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A Princess And A Guy Like Me

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So, Rapunzel didn’t even get around to telling me until the next day. Maybe that sounds crazy, but think about it. I’d just come back from the dead, or if not precisely “the dead” itself, somewhere in the immediate vicinity. My blood was still all over the place. Rapunzel kept staring at her hair on the ground, which had been this sort of glorious golden-firelight veil when it was still attached to her head but was now obviously just about 25 yards of … stuff.

And of course the reason she kept staring at her hair was because she didn’t want to look out the window. Didn’t want to look down, at what was left of Mother Gothel.

Evil as that woman was, rotten as she treated Rapunzel, that was still the only mother she’d ever known. I insisted on going down there and “taking care of it” myself – even saying “bury the body” sounded too ghoulish. Normally Rapunzel would insist on handling her own problems, but that day she just nodded and let me go.

Well – I’m telling you this because I have to tell someone, and I can never bring it up with Rapunzel herself – burying a dead body? A job of work. First you have to dig an enormous hole … scratch that. First you have to find a shovel, which alone can take a while. Then comes the digging.

And the digging.

And the digging.

I want to say the worst part was lifting Mother Gothel’s body and putting her in the grave. It wasn’t, though. The worst part was Rapunzel walking out to say goodbye to her after, and having to hear her cry like her heart was smashed into a thousand pieces. Love’s a powerful thing. It survives even when it shouldn’t.

By then it was well after dark, and we were both completely exhausted. I mean, she’d been chained up against her will and healed me and seen Mother Gothel topple out of the tower – and me, I’d started the day in prison awaiting execution. Plus escaped said prison. And don’t forget the part where I almost-died. Which you know already, but I’m just reminding you because you have to remember just how tired we were. If you don’t understand that, you’ll never believe me when I tell you we fell asleep lying on the same bed, in each other’s arms, without even thinking twice about it.

Without me even thinking twice about it. That’s the part that’s hard to believe.

The next morning … that’s where things started to get complicated.

I woke up with Rapunzel cuddled next to me, her head on my chest, and she was just about the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. No, I wasn’t going to tackle her right away; even I am not that much of a dog. But I couldn’t help thinking about how awesome it was going to be when we finally got around to it.

Then she opened those big green eyes of hers and gave me this look of total surprise. “Eugene?”

“Morning, sunshine.” Which is just one of those names you call someone, though later I realized it was a pretty apt nickname, considering 

“We – we spent the night together!”

“In a manner of speaking.” Tackling might not have been appropriate, but I was starting to wonder just what would be appropriate, and how much, and how soon. I am that much of a dog.

Then, totally innocent, she says, “Does this mean we’re married?”

Somehow I managed not to swallow my own tongue. I’m suave like that 

“Ah, no. Not even – Rapunzel, what exactly do you know about, um, men and women? Marriage? Et cetera?” 

She propped herself up on one elbow; her cheeks were kind of pink, but she was obviously determined to get the facts straight. “Only what Mother Gothel told me, and what’s in my books.”

Of course. Rapunzel had only left her tower for two days in her entire life. How was she supposed to have any idea? I was first guy she ever even met. “Okay – ”

“Mother Gothel – she said all men were bad, and had fangs." 

Fangs?”

“Obviously I figured out that’s not true.” She gave me a little sideways glance. “I checked your teeth before you came to that first time. Anyway. Mother Gothel said men only wanted to use women. That they would act sweet and romantic, but then they just held you down and … hurt you. You know. But that was just another lie she told, wasn’t it?" 

I wished I could tell Rapunzel there was nothing like that in the world, but I couldn’t. Since then I’ve wondered – you know, maybe that was Mother Gothel’s truth. Sometimes people wind up evil because evil was done to them. Not that it’s an excuse. Anyway, we’ll never know. “What did the books tell you?”

“I only had a few. But they made it sound much nicer. There the men and women really loved each other, and they would go on adventures together and have fun and kiss, and then there’s always an ending where they get married and live happily ever after. And the books were never very clear, but it definitely seemed like part of the reason to get married was so you could spend the night together. So – I thought that must be important, sleeping in the same bed.” She bit her lower lip. “There’s a lot more to it, isn’t there?"

