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the mysteries of underworld castle

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Prologue

On a divine astral plane populated by eternal beings called celestials, one stood out with magic beyond compare. The others feared this individual's strength and split them into two separate beings, casting the halves to opposite ends of the cosmos.

But the two halves, the Sundrop and Moonstone, found each other again. Rather than recombining, they fell in love. And instead of wielding the great power they had as one being, their magic worked together through their love and commitment to the other. The Sundrop on her own held the power of life, healing, light, energy, and organics; the Moonstone on her own held the power of death, decay, darkness, matter, and inorganics; and together, they were again able to do anything.

They did not seek control over others. They merely wished to live in harmony with the rest of their home, enjoying the love they shared. But the other celestials, again afraid of their power being together, did a trick to cast the Sundrop and Moonstone out and bind them to a mortal plane in the form of a flower and rock, far apart from each other.

The Sundrop and Moonstone could not move - they were stuck where they landed. But the Sundrop could send out roots and the Moonstone could send out spikes of black rock and for years they searched for each other under the earth until they found each other in the middle, the roots holding onto the rocks like holding hands so they could be together again. And they stayed like that for millenia, clinging to each other deep underground, until the Sundrop was suddenly ripped from the earth.

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The Moonstone knows immediately that the Sundrop is gone - their physical contact with each other had maintained a psychic connection that was abruptly severed. The Moonstone, outraged, sends out black rocks in search of her wife.

The Sundrop and Moonstone depend on each other to be their best selves. Without the Moonstone, the Sundrop's ability to create boundaries disappears. She wants to help people, and will do so even if it destroys her. So when she is torn from the earth, sensing the urgency and grief of the guards around her, she does not fight back. She allows herself to be turned into an elixir and given to the ailing queen, and she is reborn without memories fused with a human child. The king and queen's daughter is a hybrid: both human and celestial.

The princess Rapunzel is stolen away nearly immediately by the woman who wishes to abuse her powers of restoration and regeneration. Rapunzel remains trapped for eighteen years as the Moonstone desperately continues to send out her black rock spikes in search of the Sundrop, ravaging landscapes between the Dark Kingdom and Corona.

Rapunzel is freed from her tower by a dashing rogue who learns how to care about others by bearing witness to her pure heartedness. He sacrifices his own life for her freedom, her captor is destroyed, and he is resurrected through a tear because Rapunzel's magic resides within her and not just in her hair. The two become best friends, he and the pub thugs who aided Rapunzel's escape are pardoned for their past crimes by the crown, and he is given lodgings in the castle in thanks for rescuing their princess.

A few months after Rapunzel is freed, her new friend and Lady-in-Waiting Cassandra discovers the black rocks that have just recently emerged where the Sundrop once grew. When she brings Rapunzel there, the Moonstone senses her presence. The rocks glow blue at Rapunzel's proximity and when she touches one, the Moonstone desperately attempts to restore their psychic link. Rapunzel's celestial half reacts in fear, not recognizing the Moonstone's magic, and the stones explode. The rush of foreign magic brings out her own, and her hair is restored.

Although the Moonstone could not reconnect to her wife, she had spent so long in fear of the Sundrop being harmed that at her touch the Moonstone completed a partial switch of their powers: the Moonstone granted Rapunzel invulnerability to keep her safe, allowing her also to access the decay spell. In return the Moonstone received Rapunzel's power of advanced regeneration and her ability to access the healing spell.

Despite the initial failure with reconnecting to her wife, the Moonstone refuses to give up. She senses the Sundrop's proximity still and sends black rock to try to reach her. Rapunzel and Cassandra flee in fear from the rapidly approaching spikes.

Even once her wife has escaped her range of sensing, the Moonstone knows she must be nearby, so she sends spikes to pierce the surface in Corona with more frequency and intensity.

Eventually, she again senses her wife against one of her spikes, and she tries to restore their connection. Rapunzel's dormant power reacts again to the unfamiliar magic, and the spikes explode. And again the Moonstone refuses to give up, and she gives chase.

Rapunzel had intended for the spikes to explode, to take out the masked men chasing her and her friends. She did not intend for the spikes to pursue her, trapping them in her tower and causing them to jump off of the roof to escape, with Rapunzel for the first time accessing her magic to move her hair to protect them. Rapunzel's tower collapses from the onslaught of black rocks, but their jump took Rapunzel out of the Moonstone's range of sensing, and the Moonstone is again forced to give up her chase.

The Moonstone recognizes that her plan has not been working so the next time she senses her wife, she does not immediately seek to restore their connection. When she feels the Sundrop against her, she waits to see what she wishes to do. Even without their psychic link the Moonstone can sense the Sundrop's fear of something around her, and the Moonstone sends spikes to destroy the threats.

Varian's automatons are speared by the rocks, leaving only his mecha. Rapunzel's hair had reacted on its own to the spikes around her, seeking the rocks as the roots of the original Sundrop flower would. The Moonstone extends more spikes carefully towards Rapunzel again, who grabs hold of them with her hands. Sensing the Moonstone through her direct contact, her power is further awakened and she sends out a shockwave to take out Varian's mecha.

Cassandra is thrown in the blast and struck by black rock shards that tear open her shoulder. While she heals - Rapunzel does not leave on her journey until Cassandra recovers - a tiny piece of black rock from the shrapnel of the explosion is embedded in her shoulder.

The Moonstone realizes that for whatever reason, she cannot connect to the Sundrop psychically, and the Sundrop is capable of moving. She sends black rocks to destroy the wall and point in the direction of the Dark Kingdom for the Sundrop to follow.

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On Rapunzel's journey, when Rapunzel touches the black rocks nothing happens anymore. She can't control them or explode them, because the Moonstone no longer sends magic to her through the spikes - and the stones no longer glow blue in her presence - so she doesn't react to it. The Moonstone has a plan: leading the Sundrop to her. She doesn't need to do anything else.

Rapunzel learned from her father and documents retrieved in Varian's laboratory about a dark power responsible for the spikes, which only attacked Corona because her father uprooted the Sundrop that had protected them. Early in Rapunzel's journey she meets Adira, a researcher who tells Rapunzel that the dark power, the Moonstone, resides in an abandoned and ancient kingdom far to the east. She explains that she and her team had discovered the Moonstone decades ago, and since then she had been seeking its counterpart, a light power, that would cancel out the dark and protect the world from it. She tells Rapunzel that she is that light power, the Sundrop, and it is her destiny to reunite the two powers. And if she does not, the Moonstone would continue to send out its spikes in search of her until it has destroyed the world.

The Moonstone can vaguely feel Cassandra, especially when she touches one of the black rocks. This gives the Moonstone an idea: she knows that the Sundrop obtained some kind of form that freed her from being stuck in one location, and she thinks that she could get a form like that too. As the group's journey progresses Cassandra begins having dreams of the Dark Kingdom and the Moonstone's chamber that she can only vaguely remember when she wakes up.

When they approach the Great Tree, Adira shares that the others in her team had different ideas of how to go about managing the Moonstone that they uncovered. She and Quirin sought to find its light counterpart, while Hector and Edmund sought to keep anyone from ever finding it and unlocking control of its dark power. She warns that the closer they get to the Dark Kingdom, the more likely they'll encounter the two who stayed behind. Shortly after her warning they fight off Hector, who tries to kill them to keep them from completing their journey.

In the Great Tree Adira tells the group that it was once the lair of the evil sorcerer Zhan Tiri. They discover a room full of documents in the Tree, including ancient writings on the Sundrop and Moonstone. Rapunzel finds an incantation similar to her healing spell, and when she uses it she's overtaken by a dark spell of decay that she's only snapped out of when Adira pushes her into water.

Cassandra is becoming increasingly frustrated with Rapunzel. She always felt pushed aside and not given a chance in Corona, where her father refused to work towards changing Corona law to allow a woman - her - into the guard, despite her proficiency in weapons and law that exceeded most of his men. Even when he had been put out of commission when Varian kidnapped the queen, leaving the guards without a leader, he refused to recognize her as the most worthy replacement and chose one of his other guards. She only rarely got assignments from him for guard work and was told to continue working as a maid, orders that she followed out of fear of his old threat of sending her to a convent if she disobeyed him.

With Rapunzel, Cassandra had gotten used to a respect she never had before. For the first time in her life she was being listened to and made to feel important. Spending every day with the princess since a couple weeks after her liberation from the tower, Cassandra taught Rapunzel much about the castle, Corona, and the outside world in general. Rapunzel thought she was amazing, knowledgeable, and real, and she was delighted to have Cassandra as a guide and companion. She put a great deal of trust in Cassandra and even looked up to her, never considering her or treating her like the servant that her position dictated she was.

This changed as their journey went on. Rapunzel dismissed Cassandra's importance as her (unofficial) bodyguard, acted like Cassandra's excessive focus and planning for their journey to continue smoothly was an inconvenience rather than the only thing keeping them moving, and stopped listening to Cassandra's advisements on decisions for their journey. Worse still, she refused to acknowledge the change in her behavior, and when Cassandra finally confronted her in the Great Tree about how Rapunzel was being foolish for trusting Adira blindly, Rapunzel snapped orders at her to stop her from speaking. Even when Rapunzel felt some uncertain guilt afterwards she botched the apology, simply telling Cassandra that Cassandra will need to get used to them disagreeing, especially when Rapunzel becomes queen.

So Cassandra swallows her frustrations. Shortly after their argument and not-quite-reconciliation, Hector attacks the group again. The fight results in Hector getting possessed by the evil heart of the Tree - Zhan Tiri's magic. When Cassandra tells Rapunzel that she could defeat him if Rapunzel helps her escape from the vines, Rapunzel ignores her and uses the decay spell instead. The spell works in taking down the heart of the Tree, leading the rest of it to start collapsing. Rapunzel is frozen again from the spell and as the rest of their friends flee, Cassandra runs to Rapunzel and tries to shake her out of the trance so she could escape. Touching Rapunzel during the spell burns Cassandra's right arm up to her elbow with a terrible curse of decay: it becomes blackened, gnarled, the skin pulled taught against her bones and tendons, rendering it dramatically weakened. Rapunzel tries to help her but Cassandra refuses to let her look at it, hiding it in a glove and then under a suit of armor she finds scattered among the Tree's wreckage.

They spend three days trapped in the House of Yesterday's Tomorrows, at which time Zhan Tiri's servant attempts to trap Rapunzel in a dream world in order to drain her magic and set Zhan Tiri free. Rapunzel escapes, but not before her magic is used to allow Zhan Tiri to materialize as a phantom and show Cassandra the memory of her young childhood. With Rapunzel free, Zhan Tiri is again banished.

When the group finally arrives at the Dark Kingdom, they find a wasteland under low-hanging, ominous clouds that cast the entire landscape in shadow. There is no greenery around the ruins of a grand palace, perched on a cliff, only stark stone and huge spikes of black rock. The wind that blows towards them from the wasteland is cold.

A man with black armor, hood made from a bear's head, and an enormous axe tries to keep the group from getting to the palace. After their fight, Adira speaks to the man - Edmund - and convinces him that they have the power of light that could finally stop the Moonstone. Rapunzel's hair glows with their proximity to the palace, and at the sight Edmund relents, knowing that even if their plan did not work at least they were not there to use the power for evil.

Cassandra's had a strong sense of déjà vu since they first laid eyes on the Dark Kingdom in the distance, but as they approach the palace it becomes overwhelming. She's not said anything to her companions, caught somewhere between not thinking it important and not trusting them. When Edmund tells the group that they'll need to find a roundabout way into the palace because more black rock has appeared to prevent them from going through the front gate, Cassandra ignores him and approaches the black rock doors. Without thinking she removes the gauntlet on her left hand, pushing her knife into the skin to release blood that she presses to the stone. The doors immediately glow blue and recede.

Everyone else in the group is severely alarmed by this, but Cassandra behaves as though she doesn't even register anything out of the ordinary. Entering the palace she finally admits to Rapunzel that she feels like she's done all of this before.

It's only a minute later that Cassandra stops and tells Rapunzel that she has done all of this before.

She turns to Rapunzel and says, "This isn't about you… It was never about you. This is my destiny. The Moonstone chose ME." Before Rapunzel can respond, Cassandra turns and takes off down the corridor, spikes of black rock turning blue and receding in front of her to let her pass. The spikes reappear behind her, so even as Rapunzel runs after her she cannot catch up.

When Rapunzel reaches the Moonstone chamber, Cassandra is standing in front of its pedestal. Rapunzel tries to call out to her, and Cassandra draws her sword and points it at Rapunzel while angrily telling her of all her grievances: Rapunzel casting her aside, no one appreciating her or giving her a chance, Gothel's abandonment of her, how she's always been kept powerless, Rapunzel being condescending and a bad friend, to name a few. She says again that the Moonstone chose her and that taking it is her destiny. Rapunzel tries to answer her but Cassandra turns and grabs the Moonstone, releasing a huge blast of energy that knocks Rapunzel to the ground.

The Moonstone is thrilled. Her time is at hand. She will finally be freed from her immovable state and have the ability to reconnect with her wife.

However, the Moonstone isn't as good with organics as the Sundrop is. And the Sundrop was reborn without memories, which is a dramatically different process than a young adult human and a spirit with many millennia of memories trying to fuse into one being.

The ground shakes and Rapunzel hears a terrible shattering all around her as every black rock in the chamber fractures into tiny pieces and showers to the ground. She pushes herself up to look towards the Moonstone's pedestal as the energy blast subsides, and she sees Cassandra collapsed in front of it, electric blue magic zapping off of her. Cassandra pushes herself up as Rapunzel did, and Rapunzel sees her hair has turned a bright blue and that the Moonstone is set under her left collarbone in a new armor of black rock. Rapunzel gets up just as Cassandra does, and she tries to call out to her friend to ask if she's okay.

But that is not Cassandra. The shattering of black rocks mirrored the shattering of Cassandra and the Moonstone's minds in their attempt to combine. The Moonstone-Cassandra hybrid standing in the chamber is left with all of her memories and sense of self - from both halves - in pieces. She does not understand what Rapunzel is saying to her, where she is, who Rapunzel is, nor who she is. A fleeting fragment passes through her mind, and she remembers how badly she wished to escape the chamber. She summons black rock to break an exit in the wall away from Rapunzel, and she takes off without saying a word.

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The Moonstone-Cassandra hybrid (M-C) does not only flee the chamber, but also the wasteland of the Dark Kingdom. She reaches a forest and remains there for several months, only able to hold onto some memories or sense of self for brief periods before she loses them again. She tries desperately to figure out who she is and what she's doing. She's confused and misses her wife, except she's mad at her wife and also doesn't have a wife. Being able to perceive visuals is new and overwhelming except it's not, she wonders where her astral home is but that place doesn't make sense and this one does. Fragments of her memory try to build in her mind but none of them fit together and she falls to pieces again very easily. She doesn't eat or sleep anymore.

Meanwhile, Rapunzel and her friends are brought back to Corona with great urgency via airship to liberate the kingdom from the Saporians. Rapunzel re-befriends Varian and they rescue the kingdom. For months Rapunzel acts as interim queen and tries to help her parents recover their memories. She throws herself into her work to distract from how her best friend betrayed her, but when she lays down to go to sleep at night she can no longer occupy her thoughts with tasks, and she often falls asleep crying from her heartbreak.

The first time Rapunzel sees or hears from Cassandra again is when M-C shows up in Corona and tries to kill Frederic in the throne room during Eugene's birthday party.

In the wilderness, M-C had two thoughts at once that managed to stick firmly in her mind: her wife was taken, and the Coronan king dug up the special flower. The combination of these thoughts led her to Corona to get revenge on the king who took Flower Wife.

Rapunzel doesn't understand what's happening. M-C shows up in Corona after months of no contact to attack her father, snarling barely-coherently about how he took someone and that he's a monster. Rapunzel tries to lasso M-C and restrain her, and they begin to fight as people flee.

M-C doesn't recognize Rapunzel as Flower Wife. She actually doesn't remember anything about Flower Wife, only that she was really, really important. She decides to destroy the kingdom that took Flower Wife - Corona's crest becomes a trigger for her - and she throws Rapunzel away from her, knocking her out.

Rapunzel's friends carry her with them to flee as M-C begins summoning huge spikes of black rock to lay waste to the castle, and then the capital city surrounding it. Royal guards lead civilians to evacuate, and before long the citizens have all fled the city that has been ravaged entirely by spikes. As people fled they felt the air grow cold around them, and witnessed plants lining the windows and streets of the city wither with unnatural speed.

But M-C does not stop there. She leaves the island to begin wrecking the mainland as well, leaping with unnatural strength between giant spikes of black rock that she summons. Plants wilt and the air chills around her wherever she goes. Eventually every Coronan has either escaped the kingdom through the main gate of the wall or fled to Old Corona by the wall breach to evade the rampage. Rapunzel, with her family and friends in Old Corona, finally wakes up and is horrified.

M-C, seeing a lot of Corona, remembers more bits from her life as Cassandra. Besides the things that make her even more agitated, like a sense of no control in her life and a vague fear of being sent away, she remembers that the name of the important flower was the Sundrop. (She forgets it was her wife, though, and pretty much everything else.) Arriving at Old Corona, Rapunzel is ready to fight her again to defend her loved ones, but M-C stops her rampage and demands that they give her the Sundrop.

Rapunzel tells M-C that she can't do that because the Sundrop is literally inside of her. M-C, pacing and increasingly on edge, says that then she'll take Rapunzel.

But Rapunzel is acting queen now, and she knows she can't abandon her people. Rapunzel tries to get M-C to talk to her, but M-C doesn't have much to say on account of how she's already forgetting who all these people are and having random flares of anger from seeing Rapunzel, who she is mad at for a reason she doesn't remember. She says that if Rapunzel doesn't give her the Sundrop she won't stop at Corona, she'll start destroying the rest of the world too. Rapunzel, horrified by the threat, tells Eugene and the others to lead the rest of her people out of the breach in Corona's wall to take refuge in another kingdom, and that she'll stay with Cassandra in Corona. She thinks that she might be able to get through to Cassandra and have everything go back to normal.

M-C experiences one singular thought that isn't overwhelmed by anger: she has the vaguest memory of Rapunzel leading the Coronans during the ice storm and becomes certain that if Rapunzel isn't there to lead them, they would all die. The vague memory from her past carries a sense of responsibility that makes her not want that to happen to them, as she has already forgotten she just destroyed all their homes and ruined their lives.

M-C tells Rapunzel that she can go with them, but that Rapunzel has to come back. She wants Rapunzel to spend half of her time with her. It's the summer so she says that Rapunzel has to come back on the fall equinox and stay with her until the spring. And Rapunzel has to come alone.

Rapunzel, extremely confused and frustrated by these terms, submits to them because she has no other choice. M-C feels another flare of anger that makes her demand all the Coronans leave - Corona and everything within the walls is hers now. Her demand is spurred on by the fear she experienced during her rampage, her old memory of being scared of being sent away. So she refuses to leave her home, but she also cannot bear to have the Coronans around her, who had largely been disdainful of her since she was a child for being a tomboy. She is also confusing the Coronans in her mind with vague memories of the other celestials - she thinks they're terrible and cannot be trusted. The Coronans don't have much to stay or fight for, so they take everything they can and leave through the wall's breach.

The Coronans go to Arianna's home kingdom as refugees. Rapunzel and her extended family spend months rehousing people and trying to help everyone build a temporary new life until Rapunzel can get through to Cassandra. Rapunzel goes back to Corona before the equinox to try to talk, but M-C has built up huge walls of black rock where the Corona walls used to be - much higher ones. She even has wavebreakers of black rock that prevent ships from getting to Corona by sea, far off of the shore of the capital's island. The wavebreakers connect to her walls, so her new domain is completely surrounded. No one can go in or see in. Dark clouds hover above Corona, the way they did in the Dark Kingdom.

Unable to do anything else, Rapunzel focuses on helping her people.

Rapunzel is sure that she won't need a full six months to get through to M-C. She is, characteristically and in spite of everything, optimistic. But she and Maximus still take a carriage that has some of Rapunzel's belongings and food supplies when going back towards Corona on the fall equinox. A team of royal guards and her friends accompany her to Corona's edge as well.

"You know you don't have to do this, blondie," Eugene tells her when they arrive at the wall.

"If we believe her threats - which, I don't see any reason why we shouldn't - yes, I do," Rapunzel answers. "It'll be fine, I'll get through to her. We've always been able to make up in the past. And besides, I spent eighteen years with a madwoman," she says offhandedly, looking up at the foreboding black walls. "What's six more months?"

The black rock recedes to form a gateway where Rapunzel's carriage approaches, but M-C's not at the entrance. Instead there are two black horses with glowing blue eyes. When they approach, Rapunzel sees that the horses are made from interlocked pieces black rock like clockwork, and they move almost mechanically. When they stand still they're unsettlingly motionless, like statues. It appears that M-C was serious about Rapunzel coming alone - she won't even let her come in with Max. They unhitch Max from the carriage to let one of the horse specters take his place, and Rapunzel hands off Pascal to Eugene.

Upon seeing the specters, every one of Rapunzel's friends tries one more time to convince her not to go. But Rapunzel tells them it's okay, that Cassandra is her friend and she's sure it will all work out.

And so she passes through the gate, the rocks sealing seamlessly behind her.

Chapter Text

Rapunzel sits at the front seat of her carriage and she enters what used to be Corona with the two horse specters.

It's bleak. The green vegetation has entirely vanished. It reminds her very much of the Dark Kingdom's wasteland. Black spikes litter the landscape and trees stand with bare branches, looking as if they were petrified and turned to stone. The sky is dark and clouds hang low. It's bizarrely twenty degrees colder and Rapunzel's glad she packed winter clothes and had Pascal stay with Eugene. The only living things, as best as she can tell, are huge bioluminescent mushrooms and fungi she'd never seen before that have appeared among the trees. Even the living things still around thrive on dead things.

Rapunzel's heart breaks for her kingdom.

She doesn't see Cassandra, which is bizarre to her. Rapunzel assumes the horse specter will take her to where Cassandra is, and it continues walking towards what used to be Corona's capital with the other specter walking behind them.

It's unsettlingly quiet. The lack of birds or wind through vegetation makes it completely silent and still. If it weren't for the horse specters moving, she would have thought she was stopped in time.

When they crest a hill, Rapunzel sees Corona capital for the first time. There are still the huge spikes pointing skywards that ravaged the city, but parts of the castle have been built back up with black rock. Rapunzel assumes that's where Cassandra has been living.

The capital is just as bad as the transformed dead forests she passed through initially. Seeing what used to be a lively, cheery, bustling place in silent ruins is almost too much to bear. If she didn't feel the responsibility to her people to witness what has become of their homes, she would have closed her eyes.

Her grief gives way to anger. How could Cassandra do this? And where is she? She demands that Rapunzel come here, but doesn't show her face?

Deep down Rapunzel feels a flash of fear. What if Cassandra was hurt? Or dead? It had been months of her alone in this wasteland. Rapunzel feels ridiculous for feeling fear for the person who turned her home into this. But there is obviously something severely wrong with Cassandra. She had been saying things that didn't make sense before she went berserk. And while she sounded angry at Rapunzel in the Dark Kingdom, Rapunzel was sure that none of it could lead her to do… this.

She gets to the castle courtyard, still with no sign of Cassandra. Rapunzel is uncertain of what to do - should she even take her bags out of the carriage? Should she ask the horse to bring her back to the wall? But it had sealed behind her. Rapunzel gets off the front seat and walks past a massive collapsed door to enter the castle's front hall. It's empty, nothing but spikes and debris and shredded tapestries. She turns around to walk back to the carriage and she sees M-C sitting cross-legged on the roof of it, her chin propped up on one of her hands, watching Rapunzel with no expression.

