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the mysteries of underworld castle

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"Oh my gosh, it's beautiful," Rapunzel gasps, staring up at the lights. "I mean, I knew it would be, but wow. No- no book could ever describe this. Look at how it dances!"

Cassandra chuckles next to her, leaning against the ship's railing. "I thought you'd like it," she says, turning her gaze from the sky to smile at Rapunzel.

Rapunzel somehow manages to tear her eyes from the aurora borealis to smile back at her. Despite the cold, Cassandra isn't wearing the same kind of fur-lined coat Rapunzel has on. She's in just her usual trousers and tunic, and from Rapunzel's angle looking at her, she's able to see the Moonstone on Cassandra's chest just barely catching the green and teal light of the aurora.

"What is it?" Rapunzel asks, looking back up. "None of the books I read had an explanation, just myths. Is it magic?"

Cassandra looks back upwards as well. "It's- hm."

"Let me guess," Rapunzel says wryly. "You know, but you don't know how to explain."

Cassandra laughs sheepishly. "Well, yeah. There's some… I guess, sciencey stuff to it. I don't really have the words, I'm not sure anyone does. I'll ask Varian. But I can tell you that at the very beginning, it comes from the sun."

"Really? Even though it's nighttime, it comes from the sun?" Rapunzel asks, surprised.

"Mhm. Most beautiful things do."

Rapunzel smiles and shuffles closer to Cassandra, inclining her head to rest on Cassandra's shoulder while looking up at the sky. Cassandra tilts her head to rest on Rapunzel's, and her cheek brushes Rapunzel's forehead.

Rapunzel's magic flares immediately at the touch, and she feels it rush through her veins as her heartbeat quickens. Out of the corner of her eye she can see strands of her hair start to glow gold and the stone in Cassandra's chest start to glow blue-

Rapunzel awakes with her heart pounding, and the shining hair suspended in the air around her bed abruptly falls to the ground.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Later that day, Rapunzel hears a voice in another room while she's walking towards the courtyard. She can't make out the words, but she's sure it's Cassandra speaking from the pitch of the voice. Rapunzel can't think of why Cassandra would be speaking - there's no one in Underworld except the two of them. Right?

Rapunzel darts through the halls, trying to find where the voice is coming from, but she's unsuccessful. She even calls for Cassandra, giving up on her sneaking, but she gets no response.

She doesn't encounter M-C the rest of the day. The next morning while she's walking through the castle to find a place she'd like to read, however, she finds M-C removing black rock spikes from where they had damaged a wall.

"Cass! Hi!" Rapunzel cries enthusiastically. Since she usually only sees Cassandra once a day at most, sometimes not at all, any time Rapunzel sees her she feels like she's won a prize. At least, that's what it feels like now that Cassandra's not angry with Rapunzel, of course.

M-C looks up from the wall that she's studying, her face expressionless. Rapunzel's excited to see that she still has the bracelet and satchel on her, and it seems like she's rebuilding part of the castle. This could be an opportunity to spend a bunch of time with Cassandra and have some real conversations! And she can see I'm wearing the hairpin she gave me…

Rapunzel stops in front of her. "Good morning," she says cheerfully. "Are you fixing the wall?"

M-C glances at it and nods. Rapunzel beams at her. "That's great! Can I work on it with you like we did before?"

M-C hesitates, but she nods again. Rapunzel feels excitement run through her, but looking at the broken wall and debris under it, she doesn't see any distinct feature that could focus on to help her arrange the pieces. "Oh, um, Cass, how do you sort the stones? So I can help you."

M-C looks at the rubble. "I make different piles for the different spots they go, like how high up," she answers.

As Rapunzel suspected - but... "How do you know where the rocks go just by looking at them?"

"Because... that's where they go," M-C tells her blankly, like Rapunzel had just asked an exceedingly simple question.

"Uh," Rapunzel starts. "Okay. I can't really tell where they go by looking at them like you can..." internally Rapunzel panics. How is she supposed to help?

"Oh..." M-C responds. "Well..." She looks uncomfortable for a moment, and bends down to pick up a stone. "The wall... is painted pink," she notes slowly, standing again. "But my rocks I hold it together with... aren't pink... so you could... paint it... so it matches?"

Rapunzel stares wide-eyed at her. Cassandra didn't only accept her help, she came up with a way for Rapunzel to help, in a way she knew that Rapunzel could help. She's not just tolerating Rapunzel - she's welcoming her.

Rapunzel chokes down an excited squee before she answers, "Yes! Yes, I can do that! I just need to get my paints... you'll still be here when I come back, right? In like, five minutes? You won't leave?"

M-C blinks. "Uh, no, I'll still... be here," she answers.

