Shop Forum More Submit  Join Login
About Deviant Kayleigh DempseyFemale/United Kingdom Recent Activity
Deviant for 3 Years
Needs Core Membership
Statistics 681 Deviations 586 Comments 9,162 Pageviews
×

Newest Deviations

Mature content
Frosted Rose - CH21: Winter Solstice Part One :iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Literature
Frosted Rose - Ch20: Lost Beauty Part 2
"Belle?" I called gently, not wanting to startle the calm she had sunk in to. She tipped her head sideways, still with a dream locked longingly in her eyes. They asked me a soundless question.
"How did you end up here?"
And just like that, the bubble burst. The soothing silence was shattered as she stared at me resignedly.
"You really wanted to know the whole story didn't you?"
I could only blink.
She sighed.
"It was just like every other night, I guess. I had cooked dinner and was trying to persuade him to eat it. He was acting like a toddler, but that was nothing new. Then I started to hear... something, from outside. We were so far away from most of the village in our little cottage it was rare I would hear anything at all, especially that late at night, but the noises only got louder. It sounded like... yelling. Like a lot of voices yelling all at once. I went over to the window to try and catch a glimpse of what was going on but... what I saw...
"It looked like almost every member
:iconRaeSeddon2:RaeSeddon2
:iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Literature
Frosted Rose CH19 Lost Beauty P1
"What ?" She gasped, as though she misheard me. Whatever she had expected me to say, it sure as hell hadn't been that.
"Ever since I got here, I've constantly heard about your father, but I've never seen him in the castle, and you never talk about him. You never tell me anything about your life before you came here, but I am... curious. You came out of nowhere Belle, and its like... I know you don't belong here. Not in a bad way, I swear," I insisted, catching a flash of hurt in the midst of her shock, desperately trying to justify my outburst.
"It's just that... you're smart. You're kind. You're clever and selfless and compassionate and forgiving. So, I just really want to know, how someone with all of that potential, could end up here. I picture someone with your talents... travelling the world and teaching other people to see it the way you do. Doing something purposeful and meaningful with their lives. Not-"
"Adam please just stop." Her plea pulled me from my absorption only to not
:iconRaeSeddon2:RaeSeddon2
:iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Literature
Frosted Rose CH18 Ruined Possessions And Truths
I wasn't sure why I was here exactly, all I knew was that I wanted to be.
I wanted to do something for her, something that proved how much her acceptance meant to me, and after hours of contemplation, this is what I'd come up with.
I trudged determinedly through the mushy grass and wet shrivelled leaves. The winter had brought with it a bitter chill, that seemed to capture every bone in my body even through the layers of fur and fabric I was adorning. I was half certain that this mission was a pointless one, but if there was even the slightest chance...
I looked ahead of me at the small stream half frosted by the chilly morning air. Beyond it, the tree that Belle had climbed upon when she was attacked by that pack of hungry wolves. Perhaps coming back here wasn't the smartest of decisions, but it was all I could think to do.
I trod carefully upon a small family of stepping stones that clustered together to build a bridge of sorts. My hunting boots slipped on the slimy moss that covered
:iconRaeSeddon2:RaeSeddon2
:iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Mature content
Frosted Rose CH17 Friends :iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Mature content
Frosted Rose CH16 When It Rains It Pours :iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Literature
Frosted Rose CH15 Pierre
The carriage rocked northward and steady as I entered the kingdom of Pierre. It had taken a full day and a half to get here, and that didn't include the night I had spent in an inn along the way. Accompanied only by a small contingent of guards on loan to me from Silas, it hadn't been a particularly entertaining or eventful trip, and we were now riding through King Alexander's territory.
Pierre was a rather industrial kingdom. With mines and factories littering practically every acre, it wasn't an especially pretty place, but it was effective. Alexander and Silas did a lot of business together, more so than any other kingdom, since Silas produced some fine machinery which needed vast amounts of coal to function, and Alex needed the machinery for his coal mining. They thrived off each other, Ingénieur and Pierre, even if Silas had been expanding into mining his own land, agriculture was too important to his kingdom and as such would never be capable of outperforming Pierre in the m
:iconRaeSeddon2:RaeSeddon2
:iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Mature content
Frosted Rose CH14 Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword 2 :iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Literature
Frosted Rose-CH 13 Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword
I hated Christmas.
The holiday, more formally known as Winter Solstice, had always been a joyless time for me. Though every year I was showered with gifts and presents, I had always spent the day alone. Father always had work to do, and as for mother... well... I wouldn't have been able to guess where she went off to on a daily bases, let alone during the 'festive' season.
It was why I was currently glaring at the giant sixty foot tall Christmas tree with such disdain.
Now, if I was honest with myself, I was impressed with the servants' ability to get this enormous thing up and fully decorated in the ballroom every year without fail, but that didn't mean I had to like it. When I was young, the tree was a thing of wonder, for I had never had such decorative symbols of the holidays in my own home. My envy for this place had always stemmed from how much more lively and homely it was then my castle, but now that I was older, I convinced myself it didn't matter. It was just one day. One sil
:iconRaeSeddon2:RaeSeddon2
:iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Literature
Frosted Rose - Chapter Twelve: The Little Maid
I missed my horse. My good old boy, by the name of Roi, was over 30 years old. He couldn't really run anymore, was too old to ride, and spent most of his days sleeping away in his stalls. But I still preferred him over this death trap.
Trying to rein in a horse whom I suspected had yet to be properly broken was damn near impossible. Even with my experience on the back of the mighty animals, this guy was spirited and willful, flying through the wind without taking any direction and constantly trying to buck me off. It was only my strength and training tactics that got me back from the run alive.
Lifting myself off the animal, I scowled as it whined and stomped at the dirt with its hooves, as though indignant about being saddled with me in the first place.
Why wasn't anyone listening to me anymore? It felt like this horse was just one more creature that point blank refused to show me any respect. Yet despite the beast's defiant nature, the run through the grounds had helped. The wind thu
:iconRaeSeddon2:RaeSeddon2
:iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Literature
Frosted Rose - Chapter Eleven: The Boiler Room
I hadn't seen Belle in nearly two weeks. For every meal I sat, every room I walked in, every servant I passed in the hall, I prayed for just a glimpse of her, but nothing.
I hadn't been able to get the sight of her beaten face out of my mind. Every time I closed my eyes I could see it, and the urge to replace that horrific image with a much more pleasant one, overtook me.
I had even tried to search her out, hovering near the servants' den, and the kitchen, and even the library, but so far, nothing.
Where was she?
I hadn't spent any time with Gaston since it happened. He, of course, had no idea that I knew what he had done, and I knew that my avoidance was confusing him, but I could barely bring myself to look him in the eye. This whole thing went far past the obvious distaste that came with a royal beating a servant, this was something far more horrible. I couldn't even put a name to what I was feeling. It was as though several tons of lead had been dropped in my stomach, my eyes stung
:iconRaeSeddon2:RaeSeddon2
:iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Mature content
Frosted Rose - Chapter Ten: When The Dog Bites P2 :iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Literature
Frosted Rose - Chapter Ten: When The Dog Bites P1
"So, I take it last night didn't go quite as planned, she didn't stop glaring at you all through breakfast. What happened Adam, couldn't perform?" Gaston cackled.
We were walking through the woods, doing our last hunting trip of the year before the real cold of winter set in and all the animals went into hibernation.
Or, at least, that was the excuse Gaston had given me when he rushed me out the door this morning. In truth, I knew he was just avoiding another one of his kingmanship classes, as he had been for the past few weeks now. It amused me that he was still exactly the same as when we were children; he still detested sitting still, wasting time reading literature and now we were literally hiding from his tutor. I supposed I was just as bad since the large stack of letters on my desk looked as though it hadn't dwindled at all. I think I was half hoping that I'd go to sleep one night and the pile would simply vanish by the time I awoke. Childish, but I didn't care. Not in that mome
:iconRaeSeddon2:RaeSeddon2
:iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Literature
Frosted Rose - Chapter Nine: Confusion
I was furious! I did not know where to direct my anger or have any idea how to get it out of me, so it festered and spoiled in my bones as I paced my bedchamber in agitation.
How dare she!
Who did that girl think she was, talking to me like that? All my life, the only woman who had ever dared disrespect me so was my mother. To be screamed at and pushed by a mere servant, a wench? It was unthinkable!
I had been pacing and fuming for days now, trying to expel my anger, trying to make this seething rage evaporate as it normally did after a few stiff drinks, but nothing was working. A malicious part of me thought to find the girl, grab her by her hair and drag her before the king, demanding she be turned out of the castle, but every time I went towards the door to follow through with my plan, something stopped me.
I had attended dinner that same night and had seen her waiting on Gaston, though this time she was wearing far more appropriate attire thank goodness. I couldn't even bring mysel
:iconRaeSeddon2:RaeSeddon2
:iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Mature content
Frosted Rose - Chapter Eight: The Confrontation :iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0
Inside a Saxophone 2 by RaeSeddon2 Inside a Saxophone 2 :iconraeseddon2:RaeSeddon2 0 0

Favourites

Mature content
A Kingdom Defeated New friends :iconwatcher000123:Watcher000123 12 3
Mature content
A Kingdom defeated, The cold :iconwatcher000123:Watcher000123 19 13
Spree Park : 02 by Bestarns Spree Park : 02 :iconbestarns:Bestarns 62 5 red carpet downstairs2 .. by FatmeBondage red carpet downstairs2 .. :iconfatmebondage:FatmeBondage 54 4 color decay by christian-richter color decay :iconchristian-richter:christian-richter 106 8 Festival Hall by Dapicture Festival Hall :icondapicture:Dapicture 78 9 Mirror of Glam by Dapicture Mirror of Glam :icondapicture:Dapicture 70 7
Mature content
A Reluctant Slave - 2 :iconmymasterandme:MyMasterAndMe 13 3
Boo! by Miokomata Boo! :iconmiokomata:Miokomata 317 33
Literature
Today and Forever
A muffled giggle filtered through the thin layer of synthetic material that veiled the round, shake butt.
“It sure is hot today. How are you dealing down there”
Said a feminine voice. That voice, almost a nightmare for him. Mark struggled as the world around him stopped moving, giving him a moment to settle between the globes that were surrounding him
“L-let me out please…” he begged in a feeble voice, too weak to reach up though the thick layers of flesh and all the way up to Jasmine’s ears.
The moment of rest allowed her heated body to sweat more, huge drops of sweat running down her asscheeks until the splashed into the fabric of her panties and the one of the leggings holding her butt tightly squeezed, giving Mark no space to breath as the two cheeks collide. He felt his body soak completely as a huge drop fell on him, permeating his clothes with the stench of her rear.
He gagged as he was forced to taste the salty bitter liquid, but once regaine
:iconTinySilver:TinySilver
:icontinysilver:TinySilver 88 1
Voyage to Lilliput by alexgphoto Voyage to Lilliput :iconalexgphoto:alexgphoto 619 58 . Adore . Wallpaper version by MaevesLullaby . Adore . Wallpaper version :iconmaeveslullaby:MaevesLullaby 106 20 Peacock 09 by yvaine2010 Peacock 09 :iconyvaine2010:yvaine2010 78 22 Bugbear Mercenary by muppet-man Bugbear Mercenary :iconmuppet-man:muppet-man 139 20 1EyeOpen by x-ret
Mature content
1EyeOpen :iconx-ret:x-ret 79 6
Dragonsleep by Grigbertz
Mature content
Dragonsleep :icongrigbertz:Grigbertz 283 16

Groups

deviantID

RaeSeddon2's Profile Picture
RaeSeddon2
Kayleigh Dempsey
United Kingdom
Interests

Activity


Mature Content

This content is intended for mature audiences.


or, enter your birth date.*


Month

Day

Year*
Please enter a valid date format (mm-dd-yyyy)
Please confirm you have reviewed DeviantArt's Terms of Service below.
* We do not retain your date-of-birth information.
I threaded my tie through my collar and pulled it to my neck. Adjusting its size and tucking the straggling fabric through the holes of my blouse, I took a step back and admired my reflection.

Forte really had outdone himself this time.

The Winter Solstice Ball was finally here, and thanks to the ancient tailor's profound skill, I was looking my absolute best in a dark blue suit with golden accents, a golden waistcoat, black blouse and shiny dark leather shoes. I looked the epitome of royalty, but I did not look happy. Not at all.

It had been three days since Belle and I last spoke, three days where I had been dwelling on everything she'd told me that evening. She'd been off helping the staff prepare the final finishing touches for the ball, and it was my understanding she'd also be acting as a server, just like she had at my welcoming gala. I had missed her, these last few days of her absence, but I did think it was probably best that I had a little space to reflect on things. It gave me enough time to think through everything I now knew.

I felt terrible for her, and her father. No one deserved the kind of fate he'd endured, not least a man with that much intellect and imagination to offer the world. And for her to blame herself for it all... it was no wonder she allowed herself to be treated so poorly.

It had truly baffled me. How this girl; this strong, beautiful girl, could be so fierce and powerful when she faced off against me, yet so timid and meek when it came to him. Now I knew, at least, the majority of the reasons. Most would only assume she behaved the way she did to keep her father safe, but I saw more than that. She blamed herself, had been carrying self-loathing with her all this time and Gaston had only been exploiting it. Did she truly feel like she deserved to be treated the way she was because of what happened with her father? Because she hadn't intervened when he began showing signs of degression, or because she had wished him dead when his condition got too much for her?

Was that why she submitted to him so easily? Or was it that she felt he deserved her obedience for bringing her and her father here? There was no one to help her, and he had swooped in at the right time and taken all the responsibility off her shoulders, and now she felt she owed him her compliance? Her defence of his actions still made me sick.

There was absolutely no defence.

Gaston.

I was fully prepared to take up arms with him that night. After Belle and I both went our separate ways, I had marched towards his suite, determined to pound on his door until he opened up, and then proceed to pound all over his obnoxious face. But the closer I got to his bedchamber the more logic began to voice over rage.

What would happen to Belle if Gaston knew she'd told me everything? Would he hurt her? Cast her and her father out on the streets? Would she be angry with me for interfering in her private matters, after I promised to keep everything she'd told me a secret? I didn't know. I didn't know what consequences either of us would face if I did what I really wanted to do in retaliation for everything I'd heard. Though I was well capable enough to protect her, I couldn't be around all the time, and this was Gaston's castle. He could get away with anything.

So I hadn't done anything. I had kept myself away these last few days, hoping my anger towards him would diminish long enough to think of a rational plan, but now the ball was upon me, and there was no more time to hide.

Belle's predicament and Gaston's withering friendship would have to wait. Tonight I would be fully on display, and I was not going to enjoy a single second of it.

AAA

The ballroom was loud. And crowded. Nobility and royalty swept through the entry doors and were welcomed into the massive ballroom that was so infected with Christmas spirit I literally wanted to puke. The giant golden hall was covered floor to ceiling in Solstice decorations. Every pillar wrapped in tinsel, every bannister wrapped in holly. The massive sixty-foot tree stood in the corner covered in shiny baubles and decorations, gifts of all shapes and sizes spilling from its base and cornered off with thick red rope. The large dining room table had been moved and laid out with every kind of food one could imagine. From sweetmeats to three-course meals it was a feast fit for every King. And yet I could not be satisfied. The garlands and the crystals, the ribbons and the wreaths, the holly and the presents and the giant fucking tree. I hated it all. Yet, here I was, forcing myself to be sociable and greeting everyone with fake Christmas cheer, all the while stealing glances at the clock every thirty seconds, wondering when this bore of an evening would finally be over.

Alex wasn't even here to keep me company, as he had written to Silas only a few days ago stating his apologies, admitting illness as an excuse for his non-attendance. If only I had thought to try that, I wouldn't be standing here.

"Adam!" Oh, here we go. "Merry Christmas, young man."

I forced a smile.

I knew both our attitudes were false. Silas was far too serious a man to enjoy such a futile holiday with any kind of enthusiasm. The only reason he hosted these parties every year was because he was obligated to, otherwise I had a feeling his home would be just as silent at Christmas as mine had always been.

He was dressed fitting his station tonight. In colourful bronze and red robes and a golden woven thick fur cloak. He was even wearing his crown, the jewel-encrusted monument sitting firmly atop his head, gleaming against the thousands of glowing candles littering every surface of the magnificent ballroom. His ageing face did nothing to hide the power and control the man had, it only helped to enhance it, making even someone of my station feel like I could never measure up.

"Merry Christmas, Your Majesty."

I tried my hardest to hide my reluctance, but the truth was, I despised this holiday. It always made me think about my parents. Three years spent overseas in a near constant drunken haze had kept the memories at bay, but standing here, in this room, amongst all the decorations and smiles and festive cheer, I just couldn't help but be completely sucked in.

AAA

The sounds of laughter and enjoyment were like knives on my skin. I watched the other children play in the gardens from my bedroom window like an envious snake. I hated that they all got to laugh and enjoy themselves while I was kept locked away in my room. Under mother's command, of course. She ordered the house staff and castle guards to keep me imprisoned in my private wing every year at this time, just so I could not go and play with all the worker's children who were back from school for the holidays.

I hated her! I hated them! I hated everyone!

Turning away from the frosted window, I angrily kicked one of the freshly wrapped parcels cluttering my huge room. I had received at least three hundred gifts from not only my 'parents' but from people all over the world, wishing to send their respects to the 'royal family.' I hadn't bothered unwrapping any of them. I knew none of those people actually cared about me and had only sent me gifts to suck up to my father.

I didn't want their pity. All I wanted was just one Christmas where I wasn't all alone.

A sudden bang on my window made me jump a foot in the air, and I spun to see a large ball of snow dripping slowly down the outside of the glass.

Urg, those stupid kids! Didn't they have any respect for their future king?! I stormed to the window with every intention of shoving it open and screaming at them, but the sight of them all merrily laughing and chasing each other made me freeze. They all looked so happy down there. Why couldn't I join in? It's not like it would kill mother to let me have some fun, just once! She always fed me some excuse about royalty not mingling with 'lower class', but look! The counsellors' children were all running and playing with children of the house staff, and they didn't seem to care! So what if they were beneath me? Why couldn't I have any friends?

Feeling something wet touch my cold cheek, I realised I was crying. No! No! Men don't cry! King's don't cry! Father would scream if he saw! I was just about to wipe it away when I caught one of the servant's children looking right at my window from the gardens below. He could see me.

Flinching, I stumbled back, resting my head against the cool stone wall I let out a sob. I tried to stop it, really I did but... I was just so lonely. I hadn't spoken to anyone but my tutor since the beginning of December, and no one else was allowed to talk to me. That servant's child... why did he get to be so happy? His family were dirt poor, living in my kingdom under my parent's charity, working themselves to the bone day and night just so they had someplace to sleep and minimal food to eat. And that would soon be his life too. He'd likely never leave here, and spend the rest of his days slaving away under my reign while I ruled over the entire kingdom. The boy probably hadn't even gotten one present this year, while I sat in a room with literal piles of them!

And yet... that smile...

If being royalty meant that you weren't even as happy as a servant... what was even the point?

A sudden sharp knock on my bedroom door had me hastily wiping away all my signs of weakness.

"Go away!" I yelled harshly, knowing it was probably the maid coming to bring me lunch and she would just leave the tray outside if I didn't let her in. I expected to hear retreating footsteps, instead what I heard was my door squeaking open.

"I thought I told you to-"

"Go away, yeah, I heard. A little rude, don't you think? Especially since I came all this way just to see you." The familiar, obnoxious voice had me spinning to face the black-haired, thick-jawed, grinning figure of-

"Gaston!" I called out in shock. What... what was he doing here?

"The one and only. Now hurry the fuck up buttercup! It's snowing out there and I want to kick your ass in a snow fight! Everyone else is too scared to hit me." He laughed loudly, and I couldn't contain the smile that spread from ear to ear. My only friend! He was here!

We pounded down the staircase as fast as we could towards the entrance doors. I didn't know how Gaston got rid of the men guarding my wing, or what he was even doing here at all, but I didn't care. He was here. I actually had a friend with me! At Christmas! Could this get any better?!

"Adam! What are you doing?!" A shrill voice screeched just as we were close to freedom. Fuck, I spoke too soon.

Skidding to a halt, I turned to face the red, fuming face of my mother. She stormed right towards me, towering over me, looking so furious I actually shivered in fear. She grabbed hold of my arm, yanking me away from the large wooden door and began dragging me back towards the staircase. No! I wouldn't go back!

"Let me go!" I screamed at her, struggling in her hold. She only gripped me tighter, her sharp nails biting into the flesh of my arm hard enough to draw blood.

She glowered down in outrage.

"How dare you leave your room without my permission! I've half a mind to take all those presents back and leave you sitting up there without any food or water! You ungrateful little boy! I'll be telling your father about this! Now come, stop fighting me!"

"Let me go you cow!" I screamed, mortified she was treating me this way in front of Gaston. He never had a mother, so he didn't have a clue how much trouble they could be. I was embarrassed beyond belief she was doing this to me.

She released me immediately, rearing back in shock. I wasn't surprised. I'd never called her a cow before, I'd only ever thought it. But as I rubbed the bruises on my arm caused by her harsh grip, I knew I wasn't sorry. I only glared through angry tears as her refined face twisted into an ugly snarl. She raised her hand.

"Why you little-!"

"Martha!" A new voice snapped from behind all three of us, and we all spun to face the intimidating sight of my father and the king of Ingeniere. Gaston's dad stood an inch taller than my own and looked just as intimidating. I immediately bowed my head in respect. They did not look pleased.

"What are you doing?" My father asked, and I raised my head nervously to answer only to find his gaze not directed at me. He was looking at mother; who, after a quick peek behind me, I realised was staring startled at the men's sudden appearance. She lowered her arm.

"I was just taking the boy back to his room. He was fighting me! I was only going to show him some discipline." She explained petulantly, as though she were the child here. Thinking this might be a great way to get her in even more trouble, I purposefully rubbed the throbbing marks on my arm, trying to draw attention without seeming obvious. It worked. My father's eyes narrowed on the fast-blooming bruises before switching his dark glare back to mother. That glare made me happy, thinking that he did actually care about my well-being. I was waiting for him to start yelling at her, but he said nothing. Merely stared her down with a steely gaze that let me know he wasn't going to do anything. I deflated. I guessed he cared more about her then he did me.

Before any of us could say another word, Gaston's father - Silas, I think?- Stepped in.

"Dear Martha. I apologise for disturbing whatever kind of tradition you may have for the holidays-" I barely contained my snort. Tradition. Yeah right. "But I had some urgent business that needed attending and Gaston practically begged to accompany me so he could spend some time with your son. Surely it wouldn't be to much hassle to allow them to play together for a few hours." He said as though he were indulging a toddler. I recognised his tone because that's how so many people usually spoke to me.

My eyes widened at his words though, and I peeked at Gaston who only winked at me. It filled me with great happiness to know Gaston had asked his father to come all this way just to see me. He really was a true friend.

