Author's Note: Longer chapter this time, hope you guys like it. Thanks again for your support! And don't forget to check out the awesome fanart that's been done for this fic on my tumblr, including a scene from Chapter 10 by the ever-wonderful lisuli79. Lastly, this was released a little late so it coincides with the 1st day of Helsa Week on Tumblr, the theme of which is "Falling for you." (I may have taken it a little tongue-in-cheek, though, considering the content of the chapter.)
Read previous chapters of Winter's End
Chapter 13: The Fête
Jugglers, fire-breathers, sword-swallowers, magicians . . . he'd seen it all before.
In fact, Hans had witnessed far more impressive feats of strength, comedy, and trickery during the years of his naval training, travelling abroad to countries in the south and east—feats that would put anything the King and Queen could put on in the Southern Isles to shame.
Considering, however, that he'd been stuck in that horrible little room all day, the guards being too numerous for him to manoeuvre around without being spotted, he relished what little time he was given outside of it, and outside of the palace itself.
He certainly hadn't expected to be let out, anyway.
But she'll be wanting it back, I suspect.
He smirked at the thought even as the guards nearby shot him dirty looks for the inexplicably self-satisfied expression, and he wondered at how much they probably despised having to look after him when so many tempting smells wafted over from the hot food stalls along the main road.
He was safely tucked away again, just as before, near the rear of the festivities—at the very outskirts of the road where only the drunks stumbled along, or those too old and sick to join the events hobbled by—but he still had a fair view of the proceedings from his position, hidden as it was. It was probably the Queen's doing, he guessed, though he wouldn't have been surprised if it had been Elsa's suggestion, either.
Elsa—so informal of you, Hans.
He chuckled to himself even as the crowd let out a huge cheer, and he supposed that it was for their Queen's arrival, since it rolled on for a few more beats than it would have for the magicians' parlour tricks.
And the Snow Queen must be with her.
She would have figured out by then, he assumed, that her letter was gone. After all the days and months he'd spent going over everything that had happened in Arendelle, he'd come to realise that she, if nothing else, was observant—and probably, not unlike himself, quite particular about where she put things.
Admittedly, then, it was surprising how easily he had absconded with it—and how he hesitated after he'd taken it, just before leaving the room, when he'd paused to stare at the serene expression on her pale face, the snowflakes vanishing from the air. It had been a long time, after all, since he'd seen any kind of snow (much less the magical sort that could be summoned and disappeared on command), and he'd never seen her able to calmly control it like that.
She certainly couldn't have done that the last time I was there.
He hadn't hesitated in the same way in actually reading the letter once he'd gotten back to his room, though. There wasn't any point in pretending that he was a man of "noble" character when he could see that tanned complexion staring back at him in the mirror and feel the rough lining of the cheap gloves chafing his fingers.
Of course, upon reading it (and re-reading it until he'd memorised it, since there was little else to do all day in that room), he'd eventually grown bored of it, as he had with most everything else. The contents contained little in the way of new or interesting insights into the Snow Queen, or into her relationship with her sister, and he wasn't sure why he'd expected anything juicier than what was actually written.
Truthfully, Hans was a little irritated with himself for being so enthralled with this little game he'd created, since he could have spent his day plotting his escape from the palace (as Elsa herself had suggested), or at least coming up with some way of convincing the guardsmen to get him something to occupy himself with besides his own, dull thoughts.
But he'd been out of practice for so long, he thought with a frown, that he'd gotten distracted by something as petty as the temptation of thieving a letter from Elsa (even if being able to take it from right under her nose did give him the slightest sense of pride).
He blamed the Queen for that—for plucking him so suddenly out of exile, for dumping him in that room, for putting him in that charming little servant's outfit—because even though he'd once been so skilful at making use of chaos, his life on Vollan had conditioned him to routine.
(And routine, he had learned, was never easily broken.)
He knew that it would take time to readjust to his new circumstances, but he also knew that he didn't have time—and that set his heartbeat faster than before with the foreign sensation of worry.
But there's no need to dwell on it now. Not yet, anyway.
He set his mind at ease again by focusing on the tedious interactions between the visiting queen and the commoners that he could observe from his perch on the side: the light touching of her gloved hands, the reverent bows, the wide, affected smiles of some (and the unseemly, genuine ones of others), and the awe apparent on their simple faces at witnessing the legend come to life.
He snorted at the idea—some legend, she's little more than a girl with a curse—but he found himself unable to turn away from her, intrigued, again, by the way she held herself around them, and how those delicate, gloved fingers told a story that her eyes could not.
