Belle donned the golden dress for the second time, comforted this time by its familiar weight and the tender memories it held in its folds.
"You're beautiful, dearie," Madam Armoire exclaimed as she finished tying the laces of Belle's bodice. "It's wonderful to see you back in that dress; it suits you, you know."
"Thank you," Belle said, blushing at the compliment. "You look lovely, too," she added, turning and taking hold of Madam Armoire's hands, spreading both their arms wide so Belle could admire the woman's own beautiful, if a bit operatic, purple dress. "I hope everyone has fun tonight. You all deserve to enjoy yourselves after all this time."
"Oh, my dear, you talk like we were all completely miserable. And yes, I'll give you that before you got here it was frightfully dull but it really wasn't all that bad. You mustn't feel sorry for us."
"I don't!" Belle hastened to say, worried that she might have offended Madame Armoire. "I just mean that it had to be very trying for you all to have to endure the enchantment. I . . . oh dear." Belle faded into silence, twisting her fingers together in distress and certain Madame Armoire could only be insulted by what she had said. To her surprise, though, the woman only chuckled and took hold of Belle's hands, halting their anxious movements.
"Relax, dearie. I know you just want us all to be happy, and we all appreciate that. But we are happy, you know." Belle nodded and tried to set aside the underlying concern she had harbored for the servants all this time. If they hadn't been happy, she told herself, then the castle could certainly not have been the lively place it was now.
"Shall we go down?" Belle asked with one last adjustment to her gloves.
"Yes indeed!" Madame Armoire agreed animatedly and opened the door to let Belle exit first.
"Madame?" Belle began slowly before she exited into the hall. "Would you mind very much if I called you by your first name? I think we've been through far too much together for me to keep addressing you so formally. If you don't mind," she added hurriedly, keen on not insulting the former wardrobe again.
"It's Estelle," she said with a wide smile. "Come, we'll be late!" Belle hurried through the door, glad that Madame Armoire—Estelle—had felt comfortable enough to answer Belle's request.
"I have to get Papa first," she said, turning in the direction of her father's room just down the hall. "He's still a bit turned around in this place and he's never been to the ballroom."
Moments later, Belle knocked on her father's door with a gloved hand. The door opened to reveal her father dressed in a handsome blue vest, white shirt, and brown pants, similar to what he always wore, but Belle hardly expected anything else.
"Belle!" he gasped, his eyes wide with shock when he saw her and Belle suppressed a giggle. "You look beautiful."
"Doesn't she though?" Estelle put in before Belle could say a word. "Properly floored the Master when he saw her wear that dress the first time!"
"The first time?" Maurice asked, one eyebrow raised in confusion.
"Come, I'll explain while we walk," Belle said and placed a hand on her father's shoulder to lead him towards the ballroom. On the way, she explained about her request to have a formal dinner with the Beast, wanting to wear the ball gown she had found during one of her explorations of the castle's many rooms. As she retold the story, Belle felt her heart flutter at the memory of dancing in the arms of her Beast. It was the most wonderful evening Belle had ever experienced; if only she had been brave enough to confess her true feelings before she returned home that same night. It shouldn't have taken the horrible events that followed for her to realize that she had fallen in love with the Beast, but everything had turned out as it should in the end.
"I see," her father said when she finished her story. "It seems like you were being treated like a proper princess here."
"I was treated like myself, Papa," she corrected, not missing the slightly bitter tone in her father's voice. "Yes, in a much larger scale than anything I have ever seen, but all of it was only done because Adam understands who I am."
"I'm just glad you're happy," her father said gently. "I'm not trying to pick a fight. It's a lot to take in." Belle nodded and said nothing further, realizing that her time spent with the Beast would forever be a mystery to her father.
"Here we are!" Estelle said in a singsong tone. "Oh, I'm so excited!" she pushed the door open and allowed Belle and Maurice to walk in first.
Belle gasped and grinned at the transformation of the ballroom. The massive beauty of the room itself was familiar, but now it was bustling with chattering people dressed in their very best. An orchestra was playing in the corner, tables laden with food and drink were spread around the edges, and garlands of flowers were wrapped around every column.
"There you are!" a voice exclaimed and Belle looked to her left to see Lumiere walking towards her. "The Master has been waiting for you, ma cherie. What do you think?" he asked, motioning an arm to the ballroom.
"It's beautiful, Lumiere. You have outdone yourselves!" Lumiere grinned and bowed.
"Merci, mademoiselle, but it could not have been done without your help."
Before Belle could respond, Adam came up behind Lumiere and clasped the gangly man on the shoulder. "Belle has certainly done much to set this castle to rights, hasn't she?" he said to Lumiere, but was looking at her. Belle smiled at the compliment and her smile grew wider when she noticed how handsome he looked. Adam was wearing the same suit he had worn the last time they were together in the ballroom, sending simultaneous reminders of the night they had shared and of the enchantment they had broken. Both sent her heart beating wildly and Adam's obvious adoration for her created an excited fluttering in her stomach as if she had just swallowed butterflies.
