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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.”

Chapter Text

He’d noticed it before— well, before, before everything, back when they were two days into when this door closes again it will never open, but he’d noticed. It’s kinda hard not to notice the first woman that his eyes have seen in the physical realm for almost a decade, especially when she goes threatening Cogsworth with a chamberpot. It’s not an image that leaves easily.

And at the time he had thought that’s just one of the many things that make Belle, well, Belle— the sketching, the way that one side of her skirts are often hiked up and tucked into her belt, the reading, the laughter, the smiling, the inventing, the tinkering. Even six feet tall and with fur and giant horns, each little thing had made him stumble over his own ginormous feet and watch. Just to catch a glimpse of it. It’s the parts of the sum total that made his heart stop and start practically at Belle’s command.

But all of that was from before.

No, he knows better now. It’s not just a quirk. It’s an early warning system.

He utters a quick, “Oh, no,” and slips right back out of the door to the library that he’d just passed through, hoping that Belle hasn’t seen him.

When he’s had enough time to suck down three huge breaths, Adam chances another look. Just a peek, he just barely leans forward enough so that one edge of his left eye can see around the doorframe. His heart sinks. Three mismatched ribbons and what looks to be a spare drafting pencil appear to be all that is keeping Belle’s hair out of her face. This is combined with the drafting papers scattered all over every single table in the library, the crumpled up rejects currently making a pile underneath her feet, and the way that Belle is furiously scribbling on one piece of parchment while continuously flipping others. To Adam this means something along the lines of ‘this is going to end very badly for everybody’. Her inventing moods have changed the entire landscape of the castle, and usually for the better, but that doesn’t mean that she also doesn’t have the tendency to take it out on innocent pieces of fabric.

Okay. Okay, he can do this. It’d happened once before, when he was still under the enchantment. Belle had rather taken exception to the state of his— her, rather, library. Granted, the castle had been falling apart at the time and only grew worse with each petal that fell, but Belle had taken the most exception to his sorting system.

“How can you possibly find anything in this mess,” she had accused him even as she had teetered on the wooden ladder. The stack of books in her arms was already above her head and yet she had shown no sign of slowing any time soon. His beast form had been so tall that she was barely nose to nose with him even standing on the second rung. “Sorted chronologically, and then by birthplace of the author? This is atrocious. I can’t find anything.”

“Yes,” he’d snapped with his beastly teeth, at the time. “But I can.”

Before she had started filling her own arms, she had handed books down to him. His pile had been just as big.

Belle’s hair had been tied up with ribbons then, too, like it is now. So he knows. He’s learned. His poor library had suffered from an immense undertaking of a new sorting system the likes this castle had never, ever seen.

In the present, however, somebody carrying a tray of tea intent for the library brushes past Adam’s shoulder.

No,” he hisses, making a mad grab for the collar of their jacket and almost doesn’t catch Lumière in time. Lumière jumps with an alarmed gasp and rebalances the tray until Adam jerks his head towards the Library where Belle has encased herself. “Updo.”

What little color there was drains from Lumière’s powdered face. “How bad?”

That, Adam doesn’t know. There seem to be different levels associated with different hairstyles— though generally, the looser the hairstyle, the less frustrating the project.

Very carefully they peek around the edge of the doorway again. Belle’s moved around the other side of the table, but now she has a large smudge of charcoal swiped across her forehead from temple to temple, and half handprints on the front of her skirts.

“Bad,” the two of them say at the same time.

He’d just wanted a quiet moment. That was it— just a moment to be with the woman he loved entirely without having to duck into closets to avoid his tailors, or emissaries, or Ambassadors from his royal cousins who all wanted him to come to Versailles. There’s a part of him that misses the solitude of those old days, the days from before, where they had sat in the garden in the snow and had nothing to do but be together. No dancing, no fêtes, no politicking, no soothing egos. No reminders of his past. Just Lancelot and Guinevere. In the snow.

Now, however, Belle makes a frustrated sort of noise from within her Library and he knows that his wishes are not meant to be. At least, not today.

Adam closes his eyes in a pained, resigned sort of way and bumps the back of his head against the glazing. “Rest in peace, my prince,” Lumière says. “You were taken from us too soon.”

Adam inhales. Almost like a deep breath before a giant leap. “I go to my death with honor. Adieu, my friend.”

It’s not hard to see why the library has become Belle’s domain in everything, including name. This is where she does everything these days: reading, researching, tinkering, drafting, sketching, being a general thorn in his side— and the warmth in his chest. The light in the library is almost always good, and the view of the far-off mountain range is a sight to behold all on its own. This is where she reads her poetry, and where she lets her tea grow cold, to Mrs. Potts’ absolute horror. This is simply where Belle is, and has been since the third day he had known her. And, simply, has possibly become Adam’s favorite room in his entire castle.

And usually it’s very well kept. Not spotless by any definition of the word, though he’s hardly one to judge, but everything has its place. Except for this very second. This very second, it’s, well, ordered chaos. Chaotic order.

She says nothing as he approaches, possibly doesn’t even hear him though he really isn’t trying to be quiet. Boots make a lot more noise than paws.

“You have soot on your face, my love,” he tells her. “Possibly charcoal, but I’ve seen that look in your eye before, so I have my doubts.”

Belle looks up from her draftings for the first time since he entered. “Do I really?” She asks. There’s not really a reflective surface in the library, but she looks around anyway.

One of her father’s music boxes sits nearby, and it’s there that she must see what he does: the soot, the flyaway curls, the flushed expression on her face. She’s never been more beautiful, to Adam. Well, maybe not. The moment he’d first seen her after she’d come back was a uniquely difficult moment to beat. But, he thinks with an affectionate smile, this one comes pretty close. Without a word, he joins her on the other side of the table as she tries to wipe her face on her already dirty apron. Miraculously, it just manages to make it worse.

“Hold still, my love,” Adam tells her. He takes the handkerchief out of his pocket and tries to get the worst of the charcoal off Belle’s forehead. It helps. Some. But the smears seem to be almost as stubborn as she is.

As he works, he can’t help but feel the warmth of Belle’s face as it seeps into his fingers. And it’s ridiculous, some part of him knows, that this one person should stand in front of him, hair mussed and eyes bright and face smudged with charcoal, or soot, or whichever, and it should thicken his tongue like it does. There’s a part of him, a dark part, that remembers his life from before, before the curse, even, where he had seen as many beautiful women in his court as he could possibly ever see in a hundred lifetimes— and frequently did, as his father had before him. And yet, here he is. Routinely struck dumb by an artist’s daughter. 

If this is love, Adam thinks, Shakespeare couldn’t have gotten it more wrong.

“You’re frowning,” Belle says to him. “Does my charcoal disturb your delicate sensibilities so much, my prince?”

He frowns, and it seems to spark something in her expression that he remembers as being familiar, but not enough to identify. He’s drawn into her gaze again like he has dozens, hundreds of times in the last minute, or hour, or day, he can’t even remember how long anymore.

He has to tear himself away and scrunches his nose in a beastly sort of way. “I still think it’s soot.”

“It was one time,” she tells him. “Chef Bouche’s stovepipe was clogged. Somebody hadn’t bothered to clean it. Ever.”

He doesn’t take his eyes off his task, because if he does, he knows that Belle is going to be giving him that look, that ‘I know what you did and I’m remembering it too’ look. And that’s enough to do it, to start him smiling, because he can practically see the puff of black soot that had exploded like a cloud an inch away from Belle’s face. All because Chef Bouche had needed to sneeze

At the time, he’d laughed so hard he’d fallen over right in the middle of the kitchen.

Every article of clothing she had been wearing at the time had been ruined, at least until the cleaning staff had gotten to it. And, in his defense, the noise that had escaped Belle’s mouth had been nothing less than a horrified shriek.

Now, however, Adam tries his best to keep his smile as minimal as he possibly can— because Belle’s in an inventing mood and he values his life.

When Belle’s face is passably clean, and by passably, he can see the majority of her face, he folds the handkerchief and tucks it away to be cleaned later. He could, technically, ring for Plumette and have her take it, but they’ll both be going downstairs at some point during the day. It can stay in his pocket until then.

“I thought I’d come see you,” he says. “Cogsworth has released me from my duties from the rest of the day. There aren’t any Viscountesses hanging around every painting. There’s no summons from town.”

He trails away, teasing a stray curl with his fingers. Belle doesn’t notice. She’s turned back to her tools and her tinkering and doesn’t look up, even when he steps up close behind her. Enough that if she took a half step back she’d be directly in his arms. His eyes catch on the intricacies of her hair— there’s more detail than he had seen from the doorway. There’s pencils twisted back and forth, and tiny braids woven between ribbons. It’s oddly like the library. Ordered chaos. And there’s one curl in particular that lays perfectly against Belle’s collar, untouched by the charcoal.

He becomes distracted in it, in the curl, and doesn’t even really realize that he has closed the distance between them until he’s running one finger down the skin of Belle’s neck. Lightly, too, just light enough that he can see the fair hair raise and the goosebumps form in his wake. Adam smiles, small and private. He would have never been able to do this in his other form. His hands had been so large and so dangerous that he would have drawn blood without even meaning to. He would have never been able to lean in, like he does in this moment, and press his nose against the nape of her neck.

Belle stiffens against him. Adam blinks out of his stupor and comes back into reality.

She seems to sag and leans heavily on the table. Without looking at him, she sort-of shifts her head so that he knows he has her attention. “Are you deliberately trying to distract me,” she asks him. “Or does it just come naturally?”

His mind has gone completely and utterly blank, and the only thing he can get to come out of his mouth is, “Yes.”

“I see,” she scoffs, turning around while she braces against the table and leans in so that she is an inch away from his nose. Adam stops, too.  Something in his chest just drops down to his feet, because suddenly gets the impression that he has just awoken something he shouldn’t have woken. She stands on her tip toes and puts her hands against his chest and pushes until Adam is backed up against tablet that rests just behind them. And it’s probably the tenth, twentieth time that their lips have met like this but it still surprises him. Her hands run up from his chest to his jawline and pulls him further down, and her teeth catch against his lower lip. His hands can’t find anywhere to go or anything to do so he just holds onto the table behind him as hard as his human hands can.

He can only close his eyes and be, it’s all he can make his body do.

Belle pulls away.

He leans after her, like his whole center of gravity has just shifted, but something’s wrong. He can’t open his eyes for a long moment, he has to focus on just breathing, but when he does, he sees it. It’s in the brightness of her eyes, or the way that she’s smiling that he immediately suspects that there’s mischief afoot.

He stares at her long and hard before he says, “There’s soot on my face, isn’t there.”

Belle blinks innocuously twice, before she takes her drafting pencil to his nice, clean shirt, and smears it all across his collar. “Charcoal.”

He’s suddenly feeling a very strong urge to chase her around the table, and something must show on his face because Belle slides away with a laugh bursting out of her chest. He very nearly takes a predatory step after her before he cocks his head to the side like he just heard a noise.

“Oh, what was that?” Adam asks. “I think I just heard Cogsworth needs me for the rest of the afternoon. Something about upholstery, I think, yes, very important. Adieu, my love—”

He turns to go, but Belle snags his sleeve. “Wait, wait, wait. I’m sorry about the charcoal.”

“Apology not accepted,” Adam sniffs. “Do you know how long it takes to get charcoal out of silk? Hours, my love. Hours.”

Chapter Text

Their happiness, though unmeasurable in the lightness it brings to their lives, is not without its blemishes. He spent nearly ten years as a beast, forgotten by the whole world, in an ever-unchanging landscape with next to nothing to hope for: he knows that it’s a miracle that they made it through the way they did. The span of one heartbeat to the next was the difference between the spell breaking and spending the rest of eternity as a beastly corpse.

While he had been a beast, his nightmare had been his own reflection, standing in a room with a hundred mirrors and nowhere he could escape from the world’s harsh reality. Now his nightmares vary: sometimes he watches his hands morph back into his monstrous claws, sometimes he waits on top of the tower for a hundred years and then more, waiting for the sun to rise and Belle to return, only she doesn’t. Sometimes he sees what the Enchantress must have seen on that fateful night, and is confronted with the person that he used to be. Cold. Vain. Cruel-hearted. It almost feels like standing on one edge of a bottomless crevice while is old self is on the other. Adam knows to feel shame, now. He knows what Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth and Maestro and Madame De Garderobe must have felt.

And then sometimes his nightmares are more simpler things. Belle falling from the ramparts instead of Gaston. Belle turning into an inanimate object, just like the others, because the curse was not lifted in time. Belle. Belle.

He honestly shouldn’t even be here. He’d be skinned alive by Mrs. Potts, who has taken Belle in as her very own little cupling. But he is here, in the East Wing, in front of Belle’s door with his hand raised and just an inch away from knocking.

He shouldn’t. He shouldn’t be here, but he’s bone tired, and yet he knows he won’t be able to shake the tremors for hours. He has to blink a few times to clear the edges of his vision.

Adam moves to knock, irritated with his own indecisiveness, but echoes of the nightmare stop him. Like even halfway across the castle it still has its spindly fingers in his mind.

But then he growls softly under his breath and steps back. He won’t do it— he won’t. He survived nearly ten years without Belle, he shouldn’t rely on her to soothe every hurt. He has to heal himself and the wounds he caused on his own, but the prospect terrifies him.

He turns away, resolved to go back to the West Wing, where his nightmares will bother nobody, when the door behind him swings open.

Belle’s utterly bed-mussed in her nightgown and coat to keep away the higher air’s chill, and holding a very not-Lumière candlestick. She looks similar to how he feels, like sleep has offered nothing but sweat and worries. And yet even this still makes his chest feel tight.

“My love?” Adam asks. “What are you doing up so late? What’s the matter?”

“I could see your shadow from under the door,” Belle tells him, and she wastes no time in pushing out into the hallway and putting the candlestick down on the nearby table, and then skims her tiny hands over his shoulders. It’s at this very second that Adam realizes he hasn’t even bothered to put a jacket on, himself, he’s just in his thin shirt. “What happened?”

He has to take a moment to assure himself that she is real, and he isn’t dreaming. He catches one of her hands and brings it to his lips.

That isn’t enough, it isn’t enough for either of them, apparently, because one moment they’re both standing in the dimly-lit hallway in the middle of the night and the next Belle is tucking her head underneath his chin and wrapping her arms around his middle. He has no choice but to do the same, not that he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want her to be able to tell how he’s shaking. The dim light will hide the red in his eyes and the shadowy circles beneath them, but with the thin cotton that separates his chest from her fingers, she’ll feel it.

But Belle’s warmth seems to leech the shadows from his body. He can breathe easier, now, and the walls don’t seem to be closing in on him. He can’t hear the music from the night that everything all went mad.

Belle untucks her head from under his chin and meets his gaze. There’s an unspoken prompt there as his eyes trace over her familiar features.

“A nightmare,” he starts. And then stops, blinks, again, because he doesn’t even want to put this into words, he doesn’t want her to hear it. His first instinct is to spare her from this truth. “I was my old self. Not my beast self,  my old self. From before.”

In his dream, he’d taken his fanciest carriage into Villeneuve with his beautiful new wife. The town accepted them with warm greetings and congratulations, and as he stepped out of the carriage and held out his hand to his new bride, he found her face completely void of all detail. She was the shadow of a shadow of a mask. Almost monstrous. Yet this hadn’t seemed to bother him, in the dream. He can’t quite remember if he had experienced it from somewhere inside himself, or from looking in as if he were a stranger, but he had doted and charmed his wife as his old self had been able to. With no real affection, and plenty of meaningless, expensive gifts.

They had toured through the town square, which to Adam now seems lively and quaint and full of color. There’d been a commotion behind them, perhaps the horses had reared, but there’d been a shriek and the undeniable sound of a splat.

The Adam, well, the eyes that he had seen through saw that his old self hadn’t even budged, he looked towards the noise and felt like every last good thought he’d ever had and every little bit of happiness that he’d ever been given was going to peel off and die, like those damned rose petals.

Belle had been completely caught by surprise. She sat in the mud, which must have been more guck than puddle, drenched from the waist down. The book in the mud was a very obvious clue to what she must have had her eyes on. Hadn’t even noticed his old self and his new wife, or the gilded carriage, or the commotion. She’d probably been immersed in one of the new books from the chapel and hadn’t seen the danger coming.

In his dream, the townspeople, now replaced by the painted faces that he had often hosted in his court, they had all laughed.

And his old self? He’d done nothing. Hadn’t even noticed Belle as she’d pulled herself up with more dignity than anybody else in that position could have mustered. He’d just stared straight ahead with his faceless wife.

“I was not a kind man, my love,” Adam admits, in reality. He rests his cheek against the top of her curls and sways against her. “I was proud in the worst way possible. I sought beauty in everything, no matter the cost.”

Belle pulls up her coat, which covers the majority of her sleeping gown. He’s fairly sure that if he looked down he would find her barefoot. He fixes the collar of her coat and pulls it up even further, carefully fixing her hair so that it wouldn’t get caught in the buttons.

“I was the kind of man that wouldn’t have given a painter’s daughter a glance,” he tells her, finishing his work and brushing the last of her curls away from her cheek. “Let alone a look.”

A word, or a moment. Heaven forbid she’d actually try to speak with his old self. Even to wish him and his faceless wife happiness in their wedded bliss, as was custom. In his father’s world, artists’ daughters did not speak to Princes.

“It was only a dream,” she tells him. “You are not that man anymore. I wouldn’t have come back, if you were.”

Her words give him no comfort. There had been a moment, a moment that he keeps far down in his chest where it can’t hurt him— but a moment where Gaston had said Belle sent me, and Adam had thought, this makes perfect sense. Of course she did not love him. He did not deserve to be loved. By anyone, but especially by someone like Belle.

“It felt very real, my love,” he swallows. “I can practically still hear the laughter.”

The crowd’s laughter at Belle, his own laughter at the Enchantress. He’d never thought he’d had a cruel laugh until it was the last thing he could remember doing in this human body.

“You make me ashamed,” and he has a moment to hear those words bounce through his own head and panics because no, that sounds so wrong, that sounds so awful and he has to make her understand. “No— no, forgive me. Your kindness and fearlessness makes me ashamed of who I am. Who I was.”

“You are not your past, my love,” she tells him. Belle speaks of her affection for him through her actions and her smiles, but rarely says it, not as often as he does. It makes him start and stop and search her face for that spark that he knows is always burning just beneath the surface. As usual, it’s in her dark eyes.

And yet, he shakes his head. Her words aren’t exactly true. “One month of good actions does not make up for two decades of bad.”

It has been a happy, blissful month— has it really only been a month? It feels like it’s been a lifetime.

But it does not change the fact that Adam deserved what hand the Enchantress dealt. Perhaps not in the way that she dealt it, and he wishes more than anything that Mrs. Potts and Lumière and the others had not had to share his fate. But the monster was not the fangs, and the horns, and the fur.

Belle says nothing, for a time. He can see in her gaze that she’s thinking, plotting. She wore a similar look when she was concocting her master plan completely rebuild the Library. It’s a look that often means trouble, but also means that he’ll end up with a stunned look on his face while he tries to pull himself out of this lovesick hole that he’s dug himself into.

“It’s cold,” she tells him. “Come inside, I restarted the fire.”

“In—” Adam starts as she leaves the circle of his arms, takes the candlestick from the table and pushes the door to her suite wider open. His voice squeaks slightly on the implication. “Inside?”

Belle has already left him behind. Inside he can see that the state of her rooms are much like his own: books everywhere, mussed covers, half-finished projects on every surface. Unlike him, however, Belle has her windows cracked open just a bit, probably to let the air flow from one side of the suite to the other. The curtains twitch slightly, blowing inwards. His own windows are shut tight. He hasn’t been able to even go out on the ramparts since Gaston shot him in the chest three times.

“I—shouldn’t—” he cuts off, swallowing, eyes immediately going to the bed. “It wouldn’t be proper.”

Proper, yes, proper, that was how he was trying to behave. The exact opposite of how he had been, before. It’s bad enough that he’s already here and not where he should be, in the West Wing, already bad enough that it’s probably early in the morning by this point, and granted, this is hardly the worst thing his servants have ever caught him doing. But he isn’t that person anymore. He doesn’t do this. He’s already seen more than he should have, too, far more than would be considered decent.

But then Belle gives him a tired, withering sort of look before she reaches back out into the hallway, grabs him by the sleeve of his sleeping shirt, and pulls him inside. His feet, the traitorous bastards that they are, obey her.

“You’re going to be the death of me,” Adam bites, mostly to himself.

Belle, apparently, appreciates blankets that aren’t threadbare and falling to pieces. It’s the first thing he notices after watching the path of her feet once he’s inside. Her bed is a patchwork of smaller blankets, some for the current warmer summer weather, and some lined with fur, for the cooler winter months. But the topmost suite of the East Wing has always been drafty and cool because of its height.

Perhaps he should mention something to Cogsworth about it. He’s not sure, but the winters here can be brutal even without magical assistance.

Belle starts piling pillows against the headrest like they have personally done her wrong. In a panic, Adam realizes, while he was contemplating the state of her bedding, she has pulled off the long robe she had worn over her nightgown and suddenly this is all incredibly intimate: the warm light from the fire, the moonlight, the pale glow of Belle’s skin, the goosebumps running up his bare legs and down his spine. His heart is suddenly in his throat thinking that he’s done it again, he’s moved too fast, this is all too fast, he’s trying to behave, he really is, but he’s, well, human

Belle falls forward onto the blankets with a soft whump, and proceeds to burrow herself underneath as many as she can, pulling the furs and blankets up and around herself until Adam can see nothing but the very top of her head.

“Belle,” he squeaks, trying not to move his chest even to breathe.

“Mm?” Was all the reply he got.

His heart starts racing, his hands start trembling again, but this time not because of the nightmare.

His first instinct is to run. His second instinct is to run, but faster.

“Should we, uh,” Adam starts.

“I’m warm, my love,” he hears from under the pile. “And I’m tired. Come and rest.”

Apparently his legs are traitorous bastards, too, because they do move, but not in the right direction. He slips onto Belle’s bed, barely holding onto the thought that perhaps if he lays on top of the covers, it won’t be so bad. Not the best situation, perhaps, but maybe he can sneak back to the East Wing in an hour before anybody notices that he’s gone.

He lays on the side farthest from the fire, but closest to the window. He tries to keep a respectable distance as much as he physically can.

He hasn’t been this close to another human being in a very long time. He settles against the pillows and tries to remember to not keep holding his breath. Even spending their days attached at the hip is nothing compared to this.

Belle inhales softly, surprised. Adam’s eyes flit across every inch of the ceiling for a moment before something comes out from beneath them, and then Belle’s blankets are thrown across his legs and abdomen. “Belle,” he hisses.

Belle’s a mischievous creature, she always has been, but he gets the distinct sense that this has been her plan all along when she slides up next to him and aligns most of her body so that it is parallel to his. He stops breathing again and his eyes go wide, but Belle just pillows her head against his right arm. She pulls the blankets and furs up over them both and sniffs softly. Her eyes never open, after a moment she seems as if she is sliding quickly towards sleep.

It’s actually… surprisingly peaceful. He’s warm and enveloped in a wonderful smell, something like books and charcoal and some kind of flower that he can’t pick out. He can hear the pitter-patter of slight rain on the arched roof but the cold doesn’t seem to reach him. He can smell the petrichor of the wet earth as well as the smoke from the fireplace.

The warmth makes it harder and harder to keep his eyes open. The edges of his vision start going blurry.

Belle turns somewhat, probably seeking more warmth from the way that her whole body gets closer too him, but Adam is so comfortable that he doesn’t mind so much.

He drifts for a time, and must briefly slip into dreams, because when he is conscious again and blinks, they’ve shifted positions. He’s more down to Belle’s level so that their noses are practically touching. Her hands are enveloped in his and she’s breathing evenly, face peaceful and features relaxed.

Her curls brush against his cheek, and he adjusts himself so that he lays higher up on the pillows. As if sensing that her source of warmth has moved away, Belle follows him. Blearily he can see that the furs have slipped from her shoulders. He pulls them up again and presses his lips against her temple, turns so that his body is curled around hers, while his fingers run up and down her bare arms. Her own hands wind themselves into the open collar of his nightshirt. Something in him feels like if he could hold her little longer, every wound, every hurt, every bad thing, would just melt away.

“Ah!” He yelps. He then turns towards her in a fury and whispers, “Belle, your toes are like ice.”

Chapter Text

The week after that little drizzle of rain, a storm follows that is rarely ever seen. The air around their castle grows thick with it. Stagnant. Warm. The moisture seems to hang in the air but it never condenses. It’s like the world drew in a deep breath and was holding and holding it, for three days, and there was just no end in sight. Eventually the storm would break and the deluge would quite literally rain down on all their heads, but for the time being, all they could do was wait. For Adam and the rest of the curse’s victims, who had lived in eternal winter for nearly a decade, it is a surprising yet not unwelcome change of pace.

For Belle, however, the storm has come to usher in absolute chaos.

“Villeneuve will be prepping for the storm,” Belle says. “Last year we lost all the middle fields to a lightning strike, and the hatter’s building was significantly damaged by the wind.”

She’s packing in a hurry, what Adam believes are just random tools and materials from the foyer— but Belle’s mind is too quick for him to keep up with at the best of times, let alone now.

