Varian breathes deep. The city air smells sweet. Sweeter now than it ever had. He forgot how much he missed the smell of flowers, and cupcakes, and new shoes.
"It's lovely out here, isn't it?" Rapunzel voices his thoughts, smiling at him.
"Beats being in a cell, I'll give you that." Varian tries to joke, to fight the lump rising in his throat. "Anything beats Andrew's all-natural scent, that's for sure."
She tries to smile too.
He looks away. He isn't quite sure how to act around her now. She had forgiven him; they'd saved the kingdom together, even. She hadn't sent him back to his cell afterwards…not that they'd talked about it.
Should he pretend like it never happened? That he's always been just another law-abiding citizen, just the alchemist in Old Corona, that kid who caused a lot of little—well, sometimes big—unintentional mishaps… not the villain who tried to overthrow the kingdom…even if it's not true?
Or should they confront it, admit that he spent the last year in a cell, because he'd done terrible things—that he'd try to kill her, her friends and family?
But if they confronted it, admitted it…what would happen? Would that remind her of all the reasons not to trust him, all the reasons she should throw him back into that cell after all?
Something moves in the corner of his eye, and he turns to see Old Lady Crowley fluffing out a sheet, giving him the evil eye all the while.
She does that to everyone, he tells the thing that pangs inside him.
As they continue their stroll through the city streets, Varian notices she isn't the only one with less-than-cordial looks for him.
Feldspar slams his door when they walk by.
…Maybe he had a shoe-related emergency?
There's a woman who ducks into an alley with her baby, a kid who gasps and gets out of the way.
He turns again, and Monty is at their side. He is the first to actually speak;
"You know, you've got some nerve to show your face around here."
Rapunzel taps her foot impatiently. "Well excuuuse me for wanting to—!"
"No—though I'll admit it's a shocker—not you;" he brandishes his frosting-clad spatula from her to Varian, "him."—the alleged 'him's eyes widen—"Since when are you two all cookies-and-cream again? Didn't he try to kill you?"
"'Kill' is a strong word," Rapunzel tries to laugh, looking away, her smile twisting a little.
"What word would use for it?" he folds his arms over his chest.
"Umm…" Rapunzel flicks the frosting her off her dress. "Not 'kill' that's for sure...More like uhh…" She turns to the alchemist, and he doesn't dare return her gaze, for fear of what he'll find there.
"I was just trying to save my dad—"
"So you didn't send a monster into the city?" A woman calls.
"Uh, well," he rubs the back of his neck, "that was more of a diversion really—"
"A diversion so you could kidnap the Queen!" this is the first raised voice, raised fist, coming from behind him.
He turns to see they've accumulated something of a crowd.
"Yeah!" another voice speaks from behind them, "How can you let someone like him still walk free?! People have been killed for less!"
"Hey, listen!" Rapunzel steps in front of him, "He may have made some misguided decisions, but he's not some monster! We all make mistakes sometimes!"
"He may not be a monster, but what do you call the thing he sent into the city?!"
"And how do you explain the automatons?!"
"Or how he stole the sun flower!"
"From the royal vault no less!"
"Or how he hurt the captain?!"
"It could have been much worse!"
"What if he had killed someone?!"
"He needs to be punished!"
"He's a traitor!"
"Yeah, a traitor!"
The accusations blend together into some sick smoothie of sound, a dull ringing fault-line.
The clouds are rolling in too grey, too fast. His whole world is turning monochrome.
"I can't believe you let him go, after everything he did to you." Eugene crosses his arms, glaring at him like he's the wrong size nose on a wanted poster.
"Eugene!" Varian tries to move towards him, to plead with him, but he bumps into Lance, whose arms are folded, face set.
"Where do you think you're going, little man?"
I need to think. I need to figure this out. To do something. I need to get out of here. I need to find my dad.
"Tch, you know, if it were me," Cassandra leans against a building, her face half hidden in shadow—Where is she now? Why didn't she come back with them?— "I'd leave him to rot with the rest of the criminals."
