The castle staff were no less disappointed than the queen and princess when the gates were closed again – to lose the visits and gatherings that had become such a routine part of life and helped dispel some of the depression this winter had brought to Arendelle was a great loss indeed. It also gave them the leisure to observe curious activity happening under their roof, as interesting as it was unbelievable, that might have gone unnoticed under different circumstances.
"Have you seen the princess?" the head housekeeper asked the seamstress one day. "The queen is looking for her."
"She just left the hospital with the doctor." (So he was known.)
"Yes, I think they were heading for the gallery."
It had recently become obvious to the entire household that the princess had taken quite a fancy to the queen's foreign visitor. "I wonder what the prince thinks of that."
"Bjorn says he dropped a hint yesterday, and he laughed in his face."
"Nora says the queen did the same when she dropped a hint to her, as well."
Unbeknownst to any of them, Anna had laughed the hardest when Kristoff passed along the conclusions drawn from her increased friendliness towards Dr. Banner. "Way to go, feisty pants," he said with an amused grin at the end.
"It's not my fault if people are that blind," said Anna, still recovering from her laughter.
"What happened to the need for discretion?"
"Elsa needs to be discrete – I don't." Restraint and affection were two concepts Anna did not believe should ever be combined, and she couldn't feel threatened by rumors so patently untrue – let them talk, let them watch, they would find nothing. They certainly weren't going to scare her out of treating her sister's lover with all the friendship and recognition such a man deserved.
Kristoff thought Elsa would disagree, but she was too happy by how well her sister and Bruce were getting along to interfere. Elsa knew Anna liked him immensely – he had saved her husband, he loved her sister, she knew he had suffered in some way he didn't deserve, and, every day, she watched him do his best to help people with the heart of a hero. When he joined the royal family at meals, Anna always asked him about his day, what he had done, if he'd learned anything, what his next plan was – not like she was aggressively prying but with genuine interest in his well-being. She was always eager to help him in the hospital and even once went with him and two soldiers on an investigation in town. Unfortunately, no matter how many people they asked about when their neighbors or family became affected, they could find no common link between the victims.
"It was nothing but dead ends," Bruce reported to Elsa later as they strolled along the ramparts of the castle.
"I'm not surprised." She noticed how downcast he looked and took his hand in hers. "Don't blame yourself..."
He smiled weakly and shook his head. "I just finished giving that speech to Anna."
"Thank you. I'm sure she listened – she thinks the world of you, you know."
"I know..." The princess had never been shy around him (Bruce doubted she knew how), but he couldn't help but notice that, ever since he and Elsa had become a couple, she treated him with the familiarity and affection of a sister – always gushing with thanks for things he did, trying to make him laugh, telling him her favorite stories about the people in the castle, telling him what Arendelle was like in the summer, and hugging him when they parted ways. Since she was gentle and not overbearing, he found her friendship oddly comforting. She reminded him a lot of Stark.
"She hasn't asked in a long time, but I think she'd like to know the truth... the whole story... You could trust her. She'd understand..."
"All right." His power, his secret, his choice, but Elsa did wish they could share it with Anna.
As if he read her mind, Bruce whispered, "I don't want her to be afraid of me."
Elsa tried to tell him she wouldn't be, but he wouldn't back down. It wasn't a question of trust; he had the highest confidence in the princess, her judgment, and her courage. He remembered the day a young woman had come into the hospital, alone and nervous, clutching her right arm in pain. The bone wasn't broken, but everything else was damaged – the ligaments, the tendons, the muscles – making her elbow swell about three times its size.
"What happened?" He hadn't been surprised when she told him, without meeting his eye, that she'd slipped on some ice – he was far too familiar with this scenario. He'd nodded and, while he patched her up, casually asked her if she had anyone at home to help her. Her husband would take good care of her. Why hadn't he come with her? He didn't know she was here; she didn't want to worry him. How was he? Just fine, although he had been acting strange lately... he wasn't himself... "He would never do something like this!" Once the sobs had burst free, she'd told him about how she'd tried to ask him what was wrong these days, lost her temper and demanded an answer, tried to tell him she loved him and asked what she'd done, when he lashed out at her and knocked her down.
Bruce had held her hand until she'd calmed down, then asked her to wait a minute. When he'd sent for Queen Elsa, the messenger didn't even bother to leave but told him she was in an important meeting with her council of advisers and couldn't be disturbed. Without hesitation, he'd said, "Then find Princess Anna, please."
Anna had come at once. "What happened?" she'd asked when Bruce pointed his patient out to her.
"Her husband's affected." Anna had gasped as the implications sank in. "Until we can do something about that, she'll need a safe place to stay."
"I'll take care of it."
And she had. Bruce knew, as surely as he'd known it then, that he could always count on Anna to come through when someone needed her, but he couldn't bring himself to share his secret with her. Even if the truth didn't make her panic and avoid him like the deadly time bomb he was, she would surely tell her husband, and he wasn't sure how Kristoff would react if he knew, although he had never given Bruce any reason not to trust him, either. They'd gotten to know each other better the day Bruce asked him if it would be possible for him to meet the ice harvesters who were the first to be affected to see if he could learn anything from them. Kristoff doubted they could tell him anything but agreed to take him to them the next morning.
On the long sled ride into the mountains, the prince asked him a few questions about his past, but in a tone that was almost rhetorical, as if he knew he wouldn't get many answers. Bruce finally laughed at the charade and asked him, "Well, what's your story?" That was how he first learned that Kristoff had never known his parents, how he'd run away from the orphanage at the first opportunity and joined the first profession he could find.
"You weren't an orphan, too, by any chance, were you?" Bruce looked away and bit his tongue, but he might as well have said something because Kristoff said, "Oh – sorry," as if he realized the truth was much worse. He went on to tell him about his life in the mountains before he met Anna and how he'd never pictured himself settling down and getting married, let alone to the princess, "but, hey, crazier things have happened."
Bruce didn't know how much time had passed before he ventured to say, "Seems to have worked out fine."
"Oh, yeah – it takes some getting used to, but, eventually, you realize she's right: it doesn't matter." Bruce turned and looked at him, suspicious of his choice of words. Kristoff confirmed his suspicions when he smiled and added, "Don't worry – it gets easier."
Bruce turned away, but even though he wasn't keen on bonding over the awkwardness of interclass romance, he couldn't help asking, "Who asked who?"
"I didn't really ask her. We'd been in love for a while, and, one day, I just told her how much I wanted to spend my life with her, and she said she did, too, and asked if there was anything I wanted to ask her, and I said that didn't really make sense since she was the princess, and she asked what my point was, so I asked if that meant she really wanted to, and she said there was only one way to find out, so then I asked."
"So she asked you to ask her?"
"Yep – she said she wanted me to ask so she'd know that I knew it didn't matter. I guess that's how it works when the girl outranks you. Did you or Elsa start it?"
Bruce laughed at himself, wondering how he got himself into these positions (part of the curse of being forbidden to conceal things, he guessed), but he answered truthfully, "I guess I did but only because I knew she wanted me to."