“… yeah.”

Rapunzel sat up and said, “Well, tell me.”

And I did.

By which I mean, I talked to her. Just talked. Gave her the basic information – birds, bees, so on and so forth – and answered pretty much every question she had, and she came up with a lot of them, believe me. It was insanely embarrassing at first, but then I realized how stupid it was to be like that, and how bad I’d feel if she picked up on it. I didn’t want Rapunzel to think she couldn’t ask me anything she wanted to know. She listened so raptly I wondered if she was going to start taking notes.

When we’d covered the basics, plus a couple extras I thought she might find interesting because I definitely did, Rapunzel said, “That sounds … kind of scary, but like it might be fun, too.” 

“Then you’ve got the idea.”

Rapunzel reached back to sweep her hair to one side, didn’t find it and wound up sort of scratching her head instead. Saw that gesture a lot, the first few months. “When do we try all that?”

My heart did this thing where it felt like it was melting; later I’d learn, that’s just the Rapunzel Effect. “Whenever you decide it sounds way more fun than scary.”

I kissed her then, and it went on for a long time, long enough that I thought I might want to get us out of the bed before I actually spontaneously combusted. Besides – we had a lot to deal with, and I knew we couldn’t put off dealing much longer.

Turned out Rapunzel had invented this weird contraption that caught rainwater from the roof and heated it with sunlight, so she could bathe – get this – not only inside her own house, but also in actual warm water. Pretty cool, right?  There was enough for each of us, and by the time I was all cleaned up, she was dressed and making breakfast. “Omelets,” she said. “With the last of the eggs that – that we have.”

That Mother Gothel brought for her, she meant.  “What else have we got?”

“Parsnips, hazelnuts, pears, some cheese, some bread, and about half a fruitcake.”  She grinned as Pascal perched on top of her head. (I’ve made out with her without noticing he’s up there. Awkward.) “We’ll go back into town tomorrow. Just think, Eugene, I can go back anytime! I can eat whatever I want to! I never got to do that before.”

“And you will, from now on. But – it’s not that easy, you know? Not for me.  We need to figure a few things out.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m still wanted for being a thief. If I ever go back to the city, they’ll arrest me again.” I decided not to mention the part where they’d hang me for sure. Maximus may run one hell of a rescue operation, but even he could only bust me out so many times.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” I wished I’d lived my whole life differently, just so she wouldn’t have to worry about me right then, right when she should have felt more free than ever before 

“We – we could stay here.”

She said it knowing just what it meant – the way only someone who spent her whole life in prison could really know. But she would’ve done it to keep me safe.

I shook my head. “You’ve spent enough time in this tower, Rapunzel. I’m not going to turn into the next person who keeps you cooped up. You got a taste of the world, and you loved it. You ought to be out there, living the life you deserve.”

“Oh, Eugene – ” Then her face lit up. “Oh, Eugene! We don’t have to worry about you going to jail. It’s all going to be okay.”

“How do you figure that?”

Which is when she told me she was the lost princess.

At first I thought she was, well, maybe a little over-excited. We’d had a wild few days. It could confuse someone with a whole lot more life experience than Rapunzel. But the more she went on, the more it made sense. They shared a birthday – that whole thing with the Queen having tasted the flower of the sun when she was pregnant – how that could play into the magic hair and magic tears and all the other magic stuff Rapunzel had going on – right age – and now that she had dark hair, Rapunzel’s resemblance to the Queen bordered on the uncanny. Within five minutes, I went from trying to talk her out of it to knowing, deep down, this had to be true.

“That’s amazing,” I said, and I meant it, I swear I did. “You have a mother and father waiting for you. A whole kingdom waiting for you. You can go home today. Your real home, not this place.” 

“You’ll come with me!” She clasped my hand. “Everyone will know that you saved me, Eugene. And if you hadn’t taken me out of the tower, I’d never have figured out who I really am. They won’t arrest you, not after that. You’ll be a hero!”

Well. I knew they wouldn’t arrest me, anyway. And if anybody deserved to have a kingdom, it was Rapunzel.

But it was still hard for me to smile. I already knew – princesses don’t end up with guys like me.

