Edna Mode's gasp of horror was completely expected.
"Dahling! What have you done?"
Rapunzel shrunk in on herself in an attempt to hide behind her own shoulders, offering Edna a small, cringing smile. "It's nothing, really."
"Nothing! You call this nothing?" Edna shook Rapunzel's jump suit like a matador preparing to take down a bull, displaying the scorch marks and the hole that had taken off one of the sleeves and a large chunk of the chest. Bits of crinkling ash fluttered into the air with Edna's enthusiasm.
"I'm alright. I managed to dodge most of the blow. I'm only burnt a little bit."
"Oh," Edna scoffed sarcastically, "thank God, you're. Not. Hurt." She slapped at Rapunzel's arm with the remaining sleeve to emphasize her words, causing the younger woman to jerk back and try to protect herself. Edna was small, but she was fierce.
She paused and sat back with a sigh, letting Rapunzel sit in her own uncertainty, cowering slightly in her chair.
Edna closed her eyes and silently counted to ten as she exhaled a stream of smoke from her cigarette.
"This was a work of art, dahling. You have destroyed my art."
Edna ignored her. "I'm making the next one fireproof. I know you say it itches, but this cannot. Happen. Again."
"Maybe a new lining. Something that breathes," Edna mumbled, holding the remains of the fabric up to the light and squinting. "Add some length in the arms. I think you've grown."
Rapunzel straightened. This seemed as good a time as any to bring up her second, more delicate request.
"When you make a new one, could you… make it… you know… a bit more…" she trailed off under the intensity of Edna's stare.
"More what?" she asked. Her voice slow and chilly, just daring Rapunzel to ask for something ridiculous and offensive.
Rapunzel flushed. "More… uh… sexy?"
"All my work has sex appeal, it's your attitude that draws attention! How you wear the clothes. How you workthe clothes. If you can't do that, I don't want you wearing them!"
"I do work them!" Rapunzel protested.
"You are shivering in your… my God, child, are your shoes made of plastic?" Rapunzel crossed her legs at the ankle and tucked her feet further under her chair to hide her plastic, glittering sandals. Edna rolled her eyes and continued, "You're terrified just speaking to me. And I am not wielding a flame thrower to destroy a masterpiece of fashion!"
"It's different out there. Out there, when I'm- when I'm wearing the mask, or on a rooftop, or when I'm kicking someone in the face… then I feel amazing! I feel… empowered. Do you know what that's like? How good that feels?"
This was exactly the right thing to say. Someone who hadn't known Edna as long as Rapunzel had wouldn't be able to see the subtle change in her features. But Rapunzel could tell.
She'd get her sexy outfit yet. She just needed a touch more persuasion.
"I make clothes for gods. Not street walkers," Edna said.
"It doesn't have to be anything crazy. Just a bit more..." she made a vague gesture in the general direction of her bust line, then decided that probably wasn't the best feature to emphasize and shifted the gesture towards her hips.
How was she supposed to know? It was more Edna's job to make her look alluring anyway.'
"Something distracting," she said. "But in a good way," she added hastily. Knowing Edna, she'd cover Rapunzel in feathered boas and flashing lights to make a point about never questioning her designs. "Something classy. Not that- I mean, everything you make is classy, of course. But just something that has that little extra push."
She decided to stop talking rather than dig her hole deeper, and watched as the short woman puffed away at her cigarette. Edna surveyed her client like a canvas that would need serious repair before she could begin her magic.
At long last, she hummed slightly and said, "I'm thinking… black."
Rapunzel sighed with relief.
"Black would work. You prefer to work at night. Sneaking about. Complete waste of my designs, dear. You should work in broad daylight and pose for photographs!"
"I don't think-"
"We'll keep a hint of the gold. It's your signature. Can't have people not knowing who you are. But then I guess your hair gives it away already. Hmm… But now the real question is why you abruptly want to look seductive. And you will look seductive, dahling. When I'm finished with you, no amount of hiding in dark alleys will stop you from looking ravishing." She flicked her cigarette and aimed a piercing stare at Rapunzel over her glasses. "Tell me everything."
Rapunzel hesitated. She wasn't afraid of Edna judging her. It wasn't that Edna didn't judge. No. Edna might have been the most openly judgmental person Rapunzel knew. Edna made her opinions known frequently and loudly. But she was also very open and clear about her opinions, which Rapunzel secretly liked much better than when people whispered behind her back.
Edna would judge, and she would be angry and disappointed. But Edna would never tell anyone. That was Rapunzel's real fear: that others in the super hero community, that the League of Peace would find out and be even more rude to her than they already were. That the police would find out and she would have to see the hurt and disappointment and betrayal in Sergeant Weaver's eyes. She worried that the press would find out and every citizen in the city would dismiss her and all the good she'd done. She feared that the criminal element would find out and try to use it against her, to tease her, to humiliate her, to manipulate her.
She worried Rider would find out and smirk at her like the conceited jerk he was, then say something obnoxious like, "Been having some girl talk, Blondie? Were ya thinkin' about me?"
Then his eyebrow would twitch, and she'd jump him, grabbing the front of his shirt to yank him down into a fierce, angry kiss, and his hands would roam over her new, super hot costume that accented all her curves.
And that probably wouldn't be the best idea.
No one could know. No one but Edna, who was in the business of keeping secrets and had been Rapunzel's sounding board on more than one occasion.