"Do you promise?" Rapunzel asks intensely, leaning towards her. She can't afford to lose another day of building back her relationship with Cassandra. Having to spend so much time waiting has been driving Rapunzel insane.

"Uhh... sure," M-C answers her. "I promise."

"Okay..." Rapunzel says carefully, leaning back. "I hope you mean it, because promises-"

"-Are very important to you," M-C finishes for her. "Right. I won't leave."

Rapunzel gasps, delighted at her memory. "Yes! Okay, I'll be right back."

Rapunzel runs down the hallway back towards her room. Before rounding a corner, she stops and looks behind her to make sure M-C is still there, and she is - she has knelt down to start sorting stones.

Rapunzel's heart soars. With the adrenaline in her system, she takes off towards her room.

M-C is still there when Rapunzel returns with her paints, and in that short time she's built back some of the wall, although the rubble isn't fully organized beforehand the way she'd done last time.

"Hey Cass!" Rapunzel calls, and she bounces over. "Oh wow, you've already got some of it back together."

"Uh, yeah," M-C says. "You wouldn't be able to paint until some of the wall was up, so I built some first."

That's so… thoughtful, Rapunzel thinks, and it takes all of her willpower not to hug M-C in her excitement about how well M-C had been doing that morning. "Then I'll start mixing my paints!"

M-C nods, and Rapunzel sits on the ground to start formulating the same hue of pink in front of her. M-C continues organizing her rocks, and Rapunzel lets a couple minutes pass in companionable silence before she speaks.

"Sooo Cass," Rapunzel starts, keeping her eyes on her paints. "I thought I heard you talking yesterday. Was there someone with you?"

"Oh," M-C responds. "Yeah, I was talking to Owl."

Rapunzel can't keep herself from an excited gasp. "Owl's here?"

M-C nods and Rapunzel beams at her. "Where? Can I see him?"

"Uh… He's around… I could call him, but I'd like to finish this wall first…" M-C answers slowly, rubbing the back of her neck anxiously.

"Right, yes, of course," Rapunzel answers, and she redoubles her efforts on paint mixing. She would've been happy to see any creature, but the thought of seeing a friend like Owl, who could also help Cassandra's recovery, fills her with elation.

M-C is just as quick in her organizing and assembling this time as she was last time. As she places the stones, Rapunzel is ready shortly after to spread paint on the hardened black rock. Rapunzel tries a couple times to start other conversations - asking what she's been up to, if she's eaten anything, what she's been putting in her journal - but M-C is not responsive to her questioning. Rapunzel gives up, not wanting to alienate Cassandra before she has the chance to see Owl again.

Maybe I could plan with him ways to help Cassandra get better… Rapunzel ponders. Or he could keep tabs on where Cassandra is, at least, so I won't have to worry about spending hours tracking her down anymore… I can't wait to see him. Finally I'll have someone else with me who can understand how crazy this all is.

Shortly after, with Rapunzel's last brushstroke, the wall is restored. She steps back to assess it with M-C, who carefully studies every part of it. Rapunzel feels like they had done a wonderful job - the slight indent of the black rock mortar is barely visible under the paint, and probably could only be spotted by someone looking for it.

"It looks great, don't you think?" Rapunzel asks, looking over at M-C with a smile.

M-C, with her intent gaze still on the wall, nods slightly. Without further ado, she turns and begins walking down the hallway.

"Oh, wait, Cass," Rapunzel says quickly, darting over to her. "You said you'd call Owl after we finished, remember? I'd love to see him."

M-C glances at Rapunzel. "Oh. Right," she answers blankly. She walks over to one of the windows lining the hallway and undoes the latch to push it open. Raising her hand to her lips she lets out a sharp whistle, and Rapunzel feels delighted at the familiar motion and sound. They wait a few seconds and M-C lifts her arm as a bird flies through the open window, and Rapunzel almost chokes at the sight.

A black-rock copy of Owl lands on M-C's forearm.

"Th-that's not Owl," Rapunzel stutters, overcome by her shock. The copy swivels its head around to look at her, its lifeless blue eyes staring into her, and M-C looks up to watch Rapunzel as well. They stand there motionless, and Rapunzel abruptly remembers the night she first met Owl, sneaking through the streets of Corona with Cassandra.

They stood looking at her then, too, with Owl perched on her arm the same way. The harsh contrast between the cherished memory of their night beyond the walls and their current terrible reality with Cassandra so broken, holding a lifeless imitation of her dear friend, gives Rapunzel a sharp stab of grief and tears prick at her eyes.

"That's- it's a copy, Cass," Rapunzel tries to tell her again, her voice shaking. "That's not really Owl. You- you understand that, right?"

M-C doesn't answer. They continue to stare at her, and the uncanny approximation of who Cassandra used to be fills Rapunzel with fear she doesn't understand.

