AN: for Kat!
This story is the combined effort of Fabulist and Airplane. Rapunzel written by Fabulist. Eugene written by Airplane.
I change my mind about the ocean a lot.
Eugene says I change my mind about everything a lot. He also says that that's okay, that it's expected, even, when I'm always finding new things.
I learned a new word: "recalibrate."
It basically means to correct, to adjust, like a scale or a compass. I like this word because it basically sums up how I feel all the time since I left my tower. For example, I had to recalibrate my understanding of men when I found that Eugene has really nice teeth and not fangs. I also had to recalibrate my view of mother, when I found out mine had been lying to me, had been using me, had been stealing my life away.
Basically, recalibrating is not always fun, but I think it is positive "in the grand scheme of things."
The king - my father - says "in the grand scheme of things" a lot, and it's growing on me. I think Eugene is getting tired of hearing me use this expression, but not of the way I smile when I use it. He thinks I don't notice that he likes when I smile, but I do. It makes me smile even more.
So, the ocean. Eugene and I are sailing on an enormous ship to an island where the king and queen are. They went early to have "diplomatic discussions" with the ruling family there, and Eugene and I are following for the big party that's going to ensue. I've been looking forward to this trip for the following reasons:
1) I like parties; I have the opportunity to try many different kinds of foods all at once, and people dress in really bright colors.
2) I've never been on the ocean, and it's one of the two-thousand six-hundred and forty-eight items on my to-do list.
3) It's an adventure with Eugene, which are rarer these days than I'd like, and it reminds me of when we first met, and how my heart basically exploded from all the new and all the good.
I need reminders a lot these days. Sometimes I can't control how angry and upset I am thinking about all I could have been doing instead of being in my tower. Then I look at Eugene and I remember that the most important thing is that he found me, and now I have the rest of my life to make up for what I lost. Maybe my life will be bigger and better because of it. I see some people who spend their lives doing nothing, or at least nothing interesting. They don't notice anything, they never recalibrate. I hope that will ever be true of me. I hope I never get used to being free.
So, the ocean. It's extremely cold, salty, sticky, and undulates. It looks different all the time depending on the light, the wind, how you hold your head, et cetera. On the one hand, I love the ocean. It is completely different from anything I've ever experienced - it's solid, we can float on it, but it's soft, and the boat is always moving up and down and around. I dislike the ocean as well, because Eugene is tired and ill on the boat, and I take it personally when things are bad for Eugene. So I have a love-hate relationship with the ocean.
I learned the idea of a "love-hate" relationship from Eugene, who has such a relationship with basically everything except me and money, both of which he only loves. I'm pretty sure there are things he only hates as well, but we talk less about that.
Eugene is leaning over the railing right now being sick. He doesn't eat much on the boat, but what he did manage to get down is now returning to the sea. I tried rubbing his back, but it didn't seem to help and I think it embarrassed him further, so I backed off and am now leaning over the railing a little ways away, pretending to look at the fishes but really looking at Eugene to make sure he's okay.
By the way, you can't actually really see fish when you're on a boat this big on the ocean. We saw an enormous fish called a "whale," which Eugene explained is not actually a fish, but then couldn't give an alternative classification so I'm sticking with fish.
The boat starts pitching, and I hold tighter to the railing. The captain, a very formal man in a crisp, blue wool uniform, saunters over and cautions me "Princess, please step away from the rail, the currents in these waters are treacherous. If you fell in, you could be truly swept away."
He's underestimating me and I really hate that. I don't think he understands that I have amazing balance, am very strong for my size, and am an all-around capable person. I know he has to call me princess, but it always feels like people equate that title with "fragile and stupid," and I resent that. I nod, but climb onto the first rung of the railing anyway.
Eugene looks up, slightly less green than he was before. "Blondie, seriously, that's not very smart."
I narrow my eyes at him. He is only concerned for me, but he should know better. I'm very dexterous. I'm agile. I'm practically an acrobat. He saw me with my hair, he saw what I can do. Could do. Still can do. Hair isn't everything, you know.
But the boat pitches, more violently than before, and I waver on my feet, hands flung from the railing involuntarily as I sway to keep my balance. Heavy footsteps on the deck thud behind me, and hands reach for me, but the boat pitches back again, and I'm flung straight over the railing, out over the salty, cold, undulating sea.
It's kind of nice at first, like flying. Then, as I start to fall, I feel fragile and stupid, and I wish I had my hair, and I wish I listened to the captain and to Eugene, and I'm recalibrating my idea of safe watercraft behavior.
I'm really proud of myself for getting her to stop climbing the rigging. This task was especially difficult as most of the crew thought her actions were funny. They praised her for her athleticism and enthusiasm and then they got in a momentary scuffle over who was going to teach her how to tie a rolling hitch. My suggestions (which are always perfectly reasonable) that she should come down and stop being so reckless were met with a scowl from Rapunzel that was echoed on the faces of at least three sailors, who told me to shove off, to go be sick again, and to do something that I'm pretty sure is not anatomically possible.
