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Dark as Snow

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It rained on Anna’s wedding day.

 

This would not have been remarkably auspicious in and of itself, as autumn had long since turned, shocks of color dimmed to muted grays and browns, crisp, cool mornings supplanted by thick fog and cold rain.

 

But the sky was rolling-dark, gale-swept rain lashing at the crooked, repainted shutters of the old house that tragedy and neglect had long since turned into a fragile shell of itself.

 

“Mercy me,” Gerda, Anna’s childhood nursemaid, fretted as she checked the latches on all the windows, frowning at lintels gone spotted with mildew. “Such a poor omen for your beautiful day, dear.”

 

Anna offered Gerda a half-hearted smile over her shoulder as she reached on tiptoe to the top of her closet. “Well,” she said, offering up a noncommittal shrug, “it’s not like it’s never rained during a wedding, after all. At least the ceremony’s inside.”

 

Gerda’s lips tilted into a frown as she cast one wary eye out to the courtyard, the overgrown garden pathway sloshing with rainwater. “I must admit,” she began, scrubbing at a spot on the window with the drab grey sleeve of her housedress, “I’d had my doubts about such a small ceremony. I’d have loved to have seen you married in the garden with a host of family and friends…” Her aged features softened. “…like your mother was.”

 

Anna closed her eyes for a moment as her fingers brushed the edge of the box on the high shelf within her closet. “But she’s not here.”

 

Gerda was quiet. “No, she’s not,” she said, after a long moment.

 

“Is the other one?”

 

Gerda sighed, watching as Anna’s features darkened and she struggled to retrieve the large box, hefting its weight in her arms. “I hardly think it’s fair to refer to your sister as ‘the other one,’ Anna,” she said, chastising.

 

Anna dropped the box to her feet and leaned hard against her closet doorframe. “Is she coming out today?” she asked, voice thick, averting her eyes.

 

“She said she would.”

 

“She’s said that lots of times.”

 

Gerda sighed, reaching out to cup Anna’s cheek with one age-softened hand. “Be kind to her, Anna,” she said softly. “This isn’t easy for her.”

 

A knock sounded from downstairs, and Anna’s eyes shot to the door before she hurried to open the box, eyes narrowed, biting her lip in concentration.

 

“Don’t worry, dear, it won’t be him yet. You’ve plenty of time before you find yourself beside that handsome man of yours.” She patted Anna’s hand before slipping from the room, quietly closing the door behind her.

 

Anna stared at the closed door for a long moment before sighing and awkwardly lifting up the box, letting out a quiet “oof” as she settled it onto her bed and lifted off the top.

 

Even the box was beautifully-made, painted white and inlaid with gold leaf, its contents wrapped in thick paper. Anna reached in with trembling hands and lifted out the gown within it, laying it across her bed. It was a magnificent creation, all pure-white silk and lace, the bodice inlaid with thousands of tiny seed-pearls, detailed to the stitch.

 

It seemed exquisite, far more the raiment of a queen than a poor, lonely girl left alone to the shadows.

 

But then, Anna thought, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes as a soft smile pushed at her lips, that’s what fairytale endings were all about.

 

And oh, how she’d suffered for hers.

 

—-

 

She wondered if it would have been easier if she’d been just a bit younger, too young to remember how things had been Before, if she’d only ever known the ways things were in the After.

 

But she did remember.

 

She remembered Sunday horseback rides and lively picnics, Mother’s smile and Father’s hugs, clutching large hands as she laughed joyously and dipped her baby feet into the cool water of the nearby stream, sinking her toes into the thick silt beneath.

 

And… she remembered Elsa.

 

Elsa, with her bright eyes and her hair unbound as she rode across the field astride the snow-white pony Father and Mother had given her for her birthday.

 

 

Elsa, smiling wide and white as she sat at the piano and deftly conjured sweet melodies from the keys.

 

Elsa, laughing and tickling nimble fingers against her younger sister’s little ribs, grinning as Anna laughed with her.

 

Elsa, hoisting her up into a piggyback and carrying her around the house as Anna shrieked in delight and spurred her on.

 

Elsa, letting Anna balance on her shoulders as they sneaked into the kitchen in search of the sweets Gerda knowingly hid far at the top of the cupboard.

 

Elsa, ecstatically helping her unwrap the new dolls Father would bring home from his trips overseas, brushing their hair together and sharing their outfits, taking them with them to the field and bringing them on all their adventures.

 

And Elsa…

 

Elsa’s eyes growing dimmer.

 

Elsa retreating into herself, lying motionless in her bed as the days and weeks turned.

 

Elsa, insisting that nothing was wrong for days at a time.

 

Elsa, locking her door even as Anna curled up outside it and plaintively called for her to play, to tell her what was wrong.

 

Elsa, crying as Mother and Father carried her down to the sitting room, exchanging worried glances as a stern-looking physician looked into her eyes, took her pulse, and finally, took her with him.