 

**

 

You heard about the next bit. I thought it would take a while to convince the King and Queen that Rapunzel was their long-lost daughter, but apparently some elderly doctor of theirs had a pet theory that you could tell one person from another by their thumbs. Crazy, huh? I mean, everybody has a thumb. I don’t get it. But wouldn’t you know, this doctor had inked up the baby princess’ hands way back when, and they inked Rapunzel’s hands now to compare them, and that must have settled the question. Then there were hugs all around – yours truly included – and a week-long party with lots of ale and lots of dancing and more flying lanterns than you could possibly imagine.

And kissing. Plenty of kissing. I intended to kiss Rapunzel while I still could.

Once the lanterns had fallen and the hangovers were nursed and the streets were swept, our good friend reality decided to drop by, stay for a while.

It started with the King bringing me in for a “friendly chat.” He’s a kind man – as nice in person as he seems from his mosaics, which is rare in your major public figures – but still, he’s a king. Also, and worse, he’s a dad. And this dad had nearly 18 years of pent-up protectiveness to work out. So I braced myself. Not enough, as I discovered.

“Eugene Fitzherbert,” he said, sitting at the big oaken desk in his study. Seriously, this desk? Bigger than some houses I’ve lived in. “Also known as Flynn Rider.”

“I’m kind of letting the Flynn Rider thing go.”

“A wise choice – given how often that name has appeared on WANTED posters,” the King said, straight-faced. “Let me be clear. You have the undying gratitude of this entire kingdom, most particularly my wife and I. Your record will be cleared, for all your names, so if you have any others, this would be the time to mention them.”

I shook my head.

The King continued, “You’ll be rewarded for your bravery – and yes, I know, that’s not why you did what you did. You had no idea Rapunzel was a princess when you laid down your life for hers. That is all the more reason you deserve to be rewarded.”

Man, this virtue thing really pays off sometimes. I should have tried it earlier.

Then the King said, “Your reward will be more than enough gold for you to live a very comfortable life anywhere you wanted.”

Meaning, perhaps, anywhere but here in Corona. With Rapunzel.

He must have seen my expression change. “You mean a great deal to my daughter. She’s made that very clear.”

“Rapunzel means a lot to me, too.”

“As you have proved.  But her situation has changed, and none of us can afford to forget that.” The King paused. “We interviewed your former associates. The Stabbington brothers.”

Did you think those charming fellows were done getting their revenge? Yeah, me too! Guess what? We were so, so wrong.

“They told us that you had said – you wanted a castle of your own. That you intended to get a castle.”

I talk way too much. “That was just a joke.”

“But you did say that.”

“Um, yeah. Afraid I did. “

The King raised those bushy eyebrows of his. “And witnesses at the Snuggly Duckling reported you saying your one dream was to have a ‘pile of money,’ preferably to be enjoyed on an island of your own. Alone.”

Sometimes, when everybody’s singing, a guy’s gotta rhyme and that’s all there is to it. The King didn’t seem like he’d take that for an answer, though. “But – Sire – ” Was that what I was supposed to call him? I didn’t know for sure. “There’s nothing I ever wanted as much as I want Rapunzel to be safe, and happy. Not gold, not an island, not a castle. Nothing.”

“We want the same thing, then. So you’ll appreciate my caution.”

“Of course.”

“Rapunzel has never had choices before. I want her to have choices now.”

I nodded. “Absolutely.”

He meant, at least in part, choices of guys to marry who were not impoverished orphans/recently reformed thieves.

I got that, though. Really, I did. Rapunzel was pretty much the most amazing girl I’d ever met, but I wanted her to love me – well, because she loved me, you know? Not because I was the first guy she’d ever kissed.

But from that day on, I pretty much figured I’d only get to be with her for so long.

And I decided to make the most of every day I got.

 

**

 

Dating a princess: Tricky.

