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Common Ground

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Her heels clicked against the floor as she approached his cell: the last one in a line of nine four-by-four stone rooms with a single, thin-slatted window, hay strew across the floor for minimal warmth, and cold, iron bars binding those within from the freedom their sins ripped from them.

The prince was asleep—or pretending he was anyway. He lay on the thin mattress of the cot, curled on his side in the fetal position with his arms twisted beneath his head as a makeshift pillow. A light snoring sound proved he wasn’t pretending, but she was still leery. He was a good liar and an even colder manipulator.

The bells outside rang to welcome the dawn, and he shifted against the cot, stirring from his dreams at the echo of the disruptive noise. He groaned and sat up, scratching at his head as he yawned.

Less than seven days had passed since he was hauled down here by the Arendelle guards. Today marked the eighth and final day of his imprisonment, and as she looked over his slowly-waking form, she smothered the twinge of guilt settling in her stomach. His pristine white outfit was smeared with the dirt of the walls and ripped from his tussle with the guards--fighting even as he fell. He was hardly the image of the perfect prince she had first met in the ballroom upstairs, and she had to remind herself it was he who put himself here--not her.

Whatever punishments awaited him were his to bear alone, and they were born of his own choices.

He stretched his arms high over his head, kicked his legs to the floor, and ruffled the sleep from his hair. Glancing up mid-yawn, he caught her eyes, the hesitation within them, and the way her hands twisted around each other.

A light smile tugged at his lips. “What do I owe the pleasure, Your Majesty?”

“Our trade ship from the Southern Isles has returned. The guards will be down in a moment to escort you to it.” She dropped her fidgeting hands to her sides and hid them among the folds of her gown. “Congratulations, Prince Hans, you’re going home.”

“Home?” More panic than joy filled his voice.

She nodded. “Consider this your last visit to Arendelle.”

Proud of herself, she spun on her heels and left his presence with her head held high. For the sake of her sister, herself, and her country, she was glad to know this would be the last time she’d ever have to see—

“Queen Elsa?” came the high-pitched, almost shrill screech of his voice.

She stopped and dared to turn back to his cell, despite the voice in her mind and the knocking in her heart begging her to leave. When she faced him again, she found him standing in the center of his cell, looming the same distance from her as from his cot—as if he didn’t know which would harm him, or help him, most.

“Is that my only choice?” His voice was a whisper now, nearly too soft for her ears.

She narrowed her eyes at him, studying this fracture of a man with only hesitation in her heart and alarm bells ringing in her head. He may act hurt or scared, but he was talented; she would not fall to any more of his manipulations. But still her curious nature won out, and she wanted to know the meaning behind his question and to reveal whatever trickery his words sheltered.

“What do you mean?” she asked, cautious and calm.

Two large steps forward carried his lean frame toward the cell bars. He lifted his gloved fists to the cool iron and wound his fingers through them to plead with her, eye-to-eye.

“Going home,” he said, that same gentle whisper that didn’t fit what she’d come to learn of him. “Is that my only choice?”

She became too aware of the fact they were alone: she made no order for one of her guards to linger in this dank and darkened space to watch over the cells that were rarely filled. There was no cause for it, but now, she wished there had been. But perhaps for this conversation, it was best that no other ears heard of it.

She cleared her throat and held her hands behind her back, careful to stand out of reach of his long arms—just in case he tried anything.

“After what you have done, Prince, being offered a chance to return home is one you should be happy to receive.” She looked him in the eye—something she could stand to do since letting go of the anger in her heart. “A prisoner could be offered no better choice.”

“What have I done, Your Majesty?” He spoke softly, curling his fists tighter around the bars and lifting the dirt from their nicks to stain his white gloves further. “Did I not care for your people in your absence? Did I not stop you from taking the lives of men who meant you harm under an order of fear and intolerance? Did I not save you from an arrow to the heart? Did I not carry you down from the mountain to safety here—”

Her arms fell to her sides, and her hands tightened into fists. “Where you locked me in the prison of my own family and chained me like an animal!”

“To protect you,” he pleaded. “And to protect others—in an effort to save—”

The sting of ice swelled beneath his hands, and despite the thick fabric of his gloves, he jerked his hands back from the iron to find smears of icicles now dripping from their outline.

“Enough!” she yelled, commanding and strong. “Perhaps you would have an easier time pleading your case to someone you did not raise your sword against.”

He sighed and let his shoulders sag. “Am I not entitled to a chance at forgiveness?”

She scoffed, bewildered by his words. “Forgiveness? You will leave Arendelle with the knowledge that if you ever dare to return, I will not hesitate to order your life to be taken. That, Prince, is your forgiveness, and it is far more than a prisoner of your kind deserves.”

The sound of heels clicking off the walls as she stomped away from his cell were like thunder beneath dark clouds. The ice on the iron bars melted and pooled on the floor, and the sting in her hands faded to red fingertips kissed by frost.

“Prisoners come in all forms, Elsa.”

She paused. His tone had shifted to something vulnerable, something regretful, something—human.

“You of all people should understand that.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose, arguing with herself as to why she shouldn’t be suckered into his words, why she should continue walking and leave this—and him—behind. But her curiosity won out, and she returned to him for the second time.

“Hans—” she spoke his name with equal parts caution and hate “—what is it you want?”

“Another choice,” he said simply. No games, and not enough words to hide a lie.

“Why wouldn’t you want to return home when all who are here despise you?”

He chuckled. “Didn’t you flee from your own home as well, Queen Elsa?”

She snarled her nose. “I left to protect my sister, to protect my kingdom, my people, and to be—”

“Free?”

Her eyes met his, and her heart stalled at the honest pain she saw reflected in his greens. But he blinked, and it was gone, hidden from her like another trick.

“A prisoner here in a cell, or back home, a prisoner in my room or in the stables tending to the horses, or perhaps something worse, something new my brothers or my father have thought up.” He sat on the edge of the cot and leaned forward, resting his arms across his thighs. “I have no chance there. I never really did.”

“And you believe you have one here?”

“I believe I have a chance at one, Your Majesty, if you will grant me.”

She folded her arms over her chest. “I can’t.”

He rose from the cot in a rush. “Let me start over, Elsa, let me—”

“You can never go back to being the man I met in the ballroom, Hans. You will always be the man who swindled my sister, who broke her heart, who intended to—” She cast her eyes to the ground. “There is no chance for you here either.”

He approached the bars and gripped them tight once more. “I’ll be a failure at home, mocked and tortured worse than I was before I came. But here I can be of use. Here I can be more than a castaway son.”

“Anna wouldn’t have it, and neither can I. You made your choices, Hans. They are yours alone.”

“I’ll do all that you ask,” he pleaded, reaching through the bars.

She shook her head and retreated down the hall, determined to leave him for the final time. “I’ll go and collect the guards. The ship should be docked by now.”

He yelled after her. “Your people believed you to be a monster. They were frightened of you. Yet they bow to you now as the queen you always should have been.”

She kept walking, trying to ignore his words.

"They welcomed you back. They gave you a second chance.”

She reached the bolted door of the prison and loosened the lock.

“Can’t I be granted the same?”

With the cold iron lock in her hand, she heaved open the heavy wooden door.

“Please, Elsa.” His voice echoed off the walls, deafening to her ears. “My sword was raised to you just as you pierced your sisters heart—”

She sucked in a deep breath and snapped her eyes shut.

“But she forgave you.”

She stepped back from the door and traced her steps, a familiar path, back to his cell.

“What is it that you offer, Hans?”

There was no smile on his lips, no devil’s mask hiding his true intentions. There was only a man stained by the filth of his imprisonment clinging to the iron bars as if their weight was the last thing keeping him from drowning—despite their nature to weigh down the ankles of liars and thieves.

“I’ll do all that you ask, Your Majesty.”

He sank to his knees and bowed his head—a proper bow to her power that recalled to her the first, and only, honest respect she ever gleaned from him in the ballroom above.

“I am militarily-trained. Proficient in duels, well-spoken—”

A faint smirk tugged at her lips. “Oh, yes, I am well aware of those attributes.”

He rolled his head back to look her in the eye. “Then tell what you want, and I’ll be it.”

“This isn’t a question of what I want, Hans. You must plead your own case and convince me—just as you were as willing to convince me of your love for my sister.”

“You’re right,” he admitted.

She was as surprised to hear those words drop from his lips as he must have been annoyed to speak them.

“What I truly owe you is a debt, a life-debt.” His eyes were wide and pleading. “Let me stay, live here in Arendelle, and I will work off the debt by whatever means you deem necessary.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “You mentioned stables before?”

“I admire horses, and I would accept the duty of cleaning the stables.” He bowed his head once more. “It’s a chore I was once happy to be burdened with. It can grant that same joy again.”

“What else?” she asked, curious by all the man was willing to offer to remain here.

“I know masonry. I can repair stonework. I can cook. I can clean.” He sighed and rose to his feet. “I can do whatever you will of me, Queen Elsa, to work off the debt in exchange for a second chance and a clean slate.”

“You do realize if I accept this, I will have you guarded at all hours.”

“Of course, Your Majesty.”

“And you certainly won’t be entitled to better living quarters.”

“This cot is more than I would have at home.”

Her heart weakened for him for a bare second before she straightened her spine and rushed away the pity. He was a talented liar and an intelligent player; he was likely lying. What prince would be denied his own room and bed?

“Most importantly of all, Hans, you will not be cleared to leave and roam Arendelle free until I will it.”

“I understand.”

“And if you dare to break these rules, to slip out of sight, or to play any more of your tricks, I will order your life to be taken by beheading at the executioner’s hand.” She swallowed hard, speaking those words with strength and clarity. “Do you still wish to stay?”

His eyes searched hers, and she still saw no devil hidden within them.

“More than you can know, Your Majesty.”

She allowed herself to accept the truth of his words. She had been feared, possibly hated by some. She had almost murdered her dear sister out of a desperation to keep her safe. Yet, her people welcomed her home. They smile and wave and even embrace her in kind hugs. They address her as “Majesty” with such confidence and acceptance.They don’t gawk at her like a beast or dismiss her as a monster; they love her.

