Part I: The Lover
Hans hasn’t been weighing on her mind.
In matter of fact, Anna has scarcely thought of him since her fist connected with his cheek, almost a week ago now to the day, although the smarting of her knuckles when she washes her face in the mornings still summons up an echo of the moment’s satisfaction in her chest.
Since the attempted assassination of the queen, Arendelle has been frantic with activity, and the royal castle has certainly been no exception. The thawing of Elsa’s magical winter may have reopened the harbour, but many of the docked ships had sustained serious damage to their hulls from the ice, making them far from seaworthy. Guilty still over her role in the incident, Elsa had been more than ready to claim responsibility, and had volunteered to oversee the reparations, resulting in a flurry of activity for the new Queen, her household, her advisors, and her sister. In between auditing meetings with the local guild of shipwrights, making frequent visits into town for receptions and reconnaissance, and spending as much time as possible in the company of another living, breathing, talking human being, Anna is busier than she has ever been.
Now that the castle gates are open, she rarely misses an opportunity to be outside them. Indeed, opportunities have been so frequent that Anna is beginning to suspect Elsa is behind it: from resolving a dispute between two neighbouring stalls in the marketplace one day to investigating an accusation of bread stamp forgery at Arendelle’s newest bakery on another. Less than a fortnight ago, Anna might have spent the afternoon in the castle gardens, or sliding down the long gallery in her stockings; now she spends it in the alleyways of the city, retracing her steps from the market square to the church to the waterfront, ostensibly on official business but more often just wandering, giddied by the hubbub.
Sometimes Kristoff comes with her, if he isn’t busy helping with repairs down at the harbour. Even when he is, Anna visits him anyway to bookend her excursions, keeping step as he carries timber to and fro in the mornings and enjoying a cold lemonade across from him in the downstairs of the hotel in the afternoons. Elsa had offered him quarters in the castle after they’d finally been properly introduced, but Kristoff had hastily declined, and Anna has gotten used to dropping by the inn whenever she passes through the square, asking after him.
With the fjord still functionally impassable, the atmosphere in town is at best bustling, at worst outright chaotic. Flushed with the return of summer, and their new Queen’s return to public grace, Arendelle’s townsfolk had unofficially decided to extend her coronation festivities, adding a general turbulence to the kingdom’s overcrowding. Though not entirely averse to the notion, Elsa herself had found the prospect of extensive celebrations difficult to wrap her head around. She’d sought out Anna’s advice in the first week following her coronation, to ask how she might show her tentative approval without appearing to ignore the hardships she’d inadvertently caused her people, or the work she was engaged in now in reparation.
“My advice?” Anna had echoed, sorry a moment later when Elsa’s face had wilted slightly, recalling the source of her sister’s astonishment. “I only mean—don’t you have advisors for this?”
But as it turned out, none of Elsa’s inner council had thought to transform the castle courtyard into a skating rink, so Anna had been useful after all. As for the market square, it was Anna who had suggested that the maypole be left erect, and there has been no shortage of eager young men and women taking up the ribbons ever since. Even now, with the sun beginning its slow descent into evening, Anna spies a pair of lovers loitering beneath its colourful shelter, heads together, completely oblivious to her passing.
Reaching the quay of the harbour, Anna looks out over the orange-tinted water, counting the masts on the horizon. It has been less than two weeks since Arendelle’s thawing, and unsurprisingly, the view is cluttered. At length, she finds her gaze lingering on the largest ship in the harbour, a majestic vessel belonging to the French dignitary, de Beaufort. Like his compatriots, de Beaufort had come to Arendelle in order to attend Elsa’s coronation, and found himself stranded following winter’s impromptu arrival. It was he who had offered to return Hans to his homeland after the attempt on Elsa’s life, although Anna hadn’t been there to see it. She had not even seen him emerge from the water after her punch, though she’d been told of his rescue by two fishermen, who’d pulled him ashore in their largest net and refused to untangle him until the guards had arrived to take him into custody.
Anna smiles, despite herself. The thought is pleasing, even if the fact of having it is less so. Because while Hans hasn’t been weighing on her mind in himself, if she’s honest, his deception of her has been. Even now, she feels strangely tainted by it, ashamed of her naivety and self-blaming over it, even while recognizing, intellectually, where the blame truly lies.
