The two horses run through the forest like arrows shot.
"Killian!" the woman shouts, her mare falling a little behind his stallion. "Killian, wait!" But her words fall into deaf ears. "Hook!"
He slows down a little. "You do realize I want to get this over with as fast as I can, don't you, love? We have to return before the tide comes in."
She catches up with him and they continue. The palace swims into view like from a beautiful nightmare.
Aurora turns to look at him and they gazes meet.
"Together," she says.
"Together," he repeats.
They take a slower pace.
The guards have seen them from the towers and now the giant, golden gates are opening and dozens of soldiers are coming out.
"Princess!" her subjects yell as the two riders become surrounded.
"Aurora!" the king gasps in wonder.
"Arrest the pirate!" an officer orders.
"He has bewitched her," Philip declares. "Hurry, take him off the horse."
"See, love, this is why I was so against us coming - rather unfortunately, your subjects and followers are somehow turned against me..." Hook has already drawn out his sword, ready to defend himself and what is his.
"Hook, no!" Aurora stops him and then turns to the rest. "I am with him willingly... Philip, I didn't know you were here..." The knights waver a bit.
"With its rightful queen stolen, the kingdom needed a protector who would help restore it," he replies. "But now you're here... now we can finally heal these lands. I'll save you."
"Philip! You don't understand. I've come fo-" But her words die in her throat as she hears a gasp next to her. The pirate captain stares at his bleeding stomach as if looking at something unfamiliar. He lifts his eyes to her in shock. "Killian!" she screams, and her voice is small and high-pitched. She hurries to alight from her mare and go to him.
"'Rora-..." he whispers.
"Take him," Philip orders as her pirate falls from the stallion. "Aurora..." the man she had loved says as he comes to her, the knights parting in order to make a path for him. He gathers her in his arms but her frenzied eyes stare at the fallen man who is dragged by her subjects, into her old palace.
"Philip, you don't understand anything..." she cries into his shoulder. "I was so foolish..."
"Shh, I'll fix everything..." he promises.
He can't. If Philip knew that he would only fix everything by giving her back her pirate and letting them return to the sea, he'd surely think her mad.
A heart is most truthful when veiled by the night
Of course, the loud thump isn't what makes Aurora look around and spot the figure of a familiar man lying on the ground. It isn't the almost silent moan. It is the bizarre feeling that he would simply be there that makes her turn before any of her companions notice his presence.
Intuition, she tells herself as she runs to him.
Emma is a fool for leaving him behind. A fool with a terrible paranoia.
And damn me if I watch another man die in front of my eyes.
"Hook!" Aurora yells and kneels next to him. Behind her, she can hear the other women approaching.
"What happened?" Snow White asks worriedly.
"Cora..." the pirate rasps. "... thought I'd betrayed her... ripped my bloody heart out..."
"And you're still alive?" Emma asks incredulously as she crouches next to Aurora. Then something very dark mars her features and she says no more and stands up. Aurora turns to look at the daughter of the queen-warrior and glares daggers at her.
This is all your fault, she roars privately at her.
The princess turns to look at the fallen pirate and his blazing blue eyes pierce hers. He smiles.
"How come it's always you who is finding me, princess?" Hook asks. Aurora feels a blush warming its way on her cheeks and finds it difficult to continue looking at him.
"I don't know, pirate," she says and as an amusing afterthought, adds: "I seem to have a flair."
"What are we going to do about him?" Mulan asks from behind.
"We're taking him with us."
"I agree," Emma says, quietly. "Here," she says, as she offers her hand to help him up. "I'm
sorry... for however little it is worth."
The pirate raises up a bit on his elbows but does not take the outstretched hand. "And what makes you think I want to go with you, ladies? You've proved to be extremely... untrustworthy."
Good, Aurora thinks, if he's able to be quirky then he is not on the verge of dying.
Mulan opens her mouth to say something reasonable but Snow White speaks first:
"How can we trust you?" she asks with belligerence. "You could be lying to us, or- or you could be Cora and Killian Jones - long dead."
Hook sighs dramatically. "You and your daughter both have a worrying amount of trust issues."
"With reason!" they both reply in unison.
