The next night found them at his apartment. He said he'd take her anywhere, and she said she wanted to work on her mural. He'd lit a cigarette and watched her for a bit, but he found it was hard to watch without wanting to touch her, and she seemed to really enjoy painting so he didn't want to interrupt just yet.
Instead, he went up to his loft and dug around under his bed for his stash. He hadn't lied when he'd told the captain he was keeping it there. He felt around until he pulled out the long plastic storage bin. He wiped some of the dust off and removed the lid, taking the books and pamphlets and notes out and tossing them down onto the couch below one by one.
When he climbed down again, Rapunzel hadn't even glanced away from her work. She was covering the bottom half of the wall with a light spring green, painting huge swathes at a time. "Alright, Sugar," Flynn said, opening up the thickest of the books. "You said it's your dream to go to college, right?"
She looked over her shoulder, dripping green paint onto the newspaper at her feet. "Yes!" She said brightly. "You remembered!"
"Of course," he said with an easy smile, tapping some ash into an empty beer can and flipping through the pages. "Well, first you have to get your GED. I have all these books from my time at Bleach Street, and I thought I could shoot you some practice questions while you paint."
She rested her wrist on her hip, now dripping paint onto her little toes. Her smiled softened into something sweeter. "Really? You'd do that?"
"Sure, why not? Probably would be good for me to review, too. I never did end up taking the test. I might as well."
"We can take the test and go to college together! And paint our faces for hockey games like the guys at the bar!"
"Whoa, I don't know about all of that. I don't think college is for me. And don't start aspiring to be like anyone who comes into the bar. That's a step backwards. A big one."
"I like the bar," she said, the dying evening sunlight warm on her face through his slatted blinds. He watched her through the smoke and thought she was beautiful. And he wondered if little moments with her would ever get old, or if his life would just be beautiful with her in it.
"That's fine for now, but we've got bigger plans for you, Chickadee." He glanced at the section headings. "Let's start with social studies. It's government structure and Corona history and stuff like that."
She put her brush down and wiped her hands on the front of her jeans, coming over to curl up on the corner of the couch, six inches away from him. "We've got bigger plans?"
"Mmmhmm," he said, taking a drag from his cigarette. "I'm going to help you. We're going to get you there. It's your dream, right?"
She toyed with a strand of her hair, getting some of the green paint in it, as if she could be more adorable. "You know..." she said quietly, looking at him with obvious shyness. "It's really kind of a dream come true just being here with you."
Her eyes were so soft and earnest, and it was strange that he didn't feel his normal instinct to meet sincerity with sarcasm. Normally if he heard a comment like that he'd say something smart or dismissive or just mean, but there wasn't even a remark like that on his tongue. "For me too," he said, setting the book in his lap and holding out his arm towards her. "C'mere."
She grinned and scooted closer until he could wrap his arm around her, not caring if she rubbed paint off on him. He tucked her against his side. Her heart was beating so quickly, he could feel it. Despite all of her spirit and strength, she was so small, and felt so fragile. He turned his head to press a kiss against her crown. The idea was to read this to her while she was painting, but he wasn't going to turn this down.
"So, history of Corona," he said, balancing his cigarette between two fingers while turning pages with his thumb. "Now most of these questions are just common sense. So even if you've never heard of the topic, don't panic. Just listen to the options and see what would make the best guess."
She nodded, leaning her cheek on his shoulder. Or maybe he could just put the book down and kiss her. That sounded like a good idea.
He cleared his throat instead. "Okay. Name the main cause for the Corona Revolution. A) Pressure from foreign powers B) Mass economic hardship C) Royal family resistant to change or D) a combination of the above."
Rapunzel hummed in thought, and she seemed about to answer when her breath caught, and she froze completely. She was rigid against him, and he looked down in worry. "Rapunzel?"
"Shh!" she said, getting up and running to the window, her eyes wide as she listened.
Flynn listened, too. But he didn't hear anything. Distant traffic noises, some kids laughing down on the street, an ice cream truck.
"Do you hear that?" she turned to him, her eyes a mix of intense emotions, somewhere between glee and melancholy, or both at the same time.
Some ash fell onto the pages of the book, and Flynn hastily dropped the remains of the cigarette in the can. "Hear what?"
She slowly started singing along with the horrid, cliché music of the ice cream truck. The same truck that drove through most evenings around this time. He'd thought about hijacking it before, or at least bashing its speakers in. If this was Rapunzel's idea of good music, he had some teaching to do.
"What is that?" she asked, her lips parted. "Do you know?"
"Sure," he said, squinting at her a little. "It's an ice cream truck?"
"...An ice cream truck."
She just stared at him wonderingly, blinking.
He got up, patting his pockets to make sure he had his keys and his wallet. "You've never seen an ice cream truck before?"
She shook her head. "What is it? A truck shaped like ice cream?"
"No," he said with a smile, motioning for her to follow. "Come on, we need a study snack anyway."
She grabbed her Polaroid camera, which she took with her everywhere now, and quickly went after him. There wasn't the normal bounce in her step though, she almost seemed apprehensive. Maybe she was worried the truck would keep playing that music only louder the closer they got to it, which was definitely his own concern.
