Circe stared into the long mirror, rapping her nails against the cold glass. A crisp image reflected from its surface: Prince Adam, sitting in the tower of her ancient fortress, head bowed and staring at his feet. Waiting for her next command, exactly as he should be.
She frowned, though she wasn't sure why. She sent another silent command to the mirror, checking on the rest of her prisoners, on the surrounding countryside. Everyone, everything exactly as it should be.
Almost too exactly.
She turned, looking back at that wretched servant Lumiere. He was currently encased by one of her spells – she couldn't harm him, it seemed, but she could at least detain him. He didn't seem the least bit perturbed, however, lounging lazily on the couch in the corner of the room, the invisible wall that surrounded him glimmering faintly while he examined one of the buttons on his sleeve.
She scowled, turning back to the tall mirror before her, which continued to scan the pleasant, undisturbed villages nearby. She frowned deeper. I need to check on things myself, she decided. She sucked in a breath, exhausted, forcing a spell onto its surface that would let her travel to the locations shown. Lifting a hand, she made to pass through—
But the glass remained solid.
She paused for a moment, confused, feeling the magic seep from her fingertips yet making no difference. She tried again, lifting the other hand and pressing against the cool glass with all her might.
A loud crack, and the surface shattered.
Circe breathed shallowly, staring at the spindle-like fissures in the glass radiating out from each palm. I can't…leave? she thought, shocked. She turned again, looking back at the servant in the shadows. Lumiere watched her now, a bemused expression on his face.
A new feeling was creeping into her chest, one she hadn't felt in a very long time. The feeling of fear. That servant—he'd known about her past. But how? The only person who knew her truth was…
Her eyes grew wide, and she stepped back slowly. She's escaped, she realized, a sick feeling in her stomach. That old hag…she's escaped!
She cursed aloud. How could she have forgotten something so important? Had that fool of a prince really managed to set Agathe free?
You're the fool, Circe thought, now trembling. You placed her right in his hands! Circe brought her own hands to her head, mind foggy and dark. How long had it been so muddled? Why couldn't she simply think straight?!
Biting back a scream, she ran from the room. These halls were grand and large, decorated with the disgusting luxuries of men who built themselves up on the blood of those beneath them. The carpet beneath her feet, coated with the blood of those she'd taken for herself.
Circe glared at the hall's fine adornments as she ran, mind blind with hate. Plowing ahead, she didn't notice the way everything she laid eyes on crumbled and darkened in her wake.
She soon slowed, the old body she now encased growing tired far too quickly. She didn't know where she was, only that this hall was quiet and dark, eyes staring at her from the shadows. Portraits, filled with the kinds of people she hated most in this world. She hissed at them, racing forward again, anxious to escape their stares and find more of Victor's men to appease her growing appetite. Yet the damn paintings never seemed to end, and for all her efforts she merely found herself at a dead end. Here, the largest portrait of them all loomed over head, three figures painted across the grand canvas in colors that hadn't yet dimmed with time. They made her feel small, and she had been about to turn away when the eyes from its frame caught her own.
Two pairs of blue, one brown. The latter belonged to a man with golden hair and a warm expression, hand resting on the shoulder of the blue-eyed woman beside him. In her lap, a son who grinned happily and shared her eyes. Eyes Circe knew far too well.
The rage built in her chest. Bristling, she threw up her arms and sunk her nails into the canvas.
A violent scream in her ears. Was it her own?
She tore through the painting with a swift motion, shredding the beautiful faces.
A sob. Was she crying?
When the deed was done, she stepped back, vision watery, trying to feel satisfied yet only feeling greater rage. And even through the ragged canvas, Prince Adam's bright eyes found her from the darkness.
"Why did you do that?"
Circe's heart stopped. Then, slowly, she turned, searching the darkness for the voice.
It spoke again, soft and youthful. "Why did you tear them apart?"
She finally found its source. A child, standing in the reflection of an old window connecting to the small, dark cemetery far below. A girl, wearing rags, watching her with furrowed brows.
"It's just a painting," Circe whispered, that new fear returning again, unsure what to make of this strange vision.
"I'm not talking about that."
Circe looked away, back at the painting she'd destroyed, a new tightness in her chest. "They ruined my life," she said bitterly.
"How?" the child asked in innocence.
Circe wrinkled her nose, whipping her head back sharply and glaring at the strange girl. "They—he—because of him, I…" She trailed off, growing frustrated, clenching weak fists at her side. "I don't have to answer you, spirit!"
The girl only frowned. "You can't even answer yourself?"
Circe froze. Then, slowly, she took a step closer to the window. From here, she saw the girl's blond, matted hair, her cloudy eyes. The way she held a small, juvenile rose between the tips of her fingers with care.
Those blind eyes now grew wide and desperate. Frightened. "What have I become?" the child whispered.
Circe watched her start to back away. "Wait…" she said hollowly, reaching out old, bony fingers and resting them on the glass's surface.
The young Circe only shook her head. "Y-you took him from his family," she stammered. "The little prince. Just like we were taken from ours. You're…you're worse than them. You're worse than Papa."
The child's eyes were filled with tears now, wrinkling at the edges. "It's true. You really are a monster."
The girl vanished, body dissolving into nothingness, and the reflection in the glass returned to her own. Hideous, old, dying. Skin sagging, falling from her cheeks. Eyes red and bleeding.
Circe stared, gasping for breath, her body quaking. She reached for her stores, sent everything she had left to change back. Her skin glowed, beginning to heal—then faded again, falling away and looking worse than before.
No, she thought, panic swelling in her breast. Why? Why won't it work? She'd taken more men in the last fortnight than all these years combined—why was her magic draining so quickly?!
She turned, leaning her hunched back against the window, fighting the quaking of her legs and the throbbing in her heart. Her vision swam, fading to a memory.
"Dark magic always bears a mark, Circe. You must stop this, or it will consume you."
And, finally, a small part of her mind began to make sense of it all. Began to see herself for what she was.
Oh God, she thought, gasping for breath, old body quaking where she stood. I really am a monster.
Shouts of alarm rang out in the busy square, a hundred villagers running back and forth with arms full of supplies. Children and their caretakers, those too young or weak or old to fight were being packed into every available wagon, the remaining gathering swords and torches in preparation.
At Commander Gilles' order, the attack was to take place that night—a week sooner than planned. A week that they'd planned to evacuate those most vulnerable in case things went wrong. Now, they had but hours to get them away.
Henri lifted his son into the closet wagon, setting him beside his grandmother. Mrs. Potts wrapped an arm around him, squeezing him tight. A young girl sat on Jack's other side, trembling and tugging her cloak further around her. Two young women with blond curls sat beside her, whispering frantically to themselves.
"Jack," the girl whispered.
He turned to her. "Yeah?"
"I'm scared," she admitted, squeezing her eyes shut. "…Hold my hand?"
Jack looked surprised, but quickly complied. "It's okay, Nicolette," he said bravely, squeezing her small fingers. "My Papa's in charge, and he'll make sure we win!"
Jack looked back at his father then, hopeful. Henri give him a wink, ruffling his hair, before stepping back out of the wagon and moving towards the front. Sophie was securing two large horses to the wagon. He rested a hand on her shoulder, and she looked back quickly. Her face was full of fear.
He gathered her small frame in his arms, and she buried herself against him.
"It's—it's just happening so fast," she whispered. "What…what if…"
"I'll be back for ya," he promised, holding her tight. "Nothing's gonna stop me, cause…cause I got somethin' important to do later. If…you agree."
He pulled back, reaching a trembling hand for her own. Then he reached into in his pocket, pulled out a small pouch and, swallowing, placed it in her palm.
Sophie stared at him in shock, unaware of the growing chaos around them as a dozen men on horses trotted by. Then she quickly undid the cinch, pulling out the small object inside. A golden ring, hand-forged and carved with small, delicate designs. It had taken Henri several tedious attempts to get right, but it was more than worth it for her.
"Oh…Henri," Sophie gasped, resting a hand over her heart.
"I was gonna give it to ya in a nicer way," he said nervously. "But since we're marching on the castle tonight, well…I couldn't go without askin' first."
Several dozen more men marched past, the skies quickly growing dark. Henri glanced at them, heart racing, then looked back down at her. She stared up at him with those large, dark eyes, gripping the ring in her palm.
He sucked in a breath, leaning close. "Marry me, Soph?"
His whisper was barely audible over the shouts all around. He swallowed again, and before she could reply more words tumbled out. "You're just, you're wonderful. A-and you've…you've made me happy again, when I never thought I would be. And—damn, I didn't get a chance to practice this—but I love you, and I—"
She was up on her toes, lips connecting quickly with his. An urgent kiss, one that soon settled into something deeper.
"That's a yes," she said, pulling away, eyes wrinkled at the corners and bright with joy.
He blinked, then smiled wide, burying his fingers in her curls and kissing her again with passion.
"Oi, Henri, 'nough foolin' around!" someone called out. "We gotta go!"
Henri kissed her for a moment longer, and pulled back reluctantly. Then he reached down quickly, slipping the small band over her ring finger. The gold looked perfect against her warm brown fingers, and he gripped them in earnest, chest warm and swelling with happiness.
"Stay safe," she whispered.
"And you." He glanced back towards those waiting in the wagon, towards his young son and the older woman who'd raised him. "And—"
"I'll keep them safe too," Sophie promised.
He helped her into the driver's seat, watching with a heart somehow light and heavy all at once as she urged the horses into a run down the road. Dozens more wagons followed, carrying all they loved towards safety.
Turning, Henri sucked in a breath and faced those that remained. A young man brought him a horse—the large black stallion that was Jack's. The boy had insisted his father take him today.
"All right, Maggy," Henri said, mounting with a leap of energy and settling into the saddle. "You ready?"
The horse huffed, pawing a hoof against the old cobblestone road. Giving him a gentle kick, Henri moved towards the front of the crowd that waited for him.
He looked them over. They had come from across the countryside, hundreds of them, a fire in their eyes far brighter than the torches held aloft in the young night air. It was a sight Henri had yearned for years ago—back when he'd been the only one brave enough to venture into those dark woods. The only one who dared go against Victor's orders to stay away.
And now, finally, others had come to his aid. Not to rescue a son this time, but to make sure that son stayed safe. To make sure every son and daughter in their kingdom stayed safe.
A group of familiar faces stood near the front of the crowd, mounted atop their own steeds. That gang of men from Beaumont—once lazy and indolent, they now waited in earnest for his orders. No longer taunting him for his stubborn loyalty, but joining him. The man Émile, at one time the worst of them all, now nodded at him with a fierce determination in his eyes.
Henri sucked in a breath. "Grab your torch!" he cried.
The crowd thrust forth a hundred hands, bearing a hundred fires. "Aye!" they shouted.
"Mount your horse!" Henri bellowed, urging his own across the front line.
"AYE!" Hundreds of sharp horseshoes padded along the road.
"Victor has wreaked havoc on our villages!" Henri bellowed, voice carried in the wind, heart wild with conviction. "Too long we've let him wander free!"
The cheers erupted again, ear-splitting this time. Energy swelled through the crowd, dense and palatable. Henri stopped Maggy, turning him towards the road ahead. "It's time to take some action, boys," he rasped darkly.
Adam stood, waiting while the mirror he'd once kept it his room grew tall enough to reflect his entire frame, and wide enough to include his father and mother to his left, and Belle to his right. Their images soon disappeared, revealing every citizen they'd recruited over the past weeks, a massive force of torches and swords and shouts. Agathe pulled her hand back, turning and giving him a wink.
"They can see me?" Alexandre asked her.
"They can," she nodded, and stepped away.
Adam's father stepped forward, and spoke to the crowds through the glowing mirror. His voice was strong and confident, and soon had the men beyond cheering with gusto.
Adam gripped the small parchment in his hand tighter, waiting his turn. His father stepped back too soon and, swallowing, Adam took his place. He stared at the crowds—they seemed so close, though he knew them to be miles off. So close, and so anxious to hear his words.
And, after a moment, he tossed the parchment aside. The scripted words had served him well in his speeches across the countryside, but they seemed far too formal for this moment.
"No doubt you see me as a stranger," he started. He swallowed, glancing at his feet. "And I admit, I still know little of you. For a decade I could do nothing, nothing but fear for you. Nothing but watch and know I could do nothing to help."
The crowd grew still, their rustling energy from before dissolving into a thoughtful silence. Sucking in a breath, Adam looked up again. "Yet while I was imprisoned, I never forgot you," he said firmly. "So if we're strangers now, I hope to be friends. For you are my own, and I am a part of you."
For a heartbeat, his people remained quiet. Then, in an instant, cheers—building and sweeping over the vast crowd.
"There's a fire in my heart," Adam proclaimed, gaining confidence. "As long as I can do something, I will! I'll—" He paused, heart pounding. "I'll do whatever it takes to make things right!"
As the cheers swelled, Adam turned back to Belle and reached for her hand, guiding her to his side.
"I don't believe fame or nobility are required for greatness," he said, watching her for a moment before turning back to his audience. "I see greatness in each of you. I saw it in the woman who saved me from a ten year prison. She came from among you, and is the reason I stand before you today. She's the reason we have a chance."