"Oh, well," he says. And opens his shirt to reveal a recently closed wound.
Without thinking, Aurora leans into his chest and listens for a heartbeat. Coldness engulfs her as she says, shaken: "I don't hear anything."
"There is something I don't understand," Mulan carefully begins, after a while: "If Cora thought you had betrayed her, why didn't she kill you on the spot?"
"There are fates worse than death, oh, wise one."
Mulan awkwardly looks away and Aurora's eyes stare very deliberately on the ground.
"You're coming with us," the princess tells him in an odd, stiff voice.
"And why would I do that?"
"Because you're still weak and you'd be an easy target."
His expression actually turns indignant at her words.
Fifteen minutes of arguing not worth mentioning and Hook stands up (on his own).
"Fine," the pirate says in gruff voice. "But I'm not talking to her." He looks at Emma. "She tried to kill me." The blonde remains thankfully silent - the group cannot deal with fifteen more minutes of yells and accusations. "And I'm not talking to you." He points at Mulan. "Because I don't like you. You unnerve me with your zen stoicism and seriousness." The female general simply rises an eyebrow and turns away from him. "See, that's what I'm talking about."
Stars are scattered around the sky like silver dust by the time they light a fire and sit down for a rest.
It is oddly uncomfortable but Snow White and - interestingly - Mulan attempt to fill the silence by discussing the recipe for the soup they have made from roots and boiled water.
Unsurprisingly, Hook chooses to sit next to Aurora. Mulan however has different plans than letting a pirate try to corrupt a naive princess but in the end settles for sitting on his other side and glaring at him threateningly whenever she can. When the time for sleep comes, the matters become even worse when the Chinese warrior declares that she would not fall asleep just in case the pirate decides to do something funny.
It is almost as awkward on the second day of their reunion. Even more so, when Aurora expresses her desire to bathe in the near lake. The other three women look at her as though she is raving mad - they seem to have forgotten the importance of personal hygiene. In the end, Mulan agrees to let her go (as if Aurora needs allowance!) but only if she accompanies her and only if Emma and Snow supervise the dubious captain Hook.
The water - although cold- feels unimaginably good on her dirty, sweaty skin and her now positively greasy hair. When she feels sufficiently clean - Mulan is frowning at her a bit by the time - Aurora washes her clothes - Mulan is already growling at her - and even allows herself to swim a little (or at least try to swim - she has never learned before).
As mentioned before, the water feels really nice. Aurora may blame the lack of sleep later, but it actually is the pleasant feeling that lets her guard fall down and prevents her from noticing the disturbance of these waters until it is too late.
"Aurora," says a trembling voice that makes her heart quench. The princess slowly, disbelieving, turns to look at the face of the man she loves.
"Philip!" she cries and runs to him through the waters of the lake. He embraces her tightly and spins her around happily. "Philip! You're here!" He slowly lets her down. "Wha- How?" Aurora stutters, smiling at him. She turns to look for Mulan, who is gone, oddly. But never mind her.
"I'm here now. Does anything else matter?"
"No. No, it doesn't," Aurora murmurs and raises on her toes to kiss him. Her heart has missed the feeling of his presence, the sweetness he had brought to her. Her prince eagerly returns the kiss. "We have to go and tell everyone!" she exclaims in excitement and takes his hand. Philip stiffens.
"You can't," he tells her.
Her prince cups her face with both his hands, lowers himself a bit so that they can be on the same eyelevel. "Because I can't ever leave this lake." He stands tall again, turns around and begins pulling her by the arm into the deeper parts of the lake. "Come with me!"
"Come with me and we will never be apart again!" Water is already on the level of her chest.
"Philip! I can't! I can't live here!" He continues pulling her still. "I have to go back to the others! Philip!"
It is so deep now that her feet no longer touch the ground. Aurora continues to plead her love to stop pulling her in but he doesn't listen.
She is beginning to drown and her lungs are screaming and her nose is breathing in water, along with air.
This is it, she is dying. Such a sad, strange notion. At least it is because of love, however twisted it might be.