The good news is that their rudeness made her more inclined to listen to me.
Yes, she is amazing as she scrambles around and swings and climbs and laughs. And, yes, I'm being overprotective when she is probably perfectly safe and capable. But I know that if she keeps it up she's going to fall. She's going to slip from the main mast, her body suspended beautifully for one shining moment, before she slams against the deck with a sickening crunch. I can see it in my mind's eye almost as if it is an inevitability, and the image makes me queasy.
The ocean doesn't make me feel nearly as sick. Yeah, in the beginning I wasn't doing so well. I'll admit it. But we've been on this ship three days and I'm used to it now. Mostly, anyway.
So if I'm so stable, why am I leaning over the railing, making a pathetic looking face while I basically encourage the crew to make fun of me? I'll tell you. Because when I do, Rapunzel stands nearby to act consoling, and when she does that she's not falling off something or getting a rope burn or being hit on by sailors.
Haha! I may be a manipulative asshole, but I'm also a genius.
So now she's standing a discrete distance away, leaning a bit too far over the railing to try to make out shapes in the water, and pretending that she's not watching me. I'm pretending that I'm not watching her, too, and together we aren't fooling anyone.
The pale yellow sundress she's wearing snaps around her legs as the wind picks up, her slim silhouette easy to make out through the thin fabric, and I take a moment to admire the view before I realize there are four other people on deck doing the exact same thing.
She slips one bare foot onto the first rung of the railing, and after a moment when no one calls her on it, she pushes herself up, completely off the deck to bend and balance precariously, to let her dress flutter further up her legs. The deck hand behind me mumbles something lewd to his friend and they both chuckle for a moment, making this yet another thing she's doing that I'm going to have to put to an end.
The crew loves her and her approachable nature and her spirit and her looks. They should. Everyone should. There's nothing not to love about her. It's just that there should be some respectful limits on that affection.
And while she's busy being loved, I'm busy being a bummer. These are roles into which we've naturally sunken over the last few weeks. Definitely not my first choice. But I care about her in a way that makes me protective and obnoxious.
"Blondie," I say, "seriously, that's not very smart." The suggestion might be rooted in my possessiveness more than my fear for her safety, but - if you ask me - my misplaced concerns are justified because what she's doing now seems decidedly safer than what she was doing earlier.
She turns to glare at me, which is fine. As long as she stays on the boat and out of trouble, she can be as mad at me as she wants. I can take it and she'll get over it. I cock an eyebrow at her to convey this message, but I never get the chance to see her reaction.
The ship lurches and it happens just the way I imagined it would. There's a moment that is suspended in time as she throws out her arms to catch her balance. The way she over corrects and topples over the side is almost graceful, because everything she does is beautiful, even the way she falls and the way her outstretched hand brushes mine as I sprint forward and grab for her.
Then she plunks into the water with a splash that falls behind us so fast that she is behind the ship before I find my footing on top of the railing and swan dive in after her.
The water hits me like a slap in the face. It's a slap that says, "Hey, you just took a flying leap off a ship. What are you gonna do next?"
Drown, most likely.
Oh crap. I'm going to die.
And suddenly I'm less proud of myself for getting her down from the rigging.
Rapunzel is still flailing and splashing around enough for me to find her and even in her panic she's managed to keep her head above water for the most part. Thank God for that sundress. (Thank God again. But this time for completely different reasons.) In her usual frilly attire, she'd sink like a rock. I grab her from behind and she thrashes and screams just as the next wave hits, and she splutters as she gets a mouth full of salt water.
"You're alright. I've got you." In normal circumstances, my words would have come out soothingly. Maybe they'd be accompanied with a squeeze and a kiss on her forehead. But the enormity of our situation has just caught up with me, and I think I'm having a heart attack. Or maybe I already had a heart attack and I wasn't with it enough to realize it until I saw she was safe.
I sound out of breath and angry. I really don't mean to be either of those things, but – well – I am. It can't be helped. Especially as she elbows me in the stomach again and her head disappears once more underwater before I pull her back up.
"Rapunzel, calm down. You've got to stop struggling."
She tries to turn around to cling to me, but that's just going to end poorly.
"Nope. No, no. Stay like this. Just calm down and float, ok? Can you float?"
After a moment I've got her treading water in a much more reasonable fashion, her head resting back against my shoulder, her eyes still wide with residual surprise and her shoulders still tense, but there's a determined set to her mouth now that tells me she's either coming up with an idea or waiting for me to do it.
Good. Good, good. Now all we have to do is tread water until the ship comes back to get us. And that shouldn't take too… why is the ship getting smaller?
There's a sinking feeling in my stomach, which is all the more horrible because a sinking feeling is not something you need when you're floating in the ocean. The boat hadn't turned around. Or stopped. Or thrown out a row boat. Or even lowered the sails. Maybe, I tell myself, things like that take a while on ships that size.
