stanley!" he greeted, still looking very tired. His smile was warm and genuine, and he seemed glad it was me.

"Did you get some sleep today?"

"Yeah. A few hours, I suppose. Would you like to come in?" he asked in a soft, hoarse voice.

"Only if I'm not interrupting your nap."

I felt like it was bad timing. What if I'd woken him up? His hair was down and a bit messy, as if he'd just risen out of bed. He looked beautiful. Strange to say that, I know- as a young man speaking of another young man- but he did. Like an angelic child who never grew up, yet still a virile and comely man at the same time. The feelings that I should have felt for Therese, or any of the other pretty girls my family and friends suggested, were now causing my heart rate to rise. All for a man with long, tousled hair wearing a wrinkled white shirt, half-tucked into a pair of dusty breeches revealing the soft swell of a beer belly. Imperfections? I beg to differ. His so-called 'imperfections' were perfect to me.

"You didn't wake me, Stanley. I woke up an hour ago," he told me. "I'd like to ride back up to the castle soon."

"I guessed you would. But would it really matter? Look, you don't have to be responsible for finding him. Why not let the castle staff do their duties?"

"I just wanna help." I couldn't argue with that look in his eyes- beautiful, brown pools of moral integrity which were killing me at the moment.

I averted my own eyes, blowing out a sigh of resignation through my lips. "I brought some leftover food from my get-together at Tom's. Hungry?"

"A little, sure. Thanks, Stanley."

"You're welcome. I insist that you get a bite to eat, before you decide to head all the way up to the castle!" I half-scolded him.

"If you insist, 'Mother,'" he said with a little smile on his lips, taking out plates and cups from the paint-chipped cupboard in his kitchen.

It was actually a kitchen and sitting room combined. His cottage was very similar to my own family home in design; the same kind of dark, rough-hewn boards supporting the walls and ceiling, the same hardwood floors, a few delicate, spindly wooden chairs, a tiny kitchen table, and a chipped-paint hutch. Like my mother's, the hutch in his cottage displayed a few 'good' china plates with the usual blue-and-white French provincial designs. His had gathered dust, though, unlike Maman's.

This kitchen had the stale, empty appearance of one which hadn't been used or eaten in for some time. I knew the reason; Lefou had lived the majority of the past several years after the war in Gaston's large, inherited family home, a privilege he'd earned due to the fact his mother had once worked as Gaston's parents' maid long ago. As a child, Lefou was a servant boy for the household and was never sent to school like the other boys. I know because he would've been two years ahead of me if he had. After they came back from the war, Lefou held various odd jobs, mostly as his Captain's glorified servant, cook, and hunting aide. But his primary role around Villeneuve seemed to be that of Gaston's 'public relations' person and singing ego-bolsterer, if you will. No one required his own personal troubadour to give him public, musical displays of adulation like Gaston.

Lefou invited me to sit at his kitchen table. He fixed a pot of tea over his iron stove, giving me a cup before he finally sat down and ate the things I'd brought.

"Great bread. Is this from Monsieur Cuire?"

"This was actually made by Tom's wife."

"Oh. It's pretty good."

We sat in awkward silence, with me trying to ignore the terrible elephant in the room. Gaston's death. Lefou's grief and anger over all that had happened. The fact I was not in the state of grief that I should have been. It was hard to imagine that only twenty-four hours ago, I was so excited about Gaston leading us on an adventure. We were all going to ride up and see a 'beast,' try to kill it. I wasn't scared as much as I was skeptical. 'Sorcery?' Sure. Show it to me!

When we arrived, it was indeed very scary. So frightening, bizarre, and confusing. At first. But then...the magic! The wardrobe, the dressing, the lady's voice. "Be free!" she sang out to me. I wanted more! I wanted to experience that again. Would the magic come back?

Lefou pushed the plate away and slumped over, his face in his hands. He inhaled a shaky breath, trying hard not to start sobbing. I immediately put my hand out to his arm, patting it. "It's okay, it's okay, mon ami. It takes time."

"I miss...I miss what he used to be. What we used to be," he mumbled through his intertwined fingers.

"I know, Lefou, I know-"

"Stanley, please. You don't know!" His head shot up and he glared at me, tears welling in his eyes. I'd blown it.

"I'm sorry." I shouldn't have even come over.

"It's okay. Um, it's not something you'd know," Lefou assured me. "I'm just thinking about all the times Gaston...the way he...how he would..."

"How he would what?" I asked. I was dying to know. I wanted to know if it had anything to do with the way he'd gotten in Lefou's face that night during the tense discussion with the raving Maurice. The way he'd lifted his chin, and put his forehead to his so intimately, in such a way...it was as if Lefou was a girl and Gaston was about to...that was none of my business.

"I'd rather not talk about it." He stared down at the wood grain on the table for a long minute, while I tried to think of something to say to change the subject. After a while, he looked at me again with pain in his reddened eyes, and a forced, sad little smile I'd seen him give me a few times before.

"Congratulations, by the way."

"Congratulations? For what?" I asked, confused.

"With the girl. You got yourself a girl now. That's...that's great, Stanley!" he said softly, not losing that pained smile.

"What do you mean? I don't have one," I argued.

"But, I saw you this afternoon. When I woke up for a minute, to go outside. From my backyard. I saw you by Tom's backyard, and you were walking with a girl."

I raised my eyebrows in protest. "Her? She's just Tom's sister. She's from the castle. I just met her and I was showing her around town, that's all. She's not 'my girl.'" I babbled.

"Oh, all right." He looked at me funny. "Why so defensive?"

"Defensive? I wasn't being defensive. I just wanted to tell you the facts," I argued- defensively. My cheeks felt hot.

"Okay." His eyes brightened just a bit, and he didn't look like he was about to cry anymore. He stood up with renewed energy; a second wind sweeping his cloud of grief away, if only temporarily. "I'm going to the castle. I can't wait anymore."

"I'll come with you," I said, standing up.

We walked outside into the lengthening shadows of the summer evening. The streets were quiet. We went to his stable where we found Ami, lying contentedly on his hay bed, flicking at flies with his tail. "Amiii-" Lefou sang to the horse as if he were a child- "Time to go on a trip again!" The horse snorted and continued to lay there, like a bump on a log.

"Aww, c'mon, Ami! I know you're not lazy 'cause you love to run around like a hellion, but only when you're not supposed to!" Lefou said in exasperation. He took an apple out of a small bag hanging on a nail, probably there for occasions like this. "Would you do it for an apple?"

Ami perked up, standing to his hooves and nickering, tail swishing. Lefou fed him the apple, whispering to him affectionately. "Good boy! Yes, there ya go! That's nice, huh?" He gave him a little 'boop' on the muzzle with his index finger when the horse finished chewing the apple.

"I'll go get Rosie. I'll be back in just a minute," I said, tearing myself away from the sight, ashamed of the affection I felt for this man- now trying to stay cheerful for the sake of his damn horse. Mon Dieu!

It didn't take long to get Rosie and Magnifique to drink up a little water. Observing the two horses, it was clear to me that Magnifique wanted to go on the journey more than Rosie did. Perhaps he thought he would be returned to his rightful owner. Magnifique was the one I chose.

Passing by a window while walking the horse, I saw my own reflection and felt self-conscious. My hair was messed up and my curls were flat, which quite annoyed me. Lefou had been looking at me- a slob- all the last half-hour. So I threw on my old tricorne hat to hide my ruined coiffure and put on a clean red gingham shirt. When I rode Magnifique back to Lefou's house, he was not only mounted on Ami in the middle of the street, but he'd dressed for the cooler night with his beige coat on, and his floppy straw hat.

"Stanley, I'm glad you're coming with me. Wouldn't you rather be...you know, consoling Tom and your brother instead of me?"

"No. They just planned on playing a few games of cards. I'd rather help you instead of them."

"Okay. Thank you. I appreciate it." he said quietly.

"I really want to, you know."

He smiled sadly again, and urged Ami to dash out of the village and up the trail through the forest. Magnifique was antsy; he was used to being the one in the lead and couldn't understand why Ami was leading him, instead of the other way around. He reared his head and snorted and whinnied irritably. I guessed he was irritable because of me. I wasn't his master.

"Calm down, Magnifique," Lefou said to him, and Magnifique seemed to settle, since the other man's voice was familiar. The trail became wide enough so we could ride side by side. Within another half hour, we could see the grand gate, the stone stairway leading to the majestic castle. A few people were busy with tasks; gardeners by the hedges, servants carrying pails of water from a clean fountain. The castle and its inhabitants were almost like a little village unto itself.

"Bonjour!" the servants called out to us. I recognized the one rushing up to us. It was the stable man again, whose name I didn't remember but I think it started with an M.

"Hi, Michel!" Lefou greeted him. Michel. That's it.

"Bonjour, gentlemen!" The servant stared at me and Magnifique with a questioning look in his eyes. "Pardon me for asking, Monsieur...but wasn't the big black stallion his horse?" He glanced over to Lefou and gestured to him.

"Well...actually-" Lefou began, his expression uncomfortable, the cloud of grief passing over him again. "The horse Stanley's riding...belonged to Gaston. The man who died in the, uh...battle."

"But he is yours now, Monsieur, is he not?" Michel asked.

"I dunno...I haven't had the chance to really..." Lefou's slightly cracked voice trailed off in a loss for words, and I became cross. Why was it this man's business to interrogate my grief-stricken friend about a horse?

"Why is it such a concern to you?" I asked him pointedly.

"I apologize, Monsieur. What is your name again?"

"Stanley."

"Stanley, and...LeRoux, was it?"

"Lefou."

"Oh yes, that's right. Lefou. The fool, like a jester. I apologize for asking such a rude question, but we have an issue," Michel explained. "His Royal Highness is in need of horses for his carriage. We've been repairing his old carriage from ten years ago, but the horses he used to have are gone. They ran away long ago, with no humans to lead them or care for them. I was nothing but a...stupid water bucket, and I couldn't stop them!"

Michel shook his head dejectedly. "Monsieur Cogsworth came out an hour ago and asked us to go down to Villeneuve with the purpose of buying some fine healthy horses. Seven is the number he wants. I was about to go soon, and now I see you both, with such fine horses. His Highness will pay the highest price...so..."

Michel looked at us in hope; glancing from me to Lefou. Finally, I heard Lefou say, "His Highness can have him. Our gift. No charge!"

I snapped my head in his direction. "What?"

"He needs horses, Stanley."

"He's the Prince! He can afford it! Why give him away? He's used to you. Why not just take care of him?"

"I can't, Stanley. He's a beautiful and strong horse, like his master was...and I...I can't stand the sight of him right now. Y'know?" I heard his voice breaking a little at this, and I felt like a worm.

"I'm sorry, Lefou. It's a great idea! Sure," I replied.

"Merci!" Michel exclaimed, and offered to walk us and the two horses to the royal stable, located on the east wing of the enormous castle. The stable was twice the size of my house. It was made of the same stone and brick as the castle, with high, buttressed ceilings and dark wood trim and the smell of old leather. Tack and saddles from royal horses past hung on the wall, and there were at least twelve compartments. I saw one horse already occupying one of them.

"That's Phillipe," Michel said. "Belle and Monsieur Maurice's family pet. He needs friends." Phillipe nickered a greeting at Ami and Magnifique as we led them near, allowing Michel to do the job he was eager to do; settling them to a compartment and providing them some water. Afterward, he shook our hands and thanked us profusely. "Would you like me to walk with you to the front door?"

"That would be kind. Thank you," Lefou spoke for the both of us. We walked with Michel up the grand stone staircase. I saw other servants rushing about the gardens, who were dressed like guards. I looked over at Lefou, and he was staring down at his feet as he walked up the steps beside me. I saw him swipe a tear on his cheek with his coat sleeve and take a deep, ragged breath. I knew what- who- he was thinking about. I reached over and touched his shoulder in comfort.

We reached the enormous, double doors, and Michel pulled the knocker for us. I felt nervous and shy as I was about to enter that castle again, but it was an excited nervousness. I wondered if that lady who'd been a wardrobe was around. Or that harpsichord. The door opened, and an older man with a white mustache and wig, a pocketwatch attached to his waistcoat, greeted us.

"Hello, Michel, thank you, lad! We have guests. Come in, gentlemen," the man said as he allowed us in. He stepped closer to me, and gave me a long, studying gaze until his eyes widened in recognition.

"You. You were one of the 'Three Musketeers.'" The clock! He wasn't accusatory; in fact, he had a merry twinkle in his eye. The gentleman had an English accent and reminded me of a stalwart old military officer.

"Yes, I was. I apologize for any harm I caused," I said, taking off my tricorne hat and holding it to my heart. I felt ashamed of having been such a goon with Tom and Dick. We could have injured some of the objects, not knowing they were actually people.

"No harm done, my boy!" the man said. He turned his eyes to Lefou, who had just taken off his floppy hat. "Wait...you're the one we were looking for...MRS POTTS!" the man cried out in excitement. "Mrs Potts! Your hero is back! The lad who saved your life!" He rushed to the left of the foyer, and not a moment later a middle-aged maid and a little boy ran out of a room.

"Cogsworth? Who's back? What are you...Oh!" She took one look at my companion, and her hand went to her chest in joy. "Hello, love! Do you remember me?" she asked Lefou with an adoring tone.

He gazed at the lady who was now about his height. "Your voice...I believe you talked to me. Wait...the teapot!" He gave her a big, genuine smile. "I'm glad you're okay!" His last words were muffled by Mrs. Potts' warm hug.

"Do you realize what would have happened had you not caught the teapot?" Cogsworth proclaimed while Lefou blushed in Mrs. Potts' embrace. The little boy looked on eagerly next to them. "We would not have her with us! And now that the other one is here, I need Chip's savior, Monsieur Chapeau. CHAPEAU!"

Another man arrived, a tall fellow several years older than us, wearing a bright gold coat. "Bonjour!" he greeted Lefou and I. "May I take your hats?"

We nodded, and Monsieur Chapeau took our hats from us. He gave Lefou a peculiar look while he took his. "I hope I didn't break your nose. No hard feelings," he muttered. He put them on a hat rack at the side of the door, only a few feet away. Cogsworth put his arm around Monsieur Chapeau's shoulder.

"This man saved little Chip's life," Cogsworth explained. "Like you, my boy, he gallantly reached out and caught the teacup before he fell to the ground and shattered into pieces."

"Monsieur," I asked, not able to control my curiosity- "So do you mean- that if they'd broken as objects, they would have died as humans?"

"I'm afraid so, dear," Mrs. Potts said in a charming London accent. She smiled and pulled Lefou into a hug again. "We had quite a battle, didn't we?" she said, laughing, and I was touched to see Lefou laughing with her. "It was no problem, Mrs. Potts. Really it wasn't," he insisted, his face red. His expression sobered as he looked expectantly at Cogsworth.

"Monsieur Cogs-Grove, have you heard any news about the man who died? The man who fell?" Lefou winced as he asked the question, clasping his hands together.

"I'm sorry, but no. The search has been going on all day. Mademoiselle Belle did witness one of your townsmen falling from the crumbled bridge. It was a terrible accident. He would have landed in the courtyard," Cogsworth replied.

"What about on the rooftops?"

"The guards checked the rooftops all around the West Wing. They searched the entire courtyard- three times."

"I looked in the courtyard, too!" Lefou exclaimed. "I moved boulders and everything! I don't understand! Do you think he could've survived?"

"I highly doubt it, son. The bridge that connected the West Wing turrets was approximately two hundred feet high. But I assure you that we have a group of guards who will not leave one stone unturned!" said Cogsworth. "Would you like me to take you to see His Highness?"

Lefou looked at me in defeat, and nodded. It would have been terribly rude for him to take off to look for Gaston right now. Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, her little son, and Monsieur Chapeau led us through the foyer of the castle and into hallway. There, we heard strains of a harpsichord playing and a familiar voice singing. It sounded just like the Wardrobe!

Cogsworth asked us our names, and we gave them; Monsieur Lefou and Monsieur Laurent. When we entered the parlor to the right, we saw her. A dark-complexioned lady in a fine gown was singing an operatic tune, while a man in a funny wig played the harpsichord. I also saw Belle sitting on a small sofa, very close to a good-looking young man in a fine blue suit.

It was His Highness. The former Beast, and the lost Prince who we'd forgotten the existence of for so long. Belle gave us a genuine smile when she saw us, and they both stood.

The opera vocalist stopped singing, and the wigged man stopped playing. A little dog rushed toward us, yipping at our ankles. He jumped up at me, and I knelt down to pet him.

"Frou-Frou! Be polite now!" the lady chided. She looked right at me, and gave me a little wink. I knew what she meant by it- what happened the other night. I felt my cheeks heat up. I wanted so much to talk to her alone, but the situation was awkward at the moment. We were being presented to the Prince, after all.

Cogsworth was giving introductions. "Monsieur Lefou and Monsieur Laurent- I present to you His Highness Prince Adam Vincente Christophe of Alsace-Lorraine, with his dear lady friend, Mademoiselle Belle DeFleur of Villeneuve." Of course, we knew her. But now Belle had become a member of the royal household, due to her new relationship with the Prince. Who, from what Therese had said early that morning, she actually fell in love with while he was still a Beast! Odd as ever, I guess.

Cogsworth kept announcing introductions. "And here are our royal musicians. Madame Garderobe and Maestro Cadenza."

The two musicians bowed. The little dog ran back to Madame and she picked him up in her arms. Belle and the Prince approached us, and they regarded Lefou with a solemn and apologetic look. He bowed before the Prince, and I followed suit.

"Monsieur Lefou," Belle began, "I'm so sorry we don't have any news to give you. The guards are doing all they can." She seemed so gentle and caring when she addressed him. She didn't seem snobby at all now. Perhaps I had judged her too harshly before.

"It's okay, Mademoiselle. I know they're trying their best," Lefou said, staring at his shoes and trying to maintain composure. I put my arm around his shoulder.

Prince Adam also had a kind expression on his face. This was the same nasty tyrant my parents used to complain about? "If there's anything we can do to make the wait less painful, I can have Cogsworth and my other servants offer both of you a room upstairs this evening. Monsieur Lefou, you are our honored guest because of your gallant actions that night saving Mrs. Potts' life. We'd like to recognize both you and Monsieur Chapeau while you're both here. I'm sorry of the loss of your friend...again."

Lefou nodded sadly. "Merci, Your Highness. Um, when we were outside, a man named Michel was asking about you needing horses. Well, I have one I'd like to give to you. A black stallion, and he's...oh, about six or seven years old. So, would it be okay? For you to have him?"

Prince Adam smiled down at Belle, then back at us. "Of course! Merci. But wouldn't you want some compensation?"

"No, Your Highness. I insist. We- Stanley and I-" he looked at me, "we can go spread the word that you're looking for horses. I mean, gosh! That stable looks huge, and empty!"

The Prince smiled at the helpful offer, and the surprise gift. "Merci. Now, would you two like to join us in the parlor and listen to Madame Garderobe and Cadenza practice their songs? Belle and I wanted to keep it a surprise, but...we are planning a grand celebration ball on the fifteenth of July, a Saturday. Everyone in Villeneuve is invited."

At this, he gave Belle a loving smile and wrapped his arm around her, and she beamed at him. I couldn't help but admit that they made a wonderful couple. We all sat down and listened to more of Madame Garderobe's beautiful singing. It felt so amazing to be surrounded by such elegance and high culture; a simple, ignorant peasant like me. What felt even more amazing was that my dear friend Lefou was sitting close beside me, mesmerized by the songs as well.

...

Chapter Text

After we listened to Madame and the Maestro's rehearsal, Lefou stood up and very politely excused himself to Prince Adam and Belle.

"Your Highness, Belle, thank you so much for letting us listen to the songs. It was great! Uh...may I go out to walk in the gardens?" I knew his ulterior motive was to join the guards in the search for Gaston's body.

"Monsieur Lefou, you don't have to ask permission to go outdoors," the Prince said kindly. “But you must join us for dinner!"

"Thank you, Your Highness. I will." He gave me a funny look, with the silent plea 'Want to come with?' but I shook my head no and declined. He understood my disinterest, and left the parlor quickly.

I noticed Belle looking at me in a curious manner. "Monsieur, you work at the tailor's shop!" she exclaimed, her pretty brown eyes lighting up.

"Oui," I nodded. "I made your Christmas dress."

Belle gave me her kind smile once more. "My blue one with little red flowers. It's one of my favorite dresses back home. It's very comfortable. You put pockets in the skirt."

"Pockets for your books," I said with growing self-assurance.

"And that's why it's my favorite dress. You put so much detail and skill into it."

I felt a bit of pride and relief. She actually didn't see me as just one of Gaston's crowd of sheep and a brainless moron. Maybe I only felt that way because strange little Belle wasn't going to be only 'strange little Belle' much longer. Her apparent closeness to Prince Adam meant she would be our Princess soon, and she would be worthy of great respect.

My resentment of her before mostly had been due to the whole ordeal with Gaston. I had wanted her to pick Gaston, marry him in hopes that he'd calm down, quiet down, and stop his nightly dog-and-pony shows at the tavern. Dick, Tom, and I could finally play our card games in peace for once. And...it might have given Lefou something else to do besides sing Gaston's praises and massage his shoulders and toss coins to the barkeep. Every time I saw Lefou draped over the arm of that man's chair like his pet angora cat, my heart died a little inside.

As for Belle- plucky Belle, who rode astride the saddle and carried English literature in her dress pockets, had a mind of her own the whole time. It all made sense, now. She had class when it came to her taste in men. Even if the classy man she met resembled a hairy buffalo with ram horns. She was free to choose what she wanted- not caring what we thought about it. Seeing her now made me feel a bit of admiration. If only I could be that bold!

Madame de Garderobe approached me soon afterward, her elegant jewels and hair ornaments glittering in the light of the chandeliers. "Young man- you said that you make dresses?" she asked me in a businesslike tone.

I blushed again in her presence, feeling shy. Was she able to create those elegant gowns, the way she could before? As a human lady? No longer a talking bureau?

"Oui," I nodded, "I can make dresses. And suits, too. I'm the village tailor's assistant."

She put her hands to her chest and beamed at me in delight. "What a godsend! Darling, I have been in want of a tailor, now that the curse has been broken. You see, with the magical enchantments gone, I lost that...strange and wonderful power I had as a wardrobe. You win some, you lose some. C'est la vie!"

"But, Aurelie! Mia bella signora-" the man with the funny wig interjected, "You haven't lost what is most important! Your voice! Your singing!"

"Grazie, my love," Madame said, lovingly stroking her husband's cheek. I assumed he was her husband. "And now I have my arms to hold all of you with!" She embraced him with one arm while cradling Frou-Frou with the other.

She turned back to me. "Pretty Boy! The tailor of Villeneuve- what is your name again?" she asked. My cheeks went pink again with her use of 'Pretty Boy.'

"My real name is Stephan-Alexandre Laurent. But everybody calls me 'Stanley.'" I replied. "I acquired the name as a child, and it stuck."

"Bonjour, Stanley!" She glanced at her husband and laughed. "You have a first name very similar to my dear husband, the Maestro. His full name is Stefano Giovanni Carlo Cadenza." She stroked his cheek again. "Perhaps I should call you 'Stanley,' mon cher!"

"You can call me whatever you please, il mio amore," the Maestro replied. He grinned, showing several missing teeth.

"Stanley, you can call me 'Madame,' or even just Aurelie, if you would like," said Madame de Garderobe. "Would you mind taking a walk up to my old sewing room? I do hope I'm not being pushy, but we are in dire need of people who can sew clothing. Unless you're busy at your job in the village shop."

Are you kidding? I thought. The idea of making clothes for a Prince's court wasn't a job I'd thought I would ever be offered. But would I be skilled enough?

"I can ask the head tailor and seamstress. Maybe they would like to help. How many garments need to be made?" I asked in my 'professional' tone.

She looked at me with a bit of stress. "Possibly...over a hundred. Gowns and suits. The entire staff is human again, and everything we had worn before is...terribly out of fashion."

"I wish I knew more about fashion, Madame, but...I'm from Villeneuve. Not exactly Paris." I replied.

She gave me a warm smile. "Upstairs!" she commanded in the manner of a schoolmarm. She turned back to the Prince and Belle. "This young man could be of some use, but he must pass a test of skill."

I gulped a little. I am not fond of 'tests.'

We went upstairs to what she called 'The East Wing,' and into a room where there sat all sorts of tables and chairs, and spinning wheels and bolts of fabric and spools of thread." There were ten seamstresses on the Prince's staff before the curse, but five of them just quit this morning and moved back to their families in town," Madame explained.

"I am sorry."

"But you cannot blame them, darling. The poor ladies spent years as talking spools of thread. I think the last thing they wanted to see and work with were the...inanimate versions of their own former selves."

"That would be kind of creepy," I said, nodding.

"Now- here is a pattern for a dress we would like to create for Mistress Belle. I have bolts of white organza fabric with roses." Madame took a scrolled piece of paper from a table and unfolded it to show me a pattern. To my relief, it was a short-sleeved dress with a princess bodice and a wide, flowing gathered skirt- but no pannier, no multiple layers, or excess ruffles. It was relatively simple. I could see Belle loving it for a formal occasion. I wondered if it was her wedding gown already being planned.

"I think Belle would like it," I said.

"Splendid!" said Madame. "I think so too! So I would like you to assemble the bodice and sleeves together- the top half- in three days. Could you do it in three days?"

"I'm pretty sure," I said confidently. If I didn't have a lot of other projects, it could be done in that short of time. It looked like something I'd been able to sew in two days. At least the top half. It usually took me two days to make a typical man's shirt, and this dress bodice looked no more complicated than that. I would have to work on it in the evenings, and skip my time with my brother and Tom in the tavern. And the tavern was not a place I cared to go to much anymore. Unless Lefou started wanting to go again...but I doubted it.

"Then here you go!" Madame said eagerly, piling the rolls of fine white organza and the pattern in my arms. She drew nearer to me, and began to whisper in my ear.

"I see that my little 'prank' backfired that night. You enjoyed the dress?"

I glanced down at the beautiful soft fabric and blushed again. "I liked it. It was, I dunno...fun." I shrugged my shoulders.

"Fun?" she repeated.

"Oui."

"You don't often see a man from a provincial village who likes to wear pink dresses and lipstick and rouge." The woman's deep brown eyes searched mine, questioning me. My guard went up a little. She did not need to know everything about my weirdness, the things I daydreamed about.

"You're still wearing eyeliner," she said in a coquettish tone, putting her hand on my arm.

Oh no.

I heard about these kind of women- the ones found in royal courts. But I'd never been this close to one before. Searching for a tailoring assistant? Right. More like in search of a boy toy! Wanting me to 'pass a test?' Trying to get me alone in private, away from her toothless crazy-hair husband and dog?

Non! Not going to happen, Madame.

I scowled and stepped back, pulling my arm from her grip. "Yes. So?" I quipped. "I wear it sometimes. The barber has it on his shelf, so...it's for men, too."

She smiled, unfazed. "The other young gentleman you were with? Does he like to wear it?"

I turned my head the other way, because I was about to sputter a laugh, and my hands were full of fabric so I couldn't cover my mouth. Lefou? Really? Was he her second pick?

"I don't think so," I said, still facing the wall.

"Is he a friend of yours?"

"Of course. His other friend just died and I was hoping that listening to your performance would cheer him up," I turned back to her now that the urge to laugh had passed.

"He was wearing a fuschia bow tie. That was just darling." Madame said sweetly.

All right, that was it! I prepared to turn tail and get out of here.

"It was nice to meet you, Madame, but I better get started on sewing Mademoiselle's dress. Excuse me!" I said crossly, heading out the doorway with my arms still full of white organza and a rolled up design drawing.

"Stanley, wait!" she called out in a commanding voice. I whirled around.

"You royal court people are crazy, you know that?" I yelled.

"I think you misunderstood me," said Madame de Garderobe apologetically. "I was not flirting with you, believe me! I'm a happily married woman."

I rolled my eyes to the gilded ceiling. "Then quit calling me 'Darling!' And 'Pretty Boy!'"

"You seemed to enjoy being called that the other night. And you enjoyed the costume!"

"That was different! You were a big...singing dresser! I could deal with the weirdness then. B-but today, I can't." I stammered, all dignity gone. "Adieu, Madame."

"So why did you just confess to me that you had such 'fun' wearing my gown? Being free to enjoy it?" she said cheerfully, still a bit teasing.

"Because maybe I'm under some kind of curse, too! It's not your business!" I yelled, angry and appalled.

She was so out of line. I ought to tell Belle and the Prince that their wonderful, aria-singing entertainer was horribly nosy and rude. I expected a big paycheck for my trouble. And I'm not even a money-focused man!

I turned around and strode as fast as I could across the marble floored hallway, away from her. I wanted to go back to the tailor shop, back to Villeneuve, with or without Lefou. I rushed down the stairs and found two people looking at me at the bottom of the staircase; a man and a woman.

"Bonjour!" The handsome man in a gold coat and wig greeted me, holding out his hand to shake. "I don't believe we've met!"

He was blocking my way and I had no choice but to shake hands with him.

"Bonjour. Monsieur. And Madame," I said to the pretty, dark-skinned lady. I shook the gentleman's hand, and bowed to the lady. At least this lady was escorted by a man who was hopefully her significant other, so I'd be safe.

"I'm Lumiere. The head maître d' to His Highness. You must be one of our dinner guests."

"I...I was actually going to..." I stammered. How rude was I now? But the Prince only invited Lefou to dinner, not me. I never saved any teapot's life by catching it. I was free to go.

"You are not staying?" Lumiere asked, his eyebrows raised.

"I'm one of the new tailor's assistants. I have to sew a dress. See? I have fabric." I showed him the supplies in my arms. I needed a bag to take them back to town, I realized. I did not want to get it dirty.

The lady smiled at me. "Lovely fabric. Is it for Mademoiselle Belle's dress?"

"Oui, Madame. I need to keep it clean, though. I'm from Villeneuve, and I plan to work on it at the tailor shop there."

"But Madame de Garderobe has a whole sewing room," the lady said. "Why not do it here, in the castle?"

"Because Madame de Garderobe..." I wanted to say, 'is a royal pain in the behind' but instead I said- "She said I could work on it where I'm most comfortable."

"Very well, then," said Lumiere with a wide, merry smile, his arm lovingly wrapped around the lady. "Good to meet you, Monsieur. What is your name?"

"Stanley."

"Have a good day, Stanley from Villeneuve! Come along, my Plumette, let's go to the dining hall. We will be having our first real dinner as humans soon!" He walked happily away with his arm around the lady. She turned back to me as an afterthought.

"Stanley? If you want to keep the fabric clean, you should check with Mrs. Potts, in the tea room. That way," she pointed. "She has supplies and bags, and things you can wrap it in for travel."

"Merci...Madame Plumette," I said. I followed her direction to what I believed to be the 'tea room,' I could smell tea- and sweet breads and cakes- from one doorway. So the Prince must have a room for everything. I wondered if he had a 'beer room.' Tom and Dick would be in heaven if he did. But I wouldn't tell them about it!

I entered the room, hoping to find Mrs. Potts, the lady who had been the teapot. She was sitting at a table, and she wasn't alone. Lefou was sitting with her.

"Stanley!" he said in surprise when he saw me. He was cradling a cup of tea in his hands, and when I came nearer, I could see that his eyes were very red and he looked more upset than he had when we'd came. Mon Dieu. I could tell that he'd been crying, very hard. And that could only mean one thing. He had found Gaston's body.

Awkwardly, I set the fabric and patterns down on a nearby chair. I took a seat next to him and Mrs. Potts at the small tea table, and touched his hand.

"I'm so sorry. It's...bad news, isn't it?"

"Yeah. We can't find him."

"They didn't find him?"

"They said...they said the wolves must've gotten to him." He stared down at the teacup in despair.

"I'm so sorry." As nasty and manipulative as Gaston was, he was still a human being, and a once-revered war hero. Devoured by wolves and not getting a proper burial was a terrible fate. He did not deserve that.

"Do you want to go home?" I asked him gently.

"I've been invited to dinner by the Prince and Belle, Stanley," he said. "His Highness wants to recognize me and Monsieur Chapeau for saving Mrs. Potts and her son Chip."

Mrs. Potts nodded. "You are invited too, dear. It will be quite soon. In fact, I can hear Cogsworth's footsteps right now, calling all of us down to the dining hall."

Footsteps sounded in the hall outside, along with an official sounding voice. "Ladies and gentlemen! It is now four minutes until seven! Dinner will be served!" I recognized the voice as the man who'd answered the door earlier.

"He's still almost like a clock, isn't he?" Lefou asked Mrs. Potts.

"He's finding the adjustment hard," she replied. "Come along, dears. You can sit with me, Chip, and Lumiere and Plumette."

...

In the gilded dining hall, in front of platters of onion soup, croissants, and beef ragout, I found myself sitting between Lefou and the amiable gentleman named Lumiere, along with his wife Plumette. Monsieur Chapeau was also seated at our table.

Prince Adam and Belle were at the head table, and the Prince began to give a speech. It started out with a few personal thanks to members of his staff such as Cogsworth, Lumiere, and the chef and cooks who had prepared the dinner tonight. But as he went on, it was clear that there was something deeply personal he wanted to express. A formal apology.

He had 'hurt them deeply.' He spoke about how sorry he was for causing such 'darkness and despair' for so long. I guess it had to do with them being such breakable objects. I wondered how long the curse had lasted- seven to ten years? From my recollections, I had last 'heard of' the Prince and his castle when I was about sixteen, when my parents used to lament about his taxes. After that, everything about it seemed to go fuzzy.

"I am a changed man. I love and respect all of you here. Every single one of you.”

The Prince took a deep breath, looking composed, dignified. He gave Belle a look of gratitude- and love. "If it weren't for the love of this kind, smart, and wonderful girl--" Belle immediately stood up and embraced him, whispering loving words we could not hear.

"--We would all be dead today. I owe everything to this woman," he said in a soft, intense voice, cradling Belle in his arm. “I can never do enough to repay you for the harm I caused you by my mistakes. And all of you have been nothing but supportive all these years, serving me, and only having my wrath in return. I do not deserve it,” he said in a grim tone.

The crowd of servants began to murmur things like "That's not true!" and "We forgive you!"

"Don't torture yourself, love!" Mrs. Potts said loudly. She stood up, walked down the expanse of the dining hall, and rushed over to the Prince, giving him a warm embrace.

"Master Adam! We all love you!" She was almost scolding him, as if she were his mother. "We will serve you and this court as long as we are called to. None of us have a bitter word to say against you. In fact--" She raised her voice higher and scanned the crowd of servants-- "Anyone who still holds bitterness against Master Adam, I ask you to stand up and leave at once!"

The entire hall went silent. Not one person stood.

"We love you, Master Adam!" Lumiere broke the silence. He stood up and raised his glass of wine. "We forgive you sincerely, and we drink to your long life and health!"

Everyone stood up, and raised their glasses. Lefou stood up as well, and I followed suit.

"Vive le Prince Adam! To long life and health!" came proclamations all around. Servants drank their sips of wine and sat down.

"Thank you all," said the Prince, gazing over all of them in gratitude. “Again, I owe it all to Belle, my love. This afternoon...ladies and gentlemen, I want to tell you that I boldly asked for her hand in marriage. She accepted."

The dining hall exploded in applause and cheers. Belle's face was shining in joy. I was so happy for her.

"She will be your Princess, and the wedding will occur in about two months. I wished for two weeks, but--" he eyed Cogsworth, who was sitting by his right side and gave him a look of compromise--"We need to organize the ceremony and I suppose, get in touch with my relations in Versailles."

"Belle would like to thank all of you for your kindness and hospitality during the time she willingly chose to be my prisoner. In a way, she is still my prisoner. She is the prisoner of...my heart,” the Prince proclaimed. He and Belle stood gazing at each other for a few moments.

"Kiss, already!" Lefou whispered to my left.

We watched as Belle wrapped her arms around him and they kissed. The whole staff clapped and cheered again. I felt so honored and amazed to be a part of this touching royal engagement celebration.

I glanced at Lefou again. He breathed a sigh and put his clasped hands to his heart. "I love happy endings," he said quietly, a pained and bittersweet smile on his reddened face. I felt a rush of admiration for my friend; putting his own pain and despair aside to celebrate the joy of others.

"So do I, mon ami," I replied.

