Eugene was a man of many words. He was, one might say, 'chatty.' He had a snarky response for everything, even when he might best serve himself with silence.
And for once, Eugene was completely speechless.
The entire great hall was speechless.
Rapunzel was sitting on the edge of her throne, the crown Eugene had once stolen poised delicately among her dark hair. Next to her, her mother sat in the same position, but with years of refinement and gravitas Rapunzel had not yet developed.
And on the floor, kneeling in a semicircle, were a strangely rag tag bunch. They were practically in tatters, swords in miss-matched scabbards and other odd weapons strapped to their sides, sodden, muddy half cloaks draped over their shoulders. They all looked overdue for a bath and a shave and a square meal.
Yet they clearly weren't peasants, they held themselves with the nobility of knights, or royals. Knights who'd clearly been through hell.
Finally, the queen, tears in her eyes, got to her feet. "...E... Elliot? Is that you?"
If Eugene had any thoughts left, they vanished. There was a low murmur among the crowd as the leader, in the center, raised his head. His blond hair was dirty, long now, pulled back at his nape, but under his scruffy beard and sun-scarred skin was still the same striking bone structure cut into stone all across the kingdom, the same piercing, strange blue eyes. They had a sharpness, an anger, that faded away under the queen's gaze as his eyes filled with tears, too. "Aunt," he murmured.
"Oh!" she burst into tears, falling onto the floor into her nephew's open arms, drawing him to her like a mother bird, tucking his head under her chin and rocking back and forth as she cried into his hair. It was a completely undignified display. The entire court watched in awe.
Rapunzel stood, reaching out as if to comfort her mother but drew back, caught completely off guard by this unusual public show of emotion. Eugene wanted to go to her, but that meant cutting through the little circle of battered returned knights, going around through the thick crowd would be impossible.
"How could it be?" the queen cried, stroking Elliot's head. "We thought you lost to us."
"I have returned," he said quietly, loud enough only for those closest to hear. "I'll always come home."
She held him away from her to look at his face. "What has become of you?" she said, shaking her head. "What happened to you?"
Elliot looked about to answer when he turned his head slightly and caught sight of Rapunzel, at whom he stared openly, his mouth falling open a little.
And she, completely taken aback, and still not accustomed to people staring at her and kowtowing, waved a little.
The queen sniffled happily, sweeping an arm out towards Rapunzel. "Elliot... this is my daughter, Rapunzel, Princess of Corona."
Eugene had heard the epithet countless times, but there was something so strangely final about it now, like shutters closing between him and the girl he loved. He struggled to hold onto the fleeting random memories of her dragging her hair through the grass, or laughing into his shoulder, or skidding down palace corridors and kissing the corner of his mouth so tenderly one would think she were blessing him, printing her heart right onto his face.
He licked his lips, anxious, overwhelmed.
Elliot's shock and awe was etched onto his features, his eyes wide and a little misty, sweeping over Rapunzel's face for several moments before he bowed his head. "Princess." His voice was strained, full of an effortless, aching reverence. He looked almost faint, and he probably was.
Rapunzel looked to her mother for guidance, finally clearing her throat and reciting, as if directly from one of her lessons, "Prince Elliot, I am honored to meet you."
Elliot looked up, an amused and slightly dazed smile tugging at his lips. "The honor is mine, Lady, truly." He turned back to the queen, his amazement turning to a kind of joyful incredulity. "But I think we must have actually perished at sea, because I don't see how I could get home safely and see my family restored in one day, after everything..."
No! She's there and she's real! And she's mine. I want her to be my family. These thoughts raced aimlessly, nonsensically through Eugene's mind. How did he manage to be jealous already? They were only looking at each other, and Rapunzel looked more baffled than anything else. It was Elliot's gaze that bothered him. For all of its longing intensity you would think he'd been lost at sea for years and Rapunzel was the first young woman he'd laid eyes on and she just happened to be the legendary, long sought after, long pined-for princess of the realm. And she was radiantly beautiful. There was that.
The queen stood, bringing Elliot with her. She was still sniffling, and her words were punctuated with rapturous gazes at her returned nephew. "Rapunzel has been through quite a... travail. She is only now learning how to greet other nobles at court. She is a little nervous."
Elliot smiled, and this time it was the all out, patented, Prince of Corona beam, with a touch of smitten-dope mixed in. "She did wonderfully."
Rapunzel smiled too, hesitant, but genuinely pleased and significantly less awkward than she had been.
