The phone fell to the floor, barely missing the hardwood for the rug.

Isabelle Huston fell asleep on the long low couch in the attic, after pulling a throw blanket over her.

Rhea climbed jaunty up the ladder half an hour later, licking Belle's face. The hairless dog then climbed on top of the blanket, falling asleep.

Her alarm clock sounded a mere six hours later, at 5 AM, even though it was Saturday. Belle, supporting herself on her elbow, picked up her phone and used the camera to check what she looked like.

Her makeup from the conference last night was smeared, her hair a mess. She cracked up, before shoving the dog off her and getting up. Not a particularly big day at all, just a lazy Saturday, but she didn't like breaking her sleep schedule, so even today she was up early in the morning.

The black ruffly top she had worn to the conference was wrinkled, and her skirt smelled like dog, but what else was new? Heading downstairs into the studio apartment, she took a long shower, changing into workout clothes. For breakfast she ate a banana and some toast (brioche bread was basically cake pretending to be bread, but it was just too good).

Her dad wouldn't be up for hours, and he always made too much breakfast for himself, so she would eat some skillet scramble when she got back at about 8 AM. The routine was so normal, there wasn't a reason to leave a note explaining where she was going. But it was never mindless. She didn't have to think about picking up the shotgun by the door, or clipping Rhea's spiked collar on, but she did.

Wolves were bad around here, wolves and bears. She had never had to kill one, and she hoped she never would, but that made no difference.

The autumn sun wouldn't be up till around 7:30, and the mist that brushed gently against her arms and legs was refreshingly freezing. She breathed deeply, before following Rhea, jogging in between the huge trees.

There was no path, just her muscle memory. The trees were thick as a small car and extended so far into the air that she couldn't see their tops in the mist. She heard howling far away, resisting the urge to howl back. Howling back had brought the wolves to her once, not an experience she wanted to repeat.

Miles flew by as the ancient, Gothic forest became lighter. She reached the river, fifteen miles away from the edge of the apartment complex she lived in. It was a deep, wide, fast flowing river. Some said it held spirits of those who had drowned in it, Belle didn't doubt that for a second. She knelt by the bank, splashing water in her face. Rhea drank some. Technically, since they were way upriver of the nearest city, it was safe for a human to drink, but Belle was leery about drinking from rivers since the time she got poisoning from a creek as a kid.

She looked around on the bank for anything of interest, a piece of pretty glass, a smooth stone, and was rewarded handsomely.

A glass fishnet float, the twine long since rotted away, floated in a rock pool. She tied the elastic waistband of her shorts through the loop, and took off back towards the town of Firebird.

The apartment was unlocked. She must have forgotten to lock it. Oh well.

"I'm back!" She yelled absent mindedly, unclipping the gun holster from her waist, putting it carefully into the drawer by the door.

The house was perfectly silent.

"Dad?" Belle shouted, pushing open the door to his room. Nothing. He wasn't home.

"That's... really weird, but not necessarily concerning," She said aloud. There was a note on the table, reading,

"Belle, don't worry, I'm with Rachel, I'll be back by six. I'm onto something!"

Belle smiled exasperatedly. Her father, Maurice, and his friend/associate Rachel had been obsessed with lore, legends and cryptozooligy since before Belle was born, and lately, with all the 'sightings', they had been even more excited than usual. This was the first time he had ducked out this early in the morning, though. She trusted him. There was nothing to worry about.

She found some leftover food in the fridge. Not wanting to trip the smoke alarm again, she simply heated it up in the microwave, before getting out her laptop. This book she had been writing for nearly three years was finally almost finished. Close to 100,000 words total, it was pretty epic, in her opinion.

The day wore on. With no cockamamy schemes to discover werewolf puppies or uncover the truth behind the belle dame legends, there wasn't much to do. After an hour of writing, she gave up, and turned on the TV. There wasn't much on. YouTube was disappointing as well. Eventually she just took a nap.

Hours later, the last rays of sunlight shown in her face, waking her. It was seven pm.

"I've got to go find him." She said simply. She changed into slightly warmer clothes, grabbed a backpack filled with rope, a knife, a granola bar, a Maglight, and several bottles of water. She clipped the gun holster back around her waist, and put Rhea in her harness this time.

