"I couldn't just let them kill you."
When the news of his impending execution comes, she is not entirely sure how to take it. It is fitting to be certain, a common enough punishment for the crimes he committed, and perhaps, Elsa thinks, that is part of the problem.
When all was said and done, when the winter was over and his true intentions were brought to light, she debated over what to do with him. Eventually she decided to ship him back to his home country on the first vessel that would take him, and while a part of it was a simple desire to get him out of her sight as soon as possible, another part of it, admittedly, was a desire to keep him out of Arendelle's courts; her people, she knows, would have called for blood, and after everything that had transpired between she and her sister, she was not quite ready to take it. That his own people have seen fit to call for the same is none of her business, she reasons, but three sleepless nights later she is packing her bags all the same.
"Elsa, you can't be serious!" Anna is saying. It is morning, and Elsa's wardrobe is wide open, a trunk half-filled on the floor.
"I'm perfectly serious," she says, her composed voice belying the circumstances that brought her here. "Hand me those gloves, will you?"
Anna does so, but grudgingly. "But why? Elsa, he tried to kill you!"
Yes, she admits, he did. But he also stopped her from becoming a killer, herself. Because, political ambitions aside, he did take care of Arendelle in her absence. Because he is arguably the reason she and her sister are even able to have this conversation right now—the catalyst behind their reconciliation. Because for all that his actions might have been based in manipulation, she finds she is grateful for the results all the same.
Because he did try to kill her, and a part of her has begun to wonder if someone almost taking your life creates a bond just as indelible as when someone saves it, and the fact of the matter is that he has done both. There was a strange sort of decency in his deception, just like there was cowardice in her concern. Because they are two sides of the same coin, she wants to say—reflections in a cracked mirror. Because he broke her sister's heart, but she broke it first.
She could try to explain, and perhaps Anna might even understand, but somehow, Elsa doubts it. Her sister is good—so incredibly, inconceivably good—and years of isolation merely made her crave warmth all the more furiously; it didn't acclimate her to the cold.
"I…I just have to, alright?" she finally says. "I have to face him. To know that I can look him in the eye, even after everything he did. And if he truly is being executed, then this is the last chance I have."
After a moment, Anna relents. "Okay…" she says. "But I'm coming with you—"
"Anna, no." The words come out firmly, almost more of an order than anything, and she doesn't stop to think about why she is so keen on doing this alone. "I need you here to look after Arendelle," she says. "It isn't appropriate to leave the kingdom devoid of all royalty—especially not after we already did it once, a mere couple months ago."
Anna deflates at the truth of this, and Elsa tries to ignore the guilty stab in her gut that tells her she's lying.
She travels lightly, with only one maid and two guards, and when she is shown to his cell, she dismisses the one on duty. There will be bars between them, she points out, and she is the Snow Queen of Arendelle, besides; so long as she keeps her distance, there is no way Prince Hans can hurt her. The guard looks skeptical, but slinks away regardless, and Elsa squares her shoulders before she enters the room.
It is, she realizes, as the door creaks shut and she hangs the lamp on a hook in the wall, eerily reminiscent of when he visited her in Arendelle's dungeons—though it is clear with one quick look at his accommodations that he can boast more creature comforts than she could at the time: In addition to a narrow bunk, there is a small washstand, a short shelf with a few books, and a complete lack of chains. He sits along the sill of the single, barred window, staring out at the stars, and when he turns his head at the sound of her feet, a slight straightening of his back is the only indication that he might be surprised to see her.
He looks exactly as she remembers, albeit dressed more simply, in only plain black trousers and a dove-grey waistcoat, the collar of his linen shirt unrestrained by a cravat. How strange it is, to be standing before him once more. How surreal, to know that this man who tried to steal her kingdom should be the very same one who has witnessed her at her worst: ready to kill out of desperation, and so overcome with grief as to practically welcome death. In a different world, she sometimes dares to think, when the nights are very late and the castle is very quiet, in a different world with her sister truly dead by her hand, the swing of his sword could have been a kindness not a cruelty.
"Queen Elsa," he says, a smile playing about his lips. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" He does not move from his seat on the sill, but his eyes spend a moment raking over her form. While it would be tempting to interpret the look as lascivious, there is something too sharp and discerning in his gaze—not the look of a man lusting after a woman, she knows, but of a soldier sizing up an opponent. She does not, for even a moment, suspect he fails to take note of her gloves.
She steps up to the bars and haughtily folds her hands in front of her, determined not to hide. "I heard you're to be executed." It seems a little churlish to state it so baldly, but when one takes into account the history that hovers between them, what else is she to say? How else is she to say it? It is, at the very least, the truth, she thinks.
