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fight me, princess

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"Hey Eugene," Varian comments expressionlessly from where he's sitting on the ground.

"What- the-" Eugene stutters from the doorway to his lab, taking in the sight of the black rock and almost-cooled patch of molten rock on the ground.

"Cassandra showed up and stole some of my chemicals and put me and Ruddiger in a cage," Varian elaborates.

"Is-" Eugene starts, alarmed.

"She's gone off somewhere to make lava and cause problems," Varian answers.

"I'm- gonna go g-" Eugene starts again.

"Yeah you should probably go get Rapunzel," Varian responds.

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"Rapunzel?!" Eugene calls, rushing into the throne room, knowing she'd been scheduled for party-planning. He's met with the sight of two windows shattered and the rest of the planners near the dias - but no Rapunzel.

"Lance," Eugene says urgently, walking towards him. "Where is Rapunzel?"

"Y'know," he starts, and barely visible out the window behind him a figure in the sky goes flying into the distance. "She just left."

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Cassandra doesn't immediately return to her tower upon running off after the fight. Feeling confused by the bizarre day she'd had, she decides that she needs to spend some time thinking it all through.

(Of course, not before buying herself a pastry at the bakery.)

In her usual disguise as a farmer, Cassandra leaves Corona capital for the mainland. She takes a path off the road to sit under a tree on one of the hills near the shore, with a view overlooking the city and castle beyond.

Cassandra pulls down her hood and bites into her pastry pensively. She needs to think.

She'd been doing better at thinking these past few weeks, of course. Talking to Owl certainly helps. But right now she'd rather reassess her relationship with Rapunzel alone, without any outside bias.

Cassandra squints at the city. Her plan to fight Rapunzel as a way of seeking happiness is certainly working: she loves every time they battle. It is, perhaps, the most fun she's had in her life. It takes a lot to keep herself from instigating a fight more frequently than once per week - but she recognizes that they need time to rest so they're both in their best shape for each fight.

And besides the fun Cassandra's been having, their fights have led both of them to make discoveries with their powers. Rapunzel learned about her ability to fucking fly, while Cassandra had learned about channeling her shockwaves and different ways to use them. No doubt there's yet more for them to discover, if their fights continue.

But… Cassandra had decided upon fighting Rapunzel in part because she assumed it was the only way to keep Rapunzel in her life. Now Rapunzel is… inviting her to spend time together?

Cassandra frowns, taking another bite of pastry. She had tormented Rapunzel last night. Why on earth would she offer a thank-you card for that experience, and request to spend more time together?

Cassandra squints again, this time in suspicion. Was the invitation for riding together some kind of trick, part of a greater plan to manipulate her into a false sense of security to get her under Rapunzel's control again?

That doesn't seem right, Cassandra thinks, her eyebrows drawing together. She's not that underhanded. Rapunzel is a lot of things - selfish, condescending, overly self-important, insistent she's always right, unbearably cheery - but she's not nefarious.

Cassandra watches the sunlight glinting off of the waves around the capital's island in thought, considering Rapunzel's recent behavior towards her.

Despite her fears and her assumptions after the eclipse, Cassandra can admit that perhaps, somehow, Rapunzel does want to be friends again. She thinks about Rapunzel giving her the gift painting, and pranking her, and responding enthusiastically (well, sometimes) to her challenges, and making her a dessert, and asking her to play a game together, and inviting her to go riding -

But even if Rapunzel legitimately does want to reconcile, Cassandra's not sure she has reason to believe Rapunzel would be any better of a friend now than before. Giving gifts, wanting to go riding and play games, baking things… those are all standard Rapunzel behaviors, not indicative of any kind of change or personal growth.

She'd probably think that some gifts and fun times can just erase everything between us, Cassandra thinks, frowning. And she'll just end up slipping back to the way things were before.

And that's the question. If they reconciled… would Rapunzel be any better?

Cassandra has no idea off the top of her head, so she decides to consider all the confrontations she'd had with Rapunzel since returning to Corona.

-
"I- I miss you, Cassandra. I want us to be friends again."
-

Cassandra's eyebrows draw together again remembering Rapunzel's reaction when she first returned and crashed that party in the throne room. But...

-
"Look at me, you know me, Cassandra, I have always supported you."
-

Cassandra scowls at the memory of their fight in Demanitus's chamber for the scroll. Even after she'd told Rapunzel the ways she was angry in the Dark Kingdom, Rapunzel insisted that she'd always been supportive of her. In what world? Cassandra thinks, irritably. She didn't listen to me on the journey. She never gave me space when she felt things were wrong between us. She told me she didn't need my protection when it was the whole damn reason I was there, and she knew that. I told her I put my life on hold to come with her to make sure she was safe. Cassandra bites into her pastry aggressively. I have more trouble thinking of a time when she did support me.

That moment in Demanitus's chamber wasn't too long ago - a little over a couple months, now. But then there was that moment when she was disguised as Faith, hoping to reconcile...

-
"Although her… methods might not be the best, I believe that deep down, she is still a good person."
-

Rapunzel believed in her, despite how she stole the scroll, terrorized her and her friends, and stole the mind trap talisman. Of course, Rapunzel saying that was followed almost immediately by her trying to imprison Cassandra in amber with the Project Obsidian device.

Okay, I had been really mad about that, but to be fair I did try to crush her on a pillar of black rock several days earlier, Cassandra admits to herself, swallowing her bite of pastry. So I guess that cancels out... because math.

Fine, she can't hold a grudge about that - especially since Rapunzel hasn't used the amber solution since. But then there was their altercation during the eclipse...

-
"Hand over the Moonstone so we can end this."

"This isn't you, Cass."
-

Rapunzel had continued to give her orders and try to dictate who she is.

Cassandra's anger flares again, and she feels frustrated with herself for even considering a possibility of reconciling with Rapunzel. I'm so much better off without her, Cassandra thinks firmly to herself.

But… both of those interactions were shortly after Cassandra had first returned to Corona, and Zhan Tiri was still around.

What about more recently?

-
"I'm sorry for trying to tell you what to do. I know you're your own person. You deserve to have your own happiness: to do the things that you want to do, and not just what everyone else wants you to do. Not just what... I want you to do."
-

Cassandra's anger begins to dissipate again, tempered by the fun she'd had fighting Rapunzel for the last few weeks and remembering what Rapunzel had said during their fight at the festival. Both Owl and that ship captain opined that Rapunzel meant what she had said. But even if she thinks she meant it, has she actually changed? Cassandra wonders to herself, drawing her knees closer to her chest. Would things really be different?

Cassandra can think of little that causes her as much distress as the thought of ending up where she had started: powerless, unvalued, disposable-

Cassandra's pastryless hand clutches over the Moonstone. She's not going back to that. She can't.

And besides Rapunzel potentially not being any better of a friend to Cassandra, there's the matter of everyone else in Corona. Rapunzel's probably the only one who would want me around, Cassandra thinks, grimacing. No doubt everyone else hates me. Giving a short sigh through her nose, Cassandra plays with the grass next to her. Even if I wanted to, I can't go back.

And then there's the Moonstone. Surely she still wants it, Cassandra thinks to herself, frowning at the grass. I mean, how could she not?

But Cassandra's not giving it up. For once in her goddamn life she has her own power, and no one will take that from her. This is her fucking rock.

Playing with the grass, Cassandra notices a trail of ants parading along an exposed root of the tree she sits under. She breaks off some crumbs of her pastry to leave next to their trail, and watches the tide move to the crumbs to lift and bring home.

She bites into the rest of her pastry, and sits in silence with her rock and her ants.

She considers that bizarre moment in the hallway of the castle - Rapunzel exiting her room and behaving coldly towards Old Lady Crowley. Rapunzel said she wanted to keep Cassandra's room the same, and that Crowley shouldn't try to throw away her things again.

Cassandra swallows her bite of pastry. If she's aiming to be friends again, she probably thinks she'll get me back living there again. Cassandra scowls at the thought - it's much too close to being right back where she'd started.

But... at least she didn't mess with any of my stuff, Cassandra admits to herself. Even if I don't want any of it… she respected my space enough not to change anything. Cassandra's eyebrows draw together, wondering if that behavior is indicative that Rapunzel would respect her more now.

