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Broken Bonds

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The world was strangely cold.

Pale light, a washed-out color similar to the seashell paint she used to love, coated Rapunzel’s face in a delicate layer. Her eyes were half-closed, part with fatigue and part with wonder; the last time she had felt like this, taking in fresh, cool air in relaxed breaths, aching wrists free of their cuffs, playful breeze tickling her face as she looked over a world she barely knew… well, it felt more like a dream than memory.

That’s what it all felt like, really. One long, pleasant, lucid dream, one where she could look down and see a crackling fire, nearly out from lack of care, surrounded by kind sleeping strangers. She leaned back into Eugene’s chest as she took in the Tree far below them, Pascal snoring in her lap.

“...That’s where she is now, right?” Rapunzel asked, the question worn and tired by now, having danced upon her tongue several times already.

Eugene showed no impatience, only softness, as he took her hand. His breath was warm and it tickled her ear. “That’s where she is.”

“And she’ll stay there forever.”

“Forever.”

“She’ll never come after me.”

“Never.”

Rapunzel breathed in, lashes fluttering across her cheeks as she closed her eyes. “I love you, Eugene.”

There was a brief moment of silence, and a stiffness to him, before he whispered back, “I love you too.”

For a while, they didn’t speak. They simply watched the moon dip further down in the sky, cloaked in navy silks studded with sterling stars. Finally she leaned her head back, looking up at him. His eye was still black, surrounded by sickly purple veins, a testament to the battle they had fought against the magic Gothel had made her use-- but it was okay. He’d said it was okay. “What do we do now?”

“We do whatever you want.” A few of his fingers ghosted through her brown hair, now running out about two seconds down. “You can do what Adira wants and go to the Dark Kingdom, or you could head back to Corona. We’ll go with whatever decision you make.”

Decision. The word alone was enough to make her glance down at the rocks, those blackish-bluish spikes that kept pushing up like shark teeth. Eugene had filled her in upon climbing the tree, but it was still all too much. Too many things at once to try and fit in her mind.

So, she didn’t try-- not for now, anyway. As always, Rapunzel preferred to look at what she could do, and save the worrying for when it mattered: in the morning. Instead, she pulled his hand in front of her chest, where it lay limp and warm between her own. “Tell me about them again. Adira, and Cassandra, and… and the others.”

“Well, there’s a lot to tell.” Eugene chuckled behind her, a pleasant vibration against her aching back, if only for a few seconds. “Why don’t you just wait until you meet them yourself?”

She hummed, turning her eyes to look at the stars. If she stared hard enough, she could almost imagine them as lanterns. “Describe them each in one word. That’s all.”

“One word?” Eugene blew out a thoughtful sigh through his nose. There were a few seconds of quiet as he thought, and she could almost hear the gears whirring in his mind. “Well. For Cassandra… there are a good many things I could call that woman, but if I had to choose one, it’d be strong.”

“Is that it? It’s so simple.”

“That’s the thing.” Eugene glanced down at the group below, and she turned her head to look as well. It took a moment for her to remember which was Cassandra: the one with the bandaged hand, lying off to the side by herself, curled up as if she were cold. “I’m strong in the most basic sense. But her? On top of having some serious muscle, I’ve also seen her persevere and stand her ground. She’s unwavering in her opinions, and if she’s given a goal, there will be no straying from it.”

Rapunzel allowed a tiny grin to pull on her lips. “And the others?”

Eugene scratched at his chin. “Hm. Well, Lance would be… faithful, I think. He’s never left my side-- at least, not of his own accord. If we ever found ourselves split up, it was either an enemy, or… or me.”

“Hm.” She raised a finger, pointing down at the little bundle by the fire. Two young people, maybe around fifteen, sharing a blanket against the chilly air as they slept back-to-back. “What about those two?”

Eugene tracked her line of vision, a look of amusement coming over his features at the sight. “Well,” he started, “The boy Varian would be... bright. Both in the sense that he’s crazy intelligent and that he always seems to light up the situation. He… reminds me of you, in a few ways.”

Rapunzel curled in her toes, smiling. Warmth bloomed in her chest at the thought of meeting a person Eugene thought similar to her. “And the girl?”

“That’s Vex. I… well, to be honest, I don’t know much about her. You’d have to ask Varian, Lance, or Adira for that, though Adira is never a good person to ask anything.”

“Why?”

“Too cryptic-- and that’d be my word for her. I think she finds joy in confounding us lesser beings.” Eugene’s laugh was weaker this time. “But enough of all of this. It’s past midnight, Sunshine.”

She giggled at the nickname. “Is it? I could have sworn I just watched the moon rise.”

“You’ve been up here for a while.” Eugene’s chin found her shoulder. “Are you sleepy yet?”

She was. Her very bones still ached with fatigue, and the cut on her face throbbed with every change of expression. But her eyes didn’t want to close yet. She felt, somehow, as if she would open them again and find herself back with Gothel, back in chains, back in the darkness with no freedom to look forward to.

So, she shook her head. “No.”

“Then I’ll stay up with you.”

Something told her she should probably say something along the lines of no, it’s fine, go ahead and sleep, don’t let me keep you up -- but that was something to say when she was sure everything was real, when she was sure Eugene wouldn’t disappear and the light feeling in her heart wasn’t just a trick.

“Okay,” she murmured.

The world was strangely cold. Unfamiliar. Reeking of something lurking out of sight. Now that she’d seen its ugly side, it would never look the same.

But here, in Eugene’s arms, it was warm.

So she stayed.



_____



Varian couldn’t sleep.

He pretended to, especially when the Princess and Eugene were looking down, but it was nigh impossible to actually sink into real sleep. There were too many things happening in his mind, too many emotions twisting and tugging at his chest. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt this way, like something huge, cold, and sharp was poking at him from the inside, trying and failing to escape from his too-small body.

His fingers traced along Ruddiger’s fur, who’d snuggled under the covers and refused to leave Varian’s side. Both he and Vex had decided that they would keep him company after what happened at the Great Tree; even Stelle had stuck by him, now sleeping just behind the three of them-- and he was immensely grateful for it. He had an awful tendency to spiral downward when left to his own devices, something he’d figured out after one too many failed experiments.

Failed experiments…

The crossbow lay a few paces away, too far for him to reach now but close enough should he need to grab it in an emergency. It was fixed now; he’d used the last of his repair supplies and even broken one of his tools in the restoration process. Despite having been coated with a flame-retardant, highly blast-resistant compound, the explosion had still done some damage to the more delicate parts. If it hadn't been for the way Cassandra had grabbed the explosive part of the bolt, he probably wouldn't have had much left to repair.

He remembered working on it in a feverish passion, never once taking a break until it lay complete in his hands; whenever he thought about quitting, whenever his hands ached from working and his back begged for relief from hunching over, he just pressed a finger to his cheek. The pain of the bruise, a deep purplish-blue splotch stretching from cheekbone to jawline, snapped him back into focus.

The thought that fixing their crossbow would somehow make everything a little better was a childish one, but Varian couldn’t help it. His first instinct was always to fix what he could, how he could, and he knew he couldn’t fix Cassandra’s hand. In hindsight, perhaps the crossbow was just a distraction, a project to immerse himself in and ignore everything around him.

That sounded about right. Hiding from his problems. Isn’t that what the villagers back in Old Corona used to say he did?

Varian’s eyes traveled back to the Princess and Eugene, cradled in the tree branches above, and he found himself wondering if he should’ve just stayed home. He hadn’t helped at all back in the Tree. In fact, if he hadn’t messed with that crossbow, Cassandra would have shot the witch faster and Rapunzel never would’ve been used for that dark magic spell. Eugene’s eye wouldn’t have been damaged.

Cassandra’s hand was only one of the things he’d screwed up that day.

Would he just hurt the Princess too?

A sleepy mumble caught his ear, and Vex shifted behind him, turning over on her other side. He glanced over his shoulder at her sleeping face, calm but for the slightest furrow to her brow. Her own bruise from back in the Forest of No Return was yellowish and nearly faded out. 

He found himself wondering what she was dreaming about. Did she realize just how badly he’d messed up this time? Did she suspect he’d messed up like this before? Did she just pity him? Is that why she’d stood up to Adira so she could stay by him?

Varian let out a long, deep sigh, and closed his eyes. He needed a break. He needed to focus on something for a little while, just to keep his mind from wandering any further. But what? Everything always led back to the present situation: he couldn’t even recite his alchemy formulas, his go-to distraction, because they led to the crossbow and Cassandra.

Maybe… maybe he just needed to try harder. What he knew how to do wasn’t enough. He’d shoehorned himself into this mission, and so far, he hadn’t been nearly enough help. There had to be something he could do to make it up to them, this time without any backfiring. He could change. He could.

He just needed to do better.

But first he needed to figure out how to make himself sleep.



____



Cassandra was not a morning person. She did not want to be a morning person. She was fairly certain that she had never been, and would never be, a morning person.

Lance’s singing woke her up at dawn.

This was an offense of the highest order back at home; every one of the Guards would readily admit that they would rather wait for her to wake up than attempt to get her out of bed during their training days. In fact, if he hadn’t been belting out a tune about quail eggs and roasted meat, she might’ve considered socking him.

As it was, Cassandra was starving, so she let this one slide. Heaving a deep yawn, she pushed herself to her feet, walking the few paces it took to reach their campfire.

“Look, Lance, you woke Dragon Lady up without getting clobbered! I told you your singing was good.”

Lance came to an abrupt stop, turning to look at her with eyes wider than saucers. “Oh! Cassandra! I-- I didn’t know you were awake!”

“Just give me food,” Cassandra grumbled, good hand reaching up to rub at her eyes. “You can deal with your stage fright later.”

“Uh, well, Adira will be back soon with whatever she can find. I’d give you this, but it’s for--”

“Oh, Lance, it’s fine. She can have it.”

The voice snapped Cassandra out of her drowsy haze immediately. Her mouth dropped open as she looked up, finding Eugene sitting across from Lance, a petite brunette girl tucked against his side. She met Cassandra’s gaze with a soft smile and a wave, wide green eyes sparkling, a warm contrast to her dirty and tattered clothes. “Sorry, did I startle you?”

“Your Highness!” Cassandra rushed to kneel down on one knee, bending over and lowering her head. Pain lanced up her hand when she tried to brace herself with it, and she ended up in a wobbly and, to her chagrin, very unprofessional bow.

“Ju-- Just Rapunzel, please. And, um, you don’t have to bow.” The Princess giggled, fingers running through her short, choppy hair. The deep scratch on her face from the black rocks had scabbed over, but it looked painful. “I’m still getting used to the idea.”

“Oh, of course, Prin-- Rapunzel. Whatever makes you comfortable.” Cassandra shifted back into a sitting position, though she kept her back straight now, alert and ready.

“Um, thank you… Cassandra, I believe?”

She inclined her head. “Yes, my name is Cassandra, daughter of Corona’s Captain of the Guard. I’ll be serving as your personal guard throughout the journey home.” Casting a glance over to Eugene, the corner of her lips twitched up in a little smile. “Well, we all will, but I’m the official one.”

“Captain of the Guard?” Rapunzel asked, looking up to her right. Cassandra finally noticed Maximus standing there, ears pricked forward and everything about him radiating attentiveness. “Max, wasn’t that your rider?”

He whinnied, mane tossing as he nodded, and Rapunzel let out a little laugh. “For all your insistence that the guards don’t like you, you seem to keep making friends with them, Eugene.”

“Yes, well, it’s not my fault I have such a magnetic personality.”

“Not to interrupt your ego-stroking, Eugene, but we’ve got one more breakfast here,” Lance cut in with a sideways grin, holding up a small wooden bowl full of boiled eggs and a couple of roasted wings; Cassandra assumed they were both of the quail variety. “Who’s getting it?”

“The Princess, of course,” Cassandra insisted before Rapunzel could get a word in. “Who knows how little she’s been eating all this time?”

Rapunzel opened her mouth as if to protest, but after a few seconds, she backed down-- something that only made Cassandra’s concern grow. She could tell, just watching Rapunzel try not to wolf everything down, that the girl was starving; she caught Eugene’s eye, and they shared a disturbed look. Lance seemed to catch on as well, staying silent as he cleaned off the spit she’d bought back in Pincosta in preparation for whatever was handed to him next. Maximus stepped up closer to Rapunzel, eyes sad and regretful as he realized just how bad she’d had it.

When she’d finally downed the last of her food, Rapunzel leaned further into Eugene, eyes already fluttering even though she’d been sleeping for the past day. “Thank you, Lance. You cook wonderfully.”

“I do what I can,” Lance spoke quietly, more warm and genuine than his usual jovial manner. Still, he smiled, and Cassandra could tell he was already growing fond of the Princess. “Are you still hungry?”

“No, I think that’s about all I can handle, thank you,” she shifted in place, holding her stomach, and Cassandra began to wonder if she’d made herself sick eating so fast. Even if she had, Rapunzel showed nothing other than a glowing aura of optimism-- something that would’ve annoyed her otherwise, but here, having watched the Princess suffer so much, it was a balm to Cassandra’s own soul just to see her smile.

“Holy cow, she’s up.”

All five of them looked over to see Vex standing to their left, face slack with surprise. The girl laughed, planting both hands on her hips, and tilted her head at Rapunzel. “How are you feeling, Princess?”

“I’m doing great,” Rapunzel beamed at her, freckles bunching up under her eyes in a way so similar to Varian’s that Cassandra had to look away. “Um, Vex, right?”

“That’d be me.” Vex nodded. “Vardaros street kid turned dark knight in training.”

At Rapunzel’s blank look, her lips took on a small, amused shape. “Adira’s squire.”

“Oh!” Rapunzel clapped her hands once, eyes regaining their green sparkle. “That’s right! Eugene told me about you two. I remember now.”

“Where is Adira, anyway?” Vex asked, sweeping a glance over their camp before finally settling on Lance. “And are you making grub?”

“Off finding food to save rations, and yes, but first come first serve. Cassandra’s already in line.”

“‘Course there’s a line.” Vex plopped down beside Maximus, who whinnied down at her, and raised her hands toward the fire. “How long has Adira been gone, then?”

“Maybe thirty minutes? She should be back soon.” Lance leaned forward to stoke the fire. “How’s our little guy?”

“Little… oh, you mean Varian.” Vex’s eyes shot to Cassandra, monitoring her reaction. Finding nothing but a stony, unreadable face, she carried on, unaware of the lead weight in Cassandra's stomach. “He’s still fast asleep. I don’t… I don’t think he got much rest last night.”

There was the slightest hint of accusation in Vex’s tone, but Cassandra decided to ignore it. She hadn’t done anything wrong, and she wasn’t going to push for either of them to open up. Vex wanted to blame her? Fine. She could be sour if she wanted to be.

Apologies weren’t going to fix her hand.

“Aw, I hope he’s okay,” Rapunzel’s brows furrowed as she craned her neck to look over at the bundle of blankets a few paces away. She could just make out the tip of what looked like a raccoon’s tail poking out. “I’d like to meet everyone on good terms.”

“Not much time for that.” Adira’s voice cut through the conversation before she dropped a basket at Lance’s side with a solid thunk. Cassandra was just able to make out a sliver of red apple skin peeking out over the edge. “Go get Blue-Stripe up, Vex. If he wants to sleep, he’ll have to do it on a schedule, just like everyone else.”

Vex nodded wordlessly, rising and going back to fetch Varian, while Adira nudged the basket over with her foot. Several apples and a few persimmons rolled out, and a cleaned rabbit lay tied up in the back of the basket. “Get to working on that, Earrings. Whatever the Princess decides, we’re moving out today. We’ll need our strength.”

Lance happily made a grab for the ingredients, knife at the ready, but Cassandra’s attention wasn’t on him. Rather, it was on Rapunzel, whose joyful spark had gone out faster than a candle flame. Her lips turned down at the corners, eyes downcast, and her fingers curled into Eugene’s sleeve as she bit the inside of her cheek.

Adira seemed to notice it too, and her expression softened. “I’m sorry to weigh you down so quickly, Princess, but this is not something that can wait.”

Rapunzel nodded, bare toes curling and uncurling, their nails digging into the hard ground. “I-- I know.”

Eugene frowned, eyes turning from Rapunzel to Adira. “We can wait one more day. She’s exhausted.”

“No, Eugene, it’s okay. I get it.” Rapunzel sighed, tugging on her short hair. “Let’s just… let’s just wait until everyone’s fed and I’ve introduced myself. Can I have that long?”

“...Fine. But only until then.” Adira’s eyes turned to the clusters of rocks slowly encircling the camp, features weighted. “Destiny won’t wait much longer.”

Rapunzel didn’t seem to know how to respond, so she just looked away, face brightening once more as her gaze fell upon two approaching figures. “Oh! Hello! You’re awake!”

“Princess?” Varian’s eyes blew wide, and Cassandra felt a strange tug at her chest when she saw how dark his bruise had gotten. He’d hidden his face rather well for most of yesterday, hunched over that stupid crossbow as he’d been. It was only amplified by the bags under his eyes; she was glad when he bowed in rather the same manner as she had at first, though his was shaky due to sleepiness and not pain. “I-- hello, Your Highness! I-- my name is Varian! Just Varian. Um. How-- are you-- are you okay?”

Rapunzel giggled, though Cassandra could make out the concern behind her eyes. “I’m fine, Varian. Please, though, you don’t have to bow, and call me Rapunzel. I’m telling you guys, it’s just me.”

“But you’re the Lost Princess,” he blurted, stumbling back to his feet. “I… sorry, Rapunzel. It’s just that I was raised hearing about you. You’re almost like a fairytale to the younger kids back home.”

“A fairytale?” Rapunzel asked, before laughing behind her hand. “Well, I suppose there are worse things to be, aren’t there?”

“...I guess so.” Varian looked down as Ruddiger climbed up to lay across his shoulders, the slightest hint of a smile curving his mouth as he ran a few gloved fingers through his gray fur.

“Aw, is that Ruddiger?” Rapunzel jumped up to her feet, swaying just a moment from dizziness before she regained her balance. Varian went stock-still as she approached, but Rapunzel didn’t seem fazed, reaching out a hand to let Ruddiger sniff her. It didn’t take long for him to chatter back, nose pushing into her palm in an effort to get her to pet him. “He’s so sweet! Here, Pascal, come out and meet Ruddiger.”

Something on her shoulders moved. Cassandra watched in surprise when a little brown lump scuttled down her arm. It faded to green as it approached the raccoon, and Cassandra realized it was a lizard-- a chameleon. The Princess was friends with a chameleon.

Huh.

Ruddiger licked Pascal’s head, to which he chirped in distaste, shooting back a few steps. Rapunzel giggled, setting him back up on her shoulder. “Sorry, he’s a little weird about strangers.”

“I’ll say,” Eugene muttered behind her, prompting Rapunzel to shoot a glare over her shoulder. He looked away, hands up, and Cassandra found herself wondering what had gone down between the two of them.

Then Lance set a wooden bowl in front of her, and everything else melted away. Cassandra could still make out lighthearted chatter between the Princess and everyone else-- including the other horses, who’d awoken and found their way to Rapunzel--but as far as she could tell, none of it was directed at her. That was fine with Cassandra. She wasn’t in the best of moods; maybe eating would help to alleviate that a bit, even if she did have to use her left hand.

At that thought, her thoughts strayed to her sword. She’d have to learn to use it in her other hand now, which meant that she was a weak link at the moment. That would have to be fixed, and fast, if she was hoping to escort the Princess. Cassandra, as far as she knew, was the only one in the group-- barring Adira and, to a much smaller extent, Vex-- with formal training, and that didn’t bode well for them should they run into anyone hostile. Lance still didn’t even have a weapon, and Rapunzel looked as if she could barely land a punch right now.

If only she hadn’t tried to use that stupid crossbow.

Meanwhile, Adira finally sat down by the fire-- much to Lance’s delight-- and cleared her throat. The camp fell quiet, and Cassandra looked up, something twisting in her gut when she saw the woman’s expression. Stony and cool: the face she used when she was about to deliver bad news.

“I see you’ve introduced yourself to everyone, Sundrop,” she began, waiting for Rapunzel-- now frowning-- to nod before continuing. “So now, I need to ask you a question. Will you go to the Dark Kingdom, or will you turn back and go home?”

Rapunzel sighed, fingers running through her short hair in what seemed like habit. She glanced down at Pascal, then at Maximus and Eugene, before swallowing and facing Adira. “I… I don’t know yet.”

“Hm.” Vex stiffened, and Cassandra realized that Adira was actually growing angry. Frustrated, at the very least. “Then allow me to ask you another question: have you noticed those black rocks?”

Rapunzel’s eyes followed where Adira was pointing towards the back of their camp, brows lifting a fraction at the sight of a cluster of black spikes. “...Yes.”

“Have you made contact with them?”

“Not… not since they cut my hair, no. Moth-- Gothel forbade me from touching them.”

Adira hummed, narrowing her eyes. “Then do it.”

There was a beat of silence. When Rapunzel regained her voice, it was weak, shaky. “What?”

“The witch told you not to touch them. Thus, she must have known skin contact would do something. I want you to do it.”

“Hang on a second,” Eugene rose, standing beside Rapunzel with a distrustful look on his face. “How do you know she’ll be safe? Those things are dangerous, aren’t they?”

“Not to her. She is the Sundrop; they’re merely looking for her.” Adira gestured once more to the rocks, casting Rapunzel a meaningful glance. “Zhan Tiri’s magic being cast so close to you alerted the rocks to your presence. They will continue to track your essence, destroying everything in their path, until you express that you are willing to follow them. It’s up to you, Princess.”

