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Ever Just As Sure

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“Well,” Belle’s advisor says, looking rather uncomfortable, “I did get you a funded project.”

Belle waits. Her advisor ought to have come in caroling joy, and that he didn’t is more than a little worrisome.

“You’ll be digitizing a lot of medieval texts on magic,” her advisor continues, “and it’s fully funded, you can buy any equipment you need…”

“What’s the catch?” Belle asks when he trails off, because this sounds like her dream come true.

“The owner of the texts is an asshole, and you’ve got to talk to him every day,” her advisor finishes, wincing. “Over a chat program, so there’s a little bit of a silver lining? And then send him the digitizations as soon as they’re done.”

Belle grimaces. Oh joy. But...fully funded project that she will probably be able to use to get enough research material to finish her dissertation. She can deal with an asshole for that.

“Alright,” she says. “I’m game.”

*

[ How long does it take to scan a single page? ] the grant-funder - who Belle has decided to think of as the Beast, because he’s an asshole - demands. Belle sticks out her tongue at the chat screen. It’s safe enough: there’s no video, and no audio either. Just the far-too-common bloop noises alerting her to another chat message. If she doesn’t reply within thirty seconds, the Beast starts getting antsy, and sends more. Lots more.

She finishes centering the page and hits the scan button before she types back, [ Long enough to do it right. And the more you bother me, the longer it’s going to take. So back the fuck off! ]

She hasn’t snapped at him before, but it’s nearly seven at night and she’s running on coffee and crankiness, and he hasn’t stopped sniping at her for three days, and she is so very done with his assholishness, she really is.

To her surprise, there’s not a response. The silence stretches out as she turns the page delicately, as she centers the new page, as she hits the scan button. Again. Again. Again.

Bloop.

Belle grits her teeth and looks, and then shakes her head, takes off her glasses and cleans them, and looks again. The text stays the same.

[ My apologies. ]

Well. That’s. That’s surprisingly polite for the Beast. And good behavior should definitely be encouraged. [ Apology accepted, and thank you. ]

Silence again. Belle scans five more pages, carefully and precisely.

Bloop.

Belle glances over and frowns. That’s more text than the Beast usually sends. [ This particular text seems more relevant than most, and I am very eager to read it. As I require scanned pages in order to enhance the text enough that I can focus, I am over-anxious that the scanning be swift. ]

That’s a little bizarre - medieval magical texts aren’t precisely life-or-death matters, and even Belle, who loves these books, is willing to acknowledge that they’re full of absolute horseshit, spells and potions that not only couldn’t possibly work but would probably be poisonous or harmful too. But Belle works with researchers - is herself a researcher. She knows how it is when you’re absolutely sure that the next book must have what you’re looking for, that one clue that puts the whole argument into the proper perspective, that one hint that sends you down a glorious rabbit-hole of research.

[ There’s no way I can finish tonight, ] she replies at last. She’s exhausted; soon she’ll start making mistakes, maybe even damage the book. [ But I can have it done by the end of the day tomorrow. ]

[ That will do, ] the Beast allows. Belle heaves a deep sigh and closes the book gently and starts cleaning up her workspace.

Before she shuts down the computer, she hesitates, then types, [ Good night. ]

Her hand is hovering over the power button when the reply comes: [ Good night. And thank you. ]

*

That book, apparently, does not have whatever the Beast is looking for. (Belle knows his given name, or did, but she told the chat program to call him Beast and now she’s clean forgotten what his name used to show up as. Oops?) Neither does the next one, or the next. The Beast gets crotchety every time a book doesn’t have whatever the hell he’s looking for, but apparently he’s learned at least one lesson: he never tries to rush her again, and when he grumbles over the chat, it’s clearly directed at the books, not at Belle.

[ Look, ] she says, four books later. [ Can you give me some idea of what you’re looking for? I might be able to tell you if something’s going to be useful just based on the title. ]

[ Curses and curse-breaking, ] the Beast replies. [ Specifically, transformation curses. ]

Huh. Belle gnaws on the end of her pen, frowning in thought. The books he’s been sending her have sounded promising, but they’re clearly not giving him the information he needs.

