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Broken Mirrors

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Cassandra’s heart slammed against her ribs, matching her pounding steps as she pushed herself harder than she ever had before. She flew through the castle halls, boots thumping on the freshly-polished floors and screeching as she skidded around each corner.

This is it, she thought to herself, adrenaline pumping through her veins and making her grin with wild abandon. A lady-in-waiting shouted in dismay as Cassandra ripped past her, diving through the doors to the guards’ hall and towards the royal stables.

The air smelled like hay and victory as she fumbled with the door to Fidella’s stall, barely able to restrain the excited laughter that was bubbling in her chest. Fidella gave her an inquisitive neigh, tossing her mane, and Cassandra looked up at her as the door swung inward. She tore the saddle from its place on the wall, strapping it to her horse with practiced efficiency. Owl hooted as he swooped down from the rafters, flying in a circle around them before settling by a post.

“No convent for me, girl. No matter what Dad says. If I can just pull this off, I’m home free.” She grunted, heaving herself effortlessly into Fidella’s saddle and patting her strong neck. “Let’s go!”

Fidella brayed, shooting out of the stall and into the castle courtyard. Cassandra let loose her laughter then, hanging tight to Fidella’s mane and relishing the feeling of wind beating against her face. The rest of the Guards wouldn’t know where to go; Rider would get away, as he always did. That was a fact-- as long as she wasn’t in the equation.

But she knew where he was going, and she knew how to get there faster.

Men shouted, old women squawked, people yelled and cursed as she rushed through the streets of Corona. Cassandra didn’t care. Fidella was a good horse; she wouldn’t run over anyone, no matter how close she got. All that mattered was that they got to the bridge in time.

And they did. She burst out from the alley and into the outskirts of the city just in time to see Rider race onto the bridge, his horse no more than a blur of white. He was really booking it-- she didn’t know if Fidella could even go that fast.

A venomous smirk pulled at her lips. It wouldn’t make a difference-- all she needed to do was stay out of sight and follow him until he tired out. Then she’d make her move.

“We’ve got this, Fidella,” she whispered into the horse’s ear. “No convent, and no carriages. We’ll be royal guards.”

She didn’t know if that made the horse run any faster or not, but it sure did give her already-euphoric levels of confidence a boost.

Cassandra, Royal Guard, the one who busted Flynn Rider once and for all.

She liked the sound of that.



____



Eugene should have never let his guard down so low.

He knew that. He knew it from experience. That was the one thing you learned from the very beginning of any good thieving career: don’t trust your surroundings, or the people in it.

And yet he had. For Rapunzel.

He should’ve heard the woman approaching. But he hadn’t. He should’ve heard the shing of a knife being drawn. He hadn’t. He should’ve dodged, should’ve rushed forward when he saw Rapunzel, should’ve done something, anything, to prevent this situation from ever happening.

But he hadn’t.

And now he lay with a cut-open belly, a hole in his back, and a struggling girl trying to save him.

This wasn’t how things were supposed to go.

We are going where no one will ever find you again!

No! I won’t stop!

If you let me save him, I will go with you…

“No,” he croaked, still clutching at his gut. “No, Rapunzel--”

“I’ll never run,” Rapunzel said, ignoring him completely as she stared up at her mother. “I’ll never try to escape. Just let me heal him, and you and I will be together, forever, just like you want…”

She went on for a little while more, but his world was coming in and out of focus, and breathing was becoming hard. This-- it couldn’t end like this. Flynn Rider couldn’t end like this.

Eugene couldn’t end like this.

He vaguely felt the older woman dragging him, groaning as his stomach protested at the movement. Cold steel pressed against his wrists once again, the clinking of chains eerie and all too familiar, dredging up the memory of that noose hanging innocently in the next room over.

“Eugene!” And then Rapunzel was there, her warm hands caressing his face and leaving little tingling trails. He could feel the desperation and love in her touch, in the way her fingers ghosted over his skin as if she might burn him in this fragile state. A cough racked his body and he hissed, hands shaking as they hovered over his wound.

Rapunzel’s hand gently pushed his away, and he let her adjust his vest. Her low gasp and apology echoed in his ears, rang in his head, but he suddenly couldn’t decide if it was real or not. She was murmuring promises and reassurances in that soft, lovely voice of hers, but all he could do was repeat over and over-- “No. No, Rapunzel.”

No. Please. It couldn’t end this way. She couldn’t go with that woman.

“I can’t let you do this,” he begged, finally, forcing his eyes open to look at her. She was fuzzy by now, but he could still make out her wide green eyes, the little smattering of freckles that danced across her nose.

“And I can’t let you die.” Her voice broke on that last line, and he could make out the beginnings of tears.

“But-- if you do this, then-- you-- will die.” He had to make her see reason. He didn’t want Eugene Fitzherbert to end like this, not so shortly after he’d finally come back, but that was a preferable outcome to Rapunzel ending like she planned to.

“Hey,” she whispered, brows upturned. Every one of her features were painted a tender shade of affection, eyes wide and vulnerable. “It’s gonna be all right.”

He wanted to smile. He really did. Her voice, her face, her warmth, her everything-- it all told him to smile, to believe, to let go and trust whatever she said. But he couldn’t. Not knowing that it would all be over and she would live her life in solitude, trapped away like some exotic bird.

There was a piece of glass, a broken mirror, just a few feet away. In another world, perhaps the pieces would've fallen differently, and he could’ve grabbed it. In another reality, perhaps he would’ve told her to wait, reached up, and cut her hair. In a better timeline, perhaps he could’ve had a say in what ending he wanted.

But that was not to be.

Her song was haunting, an ethereal melody of light and healing that cast phantom warmth in an aura around them. It vibrated in the air, fizzled in his veins, filled his lungs and heart and soul with a soft, comforting heat. He felt every wave of energy as it raced down her long golden strands, jumping into him like arcs of electricity and soothing away hs pain like a mother comforting her crying child.

Soon there was nothing left but smooth skin.

“All right,” Mother snapped, face ironed flat but eyes glittering with disgust. “Get your bags, Rapunzel. We’re leaving.”

He half-expected her to protest, to yell, to do any of the multitude of things one could imagine a spunky girl like her doing. Instead, she stood, giving him one last plaintive look before turning to the woman and bowing her head. “Yes, Mother.”

Eugene stayed quiet as Rapunzel packed a large leather sack full of things-- clothes, corked jars, paintbrushes, books. It wouldn’t do anything to protest, and everything had already been said. Anything else would just make the parting more painful, and Mother most likely wouldn’t mind stabbing him again if he were to make a move out of line.

Rapunzel made her choice, and there was nothing he could do to change it.

They shared one last long, sad look before Mother herded Rapunzel, in chains of her own, down the staircase.

Eugene turned his eyes to the ceiling of the tower. He didn’t know what to do now. Flynn Rider, the master of thievery and famous for always having a backup plan, was caught and defenseless with no will left to look for a solution. What was there to do? They’d be long gone by the time he managed to somehow get out by himself, and nothing but guards and all-too-aware townspeople awaited him outside. He’d have to flee the country again, but where would he go after that? He was alone. Rapunzel was gone. He’d failed.

Pascal nudged his hand.

Eugene looked down, managing a weak, plastered-on grin for the little lizard. “Hey there, frog. You might want to hurry if you’re planning on catching up with them.”

Pascal shook his head, tail arching over his body to point towards his mouth.

A shiny piece of twisted metal glinted up at him.

Something electric raced through Eugene at the sight, blowing his eyes wide. “Is that a--?”

Pascal set it down next to his hand, smiling it what he assumed was a self-satisfied manner.

“Where did you get that?” Eugene demanded, though he didn’t wait for an answer. Fingers working with expertise that could only belong to a veteran like himself, he maneuvered the lockpick around, shoving it into the lock in his chains. He bit his tongue as the tumblers clicked and clacked, looking down at Pascal with as much gratitude as he could possibly infuse into an expression. “Thank you, frog.”

Pascal turned a light shade of pink, then shot over to bright yellow when the lock clanked open.

Eugene was on his feet in minutes, grabbing Pascal and tucking him into the high collar of his shirt, just under his ear. “Hang on tight, buddy.”

Rapunzel couldn’t end like this, and Eugene wasn’t going to let her.



____



Cassandra had been moments away from running into the clearing when they appeared.

At first, she suspected fellow thieves, but it quickly became apparent that that was not the case. The older woman she could’ve believed, but the girl she was dragging behind her in shackles…? She’d heard the rumor about Flynn Rider’s new accomplice, and this matched up perfectly with what her Dad had described, but… no. There was no way.

There was something off here. She, along with everyone else, had thought the rumors about the girl’s hair were bunk-- and yet, there it was, yards upon yards of it tangled up in a bulky bundle in her shackled arms. It was something she’d only ever heard of when people talked about the Lost Princess, and how her hair had supposedly always been long to an unnatural degree. Pair that oddity with the chains and the way the older woman was glancing around like a criminal trying to walk through Corona plaza, and more than a few fishy feelings began to surface about the whole mess.

It only got weirder when Flynn appeared.

Her first instinct was to leap into action. After all, there he was, the object of her quest. Her ticket out of being a palace lady, her path far away from any convent. But the way he ran, almost tripping in his desperation to reach them, made her stop and reconsider. Something was happening here, and whatever it was, she didn’t have enough knowledge to make a good decision. For all she knew, the woman was a witch. He was only about fifty feet away from them; she could wait, see what happened, assess the woman’s threat level.

The ground rumbled under Cassandra’s feet, and she watched with wide, disbelieving eyes as a spike of earth jutted up from the ground in front of Flynn, knocking him sprawling against the side of the tower. His head cracked against the stone.

Okay, so definitely a witch.

The girl looked just as surprised as Cassandra was. “Mother, how--”

“I thought I told him not to follow us,” the woman growled, flicking her wrist to make the ground return to normal. She shook her hand as if to ward off some kind of ache, a little like the guards back home after they’d been practicing with their swords for too long. “Ah, well. Any further injury is fully his fault. Come now, Rapunzel, we have to get you out of here before he goes spilling the news about finding the Lost Princess.”

“You’re not even denying it anymore.” The girl sounded heartbroken. Cassandra almost felt sympathetic, but she was too close to drowning in shock to do anything else.

The Lost Princess was right there in front of her. She could rush in there now, take out the woman, save the princess, and bring back Flynn Rider tied up like a Christmas present all in one fell swoop.

The show of magic came back to the forefront of her mind, quelling temptation enough that she made herself calm down. No, she had to be smart about this. Flynn Rider was apparently important to the Princess; she wouldn’t gain any favors from hurting him, at least not right away, and in the worst case scenario she’d brand herself a villain in the girl’s eyes. So rushing into anything was completely off the table at this point. Hm.

“Just-- just leave him alone,” the girl was begging. “Just leave him there. We can go now. There’s nothing stopping us.”

“Mm.” the woman gave a single, brusque nod. “Very well.”

Cassandra, realizing they were coming her way, felt panic rising in her throat. She scrambled to get out of their path, looking around wildly for anywhere else to go--

A neigh made all of them freeze.

The white horse Flynn had been riding earlier. Of course. He must’ve walked off to go get water or something.

He brayed at them, running full force across the meadow. He was a sight to behold, with a long, flowing mane and a muscled hide born of training. In fact, he looked somewhat familiar.

The woman flicked her hand, a spike of earth sending him flying away. “Idiot beast.”

Cassandra lost her breath. The royal horses were stronger than a lot of their men, and this one had looked to be one of their best breeds. Just-- tossed aside like a piece of garbage.

Remembering her former panic, Cassandra hurried to tug Fidella towards a mop of ivy hanging on the wall of the cave they were hiding in. She held her breath as the woman and the Princess walked in on soft feet, hoping against hope that Fidella at her side or Owl at her feet wouldn’t make a sound.

After a few seconds, their footsteps faded, and Cassandra sighed with relief. She looked down at Owl, who met her gaze with oversized, questioning yellow eyes, cocking his head at her as if to ask what she thought about the matter.

She jerked her head in the direction they’d left. “Follow them.”

Hooting once is affirmation, he took off in a flutter of wings.

She watched him go, stepping out of the ivy and leading Fidella to do the same. Cassandra returned to the opening they’d been watching from, staring out at the crumpled form of Flynn Rider and the white horse bent over him in concern.

“Okay, so. New plans.” She looked up at Fidella, shrugging. “Probably ones I can’t tell Dad about. But, hey, if I can pull this off, I’m set to be Captain of the Guard. Town hero.”

Fidella neighed. She didn’t know what it meant, and thusly chose to believe it was a solid approval.

Walking across the meadow was a much different experience than looking in. It was the perfect little pocket of paradise: birds, a creek too shallow to do anything but splash around in, a nice open sky, plenty of wildflowers and thick turf, all cut off from the world and surrounded by trees. It was Cassandra’s kind of place. She wondered, briefly, if she could move her entire armory into the tower.

Probably not.

The horse noticed them far before she and Fidella approached Flynn. Upon getting close enough to tell who she was, the horse’s nostrils flared and he jumped in front of Flynn, standing over him protectively. He snorted, tossing his mane in challenge.

Finally, now that she was seeing him up close, Cassandra furrowed her brows. “Maximus?”

Max whinnied, ears flicking back and forth. Cassandra faltered, looking back and forth between him and the unconscious Flynn. “You’re protecting him? After everything he did to you and Dad?”

Max seemed to consider her for a second, glancing down at the ground, before bouncing his head in the horse equivalent of a nod.

“Huh.” Cassandra crossed her arms. “Does it have to do with the Lost Princess?”

Another nod.

“Do you trust him?”

Nod.

Cassandra let out a long, deep sigh. She trusted Max more than any other animal in the world, possibly more than even Owl and Fidella. After all, he was her Dad’s horse, the ultimate goal of any guard horse and the epitome of justice and everything else the Guard stood for. It was like her dad standing there and telling her to look-- there’s more to the story. Don’t jump to conclusions.

“Fine. Just-- fine. But you’re carrying him.”

At Max’s inquisitive whinny, she waved him off, striding towards Flynn and lifting him without a problem. He was heavier than he looked, all muscle, but she’d lifted things twice his size and thrown them. It wouldn’t be an issue to tie him down to Max’s saddle. “I’ve got a plan, and if you say we can trust him, then I’m gonna need both of you to get it done. You in?”

He gave her a long stare-- not suspicious, exactly, but thoughtful. Trying to figure her out. Finally, Max neighed, tossing his mane and turning towards the little cave entrance at the other side of the meadow. She grinned, plopping Flynn onto his back like a sack of potatoes.

“All right. First stop: Old Corona.” She patted Max’s side after tying the last strap, pushing down on Flynn’s legs to make sure he was secure. “If we’re going to be fighting magic, then we’re going to need some of our own. Let’s just hope there’s something to these rumors too.”

Chapter Text

The world was fuzzy when Eugene opened his eyes.

It was mostly green, though little speckles of color caught his attention now and again. As his vision slowly came into focus, he could make out layers to the green, and little shapes and textures. They denoted a familiar carpet of rich forest turf, lined with thick brown tree trunks like paintbrush strokes covered in swaying leaves. The thought turned his mind to Rapunzel, and something fluttered in his chest for a moment-- or maybe it was the movement of the horse under him as they walked.

Wait. What?

Alarm shot through him, a ray of sunlight through his drowsy fog, and Eugene jerked into action. When he found his wrists, ankles, and torso bound, the panic only increased. He didn’t notice as the horse-- Maximus, the more rational part of his brain whispered-- stopped to whinny at him, and he didn’t notice the shouts of a second person just in front of him. None of that deserved attention right now.

What mattered was that he was bound, and more importantly, Rapunzel was being held captive, essentially a slave to that witch --

Rider !” A voice exploded in his ear, tearing him from his panic enough to cut his eyes to the other person. A woman, around his age if a little younger, stared at him from atop her horse. Her lip curled in disgust as she looked him over. “You’ll attract attention. We’re nearly out of the forest now, and there are guards everywhere.”

That made him calm down, if only for the moment. Even if his mind was running at a thousand thoughts a minute, thief instinct told him that the priority as not getting caught. If he got caught, then he couldn’t rescue Rapunzel, and they’d lead him back to the dungeons to be hanged--

The ropes on his wrists suddenly burned against his skin, and he knit his brows, mouth set in a distrustful line. “Why should I trust you? You tied me up!”

The woman puckered her lips, raising an unimpressed eyebrow. “Would you rather I let you fall off?”

He glanced down, taking stock of the situation, and realized-- face heating up-- that she was right. She’d just secured him to Max-- perhaps with a few extra restraints just in case, but he couldn’t blame her for that. He was infamous, after all. “Oh.”

She shook her head, sliding out of her saddle and landing with a thump on the grass. “Oh, boy, this is going to be a nightmare. Okay. Rider, here’s the deal.” A gloved hand reached back to draw a sword, and Eugene’s eyes widened, nerves making his legs shake with anticipation to escape. She didn’t attack him, however; the blade simply sat in her hands, flat bouncing on her open palm. “I could take you to the Guard right now. Do you know just what’s in it for me to take you back?”

A vision of the wanted poster flashed through his mind, and for once, his grossly overdrawn nose wasn’t the worst part. His mouth felt like sand as he nodded. “I do.”

“That’s good. Just keep that in mind: you misbehave, and I take you in.” She advanced on him then, and he flinched away, only for her to carefully wedge the tip of her blade under one of his restraints.

It came off with a quiet snap , and he raised a brow at her, staying as still as possible to avoid any accidents. “What makes you think I won’t bolt?”

“Will you?” She met his eyes with a sharp, steely glare.

“I might, if you don’t tell me what you’re planning.”

She rolled her eyes, moving on to the ankle restraints. He rubbed at his freed wrists, soothing the light red marks that’d formed over the course of their trip so far. “I know about the girl, Rider. I believe you’ll agree with me when I say she’s worth a bit more than you.”

Thoughts of Rapunzel filled his mind, a beam of warmth over his dismal mood, and he smiled despite himself. “She is.”

The woman cast him an odd look at his soft tone, but dismissed it quickly. “Well, you know her and that witch better than I do, and you’ve been off gallivanting across the country for years. You’ve got a criminal's mind, and if I’m reading you right, you’ve got a solid motivation. So here’s my offer.”

Snapping the last bond from around his waist, she tapped his shoulder with the flat of her blade, then lowered it to point at the grass. Dappled sunlight filtering through the branches above made it seem to glitter, a deadly sort of beautiful. “You’re going to help me find her and return her to Corona. In return, I won’t turn you in.”

Something dark and heavy coiled in his gut at that, and something Rapunzel had said once came back to mind-- something about her hair, and people wanting to steal it. 

We want her.

The Stabbingtons had known about her hair. They’d betrayed him, set him up, and then gone after Rapunzel. This woman, the one who claimed Rapunzel was ‘worth more than him’-- did she know too? What other reason would there be for wanting her?

A cloud passed over Eugene’s face, anger hotter than anything he’d ever felt boiling deep within him. “I’m not letting you take her. She deserves to be free.”

She gave him a flat look. “Royalty isn’t the loosest job you could have, but I assure you, it’s better than whatever life she’s living now.”

“I won’t just give her--” the woman’s words registered, and the anger suddenly dispelled. “What?”

Hazel eyes, narrowed with genuine confusion, looked him over. “Did she not tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“That she’s the Lost Princess.”

At first, Eugene laughed. Rapunzel wasn’t the Lost Princess! That was a legend among the people by now; a distant image of a baby with freakishly long golden hair, stolen by a witch on her birthday eighteen… years… ago…

Oh.

Oh, no.

The woman watched as realization made his face go slack, her own expression kept carefully flat and unyielding. “She’s… I’ve been running around with the Lost Princess. I’m in love with the Lost Princess.

The confession slipped out without forethought, in front of a total stranger, but in that moment, Eugene didn’t care. It was one more revelation on top of a much larger pile.

The woman seemed unaffected. “You see why I want to find and return her.”

He gave a dazed nod.

She watched him for a moment before sighing. Her expression softened, and she sheathed her blade once again, both hands settling on her hips. “Look, I’m risking a lot for this. Scratch that, I’m risking everything for this. I know thieves have no honor, but I’m asking you now to make an exception. If you really love her, you’ll work with me.”

He snapped to attention, meeting her gaze with one of his own and matching her intensity tenfold. “Of course. Yes. I-- we-- have to find her.”

“Then we’re agreed.” She stuck out her right hand. “I’m Cassandra.”

Eugene looked down at the proffered hand for a second before reaching out and gripping it firmly, shaking once. “Enchanté. I believe you know who I am.”

“The whole kingdom does.” He didn’t miss the way she wiped her glove on her oversized shirt, turning back towards her horse and heaving herself up. “We’ve got a ways to go until we reach Old Corona. There’s a path through the foothills that’ll get us there unnoticed, but we’ll have to deal with the bandits. You good with that?”

“I’ve fought several trained guards at once. I can deal with a couple of bandits, especially if you’ve got an extra weapon stowed away somewhere.” Familiar confidence came flowing back now that he was free and somewhat back in control, and he managed a cocky grin. “They’re no match for Flynn Rider.”

She snorted. “Oh, yeah, you’re going to be a joy to be around.”

“I’m always a joy.” He lifted his chin at her, even though she’d gone ahead on her horse and couldn’t see it. “One question, though. Why Old Corona?”

“Simple. We’re going up against a witch.”

Eugene waited for her to elaborate. When she didn’t he pursed his lips, trading a glance with Maximus. “And Old Corona helps with that how?”

Cassandra looked back over her shoulder long enough to roll her eyes. “I thought world-traveling thieves took it upon themselves to learn about their surroundings.”

“Pardonnez-moi for not seeking out information about a tiny border village.”

“Don’t give me that.” She shot a glare back at him. “There’s this rumor circulating around Corona about a wizard who lives there. A lot of people say he’s dangerous, but my-- the guards have checked out the city before and haven’t taken any action, so he’s not malicious. I think he might be able to help.”

“That’s all well and good, but what do you plan to offer this wizard? I mean, if he’s an outcast recluse living all the way out in Old Corona, he’s probably not going to be raring to help us.”

She raised an index finger. “You forget how much the royals are offering for her safe return. It’s been up for a long time, so most everyone’s forgotten it, but her current offer is ten times yours in money, plus lands and a noble title. It was driven up in desperation for five years in a row before they quit increasing it, and the bounty’s still hanging in the guards’ quarters.”

“Money can’t buy loyalty,” Eugene argued, though he saw her point. That offer was enough to sway even the most unmoveable of men; even he was fighting off a sudden wave of temptation at the mere thought. “How do you know he won’t turn us both in?”

“Told you before, I’m risking it all. This kind of opportunity isn’t going to cross my path again, and I’m taking full advantage of it.” Cassandra didn’t make any noise, but he could tell by the soft bounce of her shoulders that she was laughing. “Besides, if anything goes wrong, I can just pin it all on you.”

“Touch é ,” he drawled, soaking in sarcasm. “So you’re just in it for the money, then?”

Cassandra didn’t answer.

“There’s no shame in admitting it,” Eugene smirked at her back. “I’ve done plenty of stuff for nothing other than a couple of coins.”

“We’re almost out,” she said abruptly, once again devoid of emotion.

Eugene looked up, realizing she was right. The woods ahead of them were thinning, the lush grass-and-moss carpet turning reedy. Clusters of lupine, foxglove, and daffodil spotted the short stretch of plains ahead, leading towards a gaping crevice in the Saison mountain range.      

Sunlight burned at his eyes as they emerged from the woods, and wind caressed his face. The scent of open air and wild vegetation soothed whatever nerves were still left over from earlier, and Eugene let out a soft sigh. “I could get used to this.”

“Yeah, well, don’t. The gorge isn’t like this at all.” Cassandra patted her horse on the flank and sped up to a trot. Maximus followed suit, taking care not to jostle Eugene too much, which he appreciated. He was getting good at recovering from loss of consciousness, all things considered, but he still wasn’t sure if a rough ride would make him sick or not. “Let’s just hope we don’t run into too much bad news. We need to get to following the Lost Princess as soon as possible.”

“About that,” Eugene furrowed a brow as something crossed his mind. “How are you planning on following Rapunzel? We’re days away from them now, even on horseback, and we don’t know where the witch is going.”

“I’ve got a friend scouting them. He’ll meet me in Old Corona.”

Eugene raised a hand. “Wait, wait, wait. You have a spy? How is he going to reach you in time? And does he know where we’re going?”

“Just trust me. I know what I’m doing, and he always finds me.”

Eugene couldn’t help but snicker at that. “Sounds like you two have quite the thing going.”

Cassandra’s head lowered, and she began to shake in her spot. Eugene almost apologized, thinking he’d said something out of line, when a snort broke the silence. Laughter followed, poorly muffled by a glove. “I guess you could say that.”

Eugene blinked, then shrugged. He didn’t know what she found so funny, but then, it seemed there was a lot of things he wasn’t going to understand about his new travel companion. Instead, he glanced up at the rapidly-approaching gorge. “Did you have any spare weapons, or no?”

“Oh-- yeah, I have a dagger. Can you work with that?”

“Like a dream.”

“Great. I’ll give it to you when you need it.”

He crossed his arms. “What, don’t trust me?”

“To be blunt, no. I don’t.” Cassandra looked back at him. “I was very close to taking you back to the capital before Maximus convinced me not to. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to let you have a knife and walk behind me.”

The gears in Eugene’s mind were already turning, even as he mimed being struck. “I’m wounded, Cassandra.”

She knew Maximus’s name, and apparently trusted him. Add that to her knowledge of the guards, and she was quickly becoming suspicious. Eugene filed it away for later-- after all, she felt like she was being genuine, and it wasn’t like he had many options but to trust her.

“Take it or leave it, Rider. I don’t give out trust to just anyone; you’re lucky and a special case.” Cassandra shifted her gaze to the gorge ahead of them. They were almost upon it, the towering stone walls encroaching in on them like jaws of stone. “We’re here. Are you ready?”

Eugene looked up. The gorge seemed endless from here, a never-ending tube of stone, dirt, and sparse vegetation. It just screamed of bandits and all sorts of other dangers; Eugene wouldn’t be surprised if he ran into Lady Caine or the Weasel hanging out somewhere in there.

Still, the image of Rapunzel being led away by her ‘mother’ stood above it all.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” he replied.

Chapter Text

Rapunzel’s legs shook with every step they took up the mountainside. Her bare feet hurt so much that she could barely focus on putting one in front of the other, much less whatever she was walking toward. The only thing that made up her world in that moment was Mother, marching on just ahead of her, and the chains bouncing off her moving legs with soft, tinkling clinks.

She let out a sigh of relief when the wind picked up, whisking some of the heat away from her forehead. Rapunzel had been getting sick of trooping through the forest earlier, but she would’ve given anything to go back to the shady, lush glens and thickets. Instead of moss and turf, rocks poked into the soles of her feet, and she had to stifle a hiss of pain every five steps. Ahead of her, Mother was slowing down-- only a little, but enough for Rapunzel to notice, and enough to spark a little bit of hope in her.

Indeed, it was only another minute before Mother came to a stop, turning around to regard Rapunzel with a carefully neutral expression. “It’s past noon. We’ll take a short break before continuing.”

She didn’t need any other invitation. Spotting a fallen log, she fell back against it, rubbing circles on her throbbing feet. Without the constant need to focus herself on moving forward, Rapunzel was finally able to take in her surroundings in more detail.

The cliffside, like everything else in the world she’d seen, was beautiful. Great swathes of earthy reds and browns painted the cliff face behind her, speckled with little growths of saplings and other, unidentifiable plants. Ahead of them, the plains stretched on for miles, covered in fluffy beds of wildflowers and tall, thin stalks of grass. A gorge of some sort lay to the left of the plains, gouging its way through the foothills, and opposite that was the forest they’d come from, tall and comforting in its wildness. The sky above was a beautiful shade of blue, so much so that Rapunzel wished she could take it for herself, keep it in a little clay jar and spread it all over the tower’s walls.

The tower…

Just like that, her heart sank again. She would never return to that tower. Rapunzel shouldn’t have felt sad about that; it was a prison, a gilded cage, just some hiding place for a thief to stow away her precious loot.

But it had also been her home.

It was where she’d met Pascal. Where she’d met Eugene. Where she’d painted and baked and read and lived. It was where she’d first seen the lanterns-- her lanterns-- from the window all those years ago, and continued to watch them every year after that.

A sound to her right tore Rapunzel from her memories, and she glanced over at where Mother stood. She was holding out both hands toward the cliffside, mouth twisted in a frustrated snarl. She’d pulled her hair back a while ago to keep it off her neck, and it pooled in the back of her hood, stray locks slipping out as she made increasingly irritated gestures with both hands.

“What are you doing?” Rapunzel found herself asking.

She immediately regretted it. Mother turned on her with a hard glint in her eye, and Rapunzel curled in on herself out of instinct, arms wrapping around her legs and pulling them to her chest. After the struggle in the tower, after watching Mother stab Eugene, she didn’t know what to expect out of her.

Mother’s face softened, just enough to ensure she wasn’t threatening, and heaved a deep sigh. “That fool and his beast drained what little magic I had left. It will take days to restore my energy.”

Despite the cool, calm voice Mother used, Rapunzel sensed an openness to conversation, and she took advantage of it. She’d been walking in silence too long now to just sit and wallow in it when she had a choice to do otherwise. “Did you always have magic, and just never told me?”

“I owe you no explanation, flower. Perhaps, when you’ve earned back my trust, I’ll tell you more.”

“Oh. Okay.” She didn’t protest, no matter how curious she was. If there was anything Rapunzel had learned over the course of her life, it was that Mother didn’t like to be tested, and she really didn’t want to invoke any more wrath today than she had to. Instead, she glanced over at her bags, which she’d dropped without ceremony beside her at the first mention of a rest.

Checking to make sure Mother had returned to whatever she was trying to do, Rapunzel reached for the thick leather bag, tugging it into her lap. After taking a few breaths to work up some nerve-- she really shouldn’t have been nervous; it was her bag after all, but something about it made her gut twist-- she flipped open the flap, exposing the various contents. Her paints, an extra dress, brushes, books, Pascal--

Rapunzel blinked. Keeping her voice low, she murmured, “Pascal?”

He chirruped in response, unfolding himself from his hiding place and scrambling up her arm. Pascal perched on her shoulder, nuzzling her cheek, and Rapunzel felt a smile tug at her lips. “How did you get in there? I thought you got stuck in the tower with Eugene.”

Another chirrup. She chuckled to herself, reaching up to pat him on the head. “Well, either way, I’m glad you’re here. I don’t know if I could make it without you.”

Still smiling, Rapunzel looked back to her bag, reaching in and resurfacing with both hands full of paint and brushes. Spreading them out on the log beside her, she shifted to her knees, opening a few of her favorite colors and dipping the tip of a brush into the jar of purple.

She took a deep breath, turning her gaze to the cliffside. Mother wouldn’t rest for long; she’d only have the time to make a small, basic picture before they had to go again. But it would be enough. Painting always helped her feel better; it released her fears and doubts and whatever myriad other emotions she was feeling at the moment. The only question, now, was what she wanted to paint.

After thinking for a full minute, just staring blankly ahead at her stony canvas, Rapunzel found herself thinking of Eugene. What if, by some odd chance, he found this painting? Would he know it was hers? What kind of message would she send with it?

Inspiration flowed into her in a crisp, refreshing stream, and Rapunzel smiled as she made the first stroke.

Several yards away in the top of a dead tree, two unblinking yellow eyes watched her. With a solemn hoo and a ruffle of feathers, they were gone, and a small brown shape flew through the air towards the gorge.



____



“So. Palace servant?”

Cassandra shot him a half-glare, half-incredulous-disgusted face. “What?”

Eugene put his hands up in surrender. “Just a guess.”

They’d been walking through the gorge for around an hour now. Apart from mentioning that they were around halfway through, Cassandra had remained silent, and there was only so much silence and lack of exciting scenery Eugene could take. It led him to wonder about his new companion, particularly why she seemed to know so much about the Guard, and he hadn’t been able to resist guessing. Besides, someone had to put in the work if they were to get to know each other.

She gave him a grimace for his efforts. “I am not, and will not be, a palace servant. Do I look like some frou-frou maid to you?”

“Nah, more like a dragon lady.” Eugene gave her a lopsided grin. “That’s it! The Guards tried to slay you. That’s why you’re so interested in them.”

She sighed, shaking her head. “Look, just drop the guard thing. I’m not going to tell you, no matter how funny you think you are.”

“Why, though?” Eugene gestured to himself, raising a brow. “It’s not a secret that we’re from different backgrounds, and you know everything about me. Besides, if we’re going to travel together, I need to know at least something about you.”

“I have a sword and I will use it. That’s all you need to know.”

“That’s most people I work with.” Eugene glared at her as she turned her back on him, crossing his arms and leaning back. “What’s your favorite color?”

Silence filled the space between them for a minute. Finally, she grumbled out, “Gold.”

“Hey, what a coincidence! Mine too! See, we’ve got something in common.”

“Except I’m not thinking of coins.”

The corners of Eugene’s mouth turned down. “Neither am I.”

Cassandra looked back at him, brows tilted upward ever-so-slightly. “You’re not?”

He shook his head, staring down at the dusty, featureless ground. “It reminds me of someone.”

Her lips formed a small ‘o’, and her expression became thoughtful, the edge fading from her tone. “It-- it reminds me of Coronan armor.”

Eugene smirked. “So you are connected with the guards somehow.”

Cassandra’s eyes hardened, posture straightening as she closed herself back off. “Do you have to say it with that smug look? I was-- I was--” She blew out a breath, shaking her head again and turning away from him. “Never mind. I should know better than to think you’d have any sense of courtesy.”

Eugene opened his mouth to reply when movement caught the corner of his eye. His whole body tensed, adrenaline already trickling into his veins at the notion that something wasn’t right. “Cassandra.”

“For goodness’ sake, Rider, would you just shut up?”

Cassandra ,” he repeated, more forceful this time. “You might want to toss me that dagger.”

The effect was immediate. Whoever she was, Cassandra knew how to fight, and she did it often: he could see it in the way she stiffened, going on full alert as she swept her eyes over the cliffside. “Where?”

“To the left, maybe twelve paces away. Behind that boulder.”

“Fine. Here.” She reached into her horse’s saddlebag, falling back beside him and offering the dagger. “No funny business, or I’ll behead you here and now.”

He took it without breaking eye contact. “Got it.”

She gave him a single nod, then turned towards the bounder in front of them. It sat there innocently, blending in with the rest of the terrain, but neither of them missed the fact that it was big enough for several men to crouch behind. Cassandra and Eugene dismounted as quietly as they could, he gripping his new dagger and she drawing her sword. Together, they crept forward, hearts beating in sync as they got ready to jump whoever was behind it.

Once they were a single step away, Cassandra nodded to Eugene, and they shot forward, blades extended.

There was nothing to cut.

Cassandra and Eugene stopped short, shoulders relaxing as they took in the surprising lack of threat. “Huh,” he muttered, mouth set in a thin line. “I could’ve sworn--”

Watch out! ” Cassandra shouted, shoving him hard into the boulder’s face at the same time an arrow whizzed through where his head had just been. Cassandra grit her teeth, rushing the archer, as he recovered, nabbing the dagger from where it’d fallen.

The archer, a rotund little man probably in his forties, raised his crossbow to block her sword. The blade sank into it with a dull thunk, sending a few wood chips flying, but Cassandra didn’t let that stop her. She jerked back on the sword and thrust her knee forward, jamming it into the man’s gut. He gasped, doubling over, and she yanked her sword back out. His crossbow skittered across the gorge’s floor towards Eugene, who kicked it out of the way as he approached the fight.

Cassandra had just raised her blade to the man’s throat-- hopefully just to threaten him-- when a figure slammed into her from the side. Cassandra tumbled to the ground with a grunt, sword clattering a few feet away from her, and Eugene looked to the one who’d hit her.

This one was larger, a bandana wrapped around the lower half of his face and several weapons strapped to his chest. He was bald, missing even his eyebrows, and had a build even more impressive than the Stabbingtons’. His bare chest was riddled with scars, a collection to rival a gladiator’s.

Casting a glance in Cassandra’s direction to make sure she was okay, Eugene twirled his dagger. “Hey! Bootleg Wreck Marauder! Pick on someone your own size, will you?”

The man turned to him, ugly face screwing up. “You’re not my size.”

“Figure of speech.” Eugene ran at him, jumping midway there and bringing down his dagger. The man rushed to block with his metal gauntlets, sending both of them stumbling back from a cloud of sparks. Eugene didn’t waste any time. He advanced again, this time ducking under a punch and swerving sideways to land a kick straight to the man’s side. He bellowed as he pitched to the side before finding his balance and bringing a fist around towards Eugene.

He ducked just in time to avoid it, wind whistling over his head from the blow, and lunged forward at the man’s exposed chest. The hit landed, though it didn’t quite go as planned; he seemed unbothered by it, striking out with his other hand to seize Eugene by the throat.

Eugene struggled against the man’s grip, kicking with both legs as hard as he could and gasping for breath. “Hey-- buddy-- pal--- can we talk about this?” he wheezed out, grip on the dagger going slack. “Surely you don’t-- don’t want to kill me. Flynn Rider? Big bounty?”

“Dead or alive.” the man’s breath smelled like day-old meat.

A crossbow bolt lodged itself into his shoulder.

The man shouted, letting go of Eugene and whirling on Cassandra. She looked straight back at him, already loading the next bolt and pointing it over his heart. “Don’t make a single move,” she warned, icy and firm. “I will put you down here and now.”

“I’d listen to the dragon lady,” Eugene whispered out of the corner of his mouth. “She’s serious.” 

The bandit glanced between him and Cassandra, slowly raising both hands in surrender. Eugene didn’t miss the way his left arm shook, now dripping blood where he’d been hit. “Aye, fine. You got me. I’ll leave you alone.”

“Hey, finally, a ruffian with some sense.” Eugene laughed as he stood back up, though it trembled a little. “If was fun, buddy, but we’re on a mission, so we kind of have to get going.”

Cassandra glared down at the man, crossbow bolt glinting in the sun. “Don’t follow us.”

They left him tied up to his unconscious buddy.

Eugene stayed quiet as they mounted again, though he stared hard at the back of Cassandra’s head. He just couldn’t figure her out. She’d been adamant that her trust in him was minimal, but then, why would she go so far to help him out? Sure, they had to stick together, but he’d left fellow thieves in the dust plenty of times before. Maybe it had to do with the fact that she wanted to keep him around for Rapunzel’s sake, or maybe she really did have a heart in there. He remembered the feeling of bonding with Rapunzel, of finding loyalty that he’d never held for anyone else in his life, but for some reason, seeing Cassandra feeling that for him was way out of his mental capacity.

Maybe he’d never know.

Before Eugene realized it, they were far away from the boulder, and he could finally begin to see something besides stone, dust, and sky on the horizon.

“So,” Cassandra cleared her throat. “What’s your favorite food?”

Eugene blinked, then felt a slow smile take hold of his lips. “Well, I’ve always been partial to pancakes…”



____



The house was huge.

Cassandra stared up at it with a measure of wariness. The townspeople who’d pointed them this way hadn’t seemed scared; more than anything, they seemed to regard Varian with either apathy or slight exasperation. She wondered if many people came asking after him, and whether or not he helped them. Still, this giant structure of solid brick-and-mortar gave her bad vibes, and she couldn’t think of a single instance where a ten-foot-tall door ever denoted anything good.

Flynn strode right on up and pushed the door inward. “Hello? Anyone home? Friendly wizards?”

Cassandra slapped a hand over her face, following him reluctantly in.

They stepped into a dark room, with a hall on the left and another, shorter door in front of them. Cassandra looked it over, eyes narrowing when she spotted a steady trickle of thick pink mist flowing from under the door and around the hinges. It dissipated quickly, leaving behind who-knows-what in the air. She drew her sword, pointing down at the fog. “I’m guessing that’s the room we want to be in.”

“Put your sword away. We don’t want to go in with any kind of aggression.” Flynn rolled his eyes. “Dragons are supposed to be wise and careful.”

“Shut it before I cut it, Rider.” Still, she heeded his words, sheathing her sword. “You wanna go in first, or do I need to?”

“Are you asking me if I’m afraid?” Flynn crossed his arms before taking a step back. “Because yes, I am. You go into the pink smoke first.”

She shot him a glare before pushing the door open. A cloud of thick magenta, much more saturated inside, puffed out, enveloping them in color and a pungent chemical smell. Cassandra gagged, waving a hand to try and clear out the air, before stepping forward. Flynn followed her, fingers pinched over his nose.

As soon as they were both in, the door slammed closed behind them.

Cassandra and Flynn whirled around, trading a wide-eyed glance with one another, before their attention was grabbed by a noise burbling from somewhere on the opposite side of the room. Cassandra soon identified it as a voice, mumbling words she couldn’t understand. It was deep and warped, a strange quality that she’d never heard in anyone else’s speech before, and she squinted through the fog. “Hello?”

Something moved in the distance, and a twin pair of bright, sickly yellow circles turned to stare at her. The voice said something else, and they approached, almost seeming to float amidst the fog. Her hand twitched, itching to grab her sword, or the new crossbow she’d strapped to her back, or anything-- just something to make her feel more secure. Flynn stiffened behind her, likely thinking along the same lines.

Then a figure emerged from the smoke, coming to a stop in front of them and cocking its head. The person wore a strange rectangular mask that covered his whole face, complete with bulbous yellow lenses over where she assumed his eyes were. A thick overcoat covered the rest of his body, and gloves and boots added extra protection to his extremities. All of the layers made her wonder if it was really such a good idea to be exposed to whatever all this pink stuff was.

“What do you want?” the voice thundered, deep enough that Cassandra could feel the vibration. 

She swallowed her nerves, clenching both fists and standing tall against the figure. “We need help with something very important. Are you Varian?”

She didn’t get an answer. Instead, the figure ducked closer to her, as if to get a better look, before backing off-- good on him, because she was about to lash out if he got any closer. “What is it you need help with?”

“We need help finding someone,” Flynn spoke up, stepping up beside Cassandra in what could’ve been taken as a protective way. “The Lost Princess, to be exact.”

The figure scoffed. “The Princess? But she’s been lost for eighteen years, what makes you think… hold on. Flynn Rider ?”

Cassandra tensed, instantly going on high alert, and Flynn fumbled to refute his claim. “No! What? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Never heard of him.”

The figure reached up, and Cassandra got ready to draw her blade in case he was going to try to do some kind of magic--

But he just flipped up his mask, revealing a mop of black hair with a shock of pale blue running through it. The other hand lifted to brush it away, uncovering a childish, freckled face and a buck-toothed grin wider than the bridge to Corona’s capital. He couldn’t have been over fifteen, and judging by what she could see with the mask off, he was just a little twig under all his layers.

“You are! Ohoho man, I am your biggest fa-” he cut himself off with a hacking cough, and he beat a fist against his chest. “Ack! Sorry. I keep forgetting to periodically ventilate while I work.”

He dashed through the fog, disappearing as quickly as he’d come, and Cassandra blinked as a whooshing sound filled the room. The fog began to thin out within seconds, giving way to what appeared to be some kind of laboratory. A table in one corner of the room supported countless vials and other such junk, and several hulking shapes covered in tarps lurked around the walls. The kid grinned at them from his place by a vent of some kind, pushing buttons and flicking levers in some sort of process Cassandra couldn’t understand.

When the last of the pink had been sucked away, he switched off the vent, dusting off his gloves. His boots thunked loudly on the floor as he approached them again. “So sorry about that, Flynn. Haha. Is it okay if I call you Flynn?”

“It’s fine, kid. Just-- you are Varian, right?”

“That’s me!” he laughed, freckles bunching up when his nose crinkled in delight. “And this is my lab. Oh, and over here, look!”