 

Anna had been so little then, only scarcely a child, but she’d wailed and thrown herself against Elsa, tried to pull her back and away, to keep her safe, but Mother and Father had gently pulled her back, held her close, stroked her hair as she cried and the front door closed.

 

“It’ll be all right, Anna,” Mother had said, and Anna didn’t understand why she was crying, too.

 

“Where is she going?” Anna wept, turning her face in against the shoulder of Mother’s dress, her own shoulders heaving with great, gasping sobs.

 

Father came to their side, stroked one hand over Anna’s hair. “To a place where…” He looked to the door, eyes tight and pained. “…where maybe they can help her.” He leaned down and pressed a kiss to Anna’s temple, to Mother’s cheek. “She’ll be back soon, Anna. It’ll be just like before, you’ll see.”

 

But the months had turned, verdant summer to brittle fall to deep, bitter winter.

 

Anna sat with her dolls by the window, halfheartedly attempting to formulate grand stories and adventures alone.

 

She’d look to Elsa’s doll, clutch it close and weep.  

 

—-

 

Anna held the dress close to her small frame, letting it trail and drape along the floor, running her fingers over the exquisite embroidery.

 

Turning to regard herself in the large pier glass, she dropped her head to her shoulder and allowed herself the adoring sigh she’d been holding back all morning.

 

Short notice, dearest, Hans’s note had read when the box had arrived a week earlier, but I hope you’ll find it to your liking.

 

“Oh Hans,” Anna said coyly to her reflection, settling the dress along her front and offering the mirror a come-hither stare, “you do so spoil me.”

 

Wrapping her arms tightly around herself, Anna fell into her bed, dress and all, laughing deliriously.

 

Mrs. Westergard.

 

Lady Westergard.

 

It seemed almost too much to have wished for. Too good to be true.

 

But, Anna supposed, propping her head up on her hand and smiling at her reflection, perhaps true love always was.

 

Something metallic clinked within the box as her foot kicked against it, and Anna leaned up and pulled it close, frowning as she pushed aside the extraneous packaging. There was the veil he had chosen for her (front piece and all, he’d assured her, in deference to her purity, and a strange warmth shot through her at the thought of her wedding night, of warm fingertips against her skin, of her husband — her husband — holding her close in the night), soft slippers, and…

 

Ah, there. Anna’s eyes widened as she lifted out the ornate ruby necklace from within the box, a wide, twisting band of white gold inlaid with dozens of glittering, faceted stones that caught the light like deep red wine as she tilted the necklace in her hand.

 

There was a note with it, written on thick parchment in a familiar copperplate hand.

 

Soon, love, it read, and Anna felt her heart flutter as she set the note down and fastened the necklace around her pale throat.

 

“Is that from him?” a soft voice said from behind her, and Anna turned too quickly, wincing at the bite of the stones against her skin.

 

Elsa stood in the doorway, hair neatly braided, clad in a freshly-laundered and pressed dove-grey gown.

 

“…yeah,” Anna said, fiddling with the clasp and averting her eyes.

 

Elsa frowned a little, gently shutting the door behind her and observing the necklace with a critical eye. “…it looks like a wound,” she said. “I don’t like it.”

 

Anna narrowed her eyes, fingers stilling on the clasp. “Well it’s a good thing you don’t have to,” she said, fetching her dress from her bed and turning to her vanity, ignoring the tell-tale push of tears at the corners of her eyes.

 

If you’re going to do this, she thought, forcing down the growing lump in her throat, then just stay in your room. Like you always do.

 

Elsa was quiet, glancing to the dress Anna held in her hands. “That’s lovely, though.”

 

“…thanks.”

 

Anna’s eyes briefly met her sister’s in the mirror of the vanity, and Anna quickly looked away and began to dress.

 

She couldn’t bear to see Elsa’s eyes now any more than she could then.

 

—-

 

Elsa returned home on the first day of spring, the ground still wrapped in a thick blanket of snow.

 

Mother and Father had sent Anna upstairs, told her to keep to her room, but not before she gasped at the sight of her sister, her skin pale and washed, eyes wide and terrified, hair disheveled around her shoulders.

 

Anna watched, horrified, peering through the balustrade as Mother and Father spoke to the physician in hushed tones.

 

“Mild success,” the physician said on a sigh, glancing to Elsa. “But the girl’s still exhibiting strong symptoms of instability. Distant. Withdrawn. Unsociable.”

 

“Did you try…” Mother began, clutching at the cameo at her pale throat.

 

“Everything we have. Fresh air, water immersion… we even attempted a new method with electricity with which we’ve had some success in other patients.”

 

Mother clasped a hand to her mouth, her other hand clenching tight around Father’s forearm.

 

“Perfectly safe, I assure you,” the physician said. “But… little in the way of success. I’m afraid the child may just be of ill temperament.”

