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That Girl is Strange, No Question

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He reaches over underneath the gilded table and catches his fingers against the edge of her right elbow. Enough that Belle starts a little, but not enough to alert their guests. Adam leans over as if they are sharing an intimate, private moment, and nuzzles his nose against her temple. “You’re doing it again, my love.”

Belle is entirely on edge, stiff, like she would jump out of her chair at any moment. “Doing? Doing what?”

Without making too much of a movement out of it, Adam lets his eyes drift down from her face to the elaborate dinnerware as it sits on the dining table. She follows his gaze with ease and must see what he does: she has pulled one of her sketching pencils out of somewhere that he can’t even begin to imagine and has started scribbling schematics for something he can’t recognize. There are notes in the margins and measurements, as well as detailed design draftings. It’s spilled from her tablecloth onto his own.

Belle’s shoulders sink a little. All she manages is, “Oh.”

Sketching is one of the things Belle inherited from Maurice, Adam thinks, because in the two weeks since his return to, well, not-enchantment, he’s spent enough time with the both of them to see the familial resemblance.

Though, Belle’s sketches are more of things, not people. Plans, or parts, or cogs for a clock, she sketches on nearly every available surface. She does it without thinking, apparently, too, if the tablecloth beneath her fingers is any judge.

“Sorry,” she says, under her breath. Just low enough for him to hear. “Sometimes I just get an idea, you know, and there it is.”

Adam says nothing, but entwines their fingers under the table while he continues to look invested in the conversation happening to his left. Outwardly, at least. Inwardly, he can’t help but focus entirely about what her skin feels like under his very human fingers.

“Only a few more hours,” he tells her even as he laughs at some Viscountess’ joke. “Then we’ll kick all of them out. All of them. Every last one.”

“A few hours?” Belle asks, looking alarmed. “Surely not.”

“It’s true,” Adam says. At her nearly disgusted look he has to tighten his grips on her fingers. “Fêtes occasionally last until sunrise, my love.”

What?” Belle asks, far too loud. Even over the tink of silverware against plates or glass against glass, it is far too loud. They both freeze where they are and don’t dare look away.

Somebody clears their throat from down the table on their left, and Adam keeps his face as passive as he possibly can until conversation manages to resume. Belle’s fingers entwined in his own under the table feel as if they are ready to start pinching him at any given moment.

When all of their guests have started up their own, lively conversations, or are otherwise occupied, Belle hisses, “Surely you can’t be serious.”

“At least twice a week from the time I was seven,” he admits. “My father loved parties even more than I did,” he tells her, and then has to correct himself. “From, you know. Before.”

They share a wince between themselves as their eyes meet. They’ve both had their fill of socializing for half a lifetime, and yet there is no end in sight for either of them. Adam can see from her tenseness that she’s struggling to keep herself upright, at this point.

He can’t really blame her. This needless idle chatter has been going on since before sundown and it is now late into the night, but try explaining a magical, enchanted absence to all of the Marquis, Marquesses, Lords, Ladies, Dukes, Duchesses, Barons, and Baronesses that used to be in his court— it wouldn’t be easy even under the best of circumstances. And the bright smiles and peals of laughter hide an undercurrent of distrust. Adam isn’t proud of it, but he was a boastful, proud, hedonistic prince. The golden trimmings of every room in this castle are proof enough of that. This fête was meant to show that he— no, theyve— turned over a new leaf. Their rule will be a prosperous one for all involved.

Even if it’s only decades of etiquette being burned into his brain that is keeping him from flipping the plate before him into the air and storming out.

He often wonders if there’s anything that remains of his time, well, before, other than a sudden appreciation for medium-rare meat. Perhaps one day soon, he’ll wake up in the morning and not wonder why his claws feel so small.

There’s only so many courses of purple puddings that one prince can take before he’s ready to break something.

Adam clears his throat. “Here, my love.”

With his help, Belle manages to pull her sketches down into her lap without anybody noticing—currently one of the Marchionesses at the end of the table is telling a joke about a frog tricking his way into the heart of an innocent peasant girl. While her hands move, Adam pays the price by asking the Ambassador from Paris how his prized horses have faired since he last visited. The Ambassador then gladly informs him of everything and anything that Adam would ever need to know about horses, racing, and breeding, or anything even remotely related to his interests.

Belle looks very forlorn and apologetic when Adam finally manages to break away from the Ambassador, but he can’t help but smiling at her and running his fingers of one hand against her cheek. Compared to taking three shots in the chest, this battle of manners is nothing.

“Escaping conversation is just as much an art as it is a science,” Adam whispers to her, like it’s some well-kept royal secret. “Though I admit it’s been a very long time since I’ve had to watch so many people speak while their mouths are full.”

Belle looks at him with a scandalous sort of curve against her lips, like she too remembers the first time she sat down to a meal with him and he’d dunked his entire face into his consommé. She tells him, “What a terrible burden.”

“It was,” he insists. “That was the first time I’d sat down to a dinner table in years.”

Belle’s smile is something that still takes his breath away— like when he’d first glimpsed her on the ramparts, after she’d come back. Or when the sun broke out over the snow-locked horizon for the first time in a decade. It just makes him stop for a moment, and thickens his tongue, and frankly the whole room could be on fire, including his own shoes, and he wouldn’t even notice.

