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Good Things Come

Chapter Text

Hans Westergaard is in a somewhat rare good mood. Pleasantly tipsy, he leaves his driver a tip as he slides smoothly across the back bench of his limousine. He doesn't indulge in this particular service often, but he does feel that it is important for top-tier clients to see him picked up in a fashion worthy of his position.

His mood quickly sours as he turns to face the house. She has left lights on in at least three rooms, and the curtains to the living room are wide open, exposing his household interior to the world. She knows better than to waste his electricity like that. She knows he likes his home to remain private.

He sets his jaw and makes his way into the house. The front door is unlocked and she isn't in the kitchen. He doesn't hear her coming either. She's always so loud.

Hans huffs. Perhaps she’s sulking. It is almost eleven and he told her he wouldn’t stay late. He rolls his eyes. He isn’t going to take any attitude from her and she's going to have a real problem if he finds her sleeping. There are dishes in the sink and he doesn't find his dinner plate in the warmer or the fridge.

Now he’s angry.

He moves further into the house, searching. Honestly, he’s hoping she’s asleep now. Give her a shock.

If she thinks he’s going to tolerate flagrant disrespect on this level… after all these years…

He doesn’t find her.

Not in their bedroom, not in their bathroom.

Not in the guest suite either.

Not in any of the closets.

Not under the bed.

“Anna?”

He heads back downstairs, picking up his pace.

Not on the patio, not in the laundry room. Not in the garage, though his car is still there.

“Anna!”

He rushes back up stairs now, feet thumping loudly on each carpeted step.

Her draw is empty. Her little trinkets are missing. Her bathroom cabinet is cleaned out.

Back downstairs, louder, faster, cursing.

Her DVDs. Her folder from the file cabinet. Her coat and shoes. Her stupid little snowman mug.

Gone.

He pulls out his phone and calls her.

He hears rattling from the kitchen. Her phone vibrating - it’s in the trash. He knocks the thing over, sending trash everywhere - she didn’t fucking take the trash out either today - finds the phone. It’s empty. Factory reset, in fact.

Back on his phone he pulls up Facebook Messenger. She’s not in his contacts anymore. He can’t pull up her page. He tries her login info - deactivated. He can’t get into her email either. Her Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are all gone too.

Something tells him she’s not huddled at the bus stop waiting for him this time.

He throws each and every one of his expensive crystal glassware against the wall, one satisfying smash after another. But it’s not enough. He throws the coffee pot, sends one of the bar stools flying.

There is a photograph taped to the back of the front door. He crosses his ruined kitchen to reach it, though he can see it well enough. It’s Anna, from years ago, when she still had that awful red hair, and she’s with her sister. He knows this picture, the way they are posed together, Anna's big toothy smile and chubby chin. She had this picture on display for years even though she knew it drove him mad, even after she and her sister stopped talking. He’d gotten so sick of it, hadn’t he ripped it up? This copy is glossy and whole.

He pulls it down and turns it over in his hands, examining. There is a note on the back in thick black sharpie.

 

YOU LOSE, ASSHOLE
<3 E.

 

He sees red. He shreds the picture. Spits on it. He punches the door so hard it rattles in the frame.

That fucking cunt. THAT FUCKING CUNT.

He stands in his disaster of a kitchen, knuckles bleeding, chest heaving. He takes stock.

She’s smarter than he always thought, but obviously still stupid.

He retrieves his phone and searches “Elsa Andrelle,” glad to see she’s still using her maiden name. No Facebook, no social media at all, except a LinkedIn. He clicks the link and almost throws the phone with impatience as the stupid thing asks his permission to switch to the app.

She’s a lawyer now (shit) and she’s listed the name of her current employer, though she must be new to the workforce because there isn’t any previous work history on her page.

A shark’s smile spreads across his face as blood runs from his busted knuckles down to his wrist then drips slowly onto his floor. He enters Anna’s sister’s company’s name into Google and pulls up the maps result.

Then he almost chokes on his tongue.

The company has five locations across the US. None of them are local.

He uses the search function on their company website to find her. He gets back some bullshit professional bio. She got her degree at the same university as him, so obviously she’s moved and it doesn’t specify which location she works at. He sees a professional email address and phone extension, but he has the presence of mind not to go that route.

His phone dings to let him know he has a message waiting on LinkedIn.

Elsa Andrelle has viewed his profile.

Elsa Andrelle has sent him a message.

Elsa Andrelle has blocked him.

He clicks to view the message, realizing that the fucking app has notified her that he viewed her sad little page.

It's the kiss-blowing emoji.

Chapter Text

Six Months Later

The HR Manager sits across from Anna. He’s got the resume she brought in front of him on the plastic table. He doesn’t spend much time looking at it. Elsa helped her, but it’s a sad little thing all the same. A lot of creative use of white space.

Elsa had helped her expand her volunteer experience, even though it all happened in the last six months and all at the same Domestic Violence Shelter, which Anna would have preferred to leave out in this particular circumstance, but it’s pretty much all she’s got.

That and two semesters of Undecided Major at her old University.

Elsa helped her practice STAR interviewing (Situation, Task, Action, Result! She’s been repeating to herself all morning), but it’s harder when you have basically nothing to draw on.

“Well we’ll dive right in then, shall we? How about you tell me about a time you had a disagreement with a superior and how you resolved it?”

Wildly, the first thing that pops into her head is one time she got the wrong brand of coffee and Hans totally lost it (Situation). It was a nicer brand than usual, and it had been on sale, so Anna had thought it would be a nice change. She wanted to go back and replace it (Task?) but Hans didn’t want her to waste gas going back to the store, even though it was only a couple of miles, so she had walked (Action). And the result was that he had the right coffee in the morning and she never messed it up again.

That had been in the beginning, they weren’t married yet but she had moved from the dorm into his house. Back when she still said things like, “people get really particular about their coffee,” and, “gas is really expensive this summer,” even though she already didn’t have anyone to hear these excuses.

That’s obviously not the answer she gives. She and Elsa practiced for this one.

Situation: “When I was in college I had a professor who assigned team leaders for the group projects our team leader wanted to split the project into four parts and complete each part separately. I thought this would make our presentation seem un...cohesive.”

A brief stumble there, but he’s taking notes.

Task: “I wanted to find time to all work on the project together at the library, so that way our project would seem more cohesive.”

Anna’s brain has erased all synonyms for cohesive.

What other words had Elsa used? Same-ish? Together-ed?

Action: “So I talked to the team leader about my concerns, and,” Result: “We agreed to do the prep work individually and then meet up along the way. We got an A on the project.”

Elsa insists this is called Embellishing the Story, rather than, you know, Lying.

Even though basically none of it actually happened.

They go through a few more questions, a lot of them Elsa had predicted, calling them Interview 101.

Anna’s starting to feel pretty confident, when he turns back to the large-font, still-almost-empty resume.

“So, before we wrap up, I did want to ask you about your specific work history.”

Anna smiles and nods and her stomach flips like an Olympic gymnast on a balance beam.

“Mhmm?” she says, like she doesn’t know what he means.

“Just to clarify, you don’t have any paid work experience?”

Anna shakes her head, feels the blood rushing in her ears, “No. But I have been doing some volunteer work that I’m happy to talk to you about.”

Another one of Elsa’s lines that sounded much better on Elsa’s lips with Elsa's confidence.

“So you’ve been in school then?” he peers at the paper, likely looking for a graduation date.

“No, I only did my first year but I am signed up for some classes locally this Spring though, which I’m looking forward to.”

He’s nodding. He doesn’t write any of it down.

“Well then, if there’s nothing else…”

“I was married.” Anna blurts. She’s used Elsa’s lines in three interviews so far and no offense to Elsa but it hasn’t been working.

“I left school to get married and it was… A bad call. And now I’m here and I’m twenty-four and I’m applying for my first ever job.”

She’s trying so hard to meet his eyes. It’s not easy, but she needs to prove that she can. Cashiers can make eye contact with the customers and Anna needs this man to believe she can be a cashier.

“But I applied here because I love it! I have the rewards card, and I already talk to people about the coupons you guys have on the app! My sister didn’t even know about it but I put it on her phone and now she uses it all the time!”

Rambling, Anna. No one wants to hear you go on and on like this.

“I just - I need this job. And I would be good at it. I don’t have experience doing this before, but I’ll learn. And my schedule is so open, you don’t even know. I will work Thanksgiving and Christmas and, and any other holidays that come up, I’ll work them, no problem!”

She kind of wants an on-the-spot job offer after her grand speech, but instead he says thank you and they shake hands and he says he will call her by the end of the week.

She has a text message from Elsa.

Going into a meeting, but let me know how it goes! <3

She waits until she’s out at the bus stop to reply. Types out and deletes a few versions before she settles on,

It was okay I think. Good luck with the meeting.

It’s soul crushing.

It makes her feel like Hans was right. Like he knew somehow.

He often seemed to know things in a way that Anna couldn’t explain.

He used to tell her how she would fail at real life. She didn’t finish college. Little rich girl never had to get a job. No idea how the world works.

And now here she is.

Elsa is almost two hours late, so right on time really, and Anna’s watching old Hepburn movies and eating double fudge chocolate ice cream.

Her sister joins her on the couch, tugs away the tub and replaces it with an enormous take out container of hot cheesy pasta.

Sometimes it feels like things will always be hard, but Anna is so, so grateful to have her sister back.

{ - }

Kristoff’s having an annoying day. He scowls at the schedule. They’ve denied his time off request, even though he gave plenty of notice. He almost never takes time off, he’s never late, never calls out - he can’t afford it.

Usually he manages things like appointments for Sven around his work schedule. But his vet runs a free clinic every six months. It’s two Friday's out, from eight to noon. So, naturally, Kristoff is scheduled to open that day - six to fucking two.

He scans the rest of the schedule to get an idea of what his options are. Sven needs this appointment, he’s behind on his shots already and they skipped the heartworm scan last time.

He notices a few unfamiliar names, but that’s standard for this time of year. Fridays the warehouse crew has to take the truck delivery, which seriously limits Kristoff’s options on getting someone to cover his shift. And a lot of the guys are at forty hours for the week already, so they won’t be able to take on any more, even if they were willing.

Kristoff puts it up on the swap shift board, maybe someone will want the hours, then, in an exercise of utter futility, he heads down the hallway and sticks his head around the HR guy’s doorway.

“Hey, I requested next Friday off like two months ago, but I’m on the schedule. I only need the morning, can you move me back a few hours or something?”

Barely looking away from his monitor he responds, “A time off request is exactly that - a request. We can’t approve them all. Try the swap shift board.”

“I did, it’s just that I really need this day off. It’s important.”

A shrug, “You’re a valued member of the team here Kristoff, we need you here for your scheduled shifts.”

“Great, thanks,” Kristoff starts to walk away, smart enough to know when to stop speaking, but the manager calls after him, still not rising from his desk, so Kristoff has to turn back.

“Kristoff, I’m actually glad you came by. There are a few seasonal hires starting today, when Dan brings them by later will you do a little tour? They’ll be cashiering for now, so just the basics.”

“Sure, fine.”

And he stomps away. This fucking place.

It’s a heavy day in the backroom. They had a truck this morning and one of the guys no-call-no-showed, so everything’s all backed up. It’s a struggle to maneuver the forklift in some areas, cardboard piled up because the baler needs to be emptied, pallets stacked in the walk-lanes.

He’s almost got it cleaned up when the Manager on Duty, Dan, leads a small group of new hires through the main doors.

Dan’s explaining about how safety is a company priority (bullshit it is), so Kristoff elects to jump down from his perch on top of a large stack of boxes, where he had been shoving another stack of boxes into the industrial baler.

Dan’s the warehouse team’s manager, so he knows, sometimes he gets in the baler himself, but he’s a manager, promoted almost a year ago now, so he has to make that face when he catches any of the backroom guys at it.

There’s three new people, looking around the warehouse with varying levels of interest. One of them is older, like way older. Kristoff always feels bad for the old people who have to get jobs like this. He tries to feel bad from a distance though, hearing about their bad leg, expensive utilities, and confusing smartphones - it’s aggravatingly depressing.

The other two are younger. College kids, he assumes. Most of the seasonal hires are college kids. The girl is small, skinny, short red hair and she’s looking down at her shoes. Then there’s a guy who keeps sneaking looks at his cell phone behind Dan’s back.

“Kristoff, this is Richard, Ellen, and Anna. They’re joining the front end team,” he gestures between them, “guys this is Kristoff, one of our backroom team members. Kristoff, you want to give us a little tour?”

Kristoff lists and points, “receiving area, forklift lane, stacks, freezers, coolers, fixture storage. Dan if you have a second can I talk to you about the Friday on the schedule that just went up?”

Dan’s not looking terribly impressed.

“Give us just a second, guys. Thanks!” He drops the Manager Smile and leads Kristoff a little bit away.

“Nice fucking tour, man. Thanks so much.”

“Sorry, It’s just that I requested that Friday off and you said it wouldn’t be a problem but I’m on the schedule.”

“I don’t make the schedules, Kristoff, you know that. Did you put it up on the Swap Shift Board? Then there isn’t anything I can really do, but... I’ll talk to the guys, alright?”

“Alright, thanks.”

Dan claps Kristoff on the shoulder, and nods over at the little trio.

“I gotta go. Kid’s a dumbfuck like you wouldn’t believe and they’re already talking to me about sending him to train back here.”

Kristoff groans. Of course. Nothing good happens in this place.

Chapter Text

The gossip is inevitable - retail workers don’t tend to have much to discuss outside of the customers, the managers, and each other. Kristoff mostly exists outside this bullshit, but he still has to share the same breakroom as everybody else. Every round of new hires it’s the same - for the women especially.

The new girl’s never had a job before - she didn’t know about punching in and out. Two of the older lady’s grandchildren live with her - let me know if you find out what’s up with that. Anna’s only twenty-four and she’s already had a divorce, and apparently the ex was older and mega rich.

The malicious idiocy can be hard to ignore.

The same week he’s been pulled out onto the sales floor because someone let their kid pull all the shampoo down off an entire shelf, so he and another warehouse guy have been sent to reshelve it all. It’s boring work and his companion is scheduled forty hours next week, so he can’t take Kristoff’s Friday shift.

Kristoff hates the sales floor, he feels very exposed - too many customers about, too many potential questions about where the specific brand of skincare lotions are or details about the weekly sales.

“Did you see the new girl?” asks his partner, “Way too skinny and no ass at all, but I’d totally hit it.”

Like he’s put serious thought into the matter - weighed out the pros and cons and now he’s ready to discuss. As if any women could get hired here and the general consensus of the backroom crew would be Pass.

Kristoff collects three vibrantly orange shampoo containers and lines them up across the edge of the shelf. Passion fruit and mango. Sounds like a smoothie. He kind of wants to open one and smell it. But Christ women’s shampoo is expensive - $12.99? That's more than a dollar an ounce.

“Don’t you think?” the guy presses.

“What?”

He frowns, explains like Kristoff’s being slow.

“She’s hot right- the new girl? Wouldn’t you wanna?”

“Ellen? Sure. I think her husband was in Vietnam though, so I wouldn’t risk it.”

The guy snorts, “you've got a weird sense of humor, man.”

-

The first time he really interacts with Anna he isn’t paying her much attention at all. It’s been a long day, he was in at four that morning for the big truck and it’s almost two in the afternoon as he’s finally leaving.

He clocks out, exhausted, checks the Swap Shift board - still nothing - and heads downstairs. He usually avoids shopping here, it’s too expensive, but he’s tired and Sven’s about out of food.

So, huge bag of dog food on his shoulder, he heads up to the front. Kat’s at the Guest Services desk, but she’s got a line and he doesn’t want to get stuck at Ellen’s register - she cornered him in the breakroom the other day to look at poorly-focused pictures of her grandkids - so he joins Anna’s line. She’s pleasant and chatty and asks everyone about the rewards card. Luckily no takers; the sign-up process really slows the lines down.

Then, finally, he’s up.

“Hi, Christopher. Heading home?”

“Kristoff. And yeah.” He leans around so she can scan the barcode.

“Kris-toff? Sorry, I didn’t realize.” The register beeps.

“Doesn’t matter,” he hands over his employee ID and his debit card, “no receipt.”

She runs his ID, then again. Fiddles with the keyboard for a moment, then cranes her neck to Guest Services, worrying her lip between her teeth.

She glances at him, “sorry.”

He sighs and drops the large bag on the counter. She startles at the motion or the noise. “Kat’s busy,” he tells her, though she can certainly see the Guest Services line as well as he can, “I can do it.”

He leans across the register and pulls the screen around so he can see it. She’s drawn way back, and her arms are kind of floating awkwardly between them.

Kristoff immediately sees the problem.

“I have one of the old IDs. It wants you to enter the last four digits of my employee number. five-four-eight-four, see?” She doesn’t move to enter it. Not rolling his eyes, he leans further across the counter and hits the appropriate keys.

“Now swipe the card,” he says, and she snaps out of it.

“Thanks,” she says, “I didn’t know. They hadn’t shown me, sorry. I should’ve have-”

“It’s fine,” he says, accepting his ID, bank card, and the useless receipt. “See you.”

And he’s finally out of there for the day.

In reality, it’s the new guy, Richard, who has the biggest impact on Kristoff’s days. Bagging groceries is not a hugely difficult task, but the front end is getting complaints. Sales floor is too independent, can’t trust him to work unless there’s direct supervision.

It’s obvious he should be let go, but it’s mid-November at this point and Kristoff knows that from now till January, it’s a boots on the ground situation. You can be dumb as shit as long as you don’t miss a day after Halloween. The kid’ll be gone by New Year’s, but that leaves Kristoff with a major problem until then.

Front end doesn’t want him. Sales floor doesn’t want him. Backroom doesn’t want him.

So naturally, backroom gets him.

Most of the backroom trainees go through Kristoff, so he gets Richard just a few days later. It doesn’t go well - he is late to start with, then he shows up without a handheld, which you need to do anything in the back. Somehow it takes him almost ten minutes to get up to the supply closet and back. Kristoff can’t keep him off his phone, and he wants to take his breaks on the dot, no matter what he’s leaving unfinished when he goes. Mercifully he figures out fairly quickly that Kristoff doesn’t want to be buddies - they are not going to be back here discussing NFL cheerleaders, they are going to be processing stock.

Kristoff might have been able to forgive all that, but Richard’s apparently busy on the Friday Kristoff needs covered.

Somehow, of the three of them, it’s Ellen who’s probably not going to last. He hears it from Kat - she’s struggling to learn the software on the registers and she’s not getting enough sign-ups for the rewards card.

When Kristoff first started here, almost seven years ago now, they weren’t doing the card. Or at least not pushing it so hard. No way Kristoff would be able to get through cashier training now.

Anna, on the other hand seems to be doing better. She’s very customer service-y and he sees her name on the Recognition board for getting five sign-ups in a single shift.

They don’t interact any further though, and Kristoff doesn’t expect this to change. Anna is quiet and hesitant to the point of almost annoyance. She’s cashiering and he’s in the back and sometimes they’ll pass in the hallway between the timecard and the breakroom. The store is going to pick up almost a dozen seasonal hires this year, and this is Kristoff’s eighth season in retail. She’s hardly going to affect him.

{ - }

The Saturday before Sven’s vet day, Kristoff starts getting desperate. He has worked his way through most of the backroom team at this point, but a lot of them are scheduled already or they’re at forty hours already and no one is allowed to go into overtime. Honestly, he knows if there had been a lot of options then his Time Off Request probably would have gone through.

He is in the breakroom talking to one of his last options. It’s humiliating.

“Come on, I covered your shift when you forgot to request Valentine’s off! I pulled a fourteen hour day for you, and you’re seriously telling me you can’t do it because you’re closing the night before?”

“That shit sucks, man, closing at eleven then back in at six? No way, sorry.”

“What if we split the shift? I can do the first four and then you can come in at ten?”

“Can’t you just reschedule your vet?” Like Kristoff’s missed such an obvious solution.

“I’ve explained this so many times!” He feels himself raising his voice. Tries to moderate it. Not very successfully. “It’s not an appointment - every six months they do a walk-in clinic. He can’t wait for the next one and if I don’t do the clinic it’ll be like a seven-hundred dollar appointment because of the heartworm scan!”

“Seems like you should have requested it off-”

Kristoff slams his hand down on the table, “I did, you think I’m so fucking stupid I didn’t request the fucking day off?”

There’s a squeak and the sound of a chair rattling on linoleum from the other side of the breakroom.

He’s crossed a line. Kristoff can’t and won’t be the six-foot-four guy who loses his temper when he doesn’t get his own way, never mind that he’s at work. He doesn’t get to go slamming desks and yelling at his co-workers. Christ. His hands go up to his hair self-consciously and tries to fucking shrink down.

“Look, sorry man, forget it. I’ll figure it out.” The warehouse guy scoffs and leaves the breakroom. He’s not going to go to management, but he’ll probably tell the other guys. Fuck.

Kristoff pretends not to see Anna, who is pretending not to see Kristoff, and he nudges a chair around so he can sit at the table and look at the wall, thinking.

Stupid, losing his temper like that. He already feels like such shit that he can’t take care of Sven properly. He can’t go six more months being behind on his shots, but Kristoff doesn’t have the money, and he can’t call out this close to Black Friday, especially now that he’s been so vocal.

“I’ll do it.”

He turns around. There’s no one else she could be talking to, or about.

“What?”

“I’ll take your shift.” She’s wringing her hands, but when he notices she goes still and moves them into her lap under the table. She gives him a little smile and a shrug, “if you need to take your puppy to the vet, I can cover your shift.”

“He’s a dog, not a puppy,” Kristoff corrects, automatically, “and you’re not trained for Backroom.”

She ducks her head for a moment, but looks back up. “No, but they haven’t given me my training schedule for next week yet, and they’ve been asking if I want to cross-train. I’ll say I want to learn Backroom.”

He starts to turn away, “the shift I need covered is in four days. Thanks though.”

“Well, it’s worth asking. I mean, if you want.”

He turns back. She’s not looking at him anymore. She’s not wrong, he supposes.

-

Kristoff feels huge, following her down the narrow hallway between the break room and the Manager’s Offices. He watches her take deep breaths and notices the bony lines of her wrist as she pushes some red hair behind her ear. She doesn’t like having him behind her, she keeps turning to check on him. He can’t blame her after his performance in the breakroom. He shrinks as much as he can, embarrassed and oversized, and points his gaze at the end of the hallway. At least he can see over the top of her head easily.

Thankfully it's not a long hallway.

The HR manager is packing up for the day, so Kristoff backs up and makes to leave. Maybe they can try catch him tomorrow. But Anna curls herself around the door to his office, feet firmly planted in the hallway, and beams at the guy like he’s made her year just by sitting there.

“Hi,” she says, “I’m really sorry to bother you, but do you think we could ask for your help with something very quickly?”

It turns out, she’s one of those people. The world bends to her will. He’s never had anything close to that ability.

Fifteen minutes and Kristoff is off the opening schedule for Friday, replaced with Anna. She’s also got four training hours with Kristoff ahead of time, and he’ll come in after the vet to finish out the shift.

Kristoff is floored. He’s been at this all week. She’s got no reason in the world to help him. He never goes out of his way to be nice to the new hires. When they do interact, he’s been short, unhelpful, and bad tempered.

But beyond the confusion is the relief. “Thank you, Anna.” He tells her, really truly sincere, as they stand together and update the swap shift board. She smiles at him as she takes the pen and the clipboard. She’s looking up at him and he sees her freckles for the first time.

“You’re welcome. Maybe - you can show me pictures of your dog, if you want.”

This, Kristoff can readily promise.

Chapter Text

The heavy warehouse door swings shut behind her with a soft thud. She’s been back here before, obviously, but not like this. Four hours. Alone.

Well, she won’t be alone. That’s really the bigger issue, isn’t it.

The majority of the space is dominated by tall shelving, three or four times her height easily. The wide shelves create a series of deep aisles that are hidden from view. Some of the lights are motion activated, so Anna can’t actually see the far walls. She follows the walkway further in, wringing her hands. She doesn’t see him anywhere yet.

She eyes the large industrial equipment, stacks of mushed cardboard almost as tall as she is.

This, she thinks, is going to go poorly.

She’s so stupid. Why would she volunteer for this? As annoying as it is, the fact is she’s a girl - they don’t even ask her to help customers carry groceries out to their cars! She was never in a million years going to be assigned a Backroom shift.

But puppies need shots, so here she is.

Problem is, it feels so good. She’s making her own decisions about how she spends her time for the first time in years. It’s exhilarating - Sure, Anna can come in even though she wasn’t originally scheduled, not like she has anyone to check in with!

Well, she had obviously put it up on the calendar in Elsa’s kitchen, so her sister would know. But that’s a different thing. Elsa puts her stuff up on the calendar too.

Anna knows she’s dilly-dallying. But she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do. Does he want her to wait here for him? Should she go find him? Will he be annoyed if she isn’t in the entrance if she does go looking for him? Should she have waited for him at the front of the store? What if he thinks she’s lazy, just standing around, wasting company time like this. She could start something, but she doesn’t want to mess anything up, she has no idea what she would even do anyway. Stupid idea.

She startles badly, handheld clattering to the floor despite a few hapless attempts to catch it. Behind her he pushes the swinging doors open with much greater ease than Anna had managed. She winces - stupid, clumsy, loud.

“Sorry,” she rushes to say, collecting the device from the floor. Thankfully it doesn’t look broken.

“They build those things sturdy,” he tells her, back to tapping on his own. “Ready to get started?”

He moves past her and she feels like when you’re driving on the freeway and a huge police car goes past your window. That moment of - how fast am I going? Am I about to be pulled over? The feeling of being hunted, almost.

The feeling does not dissipate as she follows him deeper into the cavernous, cold space.

She tried hard to remember everything he says. She doesn’t want to make him repeat himself.

Backstock is when people bring stuff back from the sales floor that needs to be put away in the right place on the shelves. You have to update the location and the count in the handheld every time or it throws off the inventory.

Onlines are orders where customers have paid already and they have to be done every hour. It’s important not to get behind.

Pull Batches are to replace stuff that is selling out on the sales floor. Pull batches are constant this time of year, he tells her, you’ll never zero out your Pull Batches in November.

That’s all fine and easy enough, she knows some of the terminology from being trained up front anyway. The problem is, she doesn’t like to stand close enough to him to see what he’s showing her on his handheld.

He quizzes her about a software process he just showed he and she gets it wrong.

“No, come here - ”

Come here. She messed it up. She wasn’t listening properly and he knows it.

“Sorry,” she says, not moving.

“It’s fine, I know the system is fucked. C’mere, I’ll show you again.” He waves her over for the second time.

She steels herself and steps into the wide orbit of his arms.

“I’m a really slow learner, sorry.” She’s not looking at him, or the handheld, or the item they’re practicing on. Just her sneakers - the floors are super dirty back here.

It’s frustrating because she knows. Of course she knows - nothing is actually going to happen. She works in a nation-wide chain, and what, she’s scared her trainer is going to haul off and grab her because he had to repeat himself? It’s silly and Anna knows it’s silly.

Another part of her brain whispers back, maybe.

She wouldn’t tell anyone. If he decided to do something small enough - she’d keep quiet. Hans had known she would keep quiet. Maybe all men can tell which ones will keep it to themselves.

It’d be his word against hers and even the managers here listen to Kristoff. He’s been here for years and she’s new, and they warned her he was short-tempered, and she volunteered and she didn’t listen to him properly and Anna has learned something important about herself in her years with Hans - she can keep secrets better than anyone ever thought.

“Hey,” his voice startles her out of her thoughts.

He’s not standing so close anymore. He’s not blocking the walkway either, he’s moved almost all the way to the wall. Air seems to fill her lungs again. Her peripheral vision is back.

“If you log back in to your device I’ll walk you through how to do it.”

Startled, she scrambles to enter her employee number.

“So you want to start on the homepage, then use ‘Process an Action’ then select ‘Backstock’. If you select ‘Backstock’ straight from the homepage then it’s just a search function.”

“Oh,” she swallows, “thank you for explaining that.”

He watches her for a second, then shrugs lightly, “Yeah well, like I said - system’s fucked.”

{ - }

Kristoff thinks that the training is going well enough.

That’s not fair - she’s doing great, really. He wouldn’t have her transferred back here permanently or anything. He’s teaching her Backroom-Lite, none of the complicated stuff, but she’s picking it up fast.

The main issue is she’s clearly scared of him. Maybe?

He turns to show her something on his handheld and finds she’s drifted about three feet back from him. Again. So yeah, she’s scared of him.

It’s not a foreign experience for Kristoff. Growing up like he did, he met a lot of scared people and a lot of scary people. Then, when he hit the growth spurt that changed his life, suddenly people categorized him differently.

It makes him feel like Shrek.

Anna has been visibly uncomfortable from the moment he got back here. It’s different from the general sense of hyper awareness you pick up from women when you’re six-foot-four and it’s dark out and you’re waiting for the same bus. It’s different too from how Anna was when they were in the brightly lit breakroom. Sharper. She’s about to startle out of her own skin.

He thinks they both need a break.

He sends her to process backstock a few aisles over. Tries to walk the line between condescending and considerate when he tells her not to worry if she has questions, she can ask him. Tries not to show his frustration at the idea of her being to scared to come ask then entering a whole aisle wrong or something.

Once her aisle is done, he’ll send her on break, then when she gets back, he’ll go, then it'll be another hour 'till the store closes and another half hour after that till they can go. Easy.

As usual when Kristoff comes up with a solid plan, some idiot fucks the whole thing up.

He hears the warehouse doors go and the area brightens as someone sets the lights off. Not in the mood to deal with someone who isn’t specifically looking for him, Kristoff doesn’t head out into the mail aisle. His cart is out there, if they need him they'll see it.

The handheld is feeding him some error code when he scans a specific color of spatula. Apparently the in-store count is zero, even though it’s showing up in his Pull Batch? He just hates this stupid software so much.

He hears Anna’s voice approaching, “He’s just down one of these aisles. Sorry, it’s just he said I needed to check in…”

Another voice - the kid Front End is passing off on them - Richard. “Yeah, he trained me back here too. Talk about a control freak.”

“Oh, Kristoff, there you are,” says Anna as he emerges into the mail aisle. She looks tense, her eyes are darting around and she’s clutching her handheld close to her chest.

“Did you get your aisle finished?”

She takes a step back as he heads toward the pair. “Not yet, sorry, I just - ”

Richard cuts her off, “Anna and I were going to go on break real quick.”

Kristoff’s pretty sure Anna’s not into that idea. Plus, he wants to review her work before she goes on her break and she needs to actually finish before that can happen. Besides the fact that she isn’t scheduled to go yet anyway. But even if none of that were true, Kristoff would say no just for the satisfaction.

“I’d rather stick to our original schedule,” he says to Anna directly.

“Oh, no, that’s fine, sorry, I’ll just - ” she gestures back to her aisle and speeds off.

“Was there something you needed back here?” He asks Richard, who rolls his eyes and walks off. Kristoff stands in the walkway watching until the warehouse doors swing shut behind him.

-

She’s very tense, squished into the aisle with him while he checks her work, even though he’s made sure to go in first so she isn’t blocked in. She has it pretty much all correct - it’s hardly rocket science - but she seems pleased when he tells her. He wants to make her smile like that again, a wild thought that comes out of nowhere, so he tells he he thinks she’ll do well enough on her own on Friday.

It works. The little smile he’s seeking flashes briefly across her face.

Discomfited, Kristoff waves her off. “So I’ll see you after your break then. Be back at,” he checks his handheld for the time, “nine-thirty.”

“Oh, okay, thanks,” she heads up the aisle, pauses, then turns back to him. “Sorry, I know you wanted to stick to the original schedule, so I don’t mind either way, just, if it’s easier, maybe I can help with another aisle and then take my break later? Or, I don’t mind, I don’t have to go at all. The last break is so close to the store closing…”

“Don’t go offering to skip breaks. They’ll start expecting it then you’ll be screwed by Christmas. But if it’s all the same to you, I left some stuff in the Homegoods aisle that needs to be backstocked, then you can go after that?” She nods, looking serious, “Great. B-Twelve.”

She starts to turn away, and he should keep his mouth shut and stay where he is - she doesn’t like having him behind her, she speeds out of these aisles like it’s a race with him in second, but he’s a big impulsive idiot so he takes two steps after her and blurts, “if he’s bothering you, you can go to HR. Management is shit here, but they would get rid of him, if he’s a problem.”

She’s very flustered now. He gets an “oh, okay,” and another apology for the road, and she’s away.

Chapter Text

Worried about forgetting, Anna had taken some time on her bus ride home to write out some notes about Backroom. Just things Kristoff had said multiple times, or something he’d specified that needed to be done before something else.

At six o’clock in the morning on Friday, Anna stands just inside the main warehouse doors clutching her handheld and her list.

She can see the bustle of activity over by the bay doors. The warehouse crew have been here since four for the truck. Kristoff had let her know that they’d be around until at least ten, and that her being in would probably mean they’d at least do their own backstock.

She hears the persistent shrill beeping of the forklift and hurries out of the red forklift lane and into the green-marked walkway.

She turns away from the processing area and toward the forest of tall aisles. Checks her list again.

The first thing he’d said to do was check the online orders, see if anyone has been midnight shopping. And it’s November, so naturally there’s a few. Feeling more confident, she grabs the Online Cart and follows the handheld’s directions - Kitchen Accessories to start with.

She’s been going about a half hour when the Manager on Duty comes by. It’s the Grocery Manager this morning, Anna hasn’t met him properly yet, she doesn’t think.

She’s in the wider main aisle, rather than in the shelving itself, and she’s busy, so she feels refreshingly not-intimidated by his approach.

“I saw your name on the schedule,” he says, confused, “but I thought there must have been a mistake. I thought I had Kris?”

“Kristoff had to take his puppy to the vet this morning, but he will be in this afternoon. I took his shift.”

He rolls his eyes, “Him and that dog. Alright. Are you trained and everything? Do you know what to do?”

She nods. Doesn’t show him her list, but gestures to the cart full of nicely bagged online orders, “I did one training shift with Kristoff. Right now I’m working on the Online Orders that came in overnight, then I’ll start the first Pull Batch.”

She can tell she’s surprised him.

“Great. Finish this up, but hit the backstock from last night before the Pulls. No point really until the truck gets processed. If you can’t figure out where to place something, set it aside for Kris. If anything more urgent comes up, let me know, I can probably help. Just don’t get behind on the Onlines, and stay out of the forklift lanes.”

He leaves. Anna lets out a breath.

She smiles.

She can do this.

It’s exhausting in a different way than cashiering. Up front her feet hurt from standing in one position for hours and her mouth gets dry from all the talking and her arms get sore from the repetitive motion, but Backroom is proper labor. She huffs and puffs and climbs on things, and drags heavy boxes, and pushes heavy carts, and swipes sweat out of her eyes and into her hair. If only it were long enough to put back in a proper tie.

She gets through a whole backroom shift.

Her arms are almost shaking from the effort as she heads up front to put away her handheld and clock out. But she could be walking on air, there’s a balloon in her chest but it’s swelling up in a nice way for once.

No way Hans would believe she could do all that.

Hans probably couldn't have done it.

Well he could. But he never would.

Anna thinks, maybe, Hans would have given up.

She beams at customers as she goes, stopping to give directions a couple of times. She probably looks a mess and she wants a shower and her bed, but she’s proud of herself and it feels wonderful.

-

The week before Black Friday the store goes into kind of a frenzy. Anna’s never really participated in anything like it before. It’s exhausting and exhilarating. She feels like part of a team and they’re all doing their part to the the store ready. The Thanksgiving schedule is out and lots of people are complaining, but Anna’s honestly excited. Her shift starts at five and goes until one in the morning! She’s never gone Black Friday shopping before even, so she asks about it at every chance she gets. It’s really helping her get to know her coworkers - everyone’s got Black Friday stories to share.

She hasn’t seen Kristoff since her training. She had wanted to check in and make sure she didn’t mess anything up too badly for him, but now it feels like maybe it’s been too long to bring it up if she does see him.

She checks his schedule and it looks like they’ve mostly had him on overnights - he’s way over forty hours, and his Black Friday Schedule is bananas. He’ll be here on Thanksgiving all night, then he comes back in and stays until five on Friday morning. That, Anna thinks, is the kind of schedule that gets Black Friday on the news.

She resolves not to complain about her own schedule, but working forty hours a week for the first time in her life has been a challenge.

She’s coming off a six hour cashiering shift on the Sunday before Thanksgiving - even her smile hurts - when she's pulled aside by Kat, the Guest Services person who supervises all the cashiers.

Immediately worried, Anna rushes to reassure, “I know I didn’t get many sign-ups today, a lot of people just have the card already, and -”

“No, you’re fine,” Kat’s walkie-talkie squawks, and she snaps it off, irritated. It’s been a long day for everyone. “Sales floor wants me to ask if you’ll extend your shift so you can go help in Shoes. They’re doing a Buy-One Get-One deal and the whole area is trashed. They need someone to go through and focus in and get it fixed up and I saw you’re not at eight hours yet today. Do you mind?”

Anna thinks she could feel her pulse in her feet and she’s tired and it’s a weekend so Elsa probably has time to hang out.

She musters up a smile. “Sure.”

“Great!” Kat flips her walkie-talkie back on, and hits the button to broadcast, “Anna’s got Shoes covered.”

“Alright, make sure she doesn’t go over seven and a half,” comes the static-y response.

Kat turns back to Anna with an eye roll. “Asshole. Sorry. So just keep an eye on the time, if you hit seven and a half hours today then they have to give you a lunch. Thanks for your help Anna!”

-

Anna doesn’t enjoy war movies. Hans had liked them very much, and always thought it was an indication of Anna’s immaturity that she would rather watch a Pixar than Saving Private Ryan.

It’s a weird rush, for her, to have the thought occur that Shoes is FUBAR.

Would Hans have laughed, if she’d ever had the chance to share the joke?

She’s going to need a handheld and a cart for this one.

-

It’s been about forty-five minutes and she’s not making much progress. Customers keep asking her to check for different sizes and colors, and they’re shopping for shoes in her wake, so anything she puts away neatly is just easier for them to pull down and try on.

And leave out.

Even though she’s right there.

Watching them.

“Hey, um, Anna?”

She startles and turns, ready to defend her lack of progress, when she sees Kristoff standing at the end of the row. He’s in his work uniform but really bizarrely, he's holding an enormous Starbucks cup.

She’s been kneeling on the ground sorting shoe-box lids, so she scrambles up to her feet.

“Hi Kristoff,” she says, self-consciously smoothing down her uniform. She’s got bits of lint all down her pants from crawling around on this gross carpet.

He’s holding the drink out awkwardly far from his own body.

“It’s for you,” he says, looking deeply uncomfortable and starting to turn red in the face.

“Sorry, what?”

“I got you the drink. The girl at Starbucks said this is what you get. Right?”

He’s just holding it out between them. It takes Anna a second to un-stick her legs and move toward him.

“Oh. Thank you, that’s really nice. You didn’t have to do that.”

Relieved of his cup, his hand goes up to scratch the back of his neck.

“Yeah, well I just. I saw you were still here and. Y’know, as a thank-you. For the shift.”

She cradles the warm cup and breathes deep - pumpkin spice.

They are quiet while she takes her first sip. It’s hot, too hot. She pulls the cup away from her mouth and thanks him again.

“I gotta get back there. Enjoy the shoes.” He casts his eyes over the enormous mess Anna is wading through. “Fucking customers,” he tells her, “if any of this ends up being backstock, just wheel it back for me. I’ll take care of it. I know you should have been gone already.”

She says thank-you, again, and off he goes.

She hasn’t had any of her drink yet, but she’s warm inside. Someone asks her about a size four-and-a-half in suede and Anna is happy to help them.

Chapter Text

For backroom, the overnight before Thanksgiving is almost worse than Black Friday itself. They have so much stock to process, relocate, relabel, and stage, and none of it can really get started until the last customer leaves on Wednesday night - triggering an explosion of activity.

Kristoff and a few other guys spend a few mindnumbing hours assembling the dozens of different cardboard displays that will be scattered across the store.

Usually they talk about their wives and girlfriends. Occasionally an unsuspecting customer spotted in the store who happened to be particularly leggy, or overweight, or dressed up. Generally with female coworkers it tends to be more like silent nudges when Kat gets down on the ground and to fish something out from under a register - that type of creepy shit. There are a few exceptions, but in an group like this, with Dan here and everything, usually it stays in the safer zone of non-coworkers.

So when a lull settles after the great debate over if Dave's wife is really PMS-ing or if she's just avoiding sleeping with him, Kristoff is surprised when Richard addresses him directly.

"So Kristoff, what do you think of Anna?" He asks, over-casually calling across the group.

Kristoff knows what he means - she’s obviously attractive. He’s a fully grown adult man. He’s just not an ass about it. Plenty of his college-age female coworkers are attractive.

"Well from what I've seen, she's quicker at pull batches that you are," Kristoff fires back to general laughter and a few low ooooohs.

Richard goes red in the face and opens his mouth again but Kristoff cuts him off, turning to Dan, who is uselessly consulting his schematic, deaf, dumb, and blind.

"Hey Dan, so are they really having us put three of these big towel displays in the same aisle in homegoods? That's going to be so overfull."

And everyone's off - the only thing that gets these guys going more than women is corporate incompetence.

-

Later, Kristoff is assigned Electronics, so he starts hauling the assembled displays across the store. Richard calls out that he'll help and he comes up behind with an armful of oversized "LOW LOW PRICE!!!" signage.

Kristoff grunts at him.

"So listen," says Richard before they've gotten far at all. "I shouldn't have brought it up in front of all the guys like that. That's my bad. It's just that I want to ask her out, but I don't have to be an asshole to you about it."

Kristoff softens, slightly. He opens his mouth to offer some kind of small not-apology, but then the kid keeps talking.

"I heard about the thing with the coffee - smooth move, by the way - and I wanted us to get on the same page, because once she and I are dating I can't have that type of shit happening, you know?"

Kristoff promptly un-softens.

"So maybe you can just hold off for a while? Circle back once she and I are finished up? I'm Rushing at an off-campus frat next Fall, so I'll be able to get you in to some really sick parties - tons of chicks, wasted like you wouldn't believe, man."

Humanity is doomed, Kristoff thinks absently, readjusting his grip. So much of the world without clean drinking water and here's this entitled little shit, perfectly hydrated.

"How many head of cattle?" He asks.

"What?"

"Well, that's how these types of things get resolved historically," Kristoff explains, "livestock, you know? I don't want to sleep with drunk eighteen-year-olds, so how many cattle is it worth to you for me to back off?"

Richard isn't getting it. So much for that college education. Jesus.

"Um. I don't. I mean I'm just here for school, man. I didn't know you were like a farmer, that's totally cool, but I don't have any cows or whatever."

"Well nevermind then. Listen, fuck off and tell Dan I don't need you in electronics."

Richard drops the sign with some force, one of the exclamation points at the end looks bent, and he storms off.

"Just trying to be fucking nice, man. Shit, you're a fucking freakshow."

