Summary: Red Beauty in FTL AU in which Belle sets out to track and study the wolf, but inexperience costs her to collapse in dehydration, only to be revived by a certain woman in a red hood.
Notes and Rambles: This is a repost from my thestefidelly tumblr (and from AO3 also under the name stefidelly) it's pretty much the same thing with I guess an adjusted typo or two.
So I figure this happens a few months after Red found out about the wolf thing and had to run away with Snow, but before running into Quinn and Momma Wolf. By now, Red and Snow have just been hopping from town to town without staying too long, and more often than not they just camp out in the forest and only head into a town if they really need to. This'd also be after Belle's left Rumple's castle but before Regina does the thing. The Mulan thing happened but didn't end with the Regina thing.
Trees blurred by as powerful legs propelled her forward in loping strides most other animals couldn't even hope to have a chance of outrunning.
The wind in her fur was liberating, caressing her with its welcoming touch, asking her where she'd been and why she hadn't been around so much.
That thought stirred up frustration in the wolf.
Lips curled back to reveal sharp teeth designed for tearing flesh. Her jaw was ideal for breaking bones. Her claws could tear through skin and clothing with just enough force. Her paws could destroy most weapons. Her body could withstand impacts, punctures and gashes that would have killed lesser animals in seconds.
She was wild and fierce and deadly. The moon created a hunter and a hunter is what the wolf was meant to be.
Not some caged figment to be hidden away and ignored, treated as if she didn't exist. Called upon only in scattered fractures for the purpose of fulfilling the most menial of tasks. Listen for this, eavesdrop on that. Take a sniff of this, take a whiff of that.
The wolf was not meant to be used in this way and she hated it. She deserved to be free. She deserved to run through the woods and follow her instincts, to live as she was meant to live and be as she was meant to be.
Rage and frustration mingled in the wolf and released themselves in the form of rumbling growls. The powerful emotions were hot and constricting and sticky and suffocating.
Somewhere beyond her line of sight, she could hear howling. It was the voice of several others. They sounded like they were free to live in the way that the moon had meant them to live. They sounded like they weren't trapped in the half-life the wolf lived.
Gripped by the overwhelming need to find these others and be among them, the wolf changed direction and rushed towards where she thought the sound was coming from.
After blindly charging through the foliage in her search for the others, the wolf heard more howls, this time coming from the opposite direction. Releasing more growls of impatience and irritation, the wolf set off for the new location. The howls changed direction again. The wolf turned to move there. The howls came from the left. The right. Behind the wolf. In front of the wolf.
It was coming from everywhere and nowhere.
Rage boiled through the wolf's composure. With a bellowing snarl she leaped towards the nearest living being, digging into the skin until she felt her teeth scrape bone, tightening her grip and reeling back until she felt as much as heard the crunching sound. The warmth of blood coated the wolf's lips and dripped from her chin. Screams of pain and terror were a source of satisfaction, dulling the frustration, cooling the anger.
Several strikes of her paws elicited more screams that were music to the wolf's ears, blocking out the taunting howls. With growls that almost sounded like low chuckles, the wolf pushed her prey further into the soil before digging in again, grabbing for another limb, pulling and jerking until more blood flowed freely, more bones broke, more skin tore open.
The fear-scent in the air and the blood splattered across her maw was a soothing aroma the wolf just couldn't get enough of.
The demon wolf, they called it.
Blinking several times, Belle focused on getting one foot in front of the other. The path beneath her feet seemed to be winding and twisting, shifting in and out of focus, taunting her eyes and making her head spin.
It was said to have the strength of several bulls, the claws of a griffin, the deadly viciousness of a dragon and the merciless bloodlust of even the worst of demons conjured by the worst of black magic.
Dry swallows would only further irritate her parched throat. Belle's focus on the constantly shifting path was disrupted by the rumble of her stomach. She regretted not double-checking the distance from the last town she visited to the next town she was heading over to.
Cold bit into the tip of her nose and most of her fingers. The green cloak was usually enough to keep her warm but it wasn't enough anymore. Shivers wracked Belle's body, making it all the more difficult for her to continue walking along the constantly shifting soil.
Reading books and assessing a map weren't quite the same and Belle might have misjudged one calculation or another. Her rations had been consumed two days ago and she was already losing track of what direction she was heading. All the knowledge she'd stocked up on in regards to surviving the wilderness, determining what plants were or weren't poisonous, how best to find water- it all flew out the window and splattered across the ground.
She couldn't trust her memory anymore. It just kept blurring into other things and she knew this was her body scrambling to keep itself alive, prioritizing the act of staying upright and disregarding most mental processes.
Was it sunset already? Or was that just her vision growing darker and more distorted? Some distant part of Belle's mind toyed with the idea of setting up a makeshift camp for the night but she couldn't pin the thought down long enough to properly look at it, let alone act on it.
