Adam had never worked so hard in his life. Barring a few days in the castle spent mending the roof of the castle or barricading windows against storms, he couldn't remember the last time he had been so tired or so sore. Every muscle in his body ached and he cursed himself for being unable to accept that he was no longer as strong as the Beast. It was odd for him to no longer be able to lift large amounts of weight; not long ago he was able to send large pieces of furniture flying across rooms, but now he could lift nothing heavier than a small table by himself. He kept these thoughts to himself, though, and merely tried to keep from moving his sore muscles more than he had to.
Though they had worked diligently through the day (barring those few stolen moments dancing in the yard) and had filled all three of the wagons, Belle's house had yet to be emptied.
"It's just as well," Belle said as they surveyed the wagons laden with trunks and furniture. "I should go into town tomorrow and announce that the house is open to be used by someone else."
"Should we return to the castle tonight?" Adam asked, though a large part of him was not looking forward to further abusing his sore muscles to the harsh bouncing of the wagons. The novelty of riding in the wagon that morning had long since worn off and left nothing but dread at the thought of riding on the hard wooden structure.
"I think I'd like to stay here," Belle said, turning to look back at the cottage. Adam mimicked her and was amazed that despite all the work they had done, from the outside it was hard to tell that anything changed. But Adam knew that once they went through the door, the house was practically bare. They had taken much of the furniture from the house at Maurice's request so he could reuse them, though for what purpose Adam could only imagine. As a result, the wagons filled quite a bit faster than they had anticipated.
"I think we should send the servants back tonight though so they can bring an empty wagon or two for the rest," he suggested, motioning to the laden wagons in front of them. "I'll go with them if you like, but if it's all right with you and your father I'd like to stay here. So we can get an early start tomorrow." Truthfully he did feel a bit uneasy about leaving Belle behind and hoped she would allow him to stay in the house that night.
"I think that's a good idea. I'll go into town and get something for us to eat for dinner, then," she said with a smile.
"You weren't going to before?" Adam was shocked and suddenly glad he suggested that he stay if that meant that Belle would have a proper meal.
"Oh well there's still some things in the house but not enough for three," she said quickly but Adam wasn't entirely convinced.
"I'll make sure with your father that it's all right that I stay and then tell the servants to return in the morning," he said, letting the subject drop. "May I come with you to the village?"
"I'd like that," she said and Adam couldn't help but smile. It was so comforting to know that Belle enjoyed his company, even after all that had happened between them and all that she knew about his past.
"Maurice?" he called as he went inside the cottage. It looked odd seeing the main room so bare; Belle's bookshelves had been cleared out, the table was gone, even the rug had been rolled up to be taken back to the castle. Adam wasn't sure what Maurice wanted with all the old furniture, but it wasn't his place to question it.
Maurice wasn't anywhere to be found on the main floor, so he went up the stairs to see if he was in his room. Sure enough, the door was open and Adam could glimpse Maurice inside. He knocked on the door and waited for Maurice to respond before entering. Belle's father was sitting on his bed, arms resting on his legs and gazing at the frame of a portrait that sat on the floor and leaned against the wall. Adam walked a bit further inside the room and was able to better see the subjects of the painting.
There was a little girl in a blue dress with a sweet, gentle expression sitting beside a woman in pink. Together they held what appeared to be a story book and sat in a chair surrounded by flowers.
"Beautiful, aren't they?" Maurice asked and Adam noticed the wistful tone in his voice.
"Oh, yes very," he agreed readily. "Is that Belle?" He pointed to the child in the blue dress, though by the sweet countenance and familiar brown eyes Adam was sure it could not be anyone else.
"Mhm, and her mother beside her." Adam took a closer look at the woman in the painting. There was a definite similarity between them, though her mother's eyes were a green-blue and her hair was a shade lighter than Belle's.
"She's beautiful," Adam said, starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. He knew that Belle's mother had died when Belle was young and Maurice was doubtless feeling a bit nostalgic for his wife, but Adam had no idea how to act in such a situation. He knew he should try to comfort the old man, but what could he say?
"She had so many suitors," Maurice started and Adam sighed in relief, spared the responsibility of breaking the silence between them. "All of them rich, handsome men, but she chose me. She always said she saw something in me that no one else had. I never understood what she meant, but Belle seems to have figured it out." Adam understood that Maurice meant how Belle was able to see into his own soul as Belle's mother saw into Maurice's and he had the good sense to realize he had just been given the highest of compliments.
"It shall have a place of honor in the castle," he declared. "Wherever you wish it to hang, it will."
"Thank you, lad. I think I'd like it to be in the library. She was always so fond of books, you know."
"Belle told me it's because of her mother that she learned to love books so much," he admitted.
Maurice chuckled and stood with a sigh. "You couldn't have found a better way to win her heart than by giving her that library, you know."