Rapunzel feels a powerful wave of anger. M-C doesn't respond when Rapunzel shouts at her asking where she's been and how she could do all of this. She just sits, motionless, and stares. Rapunzel pauses and wonders if she's hallucinating Cassandra, but M-C abruptly stands.

"Your room is the same as it was before." M-C says expressionlessly. "You can bring your own bags up to it." Her face twists and she snarls, "I am not a servant."

Rapunzel is taken aback by the sudden anger. "I didn't say you were," she mutters, and is about to say more but M-C jumps off of Rapunzel's carriage and with inhuman strength leaps from the ground to the wall of the castle over a story up, catching a spike she shoots out of the wall. She uses spikes to keep jumping up the sheer face of the castle and away from Rapunzel until she disappears out of Rapunzel's line of sight.

Rapunzel hadn't seen M-C's rampage, when she was leaping between giant spikes, so this is new to her. "Alright then," she mutters. "Talk to you later."

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It takes Rapunzel a while to bring all of her bags to her room. With the castle empty of everyone and many holes in the walls from damage done by spikes, Rapunzel thinks to herself that this will feel more like camping than sleeping in her home. She starts exploring the castle, finding parts of it in ruin and parts entirely replaced by black rock, turning corridors in different directions and lined with torches that burn with blue fire to light the new hallways.

Bizarrely, she finds some parts of the original castle that had been destroyed fixed. The walls and windows had the stones and glass put back into place, held by black mortar that Rapunzel is certain is black rock. She stops, staring at this work for a while. It's a lot of stones that were put back. Did Cassandra do this all herself? Why? How much time did it take? How did she even figure out how all the pieces went back together?

Just as bizarrely, she finds parts of M-C's black rock castle destroyed, in piles of rubble like parts of the original castle. Rapunzel is certain the only way this could be done would be by Cassandra herself. She destroyed parts of her own work?

"I guess she needs hobbies," Rapunzel says to herself.

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Walking through the corridors and castle rooms, occasionally Rapunzel finds a black rock spike with a face so smooth that it casts reflections.

On every one of these, the spot right where Rapunzel would be able to see her face standing in front of it has been scratched out. Or where Cassandra would see her face, Rapunzel thinks to herself. Rapunzel has seen Cassandra's new rock armor - the gauntlets are clawed. She gouged out the image of her own face wherever she saw it.

The library is almost completely destroyed. The ceiling caved in over large parts and the bookcases were knocked over and covered with rubble. Rapunzel picks up a couple of books that are salvageable, and brings them with her on the rest of her tour. She'll need things to occupy her, she suspects, between times Cassandra confronts her.

The kitchens are in better condition than the library, but Rapunzel notices a thick layer of fine rock dust on every surface.

"So she hasn't been cooking anything," Rapunzel notes. She frowns. It's a wasteland outside: no crops to grow or game to hunt. "What is she eating?" The remains of the castle's food storage is split between scraps of things that had been eaten by pests - likely before the kingdom turned completely to this bizarre world - and food that was stale and molding but had kept to some extent from the new cold. It seemed like the remaining food was untouched, definitely not like someone had been living off of it for months.

Cassandra's room is entirely gone. The rooms of the stories directly above it had collapsed so her room became filled with rubble that even poured out into the hallway from her open door.

"Then where is she staying? And sleeping?" Rapunzel asks herself. She wishes Pascal were with her, at least for someone else to bear witness to the state of the castle and its new mysteries.

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When Rapunzel gets back to her bedroom, M-C is waiting for her. She's standing in the middle of the room, motionless, and Rapunzel jumps when she opens the door and sees her.

Rapunzel shakes off her surprise. "Alright Cass," She begins. She had a lot of time to think about what she was going to say. "Please, let's talk. I want to know why you did this. I want to know why you want me here."

M-C's blank expression turns into one that looks as though she's considering a puzzle. She stares intently at Rapunzel for several moments. "I don't know," she finally answers, still emotionless.

"You- what?" Rapunzel says in shock. "You don't know? What does that mean, Cass?"

M-C walks towards her until she's directly in front of Rapunzel, still staring at her face. Rapunzel swallows and keeps herself from flinching away. Her hair starts to glow from M-C's proximity, and she glares up at her.

"But with you here, I'm going to find out," M-C says. Rapunzel frowns, trying to figure out what she means. She realizes that Cassandra had ignored her response, and was continuing her first thought.

Rapunzel is uncertain of what to say but opens her mouth to speak anyway, and abruptly M-C turns away from her. She leaps across the room towards Rapunzel's open window and jumps over the edge. Rapunzel rushes over - it's a sheer and very far drop - but when she looks outside she sees nothing but a few black rock spikes sticking out of the wall.

Rapunzel leans back. Cassandra must have swung away again like a lemur and disappeared around a corner or through another window.

Rapunzel sits on the edge of her bed and puts down the books she was holding onto. Cassandra said she didn't know - what? Why she did all of this? Why she wanted Rapunzel here? Both?

How could she not know? How is Rapunzel supposed to get through to someone who doesn't understand her own actions?

Rapunzel lays back on her bed. What is she going to do.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel decides she can't just sit around waiting for Cassandra to come back again. She leaves her room and goes to explore another part of the castle she still had yet to check - her parents' wing. Having looked through most other rooms and found them largely untouched besides the initial destruction, she suspects that Cassandra is staying there. At least, it's where her largest black rock annex attaches to the castle.

Her parents' room seems untouched as well, as are the additional parts of their suite: dressing rooms, sitting rooms, personal offices, rooms reserved for bathing…

Rapunzel walks up the newly-added spiraling staircase of black rock at the end of one of the castle corridors. She feels like she's been climbing forever around the spiral, only broken up by blue-flamed torches and small arched windows alternating every ten feet, when she reaches the top: an opening that leads to a flat, round platform perched on the tower. It's huge and without any adornments nor fence around the edge, and offset from center so that most of it hangs over open air. Rapunzel is startled - she had expected to find a room that Cassandra is staying in, hopefully with Cassandra in it. She walks out onto the platform and looks around: it's higher than any other part of the castle and offers a view 360 degrees around her, so she can see the vast sea stretching to the horizon, the capital city surrounding the castle, and the wasteland beyond the bridge - its bleak rolling hills and the huge wall of black rock in the distance.

Rapunzel stands transfixed for a moment: she'd never had such a view of Corona like this before. She wonders what it would have all looked like unravaged by Cassandra's destruction. It's not even really Corona anymore, she thinks to herself.

Thinking about the cold, the empty ruins of the city, the dead and petrified vegetation, and the abundance of decomposer fungi, she decides to call it Underworld.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel knows she'll have to return to her room at some point soon - the sun somewhere beyond the heavy clouds is starting to set, and she'll need to build up a fire in her room's hearth so she could stay warm for the night and make something to eat from the food supplies she brought with her. (She elected not to use the kitchens, far away in the castle and lacking in cleanliness. She was used to making meals like this on the road, anyway.) She's glad that the firewood stockpiles in the castle had not petrified like the woods outside, so she has something to work with.

Rapunzel is walking back towards her room through the great hall when she encounters M-C, entering from the opposite side.

"Cass!" Rapunzel immediately calls to her, and runs over. She's tired of Cassandra fleeing - she needs to have a real conversation with her.

M-C looks startled by Rapunzel appearing before her. Apparently she's unused to being the one being ambushed. Rapunzel continues: "Cass, we have to talk. You said you don't know why you did all this, right? The Moonstone did something to you, something bad. It's not safe, and you need to give it to me."

M-C stares at Rapunzel blankly.

"Cass, please, I'm trying to help you," Rapunzel pleads with her. "We can put an end to all of this right now. Please, give me the Moonstone." Rapunzel holds her hand out towards M-C.

M-C looks down at herself, where Rapunzel had been looking. "That's me," she finally answers.

Rapunzel's eyebrows draw together in confusion. "What? No, Cass, I'm talking about the stone that's in your armor. You have to take it out and give it to me." Rapunzel wants to do it herself, but she's afraid of what might happen when she touches it. At least if Cassandra hands it to her, Cassandra can jump away from whatever blast might ensue… she certainly wouldn't be able to if it was still in her chest.

M-C's face abruptly shifts with anger. "I don't take orders from you," she snarls. She claws out in front of her, Rapunzel snatching her hand back just in time to avoid the blow, but Rapunzel's struck from the side by black rock shooting out from the ground and goes sprawling.

M-C has started walking towards another door out of the great hall, but Rapunzel refuses to let her get away again. Shaking off her dizziness and standing up, she pulls down her hair to lasso her.

"I'm not letting you leave," Rapunzel says, careful to avoid any imperatives, "until we talk this out."

M-C looks back over her shoulder, wrapped in Rapunzel's hair. Her armor glows blue for a moment before sending out a blast that pushes Rapunzel's hair away from her, and she jumps from the constraint.

Raising her arms over her head and striking her forearms together, black rock shoots out of the ground in every doorway, blocking them in. The temperature in the room drops.

Rapunzel feels uneasy at this development.

"If I can't leave," M-C answers, "Then neither can you."

Rapunzel is nervous, but at least Cassandra hasn't run away again. "Cassandra, please," she begins. "Whatever you're going through, I want to help. We can fix this, all of this," she says, gesturing around them. "And we can do it together. We've always been able to make things right."

M-C scowls at her again. "That's what you think," she responds. "Everything done by your rules in your time. Your little game of pretend that everything's okay. I'm sick of it, and I'm sick of your condescension. Don't act as if you're my friend."

Rapunzel winces at the venom in her voice. Her words echoed some of the things she had said to Rapunzel in the Dark Kingdom. Rapunzel pauses, not wanting to say anything rashly. She needs to get her words right.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I thought things were okay between us. That's… obviously not the case. I haven't been trying to be condescending. I promise I'll try to make things right, but I need your help. I need you to talk to me so I know how to change."

M-C stands glaring at her in silence. Rapunzel repeats, "Please, Cass, talk to me."

"I already have," M-C answers. "So we're done."

She turns and starts walking towards a doorway again, the black rock glowing blue and receding before her.

"What am I supposed to do, Cass?" Rapunzel calls after her. "Why am I here? Are you just going to keep me locked here because I have the Sundrop?" Rapunzel's voice gets a hard edge. "Don't turn into your mother, Cassandra."

M-C glances over her shoulder. "You're free to leave the castle. You have free rein of the kingdom within the walls." She looks forward again, away from Rapunzel. "If anything I'm like your father."

"I didn't like that either!" Rapunzel shouts at her as she exits the room. "You know that, Cassandra!"

But she's gone. Rapunzel puts a hand to her face, frustrated. Cassandra wouldn't talk to her. She's back at square one.

I need to come up with something else, she thinks.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Over her dinner by firelight, she starts writing notes out.

  • Cassandra's angry with me. She thinks I'm a bad friend. She thinks I've been condescending. Apparently all the times I thought we made up she was actually resentful of me(?)

Rapunzel feels her eyes misting and tries to blink it away. She thinks about all the times they had fought and made up. She remembers Cassandra's smile and how they'd hug. Is it possible that it was all an act from her?

Rapunzel remembers how Cassandra pretended to be her friend during the Contest of the Crowns. Is it possible that all of the two years they'd spent together was a lie? That she doesn't actually know Cassandra at all?

"I can't believe that," Rapunzel whispers to herself. "If that's true… then I don't know anything. Nothing in my life would be real. She's too important to me. She has to be who I think she is."

Rapunzel moves on.

  • The Moonstone did something to her… probably. She controls the black rocks. She only did all of this after taking the stone. She was saying things that didn't make sense. She said the stone chose her and that she had seen the Dark Kingdom before.

Rapunzel sighs. She doesn't know what to make of this. Unless she could get the stone away from Cassandra… she can't do anything about this.

  • The Moonstone is dangerous. It destroyed that kingdom it was in. It made a wasteland there, and now it's made one here. According to the document in the Great Tree, the decay spell is the Moonstone's power. Adira says it's able to destroy the world.

This point is terrifying. She notes again that getting the Moonstone is definitely top priority, although likely not possible until she's on better terms with Cassandra.

  • Cass is a hothead and she keeps getting mad when she sees me. I have to wait it out until she calms down. Then maybe she'll talk to me.

Rapunzel leans back. Cassandra had told her that she didn't like resolving things on Rapunzel's time or by Rapunzel's rules. So Rapunzel will have to wait until they can resolve things on Cassandra's time by Cassandra's rules.

Rapunzel thinks about how stubborn Cassandra is. "I will die of old age before she approaches me to make up." Rapunzel sighs. "But I guess I don't have a choice."

She thinks about how Cassandra is prone to being overdramatic when she's upset. Rapunzel hopes that's why she said all those things that made Rapunzel so scared their friendship wasn't real, and that she doesn't actually mean it. At least not some of it.

"I mean, she has to want me around. She literally made me come here and is keeping me here," Rapunzel reasons. "She said it's about the Sundrop but it's not like she can do anything with it… I think. At least, she hasn't done anything to me… yet. But she said that she wanted me here so she'd find out why… she wanted me here? Well that's circular logic."

Rapunzel recognizes that she'd probably go crazy trying to figure out Cassandra. More so than usual.

  • I have six months to make this right. Presumably with Cassandra controlling the black rocks, they won't destroy the world like Adira warned about. As long as Cassandra doesn't decide to destroy the world, of course. But she said she wouldn't if I came.

Six months. And she'll probably need every second of it. Rapunzel sighs again and puts a hand to her face. She had assumed she'd be here a couple weeks at most. She'll have to figure out how to get more food.

"I guess I'll have to ask Cass…" she says to herself. "I mean, she has to tell me, right? She wouldn't just let me starve… probably."

  • Cass keeps appearing and disappearing. I don't know where she goes or what she's doing. I can only talk to her for brief times before she takes off again.

Rapunzel frowns. What could she possibly be doing? As far as Rapunzel knows, Cassandra's main interests can be distilled to "weapons" and "fighting." Sometimes reading and hunting and navigating. Oh, and making fun of people. But there's no one here to fight or make fun of.

"Maybe that's why she wants me here," Rapunzel notes uneasily. As for the other things, Rapunzel's pretty sure there's nothing to hunt, and Cassandra has no need for navigating or mapmaking here in Corona. Or Underworld.

"I guess she's been… reading?" Rapunzel reasons. "Collecting weapons?" Rapunzel thinks of the parts of the castle that have been bizarrely and meticulously rebuilt. "Or getting new hobbies."

This brings her to her next point.

  • Besides the way it's become a wasteland, there are other strange things about the castle. Cassandra has built back original parts that she had broken, and broken new parts that she had built. Cassandra has scratched out every reflective surface where her face would be. I can't find a place where Cassandra is staying. I don't know what she's eating. And it appears she's all alone - not even animals are here. Not even Owl.

Rapunzel decides most of this falls within 'trying to figure out Cassandra will drive me insane' territory, but writes it anyway.

The rebuilt parts of the castle she has no answer for. Cassandra never had patience for jigsaw puzzles in the past, so Rapunzel can't imagine her doing such meticulous reassembling now. The destroyed parts make some sense: Cassandra has a temper, and also has fun breaking things. She can make new structures so easily now, it would be nothing to her to tear down old ones.

The scratched reflective surfaces are bizarre. She doesn't want to look at herself? From... guilt? But if she felt so guilty, then why wouldn't she make up with Rapunzel and let the kingdom go back to normal? She's keeping everyone out and keeping it as a wasteland, so obviously she can't feel too guilty about it all.

There is one mirror untouched as far as Rapunzel has seen: the vanity mirror in Rapunzel's bedroom. Cassandra did say that her room was the same as it was before, so it's possible Cassandra just hasn't been in her bedroom much and hasn't looked at the mirror.

Hopefully where Cassandra is living will be answered when Rapunzel continues her exploration tomorrow.

Rapunzel has no answer for the lack of animals. Cassandra loves animals! Much, much more than she likes people. Rapunzel can almost understand an unstable Cassandra driving everyone in Corona away, but the creatures? Was it an accident caused by the Moonstone's power? Even Owl isn't with her… as far as Rapunzel knows. She really hopes that he's here, somewhere. Although the fact that Cassandra wouldn't even let Max in isn't promising. And there are those… horse-things. It seems she could animate black rock creatures, like automatons. But surely those specters don't compare to real animal company.

Rapunzel flips back through her notes to read everything again.

"Well," Rapunzel says to herself. "It's a good thing I like puzzles."

Chapter Text

Second Day

Rapunzel's new plan: be as nice as possible. Keep gathering information.

She's frustrated that this is the best she could come up with, but she doesn't have many other options. She's afraid of worsening things by confronting Cassandra, so she'll just try to be as nice as possible and remind Cassandra of the friendship they had. And when words fail, gestures work, right?

"I should paint her something," Rapunzel says to herself the next morning in her room while making breakfast. "Or make her something. A friendship bracelet, maybe."

Rapunzel almost laughs at the thought of a friendship bracelet saving her kingdom. That's a little optimistic, even for me, she thinks.

But she should make something. And it should be something really special, that shows that Rapunzel really does care about her. Maybe something from one of their best memories together?

Looking around her room in thought, she sees the massive mural of birds in flight she painted when her father had her imprisoned shortly before she left on her journey.

"Maybe I should paint a matching mural somewhere else in the castle," Rapunzel mutters. "An addition to the 'Rapunzel gets locked up by her loved ones' series."

But the birds give her an idea. One of her best memories with Cassandra? When they were flying together! As birds! Cassandra didn't like it at first but when she and Rapunzel got going they had so much fun. Rapunzel could paint them as birds in front of the view they had in the sky.

Rapunzel's so excited that she smiles at the memory. And Cassandra would remember how ready Rapunzel was to give up everything for her, because Cassandra is everything to her.

She sees that she still has a collection of canvases stored by her bookcase and decides she'll start on it once she's finished exploring. She still had yet to go through parts of the castle like the gardens and prison.

And the tunnels. But with all the damage done by the spikes, she'd be afraid of it caving in on her. More than she's usually afraid of that.

I'm gonna start with the other ones, Rapunzel thinks.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

While she's walking down from her room, she sees M-C in a parlor off from the hallway, staring out a sizable hole in the wall towards the coastline.

"Cass," Rapunzel says, rushing in. She's not even sure what she's going to say - apologize for being a bad friend? Assure Cassandra that she's going to try to be better? Ask Cassandra about how she's feeling? But M-C cuts her off without looking at her.

"What was she like?"

Rapunzel stops in her tracks. "What- was who like?" She asks, haltingly.

M-C's gaze doesn't leave the view in the distance, and she stays motionless with her arms crossed. "Gothel," she answers.

Rapunzel feels herself go cold. This is not a conversation that could end well.

"She… wasn't a good person, Cass," Rapunzel answers, praying Cassandra would drop the subject.

"I know that," M-C responds. A moment passes, and Rapunzel hopes that's the end of it - but she continues.

"What else?"

Rapunzel watches M-C's motionless form nervously. "I don't think this is a good idea, Cass. She's gone. It doesn't matter what she was like."

M-C finally glances at her, just barely turning her head to look at Rapunzel from the corner of her eye. "It matters. Tell me."

Rapunzel remembers her plan of being as nice as possible, but she thinks that telling Cassandra about Gothel would not fall under "nice", no matter how much Cassandra wants to hear it.

"I'm sorry," Rapunzel answers. "But I won't. It's not good, Cass. You already heard a lot when I first left my tower… there isn't much else."

M-C turns fully now and walks towards Rapunzel with her stoic expression. Rapunzel holds her breath but stands her ground. M-C gets very close to her - she's only a few inches taller, but Rapunzel feels like M-C is towering over her.

"I always knew you were selfish," M-C says, looking down at her. "But I never thought of you as cruel."

Rapunzel is about to answer, to argue that telling her about Gothel would be the real cruelty, when M-C turns sharply from her. She jumps out of the room through the collapsed section of the wall, landing on a spike she shoots out from the castle's exterior, and from there she leaps out of Rapunzel's sight.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel feels miserable as she walks through the castle's prison. The doors are all left open, a vestige of when the guards freed everyone to escape Cassandra's rampage, their crimes immediately pardoned by the circumstances.

She goes over their earlier conversation again and again in her head, wondering if she did the right thing.

Cassandra called her cruel for refusing to talk about Gothel. Rapunzel frowns. Why would Cassandra even want to hear about Gothel?

She remembers conversations she'd had very early in her relationship with Cassandra - as Rapunzel was shown new places and things in the castle for the first time she'd talk about how amazing it all was, and at Cassandra's confused prompting Rapunzel would tell her about her life in the tower. Even before they were friends Cassandra was horrified to hear about things like how she'd only thought there were three books in the world, how her 'mother' would leave her alone for days at a time, how she'd do all of the cleaning and cooking in her tower since she was a child, how she had been in only two rooms in her whole life - her bedroom and the main part of the top of the tower.

Rapunzel remembers a couple days after Cassandra was assigned as her lady-in-waiting. Her mother - her real mother, Arianna - gave Rapunzel fanciful dresses and Cassandra helped her try them on. Looking in the mirror Rapunzel apologized for being so plain-looking, saying she was undeserving the beautiful dresses. Cassandra asked why Rapunzel would think that of herself, and Rapunzel explained that she just was - she knew it because her 'mother' would tell her.

In response Cassandra had stepped over to Rapunzel, put her hands on Rapunzel's shoulders, and told her very seriously that it wasn't true. That Gothel had lied to her to put her down. That Gothel was a bad person.

It was jarring for Rapunzel to hear. Until that point everyone had avoided talking directly about Gothel to Rapunzel. (Now, Rapunzel understands that everyone was probably nervous of upsetting her by bringing up her recently-deceased kidnapper.) It was also one of the first times Rapunzel had seen Cassandra's true self and not the demure front she'd been putting on.

As she walks through the empty prison, Rapunzel scowls. Cassandra knows how awful Gothel was, from her kidnapping and imprisonment of Rapunzel down to her emotional manipulation. Cassandra was the first person besides Eugene to explain it directly to her! Why would Cassandra want to hear anything about that woman?

Rapunzel takes a deep breath. Surely it's connected to the terrible revelation that Gothel had been her mother, and that she abandoned Cassandra as a toddler. That must have been an awful vision to see.

And Rapunzel had learned that her parents were actually royalty who loved her, while Cassandra learned her mother was actually a dead madwoman. Rapunzel winces at the thought. She starts to understand some of Cassandra's anger in the Dark Kingdom when she was telling Rapunzel about this… Even if none of it was Rapunzel's fault, it was just so unfair.

Rapunzel frowns. At least Cassandra had her adoptive father - the Captain is great! And Cassandra got to grow up in the castle and free to explore wherever she'd like in Corona. As far as unfairness goes, surely they must be equal.

I guess her anger about this is just another thing I'll hope will blow over, Rapunzel thinks. I can't do anything about it… and I don't want to tell her more about Gothel, for both of our sakes.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

After her inconclusive and disappointing search of the remaining parts of the castle through the morning - finding neither Cassandra nor a place she might be residing - Rapunzel returns to her room to eat and start working on her gift. Alternating between painting and reading through the afternoon, Rapunzel feels uneasy at how quickly she shifted back into her old habits from her tower.

At least she can go for walks through… an Underworld. There aren't even the trees and grass that so delighted her when she first left her tower. Nor birds or other animals… except for those unsettling horses. Rapunzel wonders if they're still there in the front courtyard.

When leaving her room again to mitigate some of the nervousness that had been building up in her, she decides to check.

The horse specters are still there with her carriage, like statues. Rapunzel notices that one of the horses is slightly bigger than the other.

