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Blinking in the blinding rays of the early morning sun, Maren sat up and extended her arms out with a yawn.  Careful not to make any noise, she scooted up until her back was flush with the headboard, and tilted her head back, as she closed her eyes and relaxed, taking the time to appreciate the way the cool spring air felt on her skin.  She had to say, these royal sleeping quarters made her own in the great hall look and feel downright frumpy, and even those were impressive to most. Maybe she had just grown to have higher standards. Or maybe, it had everything to do with the pale, lightly freckled body still sleeping soundly beside her.

She seemed small and slender as she slept, but she was deceptively strong, courageous, and impossibly stubborn.  She was the type that could send you either flying or fleeing with a mere expression. She was everything a queen had to be.  And oh, what a queen she was.  But right here, with Maren smiling softly down at her, she was just Elsa.  They bore no titles in these chambers. Elsa had demanded it.

Maren sighed as she reached out, looping a lock of platinum blonde hair around her fingers.  Her shoulders jerked lightly in mirth as she remembered the first time she had been invited up here.  She was a baby, then, really. But that was the day her new life had begun. That was the day she first met Elsa face-to-face instead of just sending her longing glances from afar.

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Maren was trying her hardest not to trip.  The floors in this place were overdressed, in her opinion, and she had to lift her feet higher than she was used to.  In all her sixteen years living in the forest outside of the kingdom, they had never bothered with more than a fur to line their tents, and that was only on the coldest of days.  But this was something else.  All along the winding hallways and rooms, there were floors covered in ornate designs or plush materials.  Even after living among these people for over a year, she was strangely unaccustomed to their love for the lavish.  She didn’t, and couldn't understand it, having only strived for necessity her entire life, and how one could gain so much satisfaction from these purely material surroundings was beyond her.

And then she was led into Elsa’s bedroom, by the queen, who insisted she needed someone to keep her company for the night, as she and the king would be busy at work with the celebration and Elsa should not have to miss out on the festivities of May Day.  Because Maren already worked in the stables of the castle, she was familiar with the grounds and with Elsa.

But she had long stopped listening to anything around her, for her breath had ceased to exist, her eyes falling on the bright, celestial blue eyes of the princess.  There was no doubt in her mind that she was turning red as the summer sun while Elsa’s eyes were carefully raking over her body, but when Queen Iduna looked down at her with concern she had to snap herself out of her trance.

“I’m fine, your majesty, thank you.  I would be happy to accompany Princess Elsa, if she would like me to.” Maren stated plainly, hoping her prolonged staring at the princess went unnoticed.

Elsa had lifted a hand to cover her mouth, and Maren was positive she was hiding her laughter.

Iduna stared down at her daughter, “Elsa, just stay with her, please?”

“Yes, mother,” petulant eyes rolled, and the queen just shook her head.

“I don’t need to hear about you getting into any trouble tonight, okay?”  Iduna’s voice was flat, exhausted. “I already have Anna to worry about.”

Elsa seemed to appreciate the tone, because she immediately softened, “Mother, I’ll behave.  I promise, don’t worry about me tonight, okay?”

Maren was impressed at how easily Elsa’s frozen exterior fell for her mother, but she assumed there was a close bond there to explain the easy change in attitude.

Iduna turned to leave, and Maren could feel Elsa’s eyes focus on her immediately.  She looked at Elsa again, trying not to get lost in how gorgeous she was, when suddenly - Elsa winked.  She winked!

Maren’s eyes went wide and her breath hitched.  She tried to cover it with a cough when Iduna turned around briefly, staring curiously between the two of them.

Behave yourself, Elsa,” she repeated, but there was a grin on her face that betrayed her tone that time.

When Iduna had left, Maren turned to Elsa, “The queen makes you sound like a troublemaker.”

“My mom knows me better than anyone.  Except for my sister, but Anna already snuck out to make trouble.  So, consider yourself lucky. It’s only me you have to worry about,” Elsa flashed a sly smile, then licked her lips.

Maren wasn’t sure why, but Elsa’s behavior only made her whole body feel fuzzy, almost like a pulsing current was buzzing lightly within her.  She had experienced similar behavior from many of the boys around the kingdom, but most either left her alone after they found out she could deadlift a small sled, or tried even harder only to be completely ignored.  And she had never felt like cotton was slowly collecting in her head when she spoke to them.

“Let’s go before the sun sets,” Elsa took Maren by the hand and tugged her out of the room.

Before too long, Maren found herself growing more at ease, and increasingly enamored, with her companion for the night.   Elsa was turning out to be much different than she had expected. After a couple hours wandering the courtyard, visiting various buffet tables, and and endless assortment of activities for flower weaving and accessorizing, the pair had already shared many brief moments of brushing hands, or fingertips lingering too long on another’s back, and soft, but seemingly casual smiles thrown at each other from a distance.  Maren had thought of each interaction as an individual butterfly being placed in her belly. She had even started to suspect that Elsa was doing it on purpose, and so each one added meant a chaotic storm erupted inside her, fuelling the need to eventually set them free. She had to keep reminding herself she was with the princess. In public.

Abruptly, Maren was pulled aside and nearly thrown into a nearby building by Elsa when the the crowd erupted in a dance around the largest tree in the city center, and Elsa turned to Maren to explain.  “It’s an ancient dance of fertility. If they see me, they’ll want the princess to join. I don’t want to. I haven’t a clue as to why they think dancing around a tree is going to achieve blessings in fertility.  They’d have better luck taking a man home tonight if that is their priority.” Elsa finished with a flourish of her wrist and a roll of her eyes.

Maren chuckled against Elsa’s shoulder.  “I thought the Maypole dance happened around a pole?”

“It’s come to be that way, yes.  But when the dance first came to be a tradition, it was done around a tree.  Something about a tree being a symbol of life. I think it’s silly. It’s just turned into another excuse to drink excessively,” Elsa shook her head.

Maren blinked, reminding herself that this was, indeed, the princess of the land.  And the princess was speaking her mind. Maren absolutely adored it.

She broke out in a soft giggle, and Elsa quirked a perfectly sculpted brow, her eyes scanning the area, an internal debate clearly happening in the princess’ mind.

“I told my parents I wasn’t going to get into any trouble tonight,” Elsa finally said, shoulders straightened, as if in preparation for something.

Maren held her breath, not sure what Elsa could possibly be alluding to.  She nodded, confirming that she had, indeed, agreed to behave.

“You want to go back to my room with this bottle of wine and just, forget about the world for a while?”  Elsa pointed at the table next to them, and sure enough, sitting on top of it was a vintage red, still sealed and full.  Maren knew her next choice could be the worst or the best she would ever make.

“That sounds like fun,” Maren answered, any hesitation wavering the longer Elsa’s eyes studied her own.  Her icy blue eyes were piercing into her, and Maren found herself giving them all the permission they needed as she threaded her fingers into Elsa’s, who swiped the wine bottle up in a haste with her free hand, and turned towards the castle and her chambers, dragging Maren helplessly behind her.  In the distance, Maren barely registered the sight of Queen Iduna squinting her eyes, looking directly at the two of them, and then, a small smile formed behind her hand, in the same way she noticed Elsa would hide her joyous laughter. Maren could only smile under the gaze of the queen, but soon, they were out of sight, and both Elsa and Maren couldn’t contain their laughter under the slowly darkening sky.

After a long walk, one Maren would have considered a short adventure given the distance they had covered in such a short amount of time, they stopped just outside of Elsa’s bedroom.  Maren tried to hold her breath under Elsa’s contemplative gaze.

“My mother knew exactly what she was doing tonight, you know,” Elsa smiled, looking at Maren in a way she still couldn’t quite place.

“What do you mean?”  Maren asked, wanting Elsa to confirm the thundering in her chest as more than a misunderstanding.

“Mother knows I’m not like Anna.  I think you know why I’m not like Anna.  I’m next in line to rule the kingdom, but my tastes don’t mean I’ll be bearing any children for it.  Mother still doesn’t want me to be alone, though. She doesn’t think I’m very different. I still love.  I still need. I still feel. Every bit like you, and everyone else in this world.”

Maren nodded, understanding the direction Elsa was vaguely leading her to.  “You’re attracted to me,” she deadpanned.

Elsa grinned, a quiet, lilting laughter escaping her lips, “Did I say that?”

“No, Princess.  You didn’t have to.”  Maren said pointedly.

“Hmmm.  Do I need to ask permission at this point?”  Elsa countered after catching her breath, brushing her fingertips along Maren’s jaw.

“Are you going to kiss me, Elsa?”  Maren raised her eyebrows, smiling encouragingly at her bright, inviting lips, willing them toward her own in a playful challenge,

Elsa began leaning forward, closing the distance and pressing her lips into Maren’s, goosebumps trailing down her neck, rolling down through her back, and escaping out of her arms.  It felt as if the world had been stripped away, completely lost in time and space as they sank into one another. It was just pure adrenaline and emotion momentarily driving the fate and sealing the destinies of two unsuspecting souls.

Maren rested her forehead against Elsa’s, trying to catch her breath for a moment before Elsa opened the door behind them with the softest of smiles, “I believe we have this wine to finish, Honey.”