And he was off again, pulling at a rope before Cassandra could ask him to wait. Curtains swung open to reveal an indention in the wall, covered top to bottom in Flynn Rider memorabilia-- books, a satchel that looked near identical to the one he’s used to carry Rapunzel’s crown, a knife, and...

“Is that a wanted poster of me with a correctly-sized nose ?” Flynn stared at it for a moment before shaking his head. “Never mind, that’s not important right now. Varian, we came here looking for you because we need your help. See, we’re going against a witch, so your magic--”

“Magic?” Varian breathed the word in the same manner as a priest might say blasphemy. “I, Varian, am a man of science. I do not work with magic.

Cassandra’s lips thinned. “So… you’re not a wizard.”

“Nope!” Varian shook his head, then offered her a bright smile. “But my alchemy can do whatever it is you need. Um, what was it you needed me for again? Oh, right-- the Lost Princess?”

“I… yes, we’ve found a lead,” Cassandra began.

Flynn elaborated for her. “We know where the Lost Princess is, and we also know that’s she’s being held captive. If we don’t go get her, fast, then we’ll lose her again. That cannot happen.”

“So you’re… this is for real.” Varian’s eyes went wide and shiny, grinning so wide Cassandra thought his face would split. “The Lost Princess is basically a legend around here! I just-- I can not believe that Flynn Rider and-- um, what’s your name?”

“...Cassandra.”

“--and Lady Cassandra came to my house, to ask for my help, to rescue the Lost Princess from a witch!” He bounced up and down on his toes, giggling. “This is amazing! Hang on, just let me get my stuff-- I’ll leave a note for Dad, he would not approve of this, but you’d better believe I’m going to do it anyway--”

“Wait,” Cassandra turned on Flynn as the kid ran off to start gathering up an absurd amount of random stuff from the shelves and tables around his lab. “We can’t take a child with us. That’s-- that’s kidnapping. And we’re going up against the person who stole the Lost Princess; there’s no way we can throw him into that kind of danger.”

Flynn tilted his head back and forth. “I don’t know, my buddies and I were working for the Baron at his age.”

Cassandra’s eyes narrowed. “That doesn’t count. Just look at the kid-- he’s no thief.”

Flynn watched him for a while, heart sinking a little lower with every excited stumble or trip. He dropped at least three glass containers in his rush, and laughed nervously when their contents created a small green flame. “Maybe you’re right. But then what do we do about the witch?”

“We’ll just have to deal with her alone,” Cassandra grumbled. “Which means we’ve wasted valuable time. We need to leave before we waste any more.”

That struck a chord in Flynn. Cassandra was right-- every moment they spent here, Rapunzel was slowly moving further away, and so were his chances at ever catching up to her again. He sighed. “You’re right. Let’s go.”

“Okay, I got everything-- hey! Flynn! Cassandra! Where are you going?” They turned back to see Varian, decked out in what he must’ve considered ‘travel gear’, looking after them with upturned eyebrows and a small frown. 

He’d shed his overcoat, leaving behind a teal tunic and tan breeches, and had slid on another thinner jacket with a hood. Two belts and two over-the-shoulder leather straps wound around his skinny form, laden with pouches and vials and gizmos she had no name for. His goggles had been pulled over his eyes, making them seem even bigger than before, and both hands were still coated in sturdy black leather. The only thing the kid had in common with the figure they’d first seen were his oversized boots, almost comical in the way they contrasted with everything else.

Varian's travel gear

 

Flynn frowned, and Cassandra crossed her arms. “You’re not coming with us, kid. Don’t breathe a word of this to anyone. In fact, forget we were ever here.”

He didn’t seem fazed by the icy warning note in Cassandra’s voice. Instead, he flipped up his goggles, still making the same kicked-puppy look. “What do you mean? I can help! I want to help!”

“Forget it, kid. You’re, what? Fourteen? You wouldn’t last a day out there on the road.” Cassandra turned and started walking again, pressing her hand to the door. “Seriously. Just forget we were here. Go on about your life.”

She pushed the door open and strode out.

Flynn was quiet beside her as they exited the house together, relishing the fresh air and sunlight after being stuck in that laboratory for so long. She glanced over at him, raising a brow. “Are you okay?”

“Me? I’m fine.”

He was not fine. She could tell by his voice. But, as per usual, Cassandra had no interest in pressing people who didn’t want to be pressed. Instead, she lifted her fingers to her lips, releasing a wolf-whistle that echoed off the distant buildings of Old Corona.

Flynn stared at her. “What are you doing?”

“Calling my spy.” Cassandra shielded her eyes, scanning the horizon. It took a second, but soon the familiar brown splotch of Owl appeared in her vision. She grinned, holding up a forearm, and waited for Owl to flutter down and land on her glove.

That’s your spy?” Flynn asked incredulously.

“Got a problem with it?”

Flynn shook his head. “No. I guess not.” 

“Good. Owl doesn’t like problematic people.” Cassandra watched her ‘spy’ for a few minutes as he ruffled his feathers around, picking at a spot with his beak, before finally cocking his head in the direction of Mount Saison in the distance with a quiet ‘hoo’.

Cassandra’s spirit fell. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What’d the bird say?”

“The witch and the Princess are climbing Mount Saison,” Cassandra answered, turning to Flynn while giving Owl a scratch under the beak. “Probably just the lower cliffs, if I had to guess, so we don’t have to worry too much. Still, I don’t know where they’re going from there, so we’ll have to turn back and follow in their tracks.”

Flynn groaned. “So we’ll have wasted an entire day.”

“Mm-hm.” Cassandra sighed, bouncing her arm to let Owl know to take off. He did so, hooting at her in displeasure and flapping to the roof of Varian’s house. “Well, no use crying over it. The sooner we head out, the better.”

Looking out over the mountains, Flynn hummed in his throat. “Maybe we should get supplies first, if we’re planning on going up there. Just something quick. I don’t want to waste any more time than you do, but we’ll be sorry if we set out without food.”

“You’ve got a point.” Cassandra tipped her head towards the village. “I’ve got money, and I’m assuming you do too. I’ll get some necessities and the stuff to carry it in, you get food and a couple of canteens. Good?”

“Good.” He nodded at her. “I’ll meet you by the gorge.”

They set off their separate ways, entirely ignorant of the goggled face that’d poked out of the doorway behind them.

“By the gorge,” Varian murmured, a giddy, buck-toothed grin stretching across his face. “You got it.”



Chapter Text

The walk back through the gorge was much better than the first time. Either news had been passed around that they weren’t to be messed with, or they were just lucky-- whichever one it was, Eugene didn’t care. All that mattered was that there were no more time-wasting encounters to struggle through. They did have to walk on foot now to help the horses out, but still, progress was progress, and it was steady.

He and Cassandra were finally to the point where they could make easy small talk. It was, of course, nothing of any import-- just icebreakers like favorite animals, favorite seasons, the best way to rob a man, the best way to apprehend a robber, et cetera-- but it felt like a monumental accomplishment. Cassandra wasn’t a bad person, he decided, just serious and lacking of a good sense of humor. Not nearly as wonderful as Rapunzel, but tolerable.

That being said, they probably wouldn’t have even gotten this far if they hadn’t had a common goal. Never mind the obvious lifestyle differences; they were as different as different could get from one another, and it was difficult to make sure not to tread on one another’s toes while talking, but he was managing. He had to, if he wanted any pleasant company for the next who-knew-how-many days they would spend together.

“--and so I told Pete that rhubarb pie was made out of vegetables. He still didn’t believe me until I got Crowley to tell him.” Cassandra snorted out a laugh. “I’m gonna miss those guys.”

The ‘guys’ who were totally not guards. Right. Eugene humored her with a smile, even though his thoughts were far away from the conversation. “Your cousins sound like fun.”

“They are. All of them are idiots, but they’re good idiots.” Cassandra tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, still staring at the road ahead. They were nearing the end; he could see a stretch of forest swaying in the distance. “I hope they’ll welcome me back home after this. I told you before that I’m risking everything, but… I really, really am. This could go so wrong in so many different ways.”

“Believe me, I know.” Eugene’s expression melted into something softer. “I don’t think I’ve thanked you properly yet for choosing not to turn me in.”

“You haven’t.” Cassandra tossed a playful smirk his way. “But you’re welcome.”

“Seriously. This… Rapunzel means everything to me. I’m planning on leaving behind my career as a thief when we get her back. She deserves it.”

“Rapunzel,” Cassandra cut in. “Is that her real name?”

He nodded in affirmation.

“Rapunzel,” Cassandra sounded the name out, letting it roll across her tongue. Her eyebrows furrowed and her lips puckered into what Eugene was beginning to label ‘Cassandra’s Disapproval Face’. “That’s such an odd name. Why would the royal family pick that?”

Eugene shrugged. He hadn’t really thought about it-- after all, his real name wasn’t much better, in his opinion. It was why he’d been so eager to drop it in favor of Flynn. “Maybe it means something special.”

“It must, because they sure didn’t pick it for aesthetics. How would you even spell ‘Rapunzel’?”

“With a hope and a prayer?”

Cassandra rolled her eyes before tapping a finger to her bottom lip. “Now that I think about it, it wouldn’t be that hard. The word itself is kind of simple. I guess it just… sounds really foreign.”

Eugene thought of Rapunzel-- her huge green eyes, her freckles, her sense of wonder, her unexplainable warmth. She almost felt like she was from a different world sometimes, holding just as much wonder inside as she felt for the world around her. “Foreign? Maybe. But in a good way.”

“Oh, of course. I never meant to speak ill of the Princess.”

A soft laugh made his lips curve upward. “Something tells me she wouldn’t mind.”

Cassandra smiled back. Falling back a few steps to the horses, she reached back into one of her saddlebags, pulling a shiny red apple from its depths. She bit into it, chewing with a thoughtful look on her face. “I still wonder if it was okay to take these. I mean, it looked like a reject pile or something with all the cores lying around, but what if we stole something they needed?”

“I don’t think the kid’s family is starving,” Eugene assured her, waiting for them to catch up and reaching into his own bag for an apple. Seeing Cassandra eat reminded him of the fact that he hadn’t eaten anything since that one tray of gruel in prison. “I mean, did you see the size of that house? And all those little tools and stuff Varian has? They’re not going to suffer for us taking a few apples.”

“That doesn’t make stealing right,” she returned, sharp and uncompromising.

“I… I guess not,” Eugene cleared his throat. “But we’re not going to be able to go on for long with just these supplies, and our pocket change isn’t going to last forever.”

“Then we’ll scavenge, or I can hunt, now that I’ve got a bow.” She jerked her thumb back towards her horse’s side, where she’d strapped the crossbow and quiver of bolts opposite the saddlebags. “Whatever happens, we’re not stealing.”

“Fine, fine, have it your way.” Eugene finally crunched into his apple, savoring the sweet, just-a-little-overripe taste. Working it around in his mouth, he continued, “But you’ll change your tune when we’re going to sleep hungry.”

She crinkled her nose. “You’re disgusting. And not just because you talk with your mouth full.”

“Merci.” He swallowed, then proceeded to inhale the rest of the fruit as they approached the end of the gorge. Glancing back, he raised an eyebrow. “I can’t believe we made it through there without any interruptions.”

“Something’s off,” Cassandra agreed, though she didn’t seem too worried. “Doesn’t matter, though. If they want to leave us alone, then let ‘em. We’ve got a mountain to climb and I’d rather spend my energy on that.”

“Let’s just hope no one’s waiting up there ,” Eugene chuckled, finally stepping foot outside the gorge. They’d been in there for ages. “That would be--”

Eugene’s sentence cut off with a shout as he swerved to the side. A sword slammed down where he’d just been, clanging off the stone cliffside and making his bones go cold.

“Rider!” Cassandra shouted, but he didn’t pay her any mind. He was too occupied with the familiar face, adorned with a thick mustache and cast in shadow by that ridiculous gold helmet. After the initial jolt of fear, Eugene felt relief fill him when he realized it wasn’t the Captain-- just one of the other guards he’d seen before. The prison, maybe?

“Pete! Those guys were telling the truth!” the guard shouted over his shoulder, swinging his sword towards Eugene again. He ducked under the blow with ease now that he was expecting it, electricity lighting up his veins and setting his nerves on fire. The guards had found him somehow-- someone had tipped them off.

Shoot. The knockoff Wreck Marauder. Eugene should’ve known he let them off too easily.

He whirled around, poised to take off, but was met by another guard. This one was slimmer that his friend, freckled face tight and nostrils flaring. If he hadn’t been armed and clad in gold Coronan armor, Eugene would’ve been able to take him easily, but-- well.

He never thought he’d miss having a frying pan.

“Stan! Pete! Back off!” Cassandra shouted, rushing forward with her sword drawn. Her lips were curled in a snarl, but Eugene could see that she wasn’t really being aggressive-- not like she had been with the bandits, or with him on occasion. Max came up beside her, teeth bared and ears slicked back.

“Maximus? Cassandra?” The guards spoke in unison, staring at her, though they never lowered their weapons.

“Back off, you guys. He’s with me.”

The two guards traded glances. Stan, the bigger one, gave Eugene a suspicious once-over. “Why isn’t he tied up, then?”

“Yeah! And why did the big guy say you two were fighting together?” Pete jabbed his blade forward, making Eugene take a step back in precaution. “What’s going on here, Cass? Does your dad know about this?”

Just like that, Cassandra’s face returned to cool ice. “It’s none of your business. Leave us alone.”

“You know we can’t do that,” Stan took a step forward, and Pete did the same, slowly whittling down the space he had left. “Besides, we have to take Max in. The Captain’s not happy that he helped Rider here escape his hanging.”

“You’re not taking anyone in if you know what’s good for you,” Cassandra worked her jaw, eyes flickering between the two guards. “Trust me. I know what I’m doing.”

“I want to trust you, Cassandra,” Pete insisted, brows furrowing. “But this doesn’t look good. I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to--”

“Incoming!”

Dread hit Eugene like a punch to the gut, and he turned just in time to spot a kid-sized blur before the world went up in smoke.

He coughed, fumbling around as the smoke clogged his vision. At least the guards were distracted now, but that wouldn’t help him any if he couldn’t see. Stan and Pete shouted to one another over Eugene’s head as he took a few steps forward, not sure where to go. He had to fight to keep his watering eyes open against the smokescreen, and his throat was beginning to itch.

Something grabbed his hand and a violent jolt went through Eugene. He’d just raised his dagger, tensed up to fight, when a muffled voice reached his ears. “Hey! Easy! It’s me. Come on, the others are this way.”

Lacking any other options, Eugene followed.

They emerged from the cloud around the bottom of the Saison foothills, just before the incline they needed to ascend. As soon as Eugene and Cassandra made eye contact, they nodded to one another, and the group dashed up as fast as they could go. Stan and Pete weren’t far behind, though; as soon as they came off the incline onto flat ground, the guards were stumbling up after them.

“Stop in the name of the King!” Stan panted, already sweating under his heavy armor. Pete had a little more spring in his step, however, and he still had his sword out, ready to swing at a moment’s notice.

“Yeah, so, I don’t think we’ll be doing that.” Varian snickered, plunging a gloved hand into one of his many, many jacket pockets. It resurfaced clutching a small grey sphere, semitransparent and filled with what looked like some type of goo. Rearing back, he pitched the ball towards the top of the incline, then turned and took off in the other direction.

“What are you waiting for? Run !” he shouted, eyes glimmering with excitement from behind his goggles as he grinned.

Eugene, Cassandra, and the horses didn’t need to be told twice. They made it a few feet before a dull boom shook the earth, followed by the dismayed shouts of Stan and Pete amid the crash of falling stone.

Cassandra whirled on Varian. “What did you do, kid!?”

“Psh,” he waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, the other one pressed to his chest. “That was just one of the many miracles that alchemy can produce, given the proper skillset--”

He yelped when she seized him by the shirt, lifting him up to face level. Every one of her features were painted with wrath, mouth curled into a toothy snarl. “You better not have hurt them.”

Varian put both hands up, hoping to placate her, and gave a nervous chuckle. “O-of course not! They had plenty of room to get out of the way, and even if they did get hit, they’d be fine. I just destroyed the incline, is all. You know. So they-- they can’t follow us.”

“You destroyed…” Eugene glanced over his shoulder, seeing that, indeed, the path back down to ground level had been obliterated, along with a good chunk of the cliffside. He turned back to Varian, who’d been reluctantly plopped back down and was now dusting off his jacket. “What was in that thing?”

“Compound of my own design,” he answered proudly, setting both hands on his hips. “Based on sodium. Yeah, you wouldn’t think something extracted from salt would be able to do that, but through the miracle of--”

“Alchemy. We get it. Kid, you can’t come with us.”

His face fell, brows knitting as he frowned up at her. “Why not? I just helped you guys, didn’t I? I can be useful!”

Eugene ran a hand over his face, kneeling down in front of Varian to be more on his level. “You’re a child. We’re doing something really dangerous out here, and neither one of us wants to be responsible if anything happens to you. Besides, your parents would absolutely not approve.”

“I’m not a child,” Varian muttered, eyes hardening, and he flipped up his goggles. “I’m an adolescent, officially described as the stage between childhood and adulthood. I can make my own decisions from the data available, and from what I’ve gathered, you two could use my help. So… please?”

Cassandra beat him to it. “No.”

At that, Varian finally crossed his arms, mouth set in a tiny frown. “Okay, then how about this: what’s the alternative?”

“We’ll take you back ho…” Eugene trailed off, glancing back over at the ruined incline. “Oh. Right.”

“Besides, you’d have to escort me back through the gorge, explain to my dad where I’ve been, and then make the return trip. After which you’d have to figure out how to get back up here, assuming we could find a safe route to get down in the first place.” Varian smirked, tapping the side of his head. “I’ve thought about this.”

“So it seems,” Cassandra grated out through clenched teeth. She stared him down for a few seconds before shrugging, turning her back on them and going up to fiddle with her horse’s saddle. “Fine.”

And he was back to giddy again, both fists clenched close to his chest. “Really?”

“Really?” Eugene echoed, standing up.

“Do we have any other choice, Rider?” Cassandra asked him, tugging a loose strap back taut. “The kid made some valid points, and we can’t afford to fall any further behind the Princess. He’ll just have to live up to his word and not cause trouble.”

Eugene raised a finger, mouth open to rebuke, then faltered when nothing came to him. Sighing, he shook his head. “I guess.”

“Yes! Road trip!” Varian pumped a fist in the air, toothy grin splitting his face. “Varian and Flynn gonna save the Princess! Oh, uh, and Lady Cassandra. Can I call you Cassie?”

“No.”

“Alrighty then!” Varian took her distaste without complaint, still giggling to himself. “Let’s go then! Time’s wasting!”

“Oh, boy,” Cassandra groaned, shooting Eugene a look that said I’m already done with this.

He nodded in sympathy. You and me both, dragon lady.



____



“Stan! Pete!” the Captain barked, jumping off his horse-- a mare named Gwendolyn-- and rushing over to where they lay. Neither of the guards seemed hurt, but they were definitely shaken, and the Captain could understand why.

A pile of boulders taller than he was blocked the path up the Saison mountainside, and beyond that, all that remained of the incline was a pile of pebbles and a huge hole where the cliffside at the top had been. He’d never seen anything quite like it, except maybe that one time Lady Caine and her pirates had thought it a good idea to launch a cannonball into Corona.

“We’re good, Cap,” Pete chuckled, voice quavering. “Just a little scared, is all.”

“We almost died ,” Stan proclaimed, the last word dragging out to the point of drama. “The-- the goggle bandit nearly killed us!”

“I wouldn’t say killed --”

“Pete, he set a landslide on us--”

“Enough,” the Captain cut in before the two of them could start yet another argument. “Who’s this… what’d you say? ‘ Goggle bandit ’?”

Stan nodded vigorously. “Yes! He was a short little dwarf guy in a hooded jacket, and we couldn’t see his eyes because they were hidden under these goggles. We almost had Rider before Cassandra distracted us, and then the Goggle Bandit threw a smoke bomb, and then we followed him up the incline, and then the landslide--”

Something cold and sharp poked into the Captain’s gut. “Did you say Cassandra?”

Stan shut up, eyes going wide as he traded a glance with Pete. “Um, did I? I thought I said Clarisse. Or maybe Cheryl.”

The Captain’s eyes clouded over, expression stormy, as he glared at Stan. “What happened to my daughter? Where is she now?”

“Um,” Pete raised his hand to point far up at the mountain ridge, voice cracking with nerves. “She’s kind of up there. With Rider and the other one.”

“Goggle bandit.”

“Stan, shut up. That’s a stupid name.”

“You got a better one?”

The Captain stood up, squinting up at the ridge. Late afternoon sunlight shone in his eyes, making it hard to see, but he could just make out a couple of moving blurs in the distance. Rage flooded his chest and he clenched his teeth hard enough to hurt, feet kicking up clods of dirt as he stormed over to Gwendolyn. “Come on, men. We’re going the long way around.”

Stan and Pete, who’d just begun to wrestle, blinked up at him. “What long way around?”

“They’re leaving Corona. They have to be; Rider can’t afford to stick around here with all of us looking for him. We’ll leave out through Old Corona.” The Captain watched as those blurs slowly faded from his field of vision. “Whatever Cassandra’s planning, she’s going to need our help.”

Pete cleared his throat, tapping a foot on the ground. “Um, you think she’s planning something?”

The Captain’s glare was vicious enough to make Pete scoot back in alarm. “Are you implying that my daughter is committing treason?”

“I-- no. No sir, of course not.” Pete scrambled to his feet, dusting off his trousers. Stan did the same.

“Good.” The Captain gripped Gwendolyn’s reins, steering her toward the gorge leading to Old Corona. “Let’s get on with it. Keep a lookout here, it’s a notorious stomping ground for ruffians and thugs.”

The two guards saluted and rushed to find their horses. The Captain didn’t wait for them, instead flicking the reins to get Gwendolyn moving.

I hope you know what you’re doing, he thought, casting one last look at where Cassandra had disappeared. Or else, I’ll never forgive myself.

If there was one thing the Captain would go back on his loyalty to the King for, it was his daughter.

He only hoped it didn’t come to that.

Chapter Text

Quirin watched the troop walk by with both brows lowered.

He hadn’t seen Varian since he came home from the market, and that, as previous experience had proven, was never a good thing. While the boy always meant well with his projects, Quirin preferred to keep an eye on him at all times. Unfortunately, he had a village to run, and sometimes that meant leaving him unattended.

He’d just finished combing the house and had decided to wait it out, see what Varian had cooked up this time when he caught sight of evening sun glinting on armor. They were like beacons amidst the humble folk of Old Corona, and not the sort that inspired hope. No, if guards were this far out, then that meant something was wrong.

Varian crossed his mind, of course, but he dismissed the idea. The townsfolk wouldn’t have reported him, not after waiting out some ten years of constant explosions and accidents beforehand. His son wasn’t a criminal, and he knew better than to get mixed up with those types. Besides, he came up missing more than any child should; Varian always came home at the end of the day. He’d be fine.

That didn’t stop Quirin from wondering.

When the guards had clopped out of sight, he rose from his place on the porch steps, turning back inside to search out his pen and parchment. He found it lying at his bedside, as it always was, and wasted no time in screwing the inkwell open and plunging the tip in.

The brisk scratching of pen against paper filled his bedroom. Quirin worked his jaw as he wrote, mind moving faster than he could write as scenarios popped up in his head, each one more outlandish than the last. He was overreacting again, and he knew it, but he supposed that was the holdover one had to deal with after years of guarding a dying kingdom.

Just because he saw guards didn’t mean the King was looking for something. In fact, hadn’t someone just been talking about a grand theft-- someone taking the Lost Princess’s coveted crown? Surely it was just that.

Still, Quirin didn’t trust the King-- not after choosing his wife over the wellbeing of the entire country-- to make the best decisions. Old Corona was a haven, a little bubble of safety for those looking to live in a place not ruled by the King’s paranoia and iron fist, and Quirin did not fancy the idea of Frederic stretching his fingers into his territory. As vassal, he had the right to-- politely-- question the King about his motives.

Because if his warning was coming to fruition and Frederic was trying to cover it up, Quirin wanted to know. He had to protect his people.

And Varian-- wherever he was-- had to stay away from the consequences of that looming terror, no matter what the cost. Quirin would not allow his son to fall into such danger.

He rolled up the letter after blowing across it to dry the ink, not caring if it smudged just a little, and tied it up with a strip of ribbon. He had a long journey ahead of him to the delivery post, and he still had to be back in time to alert everyone about his son’s latest disappearance before night settled in too deep.

Quirin only hoped Varian wasn’t up to anything serious or destructive this time.



____



“So can you teach me to use a sword?”

Cassandra glared back at the boy, whom she’d allowed to sit behind her on Fidella. He smiled up at her, eyes shining with hope. It stirred up no sympathy. “No.”

The shine faded. “Why not?”

“Because one, we don’t have time for that, and two, you’re a shrimp. You probably couldn’t even swing it.”

Varian sighed, crossing his arms and staring down at the sliver of saddle between them. “All I keep hearing out of you is no. No this, no that, no everything. You sound a lot like my dad.”

“Maybe we’d get along.” She rolled her eyes, turning back towards the road. It’d widened out a lot as they went, giving them enough breathing room that Fidella and Maximus could comfortably walk side-by-side.

Flynn snickered to her left. “As if anyone could get along with you.”

A rebuttal formed on Cassandra’s lips, but Varian cut her off. “Flynn! What about you? Teach me some of your moves! Like the flip you used to defeat the Red Knight of Ingvarr!”

“Um… maybe later. We’ll see.” There was a strange, almost cryptic lilt to Flynn’s voice when he answered, and Cassandra fought the urge to cast a glance his way. She didn’t want to be involved with this conversation; it didn’t concern her, and someone had to look where they were going.

“I’ll take it!” she could feel Varian beaming behind her. “It’d be so cool to fight next to Flynnigan Rider. Oh, man, I could just…”

Cassandra raised a brow, though she didn’t look back. “Just what, kid?”

“I--sorry.” Varian cleared his throat. “Is that paint over there?”

The question struck her as odd, sure, but the reaction it got from Flynn was near comical. He perked up to full attention, snapping his eyes to the cliffside where Varian had been looking. “Where? Where’d you see paint?”

Varian made a little grunt as he slid off Fidella, stumbling as he hit the ground, and wound around Maximus. He kneeled down next to a rotting log that’d been stood up against the rocky face, pressing both hands to its side and pushing. It fell over with an unimpressive thump, splitting clean down the middle. More importantly, it revealed a smear of paint across the warm brown stone, colors rich and vibrant in the setting sun.

Flynn was by his side in seconds, hand reaching out to ghost over the painting in an almost reverent manner. His mouth, so often curled in a smug smirk or joking grin, was slack, lips parted as he took in the image before him.

At first, it seemed nothing special in Cassandra’s opinion. It was a window, painted in a mixture of gray and purple to give it a dark feel, with a violet bird perched in the sill. Its golden wings, tucked calmly over its tail feathers, contrasted with the night sky it stared out at. A pale blue moon and steady stream of yellow dots-- lanterns?-- stuck out from the dull background. 

 

Rapunzel's painting

The lighting effects were nice, Cassandra supposed, but she’d seen better work back in the castle. Although, for something randomly sketched out on the cliffside, it was a pleasant surprise.

Then she saw Flynn tearing up, and it clicked.

“Flynn?” Varian asked, voice uncharacteristically soft. She hadn’t heard him sound that way since he’d first opened his mouth, sympathetic and full of concern. He lifted a gloved hand to Flynn’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

The emotion dried up from Flynn’s face in an instant, and he smiled, though Cassandra could tell it was forced. “Me? I’m fine! Just admiring this beautiful piece of art! I wonder how much this would go for if I could get it on a canvas.”

As Varian gave him a suspicious look, Cassandra slid off Fidella, slinking over to where they were and lowering herself on Flynn’s other side. She ran a hand over the painting’s surface, tracing over the outline of the bird’s beak. “It’s hers, isn’t it?”

It took a minute for Flynn to speak, but when he did, there was defeat in his voice. His false mirth had evaporated. “...Yeah.”

“We’ll find her.” The reassurance came from Varian, something that made both adults blink as they looked over to him. He didn’t seem to mind their surprise, offering Flynn a wide smile that gave off kindness in waves larger than Cassandra had ever felt, from anyone, in her life. “With your fighting skills, and my alchemy, and Lady Cassandra’s determination, we’ll find the Princess. I promise you that, Flynn.”

Cassandra almost told him that she had both determination and ‘fighting skills’, as he so put it, but the little laugh Flynn gave made her decide that maybe now wasn’t the time. The thief’s smile had returned, though small, and he nodded as he stood. “Thanks, kid.”

“Don’t thank me just yet!” Varian was back to his normal self just like that, bouncing up and planting both hands on his hips, the same pose he took on every time he felt the need to explain something to them. Which he did. A lot. “You haven’t seen anything yet! I’m telling you, once you get a taste of what science can do, you’ll be begging me to come with you on your travels.”

Flynn traded glances with Cassandra, a smirk playing along the edges of his mouth, as he mounted Maximus again. “If you say so.”

“Well, I do.” he hesitated at Fidella’s side, turning to look at Cassandra. He wrung his hands, casting his eyes to the ground, and she immediately knew what he was going to say-- or, rather, ask for. “Um, do you have any extra food? I haven’t eaten since this morning. Too busy trying to figure out the formula for my biodegradable nontoxic adhesive.”

“I have no idea what that means, but Cassandra’s got apples in her saddlebags,” Flynn offered for her, ignoring as she glared at him. He probably just wanted to make sure she didn’t lie to the kid for the sake of rationing, but honestly, she wouldn’t have done that. “We took them from the reject pile outside. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Ah, no, it’s all right. We don’t have a reject pile-- you must've taken them from Monday's harvest, we left them out to ripen-- but Dad always ends up throwing a few out anyway. He won’t miss ‘em.” Varian reached for the saddlebag’s opening flap, but stopped short, retracting his hand. “Um, how many apples did you take, exactly?”

Cassandra furrowed her brows, then felt a spike of alarm go through her when she saw the saddlebag. It was a larger one, designed for long travels, but not that large. Something inside was stretching it at the seams, the leather paling with stress.

She drew her sword with a quiet shing and thrust an arm in front of Varian, pushing him back a step. “Get back. Something’s not right.”
“What’s going on over there?” Flynn called out, before his eyes landed on the bag too. “Oh. That was not there before.”
Cassandra didn’t answer, inching closer to the bag. She reached out with tentative fingers, pinching the flap and throwing it open with a dramatic flick.

Varian gasped, ducking under her arm. “Hey! It’s you!”

The raccoon chittered at him, ears perking up as he lowered the half-eaten apple from his mouth. Varian laughed, reaching out to plunge his fingers into its thick fur and lift it from the bag. It was a chubby little thing, with a short, fluffy ringed tail and little hands that it used to reach out and grab Varian’s face. She could’ve sworn it was smiling.

Cassandra frowned, lowering her sword. “You recognize that thing?”

“Yeah! This lil’ guy has been sneaking into the orchard for months, and just recently he started following me into my lab.” Varian hugged the raccoon to his chest, which, strangely, it didn’t seem to mind. It just started nibbling on the apple again. “I keep throwing him out, but he keeps finding ways back in. It’s why I was working on the adhesive-- to act as a humane measure against pests.”

“Okay, so he’s not dangerous. But he’s eating our apples and who knows what else.”

“He’s got a bit of an addiction,” Varian chuckled, letting go with one hand to rub the back of his neck. “Sorry. He must’ve followed me up here.”

“Yeah, well, tell him to go back. We can’t afford another mouth to feed.”

Varian sighed at that. “Well, I’ll try, but I don’t know if that’ll help. He’s persistent.” Still, he set the animal down, giving him a little rub on the head. “Sorry, buddy. Go back home. I’ll see you later.”

“You know, he kind of looks like you,” Flynn mentioned as Varian and Cassandra mounted Fidella again. 

She startled, having almost forgotten he was there, but Varian just raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean by that?”

Flynn jerked a thumb back towards the raccoon, now watching them go forlornly with the apple still in its mouth. “The pattern on his face reminds me of your goggles. And he has your teeth.”

Varian looked rather offended at that. “My teeth? What’s that supposed to mean? My teeth are perfectly healthy, thank you very much!”

Flynn, eyes wide and brows raised, turned his gaze back to the road. “Sorry.”

Cassandra found a silent laugh bubbling up in her as she listened to Varian mutter, her eyes roaming over the countryside. It would be a while before she saw it again; it caused a sort of melancholy in her, but beside it was a sense of adventure that she’d always felt and never been able to nurture. Finally, she’d be going outside Corona, into foreign land with magic and other cultures and all manner of interesting things.

She couldn’t wait.



____



Rapunzel was getting very tired of walking.

She and Mother had finally made it out of the mountains, only to duck around the first sign of civilization and stick to the trees. Her stomach rumbled and her eyelids grew heavy, but she never complained; ever since Mother had seen her painting and made her cover it up, she’d been in an icy mood, speaking only in one-word answers. 

Rapunzel wouldn’t lie: it scared her.

Out of all the qualities she’d assigned to Mother over the years, cruelty had never been one of them. Thinking back now, knowing what she did, it probably should’ve been. But Mother was a good liar. She spun words of sugar and gave hugs when Rapunzel needed them most, and she had never doubted Mother’s love until the moment she realized there was so much more to her. This new side-- the woman, the witch who didn’t bother concealing anything, was frightening.

But most frightening of all, Rapunzel felt, was that it had been there the whole time.

Now, Mother stoked the fire she’d built, face a mask of calm as she added a branch to it. The scene was eerily familiar, and yet not, like staring at herself in a broken mirror. The warmth of the fire, the whispering of the trees, the dancing starlight through layers upon layers of branches-- it all reminded her of Eugene.

She missed Eugene so much it hurt.

Pascal, invisible behind her hair, cuddled into her neck, and she leaned her head towards him so he could nuzzle her cheek. Pascal would always be there for her, no matter what. Even if she never saw Eugene again-- even if she was locked up in another tower, never again to feel the soft squish of grass and mud between her toes, she would always have him for company. After all, she had healing hair. Nothing Mother could ever to to Pascal would take him from her.

As if listening to Rapunzel’s thoughts, Mother leaned back from the fire, snapping her fingers and pointing at the ground beside her with one slender finger. “Rapunzel. Come here.”

She scrambled to obey, practically falling in her haste to kneel beside Mother. The woman stared, unamused, and twirled the same finger in place. “Turn around.”

Rapunzel did so. She tried not to cringe when Mother’s hands found her hair, she really did, but it was instinctual and involuntary. She only hoped it wouldn’t set Mother off.

And you will never-- use my hair-- again!

“Sing,” Mother instructed.

She sang.

“Flower, gleam and glow.”

Light bloomed in a halo around her face, spreading down her golden strands like a waterfall.

“Let your powers shine.”
She could feel the rapid waves of magic as they overtook her, flowing into Mother and restoring youth to her sagging skin and brittle hair. The song seized Rapunzel’s voice, ringing out throughout the hollow in a trance born from habit.

“Make the clock reverse; bring back what once was mine.”

She’d usually follow it up with a reprise of the last few words in the name of passion for her singing, but Rapunzel let it die there. No more joy rushed through her when she sang; no longer did a smile dance across her lips and make her eyes glimmer with the knowledge that she’d helped, she’d healed, she’d given back.

Instead, she felt like a bird being made to build its own cage from the shreds of a life left behind.

Mother didn’t offer thanks; she merely sighed with bliss, pushing Rapunzel’s hair off her lap and rising. Rapunzel didn’t dare look after her, but the clink of chains told her what was happening anyway, and she heaved a deep sigh.

“Don’t give me that, Rapunzel. Just go to sleep and you won’t even notice them.” Mother clapped the shackles over her wrists, disappearing behind Rapunzel to secure the chains down somewhere. “I have to go find something to eat for tomorrow morning, and I can’t have you breaking your promise and running off.”

“I never break a promise,” Rapunzel whispered.

“That’s a naïve thing to say,” Mother laughed drily, grass swishing around her as she strode to the side of the clearing, towards where they knew a village lay. “You can never be sure if you’ll break promises. All you’ll do is disappoint yourself if you try to keep up that standard.”

Words burned in Rapunzel’s throat, sharp and angry like tiny knives, but she held her tongue. Mother slipped away into the forest, and she let herself slump. Fatigue took hold quickly, settling her down in the grass and closing her eyes with gentle fingers even as they brimmed with tears. She curled in on herself, knees pressing to her chest, as she shuddered.

She wanted Eugene. She wanted her tower back. She wanted her life back, without all this adventure and disobedience and freedom. Rapunzel had made a choice for the first time in her life, and it had ruined everything.

Nothing would ever be the same.

She cried herself to sleep.

 

____



A week passed with little change.

The raccoon had ended up following Varian like a stubborn hound following a deer, and after the tenth time throwing him back into the woods, Cassandra finally conceded and let him stay. Varian had promised the creature, which he’d since dubbed Ruddiger, was capable of scavenging for his own food, but that didn’t mean Cassandra didn’t catch him stealing every now and again.

Flynn, to her great consternation, took a liking to Ruddiger. He often covered for the little thing and tossed scraps to him in secret, but both she and Varian knew about it. She didn’t press him about it. After seeing Flynn tear up back at the painting a week ago, she’d tried to be a little more aware of his feelings, and had found that his air of joviality was more often than not at least half-facade. If Ruddiger gave him some kind of happiness, she’d let it slide.

Varian was a chatterbox, but it had died down within the last few days to a tolerable degree. He still tried to explain the chemical makeup of leaves and the process of photosynthesis every now and again, but for the most part, he was calming down. Cassandra hoped that rationed food, long days spent traveling through the countryside, and nights spent without a blanket would wake him up to reality. She glanced over at him, riding behind Flynn now, and tilted her head. There seemed to be some progress.

Right on cue, Varian tore his gaze from the trees up towards Flynn. “Hey, do you think I’ll get a wanted poster like you did?”

Never mind.

“That’s not something to want, kid,” Flynn answered without looking back. He, as Cassandra did days ago, had finally stopped trying to accomodate Varian every time he decided to go on a tangent.

“Oh, I-- I know that. I wasn’t insinuating it to be a good thing. It’s just that… I dunno, I kind of want to know how they’d draw me.”

Flynn snorted. “Not well. I’ll tell you right now, whoever they’ve got drawing those posters has got some kind of grudge against me.”

“Can’t imagine why,” Cassandra jabbed, smirk pulling at her lips.

Flynn made a face at her before glancing over his shoulder, squinting up at the moon. “It’s getting late. Do you have any more of those glowy things, kid?”

“Yeah, I have a few left, but there’s a city right over there.” Varian pointed ahead of them.

He was right. It was faint, and they probably wouldn’t have been able to spot anything in broad daylight, but the soft glow of streetlights were easy to make out in the dark horizon. Excitement buzzed through Cassandra at the sight. At last, a hot bath, a bed, and hopefully some fresh clothes.

The other two seemed to share her sentiment, and the horses both picked up the pace at Varian’s observation. Flynn was going on about getting access to a mirror and a pair of tweezers, while Varian nodded behind him, arms crossed smugly over his chest.

“It took long enough to reach Vardaros,” Flynn, to her immense relief, moved on to more practical conversation. “I wonder if the Baron’s still going strong out here. It’s been a while since Lance and I last saw any of his goons.”

“You’ve met the Baron?” Varian’s eyes went starry. “What does he look like? Is he really as big as they say? I heard he had a daughter, what’s she like? Do you know her?”
Flynn took the questions in stride until the last part, at which he choked on air and had to cough for a second to recover. Cassandra raised an eyebrow at him as Varian asked if he was all right.

He met her eyes, and she could practically hear him pleading.

She shook her head, still grinning. Don’t worry, I won’t tell.

“The-- the Baron,” Flynn cleared his throat. “Ah. He’s… very tall. Soft-spoken, but you can tell by the way he talks that he’s dangerous, and he means every word he says. Got a disturbing fascination with spiders, which, you know, is always the ultimate stay-away sign.”

Varian, by some miracle, caught on to Flynn’s discomfort regarding the Baron’s daughter and gave a light chuckle. “Well, let’s hope we don’t run into him.”

“Let’s hope we don’t run into anyone,” Cassandra pursed her lips. “The last thing we need is another distraction. Owl keeps saying we’re on the right track, but it’s taking far too long for my liking to catch up to them.”

“Believe me, I want this to be over as much as you do,” Flynn spoke with a heavy tone, something that still shook Cassandra even after hearing it a few times. It just didn’t belong on a heartless thief like Flynn-- which, she was beginning to realize, was a flawed argument. He had heart, and more of it than a lot of men she’d known in her lifetime. It would be difficult to let him go after spending so long on the road together.

Her moment of thought cost her.

Flynn was quick to shout, but she wasn’t quick enough to react. Her crossbow made it to her hands too slowly to shoot before the slim figure was gone, slipping through the treeline and, presumably, towards Vardaros.

She turned on him. “What was that about? It was just some guy.”

Flynn shook his head, looking towards Vardaros with a calculating sort of dread. “That was the Weasel.”

Varian’s brows lowered. “Who’s the Weasel?”

Flynn didn’t answer, but he did say something else that made a chill run through Cassandra. Whether it was the words themselves or the way he said them, she didn’t know.

“Baron knows I’m coming.”

Chapter Text

“All right. We get in, we find supplies, and we hightail it out of here before the Baron finds us.” Eugene took in a breath, staring down the city street. It was empty save for a few late-hour vendors, and much, much more run-down than he remembered. Hopefully, entering over the wall far left of the entrance would throw anyone unsavory off their trail. “Easy. Quick. Most definitely a better option that going around.”

“Trying to convince us or yourself, Rider?” Cassandra bumped him with an elbow as she walked past him into the city. She made a big show of being unafraid, but he noticed the way she scanned the streets. “We’ll be fine. I can take anybody you throw my way, and Varian’s got bombs. This is the quickest route through the hills.”

“For someone so cynical, you don’t catch on to sarcasm very well,” he huffed, following her. Varian trailed behind them, holding the horses’ reins in one hand and using the other to keep Ruddiger tucked under his arm.

“Oh, I caught on.” Cassandra tossed a playful wink his way before sobering. “You said you know this place, right? Where’s the best place to grab supplies without running into too many people?”

“At this time of night?” Eugene scratched at his goatee, resisting the urge to groan afterwards. It was getting long and scruffy; it had been weeks since he’d last gotten a chance to trim it up. “Our best bet is probably old Marilyn’s general store, if it’s still open. Vardaros has really gone downhill since last time I was here.”

“Where is that?”

“Uh…” Eugene racked his brains for a second, dredging up old memories, and finally pointed down an alley to their right. “A few buildings down that way, I believe.”

Cassandra nodded. “Okay then. I’ll go first. Varian, stay close and quiet. Flynn, try to stay in the shadows as much as you can. The last thing we need is someone out here noticing you.”

No one argued with her, and they all set off down the alley.

Varian, the poor kid, was trying his best not to look afraid. Still, a surge of pity went through Eugene as he watched the kid out of the corner of his eye, jumping at every noise or sign of movement. Ruddiger didn’t complain, even when Varian hugged him a little too tightly; he just snuggled into the kid’s side and made comforting little purring noises.

He caught sight of the shop within minutes, and his heart fell. Boards had been nailed across the beaten door, a faded wooden sign reading ‘open’ still hanging, lopsided, from one string in the window. He could still spot a few odd boxes within, but they were all broken and empty.

“Well, looks like this one’s a bust,” Cassandra stepped back, both hands on her hips. “Got any more ideas?”

Eugene tapped his foot. “Well, I mean, there was always--”

“Help!” A shout cut him off.

Cassandra and Eugene shared a glance, and a violent jump jerked through Varian. He let out a squeak, looking towards the source of the noise-- the next alley over, it sounded like. “What was that?”

