A/N: I really, really, REALLY, should be working on my other stories, but we all know plot bunnies are evil. Fair warning in advance: updates will be sporadic. Writing with a broken wrist isn't fun and I actually have to go to work rather than spend my days writing (BLASPHEMY). Also, in warning, I'm new to writing for this fandom. So no throwing fruit at me (I SEE YOU OVER THERE).
Belle never was a very good princess. It wasn't that she wasn't lovely or kind, oh no. In fact, it was just the opposite. It was often said that Princess Belle was the most beautiful and most kind princess in all of the lands. A few people grumbled about Snow White's beauty, but no one had seen the poor girl in almost a year.
No, Belle's problem was books. She loved books. While proper princesses spent their days basking in the glow of admirers, or sitting very becomingly in a convenient light beam, Belle would curl up in the library with a book in hand, lost to the world for hours at a time, ignoring her lessons and would be suitors.
She also had a problem with speaking her mind. She didn't flutter her hands or cry or shout when something didn't go her way. No, Belle used words and logic in arguments. She only argued things that needed to be argued, like the fact that she had not been invited to the ball, therefore a dress fitting was not needed. Her best argument to date was "Yes I can spend all day reading- just watch me".
King Maurice didn't know what to do with her. Princess Belle was a woman of her own mind, and while he adored her, it was blindingly clear that no prince or nobleman would marry a woman who could win an argument by being right instead of fluttering her lashes to make him forget they had been arguing in the first place.
Belle had frowned when he told her of the problem.
"I don't see how that's a problem," she said.
Maurice blinked. "You don't?" Didn't she understand? No man wanted to marry her, and if no man wanted to marry her, she would never marry.
"Papa," she sighed, "I don't want to marry anyone. Not yet."
"You're well past marrying age."
Privately, Belle thought that twenty-two seemed a bit young to decide who to spend the rest of her life with, but she kept quiet. Her parents had married when they were only seventeen after all, and she didn't feel like arguing with her father about it again. There were new books in the library to be read, and since it was raining, no one could try and convince her to walk in the garden in her yellow dress.
Belle didn't know why she had to put on a ball gown to walk through the muddy garden, but her governess and tutors all seemed to think it was a good idea. Belle felt sorry for the maids who laundered her clothes.
But her father was determined to fix the problem that wasn't really a problem, and six months after her twenty third name day he took matters into his own hands.
"Belle, this is Sir Gaston."
Belle curtseyed the proper way (not too deep because he was a knight, but deeper than she would to a peasant) and smiled at the handsome man standing before her father's throne. He was very tall. So tall that Belle had to crane her head back to look him in the eye. She was fairly certain she was supposed to gaze up at him, but she'd always thought it rude to not look people in the eye.
"It's nice to meet you," she said.
Gaston bowed to her. "The pleasure is all mine."
Maurice beamed. "Gaston is the best knight in all the kingdoms," he told his daughter. "He's fought in many battles against the ogres."
"I've won back many of the lands," Gaston said proudly. "I have my own platoon of soldiers at my command."
"He's a fine lad."
Belle smiled politely, her interest fading. She knew what her father was doing and she had no interest in a knight any more than she had any interest in a prince.
Maurice had introduced her to several hopeful suitors over the years. It was always the same. He would find a handsome prince or a smart nobleman and leave them to "become acquainted" for a few hours. By the end of the day he would be bursting with hope, only to deflate when Belle would tell him of the young man's departure.
"Love will not happen in one day Papa," she told him.
"You have your whole life to learn to love someone after you're married." He took her hand in his. "Belle, I want you to be taken care of."
"By someone you choose for me."
Maurice smiled. "Who would know better than me?"
I would, she thought, but didn't say. Her father didn't let her argue anymore. He said it wasn't very fitting for a princess to argue, and that she shouldn't worry about things, that he would take care of them.
So Gaston was introduced and Belle prepared herself for the inevitable why-don't-you-two-take-a-walk-through-the-gardens-it's-such-a-lovely-day. But this time her father went a different route.
"Belle, you are to marry Gaston in the spring."
Belle forgot about propriety and sputtered at her father. "What?"
"You are now Gaston's betrothed," her father repeated. "It's already been settled."
Belle would never forget the look that came over her father's face that day. The loving exasperation faded from his eyes to leave them cool and stern. He lifted his chin to look down at her, and suddenly Belle knew she wasn't talking to her father anymore. She was speaking to the king. And the king would not be disobeyed.
No matter how much Belle pleaded, begged, or argued, her father would not change his mind. Belle and Gaston were to be married and that was final.
Belle tried to like Gaston, she really did. But he never talked to her. He talked at her, mostly about the courageous things he'd done on the battlefield, or how many ogres he'd killed, or how he was named the most handsome man in his village. He talked about that one a lot. He got annoyed when she tried to talk, even angry the one time she attempted to change the subject.
Two months into the engagement, Belle knew she could never love him. She wasn't even sure she could really like him. Maurice remained firm, even when she worked up a few tears.