—Something is wrong, something is wrong, they just don't want to tell me—
But, worse than all this, another voice breaks through the throng.
"Varian…is all this true?"
And this voice doesn't shout. Doesn't accuse. Doesn't scorn. It isn't even angry, just…disappointed. So very disappointed.
"Dad…" the word falls pitifully to the stones, like a child who dropped his ice cream, and I will make you proud rings through his head like a death knell.
At first Varian doesn't turn to face him, just stands there, staring at the ground, trying to formulate words that will explain what happened, without neutralizing his 'I'm so proud of you' that he had given earlier. But words aren't like numbers, they don't follow rules, they twist and writhe, and never do what they're told. So he just stands there, words failing him, mouth hanging open like a creaky door.
Then he does lift his head, and Quirin isn't incased in amber. He's alive, out, and safe, but Varian almost selfishly wishes he was still in the amber, because then he wouldn't have to bear this look in his father's eyes, the look that makes him want to shrivel up like a worm in the sun.
Rapunzel. He has to get back to Rapunzel. Rapunzel won't judge him. Won't say he needs to be punished. She forgave him. She'll explain everything to them. Rapunzel, Rapunzel give me your strength. Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your defense.
Having lost her in the crowd, he casts his gaze, like a fishing line, from one side to the other. He gets a bite; his eyes land upon her, between Xavier and a Pete, her back turned.
He runs to her.
"Rapunzel!" he calls, reaching out.
But the moment he touches her, a stain starts to spread along her hair, like it's a squid he scared. But the ink spill doesn't stop; like the best of plagues, it keeps spreading, until she's nothing but a blotch on the world.
As the golden strands dim to black they break their bonds, becoming a living thing with tentacles and a bone to pick with the pirates who dared cross its waters.
She turns to him, and the ink has stained her gaze too; her eyes are nothing but caverns in the surface of her face now; a layer of the sea no one dares enter, for there are things with teeth down there.
"R-Rapunzel?" his voice isn't so sure-footed, isn't so certain it's the right name.
She takes a step forward, her bare foot against the stones, and he takes a step back in this dance, because she doesn't look like she's going to defend him, in fact, if he didn't know better, he'd think she was going to attack him too—
"Wither and decay" her voice is not the bright, not gentle, not kind. "End this destiny"
"Rapunzel—It's me!" and now his voice is sure, pleading.
He continues backing up, trying to get away, but he's bumps into a wall of people, and when he looks up at their leering faces, he sees that their eyes are black too.
That sends him recoiling back into the center of the circle with the moon-struck sundrop, who continues chanting;
"Break these Earthly chains"
She doesn't belong to the sun anymore. She's a thing of moon and shadow.
On "chains" her blackened hair, of its own accord, snaps around his arms and torso like he's the offending ship, and it'll bend him till he breaks.
"Rapunzel! Please!" he shouts, "It's me, Varian! I-I'm your friend!" but the last three words are cracking gasps, because something is infecting his lungs; something very cold is reaching into the center of his chest, a living emptiness, sucking away, feeding off, all the light and life in him. His chest is stinging, aching, burning—
"And set the spirit free."
This is more than just heartache. Decay is eating at his body, corroding it away like acid.
And the alchemist can do nothing but watch as the black eats him alive; his lungs collapsing in on themselves, like his breath was built on sand—(but it feels like he's breathing too much)—gripping his heart, digging in like needles—(but it feels like it's beating too fast)—wrapping around his hands, his feet and unraveling them into strings of lifeless flesh.
He reaches out with breathless voice and lifeless hands to the only person whose voice never raised throughout this affair, who never insulted him, whose gaze has not been doused in moonless night, the one for whom all this was done:
"Dad! Dad help me!" The words are swallowed by the black in his throat.
Quirin turns away.
And as it devours him—
There's a ceiling above him, a bed below him, a nightlight made of glowing tubes beside him.
He's still alive—a little too alive; sitting bolt upright in bed, breath heavy and gasping on his chest, sweat dripping down his face, beneath his clothes, as if he really was in some epic sea battle, still able to taste the end of those last words on awake lips.