She didn't seem as uncomfortable around the commoners as she had the courtiers, he noticed; that was understandable enough, since most of them probably didn't know much about the gossip inside the palace. Even if they knew about his return (which he doubted they did, yet), they probably didn't care as much as the lords and ladies whose very existences were sustained through the misery of others.
She was dressed more simply that evening as well—just a long, dark green dress with an even darker cape covering her shoulders and arms—and she wore her hair down in a looser braid, reminding him of the way it had looked before it had fallen apart around her shoulders, the snow whipping around her.
I don't have anything else to say to you.
The memory of that cold voice of hers sent his lips into a lopsided grin.
I still don't believe you, Elsa.
Nonetheless, it was admittedly rather dull to watch her mingling after a while, and he yawned openly, ignoring the scowl one of his guards wore at the sound.
I'm sure they'll be whining to Fredrik about me after this, he mused, but his eyes alit with renewed vigour when he spied his brothers begin to approach Elsa, one by one—all trying their hand, no doubt, at stirring the Snow Queen's interest.
To his surprise, Johannes was first, though Hans suspected that that was only because Adrian was with the King and Queen at that exact moment. It wasn't long, however, before he was failing in spectacular fashion at earning anything more than the faintest of tolerant smiles from Elsa. Even after so many years of being told that he was shockingly dull-witted, nowhere near as charismatic as any number of his older siblings, and, worst of all, boring, it seemed that the twelfth prince had never caught on . . . and Hans felt the smallest tinge of pity for Elsa then, since she couldn't simply dismiss him like everyone else.
That job was instead left to the Queen, who dutifully stepped in, replacing Johannes with the next contestants—the Ornaments, Hans noted with a sigh, shaking his head—but they did no better than the first.
In spite of the collection of fine young ladies that trailed after them, the twins, as always, were oblivious to the attention. They had never known the first thing about wooing women (and Hans had always had the inkling that they weren't interested in the first place), preferring to discuss between themselves the finer points of the history of Gregorian chants and medieval church architecture than in actually attempting to engage their guest in any sort of conversation.
It didn't help that they, like Johannes, couldn't take a hint—even when it was so pressingly obvious that Elsa didn't want to be there. From the flick of her wrist at her side to the slight craning of her neck away from them as they spoke, she seemed coiled with the same sort of tension that he'd seen high in her shoulders the night before. He wondered, absently, if she had some idea of what the purpose of these forced discussions actually was.
If she doesn't, he thought darkly, watching the Ornaments prattle on as she plastered on a pleasant smile, then she isn't prepared for what's coming.
He knew the Southern Queen—her tics, her plots, her throwaway smiles—and that was enough to tell him that she hadn't invited Elsa to the Isles just to "make peace," and that she hadn't acquiesced so easily to the Snow Queen's wishes and brought the traitor ex-prince back to court out of the kindness of her heart.
Not that she has one.
He blinked at the voice—familiar, deep, slightly disapproving, as always—and then turned to his side, his expression sliding neutral.
"Anders," he returned civilly, his eyes calm.
The third prince approached him with a frown as he eyed the guards at his sides, and he waited until they were a few paces away before the discontent slipped from his lips, his face matching his youngest brother's.
"You're being kept apart from everyone else again, I see," the older man commented, his dark green eyes casually scanning the area. "But that's probably for the best."
Hans shrugged, his eyebrow rising. "Come now, brother. You didn't think she'd let me go and buy myself a fresh pastry, did you? Say 'hello' to the citizens? Dance with the children?"
Anders stared at him, his moustache quirking. "Is that really what you'd rather be doing?"
Hans coughed lightly to keep from laughing. "Admittedly, no," he said, and their gazes broke as they turned back to the events in the square. He glanced curiously at Anders after a pause. "Won't Mona be looking for you?"
Anders drew out his pocket watch (the same, finicky habit he shared with his twin, Hans remembered) and held back a small sigh. "In a few minutes, perhaps," he replied vaguely, crossing his arms. "She's with Lene at the magician's stall—and anyway, she knows I'm here."
Of course she does, Hans thought, simpering; at Anders's dark look, his lips twitched, and he feigned innocence. "So what brings you here?" he asked, making sure to keep a respectful distance from his brother. "None of the others have come, anyway . . . well, besides Tor, that is," he added disdainfully, his lip curling at the memory of the evening previous. "Though I could've done without him speaking to me."
