Belle can’t help staring. It’s just… not what she was expecting, is all. Adam is small, only a couple inches taller than she, with shaggy blond hair that looks like it used to be cropped short, a loose almost-white shirt, and a distinctly feminine form. The baggy shirt almost hides the swell of his chest, but not quite.
“I’m not a girl,” Adam says, crossing his arms over his chest and tucking his hands under his armpits. He sounds both defiant and terrified. Belle doesn’t know what she should say.
“I know it’s not what you were expecting. I understand if… if you want to leave. I know this isn’t what you signed up for.” Adam seems to shrink in on himself. He won’t meet her eyes. “It’s not— It’s weird, I know. But I am a guy, a man, I promise. But I do get it if you don’t… love me, like this.”
He can’t quite read Belle’s expression. She’s staring at him, eyebrows drawn, mouth open, and something new in her eyes. He can’t tell what she’s thinking, except, well, Belle’s looking at him like he’s crazy, which Adam didn’t think would ever happen (again, at least), so maybe he’s wrong.
Except then she says, “Are you crazy?” and Adam can feel his face fall.
“I know it’s weird,” he whispers. “I’m sorry. I was going to tell you, I swear. I just… Well it didn’t seem like you loved me back, so there wasn’t any point, and then there wasn’t any time. I’m sorry.”
“No. I’m serious,” she says, and he winces in response, as embarrassing as that is. “Are you insane?” She hasn’t said that since she hated him, so it’s really not a good sign. He can’t look at her any longer, really, but as soon as his eyes drop to his bare feet she’s across the room, in front of him. He feels her smooth hands on his face and he wants to cry. She moves his face toward hers and he’s crying, now, which definitely isn’t doing much to convince her of his manliness, or, man-ness, really. Her face softens.
“I loved you when you were barely even human,” she whispers. His chest tightens and he doesn’t want to get his hopes up, really, but this sounds like she’s saying it’s okay. “You’re crazy if you think I wouldn’t love you now that you are.”
And then she’s kissing him, and it’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to him, as pathetic and poetic as that sounds. Adam can’t help but pull away, needing to make sure that Belle means this, that she actually still loves him, despite all his shortcomings, both literal and otherwise. In her eyes are questions, sure, but no malice; Adam breathes out for the first time in years. He leans in to kiss her again, but this time Belle pulls back.
“We need to see about the others,” she breathes. Adam can’t help but wish they could stay this way, just the two of them, longer, but he wants to see the people who’ve become his family, too. He nods, stepping back and smoothing down his clothes. He winces slightly, and hopes Belle doesn’t notice; she does, of course.
“Will you give me just a moment?” he asks, glancing up to meet her soft gaze.
“Of course,” she smiles. “Take all the time you need,” she adds as he dashes off down the halls.
He returns minutes later with his chest flat under his shirt and a few smudges of something—dirt, maybe—on his chin that Belle will admit looks surprisingly like the beginnings of the beard. She holds out her hand before he can say anything, and he takes it in his own.
It’s not until much later—the next day, in fact, after they’ve ushered the guests out of the castle and sent everyone to bed—that they have a moment to pause. Belle’s taken off her dress from the ball and lounges in a soft yellow nightgown, absentmindedly flipping through a book as she waits for Adam to change.
Adam sighs, barely loud enough for her to hear, and it’s only then that Belle stops to really look at him. He’s taken off his jacket and shoes, let his hair down from the intricate ponytail, and stands with his back to Belle at the foot of the bed on which she sits. He’s staring at the wardrobe, fiddling with the hem of his vest. She closes her book, placing it on the table beside the bed.
“Adam?” At the compassion in her voice, his small shoulders curl in just enough for Belle to notice.
“Hmm?” He starts moving, deftly undoing the buttons of his vest and dreading the conversation to come.
“Talk to me?” He can feel her watching him, knows the way her face has softened, can hear the small, sad smile in her voice. It makes a sob rise in his throat; he swallows it down, taking a deep breath and beginning to undress. He feels queasy at the thought of telling her all that he is, but she hasn’t left so far. As he undoes his breeches he begins to speak, back still facing the woman he loves.
“My mother named me Eve. I was supposed to be the first queen— the first queen by blood, I mean. My mother was the queen, of course, but before me there’d always been sons, but Mother had a difficult time conceiving, and I was her miracle. She knew she’d have no more children after me, so I would be the first queen, the first woman. Eve.” He pauses, in just his bloomers and dress shirt, before slowly beginning to unbutton his shirt, as well.