She left the house as the streetlights turned on.

Darkness pressed against the two figures as they tramped through the woods, towards Maurice's collection of conex containers he used as a lab. It was a fifteen minute walk through nearly black forest. Not wanting to upset her night vision, she left the flashlight off, but kept it in the hand not holding Rhea's leash.

The stark silhouette of the back of a conex container stood out in the gloom, illuminated by the spotlights Maurice and Rachel had set up. She ducked in between two of the large metal crates, finding the signs of a struggle littering the camp. Papers lay helter skelter in a delta around an overturned table, Maurice's coat was in shreds on the ground with his phone sticking out of one pocket. Three large holes like bullet holes or claw marks insured the phone would never work again. A trail, marked by heavy footprints and the occasional spatter of blood lead off in the opposite direction, towards the mountains.

She touched one of the pawprints. It was three times as big as her hand, easily a foot and a half longways.

Rhea growled at the prints as if she could scare them off. Belle felt a lump rise in her throat. The logical thing to do was to call Rachel and the police. She unzipped her sweater pocket, where her phone normally was, to find it empty.

"How? How did I leave that at home?"

A tear sat in the corner of her eye, threatening to fall. She brushed it off.

"I'll call the police in the morning. Those are no wolf tracks."

Chilly air kissed her face as she jogged along the trail. The tracks followed an old loggers' trail exactly. Jogging was a way to keep warm. She had given her shirt to Rhea, who's lack of fur made her very susceptible to cold. Belle now wore her sweatshirt over her bra.

Rhea suddenly came to a dead stop, causing Belle to almost trip. She was about to gripe at the dog, when she looked up, seeing what had spooked her.

The trees before them thinned out very quickly as the mountain grew steeper, until naught but copses remained. Twinkling golden lights shown from a vague, ominous shape about half a mile away. It looked like a castle, build on the first ridge of the great mountains.

The loggers' road now branched. One route led south, downward and back to the river, the other headed west, in the direction of the castle. The tracks headed to the castle.

Belle only ran to keep warm. She would try to make a the time between now and arrival at that imposing black shape last as long as possible.

A couple minutes later, the dirt road was ended by a stone bridge over a small chasm. Rhea stayed by Belle's heels as she stepped onto the bridge. Lights suddenly shot on, blinding the two and sending Belle to her knees, shielding herself and her companion with her arm. When she looked up again, an electric lantern, like the sort you see at parks or beaches, had turned on, and shone with an unobtrusive, white glow. About every twenty feet along the now stone road, another lantern was situated. The drops of blood stood out starkly against the groomed white marble. Belle and Rhea continued.

They walked now, as it had gotten a bit warmer. The land leading up to the castle was indeed parklike. Up close the castle looked no less imposing, but it seemed no longer like an ancient relic, cursed and cast away and more like... Well, kinda like Disneyland. Groomed, lush gardens, inclosed areas with tables and chairs or hammocks, and offshoots from the main trail meandering into the distance.

It took effort not to explore, but the thought of loosing her father made Belle hurry along. There was no blood now, just muddy pawprints.

The gates of the great castle were standing open. Belle stood before them, terrified of what she might find inside. She set her hand on the ornately carved wood gate, slipping into the castle with Rhea at her heels.

This was an ancient place. She could feel it, the sheer amount of time this place had existed was like a tangible object in the room. And what a room it was, too. The ceiling soared so high she couldn't see it. Polished dark wood covered the hundred or more feet of floor. The walls were adorned every ten feet with an alcove holding a huge candelabra, none of which were lit. Across the empty room, two staircases rose in gently rounded swoops, paralleling each other and leading up to a second room that was only just visible. Between these two staircases was a double door, standing open. Light spilled through, inviting her to explore.

The tracks had vanished about ten feet into the room.

Suddenly, Rhea growled and charged forward, ripping the leash out of Belle's hands and huddling into the door across the room.

"Rhea! Get back here you dumb dog! You're going to get us killed!" She whispered furiously, as if the castle minded the loud noise.

