She was cloaked, mostly, in shadows but Hook knew almost immediately who she was. Innocence didn’t have a scent, but if it did he imagined it would smell something like her—on a very distant shore he caught a whiff of cherry blossoms in the spring, their petals curling in the water, spinning like unhinged tops and she invoked the memory of it—and the long trail of purple silk gave her away.
“Your Highness,” he greeted, smile curling over his mouth, as if he wasn’t the one bounded to the chair, blood caked along his lip, and the secrets of their world trapped beneath his retinas. One couldn’t really beckon with one’s hands roped together behind one’s back, but Hook certainly gave it his best.
She took a cautious step forward, like a doe well aware she was entering the den of a predator, but he had to admire her courage in coming this far. He had seen the way she was treated—though the glimpse was brief since princesses weren’t often allowed to traipse about the dungeons—with kid gloves lined with downy fur. Not that he could blame them, since the shaft of light revealed to him a very soft creature—small pixyish face and pearls woven in dark, waving hair. He imagined now it hadn’t take much convincing for princes to sacrifice themselves on her altar of thorns.
“Something I can help you with?” he asked, rocking back in his chair. His wrists were raw and bleeding from attempting to dislodge them, and his shoulder ached with a warning fire that suggested he was very close to dislocating it. But he didn’t like to be caged, and each day spent staring at the dank, brown walls threatened to drive him to madness.
“I want you to tell me where that fairy dust is.”
He rolled his eyes. “Oh, still on that, are we? I thought you were going to at least be bit more interesting.” Her eyes were as a strange grey, piercing in their starkness.
“You said you were a man of honor,” she accused, and stepped closer still.
“Indeed I did, and I am, but I’m not inclined to be honorable—chained up as I am.”
“But if I freed you?” The princess sucked in a hard breath, and he wondered how long she had stood in front of a mirror, practicing what she’d say to a dangerous sort of man like himself. He certainly felt dangerous, but he supposed that was just because of her corruptibility. He could almost taste the scent of her fear, her uncertainly, coupled with her determination to plow blindly forward. What sort of pirate would he be, to not take advantage of it? “I’m not asking you to bring it here. I’m just asking you to—to take me there.”
“I don’t know what you’re imaging, Your Highness,” Hook said, “but I’m a damn good pirate. I don’t bury my treasure on islands of pleasure. If I left you with the fairy dust, you wouldn’t make it back to this charming little village alive.”
Her eyes narrowed, her long, dark lashes casting half-shadows on the snowy slope of her cheeks. Her chin was angled as if in a dangerous punctuation that said yes I am a princess and I’m not used to being told no. “I’m stronger than I look.”
“That’s what everyone says—before they get eaten.”
“If you don’t tell Sir Lancelot where the fairy dust is he’s going to kill you. One way or another, you’re either going to tell us where it is, or you’re going to be missing a head. Wouldn’t you rather do something on your own terms? You are a pirate, aren’t you?”
It grated, that she knew what to say. How he chaffed against his pen; had it bars and if his hands had been free, he would have bloodied and broken his knuckles already. Pirates never did well on land, not for very long. He didn’t like the quietness of solid ground, the stillness of it. It didn’t feel alive. The sea always felt alive.
“And you, Your Highness?” He cocked his head. “Why so quick to offer yourself for the voyage? Running away from something?”
He could see the clammy crawl of a flush on her cheeks, and could almost hear the sound of her teeth grinding against one another. It was a nerve, and a low blow. Even before he’d had the unfortunate luck of falling into the hands of Lancelot and his merry band, he’d heard how noble Prince Phillip had been left to rot in his awakened princess’s tomb. The women before him should have been a queen by now, and would have been if not for the mistakes of another.
“It doesn’t matter,” she snapped. “My reasons are my own. You’re either agreeing to the deal or not.”
The ceiling seemed to hang like a waiting axe over the curve of his neck. Hook would have preferred an open door to either walk through or kick open, but he’d clamored out a window a time or two.
“Untie me,” he invited. “And then find the keys to unlock my crew. I take it you’re smart enough to attempt this jailbreak at night? We’ll have to move quickly.”
“I already have the keys,” the princess said, pushing at her white, wispy cloak. They rattled metallically.
“Oh, princess,” Hook said, straining forward. “I think we’re going to get along swimmingly.”
The princess pinned a little note to the outside of his door, and Hook peered just close enough to see the first elegantly scrawled sentence Dear Mulan before he yanked it loose and tore it into fine, undecipherable stripes of parchment.
