The first edition of three, in an eventual Big Four collaboration.
Anti-ships all around. I won't spoil the story by saying anymore.
RATED UA FOR UNIVERSE ALTERATIONS.
It was here, surrounded by pieces of herself that had abandoned her, that she finally felt her heart bend. It hissed and spat acids, threatened to shatter completely by tracing webbed cracks in minuscule places, but it held. It was close, but by some miracle of God—the only miracle that had happened—she could still feel her heart beating in his chest, even if his would not.
Eug . . . He was dead. That was obvious by the palette of his skin and the way his cheekbones now made his face seem hollow as opposed to handsome. It was clear in the way he did not smile at her and did not push her (much shorter, no longer golden, ugly) hair out of her face. It was evident in the way his heart didn't march in time with hers and the way his skin was not quite as warm.
And outside, there was probably another body. Down below her, much too far of a drop for anyone to survive without a tether—a tether that was now on the floor, tying no one to her; truly everything had abandoned her—was a woman she'd thought loved her. Down below was a woman who had tried to replace two someone's who really did love her, a witch who had taken away someone who loved more than just the idea of the lost golden baby. Down below was . . . nothing.
It was then, watching rivers of dead hair circle around her, that she realized she couldn't actually just sit here forever. The sky was overcast and a lazy, dark cloud threatened to further soil the day with a horribly appropriate storm. A nervous titter from a creature who had watched an invisible film cover her eyes for the past half hour or so caught her attention.
Oh, that was right. He was here too. A whinny from below let her know he wasn't the only one waiting. The world would not wait for her, had not waited for her. And it had only just given her the bare minimum amount of time to gather her bearings before demanding action and results from her once more.
She looked out the window, where the thundercloud rolled threateningly.
But what was she supposed to do now?
He needed . . . he needed . . .
. . . was lost and . . . abandoned and . . . and . . . where was he anyways? . . . and where . . . oh . . . right, right, there it was . . .
A tiny little vial; all that was left was a tiny, minuscule little bottle of it. Of him. And he drank it and he drank until there wasn't any more left; until it burned his tongue and left a blazing trail through his bones. His core smoldered and inflated until the beaten, dented parts had been pushed into the dark—into the light, where it wouldn't touch him anywhere . . . where it would hurt so much that it lost itself and lost its way back to him. It festered until it was fully replenished, expanding to the point where his normally defined bones felt as though they were being smothered by his skin and surrounding muscles & tissue. Only then did the excess exhale, fleeing like so much blown dust and dissolving into nothing once more. He lay panting and half-retching and gasping on his back, staring blindly up a ceiling not meant to be seen and incomplete cages without creatures to hold them.
His very essence had threatened him so thoroughly he'd been driven to the brink of extinction; how delicious the precious little heroes might find his latest near-death experience.
A throng of pain tickling his rib-cage informed him that he was not as undamaged as he had hoped he'd be. A far more impressive blossoming headache only brought the point home. With a silent cry, he sunk into the floor, lips spread unnaturally wide. His jaw might as well have been dislocated from how open his maw was. But the shadows kept his quiet agony a secret, as he trusted they would, whisking him away from a place that was no longer safe and into a world that was.
His vial was empty. He had to get more. But his mares were no longer listening to him, his cages were still painfully empty, and his energy reserves were dangerously low. He could not expend the resources necessary to tempt someone/thing into doing his dirty work for him. He would—dare he admit it—have to do this himself; on his own, sans any traitorous, almost-murderous steeds. Oh how those blasted fools would laugh at him if they were to see him; he, no more than a shadow falling as a feather does through dimensions, preparing to steal what he could not currently create. How hilarious it must be, to ruin an individual so thoroughly that they cannot even spare the breath to scream their pains and frustrations.
How sad, then, that even if he did scream, there would be no one their to hear him.
The queen glided from her chambers, quiet as the figurative ghost her baby had slowly become. She had been on the road to a promising recovery lately, or so her doctors said. The petite brunette had a knack for relapsing at the most inconvenient times. Her first week within the castle had been just slight of a catastrophe. At the peak of the celebration, Rapunzel had swooned and placed on bed rest for a week and a half. The town had unanimously agreed that the excitement had been too much for the poor, sickly child.
She knew better.
Grief was a strange thing, the queen mused. It held no cure but time, which also boasted no recovery, miraculous or otherwise. The queen herself was no stranger to mourning. It had been nearly nineteen years now, and the guilt had yet to dissolve. Rapunzel's physical presence only made things worse.
It wasn't that she didn't adore her daughter. During her peaks, she was actually quite witty. She was the spitting image of her mother, with her father's deeply-rooted humor, if she was in a special mood. Her kindness and consideration was fathomless. She was a lovely asset to the house, ill or not. It was simply that the queen blamed herself for her daughter's grief. If she had only locked the window that night, none of this would have—.