"I'm… having a tryst."
It felt good to get it out. It immediately made her feel lighter.
Edna looked completely uninterested. "…And?"
"And… I'm having it while I'm in disguise."
Edna rolled her eyes. "Please. That's nothing new. Everyone's done it. Everyone. Everywhere. People get very excited when you rescue them and then there's the mystery and the drama and the fantastic clothing-"
"Well… I didn't… exactly… rescue him."
Outwardly, Edna only changed enough to raise a single, precise eyebrow. But inside Rapunzel could feel the woman's energy grow and build up in preparation to be released on Rapunzel in the form of swatting at her with whatever object was the most convenient.
"He's kind of… a – uh - cat burglar."
"A cat burglar."
"One who's gotten away from you repeatedly."
Rapunzel cringed. "You know about that?"
Edna started slapping her with the remains of her burnt outfit.
It all started innocently enough - or innocently enough considering that one of them was stealing something and the other was trying to knock him unconscious.
Flynn Rider was a flirt. He was probably a flirt to everyone. He was probably a flirt even when he wasn't breaking the law. It's just the way he was. There was no getting around it.
So she would catch him and he would flirt with her. They would fight and he would flirt with her. He'd escape or get caught and he'd shout something flirty over his shoulder as he disappeared into the night or into the back of a cop car.
And Rapunzel, in all her powerful, confident, long haired glory, flirted right back. Why shouldn't she? It didn't mean anything. It was kinda fun. It was just how they communicated.
And he always looked so pleased when she flirted back.
Not that she wanted to please him or anything.
He was there to cause trouble, and she was there to stop him. It didn't matter if he was handsome, or if he sometimes made her laugh, or if she would think about him later and grin. It was good to have fun at work. Otherwise it got boring or depressing. They were on different sides and that's all there was to it.
He smirked at her, his wrists snared in her hair and pulled over his head so he couldn't escape.
She popped out a hip and sighed. "You should just give up."
"And miss moments like this? No way."
She pouted. "Is being tied up and helpless the highlight of your day? That's sad. Would you like a blindfold too?"
"Hey, whatever floats your boat, babe. I'm up for anything."
He hovered somewhere between obnoxious and boyishly endearing.
Then he started stealing kisses, which wasn't really surprising as he stole everything else.
They were on a narrow rooftop, locked in hand to hand combat. He dodged a left and a right and a left, then grabbed her fist and spun, locking her arm behind her back, and pecked her cheek before twisting away in time to dodge an elbow to the stomach.
He was still laughing when she twirled, enraged, and kicked him in the head so hard he was knocked out cold.
He was unconscious when the police arrived to take him away. Then he stayed in jail long enough to have a doctor look him over, complaining the whole time about how much it hurt. They gave him an ice pack and some Tylenol, and with that, he made his easy, predictable escape.
Then it became a thing. Like counting coup. Seeing how close he could get to her, pecking her cheek, or her neck, or her ear, or one time – strangely – her elbow. He'd do it just because it made her angry, just because it lit a fire in her eyes. Then he'd dart back, out of reach, and grin at her.
It was frustrating beyond words. She wanted to scream at him to stop it. Stop it, stop it, stop it. But that would only encourage him, and he didn't need any encouragement.
She wanted him to cut it out because every time he brushed her skin she wanted to tackle him to the ground and make him kiss her properly. Little, flighty kisses were just annoying.
His lips pressed against her neck, one broad hand lingering at her hip. Heat dug into her flesh at both points of contact, spreading to turn her insides to jelly, sending strings of tension through her arms, through her heart.
She shoved him away before she could do something stupid like moan. She was letting him get too close. Way too close.
"Gah! You're so bad at that!"
His eyebrows furrowed and his defensive stance lowered slightly in surprise. "Excuse me?"
She made a face and rubbed the base of her hand against her neck, as if trying to rub away the mark that still burned there.
For a second he looked genuinely upset. She really should have tried to hide her smirk better, but she couldn't help it. She liked winning and she liked it when he looked genuine.
He narrowed his eyes. "Oh, you are asking for all kinds of trouble."
Their exchange ended when the police caught up with them, this time actually firing a few rounds.
Things changed the night when that stupid scaffolding collapsed. She found herself pinned on her back beneath a steal beam and a great pile of graying wood, only her head and one arm free. Her leg was pinned and her hair was caught and she was bruised and battered, but she'd live. Miraculously enough, she always lived.
A heap of collapsed rubble shifted nearby, and she watched as Rider kicked himself loose, finding his feet with a stumble, chips of plaster lightening his hair. He blinked in a daze, taking in the destruction around him, his eyes at last finding hers.
He took a step towards her, and it struck her that the rational action for him at that point would be to murder her while she was pinned and helpless.
An icy hand clutched at her lungs at his next hurried step. No, he couldn't kill her. Not him. Not like this. Her eyes widened and she pulled frantically against the beam holding her down, only to freeze and hold absolutely still as he sunk into a crouch beside her.
His hands ran over the beams above her, his eyes darting back and forth as if analyzing the structure of the rubble.
"What- what are you doing?" Her voice came out choked, ending in a cough.
He didn't answer, and was only pulled from his inspection by echoing shouts, approaching through the settling cloud of debris. His eyes were clouded, dazed as he looked into her face, marking all the scrapes on her skin, the fear in her eyes, the way her hair snagged.