She pulls me back to the moment as she coughs. "I thought you were a fish."
I have to swallow before I'm able to respond. "Pretty big fish."
"That's why I was scared."
"Not scared now?"
She leans back and grins at me. "Not so much."
For a moment I just stare at her. How am I supposed to stay grumpy when she's all grinning and trusting like this?
The boat's still sailing on its merry way, and I can't just give up and let us die, so I look to the next best option: the nearest island on the archipelago we've been skirting. It's probably a thousand yards off and swimming the whole way while pulling along Rapunzel would not be my first choice for a fun afternoon activity.
Oh well. I've done more taxing things. And with Blondie around you've just got to take these little adventures in stride.
Eugene is fun to look at all the time. Every time I see him a different way, I think it's my favorite. Then I change my mind. I thought firelight Eugene was my favorite for a while, then I liked dressed-up Eugene, because the fabric of his clothes was so soft, and now I really like swimming Eugene. His bangs are all wet in his eyes, and his billowy shirt is stuck to him. Sometime I stop to admire him or reach out and touch him, but he reminds me gently I should be swimming.
I have a feeling that normal people would be in a panic right about now. This is based on observation alone, because I certainly don't feel panicked. Eugene taught me a special kind of backstroke that is really easy to do and requires minimal effort so it's good for distance. I repeat the shapes I make with my arms and legs as I make them. "Chicken… star… soldier… chicken… Hey, Eugene?"
He glances my way, and he looks funny in chicken position.
I make the star. "Eugene, I was just tossed from a boat."
Solider. Chicken. "Eugene, I don't think that was on my to-do list. I didn't even know that could be on my do-to list. Who gets tossed from boats? I am shipwrecked!" The thought fills me with glee. It doesn't get much more adventurous than a shipwreck. Even Eugene hadn't been in a shipwreck before, and he's the most adventurous person I know.
"Not quite," he says, pulling his arms in and zipping ahead. "The ship is still intact. That's a good thing."
"But I've been thrown overboard! I'm lost at sea!"
"Sure, I'll give you that."
"That is awesome."
"You're easy to please."
I don't know if that's a compliment, but I take it as one. The water is cold, but we keep moving, so I'm not too cold yet. And the sun is bright overhead, and sometimes if we are both in star position our fingers brush. I'm definitely easily pleased when it comes to Eugene – I like touching his finger tips. I like touching any part of him.
We make it to the shallows sooner than I anticipated, and the hardest part is actually wading up to the sandy shore, because our clothes are so waterlogged and heavy as we surface. I'm a shivering sticky mess when we drop onto the sandy white beach to catch our breath.
I see Eugene's teeth chattering a bit, too, and plop down in his lap without asking. I'm pretty proactive with Eugene. He rarely scolds me for actions towards him, and the results are almost always positive.
"I read about this," I say brightly, rubbing my hands swiftly up and down his arms and over his shoulders. "Shared body heat! It fights off hypothermia!" It's fun rubbing Eugene, there are little goose bumps all over his collarbone and his forearms, even when he starts to warm up. "If I still had my hair, I'd wrap it around us. It always got nice and warm when I sang. But this will have to do for now!"
I am entirely unsure how to respond to this.
Part of me wants to continue to shiver while she nurses life back into my limbs. I nearly died. Again. She nearly died. I nearly lost her. Again. This is upsetting and I deserve brooding time. I should hold her close like I'm never going to let her go and swear at her for worrying me and then kiss her.
But then another part wants to laugh, because really? My response to this is to freak out and hers is to rub on me to make body heat? She's crazy. This whole lost at sea thing is crazy.
Part of me thinks she's trying to seduce me, but honestly I can't tell and that makes this situation all the more funny. Most of the time I assume it's unintentional. She doesn't realize the connotations of what she's doing and it's all just my imagination. But then sometimes she'll slip me this smirk that says, "I'm a minx. Surprise!"
I can't tell if she's trying to seduce me, but it's working. Droplets of water slip to roll down her check, down her neck, down her chest. Her dress is translucent and sticking to her like a second skin. She smells like salt, and I have this idea that she'd taste like it too. Plus there's the part where she's sitting in my lap and feeling on me.
"You have the funniest look on your face," she says.
"I wonder why that is."
She glances at me through her eyelashes and shoots me that smirk, the one I'm sure I'm not imagining, before she straightens her posture to look prim and focuses back on rubbing my shoulders enthusiastically. "No idea."
I reach up to bury my hand in her damp hair and for a moment she smiles and nuzzles against it.
But this ends abruptly as I ruffle up her hair with the same vigor she's using on me, sending a shower of water in every direction. It's an attempt to get her dry. Or confuse her the way she's confusing me. One or the other.
She makes a face and tries to squirm away, but now I've got both hands in her hair to hold her still. "Eugene!"