Lefou raised his right arm, and put it around the back of my shoulders, leaning in and nestling his head against me. I felt my brain go numb with shock at this gesture, which to anyone would only look like a show of friendly, fraternal camaraderie. That's all Lefou meant it to be, after all.

Nevertheless, I probably had a stupid, blank look on my face. Instead of looking at him, I glanced down a few rows of tables; my vision fuzzy like a drunkard. I'd only had four sips of wine. I then spotted the annoyance of my evening, Madame de Garderobe.

She was dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, next to her husband the Maestro. She turned her head and looked directly at me. Our eyes met, and she winked.

I looked away- mortified- and tried to concentrate on eating a buttery croissant.

...

Chapter Text

...

The dinner was delicious. Lefou kept gushing about the soup and the croissants, saying they were the best he'd ever had. I could definitely get used to this kind of lifestyle, but I wasn't certain I belonged here.

During the dessert course- crème brûlée, which Lefou practically had 'le petit mort' of the taste buds over- Prince Adam stood up and called both him and Monsieur Chapeau to the front to stand next to him. Lefou gave me a puzzled look with his mouth slightly agape before he went to the prince's side.

"I would like to honor these two men, for their acts in saving the lives of Mrs. Potts and Chip Potts from certain death while they were in their cursed forms," Adam announced. "Monsieur Lefou and Monsieur Chapeau, I would like to present to you...the Royal Silver Medal of Valor."

Adam held up two silver medals with blue ribbons. Belle and Maurice were sitting near them, and as they stood and began to clap, Chapeau stepped forward and allowed Adam to put it around his neck. Lefou held back a little, visibly uncomfortable. He kept looking at Maurice, I noticed.

Adam held out the second medal, and Lefou reluctantly stepped forward for the Prince to put it around his neck. Chapeau walked back to his spot happily while people clapped, but Lefou had no look of pride or any sort of gratitude on his face. In fact, he seemed embarrassed as he went back to sit by me.

"What's wrong?" I couldn't help but ask.

"Wrong?"

"Yes, wrong. You look guilty."

"Maybe. Yeah," he said in a low whisper. He leaned closer to me. "Stanley, I'm no hero. I ought to give this back. The prince doesn't realize all the things I did wrong."

Prince Adam began to dismiss everyone. People began getting up, some collecting all the dishes.

"What 'things you did wrong'?" I asked, confused.

"I'm quite certain Maurice will be telling him soon," Lefou said in a quiet, tense voice.

"Tell him what?" What did Lefou, of all people, do that was so bad and unworthy?

Lefou didn't answer me as he and I walked out of the dining hall. He began to wander out the door and outside onto the castle steps. I followed his wanderings, not sure if he was planning to go get his horse Ami and head to Villeneuve in the dark. It was very late at night by now. The coolness of the air felt good.

"You were there that night in the tavern," he finally said when we were standing at the stair landing.

"You mean when Maurice was raving about Gaston trying to kill him?"

"He DID try to kill him, Stanley. And I allowed him to try, without defying him."

"But you gave your WORD! So both of you were lying?" I asked, confused. "I believed Gaston. And I believed you even more."

"Yes, But you were mistaken, Stanley. We were both lying. He pressured me to lie for him."

"Damn it, Lefou!" I spat out. "Why?"

He turned around and put his hands on the stone balustrade, facing away from me. "Because."

I stood by his side and leaned on the balustrade, trying to get him to look at me.

"I'd just like to know why. If Gaston was that far gone...were you scared of him? If he was that...er, unstable?"

"I wouldn't exactly say I was scared of him. I was scared of just...things."

"I don't understand, Lefou. You're being evasive right now. It's okay if you were a little scared of Gaston. He had quite the temper, and I personally wouldn't have wanted to get on his bad side, either," I pointed out.

"No, you wouldn't have," said Lefou in a low tone. "But I wasn't scared of just him. It's a very complicated-"

"You said that THEN! How complicated a 'matter' was it, mon ami? Either you were scared of Gaston and didn't want repercussions against you, or you weren't and you just decided to be a liar against your nature. So which one is it?" I demanded.

"Probably the first," he replied, looking out into the dark forests.

"All right, then. Everyone makes mistakes. If it bothers you, you should go to Maurice himself. In fact, I ought to apologize to him, too, because I didn't believe him either."

I remember having my sword on me, posed for a fight, during Maurice's accusations against Gaston. As arrogant as Gaston was, and no matter how much resentment I sometimes felt towards him, I believed Gaston to be our hero. Our protector.

Oui, he was an arrogant donkey's ass. Oui, I thought he treated Lefou like his lapdog, and it bothered me. But he was our Gaston, quirks and all. We always supported him, it had been that way for years! The old music-box peddler was attempting to convince us that Gaston tried to kill him. Of course it seemed crazy!

During that tense conversation in the tavern, I'd held back and didn't say a word. All I knew was that I'd believe anything Lefou said. He was no liar. A flatterer, perhaps, to his best friend at times when Gaston certainly didn't deserve it, but not a liar.

I remember preparing for a fight to break out between Gaston and the man who we believed was losing his sanity. I'd put my hand on my sword's hilt to make sure anyone who tried to challenge our leader would be intimidated.

I liked the feeling I got whenever I could intimidate people by preparing to draw my sword. People actually appeared to be threatened by me sometimes!

Of me! Ha! What a laugh. I'd perfected my scowl, too. Like almost everything else about my public image, it was fake. I'd never harmed a hair of any human being in my life, but I liked pretending that I was capable of it someday. I wished for the chance to prove it, too…

I missed out on the war. I was only fourteen, and I wasn't the cutoff age for enlistment. I couldn't lie about my age and say I was sixteen either- because for one, I was still five foot three and one hundred twenty pounds dripping wet at the time with no facial hair, and two, I lived in damned Villeneuve where everyone knows you and your birth date is listed in the church records.

So during the spring of 1762, I had to watch my brother Dick, Tom, Gaston, Lefou, and practically everyone I was friends with- march off. I worried that I'd never see them again. During the time they were away, I learned to sew clothes in an apprenticeship with Monsieur Aiguille. I spent most of my time with my Aunt Sophie the seamstress, my mother, and Aunt Sophie's daughters Elise, Eliana and Eloise, my rather annoying cousins. I sometimes wondered if my 'abnormality' was a result of spending over a year away from my male friends and kin and being immersed in feminine society.

What could I do? Wish that God had made me to be born three years earlier so I could have gone to war and become a 'real man?' When my brother came back, I attached myself to him and Tom and tried to reclaim my manhood. I took part in all the just-for-the-guys activities I could- hunting, sword sparring, galloping around the countryside on our horses, wood chopping, and carpentry work in addition to my sewing. It built up my physique and now I'm grown to a solid one-eighty at six feet tall. Not as big as Tom and Dick of course, who are built like bears, but at least no longer boy-size. I'm also rather 'ripped,' if I were apt to brag.

Sometimes I joined the hunting parties led by Gaston. About three years ago, I sat around a campfire with the group and Lefou started singing one of his songs. It was a love song- why he picked it I didn't know- and at the end he sort of leaned against Gaston's shoulder. I felt this pang of...anger? Jealousy? I remember looking at his expression; the way he looked at Gaston with such...love...in his eyes.

After that incident, I kept wondering what was up with him. Unlike me, he went to the war; he'd proved himself to be a real man. He couldn't possibly suffer from the abnormality. But there were little things about him that made me suspect. Firstly, I never saw him in the company of anyone female. It was always, ALWAYS Gaston. Secondly, in the tavern, during rare times when Gaston was preoccupied or out, Lefou and I would catch each other's eye once in awhile. We'd talk and interact casually, same as any other friends in town, but he and I used to have this, well- 'eye contact' thing- and it happened way too often for me to call it coincidence.

Every time it happened, I felt a burst of joy and would spend the rest of the day with a spring in my step.

Now, I was thinking about this while Lefou and I were on the stone castle steps. After I mentioned I ought to apologize to Maurice as well, he turned to face me.

"I'll talk to Maurice. I can't accept this honor without making it right with him. And Belle."

"I'll go with you as well, Lefou. We were both at fault. As far as poor old Maurice...and Belle, are concerned. I went along with Dick and Tom, too. Don't feel alone in this."

"Okay," he replied, nodding. "It's late, though. Can we do it tomorrow?"

"Sure," I said, my head still reeling from the fact that my friend before me had turned a blind eye to attempted murder. He was one of the most good-hearted and pure people I've ever met. Even the fact he'd served in a war and probably shot enemy soldiers seemed incongruent with his nature. What had gotten into him?

"Stanley, what's the matter?" he asked me, catching my dark expression. "I'm sorry."

"Lefou," I said, gesturing toward him, "you always supported Gaston in every way. I know. But there are limits. And this was, just...Merde!" I swore, slapping the stone balustrade with my palm. "Didn't you even consider the fact he was starting to lose his mind? And maybe just stay away?"

"Yes! I 'considered the fact,' as you say, all the time!" he shot back. He looked angry, but more at himself than at me.

I took a step closer to him, until his nose was about even-keel with my chest. He didn't step back.

All reservations aside- eager to prove my point- I reached out and put my hand on his chin, tilting his head up so that he was forced to look into my eyes. I leaned my forehead close, so that it touched his. His breath hitched at the close contact, his eyes widening; they were but an inch from my own. I noticed his pupils dilating. They looked black in the dim light, instead of their usual chocolate brown.

"What are you doing?" he whispered. I detected a shiver.

"So when he did...this...was that too much?" I said in a tight voice.

"Stanley, please."

"WAS IT TOO MUCH?" I repeated, more firmly.

"Stanley!" He pulled away from me, bumping into the balustrade. "You're acting...inappropriate."

"You let Gaston act inappropriate."

"Well, th-that...it's different," he stammered. "Gaston and I were best friends ever since I was seven and he was eight."

"All right, then. Very well," I said, spreading my arms in a gesture of defeat. "I don't have that POWER over you that he did, I suppose, because I haven't been FRIENDS with you for as long." I declared while taking steps towards him again.

He folded his arms, in the same defensive stance that I tended to take by habit. I caught a slight roll of his eyes.

I kept my voice to a near whisper. "Suffice it to say, Lefou, I've never experienced Tom try to almost KISS me to get me to comply with him. He uses his fists, instead. Gaston certainly had the oddest ways to express his authority."

"What?" Lefou exclaimed, eyes narrowed in outrage.

I kept going. He could be angry, it was alright with me. I gave a little sardonic laugh. "Why, I'd even venture to guess that he had a different kind of...nature, shall we say-"

For one moment I saw the appalled expression cross his face. A split second later, a fist shot out and collided with my mouth. Pain- sharp agony that felt like my teeth and lips were shattered to bits- caused stars to explode before my eyes.

I slumped backwards against the balustrade. The pain was overwhelming; I slumped to the ground on my knees in a fog. I clapped my hands to my burning mouth, squeezing my eyes shut and letting a high pitched, very unmanly squeal escape from my throat.

Beyond the waves of agony screaming through my brain, I heard footsteps pattering down the stairs and fading, with the panting breaths of someone with short legs who wasn't exactly the world's most conditioned runner.

I dragged myself to my feet and looked around. There was blood on my hands. As the pain continued to hammer through my entire face, emanating from my mouth, I was unable to quiet my pathetic moans and cries no matter how much I tried to stifle them. I saw that Lefou had left.

I am such an idiot. I felt tears prickling the back of my eyes.

"Monsieur!" a voice called from the door.

I turned and saw Lumiere, of all people. "Are you alright?" He rushed towards me. "You're bleeding! What happened?"

I tried to make my mouth form intelligible syllables, but it hurt like hell.

"Ah...I tipped an' vell...on...the 'tairth-"

Lumiere put an arm around my shoulder, and before I knew it I was being attended to by him, Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth. They gave me cold cloths to hold to my mouth. Cogsworth gave the verdict that my teeth were intact, 'perfectly peachy,' but my lip was split and bruised and was swelling up. I felt as if I had a watermelon for a lower lip.

"Dear," said Mrs. Potts, "where did your friend Monsieur Lefou go off to? He was with you the last time I'd seen him."

I shook my head- pain rattling and throbbing in the process- and shrugged. I didn't want to think about him in front of these people, because I was sure to start blubbering. He hated me now.

By implying what I did about Gaston, I insulted Lefou himself. I had no idea if he suspected anything about me, my deep personal secrets. Likely he did not.

"Monsieur, let me escort you to a room upstairs! It's been a long day, you must get some rest," I heard Lumiere say, and I willingly took his arm.

I was certain Lefou wouldn't forgive me for this. I hit him in the heart as painfully as he hit me in the mouth. He would never want to speak to me again.

Chapter Text

...

Cogsworth gave me a flask of brandy, and he and Lumiere led me to a comfortable tower-level guestroom. I managed to get some good sleep despite my throbbing mouth.

When I awoke the next morning in the strange but elegant room, I remembered all the sewing I needed to do for Madame de Garderobe. I took this as a welcome excuse to stay in the castle for the day. I could avoid facing Lefou. He had likely taken his horse Ami and ridden back to Villeneuve.

There was a mirror in the room where I surveyed the damage done. I looked an absolute mess- cut, swollen purple lip, bruised left cheek. My hair was messed and flat, and I had no choice but to pull and tie it back sans curls.

Breakfast was almost the same elaborate affair as dinner had been. There was fruit, quiche Lorraine, and tea. I was pleased to see Madame and Maestro Cadenza with their little dog. Madame kept feeding bits of quiche and ham to Frou-Frou while he sat in her lap. I loaded up a plate and joined them.

"Darling Stanley! what happened to you?" she said in horror when she saw my face.

"Fell down the 'tairs last nigh,' I mumbled through my swollen and busted mouth.

"Ragazzo sfortunato!" Cadenza exclaimed. "That does not'a look like a fall! That'a look like combattimento!"

I sighed and leaned forward to speak to them in a low tone. "All righ... Ah 'tell you the tuuth, Maeth'o and Madame. Thum'one hit me."

"Who?" cried Madame.

"I'd ra'er no' tell 'oo now. I want to 'tart 'thowing Belle'th dreth," I managed to say.

"I understand, darling," Madame said after she looked at me in concern for a moment. "Were you going to bring the fabric and patterns into town? I do wish you could simply go upstairs and use my sewing room. I can find some time to work with you today."

I nodded in grateful agreement. I decided that I would indeed stay here in the castle, for the time being.

The quiche was the only food that didn't hurt to chew, so I finished it all and didn't touch the crusty bread and apples that came with it. I passed the bread over to a happy Frou-Frou in Madame's lap. I tried to take a sip of hot tea, but it made the pain worse. I craved something cold to drink.

Afterward, I followed Madame up to the sewing room, where I busied myself with studying the patterns before finally making some cuts to the delicate organza. She was busy sewing some other garments, and was joined later by some women on staff who kept giving me alarmed looks due to my battered face.

I worked on cutting and measuring for hours. The ladies went down to lunch that afternoon, but I stayed with my scissors and fabric, now on a roll and not wanting to be interrupted. I had the bodice and sleeve pieces measured and cut to the exact pattern by four o'clock. Now it would take about a day or two to sew them all together.

After a while, Lumiere came in and offered me a glass of cold water, of which I was grateful. I took a sip and set it down on the large wooden work table. Scraps of the fine material were piled upon it, as well as scattered upon the floor.

"Not 'thure I wan'a waste the 'thcrap fabric. I migh' yuth i' for another dreth," I said, my mouth now a little more numbed from the water.

Lumiere looked at the fabric, and grinned fondly. "My Plumette would love a dress decorated with those. They remind me of feathers."

I nodded, and tried to smile. Lumiere gave me an 'I'm-so-terribly-sorry-for-you" look that was the same as Madame's before.

"Who was it that you had a fight with, mon ami?" he asked pointedly.

I fiddled with the piece of fabric which would someday be part of Belle's celebration ballgown. "A friend," I mumbled.

"I see," Lumiere said. He stroked his chin with one hand, his brow furrowed. "It may be a long road ahead, Monsieur, but have hope. He will come back to apologize. Give him time."

"Wha?" I exclaimed in shock. "Who' you talking 'bou?" Pain throbbed in my lower lip again.

Lumiere stepped close to me and put his hand gently on my shoulder. "I'm sorry, Monsieur. I must admit the truth. I saw what happened, as well as the moments before your friend gave you...er, 'Le Sandwich de la jointure de doigt.'"

Wonderful.

"'Tho you 'thaw?" I said. "Anyone elth'?"

Lumiere nodded sheepishly. "Monsieur Cogsworth. We were having a smoke by the front door. I don't believe anyone else witnessed the fight."

I did remember during my conversation with Lefou, a moment when I caught a whiff of pipe smoke. I knew Lefou never smoked. I recalled that the smell made me think of the atmosphere of the tavern; I thought I was imagining it due to the subject of our talk.

"Thorry I lied," I said miserably. "Wath my fault he hit me."

Lumiere reached his arm around me and gave me a brotherly half-hug. "I think you ought to spend some time with my dear friend Monsieur Cogsworth. He may be able to provide you some comfort and empathy."

"Lumiere!" a lady's pretty voice sang from down the hallway.

"I must go. Good luck, mon ami," said Lumiere. He turned and went out the door to join his ladylove.

I was alone for several minutes, and during that time I cleaned up the fabric scraps wondering what he meant by his friend Cogsworth the clock man being able to 'provide me with empathy.' Soon, Madame de Garderobe arrived with Frou-Frou trailing at her feet.

"Oh, my! Have you done this much already?" She studied my cut pieces and compared them to the paper patterns. "Not a centimeter off! You have definitely passed a test of skill!" Madame drew close to me; she kissed my cheek with affectionate thanks. This time I blushed with pride, knowing that she never meant anything uncouth in her questioning of me yesterday.

"I'm 'thorry I wath' croth and 'wude to you before," I told her in apology.

"It is not an issue anymore, darling. It was simply a misunderstanding. Now, since we are alone, I wish to know who did this to you. I do not want anyone hurting my Pretty Boy tailor, now. You can trust me with any secret, darling...but if you don't want to tell me, it's all right." Her warm, maternal tone comforted me so much that my defenses broke down.

"It wath Monthieur Lefou. But no' hith fault! I detherved it. I thaid terrible thingth to 'im," I confessed through my swollen, bruised and aching mouth. It matched the state of my heart perfectly.

Beyond my control, I felt tears beginning to swim in my eyes. I blinked them back, and caught Madame's warm gaze; studying me with such fierce care and affection.

"Do you love this boy, darling?" she whispered.

I nodded miserably, putting my hand tightly over my eyes the same way Lefou did the morning he was searching for Gaston. She took me into her arms.

With the relief that came from not having anyone else around- particularly anyone from Villeneuve- I let the dam break, sniffling and blubbering and crying against the shoulder of her satin gown.

I loved him. Mon Dieu, I thought the world of him. I'd been so overcome with shock and joy last evening, the moment he leaned against me and embraced me at the dinner table. And now, I was so, so afraid he would never want to be my friend again.

...

- Meanwhile, in the Castle's Livery Stable -

...

Michel, the horse ostler, came into the stable bearing fresh pails of water and hay for Phillipe and the two horses he was housing for the men from the village. He fed Phillipe first. When he came near the other two, he blinked in surprise.

He saw a man curled up on the stable floor, sleeping against the smaller horse.

What was he, crazy? Sleeping with his horse when there were dozens of comfortable beds in the castle? Michel thought, puzzled. He bent down and shook the man's shoulder. "Monsieur?"

He didn't wake up. Michel wondered if he should wake the horse the man was nestled against. It was a rather touching sight. Michel loved the animals as well, but this was certainly a show of strong devotion between a horse and his master. Michel pet the sleeping animal's mane, and put a handful of hay before its nose.

Ami twitched his nose and tail. He awoke, opening his eyes at the smell of breakfast. With a little snort, he began moving in order to stand up. Lefou was shoved aside and forced to wake up as well.

"Monsieur?" Michel said again.

"Huh? Uh...hello," Lefou said, rubbing his eyes and clumsily rising to a standing position.

"I remember you from yesterday! You were the man who offered to give the black stallion to His Highness," Michel told him.

Lefou nodded. "Yeah."

"Are...you having second thoughts? Because if you are too attached to both of these fellows, you could change your mind."

"No. Magnifique here is the one I'm giving to the prince," Lefou replied, yawning. He gestured to Magnifique, who was busy chewing some hay.

"All right then. I was wondering why you chose the stable for your overnight accommodations," Michel said.

"I...well, I was going to ride home last night, but Ami wasn't exactly cooperating with me. He was tired and determined to sleep here. So I decided to keep him company."

Michel grinned. "I see. He's more the master of you."

"Basically, yes."

"Probably wasn't trained as a foal. Once they get to an age, they become stubborn," Michel explained.

Lefou nodded. "Most likely. Thank you for taking care of Ami for the day and night. Would you like some compensation?" he asked, reaching into his coat pocket for the few sous he still had jingling inside it.

"Oh, no, no need to pay me. But if you don't mind, Monsieur, I still need to find out if there are any horses we can buy from the village. We would want a dozen for the castle. Could you check and ask around?"

"Yes, that would be fine." Lefou rubbed Ami's flank, preparing him for a ride home. He spoke to him with a sad sigh. "Well, my stubborn Ami, we have to get back home."

Ami nickered and tossed his head, anxious to stretch his legs and be ridden. Lefou saddled and climbed up on him, thanking Michel once more.

As he rode down the forest path to Villeneuve, his memory of the night before- of Stanley- returned, causing a torrent of guilt and sorrow. Lefou glanced at his right hand holding Ami's reins; his knuckle had a bruise on the spot where it collided with Stanley's jawbone and lip. He wanted so much to turn around, go back to the castle and seek him out, tell him he was sorry for his brutality, but he couldn't. There was no way.

He was too ashamed to even LOOK at the man today. Seeing Stanley would remind him of everything.

Gaston.

The fact that Stanley knew about the feelings Lefou secretly harbored for his dead best friend. The kind of feelings a man was not supposed to have.

And the fact that Lefou's affections and feelings had started to shift towards Stanley! How could this happen? How could he be such a fool as to skewer his heart on the roasting stick, placing it over the fire yet again- so soon!

And Stanley KNEW.

Once again, only two days later- Lefou's feelings had been thrown back into his face. This time, it was a snide, mocking insult. Not only to him, but with the rude suggestion that Gaston was the same!

Gaston was not the same. Stanley was wrong! But Lefou didn't dare correct him. Correcting Stanley would force him to speak of it out in the open; speak of himself and what he was out loud. Lefou had felt like a cornered, wounded animal last night. Unable to speak, he resorted to primitive means, striking out.

Stanley...why? He actually believed Stanley cared for him. He'd started believing there was a chance- a hope.

Lefou was alone in the quiet forest with no one but Ami. He slowed his horse's pace, remembering all the times he'd been riding in the woods like this in years past. Happier times when he rode beside Gaston and Magnifique, quietly scoping out a stag, or a boar, or a flock of ducks on the river.

Lefou would always hold the quiver of arrows, carefully drawing one out and passing it to Gaston. Gaston's brow would furrow, gazing out at his quarry. He'd take the arrow without pulling his eyes away, readying his bow, perfecting his aim...

'Lefou!'

What was that? Was he hearing things?

He was sure he heard Gaston's voice, calling out to him from somewhere in the forest, echoing in his right ear.

"Gaston?" he croaked, looking to the right and hearing no one, seeing no one. It was only his imagination.

Ami twitched his ears and nickered, probably hoping that he would see Gaston again as well.

"He's gone, Ami. Let's go home."

He allowed himself to shed quiet tears as long as he stayed in the forest. Once he reached the meadows and fields and saw Villeneuve, he wiped his face and tried to put on a smile. Ami happily trotted down the familiar, green hillside, bouncing Lefou in his saddle. It was a feeling he always used to love when Gaston was at his side, knowing he was coming home after a long hunt or trip.

He rode Ami through the stone archway which led right into the busy marketplace. He passed everyone as swiftly as he could, hoping to head to his own cottage and go back to sleep.

"Hey! Lefou!" a man's voice shouted. He turned to see none other than Dick Laurent running towards him. The older brother of the person he didn't want to think about.

"Bonjour, Dick."

"Say, have you seen my brother? I know he went with you to the castle."

"Haven't seen him today," Lefou said in a quiet, avoidant voice.

"Weren't you with him yesterday?"

"For a little while."

"What was he doing?" Dick pressed.

Lefou stopped Ami and dismounted. "I think he ended up taking on a tailoring job in the castle. They want him to sew clothes. I'm sure he's still there."

"I wish he'd given us a little notice before disappearing! He's causing a family crisis! Here, look."

Dick pointed to the tailor and seamstress' shop. There on the front awning, the three pink-festooned Dubois sisters were standing with their arms crossed, looking incensed. They caught sight of Lefou and rushed towards him.

"Where's Stanley?" shrieked Eloise.

"He abandoned us!" cried Eliana.

"He's supposed to be here helping!" whined Elise. They were joined by Madame Dubois, their mother who happened to be Stanley's aunt.

"You need to tell Stanley to get back here!" she cried. "He's off cavorting in the castle with the prince and his people, while my poor girls are left with all this difficult work! They don't know how to measure and cut precisely, and without him here, they are helpless!"

"Maman, can you help me?" Elise begged, clutching a bolt of fabric in her arms.

"I have my own projects to finish!" her mother scolded. "If you would only pay attention and LEARN, the three of you wouldn't need Stanley to do everything for you!"

"Lefou, have you heard about Gaston?" Eliana asked, blinking back tears.

"Have they found him? We can't believe he's dead until they find him!" Eloise added, starting to cry as well.

"Ladies, please," said Lefou beseechingly, holding his palms out in an attempt to calm the distressed girls. "I'm sorry to tell you that they haven't found him yet. It's an unfortunate matter all around, but the castle staff is trying as hard as they can."

"Girls, I know your hearts are broken about Captain Gaston. It's dreadful," said Madame Dubois consolingly. "But please, dears! Try to calm down and go back to the shop. I will help you as much as I can until Stanley is back. It's not like him to be so...irresponsible!" She gave a disapproving look to the skyline, gesturing in the castle's direction. The four women left for the dress shop, and Lefou was left standing with Dick.

"She's right. He's never been so irresponsible, leaving without telling us when he would be back! What's the matter with him?" Dick asked, annoyed.

Lefou gave him an empathetic look. "The truth is, Stanley wants to be a royal tailor for them. I mean, think about it, Dick. Every candlestick and teapot and clock, every hat rack and piece of furniture? Not to mention the great Beast? They were all people. And they need someone to sew them some new clothes after all this time. And...Belle needs a new ballgown. I just heard some big news about her, but I...never mind. I'd rather everyone hear the news from Belle herself."

"What news about Belle?"

"You'll see. Just wait," Lefou said, gesturing to Dick with both hands and hoping for him to not press the matter. He didn't want to spoil Belle and Prince Adam's surprise about their engagement and party.

"Well," Dick said with a shrug and a half-smile, "I'm glad she's happy. And I'm glad Stanley's happy there, too. It's just that we miss him right now. We were hoping he was still with you."

Lefou sighed sadly. "We went our separate ways. Sorry, Dick."

The other man gave Lefou a funny look. Lefou's stomach began to feel queasy.

"Would you like to join Tom and I for a few drinks?" Dick asked amiably. Speak of the devil, Tom arrived at that moment, wearing his dirty blacksmith apron. He gave Lefou a kind smile, his face red and sweaty from work.

Shock, guilt, and fear for his own self-preservation caused Lefou to blink at Dick and Tom a few times, completely mute. He wasn't able to respond quite yet.

The reality of what had happened was sinking in now. Lefou was going to have to tell Dick and Tom the truth eventually. It was better that he explain it- rather than Stanley himself. He would have to tell them they got into a fight. That he had resorted to his fists, clobbering Dick's dear little brother in the mouth, possibly breaking the young man's beautiful teeth.

He wasn't sure how he could explain away the cause of the conflict. How could he even begin to bring it up?

He nodded and found his voice. "Yeah. I can. I'm kinda tired, but sure. A few drinks." Dick gave Lefou a friendly clap on the shoulder, and they headed to the door of the tavern. Lefou avoided looking at the murals on the ceiling.

'Gaston The Hunter.' 'Gaston the Victor.' He also avoided looking in the direction of the empty chair.

The place had a distinct smell; a combination of ale, pipe smoke, and the sweat of crowds of people. He had rarely been there without Gaston. At last, he heard Dick's comforting, deep voice in his ear.

"I know it's hard. It was hard for us to be back here, too. I'll buy, okay?"

"Okay."

Dick and Tom steered Lefou to a table, where he sat facing away from the murals, and The Chair, and the pitying stares of the other patrons. Fortunately, some of the pitying looks throughout the pub weren't directed at Lefou at all. They were directed at a very distressed Madame Clothilde.

The gaunt, sad old woman was nursing a glass of wine, babbling in a combination of anger and hurt. She was being comforted on each side by the barman and his wife, Stephan and Colette Bordeaux.

Lefou, Tom, and Dick could hear the rantings and wailing from across the bar.

"Never, I tell you! Never trust a bloody Englishman! It's over- I don't need him!"

"Clothilde! Please, calm down. Here, dear, have more wine. You should go upstairs and rest-"

"Lumiere! That's all he cares about! Forget about his wife! Non! It's always LUMIERE! Just like before! Why didn't he just marry HIM, rather than me?"

Tom gave Dick a confused look. "A man can't marry a man, though. Isn't that right?"

"I'm quite sure that's the law, Tom," Lefou replied, hoping to appear nonchalant.

"Cards?" Dick asked, producing a deck and slapping it on the table.

"Oui," said Tom, nodding.

Colette Bordeaux managed to tear herself away from poor Clothilde long enough to deliver three tankards of ale to Tom, Dick, and Lefou, who thanked her. He was about to reach into his pocket, but Dick handed her some coins instead. "All on me," he announced.

The three of them played cards, Tom and Dick teasing each other good naturedly, as usual. Lefou felt as if he'd been turned into a Stanley stand-in, since he was much quieter than the other two, as Stanley typically was.

Throughout the evening, he tried to find ways to bring it up, but no opportunity ever came. It was eleven o' clock when the three men called it a night and went home. Lefou didn't sleep as well that night, though he was home rather than in the stable with horses. He kept thinking of that moment he thought he heard Gaston's voice calling his name. It had to be his imagination. Or was there such thing as ghosts in the forest?

When he woke late the next noontime, he realized he HAD to return to the castle. He had to face Stanley.

...

Chapter Text

After being consoled by Madame de Garderobe that evening, and a few hours sitting with her, working in the sewing room, I felt as if a burden had been lifted from me. I wasn't sure what to do next. Reason and family concerns made me realize I had to go back home and help my cousins with their sewing. I was torn between my commitment to Madame, and the wrath of Elise, Eliana and Eloise.

"Stanley, why don't you go out and take a break for a while? You've done more in one day what I thought would take three days," Madame told me. "I insist. Leave the sewing room for the rest of the evening. Perhaps I'll see you tomorrow, or if you want to go back to Villeneuve, you may."

"All right," I said, putting the scissors down. My lip and mouth felt like it was healing; the swelling had gone down. I thought it might be a good idea to go outside, even if I didn't have the time to ride back to Villeneuve. I realized I was horseless, though. I'd left Rosie at home and had taken Magnifique. And Lefou had decided to gift Magnifique to Prince Adam.

I'd have to walk- through a forest infested with wolves. Great.

I thought of asking the Prince for permission to ride Magnifique into town for just one day. So I went down the grand staircase and into the foyer, wondering where Prince Adam and Belle were at the moment. As I left the foyer and entered the grand hall, I saw someone practicing some kind of exercise with a sword. I stopped to take a closer look, out of curiosity. I love swords!

It was Monsieur Cogsworth, still recognizable in a funny looking helmet. He was dressed in fencing garb, wielding a narrow-bladed, somewhat flimsy sword.

"Well, hello there!" he greeted me. With a 'swish' sound, he battled an invisible opponent, which looked kind of silly. He needed a real opponent. I stood there watching him sheepishly.

"Could...could I try?" I asked.

"Of course you may. I was fencing with Lumiere a few minutes ago, but he and Plumette went off to Villeneuve."

"Did they take a horse?" I asked. The palace was still short on horses.

"They rode in the coach with Belle and Maurice, using two horses. Belle's Phillipe, and the new black stallion. They plan to to make their big announcement personally. About the engagement and celebration ball, of course."

I sighed. "That's great, but I wish I'd known. I have family obligations in town, and I could've gone with them."

Cogsworth took out a second fencing sword, and tossed it to me. I caught it by the handle.

"While you're waiting for him, why not have a go?" he asked amiably. "Put on the protective gear. You can borrow Lumiere's."

I followed his direction and donned the medieval-mail vest and helmet, same as the uniform he was wearing. I gripped the sword in my hand, and copied his stance.

"Go!" Cogsworth said.

I immediately made an aggressive thrust to the old man's belly, which was shielded by the medieval mail covering his waistcoat. He gave a surprised gasp.

"Good heavens! That's a touche for you. Fine form, dear boy!"

As he was complimenting me, he ducked and swished his sword upward, the tip of the blade hitting my helmet with a 'clink' sound. "Touche!"

"I guess we're even!" I exclaimed.

I tried to hit him underhand, overhand, and sideways, but he kept blocking me with very nimble moves. Our swords clinked together repeatedly, with me jumping and dodging, and I started to feel sweaty under the helmet. I was taken over by the sheer fun of it.

I might have been daydreaming for a second- about all those nights when Lefou would be singing, starting up a play swordfight with us and Gaston- because Cogsworth finally got me in the shoulder.

"Touche!"

"I lost concentration," I said.

"You must never lose focus, my young Musketeer," said Cogsworth kindly. "You must be able to predict your opponent's next moves. Feel him out and try to put yourself in his shoes. Not only in sport- but in life."

"Oh."

That sounded like something I personally needed to work on. "I tend to just go for the attack," I said. "More like a pirate than a gentleman fencer, I guess."

Cogsworth laughed a little. "The mention of pirates reminds me so much of Master Adam's father. The old days."

"How?" I asked him, curious.

"Do you want to hear a story?" he asked, pausing the match.

"Sure," I said, pulling my steamy helmet off and taking a breather.

"Master Adam's father, brutal and greedy as he was, made an alliance with pirates," Cogsworth said, his aged face beaming with fond memory.

"Really?"

"Indeed. You see, before I came to France, Mrs. Potts and I lived in England, in a fine little seaside estate. We were servants for a British Royal Naval captain, and he was the arch enemy of Master Adam's father, Prince Louis-Alexandre. Louis despised James, my old master, with the passion of a thousand suns."

"I can understand that, with all the wars."

"Yes, and it was more than just the war. It was personal. Louis defeated James in battle, and for spoils, he took Mrs. Potts and I, and a few others, to France for his servitude. He came right to his headquarters and shipped us off!"

"I'm sorry. You must miss home sometimes."

"I used to, but it's been so long I've given up hope of seeing England again."

"So, tell me about the pirates," I said, as eager as a little kid.

"Well," said Cogsworth, his face lighting up with intrigue at telling the long-forgotten tale. "It partly involved James' unrequited love for a lady. A very spirited woman, and beautiful. Much like our Belle, in fact. But her heart was claimed by another fellow- a pirate."

"Is that so?"

"Yes, and that fellow was, incidentally, a cousin of Mrs. Potts. Mrs. Potts' uncle was a pirate as well," Cogsworth added in a low tone. "I believe that's why James took her in his care as a household maid. He wanted to prevent her from being involved in the dastardly family business of piracy, if you will."

"He didn't seem like a bad fellow, this James," I said. "But what about Adam's father, Prince Louis? Why were they enemies other than the war?"

"Prince Louis was one of the greediest non-monarch French nobles ever, with lofty aspirations. He had the insane dream that he could take over the East India Trading Company from the British. And give it to the King of France- by destroying James' fleet of ships. James was the Admiral who commanded fleets for the EITC, you see. And since the British were prevailing at the time, Louis had little hope of succeeding, since he lost many battles in the war."

"But then-" Cogsworth raised his fencing sword in emphasis- "Louis heard tell of a band of pirates that was notorious for their ability to conquer, pillage, and immolate military ships. This band included Beatrice's cousin Will, who was the right-hand man of a certain...Captain Jack."

"Okay," I said, intrigued. "So he hired this guy?"