I heard my mother huff. Literally huff, like she was being burdened by the fact that I might actually have some fun today. But seeing Silas's eyes narrow seemed to remind her of exactly who it was she was speaking to.

"Fine." She gritted in defeat, before turning on her high heel and stomping back up the staircase. What a bitch.

"Alright now, run along you to. Go outside and try to stay out of trouble." Father sighed. He didn't need to tell us twice.

The cold air hit me with such force I was nearly bowled over. Even though it bit at my bare arms and fingers, it felt so good to finally be outside, with my best friend.

"Oof." Was the sound that came from my mouth as a freezing snowball hit me square in the face. I glared through the ice dripping down my hair as Gaston cackled uncontrollably. Oh, he was so going to get it.

We played and chased each other around all day. Neither admitting defeat in our battle to rule the frozen land of Fairalia. By the time the sun was setting, we were both drenched and freezing, but I had never been so happy in all my life. I forgot all about my parents in the hours we'd spent together, and just allowed myself to act like a normal ten-year-old boy. I'd known Gaston for years but I'd never gotten to spend Christmas with him, and now I guess I understood why everyone always went on and on about how joyous a day it was meant to be. A time for giving and receiving.

Yet despite everything I'd been given, the thing that made me happiest was just being able to play with my best friend.

I really couldn't imagine being happy without him.

This was the best Christmas ever.

AAA

And it was true. Back then, I couldn't imagine my life where Gaston wasn't right there by my side, as my best friend. But, now...

It was a bittersweet memory, because as much as I would have liked for things to have remained the same between us, so much had changed. My years away had me returning to a version of my friend I knew next to nothing about and now, I felt like I could barely recognise him. As angry as I was with everything he'd done, it also made me sad, because we had been so close for so long, and now I was pulling away. It wasn't easy, far from it. Every time I saw him I was filled with conflict. Part of me wanted to release my anger and confront him for everything he'd been doing in my absence, and the other part just wanted my best friend back. To laugh and joke with the only other person who'd ever understood me.

But I couldn't. I felt like I couldn't do anything. I was no saint, I knew that, but despite every horrible thing I had ever done, I had never, ever laid my hand to an innocent.

The depression was beginning to eat at me, and I was just about ready to throw the towel in and run back upstairs, when an unpleasantly familiar voice rasped, "Your Majesty, I'm so glad I found you! The orchestra would like to know if you are ready to introduce the first dance of the night."

Oh lord, help me.

Both the king and I turned to face the owner of that annoying husky voice.

"Of course Angelique, all the guests have arrived. Tell them they may begin." Silas replied in a bored tone. I was praying the woman would take the hint and go away, but of course...

"You heard the King, George, off you go," She ordered condescendingly to the young man standing lankly behind her. The boy scurried away as fast as his legs could carry him, and the woman's sharp eyes watched him go before immediately targeting me.

"Good evening Prince Adam. How have you been?" She asked in an overly sugary tone that let me know she was still bitter about our last encounter.

If I were being honest I'd completely forgotten she would be here. But of course, she was the event planner, and had probably been running around these last few days getting everything ready for the Solstice Ball. I looked her over, only lingering for a moment so she wouldn't make any assumptions on how interested I was.

She was wearing a bright red gown that immediately struck me as 'tarty'. It looked far to young on someone like her. Though she was bone thin and covered head to toe in make-up that paled her skin, darkened her eyes and blooded her lips, the bright red dress looked most unbecoming. Tight and disproportionate to her body. Her hair was almost as bad, as the vivid blond strands hung over her face in tight curly ringlets, she looked rather like a dressed up poodle. With how much experience the woman had hosting these events, I would have at least expected her to dress with some elegance and class, or even in uniform since she was technically working tonight, but I guessed that was too much to be asked of the older woman.

Not wanting my disdain made obvious to the king, I tipped my head in acknowledgement and greeted her, "I've been well Madam Angelique, and yourself?" I asked as though I cared, taking a small sip of brandy. I'd definitely need something stronger if she didn't leave.

"Oh well, you know me, I've been tiring myself to the bone ensuring this event is the best of the year. It's been simply exhausting doing everything all on my own, but none the less, the success of the evening more then compensates for all those sleepless nights." She replied sickeningly sweet, tilting her head to the side as though reassuring herself the king had listened to her little speech. What a fraud. She acted like she didn't have a team of nearly two hundred people doing everything for her while she no doubt sat in the corner and barked orders. And it wasn't like the servants had anything to do with how marvellously well decorated the ballroom was. No, she had hung every bauble, tinsel and wreath, prepared all the delicious food, handwritten every invitation and was seeing to every one of the guests' needs single-handedly. I almost scoffed in disgust but held myself back. It wouldn't do for the king to hear how sympathetic to the help I was becoming.

"Yes, the ballroom does look marvellous. You've definitely outdone yourself this year Angelique. I may have to increase your commission." The King quipped lightly, tipping his wine glass in acknowledgement.

Angelique's eyes gleamed at the mention of money, the greed practically oozing from her genuinely made me sick. I had to think up an excuse to leave. If the king wasn't here I would have just walked away, but I had to show proper respect to him. My eyes hunted around the lavish ballroom, looking for any opportunity, when the woman's rough voice cackled, "Well thank you, Your Majesty, The ballroom truly does look splendid. Although, I'm afraid certain imperfections were unavoidable."

Her tone turned as unpleasant as her personality, and I would have ignored it, but my curiosity peaked as her eyes narrowed at something across the room, and both myself and the king turned to see what she was referring.

My jaw clenched.

Belle was standing with Gaston across the hall. They were off a little to the side, not in anyone's way, but the conversation they were having appeared to be attracting quite a bit of attention.

She was dressed the same as all the other servers, in simple black and white attire, her silky brown hair up in a high ponytail, holding a tray with a few empty glasses. I couldn't quite tell how she was feeling, as her face was pulled in a stoic mask. Gaston, on the other hand, appeared angry. His mouth twisted in an unpleasant snarl as he gestured to her neckline. What? What could they possibly be talking about? He went to reach out for her, only for Belle to take a small step back, denying his touch. It was at this point she seemed to realise how many people were staring at them, and her face lit with a deep red blush as her eyes made their way to me. We locked gazes for only a moment before she shifted to the king and blanched. My gaze shot to Silas, who was staring at the pair coldly enough to freeze summer, before my attention was seized by Gaston's fist around Belle's arm. He pulled her directly in front of him and at this point Belle's face turned pleading, her copper-coloured eyes darting nervously.

What was Gaston doing? Was he even aware of how much of a scene he was causing? Even though I couldn't hear what they were discussing Gaston was obviously agitated about something, but that was still no reason to go around accosting a servant in the middle of a crowded ballroom. That wasn't the sort of thing that went unnoticed, especially from someone of his standing.

I was ready to intervene, to march over there and stop whatever was going on, when Gaston finally released her. He didn't look happy as he took a step back, but Belle looked relieved none the less. He said something, downed the last few drops from his glass, placed it on the tray she was holding and marched off. Belle's face was a picture of embarrassment as she lowered her head to the ground and hurried through the ballroom's exit door, the one that led directly to the kitchens.

What the hell was that all about?

I mean, I knew Gaston didn't care about what people thought of him, but to behave so brashly in front of so many influential individuals...

I could only imagine the gossip that would run riot from that one single incident in the days to come. I winced. Poor Belle.

"Such unruly behaviour. It truly baffles me how someone of her station could be so undisciplined."

I glared at the woman. Did she not just see the same thing I did? Belle clearly wanted to get away from the situation, it was Gaston perpetuating things. Belle wasn't to blame. Why couldn't this woman ever keep her fucking mouth shut?

"I know exactly what you mean," Silas commented darkly, his refined eyes staring at the door Belle had vanished through as though he wished to set the thing on fire. I nearly cringed. Of course, the king would not appreciate such an open display during his ball, but clearly, he could see it wasn't Belle's fault?

As soon as I had the thought I scoffed at myself.

Silas didn't like Belle. He most assuredly didn't like how much time Gaston spent with her. Of course, he would blame Belle. It was far more convenient for his ego.

"If I may speak freely, Your Majesty?" Please don't. "Why not simply sack the girl? Surely she causes more trouble then she's worth. And with Prince Gaston's coronation so close, it seems most unbecoming that he occupies so much of his time with a mere servant." Angelique's mouth stretched in an unpleasant scowl at the word, her tone full of loathing. Silas's jaw clenched, from the woman's words or the fact that Angelique dared be so bold as to 'suggest' what he do in his own castle, I had no idea. I was hoping it was the latter since nothing would please me more than watching the high-and-mighty woman be cast out on her ass, but something told me the king was far more irritated with Belle and his son.

"Oh, no need to worry yourself Madam Angelique. I assure you, the girl won't be occupying my son's time for much longer."

His words had me choking in my glass.

Was he being serious? Was Silas really preparing to throw Belle out of the castle? It was clear from their previous encounters that Silas held a certain level of disdain for Belle, but why? From Belle's story, it seemed the only thing the king had to be angry about was that her father was no longer able to build machines for him. Thinking back to that day in the boiler room, I now understood why Belle reacted so harshly when the king had suggested a 'design error' being the reason behind the machine nearly destroying the whole castle. Yet, as far as I knew, the machine was still down there, still working wonders and saving the king heaps of gold every single day. What exactly did Silas have against Belle, that he constantly spoke of her in such a demeaning manner? Had something happened between them that had sparked such hatred? And if so, why not do as Angelique had suggested? Though it wasn't what I wanted, and I'd be loath to consider it, this was his castle. If Silas truly didn't want Belle and her father here, why hadn't he simply evicted them before now? Gaston wanted them to stay, but Gaston wasn't king yet. If her presence in this castle was as disruptive as Silas had previously insisted, why keep her around?

Perhaps it had something to do with her father, or maybe Silas was simply indulging Gaston until his name-day celebration. He was expected to pick a bride that night, after all, and when that day came, what would happen to Belle?

Everything was just so confusing. Belle had answered many of my questions and yet, there was still so little I truly understood. Why was there so much animosity between Belle and Silas? Why did Silas take every opportunity to insult her in front of Gaston? Was it simply because of the negative image that came with his son, the prince of Ingeniere, being intimate with a peasant? It would certainly make sense if so, but I couldn't rid myself of the suspicion that there was something more. Something was happening between the father and son and this one girl was somehow stuck in the middle of it all.

I pinched my nose, rubbing my forehead to try and sooth the headache away. This night was already turning horribly, and I'd only been here for half an hour.

Gods. I hated Christmas.

Luckily for me, just at that moment, the music began to play. Fife and his master orchestra were the centre of attention as the soothing music floated through the room. All guests stopped their conversations to indulge in the man's epic harmonies. Then, the first few couples approached the centre of the ball, and the dancing began. The king, in a gentlemanly gesture, held out his hand to Angelique, and the woman batted her eyelashes stupidly before placing her hand in his and following his lead to the dance floor.

Finally, some peace.

I walked around the outskirts for a while, making small talk with a few guests but overall keeping to myself. The music switched between smooth and calming to upbeat and lively, and many people had taken to the floor to dance with their partners or prospective suitors. I was lucky I hadn't been approached to dance yet, since I really wasn't in the mood to spread this fake festive cheer. The Maddington triplets had been trying to corner me, but every time I caught sight of one heading in my direction, I bolted, inserting myself in someone's conversation to appear too busy for them.

I just wanted to be left alone. The trip down memory lane hadn't helped my pensive attitude either. I hated thinking about my parents. Especially at this time of year. Why didn't they ever treat me like their son? Was I not good enough for them? Did they wish they had someone smarter, or more dedicated to their studies? I knew why my mother hated me, thanks to some snooping I had done the night of the Summer Festival ball right after their deaths, but my father... I was his heir. Would it have killed him to show me some kindness? Some tiny hint of love?

I shook my head. This was dangerous territory I was headed down. Thanks to Belle, I'd talked more about my parents in these last few months then I had with anyone my entire life, but that didn't mean I was ready to open up and start gushing my feelings everywhere. I had been doing that enough with Belle lately, but she was an exception. I was still a prince. And a man. I had to remember that.

I spent the next few hours talking and drinking. It wasn't so bad as long as I kept to myself most of the night. Swapping my empty glass of champagne for a fresh one off a passing servants tray, I was just about to take a mouthful when I saw Gaston across the ballroom. Coming straight towards me. Fuck.

In my effort to escape before I was forced to speak to him, I turned sharply and almost ploughed right into someone.

"Ah, young master. I've been looking everywhere for you." A sleek voice purred.

I froze.

Of course, he'd be here.

"D'arque." I murmured in greeting. My tone was colder than ice.

"How have you been keeping, Adam? I trust King Silas has been hospitable?" My deceitful head of council asked innocently, tipping a hefty glass of red liquid to his cracked pale lips and sipping elegantly. He even managed to make that simple act look menacing.

The man was dressed in all black. A black dress coat covered black slacks and a black bow tie tied sharply at the sagging skin of his neck. His thick white eyebrows were as long and unruly as ever, though he'd tied what little hair he had back at the nape of his neck, making him appear completely bald. He was grinning sharply. I almost cringed.

Why hadn't I realised..?

He held an important position in my kingdom. Was perhaps the wealthiest man in it excluding myself. Of course, he would have been invited. But I hadn't prepared myself for seeing him. What did I do? Did I pull him aside and tell him I knew everything he'd been doing, and that I had proof? No, I couldn't do that, not yet. I still had yet to decide how I would punish the man for his deceit, and I still needed to know who else had been deceiving me with him.

Though I had no doubt he would expose any man involved in his little scheme if he thought he could save himself, I did not want to be the one asking for help. I wanted to be the one he begged to when I exposed his treachery; therefore, I had to know everything. I already had a few names. The men who had been writing those letters had to have seen the discrepancies. Anyone trained in the art of accounting would have noticed, therefore every man who had written a letter was to be punished, and until I went through every single letter, I couldn't play my hand. It was torture though, knowing he was still stealing from me. Still living his lavish life in my kingdom in my castle with my money while I was hiding in this castle trying my hardest to catch up with him. It made me feel inferior. Like a child playing checkers while the adult played chess. Standing before this one single, menacing man made me feel like I was that child. A child nowhere near fit to be king. And I hated it.

If he sensed my animosity he did nothing to address it. Merely sipped and sighed, soulless eyes hunting across the ballroom as though he were as bored by the celebration as I had been. It sickened me to the core that we may have had something in common at this moment.

"It's been fine," I remarked coolly, schooling my face in a hard mask, willing my anger to keep itself hidden.

The man merely chuckled at my tone. I wanted to punch that smile right off his crooked face.

"Well, not to worry young master, I actually have some rather good news for you." The older man said slickly. I raised my eyebrow in reluctant query.

"The east wing is extremely close to being fully renovated. I estimate it shouldn't take more than another two weeks, and then you will be free to return home once more."

My heart froze.

Two weeks? Just two more weeks? No. No, that's too soon. I'm not ready, I...

My heart began to pound at an irregular speed as I felt my palms begin to sweat. I wasn't ready to go home. Not now! Not when there was so much I had yet to do! I swallowed thickly, air leaving my lungs as I felt my throat beginning to close. Shit. I couldn't do this. Not here.

"If you'll excuse me Monsieur D'arque, I need to get some air." I choked before leaving the man without a second glance. I hustled over to the balcony and stumbled through the double glass doors, hissing at a few people already lingering to leave. They scampered away like frightened animals as I staggered towards the balcony's ledge. Gripping the metal sharply, I forced my lungs to take in deep heavy breaths of air as my heartbeat slowly calmed. What just happened?

I had only ever felt that light-headed once. The night I was told my parents had perished. I'd struggled to breathe, black spots had appeared before my eyes and all I saw was darkness until I'd awoken the next morning. To have such a severe reaction, over something so arbitrary...

Why had I reacted that way?

It was true there were still things I had yet to accomplish. I had yet to find all the proof I needed to sentence my deceitful council. I had yet to resolve these lingering issues with my best friend. I had yet to watch him be coronated as the new king, but none of those things struck me as any reason why I would have responded so violently.

Yet in my heart, I knew the truth. Knew the real reason.

I wasn't ready to leave her yet.

My feelings towards her had been growing stronger and stronger, far more potent then anything I'd ever felt before, even with Marie. I realised I'd come to depend on her in a strange way. When I was with her, there were no expectations of me. I didn't have to be royalty of Fairalia, I didn't have to be heir to the throne. I didn't have to be a prince, or a king. I could just be.

I couldn't leave that behind.

I wouldn't.

What was I going to do?

AAA

After my little panic attack, I spent a good hour on the balcony until the freezing temperature drove me back indoors. By then, it was nearing midnight and everyone was rather excited to wish each other a 'Merry Christmas.' I couldn't stand the atmosphere, and especially after the intense emotions I had just experienced, I didn't think I could take any more tonight.

I was inching my way over to the staircase, thinking I could quite possibly slip back to my room unnoticed with all the commotion going on, when something odd caught my eye.

Across the ballroom, I saw Belle again, only this time, she was speaking to another servant, looking quite distressed. Her eyes were wide with worry as she exchanged silent conversation with the server before he nodded his head and took her serving tray. She looked at him gratefully before hastily making her way towards the kitchens' exit door. Without even realising, my feet followed.

I hurried to catch up. I even heard my name being called several times but I didn't take any notice. Belle was fast approaching the door with a look of intense concern, and I felt like I had to know what was troubling her so badly. I charged right through the throws of people still dancing to Fife's orchestra, getting strange and irritated looks from multiple guests but I didn't care. I kept my eyes on the bouncy bronze ponytail as she made it to the doors and slipped past another server walking through. In my haste to keep up with her, I knocked right into him, but didn't stop to apologise or help him pick up his fallen glasses as I chased after the elusive brunette beauty.

"Belle!" I called out her name, hoping to catch her before she was lost. This was a big castle. If I didn't know where she was going I doubted I could find her if she was fast enough. I willed myself to pick up speed, yelling her name as loud as I could as I pursued her around the corner of a long hallway. Either she couldn't hear me or she was ignoring me. Why would she ignore me? Turning the next corner, I caught her once again, headed towards a small staircase that led to the servants quarters. It was deserted, as every servant was attending to the ball. Why was she here, especially since I knew damn well she didn't sleep in the servants quarters.

"Belle!" I called out one more time, my voice rough and ragged from how out of breath I was. Surprisingly, this time she turned. She seemed shocked to see me, to say the least, and her face twisted in confusion as she took in my exhausted state.

"Adam? What are you doing out here? Why aren't you at the ball?"

"I could ask you the same question." I panted as I approached her. She at least had the decency to look a little guilty.

"I was just coming to check on Fifi. She hasn't been feeling all that well for days and was excused from working tonight. But she told me earlier she was feeling better and would be fit enough to work the last few hours. When she didn't show, I got a little worried. I was only coming to check on her." She told me as though she feared she'd be reprimanded. I could have laughed as well as sighed in relief. I really thought it was something serious for a second there.

"Belle, I'm not going to tell anyone. I just saw you leave and was worried something was wrong. That was why I caught up with you." I explained breathlessly. She smiled at me affectionately, looking as relieved as I felt at the circumstances.

"Thank you, Adam," She told me kindly. "Can I go?"

Unbelievably, she still felt as though she needed my permission.

"Of course, but I'll insist on accompanying you since I really don't want to be in there when it turns midnight." I shivered at the thought, causing Belle to giggle sweetly.

We walked in unison through the servants quarters, my eyes darting back and forth to her face the whole time. I couldn't believe I'd had such an extreme reaction to the thought of leaving her only an hour ago. What would she say if she knew? Would she find it disturbing? Creepy? Would she judge me for not being manly enough? I didn't think she would. Belle was never one to judge anyone. She was always so forgiving and generous. Always willing to see the best in people.

Only some of the many things I loved about her.

Wait, what?

Before I had time to question that rather abrupt thought, Belle was knocking on a dark wooden door.

"Fifi? Are you alright in there? You never came up like you said, do you need me to get something for you? Fifi?"

There was no response, it was possible the girl was sleeping, or perhaps wasn't even in her room. After a long pause, I was about to suggest we both start looking elsewhere, when a strange noise came from the other side of the door. It sounded like... a sob.

"Fifi?" Belle called, more alarmed this time, clearly having heard the noise as well.

"Fifi are you alright? Please say something!" We were met with only silence.

"Fifi, I'm coming in, alright?" Belle called out finally, before placing her hand on the doorknob and giving it a firm push. The door swung open without resistance, and there, sitting on a tiny bed in a dark, small, sparsely lit room, was the girl, sobbing quietly with her face in her hands.

"Fifi! What's wrong?!" Belle cried as she hurried towards the girl, sitting beside her and wrapping her arms around her quaking shoulders. I followed her in, feeling annoyed with this careless girl who was clearly worrying Belle so needlessly. She obviously heard her calling through the door. Why hadn't she answered? She was sick, not mute.

"Fifi, please, tell me what's wrong!" Belle was desperately trying to get the girl to speak, but the servant appeared to be crying so heavily she couldn't manage a single word. Being the caring, compassionate person she was, she placed her hand to the girl's forehead and nibbled her bottom lip worriedly.

"Alright, come on. I'm taking you to the hospice. You're clearly not well enough to be down here all on your own."

Belle tried to help the girl stand, but little Fifi was having none of it. She just stayed in the exact same spot, sobbing for apparently no reason at all, while Belle wasted effort trying to help.

I opened my mouth to reprimand her. The words were literally right on the tip of my tongue, when a cold, dark, deadly voice from somewhere behind me spoke.

"As adorable as your caring for my little whore is, sweet Belle, I'm afraid no one is going anywhere!"
"Belle?" I called gently, not wanting to startle the calm she had sunk in to. She tipped her head sideways, still with a dream locked longingly in her eyes. They asked me a soundless question.

"How did you end up here?"

And just like that, the bubble burst. The soothing silence was shattered as she stared at me resignedly.

"You really wanted to know the whole story didn't you?"

I could only blink.

She sighed.

"It was just like every other night, I guess. I had cooked dinner and was trying to persuade him to eat it. He was acting like a toddler, but that was nothing new. Then I started to hear... something, from outside. We were so far away from most of the village in our little cottage it was rare I would hear anything at all, especially that late at night, but the noises only got louder. It sounded like... yelling. Like a lot of voices yelling all at once. I went over to the window to try and catch a glimpse of what was going on but... what I saw...

"It looked like almost every member of the village was coming over the bridge towards us, and you'll never guess what they were holding. Pitchforks... and torches. Pitchforks and torches. Like we were monsters they were hunting. I panicked. I had no idea what they were planning, but it seemed as though their hatred for us had finally reached its peak. I blew out all the candles I had burning around the house, but the closer they got, the louder the shouting became, and the more agitated Papa was getting. I tried to calm him down, but I was terrified as well and I knew that on some level he could sense something was wrong. He started screaming, and I was begging him to stop, but the villagers were yelling for us to come out, shrieking that we were unholy demons who deserved to burn for our sins. Papa was losing it, and I couldn't think of anything to do. I thought... the only way to stop this madness was just to talk to them. Make them understand. We weren't bad people and I so desperately wanted to make them see that.