"Oh, Kristoff, why don't you spend more time with the guys from work?" Kristoff mutters to himself in Sven's voice.

-

Dawn comes and goes, and slowly the store comes together. Seven to nine is a major rush, tiredness be dammed, but they manage it.

Kristoff plans his day as he heads up to the front with the others to clock out. He's going to go straight to sleep for a few hours, and then he'll have to get Sven out of the apartment. There won't be many other dogs at the dog park, but Sven needs to get off the leash and really stretch his legs if they're going to make it through the next few days without an argument.

Then he'll figure out something to eat and try nap again before he needs to be back here. Kristoff hates napping - he always feels way worse after.

Dan's voice comes over close to a dozen walkie-talkies

"If anyone needs anything on the way out, I'm opening a register for the next ten minutes. good work tonight guys."

Oh perfect. Kristoff swings by the frozen aisle to pick up a double portion mac 'n cheese meal he likes, the one with the bacon bits. He doesn't get it often, it's a little expensive, so he keeps it as a rare treat. But hey, it is Thanksgiving after all.

{ - }

Elsa had thought ahead and picked up some pre-cooked sliced Turkey so no one has to get up at dawn and fiddle with the oven. They make mashed potatoes the old fashioned way - swapping the bowl and masher back and forth when one arm gets tired. Then they put some frozen veggies in the microwave and crack open a tin of cranberry sauce.

It's not quite what Thanksgiving was when they were kids - fetching utensils their Mom and listening, utterly bored, to their Dad and Grandpa analyze the consistency of the gravy.

But it's better than the Thanksgivings where they were seperated.

Anna's divorce had been a good decision for many, many reasons. One of them that Anna can fully appreciate today - Hans was no picnic himself, but holidays with his mother. Talk about a Monster-in-Law.

Later, when that special kind of sleepy-full haze settles over Anna in the afternoon, she is swiftly shuffled off to bed. She falls asleep comfy and warm and full and loved.

-

Elsa wakes Anna up with a cup of tea and a warm chocolate chip cookie the size of her face. They share it on Anna's bed chatting lightly about their Dad's affinity for peanut-butter cookies. Their Mom had been the chocoholic and thoroughly passed the trait on to her daughters.

Then it's time for Anna to shower and shake off the sleepy laziness of their quiet holiday.

Elsa drives her in to work but quickly abandons any idea that she would drop Anna off by the front door.

"Well, good luck," she says in the far corner of the parking lot by the exit facing the freeway. There is a line of cars coming in, and a police car sits nearby, observing the chaos.

"Thanks," says Anna, feeling a little shell-shocked.

"I'll be here at one," Elsa reminds her. Part of their deal initially had been for Anna to be responsible for her own transportation to and from work, but Elsa insisted Black Friday was a special circumstance. Anna is really glad of that at the moment.

Someone honks behind Elsa, so Anna scrambles out.

As she weaves through the parking lot someone spots her uniform and leans out of their car window holding the thick Black Friday Ad that got mailed out last week.

"How many of the sixty-five inch Sony's d'you guys have in stock? Do you still get the deal if you buy it online?"

Anna puts her head down and powers through.

The whole area in front of the store has been roped off with caution tape and the store's security people are working with another actual police officer to manage the long line that wraps from the front door around the side of the building and out of sight.

They obviously recognize her, never mind that she's wearing the uniform, but she still has to dig out her employee ID in order for them to let her in.

Inside is much quieter.

She checks her phone - thirty-five minutes 'till the doors open.

The manager of the whole store calls a huddle at fifteen minutes out. She thanks everyone for their hard work and promises a great night, claps her hands and dismisses everyone to their respective department manager.

As usual Kat is a little more direct.

"Alright cashiers - some of you have done this before, some of you not, so here's the deal. Black Friday is about speed. No price checks, no arguing about coupon expiration dates, no chit-chat about their holiday, just move them along. We are going to be pulling people out of the main line if they say they want to sign up for the Rewards Card and taking those at Guest Services, so you won't be slowed down by that, but you'll get some people pretty pissed off about it I bet. Make sure to ask them about donating to the shelter - we are behind in our goals there. Flash your lights if you need me, but don't fucking call me over to ask when your break is - everyone will get their break, but I'll tell you when to go."

Anna takes her place at register three. She checks her receipt paper and her store of plastic bags. She twists around to give Ellen a thumbs up. Ellen is more nervous than Anna, she gets tired and it's not easy for her to go fast.

When they open the front doors there's no running mob like Anna has seen online. The first hundred people in line outside have been given a number and they're letting in ten at a time. Then thirty. Then fifty. Then they stop counting people in.

But by then Anna is reaching around to find the barcode on an enormous flat screen television awkwardly perched across a cart.

It passes in kind of a blur. Mostly people are nice - a lot of them tell her they feel bad she has to work and she's not really lying when she says she doesn't mind. It's exciting and the time is going quickly and there is food in the breakroom and she's making time and a half the whole night and a little bit of overtime too.

Some people are jerks. They're in a rush to get on to the next store or complaining that something was sold out already or that they couldn't find anyone to help them on the sales floor.

A lot of people are mad about the Rewards Card thing, which Anna kind of gets.

More people than usual round up their donation to support the local homeless shelter, which Anna thinks is great. Just her register probably made a hundred dollars today, and the store is matching donations until midnight.

Her first break she's not hungry enough to eat, but she takes some soda. Everyone is swapping stories about encounters with rabid customers. Anna even joins in a little - she had one customer who bought regular price raw carrots in addition to some super discounted Playstation stuff, which everyone agrees is an odd addition.

Her lunch is right around nine o'clock, but she doesn't see Kristoff. The breakroom is much more sedate. She's tired, and eats reheated Mexican food in silence.

She's in the breakroom for the final time at about midnight - her break got pushed back by almost an hour and the waiting was the worst part- trying to catch Kat's eye and getting more and more sure she'd been skipped somehow. When Kat finally came over to relieve her she didn't even say words, just flipped Anna's register light and jerked her thumb toward the breakroom.

Anna opens another soda but knows almost immediately that she isn't going to drink it. She sets a timer on her phone and rests her head on the table. Everyone else is doing pretty much the same thing.

Someone pulls a chair out across from her. Her head is heavy, but she pulls it up to see who.

Kristoff's standing there with a steaming plate of pizza and a pile of wings.

"You mind?"

She shakes her head. She doesn't want to put her head back down now that there's someone at her table, so she props it up on her hand and leans, staring vaguely in the direction of the TV. Infomercials for something - a blender by the look of it.

The smell of Kristoff's food is too much. Anna's almost nauseous with tiredness.

"That good, huh?" He says. He has a lot of pizza in his mouth.

"What?"

He laughs, "I asked how your first Black Friday was going."

"Oh," she hadn't heard him, "sorry. It's fine. I'm just tired. But I'll be done soon - one more hour."

"Nice," he says, mostly looking at the chicken wing he's working on.

"Oh, sorry, I didn't think. I know you're here ages still. You have such a terrible schedule!"

Now he looks at her, seeming surprised, but when he does say something he doesn't seem annoyed by her inconsiderate comment.

"I'm alright, backroom's a mess but hey, no customers at least. It's the reset after that really sucks, honestly."

That makes sense. Parts of the store Anna has seen are pretty trashed. Her phone lights up and vibrates the table.

Quickest fifteen minutes of her life.

"Well, I hope you have a good night," she tells him, standing.

He waves another wing at her as she goes.

One more hour.

It's gotten quieter by the time Anna gets back to her register. It's slower still by the time she takes her last customer. There is a crazy sale happening in the women's denim that Anna had been considering looking at, but there's no way now.

Ellen got sent home a few hours ago, but Anna recognizes enough people now that almost everyone she sees on her way out gives her a little wave at least. It's nice.

Elsa picks her up right on time, and the caution tape is down and the police cars have gone. The parking lot is still busy, considering it's one in the morning now, but Elsa can pull up to the front of the building now. Anna feels bad for whoever has to get all this trash picked up.

Elsa wakes her up when they get home and Anna gratefully returns to her bed.

Chapter Text

Anna has the rest of Friday off, but Elsa goes back to work, so she has a long lazy pajama day and starts filling up her Amazon cart for Christmas.

She next works on Saturday, but it's a normal cashiering shift. The store is still busier than usual, but not so hectic anymore. Apparently it will continue like this for the next month, with a sharp escalation in the final push before Christmas.

When Anna gets up to the breakroom there are a few empty tables and people scattered around looking tired. Kristoff is at one table, slouched down low, with his legs sticking out from under the table, staring at nothing and chewing absently. Guided by sympathy - he looks absolutely shattered - she makes a spontaneous decision.

He shakes out of it when she comes to stand by the chair diagonally across from him.

"Do you mind if I sit here?"

"No, sure." He pulls himself up into his chair, long legs receding quickly.

She sits down. Nibbles her croissant.

"I understand if you don't feel like it. But, um, if you have any pictures of Sven, I'd - "

"Totally," he interrupts her, shifting sideways to pull his phone out of his pocket.

He twists the phone so she can see but he doesn't lean in.

Sven is huge. And super cute. And apparently kind of a doofus. Kristoff speaks about his friend very fondly, and he is visibly pleased when she gushes over the pictures. It's the most that she has heard him speak that isn't about backstock.

He has pictures of them all over the city, and a few from out in the wilderness. He tells her about a dog-friendly restaurant in town that they go to together on special occasions. Is strikes Anna that Kristoff might be quite a lonely person. She feels guilty for the thought, peering at him out of the corner of her eye.

He doesn't seem like she is irritating him. Actually he seems more alert than before, more awake. Maybe talking is helping.

She ventures on.

"You seem like you know the area really well… have you, have you lived here for a long time?"

"Yeah, my whole life." He backs out of the photo app, then asks, "What about you?"

"Oh, I moved here to live with my sister over the summer." She quickly calculates the potential discomfort of silence versus continuing to speak about herself. "We grew up back East, but my sister moved here for her job."

"Do you, uh, like it out here? Or do you miss home?"

"Well, Elsa is here so, that's home. But I do like it. The winters aren't as cold, which is nice. More mountains, and the city is really different. More spread out."

He still doesn't seem annoyed by her chattering, and he's not the type to politely suffer while she goes on and on.

"Think you'll stay, then?" He asks.

It hasn't occurred to Anna before that she might not.

"Oh, I'm sure I will. Elsa likes her firm and I'm starting some classes here in January."

Without the phone to hold he starts tapping his fingers on the the table, but he is watching her, interested. "What are you studying?"

She's not told anyone besides Elsa yet. It's embarrassing.

"Stenography." He looks blank, so she mimes typing and adds, "court reporting, basically. It's not a real degree, just a certification course."

"I don't know anything about that," he says, "but it sounds really useful."

Pleased, she opens her mouth to tell him a bit about the course, but his walkie-talkie goes off.

"Kristoff, are you back from break? We're waiting on you for the next set of Onlines."

"Ah shit," he says, jumping up. He barks, "on my way," into the walkie and starts heading for the door.

"Sorry," Anna calls. She hadn't meant to make him late. She should have realized - been less inconsiderate of his time.

"No worries," he says over his shoulder, "see you later." She hears him hustle down the stairs.

Anna checks the time and startles. She's gone over on her break too. How did that happen?

-

A busy week or so goes by. The store is mostly put back to rights, and Anna has started cross-training out on the sales floor. Mostly she’s in the clothes department, which she likes. She’s being paid to browse, essentially. Though her bank account is wincing.

Today she is assisting with the Christmas merchandise. They have a bunch of ugly Christmas sweaters that have been folded on a back table since before Thanksgiving and now that it's properly December they all have to be hung up and displayed at the front of the section.

Generally, Anna thinks ugly Christmas sweaters are fun. But these are a bit much.

The particular sweater she is working on is lime green with a big "Ho-Ho-Ho" across the top, then Santa's face but he has sunglasses and gold teeth. They have about twenty of the things.

She surreptitiously takes a picture for Elsa.

She’s been left alone to transfer all the sweaters onto the appropriately size-labeled hangers. She doesn’t mind the monotony of the task, though it’d be nicer if one of the other girls had stuck around for company. The whole department is being reset though, so everyone’s busy with their own task.

She sees Richard walking down the main aisle diving the Women's section from the Boy's and Girl's. He’s craning his neck like he’s looking for someone, so she ducks down very slightly, obscuring herself behind the table.

“Hey, Anna, what’s your location?” he asks over the walkie-talkie.

Her stomach drops. She’ll have to answer, his own voice will have given her away, so if she turns the walkie off now it’ll be obvious she’s avoiding him. Ugh, and she'd been so excited to need one too.

Richard is not Anna's type of person.

Elsa says this is Anna being charitable.

They were hired in the same round, so they had the same orientation and training schedule. He is a few years younger than Anna, but he clearly wants to be friends, which is nice, she supposes.

Anna personally gravitates more toward Ellen, who is a little loud, but funny and sweet and generally upbeat.

Richard tends toward complaining as conversation. He has been very clear that he doesn’t need this job - his parents were making some kind of job a requirement for them to pay his tuition. He had said all this on the very first day Anna met him, and at the time she had been surprised. It's the kind of thing she would have kept to herself.

Anna feels very awkward about the money that runs in her family. People here despair of a schedule with less than forty hours. It's alright over Christmas, but apparently it gets pretty bleak in the summertime when the hours run dry.

Richard had called out on Halloween night and the day after. He hadn't been subtle at all about the fact that he had actually been at a party. They wrote him up for the absence. He carries one of those vape pens around in his pocket and Anna strongly suspects that at least sometimes it's marijuana.

Neither of them need the job, in the way most people here need the job - to pay rent and to feed themselves - but Anna tries to do everyone the courtesy of making a real effort at least.

“Hey, I walked right past you,” he says when he reaches her, “didn’t you see me?”

There’s another reason Anna avoids Richard. He’s over ten years younger than Hans was when they got together initially. Anna’s long past being scared by a nineteen -year-old with a patchy mustache.

But there’s something familiar in the way he talks and it makes her squirm.

“No, sorry,” she lies, “I didn’t see you.”

He shrugs. “So listen, I checked your schedule and we’re both off next Saturday.”

Something in Anna’s abdomen clenches. Why does it feel so invasive? Anna checks people’s schedules all the time. Ellen, Kat, the managers, Kristoff even. Heck, she’s checked Richard’s schedule, to see how much overlap they’ll have.

“So, I was thinking it’s a good weekend for you to come along to one of the parties I was telling you about. Honestly, things can get wild - but you don’t have to worry, I’ll stick with you the whole time.”

Anna thinks of Elsa, suddenly. An older male coworker of hers had taken to walking Elsa across the parking lot of their firm when Elsa stayed “too late.” He kept telling her the same story about a young woman who’d been assaulted a few blocks down. Elsa had railed about it at home - How is it chivalrous, to think that women need reminding?

Elsa had gone to her HR about it after the third time. But this isn’t the type of thing you go to HR about, Anna is sure. He’s just asking her out - clumsily.

She looks to the left of his face, and tells him she’s sorry, but she doesn’t drink, so she wouldn’t be much fun at the party.

“But I don’t want you to miss it on my account,” she assures him, “it sounds like you’re really excited.”

It was a thin line with Hans - sometimes it worked, but if he felt like he was being manipulated… well.

Richard seems to accept her logic.

“Okay, well, I still wanted to get your number. I tried to find you on Facebook but it seems like you really don’t have one, huh?”

“Umm,” says Anna. She's kept her composure pretty well so far, no awkward stammering, but this flusters her.

It’s been a long time since Anna had her own social media. God but she misses Instagram.

“Yeah, I, well. I had some issues with my ex. So I had to delete all my accounts. It’s why I don’t give out my phone number either, sorry.”

It hurts her to admit it. To him, and as an excuse, especially. Mrs. Hans Westergaard - the biggest mistake Anna ever made, in whose shadow she will live the rest of her life.

Elsa didn’t have to tell her twice. Social media is an easy way to find people, and if Hans finds them -

Anna shudders.

Someone walking over your grave, dear, her grandmother would say.

Back in the present moment, Richard curls his lip unhappily. Hopefully the hint at the complexity of her situation has softened the blow of rejection, because Anna’s not giving him her phone number.

He’ll move on, she thinks. He's a college kid and she’s a twenty-four year old divorcee - she's hardly a catch even without all the rest of it.

Chapter Text

Kristoff doesn’t have to be in until two, so he takes it pretty easy in the morning. Cooks himself eggs and ham for breakfast, pretending like Sven isn’t getting any even though he makes extra. He cleans their apartment a bit, which doesn’t take long. It’s a small place and he doesn’t have much stuff. Then he takes Sven out to the dog park for an hour. On their way back he stops at the mailbox - just bills and a letter from the vet. He opens that one first, pleased to read that all Sven’s tests came back well. He’s in very good health.

A long-buried instinct stirs at the base of Kristoff’s throat. He wants to share his good news.

-

Anna is at a register when he gets in. She doesn’t have a line, just one older lady checking out with a big order of groceries, so he goes over. He walks right up to her lane and says hello. It's been a little while now, since he's seen her.

She looks up from her scanning and smiles back at him, “Hi, Kristoff!”

He stands at the end of the register watching her count bananas. Once she’s got them entered she turns back to him. She doesn’t ask what the fuck he’s doing standing there gawping at her in front of a customer, but she smiles a definite question mark at him.

“I got a letter from Sven’s vet today,” he tells her, “he’s all clear, no heartworms or anything.”

She looks back up from her bagging and smiles at him again. “That’s great! I’m so glad!”

And it really feels like she is. It’s nice.

Well-suited to customer service as she is, Anna turns to include the customer, “Kristoff’s dog just had a big vet appointment. And your total with tax is eighty-three fifty-five.”

“We had a dog when I was a girl,” the woman informs them, pulling out one of those old-lady cash purses and emptying it out all over the place, “Sweet thing. Eaten by a coyote in sixty-six. The valley wasn't as built up then. Nothing North of forty-fourth street until the eighties, you know. Crawling with coyotes, the place was. Had to shoot them.”

“Right,” says Kristoff.

“That’s really sad, I’m so sorry” says Anna, looking genuine as she scoops up the messy handful of cash. “Did you have a rewards card with us, ma’am?”

“No, and I don’t want to sign up for any credit card.”

“Okay! Just so you know, it’s not a credit card, it links to your debit card and there’s no fees or anything, just five-percent off every purchase, including today’s.” Anna hands over the receipt, “If you decide you’re interested later, there’s a website at the bottom of your receipt where you can sign up online.”

“Oh,” says the lady, frowning at the receipt, “I don’t like to sign up for things on the computer.”

“Sometimes doing stuff online is complicated,” says Anna with a sincerity that Kristoff couldn’t have matched with a six month acting course. “If you ever change your mind, we’ll be happy to help get you set up right here in person.”

The lady considers.

“Five percent, every time?”

Anna beams, “Every time! Plus extended returns, free shipping from our website and exclusive coupons!”

The woman takes a second to consider. Kristoff would bet it's probably the promise of coupons that do it, in the end.

Kristoff knocks his knuckle against the register once, then says, “I’ll see you later,” to Anna. She gives him a little wave as he goes and turns back to walk this customer though the registration process.

Christ though. They could offer him fifteen bucks an hour and he still wouldn’t get back on a register.

-

After his lunch, Kristoff notices that his handheld is starting to run low on battery. It might have made it through the rest of his shift, but he figures why risk it, and swings by the front to swap it out for a fresh one.

If he sees Anna, he might ask her if she has learned anything new about the property development boom in the eighties, but he’s not going all the way up front to see her.

It turns out that the managers are up front changing over, which works out actually because there was an issue with one of the orders from the truck that Kristoff needs to get into the notes for the night.

The clothes department manager is rattling off the day’s statistics to the grocery manager who’ll be closing that night. Kristoff likes his nights, he tends to leave Kristoff to himself and (rightly) trust it’ll all get done. The clothing manager tends to be much more... involved in Kristoff's processes.

“So, rewards cards then - Ellen got two, Justin got one, and Kat got one on a return.”

“Only four?” Asks the grocery manager, looking up from his notes, “Isn’t our conversion goal nine today?”

“Anna got one,” Kristoff interrupts.

They check their notes.

“I don’t see anything - Anna?” she calls over to the lanes. Anna, who had been straightening magazines, obligingly hurries over.

"You signed someone up for the card, right Anna? Right after I got in."

She surprises him with a look of sheer dread. Her face ducks and her eyes skitter away.

"Anna? I don't have you on my list...?"

"Maybe you heard Ellen, Kristoff. She was at the register behind me all day."

Kristoff frowns at her. What the fuck? They both know goddamn well that he did not mishear. She drops her eyes, wringing her hands. Why is she lying?

"What, she changed her mind? That happens sometimes."

"I'm sorry, I don't know what you mean." Her voice is very small, and she's shrinking away.

"It says here Ellen got two - easy mistake, Kristoff, don't bully her about it."

"Yeah, okay." He says, confused and annoyed. He stood right next to her when the customer said yes. And here he is trying to make sure she gets the credit and she lies right to his face about it?

Kristoff, if pushed, has some guesses about the source of Anna's cringing demeanor. The unmentioned ex, or maybe a parent, a relative or family friend. Spoiled for choice really, playing Who Fucked You Up with no information. But it suddenly becomes aggravating rather than sympathetic - that inability to accept help or even speak up for herself.

She'd rather call Kristoff a liar than correct a manager on something this minor? So Kristoff gets told off for bullying her of all things when he's standing up for her.

Kristoff has worked very hard to leave all that behind - gaslighting, it's called. He knows the word though he struggles to use it on himself still. There are people - were people - in his life who he had to let go because of this same shit. People so afraid of their own shadows that they'll lie and insist and make you question your own mind. And he won't go inviting it back into his life now that he is finally settled. Finally secure.

To think, he had started to imagine -

Well. Nevermind.

Chapter Text

It's a weekday, and it's getting late. Anna will miss this bus, but she's planning on getting the next one. There is no reason this will take very long. She doesn't want to waste his time.

The backroom is big and cold and dark, just like usual. She's never been back here when she wasn't clocked in though. Is she even allowed?

It's the first time she's sought him out back here, but it feels - important.

She doesn't know why. Well, she obviously does. Apologizing has become complicated for Anna. She finds herself on her third apology sometimes before she's even realized she owes one. The therapist she was seeing said it was normal. The instinct would fade over time.

And it has. Kind of.

With little stuff it's less noticeable - "sorry" can be totally casual. Sorry when you cross in front of someone. Sorry when you need someone's attention. Sorry when you don't know something.

Sorry doesn't always mean "please don't."

It's getting better though. Anna knows all the subtle differences between making someone annoyed and making someone angry.

She's in a place now where she knows that when she annoys someone - well, not everyone is Hans. It was silly, back then, to worry about what Kristoff would do if she asked the wrong question.

But when she's done something wrong. Made someone angry. Someone she likes. Anna feels a very strong drive to make it right.

Anna's therapist would have suggested she interrogate this impulse. But Anna doesn't see the therapist anymore.

She sees his cart about half way down the row of aisles. She knows that you can hear the warehouse doors well enough when you're back there - she'd been grateful while back here herself, even though it made her jump every time. Kristoff doesn't come out into the aisle, but she wasn't expecting him to.

She supposes Kristoff doesn't get nervous at the sound of a door closing.

She keeps her steps quiet and dithers out of the line of sight from his aisle.

This is silly. She shouldn't tell him. Even if he is angry - Anna isn't responsible for other people's emotions.

That sounds right, right?

It doesn't feel right though. If Kristoff is angry because of something Anna did, then Anna is responsible for Kristoff's anger. She has to explain herself, she owes him an apology.

Why does it feel like Elsa wouldn't agree?

Deeper in the warehouse, a door slams. Not the main entry behind her, but ahead, at the very end of the main aisle. Kristoff turns out of the fixture storage room and sees Anna hovering by his cart. She watches him pause, frowning slightly, before heading her way.

Her heartbeat picks up.

It feels like keys rattling the front door on a day she burned dinner.

Is he mad? He's a frown-y type of person. If he is mad, is it at her? Will that matter, really?

Of all the things Hans took, Anna wants her sense of proportion back the most.

Is this actually a big deal? Should she be embarrassed to care enough to come back here? Or is the apology she's planning not enough? Is he going to make her go to a manager about it all?

He arrives.

"Hey, uh, did you need something?"

Her carefully crafted script vanishes.

"Um, I just had wanted to - about earlier, you know? If you, I mean, if I, well obviously I did, I just-"

He's frowning still, watching her babble. She makes the effort to still her hands.

"I just am sorry. About earlier. You've been really nice and I was rude and I'm sorry."

He looks at her for a moment. She puts her hands in her pockets to stop them fiddling with her purse. She can't meet his eye, so she looks at his cart. Christmas stuff - about eighty sparkly red Santa ornaments haphazardly dumped together. They're cute.

"Will you tell me why you were lying?" He says, finally. He doesn't sound mad, but he seems very serious.

Anna's eyes skitter down further, she can't drag her own gaze up to him, though she knows she should. Rude not to make eye contact. Safer to be able to see his reactions.

"I, uh, well, okay. The problem is, if you were to tell Kat, or a manager, then someone else besides me would get in trouble."

"Richard?" He asks, something harder in his voice suddenly.

Startled, Anna meets his eye for a moment, "No. Why - no, okay, Ellen... isn't doing well. After Black Friday they pulled her aside and said her metrics weren't good and if she can't pull her scores up they won't keep her even 'till Christmas."

Righteous indignation keeps her gaze in the vicinity of his face. The unfairness of it igniting her temper.

"And you can't get your transaction speed up and improve your rewards card conversion rate. Signing people up slows you down!" Now she's gesturing. He nods, crossed over his chest.

"And Ellen has her two grandchildren living with her. She was retired, but her daughter like sucks so she had to take the kids in. Which is so sad. So now she is back working and she needs the money for these kids, and I can't just let her get fired!"

It dawns across his face. He uncrosses his arms.

"Ah, so you're signing people up under her ID number."

She nods, "I got it off a sticky note she keeps on her register. She didn't ask me to do it! She only told me because she was upset right after they gave her the warning."

"You realize that's a fireable offense, right? Using somebody else's ID number."

She nods, miserable, anger draining away.

"I know. I just thought - because the store gets the same number of enrollments anyway. And she's a good cashier, people really like her. She's friendly and good with kids, so they don't mind if she's a little slow. It's just her scores on the computer."

He waves a big hand through the air between them.

"Oh, I don't give a shit about all that. Fuck their metrics, seriously. But they will fire you, if they find out. Isn't this your first job? You don't want to go that way."

She blushes - she knows. It's stupid. So stupid. Elsa thought so too. Well Elsa said it was Anna setting herself on fire to help someone else keep warm. But Anna feels strongly about this particular piece of stupid. It's hers.

She shrugs, unable to articulate it properly.

"I just - if I'm fired for helping her, then fine. I just wanted you to know why it was so weird earlier."

"I'm not worried about it," he says, even though he certainly seemed worried at the time.

"Okay." She agrees anyway.

She thinks she should probably pivot away with a casual-sounding "I'll let you get back to it then," even though that feels really weird for the conversation they've just had.

He could get her fired now, at any time.

Telling Kristoff the truth to stop him being mad had felt like the only option. But now that he knows - it's creeping up on Anna that this power she's handed him might be scarier than his anger.

He breaks into her spiraling thoughts with what seems like a non-sequitur.

"You should tell her to ask to be cross-trained for the Instock team." She doesn't know what this means, so he explains. "They ticket all the clearance. It's about accuracy, not speed, mostly. And it's fucking boring, so they always need people. Once you're doing more than just cashiering then those metrics aren't so important."

"Oh," she says, a little stunned, "thank you. That's really helpful. I will tell her."

Anna notices for the first time that Kristoff might look a little uncomfortable. It's his turn to examine the cart full of Santas.

"Yeah well, the whole front end will be automated in a few years anyway."

He clicks his handheld a few times. It's Anna's cue to go.

She'll miss the second bus probably.

But she doesn't think Kristoff will get her fired.

And, more than that, she doesn't think she has to worry about why.

Chapter Text

It's twenty-two minutes past ten on a Thursday when Kat finally comes round to close Anna's register. Anna isn't annoyed - if she can, Kat usually tries to get Anna out a few minutes early so she can catch the bus. It hasn't happened tonight, so Anna will have to wait about an hour, but it's not the end of the world. She's got her headphones, and her book.

Anna and Elsa have started a book club - just the two of them. It's to make sure they have more to talk about than dishes and coworker stories. They're on Little Women, currently. This is their third book, and Anna strongly suspects that Elsa is working her way through a list online somewhere titled ‘Strong Female Protagonists,’ but they're both enjoying the book and once they finish it they'll organize a movie night, which Anna is excited about.

There’s no sense going out to the bus stop just yet, and she's at a point in her book where she doesn't like the idea of an interruption, so she doesn't go up to the breakroom. She dilly-dallies for a bit. Buys herself a candy bar and sets herself up in the closed Starbucks seating area. She arranges her jacket so the edges of the wooden chairs are dulled. If only she had a nice hot chocolate, she’d be set.

Almost immediately, though, she's pulled away from the Marches.

"You waiting for a ride or something?"

Richard has ducked into Starbucks also and he is heading her way.

Anna's not exactly out of sight, or earshot, or security camera, but all the same, she's not super comfortable in the shut-down part of the store, sitting by a window overlooking a darkened parking lot.

"No, just killing some time." She tells him, beginning to put the book back into her messy purse.

"Oh gosh!" She exclaims, "is it ten-thirty-three already? I gotta get moving - thank you Richard! I would have missed it without you."

She bustles her coat on and scoops up her belongings.

"I'll walk with you," he says, "I've been meaning to catch you, but you know how Kat is," he rolls his eyes, "Can't have two cashiers on break at the same time."

Anna, who finds Kat to be a very reasonable supervisor, says, "well, she only had four of us tonight."

Richard shrugs. "If she wasn't such a bitch, maybe people wouldn't call out so much. Anyway, I'm glad I finally found you."

The bizarre thought occurs to Anna, that she could lose him easily by coming up with a reason to visit the backroom.

Nothing useful comes to mind though.

They leave Starbucks together and turn toward the big front exit. It’s very dark out.

"I've forgotten to clock out!" Says Anna, with a laugh that sounds a little shrill inside her own head. "So stupid. Sorry, Richard, I'm going to go get that sorted. You have a good -"

"I forget to punch all the time," he says, "they do a Missed Punch Form upstairs, but you'll have to wait for your next shift. HR's gone already."

"Oh, right," says Anna

"Where are you parked?" He asks as the automatic doors hiss behind them.

It's the second week of December at ten-thirty at night on a weekday, so it's not completely dead out here. There are a few cars around, people rushing to get into the store before it closes.

She gestures vaguely across the lot in the direction of the bus stop.

"I'll walk with you," he says, matching her somewhat brisk pace.

"Oh, you don't have to do that. I'm sure you're tired..."

"No, I was thinking we could go get a burger or something."

"I'm sorry," she tells him, hoping she sounds sincere, "it's a bit late, for me. I'm in tomorrow too, so I think I should probably just get home."

They've crossed most of the lot by now. The emptier, dimmer half, further from the bright, busy store, looms between Anna and her bus.

"You park all the way out here?" He asks. Employees are instructed to park on the far left hand side of the building - there is a security camera over there specifically for them, since the store is open so late and they work overnights and stuff.

Anna's gotten herself into a real pickle now.

"Um, I actually take the bus." She pulls her phone out to check the time - almost forty minutes still. "It'll be along in just a second actually, I don't want to miss it. Thank you for walking with me, Richard. Goodnight!"

She speeds off, pulling off a little bit of a run because her bus is about to come, right?

The bus station is enclosed on three sides, big plastic adverts for drunk driving attorneys and a culinary school blocking the small waiting area off from view.

Anna settles into her seat and takes a deep breath, leaning against the cold corrugated metal wall behind her.

There is something almost hesitant about Richard when he emerges around the side and joins her in the enclosed, secluded space.

Anna startles and her heartbeat goes nuts.

"I'll give you a ride," he says, "it's late. You just want to get home, you said, right?"

Telling him no versus getting in his car.

Telling him no versus getting in his car.

She can't think of any good excuse.

Would he even take her straight home? He said burgers.

Oh!

"That's nice of you, Richard, but didn't you say you were hungry? You go on and I'm totally happy to take the bus. It's not far and I won't have to wait long at all, now."

"I can't just leave you here, Anna. It's not safe. Come on."

How is it chivalrous, to think that women need reminding?

"I take the bus all the time, but I appreciate the thought."

"Why are you being such a bitch about this?"

Anna jumps at the sudden change in his voice. His whole stance has moved, hesitance given way to balled fists and square shoulders. She’s surprised, despite herself.

The swearing, in Anna's experience as a married person, means anger, but that she still has time to comply, to redirect.

But she can't, not this time. She won't go with him to his car.

She can't look at his face now, her own face is burning, her eyes immediately welling. She hasn't been spoken to like this since - since - and she can't do anything about it except for play the whole scene out in her mind because she knows how this is going to go.

She hadn't taken him seriously enough. Stupid, she let his age and all her time with Hans trick her, she thought she would be able to control this, and maybe in the store, during the day, she can but now… She fancied herself some kind of untouchable lion tamer, because she escaped one lion. And he did all kinds of damage along the way, didn’t he.

"I'm sorry," she says to the floor, "I wasn't trying to upset you."

The part that's hardest is also the most important. Elsa’s advice about Richard this whole time has been that Anna should be clear. Now, whether she is dropped off by a bus or not, when she gets home and tells Elsa, Elsa will think Anna must not have been clear. So Anna has to tell him no. No matter the consequences.

"I'm sorry, but no thank you. I'll just wait for the bus."

Anna has mace in her purse. Elsa got them one each when Anna first came to live with her. Anna hadn't been able to picture herself using it, not even really if Hans showed up. She knows she isn't about to use it now either. You can't just go around mace-ing people for swearing right, that has to be illigal?

She takes a deep shuddering breath and waits.

"What the fuck is even your problem? I have asked you out like ten fucking times and you always have a little fucking reason, and now you're too stuck up of a bitch to even let me drive you home?! You think you're too good for me!?"

She's shaking her head, no when he surges forward, she startles backward, hands coming up around her face, but he doesn't grab her hair or her arm or anything she's braced for. When she opens her eyes again, which doesn't take long, she can't afford to have her eyes closed, she sees.

He's got her purse. Her house keys, her wallet, ID, bus pass, cell phone, battery pack. Her mace.

Even if she ran, now, how would she get home? She could go back to the store, but the humiliation of it.

"Come on!" He snaps. She jumps to her feet. She doesn't walk toward him.

Probably he will just give her a ride home. Maybe they will stop for burgers. Well, he very likely will stop, she thinks.

Her therapist showed her how a lot of the things Hans did that seemed random and terrifying were actually him proving his control. Over her, the situation, everything.

So if she gets in his car, he probably won't take her straight home.

But from there the possibilities are very scary and almost endless.

She doesn't think... but she's misjudged him already.

"What are you mugging people now?" A new voice startles them both, it’s angrier than she’s ever heard it, but Anna sags sideways back into the cold metal seat, relieved.

Kristoff. KristoffKristoffKristoff.

Chapter Text

He’s only supposed to be mid-shift coverage, two ‘till nine - literally a whole shift keeping up on pull batches, separate from the guy actually scheduled to run the backroom.

Still, it’s past ten when he finally shuts down the forklift for the night. He sits for a moment on the familiar worn leather seat and takes a deep, heavy breath.

It feels like if he started rubbing his eyes, he’d rub right down to the bone.

Kristoff sits on the forklift staring at nothing for long enough that it probably constitutes time theft.

At least he doesn't have to be in until six tomorrow evening.

Eventually he heaves himself down and makes his way up front. He returns his equipment to the closet up front and doubles-back past Starbucks and the bathrooms toward the punch machine.

Richard passes him in the hall, but they ignore one another.

Kristoff hasn’t checked the Swap Shift Board yet today, so he decides to drag himself upstairs to have a look.

Since it’s December now, they’re auto-approving all overtime, with a theoretical-slash-legal cap of ninety-six hours a week. Kristoff’s not trying to go that hard, but he’s been averaging between fifty-five and sixty hours, and he hopes to keep it up until Christmas. He’ll have himself a nice little bit of wiggle-room for the summer, and hey, maybe he and Sven will be able to take a weekend away sometime. Go camping again, that had been great fun.

A few new cashiering shifts have appeared, but Kristoff’s not that broke. So he chucks some stuff in his locker and heads back downstairs.

The cool night air is nice - he gets really sweaty when there’s a few guys moving around in the back like tonight.

Richard’s truck is still over-and-across from Kristoff’s. The sight of it always makes Kristoff unhappy - Kristoff’s is a beat-to-shit 2004 and Richard’s is from last year, but they’re the same model.

Not many things make Kristoff self-conscious these days, but admittedly this overlap makes him worry. Did he get a very good deal on a very douchey truck?

Why is Richard's truck still here, anyway? He was leaving when they passed each other, and it was just Kat left at Guest Services when Kristoff went out the doors.

One of the seasonal hires got carjacked out here three or four years ago. It’s the reason they put the new security camera in. But they made everybody walk out in pairs for literally weeks after.

And when Kristoff says, ‘they walked out in pairs,’ what he means is that the six-foot-four backroom guy got called up three times per shift to walk eighty pound cashiers and sales floor girls thirty feet from the doors to their God damn cars.

That little shit better not be getting fucking mugged. Kristoff’s not doing it again - he won’t.

Kristoff casts his eye over the sparse parking lot.

A small stone sinks in Kristoff’s stomach - Richard and Anna are walking together across the lot toward the bus stop out by the road.

Kristoff doesn’t like the easily named thing rising in his chest, so he turns back to his own vehicle. He’s not in charge of who Anna fucking stands next to. He didn’t even really think she liked Richard that much anyway, but if she wants to have terrible taste then…

He didn’t think she liked him at all, actually. She had seemed really uncomfortable, that one time, when she was training for backroom.

Out of the corner of his eye, Anna takes off at a jog. Not a run, not like she’s in danger, just that stupid speed people hit when they’re crossing the road and you’re waiting to turn right.

So they’re not hanging out, he thinks with some satisfaction. He’s just trailing around after her all pathetic and she’s ditched him.

Then, instead of turning back toward the employee parking, Richard follows her.

It’s nothing to do with you.

Kristoff watches for a minute, undecided.

It’s really nothing to do with him. Anna’s a grown up and she can presumably take care of herself. If she’s got an issue she has a phone, probably, she could call the police or she could scream, or more realistically she can just politely ignore the guy ‘till her bus comes.

Or maybe Richard’s asked her out and she thinks it’s great and then they’ll date or whatever. Until Richard’s frat rush anyway.

Kristoff rolls his eyes and almost turns away.

It’s just that she’s so hesitant, usually. Kristoff doesn’t think it’s just around him. She doesn’t like to have people behind her, or being blocked in, or being caught by surprise. And he’s never seen her go out of her way to interact with Richard.

“Go check,” says Kristoff in Sven’s voice.

“I’m not a fucking stalker,” Kristoff defends.

Anna is a grown up and she is allowed to spend her time with whoever she likes and Kristoff is not a stalker and he heads toward the bus station.

He kind of lurks for a moment out of sight, Jesus, like a pathetic territorial stalker from some police procedural TV show.

But then.

He catches the tail end of a deranged rant - this motherfucker swearing at Anna - then an unmistakable order, “Come on!”

Kristoff sets his shoulders and rounds the structure. Anna is standing in the corner, teary eyed and shaking her head frantically. Richard’s in the mouth of the shelter, and he’s got her fucking purse, holding it out to the side of his body in a taunting, reminding kind of pose.

"What are you mugging people now?"

Anna sees him first, and she drops back into the chair as Richard flinches around to see who’s interrupted his little display.

There is a tense second's pause. They stare at each other.

Richard throws his hands up into the air in a mocking kind of gesture and casually drops Anna’s bag.

"Just trying to give her a ride home. Fuck. Nevermind."

Kristoff lurches forward as Richard tries to elbow his way past and catches him around the nape - his hand slots easily over the back of Richard’s scrawny neck.

Kristoff exerts some pressure, forcing him into a hunch. For all he’d been happy to intimidate a scared girl, alone in the dark, Richard doesn’t try to fight back against Kristoff’s grasp.

“Pick it up.” Kristoff spits, shoving Richard down and away.

Freed, Richard kicks wildly at Anna’s purse, then dances further out of reach.

“Fucking have her then - think I want your sloppy fucking seconds!” and he takes off the other way, into the store’s parking lot, not quite running but throwing frequent checks over his shoulder.

Kristoff itches to go after him. Make him feel what it’s like to be small and afraid. Get him in Kristoff’s truck and drive awhile - not so fucking fun from the passeger seat.

Anna hasn’t said a word yet. She’s curled herself up tightly in the small plastic seat in the corner of the bus shelter, big eyes watching him over the top of her knees.

He leans over to scoop up her purse, but he doesn’t want to go into the bus shelter to give it back, so he drops it lightly on the ground just inside the opening and then retreats a little.

She doesn’t uncurl.

“Sorry,” he says, pulling at the hair at the base of his neck, her eyes widen in surprise, “I shouldn’t’ve - he was already leaving. I should’ve just let him go.”

It had been momentarily fulfilling - to hold the little shit like that, to make him bend. But Anna had been scared of Richard - scrawny, teenage Richard. She hardly appreciates the reminder that Kristoff has eighty pounds and a handful of inches on the guy.

He keeps slipping up and freaking her out. She can’t want to be alone at a bus station with him any more than she did that little creep.

“Hey,” he keeps his voice low, and gestures toward the store with his head, “c’mon. We should go.”

Her breathing picks up, she shakes her head somewhat frantically. He sees her adjust her grip on her shins.

She’s misunderstood. Because Kristoff’s a fuckup.

“No, I mean we should go back to the store. Go on record with the closing manager then they’ll report it to HR tomorrow.”

Her head shakes faster.

“Anna... you have to report him.”

“Please. I don’t want to. He was just - he was just offering me a ride. It’s fine.”

He takes a step toward her and she hunches down. Kristoff takes a deep breath and closes his eyes for a second.

He sees a different woman, blonde, curled up on linoleum, lit by a bare kitchen bulb, insisting it’s fine, but he blinks her away, refocuses.

“He had your bag, Anna. I’m a witness - they’ll fire him, I’m sure of it.”

Please, Kristoff. I - I don’t want to.”

Kristoff isn’t sure what to do. He can’t make her report it. He doesn’t really want to push the matter.

“Well, call your sister, then? See what she says?”

“The bus will be here soon,” she says, looking away from him for the first time.

A car drives past, headlights lighting their scene. For all intents and purposes, Kristoff’s just taken Richard’s place. So, he gives in.

He turns to lean against the outer wall of the bus shelter - her eyes are back on him the second he moves.

“Can I wait here ‘till the bus comes?” he asks, gesturing to the spot, “right here?”

She nods, frowning at him a little like she’s confused, and he sinks into a squat against the metal, so they’re both facing out toward the road.

