Rapunzel looked out at the rising sun, just glinting against the ocean and bathing the capital in pinks and oranges. Back in her tower she would have dreamed about this view, had she known it existed. She would have captured it in paint, holding the scene to forever keep her company.
Now the sight made her feel slightly sick.
Think about something else, the voice in her head instructed.
She frowned, searching the topics that swirled through her mind for one that wasn't anxiety provoking.
I'll start you off. Once upon a time.
Once upon a time her conscience sounded like the chirp of a chameleon. Now it was more focused and purposeful. Now instead of keeping her sane in isolation, it kept her guided and safe in the dirty underbelly of the outside world.
"Once upon a time," she murmured, turning her back on the sight to climb the next slope of roof, her boots squeaking against faded blue tiles, "there was a girl."
A girl who was terrified. A girl who had lost everything.
After several days of aimless travel she made it to the outskirts of a city in the sea. It was pouring down rain, soaking her to the bone, her ripped skirts stuck to her legs, the wind slapped her newly shorn hair against her cheeks, against the back of her neck. She was muddy and tired and hungry and she hunched protectively over her basket, shielding her very last possession from the rain.
She hurried across the bridge, and once on the other side she slipped down to huddle beneath it, finding the driest place she could on the rocky shore, wedging her small frame between support beams, waiting for dawn to come and the storm to end.
Then what happened?
She set her jaw as the roof flattened out into a broad expanse. "Nothing," she muttered. "Eventually it stopped raining."
Well, that's a relief. Here I was thinking that it's still raining.
"Be quiet. I have to think."
If her research was correct – and it always was - below her feet was a forty foot drop to the main gallery, six guards, red curtains, and a pedestal with a little pillow. She knew all six guards' names. She knew one had a new baby. One owed a small fortune to a bookie. One was hiding the fact that he was blind in his left eye. She knew that they'd been on watch duty for nearly seven hours.
She knew the acoustics of the hall and how it echoed at the slightest sound. She knew about the other, lesser treasures tucked in glass cases against the walls, between pseudo-Corinthian pillars made from marble imported from the mainland a hundred and four years ago come October.
Yeah, Sunshine, the voice cut in before she was consumed by her list of the room's thousand details. You're real smart.
"Don't call me that. I don't like it."
She didn't have an answer.
You like it. She could almost see the conceited smirk that went along with the voice. You know you do.
She scowled, pulling a crowbar from a loop on her belt.
She had to hurry now - hurry or wait several hours. The plan was to pull up a tile and drop down from there, directly over her prize. She would be silent and she would be invisible and it would be thrilling beyond words. But even though she knew the general area where she should enter (about ten paces from the Northern wall) it might take her an attempt or two before she got it perfectly. Any such attempt later in the day would send a great beam of sunlight straight into the gallery, betraying her presence like a spotlight.
Again, sunshine was not her friend. It never was. She was going to find somewhere in the world where it was constantly cloudy and live there.
Once upon a time, the voice sighed.
"Once upon a time there was a girl," she muttered.
A girl who was angry. A girl who didn't know about consequences.
She asked her mother if she could go outside, to leave the tower for just an hour to feel the grass and the dirt, to see the little red flowers at the edge of the glen, to see the horrible fish that her mother said lived in the stream. Her mother said no. The girl begged. Her mother shouted. The girl cowered. Her face crumpled and she burst into angry tears, stamping her foot and screaming, "Why?"
And then her mother slapped her. Once across the face, leaving a sting against her cheek and a shock within her heart.
"You cannot leave this tower because of your hair. You know that." Her mother's voice was quiet and chilling.
She paused long enough to blink, to remember where she was and what she was doing, to feel the weight and the grit of the tile in her hands. She shook her head to brush away the story and eased the tile out of the way as silently as possible.
Evidently, she picked the right spot. Directly below her sat her goal, gleaming and careless and unaware.
She knew how much she could get for her prize at auction in the next country, where she would not be prosecuted or pursued. And she knew exactly what she would buy with her new found wealth – an island with a villa where she could hide herself away from all the people who would use her, all the people who would judge her as strange or simple. She would build herself another tower, but this time it would be on her own terms and this time she would be on the ground floor. This time she could leave if she wanted, and that seemed different enough.