First of all, there’s the whole question of finding time to be together. Rapunzel immediately went into hard-core royalty training. Oh, it’s not all fancy jewelry and awkward waving! They take that stuff seriously. She was pretty well-educated in the general sense; Mother Gothel hadn’t given her many novels to learn romance from, but she’d hauled textbooks up there, about astronomy and art and stuff like that.  So Rapunzel wasn’t starting from scratch. But she had to learn economics. Review all Corona’s diplomatic treaties. Study rhetoric and deportment. Didn’t make for tons of time off.  But we’d snatch an afternoon for walking by the river here, an evening for attending the apple festival there, and maybe I appreciated our time together more because we didn’t have tons of it.

Second, there’s the whole bit where you have to talk her out of things that would get you beheaded. Like eloping.

“It’s romantic, don’t you think?” she said one evening while we were sitting on the Arch Bridge, watching the sunset. “We could ride Maximus up to one of the mountain chapels.”

“As romantic as that sounds, sunshine, we’d have to come down from the mountains sometime.”

“Mom and Dad would understand.”

“Would they? Remember, I’m the guy they first encountered when I stole the royal coronet.”

“That was months ago now. Besides, they know I love you,” Rapunzel said. “I always tell them about how much fun we have together, and how good you are to me.”

“Doesn’t mean they want me as a son in law.”

She was quiet for a few minutes. “They say I’m too young to get married.”

“Which possibly you are.”

“But that means they don’t object to you, personally.”

“And also means that my eloping with you is still not going to go over well. I didn’t care for the prison the first time; I’d rather not go back.”

“I know,” Rapunzel said. “I do. I just wish, that’s all.”  

Which is when her eyes met mine, and we started kissing. Then we slipped back to my place so we could really kiss, and then she wanted to go upstairs to my bedroom – and I had to talk her out of some things that would definitely have led to my being beheaded. Immediately.  

We stayed downstairs. What can I say? I adore Rapunzel, but I am also pretty deeply fond of keeping my head connected to my body. 

Another complication – the toughest one – was getting my own act together. Not that I didn’t need to do this anyway. But being with Rapunzel made it that much more important, you know? I wanted her to be proud of me, even years later, when I’d be just a memory. 

So I bought a little house with some of the reward gold (the “my place” where we got most of our kissing done) and set out to discover just what else I might be good at besides stealing. For the record, the answer is “not much.”

Blacksmithing? Very difficult. Most horses aren’t half as easy to work with as Maximus.

Sheriff’s deputy? I applied, and honestly they were nice about it, but once you’ve been condemned to death, you’re pretty much not getting a job in law enforcement later. They did ask me for some theft-prevention tips, which they still post on signs around the kingdom now and then. So it wasn’t a total wash, but it wasn’t a career either.

Pastry chef? The less said about this experiment, the better.

But one thing I did from the start – I went back and visited the orphanage where I grew up. There were a couple of teachers there I wanted to see, to show them  I hadn’t just turned out to be a crook, and to thank them for being good to me.  What I hadn’t counted on was that the kids there would all think of me as a hero. I was the guy who had rescued Princess Rapunzel! They were way more impressed by that than they should have been, given Rapunzel had technically rescued me way more often.

So I set them straight, and read them some stories, stuff like that. They begged me to come back again, so I did. I used some of my gold to buy them more books, and better food for the kitchens and warmer shoes for the winter, because I remembered what it was like not to have those things. It got to where I went there anytime I knew Rapunzel would be busy, which was a lot. Basically those kids thought I was the coolest person on earth – that is, until Rapunzel came with me one day. Obviously she took over “Coolest On Earth” duties from then on, but I was still pretty awesome because I knew her.

After about a year, the Queen asked me if I wouldn’t like to visit the other orphanages too, and a couple of the other charities in the kingdom, and let her know what I thought. It sounded like a great idea. So I started doing that, seeing what people really needed, and whether the officials in charge were doing what they ought to be doing. (Trust me – growing up in an orphanage, you learn to identify a bully on sight.)  Before I knew it, I had an actual job, going around to all these places and making sure they were everything they should be.  And I’ve kept that same job ever since.

Hopefully, I’ll be doing this work rest of my life. It needs doing. I’m good at it. And I like it, even though it’s honest and responsible and all that other stuff I avoided for so long. Go figure.

All of those complications I’ve described – those aren’t so extreme, I guess. Rapunzel and I managed those well enough. But the last complication wasn’t so easy.