"What?" I laugh, "It fights off hypothermia!"
She grabs at both my wrists and after a few attempts she manages to catch them. "My head is warm enough."
I narrow my eyes and give her an appraising look. Her hair is now sticking out every which way even more than it usually does, and I watch as her brief irritation fades to be replaced by a keen interest in my prognosis of the state of her hair. Her gaze darts up, as if she can see through the top of her head, then down back to me again.
"Huh. Nope. Not dry yet."
She laughs as I go after her again, swatting at me halfheartedly before letting me carry on.
At this point I realize that I'm just drying her hair for her, and now that I've started I'm going to have to finish. And what do you know? This might actually be helpful in the fight against hypothermia. Being helpful was not my intention, but I guess that's not something I should complain about.
I think the most distressing thing is that I'm not exactly sure how she manipulated me into being helpful. If I could pinpoint exactly what she did, then I can look out for it in the future and avoid it. Right now I feel like I'm falling into the same trap over and over again and I don't know what that trap looks like. Is she even doing it on purpose? Is she just bringing out the best in me? Wasn't she trying to seduce me a minute ago?
In situations like this when she gets me overly confused, I've learned that it's best just to shut up and go with it. So now I'm drying her hair. Alright. I can do that.
It's still damp as my fingers come to rest, but it's no longer dripping. It's soft and fluffy in my hands. And she looks at me and smiles in gratitude, one of those melting smiles of hers that's as warm as the sun against my skin.
Now I'm thinking she's back to seducing me again, but I've already made the decision not to over analyze anything she does, so on that note one kiss couldn't hurt anything.
I'm a minx. Surprise!
Eugene mutters that I'm a minx under his breath sometimes, in a mix of affection and frustration. I don't always know what he means, but the words tend to accompany kisses, so I think a minx must be a good thing, something Eugene rewards with touching.
I'm not cold anymore at all, now that Eugene is holding me close to him, now that his fingers are woven into my damp hair. I never know with Eugene – sometimes I crawl into his lap and he just tickles me or kisses me on the nose. Sometimes this happens. I like both.
Technically, I'm on top. I'm above him a little, my knees pushed into the rough sand, my stomach arched against him, my lips pressed down over his. Even so, I feel like Eugene's the one in control. He moves like he knows what he's doing – his palms drift, firm down the back of my neck, then the pads of his fingers ghost down my spine. My blood rushes to every place he touches and I feel dizzy, desperate.
I wish I could move like Eugene, but I can't even control myself. My body does its own thing. Like my hands, which are gripping his shoulders so hard it must hurt him, but he doesn't seem to mind. Or my lips, which move over his so earnestly, my tongue just brushing his before retreating, over and over. I'm pretty sure he meant to kiss me briefly, nicely, but I respond in this crazy way, of course.
How can I not? He tastes so good, and I feel like I want something from him, like I need something from him, and I don't know what it is but I keep getting closer to it. If I could just get a little closer…
Then my hips push forward against his stomach in this agonizingly satisfying way that makes my nails dig into his shirt, and I moan into his mouth and then I'm mortified, because I don't know why I made that noise or why I rubbed up against him like the palace cats rub against doorframes, and he must think I'm so weird.
So, I jump up and stumble away from him. I'm shaking a little, all over, not from cold, but from shock and these little waves of pleasure still sparking where he touched me and deep in my gut. I'm totally off balance, it feels like my legs have turned to jello and my feet sink into the sand in an unfamiliar way. I end up tripping and face-planting in a little dune.
I'm completely conscious of how ridiculous I look, how my dress is all wet and torn and see-through and now covered in sand as I scramble to my feet, wiping sand from my eyes and mouth.
"I'm fine, I'm fine!" I say, marching towards the rocky part of the beach, which looks solid and easier to walk on.
I don't look back. I know if I do his hair will be all damp on his forehead and his chest will be heaving a little, and I'll remember how flat and hard his stomach was and I'll run back to him and rub on him like a cat again and then I'll be even more embarrassed. No.
"Do you think this island has treasure?" I say, and I sound crazed even to myself, my voice high and fast. "I bet it does. Islands always have treasure. Every island Flynnigan Rider visited had a treasure with a huge X. Also cannibals. Want to help me look?" I thought better of that, the pulse between my legs growing at the thought of being anywhere near him at all. "No no, you keep watch for the ship. I'll find the treasure. And maybe the cannibals. I wish I had my frying pan."
She is so weird.
I cover my mouth to hold in a grin, and hold in the tactile memory of her lips on mine. It's hard not to laugh as her knees give out and she topples into the sand.
Making a girl so weak kneed that she actually collapses is worthy of some mental gloating.
She's determinedly not looking at me as she heads off down the beach, but I can see the flush on the back of her neck and hear the tension in her voice before it drops to a mumble about cannibals or something.