It’s quiet. Another pair of cars come off the freeway and pass them, heading East, in toward the city. Kristoff’s not sure how often busses come this late on weekdays, and he doesn’t want to get up to check. He’s happy to let her pretend he isn’t here, just hopeful that his presence means she doesn’t have to be on the lookout for Richard, at least.

So he is deeply surprised when she speaks into the middle-distance.

"Hans - my husband, well my ex - he said that I was… He said I was so desperate... to be loved and that men… they could... smell it on me.” Kristoff distantly feels the bite of his nails against his palm, but he stays silent, and she continues. “He said it would drive good men away and leave me with the ones who... liked it. Who - wanted me that way. He said that... at least he actually wanted me to be better, you know?"

You wanted this, Kristoff thinks to himself, viciously. You wanted to know, didn't you. But faced with the reality of her words - he feels massively unqualified. He's going to make it worse. She deserves better than to settle for him for comfort here.

"Well he sounds like a real shitbag," says Kristoff.

His blunt response startles a little huff out of her.

"Kristoff, you're a man... Will you tell me, honestly? I thought he might have been lying, but..."

Kristoff is stuck. He is a firm believer that if someone asks you for honesty then you owe real honesty.

And, honestly, in Kristoff's experience, there certainly seems to be a predatory class of man who can pick their targets with great accuracy. A corresponding number of women seem to lurch unhappily from one shit boyfriend to the next. Maybe it’s pheremones, but mostly he thinks it’s just fucking psycopaths who read people well and manipulate and escalate.

It doesn't take long, interacting with Anna, to notice that something's shattered her confidence. For the right kind of person, it wouldn’t be hard to pick her out of a crowd.

Kristoff has been told that he has the emotional sensitivity of an Easter Island Head, but even he knows that this is the wrong answer.

He tries to choose a kinder route.

"If you were so desperate for any male attention you'd be in Richard's car telling him how much you like his band or whatever." She doesn't laugh. He takes another shot. "You told him no, Anna. He's the asshole who didn't listen. That's nothing to do with you."

She smiles sadly at him, fresh tears escape her eyes and she rubs them away. She can hear the answer he hasn't given - takes his dodge as confirmation. He can't let that happen.

Well. Honesty, right?

He takes a deep breath in and swivels slightly so they're properly facing each other. It's either going to be the right thing to say or... very much not. But he wants her to hear it. He just hopes he doesn't freak her out.

"Listen Anna, you're one of the nicest people I've ever met. You go so far out of your way to help people, and you're brave and you try new things and you listen to people and you're really smart. And you're gorgeous, okay, we both know how pretty you are. But you got this job and you're going to go to school and get a better job one day. You're not stuck between being alone or putting up with some asshole - anyone would be lucky to have your attention, alright? Not the other way."

He has kept his eyes on her face the whole time, determined that she see his sincerity. She doesn't look like she's going to run screaming or call the police. So, hopefully she's taken his little speech in the spirit it was intended rather than just another jerk hitting on her at the bus station.

She stares at him for a good while. Kristoff's crouched position starts to get uncomfortable and he feels very aware of his own face and his expressions and how often do people blink normally? He's not trying to go all Silence of the Lambs here.

Finally, finally, her feet touch the concrete floor.

"Okay," she says.

At his limit of emotional sincerity, Kristoff slaps his knee and stands. Returns to a lean against the outer shelter. Checks his phone and winces pretty hard.

"Listen, are you on the schedule tomorrow?"

"Yes. I'm sorry, I know it's late, you really don't need to stay -"

"What time are you scheduled?"

"Ten 'till four."

He grits his teeth, "cashiering?"

She nods.

"Okay, look, if you want I can take your shift. You look..." a mess. Pale and shaky and eyes all red-rimmed. "Like you could use a day off. If you don’t want the hours, I don't mind."

She’s got her arms folded across her midsection and she squints at him.

“You don’t have to do that,” she tells him, almost suspicious.

“I know,” he says, shrugging.

Behind him he hears the loud squeaky brake of a city bus grinding to stop at the light.

He doesn’t know why he wants so badly to convince her to give up a cashiering shift, of all things, but he keeps going all the same.

“Look I owe you a shift. You’ve had a shit night and you could use a break and I could use the hours. If you don’t wanna work it, I’ll cover. Either way, no worries.”

“I didn’t put it up on the board, I’d have to sign, we didn’t give them enough notice - ”

Kristoff waves all that away.

“I’ll take care of it.”

The bus squeaks into motion and the headlights light up Anna’s suspicious, considering expression.

“I don’t want to go to HR about it.”

“I know. I think you’re wrong,” he says, and she ducks her head, “but it’s your call. I won’t say anything.”

She seems surprised, and she watches him quietly as the bus trundles over.

She bends and picks up her bag.

“Okay,” she tells him, “if you’re sure you don’t mind, and it won’t cause any trouble.”

The doors open and Anna moves out of the structure for the first time. She crosses in front of him without looking away.

“Great,” he says, “It’s covered, no worries.”

She has to look away to get onto the bus. The driver sighs very audibly at the delay.

“Thanks,” she says, very confused, but she hops up on to the raised platform.

“Goodnight,” he calls, stupidly, after her.

He sees her through the window. She has to dig for a moment to get her bus pass. Then she sits in the closest seat, right behind the driver, facing forward. There’s almost no one else sharing the bus. Well, it’s past eleven at night, so Kristoff isn’t surprised.

The bus screeches back into motion.

Kristoff makes his way back to the store’s parking lot.

Richard’s truck is long gone. Sven’s going to be really pissed. And Kristoff’s got a looong day coming tomorrow

Chapter Text

HR hadn’t cared much about swapping the schedule around. He made some noise about having to reprint all the daily manager print-outs, but Kristoff knows that this close to Christmas, they’re just glad someone showed up for the shift.

Kat’s the real issue. Kat’s been here about five years now, only she has an Associate’s in some bullshit, so she’s qualified to carry keys and supervise other employees. They get along usually, they both swear like fucking sailors, they’re both kind of assholes, generally, and their sense of humor runs the same way.

But she’s on to Kristoff from minute one, today. From the second he squeezes himself uncomfortably into the register.

“Ha ha,” she says, coming over, “what the fuck are you doing?”

“Cashiering,” Kristoff tells her, logging into the register.

“The fuck you are. Where’s Anna?”

“She’s out today, I’m working her shift.”

Kat frowns at him. “She called out and they called you to come in?”

“No, she and I talked about it last night.”

He winces, looks at her out of the corner of his eye. If he could swallow his foot he would.

“Last night?” She says. She’s been all over him since he asked Starbucks what Anna’s favorite drink was.

“In the parking lot,” he tells her. “I saw her after her shift.”

“She didn’t say anything to me.”

Kristoff shrugs at her.

“Well did something happen? Why would she go a whole shift with me and not say anything then get two feet out the door and need your help covering a cashier shift? I’m gonna text her.”

“No, look, she just needed a day, alright? But she’s fine now.”

Kat shoots him another look, "she's fine now?" and swipes her phone open.

“Arg, God, okay, look,” the phone goes down, “Richard asked her out, I think he freaked her out a little. I scared him off and told Anna if she needed a day, I’d cover it, okay? But she doesn’t want it to be a whole thing.”

“That little shit. She should go to HR,” says Kat, like Kristoff has missed something obvious.

“I know!” he says, “I don’t think she will though.”

“Alright,” she says, “do you know what you’re even doing up here?”

“Scan the stuff, take the money.” He gestures at the whole set up. It’s not been that long.

She rolls her eyes. “Okay, and you know about the rewards card?”

“Yes I know about the card - you think I’ve worked here all this time and escaped the fucking card?”

“Give me your rewards card pitch.”

Now he rolls his eyes. “I don’t have a pitch.”

“Five-percent off, every time, extended returns, free-shipping from the website, and exclusive digital coupons.”

“”I’m not gonna say all that.”

She sets her jaw. “You are.”

-

"Eighty-nine ninety-nine??" The customer repeats, incredulous.

Kristoff looks at the screen. Yup.

He turns back to the customer, "is there a problem?"

"Yes, there's a problem! It's on sale for twenty-four ninety-nine! You're out of your mind if you think-"

Oh great, he thinks. This "You don't want it then?" he asks.

"Of course I want it! But only if it's twenty-four ninety-nine!"

"It's eighty-nine, ma'am," he reiterates, pointing at the screen helpfully.

"The sale sign said it was twenty-four." She insists.

Kristoff looks at the box. It's a sixteen-piece porcelain dish set put out by some lifestyle personality who's famous enough that even Kristoff recognizes her.

"Are you sure the sign was talking about this?"

"Of course I'm sure!"

She's full of shit. And Kristoff is sure.

"Sorry ma'am," he says, unapologetic, "the system doesn't think so."

She looks at him like he's sprung a second head.

"You're going to need to change it then, aren't you?"

"I'm sorry, I can't change that for you. I'll void the item."

The register beeps and the total adjusts down.

"No," she says, like Kristoff’s the one failing to understand here, "I want the set!"

He scans it again. '$89.99' flashes back up on the screen. He turns to the customer, waits.

They watch each other, both waiting for the other to come to their senses and make the obvious move.

"Well, aren't you going to send someone to check?"

"Listen," he jabs the box with his finger, "this kind of thing doesn't go on sale by sixty dollars. The sign you saw is for something else, I guarantee it. Even if you get a manager, they're not going to give it to you for that price. It's two weeks before Christmas, and there's a line behind you. Let's just skip the price check, okay?"

Weirdly, his speech hasn't made her see reason.

"I think I know how to read a sale sign."

And Kristoff shouldn't have made the face. Obviously he shouldn't have made the face.

But he can't help himself and he pulls a face and then the day really gets going. They end up getting a manager. But she doesn't get the discount.

-

Dan stands at the end of his lane and watches until Kristoff's caught up on the small rush of customers.

"What the fuck are you doing up here, man?"

"Cashiering," says Kristoff.

"Why? Everything okay? How's - the dog?"

Clearly doesn't know Sven's name, Kristoff thinks, irritably.

"Sven's fine. Just... picking up hours."

"And you're not calling out on your backroom shift?"

Kristoff shrugs, "no."

"You're going to cashier 'till four. Then close the backroom - six 'till eleven?"

"I'll go nap in my car."

Well, no, he won't. He's going to have to drive home and let Sven out.

Dan stares at him for a second.

"And she's not... making you take the shift, right?"

"What?"

"I just mean... some guys - pretty girl asks for a favor, they don't feel like they can tell her no...?"

"What! No, Anna's not manipulating me. Shit. It was last minute, she needed it covered, I've been taking overtime. Gonna be a long day, but I've done it before."

And with far less cause.

"Okay," says Dan, visibly giving up, "so listen, Justin's in at one, alright? I'll juggle some people around and see if we can get you off the lanes. It's fucking funny, believe me, but terrible allocation of resources."

Has Kristoff ever complained about Dan? Surely not. But just in case, he takes it all back the man's a saint.

"Thanks, man, you're a lifesaver."

"Literally, if it were up to Kat. Ask about the fucking card, Kris - Jesus! Don't take cashier shifts if you're not going to ask about the fucking card!"

-

"Hi, I had to disconnect my bank account because of some fraudulent charges coming out of Indiana, of all places, so I asked the lady at my bank about how this would affect the rewards card I have with you guys, and she didn't know and so I called the help number on the card itself, and they said that I should come in to a store and sign up again. So I'd like to go ahead and get that taken care of, if you can."

Kristoff hasn't signed anyone up for the card in over a year, and he's not looking to break that streak.

"I'm not actually a cashier," he tells them, "so I can't help you. But you see that older lady on register three over there? Yeah, she'll be able to get you sorted. Great. You're welcome. Next!"

-

Kat calls a huddle right as Kristoff gets back from break.

"Alright cashiers, listen up! I've requisitioned a twenty dollar gift card, and at one O'clock the person who's signed the most people up for the card wins it!"

Excited murmuring among the small group.

"But if I hear anyone not asking every customer, no one gets it. This is a team effort, alright? I want to hear everyone asking!"

Kristoff's suddenly getting a lot of side-eye.

Kat can be a real asshole. Total management material - just breathtaking, really. But shit, what an asshole.

And, in the name of working class solidarity, he begins asking the stupid customers about the stupid card.

-

"Oh right - did you have the rewards card?"

"My friend was saying she loves hers actually. How does it work?"

"Well basically it links to your bank and they mine your data to sell to advertisers."

"Sorry, what?"

"Yeah. And heads up, we had a pretty big data breach like a year ago or something. So you might want to get some kind of identity protection."

"I thought it was for discounts...?"

He shrugs, "Sure. And coupons."

He hands over her receipt and dutifully circles the paragraph down at the bottom where Kat had indicated.

"Here's the link if you want to sign up online."

Kat appears soon after. Evidently the customer didn’t appreciate his warning about the identity theft.

-

The next customer in his line is one of those super put together business woman types, platinum blonde hair in a tight braid. She's just got a gallon of milk and an enormous bag of chocolate Christmas trees.

"Don't worry - I have the rewards card," she tells him, "and I checked the app for coupons already."

Like it's a fun joke that she heard Kristoff get reamed right there.

"Cool. Eight-thirty-four," he tells her.

"I'd like to round up for the donation too, please."

She sounds a little smug for someone with a brand name handbag donating sixty-six cents to a homeless shelter, in Kristoff's opinion anyway.

He backs out and selects the option to donate, then gestures back to the card swiper.

"Come here often then, do you?"

She looks confused.

"You know my lines better than I do."

She looks at him for a second. He looks back. He had pegged her for one of those women who treat this place like a religious affiliation, if it were a weekend she's be in yoga pants and a big sweater. But suddenly he thinks maybe he's wrong.

"Maybe I just pay attention," she suggests.

"Well thanks for your donation." He passes her the receipt and goes to move on.

“You’re new here, then, Kristoff?” she asks, gathering her stuff remarkably slowly, “I don’t recognize you.”

Kristoff laughs. “You know all the cashiers, do you?”

She smiles to herself, like he’s referenced an inside joke.

“I’d probably recognize their names.”

He tells her no, he’s been here almost ten years actually.

“So you don’t cashier much.” She says, “What brings you up here today then?”

“Holidays,” he says, and turns to the woman next in line.

-

He's finally been moved off the lanes and onto the sales floor for the last few hours of his shift, which is better, but no picnic either.

Overall, it's been a shitty morning and Kristoff's excited to get home and spend some time unwinding with Sven before it's time to turn around and come back.

But then.

As he is crossing the parking lot he vaguely becomes aware of Richard's truck. He glances up - honestly he hadn't expected the little rat to show.

Their eyes meet and Richard flips him the bird. Kristoff gestures back and keeps walking.

His brain, deadened from all the customers, slowly filters the relevant information.

Richard and Justin were in the cab together.

The dense, smokey cab of Richard's truck.

Passing a single vape pen between them.

Kristoff only really hesitates for a moment. He's never had an issue with Justin, but as far as he knows the guy's not on parole or anything that would really fuck things up.

Generally Kristoff doesn't care about this shit. Put it on a ballot and he'll vote to legalize, sure. But it's the blatant stupidity of it offends him really - they're even wearing their uniforms.

There's an undercurrent of this stuff at the store, he is aware. Mostly the younger crowd, not so much the lifers, red-eyed, sniggering their way through a shift. Kristoff's never particularly given a shit about it, as long as it stays out of the backroom where the heavy machinery runs.

Today though. Well, sorry, Justin.

Kristoff doubles back around the lot and back into the store.

Chapter Text

Elsa is asleep when Anna finally gets home. That's pretty standard - the store stays open so late these days, Anna has no expectation of her sister waiting up half the night.

She showers and gets into her comfy winter pajamas. She boils water for tea, but changes her mind and leaves the water cooling in the kettle.

She slips into Elsa's bed and falls asleep listening to her sister's easy breathing - remembering when they had shared a room as children.

In the morning she feels silly - a dramatic attention-seeking child.

It is clear, immedietly, that she has slept in. Not terribly unusual for Anna on a day off, but what is terribly unusual is Elsa - dressed but still in bed, making notes on a yellow pad, balancing a tablet on her knees. 

She must have woken to find Anna in her bed and decided to stay home.

Anna's face burns - she's not getting away without explaining now. And in the morning light, it doesn't feel like she has enough of a story to justify Elsa calling out.

"Sorry," she says, stretching, "you didn't need to stay home."

Elsa finishes whatever thought she was writing out and arranges her materials into a tidy pile on the bedside table.

"I'm happy to spend a day with you. I thought you worked today? It's still up on the calendar."

"Yeah I... switched with someone last night."

"Burned out?" Asks Elsa, giving her an out in case she really doesn't want to do this.

Anna flops back onto the pillows.

"Nooooo. It was a whole thing. But really, I'm alright, and it can wait if you need to go to work. I promise."

Elsa smiles, patiently.

Anna launches into a dramatic retelling, waving her arms about and exclaiming about Richard's ego and his unbelievable level of obliviousness.

She slows down somewhat once she gets to the bus station. She tries to downplay it a little, self-concious now about how compliant she became, and how quickly it happened.

"I just - I don't know Elsa, it was barely twelve hours ago and I already feel like I already have no idea what really happened - was he just trying to give me a ride home? Or was it - something else? I just wish I could read these things. Like if I was actually in danger or if it was some dumb nineteen year old who lost it when he felt rejected? If only someone else had been there, so they could verify, you know? Was it scary because it was me, and I'm easy to scare? Would a normal person have been scared or would they have just thought he was ridiculous?"

"You're a normal person, Anna," Elsa insists. They've had this conversation before. "And someone else was there, right? It doesn't sound like Kristoff thought it was nothing...?"

Elsa makes these leading, open-ended lawyer-type statements all the time these days.

Anna never wins arguments anymore.

But her sister is right. Kristoff had seemed upset, certainly. It's reassuring, actually. Even in Anna's distilled retelling, that has come across.

"Yeah, okay," she admits to her knees.

"How do you feel about reporting him to Human Resources, now that you've had some time?"

"I've barely woken up, Elsa! I haven't eaten breakfast or anything!"

Elsa outlasts all of Anna's delaying tactics. She sits, teeth and hair brushed, dressed, and stuffed full of pancakes, facing the same patient expression.

"Why not?"

It gets too close to the core of Anna these days.

Why didn't you say something?

Why didn't you report him?

Why don't you think you're entitled to respectful treatment?

No thank you, in-depth analysis of Anna's psyche.

"I just don't want to, Elsa. I want to pretend it didn't happen. I don't even feel like I know for sure he did anything wrong-"

He had your purse, Anna... You told him no and he's the asshole who didn't listen...

She shakes her head, resolute, "I don't want to have to admit that he upset me, and have it all go on paper and tell the story a bunch of times and have people go, 'okay Anna, since you're so upset about it,' but really they think I'm being this huge baby."

"I think you should give people the opportunity to take this seriously. He crossed a line - several, in fact. From the perspective of a Human Resources Manager, I promise, everything I have seen tells me that they would terminate him."

Anna ducks her eyes,  "I really just want to drop it, Elsa."

Elsa, apparently, does not want let Anna drop it.

"What about next time? Will you feel safe taking the bus anymore? What if he confronts you again?"

Anna shudders, and not subtly enough. She hadn't thought about her next closing shift. He knows she takes the bus now.

"I just - if it happens again, okay? If he makes me uncomfortable I'll go then."

Elsa purses her lips.

"It's better to have a record..."

"Please, Elsa? Just let me handle it, okay? Kristoff freaked him out, and now I won't be so worried about being rude. He called me a bitch, after all. He's out of his mind if he asks me out again!"

This point of argument has not soothed Elsa.

Anna plays her trump card.

She sticks her pinkie finger out into the space between them.

"If anything else happens, Elsa. I promise."

Elsa can't help but soften.

They pinkie promise.

Elsa announces she needs to go to the store. She feels like making fettuccine tonight, and they don't have enough milk.

Anna doesn't feel like putting on proper pants today, so she waves her sister away with a request for chocolate.

Elsa returns within an hour, and it's immedietly apparent which store she's visited.

"Did you see Kristoff?" Anna asks.

Elsa looks surprised. Like she's so sneaky with her reusable bags.

"That's our brand of milk," Anna explains, smug.

"Alright, prosecutor, yes, I saw Kristoff."

Anna waits. It's important, she realizes - Elsa's first impression of Kristoff matters a lot.

Elsa hesitates, and Anna's heart sinks.

"Let's go back to the bedroom," Elsa suggests, collecting the bag of chocolates.

Anna's sunken heart begins to hammer away at her knees.

Elsa hesitates a long time before she speaks. She's choosing her words carefully.

“I just want to make sure you realize that - any halfway decent person would have done what he did. It doesn’t make him a - a knight in shining armor or anything like that. A person can do a good thing for someone else and still not be… exactly boyfriend material.”

“Boyfriend material? Elsa, Kristoff’s not - we aren’t - ”

"Every day when I ask you about work, the first thing you tell me is if you saw Kristoff or not."

"I'm not going to date Kristoff, Elsa," Anna dismisses, peevish but without making eye contact, "it's just - he's nice. We're friends, I think."

"He didn't seem very nice, Anna."

"He can be kind of grumpy, sure, but he's nice to me," says Anna, inadvertently adding to Elsa's small but growing collection of red flags.

"And it doesn't really sound like he wants to be just friends, either," Elsa adds, with excessive reasonableness.

Anna blushes. It had been so nice, at the time, to hear Kristoff say she was pretty and smart and kind. But somehow, repeating it to Elsa - it came across wrong. She couldn't capture the sincerity in his face, the warm comfort that descended on her when he said anyone would be lucky.

Now she's doubting herself. Elsa makes it seem like a weird, almost creepy declaration. She asks questions like, 'What was he even doing at the bus stop anyway?' and 'Do you think he was following you?'

"Kristoff is nice," she repeats, sounding a little uncertain.

"You know him better than I do, Anna. He just comes across as quite an angry person, and I was surprised, because of how you've always described him. It just makes me worry that you're... overlooking some things. Or maybe just not mentioning them?"

Elsa is treading very delicately. Anna gives it some thought - she didn't tell Elsa about the first day in the breakroom when Kristoff was so upset about his shift, but that hadn't been deliberate, it wasn't on her mind by the time she got home. She doesn't feel like she's editing in the way she did before.

Is she? She always felt like she had a reason to keep quiet then, too.

"Are... are you saying you don't want me to see him anymore?"

Silence reigns, heavy with history. They're both reliving the same day.

 

Elsa had taken a day off from studying for the Bar to catch up with her sister, who she had admittedly been somewhat neglecting.

Only to find, Anna would barely look up from her phone.

"Sorry - he just gets anxious when I don't text back."

"Oh, the new boyfriend?"

Anna mhmm'd, distracted again by the chime of her phone.

-

Things had escalated. Too many years of silence. Of closed doors. By the time their parents died, and Elsa had to transfer back home to take on Anna's legal guardianship, they were both quietly resentful, neither feeling that the other would be receptive to their old sisterly closeness.

And then suddenly, a concerning new boyfriend had appeared on the scene - it was like an unattended campfire after months of drought.

-

"I'm not a child, Elsa! It's not up to you anymore. I'm nineteen."

"Nineteen, Anna! He's thirty-two! I'm saying no - you're not giving me any choice here! This is what Dad would have done."

-

It wasn't the last time they spoke. It wasn't even the last time they fought about Hans. But Anna moved out soon after.

Unbeknownst to Elsa, Hans had begun whispering:

If Anna was so committed to their future, how could she stand to go where Hans was not welcome?

How could Hans trust Anna, when she defended a sister who so clearly disapproved of their relationship?

If Anna wanted Hans to truly believe in her, she would easily be able to choose...

By the time Elsa got offered a job out of state, she didn't have Anna's address, phone, or email. They hadn't spoken in months.

Elsa kept her old phone number when she moved, just in case. Then, two years after that, a nurse called from the hospital where they had both been born - Anna Westergaard had been checked in and Elsa was on file as an emergency contact.

 

The memory hangs between them.

They both back quickly away from the yawning chasm of that open wound.

"No, Anna, I just worry -"

"Elsa, I'm so grateful to you, and I don't want to fight, so - "

"No, Anna, no. I don't want it to be like that. Just, please, will you listen to my concerns and keep them in mind, okay?"

Anna nods, bunching the duvet up under her chin protectively, bracing.

Elsa takes a second to gather her thoughts.

"It's not even about him specifically. The whole point of you staying here - you're getting your feet back under you, and saving money and going to school, and you're doing so well! But mostly I want you to be learning to make choices for yourself again."

Anna nods, overwhelmed, as often happens, by a sense of gratefulness for her big sister.

"And I just - if it were me, I don't know if I would want the distraction of dating. I would want to be single, for a while, and make sure I was fine alone before introducing that element back into my life. Does that make sense?"

It would never be you, Anna thinks. Elsa would never put herself in the position Anna had. Elsa would never allow someone to say those things to her, to do the things Hans had done and then still go crawling back, apologizing.

Anna trusts Elsa more than Anna trusts Anna. By a factor of ten, easily.

Elsa is right. She must be.

"I understand," she says, "thanks, Elsa."

-

Anna doesn't work again until Saturday - closing on the sales floor actually.

She is plugged in enough to the gossip mill now that she barely makes it to the time clock before she is eagerly informed that she has missed something big.

Richard has been fired. Justin too, apparently. Kristoff is involved somehow.

Her blood runs cold. Everyone knows then. That's why he wanted to take her shift - so he could go around her. He lied.

Of course he lied.

There must be almost no one on earth as easy to fool as Anna.

She sees a cashier in the breakroom, someone Anna knows will be happy to share the story. No point avoiding it - she may as well find out what everyone is saying.

“Oh my god, Anna, that’s right, you weren’t even here! It was so crazy, okay, so, here’s what happened, right. I was sitting at that table right over there and Kristoff came stomping past the breakroom, and he’s like a big guy, right, like you notice him when he goes past, so I said, hey Kristoff, and he totally ignored me, he always ignores me, I don’t think he’s even ever said hi to me.”

Distantly, Anna believes her.

“So he goes off to the manager’s offices, and he’s there for a little while, but I didn’t really think it was a huge deal, you know? So then he comes out and him and HR go into the Security Office together. So then I was like, interested, you know, because maybe someone’s shoplifting, like you remember that guy who peed himself? So they’re in there, then Kristoff comes out and like goes downstairs, but he's like smiling, like he's so pleased with himself.

“Anyway, so then HR and the Security Officer went away and my break was up, so then I went back to my register and I saw them come back in from the parking lot with Richard and Justin. So they went upstairs for a while, and then both Richard and Justin got escorted out of the building! It was so crazy! And people keep asking me about it and I keep being like, guys, I didn’t even see anything! You know?”

Justin? She can’t make the Justin of it fit in her mind. She’s barely ever spoken to him, he’s over in grocery more often than he cashiers.

“Do you - d’you know what they were fired for?”

“Yeah, Richard texted a bunch of people about it. He has really bad anxiety, I guess, and so Justin was smoking him out in the parking lot before his shift. And Richard says that his car is actually registered out of state, in his parent’s name, so legally he thinks he has a case against the store for wrongful termination, because it’s like, violation of private property, you know?”

A light is dawning - “Wait, they caught him doing drugs in their parking lot and he says he's going to sue them?”

She nods, vigorously.

It’s faintly embarrassing how bad she let him freak her out the other night. At least Hans was scary in the daylight, too.

Elsa will get a kick out of it though.

“So, what did Kristoff -”

She rolls her eyes hard, huffing contemptuously.

“You know how he is - can’t stand it if anyone’s breaking the rules. He must have seen them in the parking lot and just run back to tell HR.” She lowers her voice now, giggling, “Backroom’s started calling him Kristoff B-narc-man. They’re going to make a temporary ID badge, you know, the paper ones, and put it on his locker. Those guys are so funny.”

“Oh, no,” says Anna, dismayed, “I hope not!”

She tsks, “Oh right, I forgot - you’re the only one he’s nice to. And wasn’t Richard going to ask you out? Hmm.” She stands and gathers her things, “It’s just a joke, Anna. I’ll see you downstairs.”

Anna’s got a few minutes still. Without really making a conscious decision, she makes her way downstairs on unsteady legs, and crosses the store to the backroom. When she finds him he’s a pair of legs kicking randomly out of the mouth of the baler. She watches him, a big goofy smile on her face, as he rights himself, goes around the back to plug the big machine back in at the wall, then he slides shut a heavy metal grate and flips a big switch.

It’s loud, loud, loud when he turns around. He pauses at the sight of her.

He’s scruffy-looking in his worn uniform, his hair all untidy and sweat-swiped out of his face.

He smiles and gives her a little wave, gesturing over his shoulder at the machinery and mouths something, pointing at his ears.

Anna’s heartbeat picks up at the sight of him. But in the nice way. In the way it hasn’t in a very long time. Like when a cute boy is nice to you and he keeps his promises and you don’t think he’s going to be mad at you that other people are kind of being jerks.

She waves back, certain now.

In this, at least, Elsa is wrong.

Chapter Text

"Uh-oh guys. I'm over my break by five minutes and Kristoff's seen me!"

Some quiet giggling.

In the universal ranking of Things Kristoff Gives A Shit About, his general popularity at the store is only slightly ahead of early morning radio hosts recapping the events of last night's The Bachelor.

But that doesn’t mean he’s enjoying it.

Kristoff flips the guy off and continues across the breakroom to deposit his lunch in the communal fridge.

"Excuse you - go the fuck back downstairs then. Like I'm not sitting right here...!" Exclaims Kat from the back, pointing dramatically toward the staircase.

Right, like that's going to help, thinks Kristoff. But at the same time, it's good of her to do. Dan's mostly developed some kind of hearing impairment.

Well that's not fair. He coughed up a "lay off, guys..." yesterday after HR went around asking everyone to sign up for Justin and Richard's now-open shifts.

Kristoff doesn't really get pissed off about it until later when he discovers someone's chucked his lunch out. It’s the last week before Christmas - he needs the fucking energy.

-

Kat makes a fairly rare trip to the backroom. Kristoff initially assumes she’s just escaping the clusterfuck up front, until she leans on a pallet, inspecting her nails and casually mentions that, "Anna asked me if I knew anyone who could give her a ride to the homeless shelter thing."

Kristoff kind of wants to tell her to fuck off, but she's only barely speaking to him again since his cashier shift, and she’s been decent about him going to HR and fucking everyone's whole schedule.

"So, do I?" Kat asks, pointedly.

"Do you what?" He returns, matching her tone.

She rolls her eyes so hard her spine might have popped, but she swivels away. Front End needs to replenish their plastic bags and where the fuck is he hiding them these days?

-

It happens again the next day.

Kristoff’s not about to spend his time or his money buying a new lunch downstairs, so he fills his water bottle and sips at it sulkily.

Toward the end of his lunch, Anna appears. The breakroom’s crowded these days, no one gets a table to themselves. She tentatively sits, leaving an open chair between them, and begins fiddling with the plastic packaging on little lunch she’s obviously brought from somewhere else.

"Don't you have anything to eat?" she asks, after a moment’s observation.

"...I forgot,” he says, shuffling his feet and feeling awkward.

She immediately sets about the messy business of splitting her bagel.

Kristoff gets like two bites out of it. He's obviously still hungry, but not really so angry anymore.

-

Kristoff stands in front of the bullion board, newly dominated by the sign up sheet for the homeless shelter volunteer day.

Not many people sign up - Kristoff certainly never has. Fewer than ten, and some of them won't show on the day, he's sure.

The store does this just before Christmas every year. They collect donations all year - money and food and clothes, organizing little collection drives, offering to let employees have donations held back from their paychecks, harassing customers for canned food. The whole thing is sold by corporate as a competition between all the stores in the state, each store is linked to a different local charity organization and the ‘winning’ store gets pizza or some shit, Kristoff doesn’t actually know, his store’s never won.

Anna's handwriting is small and messy where she's taken a slot.

Kristoff’s not going to go though.

He isn’t.

He heads off to the bathroom.

The thing is. If he signs up because Anna signed up, that would be creepy in a measurable way.

She can’t walk across a parking lot without Richard following her and she can’t go volunteer without Kristoff tagging along.

It’s weird and he isn’t going to do it. She would hardly want to drive with him anyway.

Finished up in the men’s room, he heads back to the backroom.

Except he’s standing in front of the bulletin board again. There’s a picture of the shelter from last year, the small team of volunteers standing with some shabby-looking men in front of the company truck.

There are a lot of reasons it would be uncomfortable for him to sign up.

He’s holding the pen now. Twisting it in his hands.

No. Kristoff’s not going to go back there.

{ - }

The store’s busy all of a sudden. Like, Anna’s used the word pandemonium before, but erroneously, apparently, because the weekend before Christmas is the only correct usage of the word.

She scans and bags, scans and bags, scans and bags until she thinks her elbows might fall off. Do elbows get arthritis, she wonders?

On Monday HR catches her before she can get to the register. She’s nervous immediately - she signed three people up for the rewards card using Ellen’s number yesterday, and Ellen was on break for one of them, but it was so busy, and Kat was completely buried at Guest Services, there’s no way anyone noticed….

“Anna, great, I’m hoping you can do us a huge favor,” he starts. So it’s probably not about the rewards card. “We’re having a real tough time getting Justin’s backroom shifts covered. Everyone in the store knows cashiering, but only specific people are trained for backroom. Do you mind if we send you back there and get someone else to cover your register today? It’s just Pull Batches, whole shift, you wouldn’t actually be running the back like last time.”

It was hard work last time, but the prospect of getting a break from the register is appealing.

“Okay, if that’s where I can be the most help,” she says.

“Excellent - thanks Anna, you’re a real team player,” he scribbles on his clipboard, “go grab a handheld and a walkie-talkie and meet Kris in the back.”

Oh.

-

Anna moves through her backroom shift feeling like two Annas at once. Bubbly Anna from the university dorm, who sat with her suite-mates and psychoanalyzed texts from boys - her advice was widely sought on her floor, she was considered an expert on emoji translations.

Bubbly-Anna doesn’t know what she wants to major in, but loses her virginity to a boy from her math tutoring group - he took her to the student improv show, they went underage drinking with the cast, then back to his dorm, tipsy but aware and having the time of her life. Bubbly-Anna is carefree and fun and giggly and she does not work at a department store in this new town Elsa has chosen.

Mrs. Westergaard feels like a different person altogether. Stammering and cringing - desperate to avoid any male attention whatsoever.

Anna remembers once, a male clerk at their local grocery store, likely not realizing the silent, angry man behind her in line was her husband, had asked Anna if she was going to need any help getting all her groceries out to her car.

Hans had been incised - How often did Anna visit this store without him? Had Anna not mentioned her husband to this clerk? Was Anna flirting when Hans wasn’t with her? Flaunting herself and spending her husband’s money frivolously?

Anna had changed grocery store, she literally never went back, apologizing and swearing she would never, Hans, never, she loved him.

This thing with Kristoff - what thing with Kristoff? There’s no Thing With Kristoff - is already miles past anything Hans would have allowed from his wife.

But Mrs. Westergaard doesn't work here either.

Being around Kristoff like this - a whole shift sharing space - suddenly Anna feels split like she never has before. Somehow she’s trying to embody Bubbly Mrs. Westergaard, a Franken-Anna who can’t concentrate if she doesn’t know where Kristoff is, jumps whenever he makes a sound, but giggles like all hell to cover it and guiltily notices the long line of his shoulders when he’s reaching for something up high.

At one point his handheld brings him to an aisle she’s already working in. He hesitates at the mouth of the aisle, blocking the light and immediately catching her attention.

“I’ll come back,” he says.

Even Mrs. Westergaard, whose stomach drops when a teenage cashier addresses her directly, can see that this suggestion is ridiculous - she’s back here to help him, after all.

He’s going to get sick of it if you keep making him accommodate you…she thinks.

Dorm-Room-Anna wants him to come closer.

Anna giggles and it sounds shrill and false.

“Don’t be silly, Kristoff,” she says, and waves him into the aisle.

He watches her for a second, so she makes herself turn back to her handheld. She can’t read the screen suddenly, or maybe she can but the information isn’t sticking.

He comes about a third of the way into the aisle, pushing the online cart in ahead of himself.

She’s properly caught now - concrete wall to her left and the cart to her right. The online cart is exactly the right size to fit down these narrow aisles, barely three inches spare on either side.

Though, she supposes, that means he can’t squeeze around it either.

He needs her help at one point - part of the order comes from her end of the aisle. They both pretend some law of physics prevents him from coming all the way down to her end, squishing her against the wall properly. Instead he puts his handheld down on the cart and she comes over to fetch it. She gathers and scans the items he needs pulled, and returns them to his cart. He keeps busy reorganizing one of the bags while he waits.

“Thanks,” he says, and moves away, dragging the cart with him.

Anna sits on the floor for a few moments after he turns out of sight - she sits, she doesn’t collapse. She arranges herself so she could conceivably be scanning something on the very lowest row and takes long, deep breaths until she feels better again.

Why is this happening?

-

Anna’s private struggles aside, they work together well enough. She has to clarify a few things with him when she gets stuck, but he never seems annoyed. In fact, he expresses a few times that he’s grateful that she’s back here and compliments her progress more than once.

She’s jumpy and on-edge, but also it’s kind of nice. There is something familiar, at least, about the tension in the back of her neck as they work side-by-side.

Kristoff is a hard worker. She’s not surprised, she’s always had the impression that he takes his job seriously, but she finds today that she can barely keep up with him. He doesn’t once have his phone out that she sees, he doesn’t stop to chat, even when sales floor people come back very obviously to hide out and complain. Anna, on the other hand, frequently pauses to catch her breath, and she starts setting herself little micro-breaks after every third pull batch she finishes.

They’re mostly silent. He’s not a big talker, and Anna’s not got much energy for chatting. What would they even talk about, really?

He turns the radio on pretty early in the day. His taste seems to run to old Dad-rock - he goes out of his way to switch away from newer songs. She hears him humming along, once or twice, when he doesn’t realize she’s nearby.

She relaxes, slowly, as the day goes on. He continues to not do or say anything that gives her cause for concern. He doesn’t mention any of Anna’s secrets, and he’s holding a few now. He’s the same as ever, solid and quiet, and after a few hours, Anna feels like maybe she’s starting to get used to his presence.

Reliable, she thinks to herself. Maybe that’s how she can explain it to Elsa. It’s that he’s reliable.

-

Kristoff finishes handing off the backroom to his replacement for the evening, she hears him giving a quick rundown of their day; that issue he had with the front wheel on the pallet-jack and the handheld with the broken screen.

Then, instead of leaving, he appears over where she is. He'd asked her to straighten all the carts, they’re all higgledy-piggledy in the corner and fixing them is the last thing he wants her to do before she leaves for the day.

Once they have everything lined up nicely, he says, “you ready?” and they leave the backroom together. He goes through the heavy door first and holds it open for her. Anna ducks her head and blushes and feels ridiculous, but she makes sure he hears her say thank you.

They’re walking up, silent, through the clothes department. So far they’re un-harassed, but Anna almost wants to catch a customer’s eye, to get pulled away to help someone find something, because it’s been too quiet for too long and does he want it to stay quiet or is she being rude should she come up with something to talk about or is it more annoying if she starts babbling -

She startles when he speaks, “I, uh, I didn’t actually sign up yet. But, uh, y’know, for the thing at the homeless shelter next week? I was gonna go, and uh, Kat had mentioned that you were looking for a ride? If you didn’t find someone yet, I don’t mind. I can drive you. If you want.”

He’s gone red in the face.

“Oh,” says Anna, stupidly.

They’re running out of walkway between the backroom and the supply closet. Butterflies have erupted in her stomach. She can feel how red her own face is.

She does want to go. And she does need a ride. There is not a reason on earth not to go with him. And she wants to say yes. She thinks she wants to, anyway.

“Okay,” she tells him, “if you’re sure it’s no trouble.”

He smiles at her. More butterflies.

“No, no worries. I can pick you up, or, I don’t know, however you want to do it.”

Anna’s thought about this already, before she even signed up, after she figured out Elsa wouldn’t be able to take her.

“Oh, no, I’ll just bus up here, that way it’s easier for everyone.”

“Okay,” he says, “They want us there at nine, so I’ll be here at eight-thirty?”

“Great!” She smiles at him, pleased it’s all coming together without any more awkwardness. “Did you need me to get directions or anything?”

He drops his smile, suddenly, like she’s said something wrong. Is he offended she thinks he’d get lost?

“No, I know where it is.” He clips in his handheld and gives her a little wave as he walks toward the timeclock.

Some men are sensitive about directions, she supposes. She won’t mention it again.

Chapter Text

Elsa wakes Anna up early and they have a quiet breakfast together. Mornings like this are some of Anna's favorite.

HR told everyone who signed up that they needed to wear their uniform shirt with the logo, so she made sure it was washed and ready last night.

She catches the bus just before eight and arrives at the store about fifteen minutes ahead of Kristoff.

She kind of wants to run in and get herself a coffee, but she thinks it's probably poor taste to show up to a volunteer event at a homeless shelter clutching a venti frappuccino, even if she has them hold the whipped cream.

She settles herself on a bench to the left of the main doors and waits.

She's actually really nervous about today.

She's been at the store for almost three months now. She must have asked more than a thousand people if they want to round up to the nearest dollar to support the local homeless shelter. Some people ask more about it, and she recites the lines she's been given - all of our stores have a relationship with local charitable organization, and this location supports the local homeless shelter. We raise money, collect goods and food, and donate our time in support of bettering our community!

Anna's talked to a lot of people about this shelter, and convinced a fair number of them to donate, even, which she's pleased about. But she doesn't actually know anything about it.

She's guiltily picturing something dirty and ill-kept. In her mind the people are belligerent, mentally ill or inebriated. The staff will be stressed and desperate.

She shakes it off. She's being silly - the store is hardly arranging to send her anywhere scary. The place will be fine. She had worried about visiting that domestic violence shelter Elsa found, and they all turned out to be lovely.

It's just that those were all women. Women she instantly felt connected with - wordlessly bonded, though she hadn't half their strength, in the end.

Kristoff is another element altogether. There's something thrilling about it - him coming to pick her up. She almost wants to message Hans about it. Of course she's not stupid enough to even daydream about actually telling him but it's satisfying to think that he might have a slightly more irritating day than usual today while Anna rides in another man's car.

She's a nervous bundle of energy when his truck pulls up in front of the store. She hurries over, not wanting to make him wait. She's not sure how far out of his way he's had to come to collect her.

His truck is older and white or at least it was once. The sun's been eating at the paint revealing grey metal beneath, and the hood is mismatched - blue actually. It's taller than she can comfortably climb into, but not so tall that she struggles. The inside is clean, there's no trash or anything, but little things like coins and receipts are collected in various little slots. The fabric of her seat is well-worn and she can see a section in the back that's held closed with duct tape. And there is enough dog hair along the back bench to fill a twin-sized matress.

The last time a man drove her anywhere it was Hans’ BMW. He had leased it just a few months before she left. She likes this much better - it’s cozy, and she’s not worried about if her shoes are dirty or where he wants her to put her bag down.