Honey

Maren’s heart completely belonged to Elsa from exactly that moment on.

 

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Maren smiled fondly at the memory.  They were so young, then. Elsa turned eighteen at the end of that year, and Maren one month prior.  Elsa was busy with princess duty on Maren’s birthday, but they had spent Elsa’s at the top of the highest tower in the castle, entangled in the finest silk sheets and fur blankets Elsa could take without being noticed.  It was that night that Elsa really allowed herself to be completely at ease with Maren..

Elsa let out a soft sigh in her sleep, and Honeymaren, with her fingers still stroking the ends of Elsa’s hair, allowed herself to remember the night they finally admitted their true feelings.

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“I love you, Honey,” Elsa whispered, shifting on to her side to wrap her arm around Maren’s waist.

Maren froze, not because she didn’t know how to answer, but because she couldn’t believe that a princess or future queen could ever love someone like her..

“I love you too,” Maren said quietly, but Elsa heard her.  Maren knew Elsa heard her, because she felt the princess’ shoulders relax next to her, and she smiled, completely happy for the first time since she could remember, because this incredible woman loved her.

“Will you stay the night with me?” Elsa asked, a timid smile emerging beneath her otherwise confident exterior,

“No one is going to come up here to check on you?”  Maren asked, head propped on her hand.

Elsa turned to look at the door, the switch on the handle turned to the side, indicating it was locked.

“They can’t even if they wanted to.”

“I’ll stay, then,” Maren’s smile matched Elsa’s, and their lips met in a heated exchange of unspoken desires.

That was the first night they made love.  It was also the first night of many they promised each other they would always be with each other, even if it meant only stolen moments in the night.  Maren didn’t mind. She would never love anyone but Elsa, and she knew that deep within her heart, Elsa felt the very same.

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Maren shivered suddenly, remembering the year following that sacred memory.  She rolled her shoulders in an attempt to rid herself of the onslaught of unwelcome memories, but they came thundering in anyway.

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“Elsa!  Elsa, wake up!” Maren shook Elsa, the gear she donned earlier that day during her training hanging awkwardly on her body.  She went to fasten her breastplate tighter, and huffed out in relief as it finally sat on her as it should. Elsa stirred, and stared at Maren with a heart wrenching fear she had never seen before.

“Maren?  What’s happening?  Is my mother-Anna-”

“Elsa, I don’t know.  I’m sorry. I have to get you out.  You have to get to safety. The castle is under attack.  We have to go. Now.”

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Elsa’s parents had both perished that night.  Maren had tried desperately to reach them after leading Elsa to safety, but when she had, only a burning library remained.  She had never screamed so much before, but in that moment, she had completely spent her voice and came back to Elsa with tears streaming down her eyes and apologies spoken in a quaking, barely audible rasp.  Elsa understood immediately, and only after seeing Anna appear, safe, in the distance, did she finally allow herself to break, and she collapsed, sobbing into Maren’s shoulder. It had been the eve of Elsa’s nineteenth birthday, but there would be no party that year.

Elsa had asked if Maren would stay at the castle with her for a while, and Maren couldn’t help it, she wanted to be there for Elsa, so she instantly agreed.  And she was there for her at all times, often carrying an exhausted Elsa to her room whenever she cried herself to sleep somewhere, which was at least once a week for a couple months.  Maren never complained. She just held Elsa, and expected nothing from the woman she loved so dearly.

When Elsa finally had to take the crown, she still didn’t forget about Maren, despite a growing schedule of responsibility.  Maren laughed at the memory of Elsa’s not-so-subtle attempt to keep Maren close permanently..

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Maren was taken completely by surprise when a summons came to her door almost three months later.

Maren knew Elsa had been grateful to her for saving her life and the lives of countless others on the night of the siege, but hadn’t expected to be… knighted.  That was a title, an honor, bestowed upon men and men alone.  She wasn’t sure what Elsa was playing at, but it wasn’t in her to doubt her lover and her queen.  So she accepted the invitation.

“I know it’s out of the ordinary, but I am queen and as your queen, I would not be here today if it were not for the actions of Lady Nattura.  She saved my life, as she has done on one more than one occasion, and as such, I appoint her to the highest position of the Queen’s Royal Guard,  as my own personal security.” Elsa paused, her eyes meeting for a moment to send a subtle, mischievous smirk towards Maren, who was entirely aware of the playful smile coming from Elsa.

Knight.  Her guard.  Personal bodyguard. She’s keeping me very, very close.  And I love her more for it, Maren thought to herself.  She also knew that at best, this would raise some eyebrows throughout the kingdom, and at worst, it would stir up some unnecessary discourse for Elsa, and eventually, Maren herself.

But Elsa was her queen, now.  And she was here to serve her queen, so she stopped her mind from snowballing any farther, and stepped forward onto the platform in front of Elsa, daring to catch her eyes.

Elsa’s eyes stayed focused, and they burned into her, “Kneel, Lady Nattura.”

Maren did her best to hide the shiver that rolled over her shoulders.

The rest of the knighting ceremony went on without incident.  The recent tragedy at the loss of King Agnarr and Queen Iduna was still fresh on everyone’s mind, and the new queen’s happiness seemed the only important factor in the quickly changing times.  No one uttered a word of scandal. No one bothered. Their kingdom was in crisis, and they knew their new queen was too smart to settle for ineptitude. Without saying it, many actually feared the icy cold demeanor Elsa exuded after being crowned.  After the small talk and congratulating had subsided, a majority of the guests had finally left the throne room to get drunk elsewhere.

Maren and Anna were still talking, eventually settling by a window to watch the rain that was falling without mercy.  Maren began to adjust the sword she now had attached to her hip, and would adorn every day while on duty, and still, because of her dedication to always being prepared, even kept it on her during times of leisure.  She spent a few minutes aimlessly fiddling with the position it sat in, so distracted she nearly missed the sight of Anna’s mouth opening slowly, before clearing her throat.

“Mother would have been here, watching the rain, too,” Anna said so quietly Maren had to strain to hear it.

Maren’s heart felt like it was breaking again.  This girl lost her parents at the beginning of her adolescence, and now all she had left was a sister that would be busy with ruling the kingdom for many years to come.  Maren wanted to make an offer of friendship, but before she could say anything, Elsa’s voice clipped over her shoulder.

“Mother would also be at the window to yell at us to get back inside.”

Anna chuckled lightly, looking up at her sister.  “Yeah. We did love our rain games.”

“Anna.”

Anna’s eyes flashed with concern from the urgent tone Elsa had used.  “Elsa?”

“Do you want to show Ser Honeymaren here what our rain games are like?”

Anna’s eyes immediately filled with indescribable excitement.  Maren was shocked, but thrilled, to see that Elsa’s face was glowing with it, too.

As Anna scrambled out the door, Elsa held her hand out to Maren.  “What I’m about to do isn’t very regal, but… she needs this. I need this.

Elsa pulled her outside into the rain, and took off into a sprint when she spotted Anna.  Maren watched Anna and Elsa chase each other around the grounds, and Maren knew without a doubt that this was her family now.  She quickly followed suit, dashing after Anna, her feet splashing on the grass beneath her feet.  Anna squealed when she saw that it wasn’t just Elsa chasing her, but also Maren, too, and they were both hot on her trail.

-----------------

A voice broke Maren out of her memories, “Hey there, you.”

“Good morning, Elsa,” Maren answered.  No titles in these chambers. 

Elsa smiled, letting the covers fall at her waist, “Good morning, my love.  Were you watching me sleep?”

Maren shrugged, not protesting.  “You’re so beautiful when you sleep.  When you’re awake, you dazzle me because of the way your mind works so flawlessly.  It’s full speed when those eyes are open, but when they rest… Elsa, when you sleep, you’re enchanting.”

Elsa flushed, “You feel very strongly about that, don’t you?”

“Hmm.  I do.” Maren hummed, slouching down to rest her head next to Elsa's.  She ran a hand through the blonde tresses, twirling them around her finger at the ends.

Elsa closed her eyes.  “I’m glad you’re the one watching me sleep, then.”  Her eyes fluttered open again, but they were still, focused.  “Would you like to join me for breakfast?”

Maren thought for a second before pulling her mouth back in a scowl, “I have training in less than an hour.  But as your personal guard, I can promise that I will be there right after I’m done.”

Elsa chuckled, shaking her head, “Admit it.  Me knighting you was just a stroke of genius.  Otherwise, we’d have to say goodbye a lot more often.”

“I still say permanent attachment is better,” Maren quipped.

Elsa slapped Maren’s shoulder, “I already won this argument.”

The clock bell rang out.

“But I don’t want to leave this bed!” Maren cried.

“I’m afraid we must,” Elsa laughed.

“Staying in here all day would be perfect, though,” Maren argued, slowly making her way out of the maze of sheets and blankets.

“Imagine the ideas others would get,” Elsa joked, completely aware that the ideas were already plentiful, especially among the staff.

“Oh, no,” Maren brought her hands up to her face, feigning shock.

