They bring him back in chains.
There's a commotion down by the docks at midday, raised voices loud enough to be heard up at the castle, and by the time Elsa slips through the side entrance to the Great Hall there's the noise of a scuffle outside the main doors, and a boy in Southern Isles livery rushing up to her, red-faced and tripping over his words.
"Your Majesty," he starts, and bows so swiftly she flinches, expecting to hear a crack of bone. "I'm so sorry, we sent an envoy to explain but it would seem they never arrived and it appears you had no idea we were bringing him, but we can't possibly leave again without-"
Elsa raises a hand to stop him, calm him, something, and he splutters into a silence that echoes around the hall. There's a note of panic beating solidly in her chest, because something is wrong, everyone staring at her wide-eyed and watchful, and she swallows down the instinct to run when the familiar weight of expectation settles on her shoulders. Her face shifts calm and content - everyone's looking at her like she has all the answers, and until she knows why she's going to act like she does - before she glides over to the head of the room and sits on her throne. The messenger follows, stopping a few paces in front of her.
"Explain from the start," she says, drawing herself up as she thinks, something is wrong, and it's my duty to fix it. And then, "Please," she adds, as the boy looks like he's ready to pass out.
"Prince Hans," the boy says, anxious and breathless, and Elsa recoils as the main doors finally swing open and her guards lead a man inside, bound at the wrists and ankles by thick iron bands linked with thicker chains. He stumbles and fights and at one point feints to the side and manages to get free for just a moment, but he's hauled back by his collar a second later. "He is your prisoner. His fate is laid entirely in your hands."
Three of her guards drag him halfway across the room before throwing him to his knees and pointing their spears at his neck, and he moves to get up before he feels the sharp end scratch his neck. He stills. Elsa sits up a little straighter to look at him, as Hans adjusts his cuffs around his manacles: there's dirt smudged on his cheek and three days worth of stubble across his jaw; a dark brown line on his bottom lip like it had been bleeding a couple of days ago; his clothes look the same as the ones she last saw him in, except crumpled and scuffed and dirty and without his cravat; his hair is a grimy mess and he looks slightly hollowed out, like he has not slept for days; he looks awful, and something vicious and satisfied shoots through her before she raises her chin and turns her attention back to the messenger boy.
"It is the tradition of the Southern Isles that in cases such as these, er -," he stumbles, as Elsa's gaze flicks to the center of the room again and he glances over to find the prince glaring at him hotly, "-that, um, that it is the privilege of the one most grievously harmed to administer punishment. Meaning, er, he is yours, Your Majesty. And you can't give him back."
She flicks her eyes back to the boy and raises an eyebrow, a fluttering in her stomach that might be the beginnings of hysterics, and he flushes scarlet and stares firmly at the floor. She looks back at Hans to find him staring at her, and her heart gives a jolt, hard and angry.
"And if I refuse?" she asks, her voice surprisingly steady, and Hans doesn't look away.
"He will be taken back to the Southern Isles, and immediately executed," the boy says, splintering a little, and the hall falls silent. Hans ducks his head.
"Leave us," she says, not raising her voice, and every bystander in the room flees. The guards linger for a moment, spears still trained on Hans's neck, but she glances at them quickly before nodding and they leave, closing the main doors behind them with a ringing thud.
Hans eyes are fixed on his manacles like he doesn't dare look up again, and so for a long, silent minute, she just studies him. Thinks about everything he's done, tried to do, nearly succeeded at, and the fluttering in her stomach turns into a nauseated roll, a visceral urge to hurt him. Takes a breath, and thinks about the nobility of mercy.
"Prince Hans" she says, trailing off like a question and almost gently as she tilts her head to the side, frowning. "I'm supposed to punish you?"
"Queen Elsa," he starts, catching her eye before bowing his head. "If I may ease your burden - how about just letting me go?" he says, gazing up at her wide-eyed and guileless, a perfect imitation of innocence, and Elsa bites down on the rush of loathing and rises from her throne like a storm.
"You tried to kill me," Elsa says, cold and strong and each word like a blow as she stalks forward and grabs his chin, forcing him to look up at her. The room drops cooler, ice crackling on the windowpanes, but she doesn't notice.
"Sorry?" he tries, and grins like a question mark. He looks terrified close up, eyes so wide and darting endlessly between her and the throne and the frost covering the windows, and his uneasy smile just makes him look like an idiot.
God, she almost pities him.
"You left my sister to die," Elsa says instead, like a shield against the rolling of her stomach, her voice almost cracking at the end as she doesn't need a reminder of what she's facing, and she ignores the way her blood is rushing hard and fast as she lets her fingernails dig into his jaw.
"That was unfortun-" he starts, and she slaps him sharp across his cheek before he can finish, leaving him stunned and staring at the floor. Frostburn glows raw against his skin.
"Ow," he says, quietly, and Elsa's palm is hot and stinging, and something like a thrill runs through her, catches her breath as the hall rings with silence. She digs her nails into her palm to steady herself.