 

“There’s nothing else you can do?” Father asked, a hint of desperation seeping into his voice.

 

The doctor sighed, pressing two fingers to his temple. “We can continue treatment and hope that repeated sessions may have a positive effect on the girl,” he said finally, “but… the cost would be… prohibitive for most.”

 

Father and Mother exchanged pained glances, and Father folded his large hand over Mother’s small one. “We’ve discussed that,” Father said quietly. “We’re prepared to do whatever it takes.”

 

The doctor grunted, retrieving a thick file from his bag. “Well then,” he began, slipping on a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles from his coat pocket, “I suppose we’d best determine a treatment schedule. Now, I understand that you’d like to avoid any further lengthy stays, so it’s imperative that the child be given treatments at least three times a week, with…”

 

The doctor’s voice faded to a low hum in Anna’s ears as she continued staring, down to her parents’ worried, pained faces, to Elsa’s hunched form as she sat in the too-large arm chair, her arms limp at her side.

 

Anna’s breath caught as Elsa tilted her head up to catch her glance, and Anna started to turn away, to run back to her room before she could be caught… but Elsa’s eyes were devoid of the youthful playfulness and mischief she had so fondly remembered. Now their blue depths were blank. Flat. Dead.

 

It was as though the ghost of her sister was staring back at her from within them.

 

Her breath catching tight in her throat, Anna ran.

 

But she could only run as far as her room, with Elsa’s forever silent across the way.

 

Father and Mother came to see her soon after, as she huddled beneath the blankets on her bed, Elsa’s doll firmly tucked into the crook of one small arm.

 

“It’ll be better now,” Mother had said soothingly, stroking Anna’s hair. “It’ll be just like it was.”

 

Anna had peeked out from the blankets with doll in hand, her eyes wide with childish hope, and she offered her parents the barest hint of a smile.

 

A smile that faded as Elsa once more returned to her room, shutting the door tightly behind her.

 

As Mother and Father’s pleading, desperate requests for her to come down to dinner faded into silence, and Gerda began to carry serving trays upstairs at mealtimes.

 

As Elsa disappeared with the doctor every few months, returning quiet and withdrawn, jumping at the spark of electric lights on the rare occasions she attended meals, trembling in fear at the rush of the stream on the still rarer occasions she went outdoors.

 

 

As the house began to grow slovenly with neglect, dusty and worn and faded, Father selling off art and antiques and furniture and handing ever-growing sums to the doctor and the associates he began to bring with him.

 

And so it went, as the years went by, as the house fell to ruin around them and Elsa grew ever more distant.

 

Anna had long since ceased to wait by her bedroom door and attempt to coax her out.

 

Elsa’s doll had long since been relegated to the costume chest the girls had shared in their youth, Anna’s fondest memories with her sister as dusty and forgotten as the old dresses of Mother’s they’d carelessly donned and discarded.

 

Anna would find brief moments of respite curled up on the chaise in the library, thumbing through the thick volumes Father had procured in his travels (when he still had them, when they were happy, when things had been different). All around her, her childhood home began to collapse, dust and cobwebs creeping in, her parents growing weak and tired, her sister a distant, isolated memory… but in her books, fair maidens danced in the arms of dashing princes, hardship and fortitude were rewarded by granted wishes and happily-ever-afters, and true love always, always found a way.

 

Anna would lie back, eyes starry and soft as she stared at the water-stained ceiling and dreamed, in the way only young girls can, of a dashing prince, of true love, of a beautiful life far away from here.

 

It worked.

 

For awhile.

 

Until the day a message arrived from the doctor about new treatments at the facility that might at long last help heal Elsa’s frailty.

 

 

The day they left to meet with him.

 

The day Anna had hugged them, waved to them as their carriage disappeared down the path.

 

The last day she ever saw them.

 

Highwaymen, the voices murmured around her days later, as she felt the rush of burning tears against her cheeks beneath her dark veil. Such a tragedy. And with such young daughters, too.

 

She’d slept outside Elsa’s door for three nights, crying into her skirts, begging her to talk to her, to say something. Anything.

 

Silence. As always.

 

On the fourth night, Anna stood, straightened her skirts, turned to look at Elsa’s door.

 

She pressed her fingertips to her lips and ghosted them over the scarred wooden panel.

 

When she returned to her room, her eyes were dry.

 

—-

 

“You’re going to need help getting into that.”

 

Anna pointedly ignored Elsa’s words as she attempted to reach behind and tie the stays of her corset, grunting as she pulled and twisted. “I’ve got it.”

 

Elsa frowned, brows tilted up in concern. “You don’t look like you’ve got it.”

 

“I’ve got it,” Anna ground out between clenched teeth.

 

When Elsa’s hands wrapped into the stays and began to deftly tie them together, Anna slumped her shoulders in defeat. “Thanks,” she mumbled.

 

Elsa said nothing until the last of the stays had been secured. “Now for the dress,” she said, beginning to undo the buttons at the back.