It takes a moment for reality to tie its strings around him, pull him back to the ground again, for his breath to deepen, and his mind to clear. For him to realize that this is, in fact, his room, not a city road, or a cell, and he is a fourteen-year-old-boy again; an alchemist, a son, a friend, a kid…not a villain, a criminal, or a prisoner. Not anymore.
He grimaces, bringing his knees up and hugging them, burying his face in them, like he always did when these sorts of things plagued him in his cell, and he had no dad to run to. He has his dad back to run to now…but he can't go to him, not anymore, not about this.
Maybe he isn't anymore, but he was once; all the things the dreamified versions of his friends accused him of were true. …And his half awake brain wonders if they really thought those things, beneath it all.
He had hoped, if and when he was free from prison, and better yet, forgiven, that he would be free of these villainous dreams too.
Ruddiger chitters from the bed beside him, pawing at his hand.
He must have hoped the nightmares would stop too.
"I'm okay, Ruddiger," he says softly. "I just—"
Because it isn't over. Not really. Not enough.
He had his father back, yes. He was out of prison. Yes. And Rapunzel had forgiven him, and, as, it seemed, did the rest of her gang—("Where's Cass?" He'd asked once all the kingdom-saving was over, and he'd scanned the group, and found an empty slot in the lineup. Eugene said they'd tell him later, when everything was more settled…and Varian didn't much like the sound of that)—Yes. But that didn't mean everyone else did.
It didn't mean the King and Queen did. When their memories were restored, what would they think? What would they do when they saw the kid who kidnapped the Queen, tried to kill their citizens and princess, who they'd locked up, running about? What could he say?
Oh, hi, remember me? You know, the kid who kidnapped you and threatened your daughter? The one who sent a monster and a bunch of automatons to cause havoc to your kingdom, and endanger the lives of your subjects? Yeah, that's me. It's all good now. Would you like a cookie?
They didn't come into the kingdom, or the dungeon, often, so they weren't liable to notice right away when their memories did return…but that didn't mean they wouldn't. And when they did…what if they didn't believe Rapunzel, or him? What if they sent him back to that cell? Would he have to spend the rest of his days sitting with Andrew and his equally-all-natural-scented cronies? Would he grow up with three walls and some bars for a teacher? Never to use alchemy again, never to see his dad again, never to eat a good meal, or smell the flowers, or kiss a girl…
And then there was the question using the back of his mind as a chew toy: What will dad think?
Varian would do everything in his power to hide it—sweep the subject under beds and rugs and opportunely-placed cabinets—but he was bound to clean up eventually.
And… what would Quirin do then? Would he look at him as he had in the dream? Would he take back the 'I'm proud of you' that Varian did all those horrible things just to hear? Would he hate him? Punish him? Kick him out? Send him back to that cell himself?
Of course he will. How could he ever be proud of you after he learns everything you've done? His mind taunts.
He had said as much to Rapunzel. "If he knew all the things I'd done, well he'd be ashamed."
With nothing but walls, bars, and a bunch of separatists for company, he had rehearsed the words he'd say to her so many times in his head. It started with 'I don't need your help Princess!' to 'Rapunzel I…Well, it doesn't matter.' then 'I…I didn't mean it, you know that, right?' then after a few more drafts it became something full of tears and—'I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry Rapunzel…I didn't mean to hurt you, I didn't mean to hurt anybody…I just wanted to make my dad proud, but I know he won't be anymore, I know he won't, I know, I'm such an idiot, I know, I know—' And finally it was what he had actually said—with his heart hammering in his throat.
Her acceptance of his words, of him, had been sheer relief. Saving the kingdom never felt so good.
Yet at the same time, that idea that Quirin would be ashamed hadn't changed just because Rapunzel had forgiven him. Just because his father was out of the amber, and Varian was out of prison, didn't mean everything he'd done to get his father out, everything that had got him into prison, was erased. He was still going to learn all the things his screw-up-of-a-son did.