Feeling torn again, Cassandra scratches her head with a clawed gauntlet while she thinks. She lowers her hand to stare at - her right hand, in the blue gauntlet she'd made.

A gauntlet she had a constant link of magic to, in order to restore her grip strength, in the same way she'd used Moonstone magic to let herself lift that drum of Flynnoleum. She closes her hand into a fist and opens it again.

She has no idea if it's still damaged the way it was a year ago. She hadn't looked at it, and she hadn't removed the magic augment on the gauntlet to find out if her muscles were still pitifully weak. Bound in the material from the Moonstone, Cassandra doesn't even know if her surficial nerves are still largely shot - if she'd be able to feel something brushing against her skin. All she's sure can feel is applied pressure that deeper nerves pick up on, which she could still feel even shortly after the spell. The only reminders she had of the injury were increasingly infrequent pangs of pain, deep in the tissue.

It's easy to forget the hand. But whenever she'd feel those pains, it'd bring back sharp memories of Rapunzel ignoring her pleas, blaming her for the injury, hounding her to talk…

-
Rapunzel, caught in the spell, as the Great Tree begins to collapse around her. "I can't control it!"

Rapunzel, in the ruined village in West Rabbit Woods. "I'm mad at you too. I told you I had it under control, and you didn't listen."
-

Cassandra's face twitches in anger. I did it to save you.

-
Rapunzel, kneeling in front of her in the Great Tree. "I am going to be queen someday. And I can promise you, I am going to make decisions that you're going to disagree with. And I need you to be okay with that."

Rapunzel, in the ruined village. "I did the right thing. I didn't have a choice."

"If you're upset, then just tell me."
-

Cassandra's eyes squeeze shut.

She had meant it when she told Rapunzel she'd get over it - at least, she thought she meant it. She had to mean it, since Rapunzel didn't give her much of a choice.

She didn't get over it, obviously. The attack by Hector was a direct consequence of Rapunzel disregarding her judgments about the Tree and Adira, the spell was a direct consequence of Rapunzel deciding not to trust her with the spear, her touching Rapunzel during the spell was a direct consequence of trying to save Rapunzel from being crushed when she couldn't move; and then Rapunzel acted like she had no blame in what happened.

Cassandra glares towards the ground, and her jaw flexes. But she takes a deep breath and watches her ants for a short while to calm herself again. She drops a few more crumbs for them, and the tension in her brow begins to disappear as she watches them do their little ant thing.

Everything that happened in the Tree and Rapunzel's dismissal of her were almost a year ago, now. Her mind comes back around to the more recent interactions she'd had with the princess.

-
Rapunzel's face in the main square, smiling at her. "I'm so glad you came back."

Rapunzel's voice, angry, in her tower. "I cherish you and want nothing more than your happiness!"

Rapunzel in the ruins of the city, destroying Cassandra's rocks as they get close. "You know, I've told you this before but I'll never stop trying to get through to you!"

Rapunzel in the ruins of the city, her hair starting to glow. "I wouldn't want you to feel like I'm not taking your concerns seriously."

Rapunzel in her tower, flustered. "You, um, look very intimidating. In a good way!"
-

Cassandra squints. Okay that last one was just weird.

But her anger is tempered again. She must admit: between the fun she'd had with their fights, Rapunzel's friendly gestures towards her, and the things she'd said that make Cassandra wonder if she'd be a better friend - Cassandra is tempted more and more to try to reconcile. Especially since she's already exacted plenty of revenge against Rapunzel for the shitty things she'd put her through in the past.

"I can't decide," Cassandra groans, falling backwards to stare up at the foliage overhead.

Blowing a curl from her eyes, Cassandra recognizes that now that she's thought the situation through on her own, perhaps an outside perspective would be helpful. She rolls over to push herself up, and while still on the ground she breaks up the last piece of her pastry to leave along the exposed root for her ants.

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"Owl!" Cassandra shouts as soon as she reaches the top of her tower.

Owl hoots in alarm, jumping and looking up from his preening, from where he's perched on a spike sticking out from the wall. Feathers are scattered about under him.

Cassandra frowns at the feathers. "Are you molting?"

"...Hoo," Owl replies, using a foot to push a feather off his perch.

"Okay whatever," Cassandra says, walking in. "I've got something important to discuss."

"Hoo," Owl responds, flying over to follow her, losing another feather as he departs his perch.

Cassandra collapses onto her throne, sitting with her back against one armrest and her legs kicked up over the other, and lays out to Owl everything she'd been debating.

By the time she's done, she's slowly rotated in her seat, shifting to get more comfortable, until her back is flat against the seat of the throne.

"So now I'm just trying to figure out if I should try to become friends with her again," Cassandra explains from where her head's hanging upside-down off the seat. "And I know you're just going to try to tell me to go for it, but I want a convincing argument."

"Hoo," Owl comments.

Cassandra raises an eyebrow. "I thought you were team 'be BFFs with Rapunzel'," she notes dryly.

"Hoo," Owl explains.

Cassandra makes a face at his reveal that he's actually team 'Cassandra does what she wants' and it just seems to him like she wants to be friends with Rapunzel.

She glares to the side. "Well, even if I did, not everything I want to do is the best decision," she grumbles.

"Hoo," Owl replies dryly.

"Yes I'm only just figuring that out," she snaps in response. She takes a breath and considers Owl's first response. "So you think I should use some kind of decision-making method to choose what to do?"

Owl nods at her.

"You mean like… flipping a coin?" She asks, confused.

Owl hurriedly shakes his head.

Cassandra considers. "You mean like, having another fight with her, and if she wins I try to be friends with her but if I win I keep fighting her?"

Owl shakes his head even quicker.

"You mean like, seeing how she acts the next time I see her and choosing what to do on impulse?" Cassandra asks.

Owl shakes his head so hard some feathers come loose.

"Okay well I don't think there are any other ways to make a decision," she responds, glaring at him.

"Hoo," Owl suggests, and with one foot he holds out his blank notepad towards her.

Cassandra rotates herself in her seat again until she's upright, and she takes the notepad. "A pros and cons list?" She asks skeptically.

Owl nods at her, and offers a feather from his wing as a quill.

Cassandra blows air through her lips. "Alright," she grumbles, taking the feather and getting up to find some ink.

A short while later, Cassandra has managed to commit all her thoughts to two organized lists.

Become Friends Again
Pros:

  • If she's better and respects me more and I can keep the Moonstone and stay away from the whole royalty thing, our friendship could finally work
  • We can hang out any play games and go riding the way we used to
  • Get to spend more time with her and joke around
  • More opportunity to make fun of Fitzherbert if I start visiting the castle
  • Get to see Max and Fidella again and spend time with them
  • Banana cream pie

Cons:

  • She might not be any better and I'll end up in the shitty place I started
  • She might want to take the Moonstone and I'll have to tell her to fuck off
  • Would have to talk about feelings
  • Would have to deal with everyone else hating me
  • Wouldn't get to fight her anymore probably
  • Would need to figure out new life path if not fighting her
  • Oh my god what the fuck am I going to do if I'm not fighting her

Keep Fighting Her
Pros:

  • Oh hell yeah hell yeah hell yeah hell yeah hell yeah
  • Don't have to worry about her possibly still being a shitty friend/person
  • Still get to spend time together doing something I like
  • Don't have to care what other people think of me
  • Don't have to talk about feelings
  • Can keep being mean to her without guilt

Cons:

  • ?????

"Wow that method of decision-making works great," Cassandra observes cheerfully, looking at her notes.

Owl flies over to her shoulder to look at the paper, and after a few moments his head rotates to glare at her.

"Well thank God THAT'S settled," Cassandra says, tossing the notebook over her other shoulder. "Anyway, I know you ditched when I started making the lava lake, so let me fill you in on everything that happened…"

Owl sighs, settling into a loaf on her shoulder while she continues talking.

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Eugene and Max are waiting for Rapunzel at the edge of the CEZ when she starts walking wearily back in the direction of the castle, carrying her scrap metal.

