It’s not that Belle doesn’t love Adam (“Beast” she still calls him in her head when she isn’t paying attention, and she always feels a spark of guilt and grief both when she catches herself). It’s not even the transformation - it was surprising, but she wouldn’t say that the Beast becoming a handsome prince was a bad surprise. In many ways it made the entire situation much easier; but in others, it was somehow more complicated.
A cursed Beast has no obligations outside of his own castle, but a Prince does. A Beast is accountable to no one; a Prince, to everyone. A Beast might live a life filled with wonder and whimsy, but most decent Princes won’t. And despite the odd temper tantrum (much less intimidating as a man, Belle had been managing men’s egos her entire life), Adam was a good Prince. He had learned the harsh lesson imposed upon him, as intended.
This was all wonderful, really. It was amazing to see the changes come to the surrounding towns, left without central leadership for so long, without development, or infrastructure, or expanding trade. Even Belle would have been hard pressed to dismiss them as quaint and provincial now, blossoming as they were.
She wanted it to be enough.
She had access to the biggest library she had ever even heard of, but the point of books had never been to lock herself away with them. She read books to escape, when real escape was impossible. When she had to stay behind with her father, who, despite his best efforts, never managed to gather enough capital to ensure their security, let alone fund frivolous adventures. Who needed her help and protection when their neighbours began to call him "Crazy Old Maurice."
(She might only be a woman, but a beautiful woman has leeway in the world, and however reluctant she was to capitalize on it, she was also too bright not to know that she was beautiful and the power that conveyed.)
Now her father was gaining notoriety as an inventor at last, helped along by the expanding local society and the recommendation of a Prince. He still lived in their little cottage, claiming he didn’t want to be underfoot in the castle, toiling away at his latest commissions, but there was an ease in the work now: it was less desperate. He did not need her anymore.
(Belle never pointed out his shaking hands when he visited her, never commented on the way he would flinch when a shadow shifted in the corridor, jump at the slightest scrape on the floor - she simply suggested meeting him in the gardens, and directed his gaze to the lovely roses, away from the looming tower that she knew they both still thought of as his prison).
She and Adam were engaged, technically. Not yet married, though many assumed they were. She lived with him after all, and certainly a Prince would never be so improper as to have her stay there before the wedding, and without her father present!
None of them commented on it - not her, not her father, and not Adam, though he was probably badgered about it the least. It hadn’t seemed right to leave everyone behind, especially not once Adam had asked her one night, over an elaborate dinner of her favourites (noted by Mrs. Potts, she suspected, though she was sure Adam had requested the general theme), whether she might consider staying. Forever.
It wasn’t a proposal in the typical sense, but it wasn’t anything else either. She had paused at the time, just long enough for him to grow pale, and she did love him, really. He was different now, and that had thrown her off somewhat, but she recognized the way his jaw clenched with anxiety, and the already disappointed set of his shoulders, and she knew he was still the Beast she had fallen in love with.
She hadn’t said yes, exactly, but she hadn’t said no. She had said,
“You know there will never be anyone else for me.”
And he had taken that as a yes, and she did not correct him. She wasn’t sure herself whether it was a yes or not. Perhaps the yearning that lived inside her chest would fade, or change, and she would settle in here and live happily forever more. It wouldn’t hurt to try.
At first she thought it might work. There was a lot to do around the castle now, organizing, prioritizing, and reading whenever she could manage it. She had to check in on her father, and on Adam, and make sure neither died beneath a pile of papers while their teacups cooled on their side tables. It kept her busy, and everyone else was busy enough too that she didn’t have to answer any hard questions.
But it couldn’t last.
The first time Mrs. Potts mentioned something about starting wedding planning, Belle laughed nervously for so long she was surprised nobody sent for a physician to see to her fit. She was able to wave it off with a comment about this being unexpected and oh, would you look at that, she was late to meet her father. After that, she started avoiding Mrs. Potts. And then Chip and his siblings. Then Mr. Lumiere, and Mr. Cogsworth, and shortly she was creeping around her own rooms and ducking into hallways, attempting to avoid detection.
The mere mention of a wedding gave her hives: she felt like the walls were closing in on her, condemning her to a slow death in a beautiful prison.
She loved Adam. She loved the castle (usually), and her friends. She loved her father, and their tiny cottage, and the sound of the bell at the bookshop.
And she was ashamed that these wonderful people, this charmed life, weren’t making her happy.
There was still the refrain echoing in her heart,
I want adventure in the great wide somewhere.
It all came to a head both sooner and later than she thought it might. She knew she was being obvious in her avoidance, and it was breaking her heart to see the sorrow of her friends as she dashed away from them once again. She hadn’t had to do much dashing away from Adam - he was busy enough that so long as she directed their conversations during meals, she was safe from questions in that quarter.
Or so she had thought.
She was in the library, curled up in a chair she had quickly claimed as her own, tucked into a nook by a window that boasted a good view of the garden, and a convenient side table for her own abandoned cups of tea.
There were thousands of books on offer but today she had tracked down a copy of an old favourite and paged through, mouthing the familiar words to herself and wondering at all that had changed since the last time she had gazed upon them.
“Romeo and Juliet?”
The words made her jump, and the play thudded to the floor as she sat up to look around at Adam. Without the bulk of the Beast, he had become nearly silent when he walked through the castle, startling more than one of its other occupants.
“Yes,” Belle said, reaching for the book and gently correcting the bent corners before she closed it and placed it carefully on the side table. “It’s a favourite of mine.”
“I know,” Adam smiled, and he stepped closer to her chair, gazing fondly down at the plain cover. “You told me that, and I remember wondering if I should be worried.”