There she wouldn't have to think about her life or the people in it. She wouldn't have to think about her problems or the things she had done because they would all disappear, vanish into thin air. Alone, under a cloudy sky, drinking out of a coconut, she could find peace.
She shrugged off the rope coiled over her shoulders - seventy feet of braided rope formed from uncannily strong, brown hair - and secured it tightly to the nearest battlement.
The voice didn't say anything, but she could still hear its disapproval, which rubbed her entirely the wrong way, and she growled slightly as she set her boot against the wall and pushed backwards to pull the knot tight.
Once upon a time, he watched her from across the room when she set to work at last sorting through the contents of her basket, left untouched for months, a great mass of severed hair, all tangled and dead and disquieting. Painstakingly, she matched up all the thousands of ends, and she brushed it and brushed it and brushed it, pulling at miniscule knots with her fingernails and braiding with care. Slowly it changed from a snarled bird's nest, or some sort of angry animal, injured and wild, to something ordered, something that could be recognized, something that wasn't any less disturbing. It was almost familiar.
"Why do you still carry that around with you?" he'd asked – another day, another memory. That tell-tale sign of his concern was just visible in the set of his jaw and the furrow of his eyebrows. "Just ditch it. I'll get you a new rope that works just as well and isn't creepy."
She'd dismissed this suggestion with some flippant comment that made him laugh, but the truth was that some baggage isn't that easy to leave behind. Maybe it was "unhealthy", but it was certainly better than some of the other things she did with herself. Thievery was not the safest of professions, after all.
She could feel the voice roll its eyes. Somehow, even such a small gesture pulled her from her spinning thoughts.
"I don't need you," she muttered, her practiced hands working to form a harness about her waist, looping hair through the belt cinching together her oversized leather vest.
Her vest, her shirt, and her rolled up pants were trophies from her last heist, her penultimate robbery before she fled the country.
"I'll do this myself."
And she wouldn't back out at the last minute either.
She took a last look down, grit her teeth, and slipped forward. The rope ran between her fingers, the floor zooming up towards her. She made a strong effort to not make too much of a disturbance, a fresh wind cutting through the stale air was enough to betray her presence, and she consciously held back a gleeful laugh or a caught breath from the thrill, the rush, the freedom.
She could be quiet. She'd been practicing for years. When her mother had a headache and demanded silence. When she would tip-toe down the stairs in the dark to gaze out the window in awe of the night and all the wonders it held. When a hush was whispered in her ear, hot and damp and tempting, and she bit into his shoulder to keep from crying out and waking the neighbors, her eyes squeezed closed, his skin tasting of sweat.
She pulled herself up short just above the little pillar, taking a moment to hold her breath and watch the guards that surrounded her, facing away, oblivious. One sniffed and shifted, then fell still again, and it was several heartbeats before she allowed herself to calm, before she let her gaze swivel towards her prize.
She knew how it would feel in her hands even before she touched it, the weight of it, the texture, the sparkle of the crystals. She knew how it would feel to posses it, triumphant and somehow vindictive. This would prove that she didn't need anyone, not her mother, not her boyfriend or roommate or partner in crime or whatever he was, not any of the people who wanted to "help" her. She would own the crown in her own way, with her own rules.
And not in the obvious, "I'm the Lost Princess, and I'm here to be your political pawn" kind of way that had been suggested to her so many times.
The crown was hers, and she was going to take it.
She promised herself that she wouldn't hesitate, and she snatched it up gingerly, a tang of metal against the pads of her fingers. It was almost sad how easy it was to touch it, to pluck it up and slip it into the satchel at her waist. It shouldn't be possible to treat objects of such importance with so little reverence. She half expected some sort of magic to protect it from her touch, and its absence just went to emphasize how ridiculous people could be placing value on the valueless - being a princess, robbing from the lost, leaving everything behind. None of it really mattered if you took a step back.
The guards still hadn't noticed her as she began her slow assent. Going down the rope was the easy part, climbing back up was the time when assistance would be nice. Nice, but not necessary. She'd been climbing all her life. The only hard part was to do it silently, to do it quickly enough that no one would even know she was there.