"Sunshine!" He calls immediately upon seeing her, and he rushes over to make sure she's okay. Once Rapunzel has assured him she's not injured, he continues: "I know you're probably exhausted, but there's a bit of a situation at the castle-"

"Let me guess, Varian's in a cage," Rapunzel interrupts.

"Uh, yeah," Eugene says. "She- she told you?"

"No, just an educated guess," Rapunzel responds, holding up the mostly-melted steel drum.

Eugene stares at the metal and clears his throat. "She uh, make a pit of lava?"

"Oh yeah," Rapunzel answers.

"...Was it cool," Eugene asks, unable to keep a smile off his face.

"No, it was hot," Rapunzel replies dryly with a quirked eyebrow.

"You know what I mean!" He cries, still with a childish grin.

"Yeah it was really cool," she admits, trying to fight off a smile.

"She uh, didn't cause any other trouble though, right?" Eugene asks, shifting to a more responsible demeanor. "Max and I went around to make sure, but-"

"Yeah, it seems like the lava was a present just for me," Rapunzel responds.

"Lucky, no girl's ever gifted me with a pit of lava," Eugene tells her, and he gestures towards Max. "Let's go rescue our nerd."

When they arrive back at Varian's castle lab, they find Lance sitting at a chair near the workbench, eating half of a sub with his back leaning against the table. Varian standing in his cage has the other half of the sandwich.

"Please don't touch that," Varian's saying to Catalina and Angry, who are investigating one of his half-built inventions next to the wall, and Ruddiger tries to take a bite of his sandwich while he isn't looking.

"Varian!" Rapunzel cries, distressed, dropping her scrap metal and rushing over to use her magic on the cage. "I am so sorry about this."

"It's- it's fine," Varian replies, waving a hand while chuckling awkwardly as the black rock crumbles around him and Ruddiger.

"Ah, sweet freedom!" Lance cries, throwing his arm around Varian's shoulders, and he continues theatrically: "A beautiful gift not valued until it's gone, that precious state of being paramount to self-fulfillment and health of the eternal soul- oh, how glad we are to have you returned to us!" His voice abruptly shifts back to normal. "So uh, now that you're out, you wanna make us some hot cocoa?"

Varian rolls his eyes as he bends to gather his equation-covered papers from the ground. "Fine," he grumbles.

"Hey, I gave you the sandwich and made sure you didn't starve in the slammer, you owe me," Lance chuckles, leaning back again. Looking over at Rapunzel he asks, "How'd your business meeting with Cass go?"

Rapunzel blows hair through her lips, considering. "Y'know, it was actually only about a three on the Cassandra-causing-problems scale."

"You have a scale?" Eugene asks.

"Yep," Rapunzel responds. "See, something like interrupting my public hearing is a problem. But destroying the city? That's a full-blown catastrophe." She sits on a stool to recline against the workbench like Lance, adding, "Actually, since the eclipse she hasn't really done anything worse than like, a six." Pascal hops from Lance's shoulder over to her while she speaks, and she catches him in her hands and smiles at him while he rubs against her palm affectionately.

"Where did she take you?" Angry asks from where she and Catalina are fiddling with the half-built invention they were told not to touch.

"Well, she started by climbing a castle tower to throw me across the city towards the CEZ," Rapunzel recounts. "Which was half covered by a lake of lava. But," she continues, raising a pointer finger, "the lava was contained to the CEZ, so no one else was inconvenienced or hurt by it, hence only being a three."

"A lake of lava?!" Angry cries.

"Yeah, and she made platforms over it for us to fight on," Rapunzel elaborates. "She called it another version of 'the floor is lava'."

"That is SO COOL!" Angry exclaims. "Is it still there?! Can we go?!"

Both she and Catalina abandon their tampering to rush over towards Rapunzel immediately with pleading expressions.

Rapunzel suppresses a laugh at their enthusiasm. "Sorry, girls, but I think the lava has cooled by now. It's probably all hardened rock again."

"Can you ask her to make us more lava?" Catalina requests.

"I kinda think this was a one-time thing," Rapunzel answers, glancing over at Varian with a smile. Varian, starting up his bunsen burner, looks away nervously. "But imaginary lava is better anyway," she adds, looking back at Angry and Catalina. "The real stuff is mostly just hot and scary." She leans forward conspiratorially, continuing, "You know, I almost fell off, and I watched my quarterstaff catch fire while it sank into the lava."

Angry and Catalina, completely transfixed, sit while Rapunzel starts recounting her story from the beginning.

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"Hey, captain?" Rapunzel starts tentatively, after she finishes practicing a series of kicks and punches against padded handheld targets he'd kept raised for her. She had a question on her mind the whole time they'd been training, since this was their first session together after her evening at Cassandra's tower.

The captain straightens from his braced stance, lowering the targets. "Yes?"

Rapunzel rubs the back of her neck, reluctant to ask the question despite how brightly it burned in her mind. "Did... you know about the Gothel thing?"

The captain's expression shifts, barely, in recognition of what she's asking about. He slides the pads from his hands, and he walks from the sparring ring to a side bench near the wall of the training ground. The ground was empty except for the two of them, as Rapunzel had waited for the other guards to leave before breaching the topic.

"I… suspected," he answers slowly in his gravelly voice, not looking at her as he places the pads on the bench.

Rapunzel feels distress shoot through her. "Why- why didn't you tell her?"

The captain gives a sigh, and he finally turns to look back at her. "Your highness, you have to understand-" he cuts off, looking towards the ground near her, unable to meet her gaze. "It's... a long story."

He takes a breath and begins again: "The night you were taken, every guard was dispatched in search of you. While I found Cassandra during our pursuit of a cloaked person who might have been the one your parents saw, I had no idea if that person truly was the one that kidnapped you." His eyebrows draw together. "But as days went by with the house under surveillance and no one ever returned, it became… likely… in my mind that the woman Cassandra called her mother was the one who abducted you." He takes a deep breath, continuing, "I asked Cassandra everything she could tell me about her mother, my men and I tore the house apart looking for evidence about her, and we learned her likeness through paintings and that… puppet... she'd left as a trap… but none of it led any closer to you." He finally looks back up at her. "It was like the woman had disappeared into thin air."

Rapunzel tries to suppress the unease she feels hearing about the events leading to her imprisonment.

"You can't imagine what Corona was like, then, your highness," the captain tells her with pain across his face. "Your parents had been trying for years for a child. The longer went on without an heir, the more scared Coronans became thinking that some distant family from another kingdom would have to step in to take Corona's crown - or, worse, that there would be a coup orchestrated by the Separatists. Your father had just brought great leadership to the kingdom, and our trade was thriving and the people felt safe. The thought of a foreign leader or Separatists taking control made people terrified."

Rapunzel feels her breath catch. No one had told her this before.

"Your mother's pregnancy was nothing short of a miracle," the captain continues. "Celebrations broke out in the streets. That terrible growing tension of fear was finally gone. People breathed easily again, and with that breath, they sang for joy." His expression darkens. "And then your mother became ill. And their fear returned, tenfold. It wasn't only the royal guard that went searching for the Sundrop, your highness. Every Coronan able joined the hunt. People were desperate. And… we found it," he says, with an almost reverential tone, caught in the memory. "And your mother was healed, and you were born."

"But then I disappeared," Rapunzel says, quietly, feeling herself go cold with growing horror.

"'Riots' is an understatement," the captain tells her gravely. "I'd never seen anything like it, nor have I since. Corona went to war with itself. People cast accusations on anyone they thought even slightly suspicious. People were being attacked for any arbitrary reason. Your father managed to quell the worst of the discord by imprisoning every criminal in the kingdom."

Rapunzel swallows, hard. So that's why he did it…

"But I thought… if it got out that Cassandra was the daughter of your kidnapper…" The captain's voice breaks slightly. "I didn't know what would happen to her."

"...You thought people would hurt her?" Rapunzel responds, breathless, barely able to get the question out.

The captain looks away. "You have no idea what it was like then, your highness. You can't even imagine it."

She certainly can't. The people of Corona… those friendly faces and cheerful people, hurting a child? It just wasn't possible.

