"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 from her tearstained pillow. Gone were her parents, her uncle, her aunt, and her beloved cousin, but the beloveds whom she did not lose were two unnamed infants and a soul mate. The deepest hole in his heart is carved into the shape of Rapunzel, and it is a hole that she will never fill. Her interest therefore lies not in the filling, but in the healing, and if not the healing, then leastways the trying.
Tonight, she tries to caress the back of his head with her compassion. She tries to drag syrupy strands off his damp eyelids to stroke his temple with her understanding. She tries to slide her hand up his wrist to fill in the blanks between his fingers with, "You're not alone." 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 begin to rain harder, drizzling down his cheeks and brining her wrist with their saltwater; the depressions in his pillow begin to sink deeper, molding themselves into the shape of his crying face.
Despair drops from her eyes and splashes on his cheek, leaving an Orion's Belt of tears in the shape of grief. She presses her cheek against his temple vein and curls around him until he is wearing her like an armor. Sometimes, he'll roll over and fit himself inside her life. At other times, he'll sob until he's breathless from breaking his own bones. Most of the time, he won’t stay to see the sunrise bronze Corona Kingdom. She has to swim through blankets that are still warm from his body heat and stroll down by the docks, where she'll find him placing primroses on the moon-kissed sea from his gondola.
"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 for new beginnings and star-kissed 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, or how strongly he'd prefer it if her high register sounded breathy instead of shaky when she sang. She used to wait for him to drunkenly insist that 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 used to pray for him to find love in the honey-blonde servant who loved him because she believed that he could never find it in their marriage of convenience. 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 cool water to him after years spent in a desert with scorpions that nearly assassinated him. She reminds herself that she is the cryotherapy he needs after years spent asunder in a queenless kingdom rife with strife. She knows for herself that she is 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 tiara for that very 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, your crown, or their definition of perfection, you'll know that he's the better option because he won't be treating you like you're made out of magic. To that guy, you'll have cells, organs, and blood running through your veins. You'll just be Elsa."
To her, he is just Eugene. No longer her cousin's widower, her affine, her inheritance, or even her obligation, the grinner with the chocolate fondue hair has outgrown the boxes that once defined the lines between them. He has become a whole person without classification or circumference, but he has also become transparent. She told him once upon a time that she was certain ― positively sure ― that he had lived his life in isolation until Rapunzel's frying pan had 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 childhood, alone and afraid of what it meant to be himself.
She is still sure because he still does not like to have what is left of his cakey mask peeled back by "snollygosters." She still 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. 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 he is their universal uncle.
He is a riverhead of experience who seasons 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'd wagoned into her 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.
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 that 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 been waiting ― desperately waiting ― to love something since he was a boy. She wanted his heart to let the world rush in, even if that meant being broken in, and become enveloped by not only its love, but his own. She wanted him to allow that love to fill and expand him like she had by loving Anna and life's allness.
On his best days, as he looks heavenwards with the sunrise haloing 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 sunshine emerges his daughter's fingers to fill in the blanks between his 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. 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 on 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 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 her off his heat 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," his eyes add.
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 another that is drawling from exhaustion.