AN: Thanks Plucie, lesbinope, Hush Puppy, hMSC (admittedly, my brain is probably infested with images from the cake fic, which might've had a hand in what I wrote. Of course, it's nowhere near as good as the cake fic, so everybody should go read it, now!), GuesT (don't worry, anything other than flames make me really, really happy), Nayal, Supremacy of Chaos, Asha5267, 23deecy, Peace Sign Freak, and the guests for their kind reviews. I'm still running the poll on my profile regarding whether you'd like me to reply your reviews here in the author's notes or through PM, so vote if you have a particular preference. For now, I'll be replying those who left signed reviews through PM to keep the notes short. So, let's get going with this!
(This is the July 2016 revised version)
Courtship of the Grad Student
Anna couldn't believe she was choking on the same piece of cake twice. It was all Kristoff's fault.
"Look, that's just rude of him to ask you to join his pity party when he knows you want to go to Elsa's colloquium."
After she managed to gobble down the oversized bite, she answered, "And it's rude of you to look over my shoulder at my personal messages! Sheesh, I nearly choked to death because of you!"
"Hey, I'm just trying to make sure my gullible friend doesn't get kidnapped, okay?"
"I'm not gullible! And I'm willingly going to see Hans. That's not called kidnapping!"
Did she just say that? Damn it, she just had to say it, huh?
"You sure?" Kristoff looked at her with concerned eyes. The heck? He didn't have to give her that look - she knew what she was doing!
Elsa didn't really need her, but Hans did, so...
"You have no obligations to him, Anna."
"I know that. That's not why I'm going."
But neither did she have obligations to Elsa, as much as she would've liked.
"Whatever, just come back early. Elsa's up third for the twenty-minute talks, so you might catch it if you're quick."
She nodded and ran. Damn it all! The skies were a whirling grey with hints of upcoming rain; the wind left chills down her bones. For once, she wished "their Starbucks" was the one next door, not the one left of the intersection uphill.
She finally arrived, shoving the door open. The chime rattled loudly, drawing everybody's attention. Luckily, it was a cold day, so when the door shut itself and the outside wind died once again to the indoor warmth, the customers quickly returned to their hot, caffeinated drinks and idle chatter.
"Hey," Hans gestured from a corner. Anna moved towards him as fast as she could without bumping into somebody's boiling coffee. He had already reserved her a seat, one she took with no hesitation, plopping down without even taking off her jacket first.
"Sup?" She said as cheerfully as she could. Hans smiled politely, but looked no less dejected than before.
"Didn't know you had a habit of cutting your words short, Anna."
Her jaw fell and it took a moment for her to collect herself, "Oh, yeah, have been listening to too much rap lately. Sup, Yo! Chillax'in dude?"
"You sure that's rap? Doesn't sound like it," he chuckled. She tried to join in, but noticed her laughter sounded somewhat artificial.
Oh, screw it. As long as he thought it was funny and didn't catch the drift that she was rather short on time, that'd be fine. She didn't want to be rude to a friend...boyfriend(?)...boy friend, with a space in between.
"Sorry for asking you to come along even though this doesn't have much to do with you," Hans continued. She shrugged it off.
"Don't worry about it. It's totally cool with me. I mean, you've always been so nice and helpful and awesome and wonderful it's only right for me to, you know, make sure you're alright when you run into trouble. Oh, of course I don't mean you are in trouble now. I have no idea what happened, but can't be the end of the world 'cause you're so smart nothing's gonna hurt you in the long run. Like, my mother said to me when I was a little kid that life's a road and when driving down, occasionally a moose would be cross'in and you'd have to slow down...wait, was it a moose or a reindeer? No, wait, why does that matter? God, am I rambling again? About my mother? Forget what I said, seriously...I'll just shut up now."
That was totally embarrassing. If she'd admit it, this all felt like the last minute of an exam. The damn invigilator was counting down the remaining seconds, and she was trying to cram the last of her bullshit into her final answer. The more she stressed, the more bullshit she wrote - useless words, commas where she didn't need them, all only contributing to a waste of time and increasing illegibility of her response. Look at all the bullshit she was spouting at Hans! Moose, my ass! Like he'd care about that!
"Point taken. You're here, willing to listen to me. That's all that matters," Hans said.
All the while, Anna's hand was clamped overtop her watch. If not for that, she would be staring at the tick of each second instead of looking at her friend's eyes as she should in a situation like this.
No need to rush, no need to rush, nothing important is coming up. I can sit here all day...
The hell, was he saying something? She spaced out and didn't even know for how long!
"I know it's quite a bit to ask of you, so if you don't want to do it, that's okay."
Do what? I totally wasn't listening!
"No, no, I want to do it! Anything to help you. Nothing's too much for good 'ole Anna, so you can depend on me anytime. But I can be just a wee bit clumsy though...so...I don't know, maybe it isn't that good an idea to depend on me after all?"
"Don't worry about it. I've seen your data and they look great. You aren't clumsy at all!"
"Yes. Like I was saying, I'd like to incorporate some of that into my presentation next time. With them, I'm sure I can pass the retest."