And Anna speaks no word of what happened, greeting her with smiles every morning.

If she could make a humble return, then perhaps the prince—if his sorrow and regret were as true as he claimed—could do the same.

“Alright, Hans, I’ll offer you this chance, but know that another ship will never again sail to the Southern Isles. The only way to reach freedom is with redemption.”

“I understand, Your Majesty, and I accept.”

She sucked in a deep breath. “Then I’ll retrieve the guard, and you’ll begin work immediately.”

With a nod, she turned her back to him for the third time but hesitated. Glancing back over her shoulder, she met his eyes with a solemn frown.

“Do not make me regret this choice, Prince.”

He gripped the iron bars again, covering her melting icicles with his gloved fingers, and watched her leave. The sheer blue fabric of her cape swayed behind her with the same elegance and glamor as she carried in herself with each step. She disappeared from his sight too soon, and he tightened his grip against the bars.

“I won’t,” he vowed in a low whisper before bowing his head against the bars.

Chapter Text

The stench of the stables was foul and toxic, burning his nose as he dug the shovel into the remains and hefted them outside in a methodical pattern one shovelful at a time. He tolerated the odor, though, for each step outside the stables granted him with a breath of fresh summer air, the warmth of the sun on his face, and the sweep of the midday breeze blowing through him.

During his momentary breaks outside the hay-strew stables, he watched the Arendelle guards wandering the courtyard. Few of them marched the perimeter with their horses—an easy way to keep the animals in shape and free of restless energy. Others partnered up in the center of the circular stone path and drew their swords, practicing their skills in dull-edged duels until both opponents were left breathless and weary.

And only occasionally did they cast their stares in his direction. He assumed most of them would look to him with hatred, but most stared with surprise or curiosity in their eyes. He could see the question in their mind, looping endlessly with no courage to speak the words aloud: why has the queen allowed this?

A few of the men he recognized as those who had stormed her ice palace at his back, eager to protect their queen. These men watched him with interest; some even smiled or nodded when his eyes caught theirs. Oddly, they accepted him—or maybe they were just amused to see him covered in fecal matter.

Drawing in a lasting deep breath, he returned to the interior of the stables, shovel in hand, and returned to his work.

- - -

Elsa lingered in the front hall; her eyes frozen on the portrait of her family—her parents and Anna and her as children, a prize of the palace. A soft smile lightened her mood as she stared at the oblivious joy in her childhood self. Her smile only faded when her eyes turned to her father’s face and the memory of the satin gloves entangling her fingers.

Just as the prince’s gloves sheltered his hands from the grim of the iron bars.

“Elsa?” Anna’s peppy voice bounced down the stairs. “You’re up early.”

She turned to greet her sister with a grin. “I had some business to tend to, and I’ve been awake since before dawn.”

“Wow, dawn? Must’ve been some business.”

“It was,” she admitted with a frown. “What do you have planned for the day?”

Anna’s whole face swelled with joy. “Kristoff planned a picnic in the forest so we can hang with Sven. Then we’ll walk through the markets by the ports and do some shopping. We were there the other day, and they had so many oddities on display. Oh, I can’t wait!”

Elsa hid her laugh behind her hand. “That sounds like fun, Anna, but before you go, there’s something I have to tell you.”

“Sure.” Anna sniffed at the air. “Could we chat over breakfast? Something smells delicious.”

“We should talk first,” Elsa pushed. “It isn’t the most polite topic.”

“Why? Is everything alright?”

She threaded her fingers through her orange hair and twirled the strands into loose curls. Elsa’s eyes widened as she watched her; it had barely been a week since she’d lost the white streak in her hair she’d had nearly all her life, barely a week since she nearly died at her sister’s hands.

How could she possibly confess the deal she’d made with Hans to her sister? Even the thought of speaking his name aloud in these halls felt wrong, cruel even. The familiar ache of self-loathing leaked into her heart, and she lost the will to speak at all.

“Elsa, what is it?”

“I…” She shook her head. “I’ve decided—”

An Arendelle royal guard burst through the side doors leading into the courtyard. “Your Majesty, I’m sorry to interrupt, but—”

“Is he behaving?” she asked, Anna’s presence forgotten.

“Y-yes, Your Majesty, but your presence—”

“I’ll be out in a moment.”

Despite the frantic dance in his eyes, he nodded and offered a quick bow. “Of course, Your Majesty.”

Elsa drew in a calming breath and cut her eyes back to Anna who bounced before her with energy.

“Did you get us a dog?” she asked eagerly.

“A-a dog? Why would I—”

Anna hurried toward the doors separating them from the courtyards. “A pony then?”

“A pony? Anna, we have an entire royal stable—”

“Well it must be something good.” Her grin was wide as she threw open the doors.

“No, Anna, wait,” Elsa begged.

But her words died on the wind as her sister passed through the threshold and disappeared into the glare of the midday sun. Elsa chased after her, but the inevitable had already happened. When Elsa stormed out into the courtyard, she nearly stumbled into Anna who stood at the edge of the veranda staring out at the scene before her; All the joy and energy of her heart drained from her pose.

In the courtyard, Hans stood among the guards, sword in hand. Despite the fecal stains on his dingy white uniform and the stench that must have accompanied them, he made a home for himself among the guards. He had either pushed his way into their morning practice duels or they had invited him to join. Either way, he was the center of attention in the courtyard and the only figure Anna could see as the threat of tears blurred the edges of her vision.

“Your Majesty,” the guard who had interrupted them sidled up to Elsa. “He finished his work in the stables and volunteered to show us some skills. The men seemed eager to learn, but I wasn’t sure you would be alright with such an arrangement.”

“I’m not,” Elsa snapped, staring down the guard with a bitter frown. “Restrain him at once, and return him to his cell. I’ll deal with him later.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

The guard scurried away as Anna turned to face her.

“Why is he… here, Elsa? Why is he free?”

“I…” Her words left her.

“After what he did—tried to do—to me—to you. Elsa, why?”

“He should have a second chance.”

“He tricked me,” she whispered, her voice cracking. “He aimed to kill you. Why would you grant him another chance to be even more wicked?”

Elsa set her hand over her heart. “I was given one.”

“You’re our queen. He is an intruder. H-how could you do this? How could you let him trick you?”

“This isn’t a trick, Anna. He was terrified of returning home. You can’t tell me you wish to be so cruel to a man who would beg for your kindness by throwing himself to his knees.”

“He’s a liar, whatever he said to you—they’re just lies straight from a snake’s mouth. We can’t trust him. He’s a killer waiting to strike.”

“It wasn’t his hand that nearly took your life, Anna; it was mine.”

“And the sword he raised to your head? Did you bring that on yourself as well?”

Elsa turned cold, draining the emotion from her words. “Enough, Anna. This is a matter of diplomacy for the sake of our relation with the Southern Isles. They carry essential imports for us, and we cannot make an enemy of them.”

“Imports? You would accept a deal with that devil to maintain imports!”

“It is my duty as queen to protect my country and ensure its longevity over my own.”

“But you cut off trade routes with Weselton? Why not do the same with the Southern Isles? After all, both their representatives tried to have you killed.”

“Hans acted alone and not under his father’s order.”

“And that makes it better?” Anna’s voice screeched at her ears, a mixture of stress and fear tearing free from her throat.

“We cannot fault an entire nation for one man’s actions when he chose to act alone. And we cannot shut ourselves away from the rest of the world.”

“You were fine doing it for years,” she barked, not realizing the sting of her words until they were spoken.

Elsa waved away the insult with ease. “I was, but that was a mistake, one I cannot afford to make again—not for my sake or for Arendelle’s.”

She reached out to her sister. “I will keep a close eye on him. He will live and sleep in the cells when he isn’t working. And his freedom comes when I will it, when I am satisfied he has made up for his past crimes. He will be closely guarded at all times, Anna. You don’t have to worry.”

“I am worried, Elsa, worried about what you’re thinking.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. His words from the cells echoed in her mind and made her heart ache. She’d be lying to herself if she denied that his admissions struck deeper than she was willing to admit. Somehow, as she stared through those iron bars at the fallen prince, she felt she was looking into a mirror at herself—a twisted version of what she would have become if she had truly been alone with no one on her side.

If she hadn’t had Anna’s support, pleading her case every chance she could.

“Hans had no one, but I had you,” Elsa admitted in a shy whisper. “I am trying to create some good out of this mess, to be the one person who sees the good in him just as you always saw the good in me.”

A reluctant smile widened Anna’s mouth. “I don’t want you—either of us—to be hurt by him again. I don’t want to lose you, Elsa.”

Elsa dragged her sister into a tight hug. “You won’t.”

“Just… don’t let your guard down around him. Please.”

“Don’t worry about me.” She retreated with a smile. “Now shouldn’t you be going? You can’t keep Kristoff waiting forever.”

Anna giggled and bit at her lower lip. “I don’t think he minds it. Him and Sven love their time alone.”
She dashed down the double stone steps and onto the pathway of the courtyard before turning back to face her sister, the bitterness of their fight already behind her.

“I’ll see you at dinner?”

Elsa nodded. “As always.”

She watched Anna race through the courtyard, nearly tripping over a bucket of feed and stumbling past two guards on horseback before catching herself against the castle’s walls. Elsa chuckled as Anna recovered from her recklessness and laughed at herself, granting her sister a final wave before disappearing around the corner to head into town and meet up with Kristoff.

Once she was gone, Elsa’s smile dissolved into a stern glare. She gripped fistfuls of her blue gown on either side of her hips and marched inside with one destination in mind: the prison cells in the lower levels of the castle.

Chapter Text

“What were you thinking?” she yelled as soon as she had him in her sights, trapped behind the locked bars of his cell. “You were to follow orders and clean the stables. Not pick up a sword and train with my guards. Have you lost all sense?”

“I did what was required of me, Your Majesty.”

“And a bit more, it seems.”

