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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.

“Princess Anna!”

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.

“My lady.”

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.”

“Thank you.”

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.

“Anna.”

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?”

“Of course.”

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.”

“That’s enough.”

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.”

“In self-defence.”

“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.”

“No.”

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.

“Hey.”

“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.”

“No concessions?”

“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.

Chapter Text

For the next few days, Elsa is already gone by the time Anna has dressed and made it over to her quarters. Hovering in the passage outside, Anna is at first simply surprised not to hear an answer, and then painfully reminded of previous times knocking at this door, also to no reply. Usually, she has no trouble stealing Elsa for at least a few minutes before the daily maelstrom commences—either by standing in for her attendant to help Elsa tie her hair up beneath her crown, or simply by following her through the castle on her way to her first appointment, chattering. Now, in the wake of their unarticulated argument, Elsa’s persistent absence seems at best suspicious, at worst prophetic. Either way, Anna is determined not to let the silence settle.

“Ludovic!”

Anna’s old tutor pauses midway down the hallway, his spectacles just visible over the pile of books and scrolls in his arms as he twists to locate the source of her voice. Confusion shifts into unmistakable asperity as he spots her, skidding over from Elsa’s door towards him.

“Princess Anna, I am very busy. What is it, exactly, that has you running through the hallways like an escaped hen?”

“I’m looking for Elsa.”

Ludovic shifts the books in his arms to look at her properly, and Anna gives him her most ingratiating smile. The severe line of his mouth weakens ever so slightly. Over the years, he’s come to know what Elsa means to her—mostly—and beneath all the gruffness, Anna knows he conceals a very real fondness for both of his students.

“The Queen is receiving petitions, at the moment.”

“Then after that—”

“After that she is meeting with the local merchants’ association to discuss making changes to import and export regulations. Now that Arendelle is once more open to trade from overseas, it’s vital these things be looked over again and kept up-to-date.”

“Then—”

Then your sister will be on the waterfront, I believe, bidding farewell to the Hungarian ambassador. After that—” he continues hurriedly as she opens her mouth. “—after that, I’m afraid you will have to ask her attendant, for I am not in possession of the Queen’s schedule. However, I am quite confident that Queen Elsa has plenty of duties with which to occupy her afternoon.”

Anna crosses her arms over her chest, stubbornly. “Fine. Fine, then I’ll—I’ll speak to her at dinner.”

Ludovic sweeps her a bow that is dripping with relief, almost upending his scrolls in the process. “I think that would be wise, Princess.”

Swallowing a sound of frustration, Anna eases her back against the wall as she watches her tutor go, trying to quash the stupid, blind panic in her chest. Nothing he has said is unreasonable. Elsa is busy, and although she’s never complained, finding a little time for Anna every morning must sometimes seem more trouble than it’s worth. Ultimately, Elsa probably just doesn’t place as much value on the ritual as Anna does. This thought is painful, but it is easier than considering that she may have alienated Elsa entirely—again—with her stupid need for everything to be perfect.

Finally resigned, Anna decides to take the rest of her morning at a slower pace. First, she returns to her bedroom to find a cloak—it could be high summer and the castle would still be draughty, and autumn is already creeping up on them—and check that she has no pressing engagements. It’s only around ten when she makes up her mind to go into town and take her midday meal at the inn Kristoff is staying in before passing by the harbour to look for him. Although he will probably be too busy to spend time with her, this way she gets to avoid the castle’s empty dining hall, and Anna is happy enough to spend the rest of her afternoon in the hotel by herself, if nothing else. The staff are perfectly accustomed to her by now, and she has come to enjoy her time there even without Kristoff’s company, basking in the familiarity and ease of their greeting.

Before the castle gates had been opened, Anna had been so desperate to be outside them that she had never truly considered how her social status might interfere with her search for companionship. In the solitude of her study, she had read story after story featuring lonely, desolate princesses surrounded by loved ones and suitors, and had found them hard to believe in. And so when Hans had first told her of his family, still in the lie of their courtship, Anna had felt jealous: with twelve brothers, two could ignore you, and you would still have ten left to talk to. Now, she wonders if Hans’s childhood wasn’t in fact lonely: buffeted from brother to brother, isolated in the middle of the crowd. For her part, it is still better to be out—still unimaginably, inexpressibly better to have the castle gates open; to always have company, if not always companionship. But loneliness is not so simple a hole to fill as she’d once thought.

The hotel is unsurprisingly quiet when she reaches it, the early sunlight filtering across its row of empty tables where the shutters have been thrown open. A waitress that Anna knows as Leda greets her cheerfully when she comes in, and Anna picks a table by a window, looking out onto the sun-dappled square as she waits. When her food arrives, Anna slips up to the counter to pay—otherwise liable to forget—and comes to a dead stop on her way back to her table. Kristoff is framed in the doorway of the stairwell, looking haggard and half-awake.

“Kristoff!” She moves towards him, instinctively, and he meets her eyes with a combination of pleasure and embarrassment. “What are you doing here?”

“I live here,” he reminds her, and he lifts her fingers lightly off his chest, where she hadn’t noticed she’d placed them. Anna slips them around the crook of his arm instead, and tugs him over to her table.

“Well, yeah, but I’ve never seen you here before midday.”

She narrows her eyes at him playfully, and a sudden, strange giddiness leaps in her chest as he drops into a stool across from her. He looks good, if disoriented; warm and solid and still smelling of sleep. It shouldn’t be appealing—the faint sourness of sweat on him, the pink imprint of his elbow fading on his cheek—but somehow, she finds it comforting: his aggressive humanity, and all the flaws it brings with it. Suddenly, her smile feels less forced, less of an effort to throw off an unsettling night’s sleep.

“Did I catch you taking the morning off?”

“You caught me taking the day off.” Kristoff steadies his cup as she pours him water, only just saving it from overturning into her food. “I was actually just on my way to see you.”

Really?”

“Really,” Kristoff confirms, with an arch of his eyebrow, and Anna grins, sets down the jug again and pushes her bowl towards him in offering.

“Hungry?”

He only glances at its contents for a second. “I don’t think so. I still don’t know if I trust you after you tried to poison me with that loaf full of sawdust last week.”

“H—how was I supposed to know—”

Kristoff throws her his most unimpressed look yet, marred only by the slight curl in the corner of his mouth.

“You used me as your guinea pig.”

“That is so unfair! Forgive me for thinking you might like to try something from the new bakery.”

“Mmhmm, the new bakery you just happened to be investigating at the time.”

“I was hungry and being considerate! Not that I expect you to know anything about that, with your manners.”