She stopped herself, lifting her chin a fraction. Her husband and she had long since abandoned that line of useless thought. What had happened was over. It was too late to change the past. There was no use sniffling over it any longer. Rapunzel was home and she was safe. Whether or not all of her daughter had come home intact was up for considerable debate; somewhere along the line, she'd left her heart in a tower in the middle of the forest, with a body she wouldn't speak of, and a man who couldn't speak for her anymore. Unlike most, the Queen had received the full story.
A thief, she said, glancing at a portrait of her late father. Of all the decent human beings in the world, she fell for the ill-fated thief. How unfortunate.
It hurt too much to think about it anymore. Rapunzel was healing. Rapunzel would heal, with more time. They just needed more time.
She let her knuckles rap thrice on the wooden door with the gilded sun mounted in the center. It split in half as the doors parted, an as-of-late familiar man smiling grimly at his queen.
Her answering smile was just as politely dispassionate.
A pair of once-bright, rarely-alive pupils gilded with emeralds makes its rounds across the wall and to where her mother lay. The woman who sired her smiles with as much warmth as she can manage to force onto her face. The queen, still smiling, internally compares it to grinning into a pool of water, for all the response she gets.
At least her reflection would smile back at her.
The warmth melts from her place, to be replaced by the clammy intrusion that is her regular dose of worry and fear. She lets her composure fall away as she drifts to her daughter's bedside, the back of her hand pressing to a baby-soft forehead. Everything about her grown baby is too soft. Her heart was too soft, and look where it got her. She cannot help but resent the man for whom this heartache is to blame, even if he is—was—the man she loved.
"How does she fair?" The queen spoke aloud. And Rapunzel doesn't resent the fact it wasn't she who was directly asked. She is in no condition to answer anyways.
The doctor—a man named Allan—allows the muscles supporting his face to relax with a sigh. "She is better."
It is something.
"Her fever broke last night," he says, "and has not returned. It might do her some good to get her out and about. An ill left in the sheets will leave its victims in peace."
Rapunzel's lips actually quirk a little at that. She can't help it; it was a little funny and admittedly clever. She's never stopped loving clever things. She misses clever, funny things. She misses the person who was clever and funny and so many more things—but she stops herself before she can march down that road again and smiles indulgently at the queen, as though she is the reason the fog has thinned (if only for a moment). Her reward is a winning, dainty grin.
"How about it, love," she coos, as though Rapunzel were still the baby she remembers. Here, wrapped in blankets and nestled into her hip, it is not so hard to imagine. She tucks a piece of her bangs—which are getting much too long, and need a trim—away from her forehead. "Care to circle the hedges with me?"
Rapunzel would like to say many things in response to that. But all of the things she'd like to say—all of the true things—any of them would be a terrible hurt to her mother's heart. A mother whose effort is so far beyond what the king has managed, in spite of his noble attempts. So instead of telling the truth, she says, "Sure."
And that is that.
Before she can say another word—not that she is willing to say anything else—her mother is calling in maids. The doctor is leaving and she the sheets are whisked away practically from under her. The remains of the fever are being scrubbed from her pores, her short, feisty hair (that she refuses for anyone to touch) is being combed, and there's lightweight, dainty clothes being tossed over her body. The queen waits outside through all of it. Rapunzel only notices her absence when she walks outside to find her waiting with an elegant smile and a chivalrous elbowed extended her way. The lost & found princess takes it without incident and beings walking. The queen chats in her ear about things that are unimportant to her. She speaks for the sake of hearing something other than the breeze and the wildlife. She speaks to fill the void. And Rapunzel can't help but appreciate it as her hand falls to the crook in her mother's elbow, squeezing once. The queen's hand falls over hers as well, though she continues on as if nothing has changed. Somehow, that in itself is a tender and still very much appreciated gesture.
Several gardeners have noticed their presence and wave. Rapunzel smiles weakly and the queen makes up for her dispassion with a full-fledged grin. It's hard to notice the pale princess with her mother beside her glowing like that.
"Sit," the queen insists, placing Rapunzel gently on a stone bench. "Let's not overwork you; it's too cold out. Let me get you a morsel before we go on, yes?"
Rapunzel nods. The queen is careful to pretend she hardly noticed and trots off, attracting the attention as she intended and leaving her daughter behind to overlook the balcony.
It's not really a balcony, she muses. Stairs to her left lead to the city, connected to the town. It seems as though everything is chained together here. Rapunzel hasn't yet managed to link herself with anything. She's yet to find a way to unhook herself from her previous connections. But she's hopeful everything will work out.