“Sounded like a kid,” Cassandra’s sword glinted in her hand, already drawn as she shot off down the alley. Glancing behind her, she called, “Varian, stay back here. We’ve got this handled.”

“But--”

“She’s right. Stay here, and we’ll be right back. Do not move.” Eugene took off after Cassandra, leaving Varian in the dust.

They turned the corner together. Cassandra spotted her before he did: a young girl, maybe Varian’s age, at the dead end of an alley between two boarded-up buildings. She was on the ground, both knees in the dust, hands tucked behind her as if they’d been tied. The girl’s face lit up when she saw them, and she wriggled around, presumably fighting against restraints.

“Hey, hey, we’ve got you,” Cassandra murmured, lowering her sword as they approached the girl. Neither she nor Eugene sheathed their weapons, however, and he took to scanning their surroundings while she checked on the kid. “What’s wrong? Who did this?”

“The Baron,” she choked out, voice filled with relief. “Please, whoever you are, you have to help me!”

“The Baron?” A wave of shock went through Eugene, and he narrowed his eyes. He didn’t want to be suspicious of a kid like this, but… he had worked for the Baron at her age. The guy was known to employ and manipulate young street urchins to do his dirty work. Add that to the fact that he knew Eugene was in town…

“Cassandra!” he shouted, but she was already reaching towards the girl’s wrists. Wrists that came up unbound, along with a little wicked smirk. “It’s a trap!”

They were too late.

The last thing he saw was Cassandra’s wide, scared eyes before a cloth was pressed under his nose and the world went dark.

 

____



Varian tried hard to remain still. He really did. But that was just not an easy thing for him to do. The second Flynn disappeared around the corner, he started pacing, setting Ruddiger down so he could clench his fists and mumble under his breath.

He’d just begun to recite the periodic table when Flynn’s voice reached his ears.

It’s a trap!

Varian didn’t hesitate. He plunged both hands into his coat pockets, withdrawing as many little gray bombs as he could hold, and ran around where he’d watched Flynn and Cassandra disappear. Maximus and Fidella followed closely behind him, Ruddiger chittering in distaste as he was jostled around in Fidella’s saddle.

He turned the corner, shout on his lips and bombs at the ready.

They were gone.

Flabbergasted, Varian slumped, eyebrows knitting as he looked over the alleyway. They were just-- gone. Vanished into thin air. The only explanation he could think of was some kind of secret passageway, maybe build into the wall or one of the buildings, but that didn’t help him any.

Creeping up towards the dead end, Varian slipped his bombs back into their respective pockets, searching for clues. There was no obvious sign of a struggle anywhere; other than a few sets of chaotic bootprints in the dust, too scrambled around to figure out, it looked as if no one had been here in days.

A sliver of white caught his eye. Varian squatted down to grab up the handkerchief, tilting his head as he turned it over in his hands. Cassandra came to mind at first, but he dismissed the idea as quickly as he had it. She was not the type to carry around handkerchiefs, which meant it had to have come from whoever had attacked them. Lifting it to his face, Varian took a whiff, then threw it down when a sickly-sweet smell filled his nose.

Chloroform. It was a new compound, he knew; he’d only managed to synthesize it himself in his lab after hearing about it from a traveling merchant maybe three months ago. Effective, but inefficient; if had to be spread over a cloth and pressed to the victim’s nose and mouth, even at high concentrations. He’d been working on a powder version of it for some time before the idea for an animal-safe adhesive had come to mind.

Who around this dump would have access to such a chemical, though…?

“Hey. You might want to find somewhere to stow those horses before they get stolen.”

Varian spun around so fast he almost fell. A girl around his age, sharp-featured and angular, was staring at him with a nonplussed look on her face. He ignored her suggestion, instead grinning as widely as he could despite the growing unease he felt. “Oh! Hi! Uh, I’m Varian, hello. Did you see where the people over here went? Tall lady with a sword, man with a blue vest and a beard?”

“Yeah. I helped a couple of goons catch ‘em.” She patted a coin purse at her hip.

His grin disappeared immediately, and something hot bubbled in his chest. “You what?”

“Don’t look so surprised.” She rolled her eyes, arms crossing. “It’s every girl for herself out here. I get paid, I do whatever they ask. It’s life.”

“There are-- there are so many things wrong with that sentiment.” Varian ran a hand through his bangs, breathing growing fast as the situation hit him full-force. He was out here, alone, in Vardaros, penniless and with no idea where to go or how to get home. “D-do you at least know where they went?”

“Baron’s estate, if I had to guess.”

“Okay, um… okay. So. I just have to swing in there, and then…” Varian turned around in a full circle, twice, before finally settling back on the girl. “Um. Where’s the Baron’s estate?”

She raised a brow at him.

Frustration heated his face, and Varian glared at her. “What? Can’t you just tell me that? I thought you just did stuff for money, not loyalty.”

“I do.” She reached out a hand, wriggling her fingers. “So pay up, and I’ll help you too.”

Varian’s eyes narrowed. “That is just low.”

“Yeah, well, so are you, short stack. Paying or not?”

He had to fight down an indignant reply, though he did give her the sourest look he could possibly make. “I don’t have any money.”

“Ooh. Tough luck.” She waved at him, turning on her heel and meandering down the alley. “Guess I’ll see you around. Maybe.”

Desperation seized Varian, and he stumbled forward, hand outstretched. “No! Wait!”

She looked over her shoulder at him, irritating little smirk pulling at the corner of her lips.

“I-- I have other stuff,” he started, pulling his jacket away from his body to reveal all the alchemical tools and vials he’d strapped to himself. “I’m an alchemist. I have little bombs, and kinetically-activated liquid that never stops glowing, and-- and beads that can clean anything in seconds. All sorts of other stuff, too. Basically whatever you want.”

She turned around, and victory shot through him like a ray of sunshine. He’d caught her interest. “Whatever I want?”

“Well, I mean, within reason and theory. But I’ve got a lot of stuff on me. Help me get my friends back, and you can take your pick.”

“Hm.” She approached him with slow, thoughtful steps, every one of them painstaking to the boy so full of hope. “I can’t say I’m not interested. What all would I have to do, again?”

“Just help me get into the Baron’s estate and find where Flynn and Lady Cassandra are. After that, we’re leaving town, and you can have whatever you want from me.”

“Huh.” She looked Varian over, tapping her chin for a minute before smiling. She stuck out a hand, smug half-lidded eyes trained on him. “Deal.”

He shook her hand, and a breath of relief escaped him. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet.” She jerked her chin to the right. “Baron lives over there. Follow me, um…”

“Varian,” he couldn’t help the little smile that came every time he announced his name, and he planted his hands on his hips.

“Vex.” He couldn’t tell if she was amused or annoyed at his confidence. “Come on then, Varian. We’ve got work to do.”



_____



Cassandra grunted as she was plopped down, pain shooting up her legs as her knees made contact with the stone. She cast the thug who’d carried her here a hateful scowl, then turned her eyes to the front.

Flynn had told them the Baron was a large man, but she hadn’t been prepared for just how large. He towered over them, steely eyes tucked away amid a mane of golden-blond hair and a matching beard. His immaculate waistcoat and pants were a tasteful navy, punctuated by a sizeable ruby brooch perched in the middle of his chest. He might’ve been handsome, in a way, if he hadn’t been looking down at them with a predatory smile as he sipped from a too-small wineglass.

“Baron!” Flynn laughed out beside her, smile so forced it was almost painful. “Long time no see! Love what you’ve done with the place, you know. You can really tell the Baron spends more time here, it’s really--”

“If you’d like to keep your tongue, I suggest you stop moving it,” the Weasel hissed beside Flynn, taking him by the collar of his vest. Cassandra could tell why they called him Weasel-- he had a long face and a nasty overbite that reminded her all too much of a rodent, and he had the long, skinny frame to match. He was a disgusting excuse for a man, Cassandra thought; oily, overconfident, and dishonest. Everything she hated.

“Anthony, enough,” the Baron spoke. His voice was smooth as velvet and almost too quiet to hear, something that made Cassandra do a mental double-take. Weasel backed off with a sour frown, and the Baron turned his attention to Flynn. “Quit playing games, Rider. I’ve been waiting for this moment. It’s time to make amends for what you did to my Stalyan.”

Cassandra raised a brow, glancing over at Flynn, whose nerves seemed to have doubled at the mention of a stallion. What on Earth had he done to a horse to make the Baron so angry?

“Oh, right, the Stalyan incident,” Flynn averted his eyes, still wearing that painful smile. “You know, you really should let this whole Stalyan thing go. C’mon, I mean, it’s ancient history! Let’s all just move on.”

“Let’s not.” a new, silky female voice cut in from behind them.  

Cassandra and Flynn twisted around, and she narrowed her eyes at the sight. A woman stood there in the courtyard, hip cocked and sporting a lopsided smirk on her full lips. Clothes just as fine as the Baron’s hugged her body, accentuating her figure and dripping with lace and other finery. Long auburn hair draped past her shoulders, waving in just the right way and shimmering with health.

“Hello, Stalyan,” Flynn said sheepishly, and Cassandra knew right away that they were done for.

Stalyan sashayed past them, hips swinging and boots clicking, stopping only long enough to slap Flynn across the face. “Hello, Rider.”

Cassandra ground her teeth as the woman walked up to the Baron, pressing a kiss to his cheek and leaning against the older man’s gilded chair. The pure audacity of everything Stalyan did just set her nerves on fire-- made her itch to grab her sword. If only she still had it.

“Hey, Stalyan, how are you?” Flynn tried again, having dropped the fake grin and softened his voice to a defeated tone. "Uh, look, before you get too upset, let me just say-- I can explain.”

“Oh, I’m not upset, Rider,” Stalyan purred. Then her features twisted, glacial in their lethal sharpness. “Besides, what’s to explain? You left me at the altar .”

“Did I?” Flynn’s voice cracked as he cast about a glance, as if looking for help from the heavens. Cassandra felt nothing but pity… and maybe a little exasperation, because really, what’d she expect? He was Flynn Rider, thief, thrill-seeker, and womanizer. Of course he’d do such a thing. “Did I… do that? Is that how it went down? Because that’s not how I remember it, but hey, it… was-- it was quite some time ago. Who’s to say who did what that day? I mean--”

“Stop talking.” Stalyan glowered at him with more rage than Cassandra had ever seen anywhere other than a mirror. She brushed back her hair, sighing, and strode towards Flynn. “After what you did, I swore that if I ever saw you again, I would break a lot of bones.”

“Fair. Fair. We’re talking about my bones, is that correct? Okay.”

But , with time comes perspective. I realized that we were meant for each other, Flynn Rider. Partners in crime, partners in life. We can’t change what we are.”

“Wait, what… what are you talking about?” Flynn’s brows lowered.

“I’m making you a proposition, Rider,” the Baron said in a deep, shiver-inducing croon. “Keep good on the promise you made to my daughter and marry her.”

“Waiting for the or,” Flynn demurred, completely unabashed, and Cassandra had to give him credit for his guts.

“Or,” the Baron turned his cold eyes on Cassandra, and a flash of panic ran through her like a blade. “Your lady friend will perish.”

“What-- you can’t--”

“Oh, heck no ,” Cassandra shouted. Everyone turned their attention to her, but she didn’t care; she struggled against her bindings, pure fury twisting her lips into a deathly glare. “I am not going to sit here and be a bargaining chip in Flynn’s love disaster. You, Mister Waistcoat, can go suck an egg.”

He didn’t look shaken at all, which only made Cassandra angrier. “I think, my dear, that you do not have a choice.”

The Baron pressed a finger to his ring, and Cassandra stared as the gem flipped up, revealing the spindly figure of a black spider. Fear nibbled at the edges of her mind-- she wasn’t particularly squeamish about bugs, but the way the Baron cradled this one gave her the impression that it was something for even her to worry about.

“The venomous Kai spider,” the Baron explained, eyes widening with a hint of what Cassandra thought looked like insanity. “Its bite causes fever and delirium. Only when there’s swelling of the tongue and throat do you know the end is near.”

Cassandra stayed stock-still as the Baron approached her, never once letting her mask of confidence crack. She stared him down straight in the eyes as he inched closer, the Kai spider’s legs coming into focus as it crawled over his skin.

“Baron!” Flynn cried out. “Stalyan! Please! She has nothing to do with this! Just-- just let her go. She’s on a mission, and if I can’t be around to help, then at least let her finish it-- it’s important. I’ll marry Stalyan. Just… don’t bring Cassandra into this.”

Cassandra’s eyes widened as she looked over to him, facade breaking just a little, as something warm bloomed in her gut. Desperation was etched into every line on his face, eyes bright and pleading. She knew it was for Rapunzel’s sake, but in some small part, she felt it was also for hers.

Stalyan pursed her lips, looking through her thick lashes down at him. Then she grinned. “I like it when you beg, Rider. Do it again.”

For a moment, Cassandra thought he wouldn’t do it. Then Flynn Rider, cocky thief and bottomless well of self-confidence and vanity, lowered his head, voice broken. “ Please .”

Something changed on Stalyan’s face. Nothing big, just a little twitch, a glimmer of something akin to realization, or hesitation. “Father. Put the spider back.”

Baron looked over to his daughter. “What do you mean? We’ve spoken about this moment for years now.”

“I know, I know,” Stalyan said, waving dismissively. “I don’t mean let her go. But-- it isn’t necessary to poison the girl. Just lock her up until the wedding is over. We’ll let her go afterwards.”

Baron studied Stalyan for a few seconds before finally backing away from Cassandra, tucking the spider back into its place and closing his ring once again. “As you wish, Stalyan. This is your matter to deal with as you see fit.”

“Thank you.” Stalyan gave Cassandra one long, thoughtful look, then turned back to Flynn. “Trust me, Rider. It’s meant to be. Me and you, running wild and free throughout the country until the end of our days.”

Something incomprehensible passed through Flynn’s eyes, but defeat reigned over anything else. He didn’t say anything, didn’t argue, didn’t complain. Cassandra, as much as she hated it, felt her heart go out to him.

The Baron waved off his goons. “Take them away. We have a wedding to plan.”

Chapter Text

“This is not good,” Varian whispered, ducking back under Vex’s weapon-laden vending cart. “There’s guards everywhere. What are they doing up in the middle of the night!?”

“Guarding,” Vex muttered drily, getting down on her knees to look under the cart. “I don’t know what you expected. It’s the Baron’s estate, after all.”

“I know that,” he squinted down at her with a pinched frown. He let it go quickly, though, and let loose a sigh. “I have to help them somehow. I said I’d be useful on this trip, and I have to prove that to them.”

“What are you guys after, anyway?” Vex looked up at him, for once without a hint of disdain. “Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t affect me. But you’re an odd group.”

Pride and old excitement fizzed within Varian, but the situation kept them muted. Still, he couldn’t help a self-satisfied grin. “We’re on the Lost Princess’s trail.”

Vex blinked, staring at him for a few seconds as if trying to tell if he was joking or not. Finally, an incredulous laugh escaped her, and she looked back under the cart. “Okay, sure.”

“It’s true!” The claim came out a long louder than he’d meant it to; for a moment, he’d forgotten they were trying to stay unnoticed.

“Varian, shush ,” Vex threw him a reproachful look over her shoulder. “You’re going to-- oh. Uh-oh.”

His stomach flipped. “What?”

She scrambled to her feet, grabbing him by the collar of his jacket and tugging him with her. “ Run, loudmouth! They heard you!”

He yelped, scrabbling to gain his balance as he ran after Vex. Glancing back, he sucked in a breath at the sight of two guards in steel armor pursuing them with raised pikes. Varian’s heart thudded in his chest, arms pumping as he ran faster than he’d ever run before in his life.

They skidded back behind a wall, ducking into the empty plaza. Maximus, ever the vigilant horse, caught on to their distress immediately. He nosed Fidella to get her attention and took off in their direction, meeting the teenagers halfway and making Ruddiger nearly fall out of his saddle.

Varian tugged himself into Maximus’s saddle with a sharp grunt. Vex, on the other hand, tried and failed to mount Fidella, landing on her rear and rubbing her head.

“Hurry up, they’re coming!” Varian whisper-yelled, entire body shaking. He wasn’t used to this kind of adrenaline rush, and he didn’t think he liked it. He could already see the guards’ shadows creeping up on the building walls, outlined in the growing bubble of torchlight.

Vex, face screwed up with frustration, tried again, gripping the saddle with both gloved hands and jaw clenching as she struggled to pull herself up. She managed to swing one leg over Fidella’s side before, shrieking, she fell off the other side with a solid thunk.

“Vex!”

“I’m fine,” she ground out. “Just never ridden a horse before. Not much need to around here!”

The flash of steel caught Varian’s eye, and he grit his teeth. The thought of just taking off without her flashed through his mind, but he pushed it away. He was not the type to betray someone like that. Besides, he knew how it felt-- he hadn’t had much experience with horses until Flynn and Cassandra had taught him. “Use the stirrups!”

“The what-ups?”

“The little step-looking things, down under the saddle!” Varian’s words became increasingly rushed as Maximus shuddered under him, whinnying out a warning. “Hurry, Vex!”

Muttering something under her breath, she tried one more time, boot slipping for a second as she found purchase. Finally she pulled herself up, taking hold of the reins and letting out a sharp breath. “Ooohh, this feels weird. I don’t like this.”

He ignored her, flicking Maximus’s reins. Ruddiger clambered up his jacket and secured both arms around his neck, back claws digging in as the horse lurched under them. Varian caught the tail end of Vex’s curse as they took off into the night, guards shouting after them.

He didn’t know where they were going, but they were going somewhere, and fast. Maximus flew through Vardaros faster than Varian thought horses were capable of running. His eyes watered against the wind battering him, and he risked taking one hand off the reins to flip down his goggles. The city looked odd through them, warped and cast in a cloudy overlay, though he could see much better.

In fact…

He cast a look back at Vex. She was hanging on, but if her stiff posture and grinding teeth were anything to judge by, she couldn’t keep it up for long. When he made eye contact, Varian pointed ahead a little ways, mouthing There!

Her eyes traced along to where he indicated-- a run-down inn with stables attached to the side. Vex nodded back to him as best she could, more a tiny head wobble than anything, and Varian smiled in confirmation. Tugging on Max’s reins, he steered them into the open stables, finally coming to a halt in the back corner as far away from the street as he could get.

Max’s sides caved and swelled under his legs, and Varian patted his neck before dismounting. “Good horse,” he murmured, and Ruddiger echoed him with a chitter, front paws patting Maximus’s nose.

Vex all but fell off of Fidella when they came to a stop, heaving a long, drawn-out groan and rolling over on the stable floor. When she sat up, hay poked out of her braids like porcupine quills, and a smudge of dirt dotted her nose. “I never want to do that again.”

Varian fought the urge to laugh, but he couldn’t help the fond smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. “It’s not for everyone.” The mirth vanished fast, however, and he turned towards the back wall. He pulled a pink vial from his belt, giving it a light shake to activate the luminescence, and held it up. Nothing caught his attention; no handle or knob or anything.

Vex, who’d been staring at the vial as if in a trance, shook herself. She pointed to the wall opposite her, to Varian’s right. “If you’re looking for a door, it’s over there.”

“Oh.” he giggled, sheepish, and tucked the vial into one of his pockets. Left alone for long enough, it’d go back to a dormant state; as it was, he’d have to deal with a soft pink glow on his chest for an hour or so. “Of course. I was about to check that one.”

“Mm-hmm.” Vex pushed herself to her feet, still a little wobbly, and started about picking the hay out of her hair. “Looks big enough to get the horses in too, if they squeeze. We probably need to hide them-- at least for the first night.”

Varian’s brows lowered. “Wait-- what do you mean, ‘first night’?”

“What, are you expecting to head back to the Baron’s already after his men saw us?” Vex rolled her eyes. “Look, if your friends are still alive now, then they’ll still be alive tomorrow. We can go get them then, when the guards’ shift has changed and heat goes back down.”

Varian narrowed his eyes. There was something deeply wrong about sleeping while Flynn and Cassandra were being held captive, but he supposed Vex had a point. Besides, now that the adrenaline was fading, Varian realized he was exhausted down to his bones. They’d been riding all day since dawn, going off of rations and uneasy sleep, and he needed to rest.

“Fine,” he conceded. “But we’re getting up first thing in the morning.”

Vex shrugged as if to say whatever, then marched over to the door and swung it open. The creak was loud enough to make Varian flinch, looking back towards the street; the image of steel-clad soldiers storming into their hiding place flashed through his mind.

He hurried in after her.

The inn looked even worse inside. Dust and cobwebs coated the walls, and some kind of gunk dripped in the far left corner at the entrance to a hallway. The front door-- the one connected to the street-- had been boarded up, though it looked as if someone with halfway sturdy boots could kick it in without issue. The whole front room was empty except for a deteriorating front desk, covered in old cracked papers too dirty to read.

“Man, it’s a dump in here,” Vex commented, reaching her arms up in a luxurious stretch. “Well, ‘night, everybody.”

“‘Night’?” His voice went up a few octaves. “In here?”

“What, scared of spiders?” Vex smirked at him, wriggling her fingers in an imitation of spider legs. “Are you gonna be up all night, worrying about bugs in your bed?”

Varian’s eye twitched. “Well, maybe, if I had a bed. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s nothing here but moldy floor.”

“It’s an inn, genius.” She jerked her thumb towards the hallway. “The rooms are down that way. And guess what guest rooms have? Beds.

“...Oh.” Varian scratched the back of his neck. “Right.”

Vex shook her head, but he caught a smile-- not one of her teasing, derisive ones, but something gentler. “Good night, Varian.”

“Um, yeah.” He watched her go, petting Ruddiger’s head absently when he climbed up to perch on his shoulder. “Night.”

It was a good solid minute before he remembered he needed to go find a room, too.



_____



Eugene ran both hands through his hair, sliding down the wall at last. He’d been pacing back and forth for hours, Cassandra dutifully watching every step as she tried and failed to fall asleep.

“Finally get tired?”

He didn’t answer right away, staring at the wall beyond their cell’s bars. He hated being on this side of bars again, especially knowing that Rapunzel was still out there, needing help that he couldn’t give. When he finally spoke, it was quiet, subdued. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Yeah, me neither. Who’d want to marry you?”

He snorted. The words themselves were insulting, but he knew Cassandra well enough by now to tell when she was deflecting. She was bothered by this too-- perhaps not as much as he was, understandably, but it was there. “I don’t know, Cass,” he whispered. “I don’t know.”

She shifted at his use of a nickname, but she didn’t call him out on it. He took it as a good sign. “I’m sorry.”

“This isn’t your fault,” Eugene turned to her, brown eyes meeting hazel. “This is all me. Me and my stupidity.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Cassandra’s frown was lopsided as she studied him, trying to find the words, push back her emotional barrier. He wouldn’t lie; the fact that she was trying so hard touched him. “I’m sorry for you. That this happened. I know how much the Prin-- Rapunzel means to you.”

Eugene nodded, averting his eyes back to the bars. He couldn’t bear to look at her anymore, not with the shame coursing through every vein in his body. He shut his eyes, a light, quiet sigh slipping past his lips. “Please, Cass, find her. Take care of her. Make sure she gets the life she deserves.”

“Hey,” a hand landed atop his, and his eyes fluttered open to find that she’d scooted closer to him. Her gaze was intense as she gave him a smile, infused with every shred of confidence she could muster. “Don’t give up yet, Flynn. There’s always a way to escape.”

They stared at one another for a moment before Eugene returned her smile as well as he could, then dropped his eyes to the floor. This wasn’t right; if this was the last time he ever spoke to Cassandra, he wanted her to know him-- the real him, by his real name. He’d wanted the world to know once he came back with Rapunzel, but if she was his last option, then that was what he’d go with.

“Cass,” he began. “My name, it’s--”

Flynn!?”

They both started, eyes snapping towards the cell across from theirs. It was cast in shadow; Eugene had been able to make out a few sleeping figures earlier, but not any special features. Now, however, one of them had found his way to the bars, and torchlight from down the hall fell across his face.

“...Lance?” Eugene half-asked, half-laughed out. “What-- why--”

“Got caught trying to steal from the Baron,” Lance shrugged, bright white smile offsetting his groomed beard and mustache. “You know, as per usual. Turns out messing with the Baron is not the smartest thing to do.”

“Of course you did,” Eugene’s expression fell flat. “Because we didn’t learn that lesson eight years ago .”

“Pshhh, you know me. I’m forgetful.” The grin fell off his face then, and he ran a hand over his smooth bald head. “Uh, actually, Flynn? I kinda need help. Bust me out, for old times’ sake?”

“What makes you think we’ll just go busting people out?” Cassandra stood up beside him, hands on her hips and mouth twisted in a scowl. “We’re still trying to figure this out for ourselves!”

Lance blinked at her, taken aback, before glancing towards Eugene. “You mean Flynn doesn’t have a plan?”

“I’m not a genie, Lance. I can’t just magic up some kind of escape route.” Usually he wouldn’t be so short with his old friend, but Eugene was on the edge of coming unwound. He’d almost done it. He’d almost given up, given his last words to Cassandra and mentally signed himself over to a life being dragged around by Stalyan. He did not want Lance’s innocent positivity right now.

“I know that,” Lance frowned, hands wrapping around the bars in a loose hold. “But, well, you’re Flynn Rider. You always have a backup plan. It’s your thing.”

“Not this time.” Eugene huffed through his nose. “I’m getting married to Stalyan, and Cassandra’s going off to finish what I can’t. It’s over. I can’t help you.”


A flurry of emotions went over Lance’s face at that, but chief among them was a surprised sort of pity, with confusion lurking in the corners of his downturned lips. “Marrying… Stalyan? Wait, what’s all this about?” He looked to Cassandra. “What can’t Flynn finish?”

“I have to find someone important,” she replied icily, and Eugene was reminded of the day they’d first met, of the shield she’d put up around him. Only a week ago, but it felt like so much longer.

“Oh.” For once, Lance didn’t press. It seemed Cassandra’s intimidation really did work on everyone-- except the Baron, of course. “But don't you have any ideas at all? We really need to get out over here.”

Eugene, despite himself, raised an eyebrow. “‘We’? Who else is over there?”

“See, that’s the funny thing.” Lance cleared his throat. “You don’t know them, but, um, we’ve been in here for a couple of days together, and… well. I’ll just let you see for yourself. Hey girls?”

Two shapes, like phantoms, rose from the back of the cell. Eugene felt his jaw drop as they came into range of the torchlight, illuminating two small faces still round and soft with youth. One of them looked at him with slanted dark eyes filled even mix of suspicion and disinterest, framed by short-cropped hair. The other had to brush bright red bangs aside to look at them properly, lips settled in a small curious o. Both of them wore red facepaint, just a little spiked line under each eye, though it was smudged from lack of care over the course of their imprisonment.

“Meet Red and Angry,” Lance proclaimed with a smile.

“...They’re children,” Cassandra pointed out in a moment of extreme and arcane wisdom.

The shorter one clapped her hands in a slow, sarcastic beat. “Way to go, lady. What tipped you off?”

Cassandra glared down at the girl, but Lance put a hand on her shoulder. “Angry, we’ve talked about this. They might be able to help, so please don’t tick her off right away.”

“I’ll do what I want, Lance,” she shrugged him off. Still, though, her features lost their edge as she faced Cassandra again. “Red and I got caught stealing from the Baron. Thing is, we tried to steal the exact same thing as this nitwit, and he got us captured.”

“That is a lie. It was pure coincidence.”

“Yeah, and a good helping of screaming at a spider.” Angry rolled her eyes, elbowing the other girl. “What do you wanna bet they’re in here for the same thing?”

“Excuse me, I was taken prisoner because of my sheer desirability,” Eugene put in. Seeing kids had taken the pressure of the coming day off his mind, just enough to lighten his mood a bit. “I haven’t stolen anything from the Baron in a long while.”

Angry looked him over for a second, narrowing her eyes at the claim. “You’re Flynn Rider, huh?”

“That’s me.”

“You’re shorter than I thought you’d be.” She flicked her eyes to Cassandra. “Who’s this, your girlfriend?”

Eugene and Cassandra shot each other a look, faces screwing up in identical expressions of disgust. “We are not together,” she assured Angry, waving her arms to accentuate the not . “He’s in love with someone else, and I don’t think we’d mix very well.”

Lance broke the conversation with a loud gasp. “Eugene! Really? I thought Stalyan locked you up in here so you’d marry her!”

“She did!”

Confusion made Lance’s brows dip. “But…”

“I’m not in love with Stalyan.” Eugene pinched the bridge of his nose. “Cassandra’s going to find the one I do love. That’s why she has to get out of here. She’s her last hope.”

The girls exchanged a glance, and Red frowned, tugging on Lance’s vest. He leaned down to let her whisper in his ear, and he nodded, a tiny smile forming on his lips.

“What’d she say?” Cassandra demanded when he stood up again.

“Well, we don't know how yet," Lance began, "But we're gonna help."




_____




Gothel glowered down at the little black spike.

She’d begun to notice them a few days ago, but she suspected they’d been following Rapunzel for longer. Gothel really should’ve known better than to invoke her powers so near the Sundrop; Zhan Tiri’s touch had awakened powers best left unprovoked, and there was no going back. The Opal had sensed Rapunzel, and she wouldn’t know any peace for the rest of her days, at least until her Mistress returned and fixed it all.

As it was, her main concern was ensuring that Rapunzel remained unaware of the rocks. She cast a glance over to the girl, watching as she shivered in place by the tree she’d fallen asleep against. Rapunzel had not complained, just as she had promised back in the tower, but Gothel knew better than to give her any leeway. One slip, one little inch of free rein, and the girl would take off again, never to return.

Gothel had already lost her flower twice. She wouldn’t let it happen a third time.

So, she lowered herself to her knees, digging both hands into the soft earth and molding it around the crystalline stone. She ached to use her magic, but, as she had resigned herself to all those years ago, it could not be done in the Sundrop’s presence-- at least, not more than it already had been. She could not afford any more stupid moves, on either her or Rapunzel’s part.

The woods around her were silent and still as she finished, beckoning her with their mystical air. These were the magical lands she used to roam back in her truly youthful days, along with her sisters and lovely familiar. Some days she missed that simpler time, centuries ago, when the world had been purer and more rife with enchantment. After so long of living off the Sundrop’s magic, she had few memories of those golden years, but what she did have were shrouded in bliss.

When Zhan Tiri returned, it would be like that again. Magic would run rampant, and no one could steal it. Not kings. Not wizard-scientists. Not even age.

She only had to last until then, and things would once again be great. She just needed a good place to hide and hunker down.

The silhouette of a tree crossed her mind’s eye, and Gothel smiled.

Chapter Text

Vex sat at a long, mahogany table, laden with fancy dinnerware and more food than she could possibly eat. People surrounded her on all sides, laughing and talking in muddled chatter; their faces were blurred out from her years spent without them, but Vex knew they were her family.

She fiddled with the strings of her bodice, a part of any respectable Vardaros woman’s attire, and frowned. Something wasn’t right about all of this. She didn’t usually wear this stuff, did she? No, and she hadn’t been in a hall this big and warm in a long time. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this clean, either, or the last time her hair had been let down to fall over her shoulders in gentle rolling waves.

Vex looked around, squinting at all the faces, trying to discern any small detail-- but she couldn’t. It wasn’t there. She couldn’t remember, no matter how hard she tried or how badly she wanted to. Vex had forgotten them a long time ago.

Still, though, she reached for her fork, glinting in the soft candlelight of a dinner hall that she didn’t belong in anymore. Her reflection in it was foreign, covered in makeup and trimmed down to a proper young lady, and her hand shook.

“Vex?”

An invisible weight landed on her shoulder. It was warm, and comforting, and somehow more real than everything else. The fork clattered to the table as she let out a soft gasp of surprise, reaching up to feel it. Her fingers brushed over another hand, soft and rough at the same time, like worn leather.

“Vex.” The voice was more earnest now, a hint of annoyance leaking in. She furrowed her brows, looking over her shoulder, but there was nothing there. What was she doing? What did it want?

“Vex, wake up !”

Her eyes flew open, and a face came into view, long fringe of black hair dangling much too close to her own for comfort.

She did the first thing that came to mind: backhand it.

“Oww!” Varian stumbled back, rubbing his cheek. Ruddiger chittered as he scrambled back to avoid being stomped on. “Vex, what the heck? That hurt!”

You scared me readied itself on her lips, but she bit it back just in time. She was shaken from the dream, but that didn’t mean she’d admit something like that. Instead, she shrugged, arms crossing over her chest. “Ought to teach you not to get in my face. Little bit creepy.”

He glared at her. “Well, I wouldn’t have been in your face if you weren’t so hard to wake up! It’s midday, we slept in!”

“Already?” The saucy edge left her voice as she turned, facing the cracked window above her bed’s headboard. Through the grimy streaks, she could indeed see the rich, bright sunlight of noon beating down on a street unusually full of people. Vex looked back towards Varian, taking in his tight frown and fidgeting feet. “How late did we go to sleep last night?”

“Obviously too late,” he mumbled, eyes becoming hard. “The people outside were talking about a wedding between the Baron’s daughter and Flynn Rider, and I think it’s planned for tonight.”

“A wedding?” Vex raised a brow. “Are you… are you sure your friend wants to be saved?”

“This can’t be consensual. He’s in love with the Lost Princess.”

“Of course he is.” Vex ran a hand down her face, then pinched the bridge of her nose. “I don’t know which is worse: the fact that you keep saying this stuff, or the fact that I’m starting to believe you.”

“Well, it’s the truth.” Varian glanced up at the window, practically hopping in place now. “We have to get going, but there’s a… bit of a problem. I was out there looking for Ruddiger-- he ran away after some fruit vendor-- when I started hearing all the wedding talk. I started listening in, and-- the guards told everyone what we look like, Vex. It was a miracle I got back in here unnoticed.”

Her stomach dropped. “Of course. Just… okay. Sure. So what do we do about that?”

“Well,” Varian’s lips curved into a mischievous grin, and Vex suddenly felt a little nervous when he reached into his jacket to pull out a folded piece of paper. “Look what I found pinned up on one of the houses.”

She took the little square with a suspicious glance, unfolding it into her lap. Wanted ran across the top in huge bold letters, followed up by ‘ Goggle Bandit’. At the bottom ran a more demure line reading ‘ for being an accomplice in Flynn Rider’s crimes’ .

Between all of this was the figure of what looked to be a man, hood drawn up and huge, reflective goggles covering his face like a bug’s eyes. His features were simple and generic beyond a splatter of freckles, and he lacked the telltale buck teeth in his scowl, but...

“Is this… supposed to be you?”

A mixture of amusement and exasperation crossed Varian’s features as he nodded. “I believe so. They didn’t see me very well, I guess, because you can barely tell it’s me. But yeah. The Corona guards must’ve released a warning to the border cities too.”

Vex stared at it for a moment longer, mind trying vigorously to connect the scowling man on a wanted poster and the dorky boy standing next to her trying to save his friends. At last, the only thing she could manage was, “ Goggle Bandit ?”

“Never said the Guards were good at naming,” Varian crossed his arms, but he still smirked, a sliver of teeth showing as he contained a snigger. “I have to say, I’m not sure whether to be flattered by this or repulsed that they didn’t give me any more thought.”

“I’d go with repulsed.” Vex shook her head, finally tearing her eyes away from the poster. “But how does this help us?”

“That’s where it gets interesting. Hold on for a second.” He jogged out the door before she could protest, and she lowered her brows as the steady clunk-clunk-clunk of his boots echoed down the hallway outside. When he returned, he was holding a bundle of navy cloth, smiling down at it with too much excitement for Vex’s liking. “Look what I found tucked away in my room’s closet.”

He rolled it out on the bed. It wasn’t much-- just a little hooded shawl, fastened at the neckline with a cheap-looking stone in place of a button. More impressive were the pair of goggles that flopped out, roughly similar to Varian’s but a little slimmer, and a cool silvery gray around the edge rather than his brass.

She looked from the clothes, to the poster, to Varian. “No.”

“Come on, Vex. You have to!” He clasped both hands together. “ Please ? I have a plan, and I just know it’ll work. But I have to get you to help.”

She scooted up against the headboard, nose scrunched up as she regarded the shawl and goggles. “I am not going to put those on. You can’t make me. I am not going to look like a geek, no matter what you do.”

Five minutes later, Varian tapped his chin, an appraising smile on his face. Ruddiger did the same from his place wrapped around the boy’s shoulders. “I think you look great.”

 

Vex's New Outfit

Vex scowled at him. “I don’t trust you for fashion advice, short-stack.”

“You know I’m taller than you, right?” Varian took a few steps forward, putting a hand to the top of his head and then tracing it over hers. She came up a few inches short.

Smirking, Vex’s arm snaked up to grab his, twisting it backwards-- just enough to hurt a little, not anything permanent. Ruddiger chittered as he fell and Varian yelped, struggling weakly against her. She laughed in his ear. “You wanna repeat that, short-stack ?”

“No, no, I’m good,” Varian wheezed, rubbing his arm when she let go of him. Casting her a dirty look, he stuck out his tongue in an awe-inspiring show of maturity. “You’re mean.”

“Gotta be, to live in this city by yourself,” Vex crossed her arms, cocking a hip. “So, you got me into this. Mind telling me why?”

“Oh! Right.” Varian seemed to forget about his pain entirely, freckles bunching together as he grinned. “We’ll have to wait until nighttime, but…”

He leaned forward, hand raised to the side of his mouth conspiratorially (Vex heaved an inward groan), and stage-whispered, “We’re gonna bomb a wedding.”



____



Red and Angry were admirable young criminals.

Using a scrap of chalk Red had been hiding on her, they’d turned the back of Lance’s belt into a map of the estate. Eugene had watched them work with the sort of jealousy-kissed appreciation that only a former thief could. 

According to them, the girls had only been free in here once, and still between the two of them they were able to recreate a map. It wasn’t as detailed as he would’ve liked, but Angry had marked the exits and the room containing prisoners’ personal effects, so he’d take it. Besides, they’d had to start over when guards tried to take Eugene out earlier that day for a wedding announcement (and subsequently had to defend themselves, shoving him and Cassandra back in their cell), so he couldn’t complain.

Cassandra was less pleased to be in prison amidst four thieves, but so far, she’d behaved herself. Eugene could tell by the way her fingers went to her back at every sound that she missed her sword, but there was nothing they could do about that-- not until they could get an escape route figured out, at least. Still, though, if she didn’t get any sleep soon, they’d have to start worrying about her fists. She’d complained twice, very loudly, that they she couldn’t sleep: once when the girls had started drawing, and once when the sun had come up.

Knowing the structure of the place had reinvigorated his thieving spirit and will to escape, and Lance being there had gone from reluctant reminder to valued asset. For all Lance’s little faults, Eugene knew he could trust him with anything, and that was one of the most important things in an operation like this.

“So,” Angry wiped a wrist over her forehead, leaving a white smear across it. Using what stub remained of the chalk, she tapped a tiny circle on her map. “This is us, in the prison. We’re aboveground-- obviously, as you can see from our windows--so we have a few options. One, we find some way to knock out the bars, crawl out, and scram.”

“Not likely,” Lance shook his head, a small yawn slipping past his lips. “Baron’s fancy. He wouldn’t have faulty bars.”

“Two, we jump the guards when they come to get us, run to the personal effects room to grab our weapons, and fight our way out.” Angry traced her finger over her map, tapping the PE she’d scribbled across the room. “Now, this plan has a few problems.”

“I’ll say,” Cassandra scoffed. “They’re only coming for Flynn, and I doubt the Baron will skimp on guards, especially after we tried to take them earlier. Might even come down himself. Even if we did get out, there’s no guarantee they’ll even have the keys to your cell.”

“Exactly,” Angry nodded in Cassandra’s direction. “Which means that either you guys can actually pitch in and offer up an idea, or we take a chance.”

“And what if that chance fails?” Eugene asked, serious but not unkind. “Cass is at risk here if we tick Baron off too much. We can’t let her get hurt.”

“As much as I love you playing white knight for me, I can take care of myself,” Cassandra reminded him sourly.

“I know, but this isn’t some bandit group in the mountains. Baron’s one of the biggest crime bosses in the Seven Kingdoms. He won’t hesitate to get rid of any one of us.”

“Besides you,” Lance spoke up. Holding up his pants with one hand, he pointed at Eugene with the other. “Stalyan wants you to marry her. Baron’ll spare you for her sake, no matter what you do.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” Eugene tugged on his goatee. “I’ve seen him snap and do things against her wishes before. Guys, there just… might not be a way out this time.”

“But Flynn--”

The slam of a door made everyone go quiet.

Lance snatched up his belt, fastening back around his waist as both groups sank back into their cells. Eugene caught his old buddy’s eyes, holding them for a few seconds before a figure stepped between them.

Baron, flanked by at least ten guards, stared down at Eugene with hands clasped behind his back. “It’s time to begin setting up. I trust you’ll be more cooperative than you were last time.”

He held the Baron’s cold blue gaze, schooling his features to hide the boiling contempt hiding underneath. Past clenched teeth, he ground out, “Yes, sir.”

“Good.” The Baron’s smile dripped poison. “I won’t have a disobedient son-in-law.”

He went with them without protest, giving Cassandra a tiny shake of the head when he spotted her pushing against the guards. She glared at him, but backed off, letting them tie her hands behind her back.

The clinking of a key caught his attention, and his eyes shot to a guard unlocking Lance, Angry, and Red’s cell. He raised a brow at the Baron. “They’re coming too?”

“Please, I remember Lance. He’ll be more than welcome at the wedding, as extra insurance.” Baron nodded at his guards as they secured the three prisoners. “The girls, as well, since you seem to have taken a liking to one another.”

This guy is even more overconfident than I am, Eugene thought. At first it was in disgust, but soon, the implications of that hit. Baron was letting them all out at once. Restrained and guarded, sure, but they were out of their cells.

Eugene turned away from the Baron, letting his lips curve into a tiny, smug smile. They’d teach him not to underestimate his captives.

He just had to wait for the right moment.



_____



“You sure about this?” Vex murmured, squinting through her goggles at the Baron’s front gate.

“Of course I am!” Varian held up the poster with the air of someone revealing a revolutionary piece of art. “Flynn Rider is the groom. They’ll have to let in his accomplices.”

“You don’t think, not even a little bit, that they’ll question why there are two Bandits?”

“Nahh. You see all those criminals lined up out there? They’re letting anyone with half a reputation in. Plus, I’m new. Who’s to say I don’t have a partner?”

“Partner, huh?” A lopsided smile tugged at Vex’s mouth as she glanced over at him.

Varian cleared his throat. “Well, I mean, it-- I just meant we tell him that, not--”

“I know, nerd.” She turned back to the gate. “One full day spent together, and we’re already partners. I guess it could be worse.”

He chuckled, more out of awkwardness than anything, and rubbed the back of his neck. “Um, we should… we should probably get over there before the line gets any longer.”

“Probably.” Vex rolled her shoulders, checking herself over one last time to make sure she had everything. Hood, check. Goggles, check. Side bag full of alchemy beads, check. “You go first, you’ve got the poster.”

He nodded, taking a deep breath in before marching out from behind the wall.

They didn’t have to wait long in line; the guy checking everyone at the gate had been getting progressively lazier as the hour wore on. They’d waited in hopes that he wouldn’t press them too hard-- not that Varian had any doubt in his plan, of course, but one must always account for margin of error-- so now all they had left to do was hold their breaths and hope.

The gateman was a tall fellow, with a somewhat large nose and a bushy black beard. He scanned them over with beady eyes, scowling after a few moments. “I don’t recognize you.”

Varian pursed his lips, adjusting his goggles snobbishly and unrolling the poster. “That’s a pity, my dear man. Are you certain you haven’t heard tell of the Goggle Bandit until now?”