Their cries of support grew in volume, and Belle flushed.
"Tell them," Adam whispered, leaning close and squeezing her hand. "You can do this."
She nodded nervously, sucking in a breath of her own and stepping forward. "I-I'm…I'm honored to be here," she began, gaining her voice. "A-and I just want to say…you are all my friends."
At the word, something shifted in the image before them. A wave of golden light, it seemed, passing over the vast crowds. The effect of Belle's statement, a shield for their supporters from any harm Circe might wish them.
Belle noticed it too, and relaxed. "So have courage, my friends," she went, her own sureness having grown at the declaration's success. "We will meet you again in a free kingdom!"
The cheers grew into a cacophony of hoots, of applause and heavy stomping against the earth. Agathe touched the mirror again, and the image returned to their own, their cheers fading into silence. Sighing, Adam turned to Belle.
She smiled at him. "They're safe from her, now," she said. "Let's go."
Victor groaned. He opened his eyes, squinting even in the dim light, the ceiling above him spinning. "Too much wine," he grumbled to himself, rolling to his side and hoisting himself to his knees. He sucked in a rough breath, and looked up.
Bodies, the room filled with them. Those of his highest-ranking men, their blood half dried against the rug.
He scrambled back, gasping, eyes searching the room in a panic. "Guards!" he barked in fear, voice high and frightened. Nothing but the sound of a distant shouts replied, and no one came.
Shaking, he forced himself to his feet, cringing at the scent of death that filled the room. He swallowed, trying to wrack his mind for what had happened here—what he couldn't remember. Why had he been spared?
He shook his head—what did it matter? At least he had been spared. He stepped around the bodies of his men, plugging his nose at the sight of them. What a mess.
He turned, watching a junior officer stumble into the room. The boy's eyes grew wide at the sight, stopping mid-thought before shaking his head and going on. "The—the castle is under attack!" he gasped.
"Obviously!" Victor snapped, motioning at the dead men around them. "Where are my guards?!"
The distant shouts grew louder. Angry, chaotic, leaking in from the room's grand balcony. Victor frowned, moving towards the noise, fumbling with the lock and shoving open the grand glass doors. He moved to the balcony's ledge, staring down at the gates far below, the forest just beyond.
Small fires spotted the trees. Shadows, swelling along the path, attached to those violent cries. To the sounds of heavy hooves and angry men.
"Who dares…?" he breathed darkly.
"A-a mob, Your Majesty," the young man stammered from behind him. "Men from the local villages."
Victor huffed. "I know that!" he said. God, this boy was dense.
The soldier seemed too frightened to even react to his king's irritation. Instead, his eyes wandered across the bodies on the ground, then out towards the trees. "What should we do?" he whispered.
"Ask your commander, lieutenant!" Victor barked.
The soldier was quiet for a long moment. "I…I'm the highest ranked man left, m-my king."
Victor froze, finally turning back to face him. "What?" he breathed in disbelief. He bristled in irritation. "That's preposterous! I brought a full battalion here—where are they?!"
"I-immobilized, my lord," the young lieutenant replied quietly. "Or…or dead. 'Tis a demon lurking these halls, Your Majesty."
And suddenly, a faint memory flashed in Victor's mind. A beautiful woman, bright scarlet eyes, a hand on his throat…a delicious yet excruciating kiss.
Beads of sweat formed on his brow. I have to get out of here.
He looked back at the soldier, still awaiting his command. "Well—take the rest of the men, and fight them off!" he ordered.
The lieutenant paled. "But Y-Your Majesty," he said. "They outnumber us. I…I don't think we can—"
"You will head down and defend your king," Victor snarled, moving towards him in fury. He was taller than the young man, and the boy cowered beneath him as he grabbed his vest with a rough hand. "Either you do so," he said darkly, "or I'll have your head and the heads of everyone you love. Do you hear me?"
The boy's eyes grew wide in fear, but he nodded. And without another word, he escaped back into the hall.
Victor watched him go. No doubt he was sending the man to his death—though of course, he didn't care. He just needed enough time to get away from this place.
Someone cleared their throat. Victor started, turning to see a figure in the shadows.
"Ah, it seems I'm free again," they said. That servant, Lumiere, stood from where he sat, stretching and sauntering towards Victor with a lazy stride.
Victor frowned at him.
Lumiere leaned against the large bookcase against the far wall, examining a nail. "It's a shame there's no way to escape from this room…" he said casually. "That would be quite convenient, no?"
Victor blinked. He recalled his youth, of tunnels and secret passages hidden in the depths of the earth. His eyes flashed to the bookcase again, and he grinned.
"Bring a light," he ordered Lumiere. "We're leaving."
"Ya sure King Alexandre's all right with us…ya know—"
"…breakin' down his front door?"
"Yep," Henri told the man, his companion as they and a dozen others rammed a heavy tree trunk against the front doors of the palace.
"All part of the plan," Henri assured him.
One more hit, and the doors came crashing down. His men flooded inside, shouting fiercely and sliding their weapons from their belts. They were playing the part of an angry mob quite well—though Henri sensed most of it wasn't an act at all.
The entryway was pitch black—strange, since the castle was supposedly occupied. They moved slowly into the darkness, torches held high. Their boot falls rang loudly off the marble floor, echoing against the ceilings high above.
Henri turned, his men already surrounding the source of the shout. He pushed his way through quickly, a young lieutenant in the center and no more than a half troop's worth of men cowering behind him.
The leading soldier held a spear aloft, its tip shaking. He swallowed, but went on. "B-by the order of King Victor we—we demand that you stand down!"
A number of Henri's men laughed at that. They had the poor chap surrounded three to one, after all. "Look, we don't want to hurt ya," Henri started. "King Alexandre is willing to work with those who wish to join us."
The young lieutenant blinked, his spear growing loose in his palms. "King…Alexandre?"
"Aye," Henri nodded. "He led us here himself. What do you say, then?"
The soldier looked nervous, glancing behind him at those he led. Most were young, like him, or else very old. And by the looks on their faces, these seemed to be some of the least loyal of Victor's soldiers.
"Our families," a rough voice said. An older soldier, stepping past the young lieutenant and planting his own spear into the ground. "Victor threatened them," he said gruffly. "A slew of soldiers deserted within Victor's first year of power, so he slaughtered their families to convince the rest of us to stay."
Several of Henri's men cursed, lowering their own weapons. Henri tucked his own sword back in his belt. "They'll be safe," he promised. "By dawn, Victor will be in custody and the true king on the throne once again."
The man narrowed his eyes. Yet after a moment, he nodded. The rest of those behind relaxed, and Henri even caught a few smiles painting their faces.
"Where are the rest of your men?" Henri asked.
"This…this is all of us," the young lieutenant replied, looking a bit abashed.
"He's lying," someone in the mob barked. "There's got to be more of 'em!"
Henri furrowed his brows. With so few soldiers left, it would make little sense to split up. He sensed the man was telling the truth.
Yet at the thought, he finally heard what they'd been searching for before. Footfalls, hundreds of them, thundering from the halls above.
"The demons!" one of Victor's soldiers cried. Many more of them cried out, some gripping their weapons once again while the others crouched in fear.
Henri frowned. There should only be one enchantress lurking these halls, not a full, heavy-footed troop's worth. He looked up towards the balconies above.
And he saw them. Enormous beings in the shadows, marching in an unnatural, uniform pattern.
"Who are they?" Émile whispered from behind him.
"Don't know," Henri said. He gripped his sword once again. "But it looks like our king still needs us."
The old passage was cold, damp, and much longer than he remembered. Victor stopped, leaning against one stone wall, trying to catch his breath. Damn, but he hadn't walked so far in ten years.
"Do you need a moment, my lord?" Lumiere asked. His voice hinted at amusement. "No doubt an arduous quarter hour of walking is having its toll on your knees."
Victor scowled. "Do not mock me, servant. I—I could send you back to face the mob if I wished!"
"A threat?" Lumiere said, raising a brow. "To the only one left to protect your fat arse?"
Victor bristled, whipping back to face him. "Why, you smug son of a bitch!" he growled. He stopped, still short of breath, face growing red with anger. "I'll—I'll have…your head for this, you…you worthless bast—"
New light entered the narrow tunnel. Victor stopped short, watching as several shadows grew along the wall.
"Who's…who's there?" Victor asked, pushing back from the wall and staring at the approaching figures in fear. "Who are you?!"
The closest figure moved into the light of Lumiere's candelabra. He walked with a slight limp, a cane in one hand, his form leaner than Victor remembered. Yet he still recognized him with a perfect, terrifying certainty.
"Hello, brother," the man said quietly.
Victor stared at him, mouth growing dry. It couldn't be.
The man nodded, more men emerging from behind him. Stumbling back, Victor pushed Lumiere aside and scrambled back the way they'd come. He was overtaken quickly, however, rough hands grabbing him and forcing him to his knees.
"Oh, Victor," the man with the limp said, approaching slowly and cocking his head. "You might be a scoundrel, but at least you're a predictable one."
"…Alexandre?" Victor finally managed. "Y-you're…you're supposed to be dead!"
"Yes, I suppose I am," Alexandre shrugged, leaning on his cane and looking him over. "Good lord, you've certainly let yourself go."
"Sh—shut up!" Victor snapped, but stopped as more men emerged from the darkness, standing behind Alexandre. A smaller figure moved to his side, blue eyes bright in the shadows.
"J-Jacqueline?" Victor stammered. "No, this—this isn't real! You're nothing but ghosts, spirits come to torment me!"
"I assure you we are quite alive," the queen said plainly. She narrowed her eyes. "Though we have no opposition to providing the requisite torment."
Victor's heart hammered in his chest. He struggled against the men around him, but they only held him tighter, faces speckled with amusement. Beside them, Lumiere looked the most amused of all, snickering quietly to himself.
Traitor! Victor realized furiously.
Alexandre stepped foward. "Adam informed us of how you cared for him when we were gone," he said casually.
"But that's not quite right, is it?" Jacqueline said, touching his arm. She, too, seemed strangely amused.
"Ah, you are right, my dear," Alexandre agreed. He turned back to his brother, growing somber. "You tried to murder him."
Victor gasped. "Adam's still alive?" he said in shock. Then, realizing his slip, he backtracked. "I-I mean that—that was just a misunderstanding," he said quickly. "I was only, um, only joking with the boy!"
"I'm sure." Alexandre stepped closer, fiddling with the blade's handle at his belt. "Now, what to do with you…" he mused.
"What was it that Locke proposed, my dear?" Jacqueline asked, a wicked gleam in her eye. "Did he not advocate that a true ruler abide by the will of his people?"
"Indeed," Alexandre agreed. "Perhaps we can let our people decide what to do with him." He paused, staring down into Victor's eyes. "It was them you offended, no? Them you taxed, them you imprisoned." He paused, eyes growing dark, leaning close. "Their daughters you stole and abused."
Victor swallowed roughly.
Alexandre narrowed his eyes. "I'm sure plenty of them would love to have a say in your punishment."
Victor grew pale as a sheet, eyes wide in horror.
"Yes," Alexandre went on, pulling back. He nodded towards his men, and they dragged Victor to his feet. "That seems the best solution indeed."
The climb was steep here. An older tunnel, abandoned long ago after a collapse but apparently restored during those months Adam had been lost in a jump through time. Beside him, Belle held a small map drawn in her own hand, examining it in the dim light of the lanterns held by Gilles' elite force assigned to accompany them.
Adam stared at the detailed cartography, though his mind dwelled on his parents, wondering if they'd been successful in their own task, thinking back to their departure not an hour ago.
Adam held the small woman tight. "Stay safe, Maman," he whispered.
"And you, my darling," she said. "Oh, I wish we didn't have to part here."
"Papa's in no shape to keep up with us." Adam finally pulled back, looking over towards his father who was conversing quietly with Gilles. In truth, the king had grown so emaciated in his time in Circe's dungeon that full control of one leg hadn't returned. Adam still wasn't used to seeing him with a limp. He looked back at his mother. "You're right to stay with him," he told her.
"You don't have to face her, you know," Jacqueline went on, bushing a few strands of hair from his face that had fallen loose. "You could stay come with us instead, let Agathe and Gilles' men take her down alone."
Adam frowned, looking at his feet for a moment. "I need to do this, Maman," he said at last. "I don't know why. I guess I just need…"
"Closure?" she asked.
Sighing, she nodded, letting him go as Alexandre approached. He wrapped his free arm around his son, squeezing tight.
Beside them, Belle finally pulled back from a long embrace with her own father. "Your mother was fearless," Maurice told her, holding her shoulders and staring her straight in the eyes. "And so are you. She would be so proud."
Belle nodded, looking teary, and hugged him once more before pulling back and looking towards the ground. "Stay and protect Papa, all right Max?"
The large grey mutt gave a short bark, circling Maurice quickly before settling back on his haunches at attention. Maurice would be staying in the bunker tonight to maintain the pulley-system elevator—at least, that was the public reason. In truth, his fits wouldn't allow him to engage in any kind of direct battle.