"Yeah, right," Bruce scoffed, still deeply troubled by his narrow escape the other day. "I must have less brains than a scarecrow to..."
He decided it would take too long to explain that reference. "Like you said, it's crazy... beyond foolish..."
Kristoff took a deep breath and said slowly, "I guess... I should confess I... said the same thing when Anna first told me about it."
"Don't blame you."
"Well, there's no turning back now," Kristoff said decisively.
"What do you mean?"
"If you two really are in love, we've gotta find some way to make it work."
"Don't give up. Just save the queen or the princess or the kingdom – help us in some big way – and nobody'll say anything about it. You're off to a great start."
"You don't understand..."
"I know, your big secret Elsa won't tell us. If it were that bad, you couldn't keep it a secret this long." I haven't – you've seen it, you just don't know it, Bruce thought, but he didn't say anything, and Kristoff continued: "Unless it's that you've got another girl out there somewhere."
"I don't, I..." Bruce hesitated, shocked at what he was saying; all his instincts told him to drop it and stop talking, but his time with Elsa had weakened them. Confiding in her had made it easier to confide in others – he'd just never expected to have someone to confide in about this (at least with Stark gone). He heard himself say, "I've never loved anyone as much as I love your sister."
Kristoff didn't look at him; his grin didn't change a fraction. "Just so you know, she's never loved anyone, either, even though plenty of guys have tried. Face it – you two were made for each other. You're best friends, you make a great team, you never fight... you'll work it out."
One part of his last statement caught Bruce's attention, but he didn't comment on it. "You and Anna were made for each other," he corrected. Kristoff was a lot like Stark, too – a self-proclaimed love expert.
"True, true... whoah!" Kristoff tugged on the reins and turned the sled sharply to the right before slowing it to a stop. "We're here."
"Did you learn anything from the ice harvesters?" Elsa asked Bruce later.
"No – according to them, they haven't been anywhere new or unusual this winter. They haven't met anybody new or strange – except me, they said. They never took a strange gift or anything from anyone. They were surly, and we clearly weren't welcome, so if they knew anything they didn't want to tell us, they would have just ignored us, not lied, so I'm sure they were telling the truth."
"Me, too," Elsa agreed. "Hard to imagine anyone affected could even care enough to hide something."
"I've been thinking of something else. I have notes from what the people Anna and I interviewed told us and what I've heard from people in the hospital. I'm gonna try mapping where the victims live and, based on when they became affected, see if we can trace any patterns on how it spread."
"Sounds like a great idea."
Bruce looked at her with a strange expression Elsa couldn't describe but didn't like. "You sure?"
"What do you mean?" He turned away from her. "What is it, Bruce?"
One of the first things he'd learned the day they met was that he couldn't hide anything from her. "I'm sorry, it's just... something Kristoff said today."
Bruce raised his eyes from the ground but didn't look at her. "Why don't we ever fight?"
Elsa stared blankly at him as she answered, "We've... never had anything to fight about."
"So you think we could fight?"
"Even people who love each other fight," said Elsa, wondering what kind of question that was. "Anna and Kristoff fight, my parents..."
"If you ever disagreed with me, you'd tell me?"
Elsa blinked at the ridiculousness of the question. "Of course!"
"You'd argue with me?"
"I... I'd hope it wouldn't come to that, but I know it happens to everyone..." She shook her head. "What are you getting at?"
"We can't fight." It sounded like he was laughing.
"What are you talking about?"
"Think about it." He stopped walking and finally looked at her. "Would you ever start a fight with me?" He paused. "Or would you be afraid to make me angry?"
He could tell by the flash of incredulity in her eyes before they filled with understanding that this truly had never occurred to her. The next thing he knew, she reached for his hand, the one where he wore the monitor, and – the movement was pure reflex with no conscious thought or intention – he tried to pull it away, but she held him fast. "I would never be afraid to be honest with you." She waited until she felt his arm relax and then smiled. "Besides, we have disagreed."
"The first day we met, over the best way to control emotionally-driven powers."
His smile wasn't as strong, but Bruce did smile at the memory – she hadn't been nervous about speaking to him then or afraid to argue with him. "Still doesn't mean things could ever be normal between us."
"I think we're strong enough to deal with that."
He was the one who held her now when she began to let go of his hand. "I don't want to..."
Elsa didn't let him finish this time. "You won't hurt me," she said confidently. "I love you." Bruce was still facing her when a faraway look came into his eyes. "What is it?"
"The way you said that... reminded me of this play my class read and went to see in college. The hero was sure the woman he loved would reject him because of how ugly he was, so he never told her how he felt. Until he lay dying in her arms. Then she told him, 'You shall not die! I love you!' "
"And what did he say?"
His voice, his tone, his face didn't change at all when he replied, " 'No – that is not in the story! You remember when Beauty said "I love you" to the Beast that was a fairy prince, his ugliness changed and dissolved, like magic. But you see'..." A pause. " 'I am still the same.' "* Love was a powerful force, but there were some curses even it couldn't remove.
Elsa continued to smile, but she was quiet for a moment before she leaned forward and placed her right hand around his neck as she kissed his cheek. "Anna and I always wished the Beast hadn't changed at the end."
Bruce let her kiss him again and let the feel of her lips against his, of her body in his arms, silence his fear, not letting go until they heard someone coming down the hall. "Will you need any men to help you with this project, Dr. Banner?" Elsa asked him as the steward and butler walked past, deep in conversation about getting another suite of rooms ready for the latest guests seeking sanctuary.
In spite of the closed gates and increased security measures, Elsa couldn't bear to turn away any of her people who needed help. In the beginning, she had pitied mainly those who seemed to suffer from frozen hearts. Lately, those who had somehow managed to escape the affliction were starting to suffer from more than just the loss of their friends and loved ones. The passive contempt of those who had lost all capacity for love, compassion, joy, pain, and interest in life was starting to turn to active hate. Scuffles were breaking out in the streets over the littlest things. Rocks were being casually thrown at homes and shops by rivals who had no restraint and no fear for the law. People were fleeing their homes – apprentices in fear of their masters, children in fear of their parents, husbands and wives in fear of their spouse, even parents in fear of their children. One young couple watched in horror as their house burned to the ground while their six-year-old son stared awestruck at the flames dancing towards the sky as if it were nothing more than an interesting light show.
The atmosphere was getting wilder, harsher, and more unforgiving by the day. Walking through the streets of Arendelle was like trying to steer a ship through a field of icebergs; you never knew when you might make a wrong move that would set someone off. Mistrust and paranoia were spreading rapidly; a poorly timed grunt of frustration, curse of impatience, or warning to stay away could send people fleeing in fear from someone who wasn't even affected. With spirits justified in being naturally low, it was getting more and more difficult to tell who was affected and who was not – safer to just keep to yourself and make it clear everyone else should stay out of your way.