The change was slow, but as he read over the sign-- whispering the words under his breath-- the man’s eyes widened. “Flynn Rider’s accomplice, eh? But how come there’s two of you?”

Varian laughed, pressing his free hand to his chest as if he found the question hilarious. “Good sir, we’re one and the same. The Corona guards, idiots as they are, have yet to realize there is more than one working under our moniker. It’s such a pity we had to leave them behind to attend the wedding, but alas, one can only toy with simpletons so long before one’s own intelligence begins to slip.”

That seemed to work. He gruffed out a noise of approval, backing up a step and waving them by. “Go on, then. Have some cake. Just don’t cause any fuss.”

Varian let out a silent sigh of relief. He hadn’t been sure if the ‘Flynn’s accomplice’ thing would help or harm them; luckily, it seemed that not everyone was informed of the groom’s reluctance. He flashed the man as charming a smile as he could muster, swaggering on by with Vex in tow.

She slapped him on the shoulder as soon as they entered. “What was that, your best oily salesman impression?”

“It was my villain voice,” Varian sneered back at her, though he kept it light and joking. “I got us in, didn’t I?”

“Barely. I could’ve done a much better job.”

“Well, then, why didn’t you?”

Her grin became competitive, and she leaned towards him with her arms crossed. “Because you’re a loudmouth who can’t tell when to shut up, that’s why.”

He mirrored her stance. “You just keep using the same insults. Do you just run out of inspiration?”

“At least I know some decent insults, geek.”

“At least I have a vocabulary.”

They were nearly nose-to-nose now, staring each other down with mirroring grins. Vex finally laughed, pushing him away and turning towards the wedding. “You know, for a nerd, you’re not half bad.”

“You’re pretty likeable yourself, for a street urchin,” Varian returned, lingering on her form for a moment before turning his eyes to their surroundings. It was almost distastefully opulent and bright against the night sky, with sparkling lights and a fountain and great, looming swan statues. Tables upon tables of food lined the venue, steaming and putting off waves of pleasant smells.

Up at the front of it all, surrounded by low marble steps, was the platform where the Baron stood, ready to commence the ceremony.

They watched as a band began playing in the corner of the platform, music filtering through the chatter and quieting everyone down. A woman, dressed in fine silks and lace, stepped up onto one side; on the other came Flynn, face flat and unemotive.

A thrill ran through him, and Varian cast a glance to Vex. “You ready for this?”

Her grin was wild and sharper than Cassandra’s sword as she reached for her bag. “You better believe I am.”



_____



Eugene tried to keep calm as he looked down at Stalyan. He really did. But it was so hard, knowing that Rapunzel was still out there somewhere, needing his help, and he was stuck here getting married to someone else. He felt dirty, like a stain was forming somewhere on his skin and no amount of scrubbing would ever get it off.

“Calm down, Rider,” Stalyan purred, eyes half-lidded and mouth curved up wickedly. “This is meant to be.”

He didn’t answer.

The Baron began his wedding speech, but Eugene didn’t listen. Instead, his gaze traveled to the curtain behind them, where he knew the others had been tied up and assigned to two guards each. He was doing this for Rapunzel, and he was doing this for them. He’d done this to himself, after all, doing everything he had for so many years. Maybe this was karma.

He hoped Cassandra and the others would find a way out, find Varian-- wherever the poor kid had ended up-- and go save Rapunzel. If he could just know that, then he could live in relative peace, even married to Stalyan. Whatever happened to him, if they were okay, then that was all that mattered.

“I do,” Stalyan’s words brought him out of his musings, and he sucked in a breath. This was it. There was no going back.

“Do you, Flynn Rider, take Stalyan to be your wife?”

You were my new dream.

And you were mine.

Finally, resigning himself, Eugene opened his mouth. “I--”

The world exploded in pink.

When the smoke cleared somewhat, Eugene-- still coughing-- stared at the Baron and Stalyan. Their boots had been glued to the ground with some kind of magenta goo, the same color as the fumes that had been in Varian’s lab when they first met him.

Varian.

He swiveled around, expecting to see the boy, and did a double take. Varian was there, but unless the chemicals were messing with him, he wasn’t alone-- a girl stood beside him, and from the way she was leaning back, Eugene gathered she was the one to throw the bomb this time. Goggles and a hood obscured most of her face, but Eugene felt that there was something familiar about her. The braids, especially.

 

Varian and Vex

Then it hit him. “Hey! It’s you!”

“Yeah, deal with it,” she called back, turning to say something to Varian. Eugene couldn’t make it out, but the kid nodded, and she took off in the other direction with more bombs in hand. Varian raced towards Eugene, pink beads at the ready and poised to throw them at the shouting Stalyan and Baron.

“Where’s Lady Cassandra?” Varian spat out, short and erratic like he’d eaten too much sugar.

That kicked his brain back into gear, and he took off towards the curtain. “Follow me!”

They ducked backstage together. One flash bomb and a few pink adhesive beads later, Eugene dove between the guards and straight for Cassandra’s restraints while Varian kept watch at the curtain. Cassandra smiled up at them, meeting his eyes before looking past him at Varian. “I guess the kid came through for us, huh?”

“He sure did,” Eugene laughed, still half-disbelieving, and moved on to Lance’s restraints while Cassandra took care of the girls. “After we left him on the street by himself, too.”

“Where’d you find the kid?” Lance asked, rubbing his wrists and standing. “How much you paying him?”

“Nothing. He kind of forced himself on us.” Cassandra answered for him, offering a smile to the girls and facing Lance. “Glad he did now, though. Now, where’s my sword again, Angry?”

“Personal effects room,” Angry answered, sly, greedy smile dancing on her lips. “You don't remember the way, I'm guessing? So you need me to lead you?”

Cassandra frowned, narrowing her eyes in suspicion. “No, I don't remember. What’s it gonna cost me?”

The girls shared a look, and Red shook her head. Angry turned back to Cassandra. “Nothing. You got us out. It’s the least we can do.”

“Lance and I will help the kids while you guys go do that,” Eugene offered, tilting his head towards the curtain where Varian still stood. “Just hurry back.”

“You got it.” Cassandra nodded down at the girls. “Lead the way.”

Eugene watched them go, then turned to the struggling guards. “Hey, kid?” he called out, “You got anything to knock these guys out?”

“They won’t escape,” Varian promised, though he still dug around in his jacket pockets. Pulling out a vial of something green, he waved it in the air. “This should do it, but be careful. It’s a gas, so we’ll have to drop it and get out.” 

“No problem.” Eugene gestured to Lance, and they took off, ducking past the curtain. As soon as they were out, Varian tossed the vial over his shoulder, and they rushed away as fast as they could go.

Green fumes puffed out from behind them, and the thunk of armored bodies hitting the floor reached his ears. Grinning, he glanced towards the Baron and Stalyan. “You got any more of that stuff?”

“No, sorry. It was my only one.” Varian shrugged apologetically. “They shouldn’t get out, though--”

With one final, passionate grunt, the Baron tugged his foot free, chest heaving with angry, growling breaths.

“Never mind,” Varian squeaked. “Uh, run.”

They dashed towards the exit, only to find it blocked. Varian’s hand plunged into his pocket, but the confidence drained from his face after a few seconds of rummaging around. “Oh. Ohhh no. I’m out.”

“What do you mean, you’re out ?” Eugene demanded.

“I mean, I ran out of adhesive beads,” Varian’s voice shook with panic as he looked back at the Baron, who was storming after them with controlled, heavy steps. He knew they were trapped. “The formula was experimental! I wasn’t even sure if they worked until I tested them this morning!”

“Well, you better come up with a backup plan now, kid!” Lance shouted, turning around to shield his friends with both arms. Eugene knew the confidence was just for show-- Lance was always the one to hide behind him when they were younger-- but he appreciated the gesture anyway.

Varian cupped his hands to his mouth. “Vex! Vex, where’d you go?”

“Over here!” Eugene looked up. Atop the gate, the girl from earlier-- Vex, apparently-- waved down at them. “I got the animals!”

“Great!” Varian smiled up at her. “Why aren’t they in here?”

“Can’t get past the gate. Guards were a cinch, but we can’t find a way in.” Ruddiger chittered as he appeared next to her, and she scooped him up. “You guys know the Baron’s coming, right?”

“All too well.” Eugene turned back to face the Baron. He was nearly on them, close enough for him to make out the flaring nostrils and angry scowl. He nudged Lance, sinking into a fighting stance. “How well have you kept up your hand-to-hand?”

“Honestly? Not well. But I’m game if you are.” Lance did the same, holding up his fists. “Like old times, buddy?”
“Just like ‘em.” Eugene grinned up at his friend, then faced the Baron, rearing back for a punch as Varian backed away--

A sword cut the air between them.

“Back away from the morons,” Cassandra instructed, sword glimmering in the moonlight as she grinned up at the Baron. “Or I’ll make you into a kebab. Either way’s good with me.”

“Lady Cassandra!” Varian shouted, and Eugene let out a breath of relief.

“How dare you?” Baron thundered, gold saber hissing as he drew it and brought it around towards Cassandra in a deadly arc.

She ducked, tossing Eugene a dagger that he barely managed to catch by the handle. A second later, the screech of clashing metal rang out in their ears, and Cassandra stared down the Baron as they pushed their swords against one another in a battle of wills. Then they parted, and came back again, a lethal waltz of silver and gold.

Then Eugene was in the mix, boot finding the Baron’s gut and dagger whistling through the air. Lance and Varian ducked back, letting them duel it out, but Eugene didn’t mind. The Baron drove them back with a powerful swing, and they stood back-to-back with one another, staring down the enemy: Cassandra with a glare and Eugene with a smug smirk.

 

Cass and Eugene

“If you won’t marry Stalyan,” the Baron huffed out, “Then I’ll make sure you won’t ever marry anyone else, either.”

“You know, most ex-future-father-in-laws would take their daughter out for chocolate, or by her a nice stuffed animal,” Eugene shot back. “But nooo, I had to get stuck with the obsessive one.”

“Shut up with the banter, Rider,” Cassandra hissed. “This is serious.”

“Excuse you, my personal issues are very serious.”

The Baron loosed a shout, running towards them with his weapon raised high, and they, as one, raised their own to block.

The sheer strength behind Baron’s sword was enough to make Eugene’s knees buckle, and he heard the soft grunt that escaped Cassandra. Baron didn’t let up, pressing harder and harder down on them as if he was crushing a can instead of swordfighting. Eugene half expected sparks to fly when the blades scraped against one another.

Then two small shapes appeared by the Baron’s knees, kicking them in with practiced synchronization.

Baron fell.

“He’s down!” Angry shouted, dashing past them and seizing Eugene’s hand. Red did the same with Cassandra, tugging the two into a mad dash towards the wall. The girls launched themselves up the wall, scaling it in seconds, and Eugene did the same, not thinking about Cassandra down below.

“Cass!” he shouted, extending a hand down to her. The Baron was on his feet now, and Cassandra looked back and forth between the two of them, distrust and indecision flashing over her features, before she finally breathed out a curse and jumped towards Eugene.

She was heavy, but nothing he hadn’t pulled before. Still, if it hadn’t been for Lance grabbing him around the waist and adding his strength, Eugene would’ve pitched forward straight into the Baron’s clutches. As it was, Cassandra barely made it, boots scraping up the wall as they pulled her up.

The three collapsed, panting, atop the thick wall. Safe. They were safe.

Angry loosed a whistle to get their attention. “Don’t piddle around, nitwits! The gate’s glued closed, but that won’t last long!”

Eugene scrambled to his feet, scaling back down the wall along with Lance and the girls. Cassandra trusted him much easier this time to catch her, dusting herself off as she hit the ground. Varian and Vex waved to them from where Maximus and Fidella waited, along with two new, unnamed horses fitted with plain, if worn, saddles.

“Stole ‘em,” Vex said in answer to his questioning look. “Don’t worry, the guy was a crook and a cruel breeder. Probably saved the nags.”

He didn’t question them. Eugene hopped onto Maximus, Varian scrabbling up behind him, and flicked the reins.

A storm of clopping hooves followed him as they raced through Vardaros, the girls laughing from their place clustered however they’d fit around Lance. Vex took up one of the horses alone, while Cassandra naturally took Fidella. All of them moved as one after him, and Eugene felt the memories of these streets return to him in a great crash: they were all the same, after all these years, and he knew exactly where the exit was from here.

Finally, they reached the back gate of Vardaros, looking out over the plains. They ducked behind the wall before dismounting, checking each other over and doing a head count. Everyone and everything, including two new horses and a few things Cassandra had swiped from the prisoners’ effects room: namely, a bag of gold coins and a few wrapped-up rations that still smelled edible. They’d really gotten out. They’d done it.

“I can’t thank you two enough,” Eugene turned to Angry and Red, Lance coming up beside him. “Really. Thank you. For everything.”

“Just remember this next time we need help, Flynn,” Angry winked at him, but Red walked up past her friend, looking up at Eugene and Lance. Quickly, as if afraid she’d back out, Red hugged him and Lance once each by the leg before retreating with a blush.

“She likes you,” Angry told them, smiling gently at her friend, before nodding to them. “We’ll be seeing you, Rider. Lance. I assume you’re going with them?”

Lance glanced at Eugene. “I mean, if Flynn doesn’t mind. Um, do you?”

Eugene opened his mouth, but Lance clasped his hands, sinking down to both knees. “Please, Flynn, c’mon. I don’t have anywhere to go. You’ve always been my big brother, you know that?”

“Lance, you’re older than me.”

“Please?”

Eugene looked over to Cassandra, who gave him a flat expression. Heaving a sigh, she rolled her eyes. “Well, we’ve got an extra horse now.”

Thank you ,” Lance grinned. “Promise, I won’t let you down. Whatever you need me for, I’ll do it. You know I will.”

“I do.” Eugene couldn’t help but grin at him, before something caught the corner of his eye. He leaned over to look past Lance, eyes landing on the two teenagers standing by the gate.

With her goggles off, it was even easier to tell who Vex was. A wave of indignance passed through him at the memory of her trick before he shook it off; he had no ground to stand on. He’d just been pardoned from his own karma. The least he could do was extend the gesture.

If only he knew what they were talking about.



____



“I guess this is goodbye, huh?” Varian asked, a somewhat-sad smile tugging on one corner of his mouth.

“Unless you want to hang around until Baron catches up.” Vex tried to smirk, but it ended up something more like his smile instead. “But, yeah. It, um… it was nice working with you, partner.”

“Yeah. It was.” Varian rocked back up on his heels, eyes trailing along the ground. “Um. Are you going to be okay here?”

“I’ll be fine. Made it this long all by myself. I’m a tough girl, short-stack.” She winked at him. “I’m more worried about you.”

“Hah! I can handle myself, I’ve got alchemy on my side.” His eyes widened suddenly, and he reached to undo his jacket so he could reach his belt. “Oh, that’s right! I never asked you what you wanted. I’m out of adhesive bombs, but I’ve got smoke ones still, and--”

She cut him off by pushing his hands down. “How about one of those light-up things? The pink ones. And little, if you’ve got it.”

Confusion crossed his features, but he nodded, reaching into one of the pockets on his sleeves. “Yeah, I’ve got a little one from the first experimental batch. Um, don’t worry, it still works like the others. Just, y’know, smaller. And it’ll go dormant after about ten minutes unless you shake it again.”

She took the vial, rolling it between her fingers. It was tiny, maybe a third of the length of her middle finger, and filled with viscous pink ooze. Smiling, she tucked it away into her belt pouch. “Thanks. Take care of yourself, okay?”

“I…” he cleared his throat. “Okay. Yeah. You too.”

Their parting was longer than Eugene would’ve liked, apparently, because he appeared a second later to take Varian’s shoulder and guide him away. The boy waved back at her, though, even as he mounted one of their new horses and rode away.

She waved back as long as he did, until they were just blurs on the horizon, disappearing behind one of the gently rolling hills under the starry sky.

Vex shook her head, puffing out a soft snort, and ran her fingers over where the vial lay. Finally, she turned around, already thinking of how she’d go about getting her Knives N’ Such vending cart back.

She stopped short when a bunch of looming figures blocked her path, garbed in Baron’s signature steel armor and bearing pikes. “Thought you could get away, eh, little girl?” one of them-- the gatekeeper, she realized-- asked.

For the first time in her life, she was cornered, and this time there was no way out. They’d catch her no matter if she ran or not-- which, considering the guards appearing behind her too, wouldn’t be happening either. Vex didn’t know what to do.

So, she screamed.

Chapter Text

Quirin entered the drawing-room with fists clenched, though he kept his features calm.

Frederic turned to him upon hearing the door swing closed, a glass of something deep amber held loosely in one hand. His robes, a mixture of periwinkle and Corona gold, made for a shocking contrast against the plushy velvet furnishings arranged along the room’s perimeter. The King was just as stoic and aloof as Quirin remembered him, and they regarded each other with something that tried to be warmth but ended up all too cold.

Frederic was the first to break the silence. “I got your letter and replied a week ago, and still you request a private meeting? This is all rather irregular, Quirin.”  

“As are the events taking place.” His jaw tightened, despite the vow he’d made to himself not to lose his temper. Quirin was a calm man, serene in the worst of times, but at the moment, he was not feeling quite himself. “The place where you plucked the Sundrop Flower. Have you or any of your men visited it in the last week or so?”

The King shook his head, brows knitting. “No. Why would we have? What’s going on, Quirin?”

“It’s covered in black rocks. Dozens of them, taller than I am, and slowly growing.”

Frederic’s eyes widened a fraction, and his grip tightened on the glass. “You mean…”

“The scales have finally begun to tip after all this time. I believe something has changed for the Sundrop-- and the most likely option is exposure to powerful magic. Either its counterpart, or something else ancient enough to be a threat.”

“Rapunzel,” Frederic breathed, glass falling from his shaking fingers now. Neither of them paid it any mind as the King strode over to him, both hands landing atop Quirin’s shoulders. “Is my daughter out there? Can you tell me anything else about her?”

“I can tell you that the Sundrop is at risk.” Quirin backed away, out of the King’s reach. “I can also tell you that my son has gone missing, and he left me a curious note.”

He pulled the rolled-up parchment from his belt, fighting to keep his hand from shaking, and handed it over. The King studied Varian’s note with a controlled expression, though Quirin knew that wouldn’t last long.

Indeed it didn’t-- Frederic’s gaze snapped up, and he knew the King had reached the note’s end. “Your son… knows where she is?”

“He believes so.” It was heart-wrenching, sickening, to talk about his son in such a manner, but Quirin knew this meeting was necessary. If he played his cards right, the entire kingdom would rally to his side, and they would sweep the country for both his and the Lost Princess’s sakes.  “I have spent the last week researching and gathering rumors around Corona. It does indeed seem that a girl, somewhere between her late teens and early adulthood, with golden hair long enough to drag the ground, was just running free through the kingdom shortly before I contacted you.” 

Quirin paused to take a breath, rearranging everything in his mind. He had to make his case as clearly as possible; Frederic was notorious for shutting off when not impressed the first time around. “What’s more, I had a few people say she was with Flynn Rider, who, as the guards confirmed, was looking for a girl named Rapunzel. The Stabbington brothers-- whom Flynn threatened on the way to his hanging-- admitted to trying to kidnap a girl with magical healing hair, at the urging of an old woman.”

The King’s eyes had begun to mist over halfway through Quirin’s presentation of evidence, and by the time it was through, real tears glimmered in the corners. He rocked back as if struck, letting out a soft, disbelieving laugh. “She’s out. She’s really out there somewhere.”

“It would seem.” Quirin plucked the letter from the shocked king’s hands, tucking it away and returning to his rigid composure. “And so is my son, along with Flynn Rider, who is trying to track down your daughter.”

Frederic sobered as the implications of Quirin’s words hit, and he nodded once. “The Captain has sent me a letter detailing that he is already on Flynn Rider’s trail. In addition to this, I will send out five scouting groups to sweep the kingdom in case he should fail to find them. In the meantime, should you find a way to contribute whilst still taking care of your duties as Old Corona’s vassal, you have my full permission. I am at your disposal, Quirin.”

Good. That was exactly what Quirin wanted to hear. Offering a half-smile for the first time since entering, he sank into a low bow. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“You’re welcome. I owe you and the kingdom everything, both as King and due to the consequences of my choice all those years ago.” Frederic inclined his head. “You are dismissed, Quirin of Old Corona.”

He clasped an arm over his chest. “Yes, my King.”

Quirin’s mind was already churning with fragments of thought as he strode out of the drawing-room and towards the front door of the palace, escorted by a couple of guards. He wanted to say that Varian was an intelligent boy, that he knew what he was doing, but that was simply not a rational argument, even as a mere empty reassurance to his own troubled conscience. The boy was reckless and didn’t always think things through, and he had an awful tendency to trust too much. If Quirin were being honest, he was sick with worry, and it likely wouldn’t go away until he once again held his son in his arms.

If he had his way, that wasn’t too far off.



____



Cassandra was nearly done roasting the rabbits she’d caught when she saw Varian looking at her crossbow. He sat off to the side of their campsite, away from Lance and Flynn, likely trying to avoid joining their bickering about something to do with the horses. His goggles lay in his lap, and he toyed around with them, picking at the lenses as he cast thoughtful glances at her bow. Ruddiger had long since fallen asleep over his shoulders, but he didn’t seem to mind, even when he stood up to get a closer look.

“It’s probably too heavy for you,” Cassandra called over, biting back a laugh when he jumped. 

Varian giggled sheepishly, reaching for goggles that weren’t there before realizing he’d left them over on the log where he’d been sitting. “I know, Vex and I-- we, we tried to use it when we were setting everything up for the rescue, but neither of us could figure it out. We ended up just leaving it on Fidella.”

She lifted the spit, testing the rabbits’ texture with a couple of fingers, before lowering it back over the fire. “You really got along with her, huh?”

Varian’s teeth flashed in a grin, and he averted his eyes, staring hard at the grass. “Yeah.”

“She seemed like a good one. Rough around the edges from living in the streets, but good.” Cassandra felt her lips curve into a tiny, knowing smile. “Maybe you’ll see one another again.”

“Maybe.” Varian ran a finger over the surface of the crossbow, stopping as he reached the nick from where she’d blocked it with her sword back in the gorge. “Um, Lady Cassandra, do you-- do you think you could train me to be able to use this? I-I know I’m not strong enough, but, well… I’d like to be.”

“Don’t you have your alchemy stuff?”

“Well, I do , but it runs out, you know?” Varian laughed again, fidgeting with his jacket pockets. Suspicion crept up in the corners of her mind, but-- well. If he had an ulterior motive, she doubted it was malicious. It wouldn’t be that hard to teach him how to aim and pull a trigger.

She nodded at last. “Sure, kid, I’ll teach you when we get some free time.”

“Really?” Varian brightened, and before Cassandra knew it, his arms had wrapped around her in a hug from the side. “Thank you!”

“Yeah, sure, just--” she pushed him off gently, and he gasped, backing away with hands clasped behind his back. At his guilty look, she offered him a placating smile. “Sorry. I just don’t have much tolerance for touchy-feely stuff.”

“I understand! My, um, my dad doesn’t really like it either. He puts up with me, and younger kids, but that’s about it.” Varian scuffed his boot in the grass.

“Oh, that’s right,” Cassandra’s grip on the spit slackened, dinner momentarily forgotten. “You’re going to be in a lot of trouble when we get back, aren’t you?”

“Ehhhh,” he made a so-so gesture, wobbling his hand back and forth. “He’ll be really mad, yeah, but that’s-- that’s nothing new. Haha. I mean, it depends on how he takes us coming back with the Lost Princess. I think he’d be pretty impressed that I went on a mission to go get her, and maybe… maybe I could, um, restore some of the family’s honor that I’ve been chipping away at over the years.”

Cassandra’s brows lowered at his melancholy change in tone. “What do you mean?”

“The, uh, the townspeople never really liked me. I’ve had a lot of accidents since I started studying alchemy, and some of them weren’t confined to just my lab.”

“Oh.” She frowned, glancing back at the fire. The rabbits were nearly done; she’d have to call Eugene and Lance over here soon.

Varian hung around like a shadow, unsure of what to do, and she puffed out a sigh through her nose. She didn’t know how to do this kind of thing. Kids just weren’t her forte-- people weren’t her forte. But the longer she let the conversation lull, the worse she felt, so she finally patted the log beside her. It was smaller than the one they’d pulled up on the opposite side, but still offered plenty of room for the two of them.

He took a seat, and she turned, angling herself towards him. Cassandra set a hand on his shoulder, hazel eyes meeting soft blue. “Varian...I know I was harsh on you at first, and I still think you’d be safer back at home, but you’re smart. You’re compassionate. And you really came through for us back there in Vardaros.”

He didn’t smile yet, but his lips parted and a gleam entered his eyes as he soaked up the praise, so Cassandra continued, figuring she was doing something right. “You found an ally in Vex where there once wasn’t one, and you broke into the Baron’s private estate to crash a wedding full of notorious criminals and save us. You’re a good kid, Varian. No matter what they say.”

Varian sat there in stunned silence for a moment, hand paused in the process of scratching Ruddiger’s head, before his face broke out in a beam. “...Thank you, Lady Cassandra.”

Her heart melted-- just a little, mind you-- and she lifted her hand from his shoulder, mussing up his bangs. He laughed, batting her hand away, and she smiled. “Call me Cassie.”

“...You mean it?”

She nodded before turning away from him, pulling the spit back from the fire. It was done-- perfect timing. “Yeah. Flynn calls me Cass now, so it’s only fair you get something other than ‘Lady Cassandra’. It’s a mouthful.”

Varian puffed out a little laugh. “Yeah… oh, are you finished? I can go get Lance and Flynn.”

“Please do. I don’t want to be the one to interrupt whatever they’re arguing about over there.” She cut her eyes to the two men, who were still making frantic gestures and whisper-yelling at one another just beyond the bubble of firelight. “They’re still going at it.”

“Don’t worry, I got this.” Varian hopped up, startling Ruddiger, and flashed her a smile. “I’m a professional at disrupting things at this point.”

She shook her head, an affectionate tilt to her lips as she watched him approach the thieves.

Something had changed in their week together as a group. Whether the change had been in her, or in Flynn, or Varian, or maybe even all of them, something was different from when she first set out on Fidella after Flynn Rider. 

Before, she had been keeping Flynn around on the basis of the Princess being attached to him and, subsequently, him being of help when tracking her down; now, not one fragment of a thought suggested she turn him in.  He was a dear friend now, as Pete or Stan were, and Cassandra spent a moment wondering how he’d managed to work past her defenses in such a short time. Being on a life-or-death mission and getting kidnapped together probably helped.

Before, she’d seen Varian as an overconfident teenager with his head in the clouds and his heart set on grand illusions, but now she was beginning to see him as a potential younger brother. Not there quite yet, but watching him talk about Vex had awakened an almost inborn desire to tease him.

Before all of this, she’d never once have considered picking up Lance on such short notice, and yet here they were. She didn’t trust him any further than she could throw him-- wait, no. She could probably throw him at least a few feet. Rather, Cassandra had some… doubts about his character, but overall, it had been an easy decision. He was just too charismatic for his own good, and after the Baron scare, it just made sense to take another able-bodied fighter with them just in case.

Her motive hadn’t changed since the beginning, and neither had the goal. She was still going to find the Lost Princess, return her to Corona, and be promoted into the guard. She was still going to prove herself to her dad with this mission. Still going to make everyone proud, make herself known as the hero of Corona, the one who returned the Princess to her people. But, well… if that included getting Flynn a pardon and helping Varian make his dad proud, then so be it.

Cassandra pulled herself from her thoughts as her three companions approached, blinking away spots from where she’d been staring into the fire for too long. Reaching for the knife at her belt, she smiled up at them, slicing into the first rabbit. “So, who gets first cut?”

Madness ensued, but Cassandra only laughed. For once, she didn’t mind a little friendly chaos.

So long as she got the good part.



_____



“So, let me get this straight.” Vex sighed. “You’re looking for a boy, who happens to be your adopted nephew, who happens to be traveling with a group of criminals, who happens to be on the Lost Princess’s trail. You’ve been stalking them since the wedding and were planning on introducing yourself, but saw me get jumped and decided to intervene.”

“That about covers it,” the woman nodded, taking a sip from her teacup. It looked tiny in contrast to her giant hands, one of the many features that made her… a little out of the ordinary. Brushing a strand of pure white hair back into her elaborate updo, she stretched, nose wrinkling and forming lines in the half-mask of facepaint she wore. “I thought about just leaving you be, but that didn’t seem like a nice thing to do to a child, you know? Besides, I’m quick. I can catch right back up to them, no sweat.”

“So Varian wasn’t lying about the Lost Princess thing, then.” Vex stared into her own teacup, still full. She hadn’t been able to drink any of it, too busy swallowing the idea that what she’d helped do yesterday had been part of a much bigger picture.

“No. They’re on her trail, which is very fortunate for me, seeing as I don’t have any way to track her. Without them, all I know is that she’s in danger.”

Vex raised a brow at her. “And how do you reckon that?”

The woman’s eyes crinkled around the edges when she smiled, dancing with mirth behind the teacup. “I have my ways… Vex, was it?”

“Yeah.” Vex leaned forward on her elbows, studying her. “You got a name, weirdo?”

“They call me Adira.” The woman took one last sip of tea before setting her cup down with a clink. “Not weirdo. I’m a bit eccentric, I’ll give you that, but I don’t think I’d call myself weird.”

“Yeah, well, you might want to invest in a mirror.” The door swung inward beyond her, and Vex jumped a little, hyperfocusing on it. She relaxed when an old woman trundled in, wrapped up in worn linens and a headscarf, though she still flipped up her hood out of sheer nerves.

Adira glanced at the newcomer, then back to Vex. “What are you so worked up about, kid?”

“Baron’s goons,” she answered. Despite the nonchalant disregard in her voice, the thought still sent a shiver through her: now, after being cornered and finding herself helpless, it was hard not to associate them with awful feelings she’d rather not face. It wasn’t fitting of a tough, street-smart girl like her.

Adira’s brows lowered. “You mean they’re still after you?”

Vex gave her a questioning stare. “Of course they are. What, did you think Baron would back off just because a few of his men got knocked out? He’s probably got his whole crew out to get me.”

“Well, that’s a shame.” Adira lifted her empty cup to the waitress, who cast her a dirty look as she refilled it for the fifth time. Resupplied, she lifted it again to her lips. “Anything I can do for you?”

“Besides make it even worse?” Vex glared for a second before a thought crossed her mind. “Actually… you’re going to follow Varian and his friends, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. So?” Adira caught her gaze for one second before lowering her cup, squinting across the table at her. “You want me to let you tag along.”

“Consider it repayment for poking the beehive and making the Baron even more mad at me.”

“Would you have preferred I let them take you?”

“No, but my point still stands.”

Adira scoffed. “On what ground?”

Vex smirked, crossing her arms and leaning back in her chair. “The ground I made for it out of determination and pure spite.”

Adira studied her for a minute, appraising, before leaning forward on the table. “I like you, kid. You’ve got spunk.”

Vex let her smile grow, though it stayed confident and a touch smug. “Is that a yes?”

“We’ll see.” Adira flipped back her cup, draining the entire scorching amount in seconds and setting it back down without batting an eye. “I’m not opposed to a little squire, if you can prove yourself; I never got the chance to have one back in my old home. But be warned: I will train you, and it will be tough. Disappoint or annoy me, and I’ll leave you on the side of the road, no hesitation.”

“Gotta be better than this dump.” Vex held out her hand. “I’m up for whatever you can throw at me, lady. What do I have to do to prove myself?”

“See, that’s the fun part. First, you have to learn what I do and don’t like.” She eyed the proffered hand. “Lesson number one: no touching.”

“Got it.” Vex pulled back. “I can remember that.”

“Good, because the next one’s a lot harder.” Adira’s smile grew mischievous. “How well can you wield a blade?”

Vex’s lips pulled back, teeth bared in a wide smirk. “You know I sell those for a living, right?”

“Then this should be fun.” Tossing a few coppers onto the table, Adira stood, tilting her head towards the door. “I’ll meet you outside the gate; we can spar out there unnoticed. I won’t go easy on you, so be ready.”

Vex grinned after Adira as she turned to leave. “Lady, I was ready for this years ago. I can't wait to blow this town.”

Adira smiled back. “That’s what I like to hear.”



_____

 

Rapunzel stared up at the trees, clawing for the sky like wooden behemoths. Each of their leaves were easily the size of her head, some of them growing to even more monstrous sizes. The whole forest ahead reeked of danger and mystery, unlike the bright, cheerful woodlands surrounding the tower back home. She could’ve sworn that even the sky changed at its entrance, going from a light, pleasant blue to a stormy navy as it passed over the treetops.

Chains clinked as Gothel finished fastening her in, wiping her hands off on her dress. “Stay here, flower. Mummy’s going to scope everything out before we go in together.”

“Yes, Mother.” The reply fell from her lips, natural as a breath. Mother hadn’t spoken to her like that since the tower, in that baby voice she used to use; it prompted a feeling of warmth and home that Rapunzel immediately pushed away with disgust. This was not her Mother. This was a witch who’d stolen her from a life she could’ve had, from a kingdom full of kind people and dancing children and cupcakes and chalks and books and lanterns. She didn’t deserve any kind thoughts from Rapunzel, and yet, the conditioned response was hard to shake.

Mother disappeared into the forest, and Rapunzel jumped into action.

She didn’t even try to fiddle with the chains: they’d proven unbreakable, and besides, she couldn’t risk rebelling too much. Instead, she reached for the paints and brushes she kept right around the top of her bag. Pascal chirruped as he climbed to the top of her head, head tilting as if he were asking a question, and Rapunzel patted him on the head as she turned towards a tree.

The bark was easy to strip off. It came down in thick, rolling sheets, littering the ground with chunks as big as a book page. Some of these she rolled up and tucked into the bag for later use; for now, though, her main interest was the bare spot on the tree.

Her painting was rushed, as they all were now, but she still put as much thought into it as she could. The bird, a symbol she’d chosen for herself in the first painting and hadn’t been able to let go of, took shape in flight in the middle. Under it was a bush of thorns-- Mother -- winding about like a sea monster, spiked tentacles reaching up to ensnare her bird’s tail feathers. Still captive, but beating her wings as hard as she could, never giving up that something might come to cut the branches.

At the very top, she outlined a crescent moon in beautiful pale blue, little white stars dancing around it in a stream and flowing down towards her bird. Far away, but still visible to her, a glowing comfort in the distance and a dream that one day, Eugene might find her again, just as he had the first time.

She knew the chance that he’d find this was next to nothing, but still, painting it out lifted a weight from her chest, leaving her feeling lighter and tougher. Like she could handle whatever came next.

Rapunzel had just tucked away her paints when Mother returned, and Pascal ducked back into her hair. Mother looked a bit disgruntled, which didn’t bode well, but she wasn’t injured. Perhaps the woods weren’t quite as dangerous as they looked-- either that, or Mother was more capable than Rapunzel knew. Both were likely.

“Quickly now, flower. We have to hurry. No detours, or we’ll become lost, and the Forest isn’t kind.” The chains gave a series of clicks as she released Rapunzel with practiced ease, leaving them to dangle from her wrists. She seemed almost frazzled, which wasn’t like her at all; Rapunzel almost asked what was the matter.

Instead, she tucked away her curiosity. It didn’t matter. Mother didn’t matter. She was just waiting this out, waiting for her moon to resurface from behind the clouds. “Of course, Mother.”

She kept her chin up as she was led into the Forest, closing her eyes and trying to imagine Eugene’s smile, or his warm dark eyes, or his laugh.

Her moon would find her again, and she would be free.

Rapunzel was sure of it.

 

Chapter Text

Varian stuck his tongue out, one eye falling closed, as he focused on his mark. His hands began to tremble under the crossbow’s weight, and he urged himself to hurry up-- if his grip failed, the bolt wouldn’t fly right, and Cassandra would roll her eyes and scoff at him again.

Deep breath in, deep breath out. Calm down. Aim.

He pulled the trigger. With a twang and a backwards jerk hard enough to hurt, the crossbow shot, bolt cutting through the air and embedding itself into the wood. Not anywhere near the mark, but at least he hadn’t sent it whistling off past the tree.

Cassandra clapped him on the shoulder, and satisfaction swelled in his chest as he lowered the bow. “Good job, kid. You’re getting better.”

“I am, aren’t I?” Varian chuckled, running his fingers through his hair in an imitation of Flynn. His fingers got stuck halfway up before he remembered he had goggles, though, and the ensuing struggle had Cassandra sniggering.

Once her laughter faded and Varian had glared long enough to get his point across, Cassandra cleared her throat. “Well, I think we’ve been resting for long enough. The horses are probably good to go again. Right, Max, Fidella?”

A few feet away, the horses whinnied in affirmation, looking back towards the other two and relaying the question. As usual, there was little response from the Vardaros horses; they always seemed quiet and unobtrusive, shy to the point that Cassandra wondered what kind of treatment they went through back with their breeder. Vex had been right-- it was probably a good thing they’d been taken.

“Let’s get going, then.” Varian glanced over to where Flynn and Lance were sparring hand-to-hand, a thoughtful look coming over his face. “You know, it’s kind of odd. The books talked about a Lance, but they never seemed as close as those two are.”

Cassandra raised a brow. “Um, you have figured out that he’s not the Flynn Rider from the books, right?”

“Oh! Yes, I-I have. It’s just that, you know, it’s kind of strange seeing him act so differently from the Flynn I’m so used to. In the books, he and Lance Strongbow were partners now and again when the situation demanded it, but their friendship never really evolved beyond that.” Varian tapped his chin. “Remember a few days ago, when we were talking by the fire and they were arguing? I caught a sliver of it before they noticed me. Flynn was talking about seeking a pardon, and I think I caught something about ‘real names’.”

“It wouldn’t shock me if he’s using a moniker,” she looked over at Flynn, watching as he ducked under one of Lance’s strikes, only to be caught a second later by an unexpected kick. “He’s talked to me about giving up stealing once we get back to Corona. I guess if he’s coming back with the Princess, that would be the perfect opportunity to make a drastic change. Knowing the king, though, I wonder if even that will get his name cleared.”

“You know the king?” Varian gasped, starry-eyed.

“Uh,” Cassandra averted her eyes, as if caught in a lie. “Somewhat. I, um, live in the castle.”

“No way. You mean you’re a castle servant? Or-- or are you a lady-in-waiting?”

Cassandra’s nose wrinkled. “Why does everyone assume that? No, I work with the Corona Guard.”  She cast a glance over at Flynn before leaning in towards Varian, voice lowering. “Don’t tell them-- I don’t want our backgrounds to cause any drama while we’re out here on the road. But by dad is the Captain of the Guard.”

Varian tilted his head. “Why would that cause drama?”

“Flynn and my dad are… not the best of friends. I just don’t know how he’d take it, and…” Cassandra trailed off when Owl swooped in, settling on her shoulder. He hooted once, flapping his wings, and her eyes grew hard. “He says we’re on their trail still. I guess they still haven’t surfaced from that forest.”

“Shouldn’t we be worried about that?” Varian asked, even as she turned towards Flynn and Lance, whistling to get their attention.

“Maybe. Maybe not. It all depends on why they haven’t moved.” As Cassandra began to relay everything to Lance and Flynn, Varian glanced over to Owl. The bird met his eyes with an inquisitive, unblinking stare.

Something dark and heavy-- a bad feeling, or a hunch-- took hold of Varian, and he found himself dreading the forest that supposedly lay ahead.

As they mounted their horses and drove on, the feeling only multiplied.



_____



Eugene grit his teeth, glad that he was out of sight in the back of the group.

He and Lance had fit back together like they’d never parted, trading jabs and jokes just like they had back in their street urchin days. If it weren’t for everything that had happened over the past two weeks now, he’d be happy to have his old buddy back.

Not that he didn’t want Lance around, because he did, and he was grateful for Cassandra accepting another member so easily into their group. But it was difficult for a variety of reasons. First and foremost of those was the fact that Eugene was looking to get a pardon and, subsequently, drop the Flynn Rider persona. Lance had been opposed to the idea as soon as he heard it, claiming that he was making a mistake, abandoning years’ worth of work building up skills and a reputation.

He didn’t know Rapunzel. He didn’t know how happy she made Eugene, or what he would be giving up if he didn’t abandon his thieving ways. Eugene understood that, somewhat. It would have been difficult for his old self to understand, leaving behind life as he knew it for a woman, but… he loved her. There was no way around it. He had to.

Lance would understand someday.

Before he knew it, they’d ridden all the way down the valley they’d been camping in, coming out into a rolling marshland. The smell hit him before he ever saw the swamp, worse than shoes after a day of running in the hot Corona sun. Lance outright gagged when it hit him, while Cassandra’s scrunched nose was the only sign she gave that it affected her at all. Varian, on the other hand, brightened at the sight and dismounted his horse, dashing over to the edge of the swamp and kneeling down.

“Kid, what are you doing ?” Eugene asked after him, a note of exasperation entering his voice. “You’re not gonna drink that, are you?”

“What? No! I’m not an idiot.” He rifled around in his pockets for a second before pulling  out a glass vial and lowering it towards the water. “I’ve never seen water like this, so I’m taking a sample of it. Never know what you might discover from new substances!”

Varian reached to cork the bottle just as the top layer of algae swelled. A huge, glistening orange tentacle broke the surface, shooting out towards his hand and startling him into dropping the vial. It disappeared into the depths of the lake, but Varian managed to stay safe, stumbling back just before the tentacle could grab him.

It disappeared, but Varian still scrambled back to the group, shaken and indignant. “So, we’re not going across that, then?”

“I can’t believe this. We’ll have to turn around again, which means we’ll have wasted another day.” Eugene sighed, rubbing his face with both hands. “I’m starting to feel like we’re on a wild goose chase. No matter what we try, it always seems like we’re just falling farther behind.”

Lance had just moved to comfort him when a voice made them all freeze. “You’re just not doing this as efficiently as you could.”

Something huge and very, very sharp ran down the length of one of the monstrous trees around them, splitting it clean in two. Half of it toppled forward towards the swamp, falling across the water to form a rudimentary bridge and launching at least half the swamp’s water into the air.

On the freshly-formed stump stood a woman taller than anyone Eugene had ever seen. Half her angular, ageless face had been painted scarlet, while the other shone a pleasant tan. Long white hair coiled in a unique updo atop her head, held in place by gold rings. Her fur-trimmed coat looked like something from a foreign kingdom, and her belt buckle was a strange shape-- a circle with three short lines slashed across it, almost like a comet.

Most importantly, in her hand there glinted a sinister black sword at least three times as broad as Cassandra’s-- a sword that had just cut through an ancient tree like soft butter.

It wasn’t any surprise that he drew his dagger out of instinct. Eugene wasn’t alone, either-- the telltale shing of Cassandra’s sword reached his ears, and Varian fumbled around with his jacket, trying to reach his bombs. Lance didn’t have a weapon yet, but Eugene was certain he would be getting ready to fight.

Then a much smaller figure stepped up beside the woman, hood down and a pair of shotels strapped to her belt.

Varian immediately lit up, all thoughts of a bomb forgotten as he smiled wide enough to split his face in two. “Vex!”

“Hey, short-stack.” The girl waved at him with a grin of her own, and gestured to the woman beside her. “Meet my new pal Adira.”

“Aw, let me introduce myself,” she pouted for a second before smirking, merriment making her dark, slanted eyes glitter. “I am Adira, a friend and fellow seeker of the Sundrop. Or, as you know her, the Lost Princess.”

“You’re after her too!?” Eugene growled low in his throat. “Why does everyone have it out for Rapunzel? She didn’t do anything to you!”

“Relax, relax. All I want is for her to be safe and where she’s supposed to be, just as you do. Besides, it’s not what she’s done; it’s what she is.” Adira stuck her sword into the ground, leaning on it towards Eugene. “You know her, don’t you? You’ve seen her magic powers. She is the Sundrop, and there is much more to her than just being a Lost Princess.”

