At any given moment Eugene was absolutely certain of two things. The first thing he was sure of was that he loved Rapunzel with all his heart. The second thing he was sure of was that the first thing was definitely going to be the death of him one day.
He had been awakened at an ungodly hour that morning by a loud squeal, and with a cry of alarm he rolled to one side to reach for his sword. It was a reflex he didn't figure he would ever outgrow. Drawing the blade from its scabbard on his belt where it hung by the bed he cast a bleary look toward the window. Rapunzel was stood there in her nightgown with her face pressed against the glass.
Wait, where was the kidnapper? The robber?
Another high-pitched keening sound eked from her throat and Eugene squinted at her in the early morning light, canting his head. Where was the fire? Earthquake? Tornado? Surely something had prompted her to startle him awake when there were still a good four hours of sleeping they could have been doing.
It wasn't even Christmas. He could understand her being excited if it was Christmas morning, but it was only Christmas Eve. Was being awake this early really necessary? "Did you have a nightmare or something?" he asked, stifling a yawn behind one hand, his sword still in the other, just in case. Maybe there was a spider. Though he supposed Rapunzel wasn't really the type of girl to be scared of spiders.
She turned slowly to look at him, her big green eyes alight with something like glee and her face split by the widest smile he'd seen since... well, since last night at dinner when she'd discovered what honey-roasted ham tasted like, at least. Deciding that if there was a fire or a robber or a spider she was obviously too excited about it for him to kill it, Eugene sheathed his sword and flopped back against his pillow again.
It was going to be a long day.
"Eugene!" she gasped, and she clapped hands together elatedly. "Eugene wake up!"
"No," he said flatly, putting a pillow over his face.
He could practically hear her fold her arms over her chest and pop her hip to the side, giving him that look she always gave him when she thought he was being difficult. He got that look a lot.
"Eugene..." That was her warning tone.
He lifted one hand into the air. "Sorry, Eugene isn't in right now--please leave a message and he'll get back to you at a sane hour of the day."
The side of the bed dipped down and suddenly there was a weight on his stomach. The pillow was removed from his face and Rapunzel glowered at him where she was now straddling his abdomen. In retaliation, Eugene put both arms over his face, and she made an exasperated noise before placing her hands on his chest and pouting at him for all she was worth. He didn't have to be looking at her to know that was precisely what was going on; Rapunzel's Pout was almost as effective as his Smolder. She, however, had the unfair advantage: the Pout worked on him... the Smolder didn't work on her.
After about eight seconds of being pouted at, Eugene resigned himself to the fact that he wasn't going to be permitted to go back to sleep. With a long-suffering sigh he let his arms slide away from his face and regarded his wife tiredly. She was still pouting.
"All right, all right, I give," he said, his eyes reeling toward the headboard. "Fine, I'm awake, what in the world is so exciting that you had to wake me at dawn for it?"
The pout disappeared and her whole face lit up like a lantern.
He arched one eyebrow. "And?" This was far from the first time it had ever snowed in the kingdom; winter came every year, after all.
"And I've never been out in the snow before!" she said, her hands still pinning his chest to the bed as she leaned forward.
"...Oh." He forgot sometimes that she had actually spent most of her life locked in a tower. For someone so sheltered she was surprisingly well-adjusted and adaptable; he had discovered that very quickly. There was such a puzzling dichotomy to Rapunzel--she could be wise beyond her years in one instant, and then he would catch her rolling in the grass like an eight-year-old the next.
Eugene gave her a plaintive look, hoping rolling around in the snow wouldn't be a requirement.
"Okay, we can go out in the snow, I guess, but... can't it wait until we've at least had breakfast?"
Rapunzel leapt from her perch on his stomach with a nimbleness that always caught him off-guard (or maybe that was just the wind being knocked out of him as she launched herself from the springboard of his diaphragm) and twirled gleefully, her nightgown spinning around her ankles.