Something wasn't quite right here. It was one thing to slave after hours to help Hans get experiments done, but to give him her data was another thing. Anna's data wasn't really hers alone - they were Elsa's too. They worked on the same project, and Elsa did most of the work by designing the experiments. Now wasn't the time to pretend to be a good friend without knowing what, exactly, was going on.
"Sorry, I wasn't listening before. Can you explain again what data do you need?"
"Well, you know that blot we did together? I showed it to my committee but they weren't too happy about what I chose to blot, even when I told them it was the screen's top hit. They asked to see the other hits, and a model for how they would fit into a biochemical pathway."
Oh, the blot she did with Hans...of the hit from Elsa's screen!
But why did Hans include the blot in his committee meeting? She did help him with a lot of other experiments, but that one was just supposed to be him showing her how to do a Southern! It was totally irrelevant to Hans' project anyway!
Or was he trying to...steal Elsa's project?
No, that can't be it. Hans isn't that kind of person. Or is he? I don't really know him that well...
Maybe he's just desperate. His project is hard and it isn't going very well, so he wants to collaborate with Elsa instead? That isn't a bad thing, right? I can at least help him talk to Elsa about it...
"Umm...I mean, the data are for Elsa's project, so I can't just decide for her. I can help you ask her though! She's the nicest person out there even though she seems a little weird..."
This time, the guilt slammed her like a truck. The whole collaboration aspect was all in Anna's mind. She was just trying to rationalize his behaviour, even though she should probably be condemning him here and now. Hans didn't say anything about a collaboration, and most importantly, he never said he'd contribute anything to Elsa's project in return. What right did that give Anna to ask Elsa to give her data to Hans? It was all Elsa's hard work, the work she had come in earlier and left later than everybody else to perform! Kristoff's words rang in her head. Did Hans deserve it? Hans might not be lazy, but his poor progress wasn't anybody's fault but his own. It could be that he was just unlucky, it could be a funding issue, whatever...Still, Elsa owed him nothing. Elsa's achievements were rightfully hers alone, and Anna had no reason to ask her to share.
Hans opened his mouth as though wanting to say something, but ended up shutting it. Anna was feeling worse by the minute.
She couldn't face him. She wasn't helping him. If she were, even if she disagreed with his plans, she'd reprimand him and offer an alternative solution. But she wasn't. She was just going along with whatever he said because she couldn't even be honest enough to admit her focus just wasn't on solving his problems now.
Then what the hell was she doing here? She wasn't defending Elsa's rights, nor was she doing anything for Hans. She was just sitting here for nothing.
"Sorry, Hans. I actually have something important to tend to, so I've got to run."
Anna finally stood up to leave. Hans hung a bitter yet knowing smile. From the very beginning, this guy seemed to see right through her.
"I should be the one to apologize for holding you up. I know I'm asking too much, but you're all I have."
All he had...all she had.
Maybe the Hans she crushed on wasn't the handsome face that drew her attention the first time she stepped into the Winters Lab, but his electric lime gaze that mirrored her own image.
"Don't worry. I'll try my best to help you," she said, wondering if she was too deliberate about her vague pledge. Maybe Hans caught it too, because before exiting, she heard Hans speak once more from behind her.
"I don't want you to feel obligated. I just would rather seek your help than anybody else's...because then, what I achieve will be something we can share together."
Contrary to common belief, Elsa was not a bad presenter.
When it was her turn, she stepped calmly up the podium, shirt creased, jacket smart, shoes tidy but didn't sparkle, giving her a clean yet down-to-earth look.
Unlike how she usually wore her braid, over a shoulder or down her back, it was fashioned in an arc above her, shining in its crisp white gold. The ice blues that cast over the audience silenced them, and after the host's introduction, she began.
She was not surprised to sense a distinct shift of feelings from the crowd as her presentation progressed. It began with cautious curiosity, something animal trainers would teach you to look for in the repertoire of behaviours healthy animals exhibited. They were like mice that scurried back into their homes when you slipped your finger through the cage, but after a little while, they'd poke their heads out and come check you out, see what's going on. As her talk moved further along, that slight distrust, yet unwilling desire to understand her faded to genuine interest in what she had to say. The excitement echoing in her veins told her as much, comforting her because she knew she had successfully drawn attention off herself. This was what she loved most about science, its objectiveness, its cold, hard, impersonal nature. There was no need for others to know her. They just needed to know her hypothesis, results, and conclusion. That was it.
She had performed novel and absolutely massive functional screens on some of the most exotic environments on their planet that drew tangents to a prehistoric Earth where life itself first emerged from a primordial soup. From this, she found targets worthy of further investigation, diverse prokaryotic serine proteases that which she boldly attempted to direct their evolution. In the end, she found enzymes with restricted, highly efficient activities for substrates of the human complement system, showing for the first time that there could be a direct, evolutionary link between prokaryotic serine proteases and their mammalian counterparts. At that point, her audience was completely invested in the story, but Elsa found, much to her own shock, that she herself was drawing back.