For a moment I think about leaving her to herself, letting her calm down and cool off, letting her wash the sand off her face without having to worry about me looming over her. I could lay here in the toasty sand and take a nap and work on my tan.
No. Not that last one. If she saw me with my shirt off her head might explode.
Then I start thinking about all the things she could - and probably will - get into. This gets me to hop up and follow her at a safe distance. I'm not spying on her, I'm just giving her space while watching over her and being very quiet so she doesn't know I'm there.
Sure enough, the first thing she does is wander up to the waves and splash water on her face. She wrinkles up her nose as she rubs sand off her cheek and her forehead, and she's very careful not to get her hair or her dress wet again. I lean against the nearest palm tree while she bunches up her skirt to protect it from the waves and holds very still as her feet sink bit by bit into the sand. She does this for a while, watching in fascination as the waves roll in and rush out and roll in again. She giggles as she pulls her feet loose, almost loses her balance again, and then strolls further down the beach, collecting shells.
She stops abruptly, bending and looking down into the water with the funniest of curious looks, her brows pulled together in concentration, her lips parted in awe.
God, she's cute.
Then she screams. There's a great splash as she leaps out of the water and runs to throw herself behind one of the larger rocks. It's not a big rock at all, but then she's a small girl and whatever it was that startled her isn't a very big danger. She presses herself back into the sand to hide, clutching at her heart, her chest heaving as she pants and-
And she spots me while I'm making these very insightful observations.
She tries to glare at me for following her, but I can tell she's relieved. She knows I'll be able to tell her what the frightening thing in the water is. My money's on a crab.
I push myself from my tree to cross over and squat down next to her as she peeks over the top of her rock, looking back at the water with a mixture of fear and curiosity.
"Did you find the cannibals?"
Eugene is so calm. There he is, all windswept, all casual, all completely not fazed by our encounter. Will that ever be true of me? Will there ever be a time Eugene will touch me and I won't need a long time to recover? Do I want that?
I look away, back at the little demon thing I found in the shallows. "I don't think so," I say carefully, holding up my hand to make a pinching motion. "I found a little monster thing that was going like this."
Eugene peers over. "That's just a crab."
Just does not seem like a fitting word for a creature covered in armor with claws like that. "Will it hurt me?"
"Only if you harass it."
I carefully collect the shells I'd tossed away in shock and get to my feet. I look down – I don't have any pockets in my sun dress, and my bags and trunks are on the ship. I once saw some ladies in town storing random things in their shirts, like tucked right up between their breasts, but I'll be honest, I don't think I can pull that off, and I think the shells would poke me. But I like these shells because they are brightly colored and would look nice on my windowsill back home. So I side step a little and abruptly stuff them in Eugene's pocket and then turn around and keep walking. I do this all without looking at him again because I'm still not quite cooled down. Maybe in five minutes.
"I wonder what the cannibals will look like," I say, picking my way through huge piles of washed up kelp. "I think they'll have tattoos and pointy sticks. Although, if I were a cannibal, I'd just carry my frying pan because then I could knock people out and cook them with the same implement."
Eugene is following at a small distance, I can hear him. "I don't think cannibals are that practical."
"That's true, or else they'd eat a more balanced diet. There are a lot of diseases you can contract by eating an exclusively protein diet. Did you know that?" I peer up ahead. There is a clearing in the tree line that is very suspicious. It looks unnatural, it looks deliberate. Part of me is excited because it is the kind of thing I am looking for. On the other hand, if there really are cannibals, maybe I better not get too close.
Oh, whatever. I trek up the beach towards the path. "Let's go see, Eugene. We are both skinny, maybe they won't eat us." They'd keep Eugene because he is beautiful, at least. Also, he could probably talk himself out of any situation. They might have kept me for my hair a year ago, but now I just don't know.
We follow the path for a while, surrounded by really amazing mossy, leafy trees and ferns and enormous, vibrant flowers. I stop and point and ask for names of things for a while, but eventually "that's a different kind of tree" and "that's a different kind of flower" and "I still don't know what that type of butterfly is called" gets old so I stop asking. It's not that Eugene is impatient, but he doesn't care as much about classifying things as I do. I just run into so many things, and I want to remember them all, and they all blur together if I don't sort them out.
Finally, we make it to a bare circle of ground, and I'm not at all surprised to see an enormous X marked with hundreds of tiny white stones. "Eugene," I hiss, because suddenly I feel secretive. "It's the treasure."
Eugene does seem surprised, however. Probably because it's ironic that we found the treasure but we don't have any shovels.
My first instinct is to grab Rapunzel and duck into the trees. Treasure belongs to people, and buried treasure belongs to pirates, and pirates have no qualms about murdering the both of us.
Sure, if I have to I'll face any threat head on with a smart ass comment and a twirl of whatever melee weapon I have at my disposal. I'm not a coward. But if I have the option, it's a whole lot easier to run and to hide, and I'm all about doing things the easy way.