They shared a peaceful silence as they dressed, with Elsa choosing a particularly flattering green dress she wore only in the spring.  It was one of her favorites, and one she had strategically hidden in the back of her closet to prevent Anna from stealing. Maren stared speechless, mouth agape.  Maren could tell Elsa loved the way her eyes roamed over her, so she made no attempt to hide it.

Eventually Elsa smirked, “I will attend to your needs later, Honey.  Until then,” Elsa leaned forward, kissing Maren softly, “I love you,” she leaned in again, deepening the kiss.

Maren broke away first, “I love you.”

She watched as Elsa tiptoed out of the room, and Maren knew to wait a few minutes before leaving to avoid any added suspicion, so she found herself throwing her head back on Elsa’s pillows, inhaling the familiar scent of lavender that Elsa always left behind.  Elsa was intoxicating even when she wasn’t around, Maren was coming to find, and she wondered how someone as special as Elsa could possibly love her.

Maren felt as though she was nothing more than a glorified bodyguard at times.  Yes, she was a knight. But most of the men on the Guard looked at her as if she were a stain on their titles.  Maren had to fight off several headaches interacting with her fellow knights, and secretly wished they could all be women so she wouldn’t have to deal with all those creeping eyes.  She tried her best not to voice most of those concerns to Elsa, knowing that her Queen would always protect her.  She was technically in charge of them, so it wasn’t Elsa’s job to keep them in line.

But there were moments when it was her queen that needed protecting, and Maren never needed an oath to devote her life to the safety of her queen.  If she could, she’d attach herself permanently to the woman’s side. And as much as both of them laughed at the appeal of such a thought, amused enough to break down the logistics - “Are we talking literally, physically attached here, or are you being metaphorical?” Elsa had asked, both to clarify, and to tease -  they knew it wasn’t wise for a multitude of reasons.

There was a knock at the door, and Maren sat up quickly, frozen to the spot, knowing she should be running to hide.

Another knock.

Maren jumped up and looked down at her hand, accidently having gripped a pillow with her fist out of panic, and swung it wildly once in the air before tossing it aside.

A pillow is not going to hide you!  She kicked herself mentally.  Her eyes settled on the folding screen Elsa often used to change behind sitting at the other end of the room. 

Perfect!

She crouched behind it quickly, trying to still her heart in her chest.

The door popped open, and she heard the stomping of an energetic pair of feet.  Maren frowned. Definitely not Elsa.

The footsteps grew tamer, though still very audible.  They moved closer, and then stopped, shuffling so whoever it was could look around properly, Maren assumed, and her heart almost gave out completely.

She was listening closely, hearing a few steps move to the side, and then a few that seemed to sound further away. Maren closed her eyes and sighed, quietly, out of relief.

That was so clo-

Maren screamed as Anna’s voice rang out right next to her, “I can see your shadow behind that, you know.”

Maren stood up straight, eyes wide and not sure where to look, so she stared at Anna’s feet.  Clearing her throat, she attempted a curtsey, but it turned into a half-bow, half-dance, and Maren grew more embarrassed by the minute, so she eventually dropped her arms, defeated, and evened out her voice.  “Princess Anna.”

Anna narrowed her eyes, but they weren’t threatening.  Maren could see the gears turning in the young girl’s head, putting all the pieces of the past together, until-

“Ohhh.  I get it now,” Anna laughed to herself.

Maren could only stare blankly at the girl in front of her.

“So this is why Elsa always refuses any suitors,” Anna clasped her hands over her mouth as a deeper realization began to form, and then clapped them frantically, “I knew she loved someone!  It was you this whole time?”

Maren wished more than anything that Elsa could be here to tell her what to say, but she wasn’t and there was no time to find her, so Maren chose to tell the truth.

“Yes,” Maren nodded.  Short, but still the truth.

"Huh.  All this time…" Anna shrugged, "She could do a lot worse, if you ask me.  I’ve seen some of these guys that come around… I think they’re all conspiring and growing the worst facial hair that could possibly exist.  I think it’s some twisted plot to take over the world.”

Maren laughed.  “Their big nefarious plan is to take over the world one bad beard at a time?”

“Yes!” Anna waved her hands in the air, “You get it, see?  Elsa just gives me this look like I’m crazy!”

Maren talked with Anna until her training was due to start up and she had to leave.  It was going to be rough, going in without breakfast, but she didn’t mind so much because Anna always managed to drop a few spare rays of sunshine into her day.  The young girl had a talent of easing the tension in a room even if you thought there was none. Anna might be twenty-one, but Maren couldn’t help but think back to Elsa when they first met, and wondered what Anna’s future held for her.  Maren had been so young, with so much of her future uncertain. And then, suddenly, there was Elsa. She knew there was some poor sap out there somewhere that Anna would have the same effect on.

“Look who’s late!  Been cozying up to the queen, have you?” The scathing look on Maren's face conflicted with the happiness coursing through her.

The day had been going so well so far…

“Ser Hans, do shove your sword up your-”

Hans threw up his hands, mocking surrender, “Hey, hey!  Why so hostile, boss? I’m only saying what everyone is thinking!”

Maren grit her teeth before responding, “That would make sense, seeing as you aren’t capable of thinking on your own.”

Hans’ features glazed over in a rare moment of defeat, but hardened again and he stared Maren down.  His messy, red mutton chops were starting to distract her.

Maybe Anna is onto something about the facial hair…

Before she could stop herself, Maren burst into an airy fit of laughter.

Hans squared his shoulders, clearly offended at the mental process he just witnessed.

“What is wrong with you?”  He finally managed to say, breaking pitch obviously enough, only hurting his pride even further.

Maren shook her head, weighing the options of continuing their interaction, and upon deciding that he just wasn’t worth her time or patience, she shrugged and walked away to collect her gear before she hopped onto the back of her horse and raced off into the distance.

Today she was riding, she decided.

As soon as her training hours had concluded, Maren weaved her way through various conversations of drinking and brothels, trying her best to ignore every one of them, before running to her quarters to bathe. 

It was still unusual to her, the level of comfort Elsa had given her since first asking her to stay in the castle.  She’d rather bathe in the frigid sea than share the waters with all the people of the kingdom at the bath house, so her own tub all for herself was something she was eternally grateful for.

After a small fire was built and a calming bath that soothed most, but not all, of her aching muscles, Maren stepped out of the water, slowly because she was prone to tripping on the cold stone beneath her wet feet, and collected a fresh set of clothes.  She chose a maroon-colored shirt today, knowing that Elsa liked it when she wore that color. For some unknown reason, it drove her wild. And that’s what she was going for. Maybe tonight is the night.   She hummed as she pulled on the lace of the collar, closing it just enough to make sure she’d be comfortable bending over.  She was sure they were still sending her the men’s uniform, if only to mess with her, because the opening of the weave started lower than it should.  She had wondered on several occasions if she should bring this up with Elsa, but the way Elsa’s icy blue eyes would scan over her with unfettered desire had given her pause.  She did look good in the garb, after all.

She rummaged through a drawer, eyes stopping on a small box in the corner.  I really need to just ask her, already.   Maren picked up the box, taking extra care as if it were precious.

But it was precious.

She opened the box, and inside sat the ring she had purchased from a traveling soldier.  He needed the money, and she had more than enough to compensate him for such a gorgeous piece of jewelry.

It was simple, but it was also beautiful in the same way Elsa was.  The longer Maren looked at it, the more detail she noticed in the four petal-shaped diamonds, placed adjacent to one another in a star pattern, the glittering star accentuated with tiny sapphires, rubies, and emeralds speckled around the band with meticulous symmetry.  A light, but noticeable swirling pattern was engraved into the entire circle, connecting each stone to one another.

She knew proposing to the queen was unorthodox..  Almost unheard of. Almost .

Maren had heard about some other couples around the kingdom, and none were met with too much scrutiny.  But this was the queen. And her knight. And she was sure that could cause something of a stir that Elsa would be reluctant to set in motion.

It was their biggest downfall, she was finding.  Elsa’s desire to stay elusive was beginning to bother Maren more than she cared to admit.  But she loved the woman, and knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life by her side. The logical side of Maren had told her to ease into the idea, or maybe wait to see if Elsa could warm up to courting publicly first.  But she knew Elsa needed a proper push on personal things, because it was only matters of the heart with which she would truly doubt herself. Maren felt Elsa shouldn’t have too much time to decide on this particularly delicate matter, and was biding her time for the right moment to surprise her.

Maren held her breath as she placed the ring carefully back into the center of the box and tucked it back into the drawer.

Soon, she told herself.

Right now, she needed to find Elsa, as she had promised earlier.  Surely, she would either be missed, or chastised for running late.

When she found herself at the end of the main hall, Maren halted immediately, hearing a sound that, while always music to her ears, was out of place here outside of Elsa’s chambers.

Elsa was giggling.  It lacked a certain familiarity, Maren quickly noted as she turned the corner to see what caused the noise.

Maren gasped, only registering two things: an older man standing close to a younger one, who was currently on one knee in front of Elsa.

Her Elsa.

