The first daughter of King Agdar and Queen Idun is born in the middle of a snowstorm, with huge blue eyes, wisps of white hair, and cold fingertips, but all her parents can see are the thin, criss-crossing lines that span her tiny palm, meaningless chicken scratch where there should have been letters.
Idun cries when she sees them, rubbing restlessly over the marks. Her own fingers go blue with the cold that seems to seep from her beautiful child’s perfectly five-fingered little hand, but she can’t stop until Agdar, his face still and quiet, reaches out to cover her hand with his own. Idun looks at her name, there in her own graceful handwriting on his flesh, and shakes her head quietly. “My love, what do we do?” she murmurs quietly, so the midwife and servants don’t hear, propping her head tiredly against his shoulder.
Agdar, normally so sure and decisive, only closes his eyes and pulls them both tightly to him. Neither of them knows what to do with a child who doesn’t have a true love.
The three month old Princess Elsa of Arendelle is presented to the people of Arendelle in a traditional baptismal ceremony, already wearing perfectly miniature kidskin gloves. The peerage is hushed and leery; she is too beautiful to suspect, but her eyes are so quiet and solemn, and she doesn’t even flinch when the priest sprinkles the cold water on her brow.
Idun and Agdar hold her together, but are also holding each other.
Elsa’s nursemaid falls asleep on a blanket underneath the almond tree in the royal gardens, and by the time Elsa’s screaming cries penetrate her midsummer sleep, every rose in the garden is frozen into solid, glittering ice.
The nursemaid doesn’t stop shaking even as Agdar counts out a double handful of gold into her purse. They do not hire another one; Idun tends Elsa by herself, as she would have had her hand held the name of a common merchant or shepherd, rather than the crown prince of Arendelle. Agdar, unable to bear the lines of exhaustion on her face, shuts the door of their chambers and relieves her of her tiny, beloved burden as soon as his duties are over.
In public, together, he carries Elsa in his arms, his grave little heir, her gloved fingers fisted up in his shirtsleeves.
They very nearly won’t risk having another child, but the veins in Elsa’s thin wrists and throat are so stark and blue against her alabaster skin, and Idun bites all the skin off her lips rather than risk wondering aloud if her daughter’s lack of a true love is because she won’t live long enough to meet one.
Anna is born with Adgar’s red hair and a warm palm that Idun presses her lips to, over and over, murmuring the name written on it. She holds her breath when the door creaks open and Adgar appears, leading Elsa towards the bed. Idun watches Elsa’s still-unsteady steps through her tears.
At Agdar’s urging, and with his assistance, Elsa climbs up next to them and looks down into her sister’s hale little face with a crease between her brows. She stares, for a long time, until Anna hiccups and stirs, blinking her eyes open and peering blearily up at Elsa.
It is the first time they have ever seen Elsa smile.
Idun feels hope flutter up in her chest. After all, there are many kinds of love.
Idun doesn’t want to favor one child over the other, but Anna is so easy to love, all kisses and sweet laughter and wild imagination, and ever since the accident Elsa is closed like all of the palace doors and windows behind her, eyes wide and old like the days before Anna was born.
“We’re killing her, Agdar,” Idun ventures once, early on, listening to the wind howling outside their window and knowing her daughter’s sobs are drowning in it.
Adgar leans both hands against the mantlepiece and stares down into the fire. “We can’t lose them both,” he says finally, unable to look at her as he does. “We must keep Anna safe.”
Idun rubs his name on her palm and understands. For the good of Arendelle, and the promise in the name on Anna’s palm, her heart breaks.
Elsa knows to never ask about the black scratches on her hand.
Before she even knows about words, and true loves, she knows to zealously guard against anyone who might remove her gloves, and once her father teaches her to read, she reads her mother’s name in his hand, and his name in hers, and she waits until the entire castle is asleep before carefully peeling off the kidskin glove in the dim light of the banked fire and staring, aghast, at the meaningless lines there.
The fire freezes over and Elsa runs back to bed with tears in her eyes, yanking her glove back on so hard that her fingertips hurt.
She knows it’s because she’s a witch, and witches don’t get true loves.
Her father never says the word, but Elsa hears whispers on the wind, and remembers the look on the troll king’s mossy face when he took her hands. She remembers the way her father’s voice broke when he asked, “What do we do?” and she thinks, privately and often, that it perhaps would have been better if she had been left with the trolls.
That was what happened to witches in stories. They stayed in the dark forests, far from people, and killed any who came too close, because they needed to take their true love.
Elsa listened to Anna singing through the door and bit at her gloved fingers to stifle her sobs. We must keep Anna safe, her father had said. Elsa knew it was because she was a witch, and Anna had a true love to steal.
Conceal, don’t feel.