The demon wolf. That's what Belle had set out to learn about. It was said to have spent years –almost a decade, in fact—tormenting a village south of the Troll Bridge. Every single month. They said it was always during a full moon. They called it wolfstime.
During that time, the wolf normally killed livestock, but it was also known for attacking and killing anything that got in its way. They said that if one were to try jabbing at it with spears or knives or swords or arrows, it wouldn't matter. The beast would simply destroy the weapons attacking it like they were merely twigs.
Flickering in and out of focus, the ground continued to taunt Belle. She felt it rocking her back and forth, side to side. Maintaining her balance was an ordeal and it didn't help that her mind kept fumbling, jumping from thought to thought but still managing to appear like a smudge before her eyes, or like murky water filtering her vision.
The crunch and rustle of leaves beneath her feet sounded like grumbling little creatures. The cold air felt like hands roaming her skin. The scattered thoughts of the wolf were hard to separate from her physical world and Belle could almost see flashes of the creature through the brown and green blobs of trees, almost hear its howl in the cold bite of the wind.
There was so much mystery and myth surrounding the wolf that Belle just had to find out how much of it was true. Two theories in particular had caught Belle's interest in her research and preparation for this trip. (Preparation? She barely prepared herself other than research a lot then grab as much food and clothing as she could carry.)
One theory talked of skinwalkers. Of beings not quite human, not quite beast, but able to shift into one or the other at will. That one intrigued her and she wondered if it was something that could be cured the way the Queen claimed any curse could be cured by true love's kiss. If the so-called demon wolf could be cured, Belle was willing to find out how to do that.
Despite Rumplestiltskin's cold dismissal, Belle still believed that there was always a cure. For anyone. Even him, though he may not be willing to see it.
Perhaps the same could be said for the wolf.
Another theory talked of familiars or daemons or guardians. Terminologies varied from place to place and the specifics were so assorted and contrasting, Belle couldn't quite pin it down yet, but the gist of it was that people could form connections with animals and have that animal act upon their will. Belle liked to think that perhaps there might be just some distressed man led astray and he was using the wolf to act upon his anxieties. She likened it to the way Rumple used and abused his magic and his influence as the Dark One to act upon his own inner demons.
Rumple. Why was she still thinking about him? He didn't want to be helped and Belle couldn't help someone who didn't want to be helped.
The ground lurched forward.
The wolf needed help. Its actions might be a call for help.
Or it might not be. But either way, it was a fascinating specimen that Belle couldn't pass up the opportunity to observe and study.
The world was spinning. The ground was flying. Air rushed through Belle. The thud echoed in her ears just as her body felt the impact of hitting that taunting ground.
The wolf… it couldn't be just a demon wolf… could it?
There had to be more to it than that.
Darkness ate at the edges of Belle's vision. Leaves and grass and tree trunks and the sky were a murky blend of greens and blues and browns. A flash of red flickered before her eyes. Her ears kind of registered a voice that sounded distant and far away like someone talking into a pillow from the other side of the palace in a different tower from where Belle's father told her to stay.
The scent caught Red's attention while she and Snow had been in the middle of discussing the pros and cons of spending another night in the forest or visiting the nearest town to replenish their supplies. There were risk factors involved in both options and they had to weigh things out to come to the decision.
"Do you smell that?" It was almost an automatic reaction already. Once Red noticed a scent that seemed out of place, she had difficulty concentrating on anything else.
Snow's talk of how they stood better chances now that she'd been honing her archery skills faded into the background of Red's awareness. "My aim's improved so in terms of food, I think we can manage in-" Snow stopped.
"What is it? Soldiers?" Traces of fear were in Snow's scent, giving her away despite her tensed stance and cautious voice.
Red shook her head and took several strides away from Snow. "It's something else." And Snow's scent was getting in the way.
More than four moons of running and hiding since that night had pushed Red into honing skills of her own. No matter how much she hated what she was, she couldn't deny the advantage her senses provided when it came to maintaining her own survival as well as Snow's.
"It's…" Red closed her eyes and cleared her mind of the distractions that her environment provided. She heard the songs of several different birds, the squeak of a mouse somewhere behind Snow, the brief thuds of a hare hopping away somewhere to their left, the fluttering wings of a few bats that were out early. There was the scent of the trees, the scent of that mouse and that hare, and a couple of the birds that weren't downwind. The soil and grass and dried leaves also held scents of their own. There was also that lingering scent of winter air still not completely driven away by the early beginnings of spring.
Then she found it again. The sound of rustling leaves and a shuffling, unsteady gait. It was too heavy to belong to any small mammal and the scent told her it was human. Not a soldier or anyone who might cause them harm. It was alone, actually, and Red couldn't detect any aggression in the scent. Some fear was there. Red recognized it and knew it wasn't the same as the uneasiness coming from Snow.
Red's eyes snapped open. "There!"
With her target now detected, Red focused her consciousness onto it until all her senses discarded everything that wasn't related to that one destination. The scent and unsteady movement hinted the person might be injured and in need of help. It was pulling at Red and calling to her and she had to answer it.
