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fight me, princess

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"Tell me something... how does it feel to be in the shadow," Cassandra asks menacingly, stepping towards Rapunzel.

If Rapunzel's being honest, not great. If she were a swearing gal she'd describe the situation as "the pits," but not even an ex-best-friend-induced ruin of her kingdom could justify such foul language, so she'd just call how she's feeling "not great." That is, if she could say anything, but she's currently crumpled on the ground trying to catch her breath, feeling like all of the strength had just been drained out of her body as the eclipse became complete.

Behind Cassandra, Zhan Tiri in her cage of black rock is gnawing on the bars like a stressed hamster.

Cassandra puts her hand up in front of her, and the Sundrop gem that had materialized on Rapunzel's chest at the start of the eclipse pulls away from her body. As soon as it leaves her, Rapunzel lets out a feeble cry - she had thought before the fatigue and head pain she'd been suffering from was bad, but this was so, so much worse. She collapses fully to the ground as her muscles can't hold her upright anymore, and she breaks out in a cold sweat as her body reacts to losing something it desperately needed. Rapunzel can barely keep herself conscious, and out of the corner of her eye she can see her hair darken as it turns from blonde to brown.

Rapunzel has trouble keeping up with what happens next. She hears Zhan Tiri's voice shouting at Cassandra, something she can't quite make out because non-Coronan accents are still hard for Rapunzel to understand, and this evil child is for some reason British.

As happens in moments of terror, Rapunzel's brain fixates on the inconsequential. Why does Zhan Tiri have a British accent? Why did she take the form of a child? Did they ever figure out exactly what she is? If she could take the form of anything, why a British child.

Rapunzel tunes back in as she hears Cassandra's footsteps approaching. She wonders briefly if Cassandra is going to kill her, although she can't fathom that her best friend would do that. Deep down this is still Cass, she's sure. Zhan Tiri and the Moonstone messed her up pretty badly, but she's still Cass. Right? Rapunzel remembers how Cassandra shot her into the ceiling on a pillar of black rock, presumably with the intent of smashing her. Well, maybe that was a misunderstanding. Surely Cassandra didn't understand her own strength and was only trying to... elevate her. Because she cherishes Rapunzel and their friendship.

Rapunzel is pulled from her thoughts as she hears Zhan Tiri speak, enunciating clearly enough for Rapunzel to make out the words.

"WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING YOU STUPID GIRL"

Out of the corner of her eye, Rapunzel can see Cassandra bending down towards her.

She is either going to kill me or hug me, Rapunzel thinks in what might be her last moments. Rapunzel considers how she'd give anything for Cassandra. Does that include her life? Rapunzel knows that it does, but with caveats. She wouldn't want to give up her life for no reason, after all. But if it were to save Cassandra's, or contribute to her life's happiness, then certainly. But Rapunzel doesn't think that the road Cassandra's on will lead her to happiness. It seems to have made her very, very angry and upset, actually. So Rapunzel's not sure that Cassandra would find happiness by killing her. So if that's what Cassandra's about to do, Rapunzel really couldn't approve of that decision.

Rapunzel's right hand is lying supine on the ground, and she feels Cassandra's cold gauntlet touch her palm. Still trying to catch her shallow breaths, Rapunzel barely moves her head to look, and she sees Cassandra place the Sundrop in her hand.

"YOU'RE A BIGGER WASTE OF CARBON THAN YOUR MOTHER YOU USELESS BITCH"

The Sundrop absorbs immediately into Rapunzel's skin, her body desperately seeking it. Rapunzel gasps as strength rushes back into her, and the moon starts moving past the sun again. She sees her hair glow golden again as Cassandra straightens.

"W-what?" Rapunzel breathes in shock. She gave it up?

"AFTER EVERYTHING YOU'VE WORKED FOR YOU'RE JUST GIVING IT UP? YOU THREW EVERYTHING AWAY FOR THIS AND YOU'RE GIVING IT UP?!"

Cassandra doesn't answer. She walks past Rapunzel towards the hole in the wall that opens to Rapunzel's balcony.

"Cass," Rapunzel says louder as she struggles to push herself up. "W-what are you doing?"

"I'm leaving," Cassandra answers without looking back at her.

"H-huh?" Rapunzel says.

"I won. There's no reason for me to stick around here," Cassandra responds flatly.

And before Rapunzel can answer, she jumps out onto the balcony. By the time Rapunzel struggles to her feet and gets to the collapsed wall, Cassandra is long gone.

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Thirty minutes later, Rapunzel has reunited with Eugene, her parents, and the rest of her friends. Varian has started dismantling the ruins of the portal to rebuild it in Rapunzel's room - they have devised a plan for Rapunzel to break the black rock cage with her magic just as the portal is activated in order to suck Zhan Tiri in and imprison her.

Rapunzel hears all about the bizarre nonsense dimension her friends and family had accidentally been trapped in, and Eugene and Edmund's journey to and altercation in Cassandra's black rock tower.

And Rapunzel tells everyone of her fight with Cassandra, from Cassandra's desire to prove that she comes second to no one to her victory over Rapunzel in battle, followed by her simply returning the Sundrop and leaving.

Before re-imprisoning Zhan Tiri, Rapunzel interrogates her with her friends and family in company.

"Why did Cassandra give me the Sundrop back?" Rapunzel demands. "Where did she go?"

Zhan Tiri, sitting in her cage with her composure regained, answers in her refined accent. "Well, if you were so kind as to release me from this cage, I would tell you."

Rapunzel's eyes narrow at her a few moments after Zhan Tiri finishes speaking. (Rapunzel's brain had to catch up with what it was she had said. Accents really throw Rapunzel off.) "And why should I believe you?"

"Because I have spent months with the girl, and I know the deepest corners of her mind. I could explain everything to you - all of her decisions, where she would flee to - if only you would let me out of here," Zhan Tiri responds sensibly.

"No, I mean why should I believe that you would tell me anything after I let you out," Rapunzel says. "I doubt you'd tell me anything before."

"An accurate deduction. As for why you should believe me - well, there's not much I can say to make you trust me, is there?" Zhan Tiri asks, and her voice gets a hard edge. "It comes down to this, princess: either you care about your friend enough to take me at my word, or you're willing to leave her with her insanity to the hands of fate."

Rapunzel scowls at Zhan Tiri. "Cassandra is not insane."

"And you're basing this opinion on, what, her history of rational decision making?" Zhan Tiri asks acidly. "I am telling you this: the girl is a lunatic, and she will destroy herself." Zhan Tiri blinks innocently at Rapunzel. "Unless, of course, you release me and I can tell you where she is. Wouldn't you like to save her?"

Rapunzel's breath catches in her throat. Of course she'd like to save Cassandra. She would very badly like to save Cassandra from the darkness that has consumed her heart, and reconcile, and become best friends again, and have Cassandra by her side for the rest of her life. Images flash through her mind of their future together: the two of them racing on horseback, and going on picnics, and attending festivals, and having sleepovers; Cassandra helping her with queen duties, and whisking her away on impromptu adventures, and laughing at her jokes -

The mental montage of their years together fills Rapunzel with desperate longing and some unknown emotion that makes her dizzy, which she decides is… the power of friendship.

But that would mean trusting Zhan Tiri: not only that she won't flee as soon as Rapunzel breaks the cage to wreak horrible demony/sorceressy/blizzardy havoc on Corona or some other tragic kingdom, but also that she's correct that Cassandra is in danger.

In danger from herself, specifically. With the Moonstone there's no way Cassandra would be in danger from anything else - she has indestructible armor and can summon as many unbreakable spikes and swords as she pleases in a fight. She took down a kingdom by herself. No, certainly Cassandra could keep herself safe from external threats.

But Zhan Tiri insists that Cassandra is insane and would destroy herself. Rapunzel frowns. She never thought of Cassandra as insane, not even for a moment. Sure, she'd exhibited some… irrational behavior the past couple weeks, but that was when she was still being manipulated by Zhan Tiri. When she and Rapunzel were trapped together in the mine, away from any demony/sorceressy/blizzardy influences, Cassandra had protected her and started to come around. Then before the eclipse Cassandra had caged Zhan Tiri, presumably no longer falling for her manipulations, and after fighting Rapunzel Cassandra had returned the Sundrop and left. Which, sure, a little bizarre, but insane?

Then there's the question of whether Zhan Tiri would even tell her anything upon release. Rapunzel knows she has no reason to trust Zhan Tiri. She has negative reason to trust Zhan Tiri. Really, if Zhan Tiri ever advises her to do something, she doesn't even have to think about the situation because the exact opposite of Zhan Tiri's advice is the best decision.

She takes a deep breath as Pascal chirps from her shoulder. She glances at his worried expression, and she's sure that the rest of their company behind her is watching nervously as well to see what her response will be.

Rapunzel makes her decision.

"Cassandra doesn't need saving. She's not in danger of herself, and she's not insane," Rapunzel repeats. "She was upset and hurting and then you made everything worse," Rapunzel says, scowling at Zhan Tiri, "but soon you'll be gone."

Zhan Tiri's face abruptly changes as she hisses wordlessly in fury at Rapunzel with her fangs and a forked snake tongue.

"What did you even do to her?" Rapunzel demands, thinking of how warped Cassandra had become with anger and hate during her time in Zhan Tiri's company.

"Me?" Zhan Tiri asks as her face abruptly shifts back to normal and she assumes an innocent tone. "I didn't do anything. I simply explained to her how to use the Moonstone, and elucidated the ways you sought to put her down so she'd want to break free from your control."

"So you lied to her to make her hate me," Rapunzel says angrily.

"Lied?" Zhan Tiri looks aghast. "It was no lie. Were you not the one who kept her as a servant? Who made her mother abandon her? Who never let her act in any way that displeased you? Who destroyed her hand?"

Rapunzel recoils at Zhan Tiri's words. "I- some of those aren't true! And she forgave me for the hand!"

"Did she?" Zhan Tiri asks smugly. "Or did you simply force her to speak and act how you'd like?"

Rapunzel feels anger fill her. "I never forced her to do anything! You- you're the one who did that! You made her attack Corona, her home and her friends!"

"I invite you to interrogate what it is about here that would make you think she saw it as a home, and what it is about how you treated her that would make her think you're her friends," Zhan Tiri answers with a dry tone. "You're right on one account, princess: I poured fuel on the fire to make her think you wanted her dead. But the fire was there long before I was, and you were its source."

Rapunzel grits her teeth. "Varian, is the portal ready yet?" Rapunzel asks, turning towards him and filled with the desire to throw Zhan Tiri into her prison as soon as possible.

"Uhhh," Varian says awkwardly, twisting a wrench. "No, not yet. I'll still need another... ten minutes... or an hour... somewhere between there... probably."

Rapunzel lets out a sound of exasperation and starts to pace.

"Hey, uh, sunshine, why don't you sit down?" Eugene invites her, patting the spot next to him on the bench near Rapunzel's bed. "You- you deserve to relax, after everything that's happened."

"HOWAMISUPPOSEDTORELAX," Rapunzel explodes at him, turning quickly and throwing her arms out. "My kingdom is destroyed, I've got THIS-" she gestures to Zhan Tiri, "in my room, and my best friend is I-don't-even-know-where!"

"Honey," Arianna says gently, gracefully sweeping towards Rapunzel and touching her shoulder. "I understand how you're stressed. But you have to remember we just had some amazing victories. Corona is safe, soon the-'' Arianna looks over Rapunzel's shoulder at Zhan Tiri, seeking an accurate descriptor, "-problem will be gone, and we'll have everything go back to normal."

"'Problem'?" Zhan Tiri says, affronted. "I am an archdemon of chaos and you decided the word to describe me is 'problem'?"

"Oh, huh, that's what she is," Rapunzel says to herself looking over at Zhan Tiri.

"The point is, honey," Arianna says, touching Rapunzel's chin to turn her face back. "You do deserve to relax. Rebuilding can start tomorrow."

Rapunzel looks miserably at her mother. "I know, I just," she hangs her head. "I wish Cass were here."

Eugene walks over to Rapunzel to put a comforting hand on her back. "I know, sunshine. But we'll find her."

"If she wants to be found, and if you can find her before she is dead," Zhan Tiri muses from behind them.

Eugene turns to glare at the archdemon of chaos, and then he speaks to Varian. "Say, hairstripe, do you still have that electrocuting helmet?"

"Hate me all you want," Zhan Tiri responds. "You just don't want to face the truth. The girl is insane, and all of you have driven her there. Even if she's alive and even if you do find her, she'll want nothing to do with you."

"Don't listen to her," Eugene tells Rapunzel.

Rapunzel bites her lip at Zhan Tiri's words. Surely, if Cassandra truly did hate her and Corona, she would have stuck around to ensure their complete destruction - but instead she gave Rapunzel her power back and left. And Rapunzel keeps remembering the way they had worked together and laughed together while escaping the mine - Cassandra, her Cassandra is still there. Rapunzel just needs to find her.

"We're going to get Cass back," Rapunzel says firmly, more to herself than anyone else. "The problem will be gone and Cass and I will become friends again."

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Knowing her "stronghold" has been breached - she could no longer sense the mind trap talisman, which means it must have been destroyed, which means someone got in - Cassandra doesn't have many options for where to go once she decides to leave Corona castle. The only other place she could think of is the cottage she lived in as a child with Gothel, but Rapunzel knows of it, and Cassandra doesn't feel any particular fondness for it anyway.

An hour later, she finds herself beyond Corona's walls at the site of the Sundrop's plaque.

It's surrounded by spikes the way Cassandra remembers from the night she first found it and the night she had brought Rapunzel there. This was her first time seeing it in the daylight. Cassandra retracts some of the spikes and walks past the plaque to sit at the cliff's edge, looking out over the water.

She needs to think.

She hadn't had the time or space to think before this, of course. Even alone in the wilderness she was plagued by the ghost of Zhan Tiri explaining in vivid detail to her everything she should feel anger about in an attempt to "help" her master the rage-driven powers of the Moonstone and protect herself from Rapunzel trying to control her again. (Of course, Cassandra can now admit that Zhan Tiri was manipulating her for her own purposes - the destruction of Corona, probably, considering her blizzardy history.) When it became clear that her rage wasn't enough to master the stone, Cassandra became single-mindlessly focused on retrieving the scroll (Zhan Tiri's idea)... then retrieving the mind trap (Zhan Tiri's urging)... then investigating her childhood home (Zhan Tiri's suggestion - you know, there might be a pattern here).

The point being, Cassandra hadn't done much thinking of her own for a while. It's time. She revs up her remaining brain cell to consider her situation.

Cassandra had been furious with Rapunzel and Corona. For good reason, she still thinks, although she admits that Zhan Tiri's interference escalated her feelings. But there were things before Zhan Tiri appeared - her not given a chance to be something more than a servant in Corona, and Rapunzel treating her like shit, notably.

And Rapunzel had tried to kill me, Cassandra thinks, scowling. Rapunzel wanted to imprison her in amber yesterday. And all she wanted today from Cassandra was the Moonstone - she was willing to physically fight Cassandra for it, and this time she started the fight. She doesn't care about Cassandra. Zhan Tiri was right that Rapunzel only likes her when Rapunzel is able to control her, and now that she can't, she wants Cassandra out of the way.

Cassandra's expression shifts to distress. Then why had Rapunzel said all those nice things yesterday, about how she had done things wrong too and she thought that deep down Cassandra's a good person? Cassandra would think it were a ploy to get Cassandra to trust her again in order to control her, but she said those things while Cassandra was disguised as Faith.

Cassandra picks up a rock near her and throws it off the cliff into the water. None of this makes any sense.

She frowns, thinking about the events of the past day. Yesterday she got a little carried away with her temper and destroyed a city, much to Zhan Tiri's delight. Then Zhan Tiri kept urging her that the eclipse was finally her chance to destroy (kill) Rapunzel once and for all before Rapunzel could destroy (kill) her. Then she caged Zhan Tiri because she's an annoying little shit and Rapunzel started to fight her.

But Cassandra never wanted to destroy Rapunzel. Not physically, mentally, emotionally, politically, intellectually, financially, or metaphysically. She just wanted Rapunzel to know that she wouldn't bend to Rapunzel anymore - that she has her own destiny. And she wanted everyone else to know that she's more than they all thought of her.

And now they do. Cassandra beat Rapunzel in a fight and stripped her of the Sundrop. All of Corona witnessed Cassandra's strength. She accomplished the goals she had set for herself.

So... what now?

Cassandra draws spirals in the dust next to her. She doesn't have a home anymore. She doesn't have any friends - not even a manipulative little shit for company.

And she doesn't have a destiny. Zhan Tiri told her that her destiny was to destroy Rapunzel. Well, Cassandra's not doing that. She got as close as she was willing.

"You have any ideas?" Cassandra asks aloud, glancing down at the shining stone on her chest, the one thing she has left in her entire life.

Which, admittedly she could be worse off. If she was going to have exactly one thing, superpowers is pretty damn cool. She could make anything she wants out of black rock. She never has to fear anyone or anything ever again with her strength and indestructible armor.

The stone, predictably, does not answer her. Cassandra looks back up to squint at the horizon. Surely Rapunzel will pursue her. Rapunzel's convinced that reuniting the powers is her destiny, so she'll never stop until she gets the Moonstone.

But why? Cassandra controls the black rocks now. She wouldn't let them destroy the world. Rapunzel needs to chill. Maybe that's what she'll do next. Tell Rapunzel to chill.

Cassandra's not terribly in the mood to return to Corona right now, though. And maybe for once she should consider her life beyond one single step ahead of her. Get herself some concrete long term goals, formulate a five year plan. Consider her career trajectory. The works.

Cassandra falls backwards onto the ground to look at the sky. She has no idea what her destiny could be. So, what is it that she wants to do?

She could go to Ingvarr or some other kingdom to join their ranks to live her old dream of being a warrior. They might be a little intimidated by her, though, on account of how she's essentially a demigod who could lay waste to an entire nation by herself. Yeah, after what they heard of Corona, other kingdoms might not want her around. And besides, being a guard or soldier just puts her right back where she was, right? Taking orders... admittedly the orders would involve tasks a lot better than lady-in-waiting ones, but it's still being a subordinate.

Of course, Cassandra also doesn't want to be not-a-subordinate. She doesn't want to rule. That would be tedious and boring as fuck. She's sure of that, considering how she attended most of Rapunzel's princess lessons with her about politics and diplomacy and hearing out the needs of the people... yeech. No, Cassandra has no interest in becoming a monarch or warlord or whatever. She shan't be overthrowing any (more) governments.

Cassandra folds her arms behind her head as she watches the sky and thinks.

Maybe in order to figure out what she wants, she should consider what has made her happy throughout her life. If she can narrow down what makes her feel happy, she might come up with a path to follow to pursue further happiness. Cassandra finds this idea promising and starts brainstorming.

Well, fighting, obviously. She fucking loves to fight, so fighting is definitely something that has made her happy. She loves beating people in battle. She loves showing off her technical knowledge and skills with weapons. But she doesn't want to become a guard or soldier...

Cassandra makes a face at the next thought of what has made her happy. It was Rapunzel. Sans all the shittiness, of course. Those times she was able to pretend that she wasn't Rapunzel's servant - that they were equals and friends - they had a lot of fun together. Cassandra frowns, considering what she could do with that. If she could reconcile with Rapunzel for real and maintain her position removed from all the Corona royalty bullshit while keeping the Moonstone, they could be friends without the power imbalance. But Cassandra doesn't know if that would work. It's entirely possible Zhan Tiri was right, that Rapunzel only likes her when she's under Rapunzel's thumb and that she'd never want to be involved with Cassandra otherwise. Plus, Rapunzel is so committed to taking the Moonstone from her. And Cassandra just destroyed her kingdom and knocked her through several walls - any chance she had for reconciling is certainly long gone at this point...

Cassandra moves on to consider other things that have made her happy. She likes animals. Maybe she could start a horse ranch with some chickens. But that sounds like a boring life in the long term...

She likes map making. She could become a cartographer. Which also sounds like it could become boring...

No, Cassandra thinks, shaking her head. Those last two should be kept as hobbies, not something to center my life on.

She feels like she's hit a dead end. With a sigh, Cassandra gives up her intensive thinking before she gets a headache and thoughtlessly watches the clouds overhead.

Her unoccupied mind returns to fighting. She had a lot of fun fighting Rapunzel earlier that day. A lot of fun. It was so cool to try to unleash her powers in different ways to take Rapunzel down. What a rush. And Rapunzel was paying attention to her, taking her seriously. She was important to Rapunzel, not some useless servant to be used and discarded. Cassandra smiles looking up at the sky. She'd really like to fight Rapunzel again.

Especially since Rapunzel wasn't at her full strength this time because of the eclipse. Wait... Cassandra frowns. The eclipse... it's what ended the fight, it's why she could take the Sundrop. Rapunzel was rendered powerless by it.

Paranoia grips Cassandra. Does that mean that others would think she only won by cheating? Because- she did. It was cheating. How the hell does that fight prove anything?

Cassandra bolts upright. "I have to fight her again," she says out loud.

Cassandra stands to start pacing anxiously. She has to fight Rapunzel again, obviously. She has no other choice. She needs to beat Rapunzel in a fair fight so everyone knows she's stronger.

Cassandra bites at her forefinger knuckle in thought. She can't try to fight her again too soon. Rapunzel needs to recover her full strength so it'd be a fair fight. So she definitely shouldn't take off to return to Corona castle right this moment, as much as she wants to.

"I'll wait a few days," Cassandra says to herself. "Or maybe- a week? How long would it take her to recover? Arrrrgh," she groans. "I should have stuck around longer to see how she was feeling." She presses the heels of her hands to her eyes in frustration.

Okay- a week, she decides. She'll wait a week and then go back to Corona to challenge Rapunzel again.

Cassandra lets out a breath. It was relieving to have a plan ahead of her, as short term as it might be. Oh, and she could also tell Rapunzel to chill while she's over there. That feeds two birds with one hand.

Cassandra sits cross-legged at the edge of the cliff, satisfied with her plan. She'll just hang out in the woods until then. It's not like that's anything new to her. She spent months camping-minus-camping-gear in the woods before returning to Corona.

"I should train," Cassandra says to herself. "I've gotta stay sharp... I'll practice with my rocks... make myself a new sword..."

Cassandra can't keep a smile from breaking across her face. She can't wait. She'll get to see and fight Rapunzel again.

"Maybe... THIS is what I should do..." Cassandra thinks aloud.

It combines her love of fighting - with someone at her level, who could match her powers - and her enjoyment of Rapunzel's company while also taking into account how Rapunzel likely doesn't want to reconcile and Cassandra wants to stay away from Corona's system. It's perfect. She could make a career out of this.

"No no, I shouldn't get ahead of myself," Cassandra protests. "We'll see how this next fight goes. Then I'll decide if I want to fight her more."

But Cassandra can't keep herself from grinning like a fool at the thought.

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"You've got to be kidding me. Out of all the buildings in the city, THIS is the only one without any damage?" Rapunzel asks in disbelief during her survey of the capital, holding a clipboard with Pascal on her shoulder and Eugene and Maximus by her side.

"What, you got a problem with that?" Monty snaps at her in front of his candy shop. "You wish the place was reduced to a pile of rubble? You want to break my business yourself? Here's a rock, you can throw it through the window," he continues, picking up a piece of debris from the adjacent building and offering it to Rapunzel derisively.

"No- Monty, I just," Rapunzel sighs exasperatedly. She pauses and takes a deep breath, pulling her expression into a pleasant smile. "I'm glad that the citizens don't have to wait for repairs before they can continue to enjoy your delicious sugary treats."

"Yea that's what I thought," Monty tells her, tossing the rock aside.

"Your highness!" A guard shouts, running up the street towards her. Rapunzel turns in surprise as he approaches, and he wheezes out his message between gasps, bent over to catch his breath. "It's- the city's walls- the lookout has spotted Cassandra. She's approaching the city."

Rapunzel exchanges a look of shock with Eugene next to her, and they quickly mount Maximus to take off towards the city's main bridge.

Rapunzel had spent the last week focusing on helping her people recover from the destruction in the capital, so she hadn't had the chance to start looking for Cassandra. After sealing away Zhan Tiri - who offered them no further information on Cassandra, the Sundrop or Moonstone, or her history and motives - the first thing Rapunzel and her parents did was organize teams of guards and civilians to assess the extent of the damage to people's homes and relocate those with nowhere to go to temporary shelter. It was intensive work that took all of the resources at their disposal in order to ensure the safety of their people before starting to rebuild.

Rapunzel did spend one afternoon, though, riding out towards Cassandra's black rock tower with Eugene to look for her, but there was no sign she'd been there. Rapunzel resigned herself to waiting until the kingdom was in better shape before dispatching search parties - or searching herself - for her friend.

And now, Cassandra has returned. Rapunzel has no idea what for. Does she want to attack the city again? Does she want to reconcile with Rapunzel? Does she want to give Rapunzel the Moonstone? Had she changed her mind and decided she wants to take the Sundrop after all?

Within a couple minutes they reach the city's gate. Rapunzel sees Cassandra in her black rock armor standing in the entry's square, speaking to the guards that have her surrounded at a large distance shakily pointing their halberds towards her. All of them look terrified, and none of them want to get close.

"Relax, I'm not here for any of you," Cassandra tells them, unimpressed.

"Cass!" Rapunzel yells at her, Max skittering to a stop on the cobblestones and Rapunzel quickly dismounting to approach her friend. "Please, don't hurt anyone. I want to talk."

"Ah, finally," Cassandra says looking at her. "Your guards are slow as hell. I've been waiting for like, five minutes." She runs a hand through her blue hair in a smooth motion before pointing directly at Rapunzel, and she says dramatically - almost theatrically - "I'm here for a rematch, princess."

"W-what?" Rapunzel stutters. "Cass, I don't want to fight you, I want-"

"Yeah yeah, you want the stone," Cassandra cuts her off dismissively, waving a hand. She puts her hand to the Moonstone. "Well, you're going to have to take it from me."

"I don't-!" Rapunzel tries to answer in a distressed cry.

"Also, you have to chill," Cassandra interrupts.

These words make Rapunzel malfunction. She pauses, silent, trying to process them. Finally, after a few moments: "I have to chill? I have to chill?!" Rapunzel gestures all around her at the destroyed buildings and large black rock spikes from that time Cassandra lost her temper and demolished a city. "I HAVE TO CHILL?"

"That's right," Cassandra answers. "You're taking the destiny thing too seriously."

"Oh that is IT!" Rapunzel shouts, overcome with rage at Cassandra's hypocrisy, and she doesn't even realize what's happening as her hair glows gold and unravels from her braid - and then lunges magically towards Cassandra to grab her around the waist, rear back, and snap forward again to throw her over the city's wall.

"Woah," Eugene says from behind Rapunzel after Cassandra goes flying. "Could- could you always do that?

"I don't know but I did not mean to," Rapunzel answers, desperately pulling her misbehaving hair back towards her. "Ohhh now she's definitely going to want to fight," Rapunzel continues, stressed.

"Well, to be fair I don't think you could've avoided it," Eugene tells her. "Also, she had that coming. I'm sure everyone who saw that thought it was awesome."

"That was awesome, your highness!" A guard shouts from across the square.

"See?" Eugene tells her.

"I'm- I'm going to go after her," Rapunzel says, but before she can rush towards the gate, there's a rumbling followed by a huge crash of stones breaking beyond the wall. An enormous spike of black rock rises into Rapunzel's view over the rampart, with Cassandra near the top holding the spike with one hand.

"YOU THREW ME INTO THE FUCKING OCEAN," Cassandra shouts, and Rapunzel can barely make out how her blue curls are darkened and weighed down with water.

"Well- well that's good!" Rapunzel yells back at her. "Because- you're the one who actually needs to chill! And the ocean is cold, so, now you're chilled!"

Eugene puts his head in his hand behind her, and Cassandra doesn't move or respond for a few moments. Finally, she answers in a shout: "YOUR TRASH TALK STILL SUCKS."

"It was good when I was talking to Zhan Tiri before the eclipse, I swear," Rapunzel tells Eugene. She turns back towards Cassandra to yell in response, "Your decisions suck!"

"You're not doing so hot with the non-confrontation thing right now, blondie," Eugene informs her.

"I know," Rapunzel says disappointedly. "She just makes me so mad, y'know?"

"I know more than you could possibly imagine," Eugene answers in a deadpan.

They're interrupted by Cassandra leaping off of her spike to land in the center of the square, breaking the stone under her and sending droplets of seawater flying. "Let's get this started, princess," Cassandra tells her, holding her hand out next to her to materialize a sword out of black rock.

"Eugene, get everyone out of here," Rapunzel tells him, handing off Pascal to him and wrapping locks of her hair around her hands. Rapunzel reaches within herself for her magic, and her hair lights up again in a blaze of gold.

The corner of Cassandra's mouth quirks up in the moment before she lunges towards Rapunzel.

While Eugene and the other guards herd people away, Rapunzel and Cassandra begin their battle. Rapunzel tries to avoid further property damage as much as possible, since they're not in the castle this time and instead are surrounded by people's actual homes and businesses. Cassandra, however, exhibits no similar care.

Rapunzel remembers the rules Cassandra had laid out for her years before when trying to teach her self defense. "Turn your enemy's strength into a weakness." "Use your opponent's strength or size against them." "Distance is everything. Keeping your feet moving means you decide when you're close enough to strike, or far enough to avoid their strikes." "Hit 'em where it hurts." "Play to your strengths." "Don't doubt yourself, and don't give in."

Rapunzel tries her hardest to utilize all of these in her fight. But she doesn't know how to turn Cassandra's strength into a weakness, nor how to use Cassandra's strength against her. Rapunzel tries to keep herself far enough from Cassandra to dodge her attacks, but Cassandra can summon spikes from anywhere. Rapunzel starts to think that maybe some of these rules only apply to normal, not-magical battles.

It's difficult to keep up with Cassandra due to her physical strength, magical powers, unbreakable armor, and her years of practice with fighting. But Rapunzel has her indestructible hair that she's considerably talented wielding, and her abilities to break the black rocks and release blasts of energy. It allows her to hold her own against Cassandra for a long time.

Very long. Rapunzel has no idea how much time they've spent exchanging blows, with Cassandra summoning more spikes and swords as Rapunzel breaks them, and Rapunzel lassoing Cassandra to try to subdue her, but it feels like hours. Finally Cassandra ducks under Rapunzel's hair she'd just thrown, and lunges towards Rapunzel to knock her to the ground.

She had managed to do this a couple of times before, and each time Rapunzel would blast Cassandra off of her with her energy powers. But this time, Rapunzel is so exhausted, she doesn't have the strength.

Cassandra pins Rapunzel's wrists to the ground over her head, her face inches from Rapunzel's. She's breathing heavily and her curls fall forward, just barely brushing Rapunzel's cheeks, still slightly damp with seawater. At the edge of her vision, Rapunzel can see electric blue magic zapping off of the Moonstone set in Cassandra's chest. Crushed under her weight and unable even to see much except Cassandra, Rapunzel is entirely at her mercy.

Rapunzel glares into Cassandra's eyes, which flick briefly around Rapunzel's face, as though looking for some indication of her next move. But Rapunzel has no further moves. So instead she just glares.

A few moments pass without either saying anything, just looking at each other while trying to catch their breaths. As it becomes apparent to Cassandra that Rapunzel has no intention of magically launching her the street over, she lets out a breath of a laugh as a smile rises on her face, still with that fiery glint in her eye.

What now? Rapunzel wonders, ignoring fluttering in her chest at Cassandra's fierce smile. Does she want the Sundrop? It's not a gemstone anymore, so she can't take it. Does she realize that?

"I win," Cassandra says quietly without pulling away.

Before Rapunzel can respond, Cassandra lets go of Rapunzel's wrists and leaps to her feet. Without looking back, Cassandra summons a large black rock spike and uses it to jump over the nearby city wall, disappearing as quickly as she had arrived.

Chapter Text

"Ohhhhhh man that fucking ROCKED!" Cassandra cheers to herself in the woods beyond Corona's capital. She's so ecstatic she's physically fist pumping and jumping around. She's sure her body is going to ache like hell the next day, but right now she doesn't even care.

She spins once before collapsing on the grass under a large tree, staring up at the foliage and pieces of sky visible, her arms stretched out next to her.

"Oh man that rocked," Cassandra repeats to herself, breathless. That had to have been in the top five - no, top three fights in her life. The goddamn sun is lowering towards the horizon they fought for so long.

She feels exhilaration and giddiness even stronger than the night before she'd destroyed Corona, when she was telling Owl about her plan to reconcile with Rapunzel. Cassandra smiles hugely. That fight definitely proved I'm stronger, she thinks to herself.

Cassandra's high starts to wear off as she recognizes she's again in a position of having no idea what she's going to do with her life. She frowns as she mentally grasps at the fleeting excitement she'd just been feeling, not wanting it to slip away just yet. She thinks back to the best part of the fight: having Rapunzel pinned under her, their faces close, Rapunzel glaring back at her with the hint of a petulant pout. Cassandra feels a rush of some unknown emotion that makes her dizzy, which she decides is… the satisfaction of victory.

But she can only avoid her problem for so long. As the sky darkens with the sun beyond the horizon, Cassandra concedes that she needs to figure out what to do next, as she can't simply lie under this tree for the rest of her life.

Or could she…

Cassandra shakes her head to dismiss that thought. No, she has to come up with something to do next. She remembers that when she first thought of the plan to have a rematch with Rapunzel, fighting Rapunzel seemed to be a great option for combining things that make her happy.

