Seven years later...
"You're sure this is the one you want?"
With an affirmative nod, Adam plucked the rose from the bush, then cut away the thorns with the clippers he'd brought with him. Benjamin stood beside him, fidgeting restlessly, but otherwise waiting patiently for him to finish his work.
Once he'd finished, Adam passed the rose down to the boy. "Be careful now," he warned. "Roses are very fragile. You need to handle them gently or else all the petals will fall off. Do you think you can do that?"
"Yes, Papa," Benjamin promised. And although he was only five years old, the bold conviction in his voice told Adam that he would keep his word.
Taking his free hand, Adam guided his son across the gardens, back towards the Château de la Rose. The sky was painted in dazzling shades of pink and orange—a sure sign that tomorrow would be just as sunny as it had been today. As he took in the breathtaking sight, Adam couldn't help but reflect on how much his life had changed in the past decade.
Nearly seven years had passed since he'd first asked Belle to move in with him. Six since she'd finally accepted his marriage proposal. And five since he'd become a father to their firstborn son, Prince Benjamin-Hugo Michel de Bauffremont.
Initially, Adam had been nervous about becoming a father. His only example of one had been cruel and unloving, leaving him with the fear he'd end up the same way. But Belle had reminded him every day that he was nothing like his father, and it was within his power to be the example he'd wished he'd had. She'd been his rock for their six years of marriage, and Adam knew he could do anything with her by his side. Thanks to her, the birth of their first child had easily become one of the best memories of his life—one that he wouldn't trade away for all the riches in the world.
As they reached the east entrance of the castle, Adam was startled to see his wife standing in the doorway, carrying son number two in her arms. "There you are!" she said reproachfully. "Here I was, thinking you two had taken off, and Denis and I were going to have dinner alone."
"Of course, we wouldn't 'take off,' my love," Adam said with an apologetic grin. "Benjamin just wanted to get you a little something from the gardens before we ate."
"Maman, this is for you," Benjamin said, holding out the rose he had chosen for her.
Belle raised a brow and passed Denis over to Adam so she could take the flower from her older son. Denis bore many physical similarities to his brother, including his light brown hair and fair complexion that freckled easily in the sun. But unlike Benjamin, Denis's blue eyes had turned brown after a year, and now, at the age of two, had become just as dark and expressive as his mother's.
"Thank you, Benjamin," Belle said with a smile. "That's very sweet of you."
Benjamin beamed proudly. "Papa helped," he explained. "He took off the sharp bits so you wouldn't get hurt."
"Did he now?" Belle gave her husband an inquisitive look.
"Of course!" Adam confirmed. "He only wanted the best for his Maman, and I was more than happy to assist."
"I see. Well, Benjamin, did you remember to say thank you to your father for helping you?"
"Thank you, Papa!" Benjamin squealed. He ran over to his father and hugged his knees tightly, which elicited a smile from both his parents.
The family ate dinner together in the dining room that evening, indulging in Chef Cuisiner's delicious lamb chops and dauphinoise potatoes. It was a little unconventional for the King and Queen to eat dinner together with their sons, especially in a society where most noble families rarely interacted, let alone saw their children until they came of age. But Belle was adamant that they play an active role in their boys' upbringings, and Adam, who agreed with his wife on everything when it came to family, had no reason to refuse. While squeezing in family time could be difficult with a kingdom to manage, they always tried to put aside at least one day a week to spend with their children, free of any pressing commitments or interruptions.
After dinner, the four of them moved to the library for story time. Tonight's tale was The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean, written by an Englishman named J. Roberts. Belle and Adam had read the book so many times, they practically had it memorized. Together, they took turns recounting the tale to their sons, who laughed uncontrollably as their father acted out the Giant's lines in a deep, rumbly voice. Somehow, story time then turned into an improvisation game where the boys chased their father around the library, pretending he was the Giant and they were arresting him for stealing Jack's magic goose. But with Belle acting as their advisor, they decided to let him go on the condition that he returned the goose to Jack, along with all the other stolen valuables in his castle. Adam was in no place to defy a pair of fierce young princes, so he agreed to their conditions, all while staying in character.
