Places yet to find
When Phillip wakes up his first thought is with Aurora.
He spent a lifetime in eternal blackness. There was no hope, no time, no future. He fell into a pit and never hit the ground. He remembers being afraid. He remembers being hunted by demons that would whisper lies to him; they'd tell him to give up; they'd tell him that he's alone – that no one will ever come for him, because everybody he cares about has forgotten him already.
And he remembers holding on to the image of Aurora – beautiful, sweet, innocent Aurora. For her, he'd fight his way through any hell.
Now he blinks against the bright lights of reality. The first intakes of breaths burn his throat. He's thirsty – so thirsty. His limbs are weak and Phillip wonders if this is just another illusion – one of the many the demons gave him, only so they had something to take away.
But there's Aurora, and she looks just like he remembers: Her hair falls in blonde locks and frames her face: fair and glowing like life itself. She's even wearing the same dress as she did in his dreams.
And she smiles and she surges forward into his arms and he gasps as the impact forces all air out of his lungs. Her arms around his neck: for a second he wonders if she's always been this strong.
Then he sees Mulan standing only a few feet away and she's smiling, too; and her eyes are teary. He's sure she's never shown emotions in his presence before.
When Aurora startles awake from another nightmare, she's disoriented.
The ground is soft and her clothes are clean and there's a thick blanket covering her body. She kicks it off in a sudden panic and tugs at her nightgown. There's heat on her face, flames licking at her skin. And there's the everlasting sizzling that drowns any other sound.
Everything's pitch-black and as her limbo slowly fades away she becomes aware of her own ragged breathing and the silence around her. Until there's a second breathing sound next to her, calm and soft. "Mulan" she whispers, but there's no reaction.
She reaches out through the darkness and lightly touches the back that's turned to her. Then she remembers: She's home. She's safe.
Aurora cries silently for a few minutes and stays awake until the first rays of sunlight force away the gloomy thoughts.
She starts reading – a lot. She reads about the history of her kingdom, about war and about heroes. She reads about defeating dragons and countries far away. She reads about magic and love and crafting weapons and stitching dresses.
Sometimes Phillip comes by the library and sits down next to her. He doesn't speak, just looks at her. Sometimes he smiles; sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes there's a crease in his forehead and Aurora wonders when she forgot how to read his face.
"I didn't know you're interested in sword fighting." he comments once. It sounds almost like a question, so Aurora answers, simply: "I wasn't before."
They both know what 'before' means and they both silently agreed to never talk about the time they spent apart, each of them fighting their own nightmare.
"I think I want to learn it, though." she adds without looking up from her book. There's a pause and just when she thinks Phillip is going to leave, he asks: "Why?"
And Aurora places her thumb between the pages before closing the book and putting in down in front of her – she looks her fiancé directly in the eyes, and she wonders, wonders why he has to question her wish. "Because I want to be able to defend myself." she explains. Phillip doesn't understand.
"But I'm here to defend you now." he states. He tries to grab her hand, but she clutches the book and presses it against her chest. "Yes," she counters; her eyes flutter once, twice. "But maybe you won't be forever. I want to be prepared just in case something happens," she lowers her gaze and her voice. "Again."
There's a flicker of something in Phillip's eyes and they keep staring at the table between them until Greta asks if they're ready to have dinner.
On the twelfth day the guards announce Mulan's arrival.
Phillip opens his arms to his friend, his ally, the one person who's always had his back. "It's so good to see you." he says and his eyes shine with more joy than they have ever since what he thinks of as his rebirth.
Mulan returns the smile, not quite as brightly, and accepts the invitation quietly. She's wearing her amour, because it's all she's got left now that she's fulfilled her last mission.
"Come." Phillip cheers, swinging his arm around Mulan's shoulders. "You must be hungry from the journey."
A few feet away stands Aurora and thinks how awkward reunions have become since… then. She fumbles with the belt around her dress and doesn't say anything. But she stares, stares at the woman she mistook for a girl. She stares at the warrior who protected her through the hardest of times, when she thought of herself as lost. Even in the inferno there was always her prince to hold out for.
Now it's like her curse was never broken, because she's suffering the aftermath and the aftermath means solitude. It's like she's back in the darkness of her mind and nights mean fire and days mean limbo. She's floating through her own reality. Sometimes she even wishes she'd be back in the woods. Then she condemns herself, because of course that would mean for Phillip to be gone again.
She wonders, though, if waking up in the morning has become as hard for him as it is for her.
Then Mulan turns around and catches her gaze. She doesn't say anything, because the silent guard rarely speaks, but for a brief second there's a faint smile on her face and it easily reaches her eyes and before Aurora realizes what's happening she's quit wondering and is smiling back.
Phillip talks and Mulan listens and Aurora keeps looking at her plate. This is exactly the life she remembers from before. The life she so desperately wanted to get back to, and yet her mind is clouded.
"Please excuse me."
She doesn't even wait for an answer before standing up. A servant hastily rushes forward in an attempt to help her with her chair, but Aurora is already on her way out the door.
And Phillip silently watches as Mulan runs after her.