[ Like the Frog Prince, that sort of thing? ]

[ Exactly. ]

[ So you’ve already tried fairy tales, I assume. ]

[ Yes. ]

Belle hums. [ Let me do a little research before you send the next batch, ] she types at last. [ Maybe I’ll be able to narrow the search down. ]

[ Will you keep me updated? ]

Belle blinks. That’s downright polite. [ Yes, of course. ] She thinks a minute, then shrugs. [ It wouldn’t feel like a proper day’s work without the computer blooping at me every few minutes. ]

[ Blooping? ]

[ Yours doesn’t go bloop for chat messages? ]

[ Ah. No. Mine goes chime. ]

Somehow that strikes Belle as funny. Bloop is the default noise, which means the Beast must have gone in and changed it to go chime. She hasn’t thought of the Beast as being the sort of person with the patience to do that.

She heads for the library, already making a mental list of books that might mention other books on the right subject

By the third day of research, she’s getting tired of having to put the book down to type updates to the Beast. It’s a hassle, and it disrupts her flow. [ Hey, ] she types. [ Would you mind if we switched to voice chat? I kind of need my hands for this. ]

There’s an uncharacteristically long pause. [ Very well. ]

Belle taps the voice chat button. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” says maybe the deepest voice she’s ever heard in her life. It’s rough and gravelly and dangerous. Wow. Belle did not think her asshole grant-funder would sound like that.

“Right, great. I’ll just sing out if I find anything promising,” Belle says.

The Beast makes a sort of agreeable noise - not a growl, Belle is not going to take this comparison that far - and Belle settles in to read. She reads fast, and in multiple languages, because she’s always been a bit of an overachiever, so every hour or so she finds herself reeling off a few lines, translating from Medieval German or Middle English or Vulgate Latin into modern English without too much trouble. The Beast hums or sighs in response every time, and says, “No, that’s not quite right,” or, “That’s promising, what is that from?” or, “What sort of mushrooms were these people on?”

Belle finds herself giggling at that last. Who would’ve thought the Beast had a sense of humor?

And that goes on for a few days, and then the Beast sends her another batch of books to scan - Belle has no idea where he’s getting all of them, but she’s not going to look a gift book-box in the mouth - and it’s just as easy to keep voice chat on, so she doesn’t have to turn away from the books to type. As the days roll by, talking about the books turns into talking about anything else that springs to mind, and the Beast is...is funny, is sweet beneath the gruffness, is apparently genuinely interested in Belle’s other research projects. He even sends along a handful of books that have nothing to do with curse-breaking, but everything to do with medieval women’s work and the surprising number of female blacksmiths and weavers and innkeepers who really did exist. It’s the nicest thing anyone has done for Belle in a while.

“Thank you so much,” she says the day after the books show up in the same well-padded crate that all the Beast’s other texts have been in. “I don’t know how to thank you, I really don’t.”

“It was nothing,” the Beast says gruffly. “My pleasure, really.”

“Still,” Belle says, grinning stupidly at the computer screen. It’d be nice to see the face that goes with that deep, rumbling voice, she thinks idly. There’s no need for it - voice chat works just fine - but it’d be nice. “I know what I’ll be reading tonight. Nothing like a little medieval German to lull a girl to sleep!”

The Beast laughs, a great low rumble of amusement. “You are entirely unique,” he says.

Belle blushes, and isn’t quite sure why.

*

Six months into the project, Belle sets aside the most recent book and sits back in her chair, sighing. “Are we getting anywhere?”

The Beast sighs heavily. “I don’t think so. Nothing we’ve found so far has quite been...right.”

“You know,” Belle says slowly, “if I could see your library, I might be able to pick out the titles that are suitable. Your choices are good, but there might be something you aren’t even noticing that could be exactly what we need.”

The Beast hesitates. “I would be very pleased to welcome you to my library,” he says at last, “but I will understand if you prefer not to come when you hear the stipulations.”

Belle raises an eyebrow at the computer. “What stipulations would those be?”

“My house is quite far from any town,” the Beast says slowly. “There is internet, but wired only - no wifi. I do not allow cell phones, nor cameras. And you would have to come alone.”

“Ah,” Belle says. “That does sound a little bit like you’re an axe murderer, you realize.”