That’s a likely story, coming from the girl who polished off an entire birthday cake by herself…on my birthday.”

They glare at each other for a moment before Anna finally pulls the bowl back towards herself, hmphing, and knocks her spoon off the table in the process. Across from her, Kristoff frowns slightly. “Are you okay? You seem a little, er, giddier than usual.”

“Everyone keeps asking me that,” she complains, diving under the bench to retrieve it.

“Everyone?”

“Well…Elsa did, a couple of days ago.” Anna straightens and lays her spoon back on the table. Suddenly, she doesn’t much feel like eating anymore, and she doesn’t think it has much to do with the specks of dirt now stuck to her cutlery. “She’s—she’s barely spoken to me since.”

“Hmmm.” Kristoff sits back in his chair, expression thoughtful. “Do you want to go for a drive?”

“H-huh?” It’s not what she was expecting; but then she didn’t really know what to expect. Anna can’t remember the last time she told somebody about her problems, and actually had them respond to it. Or rather, she can, and that’s exactly the trouble. “A drive?”

“If you want,” Kristoff says, neutrally.

Her instinct is to decline: after all, the last time they’d gone for a drive had involved wolves and near death. Then she finds herself thinking back to the moment she’d first gifted Kristoff his new sled, the way he’d spun her around on the quay with delight, and the way he’d asked to kiss her after, and she hesitates.

Can we? It’s summer.”

“Not everywhere.”

Kristoff climbs to his feet and Anna follows him outside, over to the inn’s barn where he’s been keeping the sled for safe-keeping until winter’s return. Together, they wheel it out from the stall and onto the stones of the square. It looks pristine in the midday sunlight, a picture of temptation with Sven pawing the ground beside it, loosely tethered to one of the beams of the hotel’s patio.

“Okay, but we’re not clambering up into the mountains again. It would take us most of the day to get anywhere with enough snow, anyway.”

“That’s not what I was going to suggest,” Kristoff says, lightly. “You know, I think Elsa felt pretty guilty that I turned down her offer to stay at the castle.”

“It would’ve been nice to have you so close,” Anna says, without thinking, and her cheeks freckle red as Kristoff pauses slightly in harnessing Sven, his own nose pinkening.

“Anyway, the point is I guess she felt this might make up for it. People need ice all year ‘round, you know. And it sure beats boat repairs.”

“Sheesh, don’t let one of the captains hear you call them that. Anyway, what’s Elsa got to do with it? And where are we going, if not the mountains?”

“Somewhere you’ll need mittens.” Kristoff rummages around briefly under the sled’s bench before tossing her a pair, along with a hat that she pulls low over her ears.

“You’re really not going to tell me anything else?”

Kristoff settles into the sled with a shrug. “I wasn’t planning on it.”

“Fine, but you have to promise me something.”

“What’s that?”

With painstaking chivalry, Kristoff extends a hand to help her up, and Anna lets him pull her onto the bench beside him before answering.

“No wolves, this time.”

“What, you didn’t have fun with them last time?”

“I had plenty of fun. You’re the one who got mopey when your sled went up in flames.”

“Fair point, I take it back. It wasn’t fun at all. There was no fun. Zilch, zip, nada.”

As they pull out from the square, Anna can’t help but notice the sled moves markedly more slowly over cobblestone than ice, and with many more bumps than her previous excursions have led her to expect. It’s not quite uncomfortable, yet, but she’s still relieved when Sven picks up a lively pace under Kristoff’s urging, taking them swiftly beyond the town’s boundary. Out here, the sled’s wheels turn faster, lubricated by the remainder of the morning’s dew underfoot.

“Oh wow, okay. I had no idea this thing was so fast over grass.”

She’s leaning around the dashboard as she talks, watching the sled’s base skim over the ground, and Kristoff pushes her back into her seat one-handed, his gaze still focused on the road ahead.

“Fast enough for you to break your neck falling out of it, actually, so—”

“It’s fine,” Anna protests, but she resists the temptation to sit forward again all the same. “Anyway, not that this isn’t fun, Kristoff, but is there any reason I’m wearing this hat…?”

“You’ll see.”

“Okay, sure, but will I be seeing anytime soon?”

He actually throws her a look this time, half incredulous, half impressed. “You’re really not good with surprises, are you?”

“Never have been, never wi—ow.

The sled slides to a halt and Anna curls her hand around the curve of the dashboard, her eyes going wide. Without warning, the landscape around them has changed: from late summer—far from scorching but drenched in sun and warm air—to winter, still and sharp, with snow blanketing the ground and the trees like cotton wool.

“Kristoff—how did you—” Anna tears her gaze away with difficulty to find Kristoff watching her, smiling broadly. “It’s beautiful.”

“Thank Elsa,” Kristoff deflects. He’s looking a little pink around the edges again. “She’s the one responsible for all this.”

“Oh, I will.”

Truth be told, Anna’s only half-listening, still caught up in their new surroundings. Her breath clouds up in front of her nose with every exhalation before dissipating. Somehow, they seem to have left summer behind entirely in the space of a minute, with winter now stretching out in both directions as far as her eyes will allow. If climbing the North Mountain had been strangely beautiful, this place is equally so, in a different way. This winter is comparatively still and strangely pristine, the snow underground a sheer, unsullied, white, the snowflakes making their descent with a slow and graceful spin. It is breathtaking, and strangely bubble-like, almost like the inside of a snow globe.

“It’s so…quiet.”

Beside her, Kristoff makes a non-committal sound of acknowledgement, clearly picking up on her distraction. He tugs Sven back into a slow trot and for the next few minutes they weave wide, lazy circles around the clearing.

“So. What did Elsa say to upset you?”

“What?” Anna readjusts her hat clumsily with mitted fingers, dragging her eyes from their surroundings. “She didn’t say anything to upset me.”

“Then what did you say to upset Elsa?”

“Nothing! Why are you assuming we upset each other?”

“Because she won’t talk to you?” Anna turns slightly to glare at him, and Kristoff shrugs, placatingly. “Usually, when that happens, it’s because someone’s upset.”

“Well I’m not upset,” Anna tells him, and she’s grateful when he doesn’t contradict her. “And I don’t know what Elsa would have to be upset over. I…um, I may have been a little tactless with her, but she knows I didn’t mean it.”

And that was true, wasn’t it? Of course Anna hadn’t meant to sound like she still resented Elsa for all those years they had spent apart—even if she was still resentful, slightly. After all, she knew, now, the terrible secret Elsa had been hiding: knew that although isolated, she had not been suffering alone all those years, not in the strictest sense. That was enough, wasn’t it? This feeling would fade, over time, and until then, wasn’t it best to leave it unsaid?