Well, that's doubly confirmed now. Her heart still races thinking about it.

"What if I just… do it again?" Cassandra asks herself.

It's not like she has any better options. And this would definitely make her happy. Fighting fulfills several different purposes for her: it's a competition that she can win to make others know she's superior, it's the only way she knows how to work through emotions (she's still convinced there aren't actually other ways), and it's fun. Further, it's the only way Cassandra can think of how to keep Rapunzel in her life.

Her mind jumps back again to the fight earlier that day. Cassandra had no idea Rapunzel's hair could psychically move like it did when it grabbed her and threw her. Cassandra wonders what other powers Rapunzel might be hiding or not know about - and what other powers she herself might have that she's still unaware of. So besides all those reasons Cassandra's already come up with for why it's a good idea, fighting Rapunzel means that they both continue to figure out their powers more, too.

Cassandra racks her brain for reasons why it could be a bad idea. She could get hurt, for one thing, but she's never let considerations of personal safety stop her from anything before. She could hurt Rapunzel, whom she doesn't actually want to harm despite her frustrations, but surely she'd be able to avoid actually hurting her. She could be imprisoned upon losing a fight, but Cassandra is confident that she'd be able to break out of anywhere they might try to keep her - even the amber couldn't hold her. The only thing that might be able to contain her is Rapunzel's hair, but surely she'd be able to cause enough problems with black rocks around them that Rapunzel would be forced to let her go. Really, the plan is entirely foolproof.

And all other considerations aside, the fact is that Cassandra very badly wants to do it again.

So she decides to go through with it. Excitement begins to return to her and a smile rises to her face. Knowing that she'll have to be in Corona again sometime soon to challenge Rapunzel again, it occurs to Cassandra that she needs a place to stay.

She wonders if Rapunzel has destroyed her black rock tower yet.

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"And then she just… left?" Eugene asks, sitting in Rapunzel's room with their other friends and watching Rapunzel pace.

"Andthenshejustleft!" Rapunzel exclaims, agitated.

"Excuse me princess, but I fail to see the problem with that," Lance comments from his armchair.

"Yeah," Angry chimes in from where she's having a toy sword fight with Catalina near Lance. "Would you rather she stuck around and broke more stuff?" Catalina dodges Angry's lunge, causing her to knock into a side table and the vase sitting on top of it, which Lance quickly grabs before it shatters on the ground.

Rapunzel sighs in frustration, putting her hands up to smooth her hair. "I don't- I don't know what I want," she admits.

"Sounds like she doesn't know what she wants either," Catalina observes while ducking under another swipe of Angry's sword. "I think you two should talk it out."

"I've-" Rapunzel holds up her hand and stares at it with a downright unhinged expression as she closes it into a fist. "Tried."

"Well, maybe she doesn't want to talk to you because she doesn't know how you feel," Angry says, parrying one of Catalina's strikes. "That weirdo purple girl said Cassandra thought you wanted to kill her, right? You should tell her how much she means to you. You just gotta yell it until she hears you."

Rapunzel sits on one of the collapsed columns near the hole in her wall that's been barely patched. "I thought I'd done that," she sighs. She glances up and out towards the kingdom. "But I guess not." She rubs her forehead and adds, "Of course, I don't even know where to begin. I have no idea where Cassandra is. I'm back where I was a week ago."

"I think you should keep your sight on what you've already been doing sunshine," Eugene recommends, walking over to sit next to her and put an arm around her shoulder. "Obviously Cassandra is… around… and she doesn't want to attack Corona again, which is all a good start. I think you should focus on getting the kingdom back in order and then we'll go find her."

"I just," Rapunzel starts, gesturing vaguely in confusion. "I don't understand why she came back. She said she wanted a rematch? From when? She beat me during the eclipse. And then we fought, and she beat me again, and she left. Like, what was the point?"

"Well, fighting for the sake of fighting kinda sounds like the most Cassandra-y thing she's done since she took the Moonstone," Eugene observes.

Lance chuckles. "Yeah, if there's one thing we know about Cass it's that her definition of fun is a brawl."

"There's no way Cass came all the way back here and spent all that time fighting me just for fun," Rapunzel answers. She looks back out at the kingdom. "There has to be something deeper we're missing."

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"This is going to be so fun," Cassandra says to herself excitedly a week later on her way to Corona's capital. She had taken up residence in her black rock tower again, which Rapunzel hadn't gotten around to destroying yet. So she touched it up a little and sealed the ground entry and carved "GO AWAY" in the stone where the entry used to be in case Rapunzel came back.

And now, a week later, she's decided that surely Rapunzel has had enough time to recover from their last fight. Also, Cassandra is impatient and doesn't want to wait any longer.

She has a skip in her step walking through the trees. She's decided to circumvent the commotion of the guards spotting her as she crosses the bridge towards the city this time, so before leaving the woods to approach the road she pulls the hood up on the shape-shifting cloak she "borrowed" from the Spire, taking the form of one of the farmers in Old Corona.

She walks easily into the capital, surrounded by the commotion of both everyday life and construction. She notices that many of the large spikes she had summoned in her attack had been removed, presumably by Rapunzel with her magic, which makes even more clear all the structural damage the roads and buildings had endured. She frowns while looking around, confronted without interruption by the reality of the destruction she had caused.

Then she shrugs to herself and keeps walking.

Cassandra decides to appear in the city's main square, which is currently bustling with its usual vendors and shoppers, as well as carts hauling timbers and stones for construction. Despite the damage done to the city, everything is bright and cheerful with colorful market booths and flower garlands hung about and paintings on the buildings and cobblestones, which is so… Corona. Cassandra figures that within another week they'll be hosting a festival for something or other. These people really don't know when to tone it down.

Well, this ought to shake things up again. Cassandra removes her hood in one of the alleyways and steps out into the sunlit square.

The controlled chaos of the marketplace abruptly explodes into a very uncontrolled chaos of screaming and running. Cassandra smiles to herself, amused by the pandemonium her mere presence caused. All of the Coronans try to flee, many yelling or screaming, some falling over each other in their panic. Vendors grab as many of their wares as they can carry before taking off, and loads of construction materials fall off of carts into the street as the drivers send their horses running.

"Man I shoulda done this kinda thing years ago," Cassandra says to herself, delighted that the unbearable pep and cheer had disappeared so completely, and that she was so quickly given all the personal space she could want.

As the last of the people flee the square, Cassandra saunters over to one of the abandoned street vendor carts to pick up one of the apples for sale. Taking a bite, she knows that now, all she has to do is wait.

She hopes she doesn't have to wait too long. Surely Rapunzel will come faster this time.

But no, it still takes about five minutes before the princess arrives riding Max, coming from the direction of the castle. Cassandra is sitting leisurely on the edge of the square's fountain when Rapunzel hops off of Max and approaches her.

"Cass," Rapunzel says, looking nervous and flustered, but she quickly composes herself. "I'm so glad you came back," she tells Cassandra with an earnest smile.

Cassandra raises an eyebrow with an unimpressed expression.

"No- really, I am!" Rapunzel protests. "T-there are some things I wanted to tell you, that I should have said better earlier…"

"You paint that?" Cassandra interrupts her, pointing at a nearby wall along the square that's painted with a mural roughly one story high and twice as long.

Rapunzel glances over at the wall, surprised by Cassandra's interruption. "Oh- well, yeah, but not just me. I asked anyone who would like to join to add their own illustrations to it too, like that mural in the Gallery of the Seven Kingdoms."

"Looks real nice," Cassandra tells her.

Rapunzel turns back to her with bright eyes, a huge smile on her face. "You really think so?" She asks hopefully.

"Yeah," Cassandra responds. "Bet it took you a long time to make it."

"Well, it wasn't that long," Rapunzel says, flattered. "Since everyone participated. But we all fixed the wall together, and then we worked together on painting it. Everyone had been feeling so down, I thought it would be really nice to have a unifying effort, y'know? Something we could all do as a team and finish and feel proud of. So we all did it together one morning." Rapunzel looks at the mural and smiles. "I feel like it really represents Corona's bright and enduring spirit-"

Cassandra snaps her fingers and a spike of black rock shoots up from the ground in front of the wall to strike the middle of it, and the wall disintegrates.

Cassandra raises an eyebrow. She didn't expect that it would fall apart so easily. She glances over at Rapunzel to see her reaction, and Rapunzel still has a smile frozen on her face, staring at the pile of rubble that used to be the wall.

After a moment of processing, Rapunzel's face snaps back to look at Cassandra, her eyes glowing entirely gold with a furious expression, her hair falling immediately from its braid to rise around her in glowing strands.

Cassandra starts to wonder if she'd made a mistake when a lock of animated magic hair shoots towards her to wrap around her ankle. Then she doesn't have much time to think about anything, as she's thrown into the air and goes flying across the city.

Cassandra manages to avoid shattering all of her bones upon impact by summoning some black rocks to grab at as she nears the ground. She lands in a destroyed part of the city south of the front gates, where she and Rapunzel had fought most of their battle before.

Cassandra straightens and brushes dust off of herself, thinking that she'll have to go all the way back towards the main square to continue their fight, which is an annoying interruption. But still, Cassandra can't help smiling to herself at Rapunzel using that new move on her again, and at how effectively her plan worked to provoke Rapunzel into a fight. Now she just needs to get back over there-

Cassandra's thoughts are interrupted as she sees some glowing, gold thing streaking through the sky towards her.

"No wa-" Cassandra starts, and she is smashed into by a very pissed off princess who knocks her backwards into a wall, which falls over from the force of the collision. Cassandra tries to push herself up from the sloped incline of the broken wall and a bare foot stomps onto her breastplate to knock her back down. Glowing gold cracks appear in her armor from the blow, shooting out from where Rapunzel's foot is holding her down.

"Why would you do that, you jerk?!" Rapunzel yells at her, her eyes still blazing gold.

Cassandra is absolutely losing her mind. Rapunzel can fucking fly. Sure, Rapunzel had levitated before, but this was real flying. Cassandra is completely stricken by awe. She's not even mad about the broken breastplate.

But also she knows she should do something before Rapunzel's hair rips her limb from limb. So she summons spikes to shoot out at Rapunzel to knock her away - but the black rocks break as soon as they approach Rapunzel's slightly-golden-glowing skin.

"Well?!" Rapunzel roars at her. Cassandra wonders briefly if she should try to recite the Moonstone's incantation for more power, since it seems like Rapunzel's rage had unlocked her full strength somehow, but she certainly can't do that in her current position. So instead she puts her hands down next to her to shoot black rock out of the ground under them, pushing herself upright and knocking Rapunzel back as she stands.

As Rapunzel staggers to regain her balance, Cassandra holds her arm out to materialize a sword. She's about to start the Moonstone incantation when a golden lock of hair whips over to her, both breaking her sword and smacking her backwards again.

"Tell me!" Rapunzel shouts, her eyes finally fading from glowing gold back to their normal, human green.

Cassandra pushes herself up again. This was more of a challenge than she'd expected. But as she is no coward, she offers a malicious smile and responds, "The mural sucked and I'm glad I broke it."

Rapunzel's expression flickers from shock to rage again, and she lunges towards Cassandra.

But Rapunzel's magic had declined from the overwhelming level that she had started off with - her eyes and skin no longer glow, so Cassandra's rocks don't crumble in her mere presence, and Cassandra is pretty sure Rapunzel's not going to take off into the sky again to throw her across the ocean.

That doesn't mean the fight had become easy, though. Rapunzel's anger seems to give her a spark she hadn't quite had during their previous fight, and Cassandra almost smiles in delight as Rapunzel attacks her with a ferocity that she didn't have last time.

A short while later, Rapunzel destabilizes Cassandra by throwing her hair low to trip up her legs, and while Cassandra is staggering and distracted, she throws another lasso to wrap around Cassandra's torso. Cassandra catches her balance and tries to pull the hair off of her, but with her hands close to her body Rapunzel throws another lasso to secure Cassandra's arms to her sides, and she pulls Cassandra towards her to make her fall over.

Cassandra tries to push herself up with black rocks from the ground, but Rapunzel breaks them before she can stand and Cassandra falls to her knees. Looking up at Rapunzel and baring her teeth in anger, Cassandra summons spikes to try to strike her, but Rapunzel destroys those as well as she walks towards Cassandra.

Stopping in front of her, Rapunzel grabs one of the black rock spikes as it breaks and pulls out a roughly-formed frying pan as the rest of the pieces fall to the ground. She holds the pan under Cassandra's chin.

"Say you're sorry," Rapunzel commands her, still slightly out of breath.

Cassandra's eyes widen. She's out of ideas, and Rapunzel is entirely in a position to knock her out if she so pleased. I… lost, Cassandra thinks.

"Say you're sorry!" Rapunzel repeats, using her pan to tilt Cassandra's face up towards her.

"Make me," Cassandra snarls, baring her teeth again and pulling her head away from the pan. Knowing she has to get out from Rapunzel's hair somehow she gets an idea, although she's sure she won't be able to do much after using it - if it works.

Closing her eyes and drawing her eyebrows together, she focuses on the gemstone on her chest. Usually her magic would be released in jolts from the stone whenever she wanted in order to summon black rocks, but this time when she draws on her power she holds it close, not creating any rocks, and the Moonstone starts sparking with the buildup of magic. Moments later, when she feels like she can't bear it anymore, she releases the magic all at once in a shockwave out from her body.

Rapunzel's hair is thrown off of her and Rapunzel is knocked back from the blast. Cassandra almost collapses, but she stops herself. "Hhhhjesus fucking Christ," Cassandra breathes. She feels dizzy and fatigued through her entire body, and she suddenly understands very intimately why Rapunzel would always pass out after her shockwaves.

But she pulls herself to her feet. Rapunzel pushes herself up from the ground and looks at Cassandra in surprise.

"Later, princess," Cassandra says, still completely out of breath. And with that, she turns and bolts towards the city surrounding their battle crater.

Because there's no way she's about to make any spikes to throw herself over the wall to leave. Her magic - or at least her capacity to use it - is shot for who-knows-how-long. She needs to come up with something else. She hears Rapunzel calling after her, and she's sure Rapunzel won't be far behind her in chase.

So Cassandra ducks through alleyways and, once she's close to a main road and sure she's out of anyone's sight in the shadows, she pulls the hood of her cloak up to disguise herself as a street urchin. Walking out onto the main street with other people around, Cassandra is sure she blends in well enough that Rapunzel won't suspect anything. She slumps against a wall as people walk by and pay her no attention.

"Cass!" Cassandra tries not to jump as she hears Rapunzel's voice coming from the distance, and several moments later Rapunzel runs out from the alleyway Cassandra had just left.

Cassandra watches as Rapunzel whirls around, confusion on her face, looking every which way. "Wha- She was definitely here!" Rapunzel cries. Her gaze stops on Cassandra nearby, and she asks, "Hey, d-did you see a woman with black armor and blue hair anywhere?"

Cassandra swallows nervously. She knows her disguise will change her voice, but she doesn't want to risk it. She shakes her head.

Rapunzel sighs. "Yeah that's- that's what I would guess. Everyone would be freaking out if she came through here." She runs a hand through her hair and rests it on the back of her neck. "I guess I'll- I'll have to look somewhere else." She looks at the ground, exhausted and disappointed. "Oh," Rapunzel continues, looking up at Cassandra. "Thank you for your help. Do you still have a home to go to?"

Cassandra sweats and nods.

Rapunzel gives her a relieved smile. "That's good. So many families' houses were destroyed... Hey," Rapunzel's hand moves to the purse at her waist, and she pulls out several gold coins. Holding them out towards Cassandra she says, "You should go buy yourself something at the bakery."

Cassandra looks between Rapunzel's hand and her face. She really didn't want to have to interact with Rapunzel physically while trying to maintain her disguise, but she can't see any way out of it, so she puts her hand out and Rapunzel drops the coins into her tiny street urchin hand.

Rapunzel smiles at her again. "You shouldn't feel intimidated around me, okay? I'm just like everyone else."

The superpowers and royal bloodline would disagree, Cassandra thinks to herself, but she nods again.

Rapunzel takes a deep breath, looking up and around again. And then she turns to dash back into the alleyway, surely to try to figure out some other direction Cassandra might have fled in the twisting network of shadowed paths.

Cassandra waits for a while, still sitting by the city street against a wall, exhausted. She glances down at the coins in her hand. Well, eating would help restore my strength, she admits to herself. So shakily standing, she heads in the direction of the nearest bakery.

A short while later, Cassandra is walking back across the city's bridge in the form of a farmer again, enjoying a blackberry roll. When she reaches the top of her tower, she's met with a surprise: the very judgemental gaze of a bird who is not paid enough for any of this shit.

"Owl?!" Cassandra cries in shock. He's perched on the edge of one of her large windows looking at her the same way her dad would look at her when she tried to sneak back in after breaking curfew as a teenager.

She hadn't seen Owl since before she destroyed Corona. For some reason he stopped wanting to hang out with her after that.

"W-what are you doing here?" Cassandra asks him, and he flies gracefully to her shoulder to peck her.

"Ow! Stop!" Cassandra yells at him, shooing him off. "Okay, fine, maybe I deserved that. I know the last time we talked I was trying to reconcile with Rapunzel and make things better…"

Owl lands on a nearby windowsill to resume his judgemental stare.

"...But in my defense, I got really pissed off," Cassandra concludes.

Owl rolls his eyes and hoots at her pointedly.

"Well I don't want to reconcile with Rapunzel anymore," Cassandra tells him, crossing her arms and looking away moodily.

Owl gives her an extremely are-you-kidding-me hoot.

"She tried to seal me in amber!" Cassandra exclaims, throwing her arms out in front of her. "And she just wants the Moonstone, and she just wants me to do what she says, and-" Cassandra's indignant energy deflates. "And there's no way that she'd want to reconcile with me, anymore." Cassandra takes a deep breath and pulls herself together. "Listen, Zhan Tiri is gone, so Corona is safe. I'm not going to destroy it again. I just want to live my life in a way that makes me happy."

Owl hoots at her incredulously.

"Well, yes, because I've decided that fighting Rapunzel makes me happy," Cassandra answers.

Owl stares at her like she's insane.

"I don't judge you for your interests!" Cassandra cries at the bird. "I just- I've decided that I'm not going to compromise who I am or what I want anymore. Not for Rapunzel, not for Zhan Tiri, not for my dad, not for anyone." Cassandra turns away from him, crossing her arms again. "It's fine if you don't agree. You don't have to hang out with me."

Cassandra doesn't realize how badly she hopes Owl will stay with her until she feels him land on her shoulder, and she's hit with a wave of relief so intense tears almost spring to her eyes.

Internally pulling herself together, Cassandra tells him, "Well, that's good because I wanted to workshop some one-liners for when I make my dramatic entrances." Owl sighs and rolls his eyes as Cassandra continues: "I mean, it'll usually depend on where I show up to fight, but I have a couple that are flexible..."

Chapter Text

Rapunzel has no success in her hunt for Cassandra. She searches every alleyway accessible from the path she'd seen Cassandra run down, and then she checks main streets for signs of mass panic that would indicate Cassandra's presence - all to no avail. She never thought she'd be disappointed not to hear her people screaming in terror.

She's wearily walking back up the city's main road when Max and Pascal find her, and she rides back towards the castle with them.

"Rapunzel!" Eugene calls to her immediately as she enters the courtyard. He helps her dismount and, after checking that she's not injured, walks with her to one of the castle's sitting rooms where Lance is playing board games with Angry and Catalina.

As Rapunzel collapses on a couch, Angry hops up from her seat, asking, "So? How did it go? Did you tell her how you feel?"

Rapunzel rubs the back of her neck. "Well, I tried," she starts.

"Did she not listen to you?" Catalina asks with sad eyes.

"Well- no, it's not that, I just… didn't manage to tell her anything," Rapunzel answers.

"She attacked you before you could try to talk?" Eugene questions.

"Er- well," Rapunzel says awkwardly. "Not… exactly." She takes a deep breath. "It was like this: me and Max and Pascal rode down to the main square, and Cass was sitting by the fountain. So I leave Pascal with Max and I go over to try to talk to her, but before I can say anything she points at the Unity and Enduring Spirit of the Coronan People mural-"

"Still think the name is a bit of a mouthful," Lance says to Eugene in an aside.

"And she starts asking me about it. Like, if I painted it, and how long it took-"

"Huh, that's friendly," Eugene notes.

"That's what I thought! So I tell her about how we all made it together, and she says it looks really nice. And I'm thinking 'oh my gosh, this is great, this is such a nice conversation we're having, and she's being so friendly' but then she snaps her fingers and makes spikes that destroy the mural!"

"Oof," Lance comments. "Shoulda seen that comin'."

"And then she attacked you?" Eugene asks.

"...Um," Rapunzel says. "Not… exactly."

At her company's blank stares, Rapunzel sighs and explains, "Well, I got mad."

"...You attacked her?!" Eugene cries.

"She just made me so mad!" Rapunzel says in distress. "It's like she specifically checked to make sure that the mural was important to me before breaking it. Like, who does that?!"

"Possibly the woman who destroyed your kingdom like two weeks ago," Lance suggests.

"Well, what happened with the fight?" Eugene asks. "Did she beat you again and just run off?"

"No… it was kind of weird," Rapunzel answers, her eyebrows drawing together as she tries to recall it. "I can't really remember the start of it. I was so mad when she broke the mural, so I think my hair grabbed her and threw her again. But then I thought, she can't get off that easy, and I want her to tell me why she'd do that. But I don't remember how I got back over to her-"

Pascal chatters at her and hops onto the table in front of the couch.

"Oooh, charades," Lance says, delighted, as Pascal starts to change colors and strike poses.

"A seagull!" Angry guesses.

"A shooting star!" Catalina offers.

Lance snaps. "The power of love," he says confidently.

"...I'm sorry, are you saying she flew?!" Eugene says in disbelief, and Pascal returns to his regular green and nods.

"What?!" Rapunzel cries. "Pascal, are you sure?"

He nods again, and then he turns himself entirely gold with flickers of lighter yellow shooting around, mimicking Rapunzel's hair.

Rapunzel has to take a moment to process this. "I can't believe…"

"I mean, considering all the other things you can do, it's not THAT unrealistic," Eugene notes.

"...that I can't remember it!" Rapunzel cries in dismay. "I FLY for the first time since I was turned into a literal bird, and I don't remember?! That's so unfair!"

"Get back to the fight!" Angry interrupts. "What happened next?! C'mon, we're at the edge of our seats!"

Rapunzel looks over at Angry and Catalina who are, in fact, on the edge of their seats. "Right, okay," Rapunzel says. "So I guess I FLY over to her, and I keep trying to get her to tell me why she broke the mural. Then she tells me that she thought the mural sucked and that she was glad she broke it, and she looked so pleased with herself. So I get super mad again and we fight, and eventually I get her all wrapped up in my hair and I'm holding a frying pan at her and I tell her to say that she's sorry for breaking it-"

"Wow, hearing about your fight is a lot more interesting than hearing about you two talking about your feelings," Angry interjects.

"-And then she sends out a shockwave that knocks me over and pushes my hair away from her, and she takes off!" Rapunzel finishes.

"Did she fly too?" Catalina asks seriously, leaning forward.

"No, she just ran," Rapunzel answers. "Really fast. And I chased after her, but I lost her in the alleyways. I looked everywhere for her, but she just… vanished."

"Must've left because she knew she lost," Lance says.

"I just… I don't understand what the point of it all was," Rapunzel sighs. "Causing a scene in the marketplace, breaking the mural, taunting me…?"

"It seems like she was trying to provoke you into a fight again," Eugene says.

"Yeah, and she knows exactly how to do that," Rapunzel responds. "But why?"

"I think she just wants to fight you for fun," Lance tells her. "Like, if she wanted anything else from you, she would've demanded it or taken it already. But instead it seems like she just wants to fight you until a standstill where one of you has won, like a wrestling match."

"I think..." Rapunzel takes a deep breath. "I think you might be right," she admits. She looks out towards the window in thought. "There was this part of the fight... I had just knocked her down and I was still so angry and my hair was all glowing and floaty, and she gave me this look of..."

"Rage?" Eugene asks.

"Glee?" Lance suggests.

"Bloodlust?!" Angry says excitedly.

"Awe," Rapunzel answers. "She had this look on her face like she was just completely floored and amazed, the kind of look she used to give something like a display of really nice swords. It was- it was the closest to regular Cass that I've seen in a while," Rapunzel says, looking down.

"Well, that settles it," Lance tells her. "She wants to wrestle you with magic powers."

Rapunzel puts a hand to her head. "But- but why doesn't she just tell me that?! Instead of talking to me, she keeps breaking things and threatening me!"

"Maybe she's too shy to ask," Catalina suggests.

"But not too shy to destroy parts of my city?!" Rapunzel cries. "I just- I still don't understand."

"Well, not making sense is a bit of a Cassandra special," Eugene comments.

"It's possible that breaking things around here is a bonus to her," Lance suggests. "Like, what if she's still mad at you and Corona, so besides wanting to have a grand old time wrestling she also wants to take her anger out by breaking things?"

"But hasn't she hasn't broken enough of Corona already?" Rapunzel asks, and she groans. "I'd so much rather just talk everything out," she says, collapsing back against the couch again.

"Well, maybe if you fight her a bunch, she'll have enough fun with you that she will want to talk things out," Catalina says.

Lance chuckles. "Yeah princess, you just gotta beat Cass up enough that she'll want to be friends with you again."

"That is- okay, I know I'm not the resident expert on interpersonal relationships, but that is completely backwards, right?" Rapunzel says in dismay. "Like, usually people want you to be nice to them in order to become friends or make up."

"Oh absolutely," Eugene responds. "This is totally insane. I never thought I'd say this, but Zhan Tiri could be right. Maybe Cass is a lunatic."

"She's not a lunatic," Rapunzel insists.

"Oh yeah? Then how would you describe her?" Lance asks, chuckling.

"She's..." Rapunzel starts, pensively. "A lost soul crying out for help," she says, looking towards the window.

"Okay yeah now describe her with one word," Eugene responds, unimpressed.

"I mean it you guys," Rapunzel says, standing from the couch. "Cass is not a lunatic. I get that her methods are... unconventional… and maybe a bit disproportionate... but if we're right about all this, then this is a pretty rational reaction to her situation."

"Maybe she's a lunatic too," Lance says in an aside to Eugene, pointing at Rapunzel behind his hand.

"She's mad so she breaks things, and she likes fighting so she challenges me," Rapunzel says. "It does make sense. And I've got to tell her that I understand, that I want to work with her…" Rapunzel frowns in thought. "Maybe we can schedule some fights…"

"I don't know about that, princess," Angry tells her. "If she's mad at you too, then part of the fun of fighting you has got to be from knowing she's riling you up. If you try to put her in a box, she won't react well."

"Angry's right," Lance says.

Rapunzel bites her lip. "Then… what am I supposed to do?" She asks, throwing her arms out and looking around at her friends. "Just let Cassandra show up whenever she wants and interrupt my schedule and break things?"

"Well, I think the idea is that you fight her to stop her from breaking things," Catalina notes.

"But that's a yes on the first two things," Lance says.

Rapunzel drags her hands down her face. "Okay, okay," she says. "Let's think." She starts to pace. "So… it's possible Cassandra will show up again because she wants to fight me. She'll break things to provoke me. But if I start fighting her quickly, she won't break things-"

"We think," Eugene interjects.

"-but our fights are so destructive, I can't just fight her anywhere," Rapunzel says. "It has to be a place where we can cause damage to the surroundings without a problem."

"There's plenty of open space on the mainland," Lance notes.

"But that's so far away," Rapunzel says, biting her lip again. "Since I'm usually here in the city, this is where she'll show up." Rapunzel looks out the window again in thought, and in the distance she can see the several-block radius of completely demolished structures south of the front gate where they had fought the majority of their last two battles.

"I have an idea," she says.

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"So, this will be the CEZ," Rapunzel says, wrapping yarn around a small section of the scale model of Corona city that sits in the center of the castle's strategy room.

"The what?" Eugene asks in a deadpan.

"The Cassandra Exclusion Zone," Rapunzel responds. "C. E. Z. It's the part of the city where we won't bother to make any repairs, because that's where Cassandra and I will have our fights."

"This is insane. This is off the walls-" Eugene starts, putting a hand to his forehead, but Lance is laughing.

"I love it, princess," he says. "Hey Eugene, you better behave or you're gonna get thrown in the CEZ."

"I wanna hang out in the CEZ!" Angry cheers.

"No, no one is allowed to go into the CEZ," Rapunzel scolds. "It's dangerous. Even when Cass and I aren't fighting, there are all sorts of unstable buildings there that could collapse on someone."

"So what happens when Cass doesn't want to fight you there, and she'd rather stick around the castle because she's an unstable lunatic?" Eugene asks.

"Not a lunatic," Rapunzel corrects him. "And I'll… have to be creative. And probably get really, really good at throwing things with my hair."

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"Listen, I know I might be biased, but I thought your plan for Cassandra was kicking the crap out of her," Eugene says, standing in Rapunzel's room and looking at her easel. "So why are you making her a painting?"

"I haven't completely given up on the Rapunzel way of doing things," Rapunzel answers. "Cass may want to fight me, but I still want to show her I care."

"So you're gonna beat her up and then hand her a cutesy painting of the two of you holding hands?" Eugene asks dryly.

"Well…" Rapunzel stalls, reaching forward with her paintbrush to make a small swipe at the canvas. "Maybe."

"This is completely-" Eugene starts, but he's interrupted by the sound of something thudding into Rapunzel's window.

They both start and look over just in time to see Owl picking himself back up from the windowsill and leaning forward to tap on the glass with his beak.

"Owl!" Rapunzel cries in delight, and she rushes to the window to let him inside. He ruffles his feathers for a moment while Rapunzel says, "I haven't seen you since you were helping Pascal scope out the castle before the eclipse! Where have you been?"

"Hoo," Owl answers, a completely incomprehensible response that offers no information to Rapunzel as he is a bird who cannot speak.

"Well, it's great to see you," Rapunzel says, smiling at him. "We were just talking about Cass, actually-"

"Hoo," Owl says again, nodding. He flies into the air and points with one talon back out the window.

Rapunzel looks where he's pointing, and she can barely make out Cassandra's black rock tower on the mainland. "Wait- are you saying Cass is in her tower?"

"Hoo," Owl affirms, nodding.

"Does she want to talk to me?" Rapunzel asks as Owl lands back on the windowsill.

"...Hoo," Owl responds, putting his wings out in front of him like hands and shrugging his shoulders.

"Alright that was weird the first time you did it, and it's weird again now," Eugene observes.

"Do you think I should go talk to her?" Rapunzel asks.

"H-hoo..?" Owl responds, bobbing his head around in a noncommittal way.

"Good enough!" Rapunzel cheers, and she turns to grab the painting off her easel. "Eugene, I'm going to go talk to Cassandra."

"If you don't come back in 45 minutes I'm sending the entire royal guard over there," Eugene tells her wearily.

"Fine by me!" Rapunzel calls merrily, striding out the door. "You'll find us hugging!"

Eugene glances at Owl. "Make sure she's alright for me, would you?"

"Hoo," Owl agrees, and he flies back out the window.

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Rapunzel frowns as she approaches the base of the tower. "Hm, 'Go away'," she reads out loud. Glancing down at Pascal she says, "Well, surely that doesn't mean me, it's for other people."

Pascal squeaks and points at the wall. Rapunzel looks back at it, and squints at smaller text underneath that she hadn't noticed. 'That means you, Rapunzel.'

"Well," Rapunzel says, looking at Pascal again. "That might be about a different Rapunzel."

Pascal points at the wall again, and Rapunzel leans forward to read the even smaller text under that. 'Specifically princess Rapunzel der Sonne, heir to the Coronan Royal Family.'

"Well I'm just gonna pretend I didn't see that," Rapunzel says, looking at Pascal and flicking a wrist to explode a hole in the wall.

Pascal chatters at her as she walks into the tower. "Huh?" Rapunzel asks. "What boundary issues?"

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"Come on, it would be so cool," Cassandra begs, holding out the Moonstone shard. "We would match! Don't you want superpowers?"

Owl glares at her, unimpressed, his eyebrows in a flat line.

"Hello? Cass, you home?"

Cassandra jumps at hearing the voice echoing from behind her, and she slaps the shard back in place as she whirls around in time to see Rapunzel walk into her throne chamber.

"Rapunzel!" Cassandra cries, flustered. "Wh-what are you doing here? Didn't you see the sign?!"

"Sign? What sign?" Rapunzel asks cluelessly.

Cassandra squints at her. "How the hell did you get in here?"

"There was a… hole in the wall, near the ground," Rapunzel says. "I don't know how it got there, but you should probably patch that up, you'll get raccoons."

"Rapunzel," Cassandra starts, irritated. "You're the only person who can break the black rocks."

"...That we know of."

"Who the fuck just comes up to someone's house and breaks things?" Cassandra asks in disbelief.

Rapunzel's eyelid twitches before she takes a deep breath and walks further into the room, saying, "Listen Cass, I'm here to-" She cuts off as she looks around. "Okay, what is the deal with the interior design in here? Do you seriously not have any furniture?"

"What the hell does that look like," Cassandra asks, gesturing to the spiked throne.

"I have walked through several rooms looking for you and I have not managed to find a single bed, or table, or anything," Rapunzel says.

