cheeseball

It's little things, at first.

Most of them are just tiny little behavioral problems that come with the psychological burden of being willingly imprisoned in one room for eighteen years. Things like talking with your mouth full and wincing when you squeeze calloused, petite feet into tight, plastic shoes. Nothing that the manners tutor can't tweak in a few lessons. He likes them, really, little things like that, but she's a princess now, and princesses must have perfect posture and know which fork to use for salad and proper topics to discuss when having lunch with the East Kingdom's royal family. He forgets she's a princess a lot of the time, during moments like when he took her out to dance in the rain for the first time and her eyes were so green in the midst of the showering mist pouring from above. He forgets that he's really not supposed to be here and that there are plenty who disapprove of his presence.

But then, there are also big things. You know, how like she burst into tears when she smelled a lilac flower strolling in the garden, and he had to hold her in his arms for ages before she calmed down and all the royal gardeners stared. Or like how sometimes she doesn't eat her dinner, but merely pushes around the food until the peas and potatoes and rice and chicken have all been rearranged and poked and sliced and she doesn't talk, and he misses the sound of her voice and ignores the fact that the Queen is staring at him staring at her. These are the things that Manners Tutor can't fix; these are the things he thinks of when he jolts awake in his bed one night, and then realizes the looming shadow is hers.

"Blondie?" he mutters, rubbing his gummy eyes until his vision stops blurring and focuses on her. She looks tiny, wearing an almost-see-through blue nightgown just past her thighs. Her eyelids are droopy and her hair is sticking up at odd angles. Her face is pink, and her eyes are puffy and bloodshot. "You all right?"

She swallows, hard, and steps forward. He glances at her feet and, just as he predicts, they are bare, her toes curling and uncurling in her anxiety. "I was wondering," she murmurs, "if I could sleep in your room tonight."

He blinks once, and then twice, and then thrice before responding. "Yeah, yeah," he says, shaking his head to lose the last few tugs of unconsciousness. He spreads out his left arm, pulls down the blanket, and pats the space next to him. "Plenty of room. Come on in." She smiles and obeys, crawling in and snuggling against his bare chest. Her fingers, ice cold, splay across his pectorals in a fan. He shivers, more out of the intimate gesture than the freezing state of her hand.

"I had a nightmare," she admits, her voice soft. She closes her eyes, her eyelashes so long they brush her cheeks, intermingling with her freckles for a second before she opens them again to reveal jade.

He sucks in a long breath, and then pulls her closer to him. When she's flush against his body and she sighs in comfort, he pulls the blanket back over them, warmth settling over his skin. "What was it about?" he asks.

He's not sure he wants to know, to be honest. She has had nightmares since moving into the castle, he knows, but not how often. She's come to his room in the dark with her skimpy nightgown and her cold bare feet three times, twice simply shaken, but once with red rimming her eyes and tear tracks down her cheeks. She never tells him what they're like, only that they're full of darkness and loneliness and she wakes up screaming, always. He doesn't like the sound of her scream, because it reminds him of broken worlds and hopelessness and the feeling in his gut when he thinks he's going to lose her. That's the worst feeling in the world.

Rapunzel still hasn't answered. The silence thickens. He reaches out with his broad hand and smoothes back her hair so she doesn't look so much like she's been electrocuted. "Tell me, Rapunzel," he whispers.

She looks up at him. There is so much innocence in her eyes that it makes him feel sick and lovely at once. He feels sick because she is so much better than him. Her energy and enthusiasm and gratitude for everything that so many take for granted gives him this twisty feeling at the bottom of his stomach that makes him feel like he doesn't deserve her, that while he loves her with everything he's got, there's probably somebody out there who's better for her than him. And yet he can't stand that thought, because he feels lovely when he's around her, which also makes him feel sick but in a more tolerable way. The air around her smells like flowers and her lips pressed against his, there and then gone like a butterfly, tastes like fresh strawberries. Everything about her, everything, reminds him of the love he feels for her, and when he remembers he feels like a cheeseball for all this stupid emotion, because, well, the truth of the matter is, Eugene Fitzherbert is, indeed, a cheeseball.