Kristoff's got one elbow up on the window ledge and a wrist up on his steering wheel. He's wearing the right shirt but he's got a jacket on (covering the giant logo on the back, she thinks with a small smile), it's the first time she's seen him in anything like it and it strikes her that his jacket is absolutely enormous. She would be able to fit between those arms twice over, easily.

The arm holes of the jacket, that is.

Obviously.

"Hi," she tells him, finally, "thank you for picking me up."

He waits until she's buckled in before pulling away.

"Hi," he returns, checking his mirrors, "it's no problem."

Before long they're on the freeway heading south. Anna doesn't actually know this part of town - Elsa's neighborhood is north of the store, in the newer section of the valley.

She mentions this to Kristoff, but he doesn't say much in return.

She makes two further attempts at engaging him in conversation - first commenting that it's nice not to have to shovel snow (not that Anna's ever been personally responsible for the actual shoveling, but it certainly looks bothersome) and then a few minutes later she says something about the volunteer project.

She didn't get much back about the snow - he's lived here his whole life after all, she supposes.

He begins to seem angry, then, so she puts her hands down together in her lap and looks out of her window at the city and the sky and the mountains in the distance and the people in the other cars.

Some people don't like to talk and drive at the same time. Especially not at this time in the morning.

He surprises her, after a few miles, by asking about her book. She'd been close to finishing the other day when they worked together and she had mentioned it on her way to break.

"It was good," she tells him, hesitant still, "the ending was sad."

He doesn't ask about the sad ending.

Anna doesn't know if it's her turn to ask him something back or not, so she turns back to the window.

She's relieved and disappointed when he pulls off the street and into the parking lot for the shelter. She has the sense that she wanted that ride to go differently, but she can't identify what she was expecting would happen instead.

She's unbuckled and reaching for the door when she realizes he hasn't moved. The door's still locked from the drive and his keys are in the ignition and he's got a really intense look on his face.

Thoughtlessly she pulls the door handle, and then again twice in quick succession. Before her brain has time to give her anything to panic about he flips the lock off on his side, and she's able to open her door.

She pauses, not moving to get out. He hasn't even looked at her. He's still buckled in, just staring out the front windshield at the large-ish grey cinder block building ahead of them. The sign out front says thank you for your donations, then below that it says that lunch is at noon, dinner at six, and doors close at eight.

"Kristoff?" She asks, pulling her door quietly closed again.

"I lived here, for a while," he says in an uncharacteristically small voice.

Anna's mouth goes oh but no sound comes out.

Her brain goes clickclickclick as little incongruencies slot together.

She looks back at the building, searching for some clue to what she should say.

It's the first time he's been back, she thinks.

She doesn't come up with anything useful in time, and he shakes himself slightly and moves out of the car.

Anna follows, watching him.

Why's he come this year, she wonders, if he obviously hasn’t been back before?

-

They are separated shortly after they sign in on the volunteer clipboard. Kristoff is sent around back to help get the truck unloaded and Anna is introduced to the woman in charge of volunteer coordination.

She and a few others spend the next hour and a half sorting clothes by size and folding them into the correct bin by type. Then they are set to putting together little on-the-go toiletry bags, with deodorant and mouthwash capsules and stuff.

She sees Kristoff again in the kitchen, he's washing a mound of dishes, and she is set up nearby sorting cans by expiration date.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye, trying to make him fit with his surroundings. Picturing him standing at the same sink, maybe, however long ago, as a resident, rather than a volunteer.

He's taken off his jacket, probably while unloading the truck, so he's matching her now in the store's bright shirt, but he still looks very odd to her in old faded denim pants.

Activity picks up in the rest of the kitchen as lunchtime preparations begin. They end up standing together peeling an enormous number of potatoes.

“I was being a jackass earlier,” he says. Anna squeezes down on the impulse to reassure him that it’s okay, and she thinks Elsa would be proud. “I didn't think it would be like this - coming back as a... volunteer." He almost sneers the word.

"I'm sure it's very strange," she says, softly. She can’t imagine.

-

She hasn’t interacted with the residents yet. Part of her wonders if this is deliberate, either the store’s management or the people running the shelter keeping them seperate.

Kristoff disappears right before lunch starts, but Anna doesn’t have much time to notice. She’s in the assembly line, spooning out a vat of green beans and corn.

She’s grateful to Kristoff, because she thinks this would be much harder if he hadn’t told her. Suddenly she’s looking at the residents as real, proper people, potentially-Kristoff, each and every one. Some of them are younger, and they’re Kristoff who didn’t figure everything out yet. Most of them are older, and they’re Kristoff who might have missed whatever opportunity came along to move him out of this place. Instead of being scared of them, she goes full cashier, smiling at everyone and asking how their day is so far.

She likes to think that people were at least polite to Kristoff when he was here.

Some of them are slightly less than completely sober, and some certainly seem like they could benefit from medical help, but they’re pretty much all nice, and they say thank you and ask her how her day is as well.

More polite than some of the customers at the store are, anyway.

One pair of men ask Anna what she’s up to that night, but one of the main organizers for the shelter steps up and kind of looms around Anna for the next few minutes, but overall, it goes better than she had been bracing for.

They start to run out of some stuff before the line finishes, but everyone gets something. She gets the impression that today's offering is nicer than what they're used to - the store has brought a ton of produce that's too close to it's expiration date to keep on the shelves.

Next time she has the chance she’s going to change her selections so she’s donating something with every paycheck.

She’s pleased she came, and it’s nice to feel like she’s helping, but mostly it’s all just really sad and stressful.

-

After lunch is over the store’s management wants to take a picture out front, so everyone gets shuffled out.

Kristoff, who has reappeared to help with clean up, peels off from the group once they’re through the main doors, going left around the building while everyone else goes right toward the truck.

Anna follows him.

He’s pacing, agitated, back and forth along a patch of wall, watching the group arrange themselves with the giant check.

Anna settles herself down on the gravel with her back against the wall. She doesn’t watch him pacing, but she’s very aware of him. He changes his circuit so he doesn’t go past her.

“Fuck those people,” he says, after a few loops, gesturing toward the crowd in front of the truck.

Anna’s not sure who he means - the store managers, the shelter’s organizers, or the other volunteers?

He stops pacing and leans against the wall a few feet over from Anna. After a moment she hears the scrape of fabric as he slides to the ground.

“I wasn’t here long, even,” he says, “It’s not like anything happened, while I was - homeless. It’s just a building. I’m being fucking stupid.”

Anna looks at him. He has his elbows up on his knees and he’s digging in the gravel with the toe of his boot.

“I don’t think so,” she says. She’s not sure what she’d do if she were ever back in Hans’ house, even if it was empty, but it’d probably be more dramatic than Kristoff thinks he’s being here.

“Hans hit me,” she blurts, and his whole body jerks, but she keeps going, barreling on before he can respond, before she has to acknowledge that he’s a new category of person she’s said that out loud to - not Elsa and not a professional (nurse, attorney, therapist). “Not a lot, not like you see in movies or anything like that. Just sometimes. But, I don't know, I guess something doesn't have to be the absolute worst that it could be in order for it to affect you. And it's okay to be affected, even when you know it's in the past."

The words are stolen from her old therapist. They’d helped her at the time, right after she’d come to Elsa’s and she’d been so frustrated, wondering why now that she was safe did she start jumping at shadows, suddenly incapable of answering the phone?

Human brains, the answer came, are really weird.

{ - }

He resolves, on his way over to the store to collect Anna, to be in a good mood. The whole fucking point is to spend time with Anna - to trick Anna into spending time with him, anyway.

One of the first things she says to him throws off his whole effort.

"Don't you think it's great, that the store does this kind of thing?"

Kristoff doesn't think it's great, actually. He thinks it's opportunistic and exploitative. They wouldn't bother if they couldn't put it up on the billboard - twelve thousand dollars donated to the local shelter! And the news crews come out and interview the happy, cleanest-looking homeless people who say how lucky they are that local businesses care. The store gets to have cashiers remind every single person about how they give back. So people can buy a sixty dollar pair of shoes and then agree to round up to the nearest dollar and walk away feeling like they have been charitable.

He says none of this to Anna.

"Sure," he grits out, hands tight on the steering wheel.

She goes quiet after that. A horrible, nervous quiet, sneaking looks at him out of the corner of her eye.

Kristoff tries to make it up by asking about her book, but it doesn't work - she stays pissed at him. Rightfully - he’s being an ass.

They don't speak again until Kristoff pulls into the parking lot.

He turns off the engine but doesn't go for his seatbelt. Anna is still watching him, wary and curious.

Bugs are crawling all over his skin as he looks at the plain concrete building. He hasn't been back since the day he left.

He blurts his secret to a silent audience. Curses himself and exits his truck hastily.

Well done Bjorgman, theory proven - women love a homeless guy. Like that one needed further testing...

Well, he’s en-homed himself since, obviously. But he has to get this shit under control. What’s the big fucking deal anyway - he use to spend a shitton of time at the library when he was - when he didn’t have anywhere else to spend his days, but he can still go there without this fucking awful clawing feeling in his chest.

He was at the library the other fucking day.

He goes to the park. The thrift store.

So he’s going to get it the fuck together.

-

Working helps. Feeling better, he apologizes to Anna and she seems to accept. They work quietly together, side by side, but he hides again so he doesn’t have to serve lunch. It’s complicated.

He remembers the relief of being close enough to the front of the line for a full portion, the clench of realizing he wasn’t going to make it in time. The sting of depending on volunteers for the meal - having to look them in the eye and thank them because it’s the only payment he could offer.

Nope, Kristoff’s not going into the dining room.

All day Kristoff's intermittently felt like he might be be sick. He doesn't actually vomit, but while the others serve lunch he heads for the bathroom. He stands in front of the mirror and takes deep, unhappy breaths.

He runs the air drier to block out the familiar sound of a large group of people eating at once. Splashes water on his face. Wrestles whatever's happening to him back down. He waits around in the hallway - same stained linoleum, same old, dirty paint job. At least all the people have moved on, he hasn't had to deal with recognizing anyone.

-

Kristoff’s not about to be in the fucking picture, either.

There’s a zero percent chance of that shit happening.

Anna follows him, so he makes an effort to calm down.

"Hans hit me," she tells him, catching him completely off guard.

He doesn't know how to respond. He's not terribly surprised, based on what he already knows about her situation and the shape of a man that had begun to emerge. The idea of someone laying hands on Anna - it makes him angry, but it’s that horrible directionless type of anger that just has to sit there and re-absorb into his body over time.

"I'm sorry that happened to you." It's all he can say, but he means it.

"I'm sorry you had to live here," she says, "but I'm glad it was here when you needed it."

"It was mostly fine," he says, honestly, "it's how I got the job, actually. They have placement programs, stuff like that. One of the counselors wrote me a letter."

Anna smiles at him.

"I used to tell myself I would just be taking a spot from someone who needed it more - if I left and went to a - a women's shelter or something. But I think I was really just scared of what a place like this might be like.”

“Did you, eventually?” he asks.

“What?”

“When you left, did you come to a place like this?”

She shakes her head, “Oh, no. I was never that brave. I got lucky - Elsa bought me a plane ticket." She shrugs lightly, "The nurse tricked me actually, she told me they needed a second emergency contact, and I didn’t have anyone besides Hans, so I gave her Elsa."

Anger roils around in his abdomen - the nurse - the muscles in his arms and legs and neck tense and release at will for a few moments.

“Doesn't sound like you were lucky,” he tells her, once he thinks his voice will come out normally.

She deflects, again. “It's different,” she says, looking at the small pile of gravel she’s working on arranging, “from what you did, here. I never had to be alone. Not really.”

They sit quietly for a while, before he summons the will to stand.

He holds out his hand when he gets up, leaning down for her, and she takes it. Her hand is very small in his.

He wonders how big a man her husband was. What her hand looked like against his.

Thinks again, Not a lot… just sometimes and The nurse tricked me.

And They needed a second emergency contact.

He remembers his mother and her boyfriend and thinking One day I’ll be big enough.

Then the eventual realization that it’s not about how much help you offer a person, it’s about their will to be helped.

He wants to explain this to Anna, but he can’t. The words aren't there.

“I think you're very brave,” he says, instead.

She blushes and ducks her head.

They don’t return to the volunteer group - it’s pretty much wrapping up now anyway. She follows him across the parking lot to his car. They don’t talk much on the way back to the store either but the quiet feels better than it did this morning.

Kristoff feels better than he did this morning.

He wants Sven and a nap, but he’s glad he came here today. He looks at Anna, who’s looking back at him, and he smiles and she smiles too.

“If I don’t see you, have a good Christmas,” she tells him before she hops down from the car.

“Yeah, you too,” he tells her.

She’s with her sister now. She probably will have a good Christmas. It’s reassuring - it settles him.

Chapter Text

Anna’s the closing cashier for the evening of December twenty-fourth.

It’s odd, there’s a real sense about the store that something is coming to an end. Like the whole place is taking a deep, cleansing breath.

The Christmas stuff is starting to get clearanced out, and the invasion of pink and red and fuzzy and chocolate has started to creep in.

She’s worked forty-five hours this week, not including the volunteer day. She’s tried.

But she’s feeling really proud of herself too. She did it. She got this job and she held it through the toughest time of the year. She hopes they keep her on now that Seasonal is over. She likes it here.

The store closes much sooner than Anna’s used to, since it's Christmas Eve.

Nine o'clock feels very early, and the customers agree apparently, because even though Kat starts the closing announcements at eight, it's almost ten by the time they round up the last-minute shoppers and get them all rung up.

Anna dozes on the bus home. She's familiar enough with the route now that she always wakes up in time for her stop.

Elsa's up, which is nice. They eat dinner together and Elsa gives Anna a Christmas Eve gift - she's bought them matching Christmas pajamas, lovely adorable snowflake ones with fuzzy socks too.

Anna and Elsa sleep late and stay in their new Christmas PJs all day. They watch old Christmas movies on an ancient VHS player Elsa had ordered on eBay, which allows them to watch the actual tapes from the old family Christmas box.

There's no remote, so Anna gets out of the blanket mound and sits in on the floor in front of their TV and holds the rewind button.

It was her job, when they were kids. Their Dad would get so annoyed if a tape wasn't rewound the whole way - through the FBI notice and everything.

They find some newer stuff on Netflix. Some of it's cute enough to add in to the yearly rotation, some of it really isn't, but that's part of the fun. They play board games and look at old photo albums. They bake cookies in the shape of snowmen and snowflakes and stars. They make soup in a slow cooker, because Christmas is for relaxing, not for cooking.

Anna has the sense, after a good six months living with Elsa now, that she may be the better cook of the two.

Elsa is the kind of lawyer who personally sponsors a nearby Chinese take out place.

It's the best Christmas of Anna's adult life - and she thinks it has been Elsa's too.

{ - }

Kristoff gives Sven his present pretty early in the day. It’s almost a whole third of one of those enormous elk antlers you can get in organic pet supply stores. Cost him almost fifty bucks, but Sven will work on that thing for months. Kristoff will be finding little chewed-up chunks of it in his bed, his closet, the couch - all the places Sven thinks he can hide his treasures, even though his bipedal companion has opposable thumbs and a full-range of color vision.

“Here ‘ya go, buddy,” he says, tossing it, “happy Christmas!”

Sven’s delighted - unlikely to resurface until it’s time for his evening potty-walk.

“Love you too,” Kristoff tells him, as Sven drags the length of antler over to his little bed.

Kristoff has a delightfully solitary and quiet little day. He’s massively behind on his laundry, and for once there’s no wait to use the machines in the complex’s laundry room. He catches up on some chores, watches some TV, reads a bit of that book he’s had around for months.

He checks his bank account and gazes happily at the balance for longer than he’d admit. Fat and happy - he’s worked a lot of overtime this year and it shows.

He’ll definitely take Sven camping this summer. The national park they visited last year wants further exploring.

It's not the most exciting Christmas he's ever had, but it's restful and calm and he relishes that.

{ - }

Anna works again on Boxing Day. She's supposed to be cashiering, but Kat almost immediately pulls her up to help at Guest Services.

More people are making returns today than any other day of the year and it shows.

Kat takes a few minutes - while the line grows and grows - to explain the basics: rewards card members can pretty much return whatever they want, everyone else needs a receipt or ID and if they're touchy about the ID it's probably a scam. No returns on Seasonal merchandise. Ask about the rewards card and follow the prompts on the register.

Anna thinks she's got it. She nods and Kat moves back to her separate register.

It's very close to Anna's experience of Black Friday, except the customers are handing her stuff and she's handing them money.

At one point Kat calls Backroom on her walkie-talkie to ask them to send someone up to collect the overflowing returns bin.

Anna doesn't hear most of the conversation, but a few minutes later Kristoff shows up.

She tells him hello, but she's quickly sucked back into her current transaction. Returns are a lot harder to do on autopilot than regular cashiering.

She examines the item in question - the sweater definitely looks like it's been washed. They're not supposed to take clothing returns that have been washed.

The customer insists that it's never been worn.

Anna chews her lip.

Kat had said to err on the side of customer satisfaction, so Anna allows the customer this little deception.

She doesn't think she's really very good at returns. Telling people no is a struggle and she's not doing it very often.

Kristoff gets her attention as she waves the next customer up.

"Hey, HR wants you to come by when you get a break."

Anna blanches. She looks at him, concerned and questioning, as he rolls the bin on unsteady wheels out from behind the desk.

"Nothing bad," he reassures her, "thank-you for volunteering bullshit."

Anna's new customer, a middle-aged looking woman with a youngish son, looks askance at him.

"He's watching his tablet," says Kristoff, gesturing at the kid - who is utterly dead to the outside world - then trundles away.

"I'm so sorry about that," says Anna, "how can I help you today?"

-

Kat leaves Anna by herself when she goes on her lunch as a test, and then again when she leaves for the day.

"No, no Kat -" Anna objects.

"You got this," Kat insists, "and Rebecca will be here in an hour. Call the manager if you need. Thanks, you're a lifesaver!"

And she's gone.

After that, Anna spends a little over forty-five minutes basically... running the whole front end.

She mostly takes returns, calling the manager on duty twice to clarify a policy, and leaving the desk once to resolve an issue for a cashier.

Rebecca shows up eventually and Anna releases a long-held breath of stress, but nothing's gone wrong really.

She's smiling to herself when she goes upstairs to check in with HR.

-

Anna checks Kristoff's schedule on her way downstairs. He's here for a little bit less than an hour still.

She clocks out and heads across the store to the backroom. She's more confident, visiting him back here now.

She finds him, and he's entering backstock - she supposes all those returns have to go somewhere, after all.

She lingers in the mouth of the aisle while he moves around, handing him items when he asks.

"So HR told you off about ducking out?" He asks.

Anna frowns, "No, I wouldn't say told off," she says, "he just had me sign out on the clip-board and gave me a gift card."

"Oh nice - I got told off," he rolls his eyes, "and yeah, five bucks to that sub shop across the street?"

"Yup," she says. "It seems weird - don't you think it makes more sense to give the food gift cards to the, you know, the homeless people?"

He laughs, a big, proper laugh. It's the first time she's gotten a reaction like that from him.

"Yeah, well, whaddya expect."

He moves down the aisle, briefly.

There's a swooping in her stomach, but -

"You know," she starts, hesitant. "That customer, with her son? It would have been helpful for me if you said sorry about swearing."

She lets it hang there. He will be mad or he won't, but Anna knows she's right. It was unprofessional and Kat would have said something too.

She tries to picture a scenario where Kat says something like this and he explodes on her.

The picture won't come together. Why does it fit so much easier when it's Anna instead?

She swallows, taking deliberate deep breaths to keep her calm. She's not going to apologize for bringing it up.

He looks rueful, if not apologetic.

"The kid didn't even notice. People are stupid about cussing anyway - her kid was what, twelve? Like he's never heard a bad word before."

He's not mad at her for mentioning it, but Anna feels strangely disappointed by this response all the same.

"Okay," she says.

He sighs.

"I wasn't trying to make your job harder though. Sorry - I shouldn't've said it and you're right, I should have apologized or something."

She smiles up at him, pleased.

"Some customers are looking for reasons to be upset," she offers.

He laughs again, but smaller, "truth," he agrees.

The silence sits for a moment.

"So, Guest Services now?" He says, at the exact same time that Anna throws herself off a psychological cliff without checking her parachute.

"Do you want to go use the giftcards when you're off?"

"What?" He says.

She doesn't look at him and says, "Oh, yeah, it was my first shift today."

"What?" He says again, eyes wide and surprised, "no, yeah - I mean I'm not off for -" he pulls out his phone for the time, "a half an hour, but, y'know, if you're good waiting..."

She smiles, tucks some hair behind her ears, and flicks a look back up at his face.

He's smiling too, clearly flustered.

She knows he wouldn't agree to go if he didn't want to. They're friends, she's pretty sure. Properly, now, since the shelter.

"That's fine," she tells him, "the one across the road? We can walk over?"

"Okay," he agrees, still looking a little stunned. "I'll come find you in the breakroom?"

-

The parking lot is bright, daylight still, as they cross toward the main road.

She tells him that she thinks the store will keep her, and he says of course they will.

She explains how Kat recommended HR train her for Guest Services and how she had to say no because she'll be working less hours soon, and he says, "oh yeah - court reporting. What's that going to be like?"

And it just bubbles up inside her, the way crying feels but warm - happiness.

He remembers.

She tells him a bit about the program, but she doesn't want to be obnoxious.

January twelfth, she starts. She's excited and nervous and dreading it and she can't wait.

She doesn't want him to get bored so she asks how the backroom is recovering after Christmas and if the pallet jack has been repaired. His laments carry them into the sub shop.

Anna only gets a half-sandwich which comes out at $4.72, but Kristoff has to get his wallet out because he's ordered a full-sized one.

"Do you want to use this?" She asks, holding out her still-loaded but essentially useless gift card.

She has a moment of worry that he'll be insulted - thinking it's because of the homeless thing, maybe, but he just says, "oh, sure," and hands it over. His total dwindles a further twenty-eight cents.

Anna heads to one of the tables out in the middle of the floor rather than a booth.

She sets down her tray and settles in, arranging her purse and making sure her stuff isn't taking up too much of the table.

When Kristoff comes to join her he goes the long way around, collecting napkins from the self-serve counter, so when he comes up to their table he isn't behind her.

Anna wonders if this is on purpose - done because he knows more than almost anyone else why she startles so easily, or maybe it's the kind of habit you pick up when you live in a place like a homeless shelter.

Or maybe he's just the only one between the two of them smart enough to think of napkins.

It's kind of like sitting together in the breakroom, after that, except no one's watching the clock.

She had been worried that they might not have anything much to say to each other. She's in an odd position, where she knows something extremely personal about him, but she doesn't know basic things like if he prefers burgers or pizza, or his favorite color, or if he has siblings.

It's quiet, for a moment, both of them unwrapping their sandwiches. Then chewing - the crunch of cucumber loud in Anna's ears.

Anna deploys the ace she's been holding for more than a month now.

"So how did you find Sven?"

He can comfortably talk about Sven, she knows, and it works again today. He tells her about the no-kill shelter and Sven The Puppy and the people there warning him that this breed gets large, and bringing him home and their various misadventures through potty-training.

Anna has finished her sandwich, mostly she's been contributing the odd "awww" or a "mhmm" but he's not gotten far into his yet.

She's surprised and pleased when he says, "Alright, I gotta eat. Tell me about your sister - you said she's a lawyer?"

Usually she feels self-conscious about talking too much. No one really wants to listen to her go on and on, and Anna knows she can talk about her sister the way Kristoff can talk about Sven - almost endlessly. But she gets the feeling that, like her, he has asked a question that he knows will get her talking. And besides, he has to eat, and she can't very well sit here in silence, just watching him chew.

"Elsa is the greatest lawyer who ever lived - I keep telling her she's gonna be President some day..."

She tells him how hard her sister studied even in high school, how she'd always had this drive to educate herself. How she got into her dream school, and, realizing suddenly that she's painted herself into a bit of a corner here, how Elsa had to transfer back home when their parents died.

"But she still got into the best law program in the area and she did amazing, even with everything else she had to deal with!"

Everything else she had to deal with, she leaves vague - it's mostly Anna and her terrible decision making re: men.

Man.

She's distracted from her self-censure by Kristoff admitting, "I wasn't ever that into school. I got my GED, but mostly I watch documentaries to learn stuff."

Anna saw an amazing documentary recently about sea turtles and how they find their way back to the same beach no matter what. He hasn't seen it and he doesn't have that streaming service, so she has to give him the run down on how absolutely brilliant sea turtles are.

{ - }

A considerable amount of time later, they're walking back over to the store. This was a good idea, he wants to tell her. But she's talking about being better than Elsa at Taekwondo when they were kids - it wouldn't be appropriate to just blurt like that.

It's not really appropriate, generally, as a thing to say. Quickest way to make her regret suggesting it, really. And Kristoff wants to do this again.

"No, I'm serious - look," she widens her stance and pulls her elbows in hunching forward slightly, "if we were in eighth grade - I mean I knew my stuff!"

The way Kristoff sees it, he has two options. He can prove how easily he can overpower her with a soft shove, or prove how fragile he thinks she is by refusing the challenge.

Being the biggest kid in the home, though, you develop an instinct for these things.

He makes a pincer with his fingers and thumb, and darts under her elbow, tickling once, twice, three times.

She squawks, flapping her arms and skipping away from him.

"Hey!" But she's smiling.

"No, I see. You've still got it," he tells her, grinning.

She narrows her eyes at him.

He turns to go, they've long-since walked past where he is parked, when he feels the bite of a long finger jabbing into the flesh under his ribcage.

He makes his own undignified noise of surprise, though his is much lower, and jumps away.

He hears her giggling behind him, by the time he turns she's dancing through the automatic doors, throwing a little wave at him over her shoulder.

Something light ignites in his stomach. He might have pretended it was the cheap sub, settling poorly in his stomach, but he doesn't, as a rule, lie to himself.

He's really, really pleased she asked him. It was so - nice. Just nice. Nice to go out and eat with someone, to sit and listen to her speak.

He smiles until his jaw hurts.

Chapter Text

Kristoff isn't expecting to see Anna today, her shift ended an hour before his starts, but she's in the breakroom still when he goes to his locker. It's a nice surprise, he hasn't really had the chance to see her since they went for lunch.

"Oh, Elsa is picking me up actually, so I'm just killing time. I had to talk to HR about my school schedule too." She explains when he asks. She gets up and comes all the way over to talk to him.

"He giving you a hard time?" Kristoff asks, dragging out his whole locker routine.

"No," she says, "not really. I mean, he doesn't have a lot of options. But they are still going to keep me, which I was worried about."

Kristoff grins and leans his hand out horizontally across the space between them, "Told you! High five!"

She goes all bashful but she's pleased and she gives his hand a fairly solid tap.

"What about you - how's your day?" She asks.

He shrugs. He has nothing to report and he tells her so.

"No plans for New Year's?" She asks, sounding almost concerned.

"Nope," he affirms, bulldozing through the conversational hole where a person would usually have human friends or family to reference. Instead, he takes the easy way out; "you and Elsa doing anything fun?"

Her concerned frown is instantly overtaken by excitement. "We are going out for dinner then a late movie, since neither of us have to work tomorrow, then at midnight we're doing 'Out With The Old And In With The New'!"

He must look blank. She's said it like it's some big obvious thing that every family in America does, but if they do, Kristoff hasn't heard of it.

"It's where you leave your house by the back door at eleven-fifty-nine, and walk all the way around the house then you come in through the front door in the New Year! The idea is to leave behind everything negative and start the new year fresh!"

She seems delighted by the idea.

"Ah, well, my apartment is on the second floor, so I'll probably skip it," he says, trying for humor.

"Oh, then you can go out your front, walk around the building, then come back in the same door. It's the symbolic part that's fun," she explains, quite serious.

For some reason, Kristoff can't just let her have this - he feels himself dig in.

"And that'll keep the evil spirits away all year, huh?"

She kind of droops. He feels like an asshole before she even speaks.

"I know it's silly," she admits to her shoes, "but my Mom made us do it every year, she really loved it."

Ah, shit. He really can be a fucking tool sometimes.

"No, I'm sorry, shit, it sounds like a fun - family tradition."

He figures maybe it's the kind of thing that makes sense when you have people to do it with. Rather than just a guy doing a midnight loop around his building.

She smiles again. Is she a very good actress or is it possible for a person to be this forgiving, he wonders.

He needs to clock in or he'll be late.

"Happy New Year, Kristoff," she tells him, sounding like she means it.

"Happy New Year," he returns, adding, "and, sorry, again. I hope you guys have fun."

"See you next year," she calls after him as he starts down the stairs.

He groans theatrically, grinning over his shoulder so she can see.

-

Some of the big brand name stuff they stock here is serviced by third-party contractors. One of their main ones sends a Quality Control Specialist around every quarter to run inventory inspections. Kristoff had not expected to get along with someone with a title of 'Quality Control Specialist' whose whole job was entirely pointing out errors in Kristoff's warehouse, but Pabbie is a good guy, and he isn't ever looking for problems.

In some ways Pabbie represents Kristoff’s best and worst case scenario. He’s essentially self-managed, no twenty-two-year-old manager looking over his shoulder, and Quality Control isn’t really a physical position, they’re more like corporate. Which is lucky, because Pabbie is approaching seventy with no real retirement on the horizon, and he’s worked in stores like this flagging the same bullshit regulations for decades.

And the real kicker is, these days even Quality Control needs a full Bachelor’s Degree.

There is one thing that seems to keep Pabbie going - his wife. Pabbie wears his wedding band with a pride that Kristoff doesn’t see often. That old-timey 'he was drafted into Vietnam and she waited for him and she still hides notes in his lunchbox every day' kind of deal.

Kristoff hasn’t had a ton of examples of that in his own life.

He doesn’t realize he’s drifting along after the older man until he’s called on it.

“Something on your mind?” he asks, a wry arch to his eyebrow. Kristoff draws back.

“What? No,” he says, like Pabbie’s out of line for suggesting it.

Tell me how you did it, he thinks. If it can be real. If it's worth the risks.

Kristoff bristles and heads back to the forklift.

-

A few hours later Pabbie hands over his clipboard and hesitates before leaving.

"Listen Kristoff, I'm headed out. Last chance, if there was something…?"

Kristoff sighs. He leans against the tall end of the aisle. It's slow, most people have better things to do on New Year's Eve than shop here, so he's all caught up, just doing bullshit busywork and running scenarios over in his head.

Maybe what he needs is for someone else to agree, then he can just put the whole thing behind him.

“Alright. So... there’s this girl - ”

“Ah,” says Pabbie, moving to sit on a half-stack of pallets.

“Yeah,” Kristoff agrees, “and I don’t - she’s great, Pab, she’s funny and smart and really nice and she’s so pretty and -”

“I see why you're so down in the dumps,” Pabbie interrupts.

Kristoff sags.

“It’s complicated. She’s got this ex, and he really screwed with her, which makes me feel like I should just wait, not rush anything or put any pressure, but - she’s only working here while she’s going to school, and it doesn’t sound like it’ll take her long. She’s already moving down to part-time. So then I don’t - I don’t have time, but I don’t wanna freak her out. So then, I should just drop it, right? But if she leaves and I never - I worry I’ll regret it.”

“Hmm,” Pabbie agrees.

They’ve never talked like this before, so Kristoff doesn’t have any real idea what kind of response he’s going to get, but he feels lighter for having spoken aloud to a human companion. No offense to Sven, who gives excellent advice - just not often a fresh perspective, exactly.

“This ex - how bad are we talking here?”

Kristoff feels awkward sharing what he knows, but Pabbie doesn’t know Anna and they won’t ever meet.

“She told me he used to hit her. I think he might’ve put her in the hospital once. She’s jumpy, still, apologizes a lot. It took her awhile to get used to having me around, even. But I think, I mean, she seems better about that, now?”

Pabbie grimaces.

“Some sons of bitches out there, I tell you what.”

Kristoff agrees.

"He's out of the picture properly, though? Because I'm sure she's a nice girl, Kristoff, but you don't want to get in the middle of all that, I promise you."

"I know,” boy does Kristoff know. “As far as I can tell he’s gone-gone. They're divorced and she's living with family. She moved here to get away, I think.”

Pabbie hums again, thoughtful.

"So then your problem is...?"

Keistoff throws his arms out. It's obvious.

"I just - I can't ask her out! She doesn't need some jerk from work making her uncomfortable, again, Pabbie, someone tried already. He was a little shit about it, but... She wouldn't even say yes if I did ask, she's miles out of my league. If she did say yes it would because she's in such a weird place, she wouldn't feel like she could say no. I don't know, sometimes I think she might - but I just don't want to freak her out."

Kristoff’s pacing again - it creeps up on him, the pacing - but Pabbie’s not bothered.

"So let me make sure I’ve got this all straight. You like the girl. You want to take her out. You want to treat her right." Kristoff nods to each, embarrassed. "Then stop being stupid and tell her. Let her decide if she's ready or not. Because, son, all the rest of it sounds like bullshit."

It sounds too much like taking advice because he wants to agree with it. There's no way asking Anna out is the right thing to do here.

But the way Pabbie frames it - he'd be letting Anna choose. And he'd be upset, obviously, if she didn't want to, but at least he'd know. And he's not gonna be an asshole about it or anything.

"How do I - what, just ask her then?"

Pabbie scoffs, "Listen, when you ask a girl out, you gotta have a plan. A man that can plan a date can plan a life, and that's what women are looking for - they can smell a fool a mile off. Most of 'em anyway."

Kristoff winces to himself. He's not sure how much of this advice is going to be applicable.

"If she says no, you be a gentleman about it and leave her be. If you're a lucky son of a bitch and she says yes, you gotta know where you're taking her, nothing wishy-washy - you ask a girl out to something, people forget that these days."

Kristoff thinks he knows where he would take Anna in the hypothetical universe where he actually gets the chance.

It's a terrifying turn of events - to suddenly have a location for an imaginary date with a real person. With Anna.

But Kristoff is well aware that asking a girl out and being told no is not the scariest option. Not half as scary as a yes and all the potential held there.

Pabbie is watching him, more knowing than Kristoff likes.

"The only way things change, Kristoff, is if you change 'em," he says.

Kristoff groans. He still has to work with this guy after all.

"Good fortune cookies over at that new Chinese place, huh?" He asks.

Pabbie laughs, and says goodnight. But the words rattle around in Kristoff's mind for the rest of the night.

And a new year draws closer.

Chapter Text

When Elsa had first wanted to have a conversation about expectations, Anna was still feeling more numb than anything else, but the word made her stomach clench nonetheless.

Anna didn't contribute much to The Conversation. Elsa seemed disappointed, like she wanted more audience participation, but Anna had no expectations for herself, and would have agreed to anything in order to keep her sister satisfied.

Living together was off to an awkward start.

Over the course of that afternoon, Elsa laid out a plan for Anna's life. To Anna, it felt like her sister was planning a fictional novel.

Step One: Find a Job had seemed impossible, deluded even. But, Elsa had set specific daily goals, so, over the following weeks Anna had dutifully filled out five pointless applications a day. Until, eventually, well, she was hired as a cashier.

Step Two: Apply for College felt like a mean joke at first, and when Elsa talked about technical programs at the local Community College and it had twisted. It felt like a confirmation of a lot of things - that Anna had failed the last time, that Elsa didn’t trust her, that she wasn't smart enough.

Anna delayed applying for long enough that Elsa got their list of steps back out and put it on the table between them one night at dinner. She put a big check mark next to Step One and asked if Anna wanted any help with the application process.

Anna did end up needing assistance. Per Elsa's advice, she was applying to the Technical Certificate Program, and there was no option for a Technical Certificate in Undecided.

"Well, what do you think you want to study?" Elsa had asked, as if it were that easy.

Something about the question or maybe her sister's borderline-patronizing, confused tone had made Anna properly angry.

It had been six years since she was an eighteen-year-old and her high school guidance counselor was telling her how lots of college freshmen don't have a major picked yet.

Anna had lost so much time. She was not only back where she started, but in many ways she was in the negative.

"I don't know, Elsa! I didn't know when I went to school last time, so I'm not sure what makes you think I've decided since then!"

Elsa had pursed her lips, not sure then how much, or even if, she should push back.

They took a break from the application.

Anna had thought maybe they had given up on the Anna-Steps. It made her feel worse. Abandoned, again. Like Elsa had believed Anna could be better and Anna had proved her wrong.

Then, one afternoon, Elsa hesitantly produced a binder.

"Remember your therapist said you needed boundaries, right? Structure. And you can obviously pick any subject you want, Anna - but I went through the college's catalog and narrowed it down to these three."

She somewhat self-consciously pushed the binder across the table for Anna to look at.

Medical Billing and Administration, Stenography, or Hotel and Restaurant Management.

Elsa had neatly compiled data on prospective growth and job opportunities, average salaries, and even job satisfaction surveys. Each subject was offered at the local Community College as an eighteen-month vocational certificate that would qualify Anna for an entry-level position in that field.

"You don't necessarily need to pick the thing you'll do for the rest of your life, Anna, but I think you should pick something and do that for a little while," Elsa said, softly.

Blinking back tears, Anna had clutched the binder to her chest and promised to read it.

She picked Stenography, mostly because it was the one Elsa seemed the most enthusiastic about.

Then Anna had submitted her application for the upcoming semester.

Step Three: Save For Tuition and Books was the biggest goal so far. Anna agreed that it was best for her to save up, to earn this. So they worked out how much Anna would need and how much time she had until tuition was due and used that to decide how much Anna needed to save from each paycheck.

They updated the amount when Anna pointed out that she would be part-time once her classes actually started, so they decided she should have one-and-a-half times tuition by the end of the year.

Anna had buckled down and started picking up shifts.

-

Anna sits beside her sister and makes the full tuition payment a few days into the new year. It’s bittersweet, watching her bank account balance take such a hit - Anna has never spent so much of her own money before. But at the same time it’s deeply, viscerally satisfying.

Way back when they made the list, Step Four had felt so unreachable that Elsa may as well have written 'Anna walks on the moon.'

It's still hard for Anna to believe, but here she is, ten days out from her first day of classes.

Step Four: Complete Certificate Training Program

This one won’t get a check mark for a year and a half. But she believes she can do it now.

-

Anna and Kristoff sit together in the breakroom now. Their breaks seem to line up pretty consistently, and it’s an unspoken truth that Kristoff has more control over when he goes on break than Anna does.

Their shifts obviously don’t always match and they’re working less now that the holidays are over, but the thought makes her smile - that he’s timing things so they can sit together.

It’s just the two of them, today, watching daytime TV reruns. Kristoff is on lunch but for Anna it’s just a break. He’s got his food out in front of him - two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and an off-brand soda, like always - but he isn't eating. He seems distracted, fiddling with his soda can.

The silence isn’t unusual for them. He’s never going to be a huge talker, and Anna likes the calm of sitting next to him without the pressure of conversation. On the screen, a husband and wife are arguing about a dishwasher - Anna knows the actors but she doesn’t recognize this show. She knows Kristoff won’t be able to explain it.

She’s going to ask if he recognizes the husband - it’s funny, sometimes, the famous people who Kristoff is completely oblivious to, when he surprises her by breaking the silence himself.

“So, I don’t know if you know, but the library has this program where they do Culture Passes,” she hasn’t heard of this, so he explains further. “Yeah, you check the pass out and they’re free admission to stuff around the valley, like the Native American museum and the Science Center... and the Botanical Gardens.”

“That’s a really cool program,” says Anna with genuine enthusiasm. She likes to learn about her new home, and he knows the area really well.

“Yeah, it’s good. So, Sven and I, we’ve gone to the Botanical Gardens before, and it’s a cool place. They have flowers and a butterfly exhibit and wildlife preserve with a bunch of trails where dogs are allowed. I - I think you’d really like it...”

Anna sucks in a deep breath. She isn’t sure, but she’s got an idea of where this might be going.

He looks over at her face. He’s bright red, but he holds eye contact until Anna’s eyes dart away.

“So... I was wondering if you - if you wanted to come with us this time? I was thinking, it could be a date? If you wanted.”

It's as thrilling as it was when she was a teenager - confirmation that the boy you like likes you back.

Anna stares at him. He’s kind of hunched down in his seat and he’s fiddling with the ziplock holding his lunch. He’s not looking at her anymore, focus apparently entirely taken up by the sandwich baggy.

“Or not,” he says stiffly, glancing at her, “I don’t want it to be weird.”

“No, I just -” She trails off. There’s no end to that sentence. Of course she wants to go.

Kristoff wants to go on a date with her, her heart sings. He’s interested in her, he likes her.

Kristoff is interested in you, whispers the knot in her stomach, the itch at the base of her skull - she's not going to go through this again, is she?

"I don't want you to feel like you have to - come up with some reason. You don't want to, then that's cool. We'll forget it - no worries, okay?"

Flustered and blushing, he turns back to the television.

Anna looks at his profile, and he pretends not to notice. His eyebrows furrow down and his face looks tight, upset. He's got his arms crossed over his chest.

She waits a breath. There has to be something more coming? He thinks she rejected him, he's not going to just... sit there?

She opens her mouth, closes it again.

She's not sure how to proceed. He seems to mean it - forget it. They'll pretend he didn't ask.

He picks up his sandwich and takes a bite. It's over, they're just sitting together eating lunch and watching TV, like normal.

Below her relief, she feels a pang of disappointment - he's not going to try to convince her, and he's not going to ask again.

But that's good, right? Being friends with Kristoff already brings up all sorts of unpleasantness from the back of her brain. Dating him would be - would be -

Dating him could be exactly what she wants.

She remembers being called a bitch when she told Richard no. He had said she was sloppy seconds and that he didn't want her.

Kristoff had sat on the ground, late into that cold December night, and waited with her. He had told her that anyone she dated would be lucky.

Would he consider himself lucky, if she said yes? It's a difficult thought to reconcile.

She's still staring at him. His eye flicks back to her and she ducks her head away, studying her own hands down in her lap.

She holds her left wrist and squeezes lightly. She breathes deeply and feels the phantom sting of healing ribs.

It's a scary idea.

But not all relationships are like her marriage.

The divorce is six months old. Anna's moving on more completely than either she or Hans ever imagined would be possible.

She peeks at him again. She's lucky - he's kind and reliable and he knows her secrets and he's trusted her with his, and now he's asked her out and she's saying no?

She's seen Kristoff angry and annoyed. Seen him tired, seen him agitated, upset and pacing.

She's seen him happy and relaxed, silly and joking. They've eaten together, driven together, worked quietly together, and talked about their lives together.

If she can do all of that, then, maybe -

He turns, "I don't want to make you feel kicked out or whatever, but you're gonna be late," he says, trying to smirk and gesturing at the clock.

Anna's breath quickens. She has the distinct impression that if she leaves the breakroom now, leaves things as they are, she'll have missed out on something she won't be able to recapture.

"I want to," she tells him.

"Be late?" He asks, visibly confused. It makes her giggle. "Wh - oh, oh! Really, you mean it? I don't want you to -"

She shakes her head, she's happy, and she doesn't want him to verbalize what made this so difficult, so she interrupts him.