How could she have believed him so readily? Here on the quay, facing towards the water, it’s all too easy to remember the Hans she’d first met: the openness of his face as he’d helped her to her feet, the brilliance of his smile, slow and surprised, in the sunlight. But none of it can be believed anymore, not even the serendipity of their encounter. Had somebody told him who she was? Had he perhaps deliberately guided Sitron into her path? He’d seemed genuinely shocked to discover her lineage, but over the course of the evening, he had seemed a great many things to Anna, the vast majority of which had since been proven a mirage. In retrospect, there is simply no telling where his lies had intersected with the truth; no telling, even, if there had been any intersection at all.
At a distance, the town’s church bells have begun ringing, and their peals shake Anna out of her thoughts. Somehow, she’s wandered the length of the quay without noticing, right up to the base of a pier. It stretches out into the water on her right, flanked by a jumble of ships in profile, their bowsprits and rigging like a jungle canopy above. The impression left is cluttered yet striking, somehow reminiscent of the portraits in the parlour, and Anna steps out onto the pier without much hesitation.
Try as she might to ignore it, Anna knows this is a poor decision. But its appeal is mixed up in the picture-book quality of the harbour in the setting sun, and the painfully untarnished memory of Hans holding her hands loosely within his own. It seems important, somehow, to find the logic of his deception, in order to understand its application to her naivety. When she thinks of Hans now—which she doesn’t, often, because he hasn’t been weighing on her mind, not really—she can’t resolve the inconsistency of her memories: Hans, perched beside her on the balustrade, laughing; Hans, pinching out the candles with his fingertips; Hans, backed up against the ship’s railing, looking at her with confusion but no hatred. Perhaps, by seeing him again, she can find some thread to connect them, lay the mismatch to rest, and still make it back to the castle in time for supper.
Surprised, Anna stumbles slightly and an arm catches her by the shoulders, instinctively. Most of Arendelle’s guards have grown accustomed to her clumsiness, and though Anna doesn’t recognize the man in question, he is clearly no exception.
“Forgive me, I startled you. I only wanted to offer my assistance.”
“Thank you, I’m fine.” Blushing, Anna pulls herself upright and gestures a little wildly out across the water. “I just thought I’d—pay a visit.”
“Oh, the Juliette. Beautiful, isn’t she?”
He’s right: she is. The ship’s timber is a smooth, dark curve, tinted mauve in the dimming light of day. Its railing rises considerably higher than that of the surrounding vessels, and the ship’s three masts, too, loom over the others. It is beautiful, and at this angle, almost daunting.
“She’ll be setting off soon, I expect.”
“The repairs are finished?” Anna asks, surprised.
“Far as I know, there wasn’t much that needed fixing. Sturdy ship, and all.”
The revelation is strangely disarming: Hans will be gone soon, and he will leave any of her remaining questions unasked. The thought confirms her resolve, and Anna steps onto the brow with a distracted nod of thanks, grateful for the soft light of the guard’s lantern over her steps. It has been some years since she last set foot upon a ship, and when she reaches the Juliette’s main deck, she suddenly remembers why.
Anna swallows back the memory of her parents and turns to see the ship’s captain hurrying towards her.
“Capitaine Guillot, at your service. I’m afraid the Comte is not on board at present.”
“Oh, no—I’m not looking for the Comte. Actually, I was hoping…” She forces her hands down by her sides to keep them from fidgeting. “Do you still have Prince Hans in custody?”
The captain’s expression changes perceptibly. “In the holding cell, as per the Comte’s orders.” For a moment he seems to hesitate. “If I may ask, Princess…does the Queen know you’re here?”
“Not exactly,” Anna admits, and a sudden, surprising flare of guilt ignites within her. She tamps it down alongside her hands and draws herself up to full height. Unfortunately, this is still a good head shorter than the man standing before her. “But I don’t see what business that is of yours.”
Guillot ducks his head, genuinely sheepish. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to imply—that is to say—ah, over here, Princess.”