No matter what type of misfortune struck, you had zero chance of finding anyone willing to help you. Those who needed shelter or protection had nowhere to turn but the queen. Several officers tried to persuade her against being so free with her home and resources – anyone she let in could easily be setting a trap. Elsa explained in her even, authoritative voice how, if she had an enemy out there who was behind this, she would not give them the satisfaction of freezing her heart towards her people; as long as she was their queen, she would protect them in any way possible along with her home. She would not give into despair and fear – she would not let her unknown foe defeat her by hardening her heart against the suffering of the innocent. The captain had intended to speak in support of her position, assure her that they would keep the castle safe no matter what, but, speechless with admiration for her courage and devotion, was glad to see she didn't need it. He put an end to any further questioning on the subject.
Bruce hadn't been present during the meeting – he'd had no official reason to be – but Anna told him everything the next morning, as she'd promised. The princess found him in the hospital where he had spent the night helping a woman in labor (two friends had brought her in because her husband hadn't cared to get involved). Anna stayed just long enough to praise her sister, hear that mother and baby were doing well, and order him to get some rest immediately before she went to make arrangements for the rest of their stay, since Bruce had told her their home was no place for a baby at the moment. It had become a familiar routine for the two of them.
"Thank you, Anna." She smiled and hugged him in reply before she left Bruce marveling at how far they'd come since the day she'd threatened to put him in the stocks if he ever called her "Your Majesty" again.
He had to risk her wrath by disobeying her most recent order, however. He didn't need rest – he'd worked much longer hours than this before – and, even though he wasn't the only doctor here, he was the most skilled, and they needed all the help they could get. Besides, he liked his work – it kept his mind occupied, made him forget the things that had been haunting him with renewed vigor ever since that encounter in the street.
His next patient was a ten-year-old girl who'd burnt her hand grabbing a candle. According to her father, even as the hot wax seared away her flesh, she hadn't been able to stop talking about how fascinating the dancing flame and dripping wax had looked; it was if she hadn't felt a thing, as if she were completely numb. She casually fell asleep while Bruce was bandaging her hand.
After Bruce assured him it wasn't serious and she would recover, the man placed his hand on his sleeping daughter's forehead and sighed. "Will they ever recover from this, doctor?"
Bruce didn't have time to plan a strategic answer. He looked the man in the eye and said, intensely and tenderly, "Don't give up."
"Seems that should be my line. Thank you, doctor." The men smiled encouragingly at each other as he picked up his daughter and left.
Bruce moved along to check on a young man who'd been brought in last night unconscious; one of the guards had found him lying in the street as he made his rounds, surrounded by signs of a struggle, but no one else in sight. He had a large lump on his head but no other injuries. No one knew how long he'd been out there, but his vitals had been surprisingly strong, showing no signs of hypothermia. Bruce had asked one of the two guards outside the door to come keep an eye on him, in case it turned out that he was one of those who were now immune to the effects of cold, until he spiked a fever that ruled out that possibility. One of the other doctors had given him an herbal concoction a few hours ago that he said should help. Bruce was sitting beside him, checking his pulse, when he saw a familiarly-shaped shadow fall over him. He looked up over his shoulder and said, "Good afternoon, Your Excellency."
The bishop smiled and bowed his head in greeting. The two had spoken several times on short occasions over the past several weeks. "I would wish you the same, doctor, but I fear it would be a lie, since the night never ended for you."
"There's no time for night around here," Bruce said as he raised his eyes from his watch and lowered his patient's arm.
"Indeed – how is he?"
"Doing better – his fever's broken," Bruce answered, perplexed. "He couldn't have been out in the snow very long, or he'd have frozen to death before he could get sick; it's a miracle he's even alive."
"Miracles seem to be the trend here," the bishop said as he looked over at the young mother with her new baby, "most of them owed to you."
Bruce frowned and hung his head slightly, unwilling to accept the praise. "A real miracle would be if I could find the cause of this and stop it."
"The queen told me that's what your companions set out to do."
As he looked at the patients surrounding them, Bruce felt the irresistible urge to correct him by revealing what had been weighing on his mind for weeks: "I stayed behind so one of us could help, but I've done nothing."
"Nothing? I believe the term you're looking for in our language is 'so much,' " the bishop said with a grin. "If it weren't for you, where would these people be right now? All the others you've healed? The prince? Me? How devastated would the princess be if she'd lost her husband? The queen, if she'd lost any of her people? And you think you've done nothing?" Bruce felt a hand fall on his shoulder. "Sir, you know lying is forbidden in my profession, so please believe me when I say that everything you've done has made a great difference. For all of us."
Bruce managed a weak but sincere smile. "Thank you, Your Grace."
The bishop removed his hand. "The thanks are all ours. I only wish there was something we could do to help you in return."
"It's my job," Bruce said dismissively.
"Yes, I can see that..." Something about his tone made Bruce think he wasn't talking about medicine. "This is routine for you."
Bruce was surprised that wasn't a question. He would prefer not to discuss it, but he couldn't exactly deny it. "I've traveled around the world for the past few years, helping people wherever I can."
"A noble lifestyle."
Not exactly. "It helps me."
"I sensed as much." The bishop paused before elaborating: "I've met other men like you occasionally over the years – honorable men who seek a balm for their own incurable pain by relieving the pain of others." What could he say to that? "I don't know what burden you've been forced to carry, doctor, but I do hope you find rest soon."
"I can't." His mouth said it automatically before he could stop it. Now that he'd said it, he had to provide some explanation. Something true but vague. "It's... it's too dangerous."
"For you or for others?"
He didn't have to answer; he didn't have to say anything. "For others. I don't want to hurt anyone." The words were on his mind so often that it was no effort to say them.
"I can't imagine you hurting anyone."
"Only those who get too close..." Distantly, in the back of his mind, he remembered that he had friends and a home now – so what was he talking about...?
"Man was not meant to live alone – no one can live without love."
"I can handle it," said Bruce, his voice full of determination. He had to be strong enough to let go when the time came. His fate was to be alone forever – his fate as a monster...
"I pray a time will come when you won't need to."
The man was kind, but Bruce couldn't enlighten him. "I just want to focus on helping people."
"You yearn to be a hero."
Bruce sighed in resignation, unable to hold his defenses up – he must have been more disinhibited from lack of sleep than he thought. "No... just not a monster..."
He heard the old man say gently, "I've seen, sadly, more than enough evil in my days, only a small fraction of all the evil in the world, but if there's one thing it's taught me, it's that what differentiates those who practice evil from those who fight it is our ability to love." Bruce suddenly turned around and looked back at him, his eyes widened, his right eyebrow raised questioningly. "A monster doesn't know how to love. To be a hero, to be a man, not a monster, to be able to help others, one must have the courage to love."
Bruce was frozen in shock; his mouth opened, but he couldn't think of anything to say. Did he know the truth? Did he suspect? Or did he just suspect something in which a woman – not Queen Elsa – was involved? How? Was he that obvious? Stark had certainly thought he was...