"Papa, he thinks it's odd that I read," she'd protested.
"Don't read so many books," the king had replied.
"I don't love him!"
The loving look her father used to give her was long gone, replaced with one of angry annoyance, a look usually reserved for the most unsavory of peasants. The princess stood before the king to plead her case, and the king was not having it.
"It doesn't matter," said His Majesty. "It's already done."
Belle refused to walk with Gaston that afternoon, too frustrated at life to be good company. She refused politely, claiming a headache that was only half made up.
And that's when it all changed.
Gaston had a refusal of his own. He didn't argue with her, he simply dragged her outside. He forced her down the path by the arm, his grip tight and pinching to the point that Belle knew she would have a bruise. Princesses weren't supposed to know how to fight, but Belle had bullied the squires into showing her when she was younger. Gaston was much larger, much stronger than her, but she struggled anyways.
She twisted and shouted and demanded to be let go, but he continued on like it was nothing, and the guards looked away when she couldn't break free, even when she pleaded for them to help.
It wasn't proper for a princess to scream very loudly, but Belle had never considered herself very proper. Once it became clear that Gaston had no intention of letting her go (and she very much did not want to think about what could happen should they get completely out of sight), she sucked in a deep breath and let loose a scream that had the birds taking off in terror.
Gaston's grip got tighter the longer she screamed. He shook her so hard that her head snapped back like she was nothing more than a rag doll.
"Shut up!" he roared, suddenly looming. "Just shut up!"
"Let go of me!"
Belle dug her nails into his hand, trying to get him to loosen his grip, but he held tighter still, lifting her off the ground and shaking her even harder. Belle made to scream again, hysteria bubbling to the surface, but Gaston dropped her, one hand releasing her only to draw back and smack her across the face.
If he hadn't been holding her in place, Belle would have stumbled. Stars exploded in front of her. For a minute, she couldn't even think. Gaston's hand came down a second time, this time with such force that Belle surely would have fallen.
"You are never to do that again," her betrothed ordered, nostrils flaring. "You understand me?"
He didn't want for her answer. He yanked her arm to make her move and Belle had to remind herself to put one foot in front of the other, concentrating on placing her feet exactly where they needed to be. She counted the stones that made up the pathway, then the steps into the castle, then the cobbles of the floor, focusing intently on the numbers to distract herself from the pain that spread across her face, the fear that latched onto her heart.
Princesses were allowed to cry, so Belle let the tears fall freely from her eyes.
Her bag wasn't big enough for more than three books. It could have been, but Belle wasn't going to pack it full of only books, no matter how much the longed to.
Her heart ached at the thought of leaving her beloved books, her true love, behind, but she couldn't afford to be slowed down. And she certainly couldn't stay here. Not in the castle, not on her father's land, not even in the forests surrounding the kingdom. Belle had to get far, far away from everything if she was to have a chance.
Gaston had deposited her at the door to her room, sweeping past the guards that had to know something wasn't right but did nothing, but rather than releasing her, he had thrown her inside and followed her, shutting the door firmly behind him. He'd hit her again when she opened her mouth to speak, and before the blow landed she'd known there was no choice anymore.
The castle was strange at night, larger somehow, and the noises were much louder, but the guards were elsewhere and Belle was very good at sneaking. She gathered her cloak, her largest satchel, and her most comfortable shoes. She didn't have any travel worthy clothes, and made due with her most informal gown, a brown one without a single jewel her governess had ordered her to never wear outside her room.
Her first stop was the library. Partly to decide what to take and partly to calm her shaking. Her face throbbed in earnest, forcing her to keep moving.
She hadn't read every book in the library, but she'd given it her best shot. There were entire shelves of books she'd never even gotten to. And now she never would.
Belle bit her lip, considering the shelves carefully. She'd take her favorite book, the one full of fairytales that had been her mother's. She'd read it hundreds of times over the years, but she had memories of her mother curling up in bed with her, whispering tales of taking frogs until she fell asleep. It was thick and heavy, but she couldn't bare to leave it.
Books were good for more than stories. They held knowledge, and Belle was going to need more than fairytales if she was going to succeed. She was very aware that her head was filled with more princess things like dancing and curtseying and batting eyelashes than useful things that could keep her alive.
Belle carefully selected two more books before sneaking down the servant's hall to the kitchen. The satchel thumped awkwardly against her leg as she moved, but she ignored it, proud that she'd managed to pick two useful books instead of her favorite tales. One promised to teach her how to treat wounds- from small scrapes to broken bones- and the other would tell her the difference between what was dangerous and what was edible.
You're going to have to be smart about this Belle, she told herself. Bravery will only get you so far.
When dawn broke over the kingdom, it found a young woman deep in the forest, heading further and further away from a place that could never be home. Her bag was filled with books and food and other useful things. Her shoes were sturdy and her cloak warm. And as the sun rose higher in the sky, blue eyes turned to glance, not back, but up. The woman did not pause to pray or wonder. She took in the rapidly brightening sky and blinked before throwing up her hood, obscuring her face, and continuing on.