"No, I promise, that sounds really nice," she says, making the effort to look at his face.

Nothing changes, he doesn't undergo some kind of werewolf-esque transformation. His smile is wide and bright, pleased not leering.

He moves almost as though he was going to reach for her, but he sucks the motion back in.

"Awesome, that's - awesome, Anna, great!"

It's exciting. Under all that whirlwind of worry, a pleasant flutter. Kristoff likes her back, and they're going to go on a date.

She smiles at him, shy and pleased and ignoring the phantom pull of a cast she hasn't worn in almost a year.

He smiles back, broad and bright. It's infectious - that light, sunshine-y feeling is back in Anna's chest. She really likes his smile, his whole face transforms when he's happy like this. He seems really, truly pleased.

Pleased and surprised. Like he does think he's lucky.

"I do have to go back though," she says, regretful, "but we're good, right? We'll get it all planned?"

"Yeah, yeah," he agrees quickly, "next time I see you, we'll make a plan."

"Okay," she stands, "bye, Kristoff."

She has the urge to touch him, his hand or his shoulder or something, just to seal it, but she chickens out.

He waves at her and she leaves him at the table, still looking a little stunned.

She's nervous - there are things in the knot of her stomach trying to climb up her throat, but she's determined not to let them.

Hans' expectations of a partner had started to manifest very early on in their relationship, but things are different now. Anna is different now.

And, she thinks, Kristoff is different too.

Chapter Text

Anna dithers in front of the row of lockers. It’s been three days since she last saw Kristoff. She was off one day, then he was off the next, then after that they didn’t have any overlap.

She checks his schedule again, going over it in her head. They have overlapping shifts this weekend, but there’s no guarantee they’ll get to talk. Even if they do see each other, he'll hardly want to plan their date in the crowded Saturday breakroom.

There’s an obvious solution. She clutches the scrap of paper to her chest. It’s just ten digits and her name. But, somehow, it’s also a lot more.

He hasn’t asked her for her number. She wonders if this was deliberate, if he’s guessed at her reluctance, or if it was just an oversight, or if it means he’s not all that bothered about any of it?

What if he doesn’t text her? That would be so embarrassing. Or, what if he does? They could have some horrible miscommunication, or it could make her look needy and desperate. Or what if their date goes poorly but he still has her number? What if it turns out she’s misjudged him and he sends her something she doesn’t like?

There are a lot of ways a phone number can be used to make a person uncomfortable.

Anna’s Mom used to say that trust is a decision you make (not a thing that can break).

She takes a breath and slots the paper through the grill of his locker.

He asked her out. She wants to go. It makes sense that this is the next step. She trusts him, she's decided. It’s fine.

She knows he doesn’t work until two the next afternoon. She alternates between turning her phone on loud and silent - torn on if she wants to hear the notification or not. Not that it really matters anyway, she’s checking every few minutes to see if she missed anything.

Eventually the message comes through and it’s not scary. It’s practical and nice and slowly they begin to plan.

Anna tenses up whenever the notification sounds. She’s wary of a message which will shatter the warm, fuzzy feeling in her chest. Something disdainful or demanding or hinting in a way she won’t be able to ignore.

(She waits a long time, actually, but it never does come.)

{ - }

Kristoff’s running a little late when he gets to his locker, so he almost doesn’t see the paper fluttering to the ground.

He bends to pick it up. HR will sometimes summon people this way, or maybe Dan, if there’s a shift on the board he wants Kristoff’s help covering.

It turns out, this is a much better note.

He runs his thumb over her name. He generally thinks of girl-handwriting as being neat and loopy, like a font almost, but Anna’s writing is a messy scrawl. Her numbers are clear though. He enters her into his sparse list of contacts, stuffs the phone back in his pocket with her note, and hurries to clock in.

Usually, the first thing he does when he gets to the backroom is check the baler, the backstock, the pulls, and the onlines. Today, he stands just inside the backroom doors and stares at the open, empty message text box.

She took the first step, giving him her number. It's a confirmation Kristoff hadn't realized he wanted - it means she actually does want to go - which gives him the confidence to type out and send a message without much thought.

Hey, its Kristoff. Just at work now, but thanks for your #

He slides his phone back into his pocket and turns to the baler. Mid-shift must have been someone good, or very very slow, because they've actually stacked their cardboard for once. He toggles into his handheld and his phone vibrates in his pocket. He looks around - there's no one back here, he knows that, why even look? - and checks his message.

Hi Kristoff! Thanks for texting me, I'm glad you got my note! I thought this would be an easier way to plan our day out.

She didn't say date , Kristoff notices. It's probably not on purpose though? Message one and he's doing this already. He fucking hates texting. So hard to tell these things. His phone goes off again, surprising him.

Sorry, I don't want to keep bugging you at work, but I looked up the botanical gardens and it looks really pretty!

It makes him smile. The kind of stupid smile that gets a guy punched in the arm around here. But he's still alone and it's safe and he feels like smiling.

Your not bugging me

Januarys not the best month, but still worth the time

He needs to start fucking working though. Christ he's just been standing here for minutes now. He gets his handheld back out and he's just getting the onlines opened up when his phone buzzes again.

A moment's indecision.

He has to wait. He gets the first online order opened up and heads over to the carts. Once he turns into the correct aisle, out of range of the security cameras - they'd need one for every aisle in the stacks if they wanted to be able to see down each properly - he stops and gets his phone back out.

I'm looking forward to it :)

It turns out to be the slowest day’s work Kristoff has put in so far.

He ducks into the fixture storage room and asks her what days she’s free.

He tries to focus on backstocking for a little while, but hidden in the deep aisles the temptation to check every buzz is irresistible.

Is the new schedule up yet?

He promises to check on his break, then turns off his notifications. He’s been here almost an hour and he hasn’t done shit. And he’s not going to make it another hour ‘till his break without checking his phone again.

Not long enough later, he judges that the trash needs to be taken out almost three hours early, and on his way back inside he checks his phone again.

My first class is on Thursday jan 12

Then, a few minutes later

We should try go before then? If that works for you

Then,

But I’m good with whenever

Kristoff takes his break almost a half hour early, radioing in that backroom is out, and heading up front.

Before your class sounds good. Going to check the schedule now

They both work over the weekend, but that’s not an issue - one of the few benefits to a retail schedule anyway is that you can go do stuff on the much less crowded weekdays. He sends her a picture of her schedule, then his.

Thanks! When do you think works best for you?

Weekday will less busy. One of those mornings?

Someone needs to see the schedule, so Kristoff shuffles awkwardly along the hallway.

I’m good with whatever works best for you!

Krisotff takes a second to huff quietly. It’s not irritation, exactly, Anna doesn’t get on his nerves the way a majority of people do, but it’s clear that she’s going to utterly refuse to participate in actually picking a time.

Tuesday?

Almost immediately,

Tuesday is great! :D

I work at 4, so we would have to be kind of early

No worries, as long as you don't mind having to work on the same day

cool. I g2g back. Leaving my phone in my locker

He hesitates. He should clarify.

Text you on lunch :)

She started it with the smiley faces, after all. 

It feels like a phantom limb is missing, but Kristoff’s able to be productive again. On lunch, he collects his phone from his locker, pleased she’s not sent anything that reads as terribly annoyed or apologetic, and they go back and forth for the full thirty minutes. He leaves it in his locker again for the last stretch of his shift.

When he finally clocks out and checks his messages, she’s sent him one final message.

Goodnight, Kristoff. Get home safe!

{ - }

Their days aren’t lining up very conveniently, and the passes will be due back soon, so they’ve picked a day where Kristoff has to work the closing shift after. This means Anna will have to get up earlier than she’d like on a day off, but she tries not to let on.

The night before, he shows up in her lane wearing regular-people clothes, rather than the uniform. Denim and flannel - Anna smiles, if she’d been asked to guess how he dresses away from this place she probably would have been correct.

He’s not buying anything, he’s just here to say hi. She's never seen him here on a day off before. 

He offers to bring coffee in the morning, since he says it’s his fault they’re going so early. He asks how she takes it, and Anna is seized by a rare impulse.

“Actually, if it’s all the same to you, I like hot chocolate.”

He raises his eyebrow, laughing at her lightly, “Seriously, at nine in the morning?”

“Yes, but, it doesn’t really matter. Coffee would be great, thanks.”

“No no, I’m not judging. Just not a chocolate guy, myself.”

Someone’s pushing a heavy cart in the direction of Anna’s register, so he takes off. “I’ll see you bright and early, and I’ll have a hot chocolate,” he promises.

As he leaves he does a little finger-gun gesture at her, then he grimaces and flees the scene. Kat finger-shoots him exaggeratedly as he passes Guest Services, but he flips her off and then he’s gone.

Anna turns to her customer with a big grin on her face.

Chapter Text

Anna has myriad reasons to be grateful to her sister. The plane ticket that changed (saved) her life. The soft honesty on which Anna relies so heavily. The forgiveness of past wrongs, the ‘I told you so’ that never came, and the endless patience and indulgence with which she helps Anna prepare for a short visit to their local botanical gardens.

Elsa has been there before and agrees that Anna will enjoy it. She didn’t know about the trails Kristoff mentioned though, so they look it up online. Apparently there’s several miles worth of trails criss-crossing the small attached wildlife preserve. They agree that since Kristoff specifically mentioned it, Anna probably wants to be dressed appropriately on that front.

Elsa purses her lips, “I would have gone with your green sundress and a pair of cute flats, but that won’t really work if you're hiking.”

They stand in front of Anna’s closet, various options and combinations flung about all over.

It’s a heavily discussed, date-wear balance conundrum. They don’t want Anna to be underdressed for the main gardens, which Elsa says are really pretty, enclosed in nineteenth-century iron greenhouses, and if it was a Saturday for sure a bride walking around getting her picture taken. But they can’t risk her looking silly and underprepared once they presumably move into the wildlife preserve.

They settle on sneakers, to minimize the risk of falling, a dark jean and one of Elsa’s more colorful casual-day-but-at-a-law-office blouse and cardigan combinations in shades of green, which will also help Anna manage her temperature.

Anna showers and Elsa helps her do a tight french braid around her head before her hair dries, so all she’ll have to do in the morning is brush it out and it should stay wavy for a few hours.

Anna’s hair isn’t as long as she wants it yet, but she’s getting close. She closes her eyes, relishing the feeling of her sister brushing and working the braid. They used to have hair parties all the time, before Elsa started high school.

They agree on a natural look and do a simple make-up trial. Anna transfers everything she’ll need from her purse to a drawstring backpack, fills a water bottle and leaves it in the fridge to very probably be forgotten in the morning, hugs and thanks her sister, and heads to bed.

She does not sleep well.

Her first date with Hans, he took her to an uncomfortably expensive restaurant. He menaced the valet, ordered Anna’s meal, and poured her a glass of wine even though she had said she wasn’t planning on drinking. And the man was charming enough to pull it all off. He gifted her a bracelet, a serious one in a brand name box, and spent a good portion of the evening listening to the very teenage complaints of Anna’s life.

She remembers thinking that if you’re a teenager living in a dorm with four other girls and you’re out at dinner with a proper adult man like this, the best way to seem more 'mature' and 'on his level' would be to appear disdainful of the parts of your life that mark you as young.

She runs that night over in her mind. Over and Over.

Why didn’t she challenge the order he placed for her? Why did she drink the expensive wine he poured when she’d promised her roommate she’d stick with water? Why didn’t she call him out on his treatment of the staff?

Six years later she doesn’t know.

She does feel strongly that if she had behaved differently that night - more questioning, more positive, more stubborn, more Anna, he might not have bothered pursuing her.

She doesn’t know what her life might look like today if Hans had been a one-date disaster (to think, she might have forgotten his name by now), but she thinks often of that night and the possibilities it represents.

She wouldn’t be here, in Elsa’s house, cashiering and starting school and going on a date with Kristoff in a matter of hours.

Why, she wonders, despondent, is it only in hindsight that you know for sure what’s a mistake? Movies and TV and books and therapists and memories of your Mom, they tell you to trust yourself. But, with so much evidence stacked against her, how is she supposed to do that?

-

She tries to snooze her alarm, but Elsa calls from work to make sure Anna’s up, so Anna has time to eat breakfast and not rush getting ready before Kristoff texts her that he’s out front.

Where should I pick you up?

He had asked her, and it had so obviously not been Where do you live?, that Anna didn’t even bother with a message about bus routes or anything, she just gave him her address.

And now, here he is. Right on time.

She takes a deep breath and closes Elsa’s front door behind herself with faintly quivering hands.

His familiar truck is parked on the street. He’s gotten out and come around to the passenger's side, but he’s got his back to her and she hears him arguing with an enormous shaggy dog who’s suspended half in the front seat and half on the back bench.

“I mean it, Sven, Sven, get in the back, do I need to come in there? You know I didn’t have to bring you - oh, hey!”

He’s seen her so he turns. She’s a little more dressed up than him, but she thinks he’s brushed his hair.

She’s not keeping her distance on purpose or anything, but she doesn’t walk any closer to the truck. She waves, and smiles at him.

She feels deeply aware that they’re on a date. This is supposed to be a date. What does he want her to do? How different is this going to be from when they are together at the store?

“Hi,” he says again, “sorry, I was just trying to get Sven-” he half turns to gesture at the dog and his face falls into a comical grimace.

Sven is fully ensconced in the front seat, drooling happily down Kristoff’s front passenger window.

“You!” Kristoff throws open the door and truly the largest dog Anna has ever seen bounds out and onto the sidewalk, rushing her.

Anna’s not scared of dogs - luckily - she loves them. And she’s heard so much about Sven by now, she feels like she’s greeting an old friend.

The strength in Kristoff’s single arm as he catches Sven by the collar and hauls him around to the back of the truck, however…

Kristoff keeps up a running commentary as he maneuvers Sven’s uncooperative legs, but Anna’s not listening. She’s morbidly comparing the relative size and strength difference between Hans and Kristoff.

It would be -

She startles backward a full step when he turns back to her, snapping back into the present.

Sven appears perfectly happy, now drooling down the back paneling.

“You, uh, still wanna go?” Asks Kristoff, hesitantly, watching her closely and seeming to shrink slightly.

He hasn’t come at her for a hug or anything else, which she belatedly realizes she’s been kind of braced for.

She wants to go, or rather, she remembers that she wants to go. The feeling of wanting to go itself is kind of buried somewhere, but she knows it’s there.

Besides, it's not like she’s going to say ‘Actually no,’ and send him on his way.

“Of course,” she says, taking two steps closer to the truck. He sags, smiling happily at her. He waves her toward the truck and goes around to the driver’s side.

When they’re both settled in their seats, he starts the engine and points to a metallic blue thermos in the cup holder closest to Anna and tells her, “hot chocolate, as promised.”

Without really considering it, Anna realizes she had assumed he meant Starbucks or something. But he made hot chocolate for her, probably had to go out and get it specially. The thought warms her at the same time she worries about causing him the inconvenience.

“Thank you,” she says, picking the thermos up. She takes a sip - Swiss Miss, she thinks, and he's made it the stovetop way, not the microwave way. Anna can always tell, no matter what Elsa says.

The warmth from either the chocolate or the gesture goes a long way to helping settle the rest of her uncertainty.

“It’s delicious,” she tells him.

He briefly takes his eyes from the road to smile at her.

-

It is the best date Anna has been on. The flowers are gorgeous and Anna takes a lot of pictures. There are plaques with information but those are a little more hit or miss - she’s not terribly interested in the scientific name or blooming cycle of a hydrangia, but she loves the story about the rose bush donated by a gardener in the fifties in honor of his late wife.

Kristoff isn’t reading the plaques himself, but he seems happy to have her share the hilights.

Poor Sven is having a hard time - Kristoff has him on a short leash while they’re in the paved gardens, so Anna tries not to linger

Dogs aren’t allowed in the butterfly enclosure, but Kristoff insists Anna go in wthout them. There’s no line or anything, it’s still early on a weekday, so she promises to be quick and dashes across to the giant netted dome. It's amazing - she's never seen so many butterflies, and all different shapes and sizes and colors. She’s the only one in there so the attendant opens the box where they keep the cucoons. Anna is trying to rush but she has to freeze dead when a butterfly settles in her hair for a quick rest.

She sees Kristoff watching through the netting so she waves as well as she can without moving her head, she doesn't want him to think she's forgotten they're waiting. He takes a second watching her, before he waves back.

The butterfly releases her before long, so she says thank you and goodbye to the attendant and heads back to Kristoff.

She spots an enormous sculpture of a monarch butterfly to the left of the enclosure's door - it must be four feet tall, and so beautifully painted.

"Kristoff," she waves him over, "we have to take a picture with the butterfly!"

"Oh, um, okay," he says, awkwardly wrangling Sven. Anna feels bad, but they'll go straight to the trails after this.

Anna starts out holding the phone, but she can't get them all in frame. Kristoff's arms are obviously longer, but he's no good at selfies. Anna wishes she'd had the guts to being her selfie stick - look how useful it turned out to be!, she'd say.

They're crouched in front of the big butterfly, Sven in the middle, and the picture is mostly going to be a bust, when the attendant Anna met earlier sticks his head around the door and asks if they want help with their picture.

Anna says Yes! much louder than Kristoff says no, so the attendant doesn't hear him, but Anna peaks to see if he's really annoyed about it or if he's just being grouchy.

Kristoff hands Anna's phone over and comes back to stand next to the butterfly, so Anna relaxes back into the moment.

"Put your arm around her," the attendant instructs, "stand closer."

Kristoff bristles like he's about to start telling the guy off, but Anna thinks of herself as an opportunist at heart, so she takes his arm by the wrist and pulls it up over her shoulder, leaning in toward him.

He goes still and silent. He's warm and solid, behind her, but his arm stiff where she's slung it. The friendly attendant fiddles with the camera's settings for a moment, and slowly, Kristoff relaxes his arm against her, the warmth and weight of it settling across her shoulders and the back of her neck.

Anna wants to close her eyes and savor the warm peace of the moment. But this isn't the eighteenth-century and even moments like this one are quickly captured by a smartphone.

Kristoff pulls back when the the attendant declares the picture acceptable. He's blushing and rubbing the back of his neck as Anna accepts her phone back.

She's having such a nice time and she just - she wants him to know.

Before the impulse deserts her, she leans up on her tip-toes, puts a hand on his shoulder to bring him down a little, and plants a quick kiss on his cheek.

"Trails, then?" She asks, heading toward where they walked past a map.

It takes him a second to catch up.

{ - }

"You love it," he repeats incredulously, some time later.

In Kristoff's opinion it's not a wilderness hike if you're on a concrete path, but Anna had seemed too pleased for him to lead them out into the real trails. And Sven's happy enough, not pulling too badly now that he's on his long leash.

"Mhmm," she says, absently, mostly preoccupied with wrangling Sven.

"What's your favorite part?" He challenges, sure she's bullshitting.

"Just the - freedom of it!"

He snorts. "The freedom of cashiering?"

"The freedom of having a job," she concedes. "I haven't had my own money like this in a very long time. Hans did all our budget stuff, especially once we were married."

Kristoff is quiet, never sure how to respond to references to her marriage.

"That makes me sound stupid," she says. "It didn't start that way. But once I left school and moved in, he didn't think it made sense for me to get a job making, what? Seven dollars an hour back then - since he made so much money anyway. So we decided I would manage the house, and then suddenly I didn't have my own bank account any more and he was checking all my receipts. Ugh - it sounds so obvious when I say it like that, what he was really doing..."

"You don't sound stupid. It's a household income, once you're serious like that anyway."

She comes to a full stop, peering up at him.

"Thank you for saying that," she says with a sincerity that almost buckles Kristoff.

"Yeah, well it's true." They keep walking, stopping every now and then because Anna likes to read the informational plaques. They're on a date, so Kristoff feels like he can stand closer than he usually would right? Their shoulders brush, on occasion.

"And I do know," she continues, frowning lightly at some shrubs, "I just, don't always know that I know? When I hear myself tell the story like that, I sound like I just wanted his money."

"No, you sound like you were miserable and he was a controlling shitbag." She doesn't respond immediately, they just walk along together. Kristoff doesn't think he said anything wrong, but he's not sure that she'd tell him, if he had.

"That all just means you like having your own money, by the way." He has to point out, "Working at the store is shit and you know it."

She and Sven stop to look at the same dirt-mound, probably the mouth to some kind of warren. Nothing is stupid enough to emerge and greet Sven. "I don't know," she says, smiling at him over her shoulder, "I like feeling like I'm part of something. A team."

"Oh God, don't you start with the team member shit - I will turn this dog around."

Sven looks at him like the hell you will, but Anna doesn't need to know that.

She giggles, her eyes go wide and she puts on her preppiest cashier voice, bouncing to her feet, "But we are a team, Kristoff. We work together to serve our customers and our community. Have you heard about the rewards card? You can save five percent - "

"No no no no no," he moans, hurrying along the pathway, hands over his ears.

"I would like to recognize Kristoff for his outstanding commitment to customer satisfaction - " she comes running after him, to Sven's great delight.

"They should put you in the fucking training videos," he tells her when she catches up.

She grins at him. She ends up having to hand Sven back over, he's overexcited from their little burst of speed, or he smells another dog somewhere.

"Okay, since you hate it there so much - what would you do instead?"

Kristoff hates this question. He can't wait until he's old enough that people stop bothering to ask what he's going to do after the store.

To Anna, he shrugs. He knows he's supposed to have ambition, but he just doesn't and there's no point pretending.

"I'm a lifer, and they all know it." She frowns up at him, "It's not that bad, really. I mean what, I can go find the same shit at some other store for a few cents raise? I'm grateful to them for hiring me, and I like being secure where I am. I'm good at it, why rock the boat?"

It keeps the roof over his head, anyway. And Kristoff knows the true value of that in a way his part-time student coworkers do not.

Anna bumps him with her shoulder.

"You said something nice about the store," she teases.

"I would burn that place to the ground for a hundred bucks," he insists, though a fortnight's closure would ruin him.

-

They walk a full loop around the wildlife preserve. Usually Kristoff would take Sven on the proper hike up the little hill that the preserve has declared a 'mountain', and he had thought it would be nice to share the view from the top with Anna, but she doesn't seem like she wants to go 'off roading,' so to speak.

There is a bit of awkwardness over leaving. Anna mentions being hungry and Kristoff only realizes later that maybe that meant she wanted to eat with him, rather than she was ready to leave.

Back in the cab of his truck, he thinks he should bring up the idea of lunch, but she's doing that sportscaster-thing that he mostly notices women do, where they want to give a play-by-play of the day you just lived through.

"The butterflies were so pretty, and how funny was the man who took our picture? He must be a photography student or something. But the picture came out so well, I'll send it to you!"

Kristoff does want a copy of that picture.

"I'm sorry you didn't get to go into the butterfly enclosure," she says, like that actually might be weighing on Kristoff's mind. Like watching her avid delight hadn't been the highlight of his day. His favorite moment, that is, until right after the picture when she put her hands on him on purpose and tugged him down and pressed her lips to his face and Kristoff felt like some stupid fucking knight from a fairy tale swearing fealty and honor or some shit like that.

"I've survived this long," he tells her.

She peeks at him across the cab - hesitant but happy. "Maybe - maybe next time we go I'll know Sven well enough that you can go in to see the butterflies. I'd like to see the whole gardens in the Spring, for sure."

Kristoff sits straighter in his seat, pleasure blooming in his chest. And not because he has secretly despaired of missing out on the butterfly exhibit.

He's Anna's now. It's too soon, it's happened too quickly, it's arguably creepy, in fact. But, for as long as she'll have him, though, it'll be true.

"Next time - yeah. In the Spring."

-

Anna doesn't seem to be leaning his way when he pulls up to the curb at the front of her house, and Kristoff sure isn't going to lean if she's not.

She does, however, lean over into the back, Sven eagerly moving to greet her. She starts scratching his chin and his ears and gets very involved saying goodbye to the bestest doggie-woggie in the whole wide world, the nonsense baby talk Kristoff usually protects his friend from - Sven's a little stupid, sure, but he's not a goddamn baby - but he's currently preoccupied looking out the front windsheild, determinedly not noticing the line of Anna's legs or the way she's leaning and how it highlights her -

Nope. The mailboxes in this neighborhood are pretty elaborate though. The things rich people spend their money on…

Her hesitance returns now that they're parked in front of her house. Kristoff can't read her mind, but he thinks it's probably best not to reach out if he can't tell what she's thinking.

But she says goodbye and thanks him for inviting her, then, with that special Anna-sincerity, "I had a really good time, Kristoff."

"Me too," he tells her, "we should plan something again, if you want, after your classes get settled?"

And there's the big smile he tries so hard for.

"I'd like that a lot."

They sit gazing at each other somewhat awkwardly for far longer than Kristoff would like to admit before she announces that Kristoff won't want to be late and she should probably go.

Looking at the clock he remembers he does have to work tonight. So they part and he, rather bizarrely, goes about his usual pre-work routine.

Except today he gets a text with a picture of himself and Anna and Sven and the most ridiculous statue of a butterfly, and they're standing close and she looks relaxed and happy by his side.

It's scary, to have things go well, because the further you climb, the further you can fall, but Christ he had forgotten the giddy feeling of climbing this high.

Chapter Text

Anna is taking three classes this semester: Introduction to Computers, Machine Shorthand I, and Legal Terminology. She’s set things up so she’ll only have class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so she can keep working the rest of the days. HR, and Kristoff, had assured her that the store accommodates for lots of student schedules more complicated than hers, so it shouldn't be an issue.

Her first class will be Intro to Computers on Thursday morning. She’s nervous, but as prepared as she reasonably can be. She’s gone supply shopping, gotten herself a more sleek and grown-up looking satchel than the much brighter backpack she used at her old university. Her textbooks have arrived, she’s got all the information she needs about her classes written out incase she has some issue with accessing the schedule on her phone. She’s poured over campus maps and plotted out her route.

She’s ready.

On Wednesday night, Anna’s the closing cashier. Everyone she sees tells her good luck for tomorrow - it’s really, really nice. Kristoff likes to pretend the team member bullshit is just corporate brainwashing, but Anna feels like they’re a proper family here, even if you’re not close to some of the second-cousins.

The analogy isn't perfect, but it’s nice to feel properly accepted by this group of people who didn’t know her at all four months ago.

She sees Kristoff in the breakroom -.the first time since he dropped her off from their date, though they have texted a little.

She sits in the seat directly next to him, and they chat a little as their coworkers flit about the room around them.

“Going to be a long day,” he says, when she recites her schedule. Two of her classes are an hour and a half each, and they meet twice a week. But Machine Shorthand is a three hour class that starts at five-thirty and only meets on Thursdays.

“Yeah,” she agrees. She’s not sure she would have had the stamina if she hadn’t just made it through the holiday season as a cashier. “I’ll find somewhere to spend the break - the library or the union or something. There’s only ten of us in the class, maybe I’ll make a friend!”

“You’ll make nine friends,” he says, and he’s laughing at her but it feels fond rather than mean. It’s nice, for Anna, that Kristoff thinks of her as someone who makes friends easily. She had lost that, for a while.

Anna really hopes she makes some friends in her program.

They talk a little more - it’s not Kat at Guest Services today and Anna thinks the person is making a few mistakes, and Kristoff’s always got something to share about the load from the truck or Sven doing something odd.

Anna watches him talk, currently a detailed description of watching a contractor try to reverse their forklift earlier today. He’s so animated, it’s very different from how she used to see him. It hasn’t felt weird, either, about their date. They can still sit in the breakroom and eat lunch, he’s not trying to put his arm around her or hold her hand.

She’s surprised to find that she wishes he would, actually.

She moves so she's got one hand on the table casually, so it’s between them. She’s maybe too casual about it though, because he doesn’t seem to notice.

At the end of her break, she stands and starts to say goodbye.

He stands too, “I’ll walk down with you,” he says, “I’m headed out anyway.”

Anna smiles at him, a big toothy smile, but she can't help it. He waited for her.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, gathering up his stuff and walking past her into the hall.

“What time was your shift over?” she asks, following him, gleeful.

“Not long ago,” he says, defensive, but not annoyed, she’s sure. He knows she’s just having fun.

She also notices it’s not a numerical answer.

“I’m gonna check the schedule,” she says in a teasing, sing-song kind of way, and turns toward the notice board.

A shock of irrational panic freezes her utterly as a thick male arm catches her around her midriff from behind, lifts her off her feet and swings her around so she’s facing the other direction in the hall.

Kristoff sets her down and pulls his arm back with a laugh. He’s saying something - not at all angry, his tone is still light - but Anna can’t hear the words around the blood rushing in her ears.

Anna lands unsteadily, reaches out to the wall and turns so it’s holding her weight. She closes her eyes for a second, breathing deeply.

When she focuses back on their little scene in the hallway, Kristoff’s moved way back, wringing his hands and peering at her unhappily.

“Sorry,” she says, and he flinches.

“No,” he says, “I’m - I shouldn’t’ve - you can go look, obviously, you can go check the schedule.”

She doesn’t move. It's not that he frightens her, she never thought he was angry or trying to actually stop her looking at the schedule. She has enough awareness to recognize that it was a flirty game, one she started.

She doesn’t know how to explain. Because he was behind her, perhaps? The helpless feeling of being in the air? The effortless proof that he can lift her at any time?

“I was here like forty-five minutes,” he tells her, “Sorry, it’s creepy. I just… wanted to say good luck in person, I guess.”

Anna forces some strength into her voice, “That’s really nice,” pushes herself off the wall, “I’m happy you waited.” It's true.

He smiles, relaxes slightly, but doesn’t move back toward her.

“I won’t do it again,” he says, guiltily, “I wasn’t thinking, I forgot.”

I forgot, Anna muses. I forgot you get scared, that means.

She was normal enough, today at least, that a person could forget that she’s damaged in the way that she is. She wants him to forget, to treat her like she’s just a regular girl he’s gone on a date with, who he can risk touching, who won’t spiral out and make everything awkward like it is now. Both of them thinking about her husband, about what he means for them now that they’ve gone on a date.

She doesn’t want him to promise he won’t do it again. She wants to be able to promise she won’t.

But that’s very clearly not how this is going to go.

She takes a few steps down the hallway toward him. She slips her hand around his elbow and tugs gently.

“Come on,” she says, “you were walking me back to my register.”

He’s watching her closely, but he allows himself to be led along. “Oh, was I?” he tests, lightly.

Anna smiles up at him, grateful.

“Yup, you’re a gentleman,” he snorts, “so you were walking me the whole way.”

“Hmmm,” he says, dubious. But he’s looking a little more settled, relaxed.

They reach the end of the hall, the next turn will take them out into the main view of the store. Anna hesitates, suddenly.

“Oh,” she drops her determined hold on his arm, “unless you don’t want everybody to - ”

He rolls his eyes and picks her arm back up, settling it into the warm crook of his elbow.

She smiles again, properly, the last of the earlier unease dissolving. And he walks her, arm-in-arm, the rest of the way.

“Say hi to Sven for me,” she tells him as she turns to log in to her register.

“Will do,” he says, hovering for a moment, then, “And um, call me after your class tomorrow? If you like. You can tell me about it.”

What’s becoming a familiar Kristoff-associated warmth lights in Anna’s stomach.

“I will,” she says, “thanks.”

-

Introduction to Computers, Anna quickly discovers, is going to be very easy. It's clearly aimed at a generation who did not grow up with computers in their homes, the kind of person who might print out an email in order to save it, and who needs the phrase 'internet browser' defined as a vocabulary term.

It might be for the best though, because a few hours later the syllabus for Legal Terminology has Anna wishing she'd taken Latin instead of French in high school.

She has a fairly long break before Machine Shorthand, so she goes to find the cafeteria, visits the Student Center to wait in a long line for her picture ID, and quickly rattles off her first Computers assignment of the semester.

She texts Kristoff and Elsa to let them know all is well, but she doesn't want to bug either of them in the middle of a work-day like this.

She finds a spot and reads for a little while. Scopes out a few vending machines. Explores the library, and reads a few notice boards. It's a lonely kind of feeling she hasn't experienced much before, wandering the halls of a school campus alone and unrecognized. It's also weird feeling noticeably older than the other students too. Most of them in the eighteen-to-twenty range, moving around in comfortable, well-worn groups.

Eventually, it's close enough to the start of class for Anna to go lurk around the door.

By the time the professor arrives to open up, a few students have gathered. Anna knows because they have the same textbook as her, and everyone shuffles into the room. So far the other students seem older even than Anna. That makes sense, Elsa had speculated this would be a vocational-training class, for people who had proper day jobs.

This room is smaller than the other classrooms she's seen today. It's not set up like a traditional lecture hall, more like a science lab. There are six two-person tables lined up facing an old-school chalk-board, with an aisle down the middle.

Anna picks a seat at one of the tables in the very front. That's the key to college success, she remembers, always sit in the front.

Nobody talks, as they wait.

A few more people trickle in in the last few minutes before class, until each of the tables has at least one occupant.

Anna startles when a very harried-seeming young guy pulls out the other chair at her table, he dumps a backpack and a whole mess of papers and pencils come pouring out toward Anna.

"Oh no," he groans, "again with this…" Anna helps him gather it all back up and gingerly stacks her collection on the table.

"Thanks," he says, sliding into the seat and almost knocking his water bottle off the edge of the desk.

He takes a deep breath and kind of shakes himself, then turns to Anna with an enthusiastic, buck-toothed smile.

"You were in Legal Terminology earlier! Thanks for your help just now, wow, I thought I was going to be late, the first door I tried to get into the building was locked so I had to go all the way around! Anyway - introductions! I'm Olaf and I like warm hugs!" He holds out his arms like Anna might actually be about to lean in and hug him. She tenses in her seat, trying to peek around him at the other tables. Is the professor looking this way?

Olaf deflates slightly, arms wilting somewhat sadly.

"Buuut you don't look like you agree, so nevermind those words I just said." He gives an awkward, nasal kind of laugh. "Oh dear."

He sets about organizing his strewn papers.

To Anna's quiet relief, the professor quite abruptly begins the class.

-

Anna had wondered at a class scheduled to be three hours long. Elsa was surprised too, she hadn't seen anything like it until she hit graduate school. The mystery is quickly solved. It's a lecture and lab at once. The first part of the day is spent more traditionally, note-taking and power-point slides, and the second is a practicum.

Today they are told to partner up and administer transcript-reading typing tests. The lab is all set up and equipped for them in the room across the hall. They'll be working on regular computers for now, the court reporting machines won't come out for a few weeks yet.

"So there's, what, ten of you?" The professor scans the room, "perfect, we'll just do it by seat. We're all adults here, so I expect you'll manage to get along, but if there's any major issues then you can let me know."

He continues with his instructions. Anna struggles to listen.

He must dismiss the group because all at once everyone begins to move.

"Hey…?" Asks her obvious partner, when she hasn't moved. "Are you, uh, coming?"

"I have a boyfriend," she blurts.

She doesn't, obviously, they've gone on one date and Kristoff would probably think it was super presumptive of her, but it usually works, she's used it when she was single before.

"Seems kinda braggy," He mutters, then smiles and lays a hand flat on the cool table between them, "listen, suuuper gay, alright?"

"Oh," says Anna, feeling silly and relieved and childish.

They do the timed test twice each using the provided excerpt, but they still have more time, so instead of running the same one again, Olaf pulls up the Jim Carey speech from the end of Liar Liar and has her practice that one through instead. He giggles and marks her off on the jibberish, claiming she messed up the spelling, so she fails this time. Anna finds the script for Legally Blonde and makes him type 'perm' about twenty times in two minutes. His score still passes the minimum threshold though.

"Some people are born to stenog," he says, smug.

They are flipping through their shared Legal Terminology textbook looking for intense jargon passages to try when the class ends.

They turn their original attempts in, obviously.

"See you on Tuesday, Anna," says Olaf as they part at the building's front door.

Anna thinks she's made a friend.

-

She rushes a bit, giving Elsa the run-down of her day. She'll see her sister at breakfast, after all, and she doesn't want Kristoff to think she's forgotten about him.

just got home. Good time to call? If you want

She asks, shortly after she changes into pajamas and flops onto her bed. It's been a long day.

He calls her in return not long after.

They've never done this before - just calling to talk about their day.

"And how were the people?" He asks, once she's gone through the whole day and she's started winding down.

"Oh… I didn't really meet anyone yet. How was your shift?"

Corporate is coming out for an inspection at the end of the month, apparently, so the manager tonight was being pretty overbearing.

"Like it won't get messed up again in the next three weeks," Kristoff is saying, "just because they got the notice today…"

Anna's not not listening. She's just also rationalizing.

It's not an important kind of thing to lie about. Why bring it up, over the phone especially, that she spent over an hour sitting with a guy she met who's also in another one of her classes? Olaf's gay, sure, but she remembers Hans had all kinds of opinions about that. Most of them were faking, he thought, to get women to let their guard down. And he had worse things to say about the 'real' ones.

She listens to his voice and thinks of the warmth of his arm under her hand and the butterflies and random text-pictures of Sven and no, this thing with Kristoff is too new and fresh and fragile to risk.

And besides, she's not obligated to report every single person she interacts with to Kristoff. Elsa would agree with that. Maybe her instinct that she should tell him, that she has transgressed by not telling him, maybe that's the one she should be sceptical of? Maybe that's the vestigial Mrs. Westergaard pulling at the reins?

No, she thinks, absently assuring Kristoff that she agrees with him, the manager was absolutely overreacting, best not bring Olaf up at all.

Chapter Text

Kristoff stands in the aisle, utterly lost despite the highly familiar setting.

A wall of teddy bears stare back at him with beady little eyes of black plastic judgement. None of them are just normal stuffed animals, most are clutching plush hearts, some with loopy cursive messages of adoration stitched across their torsos, another has been velcroed around a pair of champagne glasses.

Kristoff turns his back on them decisively. The next row is all chocolate. That seems safer, he knows she likes chocolate.

But the big heart-shaped boxes, the floral patterns, the different types they have now - dark chocolate or sea salt or caramel or truffles or ones with nuts in them.

It's been more than a month since their date. Is he deluded for even coming to this aisle?

There hasn't been a single day she hasn't at least texted him though. She calls too, sometimes. If he's busy she leaves him rambling voicemails, which he saves. She's busy with her school, Kristoff totally gets it.

He's seen her at work, of course. He lines their breaks up when he can and she waits around sometimes too so she can say hi. So far, he's managed not to fucking grab her up again. Christ.

Then, two days ago,

I know! I'm sad I don't see you as often =(

It's enough to renew his confidence, convince himself that he has not missed his chance. And Sven had pointed out, a Valentine's gift would be a pretty clear signal.

So here he is.

He can't bring himself to buy any of this insincere pink-and-red heart-shaped shit though.

He leaves the Valentine's swamp and instead heads to the regular candy aisle.

She really likes chocolate, he reasons, and he's not comfortable with the over-commercialized lovelovelove garbage, so what's wrong with some normal chocolate?

He debates for a while, but ends up with the biggest bag of solid milk chocolate bars he can find.

And, bonus, the packaging isn't bright pink, so it's not all marked up for the holiday.

He's at the grocery store by his apartment, so he doesn't have to worry about which cashier he checks out with as he buys his full pound of candy.

Back in the truck he re-reads his messages from this morning.

hey,

he had opened,

i know you're at school so no worries, but if you're free on your break later, do you want to come with Sven and I to the dog park?

That sounds really fun!

she had replied within a few minutes,

I would need a ride tho

Like he hasn't noticed that she doesn't have a car.

I kno. What times good?

Class is out at 1210 and next one starts 245

He checks the time - just before noon. He texts her to let her know that he's on his way toward the school. He'll be right on time.

-

He pulls into a parking spot toward the front of the lot. The school has all kinds of rules, he knows, about visitor parking, but he'll only be a minute.

He spots her hurrying his way, so he tells Sven to sit tight and gets out of the cab, clutching his bag of chocolates in his hand.

She's surprised to find him leaning against the warm front grille of the truck, but it felt rude to not get out and greet her. Besides, Kristoff wants to be clear about today. He doesn't want to catch her off guard.

"Hi," she says when she's standing in front of him. She's one of those who dress up for school days, and she looks the part of a dedicated student with her satchel full of books.

"Hi," he returns, and kind of thrusts the bag of chocolate at her, "I got you this, for, you know, happy Valentine's Day."

She takes the candy and inspects it, smiling and seeming pleased. "I love these! Thank you!"

She bounces slightly on her feet once, then twice, and then somewhat sheepishly opens her arms for a hug.

Kristoff is happy to step forward, relieved - they're still on the same page. His arms go over hers, and he folds them around her shoulders. He feels her small hands pressing the chocolates into the upper area of his back.

They stand together, for a moment. She's warm and very slight and he can smell her shampoo.

Shit, he thinks suddenly, when was the last time he hugged somebody?

It wasn't - after he helped Kat out with that creepy customer? That was... two years ago now?

There has to have been something since then. He's forgotten, surely.

She starts to pull her arms back. A deep-seated itch goes from his palms to his chest - hold tighter - but he obviously releases her and steps back.

He wants to hold her again. He wants to feel her head against his chest, he wants to put his nose in her hair, he wants to put his hands on her waist and draw her back close.

The itch in his arms hasn't gone away. He's freaking out, slightly - when else has he touched a person properly like that in the last few years?

Will she let him hug her again?

He takes a deliberate step further away, moving around to the driver's side door. What a fucking creepy mess of a thing to project onto another person like that.

She's blushing and ducking her head away, but he can see she's pleased. He didn't freak her out, this time, then. At least there's that. She climbs into her now familiar place across from him in the cab of his truck. Where she belongs, he thinks, like a sappy, needy fucking wreck.

He feels himself scratch absently at his palm.

"Sorry," she says, as the engine rumbles into motion, "I don't have anything for you."

In Kristoff's experience, women aren't responsible for Valentine's Day in the same way men are. He wouldn't have expected anything from her even if they were more official than whatever they are.

"That's okay," he says, "no worries."

"I didn't know I'd be seeing you," she explains, "so I left your card in your locker."

He does a double-take, almost hitting some in a crosswalk.

"You didn't have to get me anything," he tells her, waving off the startled pedestrian.

She's opening the bag of chocolate with her teeth. "Neither did you," she says, without releasing her jaw.

"Need me to get that for you?" He asks, smirking a little.

"Nuh-uh, thanks," she mumbles, tearing harder until it finally rips.

She takes one and then turns her attention to Sven, who's started butting the back of her seat with his snout, feeling ignored, apparently.

-

She falls easily into their dog park routine. Kristoff releases Sven, who immediately takes off into the fray, and clips the leash onto the fencing along with about a dozen others.

They start to walk Kristoff's circuit around the acre or so plot. Kristoff keeps an eye on Sven, but they're regulars here, Sven knows the drill, so he can focus mainly on making conversation with Anna.

"Learn anything new about the amazing world of Microsoft Office today?" He asks.

She groans, "we spent five minutes on how to change and pick different fonts today, Kristoff! I mean I literally almost died."

He smiles, sympathetic. He has heard a great deal about this class in particular.