Rapunzel swallows hard and steels herself. She'd made too much progress with Cassandra today not to try to keep getting through to her. "It's- it's made of black rock," Rapunzel tries to explain again. "This is a… a copy of Owl that you dreamed up. A-and that's good!" Rapunzel tells her, trying to lighten her voice. "It's good that you remember Owl, and you still love him, but this… this isn't him. You have to understand that."

Finally M-C reacts. Her eyebrows draw together as she responds, "This is Owl."

"It's not, Cass," Rapunzel tells her firmly. "Y-you're confused again. You think that we're in some other time, when you had Owl with you, so you made a copy. But Owl isn't actually here."

M-C looks at the specter on her arm in silence. Rapunzel waits expectantly for her to realize the truth, like the other instances she'd been shaken out of her memories of being in a different time. Rapunzel wonders how long it will take her, hoping that she'll send the unsettling copy away as soon as possible.

But it's only a few moments later that the copy of Owl disintegrates into shards of black rock in the shape of feathers and talons and clockwork.

The pieces fall from her arm and hit the ground with sharp rings like shattered glass. M-C looks down without expression at the pile of broken pieces.

Rapunzel doesn't know how to react. She didn't expect it to physically fall apart like that. Somehow seeing Cassandra without the copy, staring at its pieces, is even worse than seeing her with the copy.

"Cass…" Rapunzel starts, and M-C lowers her arm as she kneels down to the pile. She picks up one of the black rock feathers and stares at it.

"...He's not here," M-C says without moving.

Rapunzel feels her heart start to break in her chest. "No, I…" Rapunzel swallows again. "I don't think so. I- I'm sorry, Cass."

M-C stands again, still holding the feather. Rapunzel sees her eyes start to shine before she turns away and starts slowly walking down the hallway again.

Rapunzel tries to suppress her grief at M-C's reaction and steps forward to follow her. She doesn't have any plan and has nothing to say, but she feels like she has to do something to comfort her.

"I want to be alone," M-C says without looking back, hearing Rapunzel's movement.

Rapunzel pauses, surprised. "B-but Cass," Rapunzel starts, "It's- I think it would be better if-"

"I want to be alone," M-C repeats, continuing down the hallway.

Rapunzel wavers, but she can't bear the thought of Cassandra being alone when she's in such distress. Rapunzel starts walking towards M-C again, saying, "I- I want to help y-"

Her words are cut off as glowing blue rock emerges from the ground behind M-C, raising a wall that blocks the entire hallway. The stone fades to black in front of Rapunzel.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

A few days pass and much to Rapunzel's distress, she doesn't see Cassandra at all. The wall blocking the hallway is gone the next day, as is the pile of black rock shards that used to be the copy of Owl. But Rapunzel neither hears nor sees Cassandra for the longest stretch of time she's experienced in Underworld yet.

Rapunzel feels miserable thinking that she'd driven Cassandra away by taking the Owl copy from her, and she drives herself half mad trying to figure out if she'd done the right thing.

She finally decides that she must have. It wouldn't have been healthy to let Cassandra continue living in a false reality. She just hopes that Cassandra doesn't blame her.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Fourth Week

One morning during her fourth week in Underworld, Rapunzel wakes to find the castle filled with spikes.

That is, more spikes than usual. Considerably more spikes. All the black rock corridors and rooms have filled with them, shot out of the ground, walls, and ceiling, to the point that Rapunzel can barely navigate through some of them. The sections of original castle have many more spikes as well, black rock creeping out from the ones that remained from M-C's original rampage to cover more surface area, with more spikes shot out of those bases.

Rapunzel is confused and alarmed by the development. Nothing like this had ever happened before. It seemed like there wasn't further damage to the castle - the interior was just filled with spikes. She wanders the castle, calling for Cassandra, desperate to find out what happened.

She gets no response, but she sees a spike shoot from black rock down a hallway from where she's standing, so she heads quickly in that direction. M-C isn't there but Rapunzel notices that the density of spike clusters is higher in some directions than others, so she continues in the direction of the most spikes. She assumes that they would be originating from closest to Cassandra - Rapunzel could be completely wrong, but it's all she has to work with. The spikes lead her deeper into the castle, and after passing narrowly through an unfamiliar corridor of black rock, she finds herself in a part of the castle only slightly more familiar to her: the servants' wing.

Rapunzel navigates past bedrooms for the castle staff. Cassandra's room is in this wing as well, but in another hallway a floor up with the other higher-ranked servants' quarters, like Old Lady Crowley - who directs all the maids - and Friedborg - Rapunzel's mother's lady-in-waiting. Rapunzel follows the hallway towards the large room where the seamstresses would work and the maids would do laundry for the castle.

