Rapunzel heaved a satisfied sigh, soft smile curving her lips. Her paintbrush, new and unblemished at the start of all this, had already begun to fray and lose bristles-- but then, she didn’t blame it.
The mural was gigantic. Her entire bedroom had once seemed so large, the space so ample that it could never possibly be filled… but now, she found herself wishing for more canvas. Every last nook had been filled with swirling colors, strokes that flowed from her heart to her fingertips every time she picked up her brushes.
She’d thought it finished this morning when she added that golden ring to Eugene’s finger-- the ring that meant they were engaged, meant he was hers forever, meant that no matter what else she ever had, he would always be there-- but, no. Rapunzel’s creativity was a bottomless well, and that one final spot had just begged to be filled, even if she had to work into the night to do so. Now, orange lantern light cast everything in a warm glow, making the colors richer and the outlines softer. It was-- and Rapunzel didn’t often praise her own work-- beautiful.
Pascal squeaked as he ran along the wall, colors flickering through his scales to match. She laughed when he stopped just above her portrait of herself and Eugene, one tiny claw tracing the outline of the ring. “Feeling jealous?”
He shook his head, and she smiled again, scooping him up and pressing a kiss to his forehead. “Yeah, I know, buddy. Thank you for being so supportive.”
A knock, heavy and deliberate, broke her from her trance. She cocked her head, not recognizing the sound-- Eugene always knocked light and with a polite ‘Sunshine, you in there?’, while her mom tapped twice, primly, and waited for the door to open. Casting Pascal a look, she lifted him to her shoulder before taking hold of the rope of hair she’d suspended herself on and slowly lowering back towards the floor.
The knock sounded again as she padded across her room. She knew there was likely nothing to fear; after all, there were guards swarming around every corner now that the Captain was back to keep order, and there had been no alarm. But she couldn’t ignore the way her stomach filled with lead, the way her lungs jerked when she tried to breathe, how her feet fell like weights with each step. Blue hair. Black armor. Light. So much light, filling her, consuming her, lifting her into the air and holding her there, a piece of the Sun brought down to Earth--
Rapunzel pulled the door open as she would pull off a bandage, and immediately, the weight lifted from her chest. Varian stood in her doorway, fist raised as if to knock again and a blank look of surprise on his face; Ruddiger was a perfect mirror on his shoulder, even down to the goggles and gloves. “Hi, Varian. Is something the matter?”
He giggled, the sound light and airy, and suddenly she felt much better. “I was just, um, stopping to say bye. Nothing much left for me in the Demanitus Chamber, y’know, so I was gonna pack up and leave in the morning…” His eyes slid past her, taking in the room at a glance, and returned to her face. Had she gotten some paint on it? “Oh, were you busy? I’m sorry. I really shouldn't be bothering you this late anyway, I just forget that not everyone is up late all the time like I am, and you were probably not wanting any visitors--”
“No, no, you’re fine.” She smiled, wide and bright, and stepped back to permit him entry. “Do you want to look, actually? I haven’t shown anybody since putting down the finishing touches, and I know you draw, so…”
“Oh! Um, sure!” Varian returned the grin, stepping in and lifting Ruddiger from his shoulders. He set the raccoon down, then raised his gaze to the walls, lips parting in awe. “Wow, you’ve really put a lot of effort into this, haven’t you?”
“A bit,” Rapunzel giggled, setting Pascal down as well. He cocked his head at Ruddiger, tail flicking, before finding himself swept up by a long pink tongue. She watched them for a moment, amused, before returning her attention to the mural. “I’ve been working on it for a while now. It’s kind of like… a memento. Everything I’ve seen since leaving the tower.”
For once, Varian didn’t have anything to say. He approached the wall reverently, gloved fingers reaching up to ghost over it. They never touched the paint, as if he were afraid to mess it up somehow. Apprehension sprouted in her gut all of the sudden, and she found herself wondering what he thought about it all. Normally, she had no problem sharing her artwork with others; it was a way for her to spill out her inner self, the things she kept hidden under a thick layer of sunshine and cheer. It was a way for her to express her love, her admiration… and, on occasion, her fear.