"How's it all going overall, though?" He asks, "you seem like you like it?"

"It's really good," she gushes, "my Shorthand professor talks a lot about the different career options and I - I just get really excited thinking about it. You can go into legal, like courtrooms and depositions and arbitrations and stuff."

An embarrassing number of these words are new to Kristoff. He gives her a thoughtful, "hmm."

"Or," she continues, "the medical side, which I don't know as much about yet, but I think I'm leaning legal anyway? I could work with Elsa, maybe, at a private law firm like hers, or you can get hired by the state and work in the trials, or some people freelance taking transcriptions, or, it's really cool, you can be crazy useful as a volunteer at like domestic violence shelters or children's advocacy cases, because otherwise they have to pay transcribers, which can be really hard, you know? I don't know, I'm just really excited about it."

Kristoff watches her, he's happy she's doing well and enjoying it, but it's kind of bittersweet. She has so much drive and direction, Kristoff's never known someone with so much of a future.

He's going to miss her, when she gets there.

She peeks at him. Takes a deep breath, suddenly fiddling with her sleeve.

"We started a partner project in my Shorthand class," she says to the ground.

A skulking, hulking blur of shaggy tan is lurking by the front gate. One of Sven's buddies has just been dragged off home and Sven's apparently plotting rescue.

Kristoff whistles, loud and sharp, and Sven begrudgingly puts some distance between himself and the exit.

"Sorry," he says, turning back to Anna.

"No, no," she says, waving him off, "So for the project, since we are starting with the actual shorthand machines, the professor wants us to meet up with our partners, um, outside of class to practice."

"Partners? That sucks," Kristoff didn't retain a ton from his time in high school, but he certainly has negative associations with the phrase partner project.

"Oh," she says, still seeming nervous, "my partner will be alright, I think. We have been sitting together and we worked on some, uh, in class projects before."

He doesn't think Anna has mentioned anyone specific from her class to him, but he could be wrong.

"What's her name?" He asks, hoping he isn't supposed to already know.

Anna stumbles slightly. Kristoff briefly looks down - with all the dogs running around, the ground gets seriously fucked up in some places. He doesn't see anything to trip her up though.

"You okay?" He asks, helping her steady herself.

"Mhmm," she says, "so, my partner's name is um, actually," Kristoff smiles at her. He has a hard time with new names too, though he never bothers getting this twisted up about forgetting. "Ol...ga," she says, after a moment's consternation. Then again, with more confidence, "Olga is her name. And we're going to have to meet up outside of class and stuff, but I'm excited for it actually, because I think we will get along really well." She nods, certain.

"That's good," he says, distracted again when he can't pick Sven out of the crowd for a second.

Oh, he's over by the water now - getting soaked, of course.

They chat a little more about the other dogs and their bizarre social rituals and make another meandering loop or so.

-

They want her to get back with plenty of time before her class, so Kristoff begins the process of extracting Sven from his favorite place on the face of the earth.

With Sven toweled off and loaded back up in his truck, Kristoff heads back toward Anna's campus.

"This was a great idea," she says, "maybe we can make it a thing, if you don't mind coming to get me?"

"No, I don't mind at all," he assures her, quickly and with feeling.

At a red light he notices she's got her left hand kind of out - draped over the armrest toward Kristoff at an unnatural angle.

She's been doing this more and more, recently. Kristoff had convinced himself he was imagining it, but...

He alters his grip on the steering wheel, checks the light again quickly, and reaches over to thread their fingers together.

Her slim fingers close over his, impossibly smaller in a way that never fails to make him think of the shitbag man she had married.

"Good?" He checks, glancing at her as the line of cars begins to move forward.

She huffs lightly, maybe embarrassed he's drawn attention to it, or maybe annoyed of she thinks he's babying her. But she gives him a smile and a light squeeze of her hand and says "good-good."

A few miles pass, they listen to the radio and the rhythmic huff-huff-huff of a tired dog, while Kristoff works out what he wants to say.

"The state fair is back," he announces. He wants to turn the radio down but he doesn't want to be the one who lets go. "They do discount admission days some weekdays. I thought, maybe, we could look at schedules or maybe request a day off sometime? They're here like three months, I think, so even with your school, it should work. If you want?"

"That sounds so fun," she says, "definitely! Is it set up already? I can get the two week schedule when it goes up this weekend and we can see!"

"Okay, yeah," she's more enthusiastic than he expected, which is encouraging, so he ploughs on. "Just, is that okay? It's going to be... stuff like that, if we keep - going out." He clears his throat, keeping his eyes on the road, "discounted admission and stuff. If it bugs you, well, it's just kind of where things are for me right now."

He feels her other hand come to rest on top of his. "That doesn't bother me. I don't - I mean, I'm saving up for next semester anyway."

Except she'll graduate, one day, and get a real job, with good benefits and a salary probably, and Kristoff will still only be able to offer discounted admission and free passes checked out from the library.

It's an awkward moment to move past, so he just says something about the schedule and they hypothesize until he drops her off at campus.

"Hope it goes well with your partner," he says as she's climbing down from the truck.

His hand is oddly cold and the itch is back.

She startles and her satchel slips out of her hand and onto the asphalt. She ducks to collect it and then bobs back into view.

She laughs, kind of shrill and forced, "I'm so dumb," she says, "sorry. And thanks! I'll call you later?"

-

"What are you doing here?" Asks one of the backroom crew when he spots Kristoff by the lockers.

"Forgot something," Kristoff says, gesturing to his locker.

"Aren't you in tomorrow?" Asks the guy, around a mouthful of french fries.

"Yeah, so?" Asks Kristoff, distracted.

There's a light pink envelope resting on his spare uniform shirt.

"Well what did you forget that you couldn't just get tomorrow?" Asks his coworker.

Kristoff uses his body to block the locker from view, and he wraps the shirt around the card before pulling the bundle out.

He holds it up for inspection with a bit of a sneer, "laundry day," he says.

"Huh," says the guy in a weird, leading way.

"What?" Asks Kristoff, irritated.

He shrugs, pushing ketchup around his paper plate, "Just, I heard you were getting it off that cashier, but guess not, since today's laundry day."

Kristoff closes his locker with some force. "Shut the fuck up," he says, stomping away.

He'll open the card in his truck.

-

He's careful as he unsticks the envelope. The card itself isn't pink, the background is white and simple with just a picture of a jar of pickles on the front.

Inside it says You're kind of a big dill.

He smiles. What an awful fucking joke.

The message she wrote isn't much, but it makes him really glad he reached out today. He would have felt like shit finding this card on the fifteenth of Feburary after not doing anything for her at all.

Don't tell Sven, but I'm happy HR messed up your schedule!

He runs his thumb over the place where she's written his name. It's odd, seeing Kristoff in her handwriting for the first time.

He was so pissed off when he saw that schedule. But she's right - he's happy about it too.

Chapter Text

Anna tears open a candy wrapper, pops the chocolate into her mouth, and chews intently.

On the screen the Bennett sisters are notified that their cousin is coming to marry one of them.

Yuck she thinks, but she's distracted, not really paying attention.

She swallows. Fishes out a new bar. Tears it open, turns the bar sideways so it fits better in her mouth.

Chews. Swallows. Reaches for another.

"Elsa," she says, wrappers crinkling in her lap when she shifts uneasily, "I think I made a mistake with Kristoff."

Elsa pauses Pride and Prejudice.

"I'm surprised," she says, frowning a little, "I thought you really liked him?"

She does. Anna really likes him.

"No, I mean I - I'm worried I did something wrong. But I don't know if, I can't tell if it's a real thing."

Elsa rearranges herself on the couch, pulling a pillow onto her lap and snaking one of Anna's chocolates.

"Okay," she says, calm patience already soothing Anna's nerves, "what happened?"

"I didn't tell Kristoff about Olaf," says Anna, feeling kind of sheepish, "and then... When we started the partner project, I told him my partner was a girl."

Elsa's going to think it's silly. Women lie to men all the time, Anna, that's just how it works, she might say. Not even worth her pausing the movie - just another tiny thing Anna's all silly and worked up about.

Elsa tilts her head, considering.

"Has Kristoff ever said or... done anything that makes you think it's a bad idea to tell him about Olaf?"

Anna thinks about it for a moment. She doesn't come up with anything.

She shakes her head, "No, but I mean, it's obvious, right? People get jealous, no guy wants to hear their gir- the girl they're dating talking about some other man."

Elsa twitches like she wants to reach for one of her yellow legal pads.

"I think, in a healthy relationship, a man would trust his partner and just be pleased that she had made a friend," she suggests, gently.

Anna doesn't have a response for that. It feels like a hypothetical situation, like when politicians say 'in an ideal world, we wouldn't need orphanages...'

They sit for a moment, burrowing into another round of chocolates.

"Well, what do you think Hans might have said?" Asks Elsa, with caution.

Anna shudders.

"About what?" She stalls.

"What do you think he would have said if you wanted to tell him about your friend Olaf?"

Anna had been a university student when she and Hans first started dating. It quickly devolved into a period of constant texting and escalating insistence that Anna was in danger of falling for some frat boy's tricks, until finally it wasn't worth it anymore to insist he drive her back to the dorm in time for class. A world-class manipulator, Hans had her researching and installing, without even his suggesting it, a location tracker app for her phone - the kind more commonly used by overbearing parents of troubled teens.

Olaf is not a risk Mrs. Westergaard would have taken.

By the time they were married? Hans may very well have killed her for it. But she knows she can't say this to Elsa.

"He would have been upset," she hedges.

Elsa gathers Anna's hands together and squeezes.

"It seems like you lied to Kristoff because of Hans then, don't you think?"

Ana chews her lip and nods.

"And Hans isn't a pattern you want to replicate."

Anna shakes her head vigorously, braids flapping about.

"So, do you agree, then, that in a healthy relationship, you should feel able to tell your boyfriend you have a male friend?"

"Kristoff's not my boyfriend," she says, instead of addressing what a healthy relationship may or may not look like.

Elsa gives her a look - all eyebrow suddenly.

"I don't think it has to be a big deal," says Anna, feeling defensive. "Just because he doesn't know about Olaf - I thought, I didn't think you would say I have to tell him if I wasn't comfortable."

"I don't want you to make yourself uncomfortable for him," Elsa says, immediately. Then she hesitates, thinking for a few moments before she speaks again.

"My concern isn't that you owe Kristoff some kind of accurate reporting, rather that... the fact that you aren't just reluctant to admit to Olaf's existence, but actively lying to hide him," Anna ducks her head. It sounds worse when Elsa puts it like that. "I'm worried it indicates that there is something to be concerned about in your relationship with Kristoff, does that make sense? Not that you didn't tell him, but why."

"I didn't tell him because of Hans, you said."

"Right, and, Anna, if you're still treating Hans as a baseline for your relationships with men then... maybe you're not ready for this kind of-"

Anna feels a surge of revolted panic under her lungs. "I'm not - I can, Elsa, that's not-"

Hans didn't break her so badly that she's not capable of dating someone. He can't have.

Hans can't take Kristoff from her.

Elsa reaches back for Anna's hands, but Anna doesn't let her take them.

"I don't mean you should do anything drastic, Anna, just, maybe we make another appointment with the therapist you were seeing-"

"I don't need to go back to the therapist." Anna says, with rare finality.

"Okay," says Elsa, placating. Neither of them want to argue.

"Sorry," says Anna, tearing up. She doesn't really understand why.

"I just, do you understand what I'm trying to say, Anna?"

"You think, if I'm too scared from Hans to tell Kristoff about Olaf, it means I'm not ready to be dating yet." Anna says to her lap. It's one of the scariest things she's ever said aloud.

Elsa smiles, sad and relieved, and she looks a lot like their mother.

"As long as he hasn't given you any reason to be worried about telling him. If he has, Anna, that's a different issue and I hope you would tell me."

Anna chews on her lip. Her mouth is dry from the chocolate and blood. She gestures and Elsa hands over her water bottle.

Kristoff really hasn't done anything scary - not really. She doesn't want to let Elsa think that way of him. Better Elsa think Anna irreparably broken than paint Kristoff with the same brush as Hans.

"So," she says, eventually, "if - if I tell him, about Olaf? Then it's, it means I'm okay?"

Elsa looks, if anything, more concerned.

"It's not a pass-fail test, Anna. It's your ability to be honest and set boundaries for yourself."

Anna doesn't understand.

"But if me not telling him means I'm not ready, then if I tell him, it has to mean I am?"

"You being able to be honest with Kristoff is important, yes." Elsa agrees, once again choosing her words with a lawyer's precision.

After a minute of quiet, Elsa suggests some tea, and gathers a handful of wrappers with her to take to the kitchen.

Anna has admitted before that she struggles to order her thoughts under an audience. She feels rushed, inevitably, toward an agreement.

Anna's mind is racing around in circles. Maybe Elsa is right maybe it's significant that Anna didn't tell him. Not only that - she had tried to tell him and couldn't do it. She physically couldn't get the word Olaf out.

But, now that she has lied, how can she expect him not to be mad? It's unreasonable. To think he would learn Anna has lied to conceal a friendship with a guy he doesn't know and not make his own assumptions?

When Elsa comes back, Anna doesn't necessarily feel better, but she's feeling less skittish at least.

Elsa hands over a mug of steaming, sugary tea, and Anna thanks her sister with sincere feeling.

"You really think it's normal? That a man shouldn't feel jealous about his - girlfriend or whatever, having a friend that's a guy?"

It's confusing - are all relationships unhealthy then? This situation would be a whole episode on a sitcom, the husband following the 'gay' friend around the mall or whatever, hiding in bushes, worried what the wife was doing...

Because Elsa doesn't have a ton of experience with relationships, either. Maybe she just doesn't realize?

Elsa sips at her tea before answering.

"It's complicated. I think there are absolutely couples who can navigate that type of jealousy and insecurity and communicate those boundaries within their relationship. Lots of people don't believe that men and women can be platonic. Maybe if both parties agree on that it's easier?" Elsa shrugs.

"But, Anna, your situation isn't really about Olaf at all. You're making assumptions about what Kristoff wants and acting on them as if he was Hans. Either he has given you a reason for that or he hasn't, but I think you should be more concerned about what that means."

Anna can't deal with some of that. She just - can't. It's too big.

"So... what would I say, then, when I tell him? Isn't it kind of rude to say I'm worried he's going to react like… like that?"

"I think you just explain that you want your relationship to be founded on honesty, and so you have to tell him that your partner is actually Olaf and that you hope he can understand where you were coming from based on what he already knows about your marriage."

Anna can't picture herself saying that to Kristoff. Her heart starts pounding at the thought.

"But what if he does care? What if he doesn't believe me or he gets upset about it or says I should change partner? Olaf would be so upset..."

Elsa suddenly looks quite glacial.

"Then he is a poor choice, Anna. In that scenario, you keep Olaf."

Kristoff's not a poor choice, Anna thinks defensively.

Somehow she's ended up in a no-win scenario. If she can't tell Kristoff the truth, it means she's not ready to be dating. But, if she tells him and he gets mad, then he's a poor choice?

It doesn't seem fair.

"I don't want to risk losing Kristoff," she says in a small voice.

"Trust is a decision," quotes Elsa, with a small, reassuring smile. "If he is everything you say he is, then your honestly will be worthwhile. If he isn't, well, better to know earlier than later?"

-

"Ellen, do you ever lie to your husband?"

"Oh, sure," she says, casual

Anna had been worried Ellen would be offended at the suggestion, so she's taken aback by Ellen's conspiratorial tone.

"Wha - really?"

"Oh yes. Just last week my washing machine was breaking, making the most awful noise, and dear Burt wanted to open it up and have a look," she rolls her eyes, theatrical and fond, "but I can't risk him killing my washer stone dead can I? So I called a maintenance man in while Burt was fishing at the weekend, he fixed it up and I told Burt the noise went away by itself."

"What about the receipt?" Says Kat, suddenly behind them.

Anna draws back - they're supposed to be restocking the candy, not chatting, but Kat doesn't seem worried.

It's very, very slow today.

"I'm sorry, dear?"

"The receipt - for the maintenance guy? How do you hide the cost of the repair?"

Ellen holds a finger up to her lips like, shhh, and tells them, "I have a credit card Burt doesn't know about."

"Oh that's definitely going to end well," says Kat, sarcastic.

"You don't ever lie to Allison, then?" Anna ventures, uncertain if she's overstepping.

Kat shrugs, "little stuff, I guess. Your eyeliner is even, I love when your little sister sleeps over, that kind of shit. Not big stuff, or money." She sets out a box of magazines that need to go out.

"Anna, it's nothing to do with me, but Kristoff's pretty big about honesty..."

It bothers Anna, quite a lot actually, to have another woman tell her something about Kristoff like this.

By Elsa's logic, shouldn't she just be happy for Kristoff to have a friend?

"Oh, they all say that," says Ellen, dismissively, "but they don't actually want to know."

Kat rolls her eyes this time, and informs them that since it's so slow, Ellen's being sent to the sales floor to help clearance out the Valentine's Day leftovers.

Kat considers Anna for a moment.

"He's a good guy, you know. "

I know," says Anna, defensive and irritated suddenly.

She goes back to straightening candy bars, alone with her thoughts again.

-

She catches Ellen in the breakroom on her way to clock out.

Elsa seems to think Anna's normal-meter is skewed. But Ellen's been married almost forty years.

"What would happen, if you don't mind, if Burt did find out you had a man in his house to repair your washing machine?"

Ellen gives her a funny look.

"It's not that the mechanic was a man, Burt wouldn't care about that. It would hurt his pride that I didn't think he could fix it, so I suppose I'd have to let him tinker next time something goes." She rolls her eyes, the 'tinkering' seems to Anna like it must be a long-running struggle. "The credit card would be a problem, but he probably wouldn't think to ask."

"So he really wouldn't care at all, that there was a man in his house and you didn't tell him?"

Ellen laughs "Well, I'm sixty-seven, dear. He's hardly worried about me seducing some twenty-year-old repair man."

"Okay, so if you were younger? Or not together very long, maybe?"

Ellen considers, "Well, I suppose no young man likes the idea of his wife being around other men... Why are you asking?"

"Oh nothing, I just - Promise you won't tell Kat?" Ellen mimes zipping her lips closed, "I have a partner in class at school, and it's a guy, and I don't know if I should tell Kristoff."

"Hmm. Well, if it were me - why introduce potential problems? It's early days still for you two anyway."

Anna checks the schedule, he won't be in today, so she heads out to the bus right after clocking out.

Elsa is probably overreacting. She hasn't ever really dated, not anyone serious that Anna has heard about anyway. How can Elsa be better positioned to tell Anna about a healthy relationship than Ellen?

Anna sits in the bus station and remembers the night Richard followed her across the parking lot. She was so relieved to see Kristoff, and he was so considerate and he waited and he said nice things to make her feel better.

She wants to get this right. She still doesn't know if that means telling him or not.

What if Elsa is right, and Anna is falling back into old patterns? Kristoff won't want Anna to be treating him like he's Hans.

But what if Elsa is wrong, and Anna has already messed it up by lying the first time, or Kristoff isn't okay with Anna having Olaf as a partner now because he can't trust her?

Anna sits on the bus wishing she could ask her Mom's advice.

By the time she gets home she has decided - she needs to tell Kristoff. She would want him to tell her, if they were switched. And she doesn't want her best case scenario to be a forty-year marriage with secret credit cards and illicit household repairs.

And she does know, in a way, what her Mom's advice would have been. Because trust is a decision.

Chapter Text

Wilson

The man's name had been Wilson. Hans thought Wilson was The Right Sort. They met in a squash tournament at their gym, and quickly started meeting up for happy hour, or to watch the game at a sports bar they both liked.

One day, for whatever reason, their regular bar was packed with too many college students supporting the opposing team, so Hans suggested Wilson come back to his house and finish it up.

Anna didn't get any warning they were coming, but she did her best to provide snacks and drinks and stay out of their way.

Wilson, eventually, followed Anna back into the kitchen. He wanted to know if Anna needed help.

Help, and not with the dishes or dinner prep, or anything like that. Proper help. Anna desperately wanted him to go back into the living room, before -

Hans came to see what the problem was. Of course he did. He was so, so sure he had caught Anna and Wilson in an affair.

You fucking drove me here! Wilson yelled, incredulous and enraged and What the fuck happened to her fucking face?

Anna tried to slink away.

Hans and Wilson fought, and Hans threw his friend out of the house.

Unbeknownst to Anna, Wilson went around the corner and called the police.

Anna was alone in the house with her husband for a little over eleven minutes. When the police arrived they called for an ambulance, which arrived on scene less than seven minutes after that.

In the hospital, a nurse told her they needed an emergency contact that wasn't her husband.

Even if I'm not pressing charges? Anna had asked.

-

What kind of man are you when you're angry, she wonders, watching Kristoff's profile across the cab. It would be so helpful if she could know ahead of time, somehow.

People should just tell each other. Hi, I'm Anna, I cry and shut down when I'm upset. You won't get a useful word out of me until I've had a nap. Your turn.

He slammed the table, way back when he was mad about Sven's vet.

He grabbed Richard and pushed him.

Is he a violent person, angry enough?

She drops her gaze to the hands gripping the steering wheel. Swallows.

He glances at her, "what's up?"

Just tell him. Just say, my partner's name is Olaf, I lied before. Then say sorry. As many times as it takes.

She thinks she might actually vomit.

"Can we roll the window down?"

He gestures at her door - it's one of the manual crank ones. She gets it down and gulps freeway wind.

She hears the click-click-click of his indicator, and he starts to slow, "Are you feeling okay? Do you need me to pull over?"

"No," she says immediately, "no, I'm fine, thank you though."

"Okay," he says, dubious, but the truck rights it's course.

He takes one of her hands into his, glancing dangerously between her and the road, "We could have rescheduled, if you're not feeling good. It wouldn't have been a problem."

The dizziness is passing as quickly as it came

"I know. I didn't want to reschedule. I'm sorry."

"Don't - just, let me know if you feel worse, okay? I can take you home whenever."

Anna sips her water and tells him she's fine again when he asks.

-

Parking around the fair is crazy - right by the entrance it's outrageously expensive, and the further they circle away the more agitated Kristoff seems to get.

"Sorry," he says when they finally pull into a space, "Gonna be a bit of a walk."

"I don't mind," Anna reassures, quickly.

He kind of grunts, still seeming unhappy, and locks the car.

She knows he doesn't talk much, generally. Maybe he's the silent angry type. Would he still drive her home, if she tells him about Olaf now? Would she want him to, if the half-hour ride would be spent in heavy, angry, expectant, terrifying silence?

-

The 'Line Begins Here' markers start almost a quarter-mile from the entrance to the fairground. Luckily, it's a Monday, so they breeze past such ominous signs of what a Saturday morning could have looked like.

"Fuck that shit." He says, nodding at the line markers.

He swears already, kind of a lot. Maybe that's how he gets angry - the yelling and swearing and screaming kind? She's heard him yell before. Not angry, just to make himself heard over the forklift, but she knows he certainly has the capacity.

It's frustrating. This isn't how she wants to spend her day.

He seems like he's making an effort to show he isn't upset about the parking anymore. He comments on a few random things - cars going past or the looming fairground in the distance ahead of them. He keeps looking at her like he's worried she's going to keel over. She feels bad - she's ruining their day already. 

Resolved, she steps closer to Kristoff and takes his hand. He looks down and smiles at her.

"Hey," he says.

"Hi," she returns.

Anna traces her fingers over his much larger knuckles. Holding hands with him is nice, she likes it.

She doesn't need to worry about what he's like when he's angry because she isn't going to do anything to lose this.

“So, you came here when you were a kid?” she asks.

“Yeah, couple times. Not for a long time now though.” They continue along the sidewalk toward the short line to the flashy, obvious fair entrance. “Did you have anything like this where you grew up?”

“I’m not sure,” she says, “maybe they don’t have space in the city? We never really went to anything like it, except for trips to Disneyland and stuff I guess.”

“I’ve never been,” he says, offhand.

Anna feels awkward, suddenly. Why don’t you tell him about horseback riding camp next , she scoffs, to herself. 

It’s poorly timed, too, because they’re next up at the window to buy their tickets. Kristoff says “two adults,” and lets go of her hand to get his wallet out.

“Do you want to add any ride tickets?” the person asks.

“We can get those inside, right?” checks Anna. She’s already decided she’s getting the ride tickets.

Once inside they pass a trailer that apparently contains the world’s largest alligator, which Kristoff insists will be animatronic, and Anna beelines for the ticket machine.

“I’ll get these,” she says, hoping he isn’t going to make this a thing, “how many do we need?”

The exchange rate is crazy - twenty-five tickets for twenty dollars or a hundred tickets for fifty dollars. Math says the choice is obvious, but Anna feels awkward spending fifty in front of him like that. Kristoff suggests the twenty-five tickets and offers to pay her half back, which she isn’t going to allow.

“Nope,” she says, shooting for casual and modern, and sets about navigating the hardly-sensitive touch screen.

He doesn’t press the issue, which is a pleasant surprise.

“So you’re the expert,” she says, “where do we go first?”

“Shit, I don’t know. It’s been a long time. Do you have anything you really want to do?”

Anna looks around. A few serious rides dominate the landscape - a rickety, speeding roller-coaster, a tilt-a-whirl, bumper cars and one of those super tall drops that just look plain dangerous. Mostly it’s just prize-game booths and food trucks, a cacophony of different music blaring from each.

“Well, we have to go on the Ferris Wheel,” she says, “but not yet.” He nods, accepting this without question.

“Alright,” he says, “well, maybe we should get you something to eat first?”

It’s not extraordinarily busy, but there’s still a line at the truck they pick. Kristoff sends Anna off to go find an open table or a bench or something and he says he’ll come find her. The tables are shaded and the sun’s high in the sky so it takes her a few minutes to scout them a free spot, but eventually a family gets up and moves away and Anna nabs the table before anyone else.

When Kristoff catches up he’s got their order and a soda with two straws and they settle in opposite each other.

It's a bright, sunny, crisp afternoon and they're surrounded by the happy, shrill sounds of the fair. Anna people-watches, for a few moments - families mostly, with young kids. Older children are in school, she supposes.

She's enjoying the sweet taste of fried bread with honey and he has powdered sugar splattered adorably across his chin when he asks her, "How's the partner project going?"

And it's the perfect opening.

Actually, I've been meaning to talk to you about that, she should say.

Except - Anna doesn't want to be a girl who knows what it feels like when her husband closes his fingers around her neck, who left her marital home in an ambulance and went back, cast and all. 

She doesn't want Kristoff to know any of that. She doesn't want to spoil this day by admitting that sometimes his hands terrify her, risk his disappointment that she's a liar, or his discomfort that her partner is male. She doesn't want to know if he's the jealous type. She doesn't want this to be their last date and she doesn't want to admit that maybe she might not be as fixed as she pretends to be.

"It's going well," she says, "we're getting faster, for sure."

"Pulling her weight, then, is she?"

"Olga's great," she says, not a twist to her inflection or anything.

"Good," he says, tearing the last of the fried bread in half and offering it to her, "I'm glad she's not causing problems."

Anna pops it into her mouth and makes to stand, "Do you want to try the Hall of Mirrors after this?"

She's just - not going to tell him. She's made a friend at school called Olga and it's so much easier this way. She feels better now. The sky is bluer, the rides more enticing, the crowd less oppressive.

It'll just be this one lie. Anna's an honest person, really. It's not going to be a problem, and she isn't going to do it again. 

-

It’s quickly apparent that Kristoff’s too big for the child-intended Hall of Mirrors. He hits his head and bumps his shoulders and has to turn sideways to get through some of the skinnier bits. Honestly, Anna thinks, the attendant shouldn't have let him in here. 

Initially she tries to hide her giggles, worried he’s going to get frustrated when it just keeps on happening, but he stays good-natured and laughs every time, so she laughs with him (and at him).

After a few minutes he closes his eyes and holds his hands out for her to take. “It’s hopeless,” he says, “get me out of here.”

She takes his hands and slowly leads them around the maze, pushing and pulling at him lightly to maneuver him through. Even Anna has to duck to get out through the final tunnel, so Kristoff’s bent almost to his waist.

The attendant is his hanging off his stool with laughter when they emerge.

-

Discount admission or not, the fair is doing it's level best to suck as much money out of them as possible.

They end up standing at the back of a sparsely-attended children's magic show in an outdoor auditorium.

Kristoff's a skeptic - figures - so when the magician calls for volunteers Anna seizes Kristoff's limp arm and tries to hoist it up over her head, bouncing slightly for extra height.

He brings his other hand around and tickles at her under her arms. She pushes him but he doesn't budge, so she promises vague retribution and then they get shushed by a man wearing a top hat, a cape, and a painted-on mustache

-

Kristoff’s reluctant to spend any tickets at the prize-winning booths, he insists they’re all rigged, but Anna convinces him to try one round shooting baskets alongside her. They don’t win anything, but he has fun playing the game all the same.

“Because it’s rigged,” he says, again.

“Hmm - says the person who didn’t make any baskets,” says Anna, smug. She made three.

-

They make their way over to the petting zoo. Anna coos over the little piglets and hides behind Kristoff when a goose starts eyeing them a little too closely. Kristoff finds a reindeer in one of the stalls and brings Anna over so she can see the fucking size of this thing. Anna teases him about Sven being jealous, but agrees that, yes, it’s very impressive.

They’ve been here a few hours now. Anna feels like she might be getting a sunburn, and she’s tired from walking so much, and hungry for something that’s not thirty-percent powdered sugar. They agree it’s time to head over to the Ferris Wheel.

"Hey," Kristoff calls over the divider to the attendant, "how many tickets is it? Seven per person or per -" he gestures at the gondolas swaying gently in the wind, "swing-y thing?"

Anna doesn't hear the guy's response, but Kristoff comes jogging back down toward her looking dejected.

"You should go up by yourself" he suggests, she shakes her head, "no, you were really excited about it," he insists.

Anna's not about to make him sit down here by himself while she goes for a romantic Ferris Wheel ride alone, and she gives him a look that says so.

Kristoff's in the middle of suggesting he could go get more tickets - which, no, Anna can recognize that there's no point coming on discount day if they're going to keep refilling their tickets - when the attendant waves them up.

"We don't have enough," Kristoff calls back.

"I don't really give a shit," he says, "besides, it's good for people to see the wheel move anyway."

And he doesn't take any of their tickets at all.

-

They're half way up when the whole wheel illuminates - a brilliant explosion of color and light.

"Wow," Anna breathes, twisting around to get a better view.

Kristoff frowns down at the attendant's little control box, "I hope he doesn't think he's getting money."

Anna hits him lightly on the chest, exasperated. "He's being so nice," she defends.

"Yeah, I know," he says, still suspicious.

Anna huffs and goes back to looking around. They're about half way up now, and she strains to see if they're facing the right way to see the store. She asks Kristoff and he laughs like he thinks she's joking, so she assumes that's a no.

"It's so pretty up here," she says, as they climb, looking out over the city. The sun's starting to go down over the mountains and the sky's lighting up all shades of pink and blue.

"Yeah, it is," he says. But she can see that he's not looking around at the view.

She feels herself blush and she has to break eye contact. She wants to tell him he doesn't have to do that, but she likes it all the same.

She feels him scoot closer. The gondola swings under the shifting weight of him.

He's close enough now that she could lean against him. He touches the hair hanging loose down by her neck.

"Hey Anna, can I kiss you?"

She nods, breathless. Her heart's beating wildly but it's not the height, and it's not anxiety or fear.

He smiles, wide, and she smiles back and they lose a moment to breathy laughter.

Then his hand shifts up along her cheek, he leans down toward her and she tips her head back and rests one hand flat on his chest and then he kisses her, just once, lightly on the lips.

Anna's not having that, so she follows him as he pulls away, her flat hand becoming a grip on his shirt, pulling him back. She wants a proper kiss, and she gets one.

-

"I get nervous," she says from where she's held against his chest, some minutes later, "from stuff that... wouldn't always make sense to other people."

She can't see his face, but she feels him tense and he moves like he's going to pull away, so she grips harder.

It's a poor shade of the honesty she planned for today, but it's all she can summon.

"No, I just - wanted you to know. It's not because of you, when it happens."

"Okay," he says, uncertain. "D'you... wanna talk about it or - ?"

She shakes her head and leans back against him. The Ferris Wheel has crested, they're headed back down to the ground now.

"We should go try the teacups next," she tells him, and they set about evaluating how many ride tickets they actually have left to spend.

-

Anna discovers a good use for Kristoff’s strength. She’s never gone so fast in a teacup in her life, the force of it presses them close as he spins the wheel around and around.

She stumbles from the ride, bent at her waist and leaning on the railing.

“You’re crazy!” she tells him, laughing.

“You said as fast as possible!” he defends, not really looking sorry at all.

They give their remaining tickets to a passing family and begin the hike back to the car.

-

It's an awkward, swaying walk, with their arms at each other's waist. Certainly not the most efficient way to cross a parking lot, but Anna wouldn't let go for anything.

Kristoff seems to agree, because he leads her around to the passenger side of the truck rather than separating.

"Hey," he says, and she looks up at him and he swoops down and kisses her.

"Hi," she returns and tugs his shirt twice for him to come back down and do it again.

He obliges.

They end up pressed together against the truck, kissing like teenagers - the metal cool against Anna's back and Kristoff a long yeilding line against her front. He has one hand in her hair and the other curled stationary around her waist. She's surrounded by him - his warmth, his distinctly sweaty scent, his breathing.

It becomes a bit much for Anna. She pulls back from his mouth and pushes lightly against his shoulder.

She's certainly expecting that he'll release her, but she assumes there's going to be a little resistance. He'll pull away but then come back for one last kiss maybe, or accelerate things in the interval between her first and second push.

There's no question, for Anna, that she’ll end up pushing again.

So she stumbles slightly when he immediately steps away, as if Anna were actually strong enough to have shifted all his weight with one hand.

It's an incredibly powerful feeling that almost makes her want to start kissing again. But she doesn't want him to think other things are happening today, so she leaves it be.

"Good?" He checks, looking as sheepish as he is visibly thrilled.

"Mhmm," she agrees, dreamily.

He laughs, a clear and happy sound. "C'mon, let's get you home."

They hold hands this time, once they're free of the maze-like parking system anyway. Parked in front of her house, they kiss again as Anna unbuckles her seatbelt.

"Goodnight," she tells him, "thank you for this, it was so fun."

"Yeah, I had a good time. I'm glad you're feeling better."

Oh. Anna had forgotten.

He leans over and kisses her again, once on her lips and then once on her forehead.

Anna closes her eyes. She could live in this moment forever. She's never had a man kiss her forehead before.

She won't risk losing this.

"Sleep well, okay?" He says, still very close, "no homework - you're gonna make yourself sick for real if you're not careful."

"No homework," she agrees, then clears her throat, trying to shake the daze off, "I have to talk to Elsa about what a good kisser you are anyway."

He groans and pulls back then, with speed. "Ah Jesus, alright, well on that note then," he gestures like she should get out of the car already, but he's still smiling at her.

"Text me when you get home," she says, "and drive safely."

He promises, so she lets herself down. The truck stays, watchful, until she opens the front door.

It's probably too dark to see, but she waves as he pulls away all the same.

-

Elsa’s up, when Anna gets home. It’s not really late at all. Anna wishes they could have stayed for the fireworks at eleven, but she has class in the morning.

Elsa has kept some dinner aside in case Anna wants it, so she digs in, and Elsa listens while Anna recounts the day’s adventures.

They end up sitting together on the couch. Anna’s itching for a shower, half a day’s worth of fairground dust caked over her skin.

“I’m glad you had a good time,” says Elsa, then, after a moment's pause, “did you end up telling him about Olaf?”

Anna hesitates. Elsa won't understand. She's going to think it's a red flag about Kristoff, or that Anna can't handle dating. But that's not fair - Anna assumes her sister saw the police reports during the divorce, but they never actually talked about what happened on the day the nurse called Elsa.

If Anna says no, I didn't tell him. I said I would but I didn't, Elsa’s going to start up about the therapist again.

Anna just wants to be done talking about Hans. She wants to move forward.

There are such things as white lies. When the lie doesn't hurt anyone, and it's so small no one ever has to find out but it makes everything so much easier.

Elsa will just stress about Kristoff, if Anna tells her the truth. Anna doesn’t want to make her sister worry.

"It was fine," she says, picking at the ends of her hair. "Like you said, he was upset, but... mostly because of Hans."

Elsa smiles, big and relieved and happy. "I'm really glad it went well! Do you feel better now?"

Anna nods, lips twisting to keep from bursting into tears. She hasn’t lied to her sister in a very long time.

"Hey, hey. It's okay.” Elsa moves in close, “I know that was hard, but I'm really, really proud of you, Anna."

Anna lets her sister think she's crying for some other reason and basks in the comforting hug.

There may be such things as white lies. But Anna knows this isn’t one of them.

Chapter Text

His first sign should have been that she sat across their table from him, rather than in her now-customary spot beside him, with the chair scooted close.

“So, uh, doing anything fun tonight?” She asks, in kind of a weird tone.

"Nah, Sven's starting to smell so might try pick that fight..."

He’s expecting a bit of a laugh, at least, but it doesn’t come.

"Sounds like you'll have your hands full, then," she says, and Kristoff gets the distinct impression he's pissed her off somehow.

He frowns. Was she trying to make plans with him or something?

"Did you wanna do something, later?" He asks, unsure. She has school tomorrow, so he wouldn't have expected them to hang out after work.

"Not if you're busy," she says in a tone Kristoff recognizes easily, despite the long gaps in his romantic resume.

"Anna," he says, "tell me what's up."

She looks surprised he's called her on it.

"Nothing's up," she says, flustered now, but still pretending to watch the TV.

Kristoff's not trying to be an ass, but if she's mad she needs to tell him.

But he doesn't want to push, so, "Let me know if you change your mind." And he goes back to his bag of chips.

She glares at him.

Excellent - now he gets to fight with Anna the only time he’ll see her today. And, bonus, he doesn’t even get to know why.

They sit in silence together for a few moments. Kristoff’s chips crunch loudly. He holds the bag out to her, but she doesn’t take one.

"Kristoff, I know it's your birthday," she fairly snaps.

How - that fucking bulliten board. HR posts birthdays alongside the recognition call-outs and employment anniversaries. But no one fucking reads them. He should have known Anna would delight in that type of thing though.

"It's fine if you don't want to invite me," she says, more sad now than angry, finally looking at him at least, "but you don't have to pretend you're washing Sven."

And it's very close to properly irritating.

"Anna, you saw my name on the board and just decide that I must be lying to avoid spending time with you? I don't do anything for my birthday."

She crosses her arms now, hunching slightly in her chair. "Well - why wouldn't you be celebrating your birthday?"

Because Sven's a shit event planner. Not that Kristoff holds it against him.

He shrugs, "My birthday's not important."

She goes still, recalibrating with narrowed eyes.

"Doesn't your family do anything for birthdays?"

And there it is.

He sits back, making himself look casual and unaffected. Pops a chip into his mouth and everything to prove it.

"I don't have one."

"Everyone has a birthday, Kristoff, it says so right downstairs-"

"A family," he corrects, masochistically relishing the look on her face.

"Oh," she says softly, drawing the wrong conclusions, eyes wide and soft and horrified. "I didn't realize, you never said - I'm so sorry."

"Nope," he says, feeling a little dizzy. "They're out there somewhere - as far as I know." He leans toward her across the table, "Listen, I owe you the story, fine, but can we not do this in the breakroom?"

She snaps back a little, looking around almost surprised. There’s no one else here, Kristoff wouldn’t have let it get this far if there were, but it’s still a public place, right by the lockers and the timeclock.

"Oh, sorry. We still have to do something for it, though."

"I mean we really don't," he says, "but if you want - maybe we could go by McDonald's or something after work?"

Her lip twists disapprovingly for a moment, then smooths out into a wide smile.

"Okay, I'm here until eight-thirty though. Can you - come back and get me? And we'll go from there?"

She's always weird about him picking her up. "Sure, sounds good."

His final break is about up, so he crumples his empty chip bag and stands, "I'll see you later."

"You should bring Sven!" She blurts, suddenly.

"Uh, sure. We won't be able to eat inside with him though," he says.

"That's okay, we can all sit together outside."

"Alright, he'll be pleased."

If Anna wants to include Sven in Kristoff's birthday dinner then Kristoff's hardly about to argue.

"And you don't have to - tell me. I shouldn't have been… grumpy like that, before. Sorry."

"No worries," he says waving her off. He's for sure going to be late back, but it's slow and he'll be able to make up for it, "just - tell me, okay? If I'm pissing you off."

"I wasn't - pissed off," she says, tripping adorably over the swear, "but I will try not to hold you accountable for things I imagined."

She says this as if she is doing him a great favor, but he can tell she’s embarrassed and trying to cover.

"And what else can a guy ask for, from a beautiful woman," he actually says, out-fucking-loud and he's not sure if it's the smoothest shit that ever came to him or if he should be throwing himself down the stairs in horror.

But she giggles and tilts her head back for a quick kiss before he really has to hustle back to the backroom.

But - birthday McFlurries and a surprise evening with Anna. He's excited.

{ - }

Elsa considers the stack of contracts she's brought home. She thought it would be easier to read them here than at the office, but it turns out she was lying to herself.

They've requested copies of the client's contract going back seven years. She needs to at least get the first round of markups done, if not tonight then certainly before the client-meeting at the end of the week.

She pours herself a half-glass of wine, arranges all her notepads, sticky notes, highlighters, and different colored pens, and settles in for a boring few hours of steady progress.

About a half hour later, Elsa's phone buzzes. She forgets if she was going to mark that passage blue or red and she’ll have to read it again. She really should have turned the ringer off.

Then it goes again.

Then again. She thinks someone must be calling, which would be odd, at this hour, but she extracts herself to check.

By the time she's crossed the room she's amassed half a dozen texts, all from Anna. She continues to get notifications even as she reads.

 

Elsaelsaelsaelsa
Ok you said not to get upset I wasnt invited
But I got upset I wasnt invited
So I was like "I kno its ur birthday" and he was all whaaaat
Because theres NO PARTY elsa hes not leaving me out of plans
For real like theres nothing. we have to doooo sooooomething

Maybe we can organize something this weekend?

No today
I have a plan. But I need your help. R u busy?

Elsa glances back at her unread stack of contracts. How far was she going to get, really?

What do you need me to do?

YAY thx okay I will totally pay you back, but I need you to go to the store

Not this store!!
He is off soon but im here 3 hours still

We need cake - not chocolate or fruit
Idc just some cake.

And ill send you a pic of his type of soda
And I'm ordering 2 pizzas. One normal one for us and one like meat pizza. Oh and wings! That should be enough food right?

And then we didnt throw away that banner u had for my bday, did we?

Elsa frowns, uncertain. It really seems like -

Are you bringing Kristoff here?

I think he would feel awkward if we spend too much money on new stuff so it's probably okay if we reuse

That's what I was thinking. Is that okay?

She’s certainly surprised. It’s not unwelcome, though.

It looks like she's going to meet Kristoff.

Of course. Anything else?