"It's called minimalism. We don't all collect useless junk like damn crows, princess."

"A bed isn't useless junk!" Rapunzel cries. "Where do you sleep?"

"Did you just come here to interrogate my living habits?" Cassandra growls.

Rapunzel sighs. "No, Cass, I'm here to- I'm sorry I can't get over this. Can I bring you a bed?"

"I don't need your help!" Cassandra shouts. "You're- you're just jealous!"

"Jealous of what?" Rapunzel responds incredulously.

"Jealous that I made this kickass tower that's a million times better than yours ever was! Your tower was lame as hell."

Rapunzel stares at Cassandra at a complete loss for a moment. "Why do you make it so hard to be nice to you?!" She finally yells in disbelief.

"I never asked you to be nice to me!" Cassandra shouts back angrily.

"It's what friends do!"

"Well it's a good thing we're not friends!"

"Aaarrrgghhh," Rapunzel growls, and then she turns around and takes a deep breath to compose herself while Pascal pats her cheek encouragingly. "Get it together Rapunzel," she says to herself. "You've gotta fight this, you gotta be the bigger person." She turns back to Cassandra. "Listen Cass," she starts again, earnestly. "I'm here to-"

"Fight?" Cassandra asks, materializing a sword. "Did you say fight?"

Owl hoots and slims with surprise behind Cassandra, and Rapunzel's eyes widen in alarm. "No Cass I am not here to fight-"

"You came to challenge me to a fight?!" Cassandra yells, pointing at her with the sword.

"I'm here to try to-!" Rapunzel starts, but she's cut off by Cassandra lunging at her.

"I'm not here to fight you!" Rapunzel shouts again, dodging.

"Too bad!" Cassandra yells, swinging her sword around to try to hit her. "My tower my rules! You come here, we fight!"

"Okay- okay fine! Fine, then I'm leaving!" Rapunzel cries, holding her hands up.

Cassandra stops in her tracks. "Ugh, that's lame," she responds, lowering the sword.

"But you can't stop me from being nice!" Rapunzel says aggressively. "So before I leave I'm going to give you this THOUGHTFUL GIFT," she continues angrily, pulling out the painting she made for Cassandra and shoving it towards her.

"I'm just gonna destroy it!" Cassandra yells back at her as Rapunzel walks out of the room.

"Do whatever makes you happy!" Rapunzel shouts angrily, looking over her shoulder. "I cherish you and want nothing more than your happiness!"

"Fine!"

"Fine!"

With Rapunzel gone, Cassandra unrolls the canvas she had shoved into her hands. It's a painting of Rapunzel with long blonde hair and Cassandra with blue hair holding hands and smiling, surrounded by Rapunzel's trademark vines and flowers with Pascal and Owl by their sides. Underneath them, "Friends forever" is written in cursive.

"Hoo," Owl comments, landing on her shoulder and looking at the painting.

"This is some kind of… psychological warfare," Cassandra says, squinting at it. "She doesn't mean it."

Owl sighs.

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"And it is with great pleasure that I re-reintroduce to you-" Rapunzel cuts the ribbon in front of the building with a big smile, "Attila the Bun's cupcakes!"

The assembled Coronans cheer and Rapunzel steps aside from the propped-open door, letting people rush into the newly-re-reopened business.

"Thank you, Rapunzel," Attila says as they step inside, where people are already sitting at the bakery's indoor seating to enjoy free samples. "This makes me so happy."

"Of course!" Rapunzel responds cheerfully. "I'm sorry it took so long to finish repairs."

"It's not a problem," Attila tells her, his deep voice echoing in his helmet. "I know it was more important to focus on peoples' homes. Besides, since Monty's Sweet Shop had no damage, there was plenty I could do over there and I learned a lot. I've got this great idea for combining a cupcake and a lollipop, I think I'll call it a cake pop-"

"Nice shop," a cold voice interrupts them from the door, and Rapunzel's head snaps around to see Cassandra leaning against the open doorway while people gasp in fear. "Although, I can't say I like the interior design," she continues, and she straightens with a malicious smile and raises her hands in front of her. "How about I give it a renova-oof!"

Rapunzel had slammed into Cassandra from a dead run, and they go tumbling out onto the street.

"If you want to fight me, you're gonna have to catch me!" Rapunzel yells at Cassandra as she pushes herself off of her. And with that, she takes off down the street.

"What the-" Cassandra starts, and then she scrambles to her feet to follow.

Rapunzel hears screams behind her as the Coronans out on the street she's running down spot Cassandra. Rapunzel looks over her shoulder to make sure that Cassandra isn't summoning any spikes or terrorizing anyone, and she's not - she's also getting closer.

"You know I'm faster than you!" Cassandra shouts.

"Yeah, I know!" Rapunzel answers, and then she takes a hard turn into an alley, knocking over a stack of barrels as she runs past to make them fall into the path.

Hopefully that just slows her down instead of making her decide to stop chasing me and cause mayhem somewhere else, Rapunzel thinks.

But her plan worked. As she exits the other side of the alleyway, she looks back to see Cassandra jumping over the barrels in pursuit.

Now I just need to get to the CEZ, Rapunzel thinks. This is gonna be a long run…

But Rapunzel has a great deal of energy and endurance, and she has many tricks to slow Cassandra down - so she manages to reach her destination.

I can't believe that worked, she thinks, looking behind her as she runs deeper into the CEZ and Cassandra reaches the edge. Cass didn't even use any spikes or anything to try to stop me or catch up-

Rapunzel's thoughts are interrupted as huge spikes burst out of the ground in front of her, cornering her.

Well, I was asking for that.

"Stop-" Cassandra breathes heavily as she approaches. "Fucking running what the fuck."

Rapunzel's trying to catch her breath as well, but that doesn't stop her from speaking cheerfully as she turns around. "Okay! Well, you caught me. Congrats!"

Cassandra squints at her. "What- what the fuck was that about?!"

"Mmmmnothing," Rapunzel answers. "But if you're tired and don't want to fight right now after all that running, we could just sit while we get our energy back, maybe talk a little-"

"I see your game, princess." Cassandra growls, glaring at her. She holds a hand out and grabs a sword that shoots from the ground. "And absolutely not."

Even though Rapunzel knew it wouldn't work, she can't help letting out a small sigh when Cassandra lunges at her.

"Did you like the painting I gave you?" Rapunzel asks after dodging, as she throws her hair to wrap around Cassandra's wrist and yank her off balance.

Cassandra catches herself and shakes the hair off as she throws her other arm up to shoot spikes out of the ground at Rapunzel. "I thought the composition could use work and the subject matter is unrealistic."

"Well, you know I like to make art from my dreams!" Rapunzel replies as she jumps from the spikes and twists with her hair in her hands to swipe beams of energy at Cassandra.

Cassandra summons an X of spikes from the ground as a shield to take Rapunzel's attack. "More like a nightmare." She retaliates by trying to smash Rapunzel between huge rocks she summons.

Rapunzel surrounds herself with her hair and explodes the rocks as they close in on her. "You know, I've told you this before but I'll never stop trying to get through to you!"

"And I'll never stop trying to shut you up!" Cassandra yells, using a column of black rock to strike Rapunzel from the side at a diagonal that launches her a short distance.

Rapunzel gasps in excitement as she pushes herself up. "Does that mean you want to stick around forever?"

"Ugh! Stop talking!" Cassandra yells, and Rapunzel has to destroy a huge line of spikes shooting out of the ground towards her.

Rapunzel tries to get Cassandra to talk to her more, but she seems single mindedly focused on the fight now. But despite her focus, Rapunzel eventually manages to get close enough to tackle her, and they fall backwards onto the ground. Cassandra pushes back against Rapunzel's hands trying to pin her wrists to the ground on either side of her, and recognizing that Cassandra is physically stronger, Rapunzel uses her animated hair to wrap around Cassandra's wrists as well to hold her down.

Snarling, Cassandra summons black rock spikes to try to strike Rapunzel off of her - but Rapunzel pulls enough magic from within herself to break every spike as it approaches, as well as all the black rock that Cassandra tries to pull up from under herself to stand and push Rapunzel away.

That doesn't stop Cassandra from trying, though. She roars as she summons more and more black rocks, and Rapunzel has to draw on more and more of her power to break them, and the ground all around them turns into a deeper and deeper crater as it breaks apart from black rock shooting through it and getting blown up.

Rapunzel already had felt fatigued from the marathon it took just to get to their fight. But after exchanging blows and now drawing on so much of her magic, Rapunzel's not sure how much longer she can keep up with Cassandra, and she hopes that Cassandra will give up soon.

Rapunzel's last thought before losing consciousness is how glad she is to see Cassandra so close up, something she's desperately missed.

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Cassandra does not expect Rapunzel to collapse on top of her.

She stops summoning rocks, she's so startled. "What the-"

The locks of magic hair that had been holding her wrists down dropped as soon as Rapunzel did. No longer psychically restrained, Cassandra is able to move her hands - but her body is still crushed under Rapunzel's.

"Hey, princess," Cassandra says, shaking Rapunzel's shoulder. Her head fell next to Cassandra's neck, and Cassandra can feel her soft breaths.

Cassandra's face burns, and she gets no response. "Hey," she says again, trying to ignore the warmth at her neck and shaking Rapunzel more roughly.

No response. Cassandra blows a curl from her face as she realizes that Rapunzel must have passed out - presumably from the magic use. Cassandra considers the best way to get out from under her. It certainly doesn't help that they're in a crater.

Cassandra figures she could lift them out with her rocks from underneath, and she makes a face thinking that she'll have to put her arms around Rapunzel to keep her steady while she does that.

"Stupid princess," Cassandra mutters to herself as she summons rocks slowly from under them, still crushed under Rapunzel's weight with her arms around her. Back above grade, she uses her rocks to sit up, maneuvering Rapunzel onto her lap and then onto the ground.

Cassandra gives an exasperated sigh looking at Rapunzel and her no-longer-supernaturally-glowing blonde hair everywhere. She brushes a strand from Rapunzel's face before leaning over to try shaking her shoulders again. "C'mon, wake up," Cassandra tells her, to no avail.

Cassandra sits back, blowing air through her lips as she considers what to do. She won, so there's no reason to stick around. But she can't just leave Rapunzel here. Even knowing that she wouldn't be in danger - everyone around here loves her so damn much, if anyone finds her they'd get help - it just feels… wrong.

She also doesn't want to wait around until Rapunzel does wake up. For one thing, she doesn't know how long it would take, and for another, it'd definitely be awkward. What would she even say?

Cassandra frowns while considering other options. She could carry Rapunzel out of this destroyed part of the city to hand her off to a guard, or walk her up to the castle to drop her off directly.

This feels promising. She wouldn't have to interact with Rapunzel, but she also wouldn't be haunted by guilt by abandoning her. Cassandra nods to herself. She cannot think of a downside. Truly a perfect plan.

She frowns at the unconscious princess in front of her, who looks as though she's asleep. Cassandra's eyebrows draw together, thinking about how she hasn't seen Rapunzel looking so peaceful and unstressed in a long time.

"Awful," Cassandra says out loud. "Terrible. She should be stressed in my presence."

Cassandra squints at her while considering some way she could make Rapunzel stressed while unconscious, but she can't think of anything.

"I'll make her extra stressed next time I see her," Cassandra decides.

She's about to lean forward to pick up Rapunzel, but it occurs to her that it'll be an enormous hassle to carry her with all seventy feet of hair dragging along behind. She lets out a small exasperated sigh as she realizes she'll have to braid it all up, and she summons a comb out of black rock.

Luckily she's very good and quick at this, since she's done it hundreds of times. But unable to find any of Rapunzel's pins or hair ties, she has to make her own out of black rock to hold everything in place. Not terribly creative, she just makes copies of the ones Rapunzel used during the duration of their journey, since she's familiar with them - and she has a small crisis deciding whether or not to include the little decorative bird on the top pin.

She decides to, but she gives the bird little angry eyebrows so Rapunzel doesn't start getting any ideas.

Finally she has all of Rapunzel's ridiculous hair in place. "Alright, let's go princess," Cassandra mutters, scooping her up. She figures it'll just be most straightforward to bring Rapunzel directly to the castle. She starts walking.

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"Y'know, what people don't expect is how much the precise temperature comes into play. You get people saying, 'oh it's hot cocoa, you just heat up the milk and melt the chocolate in' and then they go and overheat it and then they're like, 'what? Why doesn't this taste good?'" Varian rambles out in the castle courtyard.

"I must say kid, you really know your stuff. I mean, this is the best hot cocoa I've ever had," Eugene tells him. "Hey if the science thing doesn't work out, you could be a barista."

"This is science," Varian responds. "Besides the temperature application, you also have to take into account the precise measurements of chocolate, cocoa powder, sugar, bit of vanilla extract, and salt - and, you have to mix them in at the right times."

"No," Eugene says in disbelief. "Salt?"

"Salt," Varian replies confidently. "Just a tiny bit, but it makes the flavors really pop. And don't even get me started on cinnamon. If you put in just a- oh my God SHE KILLED THE PRINCESS!"

Eugene's head snaps around to look where Varian is pointing in horror, and he sees Cassandra walk through the courtyard gates carrying Rapunzel's body.

The mug drops from his hand as Eugene feels himself go cold. This is something directly from his nightmares. He's frozen in place, not even knowing what orders to shout or actions to take. Varian is stuttering incoherently next to him.

Cassandra keeps walking over. "Here," she says, holding Rapunzel out towards him. When he doesn't move, she asks, "What?" while looking between their horror-stricken expressions.

The cold that had overtaken Eugene is replaced instantaneously with burning rage. "What have you done?!" He shouts, drawing his sword to point at Cassandra's neck.

"You killed her!" Varian finally manages to cry out again.

"What?" Cassandra asks again. "Oh, I get it. This looks really bad, huh."

"You'll pay for this, you mons-" Eugene starts.

"Calm down captain hair gel, she's fine," Cassandra interrupts nonchalantly. "She passed out. Over-exerted herself, probably." She holds Rapunzel out towards him again. "Are you gonna take this or not?"

Eugene's eyes widen and Rapunzel stirs in Cassandra's arms. "What-" she starts, groggily, and then lifts her head to look around.

She sees Cassandra, Eugene, and a sword over her - Cassandra very close, and Eugene slightly farther with his arm extended to point the sword at Cassandra. Putting a hand to her head, Rapunzel starts to ask, "what" again before she is unceremoniously dropped.

"Oof," she says instead, luckily landing on a soft pile of her braided hair.

"Well, that's your problem now," Cassandra says to Eugene. Glancing down at Rapunzel she adds, "I won, princess."

"Blondie!" Eugene cries in relief as Varian cheers, "Rapunzel!"

"H-huh?" Rapunzel asks, still not quite with it while Eugene kneels down immediately to pull her into a hug.

"We thought you were dead," Varian explains.

"Don't scare me like that again," Eugene says, pulling away from her.

"What is going on?" Rapunzel can finally ask, and she looks around seeking Cassandra, who is walking back towards the courtyard gates.

Eugene follows her gaze and scowls at Cassandra's back. "Hey," he says sharply. "What the hell is your problem, Cassandra?!"

Cassandra doesn't answer or look back, and Rapunzel's memories of what happened start to come back to her. "Wait- Eugene, it's okay. I- I used too much magic and I must have passed out. Cass… brought me home…?"

Rapunzel looks around again in shock. She's in the castle courtyard. Moving one of her hands to try to push herself up further, she feels her large braid of hair.

"And she… put my hair up…?" Rapunzel adds, looking behind her at the woven locks.

Rapunzel turns back towards Cassandra to say - she's not ever sure what. "Thank you"? "Why"? - but Cassandra has disappeared beyond the courtyard walls.

Chapter Text

"You want to what?" Eugene asks incredulously.

"Train. I have to train." Rapunzel says, standing in her bedroom and putting her fist in her hand. "It's become clear the more we fight that Cassandra has a huge advantage over me being a trained warrior. Sure, I can use my magic to keep up, but this last fight has proven that won't always work."

"If you want to level the playing field, I could give you some alchemy orbs to use," Varian offers. "Like the amber solution to immobilize her, or some sticky substance to slow her down."

Rapunzel puts a hand to her chin in thought. "That would definitely help," she begins, "but it might end up making Cass mad, considering the first time we used the amber on her. I'm not sure I'm willing to risk making her actually mad, when the goal is for her to have fun fighting me."

"You're putting a lot of thought into making the lunatic who destroyed Corona happy," Eugene notes dryly.

"Not a lunatic," Rapunzel corrects. "She's our friend, and this method of getting through to her is working. Do you see this?" She asks, holding up the bird hair pin.

Eugene squints at it. "An angry bird?"

"She brought me home when I passed out, and she put my hair up, and she made me a bird pin," Rapunzel tells him. "Do you think she would have done this a few weeks ago? Absolutely not. Our fights are making us closer. She's given me a gift."

Eugene frowns. "It seems like you're getting a lot of ideas from one little pin."

"This little pin means more than you could possibly imagine," Rapunzel says intensely. "It represents our friendship taking off to new heights," she continues, holding it close to her and looking towards the sky outside her window longingly.

"Yeah okay," Eugene responds dryly. "Then what's the deal with the angry eyebrows?"

"They're not angry eyebrows," Rapunzel explains. "They're like Owl's! He's not angry all the time, it's just how his feathers look. There are plenty of birds like that. Like male blue-gray gnatcatchers."

"Yeah I bet Cass was thinking about male blue-gray gnatcatchers when she was making it," Eugene tells her.

"I think Rapunzel's right," Varian says, taking a mug of hot cocoa delivered by Ruddiger and offering it to her. "Well, I don't know about the pin thing, but there's definitely been improvement with Cass. Last month she was singing about making all her rivals fall and taking everything she wants and then she destroyed Corona, so this is definitely a step up from all that."

"Wait, did you say sing?" Eugene asks.

"See Eugene? The plan is working. Now I just need to keep improving to keep her interested," Rapunzel says. "Which is why I have to train. Wow, this hot cocoa is amazing," she adds, beaming at Varian.

"This all still feels totally absurd," Eugene says. "Surely there are better ways to handle her. Like… what if we used that Saporian memory wand on her? Take away her memories back to before our journey to the Dark Kingdom. Make her go back to normal."

"What?" Rapunzel asks in shock. "You mean mess with her mind?"

Eugene shrugs. "Well, why not?"

"Because- because that's awful!" Rapunzel tells him. "You can't just manipulate someone like that, Eugene, it's a total violation of their personal autonomy."

"Yeah, take it from me, Eugene, that isn't the right way to fix things," Varian tells him seriously.

Eugene gives a short sigh through his nose, recalling Varian's experience with the Saporian wand's magic and his desire to erase the memories of all the Coronans to bury his past mistakes. "Okay, you're right," he answers softly. Looking at Rapunzel he says, "Then I guess we have to go with your plan, blondie."

"Who are you going to ask to train you?" Varian asks her.

Rapunzel glances out her window towards the mainland. "The best man for the job." She looks back at her friends. "The man who trained Cassandra."

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

"The captain's living in Old Corona now," Rapunzel tells Eugene as the two of them head down towards the stables. "He had a place here in the capital, but then he decided that he wanted a quieter life in the country after spending so long in the bustling city catching criminals and doing paperwork."

"You know, you don't have to call him the captain anymore now that he's retired," Eugene notes.

"I… I know…" Rapunzel says slowly. "But… okay-" she stops and looks down the hallway in both directions to make sure it's empty before continuing quietly. "Can I tell you a secret?"

"Of course," Eugene says, similarly stopping and lowering his voice.

Rapunzel takes a deep breath. "I don't actually know the captain's name."

"You don't?!" Eugene cries in a hushed tone.

"I know, I know!" Rapunzel says. "I have no idea how it's possible, but I don't think I've ever heard it, and I've known him for so long that I can't just ASK. Please tell me what it is."

"Well this is extremely awkward because I don't know either," Eugene expresses in dismay.

"What?!"

"Literally, I spent an entire afternoon after I was appointed the new captain looking through his office for any evidence of his name," Eugene tells her. "But in every single report he's in, he's just called 'the captain', and for every single thing he's signed, it's completely illegible."

"Oh my God," Rapunzel whispers.

"It's like the guy's name is a state secret," Eugene continues.

"It can't be a state secret because I learned all of Corona's state secrets when I took over as temporary queen and I still don't know it," Rapunzel answers.

"This is going to be so awkward," Eugene groans, and he puts his hand to his forehead in stress. "Hey, wait," he says, lowering his hand. "What if we just call him Mr. Last Name?"

Rapunzel tilts her head in confusion, and Eugene elaborates: "I mean, I don't know his last name, but you do. It'd be the same as Cassandra's. We can just call him Mr. Cassandra's Last Name."

Rapunzel bites her lip and doesn't respond.

"...You don't know Cassandra's last name?!" Eugene cries.

"It never came up!" Rapunzel defends herself.

"You spent every day with her for two years!"

"And it never came up!"

"What are we going to do," Eugene says in despair. "You know, after checking his office didn't work, I was so desperate I even asked Stan and Pete what his name is. And they looked at me like I was crazy and said 'Captain of the Guard'."

"Okay, wait," Rapunzel interrupts. "What if that actually is his name? Like, his first name is 'Captain' and his middle name is 'of the' and his last name is 'Guard'?"

"...You know, that is completely insane, but it's still more likely than neither of us hearing his name in over two years, right?" Eugene answers.

"Yeah…" Rapunzel says uncertainly. "Let's- let's just call him 'captain' when we see him."

"Oh I hate this," Eugene responds as they continue walking down the hallway.

From the stables, they ride Max and Fidella down to Old Corona. As they approach the village, Eugene asks, "So did your parents grant him a house and his own land or something?"

"Actually, he's living with Quirin," Rapunzel responds. "The two of them hit it off really well, and Quirin had the space since Varian's moved into the castle. So now they're roommates."

"Oh my God, they're roommates?" Eugene asks. "I wouldn't have expected that, but I guess it makes sense. Those two have a lot in common, huh."

"Yep, both seasoned, disciplined warriors who served their kingdoms and now just want to enjoy a quiet rustic life," Rapunzel says.

"Also both their kids lost it and tried to tear down Corona," Eugene adds.

"...And they're both single dads! So yep, a lot in common," Rapunzel responds cheerfully.

They dismount by Quirin's house and Rapunzel uses her hair to grab a couple of apples from the nearby apple tree to offer to Max and Fidella as thanks for the ride.

Several moments after knocking on the front door, it opens to the captain in civilian clothes.

"Your highness! Eugene! This is a surprise."

"Heyyyy captain!" Eugene responds, raising his hand awkwardly in a wave.

"You know, I'm not the captain anymore, you can just call me my name," the captain responds.

Eugene's hand freezes and he breaks into a sweat.

"...Well you'll always be the captain to us!" Rapunzel intervenes with a nervous laugh. "Anyway, captain-"

"Rapunzel wants you to train her to kick your daughter's ass," Eugene says plainly.

The captain stares between the two of them in silence for a moment, and Rapunzel quickly adds, "Well, how about we get back to that later. Can we come in?"

"Uh, of course," the captain says, stepping aside as he opens the door wider. "Quirin, the princess and guard captain have come by!" He shouts into the house.

"Oh, that's a nice surprise," Quirin responds from the kitchen, and he leans into the hallway to greet them. The captain leads Eugene and Rapunzel to the kitchen and gestures for them to sit at the table. After exchanging pleasantries, Quirin starts to heat water for tea as the captain sits with Rapunzel and Eugene.

"Your highness," the captain sighs. "I- I want to apologize again, for not being there for Corona at her darkest hour. I-"

"Captain, please, don't worry about it," Rapunzel tells him earnestly. "I know it's been a very… difficult time for you. I never would have asked you to join the fight."

The captain looks down at his hands on the table with sad eyes. "It's no excuse. I spent my life dedicated to Corona, and I couldn't even-"

"Rapunzel's right," Eugene interrupts. "You can't blame yourself for any of it."

"I was a coward," the captain responds. "I was overcome with my grief. But it's not like that anymore," he adds, looking back up at them. "I'm handling it better. Being here with Quirin… it helps. It helps to be with someone who understands."

"It's a cycle as old as time," Quirin says, walking over to put a plate of bread and cheeses on the table. "A parent trying to protect their child, and in doing so causing so much more harm than if they let their child be." He looks up at Rapunzel. "I know you don't understand this now, your highness, but it's a pain we have to bear the rest of our lives, knowing the hurt we caused from our love. Whether it's something like trying to keep your child from a dark power from your past-" he looks towards the captain, "-or denying them the life they wish to lead."

Rapunzel swallows at the heavy atmosphere caused by Quirin's words.

"Or sending them away from a falling kingdom," Eugene says quietly.

Rapunzel looks down and feels her chest tighten. "Or limiting their freedom to make sure they stay safe," she adds softly, thinking about her own father.

"All we can do is hope for forgiveness," the captain says. Standing by him, Quirin rests a reassuring hand on his shoulder, and he reaches up to cover it with his own hand.

"Cassandra will forgive you, captain. You have to have faith in that," Rapunzel tells him earnestly.

The captain sighs. "We can't be sure."

"She will," Rapunzel asserts. "You know… when we first landed on Tirapi island during our journey, the magic item we found was a totem that would show you the things you most wanted to see. It was cursed, obviously, since that's just how that island is, and it would wind up making you addicted to it and then showing you nightmares - but it started off showing you the things that would make you happiest." Rapunzel reaches for the captain's hand resting on the table. "Cassandra's vision was practicing sword fighting with you, captain. She loves you. And we're going to get her back."

The captain returns Rapunzel's gaze with tear-filled eyes, and Eugene interrupts.

"Which brings us back to why we're here," he says, leaning forward and interlacing his fingers on the table. "Getting Cassandra back involves beating her up. And blondie here was hoping you'd give her some pointers."

The captain and Quirin stare at Eugene blankly, and Rapunzel adds, "Maybe we should start at the beginning."

Roughly fifteen minutes later, they're all sitting at the table with their tea, and Rapunzel finishes summarizing her experiences and their various theories.

"...Well that does sound like her," the captain admits.

"So, do you think you could train me?" Rapunzel asks.

"Of course," he answers. "It's the least I can do."

"I know it'll take some time to get back into it, since it's been a while since you last did any kind of fighting or weapons practice-" Rapunzel starts.

"Oh, not at all, actually," the captain interrupts. "Quirin and I spar most mornings." Quirin chuckles and the captain grins at him. "It's been great, seeing how our fighting styles are different, between Corona and the Dark Kingdom." He looks back over at Rapunzel. "I'm a better warrior now than ever, your highness. I'm sure you'll wind up surprising Cassandra, too, with some of the Dark Kingdom's techniques."

"It's quite the blast from the past," Quirin says. "I never thought I'd be doing this again, but it's wonderful. I feel like a young man again."

"Aw," Rapunzel says, delighted.

"Well, your highness, when would you like to get started?" The captain asks.

Rapunzel puts both hands on the table and jumps from her seat. "Right away."

"You know, Horace, I could give you some lessons on the Dark Kingdom's warrior culture," Quirin tells Eugene.

"I never thought I would say this, but I am literally begging you to call me Eugene," he responds.

The captain and Quirin bring Rapunzel and Eugene to a cleared space outside the house near vegetable gardens with a rack of practice weapons by the fence.

"Alright your highness, how's your fencing knowledge?" The captain asks her, pulling out two swords.

"Um," Rapunzel stalls, taking the sword. "Well, I've fenced with Pascal my whole life, but I used a frying pan and didn't have any formal training," she answers.

"Also, Pascal is a frog," Eugene adds, and Pascal squeaks at him.

"Right…" the captain responds slowly. "We'll start with the basics, then… I'll start training you the way I did for Cassandra. Of course, she was six at the time, so you have some catching up to do."

"Um, captain, if you don't mind me asking… Why didn't you let Cassandra into the guard?" Rapunzel asks. "She trained most of her life for it, and she's probably the best fighter in Corona after you."

The captain sighs, taking a cloth to wipe his practice blade. "That's… complicated, your highness," he starts. "There are… a couple of reasons. For one, I feared her getting hurt. Things weren't always like they are now in Corona." He looks up at Rapunzel. "Before your father became king, I fought terrible threats, and my life had been in danger more times than I can count. I had no idea if this peaceful stretch would last, or if Cassandra would be thrust into battles that would threaten her life too."

"But you know how capable she is," Rapunzel protests. "You personally trained her so that she is so capable!"

"That's true," the captain admits. "But that wasn't the only reason. For another, I didn't want her to blindly follow in my footsteps rather than exploring her own interests..."

"But not being on the guard, she was doing lady-in-waiting work, and she didn't like that much either," Rapunzel interjects.

"Right…" The captain rubs his forehead. "There was another reason, and it's the one I'm not proud of, that I regret the most. You see, when I was raising Cassandra… Many people think that a man can't be a good parent alone, and certainly can't successfully raise a girl. I was… insecure, especially when things were hard, thinking that they were right. So when I heard their judgements - that I was doing her a disservice by training her, that I was going to… mess her up by treating her like a son - I became convinced they were right. It's why I told her she had to take up other work, and that I wouldn't let her into the guard." The captain sighs again. "I know now that I should never have listened to them, but that insecurity, that fear that I was hurting her somehow, it's why I did what I did. And it's what I so badly wish I could take back."

"I'm sorry, captain," Eugene says quietly. "Having people judge you for just trying to be there for your kid… that's awful."

"Did you ever tell Cass any of this?" Rapunzel asks, distressed.

"No. There are a lot of things I never told her," The captain answers. "I shouldn't have let the judgements of others sway what I felt in my heart, to support her unconditionally. But I just didn't know what I was doing. I don't… have any family to fall back on, so it was just me and her. I was so scared I would mess up."

"I don't mean to be rude, but... why did you adopt Cassandra?" Eugene asks the captain. He continues slowly, "It just seems… like an odd choice for someone with your situation."

The captain answers with very raw emotion in his voice and his eyes: "Because I loved her from the moment I saw her."

Rapunzel looks away, overwhelmed by some powerful wave of her own feelings. "I guess she just has that effect on people," she says softly.

"I truly have no idea what universe you two are living in," Eugene says in a deadpan.

"Well, let's get started, your highness," the captain tells Rapunzel abruptly, lifting his blade. "If you'd like to use a frying pan instead, that's fine. I'll use a sword to mimic Cassandra's fighting style. What you most need to remember is that Cassandra favors counterattacks over riposte. She's confident enough in her footwork and speed that she's sure she can dodge without needing to parry…"

Quirin fetches a frying pan for Rapunzel as the captain begins to explain the basics of Cassandra's fencing style to her. Eugene leans against the wall with Pascal on his shoulder to watch their bouts, with the captain starting slowly to show her some of Cassandra's favored techniques and offering Rapunzel ample time to counter.

Although they kept at it for hours, by the end of it Rapunzel doesn't feel exhausted - she supposes her real fights with Cassandra have started to raise her stamina and muscular endurance. But she does feel very much like she better understands Cassandra's style of fighting, and she's excited to try some of the moves that she practiced.

"Our next session we'll work on this again, and start on the basics of martial arts," the captain tells her.

Rapunzel beams at him. "That would be great. When should I come out again?"

"Actually, I'm going to start joining Quirin when he goes into the city to spend time with Varian," the captain responds. "So I can train with you then. How's three days from now?"

"That's perfect!" Rapunzel replies without even considering her schedule. If she has anything going on, she'll just reschedule it. This has become her top priority.

"We'll see you then," the captain tells her. "And… Thank you, princess. For everything."

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

"Princess Rapunzel, may I present: your most humble subjects," Nigel announces as the doors open to the throne room. The assembled crowd pours into the room, each citizen eager to discuss their individual concerns during the morning royal council - specifically with Rapunzel, who is the representative for today.

Cassandra smirks in her disguise as she approaches the throne room doors. She has a concern she'd like to discuss. But first, she's going to lean on the back wall and listen in on the open audience for a bit to enjoy the show of Rapunzel trying to deal with the kind of people who attend civic councils: society's most absurd individuals.

"I find it unacceptable that construction is still going on," one woman at the front of the crowd states.

Rapunzel waits for a moment, but this is evidently the extent of the woman's complaint. "...Okay…" Rapunzel starts slowly. "Well, roughly 80% of the city needed repairs, and 30% needed complete rebuilding… and it's not done yet… so that's why construction is still going on," she explains.

"Yes, I know, do you think I don't know that?" The woman snaps. "I think it should be done already. And because it's not done already, I would like compensation."

In the back of the room, Cassandra stifles an amused snort.

"Um, pardon?" Rapunzel asks with a strained smile.

"For my emotional duress," the woman says.

"...Do you mean distress-" Rapunzel starts.

"Never in my life have I felt so neglected by an elected official," the woman continues.

"...Elected-?"

"If you don't compensate me right now, I will never vote for you again," the woman says, crossing her arms.

"Do- I'm sorry, do you even live here?" Rapunzel asks, at a complete loss.

"How dare you," the woman responds. "You don't even know your constituents? I will need at least twice the amount of monetary compensation now than I required previously."

"Nigel, can you get the citizenship services clerk up here," Rapunzel says in an aside.

"This is unbelievable! I will not tolerate this disrespect. Goodbye, you've lost both a donor and a voter," the woman says, turning towards the room's side door near the dias. "I hope the rest of the people here have learned a very important lesson about the kind of person you are."

As the door closes behind her, Rapunzel looks back at the crowd and asks, "Okay, has anyone seen that woman before?"