“Are you sure about that?”

“Certain.” Anna rests her chin on the handlebars, closing her eyes against the occasional spray of snow thrown up by their passage. “It must be something else.”

As soon as she says it, it suddenly comes to her. There is really only one other thing it can be.

“Anna?”

“Kristoff, your parents died in an avalanche, didn’t they?”

“Hmmm,” Kristoff confirms non-committally, but he doesn’t take his eyes off the road ahead.

“Okay, so—pretend the avalanche was caused by an evil witch, or something.”

Although he still doesn’t look around, she can see his eyebrows furrowing. “Are we still talking about Elsa?”

“Just—go with it, okay? An evil witch caused the avalanche, and the avalanche killed your parents. Would you want her punished?”

“We’re talking about Hans,” Kristoff says then, not a question, and when he continues, it is deliberately measured: “Yes, I’d want her punished.”

They have never spoken about Hans before—at last, never directly. As far as Anna was concerned, there was nothing to talk about: Kristoff and Elsa had been right, and that was all there was to it. They had both warned her of the mistake she was making, and she had ignored them, and this was simply the price of it. Of course, it doesn’t escape her notice that if this is a competition for blame, Hans himself is most deserving of that trophy, but even at her most vindictive, she also knows she had no small hand in her own deception. And so, if sometimes the memory of Hans’s green eyes keeps her from sleep, Anna will not be the first one to mention it.

“I—I went to see him, a few days ago.”

In the moment’s silence that follows, Anna scans Kristoff’s profile carefully, but his expression remains unchanged.

“I wanted to ask him why he’d been so nice to me, when we first met. He didn’t…he didn’t even know I was a princess, then.”

“He didn’t know you weren’t a princess,” Kristoff counters, still carefully casual. “He was probably just hedging his bets. After all, it paid off.”

“But if that’s true, then it means he’s been lying all the time, Kristoff. Not just from when he got off the boat, or came up to the castle, but from the very beginning. If that’s true, he must be lying whenever he meets anyone at all, on the slim chance they could be royalty. That’s ridiculous.”

Kristen shrugs. “Well, okay.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what it says. Okay. Just…be careful, Anna.”

“You think I still have feelings for him?” She doesn’t know why she says it—it’s the furthest thing from her mind.

“No,” Kristoff says, abandoning caution to roll his eyes. “Of course not. He tried to kill you; you’re not that crazy.” He dodges her attempted swot, grinning, and some of the tension leeches out of the air. “I just think that maybe you, er, want to think he still has feelings for you. Or that he had them at all, in the first place.”

Anna crosses her arms across her chest; this time, she is the one resolutely staring ahead.

That’s ridiculous.”

“Well—okay.”

“Will you—stop—saying that!”

She punches his arm, then, and Kristoff jostles her back with his shoulder, and their ensuing tussle tangles up the reigns, jerking Sven to a complete halt. The sudden stop throws them both against the dashboard, unhurt but laughing from the shock of it. Anna’s still winded when Kristoff kisses her, surprising but somehow not unexpected, and she leans back against the lacquered wood and curls her arms around his neck until her mind goes completely blank. The back of her dress is damp with snow by the time they straighten up again.

“Well.”

The moment is just about to get awkward when Kristoff tries unsuccessfully to tousle the snowflakes from his hair and sets her laughing again.

“Here, let me.” Getting on tiptoes, more for the joy of it than any real necessity, Anna cards her fingers through his blonde locks until they’re clear. “There you are.”

“Mm. What made you mention Hans, suddenly?”

She frowns a little, surprised, still leaning into him.

“I think that must be why Elsa’s upset with me. You see, I, er, forgot to mention I’d been to see him.”

“You didn’t tell her? Why?”

Now Kristoff is frowning, too. Anna drops back onto her heels to meet his eyes properly.

“Do we have to talk about this now?”

“Not really.”

As usual, he grants it readily, all nonchalance and shrugging shoulders, but Anna can see that his concern hasn’t eased, and so she knots her mittens in his collar and kisses him again. He makes a startled sound when she releases him, and Anna blushes to her roots, her sudden confidence evaporating.

“Oh, um, sorry.”

“No, no. I’m—”

He lets go of her to sit back down on the bench—weak at the knees? He must be making fun of her—and Anna has just enough time to begin feeling truly embarrassed when he tugs her after him by the wrist. He probably means for her to sit beside him, but Anna, clumsy as ever, stumbles over his feet and lands sideways across his lap, blushing so hard she feels dizzy.

“Oh—”

“Sorry, let me—”

“No, really, it’s—”

Kristoff wraps a hand around her left shoulder, supporting her half against his chest, half against the loose curve of his arm. He’s somehow shucked off his mittens when she wasn’t looking, and his fingers are warm through the skein of her sleeve.

“Hang on a second.” He rifles under the seat for a moment before pulling out a grey blanket, which he spreads one-handed before dragging it over them. “Better?”

Anna hadn’t even realized she was shivering.

“Better.”

Beneath the blanket, Kristoff pulls her closer against his chest, shifting her weight gently across his knees. Anna twists slightly to look at him directly, noting the light pink patches on his cheeks. He’s nervous. Well, that makes two of them. And although it’s not perfect, the thought suddenly fills her with warmth for him, the same kind of warmth she’d felt earlier at the inn, and she ducks her lips to his again, for once without much thought. This time, they kiss for a long moment, long enough that Anna starts to feel dizzy again, but not from embarrassment. When she finally pulls back, Kristoff’s whole face has gone pink, and she imagines she must look similar. They blink at each other in silence, their faces inches apart, and for once, it isn’t awkward, despite their blushing. She wants to drink in all his features, wants to kiss the ridge of his nose and his eyelids—there is just no time for awkwardness, in the face of her feelings. Is this what it feels like, a true love’s kiss?

She has never really thought of it before, and it suddenly derails her. If Kristoff had kissed her—if Hans hadn’t lifted his sword for Anna to intervene—would the spell still have been broken? Would it still have been true love? Or would she be a statue of ice right now, arranged somewhere in the still-frozen castle gardens? In all that had happened, she can only be certain of one instance, and it was the one that didn’t bear speaking. She had been so relieved when she’d thawed to find Elsa still alive that the terror of it hadn’t struck her until much later: an act of true love, indeed.

But nobody had blinked, nobody had done anything save congratulate her. That very evening, Elsa had held her hands and guided her around the rink without hesitation; had greeted her every morning since with an embrace—the past few mornings excepted—as though touching Anna as frequently and for as long as possible might erase the memory of all the time spent apart. Every morning, it takes all of Anna’s willpower not to squeeze back too tightly.

