A/N: Well, it's been a while! My new job certainly took up an awful lot of time, as is obvious, I suppose, from the fact that I haven't updated in months. So I thought I would finish this off, I only have a couple of chapters left and I want to tie it all up! So here is my next chapter. It's almost like time travel for me - I wrote this in March or something and here it is in June!
Disclaimer: As usual, I don't own Tangled.
Chapter 5 - The Journey
It was incredible, Eugene thought, how fast everything had changed. Instead of travelling alone as he had intended, he was now accompanied by a bad-tempered horse, a frog and beautiful princess. Instead of being far, far away from the kingdom, sprinting frantically in the opposite direction, he was approaching it at a frightening speed. And instead of not giving two hoots about the lost princess and where she might be, she had now become the centre of his universe.
He grinned, feeling a strange, warm blossoming in his stomach as he thought it. He snuck a surreptitious glance in her direction. Her hair was a particularly gorgeous shade of brown in the morning sunlight. Her enormous green eyes – honestly, he didn't even think eyes could be that large – were sparkling, flicking in every direction as she watched anxiously for the first sight of the spirals and towers of the palace over the trees. She was leaning so far forward in the saddle he would have been worried she might fall off except, he now knew, she had the amazing ability to balance on anything. If she hadn't been born a princess and then been whisked away and trapped in a tower, he thought idly, she would have made an excellent thief.
Oh well. Still, it didn't really matter what she was. She had somehow tied him to her in the deepest, strangest way, in a way he still didn't completely understand. He'd never, ever been tied to anyone in his life. Who would he have had to be tied to? But now it was just like when she'd had him all wrapped up in her golden hair. She was the ground he had somehow become rooted in like a tree.
And, he thought, his grin widening, she didn't care what he was either.
He'd been mulling over it in his head yesterday as they made their way through the forest. She'd been staring everywhere and pointing at everything as if it were all new, all over again. How did she do that? How did she have so much energy and enthusiasm?
Oh dear. He was getting distracted again. But even as distracted as he'd been yesterday by her as they walked (or rather, he walked and she rode), he couldn't shake that horrible, creeping feeling that was winding itself through his insides. He was a thief. She was a princess. How on earth did you resolve that conflict?
And then she'd said those two horrible words. They were words that had always sounded so beautiful to him before: "You're right." Of course he was right! When would people learn this? But when she'd said them last night next to the fire he'd felt as if the noose he'd seen through the bars of the prison window was once again around his neck – and tightening very quickly.
Oh no, he'd thought. She wants me to leave.
It hadn't really sunk in. It was like the words were trickling over the surface of his skin; he was a rock and they were water pointlessly seeking a way in. But even water will wear away at stone eventually, and gradually he could feel the thought becoming clearer and clearer, as much as he tried to block it out, until it was a scream in his head. "You're right, you're right, YOU'RE RIGHT!"
Of course, he should have seen it coming. Who had ever really wanted him to stick around, as self-pitying as it sounded? He'd spent the first half of his life in an orphanage where nobody had ever come to claim him, and the second half as a criminal where the only people who wanted to claim him were soldiers. So really, he shouldn't have been surprised.
And the fact that he was made it abundantly clear to him yet again just how attached to her he had already become in only a few short days.
All of this had been whirring around in his head as Rapunzel had stared at him tearfully – and then revealed that she was only worried for his safety and she didn't want to drag him in to the kingdom in case he was arrested!
Well, that had certainly changed things. Rather than seeping in slowly that clunker had dropped through immediately and sent him reeling. She wanted him after all! She didn't care about his past! He could stay!
Nobody had ever really wanted him to stay before. Nobody had ever been able to look past the thief. Nobody had ever seen Eugene Fitzherbert. All they'd ever seen was Flynn Rider.
Except her. And every time she showed him that he felt his bond to her growing stronger and stronger.
He was turning into such a sap.
"Eugene!" Rapunzel suddenly squealed, yanking him from his musings. "I can see it! I can see the palace!" She grabbed his shoulder and pointed, leaning even further forward in the saddle. Sure enough, over the top of the trees, the highest point of the palace loomed. Eugene knew it very well, having clambered all over it quite recently.