“You never said I wasn’t allowed to speak with your guards if they approached me.”

She lifted her hands to her temples as if fighting off a headache. “It-it was implied.”

He chuckled. “Suggestions don’t hold much weight when offered to prisoners.”

Her hands fell to her sides, and she glared at him, a sharp scowl on her face. “Do you think this is funny?”

He cleared his throat. “I don’t see it as an issue.”

“An issue?” she yelled. “You may have been outside these bars, Prince, but you are still bound by their intent. You are to keep your head down, and your mouth shut. But—” she snorted a laugh “—I realize that’s more than could be expected from you. And now, Anna has seen you!”

“Y-you didn’t tell her?” His voice was hushed, a whisper of surprise.

“I was trying to—I was about to—” Elsa began pacing the floor before his cell. “But then one of the guards interrupted, and she got distracted. And I-I let her slip away. Then she saw—she saw you.”

She paused and faced him with wide eyes illuminated by a mixture of disgust and hatred. It was the same way she had looked at him when their roles were reversed—when she was in chains and he begged her for answers.

“Don’t you see? I can’t.”

There it was. That same disgust, but she reflected it within, placing it over her own heart and letting it weaken what little armor she still wore. And even now as he stared at the hurt in her eyes, he realized she blamed herself—just as she had before.

She frowned and bowed her head. “Maybe this was a mistake.”

Panic surged through him like a bolt of lightning.

“Your guards asked for my help,” he said in a rush. “For help protecting you.”

The self-hatred brewing in her eyes dimmed. “Why would they do that, ask you of all people?”

“I recognized some of the men in the courtyard. They were with me when we stormed the North Mountain, when we—” he cleared his throat and held her agonizing stare “—when I stopped you from killing Weselton's henchmen.”

“So… what?” She tucked a loose strand of pale hair behind her ear. “They’ve seen the worst of me, and they want your advice on how to tame the monster of the castle?”

“What? No, of course not. They—”

She clapped her hands together before her chest and grinded her palms together. She let all the anger leak into her veins; all the annoyance and frustration that had built up beneath the surface oozed like a wave of heat across her skin, warming her cheeks to a rosy red even as wisps of frost tickled her fingertips.

“Do you think I'm a fool, Hans?”

He watched her with narrowed eyes unsure of how to respond, unsure of what she intended. But whatever it was, his instinct told him it wouldn't be good for him.

“Do you think I've forgotten who you are and what you're capable of? That if killing me would grant you freedom, you'd draw a blade in a heartbeat?”

“Elsa, believe me—”

“That's just it, Hans. I don't. I believe that every word I've ever heard from you is either a lie or a carefully crafted manipulation to get what you want. I believe you would tell me anything to convince me my guards were to blame for you holding a sword in my courtyard. And I believe that,” she sighed, frustrated, “that no matter how many chances you have, you'll always disappoint. You didn't even make it through your first day.”

His ears rang. Her words echoed in his head. He heard nothing else. Her voice turned silent; her lips moved, but no sound escaped. Her eyes were wide with frantic anger; her gestures were wild as she talked. And his heart beat like a drum as he watched her, more afraid than he had been at the mountain. More afraid than when his brothers locked him in the coat room when he was five. More afraid than when his father first struck him—a hard slap across his cheek.

Her anger meant his last chance was expiring. It meant the executioner had his name, and he was sharpening his blade—

“You’re right.” He let his shoulders sag. “The guards didn't approach me. I approached them. I asked for the sword. I asked for the chance to train them, to show them some techniques. It was my idea.”

The world stopped turning. The air in the prison turned colder, and the light of her eyes vanished like the sun behind clouds.

“Is that what you want to hear, Elsa? That I really am the monster in your head, that everything I've done was done with blind malice and cruelty?”

It was her turn to stare, speechless.

“I've followed orders all my life. I've bent to someone else's rule all my life. I've never stepped out of line, spoken out of turn, or raised a question I knew I wasn't meant to ask. All my life, I've been silent, passive, and as obedient as a beaten dog. And I did so with the hopes that being the good son would one day reward me.”

She set her jaw tight, wishing his words didn't carve holes in the walls around her heart.

“I don't make mistakes, Your Majesty. I observe, I listen, and I plan. If you can trust in anything, trust in that.”

“Is this your excuse?”

He leaned against the bars. “I can't apologize forever, Elsa. I get that we can't start over, make all that's happened disappear, but can't you grant me the benefit of doubt?”

“No.”

He sighed. “No?”

“Last time I doubted your guilt, you locked my sister in a room and left her to freeze.”

He groaned and shoved away from the bars. “You caused that injury. Not me.”

“And dousing the fire?” she asked, her voice strained. “Who did that, Hans, since you're so good at remembering everything?”

“Must it always be a fight with us? Every conversation, every interaction?”

She balled her hands into fists. “You drew the line in the sand. You marked us for enemies.”

“Out of desperation, out of survival. I did what I thought was right to save this kingdom.”

“It isn’t yours to save,” she yelled, ice crystallizing in her palms and spreading like vines up her wrists and arms.

“But it certainly was yours to destroy,” he yelled back, his voice strained with annoyance. “You single-handedly froze your kingdom and its lands and its waters and very nearly killed your own sister, and yet, every time you stand before me, you criticize my faults, my errors, still refusing to admit that most of my actions saved your life and this place.”

“Oh, please,” she scoffed. “Putting me in chains and raising a sword to my back was clearly you being a hero.”

“Those chains weren’t made by me, so you best look to your own family to place blame. And binding you in that room was to save you from the same execution you now hold over my head.”

He stormed forward and gripped the bars of the cell hard, wishing he had the force to pry them wide enough to slip his body through. The anger building in his bones made his muscles tingle with energy. He needed to run, to scream, to fight, to purge his body of this gurgling abyss rising from his depths and lighting his skin on fire just as hers burned with ice.

“You and I both know what really happened on the ice.”

Her lips parted with a trembling breath of white.

“You told me to take of Anna—”

“Don’t you say her name,” she hissed.

“You trusted me, and you were going to leave me in charge.”

“Shut up,” she whispered, and soft tears pooled in her eyes.

“You were going to leave your kingdom to me because you—”

“Be quiet, Hans. That is an order,” she said through clenched teeth.

“You wanted to die.”

Her fists curled tighter until her nails bit into her skin and made her wince.

“You wanted me to kill you because you know this kingdom, this world is better off without you.”

“SHUT UP!”

Her scream rattled the cell bars, and Hans leapt back as ice encircled the iron and bit at his gloved hands. The ice spread from the ground beneath her feet and encompassed every stone it touched, consuming it as effortlessly as it had once engulfed the waters outside.

She shut her eyes and swept her hands through her hair, seeking control of the aggression rocketing through her nerves. She raised her hands before her in defense against his words, and she felt nothing. She was empty. Numb.

She was the little girl again, no longer a queen, poised before the fireplace and gifted gloves to hide her hands. She was the sister who locked her door and covered her ears to Anna’s pleas of friendship. She was the daughter who missed her parents’ funeral, too afraid to step outside these walls.

The fear was returning; she felt its icy hands sliding across her shoulders and climbing like spiders into her mind to darken her thoughts and string doubt through her life. She didn’t want to go back, to return to that weakness, but how could she not? How could she not go back when every word he uttered was truth?

She heard a sharp exhale of pain and opened her eyes.

Hans kneeled on the floor of the cell clutching his wrist as blood dripped onto the icy stones. The pointed spear of an icicle impaled his dominant hand.

“No,” she whispered in a groan.

She remembered Anna clutching her heart and collapsing to the floor. She remembered her scream as she stopped Hans’ sword, and the last breath she exhaled as her body froze solid.

Stomping forward, Elsa raised her hand to the lock of the cell door, gripped it tight against her palm, and in a flash, ice encircled the lock. She held tight until the force of her power made the lock crack. It dropped to the icy stone floor in two pieces with a clattering echo.

She shoved open the door and dropped to her knees beside him. All the thoughts of anger and hatred emptied from her mind, and all she knew was the panic thundering through her from the knowledge that she had hurt someone else—even if it was him.

“Let me see,” she whispered, more a demand than a request.

She grabbed his wrist and drew his hand closer to inspect the damage. The icy spear had penetrated his hand, but it was slender and long, more akin to the blade of a knife. She pinched the wider end of the icicle and pulled, drawing a cry of pain from him.

“T-the ice…” she stammered, glancing up to find his eyes glued to hers. “It’s already sticking to your skin.”

He swallowed hard, and she saw his Adam’s apple bobble in his throat. “Just pull it out.”

“I can’t.”

“You’re the queen of ice and snow,” he said with a delirious laugh. “It’s not like you can melt it.”

She found the strength to chuckle at his observation. “It will hurt.”

“I can handle it.”

She wound her fingers around the wide end of the ice. With her other hand, she pressed down into his gloved palm to keep his skin from lifting when she pulled. A soft tug drew more blood from the wound, and the heat of it seemed to loosen the ice ever so slightly.

“One pull,” he said, holding her gaze.

“One pull,” she agreed and yanked the spear from his skin.

It slipped from her fingers and shattered against the stone floor, already melting into a pool of water with deep red settling at its center. Looking to his hand, she saw fresh blood leaking across his palm and drowning the fabric of his glove in the river of red.

“I have to take off your glove,” she announced, and her words sounded so far away.

Just a week earlier, she would have panicked if those words were spoken to her.

She grabbed the hem of the glove with both hands and peeled it off. She dropped the white fabric to the ground like a lifeless shred of trash, and when her eyes fell upon his bare palms, she felt her breath catch in her throat.

The whole of his palm and most of the skin of his fingers were covered in scar tissue, puffy and pink.

He winced and curled his fingers inward to cover the scars on his hand. The tight fist pushed more blood from the wound, and it leaked in rivers across his palm and down his arm. He bowed his head, ashamed to bear the truth of another seeing his hidden scars.