"I only wanted her to be happy," he protested. "She had done me a great service and I wanted to do something in return that would make her feel comfortable in my castle."
"What service was that?" Maurice asked with a raised eyebrow.
"She stood up to me," he confessed, allowing himself a grin. To his surprise, Maurice started to laugh and clapped him on the shoulder.
"She's a good girl. But you came in to ask me something, didn't you?"
"Oh, uh well Belle wanted to stay here for the night so we can get started early tomorrow. I was hoping I could. . .if I could get your permission to stay here tonight." He was suddenly nervous, as if asking such a thing was inappropriate and would make Maurice angry.
"Belle's a grown woman now, she can make her own decisions about the man she loves." Adam tried not to blush at these words. "But I'd also enjoy your company tonight. You've been a great help to us."
"Thank you," he said with a slight, polite bow. "Belle and I are going to go into town to find something to make for dinner. I'm sending the servants back to the castle to return tomorrow with another empty wagon or two."
"Yes, yes I'm glad we had room for all this mess. I had so many ideas to improve some of the furniture in this house for years but of course Belle forbade it. I suppose getting rid of tables and chairs we used every day was a bit ambitious of me, but now I can do as I like with them."
"Of course you can," Adam confirmed merrily, though he was still very confused at what Maurice could possibly have in mind for the furniture. "We'll be back soon," he promised as he left Maurice and the portrait behind to rejoin Belle outside.
"Ready?" Belle asked, an empty basket now hanging from the crook of her elbow.
"Let's go," he replied, excited to see the village Belle had told him so much about. As the servants made their way back towards the castle in their laden wagons, Adam and Belle started in the opposite direction, walking arm in arm towards town.
Adam was certainly excited about visiting the village; he was practically pulling at her to walk faster as they crossed the bridge and along the road. She tried to remember that Adam had been cooped up in his castle for ten years and this was an entirely new experience for him, but she found it hard to believe that this simple, provincial village could spark anyone's interest.
As they passed the outskirts and into the town square however, Belle was aghast at the rather unsettling change in the previously predictable village. Though the square was bustling with people, there was an odd, unnatural hush over the crowds. It wasn't silent by any means, but oddly muffled as if the people were lacked the strength or were simply unwilling to haggle and argue as loudly as they once had.
To make it worse, as Belle walked with Adam through the crowds, the people they passed stopped talking altogether and turned to blatantly gawk at her. She was used to their stares, though usually she was able to ignore them behind the pages of her books and the people would still go about their business, at least having the decency to give the illusion they weren't staring at her. But now they showed no sign of pretending, gawking at her shamelessly and Belle thought perhaps even angrily.
"What's going on?" Adam asked, looking around at the villagers.
"I don't know," she responded in little more than a whisper. She was beginning to feel very uneasy under so many withering gazes and looked for somewhere to escape to. "In here," she said suddenly and pulled Adam into the door of the bookshop. If there was anywhere she could get a reprieve from the villagers' behavior, it was there.
"Belle? What are you doing here, child?" Belle sighed in relief as she spotted the speaker: an old, kind-hearted man who had energetically fueled her love of books since she moved to the village.
"It's good to see you, monsieur." She was immediately at ease inside the bookstore, even the musty shelves seemed to greet her as they stood at attention, holding the stories she loved so dearly. "How have you been?"
"Oh, just fine, my dear. Though I do miss my best customer, of course. I heard there was some commotion up your way a few days ago. Is everything all right with your father?"
Belle took a moment to answer, swallowing the sudden memory of that horrible night when the Beast was dying in her arms. She took hold of Adam's hand which gave her strength. "Yes, thank you," she finally replied. "But I'm sure you've heard about Gaston." She had not thought about Gaston in quite awhile and felt a pang of guilt at the lack of courtesy she had shown towards his death. He had never been the kindest of men, but his death was an unnecessary tragedy.
"Yes, poor man. Finally bit off more than he could chew. I knew that would happen one day; giants fall the furthest, after all. The town is taking it very hard; nearly everyone's been moping about wailing about his death. They've practically enshrined his place at the tavern. Many of them seem to think you were involved in his death, my dear."
"That would explain why they're looking at me so strangely," Belle realized, understanding the villagers' peculiar actions.
"But it wasn't your fault," Adam protested and Belle heard defensive anger in his voice.
"I'm afraid that's entirely irrelevant, young man." Belle noticed him look oddly at Adam, apparently trying to size up this stranger.
"This is Adam," she introduced quickly and simply. It was too complicated and too dangerous a story to tell, especially now with the villagers acting so strangely because of Gaston's death. Such a tale would doubtless get back to them and their reaction could not be safely predicted now.
"Nice to meet you, I'm sure," the older man said with a raised eyebrow. He looked to Belle for answers, but she only smiled as sweetly as she could and changed the subject to suit her own curiosity.