Almost like Max and Fidella, she thinks. Oh that's creepy.

Rapunzel walks over to them, and they don't move. The blue light still burns in their eye sockets, the same color of the torches in Cassandra's black rock corridors. She waves her hands around the horses' faces, but they still don't move.

She puts her hand against not-Max's head and squeaks in alarm when the horse pushes back against her hand.

The horse had transformed with her touch: it was no longer a statue but stood like a natural horse would, small shifts in its body and flicking its tail. Rapunzel snatches her hand back, and the horse returns to being a statue.

"Nope, I'm good," Rapunzel says, laughing nervously. "That's okay actually. I'm going to leave now."

She walks very quickly back to her room, looking over her shoulder before going into the castle to make sure the horses didn't follow her.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Later, Rapunzel's writing at her desk in her room when she feels the temperature drop. Looking behind her she sees M-C several steps away, motionless and staring at Rapunzel's papers.

Rapunzel is startled and tries to think of something to say, but M-C speaks first: "What are you doing?"

Rapunzel feels a bolt of nervousness. She hides it and decides to be honest. "I'm writing letters to my friends and family. They'll be sending a messenger pigeon here soon and I want to send something back." She knew Cassandra would find out anyway, so she might as well be upfront. If she forbids it, well… Rapunzel will just have to come up with something else.

Rapunzel braces herself for an outburst, an explosion of anger for breaking the 'no other person or animal allowed' rule, but it doesn't come. Looking away from Rapunzel towards the floor, M-C mutters, "You never sent me any letters."

Rapunzel's jaw drops. M-C's tone was that of a sulking child. She had the hint of a pout on her face. Rapunzel suppresses the first thoughts that come to her mind: "Well, they didn't destroy my kingdom," or "Why would I have thought you wanted letters from me, as far as I can tell you hate me."

She remembers her plan of being as nice as possible. "When I go back I'll send you letters," Rapunzel responds.

M-C nods, just barely, without looking at Rapunzel. In an abrupt and familiar motion she turns and jumps out towards Rapunzel's balcony, and she vanishes over the edge.

Rapunzel stares at where M-C disappeared.

"You never sent me any letters either," she mutters to herself.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

"I should offer her food," Rapunzel thinks aloud to herself. "Then that could start a conversation about where she gets her food and how she's cooking it. Maybe I could pull enough ingredients together to bake her something… like those blackberry rolls she loves."

It's night, and she hadn't seen M-C again that day. She's laying in her bed with the fire still burning in her hearth, when she notices stars through her window.

Rapunzel immediately sits up. Stars? But the whole kingdom is enshrouded in clouds! She wraps a blanket around her shoulders and climbs out onto her balcony, looking up at the entirely clear sky.

The stars seem to be burning brighter, even, than they did before Corona had transformed. Without smoke and light rising from the castle and capital below, and with the sharp coolness of the air, the stars are as clear as she used to see them in her tower in the mountains.

It's a new moon, too, so there is no other brightness to take away from their shine. Rapunzel sits on her balcony and stares at them, mentally tracing her constellations out. She wishes she had someone there with her to talk to. At least in the tower she had Pascal.

She wonders if somewhere else in the castle, Cassandra is looking at the stars too.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Third Day

The next morning, Rapunzel brings her guitar down to one of the gardens. There are no flowers and the dark clouds have returned, but she still feels the need to get out. She plays her guitar and sings, starting to make up new songs when she's exhausted the ones she knows. She tries to put a cheery spin on the environment around her. There's beauty in everything, right? Stone can be… pretty. Even the black rocks have complicated prism shapes just under the glassy surface.

As she finishes a song, she feels the back of her neck prickle. Her head snaps up to look around, and she sees M-C standing on a balcony leaning against the railing, watching her.

She lifts a hand to wave, but M-C turns and walks back into the castle.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

"Come with me," M-C's voice comes suddenly from behind her, and Rapunzel jumps. It was later in the day and M-C had snuck up on her as she was walking through the castle.

"Huh- what?" Rapunzel asks, looking back at her, but M-C had already turned and started walking quickly down the hallway in the opposite direction.

"I- okay," Rapunzel answers, slightly exasperated. She has to half-jog to catch up to M-C, who somehow walks faster now than she did before.

"Where are we going?" Rapunzel asks, trying to put a bright spin on her voice to hide how she's feeling, which is a mix of annoyance and fear.

M-C doesn't answer. Figures, Rapunzel thinks to herself.

They reach the front hall, and M-C walks out the entryway. Nooo not towards the creepy horses, Rapunzel internally laments.

It gets worse. Once Rapunzel gets outside she sees M-C has unhitched not-Max from Rapunzel's carriage, and the horses' bodies are shifting slightly as saddles rise from the black rock and reins materialize from their heads. In M-C's presence, they both act as regular horses would.

"Uh," Rapunzel starts, as M-C mounts not-Fidella. "I'd rather not."

M-C stares back at her. She and the horses become motionless, which is worse.

"Do I have to?" Rapunzel asks. She wants to fulfill the 'be as nice as possible' plan, but she also very badly does not want to touch or even see the creepy horses ever again.

Rapunzel receives no answer. Do it for Corona, she thinks to herself as she very reluctantly walks down the steps towards not-Max.

Not-Max is as patient a horse as actual Max is, and despite her hesitations she's able to get into the saddle easily. M-C pulls not-Fidella's reins, and they canter towards the courtyard gate.

Please don't be bringing me somewhere to kill me, Rapunzel thinks as she taps her heels to not-Max's sides.

They ride down through the destroyed capital and towards the city's bridge. The horse specters do not tire, so they're able to ride without slowing down at any point. Rapunzel looks out at the water as they cross the bridge, imagining the night that Cassandra had snuck her out and brought her beyond the wall to the rocks. Rapunzel sighs, wishing she could take that night back. How different everything would be.

They ride along the main road, and Rapunzel almost wants to bring not-Max to a gallop and instigate a race between her and Cassandra like old times. She refrains, obviously. For one thing she doesn't know where they're headed, for another it's entirely possible that Cassandra is presently boiling over with rage towards Rapunzel. Her neutral mask had turned into anger enough times that Rapunzel is sure she has no idea what's happening in Cassandra's head regardless of expression.

They approach the large black rock wall where Corona's main gate used to be, and M-C slows not-Fidella to a stop. Rapunzel follows suit. What is she doing?

M-C doesn't look at Rapunzel as she raises her right hand in its blue gauntlet. There's a sound of rocks shifting as spikes burst out of the wall in front of them. Rapunzel flinches and throws her arms up in front of herself at the abrupt eruption, and not-Max doesn't move. Straightening and putting her hands down, she sees that M-C's spikes formed… stairs. Stairs to a point high in the wall where there was a window with a hook at the top of it. Rapunzel recognizes it: this was the same appearance of her window in the tower, where she used her hair to carry Gothel up and down and, eventually, to leave the tower herself.

M-C says nothing, and she pulls not-Fidella's reins to start trotting back up the main road towards the capital.

"Wh- wait!" Rapunzel shouts. She brings not-Max around to chase M-C. "What is this?!"

"You're free to leave," M-C responds neutrally as Rapunzel pulls up next to her.

"Wh-why? What?" Rapunzel is overwhelmed with questions.

"The island," M-C answers, not looking at her. "You were sad. You couldn't go home so you were sad. I don't want you to be sad. So you can leave."

Rapunzel stares at her, speechless for a moment. "Why now? Why even act like you were trapping me then?"

"I was," she responds. "I didn't understand. Now I do. You're free to leave."

Rapunzel feels whiplashed. It reminds her of the bizarre conversation they had in Old Corona, when Cassandra demanded that Rapunzel stay with her and a minute later insisted she leave.

So she's furious with me and sick of me but… also doesn't want me to be sad? Rapunzel questions internally. Maybe this is a trap. A test. Like, if I try to leave, she'll destroy the world because I didn't keep my promise to her.

Rapunzel stops not-Max and looks back at the wall while M-C continues on.

Well, even if it wasn't a trap, I don't want to leave yet, Rapunzel thinks. I need to get through to Cass and get the Moonstone and fix Corona.

She brings not-Max into a canter to catch up with M-C, and rides by her side.

M-C glances at her. "You haven't left," she notes.

"No," Rapunzel answers. "I promised you I'd stay with you, and I'm staying. But thank you, Cass," she adds. "Just knowing the option is there… It makes me feel a lot better. To know I'm not trapped."

M-C makes a small "hm" sound, and looks back at the road in front of them. They ride back to Corona castle together in a silence Rapunzel hopes feels companionable to her.

Chapter Text

Fourth Day

The next morning Rapunzel's curled up in a window nook reading in one of the castle's sitting rooms when a black-gauntleted hand grabs the top of the book she's holding and hurls it across the room.

Rapunzel stares up at M-C, who had silently appeared before her. "Wh-" Rapunzel stutters. "What was that??"

M-C sits in the window nook across from her. "Talk," she says in her now-standard emotionless manner.

Rapunzel sits up. "What…" Rapunzel begins, "do you want to talk about?"

M-C stares at her in silence. Rapunzel stares back, into her eyes that have become the same blue of her hair and the stone in her chest.

Rapunzel wishes she had her gift painting done, but she supposes she can work with this. "Cass, I wanted to tell you again that I'm sorry. I know we're really different, and I shouldn't have kept insisting that our friendship was always by my terms-"

"Talk about something else," M-C says, looking out the window.

Rapunzel is taken aback. What? She says that she's sick of me pretending that everything's okay, but then stops me from addressing when there's a problem?? Rapunzel takes a deep breath through her nose. Right, doing things in her time by her rules. Okay then.

"Um, sure," Rapunzel answers. She has no idea what to talk about. She's nervous of talking about something that would set Cassandra off - which could be anything. She decides definitely not to talk about the new state of Corona, or things that happened between her betrayal and reappearance, or even their memories together… which doesn't leave much.

"I could… tell you about a book I read yesterday," Rapunzel offers uncertainly.

M-C doesn't react, which Rapunzel takes as a not-bad sign. At least she's not asking about Gothel again. Rapunzel thinks back to details from the book she read.

"It was about woodworking," Rapunzel begins. "It listed all the physical qualities of different kinds of lumber, and ways to carve or shape them, and had building techniques…"

M-C remains with her, sitting like a statue looking out the window, while Rapunzel talks. Even as she's thinking of the book to describe everything she remembered, Rapunzel notes traits of M-C that she hadn't noticed before, since she'd never been so close for so long. M-C's skin is paler than Cassandra's was. It looks inhumanely pale, like she has no blood. Even her lips have a bluish tint. In the low-light of the room Rapunzel sees that her eyes and hair are definitely glowing. Her armor is so dark it seems to swallow light, except for the sections that are a medium-toned blue, which are some lines around her legs and torso and the long gauntlet on her right hand. Her hand damaged by the decay spell.

It's been almost a year - Rapunzel wonders if it's healed by now. She badly wants to ask Cassandra about it, but that would definitely fall in the 'topics likely to make Cassandra explode' category.

"Er, that's all I can remember," Rapunzel says, after talking for a while. "Do you… know anything else about woodworking?"

M-C's gaze has not left the window. As far as Rapunzel can tell, her eyes haven't even shifted.

"No," she answers, and abruptly stands. Rapunzel almost jumps at her motion after her long stillness.

M-C breezes out of the room without another word. Rapunzel is uncertain whether to count this as a step in the right direction or not.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel's staring at a wall of black rock in the throne room when she sees M-C walking past one of the doorways.

"Hey Cass!" She calls, trying to make her voice upbeat. M-C stops and, after a moment, walks into the room. Rapunzel continues, "I was thinking of painting a mural here to brighten the place up. Is that okay?"

M-C scowls at her. "Do what you want," she responds darkly.

Rapunzel's smile falters for a moment. It seems that Cassandra's not a fan of her this afternoon. "Uh, okay," Rapunzel answers. "Do you have any requests?"

"I don't care," M-C says, turning away and leaving again. Rapunzel decides it'd be better not to push things with her right now, and lets her go.

But at least now she can bring some more color to the Underworld castle. She's having trouble deciding on exactly the colors and lighting she wants in her gift painting to Cassandra, and she thinks being able to paint freely somewhere would help her work through her decisions.

She brings her paints down from her room and takes the brush to the wall, no plan in advance, just painting from her heart. She does consciously avoid any scene that Cassandra might recognize, so she makes up a new landscape of cliffs by the sea with rolling hills and forests on the land, seagulls over the water and the sun overhead.

It takes her several hours but finally she stands back, satisfied with her work. It really does brighten the entire room, she thinks. It's not her best, obviously, but it's a beautiful scene and helped her think through the kind of lighting she'd use on her painting for Cassandra.

Rapunzel's gathering her supplies to return to her bedroom when M-C walks through the large entryway at the end of the throne room.

"Cass!" Rapunzel calls, waving. "Wanna see the mural I made?"

M-C walks over with her neutral expression, until she looks at the mural.

"Pretty, huh?" Rapunzel says, turning to her with a smile, and she sees M-C's face transform with rage.

M-C doesn't say anything as she lunges towards the wall with her teeth bared, sending her gauntleted hand squarely into the center of the mural. The black rock buckles under her blow and Rapunzel staggers back. M-C tears her hand to the side, ripping out huge chunks of painted stone and sending blue sparks flying. She slams her other hand into the wall, sending more cracks through its face, and strikes it again and again until it fully collapses.

She's left standing in front of the rubble, breathing heavily.

"W- What the heck, Cass??" Rapunzel shouts, overcome by anger and no longer bothering to hide it. "I worked hard on tha-"

"I didn't like it," M-C snarls, turning aggressively towards her.

"I don't care!" Rapunzel yells. "You said I could paint whatever I wanted and I worked hard on it! You can't just destroy things you don't like!"

M-C huffs and looks away from her, but says nothing.

Rapunzel scowls at her. "Why would you do something like that?"

"I didn't like it," M-C repeats in a voice that starts to sound sulking.

Rapunzel's anger flares again. "That's not an excuse to break things! If you didn't like it, you should've told me to change it! Or you should have told me in the first place what to paint! I'm not a mind reader, you didn't tell me there were things you wouldn't like!"

M-C doesn't respond for a few moments and looks away from the debris. Rapunzel waits expectantly, hoping for an apology.

"I was looking for you," M-C finally mutters in a new tone. "I wanted to show you…" M-C trails off and abruptly says, "Come with me," while turning quickly away from her destruction and walking towards a door on the opposite side of the throne room.

"Wh- Absolutely not!" Rapunzel yells in disbelief. "You just come in here and destroy my work and tell me to follow you? No!"

M-C turns to her with a serious expression. "You have to."

"I don't have to do anything, Cass!" Rapunzel answers. "And I'm certainly not going to do anything with you until you apologize!"

M-C starts to pace, agitated. "You have to," she repeats, looking at Rapunzel intensely. Rapunzel sees that more spikes have bristled from the back of her shoulders, like a cat with raised hackles.

"Then apologize!"

M-C bares her teeth while making a sound familiar to Rapunzel, a frustrated-Cassandra "arrrh".

Rapunzel crosses her arms.

"It was bad and I'm glad I broke it," M-C growls at Rapunzel.

Rapunzel glares at her for a moment before turning away.

"Come with me," M-C repeats.

Rapunzel stays still and says nothing. She decides not to engage at all with Cassandra until she apologizes.

"Come-" M-C starts to say again, walking over to Rapunzel and trying to grab her arm, which sends a bolt of fear through Rapunzel.

Rapunzel's hair immediately lights up and falls from her braid. A lock snaps over to push M-C away and her hair envelops Rapunzel in a sphere like the one she had used to protect her friends while jumping from her tower over a year ago.

Rapunzel's eyes widen. She didn't do that intentionally. But she's glad - she didn't want Cassandra touching her, not when she had just been so destructive. She didn't even want Cassandra near her right now.

"Wh-" Rapunzel hears M-C's voice from beyond her hair. "What are you doing?"

Rapunzel doesn't respond. Well, this will be an easy way to keep Cassandra from her.

She hears metallic scrapes against the outside of her shield and knows M-C is trying to rake the hair apart with her clawed gauntlets. Rapunzel holds her breath, hoping her shield holds.

And it does. She hears another frustrated-Cassandra "arrrh", louder this time. And then another. And another. She hears the claws dragging against her shield again. This goes on for a while.

"What's the point of having you here if I can't see or hear you!" M-C shouts, and Rapunzel holds her breath again. She's feeling more scared by M-C's escalating anger. She decides she's going to be there a while, and sits on the floor. Cassandra will cool off… eventually.

Rapunzel scowls in her cocoon. She remembers how Cassandra threw her book across the room that morning and demanded Rapunzel talk to her. Rapunzel supposes being nice constantly just made Cassandra feel entitled to her.

Not anymore. Rapunzel is putting her foot down. She won't leave her shield until Cassandra apologizes. And she won't be so nice from now on.

Finally she hears retreating footsteps and the sound of black spikes shooting out of stone a short distance away, and then nothing. She suspects Cassandra left through one of the large throne room windows, to leap or climb or whatever it is she does along the outside walls to move to another part of the castle because hallways and stairs are so passé, or something.

But it could be a ruse. Rapunzel stays where she is for a while longer, even as her legs start to cramp. Finally she exhales, willing her hair to drop around her. The room is empty.

"If Cassandra shows up again I'm just going back in," Rapunzel mutters to herself, and gathers her supplies. She hopes she'll at least manage to get back to her room to make dinner.

And she does. She locks her bedroom door behind her, although she knows that Cassandra could demolish the door entirely if she so pleased. Locking it makes her feel a little better regardless.

Twice that evening she sees M-C: once while she's making her dinner, M-C drops onto her balcony from above, and the next time well after sunset when M-C appears outside of a window, holding onto a spike she shot from the wall. Both times, Rapunzel immediately raises her glowing shield.

M-C doesn't try to attack it or shout at her. Rapunzel's glad: she thinks Cassandra has moved more into the "sulking" phase of her anger. Both times she leaves when Rapunzel lifts her shield.

Rapunzel's nervous to go to sleep. She leaves her hair around her in a circle, hoping that M-C's proximity - if she approaches - would cause it to glow and wake Rapunzel up.

Rapunzel thinks about the window at Underworld's wall, and after feeling so stressed and scared all day wonders if she should just leave.

But Rapunzel remembers the powers she had used in the past: sending out shockwaves, unbreakable bindings… She knows that if anyone is able to be a match for Cassandra, it'd be her.

And she decides to stay. She won't flee from her home again.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Fifth Day

Rapunzel manages to sleep unbothered through the night. She decides to stay in her room through the morning, though, since she doesn't have anywhere to be anyway and would rather not risk running into M-C. She's also not feeling terribly motivated to work on her friendship painting for Cassandra, so she mostly reads her books and rereads the couple of letters she had received from her parents and friends.

The back of her neck prickles while she's sitting up in her bookcase's reading nook, and she looks up to see M-C standing at the window to her balcony.

Rapunzel glares at her and brings up her shield immediately, glad that the glowing light would let her continue to read.

She hears M-C walk into her room and feels uneasy. Last night she hadn't entered her room, and had left immediately when Rapunzel hid herself. Is she going to destroy some of Rapunzel's things in revenge? Rapunzel holds her breath.

"I'm sorry," M-C's voice comes from beyond her shield, "I put the pieces back together. I'm sorry for breaking it."

Rapunzel's eyes widen. Cassandra... apologized? For an insane moment she thinks that Cassandra's lying, that she's not actually sorry and she's just saying it to get Rapunzel to take her shield down and then she'll attack her. But she hears M-C's footsteps after she speaks, and they become quieter as she leaves.

Rapunzel stays frozen for a while after. But when she drops her shield, she jumps down her ladder and rushes out her door.

"Put the pieces back together"? Rapunzel thinks as she runs through the halls. She remembers the pile of rubble her wall had been reduced to. There's no way. There's no way.

When she reaches the throne room, she sees her wall. The mural looks just like it had when she finished it. As she approaches, she sees thin lines of black running through the painting, like the mortar she'd seen holding together repaired parts of the castle.

Rapunzel stands staring at the work for a long time. She tries to count the individual pieces and can't. There are just too many. Some of them hardly larger than gravel.

How long did this take her? Did she work on it all night?

Just… how?

And she's not bothering Rapunzel, either. Rapunzel would have expected she'd immediately demand something from her in return, but Cassandra's nowhere to be found.

I guess I can keep working on my painting for her, Rapunzel thinks.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel doesn't see M-C again for the rest of the day. Later, Rapunzel spends time walking through some of the ruined streets of the capital outside of the castle gates. She decides if she's going to be here for six months, she should do everything she can to put the place back into repair, starting with her people's homes. She gets to work.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Sixth Day

The next morning, Rapunzel is walking through the castle when she finds the door to one of the terraces open. Looking outside, she sees the terrace has been transformed: when she passed this section on her first day it was bare, but now it's filled with elaborate crystal... flowers? The shapes emerge from branches of black rock laid in lines like an orchard. Breathless at the sight she goes over to the nearest "plant" to examine the blooms. They're like no flower she'd seen, the petals having the same kind of elaborate holes and fractals present in snowflakes. The flowers glow, and she sees through the translucent crystals a small blue light glowing at the heart of the bloom.

There are crystal flowers of different shapes, styles, and colors, and she walks down the rows, looking at the blooms on each shrub, which are slightly taller than her. The flowers are stationary, held in place by slender twigs of the unbreakable black rock and nestled among black rock leaves, all glowing with varying intensities. Delicate geometric shapes are carved into some of the flowers, so fine that Rapunzel is certain if she brought a jeweler's loupe to it she would see yet more designs within.

"Do you like it?" Rapunzel jumps at M-C's voice from behind her. She wonders how Cassandra can move so quietly through the silent world she created. Isn't her armor made of stone?

Rapunzel looks back at M-C, who is standing in the terrace doorway and immediately looks away from her. "I wanted to show you..." she adds quietly, trailing off.

Rapunzel realizes she's talking about two days ago when she destroyed Rapunzel's mural. "It's beautiful," Rapunzel answers. "You must have worked really hard on it."

"You worked really hard on it..." M-C mumbles, echoing her.

Rapunzel frowns. She had no part in the garden.

"I'm sorry," M-C tells the floor.

Rapunzel realizes that M-C had started talking about her mural. "I heard," she answers. "And I saw. Thank you, Cass, for fixing it."

M-C doesn't answer or look at her.

Rapunzel, uncertain of what to say, gestures around her. "This really is beautiful, Cass. It's amazing, I've never seen anything like it."

"It's like the one we had," M-C answers her, now looking at the flowers the farthest away from Rapunzel.

Rapunzel's eyebrows draw together. She has no idea what Cassandra's talking about. The castle gardens didn't have anything like this - not even any regular shrubs laid out in rows like this.

She opens her mouth to tell Cassandra that, but M-C cuts her off with a suddenly stronger voice saying, "Come back at night." She winces. "If you want to... come back at night. You can come back at night. Please come back at night." Saying the last one she looks at Rapunzel for a moment - but not at her face - before looking away again.

Rapunzel wants to accept, to seize this positive interaction, but she knows she can't just be nice anymore.

"Why?" she asks instead. She's sure the answer will just be about how the glowing flowers look better in the dark, but she wants to hear it from Cassandra.

"That's when it's right," M-C answers. Her feet shuffle and Rapunzel can tell she badly wants to flee, as has generally become her M.O. for interactions that pass the 45 second mark.

Rapunzel decides to drag the conversation out. Cassandra can deal with being uncomfortable - Rapunzel has been feeling uncomfortable for days. "What do you mean?"

"The lights..." M-C mumbles, looking back at the ground.