She gets to the open doorway of the half-collapsed room, and it's so filled with spikes she can barely see through to the other side. Rapunzel ducks under and slips between a few spikes, and she sees M-C's back as she crouches on the floor near the center of the room. In Underworld's eerie silence, Rapunzel can hear M-C's harsh breathing.

"Cass?" Rapunzel asks anxiously. "Are you oka-"

M-C's head snaps up at Rapunzel's voice. "Get out," she snarls, and Rapunzel jumps at the sound of more spikes erupting from the walls and floor in the room. These ones didn't emerge harmlessly from a base of black rock - they burst through the stone of the castle. Rapunzel feels fear, both from M-C's aggression and the damage to the already-compromised room.

Rapunzel steels herself and steps towards M-C. "It's me, Cass. It's Rapunzel. I want to help y-"

"Leave it!" M-C still refuses to rise, nor turn to face Rapunzel. A couple more spikes shooting into the room punctuate M-C's words.

"No!" Rapunzel yells in response. "There's something wrong, I'm not going to leave you alone!"

"I said get out!" M-C roars as she stands, turning aggressively towards Rapunzel, raising her left arm to summon spikes that erupt from the ground rapidly moving towards Rapunzel.

Rapunzel throws herself to the side to dodge the spikes. M-C's slightly hunched over, still breathing hard, her face twisted with rage. Rapunzel sees her right arm bent at the elbow to press against her chest.

"Cass, please," Rapunzel pleads with her. "I know you don't like accepting help but please, at least tell me what's happening." Knowing Cassandra already has problems with her mood and memory, Rapunzel can hardly imagine what new trouble plagues her mind. Or is this a new manifestation of one of those first two problems?

While Rapunzel speaks, M-C winces with a sharp intake of breath, and Rapunzel hears another spike shoot out from the hallway behind her. She watches as M-C's jaw flexes, and M-C hunches farther as she brings her left arm to her chest to cross over her right one. She doesn't respond to what Rapunzel said.

Realization hits Rapunzel abruptly. "You're in pain." It was an obvious conclusion, but she stares at M-C with wide eyes. "It's your arm. You're in pain."

M-C takes no notice of Rapunzel's words. She seems to be trying to control her breathing.

"What happened? Why is it hurting?" Rapunzel feels distress. She had hoped the hand would be healed by now. "Did you do something?"

M-C's face shifts with rage. It seems she could finally register Rapunzel's words. "I said- GET- OUT"

Spikes start shooting out from everywhere. Rapunzel feels terror, reminded of how her tower's stairwell filled with spikes when she and her friends tried to flee from it. There is no way for Rapunzel to stay in the room, and in her rush to duck out towards the door, she knocks the side of her head on one of the already-present spikes. Putting a hand to her injury and trying to shake off dizziness, Rapunzel runs from the onslaught. The spikes shoot out from the stone and chase Rapunzel back down the servants' quarters corridor.

Rapunzel hoped the spikes would stop once she had been driven far enough away from Cassandra, but they don't. At a conjuncture of hallways, Rapunzel can't even choose a direction as more spikes appear down one of her options. She's herded in this manner until she reaches a doorway that opens from the servant's wing to the castle courtyard.

Rapunzel gasps for breath once she's outside. She turns and keeps backing away from the doorway, even as the spikes cease at the threshold. Finally, in the center of the courtyard, Rapunzel allows herself to stop. She sinks to her knees, looking up at the castle in front of her.

Rapunzel winces as her heart rate slows, feeling a throbbing in her head where she had smacked it. She feels anger fill her.

"What the heck, Cass?!" She shouts at the castle, fully aware Cassandra wouldn't be able to hear her from all the way out there. "I just wanted to help you!"

Rapunzel scowls at the ground in front of her and rubs her head. I guess that answers my question about whether she'd be angry again when she got enough memories back. Rapunzel thinks. And my question about whether she's still mad at me for the hand thing. Jerk.

Rapunzel tries to make herself think more pragmatically, even while her head throbs and she's filled with frustration. She figures Cassandra's finally remembered the Great Tree and she's still mad about the hand, so she probably doesn't want Rapunzel anywhere near her until the pain dies down. But what caused the pain in the first place? It's been almost a year since she got hurt. And Rapunzel hadn't seen any sign of Cassandra being in pain from it before.

"She must have hurt it jumping around the castle," Rapunzel mutters. "And now she's mad at me about it."

Rapunzel scowls again. She's stuck outside with her head hurting and she hasn't even eaten breakfast. Depending on how long it takes for Cassandra's pain to die down, she could be kept outside and away from her food supply for a while.

"We had been doing so well, too," Rapunzel mutters. "And now this again, when we resolved it already."

Rapunzel pulls herself to her feet. She decides she'd be better off getting away from the castle while waiting for Cassandra to cool off.