"Do you know why they believe I'm involved?"
"Well you know I'm not one for gossip, but from what I've heard your father was running about saying you were imprisoned somewhere by some sort of monster. You weren't were you?" he asked, still eyeing Adam suspiciously.
"Nothing of the sort," she dismissed easily. "It was just a misunderstanding. So this rumor began spreading. . ." she prodded.
"Yes. Though no one really believed all that nonsense about a beast, they were wondering where you were all that time." He paused with purpose, but Belle remained silent and after a moment he continued. "Then suddenly you returned and stirred up those rumors again. I say, are you sure there wasn't a beast? Nearly everyone seems to be telling tales of a fierce monster ten feet tall with fangs and breathed fire or some such rot."
"There was never a beast," she confirmed and, in a way it was true. Really it was just a heartbroken, confused man all that time. She felt Adam shift uncomfortably and for his sake tried to draw the bookseller as quickly as she could through his tale.
"I suppose they blame you for luring Gaston to his death," the bookseller finally finished after retelling all that Belle already encountered that horrible night. "You know how they admired him so. And there's some confusion about what exactly happened that night. Some men ranted for a few days about talking furniture attacking them, but they were quickly shushed and no one's mentioned it since."
"Well, I'm very sorry he's dead, but I had no part in his decision to go chase after some imaginary animal," she said, perhaps a bit too curtly, but she was hardly to blame for Gaston's insanely inflated ego.
"I'm sure you're not sorry that he can't pester you about marrying you, though," he said and Belle stifled a gasp. The bookseller was usually very kind, but occasionally he could say something that shocked her. This day was apparently no exception.
"That was rude," Adam remarked angrily.
"It's all right," Belle said quickly, putting a hand on Adam's arm hoping to calm him before anyone was offended. She turned back to the bookseller to say "Gaston was an oaf; his ego was his downfall and I am sorry he's dead, but I'm also glad he will no longer hurt anyone the way he carried on around here. The villagers will stop mourning and move on with their lives, and I will do the same."
"And I know you'll be very happy, child," the bookseller said merrily, showing no sign he had just insulted Belle. She took a breath and remembered that he always meant well.
"Thank you. My father and I are leaving the village tomorrow," she informed him, hoping he wouldn't ask too many questions. "Thank you for all that you've done for me."
"You're welcome, my dear. You made an old man's lonely life a bit less dull. Now go return to your father."
With a final nod, Belle led the way back out into the cruel gaze of the villagers. As quickly as she could, Belle filled her basket with food for dinner, ignoring the villagers as best she could. Adam silently followed her, his protective presence never far from her side and apparently just as eager to leave the village as he was to arrive.
"Belle, we shouldn't go back there," Adam fumed as they turned their backs on the village. "If those people hate you so much for something you didn't do. . ." Belle could see he was working himself up into a proper rage.
"Adam, it's all right," she cooed. "We won't have to go back. I—I can't go back." She let her mind wander back to the villagers and suddenly found herself suffocated by the faces of the villagers she saw swimming in her mind's eye; they were too close, too cruel. They didn't understand. All they cared about was Gaston, as it had always been, but now it had come to the point where they had exiled her. How could she have expected anything different? This village had undergone a great shock to their simple livelihoods and it was all because of her. She couldn't escape from the vision of the blatant and cruel looks she received; it crowded her mind until it was all she could see, completely losing sight of the road in front of her.
"Belle?" she heard Adam's voice call to her, but it was lost amongst the chaos that suddenly clouded her mind. Once again she saw Gaston's cruel smile after he had stabbed the Beast, watched as the man fell to his death. He had gone to the castle out of jealousy, hadn't he? Jealousy for her. Despite what Adam said, perhaps his death was her fault, just as the villagers thought. It was too overwhelming, too horrible to think that she had caused so much destruction. Her mind began to go blank and she felt faint, but she forced herself to remain upright.
"Take me home," she requested, holding her hand out to Adam though she still couldn't see passed the villager's gawking faces. Her voice sounded weak in her ears and she tried to pull herself together, but the images in her mind refused to leave her.
She felt Adam's arm slip around her shoulders and blindly followed his lead, leaning into his body as she tried to push the tormenting images away. Vaguely she was aware that they had left the village and were approaching the bridge towards the cottage. She was finally safe from those cruel gazes, from the whispered rumors about what she had done.
"Are you all right?" Adam asked as he helped her walk towards safety. She shook her head and pressed herself closer to him, absorbing the warmth and protection she felt from his presence. "They had no right to act that way," he continued as his arm wrapped more tightly around her. "It wasn't your fault. He was hunting me, Belle. He was angry and, from what you and that old man said, killing me was the only way he could think to keep the upper hand he seemed to think he had."