The old man seemed to be waiting for his audience to process his words. He must have been satisfied because he eventually bowed his head again and said, "Thank you again, doctor. I know you and your friends will save us from this monster, whatever it may be." With that, he walked away.
Bruce sat there in a daze for a while after he was gone, but, at some point, he recovered enough to ponder his actual words. The ability to love that differentiated men from monsters... He'd heard that argument before, of course. He knew that for others, love might be a strength, not a weakness, but for him, ever since the accident, he'd seen love as a liability. He'd never thought of the ability to love as a sign that he wasn't the monster he was terrified of becoming, what made him different from the wild, ruthless, mindless beast inside of him. Maybe his ability to love really did mean that he could be confident that he was more than just a monster. He continued to mull it over until he saw Kristoff come through the door.
Remembering where he'd gone, Bruce stood up and walked over to meet him. "Any luck?"
"Found a girl who thinks it might be her brother," Kristoff replied, gesturing towards the young woman walking in behind him with a soldier. "Never came home, description fits."
The woman exclaimed, "Lars!" and ran towards the unconscious man on the cot, confirming all their hopes. "What happened?"
"We're not sure," Bruce explained in the professional voice family members needed to hear. "Looks like he got into a fight last night and was knocked out. Fortunately, they found and brought him here before he could freeze to death, but he started running a bad fever. The doctors were able to bring it down, though, and he seems to be doing all right, but he should stay here until we're sure."
"Ugh, he promised me!" the girl groaned.
"Promised you?" Kristoff asked.
"He must have gone out drinking with those... friends of his!" Bruce privately thought she might be right (if brandy was strong enough to save the cook on the Titanic from freezing to death...). "Will he be all right?"
"If things keep going the way they are, yes," Bruce said truthfully. "No reason to think he won't be fine. Eventually."
"Then he hasn't..." the girl stuttered nervously. "He's not..."
Realizing what she must be fearing, Bruce shook his head. "No, he doesn't have it – if he had, we know his body temperature would be lower, not higher – that's impossible."
The woman sighed in relief. "Thank God... and thank you so much, doctor."
"You're welcome," Bruce said obligingly, giving her a smile. "You should thank the others, too."
"I will – is it all right if I stay with him?"
Bruce tried to stifle a yawn as he answered, "Sure. I just need to give him another dose of medicine in..."
"You'll do nothing of the kind," Kristoff said authoritatively, putting his hand on his shoulder. "Excuse us, miss," he said quickly to the girl, who nodded and took a seat by her brother. Kristoff turned Bruce away from them. "You are going to get out of here right now and go get some sleep."
"You've been here all night and most of yesterday. They've got things covered here. Stop worrying, and go get some rest."
Bruce shook his head. "I just need to..."
"Save it. Go. That's an order." Kristoff put both his hands on his shoulders pushed him in the direction of the door for emphasis.
"Since when do I take orders from you?" Bruce asked with a laugh.
"Good-bye." Kristoff gave him another push from behind.
Well, what was he supposed to do? Argue? Since that wasn't an option, Bruce gave up and left the hospital. Once he was out in the hallway away from the sight of patients, he realized some sleep wouldn't be too bad right now.
The truth was, he liked both Anna and Kristoff. He couldn't help thinking that they were both trying to make him feel welcome, as if they wanted to let him know that, had these been more normal circumstances, their sister's choice would have had their full approval. As he walked up to his room, he wondered again how they would react if they knew the whole truth. Anna already suspected he was cursed with a power he couldn't control. They both had a fair amount of experience with magic. But even if they didn't automatically dismiss unnatural powers as evil and dangerous, if they knew what type of power this was and exactly what it did to him, wouldn't they be terrified of him and want him as far away from their home as possible, even if they felt sad about it at the same time?
He told himself that shouldn't even matter – it wasn't like he actually had to worry about becoming part of their family. But it did matter. It always hurt when people he bonded with turned on him once they found out his secret. But there were people who didn't – Betty, Samson, the Avengers, Elsa...
He wondered, not for the first time, how Elsa could be as unafraid of the Hulk as she claimed. Did sympathy really mean she could ignore the threat he posed to everyone around him? She had defeated the other guy the first time she met him, so maybe she was powerful enough that she didn't need to fear for herself, but what about her family, her people, her kingdom? How could she possibly trust him enough that she didn't fear he would destroy everything and everyone she loved? But if she was afraid of him, how could she love him?
Bruce had just reached his door when a horrifying thought struck him: He couldn't doubt that Elsa loved him, but what if she feared him at the same time? What if fear was part of her attraction to him? He remembered how... his own... he knew women sometimes went for that kind of thing. Hadn't Raoul de Chagny lamented as much when he realized the girl he loved was being stalked by a homicidal maniac? He knew there was nothing he could do to compete with that – no woman could resist such charms: "Your fear, your terror – all that is still love, of the most exciting kind... the kind that thrills when you think of it."**
Hmm... Bruce leaned his forehead against his window and smiled bitterly. Cyrano... Erik... The French sure loved their la belle et la bête stories, although they seemed to have outgrown the naïve assumption that they could live happily ever after... Elsa wasn't naïve, either... His latest bout of paranoid doubt faded as the cold feeling of the glass against his skin brought him back to his senses. Elsa was too smart to fall for the monster; if she loved him, she'd fallen for the man. He just wished that was all there was! Obligated to feel everything without repression, he completely succumbed to the pain and longing. Oh, how he wished they could be together without this threat hanging over their heads, without the other guy coming between them, that he could love her without restraint, in every way, without holding back...
He pounded his fist against the window as hard as he dared, forbidding the rest of the thought to break through. Don't obsess over things you can't control. Now was not the time to abandon that philosophy. He had accepted that there were some emotions you had to feel to get your body used to them, but when getting used to something would have no effect on the physical reaction, when to feel was to react, all you could do was resist it. He ordered himself to forget about it, as always. The fact that Elsa wasn't here this time should make it easier, or so he thought as he fell down on the bed without bothering to get undressed.
He'd reached the point where he found it difficult to sleep without Elsa beside him. He warned himself not to think of her, but as long as he wasn't going to fall asleep anyway, why worry? He wondered how long it would take him to get used to it once he was back in New York. Anna couldn't hear enough about the city he told her he lived in. He was sure she'd love it there; he closed his eyes and imagined how the princess would react to the sight of the buildings as tall as mountains, salons, libraries, Churches, and museums a hundred strong around her. He bet Elsa would enjoy it even more, though – stricken breathless by the sight of the incredible architecture around her and desperate to find out how they did it. He wondered how Stark would react when he saw that Elsa could build a tower that outshone his own, with her bare hands.
Bruce walked up the snowy slope and the staircase to where Elsa stood between the open doors of her ice palace. He bowed and said, "Your Highness," kissing her hand before he raised his head.