“Anna?”

“S-sorry, I’m fine.”

“No, I’m sorry.” Kristoff suddenly straightens, the warm flush of his face fading. “You were telling me about Hans, and then I kissed you. Not my smartest move.”

Hans?” Anna echoes, because for once, it isn’t true. “No, I was thinking about—” My sister? She bites her tongue, feels her cheeks hotting up again. Using his knees as leverage, she clambers sideways out of Kristoff’s arms, and back onto the bench beside him.

“It’s fine, honestly.” She shrugs the blanket from her shoulders, gathering it up into a ball in her lap. “I guess seeing him—kind of got to me.”

She doesn’t need to say it to realize it—Anna has needed a sleeping draught almost every night this week—but saying it does make it real. Even the way she’s been thinking of Elsa lately, with as much anger as love and heartbreak, has been different; guided by the echo of his words. If nobody is dead because of Elsa

Although tempting, Anna has not made inquiries into Weselton’s men, or the members of the garrison who’d accompanied Hans up the mountain. Initially, wilful ignorance had been a shield, making it that much easier to disbelieve that Elsa could ever come close to hurting anyone, but now, ever since Hans provided the reminder, it only makes it harder to see why she ever thought the knowledge would change anything. What did it matter if nobody had been killed, if somebody could have been? If Marshmallow had not sent any men to their deaths that day, then it would be by luck, not design. After all, it was luck that had saved her and Kristoff from the monster: luck, and quick thinking. If the creature had backed them to any other cliff, any sharper drop, they might not be here now, shoulder to shoulder in Kristoff’s new sled—and Elsa would be the root cause of it.

It’s not that she blames her sister, though she suspects that is what Hans is angling for. The problem is, on the contrary, that she doesn’t, and that although Hans had been right—she had suffered—Anna had been right, too: intentions did matter, and Elsa had never wished her ill, while Hans had wished her a world of it. Perhaps they had both been cruel and kind by turns, but Elsa, at least, had loved her as much as she hurt her. In her dreams, it is the two of them in concert, siren and navigator, who lead her to a watery grave alongside her parents’—and they are dreams, not nightmares. Anna does not want to die—not consciously or otherwise—but she will follow Elsa to the ends of the earth, and even, it would seem, beyond it.

“I can imagine.”

Kristoff’s voice drags her back to the present, to the sled and the snow. Beside her, he is gathering up the reigns again, back to his usual insouciance, and Anna blinks at him sideways, reorienting. Whatever the moment had been, it has passed.

“But whatever lies he told you, the important thing is that you remember what he did.”

He didn’t do anything, Anna almost corrects, somehow annoyed by the argument now that she can guess at Hans’s deflection of it. He didn’t succeed. Instead, she brushes snow from her fringe and says, “He didn’t lie to me. Well, not really.”

“Not really?” Kristoff echoes, archly.

“Well actually, he lied a lot, because I think he can barely help himself, most of the time, but it was nothing I couldn’t see through. Anyway—”

And for some reason, it’s in this moment that the penny drops. Suddenly, Anna remembers him, his eyes on hers and the scorn in his voice—You really expect me to believe that’s what you do with traitors, here?—and the memory is blindsiding.

“Kristoff—they’re going to execute him.”

“What?” Kristoff blinks at her, the incredulous smile frozen on his face.

I hope you’ve asked all of your questions.

Sitting rigid, her fingers knotted tightly in the woollen blanket, Anna can’t imagine how she missed it. She had heard the bitterness snake into his voice at her mention of throwing away the key; heard his incredulity as he’d asked her, for once not entirely unkind, how she was still—so—naïve?

“I need to get back to the castle.”

“Okay, okay, hang on.” Kristoff leans over the dash to speak into Sven’s ear and they begin to move again, slowly at first, and then faster as they retrace the sled lines in the snow. Sitting back with a thump, he steadies the reins before turning to look at her. “Now, will you tell me what just happened?”

“I really need to speak to Elsa.”

“Did you say they’re going to execute him?”

For a moment, Anna simply stares back at him, hesitating. But there is no doubt in her mind, not really. That Hans had come face to face with her ignorance and chosen not to disabuse it is all the evidence she needs. It reminds her of the way he’d spoken to her of his brothers at Elsa’s coronation, dismissive: that’s what brothers do. He’d been wearing a different face at the time, but Anna had recognized the impulse then as she does now: in both cases, Hans had been handed an opportunity to manipulate her, on what might as well have been a silver platter, and in both cases, he’d refused.

“I—I think so.”

“Who, his family?” For a moment, Kristoff looks sickened. “Well, uh…that would explain a lot.”

Anna doesn’t answer immediately, turning back towards the front and shielding her face from the snow with one hand. They’re almost out of the clearing now, nearing the edge of the spell, a stretch of sunlight-dappled green visible just through the flurry.

The more she thinks about it, the less she doubts it. After all, where else does a thirteenth prince learn that life is cheap, if not where the heart is? He is only five years older than she, and yet he’d brought the blade down unflinching. Can five years really make so much difference?

Would they have made so much difference on her, on Elsa?

“I don’t think it explains anything,” she says, finally, and it comes out like flint, heavy on her lips. But if she has opened her eyes to what Hans is, she at least owes it to him to not be squinting.

“Whatever they did to him…it doesn’t explain a single thing.”

Chapter Text

In the end, they do not send Hans back to the Southern Isles to await judgement. Instead, they send him to the prison cell where he’d kept Elsa after bringing her down from the mountains, four layers of stone and three tapestries away from the room he’d left Anna to die in. For some reason, Anna visits.

This time, Hans isn’t asleep when she comes in, though she can’t be sure it isn’t the sound of the bolts being pushed back that has woken him. If it is, though, he’s moved quickly, as she finds him sitting perfectly still on the steps where the room’s only window had been. The cell has been hastily repaired since Elsa blasted through the external wall in her escape, the Queen herself sealing the makeshift exit later with a layer of ice, like an opaque window onto the fjord. It may not hold up to a battering ram, as the old façade would have done, but neither will it melt without Elsa’s order—and in any case, Hans is unlikely to force his way out from within his shackles, let alone through prison walls.

It had been no mean feat, convincing Elsa to delay the departure of the ambassador’s ship. Anna hadn’t missed the irony of her situation, skidding frantically down the castle hallways for the second time that morning, but at least this time, she was luckier: Elsa had already made it back to the castle, and Anna found her easily, dictating letters to the son of their father’s old secretary in her study. Her face had gone still as the surface of the fjord in winter at the mention of Hans’s name.