"I dragged Papa into his room and locked him in, and then I went to the outside to face them. They were calling me all kinds of names, brandishing their torches like I was a murderer being burned at the stake. I didn't understand. How anyone could hate us so badly when our only crime was to be different from them. I was begging them just to listen to me, but they were all shouting over each other, getting closer and closer to the house. All it would take was just one person to shove their way past me, and they'd get to Papa no matter how much I fought against them. My heart was pounding in my throat, all I saw was fire. I couldn't breathe, I was losing control, and all I wanted was for someone to make it stop!

"And that's when he came."

"Gaston," I confirmed, quietly.

"Rode right through the crowd on his horse like a knight in shining armour. Distantly, I recognised him, but I still didn't know who he was, and I was astonished when they listened to him yelling at them all to go home.

"I just stood there as all the villagers left without any kind of protest. Who was this man? Where had he come from? I genuinely believed that my prayers had been answered. And I guess they were, in a way," She released a bitter little laugh, "All I asked for was some help. Well, I guess I got it, just not in the way I was expecting."

What did you do Gaston?

"I was staring at him the whole time, but he didn't say a word, he just walked right past me. Went into my home, sat down in a dining chair, put his feet up on the table and... made me an offer.

"He told me he had read my letters, and that he sympathised with my plight. So much so he was willing to show mercy for my previous acts of treason. I was... so confused... but he didn't give me a chance to ask questions. He told me he knew about my father's condition, and that Maison De Fous had been in contact with me and... that it was only a matter of time before they came to take him away. But he had a solution, the only solution, the only way Papa and I could stay together.

"He said that he would move me and my father into the castle, free of charge. My father would receive the best medical attention possible. He wouldn't be abused. He wouldn't be mistreated. And he wouldn't be my responsibility any more. It was like he was reading my mind, Adam, telling me all these things that I wanted to hear. Really, it was like a dream, for someone else to come and take care of him, someone who knew how to, someone who wasn't me. He told me he was willing to do all of this for me, and the only thing... the only thing he w-wanted in return was... was..."

"You."

I was absolutely horrified.

"I wanted to tell him no, Adam. Tell him to get out and slam the door in his face. But... I couldn't."

Please stay strong for me Belle. I can't stand the sight of your tears.

"I was so scared, of the mental hospital and what the villagers had just done, but the thing that scared me the most, was the idea of him walking out that door, and no one else ever walking through it again. I was so lonely and alone, the cottage was driving me insane, and the idea of walking away... leaving it all behind and never looking back... it was intoxicating. What he was asking, in exchange, it was... I can't even describe what was going through my mind. All I really thought about was Papa. But I won't lie to you and tell you it was all selfless. I was ready for him to be someone else's responsibility. For months, all I had wanted was for someone to come along and take control, so I wouldn't have to. Even if the price was high, I was exhausted and I was beaten and I was ready for this hell to be over. So I agreed. And we left for the castle that same night."

Her hurt was on display for everyone to see, recalling a memory so obviously terrifying it wasn't worthy of words. And the fact that my friend had had a hand in that... the fact that he had taken advantage of her when she was so obviously scared and vulnerable... I wanted to kill him.

"Keep going, " I told her, needing to know every detail. She bit her lip, looking at me cautiously from beneath sodden rich lashes.

"Really Adam? Are you sure you want to hear-"

"Tell me!" I ordered. She fidgeted, going pale. The only reason I could fathom for her reluctance was that she thought she'd be offending me. She knew me first and foremost as Gaston's friend, after all. She had no idea how close my loyalties were to shifting.

"Alright, well... The first week... was the hardest, I'm not going to lie. It felt like I had traded one prison for another. I wasn't allowed to leave his room, even if he wasn't there, and when he did come... well... he made absolutely certain that I lived up to my end of the deal. It was only after the third week that I couldn't take the wait any longer. I demanded to see my father. I had to know that what I had done... what I had given up... was worth it. So he took me to the hospice, brought me to this room, opened the door and... here he was. And he... looked... better."

Her smile was full of agony.

"He was shaved, was washed, in fresh clothes, even looked like he had been eating. All the things I couldn't get him to do. He was laying on the bed, the scars on his hands freshly wrapped and bandaged. I called out his name, almost in shock and... and he looked up at me and... he smiled. Smiled. Like he knew... who I was." She whispered, filled with wonder. Her eyes shining with the memory as her gaze hunted tenderly over her father's sleeping face. Such happiness and heartache all mixed in one. It was truly a sight to behold.

"After that, I knew it was all worth it. That no matter what Gaston asked of me, as long as Papa was here, safe and getting the treatment he needed, I'd do whatever he wanted. And after a while, things started getting easier. I made friends with Lumière, Fifi and Mrs Potts. I met Fife and little Chip and oh I can't tell you how happy I was to have people I could talk to again. To have friends again. And... even Gaston... got a little easier to be around, day by day. At first, I was pretty damn terrified of him, especially after I learned who he was, but as the days turned to weeks and weeks to months, I started learning more about him. What made him tick. What made him happy. And I try to keep him happy, because, even though what he did may not have been right, he did for me what no one else would. He helped me. And I'll always be grateful for that. Even when he makes me furious or makes me feel helpless, he was there for me when no one else was."

"Belle," I interrupted, eyeing her cautiously like I expected her to burst into laughter and tell me she was joking. "If you're covering for him because you think this is what I want to hear-"

"I'm not lying Adam. I know how it looks, trust me. But he's not always... so bad. He can be... gentle. Sometimes. Sometimes he can even be compassionate. He just wants control. He needs to know that he's the one who has the power, and I denied him of that once. I rejected him, in possibly the most brutal way I can think of, and so I guess... when the opportunity arose to take back the power I stripped from him, he took it. Now he has complete control over me; what I do, where I go, who I talk to, even when I see him," Her eyes strayed to her father peacefully slumbering, I immediately tensed at the accusation.

"But," She persisted, "like I said, he has his moments. His father raised him to look down his nose at everyone, and while I'm not going to lie and say he treats me like an equal, he's... done things. Things for me... and others... that proves he's not entirely... heartless."

"What things has he done?" I was encroaching on dangerous territory now. Even though it sounded like she was trying to defend him, her account of just how Gaston had taken possession of her was completely demoralising. For months I'd wondered, agonised over all the possibilities, and it seemed like she was giving me the worst explanation possible. She was describing a completely different person to the one I had left all those years ago. A person I was beginning to realise I didn't like very much. But was it wrong to cling to some form of hope that maybe Belle was right? That perhaps there was a chance that my old friend was salvageable. Just like I was beginning to think I was.

She shifted uncomfortably, gnawing on the broken skin of her lip. Her eyes were averted, whether through embarrassment or fear, I wasn't certain, but she attempted to dismiss me with a simple shrug of her shoulder.

"He's just... The way he behaves sometimes... proves he's not a complete monster."

"Belle," I warned. I had been patient up until now, let her tell her story at her own pace, but not about this. Not about him. Her eyes widened in alarm at my biting tone; she must have sensed I wasn't about to let this go.

"Fine, I'll tell you, but you have to keep it a secret. If it ever got back to Gaston that I told someone..."

"I understand," I interrupted impatiently, making hand gestures to hurry her along. She scowled but said nothing. Tucking loose strands of hair behind her ear, she asked, "Gaston told me you spent practically half your childhood in this castle. Is that true?"

My brow furrowed as I nodded slowly in confirmation; where was she going with this?

"Then, I take it, you know who Lord Edward is?"

I froze. Edward. I had completely forgotten about him since my strange conversation with the small dark-haired maid. I had thought to follow it up and ask someone else for a little more information, but it had completely slipped my mind in light of the chaos that had recently befallen me. What did Gaston's supposed 'good deeds' have to do with him?

"Did you happen to wonder why he isn't here any more?"

I eyed her suspiciously, "I was told he and his mother were banished after his father was found guilty of treason."

She squirmed, "Well, yes, that is the official story."

"And unofficially?" What secrets was this little beauty hiding?

"It was only a few weeks after I got here. Even after I had seen my father, it was still difficult. Gaston... he wasn't exactly used to only having 'one woman', as he put it, and he wasn't used to containing his strength so he could ensure that woman actually lasted longer than a night or two before moving on to the next one. I was... still pretty shy and sunk into myself back then, and didn't really know how to talk to people after so many months of being alone. But that didn't mean I didn't notice the looks I got. Apparently, all the servants knew the real reason I was here even before I befriended a few of them. I don't know if the staff in the hospice liked to gossip or what but... they all knew. And they all looked like they felt sorry for me. What I didn't notice was that I wasn't the only one that got looks of pity. I wasn't the only one that showed up every other day with a fresh bruise. And I wasn't the only one that did more limping then walking most of the time. I didn't notice. But I did notice when he had her up against that wall."

"Who?" I asked, so intrigued I was literally clutching at the edge of my seat. The wood let out a squeak of protest, but my eyes never left Belle's. She sighed and shook her head, obviously reliving a deeply unpleasant memory.

"It was Fifi. The maid you met in the barn a few weeks ago. The one who was too frightened to talk to you. Well, there was a reason for that. Everyone told me she was the happiest person before. Bright and cheerful and sunny. But that all changed once Lord Edward returned from his studies. Apparently, he took an interest in her right away, and, well, when you were part of a family as powerful as his was, you apparently didn't take no for an answer.

"I caught him forcing her against the wall. The top of her dress was ripped open, his hand was up her skirt, she was crying and pleading for him to stop, but he only laughed and told her he knew how much she loved it. I was disgusted. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, and it was so out in the open. He didn't care about getting caught, because his family was so wealthy and influential he thought he was untouchable. She saw me. And her eyes, they were so scared. But in that moment it wasn't just for herself, but for me as well. When Edward noticed, he turned around and looked at me and... well... like I said, he didn't care about getting caught. He walked right up to me and told me that if I valued my job in this castle I wouldn't speak a word of this to anyone. Then he walked away with his head held high like he was proud of himself. His attitude, it sickened me, but it was only going to get worse. When I asked Fifi if she was alright, she begged me not to say anything. That the rich and powerful in this castle held our fate in the palms of their hands, and heaven forbid if we ever did anything to displease them."

The face she pulled surely exposed the disdain she had for the world she had been thrust into. As a prince, I knew this world, I lived in it every day. But Belle, a little farm girl from a distant corner in Blé? What would she have known about the hierarchy and the struggle for power? It just astounded me that she still managed to maintain some level of innocence after everything she'd lived and seen.

"I thought... I thought I could help her. I thought, that by helping her, I could redeem myself, and somehow make amends for all the things I had done. So, I decided... that the best thing to do... would be to visit his father."

What?! Was she crazy?! The sour purse of her lips told me she knew exactly what I was thinking, and she did not appreciate it.

"I know it was stupid, but back then, I was new to this world. New to the corruption and foul play, where you could get away with anything as long as your father was rich and powerful enough. All I thought back then was... of course, his father would want to know what his son was doing. And if he really served under the king like Fifi had said, then, of course, he would be honourable enough to put an end to it all. Idiot." She scolded herself. I myself found her naivety rather endearing, but knew to say so wouldn't sound anything more than patronising. It was clear she had learned from her mistake, but I knew how men like Lord Sebastian thought. There was no way he would have appreciated a servant telling him how his son should be behaving. Just like I always thought, little Edward truly was a squirmy little rat. No wonder Fifi had been so reluctant to talk about him when I'd asked.

"I found out where his father's room was, and pretended to be a messenger for Gaston when he asked me what I wanted. As soon as he let me in I told him the real reason I was there. To say he was displeased would be... a massive bloody understatement. But I was convinced I could get him to listen to me. I told him what I saw, and the fact that I thought this wasn't the first time. I expected him to be horrified. His son had been doing something foul, and even after all I had seen in that village, I just couldn't imagine how anyone could not care about something like that. I begged him to talk to his son, and get him to stop before he took things to far. And do you know what he said? After a full ten minutes of listening to me plead for Fifi's freedom, do you know what he said? He told me I should learn to mind my own business. That whatever was transpiring between his son and this kitchen wench was not my concern and I should learn not to shove my nose where it didn't belong, least I ended up in a worse predicament then my little friend." Her disgust was palpable. Fucking Sebastian.

"He didn't know who you were?" It was more a statement then a question, as I wondered why Sebastian would have threatened her if she was under Gaston's protection by that time. Yes, he may have been far higher on the food chain, but it was quite clear how possessive over her Gaston was. I didn't think he would have appreciated her being threatened, no matter how much clout the person had.

"Adam, back then I didn't even know who I was supposed to be. I belonged to Gaston, he made that quite clear, but I had been locked in his room for the first few weeks and even if the servants knew why, it's not like any of us thought I was anyone important. I was just like them, the only difference was I worked directly for the prince. But Lord Sebastian's attitude... still shocked me. And his complete dismissal of Fifi, it drove me crazy. I told him... I told him if he didn't stop his son... if he didn't tell him to stay away and leave Fifi alone... that I would go directly to the king.

"And the next thing I heard was the slap."

"He struck you?" I demanded, completely outraged. If Sebastian wasn't already locked away for treason, he'd have me to answer to!

"First time I'd ever been hit in all my life. And it hurt... hurt like hell." She confessed as she laid her fingers to her soft left cheek. That asshole. "He tossed me out before letting me know that if I ran my mouth to anyone about him or his son ever again, I'd get far worse then a slap. I cried all the way back to Gaston's room. It wasn't just the pain, but the sense of failure. Once again, I had tried to protect someone, and once again, I had failed.

"Well, Gaston noticed the red mark right away, and of course demanded to know where it came from. I told him everything. About Edward, and what Fifi was going through, and my visit to his father, and do you know what, Adam? He didn't care.

"He didn't care what Edward was doing to Fifi, he didn't care that she didn't want it, he didn't care how much pain he was causing her! But he did care... about Lord Sebastian slapping me." Her face, holding so much agony, suddenly slid into a stoic mask, I ground my teeth together. I did not like that look at all.

"He told me he'd take care of it. Now I didn't know what that was supposed to mean, but by then I was too tired and too miserable to dwell on it. I let it go. Then, about eight days later, all the occupants of the castle were called into the throne room. I was standing next to servants who were saying how this had never happened before. That in all their years of working there, the king had never called a full house to open court. And I mean everyone, even the groundskeepers and stable hands, and everyone looked confused. Then the king came in, followed by his guards and Gaston. Everyone was so quiet, you could have heard a pin drop. Then he explained why we were there.

"He said that he had been betrayed. That someone very close to him had been found guilty of stealing gold from the royal treasury. Gold and jewels exclusively owned by himself, and only accessed by himself, were missing. Apparently, the thefts had been happening over the course of several months, and now he had finally caught the culprit. No one dared make a sound. He was so angry. I had never seen a man so furious in all my life. No one knew what was going to happen, but I think when the king called the guard to bring in the traitor, and Lord Sebastian was dragged in on his knees, everyone was petrified.

"Lord Sebastian was pleading with the king, swearing he was innocent, but the king merely spoke over him. Telling him most of the gold had been uncovered under hidden floorboards in his room, and a trusted source had told him he had been spotted sneaking around at night, going places he had no business to go. He swore he was being framed, he was begging the king to listen, but all Silas did was look at him with disgust and sentence him to life imprisonment. He even told Sebastian the only reason he had escaped the death penalty was because of the respect he still held for the man's deceased father. He was still screaming as he was being dragged away, and then the king turned his attention to his wife and son. His wife was crying, and Edward... well... he looked like he had seen a ghost. The king ordered them out of his kingdom. They had an hour to pack what they could grab, and run. Because if either of them were ever spotted in his castle again, they would suffer the same fate as the formally prestigious lord being dragged across the floor in manacles. I was watching Edward the whole time, but then I felt something. Like someone was watching me. And I looked in his direction, and he was staring right at me. Gaston."

"You think he had something to do with it?" I gasped. Too much of a coincidence. To perfect. What were the chances; Lord Sebastian being caught for treason mere days after laying his hand to precious Belle? What were the chances of Edward being banished after Belle had asked Gaston for help? What were the chances?

"I don't know!" She cried, tugging at her hair, "I don't know. I don't know if Gaston was the one stealing the gold and he just framed Lord Sebastian after what he did, or if Sebastian and his family had been stealing all along and Gaston only found out when he went looking for something to use against him. I don't know! All I do know, is that he got Edward out of the castle. And maybe it wasn't because he cared about Fifi or out of some sense of compassion, but he still did it. I felt horrible afterwards, thinking that maybe he had gone too far, and that maybe Lord Sebastian didn't deserve to be imprisoned for something I suspected he didn't even do, but Fifi was safe and that was all I could bring myself to care about. Don't you see Adam? Even if his motives are spurious, he can do good things. He may not have cared about Fifi, but he saved her, for me.

"And he proved something else to me that day, something I swore to myself I'd never forget."

"Which was?"

"That even though he's the one in control, I'm not completely powerless. I'm not stupid Adam, I know getting Sebastian imprisoned and Edward exiled couldn't have been easy, even for him, but he did it, and all for a slap. Maybe it was only to ensure I'd fall a little further into his debt, but something about the way he looked at me that day made me think that maybe... this was his way of letting me know... just how much I meant to him."

Meant to him? How much she... meant to him? No. No way. She couldn't possibly...

"Belle, are you honestly telling me that you forgive him for everything he's done to you? I mean, I know you're a good person, and you're loyal, but... he took advantage of you! He got to you when you were most vulnerable and forced you to accept his offer before you had time to think of any other option. Do you really think that was a coincidence-"

"Don't Adam!" She yelled at me, suddenly just as furious as I was. I thought she was smarter then this, but it appeared Gaston had her wrapped so tightly around his fist she couldn't see what was staring her right in the face. Did she really think that she had any power here? Her glower was only further proof of just how much control he really had.

"You can't say that! You can't talk about me like I'm some stupid helpless girl who he manipulated into his bed. I'm not that clueless, and I'm nowhere near that innocent! I use him just as much as he uses me! I used him to get Edward out of the castle! I used him so Chip could keep his dog! I use him for my father's protection and I use him for mine! He's treated me badly, I know that, but its nothing I didn't consent to! And that day, either intentionally or accidentally, he gave me some of my power back. Some control I so desperately needed. He may dictate many parts of my life, but over time, I've come to realise that I've got some kind of hold on him as well. He treats me differently than any other person. I can do things and say things that most servants would be beaten for, but as long as he knows that I know that he's the one in charge, I get just as much out of him, as he does out of me!"

She sounded so convinced. So sure what she was saying was true. She even sounded desperate to convince me to believe her and I thought I understood why. She didn't want to be helpless. Feeling helpless would only lead her back to how depressed and trapped she was when she was living in that village. But, was her desperation to believe that she had some control over her life clouding her perception of Gaston? Maybe she was right, maybe he really did care for her, to some extent, after all, the things he'd done, they were no small feat. But then... why? Why did he find it acceptable to treat her the way he did? Sure, he wouldn't have appreciated being rejected, especially not in the way she had done it but... could he really still be holding a grudge after all this time? She didn't even know the more brutal things I knew he'd done to her, and she was still defending him. Perhaps... perhaps... after everything they did together, and all the time they spent... perhaps she didn't hate him the way I'd always thought.

Maybe... she...

No.

No. No. No!

I didn't care! I didn't care if Gaston had manipulated her into believing he was a good man at heart!

I didn't care if she was so desperate to believe it that she had let herself be blinded!

I wasn't blind! Gaston never did anything that didn't benefit him in the end! What were the chances? What were the chances of him showing up the exact moment Belle needed to be saved? What were the chances of Gaston being the only one who had read Belle's letters? What were the chances of anyone in that uneducated inept little village knowing how to contact Maison De Fous? All these things Belle had chosen to ignore, but something she had made very very clear.

Gaston had become something I no longer recognised. I had made my mistakes, I knew I had, but I was trying to make amends for them. Gaston... he wasn't sorry. He had beaten her and abused her, manipulated her guilt over her father's condition. She blamed herself, that much was clear, and he was using her love for him against her, forcing her to serve him for no other reason than to see her father healthy. It shouldn't have been happening. She shouldn't have to pay that kind of price to protect someone she loved, no one should. But Gaston had made her feel like he was her only option. She may not choose to see it because she wanted to believe the best, but I saw it. I saw it all.

Gaston and I... we were going to have a little chat.
"What ?" She gasped, as though she misheard me. Whatever she had expected me to say, it sure as hell hadn't been that.

"Ever since I got here, I've constantly heard about your father, but I've never seen him in the castle, and you never talk about him. You never tell me anything about your life before you came here, but I am... curious. You came out of nowhere Belle, and its like... I know you don't belong here. Not in a bad way, I swear," I insisted, catching a flash of hurt in the midst of her shock, desperately trying to justify my outburst.

"It's just that... you're smart. You're kind. You're clever and selfless and compassionate and forgiving. So, I just really want to know, how someone with all of that potential, could end up here. I picture someone with your talents... travelling the world and teaching other people to see it the way you do. Doing something purposeful and meaningful with their lives. Not-"

"Adam please just stop." Her plea pulled me from my absorption only to notice with dismay the sudden wetness of her cheeks.

"You don't know what you're talking about, okay? I'm not any of those things." She insisted, voice thick with denial, denial that baffled me. Did she truly not know her own worth?

"But, Belle, you are. I've travelled the world, been to so many places and seen so many things, but I've never ever met a person quite like you before. You're so kind, so persevering. You see things in such a different way that you've made me see them as well-"

"Adam, STOP!" She screamed. I shrunk away immediately, alarmed by her eruption. What had I done wrong now?

"You... you don't mean any of that! You don't know me! I'm not selfless, I'm not this wonderful person you've just described! I've done horrible things too! I've been petty and selfish and self-absorbed. I've been cold and cruel to the people who love me! I've kept secrets and lied and... ruined lives! So... so don't sit there with stars in your eyes telling me how I don't deserve to be here! This... this is exactly where I deserve to be! I earned this, by doing what I did! This is the punishment I was always meant to have!"

She was so angry. Panting and red-faced and it left me completely winded. So rare was it for her to lose her temper like that, my mind honed in on the words she'd used. Punishment? She deserved it? What did she mean she deserved it?

"Belle I... I don't understand. What did you do? What could you possibly have done to deserve this?" I asked her bewilderedly, truly not believing a word the girl had said. How could she be selfish? How could she have ruined lives? None of that fit into the image I had in my head, of this perfect, caring loving girl. I refused to believe I could be wrong again. No. I had seen her kindness. Her generous acts of forgiveness and love. There was no way I was wrong!

She glared at me.

"Oh, Adam, you don't understand! And I can't make you! Just forget it!" She gritted furiously, launching abruptly to her feet. No, I can't let her walk out on me again!

