Linda had bound her hair back neatly, so she could focus on the bread. This much dough always took a certain amount of focus, even when she'd been at her first home and kneading regularly. Now, it was a strain, but a good one.
"Why are you baking bread, Mom?" Ruth asked.
"Because it's good to like your own cooking, and I won't if I'm out of practice."
Whether Linda needed the focus or not, Ruth needed entertainment or she'd leave her chair to find mischief outside. Linda set into the story she could recite--had recited, for some years--in her sleep.
"Once upon a time, there lived three daughters. When their father went on a trip, each asked for a gift: the eldest, for a fine dress; the middle for a set of pearls. The youngest asked only for a red rose."
Ruth kicked the ground, scowling. "I hate that story."
Linda started, looking up. "It used to be your favorite. I told it every night." The redundant You always begged me to hung in the air.
"Yeah, but--it's stupid!" Ruth cried when she got angry, which tended to make her angrier. Linda pretended not to see her daughter swiping a sleeve across reddening eyes. "Beauty gets together with a guy who was literally a beast to her. She could've gotten really hurt!"
"She didn't," Linda said, as if speaking to some ghost at the level of her arm.
"So what!" Ruth shook her head. "The Beast could have killed her! What sort of story is that to be telling? If I just go out and try to change someone, they'll just become perfect no matter how bad they are?" Ruth shook her head furiously. Linda waited. "If Beauty were real, she'd probably be dead." Ruth huffed into the silence, staring at her mother. If it had been anyone else, they'd assume Ruth was an angry person and move appropriately. But her mother saw tears of anger shift to simple tears. This ruined her favorite bedtime story. She hurt.
Linda sighed. "Yes." She leaned into the bread, fingers and arms working the familiar patterns even if her muscles protested a bit more. "She should. And Beauty knew as much."
"Then why did she go?"
Linda shook her head, looking far away as her arms rolled beneath her. "Beauty...she was responsible. Or selfless, if you like. She was the youngest daughter, but she was precocious. The smart one, the one that grew up fastest after Mother died. And she knew it. It wasn't hubris; her family simply told her, looked to her. So when her sisters asked for gaudy gifts, she asked for something simple, something she knew her father could have gotten at the last farm before he came home." Linda's eyes closed. "If it had been a normal trip. It was supposed to be easy..."
Linda returned to the present and worked the bread again. "But the storm came. Father's predicament was twice her fault--first, she had asked for the rose, second, he had seen her first.
"She could help, as no one else could, as it was no one else's duty to. And she was the easiest to lose. She was comforting, but comfort was luxury. They needed a man, if they wanted to do business with anyone. And"--Linda shook her head--"marriage was business. Her sisters could catch good husbands, for though they had less money than they'd like, they had enough to survive, enough to pay dowry, and they had beauty and titles to give. The youngest was not their match in charms, she would fetch a lesser price. She knew it. And was this really so much worse than whatever husband she might find anyway? The girl's fate was never her own.
"So...yes. Beauty could have died. She gave her life. Not as people mean it when they say a soldier dies, but as they should when a soldier goes to war. She went off somewhere unknown, to work under the orders of a person she did not know, beside people she did not know, to keep what she considered her home safe. Beauty might have died; she knew it well. Beauty might have lived in misery; she knew it well. But..." Linda shrugged. "It is hard enough, to know one might be called upon to make that choice, without the story reminding you of those 'what if's. Anyone in Beauty's place would know them well." Linda looked her daughter in the eye. "You find the beast as you grow, Ruth. In any form. It is easy for a nagging fear to work its way in. That's why we teach you happy endings, so early. We say children need them, but we all do. Don't throw hope away so easily."
Linda folded the bread. Ruth swung her feet.
"You..." Linda nodded. "And Dad..."
"Is a wonderful man, who made a mistake."
"Did...Beauty...really scold him when he was all scary?"
Linda shrugged. "He needed it."
Ruth stared at her shoes. "I think...maybe it's not such a bad story."
A smile tucked itself into one corner of Linda's mouth. "Oh?"
"No. Beauty was--is really strong, and smart. And the Beast...he was mostly rude, I think. Not bad." Ruth paused in thought, then grinned at her mother. "I bet their daughter would be a handful."
A grin broke through Linda's mouth. "Oh, doubtless. As fierce as her father."
"And clever as her mother," Raoul called from the next room over, shutting the door after himself.
Linda sighed happily and tore the dough into loaf-sized pieces for the oven. It was good to like one's own story.