"Exactly. He funded their ships, the crew, and not to mention Captain Jack's unending thirst for rum. I even remember the day Louis invited them to our castle. It was amusing, since Adam was about nine years old at the time. This pirate captain was the most...odd and unforgettable character one would ever meet."

"Really?"

"Louis was having a meeting with him, and Adam came into the parlor. The child took one look at Captain Jack and wrinkled his nose, saying 'You look and smell dreadful! Don't you think you should take a bath before meeting with Father?' Louis tried to apologize. But Captain Jack leaned down towards Adam, grinned at him, and said, 'Hello, there. You're quite the little beast, aren't you?' And Adam kicked him hard, right in the...er, shin! I will never forget it!" Cogsworth gave a chuckle.

I laughed as well. "That sounds dangerous. How did the notorious pirate captain react?"

"He was stunned a moment, but then he stood up, grinned at Louis, and said in a drunken drawl, 'What a fine little son you have, Your Highness. A chip off the old barbarian block.' Louis gave him a challenging look, so he said, 'I best be going then! We need the money first. Five thousand, if you please. French currency will do nicely! Viva La Fron-sayce!' He ran out yelling 'Oar-revoor!' to the staff, leaving a pungent odor of rum behind him. The man completely mangled the French language. And Louis paid Captain Jack his money, so he could get help pursuing his dream of burning James' ships and acquiring the East India Trading Company for France. It never came to fruition, though, I'm afraid. Actually, I'm glad."

"That's quite a story, Cogsworth," I said. "Pirates in this castle! I'd bet my friend Lefou would like to hear you tell it-" I stopped then, remembering the last time I'd talked to him. And I was still calling him my friend.

"Have you spoke to him? Since?" Cogsworth asked me, with emphasis on the word 'since.'

"Non," I said, miserably. "He went back to the village. I need to go there, not only to help my relatives with the tailor shop, but also...to work things out with him."

"You know, I witnessed some of the...body language the two of you were demonstrating before the altercation. Would you feel comfortable talking about it?"

I sighed. "No, Monsieur." No way I wanted to discuss that.

"All right. Shall we have another round of fencing?"

"Oui! Sure, for a few more minutes."

Cogsworth and I took part in one more match of fencing, which I was proud to win two-to-one. Afterward, I bid him a good evening; the staff was about to go to dinner and I hoped the Prince and Belle were back so I could get myself on the road to Villeneuve.

...

The summer evening through the windows was pleasant; the pink and lavender sunset could be seen through the giant windows of the grand hall. I hadn't been outdoors all day, so I went out to the stone staircase and walked down to see the gardens. I spotted a little boy running around before his mother, Mrs. Potts, called him to dinner.

I grinned and shook my head at the thought of sweet, civilized Mrs. Potts being related to swashbucklers.

I meandered through the rose gardens, inhaling the fragrant scents, marveling at the hues of red, white, ivory, and many different shades of pink. Soon, I heard the sound of horses' hooves approaching, and went out to meet what I believed was Adam and Belle's carriage with the only horses the palace owned.

Instead, it was a lone rider on a small, stout horse. The rider was small and stout as well. He wore a floppy-brimmed hat.

I wanted to go back into the rose bushes to hide from him. This was so terribly awkward. He looked right at me.

"Stanley?"

"Lefou..." I had no choice but to approach and greet him on the path. Overwhelmed with remorse, and dare I say it- love- I rushed up to him, still astride Ami. Petting the horse's muzzle, I began blurting out my apology in a tense, lowered voice.

"Lefou, I'm so terribly sorry for all the things I said the other night. I didn't mean to insult you. I only wanted to know if you and I suffer the same...problems, and I was in fact insulting myself! It's all me, not you! I understand if you never want to speak to me again, and-"

"Stanley?" Lefou was looking at me very funny. Puzzled. He reached forward and put a hand to my cheek, studying the bruise and cut lip.

"I'm speaking to you now, aren't I?" he said, his voice so full of concern and forgiveness. "You're the reason I had to come back. If anyone needs to apologize, it's me. I'm so sorry. I, uh, did I break any of your teeth?"

"Oh, no. My teeth are fine." I grabbed his hand and gave it an awkward squeeze, the gesture an assurance that he was forgiven.

Lefou sighed in relief. "Thank goodness. If I did, I could so never live it down."

"Everyone in town would want to steer clear of you, that's for certain," I said.

"Jehan Chevalier already does. I did the same thing to him during the castle battle," Lefou said, grinning sheepishly. "I told him 'sorry' the next morning."

"That's good." I laughed a little. "I was...I was just taking a stroll around the rose gardens this evening. Would you...um...want to join me?"

Mon Dieu. I could feel this incredible surge of relief and hope filling my heart, encouraging me to ask him such a thing. He was still my friend. He had forgiven me!

"Okay! After I get Ami to the stable to rest," Lefou replied, smiling at me. Smiling at me! I missed that so much. "I need to talk to Michel if I find him. I was able to find people willing to sell their horses to the Prince."

We walked Ami to the livery stable where Lefou found Michel. I helped give Ami some water and hay, while Lefou gave Michel a piece of paper with names written on it, people wishing to sell their horses.

"I found eight!" Lefou said proudly.

"Merci!" said Michel. "I will have to go to Villeneuve tomorrow, then."

"If you want, Michel, I can accompany you into town and help you find those people," said Lefou.

"I appreciate that so much, Monsieur Lefou! You're a godsend." The horse tender clapped Lefou on the shoulder. He turned to me. "And so are you, Monsieur. Thank you for your help."

"No problem," I said.

We left Ami to rest and walked back to the rose gardens. "Have you ever seen such an incredible collection of plants?" I asked him.

"No, I haven't. They're really amazing! We shouldn't pick them, though. They're Prince Adam's."

"I wasn't thinking of picking them."

"Oh, I wasn't accusing you of thinking it, Stanley. Please don't be defensive."

"Oh. Sorry," I said.

Lefou chuckled. "It's okay. Say, if you were allowed to pick one, Stanley, which would you choose?"

"I think I'd pick-" My face felt warm all of a sudden- "that one. The dark pink. It's...just like your tie." I pointed to a group of roses that were a bright fuschia color.

Lefou laughed. "I like that, too. One of my favorite colors. I'm aware that it's odd, of course...me being a guy and all."

"Look at me, though. I'm a guy, and I wear pink," I said, gesturing to my shirt.

Lefou stepped closer to me and studied the fabric of my shirt. "Well, if you want to be technical, Stanley, it looks pink from a distance, but it's actually red and white checkered."

"It's gingham," I pointed out.

"Huh?"

"Gingham. The name of the tiny checkered pattern," I told him. "It's a very new trend in fabrics. In fact I think it might become de rigeur in the future."

He laughed. "Of course you would know that, Stanley."

"Oui." I sighed. "Speaking of that, I take it my cousins are angry at me for being gone from the tailor shop."

Lefou rolled his eyes. "Gosh, are they ever! I just don't get it. They're seamstresses, but they don't even know how to sew!"

"Their Maman, my Aunt Sophie, always let them do the easy stuff while she and I did the hard parts. The girls don't want to spend all their lives as seamstresses. They want to marry, and they're already past twenty-three. It's sad. They are pretty ladies, but they're so..."

"A deaf man might marry them," said Lefou.

"We can only hope, mon ami," I said, putting my arm around his shoulder, just like he'd done to me that evening at dinner. "They are...um, getting over their grief."

I cleared my throat after saying that. The comment about the girls' grief was my obvious attempt to dance around the subject of someone Lefou didn't seem to feel like talking about. I worried that once that name was uttered, our friendly and lighthearted conversation would go sour.

"Stanley," he said in a near whisper, putting his own arm around my waist as we walked side by side. In a close, fraternal fashion, of course. "I know you'll think I'm nuts, but I...thought I heard Gaston calling my name in the forest. Like...a ghost."

"I don't believe in ghosts, but that's because I've never experienced one."

"And then I thought, if there was anywhere he'd be happy, it would be in the forest. Hunting. Tracking down animals. Maybe it's his spirit keeping all the wolves at bay. I dunno. It's silly, but I like to imagine it."

"It's not silly, Lefou. If it's a comfort to you, it's all right if you want to believe that."

He gazed up at me. "Thanks." He put a finger to my cut lip, and I could see his cheeks reddening. "Gee, Stanley, I'm still so sorry I did that to you. It must've hurt. Did it hurt terribly bad?"

"I...it did. But only for a minute or so." It had been excruciating, in truth, but I didn't want to say that. "I'm sorry about the insults, and...insinuations."

"What did you mean before? When you said you were...'insulting yourself'?"

I sighed, glancing away from his kind gaze toward a bunch of bright red roses. Their color was the same as Gaston's favorite coat. I sucked in a breath, and said a silly thing which was kind of evading the subject, but then again- it wasn't.

"I know how you can make up for punching me in the mouth."

"How?"

"Kiss it and make it better," I said, adding a little laugh to make it seem more like a joke.

His face was turning the same color of that spray of roses. "Stanley!" He pulled his arm from my waist.

"I'm dead serious."

"Come on, y-you know that's not appropriate, you don't really want..." His expression darkened, a guardedness coming over it. "Are you making fun of me?"

"No. I'm not making fun of you! Did you hear what I said?" I said in a tense whisper. I reached out to softly touch his shoulder again.

"But, Stanley!"

"I would actually like you to do that," I said, whispering even more quietly as I searched his eyes, which reminded me of a frightened deer in torchlights. "It's not a joke. I'm not making fun of you. I..."

Emotion was blurring my vision. My eyes were starting to water and I was coming across as an idiot. Weak. About the opposite of Gaston as a man could ever be...

"Stanley, are you crying?"

I blinked and wiped my eye. "N-no...it's just, the flowers. Allergies-"

"Stanley, please cut the crap." His voice was tender and soft, despite the blunt words. "You...really care about me that much? It's...just so hard to believe, after-"

"Please believe me." I said, firmly. I put both hands on his shoulders. He gave me an odd look, as if to process it all. Then, he practically collapsed upon my chest, hugging me, fighting tears himself. I welcomed the embrace, wrapping my own arms around the shorter man and pulling him close, just as I did that morning in the dreary courtyard, the site of Gaston's death.

As he hugged me, his floppy brimmed hat fell off. His hair was at the level of my chin; he was wearing it down with no ponytail. I found myself caressing the tousled dark waves with my right hand. Then- unabashedly- I gave a very light kiss to the top of his head.

He probably didn't even feel it.

"Thank you," he said, voice muffled in my chest.

I heard the sound of hoofbeats, stagecoach wheels, and voices. Prince Adam and Belle had arrived home, just as darkness was falling. Lefou raised his head and looked at me, tears shimmering in his eyes.

"We better go greet them, I guess."

"Okay," I said, with a resigned laugh. Lefou bent down and picked up his hat, plopping it back on, and we went to greet Adam and Belle.

...

Chapter Text

The Prince and future Princess went inside with Lumiere and Plumette. Lefou and I trailed after them after we bowed to the Prince. I felt like an actual staff member of the castle, though I wasn't sure if I was ready to become an official one if asked. My family came first; but it was a stifling feeling.

I loved my family dearly; please don't get me wrong. But because of them, and the society of the village, I had spent so many years feeling like a fake, a facade. Every day, same as the one before, and I felt...mechanical, like one of those wooden dolls in a cuckoo clock, going through the motions at a set time, rarely varying except on Sundays.

Wake up. Take care of my horse Rosie. Go to work at the shop. Sew. Be cordial to customers. Sew and cut some more. The clock chimes at five- time to have dinner with Maman. Seven o' clock- time to drink and play cards with Tom and Dick until we grew tired. Gaston bragged about the war, and hunting. Lefou tended to Gaston's whims and sang songs, sitting on the right arm of Gaston's chair. Tom, Dick, and me...the same jokes, the same games- poker and cribbage. My cousins simpered and batted their eyelashes over Gaston. All of us under the same choreography. Deja vu.

Here, in the castle, ever since that night- the atmosphere was so different. Like a sheep with the fencing suddenly removed. I was free. Even being allowed to leave my sewing and have a fencing match with an old English chap, or meander outside in the rose garden wasn't something I was used to. And the staff members were so much more accepting and warm. Madame knew about me, saw through me- and she'd only met me days ago. I even had a feeling that Cogsworth knew as well.

Perhaps this acceptance was why I'd mustered the nerve to say what I said to Lefou. That, the apologies we owed, the fact we were in a rose garden alone. I felt happier this evening than I have ever felt, ever since I was a boy.

It was getting late; too dark to head to Villeneuve now. Belle and Adam went to dinner, and Madame appeared in the foyer. She swept both Lefou and me in her arms, on each side. She steered us over to dine at the table with herself and her Maestro.

I felt like such a shameless bum to join them yet again, but Belle gave us a kind greeting and waved us in at the Grand Hall's entrance. She was wearing her favored blue and white dress that she'd altered with the pockets for her books. Lefou and I overheard her talking to Adam about Pere Robert being so happy with his gift of new books for the church.

"She brought books to Villeneuve," I said, amused. "Hardly anyone there reads."

"I hope that changes," said Madame. "How many people live in Villeneuve?"

"Six hundred and eighty nine people," I replied. "But that's just what's written in the church records. The number changes. People are born, and die." I glanced at Lefou and felt guilty again. It was now about six hundred and eighty-eight.

"Out of all those people, my Maestro, there could be many who are musically talented and will never learn to read a single note," Madame said to Cadenza.

"We have musicians," Lefou told her. "We never use books. We know all the songs and melodies in our heads. You don't need books to make music." He sounded a little defensive at this.

"Ah! Do you play the musical instruments, ragazzo?" Cadenza asked him, smiling at Lefou with a mixture of relief and concern. "Felicissimo to see you alive and well. I had thought'a you were dead for a momento! How it pained'a my heart to fall down and crush a human being!"

"It's okay. It wasn't your fault, Maestro," Lefou replied cheerfully. "And for your question, I don't play an instrument. I just sing."

"Bene! That explains your strong chest and diaphragm!" said Cadenza, tapping his own ruffle-and-frill covered chest with his hand. I didn't know that singing could prevent death by being crushed in the chest. I just thought Lefou was extremely lucky.

"Can we hear you sing, sometime, Monsieur Lefou?" asked Madame.

His expression fell a little. "I don't know if I can sing the kind of stuff I used to." He glanced at me. Without hesitation, I grasped his hand and held it.

"Why is that, sugar plum?" asked Madame de Garderobe.

Lefou blushed at 'sugar plum.' "Because the only songs I ever sang were...for Gaston," he told her. "You do remember him that night?"

Cadenza scowled. "Codardo," he spat in a low tone.

"What does that mean?" Lefou asked him.

"He used you as a human shield!" the Maestro replied. "Many of us saw it. I wanted to..." Cadenza let that thought trail, but I could see him mumbling something through his sparsely toothed mouth; likely something in Italian.

"He brought on his own demise, I fear," said Lefou after a few moments. "But he was my best friend. Ever since we were children," he blurted out to Madame.

"I understand, sugar plum." Madame said gently as she poured him some tea.

Speaking of tea, Mrs. Potts came to our table to join us. "Hello, love! It is good to see you here again," she said to Lefou. "And your dear friend as well. Hello, poppet. I forgot your name?"

"Stanley."

Mrs. Potts beamed. "Stanley! What a quaint and charming name, love. It sounds more like an English name than a French name. Are you of English blood?"

I shook my head. "Non. It is a nickname. My birth name is Stephan. My brother Richard and our friend Thomas, we used to play 'war' with the other boys. We would pretend to be the English soldiers. Somebody always had to be the bad guys. Not that I think all English are bad anymore! So we gave ourselves what we thought were mean, tough Englishman names. 'Tom,' 'Dick' and 'Stanley' stuck with us our whole lives!" I explained.

She gave me a kind smile. "Lovely story. I am happy you had a childhood where you only had to pretend about bloody battles, and not see them in reality," she said, a pensive look coming over her face. I wanted so badly to ask her about her pirate family, but refrained.

"Speaking of the war, Mrs. Potts, ahem," Lefou cleared his throat nervously, "I never fought the English myself. We only fought the Portuguese. And the Prussians. Uh, just so you know."

"I thank you for your brave service to France," she replied affectionately.

"Merci."

"Did you escape injury, dear?" she asked. I sat back and relaxed while Lefou had his turn to be asked about his life story.

"No, madame. I got hit by a musket ball once. Only a flesh wound." He gestured to the side of his waist. I kind of felt like I wanted to see it. I berated myself at the thought.

Madame de Garderobe spoke to me again. "Were you a soldier, Stanley darling?"

"No, Madame. I missed the cutoff age the year that all the guys between sixteen and forty could enlist," I replied. "I learned to sew while they were gone."

"Magnifique," she replied. "Will you continue the dress tomorrow, then?"

I glanced at Lefou. "We ought to go into town. I need to meet with my family, but I'll be back as soon as possible."

"Will you both spend the night here?" she asked.

"I don't know," I said, shrugging. "Lefou, isn't it too dark for you to ride Ami to Villeneuve?" He looked at me rather unsure. "Probably," he replied.

"You mustn't be fodder for wolves, dear," said Mrs. Potts. "Why not double up in the room Stanley's using? On the fourth floor, above ours. It's very quiet up there."

"Uh, okay," said Lefou with a mixture of relief and awkwardness.

I showed him to the small servant's' room I'd spent the previous night in. "There's...only one bed. But I'm not that huge. I'll make room for you," I said with a chuckle. "And I'm used to it, because I shared my room with my brother for years. So tonight, you're my official brother."

"Okay..." he replied, and I noticed a blush form across his face again. "I snore a lot. Or so I've been told," said Lefou. "Gaston used to be annoyed with it. He always slept downstairs in his house. I was upstairs."

"Have you ever gone back to his house...since?" I asked, trying to be as gentle as I could.

"I haven't been able to bring myself to do it yet, Stanley."

"Gaston hasn't had living relatives in Villeneuve for years. That makes you the closest thing he had to next-of-kin. I know it's hard, but you're going to have to deal with matters of his estate. I'll help you, if it's difficult. I mean...do you wish to keep living in his house, or..."

"He hasn't even been proven dead yet, Stanley! Until there's a body, there can't be a funeral. I even went to ask Pere Robert about it. He said if a month goes by, and he isn't found, then he'll conduct a memorial service for...whoever wants to come. He was very kind about it. I'm so glad I talked to him."

Lefou looked miserable upon telling me this. I felt so bad. For him, true, but also for Gaston. It was so ironic that the man who had been considered the 'Hero of Villeneuve' for so long- popular and charming- had barely anyone to mourn him for a memorial service. It was a terrible fate for someone who put so much importance to his image and esteem.

"I'll come with you."

"Thank you, Stanley."

"You tend to say my name a lot, I notice. Why is that?"

"Well," he said with a sigh, "Partly because I like your name, but mostly...so I can get used to saying it enough so I don't accidentally call you Gaston."

I laughed. "Really? There are barely any similarities between him and I."

I casually took off my shirt, almost to prove a point. "Same color hair, perhaps, but that is about it."

He was looking at me funny. "What's wrong?" I asked.

"Nothing!"

"There's nothing wrong with me, then?" I grinned at him. "That is good to know." I blew out the candle and flopped on the bed in pitch darkness. "Bonne nuit."

He settled next to me with a tension to his movements, and after a long lull in the conversation, he spoke up.

"There's nothing wrong with you, Stanley. You're perfect."

I snorted a laugh. "I don't know about that. Nevertheless, let's just go to sleep, Sugar Plum."

"Oh, gee." He laughed a little as he found my hand under the quilt and squeezed it. I squeezed his hand back.

He held onto my hand for several moments; it was almost as if we were communicating in a sort of secret code- no need for words. The message was clear: 'You're the one that I want.'

His grip loosened as he fell asleep beside me. I could hear him snoring within minutes; it sounded rather soft, and cute as well.

The next morning, we found Michel at the horse stable. He was repairing a partly rotted and rusty wagon that he'd used years ago, prior to the curse. We ended up spending the morning helping him repair it, finding new temporary wheels. Lefou told him that he would certainly hire Tom, the blacksmith, to make some brand new wheels very soon.

We hitched Ami and Magnifique to the rickety wagon, and headed across the forest path into town. Clouds were rolling in; and so we pushed our horses to a fast clip as to beat the rainstorm soon to be rolling in. The wind made the leaves and pine boughs shudder and whisper. I could smell the rain in the air. This was one of my favorite kinds of weather- the scent of the wind before a storm.

"C'mon Ami!" Lefou was begging his horse, who was bucking his head in protest. He wasn't accustomed to pulling wagons. "I really don't want to get soaked, you know."

"I think the rain will hold off, don't worry," I told him. About five minutes later, once we got out of the forest and could see the village's clock tower in the distance, it started to pour.

"I'm worrying now," said Lefou, but he was laughing. "I like rain, no matter what. Except for that one time last week, when Gaston and I got caught in the rain coming back to town. But that was because…" He didn't finish his sentence, and I saw a bit of pain cross his face. I threw an arm around his shoulder.

"At least it's a warm rain, not a cold one," I said with optimism, shaking the reins to urge Magnifique and Ami even faster. Mud began to make the wagon wheels sluggish and sticky.

"If you go off to the right, Stanley, and don't follow the path, it would be easier. Let's go through the grassy hill. See that smaller path? Gaston and I made it from all our hunts."

"I see," I replied. Ami and Magnifique seemed to be familiar with the way as well. We were soon in town, among all the bustle and voices. We parted ways for a while in town; Lefou going to see about buying the horses, and myself back to the reality of family.

"Stanley!" Eloise squealed as I entered the tailor shop. "Why were you gone so long? It's been three days!"

"I am terribly sorry, Eloise. You know about the announcement the Prince made, didn't you? The engagement and the ball?"

"Of course we know about it!" exclaimed Elise in a stressed tone. "The ball! It's coming up next Saturday and we need new dresses, too!"

"If Belle can marry a prince, then perhaps we might meet a Duke, or a Marquis, or even another Prince there!" said Eliana.

"But girls, you already have a lot of pretty dresses. What's wrong with the ones you have?" I asked.

Three pairs of eyes gave me the Look of Death.

I went into the sewing room and started to tackle one of the unfinished projects my cousins had started; a gathered, soft white satin petticoat which was the underlayer for a white and gold-striped muslin dress. It had the name 'Ouilette' on the tag; likely for Mlle. Marion Ouilette, one of the nice young ladies my mother had tried to set me up with in the past. 'The two of you would certainly have tall children together,' she'd said.

She was the silversmith's daughter, five years my junior. I thought the gold in the dress would compliment her blue eyes and blonde hair. I personally hoped Marion would meet a nice Marquis or Duke, because her father's trade had suffered during the years of the curse. She probably saved up all her money cooking and selling pies so she could afford this dress.

I sat at my usual table and stitched the petticoat in relative peace, with the triplets coming in every so often and piling more items on the table, with handwritten directions. I found some gold satin that matched the petticoat, to use for trim on the dress sleeves as the final touch. I then started to attach the petticoat to the rest of the dress using precise, half-centimeter-apart gathered stitches. I found I was a little bit off towards the end; but the widest gather would be in the back of the petticoat, which would be hidden by the muslin overlayer. So no problems there.

By early evening, I was almost finished with Marion's dress. I didn't know when she would be in for a fitting. I wanted to know if the waistline was even and the skirts fell level, so I was in a bit of a dilemma. I knew where her house was, so I considered the idea of going over there to let her know she should try it on.

Then I had an idea, a bit of a self-indulgent idea. One that was hatched partly out of laziness when it came to running over to Marion's house to track her down, but also out of longing.

I locked the door of the sewing room, and pulled the curtain shut on the one small window. In the dim light, I could still see everything, including the full length mirror. I took off my still-damp-from-the-rain clothes; my vest, shirt, and breeches, praying that neither my aunt or cousins would knock on the door for at least five minutes. I picked up the elegant, floaty white-and-gold dress and held it up before me.

Marion Ouilette happened to be one of the tallest women in town. She stood about five foot ten and was always a bit self-conscious of it. This meant that her dress would be one of the only ones that would fit me.

I fumbled with it for about a minute or two, with its double layered skirt- but I was able to get it on. The buttons weren't in yet, so it kind of swam around my chest too loosely. Marion was also more generous in the chest than I was. I tied the sash into a bow around my waist, while looking in the mirror, pleased with my reflection.

'Be free! Be free!' It was so fun. I loved the feeling of the swishy satin around my legs.

KNOCK! KNOCK! "Stanley! Why did you lock the door?" It was one of the triplets.

"Hold on a minute!"

"OPEN THE DOOR!" She kept banging and banging. Merde! Can't she just wait a second?

I studied the fall of the hem, turning from one side to the other, loving the twirl of the flowing, gathered skirts. It looked decently even; the hem reached to about my ankles and it looked the same length all around.

"What are you doing?" screamed one of my cousins. I quickly tried to take off the dress as fast as I could without ripping it.

"Just one minute, all right?"

"You're not doing anything scandalous in there, are you?"

"No!"

I pulled the dress off, lay it on a table and started putting on my own damp, uncomfortable breeches. Eliana, or Elise, or Eloise pounded on the wooden door hard enough to break it.

"What are you trying to hide from us?"

"Nothing!"

Finally, I was dressed in my own clothes again and unlocked the door. Elise, followed by Eliana, burst in.

"You have a girl in here or something?" Elise said accusingly. She opened a nearby closet door. "I bet she's hiding in here...I guess she's not."

Eliana spotted the dress on the table. "Is it Marion? Stanley, that's it! Oh! You do like her!" she said excitedly. She looked around the room, at the curtains of fabrics. "Marion- come on out! It's all right, I know our cousin is a prime specimen of manhood, but I do wish you'd wait until the wedding-"

"Ooh, a wedding! I can't wait!" squealed Elise.

"What? No! Nobody else is here!" I yelled. "And I'm not seeing Marion, and she's not hiding here! I just wanted some privacy, okay?" I said, my voice coming out higher-pitched than I wanted it to be.

Eliana's eyes widened. "Eeewww!" she said. "I know what you're doing! That'll make you blind! Or so I heard!"

"What?" I was mortified. "No! You are terribly mistaken, Eliana. That's ridiculous! I just wanted to sew in relative quiet and-"

"You better not go blind!" spat Elise. "That's all we need. Then you'd be useless!"

"Look!" I tried to explain. "This dress for Mme. Ouilette. It's nearly finished. I work faster when the three of you aren't bothering me!"

The door opened again; it was my Maman. "Stanley! Where have you been? Eloise told me you finally came back this morning! I've had to take care of your horse for you!"

Mon Dieu. Rosie. I had neglected Rosie as well.

"Maman, I'm sorry. It's a new job I picked up at the castle! I'm really sorry about Rosie, okay?" I went over to give her a hug in greeting. Maman was nervous about horses, but she was willing to feed and water her. But still, Rosie must be getting restless.

"Girls, I'll be back later tonight, okay? I promise. No tavern, no having a beer with Dick and Tom, I'll sew all night if you want!" I went out the sewing room door, then out the shop's door into the street. I hoped to find Lefou.

I found him soon enough. He was walking with two horses- his own Ami, and another chestnut horse.

"Stanley!" he called out to me. My heart leapt with joy.

...

Chapter Text

I quickened my steps as I approached Lefou. He was clumsily trying to walk two horses by the reins; his own Ami, and a new one. I helped him by taking hold of the second horse.

"Thanks, Stanley!" he said cheerily. "So, how'd your day go? Did you get some sewing done?"

"Oui, only one garment so far," I replied with an exasperated laugh. "It never ends. Nice horse! Did you purchase this one for the Prince, then?"

"Actually, the sale is pending." he replied. He patted the side of the big cinnamon-colored mare. "Monsieur Gagne was able to spare this lady. Her name's Cannelle, because of her color. Michel is going to ride into town at noon, on Phillipe, with the payment from Prince Adam."

"Beautiful animal. Is she the only one so far?" I asked.

"No. I've talked to six other people, but they want the money before they give up their horses. They need to make sure Prince Adam keeps his word."

"I know what you mean," I replied. "So many people remember him as a tyrant who taxed them to poverty. It will take some action from him to earn everyone's trust. My mother is one of them," I explained. "I'm about to head over to my place to take care of Rosie. She hasn't been ridden for three days. Would you like to stable Ami and Cannelle there?"

"Sure, Stanley! Merci." We guided the two horses to my own family home, to our livery stable in the back. It had enough room for a team of six horses, which we did have before my Papa died. My late father, Jean Laurent, had been a miller who ground and sold wheat and oats. His old, defunct grain mill still stood several meters from our stable.

Lefou noticed it as we walked by. "Is that your family's old mill, Stanley? That's interesting."

"Oui! My father was the miller for many years. Do you remember him? He only passed away a few years ago. He used to play cards in the tavern with Dick and I."

"Hmm...Monsieur Laurent," Lefou said, his eyes narrowing as he tried to think. "Why don't I remember anyone named 'Monsieur Laurent,' besides you?"

"He was usually known by his nickname, that's why. 'Jean Oats'," I replied. As soon as I mentioned the nickname, Lefou's face lit up in cheerful recognition.

"Yes! I remember him!" Lefou exclamed. "Jean Oats, the miller! He looked like you, Stanley, except older, of course. And he wore a big mustache. I felt so bad when he passed away...I'm sorry I didn't spend more time talking to him, or you, or Dick or Tom much back then. I was always too distracted with Gaston." Lefou's expression lost its merriment; he seemed remorseful.

"It's okay," I said. "I do remember you and Gaston going to his service, and giving Maman and I your condolences. You were so sincere, I recall. Gaston's condolences seemed...scripted."

"That's how he always was," Lefou said in a quiet voice. "Even when each of my parents died. He'd say the words, but they were just that. Words. As if it were something he had to do, but didn't care about on the inside. Even though my Maman practically helped raise him," he added casually.

"Your mother helped raise Gaston?" I asked, not able to resist putting a hand on his shoulder in comfort. Again, I was admiring the way the man could be so impossibly cheerful and upbeat while in so much pain and anguish. He couldn't always hide it every single moment. Yet, he could express it in front of me, and for that I was glad.

"Uh-huh," he replied, nodding while he tried to take control of Ami, who was in a frisky mood, flicking his tail and neighing. Cannelle, the big girl horse, was much calmer for me.

"What was your Maman like? What was her name?" I asked in curiosity.

"Her name was Jeanne-Marie," he told me. "She was the housemaid for Gaston's parents when we were boys. His Maman, Genevieve, died when he was only eight. She caught the coughing disease. And when she was sick, her room upstairs was quarantined. So for a while, Gaston stayed over at our cottage. Maman took care of him at the time his mother died. And after, while his father was going through his grief. That was how we ended up friends in the first place, Stanley. Because I didn't go to Villeneuve Boys' School."

"I see. It is unfortunate that he lost his mother so young."

"Yes," he replied in a solemn tone. "Speaking of that, I do need to go to his house and go through his stuff. Today." He winced as if he were bracing himself for something difficult.

"I'll go there with you." I said in assurance.

My Rosie was in the stable as we walked the two horses in. As soon as she saw us- with Ami and Cannelle- she whipped her head up and whinnied in excitement.

"Rosie!" I exclaimed, rushing to her and hugging her around the neck. I pet her mane and snuggled it, loving the scent of the brown bay mare I'd owned since I was sixteen, when Papa's horses foaled and I'd claimed her for my own. She was now nine years old.

"Hey! Easy, girl! I know, I'll get you out of here right away."

A louder whinny and stomping of hooves distracted me. It was Lefou's horse, acting obnoxious. "Ami! Stop it!" Lefou shouted at him.

Ami snorted loudly, bucking his head up and down aggressively. Rosie and Cannelle both began to imitate his behavior. While I was letting Rosie out of her stall, she whipped around and- Mon Dieu- took a leak on my right boot.

"Oh, for heaven's sake!" I exclaimed, wiping my boot in a pile of hay. Rosie started nuzzling Ami's nose, and it finally dawned on me regarding matters of horse biology. Of course.

"Uh...Lefou? Was Ami ever- you know- gelded?"

"No," he replied. He began to laugh. "Stanley! This is perfect! If Prince Adam wants more horses-" he grinned at Ami's behavior of flicking his tail and joyfully taking turns nuzzling both Rosie's, and Cannelle's hindquarters- "we'll breed him more horses! Unfortunately, it will take a whole year."

"But it'll be a good start, mon ami!" I said. Rosie hadn't given a colt for five years. When she did, she had two beautiful black ones.

"Stanley," Lefou said with a sweetly sly grin- "Perhaps we should leave this...ahem...threesome in the stable for some much needed privacy?"

"Oui! I think Rosie has changed her mind about wanting to leave- now that Ami is here! I should have allowed Magnifique in this little maison de l'amour as well." I said. I had left him in the public stable with Noel, the town ostler, since it was closest to the tailor shop. "Perhaps I will bring Magnifique in to visit these mares later, that is, if Ami hasn't done his job."

"Ami," Lefou called out before we left- "For a horse with a girly name, there's no stallion in town half as manly as you! Bonne Chance!"

We both laughed as we shut the stable door tight and began to walk to the main street of Villeneuve, to the edge of town. Gaston's family estate was on the hill just east of the bridge where a small stream crossed.

"Stanley," Lefou said after we'd left the earshot of our fellow villagers, "This is a strange question- but do you think there are male horses like us?"

I spluttered in laughter. "I don't know!" I managed to say after recovering from a giggle fit. "It does make you wonder, though."

"Hope I can find one, and have one if there are," said Lefou. "Then we'd all be 'freaks of nature' together."

"Birds of a feather flock together!" I retorted. We laughed again.

"I sometimes wonder why I ended up like this," I admitted to him as I glanced around. We were passing a farm field; Gaston's home was on the left. "Because it sure makes life...difficult. My mother would be happier with me if I wasn't, because I'd be married with a child by now."

"But Dick has Cecile, so it's not as if she doesn't have grandchildren," Lefou pointed out. "But uh, I know what you mean. If I were...uh, normal, I probably wouldn't have devoted my whole life to Gaston. And being a father would've been nice...It's pathetic, really."

"Lefou, you are not pathetic."

He looked at me with pain in his eyes, and took my hand as we walked on the path to Gaston's large manor house. No one else could see us.

The house had an air of rustic charm mixed with the refinement; decorative dark wood trim, once-expensive old furniture, and large, mullioned windows. As I expected, the walls of the main downstairs room were adorned with taxidermy- deer, elk, foxes, and even one wolf with a silver coat; its mouth wide open, bearing sharp white fangs. A glass curio cabinet near the grand stone fireplace displayed Gaston's collection of weapons- muskets, pistols, blunderbusses, and four sets of bows and arrow quivers, all mounted and ready for use. On one wall was a collection of military medals on colorful ribbons. The place was clearly the home of the quintessential 'man among men.'

Out of curiosity, I opened a door nearby and entered a messy bedroom.

"That was Gaston's room," Lefou said. "That's where I need to go through his stuff." He took a deep breath, preparing himself, and went in, opening a chest of drawers. He took out several shirts, stockings, various common articles of clothing. I watched his expression; he seemed well-composed.

"I'll probably throw most of these away. Or burn them." He dug into the bottom of the drawer. After looking a moment, he gave an audible gasp.

"He kept this old stuff?"

"What?" I asked.

"Mon Dieu! I made these!" Lefou took out several wax medallions that were tied with crude rawhide strings. "I made these for him when I was nine or ten years old! They were his...'prizes!'"

"Prizes?" I picked up one of the medallions. It was made of candle wax and still smelled like a candle. It was molded into a circular disc shape with a hole in the center, covered with chipped red paint. It did look like something a child had made.

"When Gaston and I played together, sometimes with others, we used to do target shooting competitions with his slingshot or bow. He would get a perfect bullseye quite often," Lefou recalled. "And whenever he shot five bullseyes in one day, I'd award him with a red medallion. When he made ten bullseyes in one day, I'd make him a gold medallion. Like these two. I loved making this stuff for him!"

He held two of the gold-painted wax medallions in his hands. "I just can't believe he kept them all these years."

"They were fine works of art," I told him, smiling.

Lefou blinked his eyes once or twice, trying to fight back tears again. "Twenty years," he said in a cracked voice.

"Since you saw them last?" I asked.