 

Anna crossed her arms over the front of her corset self-consciously. “…thanks,” she repeated in a quiet voice.

 

Elsa’s attention remained focused on the buttons. “It’s nothing,” she said softly. “Just a dress.”

 

“No, I mean…” Anna took a deep breath and forced herself to look at her sister. “Thank you. For… for letting me. Do this.”

 

Elsa slowly looked to Anna, and Anna felt a cold shudder down her spine at the familiar emptiness within her eyes.

 

“You gave me very little choice, Anna,” Elsa said.  

 

—-

 

Anna’s eighteenth birthday had passed with very little fanfare.

 

There was no one left to celebrate it with her, after all.

 

Gerda had baked her a small spicecake and given her a pat on the cheek and a kind word, but her touch reminded Anna too much of Mother’s, and she’d spent much of the afternoon curled by the fire in the library, staring into the flames with eyes gone gritty and hot.

 

Gerda had found her there as the pink-gold rays of sunset washed over the house, the only spot of color to be found of late. The house itself seemed to leach color from everything within it, leaving what remained of the art, furniture, and people within its walls washed and grey, brittle with the memories of what had been.

 

“It’s a nice night, dear,” Gerda had observed, setting her hands on the chaise.

 

Anna wrapped her arms more tightly around her knees and said nothing.

 

“Might be good for you to take a bit of a stroll. Get some fresh air. Maybe go into town.”

 

“…I guess,” Anna mumbled, turning her face in against her knees.

 

“Better for you than sitting here in the library, at any rate.” Gerda patted her lightly on the back. “You’ll be all right, dear. Make the most of it.”

 

Anna rose slowly to her feet. “She didn’t come out, did she,” she asked, dusting off the front of her dress, not meeting Gerda’s eyes.

 

“…no,” Gerda said, very quietly.

 

“She didn’t say anything, did she.”

 

“…no, dear. She didn’t.”

 

Anna offered her a tight-lipped smile. “Well then,” she said, “no use waiting around here, then, is there.” She stepped around Gerda and retrieved her cloak from the coatrack by the doorway. “I’ll be back in an hour or two. Just… want to enjoy my birthday.”

 

She’d managed to make it out the front door, down the pathway, and out of sight of the house before she let her shoulders fall.

 

It wasn’t that it was surprising…

 

But still…

 

Still she’d hoped that maybe, just maybe, this time…

 

Anna’s thoughts came to a sudden halt as something large and heavy plowed into her side, and she shrieked as she tumbled headlong into an overgrown patch of azaleas along the road.

 

“Hey!” she sputtered, arms tangled in foliage, attempting to dislodge herself.

 

“I’m so sorry,” an elegant, apologetic voice said, gloved hands reaching in to extract her from the bush. “Are you hurt?”

 

Anna coughed, spitting a mouthful of leaves to one side, jaw falling open as she regarded the handsome and well-dressed young man before her, all expertly-tailored clothes and regal bearing.

 

“…I…” Anna managed, staring openly at him.

 

The man raised his eyebrows.

 

“…I’m fine,” Anna finished, a shy smile spreading across her lips. “I’m… really fine, actually.”

 

“Are you sure?” the man asked skeptically, glancing down at the grass stains along the front of her dress.

 

“Yeah. Uh. Nothing broken.” She performed a clumsy little twirl, glancing over her shoulder to him. “See? Perfect.”

 

The man smiled at her. “Close to it, anyway,” he said, eyes warm and soft as they studied her. He bowed low at the waist. “Lord Hans Westergard, at your service.”

 

Anna’s eyes widened. “Lord Hans Westergard?”

 

Hans glanced up at her, crooking a charming smile. “You’ve heard of me, then.”

 

“Well, uh… I mean… of your family.” Anna surreptitiously straightened her skirts and attempted to stand a little taller. “You, uh… have that big estate up in the mountains, right?”

 

“My family’s holdings are far-reaching. But yes, ‘that big mountain estate’ is mine.”

 

“Must be nice,” Anna said. “Having… all that space. And stuff.”

 

“The ‘stuff’ is quite nice, I’ll admit.”

 

Hans smiled at her, open and warm, and Anna allowed herself to return it.

 

“So…” Anna began awkwardly, clasping her hands behind her back and rocking on her heels. “What brings you down here?”

 

Hans glanced down the path. “There’s a rarely-performed opera I’m keen to see that’s being offered tonight in town.” He reached back and patted his horse on its broad neck. “Sitron and I were on our way there when we encountered a small… roadblock.”

 

“Oh. Uh. Sorry.” Anna grinned sheepishly.

 

“Our pleasure, I assure you. And what brings you out this evening, Miss…?”

 

“Anna. Anna Arendelle. It, uh…” She shrugged and leaned back on the balls of her feet. “Well, I mean… it’s my birthday. But it wasn’t…” She sighed, shoulders falling. “It wasn’t exactly the best one. So I decided to go for a walk. Just get some fresh air.”