Rapunzel wrung her hands, and Pascal patted her on the cheek, careful to avoid her cut. “I… I don’t want them to destroy anything. And I’m not ready to go home… not yet. Not so soon.”

“Then you know what to do.”

Cassandra watched as Rapunzel shared a look with Eugene. A thousand words went through them in that moment, a conversation that no one else could understand.

Turning towards the rocks, Rapunzel finally nodded, determined expression laced with just a little fright. “I’ve broken one set of bonds already, and I’m not going home until I’ve broken all of them.”

She struck forward, steps careful and slow as she inched towards the cluster. They lit up as she drew closer, a pale blue glow blooming from deep within their crystalline structure. It only grew stronger as her fingers lifted, magic brimming just under the surface, straining to grab ahold of Rapunzel and take her with them. Cassandra, even from where she was sitting, could feel the excited hum in the air. Somehow, they knew she was coming, knew she was choosing to follow them. Cassandra didn’t know how to feel about this Dark Kingdom business at first, but seeing the rocks react this way, a gnawing feeling rose in the back of her mind that she was dealing with something a whole lot bigger than a simple rescue mission.

Then she touched them, and a shockwave of blue knocked them all back.



_____



Rapunzel groaned. Every part of her ached anew, sore wrists shouting at her and blood trickling down her face from the cut that’d been reopened. Her hair lay on top of her like a thick blanket, suffocating in its weight, and she found herself wishing it were lighter.

That’s when it hit her that it should have been lighter.

She sat up fast enough to make herself dizzy, Pascal squeaking in alarm when he was pulled up in the tangled mass of hair. Rapunzel snatched one of the golden blonde locks, pulling it around to her face to see, and a jolt went through her entire body.

Her hair was back.

On one hand, she was conflicted. It had been a shock to lose her hair, to be able to shake her head and feel the frayed edges on her neck, but it had also been freeing. Her hair was always the one thing that tied her down to the tower, to Gothel, and with it gone… she suddenly didn’t have anything to lose. At least, nothing so fragile as magic hair. She could go anywhere, do anything, and not have to worry about sharp things or kidnappers wanting to use her as Gothel had. Now that it was back, she’d have to deal with all that again.

On the other hand…

“Eugene!” She called, scrambling to her feet so fast that she fell on the first try. She ran over to him, ignoring his surprised splutters and wrapping a thin lock of hair around the top of his face. He didn’t protest, as least not physically, but she had to ignore a lot of questions. She didn’t blame him for asking, but she didn’t know any answers, and that wasn’t what mattered right now. What did matter was that she could heal again.

The song was hard to sing, simply because of all the new memories it dredged up, but she pushed them all away. Without Mother there to distort and twist it, the words were soft and warm and familiar, and she closed her eyes as she lost herself in the song. When the last sound left her lips, she tugged the hair free, smiling so wide it stung her cut cheek.

Eugene’s confused eyes, one brown and one solid black, met hers.

Rapunzel’s heart dropped.

“I don’t… I don’t understand,” she breathed, tracing under his eye with a finger. “It should have worked.”

He tried to say something, and Adira was talking in the background, but Rapunzel wasn’t listening. Maybe it was because his eye had been damaged by magic. She’d never had to deal with magical injuries, after all! Maybe her hair only worked on normal ones! Scanning the group, her eyes landed on the boy-- Varian-- and she bolted for him. He struggled a little more than Eugene did, but that didn’t stop her from belting out the song again, hair pressed to his bruised cheek.

It didn’t even glow.

“I don’t understand,” she repeated again, stumbling back a few steps and hugging herself.

“If you would listen ,” Adira huffed, settling a hand on her shoulder. Rapunzel turned around slowly, eyes glassy and mouth slack. “The nature of magic is unpredictable. That first cut probably took away your healing powers for good.”

“Then-- then why is it long again?” Her voice started to break. “What good is it!? I-- I just got rid of it! What good is this… this chain if it can’t even heal?”

What good am I?

“Sunshine,” Eugene murmured, appearing by her side. Adira backed off, hands clasped behind her back. “Sunshine, it’s okay.”

Adira waited until she’d calmed down a little, just watching Eugene comfort her with a bland look, before speaking up. “Like I suspected, you’re still the Sundrop.”

“Can’t you wait to brag?” Eugene demanded, pulling Rapunzel closer to him. She could feel his heartbeat, rapid from either anger or surprise or some mixture of the two. “Rapunzel’s been through a lot, and she did what you asked!”

“She did, and for that, I thank her.” Adira glared at Eugene before turning her eyes back to Rapunzel. “But, with all due respect, now is not the time for sentimentalities and mulling over the past. Right now, the rocks are calling to you, and I need your answer. Will you go home, or will you pursue your destiny?”

Rapunzel nodded, taking a deep, calming breath. She didn’t know where that outburst had come from. It was sudden and out of nowhere, a thought she’d never really had before and yet had always been lurking in the background.

Adira was right. Now wasn’t the time for all of that. Stay positive, stay happy; sadness helped no one. It was a mantra she lived by.

She looked over at the rocks, which had shifted to lay down flat against the earth in a path of black crystal. It cut through the rocky pass beyond, snaking across the ground in a twisting road that both scared and beckoned her. She could sense it calling for her, a subtle but insistent pull, and she knew what her answer would be.

There was no other choice.

Rapunzel looked around at all the new faces, at Maximus’s attentive stare, at Eugene’s soft and inquisitive expression. Pascal looked up at her with those same wide eyes as he always had, both questioning and reassuring. Wherever she went, he’d go with her.

She turned back to Adira. “I’m going to the Dark Kingdom.”



_____



Your Majesty,

 

In spite of your generous decision to allow the expansion of Old Corona, I am pleasantly surprised and eager to inform you that we will not need the extra land as I suspected we soon would. Just this morning, the rocks withdrew, leaving a torn but repairable village behind. It will take some work, but it seems the absolute worst has passed; I fear our situation would have been much more dire if the girl had been here in person. I can only think of one explanation for this behavior, however: either the Sundrop, your daughter, has made a pact of sorts with the Moon’s magic, or she has died. Seeing as the world is not erupting into chaos, I assume it is the former.

Now, regarding my son: I grow impatient. It may be crude of me to say this in such a blunt manner, but it is true. If you should receive any word of him, please do tell me; if not, then I shall attempt to get things in order and embark on a rescue mission of my own. Whereas you feel comfortable sending teams of men after your child, I prefer to use my own eyes when possible, and-- father to father-- I’m sure you understand when I say that I want my son back.

Please do forgive me for the abruptness of this message, but I am a busy man at the moment, and it is crucial that I deliver this information to you and receive your reply. I shall be waiting.

Your old friend,

 

Quirin



Frederic sighed, rubbing his temples and pushing the letter away. Its worn parchment was a great contrast to the fine white paper of the formal letters and documents piled high on his desk. He stood, hands behind his back, and looked out the window over his courtyard and the city beyond.

Another letter had just arrived earlier that day via messenger bird. It had been a long and arduous report, just one of the many guard teams’ logs of their activity and progress. If he hadn’t been as meticulous as he was about this particular investigation, he’d have missed the paragraph in this last one, grossly underemphasized for the information it contained.

Encountered suspects in Pincosta, roughly one and a half months after assignment. Criminal suspected of aiding Flynn Rider matches described appearance of ‘Varian’. After further investigation, he indeed appears to be both the missing boy and the fugitive. Cassandra, the Captain’s daughter, was also seen aiding and abetting Flynn Rider, along with a man we’ve identified as Lance Strongbow.

Orders regarding handling of these traitors are requested. If no orders are given, they will be dealt with as per Corona law.

Frederic had a lot to think about.

Chapter Text

“Do you really have to go?”

“As soon as we get back to open road.” Vex’s words were flat, but Varian could detect the somber tone hiding behind her mask. He wasn’t sure he liked how much Adira was rubbing off on his friend. “I’m sorry, but she insists that we have to stay distanced from you. I don’t know why.”

“Some aunt she is.” Varian glared down at the stony ground, dappled with spotty sunlight peeking over the stone walls surrounding them. He felt like the only thing he ever saw now was stone, stone, and more stone, and maybe a little dirt here and there. He’d been in these mountains for so long. “I mean, she doesn’t even call me by my name. She just drops in, says she knew my dad, then never explains anything and treats me like a stranger.”

Vex frowned, looking ahead at the group, while Ruddiger chattered at Varian from his shoulder, rubbing a paw down the boy’s cheek. Stelle whinnied her concern behind them. As per usual, they’d hung back, taking all the time they could to talk before being separated again-- almost like two kids reluctant to leave a playdate. Adira was leading the group, also as per usual. “I think she just doesn’t know how to talk to you. She’s… really prickly and awkward around people. I think it’s why we understand each other so well.”

“You’d be the only one.” Varian kicked a pebble, sending it skittering along the ground. “Getting her to talk is harder than getting my dad to listen. I don’t understand her or anything she does. At all.”

“I won’t pretend to get her motives,” Vex shrugged. “I still don’t know why she took me on so easily when she insists on staying away from other people. I don’t know why she won’t just travel with you guys, either.”

“Hmph.” Varian stuck his hands deep into his jacket pockets. “She probably doesn’t want me talking to you.”

“Okay, Varian, that’s enough.” Vex crossed her arms, stopping dead in her tracks. He cast a glance to the rest of the group before doing the same, a pit forming in his stomach at her tone. Her expression was a mixture of frustration and pity, things he’d seen all too much. “What’s going on with you? Cassandra’s hand wasn’t your fault. You’re just driving yourself further and further down into a hole, and if you don’t stop being grumpy, it’s gonna turn into something worse. Trust me.”

He tensed for a second before sucking in a breath, letting it out slowly and relaxing. Ruddiger chittered up at him, and he ran a hand through his fur. “You’re right. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize to me. Just listen and move on. Cassandra will bounce back from this, and you should, too.”

“...Yeah.” he cracked a smile. Somewhere deep inside, there was still a tight knot, unwilling to unravel and let him move past the incident-- but something about Vex’s words helped him ignore it for now. “Thanks, Vex.”

“You’re welcome. Now keep it that way. This friendship doesn’t have room for two smart-mouthed cynics.” When he didn’t answer, she bumped him with an elbow. “Come on, we’ve got to go catch up to them before they notice we’re gone.”

A smirk tugged up the corner of Varian’s mouth. “Race you?”

Vex blinked before grinning back. “Boy, you’ve already lost.”



_____



Eugene could not express how glad he was to see open fields.

Forests and lakes and hills and rolling plains, all spread out before them, with the endless ocean sparkling off to their left and more mountains cupping around the rest of the land. Sure, they’d have to climb again eventually, but it was so nice to leave the mountains behind for a bit.

Rapunzel gasped at the sight of it, eyes gleaming with excitement. “Oh, Eugene! It’s so pretty! Pascal, look!” She held out Pascal in her hands, who chirped in agreement. Maximus whinnied on her right, tossing his mane, and she giggled. “I wish I could paint it!”

That brought Eugene’s mind back into focus, and he scanned their group for Cassandra. He found her leaning against the rock wall of the tunnel they’d just emerged from, inspecting her bandages, and cleared his throat to get her attention. “Hey, Cass, how much money do we have left?”

She looked up, lips in a flat line. “About a quarter of what we got from Vardaros. Enough to get us new clothes and a few other things, if we really need it, but we should save as much as we can. Meaning no more inessential purchases, especially expensive alchemy ingredients.”

Varian, standing all the way at the end of the cliffside, flinched at that. Eugene frowned. “So we can’t afford any painting supplies?”

Cassandra’s eyes shot to Rapunzel, growing wide, and she pushed herself off the wall. “Oh, for her ! Um, we can get whatever the Princess wishes!”

“No, no, it’s okay,” Rapunzel chuckled awkwardly, brushing back a lock of hair that’d fallen into her face. That was another thing-- he couldn’t keep forcing her to carry around her hair like she’d been; he could tell by her shaking arms that it was too much for her now, after so long spent hungry and suffering who-knew-what. He wondered briefly if Cassandra knew anything about braiding. Probably not. “I’ll be okay without paints! It’s not important.”

“Anything the Princess requires is important.”

“Well, then, um… pretend I’m not the princess. I’m just Rapunzel out here on the road.” She planted both hands on her hips, trying to come off as authoritative, but to Eugene it just came off as cute. “And I say I’m fine without paints! So there.”

Cassandra blinked, brows lowering. “But… you are the Princess. I’m in charge of your safety and happiness. Because… because I’m a guard.”

“Well, take a day off, soldier!” Rapunzel’s wide smile returned then, and she turned to Eugene, her hand finding his. “Oh, I can’t wait to explore the world with all of you! I mean, we’re following a set path, but still! Detours! Adventure! Freedom!”

“Ah, yeah, I don’t know how Adira would feel about all of that. You might want to ask her how much time we’ve got.” Eugene glanced around. “Well, if you can find her…”

“You’ve got time.”

Eugene jumped, yelping, and Rapunzel startled a little as they turned around, while Maximus brayed and nearly kicked Adira in the stomach. Pascal sent her a dubious look, tucking himself further into Rapunzel’s hair. 

Eugene blew out a breath, glaring up at her smug face. “You are too tall to be as stealthy as you are.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. To answer your question, the rocks should allow you extra time, so long as you don’t stray from their path. You’ve committed now. The Moon will be patient, to an extent. Just don’t go on any week-long detours, and you’ll probably be fine.”

“Probably?” Cassandra asked, brow raised. “Look, are you actually serious about this mission or not? It it one hundred percent safe to stray from the path?”

“I’m more serious about this than you are about procuring your position on the Guard. The difference between us, however, is that I have waited two and a half decades for this mission.” Adira’s voice grew distant, eyes unfocused as they studied some unknown point on the horizon-- like she was looking at something they couldn’t see. “I know patience, and I know the dangers of pushing too hard. Life flows as it will, and too much tampering will disrupt it. I cannot afford to try and force the Sundrop into anything.”

“Wise words,” Lance murmured, appearing at Adira’s shoulder. She rolled her eyes and batted him away. 

“So… you’re saying I can go exploring?” Rapunzel asked, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. “Oh, I can’t wait! Eugene, you’re gonna have to show me everything !”

“I don’t know this land as well as I know Corona,” Eugene reminded her, scratching his head. “I mean, I know a little bit, but there’s not much to steal out here.”

“Other than the Jade Lily,” Lance spoke up, sly grin on his lips. “Remember that heist, Eugene?”

“I remember Caine taking off with it,” Eugene crossed his arms, studiously ignoring Maximus’s judgemental stare. “That one, I’ll admit, was my fault.”

“A fact I will hold over your head until the day we die.” Lance put a hand over his heart.

“Okay, you two were thieves. We get it. Can we get a move on already?” Cassandra stomped back to the mouth of the tunnel where they’d left the other three horses to grab Fidella’s reins. Fidella cocked her head, noticing her owner’s frustration, but didn’t protest when Cassandra hopped into the saddle.

Adira laughed behind them. “That’s the spirit, Short-Hair. I’ll catch you all later, after the Sundrop has calmed down a little bit.”

Rapunzel’s face fell as she turned to Adira. “Wait, you’re not coming with us?”

Adira shook her head. “I have other things to do. Don’t worry, you’ll survive without Vex and me. Probably.”

“Oh, that’s right, you have to take her too.” Rapunzel frowned. “But why? We could all travel together!”

“Trust me, Sundrop, it’s for the best if I watch from afar. The shadows are my home, and I’d prefer to stay in them if possible.” She beckoned to Vex, who was staring at her with a hard, unreadable expression. The girl sighed, saying something to Varian and wrapping him in a quick hug before turning around to join Adira. Ruddiger jumped into her arms, allowing her to snuggle him for a second before passing him back to Varian and slowly, slowly returning to Adira’s side.

Having collected her charge, Adira waved once. “I’ll be seeing all of you. Be careful, and no stupid stunts, please.”

“Was she talking to me?” Lance muttered in Eugene’s ear as they watched Adira and Vex leave, ducking into the forest opposite their path down. They disappeared like forest spirits, not a trace of them left behind. “I feel like she was talking to me.”

“She was talking to all of us, Lance,” Cassandra spoke, not looking at him. “Now hop on Fancy and let’s get out of here. We’re burning daylight, and let’s not forget that my dad’s forces are doubtlessly on our trail. They catch us, and we’re carted back to Corona, no questions asked.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Rapunzel gasped. “If we get caught, does that mean you all get punished?”

“We’re hoping you’ll be our ticket out of punishment, actually.” Eugene chuckled, though it came out more forced than he’d intended. He could already feel phantom rope around his neck at the thought. “Y’know, royal pardon for bringing the Lost Princess home and all.”

“Oh. Well, then, Cassandra’s right. We need to get going.” Rapunzel sucked in a breath, standing tall as she looked out over the vast stretch of land, and pumped her fist into the air. Pascal did the same with one of his scaly feet. “Time to go see the world!”

Eugene just made out Cassandra’s sigh.

 

______



“Oh, Eugene, what’s that ?”

“A dragonfly.”

“Oh, and that!”

“It’s… it’s just a tree, Sunshine.”

“But it’s different !”

“It’s birch?”

“Huh. How about that ?”

That is a black widow spider, and we do not touch it.”

Cassandra sighed when Lance whimpered beside her. They’d been walking through this little grove for about an hour now, and all she’d heard the entire time was Rapunzel’s endless babbling. It had been nice at first, a reminder that she was free, alive, and safe, but it was starting to get on Cassandra’s nerves. “It’s just a spider, Lance. It’s not out to get you.”

“But it’s poisonous ,” he complained, eyeing it as they passed. It just sat in the center of its web, harmless and still, but Fancy swerved to the opposite side of the road just for her rider’s sake, tossing a concerned glance back his way.

“Venomous,” Varian muttered in monotone from behind them. Lance stuck his tongue out at the boy, but Cassandra didn’t answer. She didn’t trust herself to, not now, while she was feeling irrationally angry. Too much had gone down between them to risk rocking the boat; she didn’t want to hurt him any more than she already had, regardless of whatever blame he bore for her hand.

“Tomato, tomahto,” Lance spat, narrowing his eyes at the spider. “I still don’t like it.”

“Sure is a good thing you weren’t with us when the Baron was playing around with that spider, huh?” Cassandra smirked. “That would’ve been funny.”

“He’s still got those little monsters?” Lance asked in a mixture of horror and disgust. “I thought we smashed all its eggs!”

“You did… what?”

“Long story. It is kind of funny he didn’t use the thing on me alone, though. I don’t think Red and Angry ever even saw it.” Lance smiled at the memory of the two girls. “I bet they and Varian would get along great.”

“I met them back in Pincosta,” Varian reminded him, voice finally picking up a little. Poor kid must’ve been missing his friend already. “I mean, we didn’t really talk, but they seemed nice, I guess. They’re really young for what they’re doing, though.”

“Hey man, gotta start when you’re young. Get a jump on everybody else.” Lance jerked a thumb in Eugene’s direction. “Casanova and I started stealing when we were still in the orphanage. We were real slick with those cherry tarts.”

That got a smile out of Varian, and Ruddiger’s ears pricked at the mention of food. “Tarts? Really? That’s what got you started on thievery?”

“Don’t talk down on Mama Julie’s tarts, kid. A fresh cherry tart was enough motivation to get a kid out of bed at six in the morning.” Lance laughed, running a few fingers through his beard. “Nah, it was a comb for Eugene and a new pair of shoes for me.”

“A comb?” Cassandra found herself asking. “Why a comb?”

Lance laughed at that, eyes crinkling in the corners. “A couple of reasons. Long story short, though, Eugene’s always been obsessed with keeping himself clean and well groomed. I think it was mostly due to him wanting to measure up to the ‘dashing Flynn Rider’.” Lance’s eyes turned to his friend, smile fading just a bit. “The other part of it was him trying to get adopted, I think. It was kind of a given that if a kid was cute, they’d get adopted first, and… well. Eugene was always talking about how he wanted a family one day. I think it broke his heart when we finally left the orphanage.”

Something sank in Cassandra’s gut, and she turned her gaze to the couple ahead. Maximus was carrying them without issue, though Rapunzel kept leaning and craning from side to side so much that he struggled to keep her from falling out of the saddle. It was quite something to watch them together; the Princess was the most animated person Cassandra had ever seen, even more so than Varian used to be when they first met him. Eugene seemed happier, as well, with a constant smile on his lips and a soft, ever-present warmth behind his eyes.

If Cassandra had ever had any doubts about his sincerity in loving the Princess, this wiped them clean from her memory. This wasn’t the man her father would come home grumbling about. This wasn’t the no-good slimy criminal who’d stolen the Crown. This was simply a man in love trying to do better.

The trees finally broke around them, giving way to the plains they’d seen earlier from the cliff. Wild daffodils grew in great clusters, and ponds glimmered like sapphires scattered over the vast expanse. In the distance, she could make out a group of sheep grazing, and rabbits scampered through the thick patches of brush and brambles.

And there, tucked right along the coastline in front of them, was a city.

“Ah, Equis,” Lance sighed behind Cassandra. “You know, I got captured here once. King’s a wacko.”

“I’ll say. King Frederic has a long-standing rivalry with Trevor.” Cassandra snorted, lips turning up at one corner. Maximus and Fidella whinnied at one another, and she wondered what kind of Frederic stories they were reminiscing about. “We have official orders to send any Equis merchants back with their merchandise covered in bimberry juice.”