Adam embraced Maurice then, and his parents Belle, before the group split—Maurice to head back to the safety of the bunker; his parents and a group of soldiers continuing down the wide tunnel before them; Belle, Adam, Gilles, and Agathe towards a second, smaller tunnel that forked off of the main path and climbed sharply towards the surface.
"You young people sure are slow!"
Adam looked up, broken from his thoughts. The voice was Agathe's, ringing from her mirror at Gilles' belt.
"It's steeper than it looks!" one of Gilles' soldiers said in exacerbation. "Might not be so hard if I got a ride up too," he grumbled.
Agathe just chuckled.
"We've gone about two thousand paces," Gilles said, ignoring them. "Belle?"
Belle pulled out a small ruler from her pocket. Adam turned, crouching and letting her place the map flat against his back to make a quick measurement. "I believe we're nearly there, then," she said. "There should be a bend just ahead, then the stairs."
True to her word, a set of old, crumbling steps soon appeared. The stairway was narrow, just wide enough for them to ascend single-file, but they soon reached a wide platform at the top. A tall, square door sat in the wall, several feet off the ground, marking their destination.
Adam approached it, placing a hand on its surface. It was made of wood, old and rough. He brushed his fingers along the surface, finding a small lever near the side. He lifted it loose, then pulled away, skin now stuck with splinters.
"My prince," Gilles said quietly, stepping to his side. "When the time comes, I will complete the task."
Gilles' eyes grew dark. "A man who has killed is never the same," he said. "Even when done for a just cause. I would not have you stain your hands needlessly."
Adam blinked. "I—" He stopped. How had Gilles known? Were his worries so obvious?
And it was then he realized his free hand was gripping the hilt of his sword yet again. Trembling. He pursed his lips, forcing his fingers to loosen. "Gilles…you don't have to—"
"It was a not a request, my lord," Gilles said firmly. "Face her if you must, but I will put an end to that monster. It will not damage me as it would you."
"I…" Adam trailed off—for in truth, Gilles' offer was one he truly wished for. He nodded slowly. "…All right." And with that, he pushed against the passage exit. It stuck for a moment, then flew open at the force.
And what lie behind was not at all what they'd been expecting.
Adam gazed into the dark hall, into what was supposed to be the far stretches of the West Wing. It has always been somewhat shadowy and abandoned, but it now looked completely foreign to him. The wallpaper was dirty, peeling along the edges in places and barely clinging to the walls in others. Moth-eaten curtains shaded black-tinted window panes, revealing the rain beginning to fall against the dark sky. The large, cream pillars lining the hall were now grey and crumbling, threatening to topple over at any moment, and what had once been beautiful Romanesque statues on display were now hideous, snarling creatures. The only thing that hadn't changed were the large murals along the walls—but even the faces in these seemed far more menacing than before.
Belle had stepped through the passage, stopping on the now-blackened rug beneath their feet and staring at the scene in shock. She looked back at Adam then, eyes quaking. "What is this place?" she whispered.
Behind them, the rest of Gilles' unit followed through the secret passage, which was in fact one of the large gallery frames swung open by several hinges. The last man shut the private passage again, revealing a large family portrait behind. It was torn to shreds.
"She's losing control," Agathe said quietly. The mirror at Gilles' belt shimmered for a moment, and the old enchantress appeared at their sides in human form. She looked around the space, frowning. "She can no longer contain it."
"Contain what?" Adam asked, nervous.
"The darkness inside her."
They moved slowly through the passage. Soon the gazes from the portraits vanished, torn through by rough claws that had dug into their canvas surfaces and across the walls connecting each frame. A jagged line, weaving through the darkness, broken only where a chair or table separated them. The latter sat in pieces along the floor, nothing spared by whatever creature had unleashed its fury on these halls.
"My lord," Gilles started. He raised a hand, resting it on Adam's shoulder and speaking quietly. "I hate to ask, but you didn't…?"
"No," Adam said. "This wasn't me."
Belle moved bravely alongside him, but Adam felt her hand tuck itself tight in his. He held it back, heart racing with a strange new fear. One he hadn't let himself feel until now.
"Belle," he whispered. "Maybe you should go back—"
She shook her head quickly. "She can scare us all she wants," she said. "But she can't hurt us, remember?"
They followed the destruction, out of the West Wing and towards one of a dozen open landings that overlooked the Hall of Arms deep in the darkness below. Here, too, the place had grown dusty and dilapidated—as though abandoned for several decades, not just the months it had been.
The soldiers followed them at either side, holding out flames that cast deep shadows along the walls. How strange it was to wander the halls of his home in such a state of disrepair, abandoned without even a candle left to light their path. In truth, it didn't feel like home at all anymore.
The shadows changed then, and the group froze. A dozen forms lie on the carpet just ahead, unmoving in the darkness. Belle gasped quietly at his side.
Bodies, Adam realized, mouth growing dry. "Don't look," he told her.
One of their men stepped forward bravely, thrusting his lantern towards the scene before them. Not just bodies—but bodies sitting in blood, dried in long tendrils against the carpet. Chests as empty as their eyes. Adam tried to swallow, failing. These may have been Victor's men, but even the worst criminal would never have received such a punishment from his father.
"This is Circe's work, all right," Agathe said, solemn, moving beside them. "A desperate attempt to hold onto her power."
"It's just like she told me," Belle whispered. Her eyes were wide and round, having clearly not heeded Adam's warning. Belatedly, she squeezed them shut, burying her face against his sleeve.
"Consumed by the creature inside, he thrust his claws into her bosom and took the promised heart."
Adam recalled the story Gilles had related to him, the one told to Belle in the old storyteller's stolen form. This part had certainly proved true. Did that mean…
"Then, crouching in the darkness, and the shadows…he feasted."
Had their hearts really served such a purpose? Adam shuddered, reaching his arm around Belle's shoulder and trying to focus on the warmth of her frame instead of the cold eyes along the floor ahead of them. He should have been better prepared. He should have expected something like this.
She can't hurt us, he reminded himself. She can't—
A sharp gust of wind. Cold, like ice, dosing the torches all around and plunging them in darkness. Adam spun around, moving in front of Belle, hand snapping to his waist and ripping the weapon from his belt. He heard a dozen more swords coming free as Gilles' men did the same. His eyes strained open, searching the darkness.
A terrified shout from their ranks. A scuffle, the sound of a weapon surrendered to the floor and a chocking gasp. The men around them began crying out in panic.
"Hold your positions!" Gilles barked.
Adam felt Belle's fingers grip the back of his shirt, trembling. Or was he the one trembling? He couldn't tell. He moved his other hand to the blade to steady it.
Something began to glow. Agathe, her hands returning light to the space. And where that light fell—
Behind him, Belle gasped. A soldier near the edge of their party was in the air, feet dangling, hanging by some invisible force. But as the light spread it became clear that something held him there, its hunched form casting ragged shadows against the wall. The intruder made a sound—a snarl, bringing the man close to its large, cloaked face. But at the motion, a spark of light flew between them. The man was released, falling back to his feet, momentarily dazed before grabbing his sword once again and scrambling to his feet.
The attacker had already moved on, weaving among their ranks, darting between the men so quickly that it was impossible make out what was happening. The men shouted in alarm as long, clawed fingers shot towards throats and limbs, but each of the intruder's attempts resulted in yet another spark of light. It shrieked in fury with each failed attempt, its movements growing ever more wild and erratic.
At last it broke free of them, moving deep into the hallway ahead. And as suddenly as it had appeared, it stopped, still as stone in the shadows.
Rain had begun to fall outside, hammering against the roof above. A bolt of lightning filled the hall with a sudden, bluish light. The cloaked figure stood before them, now illuminated under the dancing shadows of rain. And, slowly, it turned back to face them.
Beside him, Belle pressed a hand to her mouth. Adam only stared, breathless and unblinking.
The figure breathed heavily, its large, arched back rising high in the air before falling again. Pale hair fell in snarled patches from beneath its hood, tearing through the cloak along its shoulders and back, dragging across the floor alongside tattered robes. Its hands brushed the floor where it crouched; thick, dark nails scratched absently against the carpet. Fangs emerged from the hooded face, dripping with blood.
Thunder roared. The lightning faded. And two round, glowing orbs blinked open from the darkness.
"Ah," Gilles said, stepping forward and holding his sword to one side. He ducked his head, staring her straight on. "There you are, creature."
She hissed, turning those terrifying eyes on the tiny old enchantress who stood near his side. They seemed to grow fearful at the sight.
"Hello again, my apprentice," Agathe said evenly. Adam had never seen her look so solemn.
The creature's breath grew heavy, and her eyes scanned the rest of them. They froze after a moment, latching onto Adam from the darkness. "You?" she asked, voice deep and grating. Inhuman. Yet at the same time, it quaked with an uncertainty Adam had never heard before.
Adam stared at those eyes. No whites remained, only enormous sockets of bright scarlet. He clenched his fists, ignoring how damp his palms had grown.
"Circe," he said flatly.
The strange eyes grew wide. Though instead of seeming surprised, or even angry, that he'd escaped her spell and her prison, she seemed…sorrowful?
Adam frowned at the thought. No. She doesn't know sorrow. Only hate.
Circe sucked in another breath, shallow and weak. She moved forward. "I—"
She stopped short, for Gilles had wasted no time in charging her with a speed a man his age shouldn't have possessed. His sword flew forward, aiming straight for her heart. From behind, Agathe cast forth both short arms as her fingers filled with light.
But before either could strike, Circe vanished.
Gilles swung anyway, hitting nothing but empty air. Stopping in place, he looked around in vain. "Find her!" he shouted, turning back to his men. "Don't let her escape!"
As soon as he said it, however, Circe's voice echoed through the large, empty halls. Adam strained his ears at the sound, not recognizing the words.
"Prussian," Gilles observed, frowning deeply and huffing in frustration.
Agathe nodded beside him. "She calls for aid."
Circe's echoes faded into silence and then—footfalls, heavy ones, thundering from the floors high above them. Gilles' soldiers surrounded Adam and Belle without prompting, facing spears and blades into the darkness towards whatever was coming. The stomping was unnaturally heavy, and seemed to come from all directions, until finally dozens of massive figures appeared from each end of the hall.
"Ugh," Adam groaned, shoulders drooping. "Not these guys again."
Men as tall as the ceiling stood before them. Potsdam's Giants, Adam recalled, the same Circe had set on him that fated night in the woods. It seemed an entire troop of them had filled the wide, open halls, not only standing both before and behind them, but lining the floors above as well. Adam stared up at the giant men, frowning. He wasn't used to feeling so small.
"Can they hurt us?" one of Gilles' men asked nervously, his spear quaking slightly in his hands.
"Not if they're under Circe's power," Belle replied, though she pursed her lips as though not quite sure of her answer.
Adam looked back at the enormous men. Like before, their eyes were blank and lifeless, each with a single rose in tucked into his vest. Though the flowers seemed slightly wilted now.
Beside him, Agathe appeared oddly cheerful, beginning to roll up each sleeve. "Oh ho ho! This should be fun," she grinned.
A loud clang, and Adam looked up, realizing someone was already engaging them. Gilles, having pulled a second blade from his belt, now fought off the closest dozen giants with the same calm demeanor he held during a friendly duel. Spears shot towards him from their ranks, each only just missing him.
Belle gasped. "Gilles, be careful!" she cried.
But the giants' weapons never struck flesh, only bouncing back in flashes of light. Gilles had managed to disarm those he'd engaged, but more quickly filled in their ranks. He frowned, pulling back and watching curiously as the giants formed a fresh wall to block their way. "Damn," he huffed, wiping his sleeve against his brow. "It's true they can't hurt us, but they can still block our way. We'll have to—"
"Now, hold on," Agathe said, stepping forward and waving him aside. "Let me have a crack at 'em!"
Her hands began to grow bright, and in a moment she'd cast them forward. A sharp gust of wind flew through the lines of men, ruffling their coats and hair. Yet it died down quickly, and they remained as fixed in place as before.
Agathe blinked, then pouted, saying something under her breath in a tongue Adam had never heard before. Though from the sound of it, he was fairly certain it was a curse. "I've forgotten my own teachings," she admitted, turning back to them and raising a finger. "Once a spell is cast, it cannot be interfered with."
"We fight through, then," Gilles directed, unfazed. He turned to his men. "They hold no threat to you, but reserve your strength. This will be no short-lived task."
As the soldiers pulled forth their weapons, Adam sensed Belle shift beside him. "Wait," she said, and the others paused in their tasks. "Circe's spell uses the roses, doesn't it?" she wondered. "If we can just get rid of them, won't that stop it?"
"Ah," Agathe said, tapping the end of her nose. "The best answer is often the simplest. Yes! I believe it may be so easily done."
"We may still have to fight them to do so," Gilles said. "I don't think they'll let us pluck their roses away easily."
Adam's mind had drifted. He saw a glowing rose, sitting in the air beneath of shield of glass, living for years before finally beginning its decay. He remembered staring at it times, watching the small beads of dew form against its petals—
He blinked, turning back towards those now moving into formation against the giants. "They need water," he gasped. The others turned back to him, confused. "The roses, they—they must be taking water from the air," he went on, but quickly stopped. "But I don't know what we could do about that."