"Eugene that's a wonderful idea!" she gushed, dashing to the wardrobe to find clothes to wear. "We can have a winter picnic!"
He sat up and cast a somewhat baleful glance toward the window. "... Picnic?" Somehow the idea of eating sausage and eggs in a snow fort wasn't terribly appealing. When he looked back to Rapunzel she was already dressed (how had she done that so quickly?) and raking her hands back through her wild thatch of hair. He was still getting used to her as a brunette--it was less the color and more the sudden change in quantity of her hair that still surprised him sometimes. A small smile crossed his features as he thought to himself that he did rather prefer it this way, and it had nothing to do with the fact that the cutting of her hair had saved both their lives.
Knowing there was no dissuading her, Eugene tossed the sheet aside on the bed and swung his legs over the edge of the bed.
"Fine, fine," he said, yawning again and stretching his arms up over his head before letting them fall back to his sides as he stood, "but let's go play in the snow after breakfast, okay?" He walked toward her as her expression was tugged downward into something threatening to be fledgling disappointment, and he kissed the top of her forehead. "Your tea will get cold on a snow picnic," he said, and then moved past her toward the wardrobe, pulling it open and reaching for a pair of trousers.
"Ah! You're right!" she gasped. "I didn't even think of that!"
"This is why you keep me around, right?"
Her arms were suddenly around his midsection in a brief, tight embrace, and then she was gone, scurrying out of the room in a flurry of skirts, no doubt to inform the kitchen that they needed a very hasty indoor breakfast.
"But, Eugene!" Rapunzel wasn't pouting this time, she just looked genuinely distraught.
"No buts," he said, wagging a finger at her. "You can't go out in the snow barefoot."
She folded her arms with a harrumph. "Yes I can," she insisted, and he rolled his eyes.
"Fine, you may not go out in the snow barefoot." And with a wave of his hand that he hoped conveyed that he would brook no further arguments, Eugene took her cloak from the nearby palace staff member who had been trying to help Rapunzel put it on for the past seven minutes.
"But how am I supposed to appreciate the feel of the frozen ground if I'm wearing boots?" she cried, not really putting up a fight as he swirled the mantle around her shoulders.
"Trust me, you don't want to feel the frozen ground without boots," he said, and then made a wordless sound to interrupt her next attempt at rebuttal. "Rapunzel, you're not going out barefoot and that is that," he said firmly. "What am I going to do if you wind up with pneumonia? I'm a terrible nurse."
She tried not to grin, but didn't succeed, and stifled amusement behind one hand. "I dunno, I think you could pull off the outfit."
"You think?" He stuck one leg out, pointing his toes. "I'm just not sure I have the figure for an orderly's dress."
Rapunzel laughed aloud then, and Eugene supposed perhaps he had successfully won the argument. She met his eyes then, and suddenly her gaze narrowed meaningfully.
"I'm still not wearing boots."
He blew out a sigh. Maybe he would win the next argument.
It had taken another fifteen minutes of debate, but they finally settled on an option that satisfied the both of them.
"You're lucky you're light," Eugene complained, his hands cupped beneath her knees and Rapunzel's arms draped lightly around his collar. He had never known someone so stubborn as Rapunzel--not even himself! She had completely and utterly refused to put those boots on, and while there was something charming and bohemian about her lifelong barefootedness, Eugene had been unwilling to bend the Shoes Required for Snow-Traversal rule.
When she had still refused, he had made a sidelong half-joking comment about having to piggyback her, then, and she had jumped on the loophole. She was surprisingly opportunistic. In the long run, though, carrying her was a price he was willing to pay. When he had first helped her leave her tower, he hadn't really appreciated the wild-eyed wonder with which she took in the world around her, but now he made sure to pay more attention. She seemed to experience everything through the eyes of a child, and it reminded him of a time he though he had long forgotten. He couldn't remember the first time he'd played in the snow, but he had a feeling Rapunzel would never forget the first time she did.