"Belle, don't," I pleaded, propelling across the table to clasp her wrist before she got away. She looked down at me guardedly as I lay awkwardly sprawled across the wooden surface. Why did she always have to run?

"Don't leave Belle, please. I'm sorry, alright? I'm sorry if I offended you or anything! I genuinely only wanted to know about your father!"

Her face transformed in a heartbeat. One minute it held ire and irritation, the next it was shrouded with uncertainty and doubt. She looked so suddenly... deflated, like all the fight had been drained right out of her. After a moment of tense silence, she flopped ungracefully back on her chair, letting out a sigh that nearly matched my relief.

"My father?" She whispered, her gaze a thousand miles away from the candlelit library we both took sanctuary in.

I knew I had to be careful with what I said next. I felt like I was stepping on eggshells. "Yes, I mean, I've shared so many things with you. About my life and my childhood and how I came to be... like this. But, when it comes to you... there's nothing. Why don't you ever talk about yourself? Don't you trust me?" I questioned quietly, trying and failing to keep the vulnerability out of my voice. I guess we weren't such great friends after all.

"Adam, this isn't about not trusting you." She whispered weakly, her eyes shifting to mine in time for me to see her sadness. I didn't want her to be sad, but my thirst for knowledge was nearly overwhelming me. Despite my earlier promise that I wouldn't push her for answers and instead would wait for her to be ready, this day had taken its toll on me. I needed something.

"Just, tell me something... anything," I begged, desperately capturing her gaze in my own, refusing to let it go. I so wanted to understand. "Tell me how you came to be in the castle. Tell me how you met Gaston. Tell me where your family is. Anything. You don't have to keep secrets from me. Remember what you said, about me being able to talk to you about anything? Well, you can talk to me too. I promise I won't tell anyone just... just let me in."

I couldn't stand the vacant look in her eyes. Though she was here in this room with me, she could have been anywhere. I didn't know if she was deep in thought or if she was reliving all the memories I had just pleaded with her to share, but I wanted her to come back to me. I wanted her to trust me like I trusted her. Hesitantly, I reached out and clasped my hand around her smaller one before she could recognise and pull away. Her skin was so soft and supple. Perfect. Just like her.

"I can't answer any of those questions without telling you about my father," She murmured quietly, almost as though she hadn't meant to say it aloud. I sat up eagerly.

"Then tell me about him. Tell me where he is or-"

"Would you like to meet him?"

AAA

I was excited, there was no denying it, I practically bounced on the balls of my feet as I followed Belle through the halls of the castle.

She's finally introducing me to her father!

I had so many questions, and perhaps, if I couldn't get the answers from her, her mysterious parent would be the next best thing. I could ask him of his origins. How he and Belle ended up in this castle. Why I had never seen him and Belle in the same room before! Who knew, perhaps there was even a chance he would enlighten me to the strange connection between Belle and Gaston. As a parent, wouldn't he himself be concerned about what his daughter had been doing? Why was he letting it continue?

So many questions.

I was a little concerned as I recognised I was being led right towards the castle hospice, but only until I remembered that he was supposed to be sick. But, how long had he been sick? It was months ago that Belle had received the letter regarding her father's worsening condition, which had led to her little misadventure in the woods. And who knew how long he had been here before then? Just how sick was he? Was it terminal? Was it contagious? No, he wouldn't be here if he was. I was sure there was some rational explanation for all of this and was glad Belle had her back to me as she walked to the hospice doors for I was practically shaking with anticipation. She knocked.

A surprisingly young girl with tightly tied blond hair and a rigid face pulled the door open. She was dressed in a long white robe, but she looked far too young to be a nurse. An apprentice, perhaps? Either way, her stony face grew even more sour as her eyes met Belle's. Before either of us could say anything, she tisked in disgust and started to rant.

"I sincerely hope you have a letter, otherwise there is simply no excuse to be bothering us this late! It's past visiting hours! You know the rules!" She snarled before Belle even spoke a word. Letter? Why would Belle possibly need a letter to enter the castle's hospice? Had the rules changed since I was last here?

Surprisingly, Belle matched the nurse's contemptuous look and scoffed at her rudeness; they clearly weren't the best of friends.

"You know Gaston gave me full visiting rights for the remainder of the week Santana, he told Doctor Youdull two days ago. Please just let me through," She snapped impatiently. The girl's upper lip almost curled over her top teeth as Belle said Gaston's name, before sinisterly twisting into a rotten smirk. Her squinty eyes were completely cold as she looked Belle over condescendingly.

"Oh, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid Doctor Youdull has already retired for the evening. Without him here to verify your story, I can't let you in without permission," She cooed mockingly. Belle clenched her jaw. I had rarely seen her so angry.

"Get out of my way Santana! Stop acting like you own this whole hospice! Doctor Youdull must have told you about Gaston giving me permission already, he always does. Now move!" I almost retreated at the sheer ferocity of sweet Belle's reply. Her outburst was so out of character, but she had been acting strangely from the moment I mentioned her father. Was she just misappropriating anger meant for me?

The nurse's body went completely stiff, her eyes nearly spitting fire as her teeth clashed together.

"And maybe you need to stop acting like you own this whole damn castle!" Santana hissed, shaking with outrage as she took a step towards Belle as though to intimidate her. Neither of them was even acknowledging me.

"You think just because Prince Gaston lives between your legs that you have the right to order me around and go wherever you please?! Get the fuck off your high horse you unworthy little-"

"Enough!" I yelled, unable to bear any more bile from this rancid girl's mouth. She turned her glare on me, before recognition and finally fear stole across her face.

"Your Majesty!" She squealed in surprise, flushing a deep red in embarrassment. I may not have known the reason for her hostility towards Belle, but I didn't care. Belle was my friend and I wasn't going to stand here and listen to this insignificant woman insult her. I glared right back.

"She asked you to move. I would suggest doing so, unless you would like me to see to it you be moved from this entire kingdom." I told her coldly, before remembering how little Belle approved of me using my status to force others into submission. Well, I had to draw a line somewhere. Blatant disrespect would not be tolerated, weather Belle liked it or not. But considering how little she seemed to like this girl, I hoped she wouldn't hold it against me. I took a peek at her from the corner of my eye, to see her looking completely unconcerned. Well, at least she wasn't angry.

The same could not be said for the girl before me, as her left eye twitched and she breathed in deeply. It was almost as if she was considering denying us access despite my threat, but after shifting her scornful gaze between us several times, did she finally relent.

She moved out of the doorway with an impatient huff, and I gestured for Belle to go in first just so I could glare at the girl until she lost her nerve and scampered off.

I'll be getting her name later.

"What was that about?" I asked as Belle headed towards a small desk in the centre of a relatively empty entryway. She picked up a quill and signed her name on a long scroll of parchment, sharing a small smile with the man standing behind it as he nodded to her and passed her a lit candle on a plate. She thanked him quietly before leading me towards another door.

"She doesn't like me," Belle told me shortly, as she opened the door and walked right through. I was a little surprised neither of us was stopped or at least asked to wear masks, but it only made me believe that her father's condition couldn't have been that serious.

"Yes, that much I noticed, but why? Why was she so against you being here?" I inquired as I followed her down a thin, sparsely lit white stone hallway. There were no windows, only doors lining both sides. Doors that most likely hid sick patients behind them. We passed a few people headed towards the entryway, but was barely spared a glance. Belle must have been a regular visitor here.

"Your guess is as good as mine. She's had it in for me from the first day I got here. I suppose she just doesn't like me getting 'special' treatment." She commented, stressing 'special' as though she believed her treatment was anything but. I didn't understand.

"Special treatment?"

She shrugged.

"You heard her, its passed visiting hours. But as long as I have permission from Gaston I can come here pretty much whenever I want. I guess she resents me for it. I really don't know." She remarked flippantly, but my mind raced. Placing a hand on her shoulder, I used my grip to turn her to face me.

"Why would you need Gaston's permission to visit your own father?" I asked her, completely perplexed. Just a moment ago, I was relieved that we wouldn't have to wear masks to visit him, but now I was truly questioning the stability of this man. Why would she need to seek Gaston's permission to see her own sick parent? Was he dangerous? Violent? I sought her face for answers but she averted her eyes, a small pool of colour lighting her cheeks as though she was caught doing something she shouldn't have. Finally, she looked up at me, her sad little smile making me frown.

What..?

"You'll understand everything, Adam. Once you meet him." She assured me quietly, before taking me alarmingly by surprise by grabbing my hand. She turned and pulled me onward. I followed blindly, almost all thought forgotten as I stared at our interlocked fingers.

What is this feeling?

Finally, Belle stopped at a heavy wooden door. It looked the same as all the rest, except for the three thick metal bolts sealing it shut. I watched in confusion as Belle slowly pulled apart all three locks, and had just enough time to wonder why those things would be there in the first place, when Belle pushed it open.

I wasn't prepared for what I saw.

It looked more like a suite than a hospital room. With a fairly large amount of open space to walk in. There was a bathtub in the corner, as well as a lavatory, two large windows shining a tiny scrap of night light through two sets of metal bars, and a rather hefty looking wardrobe against the far left wall. But to my right, the least and most surprising of all, was a bed. With a man sleeping inside it.

The man was short, that much I could tell even though half his body was covered in sheets. He had a softly wrinkled face, a small tufted of fuzzy white hair and a rather thin looking mouth covered by lips that looked bitten and chewed on more times than was healthy. He was rather pale and thin, but that wasn't the most alarming thing. No, what surprised me the most was that he was strapped down.

His arms and legs were both bound to the metal railing of the bed. Thick leather restraints chained him as he slept rather peacefully before me. Noticing how odd it was, I took a closer look at his hands, only to see that they were too covered in thick leather gloves, tied tightly around his wrists and pinned under the restraints, making it impossible for him to escape. What..?

"Its so he doesn't scratch his skin during the night," Belle's voice came out of nowhere, scaring me to high heaven. I jumped and spun, noticing with surprise that she had been lighting candles in the room this whole time. My cheeks flared red at having been caught staring, but... at what?

If this was her father, why was he tied down? I thought he was sick, not...

"Hi, Papa," She whispered to the man, setting the candle down on a bedside table before taking a seat on a chair by his side.

"I've brought someone here to meet you. His name is Adam, and he's my friend. He's a prince, like Gaston, but don't worry, he's not like him. He really wanted to meet you." She spoke so softly, looked upon him so tenderly. I watched as she leaned forward to lightly brush a few strands of stray hair away from his damp forehead, all the while staring at his sleeping face with so much gentle adoration. It would have been a sweet sight, if my chest hadn't been constricting.

The locked door. The large barred windows. The restraints. All of it reminded me of my grandmother. The feeling I felt when I first laid eyes upon her feeble form quaking in that metal chair completely engulfed me, and I found myself struggling to breathe. I took several long deep breaths to calm myself while Belle was distracted, but the panic was all consuming. I felt sick, like the air was too thick to breathe in. Finally, all I could manage to do was choke out one single word.

"What..?"

"You said you wanted to know why I was here. Why I never talk about what my life was like before I came here. Well, it's all to do with him." Her voice was sad and drained, her eyes never leaving her sleeping father's face as though she weren't even speaking to me at all.

I didn't understand.

"Take a seat," She insisted quietly. I was glad she wasn't watching me because my hands were shaking. I tried to behave as casually as possible as I pulled a chair away and sat, so we were directly opposite each other. The bed where her father lay the only thing between us. It felt like miles.

"If you really want to know, then I'll tell you. But I warn you now, it's not a particularly pleasant tale, and, well... you might not want to be friends after you learn the truth about me." She turned upon saying this, exhaustion and resignation looking me dead in the eye. Her words sounded ridiculous, but she was completely unwavering in her conviction. Not capable of scrounging a response, I merely nodded, and she began to speak.

"My mother came from a wealthy family. Don't ask me too many questions about them, I don't really know much. All I know is that she had three brothers, five sisters and two completely overbearing parents. They had plans for all their children; big plans, apparently. But their plans for my mother were interrupted when she met Papa.

"She always told me the first thing she ever noticed about him was his hands. How they were dry and cracked and brittle, but they were working mans hands. Hands of a man who loved his work, and loved it when his work brought joy to others. He was selling little inventions by the roadside, and when he saw her, he reached up and presented her with a gift. A little toy bird that pecked up and down. And she was so grateful for it, something made by those hard working hands... that she loved him from the very start.

"But, apparently, her parents didn't find the beauty in his work quite the way she did. They wanted her to marry some rich duke, and they didn't care if she didn't love him or if she loved someone else. All they thought about was continuing the glory of the family name. When she refused to leave my father, they gave her an ultimatum; she brake all ties with Papa and marry the duke, or they would disown her, and leave her with nothing. She told me it was one of the most difficult choices she'd ever made in her whole life, but she chose Papa.

"Well, they were true to their word, and forced her to leave their home with nothing but the clothing on her back. But it turns out, that was really all she needed. You see, she had a ring. A gift given from her great-grandmother before she passed. And it broke her heart to part with it, but she always said how important it was to build your future, not sit wallowing in the wreckage of your past. So she sold it, her and Papa moved to the kingdom of Blé, bought a farm, and had me."

"You grew up on a farm?" I asked her suddenly, temporarily forgetting my anxiety attack over my curiosity. I didn't know why I hadn't guessed it. Her ease around animals and how willing she was to throw herself into manual labour, even when it wasn't required of her. It suited her perfectly, and another piece of her puzzle slotted into place. She gave me a sparkling smile.

"I grew up... learning how to tend wounded animals and harvest fruits and vegetables. We milked cows and sheared sheep and were chased all around the paddock when we went hunting for eggs. There was so much joy and laughter in my home Adam, you just can't even imagine. My Papa, he wasn't a particularly big or strong man but he was tenacious, got any work done, no matter what it was, and my mother... she was so... gentle. She cared so much, about everything. Me, Papa, the animals, the people in our village; everyone loved her, but I did the most. Every evening after a long days work, she'd sit down by the fire, put me on her lap and read me a story.

"She loved reading, our little cottage was filled with books. She could read me a story I had heard a thousand times and I'd still be on the edge of my seat with every word. She made the journey exciting, you know? Because that's what she said always mattered most. Not how you started, or where you ended up, but the journey you took across your life to be who you were always meant to be. I loved her so much. I loved my Papa too, don't mistake me, but... she was our heart."

Her eyes sparkled with a beauty that took my breath away. She really did love her mother. But a cold feeling of dread consumed me as her smile melted from her face, only to be replaced with brimming eyes and a trembling, quivering bottom lip, "So when we lost her... it was like we lost our hearts as well."

I swallowed harshly. She was in so much pain.

"Papa and I... we didn't know how to function on our own, without her in between us, guiding us. We just... completely broke down. Stopped talking, stopped spending time together. We worked on the same farm, shopped in the same market, ate at the same table but it was like... we were strangers. I know my mother would have been ashamed of us for how we behaved, but... I didn't know how to live without her, and neither did he. She was so important to the both of us, that, after she passed, it felt like I was the one who stopped living. I didn't know how to reach out to Papa any more. And I'm sure that's how he felt about me so... we didn't try.

"And things went on like that for years." I could feel her shame and regret that she had allowed her relationship with her father to deteriorate after her mother's passing. I wished I could offer some words of comfort, but, really, what could I possibly say? The confusion as to why she was speaking about her father like he wasn't right here in the room with the two of us was still heavily confounding me, but I knew now was not the time to ask questions. So I didn't say anything. Merely looked on sympathetically as she continued with her story.

"So, a few years passed, and things stayed the same. Then, one year, the village got word of a particularly harsh winter soon to be befalling us. Our village, it mainly consisted of old couples and families with children. There were no strapping young men, and my father was worried that we wouldn't be able to collect enough firewood before winter fell. I was shocked one morning, to hear him bashing about in one of the old barns. It was where he use to do all of his inventing, but he had shut the whole thing up after Mama passed. I was... rather stunned that he had chosen to go back in there, but I didn't disturb him. He stayed in there for four straight days, only coming out to eat or sleep. I wanted to ask him what he was doing, but, we still weren't really talking so... I kept quiet, and waited. Then, one afternoon, he called me in. He sounded... really excited... which was a first, for years. I never could have guessed what was waiting for me in there.

"It looked like a monster. A huge clunky device. A complete mishmash of different objects all stuck together. And before I could even ask him what it was it was supposed to be, he gave me a demonstration. He lifted a thick chunk of wood and put it on the machine, and then pressed a button. And before my very eyes, this... monstrosity... shred the whole log into perfect pieces in a matter of seconds. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen!"

I gasped, she didn't mean..?

"The woodcutter in the boiler room?" I asked excitedly, but she held up her hand to hush me.

"I'll get to that," She told me shortly, indulging me with a small smile, just enough to shut me up. But honestly, I could not wait to hear more. That machine was a work of pure genius, and her father had made it? I looked at the sleeping man before me with new eyes, almost as though I expected him to bounce up from the bed and introduce himself, but he remained blissfully unaware of our presence as Belle began to talk again.

"The machine was amazing, and he used it to cut everyone's wood for that whole winter. The entire village hailed him a hero because of it, and I was... so proud of him. He used to make little inventions all the time but hadn't made anything since we lost her. I thought, that maybe... this was what we needed. A sign that we could possibly... start moving on from our grief. I told him how proud I was, and how happy I was that he was inventing again, for he loved it so. And he looked at me and smiled and... I had my Papa back."

She beamed, tears in her eyes. But her happiness, as quickly as it appeared, vanished.

"After that, every year he used his machine for our wood as well as the neighbours. He was famous for it, at least in our little village. So, when word came to us about an inventors competition being hosted in the kingdom of Ingenieur, where the winner of the best invention would receive a big bag of gold as well as an audience with the king, everyone was encouraging him to go, including me." She grimaced, and I was dumbfounded. I had never heard of Silas hosting a competition before. What could have been the purpose? Was Silas really the reason she was in this castle? Obviously, everything that was happening in her story was before her father got sick. I looked at the older man again, and barely contained myself from asking Belle to hurry it along, just so I could understand why all of this made sense.

"He was gone for five days, and to be honest I was getting a little worried about him. He hadn't sent word back to me and I didn't really know how long the fair was supposed to last. I was seriously considering going after him by the sixth day, but he did return. The smile he had on his face..." She sighed reminiscently, her lips quirking indulgently while her eyes spoke a different emotion.

"He won?" I questioned, not at all content with her silence. I fiddled with my fingers to hide my eagerness, nervousness, anxiety and impatience. I so badly wanted to know everything. Now I was so close, to wait another minute felt like complete torture.

"Hands down," She declared with a proud grin.

"Everyone was so happy for him, they even threw him a little celebration party. He looked like he couldn't even believe he had won, and had this... completely bizarre look on his face the whole night. I could tell there was something he wasn't telling me," Her smile slipped again, and she broke eye contact to stare at her father's face once more.

Please tell me. Please tell me. Please tell...

"At the end of the night, after the party was over and we finally made it home, I asked him if something was bothering him. He was happy, I could tell, but he also seemed... nervous about something. It seemed like he had been avoiding me all night, even though he had been right beside me the whole time. He hadn't really answered any of my questions about what this kingdom was like, or how his audience with the king went, and I just didn't understand why. He told me to sit down at the table, and took a seat beside me, and then he took my hand and made me promise not to say anything until he was finished.

"Well, it turned out, that to everyone's surprise, the king himself was at the competition, not only to observe, but to judge it. Apparently, it was all a scheme orchestrated by him to hunt down the next big invention that he could build and sell to other kingdoms overseas. And he was so impressed by my fathers' work, that he not only offered him the winners prize, but he also offered him a job."

How unlike Silas. I had never heard of him doing anything like that before. Could it be that business was slowing while I was away, or had he truly been looking to expand the reach of his empire? I could certainly see why Belle's father's machine would have been so appealing. It did the job of ten men in a third of the time. Selling such an invention to other kings and wealthy men would certainly make Silas a healthy profit, and the picture of why the two of them were here became all the clearer. But still... she didn't sound happy.

"There was only one catch," She muttered quietly, her gaze cast down to her cloaked knees. I couldn't help myself.

"Which was?" I asked, trying not to sound like I was rushing her to answer, even though I was. Why did she look so suddenly put out? She sighed, resigned and moulded a frown.

"We had to move."

She sounded miserable.

"Obviously, the king would want my father as close as possible, so he offered him residence in his kingdom while Papa built machines for him. He was so nervous when he told me, it was like he was expecting me to burst into tears or scream at him or something. And honestly, I kind of felt like doing both. He was asking me to leave. Leave the place I had lived all my life. Leave my friends, leave my animals, leave the only place in the world that still held memories of my mother. I... I couldn't believe him. But... I knew he wanted it. It was what he'd always wanted, to be an inventor. He put his dream on hold to be with me and my mother, but now was his opportunity. And I could tell... this wasn't a decision he had made lightly. I knew he'd miss the village every bit as much as I would, but he wanted to do it. And he couldn't, without moving to Ingenieur. I hated that he was forcing me to make this decision, but I knew... I knew if I told him I didn't want to leave, then neither would he. He would stay with me, and spend the rest of his life dreaming about what could have been. And that's exactly why I agreed."

She let out a long sigh, shifting her arms to rest her elbows on her knees and lean her chin against her clasped hands. I couldn't tell if her sudden demeanour was due to regret, or sadness. Judging by our current situation, I would guess the former.

What had happened?

"We stayed in this castle in the beginning. The king planned to move us into a cottage on the edge of the village, but it had been unoccupied for years, so we were given two rooms while it was being fixed up. I spent most of my time hiding, trying not to let my father see how sad I was. I was homesick before the first week passed, but he was acting as though he had finally gotten his life back. I'm ashamed to say a part of me resented him for it, but I knew how much he suffered after my mama died. If doing this job was what finally made him smile again, then all I could really do was hide my sadness and be there for him, like he had always been for me. It got a little easier once I found the library."

I chuckled at that, couldn't help it, knowing how much she loved it in there. But I was becoming perturbed by the range of emotions dancing across her face. The flickering candles around the room only made it more difficult to guess what it was she was truly feeling. The shadows pranced all around her, shrouding her in darkness. Was it an omen of what was to come?

"That place was my sanctuary long before I thought I needed one. I was amazed the first time I stumbled upon it. There were so many books, but the room looked like it hadn't been used in years. I was even worried I wasn't supposed to be in there, but nobody ever stopped me. I spent hours in that room, while Papa was off discussing matters with the king or perfecting designs for his machine. He tried to encourage me to come out and interact with people, sit at the dining table for dinner since the king had offered us a place there, but I was too nervous. I wasn't used to all of this. I missed the simplicity of my village, this place was far too grand and polished and I didn't feel comfortable here. The only room I did seek comfort in was the library, but that changed to, the day I met him."

"Who?" I asked, even though I had a feeling I already knew. There was but one significant other who had yet to be introduced to her story.