So my instincts kick in before I follow the thought through to realize that there isn't anyone around to hurt us. And I find myself behind a leafy bush decorated with floppy, red flowers. Rapunzel is snug against my side and looking at me with wide, surprised eyes. One of the flowers brushes against her cheek as she turns with over exaggerated silence to peek out at the clearing.
How does Blondie find buried treasure? Buried treasure that's marked with a big, obvious X. Things like that just don't happen to normal people.
She and I should become outlaws again and she can find the treasure and I can steal it and we'll make a fortune and live in a castle on an island.
Wait. We already do that. Which is a shame in a way because it means that her amazing, hitherto unknown skills at finding treasure will go to waste.
I hold my breath and hold my muscles so still they burn as we watch the clearing for signs that it has been visited recently.
Nothing moves. No pirates leap out. No cannibals wander past. And I decide that I'm an idiot about the time that she turns to me with a confused look and leans closer to whisper, "Eugene, how are we going to dig up the treasure from over here behind this plant?"
I clear my throat. Admitting that I over reacted is not something I plan on doing. So instead I signal for her to stay put and be quiet, and I slip off towards the clearing. I have to investigate and make sure it's safe.
It probably is. This is just my protective streak and my over active imagination running wild again. I'll be honest: everything I know about buried treasure and pirates comes from the Flynnigan Rider books. This means that I know as much about it as Blondie does, only I always approached the books with the understanding of my own suspended disbelief while she still thinks that they're mostly true.
This incident is not going to help with her unrealistic expectations.
And now I'm starting to wonder if there might actually be cannibals around. The thought makes me hesitate and eye the jungle more closely.
Part of me anticipates that the area is booby trapped, just like in the books. I'm going to hit a trip wire and be shot with poisoned darts. I'm going to step on a switch and the ground below me will open up and I'll fall into a bottomless pit.
Another part of me thinks that these ideas are crazy and childish, and none of this can really be happening.
I pull a stick out of the brush, snapping it loose and trying not to scratch myself, trying to look like I know exactly what I'm doing. Then I use it to test the ground in front of me as I approach the marker.
Blondie seems to think that this precaution is very clever and she makes a little gasping noise that sounds a bit like, "Oh! That's right! This could be dangerous and Eugene's so brave and smart and not at all crazy." It's a noise that makes me feel a bit better about myself. Honestly, hers is the only opinion that matters, because I care about her and she is the most important person in my world.
Also because we're on an island and there's no one else around with an opinion about me anyway.
I reach the center of the clearing without exploding or being attacked by a swarm of vampire bats. In a way it's disappointing because if something terrible (but not too terrible) happened then I could say, "See, Goldie. I knew this was a bad idea." I poke at one of the little stones that mark the spot, before flipping it over and wondering what I can do now to distract her and put off digging a great big hole with my bare hands.
There's a shuffling noise behind me and I turn just in time for Rapunzel to throw an armful of vines and hit me in the face. If I flailed or spluttered in surprise at all she didn't notice and that means it didn't happen.
"Look," she says, skipping up to me as well as she can, weighted down by a large, flat rock that's covered in dirt. "We can tie this to your branch and make a shovel!"
She looks so proud and enthusiastic that it's difficult to tell her, "I don't think that's going to work."
She waves me off with a dismissive noise and plucks up the vines that have tangled around my shoulders. "Sure it will. You'll see. We just have to improvise a bit."
I watch as she manages to bind her rock to one end of the stick, but the rock's heavy and the stick's flimsy and she struggles to control her new implement, nearly hitting me twice, before the handle snaps and the rock falls with a plop into the dirt.
We both stare down at it for a moment.
"Well," she says, "that didn't work."
"Hmm." I have a feeling that it would be best if I don't get involved in this scheme. More involved, anyway.
"I really wish I had my frying pan now. I could dig with it."
"You'd never be able to get it clean. You'd be picking dirt out of omelets for months."
She opens her mouth to say something, then thinks better of it, making me wonder what she's been doing with that frying pan, what she's been cooking in it, and exactly how much sand and grass and blood I've ingested. It occurs to me that there's a reason why that French toast she made for me last week tasted a bit like paint.
I shrug and get down on my hands and knees, making little cups out of my hands and starting in on the digging.
It's slow going… very slow going. It's pretty much not going.
"Maybe we should leave it for the next people stranded here," Eugene says gently. "Maybe it's not even that great a treasure."
I glare at him over my shoulder. I love Eugene, and I could list a hundred thousand virtues that he has. But he's lazy and he whines a lot. In a way, it's probably a good thing he spent most of his life being chased by the law - it forced him to exercise. I'll have to find a way to get him to exercise in the palace or he is going to get fat. And if he gets fat, how am I going to rub against his flat stomach…?
I blush furiously and turn back to the ground. "No," I say, clawing the ground more fervently. "If we don't dig it up, we'll never know if it's a good treasure. Treasures are meant to be found. You can't just leave things. Maybe no one would ever find it and it would just sit here."