Then he reached for her.
And panic - bitter, poisonous panic crashed through her. He wasn't going to kill her. He was going to do something worse. He'd take her mask and take her identity. He'd hold it over her, threatening to share her secret, to stalk her in the day, to hurt the (admittedly few) people she loved if she ever stood in his way.
He'd take away her power.
She told herself not to cry.
But his hand skated past her eyes, past her mask, past her covered freckles, to cup her cheek in a way that was almost tender.
Was his hand shaking? No, it was surely her and her adrenaline and fear.
Ever so slowly, a calloused, dirtied thumb dragged across her lower lip.
Something pulled in her chest, something hot that dripped down to her belly and mixed with her panicked nausea to give the terror a new flavor. She tried not to gasp. She tried not to press against his thumb, not to sink into the gesture with relief and pain and longing. She tried not to let her eyelashes flicker. She tried not to notice the hunger and relief in his eyes.
He stood abruptly, and turned away, escaping into the dark before her rescuers could appear.
The episode haunted her, eating at her in ways that were new and weird and completely uncomfortable. She was distracted at work and twitchy at home, only really taking her thoughts out to look at them when she was curled up in bed in the dark where no one could see her think.
She ran her fingers over her lip, imagining.
At their next encounter, she chased him when he fled, all the uncertainty and aggravation and sleepless nights giving her speed. They ducked through alleyways, darting around blind corners, left and right and over toppled trash cans. Her hair flew out behind her and his running footsteps splashed and echoed.
She trapped him in a dead end, nearly running him into a brick wall before he turned to block the first of her punches. He dodged a loop of hair that whipped towards his head, aiming a blow to her midriff with the butt of his hand. She skidded to the side and threw out a kick, followed by another loop of hair, catching him in the knee, then pulling him down. He caught the follow up aimed at his head and twisted to flip her, but he was off balance, his leg still trapped and turned awkwardly.
He stumbled back, taking a quick flurry of blows to the stomach. And he found himself pressed to the wall, her victorious grin even with his face.
He panted, cringing and arching his back to stretch the sore muscles in his abs. "That last one stung."
She preened, bouncing on her toes and leaning towards him to rub it in, to make sure he could see every smug sparkle in her eyes.
He raised an eyebrow and managed the beginnings of a smirk. "Proud of yourself?"
"Very." Her voice sounded strange, even to herself. Smooth. Sultry.
"It's not every day you have me pinned to a wall."
"Mmm. Only like twice a week." Why was she still so close? That wasn't smart at all.
His eyes slid pointedly to her lips, his voice changing slightly to match her own. "It's been far too long. I don't know how you manage to reign it in."
"I work off steam through exercise."
"Hmm." Then she closed that last inch between them.
The kiss was its own kind of fight, played out in the dark of closed eyes and the heat of her pounding heart. Both tried to outdo each other, to overpower each other, to tease and revel and silently plead for more. She tried to take everything she wanted without giving anything in return, and he tried to do the same, so they just took and took from the endless well of lust that bubbled up between them, around them, inside them.
One of her hands tangled in the hair at the base of his skull, pulling him deeper as she pressed tight against him, feeling his labored breath against her chest, letting each strain and release roll through her body.
With her other hand she handcuffed him to a pipe.
She pulled back as they clicked into place, just enough to lick her lips and smirk up at him through her eyelashes.
"Sneaky," he murmured, a rich hum she could practically taste, one that nearly drew her in again, one that promised that if she'd just let him go, they could really get down to it.
Instead she grinned and bounced back, just out of reach, to bob on the balls of her feet and look enormously pleased with herself, before practically skipping away.
The police reported that they found a pair of empty handcuffs right where she said she'd left him.
He spent the next week shooting knowing looks at her and smirking, which wasn't really all that different from what he usually did.
She couldn't remember how they ended up in the abandoned subway tunnel. Honestly, after a while all their escapades started to run together.
She was losing ground, blocking and blocking and dodging and blocking. Sweat clung to her hairline. He pushed her and pushed her and she was moving faster than she had in weeks. Then she miss-stepped. And his hand came at her head. And she cringed against a blow that never came, only to find that he had grabbed her to pull her tight against his chest and seal his mouth over hers.
It's strange how heightened emotions could turn so easily. They could twist and change into passion of a different form – furious to desirous, rage to hunger. They were like two sides of the same emotion, one feeling viewed from different angles. They flowed into one another, sweeping her up and carrying her along.
Their lips worked furiously against each other, as he tried to draw out all her power and confidence and sunlight, breathe her in like a drug, taste her with reckless abandon.
That's what it was: reckless. She was stupid and she doomed them both the moment she pushed onto her toes and threw an arm around his neck, the moment she melded against him, kissing him back with a fever that made him groan.
One hand fisted in her hair, pulling and painful in a way that was raw and visceral. His other hand rubbed down her side to grab her rear, pulling her up, pulling her closer, squeezing her in ways that were so good. Every fiber of her being, every piece but her conscience wanted him, wanted to touch him, to possess him, to have him do terrible things to her.
But her conscience could complain really loudly.
She broke free with a gasp of cold air, still wrapped in his arms, his face still far too close to hers.
"This is wrong," she whispered.
Her grip on his shirt tightened and his lips descended towards hers once more.
"I'll give you a five second head start. Then I'm chasing you again."