It was bad enough when his experiments failed. When Dad walked in to see acid steaming on the walls, and burns on his son's forearms. He knew how all-too-often his dad was a having a perfectly pleasant, normal, non-stress-inducing day, when he heard explosions coming from his son's room.
And having to tell him was almost always worse. Having to tell him how he may or may not have set the Goslicks prized chicken on fire, and well needless to say it wasn't going to be so prized anymore… How they'd have to stay with friends for three to five days, because the gas steaming from the lab wasn't exactly the intended effect...Or why the town's water supply mysteriously found itself pink and tasting of croissants…Standing there with his insides writhing, awaiting his punishment, or simply having to live with the look of disappointment on his face, was always worse than how it felt to actually make the mistake.
This was more than a few accidental side effects. This was something he did on purpose. Something he actually deserved to be punished for, not just with a reprimand, or a time out, or spanking from his father, but with actual prison time from the king.
Which would be worse? Dad finding out somehow…or the thought of having to tell him himself?
How would that even go anyways?
"Well dad, while you were in the amber I…did some stuff."
"Yeah, stuff…" and he'd cough the next few words into his sleeve "crimes, acts of treason...whatever you wanna call it. You know that sundrop flower everyone always talks about? I may or may not have uhh borrowed it."
"Borrowed, stolen, let's not go into semantics here."
"Wait," he'd wave his hands and put one on his forehead, "You're not actually telling me you stole from the king—" And he'd stand, all menacing.
"Yeah, you might wanna stay sitting down for this,"—Varian would look away, backing up, rubbing the back of his neck nervously—"it's a long story, and not exactly the standing-up kind."
"Varian—" He wouldn't sit down, in fact he'd keep marching towards him.
"I-I thought it would help you b-break out of the amber."Varian would stumble in both words and action, and the thought of meeting his eyes would be pure torture. "I-I thought I could if I could just get my hands on the sundrop I could—"—and he's speaking too fast, too loud now— "I could…I-I thought…I just…"—and then, the next second too slow, too soft—"I thought…" And then the words would trail off, excuses falling limp and lifeless in his mouth as the truth caught up with him.
Even in his rehearsal he couldn't finish the idea. Couldn't let his father get a word in edgewise, because if he did…
Either option sounded like an evil mastermind's best torture plan. Yeah, no matter how many times Quirin taught him it was best to tell the truth, he would never bring himself to say that to him.
His father's pride was all that mattered, the thought of losing it…
He throws his legs over the side of the bed, letting the static in his eyes scatter before standing. He glances out the window at the navy sky injected with orange, but morningless still.
He grabs his goggles and apron, Ruddiger at his his heels as he heads downstairs to his lab, doing what he always does when he stressed…well, when he's in any mood really: alchemy.
It was strange to see this place without the amber. It golden tower had become a permanent decoration, a reminder of how alchemy had failed him, how he had failed his father… a sort of dark promise.
He and Rapunzel hit reset…yet he couldn't return to how things were before the storm so easily as she could.
He pulls on his gloves and goggles, his thoughts still churning.
When Dad found out…would he send him back to prison? The people of Corona could shout all they wanted, but they didn't have the authority to send him back there.
But his dad…He could punish him, could turn him in. Varian forgot what it was, but he had once taken one of Quirin's things and tried to experiment on it…and he quite clearly remembered sitting outside in the rain without dinner that night. What would he do when he learned he'd kidnapped the Queen, sent a monster after the citizens, and automatons after his friends? Dads should punish their kids when they steal cookies, much less kidnap queens and threaten princesses. They should teach their kids to rescue princesses from towers, and damsels in distress, without accepting so much as a kiss as payment, and always abide by, and uphold, the law.
His eyes fall upon a book on his desk.
It was funny really. Varian loved the tales of Flynn Rider; this hero who always defeated the villains and saved the day.
And here he was, the bad guy. Just like the ones who Flynn had to use his wit and sword skills to defeat.