She covered his fist with her hand, a tender touch, and eased her fingers beneath his, unafraid of the tickle of his warm blood as it licked at her fingertips. He glanced at her, a deep vulnerability unmasked in his eyes, and she held his stare as she eased his fingers to loosen and uncoil, revealing the incision that cut clean through skin and muscle.

She turned from him and gripped the hem of her gown. With a quick twist and a study grunt of effort, she ripped a shred of her dress free and draped the bright blue fabric across the cut. She wound it in tight circles until the injury faded from view. Once she was satisfied with the even layers of the makeshift bandage, she gently tied off its ends and tugged, ensuring a secure closure.

When she finished, she cradled his bandaged hand between her own. Her eyes flicked upward to see him staring at her with an intensity that made her skin shiver. Forcing a smile from her nerves, she withdrew her hands and sat back on her heels—all too aware of how alone they were and how close they sat.

In her panicked drive to help him, she hadn’t noticed.

“My brothers,” he whispered, casting his eyes to his hand.

The scars that engulfed his skin were highlighted against the pure blue of her gown scrap.

“Sometimes their jokes went too far.”

She found herself smiling at him, an honest grin that warmed her heart as brightly as the feel of his hand in hers warmed her cheeks. She stared into his eyes, and the green of his irises seemed so pure. Shades of summer, fresh blades of grass, blooming leaves on trees, the streamers in the market blowing in the wind: his eyes held every green hue swirled together, smiling back at her in a way she’d never known—in a way that made her heart forget how to beat.

But the light of his eyes faded, and she remembered the green of Anna’s coronation gown, the aqua of her eyes, the sweetness of her smile—a smile he almost stole away.

Elsa pinched her eyes shut and withdrew her hands in a rush. She rose from the dirty cellroom floor, not caring about the stray straws of hay that clung to her dress or exposed knee. She didn’t care about the savage tear in her gown that mimicked a panicked fight—a tear that would tell a thousand different stories but never the truth of its existence.

She retreated from his cell and lingered in the threshold. She dropped her arms to her sides with a sigh and let the weight of her worries drag down her shoulders. Unable to glance at him, she set her hand against the bars of the door while her eyes focused on the shattered lock lying in a shallow wave of water.

“I’ll send a doctor to tend to your wound properly. And I’ll order a new lock from the blacksmith.”

She almost laughed at the absurdity of her own actions.

“Until the lock’s repaired, I guess you’ll have the whole prison to yourself.”

Hans stared at her in disbelief. He had spit every nasty word at her that he harbored, and yet, she helped him. She offered aid when she could have left him to bleed. Why not send him to the executioner like she threatened? Why not end his life and her torment?

Why save him… again?

He drew his fingers across his bandaged palm and listened to the sound of her clicking heels as they announced her exit.

Chapter Text

Three long days passed in solitude. Hans woke on the fourth day when dawn peeked in through the narrow window, casting away the thick shadows of night. He groaned and stretched his aching back, wincing when stiff muscles in his right shoulder pinched. Sleeping on the hay-strewn stretch of wood was getting old.

After convincing the queen to accept his plea for redemption, he thought his cell-bound days would begin to dwindle fast. But he managed to crush his chances in less than four hours of freedom. Clinging to the hope that the queen would return seemed as pointless as wishing for another lungful of fresh, countryside air.

He sat up, mindlessly kicked some of the hay straws across the floor with the heel of his boot, and picked at the fresh bandage covering his slow-healing wound.

The only person who had visited him since the queen’s outburst had been a doctor; he returned every few hours at first to change the bandage and clean away any signs of infection. Hans had watched the doctor work, his frail, spider-like-fingers picking at his raw flesh with interest as he doused some miracle cure across his palm.

When the doctor made his first appearance, Hans knew Elsa wouldn’t show; only a set of guards joined the good doctor, and they loomed outside the cell in case he thought of attempting anything. The third time the doctor appeared, only one guard followed him. And by the fifth time, the doctor arrived alone, hunched over and cradling his bag against his sunken-in chest.

Hans was disappointed the queen never returned; though he also knew it was best to keep such thoughts to himself. The past forty-eight hours had been silent: no guards, no doctor, and certainly no Elsa. He assumed this was his punishment, his existence now—until the executioner came to collect.

Four hours of freedom cleaning the horse stalls, one mistake of accepting that sword, and then two hours of solitude followed by the fight that ruined his final chance at salvation: he proved his father right once again.

“A chance, Father. It's all I ask.”

“Kings don't beg, Hans. They command. They conquer, and they do so with a firm back, a steady hand, and a confident tone. You lack all three.”

“I only ask for—”

“Leave my sight, boy. You are not in line for the throne, and you never shall be. And I will not waste my energy and time coaching lessons to a throwaway. Now be gone!”

Hans sucked in a sharp breath and clenched his injured hand into a fist.

“No matter how many chances you have…”

He shook his head, frustrated at himself.

“...you'll always disappoint.”

He rose from the wooden slat and crossed to the narrow window. Thanks to his height, he saw all that the window was willing to show—which wasn’t much. Due to the location of the prison, built deep within the castle’s basement levels, all he saw was the licking waves of the water, the glimmer of the sun dancing across the puddle of blue, and the distant shoreline where Arendelle’s marketplace resided. And beyond it: the path to the North Mountain.

“Don’t be the monster they fear you are.”

He scoffed. How quickly those words disarmed her. How nice it must be to hear them spoken.

The familiar rusty groan of the prison door hinges echoed down the hall. Footsteps followed, but only one set. He smothered the disappointment rising to his throat and sagged against the cold stone wall. Funny; no matter how warm the summer looked outside, these walls were always like ice.

The black, patent leather boots and hunter green color of the guard’s uniform came into view from the corner of his eye. He barely moved from his post by the window, refusing to even offer the guard his attention—let alone the respect of meeting his eyes.

The familiar walls he’d formed around himself as a child were reforming, brick by brick, and fortifying their defenses. Walling himself off against others was the best way to stay sane.

“Prince Westergaard.”

He kept his eyes focused on the waves swaying outside. “She’s sending me to the blade already?” he muttered to himself.

“Her Majesty says you are skilled in masonry.”

Hans peeked over his shoulder and caught the guard’s gaze. “I am.”

“Good. Her Majesty requests your assistance at the south wall. Some loosened bricks have weakened the wall, and she wants them replaced.”

The walls around his mind halted their ascension; he could still see over them, still see the faintest rays of light peeking through the hardening mortar.

“She’s allowing me to stay?”

The guard lifted his shoulders in a uninterested shrug. “I’m to escort you to the wall and not leave your side.” He shoved open the unlocked door of the cell with a frown. “The Queen seems to have faith in you.”

Hans clenched his bandaged hand into a fist and set it behind his back. He cleared his throat and stood tall—prisoner or not, there was no need to slouch.

“It seems she does.”

The guard stepped aside, waiting for Hans to exit the cell. When he did, he marched toward the prison exit with the guard close behind, all-too-cautious of every step the prince took.

“It might be a good idea if you didn’t squander such strained faith.”

Hans bowed his head, understanding too well that this was another chance he shouldn’t have been offered, another chance to prove he wasn’t the monster in her head. And if he failed again, no matter how small, there would be no third chance.

There would be only death—or something far worse if the queen lacked the ability to fulfill her threat.

Like going home.

- - -

A knock sounded at her door, and Elsa called for whoever it was to enter. Though, by the strong aroma of almonds and vanilla and rich, black coffee, she assumed it was Gerda bringing her breakfast after she failed to show in the dining hall this morning. She was far too focused with too many thoughts rattling around in her mind to face others.

But Gerda typically entered quickly and quietly, setting the tray of food on the desk and shuffling away as she had done through all those years of Elsa’s isolated solitude. But the footsteps this morning were heavier, and Elsa never heard the door close.

She turned from her perch at the open window overlooking the south wall and found Anna tip-toeing toward her with a big grin on her face and a tray of food in her hands. The kitchen staff had made Kvæfjordkake, and Anna brought her a slice and a cup of steaming coffee.

Anna set the tray on the edge of Elsa’s desk, amid piles of papers and open books and a few half-finished cartographies of the north mountain. She studied the sketches with curious eyes before facing her sister.

“Is this what you do up here all these hours alone?”

Elsa shrugged but couldn’t hide her smile. “The castle still stands. Broken but repairable. Maybe I can restore it someday.”

“Maybe,” Anna said, “as long as you let me visit you.”

“Always.” Elsa strolled toward the tray and lifted the mug of coffee to her lips, invigorated by the smell alone. “Thanks for bringing this to me, but Gerda would’ve done it.”

“I know. I insisted. You missed breakfast.”

She drew in a long sip of the coffee. “I was busy.”

“Hmm.” Anna nodded but bit at her lower lip. “You also broke the open door policy.”

Elsa set the mug aside and sighed. “I’m sorry, Anna. I needed some solitude.”

“To stare out the window?”

“I was thinking.”

“Thinking?” Anna giggled. “Or watching?”

Elsa drew in a quick breath and exhaled it in a rush of words. “I’m letting Hans stay.”

She shrugged, seemingly indifferent. “O.K.”

“You’re not… upset?”

“I can’t forget what he did—or almost did. But I can move past it.” Her lips curled into an honest smile. “Besides, I think you’re right. If you want to offer him a second chance, then you should. Make something good out of this mess.”

Elsa released a shaky breath, unaware of how much stress had been weighing down her shoulders until now. “Thank you.”

Anna laughed. “Of course, silly. Gosh, you take everything so serious all the time.” She danced over to the window. “So what were you watching with such focus, dear sister?”

Elsa shut her eyes to stall the tears of happiness nipping at her eyelids. How lucky she was to have her sister’s support, her kindness and her understanding. She was offering forgiveness to the man who broke her heart, who offered her everything she desired and then carved his initials in her veins as he left her to bleed. And after all the pain and sadness he had caused, Anna was smiling; she was her old self again, and she accepted his need for redemption.

And Elsa’s need to help him attain it.