Into her conclusion on how this research had direct implications on the pathogenesis of certain disease-causing cousin strains of the microbes she found, and a more far-fetched claim that this might shed light on the ancient origins of serine protease families, she stuttered, her mind flashing over the bottle of champagne in her memory.
Dr. Winter's pride, her faraway parents' hopes, all coalescing with a voice filled with admiration once sounding on the other side of her door.
"...I missed you."
Anna wasn't here, she realized. This was what she had hoped for. She couldn't stand someone else depending on her, having expectations for her. But somehow, with Anna gone, there was this void that developed within her, collapsing all the carefully-stacked bricks in her perfect stone tower of professionalism.
This wasn't a movie. It wasn't as though she could refuse to end her presentation till the girl appeared through the doors. Besides, she didn't even recognize Anna. For all she knew, the warm feeling Anna always gave her had just disappeared, and though she never thought the cold would bother her, it did.
So she didn't look at the door. She turned down to her remote and clicked for the next slide, the last acknowledgements slide.
"Here, I'd like to thank our funding agencies, Genome Arendelle and the AIHR for their generous monetary support, my committee members Dr. Weselton and Dr. Corona for their suggestions and the samples they kindly donated, as well as all my colleagues from the Winters Lab, especially my supervisor Brad, and undergraduate helper Anna. Thank you."
There. Elsa felt it. The relief. The excitement. The overflowing happiness because Elsa had recognized her hard work.
Amongst the clapping crowd, Elsa's widened eyes swept to a latecomer standing near a pillar, the only spot she could find in the filled hall. That was the first time they met, blues with teals. Elsa surveyed Anna's braids of strawberry-blonde, tanned face adorned with adorable freckles, and that smile, that smile that just seemed to take over her world.
The novel feeling making her heart pound was terrorizing her, but she couldn't let go of it. It was the first time she found a presentation so fulfilling that despite all fears, she wanted it to last forever.
The rest of the questions session breezed by. She hardly remembered what anybody asked, how she even answered. Her senses, her mind, her everything was completely devoted to something entirely different.
But the final round of applause awoke her. The audience was starting to file out of the room, and Anna was walking up to her.
No, no, I'm not ready for this yet...
"Sorry," Elsa apologized to her fellow presenter who supplied the laptop, abruptly pulling her USB key out and darting for the back doors. Surprised by the sudden action, Anna nearly tripped over herself trying to turn back the other direction so she could intercept Elsa outside the hall. Damn it! She was almost sliding on the floorboards due to the puddles of water she was literally dripping all over them, having ran back from the coffee shop while it was pouring outside. Turning a sharp corner with an eardrum-ripping squeak, she managed to catch sight of Elsa's blonde hair, but she was already far out of reach.
"Damn it, Elsa! How the hell can you be so athletic when you shut yourself in a dark room!?" She yelled after the quickly-fading figure.
Then again, frustrating as this was, Anna actually wasn't quite angry at Elsa's escape.
Because she did see Elsa smiling. That was more precious than anything else.
By the time Anna made it back to the lab, the grad student was locked in once again. Anna sighed, plopping down against the door.
"You know I rushed back to see your presentation? In the rain? And I'm soaked as a result? You could've at least stayed and let me ask a question."
Chuckles sounded on the other end, and when they finally stopped, a very small voice started speaking, one she wouldn't have caught if she wasn't trying so intently to listen.
"What can you ask about when you only saw the acknowledgements slide?"
"Oh, I was gonna ask why you didn't put my name in bold comic sans font, each letter a different colour, because I'm so obviously special."
You are special, Anna.
Don't you know how hard I'm trying to ignore that? To ignore you?
Elsa paused against the door, hand shaking while reaching for the knob. In the end, she still pulled it back and just slid herself down to the ground.
I'm so scared.
"I'm really scared, Anna..." she whispered, but it was already enough for Anna to hear it. There was no way for her to comprehend the logical reason behind Elsa's fears, but for some reason, she felt like she understood anyway.
"I know," Anna ended up answering. It was funny, because how the hell could she know anything about Elsa?
But she knew. She just did. She knew one day Elsa would open that door, and when she did, it would be for her.
"I trust you, Elsa. You will come out when you are ready. I will wait for you, right here."
It was sad, because Elsa couldn't promise anything.
If things stayed this way, at least this would be the extent of their relationship. Sure, parting would still be difficult when it came time for Anna to graduate, but whatever damage that'd do, it wouldn't be irreparable. It wouldn't hurt too long, for either of them, because Anna was just seeing a mirage of Elsa, an image the younger girl projected to fill the missing pieces of their interactions. Anna didn't know the real her, the ugly, selfish, cowardly her who left others wounded and refused to treat them because she couldn't even get herself to acknowledge what she had done.
She didn't deserve kindness, but just like any other human being, she yearned for it.
"Elsa?" Anna spoke up again, "Do you want to make a rainbow?"
The one thing that connected them at this moment. Their only interaction, the rainbow Elsa's fluorescent scope made, fleeting coloured lights across the floor.
They weren't enough.
"No," Elsa answered firmly, with possession and hunger. She instead gripped Anna's hand from under the door.
End of Chapter 5