"Alright, buddy. It's okay. Everything's good. Everything's alright."
Eugene struggled to open the door with his elbow and his knee without falling over or dropping his cargo. He looked ridiculous for a moment, covered in mud, balancing on one foot, and swaying dangerously in the hallway in front of his room. It said something about the seriousness of the situation that he didn't even care.
A track of muddy boot prints trailed behind him, mucking up the nice, polished tile. The castle residents would hate that. They didn't like it when he made a mess. They didn't like it when they were inconvenienced by him at all, or when his presence was anything more than a polite and invisible houseguest.
They liked him even less than they liked pet reptiles that helped themselves to finger sandwiches in the middle of high tea.
He cursed under his breath before finally managing the doorknob, returning immediately to his soft reassurances that someday Pascal would get over it.
Despite the state Eugene was in, the chameleon was worse. True, if you collected all the mud on Eugene and all the mud on Pascal and weighed them, Eugene would have more, but not by much, and Pascal was so much smaller that, relatively speaking, Pascal would win all the mud awards.
Plus there was the fact that Eugene had never seen the frog this freaked out before. His eyes spun wildly, his chest inflating and deflating as he panted in a rhythm too quick to be normal. He alternated between holding freakishly still, as if pretending to be a statue would make him disappear, and flailing his little legs, squirming to get out of Eugene's grip. He was slippery and scared and in danger of flopping to the floor, where he would hurt himself, freak out even more, then make a run for the nearest tiny hiding place where it would be impossible to retrieve him and aggravating to try to clean later.
He managed to kick off his boots after quite a bit of effort, making Pascal jump and try to escape as they thunked to the floor.
"Shh. It's alright. Just calm down."
But Pascal wasn't listening. And why should he? He was a lizard. Lizards didn't listen. They didn't think rationally. They didn't even obey simple commands like dogs.
"It doesn't really matter what I say, does it?" Eugene asked, keeping his voice low and soothing, a gentle coo to urge the chameleon to relax. "You don't speak a word of English and have no clue what I'm talking about, because your little brain's the size of a cashew."
Saying this immediately made him feel guilty, and he found himself backtracking before he could even come to terms with how crazy such an action was. "Sorry. You know I don't mean that. Most of the time. Not right now, anyway."
He must be more shaken by this experience than he first thought. More shaken than he really ought to be. That's why he was apologizing to an animal.
Who throws the princess' pet? Who does that? Even if he is a nosy, little hanger on, it's still rude. And not just rude to Pascal (and his tiny, little feelings), but to Rapunzel too. And to Eugene. At this point Pascal was practically his weird frog too.
No one throws his weird frog and gets away with it.
Thank God Rapunzel wasn't there or Pascal wouldn't be the only one in hysterics. Eugene didn't know if he could deal with both of them at the same time, and there had been enough angry shouting without Rapunzel's stricken screaming added to the mix.
Her words carried more weight than Eugene's. If Eugene lost it on some pompous frog hater, it didn't mean much. Given how everyone thought of him, angry outbursts and poor manners were downright expected. But if the princess started screaming, that was a different matter entirely.
Plus, he didn't like seeing Rapunzel upset. It hurt to see her like that. And his hurt at her hurt at Pascal's hurt might have pushed his reactions to dangerous levels.
He needed to get the chameleon cleaned up and calmed down before she came home, so when she heard about it he could say, "It's fine, Blondie. Really. See? He's good as new. Forgotten all about it already."
It wasn't fine. Not at all. But he could lie, and if Pascal would calm down he could convince him to lie too.
He hurried to the washroom and set Pascal in the sink, working the pump until it filled with warm water, checking the temperature with the base of his hand and carefully adjusting Pascal every time he attempted to mindlessly climb out of the sink.
Once he watched Rapunzel give Pascal a bath. She'd said that the chameleon was "in shed," where his scaly skin came off in chunks that he left in strategically disgusting places around the castle. Eugene's pillow had been a particular favorite spot.
Pascal enjoyed every last thing about the experience.
Rapunzel had a blast too.
"Oh look! Now your tail is coming off. You're so clever!"
In that bath she filled the sink with warm water and just let Pascal lounge and swim and splash at her a bit. There was a lot of giggling involved and a song about bath time. She got him a nice, flat rock to sit on, a few leaves she'd cut from houseplants for decoration, and a tiny, paper umbrella for him to sit under. Most of the actual cleaning was done by simply soaking.
Things weren't going to be as easy this time. To start with, Pascal didn't want to go in the water, and kept trying to scrabble up the side of the sink basin, only to slide down, get wet, and squeak unhappily. Eugene had to hold him in one hand, the chameleon's heart beat fluttering against his palm. Held like that, Pascal calmed slightly, gripping Eugene's fingers with tiny, scaly hands.
"Shhh… It's alright."