"I've been waiting for you." Elsa looped her arm through his and led him inside, the doors swinging closed behind them. The room was full of music, and he lifted her off her feet and spun her around. The floor moved under their feet as they danced, sometimes raising them up, sometimes dropping them down, but always catching them no matter where they jumped through the air, surrounded by ribbons of snow twirling through the air, glittering like crystal.
One of the streams of snowflakes hit the wall, and it dissolved in a shower of silver sparks. They held hands and let the wind carry them through the gap, down the side of the mountain in an avalanche that felt like a waterslide. They fell gently through the air until the waterfall of snow surrounding them parted like a curtain to reveal they were in a beautiful forest with a blanket of emerald green moss under their feet, a stream rushing past beside them, and pine trees growing thickly all around. Light flurries of snow were still falling, sprinkling the landscape with accents of white even as rays of spring sun broke through the trees.
He pulled her to him, and they threw their arms around each other. The wind and snow circled around them as they locked together in a kiss. After they parted, he brushed her braid off her shoulder, and it instantly came unbound. Her hair whipped from shoulder to shoulder before stopping to hang down her back like a cape. A thin trail of snow fell from her hair, down her neck, then her shoulders, trailing down her entire body from her chest to her waist to her feet. She took a few steps back away from him, smiling, then raised her arm.
The thin layer of ice on her shoulders slowly melted into specks of snow that floated into the air. She spun around, slowly sweeping her arms down and over her body, framed by her hair billowing around her. Inch by inch, her icy gown melted away until, swinging her hair back over her shoulder, she stood with every line and curve of her body displayed before his eyes with nothing to conceal it.
They stepped towards each other until she could reach up and put her hands on his shoulders. Everywhere she touched him, his own clothes dissolved. There was nothing between them. He eased her down to the bed of moss and flowers beneath them and lay on top of her, giving himself to her completely, holding nothing back, his body intertwining with hers until they were one being, one life, one soul. He dove into her and drowned in her beauty, all of her now his at last...
He bolted awake with a single, sharp, agonized scream. No, no, no, anything but that, anything but that!
He had only slept for a few hours – the sun was still shining, and he wished it wasn't. Once he got his breath back, Bruce closed his eyes and hung his head with a deep groan of despair. "Oh, no. Oh, no..." He sat there, rubbing his brow, trembling from a torture worse than anything he'd experienced in his darkest nightmares. What he'd seen tonight had always been at the back of his mind, but keeping it there had been fairly easy. He had lived with the knowledge that such desires were utterly impossible for so many years that ignoring them required almost no conscious effort; a mute didn't need to resist the urge to speak, or a dead person the urge to breathe...
But an amputee still felt the urge to use a nonexistent limb. Just as soldiers who lost an arm or a leg were haunted by phantom pain that nothing could relieve, so was he. Nothing could save him from this burning desire now eating him alive from the inside out. Whether he stayed with Elsa for the rest of his life or never saw her again, he was doomed. It wasn't enough to have just her love – he wanted her, all of her, and after tonight, he would never be able to forget it. There was no escaping the pain now.
Getting any more sleep was out of the question, but Bruce remained in his room the rest of the day. He wanted to be alone, and he knew no one (including Elsa) would disturb him or expect him elsewhere, convinced as they were that he needed to rest. To his relief, Elsa didn't show up that night, either; she must have thought, from his absence all day, that he was still sleeping or at least too tired for company.
It was a long night. Bruce stayed in bed until sunup but couldn't remember falling asleep. He must have dozed off sometimes, however, because he felt, although not well-rested, alert and functional in the morning. Knowing he couldn't stay in here forever, he got up, washed, and dressed like a cadet preparing for a day of hard training. He couldn't skip breakfast without causing at least Elsa to worry about him, but if he could be the last to arrive, ensuring they wouldn't be alone together, he might be able to handle it. Afterwards, he'd escape to the hospital as soon as he could, where he could keep himself busy for the rest of the day, buying himself more time to recover.
He was walking down a hallway on the second floor towards the last staircase he'd need to take, lost in his thoughts, when he felt a hand touch his left shoulder. "Good morning, Bruce," he heard Elsa's voice say happily. He gasped and jumped at the sound like she'd stabbed him and backed up against the wall. He took one look at her and closed his eyes, holding his forehead in his left hand for support. Oh, no! He was seeing her as he'd seen her in his dream, naked and inviting and lustful, and this was what he would see every time he looked at her from now on!
"Nothing." He shook his head unconvincingly. She could never know! He couldn't stand the thought of telling her why he shouldn't be thinking this! He dropped his arm and opened his eyes but kept them pointed at the floor, away from her. "I just... I didn't sleep well last night."
"I'm sorry." He couldn't control the shudder that ran through his body when she reached for his hand; Elsa obviously attributed it to the same source as his insomnia. "I still have nightmares about what I did to Anna sometimes. I don't think they ever go away completely, but they do fade."
Thinking he'd give anything to have had a nightmare about the other guy killing her last night, Bruce forced himself to smile. "It's nothing, don't worry about it."
"Hypocrite – you never listen when I tell you not to worry."
She was still holding his hand, and her touch made it impossible for him to think straight enough to come up with a reply. He was still ordering himself to get it together when the sound of footsteps behind them made her let go, but when they turned around, it was only Kristoff.
"Elsa! Bruce!" the prince said as he ran breathlessly up to them, waving a letter. "Glad I caught you both! You're not gonna believe this!"
"Believe what?" Elsa asked, eying the letter in his hand.
"I just got this message from Hilde!"
"Who's Hilde?" Elsa asked next.
"She's engaged to Ivan."
"Who's Ivan?" asked Bruce.
"A friend of mine. One of my best friends, actually. He stood with me as my second when Anna and I got married. We've been on the same crew for eight years, until this winter when he started acting weird like the rest of them and I had to quit."
"He's affected?" Bruce guessed, not too surely, as he couldn't imagine why a sufferer would want to send an old friend a letter.
"No... not anymore."
Bruce and Elsa turned and stared at each other for a second, then turned back to Kristoff and said simultaneously, "What?"
"That's what I said. He was affected, but now he's not. Hilde says he's back to normal."
Elsa was too stunned to speak, but Bruce exclaimed, "How?", his eyes wide with disbelief. He'd never seen or heard of that happening to anyone around here. Was it really possible there was a cure and someone had found it?!
"That's what I'd like to know," Kristoff answered. "And so would Hilde. Everyone who knows someone who's been affected knows you're looking for a cure. She wants you to come see him, see if you can figure out why, what happened, what changed."
Kristoff held the letter out to Bruce, and he and Elsa read the woman's joyful tidings of the inexplicable recovery, her fear that it was only temporary, and her hope that their foreign guest might be able to find some answers. She also explained that her fiancé couldn't bear to write to his friend himself because he was so ashamed of how he'd treated him (and everyone else) for the past few months, but that he was just as curious to know what had done this to him as she was.
"This could be the break we've been hoping for," Elsa said when they were done. "He could hold the key to solving the mystery."
"Or at least solving the problem," Bruce amended.
