6. Then He Kissed Me
"Each time I saw him I couldn't wait to see him again. I wanted to let him know that he was more than a friend."—Then He Kissed Me by The Crystals.
It wasn't only their first hiding place, it was their best. No one had ever found them here. Stone walls only did half the trick. They could have been seen from the south facing palace windows above if it wasn't for the spreading branches of the trees within the walls of the garden that kept prying eyes from discovering their location. Darkness helped too.
"Hey," he said, drawing her attention to him and slowing her hurried pace towards the garden somewhat. "You wanna give it a try breaking in?"
At first they'd scaled the walls, him giving her a boost and then climbing up over the top after her, but after a snagged skirt that Rapunzel had some difficulty explaining—eschewing lies of any kind—Eugene had begun popping the heavy iron lock on the gate. An easy enough task with his ample background in such dubious activities. It wasn't as satisfying as lifting her up by her narrow waist, but her considerable awe at his breaking and entering skills almost made up for it.
"Me?" Her eyes lit up at the prospect of trying something new. Even as the pace of new discoveries slowed, her enthusiasm for them remained constant.
"Yep, you. I won't always be around to break into places for you, and you might have a late night hankering for something from the cellar or something. It'll be good practice."
Her face fell. "Where will you be?"
"Off on important state business. That's what all those boring meetings I attend are about. The King means to make me useful," Eugene said, sliding his hand into her hair and loosening a hairpin.
"Useful to more than me," she supplied, looking relieved.
Pulling the pin free, he held it out before her. "Yes, to more than you."
She glanced from the pin to the locked gate. "But…I don't know how."
He waved the hairpin before her, tempting her with the prospect of a new experience. "You've watched me do it dozens of times. I bet you'll manage it on the first go."
She looked at Pascal perched on her shoulder, as if for confirmation of the wisdom of Eugene's trust in her abilities, but Pascal merely shrugged and turned from the bright blue of her dress to a leafy green. He was looking forward no doubt to a romp in the lush vegetation within the walled garden and couldn't be bothered with the details of their entrance.
Rapunzel took the pin from him and squinted at the locked gate. He pushed her forward a nudge, the tips of his fingers resting in the small of her back, urging her to give it a try. Bending slightly over, she eyed up the lock and extended the pin to the keyhole. Her nimble fingers only prodded for a moment, and he nodded to himself as he heard the 'pop' of the lock giving way. Success was announced by her squeal and the squeak of the gate swinging open wide enough for them to fit through.
"I did it!" she exclaimed, hopping up and down, the hairpin clutched in her fist beneath her chin.
"Good job. You're a hardened criminal now."
She beamed back at him as if she was going to be given a plaque in recognition of that fact. Princess of Corona, Most Promising Thief of the Year.
Maybe he'd have one made for her. They could hang it in the Portrait Gallery next to her rendering of Pascal in oil.
Impressing Rapunzel with his skills was nice, but watching her blossom with pride at her own accomplishments was actually better.
He took the pin from her once more and tucked it somewhat awkwardly back where he thought it belonged, but it didn't look quite right. His hand lingered in her hair for a moment, as she continued to rock on her heels and nearly bubble over with glee. Finally, he bent down and stage-whispered in her ear, "I've been waiting to be alone with you all day, babe."
"Every time you see me, you can't wait to see me again," she giggled, as he nipped at her neck before she moved beyond his reach, slipping sideways through the gate.
He followed behind her. "Can you blame me?" he shrugged, tucking his hands in his pockets and shutting the gate with a tap of his boot heel.
"It's because I'm your best friend," she boasted, as she flopped down in the thick turf at the middle of the garden and kicked off her satin slippers.
As soon as she leaned back on her hands, Pascal jumped from her shoulder and skittered off for some appealing branch from which to survey the scene. So, not entirely alone. They were rarely, if ever, entirely alone.
"You're sure about that, Blondie?" he asked, as he crouched down in the grass.
She bobbed her head in certainty.