“You went to see him?” Elsa had asked, leaning the full length of her body against the door Mikael had just been sent through, as though her weight could keep their conversation from over-spilling. Even after everything, Elsa still prefers her doors closed; still takes her meals indoors and locks her bedroom door behind her when she turns in to sleep.

“No! Well, I mean, yes, but that’s not important, listen—they’re going to execute him, we have to do something

“What? Anna, slow down. Who is executing who?”

“His family—Hans’sthey’re going to execute him. So you see, we can’t send him back, we have to stop the ship from leaving before it’s too late—”

Whatever reaction she had been expecting, it was not the one she received: the bitten lip, the silence that followed it. It was not that Anna had expected smooth sailing, exactly. She has always known that Elsa will never step as surely as she does when it comes to the question of mercy. In fairness, Elsa has less reason to: after all, Hans had borne the sword down towards her neck, not Anna’s, while Anna can only really plead neglect. But did Elsa really hate him so much? Did Hans haunt her nightmares the way he haunted her own? For the first time, Anna wondered if she might not dream alone.

When Elsa had finally spoken, her voice had suddenly gone soft. “Did Hans tell you this, Anna?”

No. This isn’t like—I’m not being—if he’d told me outright, of course I wouldn’t have believed him—I’m not crazy, Elsa—but he begged for my forgiveness, without ever saying why.” She’d reached for Elsa’s hands, squeezed them between her fingers. “Please. Don’t send him back. Have him stand trial, here, in Arendelle—for the crimes he committed here, against Arendelle. What’s fairer than that?”

“That’s not a luxury he afforded me.”

“But that’s exactly why we have to. If we don’t, we’re no better.”

“And why should I care about being better?”

At the time, it had felt like a blow; now, Anna wonders what it was that had so thrown her—that Elsa should be so much like Hans, or Hans, so much like Elsa? In the cold daylight of Arendelle’s only prison cell, the comparison suddenly seems laughable.

On the surface, Hans is dressed roughly the way she remembers him, in the same two-tone tailcoat and power-blue gentleman’s suit in which he’d betrayed her. On closer inspection, however, the grimy assortment that he wears now bears little resemblance to the outfit in which he visits her dreams. His tailcoat has turned distinctly grey, the blues of his shirt and trousers a darker ocean-black. There is a large tear in his left cuff, and he is missing several personal effects: his lilac cravat, waistcoat, and silk gloves conspicuous in their absence. His thick grey overcoat, the one she’d seen him wearing as he crossed the ice to Elsa, is gone as well; Anna guesses pulled from his body after he’d been dragged from the fjord.

As she takes him in, his eyes lift to her face, and Anna steels herself and speaks.

“Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m here?”

“I—” He hesitates, and she can almost see him calculating. “I suppose I should thank you, for interceding on my behalf. Unless your sister…?” He lets the idea linger for a moment, painful, before continuing. “No. I can’t imagine Elsa has any particular qualms about receiving my head on a platter.”

“Stop it,” Anna says, somewhat terser than she intends. Mentions of Elsa tend to hurt; doubly so when paired with heads and platters.

“Stop what, princess?”

“The act. Pretending to be grateful.”

“I am grateful,” Hans tells her, with calculated slowness. “The change of venue is…very welcome. It’s the change of heart that I’m struggling with.”

“My heart hasn’t changed. And don’t—”

Anna’s hands are shaking, and she quickly sets her lantern down by the door to keep Hans from noticing.

“—don’t call me that.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Hans opens his mouth and closes it again; a display of awkwardness that might be endearing if Anna didn’t know Hans doesn’t actually possess any.

“On the ship,” he says at length, haltingly, “—on the ship, you told me to use your title.”

“And now I’m telling you not to.” Anna shrugs without looking up, keen to avoid his scrutiny. In truth, she’s not sure why she suddenly prefers his familiarity to his formality; ultimately, each is just as feigned as the other. “I think I’ve had quite enough of being lied to.”

“Have you really…?” Hans straightens up from his hunch to lean back on the steps, elbows resting behind him, stretching the chain of his manacles to their full length in the process. He exhales loudly into the silence, sending a smoky plume spiralling upwards from his lips. “Is that why you’re here? For the truth? You didn't seem to care for it much last time I was honest with you. Unless, of course, I was right…and you did have more questions.”

Blood rushes, hot and sudden, into Anna’s cheeks. She tears her eyes away from the links of Hans’s shackles and back up to the angles of his face, blazing.

“I didn’t save you out of—curiosity! I did it because I’m not a monster—and contrary to appearances, neither are you!”

It should astonish her, that he still has the capacity to insult her, after every other hurt he’s inflicted. Anna tries to regulate her voice as she continues.

“You’re a human being. Somewhere deep, deep, deep down. And I didn’t—I don’t want you to die.” Hans must be rubbing off on her, because even this, the bare minimum of humanity, rings like a vulnerability. She lets a little more of her fury rise to the surface, where he can see it. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you can’t understand that—that’s not really your strong point, is it?”

Hans doesn’t bother to defend himself, but a faint exasperation creeps into his voice, as though mildly inconvenienced by the accusation.

“And you still haven’t answered my question. To what do I owe this visit, Anna?”

Anna laughs shortly. “Oh, I’m sorry, am I interrupting your busy schedule?”            

“Not at all,” Hans replies calmly, as though her question had been in good faith, “but if I don’t know what you want from me, then I am hardly in a position to provide it.”

It’s an oddly reasonable statement, and it also strikes Anna as an unexpectedly and perhaps unintentionally truthful one: Hans views this interaction, like all others, as a transaction. The realization spurs Anna to a strange, reciprocal honesty of her own.

“I wanted to ask about your family.”

For a single, crystalizing moment, Hans looks unnerved.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me. Your family. The Westergards. You know—” Anna cannot help the disgust that creeps into her voice, and she’s not sure she wants to. “—the ones that were going to kill you.”

“To execute me,” Hans corrects, mildly. Any trace of momentary distress is gone, Hans’s brow creased with concern, as though genuinely confused by this line of questioning. “No matter how I feel about them—that isn’t murder.”

“Fine,” Anna concedes, impatiently. “To execute you, then. Why?”

“Excuse me?”

“Are you having trouble hearing me all of a sudden?” The sudden defensiveness of his politeness is emboldening. Anna steps closer, forcing Hans to raise his chin. “Why did they want to execute you?

“I believe execution is the standard punishment for treason.”