“I should come with you, my love,” Adam tells her. He glances out through the open doors. Ten minutes ago those dark storm clouds had filled him with awe, but now it looks like another enchantment about to blanket the earth.

“The worst won’t come until tomorrow, at least,” Belle shakes her head. “July thunderstorms build and build and build until they break. Besides,” she tells him. “You and Monsieur Cogsworth have a very busy afternoon ahead of you.”

There’s a hidden part of Adam that winces. It’s true, his cousins in Versailles have become more adamant about his summons, and last week Adam told his friends in private that he had no desire to become what they had: powerless figureheads that left the running of their lands to their stewards. Obsessed with trinkets, beauty, and parties. He’d already gone down that path. So he’s making an effort to take on more responsibility of the day-to-day functions of his lands. The responsibilities that his father had left unattended and let fall into ruin. There are half a dozen buildings, towns, and estates in a thirty mile radius that have fallen into complete disrepair because Adam’s father had felt them unnecessary to the everyday functions of his court.

He can’t ignore his cousins’ summons forever, but for the time being he wants to feel the summer on his human skin. He wants to soak in the warmth of the sun on his face. He wants to listen to the rain pitter against the roof while he falls asleep to the sound of Belle’s breathing.

He doesn’t really know when it happened, but the things that he wants have become so small. Tiny, compared to his royal cousins. To his old self.

Belle ties her hair up even as she stomps into her working boots and tucks the left side of her skirts in. A groom is bringing out one of their horses, as Phillipe is with Maurice in Villeneuve.

Her father.

Of course, he thinks. Maurice is in Villeneuve. How could I have forgotten?

Belle will not leave Maurice and their people in Villeneuve without protection, not for what Mrs. Potts is calling the storm of the century. Non-enchanted storm, at least.

“Go, my love,” Adam tells her, without hesitation. His hands find the small of her back and drag up her spine, helping her heft the bag over her shoulders. He signals for one of the guards to start moving. “What do you need? Wooden planks, for the windows? I’ll send it after you as fast as they can take it. Uh, what else? Water? Shovels? To dig trenches around the fields? Manpower?”

He’s struggling for ideas, because if Adam is being perfectly honest with himself, he’s never had to storm-guard a town before. He assumes that they’ll board all the windows up to keep the worst of the water and wind out, but there’s little to be done in case of lightning. Bags of sand, maybe, for flooding? But he must say something right, because one moment Belle is standing a few steps beneath him and the next she’s climbing back up again three at a time, and takes his face in her hands and drags him down so that his mouth crushes against her own. This is no gentle kiss, either, like the ones that they’ve shared in the past, but a scraping of her teeth against his lips. Something floods his senses: charcoal, maybe? Parchment?

And in Adam’s opinion, this does not last long enough at all. Belle’s in his arms one moment and gone the next, practically sliding down the front steps of the castle as fast as her boots can take her.

Then she’s on the white horse and galloping full-tilt towards Villeneuve.

“Shovels,” he says, voice hoarse. “Right. Gonna— get right on that.”

The castle is already abuzz with motion with their own preparations when he manages to unstick himself from the front steps and hurry back inside. The guard’s returned, as well, and Adam requests that wooden planks, sand bags, shovels, and various other items that pop into his head be delivered to Villeneuve before the hour is up.

The guard, Stephen, Adam thinks his name is, salutes and hurries off.

With that order, however, Adam’s sense of purpose shrinks. He has no experience with storm-proofing, and Cogsworth, up a flight of stairs on the landing, is handing out orders like a well-wound military commander.

Adam doesn’t want to get in the way of that. And he knows that his presence at this point is more of a distraction than anything else.

With a frown, he returns to the table in the foyer where Belle had been picking through her tools. There’s just scraps left, or doubles, or discards, but also the two cloaks that Belle had not taken with her. He’ll return to the tools to Belle’s Library, and the cloaks to her suite.

Oh, but she always leaves that window cracked open.

He’ll go shut it. Belle’s suite is in the tallest part of the East Wing and up at least six flights of stairs. He doubts the maids will make it up there in time.

Adam picks the cloak up from the table, the red one, the one that Belle had worn in the snow. The snowballs. He’d brought multiple cloaks down from her suite, but she’d chosen the brown for its lightness. This red one was heavy, and wool, better for snow. Not for rainy yet warm July afternoons. It’s even heavy in his hands, which may or may not have retained some of his beastly strength. Adam goes to tuck it into the crook of his arm and pick up another, but something stops him. Something strange, like a memory, or a smell, something familiar.

It’s then that the scent hits him— like a wave, like a loose shingle from the roof falling right onto his unfortunate forehead, but it roots him. Grounds him until his eyes go blurry and he can’t inhale anymore.

It wakes something up. Something in his gut. Something from before.

It’s all he can do to get more of it. Without a thought, he presses the collar of the red cloak to his face and just inhales through his nose, completely ignoring the fact that he’s standing in the middle of his own foyer, and tries to get as much of it as he possibly can. It’s parchment, and charcoal, and that same unidentified flowery scent he’d detected in Belle’s suite when he’d first fallen asleep next to her.

It’s the scent that he can’t help but follow. Every time he presses his lips against her brow, or her cheek, or the nape of her neck. It’s the scent that had surrounded him when he’d woken up nose-to-nose with Belle in her suite. It’s Belle.

It hurts. There isn’t enough of it. The muscles of his arms and back are tense and he wants to move, towards something, anything, but he doesn’t know which direction to move in. There’s a rumble coming from deep down in his throat like a hum, only it isn’t. Everything else shuts out. Shuts down.

The sky also just so happens to pick that precise moment to open up and unleash the closest thing to a roar that Adam has ever heard from something other than him. Light flashes four, five, six times from different directions and then the thunder starts rolling in. It’s enough. Adam flinches away from Belle’s cloak, from whatever it was that had just woken up and looks out into the courtyard— it’s raining so hard that the world seems to drop off after about fifty feet. He whispers, “Belle.”

Several of the servants scream and duck their heads. The volume of the thunder makes the chandeliers above them rattle.

Belle will never make it to Villeneuve. It’s at least ten miles, almost a half hour on horseback.

Adam moves. He doesn’t even think, doesn’t stop, doesn’t let Lumière or Cogsworth know where he’s going, he’s out the front doors and the rain slams into him between one breath and the next, takes one of the horses that was probably meant for the cart they’re sending from a groom and slides up on its back. There’s no saddle, even.

He hasn’t ridden bareback since he was a child, but he doesn’t care. He’d run to Villenueve if he had to.

The rain pelts his face as they race to the edge of the gardens, but the sky doesn’t let up. In less than a minute he’s completely drenched and having to squint his eyes to keep the water out. The horse is tense beneath him and complaining at the sudden need to gallop.

He yanks on the reins at the edge of the forest. The enchantment had made the woods recede around the grounds but there’s still nearly seven miles of dense forest between them and Villeneuve. The road, when the skies are clear, is easy to mark. Now, however—

“Belle,” he says, and tries to think through the rain hitting against his back. She’d take the shortest path. The most direct. “Go,” he tells the horse, pointing him down the path. “Go!”

The horse rears and runs.

The forest flies by so fast that Adam can’t see the details, just flashes of different shades of green. It’s an entirely different monster compared to the way it was during the enchantment.

He has to find her. Adam can feel it tearing up his insides as the sky lights up again, the thunder a second behind. Practically right on top of them. The horse rears under him again and it’s all Adam can do to hold on and not go flying off into a stream to his right. He has to fight to get the horse steady again and pushes him forward because the longer it takes Adam to find Belle the more danger they’re both in.

“Belle!” Adam calls out. It’d be a miracle if she could actually hear him through this mess.

Adam’s done this once before.

His body seems to remember it better than his mind, but he has. Until now he’s been trying to push it down, drown it out in the storm, but he has. The speed of the wind crashing into him brings it all back like it had never left, like the enchantment had never been lifted at all and this human skin is just a porcelain face mask hiding what’s really underneath. His anger had fallen away, useless, at the first howl and he’d leapt out into the snow. Back then he’d run on all fours, chasing the scent, and the howl of wolves, and the taste of fear in the air.

Where are you, the blood burning through him now seems to sing. My love. Belle. Death of me, my darling, my only

He yanks the horse suddenly, inhaling, looking around wildly. He knows that scent. It’s heady, and almost hidden under the rain and the petrichor, but it’s undeniable. He turns his head one way and another, inhaling in each direction. The horse beneath him is panicking, like it can predict the next flash of lightning and makes a distressed noise.

Adam guides the horse to back up a few paces and then pushes his heel into his side to make him to jump up the less-taken path to the right, driving him as hard as he dares.

He has to duck beneath low hanging branches, but isn’t fast enough to avoid all of them. He barely feels it. The rain’s hitting him so hard in either case that his skin has long since gone numb.

When he crests the next hill they come upon what must have once been one of the outer houses or outlying estates, he can’t tell which, but he’s pushing the horse so fast that he really only gets the impression of ruined buildings hidden under centuries of climbing vines and moss.

“Belle!” He yells. Some of the rainwater makes it into his mouth. “Where are you?”

The horse flies into the center of the ruins and skids to a halt, leaving long tracks in the mud, indignant and prancing and huffing through its nose. Adam lifts himself upward so that he can get a higher advantage— he can’t see any tracks, but that isn’t saying anything. Even if she’d come through here minutes before he had, the tracks would be long gone.

The dark sky lights up again, making every shadow suddenly vanish and gives everything a ghostly blue shine before it’s gone. And like before, the thunder is only a second or two behind. The storm’s still right above their heads.

“Belle!” He tries again.

“Adam?” A voice cuts out through the storm. He’s off the horse in half a second and running up the old pathway. The sound would guide him but the scent is stronger.

The door to the old house is off its hinges but still solid, unlike the rest of this estate, but he still practically runs right through it to get inside. There’s a flash of blue to his left.

Belle,” She’s wet in his arms, but he doesn’t care. He’s probably soaked through, too, but he damn near picks her up and swings her around. She’s safe. Drenched, from head to toe, but safe.

“It’s only been fifteen minutes,” Belle complains.

And, oh, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care. He presses his lips to her forehead, her nose, her left cheek, her chin, any part of her that he can reach and inhales as deeply as he can. Her scent is mixed with petrichor and mud, because he realizes she’s gotten into a fight with the earth and lost, but her scent still calms him. He hums and tastes the rain against her skin. Without preamble he presses his lips to the corner of her mouth in a chaste kiss that quickly becomes unchaste: quickly becomes consuming in more ways than Adam can count. There’s a part of Adam that wants to stop, that needs to stop, because it’s not proper, he doesn’t want to push too hard or do this the wrong way but there’s a larger part of him that doesn’t want to stop, doesn’t want this to end—

Lightning strikes again right over their heads and the thunder follows right after it. The house rattles and Belle jumps so high that her feet must completely leave the ground.

The fervor is shattered. He’s suddenly aware of how pressed he is against Belle, his hands digging into her hips, of how she practically has to turn her face completely up to meet his gaze.

Belle blinks a few times as a rosy blush grows on her cheek. There’s mischief in those brown eyes. “I, uh. You’re… very wet, my Prince.”

The thing, whatever it had been, fades as quickly as it came and Adam’s left trying to pull the pieces of himself back together. “F-Forgive me, my love,” he says, as he retreats to a more respectable distance and pulls her soaked cloak back up her shoulders and fixes the ties that secure it in place. “I, uh, may have gotten caught up with worry.”

And suddenly Adam feels ridiculous. He’s soaking wet, he can feel the rainwater slipping down his spine. His behavior hasn’t been the one of a newly-returned Prince. It’s been beastly.

And now they’re both cowering from a thunderstorm, instead of helping Villeneuve.

As if his thoughts were written all over his face, Belle looks out into the storm just outside the open doorway. Adam’s horse is still standing in the middle of the courtyard, drenched completely. Adam winces, feeling bad for dragging the poor thing out into this madness. Belle gives him a slight push out the door. It shouldn’t be possible but it starts to rain harder. A small lake is forming in the center of this house’s old courtyard that looks to be at least a foot deep. But Adam splashes out into the storm regardless and leads his horse inside, letting him mingle with Belle’s.

“Well,” Belle huffs from further inside the house. He takes a moment to peek through the rooms and makes sure that there aren’t any other creatures taking refuge. “Worry or not. It seems that we are stuck here for the foreseeable future.”

He nods. Even if the weather clears, this much rain could make the roads dangerous. Mudslides down into a ravine are just as deadly as angry mobs with torches and pitchforks in the right circumstances.

Villeneuve will have to fend for itself. At least for the time being.

The place is utterly in ruins, the vines and the plants have fought their hardest to take back what used to be wood and marble flooring. But there is a roof, and windows with some glass still in them. Shelter for them and the horses. Better than being out in the mess without it. Most of the furniture has been removed, stolen, or has collapsed into unusable splinters and the leftover rusted metal filigree.

“It looks like you had the good fortune of stumbling into one of the old dower houses, my love,” Adam tells her, peering up at the decorations on the door frames. 

Fortunate, indeed. Fortunate his father had decided to abandon it when Adam’s paternal grandmother had finally passed on. According to his father, she had lived far past the natural span of her life on pure spite alone.

This little unpleasant memory, however, Adam keeps to himself.

“How did you even manage to follow me all the way out here?” Belle asks him from the other room. Adam immediately winces.

I followed your scent through a downpour sounds just as ridiculous in Adam’s mind as it would out-loud. He exhales and pulls a face knowing that Belle can’t see him, because he’s somehow irritated with his own place in the universe. “Simple, I stopped and thought what you would do when confronted with a downpour.”

Technically it wasn’t a lie. He’d just… used some latent beastly side-effects to help him do it.

He hears a bit of a laugh from Belle, and the sound is sweet on his ears. Even troubled, it makes him smile a bit in return.

The constant tinking of rain on the roof is heavy, hard, and fast, though it seems to ebb and flow like waves with the wind. The roof is not completely sound, Adam discovers, but the leakage is minimal and just creates a pattern of drops hitting against the floor, or in one case, his forehead. The horses seem completely fine with perusing the fauna that have crept through the cracks in the floor.

There’s a fireplace, at least, that Belle has found. He sees it as soon as he rejoins her. It seems in good enough shape that it might still function. Enough to dry their clothes a bit while they wait for the storm to pass over so that they can make a break for the castle. He feels that little pebble of foolishness again: he hadn’t told anybody where he was heading. To their eyes, their Prince had just vanished into the lightning.

Mrs. Potts is probably besides herself. If she does wring Cogsworth’s neck, Adam is going to have to settle a very longstanding bet with Lumière.

“I’m going to go see if there’s any furniture that can be sacrificed for kindling,” Adam tells her. Also fortunate, though their clothing is wet, it isn’t cold enough to really endanger them. A common cold, perhaps, but nothing that three days in bed wouldn’t fix. “And I suppose find some way to get a fire in that fireplace going—”

He spins around at the sound of two hard rocks smacking together. Belle’s on her knees at the hearth, apparently already using a piece of flint to try and make a spark.

It even appears like she’s snapped a few old table legs into kindling.

“Am I meant to ask where you managed to get the flint,” Adam tries, as always, impressed with the way that Belle’s mind turns. “Or am I just supposed to assume that you now have the talent of pulling things out of thin air.”

“I will allow the first,” Belle tells him as she continues to work. “But I think it would just be safe to assume the second.”

Adam spots Belle’s bag of tools that she had packed back in the foyer of the castle before riding off into the storm. But he smiles, anyway, and disappears into the next room to gather more wood. He finds three decent table legs and rips them in half perhaps just a bit too easily, loads his arms full with as much as he can. When he returns to the sitting room that Belle’s claimed as their own, she has a decent flame building. In ten minutes, it’ll be a roaring fire.

He hands the pieces to her even as she’s balancing on her haunches. One by one. She adds three to the little hut of sticks she’s built and stacks the rest to add later.

When she stands and enters his physical space, he becomes overwhelmed again. His eyes drift out of focus slightly and he has to hold his breath. Charcoal. And parchment. Even holding his breath it seems to reach him. It comes and goes in waves, probably because of all the dust.

He has to turn away.

Neither of them must have caught the flash this time, but he hears the thunder and looks up at the ceiling. The rain comes down harder on the roof and a puddle has begun to form not too far away— he only notices it once he slips his boots off and steps right in it.

He gingerly pulls off his dripping jacket and hangs it over one of the few remaining pieces of furniture in the room, an old built-in cabinet of some kind. One of the doors is still attached, and it makes a fine coatrack.

“I think this was the house my great-grandmother Berangaria lived in,” Adam tells her, trying to keep his voice as steady as possible. He rubs his hands together and tries to coax some heat back into them. “I think you would have liked her, my love. They used to say that she was quite feral. She was from some place in the North, I think, and came from a very long line of magic. At least, that’s what my mother used to tell me, before she got ill— what, exactly, are you doing?”

Belle turns to him with the laces of her bodice half undone, and has apparently already slipped her shoes off and is drying them by the fire. The outermost levels of her skirt, coat, and cloak, already hangs over the grate. It has been raining so hard that even her white cotton underskirts and striped pantaloons have suffered.

Belle blinks at him. “I… drying my wet clothing?”

Adam feels his heart rate punch through the ceiling. Death. Death would have been a kinder end, for him.

Out of respect, or propriety— okay, perhaps more along the lines of self-preservation, he automatically turns away so that he isn’t looking. He fumbles for words. “I’d offer you my coat, my love, but I think it would do more harm than good.”

And frankly his shirt feels damp at the collar and down the front where his coat had not been closed properly. His pants are soaked up to the knee.

After a moment of trying to get his face not to be quite so red, Belle makes a noise that sounds almost like a snort, or a laugh. “I think you’ll find that in these particular circumstances, propriety must learn to step aside,” Belle says behind him. “You may turn around, my love. I hardly consider this indecent.”

Adam does. He considers it very indecent. Practically sinful.

But he does, he turns and finds that even if his face feels like it, he doesn’t spontaneously combust. Barefoot and without her coat, outer layers laying on the grate, but similar to the moment when the curse had broken. Granted he’d been too out of his mind with relief and with something irritatingly close to love burning in his chest to notice. Now, it’s, it’s like he can’t not notice. Her arms are bare to him almost to the collar and her legs to the knee. It’s all he can see. All he can smell. 

When Belle’s back is turned Adam takes a moment to glare up at the ceiling and growl, convinced that the thunderstorm itself is now against him, like it is now personally invested in destroying his life.

The thunderstorm has nothing to say for itself, and Adam has to tear himself away so that Belle doesn’t catch him trying to have a soundless argument with the ceiling.

But instead, Belle holds her hands up to the fire. Trembling, scared from the racket going on in his chest to the tips of his toes, Adam joins her.

All of his inner turmoil aside, the fire feels good. Perhaps he hadn’t realized how numb the downpour had made his skin, or how the wet had clung to him. The thunder rumbles overhead, but it doesn’t touch them. He and Belle don’t exchange words, they don’t particularly need to, they’re past the stage of love where every moment must have something to do or say. Just yesterday, they’d passed the entire afternoon on the garden bench where Maurice had stolen the rose. Reading, mostly, while Adam had read through his letters and wishes of good health and happiness from distant relatives who couldn’t make the journey.

It doesn’t stop his body from being aware of every movement that Belle makes, or his ears from listening for every sound.

He hisses between his teeth. Charcoal. Parchment. He doesn’t know why this has become a problem all of a sudden, but here he is. Last week it’d made him feel— warm, safe, loved, even, to be surrounded by it, but now it just makes him feel like he’s burning. The Enchantress manages to leave her imprint on his life even long after Belle had bested her magic. Every inhale is painful because of how much he wants it. He turns his head away and tries to catch something, anything, that isn't Belle's scent. First he tucks his head against his shoulder and inhales, but when that doesn't work, he puts his hands on his hips and turns completely away. The rain, the earth, the smell of the grass, anything. Nothing helps.

“My love,” Belle says quietly, from behind him. “That’s the third time you’ve had to tear yourself away from me today.”

He pivots back towards her. “Not you, my love,” he says. “Never you.”

“Then tell me why,” Belle demands. She reaches for him and he backs away. Away from her, away from the fire, because ironically the smoke just carries it towards him.

She looks at him, her expression hurt. He stares back, frightened— aware that this is quickly spiraling out of his hands as fast as it can, but also afraid to admit that her scent alone is driving him out of his head. “I can’t,” Adam hesitates, scratching one of his human hands with the other. “I can’t.”

His response must not satisfy Belle’s questions, because one moment he’s safe, at least three feet away and the next Belle has pressed into his personal space until he’s trapped up against the cupboard where his coat still hangs.

It’s a strange sort of mirror to the moment the curse broke. Adam can’t help it. His resolve shatters like it had never even been. He draws her hand closer to him and presses his nose against her skin.

Belle,” he bites out.

He squeezes his eyes shut as hard as he can and tries to keep his head. If he inhales, he’ll be lost. The thought that he’s lost control of his own actions is ripping him in two.

His hands are shaking and he knows it, knows that Belle knows it.

Belle asks, “How long has it been like this?”

Adam finds it in him to shake his head. “Today. It’s been the worst today.”

He’s been able to detect her scent for a very long time, but today it’d hit him as hard as it had that first night in the East Wing. Harder. He doesn’t know why: maybe the adrenaline, the fear? The thunderstorm itself? Maybe something else that he doesn’t quite know how to name. He doesn’t tell her everything else— that he has too much strength, still, and that sometimes his hands still feel like claws, and that part of him is beginning to suspect that this might never go away. He’ll always be changed, because he has changed.

Belle presses closer and when Adam opens his eyes, her expression says everything. She knows. Every thought that has passed through his head, she knows them. “You should have told me, my love,” she tells him softly, running the fingers of her free hand down his chin.

He shakes his head. Somehow, he doubts muttering I want to devour your scent over the dining table would have gone well.

Perhaps if he'd wanted his distant cousins to choke on their consommé.

She stares at him, slightly, with that expression of skepticism that he’s come to love with everything that he has. Then, she says, “Your tableware used to sing and dance and the head of your household staff used to be a mantle clock, my love.”

Adam can’t help it, she startles a laugh out of him. She laughs, too, and suddenly he isn’t so afraid.

The thunder rumbles overhead again and they both look up. He inhales all of it: the charcoal, the parchment, the—roses? He can’t really tell. It’s Belle, though. He’d know it anywhere.

He presses his lips against her wrist and brushes his tongue against it. Belle inhales, sharply, but doesn’t pull away. Adam’s eyes watch for her reaction, suddenly warm again, but she says nothing. He drags his teeth against the skin there, at her wrist, then again against the edge of her open palm, and against her thumb. His heart is practically trying to fling itself out of his throat. Belle does nothing. She doesn't pull away, but watches him with something in her eyes that he can't name.

He bites. It’s really nothing more than pressing his teeth into the skin at the tip of her finger.

Belle’s eyes have gone wide, but something about them makes him freeze. They aren’t— she isn’t frightened. It’s in her posture, her expression, her lips, she’s not frightened. And it’s small, so small, but she leans forward just a little bit and mutters, “Don’t stop.”

Chapter Text

There’s some part of him, the part of him that can still think, that has enough awareness to take his hands and plant them in the windowsill and cabinet behind them, up and above where they can’t get to Belle, can’t touch her— if it kills him, he’s going to keep his hands in place.

Belle has no such stipulations about her hands. At first she keeps her fingers pressed against his lips, thumb tracing along the line of his smile, other times she lets the faint scrape of his teeth touch her fingertips. When she has apparently satisfied that unending curiosity she has, she moves her fingers to the nape of his neck and his scalp. He has to choke down a growl and dig his fingers into the wood. They itch. And while the scent doesn’t hit him as hard as it had, perhaps just from prolonged exposure, it has still wormed its way into his head: the headiness, making the edges of his mind go fuzzy, just the thought that he is safe and warm and here. The air in his lungs seems like it burns away and his ears fill with something buzzing, or humming, he can’t quite tell which.

He should have known. Honestly, he should have, he should have been able to see this coming. Belle took a stick to a pack of wolves, he should have known that this was going to happen, that he wasn’t the only one that had been holding himself back.

“My love,” Adam hisses.

Belle’s hands go everywhere, beneath his shirt, over his heart, down his ribcage, up again to his collar and over his shoulders, down his arms. The touch of skin against skin is a torment, and Adam would give so much— anything, really, for her hands to move faster, press harder, scratch marks against his skin. He feels like he’s burning, maybe he is, he can’t tell, everything against his skin suddenly feels like it’s made of the thickest cloth possible.

She isn’t even kissing him— not fully, not with her lips pressed against his jaw. Death, the human part of him thinks. Death would be a kinder way to die.

Adam’s eyes fall shut for a moment. If it’s in bliss, or agony, he can’t really tell, all he can do is just focus on the feel of it and try not to come flying apart at the seams of who he is. The rain seems to shift against the window at his back and starts coming down in waves.

The window must have a crack in it, because cool wet air sends a shiver down his spine.

She pulls back and sighs and presses her lips against the other side of his mouth, along his chin, against his skin. Adam opens his eyes again, tries to focus on her face. He nuzzles his nose against her cheek and gets the strange sensation that they’ve been here before. Not, here, in the dower house, but here, as if they keep crashing together like his. Always circling, always hovering around this moment and never going farther, always running up to the precipice and never jumping over.

