A/N: Set at the end of Chapter 2, the evening after they leave the beast's palace.
Sticks and Stones
Red finds the hare. Perrault finds the river. November attempts to start the fire – she takes two stones and claps them against each other before the other two can stop her. The first stray spark has her puffing a burn on her thumb, so she is forced to step back while they make a bonfire. Red finds a bandage in the folds of her cloak – "A precaution" she says, smiling in a way that is not at all comforting. "You never know when there will be beasts." Perrault fixes the material over the princess's hand, impassive with the task, but she knows he is going tsk with the way his whiskers are twitching. November sits stiffly while they do all the work, annoyed with herself, her thumb still swollen.
They don't talk to each other, she notes quietly – only through her, or, when they absolutely must, with the barest minimum of words and gestures. Red ladles the stew into bowls and they both take one for themselves, sitting on opposite sides of royalty with dignified avoidance. They realize, nearly at the same time, that no one has offered November a bowl yet, and stretch out their own bowls to her. "I think that I'm capable enough to get my own dinner," She answers indignantly, pointedly leaving out the fact that its probably unsafe to accept one and decline the other. Perrault withdraws his hand before Red does, and November fetches her own dinner, quietly wondering how things got to be so strained. After all, Perrault is quite socially skilled, and Red has treated November courteously so far. There must be something wrong.
"Do you think there will be a village soon?" Princesses learn how to make small talk at a young age – November attended a ball when she was hardly ten months old, seated on a high chair, fascinated by the way her mother kept asking questions when she wasn't even interested in the answers.
Red scrapes a spoon against her bowl with unnecessary vigor, and Perrault sips the stew nobly, eyes averted. "We don't know where the woods will end."
She ignores this lack of attention and tries again. "You don't think that beast will come after as, do you? After all, we did ruin some of his castle," - Perrault gives a series of coughs that sound distinctly like herfault – "And he didn't seem the sort to let things go easy."
Red gives a little wheeze and sets her meal down, then stretches her hand out for her axe. She sets it on her lap and polishes it with her skirt, a habit that unnerves her other companions. She gives the dry reply this time. "Some beasts are more menacing than others." She then trains an eye on Perrault, shadowed by a curly strand of dark hair, and his eyes take on a feline sharpness when he returns the warning.
"I've come to believe that there's nothing quite as menacing as a demented mind."
"I wouldn't be so sure, kitty cat."
November feels the tension in the air as Perrault gives a low hiss and Red holds out her axe, checking the silvery glint against their bonfire. She decides to avoid witnessing any further exchange of threats, and finishes off the last of her soup quickly. She has tried often enough to stop their bickering, but the most she can do so far is be polite and fair to both of them. Their continuous side comments have worn her down for the day, though, and she is suddenly quite annoyed. "I'll try to sleep now, then, as it's getting quite dark. Excuse me." She gathers the pleats of her dress while she moves across the forest floor, as if taking the extra care might keep dead leaves from collecting on the silk fringes. After moving away some distance she huddles against the trunk of a tree and puts her head down on crossed arms, trying to remember the sweetness of sleep.
It's too early a night for a hunter to retire, and Perrault decides that he would rather not. He's lazy enough, as far as cats go, but the nearness of Red makes him uneasy, and there is no rug or rooftop to lounge on. He amuses himself by retying his boot laces and sniffing the air for some sort of edible forest bird. There is nothing. He wonders if he should attend to the princess, but her hasty departure after dinner must have meant something. And anyway, when he spots her, November is too far away, bundled in her skirts and sleeplessness. Perrault decides not to trouble himself. With nothing left to do, he watches Red clean her axe, as if it isn't already sparkling clean. The observation still doesn't stop him from jolting when the strange girl looks up from her task to her pin her eyes at him, teeth bared in a carnivorous grin.
"Having an adventure yet?"
The cat feels his fur prickle, but he won't let himself be scared. "More than I used to, I suppose. But I must admit, your own reasons for this journey still haven't been made clear to me. Do you plan on going hunting somewhere near the moon's grave?"
Red rasps out a laugh. "I like flowers more than I like wolves."
"Well that's lovely," Perrault drawls, but he thinks on it a little and realizes that Red is strange in that sense. She knows a lot about death and dying, she knows how to catch woodland creatures and how to wrestle with monsters. But she ends up snared by a little princess – maybe she really is gullible in that sense, letting her guard down enough to say, my, what big eyes you have, November. But such small teeth, and hands, and feet. The forest has many ways of tearing something so fragile apart. Perrault shakes his head. "Our royal highness doesn't consider her actions well enough, really. Forests are nightmares, and if you hadn't found her – "
"But she did. Got you too, though I think that was a bad choice."