“I know,” the Beast says. “I do promise that no harm would come to you on my property, but I do not expect that you will choose to visit.”

Belle sighs and looks up at the ceiling for a while. She already knows she’s going to be an idiot, but she doesn’t want to admit it quite yet. She should stay far away from whatever fucked up shit the Beast has going on, but she’s so curious about his library, and - if she’s being honest with herself - about him. About a man with a voice like distant thunder and a startling sly sense of humor and a bit of a temper that he’s learned to control over the last six months and a deep and abiding interest in medieval curses.

“Give me the address,” she says.

*

The Beast lives in a fucking enormous mansion, out in the woods in the middle of nowhere, and there’s a huge iron gate across the road. Belle looks at the gate and swallows. This is pretty much her last chance to turn around and drive away like a sensible person. She rolls down the window and presses the intercom button on the pillar instead.

“It’s Belle. I’m here,” she says, and the gate opens silently. She drives through.

There’s a covered carport near the enormous doors, and Belle parks and gets out and stands there looking up at the mansion for a while. This is a really, really stupid idea. Her advisor knows where she is, but other than that, she could vanish today and no one would ever know. She climbs the stairs to the enormous doors, and they swing open in front of her. She steps into cool dimness, the hallway unlit except for the sunlight pouring through the windows at the far end.

“Belle,” says the Beast’s voice from off to one side. “Welcome.”

And he steps out into the light.

Belle thumps back against the door and stares. Whatever she was expecting, it wasn’t - wasn’t - wasn’t an actual fucking beast, eight feet tall and furry and horned and fanged and she’s going to be eaten, what the fuck, this is not the sort of thing that actually happens, has she been drugged -

“Belle,” the Beast says again, sounding worried and holding out a clawed hand anxiously, and Belle closes her eyes and takes several slow, deep breaths.

“So, curse-breaking,” she says at last, and opens her eyes.

The Beast gives her a rueful smile. “Curse-breaking,” he agrees.

“And you gave up on the traditional fairy-tale solution,” Belle says.

The Beast shrugs. “Looking like this? I’d end up in a circus. Or possibly mistaken for Bigfoot and shot.”

“Online dating?” Belle suggests.

“Up until very recently, I am reliably informed I have been a complete asshole,” the Beast says dryly. Belle laughs a little hysterically.

“By who?

“The entire commentariat of the Captain Awkward forums,” the Beast says, and Belle laughs so hard she has to sit down.

The Beast crouches down, still several yards away from her, and watches her with a grin until she gets herself back together. And okay, this is the weirdest thing Belle has ever encountered, but to be perfectly honest, if she met a man with a voice like thunder and a pretty damn good sense of humor and an interest in medieval anything and a willingness to go learn how to not be an asshole, just wandering around in the world, she’d be...very interested.

That it’s the Beast, who has been her friend for at least five months now, who she has occasionally had daydreams about, who is downright sweet sometimes…

She pushes herself to her feet and walks right up to him. The Beast stays crouched, looking up at her - not very far up, either. “I’m not marrying you until I’ve got my degree,” she informs him, and his eyes go wide. “But fuck it, I’ve been half in love with you for a while now. I’m game if you are.”

And she bends and kisses him, never mind the fangs.

There’s a sort of dizzying moment, full of light and sparkles and distant music, and then she finds herself kissing a very handsome shirtless man, who topples over backwards and lies there on the carpet blinking up at her in astonishment.

“Fuck,” Belle says, as a thought hits her. “Were all those books part of the curse? I should have finished digitizing them first!”

The man - the Beast - bursts into laughter, covering his face with his hands and shaking with it. “Never change,” he gasps out, and rolls to his feet in a really unfairly attractive motion. “Come see the library,” he says, holding out a hand.

Belle takes it, and follows him further into the mansion. “So,” she says, “I have a confession. I’ve been thinking of you as the Beast for six months, and I’ve forgotten your real name.”

The Beast pushes open a door into a room lined with bookshelves, all of them stuffed with leatherbound tomes. “It’s Adam,” he says, and Belle decides the books can wait a few minutes, and goes up on her tiptoes, lacing a hand through his golden hair, and pulls him down to kiss him properly.