He eased Pascal into the water, stirring the chameleon to crawl further up his hand to try to stay clear. Pascal trembled, pressing his forehead against two of Eugene's fingers as if that would help him hide.
At least the little guy had stopped squirming.
Using his free hand to wipe the mud away, Eugene flicked off thick dollops to eventually reveal smears of green skin. It was a pale, sickly green, lacking all the vibrancy and enthusiasm of Pascal's usual color.
Eugene had to empty the dirty water from the sink and refill it, making noises that Pascal did not like at all. He curled up in a ball against the protective curve of fingers and shivered, making tiny, whimpering noises.
He stayed that way through a second wash, then Eugene had to prod him into rolling over so he could clean off his other side. Pascal reclaimed his curled position as quickly as he could, lying down pathetically in a little puddle of mud in Eugene's palm.
"You're alright you know. It's just a bunch of mud. It'll come off if you let me clean you up. You've been mud colored before."
Pascal didn't even peek up at him to admit that it was true.
"And I guess you fell pretty far. But you've fallen farther, right? Remember when you jumped off the roof and Rapunzel caught you? You had fun with that. And you flew much farther than you did this morning.
"And it's really a good thing that you landed in the mud. It's squishy. Like a padded landing. It would have really sucked if you'd hit the rocks or the bushes. Look on the bright side. You're a lucky little lizard!"
The chameleon either wasn't listening or couldn't understand.
What a stupid thought. Of course he didn't understand.
"I know that jerk was angry. But who cares? So not everybody likes you? No big deal. I'm sure more people like you than like me."
The sad thing was, that was probably true.
"That guy's a jerk. An animal abusing, ignorant jerk. Be glad he doesn't like you. You don't want friends like that.
"He'll get what's coming to him. The king wasn't impressed at all with how far he was able to throw you. I give it like 4 out of 10 stars. Sloppy form and everything. I bet I could throw you at least three times as far. What do you think?"
This just made Pascal cling tighter to his fingers.
Was that a sign he was listening?
"Oh come on, that was a joke. I'm trying to lighten the mood here. I wouldn't really throw you anywhere, and if I did you'd be gung ho about it and we'd have a great time. We'd set up a mattress for you to land on and Blondie'd be there with streamers and pom poms. She'll even make you a little dare devil costume. With lots of sequins and fringe. All decked out in Corona colors. I bet you could do a flip in the air and impress everyone. We could go on tour: the amazing Flynn Rider and Pascal, the bravest chameleon in the world.
"What do you say?"
Removing the greater portions of mud had turned into simple petting, spreading the dirt around more than clearing it away.
He needed a better cleaning method. Like a washcloth or a scrub brush. Of course he didn't have either of those. They weren't standard fare for castle guest washrooms. All he had was-
He stood for a minute, staring at his toothbrush, wondering if he was really about to do what he was about to do.
It was so weird, and gross, and alarmingly personal. Letting someone have his toothbrush was a level of intimacy with which he wasn't entirely comfortable. Even if he shared with a human and that human used it correctly instead of rubbing it in soap and dirt and reptile skin.
Oh hell, he could get another toothbrush.
Without a second thought – because he'd surely come to his senses if he gave himself any time to think at all – he plucked up his toothbrush, dunked it in the water and scrubbed at the soap until he built up far too much lather.
Were you supposed to use soap on chameleons?
"Don't lick yourself until I've rinsed you off," he muttered, trying to look more fierce than he felt.
As he scrubbed at Pascal's back, the chameleon's fringe bristled, rising up to expose every last surface. Probably just a reflex, trying to make himself look bigger as he was attacked by soap bubbles.
Eugene worked his way down to Pascal's sides, shining up his scales and scrubbing in all those little hard to reach places – under his armpits, the junction of his neck, between his toes. He eased one arm loose from its death grip around his finger, only for it to cling to him once again when he moved to the other arm.
"Aw, buddy. Could you look more pathetic if you tried?"
He didn't get an answer. And for some reason, this lack of response was starting to eat at him.
It was weird. When they first met, he thought of Pascal as Rapunzel's weird pet, one she didn't realize wasn't domesticated. Pascal was a lizard, and nothing more. Yeah, Rapunzel talked to him, and yeah, Rapunzel heard a response, but Rapunzel was lonely and took conversation partners wherever she could get them.
Rapunzel talked to fish. Rapunzel talked to flowers. Rapunzel talked to the mounted deer head in her father's study.
And maybe it was a sign that he'd been spending too much time with her when he started talking to Pascal as well. It was just a habit he picked up from her, like the many she'd picked up from him. It wasn't something that they could control.
She pushed her sleeves up when she was thinking really hard. He knocked out the rhythm she always knocked before entering a room. She picked up some of his more colorful, improper language. He started talking to the frog. It all evened out in the end.
