The Beast was dead, to begin with.
Well, Gaston said it was. But then he would know, wouldn't he? He'd been the one fighting it. And yes, he'd emerged from the battle looking bloodied and bruised and a lot like someone who'd fallen off the roof of a castle – whatever that looked like – but he'd been the only one there. Well, him and the Beast, but they couldn't ask him, he was dead. To a man, the villagers agreed that the only way to escape that monster would have been to kill it, and Gaston had escaped. So, it bore repeating: the Beast was dead.
It was all anyone talked about for weeks afterwards – or should have been. Gaston had calculated, by estimating the length of time people had congratulated him on killing a bear with the amount of time spent celebrating the untimely end he had brought to a boar and then getting Lefou to do the sums, that the death of the Beast should have earned him the undying gratitude and admiration of the village for six months and half a potato. Lefou wasn't all that good at sums. But even allowing for that, he couldn't help but feel that his crowning moment of glory had been overshadowed all too quickly by the coming of Christmas.
Gaston didn't like Christmas.
Well, that wasn't completely true. Christmas was, after all, a time of celebration, and no one knew how to celebrate like Gaston. The days leading up to it would generally find him in the tavern of an evening, as full to the brim with festive cheer as anyone else. It also couldn't be said of Gaston that he didn't know how to accept a present, and if his friends, neighbours and well-wishers took it upon themselves to compete to see who could give him the most impressive gift – well, that was their own business, and you couldn't blame them for wanting to get his attention.
Alright, so Gaston liked the Christmas season just fine. It was Christmas Day that bothered him. Every twenty-fifth of December, the village forgot about him. They went to church, they spent time with their families. The tavern was closed. The streets were deserted. For that one day of the year, no one cared what Gaston was doing – and he hated it.
He was a hero! He was the greatest hunter the world had ever seen. He was strong, handsome, brilliant. Girls swooned over him, men longed to be him. But he was all of those things all year round! What was so special about Christmas, anyway?
And now, here it was. The night before Christmas and, all through the town, not a creature was stirring, they were all lying down. The stockings were hung... Oh, what was he doing? What was that? Something out of one of those – he shuddered to think the word – books? One of those things where the words sound the same? Ugh. He hated books. He hated Christmas.
His thoughts continued in much the same vein as he did his fifty press-ups, practiced posing with his gun and went to bed.
When he woke up, it was still dark, and two enormous eyes were looking at him. He squinted at them for a moment, then fumbled for a match, lighting the candle beside his bed.
A pool of flickering yellow light spread out around him. The eyes remained distant in the darkness. Gaston frowned.
It was nothing, Gaston thought. The blue eyes must be a trick of the light – maybe even a reflection of his own.
Gaston's frown deepened. A cold gust of wind threatened to put out the flame.
He wasn't having this. He was Gaston. Nothing frightened him. He'd hunted every creature native to these parts. He was the victor of a thousand tavern brawls. He'd slain the Great Beast – well, more or less. So were two blue eyes in the darkness going to scare him? No. No they weren't.
"Step forward," he said. "Coward."
Another moment of silence. Then, slowly, too slowly, a shape moved into view. First, a hairy paw, claws tinged golden in the candlelight. Then a knee, a forearm, a tail – and there it was. The horns, the teeth and the bright, blue eyes – the Beast.
Gaston whimpered. He didn't mean to, and he would take the secret to his deathbed, but he did.
"Gaston?" The creature's voice was a low growl.
"What?" Gaston squeaked – responded. Calmly, and in a manly fashion.
"I need to speak to you."
"But you're dead!" Gaston protested. Then, taking a moment to separate various types of reality he amended his response to "What do you want with me?"
The Beast wasn't allowing a comment like that to pass so easily. "Dead?" he asked, what might have been a smile playing around his enormous teeth.
Gaston folded his arms. Terrified as he was, he wasn't going to let his pride take a hit like that. "Well, you would be. If you'd fought fair."
The Beast made to counter this remark, but something stopped him. "You have a lot to learn."
"From a creature like you?" The question burst out of Gaston before he'd even thought about it.
"Yes," the Beast replied, quietly. "From a creature like me. We're not that different, you and me."
Gaston scoffed. "Apart from my good looks, charm, strength..."
"Strength?" the Beast repeated, lifting Gaston bodily out of bed with one arm.