"I made my men swear to secrecy," the captain goes on. "I couldn't let anyone know. As years went on without you being found, the Coronan people's outrage faded to depression and resignation. I'm sure you're familiar with the… arrangements… that were put in place for the crown's succession-"

Rapunzel knows. Her parents had told her about it: an agreement drafted between Corona and her mother's kingdom across the sea, Antipe, stating that the second child of her mother's older brother would be brought to Corona upon their eighteenth birthday to be trained in Corona's ways by her parents in preparation to take the throne after their passing. The agreement had a clause of being nullified if the lost princess were ever to be found - and she was. Luckily, her toddler cousin wasn't too bothered by losing the crown.

"-and the Coronan people were satisfied enough with it," the captain continues. "As the years went on, people were able to celebrate your birthday, hoping that wherever you were, you were safe and happy, and that you might still return. But even still, that hatred for the person responsible for taking you… it never went away. Nor should it have." He takes a deep breath. "And I wanted to keep Cassandra safe. It's why I never told anyone about her mother."

"But-" Rapunzel's voice catches. "But even if you didn't want other people to know, why not tell just her when she got older?"

The captain doesn't answer immediately. "Cassandra was… a troubled child," he responds slowly, looking aside. "She had… difficulty fitting in already. I thought it would be cruel to burden her by telling her where she came from. And by the time she was an adult, I just… felt it didn't matter anymore."

"She didn't feel the same way," Rapunzel notes quietly.

"I know," the captain tells her. "Yet another mistake I've made."

Rapunzel frowns at the ground, left without words while she tries to process everything the captain had told her.

"I apologize for sharing such an upsetting story," the captain interrupts her thoughts.

"No- no, I'd rather know," Rapunzel responds, looking back up at him. "Thank you, captain, for telling me."

The captain clears his throat. "Of course, your highness." He glances over towards the rack of practice weapons near the sparring ring. "If you'd like, we could be done for today, or do some fencing practice..."

"I think I'd like to do the fencing," Rapunzel responds quickly, walking towards the practice weapons rack for her cast-iron pan. She needs to occupy herself somehow, while her mind catches up to everything she's learned.

As they begin, Rapunzel keeps coming back to what the captain had said about the social unrest that surrounded her birth. She hadn't realized that she was as much a symbol as a political figure - it had been a little odd to her, when she first escaped her tower, that everyone seemed to love her before they even knew her. She'd supposed that everyone was just tremendously friendly.

(Rapunzel had also thought this about the servants, at first: she didn't understand the concept of "it's their job to help you", so she thought everyone was doing things for her out of kindness. And then when Rapunzel tried to return the favor, she was met with blank confusion. She can still remember the look on Cassandra's face when Cassandra had returned from morning training shortly after dawn to find her room entirely cleaned, Rapunzel excitedly waiting for her. And the time she'd baked a large cake for the castle chef, and the time she'd sewn a dress for the castle seamstress, and… well, the point being that it took her a while to understand the whole "servant" thing. Nigel had admitted later that the most confusing part was how Rapunzel even managed to do so much for the servants, with her already-packed princess schedule - but she was used to getting a lot done between 7:00 and 7:15.)

It had slowly been occurring to Rapunzel as the years went on that the Coronan people must have loved her so quickly because of what she represents to them - and that's certainly confirmed to her now. While she's sure they're fond of her as a person after years of knowing her, that initial love must have been out of relief for their own lives - Rapunzel being the Coronan heir meant that the status quo would be maintained, that the same strong leadership her parents had offered would continue through the generations.

The captain scores a touch while Rapunzel is lost in her thoughts, but he doesn't reprimand her about focus. He seems fine with a less intensive practice session.

Rapunzel barely frowns, thinking about what the captain had said about Cassandra not fitting in as a child. She feels inclined to agree with his decision not to tell her - at least to start. If Cassandra knew that she came from a person hated by the kingdom, while she was already struggling to find her place in Corona… Surely that would have been awful for her.

Of course, being lied to - or at least misled - is also awful, and Rapunzel feels another sharp pain at the unfairness of it all. Especially with the stark contrast between how Rapunzel was loved immediately by the people for her lineage, while Cassandra likely would have been hated if anyone had learned. Rapunzel's beginning to understand more and more how Cassandra learning about her mother could channel into resentment against Rapunzel - even if she had no say in the matter of her family or kidnapping.

Rapunzel begins focusing more on her fencing, her thoughts becoming background noise in her mind. Twenty minutes at least must have passed before Rapunzel manages to disarm the captain during a bout, and they're interrupted.

"Fantastically done, dear," Arianna commends from a short distance away, walking out onto the guard training ground with Frederic at her side.

"Mom! Dad!" Rapunzel cries, startled.

"You've improved quite a lot," Arianna tells her, gracefully moving to pick up the captain's sword and offer it back to him.

"Your majesties," the captain says, similarly startled, offering a short bow.

Frederic smiles at him, walking over and greeting, "It's great to see you-"

Rapunzel's eyes widen. Surely her father knows the captain's name. Is he about to-

"-old friend," Frederic finishes, clasping the captain's hand.

Between her fatigue from the fencing and her disappointment, Rapunzel almost collapses.

But she pulls herself together. "What are you both doing here?" She asks her parents. "I thought you were going whitewater rafting today!"

"Oh, we just got back," Arianna says with a smile and small wave. "It wasn't much up your father's alley," she adds, and Frederic chuckles nervously.

"Can't keep up with Dare-ianna, huh dad?" Rapunzel asks wryly with an eyebrow raised.

"Well, it's no secret the women in my life are much more adventurous than me," he responds, putting his arm around Arianna.

"Ohh are those kickboxing pads?" Arianna asks, leaving his embrace immediately to investigate the targets that the captain had left on the sparring ring's bench.

"Ah, yes, Rapunzel and I had just been practicing a few kicks and punches-" the captain starts, but he's interrupted.

"I love kickboxing!" Arianna cries. "Frederic, we should spar!"

"Um," Frederic stalls, and Rapunzel hides a smile behind her hand. Since they'd regained their memories, her father had been committed to embracing and supporting her mother's more adventurous side, which was something she had put aside when she married him. Of course, he didn't quite understand the extent of her adventurous side when he made that commitment. That hasn't stopped him from trying his best, though, and Rapunzel's delighted that her parents seem to be in a honeymoon phase.

"You'll love it," Arianna tells him animatedly, walking over. "There are no heights, risk of drowning, or potential exposure to venomous snakes involved. Just you, me, and the arena," she finishes intensely, clutching her hand into a fist in front of her.

"How 'bout it, dad?" Rapunzel asks, hanging on his arm. "I could show you some kicks!"

"Well, how could I refuse?" Frederic asks with a smile, apparently shaking off his initial nervousness. "Oh, but first, Rapunzel-" he adds, turning to her. "Come with us for a moment."

Confused, Rapunzel lets herself be led a short distance away by her parents while the captain begins to clean and put away their equipment.

"We had been looking for you. We wanted to tell you about a gala that Corona will be putting on next week," her father tells her once out of earshot.

"A… gala?" Rapunzel repeats, perplexed.

"A banquet and ball, specifically," Frederic elaborates. "Invitations will be sent to the royal families of the seven kingdoms and other nearby countries. It's strictly an event for nobility - the purpose is to convey to the other kingdoms that Corona has fully recovered from the, ah, attack she endured a few weeks ago, and that she's still a worthwhile ally and formidable foe."

Rapunzel frowns, struck immediately by the concern that's always at the forefront of her mind. "Um, are you sure that's… a good idea? I mean- hosting an event like that- you remember what happened with the spring festival, right?"

"Well, the idea is that since it's not a publicly advertised event, that Cassandra won't even be aware that it's happening," Arianna explains.

"I know you're not terribly versed in politics yet, Rapunzel," Frederic tells her, putting a hand on her shoulder. "But I assure you this is an important move to make."

Rapunzel's expression shifts with distress. "Is- is there no way to make this move by attending an event in another kingdom?" She asks. "Dad, I really think- If- if she's not given an invitation, then she'll-"

"It must be hosted here, to show without a shadow of doubt that our kingdom has recovered," Frederic explains.