"Oh! These children are wise," Agathe said. She raised her hands once again, and grinned. "There is indeed something we can do about that."
She closed her eyes, and everyone waited. Nothing seemed to happen at first, but then—
Adam's throat grew dry in an instant. He struggled to swallow, the air suddenly devoid of the moisture it once held. And then he noticed it—damp beneath his boots, small pools of water forming across the carpet from the water that had only moments before hovered invisible in the air.
Agathe lowered her arms, and Adam looked up at the giants once more. Their roses had lost their bright color, sagging against their chests, petals shriveling in place. And the life that had once filled the flowers now took root back in the eyes of the small army of men.
"Stand down," Gilles told his men, holding a hand out to stop their approach. "These men are our allies; it took much bloodshed to make it so. I will speak with them."
He moved before the tallest of the group then, who wore several bright pendants indicating his high rank. Gilles spoke in the man's foreign tongue, standing tall and calm as he no doubt attempted to explain the situation.
The Prussian commander looked bewildered for several long moments, but was soon nodding slowly as Gilles explained. The men around him were murmuring, restless, yet word was soon traveling through their ranks.
Adam sighed. Good, he thought. Now we can—
A shout, and the crowd of men shifted as an older soldier pushed his way forward. He broke through, pointing an angry finger at Gilles, face beat red and eyes wild with fury.
"What's he saying?" Belle whispered anxiously.
Gilles had his hands raised before him, speaking carefully and no doubt trying to talk the man down. The others around started to frown, staring at Gilles with a sudden distrust.
"Agathe," Belle went on. "What's going on—"
The man who'd stepped forward had pulled the musket from his shoulder, swinging it up and thrusting the sharp baronet right where Gilles stood.
Belle's scream hung in the air, along with the cries of their men. Yet just before the weapon struck, it froze in place. And the man who held it vanished.
Agathe was scowling, dropping her hands and sighing as she finished the spell. The long musket fell to the floor, rolling back and forth as though possessed. Indeed, it now held the man who'd tried to attack their commander.
The remaining giant men stared at the trembling weapon, eyes growing wide. Their leader now pulled his own weapon from this back, pointing it forward and shouting fearfully. Gilles was speaking frantically now, backing away slowly as he did. The foreign soldiers only grew more and more restless, their own shouts filling the hall as a wave of weapons were loosed and they began closing in on them from all sides of the hall.
Gilles cursed, drawing his own weapons again and turning back to the rest of them. "He recognized me. From the war, over forty years ago. Apparently my unit killed his brother." He turned back to face the angry men, huffing in frustration. "It seems we will be fighting them after all," he went on. "And now they can hurt us."
And in an instance, chaos. Gilles' men circled Adam and Belle at once, forming a wall of protection as dozens of men the height of ceilings charged at them.
The first wave of them vanished, one by one, sucked inside guns and spears and jackets, falling to the ground at their feet. Agathe was only getting started, it seemed. Yet the spell only seemed to incite the rest of them further, and a wave of twice as many charged forward. Agathe couldn't stop them all at once, however, and soon Gilles' soldiers were forced to engage them. They took the giants on two at a time, shouting, stabbing, darting sideways to avoid the jagged bayonets that threatened to sink into their flesh.
Belle gasped. Adam spun around, pulling her behind him, barely raising his sword in time to stop the heavy musket threatening to cut them down. The man had broken through their ranks, eyes wild as he pulled back to strike again.
Adam reacted faster, burying his own blade in the man's bicep. He screamed in pain, and Adam yanked his weapon away, watching in triumph as the man hobbled backwards and grasped at his arm.
He turned back, barely reacting in time as another musket barreled down towards them. This man was even larger and stronger than the last, and Adam's arms shook as he tried to push back.
But then this man too cried out, pulling away. Confused, Adam looked him over. A large gash stood bright against that soldier's thigh, and he soon stumbled to this knees. Beside him, Belle's shorter blade shone the same bright red as she gripped it between her hands. She breathed heavily, looking up at Adam with wide eyes.
He blinked in shock. "Thanks—"
Belle gasped again, looking past him. Adam barely registered the presence of another man towering over him when Belle stepped forward. And before he could even react, she had pulled a fist to her opposite shoulder before throwing all her might—and elbow—straight towards the place housing the man's family jewels.
The giant soldier stopped mid motion, sword frozen in place above his head. Gasping, his face grew pale and wracked with agony. The sword slipped from his hands, which flew immediately to the space between his legs. He fell promptly to his knees, then the floor, twitching.
Belle watched him, blinking slowly, as if shocked she alone had managed to reduce the man to such a state. Then she looked up at Adam, face alight with victory.
Adam grinned at her. He opened his mouth to speak again, but a new sound filled his ears.
The click of a musket.
Time seemed to stop as he looked up slowly. One of the giant soldiers held his weapon, loaded, slowly lowering it until the barrel was aimed straight for them.
His fingers were already at the trigger. Adam's heart beat once, his arms heavy as they tried to push Belle away.
A click, and a boom.
Adam grimaced, but no pain came. He opened his eyes. A figure stood before them, blood now pooling at the back of his coat where he'd taken the bullet. He stood tall in the shadows, gold gleaming from each ear. Then, slowly, he dropped the two swords in his hands and fell to his knees.
One of their own soldiers quickly cut down the gun bearer, staring over in shock as his commander fell from his knees to the floor. Belle had rushed forward, crying out in anguish, trying desperately to roll the injured man over.
Adam's feet moved on their own, his mind a blur as he helped her pull the man over and into his lap. He knew who it was, but seeing his face made it all the worse. And, finally, he found his voice.
"You know, sir, I think your talents are being wasted here."
Gilles ignored the man, not slowing his pace through the war-beaten camp. It had been five years—five years of fighting. Five years without him. The fighting had ended, but he had yet to see an end to the loneliness.
Gilles stopped at the camp's edge then, where the ground dropped off sharply and overlooked the valley below. He stared ahead, seeing no beauty in the land beneath him. His eyes had lost a bit of their bright, youthful vibrancy, the once bright green now a lifeless grey.
He wouldn't want you to be like this.
He sighed, looking back to the man who'd spoken before. The recruiter was flat-footed, about his age but obviously unsuited for battle, and had just barely managed to catch up at this moment. He sucked in a couple breaths, hands resting on his knees briefly before continuing on. "Yes yes, we could use someone like you commanding the royal guard," he said, wiping the sweat from his brow and straightening again. He pulled a small watch from his vest, checking the time absently before pocketing it again.
Gilles sighed, finally turning to face the man. "Who will protect these people?" he asked seriously. He looked back over the valley where they stood. It showed signs of their struggle—half-constructed war camps, fields trampled under troops of heavy boots. Yet it also showed life, speckled with newly-built homes where residents could finally live in peace. "I sacrificed everything for them," Gilles went on, heart burning in his chest. "Everything."
"You will protect our king," the man offered, raising a finger. "And he protects them all."
Gilles frowned, but remained silent.
"Perhaps a visit?" the man prodded. "See what life at the palace is like?"
Another month and he found himself deep in the northern woods, staring up at towering turrets amid a large, lush garden. The recruiter who'd come for him called himself Cogsworth, and stood with him now. "Yes! A spectacular fortress, is it not?" he asked eagerly.
Gilles hummed. It was spectacular, no doubt. But its splendor could not convince him those who dwelled within were worth protecting.
Footsteps on the cobblestone. Gilles turned, seeing a tall man in elaborate robes sweeping past the rose bushes. Beside him, Cogsworth's demeanor changed instantly. Where high-spiritedness once dwelled now rested fear. He appeared to be forcing himself not to turn on his heel and sprint off.
Gilles just watched the newcomer, curious. "The king?" he wondered.
Cogsworth nodded, swallowing, looking as though he wished to be much smaller than he was in that moment.
A boy approached then, perhaps ten years old. He ran to the king's side, breathless despite the grin on his face. In his hand was a bushel of some kind of violet flower with tube-like stems.
"And who is that?" Gilles asked.
"That—that is our prince, sir," Cogsworth said quietly. "Prince Alexandre."
"Papa," the prince said then. He reached for the king's robes, tugging on them and holding up the plant in his hands. "Look what was growing along the trail! Limonium strictissimum—I read about them in the library and they're only supposed to grow in—"
"Quiet, boy!" the king snapped, brushing the child's hand away.
The prince fell silent. But not before Gilles noticed a flinch shake his small body. The boy had dropped the plant, arms gathered against his chest as he squeezed his eyes shut.
No blow had come, but Gilles now knew without a doubt that one had come before. He narrowed his eyes. "I accept."
"What?" Cogsworth asked.
"I accept your offer. I will command this guard."
"Ah! The grounds were enough to convince you, then? A man of taste!" Cogsworth said happily, though Gilles sensed his relief. He wondered at the pressure he'd been under to find someone to fill the position. The king must have high expectations for his staff.
Gilles huffed. Well, the king was getting more than he'd bargained for in him. For he'd ensure that the prince was never in reach of his father's anger again.
Ah, Gilles thought, coming back to the present, the pain in his gut resurfacing. Perhaps I sealed my own fate then. Somehow, he always knew he'd fall while protecting this family.
And so he smiled, satisfied, and closed his eyes.
Belle held Gilles' hand in her own, watching the color leave his cheeks and his eyes close to unconsciousness. A terrible, sick feeling rose in her throat. She looked up, watching as Adam pressed his crumpled shirt against the open wound, torn moments ago from his chest. It was already soaked through, bright red in the dark halls. He looked up at her, eyes wide and quaking.
He turned away to shout again. "AGATHE!"
Belle barely heard him, her shock muting the violence of the battle all around them. This wasn't supposed to happen. They were supposed to be safe.
This wasn't supposed to happen!
Agathe arrived only moments after being called, though to Belle it had seemed an eternity. "You have to help him!" Adam cried as she approached, hands now completely coated with Gilles' blood. "Please!"
Agathe looked over Gilles quickly, then reached out two glowing, wrinkled hands and began to work without another word. She closed her eyes, brows furrowed in concentration. Belle watched, her sickness growing at the same rate as the pool of red now soaking their knees.
"Please," Adam croaked, still pressing his hands against the wound, though it was doing little to stop the flow of blood. "Please, Gilles. You—you can't die!" He stopped, gritting his teeth hard, eyes growing wet. He closed them quickly, hands trembling. "Oh God," he gasped. "This is all my fault."
Belle wanted to tell him it wasn't so, but she suddenly couldn't find her own voice. And she suddenly felt it was her fault too.
Several agonizing minutes passed. Then, finally, the stream of blood from Gilles' gut began to slow, and soon ceased all together. What soaked their hands and clothes started to vanish too, dissolving into a faint glow.
"Will he be all right?" Adam asked anxiously.
Agathe sucked in a breath, moving her hands towards Gilles' heart. She didn't reply, simply continuing to work. They watched for several more minutes. Belle's vision grew blurry, and she struggled to hold back her tears.
Finally, Agathe spoke. "I'll need to stay with him for some time," she said slowly. "But I believe he'll live."
Belle let out a breath, raising a hand to her heart in relief. Across from her, Adam ducked his head, letting out a shaky breath. "Th-thank you," he said quietly. "Thank you."
Adam looked up. One of Gilles' men stood there, panting. Behind him, the battle continued, though it had weakened substantially from before. "What would you have us do, Your Highness?" the soldier asked.
Adam breathed in deeply, regaining himself and looking up. "Can you hold them off?" he asked.
The man nodded. "Agathe has subdued a number of them, and we have sighted both the king's troops and Henri's men attacking from other levels of the palace. Yet it will still take time to subdue them completely," he explained. "Take the mademoiselle and return to safety, my lord. We'll manage."
Adam looked back at Belle. She frowned. "She'll get away," she said. "After everything we've worked for…it will be like starting all over again."
Adam watched her carefully, then turned back to the soldier at his side. "Stay and subdue them, but we'll go on. We end this today."
The soldier looked concerned, but only nodded, returning to the fight.
Adam scanned the battle himself, still surrounding them on both sides. Then he glanced towards the railing behind them, towards the open space that dropped into darkness. He looked back at Belle then, growing serious. "Do you trust me?" he asked.
Belle watched him for but a moment. "Yes."
He nodded sharply and stood, pulling Belle to her feet. And before she knew it, he had swept her into his arms and was barreling towards the balcony ledge. He jumped up at the last moment, feet hitting the top of the railing.
Then, pressing Belle close, he leapt into the darkness below.
I have to get out of here.
Circe barreled through the dark halls. Her body began to appear again, having barely managed to stay invisible long enough to escape her old master's attack and the commander's blade. She wound down a set of stairs, body screaming, feet large and awkward beneath her. She reached out to the railing to catch her balance.
Long, black nails gripped the fine wood. She gasped at the sight, pulling away and stumbling down the remaining steps.
Panting, she took a long minute to catch her breath before slowly raised her hands to her eyes, staring at the clawed fingers. Then, trembling, she raised them to her face, feeling the way her canines jutted out from her upper lip, the strange softness of hair covering her neck and shoulders.
You really are a monster.
She cried out, burying her claws in her scalp. A flash of pain, and something pushed its way from her skull, rough against her fingers.
Horns, long and sharp.