Anders's lip tilted slightly up at the remark. "Well, it has been a year since we last spoke," he began, and ignored Hans as he rolled his eyes, "and, believe it or not, I wanted to see how you were, now that you're here."
Now that you're here.
Coming from another brother—someone like Ivar or Mathias, the other two of his dear siblings that had ignored him for two years—Hans might have found the comment disingenuous at best, and at worst, purposefully insulting.
Anders, however, was different . . . different from how he'd been when they were children, even if Hans was reluctant to admit as much. Though still maintaining his cool exterior, he'd been less distant than the others in recent years—and more willing, from time to time, to speak with Hans as a fellow man, and not as the baby of the family.
Not like Mother.
He respected him for that, if nothing else; and though the tiniest seed of guilt started to sprout in his chest at the things he'd done and the punishment he'd received for them while in Anders's presence, he mercilessly quashed it.
"Well, how kind of you, Anders," he said finally, adopting his usual manners (or lack thereof) as the older prince frowned. "But there's no need for that. As you can see," he gestured to his simple outfit of a white shirt and green waistcoat overtop brown trousers with his gloved hands, "I've been well taken care of already."
Anders bristled at the reply, though his silent look of judgment was enough to make Hans's stomach curdle. "You won't be if you continue in that manner," he chided, sighing again. "Do try to be amiable, if only for your own sake," he told Hans, who merely crossed his arms at the suggestion. "After all, Queen Elsa spared you once from the wretchedness of a prison cell; perhaps, if you play your cards right," he advised, his brow rising, "she'll do it again—and this time, it'll be from exile."
Hans scoffed. "That's very optimistic of you, brother," he retorted sceptically, "but even if she were so kind as to do that, do you really think that Mother would let her?"
Anders chuckled lightly. "Well, stranger things have happened, Hans—and you were always Mother's favourite, after all." He straightened his jacket absentmindedly. "Besides, do you really care what she thinks?" he inquired, sceptical. "It certainly seemed like you didn't when you sailed for Arendelle."
And so, what—you're just going to wait for "something" to happen?
There was something perturbingly similar in the "advice" that Anders gave him to what Tor had said the night before, but whatever validity their points held, Hans refused to acknowledge it.
"Of course I don't care," he muttered, tugging on his gloves. "And, as you said, I didn't then, either." He frowned. "Even if I was her favourite—though that's hardly what I would call it," he went on, his tone dark, "I left the nest, and broke my pretty white wings—and no one wants a broken baby bird."
His shoulders hunched slightly. "Especially not her."
His older brother sighed. "Now you're just being dramatic," he remarked, and Hans huffed.
"I was just making a point," he dismissed the criticism. "Anyway, I only meant to say that now I'm just another one among her many disappointing sons—and oh, look," he continued with a slight grin, tilting his head towards the square, "there's another one, now."
Anders's eyes followed to where the thirteenth prince's gaze had settled—somewhere between the juggler and the butcher's stall—and they narrowed slightly when they found Elsa and her adviser chatting with Harald and Annette, encircled by their guardsmen and, outside of them, a curious group of children.
He quietly exhaled through his nose. "She likes him, you know," he said, watching as Hans blinked in surprise. "Probably the best out of all of us, I suspect."
Hans looked bemused, at first; then, as he stared longer at the exchange between the pair, his expression shifted back to one of neutral disinterest, and he shrugged. "He's tolerable, I suppose—so long as you're not in competition against him—"
Anders shot him a warning look, and Hans let the rest of the words fall away.
So they've still got that racket going with Ivar, huh?
After a minute, however, his smirk returned, and he eyed his older brother with amusement.
"If Annette's here, then . . ." he trailed off, his gaze sweeping across the crowd for the seventh prince's familiar mop of brown hair, "surely Kristian's skulking about somewhere, as usual?"
"He's here," Anders replied coolly, and nodded towards a point on the other side of the road. A rare twitch of humour touched his mouth as he added: "And he's skulking, of course."
They might have shared a laugh at that, Hans supposed, had they been closer in age, or temperament, or in affections. But, things being as they were, he had to content himself with the fact that he'd managed to bring the smallest of smiles to one of his brothers' faces, and not even at his own expense.
Although Kristian is too easy of a target, he reminded himself with a short chortle, and took some dark comfort in the sight of his older brother's miserable features as his light blue eyes stalked his sister-in-law's every giggle, sway, and blush from afar, his ponytail practically sagging against his red waistcoat. Hans doubted that, in spite of his year of hard labour, he had ever appeared that pathetic.