Varian frowned. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Equis before. Then again, I’ve never really been a traveler…”

“Well, it’ll be a new experience for all of us, then!” Rapunzel cheered, looking back at them with the biggest smile she could make. “And, um, exciting for Lance and Eugene!”

“Exciting is definitely one word for it,” Eugene muttered, glaring down at the city. “I wonder if the heat’s died off any in Equis.”

“Probably not,” Lance shrugged. “But, hey, we made it through Vardaros and Pincosta, right?”

“Not great examples, buddy.”

“It ought to be fine,” Cassandra assured them. “You’ve been hanging around Corona for the past, what, eight or nine years? King Trevor’s got his own problems.”

“Do not underestimate that man’s ability to hold a grudge.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’ll all be fine, you guys,” Rapunzel smiled, though Cassandra could see the strain behind it. It was the smile of someone who was trying to gloss things over, trying to radiate enough positivity to leach into the people around her.

In that moment, Cassandra’s heart went out to the Princess, and she smiled back-- if a little hesitant herself. “Her Highness is right. We’ve made it through plenty worse than Equis. We’ll just get in, get out, and not make any fuss.”

“Because that worked so well back in Vardaros,” Varian mumbled. 

Cassandra ignored him, casting Rapunzel a comforting nod. The Princess beamed, relief flooding into her eyes and painting her features a softer tone. “Yeah, what Cassandra said. It can’t be that hard to go unnoticed in such a big city!”

“With your hair? And my eye?” Eugene sighed, shaking his head, but there was a hint of a smile around the corners of his lips. “Fine. We’ll see how it goes. You have to have new clothes, in any case, so it isn’t like we have an option.”

Maximus whinnied under him, and Eugene smacked the horse’s neck lightly. “Don’t you start. I know it’s my fault.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Rapunzel leaned back on Eugene, finger raised toward Equis and a determined grin on her face. “Let’s run! Go, Max! As fast as you can run!”

“Hey, wait wait wait, that’s not a good ide--aahhhh!”

They set off toward the city, Eugene hanging onto Rapunzel for dear life as her laughter rang in the wind.



_____



Quirin knocked with a quiet huff, the sound echoing down the castle’s corridors louder than an earthquake. He’d seen a few servants here and there while walking through the halls, but for the most part, the Corona palace had been deserted; Frederic really had sent all his guards out to look for their children.

As he waited to be answered, he cast his eyes over the many paintings and elaborate carpets, but he took in none of it. Quirin’s mind was too fixated on the problem at hand to care for generic opulence.

Shortly after he’d sent his letter, the reply had arrived, sent by way of one of the King’s own messenger birds. Its message, branded by Frederic’s seal, was short and to the point: We must speak.

The solid lump of lead in his gut was enough to make most men’s awareness wane, but Quirin was a former Dark Knight. His eyes were keen, and his ears sharp: he didn’t miss the stranger when he brushed past, cloak fluttering behind him and boots velvety in the silent halls.

His hand quivered, already feeling the smoothness of his sword’s hilt, but then the doors swung open to admit two armored guards. For a split second he turned to look at them, finding two new recruits he didn’t recognize; for a split second, his attention wavered.

When he looked back again, the stranger was gone.

“Lord Quirin of Old Corona,” the guard on the left nodded to him, ushering him into the throne room. “His Majesty has been expecting you.”

Down the hall and around the corner, a strange man adjusted his woolen vest, his straight white teeth set in a smile, and continued down the hall.



Chapter Text

Vex grit her teeth, palms stinging from gripping rough wooden handles so hard. Sweat glittered on her brow, even though she’d cast off her shawl and rolled up her sleeves. Even the shade from all the spruces and birches around them didn’t help her from overheating. Sparring with Adira would do that to someone.

“Straighten up,” Adira ordered, circling her like a predator. Her eyes were sharp and unyielding, studying every movement. Her black sword glinted at her side, held down but at the ready. “You’re sinking too far into your stance. Too rigid. Limber up.”

“Easy for you to say,” Vex growled under her breath. “You’re not expecting a dark knight to attack you at any given time.”

“Who says?” Adira disappeared behind her. Before Vex could turn, she felt something swipe her legs out from under her, a yelp ripping from her throat as she sprawled out on the ground. Her shotels went skittering away with a chorus of clatters, and Vex sighed, already knowing what was coming.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Hector.”

“You say that as if you think he isn’t dangerous.” Adira extended her hand. Vex took it, grunting as she was yanked up like a ragdoll. Her mentor’s expression was just as serious as always, lips pursed and eyes hard. “Hector is unsound and obsessed with protecting the Dark Kingdom. Now that we’re expressly going against his warning, he’ll be looking for us, and you have to be ready.”

“I know.” Vex dusted off her skirt, frowning at the rough patches where it had begun to wear away. “He’s dangerous and he’ll be after me.”

“Exactly.” Adira let a breath out through her nose, looking back toward the mountains they’d left. They could just see the faintest sliver of it through the dense forest, glimpses of brownish-grey in the gaps between leaves. “You being my squire means that you’re declaring loyalty to King Edmund. Which, in turn, means that you’re a traitor in his eyes.”

Vex tilted her head, bending down to gather up her blades. Her conversation with Varian came flooding back, and she sheathed both weapons before planting her hands on her hips. “Why did you take me on?”

Adira turned to her, eyes narrowing. “Pardon?”

“Why would you take me on?” Vex repeated, maintaining her stance even when Adira’s stare grew intense. She hadn’t shown intimidation for years upon years, and she wasn’t going to start now. “The way you talk, it sounds like you have no benefit from this, and I don’t think I want Hector after me. So. Why train me?”

Adira was quiet for a moment. The she let out a breath, sinking to the ground and crossing her legs. Vex did the same on impulse; when Adira sat down, it always meant they were going to have a serious conversation of some kind or another-- usually one that left her thoughtful and a little worried about what she’d gotten into. “I’ve never told you about the Brotherhood’s founding, have I?”

Vex thought for a few seconds before shaking her head. “No, I don’t think so.”

Adira nodded, a thoughtful frown tugging her lips down as she folded her hands in her lap. “The Brotherhood was a small and elite organization dedicated to carrying out the King’s direct orders. We were chosen through trials and intense training, faced with test after test to prove ourselves worthy of our station; then, we were forced to leave our old lives, swearing fealty to King Edmund and giving up any family we had. It was a brutal selection, and one that Edmund did not wish to do over.”

Her eyes focused on Vex, sharp and cold. Calculating. “I am older than I’d like to admit. While training keeps me well and feeling young, my life will not go on forever, and neither will my brothers’. We all sat down to discuss this fact one day shortly before the fall of the Dark Kingdom, and we came to an agreement: each of us would take on one squire to train and succeed us in the Brotherhood.”

Vex’s lips parted as she rocked back. Something heavy settled on her chest as she reached up to tug on one of her braids, Adira’s words echoing in her mind. “So… you just picked up some random street kid to take your place one day?”

Adira shrugged, lips curving into an almost playful little smile. “You remind me a lot of myself, Vex. I was a lot like you when I was younger. Rash, defiant, skilled beyond my years with a blade. And you gave up what stability you had in your life to help your friend.”

“But… but that doesn’t mean I’m worthy to be a dark knight,” Vex insisted. “I was working with Varian because he said he’d pay me.”

Adira raised a brow, eyes glittering. “Is that the only reason?”

When Vex didn’t answer, Adira unfolded her hands, leisurely standing and inspecting her sleeve. “You’re permitted to leave my side at any time, Vex. Just say the word and I’ll leave you behind.”

“I…” Vex glanced down at her shotels. “I don’t want that. I like traveling with you.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

She pushed herself to her feet, still staring at the ground. “I don’t suppose there is one.”

“Good.” She looked up to see Adira’s small, genuine smile. “I’d honestly be rather hurt if you did want to quit. I’ve grown fond of you.”

Vex returned the expression. “Yeah, I’m warming up to you a little too.”

“Mm.” Adira reached for her sword. “Don’t think you’ll get yourself out of training with this. We don’t have much time before the sun begins to set, and I don’t think you’re ready to face me in the dark.”

She grinned. “Oh, I wasn’t planning on it. Show me what you’ve got, old lady.”

Metal clashed with black stone, and Vex felt somehow lighter than before.



______

Rapunzel gasped as they entered the city square.

It was so different from Corona. The stone was a different shade, more greyish and cooler under her bare feet, and the houses were built more squat and sprawling. The central plaza was decorated not with a fountain but with a huge statue of a well-dressed man, surrounded by flowerbeds full of pansies and peonies. The people here even dressed differently, their colors more vibrant and pronounced. Pascal eyed the clouds of butterflies drifting over the blooms, tongue flitting in and out.

“Oh, Eugene, it’s beautiful!” Rapunzel gasped, clasping her hands under her chin. “Where do we go first?”
“Well, if I remember, the dress shops are over that way,” Eugene pointed off to the left, down a wide and well-kept street lined with yet more flowers. “You and Cass can probably go down there to get you fitted. They won’t let us in.”

Rapunzel frowned. “You mean you’re not coming with me?”

Cassandra appeared by her side, taking her arm, making Pascal shift to her other shoulder. “Men aren’t allowed in while the ladies are shopping, Princess. It’s considered indecent.”

“Oh.” Rapunzel turned towards her, beaming through the sudden heavy feeling in her stomach. She hadn’t parted with Eugene since they’d reunited, and the thought of leaving him made something twist inside her-- something like panic and dread mixed together. “Um, okay! Sure! Yeah, we can go-- we can go find clothes together. We-- we could get matching dresses!”

Cassandra’s face twisted at that. “Uh, yeah, no. I’ll find some nice trousers and a tunic, thanks.”

“Aw, are you sure? We would look so cute together! I bet you’d look lovely in blue, it’d match your skin tone so well--”

“No.” Cassandra’s tone came out forceful enough to make Rapunzel freeze, a cold stab shooting up her throat and cutting off her words. Pascal chirruped, tail winding up tight, Eugene tensed beside them, and Cassandra’s eyes widened as she realized what she’d done. She let go of Rapunzel’s arm, backing up and picking at the bandages on her hand. “Um, I’m not very comfortable in dresses. Can’t fight well in them.”

“Oh,” Rapunzel said after a breath, backing up. She could sense the other eyes on her from behind, Lance and Varian and Maximus all burning holes in the back of her head. “O-of course. I understand! Um. Sorry.”

Cassandra looked uncomfortable, reaching out for half a second as if to comfort her before thinking better of it. She cleared her throat, finally choosing to just look away. “Let’s get going. You’re already getting some weird looks out here.” 

“Okay,” Rapunzel took in a deep, calming breath, plastering on her smile again. “Yeah. I can do that. Um, are you guys sure you’ll be okay on your own?”

“Don’t worry about us, Sunshine,” Eugene backed up to stand by Lance and Varian. He threw an arm around both, Maximus lowering his head closer to the group, and cast them a reassuring grin. “We won’t get up to anything.”

“I’m going to pretend I believe you,” Cassandra rolled her eyes, already marching off toward the dress shops. “C’mon, Princess.”

Rapunzel shared one last glance with Eugene, a simple nod and a smile, and jogged after Cassandra.



______



“Okay… paints, paints, paints,” Varian pushed aside the piles upon piles of notebooks and quills and bundles of charcoal sticks. Ruddiger traversed the shelves too high for him to reach, squeaking as he held out jar after jar as if to ask if he’d found the right thing. So far, neither of them had managed to get lucky yet.

Maybe he was just looking in the wrong places. After all, he was used to looking for sketching supplies; he’d never once gone looking for paints in a shop. Whirling around, he half-ran to the front desk, gloved hands slamming down on the counter and startling the shopkeeper behind it. He mentally berated himself for being so overexcitable, but there was something about buying something he wasn’t supposed to be that made his adrenaline pump.  “Do you stock any paints here?”

The shopkeep, a paunchy man with fading brown hair and a mustache, wiped his spectacles clean before shoving them back up his nose. He blinked a couple times before focusing on Varian. “Have you been living under a rock, boy? The King’s getting a new round of murals up in the castle’s new wing, see, and I’m the only art supplier in town. Now-- is that a raccoon in my shop?”

Varian grunted, looking back towards where Ruddiger was still darting around the shelves. He ignored that for the time being, knuckles drumming on the countertop, and tried not to think about the five coins settled heavily in his pocket. They were for personal supplies; clothes and whatever else he needed. Not for paints. Maybe it was for the best.

But then he got an idea, eyes snapping back up to the squinting man. “What colors do you carry?”

“Pardon me? Speak up.”

“Paints. When you have them. What are the pigments? Do you make them yourself?”

“Make them-- no, of course not, boy! Do I look like an artisan to you?” He let out a raspy guffaw. “Nah, they’re imports from a village down a ways towards the mountain. I’ve got no idea what’s in ‘em. I don’t paint.”

“Neither do I,” Varian mumbled, dragging a hand down his face. “Well, thanks anyway.”

“Hmph. Just get that creature outta here.”

The man’s eyes tracked Varian as he fetched Ruddiger and left, finally resurfacing from the musty shop to the street outside. Stelle stepped up beside him, nose pressing into his arm. 

He could just make out Lance and Eugene in the distance, arguing with Maximus over something, and frowned. He should still have plenty of time, then. They’d take forever trying to figure out what to buy on their own.

Ruddiger chittered in his ear, dangling something over his shoulder, and Varian gasped. He took the glass inkwell with a scolding glare. “Ruddiger! You know that doesn’t belong to us!”

Ruddiger let out some kind of noise that sounded-- he swore-- just like a giggle, skittering up to perch atop Varian’s head between his goggles. Varian sighed, looking between the inkwell and the shop for a second, mind straying to his coins. If he was going to do this himself, he wouldn’t be able to afford both the inkwell and whatever materials the paints would take. Besides, the guy in there must’ve had a thousand of these things!

If he knew they had the Lost Princess of Corona with them, he’d be sure to give her whatever she wanted. It was totally fair! He wasn’t getting it for himself!

Nodding, Varian stowed it away in one of his jacket pockets before he could think too hard about it. Stelle nickered as she watched, judgment clear in the way she stamped her hooves, but he ignored her as he grabbed hold of her reins. “It’ll be fine, girl. It’s just a bottle. No one’s gonna miss it.”

The inkwell wasn’t important. He couldn’t think about it right now. Varian needed to figure out how to make paints.

His eyes traveled to the flowerbeds lining every shop, blooms of every vibrant color he could name, and an idea began to form.



_____



“Ohh, Cassandra, what do you think of this one?”

She raised a brow at the green dress. Plain. Practical. Comfy. It could potentially be tied up to allow for running and leaping. Easy to grab, though. Perhaps not the best choice.

“It’s pretty,” she said.

Rapunzel beamed, playing around with the fabric and giggling as she swished the skirts back and forth on the mannequin. The poor shopkeeper, a petite younger woman, watched with a tired stare; they’d been through nearly the entire shop and Rapunzel just wouldn’t quit gushing.

“Would you like to try that one on, miss?” she asked after a minute. “Or are you still looking?”

“Um,” Rapunzel pursed her lips, walking a few circles around the mannequin. Her hair had formed a spiral around its base, a fact that Cassandra was surprised the shopkeeper hadn’t commented on yet. She’d noticed the hair, of course-- Cassandra caught her eyes flicking down to it every now and again, and she'd ducked out the back door for a few minutes upon first seeing it-- but so far, she’d been respectful and quiet. “I don’t know. Pascal, what do you think?”

He chirruped, jumping from her shoulder to the dress. Cassandra watched with some measure of awe as his scales bloomed a paler green to better match the garment, and he turned a few circles before squeaking his approval. Smiling, Rapunzel nodded, turning to the woman. “I like this one!”

Something like relief crossed her face, and she nodded, gesturing for Rapunzel to follow her towards the back of the store. “Of course, miss, right this way. I should have one just your size back here…”

Cassandra sighed, turning away to stare at the mass of colorful cloth lining the shop’s walls. Her own purchase, a simple lightweight tunic and leggings, had taken less than a fourth of the time Rapunzel’s was. Eugene, Lance, and Varian were probably getting close to done by now.

When Rapunzel came out, draped in grass-green cloth with a dull leather traveler’s kirtle, Cassandra tried her best to act upbeat. She really did. Even went so far as to give her a compliment while shoving her money at the shopkeeper. But it was hard to focus-- her hand had begun to throb again, likely needing it bandages changed, and she couldn’t stop thinking about the guards no doubt on their trail. She knew for a fact that they were persistent: even being a larger and therefore slower group, her dad would catch up to them eventually. Every extra second they spent here was a waste.

“Cassandra?” Rapunzel frowned, tilting her head to the side. “Is something wrong? You’re holding your hand again. I thought you said it was getting better.”

She yanked her hands apart, straightening her features. “I’m fine, Princess. If you’re done, we need to be making out way out. It won’t be long before people start talking--”

The door swung open behind them. The shopkeeper’s surprised shout reached Cassandra’s ears as she whipped around, left hand already flying towards her sword hilt, and Rapunzel jumped at the sudden wave of action. She grit her teeth, eyes squinting against the sudden stream of light flowing into the dingy dress shop, and tried to make out who’d come in.

When her vision returned, it was to a short, hook-nosed, rat-faced man. A very familiar short, hook-nosed, rat-faced man.

King Trevor adjusted his too-large crown, stroking his blonde goatee, and smiled a slimy grin at them. “Ah, Beatrice, the rumors are true! How lucky for you! Not only do you supply my castle staff, but you also seem to be attracting foreign royal blood. Nay, you’ve been attracting local legends. I must say, when I recieved your message, I wasn't quite sure I believed you.”

“Back off, Trevor,” Cassandra hissed. He hadn’t changed at all since the last time Frederic had called a kingdom-wide meeting a few years ago. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with here.”

“Oh, Cassandra, my lovely dove. How is your father doing?” Trevor peered down his nose at her, poison in his eyes. “I should’ve known you would be the one to escort her! Always knew you had a bright future. Crying shame you’re working for Frederic now.”

Rapunzel stepped forward before Cassandra could answer, smile plastered on her face. Pascal, on the other hand, looked like he might've been plotting a murder. “Hello! You must be the King. Sorry if we’re causing any trouble here!”

“Oh, no trouble at all, pretty princess.” Trevor took one of Rapunzel’s hands in his own, pressing a polite kiss to it and making Cassandra’s stomach flip and Pascal's tail curl. “My my, you do have your mother’s eyes, don’t you?”

Cassandra could feel the tenseness in Rapunzel way before she saw her eye twitch. Still, though, Rapunzel pressed on, that ever-present facade of sunshine covering anything that could be considered impolite. “Ah, I’m not sure? I’ve never seen the Queen…”

The surprise in Trevor’s face was layered on thicker than a noblewoman’s makeup. “Never? Oh, my dear, surely you must be eager to meet your real family after all these years! Walking the roads is no path for a princess, after all-- just look at you! All dirty and scratched up.”

“Actually, I--”

“No, no, say no more, my dear princess. Come with me to the castle. I, the magnanimous King Trevor, shall treat you to every royal luxury you’ve been missing until I can procure a proper team of guards to take you home. Not those Corona idiots that’ve been infesting Equis lately.”

Cassandra could’ve sworn she felt steam coming from her ears. “Your Majesty, I really don’t believe that’s necessary--”

“Silence, peasant! The Princess shall be treated as a royal ought to be, at least for the night.” He held up a hand to quiet her, inspecting his nails instead of seeing her death glare. “As generous as I am, I suppose I can give you board in some of the servants’ quarters as well. But, please, let’s do get a move on. The day is escaping us!”


“Yeah, I don’t think so, buddy.” Cassandra shoved an arm in front of Rapunzel. “The Princess is with me, and she doesn’t buy your crap.”

“Cassandra,” Rapunzel gently pushed her arm down. “He’s only trying to help.”

“Rapunzel, you don’t know this guy,” Cassandra insisted, gesturing at him. Pascal nodded vehemently along with Cassandra's claim. “He’s bad news.”

“I think he’s being really sweet.” Rapunzel smiled down at Trevor. “Some help would be great. There’s no need to get me home, though.”

“Oh, of course, whatever the Princess wishes,” he crooned, taking her hands once again and gently tugging her towards the door. A lump settled in Cassandra’s gut at the sight of several armed guards in the street behind him. “Just come this way, my sweet, and I’ll escort you personally to the castle in my royal carriage. Your, er, handmaiden can ride up with the driver.”

Cassandra sighed, eyeing the men as she followed. Swords, bows, even two with halberds… there was no way she could get them out of this, at least not without the others. She needed backup. 

Fidella nickered at her from beside the shop, her eyes soft and questioning, and Cassandra motioned towards where they’d left Eugene, Lance, and Varian earlier with a tip of her head. Understanding filled the horse’s gaze and she nodded,  eyeing the guards before sneaking around back and trotting down the street.

Gritting her teeth again, Cassandra turned to the far-too opulent carriage, steeling her resolve and hopping up into her seat. The driver gave her a judgmental stare, scooting over to avoid brushing elbows, and flicked the horses’ reins. So much for going unnoticed.



______



Quirin kept his breaths shallow and his footsteps light as he traversed the outer courtyards, sticking to shadows and groves of trees. A single patch of white was his only guide through the pathways, wool glinting in the moonlight as the stranger continued on his way.

It had been three days since his meeting with Frederic. After officially saying his goodbyes and departing back to Old Corona, Quirin circled back to do some scouting. After the first two days, he’d begun to worry that his paranoia was getting the better of him, but this third night he’d finally gotten a glimpse of the stranger. That same woolen vest, the perfectly-trimmed beard, his sly face and smug eyes-- everything about him screamed untrustworthy. Not to mention the fact that he walked around in a cloak during the daytime and slunk around guards.

