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Consequences

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The world was spinning.

For a moment, Rapunzel floated, as if she was suspended above all this chaos—hot, dim, and dizzying. The first thing to resurface was the fading golden glow of her hair and a jumble of panicked words. A breaking voice, a cry, something crashing, awful hissing and then—

"Arianna!"

She wanted to look up and rise, to run to her mom and stand between her and Varian, block the evergrowing amber's way. Through the slits of her eyes, she saw a glimmer of the sword, thrown across the room.

Rapunzel heard someone exclaiming her name and kneeling beside her, so she weakly raised her head to see a beloved face of her mother. She felt a warm hand on her cheek as the concern in Queen Arianna's eyes faltered a bit, yielding to relief and love.

In seconds, her trembling figure was surrounded by her mom's gentle, caressing arms, followed by a stronger, protective hug of her dad.

Immediately sinking into her parents' embrace, Rapunzel closed her eyes and let herself melt into the Queen's shoulder, forget about everything around her and feel safe—just for a moment.

.

The world was spinning.

Varian distantly felt his knees hit the stone floor when his throat tightened too much. He shivered at the coldness seeping through his gloves as he desperately placed his hands on the surface of the unforgiving amber, trying to somehow reach his dad.

He was right there—so close, so close that Varian could see his face, frozen in fear.

"No… No! "

Kneeling at the feet of the motionless figure, his nails vainly digging into the hard crystal, Varian was suddenly back to the day he had found it. He remembered the feeling of throwing pointless blows, the feeling of scrambling over the amber in search of something to hold onto, the tears. His throat tightened even more, and his chest threatened to explode all over again.

That dreadful day, he had slid down the amber’s surface, not able to do anything but cry, and when he’d stood back up, he hadn’t been the same.

By the time his hands had found their way back to where his dad’s face should’ve been, he’d known that he would fight every so-called friend, break every law and go against everything he had ever believed in, just to get through the thick layer of resin enveloping his father.

Why didn't it work? It should've worked, everything about his plan made sense. Rapunzel could shatter the amber, she could, she should— she was the Sundrop itself! Why didn't the crystal give in? Did she... did she stop it somehow?

"I wasn't wrong!" He wiped his eyes, failing to stifle a whimper escaping his mouth. "It's not my fault! None of it is!"

He heard something rustle behind him and turned his head to see Rapunzel and her parents, insolently huddling together and smiling like everything was alright. Like they hadn't turned their backs on his father and him when they needed them most. Something ripped, spasmed and swelled in his chest, painfully pressing on his ribcage, shrinking his lungs and

She. She'd taken everything from him, destroyed him, ruined everything that had ever been good in the world. And now she lay there, hugging her sweet innocent little family, with the King that happily walked over them all, and a useless Queenand they smiled, happy to have what they'd wanted while Varian was breaking in half.

It was a violent hit, the final kick in the face. The insufferable haze of rage felt like a poison lodged in his brain, ingrained in every inch of his body. It raced wildly through his veins, sending his hands shaking and engulfing his whole head. All he was was hatred and pain, everything else drained, and withered, and gone, and it wasAll. Because. Of her.

The anger throbbed, and Varian felt something in him overflow, straining, blinding, seeking to harm. "It's her fault!"

He'd drag her through hell and back.

.

As soon as Rapunzel opened her eyes, coming back to the dangerous reality they all found themselves in, she felt alarmed again. Her gaze returned to the threat.

Varian seemed to have abandoned his drill and was now sitting sunken at the feet of his father, still immersed in amber. His head was lowered beneath his trembling shoulders.

"Rapunzel, are you okay?" the King asked.

She sighed, "Yes, I will be." She stood up and took a step towards the boy, partly against herself and partly out of an illogical impulse to comfort him and talk some sense into him. "Varian—"

"Don't come near him, Rapunzel!"

She hesitated when her father's anxious voice reached her ears.

Varian finally reacted. He rose from his feet, and the way he looked at her stopped her in her tracks completely. His furious expression managed to make her feet stuck again, without the gooey purple substance he'd used before.

She'd never seen something like thata person's face twisting so much, corrupted with something berserk. He was just standing there, and yet, she felt like she was witnessing a person biting and clawing against a ruthless tormentor. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears when she looked in that rage-filled, pain-stricken eyes and realized that all of it was focused on her.

He looked at her as though she had tortured and murdered.

He hated her.

Rapunzel couldn't stand this any longer. She wanted to say something, anything, to reach her friend somewhere in this cruel, shivering frame. They needed to stop whatever this was, make him calm down and explain how unfair it all is. Just as she took an unsure breath, he bolted away from her, disappearing behind the block of resin.

Her unease spiked when she couldn't see him anymore. As loud creaking sounded around them, she unconsciously moved closer to her parents.

"Oh, where did he go?" she groaned.

Suddenly, part of the floor collapsed with terrible rumbling. For a second, nothing could be seen but a ray of red light cutting through the clouds of smoke and dust. Rapunzel squeaked in horror when the biggest automaton she had seen so far emerged from it, Varian at the controls.

"Sorry, Princess!" he shouted vilely. "We were in this together! But if I can't have a happy ending, then neither can you!"

The royal family rushed to flee. Rapunzel took her mom's hand and pounded her bare feet on the harsh floor. She didn't know what Varian was capable of in this state, and she certainly didn't want to find out.

Cold air bit into her lungs when they reached the front door, and warm hope broke through to her as she heard her favorite sound in the world.

"Alright! Who's next?!"

Eugene.

~*~

"Rapunzel!" exclaimed Eugene upon seeing his partner.

She only looked at him for a second, her pale face gentling a bit at his sight before crumbling back into a rigid scowl. Just a few steps ahead of her parents, the Princess ran to the stairs of Varian's house, clutching the tangled mess of her golden hair in her hands.

It amazed him, how her mere presence reassured him more than any weapon ever could. Even with her eyes wide and frantic, her pace so alarmed, Rapunzel still somehow managed to send a rush of hope and courage to Eugene's heart.

His relief quickly turned into fear, as the wall behind the royal family collapsed and an exceptionally big automaton emerged from the rubble. This one was different—scarier. Eugene squeezed his eyes, trying to see through the glass on the machine's head, tainted by a red light.

But it wasn't the bloody color, nor the automaton's size that made it scary. What sent a shiver down Eugene's spine was Varian's twisted face, his gaze following Rapunzel in a way that made everything in Eugene scream in protest.

The boy's hands were clasped so tightly on the levers that it looked more like he was trying to break his machine rather than control it. He seemed to be scrambling for control himself, with his lips distorted into an ugly grimace and his eyes narrowing as if in pain. Even from far away, Eugene couldn't help but shudder at this burning stare, his heart thudding in his ears as he felt something heavy rising from his chest into his throat.

This wasn't the face of a kid who had shown him how he'd wanted to heat water for his village and called him his hero. That spark of playful excitement and curiosity—that irritating spark Eugene had expected to be a ceaseless quality of this face—was gone. The kid who had tried so hard to be his friend felt dead.

It was a strange, unnerving sight to see Varian like this. Sure, sometimes he was annoying and frankly, Eugene wasn't too fond of his inventions, but if someone had told him that his little fan could be so much of a threat, his hate such a wretched thing to witness, he would've had laughed in their face.

One of the many automatons fell heavy to the earth behind Eugene, echoing along with Lance's victorious yell. The ground shook, the forest of black rocks around them looking like the only stable, constant thing.

Suddenly, something shuffled at his side and he turned toward the sound. The red light of Varian's automaton reflected in Cassandra's blade as she was getting ready to charge at it, being as crazy as she'd always been. Her face was almost unreadable.

He reached out for the girl's wrist to stop her, but before he could, the booming sound of Rapunzel's strong voice paused them both completely.

"Varian! Please, listen to me!"

Cass sent Eugene a confused look, which he probably shared. Was Rapunzel really going to negotiate with the kid? Now?

"I'm done listening to you." Varian sounded unexpectedly strong. Eugene didn't recognize his voice, either.

"Varian, this isn't you! I know you, you—" the Princess hesitated. "You're my friend!"

It was clear as day that currently, Varian didn't seem like a friend to her at all. Not that Eugene blamed her for it—he himself would rather take Varian down instead of chatting with him.

When Cassandra budged again, he moved closer to her.

"Wait," he murmured. "She'll distract him. When he stops, then we attack."

"You're my friend," Rapunzel repeated loudly, "and I won't let you hurt my family!"

A weird shadow crossed Varian's face for a second; he winced as though something repulsed him or even physically hurt. There it was—the proof that he wasn't unfazed, wasn't thinking clearly. Eugene tensed, afraid that Rapunzel will provoke him into attacking her.

"Don't do this!" she continued, sure and determined. "It won't make anything better when you harm anyone! You'll only lose everything!"

"I don't have anything!" Varian's scream sounded hoarse and harsh.

Cassandra slowly moved into a better position, preparing to bring him down at any moment.

But Eugene focused his attention on Rapunzel, on her sorrowful expression when she heard those jagged words. As he watched his love torn between hostility and compassion, he fought the urge to scream at Varian for making her feel like this.

Not letting his eyes off Rapunzel, he braced himself for whatever was about to happen next.

.

"That-that's not true", she stammered, kind of stunned. "You still—I promise, I—"

Varian scoffed. "How am I supposed to believe anything you promise?"

"Please," she begged him similarly to how she had just moments before, for him to release the Queen. "Please, just stop this and I will help you!"

She lied so effortlessly, without batting an eye. Varian knew that this was just another sweet fib, an empty promise made to calm him down and get him out of the way. She would've said anything to get him to stop, to somehow still look like she gave him any choice. Alright , he thought. He was fine with being the bad guy in their eyes.

It irked him to no end, how she was making more and more promises she never intended to keep. Because, how could she ever stay true to her word? He was well aware of the crimes he'd committed and the hurt he'd caused in the quest of saving his dad. He knew that was the only answer for him and that there would be no coming back from it.

No matter what he did now, life was over. It was over long before they'd stolen the flower.

He felt something shift inside him. His anger subsided a bit, and suddenly there was room for all the other emotions it drowned before. He thought about how badly her betrayal had ached, how easily it had turned his admiration to hatred, and how he had fallen straight into it.

Move , he told himself. Move!

He wished her words were true— no! —that he could trust her— stop it! —or anything really. He didn't want this feeling, this was stupid— move!

Because once, she had told him those exact words with a refined smile and he had believed it.

Everything's gonna be okay. I promise.

Varian had taken her at her word, stupidly, and she had abandoned him.

He looked her in the eyes and he couldn't see a trace of the innocent fondness he'd once found there. Nothing he could trust. Not her, not anybody deserved any faith.

"Nothing happened that can't be undone." He wished she would stop talking. "I'm begging you, don't try to hurt your friends , please!"

At the sound of this meaningless word she kept throwing at him, he came to his senses.

.

Eugene watched as Varian's face expressed a cacophony of emotions. Fury turned into sorrow and exhaustion for a moment, and for the first time, a pang of sympathy sprouted in the midst Eugene's shock.

But then something snapped, he could see it. Varian's shoulders dropped and he paused. Eugene inhaled sharply, sensing danger, as a cold voice that couldn't belong to a fifteen-year-old said:

"Sorry, Princess. But I don't have any friends."

With that, Varian aggressively pushed a lever and the automaton started moving. As if in slow motion, Eugene felt himself leap forward, hand in hand with Cassandra, and then suddenly fell to the ground as he collided with a giant metal arm reaching for the lady-in-waiting.

He watched in horror as the machine's hand grabbed and slowly started to squeeze the girl, standing stable despite the several guards' efforts to knock it down. Cass let out a tortured groan.

Eugene turned his head to Rapunzel. She was running toward them, her hair loose and her teary eyes flashed with anger.

"That's enough , Varian."

Chapter Text

Varian screamed.

Metal creaked and steam rose when another spiky rock emerged from the ground on Rapunzel's command, stabbing through the automaton. The floor swayed under Varian's feet as his machine's head dropped, the light going off. He tightened his grip on the controls to avoid losing balance.

"NO!"

For a moment, his cry was the only sound disturbing the silence that fell on Old Corona along with his automatons.

The boy looked down at Rapunzel. Everything about her was wrong. The golden cloud of her hair defied gravity—defied every rule and law—as it moved freely in the air. She was still holding the rocks, those rocks that took his father away from him, and now they bowed down to her will, always against him, only ever bringing suffering.

What he hated about her the most at that moment was her face, eyes glistening and freckles popping in the glow of this magical—no, just unexplained—tumble of hair. Her gaze was locked on him, suddenly soft. Even several feet below, she still managed to look down on him, brows furrowed and lips parting in a polished look of pity.

Oh, look at you getting all sad for the enemy, he thought.

Her fear felt right. Her anger felt right. This didn't.

Suddenly, the ground shifted. Varian could sense it even from the wreck of his machine. His fingers finally uncurled from the lever handles when a deafening sound surrounded him. His knees gave out the instant he stopped holding onto anything and they hit the cracking floor with a metallic thud.

He didn't know why he curled up when the wall separating Corona from the rest of the world unexpectedly collapsed.

Varian didn't see Rapunzel collapse herself. He squeezed his eyes, inhaling sharply against the lump forming in his throat.

He failed his dad, again.

 

-x-

 

Cassandra climbed the big steel arm of the machine. She didn't hesitate before breaking the glass on its head with her elbow, didn't even stop to look at Varian when she grabbed him and threw him to the ground. He was surprisingly light, lighter than she'd remembered.

She jumped off the damned metal-head and landed next to the defeated, panting boy.

He seemed small, kneeling on the ground with bangs sticking to his forehead and hands digging into the dirt. For a split second, she almost felt like a bully, standing over him and not helping him up when his face screwed itself up and he gritted his teeth against whatever he was going through.

Varian inhaled sharply and his features relaxed. He raised his head and their eyes unexpectedly locked.

Damn him.

She had expected to see a tantrum—she was prepared for a tantrum. His hollow, haunted gaze threw her off guard. It was difficult to even determine what his eyes communicated. Was he despising her? Waiting for her to speak up? Was he even truly looking at her?

But it was just Varian staring back at her; no more, no less.

Only Varian.

And she would not feel bad for the kid who could've broken her ribs.

He raised his hands, exposing his wrists in a way that couldn't be misinterpreted.

Damn him.

.

Varian lowered his gaze, awaiting chains.

There was no way out, and he couldn't fight anymore. Without automatons and alchemy, he didn't stand a chance. Actually, it seemed he didn't stand a chance either way.

After pulling on his hair in the middle of whatever chaos had been happening on Rapunzel's command, after desperately gasping for oxygen in one second and flying to the ground with shards of glass in the other, Varian felt awfully calm now as he waited for Cassandra to arrest him. He vaguely thought that she was rather going to enjoy being the person to do this. She had always strived to prove herself worthy as a royal guard.

The patter of several pairs of feet surrounded him as more and more people gathered around.

When nothing happened, he looked up again. Cassandra was looking at his stretched-out hands with an odd expression of annoyance on her face. Once their eyes met again, she turned around and walked away.

A tall guard shackled his wrists.

Chapter Text

Arianna wasn’t angry with Frederic.

Even after another hour passed, and more and more secrets came into the light, it all failed to spark the slightest whiff of annoyance in her, saddening as it was.

After so many years as queen consort, she was no stranger to disappointment when it came to her husband’s decisions. But disappointments were not something Arianna lived by. If anything, she was grateful for them—grateful to have her own mind and the ability to take a hard look at the world around her, be it Frederic’s reign or anything else, including herself.

That was why she couldn’t despise the disappointment she felt upon hearing about the consequences of having picked the Sun Flower all those years ago, or truly get angry. Especially since she knew Frederic so well and she could see his intentions clearly, and they were… well, love.

She was mostly just glad to finally be out of the dark about all this. It had given her some much-needed closure, and the ability to take her mind off Varian, to stop questioning and wondering about what had led him to such a dark, vicious path.

But once Frederic had finished his story, assured he was forgiven, they had inevitably gotten around to discussing the fate of the teenager, whose insults surely still echoed in their dungeons. Arianna observed her husband’s rage with growing uneasiness, and old memories she’d forgotten were shifted to the forefront. She was forced to think back to all those disappointments of the past.

But one should be earnest about disappointment where it counted, where it could make a difference. So this one time, she would let it fuel a fight she was about to put on.

"Arianna, why are we even talking about this? Because he’s a hurt little boy easy to pity?” Frederic was growing impatient. He rose from his favorite chair.

She crossed her arms. "I was frightened. I was scared for my life, Frederic.”

Nothing about her ordeal was easy. She still couldn’t shake off the terrifying coldness she had felt when she’d woken up sitting on the ground, with her wrists tied in a handcuff knot. Only for a moment had she felt a little safer when she’d seen how young her abductor was—only to be swallowed by fear once she’d realized who he exactly was, and how dangerous he could be if he wanted.

And yet… Frederic was right about pity.

"I know.” He sighed deeply, rubbing his face. "I’m not mad at you. I’m just still on edge. I really thought I’d lose you there.”

"It’s okay, honey.” Arianna felt her features gentle at the vulnerability in his voice. "You wouldn’t.”

Frederic’s laughter was void of any humor. "As far as we know, that amber could’ve killed you.”

She anxiously tugged at the corner of the blanket enveloping her shoulders, now trembling again. Just thinking back to the events of this night was enough to send her shivering.

She didn’t want to explore the idea. Did the amber really kill? Had she really been inches away from dying?

Was Quirin dead?

"We don’t know that.”

Frederic must’ve missed her agitation as he replied, "Well, you’ve seen it for yourself. It is death! It’s death-like enough!”

"Yes, but we don’t know that !” she finally snapped at him.

Silence filled their bedroom. Arianna almost never shouted, especially not when they were discussing something serious. She chalked it up to the awful experiences she’d had during the last twelve hours. She wasn’t proud of it, but she had great trouble dispelling them from her mind.

But the possibility of the amber being deadly wasn’t only uneasy because of the vision of her own body caught up in it.

Arianna had no idea what it meant for Varian if his father was dead. What he would do, how he’d react… what he’d have to go through.

Finally, after what had felt like an eternity, Frederic spoke up. "You feel sorry for him.”

"Of course I do.”

"Of course you do.” Another pang of silence followed his quiet, resigned voice. "Arianna, what are you asking of me?”

Seeing it tremble, she set her cup of tea aside. That was a good question. What did she want to do about all this? What could she?

Arianna was a mother. No matter how many years of Rapunzel’s life she had missed out on—all that time, she was her mother, always. For those years it meant collecting memories, writing letters and grieving each lost day—Arianna wasn’t sure if it was still motherhood, but it certainly felt like it was.

And the mother in her wept for Varian. No one knew how much sorrow and fear she’d seen in that room as she’d tried to reason with the unreasonable, desperate not only to save herself and her family, but the very person in front of her.

Varian’s viciousness was haunting, but nevertheless, something in Arianna urged her to heal the pain behind it.

"Hm?” Frederic snatched her from her thoughts. "Shall I just let him go free, after what he’s done to you both, after—?”

"No,” she answered quickly. "No. But… Frederic, I trust you and I know your heart is in the right place. But you know you can be… unreasonable when it comes to our safety.”

"What are you trying to say? Crimes against the crown be damned right now, he’s threatened yours and Rapunzel’s lives! I don’t care about we-don’t-know s, the possibility is enough!”

"That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Frederic. You’re focusing on your family and our safety instead of looking at this from a distance, and you’re not considering how we feel about that.” She said calmly.

.

Frederic felt his eyes widen as though she’d slapped him.

What was that supposed to mean? Was she referring to the Flower? Or his decision to put Rapunzel under surveillance?

He had done that to ensure security. Of course, of course, he never wanted to cause their daughter any distress and it hadn’t been an easy decision to lock her in her room, a tower of all things. But Frederic was willing to make difficult decisions to protect his child. Sometimes, the ends justified the means.

At least, that was what he’d thought before he had seen how powerful and independent Rapunzel really was. Before none other than Varian had shown him that the ends didn’t justify the means. They had both been wrong in the same ways, though only one of them had twisted badly enough to be willing to harm, steal and betray.

The thought of Varian’s misdeeds stoked his ire anew.

"How can you even defend him now? He could’ve seriously hurt your daughter, for Corona’s sake, you’re her mother!”

His misdirected anger faltered at the sight of Arianna’s face hardening, and he regretted his yell before it even finished echoing in the dim room.

"I’m sorry,” he breathed. "Oh my. I’m sorry… Arianna, I didn’t mean—”

"I’m her mother,” she answered quietly, "and I want what’s best for her, believe it or not.”

Frederic sat down on the bed, next to his wife. "I know. I’m just too… I’m so sorry.”

Suddenly, her hand was on his forearm as the mattress moved beneath him.

"It’s okay,” her gentle voice sounded closer to him. "I’m nervous too.”

The sheets rustled soothingly when Arianna draped a part of her blanket over his shoulder, sighing lightly. Once again, his turmoil was tethered by a simple gesture of her love before it had the chance to grow into wrath.

Frederic closed his eyes, drawing in a big breath.

She sounded delicate. "I was there with him for hours,” she said. "I talked to him. I think I… sort of understand him.”

Another unwanted sensation whirled around in Frederic’s stomach. He couldn’t imagine how that conversation had looked like, but he despised the mere idea of it. And for Arianna to say she understood…

"What do you mean?”

She rubbed his arm before answering. "With what has happened to Quirin and what you’ve told me about the rocks… I wouldn’t do any of the things Varian has done, but I can’t say I don’t see why he’s done them.”

Arianna stood up, leaving the blanket behind, still partly draped over Frederic. Her saddened face reflected in the glass when she approached the window. "Or maybe I would. If I have ever met this Gothel and knew this was the woman who took Rapunzel from me, I’d be ready to do anything to have her back,” she admitted. "I could do so much just to have her back and safe.”

"Me too.”

The Queen turned around with a shy smile when he grimly agreed, only to stare at him in surprise once he finished, "Which is why, if it weren’t for you and Rapunzel, I’d have the boy hanged already.”

"Frederic! You, uh—” She stumbled, as though it shocked her how far he was willing to go to guard his family. As though it even scared her a little.

"What?” he interrupted, perhaps a bit harshly, and she cringed.

Frederic sighed. He really should keep his nerves in check. Arianna had been through so much this night already, and here he was, the one who had sworn to protect her—scaring her with his anger.

"Sorry, sorry again.” He came up to her, wrapping the blanket back around her.

"It’s okay,” she said. "But you’re not seriously thinking of ever hanging a child.”

She was right—he wasn’t. He never would punish a fifteen-year-old with a death sentence, not even during the awful years of Rapunzel’s absence. And after her return, he had decided to never hang another criminal again, no matter how despicable.

All the unnecessary punishments, unfortunate deaths he had caused on the warpath he’d gone on… that old swirling rage, dead by day, still ate his sleep away, plaguing his dreams—and now it seeped into reality every single time he thought about Varian.

So he argued, "When Rapunzel was gone, I punished mercilessly, even the pettiest of criminals.”

"You know I’d never approved of that.” Arianna’s voice remained kind. "And I don’t think you do now, either. You had been hurt, and… unforgiving. But you are better than that.”

"I know.” He sighed. "I’m not a monster. You have no idea how deeply I regret this. Caine...”

She placed a hand on his face. "I never said you were a monster, Frederic.”

.

Taking him by his elbow, she led him back to the bed.

She was still shaken, and so unbelievably tired. But she had to get her point across. "And here you have a grieving fifteen-year-old, hurt likewise, and I do think he’s cruel and vengeful, and—” she felt another shiver creep down her spine. "Scary. But I don’t think he’s a monster either.”

Looking deep into her husband's eyes, Arianna tried and failed to guess his thoughts.

"I don’t want you to clear his name, Frederic,” she continued. "I want… and I’m saying this as the one he took… I want you to forget about me and Rapunzel in court.”

That finally caused a reaction. "What?!” Frederic almost shouted, surprised.

Arianna stopped herself from sighing. She knew it would be a hard idea, and the thing he was the furthest from ever doing. "This pain and rage you feel, these are the emotions of a father and a husband. I know they are proof of your love, and I’m… so grateful for them. But here… you should judge Varian as his king. Only as king.”

"So you’re asking for a just ruling.”

"Yes.” She nodded. "And more.”

Frederic furrowed his brows. "A gentle one?”

"No, not necessarily. But I think he needs help.” Only a scoff answered her, so she picked up, "Wrong as he is, he’s in pain—”

"You know how many people justify their crimes with pain and insanity?”

This time, Arianna impatiently shook her head. "I’m not talking about it being justifying, I’m just stating the fact. Frederic, I was kept his prisoner and I want to help him. And Rapunzel does, too.”

To this, Frederic didn’t seem to have an answer. He simply reached out for her hand, and gently stroke it with his thumb.

She let herself melt into his body, her strongest refuge. How she wished to leave the subject and just lay down with him. But she couldn’t—not yet—because she felt needed. Needed by a desperate teenager, the same one who had scared her greatly and hurt her daughter. And she would rise to this need. "You’ll do what you feel is fair, darling. I’m only asking you to understand him. And to not be like him.”

Frederic muttered quickly, "I’m not like him.”

"No.”

"But you don’t trust me to look at this objectively.”

She sighed deeply and hugged her husband closer. "I trust you, Fred.” She closed her eyes, exhausted by all the events. "And my heart lives just where yours does. But I will protect him.”

There was a long pause.

"You’re a wise woman, Arianna. But you have too good of a heart,” he finally stated. "I made a decision.”

The Queen reluctantly opened her eyes and straightened up, bracing herself to continue arguing. "Frederic—”

"Trust me, my love.” He took both her hands into his and kissed them. "And don’t think about this anymore. You have no idea how happy I am to have both of you back and safe.”

She leaned back into his arms, yawning. "I was so afraid.”

"You’re home now.”

Arianna melted at the sound of his warm bass, her ear now pressed to his chest.

"I love you so much,” he whispered.

She smiled. "I love you more.”

Chapter Text

After that storm, Varian had been constantly caught up between two versions of the same reality—one day, the engulfing nothingness of grief took all his strength and determination away, and the other, the world would turn into a blur color and motion when he'd tried everything that had come to mind, almost unable to stop.

The first week had been filled with waves of awful hollowness and utter desperation, crashing through him, one after another. He'd shivered to meet each of them, welcoming one almost gratefully after being torn and abused by another. And so the days had been spent either on making plans or falling apart. One minute he'd struggled to keep going—drawing, designing, rehearsing—with all the heaviness invading his limbs and mind; and then, suddenly, his whole being seemed to be fueled by burning anger and haste again.

The last few days before his arrest were born out of hope and desperation. With a concrete plan in motion, Varian had finally been able to stop loitering in wretchedness like a baby, to think clearly. This time was full of working, running, deceiving. The world had spun around him in as he'd lied, stole and hurt in order to free his father. And then, when all else had failed, his rage had found an outlet in... punishment. Harming them all for its own sake.

Now, it was different—it was a slow parade of sameness. Mornings faded into evenings and days into nights, when he sometimes failed to stay awake and alarmed. An ever-present dull ache seemed to be bouncing off the stone walls, slipping through the iron bars and lingering in the damp cool air of his prison cell.

He placed his bare hand on the cool stone wall and closed his eyes. If it were a little smoother, it would feel just like the amber monolith, still waiting for him in Old Corona.

Varian felt exhausted. But he had to think, come up with a plan—and rather quickly.

.