Without further comment, Guillot leads her across deck towards the ship’s aftercastle, to a spot where the portside panelling gives way to the iron of the holding cell. Hans is a dim but distinct figure behind the bars, seated on the far side of the bench with his head resting against the wall. As Anna comes closer, she realizes he is sleeping, his body sagged slightly against the opposing wall. The light filtering across him is dusky from the setting sun. It isn’t quite dark yet, but the empty space before her has already begun to take on a thick, cloudy quality. At a word from the captain, one of the ship’s hands scrambles over to hang a lantern on the empty hook by the cell door, and linger discretely after the wick has taken. Its glow creeps over Hans in small increments, and Anna watches him stir as it reaches his eyelids.
Hans raises his head to look at her properly, squinting slightly against the sudden glare. A bruise is mottling mauve across his right cheekbone, from where she had hit him earlier, and she can’t help but notice how it complements the flush of his cheeks in the lantern’s glow.
Now that she’s here, looking at him through the bars, her visit suddenly seems profoundly stupid, if not outright masochistic. What can she possibly be hoping to accomplish? Anna has never been able to trust a word from his lips, and she doubts captivity and dishonour have made him honest. Still, there is an inexplicable relief in being here, in seeing his silhouette and hearing his voice: a kind of reassurance of his existence, and the reality of his impact. Anna exhales once, slowly, and resists a sudden impulse to wrap her fingers around the bars that separate them.
It’s a cruel cell he is being kept in, not out of design, but in the way that pure practicality can be. Built as a temporary solution for thieves and mutineers, it offers little by way of princely comforts: a plain bench, two wooden buckets, and an unhindered view of the Juliette’s main deck. Elsa’s endless winter may have come to an end, but the nights are still cold, and they must be colder still in the blackness, alone with the sound of the water and unable even to see the stars.
“Is it a long journey?”
She means to ask the captain, but she’s still watching Hans as she does so, and he is the one who answers.
“Not especially. Twelve days, perhaps thirteen.”
His voice is polite and unhurried, as it had been when he’d first introduced himself to her on the harbour: Prince Hans, of the Southern Isles. Hearing it, Anna is reminded yet again of the easy grace of his half-bow, the crispness of his smile in the sunlight. She is careful to turn away from him before asking her next question. “When are you leaving?”
“As soon as possible, madame.” The captain is flushing slightly, having realized his error. “We weren’t expecting…the winter, so our stocks need replenishing before we set off.”
“And how long do you think you’ll be in port?”
“Couldn’t say, I’m afraid. We’re not the only ones restocking at the moment, so I’d wager a few more days, at least.”
“Thank you.” Anna loosens her fingers from their clasp at her waist to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, hating herself for the nervous gesture. “Can we have a minute?”
After another half-bow, Guillot gestures wordlessly at the eavesdropping ship hand and the boy scrambles to his feet and into the captain’s quarters, reappearing a moment later with a short stool held between his sun-tanned fingers. Anna nods gratefully as he places it on the floor beside her, reminded suddenly of Kristoff, before sitting down and smoothing out the skirt of her dress automatically.
“Thanks,” she repeats, a little awkwardly, caught between an attempt at regality and her own mounting nerves. “I won’t be long.”
“Take as long as you like, Princess. Not much for us to do around here now but wait.”
It seems to be true, if Hans’s patient silence is any indication. As Anna watches the captain retrace his steps to the brow, he waits peaceably for her attention, though she can imagine the fleeting opportunity her presence must seem to him. When she finally turns back to the bars, he speaks immediately, eagerness confirming her suspicion.
“I’m…surprised you want to see to me.”
“I don’t want to see to you,” Anna corrects, quickly. “I only came to speak with the captain. And—and I’m only speaking to you now because ignoring you would be childish.”
Hans nods understandingly. “I apologize. You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Anna. Whatever your reasons for being here—I’m just grateful that you are.”
Though expected, the act is surprisingly galling. “Excuse me, Prince Hans. I’ll ask you to refer to me by my title.”
“Of course, Princess. My apologies.”
“Stop apologizing,” Anna snaps, and he winces slightly and inclines his head. She sees him choose his next words more carefully.
“What I did is unforgivable—”
“Yes,” Anna agrees, cutting him off, “it is.”
“—but nevertheless, I beg you, Princess: allow me to ask for your forgiveness.”
Anna doesn’t say anything for a moment, examining his face under the lamplight. He still hasn’t moved from the far side of the bench, but he’s sitting straighter, his head ducked away from the wall and angled instead towards her. The light catches at the freckles on his cheeks.
“Well? Is that it?”