He'd never had such a life growing up, full of play, imagination, and laughter. Maybe when he was with his mother, or when his uncle and cousins used to visit. But these moments became less frequent as he grew older. As a father, Adam was determined to see his sons' childhoods filled with all the love and happiness he'd never known.
Once story time was over, Adam and Belle escorted their boys upstairs to prepare them for bed. In their shared bedchamber, they helped the young princes into their nightgowns and tucked them into their beds for the night. Denis insisted he wasn't tired, so Belle sang him a lullaby her father had taught her when she was a girl. Her voice, while untrained, was pleasant enough to put their younger son to sleep within minutes.
Meanwhile, Adam kissed Benjamin on his forehead and told him how proud he was of his good behaviour today.
Having put both of their children to bed, Belle and Adam closed their bedroom doors and retired to the West Wing for the night.
If they were an ordinary couple, this might have been the time of day when they'd take the rest of the night for themselves. But as the King and Queen of an ever-demanding kingdom, there was always work to be done. Tonight, Belle was the busier one of the two, frantically going through some papers for her upcoming appraisal of the co-educational schools in the region. Public education had come a long way since her coronation, and with some considerable arm twisting, the Emperor of France had finally approved her request to build some co-educational institutes around the kingdom, with the intent of examining their quality of learning compared to traditional segregated schools. To help run this experiment, Belle had assembled a committee of educators, academics and stakeholders just as interested in improving learning opportunities for girls as she was. As the self-appointed chairwoman of this committee, her job (among many things) was to facilitate committee meetings, oversee funding and pay annual visits to the schools to speak with students and teachers. It was a taxing job, but a rewarding one, and Belle put her heart and soul into it. For Adam, who had long since left the committee in his wife's capable hands, he was pleased to see her dream of achieving equal education rights for girls slowly become a reality.
"Maybe you should take a break," he told her as he walked up to the desk where she was sorting through her documents. "Making yourself crazy from all this won't help."
"I know," she admitted with a sigh. "I just… really want to make a good impression on the students this week. They try so hard to make themselves presentable when I arrive; it's only right I do the same for them. Even though I'm their queen, I don't want them to think this is a cursory job, or that I don't care about them and their ways of living. Does that make sense?"
He nodded. "It does. You've always put the considerations of others before yourself, Belle. It shows in both your words and actions. But I know for a fact that the students will love having you in their schools, even if you slip up on a few details. It might even encourage some of them to buckle down and start doing their work."
Belle laughed softly, but it faded as quickly as it had come. "It's not just the trip I'm nervous about," she admitted. "I'm worried about leaving Benjamin and Denis behind. It doesn't feel right when they're still so young and clingy, and always calling out for their Maman every waking moment."
"They will miss you. As will I." He placed a hand on her shoulder. "But that doesn't mean they won't be without company. Your father will be here on Thursday to spend time with them, Sarah will be around to get them ready in the mornings, and I'll still be tucking them into bed every night after my meetings. Besides, you'll only be gone for a week, not a year. It may feel like forever to them, but they can wait."
"They're getting so big now." Belle's eyes grew misty. "It seems like only yesterday when you were learning how to hold Benjamin for the first time. Remember that?"
"Do I ever." He smiled fondly. "He was so tiny; I was afraid he was going to shatter into pieces in my arms. Then, he opened his little blue eyes, looked up at me and smiled."
"He knew who you were from the moment he met you."
"Or, he just happened to be passing gas."
"Perhaps." She chuckled. "Oh, but just think. In a few more years, Benji will be big enough to ride his own horse, and we won't be able to carry him around as easily as we used to. Those days of piggyback rides and bedtime cuddles will be a thing of the past."
"We could try for another one, you know," Adam suggested casually. "Maybe this time, it'll be a girl. A little Sophie-Emmanuelle, or Jeanne-Charlotte..."
"I have considered it." But seeing the sudden twinkle in her husband's eyes, Belle smacked him in the arm with the wad of parchment she was holding and smirked. "Just not this second! When the boys are older and more independent. You know how difficult they are to handle at this age."
"Can't argue with you there." He shrugged. "Still, I'm up for the challenge. I'd be ready for another little stranger whenever you are."
"Oh, I'd bet you'd be." Her eyes flickered at him suggestively. "You redheads are up for anything. All red in the head, and fire in the bed..."