"I understand how you might think it best to send Cassandra an invitation, honey, but we can't have the one who destroyed Corona make an appearance at this gala," Arianna says sensibly. "It's best that she not be aware of it at all."

"And we have no reason to suspect she would be," Frederic adds. "The invitations will be strictly sent to other kingdoms, and only castle staff who are putting together the decor and the guards arranging security will be aware of the event in advance."

"We've thought it through thoroughly," Arianna assures her.

Rapunzel is not convinced. She is severely unconvinced, even. "But- but what if she just decides to show up at the castle to fight me on a whim? I- I should stay far away from the city for the night, just in case-"

"We need you there, Rapunzel," Frederic tells her. "Besides being the one who saved our kingdom, you are Corona's future. The kingdom has no strength without you."

Rapunzel swallows, remembering the haunting tale the captain had told her just earlier.

"And, since the gala's purpose is to show off Corona's strength..." Frederic prompts her.

"I… have to be there," Rapunzel finishes. For the first time since she'd left Corona, Rapunzel suddenly feels like the castle walls around her are suffocating.

"That's my girl," Frederic says approvingly, resting a hand on her shoulder again. "Now then," he continues louder, and looking up towards the sparring ring. "I suppose we're going to brawl now?"

"I'm- I'm a little tired," Rapunzel says, stepping back. "I've been practicing for a while… I'll see you both later." She stops while walking back to the castle to offer the captain a kind smile. "Thank you again captain, for the lessons and- well, everything."

She departs quickly, deciding that she'll go out riding with Max to shake the feeling that had descended on her heart.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

Cassandra opens the grate to the tunnel near Corona's docks and slips silently inside. It hasn't been a week yet since her fight with Rapunzel over the lake of lava, so she can't provoke the princess for a fight again - but that doesn't mean she can't find entertainment somehow else.

She didn't let Owl know about her plan to infiltrate the castle again. Surely he'd comment that it seems like she misses the castle and people there, or something. He just doesn't get it. She's going there to cause problems for her own entertainment. She's not just going there for the sake of being there. That would be ridiculous.

Her plan, specifically, is to sneak into Fitzherbert's room and cut the seams in various locations on his uniforms so they fall apart while he's out wearing them. Not every uniform, obviously, and not the same place each time - she's going to do it just chaotically enough that he won't be able to predict when or how the tears will happen. Cassandra likely won't be able to see it occur, but just the thought of his severe embarrassment standing in front of the other guards with his trousers in pieces on the ground is entertainment enough for her.

She elects to shapeshift into Crowley again as she approaches the storage room, and from there she starts making her way towards Eugene's room.

Her plan is derailed, however, by seeing Rapunzel and Eugene enter the grand corridor she's walking through - Rapunzel holding large rolls of paper under her arms - and overhearing part of their conversation.

"Slow down, sunshine," Eugene tells her, walking quicker to catch up to Rapunzel's urgent pace. "I- I'm telling you, you don't have to bother with the signs."

"No?!" Rapunzel responds frantically, halting abruptly. "You think I shouldn't do everything in my power to keep her away? Do you know how disastrous it would be if she showed up?!"

Cassandra feels she might have a few reasons to believe they're talking about her, so she quickly ducks behind some suits of armor to eavesdrop.

"I just think that hanging signs on the outside of the castle that say 'go away please' with a smiley face on them wouldn't stop her if she'd gotten that close already," Eugene responds sensibly. "We have plans in place, sunshine. I'll have men with eyes on her tower, if she leaves they'll send a flare for our guards here to see. You'll be able to leave the event well in advance of her getting to the city so you can fight her in the CEZ. None of the guests will even know!"

Cassandra squints. What the fuck is a CEZ.

"But what if she gets past without the guards noticing?" Rapunzel asks. "If she bursts in on the gala tomorrow night, it would be like, at least a nine on the scale. There will be royals from twelve kingdoms here. If they were put into danger by attending a Coronan event, that would ruin every alliance and trade agreement we've ever had. I still- I still can't believe my parents think this is a good idea," she concludes, putting a hand to her forehead.

Cassandra's eyebrows raise. That's all news to her.

"Well, probably because no one except us even knew about the event until today, no one outside the castle will know until it's already happening, Cassandra's in a tower miles away, she has no reason to come out here in the few-hour window the gala's happening, even if she does we have a warning system, so there's almost no chance at all that she'd burst through the windows to terrorize everyone in sight," Eugene lists off for her.

Cassandra smirks.

"And if she does get to the castle, she'll see my signs," Rapunzel tells him, unfurling one of them to show him. It does, in fact, say "GO AWAY please". It is also decorated with flowers and cute woodland creatures.

Eugene sighs. "Okay, if it would make you feel better, we'll hang your signs," he gives in, and they resume walking down the corridor.

"Great," Rapunzel responds, tucking the sign away. "I tried to board up all the windows in the throne room but my mom stopped me, so this is the next best thing," she continues.

"Yeah, I wonder why your mom might not approve of that choice," Eugene responds pensively. "Oh, hey, Ms. Crowley!" He calls, noticing Cassandra behind the suit of armor. Cassandra starts in surprise and he continues, "Could you get us a couple ladders brought to the terrace?"

"Get them yourself you layabout," Cassandra responds sharply in her granny voice before remembering she's supposed to be in disguise.

"Alright that's fair," Eugene replies. "Never change Ms. Crowley," he adds as he and Rapunzel continue down the hallway, Rapunzel snickering.

Oh, right, that's exactly how Crowley talks to him, Cassandra thinks. Well that's convenient.

Cassandra decides to abandon her plan for Eugene's uniforms - at least for now. She has a new scheme to focus on.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

"...What do you think?" Cassandra asks expectantly after explaining her plan to Owl.

Owl considers for a moment before responding, "Hoo."

Cassandra grins. "I thought you'd like it," she says. "Now let's get out of here before that guard detail shows up to watch the tower," she adds, and they swiftly depart.

It's not a big deal to Cassandra to crash in the woods overnight, waiting for the gala the next day. She does, of course, bring her comb and soap with her, since she's not a complete animal. And a wok, to cook herself meals over a campfire. Luckily things like dinnerware and shelter are all black-rock-able.

The next evening, she's ready to put her plan into action.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

Rapunzel, luckily not a bird, does not drop dead from stress during the event preparations and her dress-fitting, but if she were a bird, she definitely would have. Of course, if she were a bird she also wouldn't have to worry about princess responsibilities and ex-best-friend-shaped supernatural threats, and her mind would be occupied by more finchy matters, like sunflower seeds. So maybe she wouldn't have dropped dead. Regardless, just before the gala begins she is both human and alive, in spite of everything.

For the past few days her friends tried to help her relax: Eugene had her join him for spa treatments, Lance and the girls invited her to a picnic on the beach, Varian suggested she take her mind off of her worries by occupying herself with studying mathematics, Pascal encouraged her to paint her feelings - all to no avail. They finally accepted that her stress would only go away once the gala had ended.

Rapunzel is impressively talented at hiding her stress behind an only slightly unhinged cheerful exterior, so standing with her parents in the courtyard she manages to get through the tedious introductions of the dozens of people who arrived for the gala, smiling politely and greeting duchess after marquis after prince after queen. She's gotten better at remembering names and faces as the years passed outside of her tower, so at least she doesn't have to worry about accidentally calling someone the wrong name. Of course, the lack of that worry doesn't actually make her less worried overall, as the blank space in her worrying capacity is taken up entirely instead with worrying about Cassandra, an infinite worry spring.

There are quite a few people who she recognizes, too, from having met before. In the year between her escape from the tower and her journey to the Dark Kingdom, Rapunzel had gone on a two week long trip overseas with her mother, and she'd met her uncle, the Crown Prince Oleander of Antipe, and her mother's best friend who she grew up with, Queen Ainsley of San Theodoros. Her mother rarely gets to see her loved ones in Antipe and San Theodoros due to the distance across the sea, but they were brought to Corona for the gala via airship - a considerably faster means of travel than sailing.

