Using Eugene's body wash left the constant smell of Eugene in her nose. It clung to her skin as if he was ghosting his fingers over her, as if he was standing just behind her with his nose buried against her neck. It was overly distracting and she was sure that there was something wrong with her.
He'd knocked on the bathroom door before she could start her shower and asked if her suit was machine washable. When she said it was, he opened the door just enough to reach in a hand to take it.
She'd stared at his hand a moment, still slightly shocked at the notion of letting him so far into her life. Then she'd stripped, peeling the suit from her limbs and cringing at how gross it was, covered in sweat and asphalt and blood and fear.
Eugene waited patiently on the other side of the door, and when she handed over her suit his hand nearly retreated.
"Just a second!"
He paused, waiting, and a moment later she set her underwear on top of her suit.
She could practically see him smirk through the door, and she determinedly refused to think about it further as she scrubbed at her hair until her fingers turned pruney and she built up a ridiculous lather.
The gray shirt he gave her sported a faded, blue Fighting Tunas logo, and it was soft and thin from years of wear. It fit him rather snugly, but it slipped down her shoulders to hang loose and airy, masking her curves but somehow accentuating them at the same time. She wasn't sure how that worked, or if it worked at all. Most likely it was just her overactive imagination.
It was one of his favorite shirts. She tried not to think about that too.
His boxers had elastic and fit a bit better because of it, although they still sat low on her hips. They were still loose enough to make her feel as if she were nearly naked – to make her feel vulnerable in a way that was both frightening and exciting. It was intimate and exhilarating and she caught herself blushing in the mirror before she shook it off and slipped out of the bathroom.
Eugene sat at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee and the newspaper, reading it with a frown. He'd changed into a different t-shirt and pajama pants, and she suspected he was planning to stay in them the rest of the day. Given the look on his face, there wasn't anything worth stealing that night anyway.
Tugging on the hem of her shirt, she realized that maybe his bad mood had a different source.
He glanced up at her as if he was just going to wish her good morning, but then he stopped, his eyebrows raising, his mouth not quite closing as he stared at her. For a moment he looked as though he might flip the kitchen table out of the way, march forward, and devour her. She ran a self conscious hand through her damp hair and tried to lean against the wall as if his look didn't affect her.
Swallowing, he averted his eyes. "You want some coffee?"
"Good because that's about all we have."
She smiled but, fiddling with the coffee maker, he didn't see it.
His pajama pants made his ass look really good. She tried not to stare.
"You made the front page again," he said and that was enough to draw her out of her fantasies.
Slipping into the seat across from his, she gathered up all the many, escaping pages of his newspaper. "In a good way or a bad way?"
Eugene hesitated, then went back to his coffee preparations. "I guess it depends on your point of view."
That didn't sound good.
The story apparently went on for several pages and Eugene had been pretty far into it. It took her a moment to sort through and rearrange everything to find the front page.
The headline made her stop breathing.
Local Hero Breaks into Laboratory, Injures Twelve, Escapes with Wanted Thief
High Tower, the long haired young woman with super human abilities, has helped to keep Corona safe for the last two and an half years. She has foiled burglaries, assaults, and vandalism, and assisted the local police on nearly four dozen investigations. This beloved East Side treasure could do no wrong.
Or so we thought.
Since her unveiling of the atrocities at High Tower Labs (the notorious incident after which the press named her) most of the top researchers and the board of trustees were imprisoned for charges ranging from human experimentation, kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, and conspiracy. Still more were discreetly let go from the company on the heels of such allegations. The company was reformed under new leadership and the sharp eye of government regulators, and has since tried to cleanse itself of their troubled past.
"It was a dark time in our history," says Larry Nugent, current chair of genetic research. "We regret that such atrocities took place here and we offer our deepest condolences to those that were affected. Those of us that didn't know what was happening have been hurt by this as well. We've tried to move on and put the past behind us. We wanted a fresh start and to do good for our community. I think our efforts in the last few years have shown that."
So it came as a shock when the genetically modified local hero returned to High Tower Labs late last night, broke into the complex, and went on a violent rampage through the building. Twelve were hospitalized, three in serious condition.
Police have yet to comment on what her motives might have been.
"She was severely traumatized, and it's possible that she snapped and returned to the scene of the crime for vengeance, even though the guilty parties have already been tried," says psychologist Belinda Mason. "We know that her mental state can't be as healthy as we would hope. It takes a special kind of derangement to deal out vigilante justice."
In addition to this wild and shocking behavior, what's more alarming to police is the evidence that she did not act alone in her attack. Video surveillance and eye witness reports put her in the company of Flynn Rider, cat burglar and long time arch nemesis of High Tower. Now that they seem to be working together, the very nature of their relationship has been thrown into question.
"It was always suspicious that she could never seem to catch him. We've been investigating both of them in recent weeks, suspecting that they were communicating and even aiding one another," says Glass Slipper, speaking on behalf of the League of Peace. "We will bring both of them to justice with all expediency."
"We're checking our inventory now to try to find what they took," says Nugent.
Although such a blow is crushing to all fans of the hero, the question remains as to how far back and how deep the betrayal goes. Have Rider and High Tower been splitting the spoils of his work while High Tower kept the police and other crime fighting agencies off his trail? Has Rider tricked and seduced or possibly coerced the young woman into assisting him?
Sargent Weaver of the Corona Police refused to comment on these hypotheses, yet it should be noted that he rolled his eyes and snorted before doing so.
For now, both High Tower and Rider remain at large. Both are to be treated as unstable and dangerous.
Rapunzel let her head flop onto the table as she crumpled either side of the newspaper in her hands. She stayed like that, breathing in the damp smell of newsprint, trying not to cry, trying to hide from the world - from the reporters and the police and the league, from everyone who would read this story this morning. From Eugene.
Suddenly, she really didn't want to be in his apartment. His kitchen table was not a place to hide. The ground wouldn't open beneath her and swallow her whole if she was in his house, if he was looking at her back.
She tilted her head slightly to peek at him with one eye, not wanting to see the pitying look on his face, but not able to help herself from looking either.
He was still messing about with the coffee, finding sweetener and mixing everything together with a spoon. When he turned and walked towards her, she hid again, dropping her face back to squish her nose against the newsprint and hope that he would leave her alone.
Her coffee cup clicked against the table near her head and one of his warm hands found its way to her shoulder. A moment later his lips pressed against the sensitive back of her neck and she jumped away, sitting up to scowl at him.
"What point of view is it that this good news? No matter how you look at it, it's just awful."
He shrugged, his expression unreadable. "Look at it this way, now you won't have any qualms about running away with me to the island I'm going to buy."
"Now's a great time to start fresh. Turn over a new leaf. Get out of this awful city."
She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at him. "I can't leave Corona."
"Why not? It sucks here."
"It does not."
"Traffic is bad. There's always a mass power outage or a hurricane or a monster attack or something. The people are unfriendly. And the crime rate is terrible."
"Whose fault is that?"
He smirked, glad she noticed and gave him credit.
"It's my home," she said, "and you're not serious about the island."
"Well, it's hard to be serious about an island. Islands drain the seriousness away. That's why you go there."
She put her head back down on the table and he took to rubbing her shoulder. She couldn't tell if he was trying to offer her sympathy or feel her up.
She groaned. "What is Sargent Weaver going to say?"
"He'll say, 'Where's my mustache trimmer? I put it down right here on top of Rider's giant stack of paperwork.'"
Eugene sighed, probably rolling his eyes although she couldn't see it with her eyes squeezed closed and her face hidden in the newspaper. "I'm sure your friend down at the police station still thinks you hung the moon and can do no wrong. The next time you see him, you'll explain yourself and you can both go back to your buddy cop movie." He sounded disappointed.
"Or the next time he sees me he'll shoot me on sight."
"Even if he does, he won't hit you. He's shot at me a dozen times. Never even come close."
"That's not the point."
"You're depressing yourself. It's not that bad."
She groaned again.
"You're really that embarrassed by me?"
"This is terrible. I've lost my job and I can't go home and everyone hates me."
"I don't hate you," he mumbled. That only made her more upset.
"How did you get mixed up with them anyway?" she asked, looking up again to show him the look on her face and how unhappy she was with him, so she could move her shoulders out from under his hands.