"I'd best be off," Anders said crisply, smoothing down the lapels of his jacket. He itched his moustache lightly, glancing at Hans. "I'll see you again soon, I'm sure."
"I'm sure," Hans returned with a small grin—enough to make Anders roll his eyes, at least—and bowed his head slightly as the third prince walked back to his wife and child, waiting for him by the statue of King Tomas III in the square.
Mona's dark blue eyes greeted her husband with the same sort of aloof affection he'd shown towards his brother, and then they were on Hans, silent and heavy and somehow beautiful all at once. In the next moment they snapped away again, and Hans released a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding, suddenly feeling slightly entertained by the idea that she could just as effectively castigate him with her gaze alone as Anders could.
Like husband, like wife . . . or perhaps it's the other way around?
It didn't matter, really—not when there were more intriguing things to be wondering about.
And so his attention returned to the matter of the Queen of Arendelle, to Elsa, whose letter he had stolen, and absorbed, whose hands were tightly curling and uncurling in such a fascinating way, whose lips were gracious but somehow tight in their silence as Harald prattled, whose neck craned slightly to the side, the muscles in it jumping with an unspoken tension—
And whose eyes were fixed on him.
It had been difficult for Elsa to tear her gaze away from Hans when the Queen called to her, and more difficult still when she was ushered, in quick succession, over to a crowded area in the main square where a puppetry performance was about to take place.
Rather than sitting at the front, however, as she might have expected to (and, indeed, was accustomed to back in Arendelle), Therese guided her towards the back of the seating area. The other princes were already seated, and all were wearing a variety of unamused or otherwise disinterested expressions.
(Tor, in particular, had rolled his eyes very obviously when his mother commented that their being at the back allowed for the seats at the front to be enjoyed by children from the orphanage nearby.)
Had it not been for the eleventh prince's droll look of scepticism at the information, Elsa might have thought it to be quite a generous, kind gesture on the part of the Queen. After seeing it, however, there was an inkling of doubt at the back of her mind about Therese's intentions—genuine as they seemed on the surface—especially after the tour the day before, and the strange, dry expression that the woman had worn almost immediately upon entering the carriage back to the palace.
She is not a woman to be trifled with.
Elsa's hands tightened around each other.
And nor is her son a man who can be so easily understood.
She bit her lip as the performance began, trying to enjoy the slapstick humour of the puppeteers, the simple story of the ubiquitous Mester Jackel and the many amusing scenarios in which he found himself, the laughter of the crowd, the wide grins of the Queen, Prince Harald, and the Ladies Mona and Ingrid—but the show earned little more than the tiniest of smiles from the Snow Queen's lips all the while.
If they even caught a whiff of a rumour now, your reputation would be totally destroyed here within a matter of days, if not hours.
She restrained herself from scowling, just barely; it was harder, however, to stop herself from turning around.
From looking at him again.
Elsa knew he wasn't far behind them, then—only a few metres, probably—and coupled with the knowledge that he had her letter stuffed away somewhere in his miserable little room (or even, perhaps, inside of his waistcoat, since it was obvious that he wasn't beyond flashing the thing right in her face there and then), her hands were balled into tight fists for the majority of the first act, and her expression lightly twisted with agitation.
But I don't have to tell you that, do I? After all, you're the Snow Queen of Arendelle.
She swallowed a grimace at the title, gripping her dress, keeping the ice inside, inside.
And here I thought you'd be eager to freely speak your mind—now that we're alone, that is.
If she'd let the ice crawl down her arm like she'd wanted to then, across her lap, freezing the fabric of her dress, she probably would have heard a crack just then, as it snapped within her grasp—but she couldn't do that.
But staying in that seat, her eyes sharp and forward, ignoring everyone and everything around her, didn't help matters either . . . nor did it stop the cold from stirring in her veins, from filling her with anticipation.
Anticipation of . . . what, exactly?
"Is everything all right, Elsa?"
She blinked and glanced nervously at her side, finding Therese's green eyes patiently studying her.
And they're so much like his—
"Yes, I just—if you'll excuse me, Therese," she said quickly, looking away, "I have to step away for a moment. I won't be gone long."
Therese nodded briefly, watching as Elsa rose quietly from her seat during a particularly loud cheer from the crowd; though she whispered back a sweet "of course" to her fellow queen in understanding, suspicion fluttered out through her lowered lashes.