The princess paused, hand posed in mid-air to unlock the first door. “Why?” she demanded.
“Was that an explanation on how you went willingly?” Her silence was answer enough and Hook laughed. “Don’t bother. A pirate has a reputation to maintain.”
She stood shivering on the quarterdeck, eyes tracing the dark outline of the village she was leaving behind. Hook’s men worked quietly and effectively to ready the Jolly Roger. He stood with his hands on the helm, fingers tight around the notches. It had been a while, and it was a relief to feel the old girl hum beneath his boots. He gave the wheel a sturdy pat before during to the princess, arms wrapped tightly around her.
“Having second thoughts?” he said. “I could have a man row you back.”
The moon had disappeared behind a cover of dark clouds and in the darkness he couldn’t see her countenance but he had the distinct impression he was being glared at. “No,” she said.
“Suit yourself.” Hook shrugged and turned back. He felt the princess’s gaze fastened to his back and it made the hairs on his neck prickle. “Never did catch your name, Your Highness.”
“Aurora.” He tested it, tasted it, drew out the syllables. It was sickly sweet and heavy on his tongue. “They used to call you The Sleeping Beauty—back when you were sleeping, of course. I think I prefer that.”
She didn’t answer for a moment and then, “Shouldn’t you be trying to get out to open water a little faster? Lancelot does have guards.”
“Oh trust me, Your Highness,” Hook said. “We won’t need to worry about that.” He looked up, watching as a shadowy figure scaled the tall main mast of the ship. A little blip of light burst at the very top, from the crow’s nest. Hook banged one boot on the deck and felt the ship come to life. “Let me show you why it’s so hard to catch Captain Hook.”
And the Jolly Roger flew.
Mr. Smee brought the princess bread and wine sometime later, while she holed up in his cabin, still a little shaken from the shock of the Jolly Roger not treading open water but open air. Mr. Smee was surprisingly soft for a pirate, and had a weakness for strays. Hook supposed in a way that the princess counted as one. She was certainly out of her element.
“There you are, miss,” Mr. Smee said, laying the copper tray on the desk. “A little wine will do your nerves good. We all took a fright the first time up. Nothing to worry about, miss.”
“Your Highness, Mr. Smee,” Hook corrected absently, drawing his first mate’s attention. He had a cigar clamped between his teeth, a compass laid out in his good hand, a series of charts lining his desk. “She’s a princess. Hand me that pencil.”
His first mate did out of automatic habit, but his eyes were locked on the princess in abject horror. Mr. Smee did tend to a stickler for the proper side of things. “I’m so sorry, miss—I mean, Your Highness.”
“It’s alright,” the princess said softly. “I’m not much of a princess anymore. My kingdom’s in ruins.”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” Mr. Smee said. “Surely, it doesn’t. Being a princess is—is a way of life. Did you know I had the pleasure of meeting Queen Snow White?”
“Did you?” the princess’s voice was oddly strangled.
“Indeed, Your Highness, I did. Back when she was running from the evil queen, the one that killed her father and tried to kill her? All wild, she was, covered in furs and dirt but there was no doubt in my mind that she had to be some sort of runaway royalty, why just the way she carried herself—”
Hook turned, laying one arm over the back of his chair. The princess’s head was downcast, dark hair falling over her face like a curtain, obscuring whatever byplay was occurring there. But he could see her hands twisting and knotting in her lap, part-rage and part-grief.
“Mr. Smee, that’s enough,” Hook said lightly, turning back to his cartography. “Her Highness is quite tired. It’s been a day for her—making deals with pirates, runaway from home, finding a pirate ship that can fly—I imagine she just wants to sleep now.”
“Oh, of course, of course. You’re right, as always, Cap’n.”
Mr. Smee made a hasty departure and Hook went back to his charts. Unfortunately, he did tend to be a man of his word and a deal struck was a bargain made. He owed the princess her fairy dust, though he didn’t think it would do her any sort of good. With the fairies gone the dust had been left to its own devices, and it had become rabid, magic with teeth—though Hook was under the impression magic always had teeth, and he thought the princess might understand that, at least; they’d both been the recipients of and witnesses to the cruelty of magic. He could already see the way her face will twist in muted horror, her dreams crashing around her feet like the splinters of a spindle wheel, and he almost felt sorry for her.
“You can sleep in here.” When he glanced at her over his shoulder, divider compass dangling from two fingers, he almost laughed at the shock etched across her face. “Thought I was going to make you bed down with the crew?”