Rapunzel wishes she could be as excited as her mother to see them. But she still greets them warmly and exchanges a few words with her uncle about her grandmother, Queen Louisa, and about her aunt Willow, who is unsurprisingly off on another adventure halfway across the world.

Rapunzel also recognizes the present queens and princesses of the other Seven Kingdoms - Koto, Neserdnia, Bayangor, Galcrest, Pittsford and Ingvarr - as well as some other nobility from those countries. (Unsurprisingly, the proud Griffin of Pittsford - their equivalent of a king - is not in attendance, but he rarely participates in social events.) Rapunzel meets for the first time royalty from Dionda, including a prince, duke, and marquis. She also recognizes princess Marie from Hervan, and the duchess and marquis who accompany her while traveling. Rapunzel even sees again Dame Elizabeth Van Hoskins of Rochester, who attended her coronation; and meets for the first time the Duchess of Quintonia, whose identity was stolen by Lady Caine for crashing her coronation. And, of course, for some reason, King Trevor of Equis is in attendance.

At the banquet dinner, long-winded toasts are made by representatives of each kingdom, speaking with stuffy formality about how they admire Corona's resilience and wish for peace and prosperity among the kingdoms. Rapunzel is always vaguely impressed by how people manage to say so little with so many words during these kinds of events, but not impressed enough to find the affair anything other than mind-numbingly boring. Well, usually it'd be boring, but tonight she's distracted on account of the Cassandra, and her mother places a reassuring hand on Rapunzel's rapidly bouncing knee under the table. She doesn't even have Pascal with her for friendly reassurance - he's spending the evening with Eugene instead, for appearances reasons. (Evidently, chameleons aren't considered an acceptable formalwear accessory.) Usually Pascal would spend formal events with Cassandra, but… well.

The dinner completes without any disaster occuring, and the nobles all move to the terraces as dusk falls for drinks and socializing while the servants clear the dinner spreads and move the tables from the throne room.

During the dinner Rapunzel hadn't yet been required to make conversation, since her table with her parents was removed from the others, but now it's unavoidable. Many guests seek her out specifically, too, to ask about her magic hair and how she'd stopped the Saporian overthrow months prior and then defeated the demon Zhan Tiri who destroyed Corona's capital. Rapunzel keeps the details vague - her parents didn't share anything about Cassandra or the Moonstone, and Rapunzel wasn't about to either - and luckily as a hostess she's able to avoid long conversations with the excuse of keeping moving to make sure that everyone is having a pleasant time.

Trying to navigate around the crowds and pretending that she's headed somewhere important to avoid being spoken to, Rapunzel overhears pieces of conversations among the guests.

..."-delusional if you think that your draft horse could outrace my thoroughbred," the Diondan duke says pretentiously among a group of other young noblemen.

..."-extremely improbable astronomical events," The eccentric Kotoan prince explains to the Bayangor queen. "A total solar eclipse was not meant to happen here for another three hundred years! I've done new calculations based on the shift, and there might be a total lunar-"

..."Vampires? Surely you jest!" The Hervan marquis cries in conversation with a Neserdnian duchess.

..."-think my armada can't handle a few lousy raiders?" King Trevor's snobby voice cuts through the din.

..."-how you fare at the next Contest of the Crowns," a Pittsford princess goads the Galcrest princess.

..."-have found a growing presence of cultists-" Queen Ainsley's saying to Prince Oleander.

"Ah, Princess Rapunzel," the queen of Ingvarr interrupts Rapunzel's scurrying.

"Y-your majesty, hello," Rapunzel says, stopping, flustered by the tall and charismatic warrior woman appearing in front of her.

"I heard that your guard has a new captain," the queen tells her. "Please give your former lady-in-waiting my congratulations."

"...O-oh," Rapunzel responds, alarmed. "U-um, actually, Cassandra's... not the new captain-"

"Ah, of course, she is young still," the queen cuts her off. "A deputy in training for the role later, perhaps?"

Rapunzel swallows. "N...no, Cassandra's... actually not part of the guard at all," Rapunzel explains awkwardly. "She's, um, she's not here anymore."

The Ingvarrian queen levels an unreadable gaze on Rapunzel in silence for a moment. "Well, I must say I'm disappointed," she finally responds. "Although perhaps I set my expectations too high. I thought one as unconventional as yourself might finally bring change to Corona, but I suppose that's not the Coronan way."

Rapunzel feels a jolt of… she's not sure what. Adrenaline, certainly. And shame. Very deep shame she doesn't understand. She's not even sure how to respond, since she's not fully certain what the Ingvarrian queen is talking about. But before she can formulate an answer, the queen has already walked away.

That… sucked, Rapunzel thinks, and finally for a moment, her mind is fully taken off of her fear of Cassandra - and instead replaced with guilt… about Cassandra.

"Blondie, you're not going to believe this," Eugene interrupts her thoughts, coming up to her through the crowd, and Pascal on his shoulder squeaks at her in greeting. Eugene continues, "I just got mistaken for Brock Thunderstrike. Can you believe that?! The guy's a treasure hunter now, and apparently in just the few months since we set him on the straight and narrow he's recovered some beloved royal artifact in Bayangor that had been lost centuries ago, and he's a total hero over there."

"Oh, really?" Rapunzel responds distractedly, but before she could even ask Eugene and Pascal for their company while she finds an excuse to leave the terrace, she's interrupted again.

"Princess Rapunzel!" Princess Marie of Hervan cries, approaching her. "How good it is to see you again. Ha, don't worry," she continues, putting her hands up. "I won't be asking you to recount the same story you've told a dozen times tonight. I just wanted to say hello, and tell you that your dress is divine. I'm sure you know, but puffed sleeves recently became passé in Hervan. I can't believe they were ever popular! So garish and unwieldy. No, it's all about the fitted look now, and your dress reflects that perfectly."

Rapunzel almost responds, but then she remembers that Marie's such a chatterbox, that she doesn't even need to say anything. Marie might be the perfect cover to prevent anyone from trying to talk to her, and to avoid having to speak while her mind is so anxiously occupied.

"I daresay in several years we might not have sleeves on our dresses at all!" Marie says with a laugh. She continues, switching tracks, "You know, I was thinking on our way here how I wish our stay in Corona were longer, so we might play flying disk together again. I want to take your lady-in-waiting on, she is a fierce athlete. Perhaps with her on your team this time, you might yet win!"

Rapunzel's polite smile falters, and she can only hope that Marie's train of thought shifts again.

"Where is your lady-in-waiting?" Marie asks.

Rapunzel internally despairs. "Oh, um, she's… she's not here," Rapunzel replies vaguely.

"Whaaat?" Marie asks, flabbergasted. "Where is she?"

Oh no, Rapunzel thinks, and she exchanges a look with Eugene beside her, but they're luckily interrupted again by Frederic announcing that guests should return to the throne room, as the ball is beginning. Rapunzel excuses herself quickly from Marie's company to join her parents in showing the guests back into the castle.

Back in the throne room, the floor has been cleared for dancing and musicians have set up to begin playing. Rapunzel takes up a station on the dias near the recently-fixed window that Cassandra had thrown herself through about a week ago, no longer even attempting to mingle as the floor begins to populate with dancing couples.

Okay, the ball is only three hours, Rapunzel thinks, and she desperately tries to convince herself nothing will happen.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

"I'll meet you in the garden," Cassandra tells Owl as the sun nears the horizon, and she slips into the tunnel by the docks.

Knowing that Crowley likely would be spoken to this evening since she has to direct the servants, Cassandra shapeshifts into a nondescript castle attendant who would often work as a server during formal events. All men look the same anyway, no one's gonna notice if there's two of this guy here, Cassandra thinks to herself, apparently entirely unaware that other people can in fact tell different men apart.

She exits the storage room and starts to head up after the banquet has finished. Wow, I do not miss having to sit through that shit, Cassandra observes, knowing that a long series of boring speeches would have preceded the dinner. Remembering how uncomfortable Rapunzel would always be during formal events, having to sit around listening to mind-numbing, overly proper talks, Cassandra thinks, Rapunzel must have hated it.

Cassandra squints. Good, she tells herself firmly, but the thought of Rapunzel being miserable for regular life reasons seems not to spur any sense of satisfaction in Cassandra. Really, Rapunzel's stress is only worthwhile if it's caused by Cassandra herself.