The room under the landing was small in comparison to the great chamber outside, but by no other comparison. A cheery fire roared in the fireplace. A couch was pulled up in front of it, and labored breath came from it. She rushed over to it, to find her father, under a blanket. His tall, wiry form seemed hopelessly thin.

"Dad!" She whispered, "what happened? What is this place?"

"I don't know, Belle, its not on any maps, and my backup phone won't recognize it. I was at the lab, and a huge critter charged me from the direction of the mountains. It bashed me and dragged me off here, then scampered off some place. I haven't seen it since."

"How long ago was that?"

"A few hours."

"Did it hurt you?"

"A bit, perhaps, but I've bandaged it and by morning I'll be alright."

"Can you walk? We need to get out of here as fast as possible."

"Not tonight, kiddo. This creature isn't the only thing out for blood. Wait till tomorrow morning, then we'll go."

Belle sat down on the floor beside the couch. Rhea laid her head on Belle's lap, and the family went to sleep for the night.

The room, it turned out, had no windows, so it was late morning before either human awoke.

They made a scant breakfast, each getting a third of Belle's granola bar. Maurice stood up and stretched, clearly still hurting a little, and opened the door. Light shone into the dim room, blinding them momentarily. The group cautiously mad their way into the great chamber. When they were about fifteen feet from the door, a roar sounded behind them, and they ran.

The next two seconds slowed down, seeming to take hours. Maurice and Rhea jumped out the door, but before Belle could follow them, a great mass of fur landed in front of her, kicking the door closed. She fiddled with the gun holster, drawing her weapon with shaking hands. The creature backed up, sitting against the door. It was like a bear, a wolf, a Buffalo, and the hulk all mixed into one creature, which now stared at her with untrusted eyes.

"There is but one way out of the castle, and if you should shoot me, you won't be able to move me out of the way, and you'll he stuck."

He said, with a heavy accent that she couldn't place. French clearly wasn't his first language.

She didn't lower the weapon, but she took her finger off the trigger and stood up slowly, never taking her eye off the beast.

"What is your name, girl?" It he asked, trying to sound imposing.

"Huston. Do you have a name?"

"Antonia."

"Are you going to try and kill me when I lower this gun?"

"No. I will never hurt you."

"How can I be sure?"

"I can hunt any creature in these woods, so I have no need of killing humans."

Belle smiled slightly, eyebrows still furrowed. She lowered the

gun.

"Well said, Antonia. Why do you detain me?"

"Since your father escaped, you must stay on his place. I can't allow you to go."

"... What?"

Antonia looked at the floor."

"Well... that's the rule. You cannot leave this place."

"But... why? What's the point? If you're not going to eat me, what could you want with me?"

He looked even more unsure of how to answer.

"Well... Um.. So, you see, erh... meet me for dinner later and I'll explain the whole thing?"

"The f***?"

"What does that mean?"

Belle looked incredulously at him. He didn't know what f*** meant?

"What are we, eleven?"

"NO, I AM NOT ELEVEN, I AM A GROWN UP MAN." He said, standing on his hind legs. Even at an imposing 25 feet tall, he still managed to look awkward.

He grabbed a large wooden pole from beside the door, and Belle tensed herself to run, but he only put it through the hooks, sealing the door closed.

"I know it sounds kind of dumb, but if you want to know what the deal is with this place, come to the parler at 6 pm, and I'll explain it." He said, backing away from the door. He tripped, falling on his tail, before running on all fours up the stairs.

"OH YEAH AND YOU CAN GO ANYPLACE IN HERE YOU WANT ANT THERE ARE SOME DRESSES IN THE WEST WIIIING!" He said as he ran out of sight.

Belle stood, unable to process what had just gone down. Eventually, she shook herself out of the daze and followed up the stairs, using the opposite staircase. She wandered down the hallways with the vague intention of seeing if the beast had been correct in saying the only way out of the castle was the front gate. That seemed unlikely in a castle this big, but the more she explored, the more it looked like that was true. Each room here was more grand than the last, and she shook off the feelings of being out of place in leggings and a sweater.