Walking through the capital, Rapunzel tries to think through ways to get through to Cassandra if she doesn't end up cooling off. Rapunzel thinks about the apology that she'd written out in her journal - the one she was going to use when she offered Cassandra the gift painting - and wonders if it could work now.

Of course, I couldn't tell her that apology in the first place because she was so mean to me, Rapunzel thinks, scowling. I'm sick of this. I try so hard over and over and over again to make things right and help her, and all she does is get angry and mean.

Rapunzel feels frustration building in her that she hadn't felt since Cassandra threw away the painting. She's almost embarrassed at the strength of it. She knows now that Cassandra is completely unstable and has trouble with her mind, so Rapunzel feels badly about getting so angry with her. But it's hard not to feel frustrated when they had been doing so comparatively well up until this point.

But why am I getting so mad about this in particular? Rapunzel wonders. I already knew that I'd been a bad friend to Cass. And with her being so forgetful, it makes sense I'll have to apologize for things a lot. So why am I so opposed to the thought of apologizing again now?

Rapunzel scowls again as the answer comes to her. Because this time it wasn't my fault. I can understand how I made her feel unappreciated when I was stressed during the journey, and I can even admit that since we're so different, sometimes I've come across as condescending, somehow. But if I try to apologize about this, then she'll think that it was my fault, and it wasn't. She was the one who said she'd get over it.

Rapunzel takes a deep breath through her nose. But obviously Cassandra does think it's my fault. So… I know it's not… but what if it was?

Nothing could have prepared Rapunzel for the sheer amount of guilt that floods her mind at the thought of being responsible for what happened. She'd been so stubborn about her stance that she hadn't thought about this possibility for even a moment before.

She stops in her tracks she's so overcome by it, and unwilling tears prick her eyes. She remembers Cassandra's cry, her look of horror, the way her arm blackened under the spell's fire. She remembers how Cassandra held it tightly to her chest after it happened, grimacing in pain. She remembers Cassandra's frustration the weeks after while she tried to train, unable to do even basic techniques with her sword. If it was her fault that Cassandra had been so hurt…

Rapunzel hadn't even been willing to consider that it could've been both of their faults. Even if it's both of our faults, that's awful, Rapunzel thinks to herself, rubbing at her eyes. Because Cassandra got hurt, not me. I… I got away fine. No consequences. But Cassandra had to retrain her hand for weeks… and it must still be hurt, even over a year later. I don't even know exactly what the extent of the damage was.

Rapunzel feels another flare of frustration and grits her teeth. Because she refused to talk to me! I was the one who wanted so badly to talk it through, but she kept refusing, over and over again. And when we finally did talk, she lied. All she said was that she was mad that I didn't listen to her about the spear, and that she'd get over it. She could have told me more, or tried to explain how she felt it was my fault too. But she didn't. I gave her ample space to talk to me, she's in the wrong for refusing to work with me.

Rapunzel scowls. And now I'm supposed to apologize to her when she couldn't even do the bare minimum? Friendship is a two way street. And I'm still not at fault here, even partially. She should have trusted me to have it handled. Her using the spear wouldn't have been fast enough and our friends were in danger. I didn't have a choice and she's ridiculous for blaming me.

Angry again, Rapunzel continues her walk through the streets, fuming and with her head hurting. She has no more productive thoughts.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

A couple hours later, Rapunzel is forced to return to the castle from hunger. She figures if it's still filled with spikes, she'll just sneak in. She can deal with Cassandra after she's eaten.

She can't tell from the outside how the interior looks, so she enters the ruins of the front entry hall to look around.

M-C is standing in the middle of it, and Rapunzel starts upon seeing her. Rapunzel didn't think she'd see Cassandra again for hours, if not days. She still has no idea what she's going to say, and she intended on spending more time thinking about it after eating once her mood improved.

Rapunzel stays still, wondering if Cassandra's going to attack her with spikes again, but M-C doesn't move. They stare at each other in tense silence for a few moments, with M-C's expression unreadable. Rapunzel is nervous of this emotionless Cass, knowing she could explode into anger at any moment. But Rapunzel decides that she shouldn't let Cassandra intimidate her, and she continues into the hall to make her way to her room.

M-C moves into her way when she tries to walk past her towards the doorway. Rapunzel steps back, surprised, and tries to walk around - but M-C moves into her way again, still watching her with that unreadable expression.

Rapunzel feels a flare of anger. "What's the deal, Cass?" She asks snappishly.

M-C frowns, looking vaguely uncertain. Microexpressions flit across her face too quickly for Rapunzel to follow, and all Rapunzel picks up is that M-C might be tending towards her shy mood. Is she going to apologize? Rapunzel wonders, surprised at the thought.

"...I'm mad at you," M-C says finally, back on that vaguely uncertain expression.