But luckily Rapunzel will be plenty stressed by her tonight, and Cassandra will be able to enjoy every minute of it, once she has put into action her impressively nefarious plan:

To do absolutely nothing.

Cassandra knows that Rapunzel will be an anxious mess for the entirety of the event, waiting for her to show up. So rather than crashing the gala, Cassandra has decided to infiltrate it in disguise and revel in how preoccupied Rapunzel is with thoughts of her. She can imagine little more enjoyable than knowing that she doesn't even need to be around or doing anything to make Rapunzel completely focused on her.

So she's going to hang around and talk to Rapunzel as someone else to enjoy firsthand the princess's nervousness. And she suspects that's why Owl was on board with the idea - it involves no fighting or causing problems.

Well, except for the little part where she knocks out a guest to take his likeness, but that's an insignificant consideration, really.

Cassandra makes her way to the kitchens to grab a tray of drinks. Dressed as a server, no one even bats an eye - and she heads up to the garden, a space open to the ball attendees looking for fresh air, and navigates deep into the network of well-manicured trees and shrubs as the sky darkens past dusk.

"Hoo," Owl comments from overhead, and he glides down to perch on a fountain nearby.

"Yeah, it's me," Cassandra clarifies. "Now go scope out some guy I can knock out," she tells him, and he hoots affirmatively before taking off again, leaving a couple feathers behind.

Cassandra removes a vial from under her cloak to spike one of the drinks with a knockout drug while Owl goes hunting. Not long after, she hears someone nearby.

"Where did that owl go-?" A guy's voice comes from beyond the bushes, and then he staggers into view.

"Hey, you, did you see an owl?" The guy asks when he catches sight of Cassandra.

Cassandra squints at him. Perhaps she's seen him before at other royal events - but really, she has no idea, because all men look the same to her. At least this guy is well-dressed and somewhat close to her age. She thinks.

"Yeah, that's why I'm out here," she comments in her random-guy-server's voice. "It's not every day you see an owl, right?"

"Exactly!" The guy cries, and Cassandra can tell he's already a few drinks in. Which is lucky because she totally forgot to speak with proper formal address, considering she's a server and he's… some kind of noble. He walks over, and Cassandra recognizes the emblem of Dionda on the decorative pin fastening his cape.

Cassandra is familiar with the royal family of Dionda - and this guy isn't a king or prince. Alright a duke, she determines by process of elimination. ...Probably.

"Would you care for a drink, your grace?" She asks, holding the tray towards him, one glass positioned closest to him.

The duke takes the spiked glass without even acknowledging her, his eyes still scanning overhead for that exciting owl he'd seen. Cassandra rolls her eyes, knowing that he probably already forgot she was there. Nobles, she thinks disdainfully.

Less than a minute later, he's unconscious on the ground.

"Huh, maybe I spiked that a little too much," Cassandra observes as Owl descends from the sky to join her and perches again on the fountain. "Well, not my problem."

She drags him behind a bush and shapeshifts to take his form. Coming out from behind the bush, she starts to ask how she looks, but she's interrupted by Owl splashing her from the fountain while he bathes.

"Ugh- seriously?!" She cries in the duke's voice, wiping at her clothes. "That's like, your third bath today!"

"Hoo," Owl comments, sticking a carefree wing in the air.

Cassandra glares at him. "You're not cute," she tells the extremely cute bird loafed in the water with his wing sticking up.

Standing with his tummy spiky with water, Owl flies to her shoulder, leaving downy feathers behind in the fountain.

"No- no, get off," she says, shooing him. "You are not going to get me all wet."

Owl hoots, offended, but he flies to a branch instead. And he starts preening.

Cassandra rolls her eyes. "Alright, well while you're doing your very important preening, keep an eye on this guy," she tells him. "And give me a heads up if he wakes up or anyone else finds him."

"Hoo," Owl honks with his neck craned back behind him towards his tail feathers.

"Ridiculous," Cassandra mutters to herself, and she makes her way back towards the gala.

Entering the throne room, Cassandra smirks seeing Rapunzel on the dias, standing close to the formerly-shattered window and moving just barely with the motion of her foot tapping under her dress. Cassandra takes up a position near the wall to sip at her (not-spiked) drink and take in Rapunzel's obviously anxious body language.

But even while enjoying Rapunzel's birdlike motions - her head darts to look at each doorway when someone enters or leaves in a clear show of nervousness about who's in the room - Cassandra squints at Rapunzel's outfit, wondering who'd overseen the dress fitting and helped her ready herself for the gala. That doesn't fucking matter, Cassandra internally and severely reprimands herself. It's not your job anymore. She can have whatever servant she likes help her with that shit.

Rapunzel's in a light green dress without any puffs or frills, with a skirt made from several layers of gossamer fabrics that are embroidered with flowers, and a bodice with accents of white and gold. She has light blue flowers woven into her complicated braid and cuff bracelets of elaborate swirls of fine gold wire at her wrists. She looks like some kind of nature spirit materialized in the castle.

Cassandra downs the rest of her drink and places it on a nearby server's tray, thanking him casually as she does, and he looks surprised before murmuring some respectful nonsense. Right, 'cause I'm a duke, Cassandra thinks. One of her eyebrows raises at the novelty. She never expected to be on this side of a royal event.

Cassandra looks back towards Rapunzel. As much as she's enjoyed the show of anxiousness, she decides it's time to talk to Rapunzel personally. Let's see what she'll say about me, Cassandra thinks, smirking and walking over.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

Thirty minutes into the ball, Rapunzel is surprised she has not vibrated out of this dimension with anxiety yet. But at least if she did vibrate out of the dimension with anxiety, she knows that her friends would be able to build an interdimensional portal to rescue her, so that's one less thing she has to worry about. Of course, that lack of worry in her worry capacity is immediately taken up with worry about Cassandra.

In an attempt to curb her stress, Rapunzel continually tries to remind herself of all the precautions in place - which almost works. The longer the event goes on without any windows shattering, the more torn she is between thinking that perhaps things will be alright, and thinking that oh my God if she hasn't shown up yet that means she's MORE likely to show up later-

(Tragically, Varian is nowhere nearby to give her a lesson on statistics and the logical fallacy of believing that probability of an event increases the more the inverse of the event occurs.)

Her parents finish a dance, and after bowing and curtsying to each other, they join Rapunzel on the dias as the musicians begin the next song.

Frederic clears his throat. "You know, Rapunzel, perhaps you should try dancing with a few people."

"I- I don't know, dad," Rapunzel responds anxiously. "I think I'd rather stay here." She's somehow convinced herself that keeping guard over this window in particular would prevent Cassandra crashing in.

"I know you're nervous," Frederic tells her. "But perhaps you'd have fun! Maybe you'll meet someone you like."

"Frederic," Arianna reprimands. She adds to Rapunzel, "Dear, you don't have to like anyone you don't want to."

"I, um, think that's how liking people usually works?" Rapunzel responds, confused.

"Exactly," Arianna tells her with a smile. "Frederic, how about you and I get some drinks," she says, and not-so-subtly pulls on his arm to drag him away.

Rapunzel doesn't have time to ponder the bizarre exchange before her thoughts are interrupted by an unfamiliar voice.

"Princess Rapunzel," the voice says, and Rapunzel turns, confused, to see the Diondan duke standing in front of the dias, his hand extended towards her. "May I have this dance?"

Duke… Philip, Rapunzel remembers. She doesn't know anything about him - except, of course, for how he seemed very snobby when speaking to the other young noblemen out on the terrace. He's a handsome, clean-shaven twentysomething with short black hair, a black half-cape fastened at his collarbone by a silver pin with the Diondan crest, draped over a royal blue doublet that's embroidered with silver. All of his clothes look like they're made of the finest of fabrics.

"Um," Rapunzel hesitates, and she glances over towards her parents - who have already left. She badly wants to refuse in order to continue keeping watch over the event, but she knows she doesn't have any excuse to cite for refusal. And her father had encouraged her to dance with someone... "Okay," she finally says, and reaches a hand out for him to take in his own black-gloved hand.