Her eyes hooded, and she watched him warily. “I wouldn’t have put it passed you.”
Hook stood, stretching his blunted arm over his head, before walking toward her. His footfalls were heavy but muffled on his thick rug, and the princess’s shoulders stiffened in defense against him, but Hook was unrelenting, bending in close, gripping the arm of her chair with his good hand.
“They are pirates, Your Highness, and you’re a beautiful thing—pirates don’t get beautiful things very often; why do you think we hoard it, hide it, bury it? We’re selfish as consequence of starvation. My men are loyal to me, but they’re still men and hard ones at that. Putting you anywhere near them would be like tossing a lamb into a den of ravenous lions and asking them to fast. Whatever you may think of me, I wouldn’t do that. You stay in my cabin at night, and you stay out of the haul and you don’t go exploring the ship without me or Mr. Smee. Smee’s a good sort, but only trust the rest as far as you can throw them.” Pirate life wasn’t easy, or safe, and he wouldn’t have her thinking anything else. He commanded loyalty of the crew, but only inasmuch as he commanded his own strength. When that strength gave out—he’d seen what happened.
He’d seen what happened.
“And you?” The princess’s voice penetrated his mind, foggy with memory. She was like a cool, babbling stream. “I can trust you?”
“I never claimed to be any sort of good man.” He backed away, turning toward his desk. “You can take my bed.”
“But you have to share it.” He was grinning, imagining that scandalized look on her face. He called over to her, “I’m a gentleman, but not that much of a gentleman.”
He still fell asleep with the heels of his boots propped on his desk, a discarded map crunched beneath him. The princess had left him to his work some time ago, curling up into a little lump of coverlets on his bed. Hook had charted until the lines had blurred and his eyes had watered. He’d had every intention of scooting the princess over and collapsing into an exhausted heap beside her, but he’d been asleep before he’d even managed to bolster the energy to climb out of his chair.
Blood. That’s what he dreamed of, blood pooling in a thick, syrupy puddle on his ship’s deck. Only it hadn’t been his ship, not then, and he could feel the bite of a sword into the small of his back, his own blood straining for release from his skin. Her pale, little hand reached out for him still, caught forever in this macabre tableau that would haunt him for the rest of his days. The dark laugh somewhere above his head, and her blood—blood seeping into the cracks in the wood, imbuing the ship, illuminated it with the magic that escaped her. Her mouth was open in mute appeal and her words were a noose around his neck—I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
“See, boy, see?” A serpentine voice whispered, coiling against his ear. A boot dug into his shoulder blades. “See, I did this for us. I did this for us.”
The rage mutated him, transformed him, like that old story about a cursed prince. Hands planted on the deck, he shoved with his might, the sword sliding through the soft tissue of his side. He was screaming, but not in pain—in rage. This was how it happened, every single time, the man born in blood and hate and anger, poisoning his goodness, his innocence, what had first brought him to this land.
But it would be the last, it would be the last time.
He chair slapped unceremoniously on the ground as he woke up with a jolt. Cursing, he rubbed his good hand down his face. The set of the moon in the black sky told him it was the witching hour. Tick tock, but he’d stopped being afraid of crocodiles some time ago. There were far worst things out there than hungry beasts.
Hook was one of them.
Pivoting to his feet, he blew out the last little flame from the candle and followed the familiar path to his bunk, recognizable to him even in the pitch darkness. But he’d forgotten about the princess until his hand found the lump of her sleeping form. He cursed again, some vague part of him sounding like Smee reminding him of delicate princess ears.
“Bullocks to that,” he muttered, and leveled one knee on the bunk, giving her an ungraceful shove. “Scoot over.”
His only answer was a grumble of protest, and then a shifting of sheets. Hook pressed himself face first into his pillow, and inhaling the succulent scent of her—pomegranate, he thought, he’d sampled the fruit once in a desert kingdom; he’d come to steal a magic lamp but found it long gone—and it was an odd sensation. The dream still haunted him, needles pressing just below his skin, a wet poison burning its way through his veins while she smelled fresh, clean, untouched.
“A heavy sleeper, you are,” he murmured, because the princess hadn’t been roused by all the shifting and shoving. He laughed. “Why am I not surprised?”
Hook wasn’t all that surprised to wake up with his arms full of princess, because he did have the vague recollection of sometime during the night of her grumbling that he was crushing her—he had wedged her between the wall and himself; he was used to taking up the whole cot—and his solution had been to drag her half across him. If she’d protested, he’d been too exhausted to listen, and that was how he woke to find her, her head jammed under his chin, one slim leg tucked between his, and one slender arm thrown across his chest.