Barely giving Snow any warning, Red bolted forward, heading straight for the source of the scent. She wove through the trees and shrubs, pushing past leaves that tried and failed to reach for her and distract her.
The sounds got louder and the scent grew stronger, telling Red that she was getting close. She could almost taste the scent against her tongue, almost feel the person's distress and exhaustion. Through the leaves and tree trunks distorting her view, Red could see the movement of a green shape up ahead. A cloak over a woman's shoulders.
If only Red could just run fast enough and get there now.
By the time the woman fully came into Red's line of sight, she'd lost patience with running like a human and threw herself to the ground on all fours for the last four bounding strides, just as the woman collapsed.
Seeing the buckling legs had Red picking up her pace in an attempt to catch the woman, but it was too late. Red made do with crouching by the fallen woman's side and inspecting her, assessing the damage, searching for some injury that might have caused this.
Without really thinking about it, Red employed her most developed sense and observed the woman's scent, the grass and leaves in her tangled hair, the distinct breath of a dehydrated person, the faded scents of food in an empty pouch, the lack of water in the waterskin.
Those were the most distinct signs that pointed to the reason for the woman's collapse but Red didn't stop there and continued receiving the messages her nose was giving her. She had to be sure there was nothing else ailing this woman.
In her search for any scent of blood or festering wounds, Red noted the way the forest smells clung to the woman's skin, clothes and hair. She had been sleeping on the ground for a few days- maybe a week. The clothing though didn't match the typical leathery or smoky scents she usually associated with typical townsfolk clothes. There was a faint scent of something else there. It wasn't just the earthy scents or the spilled rum not completely washed off from last week. It was something else and she just couldn't quite place it.
Snow's voice cut through Red's consciousness, disrupting her focus and bringing awareness to her current position. She had her hands planted on the soil on either side of the woman, nose to her throat, hair draped over her face and chest.
With a nervous gasp, Red scrambled back and away from the woman, embarrassed and fearful of how much of the wolf still held influence over her behavior, even with the red hood draped over her shoulders and the wolfstime moon still a week away.
"I-I'm sorry!" Red stammered in a nervous squeak. Her heartbeat gathered speed. Flashes of buried memories and nightmares went through Red's mind in quick bursts, reminding her of exactly what she was.
"You didn't hurt her." Snow's tone was soft and reassuring as she crouched down next to Red. The calm, assertive aura around Snow helped calm Red's anxiety somewhat. It didn't eradicate it completely, but it did diminish it.
"I know you didn't." Maintaining that same tone, Snow looked Red in the eye. "But did you see who did?"
Between her still-racing heart and her panting, Red just barely managed to answer Snow's question. "She's… she's not… injured."
Still struggling with the sinking feelings of shame and guilt, still tormented by the flashes, Red tried to just focus on the information she'd gathered during her… assessment of the woman. "Not really. It's more of… exhaustion." She glanced at the ill-fitting pouch and bag next to the woman, too small to be appropriate for long-term travel. "And hunger. And thirst."
"Will this help?" Snow brought out her waterskin and moved closer to the woman's side. Though Snow was careful and gentle in her movements as she lifted the woman's head and let trickles of water drip onto the woman's cracked lips, Red still felt her heart speed up by several more notches. Her breath caught in her throat and her muscles tensed.
Anxiety stirred Red up and she could almost feel her currently nonexistent hackles rising as if the woman was the wolf's find and Snow shouldn't be this near to it.
Blinking a few times and shaking her head helped to clear Red's head of those startling and disconcerting thoughts. This was a person. Not some prey or spot of territory. Red didn't want to be that kind of monster.
A cough and a groan left the woman's lips. Her eyelashes fluttered but her eyes didn't open. Other than shivering occasionally, she was lying still in Snow's arms.
"We have to take her to the town now." Swallowing the nervousness and taking control of her breathing, Red put some assertiveness into her voice. She moved closer but didn't touch the woman. "We can't just leave her here."
Snow bit her lip, looking torn and uncertain. "But what if Regina's guards are there?"
"What if she dies without proper food and water?" Red countered with bared teeth, feeling a rush of concern for the woman. Not quite sure whether or not it had something to do with the wolf, what Red did feel sure of was that spending a night camping out in the forest with only questionable water and food plus the cold night air—that was really out of the question for this woman. She needed a warm bed and a proper place to recover.
There was a flash of guilt and concern in Snow's eyes, but the doubtful expression still remained in the set of her jaw. It irritated Red more than it probably should have, but she couldn't shake off this concern and she needed Snow to understand.
"I've hurt and killed more people than I can even begin to count," Wrenched by another burst of guilt, Red heard the crack in her voice. Any last trace of strength drained out of her tone until she could only speak in a low whisper laced with desperation. "I want to actually save a life for once."
Finally, Snow nodded.