"It was the first time I caught someone else in the library. I went in after lunch only to hear... moaning. I thought someone might be hurt," She laughed at herself, and I couldn't help but share her embarrassed smile. "But of course, instead of calling out and asking if anyone was there, I decided the best idea was to follow the noises. I could hear groaning and books being knocked off the shelf and I genuinely assumed someone might have gotten hurt. It never once occurred to me it would be anything else. So I walked up the steps to the second level and searched through rows of bookcases and... that was the first time I saw Gaston. Saw more of him then I would have liked to."

Even in the dark shadows of the room, I could see the red in her cheeks, she surely must have been innocent before that day, to have that kind of reaction. I was quite taken with her blush, but she pushed herself forward before I could embarrass myself by saying so.

"He caught me, I know he did. In that split second when I was far too stunned to move. The girl didn't notice, she was a little too... distracted. But he saw me. And I ran. I didn't know who he was at that time. I knew King Silas had a son who was coming of age, but I didn't know what he looked like and... I could never have imagined I would have caught him doing that. Anyway, I was so embarrassed I didn't even want to go back in there, for fear of the same thing happening again. But it wasn't long after that Papa announced that our new home was finally ready, and I was more than happy to leave. The day we were packing up our belongings and bringing our bags down to the carriage, I was walking down the hallway when someone called out to me. Not by name, but I turned anyway, and I saw him coming straight towards me.

"Again, I didn't know who he was, back then he was just some man I had caught in a highly intimate position. I thought that he was angry with me but... he wasn't, even then I could tell the way he looked at me wasn't... angry." She shook her head, eyes closed. Her grimace told me everything.

"He told me he couldn't stop thinking about me since the moment he caught me staring at him. I didn't know how to react. We were in a small deserted hallway and he had me up against the wall, and I was so embarrassed and nervous that I couldn't think of a single thing to say, so I just stood there in silence while he went on about how beautiful I was and how he'd been searching the whole castle for me and how it was like I had vanished into thin air. I told him I had to leave, but he just put his finger against my lips to silence me. He asked for my name, and stupidly, I gave it to him. I may not have known he was a prince, but he was still twice my size and intimidating. I had never been spoken to the way he spoke to me that day, and I just kept praying that one of the servants would walk by or my father would come up to see what was taking me so long. I kept telling him I was in a hurry and had go, but he just... completely ignored me. He was so arrogant. Even back then. And I couldn't stand to listen to some of the things he was... proposing. He was acting like I should have been grateful to have captured his attention, and he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that I definitely was not. And then... then... he leaned down to kiss me.

"Now, I'd never been kissed before, never done anything... before him. So... when I saw him leaning down... coming right towards me without my permission or consent... the only thing I could think to do was... was..."

"Was?" I asked, literally hanging on the edge of my seat. Her face scrunched together, and her teeth snagged her plump bottom lip as she flushed ripe cherry-red.

"I kneed him."

I cringed, barely containing myself from covering my manhood. I was astonished by Belle's audacity. Even without knowing he was a prince, that was a pretty audacious move to make. I could only imagine how angry Gaston must have been. Honestly, the parallels between Belle and Gaston's first meeting, and how I had first met Marie simply astounded me, but there was one thing that surprised me even more. She still looked guilty about it.

"I didn't know what else to do!" She defended, clearly catching my look of distress. Slumping in her seat, she ran an agitated hand through her hair before gripping at it tightly. "I had never been in that kind of position before! No man had ever looked at me that way, let alone made those kinds of advances. Thinking back, there was probably a lot of other things I could have done but... at that moment... with how panicked I was... I just... reacted. I ran down the hallway while he was on the floor, and I didn't look back until I got to the carriage. I didn't tell my father what happened, I just hoped that I would never see him again. The first of many foolish things I hoped for." She sighed regretfully.

I wondered what she meant by that. Obviously, that would not be the last time she met Gaston, and there was no doubt in my mind that he had made her pay for that at one point or another, but now I was even more curious. She left to live in the village, so how did she get back here?

"The cottage was lovely, really really beautiful. It was surrounded by flowers and lots of open land. There was a barn for my horse, and Papa had his own barn where he could build his machines. I was excited to be back in a familiar environment. I thought... that this village would be exactly like my old one, and I could make friends and finally get back to some kind of normality. I had been there a matter of days before I realised how stupid that was."

"What do you mean?" I interrupted another breathing break. There was a strangely sour look on her face, as though she was trying not to be angry, but realised she was failing. Her eyes met mine as her left eyebrow twisted. She looked at me expectantly, only I didn't know what she was expecting.

"Really, Adam? You really can't guess why the people in that village would have been less than welcoming towards us?"

Her words confused me. Why would the villagers dislike her? The old man in the bookshop had said his neighbours had done some horrible things to her, but he never explained why. What had Belle and her father even done before they moved from the castle? The way Belle told it, all she had done was keep to herself while her father started building his machines for the king.

His machines...

Wait.

"One of your father's inventions was in the boiler room. Does that mean that all the men who worked cutting the wood before..?"

"Yes." She confirmed my theory before I even finished the words, and looked completely miserable for it.

"My father never meant to hurt anyone. He built that machine to make peoples lives easier, not to lose people their jobs. But clearly, the villagers didn't quite see it that way. A lot of men lost their livelihood because the king decided they were disposable, but obviously, my father was far easier to blame than the king, so... we were hated before we even stepped foot in that village."

"Did they do something to you?" I demanded to know, ready to charge straight down to that cesspool if they had. I wasn't going to admit to Belle I had a little piece of this puzzle already, but if any of them had hurt her specifically... well... I wouldn't be held accountable for my actions. She looked surprised by my sudden rage, but her face gave nothing away. She shook her head quietly.

"Not physically. Not at first. We were still under the king's protection at that time after all. It was more... the way they behaved around us. The snide looks and the whispering and the way they spoke to us... like we were dirt. Some of the women tried to give me a chance to redeem myself in their eyes, but they quickly lost interest when they realised I wasn't at all interested in sowing or... gossiping about the most eligible bachelors in the kingdom. The only person in that village I could really talk to was Monsieur Bernard. He owned a bookstore down there, the first person I had met in a long time that shared my passion for them. He hired me as his assistant even though I doubted he needed the help. He was probably just excited to have someone to talk to, he wasn't really accepted either, thanks to his 'odd' profession. But he was a wonderful man. I miss him sometimes." She murmured with a sad smile, her voice so soft and affectionate when talking about the merchant. Why did she miss him? Why had she never returned to the village? What had those bastards done to her?

"But the rest of them..." She shook herself, "they shunned us. The strange thing was Papa didn't even seem to notice. He was just so happy, finally doing what he had always dreamed of doing for a living. And when I asked him how he managed to not let it get to him, he told me that the only person he needed in his life was right there in front of him. That he had his family, and that was all he needed. And I realised how right he was. So what if the villagers didn't like us? So what if they didn't accept us? I had my Papa back. After years of being completely unable to reach him, I had him back. I had a friend in Monsieur Bernard, a job, Papa was making good money as well and... he was finally happy. We were happy. And for the first few months... everything was perfect.

"And then it wasn't."

My heart squeezed as her gentle smile collapsed. Her gaze sought her father, who had yet to make a single acknowledgement that we were in the room. I braced myself for the worst.

"It started with little things at first, he'd put something down and then... forget where he put it. Or... we'd be in the middle of talking and... he'd just... forget what we were talking about. Little things. Things that happened to everyone. And I didn't think that it was such a big deal... until... the little things started getting bigger.

"Dangerous tools left on the floor. Boiling water kept on the stove. Sometimes he would say something that... made absolutely no sense at all. And when I asked him about it... he acted like he didn't have a clue what I was talking about. I knew something was wrong but... I ignored it. I told myself that it was just stress, just the stress of his new job. That he hadn't been a professional inventor in over seventeen years and all this work was simply overwhelming him, and as soon as he got back into the swing of things, everything would be normal again. But I was wrong.

"One time I was at the bookstore when I started hearing laughter coming from outside. It was a market day, so all the villagers were in town, and it sounded like all of them were out there, laughing. Normally, I would have ignored it, but, I just really wanted to know what was supposed to be so damn funny. So, I went outside, fought my way through the crowd, and there he was. Papa," She choked, eyes brimming with a single layer of tears she quickly tried to hide away. She rubbed a rough hand down her face, and downcast her eyes as she continued to talk as though I were no longer in the room.

"He was hysterical. Standing in the centre of all of the villagers, screaming at them. Demanding to know who they were and... where he was. They were laughing at him! No one tried to help him, no one tried to talk to him, they were all just... enjoying the show! I ran up to him, put my hands on his shoulder and called out his name, and the second he saw me, he seemed to calm down. Then he looked around and asked me what was going on. I should have said something then. I should have told him something was wrong. I should have taken him to the hospice and... and tried to get him some help. But I didn't. I was too afraid. I had finally got him back. We were a family again, he was happy again, and... I felt like... if I admitted there was a problem and said it out loud... it would make it real. I would ruin everything. So I kept quiet. And that was the biggest mistake I ever made."

She sniffled, big wet tears cascading down her cheeks no matter her obvious efforts to prevent them. I couldn't help but stare, her pain so potent it was drawing me in, searing its way through my whole body. What she was describing, it sounded familiar, I had heard of such mental disabilities before, but almost couldn't believe it had happened to her father. It wasn't very well known, and I couldn't fault her for not understanding what was happening. My eyes flashed to the sleeping man. Why did she look so guilty? What had she done wrong?

"One night, I was walking home from work, when, off into the distance, there was this... massive explosion. I knew it was him. I knew it was him before I even saw it. Everyone took off running towards the blast, and what I saw..." She shut her eyes, her breathing hoarse, "His barn. The one where he built all his inventions... it was... completely destroyed.

"I kept praying that he wasn't in there. I ran all around the house screaming for him, begging him to answer me. But I knew... I knew..." She whimpered.

"One of the men who had run towards the blast called out for me, and I went running out and... there he was. Papa. He was alive, but barely. They pulled him out from under the barn door, and it must have shielded most of him from the blast but... his hands...

"I spent weeks in the hospital, waiting for him to wake up. A lot of the minor cuts and bruises had healed, but his hands... The doctor told me there was a chance he would never be able to move them properly again. And I knew he'd be devastated. Inventing was his life, and to be told that he would never be able to do it again... it would crush him. It was all my fault."

"Belle..." I began, determined to deny her claim, but she spoke right over me.

"No, Adam, it was! If I had told him what was going on! Told him how forgetful he was becoming! Warned him about how unsafe it was to continue building those heavy machines, he never would have been in that barn that day! I kept quiet because I didn't want to ruin his dream and in the end, I ended up doing exactly that!

"When he finally woke up, and I explained what had happened, and he looked at his hands... it was like a part of him broke that day. And that was only the beginning." She huffed heavily, eyes closed and another tear fell.

"After that, everything just... seemed to fall apart. He became... completely detached. He'd walk around the house, mumbling to himself, saying things that didn't make sense and... sometimes he'd even say hurtful things. He didn't act like my Papa any more, it was like a stranger was slowly taking over his body, and I was losing pieces of him with every day that passed. I wrote letters to the king, explaining what had happened while he was in the hospital, but I never got a reply. I hired a nurse to look after him during the day, so I could go to work, but after the first few weeks, she quit. Moved to another town. No one else would take the job, no matter how much money I offered, and I knew he couldn't be left in the house alone so... I resigned. Stayed home and tried to take care of him. But I was in way over my head.

"I should have anticipated how the villagers would react." Her face twisted. In the midst of her grief and all of her guilt, a blossom of anger was blooming beneath the surface. What had they done to her?

"The first time I brought him out with me after the explosion, they acted like we had the plague. Women hid their children, merchants refused to serve us, all I wanted was to buy some food for us to eat, but it was clear they didn't want us there. They were using my father's accident as an excuse to justify their hatred, but they never wanted us in their village, and now they wanted us out even more. I took him home after people started throwing things, and I cried through the whole night. There was no one there to help us. No one there for me to talk to or to lean on. I had no one. Only him. And I didn't know how much longer I could keep him with me after the first letter came."

"Letter?" I questioned, not daring to reply in anything louder than a whisper. She nodded sadly, gaze firmly fixed on her fingers. Her cheeks were still glistening, and I could tell just how difficult this was for her to talk about. A strange thought interrupted my focus as I considered: maybe I was the first person she had told this story too. But surely that couldn't be right, right? She was close with Mrs Potts, with Lumière, Fifi and even Fife as I had observed. Surely she must have told one of them about all of this. Of course, her distress was understandable but... she did seem awfully upset. Could it be..?

"Have you ever heard of Maison De Fous?" She asked me quietly, looking so rough and hollow as though too tired to express emotions. Opposingly, I gaped in awe. She couldn't mean...

"The mental asylum?" I choked. That place was the stuff of nightmares. A 'hospital' that housed some of the most sadistic and crazy of criminals as well as people who were considered too unstable to stand in society. I had heard horror stories about some of the things that place did to their 'patients', and though I was in a mind that some of them most definitely deserved it, I was equally appalled that Belle's father could have been considered by that place. So far, it sounded as though he hadn't done anything wrong. And with Belle there to care for him, how could they have possibly known about his mental state?

"Apparently, they had received several letters about an unstable man causing a great deal of distress amongst the innocent villagers of the town of Peu. I was... astounded they would do something like that. Yes, I knew that they didn't like us, and now with my father's condition we were considered bigger freaks then we were before, but I didn't expect that. The letter stated that I had been given a warning and if I could not keep this 'menace to society' out of the public eye, that they would come and they would take him from me. After that, it was clear I couldn't take him into the village again. I paid a little boy to bring us groceries behind his mothers back, but I couldn't leave, not with this threat hanging over my head. So I didn't.

"I was suffocating in that house, Adam. Most days I couldn't even go outside. I had to keep the curtains closed because the sunlight upset him, and so every day was just me, sitting in the dark, watching a man I once knew as my father pace around in circles and spit insults at me. I wrote letter after letter to the king, begging for some help, some advice, but he never replied. And with neither of us working, it wouldn't be long before the money ran out.

"I was failing. I couldn't get him to eat, or wash. He'd scream at me every time I tried to put him to bed. I had to barricade the door close and listen to him call me all kinds of names before he finally passed out. There wasn't a single second of the day I had to myself. I barely scraped enough time at night to feed the animals I had left, but other than that, that cottage was my prison. What was once something so beautiful and freeing had mutated into something awful. And I didn't think it was possible for it to get any worse. But of course... I was wrong."

More tears fell. At that point, I wasn't sure if they were hers or mine. Her despair weighed so heavily on me, so much so that as eager as I had been to hear her story a part of me now considered begging her to stop. I couldn't stand seeing her in so much pain. But I asked for this. It would be selfish of me to stop her now.

"The second letter came some time early in the summer. This time, the villagers had complained about our antisocial behaviour. Apparently, they weren't happy that we were hiding ourselves away, even though they were the ones who wanted us to leave in the first place. I didn't know people could act like that Adam. Where I came from, in my village, everyone was so kind and considerate. We were welcoming to strangers, we accepted and embraced one another. Maybe what happened to Papa was always going to happen no matter what we did or where we went, but I knew. I knew if we had stayed in our old village, they would have helped us. My family had lived there for years, and there was no way they would have treated us like we were a disease to be feared or a nuisance to be rid of. The second letter ended with a reminder that I had one last chance. And if one more complaint was made they'd come and take him from me whether I consented to it or not.

"I didn't know what to do Adam. I felt like I was drowning. I was watching the man who raised me deteriorate into nothing and no matter how hard I tried, nothing I did was good enough. And it got so bad... that I started to think... that maybe... maybe... I'd be better off... without him."

She sobbed. I could only watch.

"I hate myself for it, believe me, I do. But I couldn't help myself from thinking that maybe it would have been better if he had died in that explosion. Because at least then, I could have mourned him properly. Instead of spending my days locked away with a stranger that looked and sounded exactly like him, but wasn't my papa. And the more I thought about it, the more the thoughts turned into fantasies. I pictured myself, picking up a quill and writing to the asylum, telling them to come and get him. I pictured packing up a bag and leaving at night, just so I wouldn't have to listen to my own father call me a 'dirty little whore' ever again. He was the one who was sick, but I felt like I was losing my mind. I just wanted it all to stop."

"Belle," I interrupted urgently, not liking at all where this strand of thought was going. She looked so sunk into herself, rocking in her own embrace I doubted she had even really heard me. How could I tell her it wasn't her fault? That she had done the best she could with the circumstances she was given and she had no reason to hate herself. I was tripping over my own tongue in my haste to bring her back to me. I was never good at giving comfort. What could I possibly say?

"I... Listen, Belle. I know you blame yourself, but... I'm sure your father wouldn't have blamed you. It sounds like you did the best you could and... even if a part of you resented your father-"

"I hated him, Adam."

The conviction of her words stunned me silent.

"I hated him."

Silence.

"He took me from my home. Dumped me in this strange place with these awful people and he... left me there! He left me! With a stranger. Who didn't even remember my name." She cried as though the tears had been trapped for years, and clutched to her chest as though physically pained. I couldn't help the overwhelming pity I felt for her, but the second she saw my expression, she jumped from her seat.

"Don't!" She screamed at me, with so much ferocity and sadness I was nearly balled backwards. Shockingly, her father didn't so much as twitch.

"Don't pity me! How could I do that?! How could I think such things?! He was my father! The man who raised me! Who stayed with me even after years of ignoring him and pushing him away! He took care of me when I was too weak to fend for myself, and now it was my turn, I couldn't handle it? I resented him because it wasn't my job to take care of him? Because he wasn't my responsibility? How could I have been so selfish? To wish my own father dead? How could I?!" She screeched, tugging at her hair in desperation. She fell back on her chair and began sobbing violently into her knees. I felt so helpless, watching her. I wanted to get up and hold her, to comfort her and take her pain away, but something told me the best thing to do was to simply let her cry it out. Maybe it was the clever side, or maybe it was the cowardly side, but either way, I listened.

I sat there with my fists clenching the wood as she cried her pain and wept years of misery. Is this what she meant when she told me she deserved to be here? Did she consider her servitude penance for nearly giving up on her father? If so then... how could I convince her she was wrong? No one could have prepared themselves for the things she had gone through, and she had gone through them alone. It must have been torture for her to watch the only family she had left disintegrate whilst caring for the shell that was left behind. The similarities between this man and my grandmother even, made me look at the beauty with a whole new level of respect. I could barely stand to be in the same room with my grandmother, so great was my fear to stare into those deep, empty eyes. Belle had stayed with him. And it was clear how much she despised herself for even considering giving him away, but her guilt only exposed how truly loving and selfless she was. It would have been easy to give up on her father, but she didn't. She was brave and she stayed. Why couldn't she see that?

Her hysteric sobs cut me deep. Her sadness and her loss, it was singing from her soul in the most devastating of ways. I had never seen such anguish, and it pierced me so that I cowardly looked away. I instead chose to stare at the man who she had fought to protect. He sounded like a great father, and a part of me mourned the fact that I would never get to meet the man she described. But, now, I was only left wondering...

How had she ended up in this castle, with her father receiving what looked to be luxury treatment while she received whatever treatment Gaston believed she deserved. There was but one piece missing from this harrowing puzzle, and in order to get it, I had to let her cry.

Eventually, her convulsive sobs began to relax into silent weeping. I could see the heave of her chest as her small frame shook, and wanted more than anything to know what to say to make it better. But I highly doubted that any mere words could have healed the scars left on her soul.

How difficult it must be, to look into the eyes of a person that you loved and see only your reflection staring back at you.

It amazed me I had never considered her experiencing anything like this. She always seemed so cheerful and positive. How had I been so ignorant of her loss?

Finally, only the gentlest of whimpers could be heard from her. When she raised her head from her knees, her cheeks were so flushed with red blotches and tear stains it looked as though she had wept a lifetime of sadness in just a few minutes. I couldn't quite place the emotion in her eyes as she used the back of her hands to wipe away the evidence of her misery, but her frown remained as she whispered a simple, "I'm sorry."

"No, don't apologise," I insisted at once, with a conviction that surprised even me. "You've got nothing to be sorry for Belle. You have every right to cry. What you've been through... its enough to break even the strongest of men. But you never broke. You're still here, smiling and loving and standing by your father's side. I... can't tell you how much I respect you for that." I told her honestly.

She sniffled heavily, before she ladened me with a confusing stare and muttered, "So, you don't hate me?"

"Hate you?" I gasped in alarm, "Belle, why would you possibly think I could ever hate you?"

Her eyes held such overwhelming shame I almost begged her to look away. Why would I hate her? Because she experienced a moment of weakness like every other person? I may not have known just how deep those scars had run, but I would never judge her for it. When she hugged her legs tighter into her chest and tilted her head to the floor I thought I might not be getting an answer, when...

"You told me you hated your parents for what they did to your grandmother, keeping her locked away like a dirty little secret. I thought... you might not want to be friends any more... once you found out I did the exact same thing-"

"Belle, don't you dare!" Her head shot up at my sheer ferocity. Before I knew it I had pounced from my chair and was charging towards her. She quivered up at me fearfully when, without any forethought at all, did I drop to my knees before her. Her fear turned to astonishment, but I didn't let it distract me. I needed her to hear this.

"Belle, you are nothing like my parents. My mother... she hated her mother for forcing her to marry my father, which forced her sister's suicide. She blamed her for it, so naturally, when her mother started losing her ability to function on her own, she begrudgingly took her into our home but was determined to make her as miserable as possible. But... by then, it wasn't just about how much she hated the woman.

"Years of grief and a loveless marriage made my mother a bitter, selfish person. Hiding grandmother away from the public was as much out of vanity as it was out of spite, and my father went along with it only to avoid an argument. You... you are not like them. You didn't keep your father hidden because you were ashamed or... because it made your life easier, you did it to keep him safe. And I hate the fact that you had to do it all alone. But you're not alone now. You have friends here, people who love you. You h... you have me. And no matter what you think or say, I will always hold you in the highest regard because... someone like you... doesn't deserve to be hated. Most especially not by yourself. Understand?" I told her like an order. And even though I was the one on my knees, she submitted. She nodded frantically, with the most watery eyes and peppery cheeks on anyone I had ever seen. She stared deeply into my eyes, and even though the pair held such sadness, I could have sworn I caught the faintest barest hint of a smile.

"Thank you, Adam," She whispered, reaching down to squeeze my hands. "Thank you."

We stayed in the following silence for quite some time. I had made it back to my seat at some point, though I didn't remember when. I let her drift into her own mind while I dwelled on all these strange emotions boiling in my stomach.

I had almost let something slip just then, when I was telling her how much I respected her. I had felt something, something twisting in my stomach and boiling in my throat that I had no words or explanation for.

But that wasn't the only thing I was dwelling on.

Twice, today, I had ended up on my knees, and the only other person in the world I had ever knelt before was my father. I had been taught to do so before anyone of lesser rank would be a disgrace to me and my family name and yet... I was not dishonoured.

