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Ursula churned the sandpit with a tentacle, watching in morbid fascination as it curled and bubbled like a swamp. She imagined living creatures in the concoction, reaching up and gurgling, choking on the mush. The thought was oddly entertaining, like observing a first-time bass and swordfish encounter.
Just then, a loud crack echoed through the Black Castle, and Ursula looked up from the sandpit, eyes narrowing. CRACK, Crack, crack it went, off the walls, the ceiling, even the black waters trembled a whisper.
Suddenly Ursula's tentacle, of its' own accord, sloshed out of the sandpit, spattering her with wet sand as it slapped the ground. Ursula hissed and would have kicked the tentacle if it would have done any good.
CRACK, Crack, crack. Ursula's indigo eyes scanned the darkness that was not dark to her. A shadow stretched across the wall of another room alight with the afternoon hour, visible through a gaping doorway connecting the corridors. Ursula froze. His shadow? She wondered. Just his shadow? The thought made her blood run cold.
Voices, like string, wove in and out of the darkness, and more shadows crowded the wall, looming closer. "Don't be frightened," said one. His voice was deep and gentle, reassuring. "Here, step on the rocks like this. That's it. Come on, follow the leader." The figures belonging to the voices emerged, but they did not see her. Glaring, Ursula crept silently up the wall behind her, into a corner so dark that even the white of her hair would be camouflaged. She watched from on high as several boys explored the cave, peeking behind rocks and pretending to overthrow a certain hook-handed pirate. She noticed they avoided disturbing the water, as if doing so would awaken a dreadful sea monster. A smile slid across her lips at the coincidence; she continued to watch them closely. The tallest one appeared the most curious, or perhaps determined was the right word. No nook or cranny went unexplored, no corner escaped investigation. If Ursula didn't know any better, she would have sworn he was looking for something. And not with just the mild excitement of a child thrown into a treasure cove, but some inner fire drove this boy.
"Avast, ye scurvy dog!" shouted a small boy to another, both of them holding sticks as if they were swords.
"En guard," the other challenged.
"Take that! Arrg! And that!" They parried for a moment until one of them stretched too far, the other lithely stepping aside, and the former lost his balance, his momentum throwing him forward.
"Bae, watch out!" cried the lithe one.
But too late! The unbalanced boy tumbled into the tall, fire-driven one, sending them both splashing into an inky pool.
"Bae! Charlie!" A fourth tike with curly ginger hair stood just under Ursula, crouched by the pool, his hand extended in service. The small boy clambered out of the water first.
"Thanks," said the boy called Bae. But as he reached up to take the other lad's hand, he caught sight of Ursula plastered to the corner like a bat. His face paled along with the others' as they, too, realized the company they kept.
Slowly, eerily, Ursula crept down the wall with just her tentacles, surveying the boys with a cold stare as effective as any weapon. Finally her eyes rested on Bae, who had hoisted himself out of the water, and lingered there. Whatever trace of fear had been present a moment ago was masked by a level gaze, as if he were daring her to do them harm. She was impressed by his blunt courage, matching her stare every bit as brazenly as if she were a child and he the overbearing guardian.
"Greetings," said Ursula with a twist of a smile. She moved farther into the light, her actions slow and slithering. "Come now, it's rude to stare."
The company dropped their gazes, all but Bae. With practiced speed Ursula curled one tentacle around his shoulders and drew him nearer. If he thought his feeble boy-strength was anything in comparison with Ursula's lean muscle, he was quickly put to right. "I don't suppose you're here for the view," she said softly.
Bae glared defiantly. "Not quite." And suddenly he plunged a knife into her abdomen.
Ursula gasped and her tentacle flailed. She collapsed onto the cold stone floor, sharp breaths seizing her. Vaguely she heard those boys escaping, their shouts muddling into one great noise, reminiscent of an echo: loud at first but fading fast.
The knife's crude edge bothered torn tissue, forcing Ursula to stop long enough to gather her courage again.
Once more, she willed herself. No more than that. Come now, grab the bloody hilt. Grab it! Now pull. Pull! Her cries were barely stifled by the water which went in and out of her body like a filter, bypassing her lungs. Every creature of the water for miles would have felt that cry. Even the prawns scurried out of view.
It was done. She unclenched the knife as her arm fell beside her, and just lay staring at the port hole leading to the Black Castle.