 

“Ah,” Hans said, running his gloved fingers over his horse’s saddle. “Would you like some music with your air?”

 

Anna’s head shot up, eyes wide. “What?”

 

“You heard me.”

 

Anna stared at him for a long moment, scanning her eyes down the crisp lines of his suit before glancing to her own well-worn skirts. “I, uh…” She bit her lip, cheeks flushing crimson in embarrassment. “I’m not… really dressed for…”

 

“We’ll be in my private box. No one’ll be the wiser. They’d have to question me for it, anyway.” Hans raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

 

Anna bit her lip, glancing back down the path to where… where…

 

No one would be waiting for her.

 

And, she was beginning to think, never would be.

 

Anna took a deep breath. “Okay,” she began, taking a step forward, “why no…”

 

She let out a short cry as her ankle turned slightly, and she struck her arms out for balance attempting to regain some semblance of dignity…

 

A pair of gloved hands settled along her hips, righting her.

 

“Glad I caught you,” Hans said, smiling at her.

 

Anna couldn’t help but smile back.

 

—-

 

“Do you have a veil?”

 

Anna glanced to Elsa over her shoulder, inclining her head towards the box on the bed. “Yeah. Over there.”

 

Elsa nodded and moved to retrieve it, smoothing out the sheets of organza and observing it with a critical eye.

 

“Lovely,” she said quietly.

 

“He really does love me, Elsa,” Anna said, very softly. “He’ll be a good provider. You don’t have to worry so much.”

 

Elsa was quiet. “So many lovely things for such a hasty ceremony,” she said after a moment, setting down the veil and hoisting Anna’s dress in her arms.

 

Anna’s eyes narrowed as she met Elsa’s gaze in the mirror, mouth opening to speak.

 

“All right, arms up.”

 

Her protests died on her lips at Elsa’s soft command, and Anna silently held up her arms as Elsa carefully pulled the sleeves onto them before settling the dress over her head, smoothing down its voluminous skirts.

 

“It really is very nice,” Elsa said quietly, running her fingers over soft lace and silk.

 

“It’s from Paris.”

 

“Oh?” Elsa raised an eyebrow as she moved to stand behind Anna, small, deft fingers working to close the first of the long line of buttons down the back.

 

“Yeah.” Anna kept her eyes steadfastly ahead, clutching her hands to the front of her dress. “Hans… wanted me to have something beautiful, even given the… the circumstances.”

 

Elsa paused momentarily. “The circumstances,” she repeated, slotting the button between her fingers through its hole. “I see. I suppose a fancy dress is the least he could do.”

 

“Elsa,” Anna said sharply, turning her head. “Don’t.”

 

Elsa finished the last of the buttons in silence.

 

—-

 

It was, she would reflect even in her later years, the grandest night of her life.

 

Although it didn’t quite start out that way.

 

Anna had clung to Hans as they rode into town, gasps and hushed voices rising around them as the townspeople took in the visiting nobleman… and the young woman beside him.

 

Judging eyes and whispered voices had followed her as they entered the theater, and Anna had hunched down, cheeks burning at her plain dress, at her utter ordinary-ness, wishing nothing more than to blend into the shadows… but Hans’s arm had been warm and anchoring around her waist, introducing her to the multitudes who greeted him as his “very special guest”.

 

“It’s all right,” Hans had said, taking her hand and smiling down at her. “They’re harmless. Just clamoring to be seen, you understand.”

 

His hands were warm against her, even through his gloves, and Anna felt her heart flutter pleasantly as she returned his smile.

 

It was one plump woman, clad in too-tight aubergine silk, diamonds glittering at her throat, painted and unpleasant, who cast a critical eye over Anna and threatened to tear the evening asunder,

 

“A bit young, isn’t she, my lord?” the woman had asked, dangling her opera glasses off one manicured hand.

 

Hans had offered her a slow, easy smile. “Age is but a number, countess. You’ve spent some time rounding yours down considerably, I understand.”

 

The woman frowned darkly at him. “You’ll forgive my curiosity, my lord. This is the first we’ve seen of you with… company since Christabel.”

 

Anna felt Hans stiffen beside her at the unfamiliar name, and she gazed up at him with curious eyes.

 

“How many months now, my lord?” the woman asked.

 

“Six,” Hans responded flatly.

 

“Still mourning, then.”

 

“Always and forever, countess. But a man does move on.”

 

“Yes, I suppose a man does.” The countess offered him a venomous smile before glancing to Anna. “Lovely meeting you, dear.”

 

“You didn’t even ask my name,” Anna said.

 

“Hardly makes much difference, does it?” the countess asked airily. “Enjoy the show, dear.” Her diamonds caught the lamplight in a dazzling flash as she turned and made her way towards the private boxes.

