The Beast felt himself falling through space, his stomach lurched as he reeled unexpectedly backwards. A small sound behind him alerted him to the fact that someone would be caught underneath him as he fell. Quickly, with a deftness that surprised even himself, he rolled enough to fling a massive arm around and catch hold of whoever was behind him before he hit the tiled floor. A hard thud left him slightly dazed, so it was with confusion that he looked to his left to see that he had caught hold of Belle, her head resting safely on his arm.
"Are you all right?" he asked quickly, checking to make sure that no part of her was caught underneath his bulk.
"I'm so sorry!" she cried instead, not answering his question. She pushed herself up to a sitting position but kept a hand on his arm, something that did not escape his notice. "I had no idea you were leaning on the door! Are you hurt?"
"No," he grunted, sitting up himself. His face was hot with embarrassment and yet again he was glad of his fur so his blush wouldn't be noticed. "Are you all right?" he repeated.
"Yes, yes I'm fine," she assured him quickly. "I am a bit confused, though. Why did you walk away just now? Did I do something to offend you?" Her voice was clear with concern and the Beast tried to ignore how sincere it sounded.
"No," he lied shortly, avoiding her gaze but couldn't help glancing over to the fireplace where they had just spent the past hour together. He was still bitter about his new understanding of Belle, how she scorned the company of anyone too uninteresting to be with her books instead. It was his own fault, he supposed. He had supplied her with plenty of material to keep her company for years without ever having to talk to him again. Unable to be in her presence any longer, he went to stand.
"Please," Belle said, placing her tiny hand on his arm again. The Beast blanched against her touch, but stayed where he was. "Please tell me what I've done." She managed to catch his eye and he couldn't help but notice how concerned her beautiful face was. Her deep brown eyes were full of worry, pleading with him to open up to her.
He took several steadying breaths, unsure if he was brave enough to push past his anger and admit what was wrong. Choosing the shortest way possible to keep as much emotion out of his voice as he could, he said: "I can't read."
He watched as understanding filled Belle's eyes. "So you thought that I didn't—" she broke off and the Beast watched as her eyes flickered back and forth, seemingly reviewing all that had happened between them that afternoon. "Oh, Beast please forgive me!" she finally said after a few minutes of thought. "That was a horrible thing for me to say to you. But please, let me explain what I really meant."
The Beast was startled by her reaction and her ability to connect all that had just happened with that one simple sentence. But he could see that her concern was real, so he nodded, motioning that she should speak.
"The people in my village are dull and uninteresting," she confirmed, but continued speaking quickly before he could react. "But that's not because they can't read. It's because they aren't open to someone who can and enjoys it. They scorned Papa and I, calling me odd for reading and Papa crazy for tinkering with his inventions. I did try to befriend the people when I first moved there, but the moment I showed them a book or tried to talk about a story I had read, it was as if I was carrying some sort of disease. It wasn't long before hardly anyone spoke to me. Many people in the city were like that, too. Granted, there were plenty of well-read people, but nearly all of them were men in high-standing positions. Clarice was the only person I ever met who didn't scorn me for reading, because she enjoyed reading herself."
"But—" the Beast began, but Belle interrupted him.
"It doesn't matter if you can or cannot read. You have shown more interest in my love of reading in the past hour than my own father has all my life, and certainly more than the villagers. And when I said my stories were more interesting than anyone I met," she tucked a stray piece of hair back into place and looked at him shyly. "I wasn't including present company."
"Oh," the Beast said quickly, feeling slightly ashamed of the way he had acted now. Had he simply admitted to Belle how he had felt, he could have avoided this embarrassment. "They called you odd?" he continued, surprised at this new information as much as any of it.
Belle smiled, if a bit sadly, and nodded. "It's a bit lonely being so different," she said and the Beast noticed her look at him, her knowing eyes seeming to silently add 'Isn't it?' Was it possible this lonely girl understood even a fraction of the misery he felt all those years, how his loneliness bore down upon him, unable to ease its hold because of what he was? He moved to stand, suddenly uncomfortable beneath her understanding gaze, but he had no intention of running off again. Belle had not moved from her spot on the floor, so he extended a massive paw down to her. She took it without hesitation and he effortlessly lifted her to her feet, her startled face as she rose so easily amused him.
"Will you come back in?" Belle asked, motioning to the fireplace where her new piles of books waited. Where her old friends waited.
"No," he said and smiled when Belle opened her mouth to argue. "You have friends to visit with," he continued before she could speak. "I will leave you alone now, but I—I would be glad if you want to see me later." It wasn't the most eloquently put, but he hoped he got the point across that he no longer left in anger.
"All right," she said, her smile dazzling him. "I'll see you later, then." He watched briefly as Belle returned to her stacks of books before closing the door once more, his heart beating quickly with excitement by Belle's promise to see him again.