"It's been twenty years. But holding these medallions makes it feel like yesterday. I remember being just a kid, collecting my Papa's used candles, and melting the wax. And when it cooled off enough to not burn my hands, I molded these and painted them, and tied them with string. Gaston was so happy getting the medallions for prizes. I'd wrap them up in paper, and when he opened them and put them on, he'd smile just like it was Christmas morning!"

Lefou wiped his eyes, trying his best to not weep once again. "He liked getting them, because it was proof he could shoot better than all the other boys. But...I used to believe he liked getting them because they were from me. His best friend."

I stepped forward and embraced him tightly in my arms. "He did. You were his best friend. That's why he kept them, Lefou."

"But he...betrayed me. I didn't mean as much to him as he meant to-"

"Lefou, listen!" I raised my voice, almost in a scolding tone. "You have to believe that there was a part of Gaston that still cared about you. That night, you see, he was overcome with madness. Jealousy. Rage. His demons took over him, Lefou."

"But...Stanley..." His voice sounded tearful, and I could see his head shaking 'no' against my shoulder.

"Here is my belief," I said sternly. "Take it or leave it. I think deep down inside, there was still...a little Gaston- a more innocent Gaston- who treasured your friendship. Who treasured these-" I gripped one of the little medallions in my hand- "because you were important to him. You cannot keep torturing yourself! Believing that one night- one night of unhinged madness- could completely cancel out twenty years of devoted friendship!"

"But it hurts," came his answer in a whisper. "It doesn't hurt as much if I believe he was completely evil, all along!" He was crying again, and my heart was breaking. This precious, kind soul deserved so much better.

"I know, mon ami. It hurts like hell for you. I cannot say I know how you feel. I've...never been close friends with anyone like Gaston. I had my brother, and Tom. They were all I had. Sure, they bore me to death sometimes. But I'd rather have the cozy warmth of boredom in my life, than endure the hot and cold of being with Gaston. As unforgettable...and larger than life as he was."

He nodded. "He was unforgettable."

I grasped the childish wax medallion and put it around his neck, lifting his wavy hair up and out of the way. When it was on, I smoothed his unruly hair back in place.

"And I believe you deserve a prize for befriending this...man all his life. It was truly an act of selflessness."

I bent down and gave him a kiss on the forehead this time.

"Thank you for being...you, Stanley," Lefou said, clutching me around the waist.

"You're more than welcome."

"Stanley?"

"Yes, mon ami?"

"You described your life with Dick and Tom as the 'cozy warmth of boredom.' What's it like with me? Is it the same?" He raised his head to look at me with watery eyes.

I touched his slightly reddened cheek. "It's very, very warm. But not boring at all."

"For me, it's almost like...fire. You make me melt," he said in a somewhat self-conscious whisper. "And I don't know if...that's good. On second thought, it isn't good at all."

"Why?"

A shadow of fear crossed his face. "Because I don't want anything bad to happen to you, on account of me."

"It's this damned village," I hissed.

Lefou gulped. "W-we must only be friends, Stanley. Friends. Nothing more."

Tears pricked the back of my eyes. "I understand. For your safety, as well."

"Gaston is dead, Stanley. He did protect me from what people could've thought. Everybody just assumed the way I acted sometimes- y'know, the singing and dancing in the tavern- was a joke. Just us being best friends and old war buddies. Me being silly, not holding my liquor well. If something starts involving you, people will finally realize something's up. We have to be careful."

I had heard stories from Dick before. My brother, the jovial and friendly blacksmith that he was, heard gossip from talking to strangers from other villages and towns. Juicy, 'harmless' gossip about men who had been shamed. More than shamed, in fact. Men strung up in trees. Nooses tied around their necks.

Because of who they loved.

I wondered who could possibly hurt us if they found out. Or who might tell to someone else who would. Not Dick or Tom! Mon Dieu, it couldn't ever be Dick. My own brother? He couldn't. And certainly not Tom, who was also like a brother.

Pere Robert? Whose authority would be backed up by Scripture? Never. He was too kind and pious.

The bartender? I didn't think so. He was quiet and kept his opinions to himself, content with selling his drinks and not minding anyone's personal business.

His wife, Colette, was more talkative, did know everyone's business, and she tended to wear the trousers in their relationship. But the round-bodied woman with the elaborate hairdo adored both Lefou and I. She was the village's equivalent of Madame de Garderobe. We could do no wrong in her eyes.

Monsieur Durand, the aging schoolmaster who had taught me? The stern man would have a soft spot for me. I was once his favorite student, because I was sharp at arithmetic and reading. The baker, the butcher- every other adult man? Too involved with their own families, wives, children and livelihoods. Why would we offend them?

I found myself feeling paranoid, as if anyone we trusted could turn on us. Friendly faces we hold dear, the good citizens of Villeneuve, flashed before my eyes. It hurt to imagine all of them that way. Wielding torches, ropes, and guns. Forming another angry mob.

One must only tread in safe waters. I embraced Lefou again, loving the feel of his firm grip around my waist.

"My beloved friend...forever." I said, feeling joyous but crushed all at once.

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 11- Surprise from Big Brother

...

I spent the rest of that evening helping Lefou go through Gaston's items in the depressingly empty manor house. After a few hours, I invited him to join me for dinner at my home with Maman.

She was happy to see I was helping my grieving friend- though his mood was excessively cheerful though dinner. He made her laugh several times with his jokes about the horses. Finally, after Maman gave Lefou a basket of her cinnamon rolls, we went our separate ways. Lefou left for his cottage for the night. His plan for the next day was to work with Michel to buy and deliver horses to the castle.

As for me, I started out at the crack of dawn the next day meeting with Aunt Sophie and the triplets in the tailor shop. With great excitement, they showed me the clothing patterns that Belle had sketched out and drawn herself. I was impressed with her talent in design. I should have realized it before with her innovative dress pockets and such. Fortunately the dresses she designed did not feature pockets for books.

It was now decided that for Adam and Belle's celebration ball, we as villagers would be wearing uniformly matched outfits. Black waistcoat vests with gold stitching, black breeches and white blouses for all of the men, and formal white dancing gowns with matching frilly bonnets for all of the women.

Thankfully, an army of seamstresses and tailors were helping to make their own suits and gowns in their homes. I definitely needed to stay in town the next few days to oversee and help with whatever was needed. Lefou promised me he would speak with Madame de Garderobe, since I wanted to finish Belle's magnificent ballgown with her and have that done by Tuesday.

The celebration was in only one week! Mon Dieu!

I couldn't wait to see what this would look like. Everyone from Villeneuve, dancing in the castle's grand ballroom dressed to the nines in elegant black, white and gold? Certainly a once in a lifetime event. It needed a pop of color, in my opinion. I had the idea that us men ought to wear burgundy hairbows and cravats.

Full of ambition for the tight deadline, I began sewing another multilayered, snowy white frock. The name on the tag? Elise's.

...

Dick's entrance into the sewing room of the tailor shop caused me to startle, dropping my needle and thread.

"Where were you for three days this week, Stanley? Maman said you and Lefou came by for dinner last night. Why didn't you stop by to see us?"

"I'm terribly sorry, Dick," I said with remorse. My brother missed me. "I know it was rude leaving the girls and Aunt Sophie behind, and not going to see you yesterday. It's just that I got a job offer at the castle this week. Making up the gown for Belle. I couldn't turn it down. And now I have other ballgowns on top of that. I'm swamped, Dick. So if you want to have a beer with me, you'll have to sit and drink it here and watch me make dresses."

"I know about the job offer, " said Dick. "Lefou told me. I know you were at the castle. I just want to know why you stayed away for almost four whole days without TELLING us."

"I'm back now, though, so don't worry about me anymore," I said in a nonchalant tone. I fumbled with my needle and tried to concentrate on the line of stitching.

Dick stood there for a long while in silence, studying me with a puzzled look. "What happened to your lip?" he finally asked.

"Oh, this?" I pointed to my lip and gave Dick a grin. "I think it must've happened during the castle battle. Must have swelled up afterward."

"You were with us the whole day after the battle. I didn't see anything wrong with your face then."

I forced a laugh. "I'm fine! Like I said, don't worry about me. I can handle a minor injury anytime, you know me."

"I'm worried about you."

"Don't be." I looked down at my meticulous stitching of the bodice of Elise's ballgown. "Ah, magnifique!" I commented. "Not bad. Say, Dick, could you get Aunt Sophie in here to see this?"

Dick groaned in frustration. "Stanley- I know you like the back of my own hand. For one thing, you have never NOT been where you're supposed to be your entire LIFE."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that."

"But it's true. Sure as the sun goes up in the east, I've been able to look to my right-hand side and see you there. Okay, sometimes to my left, but for the most part, you're been at my right-hand side ever since we slept in trundle beds," Dick reminisced. "So when I pass by Aunt Sophie's dress shop the other morning, and Elise, Eliana, and Eloise are throwing conniptions 'cause you're missing- that tells me that something's going on with you. Something big."

"Well, yes, Dick. You're right!" I said cheerily. "A chance to be the royal tailor and dressmaker in His Highness' castle is a pretty big opportunity."

Dick narrowed his eyes in thought. "True. But there's more than that."

"Oh?" I said, looking back to down at my sewing.

"I'm getting old, Stanley. I know...people." Dick looked at the ceiling and scratched his chin. "I notice other people, their habits. Same way I know myself."

"Brilliant, Dick. Your insight is truly amazing. I'm awed and inspired by you," I said, keeping my eyes on the line of stitching. Mon Dieu, I was quoting lines from that little song my dearest person had made up and sang back in simpler times, only a week ago. Heaven help me.

Dick grinned. "Now, that. 'S what I'm talking about. You've always been the 'quiet one.' But when you DO speak up and say something, it's a zinger. Sometimes when you say something, your mouth has gotten you in trouble. And I have this feeling, Stanley...that you ran your mouth off to someone recently, and THAT'S why your lip looks like that. Am I correct?"

"You're somewhere in that realm, I'd say."

"I heard this one saying a couple times," said Dick with a pedantic air. "They say 'love makes you crazy.' When you start going off your normal routine, and you start taking risks- it might just mean the love bug has bit you good."

"Interesting." I adjusted the dress bodice to start a new stitching line. I caressed the soft white fabric, holding it up to look at it. "I can't wait to begin making the skirt on this ballgown. Elise should look lovely in it."

"I am sure she will, but let's get back to-"

"You're invited to this ball, too, Dick! You should have us make Martine a new dress. Take her out to dance. I think it's time Martine gets some romance from YOU, since you've touched on the subject."

Dick hung his head a little guiltily. "You're right. She'd probably like that. We need to arrange for someone to take care of Cecile, though."

"I can watch Cecile."

"Non!" Dick argued. "We'll find someone else. Because I want to see YOU romancing someone."

"Dick, look- I'm not looking for a wife," I replied. "We've been through this over and over."

"Stanley, I know what's going on. I finally got it through my thick head that we CAN'T make you get a wife- just the same as I can't get Tom to think about subjects above beer, food and card games. You're in love, Stanley. And it's someone you can't actually, well...marry."

What? Who does he think it is? What is he implying?

I shrugged and lowered his eyes back to the dress bodice. I was trying to hide my shock and worry, but instead I was likely making a face that resembled a child having to swallow cod liver oil.

"So," Dick continued, "If you want to be with him, if you wanna dance with him, I will-"

"Him? WHAT?" I yelled, my head jerking up. My heart was pounding like Rosie's hooves on a foxhunt. No.

Dick, please, you cannot know this stuff. But he kind of does. He'd told me about those lynchings.

Dick continued to talk very fast, as if he needed to spit it all out before I could interrupt him further.

"I'll support you in any way I can, because you're my brother and I love you and that is all that matters. I don't care about rules or what people say, and Tom will never figure it out 'cause he don't know his nose from his ass, and Maman might cry a little but she won't disown you 'cause she's just too kind and loves you too. I just want you to be HAPPY!"

I was stunned a moment; my mouth starting to fall agape. My burly carpenter brother, several years my senior, was blinking very rapidly and gazing at me with affection. I watched Dick turn away for a moment, sweeping his finger over one eye and shaking his head in emotion.

I finally spoke up, firmly in damage control mode. "Dick, what...w-what are you implying? I know I've been way too picky about girls. I'm always been kind of shy, you know me. I just haven't been able to click with any-"

"Cut the crap, Stanley! I said I KNOW!" Dick thundered. He glanced at the door, checking to see if a certain aunt or three nosy cousins were around; they were not.

I blinked a few times, the news slowly sinking in that I could trust my dear brother to support me and protect me, and Lefou, from being strung up on a tree or thrown in the asylum.

I took the fabric and thread and needle, and set them all gently upon an empty chair. I stood up and walked closer to him. A lump the size of a baguette was clogging my throat.

"But I'm...abnormal. I'll let my whole family down." I whispered, shaking. I was trying very hard not to cry again. Crying in front of Madame de Garderobe was one thing. But this- this was Dick!

"Stanley," Dick said with shimmering eyes, his arms held out wide. "You have two eyes, one nose, one mouth with a slightly puffy lip, strong arms and legs, and you look just like Papa. You're tall and good looking. You were an excellent student in school. I mean, you were the Headmaster's pet! There is NOTHING...abnormal about you. Or Lefou, either. He's a fine fellow."

Dick stepped closer and wrapped me in his sturdy, muscular arms. I stiffened a moment; then relaxed. I hugged him back as tightly as he could and whispered a soft, broken, "Merci" into Dick's shabbily-stitched shirt seam.

"So...who punched you in the mouth?" Dick asked me as he broke the embrace.

"Lefou did," I admitted. "He and I went through a...rocky start. I ran my mouth off a little, like you said. And he has a lot more backbone than he had about a week ago. But we're fine now."

"That is good," Dick whispered. "And I won't breathe a word. If anyone thinks anything, you know...or tries to start something, they'd be dealing with ME."

Dick cracked his knuckles threateningly.

...

I spent the next several hours in a state of shock and relief as I measured and cut and sewed. Eloise and Aunt Sophie brought me some fruit and cheese as I would not leave the sewing room until I could finish at least two gowns. My aunt and I worked our fingers to the bone, while the three girls sewed some simple hems in the adjoining room.

I could hear them talking about who would be at the ball. They seemed to have it in their heads that Adam's royal relatives would also be there, but of that I wasn't certain. They all hoped to follow in the footsteps of Belle, of course. My guess on that was it's 'never gonna happen.'

It was ten thirty at night when I decided to retire to my and my mother's house. The next morning was a repeat of the same; my fingers working with white organza and satin, threading it all together. I also picked up some fine black fabric for the men's vests and breeches.

To prepare and begin work on one, I went to look in the files where each of the men customers had their measurements written down. I thumbed though and found a file of a man I knew; one who stood an endearing five-foot-five and possessed a generous thirty-eight inch waist and a short inseam of twenty eight inches.

I smiled, thinking of how elegant he would look at the ball.

...

Chapter Text

The evening everyone was anticipating finally arrived. The night of the ball.

I took my mother with me, after much convincing. I had sewed her a dress, so she had no excuse to say no. Just because my father was gone did not mean she couldn't socialize and have a magical evening in a grand castle ballroom!

"Stanley, you look so handsome!" Maman said as I fixed my curled hair in the mirror. "Perhaps you will capture the attention of one of the maids tonight."

"Oh, I don't know," I said abashedly, shrugging. Dick had left it up to me to have the discussion in due time, and I was wondering how to go about it. I decided to let the opportunity present itself when appropriate.

"You look lovely as well, Maman," I told her. She was wearing one of the nearly identical white gowns with lace and gold trim. Her frilly bonnet and bit of rouge makeup made her look like a young girl again.

"You will be amazed at the sight of the castle," I told her. "It's about time you came to see it."

"I can't wait to see it, Stanley. But I'm still concerned! Dick promised to take Martine. I hope he found someone to mind Cecile. I planned on watching her," she fretted.

"Cecile is coming with them," I told her matter-of-factly. "There are tons of little children living in the castle- the children of servants. They will play together. There's a huge staff, Maman. Plenty of adult supervision."

"All right, then...as long as she's taken care of. And Dick and Martine can have a proper date night for once," she said with a nervous sigh.

"Shall we go to the carriage?"

"Oui. Merci, honey," she said to me as I took her by the arm and we stepped into our carriage. I knew that Lefou was already at the castle. He was busy the day before, working with the horses. From what he'd told me, he was on the brink of being hired by Prince Adam as another horse groom. I was very proud of him, and of course overjoyed with the thought that we would be working together, as part of the castle staff.

...

When I walked up the castle's stone staircase, Lefou greeted me. He was wearing his outfit that was nearly identical to the one that I- and nearly everyone else- was wearing. The gold braiding on his waistcoat was slightly different in pattern than mine. He had grown a little mustache from not shaving the past few days. The other day, he'd sported some rough and lovely stubble on his chin, but he'd shaved that off today and kept the mustache. He looked dashing.

"Stanley! Welcome back!" he called to me, his tenor voice bright as ever.

"Good evening," I said, pulling him into a hug.

"Hello, Lefou!" My mother said in greeting. Lefou pulled away from me and hugged her, as well.

"You look so beautiful, Madame Laurent!" he exclaimed.

"Merci. I'm so happy that Stanley has a friend like you," Maman replied, pleased to get a compliment from such a charming young man who was not her son. A moment later, Dick, Martine, little Cecile, Tom, and his wife and children approached us. We all walked in together to the ballroom, amazed by the lovely sights and sounds.

Madame de Garderobe and Monsieur Cadenza were at the front stage, already performing a tune. Madame- dressed in a cream and light blue striped gown and bedecked with blue ribbons- held her little dog in her arms as she sang a soft aria. She was in her element as the opera diva of the night. Cadenza's harpsichord music rang through the hall, as well as Monsieur Chapeau's violin and a few other musicians of the castle.

Belle and Prince Adam were welcoming each guest in a receiving line, which we filed into as we passed the front doors.

"Where are your cousins?" Lefou asked me.

"I haven't seen them yet. I think they plan to be fashionably late," I said with a laugh.

Sure enough, ten minutes later Elise, Eliana, and Eloise arrived with Aunt Sophie and took the very end of the line. By then, Maman had come to Prince Adam and Belle for her turn to greet them. She bowed to Adam with a polite 'Your Highness.'

Then it was my turn to greet the hosts. I bowed to Prince Adam, who was dressed in a fine powder-blue suit trimmed with white lace. His flaxen, curled hair was tied back with a blue hairbow, foregoing a white nobleman's wig which would make him appear older. He was probably only a year or two older than me.

"Greetings, Your Highness," I said.

"Greetings to you- royal tailor. The job is yours, you know." Adam grinned boyishly, gesturing to Belle in her new gown.

"Merci," I said in a hoarse voice. It was official!

I glanced at Belle and her finery. Her ballgown, which was made partly by me and partly by Madame de Garderobe- since I had been so tied up with dressmaking in Villeneuve- was breathtaking. The white organza was set off by peach-colored roses. The skirt was multi-layered, floaty and voluminous without the outdated panniers that would make movement awkward.

She smiled, her face glowing in joy and love for her fiance. We knew that the wedding date would be announced tonight, and all of the ladies were buzzing about when that would be.

"You look lovely, Mademoiselle," I said to her, taking her outstretched hand.

"Merci, Monsieur Laurent," said Belle. "Thank you for your help with the gowns."

I wanted to say that she can just call me Stanley, but I saw her eyes turn to Lefou, who was behind me in line.

"Our royal horse tender and stable manager! Welcome to our staff, Monsieur Lefou," I heard Adam say, while Belle grasped his hands in welcome.

"You look very well, Monsieur Lefou," Belle said to him.

"I am. I'm doing great!" Lefou said cheerily. He glanced back at me and we shared an affectionate look. He then realized in his excitement he'd forgotten to bow to Adam, so he bowed quickly, awkwardly. When Dick and Martine had their turn to greet the Prince and future Princess, Lefou quickened his step to walk alongside me.

"Congratulations on the stableman's position!" I said.

"Thank you, Stanley! And congratulations on the tailor job! I suppose we'll be having a dance with the ladies. Should be fun, though," he added in nonchalance.

"Oui. It should be fun," I replied. "We'll likely be doing the minuet. Do you know how to do the minuet, Lefou?"

"Uh...no. Is it difficult?"

"Not really," I replied. "I learned it my last year at Villeneuve School for Boys. We had a spring dance every year where we got to mingle with girls. I wasn't too bad at it. I know you're quite the vigorous dancer, Lefou. You'll do fine," I added, giving him a playful tap on the shoulder.

He blushed a little. "I can only assume that was due to how many tankards I used to drink! Say, do you see a punch bowl anywhere? I'm getting thirsty."

"Good question." I glanced around the grand ballroom, now filled with milling, laughing villagers, until I spotted the table that people were heading to. "Right there!"

We followed the herd to the long table, covered with vases of flowers and little petit-four cakes on tiny napkins. Instead of helping ourselves, we saw that Mrs. Potts and three other servants were pouring a honey-colored drink into little crystal glasses and handing them out.

"Hello, dears!" Mrs. Potts called to us over the din of music and voices. "Would you care for a spot of cold sweet tea?"

"Merci, Mrs. Potts," we said together as we took the fancy glasses from her. It was delicious cold tea, sweet and refreshing. While we stood near the tea table, it looked as if Prince Adam and Belle had finally finished personally greeting every single Villeneuve resident. They descended the stage, and walked hand in hand to the center of the ballroom. Once there, Adam gestured to Madame de Garderobe, and she began to sing a new aria. Cadenza swept his fingers across the harpsichord with a flourish, his face shining with joy and good humor. The music was happy and vibrant.

Adam and Belle faced each other and began the steps to the dance. Lumiere and Plumette also moved to the center of the hall.

"Ladies in a line to this side of the hall! Gentlemen in a line to that side!" Lumiere shouted out. He pointed and directed with one hand, holding Plumette's in the other. "My lovely wife and I will teach you the steps, if you are not familiar with the minuet! Do not be shy, ladies and gentlemen!"

We all formed lines, and before I knew it, we were getting a refresher course on the steps to formal ballroom dancing. I was loving it! Soon I found myself partnered up with Eloise. Even a member of the Tiresome Threesome could not put a damper on my spirits.

"There's a pucker in my waistband," she whispered to me with a wrinkled nose as we touched hands and pivoted left.

"I apologize," I said, smirking at her. We gracefully moved our wrists and palms out, touched them, and pivoted right.

"You aren't up to a job like this- with mistakes like that!" my cousin sneered with a put-upon, sickly-sweet smile. She flounced away into the hands of her next gentleman partner, a fellow I didn't know that well. From the adoring look on Eloise's face, I knew she was in hope that he had a title in front of his name.

A girl from town named Fleur was my next partner. "Bonjour!" the brunette greeted me as I took her hand.

"Bonjour, Fleur! Are you enjoying yourself this evening?" I took her around the waist, she clutched my shoulders, and we spun around merrily. She gave me a look I'd seen in the eyes of many ladies in town before. I knew when a girl liked me. I never minded it, but as always, I'd keep them at arm's length.

"Oui- I am!" she replied, her dark eyes shining. My next partner was Madeleine, a cute woman with golden curls. She'd married the current grain miller last year, after two years of giving me the longing eye on Sunday Mass. Her husband Pierre was over to my left. After exchanging pleasantries and executing the steps and movements, I let her drift off to his arms.

I glanced across the hall to see where Lefou was. His current partner was Eliana. I had to laugh. I could see her lips moving, and it was likely she was complaining about something to him. I just hope she had the decency to not mention Gaston's name. 'Oh, Lefou! If only Gaston were here, can you imagine?' Please, Eliana- don't.

Lefou was smiling and was clearly enjoying himself and the dance. He'd learned the steps quick, and was at it like an expert. Watching him in admiration, I almost stepped on Madame Moreau's toes as we pivoted. We switched partners again, and now Lefou was dancing with Fleur. I was dancing with Therese, Tom's sister.

"Hello, Stanley!" Therese said as we spun around. "Congratulations on the new job!"

"Merci!" I replied. I noticed that a few people had tired of the first dance. A few pairs were breaking away, leaving to get a drink. The bit of disorder that resulted gave me an idea.

It was time to switch partners.

I had Lefou in the corner of my eye. As soon as he let go of the lady's hand, I moved quickly across the line over to him. In a blink of an eye, I captured him in the first dance position.

We spun around; he gave me a surprised look. My grip on him tightened as we settled into the steps, his arm clutching my shoulder.

"Bonjour!" I whispered.

"Stanley! Uh, hi!"

"You're good at this!"

"Thanks!" His face lit up, his complexion the color of roses. "Are you sure about...y'know?" he asked as we performed the next step- touching each other's hands, pivoting around, and touching hands again.

"Why not?" I replied. "I messed the line up, though. Look!" I gestured to my right. Cogsworth and Lumiere were now dancing together. Lumiere's head was thrown back in a loud laugh, and the aged majordomo looked almost giddy.

Because of my- ahem- misstep, the male and female partners in the circle got all mixed up. It created a domino effect. Cogsworth had to go to Lumiere, Eliana had to go to Elise, and Fleur was dancing with a lady. We could hear a din of tittering and giggles at the mix-up.

Maestro Cadenza's music stopped, and Madame de Garderobe finished her song. "Magnifique, everyone! Wonderful dance," announced Madame. "We were slightly out of order, but no worries, darlings! Right, Your Highness?"

"Non, not at all!" said Prince Adam. He was in the very center of the circle of dancers, his hand still grasping Belle's. "And now that we have your attention, ladies and gentlemen, we want to make our announcement. The royal wedding will be...on the ninth of September."

Applause and cheers erupted in the crowd. Less than two months away. Belle was beaming, a blush forming on her pretty cheeks.

People continued to applaud. When it finally quieted, Maestro Cadenza struck a new chord for a new minuet movement and dance to begin. Before Madame started to sing, Lumiere shouted out to the crowd one more time.

"Everyone, this next minuet will be a little more difficult. But if you are brave enough- ha ha! Be our guest!" the vivacious maître d' laughed. He took Plumette in his arms again.

"Stanley!" Lefou touched my elbow. His voice was a loud whisper. "Wanna go out?" He pointed one thumb toward the door.

"Out?" I replied, confused.

"The rose gardens!" he said, stepping closer to me. He was grinning from ear to ear, having much enjoyed the rather silly idea of dancing with me.

"But I thought you'd be up to trying the more difficult minuet. Lumiere said it would be perfect for those who are brave."

"I may be brave enough, Stanley. But um...I'm not quite certain that YOU would be skilled enough?"

"What do you mean? I'm plenty skilled at dancing," I argued.

"Plenty skilled, huh?" He raised an eyebrow. "Wasn't it you who caused the circle to get mixed up?"

"That was intentional, you know."

"Intentional?" Lefou's face flushed crimson.

"Oui, Lefou. Let's take a stroll out to the rose garden, shall we?"

"Okay! Let's do that," he chirped, in the high, breathy tenor he put on whenever he was in an exuberant or giddy mood. We dodged several people to reach the door, hoping to avoid any of my family. We tore down the staircase and ran like little kids to the rose garden, seeking its shelter and fragrance in the evening's coolness.

"You didn't have anything to drink beyond Mrs. Potts' cold tea, did you?" I asked him once we were alone.

"No. Why?"

"You're almost your old self again, like you used to be in the tavern," I replied, giving an affectionate laugh. "You're all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. All you need now is to burst into song."

"Really? I guess I am, on account of my company tonight. I almost feel like singing again."

"Can you think of a song?" I asked him in challenge.

"I'm not feeling too creative, but I do have Madame's song in my head. So your wish is my command. Ahem!" He put a fist to his mouth and cleared his throat comically.

"Tale as old as time...true as it can be..."

He stretched out his arms like a showman. He was back. The man I secretly called Villeneuve's 'ray of sunshine'...was back! I almost wanted to cry with joy.

I listened as he continued singing the song that we'd just heard Madame de Garderobe perform for Prince Adam and Belle, which was obviously 'their' song. He put his own spin on it, not being able to sing operatically like Madame. In his voice, it sounded more like...well, I wasn't sure. But it was charming.

"You should change the words to make it fit us!" I suggested, laughing a little.

Lefou shot me a knowing look while in the middle of singing the last stanza. "Beauty and...The Foooool!"

He put his raised arms back down. "How was that?"

"Very good but...no!" I exclaimed, clutching him around the shoulders. "No-no-no, mon ami! You are not the fool.'"

"Ooh!" He pointed an accusing finger at me, eyes wide and twinkling. His mouth formed a teasing little 'o.' "I knew it!" he shouted. "Who said you're the Beauty, Stanley? Maybe I wanted to be 'Beauty!'"

I laughed so hard. Yes, he got me there. I was showing my ego. Perhaps I wasn't that unlike Gaston, after all.

"Now that's more fitting!" I exclaimed, once I caught my breath. "You got me there. I'm the fool. You're my Beauty."

He clutched my shoulders, his eyes ablaze with cheer. "Stanley?"

"Oui?"

"How's your busted lip? Is it better?"

"Sure, I guess. I barely even th-mmff-"

I couldn't finish my sentence, because he was grasping me around the fabric of my shirtsleeves, pulling me down to his level and pressing his lips against mine.

It caught me off guard, I admit. It was so hard and fast, so eager, that his colliding teeth hurt my still-tender lower lip. Just a bit.

"Whoa!" I said, pulling away and letting out a little laugh. "Mon amour...how about this? More tender. Softly, okay?"

So I showed him what I meant. I kissed him myself, in a much more gentle, tender manner.

He was so soft, so sweet. I could taste the cold tea on his lips, the slight hint of peaches. My heart swelled with devotion to this dear soul.

"Wow," he breathed after he let me go.

"I warranted a 'wow.' Not bad for my first kiss." I teased.

"Stanley," he breathed. He repeated my name, a few more times. I knew why. He had explained it to me before. But it no longer seemed like he trying to avoid saying 'Gaston' by accident. I think he was luxuriating in my name, tasting it on his lips, trying to convince himself it was real.

That he was loved.

"Stanley...did you just call me mon amour?"

"I did. I hope that's all right with you."

"That's...that's fine!" He nodded in enthusiasm, like a child who was just asked if he'd like a huge slice of chocolate cake. "Perfectly fine. Um, yeah..."

"And besides that," I said as I held his cheek in my palm, "would you please let me call you by your first name? Étienne?"

"Yes. I'd like that." He closed his eyes. "Mon Dieu...I feel like I'm dreaming, or something. Please don't wake me-"

"Je t'aime...my Étienne," I said, insistent. I punctuated his name by pressing my lips to his cheek.

"Je t'aime," Lefou replied, in a whisper. We were entrenched behind tall hedges, completely hidden from the party in the castle. He threw his arms around me once more, into a tight, firm embrace, almost knocking the wind out of my lungs with his bear hug. I took a deep breath, inhaling the fragrance of roses.

...

Chapter Text

I kissed my dear friend on the cheek one more time; moving up to his forehead. I was about to go for a kiss on his lips once more. He tugged on my shirtsleeves, pulling me down to his level to meet my face, looking nearly drunk with love. For me!

It was at that moment that we heard voices behind us. Ladies' voices.

"I swear I saw him a few moments ago, Joelle. I'm certain he-"

"Stanley? Is that you? What...who?"

I pulled away from Lefou and turned around. Two women were standing not ten feet away from us. It was Mrs. Potts. And my mother.

"Maman!" I shrieked, my voice sounding like I'd taken a bullet to the bread basket. Mon Dieu. Oh, God, no. My mother. She saw us.

Her eyes were wide in confusion. Not so much disdain, but confusion. "Monsieur Lefou?" she said, in a questioning tone. Mrs. Potts was silent, but I saw her turn a worried eye toward my mother.

"W-we...we were talking," I blurted out, stammering. "He needed some time alone, y-you know, with losing Gaston and all, and I just-"

"Oh! I guess...but, it almost looked like..." Maman's voice was trembling. She shook her head, perplexed, shocked. I glanced at Lefou. His face had turned white as a sheet, he was at a loss for words.

"Joelle, love, shall we go back inside?" Mrs. Potts said to her long-lost friend sweetly, taking her by the arm. "Now that we found your son, we know that he's still here, so let's just let them...continue with their talk."

Maman nodded silently, giving me that confused look as if she had thought for a moment that I'd grown giant horns and sprouted fur like the Beast, then turned back to normal a second later. "All right, Beatrice...Stanley, I'd like to go home in an hour, if you don't mind-"

"Dear, don't worry, your son will take you home when he's ready. You're welcome to stay with us in a guest room if it turns too late. I've missed you, you know..."

Mrs. Potts' soothing voice faded as they walked away. My heart was pounding so hard it nearly hurt my chest. I faced Lefou again.

"I'm sorry. She saw," I said in a tight voice.

"I...I know. But maybe she didn't. She didn't look angry." He was grasping for hope, but he looked just as nerve-wracked as I was.

"She never gets that angry, Lefou. I don't think she understands. I'm not sure if she's even heard of...our condition...even though she has a son who has it."

"How could you explain it to her?"

"I don't know, I do not know," I repeated, shaking my head. "Dick knows."

"What?" He gasped. "Dick? How do you know he knows? He's so..."

"He's not as ignorant as he seems, Lef-um, Étienne. He might just be a village carpenter and furniture builder, but that doesn't mean he's never heard of men...with men. He accepts me. And you. He told me."

"Really?"

"Yes. And he promised me he'd never tell a soul, and if anyone did or said anything to us, they'd have to answer to him."

"But...there's still other people in Villeneuve who could talk. Dick can't protect us forever. And even if your mother tells someone what she just saw, because she doesn't understand, then that person might understand." He was shuddering with dread.

"I know. I think we need to stay in this castle, the rest of our lives, to be safe." I caressed his shoulders and arms protectively. "I won't let anyone do anything to you."

Lefou looked at me with an increasingly sober expression. "Gaston said those exact same words to me long ago," he said in a quiet voice.

"When? He didn't care about your well-being the night he died!"

"During the war, Stanley. He never wanted me to fight on the front lines. And he never wanted me to make friends with any of the other soldiers. I realize now that it's because he knew about me all along. He wanted to keep me naive and ignorant, so that I'd believe I was the only man on earth like this. I, um...I learned that wasn't the case, though. Before you, I mean." He sighed in discomfort.

Bitterness I still harbored for the dead man gripped me at his words. "Am I going to have to live forever being compared to him? I mean, I respect that he was your childhood friend. I respect all the good things, everything you cherish about his memory. But please don't think I'm going to pull what he pulled with you!"

"I won't. I'm sorry," he said in earnest, his voice calmer than mine. "I trust you, I can see it. The honesty in your eyes. It's just hard to see it as reality, Stanley. Because this is...this is so not how my life has gone. Not until now..."

He paused to break his gaze away from me, to clear his mind and emotions, it seemed. After a moment, he looked me in the eyes again.

"I wish you didn't have to hide your feelings, all this time. Gosh, Stanley- to think that you and I could've..."

"Don't worry about the past!" I replied, my voice a low whisper mirroring his. "We can't undo what has already happened. We can only look to the future, mon amour."

"I know. But still, I'm so sorry, Stanley. I honestly never would have known about you before! You're so..."

"Manly?" I asked, smiling a little.

"Yeah."

"But I'm nothing like he was!" I argued, trying to keep my voice low. I kept looking around, expecting more people to come into the gardens. We were alone, for now.

"No. You're not like he was," Lefou assured me. "And I'm happy you're not. He used me to his advantage, and I know you'll never do that. Please don't compare yourself to him anymore, will you? Promise?"

I reached down and played with his forelocks of hair affectionately. My fingers wrapped around a loose, dark curl. "I promise,' I said. "I have to go see my mother and family, and take them home soon. Can we continue our discussion tomorrow?"

"Yes. Sure." He nodded, clutching my hands and squeezing them. We walked out of the rose gardens with a safe boundary of space between us. People were talking and laughing in the balcony and near the staircases, enjoying some evening air while the sun was setting.

When we walked into the ballroom, the dancing was still under way, though many had broken away to talk and enjoy fellowship, sitting in clusters around the perimeter. My mother was sitting in one of these groups, with Mrs. Potts, her husband, and their little boy. Cecile sat in Maman's lap.

"Unka 'Tanwey!" Her little face brightened when she saw me. "Where woo' you?"

"Hello, Cecile," I said, picking my niece up and hugging her. She wore a lacy white dress, and looked like a little golden cherub.