 

Anna started as Hans’s hand came tightly around hers, and her brow furrowed in concern at the threaded tension that seemed to shoot through him. “My lord?”

 

There was something dark in his eyes as he stared at her, and Anna felt a small gasp rise up at the back of her throat. “I… uh… maybe we shouldn’t…” she stammered, pulling her hand away from his, “…I mean… maybe I shouldn’t…” She glanced worriedly towards the doors as the ushers began to pull them closed for the performance.

 

“Anna, wait,” Hans said, grasping her wrist, and Anna yelped at the sharpness of it. “My apologies,” Hans said, smoothing his fingers over her skin. “It’s… a long story.”

 

“My lord,” one of the ushers came up beside them, bowing slightly, “I’ll need you to take your seats. The show will be starting shortly.”

 

Hans glanced to the usher and canted his head away from them. The man bowed again and silently moved back towards the doors, murmuring apologies.

 

“She was my wife,” Hans said quietly.

 

“Was?”

 

“Was.” Hans closed his eyes, a flash of pain striking across his aristocratic features. “We went boating this past spring. Our one-year anniversary.” He opened his eyes, and they shone with tears as they met Anna’s. “A storm rose up. Capsized us. I can swim.” He took a deep breath. “She couldn’t.”

 

Anna brought her hands to her mouth, eyes wide.

 

“Made it back to land,” Hans continued, voice distant. “Set back out immediately with a few trusted hands. But we never found her.”

 

Anna was quiet. “…I’m so sorry,” she said finally, eyes soft. She reached out to take Hans’s hand, and he gratefully clasped it in his. “…my parents died three years ago,” she said quietly. “My sister is… unwell, and they were on a trip and they…” She bit hard on her lip against the sudden sting of tears at her eyes.

 

Hans gently squeezed her hand. “You know,” he said quietly, “I’m not much in the mood for opera anymore.”

 

“Yeah,” Anna said with a humorless laugh, wiping her fingers over the corner of one eye. “No kidding.”

 

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to go for a walk with me instead?”

 

Anna stared up at him, self-consciously smoothing one hand along her skirts. “You mean it?”

 

“Of course.” He brought one gloved hand up to settle gently against her cheek. “Time with you, I’m learning,” he said quietly, “is always time well spent.”

 

Anna allowed herself the warm, grateful smile she felt pushing at the corners of her lips and raised her hand to cover his.

 

Hans gestured to the ushers with his free hand, and they moved to open the doors. He crooked his arm, and Anna took it gratefully, smiling up at him, open and guileless.

 

And so they walked, and talked, long into the night. There was something so very genuine about Hans, Anna thought, as they strolled through the public gardens hand in hand. He spoke to her of his family, of the pain of being the youngest of thirteen sons in a noble family, of the loss of his wife and how his heart had finally at long last begun to mend, and she spoke to him of her own pain at having a once-beloved sister grow distant and cold.

 

“Is she all that’s left of your family, then?” Hans asked as they sat side by side on a stone bench in the park, the moon full and beautiful above them, Anna’s head on his shoulder.

 

“Yeah. It’s just me and Elsa, and our nursemaid, Gerda.” Anna sighed and frowned a little to herself. “And the thing is… we were always so close. We did everything together. Until one day, when she just started… shutting everyone out.”

 

Anna’s eyes went wide as she felt the faintest brush of Hans’s lips against the crown of her head.

 

“I would never shut you out,” he murmured softly.

 

Anna opened her mouth to speak, but words seemed to fail her in the face of the rapid beating of her heart, the deep crimson flush rising to her cheeks. “…thank you,” she said finally, tightening her hand around his. “I… I’ve never met anyone like you, Lord Westergard.”

 

He smiled at her, eyes bright and humorous. “Just Hans.”

 

Anna smiled bashfully, staring up at him through her eyelashes. “Okay… Hans.”

 

He stared at her for a long moment before standing, pulling her to her feet with him, their bodies only inches apart. “…I’ve never felt like this with anyone,” Hans said quietly, running his thumbs over the backs of her hands. “Anna.”

 

“Even with… with her?” Anna asked breathlessly.

 

“Even with her.”

 

Anna gazed into Hans’s eyes, the moonlight bright and full around them, the air thick with the twining scents of night-blooming jasmine and moonflower, and her heart beat fit to burst from her chest as she thought to all those lonely nights curled up in a dusty library with her storybooks, of handsome princes and happily-ever-afters, of something warm and bright and beautiful, and she ached with want.

 

“Is…” Anna began, biting her lip. “Is this true love?”

 

As soon as she’d uttered the words, she felt foolish, like a lovesick little girl in the arms of a handsome, humoring man, and she flushed, attempted to pull away…

 

But Hans held her fast, one hand coming up to cup her chin and tilt her face towards his. “I think,” he murmured, ducking his head down, “it’s whatever we want it to be.”