“But you didn’t commit treason,” she counters. “Not against them. You betrayed Arendelle, not the Southern Isles. Unless…”

Her sentence trails off into silence, and strangely, Hans doesn’t move to fill it, unusually expressionless. He doesn’t flinch, exactly, but after all this time trying to read Hans’s masks, suddenly the complete lack of one now is easiest to read of all.

“You didn’t come here to seize Arendelle’s throne in any way possible, did you? You were sent here to do it.”

It’s only once the words have left her lips that Anna realizes this is the question that Hans accused her of saving him for—and that she already knows the answer. The realization is blindsiding. She thought she’d come here to close a door, but instead, one seems to be opening.

Hans doesn’t answer immediately, dropping his gaze from hers to twist at the shackles around his wrists, more idle than unhappy. The angle of it leaves the back of his neck exposed, muted freckles standing in sharp contrast to the dappling goosebumps on his nape.

“What makes you think that?”

“Are you saying it’s not true?”

“Would it matter if I did?”

“I don’t know,” Anna blurts, with knee-jerk honesty, and Hans makes a sound she can’t identify, lost in the bow of his head.

“Careful, Anna. You’re seeing what you want to see again.”

“No, I’m not. I’m finally seeing what’s there.”

“And what is that?” Hans asks, with sudden disgust, and he’s lifted his face to hers again, the line of his mouth hard and angry. “That I was only ever doing somebody else’s bidding? That I was nothing more than an unwilling puppet in my family’s plans?”

This isn’t rage, Anna realizes—not like it had been when they’d fished him out of the water on Arendelle’s shorefront, dripping and fever-pitched with fury at having lost. But then, neither is it the cruelty that she remembers so well, that painful but considered tool that Hans had wielded against her without blinking.

No, whatever this is, Anna suspects it is more likely of wielding him.

“I never said unwilling,” she says at length, slowly. “I’m sure you would have liked it to have been your plan. But it wasn’t, was it?”

For some reason, the question seems to calm him.

“Oh, I see, you’re imagining they harmed me. How predictably romantic. Tell me, Anna, what did my family do to me, in your little fantasy of the poor neglected prince? Was it better or worse than what your sister did to you?”

The mockery is at once comforting and infuriating; safer, but also less significant for it. Anna takes a deep breath and grits her teeth, back to hating whole-heartedly.

“I know they ignored you.”

Do you?” Hans sneers. “If you think that, then you really are stupid.” He pauses a moment, for effect. “You see, unlike you, I have someone that loves me.”

It works: Anna drops onto the bench alongside her lantern, suddenly light-headed. “I don’t believe you.”

“Which time?”

“Either. It’s more—it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?”

Hans snorts dismissively. “Why do you imagine I’d tell you anything?”

“Because Arendelle isn’t the Southern Isles. Elsa won’t just have you killed. There’ll be a trial, and you’ll be treated fairly. But none of that matters unless you tell me the truth.”

“And how is that?” Hans arches an eyebrow incredulously. “Are you planning to defend me, Anna?”

“Defendyou?” Anna echoes, incredulous in turn. She’s feeling steadier now, and annoyed with it. “I wouldn’t defendyou if you begged me on bended knee. But I didn’t go to all that trouble saving your neck just so you could put a noose around it yourself.”

“Don’t worry, Anna, it’s not so much a noose as an executioner’s block in my case.” He smiles fleetingly at her expression. “Anyway, it’s not my neck you’re interested in saving, is it?”

It’s not an unfair accusation. Anna holds her tongue, and Hans studies her face in the silence.

“Very well, I’ll make you a deal. For every question you put to me, I’ll answer honestly—ifyou return the favour.”

Anna feels a strange shot of adrenaline jolt through her, half excitement, half fear. What does Hans care for her secrets; for their equal exchange for his own?

“How will I know you’re telling the truth?”

“Don’t you trust yourself to recognize when I’m lying?”

Hans shifts where he sits to lean forwards slightly, towards her, cradling his shackles against his chest. Surely he must be uncomfortable, sitting like this on the cold, damp floor of the cell, but a cursory glance at the tidy arrangement of the blanket on the stone bed tells her this is his preferred position: close to the ground, like a snake.

“After all, isn’t that why you came to see me on the ship, why you interceded with Elsa on my behalf afterwards, and why you’re here now, speaking with me? Because you imagine you understandme?”

Anna doesn’t contradict him. Even if she can’t be sure when he is lying, he can certainly tell when she is.

“Why would you be interested in me?” she asks instead, suddenly seizing the lantern’s handle to resist the nervous impulse to smooth out her skirt. “I thought I was an open book to you. What could a stupid, naïve idiot like me possibly have worth lying about?”

“Oh, I don’t know…perhaps your ice harvester?”

Suddenly, Anna is glad she’s sitting down.

“That isn’t a question.”

Hans cedes the point with a tip of his head. “Then allow me to ask a better one. Has Kristoffasked you to marry him yet?”

It’s the first time Anna’s heard Hans use his name, and the two syllables hit her like cold water, startling, setting every nerve on edge. For a moment, she wonders where Hans got this piece of information: who he asked, and, more worryingly, who told. Then she finds herself wondering what other questions he might have answers to, and quickly has to stop herself—if she’s going to go through with this, she’s going to need a thicker skin, and she might as well start here.

“Not that it’s any of your business…but no. I don’t marry people I’ve just met any more.”

“Really? What changed?”

Even from the other side of the cell, Hans’s smirk is unmistakable, and Anna has to bite her lip to keep herself from retorting. She should have guessed he’d find her new cynicism comforting; she supposes it’s a scar he left her, in a manner of speaking.

“My turn,” she says instead, with her best pretence at nonchalance, and it has the effect she’s hoping for, now that she knows where to look for it. He must suspect she’ll ask about his family again, because his smile has thinned, almost imperceptibly: he’s anxious, and she’s caused it. The realization gives her energy.

“If you’d succeeded—if you’d managed to murder Elsa—”

Suddenly, Anna breaks off, unsure where the words have come from. She had wanted to ask him again about his family, about their role in his plot to take over Arendelle, but somehow, it seems more pressing now to ask him something she can be sure of. That Hans is a liar goes without saying; that he will lie to her now, about this—when his honesty is the only game piece she has left to him—is less easy to predict.

“—would—would you really not have regretted it?”

Unlike her, Hans does not hesitate.

“I wouldn’t have regretted it at all. What would I have to regret?”