Not that Elsa paid it any mind, because her hands were already pressed neatly in front of her again, and her feet were moving, one in front of the other, away from the din of the square.
Another pair, as always, followed closely behind.
She quietly turned on her heel. "Martin."
The young guardsman shot back a step in surprise, and swallowed. "Your Majesty?"
A small smile graced her lips. "There's no need to accompany me," she reassured him, though her voice felt thin. "I'll return soon."
He stared at her uncertainly. "Queen Elsa, are you sure—"
"Positive, Martin," she interrupted, her smile creasing impatiently at the edges. "And besides, there are guards posted everywhere tonight, on account of the fete—so I'll be fine."
He bowed his head at her look, seeing how set it was on her current course of action, and she was glad that it was him, and not Finn or Erik, that had followed her that far.
"As you wish, Your Majesty," he replied, and stepped back. When he was out of sight again, she proceeded, just as before, and her lips slipped down.
You didn't seem like you were finished, earlier; I can imagine, after a year, that you would have more to say to me than just that.
She saw him from a few paces away (disguised as a townsperson today, she noted absently, her eyes flicking over the loose shirt and trousers), and her nose wrinkled with a deep frown.
Of course I have more to say.
And then she was there, standing in front of him.
And I'm sure you have more to say, too.
And his eyes were fixed on her.
She didn't look at the guards at his sides. "Would you allow us a moment, gentlemen?"
A reluctant pause followed this command—followed by a sharp glance from the visiting queen—and the two guards finally retreated to the sides as requested.
Blue eyes flit back up, meeting green . . . and then stopped.
"I want the letter."
He blinked, and cocked his head to the side. "The letter, Your Grace?"
"Yes. My letter," she clarified bluntly. "Give it to me now, and perhaps I'll allow you to remain at court."
His arms crossed. "I'm not sure what you mean, Your Majesty," he replied far too easily. "I don't have any letter of yours, I'm afraid."
Her gaze darkened, and then, there it was—the frost—spreading under her feet, curling under his.
He sent her a look of caution, a light tut on his lips. "Now, Queen Elsa, are you really going to cause such a scene when everyone's having such a good time?" He glanced past her at the crowd watching the puppet show, their laughter carrying over, ringing like so many cattle bells in her ears. "You remember what happened the last time you lost control . . . don't you?"
His breath came out in puffs of mist, for a minute; then, the clouds disappeared, and his exhales were invisible again—but she was still scowling at him, watching him, expectant.
Finally, he relented. "I don't have it with me," he told her simply, ignoring the black glint in her eye at the information, "so I'll have to give it to you—later."
Her throat hitched at that word—later—because she knew what that meant, and when he smirked at her, the only thing that stopped her from shackling his miserably smug countenance to the ground in a ream of ice was the sound of applause breaking out from behind her.
Blue glinted like steel under sunlight.
"This isn't over, Hans," she hissed, her fingers crackling, waiting.
Green sparked like embers in a hearth.
"See you tonight, Your Majesty," he replied, his mouth pleased, anticipating.
I want the letter.
Her pale face, flush with anger, played on his mind as he tucked the paper beneath his vest, patting it against his chest once it was securely in place.
He could still see her glaring back at him so fiercely, the glint in her eye, the tight lines in her gloved hands and pretty mouth. It occurred to him that although the Snow Queen resembled her younger sister almost exactly in her happiness, her anger was quite a different animal altogether.
He remembered well the ire of the princess as it crossed her expression, briefly, prior to his fall overboard the ship on the fjord: it had been fiery and feisty, and had taken him entirely by surprise (though he supposed, in retrospect, that it really shouldn't have).
Elsa's, on the other hand . . . hers was harsh, and somehow distant.
He looked down, half-expecting to see the tendrils of ice spreading under his feet again—but there was nothing, save for the emptiness of his little room, and the yawning of the guards outside.
They'll be out for the night, soon.
He'd been brought back earlier from the fête on the Queen's demands, after catching wind of Elsa's displeasure following their encounter. He didn't mind his evening being cut short, however, since that gave him the time he needed to reach his old room—no, her room, he corrected, rolling his eyes—before she arrived back in it.
Not that it mattered whether she was there or not; he doubted she'd be able to figure out how he managed to get in and out of the room, anyway.
And nor would those fools sitting outside, he thought, snorting to himself as he crossed the cold floor to the other side of the room, crouching down.
His bare hand smoothed over the floor as quiet as a whisper, and found its point. There, he pulled, and once he heard the slight sound of scraping wood, he paused.