"Chip, dear, this is Cecile's Uncle Stanley. He's Étienne's good friend," Mrs. Potts said to her son, who looked to be about six or seven years old. There were a few other children nearby, sitting on the floor and playing with tops, small balls, and building blocks. I wonder who had provided all the toys.

"Hi, Uncle Stanley! Hi, Monsieur Étienne!" Chip greeted me and Lefou both. He actually stood up, straight and polite, like a little gentleman. Mrs. Potts sure knew how to teach manners.

"'Sieur 'Fou? Got candy?" Cecile asked Lefou. Of course, the toddler still had the habit of associating him with what he often gave her.

"Cecile," Maman chided her. Lefou laughed.

"No candy in my pocket, Cecile," he said. "But I'll go to the table and get you some cake, okay?" he said. He took off in a merry half-jog to the table, and gathered handfuls of petit-fours in napkins. He returned swiftly, offering the cake to the children, then to Maman and Mrs. Potts.

"Merci, Étienne dear," Mrs. Potts said to Lefou. "Good heavens!" she burst out. "I've been lounging around when I need to make certain the tea isn't running low! Chip, let Mama go and serve the guests. Joelle, could you sit with Chip and the other children for just a few moments?" she asked Maman.

"Of course I will, Beatrice," Maman replied. Mrs. Potts walked away to join a few other maids bustling around the refreshment table. She disappeared into a doorway which must lead to the kitchens.

Monsieur Jean Potts, who'd been sitting nearby, smiled and walked off to join his wife. "I want to help her out. She's running herself ragged," the older man joked to Lefou and I.

My mother caught my gaze again once both of the Potts' were away. Her look toward me was that of severe discomfort, which did not fit with the happy celebration, or her reunion with her friend. I still could read confusion, shock, and possibly some fear in her blue eyes. She glanced over at Lefou, giving him a look much the same.

"I...I think I remember your parents a little, Étienne," she said to him in a tight voice, trying to make conversation. She had lost the comforting buffer of Mrs. Potts. "Wasn't your father Jacques Lefou, the candlemaker?"

"Yes. He passed away in 1767," Lefou replied, nodding.

"How much older are you than Stanley?" she asked. Maman's air toward him seemed to have changed a little. She seemed less warm; more scrutinizing.

"About...three years?" he replied, uncertain. He glanced at me, and I nodded. I knew he was closer to Gaston's age which was thirty-one at death. Lefou was slightly younger than that, twenty-nine or thirty. I was nearing twenty-six.

"What have you done for a living lately?" she then asked.

"I've...well, uh...I used to be Gaston's aide and servant, and hunting assistant..but now I'm going to work for Prince Adam from now on, as the horse stable manager."

"Did you go to Villeneuve Boys' School growing up?" He shook his head no, and Maman looked disappointed. My parents had not been high-ranking in Villeneuve at all. A simple miller and his wife- yet they both possessed a stubborn sense of pride and went without things so Dick and I could go to school. Being 'illiterate' was a shame to them. At least for us men.

Maman was thankful that at least I'd become a tailor to support her, but she'd honestly wished for me to enter a more cerebral career, fitting my intelligence. A minister or priest, if not a judge or a politician. Something that would raise their social level. 'Book-and-figures smart, but life-foolish,' my Papa had once called me.

But I just wasn't a good orator. I preferred to work quietly with my hands, not having to talk to people much. I always felt tongue-tied and incompetent. Now, Gaston had always been one to move a crowd with his words, but he wasn't very intellectual. It wasn't fair.

"Maman, why would you want to know that?" I interjected. She never asked him those things when he'd been over to dinner.

"I'm just trying to get to know him a little better, that's all," she explained, weary.

"You've never drilled any of my other friends like this."

My mother seemed to relax; though a conflicted look was still in her eyes. She looked apologetically at Lefou. "I'm sorry for my nosiness," she said.

"That's okay, Madame Laurent," said Lefou, never losing his kind demeanor. "I know you wish nothing but the best for Stanley. For friends, that is," he quickly added.

"Yes. I want him to have the best kind of...friends," Maman said. Her voice was tight on the word 'friends,' as if she were gripping and closing the issue with clamped, white-knuckled hands. The word was like one of her jars of preserved fruit or veggies.

Lefou didn't say any more. We tried to turn our attention to the happy children- Chip and Cecile and a few others playing on the floor. You could have cut the tension with a sword.

I was grateful for Mrs. Potts' return about twenty minutes later. "Hello, dears!" she sang out. "The tea has been restocked, and there is enough cake and biscuits for those who want some. I said hello to a few of the staff. They were happy to meet you. Joelle-" she said to Maman with a slightly teasing smile, "What did you think of Monsieur Toilette?"

"Jean Toilette? He's very nice, Beatrice. A bit awkward as a dancer," Maman replied. "I don't understand why he wears so much mens' cologne, though! Monsieur Cuisinaire was a charming dance partner as well."

As she spoke of Monsieur Cuisinaire, who I assumed was the royal chef, Maman's cheeks pinkened. Her attention seemed to drift away from the topic of Lefou and I.

"Henri Cuisinaire is a widower," said Mrs. Potts matter-of-factly. "His wife passed away before the curse. His son Pierre moved to Paris to be a chef before that, and I hope they get in touch again. The poor man," Mrs. Potts said, a merry twinkle in her eyes. "Would you like me to fetch him from the kitchen to join us?"

"Oh, no," Maman said, a little embarrassed.

"Now, later tonight, Joelle, you ought to join us in a game of charades together! Henri enjoys it. And Lumiere and Plumette, and Madame and Cadenza. We love our game nights! Henry Cogsworth tells the funniest tall tales and silly stories. He and Clothilde seem so happy tonight. They seem to not be cross with each other anymore," Mrs. Potts laughed merrily, fingers around her teacup.

Beatrice Potts was not as prim and proper an English lady as we thought, and I liked that about her. She was so warm and friendly and seemed to be trying to draw my mother out of her shell, out of her small existence. I wasn't all that comfortable with the notion that she was trying to set Maman up on dates with mature single men on staff, though. I couldn't see her with anyone else but Papa.

"Beatrice, it's very kind of you to invite me, but I must go home now," she said, glancing at me. "Stanley-" she added- "did you know that Dick took Martine home early? She was feeling a little under the weather."

"No, I didn't," I said. I was actually breathing a sigh of relief. That meant Cecile would be riding home in the carriage with Maman and I, not her parents. And that meant no awkward conversation with her and me alone.

"Stanley!" a booming voice rang out. It was Tom. He was accompanied by his wife Marie, and their two boys who were nine and eleven.

"Tom! Mawee!" Cecile exclaimed. She loved Tom and his family almost as much as she loved me. The tiny girl ran to them in greeting, and the big, barrel-chested man scooped her up in his arms. I'd never seen Tom all dressed up before. He looked handsome and dapper in his black and white suit.

"Can't wait to change outta this danged penguin suit!" he grumped.

"Tom, it flatters you," I told him. "Marie, don't you think he looks handsome?" I asked his wife.

Marie beamed, and snuggled against her husband. "He does!" she said lovingly.

"Papa, can we go home now? Please? The cake is gone and I'm getting so bored!" Tom's son whined.

"Gra-Mere, I go wif' the boys? Please?" Cecile begged Maman with her sweet, sleepy blue eyes. Tom's family carriage was much bigger than mine, and it was covered. The little girl would be more comfortable and warm on this cool night, she could sleep on the way. But- it filled me with such anxiety to not have her little chattering voice there. I knew the ride home with my mother alone would be awkward.

"Yes. Bon nuit, Cecile. I will see you soon." Maman hugged her grandchild and let her go with Tom and his family. I stood up and walked with Maman, bidding Mrs. Potts and company adieu, as well as Lefou. He waved at me with a happy, overwhelmed expression. I felt myself blushing warm, remembering the moments we shared in the rosebushes less than an hour ago. I walked my mother out the door. She did not seem that happy.

...

Maman was still silent; she seemed almost cold and curt next to me. I drove the carriage through the quiet darkening woods, lit by my lantern. I hoped and prayed she'd soon turn cheerful and happy again, talking about her reunion with her friend Beatrice and getting to know the servants I'd be working with. She didn't.

This was torturing me. I had to make things right with her. How could I, though?

Should I gloss over the details of my close friendship with Étienne Lefou, and pretend that what she saw him doing with me was nothing out of the ordinary? I knew it was that which was bothering her. I knew it was that which made her attitude toward Lefou change. She'd called him 'such a sweet man' only yesterday.

I had to break the silence with at least something.

"So, um, Maman, did you have a good time with Beatrice?" I asked her cheerily.

"I'm very happy for Beatrice and Jean," she stated, putting the emphasis on their names. I looked closely at the expression on her face. She was blinking back tears.

"Maman, what's wrong? Is it that you miss Papa? Is it me? Is it something I said?"

"Stanley-" she held back a choked sob, "I miss Papa, yes, that's part of it...and Beatrice trying to get me to talk to other men, but...yes, it's also you."

My heart was about to break. Please, Maman, please don't stop loving me. You're the only parent I have left.

"What have I done?" I dared to ask, my voice hoarse from the lump forming in my throat.

She took a pained breath. "I've heard people talk about men...who desire men instead of women. As more than friends. Is he one of those kind of people?"

My voice lowered to a whisper. "Yes, Maman. Étienne is...and so am I. I am 'one of those.' We're in love, Maman."

She burst into full tears- the very same moment that I did.

"But, how?" she sobbed loudly, her voice breaking the tranquil silence of the carriage through the woods. I saw the lantern lights of someone else's carriage not far ahead of ours, which only made what she was saying more dreadful to me. What if they heard?

"How could you be...one of those? A- a sodomite?" She whispered the hateful term through a mist of tears. "We raised you right! We went to church! What did I do wrong?"

"You did nothing wrong. I don't understand myself! I don't know!" I shot back in a low, hissing tone. I wiped hot tears from my cheek. Can't she see how this is hurting me?

"It's...I don't know, something different about my nature! You can't really call me that word, because I've never done anything with men. But I do have feelings for men. I can't make myself have feelings for women!" I declared. I was throwing dirt at my mother's heart while coming clean in the process. "I tried, Maman. I actually considered dating Therese last month. But it wouldn't be fair to her."

"Why didn't you just try harder? She liked you. I thought all this time you were being vain and picky. Wanting only the most beautiful woman for your wife. I had a problem with your vanity, but this is worse! Much worse!" She sobbed louder. "You won't have children! You both could be caught, and hung! Or beaten to death, or shot!"

"That's why Étienne and I are both going to stay in the castle from now on. I'm very sorry, Maman. I know I'm a disappointment...I'm going to live with the royal family in the castle starting tomorrow. I'm going to live my life the only way I can. And that's not in Villeneuve."

Her reaction was only that of soft, quiet sobs and sniffles. I wiped my own eyes, still trying to control the reins of my horse.

She and I could say no more to each other for the rest of the ride; there was nothing else to really say. I was a disappointment, and her heart was broken. At least she expressed concern about my safety. It was the only reassurance I had that she still loved me.

...

Chapter Text

When Maman and I arrived home, she rushed off to bed. I could not stand the thought of listening to her cry in the next room. I gently wished her good night, and went outside.

I decided to let myself into the tailor's shop to catch a few hours of sleep in my favorite sewing chair. I found the key in its hiding place in a nearby tree, unlocked the door and went in, exhausted.

I awoke at dawn about a blink of an eye later, and took care of Rosie, preparing to ride her up to the castle. After she was fed and watered, I went to Monsieur Cuire's baker wagon to buy a basket of croissants to take on my way. After I bought the bread and headed back to get Rosie, I was pleased to see Therese in the market square.

I wanted to say a friendly hello to her, but then I saw who she was walking arm-in-arm with.

Louis Chevillard? Villeneuve's town banker? What does she see in him?

"Bonjour, Therese!" I started to say to the young lady. She smiled and was about to say something to me, until-

"Stanley Laurent!"

Louis greeted me with a wide smile, his arms spread out in greeting. His golden blonde hair shone in the morning sunlight. "Everyone heard the news that you are to be on His Highness' staff! Now that, mon ami, is most incredible. I would have never imagined a...modest man like you leaving your family behind for His Highness' chateau."

"Oui," I nodded, grinning back. "It's on the level of our Prince having spent the last ten years as a horned buffalo-man, isn't it?"

"Which was a wonderful era of ignorance, don't you think?" Louis said, with a laugh.

"I don't know..." I said. "I'm glad he's back, and we have a Prince again. He promised us he's changed."

"Certainly, he can throw a ball and party and try to make everything look like everything is coming up 'roses,' pardon the pun," said Louis. "I mean, we saw his immense rose garden last night. But I will not trust him until we know for certain he won't overtax us. Or tax us at all. I have a petition in the works to ensure the security of Villeneuve against the return of aristocratic oppression, Stanley. The speeches he made about 'benevolence' and a 'new era' don't inspire me, I'm afraid."

"Well, Louis, I can understand your skepticism, but let's just see. I'm willing to give the Prince a chance," I said. "If you're so concerned, you know you could stop over to the castle and work out a negotiation with him. It will be your job to oversee financial matters between him and the village."

I glanced over at Therese. She looked a little disappointed to be stuck in the middle of a political discussion. She probably only wanted to go to the market. I guessed that Louis charmed her last night at the ball, and came to call on her this morning.

"As a matter of fact, I will be giving him a list of our demands as citizens," he replied. "So, Stanley, before you go anywhere, can you kindly sign this petition for me?"

He reached into a satchel bag and took out a scroll of paper and unrolled it for me. It was written by Louis himself, in his fancy but tiny handwriting that I could barely read. The whole thing looked the equivalent of a novella of about five thousand words. The word 'manifesto' came to my mind.

There were two signatures on it so far. Louis, and his father's.

"I don't have time to read all of this, actually-"

"Oh, and that reminds me! I'd like to have your friend Lefou sign it, too," said Louis. "He can come see me. I'll gladly take the time to read it to the poor fellow, since he has no ability to read himself."

"All right, I'll tell him. I bet he'd love that!" I said, giving him a huge grin. Not.

"Not as much as he loved Gaston, of course," Louis replied. He gave me a knowing wink. "Incidentally, it's better for him that he stay in the Prince's protection, since there's been...talk about him around town. And it's not about how well he used to sing and entertain us in the pub, either."

He threw his head back and started to laugh heartily. "Ha! Stanley- I saw what you did at the ball last night! That was classic! When you took him in your arms and danced with him? Mon Dieu! I'd been dancing with Therese-" He finally acknowledged the presence of his new lady friend- "but when I saw that scene, I just about died! Just don't lead him on, now. Or else you'll become his new 'Gaston!'"

Louis' face was turning red with mirth and laughter at his own joke. He groaned, gasped, and brushed a curl of his golden hair from his brow.

My hands were starting to clench. The Old Stanley- the one who retained his 'mask,' started to return. Inwardly I wished I had my sword in my belt, because I wanted to draw it out and point it at him. But lately, I've had no need to carry a sword around all the time.

I wanted so badly to defend Lefou against the fun that was being poked at him behind his back. But how could I respond without raising suspicion on me?

"Oh, I didn't think it was that funny," I said dismissively. "I was having a great time with everybody I danced with. Therese, you as well," I added, smiling at her. She smiled back.

Louis' brow furrowed in irritation. He tried to put his arm possessively around Therese. She took a step back and scowled at him.

"Ahem," He cleared his throat, put on a smug smile, and fumbled with his unrolled paper, trying to save face in front of the girl. "Will you take a moment to sign the petition?" he asked me. I was simply grateful he'd changed the subject.

"I'll sign your paper after I've read it in full. But now's not the time," I said.

I looked to Therese again. She anxious to be done with the conversation, and with her companion for that matter.

"Therese, were you planning to return to the castle soon?" I asked her.

"Yes. I need to. I've been staying at Tom and Marie's to get to know my family again. But after last night's ball, I decided I don't want to move back to Villeneuve after all. I'm returning to the castle," she said.

Her eyes were giving me a silent plea, seeming to say, Can you please rescue me?

"Would you like to accompany me there? I'm on my way there this morning." I asked her.

Louis' smug smile dissipated, and he looked like a hurt little boy.

"Therese, I- I thought you had wanted to go along with me on my duties today?" he asked in a sort of counter-proposal. "I have a rustic lodge home I'm looking at. It's soon to be in my possession. It has four bedrooms, high vaulted ceilings, and a beautiful kitchen and fireplace. A housewife's dream. Would you like to come and tour it with me?"

Rustic lodge home?

"No-" She looked back over at me. "I think I'd rather accompany Stanley. But thank you for the nice time at the ball last night, Monsieur Chevillard."

I watched Louis' eyes lose their mirth. His slim frame sort of slumped at the shoulders, and even his blond ponytail and golden side curls seemed to lose their shine. I took Therese by the arm, and we left the banker standing there with his 'petition.'

I went back to Rosie's stable and hitched her to the carriage, with a quickly written note to my mother that I would be borrowing it for the afternoon- and that I was taking Therese for a ride there. I knew that I should have left out that detail. It would be giving her false hope.

...

Therese gave a sigh of relief once we were seated in the carriage and rolling out of Villeneuve.

"Merci, Stanley! You saved me from a dud, there," she said. "I have to stop being so naive around men. He was nice to me all last night and this morning."

"'Nice' can be deceiving, just like looks and charm can," I replied, shaking Rosie's reins to encourage her up the hillside. I was glad Therese was with me. With someone to talk to, I didn't have to think about Maman's disappointment and despair.

"Did, um, you meet any new girls last night?" Therese asked. She asked me in a shy way, playing with her bonnet ribbon. I realized she was still harboring hope.

"No, Therese," I sighed. "I'm still the same. I won't be dating or courting any ladies. Not now...not ever," I said in a low tone.

"Why? Don't you ever want to have a wife and children?"

I looked over at her, seeking her eye contact. "No," I firmly stated. Merde, I felt my eyes sting, thinking of my heartbroken mother, and the town's gossips. I blinked back the threatening tears. She saw my moment of weakness.

"I'm...different than most other men. That's all I want to say about that," I muttered, fixing my gaze ahead.

Therese's eyes widened. She seemed to be having a 'Eureka' moment. Dread began to sour my stomach.

"Stanley..." she whispered. "It's okay. I think I understand, now."

"Oh?" I croaked.

"So," she said with a sweet little laugh, "Let me rephrase that. Did you meet any gentlemen last night?"

Warmth flooded my cheeks. "I spent time with a gentleman, yes."

"Wait!" Therese said, her face alight with realization. "I know who! Monsieur Lefou, right?"

"Yes," I whispered.

"I wasn't paying attention to it last night, but Louis said you were dancing with him. But you weren't doing it to mock him!"

"Of course I wasn't!" I said emphatically.

Therese sighed. "I'm so glad. Because when he said that, I was so annoyed with you. That would have been cruel! Then it was brave of you to dance with him like that!"

"Thanks," I said. "I'm Dick's brother, and Dick was always known for making fun of people, and...unfortunately, I used to go along with the cruel things he and Tom did. That was wrong." I didn't want to tell her that Belle used to be an object of our scorn. "But only Louis would assume I was mocking Lefou. He's pathetically clueless. Everyone else knew we were friends. Louis- well, he's never been in our social circle. We never wanted him in our social circle," I said, making a face.

"Dick seems nice enough," said Therese, a little perplexed. "I've spent a few weeks around him and Martine, and I never heard him making fun of anyone."

"He's better now. He's learned to be kinder recently. I think it was everything that happened with Gaston's death. And a while back, he and his wife lost their baby son. He tends to use jokes and beer as a way to numb his pain, I guess, but he's growing up. Finally."

"I'm sorry about their baby...I didn't know that."

"Yeah, that's the risk of having children. When they get sick that little, there's always that fear."

"I just love Cecile so much," Therese said. "She's adorable. Does Dick...does he know about you?"

"Yeah...I told him recently."

"How did he take it?"

"He took it fine. Better than my mother did. I told her last night. I knew I had to."

"I'm sorry," she replied.

She was silent for a moment, then she gave an awkward little laugh. "Lefou? I like him. I can see that...and he'd be good for you."

I laughed self consciously. "Thanks."

"I never knew him- or you- that well growing up. If it wasn't for the stupid curse, I could have." She sighed. "I remember the day when all the men came back from the war. It was before the curse happened and I got stuck in the castle with a metal soup-stirrer body. I'm sorry...bitterness again."

"That's all right."

"Anyway, before that, all of us girls had an instant crush on Gaston when we saw him riding into town at the head of the victory parade. But my friend Claire used to like Lefou the best. She thought he was funny and cute. He is."

"I know," I replied, my face red. Therese grinned and rubbed my shoulder.

"I'm so glad I know this about you, Stanley. I learned from talk around the castle that some people...just are that way. Before, I felt I wasn't pretty enough for you, but you didn't want to admit it or hurt me."

"You are pretty. And you thought that also?" I sighed. "My mother assumed I was picky, or shallow. I wasn't, but I didn't know what else to do."

"I just hope it works out for you and Lefou. He's a great guy, Stanley. And you'll treat him better than Gaston did."

"That's an understatement."

Therese laughed. "I remember about ten or so years ago, when my friend Claire noticed Lefou. She liked him a lot. She wished he wasn't so attached to Gaston all the time. She tried to catch Lefou alone- she'd bake pies and cookies for him, things like that. She'd try to tell him how much she liked his singing. He talked to her whenever she talked to him, but nothing came of it and I felt bad for her."

"Aw, really?" I asked. "I'll have to tell Lefou about that. I don't think he was aware. But if he was, there was no way he could've explained it to her. That's tough. Just like us, I guess."

"I know," said Therese. "Claire gave up on him eventually. I thought there was something peculiar about the way Lefou looked at Gaston, and never left his side, now I know why. So, Stanley...I promise I won't tell a soul. About you or him. It's none of my business."

"Thank you. And, um, I know you'll find a great guy too, Therese. Just spend lots of time with the ones you meet. Watch how they treat others."

Therese nodded. "I learned that lesson today. I didn't like the way Louis talked about both Lefou and Master Adam. I can understand not everyone in Villeneuve believes Master Adam will keep his promise to change, but I think Louis is being ridiculous with that petition nonsense! I think he wants to make Master Adam agree to never tax the village."

"I think you're right, Therese," I said. "He and his father just don't want to end up paying him again. During the curse, they controlled the bank. Louis managed everyone's meager savings while Master Adam was holed up as a Beast in his castle. But Master Adam's back...so that's bad news for him."

"I hope he doesn't try anything...you don't think Louis could hurt Master Adam, do you?"

"Oh, no. I can't see that. Chevillard's a greedy jerk, but he's harmless. He can't go up against the Prince of the region, and he knows it. But I heard him talk about that house that he was going to have 'in his possession.' What was that all about?"

"I don't know. He just asked me if I wanted to go look at it with him. I guess he's planning to take it, if he's the bank."

"I see," I said, thinking. "He wants to repossess that house before Adam takes his rightful control over the bank again. I'm sure it's the Legume estate. Gaston's lodge."

"Gaston's dead, though. Wouldn't it be legal for the bank to take his house? If Gaston had no relatives he left it to?" Therese asked.

"I guess. Gaston had no family when he died. But I need to see Gaston's will. If he made one. If he did, it would be in the records and files stored in the church basement. I have to go back to town soon."

"Why? Do you hope he willed it to you?" Therese looked amused.

"No, but I have this feeling...that Gaston willed it to Lefou. But Lefou c- he doesn't read. And he isn't thinking about the house right now, and there's other people who would deserve that grand house a lot more than the Chevillards!"

...

Soon, we'd arrived at the castle's main gate. I parked the carriage, unhitched Rosie, and guided her to the stables in the back.

Lefou was there, happily at work with the horses. He was brushing Magnifique's mane and feeding him apples, while Michel was nearby fixing up some saddles.

"Lefou!" I gave Rosie's reins to Therese and rushed down to him, giving him a hug.

"Stanley! I was hoping you'd come back this morning!" Lefou said as he embraced me back. I noticed Michel looking at us funny.

"Michel, Stanley's my very best, best friend, you see," Lefou said to Michel happily. "We hate being apart."

"Oui," I said, nodding.

"Oh, all right, then." said Michel. "Um...hello, mademoiselle." He took off his hat as he greeted Therese and took Rosie's reins to tie her up.

"Bonjour," Therese said to Michel, with a smile of greeting.

"Michel, do you know Therese?" Lefou asked him. "I'm aware you were both cursed together, but I'm not sure how...acquainted you were during your whole ordeal, and I...uh..." He trailed off, since Michel wasn't even listening to him anyway.

"I saw you at the ball last night, mademoiselle," Michel said. "I danced with you. But all of you ladies were wearing those matching bonnets, so I can't remember everyone well, but I do remember your face."

"Thank you. I remember you, too. You told me you worked with horses," she replied.

"Really?" Michel said, his face lighting up.

"I...apologize for not talking to you after that dance. I guess I got a little sidetracked." Therese said shyly.

I leaned over and whispered in Lefou's ear. "By Chevillard."

He opened his mouth wide. "No!" he whispered back in shock. He mouthed something like 'Keep her away from him!' to me.

'I am,' I mouthed back.

Therese and Michel were deep into a conversation by now; they weren't paying attention to what we were sayng. Lefou picked up his grooming brush and went back to rubbing down Magnifique's coat.

"Étienne, do you know anything about Gaston's will?" I asked.

"I...wait!" His eyes widened in memory. "I believe years ago, when we came back from the war, he said he'd willed it to me! He had a legal paper and he read it to me. But I guess I forgot."

"I think it's still down in the files kept in the church's basement. Pere Robert keeps the important village files locked up there. Birth records, death records, wills, all that stuff. Étienne, we have to find it. Right now!"

"Now?"

"Yes!" I pulled him by the hand, excusing myself and Lefou from Michel and Therese. When we were alone outside the stable, I explained the situation.

"Do you want Chevillard to have Gaston's house?"

"No! He can't have it!" Lefou shouted, suddenly worried.

"Of course he can't," I replied.

"So...If the house was willed to me, I can do whatever I want with it. And now, I know what I want to do with it!"

"What?"

"Belle gave a big speech to us this morning at breakfast. She wants- and this will be her first decree as Princess, by the way- she wants to create a school for girls! And she wants it to be in Villeneuve. Just for the girls to learn. It's a nice idea, isn't it?"

"Really?" I made a face. "I guess it's...kind of odd, but...okay."

"The only big, nice, empty building in town is Gaston's place. So I'll give it to her to use it," Lefou said. As if he gave away homes worth thousands of livres every day.

"Are you certain you'd want to give it away? To Belle? For a girls' school?"

For a moment, I wondered if the name 'le fou' was finally fitting the man after all.

"Why not? I'm not gonna live in it anymore. Too many-"

"Memories," I finished for him.

"I can't even bear to spend one night in that place anymore. That was my old life, Stanley. In his lodge home, with him. I have a brand new life here!" He spread his arms out; a beautiful smile on his face. "I have a room up on the East Wing fourth floor. It has a great view! It faces the sunrise, and I can see Villeneuve in the distance, and-"

He was babbling, and it was too adorable. I pulled him towards me and hugged him tightly against my chest.

"Oof!" His face collided with my left armpit. I guess I hugged him too violently.

"I'm sorry. I cannot control my urge to hug you half to death. Forgive me."

"It's okay," he said, raising his face out of my coat lapel and grinning.

"Now," I sighed, trying to reason with him, "I understand you want to help Belle's dream come alive, that's very noble, but...wouldn't you want to sell the place? And get things for yourself, for a change?"

"But I don't want any new stuff. I'm fine with just being here, with the responsibility of managing the stable with Michel. And getting to eat a lot of Mrs. Potts' cooking, of course. And being with Mrs. Potts, and Belle, and Prince Adam, Cogsworth, Lumiere, and everybody else. And...you."

"You're a man of exquisite tastes, Étienne."

He grinned and put both hands on my cheeks. "I am."

As much as I wanted to bask in the moment with my dear one, I thought we should skedaddle back to town and look for that will. Pere Robert was usually in the church. He'd kindly let us look for it.

...

It wasn't that long before Lefou and I reached Villeneuve again a little after noon, riding Ami and Rosie. We immediately headed to the church.

"Pere Robert!" I said, panting when we found the priest in his study. "Can you help us find a legal paper?"

"Which one, monsieurs?" Pere Robert asked us.

"The last will and testament of Gaston de Soleil Legume," Lefou said breathlessly.

Pere Robert gave us a surprised look. "That was the very same document that Monsieur Chevillard came in here for, just twenty minutes ago."

"Merde!" I exclaimed. Then I realized I was in church. "Je suis désolé Père," I apologized.

Lefou looked at me and Pere Robert, in deep disappointment. "Is there any chance...that he told you his intention of what he wanted to do with it?" he asked the Pere.

"He cannot do a thing with it, because I didn't allow him to take it," the minister replied with a serene smile.

We both breathed sighs of relief. For a moment we felt we'd let Belle down- and half the children in town who had a chance for a fine place of education.

"I only allow the owner, or the person whose name is on the will, to claim a document," Pere Robert explained. "This is a house of God, so it must be a house of honesty and truth. Boys, I also wanted to speak with you both about Monsieur Legume...do you feel ready for a memorial service to be held?"

I looked at Lefou; he ought to be the one to make the decision.

"Yes, Pere Robert, I feel it is time," he said sadly.

"Shall we have one tomorrow?" Pere Robert asked him, in a sensitive tone.

"Yes. I- I doubt many will attend," replied Lefou. "For certain it'll be myself, Stanley, his brother Dick, and Tom. And possibly the tavernkeeper and his wife. Maybe a few others."

"I do hope they are able to join you, Monsieur," replied Pere Robert.

He led us downstairs and into a musty room with boxes filled with papers. After about five minutes of looking through the 'L' estates and wills, Pere Robert found one bearing Gaston's name- with Lefou's name issued as the inheritor. Gaston had it written out the year he returned from war.

I read it to my dear friend. "I, Gaston Luc de Soleil Legume, on this day of August the twentieth, in the year seventeen hundred and sixty three, bequeath my possessions and estate to any issue born to me. In the event of no living issue, my estate will pass to my closest friend and compatriate, Étienne-Jacques Lefou. In the event that he is not alive at the time of my death, with no living issue of my own, the option will be to bequeath my possessions to the living issue of Étienne-Jacques Lefou-"

Lefou started to giggle. "I have no issue with that."

"Can I finish, please?" I said, giving him a look of mock annoyance. "...and in the event that Étienne-Jacques Lefou has no living issue-"

"See?" he laughed.

"...then the final option will be to bequeath my possessions and estate to the Bank of Villeneuve."

I glanced up at both Lefou and Pere Robert. "So it's official!" I exclaimed. "Once the memorial service for Gaston is held, you own his home, mon ami." We all cheered, excited to reveal the surprise to the Princess-to-be soon.

"It appears...that poor Louis was fourth in line, after my nonexistent kids," Lefou said wryly.

We spent the afternoon planning Gaston's memorial service with Pere Robert. When details were decided, we went to the tavern for a well-deserved drink.

Chapter Text

"Bonjour!" Lefou greeted the tavernkeeper and his wife when we walked into the pub.

"Lefou and Stanley! It's great to see you again! Congratulations on working for the Prince, sweetie!" Colette exclaimed in greeting, running up to hug Lefou. "And you too, Stanley dear!" she said to me, giving me a hug. "Last night was so magical, wasn't it, mon cher?" she asked her husband.

"It was, cherie," said Stephan the barman. "What'll it be?" he asked us.

"A light ale," said Lefou. "Stanley, what would you like?"

"The same," I replied, glancing around the room. It was quiet at this early hour, and I did not see my brother or Tom. They were still at work. I needed to start some mending projects in the castle soon, and today was the last day I could indulge the habit of spending a lot of time here. I hoped they'd show up soon.

"Stephan," Lefou began, a careful and tentative tone to his voice, "Stanley and I just met with Pere Robert in the church. We, um, we're going to have a small memorial service for Gaston. Would you and Madame Colette be interested in coming?"

"Oui," Stephan replied. "We will come, if only for your sake, Lefou. He was a hero in war- that's still as true as it always was. At least he deserves honor for that," he said solemnly.

"Thank you," replied Lefou. "It means a lot to me."

Stephan gave Lefou a funny look for a moment. I was trying to ascertain what it meant. He was about to say something, but instead decided to gaze up at Gaston's murals. "Still wondering if I should keep these up," he said.

"It's up to you, Monsieur," replied Lefou.

"I'd like to have an artist paint murals of His Highness and Belle. And a painting of the castle on the ceiling," the tavernkeeper said decisively. He went to pour two tankards of ale and served them to us. They were just as refreshing as before, though I only planned to drink half a tankard today. No more getting drunk for me.

"I wonder who would be a talented enough artist to paint such a thing?" I wondered aloud.

"Maurice, of course!" Lefou replied.

Stephan and Colette nodded. "Maurice told us that he would be stopping in to look at the walls soon. And draw out some sketches," said Madame Colette. "It will be lovely."

From her expression, Madame Colette looked as if she could no longer stomach the image of a would-be killer painted on the walls of her family's establishment, but was too nice to say anything about it.

"Maurice!" Lefou suddenly exclaimed, his eyes widening in pleasant surprise.

I turned to look and sure enough, Monsieur Maurice had entered the pub. I was surprised, because the man never used to patronize this place very much. He was carrying rolls of paper and a tote of art supplies.

"Good afternoon," he greeted all of us.

"Good afternoon, Maurice!" said Colette. "How does it feel to know you will have a Princess for a daughter soon?"

"It feels fine. But the most important thing is that she is safe, loved, and will be able to do the noble deeds she's always dreamed of, using her position," Maurice explained. "Many of her hopes and dreams have been hard to materialize, even though she's accomplished so much. The girls' school in Villeneuve is only the beginning."

"A girls' school!" exclaimed Colette. "What a wonderful idea! I'd want to enroll our Juliette right away. She deserves to learn to read and work with numbers." She went to look out the front window where she could see her young daughter among the other girls doing their washing at the fountain.

Her husband made a skeptical face behind her back. "If all the girls are at school, who's to do the wash?" he muttered. He turned to Maurice.

"Do you think that Belle, with all her opinions and spunk, can persuade her husband-to-be never to tax us into poverty again?"

"Prince Adam is likely the happiest man in France at the moment," Maurice told him. "I used to have reason to mistrust people, but my faith in my future son-in-law is solid and unwavering. Belle and I can assure you he will not do such a thing again. You cannot imagine the pain the poor boy went through all these years, Monsieur."

"I guess we can't," said Stephan quietly. Lefou and I nodded in agreement.

We watched as Maurice gazed up and around the walls and ceiling, visualizing some great painting in his mind. He walked to a back table, turned around, and studied the walls once more, this time from a farther distance. He put his hands out in front of him, making a square shape with his fingers, his eyes squinting in concentration. He moved to another corner of the bar room to do the same from another angle.

'Crazy ol' Maurice,' I started to think in my head, but I shut myself up.

He sat down at the table, unrolled the paper, and started to sketch with a small stick of charcoal. After a few minutes, Lefou walked over to watch the artist at work, holding his own tankard. I ended up doing the same.

Maurice was sketching two human figures. They were messy at first, but he kept drawing lines and curves and squiggles with his charcoal, rubbing out marks he didn't need while darkening lines he liked. In about ten minutes, he'd drawn the nearly-recognizable likenesses of Belle and Adam.

"Wow!" Lefou breathed. "That's...amazing!"

"Merci, Lefou," said Maurice.

"So, uh, what brings you back to town, Maurice?"

"Good question, son! I was packing up all my things to move to the castle. I have my own workshop there, where I've begun work on more music boxes. And of course I want to stay close to my daughter."

"I'm happy for you Maurice," Lefou replied. "I'm glad you're safe now from...people wanting to kill you, or throw you in an asylum. You know we're terribly sorry for how we treated you." Lefou spoke in a soft voice, somewhat awkward. He tugged with nervous fingers on one of the ends of his bow tie, nearly undoing it.

Maurice looked up at him and gave him a gentle smile, not unlike his daughter's. "As I told you about a week ago, Monsieur Lefou, when we spoke last in the castle stable, I have no ill will towards any one of you."

Belle's papa turned his gaze to me. He gave me a friendly, fatherly smile, which reminded me of my own Papa, Jean 'Oats' Laurent. How I missed him still!