Rapunzel is baffled by this shy Cassandra. She never showed any behavior like this before the Moonstone. The other two moods Rapunzel had seen during her Underworld stay - emotionless and enraged - are understandable if undesirable. But... meekness?

Rapunzel hopes that she remains shy when they meet again that night, although she recognizes that Cassandra's moods here can flip like a switch. If this weird shy Cassandra wasn't so unsettling it'd be her favorite version of Underworld Cassandra, just by the fact she doesn't feel like she's potentially in danger in her presence.

"Okay, I can come back at night," Rapunzel finally answers her. "What time?"

But as soon as Rapunzel confirms that she'll return, M-C turns and bolts into the castle.

"Wh-what? Wait!" Rapunzel shouts and tries to follow, but when she enters the hall M-C has disappeared entirely.

"Fine! Okay!" Rapunzel shouts, exasperated. "I'll be here at 11!"

With that she returns to her room.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel spends a lot of the day thinking about the flowers. Cassandra's not an artist. Rapunzel has only seen her paint once and it was... not bad for someone who never does it, but that's the thing. Cassandra doesn't do art.

"Either she's spent the last year getting really really good at sculpture," Rapunzel notes aloud, "or this is just another unexplainable Moonstone thing." She was more inclined toward the latter.

"Maybe she actually can grow them, and there's no sculpting involved," Rapunzel considers. "That wouldn't be the oddest thing that's happened here… well, maybe it would be. But not by much."

After the sun has set and the clouds have receded, stars and the crescent moon glow in the clear sky. Rapunzel makes her way back to the terrace with a lantern - there are blue-flamed torches along the new black rock corridors to light her way, but not along the corridors of the original castle.

When she reaches the garden, M-C is waiting for her. She's standing looking out towards the flowers, so Rapunzel approaches from behind. She seems unbothered by Rapunzel's footsteps and Rapunzel stops to stand next to her, looking out at the garden. As Rapunzel suspected, it's beautiful: not only are there different colors and intensities of light from each flower, but the different shapes of the blooms each cast their light in varied ways.

"Wow, it's breathtaking," Rapunzel begins, about to ask M-C how she made them, but she's interrupted.

"This isn't the right way," M-C says, her hair and eyes softly glowing in the night, staring towards the garden. "We have to look at it from above." She raises a hand, and Rapunzel almost falls over as the ground beneath them rises, a pillar of black rock bringing them up over two stories from the terrace.

When Rapunzel catches her balance, she's about to berate M-C for moving them so suddenly, but M-C's pointing towards the garden and Rapunzel's glance downwards removes any thoughts she just was having.

The garden is the night sky. The majority of the terrace looks like a view through her telescope: solitary lights twinkling from among the shrubs' black rock leaves, which reflect nothing so the canopy looks like the void of space. Hundreds of stars glint up at her in different sizes, strengths, and colors. Light from larger blooms catch a myriad of smaller crystals among the leaves that Rapunzel hadn't seen, forming the appearance of colorful cloud-like nebulae. Clusters of lights in varying size and brightness are arranged to give the appearance of three dimensional spiral galaxies. Around the edges of the garden the rest of the terrace - the stone railing around the edges, the tiles that make up the ground - is illuminated just barely by the moon and starlight from above so that the garden itself looks like a portal had opened on the ground directly to the depths of the cosmos.

Rapunzel stands there, dumbfounded. She looks up at the sky, but knows that even the stars above couldn't hold a candle to this - it's too complex, too filled with astral details not visible to the naked eye. She looks back down at the garden.

"It's like the one we had," M-C says next to her. She tilts her head to the side. "Well, you were better at it than me. This is a poor imitation."

"Cass, I- I've never seen anything like this before in my life," Rapunzel answers, her mind still trying to catch up to what she was seeing. "Maybe through a telescope, but nothing like this on earth. It's…" Rapunzel's at a loss for words. "Beautiful," she says, but beautiful doesn't begin to cover it. She's searching her mind for a better word when M-C interrupts her thoughts again.

"So was your mural," she says, her eyebrows drawing together while she looks down at the garden.

"Cass," Rapunzel begins, unimpressed by her attempt. "You don't have to lie to me. My silly paintings are not comparable to this, and I know you didn't like it anyway."

"I only didn't like part of it," M-C answers quietly. "The rest was very pretty. I just felt very mad by the part I didn't like."

Rapunzel frowns, and finally looks up from the garden to M-C next to her. "What part?"

M-C doesn't return her gaze. "The sun," she answers.

"Oh," Rapunzel says after a moment. She thinks of her painting, and remembers the small sun she put in the sky. Was that tiny ball of yellow really enough to send Cassandra into a rage? She's in Corona's castle, surely she sees sun shapes around her all the time--

Rapunzel abruptly realizes that she's not seen a single tapestry of Corona's crest in the ruined castle.

"Well, if I promise not to paint the sun anywhere, would you promise me you won't break any more of my things?" Rapunzel asks her. Internally, she feels extremely grateful that she seems to still have shy Cassandra as company. Perhaps she could reason with her.

M-C continues to stare down at the garden. "Yeah," she answers.

"Cass, I want you to look at me." Rapunel tells her sternly. "And I want you to promise to me."

M-C finally looks over at her. "I promise," she says, her glowing blue eyes staring into Rapunzel's and her eyebrows drawing together again with discomfort. "I won't break any more of your things."

Rapunzel smiles at her. "Good!" She says brightly, and M-C's face immediately turns back away from her to look below again. "And I promise I won't paint any more suns."

M-C doesn't answer her and she shuffles her feet. Rapunzel recognizes this tell - she wants to leave again.

"Why do you keep running away from me?" Rapunzel asks her.

M-C's frown deepens, and the sound of shifting rocks behind them makes Rapunzel turn. She sees that without even looking, M-C just formed stairs from black rock that lead to the closest window to offer them a path back into the castle.

M-C tries to turn, but Rapunzel moves into her way. "Cass," she says sternly. "Please answer my question." She prepares herself for Cassandra to leap over her, or just jump off the pillar entirely and vanish without another word.

M-C looks into Rapunzel's face with that same uncomfortable expression she gave before.

"I-" M-C begins, and Rapunzel's eyebrows raise in surprise. She's answering her?

"I don't like you to see me like this," M-C answers, her expression becoming more distressed.

Rapunzel's face softens with disbelief and surprise. She was not expecting any response at all, much less one so… vulnerable.

M-C immediately looks away from her, and rather than taking the steps she formed, opts to leap off of the pillar towards another window. Rapunzel lets her go, at a loss for words yet again.

Rapunzel needs to think about this. She needs to revisit her notes from the first day.

But first, she decides to sit at the edge of the pillar and stare downwards at the cosmic garden for a while.

Chapter Text

Seventh Day

The next morning, Rapunzel adds new bullet points to her notes. Her first week in Underworld had been… eventful.

  • Cassandra opened a window in Underworld's wall. She says I can leave if I want. She said she did this so that I wouldn't be sad.

Rapunzel stares at this point. She's still not sure if it's a trick. But if it's not, it means that Cassandra still cares about her, despite her flares of anger and the terrible things she said on the first day. Rapunzel's heart clings to this thought like a liferaft in the ocean.

  • Besides the reasons Cassandra already talked about for why she's mad at me (being a bad friend/condescending) and in general (no one appreciating her/giving her a chance), there are other things that set off her anger: thinking of her as a servant (which I didn't, but she yelled at me about it anyway), Gothel, and images of the sun.

Rapunzel thinks of how angry Cassandra was in the Dark Kingdom - some of the things she said might have been linked to her anger about being a servant. Rapunzel frowns. She never thought of Cassandra as a servant. Cassandra was her best friend. Sure, Cassandra helped her with things, but it wasn't any work that Rapunzel wouldn't have done in return for Cassandra, she was just always too busy with princess lessons and duties to help her in return. Cassandra understood that. Right? Like Cassandra said shortly after they met, Rapunzel had her job, and Cassandra had hers…

Which was servant work. Rapunzel taps her quill against the ground. But Cassandra never said she didn't like it! Of course Rapunzel would have encouraged her to do other work if she didn't like it…

Which means she wouldn't have been able to spend so much time with Rapunzel. She remembers what Cassandra said to her shortly after they returned from the night Rapunzel's hair grew back. "My dad will have me taken off of princess detail. We'll never see each other again."

"So she stayed doing work she didn't like…" Rapunzel says softly. "Because she wanted to be close to me."

Rapunzel remembers how Cassandra gave up her opportunity of being a warrior in Ingvarr to stay in Corona with Rapunzel. Because she valued her life there - her new friendship - more than the comparably much easier path to her dream of being a warrior. Cassandra knew that overcoming Corona's rules about the guard would be so much more difficult than seizing that opportunity presented to her. But she stayed… for Rapunzel.

And then for a year she stayed in a position she didn't like… for Rapunzel.

Something seizes in Rapunzel's chest, and she feels tears prick at her eyes. How long was Cassandra miserable for her sake?

Rapunzel takes a deep breath to steady herself, and she considers this further: if it's true that Cassandra sacrificed pursuing her goals to be with Rapunzel, then of course anything that makes her think Rapunzel is a bad and not-worthwhile friend would anger her deeply. She would feel like she wasted opportunities and two years of her life on nothing.

If Cassandra thought Rapunzel just saw her as a servant… Rapunzel suppresses a wave of distress. She needs to communicate to Cassandra how much Cassandra means to her.

Rapunzel takes another deep breath. Today she'll finish her painting, and she'll finally be able to make a proper and meaningful apology. Holding onto that small comfort, Rapunzel continues with her notes.

Gothel. Well, this one is obvious. Gothel was a terrible person who abandoned her. And it must be upsetting to Cassandra to know she's descended from… that. Rapunzel's eyebrows draw together in thought. Cassandra wanted to learn more about Gothel - why? She knows pretty much everything already from the weeks after Rapunzel first arrived in the castle. Maybe she was hoping there was something else? Something, anything good about her?

That might explain why she was mad at Rapunzel for not telling her more about her. Admittedly Gothel was her mother, so Cassandra deserves to know everything she can about her… right? Cassandra certainly seems to think so. But Rapunzel can't even think of anything about Gothel she'd not already mentioned to Cassandra, and she'd really rather not think in depth of her time in the tower to try to come up with any other terrible things she'd missed. She can't imagine that conversation would be good for either of them. At least Cassandra's not brought it up again… for now.

Rapunzel sits back, stressed. She has to decide whether or not to give in if Cassandra pushes it again. Maybe she'll try to explain again that Cassandra has already heard everything, that Gothel was very bad, and that she thinks it would just be upsetting for both of them to talk about her further. And then if she keeps pushing it… Rapunzel sighs and rubs her temples. She remembers what Cassandra had said about her being selfish. Was this reluctance selfishness? But what's the line between selfishness and putting her foot down?

Rapunzel drags her hands down her face. If it would give Cassandra some kind of closure or comfort… she thinks to herself, I'll talk about Gothel with her.

Rapunzel shakes her head to clear the miasma of that thought, and she moves on.

Images of the sun upset her. Something about Rapunzel's father and the kingdom made Cassandra angry enough to attack him and destroy Corona, so it makes sense she doesn't like Corona's crest - an image of the sun.

Rapunzel frowns and revisits this enigma. What about Corona or Rapunzel's father could make Cassandra so angry? Rapunzel concedes that Cassandra doesn't have particularly strong feelings of patriotism for Corona considering how she almost left for Ingvarr, but Rapunzel didn't think Cassandra had any particular animosity towards Corona either.

Then again, Rapunzel also only just realized that Cassandra didn't like being a servant…

Rapunzel tries to think of things that would upset her, and she almost immediately realizes something obvious that she'd been overlooking: Cassandra's dream of being a guard kept being denied to her in Corona. Rapunzel never thought too much about this, since she was always sure the captain would come around, but it occurs to Rapunzel now that Cassandra had been dealing with this for years. That's definitely a reason she might become angry with the kingdom.

Rapunzel's eyebrows draw together in distress. But is that bad enough to destroy everything? Surely not. There's some piece she's still missing.

Rapunzel considers that when Cassandra was made angry by the sun image in her mural, it wasn't a Coronan crest, it was just a ball of yellow. She supposes that Cassandra must be... darkness-oriented now because of the Moonstone, which is likely why the kingdom is shrouded by dark clouds during the day. Perhaps distaste for the actual sun is why Cassandra doesn't like images of it.

Rapunzel frowns. What if… No way. Surely that's too insane even for this new Cassandra.

But Rapunzel wonders if Cassandra's attack on Corona was a larger scale version of what she did to Rapunzel's mural. Cassandra said she liked the rest of the mural, the sun just made her mad enough to destroy all of it. What if all of the sun images in the kingdom - and the sun overhead - just made Cassandra so mad that she demolished everything in Corona? So it's not that she hated the kingdom, but rather that she was just driven to such fury?

But why? Why would the sun - or images of it - drive her to such anger? It had to be connected to the Moonstone.

Rapunzel recognizes this theory is only slightly more developed than "the Moonstone made her do it."

She sighs at this dead end, and decides to move on with her notes.

  • Cassandra seems to have three distinct manners: enraged, emotionless, and shy. I've seen her flip between these with little warning, and I haven't seen her display other moods.

Enraged Cassandra makes sense: Cassandra has always had a temper. And Rapunzel just thought in detail of the things that make her angry. But the other ones...

Rapunzel considers how Cassandra is very mellow compared to Rapunzel, so the emotionless version of her… almost makes sense. Cassandra's mellow and difficult to make laugh, but she has no issue communicating when things annoy her and usually has a no-nonsense, get-things-done demeanor about her rather than being completely blank. More of a, "always vaguely exasperated" Cassandra than emotionless.

Rapunzel taps her quill against the ground again. When she first met Cassandra she was delighted by how "real" Cassandra was with everything, unafraid to voice her true opinions. It made her abrasive but also made Rapunzel gravitate towards her, since Rapunzel had spent her life with a sickly-sweet serial liar.

Of course, Rapunzel understands now that Cassandra isn't "real" about everything. Minor things, sure... but things that really bother her, that would involve any kind of emotional vulnerability to talk about, Cassandra refuses to admit. Possibly even acknowledge herself.

So this emotionless version might be an amped-up version of that. Cassandra refusing to admit anything is bothering her. Except obviously things are bothering her because she destroyed a kingdom. And she can't even keep the denial up for long - her emotionless front keeps exploding with anger.

Rapunzel decides that if the emotionless version is Cassandra in denial, then she's just as unstable as an enraged Cassandra.

"Great," Rapunzel mutters to herself. "Now I've got two out of three to be intimidated around instead of just one."

But then again, emotionless Cassandra also is the one who gave Rapunzel the window to escape Underworld if she wants. So maybe there's more depth to her than Rapunzel's aware of.

...Unless it's a trap.

Rapunzel shakes her head again and begins to think of the most confusing version of her Underworld company: shy Cassandra.

Shy Cassandra who is also, apparently, an artist. Rapunzel sits in front of her papers pondering this for a long time.

"Okay, I've got nothing," she admits to the room. "This is just weird. I'm blaming the Moonstone again."

Rapunzel stares at the page for a moment before flipping it to continue her notes.

  • Cassandra destroyed my work when she was made angry by the sun image. She refused to apologize initially, but when I refused to interact with her, she put it back together and apologized.

Rapunzel again decides that her "being as nice as possible" plan didn't work and standing up for herself will get her more progress than otherwise. Rapunzel supposes this makes sense. Cassandra has criticized her many times before for always being too nice and too much of a doormat. She'd want to see Rapunzel having a spine.

"Geez, this is confusing," Rapunzel laments. She never thought that having friends would be this complicated. As soon as she thinks she's figured some social thing out, she realizes that the opposite is true for another person.

Everyone loves it when Rapunzel's nice, but Cassandra says she should be less nice. Other people don't like making fun of people or when you make fun of them, but Cassandra thinks it's an enjoyable game. Other people love festivals and celebrations, but Cassandra says "we don't have to celebrate things every six seconds."

"Maybe with Cassandra I should just always do the opposite of what I think I should do," Rapunzel comments. But didn't Cassandra like Rapunzel the way she is? Isn't that why she wanted to be friends and be around her for so long?

But then again, she's really mad at Rapunzel and maybe doesn't like her right now... except for when she's not mad and does like her.

Rapunzel puts a hand to her head as she remembers her previous note of "trying to figure Cassandra out will drive me insane."

Be more assertive. That's all she'll take away from this one.

  • Cassandra said "what's the point of having you here if I can't see or hear you." I've seen her watching me when I was playing music in the garden, and in the sitting room she demanded that I talk even though she had no interest in having a conversation.

Rapunzel frowns. Is that why Cassandra wants Rapunzel here? For… company? Rapunzel taps her quill in thought. She doesn't think Cassandra even knows what she wants - she admitted that on the first day. But this might be part of it. But on the flip side…

  • Cassandra said that she keeps leaving after only a little bit of interacting because she doesn't like me to see her "like this."

Well, this is certainly another case of Cassandra's bizarre vacillating desires. She wants one thing, then the next minute wants something in direct opposition. Rapunzel sighs. Her inconsistent behavior probably falls under "problems the Moonstone caused", which won't be resolved until Rapunzel has gotten the Moonstone from her.

But why would Cassandra be embarrassed of Rapunzel seeing her "like this"? Rapunzel would expect that Cassandra would love for Rapunzel to see her like this. She's the strongest she's ever been. She has supernatural powers and superhuman strength. She could defeat any foe in battle. She could defeat any army in battle, probably.

And what she said was so uncharacteristically honest and vulnerable. Cassandra doesn't do that. Even with weird shy Cassandra she never expected something like it. And presumably this "I don't like you to see me like this" is still applicable to her other moods, since she disappears just as fast in those cases.

Rapunzel frowns. She revisits her attempts to understand shy Cassandra. Shy Cassandra was also upset with Rapunzel for not getting letters from her.

"Is shy Cassandra just… emotionally vulnerable Cassandra?" Rapunzel asks herself. "Well that would explain why I've never seen this side of her before."

And would explain why she seems so uncomfortable all the time: Cassandra hates being vulnerable. But then… why even show this part to Rapunzel? She must have lost any ability to control her moods.

Rapunzel squints. "Moonstone," she says angrily.

Again, she has no better explanation than "the Moonstone messed with her."

  • Cassandra made… a garden. I don't even know how to describe it. I have no idea how she did it. If she carved everything herself, it must have been a huge undertaking. I think she made it for me? So she put in all of that work for me, to make something beautiful to show me. She said it's like one that we had, but I have no idea what she means. I've never seen anything like it.

Rapunzel stares at this point. If it's true that Cassandra went through such an endeavor to make something so beautiful for her, certainly that means she still cares about Rapunzel.

But Rapunzel frowns thinking of the sequence of events. When Cassandra first wanted to show her the garden, it was immediately after flying into a rage and destroying something Rapunzel worked hard on. How can she reconcile in her mind doing something so terrible to Rapunzel, and then demanding she come look at a gift? She was insistent too, saying Rapunzel had to come with her. And when Rapunzel refused, she grew angry again. Did she intend to use the garden as an apology? But then she apologized later with just her voice, and didn't try to bring Rapunzel to the garden. And she said she was looking for Rapunzel before destroying her mural, so she wanted to show it to her already.

Rapunzel feels like she's hit a mental dead end. There have been a lot of these with Cassandra's unpredictable and seemingly illogical behavior.

Rapunzel sighs. She's been writing Cassandra's behavior off many times with "Moonstone", but she had trouble understanding Cassandra before the Moonstone too. Maybe these things did make sense with some thought process entirely alien to Rapunzel.

When Cassandra kept refusing Rapunzel's help when her leg was broken, Rapunzel couldn't understand it. Why would Cassandra refuse her help when she could make things so much easier for her? Rapunzel just had to accept Cassandra's wishes despite how illogical it seemed.

When Cassandra became so rough in Vardaros with the other abrasive citizens, Rapunzel couldn't understand it. Why would Cassandra and the Vardarans be so mean to each other? Rapunzel just had to accept their behaviors and relationships were somehow understood as friendly and fun, despite how unfriendly and mean it seemed.

So Rapunzel decides that she'll just have to try to accept Cassandra's bizarre behaviors. The ones that don't disrespect Rapunzel, of course.

She edits her "Moonstone behavior" note with "Moonstone* behavior (*or Cass)"

Rapunzel supposes Cassandra has just as hard of a time figuring out Rapunzel. Like how Cassandra had thought of Rapunzel as condescending... Rapunzel never thought she came off that way!

"Really unfortunate neither of us have done this friendship thing before," Rapunzel mutters.

Then there's what Cassandra had said about the garden. "It's like the one we had." That was just outright untrue. Was she getting confused between real life and dreams she had sleeping? Cassandra never had problems with that before. But Rapunzel couldn't think of any other explanation.

Rapunzel pauses, considering this. She remembers how Cassandra had been saying things that didn't make sense when she attacked Rapunzel's father. Was this also tied up in being confused between the real world and a dream world? That might explain why she's so angry with Corona and Rapunzel's father - some nightmare she thinks was real. But Rapunzel recognizes this is quite the logical leap to make. She needs more information before drawing real conclusions.

Rapunzel reads through all of the notes she made. "Well, there are some things that are so different that I'm still going to blame the Moonstone," she says. "Cassandra doesn't know why she destroyed Corona, or why she wanted me here. Her rages are way more intense and she has set-offs she didn't have before. She remembers things that never happened, and she seems unable to control her moods at all. Those things aren't different thought processes from me - they're dramatic changes from how she was before."

Retrieving the Moonstone remains a high priority. For Corona, the world... and Cassandra.

Rapunzel needs a plan. Maybe she should just ask Cassandra all the questions she has every time they encounter each other. Eventually she might get some answers. Or Cassandra would just start avoiding her entirely… but if she wants company, she wouldn't be able to keep that up for long. Or maybe Rapunzel should hide in her hair every time Cassandra approaches her until Cassandra starts giving her answers, the same way she got Cassandra to apologize.

Rapunzel frowns. That might get her answers, but it'd probably damage her relationship further with Cassandra, who is sick of their friendship being on Rapunzel's terms. She taps her quill against the ground in thought.

"Okay, first I'll apologize to her," Rapunzel thinks aloud. "I'll give her the painting and tell her how much she means to me and try to explain what I think was miscommunication between us. I won't ask her to talk about her feelings back to me. I'll keep working on fixing up the capital and let Cassandra sit on that for a while. Eventually on her own terms and in her own time she'll come back to talk to me and we'll be friends again. THEN I can start asking her questions. And then I'll get the Moonstone from her. She'll go fully back to normal and Corona will come back and I can unite the Sundrop and Moonstone and fulfill my destiny and everyone will be happy."

It sounds very good and convincing when Rapunzel says it out like that. Almost enough for her to believe it.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel looks at her painting on its large canvas. The picture shows the two of them in flight over the incredible cliffs, waterfalls, forests, and ravines they had explored together. The sky is just barely changing with sunset, adding pinks and purples to the shadows of the clouds - with no sun in sight, of course. Their wings barely touch, a reminder of Rapunzel teaching Cassandra how to fly. It's beautiful. It's perfect. Rapunzel spent so many more hours on it than she'd usually spend on a painting, to make sure every part of it was just right.

Rapunzel can't wait to give it to her. She starts coming up with exactly what she'll say, and writes it in her journal to read it over and over again to herself.

Cass, I wanted to apologize to you. You're right that I've been a bad friend. I've taken you for granted and not expressed nearly enough gratitude for everything you've done for me. I've demanded you adjust to my comfort and I haven't accommodated your needs. I'm so sorry for all of it. I know I haven't shown it, but you mean the world to me. You're my best friend. 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.