"Does that mean we're going?" asked Kristoff.
"I can't go," Elsa declared. "We have to finish the final draft of our response to Weselton's most recent business proposal today, and there are many points I'm not satisfied with yet. I'll need a few hours to make the Council see reason. Anna agreed to be on call for any business that comes up while we're in session. You two go – take as many guards as you think you'll need, and tell me everything you find this evening."
Kristoff shook his head and said, "I hope you know what you're doing, Elsa," in a tone that said he found wrestling heavy blocks of ice out of a mountain easier than wrestling a reasonable decision out of a board of officials.
Bruce smiled in admiration at Elsa's determination not to let any circumstances prevent her from taking care of business and discharging her duty as queen. He turned away from her before she could notice and eagerly asked Kristoff, "When do we leave?" Aside from the importance of the information they might find, the errand would get him away from the castle for a while.
"When can they get the horses saddled?" was Kristoff's reply.
Anna, unsurprisingly, was more disappointed than Elsa that she was too busy today to accompany them, but it couldn't compare to her joy at such a favorable development. When they were ready to go, she excitedly hugged them good-bye, warned them to be careful and look after each other, and demanded a thorough report when they returned. They, of course, promised all of the above, and so they parted – she, to run a kingdom; they, to find some answers.
The two men had turned down Elsa's offer of taking any guards, preferring to travel fast and light and not expecting any trouble, so it was just the two of them who rode up into the mountains. Bruce was glad they were on horseback instead of in the sled, not only because it was faster but because the motion helped relieve some of the tension that had been building up since yesterday.
"You okay, doc?" Kristoff asked him at one point.
"As ever," Bruce assured him. Kristoff smirked admiringly at his clever choice of words, but let it go at that.
They arrived at the ice harvester's crude but comfortable cabin without incident. The man didn't look surprised to see them, only nervous. Hilde served them some tea and thanked them for coming, and Bruce sat talking at the table with her while the two friends talked outside, one repeating unneeded apologies and the other telling him to forget about it. Once they were both satisfied, they came in and joined the other two.
None of them wasted any time getting to the subject behind the visit. When Bruce asked the couple to tell them the whole story from the beginning, Hilde did most of the talking; Ivan found it difficult to describe the past few months. He remembered them as clearly as anyone could; he just couldn't make sense of how he'd acted. He'd never had any desire to say the things he'd said about Queen Elsa and her family, or to treat Hilde the way he had, or to give up working to sit on his porch counting snowflakes and studying the icicles – he knew what he'd said and done, he just had no idea why. He couldn't think of any reason for the indiscriminate hatred he'd felt, when he could feel at all, why he couldn't stand to be around his friends anymore, why he'd shut his fiancée, whom he loved with all his heart, out of his life, or lost interest in everything he used to love. The feelings seemed to belong to another person; he looked back on them with horror and couldn't understand why none of it troubled him at the time. He certainly couldn't explain how he'd stopped noticing the cold! It was like his emotions had been completely beyond his control.
He insisted, however, that he had been in control of every conscious action, and the fact that his memory was perfectly normal made Bruce inclined to agree with him. There were no blackouts where he didn't know what he'd been doing or how he'd gotten somewhere, he hadn't heard any voices in his head, or had any vivid nightmares of someone chasing or subduing him, so Bruce crossed full-blown mind control off the list of possibilities. He asked the couple if there had been any changes in his routine when it started, no matter how innocuous it seemed at the time, but nothing stood out – he'd fished in the same spots, chopped firewood where he always had, worked with the same men in familiar places, bought food and supplies from the same shops and traders, and hadn't gotten any new tools or clothes. He hadn't taken in any strange guests for the night, he hadn't bought anything at an unbelievably low price from an overzealous salesman, and he hadn't been bitten by any animal, normal or abnormal. The only thing that had changed was that, right before it started, the weather turned colder than it had ever been, at least in his lifetime.
What about when he'd been cured – what changed then? Hilde explained that, three days ago, she's made his favorite cherry pie and come to see him, hoping to talk to him and try to work things out. Ivan wasn't home, but she went inside and lit a fire while she waited for him to come back. When he didn't, she went looking for him, and found him exactly where she expected, a short distance away, kneeling in the center of the frozen river, cutting chunks of ice out, holding them up, and looking at them from every angle in the sun. She called out to him from the shore, but he didn't even acknowledge she was there. Eventually, she stepped onto the ice and made her way slowly over to him, one tentative step at a time. Once she was next to him, she tried to grab his arm and demand he talk to her, but he shook her off without looking at her. He took some steps away from her but was too engrossed by the ice in his hand to look where he was going and stepped right into the hole before she could warn him.
Hilde instinctively reached out to grab him and slipped. The next thing she knew, she was in the frigid water, clinging to the edge of the ice with one arm and to Ivan with the other. She heard him yell, "Let me go!" more than once but couldn't tell them whether the tone was of concern or disgust. Straining with all her might, after slipping back down over and over again, she finally hoisted herself up out of the water, pulling her struggling companion behind her. He was actually fighting to get away from her, but she refused to let go, no matter how hard it was to hold on.
When she finally pulled him out, he wasn't struggling anymore. He wasn't unconscious, he stood up when she pulled him to his feet, but he stared ahead with a vacant look in his eyes and didn't respond when she said his name. She clung to him and shook him, crying and pleading for him not leave her, and he clutched his chest and moaned in pain. He didn't resist when she dragged him back to his house. When they both collapsed before the fire, he was the one clinging to her, trembling and murmuring softly under his breath. She held against her breast, crying and assuring him she was here. Without warning, he collapsed and fell on his chest, covering the floor around them in ice and snow. When he rolled over and looked up at her, she saw his eyes as she'd remembered them before he changed, and because he started shivering, something those affected never did and she hadn't seen him do for months.
Ivan couldn't say a word or even look up as Hilde described how she'd risked her life to save his when he didn't care whether either of them lived or died. He could only compare what happened afterwards – the confusion, the dizziness, the lightheadedness, the headache, the tremors – to the one time he'd accidentally eaten some poisonous roots and spent the entire night vomiting as his body purged itself of the poison.
When the story was over, Bruce and Kristoff turned and looked at each other, both realizing the other was thinking the same thing. All Bruce asked, however, when he turned back to their hosts was, "Can you show me where this happened?"
The couple took them to the river, although neither of them could be tempted to go too near it. There was absolutely nothing unusual about the spot or the water, which was fed by and fed into countless other branches that supplied people all over Arendelle with water as it flowed down to the sea. This particular water couldn't have cured anything or it would have cured hundreds by now, nor could water itself be the cure – accidents like this were all too common among those who were affected. Bruce silently exchanged another knowing look with Kristoff.
"I'm not so sure An Act Of True Love did it," Bruce said as they rode back down the mountain later.
"You got a better explanation?" Kristoff wondered.
"No, just, I thought the act had to be performed by the sufferer, not the loved one."
"Could be either-or."