He groans from between his teeth, “What is it you want, my heart?”

Anything Belle names, he’ll give it. Gold, jewels, every book that has ever been written, a Library three times the size of the one that Belle currently makes her tinkerer’s lair in, he’ll do it.

“Too much,” Belle manages, trying to catch her breath. “I fear that I want too much.”

The way that her hands press against his skin, Adam feels like she could ask for the stars and he’d reach up and pluck them from the sky.

He presses small kisses against her lips. Varies their length, some chaste and gentle, kisses that they might have shared in public. Some Adam draws out, slightly longer and slightly less chaste. Others, because his hands are still dug into the windowsill he makes nearly painful. More teeth than chaste kiss.

Belle sounds like she’s having trouble breathing. There’s something in him that likes that.

“Talk to me,” Belle begs him. “Like the things you whisper against my ear, or when you think no one can hear us, or when you think I’m sleeping—”

He should feel ashamed that she’d heard that, that night, that she’d heard the nothings that he’d whispered against her temple in the early hours of the morning before the dawn became too demanding. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t, he’d shout them if he didn’t think she’d hurl something at his forehead. Death of me, he’d whispered. You make my heart do stupid things. Some days it feels like Belle could tell his heart to shrivel up like an old, crumpled rose petal and Adam swears that it would.

“Death of me,” he starts. It rushes out faster than his tongue can wrap itself around the words. “Death of me, my darling, my heart, my only—”

He starts rattling off all the endearments he knows: in French, English, Spanish, German, Italian, a sparse few in Swedish because he’s had a very expensive education. Jumbles them all together and probably butchers half of them, his pronunciation has always been mediocre at best and at the moment  every other thought in his head is otherwise occupied. He tries to keep the heat from shooting downwards, he really does, but it isn’t working.

And Belle, Belle lets out the softest, sweetest whine his ears have ever heard.

Adam’s hands dig into the wood behind him until he can feel it splinter beneath his nails.

It’d be so easy, there is a part of him that thinks. Ripping out the cabinet, the window, it’d be like tearing thin paper. He could rip them out of the stone that they were set in. Damn him. Damn him. He wants to, this is the problem, he wants to more than anything that he’s felt in a long, long time. It’s only the last vestiges of Adam’s control that keep his arms locked where they are, no matter how much he wants to touch. He will not. He will not. He has enough nightmares as it is, but his hands turning into claws around Belle’s throat do not need to be one of them.

Thoughts start floating through his head— thoughts that haunt him late at night and early in the mornings, thoughts that his old self would have thought, would have acted on.

Longing and desire, love and lust, those are very different things.

And Belle’s lips against his do not help in this matter. Fire licks along his muscles, down from the top of his skull directly to the base of his spine. Their kisses before today have been chaste, at best, compared to this, no, as Adam pulls on Belle’s lips with his teeth, this is different. It’s all he can do to keep up with Belle’s momentum, she seems to just press into him and fit, like there’s been a Belle-shaped hole against his body that he’s just never noticed before. Even if he suspects that she’s having to balance on the very tips of her toes to do it. He opens his mouth, slightly, begging, and Belle does not refuse him.

Her tongue sweeps across his lips and Adam shoves the growl in his throat as far down as he can make it go— Belle presses further in against him as their lips press and pull and all he can process is that she tastes divine, better than he might have thought, better than her skin had tasted under his tongue.

It’s divine, and he can’t get enough of it, his tongue slides along her lips and in, he chokes out a moan before he can stop it and hopes that perhaps she’s too wrapped up in trying to rid him of all of his common sense to notice. Her mouth is warm and wet against his, and makes his mind think about other things that might feel this good against him, make his will crumble like her tongue has.

It’s too much, no, not enough, he can’t tell which anymore. She sighs against him. It’s hunger, he realizes. And it’s not just coming from him.

It seems like his whole body is humming, buzzing, in pleasure or anticipation, he can’t tell which. He has to— he has to put a stop to this, now, before he can’t.

“Belle,” he chokes out, tearing himself away from the way that her body fits against his. It hurts to do it. But something in his voice is different this time. It’s beseeching. It’s begging. “Belle, go easy on me, my love.”

And while don’t stop may possibly be the sweetest words that have ever graced his ears, sweeter still is the moment that Belle seems to open her eyes and wake up from the haze that has ensnared them both. Adam would describe it as the marriage of mortification, breathlessness, and guilt.

Her tinkerer’s hands leave his collar and come up to clutch at her face.

If she’s trying to make an effort to hide the sudden, vivid blush, it’s a poor attempt at best. His hands haven’t touched her, not like this, but her lips are pink and well-kissed and the rest of her is thoroughly mussed. She’s breathing hard, harder, perhaps, than he is.

“I am so sorry,” Belle admits, after a moment. She blinks and looks around, perhaps trying to figure out how they got into this particular position. “I’m not sure what came over me.”

Adam can’t help but laugh: this is who he is, this is who she is, this is the irritating little ball of warmth in his chest that seems to snatch him away from gravity sometimes.

You make me laugh, he thinks, but the words don’t come out. I would have stayed up on that rampart forever, endured a thousand more years of the curse just to see you one more time.

But, something inside him knows. She’s not one of his courtiers. Or one of his past dalliances.

And he is not his past self: perhaps he needed a reminder of that. Belle is— well, she’s unnamable. She’s everything. She’s the presence at his shoulder and the comfort at their fêtes when the people on the opposite side of the dining table feel like they’re trying to find knives for his back. She’s lazy afternoons in the Library. She’s the laughter in the hallway. She’s the reason he smiles.

His hands, and they are still hands, now that he can actually check, have significantly damaged the cabinet and windowsill. He grimaces at them as he lowers his arms and rubs his wrists.

“I, uh,” he starts, trying to hide his embarassment and the other evidence of his distraction. He’s suddenly thankful for his untucked shirt. “I think I may have gotten a bit carried away.”

Belle’s flushed face does nothing but wince at the claw marks on the windowsill.

“I will allow you that disposition, my love,” she says quietly, and he knows that she is slipping his words back towards him. “But perhaps this time it was not entirely your fault.”

Her hands find his and rub against his skin for him. He’s reminded of the days that had followed the wolves, where she had pressed a warm cloth against his wounds. His nails seem to be just that: nails, not claws. Even if there is a healthy caking of mud underneath them from the storm.

He looks at his hands, the hands that feel too small sometimes, too dangerous and he frowns. He glares down at her beautiful head. “It was ninety percent your fault.”

“That’s unrealistically high,” Belle bites. “Sixty percent, at best.”

“Fifty. Half. There are two people in this mess, my heart,” he lowers his voice and is pleased to find that even now, even cooled from their earlier passion, the tips of her ears still turn pink. He turns towards the window, trying to hide how much that pleases him. “And I think that your passions are just as stubborn as you are.”

Belle scoffs. “Passions are viewed by some in Villeneuve as unfortunate traits for a young lady.”

Adam looks away from the ruined window, eyes wide. “Is it that school master? I’ll have his head.”

Belle laughs, like when he’d given her the Library, like when she’d thrown the snowball at his face. She ducks her head immediately after, like she’s embarrassed, like it wasn’t the most beautiful sound in the whole world.

She draws away from him and picks at her hands with a smile on her lips. He tries to get the muscles in his back to unknot, rolls his shoulders and presses his fingers into one shoulder blade and then the other. Belle flips the clothing resting against the grate, he assumes so that they start to dry on all sides. He should go over and offer to adjust the fire, perhaps add more wood to it if it were necessary, but before he can even try, Belle does it anyway. She rarely ever asks for his help, even when he would give it in a heartbeat.

A horrible thought occurs to him.

Is she angry with him, that he came after her during the storm? Has he overstepped his bounds? Adam’s aware that he can be quite, well, possessive, as evidenced by his behavior in the last hour and a half.

The unfortunate part is that he can’t tell which past self that particular trait comes from. The beast, or the six-and-a-half-foot monster?

“I like it, when you’re like this,” Belle says from behind him.

He turns back, eyebrows up. “Like what?”

She seems to gesture at him, and it takes him a moment to figure out what she means: his hair’s a mess, his shirt is open three inches lower than his sternum, his pants are rolled up at the knee and still slightly damp. A minute ago he had been in the worst sort of state to be caught in unawares, but he doesn’t want to say that out loud. He laughs, “Filthy, utterly undone by a beautiful woman, and experiencing mildly concerning post-curse side-effects?”

No,” Belle huffs at him, while she works. “Soft. Like that night last week. Or right now. Or in the Library.”

Adam looks down at himself again, picking at his loose shirt. He feels normal in this, but to the outside world he would be scandalously underdressed. Clothing has been, well, strange, for him, since the curse broke, but he has expectations placed upon him. He’s trying to fulfill them. But then, he does also understand what Belle means. He can be a different person when all the world falls away, when it’s just the two of them attached side by side. He doesn’t have to worry about impressing his royal cousins, or any of the Ambassadors. He can just be himself.

“Moved on from Shakespeare, I see,” he hums. “Onto Diderot and Jolyot de Crébillion? And their dashing half-dressed heroes who always manage to stumble upon their damsels as they faint from passion?”

The look she shoots him could have struck someone dead if she had just a drop of magic in her bloodline. Adam swallows.

“No!” Belle insists. “I, no, it’s, it’s not that. It’s just, when you’re—” She gestures at him. “—I don’t have to worry about court etiquette, or which of the seven sets of gold-inlaid silver we should use for a fête, or the proper way to style my hair.”

She doesn’t have to pretend, Adam translates. She doesn’t have to become something she isn’t.

His lips part, focusing on her, thoughts of trashy French literature forgotten.

“You hate all this,” Adam realizes aloud. “Don’t you.”

The look that passes over Belle’s features tells him more than enough; it’s a sort of grimace. Not too different from the look she had shot his marks on the window just a few minutes ago. “No. No, I don’t hate it.”

“My love,” he half-laughs, half scoffs. They are past all this. They are past it.

Belle hesitates. He knows the look: guilt, like the guilt he carries from his past self every day. She drops his gaze and tidies her white top and underskirts while he watches, at a loss.

And he, feeling just a bit too much like some debauched bachelor who just ravished one of the maids in a broom closet, a bit too much like his old self, he can’t help but button the lower buttons of his shirt. At least it’s something to do with his fingers.

Silence stretches between them, like something impassable. Something immovable. What had been intimate affection and love is now a distance that Adam doesn’t know how to traverse.

Belle must feel it too, because her fingers start picking at her hands again.

“I dislike having idle hands,” she tells him. She seems to jump at the explanation. “My life has been comprised of having to do everything myself— the gardening so we could economically manage our funds. The sewing, because we couldn’t afford to take everything to a seamstress. Drying and salting our meat for the winter. Feeding the chickens before sunrise every morning.” She turns to him and tucks a bit of hair behind her ear. A losing battle, at best. “My father was not an absent parent, by any means, but, well, he was like me. Sometimes he would be struck by an idea and it would be three days before he came back out of his workshop again.”

Adam knows absent parenting: he has accused Maurice of many terrible things, but being an undeserving father has never been, will never be one of them.

At the celebration, weeks ago, he’d even offered Maurice a permanent place in his court: but Maurice preferred the quiet of his little cottage in Villeneuve.

Adam swallows a rock that seems to have lodged itself in his throat, or maybe it’s his heart, and thinks that this might be what sorrow truly feels like. Standing up on that rampart, watching Belle ride away into the sunset knowing that she would never return, that had just been a pale imitation. Like a candle to a dying star. It seems like the cruelest twist of the Enchantress’ fingers, to have won Belle’s affection because of his heart, because of their hearts, only to lose her because his mind cannot keep up with hers.

“Belle,” he chokes. “If you— if you’re unhappy here, if you’d rather go back to Villeneuve, then of course I would wish you the very—”

Belle is there, suddenly, six feet closer than she had been just a moment ago, and silences him by the way that her arms clutch at him. Like he’s hanging off the side of the ramparts again and she’s the only thing keeping him upright. “No, no,” she tells him. “My hands with you have not been idle.”

“I don’t want to keep you where you don’t want to be,” Adam stresses. Gaston had shown him that, shown him what a monster could be. Shown him what Adam had been.

“You aren’t,” Belle tells him. She takes his face in her hands and runs her thumbs along his jaw. He can’t help but catch her hands with his. “Even if you were a baker, or a hermit who lived out in the woods. Even if your sorting system in the Library was atrocious before I came along.”

“You leave that out of this,” he begs her, trying not to let the hope bubble up in his chest but Belle shows no mercy. “You live with talking inanimate objects for a decade and see what kinds of sorting systems you come up with to pass the time.”

Belle laughs and kisses him again, smiling, and Adam can’t help it. He hopes that the two of them will always be like this. Even when they’re old and gray and too feeble to make it down so many flights of stairs.

They’ll probably have to use Belle’s pulleys to get up to her suite in the East Wing.

The rain has stopped, Adam realizes. He turns and looks up through the window: the dark blanket of thunderclouds still remains, but this could be their only opportunity to make it back to Villeneuve or the castle for a few hours. Judging by the amount of rain that has fallen, they could even be stuck here overnight if they don’t take advantage.

And as much as he doesn’t want this, whatever it has been, to end, spending the night with no furniture or bedding to sleep on, even with Belle in his arms, does not sound appealing.

Belle must be thinking along the same lines, because her eyes drift from the sky outdoors to their little haven inside the dower house, complete with dripping ceilings and vines growing up through the floors.

“Come, my love,” Belle tells him. “Our socks are as dry as we’re going to get them, I think. I want to go home.”

Chapter Text

“What do you think it would take,” Belle asks him. “To fix up the dower house?”

Adam blinks. The correspondence he’s reading folds over backwards onto his chest. “…I’m not actually sure. They’d have to assess the extent of the damage.”

The structure itself had seemed pretty solid, after all, Adam guesses. The ceiling and floors would need to be entirely replaced. Time consuming, but not impossible. Most of the windows, too. He could hire someone from Paris to come do it, or maybe even bribe one of his royal cousins’ people. There’s enough gossip going on at Versailles about him anyway, he’s sure plenty of people would jump at the chance for a new acquaintance to play the game with. No bribery necessary. The tricky part would be to send out invitations to come see the state of the dower house without slighting his royal cousins and their near-constant summons.

It’s been a week since their adventure in the thunderstorm. Adam finds that his mind will drift back to that day without his input. “What brought this on?”

“Oh, it was just a thought,” Belle says, not looking up from her book. “The dower house must have been very beautiful, once. It seems a shame that there is no one left to love it.”

Adam nods, thoughtfully. It did have a…forgotten quality to it. Like it was a secret. There is a part of him that hopes it will become their secret.

Eventually, he picks up his correspondence with his left hand and resumes trying to pick through the Baron’s ridiculously intricate looping script, while his right hand trails through the water of the pond.

The day is warm but not unpleasant. He’d come out of his meeting about the repairs from the storm already underway to find Belle wading around one of the many fountains on the grounds. The water hadn’t been higher than the tops of her ankles, not even deep enough for tiny fish. His father would probably have been scandalized, so perhaps that’s why Adam had stripped off his shoes and stepped right in. Today is a good day: he’d fallen asleep last night in Belle’s Library and the nightmares hadn’t come. His hands don’t feel too small. Belle’s scent is pleasant and almost dormant at the back of his senses. Tonight they’re hosting a summer celebration but it’s not as formal, this is just for them and their friends. Their family.

Now, though, they have slightly damp feet as they sit on the pond’s edge, against the lawn. Well, Belle sits. Adam is staining the back of his light vest green on the grass.

Adam’s next letter is from Père Robert. Villeneuve, as it turns out, managed to survive the thunderstorm with barely any damage at all. It sat high enough on the hilltop that the floodwaters and mudslides hadn’t reached the town and had only swept away some minor storehouses and a well in the valley. A small part of one of the roads had been washed away, but a detour had been found easily enough. Père Robert speaks of the gratitude of Villeneuve’s people and how they are allotting the supplies that he’s sent.

There’s a part of Adam that wishes that Père Robert weren’t attached to the Church: he’s one of the few people in Villeneuve that has a head for leadership. Better than Adam himself seems to, at least.

“I’ve actually been meaning to ask you this,” Belle tells him. He’s drawn out of the letter by the sound of her voice. “I’ve been looking through the records, and I, well,” she pauses. “I can’t actually figure out why you’re a prince.”

Belle’s question comes from so far out of the blue that for a moment Adam just continues to stare at his letter, thinking, processing, before he lets his head lull back so that he can stare up at her. He squints because of the soft sunlight but also because he can’t quite believe that she’s actually asked the question. And then he remembers that Belle was not born in Villeneuve, because everyone in Villeneuve knows the answer. Or, well, they had, before it had magically been erased from all existence.

“Well,” Adam swallows, all scholarly, keeping a straight face like the serious village Headmaster. “When a Prince and his beautiful wife love each other very much, they—”

The spine of Belle’s book lands solidly against his forehead. He scrunches his nose in outrage, a noise escaping his throat. Belle’s face is suspiciously neutral. Adam does the mature thing: he sticks his tongue out at her.

She sends him a look, but brings the book back up so that she can continue to read it and not use it as a blunt weapon. “But the King, isn’t he—”

“My oldest cousin, on our fathers’ sides,” Adam answers. And then, “Unfortunately.”

Belle moves her book aside, slightly, probably so that she can look down on him. Her expression speaks volumes.

“What?” He complains. “I’m the Prince, I can say whatever I want to.”

The spine of Belle’s book comes down again, but Adam sees it fast enough, this time. He snaps it closed and Belle has to pull it out of his grip. He’d splash pond water in Belle’s direction but he’s reasonably sure she’d drown him in three inches of water if he got her book damp. The glare on her face startles a laugh out of Adam’s lungs, and pretty soon Belle gives in and joins him. The way that the soft sunlight shines against Belle makes her look like she’s wearing a liquid gold halo, like in paintings of some of the Saints, and it strikes Adam that he’s possibly never been this happy in his entire life.

His face must show something of what’s bubbling inside his chest, because when Belle next looks down at him, a faint blush forms against her cheek. “So was it your father that this castle passed to you through?”

“No, no, heavens no,” Adam hisses. “My father was a Montmorency and would never let you forget it.”

And Adam’s father had never let him forget it either. Despite all of the funds spent on the grounds here, he’d hated it. It was too far removed from Versailles, he had said. The only reason his father had married his mother was because his mother had been an heiress and his father had been the third son of the previous King.

And third sons get nothing, in royal courts.

“You remember my great-grandmother, Berangaria?” He tries to look at her from upside-down. He thinks that he sees Belle nod her head. “She was the favorite older sister of Prince Verrdun, the Gray Lion. Verrdun was second in line for ascension, and was a lesser half-brother from a lesser house—” he pauses, noticing the disgusted, fed-up-with-the-gentry sort of look on Belle’s face. “My father’s words, not mine.”

“I’m sure,” Belle says, in a tone that tells Adam she doesn’t believe him.

“Would you like me to continue, or would you like to make snide comments all day while your feet get wrinkly from the water?”

Belle shifts beneath him and jostles his skirt-pillow, but she flicks her fingers in a way that says ‘by all means, go on’.

“Verrdun wasn’t ever supposed to be crowned,” Adam tells her. “Olivier was oldest and heir, and had the best education that a royal house could afford. Verrdun, who probably would have done nothing but get a barony and marry for political gain, got the scraps left over. Classics here, obscure English literature there, tutors for every language spoken in a three thousand mile radius in any direction. Fencing by the greatest French champion still living. It was a very hard life, for Verrdun.”

Belle scoffs. Adam raises an eyebrow.

“What? You said yourself, ‘I had an expensive education’,” Belle says, doing a horrible impression of his voice from before by puffing out her whole chest and lowering her voice as low as she could possibly make it go. It isn’t nearly low enough.

“Ah,” Adam points out, literally pointing upwards in her direction, “But I was always going to be a Prince. I was an only child. By law this castle quite literally couldn’t have gone to anybody but myself.”

“Your humility astounds, as always, my love,” Belle sighs.

Adam whaps Perè Robert’s letters against Belle’s arm, next to his head, and Belle squeaks.

“But then the unpredictable happened,” Adam tells her, speaking right over Belle’s look of indignation. “Well, no, predictable for us. Not for them. Crown Prince Olivier died.”

Belle’s face falls. The book droops dangerously towards his nose. “What killed him?”

“What kills all royal princes, my heart?” Adam asks her, turning his torso to play with the faint embroidery of her half-tucked skirts beneath his head. “Lovers, boredom, and drink.”

Without much warning, Adam suddenly feels a smoothness trail across his forehead. He fears for a moment that all she’ll notice is the light sheen of sweat that’s gathered because of the summer sun, but she says nothing. The warmth of Belle’s fingers make him shut his eyes and hum, but she proceeds to tap against him three times, impatient.

Adam clears his throat, trying to snatch his train of thought back from the ether. Like he’s having to grab them by the collar and drag them bodily back from the edge.

Verrdun, Olivier, Berangaria— oh. Right. He opens his eyes again.

“She had support in Versailles, and in Paris,” he thinks aloud. It’s been decades since he’s heard this story, and like all stories, the details get a little jumbled. “And Verrdun didn’t. Verrdun’s house was so negatively viewed by the senior members of court that Berangaria’s claim was considered more legitimate. She was older than he was, and she had better alliances formed before Verrdun was even brought to court. But she had no wish to play the Grand Game. She was, well, they called it ‘wild’, at the time. She preferred spending time in the country, hunting, riding, being out of doors. I told you that she came from a long line of magic from the north.”

Adam vaguely remembers having lessons about this, too, and the history of the Castle itself, in-between learning the ins and outs of his entire ancient family tree. He does remember tracing back Berangaria’s branch hundreds of years to a country that didn’t even exist anymore.

“So Verrdun made her a promise: throw her support behind his claim and he would ensure that she lived out the rest of her days, doing what she wished, however she wished, as would befit a Crown Princess. She was given eighty-thousand acres as a Principality, and through excessive contract negotiations, ensured that her titles and responsibilities would pass to her oldest living child when she died.”

“Did she ever regret her decision?” Belle asks, pulling him from his memories.

He laughs, only just a little bit sour. He dips his hand into the pond again and watches the way that it disturbs the water’s surface. “To hear my father tell it, she married a merchant prince with plenty of connections and secured the wealth and prosperity of her house for generations upon generations to come. She grew bitter and harsh and deservedly miserable.”

Adam looks up in time to see Belle pursing her lips. He knows that look, has become very well acquainted with it since the first days of their story. It’s the ‘I really don’t think I would have liked your father’ look, and Adam finds that he loves it.

“My mother, on the other hand, was her oldest surviving grandchild,” he says. “And she told me once, while my father was holding a fetê downstairs, that Berangaria married a humble Knight from a nearby village and was very, very happy, until she was very old and died peacefully in her sleep.”

What Adam doesn’t tell Belle is that now, that he is older, he’s fairly certain that his mother had told him that story to comfort herself as much as she wanted to comfort him, at the time. The illness that had claimed her life had been the lethargic kind: she’d been too weak to leave her bedside for almost four months before she had finally passed. He can remember the heartache of it, some sort of stomach illness that made it impossible for his mother to eat without pain or move. They had never discovered what the illness was, exactly, and the doctors had squabbled over treatments for so long that she’d largely gone without any help whatsoever. He thinks, now, that dying peacefully in her sleep with no more pain was possibly the thing his mother had wanted most.

Adam’s instinct is to keep that close to his chest. Not because it’s a secret, not because he doesn’t trust Belle to keep it: but because if he keeps it close enough, it can’t go out and about and do more damage to him.

But Belle, is, well, Belle. Her hand finds his, the one that isn’t trailing idly through the pond, and she entwines their fingers. Adam meets her gaze, even upside down with his head resting against her thigh. Her expression says it all: their shared grief, in Maurice’s old attic in Montmartre.

She says, “It’s a… very sad story.”

And, oh, save him, she isn’t talking about Berangaria.

“All the best ones are,” Adam replies, after a moment. He’s having a bit of a hard time swallowing a sudden lump in his throat. “Sad middles aren’t so bad. As long as the endings make up for it.”

He brings up their entwined fingers to his lips and presses against Belle’s in a brief kiss. Belle finally sets her book aside, though Adam can tell that she hasn’t been paying attention to it for some time now, and her other hand passes along his scalp. She leans down towards him and brushes their noses together, briefly.

“I’m not sure Shakespeare would agree with you.”

“It was four days, my love, four days, and six people ended up dead,” he groans. “If you hold up everything to Romeo and Juliet, then yes, I’m sorry, we aren’t going to do any combination of stabbing, betraying, or poisoning one other.”

Adam is going to splash that book, he is, he doesn’t care, he’ll buy her six more copies and have them delivered to Villeneuve by next week, but he just will not stand for the look on her face like she’s trying to hold back her laughter. He reaches as deep into the pond as he can go and cups his palm in a way that will maximize the splash radius, and Belle must see what he means to do because she starts scrambling to get away from the pond’s edge—

A shadow passes over them both. Adam freezes and blinks blearily up at the dark outline that’s blocking the sunlight, but he knows that silhouette anywhere.

“Is my hour of free time up, Cogsworth?” Adam asks him.

“I’m afraid so, your highness.”