Then the king came in, and the whole touching scene repeated itself all over again. It was like when Rapunzel first returned to the castle, except Elliot was taking Eugene's spot in the hug, and Eugene was just watching, stunned.
From her place in the hug, Rapunzel's eyes scanned the crowd, restless. Eugene knew her, knew her moods and her emotions. She still wasn't used to all the touching. She wasn't used to the crowds. She didn't know this man, beyond knowing of him, and the fact that she didn't share the same visceral joy of her family would make her feel even more like an imposter, like something was wrong with her.
Her eyes finally landed on Eugene and her whole face softened, and with it the strain in Eugene's chest. Carefully she extricated herself from the embrace, coming over and taking Eugene's hand to lead him back to her family. "Uh... Elliot, this is my... suitor. Eugene."
They all stood, and Elliot managed, somehow, to be even more stunned than he already was. He gaped for a second, before his hand when to his sword. "Flynn Rider?"
Eugene felt a prick of pride that Elliot recognized him, even if it was as a criminal. Rapunzel quickly put her arms out, positioning herself between Elliot and Eugene in an adorable display of protectiveness. "Yes, but don't worry, he's on our side now. And his real name is Eugene. And he's my best friend."
Elliot glanced back at the king and queen, who smiled calmly at him. He blanched, but relaxed his posture, bringing his sword hand up to his chest and rubbing it absently.
"Oh," Rapunzel gasped, "What happened to your hand?"
For the first time, everyone seemed to notice that Elliot's right hand was wrapped in a grungy, blood-stained bandage. The hall was silent, waiting for an answer, all eyes on their returned prince, who looked dirtier and smaller and sicker by the second.
"I... uh..." He shrank back a little, looking to his aunt and uncle for support. He flickered between princely and completely exhausted before their eyes.
The queen shook her head, putting a reassuring arm around Elliot's shoulders. "Let us get you some place quiet, dear. We can talk about all of this after you've rested."
Prince Elliot slept for a very long time. The other men were kept up longer to provide an explanation. Rapunzel was allowed to sit with the king and queen and hear their report, and of course she wanted Eugene with her, so they all listened to the sailors' story. A week or so out of harbor, they were besieged by an enemy force - who? Not pirates, they were organized and well outfitted and disciplined, but they flew no flag. Elliot and a few others had been captured and brought to a make-shift island prison. The sailors were tight-lipped about their conditions, but it was obvious from the sight of them that it hadn't been a good time. They were gaunt, scraggly, and jaundiced. Rapunzel wanted to question them endlessly about their voyage, but they were dismissed after the briefest of summaries to tend to their health.
As soon as they were gone, Eugene tugged Rapunzel into a secluded hallway and pulled her tight up to his chest, tighter than he'd ever held her before, it was almost painful. His expression was wild, and his eyes flew over her face, her limbs, her body, every inch of her, as if inspecting her for wounds. Finally he took her face in his hands and kissed her, deeply, passionately, leaving them both breathless.
"I'm not letting you out of my sight," he rasped, not letting up on his hold on her, meeting their mouths again like he needed her to breathe.
She finally broke away, thrilled by this attention but confused, at the same time. "Eugene," she said, gently, "It's okay. I'm not planning on joining the navy. That will never happen to me." She was very touched by his concern, though.
Eugene faltered, something he didn't often do, and licked his lips, brows furrowed. Finally, he said "I... I know. Just..." he sighed, leaning his forehead against hers. "Please let me protect you. I just... need to."
She tried to remember if she'd ever heard him stutter before. "Eugene... really, I'm okay. I'm here, alive and well, you don't need to worry." She hated to see him so troubled.
His expression didn't change, he just looked into her eyes and repeated himself, softly. "Please, Rapunzel."
It was her turn to search his face. She didn't know what was getting under his skin, but she didn't want to question him further right then. She knew what it was to worry over someone, and sometimes it wasn't even logical. "Of course, Eugene."
Then she kissed him again, because she was hoping that they might continue what they'd started earlier in her bedroom, and that in doing so he'd forget what was availing him and have some fun with her, but his kisses were only tender now, thorough but banked, like his body was invested but his mind was elsewhere.
Elliot was in pretty terrible shape. He didn't appear until dinner the following day. He'd had a bath, a rest, and a shave, a haircut, and a new set of clothes. He looked... Rapunzel could only think of the word 'princely.' True, he was shockingly thin, his cheek bones protruding a little, dark, deep circles under his eyes. But even after everything, he held himself in a way Rapunzel couldn't quite mimic no matter how much she tried. He sat up so straight, and had a kind of dignity in the set of his shoulders, in his expression.