Slowly approaching her destination, Rapunzel hesitated. She still wasn’t convinced if visiting him was a good idea. Dad didn’t know. Mom advised her to follow her heart. Cassandra was… strongly against. And Eugene had just told her that he would support her no matter what—though he wasn’t too fond of the idea of her going alone.

It was the day before Varian’s official sentencing, which he awaited in the castle dungeons. That meant that it could very well be her last chance to try to talk to him.

Ever since he had gotten arrested and they'd all returned to New Corona, he kept popping up in her thoughts. She tossed and turned at night, swimming in soft pillows, and her mind kept conjuring images of a cold dark cell, many stories beneath her room’s floor.

How was he? Did he regret what he did? How could he have done these horrible things? Was he ever really her friend? How much was she to blame? She analyzed it over and over, thinking about how she could've done better, what she should’ve said, what she should’ve noticed.

It wasn’t an "either-or” situation. There was something that she needed to say to Varian.

So, she wasn't there only to reason with him. She wanted to apologize.

She didn’t know what to expect; he could change so quickly. When Stan had shackled his wrists and gotten him to stand up, he'd just looked so confused and hopeless. It had made her want to get closer to him, say something to comfort him—but she couldn’t have brought herself to approach the ruthless boy.

Perhaps she just wanted to talk to him and maybe find some closure and peace for both of them. There was kindness in him, and Rapunzel wouldn’t be herself if she didn’t try to reach it.

And there she was.

The gentle late afternoon sun poured over the cobblestone floor, the barred window casting a strange shadow. Two bunks hung from the otherwise bare walls, facing one another. Rapunzel’s heart sped up a bit when she saw that one of them was occupied by a curled up figure.

He was alone in his cell, by the request of her mom who thought that putting a fifteen-year-old with an adult inmate would feel wrong.

She held her breath, gathering up the courage to greet him. Suddenly, something rolled on the floor, slipped through the old metal bars and collided with her shoe.

When Rapunzel picked up what turned out to be a barely bitten apple, she heard the excited chittering of a chubby raccoon making his way toward her. She gave him his apple back, trying not to wonder if the fruit was meant for Varian, and hesitantly reached out to pet his furry head.

A warm feeling spilled all over her when the little animal cuddled against her hand.

"Hi,” she whispered with a smile on her face.

This quiet greeting was suddenly interrupted by the clinging of the chains supporting Varian’s bed.

"Ruddiger.”

She flinched at the sound of his voice, reminding her of danger. He sat up on the bed, rubbing his eye in a childish habit. Varian without his goggles and apron was a weird sight, and his bare hands seemed even weirder. He seemed a lot less threatening than she'd expected.

"It’s amazing that he stays here with you,” she commented, smiling sheepishly. The loyal raccoon scuttled to his friend’s side.

The alchemist let out a gasp of surprise as he finally noticed her presence.

"Sorry, I didn’t want to scare you.”

There was a long pause.

"You didn’t scare me." Some hope fluttered in her heart when he responded to her. She waited for him to say something else—maybe greet her, maybe ask why she was there—but he didn’t.

"I wanted to talk to you,” she began. "I wanted to, uh… tell you how sorry I am.” For some reason, Rapunzel felt awkward and a bit embarrassed to look him in the eye.

After another minute of silence, Varian got up and spread his arms. "Why?”

"Because… because many bad things wouldn’t have happened if I'd been a better friend.”

He got closer to her. She regretted that she was apologizing to him through the bars.

"So what?”

"Um, I—”

"What, is this the part where I start crying my eyes out and saying how long I’ve waited for this?” he spoke louder. "Thank you, Princess. I feel changed.”

"Oh, come on, Varian!” she exclaimed, hurt by his mockery. "This isn’t you. Let’s just drop this and talk. I’m not your enemy, and I really am sorry. I know I—”

He didn't even let her finish the sentence before back-talking. "Really?"

"Yes, really.”

"Do you think you should’ve gone with me the day of the storm?”

"Varian, I couldn’t go with you, you know I couldn’t,” she pleaded. "But I—”

"Why am I even bothering?” He turned away from her and sat down on his bunk again.

She inhaled deeply, trying to keep cool after he interrupted her again. "I'm the Princess, and for that one day, I was acting Queen. You know what it means! I had to look at the bigger picture—I had to be thinking of Corona,” she defended herself.

"Do you really expect me to care? I-I don’t care about this,” Varian gestured toward her. "Or Corona. I care about my dad and it’s your fault that he’s stuck in there, no matter how many excuses you have.”

"This is not fair!” She felt worse about his rejection than she had expected. There was just something inherently wrong about all this.

"Okay, since we're talking anyway, let me lay it out for you, Rapunzel," his voice dripped with sarcasm when he used her name. "It’s not that you cared so much about Corona. You just didn’t care—I'm nothing to you,” he shrugged as if they were discussing the weather. "If it was Eugene or Cassandra asking for help, you wouldn’t even hesitate. Face it!”

Rapunzel felt her cheeks flush and pursed her lips. How could he tell her that she didn’t care about him when the sole reason she was having this conversation was that she did care?

"You’re wrong. I would still be thinking of the welfare of my kingdom and, unlike you, they would understand this. And for your information, I sent Eugene into that storm to go after my parents and it was his own idea. Because he knew I had to stay, he offered to save them, the King and Queen !” Her words were rushed, all those thoughts finally being said out loud to Varian’s face. "You’re not the only one who was in danger that day, all of them could’ve died and I still stayed and took care of my people—because that is what a princess is supposed to do! I could’ve lost my loved ones, but I still haven’t left Corona, I couldn’t . Do you have any idea how difficult that was?” Rapunzel was starting to get emotional, even thinking of that dreadful day. "I didn’t refuse to help you with a smile on my face!”

"How truly touching. Makes me wonder... you risked so much to save your parents and the people of Corona from this storm, right? You feared so much for the lives of everyone." He laughed. "And then, there's my dad stuck in a rock and me, you know, just casually walking miles in that weather."

"I was worried sick about you, Varian!” she felt tears welling up in her eyes. "You can ask anyone! What gives you the right to tell me who and what I care about? You've no idea know how I felt after—”

Suddenly, he was in her face, so close she could reach him through the bars if she wanted. He was pale and scruffy, the blue streak in his hair and his rosy cheeks looking like the only splashes of color. For a moment, he kept his eyes fixed on hers as if he wanted her to look in them and see what she did to him.

" WHEN?! ” he yelled. "When were you so worried about me, because I didn’t see it! That’s the—I mean—No, I don’t know how you felt, but I was still alone after the storm! I told you my dad didn't have much time and I needed your aid, and you didn’t even bother to show up to see what it was about!" he hit the metal bars with his hands, failing to create any sound.

"I-I’m sorry,” she said simply, because he was right. "I was overwhelmed by all that happened. I had to process my own stress, I’m still just a human and that day was the hardest of my life. I know I’ve made mistakes, I came here to apologize for them and I want to fix them—”

"Rapunzel!” his annoyed voice reminded her of the time he had explained to her how he had used her to steal the Flower. "I don’t want it! You can keep your apologies to yourself because my father is still encased in amber out there!”

"Yes, and I am not the one who did that!” she exclaimed emphatically and quickly wiped a tear that escaped the corner of her eye. "It's not me who hurt him, Varian!"

She waited for another yell or a mocking laugh, but it didn’t come. Varian retreated into the darkness of his cell. "Get out of here."

Rapunzel collected herself. "I’m sorry, Varian, for any hurt I have caused you. I am,” she said quietly. "And I’m sorry for all the hurt you’re causing yourself.”

"Can't you just go away?"

His voice, suddenly changed, echoed in her ears, as she made her way back.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, Eugene really didn't like it when Lance was right.

Like when he'd tried his best to warn him of poison ivy seconds before Eugene had waltzed face-first into it. Sometimes they still laughed at that, as it hadn't been a pretty sight. It was, though, a valuable lesson—and a tough one—for his inexperienced ten-year-old self. After all, Flynn Rider had gone on to become one of the best wilderness experts there were.

Lance's newest insight hadn't been as thrilling. "Is it just me or is Cass a bit... weird?"

"More than usual?" he had joked then.

But as he looked at her, lazily dangling her legs off the pier, he knew that something was up. The thing was—Cassandra wasn't lazy. Even when she had no reason to, she always seemed focused and ready for everything. She never relaxed as Eugene did, which she liked to remind him.

It was simply weird, to see her calmly watch her feet disrupting the water's glistening surface, no bickering, no comments and no slyness in her eye. Especially not when the Captain had been injured, and she herself could've ended with broken ribs during the Battle of Old Corona (as Eugene already called it). And not when it had been the doing of a former friend.

Well, someone's pretending to keep it together , he thought to himself.

Admittedly, Eugene felt kind of jealous of her collected demeanor, however obviously fake. His girlfriend was down in the dungeons, talking to a person who had used her like she was nothing, hoping to get through to someone that looked like he hated her with a passion for no sensible reason. Eugene didn't like it—he knew that after certain things, one couldn't just sit down and clear the air. He wasn't sure if Rapunzel would even be able to have any sort of conversation with Varian—and he wasn't sure if he wanted her to.

"That was crazy, huh?" he said, sick of the silence.

Cass didn't even look at him. "What?"

"You know, all this... with Varian."

She shrugged. "What's crazy is how we even let it happen. Something is seriously wrong with the safety of this place."

"I heard there are going to be some changes? What does Cap think?"

"Right now, probably something along the lines of, "I am in unbearable pain" , thanks for asking!" she retorted sharply, revealing just how false her calmness was.

They were both nervous, it seemed. Eugene and Cassandra agreeing on something was a rare occurrence, and if he were to be honest—which he was by no means inclined to be—he'd have to admit that it almost felt nice to share some worries with her.

He thought back to Rapunzel. After the recent events, it was difficult not to crowd her. Sometimes, Eugene wanted to leave Corona to follow the rocks as soon as possible, just to get away from all that had happened for some time.

"Varian—"

This time, Cassandra's voice was full-on angry. "Varian can rot in there for all I care. Why are we even sitting here on pins and needles and waiting like it's important?"

"I'm here for Rapunzel, I don't know about you." Eugene frowned. "Calm down, would you?"

"I'm not in the mood, Fitzherbert."

Suddenly, they jumped up a little as light footsteps sent the pier shaking gently. Eugene immediately got up to meet his lover. "Sunshine!"

He caught a glimpse of her face before she threw her arms around his neck. As he had expected, she seemed defeated.

"Uh-oh," he said, placing a hand on the back of her head. "I'm guessing he wasn't very nice?"

They sat down, Eugene's arm wrapped around her side in an attempt to bring her some comfort.

"It didn't go well," she sighed.

Cassandra's head shot up. "Well, what did he say?"

Eugene furrowed his brows again. She was really quick to react to anything Varian-related, wasn't she?

He didn't blame her for wanting to know more though, regardless of her true motivation, so difficult to wrap one's head around. Eugene was curious himself, even though he wished that Rapunzel could just forget about the betrayal she had gone through. He tightened his embrace.

"He—um,” Rapunzel stumbled, swinging her legs off the pier, following Cassandra's example. "He still—he’s just so changed." She rested her head on Eugene’s chest. "What have I done?”

"No. No, stop that,” protested Eugene, gently rubbing her shoulder. "This is not your fault.”

Cassandra joined in. "And don't you feel bad about him sitting in jail. Who knows what he might’ve done—you could’ve lost your loved ones. It almost ended in tragedy."

"Almost?" Rapunzel's voice got stronger, a bit angry. "No. I did lose a friend, Cass. And that bothers me."

"It was his choice. He decided to do all that, and he was wrong."

The Princess saddened. "I know. But he was right to be angry with me. He was right to be hurt—"

"He wasn't," Cass argued.

Eugene spoke up again. "Listen, Sunshine. Maybe you did make a mistake, we all do. But after that, you’ve been nothing but a friend to Varian," he consoled her. "This really isn't your fault."

"I don’t know… the rocks are here because of me.”

"Yeah, and you didn’t choose to be the Sundrop or bring the rocks to Corona. Everyone makes mistakes, but existing isn’t a crime." It was interesting how much gentler Cassandra became whenever she talked to Rapunzel. "Finding out the mystery behind these rocks is your destiny, but you know, their presence isn’t your fault.”

The Princess didn’t look convinced. "I guess, but—”

"Blondie, are you sure this isn’t an Uncle-Monty type of situation?”

"He’s not Uncle Monty. He’s Varian,” Rapunzel’s voice shook a bit as soon as she said his name out loud. "And he still thinks it’s all because of me. He said that his d-dad is trapped because I didn’t care.”

It was ridiculous to claim something like that. Everyone knew how much Rapunzel had thought about Varian, ever since the day he'd burst into the palace screaming for help. Eugene felt a pang of anger. What had happened to Quirin was tragic, and he did feel bad for Varian—but blaming Rapunzel was just simply wrong. She was the last person responsible for what had happened.

And there was nothing in the world that could justify anything of what Varian had done.

Suddenly, Cassandra got up and put on her boots, not even bothering to wait until her feet were dry. She was gone in an instant, the only thing left being the sound of her heels pounding loudly on the wooden pier.

"Where did she go?”

Eugene brushed some hair away from Rapunzel's forehead. "My money’s on the dungeons.”

Lance, you were so right.

 

-x-

 

Cassandra’s cross voice boomed in the dungeon even before she got to the bars of Varian's cell.

"How dare you still blame her for everything after what you’ve done to her? To all of us!” she spat. "Is it still not enough ?”

He sat slumped by the wall directly under the window, his face hidden in the shadows. Ruddiger lay next to him; he would've seemed asleep if it weren’t for his big beady eyes.

"Why, good day to you too, Cassie,” Varian said impassively.

"She came to talk to you, to actually say sorry to you .” She ignored his stupid attempt to annoy her. "Obviously, she was naïve thinking that she’ll squeeze any understanding out of you.”

She had to admit, she was a bit annoyed with Rapunzel for visiting Varian. The Princess never listened to her—she thought that anyone could be rescued if she just showed them enough love. It was stupid, and the proof was sitting on the floor of this cell.

"Are you here to yell at me, or is there anything I can do for you? Got any chores?” the tone of his voice still didn’t match the mocking words that came out of his mouth.

Cassandra laughed at his immaturity. "It’s unbelievable what happened to you.”

"Well, you guys helped with that.”

"No, you became an angry destructive psycho all on your own. What happened to your father isn’t Rapunzel’s fault, or ours, and there is no reason to behave like you do.”

Varian raised his head to look at her. "Yeah, no reason at all. It’s not like she threw me out into the storm you all deemed so dangerous and then—”

"You just don’t want to face your own blame so you dump it all on her! But you know why you're here and it's only your—"

" MY FAULT! ” his scream bounced off the stone walls, filling every little crack and scaring his raccoon away.

There was a moment of silence from her and light panting from him.

"Is that what you wanna hear?” he spoke again. "I know what I’ve done. But is it too hard for you to admit that it’s her fault too? Or yours?”

Cass didn’t know what to say. Suddenly, she regretted going down there.

As she looked at his hardened expression, Cassandra thought about how much it contrasted with his former spirit—awkward, bubbly and so bright, always seeking to assist others and bring joy. Not that she wanted it back, she didn’t. Of course she didn’t. Why would she?

"You either get an apology or you get to try to squeeze people to death. Not both,” she retorted bitterly. "Good luck with the sentencing tomorrow.”

She started to leave, but his grim voice followed her. "Thanks, Cassie.”

Anger stirred within her as she heard him sarcastically use the nickname and she violently approached the bars to Varian’s cell. She wanted him to get up and come closer so she could see the look on his face, as she told him, "You know what? I get that you’re still a kid and all, but you're not a baby either, and with what you've done and how you behave now, I doubt you’ll be home anytime soon.”

Rapunzel wouldn’t approve of this threat, but hell, did it feel good. The thought of punishment and payback was almost relieving.

Varian made a brief sound that could only be described as a breathy, pained laugh. "Cassandra, do I have anything to come home to?”

And just like that, all her satisfaction was gone.

Chapter Text

Two rows of tiny claws gently bit into Varian’s hand as he woke with a start. Ruddiger whined, looking at him with worry written on his face. When he didn’t react, his companion gently patted his cheek.

"I’m okay, buddy” Varian sat up and immediately regretted falling asleep on the floor. "Just a dream, nothing terrible.”

His throat felt narrow, so he swallowed heavily and forced himself to take a deep breath as the raccoon snuggled into his shirt. He curled his trembling fingers around the tip of Ruddiger’s ringed tail, trying to shake the nightmare off.

How could you?

You will lose everything.

I’m sorry.

It had to be early in the morning, judging by the silence around him and the gray sky outside.

No, son, don’t!

His hot fist collided with the cold floor. Or maybe he was cold, and the floor was warm? He pulled Ruddiger closer to himself, burying his face in his friend’s fur like a child. It smelled like smoke and crisp air.

What would his dad think if he saw him there, dawdling and being so silly?

Suddenly, memories came rushing back and the Varian’s mind started replaying every single image and sensation he both wanted to keep forever and forget at least for a moment. The burning need to be a good son. His father’s hand pushing him away from the spreading amber. The soreness of his throat as he had screamed for help. Every smile and every unfavorable glance of the village. The sad look in the Queen’s eyes. Mom. Queen Arianna. Rapunzel. Rapunzel’s promise. Rapunzel’s betrayal. Varian’s betrayal.

His gritty eyes snapped open, after shutting of their own accord, when he heard a man's grunt. He gasped.

"Why is everyone sneaking up on me?!” he shouted, perhaps a bit too nervously.

A tall, slim man with a large nose grunted again, proudly raising his chin. "Varian, son of Quirin of Old Corona?” he asked.

"Yes?”

"I am here to present the allegations against you, which were discussed earlier”.

Varian knew him, it was the King’s advisor. He was there, he was there that day.

"So, you are accused of the following...”

The alchemist’s blood boiled as the man listed his crimes, not failing to mention a few of his unsuccessful inventions and experiments ( nice to be appreciated ) or intrusion and attacking the Princess on the day of the storm ( really?! ).

Varian managed to stop himself from commenting on the accusations, but when the advisor got to him destroying a useless withered flower, he snapped.

"I was trying to save my dad!”

" Save that for the King,” the man clearly didn’t like to be interrupted. "I am only here to inform you of the charges.”

"But you know I only did that for my dad!”

"Yes, attacking the royal family with historical machinery was of great help,” came the unfazed response. "I’m sure he would be very proud of you.”

A burst of seething hatred erupted from Varian’s chest and sent him clumsily flying in the advisor’s direction. "He will be,” he barked, clutching the bars.

The man frowned. "I’d like to proceed if you don’t have any additional—”

"I will make my father proud,” Varian said in a much calmer voice and took a step back. "If it’s the last thing I ever do.”

.

Nigel, admittedly, didn’t like the boy—Varian was getting on his nerves, interrupting with his dramatic comments and ignoring anything that was said to him.

Who wouldn’t lose their patience?

"And how are you planning to do that? Construct more deadly machinery, play around with more dangerous chemicals? Maybe you hope that if you steal, hurt and destroy more, you’ll achieve something?”

"I will free him,” Varian declared stubbornly. "I don’t care about Corona or about anything.”

"Yes, that is the reason for you to be here,” sneered Nigel. He suddenly felt an even deeper aversion to the prisoner disregarding the Kingdom of Corona which Nigel was so loyal to.

That’s why, as he would later explain to himself, the advisor drew closer to the bars and glowered at the flushed face in front of him, as he said his next words.

"You don't know how to bring your father back. Not even the Princess’ magnificent hair could to that, I hear. I know you don’t have a plan anymore.”

Varian’s face contorted. His angry grimace eased and he withdrew, staring at Nigel with wide eyes as though he'd just been slapped.

Oh. Nigel shouldn’t have said that; it was very unprofessional of him. He bit his lip, reminding himself to stay collected. But who would blame him, really, with how the prisoner behaved? He decided it would be best to leave him alone.

"Give up, boy,” he said calmly as he placed the list on the floor. Varian could finish it alone. "It’s over now.”

.

Varian raised a hand to his face, gaze fixed on the spot where the King’s advisor had stood just moments ago. He wanted to call after the man. He should've told him that nothing was over, that it would never be over, tell him how wrong he was—but he was already gone.

Suddenly, Varian's shoulder blades collided with the wall behind him and he squeezed his eyes shut in surprise. He hadn't even realized that he'd stumbled back. His heart hammered dangerously, and his stomach rolled under his lungs struggling to derive any oxygen from the shallow breaths.

Ruddiger was by his side at once, cooing and pulling on his pant leg.

The advisor. was. wrong.

He could still come up with something, why wouldn't he, he'd never stop trying, he'd do what it takes, no— No plan.

No, that was a lie. He'd have a plan, he just had to think, just breathe now, it was wrong , it wasn't his fault, he wasn't wrong—the advisor was wrong, he was wrong, wrong, amber , amber took him, it was freezing, dad was—he didn't know—

That was a lie!

Wrong, wrong, WRONG!

A nasty voice of another prisoner sounded in the dungeons, mocking the advisor’s funny tone. "Give up, it's over."

And Varian spiralled.

Chapter Text

Pete was glad he rarely had to perform the duties of a dungeon guard. The rooms and corridors of the castle above him, along with its grounds, were much more inviting than the underground levels. Escorting inmates to trials and sentencings was always a hassle. He'd seen enough struggling criminals during the couple of times when dungeons had been short on staff and he'd got called to help.

Besides, the place itself was just awful.

He begrudgingly descended down the stairs, following Stan, and entered a corridor illuminated only by a couple of candles and his fellow's torchlight. Cool, damp air wrapped around them.

"Ah, when it comes to temperature, today this is the best place in the whole castle," sighed Stan.

Pete laughed. "Watch out, someone could think you'd like to be assigned to the mole force!"

This time, Pete didn't mind dungeon duty at all—there was just the two of them since they were there to collect a teenager. They were also instructed not to be harsh unless necessary. It felt like a well-deserved break from a busy morning. It was truly a pity that Varian of Old Corona was waiting in a cell so close to the entrance.

They reached it all too soon. The boy was sitting on the floor. He was crouched, with forehead resting on his knees and fingers laced at the back of his head. Pete thought it looked sad.

When they approached the cell, Varian's head rose. Stan's key rattled in the lock.

"Hey," he said plainly. "We're here to take you to the King."

A pair of tired, unfazed eyes stared back at them. "Oh," Varian croaked and quickly cleared his throat. "Alright."

He patted the head of a concerned-looking raccoon by his side and got up.

"Right," remembered Stan. "You're allowed to bring your pet along. Orders," he shrugged as he was met with a slightly questioning glance.

They shackled Varian behind his back and told him to step out of the cell. Each of them initially held one of his elbows, but quickly reverted to Stan keeping a hand on his shoulder. Pete kept an eye on the raccoon scurrying around them.

The men tried to pick up their earlier conversation, but it wasn't the same.

.

On the day of his arrest, Varian had truly despised the impersonal touches of Royal Guards escorting him to the dungeon. The feeling of their hands holding his arms had made his skin crawl.

This time, it was different. This time, he wouldn't care about anyone unceremoniously removing his goggles or pushing him slightly to make him walk faster. The men escorting him didn't seem to be in a hurry though.

He just wanted the sentencing to be over soon. Then he would press his clammy forehead against the stone wall and close his eyes, maybe sleep a bit. And after that, he would focus and think. He just needed to clear his mind, and he would figure something out.

You don't have any plan anymore.

"Are you sick?" one of the guards asked another.

When no response came, Varian concluded that the question was, for some unknown reason, directed at him.

"I don't know," he answered against the lump in his throat, uninterested in talking.

He tried to ignore the clinking of the cold shackles looped around his wrists. He fisted his hands to hide the light tremors running through them.

I wasn't wrong!

They rounded a corner and saw the large entrance to the throne hall. Rapunzel and Eugene were standing there, talking quietly. Eugene then let go of her hand and disappeared behind the door.

Varian. Children have no place in court.

He eyed the purple carpet to get rid of the memory of that stern voice.

.

Rapunzel had decided to wait by the door instead of greeting Varian from her seat by her dad's side.

They'd arranged a very small sentencing, without an audience. While it was important to listen to the people of Corona, their whispers and curiosity weren't needed there.

Pascal lightly smacked her with his tail. He pointed at Varian himself, accompanied by two guards. Rapunzel felt something knot in her stomach, bracing herself for the possibility of another difficult confrontation.

"Hi," she spoke.

Stan and Pete nodded to her in greeting. Their smiles comforted her—at least some of the people approaching were friendly to her. Varian's gaze was fixed on the floor. He seemed calm.

In the well-lit corridor, Rapunzel took a good look at him. He was pallid, save for a little rosy cheeks and dark circles under his eyes. His hunched, shivering form was a lot smaller than she remembered. She had expected him to be stressed, determined, angry, even scared—but he just looked blank and languid.

She couldn't help but worry a bit. Had he been like this before?

"Varian—" she called him as guards led him past her.

"Sorry, we can't make any stops on the way," Stan apologized.

As she turned to follow them to the hall, she felt something brush against her foot. It was Ruddiger, sending her an anxious glance.

"Don't worry," she whispered, letting him pass. "I will take care of everything."

The door closed behind her as she walked to take her place, with a firm resolution in mind. She would prove Varian wrong, no matter what.

I promise , she thought to herself. It's a promise.

.

"Their Majesties King Frederic and Queen Arianna of Corona!" Nigel's voice echoed in the hall, when they entered through the side door, passing the two men guarding it.

Disturbed only by the banners hanging from the ceiling, gentle sunshine poured all over the shiny floor and the purple carpet leading to the dais. It was raised a few steps over the rest of the hall, emphasizing three humble thrones. Arianna sat by Frederic's side.

The hall was unusually empty—the Queen was used to seeing at least a little crowd on audiences, trials and sentencings. This time though, she and Frederic agreed to keep it as small as they could, for the sake of Varian and Rapunzel alike. The only people present, besides the royal family, were Nigel, Eugene leaning on a raised flower bed, and the royal guards standing by every door and keeping a close eye on their rulers. Cassandra was nowhere to be seen. Arianna briefly wondered if she and her daughter had a fight.

And then there was Varian, led by Stan and Pete, with his pet raccoon circling them all. He looked listless, almost absent. Arianna took a deep breath, calming the concern that immediately sparked in her. The strange party stopped in front of the dais and Stan released Varian's shoulder from his grip.

"Her Highness Princess Rapunzel of Corona!"

Their daughter, who was awkwardly following her former friend, ran up and sat on her throne. She appeared determined and ready to fight, just like she had been during her testimony a couple of days ago. Rapunzel was a dedicated friend, not willing to give up on anyone easily. The Queen smiled at her.

"His Majesty the King presiding!" Nigel spoke with unnecessary grandeur. Fredric gave his advisor a nod. "Varian, son of Quirin of Old Corona..."

Arianna wasn't sure if she saw the boy flinch at the sound of his name, or his father's name. Maybe it was a figment of her imagination.

"By the power vested in me by His Majesty King Frederic of Corona, I will now present your previously discussed crimes. Today morning, this list has been delivered for you to read." There was no doubt in Arianna's mind that Varian hadn't even looked at the scroll. "You are hereby charged with acts of: Disturbance of the peace. Unintentional and deliberate destruction of property. Multiple accounts of breaking and entering. Attacking the Princess. Multiple accounts of high treason, most notably: capturing and endangering the Royal Family, tricking and endangering the Royal Guards, theft and destruction of the Sundrop Flower. Multiple accounts of injuring and endangering lives. Thus, multiple accounts of attempted homicide."