The last complication was the parade of princes that started about one month after Rapunzel returned home.

The Prince of Lalande! The Prince of Alfven! The Princes of Copern and Herbig-Haro, of Penrose and Gauss! And the Duke of Flamsteed, who might not sound like a contender since he’s just a duke, but apparently Flamsteed’s nothing to sneeze at.  Suddenly there was a reception every week, a grand ball every month, and at least a couple dozen guys who wanted to court Rapunzel … every single one of which was wayyy more eligible a bachelor than yours truly.

You see, Rapunzel was the only royal princess of marriageable age for about a thousand miles in every direction, unless you counted Philippa of Brahe, which most people didn’t because apparently she was fat.

Some of these guys I didn’t worry about. A couple were too old, one was too young, and another – well, let’s just say royal inbreeding does wonders, not in a good way. And several of them were just so swelled up with their own self-importance that it was all Rapunzel could do not to laugh at them.

But not all of them were that bad.

Take the Prince of Gauss. Blond hair. Blue eyes. A grin so white it could blind the unsuspecting. I used to rely on my face to “smolder” – this guy’s mug could start a brushfire.  We are talking about one good-looking dude.  Rapunzel always swore she thought he was boring, but she got a little flushed after they’d dance together. I didn’t really blame her. But that flush gave me some sleepless nights.

Many more sleepless nights came courtesy of the Prince of Copern, who asked me to call him Victor. He was only average to look at, but the thing is, he was nice. Not fake nice, but down-deep nice – a guy who never asked a servant to do anything he could handle himself, who seemed to like everyone he ever met and who would even strike up a conversation with the odd guy out at the party, aka the former wastrel the King and Queen tolerated because he seemed to amuse their daughter. When I told Victor about the orphanage work, he was actually interested, and turned out to have built some nice new foundling homes in Copern, and was funding some schools too. By the time he was done explaining it all, Rapunzel was practically starry-eyed and even I was impressed.

So – you know, she had options. Better options than me. And I wanted her to have every chance, every choice, because Rapunzel deserved that. 

Still, sometimes, I wished I’d eloped with her, back when she used to ask me every month or two. Now that Rapunzel was settled into her new life, and shouldering her new responsibilities, she didn’t ask as often. Less chance she’d get me off guard, when I’d forget reality and just run away with her like we both dreamed.

 

**

 

Now, you may have noticed that I was attending all these balls where Rapunzel was meeting other potential husband candidates. Perhaps you are thinking, “Didn’t these guys notice she had a date?”

At first I wondered this too. But it turns out plenty of royal types spend time with non-royal types before they get married.  (Sometimes after, too, but I don’t have to tell you that’s not Rapunzel’s style.) They all figured the King and Queen would step in if they thought I was a problem.  So those guys didn’t object to me. They didn’t even see me, not really.

(Well, except Victor, who would always ask Rapunzel whether she wouldn’t care to have the first dance with me instead. He was so nice I couldn’t even enjoy hating him.)

The King and Queen never stepped in; they never kept us from seeing each other, though of course I knew not to push my luck.  Rapunzel and I spent as much time as we could together, and there was a lot more kissing – a lot – but I never did take her upstairs.

Which is a metaphor, not my way of saying we got all frisky on my sofa downstairs. Just to be clear.

Sometimes we’d just have fun – eating cupcakes from the bakery, or browsing around in bookstores. Other times she’d come with me to tour the orphanages, or I’d go with her to visit the sick. Rapunzel has to cry now for her healing power to work, real tears, so it’s hard on her. Afterwards she usually needs hugs. What else? We rode. We swam. She taught me painting. I taught her bad jokes.

Every once in a while, we’d go back to her tower. Occasionally I think she misses it – and why not? It was the only home she knew for the first 18 years of her life, and she knows every inch of it. Heck, she painted every inch of it.  We’d head up the old stone steps, enter the old chambers, dust everything off and hang out for a while. Usually I’d volunteer to clear away ivy from the windows, which gave her a chance to go to Mother Gothel’s grave while I could pretend I wasn’t looking. Sometimes we’d lie on the bed where we’d spent that first night – the only night we’d ever spent in the same bed – and just hold each other the way we did then. I’d close my eyes and pretend Rapunzel was still just a girl I’d met, the girl I fell in love with.