A pained expression flitters briefly across Hans’s face before his eyes widen with fresh earnestness.
“I am sincerely sorry for my behaviour, Princess. I acted rashly and selfishly, and allowed harm to come to both yourself and Queen Elsa.”
“You allowed harm?” Anna echoes, incredulous despite her lowest expectations. “You caused harm!”
“I-I caused immeasurable harm,” Hans agrees quickly, his voice low. “I can’t explain what possessed me. I can only tell you again how much I regret my actions, and any pain they may have caused you, and, of course, Queen Elsa.” He isn’t tilting towards her anymore, eyes on the ground, flitting up to meet hers only briefly. “I hope you will accept my apology, although I don’t expect you can forgive me.”
Any pain they may have caused you. Despite herself, Anna is momentarily blindsided by the defence Hans has implicitly chosen: all’s well that ends well. Is this what it looks like, ending well? She had imagined something different, somehow: a wedding, a confession, something binding, not an over-crowded dining hall and a lingering sensitivity to the cold. She had held Elsa in her arms, shared the first of many kisses with Kristoff, but she feels like a bell that has been struck, and is alone still reverberating.
“If you don’t think I’ll forgive you, then why bother saying sorry?”
Hans looks surprised by the question. “Because—I would like you to accept my sincerity,” he says, haltingly.
“Well, I don’t,” Anna tells him, crossing her arms across her chest. She wants to feel angry, but what she feels most of all is defensive. “I don’t even think you’re capable of sincerity.”
“I understand.” His tone is regretful, and irritatingly noble. “But if I may say so, princess, everyone is capable of sincerity. What reason do I have to be dishonest with you, under these circumstances?”
“The simplest reason of all. You’re not sorry. You have no regrets.”
“Ah, forgive me, Princess, but there you are mistaken.”
Anna arches an eyebrow at him, sceptically, and Hans straightens slightly under her inspection. Suddenly, she imagines him astride his horse, riding towards Elsa’s palace of ice with his sword drawn. There is a tapestry like it in her bedroom. Then she thinks of the redirected crossbow, Elsa’s own ice turned against her, the pillow and blanket and ornate shackles with which he’d furnished her cell after. How many times had he tried to kill her, under the guise of saving her? It would have been so easy to have let the bolt pierce her; it would have been so easy to have kissed Anna when she’d asked, and feigned despair at her still-cold lips.
“Even if I were the monster you think I am, do you think I wouldn’t at least regret the consequences of my actions? They’re the reason I’m in this cell; the reason I have no hope at all of winning Arendelle’s throne. I would have to be a complete fool to feel no regret.”
“Then that’s what you are, because I don’t think you feel anything at all.” It’s the first thing she’s said to him that she doesn’t believe. “You’re just—empty.”
“Frozen-hearted,” Hans remembers, flatly. His knuckles are white around the edge of the bench.
By now, the sun has well and truly set, and the corners of Hans’s cell unreached by the light have become pools of black that make Anna’s eyes ache. It occurs to her suddenly that she has no conception of how long she has been sitting here, talking and listening, trying to understand and failing. She has no conception, either, of how her stool has come to be so close to the bars.
With difficulty, Anna forces herself to her feet and drags her stool back from the cell door, allowing the deck’s larger sprawl into her field of vision. On the poop deck above, a shadowed crew member is moving starboard, dragging a wooden crate slowly behind him. She watches him till he completes his journey, trying to use the moment to regain her balance, and when she finally sits down again, Hans is watching her with a fresh calm of his own.
“May I ask a question, Princess?” Courteously, he waits for her to nod before continuing. “Why did you come here, really?”
Somehow, Anna doesn’t have the strength to repeat her original explanation. At length, Hans tilts his head into her silence, scanning her face through lowered eyelashes. If he feels any satisfaction, he does not betray it.
“You obviously don’t believe I’m truly sorry, so why subject yourself to further deception on my behalf? Do you honestly feel that guilty?”
“Me?” Anna says, shocked out of her stasis. “What do I have to feel guilty for?”
“Trusting me,” Hans says, and for once it is more wry than apologetic. “Falling in love with me after just one day. Leaving Arendelle in my care without a second thought while you ran after your sister.”
It occurs to Anna, a little vindictively, that there is no way for Hans to prove that she had no second thoughts.