The Queen, sitting by her husband's right, grew more and more uneasy as Nigel recited Varian's deeds. She eyed him closely—he just stood there, staring at his shackled wrists. A part of her wanted him to protest or back-talk—anything would feel more appropriate than this hopelessness.

Frederic grunted. "Such actions are unforgivable. They must be punished."

"Although there are some circumstances that have to be addressed and taken into consideration," she finished her husband's thought.

"Exactly!" exclaimed the Princess. "What about—"

"I know, Rapunzel," Frederic interrupted calmly. "You've said all this in your turn to speak. I assure you I have thought all your arguments through."

"The Princess would like to grant the defendant her official intercession!" Arianna once more felt a rush of warmth, hearing the annoyance in her stubborn daughter's voice.

Frederic sighed deeply. "So be it. Knowing the aforementioned facts, I have one question for you, Varian."

The boy tardily raised his head, exposing his bloodshot eyes. The Queen's stomach twisted as she looked at this face. Did he want to cry? Had he eaten? Who had cared for him that whole time?

She leaned toward her husband and whispered a quick request. He nodded absently before he spoke again:

"Do you want to say something in your defense?" It was the first time Frederic actually asked Varian himself for a testimony.

"Let me think, maybe that he's fifteen, he didn't actually seriously harm anyone even if you—"

"Rapunzel, please!" the King silenced his daughter. "Varian. What do you say?"

Judging by what Rapunzel had told Arianna, the young alchemist had many things to say. Now though, the Queen wasn't sure if he was going to speak at all. It looked like all he wanted to do was get this over with and lie down.

But then he shrugged and croaked, "Nothing."

Chapter Text

Varian’s gaze made Frederic feel young and unequipped.

His eyes were silently accusing him and mirroring his every misjudgment and every selfish act that had led to this situation. Those eyes were telling him how similar he and Varian truly were—how they both cared about their loved ones more than the welfare and safety of Corona.

But Frederic was the King of Corona. Varian was a broken boy.

The guilt suddenly hit him full force. Underestimating the force Quirin had warned him of, and then withholding information regarding it, letting the black rocks plague his kingdom... he couldn’t keep turning his face away from it.

It was not only a criminal standing in front of him. It was also a sorry result of his own actions, about to be punished by him, looking like he was barely standing. Sadness weaved its way into the cracks in Frederic’s anger.

"Nothing?” he made sure. "There’s nothing you want to say in your defense?”

"No,” a hoarse voice answered him.

Faint hope blossomed in the midst of the King’s worry. "Then, taking this into account, I have decided.”

"Frederic—” Arianna looked at him anxiously.

"I hereby declare you not guilty of attacking the Princess on the day of the great storm, and guilty of theft, capturing the Queen and intentional destruction of property.”

Nigel hurriedly began documenting Frederic’s words.

"You are also not guilty of attempting on anyone’s lives, but guilty of injuring, threatening and exposure to danger,” he added after a moment of hesitation. Varian had absolutely attempted on several lives. "By the request of the Queen herself, who wishes to serve as your compurgator, you are partially pardoned. Therefore, your crime of abduction, and only abduction, will be treated as annulled.”

Varian’s eyes darted to the Queen in utter surprise. She offered him a small smile. Frederic found it both heartwarming and a bit annoying how merciful his wife was.

"Varian, son of Quirin,” he went on. "I sentence you to confinement for an indefinite length of time unless I personally decide on your release. Due to your age, you will be kept someplace else on the castle grounds instead of a dungeon cell, as Corona usually does not imprison juveniles. During this time, you will repair what you have destroyed and perform community service for the kingdom. If you’re ever released, you will be controlled and watched over at all times, only gaining back a part of your rights as a citizen of Corona, also for an indefinite length of time.”

Arianna turned to him, opening her mouth to speak.

"Ah yes,” he remembered. "Granting the Queen’s request, you will also be examined by a royal physician right away.”

There was a murmur as Nigel’s pen scribbled on the parchment, Rapunzel sighed out of relief or perhaps tiredness, and Eugene straightened up.

"What?” Varian asked impolitely.

"The motivations and circumstances of your actions are understandable and seem to touch the hearts of the Queen and the Princess, who have been harmed the most. I believe there is room for rehabilitation from your crimes and struggles alike. In your current position, I deem you not a threat. Therefore, I don’t see any benefit in keeping a disturbed teenager in the dungeons. I think what you need most is help which should've been provided earlier. I would like to be proven that your acts of violence and treachery were a weak, desperate moment of yours and will not happen again.”

Nigel put the pen down. "Your Majesty, with all due respect—”

"If you do anything to threaten the faith I just put in you, I will not hesitate to punish you accordingly.”

"This, this is a dangerous individual!” argued his advisor. "At age fifteen, he has managed to become a serious threat to the kingdom and cause a lot of damage! Betrayed the crown!” He leaned to Frederic, his whisper audible to everyone in the room. "He should— I'm very sorry to— Pardon me, Sire, but the people think he should receive a death sentence!”

As the King parted his lips to silence the man, Varian’s spirit seemingly came back.

"I-I could’ve trapped her in amber!” he pointed at Arianna like she wasn’t listening. He looked as if the sentence disturbed him, or even offended—as if kindness was wrong. Frederic thought that he might’ve had just deprived Varian of the comfort he found in considering them his enemies.

"I don’t think you would.”

"Oh, I would,” the boy retorted coldly.

A wave of fresh anger coursed through Frederic’s mind. "I've decided. Now take him out of my sight!” he thundered.

"No, I want—”

"It’s not a matter of what you want. Nigel, please.”

Nigel respected his King’s decision. "So be it!” he yelled, officially ending the meeting.

.

"Wait.” Varian swayed away from the touch of Pete’s hand. "Why...”

The Queen didn’t like the sound of his voice. She shuddered slightly when he pointed at her with his finger, remembering the time she'd spent in captivity of this boy, but there was also a part of her that wanted to free him from those heavy chains and press her hand against his forehead.

Frederic commanded the guards to stop with his hand. "Do you have any questions?”

"You can’t just—I mean, this—why?” he stumbled, looking humiliated. "Why does this... what for?"

Arianna addressed him softly. "What’s the matter, Varian?”

"He pushed me away,” his old loyalty showed through as he feverishly spoke like nobody was listening.

Silence fell. No one knew how to respond to this unexpected display of emotion, the meeting losing all its formality. The Queen fought the natural urge to go and comfort the child in front of her.

"Varian,” Rapunzel said cautiously. "I know it sometimes felt like it, but you have to remem—”

He snapped angrily. "No, I mean literally, if he didn’t push me out of the way it would’ve been me who got stuck in there and everything would be alright in the world!” His raised voice echoed in the hall.

Shocked, Queen Arianna exchanged glances with her husband. She saw true sadness in Frederic’s eyes. In a matter of seconds, they connected in their pain upon hearing how Quirin saved his son—they both knew that they would do the same for Rapunzel.

"The sentence is stupid,” Varian whispered.

The Royal Couple watched as their daughter stood up and approached him with a fleeting hope that he’ll accept her.

"Don’t.” He took a step back.

.

Varian felt truly ill.

The edges around him suddenly softened and everything felt like a hot, foggy dream. His heartbeat pounded loudly in his ears as a sudden wave of heat hit his torso.

He didn’t want their proud kindness—it was disconcerting and it didn't even make any sense. He wanted them to hate him as much as he hated them, he wanted to fight them. He didn’t want to have to deal with being spared. Not again.

He wouldn't leave without a word.

Running away isn’t going to fix a problem.

Only now did he start feeling put on the spot, the heavy air pressuring him to vomit the truth out. A horrible feeling crept from his stomach to his head. Everything became soft and fuzzy, the world swayed and Varian almost sensed himself disconnecting from his own body.

"It was an accident,” his mouth was numb and alien. "I wanted to help. I wanted to help C-Corona… stop the rocks.”

But there is more to them than you can possibly imagine!

Space around him seemed to curve without direction. A young female voice wanted to know what he was talking about.

"The formula didn’t deliver quite the reaction we’d hoped,” he muttered.

Ruddiger, who had heard that before, chittered alarmingly, looking at someone. Multiple people were speaking.

"What did you do?” asked the King.

At the sound of this question, Varian's senses painfully came back—he could almost feel reality violently clicking into place. "What, did you think the amber just spontaneously sprouted from the rocks in my lab? I tried to get rid of them, to help save your kingdom, stupid as I was, while you sat in your safe castle pretending they don’t exist!”

No, son, don’t!

He squeezed his eyes shut for a second when this memory stabbed him in the chest.

His anger was short-lived, as if his body refused to endure any wave of emotion for too long. Rage was rather a sting now, a single cramp of heart, quickly stifled by the weight of something unspecified, threatening to cave in on him any moment.

.

Frederic didn’t know where to settle his gaze. Stan placed a hand on Varian’s shoulder, either to steady him or to prevent him from pouncing on anyone. Rapunzel raised her hands to her mouth, so Eugene approached her, placing a hand on her back. Arianna sat on the edge of her throne as if she was ready to run hug her daughter, or maybe even Varian himself.

"I did it… I did it,” the boy mumbled weakly, as if one outburst of anger drained all his energy. He had gotten so pale even his lips were barely there.

All of a sudden, anger completely floated away and Frederic found himself left with shame alone. The reality of his mistakes weighed down on his shoulders, along with immense grief for Quirin, for Varian, for them all. Only once in his life, he had felt such failure—when he hadn't protected his newborn daughter enough.

Nigel broke the silence with an apologetic expression. "Your Majesty. Shall I..." he lowered his voice for the sake of decency. "Shall I include the possible murder of the leader of Old Corona on the list?”

"What?!” shouted Rapunzel. Varian didn’t react.

"No, this is speculation,” Frederic answered sharply. "It needs not to be added to the charges.” He kept his gaze fixed on Varian, who had turned into an embodiment of all his failures as a king. Frederic felt an illogical urge to ask someone for forgiveness.

"Yes, Your Majesty,” the royal advisor complied meekly.

"I did it,” Varian raised his tormented gaze and spoke louder, more consciously. "There you have it.”

Without the thick layer of rage, the King’s view of the situation turned into a load in his stomach. He couldn’t stand looking in those eyes, looking tortured, tortured by him. He lowered his gaze to the boy’s shackled wrists before finding Rapunzel's unnerved face.

Eugene hugged her once her voice broke. "You only wanted to help… Dad, he only wanted to help,” she addressed Frederic as though he needed further convincing about Quirin’s entrapment.

"It didn’t matter before, why would it matter now?” Varian’s comment sounded distant and stiff.

"Enough!” suddenly cried Arianna. When Frederic looked at her, he realized her eyes were starting to glisten. "Let’s not discuss this now, take him to the medic already!”

Frederic blinked at her. "Yes, take him. Uh, the sentence is unchanged. So ordered.”

He had failed.

Chapter Text

Varian was freezing, save for a couple of hot flashes coming along with dizziness, which made it almost welcome.

He could barely focus, his throbbing head filled with the images of fear contorting his dad’s face and then of the three figures looking down on him from their thrones. He took a trembling, controlled breath trying to ease the tightness of his chest.

"Orders are orders,” said one of the guards when he suggested to just go directly to his cell. Ruddiger seemed to support the idea, walking almost ahead of them.

"Yeah, like they suddenly care about what happens to me.” His insult lacked force, as he didn’t dare to even raise his voice too much, waves of nausea lingering in his churning stomach.

Not again, Varian...

For some reason, the shorter guard decided to lightly answer him. "Of course they do.”

They entered a hallway Varian had never seen before. It was similar to all the other places in the palace—wide, bright and clean. The walls were covered with art. Suddenly, they swayed dangerously and a weird sensation of freefall overtook him for a moment.

"Please, just take me to my cell,” Varian pleaded when another surge of dizziness hit him.

"We can’t, stop that.”

That is enough, Varian.

"Yes, sir,” he whispered.

The guards tightened their grasp on his shoulders.

They passed through a large door. Behind it, there was a yet another corridor, this one quite narrow and void of any flowers or decorations besides a few candle holders. There were numerous doors, tightly placed in the wall on their right. Varian supposed they were the physicians’ chambers.

One of them opened, but the man who appeared in it wasn’t a royal medic. It was the Captain of the Guard. He was clutching his chest and wincing in pain, supporting himself on the handle.

Varian knew exactly what had happened to the Captain.

Varian, watch out!

Ruddiger stopped in his tracks and sent him a bit of a reproachful look.

"Hey!” Stan gave a surprised yell when Varian’s eyelids suddenly drooped closed and his cheek hit the floor with a thud.

.

Despite an invitation, Cass didn’t go to the sentencing. She preferred to help her dad to get back on his feet rather than busy herself with the fate of the one who'd hurt him.

He didn’t really express it much, but she knew that her adoptive father was thankful for her care and company. If it weren’t for her and Owl, the man would be probably dying of boredom. Keeping him in one place was still a challenge though, since he wanted to return to his duties as quickly as possible. Holding himself to stupidly high standards, as ever.

But today, he was finally seeing Aldred, the most experienced royal physician, for the last time. He wasn’t exactly going to be chasing criminals right away, but he could at least command his guards again.

Cassandra patiently waited for him to make his way out of the room, after he had refused her help. Stubborn old man , she thought affectionately.

As soon as they exited Aldred’s chamber, her heart sank.

Stan and Pete were lifting a half-limp figure off the floor by his arms. Varian looked like he barely managed to pull his feet under himself, haphazardly slumping against Pete. His head was slightly lolling forward, the dark bangs sticking to his forehead and covering half of his ashen face.

"Varian!” she exclaimed against herself. "What’s happening?”

Stan shrugged in her direction as they walked past her, Varian practically being dragged. The door closed behind them.

Her dad hissed in pain.

"Stop being so uncooperative, let me help you,” Cass rolled her eyes and took his arm.

She glanced at the door dividing her from the former friend. No. She will not feel sorry for him.

But what happened?

Oh, damn it!

.

Aldred lived almost half a century—and he believed that age was a value in itself, for with frailty came wisdom and experience.

He had the luck to draw his own from many places—most notably, he'd gained his broad medical knowledge through the good offices of the man who had extracted the magical flower’s essence himself. Tending to Queen Arianna and watching all the traditional medicinal methods they’d tried had been an honor. What made Aldred different from the younger, inexperienced medic from nineteen years ago was perspective and responsibility.

Now, as he looked down at the youngster in front of him, he thought about how dangerous the lack of these qualities could be when it accompanied tragic loss, a strong will, and a brilliant mind.

The boy was pressing an ice bag to the right side of his face, soothing the cheek he had smashed on the floor just moments ago. It was swollen, but overall looked good.

Aldred had instructed him to lay down multiple times, but to no avail—Varian’s pale trembling figure remained seated on the edge of the examination table. At least he'd complied when the medic had told him to breathe deeply, and he'd accepted a glass of water.

It was difficult to imagine the wrath of this teenager when he was sitting there, looking like the embodiment of misfortune. As a royal physician, Aldred hadn’t seen many cases of neglect, but his current patient’s state seemed to be a prime example of it.

Varian's gaze remained fixed on his hands when somebody knocked on the door.

"Wait here,” Aldred put down the jar of herbs he was holding and went to answer whoever demanded to come in.

After he opened the door ajar, he was greeted by a crestfallen, bearded face of King Frederic. His Majesty leaned down and murmured subduedly, "Hello, Aldred. Is Varian here?”

"Yes, Your Majesty,” he whispered, looking back at his patient, who was streaking his raccoon’s fur despite the physician’s advice to leave the pet alone until it got checked over as well.

"Could we have a word?”

"Of course,” Aldred complied with the request, sliding out of the room and closing the door behind him. "I assume you’d like to know something about the boy, Sire?”

"We’d like to know what state he’s in,” the ruler of Corona answered dismissively.

The medic hesitated. "Well, physically… He is a bit malnourished, dehydrated and quite fatigued... seems exhausted, to be fair. He has a slight fever, but it isn’t unexpected. He has fainted on his way here, probably due to the fatigue. It's nothing serious, really.”

The medic wasn’t sure if Varian’s distant, unfocused behavior was a result of his physical condition, stress, or a symptom of illness. He decided not to guess aloud, which would only worry His Majesty further than he already seemed.

King Frederic closed his eyes and sighed deeply.

"Your Majesty?”

"Can I talk to him?” he asked. "Just for a minute.”

Aldred affirmed with a small bow and gently pushed the door open.

Chapter Text

Varian’s head was still hot and spinning, even though the man had made him spend eternity with his head between his knees and then poked and prodded him for another eternity.

Fortunately, the medic had finally left, giving Varian some time alone. He wished he could lie down, close his eyes and calm his breathing, but he couldn’t do that. Not yet, not with anyone besides Ruddiger around.

He was weak and at their mercy. It felt disgraceful. Once again, he asked himself, what would Dad think ?

Varian’s moment of loneliness ended too soon, with two large silhouettes entering the room. The royal physician—what was his name? Alfred? Albert?—grabbed a mortar and pestle before disappearing in one of the smaller, side doors.

The other man was the King himself. Varian reacted with a spasm of anger, quickly dulled by his raging nausea.

"You’ll spend the night where Aldred deems appropriate,” said the man. "Arianna would kill me if I sent you down to the dungeons now.”

It took Varian a moment to figure out that he meant the Queen; everything was so insufferably muddled. The royal looked at him severely, as though he wanted to assure Varian that he would still be closely watched.

A pang of silence filled the room, clearly making the King uncomfortable. "I don’t know if we can forgive each other, Varian. Actually, I don’t think I can ever truly forgive you,” he broke the quietude. "But I want to help you.”

Varian scoffed. Ruddiger brushed his tail over his arm, either to give him solace or to forestall all the rude answers that came to his friend's mind.

"I am a king. The happiness of my subjects is the measure of how good of a king,” Frederic unexpectedly lowered himself to the alchemist's eye-level and rested his hands on the table, at Varian’s sides, in a weirdly imploring way. "And so, I want you to be happy.”

Ruddiger made a content sound as His Majesty’s firm gaze met with Varian’s widened eyes. He didn’t know how to feel about the suddenly passionate tone. Frederic’s face was definitely too close to him. Too tired to ponder it all, he held onto the one thing he logically knew for sure—that he couldn’t trust any words and declarations, or lower his guard. He shouldn’t let himself get distracted from his goals.

But how he longed for it to be true.

"And Quirin is an old friend of mine. I will do everything I can to free him.”

Varian almost cursed him but managed to bite his tongue just in time. Instead, he finally uttered a single word. "Okay.”

"You don’t believe me, do you?” the King looked at him intensively, as if he tried to decipher him. His whole posture broadcasted unspoiled sadness. For some reason, Varian suddenly realized that he was talking to somebody’s dad. Rapunzel’s dad.

King Frederic straightened up. Varian didn’t follow him with his eyes, considering the strange thought. At that moment, he missed his own father even more—he wanted Dad to tell him that he was there. Varian felt a weird strong desire to be hugged by him, or come into any physical contact with him. Simultaneously, he really wanted the King to back off.

Of course I don’t believe you , he thought bitterly.

The physician poked his head into the room. "Your Majesty?” he addressed the man quietly, as though he was afraid of interrupting something significant or startling a fragile animal.

"Come, Aldred,” the King turned to leave. "Ah, yes. Uh, your pet raccoon—”

"Ruddiger,” Varian prompted hoarsely. He hated how defeated he sounded.

"Yes, Ruddiger,” Frederic repeated the name. "You are, of course, allowed to keep him. He can stay with you if he wants to.”

The raccoon pressed his head against Varian’s chest, apparently wanting to show that he indeed wasn’t going anywhere. Varian nodded.

"So, um.” The King grunted awkwardly and left without finishing the sentence.

The medic closed the door behind Frederic and turned his attention to the patient, taking a piercing look at him. "How are you feeling?”

Varian turned his head away. It was difficult to believe that he had longed for this question so much just a couple of weeks ago. Right now, he didn’t want to be asked that anymore. The man probably just tried to assess if he was going to pass out like a weakling again.

Well, he wouldn’t give him the pleasure.

"I know what happened,” the physician said softly to the back of the boy’s head.

Varian snorted. Of course, he knew, everyone knew. Rumors spread like a disease in Corona, so the man probably even knew the sentence.

He took a breath to answer, but just as he did it, the room violently spun around him once more and he clenched his fingers buried in Ruddiger’s fur.

Steady.

.

Aldred decided to keep nagging, in hopes he’ll at least calm Varian down. "Do you want to talk about it?”

"No,” he replied firmly. His voice sounded choked, revealing that he was barely stopping himself from vomiting, or maybe crying?

The physician rounded the narrow table and grabbed Varian’s chin to raise his head, so he could take a closer look at his face. He sighed when his patient pulled away from the touch.

"Lay down,” he tried again. The boy ignored it. "In fact, it would be best if you slept for a while. There’s a free bed in the room across.”

Varian quickly refused. "No.”

Nightmares, then. Or silly vigilance.

Choosing not to ask any more questions, Aldred turned around and retrieved a small glass vial containing a decoction of his own recipe. He then poured some crushed valerian root in there for good measure.

Mixing the substance by gently swirling the vessel in his hand, he faced Varian again. "This should help,” he said simply.

The boy seemed skeptical and maybe even a bit curious about the contents of the vial. "What will this do?”

"Knock you out.” Aldred shrugged. "Just induce a long, deep, dreamless sl—”

Varian took the container and gulped it all down at once.

 

-x-

 

Stepping over what was left of the threshold of Quirin’s house, Rapunzel held her breath. Carefully avoiding the rubble surrounding her, she thought about the day this place had gotten destroyed. How strange it'd been to see the goofy alchemist like that… how scary.

She could still feel the sheer terror she’d felt, looking at her mother in chains, so close to sharing Quirin’s fate. Her stomach knotted into a ball at the memory of begging Varian to have mercy on her mom.

Rapunzel stopped at the edge of the gaping hole in the floor, a terrifying reminder of his rage. Her hand wandered to Pascal, sitting on her shoulder, as ever. The chameleon gently patted it in a comforting gesture.

"I’m sorry,” she whispered, looking up at the frozen figure in front of them.

Her thoughts ventured to the moment when Varian realized that even if she’d gone with him on the day of the storm, it wouldn’t have worked anyway. She wondered what she would do if she was in his shoes—it must’ve been quite heartbreaking to see that all he’d done, wrong and hurtful, and life-ruining, was for nothing. And he had refused to face that truth—apparently, it was safer to hate her for not being able to help, even after he had forced her to try in such a hurtful way.

Who knew what was buried under this anger? Rapunzel didn’t believe it was really mere reproach or hatred fueling it. By fixating on her, Varian must've been trying to escape something else. It was difficult to imagine this grief… or guilt. Now that she knew exactly what happened to Quirin, it all made much more sense.

Her heart cried over Varian. What did one have to go through to twist this way?

Rapunzel's eyes stung at the thought of somebody else, somebody she'd been trying to banish from her mind for the longest time before she had accepted them as a part of her, forever ingrained into her memory and identity.

Gothel. "Mother".

She had lost a parent too—she'd lost her hours before she'd crumbled to dust.

Looking at the intimidating monolith, the Princess imagined her real parents—the ones who cared, who loved her—stuck inside it. How much time had Varian spent there alone?

She put Pascal down on a desk, scattered with notes, drawings, and crumpled paper balls.

The amber was cold to touch. She placed both of her hands on its surface. She wrapped her hair around it. She sang the healing incantation.

Nothing.

When a single tear fell from her eyelashes onto the crystal, Rapunzel observed it without hope. It trailed down the smooth surface and disappeared on the floor.

And then there were some more tears.

Chapter Text

As soon as Varian opened his burning eyes, he wanted to close them again. The ceiling above him was dazzling, even though nothing shined through the big window. When he sat up, he realized that he had been moved and someone had draped several chunky blankets over him.

His body felt sore—he must’ve been laying down for quite some time. Powerful stuff, that mixture. Some barely contained part of him briefly wondered if he could steal it to give it a closer look, or maybe use it to his advantage.

But then he turned his head to see Ruddiger, curled up next to him. He was napping with his head resting on his own bushy tail.

When Varian watched his friend sleep, observing the motion of his breathing, he thought back to the Captain of the Guards. From what Cassandra had told him, the man was a tough one—relentless and strong, just like his daughter. She’d spoken about him with respect and pride poking through her benign annoyance.

He wished he could stop thinking about fathers, especially this particular one.

He remembered his last thought before he had passed out like a feeble old lady. As the Captain had cringed, walking stiffly, Varian had imagined his bruised skin beneath the golden chest plate. Torn by Ruddiger’s claws. And it had been Varian’s own doing. He inhaled sharply after this idea forced itself into the forefront in his mind once again. He put his hand on the raccoon’s back very gently, but Ruddiger awakened right away. His gaze seemed a little bit nervous until it settled on Varian.

"Ruddy,” he whispered when a pair of confused eyes blinked up at him. "I’m sorry I gave you that formula.”

He didn’t need to say anything else about it.

Ruddiger snuggled to Varian, bumping the wet nose on the alchemist’s chin before shoving his little head under it. Varian immediately pulled the blanket over his friend and wrapped his arm around the raccoon’s warm body, striving for some mutual consolation.

.

Just after sunrise, Aldred went to check on Varian, an herbal formula in his hands, only to find the boy still asleep, despite the fact that the sedative concoction should’ve worn off hours ago. The physician raised his eyebrows, calculating the time since the afternoon of the day before.

Several creases on Varian’s forehead, along with the sporadic twitching of his eyelids, proved that the medication was no longer at work. Aldred smiled lightly, relieved that the patient slept of his own accord.

He was curled up around his raccoon, hugging it tightly. It seemed like an uncomfortable position, but the animal didn’t move an inch, only following Aldred with its deep, bead-like eyes, surrounded by a black mask.

Knowing the power of rest, the medic decided not to wake his patient yet. Besides, something in Ruddiger’s glance told him that if he tried to disturb Varian’s sleep, he would have his own bitten hand to tend to.

Aldred placed the glass of the strengthening concoction on a bedside table and poured in a few drops of an appetite-promoting one. He cursed himself for not bringing some honey, as it occurred to him that the mixture would be quite disgusting.

Shrugging, he carefully placed a clinical thermoscope between the boy’s parted lips. Varian stirred, frowning a bit. The physician instinctively put his hand on his head for a second before sitting down on a nearby chair.

In an instant, Aldred’s thoughts were with another patient, a Royal Guard with an aching knee. He also remembered that Friedborg should appear any moment now to fetch some medicine for Queen Arianna, who sometimes had some trouble sleeping, ever since her kidnapping.

After the physician removed the thermoscope—no fever, thankfully—he closed up the curtains, so the rising sun wouldn’t awake his young patient. He closely looked at Varian again, more out of habit than necessity, and turned to leave.

Just as he opened the door though, he was surprised to find the Queen herself waiting for him in the corridor.

"Oh, Your Majesty,” he rushed to greet her. "Is anything the matter?”

Still vividly remembering her mysterious illness from years ago, Aldred’s mind momentarily conjured many worrying scenarios. The sight of King Frederic leaning against the opposite wall in a very non-royal manner didn’t help his anxiety.

"No, oh, Aldred,” the Queen placed her hands on the man’s shoulders in a grateful gesture. "I am in perfect health, thanks to you. I’d… Um, I’d like to see Varian.”

The medic raised an eyebrow. This was the second time a royal visited the infirmary these days, and it was all about this boy. "He’s sleeping, Ma’am.”

Queen Arianna looked justifiably surprised. "Just for a second. Please, Aldred?” she addressed him like a good old friend.