"Little buggers," she cursed. The words sent bubbles ascending. At that moment something dropped into the pool and landed near her head. Her first thought was that those boys had lingered after she had rolled into the water. Nevertheless, Ursula reached up and examined the curio, turning it this way and that.
It as a coin. Gold. A rare commodity here in Neverland. Most of the islands didn't have them, for they were not of this realm. But this was a calling card, as in he was calling.
Ursula considered leaving the pirate to his own devices, but she could never really refuse him. Not him. Summoning all her strength, Ursula flipped onto her hands and used the rock foundation to climb up, up, up towards the surface. When at last she reached the top, there he stood in all his unholy pillaging glory.
"Ursula," he greeted with a half-smile. One eyebrow arched suggestively. "You know, from this angle, you could even put a siren to shame."
"Killian." She rested her elbows on the floor's edge, too sore and --curse those boys-- weak to move any farther. Ursula flicked the gold coin up to Killian and he caught it reflexively with his good hand, slipping it into his pocket.
"What do you want?"
"I need a favor."
A favor for a pilfering charmer. "Of what kind?" she asked carefully.
"The magical kind."
"Killian, darling, if you wanted my heart, you had only ask."
That provoked a laugh from him. "Alas, my lady, yours is not the treasure I seek. Is there a way to communicate with someone over great distances, without actually having to meet face to face or send a letter?"
Ursula's eyebrows furrowed and she rested her chin atop her hands, thinking. "Mirrors can often be enchanted for such things. As long as each participant has one, it would be like talking to them through a window. Mermaids can carry messages, if you ask nicely. They're better than carrier pigeons."
"I'd rather not entrust a mermaid with this kind of information. And besides, if we can't discuss this like gentlemen, it will never be resolved."
"So meet him in person. Isn't it a bit juvenile to go through all these channels?"
Killian shrugged indifferently. "He trusts me about as much as I trust him. It'd best if we can converse without the... temptation of outright betrayal."
"Wouldn't want to tempt a pirate."
"Not when my ship hangs in the balance," he laughed.
But Ursula's mouth popped open. "You gambled your ship..." she said in disbelief.
Killian made a gesture of pause. "It's not so much a gamble as a... sign of good faith."
"Bloody hell," muttered Ursula.
"You needn't worry, love. Once I have what I need, the Jolly Roger will be as safe in my hands as the day I named her."
Ursula shook her head. There was a time when Captain Hook would have given anything to find the man who killed his love, Mila. From long conversations, she knew how hot that murderous desire burned in Killian's heart. Neverland had granted him little other than misery. That time had been put to rest, though it slumbered with the wariness of a cat, poised to awaken at the first sign of danger. There was also a time when Ursula would have made a similar sacrifice to have her revenge on the man who cursed her. Gambling the Jolly Roger was a risk too great to fathom, especially for the pirate, whose resolve to leave Neverland and kill Rumplestiltskin was so fixed and sure.
"Who in this world could possibly persuade you to put up your own ship?"
"Someone with the ability to cripple it with a single thought."
At first she could only stare, and then intuition shocked her brain into reaction. "No," she breathed. "Tell me you didn't. Tell me you're not putting your faith in that man."
Hook sighed, withdrawing near the wall Ursula had climbed earlier. "I haven't got much of a choice, love. We find ourselves in the unfortunate circumstance of needing one another."
"Whatever you need, I can get it for you."
"Not from where I stand. The mermaids are free to come and go through realms as they please, but they take their lead from him. I need something from another world, and the mermaids can get it for me."
"And in return, what have you promised him?" Ursula demanded, though she was almost afraid of the answer. As far as trinkets went, the pirate harbored many. Fallen victims, pillaged towns, and rich nobles had surrendered many an item to the rapscallion, but Ursula could not think of any thing that would be of much value.
Hook hesitated. "Nothing you need concern yourself with." When she didn't respond, he drew closer and knelt so they were eye to eye. "Please, Ursula," he said quietly.
Ursula locked her jaw and refused to betray emotion. She knew any attempt to dissuade Killian would be pointless, and in actuality, she ought not to be so concerned with the actions of the pirate. But it was the pirate's interaction with the one person in the entire mass of Neverland that she trusted less than Pan himself that caused her to fret.
The man who had cursed her.
Still, despite how much she wanted to keep the two men apart, Hook was not hers to protect. "Come back tomorrow," she said at last. "I will have something ready by then."
Hook's smile was genuine, and he stood and bowed his head to her. Without another word, he left the Black Castle, his footsteps echoing softly into oblivion.