By all rights, it should be infuriating; should set her blood to boiling and her heart gripping cold again, as it had at Kristoff’s name, but instead, it feels like relief. Hans’s cool, murderous practicality is somehow easier to stomach than his venom and bitterness, for all that they hint at human depths. The Hans sitting before her now is as clear and cold as the shallows: there had been something to gain by killing Elsa, and accordingly, he had tried it. It should be horrifying, sickening, confirm all her worst fears about him, but her chest is looser now, if anything. She is not here to excuse him, but to see him like this, unvarnished—and to find out if, having seen him, she still has it in herselfto save him.

“Really?” Unwittingly, Anna echoes Hans’s own response to honesty, but where he was mocking, she is simply curious. “You would have found it that easy?”

He shrugs. “Not easy, simple. There is a difference. And it certainly would have achieved my aim.”

“To take over Arendelle? Was that really your plan all along?”

“My plan?” Hans echoes, as though amused by her wording, or perhaps simply pleased she’s attributed it to him and him alone. “I told you already, don’t you remember? It was after you came down from the mountain and begged me to kiss you.”

Anna has to clench her jaw for a single, cathartic second before answering.

“You know what I mean. Had you really planned it from the start? To marry me, murder Elsa, take the throne?” Hans inclines his head slightly, acknowledging. “Would—would you have killed me too, after?”

Hans tuts. “Really, Anna, I believe it’s my turn to ask a question.”

“Fine. Go ahead.”

“Do you truly believe I would have been such a terrible ruler?”

It’s a real struggle not to throw the lantern at him.

“Are you—do you really think—?” Anna breaks off momentarily, breathing hard through her nose. “I don’t care about that, Hans. I care that you tried to kill Elsa!” After a second, she thinks to add: “And me!”

Hans arches an eyebrow at her late addition, but surprisingly, he doesn’t comment on it.

“You really don’t care about the throne, do you? Didn’t you ever wonder what it might be like to rule Arendelle, had you been the eldest?”

“Now who’s trying to get another question in?” It’s petulant, and she hates that he’s backed her into it: bickering as though Anna has accused him of cheating at Klaberjass, not attempted murder. “You still haven’t answered mine. Would you have killed me?”

“I don’t know,” Hans admits at last, sounding for all the world quite reasonable. “That would depend, on how much trouble you gave me. In theory at least, there was no need for you to die.”

“But Elsa…”

“Elsa is your older sister. I was hardly going to go to all that trouble just to be prince of another kingdom.” For a moment, he almost sounds apologetic. “No…Elsa would have had to be dealt with, if I was going to win my throne. It would have been unavoidable. Inheritance laws aren’t exactly flexible.”

“Of course,” Anna agrees, snidely. “None of this is your fault. The thirteenth prince can’t inherit the kingdom he believes he’s due so he has to come up with more creative methods. It’s nobody’s fault, really; is that it? Just something that happens, probably.” She breaks off, trying to swallow back some of her disgust. “You know, if you were willing to kill for it, I’m just surprised you didn’t try first with your own family.”

“What makes you think I didn’t?”

For a moment, she is speechless, and then Hans is chuckling, softly.

“Still no less trusting, I see. You really do believe me capable of anything, don’t you?”

“Can you blame me?” Anna retorts, instinctively. The flare of horror in her is diminishing, but it’s left her feeling shaky, and she reaches for her next question unthinkingly, as a distraction. “What if—what if Elsa had agreed to marry you? Instead of me?”

“I wouldn’t have killed her in that case, if that’s what you’re asking. At least, not immediately. I suspect it would have been necessary, eventually; unlike you, your dear sister lacks something of your flair for self-deception. I doubt theSnow Queen would have remained tractable for long.”

“Tractable,” Anna repeats,dry-mouthed, and Hans meets her eyes again, thoughtful.

“By comparison, you were much, much easier. I almost didn’t dare to believe it. Do you know, for a time I even thought you might be lying about being Elsa’s sister? The two of you were so little alike, I couldn’t fathom that you’d be so gullible, and she’d be so suspicious. Then I realized you didn’t have the wit to lie about anything.”

“Lying doesn’t take cleverness,” Anna points out. “Just a lack of decency.”

“Well if it did, you wouldn’t know much about it, would you? Though, if you’d been less naïve, you might have been able to warn me of Elsa’s powers. That would have saved me quite a bit of trouble.” He shakes his head, amused. “You really do have quite the track record of being lied to.”

“What—” Belatedly, she bites her tongue; tries to step back from instinctive fury and see the accusation for what it is. “Why are you always doing that? Trying to shift the blame onto Elsa?”

“Because she is to blame,” Hans reasons, coolly. “For all your talk of fairness, you’re as blind when it comes to your sister as you once were when it came to me. Tell me, why should Elsa be held less responsible for the acts she almost committed than I am?”

Almost, Anna notes, almost committed. So nobody had actually died in the attempt to breach Elsa’s fortress. It should matter, but it doesn’t. She can’t damn or absolve Elsa on her luck—and anyway, it’s not Elsa she’s judging.

“Your acts are different,” Anna manages eventually, trying to match his indifference again. “Elsa was just defending herself, but you…you were ascending. Maybe you’re right, maybe Elsa could have hurt those men, but she changed her mind. You—of all people!—called her back, and she changed her mind.”

“You forget, Anna: I was there. I saw her. I assure you, the most your sister did was hesitate.”

“Well, it’s still more than you managed. You would have carved straight through me to get at Elsa, wouldn’t you?”

“Carved straight through you?” Hans repeats, and his sudden derision is staggering. “Anna—I didn’t even see you.”

There is no instinctive rebuttal on the tip of her tongue this time, and Hans continues earnestly into her horrified silence.

“Do you truly think that it was any different with Elsa when she struck you with her magic? That she didn’t strike out blindly?” His questions are rhetorical, speaking almost on instinct, spurred forwards by his own conviction. “Don’t deceive yourself—your sister’s aim is not so different from mine. She also wants power, control; the safety those things offer. Why else would she build a fortress? Is that so different from a castle? From a throne, from a kingdom?”

“I don’t—” Anna stands up compulsively, forgetting her grip on the lantern and almost overturning it in the process. She turns back to steady it and doesn’t look around when she continues. “It doesn’t matter what you want—it matters what you do.”

“By that reckoning, Elsa’s crimes rival mine; she froze your heart, and I attempted to stop its thawing. Between the two of us, I dare say, you came close enough to dying—but I alone am not the cause.”

“For the last time, I don’t care about that—I only care about what you did to Elsa—”

“Oh come now, Anna, we both know that’s not entirely true.”

It’s enough to make her look around, and what she sees surprises her. For once, Hans doesn’t appear to be mocking her; instead, something more akin to frustration is tightening the corner of his mouth and eyes. The sight makes her question come out softer than she intends it; shaken loose from her throat without momentum.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that if I couldn’t kill you unaided, neither did I have the power to harm Elsa by myself. No—you gave me that power, when you made me Arendelle’s regent.”