Her scream rang in the air, and a new sound echoed back. Cracking, rumbling. And after a heartbeat, the ground began to quake. Circe's neck snapped up, watching as the large marble columns shook with rage. A large crack dashed up the nearest one, several fragments of the balconies above slamming down along the ground all around her.
Gasping, she stood and ran mindlessly towards the nearest doors. They opened into a grand space—the ballroom, a glittering chandelier at its center and tall mirrors lining the round dance floor.
She ran to the closest mirror, slapping her hands against its surface. "Take me away!" she shouted.
"Give me escape!" she tried, frantic.
New cracks sped along the ground beneath her feet, and the chandelier shook, its ornaments clanking wildly. The floor quaked again, and it came down with a violent crash. Glass flew out in all directions, bits slicing through her skin. Circe barely covered her eyes in time to avoid a second blindness.
She looked up then, watching the room crumble around her. Her heart felt heavy, and slow, too slow for how frightened she felt. Turning to the windows, she sprinted towards them and barreled through the glass, falling towards the darkness below.
Something caught her—a bush, thick but rough, scratching up her skin even further. She tumbled out, falling on her hands and knees, taking in her surroundings in the early twilight. Rows of bright flowers—overgrown from neglect, but unmistakable.
The king's gardens. The place where it all began.
She shrieked, racing past the tall greenery, hands pressed against her temples. Her feet found their own way—for as much as she hated this place, she still remembered the pattern of rows and turns from long ago.
The stables, and the gates, just ahead. She ran towards them. A carriage, she thought. I can take a carriage, a horse, walk away from here if I have to—
Firelight in the trees. Men, hundreds of them, storming the castle. She paused, taking in the sight.
That will do.
Crouching in the darkness, she waited. And as the firelight came close, she snatched the first unlucky fellow to pass her way.
A flash of light. He pushed her off him, shouting, calling for his friends. She retreated into the shadows, shaking, sweating. Confused.
Were they protected from her too?
Gasping, she escaped back into the gardens, winding her way towards the back gates, away from the angry men.
Beyond the tall walls, finally. Hidden among the trees. Safe.
Not safe. The voices and the firelight followed. She swore, and broke into an impossible run.
Deep into the woods. Nothing looked familiar here. Her limbs grew heavy the longer she ran, the trees all around growing shorter and shorter. Soon the ache in her back was too much, and her hands hit the earth below.
Not hands. Paws.
She stopped, staring at them in horror. "No," she said. Or tried to say, but her voice was no longer her own. No longer human. She cried out at the realization, the rasping sound frightening a group of crows from the nearest tree. They scattered above the canopy, disappearing against the dim horizon.
Her own shoulders neared the treetops now, body stretching against her skin and strange ropes of hair falling from her neck and shoulders. She cried out again, a roar in the cold wind, taking off in a new sprint.
The woods grew darker, yet smaller the larger she grew. Yet she only felt more frightened at the sight of them, pines prickling her sides. It was growing cold, the last rays of sun barely glinting over the hilltops.
No longer able to ignore her fatigue, she stopped where she was—a flat plateau among the hills. Where was she?
"Papa! Papa, where are you?"
Circe started, scanning the large clearing. It was difficult to make anything out, for the world had grown tinted with red, and horribly dark.
But then she saw it. A child, alone amid the thin trees. She rubbed small hands against her eyes, pulling them away to reveal tear-stained cheeks. "Papa, please…I-I'll be better, I promise!" she cried out.
Circe moved closer, and the child turned towards the noise, eyes round and blind and frightened. "Hello?" she asked.
Circe only stared at the child, silent.
"Please…help me," the girl whimpered. "I'm lost…"
"…So am I."
The girl grimaced, turning away. She reached into her skirts, pulling out a small scarlet rose. Crushing it her palms, she threw it to the ground in a rage. Then she fell to her knees, to her side, curling in on herself as she wept. The earth around her began to glow, a circle of light surrounding the girl's small body. And from it, a small dome of roses grew up and around her.
Circe approached, reaching towards the vision. But the moment she touched them, the roses and their young occupant vanished before her eyes. Circe stared at the spot, numb, then pressed her own clawed fingers to the earth. A new rose burst forth from the soil, then another, the plant winding around her in a glowing circle and growing slowly overhead.
Once a child, then an enchantress, and now a monster—she laid down beneath the living dome and let the darkness consume her.
The ground came, hard. Adam felt the impact radiate from his heels to his skull, and he fell to his knees, throwing out one hand and using the other to pull Belle's head against his chest. He grunted, muscles trembling and heart pounding from the thrill of his jump.
He let Belle slip from his arms, taking a moment to catch his breath and assess the damage. Rolling over, he carefully tested his legs one at a time. They ached, and the bottoms of his feet screamed in pain, but everything still moved at his command. "It's all right," he said finally, grinning in victory. "My bones are unbreakable, remember?"
Belle stared at him, incredulous. "I believe Agathe said nearly unbreakable," she pointed out. She looked back up, towards the balcony three stories above where the others continued to fight. "You really just—"
She stopped then, and her eyes grew wide. Adam followed her gaze, and gasped.
The Hall of Arms had vanished. Instead, the walls that once housed empty suits of armor were now the faces of a dozen buildings, each several stories tall with windows crooked and cracked. A street spread beneath their feet, the cobblestones missing in several places and filled with dark puddles. Clotheslines spread across the alley above them, stained tunics pinned up in several places and left out to dry.
And then, people. Hundreds of them, of all ages and statuses, hurrying through the narrow street. A group of children ran past, and Adam reached out. Yet at the contact, their forms merely shifted, his fingers sweeping right through them.
"Ghosts?" he breathed nervously, pulling his hand back to his chest.
"Or an illusion," Belle noted, now standing beside him.
He nodded slowly, looking back at the forms all around. "But why would Circe—"
"Livre for a rose, Monsieur?"
He looked down. A young girl stood there, blond hair matted against her neck. She held a small, worn basket in the crook of her arm, filled with a dozen bright red roses.
"You can see us?" Belle asked her. She reached out a gentle hand, but her fingertips vanished against the child's shoulder.
"No," the girl replied. "But I heard you."
It was then Adam noticed the fog that filled her eyes. That, and the strange familiarity of her face. He frowned, uncomfortable, though uncertain why. "Where are we?" he asked her.
"The Paris of my childhood," she replied simply. "The one we knew, once. You're looking for us, aren't you?"
"Come. I'll show you the way," she said. Then she turned, weaving her way blindly through the thick crowds.
Adam watched her go, then looked down at Belle. Her face had grown pale, eyes wide as she met his gaze. "It's her. I remember, from the visions Agathe showed us," she said hollowly. "That's Circe."
Adam's skin grew cold, realizing why she'd seemed so familiar. He stared back towards the spot where the girl had vanished. "A trick?" he wondered.
"I don't know."
They stood in silence for a moment, watching the mirage of people hurry past them, through them. "She can't hurt us," Adam said at last, repeating Belle's own words. "And I don't know what it is but…I feel like we should follow her."
And so they moved quickly through the crowds in search of the young girl. No one else paid them any mind, their forms dissolving into mist at their touch.
"There," Belle said, pointing towards a fleeting form as it ducked into an alleyway. They ran towards it, rounding the corner and entering the narrow street. But it wasn't a narrow street at all. Instead, a wide expanse opened before them, filled with greens and violets and reds that smiled beneath the midday sun. A fountain bubbled at the center, stone angels pouring buckets of water into its shimmering pool.
Adam looked back, but the Parisian street was gone. Instead, several neatly-trimmed paths radiated out from the circular courtyard where they stood. "My father's gardens," he realized.
Someone crossed the path up ahead, disappearing again behind the tall bushes. Adam and Belle hurried to follow, rounding a bend and catching sight of the young Circe just ahead. Her basket was gone, frame smaller than before. She had stopped at the end of the row, leaning close to one of the bushes and closing her eyes.
Then she reached out, plucking a young flower from the plant's base and bringing it towards the tip of her nose. Inhaling deeply, she smiled to herself.
"It smells so nice," she whispered as they approached. Then, turning back, she looked just past Adam's shoulder with those clouded eyes. "Don't you think so?"
Adam only stared at her. His skin had grown cold again, heart racing in confusion and a strange kind of fear.
Young Circe offered him the rose then, but he shook his head slowly, backing away. The girl didn't seem perturbed, however, simply tucking the flower into her apron and dashing off once again.
He was barely aware that Belle had moved in front of him. In fact, she stood with one arm out, as though defending him against the child. The image might have been comical, if he didn't feel so sick inside.
"Maybe this was a bad idea," Belle said, shooting one last glance towards the girl's retreating form before turning back and resting a hand on his arm. "Maybe we should just—"
"No," he said roughly, gritting his teeth. "Let's keep going."
The plants grew taller as they moved through the gardens. Too tall, towering over them like a forest. No—this was a forest now, wasn't it? Adam looked back again, the pines sweeping back into a deep valley below before climbing the hills painting the horizon. His own woods, it seemed, though they had ventured much father in its depths than he had ever gone before.
They were led up a steep cliff, following the child's fleeting form as she wove between the trees. Rain hammered against the canopy overhead, dripping through in heavy droplets at their feet. Adam had to push through the lush vegetation, no path beneath their feet to guide them.
"Are you all right?" he asked, turning back to Belle.
She nodded from behind him, flushed but not yet winded. He sucked in a heavy breath at his own exertion, looking back where the child led them. Some kind of trail had finally emerged from the growth here, just barely visible in the twilight. Jagged and winding, leaving trees uprooted and scattered across the earth in its wake. And in those not felled, claw marks—deep and long, leaving the bark black and rotten.
Claw marks that were definitely not his.
Adam looked back at Belle again. "Keep going?" he asked quietly.
She reached for his hand, and nodded.
As they followed the broken path up the mountainside, a strange hilltop began to slowly jut into the skyline. No trees grew on it, its surface almost perfectly round where it emerged from the forest. Adam thought it looked something like a dome topping a cathedral. Or a tomb.
Yet as they approached he quickly realized his mistake. This was no hilltop, but a giant, thorny bush, winding around the cliffs and tangling itself in the treetops above. Its roses were dark in color, nearly black, and a disconcerting crunching sound permeated the air as their vines continued to twist themselves around the branches.
Circe's young, ghostlike form paused as they reached thick wall of flowers. Then, with a body like smoke, she moved inside.
They followed, stopping at the edge of the dark plant. Adam strained his eyes, but could see nothing on the other side to tell him how thick nor how deep this living fortress went. So, naturally, he slid out his sword and hacked through the nearest section without another thought.
Belle's warning came too late. For the vines, it seemed, did not take kindly to his attempts. Instead of retreating, they wound themselves quickly around the blade and threatened to pull it from his grip. Adam cussed, kicking up one boot against the closest stalk for leverage as he tugged back with all his might. After a good deal of effort, he finally managed to loose the weapon—and fall back flat on his derrière.
Belle made a soft sound of amusement. "You forgot," she said, helping him up. Adam brushed the dirt from the back of his pants as he watched her reach out, small fingers sweeping over the angry plants. Their movement ceased, and the vines shriveled, fading away into a black mist.
Adam blushed. "Oh yeah..."
He tucked the sword back in place and stood beside her. Then, reaching forward as she had done, he brushed against the dark flowers with a long sweep of his arm. The plants fell away, as expected, and the beginnings of a dark path opened before them.
They moved in slowly, touching the roses periodically to remove a fresh patch from their trail. The ground was soft beneath their feet, wet from the rain though it could no longer reach them through the thick plants. All seemed still and silent as they moved deeper inside the mound of roses.
That is, until that crunching sound rang in their ears once again.
Belle gasped, and Adam looked back. Vines slithered towards them along the forest floor and from the growth above, moving like long, hungry snakes. The path they'd taken was already gone, filled in with new thorns and flowers that took place of the old. Adam threw out his hands again, as did Belle, but they couldn't stop it all as the deadly bush grew in around them from all sides.
An enormous thorn jutted between them, sinking deep into the soft earth. "What do we do?!" Belle cried. Her voice was barely audible over the violent rustling all around them.
Adam tried to think, heart hammering in fresh fear and making it impossible to do so. He swatted at the plants, but the small patches he managed to kill off were quickly replaced with new growth.
Why wasn't it stopping?!
Acting on impulse, he squatted quickly, pulling Belle down between his thighs and curling his arms around her as tightly as he could.
The needled vines wove around them in an instant. Slowly, the thorns poked through their clothing and between loose strands of their hair. Adam had already forfeited his shirt to Gilles' bleeding gut, so only a cloak borrowed from one of their men now stood between the needles and his exposed chest.
It can't hurt us, he thought desperately, squeezing his eyes shut. It can't!
And…it didn't. The violent rustling stopped, and Adam opened his eyes. The vines had finally stilled—wound all around them, thorns having torn holes through cloth and leather and ripped the ribbons from their hair—yet at no place did they touch skin.
They exhaled as one, and Adam thought he could feel his own heart beating through Belle. Just because they weren't hurt didn't take away from the unnerving feeling of being buried alive inside a dark nest of breathing foliage.
"I guess we just keep moving," he observed, swallowing.