She watched Anna as her heart warmed beneath her ribs. She may be the younger sister, but she was the better one, the sweeter one, the compassionate one. Elsa couldn’t be afforded those same luxuries. She had to be stern and commanding. But it was nice to know her sister kept her grounded.

Anna kneeled on the padded cushions of the window bench and leaned forward to grab the ledge, peering down at the south wall with a knowing grin on her face.

“He may be a terrible person,” she mused in a low whisper. “But he looks alright without the jacket.”

Rolling her eyes, Elsa crossed the room intent on ending the ogling and drawing the window closed, but she glanced over Anna’s head to see the lone guard standing at attention while Hans kneeled before the wall.

He had discarded his jacket, and it's once pristine form—now torn and stained from his days in the prison—lay across the top of the stone wall. He had stripped away his waistcoat and scarf, leaving him in the plain white linen undershirt, his royal blue pants that hugged his form, and his leather boots.

Even from this distance, she could see the smears of mortar that stained his pants, his undershirt, and even his face. His auburn red hair was slicked back like always, but the sweat of manual labor had forced a few strands to disobey and hang in his eyes. He swept them aside with the brush of his forearm, picked up the spade, and continued smearing paste between the missing stones.

She noticed his bare hands; he had taken off the other glove. And aside from the bandage and caked-on mortar around his fingers, his hands were exposed.

Elsa pressed her hands together, feeling flesh against flesh, and she sighed, forcing away the rising panic attack. Going on two weeks, and she still wasn’t accustomed to the loss of security those gloves offered her.

“You think he’s kneeled in that much mud before?” Anna asked with a devilish chuckle.

“I don’t know,” came Elsa’s breath of a reply.

“I didn’t think he could sweat or bleed.” Anna nudged her sister with her elbow. “You’ve managed to make him do both.”

“W-what? How do you know about the blood?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe ‘cause of the giant chunk of fabric missing from your favorite dress, or the fact that you’re wearing one of mom’s old gowns today?”

Elsa frowned and plucked at the purple material at her chest. “You don’t like it?”

“It doesn’t really suit you,” she said with an honest shrug. “Note to the wise, Your Majesty: when you make a prisoner bleed, the guards talk about it.”

“I didn’t… It was an accident.”

Anna leapt down from the bench and raised her hands to the air. “Hey, I’m not questioning it. The way the guards tell it, he said some stuff he shouldn’t have.”

We both did, Elsa thought but knew those words couldn’t be spoken aloud.

“Anyway, you should get out of this castle today, Elsa. Take a walk or something. You don’t have to stay hidden up here all alone anymore, remember?”

She tore her eyes from the working prince and met Anna’s gaze. “I will. A walk sounds nice, but maybe later. I have some work I need to finish first.”

“Work?” Anna snickered and gestured to the open window. “Or ‘work’?”

Elsa scoffed, stormed forward, and grabbed the latches of the window panels. With a strong jerk, she pulled the window closed and locked it.

“Actual work,” she corrected in a harsh tone. “And I’ll work best alone.”

“O.K.” Anna nodded and backed toward the door, a sheep retreating from a wolf’s stare. “Can I at least leave your door open?”

She softened her lips into a smile. “Sure.”

“And maybe you’ll come down for lunch?”

“Of course.”

“And… maybe you’ll also change out of that dress?”

Elsa snorted a laugh, grabbed a pillow off the bench, and hurled it at her. “It isn’t that bad!”

Anna laughed and dodged the pillow so that it landed with a poof against the wall behind her. “I promise you it is,” she shouted as she raced from the room.

As her sister’s taunt repeated in her head, she sank into the chair at her desk and trailed her fingers across the stitched designs of the gown. Maybe the style was a bit outdated, but who was she trying to impress anyway?

She had no meetings today, no diplomats or politicians or handlers to meet with; no one who was partial to her attire or who would criticize her for perhaps slumming it in one of her mother’s oldest gowns—despite its age and dulled color and—

Maybe Anna had a point.

She sighed and found her eyes drifting to the closed window. She dismissed all brewing thoughts with a shake of her head, gathered up her pen, and set to work.

Chapter Text

Night had fallen; hours had passed since the sun dipped beneath the horizon, and still Hans worked. One spadeful of mortar at a time, he repaired the wall. Add mortar, smooth, set a stone, seal its edges, and repeat. The work was dull and boring but therapeutic. Each brick brought him closer to the wall’s completion, closer to his next task, and closer to his freedom.

“This is the least formal I’ve ever seen you.”

Startled from his concentration, Hans spun away from the wall to see Anna standing at his back.

His eyes went wide as he drank in her looming image, standing tall over his crouched form. The high, full moon cast her shadow over his face, and she became all he could see. She stood firm, her arms crossed tight over her chest, and a stern frown darkened her features, looking so alien against her soft beauty.

“Not who you were expecting?” Her frown eased into a smirk.

“P-princess Anna?” He rushed to stand, but hours kneeling before the wall left his legs numb to the true burden of his weight.

“Don’t bother,” she noted with a scoff. “I prefer you kneeling anyway.”

Her entire essence was a reminder of every mistake he’d made since setting foot inside Arendelle. The last moment that forced them to be this close was the day on the ice when he raised his blade to Elsa’s head and Anna slid between them. Her haunting cry from that moment echoed in his mind, drummed low in his heart, and shook his bones. He imagined he’d never live to see the day when its sound no longer pulsed through him.

“Did you chase off your guard?”

“He went inside for a short nap.”

“I see.” Anna curled her lower lip between her teeth. “I’ll make sure a replacement is sent out here to keep you company then.”

Hans bowed his head as his words left him. His quick-witted tongue, his tool of the trade, was silent, as was the hollow of his mind. He hadn’t thought of facing Anna ever again; in truth, he had hoped to avoid it. Pay whatever debt the queen demanded, and take his freedom.

The darkest reaches of his heart told him not to shy away, that Anna deserved what he had done. She needed to hear those cruel words, it whispered. She was naive, too innocent for the position she held, and far too quick to grant her heart, her love, and her trust to the first man who flashed her a handsome smile.

She owes you, his heart hummed in a low, baritone voice that made him clench his shoulders. You taught her caution. You taught her betrayal. You taught her strength. You revealed her for the victim-in-waiting that she was.

Hans raised a hand to his chest and squeezed his fist tight over his heart, burying his knuckles in the sweat and mortar-stained undershirt to quiet the destructive voice.

“What is it that you’re after?” Anna asked in a voice so soft, he wondered if he was actually meant to hear.

He rolled his head back and met her wide aqua eyes; within them, he saw only disdain.

“I’m not—”

“Save it. I will never again believe a single word of yours.” She unfolded her arms and discarded the disgust in her eyes. “What you’re doing here—this life debt you’re paying back with manual labor—it’s important to Elsa. She wants you to succeed, but you already guessed as much, right? I mean, you know she wouldn’t have accepted your bargain if she didn’t have faith in your ability to fulfill it?”

“The Queen seems to have faith in you.”

“As far as I’m concerned, I want you out of Arendelle permanently. The sooner you succeed, the sooner I’m rid of you.”

“That is something we both desire, Your Highness.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “It’s probably best if you just don’t address me at all. Somehow, no matter what you say, each word sounds disingenuous.”

He rocked back on the balls of his feet and watched her, then, and waited.

“Elsa cares about this little bargain of yours, and I care about Elsa. So you best not let her down.” Anna bent double and leaned forward until her face was a breath from his own—as close as they were the moment of true love’s kiss. “And if you do, know that the executioner will be the last person you have to fear.”

Standing straight once more, she smiled, returning to her usual bouncy-self; the harshness of her momentary behavior forgotten.

“Now,” she announced with a cheery smile, “I’ll fetch a new guard.”

Hans watched her stroll away, stunned to disbelief with the words he’d heard leave her mouth. He raised an idle hand to stroke the line of his jaw; she had punched him the day of the thaw and knocked him from the ship. The princess had a mean right hook; perhaps that willingness to fight had always been there, or perhaps he awakened it.

She owes you—

He gritted his teeth to silence the internal voice, cutting off its words. Such thoughts gave him no help now; they only clouded his mind and loosened his resolve, distracting him from the goal at hand.

But beneath its anger, a smaller voice echoed, whispering to him that Anna was right. She expected him to leave Arendelle, and he had agreed to the claim without thinking. Honestly, he hadn’t planned so far ahead.

Since the queen accepted his bargain, he had been acting on impulse, letting the situation drive him forward. He liked to plan, liked to study all his options. But it seemed Arendelle liked even more to break him of his habits. Everything he’d done since entering this kingdom had been spur of the moment.

Running into Anna, catching her before she fell, drawing her into the gardens alone: sure, some steps were well-timed and controlled, but every decision he’d made since proposing to Anna all the way to drawing his blade in desperation at Elsa’s back had been made on pure instinct, built on what he’d already observed, overheard, or just assumed.

And each time, his words had struck gold.

His mother insisted on a strong vocabulary for all of her sons, even the discarded extra. She preached: “A king is only worth the weight of his word, not that of his sword.”

Other skills he learned alone. He taught himself to dance in the silence of the stables with a pitchfork as his partner, humming the songs he heard drifting from the ballrooms he wasn’t allowed to enter. What footwork his sword training failed to enforce, he learned by climbing the hay bales, and he kept his fitness and his agility in check by scaling the rafters in the loft—the same place he spent many nights’ rests when returning to his room in the castle seemed too daunting.

His proximity to Anna, his ability to always linger nearby, his quick reflexes, and his sword skills: these talents had won over the princess and the dukes at first. His crafty words did the rest.

But he could never fool the queen.

Unless she was desperate.

In the cell, chained by the gauntlets built by her family.

Or on the ice when she knew her death was near.

The days of near tragedy had only just passed. Elsa offered forgiveness in the form of manual labor but not without some begging first. Anna clearly felt forgiveness wasn’t attainable. The guards seemed split; those who witnessed his handiwork at the ice palace were eager to forgive. Those who didn’t weren’t as willing.