Rapunzel flips the canvas over to write the painting's title on the back. "Free Together."

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel decides to walk around the castle with the painting under her arm, hoping to run into Cassandra. It's a long shot, but Rapunzel's buzzing with excitement and can't focus on anything else.

In the front entry hall, she finds M-C.

"Cass!" Rapunzel yells, delighted, hoping that Cassandra won't bolt upon seeing her. M-C turns, and Rapunzel can see some uncertainty on her face. Shy Cass, Rapunzel hopes silently as she runs over.

Rapunzel slows to a stop in front of her. "Cass, I want to give you something," Rapunzel begins. "And I want it to be a symbol to you of everything I'm about to say."

She pulls out the painting from under her arm, and turns it around to show her. "I painted this for you." Rapunzel takes a deep breath. "I wanted to apologize to you. You're right that I've been a bad friend. I've-"

M-C reaches over to the painting and takes it in her hands, staring intently at it. Rapunzel lets her take it, excited to see her reaction. She's about to continue her speech when M-C throws the painting across the room, and it hits the ground with a crack of the wood frame breaking.

"I- what??" Rapunzel yells, aghast. "Why would you do-"

But M-C's already turned away. "I don't want your garbage," she responds as she begins to leave.

"Don't you dare," Rapunzel says intensely with tears pricking her eyes, and she lunges to grab M-C's arm. "That was a present for you!" Rapunzel's voice catches. "Why would you break it? You promised me you wouldn't break things!" M-C's armor is unnaturally cold in her hand.

"I said I wouldn't break your things," M-C responds just as coldly. "You said yourself, you gave it to me. And I did what I wanted with it." She shakes Rapunzel's grip off, and continues walking.

Rapunzel feels herself filling with rage. "Don't you DARE," she shouts, and the wall of black rock around the doorway M-C was walking towards explodes.

M-C staggers back from the collapsing wall. She looks back at Rapunzel with shock across her face. Rapunzel thinks for a moment she sees fear.

Rapunzel wipes tears from her face. "Why did you break it?" She asks again, trying to supress sobs.

The shock on M-C's face gives way to anger. "It's garbage!" She yells. "It doesn't mean anything! It's worse than nothing!"

At her words, Rapunzel's aim of suppressing her sobs fails. She covers her face with her hands. She spent so long on it. She put so much into it. The moment had meant so much to her. It was supposed to remind Cassandra of their bond the way it did for Rapunzel. She doesn't care. She doesn't care about any of it. She doesn't care about Rapunzel.

Rapunzel feels like her heart had just been torn from her body. This is worse than when Cassandra first betrayed her. She crumples to her knees.

She's so distraught she doesn't see her hair begin to glow, or hear the humming that fills the air.

M-C notices. "Rapunzel," she starts, uncertainly.

At her voice, Rapunzel feels something snap inside of her.

M-C throws a shield of black rock up in front of her just before the blast. Her shield crumbles immediately under its strength, as do all of the black rock structures augmenting the room. Even the non-black-rock walls and ceiling are cracked and parts are blasted away by the shockwave. One wall nearby, just barely left standing, begins to topple towards Rapunzel.

M-C dives over and shoots another shield of black rock up from the very cracked floor to prevent the debris from crushing them.

Most of the ceiling is gone. The doors of the entryway are gone. Many sections of the walls have collapsed to varying degrees.

Rapunzel loses consciousness.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

When she wakes up, she's not sure how much time has passed. She's still on the dusty cracked floor of what used to be the front entry hall. Light filters down from beyond the dark clouds overhead. She pushes herself up and sees M-C sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of her.

"You exploded," M-C tells her plainly. "Here," she adds, holding out a handkerchief.

Rapunzel feels overcome with anger. "Go away!" She shouts, slapping M-C's hand away.

M-C looks at her with a blank expression. "You're upset," she observes.

Rapunzel's wiping at her face with the back of her hand and she snatches the handkerchief off of the ground. "Of course I'm upset!" She yells back. "You're terrible! How could you say those things!" Rapunzel feels tears start building again in her eyes.

"What things?" M-C asks, tilting her head.

Rapunzel is so taken aback her rage is halted in its tracks, and for a moment she stares at her speechless. "You called my gift garbage and worse than nothing!"

"Oh," M-C responds with a frown. "It is." She speaks as though she's saying the obvious.

Rapunzel's so shocked by how casually cruel M-C's being that she doesn't even know what to feel. She becomes convinced she's in a nightmare.

"Why do you think that?" Rapunzel barely gets out.

M-C scowls, but doesn't move to get up. "You make things for everyone. It doesn't mean anything. You act like it's some grand gesture but you're making things and giving them away all the time. You do it for everyone so it's meaningless. It just shows you don't care."

If Rapunzel wasn't already shocked beyond reason, this would have put her there. "How," she begins hoarsely, "can you receive a gift I worked for hours on and conclude it means I don't care?" Rapunzel's voice begins to raise again. "What world are you living in, Cassandra!?"

"This one!" M-C shouts in return as she gestures around her. "It means I'm not special to you! It's garbage!" Her voice drops darkly. "And now you're condescending to me again."

"What," Rapunzel whispers, "is wrong with you?" She has to be in a nightmare.

"There is nothing wrong with me," M-C snarls intensely. Her jaw clenches and the ground under them begins to shake as she leaps to her feet. "There is nothing wrong with me!"

Rapunzel looks at the barely-standing walls left remaining as the earth begins to tremor. She considers trying to placate Cassandra, but decides that she'd upset Rapunzel so much, Cassandra can deal with being upset herself.

But the earth stops shaking, and M-C's expression shifts. She looks upset, and Rapunzel thinks she sees M-C's eyes start to shine with tears. But it's gone in a second, as she bares her teeth at Rapunzel and takes off. She leaps over a mostly-fallen wall and disappears through another hole into the castle.

Rapunzel scowls. Good, she thinks. She deserves to be upset. But her spitefulness evaporates quickly, and she's left only with that hollow pain in her chest. She sees a pile of other handkerchiefs folded next to her. Cassandra must have collected them to put next to her while she was unconscious.

Rapunzel puts a hand to her head. So Cassandra will throw away her hard work and call it garbage, but then collect handkerchiefs for her because she was crying. Crying because of what Cassandra said! Does she care or not?

Rapunzel drags herself to her feet. She feels exhausted through her entire body, the same way she had felt the first time she sent out a shockwave. She picks up the handkerchief pile and hesitates before walking over towards where M-C had thrown the painting.

It must have been destroyed in the blast, she thinks to herself, and she has to swallow back tears again. She doesn't even know why she's upset. It was for Cassandra and she hated it. It was useless. Garbage. It doesn't matter if it's gone.

But when she reaches where it had landed she finds it still laying on the floor, covered in tiny pieces of shattered black rock. The pieces are scattered in the direction of the blast, originating from a base of black rock that formed a line curved around the painting.

Chapter Text

Eighth Day

Rapunzel sleeps for almost fifteen hours. It's a deep and thankfully dreamless sleep. She wakes around 5am, but doesn't get out of her bed.

"What am I going to do," she mumbles into her pillow. Her plan from yesterday morning was shot. She and Cassandra are furious at each other. Rapunzel has no idea how to speak to her without making things worse. She can't even use wordless gestures without making things worse.

She so badly wants to give up. Abruptly she remembers when they first arrived in Vardaros, when Eugene became engaged to that girl Stalyan out of the blue. Rapunzel was heartbroken that her best friend suddenly wanted nothing to do with her and was going to abandon her. Cassandra was the one who told Rapunzel that they had to fight back against what was happening, and that the Rapunzel she knew would never give up.

Rapunzel feels tears in her eyes again. Is she that same Rapunzel? Cassandra certainly isn't that same Cassandra. Rapunzel thinks about the window in the Underworld wall. Maybe it is time to give up.

But she feels so depressed she can't even imagine getting up and making the long trek there. She stays in her bed, watching the sky lighten and change colors with the sunrise, and seeing the dark clouds begin to materialize to block it out.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

She gets up once she can't ignore her hunger any longer. But after she eats and drinks, she returns to her bed. She doesn't even bring a book. Her mind is full of static.

She repeats this process for her lunch. And dinner.

Despite barely moving all day, she has no trouble falling asleep that night.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Ninth Day

The next morning, Rapunzel wakes to see M-C leaning against the vanity near her bed. In the semi-darkness her softly glowing blue eyes stare into Rapunzel's.

"You haven't left," M-C observes.

Rapunzel scowls at her. How long had she been standing there? Rapunzel would be feeling some mix of anger, upset, and a sense of her privacy being invaded, if she didn't feel so empty. She doesn't respond.

"Why?" M-C asks.

Rapunzel draws her covers closer to her.

"You're not talking to me again," M-C notes.

Rapunzel considers just going back to sleep, but the jolt she felt upon seeing M-C has made her fully awake. She opts for staring out the window instead. Behind the clouds, it's slowly growing brighter.

"You're upset with me."

Rapunzel feels a brief spark of anger in her chest at this. Of course she's upset.

Out of the corner of her eye she sees M-C frowning at her. "You're the one who broke the room, not me."

Rapunzel's head snaps over to M-C. Does she think Rapunzel's upset because of the hall?

"I'm not going to fix the things you broke, because it's not my fault." M-C continues.

M-C's continued inability to display rational thought processes reignites emotion in Rapunzel.

"You think I'm upset because of the front hall?" Rapunzel finally answers her.

M-C stares expressionlessly at her. "That's what you were upset about last time. When the mural was broken." She abruptly looks away from Rapunzel. "When I broke the mural. But you broke things this time."

Rapunzel has no idea how to answer her. If she tries to explain rational thought processes to Cassandra, it's entirely possible Cassandra will accuse her of condescending to her again. But then again, who cares?

"I was upset before when you broke something I worked hard on," Rapunzel explains to her. "I am upset now because you threw away something I worked hard on. I'm more upset this time because I made it for you, and you called it garbage. When all I wanted to do was apologize to you and show you how much you mean to me." Rapunzel's voice hardens. "Because despite everything, you still mean a lot to me."

M-C doesn't answer for a moment, and Rapunzel braces herself for an outburst of anger for daring to explain something to her. Finally M-C looks back at Rapunzel and asks, "Is that why you haven't left?"

Rapunzel is caught off guard by this response. It seems every time she expects one reaction, she gets something completely different.

Rapunzel's not sure why she hasn't left. She had regained the physical strength necessary to get to the wall by yesterday afternoon. But she stayed. Yesterday it was likely more due to feeling depressed than determined. She revisits her feelings now. Would she leave today?

With emotion burning in her again, she decides she would not. Spending her entire life in two rooms has made her very stubborn.

"Yes," she answers. It's somewhat true. 'Mean a lot' presently being defined as 'you infuriate me and I will not let you win' more than 'you're my best friend', but she doesn't need to know that.

M-C looks away from her again. "Why?" She asks the wall.

Why? Why what? Is she asking why... she means a lot to Rapunzel?

Where would Rapunzel even begin? She considers going with the, 'you infuriate me and I will not let you win' answer, but decides to go with the way she would have answered two days ago.

This is also the perfect opportunity to teach her a lesson. Rapunzel pulls herself up and gets out of her bed. M-C doesn't move as she walks past, and from beside her bookcase she pulls out the gift painting.

She carries it over to M-C and props it up near her on the edge of the bed, using her hand to hold together the split in the wood frame.

"This is a painting of us as birds," Rapunzel begins her art lecture. "This day was the happiest I had in a long time, and it was because of you. I got to spend the whole day exploring with you and talking to you, and then we had the impossible opportunity together to fly. It was scary at the end, but you saved us by leading the hawk away, and then I used the last egg on you. It means everything we have together to me. Adventure with you, the fun we had together, the way we protected each other." She takes a deep breath. "This shows why you mean a lot to me. And I spent so many hours working on it and thinking about us and I was going to apologize to you with it but you threw it away." Rapunzel's voice catches. She's surprised she even has tears left in her. "It means the world to me because you mean the world to me and you threw it away. So that's why I'm upset."

Rapunzel wipes tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. M-C stares intently at the painting in silence.

"That's us?" She finally asks.

Rapunzel looks between M-C and her painting. Surely Cassandra could tell it's them, even in the dim lighting. It's not like their bird forms were particularly natural looking. And the view beyond them is unmistakable. She couldn't have forgotten. Could she?

"Yes," Rapunzel answers, confused.

M-C pushes herself from the vanity she was leaning on and looks in the mirror behind her. She turns back to Rapunzel to stare at the painting. "It doesn't look like us," she says.

Rapunzel frowns. Of course it doesn't look like how they look right now - Cassandra would know that, it's them as birds! Why would she make a show of looking in the mirror and saying that? Unless…

Cassandra is mocking her.

Rapunzel cannot believe she laid her heart bare again for Cassandra to stomp on it.

"You… jerk!" Rapunzel cries. She grabs the painting off of the bed. She wants to throw it across the room herself. Tears start gathering in her eyes again and she's about to yell at M-C to get out, when M-C puts her hands out in front of her.

"Wait," she says. "Wait. I don't- I meant to say, I didn't recognize us, in the painting. I- I'm sorry for that. Your art is very pretty." Her voice is earnest, and she looks distressed.

Rapunzel feels that terrible pressure in her chest and head that precedes fully sobbing, and she tries to choke it down. What is Cassandra saying? Could it be true that she just didn't recognize the scene? That she wasn't making a joke of Rapunzel's feelings? But how could she not recognize it?

"It's," M-C starts awkwardly, like she wants to avoid silence for once. "That sounds- I mean, what you described- I'm sorry," she says as she looks down. "I didn't know. But it sounds like it was really important."

Rapunzel's eyes widen. "You don't remember?" she asks. Even if the day wasn't important to Cassandra like it was to Rapunzel, surely she'd at least remember getting turned into a bird.

M-C still looks at the floor. Her expression is sad, and she doesn't answer.

Rapunzel doesn't know what to say. Cassandra lost her memories? But she recognizes Rapunzel - right?

"What do you remember?" Rapunzel asks. She needs to know how much Cassandra knows. If she can't remember anything, then is this a stranger standing in front of her?

M-C hesitates. She starts, "It's-" but breaks off and shifts uncomfortably, still refusing to look at Rapunzel. She opens her mouth like she's about to speak, but she winces and closes it again.

"Cass, please, tell me," Rapunzel says with fear growing in her. Cassandra can't be a stranger to her, she's too important. She has to remember their friendship.

M-C takes a deep breath and gestures vaguely in front of her, distressed. "It's- it's all," she begins again. "In pieces. And I keep losing them, or only having parts, or they don't fit together, or they're too sharp- It's all there, somewhere, it's just-" She finally looks at Rapunzel. "I'm sorry. I- I didn't understand what the painting meant. I didn't know how important it was. I'm sorry for throwing it away. I'm sorry for calling it garbage."

Rapunzel's staring at M-C in shock. Cassandra has amnesia. At least, some level of it. She says it's all there, but she's having trouble keeping it together? Was this related to her mood changes? It must be. Something happened to her.

"What do you remember, Cass?" Rapunzel presses her again. She has to know.

M-C starts shifting her feet and claws at her arm. "I- I can't," she begins, agitated and looking away from Rapunzel again. "If I try too hard it gets- don't ask me," she says. "It will break again, it always breaks."

"What breaks? What are you talking about?" Rapunzel steps towards her with escalating concern, reaching out a hand.

M-C flinches away and knocks into the vanity. "No-no- don't ask me," M-C repeats, her voice quiet and scared. Her breathing becomes harsh.

Rapunzel stops moving. What is happening to her? "Cass, please, talk to me. I want to help you."

M-C puts a hand to her face. "It's-"

She stops and turns sharply towards Rapunzel's balcony. Catching her reflection in the vanity mirror as she turns, she throws her hand out to smash it. Rapunzel jumps at the shattering sound and M-C leaps towards the window. Rapunzel runs to follow her as she slips out, but by the time she's gotten there M-C is long gone.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel hears crashes in the distance shortly after M-C leaves. She's destroying parts of the castle, Rapunzel realizes. Rapunzel runs out of her room and tries to reach the origin of the sounds, but can't pinpoint where it came from. She shouts for Cassandra, but receives no response.

Cassandra has some kind of amnesia, she thinks as she walks through the halls. Not only is she unable to control her moods, she can't control her memories. But what does that mean?

Unable to figure it out, Rapunzel frowns and she tries to categorize the Cassandra she had encountered.

She started as emotionless Cass, who had no concept of rational reasons why Rapunzel would be upset. Could she really not tell that the painting was meaningful to Rapunzel? Even if she didn't recognize the scene, didn't she notice that Rapunzel was upset before the room was destroyed?

And she said she thought the gift didn't mean anything because Rapunzel would make gifts for other people too... Rapunzel doesn't even know where to start with that. Thinking that because Rapunzel cares for others means that she doesn't care for Cassandra is absurd.

Rapunzel concludes that to get through to her, she needs to give Cassandra something that she hasn't offered anyone else, so she knows she's special to Rapunzel. But what could she offer? Rapunzel will have to figure that out.

Then after Rapunzel gave her speech about the painting and her relationship with Cassandra, she changed to... shy Cass? She was certainly apologetic. Was it Rapunzel's opening up that she responded to? But Rapunzel had tried numerous times in the past week to open up, only to get angry Cass in response. So that doesn't seem like a reliable method. She's glad it worked this time...

Until it didn't. Pressing Cassandra to talk about her memories made her freak out. Not in her usual angry way, or even the upset way she took off after their altercation in the front hall. She seemed severely distressed - even scared.

And Cassandra had looked at her reflection without a problem during their conversation, but once Rapunzel pushed her to talk about her memory, she freaked out and clawed at the mirror.

"It will break again, it always breaks." She had talked before about her memory in pieces. So she keeps trying to pull herself together, only to fall apart again...

Surely these things are connected to the same problems she has with her moods. She's lost her ability to control her mood and has problems with memory loss. Rapunzel feels terribly about pushing Cassandra too hard. Now she's somewhere in the castle, alone, dealing with something that makes her upset enough to demolish rooms.

Rapunzel stops in her tracks. Was that why Cassandra had destroyed parts of the castle before Rapunzel had arrived? Rapunzel would have attributed it to anger, except she had never heard the castle breaking after the times Cassandra had gotten angry at her and stormed off. Cassandra struggling with her memory and getting upset might explain the mystery of the broken black rock structures in the castle. And it definitely seems to explain the mystery of the scratched reflections.

"Looks like I'll have to update my notes," Rapunzel says to herself as she walks back to her room. She has to eat and ready herself for the day. She hopes Cassandra will come find her again, but that doesn't feel likely. Rapunzel will probably be spending a lot of the day looking for her.

She's not even sure what she'd say. She just wants to be there for Cassandra.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Tenth Day

Rapunzel didn't find Cassandra the day before. Not for lack of trying - she must have checked every room and hallway in the castle while calling out for Cassandra. (She did discover the origin of the crashes: an entire corridor of black rock and half of a room of the original castle had been torn apart.) She even went into the tunnels, although she was too nervous to stay down there for long. She recognizes she'll probably just have to wait for Cassandra to find her again.

She's standing in a hallway looking out the window towards the ocean when she hears a voice behind her.

"What are you doing here?"

Rapunzel whirls around. "Cass," she says, relieved. She's so overcome by seeing M-C standing behind her that she doesn't register the question at first.

"I'm- I was looking for you," Rapunzel expresses. "I knew you were upset, and I wanted to be there for you…"

M-C considers Rapunzel intently, tilting her head, and she doesn't respond. Rapunzel shifts uncomfortably under her gaze. Rapunzel had free rein of the kingdom - Cassandra told her that herself. Why would Cassandra ask her why she was there?

"Cass," Rapunzel says again, fear growing in her the longer the silence stretched. She tries to convince herself she's just being paranoid. "Do you know who I am?"

With her voice devoid of expression and her voice devoid of emotion, M-C answers, "No."

Rapunzel feels fear shoot through her. That can't be true. "It's Rapunzel," she says, urgency growing in her voice. "Remember? Your best friend."

M-C is standing completely still like a statue, and her eyes don't leave Rapunzel's. Rapunzel's about to add another desperate attempt to spark recognition, when M-C cuts her off.

"My best friend. My," she says and frowns deeply in thought for a few moments. "...I don't know who I am either."

Rapunzel's breath catches in her throat. She puts a hand to her mouth. Cassandra's forgotten everything. This can't be happening. "You're Cassandra," she prompts. "You- you have to remember. You're Cassandra and you're from Corona and you're my best friend." Her voice shakes at the end.

When Rapunzel first learned that her parent's memories had been erased, she felt not only sadness, but fear. It was only Xavier's assurance that the effects of the Saporian memory wand would wear off - eventually - and the support of her friends around her that kept her together. The thought of someone dear to her becoming a stranger was burdened with the trauma she experienced at Gothel's hands: in a single moment the person she loved most had become a stranger who had been lying to, imprisoning, and using her for her entire life. Her parents not recognizing her and behaving so differently towards her had dredged up terror she didn't even realize she had.

And now, Cassandra. Cassandra who Rapunzel learned in the Dark Kingdom held secret grudges against her, who had suffered dramatic changes from the Moonstone, and who now cannot remember anything. At least when Cassandra still had all of the memories that they shared together, Rapunzel had been convinced that under all her anger and instability, the emotional bond they shared was real. Without those memories, is even that last connection gone?

M-C's eyebrows draw together, and she walks towards Rapunzel. Rapunzel backs away without meaning to - but this is a stranger in front of her. M-C leans against the window alcove and crosses her arms.

"What else?" She asks. Her emotionlessness has given way to a vague curiosity.

Rapunzel hesitates, her fear just barely starting to decrease with the shift in M-C's demeanor. Pushing down how scared she feels, Rapunzel tries to remind herself of what Cassandra had said before fleeing the day before. "It's all there somewhere." Cassandra isn't lost. She refuses to concede that Cassandra is lost.

Rapunzel realizes that perhaps, like with her parents, she could help Cassandra recover her memories by going over them with her. "Do you…" she starts hesitantly. "...Want me to tell you everything?"

M-C thinks for a moment. "Yes," she answers.

"O-okay," Rapunzel says. She swallows hard and moves to lean against the window alcove near M-C. "I don't know all the details," she says, "so I can only tell you parts…"

Rapunzel feels M-C's gaze boring into the side of her face. "That's alright," M-C tells her.

Rapunzel plays with her hands in front of her, trying to keep herself from shaking. Where does she even begin?

She knows where to begin. She just doesn't want to. But Rapunzel's sure that omitting any details wouldn't be productive.

"There was this woman... named Gothel," Rapunzel starts.

She tells M-C everything. Well, everything she knows - Gothel's use of the Sundrop flower, her abandoning Cassandra as a toddler to kidnap Rapunzel, the guard captain adopting Cassandra and teaching her combat and riding and the ways of the kingdom, her work in Corona castle and how she met Rapunzel, the way she helped Rapunzel so much in teaching her about the outside world, the way they became friends during the Contest of the Crowns…

...Rapunzel's need to escape her father's stifling control and the trip Cassandra took her on beyond the walls that reawoke the Sundrop in her, all of the events they experienced together in Corona before they left on the journey to the Dark Kingdom, the fight with Varian and how her powers reacted with the black rocks…

...Their adventures beyond Corona's walls with the rest of their company in Vardaros, the Forest of No Return, the wilderness beyond, the island…

And then the Great Tree.

Rapunzel falters when she reaches that point in the story. It was the beginning of the rift between her and Cassandra. How does she describe it? She decides just to state how things happened - Cassandra not wanting to go through it but Rapunzel choosing to anyway to save time, learning it was Zhan Tiri's domain, discovering the decay spell and how she couldn't stop it once she started - until their argument that night.