Gaston fought to suppress memories of that night on the roof. "What do you want? I'll give you anything—"
The Beast shook his head, depositing the quivering hunter on the ground. "I'm doing this wrong." He cleared his throat. "Excuse me," he said, "but would you mind coming with me? I need to show you something."
Gaston had a vision of the two of them walking out into the street. Gaston, the hero, and a dead Beast. "No," he snorted, more confident back on terra firma.
"It won't take a moment."
"I don't care!" Gaston cried. "I'm not going to-"
"I'm afraid I'll have to insist."
The Beast took his arm. Gaston made to shake it off, but was distracted by the way the room sort of went fuzzy, then faded away.
"What's happening?" he demanded – or tried to. The words seemed lost as soon as they left his mouth. They were nowhere – floating, drowning in nowhere. Panic rose in his throat – and then they were safe. For a given value of "safe". There seemed to be a normal ratio of air to floor, which made him feel a lot better, but they were also in almost total darkness. "Where am I?"
The Beast let go of him. "We're in the past. My past."
Gaston looked around. They were in a tunnel. A long, dark tunnel. In both directions, distant sources of light were visible. They were both a long way away. "Your past is boring," he commented.
"Yes," the Beast replied. "I know. Come with me."
Gaston wasn't listening. He was imagining what his own past would look like. It wouldn't be some lousy tunnel, that was for sure. It would be a forest. A bright, green forest with a bloodied animal carcass by every tree, and six men to every carcass, patting him on the back and offering him a drink, and six women to every man, offering him... further congratulation. He grinned, nodding a little at the perfection of this scene.
The Beast rolled his eyes, thumped a paw into the small of the hunter's back and steered him down the tunnel.
After they'd paced a little way, Gaston asked, "So how come your past is a tunnel?" He wasn't really interested, of course. Not even a little. He was just keeping the creature distracted until this "past" of his yielded some kind of weapon he could use to dispatch him. Could you kill someone in their own past? Well, he'd find out.
The Beast took a slow, deep breath. "It's long and dark and cold and the only way out is forwards. Or backwards, but that's just so I can teach you."
"Teach me what?"
The Beast didn't reply. Gaston decided he didn't care. They walked down the tunnel – well, the Beast did. Gaston slouched behind him, wondering if he should make a move to escape. On the other hand, there was something about this tunnel. It was cold, like the Beast said, but not just a normal kind of cold. It made him almost... cold on the inside.
He shook his head. That was stupid. Cold was cold, and easily fixed with a good thick fur.
He began to become aware that there were shiny... things, in the walls. Like windows but not. He peered into them – not because he was interested. Just because there wasn't much to look at in the tunnel except the back of the Beast, and that was making him feel a bit shivery. No, it wasn't. It was just cold in this tunnel. But still.
One held a rose in a glass jar. Gaston skipped over that. Flowers weren't his thing. In another, there was an outline of the Beast. He was hunched, defeated. Gaston crowed inwardly at the sight. Or he started to. There was something about the creature's pose.
It's hopeless. Hopeless.
"What did you say?" Gaston asked, taking a few hurried steps to catch up.
The Beast glanced over his shoulder. "Nothing."
"Huh," said Gaston. "Are we nearly there yet? I'm sick of this tunnel."
The Beast stopped because there was a door in front of him. He pushed it open and effected a mock-bow, ushering Gaston in ahead of him. Gaston decided he liked this treatment.
The room was large and richly decorated and contained a man in an ornate chair and a number of other people, not in chairs. Gaston strode forward. Other people, excellent. Maybe one of them would have a gun. They'd be as good an audience as any when he took care of the Beast – for real, this time.
He tapped one of them on the shoulder. "Hey!"
The man didn't move.
Gaston was unaccustomed to this kind of reception. Annoyed, he walked in front of the man and faced him down. "I'm talking to you."
The man stared through him.
Gaston was bewildered. "What's the matter with him?"
The Beast calmly closed the door and crossed to join him. "He can't see you."
"What do you mean, can't see me? I'm right here!"
"We're revisiting something that's already happened. This man didn't see you then, so he can't see you now. We can't change anything." His gaze drifted past Gaston. "I know. I've tried."
In spite of himself, Gaston turned to see what he was looking at.