"Wake up, princess!" Aurora feels a great hit on her chest and some of the water leaves her lungs. She starts coughing heavily. Somewhere in the blur, she sees Snow White's benevolent, alleviated smile.
As soon as she is able to properly think again, she looks around to see the man who had spoken. "Hook?"
"The one and only," he smiles and there is relief written on his face so delicately, it might have just been an optical illusion. Soon he is pushed away by Mulan who begins mothering her like an odd, stiff version of mother hen.
Frankly, Aurora is the one who should be asking questions - she's got no answers to the last five minutes which were admittedly confusing.
The Chinese warrior finally speaks: "You fell victim to a dark limnade - a creature that dwells in the lakes. Usually they are good but this one was corrupted after the curse. She caused you to become delusive and dive deeper into the lake. You began drowning and I had to swim to save you." Mulan looks around and Aurora follows her gaze. For the first time, she notices golden ashes a few meters away. "Hook... he and the others came by the time I brought you back to the side of the lake. Snow tried to get the water in your chest out, but you still wouldn't wake. The pirate was the first to realize that this was because a creature of the night was controlling you- he found the nymph and killed her. By the time he came to your side, you were already waking up."
Aurora is silent for a few moments but when she musters the strength to speak again, she looks at each of her companions and thanks them.
"Did... Did I say anything while I... while I was in this state of delusion?" she finally asks. Mulan holds her gaze.
"No, you didn't utter a word."
This overwhelms Aurora - it feels too much like she is still under the curse and has no control over anything. Even if she shouts, if she yells - no one would hear for she would still appear as calm and serene as if sleeping.
"But it's over now, don't worry about it," Hook reminds her. "Although I'd advise you to try to suppress your imperial biddings next time around. These lands have become more twisted and dangerous than any of you - bar you, oh, harmonized one," -he nods to Mulan - "can ever fear to imagine. I assure that a bath can't possibly be more important than your life."
Aurora rises her head in arrogance and indignity at his comment but can't find a proper retort and then promptly looks down.
They all return to the camp. It is late night already and even the full moon has hidden behind a dark cloud. Slowly, everyone else fall to sleep. Except Aurora.
Her heart is still tearing itself into shreds and her mind is still breaking because she has lost Philip again. Because she has lost him again, in her mind. In addition to her grief, the looks her companions were throwing at her before they succumbed to sleep made her feel even guiltier, if possible, about her foolishness.
Even when she manages to doze off a little, she has nightmares. When she opens her eyes again, no more than twenty minutes could have passed. Even the fire is still burning merrily.
Her head is heavy and dizzy and an unexplainable sadness, which she somehow knows isn't related to Philip, fills her. Aurora desperately needs the comfort of someone's words but none of her companions is available to give it to her. Even Mulan is snoring faintly from her place.
She stands up and decides to walk around a little - not far off, just around the camp. She has already learned her lesson.
When she passes by Hook, he stirs.
"Wha're y' doin'?" he mumbles sleepily. Aurora stops.
"Pacing," she calmly replies.
"I can't sleep."
The pirate gasps a yawn and sits up wearily.
"Stay on one place at least - you're going to wake the others up."
"How very noble of you, pirate, to think about the others' well-being," Aurora says irritably.
"A rare act of selfless thinking, doubtlessly caused by the lack of sleep, I assure you," Hook informs her. "It's just that they were worried about you so much they wore themselves - I think they deserve some rest."
The princess bites her lower lip at the veiled accusation and turns to go back to the place where she is supposed to be laying but the man stops her. "Wait," he says - as if in regret. "What were you dreaming of?" His words come out softer now. Into them there is an invitation weaved, for her to sit next to him. She accepts it.
"I dreamed of the sea," she whispers honestly. His interest piques, at the mention of his (perhaps) one true love.
"The sea?" he murmurs wistfully.
Aurora nods. "I've been dreaming all kinds of nightmares since after the curse but this one has accompanied me for nearly half my life. It caused me to hate every basin bigger than a dam lake."
"Whatever can be so frightening that you've been scared into hating the sea?"