Well, who was he to refuse? He moved out of the way with a small bow.

Her Majesty soundlessly entered the room. It was fairly gloomy now, with the raccoon’s gleaming eyes and the gap between the curtains being the only sources of light.

She didn’t approach the boy who was still laying tense under the blankets. Only now did Aldred see how candid of a scene that was—a child curled up on himself, looking strangely similar to a little boy haunted by bad dreams. Even if he sucked his thumb, it would fit the scene perfectly, not looking out of place at all. Suddenly, Aldred felt awkward—like a peeper, an intruder, like he shouldn't have let Her Majesty in.

The Queen took it all in with a sad, thoughtful expression. Whatever she had expected to see, it was impossible to tell if she found it. She turned around and briefly touched her medic’s shoulder. "Thank you.”

And just like that, she was gone, not even waiting for his answer. Through the door still open, he saw the King nodding to him in greeting before he took off to follow her.

"What was that about again?” Aldred questioned under his breath.

The raccoon tilted its head.

Chapter Text

Frederic kept pace with his wife, who was calmly walking down the hall, and fruitlessly chattered about the weather and the birds. She was deep in thought, her focused features painting a beautiful, gentle picture. As he admired her pensive profile, so similar to Rapunzel’s and yet so different, he thought, this has to be protected .

Nothing pained his heart more than waking up to her sadness those past couple of days. Frederic struggled with his feelings about Varian, wavering between anger and guilt, but when it came to Arianna, his emotions were much easier to read he worried about her. Constantly.

He saw the shadow that would pass his darling’s face ever since Rapunzel had asked for a carriage. He knew how bad it stung to part with their long-lost daughter once again, see her embarking on a dangerous journey. While Frederic tried his best to accept it, Arianna made it look easy to be supportive; but he could see the little sparks of old sorrows finding their way to the Queen’s eyes.

And then there was the boy.

When Frederic took her hand, she graced him with a cute smile that didn’t fully reach the whole of her face. He held the door open for her and they stepped outside, to the royal gardens.

"So, could you explain now... why did we just do that?” he carefully asked, suddenly very interested in the spots of sunlight dancing in her hair, turning it slightly ginger.

There was the boy.

Arianna answered nonchalantly. "I wanted to take look at him. Rapunzel said they’re going for a little trip around the island before packing, so today we have a romantic breakfast for two.”

The King grinned at his wife’s ability to turn anything around and make it fun. It was a quality she had definitely passed on to their daughter.

Just when he thought of Rapunzel, he frowned again. Losing his family, or seeing their suffering, was the greatest fear of his and also the only one he would ever admit.

"I don’t like this,” he sighed.

They sat down at the table, already set up.

"I know you don’t.”

Something weird lingered in the air between them, her melancholy uncomfortably contrasting with his nervous movements. Frederic wondered whether his wife seemed this quiet before, or only after visiting her kidnapper. Was her calmness just a façade? How could she, after all these years, still be such a mystery?

Was this about the boy?

He couldn’t really shake off this sensation of shame that haunted him ever since he'd announced his verdict. It felt like it had always been there, fed for years, until it had finally got a voice. A young one.

Frederic spoke gently. "You’re still thinking about Varian.”

"No,” the woman said with a playful smile and put some food on her plate. "You are, though.”

Oh. Perhaps he was.

Arianna must’ve noticed how her husband’s back hunched under the weight of his conflicted feelings because she looked him in the eye with concern.

"I just worry about you, Arianna,” it slipped out from under his heart.

She sighed. "Look, I’ve spent quite some time looking at him at work,” she ignored Frederic flinching at the word. "And the way he everything about it was so intense, desperate. Hard to keep up. At the time I was scared of what he might do and I really just wanted to get through to him, but… I can’t forget these couple of hours. This is… difficult.”

Frederic’s chest tightened. "Are you still afraid?”

"I am, in a way,” she answered calmly. If this question took her by surprise, she didn’t show it. "But seeing him just now, it honestly helped me. Now that I’m safe, I just can’t see anything more than I mean it also saddened me.”

"I wish you wouldn’t think about him,” the King bared his feelings, kind of embarrassed. "And for Rapunzel to stay away from him forever.”

"Fred

He raised his hand, asking Arianna to let him finish. "But, just recently I have learned that I can’t just ignore the results of my own wrongdoings or hide my loved ones in towers. That’s why I will let Rapunzel go follow the rocks. And that’s why I’ll try my best to help the boy.”

His wife stared at him with a pleased and weirdly intrigued expression.

"That’s what I’ve essentially told him anyway,” he added to break the silence.

Arianna smiled beautifully like only she ever could. "I’m proud of you, honey. This was a kind sentence.”

"Well I don’t know if it was a fair one,” the King admitted bitterly. "Partially, I still want to lock him up and never set my eyes on him again. But the rest of me is mourning all the mistakes I’ve made.”

"Oh, Frederic,” she covered his hand with hers. She didn’t need to say anything about misplaced blame. It would be okay that was the mere message of this loving gesture. "Don't be so hard on yourself. I think you did the right thing. We’ll help him.”

The monarch couldn’t help the feeling that there was something wrong with the joyful determination in his wife’s eyes. Something dangerous to her.

"You know that with this sentence, we’re practically taking him under our care?”

"It’s what somebody should’ve done before.” The woman slightly furrowed her brows.

She was right, but it deepened his worries. He understood Arianna’s compassion, and he truly loved it, but he couldn’t help but fret. It was clear that his wife got invested in the alchemist’s situation and grew to care about him. Frederic remembered that she had never got to care for a child this age. What would happen if she got too close? If there was no hope for the boy and she'd have to watch their help turn out to be futile? What if he made her remember the time he took her prisoner, what if he exploited her care or rejected her... or what if he accepted it and suffered nevertheless? Even without freedom and weapons, Varian undoubtedly could still hurt her greatly.

Arianna’s thoughtful voice interrupted his fearful thoughts. "He’s fifteen and he’s lost everything.”

Something in Frederic faltered at that wording. The way she talked about it, calling a spade a spade, made his mind jump back to the painful years after Rapunzel's abduction.

Lost everything?

He remembered the ache he had felt for eighteen long years after Rapunzel’s abduction. The night the Princess had disappeared was still an unwanted memory. He had held the love of his life, sobbing into his coat, his whole world threatening to burst. It was this pain of clinging onto each other in despair what made Frederic understand Quirin’s sacrifice so well. No parent should ever lose their child.

He didn’t know how he would’ve survived this if it wasn’t for his wife. A part of Arianna had been lost, seemingly taken away along with Rapunzel, but the Queen was still always there for him. She was not only his lover and best friend but his refuge, an inspiration, a companion in suffering. They had carried each other through that, always missing halves of their hearts, but not ever letting each other give up hope.

But, The King remembered, even all their mutual love and support hadn’t stopped him from becoming a harsh, suspectful ruler. An echo of old blame appeared among all the fresh. How many people had he hastily sentenced to the most severe punishments in hopes of finding a trace of their daughter?

What would he have done without Arianna then? Or Corona? If he hadn’t had people to count on, and if nobody had needed him ?

If she only knew how many emotions coursed through him as he watched her reaching for a glass of juice.

Someone was always forcefully taking Frederic’s family away from him and it had changed him, made him a harder person. But strangely, he discovered a wide reserve of pity for Varian. Perhaps Arianna had taught him more lessons than his hatred for the woman he knew as Gothel.

Again, the King wondered what he would’ve felt if he had been alone after his loss. If he had been a young boy with a shattered world view.

For the hundredth time, Frederic was surprised to find that the solution to his struggle was trusting Arianna. What she believed in, he would always give a chance to.

"I’ll do everything I can,” he promised, hoping it would be worth the risk.

Chapter Text

"Should I take these too?” Rapunzel held up the third pair of gloves, making Cass roll her eyes. "Oh! Look what I have here!”

The Princess moved her wrist to send a silly toy with a string attached to her finger into a spin. It was her hey-hey – at least that’s what they all called it by now.

Cass couldn’t help but laugh. "Raps, I hate to remind you, but we only have to pack necessary stuff.”

"I knooow,” her friend groaned. "But it’s so hard to leave all this here! These are all… memories!” Rapunzel put the toy back onto a shelf with a jokingly pained expression.

Cassandra unconsciously slipped her hand into a pocket, playing with a piece of jewelery she used to sometimes carry around. It looped around her thumb as she fiddled with it, smiling at Rapunzel’s cheerfulness.

"Aw, does this apply to food too?” Lance poked his head in the room before letting Eugene pass. "I mean, we wanted to take some cupcakes, you know, so we don’t miss Corona too much.”

Raps laughed. "Cupcakes are absolutely going with us! Non-negotiable!”

Letting go of the necklace in her pocket, Cassandra snatched a cake from the basket in Lance’s hands. She didn’t really fancy any sweets but felt a need to busy her hands with something.

It was funny how, sometimes, Rapunzel could just drop her worries and throw herself into anything life had in store for her. Even though it annoyed Cass from time to time, it was a skill she wished she possessed. The Princess was so excited to see the world, while all she could do was worry about its dangers, those ahead and those left behind.

"You okay, dark one?” asked Eugene.

She watched her best friend as she smoothed a piece of the mysterious scroll they still had. Rapunzel’s eyes expressed many things, even anxiety and some sadness, but the most prominent was this intense curiosity. No matter how uncertain they all were, Rapunzel was a beam of hope and fun, so innocent and so strong at the same time.

Cassandra turned around from the Raps, who was still examining the scroll for the thousandth time, and sighed. "Yeah, I just can’t wait to be done. Packing is torture.”

Preparing for their journey wasn’t exactly the only thing on her mind, but if she were to complain to anyone, Eugene definitely wouldn’t be that person.

They were leaving the next morning, with errands ran, some goodbyes already said and a carriage waiting. Cassandra was never asked if she actually wants to go, but it was probably because it was so obvious that she would. It was – she’d go crazy not knowing what happens to Rapunzel next, or if they’re safe, or what the rocks mean.

Lance unceremoniously laid down on Rapunzel’s bed. "Hurry up then." He yawned. "Everyone’s ready, except for you two.”

"See?!” Cass addressed the Princess, who left the scroll and joined them for a cupcake. "I told you!”

"Aw, but you’re not ready either, are you?” Eugene teased in a sing-song voice.

"Actually, I am. I just have a few little things to pack, that’s all.”

The lady-in-waiting sat down at the windowsill, where Rapunzel left the piece of her scroll. She felt a little pang of annoyance it was the most important piece of parchment in all Seven Kingdoms and it just laid there, forgotten. They really should keep a close eye on it.

Among the lively chatter that filled the room, Cass heard the door creaking and then Rapunzel’s voice. "Oh, there you are.”

She didn’t think much about the silence that suddenly swallowed all the laughter, until she turned around to see two royal guards, a pair of shackles, a bruise standing out on a freckled cheek and an odd blue streak of hair.

Varian stepped into the room, pushed by one of the guards. Cassandra frowned, remembering the time she last saw him. They shouldn’t push him. And who punched him?

Of course, she was only concerned about their professionalism. If she was a guard, which she really deserved to be, she wouldn’t behave like that. As for Varian himself, she didn’t care. Obviously.

She realized that her hand found its way to her pocket again. It was silly to fiddle with trifles when there was no reason to be nervous at all. She really should stop concerning herself with Varian in any case. He was definitely not a danger anymore, weak, out of ideas and apparently hurt… not that she felt sorry for him.

Or maybe she did, but it was an ironic kind of sorry. She didn’t care.

"You hit him?” she asked, only out of curiosity.

.

Rapunzel gave Lance his basket back, approaching the newcomers. The guards politely bowed to her and looked down, as if they expected Varian to do so as well. He didn’t, looking straight ahead. The faint spreading purple a bit above his clenched jaw made Rapunzel feel a rush of casual sympathy.

"I wouldn’t dare,” one of the guards assured.

"What happened then? Why is he hurt?”

At the sound of her voice, Varian’s expression changed just for a second but it was enough for her to notice it dripping with anger and reproach. The Princess quieted, taken aback. She didn’t know what she had expected, but it still stung to be looked at in such a way. After the sentencing, after Varian’s testimony, she thought there had been some… progress.

Another guard hurried with a response. "Oh, that’s from the

"I’m not hurt. And I can’t help you even if I wanted.” Interrupting, the alchemist looked at her, all intense emotions gone from his face.

Eugene’s eyes darted from Varian to his partner. "Wait, what?”

From the corner of her eye, Rapunzel saw Cassandra moving. She stood up but didn’t come closer, choosing to observe the situation from her place next to the window. The Princess turned her head to look at her best friend, only to be met with a questioning, irritated gaze.

She shifted her attention back to Varian. "I just need some more info.”

"Listen, I don’t really know anything, okay?” he answered calmly, albeit hostile.

"What is this about exactly?” Cassandra spoke up. "Raps?”

"I sent for him. I want to talk about the scroll for a bit,” the Princess explained. "I mean, he’s the one who led us to it. Don’t you think some information will come in handy?”

Silence fell for a moment, disturbed only by the creaking of Rapunzel’s bed as Lance put down the basket.

Cass finally approached them. "Okay. Sit,” she commanded.

Varian took a step forward, but didn’t sit on the chair she pointed to.

"Fine, then don’t sit,” she said harshly. "So, what do you know about all this?”

Rapunzel didn’t like the way her friend handled this. She wanted to talk, not interrogate the boy. She put a hand on Cassandra’s shoulder to ease her attitude.

"I told you everything already. I had no business in lying about it,” replied Varian.

"Well, where did you find the graphtic?” Eugene asked. The way he spoke revealed that any anger he felt towards the alchemist lacked passion. Rapunzel knew that her partner only wanted for her to be safe and happy, so as long as she wasn’t in danger, he actually… didn’t care all that much. He wasn’t one to hold grudges.

"My dad’s stuff. I went through it to to check I found it in his chest.”

Rapunzel saddened. "And what you told me about it?”

"All true. The Sundrop is a counterpart to whatever power causes these rocks to grow, that’s why I I mean yeah,” Varian stumbled. "Only I thought it was the flower first, while it was you.”

When the alchemist pointed his finger at her, Eugene protectively moved in front of the Princess. "And?”

"That’s it. I don’t know anything else besides the fact that the Sundrop isn’t stronger than the rocks. If it was, it would’ve shattered the amber.” There was a barely noticeable tremble in Varian’s voice.

"But,” Rapunzel thought aloud, "I am fine, so that means the rocks aren’t stronger than the Sundrop either. Right?”

The boy shrugged. "I guess.”

He refused to meet her gaze, looking sideways, two dark shadows hanging under his eyes. He looked better, more focused and present, but it seemed that coldness and anger had returned to his face once despair had left it.

"It did hurt though, didn’t it?” Varian added quietly, causing Eugene to cover Rapunzel even more. His posture looked like he was ready to throw the boy across the room if he thought he had to.

But there was no need to protect her. She had found her strength the second she saw the pain on Cassandra’s face, trapped in the automaton’s grip. And so she defeated him. Varian couldn’t hurt anyone again she wouldn’t let him. She put her hand on Eugene’s shoulder to reassure him, and answered seriously, "Yes.”

An inscrutable expression dawned on the alchemist’s face and their eyes met.

She felt an uncomfortable knot of regret and worry tightening in her stomach. Rapunzel’s harshness was short-lived, quickly replaced by a sense of care. There was still something dear to her in this face, even when it accused her and scared her. For a second, there was nothing she more desperately wanted than for him to smile at her and say something dorky.

Even looking at him was painful. She needed him to understand, to see everything as she saw it.

"Varian, please,” she tried. "You know I couldn’t help you during the storm.”

And he laughed, with a laugh completely void of humor. "Okay, so is that all?”

Cass got closer and handed her the graphtic. "Well, there’s no telling if the amber would’ve felt any pain”, she said matter-of-factly, ignoring Rapunzel’s attempt at convincing Varian to listen. "But I think we can safely assume that...”

She didn’t finish her sentence, looking at the alchemist. Her face was a carefully crafted mask of irritation and resentment, but Rapunzel knew her lady-in-waiting well enough. Only the Princess could know what the lowered corners of Cassandra’s lips meant; how her hands, buried deep in her pockets, probably balled into fists.

"Actually, we should finish talking alone. Meet me downstairs after you’re done,” said the brunette. "I still have to pack a few things.”

Rapunzel nodded, so Cass passed the two guards and opened the door.

She stopped though, when Varian spoke again. "Oh, so you’re going on a trip. Can I go back to being ignored now?”

And Cassandra snapped. The Princess could pinpoint the exact moment when her best friend’s temper spiked and got the best of her. The door banged loudly and Cass was in Varian’s face in a matter of seconds.

"Can you stop being a selfish idiot for one second?! I’m so sick of you playing victim! We all know why you blame everyone else but yourself, so just man up and face what you gotta face. You just don’t have the guts to admit what you’ve done!” She aggressively spread her arms. "Maybe take some responsibility for once in your life. Raps couldn’t help you one time with a situation you created what a crime! How about what you’ve done? You-you messed everything up yourself. We can start with how your dad actually

Suddenly, Varian crouched, his head hanging low above his knees. Rapunzel budged, her caring nature taking hold.

"Varian.” Cassandra’s arms flopped, not a trace of anger left in her voice. She somewhat helplessly looked around, as though she wanted them to do something, until her gaze settled on the Princess. Cass seemed upset, and almost like she was expecting Rapunzel to brighten up the situation.

Rapunzel made a mental note to talk with her lady-in-waiting about Varian, and what he had done to her. For now, though, she turned her attention to him.

The alchemist stayed in the weird crouching position, curled up as if his stomach hurt. His face was impossible to see, but the Princess imagined it very well. She thought about Varian’s lab, destroyed, chaotic, a honey-like monolith in the middle, looking so wrong and out of place.

"Could you leave us alone... for a moment?” Rapunzel asked quietly.

Chapter Text

"Could you leave us alone for a moment?”

Cassandra was gone as soon as she heard that, but Eugene just uncertainly looked at Rapunzel. Lance stopped at the door, waiting for his former partner in crime.

"Go after Cass, I’ll join you guys in a minute.” She smiled reassuringly, wishing for Eugene to check on her friend.

After the men left, she looked at the guards.

"I’m sorry, Your Highness,” spoke one of them. "We can’t leave.”

Rapunzel bit her lip. Of course, they wouldn’t leave her alone with someone who had threatened lives. It was a miracle that her dad even allowed them to talk.

"Okay.” She looked down. "Varian?”

She wanted to tell him how badly she wanted him to understand. While Cass’ words were harsh, she was right about one thing—Varian refused to look at what had happened from any other perspective than his own.

But Cass was also wrong about a lot of things, though Rapunzel didn’t really believe that that was what her best friend genuinely thought. What led to Varian’s betrayal was not one-sided. The boy wouldn’t have even touched those rocks with any sort of dangerous compounds if it weren’t for their fathers' dismissal of the problem. And after that, both Rapunzel and Varian had messed up many times. Badly. Mistakes of one had fed into the mistakes of the other until something in Varian just... cracked.

His reply sounded choked and forced. "What?”

The Princess believed she understood him. But she saw how she had rotted in his brain and she couldn’t bear being seen as this disgusting villain. Cassandra would definitely disapprove, maybe she’d even laugh at her, but Rapunzel felt desperate to correct him and make him understand her. Understand.

"Just look at this from my perspective,” she asked kindly. "You have to see why—”

"I don’t even want to wonder why.” Varian seemed almost as calm as her. She was glad that they at least talked more or less peacefully, until he continued. "Rapunzel, I lost everything. Everything, and I did it with my own hands, and you made me go through this alone !” The last word drowned in a growl-like sound as Varian’s knees finally met the floor instead of hovering above it.

He closed his eyes, trying to keep whatever he was experiencing at bay. One of the guards took a step in his direction in response to another sudden movement. Rapunzel bid him stop with her hand.

There it was again, the nagging thought of the weeks she had spent battling artist’s block and distracting herself with an important banquet. He was right—she had left him alone. She'd avoided this simple truth. But ever since her lonely visit to Old Corona, when she herself had cried at the feet of Varian’s father, she couldn’t anymore.

The Princess lowered herself to the ground in front of the boy, unable to stand above him when he clearly struggled. She didn’t dare to reach out but wouldn’t take her eyes off of him.

"I know,” she whispered. "I know. I did. But please, try to understand me.”

Varian looked at her again. "You think I don’t?”

She didn’t know what to say to that. So there they sat, apart and together, as though some shared wound threatened to rip open. For a minute, nothing was out there in the world besides this cold stare and the stinging sensation of her own eyes.

Maybe she didn’t deserve to be understood.

I hurt you. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I did.

She dropped her gaze, watching her fingers nibbling at a loose thread of her dress. When she looked back at him, Varian’s eyes still stared at her. And into those eyes, she silently recited her mistakes.

I didn’t listen to you. I let them throw you out into the cold. Abandoned you.

Because I was scared . Of being a queen one day, of difficult decisions, of responsibility, of guilt, of grief. I was scared.

In this weird moment of closure, Rapunzel realized that she… didn’t need Varian to understand. She didn’t have to explain why she had broken her promise or show him any reasoning behind her actions, or lack thereof. He knew all that—maybe in his heart, he even knew that it wasn't really her fault—and it did nothing to soothe his pain.

That’s what she learned from him right then—that one could know all about her regrets and motivations, and still not forgive her. That currently, besides making herself feel better, there was no point in proving Varian wrong.

And she didn't need him—not anymore—to confirm that despite her mistakes, she had always tried to do the best she could. Giving up on desperately forcing herself to forgive Varian, and to win his forgiveness too, she was finally beginning to forgive herself . She wasn't going to be so afraid of conflict anymore.

But there was something else Rapunzel still wanted regarding Varian, something way more important than validation and fondness. Rapunzel truly wanted to help him, for him , somehow. And on that one, she wouldn’t give up.

She rose.

From now on, she wouldn't try to force anything between them, and she'd just focus on helping Quirin. And maybe one day, when they’d be ready, she would get Varian’s friendship back.

"The rocks have stopped spreading.” Surely, everyone else would be against sharing any important information with the alchemist, but she did it anyway. It felt fair.

Varian’s eyes widened in surprise. Some sort of relief spread across his face for a beat. "How?”

"I don’t know yet. They stopped after I used them to fight.”

To fight you. To stop you.

She decided to tell him everything, just in case it would bring him any hope. "Remember when they knocked the wall down? They’re pointing somewhere… pointing me somewhere, and I’m done running from them. That’s the reason we’re going away, to follow them.” She stared into his round eyes, suddenly so pure and focused. "Whatever I’m going to find, I’ll get to the bottom of it. And then I will free your dad.”

Varian was silent. She wondered if he was aware of the muscles jumping in his throat, and the obvious glistening of his eyes. Rapunzel fought the urge to hug her former friend.

"I’ll do everything I can.” She hesitated before adding, "I promise.”

His face hardened, but she didn’t believe in his regained composure. "Same here, Princess. I will do what’s required.”

The blonde didn’t shudder. She sent him one last sad look and opened the door.

"Kiss Ruddiger from me”, she told him softly. "Bye, Varian.”

.

Frank forgot to bow to the Princess when he saw her leaving the room, too caught up in her conversation with the boy, who still reflected in the shiny floor, sat on his heels.

Before witnessing it, he hadn’t thought much about the young prisoner. Most of the guards didn’t like him, with Stan and Pete supposedly being the exception, but Frank didn’t really have an opinion. Maybe it was because of the fact that he hadn’t participated in the battle of Old Corona, hadn’t ever had to fight a metal human-like machine.

Right now, neither Frank, nor his fellow guard, did anything to make the boy stand up and get a move on.

"Yeah,” whispered Varian before he rose from his knees and turned around to them.

Frank wasn’t sure, but through the clinking of his heavy chains, he thought he heard a faint ‘bye’.

 

-x-

 

It wasn’t exactly true that Cassandra had yet to finish packing. She was finished. There was just one little thing she just decided on… in fact, she intended to leave it behind all along.

But she kept holding on to stupid sentiment, just like Rapunzel with her gloves, and her hey-hey, and her barely impaired sympathy for Varian. Her friend openly bared herself and held up her attachments for everyone to see.

Well, Raps just had no idea how hurt she could get by exposing those weak spots like that. Sometimes she was still so naïve, innocent, seeing good in everything even when it was nonsense.

Cassandra wasn’t like that.

Approaching the table by the door, she reached to her pocket and took its contents out.

Several things she decided to get rid of were already laying there—an old jagged knife, some excess rope, her neatly-folded blue dress. It was time to clean this all up, throw out some things, and put others in their place.

Her hand opened as she considered the fate of her Cassandrium necklace.

The purple crystal seemed to gleam, even in the gloom of her bedroom at this hour. She wouldn’t like to ever say it aloud, but it was a wonderful gift—it wasn’t only pretty and well-crafted. It meant something.

She sat down, thinking back to Corona’s science fair. Varian had been so eager to impress her, even more than she'd been to impress her dad that day. At first, she had dismissed him, until she realised how upsetting it could be—after all, she knew the feeling very well.

The science expo was a humbling memory for Cass. Once again, she had learned not to put her ambition before her promises and her friends.

But before she had, she'd let Varian down. She… broke her promise.

Suddenly, she remembered Varian’s distraught face when he had begged Rapunzel for help several months later.

She groaned. She had made it up to him—gave him the first place ribbon, helped him clean up the mess and even let him call her Cassie, a nickname she really wasn’t fond of. And he wasn’t mad at her.

That had been a mistake. She should’ve taken care of herself and not look back at him. Varian wasn’t a friend, he'd proved that lately. Painfully and violently.

She remembered the grimace distorting her father’s features, the giant metal hand closing on her, the dumb pain pressing on her ribcage and a groan escaping her mouth for the first time in ages—and the terrifying thought, "Is he really going to hurt me?”

Cassandra was angry at him. Not only for all he had done to them, but also for not being this funny, helpful, insufferable kid with a massive crush on her anymore. Not being such a—

No. What was the point in even remembering that? Looking back, on anything, never got her anywhere. No, she decided, she wasn’t even angry. It was better—she didn’t care. Not one bit.

The necklace clanked against the table.

Or at least she shouldn’t care. Not this much, especially.

Just after she picked up her last two bags to take them to their caravan, Eugene’s voice could be heard from behind the door. "Hey, dragon lady, you done?”

"Yes,” she answered and left the room.

Cassandrium shined slightly on its honourable place, the only thing left at the table.

 

-x-

 

Having said her goodbyes, Rapunzel sat on the caravan’s roof. She lovingly looked at the Corona Castle over her shoulder.

Don’t be too hard on him, Dad. She thought back to the conversation they had only minutes ago.

I’ll be sure to do everything I can to get him help , the King assured her then. As for Quirin, I’ll not give up until I find a way to free him.

Ultimately, she and Varian were both wrong. Again.

After what had transpired on the day of the storm, she thought he needed her perspective. But all he needed from Rapunzel now, was what he'd needed ever since that snowy day – her friendship and help, which was unavailable in that moment. She later failed to fulfil this need, ignoring the event for weeks and hoping that Varian just sorted it all out, too scared to face an awful possible result of her own influence on the rocks.

But her influence on them was exactly the thing she placed all her hope in now. She would solve the mystery, do what she was destined to – she would see the world and become so many things. And then she would come back, having learned, having risen. She would shower her parents with kisses and she would make it up to Varian.

Not every goodbye has to taste bitter , she thought. She knew that her departure was only the beginning of her journey back home, only with answers and many stories to tell.

