They made camp in the woods, in a clearing that was hidden from the road by a row of overgrown trees with long, hanging branches. Aurora never would have found it if she had been on her own, but Mulan was there and she always seemed to do the impossible – whether by determination or luck, or a little of both, Aurora hadn't yet discovered.
Aurora was getting better at life on the road, though. She was able to keep up with Mulan's quick strides now, and she could build a fire and arrange their bedrolls in a way that met even Mulan's exacting standards. But tonight, after she shook out the blankets and laid twigs on the flames she found herself sitting quietly near the fire, straining her ears to try and listen to her heart beating in her chest.
"Are you all right?" Mulan asked, startling her with a shake to the shoulder. "Aurora. Are you in pain?"
Aurora's heartbeat stuttered underneath her fingertips and she looked down, suddenly aware that she'd been pressing her hand to her chest. Mulan was watching her as if she wanted to help but didn't know what to do. She looked worried, and Aurora quickly dropped her hand and smiled, feeling ridiculous.
"I'm sorry. I'm fine, really. I was just checking to see if my heart was still there. Not that I thought you put it in wrong, or anything," she said when she saw Mulan's crestfallen look. "It's just, well. I never felt Hook take it. What if it happens again?"
Mulan drew herself up to her full height. "If anyone tries they will suffer greatly," she said. Her hand twitched around the hilt of her sword. "I will never let that happen. You have my word."
Aurora could feel herself blushing. "You've done so much for me already."
"If I hadn't lost you in the first place it never would have happened," Mulan said, looking miserable. "I promised to protect you."
"It wasn't your fault." Aurora shook her head. "I still can't believe I never realized that my heart was gone. How did I not notice?"
Mulan sat beside her. "You mustn't blame yourself either."
"I just feel so stupid for not knowing – stupid and scared." She felt cold all over whenever she thought about how easy it had been for Hook to steal her heart, and when she remembered how it had felt when Cora squeezed it in her hand she couldn't keep from shivering.
After a moment she felt Mulan's hand on her back, soothing her. When Aurora turned to her in surprise, Mulan ducked her head, looking embarrassed.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm not very good at this." She started to take her hand away, but Aurora stopped her.
"No," she said, her heart thudding fast again. "It's perfect. Thank you."
Mulan looked at her closely, as if she was trying to see whether Aurora was lying. Whatever Mulan saw in her face must have reassured her, though, because she shifted closer, her body a warm weight all along Aurora's side as she rubbed her back comfortingly.
It didn't take long for Aurora to relax, to allow herself forget about Hook and Cora and stolen hearts for a while and just focus on the gentle strokes of Mulan's hand and her calming presence beside her. It made her feel safe – and happy, Aurora realized with a jolt of surprise. She couldn't remember the last time she was as happy as she felt right now, with Mulan at her side.
The thought made her heart race again, and Aurora couldn't help but smile. Mulan noticed, of course, and gave her a puzzled look.
"What is it?" she asked. A smile was tugging at her lips, too. "Are you feeling better?"
Aurora took a deep breath and nodded. "I was just thinking," she said. "Having my heart stolen was terrifying but – but giving it away isn't that scary."
Her heart was beating faster than ever but she forced herself to look at Mulan, to let her see exactly what she was trying to say. Mulan's eyes grew wide and she stared at Aurora for a long moment, looking stunned, before she smiled again.
"It's not frightening at all," she agreed before meeting Aurora's lips in a kiss.