Eugene narrowed his eyes, feeling Cassandra’s burning stare on him. So, he’d kept a couple secrets, sure, but it wasn’t as if Rapunzel being magical really changed anything. “Why do you care about her?”

“I care because she is the key to one of the many problems of this world.” Adira plucked her sword up, swinging it around to point at a short black spike poking out of the ground. It looked sharp, sure, but to Eugene, it just looked like an innocent rock. “Those things are not supposed to be growing at the rate they are. They have been dormant for years. Only recently has the Moonstone detected the Sundrop, and it has determined that there is something of a rare and magical nature threatening her. I believe whoever has your Princess is a powerful mage, perhaps even a spirit.”

‘Mother’ popped into his mind. She had used magic-- he remembered that all too well, as did the scar on his side. “She has some kind of powers,” Eugene found himself nodding.

“Then that only adds weight to my theory.” Adira sheathed her blade finally, taking calm, measured steps down the hill to where they stood. Eugene and Cassandra remained stiff and battle-ready, but Varian ran forward at once to catch Vex in a hug as she came down with Adira. He got a few snarky protests in return, but she smiled over his shoulder as Adira looked on with interest.

When the teenagers parted, she nodded towards Varian. “Also, I feel inclined to ask how your father is doing.”

“My… my father? You know my dad?”

“Knew would be the better term. He broke off communication twenty-some years ago, but I found ways to keep tabs on him. For instance, the birth of my honorary nephew.”

Varian blinked a few times before her words finally registered in his brain. “Wait, so you’re… my aunt ?”

Adira shrugged. “It’s the easiest way to explain it. Your father never made it official, mind you, but I like to think he would follow the tradition if I asked him to.”

“Woah, slow down, lady. You can’t just waltz in here, tell us all that about the Princess, claim to be Varian’s aunt, and then expect us to go with it.” Cassandra’s lips thinned, sword still out and pointed at Adira.

“I dunno, she can claim whatever she wants if she’s waltzing,” Lance murmured, and Eugene turned around, doing a double-take at his friend’s goofy expression. He fought the urge to slap a hand to his face. Of course Lance would be like this.

She squinted at him, but luckily didn’t respond to his horrible attempt at flirting. Instead, she looked straight at Cassandra. “I understand you have no reason to trust me, but please, try to understand that I mean you no harm. I daresay I know more about this situation than you do, and all I want is to make sure that we retrieve the Sundrop from her captor. This forest is not kind to outsiders; you’ll need a guide if you plan to enter it.”

“A guide?” Eugene barked out a laugh. “Yeah, sure, we’ll trust you to guide us through the forest for no reason other than your word. That sounds like a smart plan.”

The amusement dropped from her features. “You make light of my offer, but I assure you, the Forest of No Return is no laughing matter. Few can navigate it safely, and even fewer come out alive. If you want to succeed, at least consider bringing me along to point you in the right direction.”

Cassandra and Eugene shared a glance, and Varian-- now side-by-side with Vex-- gave them an imploring stare. Lance urged his horse forward a few steps, coming within Eugene’s range of sight, and clasped his hands together. “C’mon, let the angel lead us. She knows what she’s doing.”

“She talks like she does,” Cassandra corrected him before blowing out a breath. “If it’s fine with Flynn, then I guess you can accompany us.”

He groaned before reluctantly nodding. “Fine. If you can help us find Rapunzel, then I won’t turn you down.”

“Wonderful!” Adira’s teeth, bared in a smile, were straight and perfectly white. She turned towards the Forest, gesturing for them to follow. “Come along, then. We’re wasting valuable time.”

Already hating this, Eugene flicked Maximus’s reins, glaring at her back as they rode forward across the makeshift bridge.

“The Forest of No Return is in perpetual motion and changes without warning. Luckily, I procured a special map many years ago. It’s the key to traversing the woods safely.” She held up her “map”, a strange folded sheet of paper like a failed origami project with symbols drawn onto each flap. “I’ve made it through a few times, the first of which I was equipped with only a dagger and a handful of nuts. Oh, and I had bronchitis.”

“That’s amazing,” Lance gushed behind Eugene, making him force back a scowl.

“It is, isn’t it?” Adira grinned back at him, then suddenly snapper her gaze to the side, coming to a stop at the edge of the forest. Her brows knit as she tilted her head, focusing on one of the trees.

Following her gaze, Eugene’s eyes widened, and she only confirmed his suspicions with a low hum. “A painting. I assume that to be some form of tag your Princess has left you.”

It was a faded mess now, but Eugene could still make out a bird amongst the smudges of color, the same bird he’d seen on the side of Mount Saison. The sight of the painting filled him with a sort of cold, hard confidence, and he set his mouth in a firm line. “Rapunzel’s been here, all right. And according to Cassandra, Owl hasn’t seen them leave the forest, so that means… she’s still in there.”

“It would seem so.” Adira stared at the painting for a second longer before abruptly turning back towards the forest. “We might well see the Sundrop in here. Everyone be on your guard, and keep an eye out.”

“Don’t have to tell me,” Cassandra muttered, and Eugene could feel the force behind her words. She liked Adira just as much as he did, it seemed-- which meant very little.

They continued into the forest, and Eugene had to blink at the way the world changed with a few measly steps. The sky, now cluttered by thick branches, became dark and ominous. Ancient gnarled trees grew in thick groves all around them, and already Eugene could see them shifting in the distance. Adira hadn’t been kidding-- the Forest was moving on its own. He felt his stomach drop when a crackling woody sound emanated from behind him, and he glanced back to see that the growth had covered the entrance.

They were trapped.

‘The Forest of No Return,’ Cassandra read out loud, calling Eugene’s attention to an old carving in the base of a tree. She gave it an unimpressed look. “Someone must’ve had a lot of free time, to whittle all of that into a tree.”

“They were probably stuck in here. Dead now.” 

Adira hummed to herself as if she hadn’t just said something bleak and very worrying. She held up the map, rustling it around for a moment, then turned to point down a path left of the carving. “That way.”

“Hang on,” Cassandra dismounted, making her way over to Adira. “How does that map even work? I used to make things that looked like that when I was a kid, and they didn’t direct me anywhere.”

Eugene slid off of Maximus as well, approaching the two ladies. “She’s right, tall person. I don’t see how this-- this arts and crafts project is going to help us at all.”

“It’s a sophisticated map,” Adira shot back, the first real hint of annoyance flashing over her lips in a frown. “People have worked on it since the discovery of this forest, and it’s only by sheer fortune that I managed to find one. Trust me, this map will help us find your Princess.”

Eugene took in a deep breath, scratching his head. He had to swallow his ego. He didn’t know where to go or what to do in here, and even if he didn’t like this woman, she seemed to be comfortable with the environment, and even skeptical Vex had put some measure of trust in her.

In any case, for now, going along with what she said seemed like the smarter option. At the first hint of danger, of course, they could back out-- but until then, he’d just have to put his pride aside and do what was best for Rapunzel. It was the only real option.

Cassandra seemed to think otherwise. “This is a toy,” she growled. “I was ready to put some stock in your story, but this ‘map’ is nonsense! There’s no way I’m listening to someone who tries to pass this off as a map.”

“Hey, Adira knows what she’s talking about,” Vex cut in, and Eugene turned around to see that the others had approached as well. The teenager crossed her arms. “She saved me from Baron’s goons back in Vardaros. She’s not your enemy, Flynn Rider.”

“Listen to the girl,” Lance added. “Adira knows what she’s doing.”

“You don’t know anything about her, Lance,” Eugene shook his head at his old friend before turning back to Adira. “Look, I just can’t believe that this is a map.”

“Fine. Try navigating your way and lose time. I’ll wait for you to come around, Fish Skin.”

It took a second for Eugene to respond to that. After all, ‘fish skin’ was not the most common of insults. “I’m sorry, what did you call me?”

“I find that referring to people by a defining characteristic is more time-efficient than learning their names. Hence, Fish Skin.”

“...There are no words for how much that offends me.”

“Wait, don’t you call Vex by her name?” Varian asked, raising a brow.

“She’s my squire-in-training, Blue Stripe. I’m going to be speaking with her a lot, so it’s worth it to know her name.” Adira pointed at Cassandra and Lance. “And then there are Short-Hair and Earrings.”

Lance rubbed his earrings with a swell of pride, and Cassandra shrugged. “That’s fair.”

Varian, seeing Eugene still grinding his jaw, put up both hands in a placating gesture. “I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that, Flynn! Let’s all just get along and get through here. We’re so close to finding the Lost Princess, and once we do that, we can all go home. Okay?”

Eugene ignored him. “I don’t like you, Adira. But if it’s what’s going to help Rapunzel, then I’ll follow you. Lead us astray, and Cassandra won’t be the only ice demon you have to worry about.”

“Don’t worry, my intentions are pure.” Adira lay a hand over her heart. “So will you be trying the map?”

Eugene glared at her for a moment-- just to drive home the fact that he did not like her -- before conceding. “Yes.”

“Wise choice, Fish Skin.” She held out the map. “You must follow the instructions to the letter. Without its guidance, finding the exit to the forest would be like finding fur on a rattlesnake.”

Eugene, Cassandra, and Adira all looked down at the map as she flipped it in and out a couple of times. It still looked like a toy, but for Rapunzel, he was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

For Rapunzel.



____



 Varian was in the middle of an animated conversation with Vex about how she'd met Adira when a chitter caught his ears. He turned to see Lance holding Ruddiger upside down, a confused expression on his face.

“What are you doing to Ruddiger?” Varian demanded, breaking away to rush over and snatch him out of Lance’s hands. Vex followed closely behind.

“I got hungry! How was I supposed to know there was going to be a raccoon in the saddlebags?”

“Ruddiger’s always in Fidella’s saddlebags! It’s where he rides now!”

“I’ve never seen him in there when I dug around for food!”

“We don’t keep the food in there, we keep it in Maximus’s!”

“Um, guys,” Vex murmured, a note of alarm in her voice.

“Well, how was I supposed to know?”

“They look completely different !”

Guys!

“Well, I--”

Vex finally screamed, and Varian whipped around to see her halfway sunk into an odd pinkish puddle.

 A jolt of fear shot through him and he grabbed her hands, pulling back as hard as he could, jaws clenched so tight it hurt. His boots slid across the ground, tearing up clumps of rich forest turf, and he began to lose his breath. “Vex!”

“Hold on, kids!” Lance shouted, and Varian felt a strong pair of arms wrap around his waist, adding to the strength. Fidella jumped in as well, teeth clamping down on Lance’s stiff collar. It was no use, though: Vex kept sinking, and Varian realized with a sickening spike of panic that the tips of his boots had disappeared as well.

Adira shouted from somewhere behind Varian, and hurried footsteps rushed through the grass. But right before the others could reach them, the puddle gave one last, powerful lurch, sucking three screaming people and one horse into its depths before fizzling out as if it had never existed.

 

_____



Adira looked back at Fish Skin and Short-Hair, both of whom wore identical expressions of horror, and sighed. “Landpit.”

Well. This would be interesting.

 

Chapter Text

“Landpit? Landpit !?” Cassandra stormed forward, jabbing a finger at Adira’s throat. “You had better give a better explanation than that, weird shadow lady, or I’m cutting through these woods here and now.”

“One, I doubt your flimsy butterknife could do anything to these trees.” Adira smiled down at her, but it was thin and laced with distaste. “Two, please get out of my bubble. I don’t like people touching me, and you're very close to it.”

“Tell us where Varian and Lance went,” Eugene stepped up closer to Cassandra, though he didn’t get up in Adira’s face like she did. “Now.”

Adira took a step back, icy glare now flickering back and forth between them. She heaved a deep sigh, as if to calm herself, and clasped her hands behind her back. “Landpits are magical portals which open up at random within the Forest. They take a long time to become familiar with, and even when you’ve figured out their general patterns, it remains impossible to get a completely accurate estimation of where one leads.” 

Seeing Cassandra back off a little, going from aggressive to calculated, Adira’s stance loosened. “Still, I have a fair idea of where they might pop back out. If we get going now, we should be there by tonight.”

Tonight!? ” Horror shot through Eugene. “How deep can this forest be?”

How are we supposed to find Rapunzel?

Adira must’ve sensed his unspoken question, because her features softened. “Don’t worry, Fish Skin. If she’s been in here for days on end, that either means her captor doesn’t know her way around or they’re talking shelter-- both of which are a good sign for us. We may still happen upon them. Besides, if I’m right, your friends are on the way towards the exit anyway.”

“Then let’s stop wasting time talking.” Cassandra drew her sword, turning her eyes towards the forest path. “Lead on, weirdo. Hurry.”

“I’m not that weird,” Adira muttered, but she acquiesced, drawing her own blade-- something that made Eugene’s stomach turn. If Adira was preparing for danger, they had something to worry about. She drew up her map, flipping it a few times, and gestured to a path to their right. “Follow me.”



____



“Get off my face,” Lance’s muffled voice was the first thing that hit Varian’s ears, followed by the low hum of insects and the lazy rustle of leaves. He groaned, pushing himself to his feet, and glanced over to where he’d heard the voice. 

Lance struggled under Fidella’s weight, finally pulling himself free and spitting out a tuft of horse hair with a mutter of “disgusting”. Ruddiger squeezed out next, shooting an angry chitter at him before running over to Varian.

Varian almost laughed, letting Ruddiger climb onto his shoulders, before he remembered what had just happened. Scanning the forest around him, he saw nothing but Lance, Fidella, and a thick blanket of vegetation, like the forest had grown around them in a tunnel. The pinkish puddle had evaporated as soon as it spit them out, and Varian found himself wondering what kind of substance it was made of.

Then he realized someone was missing, and his heart jumped into his throat. “Vex? Vex, where’d you go? If you can hear my voice, please say something!”

“Shut up, I’ve got a headache.”

He jumped, turning around to find Vex sprawled out behind him. Rubbing the back of his neck, Varian giggled, mouth turning up in an embarrassed smile. “Oh. Um. I didn’t see you there.”

“I gathered.” Vex groaned as she sat up, hand clasped to her forehead. “Now, if you don’t mind, please shut up. Seriously. I hit my head pretty hard coming down.”

Varian was on his knees in an instant, hand floating in front of him, half wanting to reach out and half hesitant, wondering how she’d react. Ruddiger mimicked him, pawing in Vex’s direction. “Are… are you okay? Do you think you have a concussion?”

Vex regarded him with an odd stare, giving a slight shake of her head. “No, no concussion. Just a little ache.” She lifted her hand, revealing a red splotch that was slowly fading into pale blue. It covered a good portion of the left side of her forehead, stretching from her brow to her hairline. She frowned. “You’re wincing. Does it look that bad?”

“What? Nah, just a bruise. You look-- you look perfect. Fine! I meant fine. Ha.” 

Lance sniggered behind him. “Smooth.”

“Shut up, Mr. Listen-to-the-angel . It was a slip of the tongue, that’s it.” Varian shot him a dirty look before turning back to Vex, offering a hand to help her up. She took it and they stood up together, backing up a healthy step once she’d regained her balance. “Um, really, though. It’s just a little bruise. Nothing big.”

“Aw, man. I was hoping for a wicked scar.” Vex gave him a joking grin, though she averted her eyes quickly, not looking in Lance’s direction at all. She cleared her throat, casting her gaze to the forest around them. “Where are we? Where’s Adira?”

“I don’t know. We fell through the puddle thing, and then… now they’re gone.” Varian’s hands found his hips, and he gave a weary huff. “I’m getting tired of being separated from all the adults. They need to keep a better watch on us.”

“But I’m a--” Lance’s nose scrunched, brows lowering. “Hey, I take offense to that.”

Vex rolled her eyes. “Well, we can’t just stand here and gripe about it. We gotta find the others, or we’re dead meat. Adira’s the only one of us who can navigate this place.”

“Oh, I forgot about that,” Lance stepped forward, bumping into Varian. The teenager cast him a look, but he didn’t react, too focused on Vex. “How did you say you met Adira again?”

“Saved me back in Vardaros when Baron’s men caught up to me. She agreed to take me with her when I said I had to leave town to avoid getting caught again.” Vex brightened. “We started off a little rough, but these past few days have been great. She’s awesome! And her sword? It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I’m a blade fanatic!”

Adira’s admission from earlier popped back into Varian’s mind, and he perked up. “Did she tell you anything about her past? Anything about a man named Quirin, or maybe where she came from…?”

Vex frowned, and she glanced at the ground, fiddling with her new shotel hilts. “She told me a little, but, um…” Conflict flashed in her eyes for a second before she shook her head. “Nothing important! Come on, we need to get going.”

Varian blinked, casting a questioning glance in Lance’s direction. The man just returned it. He looked to Ruddiger next, who just tilted his head, ears pricking.

Shrugging, he gave Vex a confused half-grin. “Um, okay. Do you know which way to go?”

Her expression said absolutely not, but Vex pointed to the group’s right. “Yep! That way!”

Varian couldn’t help a little soft laugh. Even if she had no idea where they were going, it was better than doing nothing. “Great. Thanks, Vex.”

“No problem, short-stack. Just doing my job as squire.” A smug smile took hold of her lips. “Follow me!”

A few steps down, Lance nudged Varian, leaning down to mutter in his ear. “You sure know how to pick ‘em, kid. Strong women, am I right?”

He elbowed Lance back, though it didn’t seem to do anything. “Shh! That’s not how it is.”

“Never is at first.”

Varian rolled his eyes, though he smirked. “We should’ve left you back at Vardaros.”

Lance pressed a hand to his chest, giving a dramatic gasp. “Well, I never! That just hurts my soul, Blue Stripe.”

Varian laughed at that. His smile faded after a moment, though, and he met Lance’s eyes. “Hey, what were you and Flynn talking about the other day?”

Lance seemed to freeze. It took a few seconds before he reached up to scratch at his beard, nervous laugh escaping him. “Why? What did you hear?”

“Just something about a pardon and real names.”

Lance’s expression fell at that, and he sighed, seeming to weigh something heavy in his mind. Sensing reluctance, Varian reached up for his shoulder. “Don’t worry, I respect Flynn. I always have. If it’s a secret, I won’t spill anything.”

 Lance stared at his feet, all traces of mirth gone. “Have you ever felt really dependent on someone, like an older sibling?”

“I’m an only child, but… I guess so, in my dad.”

“Okay, well, imagine getting into something-- like a sport-- with your dad. It’s basically your life; you do everything together, you share your secrets and techniques; it seems like you’re set for life to keep doing what you’re doing. And then, all of a sudden, he decides that he’s done, and he won’t be on your team anymore. In fact, he’s encouraging you to drop it, too.”

Varian couldn’t relate to most of it, but the end part hit a chord, and deep. Memories of his dad yelling at him surfaced-- don’t do that, Varian, stop that, Varian, you have to quit this, Varian, no, no, no…

His reply was quiet. “I can imagine.”

“Well, that’s kind of what’s happening with Flynn. He-- he told me the other day that I’m on my own. We’ll never pull off one of our legendary heists again. And, I mean, he’s betrayed me before-- he’s Flynn Rider, y’know?-- but that was always par for the course. We made up. This?... This is permanent .”

Varian frowned, tilting his head, and even Ruddiger reached out to pat Lance’s arm. “You know, you’re technically helping to rescue the Lost Princess now. I’m sure if Flynn can get a pardon, then you can, too.”

“You think so?” Lance turned to him, brown eyes open and honest-- two things that, before now, hadn’t seemed to fit. “I mean, I like being a thief. It’s fun, and it’s-- it’s what I grew up on. But going without Flynn was what got me arrested in the first place, and then as soon as I got out of prison, I went and botched a job, and Baron put me right back in. I’m just no good without his help.”

Varian rubbed his chin. “Well, do you have any other skills?”

“That’s the thing, I don’t know. Never tried anything else.”

“Maybe you should, then.” 

Lance thought about that for a second before a slow smile tugged at his lips. “You know what, kid? I think you’re right. There could be a potential in me I never tapped! Like blacksmithing, or--” he waved a hand out in a grand gesture, clenching his fist in the air. “--Acting!”

“Would you morons keep it down back there?” Vex called back. “You’re falling behind!”

They flashed a grin at each other, and Lance laughed, reaching over to muss his bangs like Cassandra did. “You know, I like you, kid.”

Varian’s smile softened, though keeping its joking edge. “Yeah, I think we’ll get along fine.”



_____



“The Drexxes are wondrous creatures, but do not mistake them for what they are: pure evil. With a wingspan of over 20 feet, and fangs each the size of chubby toddlers, they can hide in plain sight as flowers of astounding beauty.”

“Yeah, sure, vampire bats, sounds nice. How close are we to the others?” Eugene crossed his arms, trying very hard to not let his patience grow any thinner.

“About three hours away, assuming they’ve been walking. I’m sure they have been; none of them are patient enough to know that staying in one place is the best strategy for being found. Luckily, they have the wisest navigator of the century to account for them.” Adira’s mouth stretched into a smug smile, oblivious to the looks she was receiving from behind. “We’ll stop to eat at nightfall before continuing. If we were in less of a hurry, I would brew some tea and perhaps cook a fish or two, but as it is, we’ll have to deal with rations.”

“Where would you even get--” Eugene pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. Whatever you say, Adira.”

“That is a good attitude to have, Fish Skin.” Adira smiled back at them. “Short-Hair seems very quiet back there, but I’ll take that as a sign of mutual agreement.”

“Sure,” Cassandra forced past gritted teeth. “Let’s go with that.”

Maximus whinnied behind them, full of indignance, and Eugene even caught Varian and Lance’s quiet horses making soft noises of judgement. The thought almost made him laugh-- even their animals were getting fed up with Adira.

Eugene had just turned to Cassandra to share this observation when something wrapped around his ankle.

He shouted, scrabbling for his knife, as vines wrapped around him like vices, pulling taut amid the trees. Cassandra and Maximus lunged forward to help him, but the vines lashed out to them as well, and before long every last one of them were suspended in midair, struggling and hacking away with ineffective blades.

Adira, on the other hand, cut through them effortlessly. Casting a displeased look at the squirming remains, she turned to them with an unimpressed look. “There’s no reason for alarm. The trick to these things is to relax; the more you struggle, the harder it is to escape.”

“Well, that’s easy for you to say!” Eugene yelped when a vine shot out towards his dagger hand, pulling it away from him and making it impossible to cut anything. “You’re not in them!”

“Yeah! What if this is a trap, huh? What if you just want us to get eaten by the woods so you can go find the Princess yourself?” Cassandra hissed, kicking and struggling like a child having a tantrum. It didn’t work, despite how ferocious she looked doing it.

“...Are you just trying to name off hypotheticals, or is that a real concern of yours?” Adira lifted a brow, then shook her head, heaving a sigh. “Look. You two are going to have to listen to me if we’re ever going to get through this place alive. If I wanted the Sundrop for myself, I could have just left you to wander the forest-- or just got rid of you before we even entered. All I want is to reunite you with the Sundrop and escort her to where she needs to be.”

“You keep saying that, but where exactly is the ‘place she needs to be’?” Eugene demanded as his head began to pound from being held upside-down. “The only place she belongs is where she wants to be. Rapunzel doesn’t need anyone controlling her.”

“If she doesn’t go, her destiny will only come for her later.” Adira held up a hand. “But that is a matter for later. Right now, you need to trust me . Unless, of course, you want to be fertilizer.”

Eugene met Cassandra’s eyes from across the path. An understanding passed between them in that glance, a reluctant agreement-- yet another case of we have no choice. It was beginning to feel like they never had a choice in the first place but to go where fate took them.

Resigning himself, Eugene let out a deep breath, focusing on relaxing his muscles as well as he could. He envisioned being back at the orphanage-- not in the bad later years, but in the first few. The ones where he’d just met Lance, where the ladies who worked there were kind, where he’d first discovered the Tales of Flynnigan Rider and read them aloud as many times as the other kids would listen.

He thought of cupcakes, and dancing, and conversations by the fire. He thought about boats and seas and lanterns. He thought about Rapunzel.

The vines loosened, dropping him in an undignified heap on the grass. Across the path, Cassandra fell as well, along with the horses.

“I’m glad you made the right choice.” Adira smiled at him-- really smiled this time-- before looking up, squinting at the branches. “It’s hard to tell, but I believe nighttime is encroaching. Now seems a good time to rest and regain our energy before we continue searching.”

“Probably for the best,” Cassandra muttered, rubbing her shoulder.

“As long as we don’t take too long,” Eugene reminded them. “We’re in a hurry now more than ever.”

“I know, Fish Skin.” Adira strode over to Maximus, rifling around in his saddlebags. She lifted out the rations Cassandra had been saving since Vardaros, sinking down to a cross-legged position and portioning out the dry, preserved scraps of food. “Don’t worry. I’ve got this handled.”

Trust me.

Eugene took a deep breath in and let it out slowly through his nose, then walked over to where she was. “Okay. I believe you.”

It was really the only thing he could do.



_____



Mother was livid.

Rapunzel had never seen her so frazzled before. Angry, yes, especially after she’d stood up for herself back in the tower-- but never this disorganized, this out of her element. She almost wanted to ask a few questions, but she couldn’t summon the courage. Not now.

“We’ve been in this cursed forest for days. Something’s changed, it has to have. I used to be able to run through this place with both eyes closed!” Mother groaned, pulling at fistfuls of her wavy black hair. “Curse Demanitus, curse the King, curse it all !”

Rapunzel watched as more of the peculiar black spikes grew around Mother’s feet and in clusters around her own. She didn’t seem to notice them, so Rapunzel leaned forward, head tilting as her fingers tentatively reached for one. A low, metallic hum reached her ears, and the edge of the stone began to glow a soft blue as she approached--

Mother’s hand, cold and stiff, shot around her wrist, making Rapunzel gasp and fall backwards. Mother was in her face in an instant, so close that she could feel the furious breaths coming from flared nostrils.

“Never touch those rocks,” Mother warned, every word punctuated with a steely rage that made Rapunzel’s insides fill with lead.

She gulped. “S-sorry, Mother.”

“You had better be.” She reached for Rapunzel’s chains, yanking the girl up without warning. “Come on, we’re moving. They’re after us, I can sense it.”

Rapunzel didn’t talk. She didn’t complain, even when hunger clawed at her stomach and fatigue begged her to slow down, close her eyes, and sleep for days on end.

She had to be strong. She had to hope. She had to believe. It was all Rapunzel had left.

Slowly, though, it was starting to ebb.



_____





Chapter Text

Lance let out a long sigh, taking off his boots and rubbing circles on his feet. “We’ve been walking for way too long.”

Vex gagged, watching Varian pinched his shirt over his nose, and scooted further under their giant mushroom. Even Fidella snorted with displeasure, Ruddiger closing the saddlebag flap over his head. “We’re stopping for a quick rest, idiot! Put your shoes back on before you kill us!”

“Drama queen,” Lance rolled his eyes, then looked down when a low rumble emanated from his stomach. “Ugh. You two don’t have anything to eat, do you? Your raccoon distracted me earlier.”

“Do I look like a pantry to you, Earrings?” Vex groaned, leaning back against the mushroom stalk. “I could do with some light, though. Hey, Varian, you got anything that can make a fire? We’re obviously gonna be here for a minute, if he has anything to say about it.”

“Uh, yeah, just let me find it.” He stood up, pulling his jacket open and running a hand over his collection of orbs, tools, and vials. Vex, not for the first time, found herself wondering just how much alchemy he had on him, and she fought back a snigger at the image of him falling and everything spilling out.

Finally, with a triumphant “Ah-ha!”, he lifted a tiny vial into the air. It was about half-full of a thick red liquid. “I’ve been lighting fires for our group every now and again when they have trouble. If you could find some wood or something, I could start one up, no problem.”

“Gotcha.” Vex pushed herself up, cracking her back as she did so, and swung lazily around behind the mushroom. Unsheathing one of her shotels, she reached for some of the small lower branches of a tree, slicing little slits into their bases so she could snap them off. Varian and Lance joined her after a moment, and it didn’t take long to gather up enough wood for a decent fire, even if it was only the size of kindling. It’d work.

She reached for one more when something wriggled near her feet and a hiss cut the air.

Vex yelped, jumping back, and Lance shouted, “ Snake!

“Snake? Where?” Varian’s eyes blew wide as he looked down, watching the snake uncoil itself. “Oh. Ohh, that is the opposite of good. I-- gah, I need more adhesive bombs--!”

It was, without a doubt, the biggest snake Vex had ever seen; over half as long as she was tall and as thick as her forearm, it made for an imposing sight with fangs bared and dark eyes glittering. She dropped the wood, whipping her second shotel from its sheath, and held them both up. The snake watched her, swaying in place, as she gulped and steeled her nerves. She’d have to be quick; it could strike at any second, and she had no idea if it was venomous or not.

It turned its eyes to where Lance stood, frozen with fear, and Vex took her opportunity. She lunged forward, shotels slicing diagonally in a glint of steel, and she barely caught herself when the blades went through. There was no resistance: just a fleshy plop when the snake’s head hit the ground. No blood. No bones. No anything.

“Scary teenager,” Lance muttered, and Vex smiled despite her shakiness.

“Varian, did you see that?” she laughed out, turning to where he stood, before the smile fell from her face. He wasn’t there. “Varian?”

“Vex! Watch out!” Lance shouted behind her, but it was too late.

Pain shot through both her legs, making her cry out. She stumbled forward, shotels glancing off the ground as she fell, and looked over her shoulder. The snake’s head still lay on the ground, but from its stumpy neck, two more had grown-- two more snapping, hissing heads that were coming for her faster than she could scramble away.

“Get away from her!” Lance dove for her, scooping Vex up and backing away from the snake. She winced, fingers ghosting over the throbbing bite wounds, and glared at the snake through a film of forming tears. Her shotels lay, dinged and dirtied, under the snake’s belly.

It hissed, coiling is muscular body, and lunged for them.

A whizzing sound cut through the air.

The snake’s left head choked on something, a mix of red and orange light flashing in the depths of his throat. The whole snake staggered back, body writhing and curling in on itself, and the right head snapped at them between angry hisses. Finally, Vex watched with wide, disbelieving eyes as the snake exploded into flame, one last twitch going through its body.

Then the fire was gone just as quickly as it had come, leaving the snake lifeless and lightly seared.

“Oh, my gosh, Vex ,” Varian’s voice reached her ears, and Lance turned so they could face him together. He was at her side in an instant, one hovering over where the snake had bitten her and the other pushing his bangs against his goggles. The crossbow lay a few feet behind him in the grass, forgotten. “I-- I’m so sorry, this is all my fault, it’s just that my hands were all shaky while I was trying to rig the bolt and--”

“Calm down, short-stack,” Vex snickered, though she shifted her leg away from his fingers. He hadn’t touched it, but still, the thought of someone else messing with her wounds made her wary. The realization that she’d have to remove her leggings to clean it later nearly made her sick, and she found herself glad she wore a layered skirt as well. “Seriously. I’ve been through a lot worse than this. I’m tough.” 

“Oh, um, I-I wasn’t trying to say you weren’t,” he chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck, though she could tell he was still very upset. Varian trailed off, glancing over to the snake with a look of distaste. “What do we do with, um, the… the body?”

Lance shrugged. “Well, I mean, we could always cook it.”

Vex wrinkled her nose, and Varian scoffed. “Is food all you ever think about?”

“Hey, I can’t help it when I’m hungry.” Lance grinned down at him. “Really, though. I used to cook over the fire during stakeouts with Flynn all the time, and sometimes we had to use some pretty unconventional stuff. Snake tastes decent, and I know how to grill it-- as long as it isn’t poisonous.”

“Well, I mean, technically, the term would be--” Varian gasped. “Venomous! I didn’t even think of that! Vex!”

A hard lump formed in her stomach as she glanced down at her legs. The pain was becoming bearable now, though she imagined that the second Lance set her down, it would flare up again. She looked up at Lance. “Yeah, please say you know how to tell if it’s safe.”

“Psshh.” Lance cocked his head. “Of course I can tell. Mind if I set you down for a second?”

“Please do. This is undignified.”

“I choose to take that as ‘thank you for helping me, Lance’,” he replied easily, setting her down with gentle hands on the grass. He walked off to check the snake’s remains while Varian lowered himself to sit cross-legged beside her, worried frown on his lips.

“Quit making that face.”

“Um, wha… what face?”

“You know what I’m talking about. The kicked-puppy face.”

“Kicked… puppy?” Worry momentarily forgotten, Varian lowered his brows. “What do you mean?”

She waved him off, rolling her eyes. “Never mind.”

Varian fell silent, looking away from her, and she could feel the shame radiating off of him. Vex frowned, opening her mouth to tell him again that it wasn’t his fault she got hurt, but Lance cut her off by walking up to them, snake dangling from his hand and nearly brushing the ground. “Good news, kids! This one isn't poisonous!”

“Venomous,” Varian corrected, tone flat and empty as if he only did it out of habit. Then he sighed and forced a smile. “Well, that’s good! We don’t have to worry about antivenom or anything. I mean, I’ve got some general-purpose antitoxin serum, but it’s no good for more specific stuff.”

“And,” Lance held up a finger, “This means we can eat it.”

“Lance,” Vex groaned. “No.”

A little while later, Lance snored against the mushroom stalk with Fidella while Varian and Vex sat by the fire, the last of the snake meat settled on a broad leaf between them.

“You know, it’s not half bad,” Varian cast her a sideways grin. “Chewy, but better than nothing.”

“It sucks.” Vex wrinkled her nose, still chewing on the same piece she’d bitten into a full minute ago. It was almost sweet, but way too gamey for her liking.

Varian laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Um, well, I guess everyone has different tastes. At least you get to bite it back, right? Haha!”

“Hm.” She gave an unamused grunt, and he shut up.

They sat in silence for a little while, watching the fire flicker and spark, before Varian finally cleared his throat. “So! You, um, have swords now.”

“Shotels.” She finally swallowed, casting a glance to the rest before shaking her head. She’d had enough snake. “Of course, they’re smaller and less exaggerated than traditional ones, but that’s for practicality’s sake. Usually the curve is so pronounced that it’s little use for anything other than decoration, and hard to even wriggle out of the sheath.”

“That’s, um, really cool. I didn’t know you could fight with swords.”

“I sold blades for a living in Vardaros.” She cut her eyes to him, brows raised in a look that said duh .

“Oh. Right. Vardaros.” Varian sighed, reaching up to fidget with his goggles. “Look, Vex, I’m really sorry we left you there by yourself. I didn’t know the Baron’s men were so close behind us. I should’ve thought about that a little harder, ha.”

She puffed out a breath through her nose. “It’s not your fault. I shouldn’t have stared after you for so long. It was a stupid thing to do.”

Vex caught the barest hint of a grin-- just a little flash of buck teeth-- before it disappeared. “Still. If not me, then one of us should have stopped to think. I mean, we left you to fend for yourself. That wasn’t right.”

“Well, it wasn’t like you could’ve taken me. He got the last horse.” She jabbed a thumb in Lance’s direction. “Besides, it wasn’t like you owed me anything. I agreed to a deal, you paid me, we parted ways.”

Varian watched as she lifted the tiny pink vial he’d given her, now hanging from a leather string around her neck, and his lips parted. “You made it into a necklace?”

“Well, how else was I supposed to keep track of it?” Vex rolled her eyes again, letting it drop back to her chest, obscured under the shawl she still hadn’t taken off. It bounced against her silvery goggles, also hanging around her neck. “It’s small and breakable. I could misplace it way too easily.”

“Oh! Um, I can totally give you something else if that’s not what you wanted,” Varian offered, already digging through his jacket pockets. “Like I said before, I--”

“No!” Vex clutched a hand over her necklace, and Varian jumped, casting startled eyes to her. She calmed down, realizing she’d tensed up when the throbbing in her legs got worse. “Uh, it’s fine.”

“Oookay,” Varian drawled, slowly settling back down. “Are you sure you don’t want anything else, though? You were a huge help to me and my friends.”

Looking down at her calves, she chewed on her bottom lip. “Well, if you’ve got any bandages, I could use those.”

“Bandages! Bandages, I do have,” he giggled, unfastening a wrapped-up bundle of white from the belt around his hip and holding it up triumphantly. “My own personal first-aid kit! I never leave home without one.”

“That concerns me,” Vex muttered, but she reached out for it anyway. Taking the little bundle, she swung her legs forward and into the firelight, inspecting the puncture wounds on each calf. They were identical, four little holes that had ripped past her leggings and into the skin underneath. Not deep, thankfully, but painful, and already a red crust had formed around them. Sucking in a breath, she reached for one of her shotels, ignoring Varian’s questions and using it to cut a nick just below the knee of each legging.

Setting it aside, she grabbed the fabric, and a r-ri-i-p sounded as she pulled it apart. Casting the extra fabric aside, she made a grab for the first-aid kit, then frowned at the mess of multicolored vials. “Varian, what is this?”

Varian, who’d been watching her with a look of silent awe, shook himself back to awareness. “Oh, um, just a couple of topical medicines I’ve concocted. Don’t worry, they’ve all been tested.” He gave a sheepish laugh. “Extensively.”

“Uh-huh.” She picked up one of the vials, this one glowing a soft green. “So which one disinfects?”

“Uhh, this one.” Varian plucked a blue vial from the kit, and Vex noticed it was only about a quarter full-- something that, knowing him, didn’t surprise her. He cleared his throat. “But, um, it stings. A lot.”

“Just give it here,” she swiped it away from him, reaching for the snake bite on her left leg. Brows furrowing, she pulled the wound further open-- which, of course, did not feel pleasant-- and tipped the vial forward.

The first drop hit, and she hissed, jerking her hands away and choking back a curse. The medicine felt worse than the bite itself, a terrible fizzing sensation welling deep inside it. “You said it stings, not feels like freakin' fire!”

“Um, sorry,” Varian shrugged. She didn’t miss how he wouldn’t look at the wound, his face a shade paler than last time she’d looked at him. “I use it a lot. I guess I’m just used to it.”

“I can’t believe you.” Gritting her teeth, she tried again, only to jerk back a second time and rock back with a hiss. 

Fine. So she couldn’t do it herself. Turning to Varian with a wide, forced grin, she laughed through her teeth. “Hey, short-stack, mind helping me out here?”

“Me? With the--” he gulped. “With the wound?”

“What else?” Vex rolled her eyes, despite the growing weight in her lungs. Someone else was going to touch her injury. But it was fine! It was just Varian. He’d be gentle. “What’s the problem? You do this all the time, don’t you?”

“Well, yeah, on myself! But I know where it is on me, I don’t have to look at it!” Varian fiddled with his jacket collar for a second before sucking in a deep breath through his nose, letting his eyes flutter closed, and rubbing a hand over his face. “But you need me to. I have to. I have to fix this.”

“Um, are you talking to me, or you?”

“Here, give me the vial.”

She blinked at his sudden change in attitude, but handed it over, leaning back so he could reach for the wound. She had to fight herself to keep from flinching away as he gently pressed against the skin, visibly gulping as he steadied his fingers. She hadn't had anyone tend to her for years; the only time someone reached for an injured person in Vardaros was to rob them while they were weak. But this was just Varian. A friend. 

“Okay. Are you ready for this?”

“Just do it.”

He poured in the solution, and Vex really did curse this time.

“It’s over! It’s over. One down.” He laughed, but it was shaky.

She nodded, still clenching her jaw to the point that it hurt. “Okay. I’m fine. Just get the other one.”

It was easier the second time around, but it still hurt like someone jabbing a sword into her leg. Vex exhaled, long and shuddering, when he pulled back, corking the now-empty vial and reaching for the bandages. She didn’t speak as he wrapped the wounds up with the precision of someone who’d done this far too many times for a teenager, or when he gathered everything up and slid it back into his belt.

It was only when Ruddiger crawled into her lap, tilting his head and chittering up at her, that Vex loosed a laugh. “Hey, little trash panda.”

She could’ve sworn the raccoon grinned, and she smiled, rubbing a hand over his soft head. She turned to look at Varian, pulling Ruddiger closer to her chest. “Hey, I never noticed, but he has your teeth.”

“He--” Varian slapped a hand over his face, sliding it down with a drawn-out groan. “You know what? Fine. Great observation. I clean your wounds, and you tell me I have raccoon teeth.”

“Sorry.” She still snickered, though, which kind of undermined her apology. Instead, she put a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you, Varian.”

The annoyance faded from his face, and he smiled back. “Um, you’re welcome. It-- it was no big deal.”

“What was no big deal?”

The teenagers jumped, Vex scrambling on uncooperative legs for her shotels and Varian making a grab for his crossbow, when a familiar laugh made them relax.

Adira glanced over them, a small amount of fondness peeking out from behind dark eyes, while Flynn and Cassandra ran for them. Varian found himself swept up in Cassandra’s arms, choking as the wind was squeezed from him, and Flynn laughed when he spotted Lance, calling out to his old buddy.

Lance snorted awake, blinking a few times to clear his vision, and a wide grin split his face. “Hey, Flynn! Oh-- and hel -lo , my goddess.”

“That’s my mentor you’re talking about,” Vex called, while Adira merely ignored him. The woman approached her, eyes roaming over her bandaged legs, and a thoughtful look came over her face.

“Snakebite,” Vex explained, nudging Varian-- who’d finally been released and was now gasping for breath-- with an elbow. “He had medical supplies.”

“Of course he did,” Cassandra smirked. “Kid just about took his entire lab with him when we left.”

“Never can be too prepared,” Varian wheezed out. Ruddiger skittered atop his shoulders as he stood, brushing off his jacket. “How’d you find us, Cassie?”

Cassandra cocked her head in Adira’s direction. “Weirdo here had her suspicions about where you guys ended up. Turns out she was right. I guess we should’ve trusted her a while ago.”

“It would’ve made things a lot easier,” Adira agreed, still managing to sound smug while keeping a straight face. “Regardless, now that we’ve found the lot of you, we need to get going. The Sundrop is near; I can sense her captor’s power, faint as it is. We’re en route to a shortcut now, so it shouldn’t take long to find the exit, and we can search for them from--”

Something huge, black, and sharp shot out of the ground, missing Adira’s chest by centimeters.

She stumbled back, staring at the rock with eyes open wide and hand gripping the hilt of her sword. Everyone, even the animals, had jumped to attention; for a moment, there was no talk. Vex could scarcely hear herself breathe.

“It’s time,” Adira murmured finally, looking back behind her at the forest as it shifted, branches creaking and leaves whispering. She narrowed her eyes, looking back and forth between the rock and the pathway it pointed at, fists clenching at her sides.

When Flynn spoke, there was no humor to it-- only breathless, desperate hope. “You mean we’ve found her.”

Adira nodded. “Follow me.”




____



The rock’s path led them to a bare, rocky field covered in dense fog. They stopped at the edge, looking down at it with wary glances, and Adira hummed. 

“The Silver Geysers. They’re lava-hot and emit toxic gases. The map, as well as the Moonstone’s path, indicates that we must run through them. It’s… possible, if we time it right.”

“Are you kidding me!?” Eugene demanded. “You want us to run through there ?”

“Do you want to find your Sundrop?”

Cassandra sighed. “Flynn, we’ve been through this a few times now. We have to trust Adira.”

Eugene frowned, looking over the rest of the party’s faces-- Lance, Varian, Vex, and the animals, all of whom nodded in agreement with Cassandra. Even Ruddiger chittered in affirmation, hopping from Varian’s shoulders to Adira’s as if to say I agree with her.

“Fine,” he ground out. “You’re right. It’s just… that right there looks like death waiting to happen.” He turned, gesturing to the fog. “You see that? All of it’s… poison…”

He trailed off, squinting. He could’ve sworn he saw something move, like a swish of fabric or… or…

A figure, just a shadow, really, appeared in the fog at the far side of the field, and an echoed cry reached his ears. “Eugene!”