He reached up and squeezed her hand. "Not long now, Blondie."
She was practically bouncing in the saddle with excitement, her hands twisting nervously around the reins. "Can I make Max go faster?"
"Of course! You just nudge his sides with your feet and flick the reins," he said without thinking.
"Let's go, Max!" Rapunzel cried, giving him a huge poke in the side and flinging the reins madly.
"No!" yelled Eugene. He took an enormous step forward, hit a patch of wet grass, and felt his feet fly out from underneath him. He hit the ground and the air whooshed from his lungs.
Max, on the other hand, wasted no time getting moving. Eugene heard his snort of glee and then, with an enormous pounding of hooves, he jumped clean over Eugene and thundered off through the trees, the laughter of Rapunzel ringing through the crisp morning air.
"Rapunzel!" Eugene rolled over and found Pascal squeaking angrily on the grass next to him, legs waving. He scooped up the little chameleon, stuck him in his pocket and sprinted after them.
He followed as much as he could Rapunzel's shrieks of mirth as they drifted back to him through the forest. In his haste didn't even look where he was going. He got hit several times in the face by tiny branches, and one time by a particularly large one. Nose stinging and eyes watering, he promptly trod in a huge puddle. He narrowly avoided a collision with a passing squirrel, who chattered angrily. As they ran Pascal clambered up on to his shoulder, shook his tiny fist and squealed right back. Eugene didn't even stop to consider the bizarre nature of this exchange as he careened around an enormous tree, slid down a small hill and ran full pelt for the nearby bridge that led to town.
He could just make out Max and Rapunzel galloping across it. He groaned and forced his aching legs to go faster.
Finally, in a haze of exhaustion and leaves, he staggered on to the bridge. He looked up and thought his stomach might drop right out of his body.
There, at the very end, were five guards, each of them with their spears pointed directly at Rapunzel who was still (Eugene was thankful to see) seated firmly on Max. Next to his ear Pascal let out an angry whirr.
"Right there with you," Eugene muttered. The sight of Rapunzel with that many spears so close to her face gave him a whole new burst of energy and he broke into another run, his long strides quickly bringing him close enough to hear what was going on.
"…on the Captain's horse?" one of the guards was saying angrily. "He was last seen with Rider on his back, and now you turn up on him saying you need to get to the palace? Who do you think you are?"
"You will go no further than this!" said another, shaking his spear in a threatening manner. "You will remove yourself from that horse this instant and the come with us for questioning on Rider's whereabouts!"
"You don't need to ask!" Eugene bellowed, skidding to a halt and attempting to throw himself between Max and the guards. "Take me in if you want, but you'll leave her alone!"
"No!" he heard Rapunzel cry softly. He turned to give her a quick smile and saw that she was white with fright, clutching the saddle as if it were the only thing keeping her upright. His heart clenched and he gritted his teeth. How dare they make her feel this way! They didn't even know who she was!
"You!" boomed one of the guards, reaching out and grabbing Eugene by the neck of his shirt. "Back for another shot at the gallows are you, Rider? The Captain will be very happy to see you!"
"Get off me!" Eugene snarled, clamping his fist around the guard's arm and attempting to pull away. "If you want to take me away, fine, but get your hands off me!"
The guard's face turned a horrid dark red. "You don't get to give me orders, you criminal!" he roared. "I'll take you in and I'll do it any way I like, and there's nothing you can do about it!" He reached around to grab Eugene's other arm, and suddenly he was surrounded by guards. They reached for his wrists and twisted his arms behind his back so hard he could feel the muscles screaming, and he let out a yell of frustration and pain –
The guards froze, Eugene suspended between them. It was all oddly familiar. He had a sudden flash of déjà-vu…
He couldn't turn his head but he swivelled his eyes as far as he could to the side.
Rapunzel hadn't moved, but, he realised, she looked completely different. No longer was she grabbing onto the saddle, pale and scared. Now her cheeks were full of colour and she sat up completely straight in the saddle, almost like it was – well, like it was a throne, her shoulders back and chin high. Her mouth was a thin line, her jaw clenched, and her eyes were flashing as if they were filled with thunder and lightning, an angry dark green like a forest in a storm.