Her words are met with collective head shaking. "Ooookay," Rapunzel says. "Well, who would like to speak next?"

Cassandra snickers. What a fantastic start. This is gonna be a good session.

But much to Cassandra's emotional distress, everyone else's problems are completely reasonable. Concerns about construction scheduling, financial assistance, and minor neighborly disputes, all that Rapunzel is ready and capable to solve.

Ugh. If you want something done terribly, you've got to do it yourself, Cassandra thinks to herself irritably, and she approaches the dias in her disguise as a middle-aged woman.

"I purchased several cupcakes from Attila's shop earlier this week and they all had extremely harmful allergens in them," Cassandra begins. "I cannot believe the lack of warnings advertised in the shop. I request you take immediate action against the business."

"Oh uh, geez, that sounds bad," Rapunzel responds. "What- what allergens? I'll speak with Attila about properly labeling his bakes with potentially dangerous ingredients."

"Peanuts," Cassandra answers. "Don't you know how common that allergy is? It's like he wanted someone to accidentally eat some, hidden in his cupcakes."

"Huh, okay, which cupcakes?" Rapunzel asks, gesturing to Nigel to take notes.

"The peanut butter chocolate ones," Cassandra answers.

Rapunzel pauses in her motion and stares blankly at Cassandra in her disguise. "The- you- You're saying you want a warning on the peanut butter chocolate cupcakes… to tell you… there's peanuts in them?"

"That's right," Cassandra answers. "And I demand a full refund on the cupcakes I purchased."

"...Okay," Rapunzel says slowly. "Well, if you bring them back to the shop, I'll ask Attila to refund you-"

"Well I can't do that because I ate them," Cassandra cuts her off.

"...But… But I thought you said you were allergic?"

"I'm not allergic, but someone else could be. He could have killed someone."

"...Okay, well, I can't ask him to refund you on a product you consumed-"

"Oh, so he's just going to get away with this?" Cassandra asks in disbelief.

"It's- it's not getting away with anything, since he didn't do anything wrong-" Rapunzel stutters.

"It was attempted murder."

"How about this," Rapunzel says, pulling a smile to her face. "I'll make a decree to remind every baker to include ingredient warnings on their sales, aaaand I'll have the castle chef bring up some cupcakes for you to take home. There won't be any, uh, allergens in them."

Cassandra scoffs, but she can't think of any further direction to take her complaint, so she walks towards the side door without another word.

Looking around in the hallway to make sure no one's around, she shapeshifts and rejoins the crowd in the throne room from the back entry.

After a couple more people have spoken, Cassandra approaches the dias as a middle-aged man. "I would like you to issue a warrant for the arrest of my ex-wife," she tells Rapunzel.

"Oh gosh, what did she do?" Rapunzel asks, alarmed.

"She's a bitch," Cassandra responds.

"...Um, okay," Rapunzel says slowly. "But what laws did she break?"

"Every law of human decency," Cassandra says, affronted.

"...But were any of them like, legally-"

"Let me tell you about her," Cassandra interrupts. "When we first met, years ago, I thought she was really annoying. She was a real nutcase. Really, the exact kind of person I wouldn't like at all-"

"I'm sure your story is very interesting, but I need to know if she actually broke any laws," Rapunzel says desperately.

"I can't believe I came around to enjoying her company," Cassandra continues. "It was the biggest mistake of my life. She-"

"Maybe you should direct this to the guard captain," Rapunzel interrupts with a placating smile. "I'm sure he'd love to hear all about her and, uh, help you determine what legal actions should be taken."

"That nitwit? No thank you," Cassandra says, turning away, and she leaves through the side door before Eugene could be summoned.

In the empty hallway off of the throne room, she takes another disguise.

"You're a terrible role model," Cassandra says several minutes later, standing in front of the dias as an older woman.

"...Uh, what?" Rapunzel asks.

"Haven't you ever heard of a haircut? And where are your shoes?"

"Well, my hair is supernaturally uncuttable, and I prefer to be able to feel the ground under me so I… don't wear shoes," Rapunzel explains. "I'm not sure how that makes me a bad role model-"

"Your constant optimism is offputting and unrealistic," Cassandra cuts her off.

"Oh, um," Rapunzel stalls. "I'm… sorry?"

"Your undeserved trust in everyone around you is both absurd and dangerous," Cassandra continues.

"I consider trusting others to be more of a strength," Rapunzel responds with a nervous smile.

"Your inability to recognize other peoples' needs and boundaries is a problem you refuse to face," Cassandra adds.

"This is getting weirdly personal," Rapunzel notes, stressed.

"Whenever there's an issue either you bury yourself in denial or rabidly pursue a solution without a care for others," Cassandra tells her.

"I'm sorry, who are you?" Rapunzel asks. "I'm- I'm not sure that we actually know each other."

"Anyone could see these things," Cassandra responds. "You're an open book. Which is another one of your flaws."

"Do you have an actual concern, or are you just here to list my flaws?" Rapunzel questions, distressed.

"Your flaws are my concern," Cassandra answers. "Work on yourself. Good day," she adds, and then strides towards the door.

"What the heck was that," Rapunzel whispers as Cassandra walks away, and Cassandra snickers out in the hallway.

Alright enough fooling around, she thinks to herself. Time for business.

"Okay, are there any other concerns?" Rapunzel asks the people assembled in the throne room, most of whom had already spoken but stuck around to hear others' statements.

"Yeah I've got a concern," Cassandra calls out, striding through the throne room's back entrance without a disguise, drawing the sword under her cloak. "Why aren't we FIGHTING?"

The assembled Coronans burst into a panic upon seeing her, some gasping in fear and stumbling backwards while others scream and bolt for the doors, pushing others out of their way.

"Oh you've got to be kidding me," Rapunzel mutters as the room clears and people fall over each other trying to get out.

"Okay, that does not get old," Cassandra says, chuckling as she watches the people fleeing in terror.

"The royal council is adjourned," Rapunzel announces to the few people who hadn't yet gotten out. "Please attend the next open audience if your needs have not yet been addressed… Get home safe… etcetera."

"You gonna address my concern or what, princess?" Cassandra asks, pointing her sword at Rapunzel.

Rapunzel sighs. "Can we at least start outside? I've been sitting in here all morning, I want some fresh air."

Cassandra, in her good mood, decides to extend the generosity to grant Rapunzel's request. "Alright, it'll just be more satisfying to beat you where your people can see," she responds, sheathing her sword.

She expects Rapunzel to go to the courtyard, but instead she heads down the adjacent hallway to the nearby terrace that overlooks the city while undoing her hair. Cassandra follows closely behind, so she sees Rapunzel stop in front of the terrace railing and raise her hands to frame something in the distance between her index fingers and thumbs, the way she might start planning a painting.

"What are you doing?" Cassandra asks, squinting at her.

"Aiming," Rapunzel answers.

"Aiming wh-" Cassandra starts, but she's distracted by glowing golden hair snaking over to wrap around her ankle. She's barely raised an eyebrow when the hair whips her into the air, and Cassandra spins while airborne as she sails past the castle's walls and over the city.

"WHAT THE FUCK," Cassandra shouts, but she doubts Rapunzel could hear her, as she's already very far from the castle and starting to fall back towards the ground.

She summons spikes to catch herself like she did last time. Looking around when she lands, she sees that she's been thrown to the very damaged area of the city they'd fought before. "What the fuck," Cassandra mutters to herself. She turns to stare at the castle, waiting to see if Rapunzel will take off into the sky after her, and she assumes a stance to brace herself for Rapunzel colliding with her.

After about a minute, she realizes that Rapunzel isn't going to be shooting over and into her like a cannonball. Straightening, Cassandra feels dejected. Did Rapunzel just throw her away just to get rid of her? She isn't even going to try to fight? Cassandra's feelings are hurt.

"Jerk," she mutters, scowling. She kicks a piece of debris by her foot and feels her anger flare. "She thinks she can just throw me away like… like garbage?"

Cassandra grits her teeth as she decides she's going to destroy- she doesn't know what. She has to think about it. Something big, to punish Rapunzel properly. She summons daggers of black rock to throw into a wall nearby while she brainstorms her revenge. Maybe she'll behead Rapunzel's statue.

A few minutes later, Cassandra starts at hearing Rapunzel's voice calling "Cass!" somewhere nearby. Cassandra walks onto the mostly-ruined street and sees Rapunzel run into her view.

"Oh, Cass!" Rapunzel calls, relieved. "You're still here. Phew, I'm glad."

Cassandra's eyes narrow at her as Rapunzel walks over. "I'm sorry I took so long, I still haven't figured out that whole flying thing," she explains. "I had to ride down instead. So, um," she clears her throat and takes up her hair in her hands. "You wanted a fight?"

Cassandra's expression softens, just barely. Rapunzel came down to fight. She wasn't just throwing Cassandra away like garbage. An embarrassingly large wave of relief hits her.

But she has an image to maintain, so she squints at Rapunzel again. "What was the deal with throwing me across the damn city?" She demands.

"What was the deal with interrupting my council?" Rapunzel shoots back.

Cassandra suppresses a smile. She's glad to see Rapunzel returning the same energy she's throwing out. Cassandra shrugs nonchalantly, responding, "I didn't interrupt anything. You asked for concerns and I stated one. You're the one who decided to adjourn the meeting, you could have addressed my concern without doing that."

"Well, I wanted to give you my full attention," Rapunzel says, her hair beginning to glow. "I wouldn't want you to feel like I'm not taking your concerns seriously."

"Aren't you a good princess," Cassandra replies with a smirk, and she draws her sword in a smooth motion.

Much to Cassandra's delight, Rapunzel initiates the fight, lunging forward and whipping her glowing hair over, which Cassandra blocks immediately with spikes from the ground. Their battle consists of their usual attacks: Cassandra striking at Rapunzel with her sword, summoning spikes to try to hit her, launching shards of black rock at her like throwing knives, attempting to encase her in stone; Rapunzel using energy blasts to hit Cassandra and break her rocks, throwing punches with her hair as magically-fortified brass knuckles, whipping at and trying to lasso Cassandra with her hair.

To shake things up, Cassandra summons huge spikes all around them to form walls, making a small arena that forces them into close-quarters combat, which prevents Rapunzel from effectively using her hair as a whip or lasso and optimizes Cassandra's use of her sword.

Cassandra swings her black rock sword at Rapunzel, who raises her glowing hair as a shield and tries to use her magic to break the blade -

But Cassandra expected this, well in advance of their fight. There's a reason she had this sword with her before she even arrived in the throne room. Striking Rapunzel's glowing hair, the black rock shatters, revealing a regular sword beneath.

Rapunzel's eyes widen with shock, and Cassandra grins wildly. Seeing Rapunzel's astonishment is as satisfying as she thought it'd be. Cassandra swings around to strike again, and Rapunzel stumbles backwards as she raises her hair again to block the blow.

She's sure Rapunzel could destroy the regular metal if she pleased, but it would take much more energy than breaking the black rocks, which her magic seems specially attuned to.

Cassandra sees Rapunzel shift her weight and pull back her arm with glowing hair wrapped around her fist. Predicting her path of motion, Cassandra quickly sidesteps the attack and lunges -

Except Rapunzel didn't continue with the strike she'd drawn back for. It was a feint, and instead of falling directly into the path of Cassandra's lunge, she dips around Cassandra and throws her hair around Cassandra's sword. Cassandra's eyes widen as she tries to turn, but Rapunzel yanks the sword from Cassandra's hand and throws more hair to wrap around her ankles, and Cassandra falls to the ground.

Rapunzel pounces, immediately, and Cassandra finds herself face-to-face with an extremely excited princess.

"Did you see that?!" Rapunzel exclaims at her, beaming, and she squees.

Usually Cassandra would shoot a column of black rock to launch Rapunzel away, but she's completely thrown off by the combination of Rapunzel's successful counter and her inexplicable reaction. "H-huh?" Cassandra stutters.

"Did you see that move I used on you?!" Rapunzel cries, thrilled.

"I- uh- yeah," Cassandra responds, still entirely at a loss. "I felt it, too. Since it hit me."

"Oh, right, yeah," Rapunzel answers with a sheepish giggle. "Well, I just wa-"

"Can we get back to our fight?" Cassandra demands, trying to compose herself as she feels increasingly flustered under Rapunzel.

"I gues-" Rapunzel starts, but then she's knocked off of Cassandra by a column of black rock.

Cassandra quickly stands and shoots a spike out of the ground to send her sword flying back to her, but Rapunzel's hair snaps over to grab it out of the air. Cassandra turns towards Rapunzel, growling, and Rapunzel catches the sword from her hair saying, "Mine now!"

Glancing at the ground, Cassandra gives a small smug smile before grabbing a lock of Rapunzel's hair nearby. "Mine now," she says in response, and pulls the hair taught.

Rapunzel quickly drops the sword to grab her hair so it wouldn't pull on her scalp, and she's yanked off her feet to sprawl in front of Cassandra.

She blows a few strands from her face as she pushes herself off the ground and glares up at Cassandra. "Hair-pulling? Really?"

"Don't take my stuff," Cassandra responds as she leaps over to grab the sword Rapunzel dropped.

Their battle continues.

Their battle continues for a long time.

Cassandra is impressed at Rapunzel's endurance - she would have expected Rapunzel to get worn down the way she had during the rematch Cassandra had challenged her to a few weeks ago. But instead she's able to keep up with Cassandra, which means the battle drags on to the point that both of them start exhibiting signs of exhaustion.

So it's only a matter of time before one of them makes a mistake. When Rapunzel catches Cassandra's wrist in one of her lassos, Cassandra isn't quick enough to shake it off, and she's pulled off her feet to fall onto the ground. Pushing herself up, Rapunzel collides with her from the side, and they go tumbling over each other until Rapunzel comes out on top, straddling Cassandra's waist and grabbing Cassandra's other wrist to lean forward and tie it over her head to the one already tangled in her hair. Rapunzel's long hair falls on either side of them as she holds Cassandra's wrists, blocking Cassandra's view of anything except for her.

Usually Cassandra would just launch Rapunzel off of her with black rock - but she's fucking tired. They stay there for a few moments, both catching their breaths, and Cassandra's gaze flicks around Rapunzel's face. Since Rapunzel's hair acts as curtains all around them, only some light is let through. It reminds Cassandra of years ago, sitting in the blanket fort with Rapunzel that she had made in Cassandra's room.

Despite the long hair, Cassandra is briefly mesmerized by all the ways Rapunzel is still the same as back then. The same eyes, freckles, unreasonably persistent friendliness. Of course, there's a lot different between them now. For one thing, Rapunzel has her tied up and is straddling her, and is leaning closer what the fuck

"Have I properly addressed your concern," Rapunzel says quietly to Cassandra.

Cassandra's heart is beating wildly in her chest, and she feels dizzy. She realizes that Rapunzel must be asking about the 'concern' she'd brought up in the throne room - about wanting to fight. She swallows hard, her eyes darting around Rapunzel's face, which is too close.

She has no idea what to say. So instead she explodes.

A shockwave bursts out from her, slamming Rapunzel away and loosening the hair, which she quickly throws off of herself. With that, she runs without looking back.

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"Then she totally faked me out, she dodged me completely AND disarmed me AND tripped me up in her hair in one motion, it was like nothing I've seen!" Cassandra cries, gesturing emphatically in her black rock tower to her entirely uncaptivated avian audience. "It was- it was so cool! She ruined it right after though, she was so ridiculous, she got all excited about it," Cassandra continues, with absolutely no self-awareness of the excitement she herself had just been expressing. "She's like a puppy. She has no idea how to play it cool. But even still, it was awesome."

"Hoo," Owl observes.

"What? No," Cassandra answers. "I don't like her, I like fighting her, and I like fighting her because I don't like her. Duh."

"Hoo," Owl presses.

"You have no idea what you're talking about," Cassandra tells him dismissively. "Go eat a vole."

Owl rolls his eyes and flies over to a nearby rock platform to pick up the canvas laying on it. Holding up the ripped piece of painting that only shows Rapunzel, Owl asks, "Hoo?"

Cassandra glares at him. "I need that for nemesis purposes," she explains flatly.

"Hoo," Owl responds, unconvinced, but he puts it down.

"You just have no appreciation for the fine institution of rivalry," Cassandra tells him. "Once you find yourself a proper rival you'll get it."

"Hoo," Owl says sarcastically.

"That's the spirit," Cassandra responds, completely missing his sarcasm. "Anyway, as I was saying, after she did this crazy move on me she had me pinned, so I summoned some rocks to send her flying, and then I try to hit the sword off the ground with a spike to grab it, but she whips her hair over before I could..."

Owl settles into a loaf on the rock platform. He's going to be there a while.

Chapter Text

"Okay, everyone ready?" Rapunzel asks in a hushed voice, looking back at her company in the woods who are barely illuminated by moonlight filtering through the trees. The pub thugs make sounds of agreement, and Rapunzel continues, "Great, just stay here with the supplies and wait for my signal. Then we'll charge."

"And the signal is you blowing a massive hole in the wall, right?" Big Nose clarifies.

"That's right," Rapunzel answers. "That'll give you access to the tower. We'll have to move quickly. I'll be up on the cliffside because I need to draw her away, but then I'll join you."

"You got it, boss," Attila replies as the other thugs raise their hands with thumbs up.

Rapunzel nods at them and then mounts Maximus next to her, and they take off to climb up to the cliffs surrounding Cassandra's tower.

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"I think it all started with my dad," Cassandra says, reclining on rocks vaguely shaped like a chaise lounge, speaking to Owl who's perched nearby with a notepad at his feet. "Like, the times I felt closest to him was when he was training me with weapons, so my fondest memories are from when we were sparring. So fighting just gives me this sense of comfort-"

"HEY! Cass!"

Cassandra jumps at hearing a voice coming from the distance outside her window. She immediately rises to look out, and in the darkness she can see Rapunzel's hair glowing far below on the cliffside.

Cassandra squints. "What're you doing here?!" She yells down.

"I wanna fight!"

Cassandra's eyes widen. She turns quickly to Owl saying, "We're going to have to reschedule this, she says she wants to fight."

"Hoo," Owl protests, but Cassandra has already thrown herself out the window.

She leaps down the sheer face of her tower's exterior, sending spikes out from the wall to hop between. By the time she reaches the elevation of the cliffside and forms a bridge to run across, Rapunzel has already taken off on Max. Cassandra huffs indignantly, thinking that Rapunzel's going to lead her on some ridiculous goose chase again before they can fight, but she pursues regardless.

Of course, it's difficult to catch up to a horse on foot. She summons spikes to leap between with her superstrength to move quicker, but it's still not quite enough. Refusing to give up, she decides that Max can only maintain a gallop for so long, so she does not give up her chase.

She must have remained in pursuit for at least ten minutes - occasionally losing sight of Max and Rapunzel for brief times, but having a good sense of the path they'd take and catching sight of them from above again shortly after - before she uses a shortcut to intercept them as they exit a ravine. Cassandra throws herself from a boulder at Rapunzel, knocking her off of Max and causing them to go rolling over each other onto the ground. Cassandra pins 'Rapunzel' -

"Shorty?!" Cassandra cries in disbelief, looking at the old man under her in one of Rapunzel's dresses and a blonde wig.

"Why hello, tall dark and blue," Shorty responds. "Do you come here often?"

"Wh- if- if you're not-" Cassandra stutters. She was sure it was Rapunzel she was speaking to on the cliffside - it was her voice, and her hair was glowing. "Where is Rapunzel?!"

"Gesundheit," Shorty responds, and Cassandra growls as she stands and tosses the small man away from her.

She looks around for Max, but he's nowhere to be found. Cassandra's eyes widen in alarm as she realizes she's been had. "No," she whispers, turning back in the direction of her tower and taking off. "No!"

Of course, she's exhausted at this point, and the wild goose chase had brought her in an almost straight line away from her tower, so it takes her another ten minutes to get back to the cliffside. She doesn't see anything immediately amiss, but she throws herself up the sheer face of the tower to climb through one of the top windows, and she's met with a terrible sight -

Furniture. Everywhere. An armchair pushed into a room's corner, a plush rug unrolled across the floor, a loveseat under a framed landscape painting, with throw pillows.

"No," Cassandra whispers again, hoarsely, staggering into another room.

A bookcase, filled with books. A potted plant. A dresser. A bed, with an embroidered quilt of the night sky, her small owl plushie sitting between two pillows in front of the carved wooden headboard. A chest at the foot of the bed.

"No!" She shouts, rushing into another room.

A long dining table, with four chairs and set with dinnerware and neatly folded napkins and a candelabra. A wooden kitchen cart with cabinets and storage for pots and pans.

Staring in abject horror, Cassandra is brought from her thoughts by Rapunzel's voice, barely audible in the distance. Cassandra looks out over a windowsill and she sees Max on the cliffside, with Rapunzel and her glowing hair taking off again. Cassandra can barely hear Max's victorious whinny and Rapunzel's voice shouting, "Enjoy your furniture, sucker!"

Cassandra watches Rapunzel disappear, still in a shocked state. Finally she turns to look back at the room, and Owl flies through the window to land on her shoulder.

"I just got Rapunzel'd," she mumbles.

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"My only regret is that I couldn't see the look on her face," Rapunzel says excitedly to Eugene as they walk through a castle hallway the next morning.

"I still can't believe you did this," Eugene responds. "I mean, that tower is tall. How did you even manage to get it all up there before she came back?"

"Don't underestimate the power of a determined Rapunzel," Lance chuckles. "She was a whirlwind."

"Wait- you were there too?!" Eugene cries.

"Yeah," Lance responds. "Angry and Cat too. They carried the throw pillows."

"You know what the best part is?!" Rapunzel cries, grabbing Eugene's hand and almost vibrating with excitement. "I found my painting, framed, on her wall, in the tower. Can you believe that?!"

"I- I actually can't believe that," Eugene responds. "Are you serious?"

"Well, it was more like half of a painting, since it was just the part with Rapunzel, and underneath it she had carved the word 'nemesis' in all capitals," Lance amends. "But uh, yeah, it was definitely there and framed."

"We're like, basically besties again," Rapunzel says cheerfully, dropping his hand and looking out the window contentedly. "She accepted my painting, and she gave me a gift, and now I've given her a bunch of other presents. I mean, it was kinda a prank, but she likes pranks! And she'll be so much more comfortable in her tower now. It's just a matter of time before she comes around."

"Y'know, I have to hand it to you sunshine," Eugene starts. "I think you might be right. You might finally start to get through to he-"

"Princess Rapunzel! Captain!" Stan's alarmed voice comes from behind them as he runs down the hall. They turn in surprise, and Stan continues: "The castle is under fire."

"What?!" Eugene cries. "By- by what? From who?"

"Uh, you're going to have to look for yourself, captain," Stan responds, holding out a spyglass. "I don't think you'll believe me."

They all rush towards the nearest east-facing terrace, and just as they're about to exit the castle there's a huge crash and the sound of cracking wood just outside.

"What the- is that a table?!" Eugene cries as they go out and see the broken pieces of whatever just smashed into the castle's exterior near the terrace doors.

"Uh-oh," Lance says as Eugene continues to the railing and pulls up the spyglass to look out towards the city.

"She- she built a trebuchet?!"

Rapunzel snatches the spyglass from Eugene and looks immediately towards the CEZ. She spots Cassandra standing in front of an enormous black rock structure just in time to see the huge counterweight at the front drop and the long arm swing upwards, slinging an armchair into the air.

"Incoming!" Rapunzel cries, and she throws herself into Eugene and Lance next to her to knock them to the ground. Moments after, the armchair sails over their heads and smashes into the castle's exterior past them, splintering into pieces of wood and shredded fabric.

"What the hell?!" Eugene yells, looking back in shock.

"I don't think she liked your gifts, princess," Lance observes.

Rapunzel pushes herself upright and shouts over the railing: "Are you KIDDING ME?"

"I also don't think she can hear you from here," Lance adds.

"I- I have to get down there," Rapunzel responds. "I have to- I don't even know. I have to stop her."

"Well, how much damage can some furniture even do?" Lance asks. "It's all made of wood, and the castle is stone."

He is answered by a storage chest smashing through a glass window to the side of the terrace.

"Mostly stone," Lance amends.

"We just fixed that window," Rapunzel growls, and she glares back out towards the CEZ.

"I'll- I'll call for Max," Eugene begins, but he's distracted by Rapunzel saying something under her breath, her hands balled into fists at her sides.

"What was that?" Eugene asks, as Rapunzel continues: "-Shine into the dark, restore our fading sight-"

"Uh-oh," Eugene says.

"-Rise into the dawn, blazing star so bright-"

"Lance, we're gonna want to get out of here," Eugene says, turning to Lance and pulling him up.

"What's going on?" Lance asks as Eugene desperately tries to drag him back towards the castle.

"-Burn away the strife, let my hope ignite-"

"Blondie's about to go nuclear, and I'd rather we not be too clos-"

"LET HOPE IGNITE," Rapunzel roars, her eyes and hair blazing gold, sending out a minor shockwave that knocks Eugene and Lance over.

"Oh, that's what's going on," Lance wheezes.

"Rapunze-" Eugene starts, but Rapunzel takes off into the air.

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Cassandra probably shouldn't feel surprised when she sees a flash of golden light in the distance, but she is.

"Huh," she says to herself as she sees the golden light shoot into the air from the castle.

She puts a hand to her chin in thought as the blazing threat arcs over in her direction.

She taps her foot pensively as the cosmically pissed off princess streaks through the sky towards her.

Finally, she decides it's a bit too early to deal with a supernova Rapunzel, especially when she had to spend her whole morning on the tiring affair of hauling furniture over here. And she hasn't even stretched. So she abandons the remaining loveseat and bed in the battle crater, and bolts towards the city.

While she's in an alleyway she hears a loud crash accompanied by a flash of light behind her and the ground shaking under her feet, which Cassandra can only assume is Rapunzel's arrival at and ensuing destruction of her trebuchet. Cassandra's eyes narrow. She worked hard on that. Rapunzel owes her a trebuchet.

But she can address that later. For now, as long as she's in the city, she thinks she'll treat herself to a pastry. Really, she deserves it after all her hard work this morning. So she pulls up the hood on her cloak and heads over to the bakery.

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"Eugene! Eugene wake up, wake up wake up wake up," Rapunzel says in a hushed voice as she shakes his shoulder in his room in the middle of the night.

"Huh, wassit," Eugene mumbles. "Blondie?" He asks upon pushing his eye mask up and seeing her hovering over his bed, illuminated by the moonlight coming through his window.

"Great! You're awake," Rapunzel says cheerfully, and she hops onto his bed to sit cross-legged and start speaking animatedly at him. "So I was thinking, and I got this really good idea for how to reconcile with Cass-"

"Wha-what time is it?" Eugene asks, pulling himself further upright and rubbing his eyes.

"Oh, I have no idea," Rapunzel answers. "Late. But I had this great idea, and I needed someone to talk to, but Pascal was asleep."

"So- so was I," Eugene responds, stunned.

"Yeah, but, now you're awake!" Rapunzel responds cheerfully. "So as I was saying, I was thinking about how to reconcile with Cass, and I keep coming back to the time we were trapped in that mine, right? You know, when all the rocks had fallen over the entrances, and Cassandra couldn't use the spikes to move them because the ground was full of poisonous gas, which was really a weird situation the longer I think about it, like why was there poison gas-"

"The point, blondie," Eugene reminds her wearily.

"Right, okay. So we were trapped together, and it was kind of like we were forced to team up, like we had this situation that neither of us could solve separately, and there were these threats around us that we ended up fighting together, and by the time we almost got to the surface we were having fun together!" Rapunzel cries, gesturing enthusiastically. "She even smiled and laughed with me. Of course, it was ruined right after, when she found that magic mirror in my bag, which is another weird situation, like how did that even get there-"

"The point, blondie," Eugene repeats.

"Right. So my point is, what if I recreate something like that?" Rapunzel asks. "Like, I make some kind of situation where we're forced to work together, and we become friends again!"

"How would you pull that off, though?" Eugene asks, frowning. "It's not like you can bury yourself and Cass under a mountain again. I mean, I guess you could, but it'd probably be difficult."

"Well, that's what I need to talk to someone about," Rapunzel responds. "I can't really think of a way to recreate it, because it was just such a wild situation."

Eugene rubs his goatee in thought. "I don't think you need to be trapped together the same way you were in the mine. What if there's just some kind of mutual enemy you both want to stop, which would make her work with you? Y'know, the whole 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' thing."

"Oh, that's a great idea!" Rapunzel gasps. "If I can think of someone Cassandra doesn't like, who acts as a threat… then we could work together to take them down!"

"Staging something like that still sounds pretty hard," Eugene notes. "Not the, finding-someone-Cass-doesn't-like thing, obviously that's the easiest thing in the world because she hates everyone. But finding someone who'd be an enemy to you, and a real threat… I'm not sure how you'd pull that together."

"Hm…" Rapunzel hums in thought. "I mean, we've fought plenty of bad guys, right? I just need to find someone who could pose a threat to Corona again."

Eugene raises an eyebrow. "So you're just going to go up to one of the bad guys we've dealt with and say, 'hey, I know you hate my guts, but do you want to do me a solid and attack my home?'"

"...Yeees," Rapunzel says slowly, and she blows air through her lips. "Okay, that sounds bad. But if I make a deal with them, part of the deal could be that they don't actually do anything bad, right? They just need to look intimidating."

"I don't know about this one, blondie," Eugene responds. "Don't you think Corona's been through enough? Even if the threat is fake, do you really want to scare people?"

Rapunzel sighs. "No, I don't. And I know as princess I should really just be focusing on keeping my people safe and happy. But I just… I feel like I'm so close, y'know? Like, Cass is right over there, and she's having fun with me in her own bizarre way, but we're still not like, friends." Rapunzel frowns. "I just… so badly want to be close with her again. And, I figure that reconciling kinda is protecting Corona, since her fights with me can be so destructive-"

"That sounds like you trying to justify yourself," Eugene notes.

"Mmmmaybe," Rapunzel admits. "But it is true! She was launching furniture at us just this morning!"

Eugene sighs, and he reaches for Rapunzel's hand. "I know how much Cass means to you. I'm just saying these things because it's our job to protect Corona, and I want to take that responsibility seriously." He looks up into her eyes. "But we can try to think of some plan that keeps Corona safe and offers you a chance to work with her, because…" He pauses, putting his thoughts to words. "Just because you have responsibilities doesn't mean you have to sacrifice everything for them. You deserve to have your own happiness, even while working for others."

Rapunzel looks back at him with shining eyes. "Thank you, Eugene. That means so much to me." She squeezes his hand. "You're a really great friend."

"Yeah yeah, I know, I'm amazing," he says, waving a hand. "But right now we should get some sleep, yeah? So we can figure a plan out. Best to sleep on it, can't make plans when you're exhausted," he rambles, leaning back.

Rapunzel raises an eyebrow. "You just want to get back to your beauty sleep, don't you?"

"Mmmmaybe," Eugene responds, echoing Rapunzel. "But it is true, can't make good plans after a sleepless night!"

"Okay, I hear you," Rapunzel tells him, putting her hands up with a smile. "I'll leave you alone now."

He grins at her before pulling his sleep mask back over his eyes. "Sleep well, sunshine."

"You too, Eugene."

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"I've got it figured out," Rapunzel says, intensely, as soon as Eugene walks into her room.

"Woah," Eugene notes, glancing at the string and papers covered in notes hung all around and Rapunzel's frantic expression. "You, uh. You didn't sleep at all did you."

"Nope!" Rapunzel replies cheerfully, taking a swig of heavily caffeinated tea from her '#1 Princess' mug.

"Alright, hit me," Eugene says as he walks over and sits next to Pascal on the bench at the foot of Rapunzel's bed.

"Okay, FIRST I assessed each and every one of the bad guys we've faced before," Rapunzel begins, gesturing to one string lined with notes. "To figure out someone who Cass doesn't like so she'd want to fight them, and who's still around and didn't, like, disappear into nothing like that weird couple in the woods with the teapot-"

"Yeah, still not sure if that counted as murder," Eugene notes.

"-and who I could potentially negotiate with, and who I could trust wouldn't go, like, totally berserk and be a serious threat," Rapunzel continues. "THEN I thought of ways to contain the 'threat', so no one would actually be scared by it, and THEN I thought of ways to combine these into a scenario where Cass would be around when this 'threat' shows up and she would want to fight them with me."

"Those certainly sound like the main three considerations," Eugene says.

"And so I thought, okay well Cass doesn't like anyone so that's easy, and we have a few bad guys still around because we managed to stop their mutiny of that prison ship so they should all still be on the barge in the Lost Sea-"

"Yeah, still not sure if that's a solid justice system," Eugene observes.

"It definitely isn't and we should have a long chat with my father about it!" Rapunzel responds spiritedly. "But they should all still be out there right now. And pretty much any of them I could negotiate with, since there's plenty I could offer them, starting with the whole, y'know, taking them off a prison barge in the middle of the ocean. And most of them we could probably keep from being a serious threat, since we've stopped them all before, and that was without a backup of royal guards, or me and Cass with our magic."

"That's a fair point," Eugene notes.

"So for ways to contain the 'threat', the most obvious option is just to have it not show up in the city," Rapunzel continues. "So out on the mainland, or here in the castle. And putting it all together I came up with the most amazing idea."

"I am at the edge of my seat," Eugene tells her with dry amusement.