What an odd feeling it was.

I had lived by my father's philosophy for two whole decades. Let it dictate every thought and action I made. But something strange was happening to me, something that had started from the moment I laid eyes on this broken little beauty.

I was making my own choices. Fixing my own mistakes. Thinking my own thoughts, and listening to them.

Who would have thought, royalty kneeling before servants? But I felt no shame. In actual fact, after everything that had happened today, I believed I felt a sense of pride.

You always told me I had to be my own man someday father. Well, look at me now! Are you proud of your son? If you aren't, I don't care! Do you hear me?! I! Don't! Care!

You may have raised me to be a king, but you never taught me how to be a man, but I'm learning without you now. And no matter what you or mother ever said, Alex was the one who was right. Being a man is far more important than being a king. I just wish you would have taught me how to be both. Perhaps then, I might have been proud of you.

I looked at the father sleeping peacefully on the bed, arms and legs strapped down and hands bound in tight concealing gloves.

You did a wonderful job of raising your daughter sir. You're the kind of father anyone would be proud to name as their own. And even though you can't tell her, I know you're proud of her as well. But I promise you, I'll do everything in my power to make sure she never feels so alone again. You have my word as the future king of Fairalia. You have my word.
I wasn't sure why I was here exactly, all I knew was that I wanted to be.

I wanted to do something for her, something that proved how much her acceptance meant to me, and after hours of contemplation, this is what I'd come up with.

I trudged determinedly through the mushy grass and wet shrivelled leaves. The winter had brought with it a bitter chill, that seemed to capture every bone in my body even through the layers of fur and fabric I was adorning. I was half certain that this mission was a pointless one, but if there was even the slightest chance...

I looked ahead of me at the small stream half frosted by the chilly morning air. Beyond it, the tree that Belle had climbed upon when she was attacked by that pack of hungry wolves. Perhaps coming back here wasn't the smartest of decisions, but it was all I could think to do.

I trod carefully upon a small family of stepping stones that clustered together to build a bridge of sorts. My hunting boots slipped on the slimy moss that covered each rock and I threw out my arms to stop myself from descending right into the freezing stream. Not that I was afraid of a little cold water, but I was freezing already, and continuously scolding myself for how stupid this idea was since I took the horse out this morning. But there was no time to waste. No time to wait until my relationship with Belle improved or the weather got better, and since my mind had convinced me that this was going to be a wonderful surprise, I didn't want to simply ask Belle about it.

I approached the tree with caution, the eerie silence of the surrounding woods sending chills down my spine. There were no birds singing or insects chirping or even a simple breeze ruffling the forest. It was completely still. I didn't like it.

Looking the tree over, my eyes caught sight of a damp piece of shrivelled cloth wrapped around a naked branch. Inspecting it closely, I realised it had to be the piece of cloak that had ripped from Belle's coat whilst she was being attacked. A shiver went through me just thinking about that day, reminding me of the real reason I did not want to be here. I remembered her terrified face. If I hadn't gotten here in time...

I shook my head, pushing the vile thought away. I wasn't here for that. I looked at the foot of the tree, the place I presumed Belle must have been sitting before the wolves came upon her, but as predicted, it was blanketed by a hundred wet shrivelled leaves. Pulling a face of disgust, I bent down on my knees and began picking through them. Why did I think this was a good idea again? The soggy mess was horrible, making me wish I had remembered to bring my gloves along, but I hadn't. I had been so excited when the idea struck I hadn't even stopped to eat breakfast. I had simply dressed, hurried to the barn to saddle the first horse I saw and then I was off. Off to do something I had never once done in all my years of being alive. I sure hoped this would be worth it.

My frozen fingers carefully sifted through piles upon piles of mucky gunk, practically crawling on my knees, completely disgusted. I could feel the wet forest floor seeping through my breeches, no doubt leaving a stain that would likely never come out. But despite my reservations, I didn't stop.

For Belle: I kept reminding myself, as a dug like a dog in search for my prize. A cold puff of air released from my throat as my frustrations built and built. Maybe she hadn't even been sitting here when she was attacked. Perhaps she had been somewhere entirely different and had simply made a run for it when the wolves had descended upon her. Well, if that was the case, then I was screwed. I remembered Lumière telling me certainly that this is where she always came to read the day they had found her missing, and I had contemplated perhaps simply asking one of the staff who talked about her that day, but there lay another problem. I didn't know half of them, and didn't trust them to keep it a secret from Belle. I was far too stubborn to ask Lumière, still harbouring suspicions about how close those two apparently were, and Mrs Potts had warned me to stay away.

No, I had to do this on my own. It would count for more if I did it alone, I knew it would. And she deserved it. She deserved this for all she'd done for me, and to make her smile after all the tears I had made her shed was the one thing motivating me.

Urg! Where is it?!

I launched to my feet, brushing the mess off my knees angrily. It had to be here somewhere, unless...

Perhaps the harsh weather had already torn it to pieces. Perhaps it had already deteriorated in the rain and humidity and now it was lost as a part of the forest.

My shoulders slumped dejectedly. I didn't want to go back to the castle empty-handed, the excitement of following through with my idea still firmly lodged in the back of my mind, but if I couldn't find-

Something caught my eye. A hint of blue and I dove for it immediately, bending on my knees to carefully shift away the damp sodden leaves and debris to reveal the thing I had been looking for. It was wet, and it was damaged, but it was here.

Belle's book.

AAA

The quiet musical chime of a bell above the door sounded as I shuffled my way into the small bookstore. And I say shuffled because practically every inch of the tiny shop was avalanched in books. They were everywhere. Cramming up and leaking off two stories of shelves, stacked high and haphazardly upon two narrow windowsills and basically jammed into every available and none available corner. A rather large round window built into the roof shun small patches of sunlight in sporadic places, but it was still dark, stuffy and warm, smelling of musk and worn fabric. I coughed. I bet Belle would feel right at home here.

"Hello?" I called out, carefully picking my way through the mess to the barely discernable counter sitting before an open doorway. I tried to catch a peak to see if anyone was behind it but saw nothing and no one beyond more mess. Taking Belle's book out of my pocket, I stared at it dejectedly. It was ruined, there was no doubt. I hadn't gone out to those woods expecting miracles. It had been trampled on and buried under wet leaves for weeks, and was almost completely falling apart. But I was determined. My perfect idea for a winter solstice gift for Belle, was the one thing I knew she wouldn't be able to get on her own. She had told me that particular copy was the only one in the castle library, so if I wanted to replace it, I would have to look elsewhere. I had asked a random servant where the nearest bookshop was, and she had told me about this place. It was funny; I had been to this village hundreds of times, but had never once noticed the small store with crowded windows squashed between a bakers and a shoe repair store. I didn't have much hope this tiny hovel had what I needed, but I had to at least try. For her.

I carefully placed Belle's book down on the counter, pushing some of the clutter away with the back of my hand, not blinking an eye as a poorly stacked pyramid of paperbacks fell to their death over the edge of the desk. All I cared about was Belle's book. I sighed at its pathetic state. It was drenched, soaked through and completely unreadable. The only thing that was redeemable was the front cover. I was lucky the book had been covered in a thick jacket of blue leather, or I seriously doubted I would have been able to salvage anything at all. As it was, the ink was smudged and the corners wet and soggy, but the title inscribed in the leather was clear.

Descending the Moon.

This was the book Belle told me was her favourite. The book she had cried over when she realised she had lost it. The book she had told me only a few dozen had been made of, and the book I was going to return to her as her solstice gift.

And I only had four days to do it.

Brilliant.

"Oh, so sorry young man, I didn't 'ear you back 'ere! Rarely ever get visitors, ya' see?" A small older gentleman with long grey hair and abnormally large spectacles came out from behind the doorway. I blinked at the sight of him. The lenses in his glasses were so thick his eyes resembled that of an insect, sitting upon a small crooked nose. His eyesight was probably so bad I doubted he could tell who he was talking to, but I didn't care enough to enlighten him. He looked an eccentric fellow, with his two front teeth the only ones remaining in his otherwise wide and wrinkled mouth. The top of his head was shiny and balding, while three patches of bristly white hair completed his rather bizarre appearance. None the less, he smiled at me, and rubbed his hands together as though he were excited at the prospect of having a customer.

I wouldn't be surprised.

I didn't even know this place existed until a few hours ago. And these types of people didn't really strike me as heavy readers since the bookstore was empty, but the pub was already alive with revelry. It was only noon.

"Um, yes, well, its no problem uh... I actually came about this," I told the shopkeeper, poking the soggy remains of what was once a treasured possession. The older man adjusted the spectacles on his nose and bent his crooked back forward to get a closer look.

"Oh dea'. Looks as though this book has had quite an adventure of its own. I'm terribly sorry young man but, if ya' wished for me to repair it, I wouldn't 'ave much luck." He told me regretfully. I shook my head.

"I don't want you to repair it, I just wanted to know if you had a copy," I told him, praying to the gods that he did. If not, the next closest bookstore I knew of was in the capital. In my kingdom. Great.

"Descending the Moon eh?" The old man said, all but sticking his nose right to the withered pages to see it clearly. A look of confusion crossed his face, creasing hills into the lines of his sagging forehead. "I could have sworn..." He muttered to himself. I watched him curiously as he adjusted his thick glasses once more, his huge magnetised eyes blinking hypnotically.

"Well now, let's see 'ere," He said, hobbling back behind the open doorway and disappearing from my sight. I could hear him moving and items being shifted around. As I waited, my eyes turned back to the book, half-heartedly lifting the limp pages with my thumb and pointer finger. I hoped I could do this for her. She deserved something back after everything she had already given me, and even though I had never, ever given a solstice gift before, it was literally the first thought that came to mind the second I woke up this morning, and what surprised me the most was that I didn't try to talk myself out of it. I was determined to go into the woods and find the book, and get her a copy, and give it to her on Solstice Eve. Just imagining those wide chocolate eyes sparkling with joy, that bountiful smile spreading across her pink plump cheeks, her arms reaching up to engulf me in-

"I'm terribly sorry m' boy, but I'm afraid this particular book is not in me possession." My fantasy was yanked out from under me at the crushing news. My face dropped.

"Are you sure? I mean, how can you be certain of what you have in here? It's a mess!" I said sullenly, looking angrily around the mayhem of books littered literally everywhere. The man's fluffy eyebrows lifted at my tone, a frown bringing down the corners of his wrinkled mouth, his shoulders shifting uncomfortably.

"Well granted, it was a little more organised when I had me assistant 'ere with me, but I know me own stock lad. The young lassy made a record of all the books I 'ad. Wrote 'em all down on this 'ere list, 'ya see. I'm afraid I don't 'ave a copy," he told me sympathetically.

I threw my head back dramatically, dragging a clammy hand down my face. Huffing petulantly, I slumped forward on the counter, resting my head on my arms. I just wanted to do something nice for a change. Was that really so much to ask?

I jumped as I felt a hand rest on my shoulder, and straightened to find the man uncomfortably close, a compassionate smile on his aged face.

"I'm terribly sorry I couldn't help ya', m' boy. It appears the book meant a great deal to ya'. It is remarkably rare to meet someone who shares the same passion for 'em as I do. Ever since the young lass left, I haven't had anyone to talk to. I'm afraid no one in this village seems to appreciate 'em."

I let out an agitated breath through my nose and shrugged off the man's hand awkwardly, to busy feeling sorry for myself to feel any pity for him. What rotten luck.

"Yeah, well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but the book wasn't mine. It belongs to a friend of mine and it was her I was trying to get a replacement for. Thanks for trying anyway, I guess." I sulked, picking up the soggy remains of my hope and placing it carefully back in my pocket. Now my only option was to travel to my kingdom and hope just one of any bookstores in the capital had it in stock. It was too late to find another alternative, like perhaps trying to track down the anonymous author. If I wanted to get her this gift before winter solstice, I had to hope that someone in my kingdom had this incredibly special book in their possession.

I practically shoved my way past the shopkeeper, acting oblivious to his eyes on me. I was almost at the worn wooden door when his thick voice called out, "Do ya' know a young lass by the name of Belle by any chance?"

I spun immediately, staring at the shopkeeper with wide surprised eyes. "You know Belle?" I demanded.

He nodded his head like a horse, a small reminiscent smile lighting his drooping face as he swept his hand around his tiny shop.

"She use to help me 'ere. First assistant I ever 'ad, and a bloody good one at that. That book your 'oldin', she use to 'ave it with her always. Didn't matter how many books I 'ad 'ere to en'ertain 'er, she always brought that one everywhere she went, she did."

I gaped at him. I didn't know why this news was so shocking to me, but I supposed I had just assumed that Gaston had plucked Belle from somewhere unfamiliar, or else she had gone to work at the castle first before she caught his eye. How..?

"Belle worked here? In this shop? She lived in this village?" I asked him bewilderedly.

How long had she been here? Had she been living in this small village the whole time? She can't have been! I had been to this village dozens of times whilst growing up, and I outright refused to believe I could have walked right past her without noticing her until Gaston had declared her off limits.

"Why yes. The little lass lived in that house at the edge of the village, but as far as I know, she 'asn't been back since she left to live in that there castle. Not that I blame her." He remarked, his tone going suddenly sour as he looked down at the cluttered floorboards. I had to know more.

"What do you mean? What happened? Why did she leave?" I asked rapidly, so eager for answers I took a step back towards him and stumbled, a small pile of books near my feet tumbling over, but I didn't move my eyes from the shopkeeper's sullen face. Why did he seem so sad all of a sudden?

"Oh, 'tisnot my story to tell ya' sonny. All I can say is that I'm not surprised the young lass 'as never honoured 'er promise to come back and visit this old man. I can barely stand to look me neighbours in the eye after everything they did to that poor girl and her father. I doubt she'd want to come back if she could avoid it. How is she, by the way? I miss 'er terribly. Never met anyone as sweet or kind as that one girl. Please tell me what those wrongens' did to 'er didn't change that in 'er." He begged me, his comically large eyes seeming to swell at the mere memory of Belle.

I wanted to interrogate him. Pick at every last detail of what he had just disclosed until the whole story was revealed to me, but I simply couldn't. Not only did the man look a wrong word away from tears, but I also had to honour my promise. I swore I wouldn't invade her privacy, and that I'd let Belle decide when and if she was ready to tell me her story. I couldn't go behind her back and demand it out of some stranger right after I had earned her forgiveness. I just couldn't.

I looked the older gentlemen over, to find him staring at me with an almost pleading gleam in his eyes. I couldn't help but give him the answer he wanted. "Yeah, she is. She's the most gentle, caring person I've ever met. She's my friend." I told him quietly. Pridefully. She was my friend.

I walked away from the bookstore with the shopkeeper's wish of luck following after me, but it was everything else he had said during our small conversation that was ringing in my ears.

So, Belle had lived here in the village before she moved to the castle, and with her father in tow. It was funny. I had heard about her father countless times since I first expressed my interest in her, but I knew virtually nothing. I'd never met the man, but apparently, he lived in the castle. Belle had never spoken of him but had been completely distraught over him being sick in the castle hospice. And what ever did that strange man mean when he said about his neighbours mistreating her? Did they hurt her? Hurt her father? Did she move to the castle because she wasn't welcomed in the village? How long had she been here? How long had Gaston really known her? And how much of all that had happened centred around this mysterious father of hers? The amount of questions I had just kept on piling up and piling up. It was whether I'd ever get any answers that was-

"Umph," was the sound that came out of me as I unwittingly walked right into a person. I was so distracted I didn't even notice. How embarrassing.

"I apologise, I wasn't watching where I was going," I told the person, a woman, who had dropped several items on the floor due to my clumsiness. Her head was pointed down at the ground as she gathered up her fallen items. Only a sliver of her chin was visible behind the cascades of long red hair.

"No, it was my fault. I was carrying too much and hurrying to get home. I wanted to see my father off before he left for another business trip. I just came from the tavern and..."

It was at that moment she looked up at me, and we both gasped.

"You." She breathed in horror, her eyes popping wide as she took all of me in. I recognised her too, through a fuzzy haze of disjointed, incomplete memories. The barmaid.

I had never seen such fear as I saw in that moment, from that one girl's wide glistening eyes. I didn't understand it, and was just about to question it, when she threw her items at my feet and took off running.

"Hey, wait!" I yelled, pelting down the street after her. I chased her through the marketplace, shoving past peasants all ignorantly going about their day. I might have lost her in the large crowds were it not for the flaming red of her hair. It was like a single small light in a complete black hole of darkness, and I kept my eyes on it as I weaved, shoved and pushed my way past all the barriers to keep up with her. I had no idea why she was running, but felt compelled to chase her. The look she had given me, like her entire world had shattered just by seeing me again; I was desperate to understand it. I had thought the night we shared together had gone just fine. Sure I had been drunk and perhaps a little too demanding, but she had agreed to spend the night with me, she had escorted me to her home, she had let me undress her, let me kiss her, let me do all types of things to her.

Why was she running?

Why did she look at me like that?

I saw my opportunity to get my answers when I caught her rushing into an alley I knew from experience was a complete dead end. It sat behind a prominent butchers and was used solely to dispose of their waste. I hurried in, and almost crashed right into her as she had been running right out again. But I had had enough. Using my superior strength, I got a good grip of her arm and forced her right back towards the alley. The rancid stench hit me immediately, wafting up the back of my nose from all the wasted meat and old rotten bones that lay at the end of the alleyway. But I didn't let it distract me, it was her own fault for rushing in here. I was actually rather relieved. At least here, we wouldn't be disturbed.

"No, please, let me go!" She cried hysterically, trying to force her way past me, but I wouldn't have it. I pushed her back against the wall and kept my body between her and the exit. She wasn't going anywhere until she explained herself.

"Calm down," I ordered breathlessly, but sternly. She was writhing against my grip on her arms, trying desperately to get away. Her long wild hair was flying in every direction, and her eyes were squeezed tightly shut as though she couldn't stand to look at me. I snapped.

"Stop!"

"Please," She begged, still throwing herself around violently, "Please, Your Majesty, don't make me do it again, please!"

"Do what!" I snarled, completely unimpressed by her behaviour. What exactly could I possibly have 'made' her do? I had only met her once!

Her eyes snapped open, terror and desperation leaking from them as she stared fearfully up at me. Her whole body was quivering.

"Please don't make me go to bed with you again!" She whimpered.

Her words... stunned me. Literally. I released my hold on her arms as though I were physically burned, launching myself away from her and crashing into the wall behind me. My back slammed against the rocks but I felt no pain as my eyes soaked in the shaking, whimpering mess of a girl before me.

"What?" I spluttered. Tears gushed from the barmaid's frantic eyes as she pressed herself into the wall and cowered as though she feared I would attack her. When she spoke her words were rushed and broken.

"Ever since that night, I haven't been able to stop feeling your hands on my body. I feel so dirty and horrible, that I let you do those things to me! It never should have happened! I was saving myself for my husband, and now I feel so used up and disgusting I can't even look at myself in the mirror! Why did you choose me? Why couldn't you pick some other girl that night?! Why did it have to be me?! Why?!" She screeched at me hysterically, her face red from her effort and tears. I gaped at her, having absolutely no idea what to say, at all. Is this really how I'd made her feel?

"But... but... if you didn't want to do it, why didn't you just... tell me?" I reasoned. It would have been the simple thing to do right? If she truly hadn't wanted to go to bed with me that night, then why hadn't she simply said 'no'? I would have listened, I know I would have! I was drunk, and I was frustrated, but I know I would have listened! I have never, ever, not once, taken a girl against her will. The mere thought sickened me.

She laughed, though with her eyes still flooding with tears it came out as more of a demented cackle. I could only stare. This is not how I imagined my afternoon would go.

"And you would have listened, would you? I told you I didn't want to leave because of my shift! I told you I had never done anything like that before! I was dropping all kinds of hints, but you didn't want to hear them! What was I supposed to do?! Outright deny a prince something he wanted and risk being imprisoned? Risk being hanged?! I didn't want to anger you, but I didn't want to do it! You didn't notice my tears?! When I cried as I laid naked on that bed before you?! You didn't want to hear 'no'! All you wanted was to take your pleasure and leave! Everything everyone said about you was true! I wish I'd never gone into that tavern that night! I wish I'd never gotten a job there! I wish I'd never met you!" She shrieked.

I was speechless. I couldn't believe it. Is this really how I had made this girl feel? I hadn't thought about her at all since I left her bed that night, but she'd been agonising over that night ever since? A part of me wanted to deny it, deny the whole thing and bury my head in the sand. Claim that I wasn't a mind reader, and if she hadn't wanted me to take her, then she should have said something! But as my eyes frantically darted across the girl's face for any ounce of mistruth, I was forced to remember...

The way she had tried to pull away from me.

The way she stared so guardedly when I mentioned I was a prince.

The way she shook when we stood outside her house door.

The way her eyes glistened when she admitted she was untouched.

I had seen it all. I knew she didn't want to, knew she was practically forcing herself to go through with it because of my status and I took advantage of it. I saw all the signs, saw it all, but I ignored it. Because I was drunk. I was restless. And because I thought that by spending the night with her, I could erase the longing a little brunette beauty had already stirred in my body.

I felt sick.

Looking at the poor girl's agonising face, I genuinely felt to bend over and wrench the bile all over the hard cobblestone floor.

Dear god, what have I done?

This poor girl, I had used her once and tossed her away like garbage. And she wasn't the first. Is this how every girl I had bed really felt afterwards? There had been so many. So many nameless, faceless women I had used for my own pleasure. Had I left them all feeling like this one girl? Like they were worthless because they weren't worth anything to me?

I wanted to deny it. Tell myself no. That most of the women I had taken to my bed had been willing and desperate, and practically begging for it, but...

Just because it was offered, did it really mean I had to take it?

Even if it wasn't offered, simply because it was... available?

My gut wrenched. Is this what Belle felt every time she was intimate with Gaston? If so then... how could Gaston keep going back? There was so much anguish and heartache on this one girl's face. The thought of them all feeling this way...

"I'm... I'm so sorry...I..." I stuttered. Panic and shame clogging every thought in my mind, compounding me with this harrowing, agonising truth. I wasn't even looking the girl in the eye anymore, as my vision blurred with tears of my own. I shoved my hand over my face in an attempt to push the signs of weakness away, but then thought, what was the point?

"I'm a bastard," I admitted, only upon noting the surprise in the girl's wet emerald eyes did I realise I'd made my confession aloud. But I didn't care, She deserved to hear this.

"I'm so sorry. I know its cheap and it's meaningless, and it won't erase what I've done to you but... I am so so sorry. I never meant to make you feel this way, I swear I didn't. But I wasn't thinking. It... It never occurred to me that you might not have wanted it because it has never occurred to me before. I thought, because of my status, because I'm a prince and almost a king, that any woman would want to be with me no matter who she was. But I w-was wrong. I know I was wrong. Please..."

