I have never run so fast in my life.
Even when the Pirates had been chasing Cas and I through the forests of Neverland, even when I tried to escape the first week I had stayed at this house. In my whole life, I have never run like I am running now.
I am faintly aware that I lost my shoes sometime between the map room and the window to the pantry that I had first crawled through to escape. There were too many guards around; I'm sure Peter told them that if they found me, to lock me up with the other brides in a heartbeat. The grass and twigs along the ground are biting at my exposed feet, and I know my dress must look like a torn rag. Alice will probably kill me for it later. If I live.
I had studied the area on the security camera's screen long enough for me to get a general idea of where they are and long enough to put an ache in my heart. What if I don't reach Cassius in time? I quell that question and keep running.
But now I am a little lost. I know I'm in the right area, but I can't see anyone. I decide to climb a tree and get a better view of everything. It almost makes me think that it is something Mary would do to get a better lay of the land. I find a sturdy looking tree with low-hanging branches and begin to climb.
Once at the top, and after snagging the hem of my dress more times than I can count, I can see for miles around. There is the gazebo where Cassius first had me sit, where he later explained to me that he didn't want Neverland to be a bad place. There is the rutted tree that leads to a tunnel entrance to the Tavern and the Oak. I can see the Manor from here as well, looming, as always, like a threat to Neverland. And... There! I can spot them now. It is four guards now: two flanking either side of Maxim as he talks to Cassius, who is still kneeling in front of him. I wonder idly how fast Maxim would have had to move to leave me and find Cassius an instant later. But I don't have time to dwell on that fact. I climb down the tree and run in their direction.
As I near, I can hear Maxim's voice, though it sounds deeper, more gravelly than when I had encountered him in Peter's private office. "You selfish boys," he is saying, "with your stupid Brides. You have no idea the hell you've been putting us through."
"You're wrong," Cassius says. "I know exactly who you are. And I can tell you that I have been wronged as well."
"Your flesh and blood marked and stolen from you," Maxim says as though Cassius has said nothing. "You know nothing of it."
I can see them now. Cassius does not look afraid, but I can see the tension in the back of his shoulders and neck; he is terrified. But all he says is, "You're wrong."
Maxim smiles, and I can fully see his face. There is something off about it. A larger scar that I don't remember being there before. But all of that flies out of my mind as he raises a gun and points it at Cassius' head. "Than I hope," Maxim says, still smiling, "that your other half-"
But I don't hear the rest of what he's saying. I sprint as hard as I can and throw myself at Cassius, knocking him out of the way before the bullet lets loose from the barrel of the gun.
Maxim does look startled, if only for a moment. Cassius looks absolutely bowled over, though, as he sits up and looks at me, his fiery golden eyes wide and searching my face. "Morg?" he asks.
I am breathing hard and every muscle in my body hurts, but I manage a slight shrug and say, "I told you not to leave me."
Maxim laughs, loud and hard, and Cassius tries to push me behind him as we turn to face the man and his guards who now all have guns trained on us. "Oh," he muses, "the Prince's favorite? Come to save him? How wonderful!"
"Leave her out of this," Cassius says, his voice still reigning power even though he is the one at Maxim's mercy.
"She rather forcefully brought herself into this," Maxim merely replies. "And if I don't kill her now, you don't want to know why I'd keep her alive."
I reach through the grass and take Cassius' hand. He gives it a reassuring squeeze as if to tell me we'll be alright, even though we are both going to die. He doesn't spare a glance back at me but keeps his eyes trained on Maxim's gun. I can tell by the unconscious flexing of his muscles that he is trying to work out a plan, but he isn't coming up with anything.
"Cas," I say, moving up to sit in the grass next to him. I feel oddly numb. I never would have thought that no feeling at all was going to be what I felt when I was about to die. I don't even feel surprised at that revelation. I simply move to sit next to Cas, who wraps me in his arms and presses my face into his shoulder as if to shield my eyes from what is about to happen.