Adam has to block the glare out of his eyes as he sits up, left arm still dripping wet, shirt green and utterly stained, and fairly sure that he must have grass, well, everywhere. His shoes have gone missing and he has absolutely no intention of putting them on again. It doesn’t lessen the pressure on his shoulders from laying against a completely hard surface, but his spine seems to slide back into place after a moment. He pushes his hands against his ribcage like he could somehow push them back into place.

“I’ll be right along, Cogsworth,” Adam says.

Cogsworth gives a very short bow, more of an acknowledgment than anything else, and shuffles away with the briskness of an old, decorated military general. He and Belle watch him go.

Well, Belle watches Cogsworth. Adam sweeps his eyes back to Belle, after a moment. She matches him in a way. She’s showing signs of a healthy glow from the sun, and he’s sure that her skirts are just as stained as his shirt is.

He gets a wicked idea as he leans down to kiss Belle gently against the crown of her head and turns at the very last minute so that his lips graze her jaw instead. She stiffens against him.

“I’ll be back soon, my darling,” he says against Belle’s ear. His fingers trail along her chin as he withdraws, takes one look at her stunned face and open mouth.

He’s away before she can react, following Cogsworth back up the path to the Castle.

Adam doesn’t sprint to catch up with him. He doesn’t. He’s a man grown. He has responsibilities and a reputation to uphold. Besides, it’s more of a fast walk with interludes of sprinting.

“Anything in particular that needs to be handled before the celebration tonight?” Adam asks. “Did we already order the supplies for the windmill replacement that was damaged during the storm?”

“Most of the preparations are already well underway, your Highness,” Cogsworth says. He says nothing of Adam’s sprinting or disheveled appearance. “And we did, sire, they should arrive by the end of this week.”

Adam smiles, pleased. He knows that it really shouldn’t feel like that much of an accomplishment, but it helps him to know that he’s doing something. It’s a slow process, but he is learning how to give the Castle the care it deserves.

“Did I,” Adam starts. “Did I do enough for Villeneuve, Cogsworth? Should we do more?”

Cogsworth has served Adam’s family since he was a small boy. He grew up alongside Adam’s grandfather, served Adam’s mother for twenty years, and has been there for all of Adam’s life. Curse or no curse. He’s an exacting, prompt pinnacle of a former-mantle clock. He’s also the closest thing that Adam has ever had to an affectionate parent since his mother slipped from him.

So when Cogsworth sniffs through his tragically uneven mustache, and says, “I think you performed very admirably, my Prince.”

The anxiety just floods out of him. Adam feels like he’s deflating, but in the best possible way.

But then, “Even if you do look like you had a bad tumble down a wet hill. You do intend on changing before tonight’s celebration, do you not?”

Chapter Text

July gives way to August. In two weeks, at the beginning of September, most of the Castle’s non-essential staff will return to Villeneuve to help with the harvest. Not that Adam minds. A quiet castle for him is a happy one. They have no pressing engagements or celebrations to plan, even minor ones, and the world seems to quiet as the warmth sets in. Even his summons from Versailles cease.

Maurice finally gives in and decides to spend a few days walking the grounds of the Castle and painting, if only because prepping for the harvest has made Villeneuve a place of constant noise and movement. He tells Belle that he couldn’t hear cannon fire, let alone his own thoughts.

Belle glows with Maurice nearby. It’s evident in everything that she does and every word that she says.

Adam, on the other hand, feels as though every single move could be his last as the three of them share a private breakfast together. He knows the grand game, knows how he should be behaving, and knows how far away he and Belle are from the world’s definition of normal that trying to slip back into his old face is much harder than it was two months ago.

It turns out that Adam has no reason to be worried: Maurice, much like his daughter, could be in the middle of an idea and be so entranced that he’d walk straight into a nearby wall. Belle’s done it on exactly one occasion, before, when Adam still had horns. He’d laughed so hard he’d tripped over his own two feet.

Adam tries not to smile into his tea: anybody could have seen this coming. How had he possibly forgotten?

“Papa,” Belle prods. Maurice doesn’t look up from his sketching. Adam’s eyes flit from father to daughter. “Papa.”

Maurice doesn’t respond. His spectacles slide further down his nose even as Adam watches. Maurice is frowning down at the paper and has— to Adam’s utter amusement, a smudge of charcoal on his nose. These things are hereditary, it seems.

“Mhmm?”

“That is the wrong wheel, Papa,” Belle tells him.

Maurice blinks and looks down, hands moving in a way that Adam interprets as ‘where’?

Adam can’t see the sketch clearly from the opposite side of the table, but he can only imagine what Belle’s father could be up to. Belle’s imprint has been left on every inch of this Castle, and is as it should be. Their staircases are equipped with pulleys, the kitchen has a washing mechanism that does the hard work of scrubbing clothes in the form of an oak barrel that turns on its side. Belle’s helped the groundskeepers fix the irrigation system for the gardens.

“Center Wheel,” Belle tells him, pointing down at the sketch. “Not main, here.”

“Ah,” Maurice bites. He pauses for a moment and turns his sketch horizontally, just as he’s seen Belle do herself. He sighs and makes the adjustments. Then he turns to Adam, “She was always smarter than I am.”

Adam does smile into his tea this time, even as Belle hisses, “Papa.”

“Oh, what,” Maurice complains. “Let this old man dote on his only child.”

Belle faces back towards Adam like she is done with the subject, done with her father’s antics and brings her own tea to her lips. Adam knows that it’s coming before Maurice seems to, because these last two months have taught him what it means when Belle’s eyes light up like that. “Perhaps the old man should remember which cog goes where in a music box.”

Maurice makes an indignant sort of noise, like Belle has just said the most insulting thing one could ever say to a tinkerer.

Adam can do nothing but just stop and watch: there is part of him that swells, seeing Belle so happy, seeing her father in the mornings, practically glowing with happiness, but there is a smaller part of him that shrivels up inside. Just a bit. Something hard forms in his chest. Like a hard knot in an oak tree.

He tries not to let the fond smile fall from his lips, but it’s like trying to stop a teacup with a crack through the bottom from leaking.

Adam rises from the table quietly and the bickering comes to a sudden stop. Both of them are staring up at him. He inclines his head towards Maurice and gets an amused nod in return. “Forgive me,” he says. “But Cogsworth is expecting me for most of the morning.”

If Belle knows that Cogsworth is not expecting him at all, that Adam had taken care of most of what he was needed for late yesterday afternoon, she says nothing. But as always, her eyes seem to see right through him.

Adam tries to give a reassuring smile, but he knows it’s lacking. He comes around the table and kisses her knuckles anyway, and then takes his leave.

That knot in his chest only worsens as Adam makes his way from the morning rooms to the main parts of the Castle. He shuts his eyes against it and tries to push it away, think of better things, but a foulness has crept in.

The balcony at the rear of the Castle is expansive, more of a terrace or veranda than balcony. It overlooks the southern parts of the gardens. Adam steps out into the soft morning light and tries to clear his head of his Father’s remnants.

And the thing about the Castle is, it’s secluded. Villeneuve is by far the closest settlement, though there used to be others. The Castle sits in the middle of a giant, symmetrical maze of gardens up to the forests’ edge. And now, in August, everything is beautifully in bloom and the scent’s heavy in the air. Every color lays before his eyes as he stands on the balcony. It’s beautiful, yes, Adam knows, he loves it far too much to think anything less, but it hurts him to think of when this place had suffered in ruins because of his actions.

And frankly, he never really saw it before, but it’s empty.

That’s the whole point, Adam realizes. It’s meant to be lavish and elegant, a display of wealth and position— of his Father’s rights as third son of the King and Prince Consort.

When Berangaria had ruled it had been more wild, the Castle jutting out of the forest which came right up to the front doors. Adam’s seen the paintings in the West Wing.

His father had tamed it. Or tried to, at least.

Adam’s hands tighten against the balcony’s stone railings. The knot becomes bitter and begins to choke him. He’d never noticed when his father had been alive, but ironically now he sees what a father should have been. Maurice dotes on Belle, but above all sees what a gift Belle has been in his life. Adam had only ever been an inconvenience. A shadow that never lived up to expectation.

And now, Adam can feel how much was robbed from him.

“Something has your eye, I know it,” says a female voice from behind him. Jarring him, making him jump. Adam turns and finds Mrs. Potts, looking entirely too put-together. “You had that same look when you were seven and hated that coat your father had especially made for you.”

In Adam’s defense, it had been a dreadful coat.

He almost laughs, bitterly, out of his melancholy. His grip on the stone bannister lessens, at least, as the memory comes back.

It’d been so stiff he could have slipped right out of it and it would have remained upright just on its own willpower, and was so tight around Adam’s throat that he felt like he was being hung from an invisible noose. He may have, and he will still deny it, even to this day, knocked over a plate of purple pudding that they had been serving at his father’s table and ruined it completely. Even now, nearly three decades later— well, two, but really three because of magical complications, Adam’s throat feels like something is closing around it just from the memory.

“He never proved anything,” Adam says, under his breath. He doesn’t rub at the skin around his throat. He doesn’t.

Mrs. Potts sniffs in distaste. “No’ for lack of trying, Sire.”

Mrs. Potts often has that spark of something mischievous in her eyes that he’s come to admire so much in Belle’s. It had shown through when she had scolded Adam for his temper as a porcelain teapot and it shows through now, as flesh and blood.

She blinks at him, expectant, and Adam finds that he only has the power in him to withstand it for a limited amount of time. About seven seconds, actually.

“Oh, very well. I was,” he gives in, like she’s managed to wheedle some great secret out of him. “I was thinking that my father had so much work done to these gardens. It would be such a dreadful shame if something happened to it.”

Mrs. Potts seems to nod thoughtfully and looks out towards the south lawn.

“Positively dreadful,” she agrees. There’s a certain amount of glee in her expression that is just as terrifying as Adam finds it exhilarating. Perhaps he isn’t the only one that hates his Father’s memory. “Positively dreadful, indeed.”

It’s too late for a harvest, obviously. An hour later, Adam feels ridiculous asking his groundskeeping staff to educate him on the subject, but he does it anyway. Monsieur Poirier, the Head Groundskeeper, spent ten years as a garden rake and has the thick mustache to show for it: if anyone would tolerate his questions about gardening, it would probably be him. Adam even sneaks back up to Belle’s Library and smuggles books out of Belle’s meticulously arranged and catalogued hoard and finds the time to peruse through their pages. They’re filled with detailed depictions, and Adam selects three that speak to him. He spills the books across the tables and begins to tell them what he has in mind.

He expects skeptical looks. Adam’s a Prince— the old him wouldn’t have even acknowledged the groundskeepers at all. In his Father’s day, servants were neither heard, nor seen, unless he wished it. Adam expects to be treated exactly for what he is: a Prince, who has no clue what he’s doing, but wants to try anyway.

To his surprise, the groundskeeping staff seem to jump at his ideas.

They banish him from their greenhouses with promises for him to come again the next day, and Adam obeys. His arms are full of books, and notes, but the knot in his chest fades, and there’s a hint of rebellion in his heart.

Like when he’d lifted the plate of the purple pudding and spilled it all down his white coat.

Afternoon passes, and then evening. Belle joins him briefly as Adam reads his correspondence, but she mentions nothing about his behavior at breakfast. He almost wants to apologize for it, he should apologize, but every time he tries his throat seems to close. It helps that Maurice seems to be in another one of his creative streaks, and has apparently turned Belle’s Library into an enormous workshop. After a time, Belle presses her lips against his temple as she stands behind where he’s seated, and returns to her father.

As sorry as Adam is to see her go, the moment Belle disappears into the hallway, he yanks the books about gardening from where he’d shoved them in a panic when she’d come in. 

He falls asleep reading them, spread over his bed in the West Wing. He tucks them away, regretfully, and joins Belle and Maurice for breakfast again.

And Adam, he just consumes his tea and breakfast as fast as he can without seeming out of the ordinary. It isn’t difficult. Maurice looks like he didn’t sleep at all last night and has no intention of trying any time soon. And Belle has her nose buried so deep in her book that Adam could possibly spontaneously combust and he doesn’t think she would notice.

He repeats yesterday’s ritual when he’s finished and has pretended for as long as his legs will stay still. A bow, to Maurice, who barely notices, and a kiss, for Belle, who pulls her hand away at the last second so that he has to kiss her brow. She asks, “Cogsworth again?”

Belle is far too clever for her good, his good, everybody’s good. “Poirier, actually, my love.”

By the time he sees Belle frown and look up, Adam is already at the door to the morning room and ducking around it fast.

He doesn’t run. Running against marble floor is difficult, at best. He doesn’t slide, either, because that would just be uncharacteristically immature of him.

He does nearly slide into the statue near the balcony facing the south lawns, but Adam stops himself in time.

And, bless him, Poirier is already hard at work by the time Adam joins him, trying to look princely and nonchalant. “Ah, good morning, Sire!”

“Good morning, Monsieur,” Adam says.

“We won’t be able to get anything to grow this season, your Highness,” Monsieur Poirier says, surveying the work already underway. “Too much heat and not enough rain. And a real winter will be upon us before too long. But we’ll get the foundations laid down and prepped for next season. Fortunate, too, the south lawns get plenty of sunlight and the soil’s in good condition.”

Adam can already see the work as it’s taking shape as he joins Monsieur Poirier at the eastern edge of the lawn. Some of the grass has already been pulled up and hedges and stone benches shifted or removed. Combined with a few sketches that one of the groundskeepers has drawn out: nothing like Belle’s, or Maurice’s, more abstract impressions than accurate detail— Adam can see the obvious foundations for a vegetable garden. The groundskeepers must have worked late into the night. They’ve started constructing curved pieces of metal, wood, and stone into garden trellis that line all of the pathways like what Adam will imagine to be forest hallways. Even some of the already grown trees will play a part.

The archways will create shaded pathways, and the fruits will hang down from them. Pathways will cut through like lines on a grid, dividing patch from patch. Cabbages, in one section, tomatoes in another, squash in another, roses in the next, always roses, Adam thinks, to tuck away in Belle’s Library where she can find them in the mornings while they’re apart.

It will be beautiful, like the Castle, and the forest, a little more wild, yet still lovingly crafted to the last tiny detail. Full. Growing.

“It’s wonderful, Monsieur,” Adam tells him. “You took my half-formed idea and made it into a real work of art.”

The look of pride that appears on Poirier’s face startles Adam, a bit, and a tiny speck of horror appears somewhere deep in Adam’s chest. He honestly can’t remember if he’s ever said anything kind to this man, before. Mostly just growls, and snarls, from the beginning of the curse.

Yet another sin added to Adam’s list. He hopes that he lives until he’s a hundred years old, because it will likely take him that long to make up for his past.

If Poirier notices Adam’s sudden uneasiness, he doesn’t show it. They walk the length and width of the south lawns, and Poirier points out each and every idea that Adam had mentioned yesterday. There must be twenty groundskeepers already hard at work.

Most of the work will take time, Adam guesses. Some of the hedges look to be intact and perhaps could even be moved, as well as some of the largest sculpted trees that look like various animals. Bears, lions, foxes— foxes had been a particular favorite of Adam’s father.

The statues, however, seem to be the one un-leapable hurdle.

“Another of my father’s unfortunate tastes,” Adam whispers to Poirier. During the curse, these had been transformed into hideous demons and monsters. Now they just look like long-dead men.

“It’ll take a lot of manpower,” Poirier tells him. “But we should be able to get these dug up in the next few weeks.”

Adam frowns. In two weeks, the nonessential staff will return to Villeneuve for the harvest. Part of him wishes the statues would just sink into the ground, buried like his father.

“Would you like us to do anything particular with them, your Highness?” Poirier asks.

Adam stares directly up into the face of the statue. It looks nothing like his father, but evokes the same sort of feeling. “I don’t suppose you could throw them in a river.”

“It’d take a lot to drag them all the way to the river, Sire,” Poirier informs him.

It’s just as well. Even Adam himself isn’t sure if he’s joking or not.

Regardless of where the statues will eventually end up, the groundskeepers start with the task of removing them from what will eventually be the new gardens. Each statue has differing heights and weights, but Adam knows that this will be by far the most difficult part. He doesn’t know the exact amount, but even the smaller statues must weigh hundreds of pounds.

Four groundskeepers have attached a pulley system to the first as he and Poirier pass, ropes and balances that will help them at least tilt it over, if not lift it out of the dirt.

“Do you, uh,” Adam asks. Uneasiness fills Adam’s chest. “Do you need help, with that?”

The two closest to him shake their heads vehemently, but it’s obvious to anybody watching that the stone is far beyond what four normal men should be able to move. Combined with the heat, it spells disaster for everybody involved. Monsieur Poirier goes right on describing the new layout that they are in the process of digging out, but Adam’s attention keeps snapping back to the men. As hard as they try, even with the rope, they can’t seem to pull it from the ground. One even goes as far as to plant his feet firmly against the stone and uses the rope to use his own bodyweight.

He sees the moment that the statue shifts: starts to tilt. The men have no idea, and neither does Poirier, who has turned to speak with one of Adam’s groomsmen. Adam’s eyes dart around and makes sure nobody is paying attention and lunges for them, catches them by the backs of their coats and yanks them back. First the two nearest to the base, and then he makes for the other two.

They stumble into him, but the statue thuds in the dirt, directly where the first two had been standing.

The groundskeeping staff’s eyes slowly go from Adam to the statues, to back again, three or four times in unison before Adam begins to feel the embarrassment flooding into him. Right. Normal people don’t have that sort of strength. He’s learned that there is apparently a very fine line between wondrous awe and angry mob with pitchforks and torches. He stands there, stuck in the mess that he made for himself, wincing at the thought that some of these people had probably even marched in that angry mob. Adam clears his throat and straightens his back again and tries to find something to do with his hands.

He’s mentally preparing an excuse— Belle needs him in the Library. Lumière’s wig caught on fire again. Chip chased Frou Frou into the fountain and now there’s a wet dog in the foyer. Anything.

“You just…” starts one, the first one Adam had grabbed, who’s tanned skin is starting to burn. “You just yanked four fully-grown men like it was nothing.”

He winces again, his hands starting to itch. He tries to resist the urge to scratch at his skin.

But then one of the others, not one of the ones that Adam had pulled away, the oldest one, who must be at least Maurice’s age, asks, “Can you do that again?”

Adam sort of blinks, confused, but there doesn’t seem to be any sort of malice in Poirier or any of his people. Just stunned faces.

Swallowing, he steps towards the statue that had faced its twin on the other side of the path, feet unsteady, looking around to make sure that they aren’t frightened of him, and with both arms, pulls the statue so that it tilts sideways. It isn’t pretty, or gentle. He has to let gravity do most of the work. The statue cracks against the pavement, a bit, and little pieces of rubble go scattering across the ground.

Not difficult, really. A little strenuous, but nothing that the muscles of his arms can’t handle.

He turns back, and smacks his hands against one another. And then he sees their faces. Stunned silence. Awe. Poirier looks as if he is going to laugh, perhaps because he’s the only one that remembers how strong Adam used to be.

The older gentleman, whose name Adam hasn’t been told, rubs the back of  his head and says, “Sire, I hope you don’t think this is me being impertinent,” he pauses. “But it would be a right thing if you could help us get these damn things out t’ground.”

Poirier’s smile slides right off his face, and he looks as if he’ll die from embarrassment the moment that Adam steps out of sight, judging from the redness on his forehead.

But Adam lifts his eyebrows. “No,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind at all.”

It turns out that ripping statues bodily out of the ground is oddly cathartic, for Adam. He manages three before his jacket and vest rip along the seam that runs down his spine. Before it would have irritated him. Now he tilts his head over his shoulder so that he might see the damage, laughs and sheds them both. The summer heat was making sweat trickle down his back, in any case, and tearing down statues requires much more stamina than Adam anticipates. Some statues are smaller, and the groundskeepers don’t need his help, but others are so large that it takes both Adam and three or four men to dislodge them from where they’ve been settled since before Adam was born.

They no longer care about keeping the statues in-tact. They rip them down one after another and soon a healthy layer of dust has covered them all. 

But it feels good. The knot in his chest eases until he can barely feel it, and somehow, someway, each statue that falls feels like Adam is stomping on his Father’s grave. He feels lighter the more his muscles ache.

At one point Adam thinks he hears a sort of squeak, something that sounds uncannily like Plumette swearing, but when he straightens up out of panic, there’s no one there. He looks around in all directions, from every which way, but he finds nothing.

“Sire?” Poirier asks, leaning on a garden rake.

Adam shakes his head. He breathes hard, exhausted, and takes the jug of water that one of the maids has brought.

Their work is time consuming. There must be a remnant of his father’s soul floating around, smug, because Adam can’t remember there being so many statues on the south lawns. This, this isn’t even a fourth of the total acreage of the Castle’s gardens. But just this section has dozens of statues. Dozens. Even Adam reaches the point where he has to sit on the grass and rest.

Things start to move slower as the sun slides across the sky. Even Adam begins to tire, but it’s a good sort of tired. It’s a tired that will let him sleep through the night without nightmares.

The sweat is pouring down his back when he looks up at the sound of someone making a terrified squeak. A flash of blue appears from around the corner five feet to his right and then immediately disappears again. So fast, Adam wonders if he’s been in the sun too long.

He takes a second to look around and see if anybody else had just seen the same thing he had, but hardly anybody is still working, instead enjoying their afternoon meals. And nobody looks up, nobody notices.

Adam straightens, wiping the sweat from his forehead. It doesn’t help, his arm is just as sweaty. And then it happens again. A flash of blue, suddenly, and it’s Belle, shoved out into the open. Another person’s arm disappears behind the hedge.

Belle’s skirts are tucked in on one side and there is a large, floppy straw hat on top of her head. The expression on her face is embarrassed and redder than fresh tomatoes. She's staring at him in a way that Adam’s never really seen before, in a way that he doesn’t recognize. Well, no, there had been that night, weeks ago, at the dower house—

Their eyes meet and for a long eternity, Adam forgets to remember that he’s covered in dirt, in the middle of tearing the south lawns to pieces, and perhaps most importantly, without a shirt on.

The silence stretches on as they both just stand there, trapped in their own shock.

“I’m sorry,” Belle squeaks, suddenly, seeming to come back to her senses. “I think— I think I actually let the heat get to me.” She turns and walks away, briskly, muttering to herself. “Stupid. Stupid!”

He’s stunned for a second, unable to grasp what had just happened. It takes far too long for his mouth to start working again, and by the time he has, Belle’s six, seven, eight feet away. Retreating as fast as her shorter legs can take her.

“Belle?” Adam calls after her.

She jumps and walks right into one of the few remaining untouched statues at the corner where two hedges meet.

That breaks him out of his stupor. Adam leaps over a horizontal statue and jogs to Belle’s side. She didn’t topple over, not like he would have had, probably, but now she’s staring up at the sky with her hands on her hips like she’s trying to find the strength to keep going. His own hands are coated in dirt, he can no longer tell where his hands end and the dirt begins, so he can’t actually steady Belle as she rights her clothing. “Are you well?”

“Yes,” Belle sighs. “Against my best efforts, apparently.”

She looks up to him and freezes, her mouth falls open and she squeezes her eyes shut like she’s in pain before she looks up at the sky above them. Adam’s not sure what’s happening, just a little bit concerned that she might have conked her head against the statue, so he looks up too to see if there’s something that caught her eye. There’s nothing.

He looks down again, and she’s staring at him like she’s never seen him before, she’s swallowing huge breaths like she isn’t getting enough air, and it is like the dower house, all over again. He asks, “Belle?”

“You,” Belle stammers. “You—You, uh.”

Whatever Belle was going to say gets lost in mid-thought. The hat’s fallen off, somewhere, though Adam can’t see it. His curiosity is quickly getting outweighed by true alarm, Belle is Belle but she has never once had to struggle with her words. Her eyes are going everywhere but in Adam’s direction and her foot is bouncing against the stone like she can’t keep it still and her hands are clenching and unclenching and Adam, he has no idea what’s happening or why.

She winces. “You are… aware, that you aren’t wearing a shirt?”

Adam looks down. His chest greets him, sweaty and sore and bare. Alarm immediately fills him and he begins to gesture back towards the statues, and Poirier, and his ruined jacket and shirt, “Well, it’s uh, you see there was an incident, with the, uh, statue, and by the time the third one came down my jacket ripped, and I didn’t want to go back to get another when it would probably just rip anyway, and I,” Adam pauses, then loses his train of thought because the blush on Belle’s face is now spreading to the tips of her ears. “I, uh, wanted to do something nice. For, you know. You. And me.”

He winces and looks down, utterly failing to put his thoughts into words. It’s because he’s shirtless, he knows. He’s blushing, and Belle’s blushing, and just: he craves an end to this atrocity.

There’s a sound, behind them, like voices just down the pathway. Adam panics.

He turns back and furiously waves off Poirier, waves them all away, this is such a mess, but from behind him he hears Belle’s pained gasp. Adam whips back around, concerned, but Belle grabs him by the arm and turns him so that his spine is facing towards her. “Belle, what—”

Her hands touch his shoulder blades. He jumps, slightly, and looks back over his shoulder.

His shocked questions die on his tongue. Belle’s expression is nothing short of heartbroken, desolate. She’s looking at his shoulder like she’s in mourning. “Your back.”

For a moment, Adam doesn’t know what she’s referring to, until her hands clutch at his left arm, too, and the space between the nape of his neck and his shoulder.

Ah. His scars.