“Go easy on me, my love,” he asks, leaning in again. Their guests must think they are trading all sorts of secrets.

Belle leans forward as well, even though their noses are practically touching and Adam loses the ability to breathe with her this close. Her nails dig in to his skin and it makes his heartbeat jump right into his throat, though why, he honestly couldn’t say. Belle’s nails lightly scratch down the length of his wrists and he has to fight the urge to growl from between his teeth. “You don’t deserve it,” Belle tells him.

The thought barely occurs to him that kissing Belle in the middle of a fête in front of a hundred people as he had kissed her after his return to his human form might be considered inappropriate. It passes through, yet doesn’t stop his body from moving, doesn’t stop it from realigning itself like he’s the ocean and Belle is the moon.

“My Prince?” The Viscount asks, voice jolting him back into reality.

Belle jumps, too, and inches away from him.

“Yes, Durmaud?” Adam returns, quickly, like he hadn’t just been hanging onto every word that left Belle’s lips.

“We were just saying,” says Durmaud, who is a very, very distant cousin, now that Adam is thinking about it, on their mother’s sides. So he can’t kill him. Unfortunately. “Whether or not you plan on reclaiming the Northern Territory, since your father is no longer with us?”

He internally winces. His old face wasn’t as expressive, so it feels like his face has been set in plaster by the way that he’s struggling to keep even a hint of doubt from showing. He has to snag his teeth against the inside of his cheek as he says, “We’ve been discussing it privately, Viscount, but at this time we have more pressing matters elsewhere.”

Like his return to being human. Or his courtship with Belle. Which was just getting to an interesting point only a moment ago. Or really anything other than surpassing his father’s greed, really.

Unfortunately for them all, the Baron that is currently holding the attention of the entire table is a bit of a pompous windbag that loves nothing more than the sound of his own voice, and is entirely clueless about the ways of the world outside his minor barony. Also unfortunate is his family name, which happens to be older than sin, but is also escaping Adam’s memory at the moment.

As Prince, it is his responsibility to make all of his guests feel welcome. Even more of his responsibility to make them feel like he has a handle on his responsibilities — especially since they all have apparently remembered that they fall under his rule. And his father was not a popular monarch. Greedy, to be sure, and unkind, but nobody could ever say that he did not favor some of his gentry and isolated others. There are many bridges that need to be rebuilt if he and Belle have any hope of reassuming their duties to their gentry and their people.

So it would be quite rude of him to tell this Baron to spend less time moving his mouth and less time talking while his food comes shooting out from behind his teeth. Even though he really wants to. Really wants to, really, would probably endure something terrible like Lumière’s sense of fashion again, if he could.

It’s just that now he can’t stop thinking about it. He can’t stop the flood of memories from rushing in, or ignore the way that his heart is racing.

“Distract me, my love,” Adam begs her. “Anything. Tell me of your sketches. I fear if you don’t distract me, I’ll go mad.”

“Pulleys,” she whispers to him. Some of the brightness comes back into her eyes, which Adam counts as a good thing. She says it like pulleys are the most breathtaking thing she's ever experienced. Breathtaking like whispering sweet nothings into his ear, which it currently feels like she is doing. Like every touch against his too-soft skin, like every inch of him that can feel the heat of her body, like every heartbeat. If she's one-half as affected as he is, he's a bit surprised she's still sitting upright. “This castle has eleven staircases, it’s ridiculous that we expect our servants to go hauling grand furniture up them. It’d be easy for me to rig something up.”

He has to wait for the perfect opportunity to actually take a look at the schematics that are resting in Belle’s lap. Their servants bring yet another course, and their guests are so consumed with tasting whichever new delicacy that they aren’t paying attention to where his gaze is.

But he can see it now. A weight and pull system that could be hung from the rafters in some places, as Belle’s described. She’s come up with multiple possibilities for weight distribution too. “Your heart is so incredibly generous,” he tells her. “It’s almost as much of a marvel as your mind.”

Belle has blushed before him many times. Usually out of embarrassment, and rarer because of enjoyment or pleasure, but this is a different blush entirely. It’s a proud sort of blush— not, proud, proud, like the kind of pride that he was guilty of before the curse, but self-assurance. Belle’s gaze becomes intense until she has to look away. He doesn’t. He’d look until he went blind if it meant she was the last thing he’d ever see.

“I’m… sorry,” Belle whispers his direction. It’s only because he’s curled his entire self towards her that he hears what she says. “I’m… not good at being at the center of things.”

Adam remembers her words about being odd in a tiny little village.

He also remembers many times that Belle did this from before— he remembers her scribbling on bits of scrap paper in the library, getting ink on her face from her drafting pen over their own private dinners. She has nothing on her face now, even as his eyes drift up to catch every little detail. “I will allow you that disposition, my love,” he tells her as he brings up the knuckles of her right had so that he can press his lips against her skin. “Apart from one instance.”

“Oh?” Belle asks, eyebrows raising higher than Adam honestly thought they could go. “And which instance would that be, my Prince?”

“You were at the center of me,” he says. “From the very first moment you threw a snowball at my face.”