But when I opened my eyes, I saw not a naïve girl but an extraordinary woman.  The one who would be queen – who deserved to be.

On her twenty-first birthday, we went out in a boat to watch the lanterns. (Now that she’s back, they’ve turned that into a charity thing. It’s nice.)  Rapunzel leaned her head on my shoulder, and we just drifted there for what seemed like forever, watching the lanterns light up the sky.

“I always knew they were meant for me,” she murmured. “But I never dared to go out and find them until I had you.”

“Until you held me hostage with a frying pan.”

That made her smile, but she looked more wistful than happy. “You always do that.”

“What?”

“Make it sound like what you did for me was no big deal.”

“You had to force me to help you. That really happened.”

“Because you were wanted by the police! That’s the only reason you didn’t want to go.”

“I was wanted by the police for being a thief, so that actually isn’t in the pro-Eugene column.”

Rapunzel folded her arms. “Will you stop? That was three years ago. You’re not ‘Flynn Rider’ any more.”

No, I wasn’t. But I wasn’t a prince, either, and that didn’t seem likely to change.

She looked up at me with those beautiful green eyes, and the Rapunzel Effect kicked in again. “You were the first man I ever met. And you’re still the best man I ever met.”

“If so, that’s because you bring out the best in me.”  

Rapunzel hesitated before she said, “We should’ve eloped, back before I knew any better.”

“Yeah. We should have.” But I managed a smile for her. “No being sad on your birthday. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Then there was about as much kissing as we could handle without tipping the boat over.

I knew I should have said something then – or a year before that, or two years, whenever. I should have set her free and let her move on to one of the princes, like she’d have to do in the end. Maybe I’d never find anyone else I loved the same way – I mean, you find that once in a lifetime if you’re lucky – but I could at least have tried to get over her. 

But love’s a powerful thing. It survives even when it shouldn’t.

 

**

 

Three weeks after that, it all came crashing down.

I dropped by the palace unannounced (the guards know me, it’s cool) one afternoon just to see if maybe Rapunzel would be free to come out for a while. Word came that she’d be available in just a couple minutes, so why didn’t I wait in her father’s study?  Fine by me. They ushered me in there, and I killed time by studying the tapestries, looking out the windows and taking in that enormous desk again. Honestly, I can’t exaggerate how big this thing was. Her dad is the King of Corona and the King of That Desk.

So I looked down at the papers there and saw it, right there, in ink:

 

A Report On The Matrimonial Prospects of Princess Rapunzel

 

As I was staring down at this thing, slack-jawed, Rapunzel came bounding in. Her hair was even shorter by then – a little pixie cap – but in every other way she looked as joyful and carefree as the girl I’d first brought to the palace three years before. “Eugene! I’m so glad you came by. My fencing tutor’s out sick today, so I’ve got the next couple – um – what’s wrong?”

I just pointed down at the first page of the report. She stood beside me to read, and it was like watching a flower wilt.

We went through it together, which was probably snooping, but neither of us could care. One of the High Ministers had put this thing together – filled with lists of all the princes who were potential husbands for Rapunzel (and of course that one duke), and memoranda on the tactical advantages of a stronger alliance with each of those kingdoms. If Corona merged with Herbig-Haro, the country would have twice the number of ice-free ports in wintertime. On the other hand, joining the royal houses of Corona and Penrose would create the strongest navy in the world. So on, so forth.

Every single one of these guys brought something amazing to the table. Something Rapunzel needed to give to her people if she could. And nothing I could ever match.

Rapunzel finally said, “They’re going to bring this to me, I guess. Have me pick one.”

“I guess.”

“Eugene – ”

“I know. I know.” I held her close, kissed her forehead and cheeks over and over again, but it didn’t help. All I could think was that soon I’d never get to do this again.

“I don’t want to marry any of them. I want to marry you.”

“I want to marry you too. If we’d only eloped – ” The rest of that thought went unspoken. I had the rest of my life to kick myself in the ass about not running off with her.  So instead I said – for the first time, because I’d always thought saying it would only make things worse – “Rapunzel, I love you. I always will.”