No duh, Rapunzel thinks, but she suppresses the rude thought to say something nicer. "I figured that out when you tried to impale me on spikes and drove me out of the castle," Rapunzel answers. Okay, maybe that wasn't any nicer.

M-C frowns. "Yes."

"...Is that it? 'Yes'?" Rapunzel asks in disbelief. "You're not going to even try to apologize?"

M-C's eyes narrow. "Why would I do that?"

Rapunzel stares at her. "Because you tried to impale me on spikes and drove me out of the castle!"

M-C glares back. "I told you to go away and you didn't."

"You-!" Rapunzel stops herself. "Listen, Cass, I'm in a really bad mood and I don't want to talk about this right now, okay? I'm hungry, and my head hurts. I just want to go up to my room to eat something."

M-C doesn't answer, so Rapunzel tries to walk around her again. She steps in Rapunzel's way again.

"Arrgh- move!" Rapunzel snaps at her.

M-C scowls at her. "No."

"Why not?"

"You can't-" M-C pauses, going back to looking uncertain. "You can't tell me what to do," she answers.

"Okay," Rapunzel says, feeling hot with rising anger but trying to control her tone. "Would you move?"

"...No."

Rapunzel can't contain herself anymore. "Why not?!" She explodes at M-C.

"It's- it's annoying, huh?" M-C asks. "Someone trying to make you talk when you don't want to."

Rapunzel's jaw drops. "Are you trying to teach me a lesson right now?"

M-C shifts uncomfortably and answers, "Well, that wasn't the idea, but now, yes."

"Well, what was the idea?" Rapunzel grits out.

M-C frowns. "I'm mad at you," she repeats. "But… I don't want to be mad at you."

Rapunzel waits for a moment to see if she has anything further to say, but she stops there. "Have you considered just not being mad?" Rapunzel asks through her teeth.

M-C's frown deepens. "Yes. I tried and it didn't work."

"Well try harder," Rapunzel suggests, moving to walk around M-C again.

M-C steps in her way. "It doesn't work. I want- I want to talk about it."

Rapunzel puts a hand to her forehead in frustration. "Really, Cass? You want to talk about it? You didn't want to talk about it after it happened, you were so difficult about it, and then you lied to me. And now you're telling me you want to talk about it?"

M-C frowns again. "Yes."

"Can it wait until after I've eaten?" Rapunzel asks, exasperated.

"Have you considered just not being hungry?" M-C shoots back.

"I can't- I can't believe this," Rapunzel says, thrown off by M-C's sudden hostility. "You said you don't want to be mad at me, but you're making me mad at you. Is that any better?"

M-C looks away and doesn't answer for a moment. Then she steps to the side.

Rapunzel blinks in surprise. She didn't actually expect that to work. She starts walking past M-C, looking over to see if she intends to move into Rapunzel's way again, but she stays motionless staring at a spot on the floor.

Rapunzel reaches the doorway without interruption, but she feels a stab of guilt for how rude she'd been. "Cass," she sighs, turning around. "Do you- do you want to come up to my room with me? I want to talk too, I just need to eat first."

M-C doesn't answer or move. After a moment and without looking at Rapunzel, she leaps to the opposite side of the room and disappears through a collapsed section of the wall.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel tries not to dwell on any thoughts before she's able to eat, fully unaware they'd be unproductive.

However, her thoughts after she's eaten are not much more productive.

"I just- arrrghh!!" Rapunzel yells to herself, pacing in her bedroom. "Why did she have to try to talk to me then of all times!"

Rapunzel sits on the edge of her bed and puts her head in her hands. She can't believe she wasted an opportunity to talk to Cassandra when she actually wanted to talk. And Cassandra was in her most agreeable mood! Possibly her emotionally vulnerable mood!

Rapunzel falls back on her bed and looks up at the paintings on her ceiling. I just have to hope that she's still in that mood the next time I see her, she thinks. Which will be… who knows. Maybe I should look for her. If I yell an apology for my behavior while walking around the castle maybe she'll come out. God, dealing with her is like… what was that expression Cass would use? Directing cats? It's like directing cats.

Rapunzel puts her hands up to her face and tries to think pragmatically. "She said she didn't want to be mad at me, and that she tried not to be mad at me. That's a good starting place." Rapunzel sighs. "I don't want to be mad at her either." Rapunzel misses the times in the past couple weeks when Cassandra would act kindly with her, like when they rebuilt parts of the castle together or when Cassandra gave her the carved hairpin. She really hadn't been looking forward to Cassandra being angry with her again…

At least now we'll be resolving this conflict on her terms in her time, I'm sure that'll help, Rapunzel reasons. And a lot of the spikes are gone… so she's probably not in pain like this morning anymore. And I hadn't even realized when we were in the hall, but she still had the satchel I gave her - she didn't destroy it out of anger with me. Which means she probably has the friendship bracelet, too…

Rapunzel rolls over in her bed and decides to start planning. She's still not sure what she's going to say to Cassandra - mainly because she has no idea what Cassandra is going to say to her. But she can at least come up with possibilities, and get her thoughts in order about them.