He blinked at her. And then he was gone, leaving her cold and alone and counting to nearly forty.
She set up early at the museum, crouching high in the rafters just over the most convenient discrete exit, with the best possible view of the main hall. She could wait there all night if she had to. She'd done it before in much more foreboding places.
Even from her perch she could see the soft glow of the museum's latest acquisition. The great ruby sat on a squat, ostentatious pillar in the middle of the room, set in a place of honor directly under the glass domed ceiling.
Part of her expected Rider to drop from that dome. That kind of flamboyancy was his style. But at the same time, the room was so open that she'd catch him before he was even half way down.
In the half dark of the museum at night, the ruby called to her. If she stared at it too long, she started feeling fuzzy and dull. Clearly, she wasn't alone in this, as the security guards that patrolled below seemed uneasy, almost spooked. She watched them halt their patrols to stare at the ruby, before shaking their heads to clear them then hurry off in a different direction.
It was a ridiculously large ruby - nearly the size of her fist – with a long, bloody history, which would drum up the price to something that would intrigue any thief worth his salt. But on top of that, it was enveloped in rumors of magic that would make it nearly priceless.
It was sure to lure Rider. He liked gaudy, shiny things and the rush and pride and publicity that came with such high profile burglaries.
Plus it was Friday. He always worked on Fridays. Maybe he was busy in his normal life most other nights with work or his family or something. Guessing at what Rider got up to when he wasn't being an obnoxious criminal entertained her through several long nights of stake outs.
Did he spend his days negotiating with the mob, or fencing his spoils on the black market? Was he secretly a bored billionaire looking for a thrill? Was he trying to pay off the hospital bills for his sick mother? Her favorite wild theories were that he was either a pediatrician or the understaffed co-director of an animal shelter.
Maybe he had no social life and therefore nothing better to do. That was fine. Rapunzel didn't have any plans either.
So she sat and waited, watching the guards and the domed roof, eating healthy snacks she had stuffed into the cargo pockets on her pants, and mentally rewriting one of the songs on the radio so the lyrics made more sense.
She was half way through her third granola bar when the power went out, plunging the room into darkness. A few second's confusion, muffled questions and fumbling, and a beam of light from one of the guards' flashlights fell on the ruby display, illuminating an empty pillar.
She snapped to her feet, searching the floor below as flashlight beams spun wildly and panicked shouts almost covered the sound of quietly retreating feet. Taking a breath, she held herself back two more heartbeats, and dropped to the floor, landing right on top of Rider and knocking him to the floor with an "oof!"
She pinned his arms to the ground by his head, straddling his waist to keep him in place, and glowered at him in the dark, her face close enough to his that she could just make out the security guard uniform he was wearing.
It was a new MO for him. If no one saw him or recognized him as he stole something, what was the point?
"Blondie," he groaned, grimacing against whatever injuries he received falling to the ground. "There's a time and a place for things like this."
"This is a fine time. Look, there's moonlight and everything!"
He struggled to throw her off in a scuffle of grabbing hands and jabbing elbows, until she seized his dark grey tie, jerked him forward, and slammed him back down again. He cringed and hissed, an in his momentary daze, she patted down his pockets in search for the ruby.
He only held still for a moment, before shifting his hips beneath her, giving her a hazy smirk.
"You look ridiculous in that outfit," she snapped. It was dark and she wasn't entirely sure that was true (in fact she guessed it probably wasn't), but it would irritate him and might shine some light on the strangeness of his methods.
"Slander! I look good in anything. And it took a lot of work to get these."
"I don't believe you."
"Yeah. I had to come up with a fake name, fill out an application, stand around this room for the last few days…"
Her hand paused its roaming over his chest. "Wait. They hired you?"
The incompetence of some people astounded her. Was she seriously the only one who could be trusted to keep Rider and people like him in check?
"I know what you're thinking," he sighed, "and you're right. Everyone here is inept. They don't even offer dental benefits."
The security guards were still shouting to each other as they moved farther away towards the entrance to the museum. The beam of a flashlight skimming just above her head.
She was going to have to handle him on her own.
She snatched the ruby from the waistband of his pants in one, clean movement. It was warm in her palms - from some odd, internal power or from Rider's body heat, it was hard to tell. She cupped it in her hands and forced herself not to look at it, not to think about how it was singing to her or how Rider's shirt had come partially untucked from his pants.
His hands were on hers a second later, fingers digging into her wrist, the ruby's edges jabbing against her palms. A sharp burst of pain shot up her arm as he twisted it to pry it away. He jerked to throw her off, or flip them over. If she hadn't dug her knee into the flesh just below his ribs, he might have succeeded.
"No. You're not getting it away from me this time. I've worked too hard."
She grit her teeth and pulled.
The lights flickered back on just long enough for her to see that his nametag read "Harold," just long enough for her to think that was a ridiculous name, and just long enough to see his expression slip from determined to shocked at the sight of something behind her back.
Then the ceiling exploded.
Glass showered over them, and she found herself thrown to the floor under Rider, her forehead pressed to his cheek, his hands thrown over his head to shield their faces.
And from the jagged hole in the ceiling, a great, black beast snarled and clawed its way into the museum. All spikes and battered wings, clicking claws and green wisps of smoke, it smelled of brimstone and rotten flesh, its scales of blackest night with an underbelly of shining, venomous purple.