He ignored the confused mutters and surprised gasps from behind. He couldn’t hear them over the sudden thudding of his heart in his ears. Energy fizzed in his veins, made his thoughts scatter like dust on the wind, and he forgot how to breathe for a second. He knew that voice.

Eugene let a shallow breath out, and with it came a single word: “ Blondie .”

Chapter Text

The girl across from them was dirty, battered, and wore ragged clothes. Her cheeks, once full and soft with youth, had sunken in, and dark circles surrounded dulled eyes. She’d been thin before, but now her ribs poked out behind the fabric of her dress and her wrist bones were prominent enough to cast shadows. She was crying, tears flowing down her face in thin, glimmering streams.

And yet, when she smiled through the tears, bright and warm and shining with hope, Rapunzel was the most beautiful person Eugene had ever seen.

Everyone and everything else melted away. It was only him and Rapunzel as he shot off through the Silver Geysers, Adira’s warning and the others’ shouts falling on deaf ears. Gas spouted in great, hot clouds around him, but Eugene hopped amongst them effortlessly, years of ingrained thief instinct telling him the moment a threat became apparent and his body turning, vaulting, and twisting accordingly. Rapunzel was shouting something-- just his name, he realized, over and over and over in a constant flow of emotion and sobs-- and straining towards him. Metal gleamed around her wrists, and the sight of it only lit a hotter fire under him, propelling Eugene through the field. He reached out towards her, calling her name, fingers splayed out and nearly brushing hers--

Rapunzel's head snapped forward, voice cutting off as she was yanked back, and a sudden impact knocked Eugene into the air.

His entire torso blazed with a throbbing pain, and he heaved for breath, rolling over on the ground. Cassandra, Lance, and Varian were at his side in moments, and they all looked up together, staring at the figure before them.

The witch sneered, withdrawing her hand. The wedge of earth remained where she’d struck it up, cracked from Eugene’s impact. Black spikes, flashing an unearthly blue, shot up around it in great clusters, shifting in and out of the soil in hypnotic patterns. 

She backed away from the rocks, casting them a dirty, loathing glare, and cut her eyes back to the group. Rapunzel cried out behind her when she yanked on the chains again, fingers curling in on themselves, and Eugene-- fury making his breaths hard and his vision narrow-- spotted a thin trickle of red from where her wrists had been rubbed raw.

The sound of metal screeching sliced through the air as Cassandra drew her sword, eyes trained on the witch. Varian was silent, face a mask of calculating determination, but his hands shook with fear as he dug out a pair of glowing red orbs. Adira and Vex were quiet shadows behind them, blades drawn and waiting for a chance to strike, and Lance hung next to him, a pillar and a rock. A brother.

Eugene fought to stand, using his friends as support. He fought through the pain, ignoring what he was sure was a cracked rib, and stumbled forward. When he spoke, it was even, commanding, and brimming with a cold rage that stabbed through the air like an icicle. “ Let her go .”

“And why would I do that?” the witch drawled. Even as she tugged on Rapunzel’s chains again, smile too wide and dripping poisoned sugar, he could make out age lines tunneling themselves through her skin and silver creeping through her black tresses. “I have everything I need right here. The Sun’s power has already been stolen from me twice. I will not have it happen again.”

“It was never yours to begin with.” Adira stepped forward, sword held in front of her like the black fang of some giant, magical beast. “The Sundrop belongs with its counterpart. You are destroying so many things-- entire kingdoms -- for your own vanity. Give up, mage, and we will let you go in peace.”

The witch’s laugh was high and cackling, echoing off the trees in a wave of unhinged malice. “Do you think you can stop me? Do you have any idea who I am?”

“It doesn’t matter who you are,” Cassandra forced out through gritted teeth, stance wide and strong as she stared down the woman. “You need to be stopped. The Princess deserves her freedom.”

“This wench ,” the woman sneered, “Is not a princess. She is a girl, a girl who has been endowed with powers her father stole from me. She is mine by default.”

“Rapunzel is nobody’s.” Eugene’s words came out in a growl, and his eyes flicked down to meet Rapunzel’s-- huge, vivid green, and desperate. So desperate it made his heart twist and his blood grow heavy in his veins. “You’ve kept her prisoner for long enough. I’m asking you one last time: let. Her. Go.

“I think not.” The witch snapped her fingers, and the world tilted around them.

It was chaos. The Silver Geysers exploded into shrapnel and sulfurous fumes, the earth tore itself to shreds, and black rocks shot up in every conceivable direction. He could hear Cassandra’s shouts and Lance’s calls, Adira’s war cry as her sword flashed, slicing through swathes of rocks and debris alike. He caught a glimpse of Vex tackling Varian just in time to push him out of a spike’s path, then rise up to stand back-to-back with him against the onslaught. The horses brayed behind them, scrabbling out of the mayhem to avoid injury; Ruddiger dove deep into his saddlebag.

Eugene, though, was focused on one thing: the flash of gold in the distance, and Rapunzel’s shrill screams of his name and a flurry of other sharp words.

Breathing proved painful as he maneuvered through the twisted world, staying low under the toxic fog and drawing his dagger. Lance yelled after him, and Cassandra joined in soon after, but Eugene didn’t pay any attention. Something warm and wet soaked into his sleeve, and he knew he’d have several cuts from the shifting rocks, but that wasn’t enough to stop him. Rapunzel was so close. His love, his best friend, the only person he’d ever pledged his whole heart and loyalty to, was right there. He couldn’t let the witch get away.

Eugene surfaced from the writhing field, legs pumping under him as he bolted for them. Rapunzel shouted, bare feet digging into the grass under her as she fought against her mother. The witch, graying and wrinkled now, cast a glance over her shoulder and shouted a curse.

A wall of stone spikes erected itself between them, black rocks thundering out soon after, and he could see the witch's life drain. He scrambled up the wall, scraping and bruising his hands and knuckles, but his effort was for naught-- it kept shifting, spikes and earthy slabs quaking under Eugene's hands and making him slip back down.

"Mother, please !" Rapunzel's voice was broken, tears turning her face red and splotchy as her knees gave out. More blood fell from her tortured wrists as her weight pulled on the chains, body heaving with sobs on the grass. Her fingers caught on red silk. " Please stop ."

The witch's gaze was derisive and disgusted as she looked down at her, nose wrinkling as she plucked Rapunzel's hands from her dress.

Then, a cold smile pulled at her lips, baring teeth that seemed sharper than any predator's. "Naughty children do not get to ask Mummy for anything. Don't you remember your promise, dear?"

Rapunzel choked on a gasp when she was pulled closer, and Eugene doubled his pace, scrabbling against the rocks without any progress. The witch's eyes were narrowed into thin slits, that sick grin still playing on her features. "I told you promises are silly, didn't I? Well, now, you have to pay the price for breaking one."

The witch began to sing.

"Flynn!" Cassandra cried out, breathless as she stumbled to a halt. Her eyes widened at the scene in front of her, and she screwed up her face in fury. Shoving her sword into its sheath, she took him by the forearm to stop him from climbing. "Fly-- Eugene, it won't work. We have to think of something else!"

" There-- is-- nothing-- else!" Eugene spat out between lunges, though his body was beginning to tire and weaken. He could do nothing but watch, helpless, as Rapunzel screamed at the top of her lungs. Golden energy flowed in ruthless surges through her hair, the color draining from her face even as it was restored to her 'mother's'. 

Silver hair shone black, and leathery skin grew soft and supple, radiant with health. When her song was done, the witch cast Rapunzel aside, now in a quivering heap, and raised her hand once again. "I told you, thief, that you cannot stop me. No matter how many allies you find, mine will always surpass your own."

"Then why are you running!?" Cassandra demanded, fists clenched and brows driven down as far as they would go.

The witch couldn't answer. She twisted, leaping through the air in order to avoid a crossbow bolt laden with red and orange vials, and watched as a tree behind her exploded into flame. The forest shifted around it, wet, dewy leaves squashing the fire out of existence with a low hiss.

"The Princess!" Varian shouted over his shoulder. His eyes were obscured by those huge goggles, hair tucked neatly under his jacket hood. "Come on, everyone! She's up here!"

Lance and Vex--hood and goggles up as well-- rode in first atop the two Vardaros horses, faces set with determination. They split onto either side of the wall, holding their arms out, and shouting something back down the path.

Eugene watched what happened next with wide, disbelieving eyes.

Adira, one foot planted in Maximus's saddle and the other in Fidella's, sword drawn and glimmering, face calm and yet full of more fury than any expression he'd ever seen, rode in after them. Just before she thundered head-on into the wall, she jumped from the horses into Lance and Vex's grip, and used them to catapult herself into the air.

Her sword raised over her head, and she swung down in a flawless, lethal arc towards the witch.

It only took a few seconds.

Eugene, Cassandra, and Varian watched as the sword fell; Lance and Vex, who'd fallen off the horses from Adira's weight, rose to their knees to stare; Rapunzel, pushing herself up on shuddering arms, blinked tearstained eyes as she tried to take in what was happening.

The witch's smile returned, and she fell backwards, dragging Rapunzel with her.

The ground rippled pink and swallowed them whole.

Adira's blade met the grass with a resounding crash, a shudder making the air vibrate. For a moment, everything was silent; even the tune of insects and birds had drowned out and the boom of shifting earth ground to a halt.

Eugene didn't breathe as Adira straightened up, staring down at the grass as if in shock. Her body was frozen, her back to them, and her sword hung from a loose grip.

When she turned, her face was a mix of emotions that he couldn't quite identify. "...She summoned a landpit. "

Eugene crumpled to his knees and wept.



_____

 

The walk to the edge of the forest was a short one after Adira cut through the witch's barrier.

Cassandra made sure to stay right by Flynn's-- Eugene's?-- side, supporting him on one side. He was hurt; after the adrenaline from their chase had subsided and he'd cried as much as he could, the pain of a cracked rib began to catch up to him. 

She'd been worried that they were losing time, but the way that Adira had just stood there waiting told her that it was truly over. They had been given a chance, and they had failed.

When they began moving again, it was along a jagged path of black rocks. They seemed to be leading them somewhere, and Adira was quick to follow them, so Cassandra didn't ask. She'd seen the woman's determination; they all had. Adira was their best bet.

The first breath of fresh air was a balm on her tired, hot face, and Cassandra collapsed with Flynn the moment they surfaced. No one else complained. 

Varian and Vex remained off to the side, silent and awkward in their inability to help, while Lance joined Cassandra and Flynn. Adira stood off on her own, staring out at the rock path winding through distant plateaus and mountains. Max, Fidella, and the other horses descended on a nearby stream. Owl fluttered down to Cassandra with a quiet hoo , ruffling his feathers when she rubbed under his beak.

"I just don't know what to do," Flynn muttered at last, drawing Cassandra's attention back to him.

"We keep going, that's what," Cassandra answered him with a hint of reproach. "If anything, this is an incentive to move faster. We nearly caught them."

"She's right," Lance spoke up, voice much softer than usual. "You're Flynn Rider. My brother and partner in crime. I know you, and I know you don't give up."

"Yeah," Varian joined in, leaving Vex to stand and walk towards them. For once, he didn't smile, but his voice was earnest and passionate. "We all set out on this mission together. This was a setback, but believe me, those happen. You just have to take them as a sign you're getting closer. No good result ever comes easy."

"Kid's right." Cassandra squeezed his shoulder, the tiniest of smiles pulling at her lips. "We're all out here risking our necks for this. Whatever reason we had at the start of this crazy trip, it's turned into something else now. We're here for you, Flynn… Eugene . We're here to get the Princess back to her family and away from that woman. So get back up and fight harder, soldier."

"I…" he looked to all of them, eyes open and soft, and finally cracked a tearful smile. "You're right. I'm sorry. I-- I won't stop. Not ever."

"Good." Adira's voice made them all jump. She and Vex stood side-by-side, looking down at the little group, and she gave Eugene a single nod. "I know where they're headed. The witch was able to summon a landpit within the Forest; to be able to manipulate such forces is a power of the darkest and most twisted kind. The only people ever to possess that brand of magic were an elite and traitorous band of mages, and their master, the sorcerer Zhan Tiri."

"You mean the one from the Demanitus stories?" Varian gaped. "I thought that was just a Coronan legend!"

"I don't know what stories they tell you in Corona, or what your father allows you to hear, but Demanitus and Zhan Tiri were very real. The sorcerer's reign lasted for years, and it was pockmarked with terror and death unknown to the people of today. I have known for a long while that Zhan Tiri left fingerprints all across the Seven Kingdoms, but this is the first time I believe I have come into contact with a disciple."

"How does this help us?" Cassandra asked, blunt but not unkind. "Are the rocks your only hunch, or does all this Zhan Tiri business tell you something else?"

Adira studied her for a long moment, then reached for something hidden under the layers of her coat. "I, as well as the rest of the Brotherhood-- that is, me, Quirin, and another-- have been tasked with keeping an eye on the magics of this land. If this witch is a disciple of Zhan Tiri, as I now assume, then I can make a confident guess at where she's going: the Great Tree."

Cassandra glanced at the piece of paper in Adira's hand, still rolled up, before looking back to her face. "And where is that?"

"Through the valley there, at the end of the black rocks' path." Adira gestured down it with her scroll. "You, Earrings, Fish Skin, and Blue-Stripe need to follow them to the Great Tree. Vex and I will meet you there."

"Wait, we're splitting up?" Varian's face fell, and he glanced in Vex's direction. "But-- I have so many questions for you! How do you know my dad? What's the Brotherhood? Did you know my mom? Where did you come from?"

Adira put a finger to her lips, shushing him. "Those are questions for later, when we can involve your father. Please be patient."

Varian looked like he was about to argue before Cassandra caught his eye. Abashed, he shut his mouth, shrinking in on himself.

Eugene raised a finger. "If you're going to meet us there, then where will you and Vex be?"

"That brings me to my next point." Adira flipped open the scroll, letting it fall open. The image of a castle, cast in black and surrounded by giant black spikes, stood out even in the moonlight. "The Sundrop will forever be pursued by her destiny, cursed to live a life in fear, if she does not pursue it instead. To do so, we need to complete this scroll, as well as escort her to the Dark Kingdom to reunite with the Sundrop's counterpart. Only then will she be free to live as she wishes."

"That is… a lot to take in." Eugene ran a hand down his face. "We'll worry about dark kingdoms later, though, when we have Rapunzel back. What does the scroll have to do with you leaving?"

"I know where another piece is." Adira rolled it back up, tucking the paper back into her coat. "Vex and I will take a detour to the Spire, where we will retrieve a second piece of the Scroll. You, the larger and slower group, will move along the shorter path to the Great Tree. If I time everything correctly-- which I will-- we will meet you to battle the witch while she is cornered and thinks she is safe. Then, we will retrieve the Sundrop, and I will explain more about what must occur from that point."

Cassandra, Eugene, Lance, and Varian all traded looks, and, silently as a group, they came to an agreement. It was no use being suspicious of Adira now, not after she'd proven herself; just like so many times before, they were left without much choice. It was the only way.

Still, Varian smiled. "It's your choice, Cassie, Flynn. It's your mission. I'm just here to help."

"Hear, hear," Lance clapped Eugene on the shoulder. "Your call, buddy. We trusting her?"

Eugene looked up at Adira, and Cassandra could see the emotions flashing through his eyes at a thousand times a minute. Above all of it, though, floated a single steely glint of determination. He nodded.

"Let's go to the Great Tree."




 

 

Chapter Text

 

Cassandra felt a soft smile tug at the corner of her lips as she watched the scene across from her. On the other side of their dying fire, Varian sat cross-legged against a boulder, that night's dinner nestled between his legs. Ruddiger on one leg and Owl on his shoulder, he pretended to push their curious faces away, only to pass them little scraps when he thought no one was looking.

Ever since they'd begun following the rock trail, Owl had stuck by her side, no longer required to scout ahead for them. Ruddiger had taken an immediate liking to him; Varian followed soon after his pet. Owl still made the horses wary-- barring Fidella-- and neither Lance nor Eugene had warmed up to him yet, but then, she didn't blame them. Owls were often unnerving to those unfamiliar with them, especially the wide eyes and rotating neck.

The thought of Eugene made her sit up a little straighter, and she cast a glance to her left. The two thieves hadn't moved since they'd sat down for the night; Eugene because his rib was still paining him, and Lance because Eugene couldn't move. 

It had been three whole days since leaving the Forest of No Return. Three entire days of silence, punctuated only by the occasional question from Varian or to ask when the next rest stop would be. Even when they'd started up the mountain pass, cliffs rising around them in a dusty, monotone reddish-brown, Eugene hadn't said more than a few words at a time.

Cassandra wasn't the type to be hurt over people not speaking to her. In fact, she often ignored others herself when she didn't feel like speaking; it was a habit she didn't care to fix in herself and accepted when it manifested in others. However, this time, a strange sort of prickle dug into her gut every time Eugene averted his eyes or avoided a conversation. They had gotten so close over these past few weeks; it felt strange to not have him ready to talk at a moment's notice. Cassandra was, for lack of a better explanation, missing her friend. And she hated it.

So, as with anything she hated, Cassandra plowed on ahead to fix it. "Hey, um, Eugene?"

He froze for a moment, still caught off-guard by her use of his other name, before turning his eyes to her. They sat only about a meter apart, but the lines under his eyes, the slump in his posture, the way his fingers lay idle in his lap-- it all made her feel so far away. 

Lance's gaze turned to her as well, surprised but not disapproving, and she got the feeling that he was just as worried as she was. It gave her the nerve to suck in a breath and ask, "Why didn't you tell me your real name?"

Eugene's lips thinned, and he swept his eyes over to the crackling embers of their fire, still dancing with the last flames of a once-roaring blaze. "I haven't gone by Eugene since my orphanage years. Flynn Rider has been my name since I ran away and fell back on thieving to get by. Lance got his name from the same books I got mine."

Varian, who had somehow materialized on Cassandra's other side at the mention of Flynn Rider, gave a little gasp. "I knew it! So you are named after Lord Lance Strongbow!"

"The one and only," Lance winked. "Though, we ended up nothing like the Flynn and Lance from the books."

"I'll say! You have more of a Flynn-and-Bastian relationship. You have read The Lost Brother , right?"

"I skimmed it," Eugene admitted with a slight smile-- just a glimmer of teeth, but it was more than Cassandra had seen in days. "Wasn't really a big fan, though. The secret-family twist felt cheap, and I saw it coming a mile away. My favorite was always Final Duel. Nothing like a good series finale to wrap up loose ends."

"Aw, but Gunther dies in that one," Lance held up a finger, brows turning down with a self-important air. "My favorite is, and will always be, A Tale of Two Rogues ."

"You just like Harriet," Eugene snorted, bumping Lance with an elbow. Raising a hand to the side of his mouth in mock conspiracy, he stage-whispered to Varian, "Lance had such a crush on her growing up. He always asked me to read that one."

Varian tilted his head. "You mean you didn't ?"

Cassandra watched them gush, all three of them scooting closer and closer until their knees were touching in a close-knit triangle. Owl and Ruddiger had long since abandoned Varian, spooked by his animated gestures and random bouts of acting when the topic turned to a scene he liked, and taken refuge in her lap.

Something snuffed in her ear, and Cassandra chuckled, reaching up to scratch Fidella's chin. "Did you get jealous, girl?"

Maximus whinnied on her other side, stomping his hooves down into the packed earth as far ad they would go. The group all turned to him, startled, and Eugene made a face. "Don't be like that, Max. I didn't mean it that way."

"What'd you say?" Cassandra raised a brow as she watched Maximus snort, nostrils flaring.

"That horses are gullible. But I was talking about Flynnigan's horse, Storm, not him."

"That reminds me," Lance perked up, ignoring Maximus's continued protests. "I still haven't named mine!"

"Me neither," Varian tapped his chin with a knuckle. "It's kind of hard to come up with a name when they're so shy, though. How did you name Fidella, Cassie?"

Cassandra blinked, glancing up at her horse. Fidella only looked back, head cocking as if to say I don't remember , and she sighed. "I don't know. I think my dad might've named her-- she was a guard horse before I unofficially claimed her."

Eugene leaned forward, hand clasped over his rib. “That’s right,” he muttered, eyes trained on her. “You have something to do with the Guard, don’t you?”

Cassandra froze. The instinct to lie-- to cover up and conceal everything she could from the criminals-- gripped her at first. She swallowed it, though; after Eugene’s secret had been outed, it didn’t really seem fair to keep her own. Besides, it wasn’t like telling them was going to change anything: they were too deep into this to turn on each other for something as simple as a background.

Varian caught her eyes, head tipping forward in a small, encouraging nod. That’s right-- he knew. And he’d kept his word.

Why would that cause drama?

Maybe she was just overthinking it all.

“I, um,” she started, shifting around to better accommodate the animals in her lap. “Eugene, you know the Captain of the Guard, right?”

“Cap? Of course I know him! He hates my guts. Nearly got me exe--” Eugene trailed off when he noticed her expression, and his own rueful smile fell away. “...Oh.”

“He’s my dad,” she finally ground out, wincing when Eugene gave her an incredulous look-- but now that she’d started, she couldn’t stop. “Stan and Pete, from back by the gorge? They were like uncles when I was growing up-- maybe more of an older cousin, in Pete’s case. The whole Guard practically raised me when Dad was busy. It-- it’s what drove me to follow you to the tower in the first place. I was going to bring you in and get my dad to admit that I was capable of being a royal guard.”

Varian and Lance glanced between the two of them as Eugene and Cassandra stared at one another. After a few rough moments, filled with only the crackling of embers, Eugene cleared his throat and ran a hand over his face. “That’s nice. So what made you change your mind, then?”

“Max, actually,” she tilted her head in Maximus’s direction, who stood up a little taller and tossed his mane. “He’s my dad’s horse, so I know how intelligent and trustworthy he is. When I saw the witch take Rapunzel, I started to think I was making a mistake, but Maximus really convinced me that helping you was the right choice. He swore up and down that I could trust you.”

Halfway through her explanation, Eugene had turned to Max with an unreadable expression, eyebrows furrowed just a little and lips parted as if he wanted to say something. It took him a second, but when he did speak, Eugene’s voice was filled with a warm kind of surprise. “You stuck up for me, Max?”
Maximus whinnied, stamping a foot on the ground. Of course I did!

A slow smile grew on his face, and he turned to Cassandra. “So just like that, huh? A kidnapping and a horse’s promise, and infamous thief Flynn Rider and Cassandra, daughter of the Captain of the Guard, are off on a highly illegal rescue mission together.”

“I prefer to think of it as extralegal,” Cassandra cracked a smile. “But yes.”

“Wow,” Lance cut it, a short, breathy laugh escaping him. “That must’ve been tense for the first few days. Where did the kid get into all of this?”

“Now that ,” Cassandra leaned forward, pointing in Varian’s direction, “Is an interesting story. Wanna tell him what you did, small fry?”

“I bombed the guards and got a wanted poster.”

“Not that,” Eugene laughed, then let out a short hiss. “C’mon, kid, you can’t make me laugh. It hurts.”

Varian shrugged. “I mean, it’s basically what happened.”

“You left out the part where you followed us undetected through bandit territory and blew up an entire mountain incline so we couldn’t get you back home.”

“Well, I was going to leave that part out, Cassie.” Varian rolled his eyes, but his smile let her know he was joking. “But yes, I also did those things.”

Lance raised an eyebrow at Varian. “Is there anything else I need to know about that fancy science stuff you can do?”

“It’s alchemy, and its possibilities are endless,” Varian proclaimed, then toned down the pride in his voice to a more tolerable level. “But, uh, no. Not yet. I haven’t been able to work on any new projects since we hit the road.”

“You mean since you hijacked our mission.”

You came looking for me, Fl-- Eugene!”

“We thought you were a wizard!”

Varian scoffed. “Those rumors really do need to die out. I mean, I tell everyone who’ll listen about alchemy, but I guess it makes no difference! It’s colorful and makes a lot of smoke, so it must be magic!”

“Which doesn’t really make sense, now that I think about it,” Cassandra’s brows fell. “Isn’t there some kind of decree against unauthorized magic use in Corona? Or at least a few really strict laws? Do you know, Max?”

Maximus whinnied, nodding in confirmation.

“Weird,” Eugene murmured. “I mean, they were ready to hang me for stealing a crown. I know it’s important, but still, execution. For thievery. And you’re telling me the guards never even knocked on your door?”


“Not that I remember,” Varian shook his head. “Then again, I’ve been doing alchemy since I was five. Dad might’ve dealt with them and never told me.”

“From what I hear, King Frederic’s been a little off his rocker these past few years,” Lance spoke up. “The guys in Baron’s prison used to talk about him. Paranoia’s made him draw up into his castle, and the guards followed.”

“That is true,” Varian nodded, frowning. “My dad’s told me about that, too-- er, well, he rambles and thinks I’m not listening. But he talks about how the King pays barely any attention to the villages and towns in Corona-- it’s how my village is able to live so differently from the capital-dwellers. We’ve had to deal with felons trying to sneak in and hide from the guards because they don’t ever travel that far from the palace.”

“Figures he wouldn’t do anything unless it had something to do with his family,” Eugene turned his gaze to the ground, eyes turning hard.

Cassandra and Varian just exchanged glances, but Lance seemed to understand, reaching out to pat his friend on the shoulder. “He was just being a father, Eugene. You’d do the same thing for Rapunzel too, right?”

“I’d take funding from city resources-- from orphanages -- to fuel a years-long fruitless search?” Eugene glared at Lance. “Is that what you’re trying to say? I love her, I do, and I want her back more than anything else in this world… but she wouldn’t want that.”

Lance backed off. No answer came, and the group fell into silence again. Ruddiger, sensing the calm, skittered back over to Varian’s lap; Owl hooted and flapped away, likely going off to hunt for the night. Maximus and Fidella remained where they were, ears flicking and hooves shifting awkwardly.

Cassandra got up, sighing, and reached for the long stick they’d been using to stoke their fire. Her mind whirled as she worked, flames licking the air in no time and filling quiet air with the crackling and popping of burning wood. She had almost gotten through to him-- for a brief moment, Eugene had been back to his old self, laughing and cracking jokes and generally being the opposite of the jerk her dad had made him out to be. And then, like a candle snuffer, the memory of Rapunzel had shut him down again.

She dusted her hands off as she stood, staring into the depths of the fire. She knew it was bad for her eyes, but watching the steady flicker and jump of flames always helped her meditate when her thoughts became too much. Usually, it was something simple like her dad getting on her nerves, but this was much more serious-- and more important-- than a few bruised feelings. Eugene needed help. They were so close to Rapunzel, but he was cracking, and somehow they had to get him to hold on until they reached the Great Tree. Just a smile, and a laugh here and there. Something to keep his mind off the hole in his heart until they could patch it up for good.

“Hey,” Cassandra said. She could hear everyone look to her, feel the eyes on her back, and she smirked before turning around to face them. “It seems like I’m the only one here who isn’t a part of the fan club. Anybody want to give me a summary of what Flynnigan Rider got up to back in the day?”

From the way their eyes lit up-- all three of them -- Cassandra got the feeling that she just signed up for a lot more than a summary.



_____



They were still talking by noon the next day.

“So then, then he goes, ‘Harriet, you and I aren’t exactly simpatico at the moment, so I won’t be taking you anywhere!’, and it’s just…” Lance wheezed, wiping away a tear. “And then-- and then she knocks him out, steals Storm, and the whole next five chapters are him chasing her down.”

“Oh, come on, Lance! The best stuff happens in those chapters!” Eugene admonished, and began ticking off his fingers. “He stole the Amulet of Hope, he saved the princess of Equis, he crossed… the… holy cow, when did we get this high up?”

“A while ago,” Cassandra answered, glad to finally have some kind of break from all of the Flynn Rider nonsense. For an hour or so, she’d listened, but eventually her patience had come to an end. “We’re coming up on Lumbard’s Pass. I tried to tell you this half an hour ago. Varian’s been frozen in fear since he spotted it.”

She gestured to the boy, who had hunkered down on his horse and still stared up at the path in front of them with glassy eyes. The mare herself was, as usual, staring at the ground and being shy, but the big white spot on her forehead was indented at the sides: a little wrinkle, like a brow furrowing, that she’d learned meant worry.

“Well, I don’t blame him,” Lance frowned up at the Pass. “It’s not even a proper bridge.”

He had a point. Lumbard’s Pass was notorious for its difficulty and danger: it was just a line of stone pillars bound by ropes, suspended like stepping stones over a sheer lethal drop. There was only one way over it: the gut-twisting method of getting close enough to the edge of each stone to tip it forward, move to the next pillar, and repeat until the end. Heart-pumping, breathtaking action. 

Cassandra’s favorite.

“No, but we can pass it. We’ll just have to work together.” Cassandra cast a glance to Varian. “And not freeze up.”

"I-- you-- there is no way I'm going over that thing," Varian choked out, looking between the three of them before lowering his eyes to the raccoon in his lap. "Ruddiger, tell her!"

Ruddiger shook his head, hiding his face in Varian's chest.

"I have to say, I'm siding with the rodent," Eugene glanced down at Maximus as he whinnied with agreement. "Max does too."

"Well, suck it up, everyone. The black rock trail goes directly through the canyon down there, and there's no way over it but Lumbar's Pass." Cassandra flicked Fidella's reins. "Hurry up, girl. Let's get this over with."

The climb up was long, arduous, and full of complaints. When they finally reached the edge of Lumbar's Pass, everyone had mostly either given up or accepted their fate, but that didn't stop the whimpers or anxious glances. Even Cassandra felt the beginnings of fear tickle at her gut, looking down the dizzying canyon below them.

"Well," she looked back at them over her shoulder. "You guys ready?"

"No," Eugene called from the back of the group.

"Great! Everyone, step forward!"

Fidella snorted under her, and Cassandra could feel her shaking as she placed a tentative hoof on the first stone platform. Her jaw clenched, stomach twisting as she waited for a wobble, but it stayed steady. A few seconds passed before the rest of Fidella’s hooves followed, and the rest of the horses came soon after.

“This is the opposite of good,” Lance murmured when they were all standing clustered in the center, peering down at the canyon below. “How are we supposed to make it across the whole Pass? There’s no way we can-- I mean-- the ropes will give out or something. It can’t hold. I’m too young to die, I--”

“You’re rambling again,” Eugene forced out through gritted teeth, meeting Cassandra’s eye. Maximus neighed, making him sigh and look up. “But really, are you sure about this, Cass? Even Max thinks it’s a bad idea.”

“We need to get to the Great Tree as soon as possible if we’re going to meet up with Adira. She’s counting on us to keep to the quickest route.” Cassandra turned her eyes away from the others, peering out at the next platform. “All right, we don’t have a cliffside to keep up steady now. We’re going to have to gather at the edge to tip it forward, jump at just the right time, and hurry to the edge of the next platform to start it over again. Just like dominoes.”

“Except if we mess up, we die. ”

“Well then, let’s not mess up, Lance.” Flicking Fidella’s reins, Cassandra squared her shoulders and stared down where she needed to go. Once they started, stopping wouldn’t be an option-- it was either run or fall. “We go on three. Let’s do this together.”

Maximus tossed his mane, huffing as he stepped up beside Fidella. Lance urged his horse forward to take up Cassandra’s other side, and Varian, after a few deep breaths, pushed his to do the same. As one, they stared down the platform together, nervous and afraid but ready to face the challenge-- for Rapunzel, for one another, for themselves.

“One,” Cassandra breathed, clenching Fidella’s reins tighter. She heard Lance gulp beside her, and she shot him what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

“Two.” Maximus whinnied, ears flicking forward and eyes shining with the determined honor of a guard horse. Owl hooted from far above them, and Ruddiger chittered, tail poofed up and sticking out straight.

She exhaled, furrowing her brows and hunkering down on Fidella. Cassandra’s lips pulled into a small, thin smirk. “Three.”

Hooves thundered under them, echoing off the walls of the canyon, and the world dropped out from under Cassandra as the pillar leaned. One set of ropes fell slack as another pulled taut, the groaning of grinding stone filling her ears. Just before they slid off the falling edge, Fidella jumped. 

For a few long moments, they were airborne, suspended over the chasm. And then they slammed down on the next platform, making Cassandra’s bones rattle as the shock ran up through Fidella’s legs and into her. But that didn’t matter-- Fidella was still running, hooves digging into sandstone and powerful muscles working to propel her up the slanting stone.

It became a pattern: incline, jump, run, incline. Cassandra’s teeth clicked with every drop back onto the stone, and her stomach turned backflips as they drew closer to the end of the Pass; with every pillar, they only leaned further forward.

Fidella’s front hooves hit the last platform.

Her back ones didn’t.

Maximus and the other two horses cleared the gap with no problem, but Fidella was left scrambling, sides heaving and eyes wide with panic. Cassandra’s fingers dug into her fur, knees digging in on either side of the saddle, as a shot of icy fear plunged into her chest.

Cassie ! Fidella!” Varian called, tugging on his horse’s reins. The pillar groaned and cracked under them, and she could hear chunks of stone clattering to the canyon below. “Are you okay?”

“Do-- I-- look okay?” Cassandra gasped when Fidella slid back another few centimeters, back legs dangling. “Eugene! Lance! Somebody-- help !”

Maximus and Lance’s horse stepped forward, but had to scramble back immediately-- even a step in Cassandra’s direction had the platform pitching their way. Her breath cut off and Fidella brayed, front hooves scrabbling at the stone.

“We can’t!” Eugene shouted, voice tight. “We can’t spread too much weight to your side, or you’ll fall!”

“Wait!” Varian cried out, holding up a hand. “That’s it! You two are the heaviest, so you go over to the other edge. I’ll get Cassie!”

“Uh… are you sure about that, little guy?” Lance asked. “I mean, no offense, but you’re… not built for lifting a grown human, let alone a horse.”

“I have a plan, though!” Varian’s face screwed up, and he plunged a hand into his jacket, unclipping something from his belt. Cassandra had to squint for a moment to see that it was a thin coil of rope, maybe about as thick as one of her fingers. “Just-- just trust me! I know what I’m doing!”

“Kid, you are very smart,” Eugene held out both hands, the universal gesture for don’t move. “But you don’t understand. Cass could die if we don’t do this right.”

“You don’t think I know that!?” Varian’s voice broke, half in desperation and half in anger, as he pointed at Cassandra. Something in her twisted at the expression. “I might be a kid, but I’m a kid who does experiments with this kind of stuff! I know I can help!”

“Varian, you’re not--”

“Do not say I’m not ready, or that I’m not thinking this through, or anything like that,” Varian seethed, raw hurt leaking into his tone for the first time since Cassandra had met him. “I know I’m reckless! I know I’m young! And-- and I know I screw things up! But I also know that she’s in danger, and you're hurt, and I can’t afford to treat this like some grand adventure anymore! I get that !”

Varian’s chest heaved, eyes darting from Eugene to Lance and finally settling on Cassandra. They softened, brows furrowing over them in a show of pure concern that she wasn’t sure she’d ever seen directed at her in her life. “But trust me when I say I can help. Just trust me. Please.

“Listen to the kid,” Cassandra felt herself say. His eyes snapped towards her, and a small smile pulled at his mouth. She returned it for just a moment before a loud groan from the pillar wiped it off her face, and she cried out when Fidella slipped down a little further. “Hurry !”

Eugene and Lance shared a look before nodding, clopping over to the other side. Varian sucked in a breath, waiting for them to take their places before gingerly dismounting, passing Ruddiger over to Maximus.

Cassandra watched him in silence as he wobbled, arms spread out to keep his balance on the uneven ground. He took one step forward, teeth bared in a grimace-- and then another, and another.

Hurry up, kid, Cassandra thought, casting a glance over her shoulder. 

When she turned back, it was to see him slip. She tensed, his name rising in her throat, but he recovered just before he hit the ground. Taking a deep, shaky breath, he continued walking with slow and calculated steps, holding the rope like some kind of talisman.

When he finally reached her, there was no talk. He only sank to his knees, unclipping a mallet from his belt and taking a handful of pegs, and went to work securing the rope to the sandstone.

It was a few seconds before he finally reached down to fasten them to Fidella’s saddle. Cassandra finally worked up the nerve to puff out a laugh. “You better not kill us, kid.”

“I-I won--” he cut himself off with a little yelp as the mallet slipped from his hands, falling to the depths of the canyon. He cut her a sheepish glance. “Um, I was done with that, anyway.”

Cassandra watched as he backed up, taking hold of a loop of rope and held it taut. “Stelle, come here! I need help!”

His horse tossed her mane, reaching down to take a second loop in her teeth. Varian exhaled, squaring his shoulders, and shouted, “ Pull !”

Fidella lurched forward, and Cassandra couldn’t stop the startled gasp that escaped her. Varian grunted with effort, boots grinding against the sandstone as he and his horse-- Stelle, he’d called her-- pulled. She could see his jaw working, clenching tight enough to crack teeth.

The second Fidella’s front half was back over, Cassandra shoved her feet into the stirrups and launched herself out of the saddle. She grunted, rolling over onto the platform, and pushed herself up.

“Cassie?” Varian gasped out.

“Got another piece of rope?”

He blinked. “Uh, not another loop, but if you could just grab the part between mine and Stelle’s--”

“Got it.” She dove behind them, taking hold of the loose rope and slinging it over her shoulder. “Ready, set, pull !”

It was painful. Fire raced down her shoulder blades, arced into her arms, made her fingers tingle and go numb. Breath left her shortly after it left Varian, whose arms were beginning to shake. It made her think of all the weight training she used to do with the guards back in Corona-- running around with sacks of grain tied to her waist, carrying a small keg filled with rocks under each arm-- except this was much, much worse.

Still, she could feel them making progress, and so Cassandra forged on. The ropes groaned under Fidella’s weight, and she could feel them cutting into her hands through her gloves. Varian was paling, sweat streaming down his forehead; Stelle stood on wobbly feet, breath coming in short, heaving gasps.

And then the ropes fell loose.

Cassandra and Varian collapsed, while Stelle stumbled forward. Wiping her eyes, Cassandra turned around, smiling back at Fidella as she recovered, tossing her mane and whinnying.

“Well, that wasn’t so hard,” Varian coughed-- or laughed, she couldn’t tell-- and flopped over, staring up at the sky.

An affectionate smile painted itself over her lips. “Thanks, kid.”

He fell quiet for a moment, wide eyes taking her in, before a goofy grin took over his face. “No problem, Cas--”

The platform tipped forward.

She and Varian shouted, pushing themselves up on shaky knees. Cassandra cast a glance over to where Lance and Eugene were still waiting on them, horses braying and scrambling around as they tried to find purchase. “What happened? Why is the balance off?”

“Fidella. She-- she’s not hanging anymore, the weight’s off.” Varian whimpered as the platform quivered again, a loud, grating noise emanating from the pillar below them. “We-- we need to get to the other side, quick! Before something breaks! It’s not supposed to go back and forth like this, it’s grinding too much!”

Lips thinning, Cassandra nodded, grabbing onto Fidella’s mane and hopping into her saddle. Varian followed suit on his own mare, patting her neck and whispering something in her ear. Together, they took off, and the ground under them pitched.

The world turned diagonal, and up and down swapped places. The horses clambered down with frenzied hooves, neighing and whinnying their concerns, but Cassandra couldn’t think about that. She could only think about the ground beyond the Pass-- the ground that was coming upon them much too quickly.

They caught up with Lance and Eugene just in time for their pillar to collide with the opposite cliffside. A boom shook the air and a jolt went through the platform, sending all of them-- humans, horses, and raccoon-- sprawling onto red sandstone pockmarked with yellow grass. Behind them, an awful cracking noise echoed throughout the canyon, and the pillar-- platform and all-- crumbled. The sound of the boulders smashing on the bottom of the canyon lasted for at least a minute, great mushroom clouds of dust billowing up and filling Cassandra’s lungs.

When it had all settled, she waved away the finer dust, coughing and turning over. Every part of her felt gritty, sweaty, and just overall filthy, but she was alive. Fidella was alive. They were safe.

“Well,” Lance choked, pounding a fist on his broad chest. “That was an adventure.”

“I’ll say,” Eugene wheezed out a breath, wincing and clasping a hand to his rib. “But, good news: we made it! This time, without any more broken bones!”

“Good to see you’re being optimistic again,” Cassandra laughed, though it came out so raspy that she almost mistook it for a groan. Rubbing the dust from her eyes-- or, trying to, at least; her gloves were covered in the stuff-- she glanced over to Varian, watching him embrace Ruddiger with a warm smile.

Words rose in her throat, settled on her tongue. Thank you. I never told you this, but these past few weeks, you’ve become like a little brother. You’re strong. You’re confident in yourself. You’re a really good person.

I’m proud of you.

But, as they always did, those things stayed locked away. Cassandra never could speak her mind about that-- at least, not so deeply. So, she chose the one way she did know how to communicate: leaning forward on one elbow, raising a brow, and asking, “So you named your horse and you didn’t tell me?” in the most accusing voice she could muster.

He recognized her tone, though, and laughed. “We just survived Lumbard’s Pass, and you want to talk about Stelle?”

“Oh, is that what you named her?” Lance pushed himself up, dusting off his clothes-- though it did nothing, seeing as he had dusty hands-- and grinned, turning to his own horse. “That’s a good name. But I’ll do you one better! That’s right, I’ve been thinking, and I would love to christen you… Fancy. Because of your little black feet! They look like boots.”

“You guys are choosing now to talk about horse names?” Eugene laughed. It started out sarcastic and mocking, but when he began, it was like he couldn’t stop; the laugh just kept getting louder and more weightless, more genuine, and soon it had spread to the rest of them. Even Max and Fidella were making little laugh-like huffs along with them, tails giving little waves and hooves stamping.

When the chuckles had finally died down enough for Cassandra to talk, she sighed, looking down at herself. “Well, I’m alive, but I believe this is the dirtiest I’ve ever been.”

“You clearly haven’t been thrown into a pigsty before, then,” Lance laughed. “Remember that, Eugene? When-- when you told Stalyan--”

“I remember, Lance, and I’d like to forget it.”

Cassandra shook her head. “Regardless, we need to get clean. All sorts of bad things happen if you travel with pebbles and dust in your clothes, trust me.”

“O-oh, I might be able to help!” Varian raised a finger. “I’ve been working on a solution to instantly clean anything! Of course, I haven’t been able to synthesize it into spherical form yet, but if you could find me some water, I could make a hyper-effective bath! It’d have us all clean in seconds.”

“Hmm.” Cassandra cast a glance up, scanning the sky. When she spotted the brown blur circling above, she cupped her hands to her mouth and cried out, “Owl!”

A hoo floated down moments later, and Owl came swooping down to land on her shoulder. She reached to scratch under his beak, giving him a fond smile. “Did you see any water nearby while you were up there?”

He hooted once again, flapping his wings and taking to the air. Cassandra grinned, looking over at Varian. “He says there’s water nearby, probably a stream or something.”

“It’d be a good place to camp out for the night,” Eugene said, motioning at the sun. It hadn’t yet dipped into the horizon, but it was getting close. “We’re not quite at nightfall now, but it’ll come soon, and between us? I’m tired. We all need a rest after all the traveling today, and that nightmare on top of it.”

“Agreed,” Lance put in. “Especially you four. Stelle and Fidella have been walking all day.”

“I’m up for it,” Cassandra nodded. “I need a break before I hit the road again. Just, please, no more Flynnigan Rider tales. I’ve heard enough.”

“Aw, but we were just getting to the good part,” Varian clasped his hands together. “Please? We only have, like, four more books to go!”

She gave him an unimpressed look for a second before sighing, running a hand over her face. “Give me a bath and some rest, and I’ll think about it.”

“Yay!” Varian pumped both fists in the air. “Well then, let’s get going! C’mon, Ruddiger!”

“How does he have that much energy?” Lance groaned once Varian had run out of earshot alongside Ruddiger and Stelle.