"And so I am," he lightly confirms. "In a little over two weeks, they tell me."
It's an act—his nonchalance in the face of death—just like everything about him has been an act, and Elsa is struck by the sudden, insane urge to ask him what his true personality is like, to ask him if he even has a true personality anymore, because sometimes she wonders the same thing about herself. She had to pretend to be cold for so long it became her default demeanor, and as a consequence the warmth she is now allowed to display feels awkward, uncertain, a fumbling foal on unsteady feet. She has no 'natural,' no 'normal' at this point, and the idea that she might not be alone in that respect…
"It's a trumped-up charge, really," Hans continues mildly. "If my family truly wanted to, they could easily pull the necessary strings and get my sentence reduced. A life of hard labor, perhaps. Or even a modestly comfortable exile on one of our smaller islands. But I suppose they've been waiting for an excuse like this for some time. I can hardly blame them for taking advantage of it, now that I've so neatly presented it to them. After all,"—and here he flashes a self-deprecating smirk—"I was merely a disappointment before. Now I'm a full-fledged disgrace. Far easier to dispose of one of those than the other while still maintaining a semblance of appearances."
Elsa watches him, unsure as to why he tells her all this. Ostensibly, it's an attempt to garner sympathy from her, something he can manipulate and use to his advantage. As exploitative and opportunistic as he's proved himself to be, it would certainly make sense. But something else inside her—the little girl who spent too many hours behind closed doors, similarly staring longingly out of windows—whispers that maybe it's because he's merely lonely, and that conversation with anyone, even a woman he would claim as an enemy, is still preferable to none.
Either way, she can't tell.
Hans shifts, stretching his booted legs out along the stone, his posture indolent and irreverent. "I suppose it must please you," he muses. "To know that I'll soon be out of your hair, once and for all."
"…No," she says at length, and it is only after it lands hard and heavy in the room that she realizes just how long she had been simply staring at him, silent. "No, it does not. I'm not like you," she lies. Her voice ripples with something, and she tells herself it's anger. "I don't take pleasure in the deaths of others."
"I wouldn't have enjoyed it," he corrects dryly. "Not really. It would have been a means to an end, nothing more. In fact, Your Majesty, for a moment there, out on that ice…I actually think I pitied you." There is something in his expression, something she can't read but looks frighteningly like fascination, as if he is somehow surprised she was able to elicit such a reaction from him. Elsa doesn't believe it's true for a second.
Silence reasserts itself, and after a minute, Hans breaks it with a sigh. "Why are you here, Queen Elsa?" he finally asks. He sounds phenomenally bored, with an edge of impatience, or perhaps that's weariness she hears in his voice. Again, she can't tell, and can't trust her ears when it comes to him, anyway.
"If you're looking for an apology," he goes on to say, "I'm afraid I don't have one for you. I'm not particularly sorry for what I did. Sorry I let my arrogance get the better of me, perhaps," he admits. "But not sorry for making an attempt on your throne in the first place." His eyes flick over her again, considering, and after a beat, he adds, "I daresay that you would have done the same thing, had you been in my shoes."
Elsa bristles at the suggestion that they might have something in common. Never mind that she has wondered the same; it is different to hear it directly from his mouth, intimate in a tremendously unsettling way, and she has to flex her fingers, lest frost start to form on them. She hates him, she thinks. She hates everything he's done, and everything he stands for, and everything he has that he's taken for granted.
"If you're referring to your supposedly horrid family," she coldly says, "you should know that I dined with them this evening. I regret to inform you that they all struck me as perfectly decent people."
"So did I, once upon a time," he points out, and Elsa finds herself falling silent at the words, because for all that he's a consummate liar, he has such a terrible knack for speaking the truth.
Another minute passes without sound between them, and it is then that Hans's moderately affable manner finally drops. He sighs again, exasperatedly, and crosses his arms over his chest. "As stimulating as this conversation is, Your Majesty," he sneers, "if you have nothing more to say, I really wish you'd leave so I can get on with counting down my last days." His voice is harsh, derisive, his handsome features are contorted in an ugly expression, and she can't help but wonder if this, too, is an act—if perhaps he is merely playing the villain because that is what is expected of him, because that is what he assumes she wants. She remembers the words he shouted to her in her ice palace—don't be the monster they fear you are—and wonders if he has ever said them to himself. Somehow, she doubts it.
There is another long pause following that, where she simply stares at him opaquely, and then finally she asks: "What if I broke you out of here?" The words come calmly, coolly, as if they are the most natural thing in the world, and a part of her thinks that maybe this was her plan all along. She has gotten so very good at lying, after all, that sometimes not even she can tell when she does it.