It was a tease, light and friendly, and normally Belle would have teased back, leaned into the ease of their conversations, but today she was out of sorts, and only managed a weak grin that she knew instantly was not convincing.
“Is it time to talk about it yet?” Adam asked, pulling a chair over to sit opposite her, still leaving plenty of space for her to slip away if she chose. She wasn’t sure if he did it on purpose, and if he did she wasn’t sure if it was manners, or another side effect of being a scary Beast for so long (or perhaps, the reflection of another lesson he had learned, one which Belle and most women knew from a young age - that a man did not have to be a Beast to be threatening), but she appreciated the gesture.
“Talk?” She asked, and she was stalling but she was also confused - she didn’t think any of the others would have ratted her out quite yet for her bad behaviour.
“Belle,” he said, and for a moment he was the Beast again, at his best, the look in his soft brown eyes the same as when he had introduced her to the library. “I know you’re unhappy.”
“I’m not unhappy!” She protested, but it was weakly done and they both knew it. She winced. “I’m really not, I promise. I love you! And my father, and our friends. I love my new home, and the gardens, and this library. How could I be unhappy?”
“I once had everything in the world a man could want or need, and still had enough darkness in my heart to ruin all of it.” Belle startled again, sitting up more in her chair. Adam almost never mentioned the time before the curse, beyond brief comments about the actions that prompted it. “I was unhappy, and I was lonely, and I was unhappy because I was lonely, and I was angry that I should have to be unhappy or lonely when I should have everything a person needs not to be. I was spiteful and jealous of others, not because of their wealth or status, which I shared, but because they all seemed so much more satisfied in their lives than I was and I didn’t understand why. When I dismissed the beggar woman, I wasn’t thinking about her at all, but about myself, and about how all I had in the world were these things, and how I couldn’t give any of it away, not for any reason, because without them I had nothing at all.”
Belle wanted to reach for his hand, but hesitated, not wanting to break the moment that had prompted such unexpected disclosure. He saw her fingers twitch on the arm of her chair and smiled, reaching out for her hand himself.
“I tell you this so you understand what I mean when I say that you can have everything you seem to need, everything that others tell you will make you happy, and that sometimes it won’t be enough.” He lifted her hand and pressed a soft kiss to her knuckles, looking at her tenderly as he did. “I don’t fear you ever becoming as lost in yourself and your desires as I did. You are far more gentle-hearted than I ever was, and far less selfish. But I suspect that may be your problem.”
Belle’s brow furrowed, but he quickly stroked the back of her hand, making an expression that she had learned to read as “pausing to look for the words, but planning to continue”. It was a common expression, because he had become both better and worse at communicating while cursed.
“I needed to learn to look at others in order to find what I needed to be happy. And, admittedly, to be a better person. But you, you look at others all the time. You think of their joy, of their needs and their desires. Yet, when it comes to yourself, you are afraid to reach for what you really want.”
He looked around for a moment, eyes lighting on the book abandoned on the table.
“You love this book because it’s about far off places, interesting people, a different world and life than the one we have here. That’s why you love all of the books that you’ve thumbed through so often. The romance, the excitement, the adventure.” He smiled a little, crookedly. “I like to think I’ve given you all the romance you might be looking for,” and Belle was nodding, grasping his hand more tightly before he had even finished the sentence, “but I know that this wasn’t all you wanted out of life, Belle. Being a Princess, living in a castle, getting married, leading this place into the future - I know that you can do these things, and that you would, and maybe even that you want to, sometimes. But these aren’t the kinds of adventures you were looking for. Not yet.”
He leaned back, and Belle, afraid and confused, clamped down on his hand, preventing him from leaving, though he made no move to do so.
“They are!” She cried, “Or they could be!”
“I love you, Belle. I don’t want or need you to give up on your dreams.” He leaned forward again, reaching out and grasping her other hand so he was now holding both firmly, looking directly into her eyes. “I’m not going anywhere. Neither is your father, or our home, or our friends. But you should. You should see the world! The one you have always been so interested in. You should dance in Agrabah, and skate the canals of Arendelle, and see the festivals in Corona if that’s what you want.”
She didn’t know what to say, her mouth opening and closing, her mind racing but coming up with nothing. He smiled at her again, that soft crooked grin, and kissed her knuckles once more.
“All I ask is that you write often. And come home one day, when you’re ready.”
She had been drowning in doubt and anxiety for so long she had forgotten something very important.
She wanted adventure, and always had. But, as much as she loved her father, he didn’t understand her, and almost more than she wanted to see the world, she wanted to hold someone’s hand, and look them in the eye, and have them see her, really see her and her dreams.
She was crying, which wasn’t like her, but they weren’t tears of sorrow so perhaps they could be forgiven. It was relief, and joy, and perhaps a little sadness after all, that was making her eyes water.
Thankfully Adam seemed to understand this also, and just gently wiped them away with his sleeve until she was ready to speak again.
“I’ll write every day,” she said, and there may have been a little sadness in his eyes too, but much more than that there was love.
Every letter she sent opened and closed the same way.
“My gentle Beast,” she would say, and then spend anywhere from one to fourteen pages detailing her most recent adventures, with little crude drawings in the margins and smeared ink where she got too excited to wait for it to dry.
“Yours forever,” she would eventually close, when paper, ink, light, or time ran out, “a provincial Belle.”
And he kept them all, one for every day that she was away, tucked into a box for safekeeping, save for whichever was most recent, which he would carry with him until the next arrived.
And when, some time later, a provincial beauty with windswept hair and ruddy cheeks and bright eyes appeared on his doorstep, asking if he might have some generosity to spare, he took her hands, kissed her knuckles, and said,
“Of course. I’m not a beast.”
And her laughter caused as much joy in the castle as her appearance once had, stepping out of the lonely dark, and into the homey light.