And what of Arendelle? They loved their queen. Could they ever forgive him for what he’d done, even with her blessing? And if they could not, where would he go from here?

Surely word of his doings would spread like wildfire through the neighbouring kingdoms. Most would know his name before his face. He didn’t want to return to a life of cowering and hiding; what freedom was that?

What choice was he left with?

“Westergaard,” a stern voice shouted to him.

Hans closed his fingers around the handle of the spade, squeezing tight to ensure a firm grip despite the caked-on mortar between his fingers.

“Princess Anna orders you to turn in for the night. I’ve been assigned to escort you to your cell.”

There was no forgiveness here. There could be no forgiveness here.

Leaving, he thought with a nod and lifted the spade from the ground, keeping it low and hidden in the shadow of his body as the guard inched ever closer.

Leaving was his only choice.

Chapter Text

Hans watched the guard’s head bobble from side-to-side with each step. His face was unfamiliar; he wasn’t one who stood at Hans’ back at the ice palace. He was new, a young-faced idealistic dreamer who saw the best in the world.

The spade was heavy in his hand, and he twisted its handle back and forth, spinning it like a top between his fingers. The march to the prison felt longer than before; each step was slow and hesitant. When they left the darkness of night and glided through the shadows of the isolated halls, Hans’ muscles eased, losing some of their tension. They were alone now, secluded from eavesdroppers and gawking eyes. But he waited.

He followed the guard around a corner and down the stone steps into the bowels of the castle. Papered walls gave way to bare stones wet with moisture from the summer heat, and the heated hallways shifted into narrow corridors kissing frost against their skin.

Ahead lay the wooden panel door leading into the cells. The low hanging moon swept white lines across its surface, and the guard shadowed its light beneath his arm as he reached for the cast iron handle with a key in hand.

Hans brought his arms before him, turned the brutal spear of the spade into himself, and struck the guard in the temple. His body staggered from the blow, and his legs buckled beneath him, throwing him off balance. He sagged against the cold stone wall and dropped to the floor as unconsciousness lulled him into the black.

Hans drew a stable breath and released it slow. His heart was silent inside his chest, and his mind was void of all thoughts except one: run.

The spade slipped from his bare hand and clattered to the ground. Its hard collision with the stones echoed off the walls like beats of a drum announcing his escape.

Hans spun and ran from the collapsed guard; his boot heels slapped the floor with each step, scorching the soles of his feet within, but he ran until the stone walls retreated to wallpaper and the wallpaper bowed to the night sky. He ran over stones and carpet and fresh-cut grass, tossing up tuffets of dirt in his retreat. He streaked across the castle grounds, a blur of white beneath the watchful eyes of the moon, and when he reached the large wooden gates at the castle walls, he squeezed through the gap and stumbled onto the bridge.

The sleeping town lay before him, as silent as the prison he left behind. He stooped low at the bridge’s edge and washed the mortar from his fingers, revealing the harshness of his scarred palms under the innocence of the moon’s glow.

He snarled and curled his fingers into fists, sickened by their appearance. Rising to stable legs, he cast a final glance at the castle and swallowed what regret dared to rise like bile through his throat. What was done was done; there was no going back.

Turning his back on his redemption, he ran through the town, hoping to evade the reaching claws of the executioner’s grasp.

- - -

A ferocious pounding jarred Elsa from her sleep. She sat bolt upright in bed, her heart racing. Wincing against the blinding rays of sunlight streaming through her open window, she shoved aside the sheets, touched bare foot to floor, and ran to her bedroom door, throwing it open in a mad rush to halt the incessant noise.

“Your Majesty?” A panic-faced guard stood before her, pale and out of breath. “I’m sorry to disturb you. I-it’s the prisoner.”

Elsa swept her hair off her shoulder, too concerned by the guard’s hysteria to worry about her sleep-tangled hair or standing before him dressed only in her shift.

“What’s happened?”

“He escaped, Your Majesty. He struck one of the guards from behind on the way to his cell and fled during the night.”

She snapped her eyes shut. “The injured guard? Is he—”

“He’s recovering in the infirmary.”

Elsa steepled her hands together before her heart and met the young guard’s stare. “Gather a group of men. No more than five. Ready the horses from the stalls. I want a search party ready to leave within the hour.”

He bowed. “Yes, Your Majesty. And to where should we begin our search?”

Movement beyond the guard’s shoulder drew her attention to the hallway. Anna loomed outside her bedroom; her red hair messy and piled high upon her head. The sleep was gone from her eyes, replaced with dread.

Elsa cut her eyes back to the guard. “No one leaves without my order. And Albin, have a horse prepared for me.”

“You desire to travel with us?”

“To assure the right course of action, I must.”

He bowed again, embarrassed he had overstepped his place. “I apologize, Your Majesty, I—”

“Go and assemble the others. I’ll join you shortly.”

He nodded, firm and strong, and scurried from her sight. Once the guard disappeared down the hall, Anna rushed to her doorway, grabbing Elsa’s arm as she passed, and hauling her inside the solitude of the queen’s bedroom.

“What is going on? Since when do the guards beat down our doors at the crack of dawn?”

Elsa shrugged her arm free of her sister’s intense grasp and crossed to her wardrobe. “Anna, you need to stay here in the castle. Guards will remain posted at the gate while I’m gone, and I doubt you’re in any true danger, but please—” she cast a worrisome glance to her sister “—promise me you’ll stay inside.”

“What’s going on? Is it Hans?” She announced his name with a growl rooted in distress. “What has he done? If he’s hurt someone—Elsa, if he hurts you—”

“He won’t hurt me,” she spat, almost out of instinct, firing those words at Anna as if she were a pestering child arguing nonsense. The explosion of words made Elsa pause; she was… defending him, as if he were worthy of it. She had delivered the claim without much thought, but as she heard them now, echoing behind her, she realized she didn’t truly believe them.

At least, I don’t think he will.

But he had injured one guard; how badly, Albin hadn’t said. If Hans were willing to resort to violence once more, then he may be beyond saving. The last time he acted out such aggression, he had nearly taken her head.

Elsa drew a navy blue gown from the wardrobe and stepped into it, drawing its soft fabric around her body to conceal the shift beneath. She didn’t have the time or luxury this morning to wait for Gerda’s aid in getting ready for the day. Anna stepped forward without instruction and drew the ribbons tight at the waist.

Made of cotton with an transparent exterior layer of chiffon, the gown was elegant in its simplicity—one Elsa wore in her younger years. The pale blue of the chiffon was sprinkled with white stars like snowflakes drifting down to the hem at her feet where they piled high in arching waves of white. The deep blue ribbons Anna tied in place fitted the bodice to her chest, and the tails of the ribbon hung loose down the back beneath an open V that revealed much of her pale skin. The neckline of the gown hung off her shoulders and formed the arches of a heart at her breasts.

With a nod to her sister in thanks for her help, Elsa bent low and retrieved a pair of black leather boots from the depths of the wardrobe. With a pointed toe and lace closure, she tugged them on with ease and tied them in place, unsure of where today’s journey would lead her but assuming her normal heels weren’t the best choice for a chase.

“Do you believe it’s such a good idea for you to go?” Anna pinched her hands together and twisted them back and forth in her worry.

She brushed her hair and twisted its mass into a low bun at the nape of her neck. “He is a prisoner of this kingdom, but his release came at my word. I can’t sit by and do nothing while I send more of our guards to face a danger I unleashed.”

If he truly is a danger…

Elsa drew a stabilizing breath and crossed to her bedroom door. “I’ll return soon.”

Anna frowned. “What will you do if you find him?”

The queen faced her baby sister, her eyes wide with hesitation and worry. “I don’t know.”

She opened the door and marched into the hallway with her head held high, wishing the confidence she projected didn’t disguise a terrified mind. Too lost in her own thoughts of what lay ahead, she walked through the castle halls like a ghost, passing by servants and guards alike without so much as a nod or glance their direction.

Once outside, the blaring sun greeted her, and a hot breeze stirred the loose bangs framing her face. Albin approached her with four other guards close at his back. All five bowed in unison, halting her descension of the castle stairs.

Raising her hand to block the harshness of the sun, she peered beyond the guards to see five horses saddled and waiting. Looming before the horses was the dog handler from the kennel. He held the leashes of three gray and white Elkhounds, and the dogs sat at his feet, ears alert and tails wagging, eager for the hunt.

“Your Majesty.” Albin spoke, drawing her attention from the restrained dogs. “I thought the hounds might be able to ease our burden.”

He raised his gloved hand between them, and lying lax against his palm were Hans’ torn and discolored gloves—enough material for the dogs to catch his scent.

“Where should we begin, Your Majesty?”

She tipped her chin back. “Given how he made his escape, I doubt Hans stayed close by. The handler will travel with us to keep the dogs leashed until we reach the forest. We’ll pass through town peacefully; there’s no need to alarm the people. Then we’ll release the hounds and follow them through the forest and into the mountains until we find him.”

“And what is your order upon finding him?”

“What will you do if you find him?”

Elsa kept her head high as she descended the stairs and headed for her horse. “Let’s just focus on finding him.”
With a helping hand from one of the guards, Elsa mounted her horse, and once the guards were settled atop their own steeds, she gave the order to march.

Anna stood at the castle doors in her shift and watched the search party leave. Guards hauled the gates closed behind them, blocking her view of their departure. She sighed, low and long, and set one hand against her stomach to settle the unease twisting her insides into knots as a thread of guilt tugged at her mind.

“I want you out of Arendelle permanently. The sooner you succeed, the sooner I’m rid of you.”

“Why did you run, you idiot?” she muttered in a breath of sound.

Maybe the prince just couldn’t handle being caged.

Chapter Text

“Your Majesty, it’s getting dark. Perhaps we should turn back.”

Albin’s voice was a consoling hand on her shoulder, a hidden apology for their lack in progress. The kingdom was far behind them, and the skies were growing dark. The spaces between the trees filled with shadows, and the air around them turned cool. Howling in the distance reminded her of how far they had wandered, and a stillness claimed the night. Their footsteps echoed like thunder around them, and the shadows shifted, hiding the mysteries among the woods.