Eugene felt so proud he thought he might explode. He was witnessing once again the kind of evolution that had occurred inside The Snuggly Duckling, although that time he'd been too surprised to think anything (well, apart from 'What on earth?'). Now he thought, that's my girl!
Max had also risen to the occasion. He had drawn himself up to his full (and considerable) height, nostrils flaring, eyes gleaming, staring down at the guards with a look clearly brimming with disdain. Pascal sat in between Max's ears, his position practically identical.
Not one of the guards had moved a muscle. They hardly seemed to be breathing.
"Leave him alone!" Rapunzel said in a commanding voice. In the complete silence that had fallen it penetrated the air like a silver trumpet. Out of the corner of his eye Eugene saw passers-by stopping to stare.
The guard who had first spotted Eugene seemed to find his voice, although it came out rather small and weedy compared to Rapunzel's. "We have every right to take him – and you – into custody."
"You will do no such thing!" Rapunzel said, glaring at him so sternly the guard actually shrank back a little. "Now let him go!"
The guards looked at each other uneasily, clearly torn between this mysterious young girl on the Captain's horse and keeping hold of their prize.
"You have no power to command it!" replied the guard, still clinging tightly to Eugene's arms, which were now going numb.
"Don't I?" Rapunzel said in a voice that cracked like a whip. "I am the lost princess, and I wish to see the King and Queen!"
There was a collective gasp from the guards. Every single one turned an identical shade of white so quickly Eugene had to fight the desire to laugh. Behind them a wave of whispers broke out from the townspeople who had gathered to watch.
The guard actually dropped Eugene's arms in surprise. "You – the lost – no!" he sputtered. "How could that be?"
Rapunzel's eyes flashed dangerously and Maximus took a threatening step forward. "I wish to speak to the King and Queen! Take us to the palace!"
"How do we know you really are?" said another guard, his spear now hanging limply by his side.
"Well, if she really is, you shouldn't risk it by making her angrier," Eugene pointed out.
The first guard swung around and frowned at him. "We'll hear no more out of you until this matter is resolved!" He turned back to his troop. "I will take them to the palace and sort this out," he said. "You will remain here in case there is any attempt at escape, understood?"
"Yes, sir!" they chorused. The guard turned back to Rapunzel and beckoned her forward. Maximus immediately switched on his proudest walk, hooves clicking sharply against the cobblestones. As the guard turned to lead the way Rapunzel kept her head high, but she flicked her eyes towards Eugene quickly. In that second her anxiety broke through and he saw her swallow hard. He quickly raised his hand to hers and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "You're amazing," he whispered as he passed.
She said nothing, but she sat up a little straighter and he could swear he saw the tiniest of smiles flicker on her face.
"You!" barked the guard, turning around again and pointing at Eugene with his spear. "You get to walk in front. Off you go!"
As they made their way towards the group of people who had gathered nearby Eugene could see them staring unabashedly at Rapunzel, their eyes roaming over her face, her eyes, her hair. Rapunzel shifted uneasily in the saddle, her cheeks now a deep crimson, obviously unsure where to look.
"It's her!" yelled a voice from somewhere in the crowd. "Look at her eyes! She's identical to the Queen!"
"And her hair!" cried another. "Her hair is the same colour!"
And suddenly there was a wall of noise as people stared talking and shouting and pushing in from all sides. Rapunzel's eyes widened and she let out a terrified squeak. "Eugene!" she hissed, groping forward to grab his shoulder. He immediately reached up to grab her hand and felt it trembling. She would never have had this many people focused on her in all her life.
"Stop!" thundered the guard. "Move aside, make way! We need to get to the palace! Get back!"
"Don't you touch her!" screeched yet another voice. "It's her, it's her!"
"Nothing has been decided yet!" the guard roared, his voice rolling out over the frantic voices. "Now get back!"
Gradually people moved aside until there was a narrow path through all the bodies. Eugene felt extremely uncomfortable. As many of them that were staring at Rapunzel were also staring at him. Any second now someone was going to –
"It's that thief!" someone shrieked. "That Rider!"