"Then why didn't you taking Anna back to the palace save her? That was a pretty clear act of love."
"Maybe, but we'd only known each other two days – you call that True Love?"
"Half of those affected are married."
"Which means probably about a quarter of them are in love."
"Almost every one has some friend or family member who's worried about their loved one."
"Just loving someone period isn't enough. You have to really feel it, fill your heart up with it until there's no room for evil to get in, to use it as an armor against dark magic, and its effectiveness still depends on the strength of the love compared to the strength of the spell." Bruce turned and raised his eyebrow at Kristoff. "I learned a lot about magic growing up, okay?" he added.
"Anything that could explain this?"
"Nope, except that An Act Of True Love thaws a frozen heart."
"But this is different than what happened to Anna, isn't it?"
"Completely," Kristoff admitted, "but what else would you call it?"
"I don't know," Bruce sighed in defeat – "frozen heart" was still the most accurate way to describe the condition. "That didn't give us much to go on."
"At least now we know how to cure it."
"Now all we need to do is go around putting everyone in danger when their loved ones are perfectly poised to save them," said Bruce, sarcastically but not meanly. The way Hilde had saved her lover (if that was what saved him) simply couldn't be intentionally implemented on a mass scale.
"We'll save that for Plan B."
"And we still don't know what's causing it, how, or why."
"Guess we'll have to let your friends handle that part."
"Yeah..." They slowed to a walk for a difficult patch of ground, and Bruce looked north over his shoulder. Stark and Barton definitely should have been back by now...
Bruce heard Kristoff say, "Sorry."
Bruce shook his head as he turned around. "Don't worry, it's nothing."
Kristoff, however, seemed to think he'd discovered what had been on his mind that morning. "You think it's time to go looking for them?"
"No," Bruce said confidently. "I'm sure they're fine."
"Me, too – that's what I keep telling Anna."
"Anna's worried about them?"
"Yeah, but Elsa says it your call."
Elsa... How much longer until Bruce would be face-to-face with her again? She expected him to tell her what he'd learned today – how could he focus when he'd be spending the entire time trying not to look below her neck? He wasn't ready to face her, not yet! He pulled his horse to a halt, causing Kristoff to do the same a few paces ahead.
Kristoff rode back to him and asked, "You sure you're all right, Bruce?"
"No," he confessed. "I... I need some time alone."
"You know Elsa's rule about..."
"I know, but I'm not related to her, and I don't work for her – I don't have any enemies around here. No one's gonna come after me."
"I know, but..."
Bruce didn't want to give him a chance to start arguing. "You can tell her what happened today, right?"
"Look, Kristoff, I just... I'm just tired. I've got a lot on my mind. It's... it's starting to get to me. I need some time to think. I can take care of myself, I'll be fine. I just want to get away for a few hours to clear my head, okay?"
Kristoff looked at him like someone who understood exactly how he felt, and he knew as well as Bruce did that he'd never have as good a chance for getting away from the castle alone as he did right now. He looked like we wanted to protest some more but ultimately sighed, "Okay. You need to get out, go ahead – I know the feeling."
"I hope Elsa doesn't kill me when she finds out."
"She won't," Bruce said truthfully with a smile. "She knows she doesn't need to worry about me." He turned his horse back up the mountain and waved once over his shoulder to Kristoff as he rode away. The prince waved back and then started his own horse back down towards the castle again.
Bruce had no particular destination in mind (that he was aware of). He just needed to move, to release the pressure building up inside before it reached dangerous levels. He rode over the hills and valleys, weaving through trees, jumping over boulders, as fast as his mount could go in this snow, savoring the feel of the cold wind against his face, wishing it could blow away all his problems and worries. When he slowed back down to a walk and looked at the rugged terrain all around, above, and below him, his worry for his friends took priority in his mind. He tried to remind himself they had the weapons and the skills to handle anything, but he couldn't stop wondering what was taking them so long. Where were they now? What had happened to them? What had they found out there?
Aside from the incident in the garden, the trip had been pretty uneventful for the other two Avengers. They had seen almost no one and nothing out of the ordinary since they left behind the girl with no voice and many secrets. One night, when they were traveling at the bottom of a valley below huge cliffs, looking for shelter from the blizzard raging around them, Tony saw a strange gold and purple blur fly past him at lightning speed.
"What the..." He turned sharply around in midair and tried to get another look at the UFO, but it sped away before his eyes or instruments could see what it was or where it was going. He thought the shape looked human, with dark hair, but he didn't trust himself – he also thought he'd heard a voice shouting in Arabic!
Hawkeye, who heard his exclamation, asked, "What is it? You all right?"
"Just a little... a lot confused. I thought I saw..."
"There's something big blocking the path," Hawkeye explained.
Tony flew lower and looked down at the ground. "What?"
"Can't tell – it's covered in snow." He was right – all Tony could make out was a huge cylindrical bulge in the ground, too smooth and symmetrical to be natural. "I can go around it, just give me a minute."
They finally found shelter in a cave and put the brief episode behind them. Tony found their next encounter a few days later far more interesting. They were traveling by the coast, on a clear day without a puff of wind or single snowflake falling. Tony flew out over the sea and was looking down at the field of icebergs below when he saw what looked like a naked woman with short, black hair moving between them! Convinced he must be hallucinating this time, he flew down, slowly so as to make as little noise as possible, to see what it really was. It wasn't until she spotted him and dove under the water out of sight that he saw the fishtail break the surface before it disappeared after her beneath the waves.
"Did you see that?" both men asked at the same time.
"I should've known," Tony said flatly, wondering if he should be proud or worried that the sight didn't faze him at all.
That was the last living soul they saw. Two days later, when Hawkeye stopped to check their map on his tablet, he finally announced, "We should be coming up on the target any minute now."
"What target?" Tony asked, flying lower.
"We'll know it when we see it. According to the map, we're right in the middle of the approximate area where S.H.I.E.L.D. calculates the polar vortex is coming from. If there's anything here causing it, we should spot it soon."
Tony scanned every inch of the area below and around him, looking for any signs of life or activity above or below ground. "See anything, JARVIS?"
"Nothing but ice, sir. No unusual materials, heat source, or vibrations detected below the surface."
"Rules out anything underground, what about something invisible?"
"Radar reveals no solid structures or lifeforms within the area."
The data on the screen confirmed the AI's findings. "Not even trees..." Tony mumbled. The data soon changed. "Careful, Barton, you're riding on frozen water, not earth, now."
Barton slowed the reindeer down to avoid slipping, unafraid of falling through in these temperatures. A few minutes later, Tony heard him ask, "What do you see up there, Stark?"
Still focusing on the readings on the screen and not on the actual view, Tony answered, "Nothing but ice, just like our friend said."
"What kind of ice? Can you be more specific?"
What was that supposed to mean? "Well, if you want me to determine the exact chemical makeup of the ice, I'll take a sample and..."
"I think you better get down here where you can see better."
Stark turned around and found Barton a few yards behind him. "See what?" he asked, somewhat annoyed, as he landed, dropping the readouts so he could see his teammate clearly.