Rider turned, glass sparkling in his hair, and he swore under his breath before jumping to his feet, pulling Rapunzel up next to him.
"Maleficent," she breathed.
The dragon scrambled around, one wing thrusting into the building through the narrow entrance, expanding out with the snap of rippling sails and shattering a display on the mezzanine. Its cruel, yellow eyes searched the floor in the center of the room, kicking at the toppled column when the ruby did not appear.
Rider swore again, snatching the stone from Rapunzel's loosened grip and grabbing her arm to pull her away.
But she froze as the dragon's eyes locked on her face, staring into her soul, stealing her breath. She felt exposed. Helpless. As if ice water had been poured down her spine. As if she weren't a super hero at all, just a scared girl with no friends and no family. She was a freak and no one would ever love her. Never ever ever.
And then its eyes shifted, releasing her. Finally she was able to feel the tug on her arm as Rider tried to drag her away, finally she was able to gasp in a breath. Or rather she was until she realized the beast had turned its attention to the ruby in Rider's hand.
Its shoulders tensed like a snake rearing back to strike, and she and Rider exchanged the briefest of glances before bolting in opposite directions.
Maybe he knew what she was doing. Maybe not. It didn't really matter and it was too late to change her mind anyway.
She charged headlong at the beast, snatching at her hair as she ran, hoping against hope she could move fast enough. It ignored her completely, its attention trained solely on Rider, its great neck turning away to track him across the great hall, its chest expanding as it prepared a deep, fiery breath. She jumped, throwing her hair with all her might, catching the monster by the snout, even as a stream of green flame broke free from its mouth.
Planting her feet, yanking with everything she had, she jerked the creature's neck just enough that it missed its target. It snapped its jaws in frustration and cut off its flames, jerking Rapunzel across the floor as she heaved and slipped on the glass, drawing the beast's maw tighter with each tug and snap. It surged against its impromptu muzzle, threatening to rip right through her hair.
The guards reappeared then, shouting to one another or to her or the dragon, she couldn't tell. A single swipe of its tail and they were all thrown across the room, putting their shouting to an abrupt and bone crushing end.
It shook its head and she flew clean off her feet, to whip across the room, and skid across the ground, glass shards nicking into her face and fingers as she held on for dear life. Her flight ended when she smashed into a column, the breath forced from her lungs, her chest and back and sides exploding with pain.
She looked up in a daze, groaning and bloody. Her vision blurred and her ears rung and all she could see were a pair of yellow eyes and a trickle of green smoke.
Suddenly it was hard to breathe. She was dizzy and not entirely sure she could keep her legs under her. She swallowed and met the dragon's gaze.
Her hand clinked against something as it reached to the floor in an effort to push herself up, and she looked down in mild curiosity to see one of the larger shards of glass, shattered to a razor sharp point.
And then she had a plan – a stupid, crazy plan. But she was a hero. She was magical. She was proud and amazing, and she was not going down like this.
She stood, staring down the monster, the glass shard cutting into her fingers, blood dripping into her eye.
Maleficent twitched once, then let loose a roar and another burst of flame as Rapunzel threw herself to the side, rolling behind a pillar. The blast at her back licked around either side of the column, and she breathed through the pain until the flames weakened and she slipped back out into the main hall. She ducked a swing of its tail and skidded on her knees up to its claws, twisting out of the way to dodge a swipe from its talons.
In one movement, she stabbed into the creature's leg, a howl bursting from its jaws, and looped her hair around its foot, bringing in to its knees. She yanked the shard out, black blood hissing into the air, and pushed herself onto its leg, using it like a step onto its spiny back. Clinging to its spines as it shook, she stabbed her glass shard into the dragon's back wherever she could as she stole up its neck, her grip slipping through the blood on her fingers.
The beast bent and twisted, swiping at her with its talons once more, but with another yank of her hair, it dropped to its knees again with a pained snarl.
And then she was on its head, where there was nothing to hold onto but its fire-breathing nostrils and its huge sharp teeth, and wasting no time where she could fall from its bucking form, she plunged her glass shard into its eye. She leapt free as it threw its head back and howled.
She dropped hard to the floor and rolled before finding her feet again.
The world spun, or maybe it was the pounding of the dragon's feet that shook the floor. It thrashed, great billows of flame scorching the ceiling, until it dropped its head and glowered at her through its one good eye.
Her legs were shaking and the pain in her chest had only intensified. Bits of her hair were singed or torn.
So she dodged. But not fast enough. A fireball hit her shoulder, throwing her backwards as pain exploded through her arm, through her neck, across her skin, eating her from the inside out like a curse.
That was about when everything went dark.
She remembered the flashes of sirens, the cracks of gunfire, maybe another roar. She remembered that someone shouted her name, but she couldn't remember which name it was.
Edna pursed her lips and took a long drag of her cigarette. She looked terribly unimpressed with Rapunzel's story.
"You ruined your suit fighting a dragon."
She exhaled two thick streams from her nostrils, looking a bit like a dragon herself.
"Where is Aurora in all of this? I never would have expected her to miss an opportunity to fight her greatest foe."
Rapunzel bit her tongue and took a breath before explaining. "Rose is doing a semester abroad. She's taking a brief break. The league were all behind her decision. They told her not to worry and that they would watch out for Maleficent."
One of Edna's eyebrows twitched. "Seems like they aren't doing their jobs. Letting a super villain like that roam loose. Honestly."