She breathes in, slow and steady, and the hot breath that spreads onto his skin makes him bury his face into her air. His lips, close to her ear now, form words. "You can tell me," he reassures, and with that, the dam breaks.

She doesn't cry at first. "I don't think they like me," she confesses, and his face falls with the discovery of her insecurity. She continues quickly, as if she's afraid the words will swallow her up if she doesn't let them out not. "Whenever I'm around, people act all weird, and they're so careful and formal. And I try to talk to people and they call me Miss and Princess and Ma'am and all these other things and no one, no one calls me Rapunzel except you and I - I feel so lonely."

His voice is raspy, but soothing. "Shh, shh," he murmurs as he rubs circles across her trembling back.

"And Manners Tutor always finds something wrong with me," she goes on. "If I'm not forgetting that it's you and I, not you and me, then I'm curtseying wrong or slurping my soup or talking out of turn. Everything is so different, and I'm so afraid that I'm not a good princess and that if I ever become Queen then I won't do as good and I'll ruin the kingdom or I'll be selfish or become ugly or make people sad and you'll leave again, or maybe you'll die, or maybe you'll realize what I'm like and fall in love with someone else." She's crying now, with heaving sobs and sniffles and deep breaths.

It is only now that he realizes just how much he had taken away from her with the chopping of her hair. He had taken away everything she had ever known, and there was no way to give it back. "You never told me what the nightmare was about," he reminds her, his sentence breaking in the middle when she lets out a low wail with the release of her secrets.

"It's the same thing every time, but it's still scary," she explains. "At first it's happy, and I always believe it's going to be a happy dream but it never is." He bites his lip, tucks a shaggy lock of hair behind her ear. "You and I are running through the village, and you buy me flowers and a cupcake and you braid the flowers into my hair and we share the cupcake and you have icing, all over your chin." She smiles at the memory, but it fades quickly. "And then all of a sudden I'm in the tower, with Mother. With Gothel. And for the longest time, I'm so afraid that you're not going to come, and that I'm going to die, but then you come and I'm so happy. But then you - you get stabbed. And there's all that blood. And I fight and I hold you and I try to heal you but I see the light go out from your eyes. And then I try to kiss you but you disappear. And then my tower and Gothel and Pascal and everything disappears, too, and there's nothing but black. And I call for Mother - the Queen, not Gothel - and Father, and then Pascal, and Maximus, but no one comes. And finally I call for you. And you come, but you look at me with the meanest look in your eyes, and you leave me and I chase you but you're fast. And then I scream so loud because wherever I look it's just black and before I wake up I always know that I'm completely and totally alone."

She finishes her story with a choked cry and she hides her face in his neck. He tugs her close and kisses her cheek and forgets to play Flynn Rider and, when the layers and the hiding and the masks are peeled off, it's just Eugene and Rapunzel, the story of a boy and a girl. "I'm sorry," he says genuinely, because it is what he is. "I am so, so sorry, Rapunzel."

Rapunzel sniffles and kisses his collarbone chastely. "Are you going to leave me?" she asks, not looking at him.

"I don't think I could if they tried to make me."

"Good."

"Don't ever feel like you have to be scared that I'm going to leave you. I should be scared that you're going to leave me."

She bites her lip, meeting his eyes. "All this feeling scared is silly. We should both just feel safe."

"Deal," he agrees. "I'll feel safe that you're staying put, and you'll feel safe that I'm staying put. Capisce?"

Her lips twist up in a delighted smile. "Capisce."

The light from the drawn curtains starts to peek through the cracks, but she is already falling into unconsciousness. "Hey, Rapunzel," he says, even though she's already half-asleep.

"Mmm?"

"I love you."

By this time, her eyelids have shut fully and her breathing has steadied, her chest falling up and down rhythmically. He watches her sleep, curled against his chest, her ice-block feet entangled with his. He has never felt more at peace.