They finally emerged into the royal family’s personal garden. The stranger kept walking up towards the gazebo where Frederic and Arianna often ate breakfast together, and when Quirin looked close enough, he could actually make out several other figures waiting for him inside.

He was too far away to hear what they were saying, but the buzz of conversation didn’t escape him, and Quirin’s suspicions only grew as he watched the meeting transpire. He couldn’t risk taking them on here; he was rusty, after all, and he didn’t know how trained the lot of them were. They could have a mage with them, for all he knew. No, the only option for now was to wait and watch. Sometime or another, they'd slip, and Quirin could catch at least one of them alone.

So, he hunkered down and watched.

Chapter Text

Rapunzel was, needless to say, uncomfortable.

King Trevor’s castle was a fabulous show, full of paintings and gold trim and gleaming marble. If she’d had something to paint with, she’d have sat down right then and there and copied down everything she saw to keep for the rest of her life. However, simple finery didn’t cover up the fact that Trevor himself reeked distinctly of slimeball.

She tried to be polite. She really did. But it was getting hard. When Rapunzel shied away from his touch once, however, there entered such a hard gleam in his eyes that she didn’t try again. Something inside her screamed that this wasn’t good, but it was so easy to fall back into her submissive, yielding routine.

Cassandra, on the other hand, wasn’t fazed a bit by the palace or by whatever intentions lurked beyond his facade of generous host. Rapunzel spotted her tensing multiple times, especially once when Trevor made a grab for her hair-- commenting on its beauty or something along those lines-- and even Pascal issued a couple of warning hisses.

Finally, having reached a large parlor-type chamber and ushered onto a plush sofa to rest, Rapunzel took in a breath and looked to King Trevor, sitting across a low table from his guests. Guards flanked all three exits, armor gleaming in the tasteful ambient lighting of the room. “I appreciate you taking us here, I really do, but I have other friends down in the city. They’ll be looking for me.”

“Oh, don’t worry, sweet princess. I know all about your little thief entourage! You’ll be safe here, I assure you-- I’ve already got a team of guards on their trail.”

Cassandra tensed beside her, and Rapunzel’s chest tightened. An icy knife jabbed into her stomach. “A-- no, no, they’re my friends! They’re helping me!”

“My dear Rapunzel,” Trevor lay a hand over his heart. “Forgive me for being so brash, but you are just a child. I do not expect you to know when people are taking advantage of you, or are not worthy of your time. In that respect, you are again much like your mother.”

Rapunzel grit her teeth, and she felt Pascal dig his back feet into her shoulder as if he were preparing to jump. Cassandra lurched forward, mouth already opening to spit out an insult, but Rapunzel lay a hand on her arm. They locked eyes, and she shook her head; it wouldn’t do to make Trevor angry.

When Cassandra backed off, gaze still hard and icy, Rapunzel took a deep breath in. “Your Majesty, I really don’t have any wish to go to Corona at the moment. There is something I have to do before I return.”

He leaned forward, smile thin and impatient. “Rapunzel, I believe you forget that you are in my kingdom. As you have not officially claimed your status as Coronan princess, you have no authority here by any measure, either.”

“What are you trying to say?” Cassandra butted in. The guards around them all startled to attention, and Rapunzel glanced to them with bated breath.

“I’m not trying to say anything, my girl. I’m declaring that you and the Princess will stay here until I can get a travel party ready, and you will leave for Corona when it is time.”

That fell heavy on the both of them, Cassandra returning to her seat while Rapunzel curled in on herself. She could feel Cassandra’s anger simmering just under her skin, charged in her tense muscles; one of them had to give before she went off like a bomb, and Rapunzel had a sinking feeling that Trevor wasn’t the type to give up.

Besides, protesting wouldn’t do any good. They could come up with a plan to escape later. For now… she’d just have to play his game.

“Okay. You win. But if you please, we’re very tired from the road.” Rapunzel raised her bare feet, caked in dust and dried mud, to punctuate her point. He recoiled with a disgusted wrinkle of his nose. “Could you just send out an invitation? I don’t think I could travel right now. We were planning on taking a break in Equis, you see.”

Cassandra eyed her, suspicious, but Trevor didn’t pick up on anything. He simply clapped his hands twice, casting a glance to the side. “You heard her, lads! Take these young ladies to the guest rooms!”

Rapunzel winced as the guards stomped up beside her, trying not to think of towers and chains and dark cold chambers, but she didn’t protest-- even when Trevor gave them a chill look and said, “Make sure they’re well guarded.”

She watched Cassandra struggle for a second before quieting down, lips curved in a pensive frown and brows furrowed as the gears turned in her mind. She must’ve had some kind of plan-- either that, or she was working on one. They would have to talk as soon as possible.

Right now, whatever Cassandra had up her sleeve was their best shot, at least until Eugene figured out what was going on.



_____



“I dunno, Lance. I feel like it diminishes my smoulder.”

“You kiddin’?” Lance lay a hand on each of Eugene’s shoulders, looking at both of them in the mirror. “That black eye you’ve got going on is way worse than an eyepatch. And, I mean, look at it! Nice leather, gold designs… that is a fine patch.”

Eugene frowned for a moment longer before sighing, picking at the leather. “I guess. Honestly, I kind of like the eye.”

Lance raised a brow. “You like having a magic black eye.”

“You can’t deny it looks awesome.” Eugene flipped up his patch. “I mean, obviously my original face was much more beautiful and I didn’t have to deal with my vision spazzing out, but as things stand--”

The shop door slammed open.

They spun around to see Varian, fallen flat on his face, in the doorway. Eugene furrowed his brows, while Lance stepped forward. The shopkeeper watched from behind the desk, hand clutched to her heart, but made no effort to check on him. “Little guy? What’s going on?”

“They know we’re here!” Varian shouted, scrambling up to his feet and slipping twice in his haste. Ruddiger scampered in after him, hopping on his back and squeaking up at them. “Guards! Both kinds! They’re after us!”

Eugene bit back a curse, flipping his eyepatch back down and running forward to catch Varian and give him some support as he regained his balance. “How many and how far?”

“I-- I dunno? Twenty or so? And they’re not far behind, we’ve gotta go--”

“Gotcha.” Lance grabbed the kid, ignoring a yell, and slung him over one shoulder. Ruddiger followed in a hurry, perching on the opposite shoulder. “Where’s the horses?”

“Just around the corner where we left them.”

Eugene and Lance didn’t need any more prompting. Ducking their heads outside and looking around for guards, they shot back down the alley, sticking close to the shadows cast by the Equis buildings. Eugene couldn’t hear anything that might hint at a guard troop’s presence, but then, this wasn’t Corona. Equis was known for its superior security. They likely wouldn’t even notice the guards until it was too late.

He could only hope Rapunzel and Cassandra hadn’t been found yet.

They’d just run up to Stelle, Fancy, and Maximus when a whinny came from behind them. Fearing the worst, Eugene ripped out his dagger, turning with a scowl towards the noise--

“Fidella?”

Cassandra’s horse ground to a stop in front of them, dust clouds puffing around her hooves, and nickered at them. Her eyes were wide and imploring, and when he made eye contact, she tossed her mane with another whinny. His stomach dropped.

“Where’s Cass and Rapunzel?” Eugene demanded, while Lance shoved Varian into Stelle’s saddle.

Fidella bared her teeth, stomping her hooves hard enough to kick up more dust. Stelle and Fancy nickered in response while Maximus tilted his head, and Eugene frowned.

Stelle neighed up at Ruddiger, who chittered back, and Varian’s brows lowered. “I think they know the way, you guys,” he said slowly, and Ruddiger turned to look at him with a nod.

Maximus whinnied in affirmation, and Eugene blew out a breath. “Okay, Max. Can you get us there fast? We’ll have to dodge the guards.”

He snorted, stomping one hoof on the ground. Of course I can.

“All right, you guys.” Eugene grabbed hold of Maximus’s reins, and they all turned towards the castle in the distance. That didn’t bode well. “Let’s find the girls and get out of here.”

A glint caught the corner of his eye, and Varian gasped. “Guards!”

“Well, if we don’t get arrested first.” He flicked the reins. “Go, buddy!

They shot through the streets, palace looming closer with each step, and Eugene felt his chest grow heavy when he realized where they were going.

Trevor had found her.



____

 

“Glue!”

“Glue.”

“Rope!”

“...Rope.”

“Ribbon!”

“Rib-- wait. Why do you need a ribbon?”

“To make it pretty, of course.” Rapunzel snatched the purple ribbon up from Cassandra’s hand, fixing it to her contraption in a bow. She planted both hands on her hips, stepping back to admire her creation. “Perfect!”

Cassandra backed up beside her, head tilting to the side and brows so furrowed they nearly met. “...What is it?”

“It’s a…” Rapunzel glanced down at Pascal, who shrugged, then beamed up at Cassandra. “A thingamajig!”

“...’Kay.” Cassandra’s eyes traced the mass of tangled rope, full of tied-up objects and… whatever else she’d put in there. It just looked like a mess to her. “Uh, what does it do?”

“That’s the fun part!” Rapunzel gestured grandly at the door, barely visible through her creation. “If anyone opens that door, they get a face full of glue and paint! That way, we can escape through the window without worry.”

“Um, do you know how the real world works?” Cassandra frowned. “Craft supplies aren’t going to stop the guards, Princess. Besides, the window over there has bars on it.” Not to mention the fact that when it came time for her to return to her own room, she'd be the one going through that door.

Something dark and haunted crossed Rapunzel’s face at the reminder of that, and Pascal stroked her face even as it went pale. Cassandra watched while she sighed, shoulders slumping. “Yeah, you’re right. This was a stupid idea.”

“I-- I didn’t say that ,” Cassandra rushed to reassure her, biting her lower lip. “Any idea is a good idea right now! We, um, we might incapacitate one of the guards with your... thingamajig.”

“No, Cassandra, it’s okay. Don’t lie.” Rapunzel covered her face with her hands, sighing, and falling back on her plushy bed. The room was big and just as refined as the rest of the palace, but it was cold and empty. Just a cell. “I’m just… trying to stay positive. I have to get out of here. It’s suffocating me.”

Cassandra frowned, walking over to settle herself down beside Rapunzel. “Do you, um, want to talk about it?”

She remained silent for a few seconds before heaving another sigh, hands moving from her face to curl over her chest. “Not really. I… I try not to think about it.”

“Oh.” Cassandra tapped her fingers on the bedspread. “Sorry.”

Rapunzel reached up to lift Pascal, holding him in front of her face. “It’s okay. It… none of any of that was your fault. In fact, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here to pretend it never happened in the first place.” Rapunzel grunted, sitting up and drawing her legs up to cross them. “I don’t think I ever thanked you properly for helping Eugene find me. So. Thank you, Cassandra.”

“...It’s Cass. All my friends call me Cass.”

Rapunzel blinked, surprised, before her face broke into a smile. “I’m your friend?”

“I--” Cassandra choked when Rapunzel threw herself forward, bony arms wrapping around her hard enough to knock the air from her lungs. Not knowing what else to do, she raised a tentative hand to pat Rapunzel on the back.

“Thank you,” Rapunzel whispered.

“Uh, no problem, Princess.” Cassandra finally had to scoot back in order to break the hug. “I don’t suppose you’ve had many friends before, huh?”

“I mean, I’ve had Pascal since I was little,” Rapunzel smiled, holding Pascal up for Cassandra to see. “And just recently I met Eugene. So I’m not lonely!”

Cassandra’s heart broke, but she smiled through it. “That’s good to hear. Still, though, I’m glad you’re with us now.”

“I am too,” Rapunzel’s voice grew soft, and she folded her hands in her lap. “It’s been amazing so far, traveling with all of you. I mean, it’s only been a day or two, but you’re all such lovely people, and, and…”

Cassandra’s eyes widened. “Princess, are you crying? Don’t-- don’t cry!”

“I’m sorry,” Rapunzel gave her a watery smile, though Cassandra could see just how hard she struggled to keep it up. “I just-- it feels like a dream, you know? Last night, I didn’t want to go to sleep because I felt like I’d wake up and lose all of you again. I’d be back with Moth-- with Gothel.”

“Princess…”

“Call me Rapunzel,” she interrupted, lips fading into a serious curve. “Please. Just-- don’t call me by what I am. My name’s Rapunzel. That’s all.”

“...Of course.” Cassandra reached a hand out to lay it on her shoulder. “We’ll get out of here, Rapunzel. I swear.”

“I know we will.” Rapunzel wiped her eyes, turning her head towards the window. “Eugene’s going to come for us. We just… need to wait.”

“Doesn’t mean we can’t keep looking for an escape route,” Cassandra pointed out, mouth pulling into a grin. “I don’t know about you, but I’m no damsel in distress. In fact, I think I have an idea.”

Rapunzel blinked, then mirrored her expression, and Pascal squeaked in curiosity. “Really? What is it?”

Cassandra’s expression became smug. “Listen here…”



______



Ho-ly cannoli, guys, I think we lost them,” Lance laughed disbelievingly, peeking out past the row of pillars they’d hidden behind. King Trevor’s royal garden was spacious and well-decorated, a fact that worked immensely in their favor. “Look at ‘em. They’re so confused.”

“Now is not the time to be smug, Lance.” Eugene glanced over to the grove of trees where all three horses had hidden. Spotting Maximus through the branches, hooves planted on the trunk and neck straining up, he winced. Of course it had to be an apple orchard. “We need to get into the castle. Any ideas?”

“Well, I mean, we could always sneak into that huge tower,” Varian pointed upward towards the castle. Following his line of vision, Eugene’s eyes-- or, rather, eye -- landed on the palace’s tallest turret. It pierced the sky like an arrow, thin and looming against the expanse of dimming blue. A tiny window, dark and empty-looking from here, sat nestled at the very top. “It looks unguarded.”

“For a reason, little guy.” Lance gave him a pointed look. “Eugene and I could totally get up there, but you? No offense, but I don’t think you could make it halfway.”

He looked put out for a minute before sighing. There was something quiet and melancholy behind his eyes. “Yeah, you’re right. I’d just weigh you guys down if we tried that… and the horses can’t climb, anyway.”

“I wouldn’t put climbing beyond Max,” Eugene shook his head, aware of Varian’s sudden despondent mood. Trying to change the subject, he continued, “But we’d get spotted trying to scale the tower in broad daylight. We’d do better trying to get in through the servants’ quarters.”

“Oooh,” Lance looked away from the squabbling guards to cast Eugene a knowing grin. “Reverse Harriet?”

Eugene tipped his head back and forth like a scale. “Eh, we don’t have the build for it like we used to. We wouldn’t pass it off.” Then his gaze traveled to Varian, and his lips stretched into a wide grin. “But he might.”

Varian looked between them with a squint, then his eyes blew wide. Ruddiger tilted his head, a silent question. “Please tell me we’re going to steal a horse or something.”

Lance’s smile was devious. “Remember that chapter in Two Rogues where Harriet sneaks into a male-only bandit camp?”

Varian went stock-still for all of three seconds before slumping. “Oh no.”



______



The Coronan royal gardens were dark and quiet, peppered with fireflies over a pond and flitting around several blooming fruit trees. Its serenity was broken only by the hum of crickets and frogs, while a few beams of scant light came from the distant hanging lanterns around the castle perimeter. 

Andrew tore his eyes from the peaceful sight and folded his hands in front of him, smiling easily as he settled into his chair. “How’s the plan coming along?”

In the shadowy gazebo, Clementine’s round, wrinkled face looked eerie, and her beady eyes glinted orange. “We’re still locating a wand. Kai’s already got several leads on his own, and the rest of the team is all dispatched throughout Corona and beyond. We’re sure to find one within the month, perhaps even so soon as next week.”

“Wonderful.” Andrew pulled his hair free of its bun, toying with the string between his fingers. “But why call a meeting if there’s no real news?”

“But there is.” She leaned forward, nearly her whole body lifting over the table just to get close enough to whisper. There was something manic in her crooked smile. “You know you’re being followed, don’t you, Hubert?”

“It’s Andrew here,” he reminded her, gentle but firm, before relenting. “And of course I know. Do you think I’m stupid?”

“Of course not,” she waved a hand, soft cackle making her shoulders bob. “I wouldn’t follow you if I did. But sometimes even the wisest people can miss things. Do you know who it is?”

“No, but I do know that he’s cautious.” Andrew fought the urge to glance down at the shrubs in the distance, where the slightest hint of a figure lay hidden. “He never moves from his spot. Just watches. For the past four meetings, he’s just been crouching there, waiting for some kind of opportunity.”

“Perhaps we should give him one,” Clementine mused, fiddling with the collar of her robes. “Do you think we could take him?”

“If I’m honest…?” Andrew shrugged. “Probably. But we’re in a really good place right now. If we’re going to risk drawing attention, then we need to do it with the best odds possible, and that means having all of our team as well as the Wand.”

“Good point.” She clasped her hands together, tiny form wriggling in some kind of excited dance. “Ooh, I can’t wait to try it out!”

“Try to contain your excitement,” Andrew smirked. “We won’t be using it all the time. The plan must progress slowly and carefully if it’s to succeed.”

“I know, I know,” she gave him a dismissive wave. “Saporians are cunning and patient, blah blah blah. Just let me be excited over getting my new wand for a second.”

He shook his head, reaching to put his hair back up. “Well, if that’s all you wanted to tell me--”

“Wait,” Clementine held up a hand, stopping him before he could rise from his chair. “One more thing. Someone caught me on my way here-- someone I think you may want to meet. She agreed to wait outside the castle grounds, but she can’t hang around, so it has to be tonight.”

Andrew raised a brow. “Really? Do we know her?”

Clementine’s lips twisted into a wide, wiry smile. “Boss, I think the whole kingdom knows her. I mean…” she leaned back in her chair, pudgy fingers steepling like some kind of storybook villain's. 

“Who hasn’t heard of Lady Caine?”

 

Chapter Text

Vex’s heart thudded in her chest. Her throat was sore from breathing so hard for so long, and her legs burned, threatening to give up and fall out from under her. She could barely wind through the trees anymore, let alone find her way back to the village she and Adira had been staying near that night.

At last, her body gave out, and she fell to the ground. The grass was nice and soft under her, thankfully, but she couldn’t appreciate it. Everything hurt, and she could feel the blood soaking into her shirt from the cut on her left side. 

She rolled over, squinting up at the sky above. Stars winked back at her, a dusting of tiny quartz shards; the moon was a haunting crescent in the distance, casting just enough light for her to make out silhouettes. Otherwise, the woods around Vex were dark and empty. There was no trace of the village or of Adira-- but then, there was also no trace of her pursuer, so that was one upside.

Vex lay there for a few minutes, waiting until her breath evened out a little and the throbbing in her side petered off to a manageable intensity. Peeling up her shirt a little, she frowned, fumbling around for the tiny pink vial Varian gave her way back in Vardaros. She shook it, and a flood of pink light revealed a shallow cut-- just a scratch, really. It hurt, and badly, but it shouldn’t slow her down too much. She could still defend herself.

“I have the worst luck with these things,” she grumbled, glancing down at the scars still present on her ankles. “First the stupid snake, now this.”

Shaking her head, Vex held up the vial, soft glow reflecting off the trees. After a few minutes of searching around, she caught sight of a break in the woods. Just a thin path, but one she could follow, and maybe get back to the village. Hopefully Adira would be there.

A growl reached her ears.

Vex shot up onto her feet, ignoring the wave of dizziness that came with it, and yanked out her blades. Backing up against one of the thicker trees, she scanned the area, looking for any sign of movement in her tiny sphere of light.

Nothing. There was nothing. Had she just imagined the sound?

Vex grit her teeth, still gripping her weapons, and inched toward the path. Still nothing. Maybe she had just imagined it.

Then she turned around, fully ready to just dash out, and her heart stopped.

The bearcat growled one more time before leaping.



______



All in all?

Varian decided he didn’t mind a dress that much.

Sure, it was foreign and not to his tastes. He wouldn’t wear it given another choice. But he couldn’t say it felt bad , especially while he still wearing his trousers under it. If anything really bothered him, it was the fact that he had to take his gloves and goggles off to sell the image.

The servant uniform was simple, a white frock with gold trim along the hems. A handmaid’s veil kept his short hair from view, and his long fringe in the front made it believable that he had more in the back. At the age he was, and being as skinny as he was, he had to agree with Lance and Eugene-- he passed for a younger girl pretty well.

That didn’t mean he felt confident about it.

Now, wandering the halls of King Trevor’s castle, Varian was completely and utterly lost. He kept tailing other servants in hopes that they’d lead him somewhere, but since leaving the servants’ quarters, he’d lost all sense of direction. He didn’t even know what floor he was on.

How could anyone live in a place as huge as this? He wondered to himself, glancing left and right down two identical hallways. There weren’t even any markers! Every time he picked something to act as a landmark of sorts, he’d round another corner to find the exact same flower vase or table or door or what-have-you. The only things that varied were the paintings, and they were so few and far between out here in the outer parts of the castle that it hardly made a difference.

“If I were Rapunzel, where would I be…?” he whispered to himself. He glanced back at where Ruddiger hid behind a decorative suit of armor, frowning when he just shrugged.

“Wait a moment, young lady!”

Varian jumped, reaching for where his alchemy bag usually lay on his hip out of instinct. It took a second for him to remember that he was a palace servant girl, not a fugitive alchemist , but that was long enough for the guard to get suspicious.