Undaunted by her scowl, he leaned back against the table edge, crossing his arms over his chest. "Remember that ruby at the museum?"
"The one you stole and then blamed on Maleficent?"
He smirked. "That's the one. High Tower payed me to steal it."
"And you went along with it?"
He shrugged. "They were the highest bidder."
There were a million things she didn't like about that statement, but at this point Eugene probably regretted dealing with them as well, so it wouldn't do much good to groan at him again and hide her face in her arms to show her displeasure.
"If you stole it for them, why didn't you give it to them?"
"See, that's the thing about paying in advance. I had the money in one hand and the ruby in the other and it occurred to me that I could sell it to someone else and get paid twice."
She stared at him. "But- How is anyone else ever going to hire you again if you turned on your buyer like that?" If they told other buyers, he'd never find another job again.
"They're a legitimate company. They can't exactly tell everyone that I've screwed them over. That would implicate them just as much as me. They should consider it a lesson learned: don't deal with disreputable people." He looked amazingly proud of himself despite the fact that this action had gotten him kidnapped and electrocuted.
"And it didn't occur to you that they might be angry?"
"Of course they'd be angry. I robbed them blind. They won't have the funds to kidnap little girls for years."
"It's not like I thought they'd attack me in an alley. Who would have guessed that? I thought they were unethical nerds who hurt you and needed to be taken down a peg. How was I supposed to know they had ninjas on their pay roll?"
He was starting to confuse her again, sounding protective and caring and like he knew more than he let on. She didn't quite know what to say. "I could have told you that," she mumbled.
"And that's what's so great about our new situation. You can tell me not to work with these people."
"You'd ignore me and do it anyway."
He ducked his head into her line of sight and caught her gaze with his own to emphasize his alarming levels of sincerity. "I wouldn't ignore you. I might do it anyway, but I'd never ignore you if you told me not to deal with someone."
She stared at him. "Eugene," she said, trying to match his honesty with her tone, "I want you to stop dealing with people who want to torture you. And anyone really who wants to buy stolen goods... And I want you to stop stealing things."
The corner of his lips tugged up towards a smile as he raised an eyebrow at her. "You don't ask for much, do you?"
She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes again in disapproval.
He scratched at the side of his head, trying to look abashed, but also trying to look delicious, and ending up making her frown more at him and his terrible, manipulative ways, making her want to jump him, slam him down onto the table, and climb on top of him.
They'd spill coffee everywhere and it would scald and they would both totally deserve it.
"That's the other reason I didn't have a problem taking their money and running... I've been thinking about retiring, and it doesn't really matter if I can never find another fence."
She blinked at him, her scowl fading even as the dubious feeling in her stomach remained. "What?"
"Got paid twice for that ruby job, remember. Just imagine how much that thing was worth. Then double it."
She stared. He must be filthy rich.
"But then... That was months ago. Why haven't you stopped? You could have moved to your island by now. You could have gotten a better car. Why get a job at an all night pizzeria? Why stick around when you might be caught? When the League or High Tower might come after you?"
He looked at her for a long moment as he weighed his words. His scrutinizing look and the silence made her uncomfortable.
Finally he looked away, clearing his throat into his fist before reaching back and shifting his weight to grip the table edge with both hands. "Like I said... I've done a lot of stupid things lately."
A lot of stupid things. Since meeting her.
So many misguided attempts to defend her honor and get back at people who hurt her. So many ways he'd tried to get close to her, to get to know her, and be her friend. He was annoying and confusing, and yet unbearably sweet.
He truly cared about her. She could accept that now. He just didn't know what to do with those feelings and he expressed them in the few ways he knew how: stealing things and delivering pizzas.
Honestly (because it was time for honesty) she still didn't know what to make of him, how to treat him, what to feel when she thought of him, what she should do with him or with herself. But with time she could figure it out. She had confidence she could – a warmth that flickered in her chest that felt a bit like hope and reminded her of the image of a sunny tomorrow.
And more than that she could figure it out, she realized that that was what she wanted. She wanted to trust him. She wanted to be near him. She wanted to let him see her at her most vulnerable, even as she despised her own vulnerability. The feeling was so odd, so novel, that she couldn't even look at it directly yet – only glimpses at an angle.
Almost shyly, she reached for his hand and tugged him forward until, with painful tentativeness, she could take his face in her hands, look into his eyes, and kiss him, swallowing down her fears as she gave into that swelling hope in her chest. He settled into it after a heartbeat, his eyes closing and his lips moving against hers, tilting his head to deepen their contact. He braced himself, one hand clenching the back of her chair, the other flat against the table top in front of her, and she could feel all the tension in his body through the flavor of his kiss, through the set of his jaw in her hand. He held himself still, stopping himself from touching her, and all his desire leaked into their single point of contact.
It drove her crazy, her fingers itching to grab the front of his shirt and yank him forward, her legs begging her to stand and press against him, to have him sweep her up into his arms.
She broke the kiss and pulled back enough to watch his eyes slowly open and stare at her as if she were the most beautiful, terrible thing he'd ever seen. She pulled back and watched him run his tongue over his lips.
"You're a good man," she said.
His eyebrows shifted into a look of confused amusement. "How do you figure that?"
"Just a feeling."
"Admitting to having feelings about me, that's a step. Is it exasperation or lust?"
"Now it's exasperation."
"I can fix that."
He leaned in to kiss her again, and she pulled back, just out of reach, causing his eyebrows to furrow together.
"I'm... not very good at this kind of thing."
He smirked at her, his eyes turning dark as he leaned in to kiss the side of her neck. "You're very good at this kind of thing."
She pulled back again and again he looked confused and disappointed. "No, I mean... I mean... What do you think will happen now?"
He started to say something crude or suave, but definitely stupid, then he stopped himself and frowned. "You know what I want to happen."
"For us to run away together."
"Is it that far fetched?"
"I- I don't know. It's all happening so fast and I just don't know." She bit her lip and gave him a pleading look, hoping he'd understand.
"It's not that fast," he countered. "It's been building for months."
She supposed he had a point, but didn't admit it. "You decide what you want and then you go get it and you don't ever think about consequences. I can't do that," she said.
"No, you way over think everything, and you don't trust me."
"I don't trust anyone! This is hard for me!" She pressed the pads of her fingers to her forehead and took a deep breath. "Just... I just need time."
His face softened, some of the tension melting from his arms and shoulders until his head lolled forward in defeat, his forehead coming to rest against hers. He took a breath and nodded, his forehead rubbing against hers.
"I get that," he said, and, understanding and pitying, it sounded as if he really did. "But just tell me I have some chance. That you're not just putting off the inevitable."
She tried to look down and away, still attempting to hide from the uncomfortable tightness in her chest, but he was too close for her to hide from him. With him this close, she could smell his intoxicating body wash drifting into her skin.
"You have a chance."
His eyes opened slowly to search into hers, looking for some sign that she was lying or just saying what she thought she should say, what she though he wanted to hear. But her wide, green eyes held only honesty, and his face washed with guarded hope.
By some unspoken agreement, by some invisible sign, they reached for each other. His fingers dug into her hair, cradling her head, snagging in thin, damp tangles. Her arms slipped around his shoulders, so she could draw him closer and he could lift her onto her feet. Her hands stretched as far down his spine as she could reach as she pushed up onto her tip toes.
Their kiss stretched and deepened and the enthusiasm built inch by inch until the kiss was a stone rolling down a mountain, gaining momentum, losing control.
The hand resting in that familiar spot on her waist slipped into her shirt effortlessly, his hands rough against skin still warm and soft from her shower. Funny how different his gentle stroking felt from the sensations in her own roaming hands, from his shirt under her palms, the way it caught and dragged, the way it felt unreasonably coarse when compared to her own loved clothes, when compared to her memory of his skin beneath the fabric.
His tongue drew out a happy moan, that he inhaled, that inflated him with strength. And she gasped as his fingers brushed her breast, her head arching back, her eyes closed to hold in as much pleasure as she could. He let her catch her breath for only a moment, then sealed his lips against hers once more.
He guided her backwards, unwilling to pull away, to stop his hands from roaming over her skin. Their eyes remained closed as they drifted out of the kitchen, too caught in one another to give up any of the sensations or any brain power at all to aid in navigation.