Belle nodded against him. Slowly they stood, and the plants receded just enough for them to stand, holding each other tight. They remained that way, moving slowly as one body through the dense growth, unwilling to let its dark tendrils come between them. The final rays of twilight soon vanished, and what little light they had disappeared. They pushed on, unsure where or when they would find an end to this web of darkness.
And then they heard something new. A rumble of a voice, unintelligible yet desperate.
The growth grew patchy then, and moonlight pointed to freedom. They pushed through, and the roses finally parted into a clearing. It opened into a wide dome, roses crawling across its ceiling, a few tendrils hanging down to drape against the earth—and the enormous, breathing form that lay there.
It's back jutted in a high arch, greyish-white fur tangling with the vines above. What seemed to be rainwater wove through its fur like long trails of tears, dripping from its jowls and pooling in the soft earth. Yet from the silence above, it seemed the rain had already stopped.
The creature took a breath, long and rattling, before reaching out a hand towards the small body of water. "Find…reflection…to escape…" it mumbled, its voice like death. "Escape…"
Staring at the form with wide eyes, Belle and Adam took a few steps closer. And finally, the creature raised its head. The earth around trembled at the movement, large sections of the dome of growth falling to the ground.
The grass beneath their feet shifted. Belle made a quiet squeal of surprise, planting a hand to her mouth and backing into Adam. He pulled her close, even as all the hair that remained on his back flew up on end. For what had seemed a fallen tree trunk at first glance turned out to be a tail, long and naked, disappearing in the fresh pool of water and emerging on the other side. It flicked up high in the air before curling itself against the giant creature's body.
It rose up on its haunches. Strange locks of matted fur emerged from the water, wet and dripping, falling in a curtain over the creature's face. Its body was a patchwork of fur and bare patches, pale flaking skin exposed against the faint moonlight.
But the worst was hidden in the shadow of its form: the chest, exposed and torn apart, a deep black organ as large as a man and pulsing weakly in the open air. A heart, large and rotten, dripping dark fluid into the earth.
Adam stared at it, eyes wide and growing dry yet unable to look away. The enchantress had appeared to him in many forms—young and beautiful, old and weak, hideous and downright disgusting. But for the first time in his life he felt he was really, truly laying eyes on a monster, the kind that filled horror stories and the nightmares of battle-bred men. And it made Adam's old form seem like something fitting for a nursery rhyme.
Circe's eyes opened. Enormous, bright, bleeding nearly as much as the putrid heart. But just as quickly they closed once again, and she turned her terrible form away. "Leave me in peace," she rasped, laying back on her forepaws.
Adam bristled, though he wasn't sure why. He let go of Belle, pulling the blade sharply from his waist and wading into the pond of tears. It grew surprisingly deep, Circe's dark blood swirling in the water about his waist.
He reached the other side quickly, heart pounding, staring at her blackened heart as it throbbed against the earth. The sword was over his head now, held tight, already growing heavy in his hands.
Gilles had offered to take this burden from him, but that was no longer an option. Perhaps Adam had always known it had to end this way; he'd been a fool to think another could do it for him. So he grit his teeth, raising the sword higher, knowing what had to be done.
"What are you…waiting for?"
He started, catching sight of those bleeding eyes that now watched him again. They narrowed. "Shouldn't you…have killed me by now, my pet?" she rasped, short of breath.
He wrinkled his nose, gripping the blade harder. "Don't call me that," he said, refocusing on her black, throbbing heart. "You're weak, and powerless. You no longer control me."
"Oh, forgive me," she said scathingly. She coughed, rough and wet, then stared right back at him. "Still, you didn't…answer my question."
Finally, he lowered the weapon, staring straight into her eyes. "Stop—stop playing with me," he gasped. "I won't take it anymore!"
"I'm not…playing," she said, breathless. She looked away. "It was an honest inquiry."
Adam stared at her weak, defeated form, but he felt nothing but disgust. Was this really the enchantress? The one who had tormented him, mind and body, all these years? The one who left him orphaned, trapped in his own home, sobbing in agony as his childhood body betrayed him?
Yet even like this, she still made him feel weak. Still made him feel so small. Still made him feel completely and utterly pathetic.
And he hated it.
Adam snarled, seething. For the first time, the enchantress's existence no longer made him afraid. It only made him angry. And finally, he found his answer.
He raised his sword again, pointing it towards her—and this time, it no longer felt like a burden. "You're right," he said, voice deep and cold. "…I should kill you."
She shifted, turning back towards him so the heart was in full view, bulging and foul. "So do it," she whispered.
"Adam?" Belle's voice, perhaps, though it was distant. Boots splashed in the water behind him, but he barely heard it.
Instead, he went on. "You let this kingdom fall to a reign of terror, of poverty and disease. You tormented my servants, my friends—" He stopped, throat growing tight. "Charlotte died," he gasped. "Belle's mother died! Countless others, countless children, all dead. Their blood is on your hands!"
"So do it!" Circe snapped.
"Adam," Belle called out, though he barely caught her words. "She's weak. We can wait for the others. You—you don't have to do it like this—"
"You took them from me," he growled, a shadow creeping into his heart. "My mother, my father. You took them from me and left me alone all those years…" He stepped closer, pressing the tip of the blade to her foul heart. "I didn't have them all those years!"
"Adam, wait, please! You're too close to this—"
"You—you took that life from me, forever," he gasped, shaking his head back and forth. "I'll never get it back!"
Something was overtaking him. That old darkness, the one he'd thought was gone forever, reignited once again. Yet now, instead of a sadness, it had manifested as fury.
"You hurt me," he rasped. "You hurt me, when I was only a child. When I did nothing!"
He'd been so happy. Where had this pain come from? Would it never go away?
"At least…at least let me do it, Adam," Belle pleaded. Her voice had grown soft. "Please…"
He didn't hear her. He couldn't. All he could see was the demon before him. All he could feel was an overwhelming, all-consuming wrath.
"I…I hate you," he whispered, fingers trembling against the hilt, shoulders shaking in rage. "I hate you!"
"So do it!" Circe screamed. "DO IT!"
"I should!" he shouted back, raising sword over his head once again for the blow. "I will! You—you MONSTER!"
The word came as a roar. A roar like none he'd ever voiced before. The growth all around them rustled at the sound, the ground rumbling beneath his feet.
But then someone was there. Arms around him, a soft warmth encasing him. "Don't let it take you," Belle gasped, pressing herself against him, holding him close. "You're not a monster, Adam. You're not…"
His body shook once, then twice. "She hurt me," he gasped, feeling a new pain overwhelm him.
"She hurt them…"
"I know," Belle said softly. "But I won't let her change you. Not again."
Something shifted in the dark water. He looked down at his reflection.
And a hideous beast stared back at him.
He gasped, dropping the sword into the dark water and pulling his hands forward. Still human, he realized, trembling with relief. Still human.
Adam looked back at the water, at the shape he'd lived in for ten years. Slowly, slowly, it vanished, the body of man staring back at him once again.
His arms fell to his sides. He felt numb, unable to return Belle's embrace. Yet she only held him tighter. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing the moisture back inside as a horrible realization flooding over him.
The realization that even under Circe's curse, he'd never truly become a monster. But just now…he almost had.
A whimper. Adam opened his eyes, and together he and Belle turned towards the sound. The young girl had appeared again, standing just before them, watching Circe's now-writhing form as she screamed into the empty night air. The child seemed more solid than before, her pale dress a bright, piercing spot against the dark creature beyond.
She was crying quietly. "I didn't want to," she said, turning back towards them and bringing an arm up to wipe her eyes. The cloudiness was gone, bright green orbs shining in the darkness. "I didn't want to…"
Belle stared at her, eyes distant. "It's when we finally see the humanity in our enemies, that we find the true way to conquer them…" She stopped, looking up at him. "Agathe told me that."
Adam blinked, then looked back at the crying child. The child that would grow into the enchantress, into a vile, hateful creature bringing nothing but sorrow into this world. Circe had chosen her fate, had turned herself into this horrible monster by her own free will. Yet at one time, she was human too. And maybe…maybe a small part of her still was.
Maybe that small part of her was standing right here.
He crouched down, retrieving his sword from the shallow pool. "Adam?" Belle asked nervously.
"It's all right," he said. "I understand now." He stared at the dripping sword, then looked at the child once again.
And handed her the blade.
She took the hilt in two small hands, staring at it wide-eyed before looking back up at him. Adam nodded, and stepped back. The young Circe turned, staring at the writhing monster. Then she headed forward, dragging Adam's heavy sword behind her.
The monster's heart beat slowly, painfully, the liquid inside having emptied, now replaced by black mist seeping from its deep cracks. The girl stared at it as she approached, eyes wide and unblinking. She swallowed, pulling the hilt close to her chest. The blade was nearly her height, the tip touching the ground where she stood.
Her face grew pale, and she looked back. Her eyes caught Belle's, then Adam's, and lingered there for a moment. Then she turned back, sucking in another breath and heaving the sword back. And finally, with all her might, she swung it towards the heart of darkness.
The blade sliced through the flesh, releasing a wave of thick, black smoke that flew out in all directions. Smoke, and an ear-piercing scream that silenced every other sound of the forest. Adam reached for Belle, and they held each other tight as the storm-powered gust threatened to knock them to the earth.
A flash of light, blinding. Adam shielded his eyes, unable to see what was happening until the strange light had dimmed again.
The canopy of roses above had been blown away by the magic's strange force, and bright moonlight fell in a disc against the ground ahead. Both Circe's childhood form and the great creature that had once filled the space were gone. In their place was a woman on her hands and knees, middle-aged, hair long and blond with streaks of grey.
Adam stood slowly, helping Belle to her feet. She stared at Circe's new form, breathing shallowly. "The only one who could destroy her darkness…" she realized.
"…was herself," he finished.
Circe was staring at her reflection in the quiet water. She pressed her fingers to the skin beneath her eyes, then lowered them to her chest. To her heart. "She warned me," she whispered. "She warned me it would consume me, but I didn't listen."
She looked up at them. And for the first time, eyes of soft green gazed out. They drifted over Adam's shoulders, as though looking towards some distant place, then fell back on him. "Oh God," she gasped, fingers reaching into her hair, dropping her face towards the earth, shaking her head in agony. "What have I done? What have I done…?"
Her reflection in the water shifted.
"I wish I could take it all back," she whispered, trembling. "I wish I could change the past…"
"Sifu says it's dangerous to look back."
Circe looked back at her reflection. The young girl was there again, rippling in the water. She shrugged, and went on. "She says you can't change the past. Only learn from it."
"Can't change the past?" Circe asked quietly. She reached for the child's form, brushing fingers over the reflection, barely touching the water's surface. Then, ever so slowly, she started to smile. "Well…perhaps she was wrong. That old witch never was as talented as us."
The girl's eyes grew wide. And after a moment of thought, her mouth curled into a smile to match.
Circe turned her eyes back on Adam. Green eyes. How strange that was.
"You were right, Prince Adam. I never did know what love was," she said, solemn. Then she looked back, reaching for her reflection in the water. One hand above the surface, the other over her own heart. "But I think if I do this…I will."
And the world turned.
The ground beneath their feet became open air, pulling them through the roses and the trees until the the forest was racing away from them far below.
He searched for her voice, and found Belle falling beside him, the wind whipping her clothes and hair with violence. She reached out with desperate fingers, and he just caught them in his own, the force of the air rushing past threatening to pull them apart any moment.
He met her eyes, wide and afraid, which glanced back towards the world below. He followed them, his pulse growing even faster than it already was. The entire surface of the earth seemed to shine like glass, reflecting the nighttime clouds and the stars beyond.
A giant mirror for the heavens, it seemed.
He looked back. Belle's body seemed faint in the darkness. And, catching sight of his own hands, so did he.
Her lips moved again, but no sound came through. Panic flashed through her face.
"Don't be afraid," he told her, fighting the fear in his own chest.
Belle forced a nod, face growing more and more translucent by the moment. The wind grew stronger then, and deafening.
"I'll find you!" Adam cried over the sound. "I prom—!"
His last word fell silent. Then the wind tore them apart—
And they vanished.
Circe landed hard. She gasped for breath once, twice, then took in her surroundings.
A beautiful bedchamber. The dark shadows of night.
How far did it take me? she wondered.
She looked towards the bed. The queen laid there, sleeping peacefully, the storm without only just beginning to blow against the shutters.
Beside the bed stood a boy. Prince Adam's form, but when he turned Circe knew it wasn't Adam at all. Fiery red eyes met hers, and Circe realized she was truly looking at herself in his stolen form. Herself from the past, preparing to led Queen Jacqueline away and into those lethal woods.
"Not this time," Circe whispered, frowning.
Those red eyes grew wide, confused. And, ever so slowly, her old self grew translucent, and vanished.
Circe sighed, then looked towards the bed again. She still didn't care for the woman—but without the corrupting darkness inside, she had no desire to do her harm.
Satisfied, she slowly left the bedchamber, shutting the door quietly behind her. Then, turning, Circe stumbled through the palace's dark halls.
