She did not come like a city under siege, the walls of her resistance chipped away by arrows and flames, she did not come like something conquered, shoulders bowed and head bent. Instead, she came like a general, her chin angled and her shoulders straight, her footfalls confident and sure. It was a plank she walked up to the deck of the ship, but it might have well been golden inlaid streets. She didn’t acknowledge the jeers and the catcalls of the men leaning eagerly over the railing, watching as this princess stepped into their dangerous midst. Whatever doubts and uncertainties she carried with her, she had frosted them over with a veneer of detached politeness.
The quartermaster waited for her, burly arms crossed over his naked chest. She had never seen a man in such a state of undress before, but her eyes did not waver for from his, did not track to the gold winking in his hair and the silver loops pierced into his lip, the silver balls studded into his eyebrows.
“Where is he?” Aurora, and it might have well have been a royal decree, such was her tone.
A shrug, rows of thick, corded muscles rippled. “He doesn’t want to see anyone,” he said.
“But he’ll see me.”
“Aye,” the quartermaster agreed, and jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “Cabin.”
She walked around him, and the hoots from the crew increased to a near deafening pitch. “He’ll treat you right, milady!” someone called, and beneath the hem of her skirt, Aurora’s foot misjudged and she almost stumbled.
Straightening, she pushed open the cabin’s door and closed it behind her, silencing the merry jeers from the crew.
The captain’s quarters was like a treasure-trove, piled with glittering bric-a-brac and priceless flotsam. Books in languages she didn’t recognize, pearls stolen from the necks of mermaids, crowns from dead princes, gemstones plucked from the statues of deities from worlds she could not even imagine. Silk fabrics hung from the ceiling, so sheer and thin they were almost like clouds. Aurora was a princess and her kingdom had been prosperous, but even she had never seen such an opulent collection of wealth in a single place.
Her slippered foot knocked into a small, mahogany chest. A wave of golden coins skipped and skidded onto the floor. Intrigued, she bent down and plucked one up with two fingers. It was a currency she had never seen before, and she was no stranger to foreign ambassadors as the border kingdom to the Enchanted Forest. But she had never seen this hook-nosed woman before, serpents in her hair.
“Medusa,” the captain said, “one look at her and you’d be turned to stone—at least that’s how the story went.”
Aurora jolted, straightened instantly. She hadn’t seen Captain Hook sitting there, too engrossed in the ostentatious display of wealth. He sat on a throne of deep dark wood, the tops whittled down to look like briars, jewels encrusted on each tip, rubies and emeralds, and a heavy polish of gold along its bottom. One long leg was thrown over the left armrest, the other used to brace the bored posture of his back. The captain watched her with only a mild sort of interest, and didn’t look at all surprised to see her.
He tipped his head in a mocking imitation of a bow. “Your Highness.”
There had never been much cause for her to be brave, and so it took her a moment to rally her courage. She felt like she was in the den of a predator, but Hook was no lion, no tiger—he was sharp rows and rows of white, pointed teeth and a nose to scent blood in his water. Aurora may not have possessed a warrior’s bravery, but she did possess a scholar’s mind—she knew to take care not to let a single droplet of blood fall. He’d be on her in a second.
“You have something I want.”
A dark, winged brow shot upward. He motioned with his chin to his vast hoard of wealth. “Look around you. I imagine I’ve collected something everybody wants.”
This time, Aurora felt confident enough to scoff at him. She was not surprised, to find a pirate only capable of measuring value in the material. Unless it was something solid, real, something he could put his hands on, feel the weight of, something that glittered or glowed or shone, something someone else wanted desperately, Aurora knew he would not see any worth in it. She would have pitied him, if she had not hardened her heart against him.
“Trinkets and jewels are meaningless to me,” she snapped.
He unfolded his legs, coming to his feet. His hook was still firmly attached to the ruined stump of his hand, and the polished silver gleamed at her as he stalked the room. He pulled a key from a chain around his neck loose and opened the drawer of his desk, sunset rays streaming gold over the polished wood. Something rattled as he opened the drawer, but Aurora couldn’t see from her position.