She was suddenly filled with a mixture of anger and jealousy, but also an overwhelming sensation of dread filled the pit of her stomach, and Maren couldn’t quite place why.

Elsa’s eyes flicked up and took in the sight of Maren in the distance, eyes carefully trained on her, and Maren only moved to cross her arms in front of her chest.

Maren couldn’t see well enough, so wasn’t sure if it was embarrassment or panic that flushed the queen’s skin to a spectacular shade of pink,  She squinted and noticed Elsa’s attention to her shirt.

The maroon shirt.   Maren allowed herself to chuckle quietly despite the scene before her.

Elsa broke their eye contact and looked down at the man in front of her, “Thank you, Lord.  We will discuss the details soon. I have something I need to attend to at this moment, however.”

The men both turned, examining Maren closely as they slowly walked past her.  The younger man had turned his head, craning it to look between Elsa and Maren with a look of delighted curiosity before he was out of sight completely.

“What was that?” Maren wasted no time asking.

Elsa hesitated, and Maren’s stomach turned to stone.

“We should go somewhere else to talk.”

Without looking at her, Elsa walked past Maren, motioning briefly for her to follow, but no hint of playfulness was present in her stride.

The rock inside Maren just grew heavier, and she ran her hands through her loose hair before following.

By the time they reached Elsa’s door, Maren was sure she would collapse from the growing weight pressing into her, manifesting from the sinking feeling that something very bad was about to happen.  Her instincts were rarely ever wrong, and for once in her life, Maren was desperately hoping she had missed something. Her mind invited the image of the ring that was waiting safely in her drawer before casting it aside completely. 

She had to control her emotions or risk saying something she’d regret.

Elsa guided her into the room with a noticeable tremble in her hands, and Maren’s only thought was how much she wanted to run away.  Just flee from whatever awful thing was about to happen. But she knew she had given Elsa a large piece of herself so long ago that she wouldn’t leave without a real reason to.

Elsa finally broke the jagged silence between them, though she spoke so softly Maren had to focus intently to hear her.  “I have accepted a marriage proposal.”

All at once, Maren felt like her heart had given out on her, and she stepped away from Elsa, her back hitting the wall with almost painful force.

“You’re joking,” Maren said, lacking any confidence in her words.

Elsa stepped closer, reaching out to cup Maren’s cheek.  Every inch of Maren recoiled at the touch. Elsa frowned, dropping her hand to her side.

“You know I don’t want this.”

“Then why are you doing it?” Maren seethed.

“It’s good strategy.  Amplifying resources..  And they blackmailed me.  Well, his Uncle did. Said he would reveal the nature of our relationship to the people if I didn’t agree to join our kingdoms.  And the public has been rabid about my marital status for the last couple years.”

“Are you kidding me?” Maren had to whisper, or she’d attract the attention of the entire castle..

Elsa stared at her, arms folded, biting her lip, and Maren had to remind herself that this wasn’t her Elsa anymore.  No, not her Elsa all.

“I know you don’t like it, but eventually, it had to come to this.  We both knew that, right?”

Maren laughed, and her outburst made Elsa suddenly look at her with concern.

“Did we, really, though?  Because when I last saw you, it was only you and I.  And every other time I’ve ever seen you, it was still just you and I.  But suddenly, the threat of outing us is enough to make you....” trailing off, Maren stiffened her shoulders defensively and her eyes pierced through Elsa like arrows fired into her soul by an expert archer.

“Maren-” Elsa started, but Maren quickly threw up her hand.

“Stop trying to rationalize this.  You can never rationalize this.  Not to me. After all this time, you think I would be okay with this?  Just like that?”

Elsa’s frown grew deeper.  “We wouldn’t have to stay apart, though.  We could still see each other. Not as frequently, of course, but it would still be possible.”

Maren’s mouth hung open, completely speechless, but mostly appalled at the words she had just heard.  Elsa studied her carefully, and seemed to have realized her mistake because her arms raised to wrap around herself and she bowed her head, diverting her eyes from Maren.

“Don’t you dare try to delegate your affections, or mine.  What makes you think that I would want to share my bed with you while yours is occupied by someone else?” Maren’s voice came out low and calculated, almost daring Elsa to say one more wrong thing.

But Elsa didn’t say anything.  She just sank into a nearby chair and stared at her hands.

Habit almost had Maren leaping forward to soothe the storm thundering within Elsa, but for the first time ever, she fought the urge and chose to stay rooted to her spot, feeling angry and betrayed.  She couldn’t just turn a blind eye to this, and she could tell by the look on Elsa’s face that she was realizing it, too.

“I can’t lose you,” Elsa whispered.

“You already made your choice.”

Elsa stood up, approaching Maren slowly.  “Please, Maren. Don’t let this be the end of us.  We can work something out.”

Maren’s throat constricted.  Never in the time that she knew Elsa had she ever wanted so badly to be away from her.  The reality of that feeling struck her hard, and she fought back the tears that were slowly burning in her eyes.

Inhaling deeply, she turned away from Elsa, reaching for the door.  “If you’ve made your decision, we’re done here. I’ll see you tomorrow, your majesty .”  The bite behind the words was tangible, and Elsa gasped.  It was the first time Maren had ever addressed her with a formal title in private.

The implications were not lost on Elsa, who watched Maren leave the room with a pained expression, which Maren was sure she mirrored as she rushed down the hall, away from the worst conversation of her life with no idea where she was going next.

As she turned a corner, she collided hard against someone, flying backward but not hard enough to fall over.  The same couldn’t be said for the other person.

Maren began a stream of apologies before she saw the warm smile coming from no one other than Anna.

“I’m the clumsy one, it’s probably my fault,” Anna said as she took Maren’s hand and pulled herself upright.  Anna looked Maren over, and hesitated a moment before she asked, “Is everything okay, Maren?”

“I uh, yeah.  I’m fine, I guess.  Never better?” Maren knew she was less than convincing, but she had to try.  Her current state had everything to do with Anna’s sister, after all.

“Is this about Elsa?” Anna seemed to read her mind.

Maren just nodded, not wanting to elaborate where the walls had ears.

Anna understood, looping her arm through Maren’s.  They began walking in the direction of the stables.  Anna must have known that was where she was headed in the first place, seeing as Maren always went to her horse when she was upset.  Maren was surprised she hadn’t noticed before just how attentive Anna was to the details around her. She really did pick up on a lot of things.  Especially the things she shouldn’t. She took after her sister in that way.

When they got outside into the cool but calming air of the spring night, Anna turned to Maren with wide, sympathetic eyes.

“What happened?”

“I really shouldn’t be the one to tell you this first,” Maren stated honestly, gathering that Anna had no idea yet about Elsa’s engagement.

“Listen, with or without Elsa, you’re family to me, too.  A sister in some ways, but a friend, always,” Anna said pointedly, “So, tell me what’s really going on because you look horrible.  I mean, no offense.”

“Elsa is getting married,” Maren felt her stomach roll as she said it out loud.

Anna’s face scrunched up as if the words were a personal affront to her senses.  “And it’s not to you?”

Maren thought again of the ring in her drawer and her heart twinged with a jolt of pain she had never thought she'd feel, “No, Anna, it’s not to me.”

“But you want it to be you?”

“Isn’t that obvious?” Maren shrugged.

Anna bit her lip, eyes wandering around the darkening skyline as she thought, “Have you ever told her this?”

“We were so young, but we did kind of promise to marry each other once.  But that doesn’t count, does it?”

Anna shrugged. “I wasn’t there, so I don’t know.  What else did Elsa say?”

Maren huffed, “She had the nerve to ask-!”

Maren stopped herself, because she knew Anna would, in her aways-a-helper kind of way, end up repeating something she said to Elsa.

“No, you’re not getting off that easy.  What did she ask?” Anna had different ideas.

Fine.  It doesn’t matter anyway.  Not anymore.

“She wanted to keep seeing me, even after the wedding.  She thinks… I don’t know, I think somewhere in her mind, she thinks she’s doing the right thing.  Everyone wants to see the queen married, but do you think Elsa considers for one moment that the person she’s supposed to be with is right under her nose?”

Anna opened her mouth to speak, but Maren began again before she could start,

“Since we were seventeen, Anna!  That’s how long I’ve loved your sister.  But she throws it all away because some asshole with an off-center wig decides to blackmail her.”

They were at the stables now, and Maren slid down the wall, her bottom hitting the ground harder than she anticipated.  Anna did the same, wrapping her arm tightly around Maren’s shoulders.

“She loves you, right?” Anna asked.

“I thought she did,” was all Maren could say before the disappointment tore through her again.  “I was going to propose. Maybe tonight, if the stars aligned,” she laughed, but any warmth was gone, “I guess I have my answer anyway.”

“Wait, wait, no.  I’ve seen you two together!  I mean, it’s all hindsight now, but I know what you are to each other,” Anna declared, softly patting Maren’s shoulder. 

It was a small gesture, but Maren immediately softened at it.

“Look,” Anna continued, this time waiting for Maren to look her in the eyes before making her point.  “As Elsa’s only living relative, I give you the approval to marry my sister.  Not some power-hungry nobody that needed leverage to win her hand.”