"A coin for your thoughts?" the duke asks as he gently leads her out onto the floor, other couples already sweeping around them in ballroom dances that suit the music.

"Um, what?" Rapunzel asks, puzzled.

"Oh- uh, what's on your mind?" He asks instead. "You seem distracted."

"It's- it's nothing," Rapunzel answers, waving her other hand. She swallows, sure that her answer sounded extremely unconvincing, and she thinks it might have come across as rude. "I, uh, I just worry about things going wrong at these kinds of big events," she elaborates vaguely. "I'm still not quite used to it all."

"Oh?" The duke asks as they stop among the other dancers, and he offers a short bow that Rapunzel returns with a curtsy. "Going wrong how?"

"Ah… the usual things," Rapunzel responds, trying to think quickly as he steps forward to put his hand behind her waist, under her braided hair. "Like… running out of hors d'oeuvres," she says, lifting her arms to place a hand on his shoulder and hold his hand for the dance. He's only a few inches taller than her, which surprises her.

"I wouldn't have expected you to be concerned with such shallow trifles," the duke returns as they begin to step to the music. "There's nothing else?"

Rapunzel is surprised by the duke's answer. He's thought enough about me to have expectations? She wonders, confused. "U-um," she stutters, knowing she's run out of excuses. "Well, there is," she admits. "But it's not really something I want to talk about..."

The duke's eyes pierce into hers, and Rapunzel quickly looks away - which leads her to notice something stuck to his cape at his shoulder. "Oh, you've got some… feathers?" Rapunzel says, confused, moving her hand from his grip to pick one up.

The duke's graceful dance steps falter, and he stops to put his hand to his shoulder, saying something under his breath while quickly brushing the feathers away.

"Um, an owl?" Rapunzel asks, having barely caught his words and pulling her hand back, while the other dancers on the floor sweep past them. She tilts her head just barely in question.

"Uh, yeah," he answers, glancing back at her, but he looks away again immediately. "There was a… owl, in the garden. I guess he was molting, since he was dropping feathers- or she, obviously, I don't know the gender of the owl, since owls aren't sexually dimorphic like other birds- well, except for size-"

Rapunzel watches, fascinated, while the previously graceful and intense duke dissolves into a flustered mess. He stops stuttering to take Rapunzel's hand again quickly, and leads her back into the dance, but this time he avoids her gaze.

"...You like birds?" Rapunzel prompts, thinking that it seems like he's knowledgeable about them - and feeling like she should say something to make him feel more comfortable.

"Um, yeah," he responds, not looking at her still, despite how he holds her close for the waltz.

Rapunzel smiles at him. "I like birds too."

She hopes that he'll say something more, but instead they dance in silence, stepping and turning in time with the music and other dancers. Sweeping across the throne room floor, Rapunzel is fascinated by how effortlessly he seems to move, and she feels like they're gliding together over the tile. But with her mind never far from her anxieties, the dance reminds Rapunzel of the twirls and calculated steps she'd used during her staff fighting with Cassandra barely a week prior.

In fact, she's reminded so heavily of it, that she feels herself inclined to twist in the duke's grip, grab his arm, and throw him over her back. Or to duck under his arm and from behind sweep his feet out from under him, or step closer to hook her foot behind his ankle and trip him, or-

You are not going to attack the duke of Dionda, Rapunzel internally and severely reprimands herself. I'm sure he would not appreciate that.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

God I wish she'd just attack me, Cassandra thinks to herself, devastated, as they continue to dance.

She can't believe her plan had gone awry so quickly. She desperately wishes she could fight or flee. Not only did Rapunzel refuse to talk about her, she almost pinched at her cape - which could've glitched her disguise - because of the feathers Owl had left. And then she actually said Owl out loud!

And Rapunzel looked at her, so closely and earnestly, with her head tilted in that… fucking… way. That way there isn't a word for. In her stupid fancy dress with the delicate gold jewelry at her ears and crystals at her neck that brought out the sparkle in her big green eyes.

So Cassandra started stuttering and trying to cover up the whole Owl thing in the least convincing and rambling way possible. Knowing that speaking more would only do her disservice, Cassandra focuses closely on her steps, trying to rid her mind of whatever had possessed it by seeing and holding Rapunzel so close.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

With the swelling of string instruments, the duke's hand in her grasp shifts to Rapunzel's hip to lift her as he spins, and he gently places her back on the ground before twirling her and taking her hand again to resume their steps. Rapunzel blinks at the end of it, surprised that the duke would attempt one of the more advanced steps of the waltz, much less execute it perfectly.

"Y-your dancing is very good," Rapunzel comments, back in his embrace. "I'm- I'm a little surprised. Usually people outside of Corona aren't very familiar with the Coronan waltz."

The dukes' eyes widen. "U-uh- that's-"

"Did you practice before coming here?" Rapunzel asks.

"I- yes, that's what I did," he answers her quickly, with that same flustered expression he'd had earlier.

Rapunzel smiles as they turn again to the music. "That's so sweet, you must have worked really hard at it. Your dancing is even better than mine."

"W-well, first impressions are important-" the duke begins to stutter.

"I hope I've made a good one on you, then," she responds kindly.

The duke clears his throat. "Uh, certainly," he answers, but he avoids looking her in the eyes.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuckity fuck, Cassandra thinks articulately to herself. She can't believe it didn't occur to her that a duke from whereverthefuck wouldn't know a Coronan waltz, and she despairs that she continues to be unable to speak coherently or convincingly.

Cassandra had danced with Rapunzel before, years ago when first teaching Rapunzel the Coronan dances - but that was as a lady-in-waiting, and Rapunzel was so clumsy and youthfully silly, then, barely out of her tower. Now Cassandra is neither a servant nor teacher, and she's dancing with Rapunzel at a royal event as a noble herself - well, kind of - and Rapunzel is so much more graceful and mature.

And it's all made Cassandra a mess. Whyyyyy, she laments. What the fuck is happening to me?

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

Rapunzel smiles warmly at the duke. She feels badly that she'd made him nervous again, but it's certainly endearing. I shouldn't have judged him so quickly, she thinks, remembering how she'd assumed he was pretentious. He seems really nice.

"You know, usually at these events the only thing anyone wants to talk to me about is how I grew up in a tower, or ask me about my magic hair," Rapunzel tells him.

The music builds as it approaches the song's end, and the duke dips her, effortlessly holding her over the floor with just his hand behind her lower back. Rapunzel breathes in sharply, surprised by the motion. He appears not even to have registered the move, and his eyes are finally fixed again on hers.

"But there's so much more to you than that," he says earnestly, his eyebrows drawing together.

Rapunzel's breath catches again, and he holds her there for a few moments as the other dancers around them begin to bow and curtsy to their partners. He finally brings her upright again, and she finds herself pressed almost against his chest. At the close distance Rapunzel catches some scent that feels familiar to her.

He quickly drops his hands from her and steps back to offer a short bow, saying, "Thank you for the dance."

Rapunzel's so stunned by his earlier words and that bizarre familiarity she can't place a finger on, that she almost forgets to curtsy back - but once she remembers she does hurriedly. She's about to ask him for another dance, but as soon as he pulls himself upright from the bow he turns to walk quickly away.

"W-wait," Rapunzel starts, but she's not even sure how she'd follow it up - and he disappears behind other people who are milling around the floor, waiting for the next dance to begin. I need to ask him to dance again, Rapunzel thinks, fixated on determining the reason behind that sense of odd familiarity, and on talking more to this strange sensitive young man who likes birds and seemed like he could see past any facade she put up.

Rapunzel hurries to follow him, and other nobles offer her kind greetings that she tries to return while keeping moving. She barely catches sight of him leaving the throne room, and follows to see him turn off a hallway into the gardens. She steps outside, the cool night air hitting her and the garden well illuminated by the full moon, and he's nowhere to be found.

But Rapunzel is not easily discouraged. She walks quickly towards the network of shrubs and trees off from the main path, thinking he must be somewhere in there. By the time she's navigated into the deepest part of the garden, she finds nothing but a fountain with dark brown feathers floating on the surface.