"What about Hook Hand? Maybe he's my best friend, huh?"
"No," she said, scrunching up her nose, "he still isn't all that fond of you."
He clutched at his chest in feigned injury, collapsing to the ground alongside where she sat. "I thought I'd made a real impression on him the last time we attended one of his concerts. Really turned on the Flynn Rider charm."
She rolled her eyes, clearly not believing his act for one second. "You might have done better to just be Eugene," she suggested.
"Maybe. And since you seem to know everything, who's your best friend?" Oh yeah, he wastotally fishing.
She tilted her head, looking a little uncertain whether he was joking or not. "You of course. You're more than a friend, more than my best friend."
"That's right, lucky girl," he said smugly with a wink.
He patted the grass in a silent request that she lie down with him. He knit his fingers behind his head, as she scooted up against him and draped herself halfway across him, propping her chin up on her elbows atop his chest.
"And Pascal too," she amended. "He's my best friend too. I can have more than one, right?"
"Sure." As long as he was one of them, she could have as many best friends as she liked. He was her only more than best friend after all, so he could afford to be generous. "Can't forget him," he agreed, letting his eyes shut for a moment, so he could focus on the feeling of her slight weight rising with him with each breath he took.
This was about as close to perfect as things got. Why had he ever thought being alone on an island would be the best thing in the world? He wouldn't take all the money in the kingdom if it meant being without Rapunzel.
"Soon it will be too cold to meet out here at night," she observed, her shoulder rising slightly in the imitation of a shiver.
And that was enough to unravel the fantasy of his new dream. This moment was only temporary after all. There was always some rule, some responsibility, Something keeping them from being together the way he wanted them to be.
"You know," he considered, "when you're queen, you should outlaw winter. Target the real culprit. Not handsome, misunderstood heroes such as myself, but the dastardly season that conspires annually to keep us apart." Winter was supposed to drive young lovers inside to cuddle before roaring fires and find alternative forms of entertainment, but it didn't exactly work that way when your girlfriend was the Princess of Corona.
"You usually find a way to be with me, Eugene," she smirked.
He was nothing if not resourceful. A resourcefulness that drove the Queen especially crazy. It had led Eugene to the discovery that the Royal Buttery had a hallway with empty kegs, which turned out to be an excellent place not only to have a mug of ale, but also to be undisturbed with the Princess. That is until they'd been discovered sitting atop a keg that turned out not to be empty, but full of the particular brew the King had decided he'd like to tap for the evening. Not the worst thing he had ever been caught doing, but the situation was complicated by the fact that Eugene had finally egged Rapunzel into having more than a sip of his terrible tasting beer. As a result she couldn't stop giggling or confessing things to the Royal Brewmaster, Johan, who had discovered them. The King was spared such information. The Queen was not, however. If Eugene could have only kept a straight face when facing the Queen afterward, he might have come up with some cover story, but watching a tipsy Rapunzel was simply too much for even a Practiced Liar.
And his skills in that department were getting admittedly rusty.
"Problem solver extraordinaire, that's me."
"Besides, you can't arrest winter," she said, punctuating her assertion by poking him in the chest. "Winter is caused by the Earth tilting on its axis away from the Sun."
"If you say so," he said, sounding appropriately dubious. It was pretty cute when she waxed on about her studies, and sometimes he learned something.
"It is," she urged.
"Well then, maybe I'll just tilt the Earth the way I want it. Like that guy Atlas."
She shook her head, "You couldn't do that."
"No? I'm pretty strong. I can carry you up three flights of stairs, no problem. You want me to carry you up to your bedchamber to prove it?" It was a hollow offer: he knew better than to set foot inside her suite of rooms. The guards watched her room much more closely than they'd ever watched her crown.
"The Earth's circumference is over 40,000 kilometers." Her eyes grew large as she no doubt imagined the vastness of the Earth, of the mysteries that still awaited her outside of the kingdom of Corona.