"Monsieur Maurice, have you seen my brother Dick or his friend Tom lately?" I asked.

"I beg your pardon, young man, but I don't remember who Dick and Tom are."

"Oh," I said, awkward as well. "They were those two big men who you might remember, um...helping you to the asylum wagon. One of them is my brother. I can understand why you wouldn't know their names. They weren't ever friends of yours."

"No, I suppose they wouldn't be." Maurice said with a wry smile. He turned his gaze down at his sketch, and resumed drawing the portraits of Belle and Adam.

"What else are you planning to paint? Like for the ceiling?" Lefou asked him.

"The castle," Maurice replied. "Although for that part, I'll have to sketch it first while looking at it. Even these portraits of Belle and Adam- I'll have them sit and pose for me when I finish this in color. Drawing and sculpting in small scale is my specialty, but mural painting-" Maurice laughed as he gestured upward- "is more of a challenge!"

Lefou nodded, intrigued. I took a few sips of my ale and kept glancing at the door, because I hoped to spend time with Dick and Tom. Being here without them was just weird to me.

For about a half hour, Lefou watched Maurice draw sketches and plans, chatting with him. I passively listened to them, watching the door.

Finally, Tom came in alone. "Tom!" I exclaimed. "You're here! Where's Dick?"

"Bonjour," he greeted us. "Stanley, Dick is home with Martine. She's been feeling pretty sick, so he doesn't want to leave her by herself with Cecile. I had your mother come over to Dick's to take Cecile for awhile. I ran to fetch Dr. Bernard."

"Oh- that's not good. Martine is sick? Is it bad?" I asked.

"She's having terrible pains in her lower belly."

"Is she expecting?" I asked. Tom's gaze turned to Maurice, surprised to see him there.

"Does she have a fever?" Maurice asked in concern.

"I don't know about any of that," Tom replied. "All I know's she's pretty miserable and I hope Marie and the boys don't catch it."

"My thoughts and prayers are with the lady- and your family," Maurice said to him.

Tom gave him a surprised look. "Monsieur, you're no crazy person, that's for sure," he said. "But I don't know why you'd want to come back to a place like this, seeing guys like us again."

"Well, to be honest, I have a project for Monsieur Stephan here." He stood and rolled up his drawings. "I must go back to the castle before dark. By the way, Monsieur Lefou, I don't know what you've been feeding Phillipe, but he's acquired a lot of pep in his step lately."

"Apples," said Lefou. "Maybe a little too many apples?"

"Whatever it is, his energy level is astounding," Maurice replied. "Adieu for now, gentlemen."

"See you later tonight, Maurice!" said Lefou. Maurice put on his hat and carried his rolls of drawings and art supplies up the short flight of steps, and out the door.

The three of us- Tom, Lefou, and I- considered playing a card game, but we couldn't get in the mood for it. The key elements needed for an entertaining game of cards were missing- Dick's laugh, and Dick's wisecracks. And even though Lefou was a man of good humor, this place just wasn't the same for him anymore. It was almost as if the ghost of Gaston- the memory of his betrayal- clung to him more painfully here, the same as the dead man's lodge home. He was no longer entirely comfortable here. I noticed he hadn't looked at the walls and ceiling even once.

Nothing in this tavern was the same. I, too, felt that the mural needed to go; it was a relic of a different time. We decided to leave the tavern. Lefou and I rode back to the castle, and Tom headed home.

...

When we arrived at the castle, Lefou brought Rosie and Ami to the stable. I rushed up to the castle's second floor, to Madame de Garderobe's sewing room. She greeted me and gave me a large pile of clothes that I needed to start mending. It wasn't as glamorous as my last big job assembling formal wear, but it was simple and easy to do. She and I sat in the sewing room, quietly stitching.

"Madame, do you ever dream of going back to sing in Paris, or Italy, to sing in concerts again?" I asked. She had so much talent, it was almost a waste to have that voice confined only to this castle.

"Yes, darling. After the royal wedding in September, Maestro and I will be traveling across France. We may even return to Italy to perform! We are both thrilled about it."

"That's great!" I replied. "For how long?"

"From September until Christmas. We hope to return for the holiday."

"That long? Oh...I'll miss both of you. And, um, I guess that means I'll have to organize all the sewing projects on my own?" I asked, kind of dreading it.

"Yes. You can do it. You've proven yourself with the ball wear. If you have a need for more seamstresses to help you, you should ask around Villeneuve."

"Okay. I will. Because with seventy-some people living in this castle, it's pretty overwhelming."

I tried to think of people who would not only be skilled enough to be full-time seamstresses in the castle, but be willing to move here. Elise, Eliana and Eloise fit the second category- but not the first. Aunt Sophie fit the first category- but not the second. Plus, now that I had created a vacancy at the tailor shop, someone needed to fill that position.

"What were you and Lefou up to in the village today, for so long?" Madame asked. "I had been waiting for you."

I sighed miserably. Being irresponsible was something I desperately tried to never be. "Je suis desole- I had to help Lefou with something. It has to do with an inheritance he has, and...something that concerns Belle. Things she wants to do. And...um, I have a commitment tomorrow, Madame. I won't be here most of the day, either."

Her eyebrows raised in concern. "And why is that, Stanley?" She didn't call me 'darling,' so I knew this was an inconvenient request.

"A memorial service...for an acquaintance of mine who died."

"I see. We will have to make do. I can have Plumette and a few of the remaining seamstresses help me. Even Belle is willing to take up needle and thread, though we keep telling her she doesn't need to."

"Merci," I said.

...

Late in the evening, as I was about to go retire to a small fourth-floor bedroom that Plumette had cleaned up and offered to me, Therese burst into the sewing room.

"Stanley!" she yelled in panic. "Tom just rode up here from town! He wants you to go down to Dick and Martine's!"

"What?" I said, confused. "Is something wrong? I know Dick's wife wasn't feeling well- did he say anything to you about her?"

"I don't know," said Therese, "But he wants you to ride back to town as soon as possible! He has something to tell you, and he won't tell me! He said it's an emergency. He needs Lefou to go with you, too."

I glanced over at Madame, feeling guilty. "I'll be back to finish this mending at four-o'-clock tomorrow. I promise."

She gave me a forgiving smile. "See to your family, darling."

I followed Therese down to the castle's foyer, where Tom waited, pacing up and down. Belle appeared as well. She rushed to the front door looking alarmed.

"Is my Papa back?" she asked us in concern.

"He isn't back yet?" I replied, confused. "We saw Maurice in town today, but he told me he was heading back here a long time ago."

"No," said Belle. "He said he'd be home in time for dinner, but he hasn't returned from town yet. When the doorbell sounded, I thought it was him."

"We'll look for him, since we're on our way," I replied.

Tom, Therese and I ran as fast as we could to the stable. Lefou and Michel were talking and laughing by a cozy bonfire they'd made. The horses had all been put 'to bed.'

"Stanley! Tom! Care to join us? I'm telling Michel all of my old war stories!" Lefou said cheerfully.

"Non, we don't have time for that!" said Tom. "Dick wants you and Stanley to come to his place!"

"Therese, you can stay here. We will keep you informed," I told Therese. We left her standing by the bonfire with Michel, took up the horses and headed down the forest path.

...

Lefou, Tom, and I burst into the door of Dick and Martine's home. I was beyond worry for my brother's sweet wife. We had no idea what was ailing her. I couldn't help recalling my Papa. He had woken up perfectly fine one morning. He'd complained of abdominal pain in the afternoon- and he was dead twenty-four hours later.

She could be dead. Please don't let her die, I kept saying to myself as we approached the bedroom. I could hear women sobbing. Dread and a sense of deja vu of my father's deathbed came over me. Tom came into the room before I did. For the first split second, our hearts rejoiced.

Martine was alive.

She was lying in bed, awake, her face pale. I caught sight of bloody sheets and blankets below her, and my stomach lurched. She was crying and wailing. Marie was at her side, crying and trying to console her younger sister.

Maurice- of all people- was there. He sat on the other side of the poor woman, holding her hand. Why did he want to come see this?

"Our baby! Our baby! Not again!" Martine cried out.

"Cecile!" I screamed. "Where's Cecile?" God, no. Cecile was the only 'baby' she could be speaking of.

"Cecile is at your mother's. She's fine!" Tom said.

"Where's the doctor?" Lefou asked, his face turning pale at the sight of the blood.

"He had to leave. He had to attend a...live birth across town," Tom said with a frustrated sigh.

"Where's Dick? I thought he was here!" I yelled in frustration.

Tom grabbed my arm and led me out of the bedroom. I was grateful. I wanted to flee this scene of my sister-in-law's physical and emotional agony. I felt as if I'd invaded this private world of female pain, a place where I- a man- was not welcome.

"Take a wild guess where he is," he hissed through his teeth.

"Merde!" I cursed. I ran out of my brother's house and stalked over to the tavern.

...

I found him at the usual table. I snuck up behind him, and the moment he raised the mug of beer to his mouth, I reached to snatch it away. Beer splashed all over the table and floor.

"No more for you! Go home to Martine!"

Dick turned to face me, stunned. "Stanley! Wha' you doin' here?"

"Tom called for me. Why aren't you home?" I set the empty mug down on the table. Madame Colette approached us with a rag to clean up the spilled beer, and I gave her an apologetic look.

Dick stood up on unsteady legs to face me. "'Cause I can't stand it! One time was bad enough, with little Paulie. He lived one month! We wanted to give Cecile a brother or sister, and...w-we were waiting to surprise Maman, and all of you!"

He took a shaky breath, the smell of alcohol pungent. "We were just about to announce the good news! But- damn!"

He snatched the beer tankard off the table and hurled it across the room. It struck the word 'the' on 'Gaston the Victor' with a loud clang, before it fell and rattled across the floor. Everyone turned to stare at us.

"Dick, I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry." I said. He stumbled, trying to steady himself on the back of a chair. I caught my brother and hugged him.

"I didn't wanna see 'er like that," he mumbled.

"It's okay, mon frere. It's okay. But if you're drunk, you can't be there for her like she needs you, you know?"

I walked him home. Tom, Marie, and Maurice were in the family room, and Dr. Bernard had returned. "Let's all keep our voices quiet," he said. "I gave Martine something so she could sleep. She was in extreme pain and she needs to sleep most of tomorrow."

"Could I see her?" asked Dick.

Dr. Bernard gave Dick an agonized look. "Please give her about a half hour, until she's sleeping deeply. Monsieur Lefou is in there right now. While she's been asleep, he's been...cleaning up the blood, and taking care of things."

"Dr. Bernard," said Dick, bracing himself for the answer, "How far along was she?"

"Five months."

He squeezed his eyes shut in grief and turned away from all of us. "That's what we guessed. And we'll never know what to tell Cecile!" He started weeping in silence, and Marie leapt from Tom's side to embrace him, along with myself. Maurice, meanwhile, sat in a chair with his head in his hands. It looked as if he was saying prayers for them.

About twenty minutes later, Lefou came out of Dick and Martine's bedroom. He held the bundle of sheets and blankets in his arms. He wore something strange on his hands- a pair of stockings he was using as makeshift gloves. They were bloody; I averted my gaze. Dr. Bernard took the blanket and sheets from him and started to leave.

"Monsieur Lefou, thank you for your help. Are you able to help me for a few more moments?" asked Dr. Bernard in a soft tone. Lefou nodded.

I looked curiously at the stockings on his hands. "Something I learned in the war," Lefou mumbled. He followed the doctor out.

"Merci," Dick whispered, his face blotchy and eyes red. He grabbed a pillow and headed to Cecile's nursery to sleep.

Tom, Marie, Maurice, and I were now alone in my brother's family room. "Stanley, you ought to go to Maman's to check on her. She must have put Cecile down to bed by now," Marie insisted.

"Oui, I should."

I dreaded it, but I needed to see Maman. Today she learned of a new grandchild she'd dreamed of, but the dream was cruelly swept away.

It was starting to rain outside. I walked on tired legs to my family home, a short distance that seemed longer in the dark of night. I knocked on the door about three or four times, and she finally opened it. Her face was just as tear-stained as my brother's had been. Seeing me caused her eyes to well up again.

"Stanley-"

"Maman, can I spend the night here at home with you? I know you're angry with me. I know you're disappointed with the way I turned out as your son. But I don't want to leave you alone tonight, not after what happened. Please just let me-"

She collapsed in my arms. "Stanley...you are the one person I wanted to see...thank God you're here!"

"I love you, Maman."

"I love you too, sweet bébé. Always," She turned her face up at me and caressed my shoulders. "Now take off your wet things, and sit with me by the fireplace!"

I did as my mother asked.

...

Chapter Text

The next morning, I had breakfast with my mother. It seemed like old times; our conversation much the same as it had been around the days and months after Papa died. Maman was quiet. She kept offering me tea and croissants and such things, but I wasn't all that hungry. Though everything seemed the same, I sensed a scar in our relationship, a fissure that I hoped would someday heal. She looked at me differently, as if I had somehow transformed into someone- or something- worthy of fear or revulsion. She tried to hide it with her gentle offers of food and drink, but I could see it in her eyes.

I asked her if she wanted to attend Gaston's memorial service with Lefou and I. She declined.

When I left home at ten in the morning, I had an hour to waste around Villeneuve until the service at eleven. I decided to cheer both Maman and Martine up by buying each of them a new hat, so I wandered into the milliner's shop. I had twenty livres in my pocket.

"Stanley! Where have you been?" Eloise and Eliana approached me like flies to honey. Elise, trying on a floppy yellow bonnet, turned from the mirror to greet me.

"I was at my mother's. Are you going to the memorial service?"

"Yes, we are. Lefou told us this morning. He was with Pere Robert in the marketplace," said Elise.

"Stanley, do you believe the rumors about him?" asked Eliana.

"What rumors? Who? Lefou or Pere Robert?" I feigned ignorance.

Eliana leaned toward me to whisper. "They're saying that Lefou...that he's a deviant. That he was in love with Gaston all these years! I could always sense something...odd about him, but until I overheard Louis Chevillard joking around with Jehan LaCroix this morning, it's almost clear to me now. I mean, I danced with him for five minutes at the ball- and he never gave me 'the look'!"

Eloise giggled. "And we know 'the look,' don't we, Ellie?" She puffed out her bosom. "It's never into our eyes. The mens' gazes always fall a bit lower."

Eliana's lips formed a sad pout. "The man I wanted that 'look' from has been dead over a month!"

Eloise hugged Eliana around her shoulders in sympathy. "Come, now! You have to let him go, dear sister! He was a nasty piece of work to try to kill the Prince."

"He was only hunting after a Beast!" argued Eliana. "How was he supposed to know it was Prince Adam? We never got to hear his side of the story!" She blinked back tears.

"Eliana- if you want to say a good word for Gaston, you certainly may at the service later," I told her.

"Stanley, you never told us if you think the rumors were true!" Elise pressed. "Personally, I think it's mean of them to make such allegations. He's a sweet guy, and stronger than I thought he'd be after losing Gaston. Maybe he used to be a little too attached to Gaston. I'm glad he has you as a best friend now. That's good for him."

"Thank you, Elise. I never believe rumors," I said. "And if Chevillard's the source, there's your answer right there."

I realized I was acting and putting up a false front again. The behavior was ingrained into my being for so long, and maybe it was dishonest. But I'd had enough honesty with Maman the other night. Now was not the time, and the triplets were not the people.

"Anyway, girls, I'm gift shopping," I told them. "I came here to buy my mother and Martine a new hat. I don't know if you've heard the news, but Martine lost her baby last night."

The triplets' faces fell in concern. "Oh!" they sighed together. "We didn't know she was expecting," said Elise. "I'm sorry."

"Dick and Martine were just about to announce it. It was late in the pregnancy. If you or your mother could go check on her today, I'd very much appreciate it."

With that, I left the triplets to absorb this information and walked back to the shelves of ladies' hats. I picked out an elegant blue bonnet for my mother, and a pink bonnet with white lace lining the brim for Martine. Of course, once I saw a similar pink bonnet in a small child's size, I couldn't resist buying one for Cecile. I was about to pay M. Cloche, when I spotted some eye-catching new hats by the window.

Sailor-style berets! I thought to myself with delight. I'd predicted that they'd come into fashion for civilians someday, and now I was right! They might have been 'in' around Paris the last few years, but it takes a while for such trends to reach Villeneuve. I picked up a very dapper-looking beret in a raspberry-red color, with two ribbon streamers attached to its band. No, I wasn't thinking I'd look good in a hat like this. It wasn't 'me' at all! I wanted to see it on Lefou.

So I bought it for him. I spent all of what I planned to spend on some lunch at the produce market. Which was fine; I was looking forward to a nice big dinner at the castle tonight, with Lefou.

...

At eleven o' clock sharp, I arrived at the church. Lefou was with Pere Robert at the front altar, quietly talking with him. There were only seven others sitting in the pews. My triplet cousins were there. Tavernkeeper Stephan and Colette were there, and of course- Dick and Tom. I sat next to my brother, who was slumped over in the front pew.

"How is Martine feeling?" I asked him in a low tone.

Dick sighed and shook his head. "She slept a long time, woke up crying. Maman and Cecile are there with her. Dr. Bernard gave her some stuff for the pain."

I reached into the shopping bag that the milliner gave me and pulled out three gift-wrapped hatboxes. "Could you give these to them? From me."

Dick frowned and cursed in a whisper. "Merde, Stanley! Now you got me feeling guilty all over again. I didn't think to buy them presents!"

I threw my arm around Dick's shoulder in comfort. We turned our gaze to Pere Robert, who took the altar and looked at us all with a solemn air. Candles and incense were lit on each side of the raised platform, as well as the noble flag of France.

Lefou, wearing his beige uniform, stood at Pere Robert's left side with his head bowed, gazing at the floor. I noticed his lips moving, as if he were rehearsing in his mind what he was going to say. He raised his head, caught my eye, and I smiled at him. He smiled back at me; a sincere smile, though a sad one.

Pere Robert began his opening statements. "Ladies and gentlemen, today we are gathered- belatedly- to reflect on the memory of a man who was an honored and respected face in this community for many years. Gaston Luc de Soleil Legume was born on September 13, 1744, the beloved only son of Gerard Yves Legume, and Genevieve de Soleil Legume. He grew up in our village, and attended Villeneuve Boys' School until the age of sixteen. At age seventeen he enlisted to serve in the Seven Years' War, where he led his regiment against enemies of France's safety and security, both near and far. He was the youngest French army captain in recent history, given the rank at age eighteen. He earned five separate medals of honor for his service."

"With the war's end, he returned home to great fanfare, and lived a life befitting a village gentleman and war hero. As an exceptionally skilled hunter, he brought meat to the tables, furs to the tanners, contributing to Villeneuve's security in times of threatening poverty. He was-" Pere Robert paused- "a man of unforgettable vigor, with great potential at his young age of thirty-one."

He paused, and continued. "In June of this year, he died as a result of an accidental fall. He left no blood relatives to speak of. He did, however, leave a loyal companion, comrade-in-arms, and lifelong friend behind. Monsieur Étienne Lefou, I now give you the opportunity to share some of your own thoughts and recollections. God bless you, ladies and gentlemen. Monsieur Lefou?"

Lefou stepped up to Pere Robert's pulpit. "Merci, Pere, And God bless you. Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like, um, I'd like all of you to go back in time with me. Don't think of this past year or so. Instead, I'd like you to imagine being in my shoes the day I met Gaston for the first time. I know I have small shoes to fill, so just bear with me, okay?"

He gave a light chuckle, and we all laughed. The laughter gave Lefou a boost of confidence, and he forged ahead with his eulogy.

"When I was seven years old, I didn't have any brothers or sisters. I didn't go to school either. It was just me, my Maman, and my Papa. Papa got hurt in a wagon accident, and he couldn't work as hard as he used to. He couldn't afford to send me to the school. So my Maman went to be a cleaning maid in the Legume home. She tried to get a job in the Prince's castle once, but he wasn't taking any more maids. I was glad because I didn't want her to be away."

"One day, she brought another little boy home to our house. I remember she said that his Maman was so sick, it wasn't safe for the boy to be at home. She was in quarantine. It was feared that the plague was coming to town, because it went through Paris. That was one of my earliest memories. People saying 'The Plague is in Paris!' I knew it was a thing to be feared, even though I didn't know was a plague was, or Paris, for that matter."

"The little boy who my Maman brought home was eight. So he was close enough to my age to be a friend. I was thrilled to see him! As soon as he saw me, he said I stole his shirt. Gaston's mother gave my Maman his hand-me-down clothes to pass to me. She was a kind lady, I would imagine. I never had the chance to meet her, because she died later that week. Gaston didn't have a mother anymore."

He paused then, and the triplets breathed a collective sigh of sadness. "Poor Gaston," they all whispered. Meanwhile, I was beyond proud of Lefou's eloquence at giving the eulogy. His eyes were free from tears, and his voice was strong. He seemed lost in another world, a time of innocence.

"For a few days, Gaston stayed at our house. As I said, he accused me of stealing his shirt when he saw me. So the first thing we did together was run and chase each other around the yard. He tackled me in the grass. He threatened to bite me in the leg unless I said 'uncle.' A few minutes later, we were playing soldiers using candles as guns. He spent the night, and we played shadow puppets together before we fell asleep. I remember feeling like I finally had a brother. From then on, we were inseparable."

"We went to the war, as you all know. While we were there, Gaston saved my life. I truly believe he did- because for one, he never wanted me on the front lines. He kept me in the hind ranks. He was the Captain, and I had to listen. And secondly, during the Battle of Strasbourg I was hit in the side of my hip with a musket ball. Gaston gave me first aid. It's funny, but I had to teach him how to give first aid because he did not know how, and I was the medic. I told him how to use sterile alcohol and bandages. I told him to pour the stuff on my wound no matter how much I screamed, and he did. He carried me to safety, and he kept telling me to look...only at him. He yelled at me when I tried to look at the dead bodies."

"For so many years of my life, Gaston was my protector, my constant companion, and my friend. Gaston made every day a thrilling adventure, in a way only Gaston could. He could do all the great things- defend, hunt, and lead. He was strong, fast, agile, and powerful. But despite all that, he actually needed me. He made me feel important. He chose me as his listening ear and companion over everyone else. He needed me to calm him down when he was upset. He even needed me to give him back rubs. And nobody else could give him back rubs...I'm rambling here. Sorry."

We laughed a little again. Lefou had a sheepish look on his face. I locked eyes with him and gave him a nod of understanding. He continued.

"My long friendship with him was a huge part of my life. I only wish that those years could have gone on...the days of innocence. Because of Gaston Legume, my life is now divided into two parts. Before this past June...and after. It was a painful loss for me, I can tell you that. Ladies and gentlemen, you'll never know how short life can be. Even someone as full of life as Gaston...or any one of us. I don't even know how long I'll have. Everybody's life is important and special. No matter who it is. And no matter how short a life, or small."

Lefou glanced at Dick when he said this. I looked over at Dick and saw him wipe his eye. Even a five-month life within a womb...it had meant something special to him and Martine.

Lefou concluded his eulogy. "Please try to remember the Gaston I have spoken of today. The little boy who lost his Maman. Who was happy to sleep over in my trundle bed, and wanted to play shadow puppets with me- his maid's son, who wore his hand-me-downs. The young soldier who protected me and healed my wounds. The man who was like a brother to me, when neither of us had a brother by blood. Merci...thank you all."

I felt a lump in my throat. He'd done an amazing job. When he said 'I don't even know how long I'll have,' it pained my heart. It made me deathly afraid for what fate could bring. I could not bear the thought of ever losing him.

Eliana stood up, followed by her sisters, for their final words and thoughts. Elise held a piece of paper. They each read the lines of a touching poem that Elise had written herself. It was filled with metaphors of how Gaston was like fire, a thunderstorm, and a stallion running wild. When they finished reading it, they all cried and hugged each other. Pere Robert concluded the service with prayers in Latin.

...

After the memorial service, Dick and Tom, the ladies, and Stephan all went home, and Lefou and I set on our journey back to the castle. I made it to Madame's sewing room by three-thirty in the afternoon, where I worked on mending clothes for a few hours. At dinnertime, I met Lefou in the dining hall where he was engaged in conversation and laughter at the liveliest table- the one occupied by Madame, Maestro Cadenza, Lumiere, and Plumette.

"Bonjour, Stanley darling! I am glad you made it on time!" Madame exclaimed, gesturing to the empty chair between herself and Lefou.

"Oui, the five of us were an odd number. Now we have all three couples accounted for!" said Lumiere. He lifted the lid of a steaming silver platter. "Bon appetit!" he announced. It was fricassee de poulet a L'Ancienne. Simmered chicken with vegetables in a white wine and cream sauce. My favorite! With a basket of baguettes and butter on the side. I was ravenous.

"Oh my gosh...this is, wow," said Lefou.

"Mmm, this looks delicioso, Lumiere!" said Maestro, and we all nodded and dug in, while Maestro and Lumiere began a debate on which dish was better, the fricassee or Maestro's favorite dish from his country, Chicken Cacciatore.

During dessert- fruit compote with tea- I decided to pull out the gift box from underneath my chair. "Étienne, I picked up a little something for you today."

"Huh? A present for me?"

"Oui, mon amour," I said, unabashed. Madame, Maestro, Lumiere, and Plumette cheered and whistled at us in a teasing manner. Lefou's cheeks were crimson as he undid the white ribbon and opened the box. "A hat?"

"The latest fashion," I said. "You only have two hats, and one of them has seen better days."

Madame cooed in admiration. "A bright red beret with ribbons!" she gushed. "Très beau et brillant! Try it on, Sugar Plum!"

"Here, let me undo your hair. You should wear it down with this," I said, reaching over and pulling the thin black ribbon out of Lefou's ponytail. The two other couples looked on at us in joy, as I fussed with his wavy hair for a moment. Lefou put on the beret abashedly, plopping it atop his head as if it were a tricorne, or the wide brimmed hat he wore with his army uniform.

"Okay, how do I look?"

"Here, like this," I said, fixing the beret at a side angle and adjusting the ribbon streamers so they draped over one shoulder. "There. You look dashing. Matches your tie." He looked lovely as a rose, I thought. 'Lovely' was the wrong word to describe a man- but he did.

"Beau garçon, vous êtes!" Plumette said in agreement. She was dressed in a sunny, pale yellow gown, with a headpiece of yellow feathers that I was admiring. "Lumiere, mon cher, you need one...in black or gold, I think."

"Oh, ho- I suppose a change in fashion would be good for me," Lumiere said with a chuckle. After gazing at his wife for a moment, he was overcome with adoration. He leaned over, pulled Plumette in his arms and kissed her fully on the lips.

"Lumiere!" Madame tsk-tsked for a moment and stood up. "Maestro, darling, let's go to the parlor and practice my arias."

"Si, amore mio," said Cadenza. We all helped clear the tables, and Plumette and Lumiere joined the maids to help with dishes. Lefou and I walked out into the grand foyer together.

"Thanks for the new hat! I kinda like it," he said with a big, beautiful grin.

"You're welcome. You spoke a wonderful eulogy for Gaston today. How do you do it without reading notes?"

"Guess I just said what came to my mind. And my memory," he replied.

"You know one thing you said bothered me. You said that...you don't even know how much time you have, and that someone can be taken from someone so fast. I never want anything to happen to you, Étienne."

"Or you, Stanley. I was trying not to think of you when I said that."

We embraced each other in a quiet nook beneath the grand staircase, surrounded by golden cherub motifs. I kissed him again; three times, in fact, as he clutched the back of my shoulders, his fingers digging into them. It felt amazing. I remembered another part of the eulogy.

"Étienne, you talked about Gaston liking your back rubs...is it true that no one gives back rubs like you?"

"Yeah," he said with a teasing grin. "It's true."

"Could I have one? My back and neck get sore when I sit sewing clothes for a long time."

"Your wish is my command, Stanley."

...

Soon, we were in my new room on the fourth floor, one with a small balcony overlooking the forest and hillsides. He made me sit down on a footstool and proceeded to give me a back and neck rub, sans my shirt and waistcoat. Every kink and tight spot was relieved, as Étienne's palms and thumbs pressed into the bones of my spine and the tight muscles and sinews along my neck. He undid my ponytail and played with my hair, messing up my coiffure and making the curls flat. I didn't mind. He pressed a kiss on the top of my head.

"Your hair is a little lighter than Gaston's was...it looks like the color of chocolate when the sun catches it," he said in a gentle voice.

"Does that make me as delicious as chocolate?" I asked.

"Oui," he laughed.

"Now that you gave me a back rub, I'd very much like to return the favor."

"But I don't like having my back rubbed, Stanley. I do like it scratched, though. It gets terribly itchy."

"Allow me, mon amour."

We switched spots. He sat on the footstool and I stood behind him, pulling up his white blouse, finally yanking the ruffled garment off, and scratching his back. His skin was soft and pinkish in color, with a sprinkling of moles and freckles. "Can you scratch my right shoulder?" he asked.

"I'd love to." I kept moving my fingernails where he directed. He sighed in contentment. "Wow, Stanley...that feels great, mon beau."

"Merci." I snuck a kiss on a tender spot on the side of his neck, and embraced him from behind. He giggled and grabbed hold of my arms, making them wrap around him tighter. "Too much?"

"Non."

"Je'taime," we both whispered- almost simultaneously. We watched the evening turn to dusk; the room went dark. We moved the sofa out to the balcony to enjoy the cool air, and watch the stars come out.

...

Chapter Text

Chapter 17- Days in the Sun

...

The next days and weeks brought joy, love, and a comforting routine to our lives. Lefou and I were now servants working for Prince Adam, part of his and Belle's happy, extended family. And we continued to be companions in love- in secret to be sure, but still gently acknowledged as such by all of the staff.

Our days' routines were reliable, though not as predictable or scripted as our old lives in Villeneuve. Every morning I would greet Lefou at his door and walk with him to the stables, where he cared for the horses as if they were his children.

Sometimes Lefou sought out the company of Mrs. Potts and her husband and child. Mrs. Potts represented a maternal figure to him, something that he'd been deprived of for so long since his mother died when he was thirteen. And there was something else that bonded Étienne with Beatrice Potts, besides their unusual first meeting in the castle battle. Lefou told me that Chip, whose real name was Charles, hadn't been the only child born to the Potts'. They had another son, Edward, who died in infancy.

It just so happened that Lefou, like Chip and my niece Cecile- had a sibling he'd never met. He would have had an older sister, named Emilie. She died of whooping cough as a toddler before he was born. He confessed to Mrs. Potts that he still thought of her often, just as Mrs. Potts thought of her lost Eddie, who would have been grown by now had he lived.

Mrs. Potts' story, as well as Lefou's, made me think of Dick and Martine, of course. They weren't alone in their pain of losing children.

As for me, on a more cheerful note I was very joyous of the thought I'd helped Therese find a gentleman friend. She and Michel hit it off, beginning with the day after the celebration ball. I often saw them at meals together, or walking arm in arm to and from the horse stables. Michel was teaching Therese how to ride. Her giggles echoed in the summer evening air, as the two of them rode together on the wooded trail. Lefou let Therese borrow Ami to ride, since he was the calmest and smallest horse.

The bright, long days of summer continued into September. As soon as the merry month dawned, an excitement began to stir in the air. Everyone began working hard in anticipation for the royal wedding. Nobles from Versailles and Paris began to visit Adam and Belle. I stayed in Madame's sewing room for long hours, mending buttons, fixing gown hems, and sewing little pearls on Belle's bridal veil.

Four days before the wedding, I was sewing with Madame de Garderobe, attaching dozens of pearls to Belle's veil. Madame was telling me about her travel and touring plans with the Maestro, and the musical pieces they'd agreed on after a bit of debate. I kind of half-listened, since I didn't know much about opera music or the cities she planned to visit. She threw me for a loop, then, when she suddenly mentioned my family.

"When was the last time you talked to your mother, darling?"

"Oh...um, probably in July?" I replied.

"I spoke with Chef Cuisiner last night. Maestro and I were playing games in the parlor with him, the Lumieres, the Cogsworths, and the Potts."

"And?" I didn't see what this had to do with my mother in the village.

"Henri Cuisiner goes down to Villeneuve with Jean and Beatrice a few times a week, to pick out and buy the best vegetables and meats from the markets. And...well, he's spent some time talking to your mother. He told me that she's been wanting you to see her."

"Oh."

So this meant two things. One, the hopeful possibility that Maman might be willing to truly accept me as a human being, still her son, and not think of me as a freak. And two, that the talented chef of the castle was becoming fond of Maman after he'd met her at the ball. But Papa had only died two years ago. I wasn't so sure about that.

"Will you go to see her soon?" Madame asked me in a sweet, somewhat guarded tone.

"Oui," I said quietly.

I hadn't been to Villeneuve for about five weeks, for the simple reason that I had tons of work at the castle. I didn't see any practical need to, after all. Dick sometimes drove up to the castle with Martine and Cecile to visit. Sometimes just Dick and Tom came up together. I had great fun entertaining them in the parlor whenever they stopped by, playing cards and drinking wine in a much fancier setting than what they were used to.

When it came to drinking wine and spirits, though, I was glad to see that Dick would turn down those offers and accept only water or tea. He told me proudly that he'd been sober for seventeen days in a row! I couldn't have been more proud of him for trying to become a better husband and father. With a teasing wink, I told Dick that since he spent less time drinking and more time with Martine, he could start another 'bun in the oven' quite soon! After all, he was the only one giving Maman grandchildren.

However, my discomfort with my mother's feelings about me, the way she had looked at me without saying it in words, kept eating away at me. It just plain hurt.

That afternoon at lunch, I told Lefou about Madame's urgings. "Madame told me that Chef Cuisiner told her that he's been seeing my mother. And my mother told Chef Cuisiner to tell Madame to tell me, that she wants to see me," I explained to him.

"I'm trying to follow you, but I'm a little lost," Lefou replied after a moment of pondering. "Can you say it again? In French this time?"

"Le chef aime ma mère et il a dit qu'elle voulait me parler," I said, taking out all the complicated hearsay.

"Okay. So, if she wants to talk to you, I don't see the problem!" Lefou said with sunny optimism.

"But the last time I was with her, she acted...funny to me."

"Funny?"

"She was nice enough, in words, but she gave me...funny looks. Like she didn't one-hundred-percent accept me for what I am yet."

"I'm sorry, Stanley. It's probably hard for her. Wanting for such a long time for you to get married and all. She might be worried about your safety, too."

"Maybe."

He was likely right. My mother always used to fret about my safety. I remember when I was fourteen; the argument we'd had when I told her I wanted to lie about my age to enlist for the war.

"Stanley," he continued, "she's really the only mother you have, you know. I'm not sure how my own mother would have felt if she were still alive. But I can't imagine her disowning me. She was way too sweet."

"My mother hasn't disowned me," I argued, a bit of irritation rising.

"I wasn't saying that," Lefou assured me. A sweet, consoling expression emphasized his soft tone. He suddenly reached out and gave me a playful tap on the head.

"Stanley- you said you wished to be called brave. Being brave means reaching out to your mother if she wants to reach out to you. If you don't, you might lose the chance. You don't know how lucky you are. Since you have a mother who's still alive, well that honestly makes me really sad."

"I know." I said absent-mindedly, distracted by Étienne's puppy eyes. They were literally dark liquid pools of love and compassion.

"And she won't feel at peace, either," he added, reaching out again to give my chin a light touch.

"Fine." I slumped in my chair and blew out a giant sigh of stress.

"You look so cute when you're brooding," Lefou said, his playful grin finding its way home, on his rosy visage where it belonged.

"Merci." I glanced up to meet his eyes again, giving him my famous 'smoulder.' "Here's my brooding face. Tu aimes ça?" I asked him, trying not to crack a smile and ruin it.

"Ooh! Now that's better!" Lefou exclaimed in delight. He balled up his fists in a 'way to go' gesture. "So, see if you can get Cuisiner to invite her here, soon as you can!" He left the dining hall cheerily, to head back out to the horses.

I sort of lurked around near the kitchen, trying to locate Chef Cuisiner. I snuck by the doorway between the dining hall and kitchen in stealth, and peeked in to see him bustling around his workspace, trying to clean up all the potato and carrot peelings on the countertops that he hadn't had time to clean, in the chaos of making the onion and vegetable soup.