"Picture this," Rapunzel says, putting her hands out towards him dramatically. "A celebration, here, in the castle, for the completion of so much rebuilding and the arrival of spring, all about new beginnings and the perseverance of the Coronan people. Plenty of royal guards around, and no one will attend who hasn't been thoroughly debriefed and is aware of what's going to happen. Cass loves to crash parties, as we saw with your birthday and Attila's bakery's re-reopening, and the whole event will basically be a party-version of the mural she destroyed, so the whole event is like catnip for her. Cassnip, if you will-"

"Please don't say 'Cass nip' ever again," Eugene interjects.

"-MEANWHILE, we also have another 'friend' who we know likes to crash parties," Rapunzel says, grinning.

"No way," Eugene responds. "You're not talking about-"

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"So let me get this straight," Caine says, leaning with crossed arms on the bars of her cell. "You want me to come to your castle… and commit crimes. And if I do… I'll get pardoned… for all my crimes."

"That's right," Rapunzel responds, nodding enthusiastically.

Caine studies her face in disbelief for a moment. "Okay, I know I'm not like, the resident expert on running a legal system, but that is completely backwards."

"It's been a backwards kinda month," Eugene replies.

"So, will you do it?" Rapunzel asks expectantly, leaning forward.

"I'm gonna need more information," Caine responds flatly. "First off: Why."

"Well... I've got this... friend…" Rapunzel starts hesitantly. "And we're not on great terms right now. But I thought if we had some experience that would bring us together, likeeee stopping a bad guy we've stopped together before, that we would bond and get along again."

Caine squints at her. "Is this about that curly-haired lesbian?"

"Well actually Cass is Coronan," Rapunzel responds. "But yeah, we've been having a rough time," she continues with a sigh. "So, I was hoping that you'd come ruin an event that I'm hosting in the castle, and me and Cass will stop you, and we'll be friends again. And then you'll go free."

"You'll just let me go free?" Caine asks in an entirely unconvinced and sarcastic voice. "Why would I believe you? What, you'll pinky promise me?"

"Sure," Rapunzel answers, putting her hand up with her pinky out.

"Yeah I'm gonna need more than that, princess," Caine responds dryly.

"I figured," Rapunzel says, lowering her hand. "Which is why I already have an official pardon drafted with the contract. And as soon as you agree, I'll sign and file it."

Caine frowns at her in silence for a moment. "I want more than just a pardon," she finally says.

Rapunzel blinks in surprise, and she exchanges a look with Eugene next to her. "Uh, okay, what do you want?" She asks.

"I want you to find my father," Caine says. "I want to see him."

Rapunzel rubs her neck uncomfortably. "Ah, well he was let free years ago after you interrupted my coronation, all the criminals unjustly held after my kidnapping were-"

"Yeah, and I have no doubt your dad kept close tabs on all of them, considering they have plenty of reason to hate all your guts," Caine interrupts acidly. "Your dad knows where my father is, and I want to see him."

"...Okay," Rapunzel relents. "I'll look into it. So, will you do it?"

"I want pardons for my crew, too," Caine says. "I can't do a job like this alone."

"No problem," Rapunzel responds immediately, and Eugene looks at her in surprise.

Caine studies Rapunzel's face in silence. "I also want forty thousand dollars."

"Sure," Rapunzel responds, and Eugene finally interjects.

"Well, that seems like enough, doesn't it?" He says with a nervous smile, fully aware that Rapunzel would agree to just about anything for a chance to be friends with Cassandra again.

"...Alright, princess, you got a deal," Caine says, leaning back. "Add my conditions to your contract, and I'll sign it. I'll ruin the hell out of your shindig."

"That's what I'm hoping for," Rapunzel says with a delighted smile.

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After returning from the barge via airship, Rapunzel begins the process of tracking down Caine's father. As Caine suspected, King Frederic had been keeping eyes on all the released individuals, and a messenger is dispatched to request Caine's father's return to Corona to meet with his daughter.

"I'm glad that they'll finally be together again," Rapunzel says to Eugene in her room while they're planning the last of the details for the spring celebration. "I mean, anyone can empathize with a desire to be close with their dad, right?"

"Y'know, I never thought about it, but it does seem like between you, me, Varian, Cass, and now Caine, that everyone has some sort of father issues," Eugene responds.

"Not me," Lance says while juggling apples to entertain Angry and Catalina. "Who needs dads, am I right, kids?"

"Yeah, screw parents!" Angry cheers while Catalina applauds his juggling.

"Alright, well it's been fun party planning with you two, but we've got to get going," Lance tells Rapunzel and Eugene while handing an apple to both Angry and Catalina. "The girls have an acting class down in the city. You both still have the rest of the lunches I packed for you, right?"

The girls nod, opening their backpacks to put the apples back in, and Lance tosses the other two apples to Rapunzel and Eugene.

Rapunzel catches the apple and says, "Thank you for your help, I hope you both have fun at your class."

"Between you and me, I'm a little skeptical of Feldspar's acting knowledge," Lance says in an aside to Rapunzel. "So I'll be sitting in on the class to make sure he's a good teacher. Don't wait up for me."

Rapunzel hides a smile behind her hand and answers, "You got it."

As the door closes behind them, Eugene asks, "So does he know he's a-"

"Don't tell him," Rapunzel responds.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

A couple days later on the morning of the spring celebration, Rapunzel stands at the city docks with her friends and Caine's father, awaiting the ship bringing Caine and her crew from the barge on the Lost Sea.

Caine, Axel, Pocket, Otter, Bandanna, and Skull are uncuffed and escorted by Coronan guards down the ramp from the ship. As soon as Caine sees her father, she shoves the guard in front of her out of her way - knocking him into the ocean - and runs down, calling, "Dad!"

Her father breaks from Rapunzel's group to step forward and catch her in his arms, very fondly responding, "Buttercup! I'm so happy to see you!"

Lance snorts. "Your dad calls you buttercup?"

Caine pulls quickly from her father's arms to take something out of her hair bun and holds it out towards Lance, asking very menacingly, "You got a problem with that?"

"No, not at all," Lance responds, alarmed, putting his hands up in front of him as Eugene cries "Is that a shiv?!"

Caine turns back towards her father, putting away her shiv, and he steps back to say, "Let me look at you." He beams at her. "I'm just so proud to see that my little girl has grown into such a smart, strong, beautiful, independent criminal."

"I'm sorry what was that last part," Eugene says while Rapunzel puts her hands together and says, "Aww."

"I never could've done any of it without you to inspire me," Caine responds, smiling warmly at him and taking his hand.

"I kept tabs on you, you know, from the barge," he says, gesturing enthusiastically. "I swear, every time a new person arrived, they had some new story about the terrifying Lady Caine!"

"Aw dad stop, you're embarrassing me," Caine says, laughing.

"No, I'm serious!" He cries. "You're a legend."

"Well, he's right about that," Eugene says as an aside to Rapunzel. "Everyone in the underworld of the Seven Kingdoms knew about Caine. Not even the Baron messed with her."

"Shut it, Rider," Caine growls.

"Okay," Eugene responds, intimidated.

"I'm looking forward to all the catching up we have to do," Caine tells her father.

"Me too buttercup," he says, grinning at her. "And I've heard there's a party for us to crash?"

"That's right! We're going to fuck up the princess's party and get paid doing it," Caine tells him cheerfully.

"Well, I like the sound of that."

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

Later that morning, Rapunzel looks around at the meticulously arranged spring-themed decor spread throughout Corona castle's courtyard, and the various booths and event tents set up for selling garlands and bouquets and pastries and other treats. It's beautiful. It's perfect. She feels sad knowing it'll all get wrecked, but Cassandra is worth it.

Caine saunters over towards her, glancing at the tables and arrangements as she passes. They'd just gone over the plan with the royal guards - Caine and her crew would lay in wait outside the courtyard until Cassandra arrived, at which time they'd receive a signal and would burst through the courtyard gates to start causing mayhem. Then Rapunzel and Cassandra would subdue them, they'd be taken away by the guards, and shortly after they'd be released with the $40,000 that Rapunzel had agreed to. Regardless of whether the plan worked, Caine and her crew would be pardoned - they already had been - but they'd only receive the monetary award if Cassandra ended up working with Rapunzel.

"Alright princess, you ready to get your pretty lesbian back?" Caine asks as she approaches.

"I told you before, Cass is Coronan," Rapunzel corrects her.

Caine looks at her, confused. "No, I mean she's gay."

"Y'know, not lately," Rapunzel replies pensively, thinking about how post-Moonstone Cassandra is generally angry. But then she remembers how Cassandra enjoys their battles, so she hurries to add, "Except when we're fighting."

Caine stares at her blankly. "...Alright, I don't want to know about whatever BDSM shit you're into-"

"I'm actually not big on sandwiches," Rapunzel tells her.

"-But I'm going to leave now. We'll come out when we get the signal."

"Sounds great!" Rapunzel tells her cheerfully.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

Shortly after, the courtyard is filled with willing participants of Rapunzel's harebrained scheme, enjoying the festival and music. The celebration lasts uninterrupted for about an hour, but then while Rapunzel is standing in front of the castle's doors giving a short speech to the festival attendees about the strength and enduring spirit of the Coronan people, Cassandra appears on the courtyard wall and draws attention to herself by shouting down to Rapunzel.

"You know, princess, I'm starting to think my invitations aren't getting lost in the mail, and you're just not inviting me to things." She hops down from the wall, landing in the courtyard and sending people scattering, and continues: "Be careful, you might start to hurt my feeling-"

She's cut off by the courtyard gates being kicked down by Axel, and Caine swaggers in shouting, "Looks like we've got a party to crash, boys!"

Otter, Bandanna, and Skull run out from behind her and toss smoke bombs into the courtyard as people start yelling and running. Caine smirks as she draws a cutlass and kicks a table over, and her father joins the fray by grabbing a support post from one of the festival booths and throwing it into another tent.

Rapunzel tries to keep a smile off her face at how perfectly things had started off, and she gasps and cries, "Oh no, it's Lady Caine! She's here to ruin the festival!"

"Woohoo!" Caine yells as she grabs a fiddle from one of the musicians and smashes it on the ground. "Love causing chaos!"

Rapunzel runs down the stairs while untying her hair to lasso Skull nearby and throw him into Otter. Festival attendees continue to flee, yelling dramatically, as guards come running out and Caine's guys destroy more of the event displays and stalls among the chaos and smoke.

"See, if you add some oil to your fuel mix, it sticks to surfaces better and burns more effectively," Caine's father explains to her.

Caine takes the molotov cocktail. "Thanks, dad!" She says cheerfully and hurls it at one of the large banners with Corona's crest hung on the castle's exterior.

It shatters directly in the middle of the banner, which goes up in flames. "Nice shot, kiddo!" He cheers.

Uh, arson was not in the plan, Rapunzel thinks to herself, stressed, as she catches sight of the fire. She decides to target Caine to subdue her before she can start any more fires, and runs towards her, hoping desperately that Cassandra will start to help soon.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

Cassandra stares expressionlessly at the chaos in the courtyard. She feels like she should enjoy watching the mayhem, but there's something off that she can't put her finger on.

Seeing Rapunzel run after Caine, it becomes clear to her what's bothering her.

Rapunzel isn't paying attention to her.

She came all the way out here to challenge Rapunzel to a fight, and now she's being completely ignored.

Cassandra grits her teeth. Who the hell does this bitch think she is?

"You call this party-crashing, Caine?!" Cassandra shouts. "This isn't fucking amateur hour!"

Throwing her arm out in front of her, she summons black spikes to shoot from the ground, impaling a street vendor cart and sending flowers flying everywhere.

"What?!" Rapunzel cries in shock, turning from Caine to watch Cassandra's attack while Caine laughs and says, "What?"

"Cass- no, stop!" Rapunzel cries as Cassandra sends more spikes shooting from the ground, upending tables and collapsing booths. "What are you doing?!"

"Showing some pussies how real party-crashing is done!" Cassandra shouts, summoning a sword to slice through a flower display.

"Stop!" Rapunzel yells again and she takes off towards Cassandra, while Caine almost falls over cackling behind her.

That's more like it, Cassandra thinks to herself, smiling, as Rapunzel runs towards her.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

Rapunzel tries to lasso Cassandra as she gets near, but Cassandra ducks under it and bolts towards her, throwing her arm out to knock Rapunzel and send her flying. Luckily, Rapunzel's landing is cushioned by colliding with Eugene, and they go tumbling.

While pushing herself up from the ground and rubbing her head, Eugene tells her, "I think your plan has gone a little sideways, blondie."

"You and the guards focus on Caine and her guys before they can do any more damage," Rapunzel orders him. "I'll handle Cassandra."

"You got it," he responds. "Hey uh, speaking of Caine's guys, where's the shifty guy with the long greasy hair?"

"No idea, but we've got more pressing matters," Rapunzel says, standing and using her magic to break spikes as Cassandra sends them shooting up from the ground.

"That's fair," Eugene responds, and he whistles to summon Max.

While Rapunzel and Cassandra resume their battle, Eugene, Max, and the royal guards start trying to round up Caine and her crew.

When Eugene gets close to Caine, she swings her cutlass at him, which he quickly blocks with his sword. "What are you doing?!" He cries.

"Sorry, captain, I'm just really in-character," she responds with a smirk.

"Well, get out of character," Eugene orders her. "You've all done your part, it's time for you to get caught."

"Yeah, I don't think so," Caine drawls. "You really believe I'd ever let myself get put in Coronan custody again?"

Eugene's eyes widen in alarm and Caine turns on her heel to kick him squarely in the chest.

Meanwhile, Rapunzel taps into her magic to control her hair, knowing that she needs to get this fight over as quickly as possible. As soon as she gets close again to Cassandra, her hair whips over to wrap around Cassandra's arms and torso, lifting her into the air.

"That's enough, Cassandra," Rapunzel scolds.

"Really?" Cassandra says with a malicious chuckle. "Because I'm just getting started."

Black rock cages shoot out of the ground to contain a few royal guards nearby who were trying to take down Caine's men, and Rapunzel huffs in annoyance as she realizes she'll have to drop Cassandra to redirect her magic and break them out.

Cassandra falls to the ground as Rapunzel runs over to the guards, and after breaking them out Rapunzel immediately has to block an overhead strike from Cassandra's sword with her hair. She pushes back against the blade and Cassandra leans in to put her weight into the attack.

"You owe me a trebuchet," Cassandra tells her, their faces close.

"I owe you a what?!" Rapunzel cries, and she sidesteps to make Cassandra tumble forward.

"You broke mine," Cassandra growls, turning to swing the sword around back at her.

Rapunzel catches the blade again with her hair, and this time uses her magic to break it, relieved to find no other sword beneath. "Oh you do not want to play this game," Rapunzel responds, offended. "Because you owe me several tables, a vendor cart, a window, and oh, roughly a third of a city."

Cassandra summons another blade of black rock from her forearm, extending out past her hand, and she lunges at Rapunzel. "Yeah, but you didn't personally build any of those."

"They were still mine!" Rapunzel cries, grabbing Cassandra's wrist and throwing her aside in a grapple the captain had taught her. "Look, Cass, this is ridiculous. Why are you fighting me?! Don't you want to fight Caine?"

Cassandra catches herself and glances over at Caine, who is engaged in a swordfight with Eugene. "Nah," she responds. "It'd be too easy."

"Then prove it!" Rapunzel yells.

"I don't have to prove anything to you," Cassandra snarls, and she claws out in front of her to summon spikes from the ground to strike Rapunzel.

Rapunzel dodges them, wanting to reserve her magic for the next time she tries to restrain Cassandra in her hair, but Cassandra leaps over to knock Rapunzel to the ground.

"Okay- okay," Rapunzel says, her cheek pushed into the ground under her and Cassandra twisting one of her arms behind her back, just short of actually being painful. Rapunzel sighs and continues, "I'm sorry for trying to tell you what to do. I know you're your own person."

"Wh- what?" Cassandra says, surprise in her voice.

"You deserve to have your own happiness," Rapunzel elaborates. "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."

"If you're trying to psych me out as a trick, it's not going to work," Cassandra growls without releasing Rapunzel's arm.

"What? No, I mean it," Rapunzel responds. "But I'm also not done with this fight, so I will be smacking you with my hair in a sec."

"Thanks for the heads u-" Cassandra starts, and then she leaps from Rapunzel's back to dodge her glowing hair.

Rapunzel pushes herself off the ground and turns to resume her fight.

On the other side of the courtyard, Caine smirks during her duel with Eugene as she catches sight of something behind him. Twisting her blade around Eugene's, she steps quickly up to him while shoving his sword away. Once she's close enough, she swiftly punches him in the side of the head with the guard on her sword, knocking him to the ground. Now unoccupied with fighting, she puts her hand up to her mouth and gives a sharp whistle.

At Caine's whistle, Axel rears up and boxes Max before taking off towards her, and she leaps into the saddle. They ride to her father nearby who mounts Axel behind her, and Caine turns to raise her hand to her forehead and flick her wrist in a gesture of sayonara towards Eugene. Looking towards the courtyard's gate as the two ride off, Eugene sees the shifty guy - Pocket - on horseback with bags tied to his saddle that are adorned with the emblem of the Coronan treasury. Eugene recognizes them: they're the same bags Rapunzel had taken out for Caine's reward, which Rapunzel showed to them earlier that day at Caine's request for proof of intended payment. The rest of Caine's crew bolt towards the gate as well, tossing more smoke bombs as they run. By the time Eugene gets past the smoke and courtyard wall, all he sees are five horses in the distance, tearing towards the bridge.

Rapunzel's not jazzed about the courtyard being heavily engulfed by smoke during her battle with Cassandra. She prefers to keep Cassandra in her sight to know when her attacks are coming and to break her spikes before they're able to cause much damage. Unable to see around her, she taps into her magic to give herself an aura of protection from any black rock that might come shooting out at her from the smoke - of course, this is quite a drain on her magic, and Rapunzel feels frustration that she might not be able to psychically grab Cassandra with her hair after this to stop the fight.

But Cassandra has no intention of using her black rocks. Rapunzel notices too late that a few stray locks of her hair are out of her sight in the smoke, and the next time Cassandra appears in her vision it's to throw Rapunzel's own hair around her, pulling her arms tight to her sides.

"Wh-what-?!" Rapunzel gasps, trying to pull herself free of her hair while Cassandra throws more loops around her and then roughly pulls Rapunzel towards her to knot it.

"See, how do you like it, princess?" Cassandra asks smugly, holding Rapunzel with one hand by the hair wrapped around her front.

Rapunzel grits her teeth and glares back at Cassandra, struggling to no avail. "Get me out of this hair!"

"No, I don't think I will," Cassandra responds with a smirk. With her free hand she grabs Rapunzel's jaw from underneath, and she leans her face in to speak close to Rapunzel's ear, her cheek barely brushing against Rapunzel's.

"Don't forget to send me an invitation next time," she says while Rapunzel feels her face burn and she tries to pull away. With that, Cassandra lets go of both Rapunzel's hair and jaw, letting her fall backwards onto the ground, and then Cassandra disappears into the smoke.

Chapter Text

[In a port town, far outside of Corona]

"SO THEN she says that I 'deserve happiness' and that I don't have to do what she or anyone else wants me to do!" Cassandra cries to Owl while she throws the captain of the docked trading sailboat she's commandeering over its side railing, her words punctuated by the man's shout and then a splash. The first mate comes running up from below the small ship's deck at the sound, and he draws his sword in surprise when he sees Cassandra. "And I was totally convinced that she was just saying it to like, throw me off my game to get the upper hand in the fight," Cassandra continues her narration, grabbing the first mate's sword blade with her armored hand and shattering it as soon as he gets close to her. "But she was like, 'no, I mean it' and then told me the exact move she was going to use next, to like, prove that it wasn't some kind of trick."

"It sounds like she meant it!" The ship captain's voice comes from over the side of the boat.

Cassandra grabs the first mate by the front of his shirt and throws him over the railing to join the ship captain. She leans against it, looking down at the ship captain treading water, and asks, "You really think so?"

"I mean, I don't know anything about this girl, but why else would she say it?" The ship captain asks as the first mate surfaces, spluttering.

"Well, she has this thing about always saying nice things - which I don't get like, at all - and while I'm sure she THINKS she means it, her actions don't always match what she says," Cassandra expresses, gesturing vaguely. "So it's possible that within a couple weeks she'll be back to throwing orders around."

"Have you told her that it hurts your feelings when she does that?" The ship captain asks.

"Ugh, what is with people demanding I talk about my feelings," Cassandra grumbles.

"Other people aren't mind readers," the ship captain tells her. "Haven't you ever heard, 'communication is key' with relationships?"

"It's hard, okay?!" Cassandra yells, leaning over the railing. "Why does everyone act like it's so easy?! And- it's not all on me, y'know, she should be able to tell when she's done something that's hurtful!"

"Hoo," Owl chimes in.

"Okay well she's been out of her tower for like three years," Cassandra snaps, looking back at him.

"Hoo," Owl responds dryly.

"Opening up becomes easier with practice," the ship captain says. "You could try talking to her about minor things to start, and work up to the bigger things. I mean, look at what you're doing right now! You're talking to me about your feelings."

"Well, yeah, because you're hardly even a person to me and I'll never see you again after I unmoor this boat," Cassandra responds, walking away from the railing.

"Wait- what?!" The ship captain's distressed cry comes from the water while Cassandra unties the mooring to the dock, and she jumps up to the mast to unfurl the sails.

Ignoring the continued shouts of the ship's former crew, Cassandra pushes away from the dock and lets the wind catch the sails, pulling the boat out to sea.

"Hoo," Owl notes, gliding over to perch near her.

"Don't nag, I'll bring the boat back," Cassandra responds. "I just need to use it to get to the island. I'll leave it where I found it when we head home."

"Hoo," Owl responds, looking out at the water ahead of them.

"Yeah, this wind direction isn't ideal," Cassandra agrees. "But I've got an idea for that. See, I've noticed there are some times that the air has started moving around me. Not like a shockwave, but like, breezes." Owl tilts his head at her, and she continues, "It happened when I first showed up in Corona castle again with the Moonstone - wind got kicked up out of nowhere, it blew out all the candles and messed with all the party decorations. Then it happened again when I made my black rock tower, and when I confronted Rapunzel before the eclipse." She looks down at her hands. "I think it's a power from the Moonstone."

"Hoo," Owl responds, impressed. "Hoo?"

Cassandra closes her hands into fists and looks out at the water. "I'm pretty sure… it's connected… to drama."

"...Hoo?" Owl asks incredulously.

"It only happened during really dramatic moments!" Cassandra defends herself. "My point is, if I can channel that energy, I could direct the wind so that it points towards Tirapi."

"Hoo," Owl comments.

"Well, I didn't use the cloak to go to Feldspar's acting classes for nothing," Cassandra responds, striding to the sailboat's bow. She frowns and puts a hand to her chin as she considers how best to create a dramatic moment.

"Oh, you know what was really dramatic was that time in the Great Tree I sang that killer song," Cassandra says, snapping. "I could do a reprise. Ah shit that means I have to think about my feelings again."

"Hoo," Owl responds, pulling out his notebook.

"Alright just give me a sec," Cassandra returns. A minute later, she's nodding to herself. "Okay, let's try this."

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

"Hoo," Owl says as Cassandra throws the boat's anchor into the water shortly off the shore of Tirapi Island.

"You can psychoanalyze me later, let's go," Cassandra answers dismissively, leaping off the boat.

She makes her way towards the Lorb's city. Exiting the jungle and walking up the main path, she looks around and calls out, "Hey, Alfons!"

Her voice is met with screams. "Ze curse of ze Fountain of Anbietengenpfeifen has returned!" A Lorb shouts in terror, pointing at her. All the nearby Lorbs, still screaming, flee up the city's main path away from her.

"What the hell, I haven't even done anything to you guys," Cassandra responds, baffled by the chaos. It was understandable (and satisfying) for Coronans to be terrified of her and for their good cheer to immediately dissolve in her presence - but the Lorbs?

Alfons runs down the city's main path, dodging the other fleeing Lorbs. "What is ze meaning of zis?!" He shouts in his puzzlingly German accent, looking around. "Oh sweet Goginsplotz!" He cries in shock upon seeing Cassandra.

"Great, Alfons," Cassandra says, glad to see someone familiar to her who's even almost reasonable. "I don't know what everyone's deal is, but I'm here for-"

"Stay back, foul specter!" Alfons cries, and he turns to call for reinforcements. "Chorb, Dorb, bring ze spears!"

"Dude what the fuck," Cassandra responds as a dozen Lorbs pile onto each other in an attack form. Cassandra sees a few of them have dark leaves stuck to their faces to resemble mustaches.

"We must find ze moustached frienfloofer," Alfons says to the team under him. "He must have returned to make again his wish!"

"You guys are fucking insane," Cassandra mutters under her breath, and she walks towards them. As she gets close, the Lorbs hurl toothpick-sized spears at her that harmlessly bounce off of her armor. She leans forward and plucks Alfons off the top of their attack form.

"I know my hair's different but we've met before, dumbass," Cassandra tells him. "Remember? Like a year ago a few... frienfloofers got stranded on this island. There was this whole thing with your lizard god, and then a cursed totem, and we saved your fruit crop from a firefly and shit. Ring any bells?"

"You are… not a specter?" Alfons asks, puzzled, from where he's being held up in Cassandra's hand.

"Okay I know I got paler but I'm not that pale," Cassandra tells him, irritated.

"Ah, our mistake," Alfons responds. "We thought you were a twisted nightmare come to life by ze cursed magic of ze Fountain of Anbietengenpfeifen. You can understand why we might make zat error."

"I literally understand nothing about any of you," Cassandra replies, opening her hand so Alfons could hop back onto his stack of Lorbs.

"Well, my unpleasantly uncivilized and incredibly unsightly friend, how may we help you?" Alfons asks.

Cassandra rolls her eyes at the Lorb's distaste for humans. "I'm here for pompoen fruit. Where do you guys keep your harvest?"

"Oh, you're in luck!" Alfons cries, delighted. "Ze new moon just passed so we have ample bounty of crop stored behind ze waterfall. You are looking to purchase some?"

But Cassandra had already started walking off as soon as he said where the fruit is stored. She's interrupted by Owl swooping down to hover in front of her, glaring at her.

"What?" Cassandra asks, irritated, and she tries to step around him to continue to the waterfall.

"Hoo," Owl responds sternly, moving into her way again.

"Ugh, fine," Cassandra responds, and she turns back towards Alfons. "Sure, I'm here to buy some. How much is it?"

"Each pompoen goes for two pounds of potatoes, or a nip of kräuterlikör," Alfons informs her.

Cassandra stares at him in stunned silence. "What?"

"We also accept himbeergeist and kirschwasser," he adds.

"No- I mean, what? You don't accept regular coin?" Cassandra asks in disbelief.

"Bah!" Alfons cries. "Useless, primitive frienfloofer currency. What good would zat do us? No, we accept potatoes or ze liqueur nips."

"I don't have any potatoes. Or liquor nips," Cassandra tells him.

"You have no nips?!" Alfons cries. "Zen you shall have no pompoen."

"Wouldn't a shot of liquor kill you guys?" Cassandra asks in continued disbelief.

"Pssh, I could drink you under ze table," Alfons responds.

Cassandra raises an eyebrow. "You want to bet? We could have a drinking contest, and if I win, I take as many pompoen as I want."

"Nein, you are not worth ze liqueur," Alfons responds dismissively.

Cassandra grits her teeth. "Listen, I am trying not to rob you. Is there anything else you guys could want?"

"What could a frienfloofer offer us?" Alfons asks. "All you are capable of is being loud and boorish. Zere is nothing a frienfloofer can do zat a Lorb cannot."

"What about this?" Cassandra says, holding her hand out and constructing a Lorb-sized reclining beach chair out of black rock in her palm.

There are gasps of awe from the stacked Lorbs, and even Alfons leans forward to look closer at it.

"I can make pretty much anything," Cassandra continues, tossing it aside. "And it's all unbreakable - it's the same black rock as the spikes scattered around the island. Pretty sure none of you can do that." She raises an eyebrow. "Still think I can't offer you anything?"

"Hrm…" Alfons starts, putting a twig hand to his leaf face in thought. "It is unbreakable?"

"Yep," Cassandra responds. "Only thing that's as strong as it is itself."

"I want a demonstration," Alfons tells her.

Cassandra rolls her eyes again, but she summons a spike of black rock from the ground in front of her, about half her height, and picks up a nearby branch to swing at it. The branch, predictably, snaps in half.

"Hm…" Alfons begins. "I am not yet believing. Show me more."

Cassandra blows air through her nostrils in annoyance, and picks up a sizable stone. She smashes the rock into the side of the spike and it shatters into rubble, leaving the spike without a scratch.

"Mmmm… still not impressed. Show me more," Alfons says with a wave of his tiny hand.

Cassandra glares at him, but then walks to the edge of the clearing. She summons a sword for herself, cuts down a palm tree, and carries it over. Swinging it around in a circle around her and above the spike a few times to build up momentum, she strikes the side of the spike with great force, and the palm tree explodes into splinters.

Alfons squints at the unblemished spike. "Eh, zat could be something… Or simply a fluke. Show me more."

Cassandra huffs before leaping up to the clifftop near the waterfall, lifting an enormous boulder, and hurling it directly at the spike. It lands on it and cracks entirely in half.

"Okay, I am now convinced," Alfons tells her when she gets back. "Ze council shall meet to decide what to request from you."

As the Lorbs walk off, Owl descends onto Cassandra's shoulder and she glares at him. "Happy?"

"Hoo," Owl tells her.

About ten minutes later, Alfons and his company return. "Well, our loutish and socially maladjusted friend, we have decided we want… Infrastructure."

Cassandra stares blankly at him. "Infrastructure?"

"Zat is correct," Alfons responds. "Zere are terrible storms here in ze summer, and our houses and civic projects are destroyed in ze wind and rain. We want you to give our houses and bridges support structures zat will not break."

"That's... actually a really good idea," Cassandra answers, frowning in thought. "Uh, okay, just tell me where to start. And then I'll be able to take pompoen fruit, right?"

"If you make us homes zat will not break, you can take as much fruit as you like," Alfons tells her. "Now, come, let us begin over here."

At Alfons' direction, Cassandra reinforces their bamboo structures with trusses of black rock. She finds it an interesting challenge - usually summoning black rocks is a haphazard affair, and the most attention she'd ever paid to details was while creating her unrefined tower. But now she has to work slower and focus on delicate details.

A crowd of Lorbs, now convinced that she's not some kind of 'specter,' follow Cassandra and Alfons' crew around to watch her work. Soon, their entire city is augmented with supports of black rock, and most of the Lorb population - many sporting leaf mustaches - have joined to look on.

"Alright, if we're done here, I'll just take the fruit and be on my way," Cassandra says, turning away from the last house and towards the waterfall - but she's met with a stack of Lorbs directly behind her, Alfons at the top with his tiny twig hands on his straw hips.

"You cannot take ze fruit yet!" Alfons scolds her. "We know not if ze houses will not break!"

Cassandra leans back, surprised by their sudden appearance. "What- what do you mean? I just proved earlier it doesn't break!"

"Yes, perhaps with being stricken by branches or stones, but we know not if it shall not blow away or fall apart in ze storms!" Alfons says. "You must return after ze summer has passed. If our houses still stand after ze gale force winds, you may take your pompoen."

Cassandra scowls. "That's ridiculous! I came all the way out here to get fruit now, asshole."

"Well, unless a storm occurs now, you shall not have it," Alfons responds, crossing his tiny twig arms.

Gritting her teeth, Cassandra is about to push the stack of Lorbs over to walk over and take the fruit anyway, but she's interrupted by Owl hooting at her.

"Ugh," Cassandra groans at his suggestion. This is all turning out to be so much more effort than she'd planned. "Okay, fine," she says to Alfons, and she takes a deep breath. "You're probably not going to believe this, but I can make wind happen. If I make some strong winds and the houses don't fall apart, then can I take the fruit?"

"...You are a very strange frienfloofer," Alfons says. "With very strange magic. Stones, wind, what is next? Mind control?"

"Well," Cassandra starts, but Alfons cuts her off.

"If you make winds as strong as ze storms and ze houses do not break, zen yes, you may take your pompoen."

"Alright then," Cassandra responds, and she turns back towards the houses to call on her power - but then realizes she has an embarrassingly large audience for the encore of her performance on the ship. "Uh," She starts awkwardly. "Actually, the wind thing is a little personal. Could I have some privacy?"

"You heard ze blue-pelted frienfloofer!" Alfons calls to the crowd of Lorbs, gesturing towards them dismissively. The Lorbs begin to disperse - but Cassandra notices that some have simply hidden themselves to continue watching.

"Ach, my apologies," Alfons says to Cassandra. "We do not often have visitors and new things happening, so they wish to watch, you understand. Ze last interesting thing to happen was a couple months ago when ze moustached frienfloofer was here, and Pascal with his own frienfloofers visited to stop ze curse of ze fountain."

Cassandra is startled. "Wait, Pascal was here? And his frienfloofers? Why?"

"They were familiar with ze moustached frienfloofer who used ze fountain to wish for his schlutchowsen," Alfons responds. "Your feathered friend was here as well, he can tell you all about it."

"Hoooooo," Owl responds thoughtfully, as though just remembering something. He looks back at Cassandra and says, "Hoo, hoo hoo, hoo hoo hoo hoo. Hoo hoo, hoo hoo hoo hoo, hoo. Hoo hoo."