His hands were everywhere – cupping her face, cradling her shoulder blades, marking the curve of her ass as if he would lift her straight off the ground and squeeze her. He was bold, like when she wore her mask. He was loving, like the last time he'd touched her. But then there was something else, something new.
He was letting himself hope, and setting himself up for disappointment. Again. And he didn't know if she loved him back or what this was - a sign of mutual affection and agreement or a sign that she needed something physical in the moment and would pull away again. So he sucked her lower lip with desperation, trying to pull her in, to convince her, because he couldn't tell if she had come to a decision yet and when she did, he wanted her firmly on one side. His side.
It was all too easy to kiss back just as passionately and pull at his arms and sigh against him and let him sweep her up in whatever scheme he had now. This is what she wanted and what she should do and when this moment was over... well, she didn't know what would happen then, and thinking about it made her insides chill, so she thrust it from her mind and focused on Eugene.
He whacked his knee into the corner of the sofa, bringing them to a sudden halt. They were so tightly wound around one another that they nearly tripped and fell together without ever being in danger of being ripped apart. He swore against her lips and she giggled, but then they were back together again, moving more quickly across the apartment until she tripped over the coffee table.
She squeaked in surprise and he growled, holding her tighter, keeping her upright. And she grabbed him by the front of his shirt and changed their direction, pulling him down onto the sofa instead of trying to make it all the way to the bedroom, which now seemed amazingly far away.
He landed on top of her, smirking against her lips, one of his arms braced over her head for support, his fingers digging into her hair. He had her surrounded with heat, and she pulled him closer to build that heat into something unbearable, to fight him for control, to bring his weight more completely on top of her. Why was he supporting himself anyway? That hand could be doing other things and she didn't mind being squished. Not at all.
His shirt made it to the floor, but nothing else did. Her shirt was rucked up enough to press her skin to his, but she refused to pull away from him enough to yank it off all the way. His hand slipped into the boxers she wore with only slightly more effort than he'd expended on her shirt.
Her face by turns scrunched up with intolerable need and slackened in pleasure, her fingers digging into his back and abs, threading through his hair, grabbing at the hem of his pants to pull his hips more firmly against her. He kissed her until she was dizzy, until there was only desire and his shoulders to cling to, only her need to touch more of him and his hot breath growing faster and faster in her ear.
Slumping, they lay snuggled together, panting and drowsy. He managed to pull a blanket from the back of the couch and toss it over them without sitting up, but he didn't manage to cover their feet before he gave up to bury his face in the crook of her neck. Surrounded in the most perfect kind of warmth, she let dozed, awaking briefly to leave lazy kisses against his shoulder and trail her fingers down his spine. His hands tensed against her waist as if she were tickling him, and he muttered something unintelligible before nipping at her ear halfheartedly.
At some point he turned on the TV and they watched mid-morning game shows as he rested his head on her chest and she found all the kinks in his shoulders and rubbed them away with her thumbs.
It was a very good way to spend the day.
"What do you think High Tower wanted with that ruby?"
"Don't know," he murmured. "Maybe Yzma wanted a really heavy necklace." He scooted a bit to nuzzle his nose against the side of her neck, letting his fingers trail up and down her side. She could recognize by now when he was trying to distract her, and it was sweet of him, but it wasn't going to work.
"Do you think they were going to... use it on someone?"
"What do you mean?"
"Like using it in an experiment to give someone super powers." She imagined the ruby set in a special apparatus, a high powered laser beam entering the stone, then exiting the other side at a slight angle, now tinted with the ruby's magic. She imagined them shaving off part of the stone and inserting it under her skin, a sliver of malice that worked its way into her blood stream and muscles. She imagined ingesting ruby powder or having melted ruby injected into her eyes.
Eugene's arms tightened ever so slightly around her.
She took a breath to fight off a shudder and bent her head forward to press a weak kiss to his shoulder, to breathe in the comforting smell of him and give herself something else to think about.
"I'm glad you didn't give it to them."
He didn't say anything, but his fingers continued their trail back and forth over her ribs.
After a moment she tilted her head slightly to look him in the eye and smile. "What caper do you have planned next?"
"Why? You want to help?"
"Then you're cheating. Trying to use your wiles to make me tell you what I'm doing."
"What? I- I'd never do that!"
He laughed and kissed at her ear.
What would that even be like? He'd kiss her goodbye in the evening and say he was off to a jewelry store and she would rush into her hero clothes and follow him. They would fight and grope each other on a roof top, the robbery mostly forgotten, their fighting restrained so they wouldn't hurt each other. Then they'd come home and make out some more.
It'd be insanely … domestic. She wouldn't really be protecting anything or anyone and he wouldn't really be hurting anyone. Which was alright, on the one hand. If the city wasn't in danger, that was a good thing. But on the other, it would feel too much like they were dressing up to play cops and robbers. It'd end up just being their personal thrill seeking play time. She wouldn't be able to take herself seriously, and if anyone found out, she would have to die of embarrassment.
But that kind of thing would happen even if he didn't tell her where he was going. She was good at finding him and then it'd play out the same way.
So how was this going to work?
He interrupted her swirling thoughts by speaking again. "Actually, I could use your input for my next heist."
Her stomach twisted, and she suddenly felt cold despite Eugene keeping her warm all over. When she spoke the words tasted bitter. "I told you, even though I'm on Corona's most wanted, that doesn't mean I'm going to turn to a life of crime."
"Hmm. We'll see about that. But I'm talking about lifting all your stuff out of your apartment."
"My-" She turned back to him, her eyes wide. "What?"
"The League of Prissiness knows where you live, so they're probably watching it, waiting for you to come back... I guess you could just ditch it all."
She thought for a moment. "There's probably only one or two of them watching it. I could take them."
"Like hell you could."
"You don't think I could do it?"
"I-" He snapped his mouth shut and narrowed his eyes at her, clearly sensing he was on thin ice, but also clearly thinking he was right. "I just think there's an easier solution somewhere."
"I could just walk in there as Eugene and look really confused when the Scarab pops out at me. I could say I got a phone call from you and I jumped to help even though you didn't tell me what was happening. I'm a nice guy like that."
"She'd tell me about all the horribleness you've done, and I'd look shocked, and she'd suggest using your clothes or me as bait to draw you out of hiding, and I'd go along with it, throw whatever tracking device she installs off a bridge, and come home."
"How do you know any of that will happen?"
"I don't. But I'll wing it."
"She'll recognize you."
"Then maybe I can take her. What do you think of that?"
"I think instead you could act as a distraction while I go in and pack."
"Or while Charlie goes in to pack."
"No. Don't get him involved. It's too dangerous, he'll be grumpy about it, and I don't want him going through my clothes."
Eugene snorted. "He'll be more embarrassed than you. And he'll hide some cannoli in your pockets, or something, and pride himself on how sweet he was being."
That was true. He probably would.
"What we need," he said, "is a great big distraction. We need some super villain to descend on the city and try to kill everyone so your baby shower friends all have to show up and leave your house unattended."
"Don't wish for that kind of catastrophe."
"I know! You could pack all my stuff in my suitcase, then when you go downstairs, you could switch everything out and put all my stuff into pizza boxes!"
The muscles in his stomach clenched like he was trying not to laugh. "Then what? The League wonders why I left the pizzeria without your suitcases but with suitcase sized stuff and follows me straight here."
"You could drop my empty suitcase off somewhere. They'd sit and watch it for hours waiting for me to show up. And you could deliver my clothes in pizza boxes someplace. Someplace kind of public. And I could pick them up and take them here a different way."
"Yeah, that'll work!"
"You really think so?"
He laughed at the look on her face and she repeatedly poked him between the ribs in retaliation, biting her lip to keep from laughing herself. He snatched her hand away to pin it over her head and kiss her.
"In breaking news," said the television, "the standoff at city hall, where we are told a dozen people are being held hostage, including the mayor and city council, is entering its second hour."
Rapunzel turned to watch the images of city hall, surrounded by caution tape, police cars, a crowd of reporters, and curious onlookers. Eugene held very still above her.
She caught Sargent Weaver's long faced partner working crowd control through a megaphone, looking even more stressed and annoyed than usual. It was weird to see him alone, without the company of his mustached partner, and something twisting in her stomach told her that it did not bode well.