Decked out in shiny armor and armed with a nondescript broadsword, the guard was an imposing sight. It didn’t help when he squinted down his nose at Varian, lips puckering behind his bushy brown mustache. “Are you new here?”

“I, uh,” Varian coughed into his fist. He’d perfected his voice before coming in here, but now that he was faced with actually talking to someone, it proved harder to remember. Even when it came back to him, the words came out a little squeaky. “Yes, sir. I just got here, um, yesterday.”

He stared down at the boy for a second longer before laughing. “Poor girl, you don’t have to be so skittish. What’s the matter?”

Relief washed over him in a cool wave, but he remained tense in case he had to turn tail and run. The guard believed him-- his disguise held up, at least under slight scrutiny. A good sign. “I’m just a little lost, sir.”

“Ah, I can understand that. Believe me, I got lost a time or two in here when I was first in training. Where are you heading?”

“That’s just it. I’m not sure.” Varian crossed his arms and lowered his eyes, adopting as shy and feminine a pose as he could think of, then tried not to burst out laughing at how ridiculous he felt. He succeeded-- externally, at least. “I’m supposed to attend to the Princess? Something about being young and a better match than the other maids.”

The guard stroked his mustache, thinking. It took a heart-pounding minute for him to nod. “His Majesty probably doesn’t want to intimidate the guests. I can see the logic of sending a child.” He turned, pointing down the hall to Varian’s right. “Down that hall, two left turns, and go up the stairs. First door to the right is the princess’s, next one is her handmaid’s.”

He assumed that meant Cassandra-- though, whoever had the nerve to call her a ‘handmaid’ had better take some self-defense classes before she caught wind of it. That thought alone was enough to make Varian beam up at the guard. “Thank you, sir! You’re a lifesaver.”
“No problem, little lady.” He smiled back. “Just ask around if you get lost again, all right? Us staff have to help each other out, especially when His Majesty goes nuts.”

“Uh, of course.” Varian waved, then made his way down the hall, trying to keep his boots from thumping too heavily on the marble floors.

“Oh-- one more thing?”

Varian froze.

“I don’t know what happened to your face, but don’t hesitate to tell anyone around here if you feel threatened, all right? We castle staff, we’re a family, and family takes care of family. Especially the children.”

Oh. The bruise. Varian had almost-- almost-- forgotten it was there. With a knot in his stomach, he cast a shaky smile over his shoulder and nodded. “Yeah. I will. Thanks.”

Finally, he had a lead.



______



“What’s taking the little guy so long?” Lance groaned, leaning against the back of the wardrobe. He barely missed hitting his head on the shelves above. “I can’t stay here forever. My everything’s starting to cramp.”

“Maybe this was a bad idea.” Eugene glanced over at the alchemy bag settled between them-- stuffed with Varian’s shirt, jacket, goggles, and gloves. “I mean, kid’s never robbed a castle before. He might have never even stepped foot in one.”

Lance ran a hand down his face. “Oh, he’s lost. He’s so lost. Eugene, we’re terrible big brothers.”

“We don’t know he’s lost,” Eugene rubbed his chin. “Still, though… it might be in our best interests to come up with a plan B. We can take a stealth approach.”

Lance turned to look at him, both brows raised. “Have you already forgotten how hard it was just to sneak in here ? Trevor’s got the place on lockdown!”

“Excuse you, Lance, but we just so happen to be the world’s most elite thieving duo. If anyone can do it, it’s us.” Eugene tilted his head to the side, peering through a gap between the hinges. The servants’ quarters were still deserted; everyone seemed to be busy today. Doing what, he didn’t know, but he was glad for it: that meant the hallways would likely be empty. As long as they didn’t wander into wherever people were gathering, all they’d have to worry about were the guards. “Okay. Either we can both go together or one of us can stick it out here in case Varian does come back. What do you want to do?”

“Well, the kid knows where to go,” Lance shrugged. “Horses are just outside. If you ask me, we could get in and out no problem.”

“Both of us it is.” Eugene reached for the handle, then paused. “We’re looking for Cass and Rapunzel, not treasure. Just reminding you.”

Lance waved dismissively. “Oh yeah, sure, of course. No treasure. Got it.”

“Just don’t draw attention if you don’t have to.”  Eugene pushed the door open with a creak, peeking out for a second before unfolding himself from the wardrobe cubby. Lance followed with a painful crack of his back, rolling his shoulders.

Eugene had just reached for the door to the rest of the castle when the knob wriggled.

The air left Eugene’s lungs. He seized Lance by the arm and pulled him off to the side just in time for the door to swing open, trapping them. He pressed himself up against the wall as tightly as he could, holding his breath, and listened to the footsteps on the other side.

“This is the third time today,” a female voice sighed. There was a soft rustle of cloth, then a strange sound-- brushing hair, he realized. “I love that seal, but he doesn’t know his own weight. Do you know how much effort I put into my hair this morning?”

“We all did, Trisha. We all did.” Another lady. “His Majesty really should train the thing better. If he keeps jumping on everyone like a dog, there’s no way nobles will put up with him at parties and meetings.”

Eugene traded a glance with Lance, tipping his head towards the doorway. Lance nodded, inching out of their hiding place. Peeking out to make sure they were clear, they slipped into the room, keeping their footsteps and breathing as light as possible. The women were both turned away from the door, one of them working on rebraiding the other’s hair, but they couldn’t afford to be anything but cautious.

Slowly, slowly, they slipped into the hallway. When they were finally clear, Eugene puffed out a quiet laugh, hand landing on Lance’s shoulder. “Told you we can still work together.”

“Never doubted it.” Lance’s hands found his hips, and he looked side to side down the hall. “Which way?”

“Well, if they’re keeping the girls anywhere, it’ll be in a tower. So…” Trying to imagine the castle’s layout from inside, Eugene hummed, pointing down the right hall. “Down there, I think.”

“Gotcha. Treasure-- I mean, Princess, here we come!”

Rolling his eyes, Eugene followed.



______



“You have to be more careful about these things, Vex.”

She hissed as Adira pressed the cloth to her wound once again, then sighed, laying her head back on the pillow. She stared over at the candle on her bedside table, the only other furniture in the dark cottage room. “Yeah, I know.”

“You shouldn’t have tried to take it on by yourself.”

“I know.”

“Hector’s beasts are just as sadistic as he is. Now that I’ve had to injure one of them, his wrath is only going to be worse--”

“I know, Mom ,” Vex grunted, rolling her eyes. A hot spike of pain erupted in her side in response, and she shouted, her whole body jolting. “ Ow!”

“Take this seriously.” Adira’s voice was dark and serious, her eyes hard shards of ice. After a moment, she sighed, folding the now-reddened cloth and setting it aside before reaching for a roll of bandages. “You’re young, and you’re not used to having someone telling you what to do. I understand that. But, Vex, I need you to understand that I chose you, and that means I’d be rather distressed if you went and died on me.”

When Vex didn’t answer, Adira let out a slow, steady breath through her nose. A few minutes passed in silence as she worked on her bandages, finally snipping the end off with a pair of clippers and setting everything aside. “You have to stay with me at all times. Right now, you’re the weak link between the two of us, and Hector will want to come after you.”

“Yeah, I get it.” Vex reached for her necklace, rolling the vial between her fingers. Every time she looked at it, something tugged at her-- like a memory she couldn’t recall. Something about it made her feel special. Like it had been made for her in some way, despite the fact that she’d picked it out from everything Varian had on him. “Sorry.”

Adira’s eyes softened, and she smiled, rising from her knees. “...We need to find you some different clothes. You’ve worn those out.”

“Gosh, you think?” Vex turned back to look at her, brow raised, but her tiny smirk let Adira know she was just joking. Then she sobered, crossing her arms as she sat up. “Do you carry around any money in that huge coat? I mean, I’ve seen you take cheese out of that thing, but never any coins.”

Adira’s lips curved into an amused grin. “I always carry a little just in case, yes. Wait here and rest. I’ll be back soon.”

“Oh, but…” Vex tapped her lip, pretending to think. “Y’know, I could’ve sworn… there was something you said… something like you have to stay with me at all times ?”

“Don’t make me throw you back in the woods.” Adira winked, backing up towards the door. “I won’t go far, don’t worry. Just get some rest so your side can heal. When you’re up for it again, I’m teaching you how to block and dodge.”

“I know how to do that already!” Vex called after her, then laughed, turning over to snuggle deeper into the covers. She wouldn’t lie; after following Adira’s intense schedule and sleeping around six hours a night for a week straight, a nap sounded pretty nice.

Clutching the tiny vial in one hand, she drifted off to sleep, unaware of the eyes peering into her window from a distant rooftop.



_______



“Okay! The plan is a go!” Rapunzel whisper-yelled, freckles bunching up as she grinned. She bounced up and down on the remains of her disassembled bed. “Ready?”

“Born ready,” Cassandra hefted the gigantic bedpost under one arm, sinking down a little in preparation. Royal beds were really oversized, especially considering Trevor saw fit to make the frame out of solid marble to match the castle columns. Ridiculous. “One.”

“Two!”

“Three.” Sucking in a breath, Cassandra braced herself, then took off across the room.

The door didn’t stand a chance. The crash reverberated down the halls, loud enough that Rapunzel wondered just how much of the castle heard. Nevertheless, she hopped off the bed, reaching Cassandra’s side just in time to catch her gasp.

Outside, of course, were two guards-- whom Cassandra had torn down the metal curtain hangers to deal with-- but there was also a third, shorter figure. A very familiar one.

“... Kid ?” Cassandra asked, even as she slammed a hanger into one guard’s face and

turning around to sweep the other’s legs out from under him. “What are you doing here? In that ?”

Rapunzel pushed past her, reaching out to grab Varian and pull him into a bone-crushing hug. Well, it would’ve been bone-crushing, had she possessed the strength for it. “Oh, Varian! I’m so glad you’re here! Where are Eugene and Lance?”

“Hiding,” he mumbled down at his feet. Now that Cassandra had taken care of the guards, Ruddiger had jumped out from somewhere in the shadows, rubbing around his legs like a cat. “They sent me up here. Um. They wouldn’t really fit the disguise.”

Cassandra snorted. “Ah, that’s a funny thought. Lance and Eugene in a dress.” Kicking one of the guards away from her, she turned on Varian, amusement dancing behind her carefully-constructed mask. “Where are they?”

“I’m sure they’d look terrific in whatever they wanted to wear, Cass ,” Rapunzel pursed her lips in a sassy expression before turning back to Varian and smiling. “But yeah, we need to get to Lance and Eugene. You know where they are, right?”

“Uh, yeah…” Varian glanced down the hall. “You do know there are guards coming, don’t you?”

Cassandra cursed. She snatched both swords from the fallen guards, holding one in each hand. “Run, you guys. I’ll take care of ‘em.”

“How will you get out, though?” Rapunzel asked, already gathering her hair up into a bundle to carry. Varian didn’t say anything, but she could see the same question in his eyes.

“I’ll catch up. Just go already!”

She bit her lip. As much as she hated leaving Cassandra behind, she was still too weak to help, and Varian-- well. They both needed to get out of there. Nodding, she grabbed Varian’s hand and pulled him into a run.

“Do you know how to get back out of here?” Varian shouted. “‘Cause I’m lost.”

“I think I remember the way out!” Rapunzel glanced back. “Where are Lance and Eugene?”

“Servants’ quarters, but we can send Ruddiger in from outside to get them.”

“Then let’s get out of here.” Spotting a window, Rapunzel dropped Varian’s hand, scanning their surroundings for anything heavy. A decorative suit of armor yielded a steel halberd, which she hefted with some difficulty. “Get back!”

Varian, alarmed and confused in equal measure, scrambled to the opposite wall. Rapunzel backed up as well, lifting the weapon like she’d seen Cass do with the bedpost earlier. Counting to three in her mind, Rapunzel took in a sharp breath, then jabbed it forward into the window.

Varian stared. “...You know, we could’ve just opened it.”

Rapunzel’s brows knit. “What?”
“All the windows aren’t locked.” Varian stepped up to the window, broken glass crunching under his boots, and undid the latch. Its ragged remains swung open effortlessly.

“Oh.” Rapunzel shrugged, unfolding her hair and rearing back. With a hard grunt, she launched it out the window, years of practice making it easy to lasso one of the beams just above them coming from the roof.

Then she grabbed Varian by the waist. He’d been watching with a mix of curiosity and bafflement so far, but now, there was nothing but fear on his face. “What are you doing!?”

Rapunzel grinned down at him. “Just hold on!”

A moment later, they were swinging out of the castle, Varian screaming the whole way.



______




“Glad to see you finally made it.”

Andrew crossed his arms. The woman was deathly pale, a cold ice to her eyes as she twirled a dagger between her fingers that made him wary. He could tell, just by looking at her, that this wasn’t someone he could trust. Still… if the rumors were true in any measure, it would be in his best interests to listen. “I don’t work on your schedule. Clementine says you wanted to talk?”

“Yep.” She popped the P, lips curving into something sharp-- more scythe than smile. Red curls, escapees from a tight bun, bounced on her forehead like winding streams of blood. Out here in the middle of the night, just outside the castle walls, it produced a striking contrast. “People tell me you’re looking to take down old King Freddie.”

“Yeah. Have a problem?”

“Who, me? Nah.” Caine smiled, bringing the dagger up in front of her throat. “I’m here to help. Got something to say to His Majesty.”

She yanked it through the air, gliding just a hair’s breadth from her skin.

Andrew smiled. “Let's talk.”

Chapter Text

“Eugene,” Lance huffed, leaning heavily against the stone wall of the tower. “Eugene, are you sure Trevor’s keeping them all the way up here?”

“Well, I mean, it’s the highest point in the castle,” Eugene pointed out, trying not to wheeze. He’d always been in fantastic shape, but this… this was a whole new level of exertion. Just who exactly had any reason to go up this many steps? “And if I know Trevor, he’ll keep a high-profile ‘guest’ in the most hard-to-reach place he can find, short of the dungeons.”

“Still,” Lance finally had to stop and catch his breath. “Isn’t Rapunzel really weak right now? How would she climb all these stairs?”

“Look, we’re almost to the top now. Let’s just take a peek. If she and Cass aren’t in there, then we’ll leave.” Eugene glanced over his shoulder, watching as Lance groaned and pushed himself back off the wall. “And then go find Varian, wherever he ended up.”

There was no response, but then, he wasn’t watching for rude gestures.

When they finally reached the top, huffing and puffing, Eugene reached for his dagger and Lance his new sword. Trading a glance with his friend, Eugene reached for the doorknob, staring down the heavy oak door with a twisting stomach. Up here in a tower, urgency making every nerve in his body tingle… it was familiar, and not in a good way.

He swung the door open, knife arm ready to swing.

A lump blinked back at him.

“Is that… a seal?” Lance pushed past Eugene, mouth open and eyes shining. The seal barked at him, clapping its flippers, and he sank to his knees to pet it. “Hey, little buddy! What are you doing all the way up here?”

“...A seal. Trevor keeps a seal in his highest and most protected tower.” Eugene dragged a hand down his face. “Of course. Just… of course he does. Why wouldn’t he?”

“Eugeeeeene,” Lance turned to him, bottom lip poking out. The seal mirrored his expression perfectly… somehow. “We can’t just leave him here.”

“Do you want to carry him all the way back down?” Eugene crossed his arms, brow raising. “Because I’m not.”

“Nah, he can get down the stairs by himself. It’s a downward incline.” Lance scratched under the seal’s chin. “Right, buddy?”

The seal barked in agreement, and Eugene huffed. “Fine. Just-- you’re the one taking care of it, all right? We need to get go--”

The sound was distant. Quiet. Most people would’ve discounted it for now, perhaps even not notice it.

But Eugene had spent most of his life listening for the sound of armor clanking and deep voices echoing down the halls.

Lance turned to him, and Eugene felt his insides twist.

They were trapped.



______



“Can you get in?” Rapunzel asked, leaning down to try and get a better look through the passage. No luck, though-- Varian’s skirts completely blocked her view.

“Well, Ruddiger hasn’t made any servant girls scream yet, so I think we’re good.” He wriggled back out of the grate, rubbing the grime from his face, and glanced up at her. “Yell if you see any guards, okay? I’ll be right back out with Lance and Eugene. They should still be hiding in there.”

“Don’t worry! We’ve got this covered.” She grinned, gesturing to the four horses behind her. “Five sets of eyes will be able to spot anything.”

“Still. Be careful.” Varian sucked in a breath before ducking back into the grate. This time, he clambered all the way through, the sound of his knees hitting the metal making Rapunzel wince.

Stelle whinnied after him, stepping forward, and Fancy nuzzled the side of her face. Rapunzel frowned, brows furrowing, and reached up to stroke the horse’s mane. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, he’s coming back.”

Maximus, who’d been craning his neck to peer through the decorative trees at the courtyard, glanced back to nicker. Stelle’s eyes dropped, and she pawed at the ground with one of her hooves.

Rapunzel frowned. “Max, are you scolding her?”

Fidella tossed her mane, head bobbing in agreement with Rapunzel. Fancy joined in too, and soon Rapunzel found herself in the middle of what could only be described as an argument. She glanced down at Pascal, and they shared a look before he shrugged.

“Hey, Rapunzel?” Varian’s voice emanated from the grate, tearing her attention from the horses. “I think we have a problem.”

She leaned down, peering through the grate at Varian as he climbed out. He’d shed the dress, now back in his jacket and dragging his alchemy bag behind him. “What do you mean? What’s wrong?”

She backed up, watching as he tumbled back out of the passage. Ruddiger followed with a chitter, but… no Eugene or Lance. Understanding settled over Rapunzel just as he answered: “They’re gone. I don’t know where.”

“That’s not good,” Rapunzel wrung her hands. “Do you think the guards got them?”

“Maybe?” Varian adjusted his goggles, glancing at Ruddiger as he nosed around in the bushes. “Oh, man, what are we gonna do? Cassie’s not here either… we’re alone .”

“I’m sure Cassandra has a plan,” Rapunzel didn’t sound convinced, even to herself. “Um… maybe we should just wait here?”

“No, no, that won’t work…” Varian groaned, running a hand through his bangs. “The guards will be out looking for us. If we stay here, they’ll--”

Ruddiger’s screech cut Varian off. The horses fell abruptly silent, and they all turned just in time to see the glint of armor from the courtyard. Rapunzel’s heart lurched at the sight, and Varian’s face went white as paper.

“Ooookay. That is-- that’s not good. We gotta get out of here.” Varian sucked on his teeth, eyes darting from side to side. “Where do you think we should go?”

“Hold on.” Rapunzel padded closer, tilting her head to get a better look. At least ten guards had gathered outside, but they weren’t approaching them. In fact, they seemed to be making slow progress towards the royal gardens, with…

“Cass,” Rapunzel breathed. She looked over her shoulder, meeting Varian’s wide blue eyes.

“What?”

They’ve got Cass !”



_______



“Well,” Lance sighed. “I’ve enjoyed our time together. You’ve been like a brother to me. Truly, I believe meeting you was the most valuable--”

“Buddy, you don’t have to butter up the seal. It doesn’t care that you’re stealing all its treasure.” Eugene fiddled again with the ropes, pulling them taut around the pegs he’d wedged just under the windowsill. The heavy, clanking footsteps outside made every action shaky; he’d escaped out of high windows before, but somehow, having Rapunzel to think about made everything seem somehow more dangerous. More real. “Mind helping me out a little here?”

“You’re the escape artist, Eugene. Besides, I have to figure out a way to carry Clovis and all this stuff down the rope.”

“Clovis?” Eugene huffed. “You’re not keeping the thing. Why would you name it?”

“Who says I’m not keeping it?”

“Oh, I dunno, our lack of seal food and transportation? Or the fact that there is no way you’re getting him out of--” The doorknob rattled, and the pile of furniture they’d used to barricade the door wobbled. Paling, Eugene pulled the last of the rope in place and darted for the window. Muttering a quick prayer under his breath, he swung himself out the window, scrabbling for a moment before his boots found purchase on the stone wall outside. “Lance, c’mon! And leave the seal!”

Lance pouted, petting ‘Clovis’ one last time before following. “I’ll be back for you, buddy!”

“No you won’t!” Eugene shouted up. The knob rattled again, this time accompanied by shouting and heavy blows to the door-- likely a kick. “Hurry!”

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Lance swung out behind him, pockets bulging with coins and jewelry and who-knew-what-else. He’d question why the seal had all those things locked up with it, but then, this was Trevor they were dealing with. “We heading back to the hiding spot?”

“It’s our only way back in,” Eugene huffed, climbing down as fast as he possibly could. Above, he could hear furniture toppling off their barricade, along with a stream of barking from the seal. “And who knows? Maybe Varian succeeded and he’s back there already.”

“I hope so. Y’know, I’m missing the little guy already.”

“I--” Eugene stopped midsentence when something caught his eye.

“What?” Lance’s brows furrowed. “What are you looking at?”

Then the rope vibrated, and he looked over his shoulder to see a guard standing in the window. Lance’s mouth dropped open, and both of them tensed when the guard wedged his sword up under the rope, a smug smile playing at his mouth.

“He wouldn’t,” Lance mumbled under his breath.

The guard yanked his blade, the rope snapped, and the world fell out from under them.

Eugene couldn’t help it. He screamed at the top of his lungs, a sound of pure terror that he wasn’t sure he’d ever actually made in his life. The wind whistled in his ears as he plummeted through the air, hair whipping at his face and his vision already growing fuzzy from pure fear. In that moment, he saw his life flash before his eyes even as his stomach filled with lead-- snatching cherry tarts with Lance, stealing his first comb, stealing his first horse, taking off with Rapunzel’s crown, climbing her tower…

In fact, so many of his best memories featured Rapunzel that when he fell into a cocoon of gold, not even the painful shock running through his body could convince him that he was really seeing correctly.