And then he smiled.
Hans waited over an hour for her return in the room, poring over everything that had been modified or removed completely, trying to recall what it looked like before; in the end, he'd given up on the exercise, knowing it to be a futile one.
Do try to be amiable, if only for your own sake.
He vaguely remembered Anders's advice as he absently flipped through the various books Elsa had brought with her, though he hardly wanted to figure out some means by which to employ it then. It was far more amusing, for the time being, to take note of her bookmarks, dog-eared pages, and notes scribbled in the margins of the tomes on the shelves.
(He observed with a particularly wide smirk the barely-creased corner midway through the second volume of A Brief History of the Southern Isles and Their Ruling Families, a series he'd been forced to memorise as a child by Magnus—and though the Crown Prince had been younger then, he'd been stricter and far more unforgiving than any tutors Hans had had since.)
Of course, he hadn't been totally careless; when he heard noises beyond the door, he quickly slunk back to his standard hiding spot beyond the dresser, by the far wall, and stood silent as the stone surrounding him.
He'd expected to stand there for at least thirty minutes more, if not longer, while her handmaidens fussed and bustled about with her clothes and hair and makeup—but there had been none of that. In fact, save for her initial entrance and a hushed exchange, the room was very nearly as deathly silent as him.
He smiled slightly.
You're waiting for me—aren't you, Elsa?
He might have expected her to have done that—call off her handmaidens and sit there, coiled, clenching her fists—but he was still tickled by the idea that she would try to figure out where he was coming from by ridding herself of all other distractions.
She probably won't even notice the rearranged books until tomorrow.
She was standing all the way on the other side of the room near the window when he emerged from his place, and he couldn't help but allow a leer to crawl onto his lips.
"Dear Anna, I don't know when you'll receive this letter, but I hope it's not long after I've written it," he began his recitation, watching with dark satisfaction as she whipped around, her eyes cloudy, "I wrote others before it—telling you how I'm faring at court, about the weather on the seas, what events they've held in my honour—but I threw them all away, because those things . . . they're not as important as what I really have to tell you."
He walked towards her with deliberate lassitude, regarding her increasingly frightful scowl with nothing but contempt. "I was unhappy, Anna, with the way they were speaking to me; with the way they treated me, as if I were this little, delicate flower who would be hurt by just hearing his name aloud—"
"Are you quite finished?" she snapped when he was only a few feet away from her, blue eyes molten with anger.
He simpered, withdrawing the letter from his waistcoast, and did a little, mocking bow. "Quite," he jeered as she tried to snatch the paper from his grasp, though he pulled it away again. "I'm touched, really, by how much you've been thinking about me, Your Majesty—"
He could've guessed what her next move would be, if he hadn't been so caught up in making a little show of his excellent memory—but he still sighed when he found his hands shackled with ice to the bedpost once more, the letter safely out of his reach as she quickly looked over it, folded it, and then stowed it away into a pocket of her dress.
He glanced at the bindings wearily. "And here I thought you wanted me to leave."
She glowered, snow drifting over her shoulders. "Why did you steal it, Hans?"
He shrugged. "It was just a bit of fun, Your Majesty," he replied simply, enjoying the ire that flashed across her azure gaze. "And besides, I wanted to see what you look like when you're not wearing your mask."
His eyes flitted to her bare hands as they curled into fists, and then the snow flew in his face, temporarily blinding him until she crossed her arms.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," she spat.
He stared at her disbelievingly, and he must have been staring long enough for her pale exterior to crumble, since she reddened. Irritated, she added: "That's an incredibly stupid reason."
Hans chuckled at that—finally, a sliver of honesty!—and mused that he'd heard more of Anna in that reply than Elsa. "Perhaps," he allowed with a small grin, "but it worked all the same, didn't it?"
She didn't answer that, but her eyes narrowed nevertheless. "How did you get in here, again?" she snapped, her foot tapping restlessly against the floor.
He calmly glanced at the impatient gesture before meeting her eyes. "I told you," he said, "I know my—"
"Yes, 'you know your way around,' so you said," she echoed him in exasperation, snowflakes clinging to her tightly-braided hair. "I meant specifically—how? Where's the secret passage?"
His lip quirked. "I'd show you," he began lazily, "but then you'd have it boarded up, and that would make it harder for me to get in again—"
"That's the point," she seethed, her white teeth cutting him a vicious scowl.
"—and besides," he continued unabated, jangling the shackles on his wrists, "I can't show you from here."