A mugshot of a thin, skull faced woman with a ruthless smile appeared. "The leader behind this operation has been identified as Cruella deVil, but reports on her level of support inside the building vary."
A traumatized man who escaped during the initial violence with a few others, before the building was locked down, babbled into a reporter's microphone about the noise of gunfire and the crazy woman's snarling hounds from hell. His eyes were wide and he was wrapped in a thick blanket from one of the emergency vehicles.
Snow White's helicopter could be clearly seen circling the building, and then Glass Slipper was on the screen, standing in front of a cheering crowd, promising justice.
"This," Eugene said slowly, "is exactly the kind of distraction I was talking about."
The reporter began to list the group's previous crimes and current demands, but Rapunzel didn't stay to listen. She scrambled up, pushing Eugene off of her and kicking her way free of the blanket and his legs, heading straight to the washing machine.
"Where are you going?" he called.
"I have to help."
"What? No, you don't." He'd pushed himself up too, following after her and giving her a frustrated look as she wriggled her suit back over her hips, her bare feet padding against the linoleum in the little utility closet.
"Sargent Weaver might be in there. He wasn't with his partner."
"And maybe he was standing right out of the frame because he's too ugly to be shown on local news."
She glared at him, tugging her arms into her sleeves.
"They're the police," he argued, "They can take care of this themselves."
"Obviously, they can't."
"The League is already there. Let them handle this for once."
"I don't trust them to do anything right anymore."
"You'll be walking right into a huge mess of people who want to arrest you or hurt you or worse."
"I can't just let this kind of thing happen, Eugene! This is what I do. This is who I am. They can say whatever they want about me, and it won't change that. I have to show them that." She zipped up her suit with a sense of finality, changing her hair blonde and letting it spring out to her waist as she did so. "Can't you understand that?"
She hadn't meant to say all that. She didn't mean to hurt him or shut him down so completely, but it was the truth.
He stared at her a moment, chewing his words. His eyes were pained as he realized for not the first time that things were not going to turn out as he pictured in his dreams.
With a sense of resignation, he sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "You'll get there faster if I give you a ride."
Eugene gave city hall a wide berth as he eased into downtown. He circled four blocks from the swarming news vans and flashing lights that could be seen from half way down Corona's main hill before he pulled into an alley and stopped.
Rapunzel sat up from her slouch low in the the passenger seat where passing police cars were less likely to notice her. It seemed they had other things on their minds.
"You sure there's no way to talk you out of this?"
"I'll be fine. Don't worry so much." She slipped out of his overlarge hoodie (that he'd insisted she wear for the trip) and craned her neck to check out the rear window for any unwanted spectators. Seeing they were alone, she fit her mask to her face and let her hair lengthen and tumble to the floor board.
He scoffed. "Me? Worry?"
"You're cute," she said, and leaned across the parking break to kiss him. He didn't really respond, but given his mood she didn't expect him to.
Her determination to jump back into the fray was probably making him more ticked off than he already was after yet another of her rejections of his plans, his new job of apparently being her chauffeur, and his constant anxiety over her safety against monsters.
But she couldn't help it. This was her calling, and it was right, and she would do it even if the whole world was against her. And maybe this would fix things. Maybe this show of heroism would prove to any doubters that she was a good person and this whole second High Tower incident would blow over. The prospect of being redeemed thrilled her.
She just wished she could have both: her life and Eugene.
Maybe some day.
"Please don't get shot," he said.
"Less work for you if I did."
"You've no idea." And then he kissed her as if he could make her forget her crazy plan and stay in the car forever.
She smiled at him, checked around again, and slipped away.
City Hall was connected to the sprawl of tunnels that lay beneath the streets. The tunnels first came into being when the city decided to connect individual government buildings to one another. For some reason they couldn't do it above ground, which was a shame because Rapunzel thought sky bridges were amazing. The tunnels connected city hall to the squat building of the mayor's office, and to the court house. Then they spread more - to the department of records and the library (a tunnel so hidden in the depths of the basement and used so infrequently that few people could still find it). Since the tunnel's expansion meant it was in the area, they added on entrances to the power plant and sanitation center. One outlet led to a subway station for government employees to get to work. Then a hotel demanded access so they could get in on the excitement. Eventually they realized that the tunnel wasn't all that great and stopped using it.
The tunnels spilled down the south side of the hill, weakening the structural integrity of the buildings above it, and leaking and flooding during the terrible summer rains. Its labyrinthine corridors had no greater plan, sometimes twisting at random, sometimes branching into unfinished caves, sometimes halting abruptly and leading nowhere.
Everyone knew it was there. Some people still used it. There was no question that the police had considered entering city hall that way, and it was probable that the villains inside had known to barricade the entrance.
But Rapunzel would try anyway. It seemed a smarter, safer bet than trying to slip through the crowd outside to break through a window or climb to the roof. In the daylight, she'd stick out and rather than being her usual, invisible self, people would just watch her with confusion and ask themselves if she knew they could see her.
She broke into the hall of records through a back door, using a sandwich shop rewards card to pop the lock. Inside the air was cool and musty and she made her way quickly to the basement, where she darted past several rows of locked record rooms and the open door of a break room, where four record keepers were watching continuing coverage of the standoff with their backs facing the door. The tunnel entrance was down at the end, and she had to pop another lock (this time with a pick set.) She froze as the record keepers started talking, and continued more quietly as they settled into conversation. The door clicked open and she dashed down a flight of stairs, into the warmth of the tunnels and navigated north and a bit west toward city hall.
The tunnels were lit, but not well. It gave the impression of the street lighting on the outskirts of town in the evening. It made her feel more at home, more capable. Her pace quickened with the thrumming of her heart.
After several wrong turns, and the conclusion that the old signs that had been put up to give directions were inaccurate and should be ignored, she heard the sound of voices.
She peeked around a corner, and pulled back immediately, pressing her back to the wall. Twelve police officers in swat gear were trying to break through the door with limited success. None of them were Sargent Weaver.
They weren't going to make any progress anytime soon, so she turned back. Maybe she could find a thick pipe or a chute that lead up into the building, something she could squeeze into.
She prowled slowly around the general area, trying to match where she was below ground with where she would be on the surface. Probably somewhere on the east side of the building. She found a ladder up, and followed it, but it lead to a grating in the street outside. She could hear the excited rumble of the crowd nearby. She slid back down the ladder and carried on, heading a bit further north as she went to get back under the building.
And then she heard more voices, quieter this time, deeper and darker. She approached more cautiously than she had with the police.
She stayed so close to the few, pale shadows that it was almost as though she created her own, wrapping herself in darkness, making herself unnoticeable, creating an illusion of invisibility so subtle that it might have just been her posture as she crept forward. She hugged tight to the wall and snuck up to peek around the corner, but something stopped her.
As she'd moved forward, the low conversation had separated themselves into a few different voices. She still couldn't hear the words they mumbled to one another, but she could tease apart the differences in tone. There were two men, both hefty (judging from their voices), both struggling with something physical, both directing each other while trying to remain quiet.
The growling she first took as grumbles of irritation did not belong to either of them. There was something else with them in depths of the tunnels. Something not human.
She took several steps back and used her hair to haul herself onto one of the pipes that ran down the center of the ceiling. It was thick as her hips and she tipped precariously before finding her balance. She had to crouch or she would hit her head on the ceiling, and she had to lean slightly to one side to avoid leaning against a few smaller pipes that pressed against her side and surely wouldn't hold her. The pipe beneath her feet was uncomfortably warm to touch, and she worked to keep her hands clear, pressing them to the ceiling so she wouldn't be tempted to rest them on the pipe below and burn herself. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, hoping the heat would wait a moment before creeping into her boots.
Then she scooted forward, quiet as could be, hidden in deeper darkness now and feeling more comfortable with her new vantage point except for the way she was beginning to sweat.
Below her stood two men, situated in a seemingly random corridor - one just like all the rest - but their careful determination and their frequent consultation of a tunnel map made it clear they had picked the spot for a reason. She wasn't sure which building they were under - maybe still city hall, maybe the justice department, or maybe they were still under the street. She watched them attach wires to a kind of control panel and several large tanks of chemicals that sat on a rolling cart.
