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The Next Birthday

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"You know," Eugene's voice comes from the side of the tower, "I am really out of practice in climbing up sheer rock-faced walls and across rickety shingles. D'you think I should start a workout regimen again? I mean, I'd kind of let it slide because these are skills commonly associated with thievery and I'm all reformed, but - "

Rapunzel leans over the side and catches his hand just as he's about to slip a little, and, bracing herself against a gargoyle, hauls him up onto the same part of the roof as her. "Sorry," she says, feeling a little sheepish. He's out of breath.

"No, that's fine," he says, sitting down beside her. "What's life without a little self-inflicted danger? Wouldn't want to lose my edge. So." He cranes his neck to look out at the view, conspicuously. "While I'll admit, it's really pretty up here . . . .why are we retreating to the top of the highest tower in a castle which, let's face it, is more than adequately supplied with towers in the first place?"

"Mama sent you, didn't she," Rapunzel sighs. Eugene shrugged.

"Your mom mentioned she couldn't find you," he corrected. "I told her you'd turn up eventually, but when I didn't find you in the square or out on the water or in your garden or in your room - "

She winces. "Okay, so maybe I should have said - "

"- at that point," he goes on, blithely, "I figured, where would Goldie go to hide from everyone?" He eyes the coil beside her and adds, "I bet using rope is a bit of a trip."

Rapunzel punches him lightly in the arm. "Okay, okay," she says. "So I'm hiding. A girl's allowed to hide occasionally."

"Sure," Eugene agrees, easily. "What are you hiding from? I mean, it's your birthday, I'd've thought you'd be - " He frowns at her. She puts her face in her hands. Spending the first eighteen years of your life in a locked tower with one other person doesn't make you very good at hiding your emotions from anyone that actually cares to pay attention. "You're hiding from your birthday?"

"No!" she says, catches the eyebrow raise and says, "Fine, yes! It's just - it's so much, and there's so much to do, and so many people, and Mama wants me to meet all of them, and they're all talking at me, and there's so many things to arrange, and - " she spreads her hands, helplessly.

"Ahhh," Eugene says, and puts an arm around her shoulders. She leans her head on his shoulder and sighs.

"Last year was . . . .well, last year," she says. "And it was just so . . . . everything. And up until, well, the later parts of it, it was perfect, too. I just - "

"Didn't know anyone but a witch and a lizard until this time last year?"

"Chameleon," she corrects automatically. "Yes. Normally I'm fine, but it's too much right now, and I can't even hide in the garden because someone follows me because there's always something to do, or something I have to know, or someone who wants to meet me before tomorrow. When I started longing for the old tower, I figured it was time to come sit on top of this one for a while."

Eugene ruffles her hair and then just holds her for a moment. Then he says, "There was a . . . let's say a falcon, everyone likes falcons, there was a falcon up here who needed his wing fixed." At her expression of confusion, he says, "You're always doing weird things with animals, princess. I figure a falcon with, I don't know, bent feathers on his wings? Good for another hour or two of being up here."

" . . . why is your first instinct with every problem always to lie?" she asks, tilting her head up but not pulling away.

"Bad upbringing. But this is just a little white lie. It's not like I'm suggesting we run away to the other end of the kingdom or something."

Rapunzel sighs, but doesn't argue. He's right, anyway. And comforting. She says, only half-joking, "Will you marry me?"

Eugene goes very still, and then says, "Nineteen is a little young for you to be making that kind of decision. I mean, I'm not going anywhere, but really."

Rapunzel smiles. "Chicken," she tells him.