The baddies' motives always seemed so ridiculous in the past; taking over the world, leveling cities for the sake of scorned love, destroying kingdoms for the sake of a grudge…
The beaker he's holding slips from his grasp. Ruddiger catches it with his tail before it hits the ground.
"Thanks buddy," he takes it back from him.
He holds up the beaker his reflection distorted in the glass.
The word burns like bile at the back of his brain.
The thought of his dad seeing him like that, not just with disappointment in his eyes, but as a criminal, a traitor, a villain, for all the things he did to save him…
Varian gasps, fumbling again, but this time he manages to catch it, "Dad! Hey!" he sets the beaker down, turning to him, "Hi! It's good—good to see you! Good morning!"
Quirin smiles as he walks into the lab, yawning and stretching. "I feel like I've been asleep for years."
"Well, to be fair, you, uhh, almost have." Varian pulls his goggles onto his head.
"How long was I out for, again?"
"Uhh…ehh I don't know, I mean, it's all kind of a blur—"
—He tries not to think of tallymarks on prison walls—
His father grunts in response, walking around the lab, looking at all the writings on these walls. The same ones left over from all those months long ago—those months when he would do anything to get him out—collecting dust, and the new ones for the Saporians. Varian sidesteps over to the worst ones, hiding them behind his back.
"You discover any new elements while I was out?" he asks, half-jokingly.
"Oh…uhh…" he rubs the back of his neck, chuckling nervously, "N-Nah. I was kinda…uhh…preoccupied…"
Quirin's expression shifts, the smile fading. He steps up to his son—who stares at him, and for a second, something fearful in Varian wonders if he's onto him—but then Quirin leans forward and wraps him into a bone-cracking hug.
Varian's eyes widen in surprise, but he lifts his arms and returns the gesture, squeezing tightly, smiling.
This was the thing he missed most; not the smell of flowers and cupcakes, not good food, or alchemy, not even Rapunzel's everlasting smiles….his dad's hugs.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have…" Quirin sighs, "That must have been very difficult for you," Quirin murmurs into his ear, "having to make it all on your own."—Varian's eyes widen again, but this time it doesn't turn into a smile— "I'm so sorry you had to go through that…And I'm so proud that you made it through." He brushes his hand through his hair.
When he releases him, Varian looks from his father to ground, smiling sheepishly, brushing the hair from his eyes, unsure what to say.
"I'm here if you ever want to talk about anything."
"Of course—" Quirin clarifies, "you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. I'm just saying, I'm here if you ever do."
"Thanks." He tries to smile.
There's an awkward pause, then Quirin turns to leave, "I'll let you get back to it—"
"Wait, dad," Varian grabs his arm, "I was thinking…maybe we could spend some time together today? You know, like a father-son-day…thing?"
"I'd love to, Varian," he puts his hand on his cheek, "but…as I have been, uhh, out of commission, for a long time, I really must get back to my duties. You know, become reacquainted with the town and what's going on."
"Oh…Oh! Yeah, right, of course. Psh," he waves his hand, "It wasn't that big a deal anyways."
"You're welcome to come along, if you like."
Varian contemplates it. From experience these sorts of trips around town were pretty boring; mostly discussing how well crops were growing, and if anybody needed help repairing their house and whatnot, and Varian's alchemical solutions were more often than not brushed aside...But he does want to spend time with his dad, not to mention the fact that there would probably be a number of things in town still in need of repairing, whose circumstances Varian wouldn't exactly want explained to his dad…
"Sure, I'd love to."
"Wonderful." He smiles.
"I'll meet you out there in just a minute."
Quirin nods, making his way up the stairs.
Varian turns to clean up his work station but does so too quickly, accidentally knocking the beaker to the ground at last, it shattering with a puff of blue smoke, the contents spilling out, his hand hanging uselessly in the air, reaching towards it.
Ruddiger bounds over to it to help clean up. After they finish, the raccoon sits on his back legs, cocking his head to the side, chittering worriedly.
"It's okay, buddy." He smiles.
The Raccoon still looks worried.