They tried to be quiet, but they were used to using brute force over stealth. They were used to sweeping, powerful gestures rather than the delicate work their job now required. They were used to snapping at one another, and such habits were hard to break.
They weren't used to working while holding back two massive beasts.
The creatures looked like dogs, but twice the size of any she'd seen before. Their faces pulled back in tight, wrinkled snarls that might never leave their faces, their teeth long and sharp and yellowed, dripping saliva that shivered and resonated with their growls as it dripped slowly onto the floor. Their hair was dark and matted, spotted oil black on bloody brown, and they smelled of sweet decay and the warm salt of ripped flesh. Rapunzel pressed a hand over her mouth and nose to keep the stench at bay, to keep herself from gasping.
They sniffed at the air in gasps, and she knew they could sense her. Their cloudy, black eyes snapped back and forth to search for her, each sweep accompanied by a surge against their restraints. Maybe they were blind. Maybe they were so gripped with hatred they could no longer see. They would be guided by the smell of her fear, then the smell of her blood.
One of the men held onto their leashes - thick lengths of rope and chains that clanked as the beasts moved and strained against the flesh of their necks as they longed to lunge forward and fly at whatever foe stood closest. The hell hounds jerked him forward and to the side and he wrestled to keep his balance, to keep the beasts still and quiet, to keep them from bumping and toppling their equipment.
The man swore and his colleague hissed at him to be silent.
"Somethin's got 'em riled."
"They're always riled."
His hum of agreement was cut off as the hell hounds surged forward again.
"Keep 'em quiet."
"The lady'll be ticked if those cops get wind of this."
"Thought that's what these guys were for." He gestured to the beasts with a stupid grin, before he was jerked back into the moment.
Rapunzel had no idea what they were doing. It didn't quite look like a bomb. But then again it kind of did and she didn't know all that much about bombs.
She wondered if this was the real operation and the hostage situation was a distraction, or if the bomb would emphasize whatever point was being made upstairs. She wondered if there were more of these devices scattered and coordinated throughout the tunnels.
Whatever they were doing, she had to stop it. She had to find out more.
She bit her lip and checked her balance, holding he ceiling with one sweaty palm, taking a length of hair and swinging it in preparation. With a sharp intake of breath, she lashed out at the dogs, grabbing one by all four paws and one by three and hoisted them off the ground, lifting them in a net attached to the thick hot water pipe at her feet. They were so heavy, she could only pull them a few feet off the ground, and they yelped before snarling with unmatched levels of ferocity, letting out a deep, rumbling bark that echoed through the halls. They scrambled to get their feet under them, clawing at the ground for purchase. Her hair knotted, split, and shredded as the monsters struggled, and she couldn't guess if they were ensnaring themselves further or if their fighting would rip the hair apart so they could charge at her.
Before the men or the hounds had found their bearings, she flew at the bigger man who was arranging the wires and twisting knobs on the tanks. In his surprise, she knocked him off balance, onto the floor and delivered four quick punches and a kick before she had to roll behind the equipment to avoid the second man.
He paused, watching her from the other side of the equipment, picking which direction he should chase her, still dazed that she was there at all. And there was something else in the way his eyes darted to the tanks and back. He didn't want to touch them.
She dodged left, hit him in the side, spun out of the way of his clumsy blow, and kicked him in the back, sending him stumbling towards the equipment, which he avoided by throwing his weight awkwardly, falling to the floor with a twisted ankle.
The first man found his feet, huffing, and he kept up with her for a moment while they fought. A punch, a chop, a spin and a kick. He blocked and swung and ducked to the right.
And Rapunzel was yanked back as one of the hounds twisted with a violent jerk that caused it to drop it to the floor, still tangled in hair. It landed hard and lay on its side, drool smeared hair locked around its jaws and legs and throat. It howled in rage and scrambled worse than ever, and Rapunzel barely dodged another blow from one of the men, ducking and grabbing him by the ankle to flip him onto his back. He landed just like the dog, but did not recover as quickly.
No sooner had he hit the ground than she clashed together with the other man, punching and twisting and throwing an elbow into his face. The hounds yanked her roughly to the side, and she could feel them slipping loose bit by bit, broken hair by broken hair. She moved with the pull of her hair, using the momentum to dodge a blow and hit the thug in the side.
When she aimed a second blow at his head, he caught it, sending a jolt through her arm, up into her shoulder. She tried to push through his hand, then pull away, but he grinned at her, a trickle of blood skipping down from his hairline into his eyebrow.
He slammed her against the wall with enough force that she saw stars. When she focused enough to see again, she found his hand on her throat, lifting her slowly off the ground. Gasping, she clawed at his fingers, but he held her tighter, watching as she struggled in vain, not noticing the way her hair shifted and parted.
With a suddenness and a spark in her eyes that he thought had faded with her breath, her hand formed a fist that flew at his eye just as the freed hell hound leapt for her. With a howl of pain that was cut off and replaced with terrible noises that she would try to forget later, he dropped her and she stumbled to the floor, scrambling away as quickly as she could.
She couldn't catch her breath or pull herself from the floor, too horrified by the sight before her. The slapping sounds of the beast's jaws. The twitch of the man's fingers. The mixed sounds of breathing and gasping.
The hound raised its head slowly, then snapped around to pin her with its stare.
For a second nothing moved but the fear swelling in her soul.
Then the beast lunged and she threw herself to the side in a roll, coming up on her feet with a tangled loop of hair in one hand. The hell hound smashed into the wall where she sat only moments before, then came at her again, undeterred. Again she dodged, catching at its front paws with her hair. The hair caught, but the beast didn't notice as it plowed past, turned, and charged again. Then she was darting, left, right, but always back, always retreating. A swipe of its claws. A snap of its teeth. She shoot loops of hair with every backwards slide, catching its snout, its feet, its tail in loose grips that neither slowed it down nor hindered its movements. It started to look as if straw had been piled on top of it.
At the last second, she avoided the jaws of the second animal, still caught and suspended in her hair.
She shuffled to the side, slightly off balance, and bumped against the tanks of chemicals, causing one to topple to the floor before she could grab it. And in those few, precious moments the hound was on her, and she was shielding her face, and it was clawing at her shoulders, its teeth sinking into her forearm. She cried out and pretended the ripping noise was her suit and not her skin. She kneed it in the stomach, trying to throw it off, but all it did was grunt and snarl and grind its teeth deeper into her arm. Blood dripped onto her face, mixed with the beast's drool and an overpowering smell of power and rot.
Her heart beat so fast it was hard to think. Her adrenaline pumped so hard she couldn't feel the pain.
Her free hand grabbed at the ground, searching for something, anything to use as a weapon. Or maybe it was trying to crawl away and escape when it knew the battle was lost.
The dog shook her arm, rattling her bones up to her neck, whacking her head against the floor, its teeth pulling through muscle. And something was in her hand - something heavy, something she could almost grip.
And with the last of her strength and courage she slammed it against the hell hound's head.
With a crack and a stiffed whimper as the tank collided with its skull, the monster collapsed, hot and slobbering and blood soaked, on top of her.
All she could do was breathe. Breathe and stare at the unadorned ceiling and hold back tears that had no business being there.
The other hell hound had fallen silent. With a heave, she shouldered the monster off of her, letting it flop to the side. She pulled her arm from its slack jaws, tugging the frayed edges of her suit loose from its teeth and trying not to look at her arm too closely. The hound was still covered in a mass of hair, and she decided it was easier to chop it off and leave it than try to untangle it.
She didn't really want the gross hair back anyway.
Tucking her arm against her chest and pressing at a pain in her side, she hobbled over to the tanks and wires to inspect them.
It wasn't a bomb. That much she could tell even in her dazed state. The tanks were full of some kind of toxin. She'd heard the name before, but she didn't remember where. A neurotoxin? Something gaseous with many, many warning stickers. She probably shouldn't have used one as a blunt weapon.
On further inspection, the tanks were attached to a thin tube that led up into the ceiling. The wires she'd noticed were attached to some kind of counter - a remote detonator.
They were planning biological warfare on whatever government building was above them.
She plucked up the map and searched for a moment, her eyes almost focusing on the red circle and sloppy handwritten note. "Courtroom 1F."