Hans blinks, freezes, possibly even stops breathing, he goes so still. He stares back at her carefully, his eyes narrowing in suspicion, and there is something perversely satisfying about that—that the tables should be turned and he should be the one watching her so warily for once.
Two sides of the same coin, she thinks. Reflections in a cracked mirror.
"What then?" he asks, feigning unaffectedness. "Do you really think my family is going to let you simply waltz back to Arendelle after freeing a convicted traitor? In case you couldn't tell, Your Majesty,"—and he waves bitterly at the walls—"they aren't so forgiving."
"I could say you surprised me," she hears herself say. "That I got too close and you attacked me in revenge, forced me to help you. That I tried to retaliate after the fact, but you were too quick and knocked me out." It is a shockingly easy turn of events to imagine, and that fact does little to reassure her.
Hans stares at her again, his gaze almost more curious than calculating. Slowly, he rises from where he sits on the sill, finally coming to stand right in front of her, and a part of her has to wonder if he isn't going to enact the scenario she just suggested. She should back up out of his reach, she knows, but she'll be damned if she'll let him see just how much he affects her. Instead, Elsa stands with her hands held firmly in front of her, consciously ignores the clamorous pounding of her heart, and tilts her head back so as to meet his eyes unflinchingly.
"You do realize," he says, after a very long moment, "that for this plan of yours to work, I'm really going to have to knock you out."
She lifts her chin as if in challenge, looks disdainfully down her nose at him for having the audacity to even ask such an obvious question, but it's anybody's guess who she's trying to convince with the act. Hans smirks at her, a little smugly, and Elsa feels the sudden need to exert some control over the entire situation.
"I'll do it on one condition," she declares. He seems completely unsurprised to hear there's a catch, and instead merely clasps his hands behind his back, the perfect image of the attentive gentleman.
"And that is?"
"That you agree," she says severely, "to never step foot in Arendelle again."
Amusement plays about his mouth, and he never breaks eye contact with her, not even to blink. "And if I do?" he asks.
And if he was trying to vex her, congratulations, it worked, because she immediately answers, "Then I'll kill you, myself."
His smile falters briefly before returning in full force, and he proceeds to spend a disturbing amount of time simply studying her. "Yes," he finally admits, the expression in his eyes far too close to genuine admiration for her comfort, "I do believe you would." Elsa gets the distinct impression she should be offended by that, but before she can open her mouth to respond, he sticks his hand through the bars and says, "Deal."
She blinks down at the appendage, managing to be taken aback, despite herself. It is a startlingly frank and casual gesture—nothing a proper gentleman would ever presume to offer to a proper lady—but then, as she well knows, he isn't a proper gentleman at heart. And as someone who can freeze fjords and bring snow-beasts to life, she supposes she's similarly far from being a proper lady.
She swallows, tugging the tawny leather off of her right hand—this is how these things are done, aren't they?—and ignores how illicit this all suddenly feels. There is intimacy, and there is intimacy, and to be conspiring with her would-be murderer, to be touching him so borderline scandalously…
Blast it, she thinks. She's the one who got herself into this. The least she can do is have the courage to follow through. Besides, she reasons, all this means is that if he tries anything funny it'll be that much easier to ice his arm off.
"Deal," she says in turn, and decisively grabs his hand before either of them can have second thoughts.
The sheer warmth of his palm is shocking—the way his fingers almost envelope hers completely. It occurs to her that this is the closest she's ever been to a man since her father, and why that should suddenly seem so important, she has no idea.
A moment later, they part. Elsa resists the urge to smooth her hand down her skirt—belatedly realizing that the unfamiliar feeling in her fingertips is that of her nerve-endings on fire for once—and Hans takes a step back. "Well," he says, gesturing at the cell lock, that insufferable little smirk once again tugging at his mouth, "by all means, Your Majesty, please work your magic."
She sends him a glare, secretly relieved by his insolence and the distance it creates, but still not entirely trusting him. So he gave his word—big deal, she thinks; his word, she knows, means nothing. But at the same time, another part of her argues, his words have meant everything, and while she may very well hate him, the fact of the matter is she does not quite want him dead.
It's settled, then; this is the least she can do. She steps forward, puts her hand on the lock, and in less than a minute, the metal is brittle enough to break. She slips inside, sweeping past him without so much as a sideways glance before she blows the bars off the window, and then shoots a wild arc of icicles across the ceiling for good measure. Supposed evidence of a struggle.