Of all the things that have remained with him since the curse broke: his strength, his sense of smell, the way that his hands itch sometimes like they want to turn back into claws, his scars are the most visible reminder. It’s not usually an issue, because, well, they aren’t really in a place where Adam has to see them day after day. He knows they’re there, because of the raised skin and the different texture beneath his hands. Six individual claw and bite marks scattered along his neck and shoulder from the wolves, and three bullets. One near his hip on the right, one in his shoulder. One near his lungs, along his spine. The one near his lungs had been the one to kill him. Several dozen others from less noble heroics or trying to adjust to his monstrous body, but a plain shirt covers most of them. And now, well.

She hits him.

Belle,” Adam complains, rubbing his arm and facing her. She’s—

—Crying. Well, no, not crying, really, as Adam does panic then, but tears are slipping out and then Belle is in his arms and trying to breathe against his shoulder. She doesn’t sob, but from the way that her chest stutters under his hands as they wrap around her middle, it feels like she’s having trouble breathing.

Adam does all he can, all he knows, he presses his lips against her temple and tries to spell it all out somehow through that: that he’s here, that he’s alive, that their nightmares can only get to them in the space between sleeping and waking.

That he loves her. He does. He’s never known anything so clearly.

Thankfully the hedges are so tall at this part of the gardens that they grant them a bit of privacy. Not that he needs it, he’s been out here all day, but he knows Belle. Belle does not let people see her hurts so easy.

“There was a moment,” Belle sniffs, as Adam’s arms tighten around her. “That you didn’t come back. You didn’t breathe, you just laid there, your heart not beating. It was the longest thirty seconds of my life.”

Adam has, well, he has very little memory of that moment. He remembers struggling to keep his heart beating, and some of the words that he whispered to Belle as he died, trying to get all the right words out and hoping that she understood him before it was too late. And then… nothing. No light, no pearly gates. No angelic choir.

And then he’d felt something that smelled like home: parchment and charcoal and roses, and warmth and light wrapping around him and all of a sudden he could feel again, felt his body shrinking and his claws becoming hands. And he remembers landing on his feet, thinking, that if the curse had been broken, then that meant, then it meant—

“But I did, my heart,” Adam tells her. “I did.”

Belle exhales. She nods against his collar and Adam presses another kiss against her temple, one of fifty that he’ll give her a day for the rest of their lives.

“I know,” Belle says, blinking. “I know, but then, I just saw them, and…”

The bullet that had ended his life. Or the wolves. Both represent the turning points of them. Belle furiously wipes at her eyes and Adam runs his hands along her spine and tries to ignore the way that his skin ignites where she’s touching him. Belle just breathes against him, and it seems to get easier, she goes longer without her lungs stuttering, the tears come less and less. She actually seems to pull herself back together, piece by piece.

Her head is still tucked under his chin, but she pulls back slightly. Her brow furrows as she takes him in, his bare chest, his arms as they rest around her middle. She looks up at him and says, “You are very sweaty.”

“Yes,” Adam agrees, ducking down and rubbing his sweaty forehead against hers. “I am.”

Chapter Text

He does end up having to go to Versailles and answer his royal cousins’ summons. He leaves at the beginning of September as the harvest starts, because the roads will be too dangerous to travel in October or November. It is without a doubt the longest seventeen days of his life. This includes any and all of the ten years of his punishment as a cursed, hairy recluse. By the time Adam and his entourage makes a quick stop in Villeneuve and finally crests over the hill to the castle, he never wants to leave the boundaries of his forest ever again.

Versailles is a five day journey by carriage and horseback. The way there, he’d resigned himself to the carriage, suffering in his solitude but at least able to read as they traveled. On the way back, however, he’d made it a day before his skin started to itch and his hands felt like he could rip the door off the carriage wall just by touching it. They’d left the carriage to travel behind them and he’d bought a horse a day away from Paris. They’d changed horses at every inn they’d stayed the night in along the road from Versailles. Adam had often pushed through late until the night simply so they could be ten miles closer to the Castle.

He doesn’t even wait for the groomsman that appears, Adam just leaps out of his saddle and takes the grand staircase two at a time. He doesn’t even really mean to, but he practically tears the front doors off their hinges.

Lumière’s and Cogsworth’s shocked faces loom over the balcony of the first landing as Adam shucks his coat off with a vengeance. Cogsworth adjusts his monocle and says, “Sire!”

“Cogsworth,” Adam greets. “I am in a magnificently bad mood, my friend.”

“My Prince!” Lumière echoes, jumping out of his chair. “You weren’t supposed to return for another week!”

“True,” Adam says. “But if I had to sit at a table for one more evening with that pompous, flat-brained, megalomaniac son of an English wh—”

Even Cogsworth seems to squeak in terror and Adam realizes that he may have just been about to speak something of his cousin that would have been a death sentence to anyone else in France. And oddly enough, he still feels like his cousin deserves every word. High Treason would be a worthy price to pay.

Adam hadn’t really expected it would be so bad— he’d bend the knee, reassure his cousin that things were functioning happily in his Principality, that the fact that his royal cousins had forgotten his existence for a decade was something normal and absolutely not something they should be concerned with, at all. Assure them that he was still loyal to France, explain away the undeniable fact that he hadn’t aged in ten years even though his cousins were now approaching middle-age while Adam was still in his late twenties. He’d skipped over the enchantment bit. Villagers in Villeneuve who had memories of the Castle before the Enchantress had come was one thing, but the French Monarchy was another beast entirely. They’d just as likely try and purify his flesh of dark magic. With fire.

But he’d done his part. He’d showered them with useless, expensive gifts. Easy. He’d waited at their shoulders, at their beck and call for six days. But he endured it. He and his royal cousins had never really been particularly close, but strained relations between them wouldn’t benefit anybody.

Adam had concentrated on that thought, over and over. Until it was second nature. Hold his tongue. Endure it. Keep whatever tiny flicker of the beast that still lingered contained.

It was just the, the, the face powder, the clothing, the perfume, the wigs, the overindulgence, the flagrant waste of everything, everything about Versailles that he used to love so much. It clings to his skin like an illness does. The same parties that Adam used to revel in now give him headaches.

The sooner he can drown himself in a bath, the better.

“Have a bath drawn, please, Mrs. Potts,” Adam bites instead. He yanks off his traveling gloves next, even as he climbs the first staircase in the foyer. And then he remembers that he’s supposed to not take his state of mind out on others. “And we should probably see to the coachmen. I think I may have run them ragged.”

He’s in a bad way, Adam knows. He knows it. He can feel it in his bones. The urge to bare his teeth and growl as he climbs the second staircase is nearly overwhelming. He needs a bath. He needs a night in the dark and the quiet to make his hands feel less like claws.

He needs to feel like he’s home.

Lumière seems to recover faster than the others at Adam’s blatant committing of High Treason, and he scrambles to halt Adam’s climb to the upper floors of the Castle.

“It is just that we weren’t expecting you to be back for another four days, sire!” Lumière reassures him. “We would have made a proper celebration for you— your favorite dinner, perhaps!”

Adam stops on the stairs, turns around and tilts his head towards Lumière, eyebrows rising in a ‘now you have me concerned’ sort of way. He knows that tone in Lumière’s voice. It’s the same tone that he’d used when he’d said I thought you could impress her with dinner!

In short, it means that Adam is about to be in trouble. A lot of trouble. “Lumière.”

“It’s nothing, Sire!” Lumière tells him. “Nothing, nothing, nothing at all!”

Nobody will meet his gaze. He looks to each of them in turn and registers the various degrees of guilt. And the obvious absence in the room.

“How bad?” Adam asks.

Four people start talking at him at once, four people who have been with him through his tempers and how he’s grown, but the beast has ventured so close to the surface of his skin that he has to fight to push it back down again. Their voices build and build and build until he can’t pick out individual words anymore, just a wall of noise, and it’s too much, too much, too much

“Enough!” Adam commands, voice pitching high in panic. He turns to Lumière, “How bad?”

Lumière’s hands are flittering, expressive, just as they had been when he had been a candelabra. “Excusez-moi, my Prince, but it was six ribbons, at my last count, and she wouldn’t be tempted by anything, even by Madame Potts—”

“We did try everything we could think of, Sire,” Mrs. Potts says over Lumière. “But she would not come out, and she would not sleep for more than an hour or two—”

“It wasn’t so bad, at first, Sire,” Plumette explains. “Mademoiselle Belle performed very admirably for the first two weeks: the harvest is underway and going very well, all of the immediate issues were taken care of, and Poiriot’s garden is coming along fantastically. But then she got into one of her tinkering states and we have been unable to entice her back out again.”

Adam asks, already fearing the answer, “How long?”

He looks over in time to see Lumière swallow. “Three days, Sire,” he says. He looks a little deflated, despondent, like he hasn’t been sleeping well, either. None of them do. “Nearly four.”

Adam doesn’t think: he runs up the rest of the staircases.

He doesn’t care that it’s not princely, he doesn’t care that his boots are still mud-caked and that he’s leaving a trail all throughout the Castle, he just runs and slips and slides until he’s at Belle’s Library and he practically skids right into the door.

Belle’s creative moods come and go. He’s not familiar with the intricacies of how they work, but he’s seen it enough with both Belle and Maurice to know that sometimes these things cannot be stopped. She can be prodded, mostly by him, to eat and sleep and come out of their respective workshops for a break, but usually they just have to get the problem sorted. Sometimes it feels as if Belle physically can’t stop the wheels of her mind turning until it’s fixed the problem. She’s disappeared from the dinner table more than once.

But this? Adam steps into the Library, mouth open in wonder or dismay, he can’t tell— this is another beast entirely. It’s like a dream.

If he’s not mistaken, there are ropes hanging from the chandeliers. Belle’s usual brand of organized chaos has disappeared, and instead it looks as if a hundred of their books have simply exploded across the tables, judging from all the loose pieces of paper. There are painting easels in one corner, though they simply have drawn and scratched-out schematics on them. Belle’s suite in the East Wing often looks like this: half-finished projects and sketches and chaos, but Adam knows that this is not how these moods usually work themselves out. He can see frustration and dissatisfaction in every corner.

He even lets his fingers trail over something near the center of the Library that he can’t really identify. He definitely recognizes the three blades from old garden spades, and bits of rope and a wheel that somehow tie them all together, as well as a pulley system attached to the top and the wheels attached to the bottom, but as far as Belle’s design for it, he can’t make heads or tails.

Unease starts settling in Adam’s gut as he takes the whole of it in, even looking up to the ceiling. It’s possible that this is far worse than he anticipated.

A thought then occurs to him: while the Library is in complete, utter, absolute disarray the likes that Adam has never seen, its’ Mistress is nowhere to be found.

Yet, Belle’s touch is everywhere. The charcoal and drafting pens. Her scent, which overwhelms him now that he’s here. Ruined upholstery, too, she does seem to have a knack for ripping up old curtains. Cold tea.

Seven cups of still-cold tea, actually. Mrs. Potts had certainly tried, at least.

Adam checks the corners from where he couldn’t see them before. Checks near the fireplace at the other end, too, because it wouldn’t have been the first time Belle has fallen asleep on the dark chaise just in front of it. Wouldn’t be the tenth time, actually. But she’s not there. He even checks up on the second-floor and the hidden stairwells that lead up to it. There’s nothing.

It’s not impossible that Adam’s just missed her, of course. He’s half-formed a thought inside his head to go up to her suite in the East Wing to see if she has managed to get herself up all of those stairs when he hears the sound of the movable ladders sliding along the floor behind him. He turns, wondering how he’d somehow missed it.

Adam’s breath catches in his throat. It hadn’t really felt like such a long time, after about five days the hours had just started to bleed together and had really only become torturous when he was counting the seconds until he’d see Villeneuve again, but all this melts into a strange duality. In one half of his chest his heart hurts because it’s like no time has passed at all, like he’d left for Versailles just a moment ago, and the other half of his chest aches because he feels like it’s been centuries since he’s been home.

Belle has two fountain pens stuck behind her ear, no, three, and is bent so far away from the ladder that it’s nothing less than a miracle that she doesn’t fall. She also appears to be holding another pen in-between her teeth. Her arms are full of even more books from her shelves and she seems to be missing the shoe and sock from her left foot.

And it shouldn’t, it shouldn’t, but that irritating little ball in his chest swells suddenly, because he’s missed her, he’s missed her, he’s—

She must notice that someone is in her Library. She doesn’t turn to look at him, and if Adam is being perfectly honest, he wouldn’t really know what to do if she did.

“Is it morning?” Belle asks. The pen mumbles her words, just a bit. Adam frowns, noting the darkening evening sky just out the window. “Just let me finish this, Plumette, I swear I’ll be down for breakfast…”

He wanders closer, looking up at her on the ladder. He doesn’t know what to do. Normally he’d coax her down, encourage her to sleep.

But then, Belle leans back from the ladder and frowns. “Is it still Tuesday?”

He can’t help the discombobulated laugh from escaping. “It’s Friday, my heart.”

Belle jumps on the ladder and drops the books in her hands, the pen falls from between her teeth, she nearly falls, peering down at him like he’s a ghost. The books thud against the Library floor and her knuckles go white against the rungs. Her eyes widen and Adam is frozen. He can’t move. Belle rips her eyes away from him after a small eternity of just staring and squeezes them tight, shakes her head like she’s trying to banish a bad nightmare. Even from where Adam stands, he can tell that she’s breathing too fast. Spell broken, Adam takes a step forward, actually concerned that she might fall over.

And then, “Mrs. Potts is right,” she says. “I have had too much tea.”

Adam wants her to come down. He reaches for her. “Belle—”

Belle flings herself at him. One moment she’s staring at him again, blinking, bleary-eyed, almost as if she doesn’t really believe he’s there, and the next she’s jumping down from the ladder at him, into his arms. He catches her easily, but before he can even set her feet back on the ground, Belle’s kissing him, on his chin, his lips, sweeping her tongue against his and licking inside his mouth.

The shock hits him first, the scent, the warmth, the feeling of Belle’s body pressed up against his but it leaves just as quickly: he succumbs to the push of her lips and lets his eyes fall shut just for a moment to enjoy Belle’s passion.

He’ll only let himself enjoy it for a moment, because he still feels wrong, too big for his body, for his bones, like his teeth will sharpen again at any moment. Only just for a moment, he tells himself. He’ll get Belle to go rest. Then he’ll go upstairs to that bath.

Except Belle pulls at his lips with her teeth, hard enough to hurt, and something inside him revels in it.

And Adam, Adam is weak. Whatever it is that makes his hands itch is there, again, and tonight, it is stronger than he is.

He quickly learns that Belle is not in the mood to be gentle: she uses both of her tinkerer’s hands to drag him bodily down to her level and claws his vest off like she has a personal vendetta against it. It doesn’t matter that her fingers are nearly dark with charcoal and will leave marks against his skin. The buttons on his shirt are next, and heaven help him, she manages to rip the top two clean apart. It makes him dizzy with it. She pushes him away from the bookshelf and the back of his legs hit against one of the tables, nearly sending him sprawling across the floor, but Adam hardly notices. Belle doesn’t seem like she notices at all.

“Belle,” Adam groans, though she barely lets him have enough time to say it before she’s seeking his lips out again.

Without thinking, Adam lets out a hard rumbling sound in the back of his throat, the growl threatening to escape, burning there like he’ll catch fire at the heat of it, the softness. He wants to see her face, to see her as her lips fall open again.

But she won’t let him. She won’t let him breathe for more than a second because any longer than that is wasted time.

"I missed you,” she whispers against his lips, against his ear, his neck, and his eyelids. "I missed you.”

He can’t take it. He’s not strong enough.

It’s like it’s bursting through his skin, he can feel it. Adam sweeps Belle clear off the ground and flips them so that she is sitting on the table and he’s standing between her knees, and he knocks three books over and a cold cup of tea just because he can. The shattered porcelain goes ignored.

His fingers find her thigh, the thigh where one-half of her skirts are tucked into her belt, curl around her leg and coax her into drawing it against his hip. Belle complies without wasting a moment.

He’s had dreams like this. Dreams that haunt him in the best possible sense. Dreams where Adam wakes up in the midst of getting a taste, or the impression of soft, silk skin and warm and has to shut his eyes against it. Even in Versailles, even surrounded by people and things that he’d hated, he’d still woken up one morning wanting.

Belle’s lips are like the sweetest water and he’s been dying of thirst for seventeen days, like he’s been stranded in merciless heat with no relief.

It’s so warm. It’s so warm. He can’t take this heat, he wants to bury himself in it, has to fight from pushing further, pushing closer.

She falls backwards, against the ink and the plans and the charcoal. And Adam, damn him, can’t help but follow.

He closes his eyes for a minute, against the rush of her scent, knowing that this is some uncrossable hurdle that cannot be uncrossed now. Now he’ll know what it feels like and the dreams will seem like sorry imitations. But Belle is Belle and she’s pulling him down, pulling his lips back down to hers. How could he possibly say no? Her hands are warm, and firm as they trail down his back, and there is some part of him, all parts, really, that want to make her lose all composure, all rhythm, all sense. He wants to make her feel nothing but him, wants her to laugh against his lips, wants her to sigh, wants her to feel him everywhere, to say his name until it’s the only word she knows, to hold herself his chest and stay in his arms and let all of the entire world hear it.

They are, well— in a ‘compromising position’ doesn’t seem to do it justice. Though one of his legs does rest against the floor, the other is comfortably wedged on the other side of Belle’s legs. 

And then Belle's nails scrape down his back and Adam feels it again. The thing. Beneath his skin.

“Belle,” he chokes. “We have to stop, my love.”

His hands twitch and he presses hers against the hard wood of the table. And for a time, they just stare at one another, breaths mixing, limbs close but not touching, somehow aware of what this is, what it means.

It’s clear from the noise that Belle makes that she is absolutely not in agreement with him. It’s not so much a sob but a whimper, Adam breathes it in, resting his forehead against hers and hopes that the fever will recede. It doesn’t. Moments pass and it doesn’t, he can still feel two heartbeats, his own and Belle’s, pounding against where he’s holding her hands in his. “No,” Belle murmurs. “I just got you back, don’t make it end yet.”

Adam opens his eyes and stares down into hers, and finds them cloudy with want. There has never been a better knife for his heart. He bites, “Belle, I will have you on this table if we don’t.”

Belle stills. Adam stills, too.

He feel’s Belle’s heart lance upwards under his touch. Her dark eyes widen.

“I suppose,” Belle swallows, “That it would be for the best, then,” she tells him. Her lips are red and swollen. “It would be the… responsible thing. It wouldn’t be proper, really, that, that would be just… absolutely,” she seems to choke on the word and slams her eyes shut. She clears her throat. “—Fantastic.”

Adam laughs and exhales and groans all at once because it hurts, he’s not in any position to talk about propriety but here they are and he’s drunk on the absolute want on Belle’s face. He leans on his forearms against the table and lets go of Belle’s hands and lets his head fall so that it rests against Belle’s collar.

At Belle’s concerned noise, he shakes his head. “I know this isn’t news to anyone, but you’re going to be the death of me, my darling.”

From above him, Belle quiets. The silence seems so loud in Adam’s ears. They breathe for a while, together, and Adam feels a little less like something is trying to come clawing out of his skin.

After a moment, Belle shifts, a bit, so that she can smooth a hand against his forehead. “A bad day?”

Adam nods against her heart. He hates that he has to admit such weakness. “A bad day.”

And just like that, like a switch has been flipped, he feels Belle nod and steels herself and she rises so that they are nose to nose, Adam standing and Belle sitting on the edge of the table, legs dangling slightly like they had not just been in the middle of an all-consuming passion that had nearly gone farther than they ever had. She looks like she had the night with the wolves, and Adam realizes that he can’t look much better. Like they’ve come through the center of a storm, and now they have a brief moment of peace before the wind picks back up again.

She takes his face in her hands and threads her fingers through his mussed hair, much like she had the moment the curse had broken. The touch is so different from a moment ago that Adam lets himself sink further into the tight hold she has around his heart.

“You’re home,” Belle wonders. She sways a little bit and tilts her head like she’s having trouble processing this fact. “Why are you home?”

He’d laugh about it, make jokes, something about that High Treason that he’s halfway planning, but right now Adam can only let his whole body droop. Something in the way that Belle has always said home grounds him. Roots him. Makes his heart ache. “Versailles took much more from me than I was expecting.”

If Belle understands the implication behind his words, he doesn’t know. Usually she would, but from the way that she’s having to blink rapidly, he feels like the lack of sleep may finally be getting to her.

“Forgive me,” she tells him. She seems at a loss for words and Belle is never at a loss for words. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know that you—I didn’t know that you weren’t—”

Adam shakes his head again. “No,” Adam tells her. “I’m sorry that this, what I was, I’m sorry that it hangs over us still.”

If he were normal, or perhaps any shade close to what normal might be, he could have with all clarity finished what they had started without guilt or fear or, or whatever it is that makes his hands feel like claws, whatever it is that seems to live just under his heart. They could stop this silly, silly little dance, and just be who they are. And now, there’s something small in Adam that is beginning to think that these fears will never fade.

“I sketch on tablecloths,” Belle tells him, fiddling with a piece of parchment next to her leg. And Adam, Adam hates himself, so his hands find their ways to her thighs again. “I’d rather garden than review menus for the evening’s dining. I have a tendency to stay up for three days tinkering unless prodded with food or sleep.”

Adam gives her a look, perhaps his own version of Belle’s ‘I know what you’re doing and I am looking at you like this so that you know that I know what you’re doing’ look, and Belle has the decency— or perhaps the self awareness— to look sheepish. If he were in a cruel mood, which he is, somewhat, but not at Belle, he would even point out that she has obviously had a fight with an inkwell. And lost.

“I wish that I could say that I was normal,” Belle says. “That you were normal and that these things won’t affect us for the rest of our days.”

As much as it hurts him, Adam does know that feeling. Something like hopelessness, and frustration at his own self, his own flawed character. His brows furrow. “For what it’s worth, my heart,” he tells her, as he pulls the fountain pens that have come completely out of her hair from their earlier exploits. He throws it across the table, where it skitters to join a broken teacup. “If this isn’t normal, then I have utterly no desire whatsoever to find out what normal would be.”

Belle smiles at him, but it lacks its usual brightness. He straightens her collar and the ribbons in her hair and can see with every tiny movement in her limbs how tired she is. She sways towards him and lets her nose bump against his shoulder. The dark bags underneath her eyes are stark even in candlelight of the chandeliers above them. Adam wonders again, for a moment, just how long it’s been since she slept. Something in him thinks that she possibly hasn’t slept well since he’d left for Versailles.

If he didn’t think a certain former candelabra would catch him red-handed, he is severely tempted to carry her up to the East Wing.

Belle looks towards the Library doors, and Adam could almost swear that she’s having the very same thought.

Then her eyes seem to catch at something on the table next to her. Adam watches her, for a moment, knowing that even under a sleep-deprived haze, his love is never far from her stubbornness and tinkering, but when he looks down he finds her with her eyes narrowed at her current sketches and a confused look flickers across her face. “What was I,” Belle starts. “What was I even thinking?"

She turns the sketches vertically, and then horizontally, and then vertically again. Adam can’t tell what she’s building no matter which way it turns and apparently, neither can Belle.

“I think I need to stop tinkering while sleep deprived,” Belle ventures.

“Yes,” Adam nods his head, slightly alarmed. “Usually I admire your brilliance, my heart, but in this case I can’t help but agree.”

Chapter Text

Adam wears no crown. His Principality has never had one, though by law they could have: it is his right as Prince. But Berangaria never had one made, and neither did her son, and neither did Adam’s mother. As he takes in his reflection in the mirror of his suite in the West Wing, he’s a little bit glad of it.

He’s had his vest and coat crafted specifically for tonight’s celebrations, the Harvest Festival. During his Father’s time, it was a week-long anathema of butchered and stolen local traditions, corrupted by wealth, wine, and waste. The end of the harvest usually happens at the end of September, but this year ran a week late simply because of the sheer amount of work that had to be done. This is the first time that the celebration itself is being held in a decade, and this time, he and Belle have personally planned every single detail from invitations to place settings to menus. Decorations. The dances that will be danced and the traditional treats that will be served. Well, really, the party planners had paraded all of the options in front of a very overwhelmed pair and they had simply picked that which felt right.

Adam’s festival coat is a deep, nearly midnight blue, with golden constellations embroidered onto the fabric so fine it almost seems to move. The cuffs and trim are gold, as well, and shines in the candlelight. The vest is nearly all gold, gold cloth with a slightly lighter gold embroidery. His high collar is crisp and white.

He’s forgone the wig, the powders, the cosmetics, everything that had irritated him so much in Versailles. And while skillfully made, his clothing overall is simple. Well. Simple in comparison.

The point is, Adam is trying— and failing, to somehow combine his old self, from before, with the person he is now.

“Well?” Adam asks Lumière.

Adam’s reflection makes him feel like he is seventeen again. Still too tall for his own good and hadn’t grown into his limbs or nose yet, still skinny as a post. Even though he wants to leave his old self behind, all of those bits and pieces had felt like extra-thick skin to make the world see him as he wanted them to. Now he just has, well, himself.