He was a middle aged man, appearing younger than my Papa had been, with an impressive mustache and an energetic quickness in his steps and movements. I didn't see many similarities to my Papa Jean, besides the fact he also sported a mustache. Yet this man seemed perfectly respectable. And Mon Dieu- could he ever cook!

"Bonjour!" the chef called out when he saw me. "You're Monsieur Laurent, the tailor, right?"

"Oui, Monsieur Cuisiner! Dinner was delicious, by the way. My compliments on the soup. And the crepes. And everything else."

Cuisiner wiped his hands with a towel before approaching me with a kind smile. He took a piece of paper out of the pocket of his white chef's apron.

"You're Madame Joelle Laurent's son."

"Oui."

"Then you are just the boy I want to speak to. She and I had lunch together at the cafe in Villeneuve yesterday."

"Oh. That's nice."

"The food is horrible there," he said dryly.

I chuckled. "I'd imagine it is, compared to your cuisine."

"She's a lovely and sweet lady. And I can tell the wonderful job she did raising a son like you."

"Oh. Merci," I said. I was a bit taken aback.

"She asked me to help her to write a letter. You know, I grew up in Villeneuve, and I'm happy to know that there will be a girls' school there soon. Joelle felt embarrassed to have to have me helping her write a letter. She's an intelligent lady, and she would've wanted to learn to read and write. But nonetheless, she dictated this letter to me...to give to you."

"A letter from her? To me?"

He handed me the folded note. I stuck it in my pocket before excusing myself from the kitchen doorway with a self-conscious "Merci" to Cuisiner. I went down the hallway, sat down on an ornate, gilded bench in the foyer, and began to read Cuisiner's neat handwriting.

Mon bien-aimé Stanley,

I have missed you all these weeks. To tell you the truth, I've been grieving. I've been grieving my dreams of your future, the fantasy of you having a wife and family of your own. But I've come to understand that you haven't changed, and you are not a bad or evil person, just because of the feelings you have for your friend. I plan to visit Henri and Beatrice and Jean at the castle tomorrow, and I want to spend some time with you as well. I hope you can take at least a short time from your busy work preparing for the royal wedding, so we can talk.

Love,

Your Maman

Relief soared through my heart. I ran up the stairs and found Madame de Garderobe in the parlor, warming up her voice. Cadenza was in the middle of playing a lively arpeggio on his harpsichord. I stood near the doorway and listened.

"Many mumbling miiiiice, making midnight music in the moonliiiiight, miiiighty niiiice…"

"Festoso!" Cadenza exclaimed, playing his chord a little faster.

Madame spread her arms and sang with a wider smile. She moved around the stage, twirling so that her voluminous, pale blue skirts billowed. Frou-Frou lay on a sofa, unimpressed.

"Many mumbling miiiiice, making-midnight-music-in-the-moonliiiight, miiiighty niiiiiiiice!"

"Bel canto, Aurelie!"

The Maestro played his chords even faster, letting his wife take a well-needed breath. Cadenza was beaming- still so overjoyed just to be a human musician- with fingers of his own; fingers that were now flying across the keys. His foot tapped in rhythm and he repeated the bar he'd just played, with a change of key.

"C-sharp major, my love! Vivace!"

"Many mumbling miiiiiice, making-midnight-music-in-the-moonliiiight, miiighty niiiice!" Madame's soprano was light and airy.

Frou-Frou caught sight of me in his spot on the sofa, and he jumped down and ran up to me, barking.

"Hello, boy!" I said, reaching down to pet the dog.

Cadenza took a break in playing his energetic chords, and the parlor went silent. "Good evening, Stanley!" he called out.

"Good evening, darling!" Madame greeted. "Do you need anything?"

"Oh, no. I just wanted to listen to you two as much as I could, before you leave for your concerts after the wedding. You sound great!" I said.

"You're just in time!" said Madame. "We're about to sing for the Master and Belle, and anyone else who wants to listen for our little impromptu evening concert."

Now that Madame was warmed up, she glanced at the ornate clock on the mantle, one that resembled Cogsworth's old form. It was a few minutes before eight. Belle and Adam arrived. We greeted them as they took a seat on the sofa where Frou-Frou had been lying moments before. Lumiere and Plumette came in, soon followed by Cogsworth and Clothilde, Mrs. Potts, Jean Potts, and Chip.

Soon a few more members of the castle staff came into the parlor, including Michel and Therese, who were accompanied by Lefou.

"Couldn't miss a chance to hear Madame sing," Lefou said as he sidled up next to me.

"You smell like a horse," I teased him.

"So does Michel. We didn't have time to change," he said.

"My stallion," I whispered into his ear. He grasped my hand behind my coat and held it discreetly.

All of us listened for nearly an hour to Madame and the Maestro perform the songs they would be singing at the royal wedding reception- and for their concert tour coming up soon afterward. After she was done rehearsing, I proudly told her that I was going to talk to my mother. She wished me good luck.

The next day, Chef Cuisiner informed me that my mother had just come to the castle. He said she was having tea with Mrs. Potts in the tea room, while he was busy with his practically-nonstop work in the kitchen. I went down the hall and peeked in the doorway, feeling nervous, like I was imposing or butting in on the women's conversation.

"Um...Mrs. Potts?" I said in a quiet, tentative voice.

"Stanley!" Mrs. Potts greeted from her spot at the little tea table. "Come on in, love!"

I took two steps inside and caught the gaze of my mother, whose eyes widened. I nervously tugged at my cravat. She jumped up from the table and rushed over to me, opening her arms for a hug. I took her in my arms and embraced her with relief.

"I've missed you," she said tearfully. "You look nice."

"I've missed you, too. Merci."

"Good heavens- just look at the time!" Mrs. Potts exclaimed, setting down her teacup. "I ought to go help Cuisiner and the cook staff now, if you'll excuse me, Joelle. And Stanley, poppet- I'm so glad you are here." She left, and shut the door of the tea room so that we were alone.

"So," I said with a self-conscious little chuckle, "I read your letter that Monsieur Cuisiner wrote for you."

"Oh! I'm glad you got it, then."

"Thank you for reaching out to me."

"I had to. I couldn't stand it anymore."

I spoke to her slowly, in a half whisper. "The last time I was home, I felt like you felt...different about me. I just wish we could be the same mother and son that we were."

"We can, honey. And I want us to be. I think I've been too worried about you."

"Worried about me?"

"Only Dick knows about everything for now. But...some people in town have said cruel things about Étienne Lefou."

I blew out a long sigh in anger and frustration. "They can say all they want about him, as long as they don't say it in front of me."

"I'm afraid that more people will find out about you. Can...can I ask that both you and Étienne...be careful?"

"Maman," I said, grasping both of her hands. "We are careful. About everything. We haven't even gone to Villeneuve together since the memorial service for Gaston."

"How many people came to his memorial?"

I paused to think. "Only nine. Not counting Pere Robert."

"That's what I expected," said Maman. "Gaston's memory has been tarnished by what he did. No one mentions his name anymore, and when they do, it's with disgust in their voices. That man had such darkness and rage inside him. He scared me when he riled up the whole town that night. I wasn't afraid of some beast- I was more afraid of him."

"I understand what you mean," I replied. "I can't say I was afraid of him, but I was too caught up in the excitement to think about it. I just wanted to do something brave and manly for once. I think Dick and Tom felt like that, too. We were caught up in a mob mentality. I'll never do that again."

"I don't understand why Étienne stayed by Gaston's side all those years. What did he see in him? Was it a strange kind of unrequited love?"

"Yes. Strange, I...suppose. But their friendship is something only he could explain. He told us at the memorial service. He did feel unrequited love in secret. But besides that, he had a genuine, lifelong friendship with Gaston. He tried to pull Gaston out of his darkness. He tried to stop him, but he couldn't. For some reason, Gaston was obsessed with marrying Belle. The more she rejected him, the more he persisted until he was willing to kill those who stood in his way. But he didn't love her. If he loved her, he wouldn't have tried to have her thrown in the asylum with her father. She was just a prize he wanted to win."

"I'm happy for Belle, though, that she's found love and happiness with Prince Adam."

"So am I," I said in agreement.

"And...I'm happy for Étienne that he's found love and happiness...with you."

I looked at her in shock. "You really feel that way?"

"It all makes sense to me now. That poor young man- he must have suffered so much, having feelings for his friend that he couldn't control and couldn't reveal. What does that...feel like? Stanley, I am asking because I know you've been the same way. And I love you, and I want to understand."

"It feels bad. The worst kind of loneliness," I whispered.

"I'm so, so sorry, honey."

"But I've been lucky, Maman! I've had you, and Papa until he passed away, and I had Dick and his family, and Tom. I've felt loved. I never had the need for romance, because I couldn't catch feelings for any woman. And the only person I had feelings for, secretly, was Étienne."

"Only him? For a long time?" she asked incredulously.

"Yes. For the last couple years, it was only him. No pretty girl I ever danced with. All that time when the triplets' friends were always after me. Two of them kissed me in the tavern, a few times. I let them do it, so Dick and Tom would think I was normal. But no woman could make me feel the way I did whenever he looked me in the eyes. It confused me beyond all reason. It was...horrible."

I gave my mother the same 'brooding' expression I gave Lefou, my lip pouting. Confession- I had been a slightly spoiled child. I used overly dramatic means to make her feel sorry for me, and the habit persisted. It always worked for her, but not for Papa.

To tell the truth, it was an exaggeration to say I felt 'horrible.' It hurt a little, Lefou's devotion for Gaston, but at the same time it was an unmerited privilege for me to not be interested in women. Other guys were going crazy over them and getting rejected. Sometimes in favor of me, when I wanted those girls to just go for them. I thanked my lucky stars that Belle never gave me a second glance, or reason to befriend me. Otherwise, I could possibly be under six feet of dirt right now.

Ah, thank you so much, curmudgeonly old M. Durand, for not requiring us to read or enjoy Shakespeare.

No matter what, my neutral thoughts about the fairer sex was an odd gift, I used to tell myself. If only to feel better about the ache in my heart over Lefou.

"What felt horrible, honey?" Maman asked me with a pained, empathetic look, taking me out of my conflicted thoughts.

"Oh," I replied. I then decided to tell her of my recollections of the past few years. "When I used to go to the tavern with Dick and Tom, just wanting to play a couple fun card games, I would always have girls flirting with me left and right-"

"Stanley, most young men would dream of that," she interrupted me with a little proud smile.

"I know. It was stupid of me, but-" I thought about all the hours I'd wasted in the tavern. Hundreds of evenings, all of them a huge blur of the same kinds of events, hardly varying.

"I'd look across the room and see him...clinging to Gaston, sitting on one arm of his chair, leaning on him. Then the boldest girls- you know who I mean-" Maman laughed- "One or two would sashay over and jump on Gaston's lap from the other side. Gaston would flirt back with them. And then...I'd watch the look on Étienne's face change, just slightly. I'd see his eyes kind of dart away from Gaston and the girls, and I'd see him biting his lower lip. And on cue, he'd hop away from Gaston and run over to throw coins to the bar and the musicians. He'd start singing some cheerful song about how great and manly and wonderful Gaston was. Dick, being Dick of course, he'd poke fun at Lefou and call him 'the world's biggest suck-up,' and I'd just nod, and agree, and sing the dumb song with whoever else was singing. Well, not a dumb song, because Étienne made those songs up himself, with his own creativity. I think he was starving for real love. Whatever scraps Gaston gave him, he was grateful for. And sometimes, he'd glance really quick at me, and I'd glance at him, and it was almost like...a soul connection, or something. You know?"

Maman was listening to all this, nodding. "He deserved better than Gaston. That's what Beatrice says about him," she finally opined.

"And he's got someone better now. Me." I declared.

Maman smiled, a teary but content smile. "I only want you to be someone who gives love and joy to others. That's all I want. I had to grieve and put away my dreams for you, like I said. I think I'm getting used to letting you go. Please forgive me for calling you those terrible names, Stanley. If it's something you cannot help feeling...it's all right if you are in love with your friend, since he loves you. People condemn and judge what they don't understand. I never knew better than what I was told. But I grew up in the church, and from what I've been taught there, there are much worse sins than just a man feeling love for his male friend. Cruelty, stealing and cheating. murder and abuse. But a just God is willing to forgive even someone like Gaston for what he did, if he ever asked forgiveness. That's what Pere Robert said last Sunday, though he didn't actually mention Gaston by name. The Lord says 'whoever is not a sinner has the right to cast the first stone.' And the truth is I'm no better than you are, honey."

"What do you mean? You're a good, churchgoing woman, Maman. You haven't done a sinful thing in your life."

She sighed and lowered her gaze to the ground, her cheeks turning pink. "Dicky was born in February of 1742. Your Papa and I got married in July of 1741. We were sinners...do the math."

"Maman, that's nothing! You were two young kids in love. You got married, and you had us after. Like you're supposed to. So what?"

"It's still sin. And I lied to my mother, your Grand-mere, about when Dicky was due! I lied and said he was due in April, not February. And Dicky was born 'premature,' but he was a healthy nine-pound bruiser despite being 'premature.' Your Grand-mere didn't buy the lie, because she looked at me with scorn and shame after that. But...I confessed to the old priest, Pere Francis, years ago, and prayed, and now I know I'm clean of it," she said.

"Oh, Maman!" I squeezed her soft, round little shoulders, smiling down at her. I personally thought it was endearing the way she- a pious, proper, Bible-quoting lady- beat herself up for something like being unable to resist Papa before their scheduled wedding decades ago. It made her seem more human. However, this made me a little irritated with my late Papa. He was a somewhat 'pushy,' demanding man. I mean, honestly- couldn't he have kept his breeches on for another two months?

I suppose everyone has their sins and indiscretions; no better or worse than I, or the late Gaston, or my father, or my mother, with her secret about my brother's conception and birth. Just the fate of being a living person made that a certainty.

"About that night on the carriage ride home...I forgive you for what you said to me. You never meant any harm. You were just disappointed," I said to her. "And, um, if you want to develop a...closer bond with Chef Cuisiner, you have my blessing," I added.

Her eyes brightened at the mention of her new friend. "Merci!" she exclaimed, her voice sounding young, giddy, as if she were a maiden again. We hugged once more.

...

Chapter Text

...

In all of my happiness, I was feeling bad for Tom.

I guess he was suffering a little from the changes in his life over last summer. First, the loss of Gaston the hero. Then, losing me to the Prince's castle. And now, the fact that Dick was trying to stay away from drinking and spend more time with Martine, still grieving her miscarriage while caring for their little one.

Tom was the oldest of our 'trio,' and so he missed the way things used to be the most. So, after a few occasions of him pulling my arm to convince me have a beer with him at the tavern in Villeneuve for 'old times' sake, I finally gave in, on the afternoon of the day before the royal wedding.

When we walked through the door and went down the steps to that smoky cave of a beer hall, packed with familiar faces, I felt a little self conscious. I hadn't been in town lately, and I wasn't sure how the threads had been woven in Villeneuve's rumor web. If the rude comments about Lefou had reached my mother's ears- considering Maman stayed away from such places as the tavern- then they may be starting to connect me with him as more than just 'that other guy who started working in the castle.'

Heads turned to me. For the most part, I felt they were surprised and glad to see me. I noticed that the ceiling and wall looked so different. It was whitewashed now, and Maurice had begun his rough sketches in charcoal of what would be a mural depicting Belle and Adam. I knew it would be amazing to look at when it was finished.

"Stanley!" chirped Fleur, the brunette girl I'd actually kissed last year under pressure and beer. I nodded to her politely.

"Did you tell Elise, Eliana and Eloise that you're in town?" she asked me.

"Non," I told her. "Didn't have time to see them."

"Hey, Stan! So how's castle life going?" greeted Jehan LeCroix.

"Bonjour! Pretty good. Doing a lot of sewing," I replied to Jehan, a man who was a familiar acquaintance. He was a vegetable and fruit seller, and a bit of a 'wimp' of a man, if you will. He had no backbone and tended to blend in with whoever he hung around with. This trait was a trait I used to despise in myself, which was why I never liked him much. In addition, one of the men whom Jehan often hung around with was the self-absorbed banker, Louis Chevillard.

And Chevillard was there with him- sitting in Gaston's old chair by the fireplace. Really?

"Stanley Laurent! Bonjour, my friend! Come have a seat by the fire! You, too, Thomas." Louis gestured to some chairs near his- er, Gaston's, and Jehan's chairs. I gave Tom a slightly pained look. I only wanted to spend some time with him, not have to listen to Chevillard run his mouth.

But Tom, being his jovial gentle-giant self, complying to everyone, found a comfortable chair near the warmth of the hearth. I plopped down beside him.

Louis bought us some ales, and rambled on about various things he and his father were doing at the bank, and how he wanted to hide money under a mattress before Prince Adam got his 'furry claws' on it, ad nauseum. After a few minutes he started venting about Gaston's estate- how he'd wanted to repossess his house and how Pere Robert, the keeper of the deeds and wills, told him firmly that he couldn't.

"How ridiculous is that? Pere Robert said there was an inheritor!" Louis exclaimed. "Legume had dead parents and no kids. Who on earth did that psycho pea-brain leave it to?"

He glanced at Tom, then at Jehan, who shrugged. I realized how delighted Louis was that the war hero was dead. He'd been a coward when the man was alive, giving him lip service and yes-manning along with all of the rest of us. Now, his disdain towards Gaston was freely released.

I rubbed my mouth with the hand that wasn't holding my ale mug, trying to cover up the smirk that was spreading over my face. I was sitting on a secret.

"What's so funny, Laurent?" Louis asked in irritation, wiping beer foam from his golden-brown mustache.

I shrugged as well. "Nothing, mon ami. I was just thinking...how neat it would have been if Pea-Brain left it to me. I would've liked the house. Before I decided to join the castle, of course." A white lie. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Louis snorted a laugh at my comment, in a rather childish way. 'Pea-Brain' was Chevillard's childhood insult for Gaston. That's what Dick had told me, since he was closer in age to Louis and Gaston and went through school with them. The fact that he still used it seemed to reassure me that he was still about ten years old in emotional maturity.

I had used the nickname just now, just to get on his good side. Anything to keep the conversation away from touching upon me and Lefou.

"But Stanley, if you did, you could've let Dick and his family have it. Or me," Tom suggested, before taking a swig of his beer.

"And let your rambunctious boys trash that exquisite decor? No way!" I teased Tom back.

"Neither of you were close friends enough with Legume to have him leave his estate to you," said Louis in his usual self-important tone.

"Maybe he left it to Lefou," Tom suggested, rather absent-mindedly.

My heart rate rose in my chest. Shut up, Tom! Shut up, Tom! Shut up, Tom! I screamed inside.

"That's it!" Louis said, his voice rising an octave. He started to giggle like a stupid schoolboy, coughed a bit, then took a long drink of his beer. "What an absolute moron our great war hero was! Leaving it to his illiterate little lap puppy, who was a sodomite to boot!"

Merde. I wanted to leave, but if I got up, I'd draw attention. So as it was, my bottom remained glued to the sticky wooden chair.

"Stanley, how's he doing by the way? I'm guessing he hasn't changed much. Except now he's switched over to serving and boot-licking Prince Adam, in hopes he gets some royal cock in his ass. Am I correct, or am I correct?"

Jehan laughed. Tom was silent. I hoped he was giving Louis one of his 'mean' looks, but I didn't see him, because I was looking down at the floor.

I bit my lip hard, as rage burned inside my chest and made my neck feel hot under my collar. The warmth of the nearby fireplace was not helping me much. I took a sip of ale.

"No, you're not correct. He's not that ambitious," I replied in a lazy drawl matching his, my gaze fixed somewhere between the wooden floor and the brass buckles on Louis Chevillard's shoes. I heard him laugh at my comment.

"I see that sodomite around here again, I'll have him thrown in the loony bin, since Legume never bothered," Louis declared, still giggling.

I wanted to believe in ghosts right now. Because if Lefou's fantasy about Gaston's ghost was true, perhaps the spirit of our dear 'Pea Brain' would cause a dart to fly off the dartboard and lodge itself in Louis' eye.

"Too bad he never got Belle in there, where she belonged! That snobby little bitch finally got her big-money man! Crazy woman. Going after a furry animal as long as he has a title and a huge chateau! That's why she rejected all of us." Louis gestured to himself, and me, the only other bachelor among the four of us, before draining his tankard. "She rejected Legume, too, for being boorish and stupid. At least that was fun to watch."

I felt my temperature drop a little as I nodded at him. Yes, Louis. Whine about Belle. Atta boy.

"There'll be other girls," I said reassuringly, giving him as compassionate and sweet a look as I possibly could, thinking of how Lefou would say it. "Perhaps you could meet some lovely ladies at the wedding ball."

"I'm not going," said Louis, with a sour face. "No women in that castle but a bunch of old married biddies. Nobody appealing."

"That's not good citizenship, mon ami," I said. "Remember, you want to cooperate with the Prince, or else he will be more likely to take your money."

"Shut up, Laurent," Louis said, with another sniff of a laugh, as though he were just kidding with me. "So, did you sleep with that cute little scullery maid? Are you here to brag about it?"

"Huh?" I said, confused, before I realized he meant Therese. I started to lose it right then.

"What? N-no, I did not! You shut up about her!" I yelled.

A few heads turned, then went back to their business after they saw that it was only drunk Louis provoking me, figuring I could deal with him on my own.

"So she's your new girlfriend up there, then? She must be desperate." Louis scoffed. This of course was just him trying to defend his ego, and I wasn't going to get worked up over it. I was relieved he was off on a new tangent, about her. He didn't know the truth about me...yet.

"Louis, you had a couple too many. Why don't you go home?" Tom piped up. Finally, he was taking a stand!

"I suppose I should, Thomas. So should you. You have a wife at home. And you, Stanley, you ought to head back to the castle. Tell your little queer friend hello for me. I know you're, um...close to him."

I gave him a blank look, trying to hold back from grabbing one of the pokers from the fireplace and shoving it into Louis' crotch. Fencing lessons with Cogsworth would have assured my aim would be true.

'Deep breaths. C'mon, Stanley. Deep breaths. That's it!'

I took a deep breath. I could hear his calming voice in my head. I closed my eyes so I could picture only his sweet smile, the locks of raven hair falling over his beautiful eyebrows.

I wanted him here right now! I wanted him here, so I could watch him defend himself by plowing his right fist into that idiot's blond mustache and causing blood to spurt from his nose, all over his pale beige breeches. Merde! Why didn't I coax him away from the stables and his curry combs and invite him to town with me?

But of course I knew why. I thought it wouldn't be safe. Not in this environment, not with this kind of person around. Not without Gaston around anymore to protect him and shine the light away from him for his own good. Chevillard was just full of empty words and vulgar talk. But if Lefou were here and did defend himself, if he did punch him- which I knew he had the gumption to do- then it could cause trouble. During the castle battle, he'd sprayed boiling water in Chevillard's face from Mrs. Potts. I wouldn't have put that man above wanting revenge in some way.

"What's the matter, Laurent? Run out of intelligent things to say?"

"Non," I said. "Tom, let's both head home." We got up out of our chairs. "Bonne journée," said Tom, still as friendly as ever.

"You two are no fun," drawled Louis, still reclined in Gaston's old chair.

"Likewise," I said, hoping he got the hint. How can a human being be so utterly slimy?

"Well, Jehan, I'm out of here as well," said Louis, standing up to yawn and stretch. He burped loudly from inhaling too much beer, and Jehan did the same as he stood up.

"This place is a lot more comfortable and quiet now," said Louis observantly. "Almost like a new home, without Gaston Legume and his singing queer puppy. But now instead of Legume, I'm going to have to look at His Furry Highness and his little bitchy princess. Damn, I wish the walls would stay whitewashed, it's honestly so much nicer-"

THUNK!

Something dark in color and blurry- we couldn't quite tell- flew across the air and hit Louis hard, right in the middle of his forehead. He fell backwards to the floor, knocked out cold.

It wasn't me who threw it. You have my word.

The whole tavern gasped in shock. We could hear something rolling and rattling across the floor, away from Louis' splayed body. Tom, Jehan and I finally spotted the source- a tin beer tankard, finally spinning to a stop near where Colette, the tavernkeeper's wife, was walking.

"I didn't do it!" she said with her hands up, before bending over to pick up the mug. "Honey, did you?" she asked Stephan.

"Nope," said Stephan. Echoes of "I didn't do it!" and "It just flew across the room! No one threw it!" filled the pub.

He raised his voice over the confused ruckus the 'accident' had caused. "Okay, guys! I can understand the sentiment, but let me remind you of the rules. No fights! Somebody better check him and make sure he's not dead. Because if somebody kills somebody in my tavern, I'll have to close permanently! Comprendre?"

"I think a ghost did it!" said Jehan, shaking a bit.

"Gaston's haunting this place!" said elderly Henri, pointing a gnarled finger. "I told you boys that taking his picture down was a bad omen!"

A group of men got up and left, muttering something about 'haunted' and 'Gaston.' Colette stepped carefully toward the fallen Louis on the floor and knelt down beside him. She checked his pulse and breathing.

"He's alive. Oh thank goodness! I did not want a murder investigation happening here!" she exclaimed.

"Tom and Stanley, could you do me a huge favor and carry him over to Dr. Bernard's?" asked Stephan, looking exasperated.

"Sure," said Tom. I sighed, not really wanting to do it. But we did as he asked. Tom picked up Louis by the ankles while I picked him up by the armpits. I think the man lost control of his bladder while lying there unconscious- either that or there was water on the floor beneath him.

Colette and Stephan held the door open while we carried the man up the short steps. Louis was a little taller than me, but he wasn't really that big. He was all long lanky limbs. Still, he was dead weight. The cool air greeted us as we huffed and puffed out into the street. Colette joined us, so she could run ahead and alert Dr. Bernard.

"Stanley, are you sure you didn't see your brother here tonight?" she asked.

"No, why do you ask?"

"Because Dick was known to throw a tankard in anger like that, from time to time," she said in a low whisper.

"No, he's home, Madame," said Tom. "He's sworn to stop drinking for good."

We could hear some footsteps running away from us. "Dick, is that you?" I called out.

A small figure in a dress and cloak appeared, out of nowhere. I hadn't seen the person a second ago, even though I was looking at the street. A woman. She looked familiar with her extremely ragged clothing.

Wait! How could she be back? "Agathe?" I yelled out.

I lost sight of the woman. She had walked through the stone archway, leaving town. Perhaps to the forest.

"Tom, I think that was Agathe! I bet she attacked Louis and made the tankard fly. With magic!" I said, without thinking logically.

"Stan, let's just keep that to ourselves. The lady needs to be left alone, to do whatever witchy stuff witches do," said Tom.

"Yeah, I suppose. Do you think she goes invisible and sneaks into the tavern these days? Now that everybody knows about her witchcraft?"

Tom huffed and puffed as he walked backwards, gripping Louis' legs. "Maybe. Good for her, I say."

We reached Dr. Bernard's place, where Colette had opened the door and was talking to him. We deposited our patient in the care of the Good Doctor where he belonged. Tom and I then decided to pay a visit to Dick and Martine's. After all the foulness of Chevillard, I wanted to see sweet little Cecile, but they had put her to bed. The little girl had been so excited all day about going to the royal wedding.

The three of us had a nice time playing a game of cards together, just as we used to. Martine made us dinner and listened to us laughing and talking.

...

"How'd it go down in the village?" Lefou asked me in the stables that evening, after I had put my horse Rosie to rest.

"It went fine...kind of weird."

"Are you hiding something from me? Because you're not looking me in the eyes, mon beau."

"Chevillard was being a prick."

"When isn't he? His job is to be a prick. Just ignore him." We walked together across the castle grounds, heading inside for the night.

"I did. And it's actually good news, because nobody knows about me or is planning to string either of us up. Everybody was pretty friendly to me. Even Chevillard, in his own nauseating way."

"Oh thank God!" He closed his eyes in relief. "Because I was so worried about you all day, Stanley. I knew I could trust Tom, and that you were in good hands, and he'd protect you, but you just don't know about some people, you know?"

"I'm not some damsel in distress, Étienne."

"No, of course not! You're strong, and manly, and independent."

We ran with quick steps up the castle's stone staircase. I pulled the door open for him to go through first. "Beauty before youth."

"Merci, Darling," he said with a flirtatious grin, mimicking Madame de Garderobe's pet name for me.

We grasped hands and walked through the foyer's hall and up the grand staircase. I could never get over the magnificence and splendor of this place. Everything had been polished and dusted, the marble floor and the gold staircase banisters looking shiny and new. It was rather quiet; most of the servants gone to bed early. Though in the distance, we could hear Cadenza's harpsichord playing. Belle and Adam were probably entertaining guests in the West Wing.

"And there's another strange thing that happened," I admitted as we went up another flight of stairs.

"What?" Lefou said in a breathy, winded voice. He still wasn't used to all this stair climbing.

"Agathe still lurks around the village. She must have snuck into the tavern, invisible, because she caused a tankard to fly across the room and hit Chevillard in the face. It knocked him unconscious."

"You're kidding me!" Lefou exclaimed.

"I'm not kidding you, mon amour. I wished you were there to see it."

"Stanley, exactly how many drinks did you have?"

"A half of one."

"Did you see her?"

"I did! Tom and I had to carry Chevillard to the doctor's. And then when I looked out to the street, she suddenly appeared! Like out of thin air! Walking away from the tavern, mission accomplished."

"Stanley, I would have thought you were nuts a year ago, but this year has taught me otherwise. Does she even frequent Villeneuve anymore?" Lefou asked, in wonder. "To do such a thing to the Prince, and his entire staff, for ten years...uh, that's probably close to burn-at-the-stake-worthy, in most jurisdictions."

"Ah, but remember she brought Adam back to life, Étienne dear. So that exempts her from any fire pyres."

"Hmm, that's true," Lefou said, nodding in agreement. "But Stephan and Colette wouldn't care to have a known witch as a customer, no matter what a great dispenser of justice she is."

We reached the floor of our rooms in the East Wing, and settled into Lefou's room. He flopped on his bed with an exaggerated groan, arms outstretched.

"Finally, a chance to rest! I'm exhausted."

I plopped down beside him and he cuddled into the crook of my shoulder. "Don't fall asleep on me yet. I've missed you too much today," I said, kissing the top of his head.

We lay there quietly for a while, and I could tell he was thinking and pondering about something. He sighed a few times.

"Stanley?"

"Oui?"

"So, if all your crazy accounts are true, and Agathe is still around...I really wish I could find her, and talk to her."

"Why?"

"Because...that means she watches over so many people like some kind of freaky vigilante, casting curses! And we never found Gaston. I still wonder if she saved him by magic, to punish him. Knowing Gaston, how he was, he would have rather died than live to see Belle marry the so-called monster."

"Étienne." I gave him a squeeze with my free arm, as if he were a giant teddy bear. "I don't want you to think about that anymore. He's gone. If he were alive, you would have been the first to know, because he would have sought you out. You were the closest person to him."

"I know," he said in a cracked voice I hadn't heard for weeks. He sniffled a few times.

"Don't cry, mon amour. Don't think about Gaston, or what became of him, because it only makes you sad. Please. I love you."

"Okay. I won't. Love you, too, Stanley," he sighed against my chest, before sitting up and pouncing on me with a fierce embrace, as if he were drowning in the lake, and I were his life preserver. He started to cover my face and hair with kisses.

"As long as you're here, there's no way I can be sad, Stanley. You're amazing," he said, looking at me like I'd hung the stars. The same way he once looked at Gaston.

"Mon amour, but so are you," I whispered, feeling full of warmth and love, and a desire to protect him from any more hurt, ever. I pulled him as close to me as I could.

I remembered "puppy" being one of the words that Louis had used to insult my sweet Étienne. Maybe he was right in that respect.

...

Chapter Text

The castle was neat and tidy, ready for the guests who would soon arrive for Belle and Adam's wedding. In the morning, I accompanied Madame de Garderobe in the sewing room, where we made certain that the attendants' dresses and suits fit perfectly. They needed to be free of loose threads or wrinkles. I used a trick I had learned from my Aunt Sophie- taking a small teapot from the fireplace and putting steam on the dresses' wrinkles to smooth them out. I also took a pair of scissors and carefully snipped any remaining pieces of thread visible in the garments.

We only had to sew a handful of brand-new dresses. Belle's bridal gown, and a set of pale blue gowns for the lady attendants she had chosen.

Lefou and I had the privilege of being given roles for the ceremony as well. We were going to be among the ushers, and we would soon be escorting the noble lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses, counts and countesses to the many chairs arranged in rows in the Great Hall. I was happy when Cogsworth told me I didn't need to speak to the guests when taking their arms to escort them. Lefou wasn't as thrilled. It would be against his amiable and extroverted nature to stay quiet.

Belle's wedding gown, which Madame had brought to her room, was a masterpiece. It was made by a team of six, which included Madame, myself, and four seamstresses. It was made of snow-white organza for the draped sleeves, bodice and layered underskirts. It was topped by a cream-colored taffeta overskirt, extended into a train covered with ivory pearls. Blue-and-white floral fabric covered the front bodice, with a small blue bow accenting the neckline. I had sewed the countless ivory pearls into the overskirt and train, and had assembled and fastened the blue bow, as well as sewing the pearls in her long white veil.

The lady attendants' gowns were simple, long sleeved day dresses made of the blue-and-white cotton floral fabric which trimmed Belle's gown. The ladies would be wearing blue curved-brim hats, secured with blue chin ribbons.

"You look elegant, Madame," I said to Madame de Garderobe, while she re-tied her blue hat in the mirror for the third time. "I can't wait to hear your song in the procession."

She cleared her throat. "I hope my voice recovers. The rain and cool air lately has made it scratchy. And just before Maestro and I leave for our concerts!" Her voice did sound hoarse.

"Don't worry," I assured her. "I could fetch you some tea right now if you'd like. That might help your voice."

"Would you, darling? You could find some in Mrs. Potts' tea room and bring it up and brew some. The seamstresses and I will be able to take care of everything now. But don't forget- you and Étienne are to be at your posts at the front door at exactly one o'clock sharp!"

"I won't forget! I've heard Cogsworth announce it about five times already. I'll just need to keep looking at the clocks," I replied.

I raced downstairs and found the tea room, where I located and grabbed a small burlap bag of tea. There was a plate of stale cookies nearby. I picked one up and ate it, not caring if it was stale. I hadn't changed into my formal suit yet, because of all the running around, handling steamy teapots, and reaching near the ashes by the fireplace. The last thing I wanted was to get the white sleeves of my formal usher's suit full of tea or ashes!

"Stanley!" Lefou's voice called for me as I came out of the tearoom and back into the hallway. "You're not even ready yet?"

He was already dressed up in his usher's suit, which exactly matched the one I had hanging in my room. Dark navy blue waistcoat and breeches, white stockings, black shoes, a loose white blouse and a ruffled cravat made of delicate white lace.

"My sweet blueberry," I said fondly, thinking he cut a dashing figure. A blue bow held back his glossy dark curls. I couldn't help but to put an arm around him and kiss his dear cheek. "Do you have your hat?" I asked him. Dark blue tricorne hats were the finishing touch to our uniforms. It seemed too 'military' to me, but whatever.

"Upstairs," he said, blushing a little. "Any cookies left in the tea room?" he asked me.

"Non," I lied. The cookies were chocolate and knowing Lefou, he'd probably get crumbs inside his lace cravat. "Madame asked me to make her a pot of tea up in the sewing room. She's getting a cold and her voice is scratchy."

"Today? When she needs to sing in front of all those stuffy nobles at the wedding? Poor Madame," Lefou said with a worried sigh. "Did you get lemon and honey for it?"

"No, Am I supposed to?"

"Stanley, plain tea isn't going to cure a scratchy voice. Lemon and honey need to be dissolved into it. I know where there's some," he said, in the tone of an expert.

"How did you become so knowledgeable of that, Étienne?" I asked him curiously.

"Mrs. Potts," he replied with a 'duh' look.

"Oh. Of course. Be my guest," I said, running down the hallway with the bag of tea in my hands. I passed Cogsworth and Lumiere. Cogsworth looked stressed and wound up as usual.

"Stanley! One o' clock! The left hand door, at the foyer! I will give you the stack of programs to hand out."

"Yes, sir!" I said, saluting him. I ran up the stairs, straight to the sewing room where I needed to brew a pot at the fireplace as soon as possible. A woman gasped as I walked in, being the only man in the room. She had her skirts lifted with her ankles showing, getting a run in her hose fixed by a maid.