He knew, somewhere deep inside, that when he talked to Pascal he was really talking to himself. It just appeared as though Pascal gave meaningful advice. What actually happened was that Eugene would think up a solution himself, and imagine that it was Pascal's idea. Saying his problems out loud was sometimes enough to be helpful. It just happened that Pascal would be in the room. And there was something really nice about the fact that Pascal would listen without interrupting. There was something refreshing in the honesty Pascal would provide.
Your idea is boring. I'm going to sleep.
Your idea is stupid. I am not amused.
Your idea is amazing! Oh my God! Yay!
But then that was simply Eugene's projection too – his crazy interpretation of a lizard's basic responses into something more meaningful so he felt less alone.
So why was it bothering him so much that Pascal wasn't responding? Why couldn't he imagine up an appropriately dry comeback, like he usually imagined came from the frog, like a thought bubble that he could see and read and find irritating?
The truth - the horrible, irrationally crazy truth – was that over the past few months Eugene had slowly grown used to thinking of Pascal as some kind of tiny, mute person. Weird and nosy. Protective and rational. Like a physical manifestation of Rapunzel's (and his own) conscience.
Pascal just seemed so expressive and human and oddly smart that sometimes it was hard to remember that he was seriously just a lizard.
So maybe this decidedly one sided conversation meant that when Pascal was especially terrified he shed every last human trait and became the trembling, mindless chameleon more typical of his species. Or maybe when Pascal was too shook up, it was harder to project those human traits onto him.
Then again, maybe it was Eugene who was shaken. Which he totally shouldn't be because nothing had really happened to him. He wasn't screamed at and tossed off a balcony where he could have landed on any number of hard surfaces.
No, he was the one who had shouted back, enraged and terrifying, and then charged out into the rain to find his punted gecko without asking to be excused from the king's presence.
Pascal's tail unrolled with every broad stroke of his toothbrush, springing back into a curl again, before being tugged straight once more. Maybe it was the steady, pulsing pull of the brush down his spine, dragging all his muscles into relaxing, because somewhere along the line Pascal's shaking had eased. Somewhere along the line his tight ball had loosened into something that swayed organically, rocking in the palm of Eugene's hand with every stroke of the brush.
"Feeling a bit better?"
Silence. Which Eugene pushed aside before it could hurt.
"Come on, let's get your face. Come on. Why are you hiding?"
He had to wiggle his fingers to coax the chameleon out, flattening his hand until all cover was lost.
"There you are. Hello." And now he was sounding like Blondie.
He cleared his throat and eased his toothbrush across one of Pascal's eyebrows, ignoring the way the lizard's eyes stared, blank and emotionless, that rapid tick in his neck just visible beneath a streak of brown.
"This might be the cleanest you've ever been."
Rapunzel never considered Pascal her pet. She called him her friend - her best friend. A few weeks ago she sat Eugene down when Pascal was absent to have a very serious whispered discussion about how she wasn't sure any more if Pascal was her best friend or if Eugene was. She didn't want to betray Pascal, and they were still as close as ever, but now she had these feelings for Eugene too and she didn't know what to make of it. Could someone have two best friends? Could someone hold that much love without exploding? Did your love for one person have to diminish when you let someone new enter your life or was love infinite, growing and growing forever?
As much as it stung to have the love of his life put him at the same level as a chameleon, it was pretty typical of Rapunzel, and endearing in its own odd way. Breaking even with, or beating out Pascal for her affection was pretty good.
He explained that he could be her boyfriend, and Pascal could be her best friend, and they could all live happily like that. There are all different kinds of love that can't be compared, so why even try?
Pascal was never just a pet. From the outside he looked that way, but it was different for Rapunzel. The truth was, it was different for Eugene too.
Pascal arched his head up to be accommodating as Eugene brushed the fringe under his chin.
He blinked, and for a moment there was a flash of recognition, of intelligence, of emotion other than blind, instinctual fear in Pascal's eyes. Eugene found himself leaning down, bending at the waist to get a closer look, as though the chameleon's eyes or emotions would change with proximity. He found himself rocking Pascal gently and murmuring nonsense he had repeated to Rapunzel a dozen times as she cried.
They considered each other, man and chameleon, noses almost touching, Pascal's little face easing into familiar interest, as if he was coming back to himself, as if Eugene was finding his friend again.
It was the smallest of movements, the most subtle of gestures, almost like a nuzzle, but not quite, as Pascal pushed himself up to lean his forehead against Eugene's nose. It could have been a show of gratitude, of friendship, of love.
Then again, it could have been nothing.
And then again, did it even really matter?
Pascal's tongue flicked out, brushing against the tip of Eugene's nose, at which point he decided that that was quite enough touchy-feely-ness, thanks.
He jerked back with a nose twitch, and addressed the frog again with his usual air of forced indifference and the assumption that Pascal would see right through such an act.
"Knock it off. You're still all soapy."