“I prefer to hang him now and be done with it,” Lancelot says, and not quietly. But the man tied to the chair gives no sign of being overly concerned of the discussion of his fate. “But he’s more valuable alive.”
“Indeed I am,” Hook crows, stretching his long dark-clad legs, heels digging into the dirt floor. “And best you remember that before you go swinging that sword at me.”
“He’s a pirate,” Mulan mutters, lip curling in disgust. “A thief. A coward.”
“A gentleman,” Hook amended. “A gentleman who doesn’t care much for fighting.”
“You were, before the curse, the most feared man on the seas,” Snow says, and it sounds like an accusation.
“Didn’t care for it, I said, not that I wasn’t good at it.”
Emma uncrosses her arms with a roll of her eyes. “Look, I don’t care what he is if he knows where the last bit of—” The woman stops and swallows, like she can’t believe what’s about to escape her mouth, “—fairy dust is, then we need him.”
“You certainly do,” Hook says, far too confident for a captive man. His rolls his had along his shoulder, a voracious smile curling his mouth. “But the question is, do I need you? Considering our meeting has included, thus far, bodily injury to my goods, I think not.”
“We’ll cut off your head,” Lancelot says.
“’Imagine you’re going to do that anyway, Sir Knight.”
“You’ll talk,” Snow says.
“Oh I will, but not to you.” Hook cranes his neck, as if that can help him see around the wide-set armor encasing Mulan’s shoulders. “But I will talk to her.”
Aurora almost jumps as all eyes turn to her. She looks at Mulan, then at Hook, then back to Mulan again. Very slowly, as if fearing she’s mistaken, she says, “Me?”
“Why?” Mulan demands, instantly suspicious.
“Because she’s the only who hasn’t threatened to cut something of value off,” Hook volleys, and there’s little the congregation can say to argue that. It’s true.
Aurora shakes her head, chin angled in derision. She doesn’t think much of him, this pirate who’s been scavenging the edges of the world, but Emma’s right. Whatever fairy dust is still left, he knows where it is, has been hoarding it like a dragon’s treasure, and one way or another they need it.
Like a prisoner marching to the gallows, she takes small steps forward. She stops only inches away from where the tips of his shiny black boots point. “Very well,” she says. “So talk.”
“Not with the audience.” Hook dips his head toward the people crowding around behind Aurora. “They’ll have to leave, or my lips stay unfortunately sealed.”
“No,” Mulan snaps quickly, kicking up dirt as she takes one angry step forward, metal clanking. Her hand curls tightly around Aurora’s elbow, and she gives Aurora something akin to a shake. “No. Let’s go. We’ll leave him here to rot.”
“I’ll be alright,” Aurora says, and gently pries Mulan’s fingers off from around her arm. “Really.”
“You can’t trust him,” Snow points out, and Aurora resists the urge to roll her eyes. They treat her, most times, like a child but she’s not and she knows more of the world than they think, knows of darkness and evil, of dead mothers and dead kingdoms.
“I don’t,” she says and leans into Mulan, her mouth just below her chin. “He thinks I’m easy prey, don’t you see? I don’t know what he wants to worm out of me, but let him try.” Louder then, so he can hear, she adds, “You’ll be right outside the door, anyway, and if he tries anything I’ll scream.”
“Loudly,” Lancelot adds, and Aurora nods.
“It’ll be alright,” she assures Mulan, face still caught up in the shadows of doubt. Aurora finds herself patting her hand, like she would an uneasy child, trying to ease the heavy pulse she can feel pounding in the protruding vein on the back of her hand. “I promise.”
They file out, Emma the last, now scowling. Her hair, wet and dark from rain, brushes up against Aurora’s cheek as she bows over her. “You have that knife,” she mutters, “and kick him where it hurts, okay?” She leaves with a last warning look at Hook, relaxing innocuously in his chair.
She waits until the small, dim room is empty before turning, watching Hook with one cocked brow. The pirate captain only reclines, like a contented housecat, as she takes a cautious step closer. That knife, Emma had said, and Aurora feels the cold bite of it, intimately curved against her thigh. Mulan’s drilled her enough now that Aurora can unsheathe it in a matter of moments, but somehow it’s not a comfort, now that she’s alone with him. She feels out of her depth, her nervous fingers playing with the frayed edges of her bodice. She doesn’t care for the way his dark eyes watch her, flinty and almost covetously. She knows it’s a ploy, an attempt to make her feel uncomfortable. She only hates that it works, trickles of unease pooling at the base of her spine.
“Alone at least, Your Majesty.”
“You know who I am,” Aurora demands, surprised despite herself. She’s wearing a pair of Mulan’s trousers, too long, and has long since thrown away her crown; her kingdom has long since stop existing. Her hair swings in a severe braid down her back, and there are smudges of exhaustion pressed thumb-sized underneath her eyes, her lips are chapped and cracking. She doesn’t look like a princess, and most days she doesn’t feel like one anymore.