I begged, taking a small step towards her and deflating as she threw herself back, flattening herself into the wall even more. She was still afraid of me. Afraid of what I'd do.

Can you blame her? Look what you did to this poor girl! You practically raped her!

I cringed at my own thoughts, disgust physically engulfing me. But I had to explain myself. Make her understand. This wasn't what I was! It couldn't be!

"I knew you didn't want it," I admitted helplessly, her gasp only solidifying my guilt. "I knew, but I ignored it. Because I was drunk and weak and feeling sorry for myself. And I know that's no excuse. There is no excuse for the way I treated you. But please... you have to know... that that's... not who I am any more. I'm different now, I swear. I've changed. I know it doesn't mean anything to you, but please... say you forgive me." I begged, my gaze boring into her frightened ones, needing to hear her say the words. So many girls. So many nights I thought were only for fun. But this girl before me... I had ruined her. Made her feel about herself the way my parents made me feel about me.

The way Gaston made Belle feel about her.

Worthless.

"Your Majesty," I heard the girl whimper, but I'd had enough. I didn't deserve that title. I was completely unworthy.

"Please, don't," I pleaded her, and knowing no other way to show this girl just how unworthy I was, I dropped to my knees.

"Please don't call me that," I begged without looking at her, my eyes burning into the dirty cobblestones I now knelt upon.

"I'm not better than you. My life doesn't mean more than yours because I carry the title of a prince. I'm not entitled to special treatment because of the family I was born in to and I should never have acted like I was. I should never have used my status to intimidate you into giving me something that was never mine to begin with. What you had was precious, and I spoiled it. But it's me who's disgusting, not you. Your not ruined because I chose to take what you didn't give to me willingly, I'm the one who's broken. Please believe me when I say that you are worth the world, and I sincerely hope that one day you meet a man who is worthy enough of you. Far worthier then I will ever be."

And with that I stood, keeping my head down and shamelessly removing the last few streaming tears from my face before letting my arm fall limply to my side. What was the point of hiding it? Let everyone see what a disgrace I truly was.

I was just about to walk away, my left foot stepping back into the crowded marketplace, when,

"Wait, Prince Adam!" I turned at the whimper in her words, my head hung low. Her innocent glistening eyes were almost painful to look into. I truly was unworthy.

"Thank you." She whispered.

AAA

I wasn't in the mood for this, but I absolutely needed to see her. My heated confrontation with the red-haired barmaid had me so disconnected from reality I needed to return to a place where everything was warm and safe again. I needed her, even if I didn't deserve her, I needed her.

I just wasn't prepared to see her with him.

"Thank you so much, Belle, I couldn't have done this without you," the young Lumière gushed, before throwing his arms around her neck and engulfing her in a tight, loving hug.

Despite the despair that had been consuming me only seconds before, a red-hot flair of jealously quickly turned my sadness into rage. How dare he?!

Belle giggled sweetly, a noise I normally would have found endearing if it hadn't been because of him.

"It's alright Lumière, honestly, you've already thanked me a hundred times! Now get your butt back to the stables before your father has your head for ditching work again." She scolded him fondly, rubbing her soft, dainty hands up and down his dirty back.

Don't touch him!

Lumière smiled the same caring, indulgent smile before releasing her from his grip and gazing at her adoringly.

Enough!

"Uh hem" I coughed pointedly, drawing both their attention towards me. For a fraction of a second, the two looked startled, before they both relaxed and turned to each other once more.

What?!

Can you not see me?!

Do you not see I'm furious?!

Don't look at him, look at me!

I hated this kid! I wanted to run over there and punch the shit out of him! Drag him out of the castle and tie him up and leave him as bait for some prowling, starving animal!

Why did I feel such burning rage? I didn't feel this angry when I knew she had been intimate with Gaston, why was it so strong when I saw her with this asshole?

Because she doesn't love Gaston. But this boy... this boy, she does love.

That was it. I couldn't take this any more! All this confusion and uncertainty, coupled with everything else that had happened today... that was it!

"Well, I should probably get back to w-"

"What the fuck do you think you're doing here?!"

"Adam!" Belle gasped, but I couldn't bring myself to look at her, my gaze boring right into this insignificant little worm I knew she cared for more than me.

"I... I'm sorry?" He stammered, looking at me nervously as though he didn't understand what it was he did wrong. Oh, I was going to enlighten him.

"Didn't you hear Gaston forbid any of the servants from speaking to her!" I demanded of him, nodding my head towards an appalled Belle, but not letting my gaze linger, keeping my eyes narrowed on the filthy wretch before me.

He looked startled at my words, his eyes darting to Belle and back as though asking her to explain my behaviour. When he realised she was just as surprised as he was, he paid his gaze back to my own and dipped his head submissively.

"I'm sorry, Your Majesty, I... no one told me." He stammered, but I could tell he was lying to me, trying to cover his ass like the cowardly weasel he was.

"Well, now that you know, I guess we will not be seeing you in the castle any longer. Now leave, before I let Gaston know that one of his subjects has been blatantly defying his orders!" I snarled, keeping my posture as defensive and threatening as I could keep it, even though I could practically feel the fire raging at me from the pair of beautiful brown eyes across the room.

"Of-of course. I'll go. I'll see you later B- I mean... bye Belle." He told her quickly, before scampering out of the library as though I had set his ass on fire. I watched him run with a deep satisfaction. Satisfaction that was short lived when I turned back towards the room and the fierce lioness glaring at me.

"What the hell was that?!" She screamed, her back bristling, anger and fury potent on her face.

"He shouldn't have been here! He doesn't even work in the castle! I had to warn him to leave you alone!" I defended myself. My words only made her angrier, and she glowered before stomping over to me. I fought with my own body not to retreat.

"You had no right to talk to him that way! How dare you talk down to him like he's dirt on the bottom of your shoe! He's one of the kindest people I've ever met, and you have no right to tell him to stay away from me!"

I did to have the right, but I wasn't going to tell her that, for I feared such a statement would only increase her ire. I had to calm her down, but I was furious as well, and I feared we were both simply feeding off each other.

One of the kindest people she's ever met? Oh, I just bet he was.

"Maybe I don't, but I know for a fact that Gaston does! Or have you forgotten that he warned all servants away from you under threat of being turned out of the castle?"

"Oh, so you were only trying to protect him? Is that what you're trying to sell me?" She mocked indignantly, glaring up at my advancing hight without a single sliver of fear. I was glad she no longer feared me, but it sure made winning an argument a heck of a lot harder.

"I wasn't protecting him, I was protecting you!"

"By insulting one of my best friends?!"

Best friends. Yeah, I'm sure they were such close friends.

"Have you forgotten that Gaston has a tendency to lose his temper when you disobey him? You still have the bruises from the last time you did it," I reminded her, staring pointedly at her clothed arm where I knew the black and blue blemishes still lay beneath. "And I remember what he did the time before that, as well," I continued just as tenaciously, feeling slightly guilty as I watched the pain and embarrassment of the memory flash before her eyes. But I kept going, I had to get my point across. "So what exactly do you think he would have done if he had walked in just now, instead of me. I'm just trying to stop you from getting hurt again."

I ranted, panting like a dog, Of course, it wasn't the real reason I had banished Lumière from the room just now, but the excuse was a good one. Belle didn't seem to think as such, however, as she scoffed and waved her hands through the air dismissively.

"Gaston wouldn't have done anything. That threat he made was just him puffing smoke. He does it all the time when he's angry, and when he calms down everything goes right back to normal. He wouldn't have banished Lumière, and he certainly wouldn't have hurt me for talking to him!" She sounded so sure in her words, so certain, so insistent. But I was not convinced. I ladened her with a disproving gaze and raised one eyebrow mockingly.

"Oh really? And what about him catching the two of you with your hands all over each other? Would he have been just as forgiving of that as well?" I demanded of her snidely, watching the red flush right through her porcelain face as she grew more and more enraged.

"We did not have our hands-"

"I saw it with my own eyes, Belle! He was hugging you, and you were letting him! I'm sure Gaston would have been more than happy to let that go!"

"Gaston knows Lumière isn't a threat! We've been over this before, nothing would have happened!"

"Is that so? And why wouldn't he be a threat?"

"Because he's in love with someone else!" She screamed, and all screaming stopped.

As suddenly as my anger had flared, it deflated. In love with someone else? Really?

"With who?" I asked her, disbelief rich in my otherwise confused and baffled tone. She scoffed at me, clearly not impressed with my sudden change in moods. The unnatural glare still marring her fair face.

"Seriously Adam? You've been in the same room with the both of them for more than a minute and you couldn't tell? I guess wealth really doesn't equal intellect." She hit back at me maliciously, forcing me to take a step away at the sheer ferocity of her reply. I couldn't blame her for her anger, I had just blatantly lashed out at her for no reason. But... I couldn't help the relief and happiness that was spreading through me in that one single second.

He's in love with someone else? So nothing was happening between the two of them? Nothing had happened between the two of them? How could I have read their relationship so wrong?

Because you are an idiot, my mind scolded me. It was true, and now I had to recover before she saw the real reason behind my outrage.

"Belle I'm... I'm sorry-"

She scoffed again, looking me over as though I were an impotent child, "You know what Adam? Maybe if you'd stop jumping to conclusions and making your own assumptions, you wouldn't have to apologise all the time. Although, since you say it so often, maybe you enjoy being sorry. Either way, I'm getting a little sick of you constantly saying it to me."

I winced, recalling just how much apologising I had done today already. She was right; if only I'd stop fucking up, I wouldn't have to keep begging forgiveness. Why couldn't I ever do anything right?!

"Belle, please just listen! I was... I was only concerned okay! Your my friend now right? And I was only trying to look out for you, like friends do." I stuttered in explanation, hoping upon hope she'd believe me. I felt bad for deceiving her, but I didn't think I was ready to admit my true feelings just yet. I still did not fully understand the relationship she shared with Gaston, and with Mrs Potts' warning still ringing in my ears, I had to be more careful than ever.

I watched as some of her anger simmered away, but her frustration was still potent on her face. I chose to stay quiet, letting her think through all I had just told her and praying she didn't detect my deception.

"Adam, I appreciate you trying to protect me, really I do. But I think it's important for you to realise that I'm not helpless. Gaston and I... what we share between us is a little unconventional, and incredibly difficult to explain, and it may not seem so to a person watching from the outside, but I can handle him.

"He thinks and acts in a very particular way, and its taken me a long time to learn how to navigate myself around him, but I do understand him, in a sense. So, trust me when I say that you don't have to get involved. Everyone's tiptoeing around me right now but, in a few days, his anger will burn out and everything will go back to normal again. So, in future, try not exploding on anyone you see talking to me, because they're the ones that are brave enough to defy him and come to me just to make sure I'm alright. Alright?"

God, I hated that. That by trying to keep myself safe, I had inevitably led her right back to thinking about him. It seemed that every conversation we had always led back to him, no matter where we were or what we were doing. I could understand what she was trying to tell me, that her issues with Gaston were hers and she didn't want me anywhere near them. I hated that she didn't trust me enough to involve me in this part of her life, but I was new to this whole 'friend' thing after all. Unlike her and Lumière. I could have kicked myself for failing to recognise what Lumière really was to Belle; a good friend and nothing more. Now Belle only thought that my outburst was centred around Gaston, and she was trying to push me away. It might have been better than her knowing how jealous and possessive over her I'd become, but only by a little. I wasn't reassured about her insistence that she could 'handle' Gaston after everything I had seen, but I understood her need to be independent. She relied on Gaston, for whatever reason, and the price she paid was far from minimal. I guessed the last thing she wanted was to feel dependent on another man.

I got it, I just didn't like it.

Why oh why did she have to be so stubborn?

"I understand," I relented, nodding my head and throwing my hands up in submission, "and I know you're sick of hearing it, but I am sorry for yelling at you, and for yelling at your friend. And if you want, I'll apologise to him also, since you seem to be right, and I am growing a certain attachment to the word." I teased her lightly, my words having the desired effect since her face broke into a small smile and a blush stole her cheeks away. And just like that, I was forgiven again.

For the next half-hour or so, we worked in silence. I couldn't help but continue my little game of looking up at her every few minutes just to watch her while she read. Even though her face showed signs of boredom and her body signs of restlessness, her eyes still sparked with something pure and genuine every time she read anything. It was fascinating for me, much more so then one of my council members droning on for ten pages about the value of baby carrots.

So many things she did fascinated me, in a bunch of new and unexplainable ways, and this afternoon's little adventure had only added more mystery to the girl's life. My face darkened as my thoughts lingered on what the shopkeeper had said, about the villagers treating her and her father badly. About how she was most likely forced to leave the village to live in this castle because of them. It made me furious to know that people had mistreated her, and according to the bookshop owner, so severely it might have changed the goodness in her. Of course, I didn't know what she was like before I met her, but I did know that she was so genuine and kind, that the idea of anyone changing that in her...

"Adam? Are you alright?" She called, I shook myself to see that she was staring back at me expectantly, having caught me staring while I brooded.

"Yes, I'm fine," I muttered quietly, shifting uncomfortably in my seat. I met her eyes with fake reassurance.

"Are you sure? You were staring at me, but when I called your name, you didn't answer. And you looked a little... angry. You know you can talk to me right? About anything?" She insisted.

I swallowed heavily. Was she being serious? Could I really talk to her about it? I wasn't going to question her until I felt she was ready to tell me but... would she ever really be ready unless I asked? Would she take offence if I did ask? Would she shut me out again? Was getting the answers I wanted really worth the risk?

"Do you really mean that?" The words slipped out, "Can I really ask you anything?"

"Of course," She said, placing her hand on her heart, her voice filled with nothing but compassion, "Adam you can ask me anything."

I gulped.

"Belle, where's your father?"

Mature Content

This content is intended for mature audiences.


or, enter your birth date.*


Month

Day

Year*
Please enter a valid date format (mm-dd-yyyy)
Please confirm you have reviewed DeviantArt's Terms of Service below.
* We do not retain your date-of-birth information.
Fuck, I fucked up.

I had been so drawn into myself when I was telling her my story, I didn't stop and think about how a girl like Belle would perceive it.

And then, I had to go and say it.

'What kind of man could love a woman who sold her body for money? Who could love a whore?'

Belle had to have known I wasn't talking about her, right? She was nothing like Marie. She had to know I hadn't meant her!

Sure, that's why she's been ignoring and avoiding you all week.

It was true. She had been avoiding me like the plague. She completely ignored me during meals, even when I tried blatantly to get her attention. If I caught her with the other servants. She'd always make up some excuse to leave before I could even open my mouth to speak, she had even stopped coming into the library, and it infuriated me that she wanted to stay away from me so badly she would give up on something she loved so much just to do so.

I had fucked up, big time.

I shouldn't have told her about Marie, I should have just quit while I was ahead and stopped while I still held her sympathy. But her encouragement, and the fact that she had said my name, had made me believe that I could speak to her like a friend, one friend in particular.

I had told her the story as though I were speaking to Gaston, because I knew he would have found my revenge just as justified and amusing as I did. But Belle... wasn't like Gaston. She wasn't the type to hold a grudge, that much I had witnessed first hand. She was compassionate and forgiving, and I had taken advantage of her willingness to listen by painting myself a brutal monster and comparing her to a whore. Again!

Fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK!

I had been making such progress and now it felt like I was even further away from her then when I had first got here, only this time, I seriously doubted I could save her from another pack of hungry wolves to get her to talk to me.

How did I fix this?

"Adam?"

I jumped in my seat, my eyes flying across the table to meet the rather disapproving gaze of the king.

"What? I mean, um... could you repeat that please?" I stuttered, ignoring the various snickers and gasps from around the dining room. It was a testament to how distracted I was that I couldn't even focus on the king's words.

He gave me a look that let me know exactly how he felt about being ignored, before sliding his face back into a mask and proceeding to repeat himself.

"I was mentioning to Gaston that the ball being held in celebration of his twenty-first name day would be the perfect place to audition potential brides. Wouldn't you agree?"

I froze in my seat, completely blind-sided. How did I respond to a question like that? I knew Gaston wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea of taking a bride, and as he was sitting right there across the table from me - looking like he had been sucking on a sour lemon - I really didn't want to appear as though I were taking sides.

Thankfully, Gaston spoke up before I was forced to.

"Father, do we really have to discuss this now? I've still got another month until my coronation, Can't we just wait until then?" Gaston grumbled, dropping his fork with a frustrated scowl on his face.

"That time will go quickly son. Besides, wouldn't you like to get to know your bride before you are wed? It only makes sense to take your time with your decision least you're stuck with a maiden we both disapprove of." The king explained languidly, as though he had already exhausted this matter a dozen times before. I wouldn't be surprised. Gaston was stubborn, and I knew how reluctant he was to finally tie himself down and commit to one woman. He liked his freedom.

"Why do I even need a wife to rule, it's not like she'd have any say in the decisions I make for the kingdom? Why do I need to marry to be king?" Gaston demanded, pushing his food away with a huff.

The king clenched his jaw ever so slightly, his eyes turning sharp and cold as he stared across the table at his son. I could almost feel the whole room holding their breath.

"Gaston, we have been over this already," the king gritted sternly, "you need to respect the traditions of your ancestors, and this is the way it has always been. I've already taken the liberty of inviting every eligible maiden of status to attend the Ball, and I expect you to co-operate. If you don't, well then, I may very well decide to honour another of our family's noble traditions, and decide for you."

Gaston let out a sharp puff of air through his nose and stared his father down across the room. Everyone went completely quiet. No one made a sound.

"No. If I'm forced to choose a woman to bind myself to in marriage, I will make the decision on my own. And if I remember correctly father, I do not need your approval for who I pick."

If the atmosphere wasn't tense before, it certainly was now. I was willing to bet that everyone in the dining hall would have rather been anywhere else but in the same room with two furious, feuding members of royalty. Oh god, couldn't these two just get along?

But unlike his son, Silas looked the pinnacle of ease. The anger seemed to have melted away, leaving a fairly amused smirk on his face at his son's words. He cocked his head to the side ever so slightly and regally raised his wine to his lips. "Is that so? Well, son, I'll share a little secret with you, and since you choose to throw this tantrum in front of an entire hall of people, I suppose I will be forced to share this secret with them as well. Everything you do requires my approval, even when you think you are the one in control, I am always there, pulling the strings."

His tone was superior, even slightly snide, as he levelled his son with a disarming gaze. He took another leisurely sip and continued.

"If you believe, for even a moment, that you will be allowed to wed anyone you please, you will be sorely disappointed. The woman you wed will be a woman of stature, wealth and superior breeding. And once you are wed, you will be completely loyal to her; no more gallivanting off with wenches who aren't even worthy enough to clean the expensive sheets they stain."

My whole body went rigid at the king's rancid words. I knew he was talking about her, and I hated that he spoke of her so disparagingly. He didn't even know her, what right did he have!

I could see Gaston was just as enraged. The veins in his thick neck were practically bulging as his fists clenched the dining room tablecloth. His eyes bore holes into the perfectly stitched linen before he pushed himself angrily to his feet.

"I'm done, if you'll please excuse me."

"Gaston, sit down. Don't act like a child. You haven't even finished your supper." Silas drawled, clearly bored with his son's display.

"I'm not hungry. Now if you'll pardon me, I have a wedding to think about." Gaston snarled in an insincerely enthusiastic manner, before stomping loudly from the room. I sat staring at my roast duck for only a moment, before quickly launching to my feet.

"If you'll excuse me as well, Your Majesty?" I asked the king, who raised one perfectly trimmed eyebrow at me before waving his hand through the air, dismissing me.

"Gaston, wait!" I called out, running to catch up with him. He was charging down the flights of stairs at such a pace I had to jump several steps just to keep up with him. He was fuming, fists clenched to his sides, back straight and bristling. He didn't stop, so I simply followed, hurrying along beside him.

"Maybe it won't be so bad. You might even enjoy being married, once you get used to it." I told him. If I were being honest, I was kind of on board with the idea. After all, if Gaston were wed, I'd have Belle all to myself, at least for a few months. There was no way in hell I'd expose my true feelings though, so I spoke the false words as comfortingly as I could. His scoff let me know he wasn't fooled.

"Don't talk out of your ass Adam, I know you don't want this either! Who would? Being forced to decide who you're going to be chained to forever? I wish father would just let me live my life in peace!" He spat, keeping his eyes straight ahead as we bounded down another flight of stairs. Where were we even going?

"Your father may be right though," I panted breathlessly, wheezing as our feet pounded another dark hallway, "It would probably be better to pick a bride before your wedding, that way, you can ensure you're not stuck with something you don't want. Who knows, you may even meet someone you want to be with."

He cast me a look of complete disgust, a thin line of sweat forming on his brow from our exertion. He turned on me abruptly, hands tugging at his hair, as though he fancied to rip out each strand to relieve his frustrations.

"Adam, you don't understand! How can I possibly pick a bride when I have..? how can I..? Urg!"

He suddenly turned and pounded his fist right into the strong stone wall. I watched in awe, and a little worry, as he pulled his hand away to reveal several dented bricks and a light dust of rubble.

Wow, he must be really upset with the prospect of marriage. I was feeling rather alarmed by just how upset he was. Sure, marrying so young under the orders of another would be to the disdain of any man, but it wasn't as though he hadn't had time to prepare himself for this. He had known what age he would be obliged to take a wife all his life, and Silas was right, the time between now, and his coronation was extremely short. There was no way Silas would dishonour centuries worth of traditions by handing Gaston the crown without a bride. Was this only about his reluctance to settle down and commit, or was something else going on here?

I had a rather sneaking suspicion I knew the real reason behind this tantrum he was throwing, and honestly, I was just summoning up the courage to question him about it, when...

"Do you really think she'll like it, Belle? She didn't tell me what she wanted, she just kept saying that my smile was the best solstice gift I could give her? Do you think she'll like this more?" Chip's squeaky childish voice came slightly muffled through the door we had just past by. Gaston froze, his whole body rippling with a single shiver of tension before his eyes hunted back to the door. I hadn't even noticed we had been walking through the servants quarters.

"Oh Chip, I don't think there's anything you could possibly get her that would make her smile more than you. But I'll bet she'll love this almost as much." Belle's sweet words almost made me smile, until I took a close look at Gaston's face. Oh no.

He turned back, all but shoving me out of the way, and with a snarl did he viciously kick the door to the servant's lounge wide open. I cringed as the wood bashed against the stone wall, but had no time before Gaston barged angrily through the doorway. I followed tentatively. This was not good.

I saw Belle and Chip first, as they were both seated on the floor, a small wooden box half wrapped in brown paper and string between them. A look of fear marred her beauty before she launched herself to her feet along with the fifteen or so other servants who all looked like their peaceful afternoon had been trampled all over.

"What the fuck is going on here?" Gaston yelled, his heavy voice booming around the small silent room. Nearly everyone cringed, staring fearfully upon the angry prince, but none more so than Belle.