“Eugene!” Rapunzel gasped, from breathlessness as well as surprise. Her arms were shaking from the effort of holding up her hair, even strung up in the trees as it was, and he could feel himself being slowly lowered towards the ground. “Lance!”

“Princess!” Lance shot up right away, huge grin on his face even as Fancy nuzzled him hard enough to push him over a step or two. “You’re okay!”

She flashed him a smile-- though a wary one, as if he’d said something wrong-- before turning to Eugene. Pascal gave a concerned squeak at his condition, and Rapunzel frowned. “Are you okay? Did you get hurt?”

“Sunshine,” he shuddered out. He wanted to get up, to wrap her in a hug, to kiss the top of her head and repeat that she was all right and safe and okay. But all he could get out was, “I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“Gross. Do it over there, outside the hammock.” Lance hopped right up, seemingly unfazed, and tugged Eugene to his feet with minimal effort. The world still spun in Eugene’s eyes, and his feet were unsteady under him, but he was alive. “Glad we found you, Princess! And little guy! I guess that means you succeeded, huh?”

“Obviously not as you were expecting,” Varian replied dryly. Eugene caught his dissatisfied look, along with Ruddiger’s hasty imitation, his little paws crossed over his chest and mouth set in a frown that just looked goofy on his chubby face. “You guys made me put on a dress just to run off on your own?”

“Look, the wardrobe gets really cramped with two grown men in there. Besides, it all worked out!” Lance glanced to his friend. “Right, Eugene?”

“Guys, let’s not argue,” Rapunzel held up one hand before Varian could reply, using the other to tug her hair free of the trees. She gestured at Maximus with a tip of her head, who was staring out into the courtyard alongside Fidella. “They’re keeping an eye on it, but we need to get moving. Cass stayed back to buy us some time to escape, but the guards caught up to her. I don’t know what they’re planning to do, but we can’t let them.”

“Of course someone else is captive again,” Eugene sighed, trying to comb his hair back into place with his fingers. “I’m about done with going into cities like this. We should stick to traveling merchants or something.”

“We can talk about that after we rescue Cass. Until then…” Rapunzel wrapped her hair up into a neat little bundle, frowning as she hefted it. They really needed to find something to help with that. “Max and Fidella should know where to go. We need to grab her and get out of Equis.”

“Especially before the Corona guards catch wind of all of this. I saw them prowling around earlier, and it won’t be long until they hear about Cassie.” Varian tugged on his jacket collar. “You guys have any ideas?”

“Other than mount the horses and blitz in there?” When everyone turned to Lance with incredulous faces, he just shrugged. “I mean, it’s an option.”

“Yeah, if we want to get the horses stabbed.” Maximus tossed his mane at that, while the others answered with a chorus of displeased neighs. Eugene shook his head. “No, I’ll sneak in there and snap her bonds. I’ll just need some kind of distraction.”

“I’ve got you covered in that department.” Varian lifted a small, dark orb from his alchemy bag. “Smoke bombs. With the miracle of science, we’ll get Cassie out of there in--”

“Great. So you smoke up the place, I’ll grab Cass, we get out of here.” Eugene nodded to himself, mind already whirling with possibilities. “Lance, stay close in case anything goes wrong. Same for you, Max. The rest of you, stay out of sight. Especially you, Sunshine.”

Rapunzel scoffed. “Why? I can totally help!”

“You’re barely holding up your own hair. I appreciate the enthusiasm, sweetheart, but wait a few weeks when your strength comes back.” He pulled her into a side hug. “I don’t want you hurting yourself, okay? Besides, the fewer people involved in this, the better.”

“Okay,” she sighed. “Just be careful.”

“For you guys, I will.” Eugene winked down at her, then turned to Maximus and Fidella. “You guys know where she’s at?”

Maximus nickered, raising a hoof down the left of the courtyard, and Eugene nodded. “All right. Let’s do this thing.”



_____



Cassandra had never wanted to punch a man more in her life, and that was saying something.

“So what now, Trevor?” she hissed, glaring at the guards holding her chains. The royal gardens were in full bloom, buzzing with insects and busting with color, but all she could see was red. “Are you gonna throw me in the dungeons?”

“Well, you see, that’s what my adviser told me to do. I, on the other hand, think you would be better suited to the gallows.”

It took a second for those words to register in Cassandra’s brain. When they did, her jaw fell slack, and she felt the air in her lungs grow heavy. 

He was… going to execute her?

Before she could hyperventilate-- or start shouting and kicking, she wasn’t sure which would happen-- Trevor held up a hand. “Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ve decided to do neither of these things. You see, a friend of mine decided to show up just for your sake.”

The circle of guards split just behind Trevor, admitting a very familiar face.

Cassandra gasped. “ Dad ?”

“Honey.” The word was more of a soft breath, a sigh of relief. She could see in his posture the desire to run forward and hug her close, something that made her heart ache. She hadn’t realized how much she missed him. “I don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into, but we’re going home.”

“Dad…” Cassandra shook her head. “I can’t go home yet. I found the Princess, Dad.”

“All the more reason to go back.” He turned to Trevor, hand clasped over his heart. “Majesty, we’ll be leaving now. She won’t bother you here again.”

“I do hope not. She’s proven more trouble than she’s worth.” Trevor clapped his hands. “Someone please bring forth Trevor Junior! He must be here for the departure of our esteemed guests. I told you to fetch him half an hour ago!”

A moment passed before one of the guards stumbled forward, hefting a blob of what Cassandra thought might be seal. A bark confirmed her theory, along with the clapping of flippers, and for a second she forgot the severity of her situation. The man who’d been carrying the seal, once he caught his breath, leaned over to whisper something to Trevor-- about what, she didn’t know.

She shook her head; she could ponder Trevor’s oddities later. Instead, she looked to her dad again. “Please, you don’t understand what’s going on. We have to keep going.”

“Who? You and the band of thieves you’ve been running around with?” Cassandra flinched at that, and her dad sighed. “Look, honey, I know you. I know you’ve got good intentions. But I can’t let you run off with Flynn Rider and his pals.”

“But--”

“No buts, Cassandra.” He shook his head, glancing down for a split second at the seal. “We’re going back home.”

Dad --”

The world went up in smoke.

It caught her off guard at first, and she tensed, peering through the gray clouds and readying herself to fight if she had to. The guards who’d been holding her chains let go, their shouts drawing away from her and the sound of swords being drawn echoing throughout the group.

She almost kicked backward when something took hold of her wrist, but a whisper made her stop short. “Shh. I’m gonna pick the lock, alright?”

“Eugene?” Cassandra let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. “Where are the others?”

“Varian’s waiting for us just beyond the rosebushes. The rest are back outside the servants’ quarters.” A quiet click, and the chains fell slack into Eugene’s waiting palms. She rubbed her wrists, squinting with watery eyes through the gray plumes. She didn’t know how long the smokescreen would last; for all she knew, Varian would keep tossing bombs until they made it out. “You didn’t happen to grab my sword somewhere, did you?”

“...No, but I can snatch one for you.”

“You can do that?”

“Ha! Piece of cake.” Eugene nudged her to the left. “Go that way. Varian will lead you to the hiding spot.”

“Don’t get yourself killed.”

“I’ll just take a second. Go!”

Cassandra didn’t need to be told twice. She took off through the smoke, surfacing from the cloud with a belated coughing fit. She spotted Varian peeking out from behind a line of shrubbery not far away. He broke eye contact the second they made it, and she felt her heart twist-- but now wasn’t the time to worry about their friendship.

She reached him within seconds. Ruddiger greeted her with a chirp, and she gave him a rough pat on the head before looking down at Varian. “Eugene says you know where to go?”

“Um, yeah.” Varian glanced back at the slowly-dissipating smoke. “Where’s Eugene?”

“He’s coming.” She grabbed Varian by the waist, hoisting him into Maximus’s saddle, before mounting Fidella.  “Now where are you guys hiding out?”

Varian pointed, and Cassandra flicked her reins.



_______



Rapunzel gasped when she saw the figures approaching. She would’ve dove forward if it weren’t for Lance seizing her by the shoulders, pulling her further back into the hiding spot with Fancy and Stelle. “Princess!” he berated. “They’ll see you!”

“Right, right, sorry,” she flashed a smile back at him, then turned to watch Maximus and Fidella dash behind the line of trees and shrubbery. She flung herself out of Lance’s grip and towards Cassandra, enveloping her in a hug. She barely got out a grunt before Rapunzel let her go to do the same to Varian. “Oh, I’m so glad you guys made it out all right! But… where’s Eugene?”

“Stealing. What else would he be doing?” Cassandra smirked, ignoring Maximus’s indignant whinny. “I mean, he is stealing something, but it’s for me. And I feel justified in saying that after all this, we deserve a little compensation.”

“Man, am I glad to hear you say that!” Lance laughed, reaching into his pockets to pull out a string of fat, lustrous pearls. “I was wondering what you’d say--”

“Lance,” Cassandra asked, aghast. “How much did you take?”

He paused, eyes wide. “Um, I dunno. I just picked up all the shiny stuff.”

Cassandra sighed, one hand on her hip and the other pinching the bridge of her nose. Similarly, Maximus gave a disapproving huff. “I thought you both decided not to steal anything inessential? Since, you know, I am going to be a guard when I get back home? Dad’s already ticked off at the fact that I’m traveling with you.”

Rapunzel, who’d remained silent the entire time, found her attention drawn to Varian. He shared a strange, knowing glance with Ruddiger, and his hand drifted over his jacket pockets. He looked… guilty , for some reason.

“Old habits die hard, I guess,” Lance shrugged. “And we needed money.”

“You know what? Fine. We’re still a while off from getting to Corona.” Cassandra sighed, crossing her arms. “Just make sure your thieving habits are taken care of. Please?”

“I’ll try my best,” Lance lay a hand over his heart. “I swear on my-- Eugene?”

“What?”

“Eugene!” Lance called, and Rapunzel was surprised to hear laughter in his voice. This time, when she caught sight of him, Lance wasn’t there to stop her from running out to meet Eugene-- but that was before she realized what he was carrying.

“What is that?” she managed, staring at the lump in his arms.

“Stupid seal,” Eugene puffed out, setting down the lump. Rapunzel jumped a little when it rolled over, flippers beating at the air. “It was trying to escape in the chaos. Pity got the better of me.”

It rolled over once more, this time to reveal a chubby face. Rapunzel gasped when it smiled up at her, and she sank to her knees, grabbing it by both cheeks. “Oh my gosh, you are just the cutest little thing!... Besides you, Pascal.”

Pascal, who’d been giving her the stinkeye a moment before, chirruped.

“That’s nice and all, Eugene, but who’s gonna carry it?” Cassandra looked down at the seal, face filling with disgust. 

Maximus stepped forward, nosing at the seal, and gave a confident neigh.

Cassandra raised a brow, then shrugged. “Alright, fine. As long as I don’t have to do it. Let’s just get out of here.”

The clanking of armor once again reached Rapunzel’s ears, and Eugene nodded, taking her by the shoulders to lead her away. “Yes, let’s.”

Together, they fled.



_______



“See anything?”

Catalina glanced down, shaking her head.

“Awesome. Now get off. My shoulders are aching.”

Kiera waited until Catalina had jumped off before rolling her shoulders, grumbling under her breath. Out here on the cliffside, it was just windy enough to make her chilly; she was beyond ready to have some shelter. “So the cave’s empty right now.”

Another nod.

“Great, so we’ve got somewhere to wait until Lance gets back.” Kiera cracked her knuckles, fingers searching the cliffside. Finding purchase, she scrambled up the wall like a spider. Even though Catalina said the coast was clear, she looked both ways before dashing across to the cave.

The inside was dark and damp, riddled with rotted furniture and pieces of multicolored broken glass. It seemed that whoever had been hiding out here last had taken all their treasures with them; once again, she and Catalina would have to build their way up from the bottom. That was fine, though. They’d done it so many times by now that it was no longer an issue; rather, Kiera found survival to be an enjoyable challenge, always kept fresh by changing environments and circumstances.

“Kia,” Catalina mumbled, just loud enough to be heard. “I don’t like it here.”

“Don’t be a baby, it’s just a little dark. C’mon, help be find some flint or something.” Kiera dropped to the floor, digging through the piles of debris scattered throughout the cavern. Catalina followed suit, the soft rustle of her search filling their new hideout and echoing off the walls.

Finally, Kiera’s fingertips found smooth stone, and she held up a solid chunk of flint. “Aha!”

“Flint?”

At Kiera’s nod, Catalina smiled, holding up a small piece of twisted metal.

It wasn’t long before they had a nice fire crackling between them, orange light forming a bubble that didn’t quite reach the corners of the cave. Kiera reached into the bag slung over her shoulder, lifting an apple out, and set it just far enough from the flames that it didn’t catch fire. It wouldn’t do as well as it would in an oven, but she’d found it helped bring out the sweetness a bit more, and hot food always felt more filling.

“Kia?”

She glanced up, finding Catalina’s face drawn and sad-looking, and furrowed her brows. “Yeah?”

“Do you think Lance is really coming back?”

Kiera fell silent. She stoked the fire to stall for a moment, breathing out a sigh. “I… I don’t know, Cat.”

“I hope he does.” Catalina ran her fingers through her hair, and Kiera noticed her facepaint was getting a little smudged. They’d have to fix that soon. “He seemed like he really meant it.”

Kiera bit the inside of her cheek, reaching to check the apple. Still hard. “We can’t put too much stock in his word, you know. We’ll move on in a month or so if he’s not back by then.”

“I know.” Catalina sighed, turning away from the fire and breaking eye contact in the process. “I… I can’t help but hope, though.”

For a moment, the cave was filled only with the crackle of their fire. Then Kiera’s lips tugged up into a tiny, soft smile. “Yeah, me neither.”

And for a little while, that hope stayed, a bloom of warmth more comforting than the fire.

Chapter Text

Cassandra hissed under her breath as she peeled away the bandages.

Not for the first time, she was glad everyone seemed to understand her need to be alone every now and again. She didn’t want anyone else-- especially Varian-- seeing what she had to do every time she used her hand.

The blood was everywhere. Dozens of tiny open wounds, all irritated and pulsing with pain, screamed at her from the middle of her right forearm to the tips of her fingers. She really shouldn’t have used that other sword. She should’ve just let it lie there, should’ve taken the chance that someone else would pick it up while she was distracted. She’d still been caught, anyway; dual wielding those broadswords like some kind of amateur had been one of the worst possible mistakes she could’ve made in that moment.

She shook her head, trying to forget about the sight of Trevor’s castle walls and the fleet of silver-plated guards. Cassandra reached for the roll of bandages she’d brought with her, nestling it in her lap, before reaching for Varian’s vial of antiseptic.

Here goes nothing.

He’d told her it would burn, but Cassandra-- stalwart, unyielding, resilient Cassandra-- shouted as soon as it hit her wounds, letting loose a barrage of curses at the trees surrounding her. She grit her teeth, breathing in and out as her nerves went up in flames; it almost felt worse than when she’d first blown it up with Varian’s crossbow.

Varian. Cassandra lowered her head, body shaking, cradling her right hand in gentle fingers. She knew, deep down, that it wasn’t entirely his fault. This certainly hadn’t been his intention. And yet, above that lay a thick layer of resentment that refused to go away, and it was only fed by the burning pain every time she had to mess with her hand. She knew it was wrong. She knew he felt guilty, and that if given the choice, there was a large chance he’d decide to take the consequences in her stead.

But… it hurt.

And she was angry.

Cassandra finally worked up the courage to wrap up her hand, though it took several minutes-- she kept having to stop, take a breath, and start again. When she finally reached the end of the roll, she brought her knees up to her chest, taking in steadying breaths and blowing them back out. It was over. No more. Done.

...Though, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to stay away from the others for a few more minutes. After all, she needed all the practice she could get if she was going to be able to fight with any level of skill.

Reaching for her sword, Cassandra grunted, gripping it in her left hand and rearing back for a swing.



_______




Varian sucked in a deep breath as he gazed at the fire. Rapunzel, Lance, and Eugene were all gathered around as they each took turns roasting a myriad of things over the flames and laughing all the while. He caught a few mentions of gold and the Baron, so he guessed they were probably recounting tales of their old thieving habits-- an assumption supported by Maximus’s judgmental squints and occasional interjections.

Something tickled the side of his face, and Varian turned his eyes to Ruddiger. The raccoon tilted his head, a question in his eyes. Why aren’t you over there?

Varian bit his bottom lip. The inkwell-turned-paint-bottle, now corked and filled with clear liquid, felt heavy as an iron block in his hands. Even leaned up against a tree as he was, peering into the camp from afar, he could feel his legs shake. He didn’t know why.

None of them knew what he’d done. It hadn’t even been that bad. For goodness’ sake, Eugene and Lance were over there bragging about all the valuable things they’d stolen, and here he was worrying about a little glass bottle.

Still, something kept him rooted to the spot.

A puff of warm air brushed over his shoulder, and he sighed. “You guys aren’t going to let me sit here, are you?”

Stelle nickered, and he could’ve sworn it sounded a little amused.

Varian sighed, watching the group a little longer. Just when he’d worked up his nerve, Eugene stretched and stood, saying something to Rapunzel before turning to Lance. Varian’s brows furrowed as he watched the two of them leave, and he watched Rapunzel curl in on herself by the fire. Pascal was barely visible on her shoulder, a small comforting presence, but there was something tense about her-- something like fear.

Concern gave him the last push he needed to step forward, inching into the orange bubble of firelight. Rapunzel’s head snapped up as he approached, her eyes wide and shoulders drawn in until she realized who it was. She relaxed, but Varian felt as if it was just a show for his sake-- like she was bottling something up. “Oh, hi, Varian. Ruddiger.”

“Um, hi, Princess.” Varian’s eyes fell to the ground, and he debated for a few moments about whether or not he should bow. He decided against it. “Where did Eugene and Lance go?”

“...To find firewood,” Rapunzel mumbled, gesturing towards the dying pile of embers and weak flames between them. It was a simple sentence, but something about the way she said it-- tense, like recalling an unpleasant memory-- made Varian’s frown deepen.

“Do you… want some company?”

Rapunzel blinked. Then a smile took hold of her lips, and she nodded, freckles bunching up under sparkling green eyes. “Sure! I mean, I have Maximus and Fidella, but the more the merrier.”

Maximus neighed in agreement, while Fidella just bobbed her head. Varian cast them a tentative smile before taking his place beside her on the patch of grass they’d found, crossing his legs and lowering Ruddiger to sit in his lap.

Despite her warm acceptance of him, they soon found themselves in an awkward silence. Varian finally cleared his throat, reaching up to adjust his goggles out of habit. “So how are you doing?”

“Me?” Rapunzel seemed almost surprised; Varian couldn’t help but wonder if she wasn’t used to having someone else care. Knowing the woman they’d saved her from, he didn’t doubt it. “I’m okay. Why?”

“You just seem… on edge.” Something tugged on the hem of Varian’s shirt, and he glanced down. Ruddiger held up the paint bottle just enough for him to see, and he snatched it before Rapunzel caught sight of it.

She puffed out a sigh, brushing a lock of hair behind her ear. “I guess it’s just because… well, last time Eugene left to go find firewood, Mother showed up. Er, Gothel. Sorry, I can’t… can’t seem to break that.”

“Don’t apologize,” Varian tilted his head, eyes turning to the fire. “Nothing about what she did to you is your fault. And I’m sorry about that. Does he know?”

Rapunzel’s strained smile finally softened, becoming something more real, before dropping into a tiny frown. “No, I never told Eugene about it. She was… she tried to get me to leave him behind, that one time, and I didn’t… I didn’t have the guts to tell him. I guess I just didn’t trust him enough at the time.”

“...I can understand that.” Ruddiger nudged his leg again, more urgent this time, and Varian cleared his throat. Finally, he turned towards Rapunzel, holding out the paint bottle. “Uh, here. I’ve been meaning to give this to you.”

Rapunzel, caught off-guard from the abrupt change in conversation, blinked at the bottle. It took a moment for her to realize he was giving to her, but when she did, she broke out in a huge grin and lifted it delicately from his fingers. “Oh! Thank you so much!”

She turned it around in her fingers, lifting it to let Pascal see. “Um, what is it?”

Varian laughed when Pascal sniffed the bottle, then drew back, tongue poking out. “It’s paint.”

Rapunzel’s brows knit, smile turning a bit askew in confusion. “...Clear paint?”

“Oh. I forgot to tell you… here, look.” Varian plunged a hand into his jacket, drawing out a tiny vial that had once contained experimental Vexoleum. It had hurt a little to pour it out, but he had more, and he’d needed something to put the red pigment in, and he hadn't felt like... stealing anything else. “Uncork the bottle and I’ll show you.”

Tilting her head, Rapunzel pulled the cork. Even Maximus and Fidella lowered their heads to watch as Varian lifted the vial, tipping it just far enough to let a tiny bit of powder fall into the paint.

At first, nothing happened. The powder lay suspended amidst the paint, a small crimson cloud.

Then it began to spread.

Varian let out a breath of relief when the paint bloomed a bright rose-red. Rapunzel, on the other hand, was watching it with eyes as wide as they would go and lips parted in wonder. Maximus whinnied and Pascal squeaked in appreciation; even Fidella seemed pleased, and Ruddiger was practically glowing with pride for his owner. But Rapunzel remained still, expression unchanging, and Varian felt his gut sink again. “Um, Princess?”