She found her way to a hallway filled mostly with bedrooms. She found one close to the end of the castle and pushed on the door, not knowing if it would open. It wouldn't. Shs turned away, to look at the other rooms, but as her back turned on the room, the door swung outward, revealing the room inside.

She hurriedly went in. Yet another grand room spread before her. The second smallest she'd seen, it was still as big as her whole apartment. The bed was the size of a small car, and it was set on a daias in the middle of the room, shrouded by pale white curtains. Dressers lined the walls on one side of the room, looking full to bursting. A fireplace smoldered on the opposite side as the huge window. The wall behind the bed held two doors and a book nook. One door revealed a bathroom, equally grand, with a bathtub the size of a hot tub, and the other another closet, filled with even more clothes, but also some interesting, sciency devices, and a desk loaded with paper, pens, and a typewriter.

The ceiling was covered in a silky golden mesh, which was loosely attached to achieve a gorgeous draping effect. Candles shimmered from their elaborate wrought iron holders on the walls, which were painted to look like a snowy forest.

The carpet was dense and white, and with the contrast of the black trim it gave the illusion of a quiet, snowy evening. It was truly a masterpiece, not overwhelmingly decorated, but could have belonged in Vanderbilt manor or Buckingham Palace.

Belle wandered about the room, enchanted by it. She took off her shoes by the door, feeling like this room demanded its occupancy barefoot, and she was not disappointed. The carpet buried her feet in soft, clean plush two inches deep. Like walking on sheepskin, only infinitely softer.

She spent the rest of the evening looking through the castle. Even with how complicated it looked on the outside, the internal layout was simple and effective, easy to navigate. Each room was grand, and each had a unique form of decoration. There were styles you might expect in a castle such as this, like art deco, goth, victorian, steampunk, but there were also some very modern aesthetics to some of the rooms, like cottagecore, retro, and one distinctly kawaii room.

The servant's quarters were a little creepy, if she was being honest. While the rest of the castle felt inviting, the servant's quarters were abandoned, untouched.

Even in the castle of wonderful libraries, masterful paintings, and intriguing architecture, (she would certainly be checking out the libraries again at some point) the first hallway, with the bedrooms, was her favorite. The bedrooms all carried a similar theme, wintertime, and she got a pretty English vibe from them, like the artist had found inspiration in those cute little British shopping streets all decorated for Christmas.

Only three doors had not let her in at all. The great entryway door of course, and two others, both on the third floor.

After hours of looking over every inch of the castle and determining that no doors to the outside existed, she headed back to the first room, the one with the thick carpet. None of the windows on the first two floors opened, either, and see wasn't yet so desperate as to break one of the antique windows.

An old fashioned cathedral clock had been chiming every fifteen minutes all day, and it now chimed 5:30.

She sat on the bed, kicking her legs back and forth. She had found what she assumed to be the parlour earlier, which already had some settings for the dinner.

"I guess I should get ready and head to dinner," she mused aloud, "I heard fancy dresses are kinda hard to put on."

Jumping off the bed, she strode across as the room, pulling open the first wardrobe.

Four puffy dresses sprang out in her face.

One red and black, covered in delicate lace and rhinestones, one golden and olive with greek sleeves, one pale blue and one white and pink.

"So... Black hair and a black and red dress is too goth for me... The pastels are obviously out... I'll try the green one I guess."

She pulled it from its hanger, leaving it on the bed.

The other wardrobes all held gorgeous gowns, seeming to be organized by type. One other wardrobe held puffy dresses, two held form fitting dresses, and the last two held knee length dresses or shorter.

She ended up being tied between a silver evening dress and the gold and green dress, but the 5:45 bell made the decision for her, she wouldn't have time to change out of the gold and green one.

So into the bathroom she went, where a brush and a makeup kit had conveniently presented itself. Actually, it had been there already, but it was convenient.

She brushed her hair, using her scrunchy to pull up some of it into a bun. Black, semi curly hair barely needed styling to look nice, which was convenient.

All the concealers were too pale for her, so she forgoed makeup entirely, opting for some lip balm instead. She did wash her face off, though.