This past year, you showed me that there is so much more in you than I could have ever imagined.

Despite her mistakes, Rapunzel knew that she was a great friend. The proof was sitting below her, inside the caravan, and at its front. Eugene, Cassandra, Lance – the people she loved, ready to support her on this great adventure ahead, for a thousand things and despite another thousand.

And one friend was missing.

The Princess knew now, there was no salvation for Varian as long as his father was encased in amber with his fate unknown. She had no idea what would happen if it turned out Quirin was gone, which was a possibility she didn’t want to dwell on.

Varian’s dad would be okay. There must be a way , she thought, and I’m going to find it .

You are connected to these rocks somehow.

This path is yours to follow.

It was her destiny.

The caravan started to move. Rapunzel waved to her parents one last time and turned to the horizon before her, stretching out under the beautiful lantern-filled sky. She smiled, ready to take on a yet another adventure.

Thank you, Dad. I love you so much.

I love you too, sweetheart.

She placed a hand on her heart. Onto the next endeavour!

Chapter Text

The lock loudly turned behind Varian’s back and he could hear four muffled voices as the guards who had just escorted him to his new prison exchanged courtesies with the ones at the door.

He’d been informed that he wasn’t allowed to leave this room, ever, without an order of the Captain. Two or more men were to watch over him at all times, and even escort him to the bathroom. Nothing could be brought into the room without the guards’ permission, nor could anything get out.

In this room, they had told him, he was going to eat, sleep and spend most of his time—only ever getting out for more than five minutes to do community service for the oh-so-wronged kingdom of Corona.

It was about the size of a dungeon cell, but the similarities ended there. It definitely wasn’t a guest-chamber—Varian suspected it was an unused maintenance room – but it still looked objectively quite inviting. It was furnished very humbly, and probably hurriedly, with a table, two chairs and a plain single bed. The only vibrant splash of color was an extra pillow someone had placed on it. The golden symbol of Corona embroidered on its smooth violet fabric felt like a mockery.

Varian passed the table, which had been haphazardly shoved in the middle of the room, to look out of the window. It was high; through the freshly mounted bars, the alchemist could see the Capital City and most of the bay surrounding the island.

The sky was burning with a thousand golden specks, floating with the wind toward the kingdom walls. Paper lanterns were rising over Corona along with the sun.

The boy blinked. Oh right , he thought. He kind of ruined the Princess’ birthday festival last week, so Corona was paying their homage to Rapunzel today. A parting gift.

Ruddiger jumped onto the windowsill, dreamily watching the lanterns rising from the crowded streets and flying high in celebration. Varian patted his head, even though he himself couldn’t enjoy the sight.

He had always loved the festival, especially as a small child, even though its sad origins were obvious when one looked at the Coronians’ faces.

Dad was always less busy that day. He would listen to Varian talking about how he was going to fly like the lanterns one day, and he wouldn’t frown at that, he'd smile upon hearing those dreams.

"It’s the Lost Princess’ birthday. The lanterns are for her,” he had explained. "So she can find her way back home.”

Varian remembered thinking that it was very poetic. Every year, he used to release his own little light, whether they could travel to the Capital or stayed in their village. Every year, he'd carefully watch his lantern—always a creation of his—join the small fires dancing over the kingdom, and he'd pray for Princess Rapunzel to follow them.

This time though, the once beautiful image was spoiled with an amber glow of the morning, a row of bars and his own reflection, frowning at him.

Varian’s brows furrowed and he hunched under the weight of his own gaze. There was something... just wrong with it. He opened the window, getting rid of the ugly image.

So what if the festival isn’t the same anymore , he asked himself. Only kids care about stupid lanterns. And it’s littering, so all these people will later have to clean up the mess they’ve made.

Varian briefly looked in the direction of his home before turning around and sitting down on the bed. It was soft, incomparably nicer than the bunk or the floor he had slept on in the dungeon.

They were kind to him. In fact, they were very kind to him.

He couldn’t stand it.

When Varian tossed the pillow on the floor, Ruddiger immediately laid down on it and closed his eyes in delight.

"It’s yours,” mumbled the alchemist, shutting his eyes too.

But it didn’t help like he had hoped it would—the golden lights were seeping through his eyelids, impossible to get rid of, and he heard a child shouting something in amazement. With a heavy sigh, he glanced at the window once again. Perhaps he shouldn’t keep it open, he had just let all the sounds in.

Usually, unless the wind got stronger, the light would gently illuminate the kingdom at least until midnight, when there would be no new lanterns to be released and the last celebrating people would disappear from the streets into their homes and open pubs. This time though, with a whole day ahead, the alchemist had no idea how long it was going to last.

Unfortunately, Varian couldn’t deny his former liking of this holiday. Even now, though bitterly, it still made him think of Corona and its Lost Princess.

The Lost Princess Rapunzel.

Even when he didn’t need her anymore, it was still difficult to forget Rapunzel. She had abandoned them, she had thrown him out and left him to die and to break. She hadn’t even tried to help, not until he'd forced her to. And then she'd rubbed it all in, speaking to him, looking him in the eyes, arguing. Coming to the dungeon when he didn’t want her there.

And now he had to listen to the chatter and five hundred muffled laughs of people paying tribute to her. They didn’t have the first idea about what had happened, and so they all loved her and hated him. As ever.

While Rapunzel’s art was admired by everyone around her, Varian’s work was feared and frowned upon. For some, he was a wizard and for some, a loser—always either a nuisance or a hazard. Why had he ever bothered to try to help these people?

A violent feeling ripped through him again and he covered the distance to the window in a few steps. He closed it loudly, startling Ruddiger, and slid to the floor. He dug his nails into his ankles, not knowing what to do with this rage threatening to burst into his throat.

A wet nose nudged at his elbow, so Varian raised his arm to let Ruddiger climb onto his lap. The little animal placed his paws on the boy’s chest, making it impossible to look anywhere else than into his beady eyes.

"What?” the alchemist asked rudely.

The raccoon’s only response was to firmly press his head against Varian’s collarbone in an attempt to help him calm down.

The people of Corona had never liked him, and it was stupid that it still stung. But at the end of the day, he would always be fine with it.

What he had ever wanted most was his father’s appreciation, but it had always felt contingent on something. And he'd kept messing it up, only making his dad worry and causing him trouble. But he had worked hard and told himself that one day, he would learn enough to prove himself worthy.

"I’m not a bad son, Ruddiger,” he said out loud, as though it could make the statement true.

The raccoon blinked, confused by the boy’s argumentative tone.

Just as Varian took another breath to add something, the lock rattled again and the door revealed a bearded guard holding a chain. The alchemist stood up.

The man didn’t bother to greet him. "Come with us.”

"Why?”

"You have some cleaning to do and then you’re going for a checkup,” the guard informed him, unceremoniously cuffing him.

Varian didn’t resist, but he couldn’t help but roll his eyes in annoyance. Like he was going to fight multiple royal guards unarmed.

On the other hand, it brought him some satisfaction to know how careful they all were around him.

Another guard and a grumpy-looking old woman met them outside the room.

She handed Varian a broom before noticing that he couldn’t move his arms. "For Herz Der Sonne’s throne, unchain the boy,” she said rudely, eyeing him up and down. "How is he supposed to sweep the floors?”

The bearded guard grunted awkwardly and released the alchemist. As soon as he did it, the lady shoved the broom in Varian’s hands.

To hell with that , he thought.

"Uh, actually I can—”

"Captain says no magic tricks,” one of the men interrupted.

Varian hardened his grip on the broom. It's alchemy .

The old woman must’ve noticed his clenched jaw, because she pointed her wrinkly finger at him and said, "You should be grateful you don’t have to work on your knees.” And with that, she threw a disgusting wet cloth at his feet.

He picked it up, silently coming up with a thousand swears as he did it.

Chapter Text

Rubbing his eye, Frederic stepped into a small private room in the royal library. Sometimes, this quiet, alienated space served as his office.

Some sunshine barely slipped through the window, but the King knew that soon, the place would be drenched in a golden glow.

Awaiting Nigel with news, letters and a brief morning agenda, he passed the table and seated himself on the sofa. It creaked softly as he sunk into the comfort of the numerous pillows.

It was even more quiet than usual—most of the palace was asleep, save for guards on duty and some servants preparing for the day. Usually, Frederic would only begin to swing his legs off the bed about now, but not today. After a year of his family being whole, today was the first morning without Rapunzel.

He hadn’t ever forgotten about the danger Quirin had warned him about. That fear still lingered, deep-rooted and forever etched into Frederic’s mind. It was funny, he reckoned, how one can be afraid to the point of utter ignorance.

And to think that until a week ago, every day he had carried that fear.

And to think that until a week ago, every day he had been so terribly wrong.

The rocks weren’t meant to harm his daughter, but guide her. He knew that now, and he felt stupid for not believing in her enough, for falling victim to his own imagination so many times. Now, all that grief had shifted into a firm voice of guilt, calling him a malefactor for the neglect of his people—something he'd swore against, not after the cruel years of Rapunzel’s throne being empty.

Now it was back to empty, and her crown rested on a soft pillow, waiting for her again. Who knew how much dust would fall on it this time, would it be a month’s worth? Or another eighteen years?

He fixed his gaze on the rising sun, peeking inside and dancing on the medallion on his chest.

No matter how much Frederic worried for his daughter, he had found a new trust he finally put in Rapunzel. This time, he trusted her to be safe (to be real) out there, and find her way back home when the time comes. He didn’t, though, trust her to be untouched, unhardened by her journey… or unaged.

As the King watched the mountains fraying the horizon, these same mountains Rapunzel had disappeared between and the sun shone from behind, he couldn't help but wonder—has their baby been taken away again? Would she, once again, turn into an even more brilliant woman whom he had yet to reintroduce himself to? Was it fair to feel so hurt about it?

His thoughts were interrupted by Nigel, gently knocking on the doorframe.

"Good morning, Your Majesty,” he bowed. "May I?”

Frederic nodded, so Nigel entered the room to set a stack of letters on the table, briefly going through each sender. "This one had come quite a long way, from the Southern Isles.”

"Southern Isles?”

"Oh pardon me, Your Majesty,” the man answered quickly. "I meant the kingdom of Westergaard, usually called ‘Southern Isles’ in the far North.”

"Ah.”

That was far away indeed. King Frederic rarely had the pleasure to correspond with any rulers outside the Seven Kingdoms these days. Hopefully, there was good news or an attractive trade offer.

His advisor grunted. "I have checked on the Old Corona boy yesterday, as you've wished, Your Majesty.”

"And?”

"He had performed the assigned tasks without resistance, though I've been told he expresses his ill will in every possible way, Sire. He is quite indolent, but it could be caused by the lack of sleep and proper diet, as I came to know from a physician,” Nigel recited.

Frederic nodded. Nothing about this report surprised him. "Have you seen him?”

"I haven’t, Your Majesty.”

"Thank you,” said the King and leaned back on the sofa to subtly signal the other man to leave the agenda for now.

He thought back to the trembling presence he had woken up to that morning, gently frowning in her sleep, only going still once he had placed a careful hand on forehead, whispering warm words to her. He wondered if Arianna was stirring now, now that he wasn’t there to let her know she could stay in bed as long as she wanted to, that it was alright. That she was safe, that she didn't have to think about the amber ever again if she only wanted, and that he loved her like a madman.

She didn’t need to know that he was checking up on Varian.

Frederic wanted to help him. Maybe even more than Arianna did, though this desire was constantly challenged by that fear and anger he still lived with, now that Rapunzel was gone and an enemy was under their roof.

No, he corrected himself for the umpteenth time. Not enemy.

There had been big, tormented eyes in the throne hall and they weren't the eyes of an enemy. Sometimes, he could still feel Varian’s gaze piercing through him.

This was a boy who had used his wife as if she were nothing. In order to manipulate him and his daughter.

Who had wrapped Rapunzel's hair around a metal drill, ripping something from her, until she fell to her knees.

Who'd then shouted and cried, and bared his wrists and told him his raccoon’s name like it was the only word he could spit out, and looked at Frederic with those eyes, those damned eyes in the throne hall.

He sighed deeply.

Varian probably stirred in his sleep now, too.

Quirin probably didn’t move an inch.

He buried his face in his trembling hands.

"Your Majesty?” a worried nasal voice sounded nearby. "Is there something wrong?”

The King stood up to face his advisor. "Nigel, my friend. What do you think about Varian of Old Corona?”

"I beg your pardon, Sire?” the man stumbled, confused.

"You have always been such a reliable diplomatic advisor. Be a voice of reason once more,” asked Frederic.

Nigel quickly regained his composure and grunted. "I believe it’s a great risk to keep him in the castle, Your Majesty. He has proved that he’s capable of—”

The King raised his hand. "Yes, I agree. But what do you think about him?

"I… think what he did to his father is too much to deal with for him. I mean no harm by saying this, Your Majesty, but… while he's been reckless before, after that incident, he turned dangerous. I trust in Your Majesties’ judgement, but I would be lying if I said that I’m not worried about him being out of the dungeons.”

Frederic’s heart sped up as he was suddenly reminded of a gooey substance at his feet and a heavy chain around Arianna’s ankle.

"Your Majesty,” Nigel picked up. "I do agree that the boy needs help. I… might’ve been insensitive toward him the one time we’ve spoken to each other. He, uh… cried, I think.”

The King sent his advisor a questioning glance.

"What I mean by that, Sire, is that it’s truly a hazard to let him serve his sentence outside of the dungeons because it would be very easy to provoke him. He’s unstable.”

Frederic pondered these words. "Hm. Send him… a book.”

"What book?” dumbfounded, the advisor asked a bit rudely.

"One he might like.”

"Yes, Your Majesty,” complied Nigel. "Should I include a message?”

Tell him, the King sends a gift.

Tell him, the King hates him.

Tell him, the King wants to beg him on his knees for forgiveness.

Ask him about the raccoon’s name, because the King had already forgotten it.

"No. Just the book.”

Nigel bowed after asking a few unrelated questions, and hurriedly left the room.

Frederic sat down at the table. He reached for the first envelope, sealed with a signet ring he rarely came across. But before he concerned himself with the letter from His Majesty King Asmund of Westergaard, he turned to the window and looked afar once more.

The Capital bathed in the morning sun by now.

Oh, Rapunzel, how we miss you already.

Chapter Text

Varian woke up to darkness creeping in on him and the insufferable sound of rain impinging on the window. He rolled over and felt Ruddiger move near his thighs. For a moment, the alchemist let himself imagine that he was in his bedroom in Old Corona.

His head felt heavy and dirty in a way, as if its contents were too muddled and inflated for his skull to hold. It must’ve been a side effect to the medication he had been forced to drink for the fourth time this month.

Lying down quickly became aggravating—the duvet, or air, pressed him too firmly against the mattress. Well, apparently there would be no more sleep for Varian. He sat up and laid his stinging eyes on a little stain on the wall across.

The world kept turning. The rain kept falling from the sky. The room looked exactly as the day he was moved there, with the stupid pillow on the floor and the table awkwardly shoved in the middle. The guards changed shifts, Ruddiger sighed in his sleep and first people surely walked on the streets below.

And his dad was still gone.

It had been more than five weeks since Varian’s last attempt to free him.

Drops of rain banged against the glass and rang in the boy’s ears, making him feel on edge. Something about this weather agitated him. It stirred up more difficult thoughts.

A snowy storm, freezing air burning his lungs, adrenaline rushing him through the forest, the river, the caves. Hope, anxiety, triumph, determination. The way back again, the mountains getting more and more treacherous as he ran alone, afraid of what he might find at the end of that race. The day everything turned out to be a lie, the day he had lost his family. That day, Varian knew fear.

He took a deep breath. No.

Wishing he could distract himself with work, as he had learned to do after the storm, the alchemist tried to think about anything else.

His mind wandered without direction, stumbling on useless information all the time. Like this year’s apple harvest dates his dad predicted, or the recipe for Rapunzel’s favorite cake. How easy it had been to deceive her about the flower. How she’d hugged him, looking happy to see him, oblivious to the fact that his heart had been changed forever.

That only made her stupid, he thought. No point in pondering it.

Varian searched for a topic that wouldn’t be uncomfortable, but everything he came up with, and everything in this room, reminded him of something painful.

Even "The Tales of Flynnigan Rider. Volume 1” , laying untouched on the table, annoyed him. He knew that book by heart, its contents only repelling now. How could he have ever idolised this man? And... what did Eugene think of him now?

Thinking about the five unstable heaters in the caverns under Old Corona, he felt a sick longing for a home he couldn’t return to.

The alchemist rested his head on the wall, desperately trying to imagine that he was sitting at his dad’s feet and it was the amber so cold and hard against his back. That place where he had sat for hours on end, it turned into a weird haven. When Varian wasn’t sketching, calculating, building and moving, it was the only place he could stand to be, even when he couldn’t turn around to look anymore. So he rested there, being as close to his dad as he could without making himself sick with the sight.

Now that he was, shamefully, still in New Corona, something happened to him—something that he had prayed for before, but wanted it no longer. The horrid picture of his father encased in amber, previously almost embedded into his eyelids, disappeared.

Varian spat bitterly. Of course when he needed to focus and work, his imagination would constantly distract him with the image. But now that he was stuck in this tiny room, void of anything useful, with nothing to do but wait for an opportunity, suddenly the sight was gone.

And now he missed it.

Ruddiger must’ve woken up at some point in his friend’s dwelling, because he appeared by his side out of the blue. A paw rubbed Varian’s arm when his head dropped, as though it could hide the child-like sobs tearing through him.

It was all pathetic, whimpers and snot running, and there was no point in pretending to Ruddiger. But the alchemist pressed his hands to his face anyway. He felt so terribly bare, and weak, crying like that.

He should focus, figure it all out, fix it .

But he was so spent.

Without his dad, everything seemed cruel and fractured. In a world full of people troubled by Varian, hating him and wanting him gone, Dad wasn’t there to soften the blow anymore.

He mourned—he mourned what he'd had and lost, and what he never had.

The boy no longer cared about the things his father refused to tell him. He didn’t care if he could stand by his side in front of the King, and he didn’t even care if they could talk about Mom. He just wanted the man to be okay.

Everything he held dear, everything he wanted or believed in had been ripped away from him. And to think it had started with Varian’s own compound… there was an idea in the back of his mind, an idea too painful to even begin to articulate. To say it out loud, it would ruin what remained of him.

He hugged his knees, letting out a cracked whimper, wishing he could go back in time and never touch those stupid rocks. Or never shout at his dad, or never be born.

The boy wiped his face and looked at the animal pressed to his side, shaking along with him.

"Do you miss him too?” he whispered brokenly. "Don’t worry. I’m getting him out.”

Ruddiger’s eyes widened for a second and he stretched his paw out, only reaching Varian’s collar.

"No matter what, we won’t give up, okay?”

I will make you proud. Get the answers and set you free.

And then they would move far away, and Varian would be better, he’d help out more and stay away from alchemy. Or he would leave forever if need be.

Don’t you worry. Whatever it might take, I’m finding a way.

The boy sighed when someone loudly pounded on the door. It meant that he was expected to be up and ready for the day in fifteen minutes. If he wasn’t, it would be his problem—the guards would escort him to the washroom and then take him wherever they wanted in his pyjamas.

With a heavy heart, he threw the duvet aside and got up.

"Remember, Ruddiger,” he muttered into a fresh shirt, pulling it over his head. "The more we leave the room, the easier it’s going to be to find a plan.”

It was perplexing that they haven’t come up with one already.

He barely managed to drink a glass of water before a bearded guard came into the room. The man glanced over to the bed, nodding after seeing it made.

"Morning,” his voice sounded indifferent as usual. "You good?”

"Yeah.”

He knew that this guard had no interest in the answer to his question. They didn’t like him—most of them, anyway. It didn’t surprise the alchemist. In fact, he was very much content to have his hatred reciprocated. But nothing infuriated him more than their empty greetings and false concern they were obviously commanded to exhibit.

Anger crackling through him anew, Varian couldn’t help himself. "Like you care.”

The guards had stopped telling him to watch his mouth long ago, so his mean comment was left without an answer. But the hand that soon appeared on his shoulder felt heavy and harsh, fingers digging into his collarbone.

As always, another guard was waiting for them outside. The men seemed to be in a rush, sighing loudly while their prisoner cleaned his teeth with ground sage and washed his face. In a matter of minutes, they were hurrying down the corridor.

"Woah, what’s the rush?” the boy asked, irritated.

The bearded one grunted. "There are problems with one of your… machines.”

Varian’s heart sped up. 'Your machines'? There was an automaton they wanted him to take care of? Intact and nearby?

"You’ll assist in turning it off,” the guard continued. "Something about it’s, uh… clock-thing.”

Vengeful satisfaction rose along with Varian’s excitement. "Timing cylinder,” he corrected.

This was a blessing. A blessing .

They had to resort to calling for him, because they had no idea how to handle his creation. Beautiful.

He sent Ruddiger an alien-feeling smile. The racoon returned his gaze a bit nervously, scurrying at his side—always at his side.

Chapter Text

Varian had expected to be at least a little relieved to leave the castle for the first time in over a month. This hope withered as soon as he realized that the guards were leading him down the steps and into the lively streets of Corona.

He wasn’t prepared to bathe in hate.

There were people everywhere. They cluttered the pavements, whispering and pointing at him, seemingly not caring that it was torture. He couldn’t stand it, their accusing eyes, their lips crooked—the same eyes that looked up at the palace balcony, the lips that smiled at the royal family.

They all hated him, they all knew what he’d done. Most of them had seen, and remained blind to the faults of the rulers they praised.

The alchemist didn’t want to face them. He entered the prison cart almost gratefully, after making sure that Ruddiger got on board before him. There was a third guard present inside.

"Hey,” the man said as soon as the carriage started moving. "I don’t know if you remember… I’m Pete.”

Varian nodded, eyes fixed on his slightly shaking hands. He still felt the weight of the short walk among the crowd. His face and ears felt hot.

It was stupid to feel so shamed. He swore that Corona’s resentment wouldn’t hurt him anymore, and there he was, his confidence shattered by the mere sight of the people he had harmed having no other choice left .

"I remember,” he cracked, just to say something. How could he forget?

Taking it for an invitation to talk, the guard moved a bit closer to him. "So, one of the machines survived the battle,” he informed nonchalantly. "I think it wandered into the forest. We actually only found it two weeks ago, when it appeared in the middle of a village.”

Varian cringed at the sound of Pete’s laugh.

"We took care of it, well, sorta,” the soldier babbled. "But we can’t safely finish the job, or even move the thing without risking a complete mess. I have to admit the situation is a bit funny to me.”

The alchemist didn’t understand what could be so amusing about it. Maybe the man wasn’t aware of how dangerous automatons could be. "Weird that it wandered off on its own,” he thought aloud.

Once again, Varian found himself sinking into his work to calm down, almost enjoying this casual conversation. The idleness of the past weeks had been surprisingly difficult to bear. Sometimes it felt like he wouldn’t breathe easy until he could lift a wrench or hammer a nail.

"Is it?” Pete seemed curious. "I thought they were meant to do that. You know, escape if needed.”

The boy finally looked at his company. "No, no, it must’ve been an error. It’s probably one of my earlier versions.”

"Ah.”

"Do you know what exactly is the problem?” he asked, feeling more and more at ease.

After the storm, left behind by everyone in Corona, Varian had had no one to talk to, no one to tear him away from the amber or tell him what to do now. But he couldn’t wail at his father’s feet forever, so he had done what he knew best—alchemy and engineering. For days and days, he'd tried to defeat the indestructible crystal with compounds, explosives and mechanical instruments. Every spark of hope, every failure and disappointment when another solution had proved to be useless, it had all fed into his rage and feeling of betrayal, when he had already been swimming in grief and loneliness.

"Nah, sorry.”

When he hadn’t been sitting curled up under the monolith, he'd at least had to push those feelings away to focus on the work. His back had hurt, his hands had been going numb and the house had been a mess—but his head had been clear.

Now that he didn’t have anything to investigate, nail down, and modify, he didn’t know what to do with himself. Without a heavy hammer or a precise pipette in hand, he saw no way to escape the ideas he desperately tried to avoid.

There’s work now . Focus on the work.

Varian put his hand on Ruddiger’s back, the raccoon’s presence comforting as ever.

"Why do they want to destroy it? Wouldn’t it be smarter to keep it?”

The answer was careful, as though Pete was scared of offending the boy. "Oh, the Captain said that His Majesty doesn’t want to— to use anything of, um— your creation.”

Varian didn’t care.

"Fair”, he said shrugging. Machines were a comfortable subject.

The carriage came to an abrupt stop, so Ruddiger protectively climbed onto his friend’s shoulders. When the wooden door opened, another familiar face appeared.

Pete’s smile immediately returned to his face and he jumped out of the cart. "How’s it going, Stan?” He patted his fellow on the back in greeting.

The alchemist followed him without being urged, his confidence restored by their short talk about automatons.

It turned out, Pete was right – the scene in front of him did seem a bit ridiculous. Under a large canopy tent, protecting the strange sight from the sun and some of the concerned looks of the village, his automaton stood strong with its head hanging low and its lights off. Something long and shiny, a rod or a sword, was sticking out of its back. There was a ladder set up way too far to actually reach the machine.

Chatting with each other, Stan and Pete handed him back over to the guards who watched him today.

"Bye,” said the latter.

"Bye, it was nice— uh,” Varian caught himself answering out of habit. "To meet you,” he finished slowly, causing two silly grins to appear.

After the other guards led him closer to the tent, a man he knew emerged from the crowd of guards and servants tip-toeing around. It was a local blacksmith, who was knowledgeable in many fields beyond metalwork. Varian had spoken with him a couple of times before. Once, he had made his dad borrow an alchemy textbook from him because he had been too shy to ask the man himself.

"Xavier,” he said out loud.

"Hello, Varian”, a deep voice answered. "Gentlemen.”

One of the guards sighed. "Any progress?”

"I’m afraid not. The Captain says it’s completely secure for now, but they’re still afraid to touch the cylinder. They won’t attempt to move the machine, let alone remove the sword, without ensuring safety,” Xavier explained. "From what I’ve gathered, it’s difficult to inspect it without risking disturbing the timer. All in all, only I am thriving so far, seeing an ancient automaton with my own eyes,” he laughed.

Varian remembered madly respecting the blacksmith, despite his devotion to folklore and what he called magic. Now, the collected, friendly tone felt like condescending, cheap politeness.

He scoffed, and the three men turned his attention to him.

"Right, someone should fill you in,” said the bearded guard, ignoring Varian’s rude behavior. "They managed to take the lid off… of the timing thingy, and a sword got stuck in it, so it blocks it from moving. But when we tried to even shift the sword a little, the damned thing plays like, one note, and turns on for a second. And we don’t wanna fight it here,” he gestured toward the houses nearby. "The Captain won't take the risk of moving it or using weapons, so we’re… a bit stuck here.”

Oh, you poor idiots . Varian internally rolled his eyes, enjoying his advantage.

"How about a controlled explosion?” he suggested. When he was met with four pairs of questioning eyes, he added, "I mean, you could get ardent spirits, I have some black powder in my lab in Old Corona, and if you have bats in the dungeons I can isolate some saltpetre from...”

"No, we can’t do that,” Xavier spoke over the alchemist, who already started explaining a quite disgusting procedure involving bat guano.

"What? It’s an easy solution, we’ll just add some phosphor—”

"You are not getting anywhere near alchemy.” The guard lost patience. "Do you think the King is stupid?"

The boy smiled. "Why yes, I thought I'd stressed that enough.”