“The coat is marvelous, of course, my Prince,” Lumière intones, circling Adam three times and examining every detail from the very top of his head down to his shoes. Adam wonders if Lumière will get dizzy from it. He then picks at Adam’s vest, tucks in the pockets while Adam holds his arms out slightly. Lumière picks invisible bits of flint off Adam’s cuffs and brushes the shoulders of the blue coat so that they align properly with Adam’s musculature.

Oddly enough, Adam finds that he wants Lumière’s approval. If anyone has a flair for the dramatic, it would be the former candlestick. Not that Adam wants to be dramatic, tonight, but he already feels like such a mess, inwards, outwards, every-wards.

“However,” Lumière continues, and Adam’s heart sinks. “It is missing something. One moment, s'il vous plaît.”

Adam double checks his reflection, from the plain white jabot around his neck to the folds of his vest and down to the seams of his leggings. He turns sideways one way and then the other, checking the fall of the blue coat, but can’t for the life of him find what Lumière thinks is missing.

Anything that Adam would want to include, in either case.

And then, “How about this?”

Adam eyes the object in Lumière’s hands as it is shoved in Adam’s field of view, going in and out of focus for a moment, before he meets his friend’s gaze and raises an eyebrow. “Really,” Adam muses, suddenly feeling like the universe has a sense of humor. “You want me to wear an animal mask.”

Lumière has apparently already considered this, because his expression doesn’t falter at all, not like it usually would, enough so that Adam has a second to wonder when he stopped being intimidating to his servants. Lumière waves the regal golden half-mask in Adam’s face regardless, and now that Adam can see the detail, it seems to be a cross between a wolf and a lion. The insult is, it doesn’t look a thing like Adam did. “It is all the fashion in Venice.”

“We’re not in Venice, my friend,” Adam tells him, looking from the mask to Lumière.

Lumière huffs and discards the mask carelessly and next snaps open a jeweled box of rings and holds it out for Adam, instead: rings that range anywhere from precious, centuries-old family heirlooms to failed engagement gifts that never got to see the light of day. Adam frowns as he spots his father’s signature ring, the ring that he wore to tell everyone in view that he was the third son of the King and later that he was the Prince Consort of Adam’s mother — a large oval ruby encased in a heavy gold setting. Adam absolutely does not pretend to retch in disgust.

“You have no crown, my Prince,” Lumière says, pushing the box forward with little patience when Adam tries to wave it away. “Let something like this serve the same function.”

Adam falters. There will be a thousand people attending tonight, possibly, probably more. Mrs. Potts has been commanding the kitchen staff as well as any veteran military commander for the last three days, including the extra help that they’ve hired on for the Festival. Frowning, Adam looks towards the full-length mirror, takes in his and Lumière’s reflection and for a second, imagines a golden Prince’s band or crown atop his head. The image does its job: he gags visibly and reaches towards the rings again, hunting for something that will complete the image that he has of himself in his mind. Anything that isn’t a crown.

Lumière may have a point: Adam must walk a very fine, thin path. He must show his guests that he is Prince here, but also that he has changed. Adam feels like he would have an easier time balancing on a rope suspended a hundred feet in the air. While juggling.

He settles on one of the less ostentatious golden bands, imprinted with Berangaria’s family crest. It’s older, from some grandparent or another, Adam doesn’t quite know. But it catches his eye all the same. The metal feels warm to his touch.

“There,” Adam says, sliding the ring on the first finger of his right hand. Surprisingly, it fits. It must have been adjusted sometime in the last fifty years. “Happy, Lumière? Do I meet the princely standard? How do I look?”

“Criminally handsome, in my opinion,” says Belle, from behind them. “Really, there should be some sort of law.”

Adam’s just about to whip his head around and fire off some sort of clever response about how Belle is going to inflate his ego, possibly so much so that his head will swell to comical levels, but then his eyes catch on Belle herself and it feels like the entire Cosmos has suddenly dropped from beneath Adam’s feet. The witty reply ends its short life against his lips.

“I,” Adam starts. Pauses. Swallows his thick tongue. He tears his eyes away from Belle to Lumière, who has no help to offer him. “You,” he has to pause again. “I—”

Belle smiles, all mischief. She picks up her heavy skirts just a few inches and steps closer to him.

“Ah! Would you look at that?” Lumière says. “I think I hear Monsieur Cogsworth.”

Adam ignores him as he disappears through the open curtain. Belle’s gown is heavier than the last one, which, well, that isn’t surprising. October is an entirely different beast than June, the heavier fabric is just sensible at this point. But it’s also perhaps a wonderful combination of Belle’s inventive mind and formal attire. The bodice, like Adam’s coat, manages to somehow straddle the line between intricacy and simplicity, and, also like his coat, seems to glimmer in the candlelight with golden embroidered roses. The top of the bodice rests just beneath Belle’s collarbone and her arms, apart from two gathered strips of embroidery, are bare.

“Completely speechless,” Belle muses, wrinkling her nose in the way that she does. “That bad, is it?”

Irritatingly, Adam finds Belle beautiful no matter what she’s doing. Ragged and heartbroken on the ramparts, soaked and shivering in a thunderstorm, slightly sun-burnt and smiling in the summer sun, charcoal-smeared and tired, or covered in dirt in Poirier’s gardens. Every gesture, every look makes him trip over his own two feet, not unlike how he was when he’d first become a beast. There’s been an underlying hope in Adam, somewhere, that as the months have passed the feeling would have faded. Ebbed. At least grown more manageable. It hasn’t.

He’s a beast all over again, in the blue jacket, trying to dress like a human man and bewildered as to how he’s managed to get such a beautiful woman to dance with him.

Tonight, however, it feels like there’s something else in the air. Something wild. Something more.

Adam’s mouth opens. Closes again, like a fish. His hand comes up to rub at his collar and only stops because at the last second he remembers how long it took Lumière to get his hair to look respectable. Lumière did tend to favor wigs. “You, uh—I, you look—”

“You’re staring, my love,” Belle tells him.

“Only because my stupid mouth isn’t listening to me,” he bites. “My eyes, apparently, too.”

She laughs, breathless, and helps him adjust his coat and Adam, because he hates himself so dearly, uses the opportunity to take all of her in. Her hair is perhaps in a bit more traditional style, curled away from her face, but still wild. And a little longer than it was when they first danced, too. Adam, feeling a little bit mischievous, all Belle’s doing, of course, pulls apart a single curl that must have taken Plumette at least ten minutes. She swats at him with the hand that isn’t adjusting the fold of his sleeve.

“All I can think of right this second is the first time I saw you before we danced,” Adam tells her. At the time, he’d fumbled through his bow, feeling silly in formal attire when his body had been so large. “I must have looked like I was a second away from falling over.”

Belle ducks her head slightly in a pleased sort of way. “You do look a bit mortified. You did that night, too.”

“Perfect,” Adam accuses. “As if you aren’t aware that you make my tongue thick and my head stupid.”

Belle blinks up at him and her eyes crinkle around the edges because of her smile. It’s her soft version of pride, like she’s happy, or pleased with the fact that she affects him so completely. He doesn’t know what he’s done to deserve this, this softness, but whatever it is, he’ll keep doing it until the last breath leaves his body. Again.

“Done,” Belle tells him, eventually. She smoothes her hands over his jacket one final time and lets her fingers linger. “Now, me.”

Before Adam can even really ask what’s happening, Belle has carefully pulled her curls over her left shoulder and has turned her back his way. Adam can’t help but focus on the long line of her neck and the revealed skin that he finds there: the scent grows stronger, and he bites his tongue.

“Belle?” Adam’s traitorous eyes flick between the open stays of Belle’s gown, from where he can see the slight bumps of her spine, to where he can see that she’s peeking over her shoulder at him.

“I got distracted,” Belle tells him, cheeks red. “And by the time I’d noticed I was running late, Plumette had already gone downstairs and there was nobody in the East Wing to help. Technically speaking, I think it’s supposed to be done up starting at the top.”

To her credit, Belle has managed at least two-thirds of the stays on her own, almost up to the line of her shoulders, perhaps five or six inches beneath the nape of her neck using a system of extra strings attached to the laces so she could pull them closed, but he sees, barely, through the sudden heat growing under his skin, that a gown with fabric this fine requires deft handiwork and a second pair of hands past a certain point.

His instinct is to freeze, because his hands, they still feel wrong sometimes. Particularly around Belle, particularly when the remnants of the curse feel like they’re simmering just beneath his skin, but Belle’s fidgeting.

She fidgets almost always, but this seems somehow different. Like she’s nervous, or, unsure, and that is so utterly against her nature— she picked up a walking stick to threaten him, that first moment in the Castle’s tower dungeon, and took a wooden stool to Lumière, and a chamber pot to Cogsworth. It is not in his Belle to be unsure.

He can, he can do this. He can just finish tying the stays and straighten the fabric and the eyelets so that it doesn’t look jumbled.

Adam undoes Belle’s tinkering with the spare bits of string, first, because that seems the easiest.

Something in the universe must be feeling kind, because the laces to Belle’s gown are rather straightforward. He fixes the bunched bits, closer to the bottom, first, and by some miracle manages to do so without actually touching Belle’s skin. He ensures that all of the eyelets are evenly spaced, at least as best as he can, so that the tension on the topmost crossing of ties is tight enough. But then his fingers brush against the warmth of space between Belle’s shoulder blades and his whole body seems to spasm.

Immediately he starts to feel the beginnings of something shooting down his spine. He tries to will it away, tries to get his fingers to move on command, but he really can’t ignore that fact that lacing Belle more firmly into her dress is exactly the opposite of what he really wants to be doing.

Adam shakes his head twice, to himself, and tries to keep his mind on task. It works about as well as anything in his life has until this point: which is to say, not at all.

He can’t help it. He groans.

Belle inhales, slightly, and his fingers are pressed to the skin against her spine so that he can feel it.

“What are you thinking?” Belle asks. It might sound innocent enough to anyone listening but Adam knows, he knows that particular lilt in her voice and the hitch in her breathing, he knows what it means. His fingers catch on the next empty eyelet of the gown and pulls the laces tighter.

“Thunderstorms,” Adam tells her. “That afternoon, in the dower house.”

To his utter, utter shock, really, he could just keel over at this point, it is Belle that gasps under her breath. Her head lulls to one side and she shifts, maybe from one foot to another. Adam honestly can’t tell because of the skirts.

It doesn’t help that Adam’s feeling mischievous, too, and— good, almost? More in his own head, heart racing and desire there but not choking him like it has in the past. His hands don’t feel like they still think they’re claws. It’s the first time really that he’s wanted. There is a very deep part of him somewhere that thinks that ignoring their plans and staying up here in the West Wing is the best idea he’s ever had. They won’t be missed for at least an hour.

Unfortunately, it’s there that Adam runs out of eyelets to thread and ties to pull. The gown has a hook and catch that hides the topmost portion of the stays that he fixes, too.

The silence is heavy. Adam’s hands drift from Belle’s bodice to her shoulders, safer, safer places, and he peers over her shoulder into their reflections in the mirror.

“You look magnificent, my heart,” Adam finally manages. “I do miss the random smudge of charcoal, a bit.”

Belle looks like she’s having a bit of trouble breathing, but not from the stays.

“We should,” Belle starts. Clears her throat. Tries again. Shakes her head, and Adam feels a little bit of comeuppance settle in his chest. He grins.  “We should, we have to go downstairs.”

The grin dies. “You must be joking.”

“Not a bit.”

Adam groans and rests his head against Belle’s shoulder, but he complies. It takes a few minutes: a few minutes for Adam to put himself back together and make last minute adjustments. He even peers out one of the windows in his conservatory where the enchanted rose had once been and sees a whole spiral of torches lit in the evening light, almost like the stars above have a mirror down on the ground.

And then Belle takes his hand in her own and starts the very long descent into the main parts of the Castle, down the stairwells that have all been repaired from what they had been, during the curse. Past Belle’s Library, which is shut tightly, at least for now.

When they reach the grand entry, where the last door between them and their guests sits, Adam has to stop. The Festival is by far the largest celebration he’s ever held, and even with Belle at his side it seems insurmountable.

“‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’,” Belle quotes at him.

Adam readjusts their hands so that, as is proper, only their fingers are touching and their grip is loose. The proper way for a Prince to enter with his Lady at his side. “Of all the Shakespeare in all of history,” Adam complains. “And you pick something from Henry V.”

“It seemed to fit,” she tells him. Then, “Are you ready, my heart?”

“Yes,” Adam whispers, taking in a deep breath. Then, “No. Why did we decide to do this? End my life.”

The doors open and light and music floods in.

Fêtes are one thing. Pompous dinner parties and minor celebrations and parties and dances are in the first group, all easily manageable, really, because Adam’s been doing it his whole life. It’s like breathing. This is different. All of Villeneuve will have emptied for tonight, and the foyer looks like it when he and Belle descend down the stairs. There must be a thousand faces in the crowd. There is no announcer, Cogsworth doesn’t call for quiet, but it happens just the same as he and Belle reach the landing of the first grand staircase, Belle’s hand grasped tightly in his own. Then there is a sea of bowing and curtseying faces, elegant costumes and candlelight and Adam tries to squish down the sense of déjà vu

Belle and Adam make their way down the final staircase in tandem, as one, like they are an army of two passing the neat lines of soldiers, except it isn’t, it isn’t at all, but Adam still feels his heart start to beat faster.

It’s too late to run, now, he supposes.

Maurice, a true godsend, is first to greet them. He bows low and then kisses Belle’s cheek. Belle sighs, like whatever force she has been wielding to keep herself upright has suddenly been tossed aside in favor of her father. “Papa.”

“Maurice,” Adam adds. He and Maurice exchange bows. “Thank you for coming.”

“The pleasure is mine, as always. Good Harvest,” Maurice greets them, and Adam detects a hint of giddiness in Belle’s father, like perhaps he’s been waiting to say that for some time. It’s the traditional greeting for the Harvest Festival.

“And a short winter,” he and Belle return, in tandem.

Maurice takes a place just slightly behind Belle, though his attentions quickly turn elsewhere. Their greetings continue, luckily in a sort of line and not at all the rush of people standing too close to one another that Adam was fearing. Some people gather around some of Belle’s inventions. There are some pulleys here in the foyer and a miniature wheel that rotates the coats on the coat rack near the fireplace so they dry evenly. Half of them seem to be utterly enchanted while the other half look like the ceiling will come crashing down on them at any moment.

When Adam notices this, he has to fight against the laugh that burns in his chest.

“Your Highness,” a gentleman says, bowing. Adam’s eyes flick back to him and he smiles. His daughter curtsies next to him.

“Welcome,” Adam tells them. “Good Harvest, Monsieur, Mademoiselle.

The sheer magnitude of greeting everyone already gathered and those still trickling in is by far one of the biggest tasks of the night ahead of them: there is absolutely no way to know every person and their spouses and children, even with one of his attendants whispering in Adam’s ear every so often. He’s somewhat used to it: it’s a skill to be able to seem personable without knowing anything whatsoever about a person.

Belle, however, seems to want to memorize every detail about their guests, and starts to panic. “Oh no,” she hisses, under her breath. Her talents at maintaining passive facial expressions are not that skillful, but Adam knows she’s trying her absolute hardest. “I can’t remember this one’s name.”

“Philip… something,” Adam winces.

Belle turns her angry gaze on him. “You can’t remember?”

Adam returns it. His shoulders shoot upwards to his ears, just a bit, and he hisses, “Do you know how many Philips there have been in the French gentry in the last three hundred years?”

Belle nearly kicks at him from beneath her skirts, Adam can tell, and he has to fight against the smile that wants to break out across his face. This had been so much easier three months ago.

“Well,” says the next woman to approach them, after possibly-but-probably-not-Philip. She is wearing a very fine blue gown, but there have been many fine blue gowns already this evening, and he and Belle can’t have been down here for more than ten minutes. “If it isn’t my mysteriously long-forgotten cousin.”

Her face seems oddly familiar, Adam thinks, blinking. As fast as he can, without letting his confusion show, he wracks his brain through any and all of the branches of his family tree. It isn’t easy: if he isn’t related to someone by blood, he is by marriage. But he can’t find anybody that fits the face and age of the woman standing before them.

And then, “No,” he hisses. His porcelain expression cracks and his horror manages to shine through. “Lanie.”

The woman bares her white teeth. “You haven’t called me that since I was twelve years old.”

It’s true, the last time he’d seen her, perhaps five years before the curse, she’d been having a rather unfortunate battle with adolescence. Like him, she’d been unusually tall for her age, and had limbs that she had almost seemed too small for. She’d had freckles splattered across her face from the crown of her head to the bottom of her chin. All trace of that battle are gone. Standing before him is someone that would turn heads in the royal court in Versailles, and Adam finds it just a little bit frightening that the twelve year old in his memory has transformed into this. Maybe this is similar to what Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts had felt, as Adam had transformed into his father.

It breaks over him, again, the curse and all its side effects. Lanie had been more than ten years his junior. You know, before. Now they must be the same age.

“My love,” Adam introduces, floundering for something, anything, to hide his shock. “Meet Élaine Morant d’Savoy. Archduchess of Austria,” he turns back to his cousin. “That is, if my memory serves me correctly?”

She and one of the young Archdukes had been engaged from infancy, and the last he’d heard they were moving forward with that agreement once she came of age. Élaine nods, though she doesn’t seem all to bothered with the fact. “Don’t get too excited, cousin. There are eight Archduchesses, at the last count.”

But Belle, who until now hasn’t said a word, curtsies and says, “A pleasure to meet you, your Grace.”

Élaine was one of his closest cousins, on his mother’s side. She returns the curtsey, to Belle. Adam’s fondness for his cousin rushes back: she’s one of the few that he could actually stand, and anyone in this room that shows even a hint of kindness to Belle is on his good list. “Cousin,” he says, as he finds Belle’s hand again and curls it back around his arm. “Meet Belle, the love of my life.”

Belle freezes underneath his fingers, but Adam couldn’t have a care in the world. He can’t seem to tear himself away from Belle’s dark eyes. She looks up at him and words for once seem to fail her completely. He’s happy for it, happy that he’s not the only one whose tongue grows thick and head gets stupid. Their look says volumes, and echoes back to every moment that they’ve had in the past. Adam smiles. Let the crowd see it, let them all see it, he’s done trying to hide.

Élaine, however, is apparently just as merciless now as she had been at ten. “I haven’t seen him with such a stupid look on his face since he was seventeen years old.”

The moment is broken and Belle’s face tilts upwards like she’s praying, or perhaps hoping to hold back a laugh. Knowing her, probably the latter. Adam glares. “Nice to see you too, as always, cousin.”

Élaine returns the glare. Her eyes are the wrong shade of blue, but too similar in shape for Adam to miss. She tilts her head at him. “You really haven’t aged a day, have you?”

Adam sputters, at a loss, because somehow Élaine fills her words with sincere wonder and also somehow an insult, he’s really not sure how she does it. Either way, it hits far too close to home. She seems to sense this, somehow.

“Good Harvest,” Adam calls after her, sure she doesn’t deserve it, but she’s already disappeared into the crowd, like someone has called out to her, and all Adam can do is raise his eyebrows in Belle’s direction. Belle just smiles.

Versailles and his royal cousins have sent their own guests, too, apparently. They’re easy to spot, Adam soon finds, you just have to look for the only people in the foyer that look like they don’t want to be here and that the common folk standing nearby might give them something contagious. They’re also easily the most intricately dressed, outstripping even he and Belle: Adam doesn’t think he’s seen a lady’s wig piled that high with feathers since he was a little boy.

“Apparently,” Adam whispers, when he and Belle have a brief moment between greetings to themselves. “Nobody told our royal envoys that the Harvest Festival would be open to all of our people.”

Belle, to her credit, doesn’t immediately look over at Versailles’ guests. She turns instead and says something to Maurice and uses that opportunity to look in their direction. Adam can’t help but smile. The differences between tonight and that fetê all those months ago is like noon and midnight. He has absolutely no doubt that Belle can outwit anybody in that ostentatious group, and if that should fail, there is no shortages of blunt objects for her to wield.

“They do seem,” Belle ventures, “Rather… discontent in the hospitality you’ve provided.”

“Expecting something similar to the Festival that my father used to hold, more like,” Adam says. He smiles at Père Robert and takes a moment to wish him well. “Good Harvest, Père.”

Père Robert returns the greeting to them all. To Adam, Père Robert gives him a knowing look, but Adam clamps down on it fast with a slight shake of his head. Not now. That comes later, after all the chaos.

It’s only when Père Robert has moved on, to Belle and Maurice, that Adam notices that one of their Versailles guests has stepped forward and has their sights set on him.

“Oh, no,” Adam groans.

“What’s the matter?” Belle asks, alarmed.

“It’s D'Amboise,” Adam says, from behind his teeth. “Minor Lord but well-connected. He’s like a bloodhound.”

In Versailles he’d been nearly omnipresent by how often he seemed to pop up out of thin air, practically at his royal cousins’ every beck and call. He’s so heavily powdered that Adam couldn’t even begin to guess his original skin color and his coat and vest are possibly the most obscenely intricate that Adam has ever seen. He’s flanked by his own attendants just slightly behind him, wearing the D'Amboise house colors.

“Your Highness,” D'Amboise greets.

Adam inclines his head. “Lord D'Amboise. Good Harvest.”

D'Amboise doesn’t return the traditional greeting. Instead he seems to inflate his chest a bit. “His Royal Majesty, your cousin, sends his regards. He expresses his concern that you left court so abruptly.”

Left court abruptly was court-speak for ‘without the King’s permission’, Adam knew. His royal cousins were as bored with their courts as he was, sitting unwell at middle-age’s doorstep and without a legitimized heir to show for it.

“I did express my regret to my cousins, Lord D'Amboise,” Adam intones, for once every inch the pompous Prince he was supposed to be. It was an easy mask to slip back on. “But my responsibilities lie here, and I could not miss the harvest.”

Lord D'Amboise does not miss the raucous laughter and the sound of what must be Frou Frou being chased by Chip, though Adam can’t see them. The other village children will be here, too, though hopefully without the Headmaster. Adam still needs to have a very firm word with him.

D'Amboise moves as if he is worried that someone will step on his ridiculous coat. “Of course, Highness,” he allows. “These subjects must surely benefit from having someone from such a prestigious house as their Prince.”

Adam’s gaze finds Belle, on his right, and his brow furrows. Not only is D'Amboise clearly laying on the compliments as well as any aristocrat can, indicative of the fact that he’s been sent for a specific reason, probably one that Adam won’t like whenever D'Amboise brings it up, but he also acts as if Belle is not even beside him, doesn’t even give Adam the opportunity to introduce her as his Lady.

“Stanley, Lefou,” Adam calls out, latching onto the first people that catch his eye, anything to get away from D'Amboise. “Welcome. Good Harvest.”

D'Amboise startles, a bit, which Adam takes as a small victory. The Lord shies away from all of Stanley and Lefou and the rest of the common folk that have grouped themselves next to him. He’s too much of an aristocrat to show his true reaction, but Adam knows that this wouldn’t be accepted in Versailles. Good.

“Highness,” Stanley bows, both to him and Belle.

Lefou bows, as well, but only after he’s made his introductions with Mr. and Mrs. Potts. “A short winter, Highness.”

Messieurs! Mesdames!” Lumière calls over the clamor. Oh, Adam could kiss Lumière for saving them. He’s up on the landing of the first staircase above all their heads. He raises his arms and holds his audience captive, as is Lumière’s true talent. “Former furniture!” There’s a smattering of laughter throughout the crowd, though the group from Versailles, in the corner of Adam’s gaze, is stone still. Adam’s affection for the man dies before it had a chance to live. “If you please, mes amies, the Ballroom is ready!”

“I’m going to kill him,” Adam says, under his breath, not breaking his princely smile. “He knows I didn’t tell Versailles about the enchantment.”

Belle’s looking upwards at Lumière, too, her hands clasped tightly around his left arm. “Wait until after. Your coat wouldn’t be worth the pleasure.”

Right on time, the doors to the Ballroom open. Their guests press through, the occasional one bowing their heads in Adam’s direction. When he and Belle are the last to linger in the Foyer, they follow the faint sound of musicians beginning to play into the Ballroom.

Adam stiffens as he hears the orchestra play the first notes of a waltz that he hasn’t heard in years. This is the part he was dreading, because their celebrations and fêtes until this point have been more casual, less formal than those he used to host back when he was his self before the beast. He still has flashes, sometimes, of the dancing and the powder and Madame d’Garderobe’s beautiful arias. But the weather is growing cooler now, almost cooler by the day, so the costumes and coats and gowns are heavier, more similar to what they had been. The sky outside is already dark and the candles provide that warm, heady sort of light, and it’s just like it, just like the night that the Enchantress had come and blown the doors to the pavilion wide open—

If Belle feels his entire body freeze under her fingers, she gives no indication but the way that her hand is suddenly like a vice around his own, as if she could somehow keep him connected to this universe by her sheer will alone.

And the music that helps, too. This time it’s sweet and lilting, perhaps to signify the waning of the year, as opposed to the wild arias that he’d favored before. There’s an undercurrent of sincerity in the sound, as ridiculous as it sounds.

And it isn’t easy, it doesn’t happen all at once, but it does become a bit easier to breathe.

The Ballroom is more crowded than Adam has ever seen it: the doors are open to the pavilions beyond and even that there’s barely standing room around the perimeter. It’s even more crowded than the celebration they had thrown after the curse had been lifted.