Then, she took the dress off again. She didn't know exactly why, but she felt like it. Antonia needed to be a little more trustworthy before she played his game. When she left the bathroom in underwear, her clothes had been cleaned and set in the bed, along with a clean, black, silk button up shirt, black yoga pants with gathered edges, a belt to tuck the shirt into, and a pair of denim rocket dogs to replace her beat up sneakers.

She hadn't put this here. The only other person in this castle seemed to be Antonia. Had he come into her room? In the 2 minutes she'd been in the bathroom? But her other clothes were also clean.

Just another thing on the growing list of questions with no answer.

The curtains in the parlour were completely closed, shutting out most of the late afternoon sun. Candles in elaborate chandeliers and holders provided the lighting. The table was about 15 feet long and 5 feet wide, with two chairs pulled up to either end. Antonia, the Beast, was sitting on one end, wearing an off white shirt and a gray cape. He seemed slightly relieved when he saw her.

"Please. Sit." He said, terse, but not unpleasant.

She sat in the other chair, and her shoulders came up to the edge of the table. She saw with amusement that Antonia's eyes grew wide and he looked down, mumbling something fiercely under his breath.

"So..." He said after a moment, "how- how had your day been?"

"Fine, yours?"

"Well, uh, not bad I guess."

"Mhmm," She said, "well. Here we are. You said you'd explain things at dinner. This is dinner."

"Ah yes so I... Yes well... Go ahead and start eating and I'll talk."

"... Ok.."

Belle began serving herself a plate of food, but shrieked when a bowl moved closer to her of its own accord.

"What the hell was that?!" She cowered back into the chair.

"Oh no no no no that's just Lumine! He won't hurt you or anything, he's just here to help!"

"... WHAT..."

"Uhh, ok, I'll get to that part as well. But, just... The dishes are served by invisible helpers, and a bunch of other stuff is done by invisible people too. So... I've got some story to tell."

Belle sat up in her chair, grudgingly allowing the bowl of creamed corn to dole a serving onto her plate.

"I've been in this castle for a very, very long time. In fact, I think it was the 1780s when this thing happened. I was nine years old at the time.

My parents were in the drawing room with some guests, and I was playing in the garden outside when an old lady walked up. My parents, of course, taught me about stranger danger, (though it wasn't in such a cool little rhyme back then) so I got up and ran to the castle.

"Lo and behold, this lady turns out to be a faerie, and I insulted her by running away. Which to date confuses me. Why you'd you punish someone for thinking they were in danger? Faes are kind of weird like that, I guess.

"So she says that i had to pay for what I'd done to her, so she turned me into a monstrous beast. My family finds me and the faerie, who'd transformed into her normal form, a pretty lady. She told them what had happened, and my mom absolutely chewed her out for how dumb she'd been. I think she ended up feeling bad, since she left some weird... helping wind things behind. Those are that thing that served you your food. Their names are Lumine, Puck, Mabel, Dusty, and Finn. Honestly, the castle would currently be a dump of it weren't for them.

(A happy chitter sounded as wind rustled through a chandelier.)

"She also said that to break the curse, someone had... To fall in love with me.

And that's where most of our troubles came from. Even for that time, 9 was way too young to fall in love. We waited, but after a couple years, it became clear that I wasn't aging. So my parents hid me. Kept me in a certain wing when people were around, and only letting me out when it was just us and a few trusted servants. Father ended up firing several after rumors about me started to spread.

"And that's how I lived. For the rest of my parents' lives, I was nine years old. I got more smart and stuff, but it was like being grown up but trapped in a kid's body. Or... A bear thing's kid body. Y'know what that sounds super weird. Anyway, I lived here for... Ever. Going out into the forest often, but spending most of my time here. Talking with the winds. I did age a little, but super slow. Eventually, I thought I'm about old enough to look for someone to break the curse, but... Like, who's going to do that?"

He was sitting slumped in his chair, holding a cup upside down and spinning it on its rim absentmindedly. But he clapped his paws over his mouth when he said the last bit.

Belle didn't know quite how to respond.

"So you. You've been trying to get someone to fall in love with you?" She said at last, flabbergasted.

He mumbled something that sounded like,

"Uh, yeah." Before picking up a fork and staring intently at it.

"How had that been working?"