“Rumors reached me of a cache of perhaps the greatest treasure of all time,” Hook said. “Souls. No easy task, slipping in and out behind a wraith—damnably protective creature, they—but worth it when considered the lengths others would go to see their loved ones restored to them.”
Aurora squeezed her eyes shut from the memories of Phillip’s face, froze in that moment of agony as his soul was plucked from him as careless as a child pulling flowers. But they popped open when glass rattled on the desk.
“This one here glowed the brightest,” Hook observed, tapping one finger, decorated with heavy rings, against the glass that glowed golden. “Imbued with the power of sacrificial true love, I suppose.”
Pain knifed through her, like a sword to her heart, but she didn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her tremble from his cruelty. There was no need to mince words now. Hook knew what she wanted, knew why she had come. Emma and Snow had beaten him to the compass and left him to wallow in his defeat, and in the ripples of his anger she and Phillip had been caught. Would he have gone after the souls if he had not known that Prince Phillip had been among them? Aurora didn’t think so.
And she hated him for it, hated him more than she had hated anyone in the whole of her life. The acid of it burned the back of her throat.
“Name your price,” she said, teeth clenched over her anger.
The pirate tapped two fingers on his chin, considering. Aurora bristled at the way he eyed her, as if she was meat up for his inspection, but Phillip’s soul glowed hotly in the vial, reminding her there was little she could do if she wanted to leave this place with her love’s soul in her hands.
“You,” Hook said. He laughed at her look. “Expecting me to demand your first born in payment?”
“No, of course not. I—” But she stopped, afraid she’d babble. She hadn’t been sure what devil’s price she’d have to pay, but she hadn’t been expecting that. He was a pirate captain, with unimaginable wealth at his fingertips, and he’d never appeared to have much interest in her anyway. “Why?”
“Why not?” Hook asked with a shrug, and that was a greater insult then if he had demanded her to strip bare before him. There was no other reasoning behind it than the malicious intent to hurt. She was a fool to have thought him capable of some form of humanity.
“You won’t—” She couldn’t force the words out over her tongue, their little claws digging.
“What must you think of me,” Hook said on a laugh, “but with good cause, I suppose. No, no, Your Highness. Nothing untoward as all that—unless you ask for it, in which case I will not find myself so opposed. But a princess serving a pirate does tickle some sense of irony in me, so that’s my price. You, for the night.”
“If not—what do you want me to do?”
“Not just going to blindly agree to the bargain?”
“I like to know specifics.”
“Smart girl,” he said with a slow, crawling smile, coming around from behind the desk. “First thing, we’ll take off your cloak.”
Swallowing, she did so, and with as much irreverence as she could muster, tossed it to the floor at her feet. Hook kept his smile in place, reaching his good hand out to toss back the strands of hair that had fallen over the front of her shoulder. She trembled, a cold shiver racing up her spine, and he pulled his hand away.
“Nothing untoward,” he said, but his thumb moved over the seam of her bottom lip. She wanted to jerk away, but Aurora reminded herself—sharks and blood. “But if I wanted a taste of you, you’d have to let me. I am a pirate, after all, but even with all the riches in the world I’ll never be allowed to touch a thing half so fine as the Sleeping Beauty.”
Aurora had the distinct impression she was being mocked, but he would get no rise out of her. She imagined herself a stone, encased in marble. He was trying to push her, make her back down perhaps, but she would not be turned away. He could touch her but he couldn’t touch her. She kept everything she was beneath the surface and chanted Phillip’s name like a prayer. He can touch as he pleases, so long as I get what I want in the end. We’ll play his game, and I’ll win.
“We’ll shake on it,” Aurora said, jerking her face away. She stuck her hand out expectantly—raised as she had been by her aunts, she didn’t remember her father very well, but had the fuzzy, distorted memory of the importance he had placed on a handshake. And even a pirate had to have some form of honor.
Hook glanced down at it, before consuming it with his own large hand. Instead of the shake, however, he brought her hand to his lips, mouth open and wet over the back of her hand. She stiffened in outrage, and she could see the gleam of amusement in his flinty eyes.
“I prefer to seal the deal this way,” he murmured, letting go.