She pulled herself upwards, hand over hand, the muscles in her arms straining with exertion and nervous energy, the glossy cable slipping ever so slightly through her fingers as her palms began to sweat. The climb seemed to go on and on without the ceiling getting closer, and she spent the time kicking herself for not picking up those fingerless gloves that would have given her more traction. Anything to not think about what she was doing, what she had done, how she felt about it, or how others would react.
The sunlight slipped in as she breached through the missing tile, almost as though they were trading places. Still at the lowest of angles, it barely skimmed across the ceiling, seeping in a pale, thin beam that grew in intensity with each passing heartbeat.
She wasted no time resetting the tile, sealing her entrance and cutting off the sunshine with a soft, but definite thump.
The magnitude of what she had done didn't hit her until she was almost out of the city. She felt numb and cold. That familiar tremor took root in her hands.
The voice took her crumbling resolve as an invitation to remind her not to run. Running drew attention. She needed to walk easily, quickly, and calmly. She needed to walk even though she wanted to run. Run and run and run and never ever look back at what she'd done. She wanted to never think of it again.
Oh, God. What had she done?
She clutched the rope wrapped around her shoulders, only to have the texture trigger flashes of memories. A girl stared at her reflection in the mirror over her desk, her eyes dull and red rimed, one cheek pale from shock and the other-
She couldn't leave the tower because of her hair. Her hair was holding her back. With a look of determination, she grabbed it in one fist, snatched up her fabric scissors, and squeezed her eyes closed.
Then there was a hand on the back of her neck, ruffling through the frayed ends of her hair, perpetually jagged, perpetually soft - a calloused hand, big and warm. A thumb rubbed deep circles into her spine. She opened her eyes to see him looking at her, not with warm affection like she remembered from one memory, but with concern and thinly veiled disgust from another.
People were looking at her, tilting their heads to the side in interest and letting their gaze follow her as she passed. Her eyes jumped from face to face, from one whispered conversation to the next. The street was closing in on her, the people and their judgments, the shouts of vendors and children, a burst of laughter that hit her, weighty and threatening, and the sunlight as it grew and grew and grew.
She practically threw herself down a narrow side street, pressing her back against a wall and squeezing her eyes closed, finding relief in solitude, relief in shade.
Breathe. Just breathe.
She inhaled, and it sounded like a gasp.
There was solace in the voice. It was soothing, comforting, like an arm draped over her shoulders to shield her from the world. She had found that in times when she was stressed, there was too much to process, too many memories, too many things she had missed out on or abandoned or destroyed. There were too many warring emotions and no way to sort them, no place to put them, and the world descended upon her until she couldn't breathe – she couldn't think.
Shh. Breathe… Good… Good…Now, it guided her gently, entrancingly, like his hand on the small of her back when they danced, leading her towards a single focus, allowing the rest of the world to fade and blur around her, Once upon a time.
She swallowed and whispered, almost choking on the words. "Once- Once upon a time- There was a girl."
A girl whose conscience sounded like a chirping chameleon rather than a scoundrel who mumbled declarations against the shell of her ear as he slept.
She could nearly hear the voice's amusement as he continued to comfort her, all easy hushes and compassion.
For a moment she fought it. She didn't want his help. She didn't need his help. She could do it alone, because she had to. It was over and she had to move on.
The voice never stopped guiding her breath, even as she swatted it away. It didn't grow louder or more forceful, almost as if it knew she would give in, as if it knew she wasn't really trying to fight. Her irritation flared again at its nerve, but fizzled out as she pushed herself up and kept walking.
The voice didn't care if she was mad at it. She had an annoying suspicion that it found her irritation amusing. As long as she was focused and walking, she could be as irritable as she wanted.
Doing great, Sunshine.
"Don't call me that," she grumbled, her breathing slowly finding a steady rhythm.
But it suits you so well! With your usual peppy personality, which seems to be missing this morning. And the whole single drop of sunlight thing. And your being heir to the Kingdom of the Sun.
Again with the princess thing.
She couldn't be the princess. She couldn't handle it and she'd mess it all up. The kingdom was waiting for their perfect princess to return. It was better they wait and hold onto that shining hope that united them, than receive a princess who was broken in ways that sometimes seemed beyond repair. Yes, the king and queen would continue to mourn, but better they mourn in ignorance than live with the horrible truth.
How would she even go about adjusting to something like that? Being the princess would be terrifying. She couldn't even handle living in the city with grace.