“I love you too.” Rapunzel wrapped her arms around me. “Why did I have to be a princess?”

“Because you are who you are. I just wish I weren’t who I am.”

“Don’t ever wish that.”

For a while we were just quiet, hanging on to each other. Finally I said, “I always knew this was going to happen. From the day you told me you were the lost princess, I realized you could never end up with me. It was selfish of me to stay with you, knowing that, but I just couldn’t walk away.”

“Being a princess of Corona – it’s a responsibility, and I owe my whole life to my country, and I get that, but I just – I kept thinking Mom and Dad would finally say it was okay for me to be with you,” she whispered. “I thought that until I saw this.”

All this time, she’d really had hope. It broke my heart.

“Well.” I could hardly get the words out around the lump in my throat. “It’s got to be Victor, right?”

She shook her head. “I was going to tell you – a letter from Victor arrived yesterday. He just got engaged to Philippa of Brahe.”

“I thought she was supposed to be fat.”

Rapunzel gave me a look. “She happens to be smart and funny and a delightful person. Apparently she and Victor are very much in love.”

I sighed. “Well, way to go, Victor.” At least someone got to be happy.

“I can’t even think about marrying any of them.”

“You have to. Rapunzel, I know it’s hard – seriously, I hate this – but it’s important. I want you to be with somebody good. Somebody who’ll see how amazing you are. Love you like … like I would if I could.”

Probably I should say that this is when she started to cry. Actually, it’s when I started to cry. In a manly way. But it was still crying. Rapunzel started up too, and we were basically pretty pathetic for about ten minutes there.

Once we’d pulled ourselves together again, I wanted to go through the dossier and pick out the right guy, but Rapunzel said it could wait.  Instead we took a couple of horses – Maximus was on patrol – and rode out of town. We rode fast as we could, without stopping, until we reached her tower.

I knew, without her telling me, that she’d never bring anyone else here. Nobody else would ever get it. And she knew, without me telling her, that I’d never come back again.

So I trimmed away the ivy, lots of it, so it would stay clear for a long time. She stood by Mother Gothel’s grave, without caring if I watched her or not. We went through every inch of the place so she could show me all the paintings she’d made over the years – from her first childish rainbows at knee level to the brilliant star charts she’d plotted across the ceiling.

Then we went back to her bed, like we had before. But this time I didn’t just hold her. This time –

--don’t get me wrong. We still didn’t do anything that would have gotten me beheaded. But I would definitely have been imprisoned.

“Mmmm.” Rapunzel combed her hands through my hair, this blissful smile on her face. It was good to see I could still make a girl smile like that; during the past three years, I’d gotten out of practice.  “It feels like – like – ”

“Like?” I pushed aside the strap of her chemise, kissed her bare shoulder.

“ … it feels like the floating lanterns look. A thousand swirling lights. But all inside.”

“Yeah. That’s it exactly.”

“I want to pretend we never have to leave here. Pretend with me.”

I did. And I kissed her like it was the last time, every time.

 

**

 

After we went back to the capital city, we parted ways as simply as possible.  It wasn’t like I would never see Rapunzel again; I’d already told her I planned to be the drunkest fool at her wedding, though I promised not to cause a scene. But there would be no more afternoon walks along the river, no more apple festivals.  I had to stop being – whatever it was I was to her, and start being just one more guy in the crowds that cheered her when she stood on the palace balcony. That night I spent pacing back and forth in my house, drinking more hard cider than was good for me and wondering whether I shouldn’t move to one of the mountain cities that was closer to the orphanages out that way. Might be best all around.

Then first thing the next day, here comes a summons to the palace. Not from Rapunzel. From the King.

The guards brought me into his office, where he was waiting for me. That dossier had been cleared from his desk. The King watched me, very calmly, as I walked toward him; instead of hello, he said, “Kneel down.”

I did. The guy is the King, you know.

Then he picked up this enormous silver sword, and my first thought was, oh, brother, maybe what Rapunzel and I did was beheading-worthy after all.