Only a portion of the dancing tonight will actually happen here: most of the more formal dances, the bourrées, the menuets, the rigaudons, even, scandalously, the occasional waltz. The rest of the dances will be held on the pavilions in the gardens outside, under tents and near the bonfires spread periodically throughout. Line dances and Jigs and Quadrilles, those are more rowdy and require more space.

And, as Prince, it is Adam’s responsibility to lead the first dance with the woman of his choosing. The crowd hushes, and the musicians begin their opening sweeps. Adam’s out of time.

“Well,” He swallows. He straightens his spine and knocks his heels together so that he can add a little princely flourish to his bow. “May I have this first dance, my love?”

“Oh,” Belle smiles. She takes his offered hand and follows him out into the center of the room. “I’m sure I can be persuaded.”

The whole point of this dance is to not touch your partner. Adam had chosen it simply because it was a traditional Harvest Festival dance, and because it was slower, the steps easier to memorize for the both of them.

Adam bows, and Belle curtsies, fancier than either of them have really ever done before.

The first step of the dance is Adam’s, and he does, he steps forward as Belle meets him in the middle. It’s so, so, unbelievably slow, but that’s the whole point. They have a moment to realize how close they are to one another, how much of that sparkle he can make out in Belle’s eyes before the dance requires that they both step backwards.

Forwards again, this time, they turn around one another before coming back to their original position, close again, close enough that Adam catches Belle’s scent. The music swells and bends with each step and the world falls away.

What he doesn’t foresee, however, is the tactile nature of their romance. He’s constantly orbiting around Belle, taking her hand in his, pressing his lips against her temple, running his fingers along her skin. What he doesn’t count on is how much it hurts to not be able to do so. They step together, noses nearly touching, for just a brief second before the dance requires them to step away again and Adam damn near can’t make his feet obey him.

And Belle, save him, she must see exactly what is going on in his head, because she smiles as she turns and he loses sight of her.

Again, and again, the dance continues. Step forward, step back, place their palms mere millimeters away from one another but never touching, helping to guide their turn.

Adam can’t help it, he can’t help but focus on her entirely, on the way that the gold fabric of her gown glints against the candlelight, or the way that her dark eyes seem to shine with something just a little bit dark. They step forward again and Adam stops, stops moving, just focusing on her face, her nose, her lips.

Really, they could almost be kissing. The thought occurs to him, and it seems to occur to Belle, too, from the way that her chin lifts up so that her face is angled towards him, but then, as fate is a cruel curmudgeonly old bastard, the music ends.

The room is suddenly full again, with smatters of polite applause for the orchestra and Maestro Cadenza, and for Adam and Belle themselves. They stare at one another for a long moment before they fall back into their lives as Prince and Book-smitten Inventor.

They bow, and Adam tries to get his breathing back down to what might be considered normal. Adam clasps Belle’s hand and leads them from the center of the floor, even as the next dance already has couples lining up in their lines.

Belle’s hand tightens against his arm. He gives her just the barest of reassuring squeezes, meets her gaze for just a moment when they reach the edge and the wall of people. Then they go their separate ways: divide and conquer, so to speak, except the only thing that really needs to be conquered tonight is the food.

Adam mingles, at least as best as he is able to mingle, but his real purpose is to double check that things so far are running smoothly. Mrs. Potts is the puppet master of them all, tonight, and he finds her standing just beyond a curtain that leads to the kitchens beyond, completely hidden from view.

“How are the battlements, Mrs. Potts?” Adam asks, ducking low enough so that the curtains don’t muss his hair.

Mrs. Potts gives him an idle stare before she does perhaps the most sarcastic military salute that he’s ever seen. “Oh, armed to the teeth, Sire.”

“How are the—”

“Already done, Sire,” Mrs. Potts tells him.

He pauses. Then, “What about the—”

“That, too,” she says.

His fingers twitch. “And the—”

“Already turning over the fire, Sire,” Mrs. Potts assures him with a look that gives Adam the distinct feeling that she’s about to brain him with a teapot. “Now, shoo, you.”

Mrs. Potts pushes him wholly back out into the crowd and Adam tries his very best not to look like he was just punted out from behind a curtain. Thankfully most of the people around him have their eyes on the menuet as the couples twist and weave through one another right in front of them.

As much as Adam hates to admit it, clearly Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth and even Lumière have planned this all to the last tiny detail, even more than he and Belle had tried to give their input. Mingling still doesn’t come easy to him, or as easy as it once had when it had all been fake and a Grand Game, but it helps that there are friendly faces in the crowd. It helps that he doesn’t have a crown on his head, too. Adam twirls Berangaria’s crest on his finger as people wish him a good harvest and give their compliments to his choice of decorations, or drink, or music. He gets so many compliments for Maestro Cadenza that Adam feels like he should probably build the man a monument.

Three dances have passed, all very successful, when Adam feels like he’s done his duty. At least, for the time being. He hasn’t even started on the pavilion, yet, or the gardens.

Adam spots Belle next to the open outer doors, and to his utter horror, Élaine is there, too. He rejoins them just as Madame d’Garderobe begins to sing at the other end of the Ballroom. Adam catches onto the tail-end of a conversation as Belle says something that makes Élaine laugh, then his cousin turns to him as he takes his place at Belle’s side.

“Oh?” Élaine raises her dark eyebrows. “Did he never tell you about the time that he and my brother François stole a—”

No,” Adam snaps, panicking. Lowers his voice because that had carried farther that he’d intended and clears his throat. “Absolutely not.”

Élaine laughs, but she and Belle seem to exchange a meaningful look between them, something that sets off every instinct that Adam possesses, something that tells him that every embarrassing story that his cousins have been hoarding all these years are about to come to light. Élaine curtseys prettily and gets snapped up by a Viscount that Adam distinctly remembers from a dinner party a few months ago, just in time for the next dance.

Belle watches Élaine go with that same light in her eyes. “Oh,” she tells him. “I like her.”

“And here I was,” Adam sighs, “Thinking I already knew what true fear felt like.” Belle laughs, that same light laugh that they’ve shared many times in the Library. Adam glances at her from the corner of his eye. Once he’s sure that they are as alone as they can be in a room full of people, he asks, “How are you?”

Belle’s brow furrows and she blinks up at him. “How am I?”

Adam levels a look at her, one that they’ve shared many, many times in all these months. “You hate these things, my heart.”

Neither one of them largely enjoy having to endure hours interacting with people. Not that they prefer the solitude, but more in a way that constantly having to be in public drains them.

“True, perhaps,” Belle allows. “But I’ve always had a soft spot for Harvest Festivals. My father used to tell me of them, in Paris, and how disappointed he was that Villeneuve suddenly stopped celebrating it every year.”

Villeneuve must have had it wiped from their minds by the spell, Adam reasons. He’d remembered, and so had the others that had been within the castle at the time of the casting, but this is the first time in a very long time that he has felt like celebrating anything.

“So,” Belle ventures. “François, hmm?”

Adam winces. “You are, in fact, the love of my life, my heart, the death of me, and my darling,” he tells her, his face hopefully betraying nothing of what he’s truly feeling. “But believe me when I say that I will tell you what happened that day on my deathbed, and not before, because you would in all likelihood kill me.”

Belle frowns. “Well, now I have to know.”

“And yet,” Adam says, as he moves them towards the fireplace and away from the dancing. “Come, my love. I have something to show you.”

There won’t be a traditional feast, tonight. His father had held thirteen-course meals for the Harvest Festival, often for so long that lunch had bled into dinner, but there are so many guests that they’d never hope to feed them all even if they lined dining tables all along the gardens. Instead, however, half-circle tables line the walls periodically are crowded with different appetizers and traditional Harvest Festival treats. On the pavilions outside, tables under navy blue tents hold all of the food and drink that is being served.

But in the large fireplace itself, halfway between the entrance and the exit on the north-facing wall, an attendant sits near a spit, and a cone-shaped treat is turning over the fire. Adam hasn’t had it since he was a child, considering it wasn’t delicate enough for his father. The attendant constantly turns the spoke while labeling some type of glaze over the cake, while the excess drips into the ashes. It fills most of the Ballroom with a sweet scent.

Adam keeps his eyes on Belle as she takes it all in, and smiles when she starts smiling: ironically this has been one of the things that he’s wanted to show Belle most.

“It is Spit Cake, Mademoiselle,” the attendant tells them, but not one of their regulars, Adam notes. “This particular kind is a local delicacy.”

A Spit Cake is made almost entirely over a fire and can take up to six hours, depending on the size. And as much as Adam would love to take the credit for the idea, it had actually been Cogsworth, who had lived in the Castle long before Adam’s father had ever come.

The cake that is spinning at a very slow pace is probably big enough to feed several hundred people.

Adam knows what’s coming before the attendant does. He sees the look in Belle’s eye as she kneels very carefully in her golden gown. She’s been taking it all in: the spoke, the rotation, the attendant constantly turning the whole thing. “You know,” Belle ventures. “It would be rather easy for me to rig up something to do that for you.”

He grins and takes that as his signal to make a quick getaway: Belle with her sights on a problem that needs fixing is not a force of nature to be reckoned with.

Laughter dies when I enter a room, he remembers confessing. It seems like such a long time ago, back when June still meant snowy skies and a Castle that fell apart more as each petal shriveled and died, but now, as Adam walks the perimeter of the Ballroom and the various verandas just outside of it, he feels the opposite. There’s so much laughter, and dancing. And not in the way that calls back to his old days, either, the way he was before, but warmer. Softer. It kills his aversion to Shakespeare to say it, but there’s so much affection, now. It warms his heart to see it. Fills him with pride.

He even finds Cogsworth and Lumière already enjoying their drinks on the north pavilion. Cogsworth squawks as Adam approaches, trying to stand up and do his traditional bow, but Adam is having none of that. Not tonight. “Sit down, old man,” Adam teases. Lumière snorts into his own drink. “Tonight is not a night for formalities.”

“Good Harvest, my Prince,” Lumière says, lifting his glass to him.

“Yes,” Cogsworth agrees. Adam notices that the old man’s cheeks are awfully pink. “Good Harvest.”

“And a short winter,” Adam returns, leaning against one of the arms of the chairs where they sit. The fire is almost too close for Adam’s taste, but he knows that he tends to run a bit warmer than others: Belle’s icy toes are a a frequent reminder of that. “What are you two doing so far away from all of the dancing?”

It’s true, they have their backs turned away from the dances happening in the Ballroom, and are too far away from the jigs and other dances happening outside.

“Oh, that is easy, mon ami,” Lumière tells him. His cheeks are a bit red, too. “Our friend Monsieur Cogsworth here is busy hiding from his wife.”

“Ah,” Adam says. He can’t say that he’s interacted with Madame Cogsworth these past months more than a handful of times. Cogsworth, however, looks as if he’s contemplating what sort of death could be found at the bottom of his cup.

The people gathered around the bonfire offer Adam some of the wine that the kitchen staff have been handing out, and he takes a glass to be polite, if nothing else. Wine reminds him too much of his royal cousins, too much of his father, to be enjoyable more than just a glass very rarely, or to try and act like his old self at a fetê, or at his royal cousin’s private dining table. However, as he brings it to his lips, he finds it slightly warm and the taste is spicier than he’s used to. He does recall mulled wine being on the many, many menus that he and Belle picked over.

“Well,” Adam says, once his glass is empty. “I should get back. Unfortunately, I doubt my lack of presence has been missed.”

“Yes, shoo,” Lumière tells him, laughing, flapping his fingers at him, and Adam can’t help but laugh, his irritation with him evaporating. “Take that magnificent coat and begone from my sight.”

Adam braces his hands against his thighs and pushes himself off the arm of the chair he was leaning against, and from his higher vantage point, spots Maurice in the light of the next bonfire.

Maurice seems to be happy in his food and wine, as well, but is instead furiously sketching everything he sees. Adam can’t really tell from this distance, but it appears that Belle’s father has already filled more than half of his sketching book. His fingertips are nearly black with charcoal. Adam nods at Lumière and Cogsworth and retreats, giving his empty glass to an attendant that offers to take it, thinking that he should check where the rest of his household is, too, and see how they are doing.

“Wait, my Prince!” Lumière calls out just as Adam starts climbing the stairs up to the next pavilion again.

Adam turns, and sees Lumière barely over the back of his chair. “Yes?”

“It makes us all very happy,” Lumière tells him. “To see you so very changed, mon ami. To see you so happy. We did not think it would happen.”

Adam can tell that these words are coming from a place that his friend would normally keep close to his chest, and that the lines between servant and master and family have become so blurred over the past decade that the rules and regulations for them no longer apply. Perhaps that is what prevents the sting of his words: or perhaps it is because Adam knows that he hadn’t believed it either. The scar near his lungs seem to burn, the bullet that killed him, and Adam knows that he could have died permanently in Belle’s arms that day all those months ago and he would have gone in peace. It was enough to hear her voice again. At least, it had been at the time. Now he’s grown used to what love feels like.

“Neither did I,” Adam says. “Enjoy the Festival, my friend.”

When he reaches the next level of pavilion and nods his head towards a few of the local gentlemen, he almost turns to head back into the Castle, thinking that it would be the best place to start, but something stops him on the top step. It’s almost like a shiver up his spine, but not quite as unpleasant.

Adam doesn’t even really stop to think about it: there are nearly a hundred guards on duty tonight, because of the sheer size of their guest list, the gardens are crowded with revelers enjoying all of the games and displays and dances. Adam nods his head and tries to look as normal as possible whenever someone notices that it’s their Prince that’s heading down into the north gardens.

That shiver continues. If Adam has learned anything since June, it’s that his instincts, though they tend to manifest in strange ways, usually aren’t wrong. And he doesn’t know how he knows it, he doesn’t know which instinct it is, but he knows that he is not alone in this garden. And more than just the wanderers, three rows over, and he doesn’t know how he can tell that they’re there, either, but something else.

Except there’s nothing. The innermost twists of the north garden are surprisingly empty, the lanes of hedges dark except for the occasional torch. Even the laugher and the dancing seems far away.

Until he nearly backs into someone on the garden pathway.

“Oh,” Adam says, stepping back and bowing. “Forgive me. Good Harvest, Mademoiselle.

“And a short winter, Highness,” the woman replies, with a brisk curtsey.

The shiver continues, but Adam brushes it off as being startled. He grabs at something, anything, to hide what must look like shock at being caught unawares. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”

“I am Agathe, your Highness,” the woman curtsies. She does seem somewhat familiar and he can remember Belle mentioning an Agathe from Villeneuve, once, when they were walking in Poirier’s gardens before Adam tore them up.

“A pleasure,” Adam tells her. His hands clasp themselves behind his back and he shoves down the shiver. “Are you, uh, enjoying the Festival?” He looks around, briefly, wondering why she’s come out so far. “They’re serving a wonderful gray pudding inside. And the mulled wine isn’t bad, either.”

The woman smiles at him like he’s just answered a thousand-year-old question. “You don’t remember me, do you?”

Oh, Heaven help him, not another long-lost cousin. Élaine was one thing, Adam isn’t sure he could handle another. He winces and looks closer and finds nothing but curled blonde hair and bright blue eyes that seem somehow familiar, but Adam can’t place her. “Forgive me,” Adam admits, rather sincerely. “I’ve introduced and been introduced to so many people tonight I think my memory’s full up and overflowing.”

Then suddenly the woman’s skin starts to glow and shines out into the dusk and fills the hedges and the few statues that actually remain and chases all the shadows away until Adam can’t see anything but light. Adam jumps back and tries to shield himself. Afraid. This, it can’t be happening, no, not again. The glowing stops, like the Enchantress has snapped the lid of a jar shut. Everything recedes. Adam’s heartbeat is trying to punch through his ribcage. He can’t do it, he won’t do it, it can’t happen again

“You,” Adam whispers. His eyes sting. He’s had this exact nightmare before. “What are you, what are you doing here?”

“The invitation was for the people of Villeneuve,” the Enchantress says.

Adam almost wants to laugh, and would, if he weren’t so afraid of whatever move she’s here to make. Even though she looks like any other Lady in attendance tonight, Adam knows better. Her eyes are still a crisp, sharp blue, still irritatingly familiar but now something lies beneath them that he almost wants to call power. “If you’ve come to renew your curse,” Adam tells her. “This time, please, leave the innocent people out of it.”

The Enchantress stops. Stops moving, stops— well, everything. Even the curls of her golden hair are unmoved by the October breeze. It’s unnatural and natural, in a way, and her scent, the first time Adam’s been able to detect it, smells like something old. Unknowable. From before.

Her expression is nearly unreadable.

“I am not here to curse you, little Prince,” the Enchantress says, quietly. Like it’s a secret she’s gifting to him. “The magic was undone and my part played.”

“No, it isn’t,” Adam croaks, without thinking. “I’m still not right.”

The Enchantress’ gaze is cool and still, like stone, but she says nothing.

“You didn’t break it,” he insists. “Sometimes I still feel it beneath my skin, and other times I can track a scent for miles, and I can easily lift what three, four men shouldn’t be able to. I could tell you were in this garden.”

He doesn’t even mention the thing that seems to hum right beneath his skin whenever he’s angry, or the growl that escapes from behind his teeth sometimes. He isn’t a man, anymore, not by any definition, but he certainly isn’t the beast he was. Either one of them.

The Enchantress tilts her head at him, and frowns, like she’s reading a particularly difficult passage in a book and can’t quite wrap her head around it. “Magic always has a cost,” she tells him. “Rules, too, so many rules that it often binds the caster more than the recipient. I tell you now that nothing of the curse remains in you: all that I gave has been returned.”

Adam shakes his head. It can’t be. It can’t.

“What you did with it while you had it, however,” the Enchantress allows, gesturing at him. “Why, that is between you and it, not I.”

“I don’t understand what that means,” Adam bites.

“You would not be the first to spend so long next to the heart of magic that you’ve twisted its intended purpose for your own,” the Enchantress tells him, circling around behind him, slightly, like she’s trying to see into him. “It’s happened before, though it was a very, very long time ago, in a kingdom that doesn’t even exist anymore. Magic changed him, too.”

There’s— there’s been someone like him, before? Adam has more questions than he has books in Belle’s Library, and the longer it takes his mind to start working again, the more he has.

“So, I’m…this is what I am, now?” Adam asks. “This isn’t just some… remnant? Or side effect?”

The Enchantress doesn’t blink. She may not even need to, really. He doubts Enchantresses let their eyes go dry.

“That’s a lovely ring, by the way,” the Enchantress tells him instead. “Though… it looked better when I wore it.”

Adam frowns, thinks that he’s just missed something, looks down at his ring with Berangaria’s crest on it, until he turns back towards the sudden sound of people dancing and looks back. The Enchantress is nowhere to be found.

He starts. Stops again. Eyes wide, he looks around in the twilight, but there’s nothing. Adam even pulls both his hands up in front his face and turns them over and over, back and forth, but they’re just hands, just his hands, no claws, no fur, they aren’t ripping apart his skin.

The silence suddenly grips him. There’s nothing— no, no curse, no blinding white light. Just him, alone in the garden. In his blue coat. 

Adam does the unexpected, even by his standards: he laughs.

He laughs like the world has played the biggest trick of all, like fate is, in fact, a cruel, curmudgeonly old man. It’s more Adam grappling with his incredulity than a true laugh, but there’s been a part of Adam that has feared that the curse has lingered somehow, and another part of him that has known for some time that this is just who he is, now. He’s changed.

For better or for worse, he has. There’s no thunderstorm to have an argument with this time, and the Enchantress is gone, so it’s just him and the stars and the hedges of the garden. And they have nothing to offer him.

He lets out a long, drawn out breath, that may or may not contain a curse that he’d never say in the presence of Mrs. Potts, because she really would brain him with that teacup. His hands find his ribcage, near where the three bullets pierced his skin, and he looks back towards the Castle. Adam inhales and exhales by blowing the air from behind his clenched teeth.

He’s just made the decision to head back and possibly double-check that there isn’t a magically enchanted rose locked away somewhere that will count down the years until his death, when he catches it. Adam glares up at the sky again, because it can’t be a coincidence, it can’t be chance, but there it is.

Charcoal. Parchment. It’s hard to say because of the roses nearby, but he wouldn’t be surprised if that was part of the scent, too.

Belle’s standing in the quiet marble gazebo in the center of the north gardens like an island in the storm of all the laughter happening around them. The roses wound around each roman column are well on their way to withering, and yet that doesn’t seem to take away from the beauty of it. Whatever it is that is burning in his chest continues to burn and all thoughts of magic and the Enchantress bow to more important things. Like the color of just the barest hint of scarlet on the horizon, and the slight scent of Spit Cake that he can taste against in the air.

Without a word, Adam slides up behind her and takes her in his arms. The tension eases out of him and he finds that he can breathe easier for it.

He’s happy to just nuzzle against the space behind her ear where the scent tends to be strongest. Belle tells him, “And where have you been?”

He hums. Someone in the distance just let out a shout, but it’s quickly followed by the sound of laughter. “Did you manage to fix the Spit Cake?”

Belle’s shoulders shudder, probably in a laugh. She holds her hands up for him and he sees that they have little lines of what is probably ash along the lines of her palms. “The dress survived,” she tells him. “So I suppose it wasn’t a complete disaster.”

He isn’t sure how he can love little ash lines on someone’s skin, but he does. He nearly frowns at his own foolish behavior— he’s pining over ash marks, now, how ridiculous.

He makes a decision. “I have a gift for you.”

Belle looks down at him from where he’s hunched over so that his chin may rest against her shoulder and raises an eyebrow at him. “Oh?”

Adam nods, and straightens up so he can step around her, not unlike the dance just an hour— or two, really, ago, so that he can stand in front of her when he confesses. He’s mindful of which direction is where.

“I thought about it for a time,” Adam says. “And… well, to be absolutely truthful, I had no idea what to get you. I’d already given you your Library.”

Belle nods, like she understands his reasoning perfectly. “That was a gift to end all gifts.”

Adam can’t tell if she’s being sincere or not, but with Belle it’s usually best to err on the side of wit. “So, I wrote to Perè Robert,” Adam says. “And I asked him.”

Adam gestures over Belle’s shoulder and gives her a look that must convey something akin to ‘turn around and find out’. Belle does, but Adam knows that she may not understand what he’s referring to. In the dusk, the lanterns light the gardens until it comes up against the towering green of the forest and no light goes past it.

“It’s not— it isn’t ready, yet,” Adam admits, eyes falling. As much as he would have loved to have it in pristine condition by tonight so they could ride out and see it with their own eyes, in private, under the harvest moon, with romantic candlelight and perhaps not a massive thunderstorm clamoring overhead, but he could only ask the stonemason’s team for so many miracles. And there was a hundred years of decay and dereliction to repair and replace. “The dower house. I’m afraid it probably won’t be ready until spring, but I thought, well, I thought that when it was finished, we might turn it into a school.”

Belle turns back to him, away from the forest, and presses her hand against her collar. It’s the movement that catches his eye. He hadn’t even really meant to reveal it, yet, but then Perè Robert had given him that knowing look and this moment, in the gazebo, and the dusk and the candlelight and it had just seemed like too perfect an opportunity to pass up.

“When I was in Versailles, I convinced one of my cousins’ many architects to come take a look,” Adam admits.

It had been one of the little hidden pleasures Adam had taken, a price his cousins would have to pay for ignoring all of his refusals and summoning him anyway. And after their obvious ploy to insert people into Adam’s court, it feels like an even better victory.

And Belle hasn’t said anything, which is— probably not good? Belle hardly ever has a hard time telling the world what she thinks, and she’s just sort of standing there, gaping, and perhaps his gift hadn’t been the thought-out surprise he’d thought it would be?

He keeps going, because when Adam panics, more words always spew out of his mouth. “Villeneuve doesn’t really have the population to support such a large school, but the war had lasting impacts that I’ve been trying to— catch up on,” he pauses. “But, you know, perhaps we could take in a few orphans from Villeneuve, you know, the ones that have been displaced, and there are people settling in the other villages, other towns, and in a few years I’m sure that there’ll be more than enough, or we could just turn it into something like a university, where people could have access to books—”

Belle kisses him.

Their kisses as of late have become tense, filled with longing, passion that errs on the side of desire and even pure want, the desire of two people that have been dancing this dance for a while but neither one feel like they are capable of moving forward, but that is not this kiss. This kiss is something else entirely, like a conversation or a passage of every thought and feeling from one to another. It’s gentle. Mellow. Tender. A tiny thing that perhaps they may have shared had their first kiss not been of the ‘you were magically brought back from the dead and transformed’ variety. Belle’s kisses have ruined him for all others, and he’d never tell anybody, but he’d suffer another beastly curse for eternity if he could just keep this ridiculous lifting sensation in his heart.

They pull apart, but Adam is weak and keeps pressing against Belle’s lips until one kiss bleeds gently into the next.

Belle’s smile is sweet and somewhat secret when they part at last and Adam has the will to open his eyes. Before Adam can really understand what’s happening, she’s pulling something out of a hidden pocket in her skirts.

Only Belle would somehow manage to have a hidden pocket in a golden gown. “I…happen to have a gift for you, as well.”

“You didn’t need to, my heart,” Adam insists. Her presence at his side this evening has been gift enough, otherwise he’s fairly sure he would have fallen over at some point.