The castle grounds were a picture of white perfection. The snow had been swift but thorough, covering the kingdom in a thick downy blanket of white and erasing all the hard lines and sharp edges. Everything looked so soft in the snow, as if it had been sanded down and glazed like a fine piece of pottery.
"Ohh, I wish Pascal could see this," she breathed, and Eugene laughed.
"Frogs are cold-blooded," he reminded her; "I'm sure he's much happier inside."
Actually he was mostly convinced Pascal was pacing where he had been left in their bedroom, wondering what sorts of horrors Flynn Rider the Dashing Wicked Thief-Turned-Prince was subjecting the poor innocent princess to. Eugene really didn't know where he'd gone wrong with Pascal... and then wondered why he really cared about an amphibian's opinion of him in the first place.
Hefting Rapunzel a little, Eugene paused where he stood near one of the gates that led into town. "Where should we go?" he asked.
"Well, I don't know," she replied, drumming her fingertips against his chin, apparently since his hands were full.
"I could take you to the forest," he offered, and she made a wordless sound of contemplation.
"But we've been there," she said, leaning forward a bit to rest her chin on his shoulder. "Shouldn't we go see something new?"
Eugene chuckled. "Everything looks different in the snow," he said, starting forward again. "I remember once, I was camping out in the woods, and overnight it snowed--not unlike what happened last night."
"And what happened?" Rapunzel asked, sounding intrigued now.
"Well, I was so disoriented by the snowfall that I wound up lost in the forest for about 36 hours."
"Really?" she asked, wonder in her voice. "I didn't think the snow changed things that much..."
"You'd be surprised," he replied. "It covers old tracks and reveals a bunch of new ones, and everything starts to look the same when it's all covered in white. It's easy to get turned around," he said, and then grinned, posturing a bit. "Good thing you brought me along for your first time navigating snowfall."
"... Because you were lost for 36 hours?"
"--That was a long time ago, okay?"
When they reached the forest, she had quickly agreed that everything did indeed look very different covered in snow like this, and then became quickly excited when she spotted something.
"Look, look, Eugene, it's a Christmas Rose!" she gasped, pointing, and he made a face.
"It's not Christmas yet..."
"No, no, the flower," she said, pointing again. "Look, down there."
Following the line of her finger, he spotted a little patch of pink-white flowers near edge of the footpath.
"Huh." Well he'd be damned. "I never thought flowers would bloom in the snow."
"They're hardy cold-weather plants," Rapunzel said. "I'd read about them, but I've never seen one in real life." She pointed again, and Eugene supposed this meant she wanted to get a closer look. "They're not actually related to roses," she explained, "they're just called that because they kind of look like roses."
"Uh huh." Eugene moved a bit closer to the flowers and carefully dropped to a crouch.
"There's a legend about them," she went on, sort of craning herself over his shoulder to look at the flowers. "It's said that the very first Christmas Rose was--no, don't pick it!"
Eugene's hand froze where he had reached for the flower, his fingers poised to pluck it from the ground, and Rapunzel snatched at his sleeve. "I thought you wanted to see it closer," he said by way of explanation, and she shook her head, a sad look on her face.
"Don't pick it!" she pleaded. "If you pick it it'll just die! I can see it fine from here."
Eugene wondered sometimes how she could have such a big heart in such a small body. She genuinely cared about everything, and he didn't know how she wasn't exhausted by that. He shifted where he was crouched so he was balanced a bit better, then paused a moment. Then, "So what's the story? About the flower?"
"The story goes that there was a poor shepherd girl who was tending her flock in midwinter," she said, her voice taking on that clear and faroff tone it did when she was regaling people. "In the middle of the night she awakened to see the Three Wise Men traveling with their gifts of gold for the baby in Bethlehem."
Eugene was not a religious person, and really wasn't terribly familiar with any of this, but he liked the idea of wise men and golden gifts.