Before I could even flinch, he tapped the sword on one shoulder, then the other. “I hereby name you a Knight of the Kingdom of Corona, in recognition of the many services you have performed for its youngest and most vulnerable, the children who have no other homes.”

It took me a couple breaths to realize I was definitely not getting my head chopped off. Then I wasn’t sure what to say. “… thank you?”

“Rise, Sir Eugene.” I did. The King put the sword aside, and he looked equal parts annoyed and amused. “My wife came up here yesterday, searching for her compass. She happened upon you and Rapunzel while you were looking over Lord Mellowyn’s report.  You know her well enough to realize that she would never have intentionally eavesdropped on such a private moment.”

“Right. Of course.” Okay, that was embarrassing.

The King cocked his head as he looked at me. “This is my own fault. If the Queen and I had fully explained to Rapunzel our thoughts about her marriage – ”

“I understand, Sire.” That actually is what you’re supposed call him, FYI.  “It’s not your fault. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine. I always realized a princess and a guy like me never had a chance.”

“Eugene. You’ve understood nothing. We always intended to let Rapunzel choose her husband. Any husband she wanted." 

I heard him, but I didn’t believe him. Probably I did some open-mouthed staring.

He continued, “Frankly, I was suspicious of you at first. But for years now, we’ve both understood that your love for our daughter was true, as hers was for you.”

“But – that report – ”

“Was created by Lord Mellowyn, who is – let’s say, older and more traditional. We never asked for it, and we never intended to pay any attention to it.”

Still I couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening. “But all that stuff about the harbors and the navy, that’s important, isn’t it?”

“You’re learning to think like a statesman, Eugene.  What you haven’t considered, however, is that for eighteen years – eighteen very long years – we thought we’d never see our little girl again. Every treaty we’ve negotiated, every boundary line we’ve drawn, we did with the assumption that we’d never be able to link Corona to another kingdom by marriage. Though those lost years are the darkest of our lives, I’m glad that at least we made those arrangements. That’s what set Rapunzel free to live her dream – with you.”

I felt like I was going to fall over. Probably I looked like Pascal does after he’s had too many grapes – kind of dazed, kind of purple.

The King raised an eyebrow. “I expected you to challenge me about this years ago, you know. You do want to marry Rapunzel, don’t you? 

“More than anything! I mean, yes. I mean, yes, Sire.”

“Then why haven’t I heard about this before now?”

“Sire, you have to understand – I’m just a guy. You’re the king.”

“You’re right, of course. My wife always said we should have been clearer with you both. As usual, she knows best. Being married to a woman smarter than you is humbling, Eugene, but also a godsend. I expect you’ll figure that out for yourself.”

“I will, Sire.” I swallowed hard. “I’ll love Rapunzel as long as I live.”

“Which is why you have my permission to propose. Legally, a princess can’t marry a commoner, but now that you’ve been knighted, there’s nothing left in your way.”

Nothing in our way. Nothing. Nothing!

So I turned and ran out of there – which is a huge no-no in terms of royal protocol, but that day I knew the King wouldn’t mind. I ran straight to the garden, which is where I had already figured the Queen was having pretty much the same talk with Rapunzel. That’s where I found her, alone and crying for joy, even before I ran to her and went down on my knees for the second time that day … this time, to propose.

Reader, I married her.

Oh, I’m not going to say some people didn’t disapprove. Apparently the diplomatic envoy from Alfven had a few choice words to say, and Lord Mellowyn was really annoyed at having put together all that paperwork for nothing. Even the King and Queen were kind of surprised that we wanted to have our reception at the Snuggly Duckling, though they made the best of it. (The place cleans up better than you’d think.)

But you know, mostly people were happy for us. The kids at the orphanage where I grew up sang a song at the ceremony, and all the people in the capitol city who’d seen us together the past three years cheered. Victor and Philippa of Copern-Brahe sent us this silver samovar thing as a wedding present, which reminds me that I still have about three hundred thank-you notes to write.

In the end, though, what anyone else thinks doesn’t matter. What matters is that Rapunzel got to live her new dream. And I got lucky enough to be that for her, for her dream somehow to be the same as mine. That's the only way it makes sense for a princess to wind up with a guy like me, living happily ever after.