“I wasn’t sure, at first,” Hook admits, “but now I’m certain. That’s Queen Snow White, I’ve no doubt and I remember now, the tale—a lovely maiden under a deep spell, cradled in a tower of thorns and awaiting true love’s first kiss.” He rocks back, two chair legs lifting from the ground, bending just a little under his weight. “I gave it a thought, braving those thorns and those haunted woods.”
Another step, and Aurora can make out small nicks on his chin, hidden away under the dark scruff, and there’s an odd, white indentation just under his left eye. Tied behind his back, one of his hands is little more than a stump, cut off at his wrist—and there are stories about how that came about too. He may be a man who doesn’t care for fighting, but he’s no stranger to it. Violence has hardened his bones, she can see it from where they press up against his skin.
“Don’t look so surprised. A princess is quite a jewel for a pirate, but I’m not much for heroism and I figured some dashing prince had to already be racing off to your timely rescue. Turns out I was right.”
“Stop it,” Aurora snaps, a tremble in her voice. Her fingers curl into tight, little fists at her sides and she wants to pummel him, wants to stop his words. Phillip is a canyon-sized whole in her heart, and she can still taste the bitter, phantom tang of him in her mouth, the stirring of guilt that she hadn’t know. Phillip, who had been her everything, who she had known better than herself some days, and she hadn’t know he was lying to her. “Stop it.”
Hook ignores her, the chair landing flat with a hard smack. The momentum allows him to bend forward at his waist. “How is your prince, by the way? Surely he wouldn’t be too keen on leaving such a lovely little princess all by herself in a room with a bloodthirsty pirate? Don’t you know what pirates do to princesses?” He lifts his chin, and she can see the slow crawl of a smile, hooking at the corners of his mouth, threatening to puncture her lungs and blood seep in.
It’s intended to be an attack, he knows what’s happened to Phillip and likely has an idea why, and Aurora knows this at once. But she can’t stop it from forging into her heart, from compressing her lungs until it feels like she can’t breathe. She spins from him, and would have screamed for Mulan if only she had the breath for it. Instead, she can only keep her back to him, forcing air into the ache of her body, trying to force her grief back down into the pit of her stomach, where she had buried it because it was too much to otherwise bear.
“This isn’t about me, Captain,” she says, and knows her voice is watery. She can still see him there—Phillip, arms laid delicately over his chest, face serene. No kiss will ever awaken him, no matter how much she loves. “This is about you—and that cache of fairy dust. Don’t you care? Don’t you care at all? This land will never be healed without it.”
Hook is silent, and Aurora realizes a second too late that she’s been had. She gasps, and spins. He’s already racing for the door, long legs eating up the ground in self-assured strides. Aurora has only a split second but that’s all she needs now, and when Hook reaches for the doorknob he ends up with a handful of her instead.
And her knife pressed with intent to fleshy underside of his thigh.
“Ah,” Hook says, and Aurora has the satisfaction of seeing a brief look of surprise flash across his face. “You’re faster than you look, Your Majesty.” The fingers on his good hand move upward, until she can feel them in her hair, winding into the strands with a sort of purpose that makes something heavy sit against her sternum.
“Yes, I am,” Aurora agrees. “And if you move, valuable portions of your person will be cut off, after all. And I’ll still get what I want, in the end.”
“A woman well used to having her way?”
“I am a princess.”
But she jumps when she feels his thumb sweep down, just enough to touch the bridge of her cheekbone, and it’s almost a tender motion. Phillip had done it before, used his hand to cup her face, and something inside Aurora withers.
This close she could see the whirl of thoughts in his dark eyes, watch him slowly sort through scenarios and possibilities. He’s smarter than he lets on; he’s a man made up of equations, facts and figures, and he deducing the geometric portions of her, trying to decide how to best maneuver her to where he wants her to be.
“A princess, yes,” Hook agrees, like a compliment. “I know what you want.”
“You don’t know a thing about me,” Aurora points out, and proves it by thrusting her knife upward. She feels it puncture the fabric of his trousers, and then just into the soft give of flesh. Hook releases a long, pained hiss.
“But I do,” Hook said, and the fingers in her hair tighten. “I do. You’re such a wild little thing, and no one knows. You must be suffocating up in the ivory tower they keep locking you in. I bet you pace it like a wild animal, break your nails trying to tear it down brick by brick. I could steal you, you know. You could come with me.”
His chest is hard, where it lays flush against hers, and the roots of her hair groan in protest at the pull of his fingers. Aurora sucks in a hard breath, his face so close to hers, and see the dark glint of triumph in his eyes—like he’s won.
He opens his mouth, but she doesn’t hear his words. Aurora brings her knife down and he yelps, shocked, and her knee comes up. She starts screaming, a high, long strain of noise, but he’s already crumpled to the floor, half-curled to fight the pain when Lancelot and Mulan crowd in through the doorframe.
“He tried to escape,” Aurora says, and feels a slight swell of pride at the look Mulan gives her. She tries not to preen, but knows that she is. There’s more than one way to tear down an ivory tower.
Emma crouches down beside Hook, lifting him by his hair.
“Can you blame a man for trying?” he asks, but his eyes and his smile are directed at her, Aurora can feel it, like electricity lighting up her bones.