"Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming.
All we can do is learn to swim."
He never looks at her on Rapunzel's birthday after sunset. She has gotten used to staring at his back in the dark, trying to make out the shape of his pain. Gone were her parents, her uncle, her aunt, and her beloved cousin, but the beloveds whom she did not lose were two children and a soul mate. The deepest hole in his heart is carved into the shape of Rapunzel, and it is a hole that she can never fill. Her interest therefore lies not in the filling, but in the healing, and if not the healing, then leastways the trying.
She often tries to caress the back of his head with her understanding. She tries to drag his syrupy strands off his moist eyelids to stroke his temple with, "You're not alone." She tries to slide her hand up his wrist to fill the blanks between his fingers with, "I'm here." No matter how careful she is not to break his glass skin, he stays curled up on his side like a child sleeping in the snow. The tears will rain harder, drizzling down his cheeks and scalding her wrist with their saltwater; the depressions in his pillow will sink deeper, forging themselves into the shape of his crying face.
Her helplessness always drops from her eyes and splashes on his face in an Orion's Belt of tears, but she never tries to bring attention to her pain (she’s grown out of that...or so she’s tried). She'll lay her cheek on his cheek and curl around him until he’s wearing her like his armor. Sometimes, he’ll roll over and fit himself inside her life. At other times, he’ll sob until he's breathless from suffocating under it. Most of the time, he won’t stay to see the sunrise bronze the kingdom. She has to swim through blankets that are still warm from his body heat to find him down by the docks, where his gondola can be seen bobbing against the combers while he places primroses on the moonlight.
"This place is important, isn't it?"
"...Yeah," he once said in a congested little breath. "Very much..."
This place is their place. Their special memory. Their seascape of new beginnings and starkissed dreams of ever after. This place is their outer space to relive a cosmic moment that is forever frozen in time, unimposed upon by her. She used to be afraid that one day he would refuse to eat in the mornings, only using oxygen to croak about how much she looked like her when the sun hit her teeth just right, how miserably the pink blossoms in her braid reminded him of that night with the floating lights, how strongly he'd prefer it if her high register sounded breathy instead of shaky when she sang, and if she smiled humongously wide, he could blot out the rest of her and pretend that she was made of sun rays instead of snowflakes.
She told herself that she must have been an evil little substitution, this insignificant stand-in who breathes rime instead of sunshine. She tells herself that she is his cool water after years spent in a desert with scorpions from his lens. She reminds herself that she is a key assistant in his cryotherapy, a kindred spirit who can also exhale love instead of frost, a woman whose warmth from within can thaw others from without, because she is more than sleet and folded hands. He's told her that.
"I never wanted Rapunzel to feel like I defined her by her hair, her powers, or her status for that reason; she doesn't need magic or tiaras to make her special. It takes the "human" part away, or more importantly, the "Rapunzel" part. The next time someone comes along who isn't interested in you because of your powers, crown, or their definition of "perfection," you'll know he's the better option because he's not treating you like you're made out of magic. To that guy, you'll have cells, organs, and an identity. You'll just be "Elsa.""
To her, he is just Eugene. No longer just her cousin's widower, her affine, her political pillow, or even her obligation, the grinner with the chocolate fondue hair has outgrown the boxes that once defined the lines between them. He grew into becoming a whole person, without classification or circumference, but he also became transparent. She told him that she was sure, positively certain, that he had lived his life in isolation until Rapunzel's frying pan banged against his bars. She was sure that he had made a deal with himself to remain smirking until he could no longer feel how it hurt to know that no one cared to peer deeper than his poreless skin, where a miner might find him trapped inside his lonesome childhood.
She is still sure because he still does not like to have what is left of his cakey mask peeled back by snollygosters. She intuits his need to withdraw into his safe place, which, as unbreathable as it sounds, is not nearly as small and unpeopled as it used to be. He comes off upbeat and charismatic when he's tolerating nobility, so honey-spoken and gratingly pithy if he forgets that glib speech is Flynn's shield, not Eugene's (alas, some defense mechanisms are unkillable for repenters like themselves). But he is sensitive, and will grant the type of kindness that actually means something if the grantee is short on kindnesses. He is a champion for the unseen society, the poor and the orphaned society, and loves children like an uncle.