"I'm going to see what there is to eat," she heard her father say as he sauntered off in the direction of one of the tables of food. Lumiere excused himself as well, escorting Estelle away and leaving Belle and Adam alone.
"How's he adjusting?" Adam asked as he slipped an arm around Belle's waist and nodded in the direction her father had just gone.
"Better than I expected," she said, trying to calm the butterflies in her stomach. "He still gets a bit turned around. And I don't think he'll ever understand what you and I had gone through during my stay here."
"In his defense, it is a bit unusual," Adam remarked. "But he'll see that you and I are happy together, and soon the rest won't matter."
"I hope you're right. I just don't want him to feel as though I betrayed him."
"Belle," Adam started but paused to look around at the crowds and drew her a bit further away from the throng. "You did everything you could for your father. You took his place when I imprisoned him, you went to his side when he was lost and ill in the forest, and you invited him to stay with you here in the castle. From where I stand, you have honored your father beyond what many would do." Belle let his words break up the somber mood she had put herself in. She would do anything for her father, and indeed had done much already. And her father didn't seem to be unhappy, so she tried to let her worries rest.
"Enjoy yourself today, Belle," Adam added when Belle smiled at him. "This is a celebration for you as much as anyone. You saved us all, remember?"
"You did your share too, if I remember correctly," she reminded him, unwilling to take so much credit. To her surprise, Adam sighed and rolled his eyes to the ceiling.
"Belle, I love you dearly, but you must learn to accept a compliment and cheer up!" As if to enforce his declaration, Adam gently seized her by the waist and twirled her in the air in a whirl of golden skirts. Belle couldn't help but laugh as Adam guided her through space and set her safely down again. Grinning foolishly, Belle looked up into Adam's deep, blue eyes briefly before Adam bent to kiss her, his hand on the back of her head to gently draw her closer.
"Come," he said when the broke apart. "I'll show you one of the many things you've taught me." Belle allowed herself to be led into the center of the empty floor where Adam immediately moved his arms into their proper positions for a dance. The observant orchestra began a new song and Belle recognized it to be the one she and Adam had danced to before.
As Adam once again sent them whirling around the ballroom, Belle was lost in the gentle pool of his warm gaze. She allowed him to lead her around the floor as she looked into the eyes of her beloved; vaguely she was aware that everyone had stopped to watch them, but she was lost in the magical hold Adam seemed to have her in and merely floated in his arms, ignoring the world around her.
After what seemed only mere moments but was equally timeless, the song ended and Adam ceased their twirling. As the people applauded them, Belle was brought back from her trance and glanced around her, feeling her face grow warm at having so many eyes upon her. Adam grinned at her and led her off the dance floor, motioning to the orchestra to play a more lively song. The servants took advantage of this new music and flooded the dance floor Belle and Adam had recently vacated. Belle was glad to have left the center of their attention and smiled at Adam appreciatively. Truly it was though he could read her mind sometimes.
The celebration was a huge success, Adam was pleased to see. He watched joyfully as the servants danced energetically around the ballroom, ate, and chatted merrily. Never before, to his knowledge, had the ballroom been used for such an interesting event. There had always been boring state balls with stuffy nobles before and it was good to now have life and laughter echo off the walls.
He leaned against one of the columns and watched the scene before him. To his left, Lumiere and Cogsworth were quarrelling over something, shoving each other and drawing the attention of the people immediately around them. Adam chuckled, knowing that whatever the dispute was about, in a matter of minutes they would be great friends again. On the dance floor was his beloved Belle dancing with Chip. Her cheeks were flushed with the energetic dance and she was laughing. Adam couldn't help but smile at the sight. She was so beautiful, so gentle it was hard to believe this whole thing wasn't a dream.
When Chip twirled and laughed, Adam's attention was redirected to the boy. Though Adam had not paid much attention to the children of servants at the time, he distinctly remembered Mrs. Potts' son being around three or four years old before the enchantment was set upon them. It was as if the boy had not grown at all with the years as Adam himself had. Curious about this, he walked over to where Mrs. Potts stood with Maurice.
"Chip seems to be having a good time," he remarked, nodding over to where the boy was dancing with Belle.
"He adores her, Master," Mrs. Potts beamed. "She's very patient with him."
"She's always been good with children," Maurice added.
"How old is Chip now?" Adam asked, unsure how to gently approach the question he wished to ask. Mrs. Potts did not answer for a moment and Adam suspected that she had also wondered about the absence of her child's aging.
"He was four when the enchantment took hold," she began. "But though it's been so long, he doesn't seem to have changed at all, does he?"