His smirk turned into a wince when the man grabbed his arm with surprising force. "Watch your filthy mouth!” He pulled Varian a bit closer.

Ruddiger’s claws dug into his skin as the animal tried to keep balance.

"Oi, easy now!” Xavier soothed.

The guard released him. "We’re not blowing it up, period,” he told them. "Better start thinking of a mechanical solution.”

Varian swallowed his boiling anger. "As you wish.” He turned to the blacksmith, deeming him skilful enough to perform the necessary tasks. "See that gear on the side of the cylinder?”

Doubting that the guards would let him even approach the table scattered with many precise instruments, he instructed Xavier on how to take out the parts without triggering the clock.

A little crowd, consisting mostly of royal guards, gathered around as the blacksmith carefully worked with Varian’s assistance.

The teenager felt an old satisfying rush, even despite Xavier’s unsure, shaky hands. He gently set Ruddiger down, eyeing the open compartment on the automaton’s back. After a minute or two, he decided that he couldn’t watch Xavier coddle it any longer.

"Oh, for the love of Corona, move over.”

The blacksmith turned around to look at the guards. After a moment of hesitation, one of them said with a voice of authority, "Yeah, let him. Watch him closely.”

Varian took the tools he needed from Xavier’s hands and climbed up the ladder. It was definitely too far from the automaton, making it quite uncomfortable to work on it, but he could manage.

He caught a glimpse of himself in the blade stuck under the cylinder. His face froze in a harsh, angry grimace. Despite the bangs hanging over his eyes, they were focused and strong, locked on the machinery in front of him as his hands began effortlessly moving the fragile instruments.

The alchemist winced at the damage done to the cylinder, which seemed to had become very unstable. He briefly wondered if he had a spare one left at home.

"You’re quite rude,” Xavier pointed out matter-of-factly.

Focused on his work, Varian just answered "Yeah.”

"Why?” came the nonchalant question. "Have I done something to you?” The man’s voice expressed no offense, just playful curiosity.

The boy sent him an unsure glance, deciding to ignore him.

The machine occasionally lit up and moved a bit when the music box rotated an inch. Every time, numerous sharp inhales could be heard, but Varian would just calmly withdraw for a second.

Stretching to reach the automaton and hunched over the timing cylinder, he let old habits take hold of him. The movements of his hands, handling the parts both with confidence and caution, felt like a dance he had mastered. It was a moment of clarity – working on automatons, no matter the cause, gave Varian a sense of sanity, a purpose, a task to lose himself in. There were no spectators, no Xavier trying to challenge him, no unstable ladder under his feet.

There was only Varian and an automaton, another one, and the vivid memory of pouring the chaos from his chest into the metal compartment.

His rage raising its head, he hypothetically pondered if he could try to use the machine to escape, but it was clearly far too damaged and unpredictable. He doubted he would get far with one broken automaton bent on attacking every moving object in close proximity. If anything, it would get him sent back to the dungeons.

Besides, what could he achieve? Returning home didn’t make any sense right then—after all, Varian was still out of ideas on breaking the amber. He had tried everything his lab supply had to offer.

All he would get was a few more minutes with his dad’s unmoving figure.

He blinked hard, annoyed at himself for getting excited to work, for being stupidly hopeful that it would soothe his pain, for thinking about this pain at all, and for being too nice to Pete. He had gotten too happy too quickly. And he was getting too sad too quickly—no sensation felt right. All of a sudden, he didn’t want to do this anymore, he felt sick of the sight of another useless automaton, another thing he had foolishly placed his hope in, just like alchemy, the kingdom, the flower, the hair…

His hand trembled from anger when he reached out to the open compartment.

Suddenly, the ladder wobbled dangerously under his feet and he instinctively supported himself on the handle of the sword.

And then, all hell broke loose.

Chapter Text

All air escaped Varian’s lungs when a huge metal fist hit his stomach, sending him flying across the tent. He yelped as his back collided with a wooden pole before he landed on his feet and immediately doubled over, his insides caught in a spasm, shrinking somehow. His head hurt dully.

"Guards!” someone bellowed.

The clinking of halberds and swords joined the creaking sound of the automaton’s metal joints as the men jumped into action right away, trying to at least stop the machine from running off. Another fresh shot of pain lanced through Varian’s skull at the noise.

Something yanked him up by his collar and a frightened face filled his field of vision.

"What did you do?!” a very young guard screamed at him, pressing him back to the pole.

The alchemist gasped, still struggling for air. "N-nothing! It—”

Before he had the chance to finish, the man moved urgently, revealing the automaton charging straight at them. He pulled Varian along just in time before several tons of metal smashed into the pole, easily breaking it in half.

The tent collapsed. The canopy top completely disappeared from above them in a matter of seconds when the machine entangled itself in it.

Varian’s nose exploded with pain as it collided with the guard’s chestplate. "Restrain him, now!” he was pushed away before he managed to take another look at the man who had probably just saved his life.

Stumbling from the force of the push, the alchemist crashed into another person who quickly twisted his arms behind his back so he couldn’t move them. He struggled against the guard forcefully leading him away from the turmoil.

Weirdly enough, instead of backing up and enjoying the sight, Varian wriggled his arms free and shouted, "Destroy the cylinder!”

The steel giant dashed without direction, its arms raised under the fabric it caught itself into. Royal guards surrounded it, uselessly hitting the metal from a safe distance, desperate to keep the machine in one place.

Someone yelled something about the black rocks, but there were none in sight. Judging by the state of this village, the indestructible spikes had never reached it in the first place.

"The cylinder!” Varian, back in the guard’s strong grip, raised his voice even more. "Stop the clock!”

A girl in a yellow dress, the only servant who hadn’t ran away yet, echoed his words. "Destroy the cylinder! Stop the clock!”

At the sound of her high voice, the automaton turned around, finally tearing the tent off itself. A rain of arrows was sent its way in an attempt to disrupt its charge, but to no avail—seemingly picking the direction at random, the machine rushed to the cluster of frightened villagers standing nearby.

Seeing Coronians in danger, the soldiers attacked more fiercely, bolting after the automaton. The man holding Varian released him so violently that the boy fell to the ground, tearing the skin off his hands.

He hissed, missing his signature black gloves who would’ve protected him if they hadn’t been confiscated for no reason.

A striped tail appeared out of nowhere. "Ruddiger, you okay?” the boy cupped his best friend’s face, quickly checking him over. The raccoon chittered like he wanted to confirm he was fine.

When Varian looked after the guard to see where the man was headed, his heart sank.

There was a ginger little girl sitting crouched on the pavement, covering her eyes with her hands. She curled up on herself while she awaited the onrushing machine.

Without a second thought, the alchemist found himself clumsily getting up and chasing the automaton along with the guards. In the turmoil, nobody paid attention to him anymore as ran side by side with them instead of getting away from them.

Ruddiger bravely bolted after his friend, not willing to stay behind when Varian threw himself into the uproar.

Once a couple of men reached the machine, a few things happened simultaneously.

The little girl whimpered in fear, balling her hands into fists.

The guard named Stan bounced off a hay cart and stuck his sword under the exposed timing cylinder. A horrible creak sent shivers down everyone’s spines as the clock mercilessly kept turning, nearly bending the blade.

That was when Stan’s hand joined his weapon. He cried out, either in pain or from the effort, his biceps tensing as he pried the cylinder until finally dislocating it.

He jumped off the machine, landing perfectly but clutching his wrist. Another guard jumped onto the automaton’s back and grabbed the cylinder, now loose thanks to Varian’s unfinished work and Stan’s strength. The soldier tore the part out, once and for all.

Varian didn’t see the robot’s lights go out as it froze on the spot—his gaze was fixed on the crying girl. He was almost there, he could almost reach the two thick braids enfolding her fear-stricken face.

Suddenly, she disappeared once his foot caught on something and he fell ramrod straight, face-first into the ground. He coughed when grains of sand entered his airways.

Ruddiger got to her first. She let him sniff her and shyly patted him on the head with a little smile. The child then looked at Varian curiously.

"Are you okay?” he asked.

Her eyes widened in fear again and she straightened up, taking a step back.

Varian turned around to check for danger. A sigh of relief escaped his throat when he saw a few men knocking the off automaton to the ground, chanting with triumph.

When he looked back to the girl, he saw fresh tears glistening in her eyes.

"Wha-what’s wrong?”

She stumbled back even further as soon as he spoke again. "Mom!”

What was this kid so afraid of? She seemed fine until he talked to— oh .

Oh.

She recognized his voice.

She must’ve been in the Capital that day, she must’ve heard him speak to Coronians, hatefully laying out the King’s mistakes and threatening them as a diversion.

The realization felt like someone had poured a bucket of cold water over him, absurdly causing a wave of heat to engulf his whole head.

Varian looked at the girl’s tear-stained face. She was so little… and so very afraid. To her, he was nothing more than a terrifying voice in the fog.

"No, hey—” He started getting up, wanting to explain that he won’t hurt her. The child withdrew, picking Ruddiger up, not knowing that it was the raccoon himself lurking in the fog that day, dragged into it all against his will.

Before the alchemist could say anything more, a woman appeared by the girl’s side. Ruddiger jumped back to the ground, allowing them to hug.

Obviously, it was the mother. Only a mother whose child had been hurt could ever look at someone with such a vibrant mixture of disgust and fear. Varian couldn’t bear this gaze. Thankfully, she didn’t utter a word—she took her child and turned around to join the little crowd gathering around Stan.

The boy didn’t realize that he stayed on the ground, still down on one knee, not even noticing Ruddiger’s head pressing to his hip. He felt empty.

Someone approached them. The person was casting a large shadow, with broad shoulders and strong arms.

"Come with me.”

No. Not this guy. Anyone, anyone but him.

Varian stood up, not even attempting to force himself to look at the Captain’s face.

Chapter Text

"Okay, before I go talk to anyone about the reliability of this detail,” the Captain spoke harshly. "What exactly happened there?”

A few lit lanterns gently illuminated the heavy stone baldachin of the armory’s rib vault, threateningly hanging over their heads. Various weaponry lay stacked, or hung from the walls between the strong pillars, some halberds barely put away after they had come back to the castle.

The small crowd of guards he had asked to stay in the room seemed to take up a lot of space. Even the Captain himself felt bigger somehow, staring them down with his arms akimbo, listening to all the details he had missed.

Maybe it was because they towered so much over Varian of Old Corona, so thin and puny, biting his lip, his eyes straying whenever they even got close to settling on the Captain. The only creature smaller than him was a raccoon circling his legs—and even that little animal somehow seemed less fragile.

Cap knew the young man had something to do with all that had happened on the mainland. He had opposed the King’s idea of letting Varian near the deadly machine at all and, as it turned out, he should’ve trusted his guts. Now, he had a whole mess to handle and a guard injured—all because they had made a risky decision when he hadn’t even been able to do much, besides watching the fight from a distance.

Damn him , he thought, reminded of his recent injury. The Captain had insisted that he was ready to get back into action, it was nothing, but His Majesty remained unpersuaded, never willing to go against the medics’ advice. Damn them, too.

He didn’t have to look far for proof that Varian had been involved in the incident. If the sorry state of his clothes or the unwashed dirt on his hands didn’t reveal so much, Varian’s nervousness, steadily increasing while Frank told the story, sure did.

As soon as he got to the part where the prisoner had turned on the machine, Varian cut in. "It wasn’t me! I mean—it was, but,” he hurried to explain. "I didn’t mean it! I was trying to remove the cylinder and… it just sorta happened.” His pale cheeks turned red as soon as he finished that sentence, probably realizing that " sorta happened” wasn’t a plausible excuse.

The Captain felt his brows furrow. So, this was the young culprit who had gotten him into such a mess before—and now he stood in front of him wide-eyed, like a schoolboy about to be reprimanded.

It was common knowledge that Varian was impudent and straight-up hateful even toward His Majesty, but in the Captain’s presence, he behaved nothing alike. He still wouldn’t dare to look him in the eyes, now exchanging glances with the racoon, fiddling with the edge of his shirt. He was lucky—because Cap hated when criminals and suspects behaved like drama queens.

"Mhm,” Cap nodded before asking sternly, "And why on earth did you even let him touch the machine?”

"I couldn’t do it.”

They all turned to see Xavier, the blacksmith, at the door. The Captain was convinced that this man was simply unable to ever fully lose his kindly demeanour, and so, he smiled upon seeing their surprised faces like he’d been invited for tea.

"Good morning, Captain. Aldred asked me to let you know everyone is fine. Just a couple of bruises, that’ s all.”

Stressed, Cap didn’t bother with niceties. "What do you mean you "couldn’t do it” ?”

The blacksmith leaned on the doorframe. "I couldn’t properly remove that part we had problems with. It was too risky,” he explained calmly. "If I further attempted it myself, the same would’ve happened.”

"We don’t know that,” one of the guards opposed.

"I assure you, it would. I do know a thing or two about machinery, though Varian definitely beat me to it.” Xavier smiled at the teenager as if he was oblivious to who he was exactly speaking about. Varian didn’t even raise his gaze, seemingly determined to inspect every scratch on the tiled floor.

Another guard spoke up. "To be fair, we can’t be sure that this whole thing wasn’t planned, no?”

"It’s not his fault,” Stan’s voice sounded tired.

They all looked back to the doorway—well, besides the kid. The Captain grunted. Had he missed the memo or was everyone just in the mood for dramatic entrances?

"Stan. Were you watching?”

"Yes, sir. It was an accident,” the other man answered. "And Varian was hit first.”

The attention returned to the prisoner, still refusing to meet anyone’s eyes.

Varian seemed okay—only embarrassed and disheveled. Nothing in him matched the vile voice the Captain had heard in the fog.

The memory of the alchemist collapsing almost at his feet flashed through Cap’s mind. And then another thought followed—unlike the guards, Varian wasn’t wearing any armor. Not surprising. But why the hell didn’t he get at least some protective gear?

Because the Captain didn’t order so, that was why. He completely forgot about that.

He grunted. "You okay?”

Varian answered quietly, "Yeah.”

" Yes, sir ,” the Captain corrected him.

"Yes, sir.”

He pondered the situation they found themselves in. He could go to Nigel, or straight to the King, and plainly tell him the truth—Varian had turned that automaton on. The kid would probably be done for, no questions asked, as soon as His Majesty heard anything about him being a threat.

Perhaps it would be an understandable decision—the King put the safety of his family above all else, and Cap got to experience that very well when he’d hunted for that scroll. Protecting the Queen and the Princess was His Majesty’s highest priority, just above protecting Corona, and the Captain respected it.

But he wasn’t a cruel person. He wouldn’t sleep well at night if he knew that he sent someone to the dungeon for a crime they hadn’t committed—not again. Even though, in his opinion, Varian should’ve received a much harsher punishment, he wasn’t going to bring him to his own idea of justice.

Even when Xavier looked at him seriously, urging Cap to do what he was about to do anyway, the warm-hearted manner was still very much there.

Admittedly, Xavier had a way of directing one’s thoughts toward warmness—because the Captain immediately thought back to his daughter, and to the example he had always strived to set for her. Cassandra never stood by to watch unnecessary suffering—he had made sure of that. And he was so proud of her.

If he were to be honest, Cassandra was on his mind ever since Varian had stood up from the ground in that village. Cap wasn’t sure if it was a good sign that he’d reminded him of his daughter so instantly—Varian, the criminal, the only person, besides Cap himself, who hadn’t cheered.

He sighed deeply. "Alright then. You’re dismissed,” he waved a hand on the guards. "Stan, Pete, stay please.”

Xavier stretched with a grunt, and casually followed the men out of the armory. Really, awkwardness was a myth to this man.

After the door closed, leaving the four of them alone—well, five, if the raccoon counted—Cap spoke again.

"No need to bother the King with details about how exactly the machine was triggered on, ” he said in a low voice. "What matters is that the threat is no more. Good work, Stan.” He patted the guard’s shoulder. "I’ll personally see to a proper reward for you. You’re off duty for today, of course. Pete, get the prisoner where he’s supposed to be.”

And then, he saw a pair of round eyes finally searching for his. If there ever was any loathing in them before, it had given place to fearful surprise, and maybe even some shy gratefulness. Varian’s mouth opened, but he didn’t say anything. He couldn’t believe his own ears, didn’t even dare to hope or—no, certainly not—to trust him.

The Captain knew that, he knew that look, because Cassandra had taught him.

"You’re welcome,” he told Varian as harshly as he could, and turned on his heel.

Leaving the armory, he felt an uncomfortable knot of anxiety already settling in his stomach. He fruitlessly tried to shake the feeling off, but he knew that his conscience wouldn’t stop bugging him for quite some time. But it was better than eternity. He almost didn’t have a doubt that he was right to have spared Varian. He was innocent—this time.

That was why the Captain decided to withhold this information after making sure that nobody besides himself could be held responsible or tell anyone. Hopefully, Stan and Pete were worthy of his trust.

Well, that was unexpected. He really had gotten softer after Eugene, hadn’t he? A teenager cracked his ribs and messed up his back, and then, he had helped him avoid second arrest.

He had protected him.

And possibly committed treason.

Wherever Cassandra was, he hoped she was proud of him, too.

 

-x-

 

If you do anything to threaten the faith I just put in you, I will not hesitate.

And that was truly what Varian had expected to happen next, after they would lead him out of the armory. The dungeon—or worse.

But a weird thing happened when he had finally torn his gaze from Ruddiger and looked at the Captain of the Guard, bracing himself for a surge of unexplained shame. It hadn’t come.

And there had been an awkward sadness, wrinkling the corners of the man’s eyes, a firm "You’re welcome” and that was it. No disgust, no mockery, or reproach, or even indifference—not quite.

After Varian left the room with Ruddiger in his arms, the raccoon started licking his hands.

"Hey hey, stop, they’re dirty,” he told him.

Suddenly, a hand appeared on his shoulder and the guards stopped, letting Xavier and Aldred talk to them. The latter watched the sling on Stan’s arm like a hawk, clearly in his element, but when he spoke up, he addressed Varian.

"Everything alright? Sleeping well?” the medic asked. "Want me to take a look at this?” He pointed to the alchemist’s hands.

Varian straightened up. "No, it’s really nothing. I’m not being brave.”

Because he wasn’t brave, or strong, and it was time to stop deceiving himself.

He remembered the family doctor from Old Corona. He was much older than Aldred, very kind and slowly going blind. He had always laughed at Varian’s strange endeavors and the constant stream of questions; not in a mocking way, but whole-heartedly. It even used to make his dad laugh a little too. The man could always manage to make Dad way less angry.

Varian wondered what the doctor thought of him now.

He should've been nicer to Aldred.

"Thank you,” he added. Those words felt odd on his tongue, especially because he said them in the walls of the Corona Castle.

Ruddiger chittered, visibly pleased with their friendliness.

"Okay,” said Pete. "Let’s go then. Xavier, do you need anything?”

The blacksmith smiled warmly. "No, no, thank you. There are very few things more delightful than a discussion with Aldred,” he answered. "See you around, Varian.”

On stiff legs, the boy moved Ruddiger onto his shoulder and followed the guards.

 

-x-

 

Arianna wrapped the blanket more tightly around herself against the afternoon chill, careful not to crumple the piece of paper in her hand. The wind, gently ruffling her hair, felt almost affectionate. It would be dark in an hour or two.

The kingdom was already quiet under the balcony of the royal bedroom. No matter how many hours she had spent there when she needed to calm her mind, Arianna was always left in awe. The city bristled with soaring spires and spiraling towers, never in conflict with arching gates and swooping roofs. Some smoke lazily rose from the chimneys straight into the graying sky over the calm, glistening sea. Even its clouds seemed to only crown the city, never spoiling the sight. Arianna could see their people in minuscule; delivery men in a hurry, business owners encouraging passersby to drop by, lovers striding the streets and—maybe—whispering passionate declarations.

Corona was the place, that place she had been looking for so long before she’d met Frederic. It was her home and her pride. And this sight—it was music.

There had been a time when Corona was lacking, though. Void of Rapunzel, it hadn’t felt like home anymore, no matter how long Arianna had stared at the land beneath her feet or how much she’d loved the folk that lived on it.

Words could not describe the feeling of the return of their long-lost daughter, pouring the amazement back into Arianna’s heart, proving that it had never truly left, that it had been only grief taking too much space.

The Queen was grateful to discover that, despite Rapunzel’s recent departure, she treasured her home all the same. This time, nothing had died down in her, and knowing that her baby wasn’t gone—just discovering Corona to be the place, too—she continued to thrive along with the kingdom.

Besides the nights.

Arianna was still afraid to fall asleep, afraid she would wake up in an unfamiliar place, to an unfamiliar voice. She’d learned not to feel stupid about it, but sometimes she couldn’t help but be upset at her imagination, selectively replaying the memories of her kidnapping, hiding all of her courage and compassion, and relief—and leaving her with only fear.

Sometimes, all that was left of her capturer was the anger in his voice when he had silenced her, his harsh grip on her shoulder and the threat, "Corona will pay for turning their backs on me, and that’s when you should start worrying, Your Majesty” .

She looked down on the picture in her hands, resting on the balustrade.

It was a fine copy of an even finer portrait. Quirin and his wife looked just as Arianna remembered them—only younger. After some time of making decisions for Old Corona, Quirin had just been officially appointed as its leader. He hadn’t known it yet, but in a couple of years, he would have an even more important role to play—a parent.

Arianna felt a corner of her lips raise at that thought. She regretted that Frederic had been unable to properly express how happy he had been for his friend when Quirin had come to announce the birth of his son. The grief over their own child had weighted too much on their shoulders, sharp and fresh, not even four years old yet.

And to think that now, she could reminisce about that day and… smile.

 

-x-

 

"Oh, and here,” said Pete, handing Varian a change of clean clothes. "Lady Crowley also says that they’re changing sheets tomorrow, so have them ready by sunrise or you know what’ll happen.”

Varian nodded, standing on the threshold of the room. "Alright, thanks.”

They were getting too casual, and definitely too friendly, but for some reason, Varian didn’t feel obligated to be disliked after what had happened in the mainland earlier that day—and in the armory.

He almost failed to notice the awful sound of the lock turning after Pete closed the door behind him. Good, maybe he was finally starting to get used to it enough for his brain to ignore it.

Used to the routine of being a convict.

"Goodness, Ruddiger, what are we doing in prison ?” he mumbled.

The raccoon jumped off his shoulders, seemingly feeling quite at home after all the time they’d spent there. He got onto the bed and bounced a bit, looking at Varian playfully.

"I know, I know,” he said. "I am glad it’s not a dungeon cell. Happy now?”

.

Ruddiger felt, admittedly, quite happy. Or rather, as happy as he could be in those circumstances. He couldn’t shake off the memory of the morning, when he woke up to his best friend crying so hard, curling into a ball, not hugging Ruddiger back.

Looking at him now, Ruddiger couldn’t believe their luck. After the horrible day they had, Varian was unscathed, and still in the castle, and… better, actually, way better.

He heard a sigh. "Well...”

Ruddiger jumped back a little, startled, when Varian suddenly pushed the table with unexpected force and confidence. The scraping of its legs didn’t cease until it collided with the wall, directly under the window.

"Oh! Sorry, I scared you!”

The raccoon gladly walked into Varian’s outstretched arms.

There was something so blissfully casual about Varian at that moment, his voice and movements, so relaxed and familiar. He picked him up. Ruddiger found great comfort in the motion he knew so well. It was like nothing bad had ever happened.

Varian didn’t smile, not really, and he didn’t say anything further, but he seemed just okay for the moment, and it was more than Ruddiger had wished for after the events of the day. He wondered if the Captain and that big nice man, Xavier, knew how much good they had done for them.

Varian set Ruddiger down on the table, next to "The Tales of Flynnigan Rider” and went to move the chair closer.

It was delightful to see him sit down and take the book into his hands.

 

-x-

 

When another gust of wind sent the old piece of paper waving and Arianna shivering, she reluctantly turned away from the city and stepped into the bedroom. The air whistled a bit as she closed the balcony door.

Frederic was sitting to her left, on a red sofa under their own portrait. He seemed to have finished working, judging by the parchment neatly stacked on the bedside table, his quill put back into the ink bottle and his favorite book resting in his hands.

After putting Quirin’s portrait next to the Captain of the Royal Guard’s report and a letter from the Kingdom of Westergaard, Arianna sat down next to her husband and unceremoniously hugged his arm. He smiled gently and adjusted her blanket a bit before returning to his reading.

"So, Westergaard?” she asked dreamily.

"We have a deal.” Frederic licked his finger before turning the page, an annoying little habit Arianna also loved. "They’ll send a ship, so all we have to do is prepare the bigger parts. That is, find a metalworker willing to mutilate the machines.”

The Queen laughed through her nose. "Mmm, goodbye, automatons.”

"I can’t say I’ll miss them either.”

There he was, Varian, on her mind again. She thought about him often, usually wondering how he was doing and thinking about what she could say to him if Frederic let her visit him already. He had promised he would stop protesting the idea—but not yet. Arianna wasn’t sure who exactly her husband deemed not ready—her, the boy, or himself.

But she would talk to Varian again, sooner or later.

Because the nights? They lied to her. Her dreams were full of clouds of smoke, chains, and amber so dangerously close to her, and Rapunzel so dangerously far away from her. But those dreams were all wrong—that was not all she had seen in Varian’s lab.

However scary that day had been, Arianna would not be blinded by fear. Just like the kingdom of Westergaard would use the automatons’ remains to create something new, she would take the experience of her kidnapping and turn it around, shedding herself of dread and letting her care and compassion flourish.

Because that time she had spent as his prisoner, didn’t only make Arianna scared of Varian. It also made her decide that she would never, never, leave him behind like they’d done before.

She closed her eyes, her head sinking into the safety of Frederic’s presence.

It would be another hour before the night came.

 

-x-

 

The table was a bit uncomfortable for Ruddiger’s liking, so when Varian left the table after a few minutes, he jumped off to retrieve his pillow. It still lay on the floor, almost in the exact spot where his friend had thrown it.

Varian softly cleared his throat before knocking on the door for the first time ever. He seemed to feel awkward about it, but so was every other conversation he had with Pete so far.

The door opened slightly, and the guard’s face appeared in the gap. "Yeah?”

Curious, Ruddiger sat down next to the pillow, eavesdropping without embarrassment.

"Can—can I, uh...” Varian rubbed the back of his neck. "Can I trouble you for a pen? Maybe?”

When Pete opened the door fully, it revealed that the other guard—Stan—was there too, even though Ruddiger was pretty sure he was supposed to rest.

"Sorry, I don’t think we can,” the man said. "You know, nibs.”

"Oh. Okay.” Varian didn’t sound surprised.

Pete glanced around the room, an eyebrow raising at the open book and rearranged furniture. When he looked at Ruddiger, their eyes met, so the racoon went back to the table, grabbing the pillow with his teeth to drag it along.

He set it on the windowsill, which almost served as an extension of the table top now. It became a great place to lie down, and Ruddiger wanted to take part in the redecorating—which he decided it was.

"We’ll see if we can figure something out,” said Pete. "No promises, though, alright?”

After the door closed, Varian turned back and immediately spotted the pillow under Ruddiger’s paws. For a second, the raccoon was scared that he would get mad about it—but all he did was say in a deadpan voice, "You’re way too cute.”

Ruddiger chittered in a raccoon equivalent of a laugh, causing a faint smile to appear on Varian’s face.

The guards returned quickly. When Pete gave Varian a small wooden box, its contents rattled softly. "Charcoal sticks,” he explained. "Can’t be dangerous, am I right?”