“She was a wonderful woman. She loved me so much, but I never felt like her little girl. After she died, I— After she died, I lost it. I fought with Father for ages, but he wanted a son enough to let me be his, or, well, the prince. I wanted so badly for her to be proud of me, but when she was gone it was too hard to keep pretending. I chose my name, you know. If I couldn’t be Eve, if I couldn’t be her girl, her woman, then Adam.” He slides the shirt off his shoulders, revealing his tightly bound chest. Glancing back at Belle to gauge her reaction to his body—nothing but adoration and understanding, of course—, he beings to unwind the cloth binding his breasts.
“My father didn’t care about it for me, but he didn’t want the kingdom talking more than they had to. He hired medics. They found potions that helped me look a little more like the boy I felt I was, but it wasn’t…
“You have to understand that I know how I acted all those years was wrong. I know it’s no excuse, but it’s hard to love other people when you don’t love yourself, when you know that they don’t really love you as you are, anyway. I was terrified of being let down. Compassion can be dangerous. It’s a lot easier to be cold.” He folds the binding up and slips on his nightshirt, turning to face her fully for the first time.
Belle’s looking at him like no one has ever before: like he’s someone that deserves something good, like he’s someone—the man—she loves. He lets his head fall, hiding behind the curtain of his hair and settling his gaze on his bare feet as he feels tears brimming in his eyes.
“I know I’ve been horrible, to my people, to you, even, but it was just… It was hard, you know? To be the both the one thing I’d always wanted to be and the thing I always feared I was. It was—” This time, he can’t quite stop the unexpected sob rising from his chest. He tries to choke it down and ends up letting out a strangled cry, his shoulders shaking with the sudden onset of tears.
“Oh, Adam,” she finally says. “Darling, come here.” She moves to make more room for him, holding out her arms, and he hesitates a moment before climbing onto the bed. She takes him in her arms, rubbing his back as he cries and cries and cries.
When he can finally breathe again, he’s lying curled up with his head in her lap. She runs her fingers through his hair in a constant, soothing contact. It feels so immeasurably good to be held. She’s humming something that sounds like a love song or a lullaby under her breathe, and it almost makes him start crying all over again. He takes a deep, shuddering breath.
“I know this isn’t what you were expecting,” he whispers. “I’m sorry if I’m not… enough. I know I must seem like some silly girl, but I promise I will work every day to prove to you that I’m the man you thought I was.”
“That won’t be necessary, darling.” His heart skips a beat or two, for what he doesn’t know—fear, maybe, or hope. “Will you sit up?” she asks. He complies, pushing himself off her lap to sit beside her.
“Look at me?” He raises her head to meet her gaze, and she smiles at his clear, green eyes, shining from the tears. She takes his hands in hers, turning his body towards her own. “Adam,” she starts, “you are exactly the man I thought you were. Nothing you’ve told me or shown me has changed who you are or how I feel about you.
“There’s no point in not believing someone when they tell you who they are, and even less in not loving them just the same. No matter how you were born, I love the man that sits in front of me. Thank you for letting me know all of you.” She kisses him, then, with his hands still clasped in hers and his face still wet with tears. He feels something loosen in his chest.
When he pulls away—he’s not sure is it’s intentional, but he loves her more for letting him be the one to end this kiss—, she brings her hands up to his face, wiping the residue of tears from under his eyes with the smooth skin of her thumbs. She slips away from him and out of bed to turn off the lights; he slips under the sheets and watches the way she seems to glide, effortless, across the room. He didn’t think it was possible to love anyone this much, yet alone to have her love him back, just as he is.
Belle climbs back into bed beside him, pulling the covers up over their bodies. She curls herself into him, wrapping her arms around his body, and neither of them flinch when her fingers brush the swell of his chest; he’d been worried it would still disgust her, when it was something she had to physically confront, but of course, she acts just like the wonderful woman she is. She rests her head on his shoulder and rubs his arm in the dark.
“We’ll figure it all out,” she whispers. “Never worry about me not loving you. I fear I always will.” He can hear the smile in her voice and feel it against his shoulder, and it brings fresh tears to his eyes. Adam kisses the top of her head and falls asleep free for the first time he can remember.