“Well, you're really good at finding it!”
“And you're impetuous!”
“How am I supposed to help you if I'm not with you?”
“How am I supposed to keep you safe if you are?”
The air seemed to solidify, catching and suspending their words in the space between them like flies in an inescapable spiderweb.
Levi's face was as red as a lobster, and the princess was almost certain that the heat wasn't to blame. “I guess we just have to stick together,” she offered quietly, “help each other out and protect each other as best we can.”
The captain grunted, “Yeah, I guess.”
A gust of arid wind blew past them.
“So...” Hataru changed the subject, “you have a radio in your palm.”
Levi rolled his eyes, “Another one of my father’s genius ideas; he was good with things like that. What of it?”
“Nothing… that’s just… rather handy,” she simpered, nudging him gently on the arm with her elbow.
The captain’s face crinkled as he tried to keep from smiling, shaking his head. He sniggered, “That was bad.”
“Oh, come on! You know it’s funny!” she laughed, and Levi couldn't help but chortle along with her.
Finally, he sighed, still smiling but a little more serious, “Okay, no more jokes. In the desert, our top priority is survival, and first things first, we need to keep our heads out of the sun.” Smoothly, he slipped his cotton shirt off his head and began to rip it in half.
Hataru gulped, “Wait!”
“Your skin will burn. Use… use this instead,” she offered, her cheeks blushing as she lifted her skirts to her knees to reveal a sullied petticoat.
The captain’s good eye nearly doubled in size, as he knelt down near her feet, “Ah… are you sure?”
“Ah-huh,” she nodded, all the while thinking, Oh, wait! No! I haven’t shaved my legs in weeks!
He didn’t comment on her leg hair, didn’t even seem to acknowledge it. Protracting a pair of scissors from the ring finger on his gadget-hand, he made a simple cut in the hem and tore the fabric in long, wide strips, which he fashioned into provisional keffiyeh head coverings. Helping her to her feet, he said, “Okay, at least until nightfall, we shouldn’t talk. It’ll help prevent water loss.”
The princess nodded, and the two began making their way through the desert in silence. The heat there in the desert was so different from their journey up the mountain, which had been unbearably muggy. Here, it seemed quite the opposite ─ unbearably dry ─ and that obviously didn’t make the temperature ─ or the quietness ─ any easier to deal with.
Over the course of the eleven days they had known each other, Princess Hataru and Captain Levi had shared many wordless encounters. A few of those encounters had been pleasant and comfortable; this was not one of them. This was one of the countless moments of awkwardness the princess commonly found herself in when she was with the captain, and it literally lasting for hours. She desperately wanted to talk about something ─ anything at all ─ to get her mind off her grisly, hairy, sweaty legs. Maybe he really didn’t notice… Levi glanced her way, his eye momentarily flickering to the hem of her skirt. Nope. He noticed. He definitely noticed…