Her lips pressed together. "Just describe it to me."
He scoffed. "You'd never find it that way."
The light creases around her eyes tightened as she glared. "There's no way I'm letting you walk around here freely."
"You did earlier," he reminded her, smiling; his smile only widened when her face flushed in embarrassment.
"That's because I didn't know you were here."
"And even if you did know," he said, his brow rising, "do I really pose that much of a threat to you, Your Majesty?" His gaze was sceptical. "Yesterday, when I snuck in, I didn't try to hurt you—nor did I do anything when you thawed my chains," he pointed out, glancing down at his restraints.
"You stole my letter!" she exclaimed incredulously, and a drift passed by him, making him shudder.
"That's hardly the same thing as trying to kill you," he noted, his voice sharper than before.
"That's—" she paused, frowning. "That doesn't mean you aren't planning to kill me, even now."
He sighed. "And why would I be, exactly? What purpose would that serve?"
Her nose scrunched. "I don't know, Hans—you're the power-hungry prince, not me."
"Was the power-hungry prince," he corrected with a harder edge than she must have expected, observing the surprise that flitted across her expression. "Now nothing more than a day labourer, exiled to a penal colony."
She rolled her eyes, and the action inexplicably irritated him. "Still being in the Southern Isles is hardly 'exile,'" she retorted.
He frowned. "Where I was sent? There's not much of a difference."
The memory of the stale air on Vollan was still too fresh in his mind—all of it was, really—but he pushed it back.
I won't let that define me.
"Anyway, there's no point in killing you—I have no kingdom to rule, nor any crown to steal. Not unless I was planning on pawning it off, that is," he added at the end, but there was only steel in her voice when she answered.
"Is that supposed to be funny?" she snapped.
"Not really," he shrugged. "All I'm saying is this: let's say I killed you, somehow, without you spearing me through the heart with a bolt of ice first—"
"I wouldn't," she protested suddenly, and the falling snow froze in mid-air.
(Dully, somewhere in his chest, his heart thumped at the sight.)
She swallowed, and amended: "I couldn't do something like that. I—I'm not a monster."
She looked, in that moment, just the way she did on the North Mountain, all those months ago—the way she looked when he told her don't be the monster they fear you are, and she turned to him, her face twisted in pain, horror, regret—and that strange sensation of guilt stung at his chest again.
He brushed it off, just as he had with Anders; nonetheless, he spoke more softly than before, and in a more serious way, as he continued.
"Well, forget the icy spear part," he remarked, ignoring the slight touch of relief he felt when he saw her glaring at him again. "As I was saying: if I somehow managed to kill you, what then? I already told you how pointless it would be to try and escape from Strande, and if you were found dead in your room . . . guess who'd be prime suspect?"
As her brow relaxed a little, he went on. "They wouldn't even bother with the dungeons, no—those would be too good for the likes of a regicide. I'd just be hung from the neck until it snapped, or until my legs stopped twitching."
She grimaced at the image in silence for a while, though she frowned when she finally responded.
"So . . . what? I'm supposed to just trust that you won't do anything to hurt me, if I remove those?" she asked warily, staring at her creation.
He shifted, leaning against the bedpost. "Well, trust might be overstating it—how about 'cautiously optimistic'?"
She snorted unfemininely at the suggestion, though she took her time to process what he'd said. He watched her interestedly as a more determined took hold of her features—determined, but also entirely unlike anything he'd seen her wear before, tinged as it was with a soft bitterness.
"Don't you . . . regret it?"
His brows drew together at the question, masking his surprise.
Before he could answer, however, she added with a frown: "And I mean 'regret' as in real regret, Hans—not that you're just sorry that your plan failed."
He chewed over the idea, silent.
Don't you regret it?
He'd thought about it many times, over the past year: about that question, about how she might look when she asked it, about how she might look when he answered it.
But he'd never been able to come up with an explanation for how he felt.
Not one that she'd accept, anyway.
He closed his eyes briefly, feeling a chill pass through him.
Nor one that I can accept.
And then, it was gone—the weight on his wrists, the thick, heavy, cold—and he looked up, unable to hold back the shock from his lips.
She stared back at him with patience—practiced, but unhappy patience—and her arms hung at her sides. "Well, you have two weeks to think of an answer to that," she broke the silence, her mouth pursed. "So don't waste your time playing tricks on me until you do."
Her eyes were startlingly clear, then—clear enough that, for the first time since they'd been reunited, he could see himself plainly reflected on their surface.