Belle gives him one of her looks, and Adam knows that whatever his reasoning, it is about to be ignored.

“I’m not good at faces,” she tells him. “I never had Papa’s training or knack for capturing the expressions and utter essence of his subjects. But, I,” she pauses, folding the piece of parchment open. Adam really can’t decide where he wants to look, at Belle’s proud eyes or down at the parchment in her hands. His curiosity is gaining ground by the second. “I wanted to try.”

Adam stops breathing. The drawing isn’t perfect. It almost appears to be half-finished, more of an artist’s first draft or concept. He’s seen Maurice paint portraits from memory, he often goes through six or seven charcoal drafts before he sits down at an easel with paint. There are details missing, or sometimes just slightly off, but Adam’s eyes catch on his mother’s face. Her dark hair is really more of a heavy shade and her right shoulder is nothing more than a vague line with no detail, just the impression of a pretty gown, yet the incompleteness seems to fit, seems to give it more character. Almost like filling the missing pieces in would take away from it, somehow.

Adam’s hands are shaking by the time he finds his voice again. It’s weedy and embarrassingly soft, like it’s being ripped from his soul instead of his lungs. “Oh, my love.”

In the past, he had never been able to call his mother beautiful. She had been certainly pretty, certainly wild, certainly mischievous and mirthful from his earliest memories. It had made her illness all the more devastating, to see someone that had shone so brightly struggle so helplessly. But Adam had seen too many of his own features in her face to see her beauty. In her paintings, her eyes are the same shape and shade of blue as his. But Belle’s depiction, having obviously studied those paintings, makes his heart turn in on itself. Perhaps it’s from her absence, or perhaps time has just changed his perception, but his mother was possibly the second-most beautiful woman he’s ever beheld.

“I don’t even know her name,” Belle confesses next to him. Adam couldn’t rip his eyes away from the portrait if the world was ending. “All of the records I could find in the Library had been scratched out or destroyed.”

Adam’s doing. He hadn’t really thought about it ahead of time— in his urge to erase his father from all of history, at the very beginning of the curse, he’d destroyed nearly all physical evidence of his mother, as well.

He had precious few heirlooms of her left. “Her name was Aveline,” he whispers. “Aveline Morant Renardin d’Évreux.”

He doesn’t know why it feels like he’s releasing a great secret out into the world, or why it has had such a hold on him until this point. It isn’t like he doesn’t want to hear it, wants to erase his mother’s memory. Not like— not like his father’s name.

He looks up from the portrait for the first time in what feels like a decade and finds that Belle’s eyes are slightly wet. He’s concerned, for a moment, until he realizes that his own are, too.

“It isn’t very good, I know,” Belle tells him. “I just thought that I could try, at least.”

Adam very nearly scoffs in disbelief, despite the weight of it, despite the wetness clouding his vision, slightly, because Belle must clearly have a different definition of ‘good’ than he does, along with a healthy dose of Maurice’s natural talent and a heaping pile of her analytical mind to produce something so breathtaking. Adam’s never drawn anything remotely so beautiful in all his life and his father spent a hefty fortune on a well-rounded education for him.

But the words die in his throat. All he can say is something like a confession from someplace inside him that he hadn’t quite realized was there. “It’s the second-most wonderful thing I’ve ever been given.”

If they were in a different place, on a different day, Belle might smile and swat at his arm and try to torture what the first-most wonderful thing he’d ever been given was out of him. With book spines and threats of charcoal against his blue coat.

Now, however, the words don’t even need to be said. She wipes furiously at the corner of her eye and sniffs, straightens up.

Adam folds the portrait carefully, already pulling together an idea in his mind: a frame, for the desk in the study, where he could see it every morning as Cogsworth helped him with his daily duties. Then he pulls Belle softly into his arms and presses his lips against her temple, enjoying her warmth and the way her scent calms his senses. “It’s you.”

Chapter Text

Lord D'Amboise would put Madame de Garderobe’s wardrobe to shame. He constantly keeps a scented handkerchief pressed to his nose, even though Villeneuve and the rest of Adam’s lands have the freshest, sweetest air in all of France. Even in October, Adam keeps one of the windows cracked: yet another bad habit he’s picked up from Belle. It’s almost the end of October, however, and even Belle has been closing the window in her suite more and more. Soon there will be snow falling on the Castle, real snow— not the magical kind.

But he remembers D'Amboise from the Harvest Festival: the man had looked like everything about the Castle was going to snap its teeth at him while he wasn’t looking. It’s all over the expression on his powdered face.

D'Amboise refuses Mrs. Potts when she graciously offers him tea and Adam feels a headache steadily building somewhere over his left eyebrow. Cogsworth and Lumière stand at each of Adam’s shoulders. Lingering curse side effects or not, Adam can smell Lord D'Amboise’s cologne from where he sits at his desk. It’s at least seven, eight feet, from where D'Amboise is looking out one of the floor-length paned windows.

And frankly, Adam had really hoped after the Harvest Festival that he’d never have to see this man ever again.

Clearly fate has other ideas.

“Forgive me, sir,” Adam starts. He leans forward a bit. “Who exactly is the recipient of this offer?”

Adam has received no less than fifty offers of marriage in his lifetime. They’d started coming in the day he’d been born, or so Mrs. Potts informs him. It wasn’t that unusual for a Prince, but Adam is just Prince of this Principality. He has no monarchy himself. Compared to other royal Princes, other Archdukes, his entitled land is minimal at best. Really, the only advantage he has are his connections through his cousins on both sides of his parentage. His old self, the self he had been before the curse, had just laughed at the offers and shared them amongst his court: he’d ridiculed their ridiculous handwriting, the scented parchment, the portraits of the Archduchesses and Princesses themselves, unless they were impossibly beautiful. The idea of marriage once abhorred him, and why wouldn’t it? There had been no love between his mother and father.

This, however, is reaching the point of absurdity.

His royal cousins have sent D'Amboise back to the Castle as an envoy with no less than nine portraits of eligible single or widowed ladies from countries that France could use stronger ties with: along with details of dowries and offers of even more titles that Adam doesn’t need, as well as useless, meaningless gifts that someone must have told these potential suitors that he favored. They do nothing but remind him of what a complete and total ass he had been, once.

“Well, you, of course,” Lord D'Amboise says, gesturing prettily.

If it were any other day, this would simply be funny to Adam. It does bring a kind of bewildered laugh out of him, particularly the gilded portraits sitting on viewing easels around his study.

He sends a look at Lumière behind D'Amboise’s back that must convey his expression of kill me before he says, “I have utterly no interest in a political match, my Lord.”

The motivations behind this move aren’t shrouded in court intrigue by any means: even to Adam. His cousins are middle-aged and both unhappily married to rich wives. The King himself has had three mistresses in the past eight months, or so all the gossip at Versailles had told him for his short but torturous visit. No, D'Amboise's purpose here is very clear. Get Adam to agree to a political match that would bind him to another country, so Adam's claim on the French throne is less threatening.

He’s going to kill his royal cousins. He doesn’t care, at this point: the fact that it would make him the rightful King of all France doesn’t even come into consideration— he’s just going to do it because this is somehow their punishment for him.

“I send my thanks to my cousins, Lord D'Amboise,” Adam allows, trying his very best to be placating. “Truly. But at this time I have no intentions of aligning myself to any of these families.”

Especially not when his heart is still sleeping upstairs, warm in bed. Adam would probably be willing to give up his left foot to join her at this particular moment.

Sire,” D'Amboise stresses, with the air of someone trying to deliver bad news as nicely as physically possible. “You are not young—”

The outraged I am not a day over eight-and-twenty nearly carves its way out of Adam’s throat but the warning glare on Mrs. Potts’ face makes him choke it back down, again. Oh. Right. His royal cousins still don’t know about the enchantment.

His hands find themselves rubbing at his temple. This whole web of enchantment and not-enchantment is really beginning to choke him. D'Amboise goes right on detailing each portrait for Adam to choose from— their political alignments, their religious preferences, what place in the line of whichever crown or kingdom they belong to. Adam bares it for as long as he can, or about when his left eye begins to twitch. He picks up his pen again, trying to give D'Amboise the hint that he’s busy, he has no time for this nonsense. It doesn’t work.

“And all of them bring wealth and title along with their dowries,” D'Amboise sniffs. “Surely if I cannot appeal to your sense of duty, then the Crown can appeal to your coffers.”

“I need no more wealth,” Adam corrects, barely managing to ignore the barb aimed at his sense of duty.

Adam’s duties as Prince had been egregiously ignored for the first two decades of his life. He’d choked the life out of Villeneuve and all of the surrounding towns and villages, before they’d been abandoned during the curse. All so that his candelabras and chandeliers could be embossed and carved with gold, like the walls of every room in this Castle. Before the curse had broken, before Belle, before— well, before, Adam had no sense of duty. Except to himself.

“And I need no more titles, my Lord.” Adam says. “I have more of both than I can count.”

“His Royal Majesty, the King,” D'Amboise stresses, as if Adam is not aware every waking moment of every day that his oldest cousin is the King of France. “Is eager to see you fulfill your responsibilities as the only heir of Prince Henri; may he rest in piece.”

Adam’s pen snaps at the sound of his father’s name.

He doesn’t even mean to do it, it just splinters in his hands and makes a loud thwip noise as the pieces go scattering across his desk. Thankfully the ink against the tip has long since dried, because Adam feels the sharp edge of the tip as it is crushed in his fist.

If D'Amboise saw it, Adam doesn’t know, he doesn’t care, his mind just goes red-hot like a fireplace poker with the tip still burning scarlet—

Perhaps there had been some unspoken law, or rule, or commandment, set down by Adam himself, but no one in the Castle has spoken that name in two magical decades, since his father died. Mrs. Potts downright refuses to say it, for reasons that she has not revealed to him but he has horrible suspicions, and Adam had refused to even think it. As a beast he’d had no other outlet for his rage and his shame and his new reality, so the first thing he had done was rip apart all of his father’s portraits, along with his own.

Lumière replaces the broken pen with an identical one without a word.

“I’d thank my royal cousins to leave my business to me,” Adam says, unable to ignore the fact that his voice is more growl than anything else. I am not my curse, he thinks. “My father’s legacy will be ensured, I can promise you.”

Ripped up from every inch of this Castle, if Adam has anything to say about it. He’ll knock down walls if he has to: tearing up Poirier’s garden will be nothing but the first step to wiping that vile man off the face of Berangaria’s lands. Adam still wears the golden band with her crest on his finger as a reminder.

Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts are both looking at him, expectant, like they used to do when Adam’s temper consumed him. He knows that he still has some of that inside him. And he can’t blame the curse, either, his temper has been with him long before the Enchantress ever set her sights on this Castle.

I am not my curse, Adam thinks again.

He inhales, and looks down at the ring and tries to arrange his face so that it somehow hides the ‘get out before I separate your neck from your shoulders’ look while also choking down the fact that D'Amboise will report whatever happens here to his royal cousins. It’s a temper-deflating thought.

As much as he hates it, Versailles could make their lives here an utter, absolute misery, and Adam, for the sake of them all, has to put on his princely face.

“Now, if you wouldn’t mind,” Adam takes a deep breath. “I do have a very busy morning ahead of me, Monsieur.”

On the other hand, this Castle still belongs to Adam, and Lord D'Amboise is guest here, and the only two people in France that outrank him in land and titles are in Versailles. He’s perfectly within his rights as Prince to kick D'Amboise out and banish him from his lands. As nicely as Adam can manage, of course. Let him enjoy the six day carriage ride back to Versailles and have the pleasure of delivering bad news to his Royal Cousins. And if D'Amboise notices Adam’s blatant failure to use his proper title, he doesn’t let it show. A true politician, it seems.

“Not a problem at all,” he says, all ease, making a very flourished and exaggerated bow. “Enjoy your morning, Highness. I’ll just have the maid show me out.”

Adam does his best impression of a gracious host with a lot of responsibilities to take care of, but the moment that D'Amboise turns his back Adam bares his teeth. He doesn’t even stop himself.

He’ll have to apologize to Plumette or one of the other maids later. Frankly, he wouldn’t wish D'Amboise’s self-inflated ego on anyone, even his worst enemy. Well, wait, no, Adam allows, there is one in particular that he would happily sacrifice. Maybe two.

Except Belle’s portrait of his mother, sitting in the silver frame on the corner of his desk, catches his eye at the last second. Adam’s brow scrunches down as his mother’s gaze seems to see through him. He can remember so little of her, but she seems to give him a look. Like a ‘I see what you are doing’ look that is so utterly similar to Belle that the twisting in his chest abates.

I am not my curse, Adam repeats, staring at the way that his mother’s brow crinkles, the same way his own does.

The Enchantress had been right, after all. It doesn’t always work, Adam still has bad days where his hands feel too small and his skin itches, but the Enchantress was right. This thing, this, well, the more inside him. It’s not some remnant of the curse that makes him feel like that. It’s him. It’s just him, now. She’d told him so.

You would not be the first to spend so long next to the heart of magic that you’ve twisted its intended purpose for your own.

“Actually,” D'Amboise pauses. "About your maid."

Adam’s squares his proverbial shoulders and makes it look like he’s reading an important document, but he looks up to meet D'Amboise’s gaze all the same. “My maid?”

“Yes,” D'Amboise nods, gesturing behind him, towards the door with the hand that holds the scented handkerchief. “The maid. The… how should I say… the odd one?”

Lumière freezes. So does Cogsworth. So does Mrs. Potts. Adam cocks his head from one side to the other towards Lord D'Amboise and feels something twisting, twitching, underneath his skin.

His teeth are ground together as if he could mash iron in-between them. “Your pardon, Monsieur?

“The maid, your Highness,” Lord D'Amboise clarifies. “I saw her yesterday afternoon. She has her skirts tucked in on one side, her uniform ruined. Practically wild. It’s rather… rather unseemly, for a royal court. His Royal Majesty will not be pleased that your employees do not know what is expected of them. An ill-organized household reflects poorly on its master.”

Belle is probably still in bed, drifting in and out of consciousness in the East Wing, huddled under her fur throws from her late night that she’d spent tinkering with Maurice, who has also come back to stay with them for the winter. Father and daughter had spent most of yesterday afternoon ripping out the innards of a Grandfather clock that hasn't worked in Adam's lifetime, at least. She hadn't gone to bed until the morning sky had been tinged with rose pink. Adam should know, he’d pulled the blankets tighter around her shoulders just before he came downstairs.

It’s possible that Adam hears someone at his left sigh something that sounds eerily like ‘oh, no’, but for the second time in just as many minutes Adam feels his other self surging upwards in his chest.

Adam has to breathe in several times. “That would be my future wife.”

He says it with such venom, such emphasis, that it’s really not a wonder why D'Amboise suddenly looks as if he’s turning green. “Your — wife? A maid?”

“Belle,” Adam corrects. “Yes, the woman that stood at my side during the Harvest Festival. You met her. Though you did not even bow,” Adam says. A huge blunder, on D'Amboise’s part. “She is my future bride, and Lady of this Castle and all its lands.”

“You have made your intentions known with a backward village maid? To everyone?” D'Amboise demands, waving his handkerchief in Adam’s direction in outrage. “You will stop being acknowledged by polite society! Your political ventures will fail, as will your fortunes! Your cousins will banish you from Versailles!”

And to Adam, who is suddenly before Lord D'Amboise with no memory whatsoever of having moved, of having stood up from his chair and circled around to the other side of the desk— that last part sounds like paradise. “Good.”

“—Excusez-moi, my Prince,” Lumière interjects. “My Lord D'Amboise, I think you will find that your lunch has been served in the day room—”

“There’s no need,”  D'Amboise says. “I will not be staying.”

D'Amboise turns his back on Adam, without bowing, an insult. “Cogsworth,” Adam commands. “Have our Lord’s carriage called up. You heard him, he will not be staying for lunch.”

D'Amboise storms out without another word, but his complaints can be heard long after the door is closed. Adam can’t actually tell if the others can hear it or if it’s just something he can do now, too, and frankly he’s too angry to care, he could almost spit.

“The nerve,” Adam growls. He’s pacing, circling, like a stalking beast.

“Hold your tongue, Sire,” Mrs. Potts snaps at him, quiet enough so that D'Amboise will not be able to hear. “If you think that Lordling had no servants in this castle to hear what you would say, then you have another thing coming.”

Cogsworth adjusts his monocle. “This will be everywhere by next week.”

Mrs. Potts seems to agree. “There’s little that we can do about that, by this point.”

Lumière speaks up, next, “We could—”

Whatever Lumière is about to say, Adam never learns. Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts both hiss, “No.”

“It doesn’t,” Adam starts. Has to try again. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Oh, but it does,” Mrs. Potts tells him. “Considering you aren’t actually soon-to-be-married.”

“What do you mean,” Adam asks. Then stops. “Does everyone think that? Of course we are!”

Lumière’s eyes widen but Mrs. Potts stands her ground. “This is the first we’ve heard of it! We didn’t want to push you, dearest. You’ve had a lot of things to work through, a lot of past baggage to sort out before either of you were ready for it, and there was no need to rush,” she explains, as if she’s talking to him like he’s eleven, all over again. “Now, sit down. Sit.”

Adam sits, back down in his chair. He tries to feel like he isn’t a child being scolded but he’s suddenly bone tired and his unease has nowhere to go but in.

“We just haven’t gotten around to the planning of it all, yet.” Adam admits. He knows that he and Belle have been busy, lately, putting out a fire only to have another pop up, usually in the form of a destructive thunderstorm or a summons to Versailles. And frustratingly, every time he and Belle seem to gather themselves, to move forward on the path to undoing all that has been done, they hit another roadblock. Most of it is on him, Adam knows. His issues. His past. His nightmares. There are so many hurdles that have to be leapt before he can move forward.

He puts his head in his hands, the reality of what he’d just done setting in. Right, he’d— they were right. It’d be everywhere by next week.

There’s a part of Adam that suddenly longs for snowy days from the beginning. Reading King Arthur and his Knights in the cold, or giving Belle her library.

Why had life been so much simpler, during the curse? Adam feels like he’s trying his hardest but it’s like pushing a boulder uphill: every time he thinks he’s managed to get it right, he just slips back down again.

“I know that I’m, well, still learning, but things just seemed like there were more important matters to be handled, first. Like, you know, angry mobs. Thunderstorms. Keeping this Castle from falling into ruin. Ripping up the south lawns.” And then the anger returns, somewhat, because his eye catches on the closest of the nine portraits. “Or the fact that my royal cousins will stop at nothing to have a controlling hand in my court!”

Cogsworth and Lumière and Mrs. Potts say nothing, and Adam doesn’t quite know why.

Adam’s shoulders fall. What a mess he’s made. “I’m just— just trying to be better, before, is all.”

“My Prince,” Lumière stresses. “The curse was broken in June. It is near the end of October now.”

Adam blinks. “So?”

And damn him, Adam can’t help but notice that there seems to be a nonverbal conversation going on between the three of them; meaningful glances and gestures that can only come about when people have spent years and years and years suffering from the same burden. Him. Suffering from the burdens that Adam caused. Whatever the argument is, Mrs. Potts wins, while Lumière throws up his arms in an exasperated fashion. Cogsworth simply closes his eyes, briefly, and looks like he’s experiencing mild chest pain.

“Have you,” Mrs. Potts inquires with her eyebrows raised, “Actually…asked her?”

And Adam’s brain, it just gets stuck on that one thought. Over and over again, like a broken mantle clock, ticking the same second over and over and over again, never moving forward, just tick tick tick tick tick.

“I,” Adam starts. Has to pause. He points at Lumière, who looks concerned. “You,” he has to pause again. He swallows. “She,” he looks back and forth between them all. He can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. “I—”

Adam knocks over his writing desk and chair and runs.

He has run through the Castle halls more times than he can count, now, and thankfully the people here have come to adapt to him. Adam trips over something that he can’t see but keeps going, keeps pushing forward. He can’t stop now, not when he’s done this, when he’s messed up this badly, his heart is trying to punch its way out of his chest, he’s sure of it. How ironic would it be if he keeled over and died right here, after all of this?

He’d forgotten. Him. He’d forgotten to ask Belle to marry him.

People duck out of his way, now, and by duck, Adam really means ‘yell and drop whatever they are doing as he swings over one bannister and to another’, climbing up the staircase like a lion leaps on its prey. He thinks he briefly hears Plumette shriek and only has the time to say, “Sorry!”

At first he just climbs from the lower floors, thinking that Belle is still abed, but by the time he reaches the center staircase and the place where East Wing divides from West, somebody says ‘Library!’ as he sprints past them so Belle’s Library is where he heads, even as he shoves the doors open by throwing his good side at them. As he stumbles through, still running, well, tripping, he sees that there’s the old broken Grandfather clock has its front open, clock innards out and spread over several tables, and Maurice is balancing on a step-ladder with smudged charcoal on his nose while Belle looks to be in the middle of it all, handing him tools.

“Belle,” Adam wheezes, skidding towards them. “My love, will you—” Between each breath he has to bend over and put his hands on his knees. “Will you marry me?”

The room goes silent as Adam’s brain short-circuits, again, realizing with no small amount of horror at himself, at what he’s just done, at the look on Belle’s face when Adam realizes that Maurice is here, Maurice is here, he’s just asked his daughter to marry him and the look on her face makes him think that oh, no, she’s going to say no, she’s going to reject him and it’s going to be right in front of her father, he doesn’t think he could handle that, he’ll just leave, he’ll leave the room, that’s the safest bet, except Adam can’t really get his legs to obey him anymore, either, and his chest hurts, and he’s fairly sure he’s just going to fall over. What has he done, what has he done

“Ha!” Maurice suddenly shouts, stumbling down off the ladder against the Grandfather clock and coming over to where Adam has almost collapsed. “Yes, you will do very well.” And he takes Adam’s face in his hands and kisses him once, on both cheeks. “Very well indeed.”

Adam is, in some part, convinced that he fainted somewhere along the third staircase and this is some sort of strange fever dream. Or maybe some strange mirror world, like in that story Belle had started last week, that she’d begun to read aloud to him.

Except Belle looks like she’d just love to sink straight through the floor.

And then Maurice lets him go, and Adam drops just a bit, still stunned, while Belle’s father practically runs towards the door himself, yelling, “Monsieur Maestro! I won!”

He disappears through the open doors and all Adam can do is just listen to his footsteps fade.

When he turns back, Belle has closed her eyes, not unlike she’s saying a prayer. “End of October.”

Adam can only shake his head. Twice. “I’m… sorry?”

Belle opens her eyes with a wince. “End of October. Monsieur Maestro’s bid was for the middle of November. When you would realize. Lumière bid you wouldn’t until February.”

One of these days, Adam may actually kill Lumière. Or kiss him. It goes back and forth on a day-by-day basis. Adam tries to get his heart back into the mortal plane, or roughly somewhere on the left side of his chest, but it’s a losing battle. “You— you knew?”

Belle picks at the nails of one hand with the other, nervous. “I found out.” His unasked question must be all over his face, because she scrunches that nose of hers. “Élaine.”

Élaine knew?” Adam swallows, having to lean against one of the tables, feeling like a complete and utter ass. Everyone in this Castle had known. Everyone but him. And then he frowns and looks around, not unlike he had when he had said your village sounds terrible. “How do I mess up this badly? Really, even for me, this is almost impressive.”

He tugs his collar open, his scramble through the castle has made the cloth feel far too tight. He almost sinks with it, this realization of how much of a mess he still is. Adam leans heavily on one arm while he stretches his legs out. Belle joins him, on his right side. As she always is.

“I will,” Belle tells him, tugging on the sleeve of his coat. Her fingers brush against his.

“Will, what?” Adam asks. His mind is mush.

“Marry you, of course,” Belle says. “Was there ever any question, my love?”

Adam’s hand slips against the table and it sort of makes him tumble sideways, but Belle’s there to catch his blunder. Instead he whips around and he can see that damned spark in Belle’s eyes. He’s in trouble, again, somehow. He isn’t quite sure how but he knows that look. He knows it means trouble. But he also sees something more, something familiar. When Belle is happy, when she shines, it’s like staring into the sun.

“Right,” Adam squeaks. “Glad we got that squared away. I’m— I’m going to sit down, now.”

 

 

fin

 

 

“I have never been so cold in my entire life,” Belle tells him.

Adam doesn’t open his eyes. He’s warm, comfortable, tired in the way that late winter afternoons make him. The fur throws and blankets are entirely cocooned around him and his muscles feel strained, in the best way. “You once fought off wolves on a frozen lake, my love.”

There’s a pause. Belle’s a little ball of heat against his back, except for her toes. They’re like tiny ice daggers. And then, it comes, but he’s prepared for it. “Husband.”

“No,” Adam automatically resists. “That worked yesterday. The same trick won’t work today.”

The fire in the fireplace is less than six feet away, yet to Adam, when he does manage to open his eyes, it feels like the widest chasm in the whole world. He’s so comfortable, and warm, and tired, there are long red marks on his back that sting in the best possible sense— the marks of a very, very happy woman. Leaving this bed is the last thing he wants to do in the whole wide world.

Belle, however, seems to have other ideas. He hears a sigh, from behind him, and feels the movement, the shifting, feels the way that her warmth recedes. She throws back the covers, probably to go stoke the fire with more wood.

Adam growls at the sudden wave of cooler air that hits his bare skin and pulls his wife back under.