"He wants the reward! You filthy criminal, you cheating b – "
Yet another wave of noise came crashing down as they all surged forward once again, whipped into a fury by the realisation that Flynn Rider was the one who had brought in the lost princess. Eugene cringed inside as he realised what they all must be assuming – he was only there for the money or the titles or whatever the King and Queen would bestow upon the one who brought back their daughter. This was possibly one of the most awkward moments of his entire life, and that was saying something.
A hand shot out from the mass of bodies and made a grab for his vest. Eugene ducked it automatically and swung quickly out of reach, craning his head desperately to make sure Rapunzel was safe.
Maximus was baring his teeth and snorting furiously, but Rapunzel seemed rooted to the saddle, her eyes wide with panic as she watched the crowd. Eugene cursed under his breath. She had to get out of there.
He made a wild leap forward and smacked Max hard on his rear. Max shot him an irritated look before rearing up – Eugene groaned as Rapunzel let out a shriek of surprise – and plunging forward through the tiny gap that still remained. He thundered off in the direction of the palace, Rapunzel looking frantically over her shoulder.
The guard bellowed in frustration and tried for force his way through the crowd. "GET BACK! GET BACK, I TELL YOU!"
Without really thinking Eugene latched on to his wrist, pulled the guard in front of him and shoved forward. People jumped out of the way as Eugene pushed with all his might against the stumbling guard (who was letting off a fairly fantastic string of curses) until they were finally on the edge of the crowd.
"Run for it!" Eugene yelled as he started his third major sprint of the day. Thankfully he was used to running for his life.
"WHAT WAS THAT?" screamed the guard, his eyes popping and spear waving madly. "You could have crushed us both!"
"Because you were doing so well on your own!" Eugene shot back as he sped up, feeling a small sense of victory as he saw the guard puffing to keep up, not even able to form a response.
They rounded a corner and found Rapunzel waiting for them, pale and quivering. When she saw Eugene he thought she might fall off Max with relief. "You're all right!"
He flashed her a big grin. "Of course I am. I'm Flynn Rider, remember?"
The guard came grunting to a halt, his expression furious. He'd certainly remembered who Eugene was.
"Why were they doing that?" Rapunzel asked, still looking deeply shaken.
"They've been waiting for you for eighteen years," Eugene reminded her. "And they're definitely not fond of me."
"You don't say," growled the guard. He turned Eugene around roughly and motioned to Rapunzel to do the same. "Let's get you to the palace as quickly as possible."
They set off once again, the guard seeming to take a great deal of pleasure in giving Eugene the occasional prod with the flat of his spear. Rapunzel gradually stopped trembling, although she still looked pale and scared. Eugene was too far away to reach for her hand this time so he had to settle for shooting her encouraging smiles when he got the chance. Each smile, however, was accompanied by another poke in the back.
Finally they reached the palace gates. Eugene had never approached the palace from this angle during the day; the last time he'd been pulled through them it had been night and he'd been too panicked to even see where he was going. The enormous columns towered over their heads and the huge doors loomed imposingly in front of him. He'd never felt so tiny. All his bravado, all his confidence seemed to flee. The last little shreds of Flynn Rider left inside him shrivelled. He gulped.
The guard seemed to notice his change in demeanour in smirked in a horribly satisfied manner. What an ass.
The guards in front of the gates were peering anxiously towards the centre of town. "What's going on?" one of them called out.
"Erm – " The guard looked up at Rapunzel and then back to the guards at the gate. "Well, this girl says she's the lost princess."
The guard who had called to them snorted, looked at Rapunzel, and then did a double take. His mouth dropped open like a trapdoor.
Rapunzel stared back at him and wriggled uncomfortably in the saddle.
"We also found Flynn Rider," said the guard, giving Eugene a careless shove forward. The other man's eyes popped, giving him the appearance of a frog who was choking on a fly.
"I think you'll find that I found you," Eugene muttered grumpily. There was a definite feeling of discomfort settling in his stomach.