Rapunzel had to agree. What was the point of having a team of super heroes, if they weren't going to help one another with major problems like vindictive, evil dragons? But that was a silly question. They had a team so they could whine together about how hard their lives were and then get very expensive manicures.
Or so she imagined.
"Well," Edna said, turning her attention back to the destruction that was the yellow jump suit, "I guess it is good that you're alive."
"The police helped you?"
"Yes. Sergeant Weaver said they were able to scare her away pretty quickly." She shrugged. "It was injured and they had guns."
"Hmm. And the ruby?"
Rapunzel paused. "They didn't find the ruby. Witness reports say that Maleficent took it."
"Witness reports," Edna repeated.
Rapunzel nodded, her throat raspy and dry. "One of the guards reported everything he saw, that the lights went out, and then the dragon broke in through the ceiling. It took the ruby, then fought with me until the police came."
Then when she passed out, the guard lifted her and carried her to the ambulance outside. He quit the next day, citing that dragon attacks were bad for his health.
"Here, dahling," Edna said, dumping the remains of the yellow suit into Rapunzel's lap and standing to make another round of coffee. "My arm is tired. Swat yourself for me, won't you?"
The new suit was delivered to her apartment about a week later. It was delivered by a courier and arrived in a brown paper bag that made it look like Chinese take away.
Her old, yellow outfit was a bit like a flight suit, with a bunch of pockets to hold all her stuff – handcuffs, lock picks, smoke bombs, peanut brittle, whatever.
It was loose enough so she could move. When she first got it, Edna had suggested a form fitting thing that made Rapunzel balk. Who would ever want to wear pants that tight? What was the point? She'd feel suffocated, and she wasn't going to impress anyone with the shape of her legs.
It was also a bright yellow, only a few shades off from her blonde hair. Edna called the color "Gold!" and Rapunzel didn't argue with her, but she was sure the color was yellow.
So all in all, it was not the most attractive thing. It was practical and it was comfy and it had been her one and only suit, a symbol of her heroic identity.
And now she'd outgrown it. Now she was secretly excited to show off her legs.
The new suit certainly did that. It looked like it had been painted onto her skin, like the fabric was hugging her tight. But it wasn't nearly as constricting as she'd thought it would be.
It was black, as Edna said, with a gold stripe up either side. Actual gold this time, not pretend gold. Instead of pockets, there was a belt around her waist with compartments. It slid down one of her hips and for a moment she wondered how she would fight in it if it was so loose, but then she decided that it looked cool enough that she could deal with it.
There was a zipper up the front, that when zipped seemed to disappear into the fabric except for a shining circular zipper pull. She could tell that fiddling with it would be her latest bad habit. She tried zipping it to her throat, only to find that no matter how hard she pulled, it would only zip to barely above her chest.
It was too small! No. Wait. It was supposed to be like that.
She stared at herself in the mirror, at the way the fabric folded back to form a kind of collar, the only place it wasn't adhered to her skin. She stretched a bit, and the suit moved with her. Then she turned to look at her back over her shoulder and blushed furiously at the sight of her butt.
She looked good. She felt good. For the first time in three weeks, she felt like she was up for going out.
Maleficent spent one afternoon of her absence perched on the spire of the tallest building, roaring and swatting at windows with her tail, lighting busses on fire and eating several antennae. She terrorized everyone to the point where they evacuated most of downtown.
Rapunzel watched the situation on the news, growing more and more anxious as the hours passed and no one came to shoo her away. Several times she stood to charge out and take care of it herself, but then her shoulder would twinge and she would remember that she didn't have a suit.
She suspected Edna had taken her time preparing it. Maybe she just let the completed suit sit on her counter for two weeks.
Rider had also robbed two banks while she was out of commission. He'd done such a good job of robbing the first one that no one had even known there was a burglary until the next morning. She could only imagine how much that frustrated him. During his second heist, he made a point of waving at the security cameras and triggering the alarm on his way out.
He wanted an audience, and preferably one that could appreciate the effort he put into it and the finesse with which he executed his plans.
He wanted to get caught. It would be impolite to keep him waiting.
There were a few times when she had completely misjudged where he would strike next, but those times were few and far between. He was always pretty obvious. Or at least Rapunzel thought so.
The bank manager was not pleased to see her. They never were. He was twitchy and clearly unsure if he should adamantly deny that a burglary was possible or throw his doors open and give her everything she needed. In the end he did something in the middle: staring at her in stunned silence as he showed her to the vault, then awkwardly asking if he could get her some water.
She made herself at home, cross-legged on the floor, and with a final cringe he left her to it, cutting most of the lights as he locked up for the night.
Four hours passed before anything happened at all. She spent that time quietly braiding a small tress of hair at her temple and debating whether or not she should get a hamster.
A quiet beep, so soft that it could easily be overlooked or dismissed, and a blink of the steady red light on the security camera indicated that someone had over-ridden the system, recording a short shot of the empty vault to run it on a loop later.
She watched the camera with mild interest from just outside its viewing range, waiting patiently for the second beep to show that the loop had started. Then she stood and planted herself just inside the vault door to wait again and roll the cricks from her stiffening shoulders.
Her unimpressed expression was the first thing he saw as the door clanked open.
