AN: Thanks to Fabulist, for being awesome.
Eugene was still a bit dizzy from the combination of blood loss, shock, and exhaustion. His knee jiggled anxiously under the table and he tore ravenously into his meal. Dying made you hungry. Who knew?
Rapunzel didn't seem to be faring much better. Her head would snap up any time someone laughed too loudly on the other side of the tavern, making her look a bit like a frightened deer. She kept nervously rubbing at the back of her neck as if chilled without her natural blonde scarf.
"Ok," he said, trying to calm both himself and the girl across from him, "Here's the plan. We'll spend tonight here. Rest up. Restock our supplies. Pull ourselves back together." Have a drink… Have a meltdown…
She hadn't really cried yet. Sure, one tear had fallen on his face, but he had the feeling that she was holding it all in now – thinking he'd abandoned her, being attacked by burly red heads, being forcibly restrained by her mom, watching him die, losing her hair, watching her mom die, leaving her home. A lot had happened to her in a very short amount of time, and at any moment she was going to snap and have the most epic sobbing fit in the history of mankind. It was going to be something weird that would set her off too. He just knew it. And he would rather deal with it someplace safe and quiet than while they were out in the open in the forest.
"Tomorrow we'll see if we can convince Max to stay with us for a while. It'd be good to get a ride and I'd rather have a few day's head start before he goes to get the guards."
He tore a loaf of bread in half and handed her a chunk. She took it mechanically, without really looking at him and turned the bread slowly between her fingers as if she didn't realize she was supposed to eat it.
"We'll head to my stash and grab some money. Since the crown job went all sideways and I didn't get paid for it – not that I mind or anything! – but I don't have enough for that island. Not yet, anyway. I do have enough to get a house somewhere, and we'd be set for… I don't know, maybe ten years. We'll have to do some math once we get to the money, I haven't done the figures for two people before.
"I was thinking we should head for Artesia. The guards won't be able to find us and there's this nice little town by a lake. I think you'd like it. It's pretty – with trees and things. And the people are pretty nice."
He was talking too much. He knew he was. But this was how he dealt with stress: he said stupid things until he thoroughly embarrassed himself.
She dealt with stress by biting at her lip and not looking at him. Could she even hear what he was saying? Was there something she didn't like about his plan?
Something she didn't like about him? No. She was probably just worn out from everything else.
"We could get a little cottage and you could paint all over it?" Somehow it came out as a question, and he found himself desperately wanting her to say something. Anything. "Maybe get a dog. How's that sound?" He ducked his head to try to get in her line of vision without much success.
She swallowed thickly and murmured, "That sounds lovely." Her voice was quiet, sad, disconcerting, and her eyes stayed locked on the wood grain of the table.
"Well, don't get too excited about it. I don't want you to wear yourself out with all this jumping and giggling."
That got her mouth to twitch up towards a smile, and she raised hesitant eyes to meet his.
"I'd be able to have a normal life in Artesia. Just like regular people?"
He grinned. "That's right."
"And we could go out and… see things. Talk to people… Things like that?"
"Anything you want, Blondie. We could even go on a big world tour."
Her eyes lit up for a moment, the thrill of adventure washing over her once more, the excitement of new things, of far off places she's only recently heard about. They all sounded so fantastic, so distant and exotic and wonderful, and he was offering to show her, to take her there.
But then she faltered, her lips quivering, her gaze lowering once again. "I don't know if I could do that. It's too much."
"Well, whatever you want, but I think you can handle plenty, and I'll be with you."
Her attention snapped back to his face. "You will?"
His heart sank. It was a problem with him. He knew it. Why would she want to be with him when she could be with anyone, when she hadn't even met enough people to know if she liked him best, when she might not even understand about romantic relationships and how much he would and had given up for her? He was a fool for assuming anything.
"Uh… Yeah… Unless you think that's - that's moving too fast."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, if you need some time… to think about whether you want me around or not." He cleared his throat and turned to his drink. What if she didn't want him? What would he do? He would have to die of humiliation, and he'd already died once that day and it was not at all pleasant.
Her eyebrows furrowed further together. "Of course I want you around. Why wouldn't I? You're all I…all I have." Her gaze slipped away from him again in a gesture that was almost… guilty? No. What did she have to feel guilty about? He blinked at her a few times. Was she worried about running away with him and not staying in her tower? About her mother's death? About all the knickknacks she left behind?
He shook his head to clear it, which wasn't a good idea as that set it spinning again. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm still feeling dizzy. Just ignore me. I'm being stupid."
He rubbed his forehead as spots danced across his vision and the meal he'd just wolfed down turned to venom in his stomach. After a moment's hesitation her hands snuck across the table to take hold of his own. Her fingers were cold, numb with fear and uncertainty and a lack of food and blood flow.
He watched her closely as she stared down at their interlaced fingers, a frown of concentration carved into her face as if she were puzzling out the greatest decision of her life.
"If we went back to Corona you'd be arrested."
"Probably," he said, keeping his voice low to match her tone. She looked so serious, he almost didn't want to disturb her by speaking. "Probably they're even more ticked at me after my daring escape."
She lost herself in thought, rubbing her thumb across his knuckles. "What if someone told them how sweet you are. Everything you did for me."
"I don't think you could change their minds," he said gently. "They'll just throw you in jail too for helping me. Aiding and abetting, you know."
She bit her lip. "What if someone… someone special, someone with power, what if they said you had changed?"
He laughed. "Like who?"
"Like… like the lost princess." Something strange danced across her face, which he dismissed as a trick of the light, as his woozy head playing tricks on him.
"But that's the thing. She's lost. Is your plan to find her and bring her back and be declared a hero?"
"Would that work?"
Her eyes grew so intense that he couldn't look away, he couldn't think to answer. Her hands had stopped stroking his fingers, and sat poised, gripping him so tightly it was almost painful. He was lost, wondering why on earth this question was so important.
"No," he said. "I don't think it would."
She stared at him a moment before deciding he was right. She nodded, her fingers gradually releasing his hand.
Her voice cracked as she said, "Ok," and she took a quick sip of water before she continued. Watching her reminded him of someone fortifying themselves before stepping up to the gallows.
In fact it was exactly like that. So much so it made him nervous.
"I want to go with you," she said with determination. "We'll start a new life in Artesia. A normal life like everyone else. We'll be together. And we'll be happy."
"Very happy," he assured her. "You and me against the world."
She looked up at him and beamed, her smile more glorious than the sun.
Then she burst into tears.
Yeah. He was expecting that. In a way it was relieving. It meant they were back in territory he understood.
He slipped around into the seat next to her and pulled her into a hug, ignoring the looks of the other patrons. After a moment she produced a handkerchief from her sleeve and he used it to dry her eyes. It was only in passing that he recognized the bit of purple cloth:
The golden sun emblem of Corona, now stained with her tears.