 

Anna’s eyes widened as he very gently pressed his lips to hers, pulling back just far enough to allow her to respond, and she closed her eyes, tears pricking at the corners as she wrapped her arms around him and kissed him harder.

 

So this was love.

 

It was, she thought, everything she’d ever wanted.

 

Everything she’d never dared hope for.

 

“Marry me,” Hans whispered against her lips, a plea and a promise all at once.

 

Anna inhaled on a deep, shuddering breath.

 

“Yes,” she said.

 

—-

 

“Ow!”

 

Elsa winced apologetically as the brush pulled through Anna’s hair. “Sorry,” she said quietly. “You have a lot of snags.”

 

Anna grimaced and folded her arms over her chest. “Well you could be more gentle,” she grumbled.

 

Elsa was silent as she continued brushing through Anna’s hair, pulling the brush through until her auburn waves settled glossy and sleek over her shoulders.

 

“There,” Elsa said, setting the brush down on the vanity. She glanced to the small bowl of fresh flowers beside it. “Would you like flowers in your hair?” She hesitated. “It might… take a little longer.”

 

Anna bit her lip, glancing down at her hands. “I… guess that might be nice.”

 

Elsa nodded and reached around to retrieve the bowl, running her fingers through Anna’s hair and carefully threading the first of the blossoms through it.

 

It was, Anna thought, attempting to ignore the growing lump in her throat, the first thing they’d done together in ages.

 

“You don’t have to do all this, you know,” Anna said, very softly.

 

Elsa glanced to her in the mirror before reaching for another flower. “I know,” she said.

 

“Does…” Anna swallowed. “Does this mean that… you approve now? Even just a little?”

 

Elsa was quiet for a long moment, carefully threading stems and blossoms together, soft whites and pinks contrasting with the rich red of Anna’s hair.

 

“No.”

 

—-

 

“You can’t!” Anna shrieked, tearing her hand from Hans’s and tugging her sister back to face her.

 

Elsa’s eyes were cold and hard, glancing from Anna to Hans. “No, you can’t marry a man you just met tonight,” she said, voice flat and brooking no argument.

 

“My lady,” Hans said, coming to Anna’s side and bowing respectfully to Elsa, “if I may ease your worries…”

 

“No,” Elsa said, the word a sharp whipcrack through the air. “I think you should go. Anna, we’ll discuss this later.”

 

“No,” Anna seethed, eyes narrowed, hands balled into fists at her sides. “We’ll discuss this now.”

 

“There’s nothing to discuss. I said no.”

 

Hans kept his eyes on Elsa as he brushed his lips over Anna’s temple. “Perhaps I’d best leave you to this,” he murmured. “I’ll send for you in a few days, dear one.”

 

 

“You’ll send for nothing,” Elsa said sharply.

 

“Elsa, stop!” Anna cried. Her eyes were wide and pained as Hans closed the front door behind him, and in that instant she saw all her hopes and dreams, every chance for love, for the end of her years of loneliness dissipating like fine mist.

 

The sitting room was silent for a long, long moment.

 

“Go to bed, Anna,” Elsa said finally, voice weary as she made for the stairs.

 

“…I hate you,” Anna said very softly, trembling with rage.

 

Elsa stilled, eyes wide as she glanced back to her younger sister. “What?”

 

Anna dug her fingernails into her palms, willing the rage rising up in her chest to calm enough that she could finally tell Elsa what she had done to her, the damage her total abandonment had caused, how she finally, finally had a chance to be loved, to be cared for, to not be completely alone…

 

The words died in her throat, in the first slip of a tear down her cheek, and she bit down hard on her fist and tore past Elsa, up the stairs, to her room.

 

“And thanks for finally coming out for my birthday!” Anna shouted on a broken sob, slamming the door behind her and sliding down to the floor, dropping her head to her knees and allowing the first of an endless line of sobs to tear from her throat.

 

For the next three days and three nights, she didn’t move.

 

She didn’t cry.

 

She didn’t speak.

 

She only stared, blank-eyed and broken, into the middle distance, watching her dreams crumble to dust in front of her on an endless loop.

 

She heard Gerda’s voice, soft and concerned on the other side of the door once or twice, but the nursemaid was well-accustomed to the daughters in her care being withdrawn and distant, and stopped trying after little effort.  

 

It was the other sounds that stabbed into her.

 

Soft, quiet knocks in the middle of the night.

 

Her name on a pained, pleading whisper.

 

Hurts, doesn’t it, Anna thought malevolently towards the presence on the other side of the door, not even bothering to wipe away her tears.

 

So it went.

 

Until the fourth night.

 

A slightly more forceful knock.

 

A slightly louder whisper.

 

And then…

 

“…I give you my blessing.”

 

Anna raised her head from her knees, eyes stiff with tears, and quickly scrambled to her feet, flinging open the door…

 

Just in time to see Elsa’s door close, hear the tell-tale metallic clunk of her lock sliding into place.