"You, um, wanted to keep moving through the night," Rapunzel says. "You wanted to get out of the tree as soon as possible. You didn't trust Adira and you had a really bad feeling… but I told you that we had to make camp and wait until the next day, and we kind of yelled at each other… then you gave up and you were really sad while everyone else made camp, and I tried to talk to you about it and I thought things were okay but now…" Rapunzel takes a deep breath. "I don't know if they were. I think I was really mean to you." Rapunzel remembers the conversation. Cassandra had smiled at her like things were okay, but Rapunzel wonders if it was just a facade so Rapunzel would stop bothering her...

"Then, um, Hector attacked us, like you thought he was going to. You fought him and threw him over a ledge to fall deep into the tree, but he must have taken the spear out of the tree's heart because he appeared again with it and it looked like he was possessed by the tree's vines… I was scared and he was going to hurt our friends, you said that you could take the spear to stop him if I helped you get out of the vines, but I panicked and used the decay spell instead. The tree started falling apart and our friends got away but you didn't want to leave without me and I couldn't stop the spell, so you tried to grab me to shake me out of it, but touching me during the spell hurt your hand really badly." Rapunzel pauses. "I, um, I don't know if it's still hurt or not. This was about a year ago, so… It might have healed, I don't know." Rapunzel looks at M-C's blue gauntlet where her arms are crossed. M-C is staring at the ground across the hallway as she listens to the story, and she doesn't acknowledge Rapunzel's implicit question.

"Can I… Can you show me?" Rapunzel asks her.

M-C doesn't move. "No," she answers.

"Oh, u-um," Rapunzel stutters. "O-okay. Does it… feel different than the other one?"

"Continue the story," M-C tells her instead. After an almost imperceptible hesitation she adds, "please."

"Oh, okay, um," Rapunzel tries to remember what happened next. "There were a bunch of suits of armor in part of the tree and they were scattered around after the tree fell apart, and you found pieces that fit you, so you started wearing a suit of armor… You acted like everything was okay but I didn't think it was, you didn't talk about what happened in the tree…"

Rapunzel describes their encounter with Hookhand and their rediscovery of the caravan. She tells M-C about how they were looking for supplies when Rapunzel insisted Cassandra talk to her, leading Rapunzel to lose her memories.

"But, um, you didn't sit me down and tell me everything like I'm doing for you," Rapunzel says nervously. "You had a plan for undoing the spell with a potion, but I don't know how to reverse what happened to you… So you kinda lied to me about saving me from ruffians and led me around the woods looking for potion ingredients while telling me you were bringing me back to my tower. Which I totally get!" Rapunzel assures her. "It's- it's okay that you lied. I don't know if I would have believed you if you told me the truth…" Rapunzel has an uncomfortable realization. "Do- Do you believe me right now about all of this?"

Like the day Rapunzel told M-C about the book she had read, M-C has not moved a muscle the entire time Rapunzel was speaking. Rapunzel's pretty sure her gaze hasn't moved from the spot on the floor she was looking at across the hallway. She doesn't answer.

"Um," Rapunzel says awkwardly after a short silence. "Should I c-"

"Continue," M-C interrupts her. Again she adds, "please."

Rapunzel thinks to herself that surely Cassandra at least believes all the situations Rapunzel described where she refused to talk about something, since she's doing that right now. At the very least Rapunzel feels reassured that despite her memory loss, this is still Cassandra. Irritating, obstinate Cassandra. Her Cassandra.

Rapunzel tells her about the way she found out Cassandra was lying to her, and their reconciliation. Rapunzel internally reflects on that conversation. Cassandra had said "I won't always be mad at you, I'll get over it" about her hand. Rapunzel wonders if that's true - Cassandra certainly held numerous grudges against her. Surely what happened to her hand is part of that too, although she hasn't said anything about it...

Rapunzel details the bizarre House of Yesterday's Tomorrows, and the magic that happened to them within. She notes that while she was trapped in a dream world, the house showed Cassandra her childhood with Gothel, which upset her.

She tells M-C about how they finally reached the Dark Kingdom, an abandoned wasteland with dark clouds and huge spikes across the landscape. She says that outside of the abandoned palace Adira revealed that she had no idea what would happen when Rapunzel touched the Moonstone, and it was possible that the energy released could kill her. Rapunzel notes that Cassandra was angry at Adira for withholding this information, but something changed when they approached the palace: Cassandra said that she had seen the place before, and she used her blood to open the gates of black rock, shortly before saying that the Moonstone was her destiny and taking off towards the chamber.

"Um, so then I found out you were actually really angry with me about a lot of things," Rapunzel says about their confrontation in the Moonstone chamber. "You said I was a bad friend, and that you deserved to take the stone and you were tired of being overlooked and not given a chance, that the Moonstone chose you… I didn't really understand some of the things you were saying, I still don't. But I get what you were saying about me being a bad friend… I was always the one making decisions, I took you for granted and didn't appreciate enough everything you'd do for me, I was mean to you and didn't make up for it well enough… I didn't understand then but I do now." Rapunzel takes a deep breath. As much as she wants to apologize again, this Cassandra can't remember it all anyway, and it would be better if she stuck to the story chronologically.

"When you grabbed the stone there was a huge blast of energy," Rapunzel continues. "I was so scared because Adira said that no one could touch the stone, it would explode whenever someone tried. So there was this blast and all the black rocks in the chamber broke and I thought that the stone hurt you or... killed you. But you were okay, the Moonstone was on your chest and you had new armor and your hair was blue like the stone, and you just kind of… disappeared," Rapunzel says, distressed by the memory. "You took off without saying anything, and you made black rock spikes as you left. I have no idea where you went, and I still don't."

Rapunzel shares how she and the rest of their company returned to Corona via airship because the kingdom was in danger, and how Rapunzel didn't see Cassandra again.

"It was… Months had passed after we got things back to normal, mostly," Rapunzel says. "I was really really upset that you had taken the stone and left me… after everything we did together and how you promised you'd protect me and be by my side to help me fulfill my destiny, it felt like a huge betrayal. I- I wanted to look for you, but you were so mad the last time I saw you…" Rapunzel feels tears start to build in her eyes. "I just wanted you to be happy, and it sounded like you were really unhappy with me. I made you so sad and angry I thought you were better off without me wherever you had gone. I didn't… want to mess with your life anymore. Your dad wanted to go looking for you when I told him what happened back in Corona, and I told him not to. I thought… I thought that if you wanted, if it would make you happy, you'd come back." Rapunzel wipes tears from her face.

"And then you did," Rapunzel says, sniffling. "Except you weren't happy. I was putting on a birthday party for Eugene, and everyone was in the throne room for it, and you showed up… but you weren't happy. You were really, really mad. You threw the tables across the room with the black rocks and tried to attack my father, and you were saying things I didn't understand… you said he took someone and he was a monster, that he ruined someone, I don't know what you were talking about. I tried to calm you down but it didn't work, and we ended up fighting…" Rapunzel plays with her hands nervously. She hopes that the description of their fighting wouldn't end up making this Cassandra consider them enemies.

She tells M-C about how she was knocked out in the fight, that Cassandra started destroying everything… and everything that had happened since. She finishes with her realization about Cassandra's memory problems - certainly confirmed now, since Cassandra doesn't remember anything.

"And… that's the end of it," Rapunzel finishes awkwardly. Rapunzel's voice feels hoarse. She had pushed herself up so she could sit fully on the edge of the window alcove, since she was there for hours talking. M-C did not move at all.

She wonders what Cassandra would possibly say in response. Did she believe Rapunzel? Did any of it spark her memories back?

Finally, she answers, without looking at Rapunzel: "I don't think I like that story."

Rapunzel is rattled by this response. "Oh, um," she starts. "It's not over yet, that's only the parts up to this point… you can still make it a story you like," she tries to say encouragingly. Not only did the story fail to bring back any of her memories, but Rapunzel had assumed that Cassandra abandoned Rapunzel and Corona to seek a better life… hearing Cassandra's response now, Rapunzel is made sure of it. Cassandra really was unhappy with her life. Even without memories she can tell that. Rapunzel tries to ignore the pain in her chest.

M-C pushes herself off from where she was leaning. Turning her head towards Rapunzel slightly she adds, "But thank you for telling it to me."

Rapunzel blinks, realizing that again M-C ignored Rapunzel's words to continue her first thought. M-C starts to walk down the hallway, but when Rapunzel gets up to follow her saying "wait," she raises a hand to open a door through one of her black rock walls and disappears through it, sealing the wall again behind her.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel doesn't see M-C the rest of the day, despite how she darted through rooms to navigate to the one M-C had disappeared into - she was gone by the time Rapunzel got there the roundabout way.

Rapunzel spends more time that evening flipping through her notes, adding more details now that she thought of their entire relationship in detail for recounting earlier that day.

Well, if Cassandra can't remember anything, then maybe I can convince her to give me the Moonstone and get the kingdom back to normal, Rapunzel thinks to herself.

She had tried for hours to distract herself with pragmatic thoughts, but alone in her bed Rapunzel can no longer ignore the pain knowing her friend was so miserable with her and now doesn't remember her.

Chapter Text

Eleventh Day

The next morning Rapunzel again searches for M-C, but her determination falters quickly. She has spent so many hours throughout the past week and a half looking for her and has only successfully managed to find her a couple of times. Still, Rapunzel had decided at least to make an attempt before spending the afternoon working on fixing homes in the capital, so she wanders the hallways of the castle calling for her.

Rapunzel enters one of the castle's drawing rooms during her search, and a wave of nostalgia hits as she remembers the times she'd play board games and card games with Pascal, Eugene, and Cassandra there. She walks over to what used to be elegant cabinets that stored the games, now largely a collection of splintered wood under rubble from a collapsed wall. She reaches past black rock spikes to lift what was once a finely engraved cabinet door, and within she finds a chessboard and an upended box of pieces on the broken shelf. Pulling out the chessboard, she sees the chess pieces had been scattered through the remains of the cabinet.

Driven by that earlier sense of nostalgia, Rapunzel meticulously locates the missing pieces - except for one pawn that she can't find - and takes the board and box with her as she continues her search for M-C.

As Rapunzel had expected, the search is unsuccessful. She returns to her room as it approaches noon, and while putting together a lunch for herself she looks at the chessboard and feels silly that she had even picked it up. In the tower she'd play chess a lot - but that was with Pascal. She has no one to play with here.

Except for M-C. But it seems incredibly unlikely that Rapunzel would manage to convince her to play a game of chess. Does Cassandra even remember how to play chess? Rapunzel immediately represses the pain of the thought. She knows she can't let despair consume her.

Rapunzel takes a deep breath. Perhaps she could play chess… against herself. She's familiar enough with Pascal's playstyle, maybe she could replicate it.

She decides to try a game or two before heading into the capital, and she leaves her room for one of the gardens to recreate the games she and Pascal would play together outside.

After one rather-unsatisfying game against herself with the missing pawn replaced with a small stone, Rapunzel sets up the pieces again to try again. Maybe she could make it more unexpected by writing down different moves on slips of paper and pulling them at random from a bowl.

While she's pondering the absurd idea, the back of her neck prickles with the sensation of being watched. She looks up immediately, seeking M-C.

But there's no one around. She gets up from her chair to walk towards the castle slowly, looking for M-C's glowing hair behind one of the castle windows. Not finding anything, she turns back towards the chess table and feels a jolt of shock seeing M-C behind her, standing behind the board and looking intently at the pieces.

"Oh, whew, gosh, you scared me, Cass," Rapunzel tells her, putting a hand to her chest. "You- you're here, I've been looking for you. Well not right now, obviously," she adds, gesturing to the chess table. "But, you know, before, I was looking for you."

Rapunzel is aware that she's babbling from the adrenaline rush. M-C looks up at her expressionlessly and doesn't speak.

"I wanted to talk to you," Rapunzel continues. "I was wondering- I know you can't remember anything, so I was wondering if you might be okay with giving me the stone in your armor. Since it doesn't mean anything to you, but it would mean the world to me."

M-C stands as a statue, watching her. She does not respond.

"Ah," Rapunzel says uncertainly. "You might remember, that story I told you yesterday… about the stone, and how I'm supposed to reunite it with the Sundrop, and that power's inside of me, so…"

M-C continues to stand silently.

"...I kind of need the stone," Rapunzel says earnestly. "It's my destiny to fix what happened, these powers being separated and causing the spikes to destroy things. It's really, really important. So would you give it to me?"

M-C looks down at the chessboard without answering. She delicately picks up the pebble Rapunzel had replaced the missing pawn with, and the other pawn next to it. Tossing the pebble aside, she studies the pawn in her hand and creates a copy in her other hand from black rock. She places them back in their spots on the table.

"Uh," Rapunzel starts. "Thank you, Cass, but please answer me. I know you don't like it when I try to make you talk when you don't want to… but please at least give me some sign that you remember me from yesterday."

M-C doesn't look at her - she stares at the board again in silence. Abruptly she sits in the chair across from Rapunzel's at the table.

"Oh, um," Rapunzel says nervously. "Is… is this it? You want to play chess like we used to?"

Rapunzel doesn't think she mentioned yesterday that they'd play games together, but maybe other parts of Cassandra's memory are starting to come back. She hopes that's the case.

Rapunzel walks over to take her spot across from M-C. Sitting in front of the white pieces, Rapunzel makes her move first, and waits expectantly for M-C to take her turn.

She doesn't. She continues to stare at the board with great intensity, looking between each individual piece in turn. Finally she lifts a knight on her side, but she doesn't place it down. She holds it in her hand, studying it.

"Oh, that's a knight, do you remember? It moves in a kind of L-like shape… don't ask me why, I never figured it out," Rapunzel says, laughing weakly. M-C continues to stare at the piece.

The longer M-C's silence and motionlessness stretches, Rapunzel feels all the despair she had been repressing hit her in a wave.

"You… you were a knight, too," Rapunzel says quietly. "I know you probably don't remember, but you were a knight. You protected me…"

M-C looks up at her, still expressionless, for a moment before looking back down.

"I tried to push you away," Rapunzel continues, looking down at the table and feeling guilt fill her. "I didn't want people to think I was weak, so I told you that I didn't need your help. But I was wrong," she confesses. "I- I've always needed your help, with everything. And you always saved me from danger, I don't even know how many times I would've been hurt without you there for me. And even after I told you I didn't need you, you kept protecting me."

M-C doesn't move while Rapunzel speaks. At the end Rapunzel takes a shaky breath, and they sit in silence. Rapunzel looks down, thinking of all the times Cassandra had kept her from getting hurt, and how there came a point she stopped saying thank you.

After a few moments, M-C knocks all the pieces off the board with two sharp swipes of her hand, making Rapunzel jump at the sudden motion and the clattering of the pieces.

M-C reaches across the table to place the black knight down on the board, and Rapunzel sees that she had left one piece behind: Rapunzel's white queen. M-C puts the knight next to the queen, and she studies the two pieces.

Rapunzel shakes off her surprise. "Is that- is that us?" She asks, but at her questioning M-C stands and begins walking back towards the castle.

Rapunzel gets out of her chair. "W-wait!" She cries after M-C, but M-C immediately leaps high into the air, grabbing hold of a spike far up on the castle's wall. Without looking back at Rapunzel, she jumps away and out of sight.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Twelfth Day

Rapunzel had plenty of time to think the day before when she was working in the capital. She decided that surely M-C does remember some things - she knew what the queen chess piece was, and she put her knight next to it, which means that Rapunzel's words must have meant something to her. It wasn't much to go on, but Rapunzel still feels some reassurance from what Cassandra had told her before her breakdown, that she has all of her memories somewhere and she just can't keep them together.

The next morning Rapunzel decides to begin committing her stay in Underworld to her journal. She had avoided it until now, thinking that it was all such a dark time that she didn't want to maintain a record to revisit later, but she finally decides that she'll be here for so long that she should start writing more things down than just her notes on her incomprehensible company.

So Rapunzel walks down to the cosmic garden, which has a stone bench near the terrace's edge facing east, and she sits outside the castle with the garden behind her to begin drawing Underworld.

She's adding finer details on the ruins of the city when she sees something from the corner of her eye, and before she can even glance up she feels herself jostled by someone sitting extremely close to her. She feels hard armor pressed up against her.

Rapunzel's mind flies into a panic. Cassandra's sitting next to her? Against her?

Rapunzel freezes. She desperately does not want to drive M-C away, and in her experience just about anything can do that. She remembers what M-C had told her: "I don't like you to see me like this." Taking her words literally, Rapunzel refrains from looking over, and she decides to try to keep her focus on her drawing. She waits, hoping for M-C to speak first.

She doesn't. Finally Rapunzel steals a glance next to her, and she sees M-C looking around at different things - parts of the castle, the view in front of them - fiddling with something in her hands on her lap. Rapunzel glances again and sees that she's building small geometric sculptures out of black rock and breaking them down again without looking at what she's doing. Rapunzel is surprised - almost every other time she'd seen M-C staying in one place she was unnaturally still. Rapunzel feels reassured by her fidgeting, which feels much more like Cassandra from before, who always needed to be doing something with her hands.

Rapunzel slowly continues her drawing. Eventually she sees in the corner of her eye M-C inclining her head over to look at Rapunzel's journal, and Rapunzel moves her quill to the margin to write in elegant cursive, "Hi Cass!"

Rapunzel pauses, waiting to see if she'd get any response. She doesn't, but M-C doesn't leave either. Rapunzel takes a deep breath through her nose and continues working on her drawing, hoping that M-C might say or do something to interact with her.

It's a couple minutes later that M-C stands quickly and, putting her hand on the railing in front of them, leaps over the edge. Rapunzel rushes to put her journal aside and look over the railing, but as she expected, M-C is nowhere to be found.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel had been wondering for several days what to offer Cassandra to communicate that she's special to Rapunzel. She figures that even though Cassandra's memory fell apart shortly after she was angered by Rapunzel's usual type of gift, surely her mind would recover to where she was before… eventually. And when she gets there, Rapunzel wants her to be convinced of her importance to Rapunzel.

Inspiration finally strikes, and Rapunzel feels ridiculous at the idea. But she can't deny that it's the best option she's come up with.

Rapunzel climbs the ladder to her bookcase reading nook and pulls out a box of momentos she stores under her pillows there. Lifting the top from it, she immediately finds what she was looking for: the friendship bracelets she made for herself and Cassandra when they became a team for the Contest of the Crowns.

Deeply meaningful? Check. A physical reminder of their friendship? Check. Insisting that they both wear the bracelets always as a visible indicator of their bond, which is something Rapunzel has with no one else? Check.

Rapunzel takes the beads from each bracelet and weaves them into a sturdier braid so that they would better withstand constant wear. She ties hers onto her wrist and decides to keep Cassandra's bracelet in her bag for the next time they encounter each other.

"I really hope this friendship bracelet saves my kingdom," Rapunzel says to herself.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel is surprised to encounter M-C when she's walking through the castle on her way to the capital - they almost bump into each other rounding a corner. M-C stares at her with matching surprise, and before M-C can flee Rapunzel pulls the blue friendship bracelet from her bag and grabs M-C's hand.

M-C offers no resistance as Rapunzel ties the bracelet to her right wrist, she just stares with startled confusion. Holding M-C's hand up, Rapunzel shows her the yellow bracelet on her own wrist, which presses against M-C's blue one. "Do you see this?" Rapunzel asks, and she continues before getting a response. "I'm not going to take mine off. Ever. I promise. Do you understand?"

M-C's blank expression does not convey understanding, and Rapunzel sighs. "These are friendship bracelets, remember? I made them for us when we first became friends. They match, and there's no others like them. I'm going to wear mine always. I know you're not really a jewelry person, but it would mean a lot to me if you wore yours too. It's a sign of how much we mean to each other."

M-C looks at the bracelet on her wrist, and Rapunzel lets go of her hand. She decides to let Cassandra sit with that, and walks past without looking back to continue to the city.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Thirteenth Day

Walking through the castle the next day, Rapunzel sees M-C in the great hall. Rapunzel pauses at the doorway before M-C can notice her and peers around to watch what she's doing, curious to find out what exactly it is Cassandra does with all the time she's not with Rapunzel.

Peaking around the doorframe, Rapunzel is reminded of early in their relationship, when she spent a few days watching Cassandra working without her knowledge in order to confirm what she already knew: that Cassandra has a good heart. (She wouldn't have needed to confirm it if Eugene had just listened to her in the first place…) In retrospect, this might have been weird of her.

And now, here she is doing it again. She thinks she's marginally more justified this time.

M-C is facing a collapsed wall, picking through the rubble at its base. She lifts a huge stone and, after investigating it for a moment, places it on the broken base of the wall.

Rapunzel blinks in surprise as M-C lifts another stone. She's rebuilding the wall, like Rapunzel's mural and all those other spots in the castle that had been meticulously reassembled. I guess she really did pick this up as a hobby, Rapunzel thinks.

Rapunzel leans forward despite herself, seeking the blue friendship bracelet on M-C's wrist, to check if she had removed it. Unfortunately it's too difficult to tell from a distance since M-C's gauntlet is blue as well, and even more unfortunately Rapunzel loses her balance and her ensuing scramble to catch herself causes enough noise that M-C turns sharply to look over.

"H…hey Cass!" Rapunzel says with nervous cheeriness, pulling herself upright and trying to look nonchalant.

M-C studies her for a moment without expression, and then she turns back towards the collapsed wall to continue her project.

Rapunzel lets go of a breath she'd been holding and wonders if Cassandra would be okay with her going over. She figures there's only one way to find out, and walks towards her.

M-C doesn't acknowledge Rapunzel's approach, and Rapunzel sees that the blue friendship bracelet is still on her wrist. She concedes that this could mean nothing, as it's possible Cassandra has forgotten what it is. But she feels excitement regardless, and she tries unsuccessfully to repress a smile.

Rapunzel watches M-C for a few moments as she continues to sort through the stones. She seems to be organizing the rubble into piles, although Rapunzel can't tell what quality separates the pieces into different sections. When M-C takes a stone from a pile and places it on the broken wall, shining blue material arises from the surface to adhere it in place, which then fades to the black of the rocks she can summon.

Rapunzel blinks in surprise again. So the mortar through all the reassembled structures really is black rock. She watches M-C pick up another stone and put it on a different place on the wall, adhering it the same way. Rapunzel sees that a concave part of the stone she places matches perfectly with a convex part of the stone she places it on.

"Wow, who would've thought you were good at puzzles," Rapunzel comments jokingly. M-C looks back at her blankly, and Rapunzel continues: "I just mean that you never wanted to do jigsaw puzzles with me. You'd always roll your eyes when I asked. But now I see it's just because you're too good at them!" She says, gesturing towards the wall. She thinks her complimentary and lighthearted comment might finally get a reaction.

It doesn't. M-C goes back to her work, and Rapunzel tries a different approach. "Would you mind if I helped you? It might go faster, although I don't think I'm as good as you."

Still no answer. Rapunzel kneels down and picks up a stone. "Hey, I have an idea," she suggests. "What if we made a mosaic? We could use the pieces to make a picture-"

M-C snaps around, the word "No" tearing out of her harshly. Rapunzel recoils at the sudden motion and sound.

M-C puts a hand out towards Rapunzel, moving much slower seeing Rapunzel's fear. "No," she repeats hoarsely. Rapunzel wonders if this was the first time she'd spoken since three days before. M-C continues, quietly but intensely: "Everything has to go back exactly the way it was before."

Rapunzel stares at M-C, still shocked by the dramatic reaction. "Okay," Rapunzel tells her softly, reassuringly. "Okay, we can put things back the way they were."