I pause and bite my lip. Eugene has that look on his face he gets when things get awkward or too personal. Can I help it if I have an obsession with lost or hidden things? I mean, really?
He squats down next to me. "Listen," he says, taking one of my small hands and wiping the dirt off. "We should be on the beach so we can wave at the ship when it comes back for us. But, I'll tell you what – when they get here, we'll get some tools from on board and dig it up before we head out, okay?"
It's not really okay. I don't know why, but I need to dig this up right now, and I'll do it alone and I'll do it with just my hands if I have to. In fact, I get the feeling that's how I'm supposed to dig it up, like Flynnigan Rider did. He never went back to a big ship and exercised his princess powers until a bunch of burly guys dug it up for him. No, he did it himself. Or he did it with the tools of the cannibals he killed, but since there are no cannibals, I will make it work.
I allow myself to be led back to the beach because I don't like fighting with Eugene and I don't feel like explaining my compulsion to do this when I don't even really understand it myself. I'm heir to the kingdom of Corona. I don't exactly have financial problems or need treasure. It's the principle of the thing. Lost things should be found, treasures should be dug up, and I should get hugs sometimes.
Anyway, Eugene is very nice and helps me get all the dirt off my hands in the ocean, then he picks a good spot to sit down and wait. He pats the sand next to him, but my eye is still on the prize.
"I'm going to get some more shells," I say, scanning the beach. "I won't go too far, and I won't harass any crabs."
"Knock yourself out. I'll be here to hold onto whatever you find." Eugene smiles, and I feel my jelly knees start to return so I whirl around and I resume my shell search. But not just any pretty, funny, oddly-shaped, or lonely-looking shell like before, no. This time, I have a purpose. I find a few promising options a ways down, but it isn't until about half an hour later that I find my prize. I circle back to show Eugene, but I find him passed out in the sand. He has one arm thrown over his eyes and he seems completely serene, dozing softly to the sound of the ocean waves.
I could just watch him sleep – it's one of my favorite things to do, because I can study him with minute interest and he doesn't squirm under my gaze – but it actually seems like the perfect time to get to work, while he can't remind me it's a lost cause or feel guilty about not helping.
I sneak back into the woods and back to the big X and now, enormous clam shell in hand, I get started. I work quickly, because I know if Eugene wakes up and doesn't see me, he'll freak out a little. He'd find me soon enough, but even so, I don't like when he worries.
The shell is really prefect for this work because it has a sharp edge to break up the dirt and a scoop shape to hold it until I toss it aside. It really is like a hand-shovel, and I am proud of my resourcefulness. It's hard work, and it's really hot out, but excitement and time pressure urges me on. About two feet down, I find that there's a pile of fist-sized rocks, and I start hauling those out. About a foot below that, I dust away the dirt to see wood. It takes me a while more to widen the hole big enough to make out the shape of the chest.
It is very exciting to live something from a book. Growing up, my three books – geology, botany, and cooking – didn't have many adventures in them, but I still got excited when I tried a recipe or found a rock or plant from the book. It's kind of surreal and awesome. I wish Eugene could experience it, but I have something better in mind.
I manage to reach in and, huffing and puffing, turn the chest on its side so I can get some vines wrapped around it. This would all be easier with my hair, but vines work pretty well. I toss them over a tree branch and start tugging and tugging. The chest is about a foot out of the hole when the vine snaps.
I think about my physics lessons and look around for a big fallen branch instead. (I'd spent a few days leaping around the castle chanting give me a lever long enough, and I will moooove the woooorld! when I first discovered how strong I can be even though I am small, if I am clever about it.) I get the branch wedged under there and retie the vine so I can push on the lever and pull on the vine at the same time and after a lot of grunting and sweating I have it on solid ground.
The chest is locked, but the metal is old and rusted and breaks open after I beat it with a rock a few times. Inside… is about what you'd expect from a treasure. Lots and lots of cold coins with funny inscriptions, as well as some gems and trinkets like cups and stuff. It's almost anti-climactic, actually. But it suits my purposes. I spend the next hour or so dragging the thing out to the beach, alternating pushing and pulling, and my entire body is sore and chafing by the time I reach the sand.
Eugene is still napping, he's getting a little sun-burned. I get to work piling the coins around him in a circle. Sometimes I make piles of rocks which I cover with coins to make them seem bigger, because coins don't actually take up that much space. By the time I'm done, I can just make out the ship in the distance, slowly creeping towards us. I'm feeling pretty proud of myself at this point, though I smell really bad and am covered in dirt and pine pitch and salt and stuff.
I poke Eugene's foot with my own. "Eugene!"
He groans a little, repositioning his arm over his eyes.
I poke harder. "Eugene!"
Finally he moves his arm away and opens his eyes slowly, squinting and blinking into the sunlight. "Wha…?"