While Ruddiger was sure that Varian—crafty as he was—would beg to differ, the boy only awkwardly thanked them.

"Hey, um,” he added before they left. "Stan, right? How—how’s your arm?”

The guard smiled proudly, clearly flattered by the question. "Aw, it’s nothing.”

"No, it’s not, tough guy!” teased Pete. "Your wrist got squished in that thing, you’re like a proper hero now!”

Stan grinned. "True, that. How does it feel to live in my shadow?”

"I don’t know, ask someone shorter than me.”

"What! I’m taller!”

"Maybe in breadth.” Pete turned to leave with a short laugh.

Their banter was still audible after Stan closed the door behind himself, mumbling something about muscles and jealousy. Varian looked like he wanted to say something else to him—maybe apologise?—but then, apparently decided not to.

He approached the table and took one of his charcoal sticks out of the box before ripping several blank pages of the book. Then, he put it away and started writing something down.

Ruddiger craned his neck to see. He rarely understood Varian’s notes, but would always take a look nevertheless—because sometimes, there were nice drawings. And also because he loved his friend with all he had.

Varian must’ve noticed his interested gaze. "I want to double-check my calculations from before.” Ruddiger had no idea what it meant before he added, "Maybe I just made a mistake and that’s why it didn’t work.”

The raccoon’s heart sank a bit when he realized what Varian was talking about. He wanted to look for a mechanical fault in the drill, or an error in one of the numerous alchemical formulas he had come up with, trying to free Quirin.

Ruddiger sighed deeply. On one hand, he was sad to find out that it was still on Varian’s mind. But he also thought it was a good sign that the boy at least did something he enjoyed. Work seemed to had become Varian’s refuge and Ruddiger was glad to see his joy for science return.

For the next hour, Ruddiger drifted in and out of sleep, occasionally watching his friend hunched over the multiplying pages of "Flynnigan Rider” scattered over the table.

It made him dream of home.

 

-x-

 

It had gotten dark before Varian finally stopped scribbling. Elbows resting on the table, he pressed his charcoal-stained hands to his face, tired.

Ruddiger didn’t think much of it until he saw something fall onto one of the notes, blurring the neatly written lines. He immediately left the warm comfort of his pillow when he saw another tear follow, dripping off Varian’s chin.

What happened?

Before Ruddiger got to him, the alchemist pushed the papers away and rested his forehead on folded arms. His breath shook in an unmistakable way.

He didn’t react to Ruddiger stepping over the notes, probably ruining them further, nor to his paw gently nudging his shoulder. The raccoon helplessly lay down next to his friend, trying to be as close to him as possible.

Seeing Varian cry hurt even more than before—because it wasn’t fair. He'd felt so much better just an hour ago, Ruddiger had seen that!

Why hadn’t he stopped Varian from redoing the calculations?

No, it wouldn’t be good either. He couldn’t deter his friend from finally doing something he had a genuine passion for, doing something —something other than the service he’d been assigned to do as punishment.

Perhaps he had to accept that no matter what would happen, how many friends Varian would make or how well things would turn out, Quirin would always be gone at the end of the day. And it would hurt.

Ruddiger bumped Varian’s head, subtlety be damned.

Come on , he wanted to say. Let’s just go to sleep and maybe tomorrow will be better. Come on.

Understanding the message, the alchemist let Ruddiger wipe his face and stood up. Sluggishly, he took off his shoes and lay on the bed, not bothering with pyjamas, or duvets and blankets.

He closed his eyes only to open them again after a moment.

"Wanna sleep with me?” he whispered.

After this cue, Ruddiger was at his side in an instant. He quickly gave up lifting the blanket in a request for Varian to get under it, and joined him, closing his eyes.

For a few minutes, Ruddiger let himself sink into the sheets and listened to the sound of their breaths, sporadically varied with low muffled voices from behind the door.

"The numbers weren't wrong, by the way.”

 

-x-

 

Just as a single tear escaped Ruddiger’s eye and disappeared in his fur, Rapunzel and her friends, many miles away, laid their eyes on a crooked, rotten tree. Its outspread branches, along with the gaping hollow in the middle, resembled a roaring monster.

And on its bark, a carving had been made in a hurry— ”The Forest of No Return” .

Chapter Text

If Ruddiger had a favorite place in the castle, Varian would bet on the kitchens. They weren’t there often— trust you to bake truth serum spiked cookies —but when they were, Ruddiger always got treats and pats on the head from the staff, as long as he didn’t interfere.

It was also a good reason for Scowley Crowley to command Varian to give his furry friend a thorough bath, and Ruddiger seemed to love those.

But, this time he had sacrificed his reputation as a well-behaved raccoon in favor of puttering about. He kept very close to Varian, disrespecting all the unwritten rules of the kitchens when it came to domesticated woodland creatures.

The servants gave up on shooing him away after a few futile tries. Ruddiger, for sure, wasn’t happy to trade his treats and smiles for the heavy sighs and reprimands, but he persisted.

Varian didn’t get it. He was fine, he really was.

In all honesty, sometimes Varian didn’t understand why Ruddiger stuck around at all.

Feeling a rush of gratitude, he gently bopped the critter on the nose with his finger. Thankfully, he found it quite easy to ignore the kitchen staff’s surprised looks. Some even smiled, but for some reason, it came off as mocking.

At all times, Varian felt surrounded by some sense of shame that felt forced upon him. It lingered in the servants’ whispers, carried with the smell of their cleaning agents, permeating every hole in the wall to be fixed and every furnace to be cleaned.

It was unusually quiet. Every time they’d been in a kitchen, it had been filled to the brink with hustle and bustle—the dishes clattering, scullery maids hurrying each other and delivery men barging in, messing up the freshly swept floors.

Varian didn’t want to imagine how this wing of the castle operated with actual cooks and kitchen girls at work. It must’ve been ten times more horrendous than cleaning hours.

Not that day, though. All Varian could hear was soft chitter-chatter and the noise he made as he scraped the oven’s walls.

He looked over his shoulder, to the guards watching him closely.

Was this intentional? Was cleaning the peaceful kitchen meant to be a break after the whole automaton mess he’d caused the day before?

As much as he’d hate to admit it, Varian was glad. He felt a bit tired. He had lost track of time over his calculations—he was going to blame that on the lack of any kind of clock in that room—and then the night…

Perhaps that was why Ruddiger babied him the whole day. Varian remembered sitting up on the bed, heart pounding, once his ears picked up on a screeching sound urging him to wake up.

He didn’t even remember what he’d dreamt about, and he’d fallen back asleep in a minute, so it had been nothing. But maybe Ruddiger hadn’t gotten any more sleep after that?

Varian backed out of the oven and set the bucket of filthy water on the floor. He squeezed the sponge before shrugging and dropping it into the bucket anyway.

He still had a moment before anyone would notice that he was done.

He approached Ruddiger, who was already getting ready to hop off the counter. Varian stroked his fur.

"Stop worrying so much,” he muttered. "Did you sleep at all?”

Ruddiger nodded. Hopefully, he wasn’t lying.

"Okay.” Varian brushed a hand against the raccoon’s cheek.

Without turning, he looked sideways at the guards. They were murmuring to each other, Pete standing with his back to them, blocking the view of the other man’s head.

Varian decided to seize the chance—he quickly turned around and walked a few steps to the wooden boxes left by someone. He snatched an apple, careful to keep his arms close to his body, and threw it at Ruddiger with one swift motion.

By the time Pete moved, the raccoon had already caught the apple in his mouth, happily biting down on it, and Varian innocently leaned on the counter.

He winked at his friend, trying his best to look fun and mischievous, before announcing loudly, "Last oven done.”

One of the servants, a chubby young woman who’d never bothered to introduce herself to him—or acknowledge his presence any more than she acknowledged Ruddiger’s—came over to him.

She inspected the ovens with an expert expression. "Alright,” she said. "Should be all for today.”

"Really?”

The three of them looked to the guards for confirmation.

The one Varian didn’t know spoke up. "Don’t celebrate, you’ll have somewhere to be in no time,” he said indifferently. "For now, we stay here.”



-x-



"The last goods have been sent to Neserdnia this morning,” Nigel squinted at the documents he was holding. "And about the Southern Isles… Xavier has requested help from a few mechanical engineers, as he feels too inexperienced to properly prepare the automaton parts for trading.”

Frederic torn his gaze away from the feather of his quill pen. "How much time do we have?”

"It is a three weeks’ travel, Your Majesty, so the ship from Westergaard should arrive in nothing short of a week.”

Neither or them had any idea if it meant there was enough time, or if they had to hurry with picking out the undamaged parts fit for reassembling or reprocessing—let alone safely preparing them for a long voyage.

"Very well, then,” said the King. "Send for three of the best mechanics in Corona, whether in business or still studying. Asking Koto would be ideal, but I doubt we have the time,” he thought aloud.

Frederic’s mind was already with Arianna before Nigel even started to write his wishes down.

He looked at the large clock standing by the wall. His wife was going to have a rather difficult meeting in just half an hour.



-x-



Pete was bored. So bored.

He’d never suspected to miss Stan so greatly after just one shift of absence, but he thought it was safe to say that he was close to actually going mad from the awkward silence forever hanging between him and Stan’s substitute. The man, Bern, had to be the dullest person to have ever walked on earth. No matter how many times Pete tried to make their duty at least a little bit fun, Bern would always just nod with a faint, polite smile and return to work. His stoicism knew no bounds.

Making small talk with Varian was apparently out of the question, too. Pity, really, because he could make a pretty interesting colloquist when he wasn’t sulking.

The sheer bad luck, man. Varian was always pulling faces, making snarky remarks and overall trying to make them all as miserable as he seemed to feel about community service—and he also had better moments, as they’d come to find the day before. But, of course, when Stan wasn’t there and Pete was dying of boredom, Varian had to turn into a meek rock.

It felt a little weird, the silence that filled the hall as they walked to their destination, even their footsteps—and the raccoon’s claws—muffled by the thick red carpet. The little animal, usually scuttling around at a comfortable distance, was almost glued to Varian’s right leg.

Truth be told, he did look different, his scruffy demeanor contrasting with the focused calmness. Never had Pete expected to be annoyed at this boy being cooperative.

"Here we are,” Bern said out loud by some miracle.

And there they certainly were, the royal parlor waiting just behind the heavy door they approached.

Pete grunted. "Yeah. Maybe you stay here and watch the door and I’ll go in?” he suggested. "Nigel said not to crowd them.”

Varian looked at him with utter confusion on his face, but he didn’t speak. Oh well, it was always something. Up until then, the only creature he’d graced with his full attention was the raccoon.

"Yes,” Bern agreed and took position, immediately standing straight, with his back arched unnaturally.

Sighing, Pete pushed the heavy door open. "After you,” he told Varian and they entered the room.

He watched some of the color drain from the boy’s face before he closed the door.



-x-



Arianna’s heart sped up even before she looked up from her book.

There he was—rooted to the spot by the door, eyes locked on her, and she couldn’t help but be wary of this gaze.

Hello, Varian , she had planned to say. But, all of a sudden, it seemed like a silly thing to say to her kidnapper’s face. That same face that had scowled at her, skin bunching around the eyes in rage when she’d tried to reach out to him despite everything. That same face that had smirked so coldly, promising vengeance and laughing at her fear.

She shifted on the sofa, surprised by the uneasiness she momentarily felt at his sight.

No, that was not all. Remember.

Arianna, look at him.

Grunting, she straightened up and dared to look him in the eye, facing off with the monster that had been hiding under her bed ever since Frederic and Rapunzel had brought her back home—the one she had almost buried inside her.

...He was shaking.

Weirdly, that was the first thing Arianna noticed—the little tremors of his chest as he drew unsure breaths. He’d been shaking during the sentencing too, and his hands had shaken when he’d tightened the harsh rope around her wrists, and when he’d slept.

It seemed like he was shaking every time she laid her eyes on him.

The monster shrunk.

Varian’s features slowly relaxed, surprise replaced by odd cautiousness. Why was he cautious of her? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Most importantly, he was small .

He was so much smaller than he’d seemed in Old Corona. She almost wanted to tell him that—how much smaller he was, or how much bigger she was than what he’d done to her.

He budged when Pete touched his shoulder, subtly hinting for him to step further into the room. An unexplained smile tugged at the corner of Arianna’s lips.

When Varian had been executing his plan to free Quirin, terribly detailed and thought out, he’d been confident and snarky as can be. Now, he wasn’t wearing that ruthless mask. And he was someone entirely different from the monster haunting her dreams.

But he also wasn’t a stranger. She’d caught many glimpses of this—more genuine, she supposed—Varian, this scared and confused kid with an obvious gulf between himself and the rest of the world. She’d seen it deepen with every minute that had passed, taking away all his hesitation, all reason, as he tunnel-visionned his one goal.

Varian sighed, so serious and determined now. Somehow, the more he braced himself to speak, the calmer Arianna felt.

What was he going to say? She wondered if he knew how significant his words would be.

"What are you doing here?” he asked, dumbly.

And the monster withered with Arianna’s gentle laugh. "It’s the royal parlor. I’m reading,” she explained. "Come sit down.” She pointed to an armchair next to her.

After a quick stealthy look at Pete, Varian finally approached. His shy movements didn’t match his straight face at all.

.

Thankfully, Ruddiger stayed close to Varian when he sat down on a wooden stool opposite Queen Arianna.

She was watching him carefully, somehow very serious despite the little smile he’d caused. "How are you?”

For a moment, he considered this question. But, before he had the bad luck to have any sort of answer form in his mind, his jaw tensed, teeth clenched together as he felt a stab of anger.

How am I? How am I ?

And it felt right. He could do that—motion, offense, defense, back and forth. That made sense, way more sense than all that shyness that hung between them.

"What do you care?” he dared.

He should get ready to fight, vile words waiting to escape from his mouth. But as much as he wanted to spit in her face—and he did—something about Queen Arianna still demanded his respect. The sight of her saddened face sent a rush of heat to his cheeks and ears.

She didn’t answer. What was the point of talking to him, then? They didn’t know each other. Maybe she just wanted to look him in the eye, or maybe she wanted an apology.

Well, tough luck.

"What do you want?” he tried instead. He cringed at his slightly shaking voice—something she didn’t seem to notice. It shouldn’t be so difficult to stay angry. Varian had gotten too weak.

With a heavy sigh, the Queen put her book down on the table between them. Then, she opened it on the last page and took out a worn-out piece of paper. "I have something for you.”

Varian eyed the paper, folded in half. A document? Or a letter? For a prisoner?

"I’ve actually found it last week. It’s...” she hesitated. "It’s your father’s.”

Silence.

What?

She waited for him to respond, the thing still in her hands.

Varian’s heart hammered wildly in his chest as the Queen calmly unfolded the paper, briefly looking at its contents before putting it face down on the table.

She barely managed to push it slightly in Varian’s direction when he sprang to his feet. She flinched. He didn’t care.

The Queen of Corona, holding an ancient-looking piece of paper, looking all sad, saying it was about his father?

"Get that away from me,” he breathed without choosing to.

He wouldn’t accept it, not in a thousand years, there was no need, no way

Everything else faded away like a dispersing fog, and Varian involuntarily looked to Pete, then Ruddiger, then back to Queen Arianna, with her hands frozen mid-air and the damned pointless scrap somehow moved even closer to him. He wanted it gone. She had to get it away.

Varian’s leg collided with the stool, almost knocking it over, so he forced himself to stop stumbling backwards.

How could she? How could she be so cruel? It was such a calm day, he finally had a break so he could think soon, sit down and really think about how he was going to get out of this mess, what else he could do, and now she just came and destroyed all of it.

He looked away and swallowed around the lump in his throat. He had to bite his tongue to stop himself from asking her, why are you doing this to me?

The Queen, who had the audacity to look hurt for a moment, suddenly exclaimed, "Oh no!” She stood up, spreading her arms. "No, this is not—”

"I don’t want it.” His voice was a trembling whisper despite his attempts to gather up some strength. "I don’t need it.”

"No, Varian, it’s not a...” A gentle hand appeared on his forearm, catching him off guard. "It’s not a will,” she finished in a low voice.

The Queen withdrew quickly, probably afraid he’d despise the touch.

He didn’t move another inch. Was she really scared of him? And shouldn't it feel good?

It had felt good to tell her that she had been a pawn, a mere bait, to show her how little she had meant to him. To throw vague threats and silence her, to have power over her. It hadn’t mattered that he hadn’t had a plan for "making Corona pay”, hadn’t even thought that far—the fear on her face had somehow soothed some painful urge.

Apparently, he’d run out of that.

"I’m sorry,” she told him quietly but surely. "I didn’t want to upset you.”

Something soft brushed against the alchemist’s leg. Of course, Ruddiger was there, offering comfort. Varian picked his friend up, grateful for the familiar weight pressed against his slowly calming heartbeat.

Queen Arianna spoke again. "Let’s sit down. You won’t have to look at it, but it’s nothing bad. I promise you.”

At first, Varian wanted to stay frozen on the spot. But he’d have to move eventually, and—

He was stupid. He really was stupid, acting so dramatic over a piece of paper. Even if it had been a testament… it wouldn’t be pointless to show him. After all, he had checked his calculations for a hundredth time now.

And they all were unbearably, disruptively correct.

He didn’t know what to do with this information. What to do with anything, now that coming up with any plans seemed so pointless. He had pushed himself to think it all over, again and again, and nothing ever came out of it—he was out of ideas.

Only when Varian attempted to meet the Queen’s eyes, he noticed water gathering in his. There was no trace of that determination that had seemed to be etched into her face before. She looked younger, and gentler. And so sad.

It made another weird feeling creep up from his stomach and settle in his throat. "Mhm,” he managed. "Okay.”

Chapter Text

Pete awkwardly shuffled his feet.

Thank goodness he didn’t have to intervene. For a moment, he was sure that Varian was going to do something violent, or scream at Her Majesty, or try to storm off. He didn’t know that, but if he had done anything out of line, the meeting would be over.

But he didn’t. Pete watched his frozen form with sympathy, oddly relieved to see it finally move to pick up the raccoon.

Her Majesty briefly looked at Pete as she rounded the table to hold Varian’s arm. The guard nodded. Maybe he shouldn’t be so glad that someone was still trying with this kid, but he was. He didn’t like how quiet and timid Varian had gotten. Something had changed—Pete was sure. What he wasn’t sure of was whether the change was for better or worse.

Maybe the Queen could get to the bottom of it. Pete wondered if she knew how much she had achieved already.

“Okay.” Varian finally sat back down.

Her Majesty followed. “We can look at it later if you’ll want to,” she said. “So, I’ve heard you were helping around the kitchen today?”

This time, Varian’s reply was louder. “Yeah.”

“You know, I can’t remember the last time I’ve been there,” the Queen chatted. “I never liked cooking very much, but I used to do it a lot. I can truly appreciate the cooks’ jobs, now that I’ve seen the horrors.”

To Pete’s surprise, Varian snorted. “Oh, there are horrors alright.”

She laughed gracefully. “You were only cleaning though, you haven’t seen the half of it.”

“I think I’ll pass.”

The guard furrowed his brows. He wished he could see Varian’s face, curious about his expression. His tone sounded harsh, but the words were so casual it felt like they had talked like that before. For the umpteenth time, Pete caught himself imagining what could’ve happened between those two when Varian had taken her prisoner. Or how the hell he’d done it.

Her Majesty laughed once more. “That bad?”

“I know, I should be grateful I’m even alive.” The quiet voice caused the Queen’s face to fall.

“Where did that come from?” There was no response. She sighed. “Varian. We would never… deliberately do anything to hurt you.”

“Why not?” He shrugged. “I hurt you.”

“So I should hate you?”

Another shrug. “That would make the most sense, yes.”

Pete crossed his arms. What was up with that kid? He hadn’t had the chance to really get to know Varian, but from what he’d observed, he always questioned everything, even the littlest of things, and he would shut down anything that threatened the shreds of his weird, shattered world view.

Her Majesty’s next words were surprisingly quiet and gentle. “I don’t,” she assured. “And I’m not sure I understand you. You opposed Frederic’s sentence, and now you’re—do you want to be punished?”

“No?” Varian scoffed. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

At that, Pete almost snickered. He believed that Varian wasn’t a bad kid—unlike most of the Royal Guard at that point—but if he actually believed that, then he seriously needed to wake up.

But all the Queen answered was, “So what is this about?”

“It’s—you shouldn’t just—you’re supposed to—” Varian stumbled. “I’m just pointing out how stupid… It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Why?” she challenged. “If you’ve done nothing wrong —”

“Okay, fine! I know.” The raccoon gently landed on the floor when Varian interrupted. “I told you, I know how low I’ve sunk. Too bad. I was trying to save my family, I didn’t care about yours,” he spoke fast, voice unwavering. “I didn’t care about wrong , and I still don’t.”

All of a sudden, Pete disliked the idea of prying into Varian’s thoughts. He decided that he didn’t want to know what was concealed under that awfully calm mask, not anymore.

“You have… you always...” Varian kept going. “You have people by your side… no one is on my side. Not even Ruddiger, as we all know, not really.”

The striped tail near Varian’s legs twitched nervously.

“There aren’t any sides here, Varian.”

“Clearly there are. I’m the bad guy who terrorized the kingdom and hurt people, you’re the good guys who fought me and threw me in jail.”

Confused, Pete scratched the back of his neck. Several questions formed inside his head. How could one recognize all the wrongs they’d done, see the cruelty and immorality, and still not regret a thing? How could one even begin to view Princess Rapunzel as enemy?

The boy didn’t seem to notice when Her Majesty changed seats, settling in an armchair closer to Varian and patting his raccoon on the head. “Is that really all you are?” she asked skeptically. “Just a bad guy in jail?”

The room got quiet, save for Ruddiger’s little whine as he lay down next to Varian’s feet. And just when Pete thought that there wouldn’t be another word uttered—

“No.”

.

That was a good enough starting point, but silence fell all the same after Varian’s nearly whispered negation.

Arianna almost wanted to ask, Who are you, then? But she knew what she would hear, regardless of the true answer.

He’d tell her that he was someone abandoned and left to struggle along with all of Old Corona, riddled by the black rocks. Or someone who had just wanted to help—or someone who had been denied help.

Forgotten, with no one to care if he was alright. Or—what was that word he’d used?—vilified. Left behind as his village had gotten empty. Chased out of his own home, away from Quirin, by Frederic’s command.

Those were the things Varian saw—himself, alone, on the run, in a fight. Arianna struggled to blame him for it. Those were the things Varian had seen , unaware of Frederic’s pain, fear and love, dismissive of Rapunzel’s dilemma, her own struggle and her best intentions… and unforgiving in the face of Corona’s care for the Princess he felt so let down by.

But even when he’d held her captive, Arianna hadn’t expected him to attack just for the sake of it, and yet, once his awful plan had failed, he’d snapped.

Varian was wrong—none of them deserved to suffer, though it had seemed that in the end, he wanted them to.

Yet, Arianna thought, he had been the only person to cry in that room.

She hadn’t looked twice at him when she’d run to her family, all three of them relieved beyond comprehension to be well and back together. Arianna felt no guilt for it, for being terrified for her child, in grave danger once again.

Nevertheless, deeply did she regret that there had been Varian watching—Varian, who, no matter how much wrong he’d done, ultimately was another child in Arianna’s mind, a child despairing the loss of everything she’d held in her arms in that same moment.

And she’d held her whole world there.

She knew now that after pleading for help, oblivious to the urgent events unfolding on the mainland, he had walked back in that horrid blizzard—all the way to Old Corona, to what might’ve only been a frozen corpse of his father.

Truly, what could be left of his worldview?

It must’ve been easy to discard Rapunzel’s friendship as a lie, and even easier to lose loyalty to Corona once it got the distorted news about his supposed attack on the Princess.

Arianna could see it clear as day when he countered her words for arguing’s sake, scouring every memory for the scent of betrayal, listing the villains he felt hurt by—her daughter, her husband, her people. Everyone but himself, his family, and… maybe, just maybe, Arianna? Who knew, maybe she could be a bridge between those black-and-white halves he’d conjured up, maybe she could be the one to hold the light for him…

Oh, an idealist, she was.

“Here’s the way you live now, Varian,” she picked up, matter-of-factly. “You throw these harsh words and hate the people you’ve already punished.”

Varian’s blank face grew uneasy, and he lifted his gaze to look at her.

“But you can’t spend your life stuck in anger, you can’t go on like this,” Arianna continued, almost happy to see his shoulders hunching as if in shame. “Trust me, I know a lot about fighting one pain with another. It doesn’t help.”

His eyes widened in realization. “Oh,” he let slip. “I—I’m sorry.”

I was talking about Frederic.

Was she?

Unsure, she settled for, “Don’t be. I’m telling you this because I want to ask...”

Here it comes. Quite a dangerous question, as Arianna realized, the one she wasn’t sure he was ready to hear, especially from her—the one that could make him shout or laugh it off, ending their talk, and turn away from any change.

Can you try to forgive us?

“Can you try to forgive yourself?”

Varian shifted on the stool. “Uh, what?”

Arianna dared to move too, sitting a little closer to him again. Now that the table didn’t divide them, she could see his cheeks reddening under the handful of freckles. So similar to her beautiful girl.

She observed his shoulders hunching further, and an out-of-place smile settling on his face. It was somehow dim and sad, as though he’d led a tiring life—as though he could be only amused by her faith in him.

He shook his head. “No. Sorry, no.” His little laugh was almost apologetic. “I’m not forgiving anyone. Not Rapunzel, not you, not myself.” A little hiss could be heard in the last word, and a fleeting scowl distorted his small face. “Can it be alright with you?”

Arianna’s heart pounded loudly in her ears at that mellow refusal. Something felt close and fragile, and she had to fight the impulse to hold her breath in fear of shattering it.

“We can talk about sunshine and rainbows.” Varian’s fingers gently fiddled with the tip of Ruddiger’s tail. “You can tell me... all you want. About hope, trust and friendship. It’s fairytales, and I’m really too old for those, even if you wanna treat me like a baby.” He pushed the bangs away from his face, revealing a cool, controlled expression, feigned and maintained throughout the calm monologue. “I… don’t get those.”

The raccoon turned away from Arianna’s hand to hop back onto his place at Varian’s lap. His friend seemed nearly absent, focused on his words.

“I don’t want to punish anyone. Seriously, I mean it,” he said. “Not… not anymore. Maybe you’ve heard the rumors of the loser wizard who’s not even that good at his own craft. That’s me by the way, hello.” Another misplaced laugh. “I’ve only been causing trouble all my life, and then I, you know... Everything about me is just wrong, isn’t it, and everything would be better if it was me stuck in there. I know that. Or, or if I’d just stopped meddling before it was too late. Listen, I... I messed up big time.”

He stared at her, a question burning in his eyes. “Forgive? My father’s gone. How would I—how does anyone even begin to forgive something like that?”

Arianna shook her head, lips parting. But, before any words left her mouth in Rapunzel’s defense, he continued. “So, no. I’m not forgiving myself. Unless I fix it somehow, but uh, breaking news, I have no idea how.” Finally, his voice quavered and his smile shook. “But I can say whatever you want if that gets me out of this conversation.”

She locked stares with Ruddiger, delving deep into the sorrow so evident despite the ruffled fur of his dark “mask” around his eyes. The little animal wrapped his paws around Varian’s forearm, perfectly reflecting the worry that pulled down the corners of Arianna’s lips.

Both seemed to escape Varian’s notice, unseen just as much as Pete, loitering at the door with his gaze drilling into the floor.