They followed the repetitive din around the block, where he spotted the truck pulled over near a rather beat up basketball court. They got in line. "It's just a big truck that some poor bastard has to drive around all day and sell ice cream from. It plays music so the kids in the neighborhood know it's coming."
She took it all in with wide owl-eyes, studying the menu and also the speakers, the tires, the man in the window, the scuff marks on the fenders. Then she turned to a mother in line and asked her to take a picture of her and Flynn in front of the ice cream truck.
Flynn was a bit surprised, which he shouldn't have been. Who knew what Rapunzel was going to find significant? He hadn't yet been able to predict, though he was getting better. He put an arm around her and smiled for the photo and Rapunzel took the camera back with a quiet thank you and trembling fingers.
"You okay?" he asked gently, watching her wave the photo around. She stared at it, waiting for it to develop. She nodded, but he wasn't so sure. Luckily, it was their turn in line, and ice cream was something that consistently cheered her up. He nudged her a bit and smiled. "What'll it be, Pretty Girl?"
She brightened a bit, glancing at the menu again. "Ummmmm a fudge toffee bar!" she turned and gave him the familiar can I get two? eyes and he nodded. "And a super delux comet pop!" He got a comet pop too, and they took a seat on a bench by the court.
"You know," he said, leaning in as if he was sharing a secret. "Sometimes, growing up, I'd save up change I 'found' and they'd let us buy ice cream from the truck when it came by. I always got these comet pop things because they have three flavors, so I felt like I was cheating the system, getting three things for the price of one."
She laughed a little, getting some chocolate on her face as she devoured the fudge bar first. "I wish I knew you when you were little."
"I think it's best I had some time to evolve a bit before we met. I wasn't a very nice kid."
"I don't believe that," she said, tilting her head to bite from the bottom, her tongue darting out to catch a drop of ice cream. "I bet you were a really nice kid, but people weren't nice to you. I've watched you. You treat people the way they treat you."
That gave him pause. Was that true? Was he that simple? He thought of all the bitter times he'd treated her badly when she hadn't deserved it. But then, there they were, spending a summer night eating ice cream novelties and studying for the GED. Maybe she was right.
She tossed the fudge wrapper in a bin nearby and then opened her comet pop, starting on the blue end. Eugene preferred to skip around. "Lemon, raspberry, and cherry," he explained, pointing to the stripes.
They were quiet for a while, watching the heat quiver over the asphalt as the sunset cast an orange glow over the city. The last of the customers were served and the truck window closed so it could start back up and resume its noisy occupation of the port district.
Rapunzel watched it go, glancing down at the photo of them resting on her knee. She polished off her popsicle and swallowed. "When I was... growing up," she said hesitantly. "We lived in a house surrounded by trees with a long driveway. I know now that it was just a few blocks or so from a really populated housing development with lots of kids. Anyway, starting in late spring, every day around the same time I'd hear that music, that kind of twinkling music, how it sounded out of tune the farther away it was, and then in tune when it was close. I didn't usually hear things besides woodsy sounds. I kind of used it to mark time. I had all kinds of ideas about what it was... maybe a traveling musician, who always played the same song. Maybe some creature. Maybe it was some natural phenomenon related to the heat. I hadn't really thought about it since I left, until just now."
Flynn's throat tightened as she spoke. He wanted to hear anything she wanted to share with him about her past, but it always made him very angry. The idea that she was so isolated she spent time wondering about some stupid music. The idea that there were lots of people not so very far away and still no one found her, no one knew she was there. He swallowed painfully. "Did you ask your... that woman?"
She nodded. "She said she didn' t know what I was talking about. She was never home when I heard it. She thought I was making things up. I think I did start to wonder if I was going a little crazy. I mean, I was definitely going crazy. More than a little crazy. But not about this, I guess."
He looked at the photo now, too. "Are you disappointed?"
She smiled a bit, her eyes crinkling a little at the corners, looking more like herself. "No. It's actually pretty neat that there's a truck that wanders around selling ice cream. That actually makes me pretty happy. But it is weird to think about things that are so ordinary that seemed so extraordinary to me then. It makes me a little sad... not to find out the reality of things, just to think about what I did to fill my time. What I wondered."
It made him sad, too. But he wanted to turn it around and make her happy again. "When I was little," he countered, rubbing the back of his neck. "I thought that clouds were made out of the same stuff as cotton candy. I was totally convinced."
She tilted her head back and laughed. "That would be amazing. I wish that were true." Then she peeked at him curiously. "What are clouds made out of, anyway?"
"Uh... dust and water? Something like that." She was laughing at him, and he hoped it wasn't because she already knew the answer and he was wrong. But she just pointed.
"You're mouth is all blue," she said gleefully. "Is mine?" She opened and stuck her tongue out.
"Yep. Totally blue-mouthed."
"Come here," she said, that adorable little scheming look back in here yes. "Tell me if I taste like a popsicle."
He grinned and bent to kiss her, happy that at least some discoveries were good ones, and some of her questions he could easily answer.