"Okay, that's pretty big, but Atlas managed it," he pressed.
Rapunzel pursed her lips. "Atlas was a god, Eugene."
"So am I, babe," he said with a waggle of his brows.
She huffed dramatically, although she had to be used to his outrageous boasts by now.
Winter obviously couldn't be halted. Which meant they'd have to get creative, yet again. Unfortunately, the novelty of meeting each other in unusual places was only compelling for so long and then it became just downright frustrating.
"Besides," she mused, "when I'm queen, we won't have to sneak around."
His stomach tightened and he schooled his face to be totally neutral, waiting to see where she was going with this particular notion.
"No one will be able to stop us if we want to watch the stars," she finished.
Ah, of course—stargazing. "You realize you can't actually see the stars." That was the point ostensibly of their coming out here from time to time: stargazing. To look up at the stars and have her tell him what she knew about them—their movements, the shapes they made, the stories associated with those shapes. She'd told him some of the stuff half a dozen times, but he liked hearing her talk about it as they stared up at the night sky. But she was laying all wrong for that purpose. For his purposes, however…
"That's okay," she said, smiling sweetly at him.
More than okay. It would be hard to get up and walk her back inside tonight. Hard to say goodnight.
She stretched her hands out, resting them about his shoulders and tucking her head into the little valley in his chest. She fit perfectly there.
It wasn't the first time he'd noticed that the Lost Princess seemed as if she'd been made for him, an orphan and a thief. He hadn't thought he truly believed in love or trust or family, but she'd given all of that to him. Eugene Fitzherbert of all people. She'd swept in with her endless enthusiasm, innocence, and determination and shattered all his illusions. He didn't think anyone else could have done that. But then, he wasn't so sure anyone else could have helped Rapunzel adjust to her new life either.
She just fit. Or they fit together. All their jagged pieces.
He used to worry that she only loved him because he was the first guy to stumble across her tower. And because he didn't have fangs. That she'd wake up one morning and realize what a colossal mistake she was making.
He wasn't afraid anymore.
"Rapunzel." There really wasn't any reason for them to sneak around. No reason why he should have to say goodnight to her and part ways. He didn't have to wait through another winter to have her tucked up against him, watching the night's sky.
She mumbled something unintelligible in response.
His heart might have stopped in the time it took for her to raise her head and meet his gaze, and there was no magical hair to bring him back again.
"Okay?" He had been expecting something more, some enthusiasm. On the rare occasion he had let himself consider what might happen if he asked his girl to marry him, after all the dancing lessons and stuffy meetings and veiled comments from the King and Queen, he had imagined that there would be flailing, squealing, and kissing perhaps. But, all she did was smile back at him with half-hooded eyes, looking a little sleepy. It was kind of disappointing. "So, uh, we're engaged then."
Her brow furrowed. "We are?"
Now he was thoroughly confused. "Well, you just said 'yes' to my proposal. That's usually a good indication of an engagement."
"Wait," she said, scrambling into a sitting position. "Wait," she demanded again, pushing at his arm in what seemed to be building excitement. "That was a proposal?"
"Well, um, not a very good one," he admitted, sitting up and scratching the back of his neck. Maybe he should have planned that out a little better.
"I didn't realize it was a marriage proposal," she squealed.
There's the squeal, he thought, instantly relieved. Something that had been tightly coiled in his chest began to unwind.
She threw her arms around him, nearly knocking him back into the grass, but he caught himself with one hand and wrapped the other arm around her, steadying them both.
As she peppered his neck with kisses, he raised one brow, still totally befuddled. "What did you think—marry me—was?"
"I don't know," she said, sitting upright. "General conversation, I guess. The way people always ask me—are you going to marry that guy—that guy's you," she clarified, talking animatedly, "and then I say—yes."
"You get that question a lot?"
"Sure. For ages now," she said, grinning back at him.
He rubbed his forehead with the palm of his hand. Why had he taken so long to man up and ask her, when he knew he loved her? Did he really think she was going to say 'no'? Or that maybe she should?
Someone should have smacked him upside the head. Or punched him in the arm—hard. But then again, maybe that's why Maximus was so overly fond of biting him of late. A bruise on his thigh smarted at the thought.
She leaned forward and kissed him on the corner of his mouth. "For what?" she asked, as she smoothed back his hair so enthusiastically that he knew it wouldn't fall the way he liked anymore when she was finished. "It was the most romantic proposal ever."
Damn. She was going to tell everyone about his pathetic excuse for a proposal and he didn't even have a ring to give her.
"In our secret garden," she continued, scrambling atop his lap, getting as close as she could, "which we discovered the first week we were together here at the palace. While stargazing! What could be more romantic?"
That made it sound a lot more thoughtful than it had been. "You weren't actually looking at the stars."
She waved her hand dismissively. "Nuance."
"I don't want to rain on your parade," he said, drawing his thumb over her flushed cheek, dotted with freckles he could barely make out in the darkness, "but I proposed because it simply struck me how awesome it would be if we were married and for once I didn't freak out and talk myself out of it."
"Isn't that how they're done?"
She deserved something elaborate. Something planned and perfect. Something that involved flowers and chocolates and poems and he didn't know what all else, but unfortunately that just didn't sound anything like him. "Not usually."
"Then maybe they should."
He couldn't help himself: he pulled her to himself for a kiss. A totally inappropriate kiss. A totally inappropriate, fantastic, intense kiss. A kiss he might give her anytime he liked soon enough, because there was no way he was going to wait through an endless engagement to marry his girl.
With Rapunzel he didn't have to play games or out do the last guy. Well, Philippe the pastry chef had proposed to her once after tasting her apricot tarts, so there was one previous proposal that Eugene was aware of, but Blondie didn't speak French and hadn't seemingly understood what the man's effusions were about. No competition there.
So what if his proposal was a little lackluster: it had made her happy. That's all he cared about.
That and it made him happy too. Really happy. Almost giddy. This was a really good rush.
"Are you sure you don't want a poem?" he asked, breaking the kiss to murmur low and throaty in her ear as he traced invisible patterns on her back.
Her breath hitched and she hummed as she tilted her head so that his lips touched her ear. He knew what she wanted: she liked when he kissed her just below her ear. Normally he would have obliged, but he paused, monitoring his labored breathing and waiting for her response.
"What…what kind of poem?"
Clearing his voice, he began, "There once was a lass named…"
"No," she laughed, pulling back and plastering a hand tightly over his mouth. She obviously knew better: he'd shared those kinds of poems with her before, but it was better to break the tension before Temptation got the best of him. "No, stop. It's perfect as it is Eugene."
He nodded against her hand, smiling as he mumbled, "M'kay."
"Where's Pascal?" she asked, twisting in his lap and letting her hand drop.
"I don't know. Look for something small and pink." And embarrassed.
"Ooh, he's up high," she said, disengaging herself from Eugene to stand up. "Get him down, please: I want to go to Mother and Father."
"Uh, it's way past midnight, babe," Eugene reminded her, although he was already moving to retrieve her frog from his high spot, where he had no doubt seen and heard it all. "They'll be asleep."
"That's okay. Mother said I should wake them up," Rapunzel explained, as she shook out her skirts.
He stopped, hand outstretched for Pascal. "Why would she want you to wake them up?"
"She was very specific that I should let them know—any hour of the day or night—when you'd stopped dragging your feet and asked already."
"Great," he grumbled half-heartedly, as he plucked Pascal from his branch.
"Isn't it? Daddy will be so pleased."
She clapped at the thought and his ego puffed a little bit. "You think so?" The King did call him son.
"Yes, Mother is going to owe him twenty silver marks."
He rolled his eyes. "Good to know."
She gripped his arm, peering up at him in the moonlight, and all his pretense of aggravation melted away.
"I love you, Eugene."
"I love you too, Blondie."