"I asked you a question, Belle! What is this?" He hissed, taking a menacing step towards her. I saw Chip hiding behind Belle's legs, and saw how she gently placed her hand on his small shoulder as though to soothe him, before standing off against my friend.

"We were just... I was just helping..."

"Didn't I tell you to stop interfering with matters that don't concern you?" He snarled, his strong muscular face red with rage as he took another step forward.

"But you said I could..."

"I said you should ask my permission before you go gallivanting off with servants! Are you honestly that incapable of following orders. Are you seriously that fucking stupid?!" He yelled at her.

Belle swallowed heavily, her face loaded with worry and embarrassment. She gently detached Chip's small arms from around her legs and moved him to the side of her, before taking a small step towards Gaston. Brave of her, I had to admit. He was fuming, and looked ready for a fight. I feared that this might end the same way their last fight did. Yet she approached him rather than backing away, which was more then I could say for the servants who were watching the exchange from the sidelines. One of them launched forward to grab Chip's arm and pull him back to safety, while the rest simply stayed in their submissive positions and tried to look as though they weren't avidly watching the unusual battle before them.

"G-Gaston please, we were only wrapping s-solstice gifts for Mrs Potts. I wasn't exerting myself or doing other servants' chores, I wasn't doing anything you told me not to do. Please, don't be angry. We can talk..."

I jumped as Gaston suddenly bounded forward, gripping both Belle's shoulders in a vice and nearly lifting her off her feet. I took a few steps into the room in a panic. If things got too heated, I would have to intervene. I couldn't let him hurt Belle again, friend or non.

"Don't you dare tell me what to do! I'm the one in charge here, in case you've forgotten! I'm the one who gives the orders!" He snarled in her face, shaking her.

I had to do something! What if he hit her? What if he hurt her like last time? He was angry because of his father, just like last time, and he was taking it out on her, just like last time. Her black eye and bruises appeared in my mind once more, making me feel physically ill. I couldn't let it happen again!

"You think you can go behind my back and do whatever you please? Huh?! Have you forgotten that I own you?! That you belong to me and always will?!" He spat at her, tightening his grip on the poor girl's shoulders so she winced and whimpered in pain. I could see the tears lingering in her eyes, but she was trying so hard to be strong in front of everyone.

That was it, I couldn't watch this any more, I had to intervene.

I was about to tell him to let her go, the words were right on my tongue, but I choked. What if he figured out what had been going on between us? What if he questioned my friendship because I stuck up for her? What if he realised my fixation on a woman he had claimed as his own the very night I was here. Was losing his friendship really worth it?

I cowardly lost my nerve, and he spoke again.

"It seems my pretty little pet needs to be reminded of her place once more. Take your ass back to my bedchamber and don't you dare leave until I come for you!" He barked, before pushing her harshly towards the open door, where she stumbled and bashed against the door-frame, flinging out her arms just in time. She took one last look back at the room, her watery eyes catching my wide frozen ones for only a moment, before she lowered her head in humiliation and fled down the hallway.

A ripe feeling of shame overcame me as I watched her go, realising I had just missed a golden opportunity to prove myself to her. But it was more than that. I knew she didn't deserve the treatment she just got, but it seemed that I, once again, didn't have the guts to speak out against my friend. I may as well have joined the band of cowering servants pressed up against the wall.

I was pathetic.

"I want you all to stay the hell away from her! I'm so sick of all you peasants taking up all of her time, time she should be spending on me! But no, instead she wears herself to the bone, doing your work while you all sit merrily on your asses making solstice gifts!" Gaston roared at them, even more furiously then he had at Belle. The vein in his neck looked fit to burst and his normally cool blue eyes were raging with fire. Even I was a little scared of him in that moment.

"But Your Majesty," one brave servant stammered, "It-it was her idea-"

"She's MINE!" He screamed, the servant cowered away in terror. "And I'm not about to let anyone take her away from me, especially not a bunch of lazy, low life vermin! The next one of you I see anywhere near her will be thrown out of this castle without a single possession to your name. Spread the word. I will be king soon, and there will be no place in my kingdom for rats who don't stay in their place!"

And with that, he turned on his heel and stormed away. I needed to say something, anything! I needed to go after him, and stop him from hurting her like he did before. I needed to do something.

"Oh my, what happened here?" Said a familiar voice from the doorway Gaston had just left from. I watched as Chip ran across the room propelling himself into his mother's arms and snuggling his little face into her stomach while she looked down upon him worriedly.

"Chip? Whatever happened? You're shaking."

Chip sniffled and gazed up at his mother with tears in his baby blue eyes.

"Prince Gaston was mean to Belle again Mama! He hurt her again! Why is he so mean to her all the time?" Chip whimpered into his mother's stomach. I watched from the sidelines as Mrs Potts' face soured. She closed her eyes as though experiencing physical pain before muttering, "oh that poor girl. If only her father were better."

Oh my god! She knew!

Why didn't I think of it before?! Mrs Potts knew practically everything about everyone who lived in this castle, mostly because she was so easy to talk to. She was a mother hen, caring for and overseeing all servants, and from the interactions I could recall so far, I knew she was fond of Belle. She had to know why she was here.

If Belle won't tell me herself, I'll have to find out some other way.

"Mrs Potts," I called out, drawing her attention away from her frightened offspring. She looked surprised to see me standing there, but wiped it from her face and dipped into a hasty curtsy, still holding Chip to her legs.

"I wish to speak with you, in private," I added quickly, not wanting anyone to know where my obsession lay.

She relented rather reluctantly, handing Chip over to a cook and promising to be back for him shortly, she followed me at a speedy pace out of the servants quarters. At first, I didn't know where I was leading her, I only wanted someplace quiet to talk, but then I realised I was tracing the familiar path to the library. I hated coming in here since Belle had stopped talking to me, but I kept coming back in the hopes that she would return.

I led Mrs Potts in and closed the doors behind her. Turning to face her, I got straight to the point.

"Why is Belle here Mrs Potts? What does Gaston have on her that makes her stay?"

Her kind eyes immediately widened in shock, like the question was the last thing she ever expected to come out of my mouth. She wrung her apron between her fingers, nervously playing with the fabric, "You wish to know about Belle?"

I nearly rolled my eyes. Isn't that exactly what I just said?

"I know she's not here of her own free will Mrs Potts, not with the way Gaston treats her. I want to know the reason, so you're going to tell me." I decreed, fully expecting her to do as I told her. She always listened to me. Always.

Mrs Potts shifted her eyes around, looking tense and anxious as she avoided my burning gaze. Finally, she settled on staring at a row of colourful worn books on a shelf beside me. Her answer was not what I expected.

"I don't know what you mean Sire. Belle is here entirely of her own accord. She serves the prince because she is loyal to him, as are all servants of this castle."

My face dropped. Her reply, it was so... monotonous. So practised, so fake. It wasn't at all what I wanted to hear, and I narrowed my eyes at her suspiciously.

"Mrs Potts, I know there's something going on here. She's so strong and courageous, and yet she bends at the knee every time Gaston walks into the room. I know he's keeping her here somehow, and I want to know why!"

Her eyes popped at my evaluation of Belle's character, even taking a step back in her shock. Her voice sounded weary and quivering as she spoke again, "Belle is here for the same reason we all are Your Majesty; to feed our families and provide for ourselves. She serves the king and castle with the same commitment that the rest of us do. There is nothing special about her circumstances what so ever."

I didn't understand, why was she acting this way? She was normally so warm and tender with me, yet she was speaking to me as though I were a complete stranger, as though she were disdainful of my questions. I didn't understand... unless...

She was protecting her.

Was the reason for Belle's occupancy in this castle so ghastly that everyone was keeping it a secret? I shook my head. I couldn't. It reminded me too much of my grandmother. Where everyone knew the big bad secret, except me!

What could possibly be so bad?

Why would she need to hide it?

Belle, what are you keeping from me?

I felt so... so frustrated. I wanted to know, but no one would tell me anything! I had revealed my entire dark past to Belle only three days ago, and instead of repaying the favour and responding in kind, she ran from me and ignored me!

What gave her the right?! I was a prince! She should... she should be...

It was at that moment I realised I was doing everything wrong.

I wanted her to treat me like a friend, but I had been acting as her superior this whole time. I shouldn't just expect her to tell me things because of my status, and then turn around and say that my status shouldn't mean anything to her. I told myself I wanted the same relationship with her that Gaston had, but I truly truly didn't. Their relationship was built on intimidation and threats. I didn't want her to see me the same way as Gaston; being obedient and submissive out of fear of the repercussions.

I didn't want to be like Gaston, even if it meant I would never get to be with her physically, the way he got to be.

I didn't want to be only a prince to her.

I wanted to be... so much more.

I was so confused, and I feared it was all over my face since Mrs Potts was eyeing me with wondrous uncertainty. I shifted uncomfortably, feeling weak and even slightly queasy. Where did I go from here?

"Mrs Potts, please," I whispered, some of my desperation leaking through as I took a step towards her. Her small mouth gaped in reply.

"You've known me since I was a child, and I know I've changed, maybe even into something you can't bring yourself to care about any more but... please. Please know that the absolute last thing I want to do is hurt her. I need to know what it is that's keeping her here. Why she endures being treated so... so cruelly, when I know what she's capable of. She could go anywhere, do anything, be anything, yet she stays. It makes no sense. Please, help me make sense of it all." I pleaded with her.

Mrs Potts... well, I didn't even know how to describe the look she had on. Her jaw was practically dislodged from her face her mouth was so wide. And her eyes, they swam with an emotion I had no explanation for. Maybe she simply couldn't bring herself to believe I was trying to help. She had acted like a mother to me when I was young, but maybe my real mother was right. Maybe I really was unlovable. No one loved me. No one trusted me. No one believed I could change.

"I wasn't aware the two of you had gotten so close." She observed gently, her gaze so soft and searching, boring into my own as though desperate to seek the unnatural emotions my mouth had spewed all over her. My face warmed as I thought about all I had learned of her, all the time we'd spent together. What would people think if they knew how avidly I had been chasing after this one servant girl? Did I even really care any more?

"We are. Well, I mean... we were." I admitted embarrassed, the heat in my cheeks flushing through as shame overtook me. Her motherly eyes watched me unwaveringly.

"I said something stupid a few days ago, and she hasn't spoken to me since. I didn't mean to hurt her, but it's like... sometimes... I just can't stop myself. But I want to. I want to be different for her Mrs Potts, because I know that I can't be what I am and still expect to get close to her. I figure she's probably had enough of demanding royalty who push her around and always expect obedience. But I don't want her to be obedient, at least... not any more. I just want her to be... her. Please... help me get her back." I begged. Shamelessly. I didn't care. It was the truth.

I didn't care if Belle ever told me about her past or why she was here. I didn't care if she never revealed her secrets to me. I just wanted her to talk to me again.

I hadn't realised the toll her silence had been taking on me. It had been three days, yet somehow felt like a lifetime.

Why?

"Your Majesty-"

"Adam." I interrupted her, she froze.

"You always use to call me by my name when I was younger. Please don't change that now." I continued to plead, nearly desperate for acceptance, even if it wasn't from the one person I truly wanted it from.

Her face melted into the most tender expression I had ever seen, and I was both delighted and disgusted that it was directed at me. I must have looked pathetic, but I decided I didn't care. I couldn't do this on my own, I knew that now. No matter how hard I tried, I just kept hurting her. Just like him.

"Adam," her voice quivered on the word, in fact, her whole body was shaking. I watched her closely, fearful that she might faint from how pale she suddenly looked.

"Adam, Prince Gaston is your friend-"

"I know he's abusing her Mrs Potts. Trust me I've... I've tried to deny it, but seeing him earlier, it was like... it was like he feels that she deserves to be mistreated even if she's done nothing wrong. He is my friend, you're right, but... he's changed. Changed into something I just can't pretend I accept any more. Belle's so good and pure, she deserves better. Please help me help her."

She swallowed heavily, her chubby face quivering with a strange intensity at my speech. She took a step towards me. I didn't back away.

"He's changed?" She whispered so quietly I barely heard her. Her eyes hunted my face as she raised one trembling arm as though to touch me, her hand was literally centimetres from my face before she changed her mind. She retreated again, and my face dropped.

"Adam, please listen to me. There is nothing in this world I would rather do then help you get that poor girl away from Prince Gaston, but... I simply can't. She needs him. And she certainly does not need any more grief. I fear the more you interfere, the worse it will become for her. He hates it when she's close to other men, and you... well, he's already warned her to stay away from you. The more you continue to pursue her the more you risk putting her in danger."

I gulped. Gaston warned her to stay away from me? Then why had she spent almost every day with me for the past few weeks? Why did she agree to help me in the first place? Why didn't she obey?

A small flicker of hope bloomed where worry reined supreme. Maybe she did care after all.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

"...pity you Belle. You must believe that you have a chance of becoming his bride because you share his bed, but trust me, you are just a distraction. Once his coronation day arrives, he will be taking one of us as his wife. Make no mistake about that!" Came a familiar nasally, irksome voice from around the corner. I turned, and immediately concealed myself as I watched the three Maddington triplets standing before Belle, all with their arms crossed across their chests in a rather humorous attempt at intimidation.

I let out a sigh of relief at the sight of Belle, for I had been afraid that she would disappear for weeks like last time. From this distance, she seemed fine, perfect even, in a pale yellow day dress and her beautiful hair all plaited in a ponytail. She looked unharmed, but I didn't know how long she would stay that way with these three idiots surrounding her, looking rather pathetic in their attempts at being scary. I was about to step in, but it looked as though Belle didn't need my help. She smirked at them.

"No doubt," I heard her say, catching the look of surprise on the three stupid girl's faces before Belle continued. "The question is, exactly which one of you will it be? You can't all marry him, and I have to assume Prince Gaston will want to marry the prettiest, fairest, most talented girl he can find. So, which one of you is that?" Belle asked with a mocking smile. I barely contained my snicker. This girl.

"Me, of course!" All three sisters squealed at once, before turning on each other with angry expressions and beginning to bicker amongst themselves. Belle took the distraction and quickly retreated down the corridor. Right towards me. Perfect.

"That was clever," I said right before she bumped into me, as she had been keeping an eye on the girls she was trying to escape. "Although I really shouldn't be surprised by now should I?"

Her shocked eyes widened and she jumped back. I could see realization dawning on her face. She was just remembering why it was she was avoiding me, when...

"Hey, where'd she go?"

"You were supposed to be watching her idiot, this is why Prince Gaston will choose me!"

"Shut up you two, let's find her before she gets back to the prince!"

"Let's go," I whispered, quickly taking her hand and fleeing down the hallway. The last thing I wanted was those three anywhere near me. I kept a tight hold of her hand as the two of us ran through the castle, trying to escape the tiny terrors that were following close behind us. Seeing a door up close to my right, I stopped abruptly and almost felt her propel right into me. Yanking the door open, I hastily pulled her into the dark cramped space before closing the door quickly behind us. Seconds later we heard the thumping of three pairs of shoes run past, and I held my breath until the noise had disappeared down the hallway. Looking over at her panting face, I let out a little laugh.

"How are you always getting into trouble?" I chuckled, seeing her holding her hand to her heart as she barely suppressed a grin of her own.

"Hey, don't blame me! I didn't know those three blond bimbos were showing up today! The solstice ball isn't for another five days. Besides, no one asked you to get involved. I can handle those three perfectly fine on my own."

I smirked at her, the haughtiness in her answer amusing me greatly.

"So I saw. I never thought a girl like you would be capable of being so underhanded and sneaky." I complimented.

Apparently, she didn't see it quite that way. A shadow passed across her face, a shadow having nothing to do with the darkness of the cramped space I had shoved us into. Only a small sliver of light shun through a small dirty window partially obscured by shelves covered in washcloths and basins. A broom closet. Of course.

"Well, you would be surprised what girl's like me are capable of nowadays." She told me coldly, a snarl marring her fair complexion as her hand reached for the doorknob. I moved to stop her, placing my hand over hers.

"Belle, please, just let me explain. I didn't mean to offend you when I said those things about Marie. It was all about her, you have to know that. I didn't mean any of it against you."

Her flat mouth and heavy-lidded eyes told me she was not convinced.

"You don't have to explain anything to me, Your Majesty. You weren't wrong, after all. It is so nice to be continuously reminded of how much of a whore I am, but if you please, I do think that I'd like to stop having it said right to my face all the time. Now, if you'll excuse me..." She drawled, pushing the door open a crack before I yanked it back again, the force scaring her away long enough for me to cover the door with my body. We were so close together, her and I, trapped in this tight little space. I could count every single one of her eyelashes if I wished to, but right now, all I wanted was for her to hear me out.

"Please Belle, don't say things like that," I begged, horrified that she would refer to herself a whore so casually. It wasn't what she was. Any idiot could see that. It had just taken this idiot longer than most.

"Why? You were right." She continued patronisingly, almost as though she knew how much those words pained me. I couldn't take it; I snapped and grabbed her, "Belle, would you please just-"

She winced, letting out a hiss of pain. I dropped my hands at once, throwing myself back into the door in horror. I looked at the place I had grabbed, the place I had only just noticed had been obstructed by short yellow sleeves. Bruises.

"What did he do to you?" I seethed, taking a tiny step forward to glare at the marks revealed by my heinous actions, Belle was quick to conceal the marks, hugging her arms around her shoulders.

"Don't, okay." She remarked sullenly. "They're just bruises."

I let out a sharp gasp. Oh god.

"Belle I'm... I'm so sorry," I stuttered, appalled at my own actions. I had grabbed her so viciously, just like Gaston had done. Didn't I say I wanted to be nothing like him any more? How could I..?

"Stop saying you're sorry! Gods, that's all you ever say! I thought you were different from Gaston, but you're not, you're worse! He never apologises for anything, but I'd take that over constantly apologising when you aren't even sincere!"

I choked. WHAT!

"I am fucking sincere! How can you say I'm worse then Gaston! I'm nothing like him!" I yelled at her. She chuckled. It was a joyless, bitter sound, and the barely visible sunshine did its part to make her disgust all the more visible.

"You are exactly like him! But at least he's honest about what he is. You... I can never make up my mind with you! One moment you're screaming about how much of a whore I am, then you're making me feel sorry for you. Then you go back to making me feel like shit! I don't want to be a part of your sick, twisted games any more! If your only playing with me because you think I'm not good enough for your best friend, then just fucking stop! In another month I won't even be here, and all I'm trying to do is get through it! And it would be a hell of a lot easier if you, or the king, or everyone else would just stop reminding me of how insignificant I am! Because I get it! I get that I'm used up, I get that no one will ever want me! I get that I'll never amount to anything and I get that I'm not even worth saving! So please! Please please please just STOP!" She cried, her voice breaking as she released a sharp sob.

I just stood there, stunned.

"Is that really how I make you feel?" I whispered, completely devastated. I watched brokenly as two thick wet tears trailed down her red flustered face. She looked up at me just as sadly.

"Isn't that how you're trying to make me feel?" She whimpered. My eyes bulged.

"NO! No Belle! No! Oh god!" I grabbed hold of my long fair hair, gripping it painfully as though it had the answers I needed. How did I talk to her like this? What could I even say? I was a mess!

"Belle I'm... I'm no good at this," I stuttered as some kind of pathetic explanation. I ran a sweaty hand down my red face and tried again.

"I never meant to make you feel that way, I swear I didn't! When I told you about Marie, I was only telling you about her because... because I'd never told anyone about her before. I've never told anyone about any of it. My parents, how they treated me, how they made me feel. I felt so insignificant and unloved for years, and then she came along, and I thought she was different, so when I found out she was more of the same I just... I lost it. She was the first person I ever trusted and she destroyed me. I never thought I'd ever find someone I trusted ever again, but then... there was you." I stopped and took a deep breath, not even brave enough to look her in the eye. I was so desperate to get it all out it almost didn't matter if she believed me, just as long as she listened.

"Your nothing like her Belle, and the one reason I know that's true is because... because I know you don't love Gaston. I don't know why you act the way you do around him, why you cower and act so submissive when I know how strong and brave you are. To be honest with you, I'd give just about anything to know. But I won't force you to tell me. I won't force you to do anything, ever again. If letting you walk out this door and having you never talk to me again is the price I have to pay to prove to you I would never treat you like he does, then so be it. But please please know how sorry I am for ever making you feel like I'm worse than him. Because maybe you're right, maybe I am, but I would never do anything like that to you. You're worth the world, and you should be with someone who makes you feel that way, not someone who puts you down or hurts you. I'm so so sorry for everything he's done. I'm sorry for not stopping him! I'm just... so fucking sorry!"

I was panting like crazy. I felt like I couldn't breathe. My gaze hammered to a dirty mop covered in cobwebs sitting propped up against the dull stone wall. I didn't even remember half the things I had just said to her, all I wanted was for her to know how desperately I wanted to be with her again. To have her stop ignoring me and forgive me, and give me a second chance at being friends. I'd take it. Even if it wasn't what I wanted I'd take it. Anything over her hatred.

I didn't expect it, honestly, it was the last thing I'd expect... the feeling of a soft small hand on my cheek.

My eyes shot down to hers, catching my own messy reflection in her shining forest pools.

"You really mean this don't you?" She whispered heavily, her gaze matching the same desperation I was riddled with. "This isn't just some trick or game. Tell me you're being honest with me." She begged.

I placed my hand over hers, relishing the feeling of her skin against my own.

"I mean it, Belle. I'm sorry if I ever made you feel like you couldn't trust me. I'm a bastard, I know that, but I'm trying to be better, for you. You make me want to be better. I don't know why and please don't ask me to explain it but... can we please just go back to being friends again." I pleaded with her, nearly crushing her hand to my face, holding it so tightly, afraid to pull away. Her brown irises brightened and her mouth gaped wide open. I was afraid I'd said the wrong thing.

"Friends again? You want us to be friends?" She asked me, bewilderedly.

I nodded solemnly, bracing myself.

"Yes, but if that's not what you want..." I trailed off, staring at the dirty stone floor, waiting for rejection.

"No," She said quietly, I nodded in defeat, feeling like I wanted to go back to my room and crawl under the bed forever. I hated myself.

"Adam, I would love to be friends."

Pride

I AM PROUD

Made with pride by the DeviantArt community BROWSE ALL ART

Critiques

Comments


Add a Comment:
 
:iconrainbow-falls:
rainbow-falls Featured By Owner Aug 22, 2018  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
it did bring a smile thanks very muchly :)
Reply
:iconraeseddon2:
RaeSeddon2 Featured By Owner Aug 22, 2018
You're welcome. Huggle! 
Reply
:iconconnoramone:
ConnoRamone Featured By Owner May 6, 2018  Hobbyist General Artist
Happy BirthdayHave your cake and eat it too 
Reply
:iconraeseddon2:
RaeSeddon2 Featured By Owner May 7, 2018
THANK YOU XOXO
Reply
:iconconnoramone:
ConnoRamone Featured By Owner May 7, 2018  Hobbyist General Artist
you are welcome
Reply
Add a Comment: