Rapunzel doesn't put much stock into books.
There's a big section of princess books in the castle library- book upon book, dusty volume upon dusty volume. And they confuse her. Because she's not like any of those princesses- she's not tall; she doesn't have thick, flowing hair; her face isn't free of blemishes; she can't dance like them. And they make her wonder, sometimes, if she really is a princess.
The book Rapunzel's working on right now is downright addling. It doesn't help that Pascal keeps waddling around it trying to eat the binding.
In the story, a daughter was born to the King and Queen, and angels wanted to bless her with gifts. Except one- a hateful angel, an angel who wanted to curse the princess. This angel, the eighth angel, pronounced that the princess would prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die.
Cold fingers draw up and down Rapunzel's spine, but she braves on, forcing her eyes to keep moving down the page. The last good angel tried to save the princess, and decreed that instead of death, the princess would sleep forever.
"That doesn't sound much better." Rapunzel whispers to Pascal as if the eighth angel might be lurking behind a bookshelf, raring to jump out and curse her, too. "What if she had nightmares?" She would never be able to wake up.
Pascal shudders as Rapunzel flips the page to reveal a picture of the eighth angel- an evil-looking woman with long, dark hair, skin as pale as the moon, and a furious glint in her silver eyes. Rapunzel gasps.
The picture is too familiar to something she's already seen and something she wants to forget. Obeying the burning fear in her stomach, she closes her eyes and turns the page again with a pounding heart. There's an overwhelming urge to throw the book away, to stuff it on a lonely shelf and hide it forever- it's a good idea, really, because who wants to read a story like this? Her breathing comes oddly, as if she's been running, which mostly happens when she's scared- when she first met the lovely patrons of the Snuggly Duckling, for example, or when she thought the rabbit was a ruffian. But it doesn't make sense now, because it's stupid to be afraid of a picture.
Rapunzel grits her teeth and opens the book again. Pascal sits on the picture of the eighth angel and fades into a confident red.
So where was she? - oh, yes. The princess had grown up to become a beautiful girl, and when she had reached the age of fifteen or sixteen, took to wandering the castle at nighttime, and finally came upon a small room. In the center of the room was an old woman working feverishly at a spinning wheel.
The princess exclaimed how beautiful the cloth was, and asked if she could try to work the spinning wheel.
"Oh, no," Rapunzel repeats, looking fearfully at the picture of the princess lying on the cobblestone floor, arms splayed wildly, a single drop of blood hanging from her finger. She flips the page again and suddenly the princess is sleeping in a tower- a tower with no one else inside of it, a tower with nothing but grass and water out the window, a tower that's bare except for a single bed-
She can't read this.
Rapunzel flips to the end of the book. And there they are: the handsome prince and his beautiful princess, embracing wholeheartedly, pressing their mouths together with such passion that Rapunzel can't help but flush a little at the sight. Does she look like that when Eugene kisses her? Her eyes trace the curve of the princess' waist, where the prince's hand rests. She places her own hand in the small of her back. It doesn't feel the same as when Eugene does it.
Pascal squeaks and points to the bottom of the illustration. Rapunzel's eyes follow his tail. There, running and leaping at the happy couple's feet, are children- one blonde and blue-eyed like the princess, one brunette and brown-eyed like the prince. Her eyes widen.
"Are they...?" Rapunzel's question dies in her throat as Pascal nods wisely.
Rapunzel's breath comes out slowly as she traces the prince's face with her finger. Cocking her head to one side, she reads and then the Prince kissed the Princess, and she opened her eyes for the first time in a hundred years...
"Wait a second!" she exclaims. "So he just... kissed her?" No, that can't be right. If the princess had been sleeping for a hundred years, she couldn't have gotten to know the prince at all. He didn't even know what her name was, or what she was like, or even what her favorite color was.
Rapunzel tried to imagine how she would feel if someone she didn't know just kissed her. A stranger's hand on her waist, a stranger's whisper in her ear, a stranger's mouth against her own...
Hmm. Well. Kissing was nice.
She looks at Pascal for further assistance, but he only shrugs. Rapunzel sweeps him off the book and onto the thick red rug beneath them- he squeaks indignantly- and picks up another book in the pile. Instead of reading it, she flips right to the end, waving the dust out of the air as she traces the last few words: And he opened the glass coffin as wide as it could go, and the Prince realized that she was the most beautiful in all of the land; he bent down over her soft white skin, her rosy red lips, and kissed her...
"She was in a coffin?" Rapunzel is unsettled. Coffins are for dead people. "So she was a... corpse?" Pascal turns a sickly yellow-green at the thought. Rapunzel reads a few words more: She awakened, and upon seeing her savior, she fell deeply in love... Her finger skims down the page. The Prince and his new Princess set off on their horse towards the castle, where they soon would be married.
She drops the book like it's a burning coal.
"She woke up from being dead, and she wants to marry him." Rapunzel says each word slowly, tasting on her tongue, trying to squeeze some sense out of the sentence. "Wouldn't she want some time to be alive again?" Fun things, too. "Like singing? Or... papier-mâché? Or painting- or dancing." Rapunzel looks around desperately, but the gigantic curving shelves of the castle library, packed full with books that she'll never understand, do not help her. "Pascal?" she offers suddenly, but Pascal can't seem to take his eyes off the prince's horse, which is large and white and oddly familiar to a certain other large, white horse.
Rapunzel looks at the pile of books in front of her.
They're all about princesses being saved by princes.
Rapunzel's a princess, but she's only been one for a few days. A few weeks. A month or two. And Eugene isn't a prince, but he's a prince consort- that's what everyone calls him: the scullery maids, the stable boys, the king, the queen. And doesn't that make them a prince and princess? And didn't he save her from that tower? And didn't they go back to the castle afterward, riding a white horse?
And isn't that exactly like in the books?
But something's missing. A tiny, nagging doubt, buried deep inside of her stomach, squirms impatiently. Marriage. Why aren't they married yet? She's older than the girl who pricked her needle, and yet, that girl was married before Rapunzel. Why? Rapunzel knows her prince even better than the girl had, seeing as Rapunzel spent the whole day with him and the prince only kissed that girl once. She knows about Eugene- she knows his real name, for one; that he is an orphan; that he's always warm, even when it's cold out; that if he holds her hand when she's scared, it will be all right; that he's always liked brunettes; that he hardly trusts anyone... Rapunzel's hand twitches. Is that it? He doesn't trust her? Her hand reaches instinctively for her hair but it closes around empty air and she forces it back to her lap, suddenly feeling like a very bad excuse for a princess.
Something behind her eyes stings. It feels the same as it did when Eugene's head was on her lap up in the tower, ashen-faced and still-
"Come on, Pascal," she whispers hurriedly, voice cracking as she extends her hand and he scrambles up her green sleeve and settles on her shoulder, nuzzling against her neck comfortingly. Rapunzel leaves the stupid books behind, because they're unfair, they don't make sense, and they're going to make her cry. Thunder rumbles threateningly outside, and a tiny prick of excited fear bubbles in her chest as she races through the library.
Tables seem to pass her; shelves fly by, and then, suddenly-
He jumps. Eugene, who normally seems like a tough, strong man, looks strangely like a frightened child as he snaps the thick brown book in his hands shut, jams it back into the shelf between two equally enormous books, shoves his hands haphazardly into his pockets, and turns to face Rapunzel. His face twitches between sheepishness and nonchalance in a way that makes Rapunzel break out into a flickering smile.
"Hey," he says, grinning awkwardly. Eugene's hair is still wet from his bath; his black vest glitters in the library's yellow lamplight, and the red flush of embarrassment on his face only makes him seem all the more appealing.
"Hi," she says, suddenly feeling shy. Childish. The swelling in her throat is dying down. Her eyes have stopped burning, and her heart has stopped pounding. She's calmer now. Eugene does that to her. Rapunzel stands on her bare tiptoes and tries to peer over his shoulder. "What were you reading?"
His broad shoulders block her view of the book. Eugene coughs into the back of his hand and shrugs. "A book. Nothing, really. I'm not... I don't really read." A hasty smile crosses his face. "So, what have you be-"
"What were you reading?"
Rapunzel stares at him for a second and Eugene does nothing, so she marches towards him, her heels digging into the rug, and stretches her arms over his shoulder. He twitches and straightens, obscuring her view of the book once more, so she twists under his arm and seals her fingers around the book's spine. The binding on this one isn't old at all; it's firm and hard and new.
"Eugene," she retaliates, shooting him a warning glance, and yanks the book out. He's watching her with pain in his eyes- funny, really, because it's just a book. Books are good, and Rapunzel knows that Eugene likes to read. He's told her about his taking walks and going to check on the status of the cakes in the kitchens, but Rapunzel knows that he's been sneaking off to the library and pulling books out of the shelves and sitting in the king's big red armchair and reading all sorts of things. It's strange. Why can't he tell her that he's reading? It would be fun, to read together, wouldn't it? There's nothing wrong about reading books.
But then again, books can cause all sorts of unsavory thoughts...
She shakes her head and glances down at the book.
The Tales of Flynnigan Rider.
Her eyes widen and her fingers twitch, but something about the uncomfortable expression on Eugene's face keeps her from falling on top of the rug and reading the entire thing in one sitting. Something about how he looks like she's caught him doing something bad. Like he feels guilty. Instead of opening it, Rapunzel holds the book up. "It's new."
Eugene sighs. "Looks like no one's read that thing. I don't know whether to feel insulted, or..." he trails off.
Rapunzel shrugs and tucks the book into the shelf behind her- the botany shelf, where no one will be able to find it until she decides to read it. And she will read it later; she'll have all the time in the-
"Blondie? That's the wrong shelf." Eugene extends a hand and Rapunzel hands it to him reluctantly, eyeing the spot where he shoves it back. He then proceeds to sigh, cough, and put his hands back into the pockets of his pants while she watches him. Rapunzel's wondering what's wrong right now, because they're both acting... awkward. Different.
"Looks like it's going to rain," Eugene mumbles, staring at the ground.
"I've been reading, too," she babbles suddenly, casting a glance at the windows for his sake, the words spilling out of her mouth like a gushing waterfall. "Really interesting books. Really." She forces a smile across her face.
"Yes! They're about... princesses."
"Princesses." Eugene leans forwards, so she can smell the flowery soap off his skin, so she can see the stubble that creeps up over his jaw and under his chin. "I don't think I've ever told you this, but... I've always had a thing for them."
A thing. She smiles and stands on her tiptoes.
Their lips have just brushed against each other, his chapped and hers soft, when Rapunzel is sharply reminded of the beautiful sleeping princess and her prince. And their kiss. Is that how all princesses are supposed to kiss? She's a princess, too.
Rapunzel forces her mouth against Eugene's. She seizes his hand, once resting against the bookcase, and drags it to the small of her back. She runs one of her own hands into his damp, dark hair and tangles it in deeper, and sends the other to his chest, pulling against his vest-
"Have you ever thought about getting married?" she gasps, pulling away breathlessly.
Eugene freezes. His hand curls into a fist against her back.
"I mean you and I," Rapunzel says with a smile, and her mind wanders wildly. "It'll be beautiful, Eugene, just like that duchess' wedding, and we'll both wear white and the whole kingdom will be decorated with... flowers! And the priest will read from his book and you'll kiss me, and then we'll... we'll go and... we'll spend the rest of our lives together, both of us."
Pause. "And Pascal and Maximus."
Visions of these events flash through her mind, colorful as the illustrations in the books. Her face flushes with excitement.
"I-" Eugene begins.
"It'll be our happily ever after," Rapunzel finishes cheerfully. Despite the dark rain dripping from the windows outside, she can't help but feel like she's the luckiest girl in the world, like she can't ask for anything else because everything is perfect, just the way she wants it.
It's going to be a happy life, a perfect life, just for the both of them. So why isn't Eugene smiling? He doesn't even look happy. He looks more like he's been hit with a frying pan.
"Yes?" She looks up at him from below, rocking on her heels, feeling an unpleasant worry creep up her arms. It's a new worry, a worry that hasn't bothered her before, but now, it seems like the only thing worth being afraid of. The smile drips from her face like melting wax. She can almost hear it hit the floor- and so Rapunzel presses against Eugene slightly, as if this will affect what he's going to say.
He looks at her uncomfortably and takes a tiny step backwards, creating a thin stream of space between them.
"What?" Rapunzel asks, noting and immediately regretting the accusatory tone of her voice. "Don't you want to get married?" The rug is suddenly itchy under her toes.
"It's... I don't think we have to... marriage is a big thing," he stammers, running a hand through his mussed hair. And suddenly he's not big and strong, but just plain squirmy, like a child trying not to lie nor tell the truth to their parents. "We have lots of time to... you know, think it over, and..."
Rapunzel blinks at him. "Why do we have to wait?"
"It's just... I've only known you for a few weeks, Rapunzel, and-"
"Months. Two months. You've been with me for two months." Two months is a long time. And it feels like she's been with Eugene forever.
"What would your parents think?"
"They already think we're going to get married." Rapunzel bites her bottom lip. "Everyone thinks that, Eugene. They think- they know- that we... that we love each other." She pauses. "Don't you love me?"
"I love you," he says automatically. Then realization sinks into his eyes, and more natural words come from his mouth. "I love you more than you can imagine, Rapunzel-"
"Then why not?" Rapunzel can barely able to hear the note of hysteria in her voice over the light buzzing inside her head. "If you love me, why don't you want to spend the rest of your life with me?" She presses a cold finger against Eugene's chest. "You said I was your new dream!"
"You are my new dream!" Eugene cries, pressing back against her finger, anxiety replaced with a strange kind of frustration. "It's just that I- I'm a thief, Rapunzel. I'm pressing my luck being here, and it's just- I can't-"
"You're a prince consort!" Rapunzel shrieks, raising herself to her full height. Pascal trembles a pale violet atop her shoulder. "You're a prince, Eugene, and we're supposed to be married! I'm a princess! I- I deserve to be married by now!" And she wants to take it back, because now she sounds selfish, she sounds desperate, but the words don't stop. "All the other princesses got saved by princes and they got married, and I got saved by you-"
"Well, I'm sorry I'm not a fucking prince!" he yells. Eugene's voice echoes around the library, bouncing off the books; he's scary, looming above her like that. "I'm sorry that I had to be the one to get you out of the tower- it's just too fucking bad that you couldn't get saved by a proper prince!" His eyes are blazing and Rapunzel takes a frightened step backwards. "Maybe you should find yourself a prince, then! Maybe you two should get married on the same day you fucking look at each other for the first time!"
"Maybe I will!" No, she can't. She won't. It's impossible to imagine anyone else but Eugene, and suddenly the thought of stranger kissing her seems like the most disgusting thing imaginable-
And, like a wounded animal, Eugene leans back against the bookshelves. There's something odd in his eyes. They're missing their confidence, their self-assurance. They look a little... a little damaged. Hurt. But Rapunzel doesn't regret it, She doesn't regret hurting him, because she's angry and she just wants to get married and be with Eugene, spend forever with him. And he doesn't want that, and that makes her hurt inside; that brings the sting back to her eyes and makes her want to hurt him back.
"We could have a family," she whispers suddenly, blinking it all away from her eyes. "We- we could have children, Eugene." She looks into his face, which is strangely paralyzed again. "Don't you want to have children with me?"
Now he's horrified. That's the only way to describe it. Horror dances in his eyes.
Is the thought of being with Rapunzel disgusting? She can't understand, can't fathom it, because what's so wrong about having children? Maybe they won't be able have a child- who knew how those things worked? Who knew where they came from?- but it's the thought that counts, and suddenly Rapunzel wants very badly for Eugene to kiss her and stroke her short hair and tell her that he loves her and that he wants to be with her forever...
"Maybe I will find my own prince," Rapunzel snaps, and with her green dress swishing at her ankles, turns around and marches out the door and into the rain.