Aurora gathers her thoughts for a moment, weaves the threads of the tale in her mind, and quietly begins: "It is very confusing - there is always a man that I know I love. But then there is the unruly sea, and I am waiting for something, or someone on a great cliff. The waves are so enormous and I see a ship crashing beneath me. And I always wake up feeling a grief unlike anything before or after."
Hook looks at her with something akin to awe. "You've had this dream repeatedly for years?"
Aurora nods again. "The royal soothsayers told me I was dreaming of my past life. I told them they were mad."
"Why should they be mad?" Hook says unexpectedly after a minute, sounding lost in thought. Aurora's eyes look up to him curiously. "I once dreamed of my future. This is a land full of magic, after all."
"You dreamed your future? How is this possible?" she asks. "Hm... maybe you are a sorcerer and you just don't know it yet."
Hook laughs quietly, dryly. "Believe me, if I had an ounce of magic that was mine alone, and not stolen, I would have found out. It has had all the time of the world to manifest itself, but-" Hook waves his good hand dismissively. "-nothing."
"What was it about?"
"The dream. What was it about?"
Hook's eyes - looking bright aqua by the moonlight - meet hers.
"I dreamed of the sea, as well," he tells her. "But it wasn't a bad dream. I dreamed of a gypsy on a ship who told me that if I become a sailor, I'd find great treasures that no man alive or dead has ever dreamed of. 'Sail straight on 'till the morning's dawn', she said. " Aurora is about to ask what does it mean, when the pirate answers: "Of course, she meant Neverland. The first time I visited it, I was barely a fourteen years old lost boy who had forsaken fortune, name and nobility for a good adventure."
"What was the treasure you uncovered in Neverland?" Aurora asks, her voice still hushed so that she wouldn't awake the others. Hook looks up to the stars - the clouds have passed and now the night is as clear as the surface of the very lake that had almost taken her life - and lays on the ground.
"Time," the man replies. "Neverland gave me all the time in the world." Aurora looks down, to his face and states bravely:
"It wasn't the only treasure."
"It might have also given me friends - although they were every bit as lost as I was."
Aurora wants to ask him many more things but she sees in his face that he has recognized this as a moment of weakness. His features harden a little, but she is not in the mood to move to her improvised bed.
Actually, this is the first time in years that she feels so truly comfortable and wistfully pleased. There is a strange kind of yearning in the chilly air of the night, calling her to go. But go where? Do what? She has no idea.
Instead, the princess decides to lay next to the pirate and gaze at the sky. He does not make a comment on her action and she does not explain herself. There, in the warmness that radiates from his blissfully near presence, she finds the feeling of safety that has been so sourly missed before.
When she wakes up, Aurora finds him gone. She would have been surprised if he still had laid next to her, for everyone to see.
As soon as the others get up, Mulan expresses her intentions in teaching the princess a few lessons on fighting.
Between Emma's frustrated sighs: "This compass is only leading us in circles!", Snow White's reassurances and Hook's odd silence, Mulan is explaining to her the basics of sword fighting.
They are using sticks instead of swords but it doesn't really matter since the princess is a very poor student at anything that isn't involving arts or languages. And Mulan, for all her zen demeanor, as Hook has so nicely put it, is really unfit for a teacher.
"You aren't doing it right!" the warrior bewails impatiently after Aurora's hundredth failed attempt on holding the stick the way a sword should be held. In the end, Mulan gives the princess her own weapon, hoping that this would prompt her to wield it in the way it should be wielded. The iron turns out to be almost too heavy for Aurora and she drops it after a few seconds. Mulan mutters something under her breath and Aurora can't take it anymore. Not only that she is feeling like the useless, spoiled princess that she fears she is, but having the woman who loved her dead fiancé chide her like a little girl is just insufferable.
"Well, excuse me! I seem to have lost my shape while I was cursed to sleep for the last thirty years!"
"Now, now," Hook gently says, as if appeasing. "Come, let me show you how it is done." He bends to get the sword from the ground.
"Absolutely not!" Emma says indignantly.
"You'll only get this close to a weapon the moment the ocean freezes over!" Mulan adds.
This seems to anger the unruly pirate. "It's a good thing that ocean has been frozen for the last twenty eight years then, isn't it?" he replies, irritably, and picks up the sword. The other three women move to get him, but Aurora stops them.