She didn’t answer, drawing the gift close, and Varian frowned. “Sorry if it wasn’t what you thought it was going to be. You’d need more bottles to make it of any use. I mean, I know you can’t paint much with just red, and you don’t have a real paintbru--”

“I love it!” Just like that, Rapunzel’s silence was broken. She lunged toward him, laughter shaking her frame as she wrapped him in a hug. “Oh my gosh, thank you so much, Varian! You’re so thoughtful!”

Ruddiger chittered in displeasure, jumping out of Varian’s lap, but he didn’t notice. All at once, those terrible feelings left him. Maybe stealing the inkwell hadn’t been his best decision, but… well, he could live with that if it meant getting a reaction like this. He hugged her back, a tiny smile tugging at his lips. “I’m glad you like it, Princess.”

Rapunzel backed up, though she kept hold of his hands. “Call me Rapunzel, Varian. Please?”

“Oh-- sorry.” Varian grinned back. “Okay, Rapunzel.”

“Thanks.” She finally broke contact, cradling the paint bottle in her hands. “I’m going to paint something great with this! It’s been a while since I’ve had to work with such an… er, limited palette, so this ought to be a good challenge.”

“What’ll be a good challenge?”

Rapunzel and Varian turned to see Eugene and Lance surface from the forest. Eugene carried a bundle of wood under one arm, while Lance led Fancy, who’d been strapped down with a slightly bigger load. “Oh! Hi, guys!” She shot up, nearly tripping in her excitement to scamper over to Eugene. “Look what Varian got me!”

Eugene leaned back as she shoved the paint bottle in his face, eyebrows raised as he took it in. “He… got you some... what is that?”

“It's paint, silly,” Rapunzel giggled. “Look, c’mon, let’s paint something together! Want to?”

Her face, her mannerisms-- everything about her was slathered in a thick coat of sunshine, but Varian, having been exposed to it moments before, could see the tension slowly draining away. Just having Eugene back here, with her, was doing more for her than his meager gift ever could.

Varian watched as she dragged Eugene closer to the fire and urged him to set the wood aside. They spoke for a few seconds before Eugene nodded, reaching for one of the wood pieces and brushing off a little dirt, revealing a mostly-clean, smooth surface. They both dipped a finger into the paint bottle and went to town on their makeshift canvas, smiles warm and genuine as they basked in the simple joy of being close. Maximus and Fidella joined in behind them, making occasional remarks in the form of neighs.

“Makes you feel kind of jealous, doesn’t it?” Lance sighed beside him, nudging a piece of wood into the fire and turning to untie the rest from Fancy’s saddle. 

Varian started a bit, torn out of his daze, but soon frowned in response. “Jealous?”

“You know,” Lance gestured toward them with a hand. He looked back at the couple, watching as Rapunzel dabbed a bit of red paint onto Eugene’s nose and backed away laughing. “Of how happy they are together.”

“...I-I wouldn’t say I’m jealous.” Subconsciously, he ran his fingers through Ruddiger’s fur-- who’d crawled back into his lap by now-- and listened to him purr. “Rapunzel’s been through so much, you know? If anything, I… I wish I could do something to make her happier.”

Lance cocked a brow. “Didn’t you give her that paint? She seems pretty happy about it to me.”

Varian chuckled, a single soft sound that fell a bit empty. “She’s happy about Eugene. That paint really isn’t the best present I could’ve come up with.”

Concerned, Lance lowered himself to sit beside the boy. His lips curved into a frown. “What do you mean? You must’ve spent a lot on that thing.”

Varian froze, nervous giggle slipping through. Ruddiger gave him an annoyed chatter when his fingers dug in a little to hard. “Uh, yeah, I did. But, um. It-- it’s just one color, in the end. She can’t do much with it.”

Lance fell silent, features flickering between helpless and conflicted. After a second, though, his eyes lit up, and he rose to his feet. “Wait here a second, little buddy.”

Varian raised a brow, watching as Lance dug around in Fancy’s saddlebags for a minute. He drew out a little paper package and turned back towards the fire, Fancy following close behind-- whatever Lance had must’ve smelled good to her.

He plopped back down beside Varian, his teeth glinting in a grin, and unwrapped the package. Inside lay a tightly-packed bunch of small, white cylinders that looked soft to the touch. “The guy at the candy store said these were a newly-discovered type of sweet, or something like that. Figured I’d get us some.”

Varian blew out a laugh. Leave it to Lance to cheer someone up with food. Still, he reached for the mound of white, plucking one of the cylinders off. It was pillowy under his fingers, and he almost considered taking his gloves off to feel the texture on his skin. Tentatively, he popped it in his mouth.

He immediately brightened. When he spoke, mouth still full, the words mashed together into a near-unintelligible mess. “Ish lige squooshy shugar!”

Lance’s smile grew, and he grabbed one for himself before handing another to Ruddiger. “Right? I don’t know how they make ‘em.”

Varian’s mind, though, was already whirring. How would someone go about this? It felt and tasted like there was some kind of starch on the outside, further evidenced by the powder on is gloves, so that would indicate the candy was sticky on its own. Which wasn’t an unexpected aspect of sugar, of course, but there was no graininess to the texture. A gelatin-sugar colloid, maybe? With a few extra ingredients, of course, but…

“Hey, Lance? Can I have another one? For, um, experimental purposes.”

Lance snickered, eyes sparkling. “‘Course you can, kid.”

Excitement bubbled up in his chest as Varian reached for another candy. Turning it over in his fingers, he battled with the urge to eat it for a second before leaning forward and tossing it into the fire.

“Woah!” Lance stopped, another candy halfway to his mouth. “I didn’t think you actually meant…”

“Fascinating,” Varian leaned forward as far as he could with Ruddiger in his lap, ignoring his surprised chitter. The candy had blown up to twice the size it had been when he’d thrown it in, edges bubbling and browning. “It’s mostly sugar, and yet there’s no grain to it… so gelatin is likely, then…”

Lance raised a brow, candy finally reaching his mouth. “Is this how you enjoy all your sweets?”

“Oh, um, no. Not usually.” Varian tore his eyes from the candy as it finally devolved to a puddle of goop, outside turning a charcoal black. “Can I have one more? I’ll eat it this time, promise.”

Lance squinted dubiously at him for a moment before relenting, holding the package out once more. “Yeah, sure. But we have to save some for the other guys, alright?”

“Thanks!” Varian snatched another one. Then he gently pushed Ruddiger from his lap and stood, running over to where the others had been roasting dinner earlier. Lance watched him, package held loosely between two hands, as he shoved the stick through his piece of candy. Shaking it a few times to make sure it was stable, he returned to his seat, grinning the whole time.

“Uh… whatcha doing, little buddy?”

“You’ll see.” Varian reached out, stick held just far enough above the fire to not catch any flames. It was too high to get a quick reaction, but he held out hope; after all, it took a while to cook anything over a campfire. Meanwhile, he turned to Lance. “So what are these things called?”

“Huh?” Lance blinked, eyes tearing away from the suspended candy. “Um… you know, I forgot. It started with an ‘m’, pretty sure.” He rubbed his chin for a second, then raised his head to shout in Eugene and Rapunzel’s direction. “Hey! Eugene! What did the candy guy call these things?”

“What?” Eugene glanced over, nose still painted a vibrant red. “Oh. Marshmallows.”

“You have candy!?” Rapunzel gasped, bouncing to her feet. “Can we have some?”

“Sure, princess. Just, uh, wash your hands first.”

Varian tuned out of the conversation, all his attention turning to his experiment. The marshmallow was turning a brownish-yellowish off-white now, and he could see the outside firming up, like it was forming a skin. Keeping with his hypothesis so far.

Eugene and Rapunzel found their way to the fire after a few moments, both of them taking a few marshmallows of their own, and Rapunzel leaned forward to get a better look at Varian’s. “Ooh, what are you doing to that one?”

“Testing out the effect of heat on the marshmallow. If I’m correct and it is indeed a sugar-gelatin colloid, it should become tougher on the outside while melting into a wet, sticky consistency on the inside. I dropped one into the fire earlier, and it seemed to exhibit those traits, but the reaction was too fast for me to monitor--”

Eugene yawned. “Why don’t you just eat it?”

Varian turned to glare at him, though it was light and playful. “Alchemist’s curse, I guess. I can’t help it.”

“I think it’s creative,” Rapunzel smiled as she fed Pascal a tiny piece of marshmallow. He tilted his head from side to side before squeaking, running down her arm to snatch the rest of it, even though it was too big for him to eat. Seeing that, she grabbed a handful of them, turning to the horses and letting them pluck one up each. “I know I wouldn’t have thought to do that.”

“Only Varian,” Lance chuckled, reaching for another marshmallow. He frowned down at the package. “Huh… we only have a few left. Where’s Cassandra?”

Eugene frowned. “I… actually don’t know. She tell you, Blondie?”

Rapunzel fell quiet. She sighed, running a few fingers through her hair as she chewed on half a marshmallow. “She went to go fix her bandages. Cass, um, hurt her hand pretty bad back in Equis.”

Varian’s chest grew tight, and he nearly dropped the stick he was holding. Lance shifted, soft eyes landing on him, and Varian clenched his teeth in shame.

“She’s been gone for a while to just be fixing her bandages,” Eugene’s frown deepened, concern lacing his voice. “You don’t think…?”

“Maybe we should go look for her?” Rapunzel asked, quiet and tentative. “I mean, she said not to bother her, but…”

“I’m right here.”

The entire group turned their heads to the right. Cassandra stood by the treeline of their little clearing, face a stoic mask. On her shoulder perched a brown owl, who stared at them with huge, unblinking yellow eyes that made Varian even more uneasy than he already was. He’d seen the bird before, of course, but something about the way he looked straight at Varian was unsettling now. It didn’t help that they hadn’t seen him in so long.

“Owl says my dad’s team is on our trail. We need to move.” Cassandra looked right over Varian. “Pack up. We don’t have much time.”

Normally, there would be some kind of discussion before they decided to get going. They would’ve talked it over, contemplated which way to go. But here, listening to Cassandra talk in such an authoritative tone… no one denied her.

Varian, cringing when Cassandra’s gaze finally landed on him, pulled the marshmallow back out from over the fire. The smell was amazing, and the sides had cracked just enough to reveal a glistening interior, but suddenly he didn’t want it. Instead, he lowered the stick down to Ruddiger and scurried to help the others pack up anything they’d strewn about.

When they got going, shrouded in the darkness of late night and the silence of a sleeping forest, no one dared to speak.



Chapter Text

“Blondie, I am telling you, whatever you find in there is going to be a scam.”

“Oh, but Eugene, aren’t you the least bit curious? I mean, just look at the sign!”

“Yeah, yeah. Vigor the Visionary: Seer and Knower of All. Definitely does not sound like some vague slogan for a scammer.”

C’mon ,” Rapunzel clasped her hands together. “We have time to spare! Cassandra’s sharpening everyone’s weapons, and Varian and Lance are inspecting the horses’ shoes… besides, when are we going to get an opportunity like this again?”

“You’d be surprised how common these things are. And, Blondie, they agreed to take a rest so that we could have some breathing room for ourselves, remember? Do you really want to spend it in some stuffy scammer’s wagon?” 

Eugene .”

He raised a brow down at her before his frown softened. She looked so earnest, so hopeful, leaning toward him with hands clutched to her chest and biting her bottom lip...

He blew out a breath. “Fine. We’ll get our fortune told.”

“Yay!” Rapunzel hopped in place, the seized Eugene’s arm and pulled him after her towards the little wagon’s entrance. He gave a little shout-- not nearly as loud this time, though; he must be getting used to it-- and focused on trying not to stumble on his way in.

The interior of the wagon was dark and, frankly, made him a little claustrophobic. Eugene grimaced as he brushed aside strings of hanging beads, eyes scanning the wagon. Round covered table, a statue of a monkey wearing a turban, enough hanging baubles to fill a castle stronghold… but no sign of a fortune-teller. Maybe they were out?

Fingers, long and knobby, curled around his shoulder. “Welcome!”

Holy --” A violent jump went through Eugene as he spun around, hand floating down to where he normally kept his dagger stowed away before remembering that Cassandra had it. 

The woman was short and a bit portly, old but not grey. Thick black hair flowed down to her waist, the top of her head wrapped in a red bandana, and one beady eye peered up at him from behind a giant nose crowned with a wart. The other eye was closed for some reason, though still caked with turquoise eyeshadow. Even after she withdrew her fingers, she still gave Eugene a crawling shiver and the feeling that whatever they’d gotten themselves into, it was a little more shady than the typical roadside scam.

Rapunzel, of course, only waved and offered the woman a sunny smile. “Hi there! I’m Rapunzel, and this is my boyfriend Eugene. We’re here to get our fortunes told!”

“Well, then you’ve come to the right place, travelers.” She bowed low, wrinkly face pulling up in a grin. Her voice was rough and grating, but he could hear the music of her accent behind it. “My name is Madame Canardist, and inside this wagon is the world-famous clairvoyant… Vigor the Visionary!”

“Of course he’s world-famous,” Eugene mumbled, to which Rapunzel elbowed him.

His comment didn’t faze Canardist in the slightest; she continued on, hands waving in grand gestures. “He has predicted the fates of emperors, the future of pharaohs, the destinies of dynasties even… and,” her voice grew soft, and she drew closer to them, finger raising in Eugene’s face. He wrinkled his nose. “He is offering a once-in-a-lifetime special: one fortune for a mere five silver pieces!”

“Eugene! Did you hear that?” Rapunzel grinned, eyes sparkling as she looked up at him. Good lord, he could almost feel her vibrating. “Emperors and pharaohs!? Oh-ho! Okay, well, uh, add ‘princess’ to that list!”

“Very good.” Canardist backed up to the round table, bidding them to follow. As soon as Rapunzel and Eugene had sat down opposite her and a large crystal ball-- and the monkey statue, which Eugene was becoming increasingly curious about-- she held out a velvet pouch. “Silver! His omniscience requires silver.”

“Of course it does,” Eugene rolled his eyes, reaching into his pocket to pull out a gold coin. “Will this work? We’re kind of low on silver.”

Canardist squinted down at the coin. “Well, normally the psychic energy feeds upon silver, but--” she snatched it from Eugene’s hand before he could pull it back. “This will do nicely, this time. Because I like you.”

“Yes, I’m sure that’s why. Not because that coin’s about five times what you asked for.” Eugene sighed, crossing his arms. “So where’s this Vigor, anyway?”

“Prepare to be astonished,” Canardist began again with her theater voice and over-the-top gestures, to which Eugene frowned deeper. But then he cast a glance over to Rapunzel, and all of that melted. She was completely enraptured by the experience, light in her eyes and excitement written across her face… ah, well. Maybe this would be worth it. “He is telekinetic! He is telepathic! And he’ll tell-a-you the future! He’s-a… the world’s most prophetic prognosticator, Vigor the Visionary!”

The monkey statue’s eyes opened.

There was no other way to say it. Eugene screamed. It was a good, deep scream, the kind that comes from way down deep in your chest and feels like everyone in the world can hear it. A true, manly scream.

“Aww!” Rapunzel cooed, clasping her hands together. “It’s a monkey!”

It’s a monkey ,” Eugene wheezed out, hand to his chest. “A monkey. The fortune-teller is a monkey. Of course he is! Why not. Why not .”

“And he’s adorable !”

"Vigor," Canardist rasped, leaning down toward the monkey. He didn't respond to her voice, just staring blankly ahead as if in a daze of some kind. Eugene found himself worried for the monkey's health-- had he been hit in the head or something? His eyes didn't even focus correctly. "These people have come in search of your infinite guidance. If you are willing, blink twice."

Vigor finally gave a half-hearted grunt, balancing on his knuckles and hopping up to face them. Eugene watched as he blinked once, then twice, before turning tail and hopping atop the crystal ball.

Rapunzel gasped. "Did you see that?"

" Please! " Canardist interrupted her. "Vigor requires total silence as he contacts the regions beyond…!"

She lowered her head, arms hanging at her sides, almost as if in reverence. Vigor, in turn, placed his little monkey hands on the crystal ball. Immediately the wagon turned a sickly shade of green, and under his elbows, the table rocked in time with Vigor's crazed hoots and grunts.

Eugene watched all of it with a squint and a raised brow, picking at his eyepatch. Beside him, Rapunzel continued to gasp and smile at the tiniest of things; she watched every detail closely, wonder evident in her gleaming eyes. When the doors of the wagon began opening and closing-- well, that sealed the deal for Eugene. It was a scam, and he'd just wasted one of Lance's hard-stolen gold coins.

The green lights went out as abruptly as they had come on. Vigor sucked in a breath before babbling out some string of monkey-gibberish, while both Canardist and Rapunzel paid rapt attention.

"Ah-hah… ah-hah." Canardist grabbed a pen and a scrap of greenish paper, scribbling down words at a pace that impressed even Eugene. Raising it in the air, she declared, "Vigor the Visionary has spoken!"

Oh, brother.

Rapunzel took the paper with an excited little wiggle, holding it open with both hands. "...If you see someone fall, pick them up."

That was the last straw. Eugene leaned over the table, nose wrinkling and brows lowering in annoyed distaste. "Are you serious, monkey?" He stood, watching Vigor begin to gnaw on the crystal ball. Canardist, looking pleased, watched them with her one half-lidded eye. "That is the most generic fortune I've ever heard! I mean, technically, it's not even a…"

He trailed off when he noticed that Rapunzel hadn't moved from her seat. She stared hard at the paper, fingertips growing white from pressure; her back was straight, her posture stiff. "...Blondie? Are you okay?"

"If you see someone fall, pick them up," Rapunzel repeated, quiet and soft. Contemplative, but with a melancholy edge. "...I need to do something."

"What do you mean?" Eugene leaned down toward her, hand resting on her shoulder. Any trace of annoyance was gone, replaced by concern. "What's wrong, Sunshine?"

Rapunzel finally lifted her head, face set in a stony look of determination. "Thank you, Madame Canardist. Vigor, I'll put your fortune to good use."

"That would be advised, my friend," Canardist gestured toward the door. "Good day and good fortune. May luck smile upon you this day."

"Um, you too." Rapunzel took Eugene's hand, pulling him towards the exit. "Thank you again!"

"Rapunzel," Eugene tried again once they stepped back outside into the lush forest. "C'mon, tell me. What's going on?"

Rapunzel finally met his eyes. Her gaze was hard, full of conviction, and he found himself wondering exactly what had crossed her mind to make her act like this.

Her response, vague as it was, answered all his questions. "I'm going to go pick someone back up."



______



Cassandra kept her jaw tight as he scraped the whetstone along her sword. It was calming, the slow grind of metal on stone; she could feel the blade taking shape once more under her touch, ready to fight the moment she needed it. For so many years, a sword had been her best friend, the one thing she could fall back on no matter what.

A hot breath puffed over her shoulder, and Cassandra found herself grinning. Well, that and Fidella.

She patted the horse's soft muzzle. "Hey, girl. Hiding from Maximus?"

Fidella huffed in the affirmative, tossing her mane in a rather saucy way, and Cassandra snorted. "Well, you're safe over here. He can bother Stelle or Fancy if he wants to be full of himself."

She turned back to the front, eyes straying to Lance's sword and Eugene's dagger. They sat innocently beside one another, lethal edges glinting in what evening sun managed to slip through the thick branches overhead. Just beyond them…

Well, just beyond them lay the crossbow.

It hadn’t been touched since Varian repaired it. Why he saw the need to keep it around, she couldn’t fathom; all it did to her was bring back awful memories, and she couldn’t imagine it helping him, either. For all she cared, the stupid thing could’ve been left to rot in the Great Tree. But, no-- he’d felt the need to preserve the second worst reminder of their incident.

 

‘Oh-- Oh Cassie-- oh, I’m so, so sorry--’

Pain. So much pain. Burning, lancing, consuming, raging--

Why didn’t he say anything!?

How could he be so careless!?

 

Fidella, eyes full of soft concern, lowered her head to nuzzle against Cassandra’s jaw. She chuckled, and for a moment, thoughts of the crossbow fell away. Her hand still tingled with every movement, her gut still churned with an old anger that didn’t have anywhere to go-- but for now, she’d push it back down.

“Hey, guys!”

The familiar voice drew Cassandra out of her thoughts, and she focused back on reality. Rapunzel and Eugene, hand-in-hand like the sickeningly sweet couple they were turning out to be, strode out of the forest-- Rapunzel with a bright, too-big smile, Eugene with a face full of apprehension. It immediately put her on guard.

“Princess!” Lance boomed, the word a half-laugh. He rose from the fire to make his way over to the two, while Varian and the horses followed suit, though in a more demure fashion. Pascal zipped between them all, scurrying up Rapunzel’s dress to perch on her shoulder. “We were just talking about you! Which is better-- cookies or cupcakes?”

“Um,” Rapunzel stuck out her bottom lip, casting Pascal a questioning look. “Well, I mean, they both have their good qualities--”

Eugene cleared his throat, and she stopped abruptly, sucking on her teeth as she mentally rearranged her words. “Both are great in their own way! Very different treats, you know. And I’m sure they’re pitted together often! But different treats can always find common ground, and from that common ground, they can form a friendship that…”

At everyone’s blank look, Rapunzel sighed, shoulders sagging forward. When she spoke again, it was low and soft, her voice more plea than anything. “What I’m trying to say is… I know that things are tough between, um, some of us. And I just want to help fix it, however I can!”