I can't help but jump up and down a little. "I got the treasure!"
He's just staring at me, sitting up a little on his elbows, eyebrows narrowed. "You what?"
I gesture at the coins, which he finally notices, his eyes widening a little. "I found the treasure and I pulled it up!"
Eugene looks completely astonished and a little disturbed, sitting bolt upright and gaping at the mounds of gold and precious things surrounding him.
I beam. "It's your dream! I got my old dream – to see the lights – and now you have yours!"
He looks at me like I'm crazy, though not entirely in a bad way, and I do a little jig, to jog his memory.
"You know, remember?" I put on a lower voice as I dance. "I have dreams like you – no really! Just much less touchy-feely. They mainly happen somewhere warm and sunnyyyy. On an island that I own, tanned and rested and…" I trail off a little while I skip some ways away behind him, to at least simulate this part. "…and alone! Surrounded by enormous piles of MONEY!" I wasn't sure about the 'own' part either, but even if this wasn't one of Corona's off-shore territories, we could probably claim it. Didn't seem like anyone else lived here. And if Corona owns it, then I own it. And if I own it, then Eugene owns it. That's how I feel, anyway.
And even if Eugene doesn't need the money, and Corona doesn't need it, maybe we can give it to the orphanage. It doesn't matter, I feel accomplished. Eugene made my dream come true, and now I made his come true, too.
I wish I could say that this is the strangest thing that Blondie's done.
The gold winks in the sunlight and I start estimating how much everything's worth before I remember that it doesn't really matter and that that's not the issue here anyway.
"You dug this up all on your own?"
"Yup!" She rocks back on her heels and gives me a very smug look under all the grime and sweat on her face. It's a look that slips a bit when I stare at her instead of offering up some enthusiastic praise. I just don't know what to say.
I'm sorry that I'm not immediately enthusiastic. I'm sorry that I'm constantly such a downer while she's a perpetual joy. I'm sorry that I didn't help her dig. That I let her put so much effort into something so trivial. That I didn't understanding at first that to her this wasn't something trivial.
It's important to her, and not just because of her usual, excitable wackiness, and her heartbreaking empathy with anything that is confined, even if it's an inanimate object. Part of this is about me, and how she's happy when I'm happy - just like I'm happy when she's happy - and I haven't been real clear lately on what it is that fills me with happiness. So she takes a guess and that guess ends up just a little off target. It's the same way that my guesses on what's going on inside her head turn out to be wrong more often than I'd like to admit.
All this strangely misguided guilt is coming at me a bit suddenly, along with a giant pile of what used to be my favorite thing.
Instead of facing any of this directly, I swallow it all down and nod towards the ship. "Did you also light a signal fire by focusing sunlight through a gemstone?"
Her eyebrows furrow. "What?"
"Never mind. Come here."
She hesitates and eyes me skeptically, looking for all the world as if she's now afraid I'm going to reprimand her. I hate it when she looks like that.
"Come here. You're too far away."
She sighs because I'm not doing it right. The song said I was supposed to be alone and so she's trying to leave me alone. I get it. Even though she thinks I don't, I'm finally kind of getting it.
She flops down next to me inside the circle of gold she'd created. It glints and reminds me of being surrounded by her hair. I take her hand, and kiss her dirty knuckles, and press her palm to my chest. She appreciates that kind of thing - simple gestures to show that I care and that she's doing a good job, gestures that won't get her too hot and bothered. She smiles and her shoulders relax into a slump, probably because she's exhausted. She probably hasn't had anything to drink all day either.
"Goldie," I say, but then I think better of it because this is the time to drop the nickname (no matter how appropriate it may be.) After all, I'm being sincere.
"Rapunzel, are you trying to tell me that you did all this just because of that stupid song?"
"It's not stupid," she scoffs.
"Yes, it is."
"You just don't like people to know that you can sing."
"No, that's not it." I lean forward, into her personal space and capture her eyes with mine. I'm being sincere and that doesn't happen all the time. "I don't see why I would want to be alone on an island, when I can be alone on an island with you."
She blushes, but I was expecting that. Maybe I'm not reading her so poorly after all. She drops her eyes and mumbles, "That's sweet," and when her gaze darts back up to mine again, I'm right there waiting for her, completely focused on her and not at all distracted by the money piled around us.
I grin at her once I think my point has been made and lean away again. "I know, right?"
She giggles as she leans against my shoulder, hugging my arm and threading her fingers through mine, turning her attention to the water to watch the ship approach. "I know you don't really need the treasure, but I'm giving it to you anyway."
"Thanks, Goldie," I say, kissing her hair. "It's definitely the thought that counts. I don't need the money in the grand scheme of things, but all the little things you do for me make life worth living."
She turns to look up at me, and for a moment I can't read her expression. I can't tell what she's thinking.
She hums her agreement and snuggles back against my shoulder, where I can feel the smile that's blossomed across her face.
I love the way she smiles.