When he spoke next, it was quiet. “You… you’ve seen a lot of stuff, haven’t you?”
“...Yeah.” She scanned the painting he was observing, smile falling away. She remembered that-- the day she was turned into a bird with Cassandra, the day she truly began to feel that they were sisters. That claim had never been born of their common roots; it had been a slow progression, a result of time and effort and so much love for her friend. Guilt gnawed at her, and she could hear Cassandra’s incredulous ‘Sisters!?’ echo throughout her mind.
Just one more blight on their memories together.
But that was then. This is now. She blinked away the tears, and focused back on Varian. The boy who’d come back to her-- living proof that someone could fall into darkness and come back ready to change. “Come on. The top ones are better.”
“Top ones?” Blue eyes rose up the wall, peering at the upper portion just under the ceiling. He squinted, cocking his head. “You mean those? How-- how did you even paint up-- oh my gosh what are you doing-- Rapunzel!”
She laughed as he shot up, lifted by a thick cord of golden hair, before doing the same for herself. Years upon years had made her a master at using her hair to get around, and though it had taken some figuring out, it was no issue to get them both hanging close to the ceiling. Rapunzel leaned back in her makeshift hammock, watching with an amused grin as Varian got his balance. “You okay?”
“I--yeah-- just give me a little warning next time!” He reached up to straighten his goggles, a breath that wasn’t quite a laugh puffing out. “I don’t really feel like plummeting again this week, you know?”
“Sorry,” Rapunzel grimaced. “I forgot about that.”
“Eh, it's okay. Just...startled me, is all,” Varin chuckled. She could tell he was laughing it off, but then, they were both hiding behind smiles today. It took a minute for him to maneuver around to face the wall, but when he did, his jaw dropped. “Oh man, you were not kidding. How long have you been working on this again?”
“These?... Probably since just before Eugene’s birthday.” She tried to ignore the jitter those words sent through both of them. “I’ve been planning it for much longer, of course. Ever since we set out for the Dark Kingdom.”
“Dark Kingdom, right. Right.” There was something heavy about his tone, as if he was remembering something unpleasant. Come to think of it, that time hadn’t really been the best for him, had it? “You’ve got everyone here, don’t you? Lance, and the Captain, and Monty and Attila, and Kiera and Catalina…”
Then his eyes landed on the left illustration, and his face lit up. “...And me.”
“I painted all my friends,” Rapunzel smiled when he whipped his head around to look at her, eyes wide and sparkling. He grinned back, all buck teeth and freckles and just the lightest hint of dimples. How had she not noticed those before?... Maybe he just hadn’t smiled wide enough until now. “They’re a big part of me, you know? And I love every last one.” She wrinkled her nose. “Even Monty.”
He laughed at that, turning back to trace his fingers along the green alchemy bottle she’d painted for him, then moved on to Ruddiger’s smiling face. These he did touch, almost as if to confirm that they were really there. When he spoke next, there was an odd, strained quality to his voice, and mist in his eyes. “...Thank you, Rapunzel.”
“...For putting me up here.” His eyes strayed to the upper right corner of the canvas, jaw tightening for the briefest of moments. “Twice.”
Something lurched in her chest, and she raised her hands to her lips. “Oh, Varian, I didn’t even think-- I’m sorry, you probably didn’t want to see that--”
“It’s okay.” He was quiet again, contemplative, but there was something acidic hiding beneath the words. It wasn’t pointed at her, though, or even the painting-- it was turned inward, a knife held with the blade facing in. They looked at her painting together-- at the army of automatons, at the giant, white-eyed Ruddiger, at the monstrous red-faced machine that had nearly crushed Cassandra and her mom. At the tiny figure standing in front of it all, garbed in clothes too big for his frame and a pair of goggles to hide his burning, furious despair. “I did that. I caused you a lot of pain. It-- it’s only natural for you to put an event like that in a project like this.”