"My sentiments in reverse," He answers smoothly. "I think we're both being selfish, anyway."
"She probably knows." A throaty haaah as she rubs a finger against her axe. "Good little girl."
He considers it for a moment, and is upset to see that Red is probably right.
Well, he thinks defensively, November's own reasons for this trip are pretty selfish, too. What's troubling is her consideration (or lack thereof) about how much danger there is in this journey. Perrault avoids worry, but somehow both he and Red reflexively put some guard up. After all, November doesn't know how to kill. Perrault does – he knows how to save his own hide, how to cheat in a gamble, how to trap a mouse and eat a canary without choking on its beak. He has better weapons than claws and a sense of smell: wit, persuasion. Red knows this, but she's the brawn of the group, so it must figure. She has her axe, and her thin arms have the strength to wield it (and toss a beast around like a ragdoll, apparently, Perrault gulps as he remembers the broken windows in the library); she has a trophy in each hide of wolf she has kept. She has nothing to lose, either, except maybe the flowers now.
"She can do some things on her own." It isn't what he'd call charisma, but November did convince both him and Red to aid her.
"What, finding us? We probably hurt her as much as we help her." Singsong.
Truthful enough. There is something to be said about the princess's resilience, after all, because they had both threatened her before, hadn't they? Perrault had emphasized his anger by squishing an innocent frog, darkening his features and making her remember: she is just a weak, runaway princess. November had also told him that Red had frightened her once, peeling the cloak of fur from her shoulders and demanding how she knew about the death still staining the bed. The princess knows how angry her companions can get, but she doesn't think back on that, not when she smiles at them and chats about the weather, not when she lies about the sores on the sole of her feet. Not when she tries to make peace.
She's not crazy, Master Perrault.
Red, put that axe down!
All right, so her companions are murderers, and threatening besides. Perrault avoids a scowl. "What's your point?"
Red manages to shrink her smile a little. "Flowers wilt if they're not taken care of."
Perrault stares at her for a moment, jolted with the though that she is not, for once, a bloodlusty monster. As if in retaliation, she realizes her near-kindness and snatches it back. "Not that a beast like you can do anything but trample them." Perrault appreciates this – it allows him to go back to hating her, and vice versa, probably. He stretches, put off that there are none of Colette's couches to scratch, and then he sighs. Well, there's something he and Red actually agrees on. He rubs an ear and thinks, with some irritation, that it's a bother the princess has to be so altruistic.
How did he end up here?
They make breakfast again, and November can play no part. She looks over the atlas in her hand, tracing a finger through the woods. Red chops down a tree and uses it for firewood. Perrault catches fish from a nearby stream. November rubs her backside and the dark circles under her eyes when she thinks the other two aren't looking. The day is full of small aches and inconveniences, but she decides not to voice them. It's embarrassment enough that she can't do much work for their journey. It is almost noon when they move on.
"By the gods, Miss Red Cap, is there no fixed path we can follow?"
"This is the right direction."
"Oh, is it? And are we to trust the sense of a mad -"
November cuts between them again, exasperated, knowing that it won't make a difference.
"Stop fighting, please, the both of you."
To her infinite amazement, the bickering stops. Red shoots her a withering look from the hood of her bangs but slowly lowers her axe, and Perrault catches his tongue halfway and forcedly closes his mouth. They look at her for a moment, glare at each other, then direct their attentions elsewhere. November cannot guess why. Perrault rolls his eyes at this annoying display of agreement between the three of them. So the little princess was practically punched by a flying leaf, and she isn't comfortable even resting on a dozen cushions. But she avoided quaking under threats and murderers, and it's their fighting that hurts her more than their bloodstained hands. Her words are enough to coax them out of their enmity, at least for a while.
"Let me hold that book for you."
"I'll go ahead and find the clearing."
In the end, as they all know, she's still a princess, and neither cat nor hunter is really quite worthy. But they won't let anything hurt her, anyway, not until she finds the moon – neither stick nor stone nor words.
A/N: I revised this story so many times, it must be overworked by now. I hope you liked it anyway. As usual, comments and reviews of any nature are all greatly appreciated. :D