Elsa blinks, heart beating hard, because now that she has done her part, it is time for him to do his. She turns, a little surprised to see him with his head craned back, admiring her handiwork, and says, "You'd better make it quick. Somebody probably heard that." A significant portion of her is still in disbelief that she's even doing this, and she most definitely doesn't stop to think about how the man in front of her is one of the very few people who have never appeared afraid of her powers.
Hans looks back down at her, and for the briefest of moments there is a flicker in his gaze, a slight furrowing to his brow that Elsa would almost swear resembles regret—but then he glances across the room and it's gone. Without a word, he goes to his washstand, grabs the tin pitcher that sits on the side of it, and then returns, stopping no more than a couple hand-spans in front of her. Elsa swallows, sets her shoulders, and resolutely meets his eyes.
He does not ask why she's doing this, she notes. Perhaps it is because he already knows the answer. Perhaps it is because he knows the answer doesn't really matter.
"Believe it or not," he says, hefting the pitcher his hand, "I am rather sorry about this."
But not sorry enough, she discovers, as it crashes into her temple and her vision goes dark, to prevent him from actually going through with it.
When she wakes, it is to an aching head, a barrage of questions, and a royal physician who is trying valiantly—yet vainly—to keep the commotion down. The story she concocted falls from her lips with ease, and when the eldest son voices skepticism, insinuates abetment, it does not take much to force genuine indignation into her words.
"Why would I willingly help a man who used my sister, sought to usurp my throne, and attempted to murder me?" she demands, and in the silence that follows, she wonders, Why, indeed.
When she returns, news of the event has already spread, and Anna is in a tizzy, fuming and fussing and suddenly taking a very eager interest in Arendelle's security.
"Anna," she says, looking over the proposal, "there's no way we can increase border patrols this much. And not just because we don't have the manpower for it."
"But what if he's out there right now, biding his time, waiting to exact his revenge upon you!" she argues, and Elsa just barely manages to resist rolling her eyes at her sister's flair for the dramatic.
"If he really wanted to kill me," Elsa points out, "don't you think he would have done so by now? I mean, why stop at merely knocking me unconscious?" It's a good question, but one she refuses to examine too closely; sometimes she can still feel his fingers against hers.
Anna, meanwhile, crosses her arms and purses her lips, and it's only with some very welcome input from the Official Ice Master that she reluctantly defers to her sister's wisdom.
The days turn into weeks, and the gossip about the fugitive thirteenth prince from the Southern Isles dies down, and summer starts to slide definitively into autumn. She thinks of him sometimes, when the afternoons are late and the shadows are long, when the air is crisp and her tea has gone cold. She wonders, in those moments, about where he has gone off to, and can't help but hope it is someplace warm.
It is a little more than three months later that the first letter arrives.
It's addressed simply, the wax seal unstamped, the handwriting elegant and masculine but otherwise impersonal, and the only indication of its origin is the official scrawl across the front, letting her know it was processed through Barceliz. Even the letter, itself, is unsigned—but she knows immediately who wrote it the very second she starts to read it:
To Her Royal Majesty Queen Elsa of Arendelle,
It occurs to me that I never thanked you for the service you provided. Perhaps it's absurd to only do so now, after so much time has passed, but better late than never, as they say. Decorum insists I do, so I am. Despite whatever low opinions of me you might have, I was hardly raised in a barn—though I sometimes wonder if things might have turned out better if I had been.
It will please you to know (or perhaps it won't; despite your arguments to the contrary, Queen Elsa, I do still believe there is a vindictive streak inside you) that I am doing well. I've taken up as a sailor on a merchant ship. It's a hard life, admittedly, but not one I'm altogether unfamiliar with—younger sons and military service and all that.
Due to the nature of my current line of work, I cannot promise to never set foot on Arendelle's shore, but I can promise to keep my feet restricted to the docks. I'm afraid that will have to be good enough.
P.S. If this news displeases you, let me be the first to point out that—considering the history between the two of us—you really should have known better.
By the time she is done, she realizes that not only has her hand crumpled the corner of the paper, but that frost has started to fan out across it from her fingers. With a sigh, she calls the ice back into herself and drops the letter onto her desktop.
It is infuriating that he should be so impertinent, particularly in a letter that purports to be an expression of appreciation. Infuriating, but also, she admits, thoroughly unsurprising. For his own sake, she hopes that this is nothing more than a twisted joke on his end, some poorly-planned attempt to rile her, and prays that he has the good sense to stay away, even from just the docks, because heaven help him if he doesn't.
In the pale winter light, Elsa stares at it, at the regular strokes of the letters and the even spacing of the words, and tries to imagine his hand penning it. Did he do it on a ship, she wonders, in some cramped quarters by the flame of a single candle? Or perhaps he did it in the open courtyard of some foreign café, surrounded by cups of chocolate and the bright blaze of the midday sun.