Well, that sounded like the justice building. She frowned up at the ceiling as if she could see into the courtroom or hear what they were saying. Which trial was it? Did they want to kill everyone in the room, or they were planning an escape attempt for whoever was on trial? Either way, the hostage situation was definitely a distraction.
And if it was a distraction, they'd have an exit strategy.
Snatching up the detonator, she tucked it under her arm, and jerked the tubes from the ceiling. She checked the tank she used to knock out the hell hound for damage, then set it back on the rolling cart and shoved the whole thing into motion, avoiding the pile of dog on the floor or the one suspended in the air.
As quickly as she could, she retraced her steps and slowed as she heard the police, still attempting to bust their way into city hall. It struck her that their attempts were juvenile at best, and this might actually be the police's distraction as they entered the building from another route. Maybe. Maybe not.
She left the rolling cart of chemicals just out of sight and took several steps back down the hallway before letting out a shrill whistle, running for the cover of the shadows, and pulling herself up onto another thick pipe.
The police fell silent. Then their tone changed to curiosity and defensive caution. Some scuffling and two police appeared around the corner, their guns trained on the cart, their flashlights throwing an ominous shadow out behind the tanks. A moment's pause and they hurried forward, checking the tanks and the map and signaling to the other police, shouting for someone to check it out.
Rapunzel nodded and turned to go when something caught her eye and held her in place. In the gleam of the bright flashlights, she could make out a trail, a kind of scuff mark left behind by the tires. It wasn't exactly a different color, but more like a change in texture, like the rubber from the cart's wheels had covered the shine of the tile.
She could just make it out going back towards the courthouse, tracing the steps she took to come here.
In just a moment the police might see it too. Or they'd start to follow the map she'd left for them to pick up the criminals and the hell hounds. She didn't have much time.
Moving as quickly and quietly as she could, she raced back the way she'd come, keeping her balance on the pipe beneath her feet through sheer momentum. Once she rounded the corner out of sight, she dropped to the floor and flew after the invisible tracks.
Twice she had to stop and kneel close to the floor to make them out and assure herself that she was going the right direction. She tilted her head side to side until the light caught the tile just right and she could make out the tracks like the absence of reflection across a pond.
She could hear the dog scrambling and whining and a man groaning as he regained consciousness before she saw them, and - with the police quickly approaching from behind - she dropped again to check the tracks. One set came out of the side passage where she'd had her fight, marking her own movements with the cart. But then there was another, which turned out of the side passage and carried on down the corridor in the opposite direction.
She darted past the growling hell hound and raced along the hall until she turned another corner and fell out of sight of the swat team and the criminals, slightly more safe hidden in the maze of tunnels. Here she could slow just a bit and make sure she hadn't lost her way. Here she could swallow down the pained lump in her throat that had grown from her shortness of breath and the pain in her side.
How had she even hurt her side, anyway? She couldn't remember.
She chanced a look down at her arm and immediately looked away with a cringe, pulling a length of gauze out of her belt as she walked. It would probably be better to roll up her sleeve before bandaging it, but the torn fabric was nearly adhered to her flesh and she didn't want to think about how painful it would be to peel the suit away. It seemed to be clotting some of the blood too.
She wrapped the gauze over her arm, sleeve and all, as tight as she could considering she was doing it left handed, then congratulated herself on having all her vaccines in order. She couldn't really have Eugene take her to the hospital now for a rabies shot. She'd get arrested.
The skid marks lead around and back until she was sure she was back under city hall again before they stopped abruptly at a fire door. She eased it open, which wasn't hard as it was so heavy it wouldn't open quickly, and found herself in city hall's small parking garage.
It was mostly empty, every noise echoing and distorted until it was no longer recognizable. Even in the odd stillness, it felt alive, as if a dozen people were standing just in the shadows, just behind the concrete pillars. There was no squeal of tires, no movements of headlights across the asphalt. Which made sense as no one was able to leave.
One row over and a few spots down sat an unmarked van, which screamed "escape vehicle." It had a straight shot from the back of the van to the tunnel she'd just left, it had room (not much, but still room) for the hell hounds, and if she squinted she could just make out the shape of a waiting man in the side view mirror. The garbled sounds of his radio were almost recognizable. Slipping forward, she could see that he wore the same black beanie and the same nondescript black coat as the men she'd fought in the tunnels.
The question was if they would escape in the back of this van, bursting out of the parking garage, or if they would make their way into the tunnels and out through an obscure exit on the other side of town. She decided that either way it wouldn't hurt to slash their tires.
So she did. She stayed low and out of sight of the driver, slipping her knife into one back tire, then the other, watching as they ever so slowly deflated with a hiss that was lost to the natural rumble of the parking garage.
Rapunzel had been to city hall twice, once to go to a city council meeting when she first escaped from High Tower and was looking for a way to help the city. After the meeting she sought out other, less restrictive forms of community service. The second time she was given a medal for valor and there were a great many photographers and reporters and politicians and everyone wanted to shake her hand. Sargent Weaver wore his nice, dress uniform and helped escort her out of the building when she clearly grew overwhelmed.
The pink granite floors and the murals spanning Corona's long and glorious history all looked exactly the same as she peeked out of the parking garage into the main building. The stillness was different. Instead of being crowded with people, shouting to ask her questions, it was nearly deserted except for the three armed henchmen that had ducked behind the front desk and one of the pillars to avoid being sniped through the huge front windows. She could just make out the red and blue flash of the police force outside.
If memory served her correctly, the city council chambers were on the third floor. She slipped out of the main foyer and took the stairs, rushing up to the fourth floor.
Again, there was that eerie silence. No workers on their phones in their offices, no mail deliverers with their rolling carts, no aids rushing back and forth. It was an abandoned hallway with abandoned rooms, and the quiet and the growing pressure in her head made the space feel as though it were pounding against her.
Up the hallway and around a corner, she found the door leading to the balcony over the council chambers where people could come and watch if they had nothing to present or complain about. This was where she'd come the first time she was here.
The door was locked, but it only took her a minute of lock picking for the bolt to clunk open. She pressed carefully on the door's push bar, sure to make no noise when it would usually click and crash and give her away. Staying low to the ground, she eased the door shut behind her and slipped up to the balcony rail, peeking over the edge.
Two goons in the same black beanies and dark coats stood below her, frowning at the hostages and the the walls and each other. Both of them were armed. Rapunzel didn't do so well against guns. She was too used to fighting Rider. But the danger they posed was significantly lower than the sight of two more of those terrible monsters, snarling and straining against one of the thugs to get at the hostages, who sat in a group against the side wall.
Her eyes slipped over them, counting, cataloging, checking them for injuries - all eight of the city council members (she assumed based on their clothes because she only remembered a few of their faces), the mayor, three people who looked like aids, and five people who looked like they were regular citizens in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some huddled in on themselves, quivering with every lunge of the hell hounds. Other hostages glared at their captors with undisguised contempt. The mayor looked particularly ferocious and indignant, as did one particular man on the other side of the group. Rapunzel's eyes widened, and she bit down the excitement and fear that rose in her chest upon recognizing Sargent Weaver in plain clothes.
She stored the information away for later, along with the thought that apart from being frightened and a bit on the disheveled side, the hostages looked unharmed.
A laugh startled her, and she ducked down further behind the railing, just a sliver of her eyes visible as she searched for the source with renewed fever. The laugh was cold except for where it was singed around the edges, warmed with genuine amusement.
A woman strolled out from under the balcony to stand in the middle of the room, throwing out her long arms for exaggerated effect. She was tall, her black hair streaked with white and teased and gelled until it resembled an sculpture more than hair. Her form was hidden under a thick coat that looked so soft that Rapunzel's fingers twitched to touch it.
She held one of the biggest guns Rapunzel had ever seen. It was silver and bulky, with red and yellow lights and what looked like a power cell that glowed with blue, swirling light like gathering storm clouds. With a disregard for all safety, the woman waved it about with one hand, even though it would be impossible to aim like that. It looked more like a ray gun off a television show than a rifle and Rapunzel wondered if it shoot bullets or some kind of plasma. Maybe it was a freeze ray. Maybe it turned people into hell hounds. Aided by the pounding in her head and her arm, her imagination ran wild until the woman's voice pulled her back to the moment.
"The police want to send in a negotiator!" She laughed, pressing a hand to her mid-drift as if it were too funny to stomach. "A negotiator! Oh, mayor, your forces cling to their procedures. Don't they?"