"Let him," she orders. "... I trust him not to be foolish enough to try something impetuous." Wordlessly, she turns to stare at Hook who looks a bit sheepish; he clears his throat to gather more confidence.
He rests the sword in her hand which he places in his own good one.
"You really need to practice on just bearing the weight of the sword. I could feel your wrist give a crack in my hand," he murmurs softly. Aurora nods but her breath has caught.
At his closeness and his attractive scent that had has lulled her to sleep the night before, something breaks inside her and pulls at her strings a grieving melody.
The party has no luck in finding the portal this day as well and they are all in a foul mood by the time night has settled into the remains of the Enchanted Forest. Fortunately, the warmth of the fire betters the atmosphere and Hook and Aurora sit side by side again. Emma, Mulan and Snow discuss their next course of action (without even noticing she is not with them).
"You know, princess," Hook says huskily, as he looks at the gestures Emma and Snow are making in the distance. "I find that I can really relate to your situation the more I think about it."
Aurora coughs a little. "My situation, pirate?"
"We are both out of our elements and from the voice of command we've turned into its ear. You are far from your palace, your people are cursed into another world, and you bitterly miss the comfort of having a home. So do I."
"You said that the ocean has frozen..." the princess murmurs in remembrance. "You haven't been able to sail away."
"No other reason you'd see me this long on dry land. Not to mention that my crew is gone as well and no journey seems worth it when you are alone."
Aurora chooses to say nothing. What can she say? No words would bring back his people, or hers. Unless they are magic, but she knows none of it.
That night she has nightmares again and wakes up her crying. Mulan, who is awake, asks her if she is well (the warrior woman seems to suffer a terrible case of insomnia so she doesn't mind having to watch over the camp during the whole night). Aurora mutters that she is alright, but she briefly turns to look at the sleeping pirate, imagining his arms around her in a comforting fashion.
What am I reduced to? the princess thinks dizzily. If he continues to show such kindheartedness to me, I might begin caving in...
If I have not already.
Yet, it is so strange that to the others he behaves so arrogantly and haughtily, and to her - he is always the perfect gentleman. She can almost imagine him as a Duke at her court.
During the next few days, the party begins recognizing Hook as a trustworthy (for the time being) fellow and starts giving him more liberties. Aurora, after carrying Mulan's sword for a few days, feels herself getting stronger. Although nights are still terrible she becomes accustomed to waking up in the middle of the night with sobs and gasps. She stubbornly promises to herself to become stronger and tougher. Her life is not kind, and it probably would never again be, and she needs to learn how to survive in this new, twisted world.
"Come with me, Aurora," Hook murmurs one morning. The princess yawns tiredly and looks around to see what the others are doing. They are still sleeping - even Mulan has dozed off a bit, her head tilting a little into her shoulder.
"I spotted a rabbit so I decided to officially invite you on a hunt. Bring the bow and the quiver with you."
Archery is the only weapon Aurora seems to show true affinity to and Hook often jokes that it is because she must have some elven blood in her veins.
Excited, the princess raises up, gets the weapon and follows him into the thicker part of the forest.
"Why are you so silent?" she asks.
"Shhh, you should be too," he hushes, as he leads her deeper into the forest. "You'd scare the poor animal otherwise and what will we feast on?"
Aurora winces. "You're terrible, Killian." But her hungry stomach agrees with him so she falls silent.
That is, until minutes pass and they still don't catch a sight of any movement. "Where is the rabbit?"
"Oh, I believe it is right here," a new voice says and Aurora turns around. Hook looks nervous and disturbed at the woman's appearance but quickly regains his wit and asks:
"... Now will you give me back my heart?"
Everything in Aurora's body freezes and melts as Cora smiles.
"Oh, I promised I will, Mr. Jones, and I always keep my word. You have deserved it back after all, haven't you?" the witch says.
The princess turns to look from one to the other, feeling like from the hunter she has become the prey. Hook's eyes are unreadable and that helps nothing with her sudden desire to crawl them out.
"You... you traitor!" she yells. "How dare you betray us?!"
And then everything turns black.