What surprises Belle the most is the princess's grace. She walks with slow, deliberate steps, almost as if she's still learning how, and rather than seem clumpy, it comes off as elegant. It demands attention, and Belle grants it, thoroughly captivated. She particularly enjoys that there are still things about this lifestyle that catch her fancy. Ariel is not the same sort of forced posh as many of the other lords and ladies that have flitted in and out of Belle's world recently.
"This ballroom is beautiful," Princess Ariel gushes, her large eyes going even wider as she takes in the full view of the golden, decadent room that is Belle's second favorite place in the castle. Ariel doesn't particularly talk like a princess, which Belle feels makes her a kindred spirit. It's been months, but sometimes Belle still feels like a stranger, like she's trapped inside these frothy ballgowns and extravagant lifestyle. For that, she was immensely glad when Ariel had shown up in a very plain dress, like she was someone in the village She's a simple girl. She likes a book here, a dance there.
Belle eyes Ariel with the budding notion of being co-conspirators. "Do you dance, Princess?"
If Belle had thought Princess Ariel beautiful before, she is now utterly transformed: delight shines in her eyes, her grin stretches magnificently, and she seems to completely glow. "Yes, I do. Do you want to?" She's girlish in her glee, and it's infectious.
"We don't have partners," Belle says, a smile toying.
"I see a partner," says Ariel, clutching at both of Belle's hands in her own. She swings Belle's arms outward, then pulls her back into a skipping step. In minutes, they're laughing and twirling about the room to music only they can hear, fabric swishing around their thighs. They're able to move without enormous skirts weighing them down. Ariel has a sense of adventure, Belle thinks, and she likes it very much.
Breathless, Ariel collapses onto a couch. Her hand still clamping Belle's, she pulls her down as well. "You move so beautifully," says Ariel with a joy Belle can't fathom.
"My father taught me when I was a girl," Belle explains, and she finds herself warming with a flood of fond memories.
"I wish I could claim the same," says Ariel, her tone almost wistful. Then she smiles brilliantly. "You should dance more."
"I dance enough."
Ariel props an elbow on her knees, her chin in her upturned palm, her expression mischievous. "But not like that. Like a princess. You go to balls, and you waltz, and you smile but don't talk, and you eat tiny little scraps of food that don't fill you up at all."
Maybe Ariel doesn't mean to paint it so bleakly, but Belle's chest tightens, the feeling of being trapped, if only for a second. "And you don't?" she says, turning it around.
Ariel smiles. The light floods the enormous windows, catching her hair, making it shine in a way that Belle can only describe as glorious. "I didn't used to."
Ah. The before. What Belle hates, though she'd never say it, is the way that everyone, even her own prince, seem to forget that there was a before. "What was your life like before Prince Eric?" she asks.
"Still a princess," says Ariel with a casual sort of shrug, and then that grin returns. "But a princess of the sea."
"Can you keep a secret?"
"I used to be a mermaid," she says matter-of-factly. "My father is King Triton, the lord of the sea." So she really is a princess, born and bred, not just married into it. Belle feels her understanding slipping. Ariel only smiles. "Pretty crazy, huh?"
Belle thinks of the magic that turned a handsome prince into a fearsome beast, and made a series of household objects Belle's best friends. "Not that crazy."
"I'm still getting used to it," says Ariel, kicking up a shapely calf for her examination. "Having human parts, I mean."
"You mean..." Belle starts, but she doesn't know how to finish.
"I love dancing," the princess says. "Dancing is like swimming, and swimming is like dancing, except they're both different." Ariel tells her tale of love, witches, silence, and war, until Belle aches with envy. Adventure. Freedom. And glorious, glorious choice. Magic or no magic, Ariel's life is far more charmed than she realizes. Belle feels more than a twinge of jealousy.
"Your world is so beautiful," Ariel says finally, with a wistful sigh. "It's so... not like mine. And it's amazing."
"Not all that amazing," says Belle. "You said it yourself. Balls and obligations, nodding and smiling and being unable to express your own opinions, particularly if you disagree." Distaste tugs at the corners of her mouth, as she recalls the dignitaries she would've liked to tell off for their antiquated ideas, but was unable to do so. She catches Ariel looking, and manages at least a half smile. "Opulent meals, with insufficient portions, because heaven forbid you have anything less than the delicate figure of a princess."
"And here I thought you were just a natural beauty."
"You're too kind."
"I always sneak more food," Ariel confesses.
The laughter bubbles up before Belle can stifle it. "Me, too. I have friends in the kitchen. In fact, I'm sure there's some boeuf bourgignon left, if you're hungry..."
Ariel's smile freezes and dies. "Actually, I don't eat meat."
Belle couldn't imagine. "No?"
"My friends are fish. You don't forget it that quickly."
"Oh, I understand," says Belle, even though she doesn't quite. Friends who were once pieces of furniture were an entirely different animal, so to speak, from actual animals. She could still very easily put her clothes in a wardrobe or sip from a tea cup.
She tries to think of something to say, something that does not put her foot in her mouth. But Ariel speaks before she can, not that it diffuses the situation much. "I miss them."
"And my family. That was the choice I had to make. Be with Eric, and give up my father and sisters and Flounder." Belle doesn't ask for further details, Ariel looks at the ballroom wistfully. "I love him more than anything, so I don't regret it. But I miss them."
Belle thinks of her father, in the village that she used to think of as far away. But she can reach him in a day. And Ariel can no longer breathe underwater. Belle has been envying Ariel her freedom, the beautiful freedom of decision and adventure, but her decision has left her in a different sort of prison than the one Belle finds herself in.
"Come with me," she says, coming to the decision just seconds before she rises to her feet. She holds out her hand for a somewhat confused Ariel to take, and leads the other woman through the castle, nearly a reverse of the original tour.
"Where are we going?"
"To see your family," says Belle, and she quite enjoys the slack-jawed bewilderment of her new friend.
The mirror is, as always, in the secret place she keeps it. The library is her safe haven, the place where she truly is a regal queen, and where things are at last under her control. And as the place where she feels the most safe and the most at home, she uses it as a place to connect to her former life. She gifts the mirror to Ariel. "You have more use for this than I do."
"Not just any mirror. This mirror will show you any person you want to see. It's particularly useful when you have no way of seeing them yourself." Belle smiles, "It's not particularly easy to dive deep into the sea."
Ariel's eyes are wide when she looks at Belle, as if she expects her to say she is merely joking, and take the mirror away. "Try it," Belle encourages.
"Show me my father," Ariel says to the mirror, and Belle cannot see what Ariel sees, but she can see the incredible joy on the princess's face as she watches. "This..." she says, looking up when she's drunk her fill, "this is amazing."
"Belle, I couldn't." She still clings to the mirror as though it's a lifeline. In a way, it is. Belle understands that better than anyone. But she can give it up.
"You can, and you will. I insist. We all need our escapes. These," she gestures at the walls of books, "are mine. And this can be yours."
"Belle." Ariel glides forward and embraces Belle like she's her oldest, dearest friend. "I can't thank you enough."
The joyous rapture on her new friend's face is unmistakable. For the first time since being crowned, Belle actually feels as though she's done something worthy of a princess.