Thank yooou! I'll text u if I think of anything, but I g2g back down now.

Elsa stands in her foyer, for a moment. It's been a long, long time since Hurricane Anna last touched down with such force.

i just remembered cheesecake exists - don't get cheesecake, k?

Well - she needs her shoes, and she needs her purse, and she needs her car keys. And she needs to get moving.

{ - }

He texts Anna when he's back outside the store. She takes a longer than he expects, coming out to the truck. Luckily he hasn't given Sven his penutbutter-slathered treat yet. 

So naturally Sven's hanging over Kristoff's right shoulder, like some enormous emotional cloud or something. 

Kristoff pets him absently. 

Sven remains laser-focused on the treat wrapped in newspaper in Kristoff's lap. 

"You know, some dogs are really attuned to their person's emotions and shit," he tells Sven. 

Sven kicks his feet and whines for the treat. 

"Love you too," Kristoff says, with an eyeroll and a fresh round of petting. 

This could go poorly, he knows. He's already lucky she was fine with the homeless thing. This could be the thing that finally makes her nervous enough...

And wouldn't that be a truly shit birthday. 

But he just really hopes - 

Anna pulls open the door and gets herself up into the cab. 

"Hi," she says, and leans across the middle for a hello-kiss. 

Hello-kisses and goodbye-kisses. These are things that happen to Kristoff now. Fairly regularly, actually. 

He's terrified of getting used to it. But, for now, Kristoff smiles. He's always happier when she's here. 

She's got a double-bagged something, probably for him, and she's trying to discreetly position it behind her legs down in the footwell. 

He politely doesn't look closely at the still-quite-transparent bag's direction. 

Reese's Peices.

She twists to say hi to Sven, then turns back to him, somewhat expectant. Probably because he hasn't got the engine running. 

Kristoff unwraps Sven's penutbutter bone - to much snorting and stomping of feet - and hands it back, an overblown reward for having almost no patience whatsoever. 

"So here's the thing," he says, bracing his palms on the steering wheel and pushing until it creaks. 

"You really don't have to," she says, "we can just do your birthday. I promise I'm not mad or anything." 

But Kristoff's been rehearsing for a few hours now, and there's no point really in putting it off. 

He's nervous, but if it's the type of thing that's going to be too much for her then better for both of them to know now, because he can't exactly change any of it.

So he just - starts talking. 

"May as well, right? So, when I was a kid, my Mom did a bunch of drugs - stupid fucking drugs, heroin and that kind of shit."

Anna gasps. Darkly, Kristoff thinks if she's gasping already they're in for a hell of a ride here.

He goes on, “and she had this boyfriend. And he -" he looks sidelong at Anna. Last time he told this story he used the rather flippant and pleasantly detached-sounding he used to beat the shit out of her, but he quite obviously isn't going to say that here.

"He was, uh, physically abusive, to her, um. So eventually we got on the state's radar, I don't know if they got arrested or one of my teachers - anyway, they did a home evaluation, and I got taken into care. "

Anna doesn't say anything as he talks. She's just a big pair of wide, watery eyes across the cab.

"I don't know if you - well, the way it works is the state wants to reunify families, so they set goalposts, like a certain number of clean tests, mandated counseling attendance, and get rid of the boyfriend, shit like that. So then if she made the goals, she could - earn me back."

Anna seems to sense where this is going, so she takes one hand away from her face and reaches across for one of Kristoff's.

He grasps back, but shrugs at her - there’s no way to convince her that it didn’t matter without coming across like he’s some kind of sociopath, so he’s just going to stay light on the details.

"She got close, a few times. But he'd always be there, or she's piss some crazy prescription instead and then argue with them about it. The state only lets you fail so many times."

She'd begged Kristoff, once, to pee into a ziplock bag that she would tape to the inside of her leg.

"She lost her custody for good when I was around fourteen. But, y'know, I wasn't gonna get adopted, way too old for that, so I just bounced around foster homes 'till I aged out."

He hesitates, but there’s no point keeping secrets if he’ll just have to tell her eventually, "I dropped out of high school and started working. Didn't get my GED until the shelter - they said I could keep my place longer, if I was working toward it."

Anna is still quiet. Kristoff's stomach twists, nervously. Sven munches on. 

"So yeah, I never really, y'know - birthdays." He does a stupid little jazz-hands gesture that he wishes he could take back.

There had been years where he had people who wanted to celebrate it. Well-intended foster parents, previous girlfriends, Kat took him out for drinks a couple of years back (that fucking bulliten-board). But since he's been on his own, he just hasn’t been in the habit.

"You haven't seen your mother since you were fourteen?" She asks in a small voice, like she’s not sure if she should be asking questions.

Kristoff braces. He knows where this might be going.

"I last saw her… four or five years ago now? This girl I was dating at the time thought it was sad that I'd left her behind - her words. So, we had my Mom over for dinner one night."

Kimberly. She hadn't liked his story. She said family was the most important thing and she needed Kristoff to show that he understood that. She had worried about what it would mean for their future, if they were going to have one - how Kristoff might be with kids, if he was a risk genetically.

It was the beginning of the end, for them, this story. Then meeting his Mom was basically the final straw. Kim was kind enough to drag it out for a few uncomfortable weeks though before telling him.

"What happened?"

He laughs. He probably shouldn't, but he still thinks it's fucking funny.

"I went to the bathroom and Mom asked my girlfriend for four-hundred bucks. Said her boyfriend had been 'accidentally arrested,' whatever the fuck that was supposed to mean."

There. Hopefully that’s squashed any well-intended you should treasure your parents while they’re still here, that might have been heading his way.

Thanks, Mom, I owe you one, he thinks, and he’d have laughed if he were alone.

"Was he your Dad?" she asks next, with a little wince.

Kristoff shrugs again. He was the adult man Kristoff grew up with. The biological distinction has become fairly pointless - over time, anyway. “He didn't sign my birth certificate," he tells her.

"Did he ever hit you?" She asks, very softly, uncertain.

He grits his teeth. He knows it’s a stupid reaction, of course she’d wonder. And the answer’s fucking yes anyway. But it bothers him - aggravates him, really - that she’s thinking of him as weak and small and abused.

"Uh, yeah, but mostly I stayed out of his way. I lived with them again, actually, right before I got homeless," he admits, still embarrassed by it. Fucking stupid thing to do. "And we fought, a couple of times. 'Cuz, you know, I had got bigger and he was still pulling the same shit on Mom, and she wouldn't -"

He's back in sensitive territory that he doesn’t know how to navigate, so he abruptly cuts off whatever he was trying to prove there and releases a heavy breath. 

He doesn’t want to say anything to Anna - about women leaving and not leaving and why why why why, but he remembers fucking begging his Mom - the two of them could afford for the house without him, she could stay clean easier if he was gone, she didn't have to live like this.

But Kristoff was the one who ended up leaving.

He drums his fingers on the steering wheel, antsy. She's just staring at him now with this small, sad smile.

"You doing alright back there, Sven?" He asks, as if Sven wouldn't have let them know he was finished with his treat. Sven just keeps up his string of wet, mouthy, crunching sounds.

"So, McDonald's?" He says, and she frowns like she's going to want to talk about it more so he adds, "just - please?"

“Okay... can we swing by my house to get my sweater first though?”

That doesn’t make any sense to Kristoff.

“Why?”

“Well, if we’re eating outside, then I might need it.”

“You can use mine, no worries.”

He likes that idea actually. Anna all wrapped up in his jacket, rolling up his sleeves to keep them out of the ketchup, and maybe, when he gets it back, the collar smelling like her shampoo.

“But then you’ll get cold,” she says.

It's only just cold enough out for Kristoff to need long sleeves. “If some freak blizzard hits, we can eat in here. The heat works.”

She sets her mouth, like maybe he’s frustrating her.

“Can we please go get my jacket, though?”

It’s a waste of gas, he thinks, but he’s realizing that he’s never seen her push this hard on something, so he finally turns his key and heads right out of the store’s parking lot instead of left toward the freeway.

He breathes more deeply now that they're moving. She smiles at him and settles back into her seat. He had to take his hand back to maneuver around the parking lot, but he offers it back to her now and she takes it without hesitation. 

That's a good sign, right?

“My parents died when I was in high school,” she tells him, after a mile or so.

“I’m sorry,” he says, though he had known, “were they - good?”

He winces - people don’t typically appreciate when you question if their dead parents sucked or not.

But she doesn’t seem offended. “Yes,” she says, wistful, “they were the best.” She's tracing her fingers lightly over his wrist in a way that sends electric shocks up and down Kristoff’s arm.

“I sometimes think - if they hadn’t died. I don’t think I would have, you know, married him.” She turns so she’s looking out the front window now, the cab lighting and darkening rhythmically as they pass under street lamps. “I get really mad that they died, when I think that. They - it was a boat accident... in Europe.”

Ah, Kristoff thinks, gut clenching. Not exactly cancer, then.

He squeezes her hand. He doesn’t know how to make that better.

“My grandpa died when I was eight. He lived with us and really kept shit together, or tried anyway. After he died it all kind of went off the rails. I was mad at him, too.” He times a look at her with the next streetlight - thank fuck, she’s not crying. “I think it’s normal, to feel that way.”

She stares at him for a few moments. He feels it, but he doesn't turn to look. 

“I’m really sorry you had to go through all of that.” She squeezes his hand, tight.

For the first time, Kristoff kind of wants his hand back. He leaves it though, he knows he’d regret pulling away.

“Thanks, but it was a long time ago,” and besides he’s never been in the habit of shaking his fist at the sky over things he can’t change.

Chapter Text

Kristoff idles at the curb outside Anna’s house. She’s watching him, something gleaming in her eyes, and she unbuckles her seatbelt but doesn’t move to get out.

“Will you come with me?” She asks.

“Why?” He can feel it in the air - something’s up.

“Please?”

“Sven’ll go batshit if I lock him in here and leave.”

“Oh Sven's coming too! You can both say hi to Elsa!”

Kristoff hasn’t turned twenty-eight with a very long list of fears. It’s mostly unexpected bills, Sven’s health, and long periods stuck working with the intolerably stupid.

All the same, he’s not about to go meet Anna’s sister right now.

“I’ll meet her some other time,” he says, “you just go get your jacket.”

She droops, slightly. “You don’t want to meet Elsa?”

No, he doesn't want to meet Elsa. Her fucking big-sister parent-surrogate, the clear center of Anna’s world.

"I do, some other time, I just - I got dressed for a McDonald's parking lot, not Elsa."

Her gleaming, mischievous smile is back.

"How would you have dressed for Elsa?"

Kristoff hadn't thought it out, not really, but he had imagined scraping together enough to take the two of them out to eat, somewhere medium, so, a collared shirt at least.

He showered after work, sure, but for fuck's sake he smell-checked this shirt before putting it on.

"I don't know, I didn't have a plan, I just - c'mon, Anna!" He's straight up whining now.

She runs her fingers through his hair, reordering it slightly and sits back.

"You look great, I promise. It's going to be fine."

Kristoff pulls down the visor to check what she's done, but it's obviously a useless gesture. His hair does whatever the fuck it wants.

“Besides, you’ve met Elsa before.”

He frowns, he would definitely remember. “What? No, I haven’t.”

“Mhmm, you have,” says Anna, surreptitiously messing with her bag for a moment, “She came through your lane that day you took my cashier shift.”

“What?” Anna thought this would make him feel better? “Wait, fuck, she didn’t try buy a plate set did she?”

“I don’t think so,” and with that, Anna lets herself out of the truck and opens the back door for Sven to get down.

Sven runs excited loops around her and Kristoff bashes his head into the headrest a few times.

He’s done this once before - meeting the family. Guess what - he’s shit at it. And she’d said it would go fine then too.

Anna opens his door from the outside. She holds out her hand like he needs help getting down.

“Two minutes,” he says, once he’s on the pavement beside her, “then we’re going, right?”

“If you want to leave straight away, we can,” which is not really an agreement. She holds out her hand and he skulks along behind her, Sven at his heel.

It’s not one of those expensive new developments where every house looks exactly the same, but it’s a big-looking place for just the two of them. Kristoff wonders what Anna will think when she first sees his five-hundred-square-foot apartment.

Anna doesn’t knock, obviously. She lives here but it feels insane that he’s just going to walk into this house and, what, run into Elsa somewhere inside?

The first thing he sees is the banner hanging from the ceiling, alternating brightly-colored letters announcing:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

It stops him in his tracks, mouth hanging open stupidly. Across the living room there’s a dining room table set up with colorful helium balloons tied to one of the chairs and a small stack of pizza boxes.

Anna is vibrating next to him, hands clutched under her chin, watching him take it all in.

“How did you - ? Did you, what, leave work or something?” And then go back, in time for him to come get her? On the fucking bus? How the fucking hell -

A tall, slender, blonde woman comes through a doorway from the back end of the house.

"I was beginning to worry," she says.

“Elsa!” Anna rushes over, arms outstretched, “It looks amazing, thank you so much!”

Oh, come the fuck on, Anna, he thinks. Wonderful - Anna’s had her sister spend the evening on this. He’s so fucked.

Sven’s gone over to introduce himself, and Elsa’s petting the animal with some clear reservations.

Kristoff sucks in a bracing breath and heads over.

“Hi,” he says, holding out his hand, “I’m Kristoff.”

They obviously know each other’s names, but she goes along with it.

“Elsa,” she says, shaking it. She’s got a pretty good grip. Lawyer, he supposes, you gotta have a good handshake.

Anna flaps her hands, excited, “Okay, I have to go get changed, you guys make friends, I’ll be right back.” And she just - abandons him.

Sven chases her down the hall, happy to explore.

Kristoff and Elsa are left standing awkwardly together. He's never wished this hard for a concrete bench in a McDonald's parking lot.

Elsa smiles up at him, polite and serene, but she doesn’t do him the kindness of starting a conversation.

Fuck, he realizes suddenly, she probably knows the second most about him of anyone - sisters are like that, right?

"Sorry she had you do all of this,” he says, awkwardly shifting his weight, “You didn't have to. This is a lot."

Elsa's smile shows teeth, suddenly, "I’ll do anything to help Anna."

Kristoff coughs. "Right - got it."

He's prepared to go back to awkward, somewhat frosty silence, so he's surprised when Elsa speaks again.

"My father called her Hurricane Anna, when she'd get like this."

He can picture it suddenly, all the force of Anna in a pint-sized little squirt, dragging her sister and parents through elaborate living-room performances.

Kristoff laughs. "I can see that. It fits."

Elsa looks at him, considering for a moment. They hear the tell-tale sounds of Anna and Sven on their way back.

"Anna's birthday is June twenty-first," Elsa tells him.

"Shit, thank you," he breathes, pulling out his phone to make a note of the date.

How the fuck he's going to match what she's pulled off here though…

-

Anna comes back in leggings and a big baggy sweater. She's not wearing shoes either, just brightly colored socks - he checks quickly, Elsa's got shoes on so he's probably fine.

Kristoff's never seen her in leggings before.

She's also got a gift bag and a card, and she moves past him to set them on the table.

There's something there already - one of those decorative giftcard boxes with a pre-attached bow. It's sitting on the table, propped against some plates.

Anna didn't put it there, so it must be there by Elsa's design. 

"Okay, we didn't have much time," Anna hedges - three hours, they did all this in three hours - "but open your presents!"

Elsa did get him present. Movie theater vouchers - two movie passes and a free popcorn and soda combo.

"Thank you," he says, surprised and moved despite his cynic's awareness that it's a perfectly generic 'meeting a stranger for the first time and also it's their birthday' type gift.

With everything else she's done already today, she certainly wasn't obligated. Kristoff never would have noticed the absence of a present, that's for sure.

"Oh - good idea, Elsa!" Anna exclaims, craning over Kristoff's arm to see. So the idea didn't even originate with Anna.

"We'll have to keep an eye out for a movie we want to see," he says to the room, but clearly meaning himself and Anna.

She beams at him, like there had been any doubt he'd take her.

He opens Anna's card next. She went funny last time, but this one is a pretty floral watercolor kind of print that manages not to look like wallpaper.

She's come over all bashful, "because of the day at the gardens…"

"Yeah," he agrees. 

Inside she has scrawled a standard birthday message, then, PS - now I know, for next year :)

Did she write that inside the store before he picked her up, he wonders, or just now when she was getting changed?

If it was before their talk, she just wouldn't have given it to him, right? If things weren't okay?

Or maybe it was entirely thoughtless, just scribbling words in a card to fill the space.

She thrusts the gift bag at him. There's no tissue paper or anything so he easily reaches in and pulls out a bag of Easter-Bunny themed candy.

"Reeses!" He says, injecting some false surprise, but also pleased she had remembered. He mentioned his preference when the Christmas candy went on clearance,  he thinks.

"Thank you, Anna" he says, and opens his arms for a hug, "this is all great."

She steps in and they stand together for just a moment. Kristoff feels hyper-aware of Elsa occupying herself with organizing some plates.

He lets go and Anna steps away.

-

The pizza is delicious, and the wings are good too. Anna's even got the right soda he likes.

Conversation's a little… stilted. But at least Elsa's not quizzing him about his fucking prospects.

Anna tells stories about her day, then asks Elsa about hers, then Kristoff about his. Elsa has a little story about procrastinating on some contracts, which Kristoff makes an effort to ask her a few questions about. He does actually think it's interesting - he doesn't know much about how the legal system works outside of the more obvious criminal side of things.

Elsa says something about preparing the client to be deposed and Kristoff interrupts to blurt stupidly, "Depositions! That's what Anna's going to do, right Anna?"

Anna beans at him, she's got buffalo sauce smeared over her face.

"Yes, a transcriptionist will be there to make sure an accurate account is entered into the record," says Elsa, then, "how are your classes recently, Anna, you haven't mentioned it much."

Anna takes a moment to finish chewing, then launches into a story about a person in her computer class who raised their hand during the lecture to comment that if emails are stored in the cloud, what do they do in very sunny places?

-

When he sees the cake, Kristoff braces himself for his first real argument with Anna - he isn't going to sit here while the two of them sing.

But Anna gets him, he didn't need to worry. She sets the cake down and gives him a kiss on the cheek.

The cake has colorful icing balloon decorations and it even says his name, spelled correctly, in loopy-icing-cursive. Elsa told them to do that, he marvels. 

Sven, who has been doing very well at pretending he doesn't see them all eating, gets a bite of cake too.

-

Anna starts to gather dishes, and Kristoff moves to help, but Elsa waves them away.

"It'll take two minutes," she says, "go to the living room."

Anna leads him through - Kristoff has rarely been inside a house where the living room, dining area, and kitchen constitutes three separate and distinct spaces like this.

"I thought, uh, we could watch a movie or something? Unless it's getting too late?"

It's creeping up on ten now, but even if Kristoff had to be in at six in the morning he knows he'd choose to stick around.

"I'm good," he says, sitting in the corner of their couch, "what about you? You have class in the morning, right?"

"Oh, I'll be okay," she says, dismissively, and she sits in the opposite corner.

Slightly dejected, but fighting not to show it, Kristoff asks what they're watching.

"I don't know," she says, thrusting the remote out toward him, "it's your birthday."

They spend a little bit of time scrolling around, debating different options. Anna refuses to say what she wants to watch, but he can tell by the Watch Again titles that their tastes are not perfectly aligned in this regard.

Elsa arrives as Kristoff finally picks the movie that stood out to him immediately. Pacific Rim.

Elsa hands Anna a bowl of popcorn over the back of the couch and takes a moment to hold eye contact meaningfully with Anna.

Kristoff pretends not to notice.

They get whatever it is sorted out and Elsa announces that she's got to go finish up marking something up, then she'll be going to bed.

"Goodnight, Kristoff," she says, "happy birthday, and it was very nice to meet you, finally."

He realizes abruptly that he probably should have stood up or something. 

"Night - it was good to meet you too. And, you know, thanks again." He gestures vaguely around the room.

-

An epic CGI monster emerges from the ocean. An enormous Jaeger meets it.

"So it's a Transformer?" Asks Anna, and he laughs.

It's a good movie and he's properly sucked in - until he feels the couch dip and realizes that Anna's in stealth mode, ever-so-casually creeping his way.

He lifts his arm up so it rests along the back of the couch and grins at her. She ducks her head, caught, but scoots in close.

Anna rests her head against his shoulder and one of her hands against his chest. Kristoff can feel her breathing.

"If the Godzillas always come out of that trench," she says, some time later, "Why wouldn't they have Transformer-submarines or something?"

Kristoff looks into her smirking, happy face. Not Godzillas, he could say, keeping the joke going. Instead he cups her chin lightly in his much larger hand, and leans in to kiss her.

"Thank you, Anna. This was a great birthday."

Their kisses elongate. He happily loses track of the plot in the next few minutes. He lets his hand move back from her face to her neck and up into her hair. His other hand sits as a fist against the back cushion - arm tense with the effort leaving it still.

She has her hair down and he loves the feel of it between his fingers.

He realizes, though, that she's a little stiff. Her palm is open, still, against his chest and she's keeping her mouth small.

Little alarms are going off, you're gonna fuck this up, Bjorgman, careful, and he pulls back. Rests his forehead against hers and breathes for a moment, eyes screwed tightly closed.

Hopefully she won't retreat back to the other arm rest.

He turns back to the movie. She spends an excruciating full minute watching him, his heart taps wildly against his ribs - shit, she can probably feel it actually - but then she puts her head back down, lower this time, against his chest now.

He brings his arm down off the back of the couch and rests it along her shoulder.

The movie's plot isn't terribly complicated. All the same, he has a very hard time picking back up the thread. He just sits and feels the warm line of her against his torso, the give and take of their breathing.

The battle scenes seem uncomfortably  loud now, so he turns it down significantly. Closes his eyes, to better savor the weight of her against him like this.

Kristoff's never put much stock in birthdays. But he knows he won't be able to just ignore it, next year, if he's alone again.

But she said it first, planted the idea. What a gift, if he were to have this again

Chapter Text

The house is quiet and still when Kristoff blearily opens his eyes.

A familiar tongue laps at his knuckles.

"Fuck off," he whisper-hisses into the dark.

Sven whines. Then Kristoff hears him scratching at the glass and wood paneling of Anna's patio door.

This fucking dog. Honestly.

Kristoff is deeply uncomfortable. He stretches in place, arching his back, but the warm weight of Anna across his chest freezes him.

Sven whines again.

"Can't you hold it?" Whispers Kristoff, with urgent despair.

Anna is curled around a small portion of his chest, and he has an arm running down the length of her, his unconscious hand actually holding around the outside of her thigh.

He pulls that back as soon as he realizes, blushing like no self-respecting twenty-eight-year-old, but her breathing is long and even - she hasn't woken up from his rustling.

Sven scratches at the door again.

"No," Kristoff insists, uselessly.

Sven trots back over to the couch, Kristoff can make him out in the low light - visibly looking for a way up.

Kristoff fends him off with a leg.

"Fine! Fine, fine, okay." Sven sits back, smug, "You know I would never do this to you, right?"

Sven huffs, impatient.

Kristoff puts a hand on Anna's shoulder and gives her a little shake.

"Anna," he whispers, cautious. He's not really sure how she's going to react to waking up like this.

"Anna," he tries again, slightly louder with a more insistent shake.

"Wha?" Her head moves against his chest in the near-dark, "Krist'ff?"

Her arm over his waist squeezes and she burrows slightly against him.

Kristoff closes his eyes for a moment, curls his hand around her shoulder and squeezes back.

His neck hurts and his legs are at a funny angle and he needs an extra cushion to support his back, because twenty-goddamn-eight is too fucking old for this apparently, but Kristoff would happily, blissfully stay here all night.

Sven starts up again. It's only the thought of Kristoff's dog pissing on Elsa's floor that gets him moving.

He shifts his legs, grips the back of the couch and pulls himself upright, Anna moving along with him, and startling somewhat on the way.

He wraps his arm around her and gives a low shhh-ing noise, and she settles again. He leans her against the couch cushions and stands, taking the opportunity to stretch properly.

He has to knee Sven out of the way - already feeling a little bad about making his friend wait so long - and tries to quietly open their patio door.

"Just don't shit, alright?" He whispers as Sven rushes past him into the dark garden.

Their garden is big, probably could hold the house Kristoff grew up in, but from what he can see by the patio light it's pleasantly overgrown rather than the rigorously manicured thing he was expecting.

Out in the cold night Kristoff can feel a wet drool patch where Anna's head had rested. He smiles. So she's a heavy sleeper, then. Not something he would have ever expected to know about her, back at Christmas.

"Kristoff?" She says from the doorway behind him, her hair's all mussed and she's squinting in the patio light.

"Anna, you go lay down, Sven and I are gonna get going. Okay?"

“What?” She says, face all screwed up in confusion, "Where?"

"Where? Am I going?" She nods, almost swaying tiredly, "Back home, Anna," he explains, fond.

She shakes her head, yawning enormously, "It's too early. Just come sleep with me."

"What?" He says, though he heard her perfectly well.

He can't - right? She's too sleepy to invite him into her room on a whim like this. She'll feel awkward in the morning proper. At best.

She looks a little more awake suddenly, eyes wider and face redder.

"I mean, just - you know, sleeping." She tugs the sleeves of her shirt down past her thumbs.

"I know," he says.

They watch each other for a moment, unsure.

"In the morning, too," she clarifies, no longer able to look at him.

"I know," he says, again.

He wonders if he should insist that he sleep on the couch, if he is going to stay. Or, the place is big enough, if he should ask if they have a spare room.

But he wants badly enough to sleep next to her and it makes him reckless.

-

Sven, business complete, happily answers Kristoff's short whistle.

They follow Anna deeper into the house.

It's deeply, middle-of-the-night quiet, but Kristoff breaks it with a barking laugh when her door opens.

Hurricane Anna indeed.

She pushes ineffectively at a pile of clothes with a sweeping foot.

"I wasn't expecting to have you in here!" She defends, embarrassed.

"Well you can always send me back to the couch," he returns, less of a joke than he originally intended.

He's desperately worried this is a mistake.

She glances at him, but mostly busies herself hiding an empty empty box of oreos in her bedside draw.

"Anna," he interrupts her, he wants to take her hand but he feels intrusive already just standing here by the door, he can't follow her around to that side of her bed, "It's past four. Don't worry about it. Let's just - lay down."

It's a weird weird weird thing, standing in Anna's bedroom, on either side of Anna's bed. She looks small across from him and he feels huge - like it's fucking doll furnitature or something suddenly.

Kristoff's had girlfriends before, slept next to a woman with no intention of anything but rest. Somehow it never felt so stark before. Kristoff's been in proper relationships twice, and both women would have brushed him off with ease if he overstepped.

He never thought about it before - maybe there was something reassuring about being attracted to a woman who could laugh and snark at the prospect of a wandering hand.

He toes off his shoes, but otherwise he's obviously going to sleep as he is. He hasn't fallen asleep in his jeans in years now, and he knows it won't be comfortable, but that’s beyond minor compared to even the thought of shedding them while standing before Anna and her bed.

Luckily he took his jacket off before dinner, or else he'd have to sleep in that heavy thing too.

Anna hasn't moved, really, just watching him. Maybe he's rationalizing, but at a certain point he has to trust that she'd tell him, if she changed her mind.

Right?

He sits on her bed, sinking nicely into her fluffy covers, then lays himself out, shifting slightly so he is on his side, facing her.

She surprises him by also staying on top of the covers - in his head she would go under, for the layer's separation.

She mirrors his position and smiles at him, small. She's got a huge bed and she's not wasting it - Kristoff would struggle to reach her if he tried.

"Oh!" She shoots up, "I should text Elsa to let her know. Since your truck's out front."

"Good idea," he agrees. He doesn't feel like waking up to Anna's sister and the Kristoff-machete she almost certainly has.

He wonders what she's saying to Elsa, as her phone casts a bright blue-tinged hue over her face.

Sven hops up onto the foot of the bed and spends a moment circling, trying to find enough space for himself to lay down. Anna's shorter and curled up, so Sven obviously intends to settle his bulk below her and then across Kristoff's feet.

Kristoff kicks lightly, "No. Buddy, no. You gotta go. Gooo."

"He's fine," says Anna, leaning to out her phone in the nightstand. "I don't mind him up here."

"No," says Kristoff, pushing in earnest now. "He spreads out in his sleep. This," he gestures to the tight, deceptively small curl of Sven, "is a fucking trick."

Sven grumbles about it, but he goes, resettling himself on Anna's floor. It's all soft carpet and laundry - he'll hardly be uncomfortable.

There's nothing left to do now. Kristoff closes his eyes. He can't just lay here peering at her, after all.

After a little while, he gets the sense that they're both lying here, wide awake, pretending to be asleep.

"Hey," he whispers.

He sees the outline of her shift as she half-turns toward him.

He raises his arm, an invitation he hopes she knows she can refuse. He wants to say Please or I Promise but he doesn't want to make it harder for her if she'd rather not. Though all he really does want is to have her close again.

She considers him, in the dark, for long enough that his arm starts to wilt back toward his body.

Then, she scoots, once, twice, three little scoots backward toward the side of the bed he's on.

There's still a good six inches between their bodies, but his arm can bridge it. He carefully curls it over her waist so his palm lays flat against her stomach.

Kristoff could count this among the most contented moments of his adult life, laying in a soft bed with a solid Anna under his hand, and the equally-real prospect of getting to do this again some time - he could count it, if he couldn't feel the deliberate tempo of her breathing under his palm, only a relatively thin sweater between his hand and her skin and the stiff discomfort in her neck.

"Are you going to be able to sleep like this?" He asks.

"I - don't know," she admits, without turning back to him.

It feels a little like a hit to the chest, but he can ignore it.

He ducks a quick kiss on the top of her head and pulls his arm back. After a minute she scoots a little bit back toward the middle.

It's okay. He thinks she will probably let them practice another time.

If Kristoff is truly lucky - a concept he struggles with, though the evidence is mounting - they might learn to sleep comfortably together.

The bed and the hour and the long and emotional day begin to pull Kristoff back down into sleep. He slept through Pacific Rim's final battle just a few hours ago, for fuck's sake, he's got no hope of staying awake in the warm, comfortable, pre-dawn atmosphere of Anna's room.

"Are you sure it's okay?" She asks when he's almost back to sleep.

"Hmm?"

"Just sleeping. I mean, it's your birthday and -"

"Shhhh - S'good," he says.

There's another shit conversation on the horizon. But for now, he crosses his arms against his chest to try and prevent himself from reaching out in his sleep, and, as dawn light begins to creep through her curtains, he lets himself drift off again.

{ - }

Anna doesn't really think she's going to fall asleep.

There are men in the world who it isn't safe to fall asleep next to like this. Anna knows this, Hans or no Hans. It had started in high school and didn't exactly slow down in the dorms. Anna thought of herself as one of the lucky ones, back then.

She doesn't think that's Kristoff, or she wouldn't have been so stupid as to invite him back here. She does have a basic sense of self-preservation, after all (Elsa). Heck, she'd have never gotten in his car if she thought that. But, all the same, laying here with a man at her back prickles unpleasantly down her spine.

She rolls carefully in place, so she's facing Kristoff, but not much closer than she was.

He's asleep.

Just like earlier - she didn't want to kiss on the couch like that, and he still let her curl up on him anyway.

It's his birthday and all he wanted was cake and company and a big-budget action movie.

One of his hands has fallen away from his body and landed palm up, fingers lightly curled.

He twitches, slightly, at first contact, but doesn't wake up, so Anna traces around the palm of his hand and up and down each finger and then his thumb.

It's funny, she thinks, how much larger and thicker and stronger a man's hand can grow to be.

She curls his fingers in and finds light hair on his knuckles. His fingernails are very short and jagged, so he probably doesn't cut or file them like Anna does.

He has callouses on his palm - she knows he hardly wears the gloves they provide at work. Says they get in the way.

She can't picture him small enough for someone to hurt. Can't picture the person who would have hurt him when he was small.

She won't remember falling asleep when she does wake up, but it happens.

-

She snoozes her alarm. The first one is really just a warning that the real alarms are starting soon. 

She is woken much more effectively by a voice saying, "Anna? Your alarm -" 

She flies up, adrenaline rushing through her system, but it's Kristoff - Kristoff with a sleep rumpled appearance and jeans still and dingy white socks that she's never actually seen before. 

And a look on his face that she has. 

"Sorry," he says, "we'll go-"

"No! No don't," she says, holding out a still-lightly shaking hand. "I forgot. But - no worries." She sits again on the bed, "Hi. Good morning." 

"Hi," he says. He gets up and his shirt has gotten twisted in the night so when he leans back and stretches Anna gets a glimpse of light pudge and a hairy belly-button. 

"Bathroom?" He asks. 

"First door down," she says. 

Once he's gone - Sven following - Anna flops down on her bed. She can feel the warm patch where he rested. 

Kristoff spent the night. 

In the daylight it's romantic, rather than scary. They fell asleep watching a movie and came back to her room and - just slept. Even though it was his birthday. She hugs herself, breathing deeply. 

She's going to kiss him, when he comes back. 

She does. His breath smells a bit like yesterday's junk-food extravaganza, Anna's probably does too, if she's honest, but he slept in his jeans for her and Anna can't think of anything more romantic in the world. 

"I'm gonna miss my bus," she says, when her third alarm goes off. 

"I'll drive you," he says, and goes back to kissing her neck.

It's very nice of him, but his words bring her first flutter of nerves. 

What she had meant, and probably should have actually said, was I'm ready to stop kissing now.

The words don't come as easily as she wants, so she turns her head away and taps him twice on the shoulder. 

It works again. 

He stands, "I should probably go let Sven out." He hesitates at the door, "is, uh, your sister going to be around?" 

Anna laughs. "No, she'll have left by now. I'm going to go shower, if you - if you'll still drive me in?" 

Otherwise she really is going to be late. 

He gives her a weird look. "Yeah, course," then he lets himself out of the room again. 

Anna thinks she loves him. 

Chapter Text

"Kristoff stayed over," she tells Olaf, big cartoon hearts beating over her eyes, maybe.

They're in the library, but on the lowest level, where it's more group-work tables than bookshelves and talking is allowed.

Anna's having a terrible time focusing. For starters, she's exhausted. But mostly because she still feels the warm, happy cocoon of arms enveloping her, of the hole she spotted in Kristoff's socks, and him leaning on her bathroom door smiling at her through the mirror while she brushes her teeth. She doesn't want to sacrifice this fuzzy feeling to the Latin roots of modern legal vocabulary.

When she fell in love before, it was dramatic - a proper fall into a whirlwind, she was swept off her feet by an emotional roller coaster of gifts, jealousy, vacations, big fights and expensive dinners.

This is better, she knows. The ground stays solid under her feet, she's warm and secure and Kristoff sleeps in his jeans and kisses her forehead and cheerfully drops her off at campus.

"Wait seriously?" Olaf says, dramatically sweeping their books aside, "Already? I mean - you do you, no judgement, I just figured you for -"

"We didn't do anything," she cuts him off, blushing. Is Olaf going to think she's unbearably childish for this? But she'd be a slut if she had already, so...?

He snaps his fingers, "There it is. Thought so."

Anna bristles, "There's nothing wrong with-"

"No, course not," he agrees, pulling his books back, "sickeningly adorable. Objectively less interesting."

Anna crosses her arms over her chest with a humpf.

Olaf doesn't last long.

"Oh alright," he closes his book, "let's hear it - you stared into his deep blue eyes and talked until the sun came up…"

He puts his elbows up on the table and leans in to listen, his lips twitching against a pleased smile.

"Kristoff's eyes are brown," she says, "and actually we were watching Pacific Rim-"

"Oh god," says Olaf

"It was his birthday! He gets to pick the movie-"

"Still though."

Anna waves him quiet, "We were cuddling on the couch and we fell asleep, and then when we woke up I just - invited him back there! We didn't really even cuddle or anything, but it was so warm and cozy just having him there though."

Olaf waits a beat.

"That's your whole story," he says, with flat disbelief.

Anna chews her lip.

"I think- that I'm falling in love with him," Olaf gasps, disinterested facade entirely abandoned, "and I just - how am I supposed to know how long is too long to make a guy wait before - stuff happens? Without him losing interest?"

Olaf somehow raises both his eyebrows high and narrows his eyes to slits at the same time.

"Is he giving you a hard time about it or something?"

Anna shakes her head.

"Then there isn't a wrong amount of time," he says, with unusual sincerity.

"Okay, I mean I know that's the answer. But -" but what's the real answer. She had hoped Olaf, as a guy, would be able to let her in on it. "I just don't want to, yet, but I don't want to wait so long that it gets annoying for him, you know? I'd rather just do it before it becomes an issue."

Olaf's suddenly frowning.

"Well that would make him - not great. I don't think you're supposed to do stuff with people to stop them being annoyed, right?"

Olaf is younger than Anna. He's the normal age for someone to be in college. He doesn't know these things yet. You have to be willing to compromise in a relationship, it's a give-and-take, everyone knows this.

Though, inexplicably, Anna's gut clenches at the idea of him finding out.

What advice would she give Olaf, if he were to meet someone in one of his classes? She wouldn't actually tell him to do it even though he was uncomfortable - of course not.

But Olaf's younger than Anna. That's what makes it different. When you're inexperienced - people have to wait for you.

He's looking at her now though in a way that reminds Anna that Olaf's also very smart, hidden in all his silliness, he's really truly quick.

"So you said you don't have a Facebook because of your ex-husband," he says, slowly.

Anna groans and buries her head in her hands. This again. Always back to this.

"I get the feeling it's not just to stop him sending desperate 'take me back' flowers?"

Anna takes a deep breath and shakes her head from the dark circle of her arms.

Olaf's thin twig-like fingers touch her arm, lightly.

She pops her head back up - she's not going to let it be a whole big thing.

"It's not because of that though," she insists. "It's a normal thing to think about. Kristoff's twenty-eight, I'm gonna be twenty-five soon. I was married! We aren't exactly two teenagers where it makes sense to take it slow."

Olaf purses his lips, considering. "Well - maybe older people go faster, I guess," Anna huffs - she said she was twenty-five, not seventy-five, "but it does make sense to take it slow if that's what you want..."

Anna crosses her arms again, slumps back in her seat. She'd been hoping for a more numerical answer. Second Saturday of the third month, or something. That's the date it becomes annoying to wait.

Well, that's inflated. She knows it's less time than that.

"Does he know?" Asks Olaf, properly tentative for the first time, "About whatever it was with your ex?"

Anna tries hard to roll her eyes, but mostly she's looking at the ceiling to stop herself from crying. She nods.

"And he hasn't had any issues or anything there?

She shakes her head now, bottom lip starting to go.

He's been wonderful.

"Okay, so then tell him this, too. Communication - right? That's how dating works."

She releases an uneven breath.

"Can we do Latin, now? I feel like I'm falling behind on the new vocab," she says, digging in their book pile.

"Oh, time for Pacific Rim with the boyfriend but not your vocab practice I see..." He laughs, snapping back to normal at her cue.

"It was a pretty good movie!" She defends.

And Kristoff isn't her boyfriend, either.

-

Anna stops dead in the walkway when the flyer catches her eye.

MIDTERMS GOT YOU DOWN?
LET PANCAKES PICK YOU UP!

Show your Student ID on Monday before midterms at the Waffle Hut for our ENDLESS PANCAKE DAY DEAL

Only $4.99 per person!

"This is perfect!" She says, waving the paper around.

Olaf struggles to read it, as she pulls her phone out to get a picture.

"Pancake day?" He asks, "They had this last year. Do you want to go?"

"No, no," she corrects, lining up the picture, the focus jostling slightly, "Kristoff and me - it's perfect!"

"Yeah, you said - what's perfect about a load of cheap pancakes?"

She pauses from tapping out an excited message. "Oh it's this thing we do. Like cheap date ideas, you know? I've been looking out for something - he's had two really good ideas already and I finally found one!"

"Didn't you just do like a whole thing for his birthday? Yesterday, Anna?"

She waves him off, back to her message. "That doesn't count for this - I spent way too much money. I mean, I was happy to, it was his birthday, but this - this is perfect!"

"Mhmm," says Olaf smiling at the top of her bent head, "I'm hearing that it's perfect."

-

Anna spends the day… a little nervous about Elsa's reaction to Kristoff sleeping over. She knows her sister isn't exactly wild about the idea of Anna dating. Not that she's said a word about it, but Anna knows how to read her sister's face.

Elsa thinks Anna should focus on school. But not everyone can live that way, Anna argues mentally, Kristoff's not affecting her grades or her performance at work. He isn't controlling or demeaning or demanding of her time.

And he slept over, but they didn't sleep together.

She's not bracing for an argument, exactly, when they settle down for dinner that night. She and Elsa are very careful not to fight these days. But she's certainly bracing.

So it throws her a little when Elsa says, "Pass me that plate? Thanks. I quite liked Kristoff, I'm glad we had him over. Do you think he was pleased?"

"You liked him?" Anna repeats with a mouthful of potato, "Really, you mean it?"

Elsa frowns lightly, "Yes, Anna, he seems very - earnest. Why would you think I wouldn't like him?"

Anna shrugs, pushing her food around her plate a little, "I thought - maybe, because he slept over."

Elsa goes a little pink. This isn't something their family was ever good at discussing.

"While I want you to know you can talk to me about anything - as long as you're happy then that's really nothing to do with me, Anna."

Anna blushes too now. "Nothing happened. We fell asleep watching the movie and it was too late for him to drive home."

Elsa smiles. "Yes, you were very sweet. What? I didn't get my mark-ups finished until almost two, Anna. I am allowed in my own living room, after all."

Anna tries to roll her eyes through her pleasure at Elsa's wholehearted approval of Kristoff.

Anna smiles at her sister, "Thank you for your help - I couldn't have done it without you."

Elsa shrugs like no one can do anything without me, but it's a joke, Anna can tell.

Anna dithers, for a moment. It's a good time to move on, ask about Elsa's day, maybe, but - there isn't going to be a more natural time than this to ask the question that's been echoing around her mind since last night.

"Elsa... did Mom ever talk to you about sex stuff? Like not the - logistics? But like - advice? That kind of thing?"

Anna was fifteen when their parents died. At the time all she had to go on was a few years of PE teachers showing diagrams and her Mother's promise that, you can come to me, when you're ready.

Elsa's face folds, she reaches out and takes Anna's hand. "I'm sorry, Anna, she didn't. I imagine she was waiting for me to - take an interest… I know it's not something our family was open about, but I am happy to listen, if you'd ever like to talk?"

"I asked Olaf about it," she says, embarrassed. It feels like Elsa's going to get offended that Anna went to someone else. But they've never really had a 'talk about boys' type of sisterhood.

If Elsa is hurt, she doesn't show it though, she smiles encouragingly and waits, "I think… I'm going to tell Kristoff that I want to wait. Like, a while."

Anna's stomach rolls nervously, but Elsa's smile widens, and she loses the anxious pinch around her eyes.

"I think that's a very wise choice."

Chapter Text

Kristoff's heading back upstairs with his laundry basket when his phone goes. It's an image, from Anna - a flyer for the Waffle Hut over by her school. Familiar, by now, with her style of texting, he doesn't start typing a response yet.