Maren saw the mischievous smirk as Anna finished, and had to ask, “What are you planning, Anna?”

“The way I see it, you have two choices here.  The first one, you could cut your losses, turn away from everything and hop on a boat to somewhere you’ve never been.  The second, and honestly, the one I think you should choose, involves a little more finesse and effort.”

Maren raised her eyebrows, intrigued and amused at the same time, “What does that mean, exactly?”

“Well, if Elsa thinks she wants to marry someone else, why don’t you remind her why it should be you?”  At Maren’s curious head tilt, Anna elaborated, “Wear what you know she likes to see you in the most. Be as noticeable as you can when others are around her, but aloof if you’re alone.  Tempt her, but don’t act on it,” Anna giggled at Maren’s horrified expression, “And I won’t let her off easy, either.  She’s traditional, so she’s going to ask me for my blessing. She’s not going to get it.”

Maren felt calmed by how much faith Anna seemed to have in her abilities to win over the infuriating woman that was her own sister.

She supposed Anna’s idea wasn’t that bad.

“Okay, I choose the second option.  But if, on the day of the wedding, Elsa hasn’t called it off…”  Maren’s voice broke off, and she tried to fight back the tears she had been holding in for far too long.

“You’ll be going with the first choice?” Anna finished, sensing that Maren was in no state to talk anymore.

Maren gave her a solemn nod.

As a calm silence fell over them, a thought came to Maren, who looked at the younger girl that seemed completely lost in her thoughts, and asked quietly, “Why are you here, with me?  I’m sure Elsa is in a state right now, too.”

“She’s going to want someone to take her side.  I can’t do that for her right now. I’m going to try to avoid her until later,” Anna said, not a hint of hesitation or regret in her words.

After enough time for the sun to disappear completely, leaving only a small sliver of the moon in its absence, Maren decided she was ready to go for that ride.  She tapped Anna’s shoulder and motioned for her to stand.

Taking her cue to leave, Anna turned to Maren “Option two, right?”

Maren nodded, “Thank you, Anna.”

Anna just shrugged as if to say don’t mention it , and slipped out the door.

Maren turned to collect her saddle, and realized she felt so much lighter after talking to Anna.  She was going to enjoy her ride tonight, regardless of the hollow feeling she still felt in her chest whenever she thought of Elsa.  And she thought of Elsa almost all the time..

Shaking her head to try and break the spiral her thoughts had her headed toward, she mounted Bandit, her black and white steed, and guided him out into the still, chilly night.

She did, in fact, enjoy her ride very much.  She enjoyed it so much she stayed out for far too long, during an unusually cold night for the time of year, and by the time she made it back to her bed, she had no idea just how awful she would feel in the morning.  She was completely drunk on fresh air and, at one point, she even hopped off and ran beside Bandit, stopping only when her lungs were protesting so strongly she was overcome with a coughing fit. And that was all before her spontaneous swim in the freezing waters surrounding the kingdom.

She was exhausted.

She slept soundly that night.

Her mind played its dirty tricks, though, leading her through vivid memories and fantasized scenarios with Elsa deep in her dreams, intensifying her growing nausea when a booming knock sounded at her door, with every inch of her body protesting even the slightest of movement.

“Elsa, I will kill whoever is at your door.  For the love of-” Maren felt around the bed, surprised for a moment that it was empty, and opened her eyes.  There was an unmistakable feeling of apprehension surging into her skin.

Oh.  That’s right.  Maren remembered.

“Who is it?” Maren called out.

An unexpected, but welcomed, voice rang out from outside the door.

“Mar- Ser Honeymaren,” Anna corrected, “It is I, Princess Anna,” Maren could hear the stifled giggle as she paused, “and I humbly request a temporary allowance into your chambers to discuss an urgent matter.”

Maren laughed, and her whole body sent a wave of angry punishment to her in the form of seizing muscles in her abdomen.  “Come in,” she called out, painfully aware of the scratchy feeling in her throat.

Anna’s face appeared from behind the door, and while she was smiling, she looked far from happy.

“I’m sorry for waking you.  I wanted to talk to you before you met up with Elsa.  I’m assuming you still have morning briefings with her.  It’s your job, after all…” Anna went silent, wringing her hands awkwardly.

Maren sat up slowly, coming to the conclusion that she felt absolutely miserable, both inside and out.  “What do you need to talk about?”

“It’s about Elsa… and what I said to her last night.  Do you want to hear it?” Anna asked timidly.

Maren considered her, briefly, but she still took a moment to ask herself if she wanted to hear what Anna had to say..  Her heart still beat for Elsa, though, so her decision was already made for her. She nodded slowly.

“Okay, so after I left you last night, and don’t be mad, but I went to see her.  She was alone in her room, just staring out from the balcony. She didn’t tell me what was wrong, so I just kind of threw it at her.  I’m not proud of it, but the realization that you had been the one to tell me really seemed to hurt her feelings. So, I told her off for hurting you.  She got really quiet, then,” Anna closed her eyes, pressing a hand on her chest, “and then she just cried, for so long. She cried herself to sleep. I know because I was with her all night.  She needs you, Maren. She’s realizing that, and it hasn’t even been a full day yet.”

Maren was skeptical to take the account of such a boisterous spirit as gospel, but she knew Anna well enough to know she wouldn’t lie.  “How am I supposed to act aloof when I go see her?”

Anna smiled, “That’s simple.  Don’t engage in anything personal.  If she tries, just end the conversation politely and leave.  That’s how I do it.”

“When did you become a love expert?” Maren asked.

Anna blushed, but if there were any details to tell, she kept them to herself.  “I have my ways,” she said with a flourish of her hand.

The bell rang out, sounding different in her room than it did from Elsa’s bedroom, and Maren panicked momentarily, knowing she would have to go face the catalyst of her worry and doubt in just a short amount of time.  She leapt out of the bed and hurried to her dresser, staring incredulously at every shirt she laid her eyes on.

Anna coughed, “I know you think I was clueless this whole time, but… I did notice the way she stares when you forget to completely tie the top of your shirts closed.  And she likes you in every color, not just the red one you wore yesterday.”

“It was maroon,” Maren said, completely aware it was a useless piece of information, but she couldn’t exactly come up with anything more astute to say because Anna, true to her form, had completely surprised her.

Maroon, ” Anna repeated, rolling her eyes, “Just don’t lose your temper.  You know she’ll only shut you out if you do.”

After Anna left, Maren realized she didn’t have the biggest variety of colors in her daily attire.  She groaned and stared grimly at her options.

She had to choose between white and a deep blue.  Eventually, the blue won and she took Anna’s advice, carelessly tying the lace keeping the top of her shirt together so it left just enough space open for the right person to notice.

This is stupid, Maren thought to herself.  She was trying to accomplish the impossible.  Elsa’s mind was harder to change than the seasons.

After getting dressed, she fastened her sword to her waist and strode out, head held high though feeling heavier than ever before.  The sudden pounding at her temples made her vision go blurry a few times, and her throat was becoming more of a nuisance as time wore on.  Maren shook her head, her hair flying wildly around her head. A shiver passed through her and she winced.

Strange.  It’s not even remotely cold in here right now.

“Get it together.  You can’t be sick right now,” she said quietly.  Raising a hand toward her forehead, she stopped and took a deep breath before she put it against her skin.

She was burning up,

When she finally made it Elsa, she noticed the man that was on his knee the day before, looking at Maren with the same curious eyes from their last encounter, standing at Elsa’s side..  The older man, whose wig was still frustratingly crooked, stood smugly on the other side.

Maren had to still herself, because if she moved even another inch, she would run in the opposite direction.

Elsa read her reaction with perfect clarity, and Maren could see the flicker of pain and discomfort behind the otherwise strong and demanding eyes.

“Do you have anything to report to me this morning?” Elsa said curtly.

Maren wanted to scream.  More than that, she wanted to drag Elsa somewhere private and yell at her, telling her that she was being absolutely ridiculous and to just tell these people to go away already.  But she couldn’t.

She wouldn’t.  It was a waste of energy.  So, she just responded in the only way she knew how.  Something with a hint of a threat, and cruel honesty. And her throat was hurting too much to yell, anyway.

“No, your majesty,  I heard recently that there might be an opportunity for travel very soon, though.  I’m excited to say I’ll be looking into going very soon. With your blessing, of course, my Queen, ” Maren had to bite down on her tongue to consider her next move carefully, knowing the older man staring daggers into her was keenly aware of her relationship to Elsa.  “Quite frankly, I’d rather be on my way out before all the wedding mayhem, but it seems I’m obligated to guard you up until the ceremony.”

Elsa’s eyes narrowed, “Why just up until the ceremony?”

Maren smiled, but it never met her eyes.  She was trying to steady her voice even though her heart was threatening to escape from her chest.  “Once you’re married, you’ll have no use for me. Of course, I may be a knight, but I cannot compare to the protection and devotion of the one sworn to hold your heart forever.  Surely, I’ll be moving on to other things. I've fulfilled my duties here, your majesty. It would make no sense to stay if all of your needs are taken care of."

