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daybreak of the victor

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It is almost dawn when Rapunzel finally manages to separate herself from the party. It is so early in the morning that the sky is as dark as it would be at midnight, inky black stretching on into the horizon, with only the faintest hint of a glow to suggest the sun’s coming. Even in the dark, however, the world is bright and shining— the lanterns they released at nightfall, hours ago, have long since drifted off into the distance, but there are many more lights still clinging to their rope halters, waiting to be released at the ceremony. The whole capital city is alight with life and light, waiting eagerly for the coming celebrations. The late hours and near sleepless days ahead seem to bother no-one—laughter and joy keeping all of Corona awake, Rapunzel included.

This doesn’t mean she is against needing a break, however. Eugene has been a darling about the whole affair, dancing and laughing her nerves away, but even her husband’s unfaltering joy cannot keep Rapunzel’s anxiety totally at bay. She is to become Queen in just a few hours after all, and the idea is a daunting one.

Exhaling heavily into the cold early-morning air, Rapunzel lets her eyes close, humming gratefully under her breath as the wind combs through her hair, cooling the sweat on her brow and easing the wild rush from the celebration. She leans forward on the balcony edge, eyes closed against the cool breeze, soaking in the light and quiet of the secluded balcony, trusting Cassandra to keep ward off any unwanted company.

“You look like you’re about to faint, Princess.”

She doesn’t open her eyes, but she does smile. “I trust that you would at least make a passable attempt at catching me?”

“I make no such assurances.” His voice is warm, laughter threading the teasing words, and Rapunzel opens her eyes with a grin, tilting her head down to look at the gardens below, where her guest is leaning half-in shadow, looking back up at her.

“I’ll have to take that risk, I suppose,” Rapunzel says, and then grabs on a stray banner and swings down to join him on the grass. Rapunzel’s hair is no longer the long golden stream it once was, and hasn’t been for nearly a decade now, but Corona has adapted to their princess’s habit of death-defying swings with graceful defeat.

She lands expertly on the grass, flat-foot and firm, bare toes digging into the dirt. She looks up just it time to see his outstretched hand and panicked expression before he goes bright red and snaps the hand back to his side, looking mutinous.

Rapunzel bursts out laughing.

“Oh, shut up!” he snaps back, but he looks like he’s biting back a smile of his own, if a more self-defeating one. “It’s not that funny. I bet you give all your attendants heart attacks and gray hairs.”

“And I bet they’ll all agree,” Rapunzel admits shamelessly, still grinning. “Hello, Varian. It’s good to see you.”

Varian rolls his eyes at her, but still offers her a thin smile in return. Even half-hidden in shadow, he looks as he always does—tall and raggedy, cracked goggles pushing back his hair and a worn traveler’s coat over his usual work clothes. In the half-light of the lanterns the pale scar running by his eye and his unnaturally clean-shaven face, the result of a battle and rogue experiment respectively, seems caught in an illuminating glow. It makes his teeth gleam, his small smile made sly and secretive.

“It’s good to see you, as well.”

Rapunzel gestures him over, not bothering to hide her fond smile or her worry. Varian may seem all right, but Rapunzel has long since learned that Varian tends to hide any injuries or mishaps unless pushed to reveal them. “Stop hiding in that bush,” she scolds, reaching out to pull him fully into the light. “It’s been ages, let me get a look at you.” She surveys him up and down, tugging his jacket sleeves straight and brushing stray twigs from his hair, before narrowing her eyes at the ash all along his collar. Hmm.

Varian waves her hands away before she can get to it. “Get off, get off, I’m fine! It’s only been a month, for the love of—”

“Did something explode?”

“Oh, hell, I thought the smoke smell had faded.”

She inhales deeply and eyes him. “It has not.”

Her disapproval is brushed aside as easily as her concern. Varian casts his eyes to the heavens. “I’m almost twenty-four,” he tells the sky mournfully. “ When will you stop fussing?”

“When you’re older than me.”

“Oh, don’t start, Princess. I might take that challenge.”

“If you turn yourself into a wizened old coot I’ll laugh and laugh at you, really I will.”

“Hardly proper behavior for a Queen of Corona,” Varian mocks, and smacks her rising hand away from his burnt collar. “Ah, quit it! I’m fine, it was only a small fire.”

Rapunzel pulls away and crosses her arms doubtfully. “The last time you told me that,” she says with disapproval, “you were still on fire.”

“One time,” Varian complains, but this time when she reaches for the burned collar, he grudging lets her fuss. “I’m still technically a wanted criminal, you know.”

“I’m sure you’re very dangerous.”

“Oh, ha-ha, what a wonderful sense of humor you’ve obtained. Truly stupendous.”