"Is it because he simply hasn't?" Adam said thoughtfully.
"What do you mean, sir?"
"I was wondering if the enchantment had not allowed him to grow for ten years, and when it was broken he just picked up where he left off as the four year old he was. But if that's true, then why did I get older?"
"I think you've got the right idea. I've been wondering myself why I shouldn't feel older than I do."
"But your hair is more grey than I remember," Adam said without thinking and was instantly embarrassed as he notice Mrs. Potts blush. "I'm sorry," he said hurriedly. "I didn't mean that. I just. . ."
"It's all right," Mrs. Potts said with a wave of her hand. "I suspect it's a combination of you not noticing or at least not remembering ten years ago when we were last human, and making me worry about you all those years even as a teapot." Adam was relieved to hear a teasing note in her voice. "And as for why you aged and not the rest of us, I'm sure it's because you were the only one who remained at least in flesh and blood, not to mention you were the center of an enchantment that was timed by your age. I'm sure that had something to do with it." Adam nodded silently as he realized the Enchantress had been more compassionate than he had first believed. Though his servants had to endure ten years of life as objects, at least they had lost none of those precious years as their human selves.
"Mama!" Chip exclaimed and rushed over to Mrs. Potts and Belle trailing close behind. "Mama did you see me dance?"
"I did, son. You were wonderful!" Mrs. Potts embraced the boy.
"He's the best dance partner I've ever had," Belle said as she drew level with them and smiled at Adam who chuckled.
"I'm glad someone here knows how to dance well," Adam put in, playing along with Belle. "Belle needs a proper dance partner."
"You're not so bad, Master," Chip insisted, provoking Adam into another chuckle.
"Thank you," he said with a slight bow of his head to the boy. "Would it be all right with you if I practiced with Belle?" Chip nodded and Adam thanked him again before offering his arm to Belle.
"You must be exhausted," he whispered in Belle's ear as he led her away. "He was very energetic. I promise to go slow and let you catch your breath."
"It was fun," she insisted. "But it was easier to keep up with him when he was a teacup. Poor Mrs. Potts certainly has her hands full with him." Adam led Belle into a slow waltz, allowing them to continue speaking and for Belle to catch her breath.
"Mrs. Potts is grateful you're trying, though," he continued as they moved about the floor, this time joined by several other pairs including Lumiere and Babette. "We've found out something about the enchantment though, I'm sure you've been wondering. . ."
"That no one has aged?" Belle finished and Adam was surprised. "I've been thinking about that. Chip should have been much older now, shouldn't he? I think the enchantment stopped their aging, since if Chip hadn't aged, I doubt anyone else had either."
"What about me, then?" he reminded her, impressed that she had deduced all of this on her own.
"Well you were the subject of the enchantment, weren't you? The enchantment was supposed to become permanent on your twenty-first year and all that. You aged while everyone around you did not since it was only your growth that really mattered. And I'm very glad you did not remain eleven years old."
"That would have been a bit awkward, wouldn't it?" Adam laughed. "You never cease to amaze me, Belle. You're so clever."
"I read too many fairy tales with their own spells and curses," she reminded him. "I never thought I'd find myself in the middle of one, but when I had, I found my stories were actually of use."
"There are other stories like ours?" Adam asked, intrigued by this.
"Not exactly, but every curse was meant to teach the subject a lesson and almost always had some side effect."
Adam was about to reply, but something across the dance floor caught his eye. "Belle, look," he said quickly and motioned to the spectacle he was looking at.
"Well done, Papa," she said quietly as they both watched her father lead Mrs. Potts into the dance. Mrs. Potts was blushing, but seemed willing enough to let Maurice lead her around the floor with the other dancers.
"I didn't know your father could dance," Adam remarked.
"Who do you think taught me?"
"I always thought your mother had," he admitted.
"I'm sure she would have, but I was too young to learn much from her. I'm surprised Papa had the courage to ask Mrs. Potts to dance, though. From what I was told it took years for him to even start courting my mother."
"You don't mind, do you?" Adam asked hurriedly, wondering if perhaps Belle might be a bit jealous.
"Of course not. They both deserve someone to be with. I wonder how she'll react when he starts spending most of the day in his workroom, though."
"Well, you got me out of the West Wing many times, didn't you?" Adam reminded her. "Who knows?" Belle looked thoughtful for a moment, but her expression soon cleared and returned her attention to Adam.
"We'll have to just see what happens," she said happily. "In the meantime, are you going to let Chip show you up?" Adam grinned and whirled Belle around obligingly.
"Well I think that was a great success," Belle said as she and Adam strolled out onto the balcony, lit only by the candlelight that glowed through the windows of the ballroom. It had grown late and many of the servants had wandered back to their rooms, but Belle wasn't quite ready for the night to be over. "I think we should help clean up tomorrow, though. It isn't right they should be left to clean up by themselves after a party that was in honor of them." She noticed Adam roll his eyes, but he agreed all the same.