“You didn’t do Arendelle any lasting damage.”
“No,” Hans agrees, looking a little surprised at the concession. “But I could have. I was a complete stranger, and you handed me the keys to the kingdom, that easily.”
I handed you a temporary Regency, Anna wants to say. And, more damningly, I didn’t think you were a stranger. She doesn’t say either.
“So?” Hans prompts eventually, leaning forward by his shoulders. “Am I right?”
“I don’t feel guilty,” Anna snaps, but it comes out sounding like the lie that it is. For a moment, she envies him. “I just—I just wanted to know why you were kind to me.”
It’s clear from his face that this is not the answer he’s been expecting.
“When—when we first met, that is; before you knew I was a princess.” She feels sheepish clarifying, and then angry with herself for it. “When there wasn’t any reason.”
“You really do see me as some kind of monster, don’t you?”
“Well, let me see.” Anna counts it out on her fingers. “You pretended you were in love with me, betrayed me and left me to die, and then tried to murder my sister. Yes. Yes, I do.”
Hans slumps back against the cell wall, his face half-hidden in shadow. “Very well then, Princess. Tell me: when you’re kind to other people, do you need a reason for it?”
“O-of course not.”
“Perhaps monsters don’t need a reason, either. Perhaps they just have more reasons to be cruel.”
Anna shakes her head, a little wildly. “No. No, you had a reason, I’m sure of it—I just haven’t worked out what it is yet. You didn’t even know I was a princess at the time. Did you?”
He ignores her question. “Even if I did have a reason, would it really matter? Would it lessen what I did after, that I was kind at first?”
“No,” Anna says, flatly.
“Wouldn’t that depend on the reason?”
“No,” she repeats, more firmly, and Hans sighs, theatrical with regret.
“I didn’t think so.”
Anna stares at him, appalled despite herself.
“Hans, what you did was wrong. And what you’re doing now is—is sophistry.”
For a moment, Hans looks insultingly impressed by her choice of word, and Anna has to break off momentarily to keep from screaming. Her throat is tight with fury, her hands knotting and unknotting in her lap.
“Maybe your word games count will for something in the Southern Isles, but here in Arendelle…if it didn’t mean having to see your face again, I’d want you stand trial here, and be judged by the very people you deceived.”
“Stand trial?” Hans laughs hollowly. “You really expect me to believe that’s what you do with traitors, here? I sentenced Elsa to death without so much as a discussion and none of your ambassadors even blinked.”
Anna squeezes her eyes shut in horror, but Hans doesn’t stop.
“And that’s the truth of it, Princess: I am not to blame, not entirely. Don’t you see? If I hadn’t named it treason, somebody else would have. If I hadn’t passed a sentence, another would have spoken first. She struck your heart, Anna. She cursed the kingdom to unending winter; defended her fortress with a monstrous creature that sent countless men tumbling to their deaths. Men who had wives and mothers and children. Although she meant no harm, the people of Arendelle still suffered. You still suffered.”
With difficulty, Anna uncurls her fists, her heart hammering. Through her tears, she sees Hans leaning towards her, entreating. He’s slid all the way down the bench now, his face inches from the bars, his eyes wide between them. A sudden hatred threatens to choke her; she stands up convulsively and almost falls over the stool as she staggers backwards away from him.
“Anna, I’m sorry, I only—” Hans’s face hardens, and she sees him change tack. “Is anything I have said untrue?”
Despite herself, Anna wonders. Could the tide ever turn so quickly against Elsa again? They had come to hate her in the space of an evening, without reason, and learnt to love her again in the time it had taken for the ice to melt. Anna does not doubt for a second that no one had questioned Hans’s accusation, nor his summary judgement. If Elsa’s actions can be called treason once, why not again?
“Probably all of it,” she forces out, and a single hot tear splashes angrily down her cheek. “Even if—even if it’s true, even if someone did—it would have been an accident. Elsa just isn’t capable of hurting anyone.”
“She hurt you,” he points out, not unkindly.
“That’s completely—you’re twisting it. Elsa didn’t mean any harm. And she certainly never tried to kill anyone. Nobody died because of Elsa.”
“Only because you left me in charge, Princess, handing out blankets and providing your people with food!” He is leaning so far forward on the bench now that he looks liable to slip off it. “If nobody died because of Elsa, it’s for the same reason that nobody died because of me—because somebody like you stepped in and stopped it!”