It wasn’t necessarily uncomfortable, though he couldn’t name the sensation pleasant either—because he was a man, and there was a soft, yielding body on top of him and there nothing to do but let nature take its course. Her nose rubbed against the v of exposed skin at the neck of his shirt, one hand fisted at his side.
She rolled, and her knee jammed up into a dangerous red zone that made Hook a bit more leery of the sleeping princess. She made a sleepy sound at the very back of her throat, her nose rubbing against his skin, and electricity ignited his nerve-endings when he felt her lips brush against his skin. His body went haywire and he thought it rather understandable, considering, because it had been a while, and this little, elfish thing was very beautiful and what else was a body supposed to do but react?
But then she said, “Phillip,” on a long, yearning sigh and his excitement cooled measurably. He rolled his eyes heavenward, an invocation of mercy on his lips and at long last her head lifted. Drowsy eyes blinked at him, dark hair plastered to the side of her face, as she attempted to take in the scene before her.
Hook knew when it clicked because her charming morning flush drained from her face and she pitched sideways, back thumping against the wall as she scrambled away. “Oh gods,” he thought he heard, but couldn’t be sure because the princess was burying herself under the thick coverlet, as if that could somehow erase him from her memory.
“Relax, Highness,” Hook muttered, and swung his legs over the side of the cot. He grimaced at the riot of protest his crotch gave, far too hard to move unless it was in something. No, no—down boy, best not to think of that. A gentleman, remember? “Natural male reaction.”
She didn’t answer him, curled as she was under his blankets. It sent a small trickle of annoyance through Hook—a pirate, yes, but he’d assured her he’d be the gentleman a princess expected and, well, it was like she was ashamed of being in bed with him, and he’d always been particularly proud of his skills in that regard.
“Don’t imagine your prince ever got around to showing you how a proper man woke up in the morning?” he said, feeling small and peevish.
The princess threw the covers back and clamored out of bed. “Don’t touch me. You don’t know anything about me—or Phillip.” He had a small changing area, a water basin and a copper tube inside, and she disappeared behind the standing curtain. It was sheer enough for him to make out her silhouette in a brown outline.
“I know that if you’re still shocked about a man’s reaction to you then there was something very remiss in your prince,” he snapped, belligerent for no real reason. No, that wasn’t true. Frustrated lust was as good a reason as any, and his was throbbing in his breeches.
Water sloshed in the metal basin, and he watched her shadow bend. He could hear her breath, hard and heavy, and there seemed to be waves of anger radiating from her lithe body.
When she turned the curtain, looking freshened but still agitated, Hook was seated at his desk, his cock mostly under control.
“Captain Hook,” she said, in the primmest voice he had ever heard of her. He wanted to wince, an automatic reaction to being chastised. “This is purely a business arrangement. We will not get involved with each other’s personal lives—that means there will be no more questions or comments about my husband.”
“Husband, is it?” Hook sneered, laying a fisted hand on the desk. “The way I hear it, you weren’t married to him yet.”
“You heard wrong and, as I said, we will no longer be discussing it. We made a deal.”
He stood, chair scrapping against the wood. “We did, indeed, but I’m a pirate, remember? What if I decide to rescind that agreement?” Hook circled her, pleased that she made sure to keep him in her wary eyesight. He leapt, suddenly, before she could gauge his move and caught her elbow, drawing her protesting frame against his. “Suppose I decide to dump you in the middle of the sea, or on some tiny little island where no one will ever find you? What then? What will you do—”
A knife point pressed into the soft underside of his chin. The princess’s face was fierce and dark as she eased away from him. “Don’t touch me.”
“I’m impressed you managed to sneak that on your person without my noticing. I’m very good at noticing things.” He grabbed her wrist and twisted. The princess was a scrapper of sorts, but still very far from her element. Her little knife clattered quietly to the floor as he spun her, crossing her arms tightly over her chest, bowing over her.
“If you’re going to go about brandishing knives or other sharp objects at people, best do it with intent,” he leaned in close, to wear her hair coiled in a tiny ringlet at her ear. “Because you’d best believe that if I ever come at you with a sword, I’m going to mean to end you.”
The princess was stiff against him, and unwilling, and Hook released her with a huff, largely disgusted with himself. He didn’t go around manhandling women, he thought, clomping back to his desk. It was bad form all around.
“Trust me,” the princess hissed quietly at him, “the next time I will.”