“Beats me,” Eugene rolled over, rising to his feet. “I’m supposed to be a world-famous, athletic thief, and I’m being outlasted by a child.”

Cassandra laughed, jumping to her feet and taking off after Varian, despite how much her body burned and protested the motion. “You’re just getting old!” she called over her shoulder, cackling.

“Old!?” Eugene grinned. “I’ll show you old! Just wait up!”

“I guess we’re all running,” Lance let out a breath, looking up at Maximus, Fidella, and Fancy. They all shared a tired glance before he pushed himself to his feet, taking a few running steps before stumbling. “Or maybe we could just walk. Walking’s good too.”

Far above them atop the cliff, perched atop a colorful, gaudy wagon, a monkey watched them walk. His eyes never wavering from their unblinking stare as they disappeared into the mountains, forging onward towards the Great Tree.

Beyond them, at least to that monkey’s eyes, a shadow lurked, sprawling over the land and seeping into the earth itself.

It won’t be long.

Chapter Text

“I mean, what even is a hamlet?”

“A small rural settlement typically containing a population of up to a hundred people. Smaller than a village and usually without a central place of meeting, but can also be part of a larger municipality--”

“Or,” Eugene held up a finger, cutting Varian off. “It’s a tiny ham.”

Varian spluttered for a second before Eugene’s tone registered, making him glare. “I was trying to answer your question.”

“You have an amazing vocabulary, kid, but it seems to be missing the word ‘rhetorical’. Would you like an explanation?”

“Guys,” Cassandra interrupted, trying not to chortle. “Please. We’re almost there.”

“Finally!” Lance crowed, pumping both fists in the air. Fancy snorted under him, tossing her mane, and he grabbed the reins again before he could fall off. He sent her an apologetic shrug before raising his eyes to the evergreen forest around them. “I’ve seen enough of all this wilderness. My belly needs food .”

“Well, you’ll just have to be patient. Don’t worry, I’m a quick shopper.” Cassandra tipped her head towards Varian, riding beside her on Stelle. “I don’t know how long he’ll take.”
Before Lance could get out a question, Eugene sighed. “Lance, buddy, we’re not going in. Wanted thieves, remember?”

“Well, yeah, but-- last time we were here, weren’t you still with Stalyan? That was forever ago!”

“You just love bringing her up, don’t you?” Eugene shook his head. “The guy who runs this place-- Constable Lumph or something like that-- knows my face. You tend to remember the people who steal your tiny ham’s most prized possession.”

“Ohh,” Lance’s shoulders fell. “The Eye.”

Varian, who’d been giving Eugene a dirty look about the second ‘tiny ham’ comment, blinked. “The ‘eye’? What eye?”

“Eye of Pincosta,” Eugene puffed out a sigh. “Their prized largest diamond. The Constable was all sorts of torn up about it.”

Maximus whinnied his disapproval, and Eugene glanced down with a frown. “What? It was a long time ago! I can’t change the past, Max.”

“Where did it end up?” Cassandra asked. “Maybe if I explain that I’m with the Guard and you can give them a location, they’ll let you pass.”

“That’s the thing. My, uh, partner sold it and we split the coin. I don’t know who she sold it to.”

“You let Stalyan --” Cut off by a vehement glare, Lance held up both hands. “Sorry.”

Eugene groaned. “Yes, I let Stalyan take it. We’ll have to go all the way back to Vardaros to find her and figure out where the Eye is, and I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t think we have that kind of time. So, Lance, no. We’re not going in.”

“Glad you came to a decision,” Cassandra said sarcastically, pointing ahead at the cluster of buildings. Their black rock trail ran straight through it, a line of glittering spikes tearing the settlement in two. “Pincosta’s right there. Ready, Varian?”

“Yep!” he grinned, straightening his jacket and lifting Ruddiger to his shoulders. The raccoon squeaked, giving her a thumbs-up-- or, the closest thing he could make with paws. “Just need to find a good workshop. Ruddiger’s been collecting ingredients over the past few days, and whatever else I need, you can probably get in town.”

“Great.” Cassandra glanced over her shoulder as Fidella stepped up to the edge of the woods. “You two, stay here and don’t move. Varian and I will return when we’re done and we’ll go around.”

“Capiche,” Eugene gave her a lazy two-finger salute. Lance, meanwhile, just slumped in his saddle and nodded.

“Oh, and I almost forgot.” Cassandra bounced her elbow, urging Owl to take to the air. “Could you watch after him for me? I don’t know how the people here will feel about an owl.”

“And a raccoon is any better?” Eugene’s voice rose an octave then Owl flapped over to Max’s saddle, perching on the far edge and cocking his head up at him.

“Fine, you got me. Owl's watching you.” Cassandra returned his salute and looked away before either of them could protest. “If we’re not back by nightfall, you might want to look for us.”

“...Is there any reason we wouldn’t be?” Varian’s brows fell.

“Most likely not,” Cassandra said, rolling her shoulders. “But you never know.”

“Ah.” Varian shifted his eyes to the hamlet ahead, gripping Stelle’s reins a little harder.

“Relax, kid. Nothing’s going to happen.”

Neither of them caught the glint of gold amid the distant buildings.



_____



Quirin,

 

The palace was attacked a day before I penned this letter. I do not know how fast news will spread by word of mouth; thus, I felt it necessary to inform you myself.

A pirate known as Lady Caine and a band of other miscreants broke into the throne room and threatened both mine and Arianna’s lives. It was a close call; the palace guards managed to hold them off, but it was chaos. I feel that this might have been caused by my… less-than-wise decisions in the past decade regarding crime severity and capital punishment, but we must also not discount the rise of these new black rocks within Corona’s walls. Arianna has brought to my attention that there has been discourse within the kingdom, and I beg that you keep me informed of your own village’s status.

Should you face anything from minor distraction to upheaval, or even something else regarding the rocks, I implore you to contact me, and I shall do everything in my power to set it straight. News of my daughter and the recent attempt on my life has brought light back to me, and my vision is clearer than it has ever been; from this day forward, I wish to correct my mistakes. That starts with you, my old friend.

I have sent search parties as I have promised. They are now tirelessly scouring the Seven Kingdoms for my daughter and Flynn Rider, and have been informed of your son’s appearance. It is my fondest wish that these events, terrible as they are, may yet lead us back to our children.

I close this letter with a fond note: I have returned to my senses, my friend, and I hope to prove it to you and all of Corona.

Please do write back soon.

Best regards,

King Frederic of Corona



Quirin read the letter once more, thumbnail tracing the indents of the wax seal, and looked out the window. Black spikes stared back at him, motionless and cold, even as they ripped through the earth and everything in it. Houses, plantations, animal pens-- even his own orchard had suffered casualties, and a new spike had chosen that morning to tear through his kitchen floor.

Something very bad was happening. He’d expected the magic user to notice and go dormant, but that didn’t appear to be the case. It was a brash show of confidence; whether that ego was deserved or not, Quirin had not yet decided.

Regardless, magic was afoot, and his son was likely a part of it. He should have known better than to hope his past wouldn’t find him here in Old Corona; he should have seen it coming, should have known that he couldn’t keep his family out of Dark Kingdom matters. 

He should have prepared his son. Now Varian was out there, mixed up in all of this mess, and he couldn’t even hold a sword.

Quirin sighed, running his fingers through his hair. He’d taken his gloves off to open the letter, and the Dark Kingdom seal stood out on the back of his left hand, a painful reminder that no matter how far he ran, he’d never be able to leave his past.

The rocks were proof enough of that.

He needed to be out there with the troops, finding his son. He needed to be answering the call, battling whatever threat had set these events into motion.

But he also had a duty here now-- a duty to protect Corona. His home. The people who’d congratulated them on Varian’s birth, who’d been with him when his wife departed. Adira and Hector were out there somewhere, still honed and ready for battle; it would be their duty to uphold Edmund’s dying words. His lay here.

That didn’t mean it wasn’t painful.

After standing there for a few more moments, feeling the emotions and motives battling inside him, Quirin tossed the note aside. His reply to the king could wait until that evening. Instead, he reached for his fur vest. Corona was a warm place, but fall was encroaching upon them in the form of light, chilly breezes; he would be needed while the farmers readied their harvest, and the apples needed picking.

He couldn’t help but feel, though, that the chill was an omen for something worse.

A storm was coming.



_____



“Okay, I’ll be back to pick him up in around an hour. Is that okay with you?”

“Oh, of course,” the woman tucked away her three new gold coins with a too-wide smile. “Your little brother will be welcome to use whatever he needs!”

“Great.” Cassandra nodded towards Varian. “Do whatever it is you need to do. Fidella and Stelle are outside if you need anything from the saddlebags. Oh, and Varian? Please try not to explode or break anything.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” he laughed, waving a dismissive hand, and turned back to the wide array of tools, containers, and other gadgets lying around the rough wooden desk and countertops. Ruddiger adjusted himself on his owner’s shoulders, chittering. “I’ve got the formulas down by now, and I won’t experiment… too much. It’s perfectly safe!”

The woman cast Cassandra a look, and she shrugged, smiling. “Thanks again! Bye!”

The door opened and closed, letting him know she was gone, but Varian paid little mind. The building was a little small, but it was brightly lit with peculiarly-colored candles and sunlight streaming through a single window behind him. Off to his right, a door led further into the house-- likely to the apothecary’s living quarters. Everywhere else in the room was covered with shelves, desks, and counters, laden with everything an alchemist needed for basic work. Of course, there weren’t any of his more advanced machines, but he could get the job done.

“So,” the woman started, turning from the closed front door to him. “Varian, was it?”

“That’s me!” he grinned up at her cheekily. “And you are?”

“Thea,” she brushed a lock of brown hair back, straightening her apron. “What is it you’re wanting to do, exactly?”

“Oh, I’m just going to synthesize a few of my more essential compounds. We-- um, that is, my sister and I-- have been traveling for a while, and I’ve used up most of my stuff, like firestarter and antibacterial solution. Oh, and I probably need to make a few more of these...”

“A young scientist, then,” she raised her brows as he reached for a couple of beakers, hands moving at a breakneck pace. It was a familiar process: crush, mortar and pestle, drop of bioluminescent mushroom enzyme fluid, pull up goggles, combine. “...What are you making now?”

Varian paused, taking a step back and tapping his chin. He hadn’t named the compound yet; it had come out of a moment of necessity during late-night projects, and he had continued to synthesize it when the older vials dimmed every year or so. Still, it was near-perfected by now, with Vex’s necklace containing the first of what he considered the last experimental batch: the final round of tests before he considered it at peak effectiveness.

The thought made a smile tug at his lips, and Varian tapped a finger on the edge of the desk. “A luminescent compound used to provide sustainable light. I’m calling it Vexoleum.”

“Interesting.” Thea watched him for a moment longer before ducking across the room and towards the opposite door. “I’m going to go check on something.”

“Oh, go ahead! You won’t even know I’m here.”

The apothecary muttered something under her breath, but Varian didn’t hear. He was deep in his alchemy mindset now, words coming out in a constant stream-- toward himself or Ruddiger, he didn’t know-- as he narrated every step to keep himself on track. Two vials of Vexoleum, another pouch of the instant-cleaning solution, five more sodium bombs (carefully made to prevent accidents), a couple more smoke bombs, and…

He was missing an ingredient.

“Latex,” he murmured under his breath, shifting through the pile of supplies Cassandra had bought for him before coming here. Plant extracts, enzyme-infused fluids, powders, minerals-- but no latex. He needed more adhesive bombs; they’d proven one of the most effective and controllable tools in his arsenal so far.

Ruddiger batted at his ear to catch his attention, then pointed at the front door.

“Right. Probably just left it in the saddlebags by mistake.” He scratched between Ruddiger’s ears. “Thanks, buddy.”

Casting a glance in the direction Thea had gone, Varian strode over to the door and swung it open. Fidella and Stelle greeted him with a neigh and nuzzle, respectively, and he grinned back at them before diving into Stelle’s bags. He shuffled around the supplies inside for a moment, a quiet ‘ah-hah!’ slipping past his lips when he resurfaced with a vial of fine white sap. Latex, or raw rubber: a natural, biodegradable substance that worked in place of petroleum. Gleefully, he closed the saddlebag, turning to go back to his work.

The crossbow caught his eye.

Varian froze in his tracks, staring at the bow for a few moments. It was still nicked around the top, and their less-than-perfect travel conditions had left it worse for wear. A few of the bolts had been dented, and Varian had wondered a time or two if they would be safe to shoot without close inspection.

Casting a glance to the door and back to the bow, he tilted his head back and forth, indecision turning his lips down at the corners. Then, in one fluid motion, he unbuckled the crossbow from Fidella’s saddle and ran back inside with it.

The bow made a heavy thunk, rattling his many beakers and the other delicate equipment on the desktop. He set the latex aside for now, eyes roaming over the bow as the gears turned in his mind. He’d managed to clumsily rig a few bolts before, but nothing dependable; whole beads weighed the bolt unevenly and caused it to veer off-target. However, if he could adhere a small amount of chemical in a thin coating, perhaps he could create special bolts and avoid that issue altogether.

A slow, wide grin took hold of his mouth, and Varian felt something bright and jittery awaken within him. It would be a gift to Cassie-- a way to show how thankful he was for her trust and companionship. The whole little-brother thing was just an act, but maybe, just maybe, he could express that he really did care for her that way.

He never seemed to make his real family proud, but perhaps, he could make this one proud instead.

Nodding, Varian got to work.




_____




Eugene sighed, staring up at the branches above them. “This is taking forever.”

“Agreed,” Lance mumbled beside him, shifting around to get more comfortable against his tree trunk. “I thought Cassandra said she was a fast shopper.”

Maximus whinnied, and Eugene raised a brow at him. “What, you aren’t bored yet?”

Max shook his head, snorting, and Lance let out a groan. “You’re a guard horse, you have to be used to these sorts of things. Us, though? We’re thieves. We travel light and strike quickly.”

“Not thieves anymore,” Eugene reminded him. “That’s behind us.”

“You sure about that?”

Eugene scrambled up to his feet, knife drawn, and turned to face the voice. Maximus jumped to attention as well, stepping in front of Fancy; Owl hooted in distaste when he was jostled off the saddle.

Lance, however, gasped and ran forward, scooping up two girls in a bear hug. “Angry! Red! How’d you get here?”

When he finally let go, Angry wheezed for a second before clearing her throat. “That doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we’re here to collect our due.”

“Your due? What does that mean?” Eugene crossed his arms.

She gave him a long, hard look. “Vardaros? Helping you break out of jail? Ringing any bells?”

“...Oh.” Lance rubbed his chin, glancing to his friend before returning his gaze to the girls. “Um, what is it you’re wanting?”

Angry took in a breath, but Red interrupted her before she could speak. In the softest voice Eugene had ever heard, she murmured, “We ran out of food.”

“Uh-huh.” Eugene sighed, running a hand over his face. He didn’t look, but he could feel Maximus’s burning stare on the side of his head. “And you want us to help you steal more. Why can’t you do it?”

Angry glared at him, ticking off her fingers. “One, we haven’t eaten in days. I’m too shaky to be stealthy. Two, we tried already, and they know we’re around. They’ll be looking for two kids with face paint.”

“I see.” Eugene worked his jaw. “So you have no money? At all?”

She exhaled, long and slow, before giving him a flat look. “No. No money. We need you guys’ help.”

Lance’s hand landed on his shoulder, and he turned to see his friend giving him a pleading look. “C’mon, Eugene. They’re just kids. We have to help them.”

“I don’t want to steal, Lance,” Eugene groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We’ll wait for Cass to get back, and we’ll share some of our own supplies. Until then--”

Maximus tossed his mane, braying, and Eugene startled. “What? What is it, Ma… oh.”

He whirled around just in time to see the girls disappearing into Pincosta.

“Guess they decided they’d try again without us,” Lance mumbled. “Um, should we go after them?”

Eugene slapped a hand over his face. “Well, we can’t let them get arrested. C’mon, let’s go. Just be quick and silent . If anyone sees me, we’re good as dead.”

Let's just hope Cass doesn't find out about this.

 

______



"Is there an issue, sir?"

The man grunted, peering through dirty spectacles at her. "You're buying a standard-quality sidesword. With gold coins."

"...Is that a problem?"

He sighed, pushing her offered coins aside and steepling his fingers on the countertop. "Miss, you and I both know why I would take issue with this. Pincosta may be a small town, but those of us who live here are honorable folk. In my experience, those who flash gold at a simple sword are one of two things: a wealthy traveler, or a thief."

Cassandra's brows lowered, and she felt a scowl twist her lips. "A thief? I look like a thief to you?"

"Well, you certainly don't look like nobility." He ran a few fingers through his short yellowed beard, glancing around at his shop. It was a nice enough place, if a little small and dusty; laden with all kinds of weaponry, it would have been enough to make Cassandra's heart sing, had she not been so offended. "But you don't look to be a thief, either, in a sense. I am also not opposed to gold, like any merchant. However, it's awfully suspicious, and-- well. You see my dilemma."

"And you see mine." Cassandra took a calming breath, backing up a step before she could reach out and strangle the man. "Look, I've been on the road for a while. My sword's in need of sharpening, and I lost my backup."

He studied her, indecisive frown carved into his stony face. Finally, he shook his head, pushing the money even further back towards her. "Sorry, but I'm not selling."

Cassandra grit her teeth, nose scrunching as she quelled the desire to punch him right between the eyes. "Look, bub. I'm here on official Corona business. I need this sword if I'm going to make it through my mission."

"Oh, you're with the Guard!" His expression cleared right up, crooked smile splitting through his beard. "Well, you should've told me that! Just bring in one of your fellows in here so I can be sure, and I'll hook you up right away."

Cassandra froze, mind whirling as she tried to keep a straight face. "One of my fellows. Of course! Because, um, there are Corona guards here. In Pincosta."

"Have been for a few days now." He raised a single bushy brow at her, something glimmering in his dark eyes. "But then, you know that, don't you? I mean, you are in the Guard."

She sucked in a breath, fist clenching at her side. "Yes! I-- has it been that long already? Ha! I'll go grab someone real fast."

She felt his eyes burning holes into the back of her head as she pivoted, marching out the front door. Bells jingled overhead, following her into the street-- almost a lighthearted mockery of the blood roaring in her ears. 

Corona guards were in Pincosta. Stan and Pete must’ve ratted her out-- either that, or news of the Lost Princess had traveled some other way. There was no other reason for the Guard to be so far away from Corona; the kingdom hadn’t been interested in diplomacy for years, and King Frederic’s paranoia was rivaled only by his notorious, unshaking, country-sacrificing love for his family.

I have to go find Varian.

She scanned the streets, running through a mental map of what parts of the hamlet she’d already been through. It wasn’t hard to recall where the apothecary’s shop was; Pincosta was one of the smallest settlements she’d ever seen, and had a simple layout on top of that.

Cassandra tore through the streets, bags of supplies bouncing with the motion. She disregarded anyone in her way, weaving past them with expertise born of constant guard training since birth. She hadn’t gotten Lance’s sidesword, but she had managed to grab food, a good couple of whetstones, sugar for the horses, and another few odds and ends. It’d be fine. They just needed to get out of here and back on the road.

She just managed to skid to a stop, ducking back behind the building she’d just turned around.

Gold armor. So much gold armor. Were there familiar faces? Cassandra hadn’t seen. Probably; she knew most of the guards. Would they recognize her, though?


Then realization hit, and her stomach dropped. They have Varian!

Okay. Okay. Breathe. The situation wasn’t nearly as bad as she was making it out to be. Eugene and Lance were still hidden in the woods, right? And no one suspected a thing. They were fine.

...But then, why were the guards clustered around where Varian was? Had they connected him to his absurd criminal persona somehow?

A sharp pain on the side of her head cut off her thought process. Hissing, she squinted down at a pebble, sitting innocently by her feet. Had someone--?

Cassandra snapped her gaze to the apothecary’s house, narrowing her eyes against the sun. And there-- on top of the roof -- Ruddiger was waving at her, Varian pointing and mouthing sentences faster than she could read his lips. 

“Varian, I swear,” Cassandra just stared for a second before shaking her head, running a hand over her face. She had so many questions.

First, though, she had to figure out a way to get up there.



______



“Okay, okay, okay… if I were a little hungry thief, where would I be?” Lance paused, rubbing his chin. “Huh. You’d think this would be easier.”

“Lance, sh ,” Eugene hissed over his shoulder, peering outside their alleyway. “I think I see them.”

“For real?” Lance rose onto the tips of his toes so he could look over Eugene’s head. “Where?”

“Working their way up to the apple cart,” Eugene groaned, ducking back into the alley. “We have to hurry and figure something out.”

“You know, we could just let them at it,” Lance shrugged. “I mean, we always pulled it off. They’ll be fine.”

“That’s not the point.” Eugene frowned. “They’re just kids. We can help them out, keep them from ending up like us.”

“Like us? What’s so wrong about being like us?”

“Do you want them to be hiding in an alleyway from the locals?” Eugene sighed, peering back around the corner. “Okay, I think the coast is clear. If we dive in and right back out, no one should… oh. Oh, that’s not good.”

“What’s not good? Did they get caught?” Lance pushed him aside, nearly jumping into the street in his rush. He ducked back just as quickly, though, when a glint of gold sent panic running through his veins like ice water.

“Guards. Corona guards. All the way out here.” Eugene let out a breath. “You know what that means, right? They’re on our tail. Somehow, they know where we’re going.”

“That’s what you’re worried about?” Lance gave him an incredulous look. “Red and Angry are out there stealing! They’ll get caught!”

“Well, so will we if we-- Lance! Lance, where are you going!?”

“Sorry, Eugene, but I gotta help ‘em,” Lance called over his shoulder, then turned to dash for the girls.

Eugene cursed under his breath before shooting off after him.



_____



“Varian, what on earth ?” Cassandra demanded, stumbling onto the roof and ignoring the hand he’d offered. 

He stepped back, rubbing the back of his neck with a sheepish laugh. “So, turns out, the apothecary lady recognized me from the posters when I put my goggles on.”

She furrowed her brows, lips turning down in a disbelieving frown. “How?”

He shrugged, scooping Ruddiger up and shouldering his new alchemy bag. “I don’t know, but we have to get out of here. I told Fidella and Stelle to go back to the others.”

“Why are you even up here, kid?” Cassandra blew out a breath. “There are a million other places to run! Why the roof?”

“First thought?” Varian flashed her a grin before clearing his throat. “Um, sorry. But the back way should be clear by now. If we’re quiet, we can get back to the outskirts and out of Pincosta without anyone noticing.”

“All right, all right. Fine. Just be careful-- the guards can’t see either of us, especially not me.”

“Oh, right, your dad…” Varian shifted Ruddiger to his shoulders, lowering himself over the edge of the roof. He flailed for a second before his feet found a windowsill, arms shaking from the effort. “Um, do you think he’s here?”

“We can’t worry about that now. Just shut up and move.” Cassandra tossed a glance over her shoulder. She couldn’t see what was in front of the apothecary, but the streets beyond it were empty of guards-- for now. As soon as Varian touched down, she swung down, kicking lightly off the wall and hitting the ground with a roll.

“Can you keep up, kid?” she asked, already starting down the back alley.

“Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s a brisk walk, but I can totally--”

“Great.” She grabbed his arm and took off running.

He barely bit back a shout, stumbling in his efforts to match her pace. They flew through the streets, Varian calling out a ‘sorry!’ over his shoulder when they almost ran over a homely-looking woman. It wasn’t long before they reached the edge, Cassandra’s eyes scanning over the woodlands.

She found the horses without issue, yanking Varian towards them. She reached for Fidella’s saddle as soon as they got there, letting go of him and mounting with a grunt. “Okay, guys, we have to move. The guards found Varian.”

Fidella whinnied under her, tossing her mane, and Varian cleared his throat. “Uh, Cassie? They’re… gone.”

“What do you mean, gone?” Cassandra snapped her gaze around, stomach sinking when she realized he was right. Fidella, Maximus, Fancy, Stelle-- but no Eugene or Lance. She narrowed her eyes, squeezing the reins in clenched fists. “Where the heck did they go? I told them to stay here!”

“Max!”

Maximus’s ears pricked. He brayed before shooting past Fidella and out towards Pincosta with Fancy right on his tail. She turned just in time to see Eugene and Lance swing into their saddles, each of them carrying a peculiar-looking bundle over their shoulder. She didn’t have time to scrutinize, though-- guards were streaming after them, gold armor gleaming in the sun and swords held high.

“Not good, not good,” Varian mumbled behind her. “Cassie, what do we do?”

She grit her teeth, flicking Fidella’s reins. “Follow me, kid.”

Fidella’s muscles worked under her as they took off, Stelle and Varian right behind them. She caught Eugene’s eye, tilting her head to the left. He nodded back, shouting something to Lance, and both groups turned , meeting in the middle as they turned to circle around Pincosta’s left side.

“What were you thinking, Eugene? I thought I told you--” Cassandra demanded when they were close enough, then cut herself off, blinking. “Is that Angry?”

“Oh, great, you have eyes,” Angry’s voice was high enough that it was nearly drowned out by the pounding of hooves behind them, but her rolling eyes told Cassandra all she needed to know. “Yeah, it’s me. Red and I needed help, but these guys decided they wanted to take the high road.”

“We decided to help you!” Eugene shouted, without turning his head to look at her. They were beginning a gentle curve around Pincosta now-- no ambush so far, but they couldn’t be sure. “We were just going to give you money! If you had just been patient--”

“What do you think I am, helpless? I either wanted some sucker’s help in my plan or nothing. We don’t take charity.”
“I think you’re young, and that you’re throwing your life away.” Eugene worked his jaw. “Believe me, Lance and I get it. We were doing the same thing at your age. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”

Ugh , spare me the moral speech,” Angry groaned, cleaning under her nails. “I’d be more concerned about the guards coming around to cut you off.”

Her words had barely reached their ears before a stream of guards shout out of Pincosta. Cassandra shouted in alarm, steering Fidella to the left just in time. A glance back confirmed that Varian and Lance made it too, but the guards were just about close enough to reach out and grab one of their horses’ tails.

“Varian!” she called back. “You got anything that can help?”

“Oh! I-- I forgot! Sorry!” Ruddiger squeaked when Varian jostled him around, rooting through his alchemy bag for a second. His hand resurfaced with a pink orb, big enough to sit in her palm with no room to spare. “Just get ready to jump when I say three, okay?”

“Just throw the thing!” Cassandra barked. “ Now! ” 

“Okay, okay! Everybody jump!”

As one, their horses launched into the air, and he reared back, hurling the ball as hard as he could at the ground.

Pink fumes exploded into the air, and she could hear the goo splatter everywhere. They came down moments later, hooves just missing the splatter where they had just been running. Looking back, she cackled at the sight: a whole team of mounted guards, ensnared in a mess of pink. 

Lance gave a hearty guffaw. “Did you put glitter in there?”

“No, it’s just a side effect,” Varian grinned, teeth gleaming and freckles bunched up under his eyes. “They shouldn’t get out, but-- it’d be a good idea to put a little distance between us.”

“Agreed,” Eugene flicked Maximus’s reins. “Come on, boy. The black rocks should be just around the other side.”

Maximus neighed, head lowering and the muscles of his neck rising as he poured on the speed. Fidella and the other two horses followed as well as they could, throwing up clumps of earth and grass in their mad dash around Pincosta.

The black rocks appeared within seconds. Trees rose up around them in a curtain as they dove headfirst into the woods, weaving around the spikes and avoiding the odd one that had grown out sideways like an onyx spear.

They ran for a good five minutes before Maximus and Fidella finally faltered. The other two horses almost collapsed when Cassandra called to stop, and as soon as everyone was dismounted, all four of them backed up against the trees to rest.

Angry wriggled from Eugene’s shoulders, digging her heels into his back, and leapt down to where Lance had set Red down. She sighed, crossing her arms, and glared up at the four of them. “I guess I should say thank you. We didn’t know the guards were in Pincosta today.”

“I don’t think any of us did,” Varian laughed, casting a glance to Cassandra. “It was a, um… a surprise.”

“That’s for sure,” Cassandra huffed out. “I can’t believe they’re this far from the capital. King Frederic hasn’t sent out troops in nearly two decades. For anything .”

“Still, we should’ve been paying more attention.” Angry linked her arm with Red’s, a rare softness painting itself over her features as she took in a deep, calming breath. “We were just hungry.”

“And we’ll be happy to share our food with you.” Eugene lowered himself on one knee, looking her in the eyes. “Look, I’ve told you this over and over, but I know what it’s like. I don’t want you two to end up like us. If you’re hungry, we can share.”

Red frowned, looking down at the ground. When she spoke, her voice was softer than anything Cassandra had ever heard, and so hesitant that it even made her heart melt. “That won’t fix our problem, though. Even if you feed us today, there’ll be the next one, and the next one after that. Poverty isn’t something that just goes away because someone shares once.”


“And that’s why I’m offering you something more.” Eugene turned to her, a tiny smile pulling at his lips. “We’re going back to Corona after all of this is over, and hopefully, we’ll both be pardoned. Go wait there. When we get back, I’ll make sure you always have a place to come back to if things get rough.”


“All out of the goodness of your heart, huh?” Angry narrowed her eyes. “Sorry, but that doesn’t sound like Flynn Rider to me.”

“Well, it’s a good thing I’m Eugene Fitzherbert, isn’t it?”

Shock-- just a tiny flicker-- flashed through Angry’s eyes, and she regarded him with a suspicious stare, turning to Red with a raised brow. 

Red nodded at her, clasping both hands together in a universal gesture of please ?

Finally, she groaned, running a hand through her short-cropped hair. “All right. But if you’re setting us up, or-- or--”

She was cut off by Lance scooping them both up, hugging them as tight as he could with a big smile on his face. Cassandra shared a glance with Eugene, smirking, as she watched them, something warm and soft rising in her chest. When he finally set them down, they were out of breath and surprised, but a little smile graced both their lips.

“That goes for me too, you two.” Lance ruffled Red’s hair, though he stayed safely out of Angry’s bubble. “I don’t know what I’m going to get in Corona, but if it’s anything like what Eugene’s looking forward to, then barge in whenever you want.”

“Thanks, Lance,” Angry tried to sound sarcastic, but it was too genuine to fool anyone.

“No problem.” He gave them one last smile before turning to Eugene, Cassandra, and Varian. “Well, what are we waiting for? We got food! Varian can make a fire! Let’s move away from the rocks a little bit and have a nice hot meal!”

“Well, I’m not one for using more resources than we need to,” Cassandra let out a soft laugh through her nose at Lance’s puppy-dog eyes. “But this time can be an exception.”

She smiled as she watched Lance celebrate, scooping up Red and leading the group off into the woods in search of a nice clearing, but it fell away quickly. They deserved to splurge now, to have a little fun before they parted ways and continued on.

After all, they were getting closer to the Great Tree now, and this meal might well be one of their last.



_____



Gothel stared down the Great Tree, a satisfied grin spread over her full lips. “Really, a rhinoceros and two monkey creatures? I applaud your taste, but a few exotic pets are not enough to stop a servant of Zhan Tiri.”

The man before her grit his teeth, vivid lime-yellow eyes studying her. She caught him glancing at Rapunzel, passed out from fatigue and hunger by her feet, and yanked on the girl’s chains to pull her further out of sight.

“You dare to come here, to my domain, with the Sundrop? You dare to use magic against me? You dare to challenge the power of the Moonstone? You dare to challenge me ?”

“Of course.” Rocks tore at the ground around her, the earth itself groaning under the strain of so many spikes ripping through its surface. The world glinted in shades of blue around her, casting Gothel’s face in odd shadows as she grinned. “Why else would I be here?”

A smirk-- slow at first, but growing into a wild, unhinged grin too wide for his face-- pulled at the man’s mouth. “Wonderful. I haven’t had a good fight in ages.”

He ran at her, and metal and magic clashed.

Beyond them, something within the Great Tree stirred.

Chapter Text

 

My father told me once that the most important thing

every man should know is what he would die for.

 

-Tana French, Faithful Place

 


Eugene sank to the ground for a moment to rest, peering out over the giant, rolling valley. Here, on top of this hill, it almost felt like looking down on the castle all those weeks ago-- had it been months yet?-- and being overtaken by the sheer awe that filled him at the sight.

The Great Tree was enormous. Easily the size of a small mountain, its bare, spindly branches twisted towards the heavens like gnarled fingers. Its roots alone spread nearly to the edges of the valley, and the trunk was wide enough to accomodate what looked like stone archways leading into its depths. It almost looked more like marble than a tree: an ancient bone carving, left to stand for years upon years.

“Wow,” he heard Lance breathe beside him. “I wonder what’s in there.”

“Rapunzel.” His answer was quick, but not cold; a whispered word that carried more weight than a thousand sentences.

“We’re finally here,” Cassandra’s hand found his shoulder, and she smiled softly at him, a look that he had never quite seen directed at him before. It was friendly, and deeply affectionate, the look he always imagined a sister would give. It was different than what Lance offered, but now, he found it just as precious: a brother on one side and a sister on the other, waiting and ready to risk their own lives to get Rapunzel back. It was enough to make him tear up a little.

Max whinnied behind him, nose snuffling against his face, and Eugene pushed him away with a laugh. “You had to get your two-cents in, didn’t you, buddy?”

“Hey, guys, I think I see them,” Varian interrupted the moment, pointing down at the base of the tree.

Cassandra stood, walking over to Varian’s side and following his gaze. She nodded, turning back towards Eugene. “Adira’s down there. She must’ve gotten here faster.”

“Of course she did!” Lance was practically bouncing with newfound energy at the mention of Adira. “That woman is the best at anything and everything. I had no doubt.”

Eugene traded a skeptical glance with Maximus, then sighed, rising back to his feet. “All right, then. Let’s not keep our friends wait-- oh.” He watched Lance and Varian take off down the hill. “Huh.”

“Boys,” Cassandra snickered, glancing to him. Her smile fell away at the sight of his expression, though, and she tilted her head. “What’s wrong?”

Eugene stared out over the tree for a moment, weighing his words, before answering. “Last time I was nearing the end of something… I was the strong one. I was the one to tell her that there was something afterward, something to look forward to. I’ve always been a firm believer in that: there’s always something around the next corner.”

He blew out a breath, eyes tracing the twisted white branches of the Great Tree. “This is… this could be the end. We’re facing a witch on her home turf, and we could barely beat her when she was lost in the Forest of No Return. What if… what if we fail? What if I take my final chance to see Rapunzel again, and then… I blow it?”

"We won't." Her reply was swift and sharp enough to make him snap his gaze back to her, brown eyes wide. She held his stare, intensity pouring off her in waves. "I know this mission has put a lot of stress on you, but, Eugene-- we're in this together. We have been since the start. If we go in there, then we go in there with the intention to come out victorious."

He was quiet for a moment before nodding, reaching over to pull her into a hug. She sucked in a surprised breath at the contact, but after a while, he felt her squeeze him back.

"Thank you, Cass." He pulled back. "For everything."

"No problem, Eugene." She smiled once more at him before turning back towards the Tree. "Now, we'd better catch up, or they're gonna go in without us, and someone has to keep an eye on Lance and Varian."

He laughed. "You're right. Lead the way."



_____



“Vex!” Varian huffed out before doubling over, heaving for breath. “How-- long-- have you been here?”

“Around two hours,” Adira answered for Vex, face remaining flat and strict even as she fluidly dodged Lance’s attempt to embrace her. “We would have been here sooner, had the Spire been inhabited by a better guide. The one we had was less than ideal for her job.”

“Less than ideal? She was a walking mouth with more ego than brains,” Vex rolled her eyes before sighing, from melting from her lips and reforging itself into a smile. “We managed, though. How about you guys?”

Images of Lumbard’s Pass and guard-infested Pincosta flashed through his mind, and Varian tilted his head back and forth. “Ehh, there were some difficulties. But we all lived!”

“I can see that,” Vex shook her head, giving a soft little chuckle, and glanced over his head at the hill beyond. “What’s keeping Fish Skin and Short-Hair?”

Varian looked over his shoulder, shrugging. “Dunno. It looks like they’re coming now, though.”

“They’d better hurry,” Adira spoke up. “The longer we wait, the more strength our opponent will gather. There’s also… other threats present here, and I’d rather not stand out in the open if possible.”

“Whatever it is, I trust you to take care of it,” Lance clasped his hands behind his back, large smile lighting up his face. “And besides, if you can’t, I can always pick up the slack. They called me Lance the Great back in prison, you know.”

“And I call you Earrings.” Adira didn’t even look at him. “Now, please, I’d like some peace before I’m expected to deal with Fish Skin and Short-Hair.”

Lance put his hands up, still grinning. “Okay, okay, I gotcha. You like to take things slow.”

“She doesn’t like to take them at all, idiot,” Vex piped up.

The bickered for a little while, and Varian tuned them out, turning to watch the rest of their little group come down the hill. Fancy and Stelle arrived first, with Ruddiger riding in Stelle’s saddle; he greeted his animals while Vex broke off arguing long enough to pet and talk to the horses she’d helped steal. He watched her with a contemplative smile; she was a completely different person with animals than she was with people.

“Sorry we fell back,” Cassandra’s voice drew his attention, and he looked up to see Eugene, Cassandra, Maximus, and Fidella approaching them. Something seemed different about Eugene-- he stood straighter, a little less weight to his step.

Adira didn’t answer her. Instead, she stepped up towards the archways, clasping her hands behind her back and staring up at a bronze carving of a head hanging above the middle one. It stared down at them from behind huge, curling horns, and Varian couldn’t help but feel as if it were judging them all.

“This is the Great Tree,” she began, turning her eyes down to the dark pathway in front of her. "Millennia ago, this tree was a sentient being: a force for good. But it was corrupted by the evil sorcerer to destroy any who approached it. It was a great stronghold: inside it, Zhan Tiri was invincible.”

She turned, taking in their alarmed expressions, and allowed a small smile. “But Lord Demanitus put a stop to the tree's magic, using an enchanted spear. So you see, you have nothing to fear. The evil magic is long gone. More importantly, you're with me."

“Yeah, that makes me feel safe,” Cassandra muttered, then shook her head. “So we just need to go in there, find them, and get the princess back?”

“Indeed.” She turned away from them, walking into the Tree. “But be wary: the witch is not our only threat. One of the Brotherhood took up residence here in order to guard the path to the Dark Kingdom, and should he see me, he will catch on to what I’m trying to do.”

“And… what happens if he catches on?” Lance asked, a note of fear in his voice.

Adira cut her eyes back to him. “He kills you all.”

Something deep inside Varian twisted at that. It was one thing to be told that there would be danger, but it was another to see Adira speaking with such force. The rest of them must’ve felt it, too; they all fell silent, casting one another apprehensive glances.

One by one, stomachs twisting and steps heavy with trepidation, they followed her in.

The inside of the tree was a massive chamber, bursting with lush plant life and speckled with flowers of all colors. Above them, a huge spiraling staircase reached up so far that it faded from perception, and light filtered in to cast everything in odd, sprawling shadows.

Something caught his eye just in time, and Varian gasped when he saw Ruddiger reaching for some kind of berry bush-- over a gaping chasm. He sprang into motion, just barely managing to catch Ruddiger around his middle before the raccoon took a plunge.

“Don’t do that, buddy,” he clutched Ruddiger to his chest, peering into the chasm below. It was so deep he couldn’t see the bottom, like a huge bowl some great giant had filled with liquid shadow. Tiny green plants sprouted along its sides, little splashes of green against the rich earth; otherwise, it seemed featureless, just an infinite pitfall.

That is, until he looked straight down, coming face-to-face with a man.

Varian screamed, tripping in his haste to get back. Instead of trying to get up, he just shuffled backward in a crab-walk, breaths yanking at his chest and fear making his mind freeze up. He could feel the hands, hear the worried voices, but it was a few moments before he could pay attention to any of them. That face-- it hadn’t been natural. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.

Vex said something to Adira, who frowned, stalking towards the chasm. She peered down for a second or two before raising a hand to her mouth.

“What is it?” Cassandra’s voice finally broke through the haze, and Varian shivered as he came back to awareness. Her hand was clenched tight on his shoulder, fingers digging in with tense concern.

“Stay here,” Adira ordered instead of answering, drawing her sword. “And ready your weapons, just in case.”

They watched her leap over the edge, powerful body clinging to the wall as she climbed down, and the group turned to Varian. “What did you see?” Vex asked, lowering herself in front of him. Her eyes gleamed with a mix of curiosity, fear, and concern-- things that didn’t seem like they belonged on her.

It took a second for Varian to find his voice. “It-- it was a man, I think,” he started, swallowing. “He was stuck in the wall-- like it had halfway swallowed him or something.”

“What did he look like? Was he dead?” Lance glanced towards where Adira had descended, worry making his brows crease.

“I…”

Adira chose that moment to resurface, face a solemn mask as she hefted something-- someone -- over her shoulder. With a grunt, she tossed him to the ground like a sack of grain, rolling him over with a boot to expose his face.

It was even worse up here in the light. The man was pale-- sickly pale, like the color of salt-- and sweat ran down his forehead in glittering streams. Veins, prominent and blue, lanced through his skin like spiderwebs. His eyes were half-open, but what Varian could see of them were empty, like lime-yellow glass. They were framed by greasy, brittle hair that almost looked to be greying. His body, garbed in thick furs and decorated with the same odd symbol that Adira had on her hand, was thin and frail, white and lined with the same blue veins that spread across his face.

Other than the sweat and shallow breathing, he looked dead-- and like he’d been that way for a while. 

“Hector,” Adira whispered, prodding his chest with a boot. She kept her sword clenched in one hand, but her grip was slack, and the unease on her features made Varian shiver. “Brother. Wake up.”

Vex frowned, shifting over to sit next to the man instead. Adira started to warn her against it, but stopped as soon as Vex reared back and smacked him across the face.

Varian stared, somewhat in awe, as she studied the man’s reaction. Finding a slight twitch to be unsatisfactory, she did it again, the thwack loud enough to echo throughout the hollow. The man began to stir this time, fingers curling just enough for them to see, and Vex reached for her necklace. Unclasping it, she took hold of her Vexoleum vial, shaking it to activate the liquid and waving it in front of his eyes.

A few seconds passed without any reaction, but eventually, he groaned, squeezing his eyes closed and raising a weak hand to swat it away.

“Hector,” Adira repeated, dropping to her knees as well. Vex drew back, returning to Varian’s side, and slipped her necklace back on. They both watched, enraptured, as Adira shook the man by his shoulder.

“Adira?” he rasped out, eyes finally fluttering open. He squinted at her, head tilting as if trying to make sense of what he was seeing. “Is that you?”

“It’s me.” Now that he was awake, the softness in her voice vanished, replaced by a cold and impersonal edge. “What happened here?”

He coughed, pushing himself up on his elbows, and cast a glance over to the rest of them. Vivid eyes, nearly fluorescent in their intensity, swept over their group. “Who’re all of you?”

“They’re with me.” Adira grabbed him by the arm now, brows furrowing. “Hector, what happened here ?”

He stared at her for a second, blinking as if trying to recover his memories. Then his eyes shot open, whole body stiffening. “The witch. Sundrop. Adira-- Adira, you were right the whole time. I saw her come in here, saw her sing to the girl--”

“You saw Rapunzel?” Eugene pushed forward, an authoritative tone leaking into his voice. “Where? Where is she now?”

Hector regarded him with a sweeping glance, then shook his head, turning back to Adira. Varian winced, feeling the anger radiate off of Eugene at being snubbed, but there was nothing any of them could do. “The Sundrop is real, and it’s in the possession of a servant of Zhan Tiri.”

“We know that already. What you need to tell us is where they went.”

“Where they--” A sudden hacking cough cut him off, making him writhe on the ground until the fit subsided. When he regained his breath, Hector swallowed, looking up with widened eyes at the spiral staircase above. “The last thing I remember… is seeing her walking towards the stairs. If she’s anywhere, she’ll be at the crest.”