“No.”

“Yes. Don’t you see? You claim to love your sister, but you’re the one who endangered her. All so you could chase after your naïve fantasy of Prince Charming.”

“That isn’t true,” Anna protests, again, but her rage is still out of reach.

“Isn’t it? Why else would you accept the proposal of a complete stranger?” Hans’s voice softens slightly, though his words are no gentler: “You knew what I was, deep down, Anna. I asked you to marry me after one day; even you must have had doubts, questions. And yet, you chose to ignore them. Why?”

Something catches in her throat when she tries to answer, and Anna turns her face away again, watching the light of the lantern flicker.

“You knowwhy,” she manages eventually, haltingly. “I thought I loved you.”

“That’s not the only reason.”

“You know the other one, too,” Anna says, then, looking back at him, and a little of her anger surfaces again over the dull horror he’s submerged her in. This isn’t a question so much as an inquisition, a child pulling the wings off an insect. Hans isn’t asking to find out her answer; he’s asking to make her give it. “I didn’t want to be lonely, anymore.”

Hans smiles, but he doesn’t say it; that thing which they’re both thinking. There are your thirty pieces. Instead, he props his elbows onto the step behind him and leans back, watching her silently for a moment before answering.

“And I assure you, you wouldn’t have been.”

“Really? That’s your argument?”

“It isn’t meant to be,” Hans contests, evenly. “I’m simply trying to be honest with you—as you requested I be. Weren’t you happy, at Elsa’s coronation? Walking the parapets with your beloved prince charming? Do you imagine the act of our loving marriage would have been any less convincing?”

“It wouldn’t have been real,” Anna points out, ignoring the instinctive flare of guilt that sparks in her. “What I wanted was true love. Not your…playacting.”

“Oh? My mistake, then. I didn’t realize it was everything you dreamt of, falling asleep to the sound of Kristoff’s snoring.”

This new line of questioning throws her, and before she can recover, Hans continues, scathing.

“Tell me, how do you spend your time together? Does he take you ice harvesting, perhaps? Or do you go trekking across the mountainside to visit the mossy in-laws?” Hans laughs shortly, unkindly, fogging up the air in front of him. “Is it romantic, warming your chapped fingers over the fire across from him? Pretending to find it charming as he talks to that ridiculous reindeer of his? Is thatwhat your precious true love looks like, in the end—counting the seconds when you kiss him?”

In the silence that follows, Anna considers—for the very first time since she made the decision to board the Juliette—that she may have made a mistake. Perhaps Hans is a monster through and through after all, and there is nothing there that will allow her to save him. She opens her mouth to say as much and finds herself stalling; whatever was previously caught in her throat must now have taken up residence, because nothing comes out from between her lips. How can he know it, how can he know it,when she barely does herself? Kristoff is a blanket Anna wears when she gets cold, and somehow, Hans can see it.

“There,” he says at length, as though she’s spoken after all; as though her pallor is a statement he can answer. “Do you see? Do any of those things really come close to what you felt when I lifted your chin…?”

“You’re disgusting.”

Hans is undeterred. “Or do you think you would have guessed it? That I would have played my part to anything less than perfection? You certainly found it convincing enough at the time; I suggest that you still do. See?” He eyes the parting of her lips, her shallow breathing. “Even now, you’re taken in.”

For some reason, this is the accusation that breaks her. For a moment, Anna can only stare at him, speechless; then she is marching over to the cell door to hammer at it with her open palm, suddenly desperate to put all the space she’s previously closed back between them.

Of all Hans’s intimations, this the only one he didn’t need to put words to; the only one that already keeps Anna awake at night, divorced of his influence, a chimera of her own making. Knowing that Hans is needling it now deliberately is not enough to stop its sting. After all, loneliness has motivated her once before—how can she tell if it isn’t what motivates her again?

Behind her, she hears the jangle of Hans’s chain and turns back sharply to face him, pleased when he takes a step back, almost instinctively. He’s crossed half the distance towards her, but now he stops, manacled hands held awkwardly in front of him at an angle that is almost defensive.

“Don’t you dare touch me!”

If she’s taken him off guard, he recovers quickly. 

“I’ve no intention of touching you, Anna. The one comfort I have in this whole affair is that I no longer have to.”

“Then spit it out, whatever it is, because once I set foot out this door, you’re never seeing me—or anyone else—ever again.”

Surprisingly, her threat seems to hit home. Hans’s face goes very still, and it’s a long moment before he answers.

“Ah, now I understand. You’re here out of duty. And you think you’re done, is that it? You can go back to your castle now and get a good night’s sleep at last?” He laughs shortly, half to himself. “Well, I shouldn’t be surprised; you always were extraordinarily self-deceiving. But I am here because you put me here, Anna. You can no sooner leave me here to rot than you could ship me home to die.”

“I don’t have to,” Anna retorts, halting, hateful. “You’ll get a trial, and then—”

“Yes?” Hans prompts, contemptuously. “What do you imagine the outcome of that trial will be? You can’t really believe that Elsa won’t have me killed—while you may be stupid enough to trust me again, your sister is not such a fool—”

“Who said anything about trusting you? Anyway, Elsa would never have you killed—we’re nothing like the Westergards—”

And why should I care about being better?

“No? I beg to differ. Certainly Elsa and I share a remarkable similarity, wouldn’t you say? We’re both capable of things you would rather not admit; things you allowed affection to blind you to, but where you accept your sister’s justifications as legitimate, you claim that mine are irrelevant.” He sighs, theatrically, leaning towards her. “And here I thought you might come to forgive me, too; that your storybooks might be right, and true love might overcome all obstacles after all.”

Suddenly, Hans freezes, and it’s a performance being interrupted: his narrowed eyes going wide, his smirk in stasis, half-sketched across his lips. He doesn’t pull back, but his eyes dart towards hers, and for once, stay there.

“…unless, of course, it already did.”

For a moment that seems to stretch into hours, Anna forgets how to breathe. Were it not for her grip on the door’s handle she thinks she would sway where she stands, and Hans could not fail to miss that; as it is, her panicked inhalation is already too loud and too vulnerable to misinterpret. It rings like a confession, less a gasp than a choke.

“Oh, Anna.” It’s an echo in name only, soft and sad and stretching at the limits of his play-acted nobility. At long last, Hans steps back, and when his eyes meet hers again, he is smiling.

“When I said you were desperate for love, I never imagined it was this much.”