He froze, brought up short by her presence, and the blatant surprise on his face would have made her gleefully happy as a sign that she was yet again a step ahead, she was back and taking him by surprise and winning at least this one, tiny psychological battle. She could have ingrained the image in her mind, filing his shock away for a rainy day when it would make her smile.
But there was something else in his expression, something that was glad in a way that didn't translate into a smirk. It tainted her victory with levels of emotion she didn't understand. She didn't want to understand. She didn't want to deal with it, to deal with him when he was acting like anything other than a friendly rival.
"Blondie," he murmured, and it sounded too much like a sigh, which raised her defenses immediately. He moved towards her, eyes focused on her face as if the rest of the world had disappeared, as if he'd forgotten what he was doing, forgotten who he was.
So she hit him, throwing a left jab to his sternum that brought a quick end to his approach and threw him stumbling back about two paces.
It seemed like the thing to do.
He was getting carried away, and too close and too lustful after weeks without a rival to tease. And… and… yeah, hitting him was a good plan.
She threw a flurry of punches at his stomach, sending him skittering backwards to avoid her. Bending back and to the side, he dodged a an uppercut, and narrowed his eyes at her, circling to her left. She could hit him if she threw a right, but he knew it was coming and he would grab her wrist and twist. The thought of what that might do to her shoulder made her hesitate.
She pivoted instead of lashing out, and he circled around her, staying just out of reach, his eyebrows moving higher and higher in an endlessly frustrating way. She nearly tripped over her hair as their turn brought them all the way around, infuriating her further.
"Bit out of shape?" he asked.
That did it. With a growl of irritation she shouldn't have shown, she snapped her hair over a rafter, around his ankles, and jerked him straight into the air.
He hung there, upside-down and blinking, his hair hanging in a funny kind of way. She scowled at him before strolling over to one of the teller's stations to activate the alarm.
"New suit?" he called after her. "Nice."
She stalked back to face him as he swung back and forth, his arms extended oddly to the side. He seemed to realize how silly he looked and moved to mimic her posture, crossing his arms over his chest.
She glowered at him.
He glowered right back, something mocking her in the twitch of his eyebrows.
They didn't have to wait long before a barrage of sirens and flashing lights in red and blue cut off their silent glaring match. Probably for the best. She was starting to get irritated with him and his silence and the weird faces he was making again.
He sighed as the doors swung open, and muttered, "We'll talk later," before twisting around to face the oncoming stream of police officers with a grin and a "hey guys!"
And what did he mean by that? Since when did he want to talk? What did they even have to talk about? No. He was going to jail. And he was going to stay there. There wouldn't be an opportunity to talk later because she was not going to visit him.
A few quick tugs on her hair and Rider collapsed to the floor, landing on his face in a heap.
There had to be a dozen officers, and he was handcuffed, and everyone was watching…
So it took him a full thirty seconds to escape once he got outside. He head butted the officer at his elbow, hopped over his handcuffs, kicked an officer into two others, and took off with what she swore was a wink in her direction.
They all chased him, but only Rapunzel kept up for long. After five blocks of back alleys, she trailed him up a fire escape to a roof and took a flying leap onto the next building, then the next and the next, her hair flying in the cool night air, her footsteps heavy in the dark. Four rooftops over, a pair of arms darted out from the shadows to grab her and pull her back, out of sight, into the dark. Struggling and kicking, her arms caught at her sides, she stomped on his foot repeatedly until he grunted and hissed at her.
"Hey! Calm down. It's me!"
Who else would it be? And honestly! The fact that it was him shouldn't have been a reason to calm. He was the bad guy here. She had no reason to trust him. They were arch nemeses! If he was saying stupid things like that, it just went as a sign that they'd taken this tryst a few steps too far.
She stopped struggling and looked over her shoulder at him in disdain and irritation.
"I just have one question, Blondie. Time out until I get an answer, okay?" His breath was warm against her ear, his low voice sending a thrum down her spine. "Then you can beat me senseless to your little heart's content."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"Yeah," he purred. "I would."
She rolled her eyes and shrugged him away from her ear. "What do you want?"
"When's Aurora coming back from wherever the league of spiteful harpies sent her?"
She blinked at him.
One of the things she appreciated about Rider was how much he disliked the league. It wasn't in the normal way that criminals disliked people trying to catch them. Rider didn't like them for the same reasons Rapunzel didn't like them: they were petty, two faced, mean-spirited, and cliquish.
The other women looked down their perfectly formed noses at her and her weird powers. Having absurdly long hair? What was the point of that? Creepy!
Rapunzel suspected that they were all just jealous. They tried to have huge amounts of hair and came up short. Glass Slipper obviously stuffed her updo to give it volume, and Mergirl always made sure to stand in front of a fan or something so her mess of red hair sprawled out around her like some sort of sea monster.
It wasn't like having long hair was her only skill! She could fight and she was smart and she was quick. And her hair wasn't just long. She could change its length and color at will. That was pretty neat! But of course she hadn't told anyone. Best to play close to the chest when it came to her powers and her identity, even in the company of people who called themselves friends.
So Rider's question filled her with a kind of faded pride. Her criminal was smart enough to know they were bitches.
But asking about Rose was still out of the blue.
"Why do you care?"
"Because I miss her smiling face. I bet the two of us could have a real good time."
She scowled in distaste.
"Maybe you could switch off with her when she gets back," he suggested, his voice quickly dropping is flirtatious tone to be replaced with something fierce and biting. "She owes you after the times she's left you dog sitting."