When they served the first course, he stared at the plate for a long time. It was chilled carrot and ginger soup with fresh bread, one of Rapunzel's favorites.
Her mother reached over and gently touched Elliot's hand. "Dear... is it alright? I remember how much you liked it, but... maybe your tastes have changed."
Elliot looked at her hand on his gloved one for a few moments before meeting her eyes and smiling a little. "Of course... it is my favorite, isn't it? There's just something... so surreal about all of this."
"It's my favorite soup, too!" Rapunzel said excitedly, bouncing a little in her seat. "Maybe we have the same tastes because we are related."
"Yes!" Eugene chimed in, smiling broadly and clutching his own spoon. "You're so related! First cousins, huh? Awfully related. You probably have every single thing in common."
Rapunzel nodded, reaching for her spoon. "Let's dig in!"
But Elliot looked at his spoon for a long time before reaching for it. It looked... odd in his hand, like it wasn't balanced correctly. Then Rapunzel noticed that the index and ring fingers of his glove were folded in against his palm as if... and she remembered the bandage around his hand.
"What happened to your fingers?" she gasped, and only realized that was an insensitive question when her mother gave her a pleading look.
"Rapunzel," she gently chided.
Elliot cleared his throat, switching the spoon to his left hand and smiling weakly at Rapunzel. "It's not exactly dinner conversation, Princess," he said quietly. "I'm sorry I alarmed you."
She looked at Eugene for guidance, but he was staring blankly at Elliot, seemingly chewing... his soup.
Now everyone was staring at their plates in silence.
Rapunzel poked a chunk of carrot around in her soup, trying to think of something helpful to say. "We're having steak au poivre tonight," she said, looking back to Elliot. "I can cut it for you, if you want. I can help."
"Rapunzel!" her mother's nudge was sharper this time, giving her a meaningful look she just couldn't decipher. What? He clearly would have a hard time wielding a knife and fork. She could take care of that for him.
"It's okay..." Elliot said to her mother, turning tired but gentle eyes on Rapunzel. "Thank you, Princess. You're very thoughtful."
The king coughed. "I'm sure that won't be necessary."
"It is a kindness," Elliot said more firmly. "I haven't quite mastered my right hand again. I've resigned myself to relearning the sword with my left, but table etiquette will always be a trial, I expect."
"It's hard for me, too." Rapunzel said, latching on to any topic that wouldn't get her scolded or make anyone else feel bad. "The other day I ate an entire meal with my sorbet spoon without realizing."
Elliot smiled at her, and this time it seemed a little more genuine. "Your etiquette instructor must have had something to say about that."
She shrugged a little. "Actually, Eugene covered for me. He complained really loudly about the garnish and I don't think she noticed. Eugene is good at..." she looked at Eugene for vocabulary help, trying to remember the term he'd used. Oh yes. "He's good at 'staging a diversion.' He keeps me out of trouble."
Elliot snorted softly, then seemed to remember that snorting was not table behavior and straightened. "Yes... I recall that Flynn Rider did use distraction very cleverly. They used his crimes as case studies when I was being trained in the guard, you know. We used to think of him as somewhat of a threat to national security, and now..." he looked at Eugene and shrugged a little. Who'd have thought?
"Right?" Rapunzel agreed proudly, reaching out to touch Eugene's arm. "Now he's a national hero! He reminds me every day that anything is possible, that any transformation can happen. If Eugene can be a good prince, then maybe I can be a good princess, too."
Elliot had finally managed to get a bite of soup, but at her words, he coughed, pounding his chest lightly with his crippled fist until he swallowed painfully, even paler than he was already.
"Are you alright?" Rapunzel nudged his water glass towards him in concern. "The ginger in the soup can surprise you..."
"Fine," Elliot croaked, his eyes watering a little. Clearly it had gone down the wrong pipe. He took a long drink of water and then a breath. "Prince?" he asked, his voice tight.
She looked around the table, wondering how she'd managed to say something wrong again. The king and queen were looking at each other with unreadable expressions, and Eugene was sopping up the last of his soup with his bread with such concentration you'd think it was a soup-sopping contest.
"Well... yes," she said, blinking. "Once we're married, he will be a prince."
Elliot took on a greenish tinge, though his placid smiled stayed in place. "Married?"