Barton pointed behind him. "That."
"Whoah..." After he turned around, Tony's eyes instantly widened in shock at the sight before him that, to his scanners, had looked no different from the icy sea around it: a tall, beautiful, vast castle with all its turrets, walls, doors, towers, every inch of it made entirely of the clearest, purest, smoothest ice.
Hawkeye glanced once more at the tablet in his hands before shutting it down and stowing it in one of their packs. "I think we found it."
Tony couldn't take his eyes off the ice palace. "Huh... we must've missed the lamppost and the beaver dam."
Bruce wasn't surprised to find himself staring up at the ice palace – if he couldn't be with Elsa, being inside her masterpiece was the next best thing. He tied his horse to a tree and gave him a grateful pat on the nose before marching gingerly up the staircase towards the entrance. Elsa wasn't here to open the doors this time, but they slid open easily when he pushed on them. He left the entrance hall and walked up to one of the highest balconies, his eyes lingering on all the things he'd watched Elsa build while they were here together. He knew that if he was trying to dull the pain, he'd picked an odd way to do it.
He walked out on the balcony and leaned over the railing, trying to lose himself in the beautiful view. To his complete lack of dismay, it wasn't working. What did he expect to find up here? There was nothing here that could help him. He tried asking himself the standard questions of what he was thinking and how he could have let this happen and such but gave up before long – he knew that denying how they both felt, trying to use the pain of repression to protect themselves from the pain of love, trying to fake reality and solve a problem by refusing to accept that it existed, never worked. Trying to conceal or erase any emotion only made the problems with it worse, and that included love – he accepted that.
"So, now what?"
As if in direct reply to his plea, a call rang out in the air above him. Bruce looked up and saw something white circling down towards him. When it got closer, he realized it was the snowbird he'd watched Elsa make the first day she brought him here. He hadn't seen it or even thought about it since that day. Wondering where it had gone and when it had come back, or if it had been here all along, hiding from them but watching them, he held out his right arm, and the creature landed on it as if they were old friends.
"Hello there," he said in English but, out of habit, repeating the words in Norwegian in his mind. "I remember you – Elsa's little..." He stopped – the act of translating the phrase that was on the tip of his tongue reminded him of something. He laughed as he said, not "little snowbird" in English or Norwegian, but "Matoaka." The bird raised its head and seemed to look intently at him at the word. "You like that, huh, Little Snow Feather?"
His smile disappeared in a sigh as he remembered how he'd felt when he'd seen Elsa create her. Elsa was such an amazing woman! Why did he have to feel guilty for loving her?
He didn't – he realized it as soon as he asked the question. He didn't feel guilty for loving Elsa, for wanting her, or for not fighting it. Why should he? He clenched his fists as the injustice of it all filled his mind. What had he done to deserve this? Why didn't he have as much right to love as any man? The answer was right there on his wrist.
The bird pecked at the device as Bruce raised his arm to his chest. He stared at the numbers blinking up at him as he released the anger before it could gather its strength. He wasn't angry at himself, or Elsa, or whatever had brought them together. He was angry at the team of scientists who had deceived him about their goals and the risks, at the fools who had launched such a dangerous project in the first place, at the government that had hired them to do it, at the college that had given them their resources and people, but, most of all, at the monster who owned his body and soul, who told him what he could and couldn't feel, punished him for the slightest disobedience, and whom he was helpless to resist. He was nothing but a puny slave whose master was too strong to fight.
Elsa's stronger than you, he said defiantly in his mind. Elsa had shown him the one way he could fight. This was his revenge, wasn't it? He was determined to separate him from the woman who had defeated him, to make the source of his greatest triumph the source of his greatest pain, his way of saying, You belong to me, not her – never forget it.
Bruce shook his head and shook the bird off his arm in the same motion. She came back to him, but he brushed her away. She perched on the railing, still facing him, but he turned away from her, figuring she would go away. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, scolding himself for letting his imagination wander like that. He was torn between wishing his enemy was something he could actually confront in the flesh and warning himself to stop thinking about him when he felt something lightly touch his arm – the snowbird had crept back up to him.
"Leave me alone," Bruce said gruffly, walking away. The bird hopped after him and perched on the railing next to him again. "Look, go away, all right. What are you doing here anyway?" Bruce waved her away, and she flew back a little but came back as soon as he rested his arms on the railing again. "I said, go away," he said more harshly, swinging his arm at her again. She flew over him and landed on his other side. "Cut it out," he said as forcefully as he dared, flinging her aside with his arm again. "Get out of here! Shoo! Just leave me alone!" She stopped trying to come back and flew away, disappearing amongst the trees spread out below.
Once she was out of sight, Bruce wondered why he'd been so determined to send her away, why he couldn't stand her presence all of a sudden. He was even sorry he'd done it – he could tell that she'd understood him and that he'd somehow made her sad – but he tried to shrug it off. It didn't matter. She couldn't help him. And yet he couldn't help waiting to see if she would come back.
Bruce laughed at himself, knowing it wasn't the snowbird he wanted but her creator. He wondered where Elsa was now, if her meeting was over yet, if Kristoff had told her and Anna the news. He'd have to see them again eventually. Elsa would figure out something was wrong. He'd have to tell her, broach the subject they had refused to let bother them or spoil their happiness. What's the big deal? he tried to argue. It never would have happened anyway. She's a queen, for crying out loud!
But what if it could have? How would it have happened? He indulged in a string of fantasies of what might have been but could never be – him living in Arendelle as the queen's secret lover; Elsa abdicating the throne in favor of Anna and coming back to live with him in the United States, where they'd join the Avengers on missions whenever the need arose; him marrying Elsa and becoming the King Consort of Arendelle; the two of them marrying in secret, never revealing the truth until she became pregnant with their child... he wasn't sure if such thinking was healthy, but it felt good, so for now, he let it go...
"Oh, Elsa..." he whispered, remembering how easily he'd taken her in his dream. He realized that he'd never asked himself if she wanted him the way she had in that dream, which meant he probably knew the answer. He sighed and leaned his right arm on the railing, holding his head in his right hand, willing himself to face the most painful thought of all: She deserves a real man who can give her what she wants...
His thoughts were interrupted, not by a sound, but by the sense of some presence behind him, owed to instincts honed by years of constantly looking over his shoulder and expecting an ambush around every corner. Bruce didn't turn around, didn't move. He only had two seconds to wonder before he heard it – the creak of a wet leather boot, the sharp intake of baited breath, and the unmistakable scrape of metal against metal. He rolled quickly to the right, just as the sword swung forward and sank deep into the icy railing.
*Rostand, Edmond. Cyrano de Bergerac. 1898. Trans. by Bryan Hooker. Bantam Classic edition, 2004. Pg. 224.
**Leroux, Gaston. The Phantom of the Opera. 1910. Trans. by Lowell Bair. Bantam Classic edition, 2008. Pg. 163.