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The Frost King

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The Palace of Ice looks enough like the home Natasha once knew to be unsettling, different only in that it’s made of snow and frost that glitter diamondlike in the cruel sun instead of the warm dark stones she remembers. Someone else might be daunted, but Natasha checks the blades at her wrists and in her borrowed boots and allows herself a tooth-baring smile, because if familiarity is supposed to frighten her then the Frost King is a fool.

She is careful, nonetheless, never assuming that a hallway leads where it should, or that the floor is stable as well as slippery beneath her feet, or that the spires of ice dangling from the ceiling are chandeliers and not spears—but Natasha is always careful; it comes by now as easily and naturally as breath. She reaches the throne room with no cost to herself, so swift and silent that none of the cruel-spined monsters (the kind of guards that look as if they should be guarded against) notice her passing.

Clint doesn’t notice her until her hand goes over his mouth to keep him from crying out a warning.

His eyes are blue as winter daylight, cold and empty and filled with the same ice that cages his heart in all the prison the Frost King needs to keep him here. Everything he sees is seen for the Frost King; everything he feels is—does he even still feel?

Tears, Phil had told her before she left, emerging at last from the libraries dust-covered and careworn; whoever goes after him will have to melt the enchantment. And of course it was Natasha who had to go, because Natasha knows winter and Natasha knows what it’s like to be a prisoner inside her own mind.

She had thought it would be harder to weep, but after all the blood she’s shed for/with/because of them tears are after all just another kind of salt, and Clint shakes in her arms and whispers her name in wondrous horror. She hands him his bow and the quiver she’s carried all these miles and says, “It’s all right now,” and “Come home, he’s waiting, we missed you so much.” He buckles the quiver on and takes up the bow and follows her out (as she’d followed him once in a forest years ago with the marks of shackles fading from her wrists)—follows her away from winter and down again into spring.