The storm was fierce when she emerged from the kitchens, but she had no strength to fight it. No magic left to escape through one of the mirrors that had lined the corridors nor the icy path reflecting the castle's outer torches she left behind.
Instead she paced through the snow, gasping for breath, feeling death slowly crawl through her veins and into her heart. The woods invited her into their depths, and she accepted their dark, empty embrace. Her knees hit the earth within their bounds, hands pressed against the fresh snow as she choked up blood.
To think I'd die in such a way, she thought with dark amusement. Blood painted the snow beneath her fingertips. She coughed again.
"Dear child, what have you done?"
Circe's head shot up. "Sifu," she gasped. Agathe knelt beside her, wrapping a small, ancient arm around her shoulder. "What are you—" Circe couldn't finish, body shuddering violently from cold and looming death.
Agathe's hand was glowing, running up her back as the old enchantress whispered strange spells. "It's…no use," Circe managed. She stopped, sucking in a painful breath. "I used my…own life force…this time. There's no healing…what is gone."
Agathe frowned, but slowly pulled her hand away.
There was no reason to, really, but Circe went on. "All those years…jumping ahead…it was easy," she said, breathless. "It required…little effort. An inaction. But to go back…to undo it all…I knew it would kill me."
"But this time?" Agathe asked.
Circe's strength had given out completely, and she found herself staring at the skies above as Agathe lowered her into her lap. "I still…knew I'd die," she admitted. Then she huffed, grinning in spite of everything. "But I decided I didn't care."
"Oh, dear girl," her old teacher said. "You've finally learned to love."
"Is that what that was?" Circe asked wryly.
"Of course," Agathe said. "Sacrifice is one of the most beautiful forms of love."
Agathe chuckled quietly. Circe tried as well, but only managed a grimace. "Love certainly hurts."
"Yes. It can."
"Maybe…it's better…this way. At least…most of it was made right," she said. She frowned. "It was…wasn't it?"
"I do believe so," Agathe said. "And perhaps your next reincarnation will be better."
"Ah, I forgot," Circe sighed, closing her tired eyes. "You're a Buddhist."
"I failed to convince you all those years, it seems," Agathe smiled.
"I don't know. It doesn't sound…so bad, now," Circe said. It hurt to speak, and a strange light was forming against her eyes. "I should…like…another chance…"
And soon, she could no longer feel anything at all.
Agathe watched as the life left the woman's body. She held her close, feeling a strange sense of sorrow.
She sighed some minutes later, wiping her eyes. "Trapped me in a mirror all those years, and here I am shedding tears over you. You were always a complicated girl, that you were," she whispered, shaking her head. "Next time we'll both do better, eh?"
She laid the body on the snowy earth then, and raised her hands. "Return to the earth," she declared. The body shimmered for a moment, then dissolved into a hundred shining particles that seeped into the ground and disappeared from sight.
Yet just as all grew dark again and Agathe had turned to leave, a new light emerged from the snowy bank. Something pushed its way into the air—a stem, bright green against the dark landscape, leaves unfolding slowly. And finally, dozens of soft red petals opened into a young flower.
"Ah! There you are, child," Agathe exclaimed, crouching down to examine the rose. "What a beautiful reincarnation! Another chance, indeed." She stopped, smiling wide. "Come, it's been some time since I was in my own land. Shall we go there first?"
The flower, of course, didn't make any indication it had heard her. Agathe wasn't perturbed, fully convinced she was speaking to her old student. Carefully, she dug away the snow and the earth around the young plant, removing it—roots and all.
Agathe held the plant against her chest like one would a small child, pulling a small hand mirror from her pocket that glowed in the shadows of early morning. "We shall find you a lovely spot in my garden, Circe," she declared happily.
The light of dawn started peaking over the hills beyond.
Agathe grinned. "Come then. Let's be off!"
Adam woke with a start.
He grunted, rolling over and casting a hand across his face as bright light filled his vision. Soon it waned, and he could see the soft rays of sun flitting in through his bedroom window.
He looked around. A round, baby blue rug beneath him. A book, pressed open against the carpet, Robinson Crusoe written in bright golden letters across his back. He reached for it.
And a child's hand grasped its cover.
He stopped, and frowned, pulling the small hand back into his lap. He stared at it for a very long moment, and blinked.
I…I must have fallen asleep while reading last night.
It had been a very good story, after all.
"Good morning, my darling."
"Good morning, Maman," Adam said, approaching the long dining room table.
"Did you get any sleep?" she asked.
"Didn't hear that storm last night, eh?" Papa said. He peeked his nose out from behind a large tome, propped up on the fine table. "Was rattling the windows until half past three. I barely got a wink!"
"I do hope no one was traveling through last night," Maman mused, frowning. "I would not wish to be trapped out in that storm."
Sweeping winds, snow coating his hair. Wet eyes.
Darkness, snow, the sounds of wolves. A heart filled with terror.
"Mama…sh-she went out there…"
"Adam? Adam, darling, what is it?"
He blinked, and the strange vision was gone. His parents were both watching him now, faces painted with worry. Maman was already out of her chair, an arm around his shoulders.
"I…" Adam stopped, and shook his head to clear it. "Never mind. It's nothing."
"There we are, love. A nice spot of peppermint tea should calm that headache in no time."
"Thank you, Mrs. Potts."
The woman smiled warmly, then moved towards some other task in the large kitchen. Adam sat along the bench of an old oak table, legs swinging above the floor as he swirled the soft orange drink around a few times. Then he took a sip.
"Ouch!" he cried. The drink had burned his tongue, and in his shock the cup slipped from his fingers. It hit the floor in a second, sending hot tea and a dozen pieces of porcelain scattering.
And the room went dark.
"Don't worry, love. No harm done," Mrs. Potts was saying, though her voice sounded far away. "Happens all the time."
Adam's hands had grown damp, and he found it hard to breathe.
It was his own voice, but he hadn't remembered speaking the name. He felt dizzy, teetering where he sat.
Hands were on him then, shaking him, calling his name.
"Charlotte," he said again.
"She's here, little master," someone said. "Look, look up."
Adam managed to open his eyes.
"My prince, are you well?"
A young woman stood there, with a thin build and long, black hair she had braided against her head. She'd been his closest caretaker as a young child, playing with him and reading him stories in the evenings when Maman couldn't do so herself.
Adam stared at her, a strange and unexplainable relief flooding over him. "You're alive," he gasped. His small fingers found her skirts, burying his face against them and slowly finding his breath again.
"Of course I'm alive," Charlotte said soothingly, running a calm hand over the boy's head. "Whatever made you think I wasn't?"
Adam closed his eyes, feeling exhausted, relieved…and more than anything, confused.
"I…I don't know."
"Have you lost something, my prince?"
Adam started at the voice, promptly rapping his head on the bottom side of the large library desk. He crawled back out from the space, turning around and rising to his knees. "I…I believe I have," he mumbled, rubbing the bruise atop his head.
Lumiere stood there, watching him curiously. Then he brightened. "Well, might I help you look for—well, whatever it is you've lost?" he inquired.
"That's the problem. I can't remember what," Adam admitted. He furrowed his brows, looking back over the large room, shelves of books disappearing into the ceiling. "But I think I'll know it when I find it."
"I suppose that's logical," Lumiere agreed. "Well, should—heaven forbid—this missing article be one of these thousands of tomes…perhaps you should start with the index?"
Adam glanced over at the large stacks of parchment that sat on the desk behind him.
"I can't believe it. I've never seen so many books in all my life. I…I don't even know where to start."
"Here. It's an index—still incomplete, but it may help."
The indices, even the desk itself had grown blurry as Adam's vision swam. Instead he saw a face, beautiful and kind.
She smiled. And then it was gone.
"My prince?" Lumiere asked, frowning. "Whatever is the matter?"
Adam ignored him, heart starting to race. I didn't lose something, he realized quietly. I lost someone.
Belle waited patiently, the scratches of chalk against her little board the only sound filling their cottage home. Maman sat with the board in her lap, writing out several short equations before finally handing the tools back to her.
"There," she told Belle. "That will be your morning exercise."
Belle took the board and the small stick of chalk, yet she couldn't tear her eyes away from Maman's face. And for some reason, she felt so wonderfully, incredibly happy.
"Belle?" Maman asked, cocking her head. "Is something wrong?"
Belle blinked, and shook her head slowly. "No."
"Well then, get started on that addition," Maman told her. "I made those last three extra challenging today."
"All right," Belle said, trying to shake the strange urge to burst into tears of relief. So, sucking in a breath, she got to work.
Not a minute later, she looked up. "I'm finished."
Maman was just putting on her work boots before heading outside to feed the chickens. She turned, smirking. "Don't tease me. Come now, you have to do them all."
"I did," Belle insisted, sliding out of her chair and bringing the little board over for her mother to see.
Maman took it from her, raising a brow, and looked over her work. Her expression soon turned to confusion.
"Belle, you…" She stopped, furrowing her brows, looking over the work again then back at Belle. "Dear…did Papa practice these with you the other day?"
"No," Belle replied. She bit her lip. "Are they wrong?"
"No, no. They're…perfect." Maman hummed, sliding back out of her boots and settling down at the table once again. "Here, let's try some larger numbers. Now, when you have two digits, you must start with those furthest right and—"
"Maman, you already taught me that."
Maman blinked, and looked up again. "I did?"
Maman looked away, scratching her head. Then she turned, grabbing the old rag from the table and wiping the equations away. Taking a long moment, she then wrote a subtraction of two four digit numbers.
But before she even set the chalk down again, Belle spoke. "Three hundred ninety eight."
Maman froze, and looked at her in shock. Then, slowly, she erased the numbers and started again. This problem spanned the length of the board, and included a half dozen operations.
Belle took a moment longer than the first, but still managed to complete the equation in her head. "Negative twelve and a half."
This time, Maman had to check it herself. "That's…right," she said quietly. She seemed strangely nervous, looking at Belle like she was some alien being. "Um…why don't you take the day to read, then, my dear," she said. Then she stood, raising a hand to her head, mumbling to herself as she went back to lace up her boots and head outside.
Belle, however, didn't realize anything was wrong. Instead, she ran happily to their small bookshelf, selected two novels, and spent the morning reading beneath an oak tree.
Some hours later, she was staring up into its branches. She sighed to herself, savoring the end of the first tale.
"Did you really climb to the top of the tallest tree here?"
"Why, did you want to see it?"
Belle sat up in an instant. She looked around for the source of the voices.
"Hello?" she called out.
No one replied.
So, with a childish innocence, she shrugged. Distracted now, she set her book aside and slid out the new sketchbook Papa had given her last Christmas. It was filled with simple drawings of farm animals and flowers and their small family—far from realistic, but still quite good for one so young. Yet Belle just wrinkled her nose at them. She could do better than that, couldn't she?
She found a fresh page, and started to sketch with earnest. She had nothing particular in mind, but soon a form had taken to the page.
"Belle, you've gotten quite good!"
She looked up. Papa was standing beneath the tree beside her, staring down at her drawing in awe. Soon, however, he furrowed his brows. "That one's a bit frightening though, I will admit."
Belle stared back down at her work. A beast looked back from the page, with horns and fangs and a fur-coated face. "I know he looks vicious, but…" She smiled, touching his cheek with her fingertips. "He's my friend."
"Your friend?" Papa chuckled, though not unkindly. "What a wonderful imagination you have, my dear," he declared. He planted a kiss atop her head, then headed back towards the wide, open fields to finish the day's work.
Belle didn't know why she'd drawn her friendly beast, but she found herself looking at the drawing with fondness throughout the day. It was her best yet, she supposed—that must have been the reason.
That night she lay in bed, a small nub of chalk in one hand as she sketched against the slanted ceiling of her attic room. She let her fingers draw at will: a small teacup blowing bubbles from its top, a candelabra with a waxy smile, a sword with a hand-carved hilt she could only imagine to be flaked with gold. A suit of armor, dipping into a curtsy. She smiled at them.
Footsteps up the attic ladder. "Lights out, now," Papa said, poking his head out from below. He blew out the candle along the floor. "Sweet dreams, my Belle."
She waited until he was gone, then reached behind her. Finding the cord in the darkness, she tugged with both small arms until the ceiling above parted before her. Pulling the blankets to her chin, she watched the new stars light the sky above.
The winter snows had only just melted, but she didn't feel cold. In fact, she felt incredibly warm, as though someone familiar were beside her. She smiled again, eyes lingering on the stars another moment longer before letting her lids fall closed.
"Your mother is starting to worry about you."
"I'm fine, Papa," Adam said uncomfortably.
The king frowned, unconvinced.
Alexandre watched him another moment longer, than hummed. "It's only—it seems the moment your mother grows better you suddenly begin acting different yourself," he admitted. "But perhaps I'm being paranoid. I tend to worry for you both, like that."
Adam swallowed. He had, admittedly, been hearing things, seeing things that didn't make sense. Though it was more like he was remembering things, really—a constant a sense déjà vu. Everywhere he wandered in the castle or along the grounds he heard a voice, saw a face he didn't know but somehow knew. And every time he thought he'd grasped it, it would slip away.
Slip away, and leave him feeling utterly, miserably alone.