There is a long pause as Cassandra takes in everything Owl said.

Then:

"My father wished for WHAT?"

And a cyclone tears through the city.

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"Thank you, strange blue frienfloofer!" Alfons calls at the front of a crowd of Lorbs, all waving towards Cassandra as she climbs into her sailboat. "You have done us a great service!"

Putting her large bag of pompoen fruit down on the deck, Cassandra looks back at the Lorbs on the shore, and she notices a line forming to get the top of their leaf heads painted blue. She rolls her eyes at the crowd of blue-dyed and mustached Lorbs, but waves back at them after pulling up the anchor.

"Well, mission accomplished," Cassandra grumbles to herself while the sailboat starts heading away from the island. She sits down next to her fruit bag, exhausted. "Thanks," she adds sarcastically, looking up at Owl.

"Hoo," Owl comments.

"No, I don't have any warm fuzzy feelings about doing the right thing," Cassandra responds, folding her hands behind her head. "Although... making structural supports for existing buildings out of black rock is a pretty interesting idea. I'm sure plenty of people would be willing to pay for a service like that. I think I could go somewhere with this…"

"Hoo?" Owl asks, turning his head at her.

Cassandra makes a face. "No, I don't want to talk about my dad, either."

"Hoo," Owl presses.

Cassandra doesn't respond, looking out over the sea. But finally she answers, "I need some time to think about it."

"Hoo," Owl replies, nodding in understanding.

Cassandra pulls out a pompoen fruit from the bag next to her and makes herself a knife out of black rock to cut off the bottom bright blue vines.

"Won't be needing this," she says as she tosses the vines over the railing into the water. She puts aside the pompoen and reaches for the next one.

"I think this will be fun," she adds with a growing smile. "We deserve some entertainment."

"Hoo…" Owl responds, squinting disapprovingly.

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Walking down a castle hallway towards Rapunzel's room, Eugene starts, "So I know the hot-running-water plan was kind of a bust in your village with the whole, y'know, devastating earthquakes thing, but I was thinking-"

"Think no more," Varian interrupts with gusto. "I'm already on it. Lately I've been occupied with making mechanical lifts and stuff to help with repairs, obviously, but now that the construction's winding down I'm able to get started on-" Varian puts his hands out in front of himself dramatically. "Operation: Corona Castle Water Heaters."

"...Y'know, that simultaneously is what I was hoping to hear, and also fills me with fear," Eugene answers. "Have you, uh, addressed the little flaws in your design? Like the ones that make the heaters... explode?"

"Don't worry, Eugene," Varian laughs. "I've revised the blueprints and improved the chemical composition of the Flynnoleum. It's way less unstable now!"

"Well I do like my chemicals heating my water to be not unstable," Eugene notes. "Anyway, I was thinking that if you ever get that installed in the castle-"

"-When I get it installed in the castle," Varian corrects confidently.

"-That we make a couple of saunas," Eugene continues. "I tried them out years ago when I was traveling in the north and oh MAN are those things incredible. Never felt so relaxed in my life. So I was thinking we could renovate the suite next to me into a spa and hook it up with your water heaters-"

"That's a great idea!" Varian replies. "I mean, I don't know what a 'sauna' is, but I can definitely get you all the hot water you could want. Rapunzel's already signed off on my preliminary plans!"

"She did?" Eugene asks, surprised. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I've got full confidence in you, but- she did?"

"Yeah!" Varian responds enthusiastically. "She has total faith in me. So me and my dad are gonna start surveying the castle today to figure out an optimal pipe network." He frowns and adds, "Hey, uh, what is it that Rapunzel wanted us all to meet about? I don't have a lot of time, since my dad is showing up..."

"Oh, I've got no idea," Eugene responds. "But I guess we're about to find out," he adds as they round a corner to Rapunzel's doorway.

Walking into her room, Varian announces sauvely, "Team Awesome has arrived-"

"Look out!" Catalina cries as soon as they enter, and they look around, startled. Pillows are scattered around the floor, Catalina is standing on Rapunzel's bed, Max is standing precariously on a small table, and Lance is standing on one of the armchairs.

"Uh, what's going on here?" Eugene asks.

"The floor is lava!" Catalina shouts at them.

Varian scoffs. "Uh, I think we're a little old for that gam-"

"The floor is-" Eugene starts, alarmed, and he throws himself into the air in a panic, grabbing at one of the pillars next to Rapunzel's doorway to get off the floor. He looks up to glare in the direction of the armchair. "Lance, why didn't you tell me?!"

He starts to slip from the pillar, crying "woah-!" but is rescued by Rapunzel, who swings down with her hair to grab both him and Varian and carry them up to the room's decorative rafters.

"Whew, you saved us, blondie," Eugene tells her once she drops them on the beam.

"I know," she responds with just a hint of smugness. Then she continues, beaming with genuine enthusiasm, "This game is so fun, the girls just taught me about it." She glances down and adds, "But it seems like everyone else already knows about it."

"Oh yeah, it's an immensely popular kids' game," Eugene tells her.

"Not in my village," Varian says, catching his balance on the rafter. "I tried playing it with the other kids when we were younger and the game got banned because I got-" he holds up his hands to display air quotes. "'Too devoted to realism'."

After a moment, Eugene replies, "You actually made the-"

"I actually made the floor lava, yeah," Varian says plainly.

"How do you even do that?" Eugene asks in disbelief.

"Well, lava is just molten stone," Varian explains. "And one of my Flynnoleum prototypes could react chemically with water to release an insane amount of heat, so-"

"Melted a stone floor into lava, got it," Eugene finishes for him. "Well I'm glad to see the floor is just imaginary lava, in this case."

"It's actually imaginary cursed lava," Angry corrects from the ground where she's standing near Rapunzel's bed.

"Cursed lava?" Eugene asks incredulously, looking down at her. "You mean lava isn't already dangerous enough?!"

"It means that if you fall into it, you turn into an evil lava monster and you want to drag everyone else into the lava too," Angry explains. "The last person who hasn't turned into a lava monster wins."

"Angry's a lava monster right now," Catalina says from atop the bed.

"Yep," Angry responds. "Which means-" she jumps onto Rapunzel's bedside table, and leaps at Catalina to tackle her off the bed onto the floor. "Now you are too!"

"Oh, the humanity!" Lance cries, lifting his hands to his face, aghast. He wipes away an imaginary tear, adding, "She was so young."

"Well, I'm preeeetty sure that me, Eugene, and Rapunzel are all safe up here," Varian says, looking down at them. "Since there's no way you're getting up here without Rapunzel's hair. So it appears that we are at-'' he enunciates every syllable self-assuredly, "a stalemate."

Angry and Catalina exchange a look and a smirk, and Catalina changes into her werewolf form.

"Ah I forgot you could do that," Varian replies as Catalina stands on Rapunzel's bed to reach up, pick him up by the back of his shirt, and deposit him on the ground.

"Lava monster now," Angry tells him.

"Well since we're all here, we can end the game and begin our meeting," Rapunzel interjects, and she uses her hair to lower herself and Eugene down to her bed. Lance and Max hop off their armchair and table, and Catalina transforms back into a human.

"Right, what is this about?" Eugene asks her.

Rapunzel takes a deep breath. "I got this... letter… from Cass," she begins slowly.

"What?" Eugene asks, surprised. "What did it say?"

"Let me just read it out loud," Rapunzel responds, taking a paper from her dress pocket. She unfolds it and recites, "'Princess. I thought maybe you could use a demonstration. This is an invitation. Come to my tower tomorrow night for dinner. Come alone, I can't stand those other-' okay well that part isn't family friendly. But then it says, 'P.S. This isn't a trap and I'm not going to try to fight you. Unless of course you're rude, or you want to fight me.'"

"She's inviting you over for dinner?" Varian asks, surprised.

"Absolutely not, this is a trap," Eugene responds, crossing his arms.

Folding the note again, Rapunzel starts, "So what I wanted to discuss was-"

"If you should fall for this obvious trap?" Eugene interjects. "I vote no."

"-what I should bring with me when I go over for dinner," Rapunzel finishes.

"Oh come on!" Eugene cries.

"Like, I think I should steer away from housewarming gifts on account of the trebuchet incident," Rapunzel begins. "But I can't just bring nothing, y'know?" She puts a hand to her chin. "I was thinking a dessert."

"Oooh, food is always a good option," Lance says. "I mean, the worst she can do with that is start a food fight."

"And food fights are fun!" Angry cheers.

"Then I also thought that hey, if she's inviting me over and not trying to fight me, this might be a good opportunity to try to connect to her in other ways," Rapunzel continues, gesturing vaguely with one hand. "So I was hoping we could all brainstorm ways to make the most of this and come up with things that Cass and I could do together, or thoughtful gestures I could make for her."

"I think you should play music and sing to her," Lance responds. "Nothing conveys genuine emotion like singing your feelings."

"I think you should have a long heart-to-heart conversation," Catalina suggests. "Finally tell her how much she means to you and how you want to make things better between you two."

"I think you should fight!" Angry shouts enthusiastically.

"I think you shouldn't fall for this obvious trap," Eugene says sternly, and Max whinnies in agreement.

"I think I'm with Eugene and Max," Varian adds. "Sorry, Rapunzel."

"Hmm," Rapunzel hums, picking up a clipboard from her bedside table and scribbling notes as everyone speaks. "All good ideas… Keep them coming," she requests.

"You should play charades with her, Owl, and Pascal," Lance responds.

"You should make something together, like a painting," Catalina offers.

"You should have some kind of strength competition. Like a fight!" Angry suggests.

"You should stay here in the castle and not get caught in a trap," Eugene says, and Max snorts for emphasis.

"Yeah, I'm still with Eugene and Max," Varian tells her.

"Mhmm, mhmm" Rapunzel says as she writes. "Go on."

"You should play cards or a board game," Lance responds.

"You should do a puzzle together," Catalina replies.

"You should play a sport like flying disk," Angry suggests.

Everyone looks over at her expectantly, and after a moment she shrugs and adds, "Or a fight."

"You should listen to the voices of reason telling you not to walk willingly into this trap," Eugene tells Rapunzel, and Max stamps a hoof.

"My stance has not changed," Varian says plainly.

"Okay," Rapunzel starts, looking at her clipboard. "We have a pretty good list of options now… Let's discuss."

"Rapunzel, please," Eugene begs. "I know you like to believe the best in people, but you have no reason to trust Cassandra."

Rapunzel sighs. "I know, Eugene, okay?" She responds, looking up at him. "I'm fully aware that it's more than likely that she'll just try to drop me into a pit of spikes, or make us duel on a platform suspended 300 feet in the air. I promise I'm not so naive to blindly believe this. But it's worth the risk," she continues, and gestures vaguely with a hand. "Maybe there is a 99% chance that she'll put me in a cage with a sneezeweasel-"

"I'm sorry a what," Varian says.

"-but that 1% chance that she means it… I'm willing to try," Rapunzel concludes. "And even if it is a trap, showing up is a gesture to show that I trust her and I care about her. It might help get through to her."

Eugene's distress fades. "Alright sunshine, I understand," he tells her softly.

"I do too," Varian responds. "I think it's really admirable of you to believe so much in others. I support your decision."

Max offers a resigned raspberry.

"Thank you," Rapunzel answers, and she stands to pace thoughtfully. "I already know what food I'm going to bring - I'll bake her favorite dessert."

"What is her favorite dessert?" Lance asks.

"That's classified information, sorry," Rapunzel answers, stopping to look at her clipboard. "Now, let's review the options for what else to do. Sorry Angry, but I'm going to cross out fighting her. I know she enjoys it, but we're trying to branch out."

"That's fair," Angry responds with a shrug.

"Maybe I should write her a song," Rapunzel says thoughtfully, glancing over at her guitar. "Although, I don't have a lot of time to do it… I'll see what I can come up with before tomorrow night."

"I would pay to see you serenade the unstable lunatic," Eugene comments.

"Not a lunatic," Rapunzel corrects, and she looks at her clipboard. "I love the idea of doing art or a puzzle together, but I don't think Cass is as big on those as I am," she admits.

"She might be more likely to ruin the art or puzzle than to help you," Lance notes.

"Yeah, it's something I'd really like to do together again eventually, but it's probably not a viable option yet," Rapunzel agrees. "A heart to heart conversation is unlikely," she continues, "But I'll certainly try over dinner. I really hope that doesn't fall under 'being rude' in Cassandra's mind..."

"It almost certainly does," Eugene observes.

"I think the games are a good idea," Rapunzel says. "It's competitive, but friendly, and it's something we used to do together before." She looks at Pascal on her shoulder. "I'm not sure if you count as the one of the 'others' she can't stand, buddy, so I don't know if we can all play charades together."

"What could she have against Pascal?" Varian asks incredulously.

"No idea," Rapunzel responds. "But I also have no idea what she could have against the majority of the kingdom, so I'm not going to pretend I know what she's thinking, ever."

"Because she's a lunatic," Eugene says.

"Not a lunatic," Rapunzel repeats. "Just... complicated."

"I think games are a great idea," Catalina interjects while Eugene rolls his eyes. "It's kinda like a fight because there's a winner, but it's a lot nicer. And you can talk to her during the game."

"Chess is a good option," Varian comments. "I mean it's a strategy game about winning battles, so surely Cass would like it even now, right?"

Rapunzel considers this. "You're right. We would play chess before, and she really liked it. And she'd tell me I had to work on my 'game face' to intimidate the opponent, which is like what she told me about trash talking people before fights, so she probably considers chess and fighting to be similar." Rapunzel nods thoughtfully. "I could bring the board and pieces and ask her if she wants to play after dinner."

"You should bring more than one game," Angry suggests. "So if she doesn't want to play chess you have other options."

"That's a really good idea," Rapunzel says, smiling at her. "We should come up with some more games I could bring," she adds, pulling up her clipboard again.

"Sorry, but you'll have to finish this without me," Varian interjects. "My dad's arriving at the castle soon and we've got work to do together, so I've gotta go."

"Oh, I forgot Quirin and the captain are coming today," Rapunzel responds, delighted. "That's great!"

"Oh yeah, real great, the captain," Varian mutters, barely rolling his eyes.

"Woah there," Lance responds, raising an eyebrow. "What do you have against him?"

"Nothing, he's a solid guy," Varian answers with a shrug and unconvincing tone. At his friends' disbelieving expressions, he sighs and adds, "It's just… This is the first time in my life that me and my dad are really close. Like, there finally aren't any secrets between us, and he's supportive of my projects and helps me, and we're really getting along." Varian frowns and looks away. "But now he's spending all his time with this other guy, and I can't even just hang out with my dad anymore."

"Aw, Varian," Rapunzel says, distressed.

"I mean, I like, get it," Varian continues. "They've got a lot in common, and it's great that my dad has company back in Old Corona. I just… I feel like I barely got to enjoy having him back before this happened."

"Have you talked to your dad about this?" Eugene asks sympathetically.

"What? No way!" Varian cries, aghast.

"So much for no secrets," Lance says in an aside.

"Listen, my dad is like, really dedicated to me and the captain getting close," Varian explains. "I'm sure it's why he does bring him when we hang out and work together. And the captain's trying really hard too," he adds. "Except the guy is clueless. Last week when they visited he brought me an electrolytic cell as a gift, and it's like, what self-respecting alchemist doesn't already have one? I could build my own since I was four."

"Well in his defense he's a total jock," Lance notes. "I doubt he knows anything more about chemistry than his sword rusting."

"Why do you call him 'the captain'?" Angry interjects. "He's not the captain anymore. You can just call him his name."

"Yeah, and my dad wants me to," Varian sighs, and both Rapunzel and Eugene glance at each other before just barely leaning forward expectantly. "But I don't want to," Varian continues stubbornly. "We're not that close."

Rapunzel and Eugene exchange an expression of despair.

But she suppresses her disappointment. "If you'd like, I could ask the captain to train me when you and your dad are working," Rapunzel offers to Varian. "So you're able to get some time with just the two of you."

Varian brightens immediately. "You would do that?"

"Sure," Rapunzel responds. "It's probably better that I do more training, anyway…"

"After the whole spring festival and getting tied up in her own hair thing," Eugene fills in for her.

"That was kind of an off day for me, that doesn't usually happen," Rapunzel defends herself. "Anyway, I'll walk down with you, Varian, and when your dad and the captain get here, I'll tell him my schedule shifted and ask him if we could train now. But," she continues, "my only condition is that you talk to your dad about how you've been feeling."

Varian makes a face, but then he nods reluctantly. "Okay, I can do that."

"I guess that ends the meeting," Rapunzel says looking at her friends. "But Lance, if you and the girls are around later, I'd love to have a jam session with you to try to brainstorm a song for Cass."

"It's a good thing I've got my emergency tambourine," Lance responds, pulling a tambourine from his bag. "Sure, me and the girls will stick around until after you're done."

"Which means the floor is lava again!" Angry shouts, jumping onto the bench at the end of Rapunzel's bed. Catalina, laughing, joins her.

"Well I was going to go do guard stuff but 'the floor is lava' sounds more fun," Eugene says, grinning. "Max, go do my job for me," he instructs, and Max snorts in disapproval.

Leaving her room with Varian, Rapunzel hears the sound of Max jumping on a table and Eugene arguing with him, and she stifles a laugh.

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Rapunzel takes a deep breath. "How do I look?" She asks Eugene and Lance, standing in her room the next day.

"Hmmm… Give me a twirl," Lance requests, and Rapunzel obliges.

"Those hair pins are easily removable, right," Eugene says, pointing at her hair.

"Yes, the outfit is battle-ready," Rapunzel tells him. "And I'm wearing the bird pin she gave me," she adds, showing it off.

"I think you look great!" Lance says with a smile, and Pascal gives her a thumbs-up from where he's sitting on her vanity. "It's cute, but functional. As usual," Lance tells her.

"It's not really any different than how you normally dress," Eugene says, tilting his head. "Am I missing something?"

"No, you're right, this is pretty standard," Rapunzel responds, glancing in the vanity mirror. "I'm just nervous," she admits, looking back at them.

"Don't be," Lance tells her. "It's just Cass."

"Which is exactly why she should be nervous," Eugene points out dryly. "Listen, blondie, you have to be ready for anything. Who knows what she's got waiting for you?"

"Like a dinner," Lance says.

"Or a pack of dire wolves," Eugene replies.

"Honestly, the dinner idea is way more nerve-wracking to me," Rapunzel admits. "Like, if it really is a trap and she wants to fight, that's no problem, it's familiar territory between us at this point. But if she actually wants to just… sit down and spend time together?" Rapunzel takes a deep breath, glancing into the mirror again. "I have no idea what to even do with that."

"Just have fun and be yourself," Lance advises.

"Woah, no way," Eugene responds. "That's terrible advice! Blondie, you should absolutely not be yourself."

Rapunzel starts to sweat. "Pardon?"

"She's got some vendetta against you," Eugene explains. "The more you you are, the more she'll remember that. You've gotta act completely different to throw her off."

"That's ridiculous, Eugene," Lance chides. "She should be herself! Clearly something is working, if Cass is inviting Rapunzel over to spend time together. They were best friends for years, obviously she likes Rapunzel the way she is."

"Were best friends, until Cassandra snapped and stole the Moonstone and ruined Rapunzel's kingdom before fighting her on a weekly basis for funsies," Eugene says, unimpressed.

"Hhhlet's not talk about this," Rapunzel responds, feeling her nerves spiking again.

"Listen, Rapunzel, you're going to be fine," Lance says. "Just make sure you've got reasonable expectations and stay casual. It's not like your entire relationship rides on this."

"Okay, yeah-" Rapunzel begins, nodding.

"But don't be too casual," Eugene interjects. "Maybe your whole relationship doesn't ride on this, but if you're able to get through to her at all, that's a huge step."

"That's true, but you can't come on too strong either," Lance adds. "You don't want to scare her off or provoke her."

"Um, okay-" Rapunzel starts, her eyebrows drawing together with uncertainty.

"You should start off with small talk, flatter her a little," Eugene advises. "Maybe compliment her, I dunno, terrifying spiked armor."

"But you can't sound insincere about it," Lance says. "Don't just scramble to think of something to compliment as soon as you see her, it's gotta sound natural."

"R-right," Rapunzel responds, desperately trying to absorb all the advice.

"Make sure you pay attention to her body language and what she's saying," Eugene says. "You have to be vigilant to her behavior to be prepared for sudden attacks."

"Don't forget to talk too, though," Lance tells her. "After all, she's inviting you over for a reason, she wants to enjoy your company. You should come up with some topics to talk about."

"Safe topics," Eugene adds quickly. "Things that won't piss her off. Definitely don't talk about any other villains. You remember what happened last week."

"The most important thing is not to stress," Lance says. "Just have fun."

"But don't be too unstressed," Eugene adds. "You need to be ready for anything."

Rapunzel's nerves finally snap. "I'm going to go talk to my mom," she says urgently, feeling her head spinning, and she darts out of her room.

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"Mooom, what am I going to doooooo," Rapunzel laments in a muffled voice from where she's face-down on her mother's bed.

"Well, first you're going to drink some tea and relax," Arianna begins. "Thank you, Friedborg," she adds, accepting the cup of tea from her lady-in-waiting with a smile.

Rapunzel pulls herself upright as her mother sits next to her on the bed and hands her the teacup.

"Better?" Arianna asks after a minute of letting Rapunzel drink the tea and breathe.

Rapunzel sighs. "A little," she says, but she's not able to bring a smile to her face and she stares down into her cup with slouched shoulders.

"Listen, honey," Arianna begins, putting a hand on Rapunzel's arm. "I told you before that you're the only one who can get through to Cassandra, and that's still true. And I don't mean that as in, 'it's your responsibility to do it', but that it's inevitable."

"What do you mean?" Rapunzel asks with eyebrows drawn together, looking up at her mother's kind expression.

"You both care so much for each other," Arianna tells her. "No matter what happens, those feelings will come out. And when they do, you'll be able to reconnect and make things right."

Rapunzel looks back towards her tea and hangs her head. "I don't know if Cass still cares for me. Not with the way she's been acting."

Arianna smiles. "She's a funny one, isn't she? You know, I've traveled across the world and I've never met someone like her. But despite her behavior and actions, I'm certain that she does still care for you."

"How could you be so sure?" Rapunzel asks without looking up.

"Well, I am rather familiar with her, since I watched her grow up," Arianna begins.

Rapunzel's head snaps up immediately. "What was she like?" She asks quickly, before her mother could say anything more.

Arianna smiles at Rapunzel's enthusiasm, and then considers her answer. "Quiet," she starts pensively. "Intense, even as a child. Like the world could fall apart and she'd be ready for it. Fierce and strong and bold."

"So, the same as how she is as an adult," Rapunzel notes, a smile finally rising to her face.

"And she's always been so loyal," Arianna continues, and then she sighs. "Her entire life is upended. I don't know what started it, but we know that demon Zhan Tiri must have had something to do with it. She spent her whole life working so hard and being so devoted - with all of that gone…?" Arianna looks out the glass doors of her balcony towards the kingdom. "She must be trying to find herself again. To carve a new path for herself." Arianna looks back at Rapunzel. "And she wants you to be part of it."

Rapunzel frowns. "I don't think you can know that."

"Why else would she still be here?" Arianna asks with a gentle smile.

Rapunzel's eyebrows draw together, and she doesn't respond.

"You know, seeing Cassandra grow up, I often wondered if the two of you would have been friends," Arianna says, looking thoughtfully out towards the kingdom again.

Rapunzel's distress spikes at being reminded of the years her mother spent haunted by her absence, convinced she was gone forever.

"I confess, it's one of the reasons I chose her as your lady-in-waiting," Arianna continues, looking back at Rapunzel. "Of course, Cassandra is diligent and smart and I knew she would be a great guide to you - and your father was thrilled at the idea of having a warrior in your company constantly - but part of me just so badly wanted to see the two of you becoming friends."

The corner of Rapunzel's mouth quirks up. "How is that going for you?"

"Very interestingly," Arianna laughs.

Rapunzel feels her mood dip again. "I'm sorry your plan got all messed up."

"It's not messed up, honey," Arianna tells her earnestly, leaning forward and cupping her face. "Life is complicated, and people are complicated. You can be mad at someone and still love them. And sometimes people need time to work through their emotions, especially anger and hurt." Arianna lowers her hand. "But once you're both ready, you can work together to make things right. And that's what I was telling you earlier: it's inevitable that your feelings for each other will bridge the gap between you both again, and once it does, you can address those hurts and move forward together."

Rapunzel looks between her mother's eyes. "Even if I make a fool of myself at a dinner?"

Arianna laughs again. "Yes, even then."

Rapunzel feels hope flare in her chest.

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"Okay, you guys stay here," Rapunzel instructs, leaving Pascal on Max's saddle. "I don't know how long this will be, but I'll probably be back in a couple hours. If you see explosions, that means that she started fighting me and- well, I guess there isn't much you can do about that, so you can just keep doing what you're doing."

Max and Pascal nod in understanding, and Rapunzel turns to the tower. Looking up at it, she takes a deep breath, bracing herself and remembering what her mother told her about just letting her feelings show naturally. She looks down at her basket to check again that she has the board games and the dessert that she'd so carefully prepared and decorated to Cassandra's tastes.

She'd decided against bringing an instrument or singing for Cassandra. During her jam session with Lance and the girls, Rapunzel kept finding herself self-conscious of the intensity of her own emotions. Held back by embarrassment and confusion with the complexity of her feelings for Cassandra, she abandoned the singing idea. Her mother's advice reinforced this decision, as Rapunzel recognized that pouring her heart out in song is perhaps not the most "natural" way of showing her feelings.

Rapunzel walks slowly towards the tower. Despite her efforts to steady herself and her mother's earlier comforting words, she feels jitters, torn between her nervousness that Cassandra will spring a trap on her at any moment and her considerably more intense nervousness that Cassandra wants to have dinner with her. As her eyes dart around towards anything moving in the corner of her eye, Rapunzel's mind also starts scrambling to recall all the dinner advice Eugene and Lance had given her, not wanting to make any mistakes.

Rapunzel sees that the hole she'd blown into the base of the tower for her furniture prank had been sealed. Frowning at the smooth surface, she wonders what to do - certainly Cassandra wouldn't hear her knock way down here, but something tells Rapunzel that exploding a hole in the tower for entry would definitely count as being rude.

Resting a hand on the stone while she thinks, she's startled by it reacting immediately to her touch, receding to form a large entry for her.

Okay, what was it the guys said? Compliment her, but it has to be natural, and I should talk but only about safe topics and make sure to pay attention to her, I shouldn't be too stressed but I also need to make sure to be vigilant… Gosh, I almost hope that she does just have a trap for me, Rapunzel thinks to herself with increasing stress as she walks up the stairs.

She doesn't encounter Cassandra in any of the stairwells, which doesn't surprise her. Entering Cassandra's 'throne room' on the top floor, she sees a rough-but-relatively-flat-topped stone in the middle of the room, waist-high and narrow and about six feet long, with two other stone formations that vaguely resemble armchairs on each end of it. Four uniform pyramids of black rock stand on the surface of one side of long stone and five pyramids stand on the other, like serving plate domes.

She squints. Is that supposed to be a dining table? She could have just kept the one I gave her, Rapunzel thinks, eyeing the coarsely-formed candelabra in the center of the table, with three small blue flames on it. Despite her dinner jitters, Rapunzel does feel a small wave of relief that she's been met with a dinner table rather than a horde of Drexis bat-spiders.

"Welcome," a dry voice rings out from across the room, and Cassandra walks in expressionlessly, wearing her usual armor, her stone boots making loud footsteps that echo in the cavernous room.

"Ah, Cass!" Rapunzel says, feeling another spike of adrenaline rush through her system and smiling nervously. "Th-thank you for inviting me, I brought-"

"Sit," Cassandra cuts her off, waving at the opposite chair as she approaches the table.

"Um, sure," Rapunzel responds, not wanting to come across as rude. Abruptly remembering Eugene's advice about flattery and armor, Rapunzel blurts out, "You, um, look very intimidating."

Cassandra pauses with one hand on the back of her chair as she's about to sit, and stares silently at Rapunzel.

"In a good way!" Rapunzel assures her. "The- the spikes are doing wonders for you."

Cassandra finally reacts. "Uh, thanks," she responds, sitting in her chair. "Anyway," she continues, gesturing again at Rapunzel's seat.

"R-right," Rapunzel replies quickly. She puts her basket down next to the table, thinking that she'll show the dessert to Cassandra later, and sits.

Cassandra snaps her fingers, and the sides of each pyramid of black rock retract into the table, revealing plates beneath each one.

Rapunzel barely has time to be impressed by the large array of food before she's struck with terrible recognition of the appearance and scent of the red that populates each dish.

Pompoen fruit. On every single plate. She sees it mixed into salad, baked into bread, adorning skewers of steak kabobs, garnishing roasted chicken, populating mashed potatoes, sitting in stew - it's in everything. Rapunzel looks desperately for any sign of the blue part of the fruit that acts as a cooling agent and neutralizes the fruit's spice, but she doesn't see it anywhere.

"Something wrong?" Cassandra asks dryly from across the table, and Rapunzel's head snaps up to see her raising an eyebrow, still expressionless.

I can't say anything, Rapunzel thinks to herself, her palms starting to sweat with nervousness. If I criticize the food, that's definitely rude, and she'll try to fight me. Rapunzel abruptly realizes that this must have been Cassandra's plan all along - to force Rapunzel into rejecting her hospitality somehow, in order to provoke a fight.

Rapunzel steels herself. She will not let Cassandra win.

"Absolutely not!" Rapunzel says cheerfully, smiling. "It looks delicious. You must have spent hours cooking!"

"Well, it's been so long since I had guests," Cassandra responds, lifting her nearby black rock chalice. "Invited guests," she specifies, and sips her drink.

Rapunzel's eyes dart to her own chalice, thinking that it will be her salvation during the meal, a relief from the fruit's spiciness. She'll have to ration it well.

Looking back up, Rapunzel catches sight of the extra plate near the center of the table. "Wait, I'm sorry," she starts in shock. "Is that a dead mouse?"

"Oh, yeah," Cassandra says nonchalantly as though just remembering it, looking at the plate. "That's for Owl." She lifts her hand to her mouth and lets out a sharp whistle, summoning him. Owl glides into the room silently and lands on the table, lunging immediately for the mouse and biting at its neck with his curved beak.

"No, buddy, it's already dead," Cassandra informs him, and Owl grabs it and throws his head back to choke it down whole. He doesn't quite manage, so he has to throw his head back again. And again.

Rapunzel watches this with a horrified expression. Owl has to take a moment to catch his breath through his nostrils, half of the mouse hanging out of his mouth.

"...Is he-" Rapunzel starts.

"He's fine," Cassandra responds.

And then he's back at it. Finally, the mouse disappears into his throat, and he hunches over with his wings slightly out.

"Ooookay, that was the freakiest thing I've ever seen," Rapunzel says quietly to herself, still staring at Owl in shock. Then she clears her throat and says louder to Cassandra, "Is-"

"He's got it," Cassandra tells her.

And then Owl ruffles his feathers and flies up to one of the spikes sticking out of the wall to settle down.

"Now then," Cassandra says to Rapunzel. "Shall we?" And she gestures to the array of dishes in front of them.

Rapunzel glances over the black rock plates as Cassandra reaches for a dish to start eating. Rapunzel decides that the salad would be best to start with - it is an appetizer course, after all, which is definitely her only reasoning and not that she thinks she can subtly avoid the sliced raw pompoen fruit.

But lifting her black rock fork and taking a bite of the greens, it becomes apparent to Rapunzel that the oil for the dressing is infused with pompoen, as her entire mouth burns immediately with spice. Tears spring to her eyes and she has to hold herself back from gasping.

"So, how are things going with the whole," Cassandra gestures vaguely. "Princess thing."

Rapunzel looks up at Cassandra and sees the barest hint of a smirk on her face. She knows exactly what she's doing, Rapunzel thinks. Well, this is not going to stop me from being a good conversation partner. She swallows heavily, hoping that getting the food from her mouth would get rid of the burning sensation on her tongue. It doesn't. "Oh, great," Rapunzel responds, trying not to pant or lunge immediately for her chalice. "You know how things are. Always some diplomat to host or civic project to approve," she continues with a small laugh.

"Mmm. Living the dream," Cassandra responds, taking a bite from her own salad. Rapunzel eyes Cassandra's plate, wondering if she'd kept it free of spice, but she sees it also has pompoen on it. And Cassandra appears entirely unfazed.

What the heck is she made of, Rapunzel thinks to herself, and she takes another bite. She has to stop herself from yelping as soon as it touches her tongue, and she tries to swallow it as quickly as possible. "And how are things here in your, um, tower?" Rapunzel asks, feeling her face start to sweat and taking deep breaths through her nose.

"Oh, the usual," Cassandra replies with no elaboration. "Do you like the salad?"

"It's-" Rapunzel starts, heavily placing an elbow on the table to cover herself shifting uncomfortably in her seat. "Divine."

"I'm glad," Cassandra responds with a small smug smile. "It was such a hassle, you know, to get some of the ingredients. Having to wait for the new moon to go to Tirapi, and all that."

"Oh?" Rapunzel asks. "Is there- is there pompoen in this? I hadn't even realized."

"It's subtle," Cassandra replies, smirking openly, not even bothering to hide her schadenfreude at this point. "I'm a master of weaving flavors. You know, so they all compliment each other, and nothing's too... overwhelming."