Ever since he woke up it's like his life has become a blurry dream; not quite a nightmare, but not what Aurora and him had always planned for themselves, either. They had a vision that one day they'd be happy together; he'd stop fighting wars and rule his kingdom peacefully; she'd be free of any obligations and could spend her time gardening or knitting. And they'd have children – four of them, all boys. The castle would always be filled with laughter.
But this vision has become a ghost and Phillip thinks of these images they built together, thinks of tiny hands grabbing his fingers and tiny feet running too fast through the halls. He thinks of Aurora, dainty, beautiful, innocent Aurora, watering flowers and humming a tune.
All these images have started to fade. Now they seem almost as surreal as the reality of the day.
He raises his napkin and dabs at the corners of his mouth.
And he gets up from his chair.
Phillip finds Aurora in the garden and she's not watering flowers. Instead she's sitting on a bench and her hands – strong, not dainty, not fragile, he realizes – are holding Mulan's.
They're talking quietly. He can hear Mulan's voice, calm and warm. And he hears Aurora, speaking barely above a whisper.
For the first time he's the one standing a few feet away from the conversation and he watches, watches their hands intertwine, watches them look each other in the eye, watches them fall silent.
Then Aurora smiles and when her smile reaches her eyes and her chest seems to swell and she starts to glow with happiness, it's like he's finally seeing clearly again. All dreams and nightmares fall apart and the weight he's been carrying around since his soul reunited with his body lifts itself from his shoulders and releases the death grip on his heart.
He steps back without making himself known.
Aurora finds Phillip in their bedroom, packing.
"Are we going somewhere?"
At the honest wonder in her voice Phillip laughs. "Actually," he says "You are." And when Aurora furrows her eyebrows and shakes her head he smiles gently and steps towards her and takes her hands. They're so much stronger than they used to be, he thinks.
"You've become so much stronger." His voice is almost wistful. "You're going with Mulan."
Aurora's heart jumps, then sinks, heavy with guilt. "No, I'm staying with you. We're supposed to marry next week." But Phillip laughs again. "If you really want to stay, of course you're always welcome here. But we're not going to marry, Aurora, and you know that as much as I do." She lowers her gaze.
"Remember all the dreams we had?" He slowly raises one hand to her chin, encourages her to look at him. "That's all they are now: dreams. You're not happy with me anymore. You've changed. You want to sword fight and you want to go on adventures. You don't want to be the princess whom I fell in love with." She wants to object, a last ditch attempt to clear her conscience, but he's faster: "And I'm not happy, either. I want a family. And I want my wife to want the same. I want to be with someone who wants to be the mother of four children and who'll be happy to care for her family and the garden. I don't want to hold you back from that other life you're longing for."
Aurora wipes at her eyes and Phillip realizes he's crying, too. "I want you to go with Mulan. She'll take good care of you. She'll teach you how to fight."
Aurora laughs hoarsely. "I think she's already done that in a way." she admits. "You're right. Years and years of fighting my way through the flames of my curse, then fighting myself through a post-apocalyptic nightmare – all that has changed me. Everything I thought I could never do, I did. And now I want to know what else I can do. I've read about this." He smiles, because it's this exact moment that he's confident she's not the Aurora he loved anymore. He's someone he barely knows. Someone he'd love to be friends with some day.
She bites her lip and browses through her mind, searching for the right term. Then her eyes light up. "Hiraeth." she exclaims cheerfully. "It's called hiraeth." Phillip has barely time to open his mouth before Aurora explains: "It's homesickness, but for a place you can't return to, because it doesn't exist anymore, or because it never existed at all."
He instantly understands what she means.
Phillip isn't surprised when Mulan agrees as soon as they propose their plan.
They decide to part ways in the morning.
"Don't be mad at me." Aurora asks of Phillip when they stand next to each other and watch the guards load the carriage that will bring her to her new home. The sky is blue and Phillip looks up, watches a flock of birds fly south. "Never." he says. "I expect you to visit me, though. Often. And I expect you to envy me for the beautiful family that I'll have." Then he looks at her, looks into her face and allows himself to truly see her – the new Aurora: She's sure of herself, a full grown woman. There's no doubt that this Aurora will slay dragons and lead her own kingdom. She laughs. So does he.
"I hope you know that I never betrayed you." she says.
"Of course." He never doubted that, but he's grateful nonetheless.
They hug and she kisses his cheek and suddenly goodbye seems so much harder than a couple of moments ago.
Then Mulan approaches them and Phillip knows it's time. His quest to find the woman of his dreams will start soon.
"Take good care of each other." he says and Mulan lowers her head, then steps into his arms, briefly. "Give me some time." he lowers his voice so Aurora won't hear. "You've always been my closest friend and that shall never change." And just like on the day he received his soul, he's waking up again now and the silent warrior he knows has tears in her eyes.
"I promise to honor and to cherish her." Mulan says. "I swear it on my family's name."
He doesn't watch their carriage leave.
Instead the first step of Phillip's journey into his new life takes him into the library. He sits and he reads.
There are worlds to explore and places to find – places, which he might have to build himself.
And one of them will be called home.