Cassandra’s stomach twisted. She caught Varian’s panicked glance out of the corner of her eye, but she refrained from looking at him, even when Stelle’s judging eyes landed on her. “What do you mean, Rapunzel?”

“I think you know what I mean.” Rapunzel clasped her hands to her chest, and for the first time, Cassandra noticed a scrap of green paper peeking out from behind her fingers. “I don’t remember much of what happened, but I know that whatever went on back at… at that place, it pushed you and Varian apart. And I just want to help!”

Lance, wide-eyed, backed away with a mumble-- something about tending the fire. Fancy and Maximus backed away as well, but Stelle and Fidella stayed, standing like sentries behind Varian and Cassandra.

Cassandra cleared her throat. A mess of emotions went through her, gathering in one confused knot in her stomach; she really didn’t want to visit this again, but the pure hope in Rapunzel’s eyes had her heart melting. Still, though, she finally sighed. “With all due respect, Rapunzel, what happened between Varian and me was not your fault.”

“Maybe not. But still!” She puffed out a breath. “I just-- I wish you would get along.”

Her jaw tightened at that. She sensed Varian cringing and Fidella’s warning huff in her ear, but she ignored it for the sudden crash of indignance. “Really? You think I can just get along with someone who destroyed my hand?”

Rapunzel fell quiet, and Eugene put a hand on her shoulder. “Cass, you really have to let this grudge go. Can’t you see what’s going on? You’ve made everyone’s spirits drop, and you’ve been pushing us nonstop for two days. At some point, you have to forgive and forget.”

“Forgive and forget?” Cassandra asked, the slightest hint of a laugh seeping into the end of the last word. Did… did he really expect it to be that easy? “What, you want me to just forget that my hand is shot? That all the skill I’ve built up over my entire life is worthless? That whatever chance I had at being a Royal Guard was compromised the moment he decided to mess with the stupid bow?”

Varian finally spoke, his voice cracking. “Cassie, I’m sorry--”

She whirled on him. Normally, she wouldn’t be this bitter, this hateful. Deep down, she knew she’d be able to recover and relearn everything with her left hand. But all of this had been bottled up so long that the minute one word leaked out, a million more were spilling out with it; a hot, boiling rage she’d kept locked away was finally able to rise. And it felt good, even when he cringed away, half hiding in Stelle’s side and hugging Ruddiger close to his chest.

And you !” she thrust a finger at him, teeth bared and brows nearly meeting. “Is that all you know how to say? ‘Sorry’? Out of all that vocabulary you have in there, all those fancy terms you like to blab on and on about as if we care! All of those words, and the only one you seem to know how to actually use is sorry!

Eugene stepped forward, one arm going instinctively in front of a cringing Rapunzel. The rest of him leaned toward Varian, as if preparing to run over to shield him too. “Cass! Stop! You’re not thinking right--”

“You think sorry can fix this?” She cut him off. She didn’t even spare him a glance, actually. Cassandra merely took one step closer to Varian. He looked at her with wide eyes full of fear, arms crossed in front of himself and brows upturned. “I knew it was a bad idea to bring you along! You’re a child , for Pete’s sake, and not a responsible one at that! We should’ve just left you back home with your dad!”

Tears were running down Varian’s cheeks now, and Stelle finally couldn’t stand it any longer. She snorted, tossing her mane, and circled around to stand in front of him. On either side, Eugene and Lance were shouting things-- things that she couldn’t hear, or maybe just didn’t want to hear. Not yet.

At last, there lay her feelings, bare and out for everyone to see. At last, the pressure in her chest had lessened. Her breaths came heavy and blood rushed in her ears, and the shouts were becoming more and more clear-- Cassandra, don’t say that, you know he didn’t mean it, please don’t be like this-- but right now, she finally felt satisfied.

So, when reality came crashing down and her words played back in her mind, they hit her all the harder.

Cassandra, realizing Eugene’s hand had wrapped around her arm at some point, jerked away from him. Fidella remained quiet as she turned and mounted, swallowing the new wave of emotion pushing on the back of her throat. “I need some air. I’ll be back before midnight.”

Everyone was quiet as they watched her leave, save for Varian’s muffled crying.

As she tore into the forest, anger softened and new guilt blossoming, she felt tears of her own rise.



______



Andrew hummed to himself as he strode down the garden path. His cloak, a nondescript brown garment, fluttered behind him on a light breeze; winter was approaching Corona with its usual slow crawl.

The night sky was crisp tonight, clear and cloudless; the moon shone with such brightness that it almost seemed to carry a bluish tone. He could hear an owl in the distance, just over the trickle of the garden fountain and the low tapping of someone else’s footsteps.

He pretended not to notice. In fact, if he hadn’t known about his pursuer, he wouldn’t have ever noticed him following. As it was, however, Andrew wondered if the stranger was confused yet; they were far from their usual path, at the opposite end of the gardens from the gazebo. Perhaps he would be bolder tonight--

The footsteps quickened, and there was a low, metallic shing. Andrew’s lips curved into a smile. How he loved being right.

There was barely a second for him to sidestep the swing, pulling out his sword in the process. At last, he got a good look at the stranger, albeit for only a moment as he recovered. Large, but other than that, a rather ordinary-looking fellow; he seemed like any other working Coronan, perhaps a farmer or a blacksmith. But the cold calculation in his narrow brown eyes-- that was something Andrew only ever saw in trained men.

Interesting.

The next swing he blocked, flashing his opponent a grin. “Finally showing yourself, huh?”

The man didn’t respond. Instead, he pulled the sword back, retreating a few steps to reassess the situation. The sudden lack of stealth had probably thrown him off a bit.

“You know, I’m a little curious. How did you figure out about our meetings?”

Silence.

Andrew smirked. “Let me guess: strong and si--”

The world flew out from under his feet.

Andrew hadn’t even seem the blow coming. It was fast and flawless, a perfect sweep, followed by heartless slashes that he just barely managed to block and roll away from. For the first time in a long while, real fear seeped into Andrew’s veins. He’d thought the man would be skilled, but this--?

Pain lanced through his arm, and Andrew rolled away, blood spilling over the path behind him. He grit his teeth, clutching the wound-- shallow, thankfully-- and scrambled to his feet, only to be knocked down again.

The man, towering over him and sword held at the ready, finally spoke. It was monotonous, hard as stone, and frankly, it made Andrew’s blood run cold. “What are you doing in the royal gardens every night?”

Andrew, panic rising in his throat, almost raised his hands in surrender-- until he saw something move just past the man’s imposing figure. Suppressing a grin, he forced a cough, clutching his arm in exaggerated pain. “Look, I’ll tell you everything. Just-- just don’t kill me.”

“I will if you don’t speak.” His eyes widened a fraction. “What do you plan to do here on royal grounds?”

Andrew’s eyes flickered from his face to his sword, then to the approaching shape. “Well, you see,” he drawled, finally allowing a tiny bit of a smile. “Before I tell you that, you need to be initiated.”

Shadows flew from the bushes.

Lady Caine’s pirates swarmed the man, yanking away his sword and tugging ropes around his wrists and ankles. The man fought, even managed to throw two or three of them off, but ultimately it was too much too fast. He fell to his knees, struggling against his bonds all the way, a fury in his eyes that Andrew didn’t quite know how to describe.

Andrew sighed, rising back to his feet and straightening his vest. Great, there was blood on it now… he’d have to plan a return trip for a new one at some point. Dismissing it for now, he cleared his throat, hand pressed over the cut on his arm. “Clementine?”

“RIght here,” A raspy voice called, and Clementine’s tiny form waddled past the crowd of pirates. In her hand lay a slender wand, embedded with a glistening ruby the same color as the blood dotting the ground under her feet. “Is this the guy?”

“It is.”

“Oooh, I’ve been waiting for this.” She wriggled with excitement, beady eyes wide as they focused in on the man. He seemed panicked now, but there was nothing he could do as Clementine lowered the wand.

With a puff of pink, he became still, and Clementine’s delighted cackles filled the night sky. There would be guards flocking to investigate soon; they needed to run, but for now… well. Clementine could enjoy this victory.

If all went well, it would be the first of many.

 

Chapter Text

Ruddiger frowned as he bit into his third apple of the day. ‘ Our boy seems sad .’

You think? ’ Stelle tossed her mane as she glanced back at him. Varian didn’t notice from atop her, too focused on glaring at the crossbow in his lap. ‘ He hasn’t spoken in two days. The sword woman has made him very upset .’

The sword woman makes everyone upset, it seems ,’ Ruddiger started to lick some of the juice off his paws, but a flurry of feathers beside him made the raccoon jump, burrowing back into the saddlebag for a moment.

My mistress’s ways are rough, I’ll admit ,’ a familiar voice lured Ruddiger back out, though he sniffed the air for a second before emerging completely. “ But she is adherent to her duty. The boy has hindered her from reaching her goals. She has been sympathetic to his guilt thus far .’

Sympathetic? ’ Stelle nickered back at him, eyes blowing wide. ‘ She told the foal she did not need him !’

The owl clicked his beak. ‘ Though tough, Mistress is a compassionate soul at heart .’

Ah. And remind me what she calls you, Percival? ’ Ruddiger lounged back, nibbling at the core of his apple for any edible bits left.

Percival ruffled his feathers. ‘ Owl is a suitable name. It is accurate and to the point.

Perhaps for you, ’ Fancy chimed in from behind them. Lance patted her neck, saying something-- he probably thought her to be agitated. Ruddiger could see why; the way she tossed her mane was anything but agreeable. ‘ But the sword woman shows that she does not care as the other humans do. She calls you by what you are, as if it were a rank .’

And you call her ‘sword woman’. Is it not the same? ’ Percival flapped his wings, head twisting back to stare at Fancy. Ruddiger shuddered; owls had always made him uneasy for that very reason. ‘Perhaps you would do well to understand where she comes from, and how she sees things. Fidella and Maximus certainly do; they are palace horses, and know their place .’

Perhaps you would do well to know your place ,’ Stelle jerked her head, making Varian gasp in surprise. ‘I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t on the end of my saddle .’

Percival’s head swiveled around, huge yellow eyes zeroing in on her. For a moment, Ruddiger wondered if he would attack-- but no. He merely blinked once before spreading his wings and taking off, hooting as he disappeared into the branches above.

Fancy shook her head. ‘ He always has such an… irritating manner about him .’

I think it’s an owl thing .’ Ruddiger tossed aside his apple core. Finally full, he sank into the saddlebags a little further, paws folding over his belly. ‘He is a good match for the sword woman, though .’

‘You could say that again.’ Stelle finally turned to face where she was going, though Ruddiger could tell by the way her tail flicked that she was still annoyed. ‘I do wish the foal would speak. I want to forgive the sword woman, but it is hard when he is in such a state.’

No one answered her. Ruddiger tilted his head, frowning, and glanced up at Varian. His head hung low, hair falling into his face; his shoulders slumped, and his eyes were listless as he ran a thumb over the crossbow’s wood. Ruddiger had known him to space out at times, often for long periods, when he was thinking… but Varian hadn’t said anything in the past few days, other than the occasional mumbled response.

Making a decision, Ruddiger delved into the depths of the saddlebag. He knew he’d stashed it somewhere in here…

Ah!

He chittered, scampering out of the bag and over into Varian’s lap. He pushed aside the crossbow with his tail, using his face to snuggle under one of his boy’s arms.

“Ruddiger?” Varian’s voice was a little hoarse, and quiet.

Ruddiger smiled up at him, settling into a comfortable seat at the front of Stelle’s saddle, and held up his offering. The last marshmallow: a prize Ruddiger had snuck away, intending to eat it himself.

Varian smiled at first, but he only made it halfway before it fell from his lips. “Thanks, buddy. But I think that was meant for Cassie, wasn’t it? I… I wouldn’t want to…”

He sighed heavily, looking ahead. Maximus and Fidella trotted some ways ahead of them, Rapunzel, Eugene, and Cassandra all chatting just out of hearing range. The light in his eyes dulled. “Wouldn’t want to take it from her.”

Ruddiger pulled it back, tilting his head. He wanted to argue that she wouldn’t miss it-- after all, she hadn’t yet-- but even if Varian could understand, he doubted he’d listen.

So, Ruddiger threw the marshmallow aside. The ants could have it. He snuggled into Varian, and after a moment, he felt fingers delve into his fur. There wasn’t much he could do to comfort Varian but purr, and hope he got the message.

So that’s what he did.



_________



Frederic wasn’t expecting any visitors, so hearing the knock on his private parlor door was a bit concerning. However, he trusted his guards, and after all-- it might’ve been one of the servants coming to collect him for some meeting. Heaven knew he hadn’t been remembering things correctly nowadays; Arianna kept having to remind him when a minister was coming over, or when he needed to prepare for villagers coming in to make requests. Some days he barely remembered to comb his beard.

“Enter,” he permitted, rather tiredly.

The face that greeted him was familiar: wrinkled, as all leaders seemed to be, but not yet old. Dark hair that looked suspiciously to be receding. Stoic features, unreadable but not unsettling. Quirin was always the picture of a perfect leader; in fact, Frederic wondered sometimes if he should better follow in the man’s footsteps. His emotions, as best as he tried to control and mask them, always seemed to get the better of him.

“Quirin of Old Corona,” he nodded. “I was under the impression you left the capital.”

There was something off about the way Quirin hesitated before answering-- something that nagged at the back of Frederic’s mind but, ultimately, he disregarded. Quirin was as mysterious as his past on the best of days, and he was missing his son. “I returned.”

Frederic lifted a brow. “Is everything all right? Why have you come back?”

“To make an--” Quirin coughed into his fist. It wasn’t a deep cough, not like a sick person’s-- it was an awkward one. The cough of someone trying to stall. “To make a request.”

Frederic waited a moment before nodding. “Yes? Continue.”

“The rocks.” Quirin frowned, the thin line of his mouth hard. “You have not yet taken care of them.”

Frederic balked. “But I thought you said--”

“They are everywhere!” Quirin cut him off. “You tampered with things far beyond your control. Now your people are suffering, and my-- my family…”

“Quirin,” he tried again. “We’ve spoken about this. I’ve made my apologies--”

“Apologies will not fix what is broken.” Quirin’s eyes turned cold, his words harsh. “You will rectify your mistakes. I will warn you only once: the Moon will not rest until Corona is destroyed from the roots up. I can promise you that.”

Frederic was silent as Quirin swept out of the room, door slamming behind him.

He blinked once. Twice. Three times. What had that been? It was completely unlike his old friend to make such demands, and Quirin would never show such disrespect…

...Except he had, once before. Eighteen years ago, to be exact, when he had first announced the search for the Sundrop Flower.

But what would make his old friend’s attitude revert in such a way? He could possibly chalk it up to Quirin’s missing Varian, but that wouldn’t explain why it was all so suddenly hitting him. Quirin was cool-headed, and over the years, they had come to a sort of understanding, with both of them looking past their arguments and toward what they could do to fix the issue at hand.

Frederic ran a few fingers through his beard, turning on his heel. His shoes made quiet clacks on the marble floor as he exited the parlor, making his way towards the throne room, where he knew Nigel would be busy setting up for tomorrow’s audience.

HIs advisor would know what to think about this-- and, hopefully, what to do.



_______



Vex hummed to herself, adding a slightly higher note with every stroke of the whetstone. It was one of the few ways she kept herself mildly entertained while sharpening her weapons; being a sword dealer herself, she’d never really had to bother with long-term blade management, and frankly, it was getting tiring.

Adira had gone off to hunt, as she did. Vex knew about where she was, and if worst came to worst, she’d be able to track her down. Adira had been loath to leave her alone, but as it was, Vex couldn’t be trusted to hunt; she knew how to steal from a food cart, not how to scavenge it for herself. As Adira would put it, she’d ‘scare off everything in a thousand-meter radius with a tantrum the first time she missed’.

Ah, Adira was a joy.

Vex found herself smiling a little as she set her second shotel aside, leaning back to stretch her back out a little. Maybe Adira had been a little irksome at first, with all her mysticism and intentional cryptic manner, but they really had grown close. In fact, if Vex were honest with herself, Adira was the closest thing she’d had to a friend in a long while-- not to mention an adult mentor figure. The most recent memory she had of a caring adult was fuzzy and barely present.

In fact-- she wouldn’t call Adira a mom yet, but she imagined their relationship to be similar to that, at least in some ways. For all Adira’s front of carefree and a little uncaring, she could tell that the affection was there, and couldn’t deny that she held a measure of it too. She imagined it would remain that way for some time; neither of them particularly cared to talk about anything serious or heavy, and really, she preferred it that way. Never before had she met an adult who would treat her fairly, or would trust her alone in the woods, regardless of how long it took to persuade Adira that she could handle it. It was like she saw Vex as a person, and she deeply appreciated that more than any amount of coin.

She’d just begun to stand when footsteps, fast and hard, caught her ears.

There was just enough time to grab her swords. She met the arm-blade with her own shotels, gritting her teeth as a shock went through her arms and all the way down her spine. She silently thanked Adira for all the drills they’d done in quick reactions; if it hadn’t been for her meticulous training, she’d be dead where she stood.

Hector chuckled under his breath, grinning down at Vex. “My sister’s really been outdoing herself on her little pet project, hm?”

“I’m a squire,” Vex forced out, already shaking under the stress of holding him back.

“You’re a child.” He jumped back, nimble as a cat, and watched as she caught her breath with electric eyes. “A poor, pitiful urchin who Adira saw fit to pick up. She’s stuck in the past, you know. The Dark Kingdom is no more, and it never will be. All we can do is contain the damage.”

“You saw the Sundrop. Why don’t you believe what Adira’s saying?” Vex raised her shotels. “You’re the one set in your ways! She looks forward, searches for a solution!”

“And she also gives our crest out to dirty street rats !” Hector sprinted forward.

It was all Vex could do to block his attacks. They were merciless, raining down on her like a hailstorm, and Hector moved so fast that he was a mere blur when she managed a look at him. He was cackling now, but it was a deranged and angry kind of laugh-- one that struck ice into Vex’s very core. Her side still ached from where one of his pets had torn it open, and she worried that fighting might tear it back open.

A blade whizzed past her ear. Then again, she might get something else torn open if she let it hinder her.

“Look at you,” he sneered into her ear. She took the break in blows to slice at him, but he backpedaled, circling her with fast steps. “All done up with face paint and everything. She really has deluded both you and herself.”

 

vex versus hector

“You’re the only deluded one here.” Vex held up her blades again, though her arms shook with fatigue from blocking so many heavy strikes. Her mind raced; Adira should be back soon, but with the way things were going, it looked like ‘soon’ wasn’t going to be enough.

Why had she pushed to be left alone…?

“Am I?” Hector laughed, a little incredulously. “I’m not the one chasing magical princesses. I’m the one trying to contain the threat. And that makes me the crazy one?”

“No, the fact that you’re attacking me alone makes you crazy.” Vex narrowed her eyes at him. “Really honorable of you, Brother. Trying to kill a child-- your words, remember-- out in the woods alone.”

“Do not call me that.” He sneered at her. “You are not one of us, no matter what Adira says.”

“The law of the Brotherhood states otherwise.” Vex smiled, small and venomous. “Or do you not follow your king’s word any longer?”

“You have never met our king.” Hector peered at her, the look of a predator. “What do you know about the workings of the Brotherhood?”

“Adira taught me--”

“Adira is a fool!” Hector was shouting now, footsteps heavy and sharp as he stormed toward her. “An idiot! An absolute--”

“Watch your tongue.” Something slammed into Hector from the side.

Vex stumbled back, blinking in awe as she watched the action unfold. Hector and Adira moved like lynxes, smooth and fluid and precise; jealousy bloomed in her chest as she watched the two fight. She dreamed of the skill they possessed in a little skirmish like this-- how long had it taken them to master their weapons? How many years had they trained together?

“I should’ve just killed the brat,” Hector hissed past gritted teeth. “She was stalling for you, wasn’t she?”

“You always were the excitable one,” Adira returned airily. “You’re so bullheaded and determined, but you always forget there are outside factors… what, did you think I really left her all alone?”

Vex grinned when Adira’s boot slammed into Hector’s chest. He caught himself just in time, flipping over before he hit the ground, but she could tell the attack had winded him.

“Why do you insist on keeping that girl around?” he demanded, wheezing but still furious. “She is nothing but a waste of your time!”

“I owed her,” Adira shrugged. “And besides, we won’t be around forever. Someone will need to take my place as traveling eccentric beauty.”

“You’re such a--” Hector cut himself off with a frustrated growl. “ Traitor !”

“Am I? Or am I simply a free thinker?” Adira smiled, pointing her sword at him. “A force of chaotic good, if you will.”

“You’re infuriating, is what you are.” Hector sneered. “Untrustworthy and infuriating. May King Edmund curse your name.”

“I don’t think King Edmund has much to say on matters outside the Kingdom.” Adira still wore her smug smirk. “And besides-- he always listened to my reasoning. I had a lot of favor with him.”

“Now you’re just provoking me.” Hector raised his blade, taking a few steps forward. “Do you expect to return to him, Adira? To return to your post with your little street-rat pet?”

“I don’t need to tell you my plans.” Adira kept her voice level, still smirking as he approached. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. No matter what I say, you’re going to come after us, aren’t you?”

“True.” He grinned then. “It doesn’t matter what you’re planning. You’re dead either way.”

“Very well. Vex, you may want to run.” Adira cast a wink over her shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll catch up.”

“But Adira--”

I’ll catch up .”

Hector ran forward, and metal clashed on black stone.

Vex turned and ran.