Elsa balked.  Maren's words were meant to hurt, and she could tell by the way Elsa had to blink and reign herself back in that they had hit their mark.

"Is this how you really feel?"

Maren moved to stand straighter, "Yes."

Elsa glared at her, opening her mouth to fire back.

A cough from the older man caught Elsa’s attention before she could, however.

“Excuse me, where are my manners?” Elsa shot a terse look at Maren, “Ser Honeymaren Nattura, I’d like you to meet Lord Carvey, and this is his nephew, Lord Hockley.”

Maren inspected the younger man intently, searching for flaws and weaknesses because it helped distract her from the thought that he was engaged to the woman she was supposed to be with.

She immediately noticed a small strip of hair growing wildly on his chin, and wondered briefly if the style was chosen or imposed by an inability to grow a full beard.  Willing back the urge to laugh, she shook her head, thinking to herself. Huh.  Anna’s definitely not wrong about the beards.

Remembering all eyes were on her, she smiled as politely as she was capable.

“I apologize, we don’t get visitors often.  Took me by surprise twice now, it seems.” Maren made sure her voice was laced with venom as she continued, “If that is all, I’m afraid I must go.  I was requested to assist Princess Anna with a project. May I be dismissed, m y queen?”

Maren knew Elsa wanted to blow up at her.  The blood boiling beneath her porcelain complexion was easy for Maren to notice.  She had seen it many times before when Elsa was particularly displeased.

Elsa crossed her arms and stared vacantly at her, “These morning meetings aren’t necessary.  If there is anything that needs to be discussed, you are to find me and tell me directly.”

Maren nodded, “Thank you, your majesty.”

She bowed slightly, because she was already dizzy and didn’t want to risk leaning over completely.  She went to leave the room.

Except.

After a few steps, the whole room went sideways, though Maren was sure she was just standing upright.  Everything started to slowly move out and away from her. The sides of her vision blurred completely, and the last thing she heard was Elsa calling out her name before everything went black.

-----------------

- 2 weeks earlier -

Maren was laying on her side, her eyes barely starting to flutter open, when she felt the bed sink down next to her.

Flipping her head around to inspect the source, she soon found herself smiling brightly at the sight before her.

Elsa was kneeling beside her, a light gray dress with glittering accents hugging her body tightly, and in her outstretched hands lay a small wrapped box.

Rubbing her eyes, Maren sat up and looked at Elsa with a quizzical expression.  “What’s all this?”

Laughing, Elsa inched closer to Maren, still holding out her gift.  “It’s our anniversary, technically. It’s May Day.”

“Oh, you mean the day your mother set us up?” Maren quipped.

Elsa shrugged, nodding in agreement.  “You’re not wrong. She knew I always went outside the stables to watch the riders.  She was a little shocked when she figured out it was you.”

“She was quite a character.  I remember the night everyone had fevers and drank too much ‘elixir’ and ended up losing their minds.  Your father fell asleep right after it started, but I remember your mother going on about the magical spirits talking to her.  She was pretty out of it, to be honest, I had to force her to drink water and go to sleep,” Maren chuckled.

If she were being honest, it was one of her fondest memories.  She remembered just before she left the queen that night, she was stopped by Iduna’s hand, which grasped firmly around her wrist.  “You’re good for her, you know. Just, don’t let her fool you. She’s tough on the outside, but once you’re in her heart, she’ll never let you go.  Always remember that.”

Maren never mentioned that private moment to Elsa, of course.

Elsa grinned, “Was that the night Anna asked if I’d teach her how to fly?  And then tried to fight me when I said it wasn’t possible?”

“That would be the night,” Maren said, trying her best to maintain a straight face at the flickers of memory her brain kept replaying.

“So...  Are you going to open this or not?” Elsa said, almost sulking.

“Sorry, yes,” Maren took the box in her hands.  She was able to hold it with one hand, suddenly aware that it was surprisingly heavy.  She peeled the paper off with care, setting it to the side to dispose of later. She lifted the lid of the box and gasped at what she saw.

It was a silver pocket watch.  Not just any pocket watch, though.  It looked as though it were custom made, because it bore Elsa’s family crest engraved delicately into the front, and when Maren popped the clasp and opened it, she gasped softly at the inscription that greeted her.

“You have my heart until the end of time.  I love you always. Elsa.”

She could tell Elsa had done the engraving on the inside herself, as it had many similarities to her own handwriting, and Maren wondered when she had mentioned to Elsa that she needed a new pocket watch.

“It’s perfect, Elsa!  I love it. Thank you, but I don’t have anything for you,” Maren leaned forward to place a soft kiss on Elsa’s lips.

“Of course you do,” Elsa whispered into Maren’s ear, “You’re the only present I want.”

Maren put a hand on each of Elsa’s shoulders and a tiny smile played on her lips, “Then you have me.  Always.”

-----------------

Maren woke up with a throbbing headache before she even opened her eyes.  She was in a very comfortable bed, that much she could tell. It wasn’t until she heard the melodious voice coming from a short distance away that she registered where, exactly, she was.

“Elsa?” Maren groaned, her voice still fighting her throat with a vengeance.  She looked around her, and just as she suspected, she was in Elsa’s bed. Some time must have passed, however, because it was now dark outside.

“You’re awake!” Elsa cheered, the warmth from her fingers wrapping around Maren's.

Maren didn’t want to welcome the intimacy, but despite her best efforts, she squeezed Elsa’s hand instead of pulling away from it.

"What happened?" Maren asked, rubbing at the side of her head.  She flinched when it hurt more than she had expected.

"You collapsed.  You were out for more than a day.  They said you had a fever…"

Maren could tell Elsa wanted to say more as she fiddled with the corner of a nearby pillow.

"Maren, I…" she stopped, pulling her bottom lip with her teeth.

She waited, but Elsa never continued.  They just looked at each other, their unspoken words circling in the air, shrouding them in a suffocating fog of uncertainty.

"I'm going to go," Maren abruptly let go of Elsa’s hand.  She made her way to stand, regretting the movement instantly, because in her attempt to storm out, she almost fell over again instead.

"Where are you going?" Elsa asked, placing her hands firmly on Maren's waist to help steady her.

Maren pulled back, needing the suddenly unwelcome sensation coming from Elsa's hands on her to be banished immediately.  Maren stared at the floor, aware of her sudden inability to look at Elsa.

Tensing at the display, Elsa also retreated, wrapping her arms around her waist and cupping her elbows.  "Will you ever be able to look at me again?" Elsa's voice was small, almost unrecognizable. Maren had to remind herself she had no reason to feel guilty.

"Are you still getting married?"

Elsa didn't answer.

Maren blew out a forceful breath.  "Then, no."

Tapping into the anger she had been trying to bottle up, Maren turned on her heel, past Elsa, and opened the door before looking over her shoulder, "Thank you for looking after me. I'd prefer it if I were left alone now.”

She didn’t make it far into the hall before Anna came running up to her, arms already outstretched for a hug.

As sore as Maren was, she welcomed the tight squeeze Anna had around her.

“Maren, I was so worried.  They said you fell, but then you didn’t wake up.  What happened?”

“Apparently I had a fever,” Maren said, stumbling slightly.  Her brain still wasn’t in control of her functions, it seemed, and she was having a hard time walking straight.  “Why was I in Elsa’s room? There’s a medical wing in the castle.”

“Elsa insisted on it.  I saw them trying to wake you.  Elsa was out of her mind, you should have seen her.  She’s never yelled like that before.”

“I’m sure it was a spectacle,” Maren said flatly, stopping to rest.

Anna rested a hand on Maren’s shoulder, “Don’t you see?  You scared her. She thought you were a goner. For a minute there I did, too.  But I think you definitely made her start to reconsider a few things.”

“I guess I should faint more often.”  Maren continued down the hall.

Anna laughed, “No, thank you.  I don’t care to see you like that ever again.  But you did make a lasting impression on that Hockley guy.  He came out of the room looking like he witnessed a murder.”

‘He definitely witnessed a verbal assault.  I wasn’t very kind to Elsa about the wedding.  I think we’ve all but confirmed that the rumors were true at this point,” Maren shrugged.

“Did you lose your temper?”

Maren shook her head, “Not how you think.”  She remembered the scathing message she had given to Elsa, and knew Anna probably wouldn’t like the idea of Maren trying to hurt her sister on purpose.  “She’s your sister, Anna. I shouldn’t have let you get involved in this. Let’s just forget about it.”

Anna skipped in front of her, stopping quickly.  Maren barely had enough time to stop before she was almost nose-to-nose with her.

“Oh, you’re going to tell me, because I’m literally the only person you can talk to about this.  And also, you’re my best friend now, because I said so,” Anna asserted, lifting her chin in the air and crossing her arms.

Maren chuckled.  Even if she didn’t have Elsa, she at least had a friend in Anna.  She would just have to ignore the familial relation.

“Okay, fine.  I’ll tell you.  But not here.”