She tried to let his words comfort her as they were meant to, but she kept seeing Gaston's face as he fell into the ravine, quickly followed by the relentless stares of the villagers. She let Adam lead her inside the cottage and into a chair by the fire. Belle knew she needed to try and pull herself together, but never before had she felt such hatred concentrated in one place. It was stifling and overwhelming, and having it all directed at her made it hard for her to even breathe.
Vaguely she was aware that Adam and her father were talking, but they didn't seem to be speaking to her and so she ignored them, focusing instead on how to manage the betrayal of the entire village. How could they think she was responsible for Gaston's death? Was she responsible for his death? She couldn't be sure anymore.
"Belle?" Adam's voice called to her and she noticed him kneeling in front of her. She tried to smile at him but she couldn't quite manage it. He took her hands where they lay in her lap. "Belle, you can't let them treat you like this. You know you didn't do anything wrong, don't you? You said it yourself, you had nothing to do with his decision. If anything it's my fault. I caused him to fall off balance after he stabbed me." Belle winced at the memory.
"He's right," her father came up to her now. "This isn't your fault. I was there, remember? He was set on causing damage to anything you loved. At first it was me, but then he turned his attention to the Beast."
"Because I showed him the mirror," she interrupted, looking at her hands clasped with Adam's. She did not deserve to be there with him after she all but set Gaston on him.
"To save your father, Belle," Adam added. "If you had done nothing, your father would be in an asylum. Would you feel any better then?" Belle imagined her father being torn away to a cell in the notorious asylum and shivered.
"I could have just married him," but even as she spoke she knew she couldn't have done that. To be married to that monster would mean to lose herself entirely, to be a mere trophy to show off to the village who would bear his seven sons. She would fight against him for awhile, but doubtless Gaston would find some other way to hurt her spirit.
"No you couldn't," her father said knowingly. "Not even if it would save everything you loved. You've never compromised yourself before, you weren't going to do it with the most important aspect of your life."
"You'll never have to go through anything like that ever again, Belle," Adam assured her. "Those people are going to believe what they want to no matter what you tell them. But you won't have to be ever have to near them again if you don't want to. Everyone at the castle loves you and knows what good you've done."
Belle was grateful for both her father and Adam's support and knew that there was truth to what they said. She took a deep breath and tried to finally drive away the images of the villagers' anger. They didn't know the true story; if they had, and if they could even believe it, surely they would understand that what happened to Gaston was not her fault after all.
"You're also tired and hungry after such a long day," her father added, picking up the basket of food where she had abandoned it on the floor by her chair. "After a good meal and some sleep you'll feel good as new."
"You mean you're hungry and are just finding an excuse to get supper started," she teased, able to find her smile for the first time since she had left the village. "All right, I'll get it started."
"I'll help," Adam offered, causing Belle to pause as she started rising from the chair.
"That's very kind of you, but you don't have to," she insisted.
"I want to," he said and took the basket from her father.
"I'll do some more packing, I think," her father said. "Belle knows all to well how good of a cook I am." Belle giggled and nodded; her father could hardly boil water without setting something on fire, be it himself or the pot. She had been cooking for both of them since she was ten, her neighbors in the city graciously helping her after her mother died until she was old enough to do it herself.
Her father returned to the cellar and she and Adam went into the kitchen to start dinner. It was clear Adam had never done anything like this before, but she could tell that he was doing his best. But it was nice to have some company for a change, especially one so eager to help. Belle was still a bit stuck in the events of that evening, but when Adam somehow dropped the bag of flour, sending a cloud of it directly into his face, Belle burst out in uncontrollably laughter. Adam grinned as she laughed and wiped the flour from his face.
"Here," she offered, still helplessly giggling and raised a clean cloth to his face to help remove the flour.
"It tastes awful," he complained good-naturedly as she carefully wiped flour from his eyebrows.
"Well you're not meant to eat it by itself," she giggled.
"I know, I know. I didn't know it was going to just explode like that," he chuckled.
"There, I think I got all of it," she declared.
"You promise? I don't want to be walking around with a white nose or something."
"Good, because now I can do this without getting you covered in flour," he leaned down and kissed her. Belle melted into his kiss, realizing she needed such an embrace after the shock of that evening and pulled him still closer.
"You lied," he said when they broke apart. Belle looked at him, confused by what he could mean. Adam raised a hand to her cheek and gently rubbed at a spot with his thumb. "You didn't get all the flour after all." Belle raised a hand to the spot Adam touched and felt a smudge of flour there.
"I guess I did," she said with a giggle and wiped it off.
"What's next?" he asked and turned back to their task. Belle led him through the preparations of the meal and realized what he had done for her; by insisting that he help her, he ensured that she was too busy instructing him to dwell on her own grim thoughts. She smiled now as they worked, a warm wave of gratitude for all that he had done for her growing inside her chest.