The Elkhounds lumbered onward, leashed and held in place by their handler. Their noses pressed to the ground, and ever so often, one hound would lift its head and redirect the group. The patches of trees and the deepening vallies looked the same in the fading daylight; it was hard to tell which direction they’d come from let alone where they were headed.

“We’re ill-prepared to make camp,” Albin pressed, his voice tense with the growing stress pinching his shoulders high. “The men and the dogs are tired, Your Majesty.”

A day’s journey had yielded no results. If they turned back as dusk settled on the horizon, they would waste two days only to return empty-handed. She could dispatch a larger group next time, but what would be the point? By week’s end, Hans would be long gone. His trail faded and untraceable, even by the best among the hunting breeds.

She wrenched her hands tighter around the reigns.

Maybe losing track of him was the best ending to this charade. He clearly didn’t wish to stay, to abide by the very rules he swore he would follow. The physical labor was beneath him, and maybe it reminded him of darker times in his life. But those were his offerings of redemption, the basis for his plea; she hadn’t forced such punishments on him out of cruelty but rather his own willingness.

And yet he chose to run before even a week of servitude expired.

Why, Prince? Why beg to stay and then flee the only chance you’re given?

With a frown, she faced Albin. “Lead us home.”

He nodded and halted his horse. Raising his arm skyward, he closed his hand into a fist, a silent order for the other four horsemen to stop. He addressed them quick in a low voice, and each guard steered his horse back the way they had come. As Elsa followed suit, she heard another howl disrupt the stable silence of the forest

She directed the horse onward, but she kept her attention on the forestline from which they were retreating. Her eyes widened when she caught sight of the dual golden eyes glaring from the shadows.

A gasp strangled her throat, and she kicked her heels against the horse’s side, nudging the creature to hurry. The animal responded with a quick dash, carrying her forward with determination. She wrapped the loose reigns around her hands and bent her body low to the saddle. Her five guards were some distance ahead, but they were still in sight, still in reach.

She dared a glance behind her, and the dual eyes had multiplied. There were three sets now, each glowing like a fire at her back. When the light of the moon waned just right, it glimmered off their slobbering fangs, glistening like the waters in Arendelle or the crystals she produced by hand.

She patted the horse’s neck and kicked her heels again. Terror rose through her body like waves lifting from the ocean; she needed to move faster, to escape quicker. And the horse carried her as fast as it could, no doubt pushed by the snapping jaws at its hooves.

A fourth wolf dashed out of the darkness and hunched low in front of her horse, separating her from the guards. Startled, the horse bucked wildly, jarring her body. Her legs clamped harder against the animal’s sides, and the leather reigns wrapped around her hand squeezed until her skin went white.

She tried to steer the horse around the wolf, but it was too frightened. It neighed, and the sound of its terror echoed through the trees. Ahead, Albin and the other guards halted their horses, only then noticing the queen’s distress.

“It’s O.K.,” she whispered against the horse’s ear, stroking its mane in a futile attempt to ease its panic while her own coiled tighter within her chest. “It’s O.K.”

To her left, more golden eyes flickered to life in the shadows. To her back, the original three wolves crawled forward; their teeth bared and jaws snapping. To her right, a steep drop disappeared into the darkness of a valley. And to her front, the fourth wolf closed in on the horse, seeking blood and fresh meat.

The fourth wolf leapt at her horse. The first bite missed, but the second connected. The horse bucked again, saving itself from the wolf’s jaws, but those jaws closed around the reigns instead. With a sharp twist of its neck, the wolf split the tanned leather, and the reign wrapped in circles around her hand loosened.

Her hands scrambled to make purchase with anything else. Her nails clawed at the horn of the saddle, and she gripped hard with both hands. But the fading heat of the day mixed with adrenaline coursing through her veins left her palms sweaty.

The wolf lunged at the horse a third time, and this time, its jaws connected. The horse bucked hard as those sharp fangs sank into its neck. The horse twisted all around, fighting for its life as it struggled to loosen the wolf’s grip and toss the savage beast aside. With the last burst of its energy, the horse bucked again. Elsa’s hands slipped from the saddle, and her legs lost their hold as the force of the animal flung her into the air, sending her sailing over the darkness of the valley below.

In her terror, she sucked in enough air to make her lungs explode, trapping whatever scream she might have unleashed in her throat. Nothing awaited below but an endless well of black.

She twisted her hips to the side, trying to control her freefall as best she could. She brought her hands together, wrists touching, at her hip, and she blasted a sheet of ice downward to catch her. Her butt hit the ice hard, and she winced from the impact. Her body kept falling, but at least now, the fall was under her control.

The ice beneath her formed seconds before her body passed over its path, and she lifted her hands slowly, guiding the ice to craft an upward arch that could slow her momentum before she collided with the ground.

The darkness cleared around her, and the tops of trees became visible. A heartbeat later, so did the ground. She lifted her hands quick to end the ice slide with a high enough arch to stop her, but the muddied ground greeted her before the ice had the chance to rise.

When the ice came to an end, she snapped her eyes shut and braced for the impact. Her body shifted from the effortless glide on ice to the rough terrain of the forest floor with anything but grace. Still moving with too much speed, she collided with the mud hard, thankful it wasn’t as solid as it could have been.

Her body bounced, and she tucked in her legs and arms on instinct, unsure of how else to keep herself alive. Landing on mud may not be ideal, but landing full-force on a sheet of ice was even less so.

When her body dropped out of the air the second time, she landed in a large pool of mud. The slickness of it propelled her body forward along a natural slide, eventually coming to rest at the pool’s edge.

Groaning, she lifted her torso from the brown pit and sucked in a deep breath; the first breath she’d drawn since being tossed from the horse. She drew her knees into her chest and lifted herself onto all fours. A quick internal survey told her mind everything was still in tact, still attached and unbroken.

Dizzy from the fall and light-headed from the crash, she managed to stand; though she did so on wobbly, untrustworthy legs. Her entire right side was caked in mud, from the tip of her hair to the toes of her shoe. She wiped her hand against the soft fabric of her gown to clear away some of the muck as she looked around to regain her senses.

Shouts echoed from the mountain. Albin and the others, she guessed. Even with the aid of the echo in the deep valley, she couldn’t make out what they were saying. She imagined they had seen her fall and were swearing an oath to reach her as soon as they could. She would only have to stay put so that they could find her.

Growls echoed behind her, wiping her mind of all other concerns or rationale. She exhaled a sharp breath before turning to face the noise. There, she found four more wolves gathering into a V shape at her back.

“Oh, no,” she breathed in a soft whisper.

Her hand dropped to her hip, and she clenched her fingers around a gathering of her mud-stained dress, lifting its hem from the ground. She bent her knees and sprang forward, launching her legs into a sprint. She held her dress high and ran; her figure of blue blurred through the trees. Her heart hammered in her chest, crushing her lungs with each violent impact. And she heard the wolves’ paws slapping the ground at her heels.

Narrowing her eyes against the wind whipping around as she ran, she extended her other hand in front of her. She turned her palm downward and shot a blast of ice onto the ground several meters ahead. Before reaching it, she jumped into the air and landed against its edge to ride it down the slow decline, granting her a breath of space between her ankles and the jaws of the wolves.

She cast another onto the ground, and the tips of its snowflake shape finished forming just as her shoes touched down upon its surface. Bending her knees, she lessened her opposition to the wind and picked up speed in her run; so much so that when she leapt off the ice, she had to keep from stumbling as her legs caught up to the motion.

She kept running. She kept leaping off one ice blast to the next, but despite her efforts, the wolves were still at her back, growling and hungry for her. But she had to run; she had to keep running. There was no stopping.

A flash of orange to her right caught her attention, and she looked to see a log of flaming wood flying toward her. It streaked through the air behind her, barely missing her head. She felt the heat of the flames against her back, heard a yelp of pain from one of the wolves, and smelt the smoke singeing its fur.

She spun around and planted her right foot into the ground to bring her body to a sudden halt. She bent her knees to balance herself, almost falling forward as the blind energy built from her frantic run slammed into her chest all at once. Shallow breaths emptied her lungs and refilled them fast.

She looked ahead to where she had seen the blur of orange slice through the darkness, and she saw one of the wolves consumed in a wave of fire. The beast coiled and twisted, seeking some form of relief as the flames melted its fur and chewed at its raw hide.

The other three wolves ignored their ally in pain and focused on the lone figure cast in black and silhouetted against the vibrant reds and oranges of a torch clutched in its hand. The figure blurred against the colors as it waved the torch from side-to-side with the speed of a whip, keeping the three growling beasts at bay.

As she watched, mesmerized by the figure’s actions, she realized the person was walking backward to her at so slow a pace. The stranger continued waving the torch and thrusting it at any of the wolves that grew too bold and dared a jump. When the figure reached her, the colors of its clothes became clear: dark, inky navy and a white jacket fading to gray.

He reached a hand behind him, baring a scarred palm to her eyes. He spread his five fingers wide and shook his hand, demanding that she accept his offer while he continued to thrash the torch back and forth.

“Take my hand,” he demanded in a voice horse with sleep

That voice… She was paralyzed beneath its sound.

“Take my hand. Now,” he yelled this time, his tone as harsh as the wolves’ intent.

She clamped her hand over his, and he held tight. He took off running at the same speed with which she was dragged to the earth from her fall. He cocked his arm over his head and hurled the torch at the wolves. It collided with one and lit its fur ablaze while the other two danced around it in their own frenzied and panicked dance.

As he dragged her across the plains, she struggled to keep up. She was so weary from it all; she felt the exhaustion deep in her bones like fractures. Her mind was liquid, swishing against the shores of her skull. She had no energy left, and so she focused on the only things she could perceive to be real: the shadows smothering her and the fierce grip of his fingers digging into her palm as he led her along.