Rapunzel laughed nervously. "Someday, I mean," she said quickly. "He... hasn't even asked me yet. But... that's what people who really like each other do, right?" No one was saying anything. What was going on? "Maybe not, maybe he won't ask..."
"Of course I'll ask," Eugene said, taking her hand under the table and giving it a squeeze. "Don't even worry, Rapunzel. I'm not going anywhere. It's a long way off, though. You just got home, remember? Plenty of time for that."
"Oh, I know," she said quickly, feeling more and more stupid by the minute. She wasn't ready to be married. Or engaged. She wasn't even ready for this conversation. Eugene would ask? That made her heart speed up, just the thought. Why were they talking about this at the table, instead of alone, where they could embrace and speak freely? "I was just, he just, I..."
Elliot stood abruptly, his good hand rubbing at his temple. "Excuse me," he said quietly. "I'm feeling a little light headed. If it's alright with you all, I think I'll retire for the evening."
"Of course, my boy," The king said, nodding. "We'll have the kitchens send something along to your room. You need to eat to regain your strength."
"Thank you," Elliot said, and bowed slightly before leaving the room without another look at Rapunzel.
Wow. She never realized how useful those lessons on dinner conversation might have been if she'd paid attention. She'd never had trouble carrying a conversation before, but she realized now that she only ever talked to people who cared about her, like her parents or Eugene, or people who had to pretend they cared about her, like the servants. So they gave her a lot of slack. Elliot wasn't quite either of those things, and he hadn't lasted five minutes in conversation with her. She had her work cut out.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly, feeling completely stupid and lost.
Her mother sighed, reaching out to touch her shoulder. "It is just fine, Sweetheart. We all have... so much to talk about. It will take time for Elliot to adjust. We must be patient."
Rapunzel was relieved not to be blamed, even though she knew the dinner failure was her fault. Maybe once she was alone with Eugene, he could explain what went wrong.
Eugene grumbled as he hefted himself up onto Rapunzel's windowsill. If this were a booty call, he'd just feel cocky. He was Flynn Rider, after all. Even the palace couldn't keep him out. Couldn't even trip him up.
But it wasn't a booty call, and his ease in accessing the princess's bedroom just pissed him off. You'd think, after having her stolen from the royal chambers once, they'd have stepped it up a little. The kingdom was full of morons. Happy, sunshiney morons.
He sat on the sill and picked the lock easily, slipping in silently and shutting it behind him. The nights were getting quite cool, and Blondie was all snuggled up for bed. All snuggled up in her little nightgown, the thin straps precarious on her slight shoulders, the covers pulled up to her waist as she sat up in bed, reading.
So many flirtatious things to say. So many ways to say good night. He could just bend and kiss her, or pull her into his arms. They could finally continue where they'd left off the morning of the execution...
The execution that was not an execution. Eugene reached up to run his hands over his face, letting out an exasperated sigh that made Rapunzel jump a little in bed. She snapped her book shut, staring at him with wide eyes, one hand to her chest as she caught her breath.
"Eugene!" she scolded with a smile. "You're not supposed to be in here!"
"I know. And yet, here I am. No one even tried to stop me."
"That's a good thing, right?" She held out her arms. "Come cuddle!"
Oh, so tempting. Her nightgown was silky, her skin even more so, he knew. He could join her, and push away thoughts of the jailbreak, of her blond boyish cousin returned, of the memory of the grim conversation he'd had with her mother.
He shook his head, hefting himself back up onto the window seat and looking out. He'd have preferred being able to guard her door and windows at the same time, but there was only one of him, and so he'd have to put at least a little faith in the oafs stationed in the hall. "Sorry, Goldie. I'm going to stay here tonight."
He could see her cock her head out of the corner of his eye. He tried not to look directly at her - she was too appealing, too inviting. "You're going to stay in my room tonight?" she asked innocently. "Is that okay?"
"Okay with who?" Eugene asked, keeping his eyes moving over the grounds. They were empty. "Your mom sacked Geneva. Everyone else around here is too busy to notice someone creeping into your room, apparently."
She smiled so wide, he could see its brilliance even from the side. "Then come cuddle with me. No one will catch us. We can have a slumber party!"
Eugene swallowed, running a hand through his hair. He didn't want to explain to her why he had to be on alert. It was her job to enjoy her new life, to experience the world openly and joyfully. It was his job to protect her, to make that possible. Recreational slumber parties unfortunately ranked lower at the moment. "This is a kind of slumber party. You can slumber there, and I'll slumber here." He wasn't really planning on sleeping, though.