She pushes herself up. I guess it's time to pull out my notes again, she thinks. That "things Cassandra is angry about" list is a good place to start.

"Okay," Rapunzel sighs to herself a few minutes later, sitting in front of her papers. "Let's think."

She looks over her list she'd assembled of things Cassandra is angry about:

  • Didn't like that we'd always resolve problems between us in my time by my rules
  • Thinks I've been condescending/a bad friend
  • Thinks no one appreciated her/gave her a chance
  • Being thought of as a servant
  • Gothel abandoning her
  • Something to do with my father? Corona? The SUN?

"Well, I had been wondering, but we can definitely add her hand to this list," Rapunzel says to herself. "Aaaand maybe even those other things she had been mad about in the Tree, since it seems likely she never actually got over her anger about those… Regardless of what she told me after it happened…"

  • Her hand being hurt (blames me… I think)
  • Me not trusting her to take down Hector with the spear
  • Me trusting Adira throughout the Tree
  • Upset by our argument and maybe the conversation after…
  • Making her talk about what happened when she didn't want to

Rapunzel sighs. "Ooookay. Well, this is probably what I should focus on now, if it's her memories from the Great Tree that came back and her hand is hurting." Rapunzel thinks for a moment. "Although some of these are connected to the earlier ones… she's angry about how I made her talk about the Tree when she didn't want to, which was resolving things in my way on my time. She thinks I didn't give her a chance with the spear. And it's possible she thinks I was being condescending during our argument."

Rapunzel frowns. She has to think of what to say if Cassandra brings these things up. And despite how pragmatically she was trying to make herself think, she can't get over her frustrations with Cassandra.

"Cassandra's been a bad friend, too," Rapunzel mutters. "But she's not sitting in front of a bunch of notes, trying to come up with ways to make it up to me."

Rapunzel pinches the bridge of her nose, squeezing her eyes shut. She's also completely insane, Rapunzel reminds herself.

Rapunzel scowls, lowering her hand and opening her eyes. This started before the Moonstone, though, she argues internally. She was a bad friend when she refused to talk to me and she was so angry with me about something that wasn't my fault. And she lied, and she didn't trust me to have things handled in the Tree.

But Rapunzel shakes her head. "Argh," she groans. "Focus Rapunzel. You can criticize Cassandra when she's back to normal. Right now you've got a friend and a kingdom to save."

Rapunzel knows that she has to be patient to make sure this conversation goes well. But with all the reasons she has to think that Cassandra's finally ready to talk with and work with her, Rapunzel feels confident that soon they'll be having a real reconciliation, and that's a huge step towards repairing their friendship.

Rapunzel tries to ignore the knowledge that the last time she'd made plans for reconciling and repairing their friendship, it had gone disastrously.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel starts her search in the front entry hall, and to her lack of surprise M-C is not there. She continues from there, calling out an apology for how rude she'd been as she goes.

She's in the throne room when she feels the back of her neck prickle with the sensation of being watched. She whirls around and looks all around her, but she doesn't see M-C.

"Cass?" Rapunzel calls. "I know you're here. I wanted- I wanted to say I'm sorry, for how I acted earlier. I want to talk to you too. Please come out."

No movements or sounds. Rapunzel takes a deep breath and continues: "I understand that you're mad at me. I want to hear what you have to say, and I want to make things right between us."

Rapunzel is reminded of the apology she intended to give with the gift painting. She opens the blue bag at her hip and takes out her journal. Flipping to find the apology, she reads part of it aloud. "I know I haven't shown it, but you mean the world to me. You're my best friend, Cass. I want to be better for you. I want to make things right between us, but only if and when you want to as well. I'll be patient. I promise."

"Do you mean that?"

Rapunzel starts at the voice, which was coming from above her. She looks up and around and finally sees M-C crouched upside down on a part of the rafters near the high ceiling, like a bat.

"C-Cass?" Rapunzel asks, unable to shake off her surprise.

M-C drops from the rafter, twisting in midair to land on her feet in a crouch a short distance in front of Rapunzel.

"I- I-" Rapunzel stutters. "Yes, I do mean it. I- I'm here to listen, Cass. Please, talk to me."

"I don't know if that's true," M-C answers with a sulking tone as she stands. "If I say something you don't like, you won't listen."

Rapunzel takes a deep breath through her nose. "No, I want to hear you. I want to work with you."