As unsure as she’d felt before, that quiet display of loss helped Arianna finally settle on why exactly she was there.

Frederic didn’t love the idea of Arianna meeting with Varian so soon, but she knew she couldn’t just sit and stare at her wounds forever*, watching them grow and blow out of proportion.

She didn’t want to forget anything about the night of Rapunzel’s nineteenth birthday. She wanted to be okay remembering—and she would be okay, just like she was okay with all the birthdays she’d missed in the end.

Those memories would always linger, but she would not yield to them—she embraced them. It felt as though she had given them a few inches of space inside her body, kept them safely within their fuzzy borders, so they wouldn’t swallow her whole.

She would sometimes revisit this space, real and painful as ever, letting the memory resurface. A lot of those times, she would cry. And then she’d watch it all wax and wane, and wash over—and in the toughest days, Rapunzel’s room would always be there, full of her paintings, full of her.

And so Arianna walked through the sorrows of grief with her love unscathed. Something she was now determined to teach Varian, more than ever.

“Oh, and now you’re hurt,” he deadpanned, not understanding her silence at all.

Don’t worry, Mom. That was what Rapunzel would’ve probably said if she were there, never losing faith in her friends. He’ll open up to you.

Arianna knew, there was no way Varian would simply trust her. For the time being, he seemed to simply reject the idea of trusting anything again. Except, maybe…

“May I?” She put her hand on the paper, gently lifting its corner with her thumb.

He was silent, but she didn’t hurry him.

After a moment of tense hesitation, he sighed and nodded. “Sure.” The word came out in a whisper.

Carefully, Arianna reached to the table. She felt more than saw Varian stiffen at her closeness before she lifted the portrait and offered it to him.

A tired, but kind face stared back at them, its smile gleaming with pride and calm confidence, wrinkling the skin around the warm, sincere eyes laughing under a pair of thick eyebrows. At Quirin’s side, a wild cloud of auburn hair encompassed his wife’s blushed cheeks and grin.

Arianna had expected Varian to freeze, take a moment. But his wide eyes started darting all over the portrait, from one face to another, examining every brushstroke as if he desperately wanted to memorize it all—but his brows furrowed and his lips pursed, contrasting with the obvious excitement of his gaze.

Once Varian slowed down and braved to devote his full attention to Quirin’s eyes, Arianna’s hand shook.

She tore her eyes away from the portrait and focused on Varian’s profile. At the sight of his quivering lip, Arianna let her free hand venture to his shoulder, barely touching it.

He didn’t flinch.

And so they sat, both having found a glimpse of something they were searching for.

Chapter Text

Varian wasn’t sure why, but at first, he wanted to snatch the portrait out of the Queen’s grip and hide it. It looked odd in her hands; it felt wrong that she even held it and addressed its existence.

For some reason, it was private—more private than the hardened resin in the middle of his lab, more private than his dad’s chest he had rummaged through, more private than the family portrait hanging above it. It was not to be seen by anyone besides him.

But then, Varian felt alone as he locked stares with the flat, painted version of his parents.

It was a different kind of alone though—a new kind, with a tender weight of an unfamiliar hand on his shoulder. Varian didn’t even realize how it had happened, or when he had let her in on his alone  and allowed her to join the soft strokes of a fluffy tail somewhere around his calf.

“Would he forgive you?”

It wasn’t easy to be rude to her. Queen Arianna, whom he had taken captive, whom he’d threatened, who had been so confused about it all, who had seemed so infuriatingly innocent…

Honesty came easier than spite. “I’m not sure.”

Varian’s father always forgave him. He was disappointed, sometimes annoyed, sometimes ashamed, but when Varian really thought about it, he was always forgiven. About mom, he didn’t know a thing.

“He told me not to mess with the rocks,” he said, and that’s when he dreadfully realized that she was looking at him, at his dad, and at his mom. The portrait shook as Varian took it in his hands.

No, he thought distantly. He would not cry over it now, not in front of her.

“He told me not to.” And with that, he let the paper fall back onto the table, pressed his palms to his face, and cried, right then, in front of her.

 

-x-

 

Arianna awoke to an unusual brightness, soft sheets bathing in the morning light. A gentle breeze caressed her cheeks. She smiled. It must’ve been the first time in years that Frederic had left the balcony door open for the night.

“Fred—” She turned around to snuggle to him, but what her hand met was not her husband’s strong shoulder. A flower had been placed on Frederic’s pillow, its pink edges beautifully contrasting with the pastel yellow petals.

Arianna sat up in the bed, then lifted the plant to her face. She closed her eyes as she smelled it. Rising moon lilies always reminded her of the flower that had gifted her with so much happiness. “Oh, Frederic,” she whispered.

He must’ve thought that she could use something to comfort her after her confrontation yesterday. After all, she still hadn’t told him much about how it went, how it was like to talk to—

Arianna froze under her light duvet as a realization struck her.

The night had passed. And she slept through it all.

There were no shimmery clouds of green in dark corridors, no harsh rope or heavy chains. Her dreams had been void of Rapunzel’s groans of pain and purple goo at Frederic’s feet; no sword had flown her way, no amber had crept toward her.

All she could remember from her dreams were sets of honest eyes and long talks, ones she wanted to finish.

“Varian,” she tested out loud. The name rang different, new and brave, strangely loud in the calmness of the royal bed-chamber. “Varian. Old Corona. Amber.”

Her gaze fell upon her beautiful lily. “Sundrop,” Arianna finished with newfound confidence.

And she didn’t shudder.

She only brought a hand to her chest, surrounded by the lovely smell of the flower, and let a relieved tear drip down to her widening smile.

 

-x-

 

“I will get you out, I promise.” Reluctantly, Varian allowed his hand to part with the amber’s surface.

A stolen flower lay on his workbench, small and soulless, but a vessel of desperate hope nonetheless. Muttering more breathy promises, the alchemist walked away from his father to retrieve the delicate plant. He placed it in a mortar to grind it, and then, just as he readied his hand…

“Varian.”

The mortar fell to the floor.

“Dad?”

Heart racing wildly, Varian spun on his heel to meet his dad’s gaze— his dad’s gaze

The figure was facing him. It moved slowly, as though bathed in thick liquid, but finally, a gloved hand reached out to Varian, almost breaking the monolith’s surface.

Tears flooded the alchemist’s face in a matter of seconds. “Dad!”

His father no longer seemed petrified inside a solid crystal. He floated freely within a hollow pocket of air, muscles tense in an effort to force the resin to melt and thicken at his command.

He wasn’t frozen in amber. He was swimming in it.

Nearly heaving, Varian slammed his own hand into it, expecting the resin to be soft and plastic now, but it felt cold and smooth as ever. He pressed harder, hoping to somehow make the amber bend to his will just like it yielded to his father’s movements.

Varian patted the crystal randomly as if he could find a weak spot and overcome the mere inches that were separating their hands now. But then, Dad sank back further into the amber.

The boy continued to scramble over the solid surface, just like he had that day, his chest pressed against it. “No!”

You put me in here.” A quiet voice paused Varian completely.

His desperate hands stopped at his eye’s height as if adhered. His lips moved, but no matter how hard he tried, not another sound left his tense throat.

Suddenly, something pressed on his forearms. Golden resin spread and crawled on his skin, crushing his wrists like a tightening vise. He cried out in horror. He wanted to pull away, to do something, but as soon as the thought appeared in his mind, the amber wrapped around his ankles, keeping him in place.

With nothing else left to do, Varian observed how his father moved his hand vigorously. The amber almost danced according to his movements, consuming the boy’s body with every swift motion.

Numerous alchemical compounds fell off the shelves and tabletops. The lab disappeared in a violent vortex of thunders and shapes, explosions of all different smells and colors encompassing the scene. Smoke rose from the floor making it even harder to see, a pair of repelled eyes the only thing prominent in the chaos.

“It should’ve been you.”

The shapes around them formed into a hundred figures, crying in fear, screaming in anger. The royals looked down on Varian with disgust. Eugene laughed, pointing his finger at him. Cassie polished her knife, dark eyes focused on the blade.

“No one’s coming.”

They watched as the amber grew, pressing on Varian’s chest and reaching his neck.

Finally, he screamed.

 

And then, quiet.

The people were gone, the lab was gone. Not even a fading echo of Varian’s own shriek accompanied the sudden darkness.

Dad was there.

Just Dad, just his dad, not a terrifying twisted version of him. He stood free, spreading his arms, inviting his son into an embrace.

Varian needed to get closer, but his body would not obey him. All he could do was look, inspect the wrinkles on his dad’s face, the sadness of it, almost as unbearable as the cruel anger of his nightmarish doppelganger.

It was him, it was really him.

“I miss you,” Varian blurted out, and suddenly, he was drowning.

Terror disrupted the face in front of him as the man surged, failing to grab the boy before he got pulled away, swallowed by another beat of chaos.

He vainly kicked his legs, trying not to sink further into the freezing golden liquid that flooded him. The amber behaved like thick honey, nearly impossible to navigate through.

Varian stifled a cry, but despite his efforts, his mouth forcefully opened. Molten resin painfully invaded his lungs, burning and clawing at his ribcage.

Even more of the sticky substance filled his insides when he failed to stop another muffled scream. Choking, he hopelessly outstretched his arms.

His fingers caught up in soft threads, and soon, his whole hand was entangled in a delicate net. He desperately held onto it, burying himself in the twisting mass of blonde hair.

He strengthened his grip once the strays of hair lit up, barely standing out in the golden void he had collapsed into.

Rapunzel?

Something violently pulled the hair up.

Rapunzel, please!

Maybe she wanted him to let go of her, or maybe she tried to rescue him.

But he would never know because it slipped from his hand.

RAPUNZEL!!!

 

-x-

 

“Rapun—!”

Varian’s shout was cut off by a fit of coughing and gasping, as if he still had to fight for breath.

It took him a moment to recognize his room in the castle, bright, blurred and swaying. Once he sat upright, welled up tears fell freely. Shaking hands clutched at his chest as he choked on the hair, on the resin, on thin air.

His gaze darted around the room, something grey frantically moving in his field of vision.

When sobbing replaced Varian’s gasping, the thing slammed into him. He let go of the front of his shirt to push it away, but his muscles didn’t obey him.

It was soft and warm, and shaking along with the rapid trembling of the boy’s whole body.

“R-Ruddi-ger?”

The raccoon cooed, still pressed firmly against Varian’s heaving chest.

“Rud-Ruddiger. Ruddiger,“ the boy repeated. “ Rud-diger, oh, Ruddiger, h-hey…”

The door opened, two people rushing to the bed, asking something, but only answered with mumbling. He kept repeating Ruddiger’s name, he couldn’t stop. Pressure appeared on his back when someone sat down next to him.

“ ...okay? Varian, are you…”

“ ...for Aldred.”

“I don’t…”

“I’ll take the portrait now, alright?”

The odd question brought Varian back to reality. He released the paper from his right fist, only then realizing that he had been clasping it.

It was a dream.

He must’ve had fallen asleep with the portrait in his hand.

Just a stupid dream.

He looked down, the paper wet and crumpled.

He had ruined it.

Varian collapsed into the stranger’s arms with a wail.

 

On the other side of the castle, Queen Arianna slaughtered a monster.

Chapter Text

The table was in utter disarray; papers folded and crumpled, some riddled with smudged but neatly-written calculations, some covered in black clouds scrawled by an impatient hand. They’d been undoubtedly ripped from the open tome shoved aside—a crime, really—judging by how it was missing almost half of its contents.

Aldred’s back cracked a bit when he leaned back in the uncomfortable wooden chair, eyes drifting back to his young patient’s red face.

He had gotten called to Varian on the brisk of dawn by an impressively stoic guard. The man, Bern, tersely explained the situation and proceeded to describe what appeared to be chest pain, shortness of breath and confusion. Aldred knew these symptoms well, but he had run nevertheless, his precious supply bag in hand.

The sight of the boy curled into a tight ball, arms wrapped protectively over his head, had been both new and frettingly familiar. Varian’s raccoon had nervously toddled around the boy, fur spiky and tail thrashing. Another guard had been sitting at an awkwardly long distance from them both, eyeing the animal and massaging his thumb.

After Aldred had sent the guards away, advising one to head to the infirmary where they’d wash and dress his teeny tiny bite wound, he had sat down at the desk to guide Varian toward reality in hushed tones.

Now, the sun was up, a calming concoction had been administered, and Aldred found himself calmly observing his patient’s bleary eyes.

“Why don’t you go back to sleep for a bit?” he suggested. “I can talk to Frank and Bern.”

“No.”

The boy budged when Aldred reached for the wet, crumpled piece of paper on the table, left behind by the guards. He avoided looking at the portrait at all. He placed it inside of the ruined book and closed it, firmly pressing the cover and sitting back down as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world.

Varian didn’t comment on the physician touching his things, looking away with his jaw clenched. Trembling hands reached out for the raccoon for the fifth time since Aldred had entered the room, and for the fifth time, the little animal slowly climbed onto Varian’s lap. He took a quick shuddering breath, wet eyes drilling into a spot on Aldred’s chest.

“Rabbit’s foot,” the medic supplied, hoping to distract the boy and forestall new tears. “Lucky charm.”

Varian blinked up at him, looking awfully fragile. “What?”

Aldred gently lifted the necklace. “It used to be a custom to gift your son with his first hunt’s foot. I think it was one of the last Saporian traditions to fade away,” he explained, glad to see Varian focus on his words. “I’m not a hunter though, contrary to some expectations. I’ve always wanted to heal, not hurt. Never got my foot.”

The boy pressed his palms to his eyes. “Relatable,” he grouched. Some tension left his frame once his face was covered. “Wait, so where did you get this one?” His voice was only a raspy mumble, but it was progress.

“It’s fake. It was a gift…” Aldred began just as the door swung open—curse them all for making the kid flinch so hard—and the guards let through a petite maiden with a playful gleam in her eye, nearly bouncing as she walked.

“Sir!” she exclaimed. “Aldred!”

He rose. “Quiet, please,” he requested seeing how Varian nearly visibly shrunk at the sound of her voice.

Ellen briefly looked at the boy with a careless scoff. “The sun’s up. What are you still doing here?” she asked, knowing that it wasn’t like Aldred to just sit with a stable patient.

“No cases.” He shrugged dismissively, hoping to spare Varian from some unease.

“Well, you’ve got one now, Sir. The ship from Westergaard just landed and Nigel’s looking a little green.” Barely stifled laughter laced her voice.

The medic gathered the supplies and slung his bag over his shoulder. “Ah, let’s go then,” he nodded seriously. “What’s Westergaard got to do with it? Did something happen?”

This time, Ellen didn’t bother concealing the devilish giggle. “Come and see.” With that, she turned on her heel and left the room, ignoring Varian’s leaden look as he did his best to stare at the window and ignore her loud presence as well.

Aldred noticed.

Before he passed the guards to follow Ellen, he sent him what he hoped was an encouraging smile. “There’s no shame in holding on to your lucky charm. Let it dry and it’ll be good as new,” he dared, pointing at the book with his chin. The blue eyes that flickered toward him were sharp and discerning. “Guys, don’t be late for the check-up today,” Aldred reminded the guards before stepping out of the room.

Bern instructed Varian to get up with his finger. With a quiet sigh, he complied.

~*~

Goodness gracious.

A drop of cold sweat fell from the tip of Nigel’s large nose as he bowed his head before King Åsmund II of Westergaard himself , who had just set foot on the Coronan land along with who Nigel assumed to be his spouse, Queen Reija, and a small court.

Another woman took King Åsmund’s arm, a storm of unruly hair enveloping her face, skin almost pale blue. Nigel barely stopped himself from raising his eyebrows when she pressed her cyanosed lips to her king’s palm.

“Ah, such warm weather! Fantastic!” the man exclaimed, and several umbrellas were instantly unfolded above his and Queen Reija’s heads by the nervous court. “Nigel, oh, please rise! I mean, I assume you are Nigel, the official foreseeing Corona’s part in the trade?” he babbled casually.

“That is correct, Sire. Nigel of Corona, His Majesty’s humble servant. I am honored to welcome Your Majesty to C-Corona.” As soon as Nigel straightened up, King Åsmund’s hand appeared on his forearm. Politely as he could, he eyed the royal.

He couldn’t have been more than thirty years old, a bright smile gracing his freckled ruddy face and golden curls falling into his grey eyes. He wasn’t wearing a crown but had various colorful flowers weaved into his hair. His richly embellished mint doublet wasn’t properly buttoned up, revealing a loose cotton shirt and the young king’s pale chest. His cold eyes contrasted greatly with the flamboyant demeanor.

He shook Nigel’s hand with impressive force. “Thank you, Nigel! I can call you Nigel, right?”

“If you so wish, Your Majesty” the advisor bowed again, swallowing his annoyance.

King Åsmund clapped his hands. “Perfect! You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here,” he laughed softly. “Well, I could just say I wanted to personally foresee the trading of the goods, but,” he lowered his voice to a theatrical whisper, “to be frank, I couldn’t just waste the opportunity to go on a long voyage, and visit the amazing kingdom of Corona! I can’t wait any longer to see the automatons’ parts too.” He winked, oblivious to Nigel’s growing unease. “I have a true adventurer’s spirit, you see, and I feel a deep longing for the unknown.”

Nigel, being a master of concealing his opinions where they weren’t needed,  internally rolled his eyes despite the sense of impending doom that loomed over his head.

Very well, what in the holy heavens am I to do.

“That is very… noble of Your Majesty to possess such love for the world,” he flattered hesitantly, relieved to see Åsmund’s smile widen, not quite reaching his eyes. “I must apologize, for we haven’t… uh, the machinery is yet to be transported to the Isle, Sire. Most of it is currently on the mainland, though the workers should reach the coast by the morning,” he added hurriedly, “Your Majesty.”

It didn’t seem to bother the king. “Ah, that’s no trouble, my friend! It’s more time spent in this fine land!” he exclaimed, oddly reminiscent of an amazed child. It didn’t match the agitated demeanor of his court, eyeing him constantly. “Reija, my love, what do you say we go on a little stroll with our friend Nigel here? Leave the ship to our wonderful captain?”

“Yes,” she answered in a loud, steady voice. The tall, dark-haired woman moved close to her husband, shadowing him more like a bodyguard than a wife, constantly scanning their surroundings as if she were on a lookout for an army of assassins. Her slender hand—her only hand—rarely left his shoulder, occasionally stroking the curls on the back of his head.

As the royal couple of Westergaard unceremoniously started forward, Nigel took a few steps closer to Coronan guards. “I want a detail following and protecting them,” he barked under his breath. “If anything happens, we’ll be facing an international scandal. Tell the Captain to gather more guards at the coast and you better watch this ship closely.” He quickly scribbled down a note and passed it to a guard with a bandaged wrist, who promptly left while some of his fellow soldiers hurried to keep up with King Åsmund and Queen Reija. Thankfully, the ruler of Westergaard didn’t react to the detail of guards breathing down his neck at all. Perhaps he had expected protection.

“Oh! Nigel!” he called. “If it’s not too much trouble, I would like to meet with King Frederic as soon as possible. I might have… another thrilling offer for him.” Nigel frowned at the smug smile. “Ah, Reija, dear, isn’t this exciting?”

With a nearly inaudible sigh, Nigel wrote the request down, asked King Åsmund to give his signature and sealed it before stopping an errand boy and telling him to deliver it to the castle.

Regardless of whether the request would be granted, all that was left for Nigel to do now was ensure the king of Westergaard had a damn good time in the Capital.

~*~

“You!” a woman gasped at Varian’s sight. He tore his eyes from the pavement in front of Xavier’s shop to look up at her, ears suddenly warm and heart hammering. “Wait! Wait up!” she demanded from the guards leading him.

“I know you,” she panted once she reached them. He recognized her too—Lorraine was one of their neighbors back in Old Corona, she always gifted them with free eggs, claiming she had too much. For some reason, he felt an instinctive smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

That is until she pointed a finger at him and said, “Are you happy now?”

“I— No, I’m—”

“Do you know my father has to work thrice as much, now that you destroyed what little we still had after black rocks?” Lorraine continued, anger and hurt written clearly across her face. “He’s an old man, Varian! We were neighbors, what have we ever done to you? If Quirin could see this...”

Ruddiger chittered, clearly discontent, and Varian parted his lips to reply, to stop her from uttering another word about fathers. Before he had the chance to, Frank tightened his grip on the boy’s shoulder in a warning and spoke for him. “Don’t worry, M’am. A special fund has been created for all collateral victims of the Battle of Old Corona. You can sign up with the village's leader—Conrad, isn’t it?” he explained calmly. “I’m sure you will be fairly recompensated.”

An ugly feeling swirled in Varian’s gut as he listened about the fund the kingdom had set up, and he felt like crying at the news of his father already being replaced. It was stupid—but he didn’t want Old Corona to have any other leader.

It felt like a confirmation that his dad wasn’t coming back.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, I’ll tell you this much,” Lorraine told him on departure. “I wish you well.”

Something hurt about the way she said that, even after she left. The sensation was nothing new, this misplaced shame making him want to sink through the floor whenever he had been scolded in the past, only now increased tenfold and quickly morphing into the quiet rage of unshed tears and balled fists.

No one was in the village by the time he had stolen the flower, he had checked , yes, he actually had, thank you very much. Funny how she remembered the few yards of dead crops that may have gotten destroyed but she conveniently forgot why the fight had happened in the first place.

He didn’t hesitate, he didn’t… think about some leftover fields. Because there was nothing to think about, really. He didn’t even believe in right and wrong anymore. Help sounded like a cruel joke. Friendship sounded like a pathetic fib one told out of pity.

Then… why should he care? Why should he care when there was literally nothing of value left in the world outside of an indestructible block of glimmering resin? When all that was good had gone to an unreachable place? Why did he care?

He entered the forge shaking with anger.

.

Xavier smiled from where he had been patiently waiting for Varian and the guards, a captivating book about gemstones and minerals in hand.

“Hello, gentlemen,” he greeted them cheerfully. “What a beautiful day we have today, don’t we?”

“Aye,” answered Bern.

The blacksmith gestured towards the only tidy table at the shop. “Well, sit, sit… Help yourself to a piece of pie, I just made it this morning.” He smiled when both men happily reached for a piece. “Water?”

Frank nodded. “Oh yes, please. The heat’s killing us all today.”

Xavier generously filled four glasses and a shallow bowl, and then returned to the table. After placing the bowl in front of Varian’s raccoon, he addressed the boy. “You too, Varian. Feel free to have some pie.”

“No, thanks,” came the wavering reply.

Xavier furrowed his brows. “Are you okay? How is your day going?”

“Mhmm.” Varian just looked away.

The guards looked at each other, slightly irritated. Frank gestured toward their prisoner with a dismissive hand. “It’s just been this , all day,” he said. “Sorry, Xavier.”

“Ah no, no reason to be sorry!” the blacksmith assured. “Well then… I think we’d better start, don’t you think? Come, Varian, we’ll work in the actual forge, though I must warn you—it can get quite hot,” he filled the room with his rumbling chuckle. “I’ve got it, gentlemen.”

Frank slightly raised his glass of water. “You’ve got it.”

After a quick look at the guards, Varian headed straight to the forge downstairs, seemingly remembering his previous visits there, when he was a very different person. Bern rose from his chair despite Xavier’s assurances, ever so strict and disciplined. The blacksmith poured more water into Varian’s barely touched glass and followed him.

Once in the dark, hot forge, he placed it on a shelf. “Forgot your drink,” he remarked, insisting on kindness against all the odds.

“Why do you not hate me?” the boy asked, sounding truculent.

Xavier huffed a sigh, setting his leather gloves aside. Work could wait a bit. “What you’ve done was wrong, and I think you’re wrong holding onto that,” he said matter-of-factly. “So why on earth would I hold onto it?”

“W-what?”

The man sat down on a wooden stool, gesturing for Varian to do the same. To a little bit of Xavier’s surprise, he did. “Whatever you’ve done in the past, I see you’re lost now, my dear boy.”

A mean smile appeared on the young alchemist’s face. “Ooooh.” He rubbed his eye, the clumsiness not matching the sarcasm at all. “So you want to ‘help me’ ? I’m getting a bit tired of hearing that, not gonna lie.”

The smile fell instantly when Xavier laughed deeply. “Oh no, it’s you who’s going to help me . There’s plenty to do around here.” He smiled honestly, not touched by Varian’s nervous defensive act. “Though I have to confess that I don’t have much going today, so I’ll just teach you a little something. Have you ever made chain mail?”

Varian stammered a bit, perhaps frustrated with such an unbothered answer. “The enchanted chain mail of Whatever-dunderhead-made-that-up?” he hissed, and Bern moved a step closer.

“That wasn’t necessary. You’re not impressing anyone,” Xavier replied calmly, to which the boy’s aggression immediately faltered, and his entire face flushed. “My interest in folklore doesn’t take away from my expertise.”

“Yes, I’m… Yes, sorry,” Varian said, surprising Xavier again. “That’s not fair, I was… just, I’m sorry.”

“It’s all good. Hey, at the very least, I have many stories to tell. You used to be interested in some,” the man pointed out.

Varian fidgeted, visibly uncomfortable. “Yeah, well, not anymore. Can we just… not do this, please?” he asked, the anger gone. “I’ll just do what you tell me to, okay? I don’t care for stories and such.” 

“What if I told you one about your father?”

The boy froze for a moment before he spoke coldly, “If you wanna tell me how disappointed he would be in me, I kn—”

“I don’t,” Xavier interrupted. “And I’m not your enemy.”

“Heard that one, too,” came the mumbled reply.

“He was protecting you, wasn’t he? I think no knight or king could equal the dignity of a sacrifice like this, one that a parent is ready to make.”

“Sir. I don’t want to get sent back to the dungeons, but I might if you say another word about my father.”

Xavier bit his lip. Perhaps he shouldn’t have pursued the topic so openly. He shouldn’t force Varian to talk when he didn’t want to. His words were well-intended, but now he saw they weren’t the right thing to say.

Bern grabbed Varian’s elbow. “Is that a threat?”

“No.”

“It’s okay, Bern,” Xavier reassured and the man nodded and backed off. “Watch yourself, kid,” Bern warned, sounding almost uninterested.

They all grew silent for a beat, Frank’s footsteps upstairs the only audible thing. Then, Varian picked up. “My father got encased saving me, true. But it was a huge mistake on his part, we were fighting just before it happened, I shouted and ran off, there were no heartfelt goodbyes and there wasn’t any dignity in it,” he said firmly and coldly, fresh anger sparkling in his eyes. “I don’t want to talk about that day and I don’t want to listen to you praise it when you have no actual idea how it happened, so please, please , just stop shoving it in my—”

BAM!

Varian didn’t finish his sentence, interrupting himself by slamming a fist into a table and getting up as though it’d burned him. The movement was so sudden and urgent that it made Xavier flinch. “Okay—clearly, I’m not here to serve my sentence or whatever,” he turned to Bern, desperately. “If this is some… I… get me to my real… get me somewhere else.”

Xavier winced as soon as he heard Bern chuckle. “What makes you think you have any say in this?”

Varian’s face twisted into an expression that should never be worn on such a young face, and for a moment, Xavier thought he would scream or explode —but then he sat down in front of the blacksmith and looked him straight in the eyes.

“Fine,” he said sharply. “Then what’s my service here. What do you want me to do?”

“Put on the kettle.”

“What?”

“Put on the kettle,” Xavier repeated. “It’s upstairs. We’ll drink some tea while we work.”