Aurora said nothing, her red lips pressing into a thin line of displeasure. Hook laughed, gaily, and took her by her shoulders. Her first reaction was to jerk out of his grasp, but she forced it down, allowing him to guide her to his throne.
“Sit,” he ordered.
Her lip curled in distaste at the grandiose throne, and she perched herself only at the edge of it. That seemed to amuse Hook and he laughed as he turned and left her, alone in his cave of wonders.
Her curiosity nipped at her, urging her to explore the lavish room, but she forced herself to remain sitting primly. She would not allow anything about this pirate to goad her, be it him or his wealth or his collection of treasures.
He came back with a copper tray laden with exotic foods, and tilted his head in curiosity at her stiff posture.
“You’re a stubborn little thing, aren’t you?”
“I’m not here for enjoyment,” she said. She worried that it sounded like she could enjoy herself, so she added primly, “There’s only one thing here that I want, and once I have it, I’ll be happy to never look on this room again.”
Hook shrugged, her jab at him falling too short of its mark. “It’s only sunset now, Your Highness. You’ve time still.” He glanced at her, lip curled upward on one side. “I wonder if you’ll run before the dawn.”
Phillip, Aurora thought. “I won’t.”
“We’ll see,” he said, smile confident now. He approached her and nudged her slippers with his boot. “Scoot over.”
The throne wasn’t wide enough for both of them to sit, so Aurora allowed him to settle her half on his lap, legs tucked in-between his. Hook laid the tray on his leg, and the aroma of fresh fruits and newly cooked, yeasty bread filled her nose. It had been over a day since she had eaten last, having fled against Mulan’s wishes to come here. Her stomach rumbled.
The flat end of his hook pressed against her side as he curled his arm over her waist to balance her, using his good hand to pluck a brightly colored fruit from its vine. It looked like an oddly shaped apple, but when he used his thumb to pry it open, a thousand juicy red seeds spilled into his palm. He settled his back onto the throne before lifting one seed to her lips.
“Try,” he coaxed.
Something warned her not to, and she hadn’t expected him to feed her. Rather, she had thought the opposite would be true, that he would take pleasure in making her wait on him, dropping grapes into his mouth. She parted her lips and Hook pressed the seed passed her teeth. Aurora crunched down, the tangy taste exploding on her tongue.
“Pomegranates,” the captain explained. “From the same place as the coin. Legend goes the god of death kidnapped the daughter of spring and chained her to his kingdom by feeding her these seeds.”
Aurora spat the pulp out in horror, and Hook roared with laughter.
“If I wanted to chain you, I’d use the silk.” Aurora didn’t quite understand the innuendo she sensed underlying his words, but she glared at him all the same, knuckling away the juice dribbling down her chin.
“Don’t,” he murmured, and his good hand slid up her neck to cup her cheek. He reared up, the tray teetering dangerously on his leg, and Aurora shuddered as he tongued away the pomegranate juice below her lips. “I think I’ll have that kiss now.”
She turned her head, and his mouth slid open over hers. Something warm ignited warningly in her belly. Aurora had been kissed before, and by men other than Phillip—stolen kisses under the shade of a tree by a huntsman once upon a time, too young to feel anything for him but adolescent curiosity. But she had kissed Phillip, fierce and passionate, with all the fatalism of doomed love. She had kissed him with a dying woman’s knowledge, knowing that her mother’s curse would claim her before she ever truly entered womanhood. She had poured all that she was into Phillip, her love and her life and her death.
This was something completely different. This was just teeth, this was just tongue, they were just two strange bodies. She felt cold and hot all at once, desire unraveling in her stomach. Her body acted without the permission of her heart, straining against him in shocked want. Her fingers were in his hair before she had the sense of mind to stop them.
It was only when she felt his triumphant smile against her mouth that she broke away, disgust and horror quickly overpowering that unwanted spurt of lust. She leapt off his lap as if singed, sending the tray clattering noisily to the ground.
“Something amiss?” Hook asked, voice oddly deep.
She rubbed the back of her hand against her lips, still tingling. “You’ve had your kiss.”
“But I didn’t say how many I would require,” he pointed out, coming back to his feet. He didn’t move toward her, but Aurora felt stalked. “You’re free to renege on the bargain at any time.”