She should burn it, she knows. It's only out of a desire to not forget what he's done, to have some evidence of his treachery should she yet have to bring him to trial, that sees her tucking it in the far back corner of a bottom drawer, instead.
It's fortunate for him, she thinks, that she has no way of responding.
More letters follow after that, with progressively increasing frequency, until she is receiving an average of one every two weeks. They are always short, never signed, and more often than not, trivial and flippant. She wonders why he keeps sending them, and why she keeps reading them, and if she'll ever be able to tell the truth, just once.
It is midway into summer, a mere week and a half after the anniversary of her coronation, that she receives yet another correspondence. It is his shortest one to date, consisting of only five words:
The Grønn Bridge, four o'clock.
It is only after a good few minutes pass that she determines the flush to her skin to be from fury. She clears her schedule for the afternoon, and as she makes her way through town later that day, her stride is hard and purposeful, because enough is enough, he's gotten too bold, and if he thinks that she'll let him worm his way back into her country and get anywhere near her or her sister again—
He's standing in the middle of the bridge, looking out over the stream, his clothes as well-kempt as ever, but distinctly less lavish; his navy blue coat features no epaulets or embroidery, only two lines of silver buttons that decorate the front. His boots are worn but well-polished, and at the sound of her feet, he turns.
His hair, she notices, is lighter, sun-streaked. His face is tanner. His freckles, heavier. He smiles, and she absolutely hates how handsome he looks.
"In case you forgot," she says, taking it upon herself to icily break the silence, "we had an agreement: I would break you out of prison, and you would never step foot in Arendelle again. And even ignoring that, you said yourself that you would restrict yourself to the docks."
Hans lightly shrugs this off. "It wouldn't be the first time I've lied to you."
"Nor the last, I suspect," she shoots back, and at the words, his smile turns crooked.
"Does this mean you aren't going to kill me?"
Elsa merely scowls and crosses her arms. "Why are you here, Hans?"
"Would you believe me if I said I just wanted to see you?"
"No," she scoffs darkly, and he grins.
A beat passes. Elsa in no way admires the breadth of his shoulders or the lean lines of his legs.
Hans breaks eye contact, clasping his hands behind his back and momentarily ducking his head. "You know…" he says, and slowly starts to saunter towards her, "I think, sometimes, about what you did." He comes to a stop a few feet in front of her and once again meets her gaze. "I think that might be the first genuinely kind thing anybody's ever done for me."
She resists the urge to let out an unladylike snort, and instead arches an extraordinarily skeptical eyebrow. "So you mean to tell me that one kind deed is all it takes to reform a regicidal jerk like yourself?"
"I don't know," he says honestly. "But I think it's a start."
Elsa blinks, brows drawn together, and stares up at him, unsure what to do with such candid uncertainty. There is a heat apparent in his eyes, this close—a raw sort of longing, as if he's been stuck out at sea for years, not months, and she's the first glass of water he's seen in miles. Perhaps, she thinks madly, he has been. And maybe, she belatedly realizes, she is. She's the Ice Queen, after all, and when you melt one substance you get the other, and the truth is, she's so uncommonly warm right now. Her cheeks, she can tell, are bright pink, and she wishes she could blame it on the hot weather.
He swallows, and dares to take a small step closer, and all Elsa can do is lift her chin up higher, her heart racing behind her ribs. His gaze drops briefly to her mouth, and an instant later, her own eyes do the same, her lips parting instinctively in anticipation. Like two sides of the same coin. Like reflections in a cracked mirror.
Anna, she suddenly thinks, is going to kill her.
"May I kiss you?" he almost whispers, and there is something in his voice she's never heard before—something hopeful and fragile and so god-awfully sincere.
"Who's asking?" she hears herself say, because it occurs to her that she does not know this man in front of her, has never before met him, and she wonders if it's maybe the first time he's meeting him, too.
"The man who loves you, I think," he replies. "Though he'll be the first to admit that he doesn't know much about these things."
He's giving her an out, she realizes—a chance and a reason to refuse him. In that moment, she has no doubt that if she told him to leave and never come back, he would do so without question.
Carefully, Elsa presses her lips together. "I see," she says. Gathering her courage, she moves even closer, until she can feel the heat emanating from his body, until she can see the way his pulse pounds nervously in his neck. "And would he believe me if I told him 'yes'?" she asks, looking him in the eye, and Hans laughs, a little breathlessly.
"Good," she says, and with that, she reaches up, grabs his lapels, and pulls his mouth down to hers.