Howls rang throughout the night behind them, and a daring glance over her shoulder showed no signs of the fire. Perhaps two wolves had been defeated, but the remaining two were hungry. And now, they were enraged as well.

Hans led her through the twisting paths of the trees, through multiple clearings, and through even more trees. Each obstacle blurred in her vision as they passed, until a lone log cabin nestled at the edge of a forestline came into view. Warm light glowing from the gaps in its wooden structure proved a fire had been built inside, and that this cabin had been claimed as his hideaway.

Hans jumped over the steps of the porch and yanked her over them as well. The door of the cabin hung open, a yawning mouth free of teeth but awake with the fire’s glow. He passed through the threshold and dragged her in behind him.

She stumbled to the side, and he released her hand to force both palms against the door and shove it closed. The first wolf slammed its body against the door, shaking the panel on its hinges. Hans flattened his side against the door and pushed while one hand dropped to the knob to click its lock firm in place.

The wolves growled on the other side; one pawed at the porch with its sharp claws while the other threw its weight into the door again and again, desperate to reach the prize inside. One violent shove fractured the lock on the door with a splintering crack, and Hans’ boots lost their traction. As the wolf continued to push, Hans’ body slid from the door, unable to combat the animal’s strength.

He hunched low, repositioned his legs, and gritted his teeth as he surrendered the last of his energy in one final upward thrust, forcing his shoulder into the door’s surface with such harshness that Elsa gasped from the impact. Hans huffed one harsh breath after another to ease his rushing heart. He couldn’t hide the wince of pain twisting his lips. The ache in his shoulder vibrated down his arm, numbing his muscles. His legs weakened, and his adrenaline left him.

But the door stilled. The wolves retreated, and Hans sagged his weary body against the door. He glanced at her to find her eyes already locked on his, and for the briefest breath, their hearts beat as one. The same terror beat in their hearts; the same relief flooded in tingles through their muscles, and the same reluctant joy teased smiles on their lips.

Hans cast his eyes to the ground, severing their contact. She relented in turn, and let her eyes drink in the small space; its wooden walls and dusty floorboards were covered in mismatched rugs of red and gold. A fireplace for the lonely winter nights sat in the center of the wall, and a healthy fire crackled in its bowels. A petite kitchen and table with two chairs rested to the left of the hearth, and to the right, a worn bed covered with patchwork quilts and a layer of dust claimed the space.

“How did you find this place?”

“Running,” he said, his tone void of any inflection. “Same as you.”

He lifted his weary bones from the support of the door and dragged one of the chairs from the table. He wedged its back beneath the handle as a preventative measure—or a last defense—should the wolves return.

He approached her at an almost cautious pace, and she raised her hands between them to keep him at bay, unsure of what he intended. The cramped space of the cabin felt even smaller with him so close.

He stripped off his white jacket that had long since turned a tarnished shade of gray, and he wound one of the sleeves around his fist. With a sharp yank, he ruptured the threads holding it in place and tossed the one-armed jacket to the floor. He lifted the fabric to her face and wiped at her cheek to clear the mud from her skin, and after each swipe, he withdrew the sleeve to reveal more and more of the white hidden beneath smears of brown.

Startled to silence by his actions, she stood frozen beneath his touch and barely breathing. It was as if he forgot himself in favor of compassion. Gone was the hostility and anger she expected to encounter, and instead, here stood the man who called her back from the darkness of hate, who spoke so kindly in a prison cell, begging only for help in saving the lives of others.

He never looked at her while he cleared her face, not once. He focused on the task; his eyes narrowed with concentration, and his mouth thinned into a line. That was the mask he wore when cleaning the stables and when repairing the wall; she was nothing special to him; only a task to be completed, a surface to be cleaned or repaired.

But his touch was gentle and light. Amid every other swipe of the soft fabric, she felt his knuckles brush her skin, felt the calloused tips of his fingers against her jaw, and she simply watched his eyes. Dark beneath the shadows of his furrowed brow and the dim light of the cabin, they rarely moved, so intent and focused, bending to the will of his determined mind.

He shifted and cut his eyes to hers. They widened and softened beneath her stare; some clarity rattled his mind then, reminding him of who he was, who she was, and where they were, and he stepped back from her quick, letting cool air sweep between them.

He tossed the muddied sleeve to the floor and kicked it aside. “At least you’re not hurt.”

Sinking onto the dusty bed for support, Elsa undid the tie holding her hair in a bun at the nape of her neck. Most of the strands burst free on their own from all the activity. She drew the mass of her pale blonde hair over her shoulder, cradling it close as a blanket in the flickering glow of the fire. With her other hand, she picked at the drying clumps of mud in her bangs, plucking them free as best she could.

Hans tossed another log onto the fire to hold back the cool night air. He stoked the fire with the cast iron poker then laid it to rest across the bricks of the hearth. Stretching his arms high, he crossed to the narrow space of wall between the chair-boarded door and the empty kitchen and sank to the ground. Drawing his legs to his chest, he balanced his arms on his knees and leaned his head back against the wooden logs.

“What do we do?” Elsa asked, her voice a low whisper over the crackling fire.

“Wait until sunrise,” he said, shutting his eyes. “And pray those beasts don’t return.”

- - -

Anna shifted against Kristoff’s shoulder and whispered incoherent words in her slumber. He smiled as he watched her stir and brushed her fire-orange hair out of her eyes with a feather’s touch. She wrinkled her nose in response, and he pursed his lips to silence a laugh that could disrupt her peace.

When she came to him midday yesterday in near hysteria beating her fists against the stable door, he feared he’d never get her to calm down. Her eyes were wide and wild, and her gestures were even more so. She went on and on about that… prince. Apparently, he’d skipped out on his duties and ran after injuring a castle guard—no surprise really, given his history.

Kristoff didn’t agree with the queen’s choice to keep him here, even as a prisoner. The prince should’ve been banished or killed for his treason; not harbored and granted a second chance, not after the things he’d done.

But, hey, he wasn’t about to say one word to Elsa. She was a kind heart; most of her errors were made out of love and protection for Anna. He only hoped the queen wasn’t being played for a fool, that her forgiving nature and kindness weren’t being used against her.

Considering the prince ran, maybe he wasn’t able to blind Elsa to his true nature as well as he thought he could.

Kristoff sighed and hauled Anna closer. Maybe it’d be best if the prince stayed lost.

A cacophony of shouts rang outside in the front courtyard. Careening his neck to see through the unshuttered windows, Kristoff saw the gates open and a gathering of horses dashed inside. Their riders looked disheveled and exhausted from the ride, but he noticed there was one missing among their numbers. There was no lady cast in blue, no queen at their side.

Kristoff nudged Anna, and she leapt up fast enough to startle him.

“I’m awake,” she yelled, popping her eyes open. “I wasn’t asleep. I’ve been awake all night.”

He laughed at the sight of her. Half of her hair lay smooth as silk against her clothes. But the other half was a tangled mess wadded up around her temple from using his shoulder as a pillow all night. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and wiped the drying drool from her chin as his laughter came to an end.

She blinked hard and focused her eyes on him. The humor had left his face, replaced with concern. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“The search party’s back.”

She was on her feet before he finished speaking, and she bolted from the room. She charged through the main hall, stumbling as her feet slid from slick hardwood to carpeted floors, and burst through the front doors.

Before her, she counted five horses—not six.

She lifted fistfuls of her gown at her sides and stormed straight for Albin. He saw her approaching and opened his mouth to confess, but her voice overtook his, pouring words from her lips with sharp anger and pinning him between an enraged princess and the horse.

“What happened? Where is Elsa? How could you possibly return without her? Did you just leave her out there? And what about Hans? Did you find him? Did he take her? Does Hans have my sister? What did you do? Why did you leave her out there all alone with him?”

Albin raised his hands in defense of her onslaught. “P-princess Anna, please. We did not find the missing prince, and we did not choose to leave Her Majesty behind.”

Anna sucked in a sharp breath and shrank away from him. “Then what happened, and how are you returning without her?”

“At dusk, we were turning back, but there were wolves. They spooked the queen’s horse, and she was thrown from it.”

Anna clasped her hands together. “I-Is s-she alright?”

“She was thrown into one of the valleys. With such low light, we couldn’t see her. Within an hour, we’d found a way down to her, but she was gone.”

Kristoff approached Anna's side and drew one of her hands into his, squeezing tight as he offered a gentle smile. No simple action would ease her heartache, but at least this time, she wasn’t alone to face whatever danger lay ahead.

“Elsa is resilient. Don’t forget, this is the same woman who ran into the snowy woods alone after dark to build one hell of a ice castle all by herself on top of a steep mountain.” He smiled wide. “I don’t think a little fall is going to slow her down.”

Anna set her jaw firm. “I’m going after her.”

“Your Highness, there’s no need for this again.”

“Yeah,” Kristoff agreed. “Remember what happened last time you chased after her? You almost died.”

“But something has to be done,” she argued.

“And it shall,” Albin said, battling her tension with calm clarity. “I’m going to assign a new search party to look for her, and they will be better equipped to stay the night and keep the wolves at bay.” He bowed his head to her. “I swear, we will find the queen, Your Highness, and we will bring her back safely.”

“Besides, you’re needed here. You and your sister need to stop making a habit of deserting this place.” Kristoff shoved Albin’s shoulder and chuckled. “That’s what guys like Alby are here for.”

Albin cleared his throat and eyed Kristoff with annoyance. “Yes. We are here to protect you, Your Highness. You must only let us.”

“But—” Anna gasped, trying to make sense of her panic-scrambled mind. “Hans is out there too. What if he finds her? What if he tries to hurt her again—or kill her?” She looked to Kristoff and nibbled at her lower lip. “He’ll have nothing in his way if he wants to finish what he started.”

He gave her hand another squeeze, wishing he had the words to wipe away her worries. But truth was, he was just as worried. He liked Elsa, and she had accepted him into her world easily enough. And her ice powers—whoa! He could watch her work all day.

But when it came to Hans, Elsa was too soft. For Anna’s sake—and her own—he hoped she was alright.