How could she, Aurora wondered. Phillip was just within her grasp, all she had to do was prove herself sturdier than a pirate. He was handsome, and there was something attractive about how dangerous he was, but she had true love to bolster her—and she was stronger than him. She had to be.
She collected herself, found her footing, and stomped to him. Hook had an almost comical expression of surprise, but she ignored it, fisting her hands in his coat and dragging him down to her mouth again. He had kissed her without any true feelings, and she could do the same—just bodies touching, she told herself, and slipped her tongue inside his mouth. The captain released a breath of surprise, and she felt his good hand press into the small of her back, bringing her flush against him.
Aurora cupped his face, throwing herself mindlessly into the kiss. She could defeat him, she thought blindly, not in a swordfight or perhaps even in a battle of wits, but she could defeat this man at his own game.
Her hips crashed into his desk and she released some yelp of pain, unaware that he had been slowly moving them backwards. Hook lifted her and set her on the edge of the desk, but she found that he remained true to his word. His hooked hand rested beside her hip, his good hand laying lightly on the curve of her waist. Nothing untoward.
They broke away. Aurora’s face felt too hot, her whole body felt overheated, and the press of him was too close. The threads of desire had tightened into a ball in her belly. It had been so long since she had been touched, like she was something desirable, and she hated it, hated him, that he was the one to make her feel it.
When he didn’t feel anything.
“Why?” she demanded weakly. “You could’ve asked for anything, and I would have given it to you. Why—”
He kissed her again, stealing her words. When he broke away, Hook said lowly, “That’s the point, isn’t it? You would have given me anything. For him. What will your dear prince say when he discovered the price you’ve had to pay to get him back—a night in a pirate’s den? A night in a pirate’s arms?”
She wanted to cry, but kept the tears lodged in the back of her throat. She would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her so weakened. “He loves me. He won’t care.”
“But you’ll always wonder, won’t you?” Hook’s good hand lifted, and laid across her cheeks, forcing her to turn toward him.
“I hate you.”
“You see, Your Highness, there’s a problem with me not caring what you feel for me. I’ve already won. You feel.” He grinned, monster that he was, and kissed her again, rougher than the last time, more insistence.
Her resistance gave in to the demands of her body. Monster that he was, she felt truly awake for the first time since Phillip had died, warm liquid pooling in her stomach. She dragged him against her, seeking more of his mouth, more of him, just more. She’d been starving, fasting, and at last she had come to a feast and she could not stop gorging herself.
Hook broke away with a rough groan. “Nothing untoward, princess,” he reminded her, and lifted his hand away. Her body strummed with unmet desire. “Tell me what you want, and I’ll give it to you.”
No. He wouldn’t even let her have this much, but she shouldn’t have expected mercy from him at this point. She squeezed her eyes shut, almost as if she could squeeze this moment out of existence, but it was real and her body demanded she act.
Her eyes opened, clear blue, and she said, “I want you.”
The pirate didn’t need to be told twice, and his mouth swooped down over her, pillaging it the way she imagined he pillaged cities, relentless and uncaring. She clutched at him, nails biting into his shoulders, and arched into him. She gasped into his mouth at the feel of his erection between her thighs, and he used it as invitation to thrust his tongue into her mouth.
Pulling away, he observed her, flushed skin and heaving chest. “This has got to go,” he said, and she didn’t know what he referred to until his hook curled into the gap between her bodice and her skin and yanked. The fabric tore down the middle and the hum of pleasure she made at the violence shocked her.
He popped his hook off with a quick, precise twist and it thudded softly to the floor. She didn’t feel repulsed by the stump, but she did feel uneasy when he dropped to his knees.
“Spread your legs,” he ordered, and slowly, Aurora obeyed. She whimpered as he slid her slim, frayed petticoat down her thighs, leaving her only in her purple tights, cutting tightly into her thighs. He ran an appreciative finger down soft fabric and left them on.