M-C's gaze flicks between Rapunzel's eyes for a moment before she nods and turns back to her piles.

"...Can I help?" Rapunzel asks, realizing she never received permission.

M-C glances back at her, but then immediately turns back to her work. Rapunzel's heart sinks, realizing that the words they just exchanged were likely the only ones she'd get.

"...If you want," M-C says after a few moments, still organizing the rocks in front of her.

Rapunzel feels surprise run through her. "Really?" She gasps excitedly, and she realizes that her enthusiasm at the prospect of sorting rocks probably seems odd.

But M-C doesn't appear to notice. She simply nods, continuing her work.

Rapunzel feels giddy. Not only did Cassandra answer her, but she said Rapunzel can help. Cassandra never agrees to offers of help!

Her giddiness wanes when she realizes she has no idea how she's going to help. She can't sort the rubble the way M-C is doing, unless M-C explains to her the organization system, and Rapunzel's nervous that coming across as more of a burden than a help would cause Cassandra to push her away again. On top of that, a lot of the stones are big. She certainly can't lift them the same way M-C appears to be doing with ease.

Luckily when glancing over the debris, she recognizes painted stone that used to be one of the decorative pilasters lining the walls at regular intervals. She realizes that she could focus only on those pieces since they're distinct from the rest, and she begins to make a pile of her own.

M-C works quickly with her sorting. Soon she starts taking pieces from one pile and arranges them along the base of the wall, sealing them in place as she builds upwards. Rapunzel realizes that her piles must be organized by height - although she has no idea how Cassandra would be able to tell where each piece came from just by looking at the stones.

M-C leaves a blank spot as she builds up where the pilaster was. Rapunzel scrambles to catch up, but as she's holding up two pieces to compare them to see what might attach to the pilaster's base, M-C gently takes them from her.

"These go up higher," M-C murmurs, and she holds one piece in place in the air a few feet above the pilaster's base. Three slender strands of black rock spring out from around the destroyed wall - one from above and one from each side of the still-standing edges - to attach to the piece she's holding and suspend it like a spider's web. She holds the other piece slightly lower, and black rock strands materialize to hold it in place as well.

"How do you know?" Rapunzel asks, startled by her certainty.

M-C pauses as she moves back to attend to her own piles, frowning in thought. She shifts and answers, "That's how they fit together. All the pieces fit together." She picks another stone up and looks at it. "When there's something in the wrong place, the pieces don't fit together anymore. So you have to put them in the right place."

Rapunzel's not sure how to respond, considering Cassandra didn't answer her question and instead just described how a puzzle works. "Right, okay," Rapunzel starts. "I'll try to make sure to put the pieces in the right place, but I think it takes me longer to figure it out than you…"

"That's okay," M-C murmurs, again distracted by her own work.

Rapunzel looks back down at her pile, thinking about how she seems to have shy Cass as company and feeling relieved.

As they continue working, Rapunzel starts getting better at determining how her pieces fit together. She finds a few matches for the pilaster's base and very excitedly shows it to M-C, who nods silently at Rapunzel's work, and blue material rises from the stones to seal them in place.

Rapunzel is thrilled. She's working with Cassandra on something, and they're getting along well! She wishes it would never end, but soon M-C has finished the rest of the wall. She moves to help Rapunzel with the pilaster, starting from the top working downwards to Rapunzel's work. Rapunzel notices that when she reaches the two pieces she had suspended in the air, they fit perfectly where she placed them.

At the end of it Rapunzel had barely managed to find a dozen matches for where the pieces go, and M-C had found what must have been hundreds. Rapunzel presses her last piece into the restored pilaster, and M-C seals it in place.

"Wow, it's perfect!" Rapunzel says, beaming as she steps back to look at the restored wall.

M-C studies it carefully, her eyes darting around to inspect different areas. Finally she nods very slightly, and she turns her head towards Rapunzel but looks towards the floor.

"Thank you... Rapunzel," M-C tells her quietly.

Rapunzel feels herself start buzzing with excitement. She called Rapunzel by name! "Of course, Cass," Rapunzel responds, smiling at her. "I like doing things with you."

M-C's expression abruptly shifts from neutral to anxious, and Rapunzel barely has time to notice her apparent change in mood before M-C turns and runs full tilt towards the doors at the end of the hall.

"W-what? Where are you-!"

Rapunzel, as always, tries to follow. And, as always, once she reaches the doorway M-C disappeared through, M-C is nowhere to be found.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Fourteenth Day

Rapunzel finds herself pacing in thought the next morning. It didn't feel like a coincidence that shy Cassandra fled immediately after calling Rapunzel by name. Was it possible that she hadn't recognized Rapunzel until that point, and once she remembered who Rapunzel was, got caught up in her "I don't like you to see me like this" insecurity?

Rapunzel sighs in frustration. She could help Cassandra so much more if she didn't insist on fleeing from Rapunzel. They should be working together! Rapunzel's certain that Cassandra would recover much faster with Rapunzel's help than struggling alone.

"This is worse than the time with her broken leg," Rapunzel mutters.

Rapunzel thinks through the last few days. So far she'd gone over Cassandra's memories with Cassandra - for hours - and it didn't help; she'd tried to do an activity with her that they used to do together - a chess game - and it didn't help; she'd tried sitting in silence and waiting for Cassandra to speak first and it didn't help; she'd tried offering a friendship bracelet and - well, that's still pretty inconclusive; and she'd tried to help Cassandra on her project and it did help, until it didn't again.

Rapunzel puts a hand to her forehead, frustrated. The slow progress is driving her insane.

Drawing her hand down her face it occurs to her that she is viewing the situation through only her own perspective again.

"Doing things in her own way in her own time," Rapunzel says to herself. She tries to think of the last few days in a different light.

Rapunzel only assumed that most of the things hadn't helped, because she couldn't see immediate improvement. But she doesn't know what's happening in Cassandra's head - maybe there were changes that Cassandra didn't express out loud. And besides that, Rapunzel had been calling this progress "slow," but maybe it wasn't slow - she has no idea what this problem Cassandra has even is. It's possible that Cassandra is having an entirely normal recovery experience.

Rapunzel takes a deep breath. Patience, right, she thinks to herself. Being frustrated with Cassandra will get her nowhere. I have to come up with a way to help her within her comfort zone.

She manages to come up with a couple of ideas, and she lists them out:

  • Cassandra appeared on the balcony to listen when I was playing the guitar and singing. Music is connected to memory - if she hears me playing songs I've played in front of her before, she might remember those times.
  • If I find her working on rebuilding the castle again, I could offer to help, and we'd work together again. She might talk to me more. And if I can't find her while she's working, maybe I could suggest it the next time I see her, or start rebuilding something myself and she'd decide to help if she sees me.
  • Cassandra doesn't like gifts, but she kept the friendship bracelet. I could try to give her something else that could help her remember things.

Rapunzel tilts her head looking over these, tapping her quill. The only option that is likely fully within Cassandra's comfort zone is the first one - the other two involve engaging with her directly. But, Rapunzel does have some reason to believe they could work.

She decides to start with the first one, and she grabs her guitar to head down to the gardens.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel almost knocks into M-C outside her door as she leaves her room.

"Woah!" Rapunzel says in surprise. "S-sorry Cass! I didn't see you there."

M-C steps back gracefully with her head bowed. "It's not a problem, your highness," she answers softly.

Rapunzel chokes on her breath. She would think Cassandra was mocking her, if not for the body language that matched exactly how she acted early as Rapunzel's Lady-in-Waiting and whenever they were in front of Rapunzel's parents or foreign diplomats.

"W-what?" Rapunzel manages to get out.

"It's not a problem, your highness," M-C repeats without raising her head.

The combination of shock and the dramatic contrast between M-C's demure behavior and her harsh armor - and everything she'd done in the past few months - almost makes a hysterical laugh break out from Rapunzel, but she stops it. She feels like she's losing her mind.

"W-why are you calling me that?" Rapunzel stutters again.

M-C finally glances up at her with a vaguely confused expression. "Because…" she begins uncertainly, "You're the princess."

"Well don't!"

The words come out sharper than she intends them to, but Rapunzel is still gripped with panic.

M-C frowns. "Ah... " She starts, "Of course, your-" she stops with a puzzled expression. "What should I call you?"

"Rapunzel! Or- or Raps!" Rapunzel cries. "We call each other by our first names, don't you remember, Cass?" She stops herself from grabbing M-C to shake her.

M-C's blank expression does not convey a sign of remembering.

Rapunzel grabs the blue bag from her side and holds it up in her free hand. "You- you gave this to me! You gave this to me as a gift and told me to call you Cass! And I told you to call me Rapunzel. You don't-" Rapunzel feels her eyes start to mist in spite of herself. "You don't remember?"

M-C looks at the bag Rapunzel is holding up. "I think you might be confusing me with someone else, y-" she quickly corrects herself, "Rapunzel. But I can call you that, if you wish."

"No! D-don't just call me that because I tell you to!" Rapunzel tells her, distressed. "You- you have to mean it! It's not an order, you call me that because we're friends!"

M-C's eyes dart to the side, as though she's looking for a sign that she's being pranked, or some approval from another person that she's right in thinking the princess is out of her mind. She isn't acting like the bizarre shy version of her Underworld self, Rapunzel could tell - she's acting as she did before they were friends.

"Oookay," M-C says carefully, looking back at her. "Sure, Rapunzel."

"You still don't get it!" Rapunzel cries again. "You don't remember! Look- look around you, Cass! You're not a servant!"

M-C glances around, frowning, while Rapunzel takes a deep breath. She can't let herself lose her mind - she already knew Cassandra had memory problems, this shouldn't have flustered her so badly. But it was one thing to know about it, and another to have it happening in front of her. At least Cassandra's behavior wasn't entirely foreign, it was just from the wrong time.

Rapunzel leans forward to grab M-C's right hand, and holds it up for her to see. "Look, you're wearing armor, and the friendship bracelet I made for you! You're not my servant, Cass, you're my friend. And- and so much has happened since we first met. Look at our hair, and outside the windows. This isn't the same Corona you think it is."

M-C frowns at her hand in front of her, and she doesn't drop it when Rapunzel lets go of her. It abruptly occurs to Rapunzel that her outburst might confuse Cassandra in the same way she'd made Cassandra fall apart in her bedroom several days ago. She holds her breath, watching M-C nervously and hoping that she won't forget who Rapunzel is and take off to destroy more of the castle.

M-C slowly lowers her hand. She pushes open the door to Rapunzel's room and walks towards the window near her vanity. Rapunzel follows closely, anxiously, leaving her guitar on her bed and hoping that Cassandra won't fling herself out the window, as she is wont to do.

She doesn't. She stops in front of it and stares out with a troubled expression.

"It's- a lot has happened," Rapunzel says, standing slightly behind her. "I'm sorry. Do… do you want me to tell you about it?"

M-C doesn't respond, and after a few moments she turns away from the window to walk a few steps to the foot of Rapunzel's bed and she slowly sinks onto the bench there. She looks towards the ground across the room, her eyes not focused on anything.

Rapunzel realizes she might have rattled Cassandra badly enough she won't be getting any response. She thinks that it's possible trying to tell Cassandra more information could worsen it.

Rapunzel moves to sit next to Cassandra on the bench. She doesn't know what to do, so after a few moments she decides to fall back on her original plan.

"Hey, Cass," she starts softly. "I was going to play some music. Would that be okay?"

M-C doesn't say anything. Rapunzel expected this. She reaches back for her guitar, and pulling it onto her lap she starts playing a gentle tune without any lyrics.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

M-C sits motionless for almost an hour. Rapunzel had been playing music the whole time, but since she can only repeat songs for so long, she puts her guitar down.

Rapunzel figures it's entirely possible that Cassandra will abruptly snap out of her haze at any moment and throw herself out the window without a word to disappear for another 1-2 business days. But despite knowing she likely won't be able to speak to Cassandra any further, Rapunzel certainly doesn't want to leave her alone.

So she stands to get her journal and paints, and she sits back down next to M-C to start drawing the wall-rebuilding they did together the day before.

Another fifteen minutes must have passed before M-C finally moves, lifting a hand to her face to drag down it. Rapunzel's eyes flick up from her page to glance discreetly at her, but when M-C's head turns slightly towards her, Rapunzel quickly looks away again.

Rapunzel continues her drawing, expecting M-C to take off. M-C's posture barely straightens as she looks up and around Rapunzel's room. She glances towards Rapunzel again and Rapunzel carefully keeps her gaze on her drawing. After a few moments, M-C's hands reach over to the journal in Rapunzel's lap, and Rapunzel lifts her quill as M-C gently pulls the journal over to herself.

Rapunzel watches her as M-C slowly turns a page backwards and looks at the drawing of Underworld. She flips backwards again, to an earlier entry, and then again. Rapunzel waits patiently while M-C looks through her journal. She considers offering to explain each entry to Cassandra, but she decides against it. Cassandra can determine the meaning herself.

Rapunzel doesn't have any particular rule about people looking at her journal. It's not like she has a lock on it, or tells people not to read it. She draws in it in front of her friends, and she shows them her illustrations sometimes. She felt an intense invasion of privacy when her father read her journal in secret and told the contents to Cassandra's father, who decided to send Cassandra to a convent. But that was a pretty large exception, and if any of her friends asked if they could look at her journal, she would probably let them. Besides the night beyond the walls she's never had any secret to hide.

Slowly flipping through, M-C pauses slightly longer on the page Rapunzel drew of the moments after she grabbed the Moonstone. Her eyes barely narrow upon seeing the drawing of Adira from when they first met. She pauses again on the illustration from Rapunzel's last birthday, of the broken wall with spikes pointing out to the open landscape and lanterns drifting overhead. She tilts her head at the page showing the cursed tree at Janice Point, glowing purple with the portal opening behind it and the ghost Sugracha in front. She stops entirely at the illustration of their night beyond the walls, which shows Rapunzel poised to touch the black spike she kneels in front of, Cassandra watching from behind.

M-C lifts her hand and touches her fingertips to Rapunzel's outstretched hand in the drawing. She's still staring at it when starts to turn the next page, and Rapunzel realizes with a bolt of fear that on the next page is a drawing of her father wearing his Corona regalia with the sun crest.

Rapunzel grabs the journal from M-C, snapping it shut, and M-C looks up at her with a vaguely confused expression.

"It's… uh," Rapunzel starts, trying to think of an explanation. "There isn't much else. That's pretty much everything."

M-C blinks without changing expression, and she slowly turns her head back down to look at her lap, as though Rapunzel's journal was still there.

"Y-you should make one," Rapunzel blurts out, trying to think of something to say to keep M-C from reverting into her haze. "A journal, I mean. If you liked looking at mine, you should make one. You could write and draw in it, things that you remember or that make you happy. I- I know it wasn't really your thing before, but you like art now, right?"

M-C looks back up at Rapunzel while she speaks, but her face remains blank. Rapunzel stands quickly, saying, "H-here, let me get you one! An empty one. I've got a lot of sketchbooks…" Rapunzel hurries to her bookcase, and scales part of her ladder to reach up and pull down a leather-bound book. She flips it open, making sure all the pages are blank, before hopping back down the ladder and walking back to M-C.

"Here," Rapunzel says, holding the book out towards M-C like an offering. "If- if you want. But I think you might like it. I know when I feel overwhelmed, I always feel better after writing or drawing about it…"

M-C slowly reaches out and takes the sketchbook. She opens it and flips through the empty pages, the same way she looked through Rapunzel's journal.

Rapunzel watches M-C anxiously for a couple moments. When M-C reaches the first page of the book, Rapunzel leans towards the bench and picks up her quill, offering it to M-C. "You can draw in it," Rapunzel tells her.

M-C looks at the quill and hesitates before taking it. She looks back down at the page, but doesn't start drawing. Rapunzel sits next to M-C again and decides it would be better for her to focus on her own journal rather than watching M-C and making her self-conscious. Rapunzel picks up her bag, pulling out a small paintbrush and one of the tins of paint she keeps, to continue working on her journal entry for the day before.

About a minute later, Rapunzel sees M-C move out of the corner of her eye and hears the scratch of a quill on paper. Rapunzel feels a rush of excitement. She didn't expect it would actually work. It takes all of Rapunzel's willpower not to look over immediately and watch M-C draw.

They continue like that, sitting side by side, making illustrations in their journals. Finally M-C lifts the quill, and after waiting for a few moments for the last ink to dry, closes hers.

Rapunzel suppresses a wave of disappointment. She hadn't realized she was hoping Cassandra would share the drawing with her. And it could have operated as a way for them to communicate when Cassandra seems reluctant to speak.

Rapunzel looks up from her own journal to offer a smile to M-C. "Do you feel any better?" She asks.

M-C's expression becomes slightly worried, and she doesn't look at Rapunzel, but she offers a small, hesitant nod.

"That's great!" Rapunzel says, delighted she got a response. M-C stands and takes a step away from the bench, clutching her new journal to her chest, but turns to offer Rapunzel's quill back to her.

Rapunzel stands too. "No, you should keep it!" Rapunzel tells her, pushing the quill back towards M-C. "So you can draw in it whenever you want. And let me get you a little jar of ink… um, it might be a lot to carry without any pockets… oh, I know!"

Rapunzel goes quickly to the wardrobe by her bed and opens it. She pulls out a brown satchel, much more drab than the rest of her feminine and floral purses. It has a few pockets inside and can be worn across the body with its long strap, the same way her blue bag can.

Rapunzel smiles and brings it back over to the bench, opening her blue bag to put some of her own art supplies into the satchel. M-C watches with a puzzled expression, and Rapunzel turns to her to take the quill and tuck it into one of the pockets. Then she reaches for M-C's journal, but M-C leans away from her.

"Oh, sorry," Rapunzel says, retracting her hand. "I'm not trying to take it, I was just going to put it in this bag for you. So you can carry it with you!"

M-C looks between Rapunzel and the satchel in her hands, and Rapunzel holds it out for her. "Here!"

M-C slowly reaches out her free hand and takes it. She opens the top of it to look inside, seeing the art supplies in one of the pockets, and the larger one left empty.

"You can put the journal in it," Rapunzel prompts her again. M-C looks at the journal in her hand for a moment before slipping it inside and closing the top flap again.

Rapunzel beams at her. "Now you can bring it anywhere with you, like I do with the bag you gave me!" Thinking of the conversation they had outside her room earlier that morning, she adds, "And you can't call me 'your highness' anymore, okay? That's what this gift means."

M-C slips the shoulder strap across her body, letting the satchel rest at her hip. Clutching the strap at her chest, she finally looks up at Rapunzel with her vaguely uncertain expression. She nods again, just barely.

Thinking about how Cassandra seems to be both in her shy mood and at least slightly responsive to her, Rapunzel is about to ask her if she'd like to work together on rebuilding part of the castle again, but M-C looks away from her and turns to start walking towards Rapunzel's balcony.

"Oh, wait, Cass!" Rapunzel says quickly, hurrying to cut her off. "I- I was wondering, do you want to hang out today? W-we could fix another part of the castle, and have lunch together. I think it would be fun!"

M-C's eyebrows draw together looking at Rapunzel standing in front of her. "I…"

Rapunzel blinks in surprise. M-C is speaking again.

"I have to check something," M-C confesses, still distressed.

Rapunzel feels disappointment, but her surprise spikes from the cryptic answer. "Oh… okay, what is it? Can I come?"

"Uhh… no," M-C responds, looking away. "Sorry."

"Oh… okay," Rapunzel says again. "Well… can we hang out later?"

"Uhh… maybe," M-C tells her, shuffling her feet.

Rapunzel's sure she has about six seconds before Cassandra launches herself out the nearest window. "I'll be back in my room at noon, if you want to come by," she says quickly.

"Okay," M-C answers, before she sidesteps around Rapunzel and backs towards the balcony window. "I don't have a lot of time, so, uhh… bye," M-C says nervously, and after a pause she adds, "Rapunzel."

She jumps out. Rapunzel rushes to the window to try to see where M-C's headed, and she catches sight of M-C dropping over the balcony's edge. Rapunzel climbs outside and leans over the railing to look, and she sees M-C leaping from part of the castle towards the perimeter walls. M-C catches a large spike that she had created during her initial rampage, and she swings around to throw herself over the wall into the city. She catches another spike and keeps jumping away towards the mainland until she's out of Rapunzel's sight.

Chapter Text

Rapunzel considers running down to the courtyard to take one of the horse specters and follow M-C, but she decides against it. M-C simply moved too quickly, Rapunzel wouldn't be able to tell where she had gone by the time she got down there.

Much to her disappointment, Rapunzel doesn't see M-C at noon for lunch. She has no idea what it could be that M-C was doing. She said she had to check something, but what could M-C have to "check" here in Underworld, much less out of the castle and city? She said she didn't have a lot of time, too - what could that mean? Rapunzel frowns, thinking of things that could be time-sensitive. The… tides?

Rapunzel resigns herself to having no answer. She figures she could ask M-C herself, although she recognizes that asking an Ouija board would be about as reliable for meaningful answers as talking to M-C.

Later that day, Rapunzel is settling down to her dinner when she hears something hit her balcony outside.

She hurries to the window to check what it was, and she sees M-C standing from a crouch, her hair glowing softly in the fading dusk.

"C-Cass," Rapunzel calls, opening the window. "Do you want to come in? It gets so cold at night…"

Which was her doing. Rapunzel wonders if Cassandra can even feel cold.

M-C walks hesitantly towards Rapunzel's window and climbs in, avoiding looking at Rapunzel. But when Rapunzel invites her to sit by the fireplace, M-C does join her, and Rapunzel sees that she still has the satchel with her.

"You're just in time," Rapunzel says, pulling a pot off of her fire. "I was about to have dinner." Rapunzel realizes this could finally be the time she asks Cassandra about her food and cooking. "Do you want any?"

M-C looks perplexed at Rapunzel's offer, and she shakes her head.

"Oh, did you already eat?" Rapunzel asks her, filling a bowl for herself.

"I… don't," M-C says, and Rapunzel is surprised enough that Cassandra answered verbally at all that she doesn't register her words for a moment.

"You-" Rapunzel pauses in her ladling. "Huh?"

"I, uh, don't… do that," M-C tells her.

"You don't… eat stew?" Rapunzel asks. That's odd - Cassandra loves her stew.

"I don't eat," M-C says, shifting uncomfortably.

Rapunzel stares blankly at her. "What?"

"I guess I used to, but I don't do that now," M-C tells her, shrugging.

Rapunzel spends a moment processing. "You don't eat?!"

"Uh… no," M-C answers again, increasingly awkwardly.

"What?! How can you not eat?!" Rapunzel cries in dismay.

"It's a little weird," M-C responds.

"A little weird?! Cass, not eating is extremely weird!"

"No, eating is a little weird," M-C clarifies.

"Wh-" Rapunzel stops herself from another confused outburst. "How long have you not eaten?"

"Ah…" M-C starts. "The whole time."

"The whole- you mean, ever since the Dark Kingdom?!"

"I… guess?" M-C answers uncertainly.

"H-how is that possible?" Rapunzel asks, aghast.

"I don't eat… and then I keep doing things," M-C tells her, "is how it's been working so far."

Rapunzel stares open-mouthed at M-C. "You- But-" Rapunzel stops herself. "So you don't even know how it is you're going about not eating."

M-C frowns, considering this. "Well, not eating is pretty easy, because it's a nonaction."

"No- I mean-" Rapunzel stutters again. "Cass, people need to eat to live. If you don't eat you starve. Are you sure that you haven't eaten that whole time? You might be forgetting, since you have trouble with your memory…"

M-C shrugs again. "I don't remember a lot of things, but I don't think I've eaten since I've been in the castle at least. I don't think there's food here."