“Varian,” she murmured, heart reaching out to him. She wished she could make it all go away, make the memories disappear and the hurt with it. He’d done all he could do and more to redeem himself, and she wanted nothing more than to let him know that she didn’t think of him as that angry, bitter boy anymore. “No one’s angry with you anymore. You found your way, and all of that is in the past now.”
“I… I know that.” He grinned at her, but it was small. Conflicted. “It’s just… hard to forget sometimes, you know?”
They lapsed into silence for a few moments before he spoke again. “I tried to talk to her. I tried to tell her that the path she’s taking… it doesn’t give you anything but darkness and disappointment. It’s an addiction, a mad rush of power, and then when you fall off of it-- you realize you’ve squandered everything trying to get something that isn’t there.”
Rapunzel felt numb as she drank in his words, and as much as she didn’t want to-- she felt tears prick at her eyes. “She didn’t listen.”
“No. No, she didn’t.” Varian sniffed, dragging a glove over his eyes. “I wanted so badly to get through to her, Rapunzel. I finally understood in that moment what it’s like… to watch someone fall, to throw them a rope and watch them push it aside. It’s… it’s awful. And I’m--”
Something rose in his throat-- a sob, loud and jerky and thick. Rapunzel, alarmed, swung closer to him, reaching out to lay a hand on his shoulder. “Varian?”
“I’m so sorry ,” he choked out, and the tears finally rolled down his face. After that first sob, his crying was silent, and she found herself wondering how many times tears had gone down that same glistening track on his cheek. “I just-- I’m so sorry, Rapunzel. About everything I did. About Cassandra. You-- you don’t deserve any of this.”
Finally, despite all the effort into pushing them back, into concealing all those terrible feelings clawing in the pit of her stomach, Rapunzel felt her eyes grow wet too. She pulled him into a one-armed hug, wobbling a little in her hammock but determined to reassure him-- to reassure herself. “You can't apologize for Cassandra, Varian.”
He said something against her shoulder, but it was muffled, and she got the feeling it was only gibberish anyway.
They hung like that for a few solid minutes, despite the awkwardness of their hug. It was like a balm to the frayed edges of her nerves and emotions, like confirmation that she had this friend-- this silly, sometimes misguided, but wonderful little brother-- here with her.
People could change. Friends could come back. Icy hearts could melt and open.
And she would always be here to forgive and love them.
When they parted, it was slow and reluctant, touch soft and emotions bare. They were both smiling now-- not wide and not bright, but small and real. The type of smile that said it’s going to be okay, the type that held honesty and affection that went way beyond a simple passing friendship. “Thanks for letting me see, Rapunzel. It… it means a lot.”
“Any time you want,” she tilted her head, looking over the mural one last time. “Are you ready to go down?”
“That--” he cleared his throat. “That’d probably be best.”
When they touched back down, they found Ruddiger and Pascal asleep on her bed. They shared a chuckle when Varian tugged Ruddiger up, yawning as he curled back around his boy’s shoulders.
“You know,” Rapunzel said as Varian was walking through the door. “I’m really glad you’re my friend, Varian.”
He turned just slightly, the corner of his mouth pulling up. “Yeah, I am, too.”
“Have a safe trip back home,” she waved. “Tell Quirin the royals say hi.”
“I will. You have a good time planning your wedding.” Varian winked. “Tell me if you need any extra alchemical pizzazz.”
“As long as it has nothing to do with swans.”
“Noted.” They laughed one more time before he turned to leave. He cast one last glance over his shoulder, and she caught a hint of a smile. “Night, Rapunzel.”
She smiled back. “Good night, Varian.”
Rapunzel gently closed the door before making her way across the room, raising her arms in a luxurious stretch. Pascal was waiting for her on the bedspread, a knowing but happy look on his face. She smiled down at him as she slipped under the covers, snuggling into her plushy mattress. "And good night, Pascal."
Her friend would come back to her, eventually. Just as Varian had. One day, maybe she and Cassandra could be the ones hugging and pouring their hearts out, then gathering it all up and leaving it in the past. One day, maybe they could look at a painting of a tall rock tower and say that that was then and this is now.
One day, everything would be okay.
She was sure of it.