Aurora didn’t know what he planned, but some animal-like instinct had her carding her fingers through his hair to find a grip. He kissed the inside her thighs, where her tights ended and her skin began. Biting her lip, she forced herself to remain silent as he scooted forward, but when his chin bumped against the hot place between her thighs, she yelped and pushed against his head. He gripped her wrist and lifted it away from his head, intent and focused, and Aurora mewled helplessly, her body coiling into an odd state of anticipation and fear of the unknown. She was wet from the kisses, and it was odd to have him looking at her—no one had ever told her someone would want to.
He blew a puff of hair onto her and she jolted, mouth falling open. His fingers spread her, sliding through the slick moisture and Aurora’s back arched, her nerves feeling as if they had been set alight. Hook seemed to know what to do to send all rational thought fleeing from her mind, rubbing the heel of his hand against her, every so often blowing on her. Aurora gripped the sides of the desk tightly, the wood leaving indentations in her palms. Her hand had returned to his hair, but this time to hold him in place. She didn’t know such pleasure could be derived from such an act, and she knew she certainly shouldn’t feel it with him, but she couldn’t muster the emotion.
His tongue slid across her, and Aurora bowed over him, whimpering. Everything was quiet, pressed in close, save for the sounds of her breathless pants and the purr he released against her center. When his tongue slid inside her she could only clench her legs tightly around him, and let him do as he pleased. She wasn’t strong enough to demand he stop; she was too weak, and wanted too much.
And he was relentless, and Aurora imagined he conquered ships and raided cities with the same persistence, unwilling to back down until he had taken everything he wanted. His finger plucked at the ultrasensitive nerves at the hood of her sex, and Aurora pressed her free hand to her mouth to muffle her sob, biting fiercely into her knuckles. He withdrew to kiss her legs again, rubbing the scruff of his beard, leaving her skin reddened with proof of his touch, before he dipped his tongue back inside her, his thumb grinding down onto the top of her sex.
It felt like she splintered apart, starbursts flaring behind her eyelids. She screamed, an unladylike screech that she would have been embarrassed at any other time to utter, but all she could focus on was the pleasure rolling through her, making every muscle and nerve ending inside her jump and coil. It felt like something warm and hot sat on her lungs as she tried to suck in air. The pleasure was too much for her body to handle, and she fell boneless to the desk.
Hook’s good hand caught her, bracing her fall. Her eyes were distilled with rippled colors and shapes, but she felt him climb up onto the desk beside her. Papers went flying, and something priceless fell to the floor with metallic jangles. He was as unconcerned about it as she was. His good hand gripped her leg, laying one across his thigh and then the other on the opposite side. Somewhere far away she thought she heard him fumbling, cursing even, but her blood pounded too loudly in her eyes for her to dissect the noise. He scooted her up into his lap, and she felt the hot, blunt head of him push against her entrance.
Blindly, she reached for him. He came down just enough for her to loop her arms around his neck, and he pushed into her. Aurora had been braced for the hot, burning pain that her governess had always warned her off. But there was only a pinching and mild discomfort at the foreign invasion, nothing too terrible.
And when he retracted and thrust inside her again, she gasped, her slack body tightening with pleasure. She found enough strength to tighten her legs around him, lift her hips. The angle felt too extreme, and she existed in a state beyond pleasure, but he bore her heavily back to ground with his mouth, angling himself so he rubbed against the top of her sex. She jolted.
“Yes, yes,” he murmured. His fingers stroked down her legs as he plunged into her. “That’s a good lass. You can come again. I know you can. I’m damn bloody selfish—I need to feel it.” He broke off with a curse. “You’re so tight.”
Aurora shook her head, barely understanding human speech. She couldn’t possibly—do whatever it was she had done before, with his mouth on her. Her body felt too wrung out, too spent. “No,” she moaned, arching into him. “I can’t. I can’t.”
“You certainly can. You’re a stubborn little thing, remember?” He murmured soothingly when she whimpered, unable to process the stimulation. “It’s okay. Let me show you.”
He did, urging her body into a slower rhythm, one that kept her from feeling too undone. She rolled her hips, rocked them, beginning to catch on, understand. Pleasure came back, a slowly trickling stream of liquid heat, and followed it back into the world of mortality, loud with the sound of wet, slapping flesh and the scent of their sweat and her arousal.