"When she realized she had no gift to offer the baby," Rapunzel said, "the shepherd girl began to cry, and where her tears fell a flower grew and bloomed into a shape like a rose. The shepherd girl dug up the flower and carried it all the way to the stable in Bethlehem."
"Huh." Eugene looked thoughtful. "So she didn't pick the flower either."
Rapunzel grinned and shook her head. "Why would you give someone dead flowers as a gift?"
Eugene was reminded of the fact that Rapunzel had insisted that all of the flowers that decorated their wedding hall be potted. She had conceded to wearing cut flowers in her hair and carrying a bouquet, but almost all of the flowers in the hall had been live plants.
Canting his head, Eugene carefully stood up again, hefting Rapunzel and craning his neck to glance at her over his shoulder. "So did the baby like the plant?" he asked, sounding genuinely curious.
"I don't know," she said, frowning a bit. "I don't really think babies appreciate gifts for what they are. And in the long run that particular plant isn't necessarily a good present for a baby, since it's poisonous if you eat it and babies put everything in their mouths."
Eugene just laughed.
By the time it started to get dark and Rapunzel had been satisfied that she had fully experienced a snow day, Eugene was pretty certain his legs were not going to work tomorrow. Rapunzel wasn't heavy, but carrying her around for the better part of the day was tiring! Next time he was going to make her wear boots, if he had to glue them onto her feet himself.
Rapunzel's mother had urged her to take a warm bath to warm up after spending all day outside, and when she emerged from the bathroom in a robe with a towel around her shoulders, she looked surprised to see Eugene sitting at the little table in their bedroom, gazing out the window. It had started snowing again, powdery flakes falling from a pewter-grey sky, and he watched them drift slowly toward the earth in the light of the torches outside.
"Eugene?" Rapunzel's voice sounded small, curious. "I thought you would be down in the dining hall."
He looked at her and smiled. "I thought I'd wait," he said. "They always want me to help set the table when I go down to dinner early."
Rapunzel narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Your hair is wet," she accused, and he swept one hand back across the crown of his head.
"So it is," he said, and her eyes narrowed further.
"You went out in the snow again," she said, and Eugene rested his elbows on the table.
"So I did."
His grin widened. "I had to get something I forgot."
The suspicion in her eyes turned to curiosity, and that was when she noticed the little pot on the windowsill. In it was a small evergreen plant with a single white flower. Rapunzel's jaw slid ajar.
"Eugene, that's the..."
"Well, you just seemed to like it so darn much," he said, picking up the potted Christmas Rose and handing it to her. She pulled the towel from her shoulders and draped it over his wet hair, taking the plant from him and marveling at it a moment. He glanced at her from beneath the towel. "You said not to pick it," he said, rubbing the towel over his hair vigorously and sending it going in all directions. "You never said anything about not digging it up. I know it's early, since it's not actually Christmas until midnight, but I thought it'd be okay to cheat a little." He scratched the side of his neck lightly. "But I figured, I mean... no sense in giving someone dead flowers as a gift, right?"
She put the plant on the table and sat down on his knee, wrapping her arms around his neck and hugging him tightly. With a chuckle, he tugged the towel off his head and smoothed his hair back with one hand, then returned the embrace.
"It's the best present ever," she said into his shoulder, and he snorted.
"Well, I dunno about that," he said; "there's some pretty impressive-looking packages under that big tree in the great hall--"
She lifted her head suddenly and planted a kiss on his lips, and for a moment he was startled. Then he just cupped her face with one hand and returned the kiss, grinning. She pulled back and smiled at him, and he just cavalierly shrugged one shoulder.
"Yeah sure, it's the best present ever, whatever you say."
At any given moment Eugene was absolutely certain of two things. The first thing he was sure of was that he loved Rapunzel with all his heart. The second thing he was sure of was that nothing else really mattered.