In the days after the funeral, Elsa wakes every night in a bedchamber full of ice, until she begins to fear sleep as much as she fears waking, and all she can do is throw herself miserably into the business of becoming the best successor to her father she can be.
She has regents, of course, and will until she comes of age, but she has been at the king’s elbow since she was old enough to stand there, and they are not surprised at her firm, decisive rule. The loss of King Agdar is scarcely noticed outside the realm. The economy prospers. The navy grows, though Elsa will never step foot upon a single ship.
Those few neighboring kingdoms who think to test Arendelle’s fortitude return whispering tales of the fierce, implacable teenaged queen whose hair shines like diamonds from the parapet.
Witch-queen she may be, and cursed, but Elsa will do her duty.
On coronation day, Elsa is most anxious about removing her glove, for the ceremony.
She knows the anxiety makes the ice worse, but she doesn’t have her father there to stare into her eyes and remind her, so she stays up all the night before, peeling off the glove and scooping up a makeshift orb, over and over in the mirror until she can almost do it without revealing her palm.
She can’t stop shaking.
She hides in her father’s - her - office, with the door closed and her coronation gown already cinched into place, rubbing her gloves together and listening to Anna’s cheerful singing on the wind. Panic making her mean, she thinks about sending a guard to shush her sister, and perhaps a regent to give a stern speech on appearances and family pride, but instead she only hugs herself with both arms and imagines a world where there is no such thing as true love.
For a few blessed moments, everything is okay.
Later, in the quiet of her ice fortress, Elsa will laugh at the realization that only a person with the luxury of a true love would be so foolish as to say it didn’t matter. If she had only said - if Anna had known what Elsa had done for the sake of her chance at true love - then she would not have agreed to marry Hans without even asking him to remove his glove, would not have accepted his blithe, too-quick, ‘Right, that’s my given name, but everyone calls me Hans,’ would not have labeled the first flush of attraction as a destiny born and written.
She will replay the look of shocked pity on Anna’s face at the sight of her meaningless palm over and over, perhaps for the rest of her life.
Her entire life has been one single, grave miscalculation: witches live alone in the forest because there’s no one in the human world who loves them.
And there are many kinds of love.
Anna loves her, with a surety and lack of guile that Elsa can’t even respond to some days, overwhelmed that Anna doesn’t need her to beg forgiveness, and Olaf loves her with a queer sort of enthusiastic understanding and devotion that Elsa needs as much as she needs air.
She and Kristoff - the real Kristoff, who is exactly the Kristoff she might have imagined for Anna had she thought to imagine him - even come to a kind of affection, bound together by their mutual adoration of Anna. (She certainly sees no point in disliking the man who was quite literally born with Anna written into his body.)
Most surprising, to her, is the way Arendelle loves her.
Elsa weeps openly when they cheer at her return, pressing her bare palms to her chest and leaning against the parapet, overwhelmed in a way that should have been frightening but instead felt only wondrous. Long live the Queen! the cheer ripples back through the crowd, and Elsa feels it through to her bones, and almost believes it possible.
A week before Anna comes of age, half the kindgom plunged into preparation for her birthday nuptials, a ship with four, oddly affixed sails appears in the fjord, bringing with it sailors with faces the likes of which Arendelle has never seen, and a cargo of exotic wares the like of which Arendelle has never seen.
Anna nearly eats her own tongue at the feel of the fabric in her hands, repeating the strange word - silk - over and over until it sounds meaningless again, begging Elsa to purchase it so that her wedding gown might be fashioned from it.
Elsa is about to remind Anna that her wedding gown was finished weeks ago, when she sees the markings on the elegantly scrolled trade proposal from the emperor she is given, and forgets to breathe.
She buys Anna all the silk she wants, and waits for a moment when she can speak to the head merchant alone.
They can barely understand each other, and have been relying on a jumpy interpreter whose eyes are sly and remind Elsa of Hans, but when Elsa turns her back to hide her actions, and peels the glove from her hand, his face opens up in understanding and he takes her hand in his own, tilting his head to regard it thoughtfully.
He smiles gently, and traces at the lines there. “Mulan,” he reads gravely. Then he frowns, as if reminded suddenly of something important.
Still with her hand held in his own, he tugs her over to the scroll and releases her to turn the wooden handles past several lines of characters. Elsa sees a picture of an old man - she assumes the emperor, for the grave look on his face and the attention the artist paid to the delicate embroidery in his robes - and several other people and places, until he reaches a small pictograph. He grins toothily, and taps the picture. “Fa Mulan,” he says proudly.
Elsa reaches with both hands to turn the painting rightside up. She shakes like a leaf and wishes Anna would stop fawning over the silk and come hold her upright. In one hand, the woman holds a long, curving sword. Her other hand is open, and written across it, in a hand unused to the shape of the letters, is Elsa’s name.
She does faint, after all.