"It's blonde, not red," he admonished. Even so, his cheeks began to burn at his wife's bawdy inside joke.
"Anyway, if you want another baby, you should at least pluck up the courage to change his diapers every once in a while," she continued more seriously. "Don't you dare use Sarah as an excuse."
"Hey, you don't change Denis's diapers every day either," he pointed out. "Admit it, having a nurse to pick up the slack on our busy days isn't so bad."
"Sarah has been a great help," she conceded. "But I'm still their mother, and I'm not going to shirk on my duties just because it's convenient."
"No one thinks you're shirking," he insisted. "You're the most dedicated queen and mother I could have ever had the privilege of marrying. I'm grateful for what you do, and the boys are too."
"Thank you, Adam." Belle smiled appreciatively. "I needed to hear that. And if you start helping out more, I promise to give your suggestion about baby number three some more serious thought. Deal?"
A lull in their conversation soon followed, in which Belle reorganized some papers on her desk, and Adam stared out the windows overlooking the balcony.
"I had a dream the other day," he mentioned absently. "Only it wasn't really a dream. More like a memory within a dream."
She glanced at him in concern. "About being the Beast?" He'd had those nightmares frequently over the years, and often found them easier to cope with when he could talk to her about them in private.
"No." He shook his head. "Not this time. I was back in Brocéliande, examining the leaves on the Nexus Tree. One of them showed an image of us in the West Wing. I was the Beast, and I was lying on the floor—whether dead or unconscious, I'm not sure. You were kneeling next to my body, crying over me."
Belle's face blanched in the window's reflection, and Adam winced, wishing he'd thought of a gentler way of conveying this information. "Sorry," he said, turning back to her. "I didn't mean to bring up the past like this. It just made me wonder... If I hadn't used the book to return to the past that night, what would have happened? If I'd accepted my fate, would I have eventually died from my curse? And would you have ever come back to me?"
She was quiet for a moment. "I think I would have."
"Really?" He blinked.
"Yes. Maybe not immediately… but after everything got sorted out with my father, I think I would. My memories of returning to the village are fuzzy, but I do know that I believed what we shared that night was special. That you had become an important person in my life. I don't think I had fully considered that I was falling in love with you, but eventually, maybe..."
"It wouldn't have been in time to break the spell," he pointed out. "The last petal was hours away from falling when I freed you. Even if you came back to me, there'd be no chance of us having an ordinary life together. We wouldn't have been able to live together as husband and wife. Not to mention that it would have been impossible for me to give you children. Eventually, I would have felt like I was being too much of a burden and asked you to leave. And failing that, I would have removed myself from your life completely."
Belle's expression crumpled and Adam mentally kicked himself, realizing he'd said too much again. He was surprised therefore, when his wife crossed the room and placed her hand on his cheek. "We would have found a way," she argued. "I would have spent day and night doing research in the library, looking for a solution. We know that Agathe lived in Villeneuve during the curse. Maybe she would have been open to negotiating another way to reverse the spell if we couldn't break it on time. I would have done everything in my power to make you and the servants human again. Saving my friends and the man I love would never be a burden. You know that, right?"
"I do now," he said with a humble nod. "Though for what it's worth, I'm glad you didn't have to go through all that for me. Even though Agathe gave me another chance at redemption, I still wouldn't have trusted her to make a fair bargain with you. If she tricked you or tried to use you as collateral for breaking the spell, I would have never forgiven myself. So I'm glad that despite all the odds, fate brought us to this moment. It's all I could have dreamed of and more than I deserve."
"Always so melodramatic," Belle lightly teased. "How many times do I have to remind you that you've always deserved me, and I chose to love you of my own accord?"
"Just one more time, ma chère," he replied with a grin. "As always."
The couple kissed, then wrapped their arms around each other and watched the stars in companionable silence. Seven years ago in another universe, the Beast had stood in this very place, heartbroken and dreading the future. In a moment of haste, he'd used the Enchantress's book to escape his curse, a decision that had nearly cost him his life. But despite all the mishaps, doubts, and dead ends, he was exactly where he needed to be. He looked out at the shimmering night sky and thought of all he had to be grateful for, being here with the love of his life and his irreplaceable family, forevermore.