"You certainly know what you're doing," Rapunzel laughs. "I have to ask," she continues, realizing that if she's talking that means she has an excuse not to take more bites. "How did you prepare all of this? I didn't know you had a kitchen here."

"You can make just about anything with a campfire and a wok if you know what you're doing," Cassandra responds. "You should try the dinner rolls."

Rapunzel takes a deep breath through her nose. "I would-" she picks one up. "Love to."

Rapunzel had hoped that the pompoen flavor would have been reduced being baked into the bread - but somehow it's intensified. Spice-induced tears pouring from her eyes after the bite, she internally snaps and immediately grabs her chalice for reprieve from the spice, hoping water will wash it away. But lifting the cup to her lips, she tastes a drink that isn't water -

Lemonade.

Rapunzel immediately slams the chalice back down. Her gaze snaps to Cassandra in anger and she sees Cassandra grinning wildly at Rapunzel's reaction.

Rapunzel grits her teeth and thinks that maybe it would be preferable just to flip the dinner table and lunge for Cassandra to fight her.

But she takes a deep breath through her nose again to compose herself.

You want to make me uncomfortable for your entertainment? Rapunzel thinks. Two can play at that game.

"You know," Rapunzel starts, taking another (much more composed) sip of lemonade. "I was thinking about what you had mentioned with minimalism and your tower, and I think the mixture of the empty space and brutalist architecture is really powerful."

Cassandra's glee fades as she stares back at Rapunzel blankly.

"The avant-garde use of a monochromatic color scheme through the whole structure really drives it home," Rapunzel continues, casually wiping a tear from her face. "And I wanted to ask if you could elaborate on the symbolism of the majority of the tower being a liminal space."

Cassandra's eyes widen, and Rapunzel smiles politely at her, taking another bite of her bread.

That's right, Cass. We're going to talk about art.

"It's, uh," Cassandra starts. "It's just a tower, there isn't anything deep about it-"

"Don't be modest, Cass," Rapunzel replies with a small laugh. "All art has meaning to it."

"I didn't really- it's all the same color because it's all made of the rocks-" Cassandra stutters.

"Yet you chose not to paint it," Rapunzel responds. "Fascinating."

"Why don't you try the steak kabob?" Cassandra asks her urgently.

"It would be my-" Rapunzel grabs one. "Pleasure."

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How the hell has she not snapped yet?! Cassandra thinks to herself in shock as Rapunzel takes a bite from the kabob.

There's no doubt about it - she's getting wrecked by the spice. Cassandra has never seen Rapunzel's face so red, and tears are falling from her eyes.

Cassandra was certain that it would take two dishes at most to drive Rapunzel to choose fighting over continuing with the dinner charade. And that was her goal: enjoy Rapunzel's embarrassing attempts to ignore the spice and maintain a polite facade, then when Rapunzel can't bear any more she'd decide that fighting Cassandra is a more pleasant option for the evening. Cassandra would get entertainment and a fight out of the whole affair.

But Rapunzel refuses to give in. Even when she found out her only drink option is lemonade, Cassandra thinks. How can she not want to kick my ass?

"I think the rough-hewn look to the structure is really invocative of natural cave systems," Rapunzel comments, gesturing to the walls after taking another bite of her kabob. "There's just something really primal about it, y'know? I love the intrinsic contradiction between that aesthetic and how the tower is entirely manufactured."

Oh my god I can't fucking stand this, Cassandra thinks.

Cassandra is certain that Rapunzel is doing this intentionally: she knows that art-talk bores Cassandra to tears at best, and drives her insane with the perceived pretentiousness at worst.

"I was just curious if you could give me a window into your creative process," Rapunzel says, leaning forward with her elbows on the table and interlacing her fingers with a smile.

"I, uh, needed a tower so I made one," Cassandra answers uncomfortably. "Not much more to it than that."

Maybe I should break my word and just start a fight, Cassandra thinks to herself, sweating.

Rapunzel nods sagely. "Need as a drive for creation… design only focused on utility… that is so profound."

"Have some mashed potatoes," Cassandra says quickly, and uses her power to shove the black rock plate towards Rapunzel.

"Absolutely," Rapunzel responds, picking up her fork.

I've got to keep her from talking about this artistic shit, Cassandra thinks. She clears her throat and says, "You know, if you'd like to imitate these dishes back at the castle, I have a few pompoen fruit left over that you could take back with you. I got them just a couple days ago, so they're at the perfect ripeness right now."

"That is so sweet of you, Cass," Rapunzel responds after blowing her nose into her napkin. "You know, I think I will take you up on that- wait," Rapunzel stops, a puzzled expression crossing her face. "Tirapi Island is like, weeks of travel away. How could you possibly have gotten back to Corona in just a couple days?"

"You got me," Cassandra says with a shrug. She pulls out a map depicting the stretch of land between Corona and the sea surrounding Tirapi with the route she took drawn onto it. "By all accounts it doesn't make any sense."

"Oh, nice map," Rapunzel says, leaning forward. "Did you make that?"

"Uh, well- yeah," Cassandra responds, thrown off by Rapunzel's genuine interest.

"Can I see?" Rapunzel asks, standing up without waiting for an answer.

"Uh-" Cassandra starts, but Rapunzel has already reached her side.

"Wow, it's so detailed," Rapunzel says, looking over it. "I'm so glad you're still doing your cartography," she continues, beaming at Cassandra.

"Y-you should try the stew," Cassandra responds, leaning away from Rapunzel, flustered by the sudden proximity.

"...If you insist," Rapunzel says, glancing back over at her side of the table, apparently reluctant to leave.

"I do," Cassandra responds, and she shoots a chain of black rock from the ground to grab Rapunzel around the waist and drag her back to her side of the table.

Cassandra quickly folds the map back up and tucks it away while Rapunzel is pulled back into her chair. Rapunzel gives Cassandra a reproachful look while the black rocks fall away around her, but she lifts her spoon to have some of the stew.

Cassandra reaches for her own bowl, trying to shake off the weird nervousness she'd been struck by. At the very least, she's able to enjoy watching Rapunzel's face flare brighter red.

"Mmmm," Rapunzel says, her face pulled into an uncomfortable smile.

"I thought you'd like it," Cassandra replies.

"You bet," Rapunzel tells her, taking another bite and shifting with discomfort in her chair. "You know, I'm fascinated by your, uh, throne over there," she says, looking over and gesturing to it. "I love how the position of the spikes is chaotic surrounding the throne, but conveys a form and flow behind it. And the sharpness of the spikes contrasted with how it's a place to sit is yet another striking contradiction. It's all so… complicated."

Cassandra's eye twitches. "Try the roast chicken," she invites, using her power to push the plate over to Rapunzel.

"My pleasure!" Rapunzel cries, slamming her fork into it.

Their battle rages on: Rapunzel's continued rambling about the artistic choices in the tower and prompting Cassandra to elaborate on it, countered by Cassandra's continued insistence that Rapunzel try different spice-covered foods, neither giving in to flip the table and engage in a physical battle.

"Thank you so much for the meal, Cass," Rapunzel says once she's eaten most of the food, and she blows her nose. "It was scrumptious. You're a lovely host."

"Well, thank you for the engaging dinner conversation," Cassandra replies.

"Oh, I tried to tell you this earlier, but I brought you a gift," Rapunzel says in a considerably more genuine voice, leaning down next to her chair. Cassandra raises an eyebrow, wondering if Rapunzel is somehow under the impression that she wouldn't send a gift smashing through Rapunzel's bedroom window. (She would, of course.)

"Ta-da," Rapunzel says cheerfully, putting a tin on the table. "I wasn't sure if you were going to make any desserts, but I wanted to bring something as a thank you for having me."

"I wasn't really planning on a dessert course for this meal," Cassandra replies dryly as Rapunzel undoes the latches on the tin.

"Are you sure?" Rapunzel asks, and she removes the top and walls of the round tin, revealing an elegantly decorated pie.

"It's your favorite," she finishes, looking at Cassandra with an enthusiastic smile.

Cassandra knows. She knew as soon as Rapunzel opened it up, and Cassandra could smell it.

Banana cream pie. Her favorite.

Fuck.

"But I understand if you don't want any," Rapunzel continues with a breezy shrug. "You're such an ace chef, you don't need any of my baking," she continues, starting to put the tin's cover back on.

Before Cassandra even realizes what she's doing, she's started to stand, not wanting Rapunzel to put away the pie. Rapunzel catches Cassandra's subtle movement in the corner of her eye, and she looks up with a wild grin.

Fuck.

Cassandra is torn tremendously between her desire not to give Rapunzel any sense of satisfaction, and her far more desperate desire to eat her favorite dessert for the first time in over a year. Especially after eating a meal that tasted exclusively of pompoen.

(Not that the pompoen was a huge deal. Her spice tolerance was naturally pretty good, but she decided to build up more tolerance just for the sake of eating the same foods as Rapunzel during this dinner as a display of dominance. But even if she wasn't suffering through the affair, it's boring to eat an entire meal of one flavor.)

"It would only be polite-" Cassandra starts, haltingly, but Rapunzel cuts her off.

"That's great! Let me cut you a piece," she says, beaming and picking up a knife. "Oh, do you have any more plates?"

"Well, they're made of black rock, so... yeah," Cassandra answers, and she materializes two plates from the table's surface near Rapunzel.

"Right, of course," Rapunzel says with a sheepish laugh, and she puts two slices onto the plates. Cassandra immediately uses her power to draw the plate across the table to her.

Cassandra refuses to look at Rapunzel to give her the satisfaction, but she can barely see in the corner of her eye Rapunzel smirking at her.

But that doesn't even matter right now.

She's got some motherfucking banana cream pie.

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"How do you like it?" Rapunzel prompts after a few moments, watching Cassandra devour the pie with an energy not unlike how Owl had devoured the mouse.

Cassandra leans back from her now-empty plate. "It's decent," she responds nonchalantly.

Rapunzel can't even be bothered by Cassandra's stubbornly lukewarm response. Seeing her enthusiasm for her favorite dessert was too cute.

"Do you want another slice?" Rapunzel asks.

Cassandra gives a somewhat exaggerated show of considering Rapunzel's question before she responds very casually, "Sure." Her unconcerned reaction is undermined, however, by the speed with which she sends her plate back across the table.

Rapunzel suppresses a laugh, and she puts another slice on Cassandra's plate. She starts to eat her own slice, too, and finds herself also wolfing it down on the simple basis that it does not taste like pompoen or lemonade. It is, perhaps, in this moment, the tastiest thing she has ever eaten in her life. She almost starts weeping again, not with spice but sheer relief.

Rapunzel takes a breath and pulls herself together. "The pie isn't the only thing I brought," she adds, looking up at Cassandra with a smile. "I was hoping that you'd like to play a game with me after our dinner!"

Cassandra's eyebrow lifts. "Oh? A game?"

"Yeah," Rapunzel responds, glad that Cassandra didn't shoot the idea down immediately. The pie must have sweetened her on Rapunzel - at least for now. "Would you like to play some chess?"

"You know, I was thinking of something a little more physical," Cassandra says, putting her elbows on the table and interlacing her fingers.

"...Oh?" Rapunzel replies, feeling herself start to sweat with nervousness again. She's talking about a fight, Rapunzel thinks, alarmed. I have to derail this somehow. "You mean, like-" Rapunzel's mind scrambles for another option. "...'The floor is lava'?"

Cassandra squints at Rapunzel in silence for a couple moments. "What?"

"'The floor is lava'," Rapunzel repeats. "It's this game where you pretend tha-"

Cassandra waves a hand sharply. "I know what 'the floor is lava' is, everyone knows that game," she interrupts.

"Oh, right," Rapunzel says, remembering what Eugene had said about its popularity with children. "Did you play it as a kid?"

Cassandra looks taken aback for barely a moment before suppressing the expression, but she doesn't answer for just long enough for Rapunzel to remember abruptly that Cassandra didn't have friends growing up.

"I- I'd never played it either," Rapunzel says quickly, feeling badly about how she put Cassandra on the spot. "Because of the whole, y'know, tower thing. I only just learned about it."

Cassandra doesn't respond, so Rapunzel continues: "It's really fun, though. There's a version of it where the floor is cursed lava-"

"Cursed lava?" Cassandra interrupts incredulously. "Lava isn't already dangerous enough?"

Rapunzel suppresses a smile at Cassandra's words echoing Eugene's. For the first time in months she's reminded how similar they can be. "I know, right?" She answers. "It's when you have a lot of people playing, or you don't want to do a race. But since we're just two people we can play the regular version and race each other."

"A race," Cassandra responds pensively, and she leans back in her chair in thought. "Sure," she finally responds. "I'll make us platforms to jump between. We'll race from one side of the room to the other."

Oh my gosh I can't believe that worked, Rapunzel thinks to herself in awe, staring at Cassandra. "G-great!" she responds, smiling.

Cassandra snaps her fingers to move the table in front of them to the far wall, and their chairs shrink into the floor. "We'll start on the dining table and the throne is the finish," she instructs. While she and Rapunzel walk towards the far wall, boulders and spikes of black rock emerge from the ground all over the room. Some boulders are flat platforms, some have spikes shot out of the sides, some are tall enough to act as walls - Rapunzel is impressed by the intensity of the obstacle course she's creating, without even appearing to think about it.

Cassandra clears the dining table at the far wall by swiping the plates off, and she jumps onto it. "I won't make any more rocks during the race, and you're not allowed to use your hair," Cassandra explains further. "Obviously, touching the ground means an immediate loss."

"Sounds fair to me," Rapunzel replies, climbing onto the table. The last of the rocks emerge from the ground, offering a few different paths to start.

"Owl!" Cassandra calls, and Owl shakes himself awake with an alarmed hoot. "You're the referee."

"Hoo," Owl responds grumpily, but he flies over to perch on the throne and watch them.

"Alright, ready?" Cassandra asks Rapunzel, who has gotten into a racing stance. "...Go."

They both take off. Leaping between boulders and spikes feels oddly familiar to Rapunzel, and she abruptly recalls a memory she hadn't thought of in a while. "Hey, do you remember that time we were doing this, but the floor was actually lava?" She calls over to Cassandra while moving.

"...You mean in the Dark Kingdom, with that sewer?" Cassandra calls back after a moment, as she jumps and grabs a black rock spike shot horizontally from a stone column to swing from and reach a further rock.

Rapunzel laughs. "Yeah, what was the deal with that? Why was there lava?" She leaps towards a vertical spike to kick off of it and reach a platform tucked behind another tall rock.

"Well, I will admit, it's probably an efficient waste-disposal method," Cassandra responds, climbing up the rough side of a boulder to reach its top.

Rapunzel smiles, delighted Cassandra is having a friendly conversation with her. "That's true, maybe I should get something like that installed for Corona!" She replies, using a series of horizontal spikes from a wall to climb her way across a gap.

"I think you might have trouble finding a supply merchant for that project," Cassandra comments dryly when she lands in a crouch from a far jump. "I've heard that lava is a little difficult to ship."

"Where there's a will there's a way!" Rapunzel replies cheerfully, her excitement mounting as she approaches the throne.

But she sees Cassandra also almost at the finish. They both redouble their efforts, and upon lunging at the throne they knock into each other and both go tumbling off of it. Rapunzel lands on top of Cassandra with an "oof."

"...Does that count as a tie?" Rapunzel asks, dazed, lifting her head to look up and finding her face inches from Cassandra's.

"Get off of me," Cassandra growls, shoving Rapunzel away, who rolls off of her with a squeak. "Owl," Cassandra says sharply as they both stand. "Who touched the throne first?"

Owl looks sagely between Rapunzel and Cassandra, both standing before the throne with disheveled hair looking up at him expectantly, and he points a talon at Rapunzel.

"Haha, yes!" Rapunzel cheers, jumping for joy and fist pumping. "Shoulda watched your flank, huh, Cass?" She teases.

Cassandra doesn't respond, and Rapunzel sees her expression turn into a scowl. "Oh c'mon, Cass," Rapunzel says while Cassandra takes a couple steps to the side of the throne and grabs one of the slender spikes sticking out from behind it. "Don't be a sore lose-"

Cassandra pulls down on the spike with an audible click, and the floor drops out from under Rapunzel. She cries out as she falls, and she quickly finds herself sliding down a narrow and pitch dark tunnel for a few seconds until it ends abruptly with a sheer drop out of the side of the tower.

Rapunzel yells as she falls through the night air, and she summons her hair into a shield around herself to cushion her landing. Her shield smacks into the ground and bounces once before coming to rest, and her hair drops from around her. Looking up at the tower and scowling, Rapunzel realizes that the spike Cassandra pulled on must have activated a trap door to eject her immediately from the tower.

"Why does she even have that lever?" Rapunzel mutters, and she slowly stands, brushing herself off.

Looking up again, Rapunzel wonders if she should try to go back up into the tower. Her basket and bag are still up there, after all, and maybe that was just a brief temper tantrum on Cassandra's part but she doesn't actually want Rapunzel to leave for the night-

Rapunzel's thoughts are interrupted by something falling from above and smacking into the ground next to her, and she starts in surprise. Leaning over to look, she sees her basket, which is followed quickly by her bag hitting the ground on her other side.

Okay, well I guess that answers that, Rapunzel thinks to herself, frowning. Cassandra must have dropped her things down the same trap door she'd opened under Rapunzel.

Rapunzel picks up the basket and opens it to see her board games still inside, and her pie tin - which is now empty. Cassandra kept the rest of the pie.

Rapunzel sighs. She wishes she could feel happy about Cassandra liking her pie so much - and how they were having such a friendly conversation during their game! - but she's too overcome with distress about messing it up so badly at the end.

I shouldn't have acted so competitive and familiar with her, Rapunzel thinks. She lets out another short sigh through her nose. Well, I know for next time.

If there is a next time. It appears Cassandra had only invited her over to try to provoke her, and the dinner wasn't legitimate.

Still better than Drexis bat-spiders though, Rapunzel admits to herself. Who knows, art talk aside maybe she actually did enjoy my company - even if it wasn't her initial plan - and she'll invite me back.

Rapunzel nods, more to convince herself than any sense of certainty, and considers her next steps. She decides that she'll send Cassandra a thank-you note, which would open the opportunity to schedule more time together - if that's what Cassandra wants.

Standing with her bag and basket, Rapunzel smooths her hair. She'd landed behind the tower, so she begins making her way around it towards the mouth of the valley where Max and Pascal would be waiting for her.

While she's walking, a glint under a bush catches her eye. Wondering if it's some artifact from the original tower, she kneels down to investigate.

She finds a shard of mirror - several shards, in fact, all surrounding the broken base of what used to be a hand mirror.

Rapunzel recognizes it: it's the magic mirror that fell out of her bag in the mine, the one that widened the rift between herself and Cassandra again after it had begun to heal.

Rapunzel glances behind her, up at the tower. Why is it here? She wonders. Did Zhan Tiri destroy it to upset Cassandra?

She feels disturbed remembering the magic mirrors and their visions of Gothel - but this mirror meant a lot to Cassandra. Rapunzel remembers Cassandra's heartbroken voice saying, "the one mirror that showed that my mother had a shred of affection for me."

Rapunzel feels very inclined to think that Gothel had been lying to control Cassandra in the same way she'd manipulated Rapunzel for eighteen years, and that Cassandra is better off without the mirror - but she shakes her head. That's not your call to make, she scolds herself. Gothel is gone, anyway. If this brings Cass any sort of comfort, or happiness… then I should return it to her.

So she starts to put it back together. It's hard - the mirror had been shattered even further than how it was initially. Picking up one shard, she cuts her finger on the edge and she immediately presses the injury into the hem of her dress, holding the fabric firmly against the wound. With her other hand she continues putting it together.

She has to check the ground all around her thoroughly - some pieces had been knocked quite far away. But finally, she has the mirror reassembled.

Rapunzel frowns, confused. She remembers that a large shard had been missing from the mirror that initially fell out of her bag, but the whole mirror is together in front of her.

Rapunzel sighs. I should bring it back up to Cass, she thinks. She'll probably be mad about me blowing a hole in her tower again and coming back after she kicked me out, but maybe she'll be happy enough about the mirror she won't try to fight me.

But Rapunzel still feels reluctant. Taking a deep breath and trying to convince herself that Cassandra would benefit from having the mirror, Rapunzel presses her hand against the glass to watch the memory.

"...So whenever you'll hear this tune, you'll think of your dear, sweet mother, and the love I have for you." "I love you, mama!"

Rapunzels eyebrows draw together. The music box... It must still be in the mine. She should find it, too, to offer to Cassandra.

"Ugh. Hopefully that'll keep her out of my hair for a while… Lousy little pest."

The memory ends and Rapunzel is confronted with her own horrified expression, her uninjured hand held to her mouth.

Rapunzel swallows heavily. She knew deep down that Gothel was lying when she first watched the memory, but to see it so plainly...

She feels tears pricking her eyes. The mirror must be broken out here because Cassandra saw the truth, Rapunzel thinks, her own heart breaking in her chest. She so badly wanted to believe that she was loved as a child, and she saw that it was all a lie.

Feeling a flare of rage - against Gothel, against the unfairness of it all, against the needless pain Cassandra had been put through - Rapunzel picks up the hand mirror with her injured hand, forgetting about the cut, and she slams it against a nearby stone.

Chapter Text

"What?" Cassandra asks Owl, who's glaring at her. Cassandra shifts the lever back up, now that she's 'returned' Rapunzel's belongings to her, and the trap door swings shut again.

"Hoo…" Owl says reproachfully.

"She was acting too friendly," Cassandra explains, unimpressed. "I only invited her over to get a fight out of it, and that wasn't happening, so she had to go. I'm not being a sore loser." She sits on the throne and kicks her feet up on the arm rest, holding the rest of the banana cream pie. "Now help me plan my revenge."

Owl rolls his eyes.

"I think I should fill Corona's streets with lava," Cassandra says thoughtfully, materializing a black rock fork and taking a bite of pie. "That'd be pretty funny. I could even say, 'you asked for this'."

"Hoo," Owl notes.

"Yeah, I'm not sure how I'd pull that off," Cassandra admits. "But to quote the insufferable princess, 'where there's a will there's a way'." She considers this for a moment. "I don't think there are any volcanoes nearby. But maybe there's a way to make lava, like with some crazy magic artifact in the Spire or some shit. I should research…"

"Hoo," Owl says, changing the subject.

Cassandra's eyes narrow, recalling what Owl mentioned - the black rock bird pin Rapunzel had been wearing. "Yeah, what was the deal with that? I think it was a threat."

"...Hoo?" Owl asks, staring at her in disbelief.

"What?" Cassandra asks, confused by his confusion. "I made the pin specifically to be angry and intimidating so she wouldn't think it was a nice gesture. Wearing it here is a display that she's not intimidated by me. There is literally no other way to interpret it."

Owl sighs.

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Back at Corona castle, Rapunzel is met immediately by Eugene and Lance when she enters the front hall.

"So? How did it go?!" Lance asks her excitedly.

"W-were you guys standing here waiting for me?" Rapunzel asks, caught off guard.

"Well, yeah," Eugene answers. "We wanted to make sure that you got back oka- is that blood?!"

"Huh?" Rapunzel responds, and she looks down at her dress where Eugene is looking. "Oh, yeah. It was an accident, though."

Eugene studies her face, frowning at her with a serious expression. "Rapunzel, did she hurt you?"

"No," Rapunzel emphasizes to him, looking back up. "It was after I left her tower. I found-" she pauses, and sighs. "I found that mirror, with the vision of Gothel in it. It was in pieces, so I put it back together to give to Cass. One of the edges cut my hand," she explains, holding her hand up as proof.

Eugene's eyebrows draw together. "I'm sorry, sunshine," he responds. "Geez. Even after Gothel's gone she's still hurting you."

"Wild how you can fight Cass for hours and not get anything worse than some bruises and muscle soreness, but a little mirror gives you a real wound," Lance notes. "Almost sounds like a metaphor or something."

"Here, let's get that cleaned and bandaged," Eugene says, putting his arm around her back to walk with her.

"Annnd you can tell us about how everything went," Lance says, coming up on her other side.

Despite her physical and emotional exhaustion, Rapunzel smiles in the company of her friends. "Okay, let me start at the beginning."

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

The next morning, after attending to her princess duties, Rapunzel finds herself walking down a familiar hallway. She takes a deep breath before pushing open the door to Cassandra's room.

It's the same as she'd left it during the eclipse - she couldn't find it in her to change anything, not even cleaning the debris or removing the black rock spikes. It's the only location in the castle that hasn't been fixed.

Mainly because it's painful to Rapunzel. Seeing the destroyed armoire and broken remnants of Cassandra's old life - her lady-in-waiting dresses she'd worn during some of Rapunzel's fondest memories with her, her weapons that she'd kept so meticulously organized and polished, the little trinkets she'd received from friends or trophies she'd taken from defeated foes - only serves to remind Rapunzel of the darkness that had taken over Cassandra, and strike fear in her that Cassandra had secretly always been miserable.

"I don't think we're going to get back the way things were before, Pascal," Rapunzel says to him as she sits on Cassandra's bed, reaching for the folded headpiece she'd left on the pillow. "I was so hopeful that we'd be friends again just like before, once Zhan Tiri was gone." She looks at the headpiece, feeling its silk texture between her unbandaged fingers, and she thinks about all the fun they'd had together in Corona and the hopes she'd had for their future together. "But… I think that's gone forever."

Pascal jumps off her shoulder onto the bed next to her and squeaks sadly at her.

"Yeah," Rapunzel agrees. "But even having the memories of all that time together, it's all tarnished because I don't know if she was happy. I mean, she must not have been, right?" Rapunzel looks up at the destroyed armoire, feeling something seize in her chest. "If she came back after Zhan Tiri was banished, and things went back to normal, then I would've known that she had just gotten really messed up by Zhan Tiri or the Moonstone, and she hadn't actually been miserable with her life in Corona. But..." Rapunzel swallows. "She doesn't want to come back. Which means..."

Pascal squeaks at her again.

Rapunzel's eyebrows draw together. It's possible Pascal is right - that Cassandra simply feels like she can't come back - not after everything that's happened. "Maybe," she responds. "But I don't want to assume that. It would feel too…" She looks back down at the headpiece. "Easy."

Pascal tilts his head, confused.

"It's just… The more I think about it - and I'm sure a lot of this is just my fears, but... the more I think about it, the more I come up with different things that could have upset her enough to stay away, even with Zhan Tiri gone," Rapunzel explains. "Things about Corona, or about… me…"

-
"I invite you to interrogate what it is about here that would make you think she saw it as a home, and what it is about how you treated her that would make her think you're her friends."
-

"I think we were really mean to her," Rapunzel confesses. "I think - I think I hurt her like how Angry hurt Catalina. I wouldn't listen to her. I wouldn't… work with her. And then when she was mad, I messed it up worse." Rapunzel sighs. "I don't even know the full extent. We're so different, I don't understand sometimes when something makes her upset. Like when she broke her leg and didn't want me to help her, and she got mad at me when I tried." Rapunzel plays with the fabric in her lap again. "So there could even be way more things that she's mad about than the ones I can already think of."

Pascal squeaks at her questioningly.

"Well, she's definitely mad at her dad," Rapunzel starts to list, glancing up in thought. "At least for not letting her join the guard, but there could be more. She's definitely mad at me, for…" Rapunzel frowns, her eyebrows drawing together again. "In the Dark Kingdom she sang that I was condescending towards her, and that I only thought I was her friend. And then she was mad about Gothel and how she was cast aside, which she somehow attributed to me. And…" Rapunzel tries to think of even earlier. "She was upset I'd stopped listening to her judgement during the journey. And..." She swallows, remembering something that Cassandra had explicitly told Rapunzel she was mad about. "How her hand got injured. She thought it was my fault, that I didn't believe in her ability and I shouldn't have used the spell."

Pascal chirps, a different sound from a squeak, but still definitely not a vocalization a chameleon should be capable of.

"I know me and Cass talked about it," Rapunzel answers. "But I don't think it worked. She said she was mad and she'd get over it, but she must not have." Rapunzel frowns in thought again. "And that could be my fault. I don't think I did enough for her. With everything else - how she thought I was being a bad friend and didn't trust her and was condescending - that one little talk couldn't have fixed that hurt, especially since I... kinda forced her into it," Rapunzel admits. "And I have no idea what it's like now, with her hand. Maybe it healed, but maybe it still hurts her. I don't even know how badly it was hurt when it first happened, since she refused to talk about it with me."

Pascal squeaks questioningly again.

Rapunzel bites her lip. It's a good question - how could she right things between them now, by talking to Cassandra, if it didn't work before. "I'd have to do it differently this time. I have to wait for her to be ready," Rapunzel starts to list, remembering what her mother told her the day before about people needing time to work through their emotions. "She would have to want to talk to me. And she definitely doesn't want to do that right now..."

-
"Maybe if you fight her a bunch, she'll have enough fun with you that she will want to talk things out."
-

"But I think I can get through to her," Rapunzel asserts. "She's having fun with me by fighting me. And she's already doing much better than when Zhan Tiri was around," Rapunzel continues. "Owl is spending time with her, and she's not doing any other evil stuff, and she made me a hair pin, and she's still doing her cartography, and she still loves my banana cream pie, and she started to have a nice conversation with me - I just need some more time of playing by her rules, and she'll come around."

-
"It's inevitable that your feelings for each other will bridge the gap between you both again, and once it does, you can address those hurts and move forward together."
-

"Eventually she'll see how much I care for her, and then we can sit down and talk," Rapunzel says, and she looks up at the painting of her and Cassandra on the mantle. "I don't care how long it takes. Ten fights, a hundred, she's worth it. And I'm going to do it right this time." Rapunzel looks back down, remembering how Angry spoke to Catalina the night they tried to break the werewolf curse. "I'm going to tell Cass I'm sorry, for everything. I'm going to listen to what she has to say and ask how I can make it up to her. Whatever she needs," Rapunzel continues, "I'm ready to pay the price."

Pascal chirps at her.

Rapunzel doesn't answer. Instead she stands and walks to the armoire, and she kneels to gently place the headpiece among the remains of Cassandra's other lady-in-waiting clothes. "Those days are gone," she says quietly to herself. "Even once we reconcile, those days are gone."

She swallows hard, trying to convince herself that she's okay with that.

-
"She must be trying to find herself again. To carve a new path for herself. And she wants you to be part of it."
-

"I don't know what's going to happen, Pascal," Rapunzel confesses, a slightly hysterical laugh coming out with her words, followed by the feeling of tears choking her throat. She puts a hand to her face while her eyes start to mist. "I have no idea what it will even look like after all this." She takes a deep breath and smooths her hair while Pascal jumps off the bed to come over to her. "What she wants, what she'll do, what we'll be to each other… All I can hope is that she will want me there with her." Rapunzel laughs again, slightly less hysterical, and wipes at her eyes. "I can't believe I'm crying again. I feel like I've cried enough for a lifetime already since she left."

Pascal hops onto her shoulder to push his body against her neck reassuringly.

Rapunzel fondly picks up different pieces of Cassandra's old life - a whetstone, her favorite dagger, the necklace Varian had made for her, the medal she'd been given for protecting the Book of Hearts - before placing them back down among the armoire's remains.

"I always thought her place was here in Corona with me," Rapunzel says softly. "I thought... she'd always be here." Rapunzel sighs, brushing her hand against the lady-in-waiting clothes again, and admits, "But that was foolish of me. She's her own person, and she should do what makes her happy. All I can do is try to make everything up to her, and give her reason to believe that me and Corona can make her happy."

Pascal squeaks another question at her.

"...You know what's crazy?" Rapunzel asks rhetorically. "I don't even care about the Moonstone anymore. We spent a whole year on that journey, and it was so hard and stressful, all to find the Moonstone and save the world and answer my destiny, but… I just can't find it in me to care about that anymore." Rapunzel touches one of Cassandra's old tunics. "Cass is more important to me." She picks up the tunic and presses it against her face.

It still smells like her, which feels like a cruel joke. Closing her eyes, Rapunzel can even pretend Cassandra's there with her, and her heart pounds in her chest.

"Oh my God, get it together Rapunzel," she scolds herself, lowering the tunic and putting it back. She stands and pulls a blank greeting card from her dress pocket. "I came here to write a thank-you note."

Pascal chirps affirmatively while Rapunzel takes ink and a quill from her bag and sits at the edge of the hearth.

"I just need to think of what other activity to suggest we do together," Rapunzel continues, brushing her chin with the quill in thought. "Probably nothing here in the castle or city, since - knowing her - it might turn into a fight…"

Pascal squeaks at her, and Rapunzel beams back at him. "That's a great idea," she answers.

Riding together, out on the mainland, with Max and Fidella. An activity they used to do together, one that she knows Cassandra enjoys.

She starts writing.

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"Alright, here's the plan," Cassandra begins.

Owl looks back at her, unimpressed, from where he's perched on a barrel in an alleyway near Corona capital's docks.

"I'm going to sneak into the castle through the tunnels," Cassandra continues. "Then I'll use the cloak to turn into someone who I know no one will talk to, and I'll make my way to the royal library. I'll open a window so you can join me, and you'll help me look for books about lava, or magic, or lava magic."

"Hoo," Owl points out.

"There are way more books in the royal library than the city's bookshops," Cassandra counters. "Older stuff, too. And I don't want to have to buy anything. I'm not exactly swimming in coins."

"Hoo," Owl comments.

