Author's Note: Based on a prompt from MarcelineFan in the reviews section of FanFiction.Net: "She hadn't expected this danger."
Also the prequel to another instalment in this series, Lies.
"The Queen of Ice and Snow."
A grimace touches her lips, and her fingers curl around the hedge that surrounds them.
She's heard the rumours in Arendelle about the triumphant return of the poison-tongued prince to the court of the Southern Isles – they were too widespread to ignore, really – but she's always assumed that they were nothing more than that.
It wasn't until she'd spotted him standing in the centre of the crowded ballroom that evening, his gait not unlike a strutting peacock, that she had begun to believe it could all be real—that he could be real.
(And that he could take some form beyond the edges of her nightmares.)
Seeing him standing so triumphantly and brazenly in front of her now, though, is another thing altogether; the garden maze is quiet and dark and impenetrable, a world away from the champagne and roses of the ballroom, and her hands tense painfully inside of her gloves.
Her lips are thin and pressed together so tightly that when she speaks, she surprises herself.
"I don't have minders, no, if that's what you're asking," he replies. "I've been deemed as part of respectable society these days, as you can see."
Her head snaps up, and the scowl she wears matches the one Anna wears whenever he's brought up in conversation. "It seems that what counts as 'respectable society' here is quite different from anywhere else I've been."
"Quite," he mocks her with a smirk, flexing his hands within his own, impeccably white gloves as her blue eyes harden. "And what about you, Your Majesty? Don't you have any … 'minders' to accompany your every move?"
Her hands curl into fists, but she doesn't notice the lack of ice trails beneath her feet, nor the absence of snow flurries circling overhead. "I told my guards that I needed a moment outside to myself," she tells him with reddening cheeks, and she's not sure why she's saying anything to him at all. "I didn't expect that I would have company."
He smiles. "Oh, you'll always have company at court here, whether you like it or not," he says, and it makes her face, already hot from drink, boil. "Even the walls have ears here—which must be unusual for you, as I'm sure your lords and ladies of Arendelle are far more respectful of their Queen's privacy."
"They are not," she snaps—and then she is mortified at the look of surprise he wears at those unguarded words, feeling sick, and turns away from him.
She falls silent until the sensation passes, and then, softly, she repeats it.
"They are not."
He pauses. "They are not," he echoes, and adds after a beat: "Of course they are not."
Hearing him say it brings to her an odd sense of comfort—something she did not expect, nor want to feel, on this particular visit.
(And certainly not with this particular person.)
"I should kill you for what you've done, Hans," she spits suddenly, though there's no ice crawling along the sides of the hedges in the maze, nor any making its way through the veins of the flame-haired prince, his olive eyes fixed on her.
"And you have every right to, by the laws of your land and my own," he agrees, "but you won't."
She laughs hoarsely after her initial shock subsides. "And why is that? Because I'm 'not a monster'?"
His expression is impassive. "You're not," he affirms, and this time the heat that rises in her face is not unfamiliar to her—but one that she has not felt in a long, long time. "But that's not why."
Her throat constricts at the sober look he's giving her, and she can't stand how it reminds her suddenly of that day on the mountain – of ice daggers sharp enough to kill, her anger, his appeal to her humanity – nor of how she's never forgiven herself for it since.
"What is it, then?" she shoots back, shaking off the thought. "Tell me, Hans, since you seem to know me so well."
He takes a single step towards her, and she flinches. "You won't kill me," he begins, his hands placed neatly behind his back, "because you don't want to or need to—because you're not afraid of me anymore."
She blinks uncomprehendingly.
I'm … not afraid of him?
The mere idea had not occurred to her until he'd said it, and yet – the more she looks at him, bears his presence, feels his eyes take her in – she cannot deny it any more than she could tear her gaze from his.
"That's why you can stand there now without calling for your men," he continues, "and that's why I haven't seen a single snowflake in all this time we've been here."
"No," she says, abruptly realising it herself. "That's because I've had too much to drink."
His eyes widen, and then that awful smirk reappears—the one that makes her remember why she hates him.
"Her Majesty is … intoxicated?"
"Yes," she says with a fierce glower, regretting every word as it leaves her lips. "'Her Majesty' is drunk."
"And with no man to watch over her but me," he teases in a low voice that makes her shudder (though she doesn't understand why).
She ignores the feeling and moves to leave. "There will be some here shortly, I assure you," she promises him, glaring. "Goodbye, Hans—"
"I didn't mean to offend you—no more than my presence already does, that is," he adds, and though she doesn't look at him, she can hear the smile behind his words. "I was just surprised at how honestly you spoke to me just then, that's all."
"Don't expect it to happen again," she rebuts, though her voice is soft, barely heard above the din of the ball inside the palace.
She's shocked to feel a hot breath brush against her ear, his words ringing in her skull as his hand closes over hers, pulling her gloves off so easily that it's like slipping into a dream.
"What are you—" she starts, but her words get lost in her throat when he nips at the nape of her neck, his hands caressing her bare fingers until she's burning.
"Shh," he chides her, pressing her back to his front until she feels him against her so keenly that she chokes, pulsing.
"Ha—" she tries to say his name, though it tastes of a stilted curse leaving her lips as his gloved hands lift up her dress. "Hans—"
He places one hand over her mouth to quiet her as the other traces the inside of her thighs longingly—as if he's been waiting an age to touch her.
(And her legs, trembling, make her wonder if she's been waiting, too.)
"They don't understand, do they, my Queen?" he asks her, his lips soft against her ear. "They say they love you, that they forgive you, that you're really one of them—but you never will be, will you?"
A single finger slips inside of her, and she moans, her head spinning. "You won't be, because you can't be—because you're different, you're special, Elsa."
Her name sounds beautiful and horrible to her then, but she is mute.
She aches, wants, needs something so viciously from this that she lets him talk, lets him pour his vileness into her mind as he puts a second finger inside of her, deeper.
"But I understand—I know what that feels like," he goes on, and ah, she thinks, there's the rub—and she's never hated him more than in that instant, but that hate is mixed up with the heat swelling inside of her, and she's intoxicated by it all in a way that she hasn't been since she turned her kingdom into ice. "I know what it is that you want, and what you've always wanted."
She gasps, and his hand slides away from her mouth as the other picks up in pace, her fingers digging into his arm through his jacket. "You don't understand anything," she says hoarsely, almost unintelligibly.
He kisses her ear, and silences her again. "You want them to accept you," he continues as if she hadn't interrupted, his fingers never slowing. "You want them to see you for who you are—for what you are."
That incredible heat is building up inside of her to a point that is almost painful, and her breathing grows shallow as he tightens his grip around her quivering torso, his fingers relentless within her.
"But I see you, Elsa—I see you."
She stutters at the pronouncement, and then everything is still.
I see you, Elsa.
Something is breaking inside of her – shattering into a thousand pieces of glass (just like his sword did when it hit Anna's frozen form), and then reforming into something else, something new – but she can't find and doesn't know the words to describe such things, because it's not love, nor hope, nor trust, nor even happiness.
I see you.
She staggers, but he's not there to hold her steady anymore; in fact, he's not there at all, and there's no trace of him ever having been there but for the deep, indefinable numbness that sits in her chest like a crystal, threatening to break apart again at the slightest touch.
She swallows, and when she hears herself speak, she doesn't know what to make of the relief in her voice.
"Hans," she says, "I see you, too."