-----------------

Two weeks later, Maren found herself stuck in the same rotation of flirtation and hurtful, pointed jabs.  It was day after day of mixed signals and blurred lines, and Elsa seemed no closer to changing her mind. Maren was growing more tired with every passing day.

Not as tired as Elsa was looking lately, however.  Her eyes weren’t bright with their normal pale blue charm, and while very faint, Maren still noticed the dark circles forming under them.  Maren was desperate to reach out. To just give in to whatever was wanted from her. She fought against such urges because, she had to remind herself, sharing Elsa would never be an option.

Maren was considerably surprised one night after a long ride with Bandit to find Elsa sitting on her bed.  She had something in her hands that she was looking at with a tender smile and tears glistening in her eyes.  She felt bad for interrupting, even if it was her room, because Elsa was crying and that always crushed Maren’s resolve.  She would walk to the ends of the world for this woman, now and for the rest of her life.

“Elsa?” Maren approached her slowly, eyes flicking down to catch a glimpse of a ring cradled in Elsa’s palm.

It was the ring.

“Where did you find that?” Maren asked, suddenly angry.  That was her secret. Anna was the only other person that knew of its existence.

Elsa was blushing profusely, “I wanted to…  I miss you, Maren, So I came in here to find a shirt or something…  I was going to wear it to sleep.”

“You broke into my room to steal my clothes?” Maren pointed down to Elsa’s hands and laughed weakly, “I guess you found the grand prize.”

Elsa didn’t laugh.  She didn’t move. Not for a while.  Then, finally, she closed a hand around the ring and looked up at Maren with pure adoration, threatening to knock the breath right out of her.

Her Elsa was staring at her.  Maren could see the sparkle return to those crystal blue eyes as she finally spoke, “Were you going to ask me to marry you?”

“I was, but…”

“I ruined everything,” Elsa finished.

“So you admit it, then?” Maren tried to joke, but Elsa wasn’t laughing.

“I really do miss you,” Elsa finally declared.

Maren’s stomach did a few flips.  Her hands grew shaky, and she had to force her knees to not give out on her.  She made her way to sit on the bed, and realized her mistake as soon as Elsa scooted in closer, her hand reaching forward to thread her fingers into thick, black hair.

Maren shivered.  “Elsa.”

It was a warning.

Elsa withdrew her hand and shook her head shamefully, “I can’t stop this wedding.”

The energy in the room instantly shifted, and Maren was suddenly livid at Elsa’s lack of effort.

“You can stop it, Elsa.  You’re choosing to be a coward.  So what if we confirm what everyone has been saying about us for years?  Do you really think that’s going to destroy your reign?” Maren sighed, “I don’t know why you think this lie of a marriage is going to protect either one of us.”

Elsa stood up, her face poised so all Maren could see was the shimmer of tears building in her eyes.

“Please just be reasonable here, Elsa,” Maren pleaded.

Elsa closed her eyes, “The date has been set, Maren.  It’s in six days.”

Clenching her fists, Maren walked to her door and flung it open so hard it squealed in protest. “Get out.”

“I’m sorry,” Elsa sniffed.  She reached her hand out and dropped the ring in Maren’s hand before almost running out of the room.

As expected, the following six days were miserable.  She spent most of them avoiding her typical duties to talk with Anna, and sometimes, they would go riding together.  Maren was torn. She would be leaving behind the two most important people in her life, but she knew staying wasn’t an option, either.  Anna understood, even if she vocalised her disagreement to the idea frequently to joke. Leaving was Maren’s best shot at another life. A happy life.

Not the happy life with Elsa that she had originally imagined, though.

Her sadness had evolved into an uncomfortable numbness.  She felt brief flickers of joy on the occasion she was winning in a swordfight, riding Bandit as fast as she could, or talking quietly with Anna over a bottle of wine as the kingdom slept.  But Elsa was always missing, even if she wasn’t the focus of the moment. Maren didn’t have Elsa to run to with any good news. She didn’t have Elsa to celebrate her victories. She didn’t have Elsa.

So, she finalized her plan to leave.  She put down an obscene amount of gold to board a rather large ship that Maren was amused to see was named “Regina.”

Of course the damn thing was named “Queen.”

It was leaving the evening of the wedding.

Maren didn’t sleep at all the night before the wedding.  Everything she needed was already tucked neatly away in three bags she could carry on her own if she angled her body just right.  She was ready.

She also wasn’t.

There was a never ending debate flaring in Maren’s mind.  She wanted so much to say goodbye to Elsa. Hug her one more time.  Feel her warmth one more time. See those perfectly placed freckles up close one more time.  Admire and bask in her presence just one more time .

Kiss her.  One last time.

When morning finally came, a knock at the door shocked her out of her thoughts.

Anna peeked out from behind the door, an unconvincing smile covering her face.  “So, the wedding is starting soon.”

“Come for a quick goodbye, then?” Maren quirked a brow, trying to keep the mood light.  She didn’t need to reduce herself to tears just yet.

“Not exactly.  I’m not going to the wedding.  I told Elsa I wouldn’t go. So, here I am, waiting out this horrible day with someone who can’t wait to leave us all behind.”

Maren knew Anna didn’t mean it to sound so harsh, but it struck a nerve with her.  A sudden flood of guilt washed over her and she shook her shoulders to try to block it out.

“So you’re here to see me off?”

“Or convince you to stay.  Whichever happens first.” Anna shrugged.

Maren smiled, “Do you think your sister would want to see me right now?”

“Last effort?” Anna asked.

“Something like that,” Maren reached in her pocket, fingers tightening around what she was looking for,

“Let’s go find out!”  Anna bounded to the door and was out of sight before Maren could protest.

She caught up to Anna after a couple long, winded minutes.  How Anna could scale the entire castle without even breaking a sweat was baffling to her, but she decided it wasn’t time for jokes.  They were now standing in front of Elsa’s door.

Anna knocked using her signature rhythm.

As soon as the door opened, Maren’s jaw dropped and she knew right away that she had made a grave mistake.

Elsa’s dress was flawless.  White, with blue and purple diamond-shaped accents at the top, with a modest, floor-length train.  But it sat perfectly on Elsa’s body, highlighting everything Maren had spent years admiring.

“What are you two doing here?” Elsa asked, eyeing them suspiciously.  She paused, albeit briefly, to blush when she noticed the way Maren was looking at her.

Anna answered first.  “We’re here to wish you un-congratulations on the worst mistake of your life!”  She sounded so cheerful and sincere as she said it, Maren had to suppress a snort.

“Anna…” Elsa chided.

“I’m here to say goodbye.” Maren continued after she was sure she had Elsa’s attention, “I wanted to say it in person.  You deserve that much.”

Elsa had always been good at hiding her emotions, but at this moment she didn’t seem to even be trying to cover anything up.  Maren saw Elsa’s eyes pool and her lip quivered as she choked out a shaky “thank you.”

“Can I come inside?  I have something to say,” Maren turned to Anna, “in private.  No offense.”

Anna rolled her eyes, “I get it.  I’ll be out here. Waiting.”

Once inside Elsa’s room, Maren took a moment to memorize everything about it.  She didn’t want to forget this, or anything about Elsa. She was storing everything she could into her memory.  The way Elsa’s sheets were always solid in color, and never patterns. The way Elsa arranged her bookshelf by spine color than alphabetically or by author or genre.  The way Elsa would walk slowly toward the bed, turn on her heel, and lower herself onto her hands to sit. The way she would pat the area next to her to prompt Maren to join her.

Maren didn’t sit next to her this time.  Instead, she stood in front of her, one hand rubbing the back of her neck because now that she was there, in front of Elsa, she had forgotten everything she originally wanted to say.

Deciding she had to start somewhere, she dug into her pocket to retrieve the ring that she had carried with her since the night Elsa found it.  It made no sense. Elsa wasn’t going to marry her, so why had she been so attached to it suddenly?

“I want you to have this.  I can’t bring myself to sell it.  But I can’t bring myself to carry it in my pocket all the time anymore, either.  It was supposed to be yours anyway, so I’m giving it to you.” Maren held it out and Elsa took it from her without hesitation.

Elsa seemed to be at a loss for words, so Maren went on, “I tried really hard to get you to change your mind about this.  But maybe it’s for the best. It wouldn’t have meant much if I talked you into staying with me. It always had to be your choice,” she sighed, “I just wish you made a different one.  The right one. You know it. I know it. Even Anna knows it. The only one falling for your act is you.”

Still silent, Elsa shifted slightly, clasping her hands together.

“I always loved you.  I always will. And I hope you forgive me one day for leaving.  But most of all, I hope you forgive yourself, because someday soon you’ll wake up and realize exactly what it is you gave up.  I wish you luck,” Maren went to walk away, but stopped suddenly before rushing back toward Elsa, engulfing her in a fiery kiss that could have never lasted long enough.  It took everything she had to pull away from Elsa’s embrace, but she knew that eventually she had to end it.

“I’m sorry, I just… had to do that.  One last time,” Maren bit her lip to fight back the tears that threatened to form in her eyes, and she gave Elsa’s hands one last squeeze before she turned around to leave for good.  Maren could have sworn she heard a sob behind her as the door shut, but she had to focus and move forward.