“Thank you, Hector.” Adira offered him a small smile, rising back to her feet.

“Don’t thank me. It’s insulting.” Hector curled in on himself, barely staving off another coughing fit. “I’ve already been used as fertilizer for days on end. I don’t need you standing over me any longer than you have to.”

Adira’s lips twisted into a frown, eyes narrowing down at him. “You still treat me as an enemy, even after seeing the Sundrop’s power?”

“Anyone wishing to return to the Dark Kingdom, much less bring a group of outsiders, is a traitor to King Edmund. I’ll put up with you hunting down that crazed hag, but no more.” Hacking once more, Hector spat, a glistening glob catching in the grass by her feet. 

Something hot and stinging struck Varian, and he felt Vex tense beside him, teeth grinding in anger. Lance started forward, fists clenching; Max snorted his disapproval; even Cassandra and Eugene seemed taken aback. Disrespecting Adira in such a way was simply… not something one did.

But Adira remained stoic, closing her eyes and taking in a deep breath. When she opened them again, her gaze was cool. Impersonal. “Then there is nothing more to be said.”

Kicking him aside, she gestured for the others to follow her, eyes turning to the staircase. “Come. Let’s find the Sundrop.”



_____



A slow scritch-scratch filled the tiny chamber, bouncing off its walls and whispering in Rapunzel’s ears. The paintbrush was frayed, its edge splintering and losing brittle old bristles with every stroke, and yet she still painted.

The sheets of soft inner tree bark lay around her like the pages of a destroyed book, filled to the margin with aimless lines and smudges. Paint dotted the ground in little dribbles where their pots had cracked. Colors mixed and melded until the entirety of the corner she’d pushed herself into was a confusing mess of pigments, drowned in the green glow of the Heart.

Mother’s voice exploded from the other side of the chamber, and Rapunzel flinched, her scalp tingling with phantom pain at the sound. She was shouting something about a Zhan Tiri and the rocks and something else-- something Rapunzel either couldn’t hear or couldn’t understand. She didn’t know anymore. Rapunzel was only glad it wasn’t directed at her this time.

Scritch-scritch-scritch. Pascal was on her shoulder, making his little concerned noises. She couldn’t pay attention to him. She had to focus on the paints. They were all she had.

No one was coming.

Scritch-scritch. She dragged the brush in a sweeping arc, purple cutting through five layers of not-yet-dried paint, and a silent pop made her gasp. The paintbrush clattered off the floor, rolling around next to her feet, and she clutched her shaking right wrist. It had been getting weaker all day; it seemed she’d finally painted until she could paint no more.

Rapunzel fell back, empty eyes gazing up at the pinprick of light above them, and wondered what had become of that black-haired man who’d fought Mother. Perhaps he had survived. Perhaps he was on his way… to rescue her…

But then, why wasn’t he here?

No one was coming.

Rapunzel felt so heavy. Her bones were lead, dragging her down towards the earth; her hair was one long, golden chain, a leash for Mother to yank on when she saw fit or just wanted to iron away a wrinkle. Never before had her powers drained her, but it was unmistakable: there was something different about how Mother used her now, a sharp edge that cut into her, left her breathless and fragile.

For just a moment, she thought she saw a shadow above-- something moving, someone looking down.

But that was silly.

No one was coming.

Rapunzel raised her left hand and painted some more.



_____



Lance rubbed his chin, looking between the two clusters of flowers. Which should he choose-- red or blue? Long, swooping, elegant petals, or a bunch of tiny featherlike ones? Then again, these were only two; the long pathway they were walking through was filled to bursting with flowers. There was quite possibly an even better one out there.

Shrugging, he reached out, plucking them both. Lance stood up, turning around and jogging a few steps to catch up with Eugene. “Hey, do you think Adira would like these?”

Eugene sighed, rubbing the back of his head. “Listen, Lance--” he was cut off by Lance shoving the flowers at him, running off to gather more. Rolling his eyes, Eugene cleared his throat, even as he watched the flowers in his arms grow to a pile. "About the whole Adira thing… have you considered the possibility that maybe-- big maybe!-- Adira might not be into… ahem. Might not be interested in you at all?"

"Not… interested? Of course she is! Look at me!" Lance raised his arms, flexing, with the biggest grin he could muster. "What's not to love?"

"Adira's not interested, buddy," Vex rolled her eyes as she passed them, Varian in tow. "Now come on , you're falling behind."

" We're falling behind?" Eugene asked incredulously, a few flowers falling to the ground.

Lance scoffed, sweeping up the flowers and putting them back in Eugene's arms. "Don't pin this on us. You two hang back all the time. I see things."

Vex snarled, shoulders squaring, and marched up to Lance. She jabbed a finger at him, trying her best to be intimidating despite only coming up to chest height. "And what's that supposed to mean, ya big oaf?"

Varian tried to pull her back, muttering something about going easy on him. Lance let out a dramatic gasp, hand splayed over his heart. "Who are you calling an oaf, little gremlin? I am elegance personified."

"Guys," Varian panted, finally managing to get Vex to back off a few steps. "Did the woods and the snake mean nothing to you two?"

Eugene dropped the flowers. "Wait, what snake? What're you talking about?"

"Nothin'," Vex squinted at Lance. "Fact remains that you're holding us up, so if we're done here, then…" 

She turned around, deflating when she saw nothing but two identical archways. No Cassandra, no Adira, no animals. "Aaand we've lost them."

"Well, it's a fifty-fifty chance that we'll go through the right one, isn't it?" Varian tried to sound upbeat as he approached the arches, the rest of them following at a more sedate pace. "I mean, either that, or we could split up…"

"No way we're splitting up even further." Eugene sighed, rubbing at his chin as he looked down both paths. No end in sight-- just inky darkness. "It's just a tree, right? They can't be that far away with the horses. We'll meet back up eventually. Let's just… go left."

"Hope you're right," Lance murmured, a sentiment that rang true for all of them as they followed Eugene deeper into the Tree.



_____



Stelle did not like the Great Tree.

Back in the brighter, more lush parts, it hadn't been so bad. But here, in a dark corridor lined with cold metal suits of armor and suffocating stone walls, Stelle couldn't help but feel as if something was terribly off. There was something heavy and dark in the air, a cloying feeling that she wasn't familiar with.

' You can feel it too?' Ruddiger chittered from his place in her saddle. He brushed his little fingers through her mane, something Varian had discovered calmed her down a while ago.

' Do you know what it is?'  Stelle nickered, arching her neck in an attempt to look at him.

' No,'  Ruddiger sounded contemplative. ' Do you feel it, Maximus?"

'We all do, little rodent,' Fidella's reply wasn't unkind, but it did give the implication that she thought Ruddiger to be a bit dumb. 'It's magic, the same sort that used to run rampant in Corona before King Frederic stamped it out.'

' We would do well to keep on our guard,' Maximus tossed his mane, looking back at them. ' And we must watch each others' backs. If we were to split up-- wait, where is my rider?'

Stelle's eyes widened, and she turned around, searching the hallway. There was nothing. ' Where is my foal!?'

' And my kind rider,' Fancy's normally soft voice was loud with worry. ' They've all disappeared! '

' Do not panic,' Maximus demanded, eyeing Ruddiger, who had begun pulling at his ears as a human would their hair. Casting a look to Cassandra and Adira, still walking and none the wiser, he flicked his ears. ‘Fidella and one of you will stay with the humans. Whichever doesn’t go will come with me to find the strays.’

‘I’ll go,’ Stelle whinnied. ‘Fancy gets scared without any humans around. I will accompany you, Captain.’

‘And me!’ Ruddiger cut in. ‘I’m finding my human!’

‘Very well.’ Maximus tossed his mane once more, this time as a signal to turn back. ‘All of you, come with me, and do not wander off. Fancy and Fidella, stay with the humans in case they need you to make an escape.’

‘Of course, Captain,’ Fancy stepped aside to allow them passage. Fidella seemed a little more perturbed at being ordered around, but she didn’t protest.

‘Then we’ll be off. Wish us luck.’

As Stelle followed Maximus back through the way they’d come, the feeling returned even stronger, a crash of darkness over her spirit. Something was lurking in the depths of this place, and sooner or later, it would come after them.

Stelle did not like the Great Tree.



_____



Cassandra winced when the light hit her eyes.

It wasn’t an unwelcome change, but she had grown used to the dark, winding corridor filled to the brim with stands of ancient armor. This new chamber was bright and grassy, and what few wildflowers dotted the ground flourished. They grew thickest around a shallow pond in the room’s center, along with a few skinny trees laden with broad, emerald leaves. The stone walls around them gave Cassandra the feeling of a secret garden of sorts, a little hideaway to find peace in.

That is, until her gaze landed on the carvings in the wall.

She and Adira approached it with both a sense of awe and caution; even Adira, who’d probably already seen this before, was struck silent. There was something mesmerizing about the sun and crescent moon, side by side, drawings of little droplets flowing under them and a river of glyphs dancing around the whole picture.

“Hey, Varian, what’s the chances of you being able to… read…” Horror struck her when she turned around and met only Fidella and Fancy. “Varian? Eugene? Lance?”

“It seems they got turned around,” Adira said in her mysterious, emotionless way, though Cassandra had been around her long enough to tell when she was hiding feelings-- especially worry. “Vex seems to be gone, as well… as are two of the horses.”

“How could they have lost us?” Cassandra groaned, lifting her eyes towards the heavens. “We stuck together the whole way through the Tree! How stupid do you have to be to get lost like this?”
“My squire is many things, but stupid is not one of them.” Adira clasped her hands behind her back. “I was… dubious about accepting her in, especially considering I no longer have a home to properly train her in, as the old knights did, but she is a skilled and sharp young woman. I trust her to make the correct decisions.”

“Yeah, well, you can do whatever you want. My friends are gone in this labyrinth of a tree. I’m not satisfied with any flowery speech about trust you can give.”

“I wasn’t asking you to be.” Adira turned her back on Cassandra, walking over to a large shelf someone had mounted to the wall left of all the carvings. Drawing out a scroll, she offered it to Cassandra, an odd frown on her lips.

She took it warily, eyeing Adira once more before rolling it open. She was met with a copy of the carvings, but this time, some of the glyphs had been translated into letters she could understand; as she read, she realized it was some kind of a poem, or a song.

“Flower, gleam and glow… what does it mean?”

"No one is sure, but many have perished trying to unravel its mystery."

“That’s… nice.” Cassandra scanned over the song again. Something was familiar about it-- like she’d seen or heard it somewhere. Perhaps back in the castle, or maybe in a storybook somewhere, or…

A face flashed in her memory-- pale, with high cheekbones, shrouded in a curtain of wavy onyx hair and a smug little tilt to her lips. Cassandra froze, stomach flipping, as the woman’s voice filtered back into her memory-- a haunting melody, accompanied with a golden glow that lit up the forest around it.

The witch had sung it.



_____



"Cass? Cass, are you in here?" Eugene called, cupping his hands over his mouth.

“Adira?” Vex added her own voice, laced with a little desperation. She hated feeling dependent towards anyone, but over these past few weeks or so, she’d really grown fond of Adira; the woman was almost like a guardian to her. “Adira, please, if you’re in here, answer!”

“We must’ve gone down the wrong path,” Varian tapped a knuckle to his chin. “We might need to turn--”

Lance lunged past him, startling Varian and cutting off his sentence. He crouched down in front of a strange-looking flower, then glanced over his shoulder. “Hey, Vex, would Adira be interested if I gave her this?"

Vex crossed her arms, raising an unimpressed brow. “Adira isn’t interested in anyone , bud. Besides, that’s not even bloomed yet.”

As if on cue, the flower popped open, emitting a cloud of orange pollen straight into Lance’s face. He blinked for a second, coughing, as the others laughed at him. He joined in, first chuckling under his breath and then going to a full-on, frame-shaking guffaw.

Except when their laughter died down, his only increased.

“Uh, buddy?” Eugene took a tentative step towards him. “It really wasn’t that funny.”

Lance fell back, hands clutched to his stomach. “Eugene, have I ever told you you’re like a brother to me?” he wheezed out, eyes unfocused.

“Lance, be serious,” Eugene took a step towards his friend, about to help him up, when two more flowers snaked up towards his face. He had a split second to panic before both of them sprayed him, too, and he dissolved into laughter beside his friend.

“Uh,” Varian’s fingers tightened around Vex’s arm as he hid behind her. “What’s-- what’s happening to them?”

“I don’t know,” Vex murmured, reaching for the handles of her shotels. “But whatever it is, we can’t-- Varian, watch out!”

She pushed back, ignoring the pained yelp he gave when they both fell to the ground, orange cloud puffing out where their heads had just been. Vex grabbed his shoulders, yanking him up, and drew her blades. “Get your pink goo bombs and whatever else you can throw at these… things.”

Varian glanced towards Lance and Eugene as he dug around in his alchemy bag. They’d found their feet by now, and were singing way off-key about buddies and ears and something else. “It’s like they’re hallucinating or something!”

“All the more reason to not get hit!” Vex grunted, lopping off three blooms before they could spray her. They tumbled to the ground, pollen dusting the grass under her feet. The telltale pink fumes of Varian’s adhesive bombs filled the air, and she caught a glimpse of several plants struggling in a prison of goop. No matter how many they cut and trapped, through, there always seemed to be more.

“Where are these things coming from?” Varian panted, looking over to Eugene and Lance. They were running toward each other now, acting as if they were trying to hug, but never managed to line up just right. "Guys! Snap out of it and help us--"

In his distraction, a flower managed to shoot up to his face, orange pollen puffing into his face.

Vex’s eyes widened when Varian started to giggle. She looked over her shoulder, huffing when she saw him stumbling around, and raised a hand to slap him hard across the face. “Hey! Don’t go down on me now!”

“What was that for?” Varian rubbed his cheek, then went right back to laughing. “That hurt!”

“Yeah, and I’ll do it again if you don’t-- gah !” She swung her shotels, cutting through another flower, but she was too slow. Just before her blades made contact, it spat out another cloud, and orange filled her vision. She coughed, wheezing, as pollen forced itself into her lungs, making her whole chest tingle and burn.

Then something clicked in her brain, and it was the funniest thing she’d ever felt. Laughter bubbled up within her and escaped through her lips, and she couldn’t do anything about it. Was the grass always that hilarious shade of green? Did her swords always gleam in that funny way? Did Varian’s hair always look like licorice candy?

“Hey, Vex, you’re my best friend ever,” Varian’s voice brought her back into focus. “Did I ever tell you that?”

She laughed at him. “No! That’s… the lamest thing ever.”

“You’re right,” he wheezed, the ceaseless giggling finally dying down a little. In the corner of her mind, Vex realized that something was crawling around them-- snakes or vines or something-- but for some reason, she didn’t care. “What about this: I named a compound after you.”

“That’s even lamer,” she cackled, reaching forward to pinch his nose. “You’re such a big fat nerd .”

“Well, you’re such a mean street urchin,” he tried to pout, but the sound of his voice-- nasally, as if he had a stuffy nose-- made them both giggle, and she let go. “But you’re a really cool one.”

“Aww, do I have to say somethin’ nice now?” Vex grumbled, head tipping back as the world spun around her. Was she upside down? Were those vines around her ankles…? Eh. It didn’t matter. "Ah, I guess you're not that bad. I like your freckles. And your aunt. She's nice."

"Yeah… the aunt Lance keeps making a pass at." Varian wrinkled his nose, glancing over at the still-dancing Eugene and Lance in the distance. "Wait, if… if Adira likes him back… will that make Lance my uncle?"

They were silent for a moment, pondering that possibility. Then they made eye contact, and it was all over. Their laughter filled the chamber, bouncing off the walls.

Underneath them, a gargantuan flower opened like a gaping maw.



_____



"There's another incantation here," Cass murmured, tracing a finger down the scroll. "Wither and decay… this doesn't sound good."

"No." Adira gently lifted the scroll from her hands, eyes scanning the parchment. "It's a foil for the Sundrop."

"Like a mirror?”

Adira tilted her head. "I suppose so… but if it’s a mirror, then it’s a broken one."

"Wither and decay…” Something clicked, and Cass looked up at the carvings covering the wall. The sun, and the moon, both dripping to the earth below... “Wait, if the princess is the Sundrop, does that mean there's a Moondrop, too?"

Adira went strangely quiet at this, as if weighing something heavy in her mind. Finally she sighed, handing the rolled-up scroll back to Cassandra. "Yes. Do you remember the Dark Kingdom I told you about?"

Cassandra nodded.

"The Moonstone resides there. It's the source of all these black rocks, and now that it has sensed your Princess, it will not stop pursuing her until she unites with it."

It took a moment for Cassandra to process that. "You mean… she has to go there if she doesn't want to be chased all her life?"

Adira narrowed her eyes, a look that made something leaden settle in Cassandra’s chest. "Or if she doesn't want her kingdom ripped to shreds."



_____



"Haha, can you two believe we're about to get eaten by a flower?" Eugene grinned at the other three, hands waving in the air under them. His head was beginning to pound, blood roaring in his ears.

Vex cackled, shaking both herself and Varian. "Too bad I have to go out with you weirdos!"

"That just hurts," Lance struggled to speak, he was so out of breath from laughing. "If it makes you feel any better, Eugene, there is nobody else I'd rather get eaten with."

"I don't wanna get eaten with you guys," Varian laughed at first, but it petered off, and he squinted down at the flower. Something passed through his eyes. "...I… I haven't made anybody proud yet. I can't get eaten."

Vex’s smile disappeared, and she reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. Eugene tilted his head, trying to make sense of why the kids weren’t happy anymore, when a high-pitched chitter caught his attention. Everyone looked up to see Ruddiger pawing at them, delicately balanced on top of the vines. 

“Burglar cat!” Lance called out, giddy. “What’re you doing here?”

Ruddiger didn’t respond, climbing down the vines to perch atop Varian’s feet. Ignoring the boy’s greeting, he tugged at the vines around Varian’s ankles. When they didn’t budge, he growled, then turned around and screeched.

Maximus and Stelle appeared next to the flower, both of them whinnying and nickering. The animals communicated for a second before Vex, growing impatient, nudged Ruddiger with her foot. "Hey, Ruddiger! Pal! Look in Varian's bag and get some of those… science thingies," she called out. "I think the plant wants a snack."

He chittered, crawling down Varian’s legs. When he got to his torso, Varian shouted something about being ticklish before laughing and nearly throwing Ruddiger off. With a soft grumbling chitter, Ruddiger smacked him, continuing down until he was hanging off his arm.

With nimble fingers, he reached down, grabbing hold of the bag’s leather straps and pulling it up. He plunged one paw into its depths, rummaging around for a second, and came back up holding a gray orb. Screeching down at the flower, he lobbed it into the center, not even waiting for it to land before reaching in for another.

 A boom shook the air, and Lance crowed, “Another one! Another one!”

Ruddiger squeaked, and another gray bomb fell into the flower, the blast ripping through one of its powerful petals. The vines shook and writhed as if in pain.

“Ooh, do a pink one!” Eugene called.

“Red!” Vex cackled.

“Green!”

“Blue!”


“Another gray one!”

“Do red again!”

Ruddiger finally just started pulling them out by the armful, color erupting from the plant like sprays of lava. Maximus and Stelle ran around its base, trying to get under the swaying humans and whinnying up at them as if trying to call out something. Meanwhile, everyone just kept laughing down at the flower, with Vex making rude gestures and Lance sticking his tongue out while singing taunts.

Then three gray bombs fell all at once, and a groan went through the entire cavern. The floor cracked under what remained of the plant, crumbling underneath it, and finally gave way. The world fell out from under them as everything collapsed; Eugene’s heart jumped into his throat and his stomach did somersaults, but it was all just too hilarious for him to care--

A jolt went through all of them as they collapsed into the mangled flower, dust settling around them. Eugene rubbed the back of his head, still fighting off stray chortles, and Lance sat up, staring ahead with unfocused eyes. 

"Oh, hey, Adira," Lance slurred. Eugene just managed to force out one last laugh before he fell back and everything went dark.



_____



Hector’s breath rattled in his chest, and his limbs burned at every movement. His head swam and his stomach clenched, flopping every time he took a step. And yet, he forged on, a bearcat on each side for support.

Strength was slowly returning to him, little by little. The Great Tree had nearly sapped the last of his energy-- if it hadn’t been for Adira, he’d be an empty husk by now.

The thought of Adira alone made his blood boil. Not even the lush, colorful vegetation padding the Great Tree’s lower sectors could calm the anger welling inside; nothing could drive away his disdain for a traitor to the Dark Kingdom. He had seen the party she brought along, with their swords and battle-ready horses. She could claim all she wanted that they were just here for the Sundrop. He knew what they were here for, and he wasn’t going to stand for it.

He’d help them until the witch was dead. Then his promise was back in effect. Only together, two elite knights united, could they hope to oppose a servant of Zhan Tiri; it was simply necessary.

But after that? Adira was no longer on his side. She was a wayward sister; at least Quirin had the good sense to withdraw to someplace neutral, to lead a private life uninvolved with matters of magic. But she… she had signed her death warrant the moment she left the Dark Kingdom.

And Hector was determined to fulfill it.



______



A collective groan went through the entire group as they practically fell over the last step, boots clicking on the cool black stone floor. Varian’s whole body shook, unused to such strenuous exercise, and even Eugene was short of breath. Adira, in her usual fashion, was unruffled as she strode further onto the platform, but she was the only one; it took Vex a while before she could muster the strength to join her in her rigid stance at the platform’s edge.

“Halfway!” Varian cheered, pumping his fist into the air two seconds before he collapsed against the far wall. Ruddiger rushed into his lap, purring-- a sound that only encouraged his newfound drowsiness.

Nobody else seemed to share his enthusiasm. Lance fell back against the wall for support, while Eugene sat, glancing over the edge into the solid blackness below. “Wheeew, that is a long way down.”

“I don’t get it,” Cassandra crossed her arms and turned toward Adira, lips twisting in a dubious frown. “Your friend said they’d be here. This is the top, right?”

“It is.” Adira spoke coolly, eyes darting across their surroundings. “Hector might have lied, or the witch may have moved… or maybe she tricked him. There is no way to know.”

Eugene’s eyes snapped over to them, and he rose to his feet, jaw clenching. “You mean we just wasted this entire day?”

“Don’t act like it’s my fault, Fish Skin.” Adira clasped her hands behind her back. “Remember, the witch isn’t moving. All is not lost quite yet.”

“Maybe you can say that,” Eugene yelled, fists clenching. Vex glanced between the two of them, then made the wise decision to back away slowly this time. “But you know what? Rapunzel is stuck with her, wasting away every second we spend wandering this place! We don’t know what could happen to her or what she’s going through this very moment!”

“That’s right,” Cassandra joined in, stepping up beside Eugene. “We’ve risked everything to go on this mission, and the Princess is finally within our grasp. Why would you listen to that Hector guy if you think he’s untrustworthy!? I mean, he spit at your feet!”

“I believe Hector knows his priorities. I have known for many years how he feels about me, but that should not change how he handles such a delicate situation as this.”

“Obviously, he didn’t!” Cassandra gestured at the empty platform around them. “Do you see a witch or a princess here?”

“No, I see a few tired friends and two loudmouths who need someone to blame.” Adira turned her back on them. “I’m through talking about this. We’ll rest here and continue down the other path when we can. In the meantime, Vex, we’ve been letting your training slip.”

Varian let out a breath as the argument dissolved, and Ruddiger chittered up at him. He glanced down, feeling a tiny smile lift the corner of his mouth. “What’s wrong? Did their arguing bother you?”

Ruddiger pawed at his hand, chittering, and his smile evaporated. “Yeah, me too. It’s just… not fun, watching people fight, is it?”

“...Did we upset you, kid?” Varian startled at the sound of Eugene’s voice, fingers digging into Ruddiger’s hide. Eugene rubbed the back of his neck, then sighed, sliding down the wall to sit beside Varian. “Sorry.”

“It’s--it’s not a problem,” Varian laughed sheepishly, shifting to give him more room. “I, um… I was just talking to Ruddiger. No big deal.”

Eugene raised a brow at him. “Kid, no one talks like that if they don’t mean it.”

“He’s right,” Lance scooted up on Varian’s other side, surprising them both. “I mean, I talk to Fancy all the time when I feel like no one else will listen. She’s a great listener.”

When Varian fell silent, Eugene let out a long breath through his nose, staring down at the floor. “Look, it’s just… hard for me to be level-headed when I know Rapunzel is suffering. You know, when you love someone-- really, really love someone, whether it be a romantic partner or someone you see as family… everything changes when that person is in trouble. The world blurs and nothing but them and their wellbeing is ever in focus.”

“Wow, how long have you been putting together that one?” Lance laughed, reaching across Varian to flick Eugene on the arm. “Such profound words coming from the devious Flynn Rider.”

They devolved into a mess of squabbling, but Varian wasn’t listening anymore. Eugene’s words rang in his ears, a truth that he’d never really thought about before. What would he be like, if someone he loved was in peril? He liked to think he was intelligent enough to be sensible, but then, he’d always been reckless… 

He watched Vex and Adira go through their routine moves, almost hypnotic in their fluid precision, and stroked Ruddiger’s fur. It was strange to think about. What if one of his friends were to find themselves in Rapunzel’s situation, kept helpless and in danger? Eugene, or Cassandra, or Lance, or Vex?

Ruddiger’s purring started up again, and Varian felt his eyelids grow heavy. Despite the men arguing right in his ears, the stress of the day was finally creeping upon him, making everything droop and slow down. Adira was right; if they wanted to keep going, they needed some rest.

Maybe that would fix everything, he thought. Maybe, when he woke up and everyone had gotten some sleep, spirits would be a little higher.

Varian yawned. That’s all everyone needed.

Just a little sleep.



_____



Cassandra sighed, blade cutting through the air as she twirled it between her fingers. The platform had finally gone quiet after Adira and her little ‘squire’ finally got done with their yoga poses or whatever it was, leaving her to walk around in silence. Everyone but her was asleep; Lance’s snores echoed off the Great Tree’s enormous interior and she could hear Maximus nickering in his sleep as if having a dream.

The silence wasn’t exactly unwelcome. It gave her an opportunity to cool off and rethink everything, to shuffle through what they’d been through so far and what lay ahead.

Adira grated on her, but Cassandra had to admit, they wouldn’t have gotten this far without her. Did that mean she trusted her? Maybe. Adira had proven herself time and time again, so it would’ve been in poor taste for Cassandra to shut her out due to pure petty dislike. Eugene understood; they’d talked about her before, contemplated just how much stock they should put in what the woman told them.

As a matter of fact, Eugene understood a lot of things about Cassandra. She would’ve never admitted this a short two months or so ago, but they were very similar people. Cassandra got the feeling that, had they not met under circumstances that required them to work together from the very beginning, they would’ve butted heads a lot more. It was the type of relationship two siblings very close in age often shared-- just enough similarities and differences that they didn’t quite fit together, like two puzzle pieces of the same shape. She found herself glad that they met like they did; he was, and would always be, one of her closest confidants.

Cassandra sighed, sword gleaming as she did a few practice swings. It had been too long since she’d used it in real combat. When was the last time she’d honestly fought someone? Vardaros? Maybe, if she was feeling more agreeable in the morning, Adira would consent to a friendly sparring match. Cassandra was willing to bet she could learn a lot from a so-called Dark Kingdom knight.

Something caught her eye, and she squinted down at the blade. There, in its edge, the reflection of four bright, yellow eyes stared back at her from the shadows. Her heartbeat picked up, every muscle in her body tensing with anticipation, as she counted down. The eyes blinked at her, shifting in the darkness, and Cassandra whipped around, blade singing through the air.

A shock ran up her arms when it was blocked.

“There’s no need for that,” Hector rasped, withdrawing the blade back into its socket. It was a strange weapon, like a sword but extendable and sheathed along his forearm. “I’m not here to attack you. Only to tell you that something has changed.”

“What’s wrong, Hector?” Adira’s voice came from behind her, and Cassandra startled, stepping back and gripping the hilt of her sword. “What’s changed?”

The two pairs of eyes slunk forward, twin animals-- some kind of bizarre cross between a monkey, a bear, and a cat-- materialized to flank Hector protectively. Hector reached down to pet one, never breaking eye contact with Adira. “The witch tricked me. I saw something back down in the chasm-- the black rocks are carving a path down to the tree’s heart, following the Sundrop. She’s hunkering in the depths.”

“She’s planning something,” Adira murmured, fists clenching at her sides. 

“Indeed. I believe her intent is to free--”

The earth shook.

Everyone startled awake, with Lance yelling about caviar and Varian shouting something about what Cassandra could only assume were chemical equations. Eugene shot up in an instant, eyes roaming the platform before landing on the three of them. She shook her head at him, and he frowned, glaring at Hector as if it were his fault.

“She’s coming,” Hector whispered, and everything was bathed in green.

Gigantic, glowing green vines slithered out from the chasm, winding around and around their little rest area. Maximus and Fidella both neighed, stomping to announce their alarm, as a cloud settled over them-- something heavy. Cassandra had never felt it before, but she knew what it was: magic. Dark, all-consuming, suffocating magic.

She lifted her sword, and Adira’s blade whistled on its way out of her sheath. Hector snarled under his breath, blades at the ready; his animals bared their teeth, tails sticking straight up. Vex ducked beside her mentor, shotels out and ready, while Eugene, Varian, and Lance all stood at the ready.

When she surfaced, it was like nothing they’d ever seen.

The witch was no longer human. Her skin glowed a bright, sickly green, and her eyes burned a hot white. Her crimson dress hung from her frame like loose drapery, hair an acid waterfall around her shoulders; when she smiled, it was with a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth.

And there, at her feet and wrapped in vines, a pale, rail-thin puppet of a girl, was the Princess.

“Rapunzel!” she heard Eugene cry, and that was all it took. She shouted, a high, angry war cry, and everyone rushed forward.

The vines struck at them, forming a writhing mass of green. Cassandra found her sword barely able to slice through their entire width; even when she succeeded in lopping off one, the stump remained alive, and there were more twisting around her like fat snakes. 

Adira and Hector worked together like a well-oiled machine, blades gleaming as they sang through the air. His animals were making decent progress, themselves; every stump their human left behind was soon chewed up, left too damaged to keep attacking. Eugene and Lance worked similarly, though with one being equipped with only a knife and one with no weapon at all, it wasn’t a surprise that they were being overtaken quickly. Maximus and Fidella tried their best to distract the vines away from them; Fancy and Stelle were just doing their best to stay out of harm’s way. Vex, meanwhile, stood guard over Varian as he dug through what was left of his alchemy orbs, muttering something under his breath and casting frequent, wide-eyed glances over at the witch.

“Children,” the witch cackled, haunting voice echoing throughout the Tree. Rapunzel stirred, face screwing up in pain. A tiny green lizard crawled up to her face, foot patting her cheek as if to say wake up . “All of you, just inexperienced children. This is Zhan Tiri’s home, and our sanctuary. Are your egos so large as to think you could stand up to a servant at her fullest potential? I am Gothel! I will not be stopped!”

There were a few shouted responses, but Cassandra shut them out, along with the witch’s ensuing laugh. This couldn’t keep going. Her dad always said that everyone, no matter how big or strong or powerful, had a weak spot, and fighting was just a way to stall them until it was found. What was Gothel’s weak point? Her Achilles heel?

Gothel leered down at them, flicking her wrist. The vines have a huge lurch, crawling even further up the platform and beginning up the walls as well. But there was also something else-- a spear, gleaming blue in the moonlight. It was launched just far enough in the air that it came down hard enough to pierce one of the vines, and when it did, brown bled from the puncture down into the rest of the vine, leaving it weak and shuddering.

The spear.

Cassandra nodded to herself, gritting her teeth. If she could just get to the spear, then she’d have her weak point. But then, how was she supposed to get that close? If only there was a ranged weapon she could use, cut past all the vines entirely…

Glancing around, she wove out of the cluster of vines that had surrounded her, scanning the perimeter for anything that could possibly help. Her eyes landed on Lance, still struggling even as Fidella tried to pull him from the vines’ grip, and she got an idea.

Cassandra took off running, leaping over the vines on her way over to Lance. She skidded to a stop as soon as she drew close enough, slicing through the vine holding him and tossing Lance her sword. 

He gasped out a thank-you, to which she grinned, giving him a nod. “Tell everyone that there’s a spear over there that can kill the vines. If this plan doesn’t work, we’ll fall back on that.”

She didn’t wait for affirmation, turning around to face Fidella. Cassandra reached for the crossbow, painfully aware of all the vines closing in on her as she worked with shaking fingers on each clasp. It took far too long to undo it all, but she managed, hefting her crossbow and smiling down at the vines. “Let’s see how your spirit friend likes arrows, hm?”

Cassandra loaded a bolt, raising the bow and peering through the sights. She found Gothel with little issue, a smirk playing on her lips. “Goodbye, witch.”

A gasp reached her ears just before she pulled the trigger. “No, Cassie, don’t! That’s not the right way, you’re going to--”

The trigger clicked.

Her vision erupted in smoke and flame.

The shock came first, a petrifying stillness to everything-- her limbs, her body, her breathing. And then the pain began.

Cassandra gasped, looking down at the hand she’d been using to aim the crossbow near the front. What met her wasn’t a hand-- at least, it didn’t look like one. The skin had been taken off entirely in some places, while the black leather of her glove had fused with it around the edges. Blood dripped to the floor below, collecting in a puddle, and she thought she even saw a sliver of white before bile raced up her throat and she fell to the ground. A scream ripped out of her as she cradled her hand, crossbow clattering, forgotten, to the floor.

Then there was a hand on her shoulder, hot breaths puffing against her face. “Oh-- Oh Cassie-- oh, I’m so, so sorry-- I, I, I promise I’ll fix it, I promise, oh man, this is all my--”

Her good hand swung up of its own accord to smack his hand away, but it ended up finding his face instead. Varian stumbled back, clutching his reddened cheek, and stared wide-eyed at her. Empathy wriggled at the edges of her mind, but the pain locked it away-- right now, all she could feel was a cold, defensive fury. “Why didn't you tell me you messed with it? Why would you do this to me!?

Vex caught him just in time as he stumbled back, breath speeding up until he was hyperventilating. He stared at Cassandra’s hand, mouth open, sounds spilling out but dying before they could become coherent words. All the while, he kept his hand over his cheek, even as tears poured down his face. “I-- Cas-- my-- bow-- sorry--”

Whatever he was trying to say got cut off when vines shot around their ankles, lifting them-- screaming all the while-- into the air.

She managed to blink through the quickly-forming haze, watching as the rest of their group got picked off one by one. Gothel’s laughter rang in her ears now, such a constant sound that Cassandra couldn’t tell when she actually heard it and when it was only in her head. Eugene was cursing worse than her dad did at guard recruits, and Lance was shouting something down towards Adira.

She closed her eyes for a brief moment, trying to regain her focus, but nothing was coming. Her hand throbbed, a pulsing reminder that this attack had gone very, very wrong. Their entire mission, all that travel and struggle and everything… just gone, like a leaf in the wind.

Then a shout cut through the air, and she opened her eyes.

Hector had the spear, and he was stabbing it over and over into the plant’s heart, glaring into Gothel’s eyes as he did so. All around them, the vines were dying, falling limp and brown and crumbling away into ash. She could feel her own vine weakening around her, strength fading from its green flesh, and soon she felt its grip slipping.

Gothel screeched as her prey wriggled from her grip, eyes glowing with a newfound fury. Her fingers curled into claws as she raised her hands, banshee’s scream ripping from her throat and tearing through the Tree. Magic burned around her in a crackling circle, singeing the very air, and a low hum resounded through Cassandra’s bones.

A shockwave of electric green swept out from her feet, colliding with Hector and sending him sprawling; the rest of them found themselves flung against the wall, and Cassandra’s hand cried out with pain. Tears forced their way out and she bit her lip so hard it bled, but nothing could stop the fiery agony racing through her veins and sinking into her spirit. The back of her hand, the one she’d hit Varian with, still stung like a thousand tiny needles were poking into her skin.

Finally, as the witch’s screaming turned once again to muddled words and breathless laughter, Cassandra hit her limit.

Her eyes slid closed.



_____



Rapunzel’s eyes fluttered open. Her vision was nothing but a colorful blur at first, like a painting she’d smudged and rubbed a sponge over. She blinked a couple of times, the weariness in her bones hitting full-force as her eyes refocused.

Then she gasped, and everything else fell away. “Eugene.”

Someone had come.

He was there-- wincing and grabbing at his torso like he’d been injured, or perhaps aggravated one from a time before, but there, whole and breathing and come to rescue her, with Maximus there by his side. There were others too, faces she didn’t recognize, but they warmed her heart just as much; there were people, real people, here to find her. To wrench her away from Mother’s grip, to take away the pain and the suffering and the fatigue.

Pascal chirped on her shoulder, and she reached up to run her fingers over his scaly back. That was enough to bring her back, to convince her that this was indeed reality, and Rapunzel lost all control. She burst into happy, surprised, suffering, body-shaking, breath-stealing tears, big wet globs that ran down her face and plastered her hair to her cheeks. Her throat was raw, her voice hoarse from disuse, but that didn’t stop the gurgly cry of “ Eugene!” from escaping again and again and again.

He looked up, brown eyes meeting green, and she read her name on his lips.

Then there were fingers in her hair again, a harsh sting as the strands were yanked back. Her whole body screamed at her to curl up in a ball, to grit her teeth and hide, but there was nothing she could do. Mother’s hands were as strong and unyielding as ever, and energy hummed down her hair, green and alien and cold.

The song started up, voice echoing and ghostly, and Rapunzel braced herself to be drained again.

Instead, energy seeped into her.

The song was different this time. Darker, more melancholy. It flowed into Rapunzel like a cool, refreshing stream, a sparkling river charged with the energy of a hundred lightning bolts, spinning and rushing around and building off itself. She felt her limbs lighten, vision going dark as colors around her grew muted; into the golden locks still flowing down over her shoulders ran an inky coat of paint. 

Rapunzel couldn’t understand these new words, this new spell, and yet she felt her lips move in time with Mother’s, foreign sounds rolling off her tongue and infecting the air around her. She could feel the vines rotting, feel the Great Tree itself groan under the weight of this strange new magic. It was awful, and yet it was wonderful; for the first time since being dragged from the tower, Rapunzel felt strong, mighty, able. 

Free.

But then she felt the others. Their spirits were like water in her palms, trickling out through the crevices between her fingers, their luminescence dying out before it even hit the ground. The horses, a raccoon, the two tall warriors, the jovial thief, the two young adventurers, the lady soldier, Pascal… and Eugene. They were all dying, and if she strained her ears, she could make out their coughing pleas, their gasping breaths. 

One of the lights grew closer, withered vine shifting on the stone, and Rapunzel blinked. When nothing changed, she blinked again-- harder, harder, forcing her will upon her eyelids until they finally slid closed and opened one final time, revealing the rough outline of Eugene’s face. His eyes, drooping with fatigue, met hers, and his lips moved. Her name, an apology, and an understanding smile.

And then, as he was falling away, fingers still outstretched and reaching for her, a single sentence pierced the haze and flowed into her very soul-- “You were my new dream.”

An icy spear cut through her foggy mind, and Rapunzel screamed.

Her voice shook the earth under them. It tore the sky. It rattled the stars. Black rocks, sharp and gleaming with blue electricity, shot through the ground; Mother stumbled back, shouting with rage and shock; a stone pierced the ground under her, carving a bloody furrow into her cheek on its way up; the ceiling groaned and a crack ran through the stone platform.

Four rocks, so close together that they formed a solid wall, shot through the floor just behind her.

There was a muffled rip, a sudden loss of weight that tipped her head forward, and a soft thump as her hair hit the ground.

Everything-- all the power, all the magic, all of it-- whooshed out of Rapunzel in a tidal wave. It fractured the moment it touched the air, a thousand shards of broken black glass shooting in all directions. They tore through the ground, ripped holes in the walls, collided with Mother and burned at her until she fell, screaming, down into the chasm below.

Finally, broken, bleeding, and left somehow emptier than before, Rapunzel collapsed to her knees.

It was a minute before something cupped her cheek. She mustered the strength to raise her eyes, head and neck shaking with the effort, and met Eugene’s-- one earthy brown, one solid black and surrounded by purplish veins. A shock of horror went through her at first, but then he pressed his forehead to hers, fingers entwining and knees meeting on the ground, and Rapunzel found herself smiling. Those tears from before returned tenfold, flowing down in rivers of shocked happiness, and she felt him cry too-- subtle and too tired to be sobs, they were thin streams of relief, simple joy, and the release of a man who was finally told his suffering would be over.

Her name danced on his lips, his slipped past hers, and finally, they were together.

 

Reunion



_____



Adira remained silent as she bandaged Short-Hair’s hand. Neither of the women tried to make eye contact; after all, they were too tired for conversation. All of them were.

She would have called for Vex, seeing as they had to part ways soon, but seeing her comforting the boy had convinced Adira that they had some time. Short-Hair and Blue-Stripe hadn’t spoken since they rushed out of the Great Tree, and judging by the way they sat facing away from each other on opposite sides of the camp, they wouldn’t any time soon. She had seen the huge, multicolored bruise, splashed across his face like a paint splatter, and decided not to push them just yet.

Earrings had opted to care for the animals’ wounds and feed them-- barring Ruddiger, who Varian insisted on taking care of-- which was probably the best option for him at the moment. With Fish Skin wrapped up in the barely-conscious Sundrop by the fire, it would only be awkward at best to try to hold a conversation. After what they’d gone through, no one wanted to talk.

Then Hector clapped his hands, and Adira was reminded why she hated him so much.

“Listen, all of you,” he swept his eyes over the group, bearcats flanking him on either side and his rhinoceros, which he’d found hiding outside the Tree, lurking behind him. “We worked together today, but make no mistake: this woman you follow, Adira, is a traitor to our kingdom. She is attempting to lead you down a path that leads to the Dark Kingdom, and that is a path I cannot permit you to follow.”

Adira sighed, pulling Short-Hair’s bandages taut, and rose to her feet. “So, what? Will you challenge me now?”

He studied her, a sickening, sly grin pulling at his lips. “No,” he drawled, fiddling with one of his braids. “I won’t fight you here, not when we're all weak and your future is uncertain. But if you or your party know what’s good for you, there will be no venturing to the Dark Kingdom. If you do, when my health returns, I will hunt every last one of you down and make you bleed.”

“Your warning is understood. Is there any more, or will we be parting ways?”

“Watch your tongue, sister.” Hector narrowed her eyes at her, still smirking. “You keep moving it like that, and it’s liable to get cut.”

They stared one another down for a minute before Hector chuckled, raising a hand to salute them and backing up. The shadows consumed him easily, and before long, nothing was left but a whisper on the wind: choose wisely.

Adira took in a long, deep breath, letting it out before facing the others. She glanced over at the Sundrop, who’d finally fallen asleep in Fish Skin’s arms, and her face softened a little. “You know my stance on the matter. All that is left to you, my friends, is to choose which path to follow.”

“We’ll wait for Rapunzel on that one,” Fish Skin answered immediately, cradling her closer to his chest, as if worried that someone might snatch her away again. His new solid-black eye added a certain level of threat to his statement, even though he didn’t mean it. “She deserves to choose. We’ll tell her when she wakes up.”

“Then I can wait.” Adira inclined her head. “In the morning, when the Sundrop is awake, we will take stock of the situation. After all, we still need to know what her hair being cut has changed. It is a wise decision to have patience.”

Fish Skin didn’t answer, only looked back down to the Sundrop.

Together, they watched the sun rise.

 


 

Through these cracked shards,

 

I see what could have been.

 

But none of that matters now,

 

Because I can finally hold you again.

 

 

End of Act I