Rapunzel opens her mouth to speak, and then closes it again. Cassandra is right - if there isn't a secret stockpile somewhere, then there isn't food in the castle. And she'd been here for months.

"I'm-" Rapunzel starts. "I'm not convinced. I think you do have food somewhere, and you're just forgetting. You should have dinner with me so you don't go hungry."

M-C makes a face. "I'd rather not."

Rapunzel holds the bowl out towards her. "Please?"

M-C leans away. "I haven't eaten anything in the past few days, I'm pretty sure I'm okay."

"That is the least okay thing you've said to me in weeks," Rapunzel whispers intensely, leaning towards M-C.

"You seem to be making a big deal out of this," M-C says uncomfortably.

"It's-!" Rapunzel stops herself from completing her sentence. The last thing she wants to do is scare Cassandra off when she's both verbal and present-minded. And not tremendously pissed off at Rapunzel. So Rapunzel takes a deep breath. "You're right, I'm sorry for making you uncomfortable. But just so you know, all the food I have here in my room is open to you too, okay? So if you ever get hungry, you can eat things here." She needs Cassandra to know that there's still food available to her, even if Cassandra can't remember where she's keeping hers.

M-C makes another face, but upon seeing Rapunzel's earnest expression, she nods reluctantly.

Another thought hits Rapunzel abruptly. "Um, Cass," she starts hesitantly. "If you don't have a place you're getting food, then… I'm going to run out. I only brought enough for three weeks."

M-C looks at her blankly for a moment. "And that would be… bad," she says experimentally.

Rapunzel screams internally. "Yes, running out of food is bad."

"So you need more food," M-C says slowly.

Rapunzel takes a deep breath through her nose. "That's right."

"But there's no food here," M-C continues, putting the puzzle pieces together.

Rapunzel holds herself back from shaking her. "As far as we know."

"So you probably need to get food… from outside of here," M-C says.

"That does seem to be a conclusion," Rapunzel chokes out.

M-C thinks about this for a few moments. Rapunzel offers, "I could ask my friends to bring food here, by writing to them with the messenger pigeon."

M-C frowns intensely. "I don't want anyone coming in."

"Right," Rapunzel answers quickly. She knows how seriously Cassandra had taken the rule about no one except her being allowed in Underworld, and she does not want to bring back enraged Cassandra. This more-talkative-but-still-shy Cassandra is ideal. "But I could ask them to come to the walls, and then we could bring it in."

M-C considers this, her eyebrows drawing together in thought. "Okay," she finally answers. "But I don't want them coming in, so the horses will bring it through the walls and to the castle."

Rapunzel is sure she's talking about the unsettling black rock horses. She suppresses a sigh of disappointment that she wouldn't be able to meet up with her friends, but she recognizes that this is probably the best she's going to get. At least she won't starve.

"That sounds like a good offer," Rapunzel tells her. "I'll write a letter tomorrow."

M-C nods slowly.

Rapunzel thinks again about where M-C could be keeping her food. "Where have you been staying, Cass?" Surely her food would be kept near there.

M-C looks at her blankly again. "The castle."

"No- I mean," Rapunzel starts, gesturing vaguely, "What room have you been staying in? Where have you been sleeping and keeping your things?"

M-C's expression becomes confused. "I don't have things. And I don't do that either."

Rapunzel frowns. "You don't do what?"

"Sleep," M-C answers.

A couple moments of silence is shattered by Rapunzel yelling, "WHAT?!" Her plan of not alienating Cassandra is out the window.

M-C rubs her neck self-consciously. "It's just another thing I don't do anymore," she answers.

"Wh-what else don't you do?!" Rapunzel cries. "A-are you-" she cuts herself off. She's not sure if she wants to hear the answer to the question, 'are you even alive?'

M-C frowns in thought. "I don't do a lot of things, because they're nonactions," she answers.

"R-right," Rapunzel stutters. "I don't mean, what are all the things you don't do, I mean… are there other things that everybody does that you don't do? Like, do you… breathe?"

M-C nods. "I breathe. I tried not breathing, but it didn't work."

Rapunzel tries to suppress her overwhelming sense of unease at Cassandra speaking as if she's not human. "A-and does your heart beat?"

M-C's eyebrows draw together. "I don't think I know."

"Y-you can check," Rapunzel tells her nervously. "If you hold one of your pulse points, at your neck or your wrist…"

M-C looks down at her hands. "I don't think I could feel it through my armor," she notes.

"You can take off your armor," Rapunzel tells her with increasing urgency. She needs to know if her friend is alive.

M-C makes a face, similar to her expression of distaste when Rapunzel offered her food. "I don't want to."

"Please?" Rapunzel chokes out. She's not even sure what she'd do if she learned Cassandra was essentially a walking corpse.

M-C frowns, refusing to answer.

"Th-then can I check for you?" Rapunzel asks desperately.

M-C looks down at the ground, still frowning, but her expression shifts to vague distress. She looks back up at Rapunzel uncertainly. "If you want," she answers, apparently willing to bend for Rapunzel's comfort.

Rapunzel lets go of the breath she'd been holding, and shuffles towards M-C, sitting on the floor next to the fireplace. She stops in front of her and looks over M-C for a place to touch her skin, but her body is entirely covered up to her neck.

Rapunzel raises one of her hands cautiously. "I-is it okay if I touch your neck?"

M-C's face twitches, but whatever expression she was about to show she suppresses and she turns her head to look towards the fire, away from Rapunzel. "If you want," she answers again.

Rapunzel tentatively reaches her hands towards M-C, and she sees red light flash in her peripheral vision. Her eyes dart down to look at M-C's armor, which must have caught the light from the fire for a moment. Rapunzel feels confused - the black rock always swallows light, so she wonders why it reflected for a moment - but her attention is redirected when her index and middle fingers gently press to the side of M-C's neck.

As soon as Rapunzel's skin touches M-C's, she feels her magic flare inside of her, and her hair begins to shine. Rapunzel's heart starts pounding at the buzzing under her skin, and she almost pulls back, but she doesn't want to alarm M-C by moving too quickly and suddenly. So she keeps her fingers pressed against M-C's neck, internally trying to steady herself, her other hand lightly brushing M-C's jaw.

She's so distracted by the magic rushing through her that she almost forgets what she intended to do: check for Cassandra's heartbeat. But her attention is brought to it without even thinking about it, as she feels a strong rhythmic pulse under her fingers.

Staring at the skin under her fingers, Rapunzel is slightly mesmerized by the sensation. It's stronger than hers ever felt, and she keeps her fingers pressed against it for slightly too long. M-C turns her head slightly to look back at Rapunzel, and Rapunzel looks up to see she'd leaned towards M-C without realizing it. Flustered by how close their faces had gotten and embarrassed that she'd been touching M-C for so long, Rapunzel pulls away immediately, taking her hand away from M-C's neck, and she feels her magic subside within her as her hair stops glowing.

"I-It does," Rapunzel stutters, feeling breathless. "Your heart, I mean - it still beats. You still have a heartbeat." Rapunzel doesn't look at M-C, and she fidgets with her hands in her lap.

From the corner of her eye, Rapunzel sees M-C nod. A silence stretches awkwardly between them, and Rapunzel desperately tries to think of something else to say.

But M-C stands before she can come up with something. "Uh, thanks," M-C tells her. "For checking."

"Y-yeah," Rapunzel answers, finally glancing up at her. "Any time."

"And for offering me the…" M-C gestures vaguely at Rapunzel's pot. "Food."

"Right," Rapunzel responds. "No problem."

M-C pauses for a moment as though she's going to say something else, but instead she turns without a word. Rapunzel very badly wants to ask Cassandra to stay, but she can't think of any plausible reason to request it, so she says nothing as M-C leaves Rapunzel's room through the balcony window.

Rapunzel realizes a minute after she'd left that she never asked where M-C had gone that morning.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Third Week

"Just try to keep up," Cassandra calls back to her, and Fidella takes off into a gallop.

"Oh please," Rapunzel answers, and without even directing him, Max bolts after them. Rapunzel leans forward as she balances in the saddle, and she pats Max's neck. "Don't worry buddy, we've got this. Keep following them until we can see the town, alright? Then we'll pass them."

Max winnies approvingly, and they chase after Cassandra and Fidella. Cassandra glances back at them with a smirk, her black curls whipping across her face, and Fidella suddenly takes a hard turn into the woods by the road. Max snorts in surprise and he overshoots the turn, his hooves scrambling to change directions.

"What the-" Rapunzel starts, and she can hear Cassandra calling back from the trees: "Shortcut!"

"What do we think Max, do we believe her?" Rapunzel asks, but Max has already made up his mind as he takes off into the woods.

He weaves through the trees, letting Rapunzel make judgements on the quickest path through the undergrowth. Rapunzel listens closely for the sound of hoofbeats ahead, and she catches sight of Cassandra and Fidella again.

"We've got them, Max," Rapunzel says excitedly.

They continue their chase, but Rapunzel soon loses sight of their competition. The woods end suddenly, the landscape shifting to an open expanse of rolling fields, with a stream near the forest's edge and the town a short distance away from it. They slow to a stop, looking around.

"Well, well, well, look who finally decided to show up," Cassandra's smooth and cocky voice comes from across the stream, where she's reclining against a large rock with a half-eaten apple while Fidella drinks from the water. Cassandra raises an eyebrow and the Moonstone glints from where it's set in her chest, barely above the neckline of her usual tunic without its undershirt.

"Nuh-uh. No way. You were twenty seconds ahead of us at most. There is no way you've been sitting here long enough to eat most of that apple. This is staged," Rapunzel answers her taunt, dismounting.

"Hmm, accusing me of staging? Sounds like something a sore loser would say," Cassandra returns, taking another bite of the apple.

"Fidella, she had you bite off half the apple, didn't she?" Rapunzel asks.

Max whinnies questioningly at Fidella as they step across the stream, and Fidella raises her head to spray water at him from her lips playfully in response.

Cassandra rises from her leisurely lounge and walks over to Rapunzel. "Well, I won so I think that means that you-" she pokes Rapunzel on the shoulder, "owe me a pastry."

"I'm not sure this one counts considering you knew the way ahead of time and I didn't," Rapunzel answers, smiling despite herself.

"Sorry, Raps. Rules are rules, and we did call this a race," Cassandra tells her with a sigh of faux-regret, like there was nothing they could do. She looks at Rapunzel and smirks. "Now let's go to the bakery. I'm hungry."

"I thought you just ate half an apple," Rapunzel responds teasingly, raising an eyebrow.

"Winning makes me hungry," Cassandra says with a dismissive wave of her hand. It was her right hand, ungloved and unblemished. "Max, do you want the rest?"

Max nods excitedly, and she tosses the apple over. Glancing back at Rapunzel, she snorts a small laugh. She reaches towards Rapunzel's hair and pulls out a leaf, saying, "Raps, you know you're supposed to dodge the trees, right?"

Rapunzel's heart skips a beat at Cassandra's laugh, and when Cassandra reaches her hand up near her face. "It's called accessorizing, Cass," Rapunzel replies, thinking quickly to keep up with her banter. "But I wouldn't expect you to know anything about fashion."

"Yeah? Then I'll just leave this in your hair for going into town. So you can, y'know, stay fashionable."

"Well, I wouldn't want to cause a stir debuting new styles from the city," Rapunzel sighs. "So I suppose I can leave it out of my outfit."

Cassandra laughs again. "Whatever you say," she responds. "Now c'mon." She grabs Rapunzel's hand to pull her along towards a footpath leading to the town.

Rapunzel feels her magic flare at the skin contact, her hair glowing gold immediately and her heart starting to race. She follows Cassandra, whose hair had begun to glow blue, and Cassandra looks back at Rapunzel and smiles-

Rapunzel wakes with a pounding heart, and her hair is lit up and suspended in the air. She gasps and sits up, and it falls to the ground around her.

She holds a strand up, confused. The last time her hair had acted out in her sleep was shortly after it had grown back, when she was having dreams about the black rocks.

She leans backwards onto her bed again and rubs her eyes. The memory of the dream is already fading, but she wishes desperately that she would be able to remember it. She didn't know when it was or where it was but she knew that she was with Cassandra, and they were happy.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel's network of notes is starting to look like a lunatic's.

She has her original pages of notes - her thoughts written out in a stream without any editing. From there she wrote more pages in sections: what she knows about Cassandra, what she knows about the Moonstone, things Cassandra is angry about, evidence that Cassandra cares about her (?), things Cassandra wants (??), ways the Moonstone has affected Cassandra, and questions she still has.

The last section being the longest, and with the most underlining and exclamation points.

Rapunzel sits on the floor in front of all her papers. A lot had happened since she last deep dived into her notes, the morning she gave Cassandra the gift painting over a week ago. Since then she'd learned that

  • Cassandra's mind/memory is in pieces;
  • She can lose her grasp on the pieces when made too agitated;
  • She likely clawed at all the mirrors in the castle when her mind was destabilized;
  • She breaks the castle when destabilized;
  • She can recover with time;
  • She reassembles parts of the castle herself, by hand, using black rock;
  • She's been friendly as she's regained her mind;
  • She accepted numerous gifts from Rapunzel - the friendship bracelet, the journal, the art supplies, and the satchel - and she's kept these on her;
  • She seems to be seeking Rapunzel out for company with some regularity;
  • She left the city the day before to "check something";
  • She says she doesn't sleep or eat;
  • She doesn't have a room that she's staying in (as far as she currently remembers);
  • If there is food in the castle, neither of them know where it is; and
  • She accepted Rapunzel's request for food to be brought in for her from her friends.

It's a lot. Rapunzel chews at her lip, thinking the situation over. Obviously her goal is still to repair her friendship with Cassandra, retrieve the Moonstone from her, and get Corona back. And of course she still can't do the first step, much less the other two, without Cassandra's mind being more restored. Especially when Cassandra didn't respond at all when Rapunzel asked about handing over the Moonstone a couple days ago, even when she (presumably) didn't (doesn't?) remember its significance.

Rapunzel rubs her temples. While Cassandra's mind being restored would certainly be a good thing, Rapunzel worries about the anger that had been put aside with Cassandra's loss of memories. If she remembers more of her relationship with Rapunzel, will she become enraged again? Would she destroy the bracelet and journal Rapunzel gave her? Would Rapunzel be able to get through to her?

Rapunzel frowns. She can't answer those questions now - but she feels cautiously optimistic considering Cassandra's somewhat-positive response to Rapunzel explaining the gift painting before her mind broke.

Rapunzel takes a deep breath. All she can do is what she's been doing - keep working in the city trying to clean it up and fix people's homes, and whenever she encounters Cassandra, try to help her remember things. Unable to guarantee an interaction with Cassandra, she decides she'll go into the city later in the morning.

But for now, she pulls out another paper to write a letter to her friends.

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Rapunzel doesn't encounter M-C that day, but the day after, she wakes to find M-C pacing on her balcony.

"Cass…?" Rapunzel mumbles, half-asleep. She pulls herself out of her bed and puts a jacket over her nightgown to open the window and speak to her.

"Rapunzel," M-C says urgently upon seeing her. "Finally. Where is the journal?"

"The… huh?" Rapunzel says, still half-asleep. She sees that M-C still has her satchel, so she feels confused. "Did you lose yours?" Or is she talking about Rapunzel's?

"What?" M-C asks, confused. "No, Rapunzel. The journal of Herz Der Sonne. I can't find it - it's not in the vault. You have it, don't you? You're keeping it safe?"

Rapunzel shakes her head, trying to clear the sleep from her mind. "The… oh." Oh no.

M-C frowns, and Rapunzel realizes she must have looked alarmed. "What is it?" M-C asks.

"It's… ah," Rapunzel starts. It's in pulpy pieces somewhere off the coast. "Why are you looking for it?"

"That stupid holiday is coming up," M-C says, her expression becoming disdainful. "But it's important, and it's my job to keep the book safe so it can be displayed. I barely get any jobs from my dad as is, so I need to do this one well. The last thing we need is some lunatic Separatists making off with it. But I can't find it," M-C looks at Rapunzel intently. "You have it, right? You're… into all that lovey-dovey stuff. You took it for some reason."

"Mmmmmyep," Rapunzel says, giving her what she hopes is a convincing smile. "Yes I… am into all that lovey-dovey stuff. Mhmm. And the journal is… ah…"

Rapunzel has no idea what to say. If she lies to Cassandra, there's the chance of Cassandra finding out, and she'll be angry. But if she tells the truth, she might make Cassandra confused… and she'll be angry. It seems like Cassandra is caught on a memory from the past - the Day of Hearts isn't for months, and, well, it probably won't be happening here in Underworld. And present-day Cassandra likely doesn't care about any jobs her father would want her to do.

Honesty is probably Rapunzel's best option. Maybe Cassandra will be so thrown by being torn back to present-day, she won't be mad about the book getting destroyed.

Rapunzel sighs. "The truth is, Cass," she starts. "Herz Der Sonne's diary is gone. King Trevor tried to kidnap my mom to be his bride - long story - and then there was a sea serpent - longer story - and it got thrown into the ocean. I made a new Book of Hearts that we started using last year."

M-C's expression is unreadable as she studies Rapunzel's face. A silence stretches between them, and Rapunzel wonders if she should tell Cassandra to look around her, to try to pull her mind back to the present.

"What?" M-C finally says, squinting slightly.

"Um, maybe it would help if I told you the full story. You can come in, if you want," Rapunzel tells her, opening the window wider and leaning back to allow her entry.

M-C gives her a dubious look, but she climbs into Rapunzel's room.

"This happened last winter," Rapunzel begins, and she tells M-C the story of how Herz Der Sonne's diary got destroyed. She elects to skip the, "my parents' memories were erased during a Saporian overthrow of Corona" background, as she thinks it would be a little much to lay on Cassandra all at once.

"So that's why I made a new one, which is probably still in the vault, but you didn't recognize it," Rapunzel tells her. "And none of this was your fault, obviously, since you weren't here." If you were here, it probably wouldn't have happened at all, Rapunzel thinks. Not for the first time Rapunzel feels regret that Corona's most reliable and skilled not-guard wasn't around for everything that happened after the Dark Kingdom.

M-C sits in silence, staring towards the ground in front of her. Rapunzel takes a deep breath, thinking that it would likely be at least an hour before she gets any movement or words from Cassandra. So Rapunzel goes over to her supplies and pulls out breakfast materials for herself.

And for M-C. Rapunzel wonders if Cassandra had remembered where she was keeping her food yet. Until then, she'll make extra of her meals for her whenever she's around.

Only ten minutes have passed when M-C moves, putting her hand to her satchel and pulling out her journal and the quill. Rapunzel looks at her in surprise as M-C starts scribbling something down into her book. Rapunzel doesn't say anything to interrupt her, recognizing that this must be part of her processing, but she desperately wonders at what Cassandra's writing.

M-C snaps the book shut and stands in one motion. She starts walking for Rapunzel's door, and Rapunzel scrambles up to cut her off. "Wait, Cass," she starts. "Do- do you want to have breakfast with me?"

M-C's eyebrows draw together. "Ah…" she starts awkwardly, and Rapunzel feels excited that Cassandra's speaking. "I don't do that, sorry."

"You don't have breakfast?" Rapunzel asks, although she already knows the answer.

M-C shuffles her feet. "That's right. I think we've talked about this before..."

Rapunzel holds herself back from grabbing M-C's arm and pulling her back towards the hearth in an attempt to prevent her from fleeing. "You don't… feel hungry at all?" She still refuses to believe Cassandra just doesn't eat.

M-C starts moving past Rapunzel. "Nope," she answers.

"Like, at all," Rapunzel presses, stepping in her way again.

M-C moves around Rapunzel's other side. "Nope," she repeats.

"Cass, I…" Rapunzel starts, turning but not getting into her way again. "I'm sorry for pressuring you. I just worry about you," she says honestly.

"I'm fine, Rapunzel, really," M-C tells her, backing towards the door. "I appreciate the concern, but don't worry about me, okay?"

That will literally never happen, Rapunzel thinks. Especially when you're so messed up and there's a you-induced wasteland surrounding us. Out loud she says, "I'll try. But I do like seeing you, Cass. I think it would be nice for us to spend more time together."

"Uh," M-C starts, her hand on the door handle. "Yeah. I think that'd be nice too."

Rapunzel beams in excitement, but M-C quickly opens the door and darts out before Rapunzel can say anything.

The smile falls from Rapunzel's face. "Okay," she says. "I guess I'll see you later, then."

☽☀☽☀☾☀☾

Despite M-C's assurance, Rapunzel doesn't see her for the rest of the day, nor the day after. Rapunzel keeps at her clean-up work in the city to occupy her time, and the next morning coming down from her room she finally sees M-C.

She feels excitement run through her. "Hey, Cass!"

M-C, looking out one of the large windows lining the hallway, starts at Rapunzel's voice and turns quickly towards her. As Rapunzel approaches, M-C has an uncertain expression, gripping the strap of her satchel with both hands.

Shy Cass, Rapunzel thinks. Rapunzel smiles at her. "It's nice to see yo-"

"Here," M-C says abruptly, throwing a hand out in front of Rapunzel. Rapunzel looks down, surprised, and sees a familiar shape resting in her gauntleted palm.

It was her hairpin shaped like a bird in flight, which she wore frequently during their journey to the Dark Kingdom. Rapunzel feels confused looking at it - she had left it in a jewelry box in her vanity when she stopped wearing it upon returning to Corona (due to too many complicated memories associated with it). Cassandra went through her things?

"Uh, Cass, what-" Rapunzel starts, but M-C cuts her off.

"I-I saw you lost yours. So here," M-C tells her. "You really liked it, so I thought you'd be sad…"

Rapunzel looks from M-C's face back to the hairpin in her hand. She slowly picks it up and notices that it wasn't painted wood like her real clip - this one was carved from a stone, some kind of crystal, pastel pink with opaque white veins under the surface.

Rapunzel doesn't know what to say. It's beautiful and perfectly carved, like the crystal flowers in the cosmic garden. "You- you made this for me?"

M-C pulls her hand back and nods.

Rapunzel's so moved by the gesture she chooses not to tell M-C that her original hairpin isn't missing. "Thank you, Cass," she says. "It's beautiful."

"Do-" M-C cuts herself off, but then continues: "Do you want to put it on?"

"Oh, um, yeah," Rapunzel answers. She would use the hairpin to anchor a plait over the top of her head, so she pulls her hair down from its main braid. Realizing she'll need both hands to weave her hair, she holds the hairpin out to M-C. "Could you hold this for me?"

M-C nods and takes it, and Rapunzel takes three locks of her hair and quickly braids them with the precision of someone who spends a truly absurd amount of time braiding hair. Holding the plait, Rapunzel looks to M-C to reach out and take the hairpin, but M-C leans forward and puts it in place herself.

Rapunzel freezes at M-C's hand being right by her face and feeling her armored fingers brush her hair, vaguely remembering the dream she had a couple nights before. M-C sees her tense, and she pulls her hand back quickly. "Sorry…" M-C murmurs, looking away.

"No, it's fine. Really," Rapunzel assures her quickly, realizing that M-C probably thought she had tensed from fear. In truth, she wanted to take Cassandra's hand, pull off the gauntlet, and hold it, but she thinks that's still a little out of their range currently. "Thank you, Cass. It means a lot to me, that you would make this for me."

M-C nods, still refusing to look at Rapunzel. After a moment's pause where she looks like she's about to say something more, she steps back quickly saying, "Well, bye." The black rock under her feet glows blue for a moment before opening to make a rift directly under her, and she drops into the room below.

Rapunzel steps towards the rift stuttering, "W-wait," but it seals immediately.

Chapter Text

"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.