Rapunzel grins and pulls away, finally satisfied—there’s no hidden burns around the ruined collar, just ash. She eyes him, but when no more indicators of possible injuries appear, offers him her best smile instead. “It really is good to see you, Varian. How are things?”

For a moment he looks truly and painfully caught off-guard, but then a smile crosses his face, softer and warmer than his earlier sly smirks. It’s been years, but at times Rapunzel can still see the fourteen-year-old she first met in the man Varian has become. He’s older now, of course, taller and grown into himself the way all people do eventually, but little things like the gap in his teeth or his shy smile, or his childish excitement over alchemy—they remind her of those days long ago, before things went wrong.

He offers her his arm with all awkward grandeur of that boy from long ago, and Rapunzel pushes back her depressing thoughts, laughing softly and linking her arm in his with the same dramatic flair. There is no use in reflecting in all that went wrong, Rapunzel knows. The history between her and Varian may be tumultuous and wrought with grief and pain, but they have survived it, and become better for it. For all the misery those early years had caused, Rapunzel cannot regret them entirely. In the beginning she had lost a friend, but by the end she had gained a little brother.

“Things are going better than I’d feared,” he tells her, once they’ve wandered a bit away from the main crowd of the party. The gardens are dark but well-lit by soft orange lanterns, casting long shadows against the clipped bushes and blooming flowers. The noise of the celebration is distant here, a swell of laughter and cheer far behind them.

“Most people are overjoyed at your coronation,” Varian continues, voice lowering despite their seclusion. “Even the criminals are reacting more positive than Cassie thought they would. They know that you’re no pushover,” he adds, with a sly smile, “but they trust you not to be… your father, either. So, good news!”

Rapunzel smiles, delighted. “That is good news,” she agrees, then twists their arms to dig her elbow into his side. Varian jumps from her with a startled yelp. “But I was asking after you, Varian, not the people.”

He blinks, looking startled, then brings up a hand with another soft laugh. “Oh! Ah. I see.”

“Thank you, though. It is good to know that we can, for once, truly celebrate.”

There is, of course, a chance that there is a secret fraction Varian hasn’t heard about running around and causing havoc, but Rapunzel trusts Varian’s information. His criminal status, for all that it has kept him living in relative secrecy the past few years, has served him well in his travels—his face has long since been forgotten, even if his name technically hasn’t, and people are more willing to talk to Varian then they are royalty.

“For once,” Varian agrees dryly, but like Rapunzel, he too doesn’t seem all that worried. “Ah, but I’m—I’m good, really. Um, doing well? I’ve been sleeping fine…?”

“And you enjoy it?” Rapunzel presses, stopping momentarily to peer up at him, trying to read his face. “The travels? Are the inns good? Do you have enough money to get by?”

“…Yes…?” Varian hedges, and then deflates with a sigh. “I’m not sure what you want me to say?”

Rapunzel muses in thought, biting her lips absently as she stares up at the sky. Still dark, but even now it is lighter, black turning to dark blue, sunlight starting to creep out over the world. Dawn is only hours away.

“Varian,” she starts, slowly, carefully, her eyes still on the sky. “I’ll be crowned in a few hours. I will, officially, be Queen of Corona.”

“I’m aware,” Varian says, a note of humor returning to his voice. “It is why I visited.”

She presses her lips together. “Varian…” There is no easy way to word this. She takes a breath and pushes through. “Would you like to live here?”

Varian sucks in a startled breath, going still beside her. “I… what?” he asks, voice small.

“Would you like to live here?” Rapunzel says again, taking a gamble and turning to meet his eyes. He looks stunned. Frightened, even, and it makes Rapunzel feel small and sad. “The castle, in Corona. Here, Varian.”

Varian’s eyes are wide and unseeing, staring out over her head at nothing. He opens his mouth then closes it with a snap, shaking his head faintly. After a moment he pulls his arm free from her hold and steps away from her, looking uncertain.

“I…” he starts, and then he shakes his head again. “Princess, that’s impossible. I’m a wanted criminal. The charges haven’t been lifted yet, there’s no way—” He gives a short, near hysterical laugh, but there is anger now, creeping slowly but surely into his voice. “Is this—is this some kind of joke—?”

“I am not joking,” Rapunzel says seriously. She doesn’t draw away from him, but neither does she approach him. “Varian, I know my father… I know the king never lifted those charges against you.” At the reminder, Varian grimaces, a trace of his old fury crossing his face, and Rapunzel gives him a small and sad smile in return. She loves her father, but Varian has always been an issue they’ve never seen eye-to-eye on. He is not a perfect man, her father, for all of his good intentions.

“But that was my father,” Rapunzel continues, when Varian makes no move to speak. “Varian, I will be crowned Queen in just a few hours. I can lift the charges on you. In fact, I plan on it. The question I wished to ask you, Varian, is what you would like to do after that.”