“That isn’t true,” Anna says, but she suddenly realizes she is shaking. “It’s completely different.”
“I even stopped her once,” Hans remembers, sounding calmer. “She was ready to kill Weselton’s men when I found her.”
“Does it matter?”
“Of course it matters. Intentions matter!”
“Then why was I kind to you?”
In the silence that follows, Anna tugs her arms around her chest, suddenly cold. Across from her, Hans is smiling, an eerie mismatch with the earnestness of his voice, and she wonders if he knows it.
“If I am a monster, then so is Elsa.”
Her voice is flat, but it doesn’t waver. Mercifully, her tears have dried in her eyes.
“I don’t know why you were kind. But I don’t care anymore. I hope—I hope they lock you up and throw away the key.”
“The key?” Hans echoes, with unmistakable derision, and for the first time, Anna hears a touch of bitterness beneath his veneer. “Oh, Anna. How are you still so naïve?”
For a moment, his eyes skate over her face, scrutinizing, as though genuinely searching for the answer, and Anna drops her gaze instinctively. She feels wrung out, as though every shred of emotion in her has been squeezed dry. At length, Hans sighs.
“Well, I don’t suppose it matters any longer. Farewell, Princess. I hope you’ve asked all of your questions.”
“Goodbye, Hans,” Anna offers, quiet and without emotion. She’s still standing behind the stool, far enough away from him that she would have to move forward to touch the bars, but close enough that she can see the sheen of his eyes as he inclines his head in acknowledgement. The line of his mouth is curiously crooked, one of its corner pulled low. He would almost look unhappy, if only the rest of his face were following suit.
Hans’s expression stays with her, etched in her mind’s eye like a painting, as Anna signals Capitaine Guillot back over. It stays with her as he helps her awkwardly down the brow—as though she hadn’t climbed on board herself unaided only hours ago—and it stays with her, even, as she makes her way back up to the castle gates again, her stomach rumbling.
As it happens, supper is an unusually quiet occasion this evening, graced only by a small group of foreign nobles whom Elsa is kept busy entertaining. For once, Anna is relieved. As much as she appreciates company, the evening feasts can be stressful things, filled with diplomats attempting to ingratiate themselves with Arendelle’s newest Queen through her younger sister. Tonight, Anna is more than happy to be left with the peace and the silence, to turn Hans’s parting expression over in her mind between spoonfuls, as he no doubt intended.
After the meal, Elsa knocks at her bedchamber door to ask after her day more privately and wish her a goodnight. It’s unmistakably a gesture, something Elsa has taken to doing ever since the thaw, and usually, Anna appreciates the significance of Elsa seeking out her company after a long day’s royal duties, but tonight, she feels mostly tired. She hopes Elsa can’t hear it.
“Oh, sorry.” Spotting her at the vanity, Elsa hesitates in the doorway. “I was just going to ask if you wanted to go for a stroll, but obviously you’re getting ready for bed.”
“No, it’s okay!” Anna lowers her hands from her braids, meeting her sister’s eyes in the mirror. “I said come in, didn’t I?”
“You did.” With a brief smile, Elsa pushes the door shut behind her and comes around Anna’s chair to face her properly. She’s already undone her hair for the evening, and it makes her look soft in the glow of the wall sconce. “Can I tempt you to a game a backgammon instead? Unless you’re scared I’ll beat you again.”
Anna glances down at the loose curl of her hands in her lap. Usually, she would be jumping at Elsa’s overture, but for some reason, tonight, the effort of it stings worse than its honest offering can heal.
“You know normally I’d love to, Elsa, but I think I’d just fall asleep on the board tonight.”
Elsa stifles a laugh. “Fair enough.” She pauses, shyly, obviously not quite ready to leave but anxious not to overstay her welcome. “What did you get up to today?”
“I went to see Kristoff in the morning. He treated me to a long rant about working with shipwrights.”
“I’ve told him he doesn’t need to do that.”
“I think he likes to, really…deep, deep down.” They laugh together for a moment, and Anna hesitates before continuing. “Then I went to the harbour, to—to look at the ships. It kind of seems a shame not to. I know they’re a bother, but they won’t be there forever.”
Elsa groans. “At this rate, they might be.”