She shook her head and corrected him. "It's not a dog. It's a dragon. And it's comments like that that make it angry. When it comes crashing in like that someone has to take care of it."
"And why does that someone have to be-"
He cut himself off, swallowing to push back whatever emotion he had momentarily let loose. It sounded a bit too much like indignant anger and possessiveness.
Maybe it was just the way he was holding her.
No, not holding. Restraining.
"When's she coming back?"
"I have no idea."
He narrowed his eyes, pulling back slightly to get a better view of her face, trying to detect the lie, to read the answer as if it were printed across her mask. It took him a moment before he rolled his eyes and repeated himself. "When's she coming back?"
"Even if I knew, I wouldn't tell you."
"Because! You might use it to plot some… some mischief!"
"Hmm. I like the sound of that."
His nose pressed into the soft flesh just under her ear, just below her jaw, easing her head to the side for access to the column of her throat. A hand slid up her body until his finger hooked over her zipper. Slowly he dragged it down from between her breasts to just past her navel, completely ignoring the zipper pull that she thought was so neat in favor of letting a fingertip skate over each inch of revealed skin as it erupted in shivers.
"Did I mention that I like the new outfit?"
It was always hard for her to decide how to react to things like this. In her everyday life she would shriek and blush, pull away and tug her zipper back into place, probably hugging herself when she was done. But that would mean he'd gotten to her, and she couldn't have that. Not after he'd made her bristle so much already.
She could get mad, burst free to beat him to a bloody pulp, glaring and hissing. He'd learn his lesson then. He'd fear her. But then he would stop. His hands would pull away, and she wasn't sure if she wanted that or not, not when he was touching her like this, not when her judgment was starting to cloud.
She could encourage him, rock back against him, and bat her eyelashes seductively. She could close her eyes and let loose a moan. She could give in and let him do what he wanted. But then that was terrifying too.
So she ignored him, staring straight ahead at the skyline, treating the whole experience like a minor annoyance that didn't affect her in the slightest. He'd get bored in a moment.
"I never would have guessed."
"Much better than that yellow jumpsuit."
"What was wrong with the old one?"
"Nothing. You were adorable."
He flicked her collar to the side to get a look at her bra, and she mentally cheered that she happened to be wearing the blue one. It wasn't super sexy, but it wasn't one of the ones she bought in a six pack either.
He muttered against the base of her neck, "This one's so much better."
His hand slipped into her suit, warm and firm against her stomach, fingers curling around her side, drawing her back, flush against his chest, possessive and intoxicating. His other hand ran up her arm to her collar bone, imprinting the new fabric texture into his fingers, setting her nerves alight, testing to make sure the material was fireproof. He peeled back her collar enough to reveal her bra strap and a hint of the bandage on her shoulder.
She blinked as realization dawned, as she finally let it settle and take root in her mind.
"You were worried about me!"
She turned her head to smirk at him, but it was too happy and not nearly smug enough to count. "You're worried!"
"What are you talking about?"
"You know, if you want to look at the burn on my shoulder you don't have to go through this much trouble. All you have to do is ask."
"Why on earth would I want to look at your burn mark? That's disgusting."
"I don't know, Rider. Why would you?"
He clenched his jaw and scowled, grinding his teeth for a moment before answering. "…You're favoring your right."
She shrugged. "I'm fine. Don't worry."
"Me? Worry? About you? Please. You wish."
He did not like the way things were going, and pushed his hand lower, his fingertips slipping over the hem of her underwear, brushing her hipbone, drawing out a sharp, reflexive breath, putting the conversation to a definitive end.
He let her pull herself together for only a moment before murmuring again into her ear. "You say all I have to do is ask, huh?"
Her eyes squeezed closed and she forced herself to breathe, but it came out shaky and tensed. He held her so tight, he could definitely feel it. She breathed and held absolutely still, hoping and pleading that he wouldn't ask. She couldn't handle it. She'd give in.
She'd give in and leave herself completely vulnerable, and vulnerability – real, raw vulnerability - was one of the few things that truly terrified her.
So she waited, strung out and tensed from the pressure of his hand and the pressure of the wait, drawing every muscle and every nerve, making them thinner, brittle.
She didn't move.
And he didn't ask.
Instead he let out a breath and pressed his forehead and his nose to her temple. "Edna Mode's outdone herself."
Her shoulders dropped, and part of her hated that he could see her relief so clearly. "Yeah. I like it."
"You should. You look good."
"Maybe you should go see her. Then you can look good too."
"No, I'm serious! She won't mind that you're not her usual kind of client. And she's very discreet."
"And she'd make me wear a mask or a hat or something. That would be a real crime."
Rapunzel shrugged. "She said to tell you to stop by. She thinks your T-shirt and jeans look is a waste." She'd also said a lot of other things about him, which were either too rude to repeat, or would make his head inflate until he was impossible to deal with.
If that was… possible.
He shifted slightly to arch an eyebrow at her, and she realized her mistake a moment too late. Her eyes widened and the smirk on his face grew to painfully obnoxious levels.
"Been talking about me, Blondie?"
"I- No! She brought it up!"
He brushed his nose against her hair once more, murmuring into her ear, "Give me a five second head start?"
She spun to lash out at him, but he'd already nipped at her earlobe and slipped away.