He glanced out the window. Water dripped from the gutter, pale green grass beginning to show as the winter snows finally melted. "I think I'm going to hike the peak today," he said to himself, before turning to Papa. "Is that all right?"
"Ah! Yes. Some fresh air should do you good," the king said. "Shall I join you?"
Adam pursed his lips. "I…I think I need to be alone."
"Won't give me an excuse to escape Cogsworth, eh?" Papa said, sighing and leaning back in his deep desk chair. "Well, I suppose even a ten year-old man must take time to contemplate in solitude," he smiled.
Adam didn't catch his joke, still staring through the window at the hills beyond.
Papa hummed again, frowning. "Well, be back for your afternoon studies with the professor, then."
Adam blinked, and looked back. "Yes, Papa."
He sat along the rocky ledge, legs hanging into the wide open air, a still-frozen lake far below and a thousand trees spanning the valley bowl. The snow along the trail had mostly melted, though it still covered much of the scene before him.
A charcoal sketch. Black-stained fingers tips, moving quickly over the page.
"Well, how is it? A fair depiction?"
Her voice, again, even all the way up here! Adam tried to hold onto it, using every ounce of focus his small body contained, but the strange memory slipped away once more. He groaned in frustration, ducking his head and burying his fingers in his hair, freeing several strands from their ribbon.
Sending the loose hairs away from his eyes with a huff, the young prince fell to his back and stared at the clouds high above. He could still see the faint crescent of the moon, a few of the brightest stars in the early morning sky. Even these seemed to remain him of something. Remind him of her.
"Who are you?" he whispered desperately. "Where are you?"
And then, finally, something answered. A tug on his chest, sharp and urgent. Adam sat up, scrambling away from the cliff side before it pulled him over. And then he watched, wide eyed and breathless, as a bright line shot from his chest and towards the distant hills.
Towards the villages beyond.
He gasped, reaching towards the place where the shining string tugged on his heart.
"Ah, good morning, Prince Adam. Would you like to take Olive out for—"
The stable hand stopped short as Adam ran past him into Olive's stall. He hopped up, grabbing her saddle and throwing it over her side. Well, he tried to anyway—but his legs were much shorter than he remembered.
"Your Highness! Please, allow me too—"
Adam had already yanked the closest crate over, climbing atop and throwing the saddle on successfully this time before fastening the straps in haste.
The stable man was watching with his mouth agape, unable to function in his shock. "My—my prince," he finally managed. "Who taught you to—"
"Thank you!" Adam said quickly, jumping up from the crate and onto Olive's saddled back. He grabbed the reins, gave her a kick and was flying out the barn doors before the poor man could even get a full sentence out.
He had to slow at the front gates, which hadn't yet been opened for the day. His father was out there, speaking with Gilles and one of the outer guards. He turned, catching sight of Adam and cocking his head. "Back already?" he asked curiously. "And where are you off to now?"
"Molyneaux," Adam said quickly.
"Molyneaux?!" the king cried. "Good grief, son, Abel's Peak is one thing—but a two hour ride on your own? Your mother would have my neck."
Damn! Adam thought wildly, realizing his mistake. I forgot—I'm just a kid!
"Please, Papa," he said in haste. "It's important!"
"Important? What's so important?"
Adam wracked his brain for some excuse. Belle's there! he wanted say, but of course that wouldn't make any kind of sense to Papa. "The—the school," he said at last. "They aren't letting the girls go to school in Molyneaux."
Alexandre furrowed his brows. "Where did you hear this?"
"Um...in the kitchens," Adam fibbed. "One of the footmen mentioned it."
"Damn," Papa said, frowning deeply. "Well, I'll speak with Cogsworth, we can send a representative out to—"
"We have to go now," Adam insisted. "Please Papa. I…I want to start helping this kingdom too." He grit his teeth, hoping desperately that would work.
Papa seemed to consider that. Then he smiled. "Ah! Ready to get involved already? Yes, yes perhaps it would be a good experience for you." He turned to the guard at his side. "Tell old Cogsworth I'll be missing my meetings this morning," he said happily. "Oh, and Adam, go bring Olive back. We're taking the carriage."
Adam hadn't wanted to travel by carriage—it was far slower than horseback, after all—but given he'd barely gotten his way in the first place he figured he ought to concede. Still, the ride had been tortuous. He'd stared out the window impatiently the entire time, tapping his fingers relentlessly against the glass, certain he could have run to Molyneaux faster than this. Across from him, Papa simply hummed happily to himself at the spontaneous excursion.
Adam huffed a stray hair from his eyes, looking back out the window. They'd finally reached the empty, snow-patched fields of Molyneaux's outer border in the last quarter hour, and now—squinting—he could just make out the little town in the distance.
His heart leapt at the sight of it. And once again, that bright silver string flowed from his chest, ducking beneath the carriage door and down the length of dirt road ahead of them. Adam looked back, but Papa didn't appear to see it.
He looked back out the window, scouring the countryside. And, only a few minutes later, he saw it. A small cottage with a water wheel spinning in the morning sun, stone steps carefully placed in the hill atop which it sat.
Adam flung the carriage door open, toppling out on the dirt road as the carriage continued rumbling on. "Adam!" his father shouted from behind. Adam didn't pay him any mind, racing up the short hill and leaping onto the porch in one bound.
He paused on the threshold, heart hammering, trying to catch his breath. His hand was raised to knock, but he paused.
Will Belle remember me?
How long had it taken him to remember? At least a few days, but it could have been years for all he knew. And suddenly, he was terrified she may not recognize him at all.
Heavy footfalls up the steps behind him. "Adam," Papa rasped, resting his hands on his knees where he stood catching his breath. "By God, what's gotten into you?"
And the door opened.
"Someone here?" Maurice asked. He blinked, staring at the king and his prince, eyes growing wide.
Someone cleared their throat. Gilles had accompanied them, and now stood nearby. "His Majesty, King Alexandre, and Prince Adam," he announced formally, though a faint grin crossed his face.
Maurice stared at them, mouth agape. "Y-Your—" He couldn't finish, pulling off his hat and falling to one knee.
"Ah! My apologies," the king said awkwardly. "Please rise, good sir. This is just…some kind of misunderstanding. It seems my son…"
Adam stopped listening, searching the room behind Maurice for the one he'd come for. It was full of warmth and life like it hadn't been when he'd come with Belle that summer's evening—a table with a spread of breakfast, the smell of porridge and eggs, simple yet cozy furniture with books scattered across their cushions and the floor. A fire burning in the hearth, and woman sitting in the rocker beside it.
A girl sat in her lap, her arms reaching around the woman's neck and head resting against her shoulder. Her knees were tucked into her lap, eyes closed and expression peaceful. But then, as though sensing his presence, she opened her eyes and looked over at him.
And she smiled.
Belle climbed out of her mother's lap, and said something Adam couldn't hear. Soleil kissed her head and turned to check the pot over the fire while Belle crossed the room and pulled on her boots. Then she approached their visitors, stopping just before the young prince.
She reached for Adam's hand. Their fingers intertwined, and he held back tight, heart bursting with relief.
Belle looked up at their fathers then, who now stared at them in dumbfounded silence. Then she glanced back at Adam with a knowing look in her eye. "Want to see Max? He's just a puppy," she offered.
Adam smiled wide, nodding excitedly. And with that, the two children ran outside and out of sight.
The men on the porch watched them go, perplexed. Then, shrugging, the king looked back at Maurice. "Monsieur, I have to ask…have we met before?"
"Ah! I don't know what I'm saying. You just, you seem very…" He trailed off, catching sight of something inside the house. "Sir, forgive me, but what is this contraption you have here?"
"Oh, er, j-just an old invention of mine, my king," Maurice said, looking embarrassed. "Let's you see who's on the other side of the door. We've got some, um, some nosy neighbors, you could say."
"Incredible," the king said, a hand to his chin. "May I…?"
"Oh! Oh, o-of course, Your Majesty."
Alexandre moved inside. "Gilles! You stand there. I'm going to have a go at this."
"As you wish, my lord."
He shut the door, voice muffled from the other side. "Brilliant! I can see you like you were just before me!" The door opened again, and Alexandre stepped back onto the porch, grinning to himself. "Do you think these could be installed on inside doors too?" he asked, turning back to Maurice.
"Why, certainly!" Mauriced declared, beaming.
"Wouldn't mind knowing when Cogsworth was coming to drag me off to some meeting or another…" The king looked back at Maurice. "Monsieur…?"
"DuPont," he answered. "Maurice DuPont."
"Monsieur DuPont, you haven't heard of the program, have you?"
"The…program, Your Highness?"
"Yes! The program for…" He trailed off, face contorting for a long moment before raising a finger in the air. "The Program for Funding the Common Inventor! Otherwise known as the PFCI. It's quite important."
Behind the house, two children stood beside Philippe's stall, chicken feed scattered beneath their feet, holding each other close.
"You remember?" Adam finally asked.
Belle laughed, hugging him tighter. "Isn't it obvious?"
"I mean…when did you remember?"
She finally pulled back. "Just this morning. The string was glowing when I woke up." She flushed a little. "It's been tugging all morning, so I knew you were on your way."
He smiled, but quickly furrowed his brows. "But…how could the cord between us still exist? I mean, all of that…it never happened now, right?"
"Didn't it?" Belle asked. "We remember it, don't we?"
Adam scratched his head. "I guess."
"Besides, Agathe said no spell could break that bound between us," Belle went on. "Not even a jump back in time, it seems."
"I suppose. But my brain hurts just thinking about it."
Belle hadn't seemed to hear that, now looking him up and down. Her mouth began to twitch at the corner.
"What?" Adam asked, looking down at his clothes. They were a bit covered in mud from his jump out the carriage, but nothing ridiculous.
"I-I'm sorry," she giggled, raising a hand to cover her smile. "You're just…you're so little!"
Oh, that. He grinned a bit. "And you're as adorable as I thought you'd be…" He paused, smirking. "Even with those missing teeth."
"Hey!" Belle laughed. "They're still growing in!"
He chuckled himself now. "I can't believe this," he gasped. "We really are little!"
A high-pitched bark. Adam looked over, a small grey mutt running across the yard. "Max!" he cried. The puppy perked up at his name, turning and racing towards them. Adam scooped up the dog as he approached, holding him at arm's length. "You're little too!" he cried. Max yapped again, panting happily.
They laughed for a long minute, and soon found themselves sliding down the side of the fence and gripping their stomachs as they began to ache from the effort. It shouldn't have been this amusing, it really shouldn't have. But even the simplest things felt funnier now than they used to. Did children always laugh this much?
"We need to be a bit careful," Belle said once they managed to calm down.
"How so?" Adam asked, scratching Max behind the ears.
"It's just…well, I think I nearly gave Maman a heart attack when I recited Shakespeare in perfect English this morning."
And suddenly he sobered, setting Max down again and looking up. "Your mother…" he breathed.
She nodded, smiling, her eyes a bit wetter than they'd been before. And so he hugged her again. "She'll be okay this time," he promised. All of it—all of it would be worth it, just for that.
"I know some things can't be changed," Belle replied. "But…I think maybe you're right."
"I am," he said. Then they laughed again.
"I almost wish the others could remember too," he admitted after a moment, pulling back. "But maybe it's better if they don't…"
"They might remember later," Belle shrugged. "We'll just have to wait and see."
They were quiet for another moment, still soaking it all in. And then Adam sighed.
"What is it?" Belle asked.
"Well…I just realized, now that we're kids again…" He looked up at the straw roof above, feeling his face begin to burn. Then he glanced over with a lopsided smile, in spite of himself. "I probably can't ask you to marry me yet, huh?"
Belle blinked, and in an instant her own cheeks grew pink. She looked away, tucking that loose strand of hair behind her ear. "I don't think Papa would be very happy about that right now," she replied, smiling.
"Actually…he did give me his blessing already. Technically."
Belle's mouth fell open, and she looked back at him. "He did?"
Adam looked down at the small hands that were once again his own. He wore a thin golden band on his right index finger, some kind of symbol of his status. He'd forgotten all about it until now. He tugged it off, looking at it for a moment, suddenly nervous. Then he turned, holding it out to her.
"A promise?" he asked quietly. He swallowed. "That…that I'll ask, later."
Belle looked at the ring for a long moment, then back at him. Her eyes softened. "A promise," she whispered.
He helped her slip it on, where it fit a bit loosely on her own finger. Then he leaned in, kissing her softly on the cheek before pulling away.
"You know what's strange?" he asked.
"Hmm?" she hummed, still looking at the little promise ring and smiling to herself.
"I don't know what it is, but…I kind of just want to go play," he admitted, grinning a bit.
Belle giggled softly, a hand to her mouth. "Me too." Suddenly, a mischievous look crossed her face. She stood quickly, grinning. "Race you to the old oak!"
"The old…hey!" Adam cried, for Belle was already sprinting out of the makeshift barn. He scrambled to his feet, taking off after her, laughing wildly as they ran over the nearby hills. Neither yet realized that their instincts had returned to those of children, but they didn't have to. All they needed to do was live the new life they'd been given, together.
And live it together they did.
A/N - One more big happy "epilogue" and we're done! So get ready for the fluff folks, you've earned it. xoxoxo