Luckily neither guard had heard him; either that or one was ignoring him and the other was still too surprised to care. Yet another guard moved towards them, squinting at them curiously. "What's going on here, then?"
"See to it that the King and Queen are told there is someone waiting on the balcony for them," said the guard with the popping eyes. "Immediately."
"Eh?" replied the other guard, looking confused. "Who?"
"The lost princess has returned." Eyes still as big as two moons, the guard pointed up at Rapunzel. "Look at her! She's the spitting image of the Queen!"
The confusion on the other guard's face was replaced with a look as if he'd just been hit with something heavy. "She does!" he breathed.
The guard who had accompanied them to the palace shifted uncomfortably. Eugene wanted to rub his hands with glee. The man was obviously starting to realise he'd been a bit of idiot. He made a desperate attempt to cover it up by saying, "Well, what are you waiting for? Send someone to inform their Majesties!"
"Glad to see you've had a change of heart," Eugene said casually. He was rewarded with an exceedingly evil look. He started to feel a bit better.
"Of course, at once!" both guards said, snapping to attention. They bolted off towards the palace, leaving the other guards still at the gate looking bewildered. Sadly, their grumpy guide still remained. "Come," he said. "I'll accompany you to the balcony where visitors are received."
Rapunzel still said nothing, just sat on Max looking a bit lost. Eugene slipped behind the guard and looped his fingers through hers. "You okay?" he said softly.
She bit her lip. "I'm terrified."
"So am I," he admitted.
That certainly surprised her. She turned to stare at him, her eyes adorably huge. "You are? Really?"
"I'm a wanted criminal who narrowly avoided being hanged yesterday and I'm about to come face to face with the King and Queen, who also happen to be your parents." He sighed. "It's a bit of a tense situation, you see."
She finally smiled. "They'll love you, I'm sure."
"I'm not," he said doubtfully.
She swallowed and then said so quietly he could hardly hear her, "You'll stay with me? Please?"
He looked up into her anxious face. Every luminous bit of those green eyes was filled such feeling he could hardly stand that she was up there and he was down there and too far away to pull her in for a hug. She was so beautiful it almost hurt to look at her.
"Always," he said, settling instead for rubbing his thumb across her knuckles. "You know I will."
Although for all his resolve he still had to resist the urge to duck his head as they passed through the palace gates.
They moved up towards what Eugene realised must be the central courtyard where they had sent off the lanterns every year. All that time Rapunzel had been watching from her tower window…he turned and saw her staring all around, head craned upwards to take in the enormity of the building, the huge white walls and gleaming windows that surrounded them. Even through her worry he could see some excitement creeping in. He could just imagine her thinking of all the nooks and crannies waiting to be explored. Maybe, just maybe, he'd be allowed to stick around and explore them with her.
Finally they walked into an enormous open space with stairs leading up to a grand-looking balcony. Their guard came to an abrupt halt, turned and gestured up the steps. "Their Majesties will receive you up here. I will leave you and take the Captain's horse to the stables."
Rapunzel looked like she might be about to ask if Max could go with them, but instead she swallowed and slipped out of the saddle. Max gave her an encouraging nudge and then, completely ignoring the guard's hand that was waiting for his reins, trotted off across the courtyard with the surprised guard trailing behind.
Rapunzel watched him go. She absently reached up as if to play with her hair but her hands closed on nothing, so she clasped them in front of her instead. Pascal was curled on her shoulder, his tiny head resting against her neck.
Eugene didn't speak. He didn't want to rush her. This was probably the biggest moment of her life so far, apart from leaving her tower. And discovering she was a lost member of the royal family. And seeing her mother-turned-kidnapper fall out a window. And watching him be stabbed with a knife. And then witnessing him be brought back to life…
Oh, who was he kidding? She'd already faced more in the past few days than most people would in all their lives. If there was anything she had taught him (and she had taught him quite a lot) it was that she could handle anything.
Sure enough she turned to him, shoulders squared, and held out her hand. He took it and leaned over to give her a quick kiss on the forehead.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and said, "Let's go."
Together they turned towards the staircase, and together they started upwards. One step, two steps, three…
Next up: PARENTS.