The mayor's scowl deepened, and the woman laughed again, her coat slipping down her shoulder until she spun away, adjusting herself.
"Someday this wretched city - your kingdom of sunshine and quaint fishing vessels and the promise of fulfilled dreams - Ha! It will fall, collapsing into ashes. And everyone will see it for what it truly is. None of your cleaver speeches will be able to shield your citizens from the truth. And I - I will rule!" She laughed again, tilting her head back to let her tainted joy flow out of her.
Rapunzel made a face, wrinkling her nose, then looked around again. Wood support beams crisscrossed the ceiling, holding up the vaulted roof. She slipped to the edge of the balcony, where she would be draped in shadow the way the woman below was draped in her coat. Climbing onto the base of one of the support beams, she eased her way out, her toes gripping against the beam, as the balcony fell away and a two story drop gaped below her. It would be a long fall, and a hard one, and, with a sweeping burst of nausea, she could picture herself tumbling down to smash against the granite mosaic below. The beam was the only thing between her and an empty space so vast that even the woman's laughter and the growling of the hell hounds couldn't fill it.
Her hands trailed the ceiling for balance until the distance between the roof and the beam became too great and she could no longer reach except with her fingertips. For a moment she was suspended, only her boots holding her in place, her arms thrown out in vain for balance. Then she ducked down to flatten her palms in front of her feet and fight off the vertigo. She swallowed and moved farther out, into the very center of the room.
She came to rest exactly over Cruella's head.
Now she just needed the perfect moment, perfect timing when everyone was looking away and nothing was aimed at the hostages. Maybe one of them would leave or the police would cause a distraction. Maybe if she waited for the negotiator...
Her arm ached, her right hand not gripping the support beam below her as tightly as it should. She reached for it to find that her hasty bandage had soaked through, and as she watched a few droplets of blood trickled down, into space, into a fall that she couldn't stop. All she could do was watch with wide eyes and a panicked desire to throw herself forward and catch them.
Three little specks sprinkled against the woman's coat, bright red on pure white.
Rapunzel couldn't breathe.
Cruella blinked and stared down at the spot, then raised a long finger to dab at it curiously and rub the substance between her fingers. With a painful slowness, she raised her eyes to the rafters, as did everyone else in the room.
Rapunzel sprung before their eyes could meet, before Cruella could see Rapunzel's fear, before the giant gun could be aimed at her. She threw herself down, her long hair rippling out behind her, to land with a glare in a crouch just a breath away from her target. The woman hefted her gun into position, but Rapunzel threw a punch into her stomach, knocking the breath from her, forcing her to double over. With an uppercut the the jaw, Cruella stumbled backwards. Rapunzel grabbed the gun to jerk it from her grasp, and sent a lurch through the bony woman's body that pulled them back together to clash again.
To the side, Sargent Weaver took his chance and threw himself against the closest thug, whose eyes were on Rapunzel in slack jawed incomprehension. They barreled to the ground, punching and grunting as the Sargent wrestled the gun from his hands and the hostages screamed. The hell hounds howled and cried, and their handler needed all his strength and attention to keep them from exploding away from him.
Rapunzel grabbed Cruella's wrist and spun, switching their positions as a bullet flew past her hair. One of the thugs had regained his gun. She struck again, then twisted once more.
The fur coat was soft.
Cruella's surprise melted into molten anger, and she let loose a terrible, disgusted cry as she shook the crazy ray gun to throw Rapunzel off, and tried to maneuver it through the narrow space between their bodies. Rapunzel was quick on her toes, spinning and dodging and dealing lightning fast strikes as she used the cover of Cruella's overlarge coat against the gunman. Somewhere someone was shouting, but the words blurred together and even the tone was lost to the shrieks of frightened hostages and the deep barking of the hounds.
The ray gun went off, all sound disappearing in the moment before it fired as if her eardrums had burst. Then a bolt of blue light flew past her elbow and the wall behind her exploded, sending flaming rubble into the air. The screaming and chaos intensified. On her next spin around, she saw a great hole in the wall, letting in the pale sky and brisk afternoon sun. Then she was twirling again, refocusing her efforts.
With her face contorted in rage, Cruella sunk her spider like fingers and long, purple nails into Rapunzel's wounded arm. Pain exploded as if her flesh had been ripped to the bone, as if her wrist had been shattered and stabbed with needles. Her neck and shoulder screamed as if the muscles could scramble and rebel and tear off her arm to stop the pain. Only through the sheer, unconscious stubbornness of her muscle memory did she manage to hold her grip on the gun and keep her balance as they spun again, spots bursting behind her eyes.
She screamed in pain, but as her vision cleared she found the cry had twisted into something enraged, something determined. Something unstoppable.
The sharp look in her eyes startled Cruella, even in the midst of their battle and a split second later, Rapunzel threw the butt of the rifle against her face, throwing her to the floor in a pile of splayed limbs and ermine.
Rapunzel found herself panting, seething, and standing over Cruella with her feet planted and both hands on the gun, charged and aimed at the woman below her.
To one side there was the click of a hammer being drawn back and she found Sargent Weaver standing over one of the thugs in the same position. His eye met hers briefly with a spark of approval and pride that filled her with a warmth despite all the pain and the dizziness.
Her gaze snapped to the other thug. She had his boss and his friend at gunpoint and he was outclassed with no means of victory. Obviously, he should surrender.
He tossed aside his shot gun.
Then he dropped his hold on the hell hounds.
And they came barreling forward, one charging full speed at Sargent Weaver, who shot at it repeatedly, then rolled out of the way when the beast didn't stop.
Rapunzel fumbled with her gun as the hell hound charged her, snarling to show every last tooth, saliva flying out behind it. She'd been bluffing. She had no idea how to use a weapon as complicated as the one she now held, and a moment later - as the beast leapt over Cruella's fallen form – she swung it with all her might at the creature's head. It thunked on impact and the snarling cut off for a second. She threw herself to the side and the monster missed her, landing and wildly shaking its head before snorting and turning back to her.
Harsh fingers griped her ankle, jerking her to the ground, and she fell hard on her elbow, barely avoiding smacking her jaw against the floor. Then Cruella was on her, pinning her down, forcing the side of the gun against her throat to choke her. The metal bit into her throat, and more than suffocating her, she felt as though her windpipe would collapse beneath the weight.
The hell hound braced itself against the tile and tore forward again.
Cruella rolled at the last minute, and the dog jumped at Rapunzel. Without a moment to gasp with relief, she kicked against the hound's chest, sending it flying past her head. Following the kick, she landed on her knees and spun in time to see the hound land awkwardly on the floor, stumbling and nearly falling onto its face.
It regained its feet, limping now, but just as angry and vicious as before.
And Cruella was off the floor now too, pushing herself up and shrugging her coat back into place.
The dog barked and charging again, and both women spun out of its way to let it barrel between them.
She had no time to breathe, no time to coddle her burning arm or her jarred elbow, the blood now dripping from her forehead or the continued sting in her side. She threw herself forward to swing the gun at Cruella's head. The woman dodged, shooting out a claw like hand at Rapunzel's face. The woman's nails slashed at her side, at her arm, they caught momentarily in her hair and yanked before Rapunzel could retaliate.
"You horrid little brat!" Cruella seethed.
Rapunzel dug up a smirk, one she'd picked up from Flynn Rider without realizing it. "I ruined your plan down at the courthouse too."
Cruella's face turned even more unattractive with her dawning horror and she let out a cry, flying forward to claw at her again.
Like the cape of a matador, Cruella's cape twirled out, confusing the dog that flew past and between and around as the women spun, avoiding each other and the hound. Rapunzel's hair trailed after her, a phantom of where she stood just a second before. A loop of hair danced beside her with each flick of her wrist, changing the hound's trajectory, snatching at Cruella's wrist, at her arm, at her neck.
With the overlarge gun in one hand and her hair in the other, she had little room to deal actual damage. Her fatigue encroached on her with each second that the fight continued, and now she was fighting just to stay afloat.