And what would she get out of it? A family who were strangers, whose decades of hopes and expectations she could never meet. Professional help for her disorders, when she feared that even the most talented doctor couldn't help her. Riches at the expense of the poor and downtrodden of the nation, who were her neighbors and friends up until a few hours ago. The opportunity to be shuffled into an arranged marriage and paraded out in public as a symbol of unity or might or purity or something.
It would be stifling. She wanted to run around and laugh and see new things and get into trouble. She couldn't do that if she was locked away in a castle- in a tower.
Sunshine fits you. You are the sunshine of my life.
She couldn't tell if the words were her conscience or a memory and she felt that tightness in her chest that closed in when she felt trapped. Confined in the tower, confined in a circle of affectionate arms, what difference did it make?
When the feeling first nagged at her she tried to ignore it, to push it aside and treat it like her imagination was playing tricks. It was like a shadow in the dark that looked like a monster, but was actually a vase of flowers. Then she tried to shake it off, to push the boundaries of her situation and exert her own independence.
Then she burst free. She fled and stole the crown and now she'd run even more without ever looking back.
She made it to the edge of the city, all the way to the bridge before stopping again. She had to decide what to do next, because although she had everything meticulously designed up until this point, there was a gap in her plan between "leave the city" and "sell the crown."
More experienced thieves would criticize this gap as lack of foresight and evidence that she hadn't had faith that she would actually follow through with the heist, proof that she had expected to be caught.
She slipped off the road, down to the rocky shore, and ducked under the shadow of the bridge, where she pulled up short at the sight of a figure sitting in the spot where she had planned to collapse, as if he was waiting for her, which he probably was.
Speaking of more experienced thieves and being caught…
Her every muscle tensed to escape. She could run. Spin on her heel and dash across the bridge. But he was faster than she was. He'd catch her, tackling her to the grass as she giggled wildly. He'd roll her onto her back and pull her snug against his chest where she'd be able to feel the vibrations of his own laughter.
She had to blink several times before her eyes came back into focus, back into the moment where he was there, staring at her, waiting for answers to questions unasked.
She swallowed thickly before raising her chin, attempting to address him without fear. "Eugene."
"Rapunzel," he said evenly, making no move to get up.
Rapunzel. Not Sunshine. Even though she told herself she hated it, the nickname's absence made something drop in her stomach.
And he just sat there, giving her an unfathomable look, reclining casually against the stone support as if it was completely natural for him to be sitting under a bridge an hour before he usually woke.
Part of her had expected this: him tracking her down so easily it was embarrassing. It was the same part of her that hadn't made any plans past this point. She'd stolen his clothes mainly because he couldn't chase her if he had no pants, the same way she couldn't run away if she had no shoes.
But, of course, that hadn't stopped her from half expected him to be naked when he appeared. Maybe that's how he spent the wee hours of the morning, wandering into a shop at the crack of dawn. There was some deep part of her that was disappointed in his ill fitting, gray shirt and pair of rough pants.
"What are you doing here?" As if she didn't already know. As if she was asking about the weather.
He tilted his head to one side and raised an eyebrow ever so slightly, the hurt in his eyes only just concealed under disappointment and disinterest, deciding to humor her if she really wanted to play this game. "I'm here for my clothes. As sexy as you look in my vest, babe, I don't appreciate having people steal from me."
She absently smoothed her fingers over the leather covering her stomach, giving herself a moment to think, as though she could soak up a good Flynn Rider excuse out of the seams.
"They look better on me."
She hesitated a moment before popping out a hip and crossing her arms over her chest. "I stole them. Now they're mine. If you really want them, you'll have to steal them back."
"Huh." He pushed himself lazily to his feet, and she jumped a step backwards before freezing and cursing herself for looking weak. She held herself unnaturally still as he strode forward, hands shoved in his pockets, looking her over in a way that made her feel guilty and uncomfortable.
His eyes slid down to her satchel, and his advance halted abruptly. "You… You didn't." Widened eyes snapped up to her face, full of shock and awe and fear, pleading with her to tell him it wasn't true.
She allowed herself a smirk. "That's mine too."
Once upon a time, this heist was his idea. He spent months meticulously planning before they even met, then months adjusting that plan to include her. That was back before all his talk about "doing the right thing," and "where she was meant to be," and "getting her the help she needed."