And what a disappointing image you cut, Hans.
He swallowed thickly, looking away. "I suppose you'll be wanting a public apology," he remarked, though his voice had none of the bite from earlier.
Her fingers curled around the fabric of her dress. "That's not necessary," she said quietly, "if you mean it."
He blinked at that, unsure of what she meant. "And . . . how would I deliver such an apology to you, if not in public?" he asked as he took a few steps away from the bed at last, towards her.
Her gaze snapped up to meet his in an instant. "I'll let you figure that out."
He would've rolled his eyes then, had hers not been analysing his every move; given her stare, however, he merely put on a cool façade, regarding her warily.
"You'll be wanting me to leave again, I suspect?" he mused.
She stepped out of his way. "By the same way you came in," she replied, looking over her shoulder before settling her blue eyes back on him. "And I'll be watching you, this time."
He smiled a little. "Naturally."
He could feel her eyes on him as he brushed past her, taking his time, his boots barely making a sound as they treaded across carpeted wood.
She really is a determined young lady, that Snow Queen of Arendelle.
He smirked to himself.
That she is, Mother.
When he reached the far corner of the room from whence he'd emerged, he turned a little, finding Elsa only a few paces away . . . but she didn't look angry like he'd expected her to be.
Instead, the white-haired queen just appeared somewhat intrigued with his movements, watching him curiously, as if he might disappear from her sight in an instant again—and he realised, suppressing a grin, that she must have been furious with herself earlier when she'd been unable to figure out how he'd gotten in and out of the room.
She doesn't enjoy being outmanoeuvred, it seems.
He finally came to a halt, standing by the far wall, shadowed by the slight incline of the roof over that area; she stopped a few feet away, her stare cautious.
He glanced over to his right, and her gaze followed his to a tall, full-length mirror there. "There's your 'secret passage,' Your Grace," he told her, his voice teasing. "Not so well-hidden, I'm afraid."
She frowned almost immediately. "That's impossible," she dismissed, crossing her arms. "I checked behind that mirror at least three times this morning—"
He held back a chuckle as she blushed in embarrassment. "Behind, yes, but . . . did you check below?" he inquired, crouching down by the mirror and touching the wood beneath it.
The bright colour in her cheeks faded. "But . . . moving wood, that's—it would be too noisy," she protested, and he tutted her again, making her glare.
"The palace holds many secrets," he said vaguely, smiling, "and now you know one of them: the silent floorboard." He lifted one loose board to illustrate his point, revealing a dark hole beneath it, and he looked up, observing her shocked features. "Seems that Mother only made some slight cosmetic adjustments to this room in my absence, to not find this," he remarked, examining the floor around the hole with a sigh. "Somehow, that doesn't surprise me in the least."
Her stock-still frame, staring down at the ground, encouraged him to continue. "So—now that you know," he said slowly, "do what you will with the information, but . . . it would really be such a shame, I think, to close off the passageway." His smile curled in a way that made the queen frown. "Especially if you want me to apologise to you in private."
She cut him a disbelieving look. "I don't think it's necessary for you to sneak into this room just to deliver an apology," she said, the air around them suddenly biting. "You could just as easily speak with me in some other room of the palace, at a decent hour, when—"
"I don't think you really understand the exact position you're in, do you, Queen Elsa?" Hans cut her off, eyeing her sceptically. "That outside of this room, there is no place in this palace that escapes the eyes and ears of the Queen?"
And sometimes, not even this room, he added internally, a brief grimace touching his eyes.
She paused, a flash of anxiousness passing across her face; then, she raised her chin, obviously not wanting to trust his word.
"I am a guest of the King and Queen of the Southern Isles," she began firmly, "and thus, I will be afforded whatever privacy I require—"
"No—only whatever privacy they will allow you to have," he interrupted again, and she scowled. "And you know that." He stared at her pointedly. "That's why you brought so many of your own guardsmen, isn't it? Because you don't trust anyone here—and you shouldn't."
"Including you," she bit back.
He held her look of contempt, a smirk playing on his lips.
That reply hung on the air, cold, honest, for a few beats; eventually, Elsa averted her gaze.
"Just get out," she said finally, her gaze fixed to the lifted board below. "Just leave."
He didn't smile, nor did he offer anything in the way of a goodbye.
The only frozen heart around here is yours.
The last thing he saw as he slipped beneath the floor was her lips, tinged pink, bitten by a row of white teeth—and the image was enough to send his mind racing.
No, Princess . . . I don't think mine is the only one.