"Well, I... Tried talking to a girl a few years ago, but she got scared and ran away. I tried bringing one to the castle, but she fainted and the winds brought her home. And... Stuff like that happened a few times over the last century maybe."

"Hmm. That... You brought my dad here, what's the deal with that?"

"Well..." He said, rubbing the back of his neck, "I... *Cough* I thought he was you at first ok. You two look like, exactly the same."

Belle grinned. She did take after her father. Long, curly hair, wiry, kind of flat noses, small, nimble hands. It ran in the family. She was a little lighter skinned than her dad, which she got from her mom, who had been Italian. But wait...

"Have you been spying on me?'

"UHHH LOOK YOU BOTH GO OUT IN THE WOODS ALL THE TIME AND I'M ALSO IN THE WOODS."

"Ookay, but what was that stuff you were saying earlier with the whole, 'you've gotta stay on in your father's place!' thing?"

"To be honest I was kinda making that up as I went along. I... Have no plan."

Belle was silent for a moment.

"But why are you telling me that you don't have a plan? That doesn't seem to be smart."

"WELL I DOn't have a plan! Which is the point! Also I.. don't really know..."

Nobody said anything. The winds took the opportunity to clink the dishes around, saying the food was getting cold. Antonia picked up a berry muffin, eating it.

Belle shrugged, picking up the leg of grilled chicken the wind had given her. She took a bite, and the flavor filled her mouth. It was delicious. The perfect mixture of sweet and savory, offset by the herb butter it was cooked in. The outside was crisp and firm, the inside tender.

She could probably keep thinking of descriptors for single bite of chicken, but then she'd miss the rest of it.

And all the food was this good. The texture of the corn was like nothing she'd ever encountered. It must have been absolutely marinated in cream. The sweet potatoes might as well have been made of ambrosia.

She would realize later, though not put meaning to it, the fact that these didn't seem like foods you'd find in a castle normally.

After dinner, the winds cut them both a slice of apple pie, which could be raved over for pages and pages, of course. Suffice to say, there weren't leftovers.

"So," Belle said after a long, pleasant silence, "is your name actually Antonia, or is that a surname?"

"It's a surname, my first name is Adam."

"Nice to meet you, Adam, I'm Isabelle, or Belle for short."

"Nice to meet you, Belle."

"Dinner was absolutely amazing. Thank you for having me."

"You should thank the winds. They made it."

"So can I leave now?"

Adam looked away.

"I... I guess."

"You're just letting me leave? Not going to attach strings?"

"If I keep you here, there's no way you'll fall in love with me. If I let you go, you'll leave. Still like, zero chance of you falling in love with me. So since I've got no chances either way, I might as well be kind of nice. After all, you've been kind of nice to me and I sure didn't earn it."

Belle looked down.

"Well maybe I won't leave just yet. If you'll have me. This is a magic castle after all, and this all's too interesting to up and leave."

He looked up, smiling, but she heard the thump of his tail on the floor.

They talked for a few more minutes. Adam said her father could come back and join them for as long as he liked, and that he had a phone Belle could use to contact him. Belle took the phone, and was going to head upstairs for the night.

"By the way," she said, turning around, "did the winds design all the rooms too?"

"Actually, I did most of that," Adam said, a tone of joy in his voice, "I really like making stuff look nice."

Belle grinned and nodded, amazed.

"Well this is about the prettiest place I've ever seen. So good job."

"Thank you."

Back in her room, Belle found everything she brought with her in a tidy pile on her bed. The gun had been unloaded now, and the bullets tucked into a handkerchief in her backpack.

In the closet, she found a comfortable looking giant tee-shirt and capris. After brushing her hair and teeth and taking a shower (the shower was really old, like you find in a grandma's house), she sat on the bed to call her dad.

"Dad?"

"B-Belle? Are you ok? Where are you?"

"I'm safe. Are you? Did you and Rhea make it back to town?"

"Yes love, I'm at Rachel's place right now. The would turned out to be a little deeper than I thought. But where are you? What's been going on?"

"I'm- I'm still in the castle."

"Are you trapped? I'm going to call the police. Maybe animal control too."

"NO! No, don't do that?"