Varian looks like she’s slapped him, and despite Rapunzel’s own eagerness to hear his response, she holds herself back, letting him process it. This has been something she’s been planning for a while now, since the moment her father made it clear Varian would never be pardoned under his rule.

Varian has never complained outright to her about his enforced nomadic lifestyle, but she knows it grates on him. He has nowhere safe to stop and practice experiments, no set lab for his alchemy. Worse still, even though he is no longer known by the people as a criminal, guards have long memories. It was a sign of deep respect, Rapunzel knows, that drove her father to bury Quirin by the former kings and queens of Corona, a mark of Quirin’s devotion to the kingdom. She understands his choice, but at the same time she cannot help but hate that in doing so her father has separated father and son more thoroughly than even death. Few places in the kingdom are as protected as those graves.

In all the years since then, Rapunzel has only managed to sneak Varian inside to visit the grave a total of three times.

“Cassie,” Varian says finally, stuttering a little on the name. “And—Eugene, and all the others—I, ah, I don’t think—”

“They’ll be fine with it,” Rapunzel says firmly. “You know they will. You have more than made up for your past mistakes, Varian.”

His expression shutters closed, his eyes dark. “Right. Right, but—the king,” and if his voice twists with old hatred at the title, then Rapunzel cannot blame him, “I don’t think he will take this—”

“What my father wants or doesn’t want has no weight after sunrise,” Rapunzel says bluntly. It’s a bit callous, true, but Varian does better with blunt honestly than trickery. He has always hated to be lied to. “Varian, I’m in charge now. They won’t throw you out. If you want, you can have a home here.”

He still looks uncertain, but there is a glimmer of something new in his eyes—hope, maybe, and Rapunzel stifles her smile because she knows that she has him.

“My information,” he presses, but even he must be aware it sounds like an excuse, because he sounds more cautiously excited than truly against it. “People talk more to me than you, and I can go where you can’t.”

Rapunzel crosses her arms. “Varian,” she says dryly, “I’m sure I have enough friends in the cities and towns to keep me up to date just fine. Pull the other one.”

Varian laughs, and it only sounds a little hysterical. “Wow. Wow, you’re serious.” He shakes his head, one hand rising to run through his shorn hair. “I can—I can stay? Really?”

Rapunzel smiles at him. “Yes. If you wish to stay, no one will make you leave. And even if they try, I’ll make sure nothing happens.”

Varian looks at her for a long moment. “You promise?” he says finally, and there’s an odd note in his voice, a careful prod.

Rapunzel hesitates for only a second. “I promise.”

For a moment she worries that this was the wrong move—Varian has always been so strange about promises, especially Rapunzel’s—but after only the slightest hesitation Varian relaxes with a near soundless sigh, his answering smile soft. “Okay, Princes—Ah, Your Highness.”

It takes effort to keep from beaming, or squealing, or other such un-royal things, like jumping up and down and cheering for him. She fights valiantly to keep her grin at bay and her reply of, “Rapunzel, Varian, please,” is only a little strangled as a result.

“Your Highness,” Varian repeats stubbornly, but his smile is small and teasing. “…Okay. Okay.”

“You’re staying!” Rapunzel squeals, then catches herself and coughs awkwardly into one fist. “I mean, ah, I am… very happy to hear that, little brother.”

As always, whenever Rapunzel calls him that, Varian’s cheeks burn red in embarrassment. He’s still smiling, though, something nearly as wide and as gleeful as Rapunzel’s own grin, and that alone is enough to indicate to Rapunzel that Varian is truly happy. When she offers him her arm this time, he takes it with a soft snicker, his eyes suspiciously bright.

“Me, too,” he admits quietly, and as they start to wander back over to the party, his eyes go wide with realization. “Wait! Does—does this mean I can finally get a proper lab!?”

“I don’t see why not. Two labs, even!”

“Two!” Varian says, and the very idea sends him bouncing up and down on his heels. “Two labs! Think of what I can do!”

Rapunzel laughs outright at his enthusiasm. “That reminds me! Living in a royal palace, you’ll need a proper title—why, even Eugene has one.”

He beams at her. “I think you think you already have an idea.”

“Quite right,” Rapunzel says playfully, punching his arm. “And it’s a good title too, I bet you’ll love it.”

“Well, don’t just leave me in suspense, Your Highness.”

“What do you think of ‘Royal Alchemist of Corona?’”

Varian trips over the dirt, his free arm spiraling, and Rapunzel bursts out laughing at the look on his face.

The sun is rising, the people are laughing, and Rapunzel’s honorary little brother is finally coming home. Yes, Rapunzel thinks, she is satisfied with this. All of her important people in one place at last. For all of the darkness that came before this moment, Rapunzel knows she wouldn’t give it up for the world—for out of the shadows the real happy ending is finally coming to light.

She cannot wait to see it in full.