"He's a professional, don't worry about him," Madame assured the lady. I sat on a stool by the fireplace, pouring the bag of tea into the teapot, adding the pitcher of water and placing it on the grill above the cinders. I heard the lady gasp again.

"Is he a professional, too?" she was asking. Apparently, a second man had arrived.

"Sort of," said Madame. The second man was Lefou, who approached me carrying a plate of lemons and a container of honey. We worked to brew the medicinal tea together.

"Where's Mrs. Potts, anyway?" I asked him.

"She went up to Belle's room. To help her get ready and calm her wedding jitters," he replied. In a few minutes, we poured a cup of brewed tea and delivered it to Madame de Garderobe like a couple of faithful maître d's.

"Merci, darlings!" she thanked us in her weak voice. "Ladies, just look at these two wonderful boys. They are the sweetest!" Several pairs of female eyes of all ages gazed at us, with coos of admiration. We waved and smiled at them, basking in the attention.

I decided to run up to my room and change into my uniform. It was getting too close to time. As Lefou and I left the sewing room, I could hear a woman asking Madame, "Is the tall gorgeous one single?"

"Yes...and no," she replied.

Lefou heard the exchange, and laughed. "And I'm chopped liver, as always."

"Not to me," I said in reassurance, patting his shoulder. "I'll purposely aim for your 'chopped liver,'" I added as a teasing whisper in his ear.

He chuckled, playfully tugging my ponytail. "I know I'm in love when jokes like that don't make me sad anymore. And the girl's right! You're gorgeous, even in a dirty shirt."

"I don't feel 'gorgeous' right now in these clothes. Want to keep me company when I'm getting ready, Étienne?" I asked him.

"Gladly. I'll be your personal gentleman-in-waiting, my Lord Stanley," Lefou said with a flourishing gesture, reminiscent of Lumiere's dinner speeches. I rolled my eyes. He could really be a suck-up sometimes.

But I was very glad to have him help me button up my blouse and tie the blue bow in my hair after I got into my uniform. While we were still in the room alone, I took him into my arms and planted a deep, warm kiss on his lips. We were both just so happy today. I couldn't stand it.

"It's showtime," I said as we parted from our embrace. "Nervous?"

"Me? Nervous about a wedding that isn't mine? That's absurd."

"Neither of us could ever have a wedding, but that doesn't mean we can't celebrate our own happiness," I said. It was that moment which I decided to give him my little gift for the day. I pulled out a small box from my dresser drawer.

I had been down to Monsieur Argent's shop recently, and that was when I decided to buy him a ring on a whim. The silversmith was a little curious and asked who it was for, since it was obviously a man's ring, not a woman's. I simply told him it was for myself, that I wanted to 'look my best as an usher in the royal wedding.' Monsieur Argent had replied, 'Of course. You've always been a dandy, young Monsieur Laurent.' He let me have the ring on sale.

"Étienne, I have a little something for you. A present."

"A present? Huh? But it's not Christmas, and my birthday's not until next spring."

"No occasion. Just something I picked up at the silversmith's in Villeneuve." I presented the box to him and he opened it up.

"Stanley! A...a silver ring? For me?"

"Oui. It's...just a token of my love, mon amour. I guess you could call it a ring that represents...promise. A promise from me that I will never leave you. You're stuck with me until I die."

His mouth went wide open in delight. "Oh! Oh my gosh. Stanley, thank you!" He placed it on the ring finger of his right hand.

"Does it fit?" I asked.

"A little tight, but yes." He fussed around with the ring on his finger a moment. Then, with a look of delight, he attacked me with another embrace and kiss.

I almost wished I could skip this whole wedding event with all the fancy people and pomp and circumstance, and spend today with Étienne- riding our horses in the woods together, or lounging around in either my room or his. Reading a good book aloud to him, making him learn a few words from the pages. Those were the things we often did whenever we had a spare moment away from the stable, or sewing work.

But today was the big day. You only get to see the former 'odd girl' from town marry into royalty once. Especially considering the fact that she fell in love with him when he had fur and horns. As if people thought OUR love was strange.

"Well, let's go mingle with the bigwigs," Lefou said as we put on our matching blue hats, left my room, and went downstairs.

Cogsworth and Lumiere were in the foyer, as well as Monsieur Chapeau. Chapeau and Lumiere were the two ushers on the right hand side, while Lefou and I were to escort the guests to the left hand side of the Great Hall. The front doors were open to the early autumn breeze. Out in the front lawn, ladies and gentlemen were disembarking their carriages and ascending the front stone staircase.

"Oh, good heavens! They're coming!" Cogsworth exclaimed. "Get into your places, please! Here is a stack of programs," he directed. He handed me, Lefou, Chapeau, and Lumiere a stack of papers which listed the names of the bride and groom and the order of ceremony.

Maestro Cadenza's harpsichord began to play a gentle melody inside the Great Hall, where rows of about five hundred chairs were set up. At the front stage I could see Madame, ready to sing. They were the only ones at the altar so far.

People arrived, and I felt bashful as I had to hand out programs and walk dozens of well dressed ladies and gentlemen out to find chairs in the Hall. The first and second rows were soon filled, and by the time every guest was seated, there were two or three rows left for the castle staff. We let all the maids and staff ladies and children sit first, and then the senior gentlemen. Lumiere excitedly rushed off down the hallway, to take his place standing as a groomsman with Plumette as a matron of honor. Lefou, Chapeau, and I stayed standing at the very back, just in time to see the procession start from the side doors.

Madame began to sing a love song. Her voice sounded beautiful; the slight scratchiness actually making her sound more subdued and emotional than usual. I glanced over to Lefou, standing a few feet away with his stack of programs.

"Don't cry on me," I whispered to him.

"I won't if you don't," he whispered back.

Me? Never. I had stoicism down to an art. Still, the lyrics of Madame's song were truly touching. I distracted myself by reading the program to find out who had written the piece. It was Cadenza.

The ceremony began with Pere Robert's arrival at the front stage and altar, decorated with candles and flowers. He was in his formal white priest's robes. The mumbling among the crowd silenced.

The first attendants to file in to the altar were Lumiere and Plumette, and then, to our surprise, Cogsworth and Clothilde. Clothilde was barely recognizable in her elegant blue gown and hat, which matched Plumette's and Madame's. The former bedraggled tavern dweller cleaned up quite well. I was glad that the two seemed to have reconciled any quarrels they'd had earlier.

Next were Jean and Beatrice Potts, walking with two children- Chip with a ring pillow, and a little girl from the village who was a flower girl.

Prince Adam came in then, wearing his best pale blue suit, looking every bit a nobleman. The entire congregation rose. He went to stand in front of Pere Robert at the altar, while the wedding party stood on either side.

Cadenza struck the chords for 'Here Comes the Bride,' and the entire crowd stayed standing. I had trouble seeing Maurice and Belle at first, so I moved to behind the center aisle. Lefou took a few steps nearer to me, so he could see them better. Maurice wore an elegant black suit and white cravat, a black bow securing his grey locks.

And Belle...well, the bride was resplendent. Her gown was like a white and cream cloud, the sheer organza veil flowing behind her like a comet's tail. We saw her smile in delight as she approached Adam. They joined hands, beaming at each other. As they both turned to face Pere Robert, Plumette and the little flower girl moved to fix and straighten Belle's long veil and train.

We stood in back and listened to the beautiful, formal ceremony, as Belle and Adam were joined in holy union. It only lasted a mere twenty-five minutes or so, before Pere Robert told Adam that he could kiss the bride.

Our 'odd little mademoiselle' who used to run around with her skirt stitched into book pockets, made laundry barrels roll around the fountain, and rode her horse astride-saddle- was now a Princess. 'Her Noble Highness Princess Belle Emma-Louise of Alsace and Lorraine,' she was announced.

She and 'His Noble Highness Prince Adam Daniel-Vincent' kissed once more, and turned to face the crowd.

They headed down the main aisle, closer to where I was standing. People clapped and cheered with cries of 'Vive la Princesse!' and "Viva la Prince!' I tried to catch her eye, but Belle and Adam were being greeted by so many others. The next half hour would encompass the long receiving line, where we stood quietly and nodded to countless people by the door as they walked out.

...

Finally, it was time for the banquet and dance! Being a fun loving guy, I danced the minuet with many ladies, most of them fellow village ladies I was friendly with. I learned that Fleur Fortier was now dating Noel the hatmaker, so I didn't feel any awkwardness as I held her hand on the dance floor. Noel was a decent fellow. His hat shop was next to the tailor shop. I danced with my mother, too, giving her a kiss on the cheek before handing her off to Henri Cuisinier, her new friend.

I saw Tom and Marie, and Dick and Martine, all trying to keep up with the dance steps. Lefou and I took turns carrying Cecile around, finding her snacks and keeping an eye on her while her parents danced or visited with other adults. After a few formal minuet rounds, Lumiere and Plumette decided to lead the bride and groom into a faster, more informal circle dance. The nobles and lords and ladies sat this one out. Us servants and villagers, however, hit the floor with enthusiasm. It was during this dance that Lefou was my constant partner. No one cared.

It was good to see all the couples having such a great time together. Therese was still dating Michel La Selle, the other horse tender. Eliana was now being hotly pursued by Louis Chevillard- the only reason Chevillard decided to come to the wedding. I suppose it beat staying home and stuffing money under his mattress. C'est la vie. The tall blond man had a decent sized goose-egg lump on his forehead. During the banquet, I saw Eliana dabbing an ice cube on it with a caring, nurturing look on her face. It was a bit horrifying to see that Eliana...apparently liked him back.

Eloise and Elise were having the time of their lives dancing with noblemen. My three cousins were dressed to the nines in voluminous pink gowns, bright pink floral headpieces atop their glossy raven curls. When a noble-looking fellow in a forest-green suit spotted Eliana sitting with Chevillard at a table, the man asked her for a dance. She flounced happily away with him, joining him for the next minuet round.

Louis sat at the table alone after that, patting his injured forehead with a cloth wrapped in an ice cube and drinking champagne. His father, Louis Sr., finally sat next to him, company for misery. I saw them there as I danced with Plumette. Lumiere was taking a turn dancing with the bride.

"Stanley, in fifteen minutes Adam and Belle will be giving their speeches. Just passing on the information," Plumette said as we turned in a circle with our arms linked.

"Oh, okay. Merci," I said.

"He will be giving some decrees, while the villagers are here to listen," she said.

"Oh, okay."

"Thank you for the dance, Monsieur," Plumette said graciously. Once that dance ended, I tried to find Lefou so we both could make a beeline to the punch bowl. I passed quickly by the table where both Chevillards, Junior and Senior, were sitting.

"I give up on women, Father. Damn them all! None of them want nice guys like me," I heard Louis Jr. say in a rather whiny tone.

I found the punch bowl and poured a cup, and that moment Cadenza and the string quartet stopped playing. Adam and Belle appeared at the stage. Adam raised his hand for everyone's attention, Belle at his side. Everyone stopped to listen.

"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for coming to our wedding celebration. I would like to thank Monsieur Cogsworth, Monsieur Lumiere, Madame de Garderobe, and Monsieur Cadenza for all of their organization so we could share our beautiful day with you. As your Prince, I have been away for a long time...and now that I've returned, I'd like to issue a few new decrees."

"First, that my wife and Princess, Belle, will establish a new school in Villeneuve, for girls. All parents of girls in the Villeneuve area between the ages of seven and sixteen are encouraged to enroll. The 'Princess Belle Emma-Louise School for Girls' will open in January, after the Christmas holidays. Belle and I plan to be there for a ribbon cutting ceremony. The location will be the large house on the north hillside of Villeneuve, formerly the-" Adam glanced down at a piece of paper- "the Legume estate."

A few mumblings were heard in the crowd. I heard a few laughs, and a lady saying, "At least some good will come from that man."

I caught Lefou's eye on the other side of the room where he was with the Potts family. He grinned at me with pride. My little philanthropist, I thought.

"I have a second decree," Adam said, his voice louder and his confidence growing. "And this is also for the benefit of the people of Villeneuve, and the surrounding region. The taxes per household will be lowered, from the sixty livres a year it used to be back in 1765, to twenty livres a year. And in addition, every year I will give back a percentage to address any needs the province suffers from, such as a lack of medical care, a flood or drought, or any other natural situation."

The people of Villeneuve and the rest of us cheered, with the exception of the two Chevillards who looked sour. Taxes cut by one-third? How could they complain? I thought.

"And Belle and I would like to implement some brand-new laws. The former methods of capital punishment and brutal executions will be abolished, reduced to imprisonment only. Everyone will have the right to a jury trial. Also, we will take a serious stand for citizens who are hurt, abused, or assaulted for any aspect of their personal lives. The Maison de Lunes, long an instrument of torture, will be closed down immediately. Lynchings will no longer be ignored by the Principal Government. No one should have to fear for their lives, or even be mistreated due to an aspect of their personality, appearance, ethnicity, or lifestyle. Perpetrators of hate crime will be fined or imprisoned. I no longer want to run my palace based on hate and greed, like my forefathers have before me."

Adam looked upon the crowd with a firm tone, the bearing of a leader. The majority of the people cheered, but I saw the two Chevillards leave, as well as a group of nobles from other provinces. They must not share the couple's new decrees of compassion and justice, I suppose.

I just hoped, at least, that Adam and Belle could help our province of France become a better and kinder place to live.

Belle took a turn to address the people with a few words of her own. "Greetings to all of you. The staff of the castle. The people of Villeneuve. The members of noble houses of France who have come to visit and witness our union. I want to thank you all for your kind support and words."

She paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and began to speak in a more self assured tone, about things unscripted, things that weighed upon her heart today.

"Throughout the morning and afternoon, I have heard countless people use the same word to describe me. It's a word that I feel is unwarranted, because there are so many people here in this hall- women and men- who possess this attribute as much, if not more than I do. On the inside, where it matters most. To put it in a way that my dear husband Adam here will appreciate, I am going to quote the words of William Shakespeare."

She gave Adam a warm and knowing look; he grinned a little. She glanced down at her book on the podium.

"'Beauty is a vain and doubtful good. A shining gloss that fadeth suddenly, a flower that dies when it begins to bud. A doubtful good, a gloss, a glass, a flower. Lost, faded, broken. Dead within an hour.'"

Belle continued. "But you have to realize, that the kind of beauty I want to speak of is that which will never die. And I want to tell you of the people I have met within this past year- as well as people close to me- who have been shining examples of that kind of beauty. My good friends Jean and Beatrice Potts. Jean had spent years alone, feeling as if he'd lost something. In spite of his loneliness, he kept to his work and craft and remained joyful, until he was finally reunited with the family he was separated from. Beatrice Potts had been separated from her husband, kept apart from him for many years. However, she was able to find joy and persevere, never giving up hope."

Belle gestured to a surprised and shocked Mr. and Mrs. Potts and little Chip. Beatrice began to cry.

"My Papa- Maurice Beaumont. He had to make the harrowing decision to take me away from Paris as a small child, to leave all those he loved behind, so that I would escape the plague and be safe from illness. Because of him, I was able to grow and thrive. As the father of a daughter, he did not allow conventional wisdom about raising girls to stop him from teaching me all the things he wanted me to learn. I love you, Papa."

Maurice came to the altar, where he and Belle embraced in tears. The father and daughter wrapped their arms around each other before Belle went on.

"Another dear couple I've come to know is the lovely Madame Aurelie de Garderobe, and her husband, the Maestro Stefano Cadenza. They make such beautiful music together, but some of you may not realize that they were kept apart for many years, unable to see each other due to unfortunate circumstances. But although they couldn't see each other, they could still hear each other's music. It's a rather...complicated a story for me to relate to you today, but I witnessed such a strong and lasting love between these two. Aurelie and Stefano...you are both beautiful."

Madame and Maestro came up to the altar to hug Belle and Adam joyfully. But she wasn't finished yet. She had more names to mention.

"Francois and Jacinta Colombe- better known as 'Plumette'- Lumiere. I watched them express so much beauty in their devotion to each other, when their lives were in danger and they both believed they were breathing their last. And Henry Cogsworth...his bravery in facing the threat of death, with his thoughts only of his best friend, Lumiere. His wife Clothilde, who like Jean, was missing him and waited alone for so long. All of you...are beautiful.

"I could speak all day about how much I love the servants of this great Chateau. Their courage, loyalty and strength of character. I see true nobility in each and every one of you. And if I had my way, I would go on and on until the stroke of midnight, mentioning all of you by name!" She smiled at the gathered servants, and up at her new husband.

I saw the look on Adam's face. He was overjoyed and touched, with a look of good humor as if he were thinking, 'This lady is all mine. As vexing and exasperating as she is, she is mine.'

The dancing went into the evening, and Lefou joined me for for a walk in the gardens. We checked and fed the castle's horses. For a while we chatted with the noble people's footmen, who were tending to their horses outside. Lefou told them all about Villeneuve, where to go for a drink, and other such small talk while I listened. A few groups were from as far away as Normandy.

"Forgive us for being curious, Monsieurs, but Prince Adam is being called the 'lost' prince," said a footman named Nicolas. "How exactly was he lost?"

Lefou looked at me, then at the man. "A magical sorceress turned him into a hairy, eight-foot-tall beast for ten years. His bride fell in love with him despite all that," he said with candor.

The servant shook his head and laughed. "The real truth must be top secret, I assume."

We nodded at him. "Very top secret. Too much political intrigue for your sensitive ears," I added.

...

Later that night, at dusk, the two of us went up to the East Wing's fourth floor balcony. From high above, we could still see festive torches lighting up the grounds below, people talking and milling around, and servants having a bonfire near the gates.

"Should we go down and join them? It's only nine-o-clock," Lefou suggested.

"I'd rather just stay up here," I said. "I get exhausted being around people all day."

"Belle's speech was really touching," he said pensively. "The whole day was touching. Like I said before, I love happy endings."

"Me too, mon amour," I said, grasping his hand. "I've never heard Belle give a speech and express herself like that. She's so warm, and caring. I still feel guilty that I misjudged her all that time, and we were so mean to her. She and Maurice were saints to forgive us. I kept thinking during her speech that I was one of those people who persecuted others because of the way they were. And the main reason was that I covered up the truth about myself."

"But Stanley, at least you were willing to change and be a better person. I guess I was, too. But it took Gaston completely going off the deep end, and hurting me before I finally got a clue."

I looked at him, thinking about how truly wise he was, and how much he'd matured over the last three months, just as I had.

"I love you," I said, for the thousandth time.

"I love you, too," he replied. We were quiet a moment, and then he spoke again, in a near whisper. "I still wonder about what happened to Gaston, after he fell."

"I know, Étienne. We know he's dead as far as logic goes, but I understand it hurts...to never have that sense of closure. Perhaps, if you want, we can take a ride out into the woods and leave some roses, or one of those medals you made for him as a kid. Since there wasn't a grave site."

"Thank you. I would like that," Lefou said. He leaned into my shoulder, and I put my arms around him as we watched people down below celebrating in the dusk, turning to night.

...

Chapter Text

...

It was a day that looked just like a painting.

I always loved wintertime. There was something extra special about riding Rosie outside of Villeneuve through the first big snow of the season. She loved it, too; Rosie was a true cold-weather horse. She loved the brisk air and the feel of kicking up the powdery white stuff that she hadn't seen or felt for many months. She would raise her head high and snort and nicker happily, knowing that the tedious heat and toil of her labor in hot seasons would be relieved for a while.

So this was what I was doing. This first snow- a little late coming in December- was a sight to behold as it coated the turrets and stairs and high rooftops of the castle.

The rest of the staff spoke of the 'eternal winter' that had surrounded them for many years. Prince Adam had assured the staff this morning that 'this would now be only temporary.' Those of us who hadn't been part of the curse couldn't see anything less than joy over the splendor and beauty of the new season.

Apparently the Prince and Princess had caught the winter spirit. When I saddled Rosie and started to ride across the front gardens to the gate, there they were- out in the snowy lawn, throwing snowballs at each other like a couple of naughty children!

"Your Highnesses?" I said to them, startled. Belle's face and hair was soaking wet with the remains of a snowball. She brushed slushy remnants off of her burgundy shawl and blue dress, laughing. Adam was picking up snow in his hands and packing it into another snowball.

"Good day!" greeted Adam, his face and cheeks red. He had grown a neatly trimmed golden-brown beard, and he wore a fur cap. The entire effect, along with a brown fur shawl over his breeches and high boots, made him look more like one of the hardy farmer's sons in Villeneuve, than His Royal Highness the Prince.

"Good day, Your Highness! I'm off for a little ride. The road to Villeneuve must be covered high with snow. Do you wish for me to check out the conditions and arrange for wagons and workers to clear it?"

"Yes, that would be very helpful. Thank you Monsieur," Adam replied. "There is rarely a day when someone doesn't need to go into town to buy eggs or milk."

"Perhaps we ought to keep some cows and chickens here at the castle," Belle lovingly suggested to her husband.

Adam looked at her and made a face. "But, mon ange- our lawn! The grounds and gardens. They aren't meant to be...a barnyard."

Belle gave him a half-pleading grin. "I rather miss the chickens that Papa and I had to sell last summer."

Adam sighed and tossed the snowball he'd been making at the stone staircase, where it landed on the lowest step with a wet, squishy sound. "Very well then. We could find some space for livestock," he concurred.

"Merci," said Belle, embracing Adam joyfully. She glanced at me on my horse. "Good to see you out here, Stanley. Have a nice ride!"

"Thank you!" I said. I glanced back toward the stables, holding onto the horn of Rosie's saddle and making her stay still. Lefou hadn't left the stables yet. I waited for a moment until I finally spotted him on Ami, who was stepping slowly, with caution through the deep snow. His horse stopped again, stubbornly holding back.

Lefou tapped Ami's sides with his boots. He spoke encouraging words to the animal in his usual, cheery 'talk to the horses' voice. "C'mon, Ami! You can do it! It's okay. I won't let anything happen to you this time. There you go! Isn't this fun?"

"Bonjour, Lefou!" said Belle cheerfully when she saw him. "I assume you're accompanying Stanley on a ride as well?"

"Bonjour, Belle! I sure am. Just have to get my horse used to winter again. He's a little, um, traumatized."

"Traumatized?" said Belle. "Oh...I understand! Phillipe was a little scared of the woods for a while. Because of the wolves."

"Well, it isn't exactly wolves, or the woods, that Ami is scared of. It's...snow itself," Lefou said to her.

"I see. Was he caught in a blizzard before?" Belle asked.

"Yes- he was," Lefou replied, nodding. "One December, the weather was just like this when G-" Lefou paused and rephrased- "when I took Ami on a hunting trip. The storm got really bad. Poor Ami became completely exhausted and collapsed." Lefou glanced affectionately down at his trusty stout horse, petting his mane. "But we all survived it. He hasn't been much of a fan of snow ever since."

"I completely understand," said Belle warmly. "I suppose you just have to keep reassuring him. And furthermore, I do hope you avoid hunting trips in winter from now on. For your sake as well as your horse's, Lefou."

He nodded. "I promise I will. Thanks, Belle! Have a fun snowball fight with your husband!"

"I think we are done here with snowball fights, though," Belle replied, laughing. "How does building a snowman sound, Adam?" she suggested to him.

"Sounds perfect. We ought to get Chip and some of the other children to join us!" said Adam.

We waved at the happy couple, married for only three months, and crossed the open gate into the forest trail, where the snow was just as deep. I rode several paces in front, so that Rosie made tracks for the stubborn Ami to follow.

"I love this time of year," I said. "And Belle's right. No more risking your life or your horse's on any hunting trips!"

"Don't worry, Stanley," Lefou replied. "Hunting trips aren't a big part of my life anymore, I guess. It wouldn't be the same," he added, his voice lowered.

"You know, you can say Gaston's name in front of Belle. She won't be offended if you do."

"I'd feel weird bringing him up in front of her. It's like...you know!"

"I understand. But she's Belle. She's not made of spun glass. She's a strong lady and she won't be offended if you accidentally say the name."

"Well, I just can't," I heard Lefou say behind me, followed by "Ami! C'mon now! Please? Okay, an apple then. Have a blasted apple already!"

Patiently, I stopped Rosie and allowed her to turn in antsy circles around in the snow. Lefou pulled an apple out of his coat pocket and jumped down, feeding Ami the treat. "Look! Look at your Rosie-girl. She's having fun and she wants you to chase her," he cajoled Ami as he remounted him.

I urged Rosie into a trot, and I heard Lefou and his horse moving a little faster and more confidently, catching up with me.

"Did you think of a name for the foal yet?" he asked me.

I pet Rosie on her mane. "No, I haven't. Say, Étienne, can you hand me one of those apples in your pocket? Rosie's eating for two."

"Of course." He took out out another apple, and tossed it ahead to me. I caught it in one hand and dismounted, feeding the expectant maman horse. She was due with a foal in late June, but she could still be ridden on short trips. Lefou and I both held this little hope that a foal would be born on the Prince's next birthday. Another mare, the one named Cannelle, was going to have a foal around the same time. Ami was the sire of both.

We rode down the slight sloping hill, to the curving path that wound through the trees. The sun came out and we welcomed the slight rise in temperature. Bits of wet snow fell from the tall evergreens; some of it landed on my head. I took off my hat and shook it off. At that moment I could hear another horse nickering on the trail ahead of us.

"Stanley, someone's coming! Who would be riding all the way from town in weather like this?" Lefou asked me.

"I don't know. I wasn't expecting anyone."

It wasn't long before the rider came around the bend in the trail and revealed herself. It was a lady, wearing a silver fur coat and matching winter hat, riding a white horse. She looked almost regal. We guessed her age to be around ours, and she was very pretty, with blonde hair and a fair complexion.

"Oh, hi! Bonjour, mademoiselle," Lefou greeted, now riding aside me. He backed off a little to allow her and her horse through. "Are you coming to visit the Prince and Princess?"

"I am." She stared at us for a moment with a scrutinizing expression. "Bonjour, Monsieur Lefou and...Stanley...I don't recall your surname. Pardon me."

Lefou and I looked at each other in confusion. We had never seen this woman before in our entire lives.

"Mademoiselle...would you mind...reacquainting us?" asked Lefou. "I'm glad you know us, but we don't remember you."

She smiled. "Do you promise not to be afraid?"

"Huh?" I said, feeling confused at first, then dumb for my utterance.

"Why would we be afraid?" Lefou asked.

We discovered the answer the next moment. "Mon D-" I spluttered, in absolute shock.

A pale white glow surrounded the lady, enveloping her in a strange mist. When it cleared, the pretty blonde had transformed into a careworn woman in rags, like a beggar. I recognized her right away. Lefou gasped for a moment.

"Agathe?" we both said at the same time.

"Oui. It is me. Agathe," she said. "Of course you must have heard the whole story involving my history with Prince Adam. And the castle and servants."

Lefou nodded. "Yes, we heard about it all right." I caught the slightest bit of irritation in his tone. "You're the one who did-" he gestured backwards towards the castle- "all that."

"Oui. I did, as you say, 'all that.'"

"Did His Highness forgive you?" Lefou pressed, his tone now bordering on bitter. "I've had some time to think about the whole story. I know all the facts now. And, I've come to the conclusion that what you did wasn't what I'd call...the kindest use of fairy power, if you ask me! I'd like to know, was it all worth it? You think Jean Potts and little Chip Potts wanted to-"

I gave him a little elbow poke to the shoulder, from my position on my horse. "Lefou! What are you doing?" I whispered. I couldn't believe he was starting an argument with a powerful sorceress, or witch, or whatever you want to call her.

"Stanley!" he whispered back to me. "I've been wanting some answers about this. And now's our chance!"

"Our chance?" I looked over at Agathe, who appeared just as peaceful and serene on her white steed as she did before she'd transformed. It was funny how she still resembled the prettier and more elegant form of herself, yet different.

"I have no thoughts on this matter, Mademoiselle Agathe," I told her. "But I wanted to let you know that I liked your tankard throwing trick a while back. That was incredible."

"Merci," she replied. "I try to avoid casting hexes, and doing such things to people. Ever since that time, I've avoided that establishment. Too much temptation." She smiled at us. "Monsieur Lefou, to answer your question, His Highness has no ill will towards me for the curses. And I understand that it didn't appear to be kind at first, but in the long run, he is much better off than he once was."

Lefou listened calmly to her explanations. He seemed to be satisfied for a moment. Then, he asked her another question.

"And what about Gaston?"

His words hung in the cool air for a moment as Agathe's eyes widened in surprise, perhaps alarm. Her little smile faded. She didn't answer him.

"Mademoiselle? Or Madame, if I'm not correct-"

"Mademoiselle is correct," said Agathe.

"Mademoiselle," Lefou said, his voice softer, more pleading. "Please. With all due respect, do you have information for me on what happened to his body after he fell from the collapsed bridge? You're my last hope of someone who can tell me."

She met his eyes with a look of compassion and sadness. "I was afraid you would ask me that, Monsieur Lefou. But you see, I had to make a quick decision that night, and so what I did...likely was done in haste. I-"

"You did something to Gaston?" Lefou asked, his voice tense again.

Oh, dear Lord. Merde! I was hoping that this issue would be put to rest, and now it was being dredged up again. Exhumed just like a...well, you know. Yet, I was curious, too. I wanted to hear what this great magical being had to say.

"Monsieur Lefou, can you come down from your horse for a moment? I want to speak to you without having to shout across the air." She carefully dismounted her horse. Lefou did the same. She took a few steps toward him, giving him a solemn look.

"I made him...disappear," she said.

"You made him disappear," Lefou repeated. "Why did you make Gaston 'disappear?'" he said in a tone of annoyed skepticism. "Is he-"

"Monsieur," Agathe said comfortingly, though interrupting what he was about to say. She placed her hands on his shoulders.

"That morning, people were being freed from the curse. Your fellow townspeople were outside, on the castle grounds. People were celebrating everywhere! I couldn't chance the thought- I mean to say-" She reached down to clasp both of his hands in hers and squeezed them. "I explored all my options. And I decided to consider a...slightly less gruesome alternative," she told him.

"What?" His eyes widened. "Were you- did you-"

I had no idea what Agathe meant. 'Less gruesome alternative?' What did that mean? Did it mean that Agathe simply made his body disappear, so the discovery of a gruesome casualty wouldn't ruin the celebration and joy of that morning? Or did it mean she could've actually brought Gaston to life? Like she did for Prince Adam, as a Beast? Could she have sent Gaston away alive, in some kind of exile? Did her vague term 'disappear' mean that he was alive, and far away, perhaps in a special prison she'd fashioned for him?

I was still confused.

"I was lingering around the premises that night, yes," Agathe revealed to Lefou. "I saved Monsieur Maurice's life as soon as the two of you had left. I brought him back to the village safely."

"I did not want that to happen, Mademoiselle Agathe!" Lefou said, upset. "It's my biggest regret! If I'd only known and if I wasn't so-"

"Lefou," I interrupted, more confused now. "What does your question about Gaston have to do with that night you followed Maurice into the woods?"

"Stanley, it doesn't. But I know Agathe was in the forest. She was there, watching and listening." Lefou looked back at Agathe with shock. "Thank you," he whispered. "Thank you for saving Maurice's life and bringing him safely back to town. If it hadn't been for you, I would've been complicit-"

"Monsieur," Agathe said firmly, reaching out to touch Lefou's head by his temple. "I understood your dilemma. I know the type of man Gaston could be. You are not a bad person. And as for your friend Gaston, I chose to...erase the gruesome results of his fall. He is at peace now. That is all I am going to say."

While she spoke to him, she kept her hand gently pressed onto his temple. I noticed his expression change- from tension and sorrow, to peace and comfort.

She still didn't answer his question as to whether Gaston was dead or alive. I looked at the magical lady, wanting to argue and tell her that she was being way too vague and mysterious, and weird.

She looked at me then, fixing her gaze in my eyes. I decided, suddenly, that it was okay. Gaston was gone. Gaston was at peace.

"Monsieurs, it has been pleasant to speak with you both again," Agathe said with a kind and friendly air. "I must go on, and ride to the castle to visit His Highness and Belle again. I wanted to ask if my powers could come to any practical use. It is going to be a harsh, cold winter ahead."

She mounted her snowy-white horse, and with a misty glow and a swirl of pastel colors, she transformed into her lovely and regal-looking form again. I wasn't alarmed this time.

"Au revoir, gentlemen," she said, riding in the opposite direction, to the castle.

"Mademoiselle Agathe?" Lefou called out.

She turned around. "Yes?"

"The snow on this road to Villeneuve is very pretty to look at," he said. "But it makes it difficult for people to travel back and forth. Could you, um, magically melt the snow? Only on the trail, though? Nowhere else. Just the trail, so everybody will be safe and so...we won't break our backs shoveling all day."

She smiled at us. "I'm happy to oblige." She waved her hand, and the snow began to melt on the path. The water evaporated, leaving a good, dry trail of trodden earth for our horses and carriages to travel safely.

"Merci! Thank you!" Lefou and I both exclaimed, as she disappeared over the hilltop.

"Stanley?" he asked after we'd ridden to the halfway point to Villeneuve. The sun was fighting clouds, and the breeze continued to blow loose snow from the trees onto our faces.

"What is it, Étienne?"

"I feel...so happy right now. And peaceful. I'm as merry as a schoolboy!"

I laughed. "And yet, you never attended a school."

"Do you think Rosie could handle a ride all the way to Villeneuve? I know she's expecting and all."

"I think she can. She's halfway through her gestation and she's been antsy to get out lately. Speaking of expecting- guess who else is having a baby?"

"Princess Belle?" Lefou asked excitedly. "The bets are on that we'll see a royal baby by the end of next year!"

"Non," I said. "If it were her, I'm certain you and Mrs. Potts would find out about it before me. "No- Martine is. She's expecting again!"

Lefou was overjoyed. "Oh my gosh! I hope everything...works out this time and their baby is born! So we're gonna be uncles again?"

"Yes, Étienne. You and I are both going to be official- and unofficial- uncles again. Should we ride down and say hello to Dick and Martine, and Tom and Marie? It's Sunday, so Dick and Tom are off work. I'd like to invite them all to the Christmas Eve ball in a few weeks."

"I'd love to. Another ball," Lefou said, with a sigh of exasperation. "Does that mean you'll have to help sew a hundred more new ballgowns?"

"No. Madame de Garderobe and Cadenza are due to be back right before Christmas. So we won't have time to plan all of that. Everyone is wearing what they have. Étienne, if you wore your black and gold uniform again, I'd love it."

"I will, if you wear yours. We can make it more festive by wearing red bow ties and jingle-bell caps on our heads. Remember the tavern's party last year?"

"Oh, mon dieu!" I laughed. "My cousins with their hideous red and green outfits? Remember? And the way Gaston would put his boots in the fireplace and expect 'Pere Noel' to bring him all the gifts he expected from all of us?"

"I know!" Lefou laughed fondly. "He was easy to buy for, though! Knives, ammunition, a new hat, gloves, more hunting gear and stuff. Gaston was like an overgrown little boy, when you really think about it. I'm not sure he ever matured beyond age twelve or thirteen or so."

I nodded. "I guess he was."

"You know what Belle said about me not going on hunting trips in wintertime anymore?" Lefou asked, his tone more solemn.

"Yes?"

"I think she said that because she learned more about Gaston's past. Gaston's own father died when he was stranded in a blizzard while hunting. He was thirteen years old when his father died. And of course he lost his mother when he was eight."

"How did Belle learn about that?"

"She and I talked a few times. Every once in a while, when Belle comes to feed and pet Phillipe in the stables, we have a nice talk. And a few times it's led to Gaston. I didn't even want to say his name in front of her. She asked me about his past and his upbringing. I suppose she was curious about why he became...the person he was."

"I'm glad she wanted to know more about him." I said, speeding Rosie down the hill. I took a deep breath of beautiful winter air. "He was one of a kind, that Gaston."

"No one in town half as manly," Lefou said behind me, singing the phrase a little.

"But no one in town loves you half as much as me!" I yelled back.

"I love you too, Stanley!" came his shouted reply. He urged Ami to ride side by side with Rosie and me.

We soon entered Villeneuve, its rooftops snow-covered, sparkling white and picturesque. A few children were skating on the frozen river, just like Dick and Tom and I used to long ago. The clock on the tower was about to chime noon.

...

The End

...