 

“Anna!” Gerda called as she came up the stairs. “We’ve been so worried about you, dear. Now, your sister’s already sent word to Lord Westergard that she’s approved your marriage — he’ll be here on the morrow. A small ceremony, he’s said, in deference to… to his mourning period, but he’s assured us he’ll provide for everything.”

 

“But…” Anna glanced to Elsa’s door, heart twisting painfully in her chest. “But… she was… she…”

 

The door remained closed and silent, and Anna’s shoulders fell.

 

Gerda’s hand came to her shoulder, warm and comforting. “He did ask how soon you’d like to have the ceremony, dear,” Gerda said, a question in her voice.

 

Anna took a deep breath, closing her eyes.

 

“As soon as possible,” she said.

 

—-

 

Elsa was silent as she finished threading the last of the flowers through Anna’s hair.

 

“Just one more piece,” she said softly, reaching down to retrieve the veil. The mother-of-pearl combs flashed in the light as Elsa slid them into her hair, arranging the veil over Anna’s tightly-drawn features. “Anna?” she said, voice soft with concern. “Are you all right?”

 

Anna said nothing, glancing down at her hands. There was nothing to say. There was everything to say.

 

“…thank you,” she said finally, allowing her tears to fall behind the safety of her veil. “I know you don’t… I know that you don’t like him…”

 

Elsa sighed. “It’s not him, Anna. It’s… the whole situation.”

 

“I love him,” Anna said, voice short and sharp as she pushed away from the vanity and stood. “That’s all that matters.”

 

Elsa was silent as she observed her younger sister, resplendent in her wedding gown, the rubies at her throat flashing bright and red like an open wound.

 

“I hope it is,” Elsa said quietly.

 

—-

 

The sitting room had been decorated beautifully with the funds Hans had provided, furniture pushed aside, the walls festooned with thick flower garlands, sweetly perfuming the air.

 

Anna grinned fit to bursting as the minister placed her hand in Hans’s, eyes soft and shining with tears as Hans pulled back her veil and kissed his new bride for the first time.

 

She tried to ignore the black mourning bands sewed into his suit, the black rose in his lapel, and what they meant.

 

She caught Elsa’s eye once or twice during the ceremony, but her sister was familiarly distant and unreadable, her hands folded primly at the front of her grey gown, eyes dry and emotionless even as Gerda wept loudly into her handkerchief.

 

The reception, Hans had decided, would be held at his estate high in the mountains.

 

Gerda’s age and Elsa’s frail health prohibited them from attending, Gerda had offered in apology.

 

And so Anna found herself beside a beautifully-ornate carriage, the rain still lashing cold and heavy around them, gazing up at her childhood home for the last time.

 

“Your sister sends her love,” Gerda said, drawing Anna into a hug, one hand clutching a battered umbrella over her. “But it’s… it’s all been a bit much for the poor dear.”

 

Anna nodded, pressing her head tight to Gerda’s shoulder.

 

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that Elsa would fail to see her off.

 

It shouldn’t have hurt.

 

“Ready when you are, love,” Hans said to her, hand coming round her elbow. He bowed low at the waist to Gerda. “My deepest thanks for your hospitality, ma’am.”

 

Gerda smiled and patted Hans’s cheek. “You just take good care of her now, young man.”

 

Hans smiled at her, all perfect white teeth. “That,” he said, wrapping an arm tightly around Anna’s waist, “I can promise.” He leaned down to press a quick kiss to Anna’s temple. “Ready, Anna?”

 

Anna stared up at Elsa’s window, through the rain, through the dust that years of neglect had painted over it.

 

She thought she saw a pale flash behind it, but as soon as it had appeared, it was gone.

 

“…I’m ready,” Anna said finally, drawing her traveling cloak more tightly around her shoulders.

 

Hans helped her into the carriage, her hand tightly clasped in his. Gerda waved to them even as the wheels began to turn, as they made their way over the thick cobblestones running fast with mud and rainwater.

 

“Anna,” Hans said softly, running one hand through her hair, “it will be my greatest privilege to teach you how to be a proper wife.”

 

Something cold and uneasy snaked down Anna’s spine at his words, but she pushed them aside and curled up against his side, eyes closed as she basked in the nearness, the warmth of her husband.

 

She didn’t look back.

 

—-

 

High in the mountains, the cold rain that fell in the valley had begun to turn to thick sheets of sleet and snow, and a broad-set man stared off to the distance, to the still-darkening clouds gathering over the snowcapped peaks as he stood in the doorway of a large, well-appointed stable.

 

“Lord Westergard will be home soon,” a stablehand called from behind him. “Best get things ready for his return. Be interesting to finally catch a glimpse of the new one.” The stablehand frowned, eyeing the man’s still posture, the arms folded tightly over his chest. “Kristoff? Are you listening?”

 

The man turned back to him, eyed him levelly.

 

“Storm’s coming,” he said.