"That doesn't sound like much of a party..." She slid out of bed, coming to sit across from him, moving the pillow from between them and holding it in her lap. He ignored how she folded her legs under her, how slender and soft they looked. He ignored the way her nightdress slipped low on her chest, and the shadow between her breasts.
He didn't say anything, and didn't look at her, not trusting himself not to touch her, kiss her, start something that it wasn't the right time to finish.
She poked his leg with her toes, her cute, sexy little toes. "Are you mad at me about dinner?"
He looked at her, surprised. She looked sincerely concerned, her wide green eyes locked on his.
"What? No way, Blondie. Why would you think that?"
"Well... you've been acting funny since... " her face scrunched in thought. "Well, for the past week or so. But this is a new level of funny. Sneaking in my room and then not even touching me? Not looking at me?"
He still hadn't told her about what happened a week ago, when he'd visited the jail. He hadn't told anyone. But now that the Stabbingtons were out there, somewhere, he knew he'd have to break his silence. Not to her though. If he had any say, Hulk and Bulk would be caught and done away with before she worried a single hair on her head.
She bit her lip. "And then tonight at dinner... well, I did embarrass myself. It was really awkward. And then there was the whole... marriage thing.
Right. The marriage thing. A thing which they needed to talk about. But he would like for that to be talked about some other time, when he could focus on romancing her and not preventing her gristly murder. "You didn't embarrass yourself," he said, taking off his boots so they could play footsie properly. "You were sweet, and trying to help. There were just a lot of histories and egos in that room. It was an emotional minefield."
She brightened when he brushed his toes along her ankle, nudging him back. "Histories and egos?"
"Yeah... I think your dad thought that offering to cut up the steak of the country's most lauded solider and swordsman would have belittled him." He saw the horror on Rapunzel's face and quickly continued. "But to his credit, Elliot seemed not to take it that way. Seemed like he took it as the sweet, kind offer it was. You're a good kid, Rapunzel. Don't worry about all that."
She listened carefully, soaking up his words, though her brows stayed furrowed. "What about... when he got up to leave? Was I..." she swallowed, her voice growing softer, more vulnerable. "Was I wrong to think you and I would... might... that we'd marry?"
"No, of course not," he said gently, pausing their footsie. "You weren't wrong. And we'll talk about that sometime. But... I think it just wasn't what Elliot wanted to hear."
That surprised her. "Why not? It's exciting to think about!"
"Yeah. Maybe a little too much excitement. He just got home from a pretty horrible place. It's a lot to take in. He was next in line for the throne, remember? Now not only is he not going to be King, but some other dude is going to be higher on the totem pole. A dude he used to be trained to hate. And he finds this out within minutes of a cousin he didn't know he had offering to help him with basic needs he can't meet for himself anymore because he's had a few fingers hacked off by some horrible pirate or something."
Horror again, and this time, he had to admit, justified. Even Eugene felt bad for Elliot, and he already was inclined to dislike the guy. "Hey, it's okay," he said gently, reaching out to take her hand. "It's not your fault. You were just trying to help and he knows that. We all know that. You just gotta go easy on the excitement with Elliot for a while, I think."
She nodded thoughtfully, letting go of his hand and putting the pillow aside, crawling forward into his lap and laying her head on his shoulder, looking out over the lawns. He sighed, folding his arms around her without protest. She never asked or gave much warning for emergency cuddles, and he couldn't say he really objected. Besides, when she really needed comforting, he found it significantly easier to restrain himself from... other things.
"Will you help me?" she asked quietly, curling into a little ball. "I don't want to hurt him. I don't want to hurt anyone. I need your help understanding."
His heart clenched, and he set his jaw, pulling her in tighter against his chest. "Sugar, you don't have to worry about that. You couldn't hurt anyone. Of course I'll help you figure everything out. And I'm not going to let anyone hurt you, either."
No one. Not ever. Somehow, he'd make sure of it.
AN- This chapter is dedicated to Ned (Airplane) and Flynn (TheSmokinSmolder) for their birthdays! (May 9th and 7th!) Happy birthday to my favorite boys of the Tangled fandom. I love you both so much.
Thanks to Ned, also, for betaing this chapter!
Thanks to everyone who left reviews on chapter 9. The number of readers has gotten well past my ability to list you all in a reasonable amount of space for an AN. But thank you so much for your support and feedback. I really, really appreciate it!