An anxious hand scraped through his hair. "Rapunzel, you can't just- This is not- Oh shit!"
"I can do whatever I want."
"And this is what you want?" He advanced on her again, and she tried to scramble back, only to stumble and have him to take hold of her arms, reaching her in two quick strides, setting her firmly on her feet and bending to look her full in the face. "You want to sneak out in the middle of the night and steal that so you know you can't ever come back. You want to throw away everything. Your life, your friends, the remote chance of meeting your family. Is that really what you want?"
The shaking she felt from earlier grew stronger, a tremor that worked its way through her arms, to her legs so she thought she might faint, to her lower lip where it might never stop quivering. She held herself rigid to try to end the shiver, to try to hold herself together when she was threatening to collapse to the ground or fly apart at the seams. She belatedly realized that he was shaking too.
"I- I don't know," she whispered, finding her hands on his chest, smoothing away the wrinkles from his horrible shirt, finding her forehead pressed against his, his face crumpled and his eyes closed. His arms wrapped around her form, holding her close in a way he knew from experience would lessen her trembling.
"And what about me?" he breathed, something quiet and defeated in his voice.
And that was the real issue here, the question that needed an answer and needed it yesterday.
And the truth was she didn't know.
She couldn't stay with him. She couldn't stay anywhere. She had to be somewhere she could leave if she wanted to, if she needed to, and a committed relationship was not the place for that.
In the end she'd hurt him or he'd hurt her. They'd get possessive and protective and she would freak out. She'd freak out without any assistance from him and slowly drag him down with each new episode, or he'd get tired of her crazy and abandon her in the end.
Once upon a time they ran a con where he introduced her to the mark as his wife. She looked so startled that she ruined the whole thing.
A flirty girl from uptown tried to lure him away, and she was so scared that he might actually leave that she shoved herself between them, glared the girl down, and growled, "He's mine."
He gave her a boost onto his shoulders so she could paint the ceiling of his room. Her room. Their room. Labels like that made her feel queasy. That's why she liked stealing things: ownership was obvious.
She woke from a nightmare where she was trapped in the tower, the walls and the darkness closing in around her, claustrophobia washing over her, pounding against her, and Eugene's arm was thrown over her, dead weight pinning her down.
Her fingernails dug into her face in a particularly bad panic attack, and he held her tight while their apothecary neighbor drugged her. He cradled her in his arms and murmured wordless assurances as she slipped into sleep, both her wrists clutched in one of his hands.
Once upon a time she lay sprawled across his chest as he ran a lazy hand through her hair and watched her through heavily lidded eyes. When he spoke he tried to sound suave, but it came out breathless, which was enticing in its own right. "You have me at a disadvantage."
"Hmm, how's that?"
He trailed a rough thumb over the ridge of her shoulder blade. "You know my back story and I don't know yours."
"Maybe I like being mysterious."
He hummed an agreement and turned his head to the side to trail his lips down her arm, mumbling between tickling kisses. "What is it – that makes you do – the things you do?"
She giggled and pulled away, and he flipped them over for a round of even more giggling and a much more satisfying kiss.
"So?" he asked.
"It's not that interesting."
"Nah, I bet it's riveting. Come on, I'll get you started, 'Once upon a time…'"
Once upon a time she hid under this very bridge while it rained, alone and cold and damp, until a figure appeared, slipping under the bridge, backing slowly into the shadows, his eyes fixed on the road above. Out of fear she held very, very still, until the sound of horses, clomping and splashing, made her gasp. The intruder's head snapped around, and he covered the space between them before she could stumble away, grabbing her and clapping a hand over her mouth before she could cry out.
They stood that way in tense silence as the men on horseback debated where to search next, shouting to be heard over the rain. They sounded angry and violent, and she pressed backwards, away from them, closer to the man keeping her silent. She listened to the way he caught his breath, felt the way his chest moved against her back. Water dripped from his hair and soaked from his clothes into hers.
The horsemen left and after a moment his hand lowered from her face. "Sorry," he said. "It's just that I was in a situation."
"It's alright," she breathed.
He paused before clearing his throat and dropping the arm holding her close. Its absence made her feel even colder. "The name's Flynn Rider."
"Gesundheit… You know you'll catch a cold out in this damp, Sunshine."