M-C doesn't answer for a moment, not looking at Rapunzel. "I think you're lying," M-C finally says, distressed and starting to pace back and forth. "I think I'm going to say something important and you're going to tell me to stop, o-or get mad at me, or-" she cuts off, her breathing harsh.

"Cass- no, that's not true," Rapunzel answers earnestly, trying to placate her. "I- I would never do that-"

"You did!" M-C cries, stopping in her pacing and turning quickly towards her.

Rapunzel is taken aback. "What? No, you're confused, I've only ever wanted to work with you-"

"You're lying!"

Rapunzel is alarmed by M-C's escalating emotions, and she desperately hopes M-C's upset doesn't turn to anger. She knows she has to tread carefully, so she pauses and tries to think of what M-C could be referring to. "A-are you talking about the argument we had in the Great Tree? I- I don't really remember-"

"You told me to stop talking," M-C answers, hugging her own chest. "You didn't like what I was saying so you told me to stop talking and be okay with everything. You told me to be okay with everything and I got hurt and I had-" M-C cuts off. "I don't think you're my best friend. Best friends wouldn't do that to each other. I think you're lying and you just want to make me act a way that you like, you just want me to not be mad anymore."

Rapunzel's mind races as she tries to keep up with what M-C's saying. She vaguely recalls their conversation in the Great Tree - "I'm going to make decisions that you're going to disagree with, and I need you to be okay with that."

"I- I'm sorry," Rapunzel answers, and she means it. "W-when I asked you to be okay with things, I didn't think that you would take that so personally. I didn't mean to-"

"Of course I'd take it personally," M-C cries. "It- it was an order! You ordered me because I was your servant! I don't- I don't mean anything to you," M-C says, miserable. "I was an inconvenience and you wanted me gone, you wanted to replace me. Even now you're only here to get the kingdom back."

Distress bolts through Rapunzel as M-C confesses what Rapunzel had feared: she thinks that Rapunzel saw her as nothing more than a servant. Whatever frustrations Rapunzel had with Cassandra evaporate as soon as she sees how upset Cassandra is, thinking that she doesn't matter to Rapunzel.

"Cass, no," Rapunzel says again, desperate. "I have never thought of you as a servant. You're my friend, my best friend." Rapunzel sees the bracelet is still around M-C's wrist. "That's- that's why we have these bracelets, remember?" Rapunzel lifts her own wrist for M-C to see. "I made these to show our friendship, how much we mean to each other. So that we and anyone else can see that we're close, we're equals."

"No we're not," M-C answers, still upset, putting her other hand to her right wrist. "You told me to be okay with everything because you'll be queen. You'll be queen, and I'd be- I don't even know, I don't know what I would be. Probably still your lady-in-waiting. Or you'd get rid of me. I- I thought things were different when we were travelling but then they weren't. You didn't listen to me, I didn't matter to you."

Rapunzel pauses, wanting to get her words right. "I'm sorry," she repeats. "I am so sorry for making you feel that way, Cass. It was never my intention. Things got- things got weird when we were travelling, everything was so stressful and overwhelming - I didn't realize how bad of a friend I was being. But my behavior was never because I don't care about you. It was all just a problem with me, and how I handled how I was feeling, my fear and my stress."

M-C watches her in silence, still with that miserable expression.

"Please, Cass, you have to understand this," Rapunzel pleads with her, her voice catching as tears start to gather in her eyes. "You're my friend, you're my equal, and you mean so much to me. I-I know I'd be queen someday, but that doesn't mean anything between us. You've always been and will always be my friend more than anything else. A-and I'm here to help you, because I care about you."

M-C looks away. "You're just here for the kingdom," she says. "You think I'm a problem."

"I don't think you're a problem," Rapunzel tells her. "I'm here for you. You know that I can leave, but I won't because I want to make things right between us. And I can stay here, as long as you need, I won't push you or- or try to make you talk to me. I know I've been a bad friend. Please, let me make it up to you."

M-C doesn't answer, still avoiding her gaze.

"I mean it, Cass," Rapunzel says, stepping towards her. "All of it. I know you don't want to believe me, but it's all true. It's- it's why I made the bracelets, and it's why I painted you that picture of us as birds together, and it's why I'm still here. It's all for you, because you mean so much to me."

M-C looks at her wrist with the bracelet in silence. Rapunzel desperately hopes that some of her words are getting through to her - that Cassandra will finally feel comfortable talking to Rapunzel about her feelings on everything else between them.

"...I have to think," M-C says without looking at Rapunzel.

Rapunzel blinks, thrown by the unexpected response. "Sure, of course," she responds. "W-whatever you need." It occurs to Rapunzel that she doesn't know how long M-C needs, so she adds, "You... know where to find me."

M-C nods once, and then she turns to walk quickly out of the throne room. Rapunzel watches her go, hoping desperately that she'll return soon.