"I'm glad you enjoyed yourself," he said.
"I did, though my feet are aching. I've never danced so much in my life!" She sat on the ledge of the balcony to rest her feet, wishing she could take her slippers off. "Between you and Chip I barely got any rest."
"Sorry," he grinned sheepishly as he sat on the ledge beside her. "I was having too much fun dancing with you." Belle was glad of the darkness so Adam wouldn't see her blush. Rather than verbally responding, she slid closer to him and rested her head on his shoulder. She enjoyed his tiny gasp of surprise at her movement, and thrilled when his arm wrapped comfortably around her shoulder and held her to him.
They sat there for quite some time, gazing at the night sky above them. They did not speak, but the silence was comfortable. A cool breeze played with Belle's hair and caused her to shiver. Though spring was getting stronger, the nights were still cold and Belle had little to speak of in the way of sleeves. Adam wrapped both his arm tighter around Belle.
"Time to go inside?" he asked. Belle was still unwilling to end the night, but another breeze provoked her into nodding and standing to go inside. But her aching feet immediately protested and she stumbled. Adam caught her elbow though she managed to balance herself. "Your feet hurt that badly?" he asked and Belle saw his eyebrows crease in concern.
"I just overbalanced," she insisted, slightly embarrassed. Instead of responding, Adam quickly bent and scooped her up before she realized what he was doing.
"May I escort you to your room?" he inquired merrily, his blue eyes dancing in the dim candlelight.
"Only if you promise not to drop me," she replied, wrapping her arms around his neck.
"Never," he insisted and carried her through the ballroom and into the castle beyond.
"I must be too heavy for you to climb the stairs, though," she said worriedly. She didn't want Adam to overdo himself as he had when he helped move her things out of the cottage.
"Belle, I might not be a Beast anymore, but I can certainly manage to carry a little thing like you. Now if you can't accept that, I'll let you walk all the way back to your room by yourself on your aching feet." Belle was unused to being scolded by Adam, though she knew he wasn't serious, and tried to take a deep breath to calm herself. She had been so tense since the enchantment had broken, worrying far too much about the happiness and comfort of everyone else around her though it was clear that no one had any complaints.
"I'm sorry I'm so worried about everything lately," she said as Adam carried her through the castle.
"Why is that? You were so sure of yourself a few days ago. What's changed?"
"I suppose. . .I suppose it's partly because everything has changed so fast. I'm having trouble finding my feet again. So to speak," she added since her feet were currently suspended several feet above the ground.
"Is there anything I can do? I know it's been a lot to take in all at once."
"I don't think so. I know nothing's going to be quite the same again. I was a little off when Papa and I moved to the village from Paris, too. It will just take me some time for me adjust, that's all."
"Perhaps we can read in the library for awhile tomorrow," he suggested.
"I'd like that, thank you," she said gratefully, knowing that she could always count on her books to ease her mind. Perhaps she could read some of Aesop's fables; some of those would surely provoke Adam into laughter and she loved seeing his reactions to the stories she read to him.
"There," Adam said as he approached her bedroom door. He carefully guided her feet to the floor, holding her weight until she was perfectly upright. "Safe and sound." Belle nodded, but made no move to go inside, unwilling for the night to end. Adam seemed to be reluctant to leave as well, but neither of them made a move to speak for several moments.
"Thank you for all that you did for the celebration," Adam finally offered. "You looked beautiful tonight."
"Thank you," she said shyly, feeling her cheeks flush yet again. "You look handsome, too."
Adam chuckled and Belle looked at him in surprise. "I haven't heard anyone say that to me in quite a long time," he explained, amusement still playing in his eyes.
"Well, it's true," she said. "And you know, the Beast was handsome, too. Just in a different way."
"Oh really?" Adam said, looking as though he didn't believe her.
"Yes, really," she pressed. "You may not have been human, but once you let your goodness overcome your anger, more than once I was able to see how truly beautiful you were. Now it just shows in your exterior a bit more clearly now." The laughter in his eyes faded and was replaced with something Belle didn't understand. Was that adoration, perhaps, or confusion? She gave up trying to name it after a moment as Adam brought a hand up to gently tuck a strand of her hair back into place.
"Thank you, my love," he said softly and Belle closed her eyes as his hand moved to caress her cheek. "I'm so glad you were able to bring that part of me out. I thought it had been long lost, until I met you."
Belle could think of nothing to say to such a beautiful thing, so she merely raised her head and stood on her toes to pull Adam into a long kiss, gently twining her fingers in his soft hair as she did so.
"I'll see you tomorrow, my dear," she said when she broke away. Adam nodded, seemingly speechless and she softly closed her bedroom door between them, sighing happily and eager for the day to come.