Anna takes the bait, playfully. “Was today not what you would call productive, your majesty?”
“Not exactly.” Sighing, Elsa leans sideways against the frame of the vanity, letting a strand of her white hair twine across the mirror. “If Kristoff thinks the shipwrights are tough to work with…well, he should try negotiating with them.”
“Not a single one. It’s like arguing with a brick wall. Oh, they bow and scrape and call me your majesty, but when it comes to lowering their prices, I might as well be a seamstress, for all the attention they pay me.”
Elsa may sound flippant, but Anna knows the situation must be serious if her sister is complaining. With an effort, she drags her eyes away from Elsa’s errant lock and offers up her fullest smile. “Things will get better.”
Elsa smiles back, grateful. “I know. But it still helps to hear it. Thank you.”
“O-of course.” Suddenly uncomfortable, Anna drops her gaze back to her reflection. Their affection has become so formal, so deliberate. It no longer bears any resemblance to the easy friendship they’d shared in childhood. She had known, of course, that they had become women in each other’s absences, that they would have to start from scratch again because of it, but the pain of it is still somehow startling. For the second time today, Anna feels tears prick behind her eyelids, and resumes unpicking her hair ribbons with undue force, as though this can stop them from falling.
“Here, let me help you with that.”
It’s an effort to both hold still and fight back tears, but somehow, she manages. Elsa’s fingers thread through her hair gently as she loosens out the strands of Anna’s braids, watching her reflection in the mirror as she does for signs of pain. Anna watches back, unblinking; barely even breathing. There is a soft, bemused smile on her sister’s face, as though she can’t quite believe Anna is really here.
“There you are, all done.” She’s using her best big-sister voice, half-joking, and Anna’s chest squeezes again, painfully. “Are you alright, Anna? You seem a little…tense.”
“Me? No, I’m fine, really.” Elsa is still standing behind her chair, a single hand resting gently on Anna’s shoulder. Although no longer needed, Elsa continues to wear gloves sporadically these days, out of comfort and habit, and her touch reminds Anna, suddenly, horrifyingly, of Hans. If I am a monster…
“It’s just that you seemed distant, at dinner.” Their eyes meet again in the mirror, and Elsa’s brow furrows slightly. “I know better than anyone what that can mean. Is there something on your mind?”
“Is that why you came by?” Anna twists in her chair to look at Elsa directly, no longer able to keep the wound from her voice. “To—to check up on me?”
“I’m just worried about you,” Elsa defends, but she lifts her hand from Anna’s shoulder. “You’ve been through a lot lately. We both have.”
“I’m fine, Elsa. Honestly. Since when have you been such a mother hen—?”
She regrets it the moment she says it.
“Oh, no, Elsa. I didn’t—I was just joking, Elsa, honestly. I don’t—mean anything by it.”
“I know.” Elsa is still smiling, but it suddenly seems strained. “It’s alright, Anna, calm down. I know.”
“It—it really does mean a lot to me.” Anna stares down at her lap, brushing a curl behind her ear self-consciously. For once, she doesn't want to meet Elsa’s eyes; doesn’t want to search her gaze and see the pain she’s caused there.“That you find time for me, I mean. I know you’re busy, being Queen and everything.”
“Oh, Anna.” Elsa sighs and Anna risks glancing up. “It means a lot to me, too. Really, it’s alright. I think we’re both just tired.”
They look at each other for a moment, in silence, before Elsa stoops to press her into a brief and unexpected hug. Anna reciprocates cautiously, her arms light around her sister’s shoulders.
“Well. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
“Okay. Sleep well, Elsa.”
“Thank you. You too.”
Once Elsa is gone, Anna finishes her ablutions quickly and stumbles to bed with little fanfare. As usual, her sheets are still warm from the bed-pan, and she curls and uncurls her toes in sequence as her body’s temperature readjusts to the sudden heat. After a while sleepily examining her bed’s scarlet canopy, Anna rolls onto her side to watch the embers in the fireplace instead. They pulse in soft, candied orange, and Anna finds herself thinking of Kristoff’s half-eaten carrots, the sunset over the harbour, and the colour of Hans’s hair in the lamplight. She imagines her bed is a ship, and Hans is at the helm, steering. She dreams that Elsa is a siren, and that she is her victim.