DISCLAIMER: I do not now, nor will I ever, own this stuff.
She told him of a little cottage at the edge of the ocean, where a girl had come into the world right as her mother was leaving it. Her father, not knowing what else to do, raised her alone, and that entailed taking her out on the little fishing boat each day.
Every part of her childhood was tied to the sea somehow. When she couldn't sleep, she listened to the waves. She learned to sew from years of repairing sails. Her only book was A General History of the Pyrates, and its tales ruled her imagination. By the time she was eight, she could use the stars as a map. By the time she was twelve, she could steer and handle all the rigging. By the time she was sixteen, she could sense when a storm was coming.
"I told 'im not to go out that day," she said softly, "but he wouldn't listen." Some boards and his old orange coat eventually washed ashore, but the body never appeared.
A few days later, she left the little cottage with nothing but a knife, some needle and thread, her book, the coat and the clothes on her back. It took her a few months, but she finally reached Edinburgh. "Wasn't too good at anythin' ladylike, so I cut my hair and went off to the factories. Left after a day, it was so horrid. I could hardly breathe."
"What did you do after that?"
"What I had to do," she said gravely. "I went down to the docks..." She paused to take delight in his shocked expression. "...an' I found a spot on a boat."
She had gotten the wool from the lining of the coat, and with a little cutting and gluing, it made a rather fine beard. She cut off most of her dress to make a shirt, and her trousers were formed from her petticoat. "I didn't really think it would work, but I thought I might as well try."
But, by some miracle, she was allowed on. And so it was that the next two years of her life were spent on a cargo ship traveling back and forth across the Atlantic.
It was frightening at first. She hardly slept, and there was never a time when she was without her beard. As the months passed and no one seemed to notice, her paranoia gradually mellowed to vigilance. It was rather dreary, yes, but it was a life. She had grown more or less at ease — if not necessarily happy — about her new identity when a crew of pirates attacked the ship.
"I gave Scarf an' Gout black eyes before they got the better of us," she continued. "Turns out Captain was just tryin' to find himself a new hat! I brought 'im one, an' he must've liked the look of me because he said he could use another lad. Eleven years ago, that was..."
Charles was so absorbed by her words that it took him a moment to register the knocking on the door. "Is everything alright, Chuck? You've been down there an hour."
Emma hurriedly put the beard back on as Charles went to the door. "Sorry! He's fine now. Would you like to see him?"
Six Days Later
The knocking on the hold door was gentle, but it gave Emma a fright nonetheless. "Who is it?" she asked, lowering her voice and picking up her beard.
"Just me, Em."
"Why didn't you just say so?"
Charles opened the door. "Afternoon to you, too," he said. "How's your side?"
"Doing well. How's it up there?"
"Captain thinks he's found an X. We'll be going ashore in a few hours."
"You'll be, you mean."
"They wouldn't leave you alone for that long," he answered as he started to unwrap the bandages around her ankle. "They're all worried sick. Besides, this is looking much better."
She nodded absentmindedly, a pensive expression on her face.
"Is something wrong?"
"Just..." She looked down at the beard again. "It's been rather nice havin' a few days off."
"...What would you do if they found out?"
"Not sure. Let 'em do what they saw fit, probably. I couldn't bring myself to fight 'em off."
His words came out before he could think about them. "If they ever do," he said, "I'll help you as best as I can."
"Well, then," she said with a little smirk instead of the attack Charles was bracing himself for, "you can start now by gettin' those bandages off."
"Oh, yes, of course!" he said quickly, returning his attention to his work. "Do you want to try standing on it?"
She nodded. When he had finished removing the bandages, she swung her legs over the side of the hammock and cautiously pushed herself onto her feet, wobbling a bit from the roll of the ship. Steadying herself, she took a few steps forward. "Feels fine."
"Don't stress it too much," Charles said, walking to the door and starting to open it. "I ought to go tell the others, though — "
They both jumped back with a scream as the rest of the crew fell through the doorway and collapsed in a heap on the floor.
The Pirate With A Scarf was the first up. "Captain, I said you should just knock."
"Now, now, it was mostly working," the Pirate Captain answered. "So the ankle's better? Wonderful!"
"Does this mean it's Ham Night?" Albino Pirate asked as he and the other pirates untangled themselves.
"Well, of course! But after we go digging. Come along, you two, let's get the boat landed!"
Charles stayed where he was, paralyzed with fear and confusion. Emma was slinking backwards, trying to find the beard.
"Is something wrong?" the captain asked her, not even batting an eyelid.
"...I-I can explain, Captain — "
"You don't have to go if you aren't feeling up to it. Fine with me."
"Um, sir?" Pirate With A Scarf said. "I don't think that's what she's worried about."
"Then what...? Oh, the beard thing! I suppose we should address that."
"Yes, please!" Charles exclaimed, recovering from his stupor. "What on earth's going on?"
"You already figured it out," the captain answered, gesturing to Emma. "Took you a while, though."
Realization crossed Emma's face. "You've known? Since when?"
The captain looked a bit embarrassed. "Since a while..."
"We took ya fer a lass when we first saw ya!" Pirate With Gout added.
"What he said," the captain answered as the others nodded in accord.
"...An' when were you plannin' on sayin' something about it?"
"We didn't know what to say. There's all kinds of etiquette involved in that sort of thing, you know..."
"So you're not angry?" Charles asked tentatively.
"Of course not! I mean, we've done far worse things than that. Besides, she's one of the crew."
Albino Pirate looked around the room innocently. "Are we going to go digging today?"
Emma slowly shook her head in faux exasperation, then let loose a little laugh. "Sounds alright."
Charles slipped up on deck with one of his notebooks as the levels of grog consumption in the hold rose higher. Despite the fact that the chest they unearthed was full of chocolate coins, the captain had declared it to be Ham Night nonetheless, and the pirates were taking it more seriously than usual.
He breathed a sigh of relief as Pirate With An Accordion wheezed out a few notes but refrained from launching into a shanty. It was already going to be a rather long night —
"What's the book?"
He looked up in surprise as Emma followed him up. "Aren't they expecting you back there?"
"I don't think they mind at this point," she answered. "An' I never thanked you. For keepin' the secret."
"But it didn't matter — "
"You didn't know that."
"...I was going to tell the captain at first," he admitted reluctantly. "But I couldn't."
Until now, he hadn't been quite sure why. "...Because you trusted me."
She smiled at this, but tried to cover it with a quick eyeroll. "Good to know that I haven't gone completely daft," she said as she flipped through the notebook which she had somehow managed to take from him. "Is all this about your theory with the finches?"
"You remember that?"
"Of course. What's this?" she asked, pointing at a mass of connected lines and letters.
"Oh, the tree!" he exclaimed, lighting up at the thought of having someone to discuss his findings with. "Each letter represents a different species in the genus..."
As he spoke, a subconscious musing ran beneath his words. You know, she's rather pretty.
So that's what happens when you poke a plot bunny with a stick. How interesting.
I'm actually bothering to make an outline for the next story, so it may be a while before you see it. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this newest trip into my disturbed imagination. Bye for now.
~ A. Kingsleigh