"Belle, I know how die hard I normally am about cryptids and such, but someone's life is in danger. We need to get you to safety."

"DAD. I am safe. Here. I can leave if I choose, but there's something up, and I'm trying to fix it. Whenever you've healed up, come out to the castle and I'll- no, we'll explain."

A silence on the other line.

"Ok. I trust you. But please, if whoever... This... Is lays a finger on you, you call and tell me and get away from there, and I'm calling the police immediately."

"That's fair. I will do that. His name is Adam, by the way, and he's under a curse."

She heard her father's excited gasp followed by a small wince, and could imagine him sitting up straight, starry eyed at the prospect of adventure, before hunching over a little.

His familiar mannerisms made her smile.

The next several days were odd. Belle tried to make herself useful, but ended up being pushed out of the work areas by giggling winds. She spent a good part of her time with Adam, in the libraries, reading and talking. He infodumped like crazy, all the knowledge hundreds of years of living alone had given him. She found herself enthralled by his stories. After that first night, Adam allowed her outside, and even hung out outdoors with her.

The books were interesting, and the castle never seemed to be finished showing off it's splendor. But something hung over all of this. She was going to have to figure out what to do. She kept putting off the thoughts, telling herself that when her dad got here they'd figure out how to proceed.

Every evening she called him and talked to him, and together, her and Adam explained most of the story.

And every day for a month, things kept this. She was eventually allowed into the two rooms that were locked, which turned out to be Adam's personal rooms. One of them was completely devoted to models. Ships, planes, landscapes, houses, people, and much, much more. Two large dollhouses, beautifully detailed, captured her fascination.

"I made all the parts myself," he said, "the paint, the China, everything but the plastic I made."

"That is so amazing. And with... Your.. Hands, must've been a challenge."

"What's wrong with my hands?" He said, huffing.

"They're... Paws..."

" oh yeah "

His other room looked like a boy's room from the 80s and 90s, except with a huge box full of blankets, stuffed animals, and soft things where the bed would go.

The carpet was one of those areal maps of a town that little kids drove toy cars on.

A couple of days later, Belle was in her room, on a sleepless early morning novel plotting session.

Her pencil had stopped, and she was lost in thought, trying to puzzle out what was off.

Well, she thought, a while lotta things were off with this situation, so it was probably just that. But it felt like something more, like even within the current wack situation, something didn't add up. After a good half an hour of thought, she settled on Adam. He didn't seem to be the person he presented himself to her as. He tried to be a mature young man, but ended up coming off as "hey miss lady do you want to see my hamster?"

He was... A kid. Maybe 11 or 12. Someone who's sure his returning to normalcy depends on him being older than he is. Someone who was so desperate to be human again that he would try to... Eugh.

Well...

She couldn't let him do that anymore. A 12 year old absolutely could not try and cultivate a romantic relationship with a 28 year old. Or anyone more than like, a year older than him. And a 12 year old should just be barely starting to get crushes! Not dating! And he shouldn't be trying to get 12-13 year old girls to fall in love with him. That wouldn't work either, and it would be unhealthy for both parties.

She'd have to tell him. It was going to hurt. But it needed to happen. It was what was best for him. She'd tell him in the morning.

But at that exact second, all the helper winds burst into the room, whirling about at near hurricane speeds.

"What? What is it?" She said, "what's wrong?"

They tugged her down the hall, towards Adam's room. She jogged.

What could have happened? Was he hurt?

She burst in, to see his nest empty.

"Adam? Adam where are you?" She said frantically.

A small head with olive skin and long black hair looked up from over the edge of the nest, bleary eyed.

"I'm right here, Belle, whatsa matter?"

"Adam! You're... Human!"

He gasped, wide awake now. He looked at his hands, then back up at her.

"Does this mean... You're in love with me?"

"Absolutely not. But I do love you. I love you, Adam."

He jumped out of bed (his striped pajama pants had shrank with him.) And raced over to her, hugging her around the middle, trying not to cry.

She hugged him right back brushing his hair out of his face.

"Thank you so much. Thank you so much." He said, not bothering to not cry.

"Of course. It's going to be ok."

And it would be ok. Everything was going to be ok now. She knew it.