He is a riverhead of experience, seasoning her fishbowl world with the unheard and the untaught. He is lusty for literature, and has appointed himself to the "Office of Broadening Her Majesty's Horizons with Underrepresented Authors," whom she had wagoned into the schoolhouses erelong. He supports her work in civil rights, foster care, children's disability programs, penology, and criminal recidivism because he understands what she understands. He can network with the gift of gab that she lacks, can chart his own stars on the map of politics if prospects aren't shining brightly enough in his spyglass, and dares to read her emotions with the perspicacity of a weather forecaster. He does not, unlike most men of the epoch, try to conquer and colonize her with his manhood.
His charm, patience, and ease, goldened with balanced perspectives on bigger pictures and a motto to make lemonade out of lemons, sometimes soothes her micro-thinking mind half as well as his foot rubs do. He has sacrificed himself and died in so very many ways for love, but what she loves is his love for Rapunzel and the family she has given him. She loves his capacity to love deeply, the endless enlargement of his great, once unused ― and once misguided ― heart that had probably been waiting, desperately waiting, to love something since he was an orphan. She wanted him to let the world rush in, even if that meant being broken in, and become enveloped by not only its love, but self-love. She wanted him to allow that love to fill and expand him, like she had been by loving Anna and life's allness.
On his best days, as he looks heavenwards while dawn suns his crown, he holds the timeless beauty of a king. These are eleven of Eugene's strengths. It is when he is alone with his thoughts on his worst days that those strengths decay. She stays away on the nights that belong to Rapunzel, and he stays adrift. Closer to dawn, he reopens, inch by inch, letting a slit of sunlight fall onto her face as it widens.
Gradually, he steps out of his own shadow. A trembling touch on his knuckles unfolds into a firm squeeze on his hand, and then she pulls. Shadows and sunlight walk across their wrists in a pattern of bars as she guides him down the corridor and through another open door. From the entrance's sunshine emerges his daughter's hand, filling the blanks between his fingers with her own.
Together, their feet alight on the grass of Rapunzel's burial ground, where lilies never die. Her effigy had been carved with a smile that sleeps between the effigies of her parents, for a smile is what she left the world in. On the mornings they come, Isolde rests a bouquet of white lilies on her mama's womb, and then hugs her mama even though her marble effigy is cold. Eugene rests a bouquet of yellow lilies on Rapunzel's heart, and then takes a breath to hold back the tears.
She conjures her own bouquet of frost lilies, and then places them by Rapunzel's head with care.
Eugene's hand finds the road back to hers. She reciprocates his grip as the wind stings their eyes.
"...I love you."
"I love you, too..."
He looks at her when she looks at him. They both smile at each other with the warmth of the breaking dawn, before smiling back down at Rapunzel. Eugene sighs, trembling. Isolde turns around and smiles at both of them. Her face is carved into the shape of Rapunzel's, and it is a face that fills them to the brim.
A different man greets Elsa at midnight with one of those warm hugs she loves, trembling less this time than the nights before. She lets her eyes flutter shut to feel his heatwave take her. She never means to sigh, but her breath, which is always much hotter than the average person's under this insolation, never abstains from blowing against his hair. Between their bellies burns a sun enwombed by his soul, and it is a sun that makes her entrails pulpier than it makes her magic. Try as she might to stay awake, she never does.
Eugene's fingertips leave her back to span across her shoulders, go down her arms, and squeeze her elbows. It takes him peeling Elsa off for her to open her eyes and decrypt the message in his. "...Thank you." He smiles. 'For always waiting for me, even though I don't have the most trackable lunar phase cycle.'
Her eyes light up like fireflies as they smile at every part of his face. Sand-warm fingers creep up her nape and pull her braid off her shoulder, resting it on her back.
Elsa looks down, still smiling. "I made a promise to all four of us." She looks up at Eugene once she can, but her eyes are wearing tears, and her lips are wearing his eyes. "In good times and in bad, in sickness and in health..."
"I will love you and honor you all the days of―my―life," someone else trolls.
Elsa and Eugene part to find their soloist.
Olaf stands in the doorway with his clasped hands swaying from side to side. His giggle is a fat man's giggle as he squeals, "I love that part!"
"...Oh―laf..." The duet is pitched with one tone that is tearfully laughing from endearment and one tone that is drawling from exhaustion, but the fact that they always respond with a duet at all tickles Elsa pink.