Cruella's hand found her face, and she jerked away and off balance, feeling the nails scrape against her skin, leaving thin trails of blood in their wake. In her moment of disorientation, the dog was on her again, and she swung wildly with the gun to throw it off. She hit it this time in the ear, and somewhere in the clunk of metal on skull, the gun began to hum in her hands. Falling back, the hound tripped over Cruella's coat, and she shrieked, stumbling to the side and grabbing for the gun, which now whined as something charged within it.
It slipped from Rapunzel's fingers. The whine built in pressure, in volume, in pitch.
Cruella's face fell.
And Rapunzel dove away as it exploded in a blinding burst of light.
The blast threw her to the floor, where she threw her arms over her head as chunks of tile rained down on her and flames licked over her back. The ringing in her ears blotted out the silence that followed, and she looked up to see only a burnt crater where Cruella and the hell hound once stood.
Charred fur, some still on fire, floated down like snow. It was impossible to tell if it was ermine or hell hound. An awful smell left a film over her skin that might never wash away.
Part of that smell was her burnt hair, wasn't it?
In a daze, she caught sight of Sargent Weaver, panting in front of the first hole she'd blown in the wall, giving her a shocked look before the hell hound facing him charged with a roar. It jumped at him. He ducked. And the beast flew over his head, scrambling at the air and snapping at his face, trying to backtrack in its flight before it toppled through the hole in the wall and disappeared with a stifled cry.
Snapped from whatever distraction he had felt at the explosion, the Sargent found his feet again and charged toward one of the thugs, firing once before throwing a punch.
The other henchman moved to aid his friend, firing a poorly aimed shot at Weaver from his shotgun, and Rapunzel jumped to her feet and rushed to meet him. She caught him in the side, then knocked the gun from his hands with a kick. She dodged a punch and found herself back to back with the Sargent.
Weaver was built like a boxer. He had a stocky build with wide, square shoulders. He was light on his feet, but his fists were solid against whatever they hit. His long, torn coat flared out behind him as he bobbed back and to the side.
"You alright?" he asked with a grunt, dodging a fist and throwing his own at his attacker.
She fell into a crouch to duck a wild swing, then exploded up to ram her knee into the man's chest. "Yeah. You?"
"This isn't how I planned to spend the day."
She laughed, still dizzy and bleeding and trying not to slow down.
"What happened at High Tower last night?"
"They abducted Rider," she said, blocking a blow and shifting to the side to protect her aching arm. "I had to save him."
"You didn't have to."
"Yeah. I did. They're evil people. No one deserves that." She twisted to the side, the thug's fist gliding past her shoulder blades. The man fighting the Sargent went for one of the discarded guns and she kicked him from behind, throwing him off balance. Weaver blocked a blow from the other man before it could hit her and they switched opponents with ease.
"Where's your beau now?" he asked.
"But he is your beau."
"Yeah." She spun around her attacker, hitting him once in each kidney, her hair catching at his ankles. "I think we moved in together."
"You think? You should probably find that out."
"Probably. I'll put it on my to do list."
Her hair snapped around her attacker's arm, twisting him around so his jaw rammed into her fist with even more force than usual. He crumpled to the ground and Rapunzel spun, hit the other thug in the side, and with two hits from Weaver, he fell to the floor as well.
Rapunzel grinned at her friend, whose mustache twitched in what she'd learned counted as a smile.
He didn't say a word, and instead turned to the hostages, sighing and stomping off to help one of the council women to her feet.
The mayor looked flabbergasted. He didn't quite know what to say and he ran a hand through his thinning hair, his eyes darting from the crater in the center of the room, to the Sargent, to the hole in the wall through which they could now see a white helicopter, to Rapunzel, who offered him a hesitant smile. She was starting to feel woozy. He coughed and straightened his tie. She noted that his hands were shaking, but also that he concealed it well.
"That was... incredible."
Rapunzel checked over her shoulder and wondered if the mayor could see the same damage she could see. Incredible wouldn't be her first pick of words.
"You saved us all."
"I had Sargent Weaver's help."
He snorted somewhere behind the mayor, but covered it with a cough as he helped someone else to stand.
"There are still three men in the entrance hall. And I found more in the tunnels. They were trying to send some kind of chemical up into one of the court rooms." Maybe if she shifted to more practical matters, the mayor would stop looking at her like she was the most amazing thing ever. She didn't like people staring at her.
Weaver groaned. "That'll be Horace. One of their members that got caught. They're supposed to have a ruling for his case today."
"And you stopped them as well?" the mayor asked. His eyes were widening with new levels of awe.
Rapunzel shifted. "I just ran into them."
The mayor nodded, still looking shell shocked and enamored. Rapunzel tried to figure out the fastest way out of the building.
From behind her came the sound of a pump action shotgun being cycled.
Her smile vanished and she turned slowly to face the thug aiming a gun at her head. He leaned heavily to one side, blood dripping down over a swelled eye and split lip. Unbridled rage as she'd seen in the eyes of the hell hounds burned across his face. She'd hurt him and his friends. She'd ruined their plan. She'd humiliated them all. And he didn't care for a second that this would be the last thing he would ever do. He would get revenge and Sargent Weaver would put a bullet through his chest.
He grinned, a crazed, hysterical grin that showed bloodied teeth, and raised the gun a fraction of an inch, setting it more firmly against his shoulder and taking aim.
Rapunzel swallowed. She felt cold and tired. She ought to feel helpless. She ought to kick herself for letting some criminal get the last word. But instead there was just numb acceptance that let her meet the man's eyes without fear.
She swayed on her feet.
"Say goodnight," he hissed.
Then he crumpled to the floor as a form dropped from the ceiling to land on top of him, grab hold of his collar, and snap a fist to his face that knocked him out cold.
Flynn pushed himself to his feet, shook out his hand and muttered something before looking Rapunzel straight in the eye. No one had ever looked more handsome.
She was fine. She might pass out now, but she was fine.
Any response she had caught in her throat, and she let a smile slip onto her face under all the cuts and scrapes and singe marks as joy rippled up through her numb form. Only shock and exhaustion held her back from crying out and running at him.
Behind her, the mayor apparently thought Flynn was talking to him, and answered before she could kick herself into speaking. A moment into his speech she realized that he not only thought Flynn had spoken to him and gave a damn about his well being, but also thought that he had been the thug's primary target.
Flynn blinked and shot Rapunzel a look that asked if the man was crazy, but he was smart enough not to comment or contradict that assertion. She saw the moment when it dawned on him that Flynn Rider had just personally saved the mayor.
She watched as he cleared his throat, took a breath, and let it happen.
Behind her, Sargent Weaver sighed.
And Rapunzel wiped blood from her forehead, grinning and lightheaded as everything turned out for the best.
They sat on the sofa a week later, watching television when someone knocked at the door. Eugene disentangled himself with a mutter to answer it, and Rapunzel giggled before snuggling into the warm spot he'd left. He'd grumble more when he came back and had to move her, and she'd like that too.
"Hey," he called. "Did you order take out?"
He reappeared carrying a brown paper bag with a red stamp of some undecipherable logo printed on it. He held it sideways as though it would drip and spill if he changed orientations.
"Well, we got some." He set it on the table and she sat up, curious enough to find out what was inside that she let him find his spot again without too much shoving and snuggling.
Two silver, aluminum trays were stacked inside, each covered with white cardboard as if they were going to have a big buffet. She set to work pulling back the little foil edge that held the cardboard in place.
"That's a lot of food," Eugene noted. "We'll be eating whatever it is for a week."
"Let's hope it's good."
"Hmm. Maybe we shouldn't eat random take out that shows up."
"Did they just hand it to you or did you pay for it?"
"Eugene," she chided, pausing to look up at him. "They sent this to the wrong house and you took someone's dinner."
He shrugged, and she shook her head, continuing to open the tray. She removed the cardboard easily and set it aside.
Then she froze.
Inside, folded neatly, was a black leather jacket. Frowning, she pulled it out and held it up. It was the same general style as her Blondie suit, complete with gold stripes down the side and a zipper up the front. But this one was made of thicker material, missing the cute zipper pull, and it looked as though it would zip all the way to the throat. For a moment she thought it was a jacket for the upcoming winter months. But it was far too large for her.
Far too masculine.
Eugene had fallen silent beside her, and it took him a moment to find words.
"What the hell is that?"
Rapunzel tried to act as if her insides weren't singing as she tossed the jacket at him.
"Edna Mode sent you a present."