Once upon a time she kissed him and kissed him and kissed him and pulled him down onto the bed. There was no way he didn't realize she was kissing him goodbye.
Once upon a time- Once upon a time-
"Shh," he whispered.
Shh. Calm down. Just breathe.
"You're alright. I gotcha."
She let out a sob, her hands fisting in his shirt as her knees gave out and they sunk to the ground.
"Oh, babe," he sighed, tucking her head under his chin and running a hand through her hair.
She sniffed, pressing the heel of her hand to her eye to rub away the tears even as more welled inside. "Eugene?"
"Yeah?" His voice was wary and tired, like he knew what was coming and didn't want to hear it.
She took a deep, rattling breath, her fingers tightening their grip on him. She couldn't look him in the face and closed her eyes instead, sending new tears skipping down her cheek, onto his shoulder.
"Once upon a time," she hiccupped, "there was a girl who was in love."
He stiffened, but held his voice steady. "Yeah?"
"And then what happened?"
She shook her head, her nose rubbing against his neck. "I don't know. I don't know how to- Or what I should-"
"I don't either."
Damp eyelashes flickered against his neck as she paused. Then she pushed herself back enough to look at him, at his sad half smile and pained eyes.
"What?" Her voice cracked against the word as she choked back a new wave of tears.
"I've never done this before either, you know. And sometimes it's… yeah, it's terrifying. There are times when all I want to do is bolt."
She felt ill – climb in a hole, curl up in a ball, and die ill. "You do?"
"Why don't you?"
He shrugged. "Because I need you."
Suddenly her eyes were far too wide and her breath was far too shallow. "Really?"
"Yeah. But don't tell anyone."
She managed a tearful snort, and he lifted a hand to brush her hair from her face. It was a gesture she begrudgingly allowed.
"I mean, look at my life. Look at how much better it is with you in it. We've got something good here. Sure, it needs some work, but- but you might be the best thing that's ever happened to me and I don't want to lose that. And I think… I think you feel the same way. I think you need me too."
It made her feel dizzy, and not in the happy, light hearted kind of dizzy. Dizzy like the world was spinning out of control. She fought to pull herself together and force the determination back into her voice, but it came out wispy and scared and they both knew it. "I don't need anyone."
He rolled his eyes. "Would you stop that? It's getting old."
She ducked her head back against his shoulder and he automatically pulled her back up with two fingers under her chin.
"You're trying to push me away. You're trying to hurt my feelings. You've lost so much that you're scared to get attached to anything else. You'll tear it apart yourself before it gets taken away from you. I get it. I've been there. You're the one that broke me out of it. Rapunzel, you're the reason I give a shit about anything, and I wish that you would let me give you that.
"I'm not leaving you. Trying to make me is just cruel. It needs to stop and you need to accept that you're not getting rid of me."
For a fleeting moment her anger flared, boiling and churning in her chest. She wanted to scream at him that he didn't know what he was talking about, argue that she didn't need him, she didn't want him. She wanted to shove him away, to kick him, to turn on her heel and leave.
But you'd be lying.
Of course she would. Part of what made her so angry was that he hit so close to the truth. He knew her so well, and that in itself was terrifying.
She stared at him, wide-eyed and scared, trying to think of something – anything – to say. In all the churning mess of her thoughts, nothing solid or true or rational presented itself.
So she grabbed his face in both hands and kissed him. She couldn't find words, but if he knew her so well, maybe words weren't necessary. From the way he returned the kiss, with relief and enthusiasm, tenderness and love, she assumed he understood.
And for one blissfully heated moment, her thoughts stopped spinning. The world held still and she found her feet.
When she finally pulled away she could breathe again, and the air smelled like Eugene and the ocean. He looked more peaceful than he had in weeks, and the thought somehow gave her direction.
She pulled the crown out of her satchel, presenting it and all it represented for consideration. Even in the shadows it glistened, mockingly beautiful in her dirtied hands, as if all her struggles and pain were beneath its notice. She turned it absently, and they both watched the reflected light from the crystals creep across her vest.
"It'd look good on you," he said in a final, half hearted attempt to sway her decision.
Slowly finding the words that had eluded her, she shook her head. "I want to be with you… Not in the castle… And not alone."
And with that she threw it into the sea.