Her steps did not falter. She did not stop.
Princess Belle touched the book of fairytales and wondered if this would be a tale someday too. An improper princess who didn't wait around for fairy godmothers or a prince. A woman who decided not to wait at all, and took fate into her own hands by deciding to save herself.
It was foolish, selfish, and definitely vain, but Belle couldn't bring herself to cut her hair. Lush chestnut curls that cascaded down her back weren't the easiest thing to deal with while living in the forest, but every time she brought her knife to her locks, she froze, unable to complete the motion.
It wasn't just that Belle loved her hair too much to part from it. She wasn't that silly. No, it was because of her mother. She didn't remember much of her; there were days when she couldn't recall her face, no matter how much she concentrated. But one thing Belle could remember, could see no matter how murky her memory, was her mother's hair: long, perfect brown curls.
The only thing Belle had gotten from her mother, other than sheer stubbornness, was her thick mane of curls. The blue eyes were identical to her father's mother. The wide jaw was entirely her father.
She stared at her rippling reflection in the river, knife poised on a lock beside her ear, ready to cut. But, as she had several times before, Belle lowered the blade.
There was no way to tell if anyone was looking for her. She'd avoided people entirely by trudging through the trees instead of following paths, so maybe she didn't need to change her appearance. The map she'd shoved into her bag was wrinkled and worn and told her nothing more than that she was nearing the edge of her father's kingdom (because it wasn't hers, not anymore).
She had a compass, but only pulled it out to make sure she was still heading north at the end of the day. She didn't really have a destination in mind other than away, which would be more than enough if she could make it over the line.
The days were growing colder, fat clouds that promised snow followed her, but she didn't stop. It had been nearly a fortnight, but she didn't want to slow down until she'd crossed the border.
Once she was out of the forest her map would be useless, but she'd always wanted to see the world and she'd heard once that the best way to discover the world is to get lost in it. Belle didn't know if it was a metaphor or literal, but she was going to be lost in a few days either way.
Uncharted territory lay before her, and for a moment Belle was lost in the past, surrounded by people taller than her, talking about strategy and maps and the map took up the whole table but was nearly blank. The corner had three words etched on it, the blankness surrounding them making them seem true even as Belle questioned if there were really dragons to the east.
"Here be dragons," she whispered, her voice quiet after being unused for so long.
She'd long since perfected the art of walking and reading at the same time (and weren't her legs grateful when she subconsciously started dodging table corners), but walking through unfamiliar land was very different than navigating a castle. Belle managed well enough, only barely twisting her ankle in one hole, nearly laughing at herself because twisted ankles had been the very thing she'd been reading about.
Twisted and swollen but not broken. Tender, but not painful. Belle took shelter under a large tree, propping the protesting joint on a log. She'd rest for an hour, she decided. Read one more chapter of the medical book before going on. It would be too dark to read soon anyways.
The border was almost visible through the tree line- rolling hills peeking through the wood and the wind tasted different, but Belle managed to stop herself from bursting out of the forest to go running through open fields. She'd made it this far without being spotted, she wasn't going to ruin it by giving in to childish impulses.
Plus her ankle might not appreciate running just yet.
She wondered if her father was looking for her. Surely he would have sent men to search when he realized she was gone.
But when did he realize I'd left?
That was the question. Maurice had pushed Belle away from him and towards Gaston, hardly noticing if she was late for dinner or missed court. In the last weeks, she'd gone entire days without seeing her father at all. But he hadn't seemed to notice. He asked about Gaston, asked what they talked about.
But he never asked about her.
Belle was struck with the realization that her father hadn't concerned himself with her- actually her, not her betrothed- in months, no, years. Not since she'd started refusing suitors. He'd never told her why it was so important that she marry, just that she had to do it and do it soon.
So maybe... maybe he wasn't looking for her at all.
Belle tried to focus on the words her eyes were skimming, but her mind refused to quiet. Eventually, even the dark got between her and the pages, and Belle stood, testing her ankle. It held steady, but didn't feel very strong. She walked on anyways, the need to be out of the kingdom she'd called home outweighing everything.
The trees ended abruptly, leaving Belle standing at the top of the world. The sky felt bigger and for a minute she could almost feel the earth spinning, but then she realized it was her, spinning like a mad woman, arms outstretched because there was so much room, and it was bigger than she'd ever imagined and the weight she didn't realize she'd had was gone from her chest and for the first time in months she could breathe again.
She was free. Not safe (because two steps across the border was no distance at all), not yet, but the shackles had been left behind her. And Belle put more strides between her and the forest, between her and the men who'd known nothing about her except that she was odd.
But she was brave too.
She hadn't known that until she'd left, but she knew it now, and she threw it up like a shield, a barrier between her and them.
Bravery follows the brave.
She'd done the brave thing, and bravery had followed.