"That's my pastry fund," Cassandra responds defensively. "Anyway, go to the library, I'll meet you there."

Owl sighs, but then takes off.

She smiles after him, glad that they could negotiate a revenge scheme that he was willing to help her with - if begrudgingly. And she didn't even have to give up the lava theme.

Making sure no one's around, Cassandra pulls off the grate to the tunnel and slips inside. As she walks through the network of underground passageways, Cassandra remembers all the time she had spent as a youth exploring the tunnels, and the times as a teenager she'd used them to sneak out from the castle without her father knowing.

And she remembers the night she'd brought Rapunzel through the tunnels, when the king's security detail had become too overwhelming and Rapunzel was going crazy with feeling suffocated and trapped in the castle. Cassandra remembers Rapunzel nearly vibrating with excitement while they navigated towards the docks, and the way she could hardly keep her voice down with the elation of knowing that they were sneaking beyond the walls to see the world beyond - as brief as it would be.

Cassandra frowns. Despite Rapunzel's anxiety during their journey about what waited for them at the end, she was so happy each day and excited for what new sights, places, and people awaited them. But now she's back in Corona - and in the castle again.

Does she feel... trapped? Cassandra wonders.

But then Cassandra reminds herself somewhat aggressively that it's none of her concern how Rapunzel is feeling.

Firmly disregarding her train of thought and approaching the storage room in the castle, Cassandra pulls up the hood of her cloak to shapeshift.

Cassandra had worked in the castle for years as a maid, so she knows her best disguise option for her mission: someone who nobody would seek conversation with, and who has enough authority not to be questioned regardless of her location in the castle.

"Fuck now I'm short," Cassandra says in an elderly woman's voice right after she transforms. "I hadn't thought of that."

Cassandra pulls a sheet off of a covered mirror in storage to make sure that her disguise is complete, and it is: her reflection is of old lady Crowley.

"Alright, research time," Cassandra says to herself, and she exits the storage room.

She's surprisingly excited for her mission. Usually she would be loath to research something, and she'd find some more sword-oriented solution to whatever problem she's having. But variety is the spice of life, and without much else to do in her tower (who would have thought living in a tower would be so boring? No one could have predicted this) she finds it an interesting outing to return to the castle for the express purpose of finding a creative way to terrorize Rapunzel. Really, anything can be interesting to Cassandra if the ultimate goal is stressing out Rapunzel.

She recognizes her main plan will likely be fruitless - the lava idea is truly a stretch - but perhaps while she's out she'll think of another plan. Being in the castle is a good way to check what else is going on in Corona. And besides those reasons, she also just finds it satisfying to trick people, being around when no one is aware.

And, although she'd never admit it… she wanted to be around the castle, the familiar bustle, seeing what everyone is up to, at least for a short time. Nostalgia is a powerful force.

Cassandra made the right choice for her disguise. Walking through the castle hallways, not only does no one try to talk to her, maids actively avoid her. Cassandra smiles to herself at the reactions, seeing her former coworkers flee from her presence.

She easily makes her way to the royal library, and the librarian at the front desk - also an elderly woman - pays her no mind. Cassandra returns the lack of gesture.

She navigates through bookshelves, deep into the library, to reach one of the windows that breaks up the rows upon rows of books. Opening it up, she lets out a quiet whistle to summon Owl, and he looks at her in surprise when he lands on the windowsill.

"Good choice, huh?" She asks in her granny voice, grinning at him. "But I'll need your help," she continues. "I'm fucking short. You'll need to look at the upper shelves for me."

Owl hoots affirmatively at her and flies in with silent wings. Cassandra makes her way towards the natural sciences section to begin her lava-related hunt for knowledge.

Cassandra must admit, Rapunzel did do a good job with the royal library in her few years as princess. She had completely revamped the library's organization system, breaking it into dozens of sections on different topics that were then organized alphabetically by author. Of course, this was more for herself than for anyone else, as she wanted to devour the entire library's contents topic by topic until she had read and learned everything it had to offer.

While browsing the shelves, Cassandra is struck by memories of accompanying Rapunzel to the library, helping her pick out books and carry them back to her room. Remembering Rapunzel's overwhelming enthusiasm and pure happiness during their times in the library, with her constantly calling over to Cassandra every time she found a new book that interested her - and they all interested her, even boring ones about mathematics - Cassandra almost smiles to herself.

...But then she was a bitch who wanted to control me, Cassandra reminds herself aggressively. No amount of charming zest for life or endearing passion for knowledge could overcome that. Cassandra pulls her face into a scowl to convince herself of her negative feelings towards the bubbly princess.

That doesn't stop her from wondering every time she pulls down a book if it's something Rapunzel has read yet, and if she would find it interesting. Probably, Cassandra finds herself thinking. She finds everything interesting. Cassandra scowls again. What an annoying trait.

Cassandra is lucky she has many years' experience of lying to herself.

Even with Owl's help, Cassandra finds little of use to her in the natural sciences section. As she suspected, the nearest volcanic activity is nowhere near Corona, and she learns that lava is molten rock with a temperature over 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit - much too hot to recreate herself.

Maybe there's some magic spell that can make things really hot, Cassandra thinks to herself, putting away a book.

The section on magic and mythology is much closer to the front of the library, so Cassandra isn't able to ask Owl to help her peruse the shelves - someone would be more likely to notice him, which would draw attention to what they're doing. Instead, he preens on a nearby shelf while Cassandra tediously climbs up the bookcase's ladders to read the books' titles. Fortunately, shapeshifting didn't give her the joint problems of the elderly woman she's disguised as.

Cassandra's feeling increasingly frustrated at the lack of useful magic-related volumes when she overhears voices near the front of the library. Curious, she peaks her head around a shelf to look at the front desk.

"-on my way to Xavier's shop now to give him some schematics for the rotary pump system and pressure valves - and I know what you're thinking, 'why would you choose rotary pump over piston if it's for a low viscosity fluid', and I've actually found that once you optimize the impeller design and rpm, you can get really good flow rate with th-"

"Will that be all, sir," the librarian interrupts Varian in a deadpan.

Varian chuckles sheepishly and clears his throat to respond, "Yeah, I'll just need those copies of the castle blueprints dropped off in my lab."

"I'll get one of the assistants on it," the librarian says dismissively, already looking back down at the inventory catalogue she's reviewing.

"Thanks, you're a gem, Dolores," Varian replies, patting the desk with a smile before striding out the door with rolls of papers under his arm.

Cassandra raises an eyebrow. If there's anyone able to do something physically improbable like melting stone, it'd probably be the kid who built an interdimensional portal, she thinks.

"Owl!" Cassandra whispers, glancing behind her. He lets out a small hoot in alarm, looking up from his preening with a downy feather sticking out of his beak. "New plan."

Cassandra mills about behind the bookcases near the front of the library for a short while until she hears the librarian speaking to one of the assistants about bringing blueprints to the west wing. Peering through shelves, she sees the girl leave with large rolls of documents.

Owl flies back to the open window while Cassandra heads towards the library's doors shortly after the assistant walks out. As she's about to exit, she's interrupted.

"We still on for bingo tomorrow night?" Dolores's slow and monotone voice comes from behind Cassandra.

Cassandra turns in surprise to see Dolores not looking up from her desk, but since there's no one else around, Cassandra figures she must be speaking to her. "Uh, yep," Cassandra answers in her granny voice, surprised that Crowley has a social life.

Dolores nods slowly. "I'll bring the vodka," she responds.

What the fuck, Cassandra wonders, but recognizing that she's got a mark to tail, she leaves without seeking details.

Cassandra trails the girl from a distance, occasionally acting as though she's inspecting surfaces for cleanliness. (Feldspar's acting classes are really paying off.) She has no idea where Varian's lab would be - she's startled to hear that he has a lab in the castle at all, considering the whole treason thing that happened before they left on their journey.

The king must not have been kidding when he said he'd get Varian help, Cassandra thinks to herself. Could've fooled me. The way Corona usually deals justice and the way he was thrown in a prison carriage I would've expected Varian just to sit in jail for months if not years. She squints in thought. Must've gotten out early on good behavior or some shit.

And presumably he's done enough good with his inventions that the royal family wanted to offer him a place in the castle to work. Which probably means his devices don't explode or otherwise go haywire most of the time. Cassandra's eyebrows raise slightly in vague commendation. Good for him.

Walking down a familiar hallway roughly twenty feet behind the library assistant, Cassandra is interrupted by a door opening right in front of her.

Not just any door. Her door - the door to her bedroom. Rapunzel walks out of the room with Pascal on her shoulder, and she almost bumps into Cassandra.

"Gosh, I'm so sorry-" Rapunzel says, startled.

"Princess," Cassandra says in surprise, stepping back and finding herself looking up at Rapunzel due to her newly short stature. Rapunzel was in her room? "What- what were you doing in there?"

To Cassandra's shock, Rapunzel glares at her. "I'm not changing the room, if that's what you're asking," Rapunzel answers with a hard edge to her voice. "It stays the same. Don't touch it, and don't try to get rid of any of Cassandra's things again."

"I- huh?" Cassandra responds in her old lady voice, at a complete loss.

Rapunzel takes a deep breath through her nose, and her expression softens. "Sorry, I didn't mean to be mean," she says. "Just- don't change anything, okay? I don't want anyone to mess with it. I don't even want anyone to go in the room."

Cassandra blinks in confusion. "Uh, sure," she answers, glancing beyond Rapunzel to see that she'd lost sight of the assistant she was trailing. "I, uh, have to go," she adds, shuffling as quickly around Rapunzel as her short legs could manage.

Cassandra hears Rapunzel's confused voice behind her responding, "Um, okay, bye?"

I'll unpack that later, Cassandra thinks as she rushes down the hallway. Right now she has a mission. And luckily she's able to catch sight of the library assistant again - and follow her all the way to Varian's lab.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

"Aaaaalright Ruddiger, you ready to calculate fluid head loss due to friction and couplings in a closed pipe system?" Varian asks his colleague, striding into his lab upon returning to Corona castle. "Because we've gooooot-" Varian checks his watch, "Thirty minutes to figure out an optimal material and diameter for the heated water piping network based on the projected length and elevation rise of the system."

Ruddiger chatters at him, and Varian answers, "Yeah I know buddy, but I wasn't just going to interrupt him. Besides, that story about the warrior princess of Yultadore was pretty cool, right?" Varian sits at his workbench, grabbing scratch paper and a quill. "Thirty minutes is all we need anyway. And rev up that bunsen burner - I'm feeling cocoa."

He hears the door to his lab suddenly slam shut, accompanied by a suave voice saying, "Hello, Varian."

Turning in shock, Varian sees Cassandra in her black armor leaning very casually against the wall next to the door, one leg bent to rest her foot on the wall behind her and her arm stretched out to close the door.

"C-C-Cass," Varian stutters, standing quickly and bumping against his workbench while Ruddiger chatters and his bushy tail shoots upright in alarm. "What-what are you doing here?"

Cassandra leisurely pushes herself off from the wall to walk towards him, and Owl flies through one of the lab's open windows to perch on her shoulder. "I was wondering if you could help me out with something," she answers, picking up and investigating little metal trinkets on his workbench.

"Oh- uh- I- I don't know about that," Varian tells her nervously, backing away further and wishing that Cassandra wasn't standing directly in the way of his stock of amber solution on the utility shelves against the far wall. He looks at Ruddiger and tries to tilt his head a couple times towards the shelves, hoping Ruddiger would understand his wordless request. Unfortunately, Ruddiger is both lacking in the brains department and very cowardly, so in response to Varian's motion he throws himself under a table to hide.

"Aw, c'mon Varian," Cassandra says, looking over at him. "We're friends, right?"

Pulling his attention from Ruddiger's magnificent failure of usefulness, Varian refocuses on Cassandra. "Well, uh, no," he answers her. "I mean, maybe we were," he elaborates, "but then you kidnapped me and put me in a, uh, cage."

Cassandra pauses for a moment, but then shrugs. "Alright, so maybe I need to brush up a little on how the whole 'friendship' thing works," she responds. She thinks for a moment before adding, "But then you imprisoned me in amber. So we're square, right? It all cancels out, like in math. Now we're friends again."

"I, uh, I'm not sure that's-" Varian starts, but Cassandra interrupts him.

"See, the reason I'm here is that I was just having a conversation with Owl-" Owl hoots and looks at her with one eyebrow lowered and the other raised, "-and he thinks that you could science yourself a way to do just about anything, even something crazy like melting stone. But I'm not convinced," she continues, very casually crossing her arms. "So I figured I'd stop by and ask you to give it a shot, to prove which of us is right."

"That's- uh, that sounds questionable and nefarious," Varian tells her, still desperately trying to think of a way out of his situation. He clears his throat and says earnestly, "Listen Cass, I really think you should just get out of here. What if the guards-" Varian glances at Ruddiger to make eye contact, hoping Ruddiger will understand his wordless request for him to run and get help, "-see you?"

Ruddiger responds by pulling his tail over his head and scuffling further backwards into his hiding place. Varian internally facepalms.

"Told ya he couldn't do it," Cassandra says about Varian, looking at Owl next to her.

"Ah, hah, no, I did not say that," Varian corrects, putting up his pointer finger, his attention back on Cassandra. "I absolutely could do it, it is frankly a very easy chemical reaction, but I just don't think it's a good idea."

"It's alright buddy," Cassandra tells Owl, ignoring Varian and walking towards the open window. "We all bet on a losing horse eventually."

Varian is fully aware that Cassandra has some ulterior motive for her mysterious arrival and bizarrely specific request, and it's certainly better for her just to leave as he had suggested. However:

"I- I am not a losing horse!" He cries, and he grabs a beaker of Flynnoleum from his workbench and throws open his cabinet of reactive chemicals for a pinch of lye. Dropping it into the beaker he stirs it furiously while Cassandra starts climbing out the window, and then he pours the solution onto the stone tile floor near his workbench.

"Behold," he says dramatically, and Cassandra glances back towards him, mostly out the window, as he empties a pipette of water onto the spill on his floor.

The solution reacts dynamically and immediately to the water, letting off a bright flash of light and shooting sparks with a hissing sound - leaving behind glowing-hot, molten stone where the spill had been.

"Alchemy," Varian says smugly.

Cassandra's eyebrow arches. "Damn, how about that," she responds, pulling herself back into the room. "You sure showed me."

"I am offended that you would think I couldn't do something as simple as that, Cassandra," Varian continues.

"I'll never doubt you again," Cassandra responds, putting her hands up. Lowering them with a smirk, she asks, "How'd you do that?"

"Well it's nothing special," Varian replies, leaning against his workbench sophisticatedly and gesturing vaguely while he speaks. "It's just a matter of destabilizing the Flynnoleum with a bit of sodium hydroxide - which is lye, by the way, used in soap making but also a corrosive material - and then you just drop some regular water on it to stimulate a highly exothermic chemical reaction that releases enough heat to melt the stone around it," he explains.

"Wow, that's really cool," Cassandra says in an almost convincing tone. "What else could you tell me?"

Flattered by how someone finally wants to hear about his scientific work, Varian continues, "Well the reaction is directly proportional to the amount of water you add. Since I only added a little it just melted that small spot, but you could add up to the same volume of water as the destabilized Flynnoleum to cause the reaction, which would be able to melt, like, a lot of rock. It'll persist for a while, too," he adds, looking at the spot on his floor with cool confidence. "Probably have a good thirty, forty-five minutes of molten rock after initially starting the reaction."

"Damn. It's that easy, huh?" Cassandra asks, smirking again.

"Yep," Varian says confidently, and then his eyes widen in alarm realizing his mistake. "Uh… You wouldn't happen to have a, uh, purely academic interest in this, would you?"

"Nah," Cassandra replies, leaning over to look closer at the molten rock. "I'm gonna use this to cause problems."

"Oh," Varian squeaks. He clears his throat and responds firmly, "Well, you're going to have difficulty with your plans, because there's no way I'm telling you how to make Flynnoleum."

"Right, Flynnoleum…" Cassandra replies slowly. She straightens and gestures to a corner of Varian's lab. "You mean Flynnoleum like that fifty-five gallon drum of Flynnoleum?"

Varian's head snaps around to look where she's gesturing - at the fuel storage for his water heater project, a metal drum labelled hugely in all capitals, "FLYNNOLEUM. CAUTION: FLAMMABLE."

"Yeah just like that Flynnoleum," Varian responds wearily, resigning himself to his status as an unwilling accomplice.

Cassandra walks over and claps him on the back with a grin. "You've been a great help."

Glancing over to the table where Ruddiger is hiding, she walks over to pick it up and lift Ruddiger by the scruff of his neck. "Hold this," she tells Varian, tossing the raccoon at him, before snapping her fingers and shooting slender arced spikes of black rock from the ground around Varian to cage him.

"Oh come on," Varian cries, fumbling the terrified raccoon.

"Sorry, don't want you to ruin my surprise," Cassandra tells him. "But don't worry, we're still friends. Remember that time you tried to crush me with a robot?" She pats the black rock. "This cage is payback for that, so it cancels out." She taps her temple. "Math."

"Cassandra, whatever you're planning, I promise you don't want to do this," Varian says earnestly in a last-ditch attempt to stop her.

"No, I definitely do," Cassandra tells him cheerfully, swiping the jar of lye from his cabinet. "Don't worry, it's nothing bad. Here," she continues, taking his scratch paper and quill from his workbench and dropping it between the bars. "Knock yourself out. You can work on those equations until someone finds you. See?" She emphasizes. "I'm nice."

"Y'know what'd be really nice is if you let me go-" Varian says while Cassandra walks over to heft the Flynnoleum drum over her shoulder. Her armor glows entirely blue under the enormous weight of the full drum of liquid, her magic augmenting her motions.

"Thanks again, V, you're a gem," Cassandra tells him with a smile, and she jumps out the window carrying the lava ingredients, Owl following closely behind her.

"Oh boy," Varian mumbles to himself, and then he looks down to glare at the raccoon cradled in his arms. "You couldn't do anything to help?"

Ruddiger chatters back at him argumentatively.

"I couldn't just let her think I couldn't do it!" Varian cries in response. "God I hope she's not planning anything too terrible," he adds, looking out towards the window.

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"I just want to make sure it's a really good time for him, y'know, 40 is a big one," Pete's explaining earnestly in the throne room.

"Don't worry, Pete," Rapunzel assures him with a smile, "I've assembled an elite team of party planners to make sure that Stan's birthday bash is perfect." She gestures towards her friends - Lance, Angry, Catalina, and some of the pub thugs - and she continues, "All we need is your expertise on his favorite foods and games, and if there's any particular location you've got in mind-"

Rapunzel is interrupted by one of the throne room's windows shattering as Cassandra comes crashing in, and she lands in the room in a crouch.

While the rest of her company react with varying levels of shock, Rapunzel starts, "Are you serio-"

But she's interrupted again by Cassandra leaping directly at her, smashing her shoulder into Rapunzel's abdomen.

Fortunately, Cassandra retracted the spikes on her armor, so Rapunzel only suffers from her breath being knocked from her lungs by the blow. Cassandra puts her arm up and around Rapunzel while straightening to hold her in place, hoisting Rapunzel over her shoulder. With that and before anyone else can react, Cassandra launches herself with her super strength out the window across from the one she broke in through, shattering the glass and carrying Rapunzel away.

There's a brief silence in the room while everyone processes what just happened in a matter of seconds.

"What on earth does that woman have against birthdays," Lance asks flatly, and Pascal on his shoulder squeaks disapprovingly.

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"What are you doing?!" Rapunzel shouts at Cassandra once she catches her breath, struggling against Cassandra's hold - but it's like a vice holding her waist over Cassandra's shoulder. She pushes herself away from Cassandra's back, and from her view upside-down she sees that Cassandra has started leaping up the sheer face of the castle's exterior wall, landing on spikes she shoots out of the stone.

"I've got a surprise," Cassandra answers breezily without elaboration.

Rapunzel struggles again against Cassandra's hold, trying to kick her and grab at her arms, to no avail. Cassandra's grip and armor are both too strong.

"Cass, put me down or I swear I will blow BOTH of us up," Rapunzel growls as they continue to ascend.

"Don't threaten me with a good time!" Cassandra responds, and Rapunzel can hear the malicious grin in her words.

Rapunzel rolls her eyes and starts struggling again, not wanting to use her magic at least until she sees where it is that Cassandra's bringing her. Is she climbing the tower to Rapunzel's room?

But they don't stop at Rapunzel's balcony. They keep climbing, until Cassandra has reached the domed roof of the castle's tower - and she leaps off of it, breaking tiles under her feet as she uses both her super strength and a shockwave from the Moonstone to jump out towards the city.

"What the-?!" Rapunzel cries as she sees the sheer drop appear under them from her upside-down vantage point. As they shoot through the sky and start to fall, Rapunzel feels Cassandra grab her waist with both hands to lift her off her shoulder, and Cassandra throws Rapunzel in midair to send her flying even further over the city.

Now easily able to see around her as she flies through the air - for once entirely not by her own power - it becomes apparent to Rapunzel that she is headed directly towards the CEZ, which looks... different.

Is that… lava?! Rapunzel thinks in shock as she rapidly approaches a glowing expanse of red, broken up by a few platforms of black rock that are hovering over the lake of molten rock. She quickly undoes her hair to lasso one of the large spikes of black rock also shot from the lake of lava, and whipping around the spike with her hair, she slows herself until she's able to land on one of the platforms.

Feeling waves of heat rising from the lava, she looks around: there are a few platforms clustered in the center of the lake, all about two stories from the lava's surface, each perched on a center, slender pillar of black rock and no larger than twenty feet in diameter. The platforms are about five feet apart from each other, and several large spikes of black rock are scattered around the platforms as well, shot out of the lava. The edge of the lake is over fifty feet from any of the platforms - she would have to fly in order to leave this bizarre arena.

Rapunzel has barely processed everything around her when several more huge black rock spikes shoot up from the lava in a straight line from the lake's shore to the platforms, and she sees Cassandra leaping between the spikes until she lands on Rapunzel's platform.

"What do you think?" Cassandra asks her, grinning wildly as she straightens from a crouch. Without waiting for an answer, she continues, "That game last night was such fun, I thought 'let's play again'!"

"How- how did you even do this?!" Rapunzel cries in disbelief.

"Well you know what they say," Cassandra replies easily. "'Where there's a will, there's a way.'"

Rapunzel stares at Cassandra at a complete loss, still not fully convinced she isn't dreaming.

"Let me explain the rules," Cassandra continues, raising a pedestal of black rock next to her from the platform and pulling a black rock sword from it. "It's basically the game we played last night, but instead of a race-"

"It's a fight," Rapunzel finishes for her, her brain fully caught up with everything happening, and she starts letting down her hair while assuming a fighting stance. "Yeah, I got it, let's start."

Cassandra scowls at her. "You didn't even let me finish explaining."

Rapunzel stares at her for a moment before straightening and replying, "Okay, sorry, go on."

"Instead of a race, it's a fight," Cassandra explains. "And instead of losing if you touch the lava, you die."

Rapunzel waits for a couple moments, but Cassandra doesn't add anything more.

"...Is that it?" Rapunzel asks.

"Yeah," Cassandra answers plainly.

"A little self explanatory," Rapunzel comments with a shrug.

"Oh sorry, I forgot I was talking to Princess Smart-ass, reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Know-it-all," Cassandra growls back at her.

Rapunzel's not sure how to respond, but she doesn't have to, as the platform abruptly shifts under her feet. Her side drops while the opposite rises, making the entire platform slope slightly towards the lava behind her, and she falls to her hands in a crouch so she doesn't topple backwards.

"Also the platforms tilt," Cassandra adds, still standing.

"What?!" Rapunzel cries in shock, looking up at Cassandra.

"Nah I'm just fucking with you," Cassandra responds with a cackle, and the platform rights itself.

Rapunzel stares at Cassandra in silent disbelief.

"Could you imagine," Cassandra adds.

Rapunzel has no words.

"Crazy," Cassandra says to herself, smiling.

"Can we start now?!" Rapunzel demands, wanting to get all this over with as soon as possible.

"Sure," Cassandra responds, grinning, and Rapunzel whips her hair over immediately to try to restrain her.

At least she's having fun, Rapunzel thinks to herself while Cassandra counters, despite her internal shock and exasperation with the situation.

Setting the whole arena up - and using Moonstone power to get herself and Rapunzel there so quickly - must have been quite a drain on Cassandra's magic, since she hardly summons new black rock as they begin to fight. Of course, Rapunzel also refrains from using much magic, since she recognizes she needs to be able to draw on a great deal of her power at any moment if she falls off a platform and needs to fly to save herself.

Without her magic, Rapunzel prioritizes her hair as a weapon, and she tries to keep good distance from Cassandra to be able to lasso at her while staying out of the range of Cassandra's sword. So she jumps between the platforms, turning as soon as she gets near the centers to whip at Cassandra and try to restrain her - followed almost immediately by blocking Cassandra's strikes when she gets close. Rapunzel quickly finds her tactic ineffective, and she recognizes that she's wasting energy with continual fleeing. So, after jumping onto the largest platform, she decides to try close-quarters fighting.

"I think this game could be put on at the next Goodwill Festival, don't you agree?" Cassandra asks when she lands on the platform after Rapunzel, and she lunges while arching her sword overhead with both hands to strike down at Rapunzel.

"Hm, I don't know," Rapunzel replies with faux-thoughtfulness, stepping closer to Cassandra during the strike to duck under her arm and get behind her. "It doesn't seem quite edgy enough for me. Could use a few more sneezeweasels," she suggests, dropping into a crouch with her hands on the ground to twist and sweep her leg towards Cassandra's legs to drop her.

Cassandra jumps before Rapunzel's strike could make contact, and she steps back and away again to keep distance for her sword attacks, putting Rapunzel outside of hand-to-hand combat range. "Great point," she responds with a taunting smile. "I'll make sure to take that into account next time. Thanks for the feedback, co-planner."

Rapunzel finds herself smiling back genuinely at Cassandra's reference, despite her taunting.

Trying to avoid the edge of the platform as they continue to fight, Rapunzel is reminded of the Dead Man's Circle during the Challenge of the Brave - a free-for-all brawl where the only goal was not to get knocked out of the ring. Recognizing that Cassandra would keep maintaining enough distance between them to optimize her sword attacks, Rapunzel decides she needs a weapon of her own. Inspired by her memories of the Challenge of the Brave, Rapunzel puts her hand against the ground while dodging one of Cassandra's swipes and uses her magic to break a staff of black rock free from the platform. She immediately parries Cassandra's next attack with it, swatting it against the flat of Cassandra's blade.

Cassandra's eyes widen seeing Rapunzel's sudden weapon, and Rapunzel twirls the staff around herself with an eyebrow raised to show it off. She can't help herself from smiling seeing Cassandra's reaction - and she's having a surprising amount of fun considering her initial exasperation. Perhaps it was how the fight was framed as a game, or how she didn't need to worry about a possibility of her people getting hurt and the city being damaged - but she's enjoying herself more and more.

Cassandra throws her sword to the side, sending it flying off the platform to fall into the lava. She summons a staff of black rock about her height from the ground next to her and snatches it to spin next to herself before pointing it towards Rapunzel in a fighting stance.

Right as Cassandra is about to lunge for her, Rapunzel interrupts: "Hold on- sorry, could I put my hair up?"

Cassandra stops herself, staring at Rapunzel with mild bewilderment, and straightens. She waves wordlessly for Rapunzel to proceed.

"Thanks, I just didn't want it to get all caught up in our staffs-" Rapunzel explains while taking her hair and starting to braid. A minute later she picks her staff back up and says, "Okay, great, I'm good now."

"You sure?" Cassandra asks dryly. "Three strand isn't exactly the most durable of braids."

"The other ones take a while, I didn't want to make you have to wait around," Rapunzel defends.

Cassandra squints at her. "Well that's your decision, so no crying foul when it comes undone and you trip over it."

"Oh please, like I'd trip over my own hair," Rapunzel scoffs.

Cassandra's eyebrow raises. "You want me to recount all the times you've done that, or…"

Feeling a mild flare of embarrassment, Rapunzel leaps directly at her, swinging her staff for a side strike to stop her from talking. Cassandra smirks as she quickly brings her staff around to block Rapunzel's attack.

Having practiced staff fighting with the captain just a couple days ago, Rapunzel feels considerably more confident this time than when she faced off against Cassandra during the Challenge of the Brave - lava lake notwithstanding. She blocks Cassandra's strikes with confidence and uses feints and twirls as she fights to throw Cassandra off. There's something about the showy nature of staff fighting that she particularly enjoys - it feels almost like a dance.

They elegantly step and strike and block and dodge their way around the platform, well-matched in skill and speed, for long enough that the lava underneath starts to dim as it cools. Side-stepping one of Rapunzel's strikes, Cassandra swipes her staff towards Rapunzel's legs to drop her. Rapunzel throws herself backwards into a handspring to dodge it, not realizing her proximity to the edge - one with no other platforms beyond it - and when she lands her back foot slips off the platform. Rapunzel cries out feeling herself starting to fall backwards, dropping her staff in surprise and feeling a bolt of fear knowing she won't be able to pull herself back up.

In the blink of an eye Cassandra is in front of her, and she catches Rapunzel with a hand behind Rapunzel's lower back as Rapunzel's staff falls into the lava below. With adrenaline surging through her system, Rapunzel immediately tries to put her foot back on the platform's edge and her hands scramble to hold onto Cassandra, finding a place around her neck, as she's held over the plaftorm's edge like a dip in a ballroom dance.

Looking down at her, Cassandra smirks while Rapunzel holds onto her. They stay like that for a moment, Rapunzel's grip tightening while she tries to catch her breath and Cassandra holding her up effortlessly, before Cassandra steps back and turns to toss Rapunzel back onto the platform.

Rapunzel rolls once upon hitting the ground, and she pushes herself up to see Cassandra snapping her fingers to start summoning a series of new platforms that form gradual stairs towards the lava lake's edge.

There hadn't been any rule about falling off the platform meaning a loss in the game - she didn't touch the lava, after all - but Rapunzel is certain that Cassandra is leaving because she feels she won. Considering how Rapunzel had initiated an unofficial rematch of the Dead Man's Circle, she's willing to recognize her loss - especially since she's still trembling from the bolt of terror she'd experienced. She's a little funned out.

Rapunzel lets herself roll onto her back, staring up at the sky while catching her breath and trying to get her heart to stop racing. When she finally pulls herself to her feet, she sees Cassandra nearly at the lake's shore. Rapunzel realizes abruptly that she had something she'd wanted to discuss with Cassandra, so with still-slightly-shaking legs she runs down the length of platforms.

"Cass!" Rapunzel calls, and to her surprise Cassandra actually pauses to glance back. "I have- I have something for you," Rapunzel explains, breathless, stopping next to Cassandra along the shore of the cooling lake just off from the platforms. She pulls out the card she'd written earlier that day from her dress pocket and holds it out.

Cassandra hesitates before taking it, and her eyes linger on Rapunzel's bandaged hand, which Rapunzel lowers quickly. But Cassandra says nothing, and then starts to read the card expressionlessly. Rapunzel watches expectantly, and feeling too energized not to say something, she starts, "I just wanted to write you a thank you card for inviting me to dinner last night."

"Yeah, that's uh, what it says," Cassandra notes, still looking at the card.

"Oh, hah, right," Rapunzel laughs sheepishly. "Um, and I wanted to ask if you'd like to go riding with me-"

"Yeah, that's also what it says," Cassandra observes, still expressionless.

"Right," Rapunzel repeats, smiling awkwardly. "I, uh, I was going to give the note to Owl the next time I saw him, but since I saw you first-"

"Yeah, you gave it to me, that's what just happened," Cassandra responds, her gaze still on the card.

"Yeeep," Rapunzel says, her smile tightening with nervousness. Why am I having so much trouble talking to her? Rapunzel wonders as her heart beats faster the longer Cassandra doesn't give her an answer.

"I'm, uh, busy," Cassandra finally says, looking up at her and holding the card back towards Rapunzel. "Sorry."

"Oh," Rapunzel squeaks, feeling her heart drop. "That's- that's no problem," she responds, pulling herself together and taking back the card. "We could, um, do it another time, if you want?"

"Uh, I don't know," Cassandra tells her, starting to back away. "I've got some stuff going on. And I'm sure you're busy, with your, uh, princess… things."

I'm never too busy for you, Rapunzel badly wants to answer, but she recognizes that's coming on a little strong.

"You can give this back to Varian," Cassandra changes the subject, leaning over and picking up the remains of a mostly-melted steel drum that she holds out to Rapunzel.

"Um, okay, sure," Rapunzel replies, taking it, responding automatically without thinking while her mind scrambles to find some way to convince Cassandra to spend time with her.

"Uh, tell him the jar melted," Cassandra adds. "But I can, ah, get him a new one if he wants."

"Sure," Rapunzel responds again, her mind still fixated on the 'being turned down' dilemma.

Their brief moment of awkward silence is broken by Cassandra saying, "Well… bye," followed by her turning and running full tilt at the city.

Wait, Rapunzel desperately wants to say, but she doesn't even know how she'd follow it up. Instead she watches sadly as Cassandra disappears, and then she sighs and looks down in disappointment.

"...Wait, what?" Rapunzel says aloud to herself as she realizes what Cassandra had said about Varian, and she stares baffled at the scrap metal in her hands.

Chapter Text

"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.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

"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.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

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.

🗡♡🗡♡🗡♡🗡

"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.