Okay, maybe kissing her wasn’t the best idea for moving forward, but it’s done.

Anna, true to her word, was still outside the door, a knowing grin already spread across her face.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really, no.”  If anything, their last kiss could be the last memory she had of Elsa that belonged only to her.  “Come on, we should grab my things. I don’t want to be forced to chat with any guests. I’d like to sit outside and wait, if you don’t mind.”

“Okay, I have an idea.  You get your things, and I’ll run to the kitchen and get us something to eat.  I’ll meet you at the front of the castle when we’re done. Okay? Okay!” Anna didn’t give Maren a chance to answer, as she sped off in the opposite direction towards the kitchen.

Because she was already prepared, Maren stood in front of the castle just ten minutes after Anna raced off.  If she knew Anna, she was bound to be waiting for a fair amount of time.

It gave her time to think.  Thinking right now was dangerous, so she tried to distract herself with something nearby, but everything she laid eyes on had some sentimental attachment to Elsa.  She turned around, hoping maybe the view was better that way, but it only got worse.

In front of her was one of her greatest and worst reminders of her history with Elsa, because it filled Maren with what she thought was a selfish happiness.  For no particular reason, she walked over and observed the stone bench. It was a simple enough object, yet it was there that she remembered talking with Elsa just one short week after her parents died.

She sat down, placing her bags carefully on the ground in front of her, and allowed herself to drift back in time.

-----------------

“Have you ever thought about what happens when you die?” Elsa asked, running her hand absentmindedly through Maren’s hair.

It was four in the morning and the castle grounds were quiet except for them and the deafening silence from the snowfall.  Elsa snuggled closer, her head resting on Maren’s shoulder. The bench they were sitting on was just the right size for the two of them, accommodating Maren’s need to lean on one arm stretched out to her side, and how Elsa loved to put her feet up, so she was sitting with her legs curled up and resting on the stone.

“Well, ever since my family died and I had to come here to stay safe, I have to say, I’ve thought about it a lot.  But I don’t know, really.”

Elsa laughed, “I guess our people do have vastly different ideas when it comes to the afterlife.”

Maren felt the shiver that ran down Elsa’s back.

“Are you cold?”

Elsa looked at her sheepishly, “Maybe?”

Maren and Elsa both giggled the entire way to Elsa’s room.  It was the first night Maren remembered Elsa with a genuine smile since she lost her parents.

“I have an idea,” Elsa said after shutting the doors behind them.  She rushed off to her closet, and Maren could hear her rustling through something.

Finally, Elsa came back, a triumphant grin on her face, and she wasted no time dropping to one knee in front of Maren.

“Honeymaren Nattura, will you do me the honor of marrying me some day?”  Elsa held up a plain silver band as she looked at Maren, eyes glistening over in tears but still shining brightly.

Maren said yes, as she would have said on any day she spent with Elsa.

But much to Elsa’s horror, the ring didn’t fit.  So, when Maren went to her room that night, she tracked down a leather string long enough and fastened the ring into a pendant.  She wore it everyday without fail for years, until someone stole it. After it was recovered, Maren kept it in her room, leaving it hanging above her bed at all times.  She never wanted to risk losing it again.

------------------

“So, I made some food for the wait,”

Maren jumped.  She didn’t notice Anna approaching her. 

“Are you sure you want to leave?” she questioned.

Maren shrugged, “What else can I do?  Living here, being close to Elsa, but not being with Elsa?  That’s a terrible fate for my heart, Anna. I don’t think I could do it much longer.”

Anna seemed to accept her answer, because she dropped the subject.  “How far is the walk?”

“I thought we’d take the horses,” Maren suggested.  Anna squealed. She loved the horses, and Maren knew it.

After a short ride to the shore, Maren and Anna found a large, flat boulder to sit on and eat.  Anna had proudly declared that their meal was a product of her making.

After eyeing the object in her hands with apprehension, shebraved a bite.

“I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s amazing,” Anna said, watching with a smug smile as Maren nodded in approval as she chewed., “A traveler showed it to me.  Said they made them all the time where he came from. I think they’re going to be huge .”

Maren had to agree, it was good.  A layer of perfectly baked bread, with a thick slice of meat and cheese to top it.  She thought for a moment that it might make more sense to put a piece of bread on top, too, but she wasn’t an expert in food by any means.  Maren chose to just enjoy the meal with Anna.

“So which one are you leaving on?” Anna asked, motioning out to the ships lining the water.

Maren squinted, scanning over a few before recognizing one towards the front.  “That one,” she pointed to the largest ship, decorated a little more extravagantly than the others nearby.

“Wow, that’s a fancy one,” Anna whistled.

“Listen, Anna.  This is only goodbye for now.  I’ll come back to see you after I get settled,” she promised.

“And to check up on Elsa, too, right?” A smirk ghosted over Anna’s lips.

“Don’t judge my ulterior motives,” Maren poked Anna’s shoulder, a hint of laughter playing in her voice.

Both Maren and Anna froze immediately upon hearing the church bells ring out.  They were announcing the end of the wedding ceremony.

Sucking in a deep, calming breath, Maren turned to look at Anna, “It’s okay, Anna.  I need to get going now, though. Will you walk with me?”

Anna made no attempt to hide the tears that suddenly sprang from her eyes.  She just sniffed and nodded, wiping her eyes from time to time as they walked.

“You’re a good friend, Anna.  Thank you for coming with me today,” Maren stopped as they neared the boarding ramp.

“As your friend, I’m going to ask you one last time not to go,” Anna choked out before sobbing and pulling Maren in for a hug.

There was no opportunity for Maren to respond, because suddenly Anna gasped loudly before she pulled away and pointed over Maren’s shoulder, “Turn around.”

Maren scanned the scene around her, but didn’t see anything that would cause such a stir in Anna.

And then she caught a glimpse of light blonde hair bouncing in the distance.  A flash of a glowing white dress, and finally, the determined face of Elsa became clear.  Maren stood still, not sure what to do, but the way Elsa’s eyes fixed on hers made her decide to stay put.

They were all completely silent as Elsa approached, and Maren was as shocked as Anna was to see her.  Here. Without a ring on her finger.

“What are you doing here?” Maren held Elsa’s gaze.

“I didn’t go through with it, Maren.”

Maren felt her body grow warm with relief.  “Why?”

Elsa smiled and crossed her arms, “Three very important things were missing.”

“What three things?” Anna prompted.

“My sister wasn’t there, for one,” Elsa tilted her head to Anna, “and the other two are right here.”

Not waiting for anyone to talk, Elsa held out her hand, motioning for Maren to do the same.  She dropped the familiar ring in Maren’s palm.

“I know I asked you to marry me forever ago.  I’m so sorry I allowed myself to forget how much I meant it,” Elsa said sadly.

Maren took Elsa’s hand and placed a soft kiss to it.  Not once did any of them consider the surprised looks being thrown their way.

Anna watched intently, bouncing excitedly on the balls of her feet.  “So you just left him at the altar?”

Elsa cringed, “Oh, I made it down the altar.  And then, I professed my love for another in front of everyone, and I also might have told Lord Carvey that he could insert… something… somewhere.”

Anna roared with laughter, “I can’t believe you did that!”

Elsa chuckled, “I don’t think anyone else could, either.  I’ve never witnessed so much uncomfortable silence before.”

Maren turned to Elsa, “What was that third missing thing?”

Elsa smirked and swayed her hips as she moved in closely, her lips inches away from Maren’s.

“You.  It’s always going to be you, Honey.”

Maren had to make an effort to catch her breath.

Still smirking, Elsa’s hand was pointing at the hand in which Maren clasped tightly to the ring.  “Propose to me.”

Maren tilted her head, not sure she had heard right.

Anna leaned over to nudge Maren with her shoulder.  “Do it!”

It suddenly felt as though Maren had consumed a crate of wine.  Her vision went blurry and she thought for a second she might pass out again.  But she looked down into Elsa’s hopeful eyes and felt her heart soar through her chest, taking flight into parts unknown.

Steadying herself, Maren dropped onto her knee and had to stop herself from crying.  “Elsa… I knew the minute your mother introduced us that I was doomed,” Elsa sniffed, a joyous laugh erupting from her lips.  Maren continued, grabbing Elsa’s hand and lacing their fingers together. “I have loved you since then and I will love you forever.  And even though you put me through a month of misery, I’m willing to overlook that if you finally agree to marry me.  So what do you say, Elsa?  Will you marry me?”

Elsa didn’t hesitate, “Yes.”

The ring fit perfectly, and it matched seamlessly with Elsa’s elegance.  As Elsa stared down at it Maren wondered how many times Elsa had secretly slipped it on her finger that day before running out of her wedding.

After Maren was standing again, she finally saw the crowd gathering around them.  A wave of panic coursed through her, but Elsa just placed a finger on Maren’s lips and whispered, “We can’t exactly keep it a secret until the wedding.”

Maren chuckled, and rubbed the back of her neck with her hand, “You have a good po-”

Elsa cut her off with a searing kiss.

Maren had no doubt that their future would be infinite.