It's not as though she has another proposition anyways.
The queen was right in saying that it's far too chilly today. Rapunzel is convinced that if she were not adorned in as thick linens as the ones she wore presently, she would have frozen by now. Her ankles continue to catch the breeze, as do her neck. She lets her shoes slip off beneath her warm little dress, tucking them beneath her thighs. Her toes flexed and wiggled. Shoes; not something she'd really gotten used to yet. She let her hand fall to the back of her neck, taking a deep breath. She didn't want to be here.
(She had to be here.)
But she needed to be here. Rapunzel didn't think her parents could handle her disappearance again and survive. She'd had eighteen years to be selfish and only think of herself. Now was the beginning of a new, selfless life. And while it could never be everything she wanted . . . it could be something. And you never really knew what potential could lead to until you tried, right?
She started to let her hand fall until her wrist was tugged back. Startled, for the first time in a long time, Rapunzel was forced to fully enter the present.
Her sleeve was caught in her previously unnoticed necklace.
(Had she really been so out of it she hadn't even realize it was there?)
She bulled her neck back to try to get a look at her predicament. Her wrist followed. She worried her lip subconsciously between her teeth. At a loss, she simply tugged, hoping the lace would simply tear. No one would notice a little nick in so many loops, right? She jerked, hard. The snap of her wrist coming free was satisfying.
The sound of pearls rolling down the stairs was not quite so comforting.
With a start, Rapunzel's hand flew to her neck to find a distinctly worrying bare collarbone. Eyes shot to the floor in alarm. Her heart pattered in time with the pearls as the bounced towards the crowd.
"Oh, no," she groaned. Nobody was there to hear the first words spoken without prompting from the princess in months. Still fewer were there to watch her run down the stone slabs, shoes left behind, hunched to snag at whatever she could pick up. She didn't know when these little things had become so important to her. But everything here was like a gift, and she'd feel especially awful if she broke and lost such an extravagant present. Not that she didn't always feel 'crummy'; and the understatement of the year award went to . . .
Rapunzel hurried down the steps, well aware of the heat pooling around her neck. Cloaks were good for keeping you reasonably comfortable in the winter. They were not so good at ventilation. She'd only managed to grab a few white crystals and one pearl. The rest were still rolling and gaining speed, practically racing into the oncoming seasonal traffic. Not even winter could stifle the infectious energy of Corona's citizens. Letting her eyes roll to the sky (overcast in a white blanket of clouds, though it had yet to snow) she tugged her hood over her head and molded into the crowd, eyes trained on the floor. With one hand clenching the fabric of the hood over her mouth and hunching like an old woman, Rapunzel slowly picked her way among the people. A few people bumped into her and apologized. She nodded politely before ducking her head away, to further her search. She pocketed the gems in one fist, lacking any convenient pouch or pocket. Rapunzel started drifting again. The adrenaline fear provided was starting to creep off. Her hand was starting to fill. She'd left the chain up on the bench. Her mother would be back to find her missing. She had to—.
A startling cheer caught her attention and she turned away, her eyes catching on a bundle of people rapidly expanding to form a ring around several men. Each man had an instrument. With rosy cheeks and freshly filled caps, the surrounding citizens were treated to a show of lighthearted music. Several women were swung around by their husbands or sons or lovers. While it was nowhere near as dramatic, it was still just as familiar to the princess.
The pearls and jewels clattered to her feet, soundless among the general bustle of the people. They remained hidden beneath her dress and cloak and she could not bare to move, for fear of what would happen. Her breath caught in her throat. She forgot what it was like to breathe without exceptional effort. She closed her eyes to the sound of—
Sweet music rolling through the air—
—bodies orbiting seamlessly—
—feet twirling across warm brick—
Rapunzel gagged. Someone nearby asked her if she was alright. She waved them away with a hand—
—outstretched towards her, invitingly—
—tempting, smoldering eyes—
—reaching towards him expectantly as—
—Someone grabbed her elbow to steady her as she stumbled forward, on foot no longer centered anywhere to the ground—
—fingers a breath away from—
—torn apart by—
—a few bystanders were speaking to her now. She continued to dismiss them, sitting on the floor. People encouraged her to move. She was in the middle of a busy road. She couldn't—
A strike of lightning startled her from her temporary lapse into memories. She choked a gasp as people stared upwards, frozen or slowing, no longer paying attention to her. She scooped the jewels into her hand and slipped seamlessly between people as mother's ushered children inside. By the mercy of some deity or another, the music had stopped and she was able to escape the aching pieces in her head once more, mostly unscathed. Her breath came in pants as she let the hood fall, drumming up the steps. Still she remained unnoticed.
T.B.C. . . .