She had imagined this with Phillip, but it hadn’t been so—raw, she supposed. Everything had been tinted with the stain of love, had made it rosy, and her focus had been on Phillip, rather than the junction where they were joined. With Hook, the only thing she had of him was where he pumped into her, and the hot words he panted into her hair.
Aurora felt the coiling again, her muscles bunching like she was preparing to leap. Her fingers clawed down his back, over his cotton shirt. He hadn’t even been properly undressed, she realized belatedly, but her thoughts were lost in the whirlpool that became her body’s release.
Hook reared back and Aurora laid a hand over her eyes, panting, opening her body to him so he could finish. His hips snapped with a bruising force against hers as he forged his way to his own pleasure.
He came with a snarl, teeth peeled back over his lips, and collapsed bodily on top her. His sweat slid across her stomach and she suddenly felt too exposed, but could do nothing but remain prone beneath him. He mouthed her hair before pushing himself half-off her, releasing her from the burden of his weight, but still keeping her pinned beneath him.
“Don’t want to crush you,” he murmured heavily, voice rich with sleep.
Aurora said nothing, only listened to his breathing even and abate into sleep. She wasn’t sure how long she remained there, listening to him breathe, before she dozed. Aurora kept her mind perfectly blank—the minute the pleasure dulled, she knew, regrets would come through, bleeding her of all her happiness, and she strived to hold it off for as long as she could.
Phillip loved her, she had said, and wouldn’t care—but that was before. Would she even be able to tell him what she had done to win his soul back? Aurora squeezed her eyes closed and welcomed sleep to keep the thoughts at bay.
She woke when a thin silver of morning sunlight crossed her eyes. She blinked owlishly, feeling far from rested. Hook snored heavily on top of her, and something in her stomach churned. She could feel the dried remains of their intercourse on her thighs, and she swallowed passed a thick lump in her throat.
Careful not to wake him, she eased out from under his arm. He was still dressed, Aurora thought, and why that threatened to send her into tears she didn’t know, but he hadn’t even taken off his clothes when he climbed on top of her.
Her dress was in tatters, useless, but she found one of his discarded shirts on the floor and pulled it over her head before covering herself with her cloak.
When she turned, Hook was awake and watching her. Aurora shivered and forced herself to meet his eyes as evenly as she could.
“I met my end of the bargain,” she said, voice thick and hoarse.
“So you did,” Hook agreed, and she refused to think about the inflection of his voice when he said it. He leaned over the side of the desk and opened the drawer, pulling out the vial with Phillip’s soul. He’d had the foresight at some point to return it into the desk before they broke it, at least.
She told herself it didn’t matter, whatever had happened. Captain Hook had done it for no other reason to be cruel, and she to save her true love. Strange bodies, she thought, and that’s all they were. Strangers in strange bodies.
He held out the vial to her, not unlike a gauntlet. Like a wary fawn, she approached and snatched it from his fingers; half afraid he’d smash it. It was warm in her palm, Phillip’s soul, and she brought it tenderly to her breast like a newborn babe.
Hook dropped his gaze. “Your prize, Your Highness.”
It didn’t matter. She swallowed and forced herself to say, “I’ll be on my way, Captain Hook.”
“It seems we’ve settled everything, then,” Hook agreed, and pushed himself from the desk, the sound of his boots slapping against the wood making her wince. She missed the look he sent at her.
She made it to the door before something had her turning back. The captain was in the process of retrieving the purple wreckage of her gown and tossing it off to the side. He glanced at her over his shoulder, standing in the center of his treasure room, surrounded by wealth and gold and his throne and somehow, she thought he looked lonely.
But she hardened her heart, reminded herself that he had selfishly kept Phillip’s soul to use against her, had other souls in his keeping as well, and would offer them to their families at only a high price. She had paid a high price.
Aurora angled her chin. “I won,” she proclaimed, “whatever you thought you were going to do, it didn’t happen. You didn’t win.”
That odd tone was back, and Hook looked down at his shoes, as if curious of himself. “No,” he said at last, and his words seemed to come from far away. “It rather seems I didn’t.”
She left him there, shutting the door behind her, shutting it on him, but somehow Aurora didn’t feel quite so victorious anymore.