For a few heartbeats they both just wait, collecting themselves as Hans steadies himself against the floor and every breath comes a little ragged before lingering in a cloud between them. Elsa stands stock still in front of him with her fists clenched. They listen to the silence until Hans shifts so he's sitting straight again, works his jaw a few times, and decides to change tack.
"Elsa, if we're being honest with each other - and really, after all we've been through together, I think we can be - banishment is the most obvious solution. You don't have to see me, Anna doesn't have to see me, and I've already been forcibly removed from my own home so I figured, what's another country I may never see again? I'm told the mountains are spectacular this time of year," he says, and flicks his gaze up. His grin is a little sharper.
"No," she says, and steps away, her arms coming up to cross her chest as she clutches at her elbows. She seems to shrink somehow, drawing in on herself. His eyes follow her footsteps and he clasps his hands together, smoothing his thumb under the edge of his manacle to ease the pressure. "Everything that happened - it was my fault for not listening, for pushing Anna away."
She glances back at him and he shrugs, like she was expecting an answer. "Don't expect any arguments from me. I defer to your judgement in all matters," he says, tilting his head so he's looking up at her through his eyelashes, a hint of smirk in his carefully deferential expression. Something like a scowl twists across Elsa's mouth as she waves him off with a distracted flick of her wrist and turns away.
"I can't possibly let that happen to anyone else, so I must keep you here," she says, hushed and passionate and convincing, but she's so quiet Hans has to strain to hear her, and this isn't working at all;
"If it's any consolation," he starts, and she turns her head just enough to see him over her shoulder. "Do you know how irreplaceable your sister is? Do you have any idea how many unmarried princesses there are around here? Because it took me a really long time to find someone both pretty and dumb enough to believe in true love-"
She grabs him by the hair and yanks his head back so viciously his yelp comes out strangled, and his hands automatically come up to grab at her but she neatly steps to the side, precise in her fury, and bares her teeth as she looms over him. Ice cracks across the floor. "So, this is what I've been given. I'm meant to just keep you, here, forever?"
"Well, apparently it's that or kill me," he says lightly, a little strangled and breathless, but his eyes are dark and pained-narrow and fixed on hers. His head pushes into her hand as he tries to lever up away from the floor, the cold snapping at his shins.
She takes a breath, licks her lips, and for the first time seems to notice the ice sweeping across the floor and up the walls. "I'm not a killer," she says, softly, and she wants to crush the hope that flicks through his eyes, wants to wring it out of him and grind it under her heel. Instead, she lets go of his hair and takes a step back, clasping her hands behind her and forcing her shoulders down. She thinks of Anna, of warmth, and the ice covering everything begins to dissolve into the air as Hans looks around him in open surprise, and she finds herself watching him (and in the back of her mind there's his voice stabbing sense through her fear, as her palace splinters around her -)
"Guards!" she calls suddenly, and the Great Hall is as warm as ever as the doors swing open as fast as heavy ancient oak can, and Hans shifts; chin up, shoulders a little straighter.
Six of her soldiers march into the room and come to a halt a few paces away, waiting. "Take him to the dungeons, keep him chained," she says, and then, almost as an afterthought, adds, "And don't let him talk to anyone."
Two step forward to grab him by the arms, hauling him to his feet, and even though he doesn't quite fight he still glares daggers at the guard on his right and tries to pull his arm away. "I can walk," he snaps, all pride and indignation, and doesn't look at Elsa as he turns on his heel and stalks out - the effect is somewhat ruined by how short and loud each step is as the chains around his ankles clank together, but he keeps going and the guards have to rush to catch up, one on each side grabbing his arms again and forcing him to stay between them. Elsa presses a hand to her mouth and ducks her head for a moment.
Her chin is up and her hands are loosely clasped in front her by the time Hans is being lead past the doors, her face smoothing calm and gently attentive as murmurs and mutterings start to trickle in moments before the people do. Some look at her, some scanning the hall for a hint of something scandalous, like this is the first test of her reign (and - it kind of is, only a few, quiet weeks since Arendelle settled back into summer and so far she's only had to commission new ships to replace the few that were truly ruined by the frozen fjord). Not a snowflake is left, and her placid, practised smile holds fast.
The day spills into night and Elsa lies in bed, finds herself staring at the ceiling as she chases too many thoughts without focus to be able to sleep. With a sigh she rolls and twists and lands on her back again, flings one arm out to the side and without considering it she lets her hand drift down between her legs, presses down in lazy circles until she finds that spot that makes her feel like she's being slowly pulled apart. Her hips tilt into it, curling her spine like a slow crashing wave as she finds that warmth that blooms under her fingertips and she lets her fingers roll in tighter circuits, the slightest tingling heat building without any destination.
For no reason at all her mind drifts to the way Hans's eyes flashed wide and dark when she pulled his hair, and the way he breathed after she'd struck him, soft and small and gasping, and her toes start to curl as she pushes her pelvis up into her hand, her fingers circling tighter and harder and something's building, something sparkling and warm and aching, and -
Her hand flies away like it's been burned.
Elsa clutches at the mattress cover with her hands as far away from her body as she can, and stares wide-eyed up at the dark ceiling. "Oh no," she whispers, and then buries her face in the blankets.