"If I've ever believed anything to be real in Neverland," Cassius whispers into my hair, "it was that I loved you."
I feel a sob hitch in my throat, but I fight it down as Maxim says, "Kill the girl first. I want to save the Prince for last."
I hear four wet thuds in succession and then the sound of bodies hitting the ground. I look up in surprise to see that the four men flanking Maxim were lying still on the ground beside him, arrows protruding from their chests. I turn around just in time to see Lost Boys charging from the tree line toward us, bows and arrows in hand. I even notice that one little boy is wielding a tomahawk.
In no time Maxim is surrounded. He drops his gun, knowing what to do without being told. Cassius has risen from the ground beside me and walked to stand before the large Pirate. Though the man merely doubles Cassius in size, no one would hold that against him by looking at the stance of power emanating from the Prince of Neverland. "You should have killed me while you had the chance," is all he says to Maxim.
"Don't watch," I hear from beside me. I whirl to see Mary sitting next to me. She looks a little cleaner than the other times I have seen her, the dirt coating her face is gone and her hair is wet as well as her dress, as though she decided to wade through a pool to reach me. When she notices my expression, she says, "I had to hide in a pond for a little bit. It's a long story."
But that's not what is puzzling me. On her right cheek Mary is sporting an old looking scar: a single pink puckered line that I have never noticed due to all of the dirt on her face. I open my mouth to ask her what had happened, but a single gun shot almost causes me to jump out of my skin. I turn and see Cassius holding a gun out to what is now only open air. If I turn my head enough to look through the legs of all of the Lost Boys I can just barely see the crumpled form of Maxim.
The pirates have been scared off after hearing of the death of their Captain. Of course, Neverland would never hear the end of them, but for now the realm is safe. The people of Neverland mill back into the grand ballroom, now destroyed from the pirate attack, and gather around the main stage where we are all sitting. I look at Daphne sitting beside me who must have fixed herself up while in hiding, for she doesn't have one hair out of place and then gaze dismally down at my ruined gown. Alice told me as she tried in vain to fix my appearance that I'm not allowed to change clothes if I am not chosen to be his Wife, I simply have to leave the Manor and become a Lost Boy or die on my own. I think back to the field we were just in, where Cassius told me he loved me and my heart gives an almost painful lurch in my chest.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Peter addresses the crowd, "after a truly trying day, I would expect that you all would just like to be home with your loved ones. I assure you this announcement will not take long." With that, he motions for his son to come join him at the stand.
He stands fluidly and flexes his muscles nervously. He walks to the stand and looks over the throng of battered party-goers. "Like my father said, I will try and make this quick. After undergoing many Tests, Trials, and adversity, the last two remaining Brides are none other than Daphne," he introduces, waving his arm back and smiling falsely at Daphne who beams and waves at the crowd, "and Morgan," he says, gesturing to me now. He wont catch my eye when I look at him. I smile timidly and wave to the crowd, trying to imitate Daphne's flawless demeanor. The crowd applauds accordingly.
"The Tests are specifically designed to match me perfectly to the woman who could most fittingly become my Wife. One of these girls passed with no mistakes, while another, unfortunately did not pass all tests."
The room is completely silent. I can hear my heart beating erratically in my chest and wonder if anyone else is catching it as well.
"Morgan," he says, looking back at me. This time his eyes do meet mine. I can see in them that he is thinking of what he said to me in the field when he thought we were going to die.
Which rips me apart even more when he opens his mouth, his golden eyes somber when he says, "You failed 4 of the tests. I'm sorry. You did not pass."
Time freezes. At least for me. I manage a weak nod, but that is all I can muster. Finally it takes Alice coming onto the stage and helping me leave the room for me to actually command my body to move for me.
I have been preparing for this moment since the first day I had arrived at this place, but it had taken the words to actually come out of Cassius' mouth for me to finally realize that going home is the last thing that I want right now. But I have to keep my chin up and accept the very fact that has just hit me as hard as a freight train.
I will never live here again. I will never see Cassius again. I have lost.