By the time he dumps his clean clothes all over his bed, the rest of her messages have come through.

Look what I found at school!
It's for next Monday
Can you check if the new schedule is up? I'm not in again until the weekend + I think it's 2 late to request off ..
But don't you think this would be fun if we could go?

He waited too long though, and the final message sits, judgmental:

Or if you don't no worries :)

That would be great. I'm on truck tmrw, I'll let you know if the new schedule is up

When he looks back, Sven has begun burrowing into the warm, dog-hairless laundry pile.

Kristoff snaps a picture for Anna before shooing his friend away.

He gets back,

Awww Sven♡

-


At three minutes past four o'clock on Friday morning, Kristoff lingers in the hall for a moment while the other guys begin to move toward the stairs.

He checks the new schedule with affected casualness, then texts Anna to let her know.

Your closing on waffle day. Sorry - we will find something else after ur midterms

Outside in the dark their truck honks three times to let them know he's pulling around.

Kristoff stuffs his phone in his pocket and hurries away, a larger-than-usual slump to his shoulders.

-

By six the truck is unloaded - thirty-eight hundred pieces and a crew of only seven today, HR is really tightening their hours, it's horseshit honestly - and they're all standing around breaking down boxes and loading the long row of carts.

Kristoff's used to them all just shooting the shit, passing the time, but he is not used to being their reluctant subject.

"So Kris," says Gary from over by the baler, "how was your birthday?"

Well that's a fucking first.

Kristoff's never gone much out of his way to interact with Gary beyond direct work stuff. For several good reasons.

"It was fine," he says, uncertain.

"Don't be like that, man!" Says another one of the guys, "You know he meant with the cashier. Your birthday surprise."

God, Kristoff thinks, it's really going to be a massively shit day, isn't it.

He feels uncomfortable and ambushed. Not sure how they know, but certain they're angling for some kind of gross overshare.

He has a pleasant flash of sensation - his stubble grazing her neck, bright eyes and her giggling, ticklish reaction.

It's some kind of miracle Kristoff's been graced with her - he'll be damned if the likes of Gary think they're getting anything secondhand.

He sticks with a classic and flips Gary off, then heaves a box onto his shoulder for a cart down on the far end of the row.

"Oh, go on - what was it? Special outfit?" Gary calls after him with a leer.

Where the fuck does Dan hide when this shit starts up?

Kristoff drops his box with a heavy thump that rattles the cart to it's wheels.

"What are you - fucking fifty? Get out of here with that shit, seriously. Fucking Christ."

"Ah come on! She's hot, we're just happy for you-"

"You can shove that right up your-"

Materializing finally, Dan claps Kristoff on the shoulder, and says, "Cardboard place'll be here a little late, just called to let us know. So you can leave that for now, Gary. Will you go work on backstocking for the next hour, then? Great."

Kristoff moves away from Dan and returns to scanning and sorting the boxes with clenched teeth.

It's a few minutes of quiet, before someone says, "So you guys hung out for your birthday, then?"

Kristoff rounds on the guy - smaller, younger, less leering malice than Kristoff sees in some of the others. Another seasonal hire who got kept on - it's been months now but Kristoff never bothered with his name. 

The kid startles back a step and holds up his hands, "Just asking - sounds nice. Never mind."

Well now Kristoff looks like the asshole.

"It was nice." Kristoff allows.

"Anna, right?"

"Mhmm," says Kristoff, bracing for some comment. Everything about Anna is beautiful, and Kristoff remembers the comments from when she first started. He didn't care enough back then, but he isn't sure what he's going to do if it starts up again.

"She's really nice," the kid says, and Kristoff feels his shoulders drop several inches worth of tension. "Did you do anything fun?"

A couple of people who've known Kristoff longer are glancing over, unsure. 

"Yeah, we uh, watched Pacific Rim and ordered pizza. It was good."

The group seems to be relaxing into it now that Kristoff's not thrown anyone off the docking bay.

"That's a good movie."

"Gary's an asshole," someone comments. "Sounds like a nice night."

Kristoff takes a breath, "How did he even-"

Someone older smiles, sympathetic. "She was very excited. Came back here to see if anyone knew how you liked your wings."

Kristoff's stomach does a swoopy thing. Touched she cares so much? Embarrassed she came to the guys about it? Food poisoning?

"Are you guys official then?" The younger kid asks.

"Are we what?" He says, incredulous.

"You know - boyfriend girlfriend?"

Kristoff scoffs, and mentally reevaluates his assumed age. He didn't know they let under-eighteens work truck shifts. Maybe the law changed.

"I'm twenty-eight. I don't have a girlfriend."

"Told you," someone calls, "just boning her - five bucks!"

"Hey!" Kristoff properly shouts, pointing.

"What? If it's casual - who cares? Good for you, man, really."

Kristoff shrugs away from a congratulatory back-slap.

"No - I just mean, we've outgrown that boyfriend-girlfriend shit by now. Nobody actually wants that teenage label shit."

Kristoff's facing a sea of disbelieving faces, suddenly.

"Dude - girls want that shit."

"Doesn't date much, does he?" Someone stage whispers.

Kristoff looks around, evaluating. He has known a lot of these guys for a long time now - listened to them gripe and boast about their wives and girlfriends and exes and child support - and he knows easily which opinions he can dismiss out of hand.

A few unexpected ones, people who Kristoff has at least medium respect for, are nodding, like this is obvious.

He feels wrong-footed in front of this group, and he doesn't like it.

"So... it's not kind of stupid to ask an adult if she wants to be my - girlfriend?"

Surely that's condescending? They're not in high school any more, the labels are beyond stupid and immature, and potentially possessive, in her eyes?

Nevermind that girlfriend utterly fails to capture the depth of it.

"Nah, listen man," says a middle-aged married man who once told the group that he had taken the wife for a spin that morning, "They love that shit. And it's way worse if you wait too long and then they have to ask - trust me, then it's a whole big thing about where do you see this going?" He rolls his eyes.

"How do I know you're serious about us?" Injects another, in a falsely high, simpering voice.

Kristoff considers - he doesn't want to assume they're on the same page and leave Anna feeling insecure. But he can't get over the connotations of the word.

"But," a third guy adds, this one perpetually single, Kristoff remembers, "if you go big - flowers and dinner and all that - major blowjob points." He winks.

And Kristoff's done here. He's absorbed all the potential value they have as a collective.

"You can shut the fuck up with that," he says, squaring his shoulders.

Luckily Dan hasn't disappeared again. He won't interject, even though Anna's a fucking employee here and wouldn't the Handbook have something to say on this subject, but his presence is dampening enough.

Kristoff's not going to have a single one of them say shit about Anna.

-

Anna's awake by the time Dan calls lunch.

He's got,

Good morning.
:( but thx for checking :(

And,

Hope the truck wasnt bad!

He texts her a little while he eats his sandwiches. Before he has to clock back in, he finds himself in front of the swap-shift board.

It would be stupid, right?

He wants to surprise her - do something he thinks she would like. But he doesn't want fucking - points. Or maybe since it's technically stalking she'd be creeped out?

He flips down a few pages on the schedule - he's not that desperate, yet, but it doesn't hurt to know.

-

Next day, he gives in, and goes to find her. Kat's outside on a smoke break, hunched and scrolling through her phone one-handed. 

"Thought you were quitting this year?" He says, sitting himself on the bench beside her.

"That's next year you're thinking of," but she locks her phone. "What's up?"

God but this hurts to do.

He takes a deep breath. "So the guys think - Do I... actually have to ask Anna to be my girlfriend or-"

She cuts him off. "Yup."

"What - that's it?"

"Yes, Kristoff, if you want Anna to be your girlfriend, you have to ask her to be your girlfriend." She says very slowly, enunciating clearly.

"But I don't," he says.

She kind of rears back, appalled shock almost slapped across her face.

"Then you fucking tell her. Fucking immediately, Kris. Shit -"

"No, no no," he waves his hands - god he is so shit with words. "I mean, girlfriend, it's such a stupid small pointless word. We're adults - can't we just -" he holds his head in his hands. Fuck this, honestly. Fuck talking and expressing himself in front of people.

She shoves him with both hands, too hard to be affection, so probably punishment for the scare.

"You fucking - look, I remember how miserable you were with Kim, alright? It was all fucking social labels and expectations and not knowing what you did wrong - I get it, it fucked you up for normal relationship shit, you're scarred." He can hear her rolling her eyes. "But I bet you've heard more about the ex-husband than I have, or I hope you fucking have, so you need to get over yourself. Seriously. She is digging through oceans more relationship shit than you are. So don't you dare feed her some line about not being ready to label it - I will steal your fucking dog, I swear to fucking shit I will."

Sven's got twenty pounds on you, he wants to say. But he isn't going to drag this out longer.

"I'm not looking to bullshit her, I just - she's - important, okay? And girlfriend feels - less than that."

"Then skip to the ring I guess, you enormous fucking sap."

He shoots her a genuinely irritated look. They don't come to each other like this often, and she isn't taking him seriously enough.

She heaves a sigh like he's worse than any customer. "She wants you to ask, alright. She's not sad about it yet, but she'll get there. Trust me. And don't make her ask you."

Kristoff purses his lips. Well, if Kat's in agreement with backroom guys, then Kristoff's probably in the wrong here.

"Yeah. Alright." He steels himself, then goes on. "I need a favor then."

If it's important to Anna, Kristoff's going to get it right.

"Yeah, I'm definitely not gonna pass her a note for you."

He ignores her. "I need you to let me pick up a cashier shift."

She laughs, "So romantic."

"Fuck off - it has... significance. I think. For us." He hopes.

She narrows her eyes at him, hesitant. "Gimme your rewards card pitch."

"Oh fuck you. Come on, you know I don't know it."

"Then you need a new plan."

Kristoff thinks. He's seen Anna do this.

"Five-percent discount. And coupons."

She's not impressed, though clearly enjoying herself. "You would need to be medically brain dead not to get those two."

"Extended returns," he adds, thinking of Anna telling him off for swearing.

"One more," she says.

"...Just fucking tell me - I'll remember for the customers."

"And you'll do it properly? No public service announcements about fucking identity theft!"

"I'll leave them unsuspecting and vulnerable - promise."

She flips him off. "Free shipping from the website. I'll talk to HR. But for Christ's sake get more romantic than this, honestly."

-

Kristoff doesn't see Anna outside of the breakroom for almost two weeks. She's got to stay on campus during her breaks even, her and Olga working hard on their project. Kristoff feels bad - she seems really stressed out whenever he asks about it. Hopefully, after her midterm exams are done and the project gets graded, she'll be able to relax. 

And after that - a full week of Spring Break, apparently. They'll still have to work, obviously, but whenever they do find time to talk, she certainly keeps referencing them spending more time together that week. It's been more than a fucking decade since the phrase Spring Break last ignited such a reaction from Kristoff, but he's looking forward to it.

 Today though - he smiles at the customer he's ringing up. Today's Monday. Monday-Pancake-Day.

Surprise-Monday-Pancake-Day. 

The shift he took off the Swap Board starts two hours before Anna's scheduled to be here. He's not counting down - that would be a little sad. But he's very aware of the time trickling past. 

"D'you have a rewards card with us, ma'am?" he asks his customer, trying to will one into existence. He's signed one person up already - it nearly killed him. Fucking Kat called it out over the walkie-talkie and everything. 

"No, no thank you," she says, waving him off. "But can you be a dear and help me get all this out to my car?"

Awesome. He flicks off his light and goes around to get the cart. It's one of those old ladies with the unendurably slow gait, but today he won't feel impatient - this'll get him ten minutes closer to Anna, easy. 

Chapter Text

When Anna first sees Kristoff looming tall over the row of registers, she picks up her pace, worried. Obviously they’ve had call-outs, and a lot of them, for Kristoff to get conscripted into cashiering.

Rumor is Kat has literally banned him, though Anna knows Kristoff won’t have lost a moment’s sleep over the prospect.

She hovers behind his register while he finishes up with a customer, ready to step in if necessary.

He doesn’t actually bite the customers, though she gets the impression it’s been a close thing once or twice.

He’s folding a brightly colored maxi-skirt (scrunching, really, he’s scrunching a maxi-skirt) into a bag, and he turns over his shoulder to smile at her and say hello.

“Hi,” she says, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why they didn’t call me! I could have come in early, but as soon as you’re finished up I can-”

“What?” he asks, then, “sorry, hold on -” and he turns back to ask his customer if she’s checked for coupons on the store’s app.

Anna didn’t know he knew about the app.

“Hey, Anna,” Kat calles from the Guest Services desk, “You’re on register two today.”

Anna gestures at all of Kristoff, as though somehow Kat might not have seen him there.

“Register two,” she calls back with a laugh.

Kristoff hasn’t started shouting objections or anything, so Anna moves into her register and flips on her lane light.

He’s at the register ahead of her, so she can easily watch him and keep an eye on the lane at the same time.

Once his customer has paid up and moved away, he gives her a little wave.

“Are you… cashiering?” she asks, very confused.

He blushes and brings a hand up to the back of his neck.

He is. He’s cashiering today! Warmth rushes into Anna’s abdomen. She thinks she knows why.

“Yeah, I, uh, picked up a shift off the board. Missed you. Thought we could try hit up the Waffle Hut after? If you’re up for it?”

Anna beams at him, eyes stinging slightly.

A customer wanders down her lane, stopping to consider a candy bar, so she says, “That sounds nice,” and turns away from him, discreetly wiping her eye.

-

He’s trying very hard, Anna can tell, but he’s just not suited for customer service. He argues with a man about a recently-expired twenty-cent coupon until a manager has to be called over.

Kat flicks him, later, and tries to explain, “You get that we lost more than twenty-cents paying you for the time you spend arguing, right?”

Kristoff doesn’t budge, “He knew it was expired when he handed it over, you can’t let people like that get their way!”

Anna teases him about being a coupon vigilante for quite a long time.

-

A middle-aged Mom leans in to wipe up the snot-slicked face of her little toddler, ignoring his wailing, flailing protests. Anna sees her hold out the tissue to Kristoff, almost absentmindedly asking, "You have a trash can back there right?"

"Uh, sure," says Kristoff, taking the crumpled, soaked tissue by the driest corner. He spins in a full circle, holding the tissue aloft so Anna can see, and pulls a major what the fuck face at her behind the customer’s back.

She hides a laugh behind her hand, shrugging sympathetically back.

-

It’s not a busy day, customers trickle down the lanes at random intervals, and they’re the only two cashiers for most of the day. Anna covers Guest Services on Kat’s break and she gets to call it out over the walkie-talkie when Kristoff signs another guest up for the rewards card. He gets a chorus of loud Whoop-Whoop-ing from the backroom.

“Betrayal,” he accuses with a smile, when she comes by his lane to make sure he isn’t annoyed.

“Nooooo,” she whines, taking the opportunity to lean her head on his chest.

He laughs and hugs her briefly.

-

They chat, between customers. Not about much, always ready to be interrupted, keeping busy by stocking bags and candy and straightening magazines and nudging each other playfully.

“What a load of garbage,” he says, pausing to read a headline about the royal baby.

“What? No - it’s so sweet!” she says, and they pick up their running debate about if the existance of celebrities is stupid or not.

“Princesses,” he says, rolling his eyes, “fucking stupid.”

"She's a duchess," Anna corrects.

-

It’s weird, having Kristoff around but taking their breaks separately. She buys two candy bars and lingers at his register for most of her fifteen minutes. She offers to share but he refuses.

“Don’t fill up,” he warns, stern, “we have a lot of fucking pancakes to get through tonight.”

-

Kat ends up letting Anna go a half hour early. It’s been slow and all but one register is closed out for the day, so she insists she can and has managed the closing procedures by herself.

Anna clocks out, and Kristoff’s waiting for her on the bench out front. She has the sudden urge to throw herself into his lap, sure he’d catch her.

She doesn’t, obviously. But she puts her hand on his shoulder and leans down for the quick kiss she's been wanting since she first saw him.

They make their way across the parking lot together. Anna slips her two arms around one of Kristoff's as they go.

Anna has come to love riding in Kristoff's truck. She feels very comfortable sitting in what she has come to think of as her spot beside him.

"It was really nice to work with you today," she tells him, picking up his hand.

He smiles, "Yeah, it was good. Cashiering's not so bad, I guess." He gives her hand a squeeze.

-

The Waffle Hut is brightly lit, florescent light bouncing off colorful plastic furnitature. There's groups of students clustered around, tables filled with dirty plates, coffee mugs, textbooks and laptops, but mostly the place is empty. The rush is long over by now. Their waitress, though, sags slightly like she's been here all day.

Kristoff slides awkwardly into the other side of their booth, and hands their menus straight back.

"Pancakes please," he says, "and I'll just have water. Unless you wanted something else, Anna?"

Anna wants pancakes too, and she flashes her Student ID to get the discount, then she orders a hot chocolate with marshmallows.

"That's how they get you, you know," he says, with an air of wisdom, "fill you up on free soda and marshmallows, so you'll eat less." Anna laughs. "I'm just saying - I'll probably eat more pancakes than you."

It's the first time their hundred-odd-pound size difference has felt funny.

Once they're settled with their drinks, they sit quietly together. Anna loves the comfortable quiet they've built up. She admires the long slope of his shoulders, and the floppy movement of his hair when he shakes it away from his eyes.

After a few sips of water, Kristoff starts to get uncharacteristically fidgety.

"So, Anna. I've been wanting to talk to you - It's been really great, hanging out with you recently…"

Anna freezes, too-hot hot chocolate part way to her mouth.

Is he breaking up with her? She's been sitting here thinking how pretty and wonderful he is and he's been getting ready to -

He must see something in her expression, because he rushes to finish.

"Do you want to be my girlfriend? No pressure, I know it's complicated and if you don't then - we can just carry on as we are, really. I just want you to know that - I'm serious, here. With you. About you. However you want things to go."

Anna watches him as he talks. She knows she wants to say yes. Kristoff as her boyfriend - it's a pleasant fluttery warmth she wishes she could bottle. It's nothing about Kristoff, she knows, that has her swallowing around a suddenly dry throat.

She remembers when he asked her out the first time, to the botanical gardens. He thought she was saying no, and he was just going to awkwardly pivot back to their lunch routine. She believes him, now - if she says she isn't ready to have a boyfriend, yet, there wouldn't be any kind of consequence.

She loops her finger and thumb around her wrist and twists lightly.

"What does it mean, for you, to have a girlfriend?" She asks, quietly, not quite able to make her eyes land on his face.

"Oh," he says, seeming surprised, "I dunno, I guess." He goes quiet, but not dismissive, just thinking.

She's surprised, when he answers. He's really properly considered what she asked. She could say yes now, immediately, but she doesn't interrupt.

"It can be whatever we want. I guess, for me, just - being able to rely on each other. Knowing where we stand. Getting to assume you'll see them again, rather than wondering. Other people knowing that you're serious about the person." He hitches his shoulder, self-consciously. "But what about you - what would having a boyfriend mean?"

He looks nervous.

Anna's gut clenches. She doesn't like to think of what having a boyfriend means.

Had meant.

"Someone I can trust," she says, after a moment. "Someone I can talk to, who listens, and who I can have fun with."

He doesn't say anything. All the lines of his face are kind of downturned and sad.

She smiles at him, starts listing things off on her fingers, "they have to have a dog, for sure, that's a big one. He has to be tall, so he can reach stuff for me…" she mocks thinking, and smirks at him.

"I guess I'd like to apply for the position, then," he says, pretending not to smile. "I think I might be qualified."

"Yeah," she says, "yes. Okay."

He grins at her. "Awesome."

Before long, the waitress brings out their first round of pancakes.

Anna has a brief moment of uncertainty - how many pancakes is Kristoff going to want to watch his girlfriend eat? But he breaks into her thoughts by passing her a sticky plastic container.

"Syrup?" He offers.

"Yes please!" She says, and they start to eat.

"God," she says, after her first plate is clean, "why don't adults have breakfast for dinner more often?"

"No idea," he says, waving down their waitress.

-

Eventually, their waitress makes her way toward them with a little black check-holder and, for Anna, time slows to a crawl.

She's his girlfriend now.

They're official.

It's their third date.

It's, at a minimum, their third date, anyway. And it's their first restaurant date.

He probably thinks -

Last time she saw him, she invited him into her room. They made out on her bed before he drove her to school.

He definitely thinks. He's twenty-eight and Anna was married and they're eating in a restaurant and they shared a bed already and why wouldn't he think?

He might be annoyed at her. False-pretenses, maybe, like she's been leading him on. She can get the bus from around here though. They're right by campus still, only a few blocks - no problem.

The waitress continues her inexorable approach.

Kristoff spears a chunk of pancake and folds it into his mouth.

Anna loves him. She'll be surprised if he gets annoyed - or, at least, annoyed enough to leave her here.

He notices syrup on his sleeve and wrinkles his nose, hunching slightly to rub it off on his jeans.

Anna smiles at him. It's a silly thought - Kristoff ditching her in the middle of the night to find her own way home, even if he were mad.

He's a properly good person. If he wants to have sex then he should get to - even if that means not Anna.

What Kristoff deserves - it's the thing that finally gives her the courage.

The waitress drops off their check, says, "when you're ready," eyes Kristoff's near-empty fourth plate, and leaves.

Kristoff deserves to know, at least. Before he decides he wants to be her boyfriend properly.

"I can't have sex with you," she blurts, snatching up the check.

He kind of swallows, kind of chokes. "Oh, okay. Um... never?"

She frowns, suspicions.

"No, not never. Just not today. And not... soon."

He surprises her with a short laugh.

"What?" She asks, very defensive.

"No, nothing," he says quickly.

He doesn't want to tell her. Her skin prickles with nerves. He doesn't believe her? He doesn't agree?

It's hard, and it takes her a minute, but she gets it out. "Will you please tell me what was funny about what I said?"

He looks guilty and flustered. "Shit, yeah sorry, I'm kind of a jackass, it's not funny, just - bottomless pancake day, you know? Not exactly anyone's ideal first showing."

Anna doesn't know how to respond to that. He cuts another section of pancake.

Then he eats it. Like everything's fine.

"I'm talking like six months," she says, recklessly goading him, aggravated and emboldened by his calm.

He gestures around their table with his fork, then, with his mouth full, says, "Sorry, I just - figured?" He swallows, "Look, we're sitting on opposite sides of the booth here, Anna. You don't always seem super... comfortable when we're -" his first awkward redness, "you know, seriously kissing. And then I ate - what - fifteen pancakes? The idea that I would think we were gonna go off and have sex for the first time - I mean it's funny. But I shouldn't have actually laughed..."

She watches him for a moment. He can apparently talk about sex much more comfortably than she can, but he shuffles uncomfortably now, under her eye. She chews on her lip, uncertain. She isn't getting the reaction she rehearsed for and can't tell if he's taking her seriously.

"I get that it means we aren't really exclusive," she says, continuing with her mental list of bullet points.

He frowns. "Uh, I mean, okay, if that's something you want. I can deal, for a little while, anyway. But if you're just - you should know, I'm not interested in dating anyone else."

"No! No, not me," she says, something like irritation creeping up her throat. He's making this more difficult and awkward than it needs to be. "I just meant -" she takes a deep breath, "I meant that I know it wouldn't be you cheating… on me. If you - because I -"

She's frustrated enough at herself and a little bit at him, and she's approaching the point where she'll start to cry, which will just be awful. She rehearsed this so it sounded casual. And it was going to be her idea, she was going to suggest it first, like a cool girlfriend who totally gets it, but now it's all over the place and he definitely looks sad rather than appreciative.

"Hey," he reaches out for her hand, and holds it across the table. "I didn't have sex last year, okay? Or most of the year before that. I wasn't expecting to do it this year, either. I mean if we get to a point where you're comfortable and you want to, then I mean yeah, but if we don't, ever even, I'm good then too. I just... I like being around you."

"Don't do that," she says, eyes filling with tears.

"Don't do what?" He asks, stroking his thumb across the top of her hand. She tugs her hand and he releases it.

"Don"t lie about this. Just please don't," she says, hugging herself and looking down at the speckled plastic table.

He pulls his arm back now. "What - I'm not lying! What do you think I'm lying about?"

He is, he has to be. That's not how this works.

If men can go years without having sex, if never was really an okay answer, then why is Kristoff the only one who'll admit it?

He has to be lying.

"Don't - pretend. I'm not a kid, I know never isn't really an option."

He holds both his hands up now, like a policeman yelled, Freeze, Scum.

"Woah, shit, Anna - never is an option. I - look, I want to have sex with you, alright, fuck, but if you don't also want to, then I never will."

Anna has major pancake-related regrets. She might be sick.

"But I don't want to break up," she whispers, crying now. In a stupid Waffle Hut on discount day.

"Look - can I?" He gestures and she nods, sniffing. He joins her on her side of the booth, leaning close but he doesn't touch her. He turns toward her and his body blocks out the whole rest of the restaurant.

He watches her for a second, and his voice is low and urgent when he speaks.

"Look, I don't know what people do when one person is a never, but we'll figure it out. Honestly, I don't even - but we can have a super awkward conversation in not-public and figure out what never means, I don't know, we'd have to fucking Google it I guess."

Anna cuts him off, blushing redder than her hair, "I'm not never-ever. I just - need time."

Because she would. If Kristoff made it obvious that he needed to have sex with her or he would leave, or stop being nice, or ignore her, Anna - fully aware of what Elsa, her old therapist, her Mom, her old school friends, her old self, would have said - Anna doesn't know for sure that she wouldn't just let him.

It would be worth it, wouldn't it? A fair trade - a better deal by far than she made before.

She knows that's not right. She knows Hans put that into her brain. She doesn't want any of what Hans left behind to infect her and Kristoff. So she needs time.

She doesn't want to look at him. Doesn't want him to look at her. Puts her head down on the table and closes her eyes against the watery impression of the grimy Waffle Hut floors.

It's complicated. She doesn't know how she feels, and she certainly doesn't know how to describe it. But she knows it's important to try.

"I want to - one day. Just. I remember that I liked it, before. But I was with him for years, and - it wasn't right... the way we had sex. And I don't know what to do about it. So I think I just have to wait." She peeks at his somber face, "If that's okay?"

He puts one of his heavy, warm hands on her back, between her shoulder blades, and runs it up and down a few times.

"Course we'll wait. As long as we need, alright?"

And she thinks she believes him.

"Yeah?" He checks.

"Mhmm," she agrees, with a wobbly, watery nod.

His hand shifts over her shoulder and he pulls her back against his chest. "Good - now give me the fucking check."

"What?" She says, sniffing and confused. She's still clutching the thing.

"C'mon, I saw you. We talked about it now. So hand it over." He gestures gimme with his fingers.

"But I invited you..." she objects.

"You can get the next two," he says, "it's symbolic or something. Give it."

And her boyfriend buys her dinner on their third date. And then he drives her home, kisses her goodbye, waits until she's got her front door open, and then he drives away.

{ - }

Kristoff doesn't drive very far. He takes a couple of right turns at random once he's out of the neighborhood, then pulls in behind a row of closed stores.

He gets out, shuts and locks his truck, walks over to the cinderblock wall and punches it, hard enough to hurt.

He feels his skin split, hits it again, yelling this time, and leaves a bloody imprint.

Doesn't want to break his hand. One more hit, then he sits against the wall, looks at the damage he's done to his knuckles, feels the sting deep into the bones of his wrist.

It hasn't helped.

As a boy, Kristoff had put considerable time into plotting the elaborate and untraceable murder of his Mother's boyfriend.

This though. He doesn't know how to get it out of his chest. Doesn't know where to go from here.

He wants to go back to Anna. He wants to be allowed to lay next to her in her bed again. Make her breakfast while she showers and then drive her to school.

He couldn't ask to come in when he dropped her off though. Not tonight. And he won't show up there now - bleeding, evidence of his capacity drying between his knuckles.

No matter how badly he needs to see her. Hold her. Feel her.

He sits there for a while. The cold ground seeps into his muscles with biting familiarity.

It's the same as everything else, in the end. Put it all away, get up, and keep moving. Sven'll be wanting dinner by now anyway, and that fucker'll get into the garbage if Kristoff waits much longer.

Chapter Text

"Oh, Kristoff!" She exclaims, gathering his bandaged right hand into both of her own. "What happened?"

The bandage makes it look worse than it is. But without the bandage it just looks like he might have punched a wall, so...

"Caught it between two pallets," he says, "not a big deal."

She purses her lips, running her thumbs along the cloth-like grain.

"You really should wear the gloves, you know."

She brushes over the patch of skin visible above the wobbly bandaging. Something wells up in Kristoff - it starts deeper than the helpless feeling of trying to wrap your own dominant hand after a late-night pity-party.

She's just nice. She's a nice person who deserved better.

And if Kristoff ever meets the man, he's going to need facial reconstruction surgery.

She makes him promise to wear the gloves, and he's powerless (today, anyway) to refuse her gentle insistence. He spends a silly amount of time uselessly sliding them over his bulkier-than-usual knuckles, hampered by the tight fit for the rest of his shift.

-

On the third day of spring break they go back to the botanical gardens. It's a lot busier today. The flowers are blooming beyond anything January could have imagined, and she holds Sven while Kristoff gets his first look at the jam-packed butterfly enclosure.

He's not exactly enthralled by the colorful flapping bug wings, but he keeps it to himself.

This time, Kristoff takes her on the real trails. It's pretty clear she's not exactly an experienced outdoorsperson, but she's game and she pushes herself and it seems like she has fun.

They stop at a fast food place on the way home, and she surprises him with the announcement that she'd like to see his apartment. Yes, today, she insists. It's not fair if Kristoff gets enough notice ahead of time to clean his room.

Jokes on her, really. Kristoff's a pretty neat person generally, and he doesn't own a lot of stuff.

He's nervous still, but mostly because it's a small fucking place. But she's been cool about his truck and the cheap shit he keeps passing off as dates, so he's not freaking out.

{ - }

"Phew, I feel like I might fall asleep," she says, shifting along his couch to lean against his side.

"Me too," he says, then hesitates, "we could - nap, if you wanted?"

She considers. Eyes the only other door in the place - Kristoff's bedroom.

“Do you have any clothes I can change into?” she asks, after her hesitation eases. The stuff she wore for the hike is caked in dust and dried sweat. She wouldn't want to wake up in it, that's for sure.

“There’s no women’s clothes here, if that’s what you mean,” he laughs. Anna blushes, she hadn’t meant it like that. “I can get you a shirt and some basketball pants, maybe?”

He seems surprised when she takes him up on it, hurrying away to find something. She follows him, peering around nosily while he rummages in a dresser.

His bedroom is just a bed in the corner against the wall, a dresser, trash can, and a very large dog bed. No pictures or anything, but a book and some papers on the dresser.

Anna changes in the bathroom. Her uncomfortable, sweaty sports bra stays on, but she leaves her shirt, socks, and exercise pants in a little folded pile on his countertop.

She’s drowning in his shirt, it goes most of the way down her thigh. She ties the shorts tight above her hips.

They just talked about this. Super recently. If he thinks something else is happening, then Anna’s well within her rights to be annoyed and demand to be taken home.

She looks her reflection in the eye. Well within her rights. Pulls a stern face and whispers, "Kristoff, I think I'd like to go home."

It’s just a shame she’d have to look so goofy doing it.

She can't hide forever. When she emerges, Kristoff’s changed also, so they're comically matched, and lain himself out on the side of the bed along the wall. He doesn’t have a bed frame or anything, just a box-spring and worn, mismatching sheets. Anna thinks it looks very cozy.

She scoots so she’s got her nose to his sternum, and after a minute, he brings an arm up around her shoulder. Sven settles with proprietary confidence along their bare feet.

Anna has a very restful nap indeed.

{ - }

They settle into a schedule, as time passes. Weekends are Elsa's. Anna doesn't like to make plans outside of work on Saturdays or Sundays, as Elsa works long hours during the week. He sees Anna at the store, of course, but otherwise she is fairly absent, not liking to text much during Elsa-time either.

Kristoff doesn't mind. He picks up any shift he can over the weekends, working long days to compensate for his low count of scheduled hours.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are still school days for Anna, though her summer break is around the corner.

Any Monday, Wednesday, or Friday that they both have off, though, even if it's just a few overlapping hours, has become a day of assumed plans.

It's a blessing and a curse because hours are so scarce, so the cheap-to-free scale of their dates is tipping drastically. On Kristoff's end anyway.

Last week he was only scheduled twenty-three hours. He has started cashing in his small hoard of paid time off. His budget closes, just barely, at thirty paid hours per week, any less and he has to dip into savings.

It'll stay this way through August, he knows, when the Back To School time kicks off the busier season. In previous years he has tried looking for other part time jobs, but his schedule at the store is so erratic it's almost impossible to keep anything.

This year, he has other priorities - less hours at the store mean more potential hours with Anna.

{ - }

"No, the zoodles," she says, pointing.

"The what?" he asks, like she's spouting nonsense.

"Zoodles? Zucchini noodles?" He still looks like he's about to call BS, so she stoops to retrieve the box and hands it over.

"Zucchini, kale, spinach and carrot," he reads, lip curling at the forest green pasta sticks. "Seriously?"

"No, you can't even tell, honestly, and it's so much better for you!"

He still looks skeptical.

"Okay, we can get the wheat ones," she concedes, "but we should still get whole grain. Or maybe red lentil?"

He sighs dramatically and tosses the package of zoodles into their cart.

"No, no, it's your recipe. You're the chef, and I trust you."

She beams at him.

"Okay, just lemons, garlic, and parsley now!"

-

"Alright, what do I do?" He asks, once Sven's all fed and walked.

He comes up behind Anna who is zesting the second lemon.

She's surprised, "Oh, I mean I'm cooking you dinner - you can go sit down or something. You worked today!"

He stoops to hook his chin over her shoulder.

"What, you don't trust me? I've been cooking for myself since I was a kid."

"No, I didn't mean that, I just-" she's unaccountably flustered, like she's missed the last step on a stair. "Okay. If you don't mind - can you start a pot of water boiling?"

Anna's never done this before. Sharing space with a boy in a tiny kitchen, swapping little kisses and playful pokes and giving directions. It's really nice.

And he keeps a lot of his stuff on top shelves, so it turns out to be a good thing he stuck around.

"No, it's really good, Anna," he says, once they're sitting at his fold-out card table, around his second enormous mouthful.

She smiles, pleased.

"And what about the zoodles?"

"Definitely thought I was gonna be able to tell." He shrugs, "can't though."

She must look smug, because he points his fork at her and insists, "Still a fucking stupid name though. Zoodles."

{ - }

Anna insists that he pick the movie - Elsa got the tickets for his birthday, after all.

"But we watched something I wanted on my actual birthday," he points out, to no avail.

He picks a comedy, in the end. Not the sort of thing he would usually go see in a theater - total waste of the massive screens and surround sound, but there is something unaccountably better about sitting in a darkened theater holding Anna's hand and sharing a popcorn, hearing her breathy laughter, making eye contact over a particularly good joke, and her head resting against his shoulder.

"You'll have to show me one of your movies," he says.

-

He hopes she enjoyed Pacific Rim more than he enjoys My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Though, he supposes someone must have fallen asleep first.

{ - }

Anna signs into Elsa's streaming account so she can show Kristoff the sea turtle documentary.

He's not paying attention at all though, she thinks, giggling to herself. He would completely fail a pop quiz.

She's sitting astride his lap, they've been kissing like this since the midnight march of the baby-turtles ended several minutes ago. She runs the nail-point of her fingers along his scalp and he shudders pleasantly beneath her.

Noted, she thinks, though she probably won't do it again just now.

A warm hand slips up the back of her shirt, it doesn't do anything or go anywhere, just sits, pressing slightly, thumb to pinkie spanning almost her entire lower back.

"Good?" He pulls away long enough to breathe.

She nods, "just - at the back," she says, pushing her face against his to avoid looking at him.

He goes mhmm, and they continue for some minutes still.

Eventually things wind down. She settles herself under his chin as their breathing slows and he lightly plays with her hair.

They watch the ocean scenery, for a moment.

"It's not annoying?" She asks, "to do some stuff, but not - other stuff?"

He kisses the top of her head, "I'm not annoyed. Just unbelievably lucky.... What about you, I'm not...?"

"Not annoyed," she confirms, snuggling closer, just unbelievably lucky.

{ - }

Anna's pretty engrossed, tapping away. And she's got headphones in, so it wouldn't even really be a distraction.

Kristoff flips on their excellent TV. He's not a huge sports guy, he doesn't have any jerseys or anything, but he has team preferences and it's an engaging way to spend some time, when he's somewhere that gets the games live especially.

He doesn't notice when Anna finishes up her assignment.

He turns to give her a brief smile as she moves past him, pausing to kiss his cheek, but the next play starts up so he doesn't watch what she's up to.

"Want anything to drink?" She asks him, in the next lull.

"Oh uh, sure, thanks."

She hands him one of his sodas, poured out into a glass with ice and everything. Then she moves back toward the kitchen.

A few rounds later, a plate of nachos appears on the ottoman, melted cheese pooling deliciously.

"Oh, awesome," he says, shifting slightly over so she can sit down next to him and share. It's a nice idea, catching the rest of the game with Anna by his side. He doesn't know if she's the kind of girl who wants it explained or if she's even into it at all. She lives in a house that has the channel pre-programmed in, after all, maybe she follows it?

But she doesn't sit down.

He turns, after a moment, looking for her. She's in the kitchen, wiping down a countertop. There's something tight about her face that propels him to stand, turning off the dull roar of a disappointed crowd as he goes.

"Anna?" He asks, "what's up?"

"Oh, did the game end?"

"No, I just-"

"You can't turn it off, Kristoff! Go sit back down, finish up, really." She waves him away with both hands.

There's something sharp about her voice and Kristoff doesn't like it.

"No, I'm good." He insists, watching her, "I just had it on while you were doing homework. What do you want to do now?"

She looks confused. "Are you sure? The game-"

"Yeah, I'm here to hang out with you, aren't I? How often do we get a day off together? We could take Sven out to the dog park or something, if you're good to go?"

A smile slowly grows across her face. She links her arms with his, and off they head.

-

Predictably, Anna goes off the grid for basically the whole month of her final exams. When they do hang out he quizzes her on vocabulary he can barely pronounce, or she has her headphones in, whizzing along on her shorthand program. Then, a week before her finals start, she comes right out and tells him she'll see him on the other side.

Kristoff doesn't mind. He wants her to do well, and he's as excited about summer break as she is. Plus, he has the beginnings of an idea germinating in the back of his mind. He picks up every shift he can get his hands on.

{ - }

"I just love summer," says Olaf. They're out of their Machine Shorthand final - an hour and a half recording of a trial and a minimum of seventy-five percent transcription accuracy required to pass the class - and Olaf and Anna lay perpendicular in the grass, looking up at the tops of the buildings and the tree branches swaying in the wind.

"It'll be nice to relax," Anna agrees.

"So what do you think about the movie?" He asks, "celebrate summer!"

"I'll check with Kristoff," she says, and Olaf frowns.

"He doesn't suck, does he? Only sometimes you say things and I worry he might suck."

"Kristoff doesn't suck!" She gets up on her elbows to glare at him.

He shrugs, unaffected.

"Then why are you being so weird about seeing a rom-com with your gay friend? I'll die without you this summer, Anna, so your boyfriend's just gonna have to get over it."

She huffs, sitting up properly now.

"There's only six of us enrolled in the summer Shorthand, and you know it. I'll see you plenty! I just need to check if Kristoff wants to see the movie, before I agree to see it with anyone else."

"First of all, that sounds like he might suck. Second, it's a musical, if Kristoff wants to go see it that badly then you have bigger problems."

Anna rolls her eyes and swats at him and pretends her heart isn't trying to climb up and out her throat.

-

"Hey Kristoff," she says, and she sounds too uncertain, too nervous, but she can't rein it in. "You don't want to see that new musical we saw the commercial for, do you?"

"Uh.." he says, eyes wide and it'd be cute at any other time. "We can, if you want…"

"It's just - Olga and I were thinking of going, but-"

"Oh totally! You guys should! I can drive you, if you like?"

"No! No thanks. You're sweet though." She gives him a strained smile.

Anna doesn't sleep well. And she doesn't enjoy the movie much either.

-

"Gosh, it's so hot," she complains, "I was so pleased about not having to deal with snow, I forgot how hot it would get in exchange!"

"My complex has a pool…" Kristoff suggests, not at all sounding like he thinks she'll want to go.

"I don't have a suit," she says.

But she has had her eye on one for a while now...

They end up at the store, just to see. Anna's initially not going to try it on, doesn't want to bother Kristoff with waiting outside a dressing room, but he insists.

She stands in front of the full-body mirror, considering. It's a one-piece, probably designed for older women - no architectural cutouts and solid, chunky straps rather than dainty spaghetti.

She's very pale and very freckled and very exposed. She's also a good deal heavier than she was last summer. No lingering shades of bruising though. It's been a year now since she had to factor that into her clothing choices.

She turns in front of the mirror, examining herself. Can she go out in public like this? Can she go out in front of Kristoff like this?

She buys the suit, in the end, but chickens out in his bathroom and asks for a shirt she can wear over it in the pool.

It's the first time she's seen Kristoff shirtless, though. So. That's a new thing.

{ - }

Fucking Christ but the wet hugging cling of the shirt is so much fucking worse than any fucking bikini.

Eyes up, Bjorgman. Shit.

{ - }

Kristoff lets her shower first after the pool, so she's clean and dry and unattended while he takes his turn.

She has a little snoop. Not a big snoop, just a little one.

Top draw of his dresser is socks and boxers. She doesn't go digging there.

Second draw is folded white shirts, the kind that come in identical packages of five or six at a time.

Next draw down slides out empty and hollow.

Very nearly empty, anyway. There's just a battered old shoebox.

Anna hesitates, but not for terribly long.

It's papers, a birth certificate, old driver's licences, and some photographs. A few of him younger along with people she doesn't recognize. A folded letter in handwriting that isn't his. She doesn't look closer at any of that stuff.

Then, the picture of him and Anna and Sven at the botanical gardens in front of the butterfly. He must have printed it out. Ticket stubs to the movie they saw. The two cards she's gotten him so far, envelopes and all.

She puts it all away and goes to sit on his bed. He comes out before long, toweling off his hair but dressed already because he took clothes with him into the bathroom.

Anna loves him. She wants to tell him, but - not yet.

She gestures him over and they lie down together, kissing until it's time to figure out dinner.

-

"Hey you have a message," he looks briefly at the screen but doesn't move to open it, "Olga," he says, and gently chucks the phone her way.

Anna catches it easily but a brief moment of blinding clarity smacks her hard between the eyes.

It's insane.

It's insane that she's got Olaf in her phone under a made-up name.

It's too far - it's deceitful. It's not self-protection anymore - it's lying and it's not fair to Kristoff.

She opens the phone by route. Olaf wants to know if she's free for lunch this week.

She closes the message, unanswered. She can't meet him outside of school stuff again.

Ever, though? She loves Olaf. He's her best friend.

She looks at Kristoff, stretched out on the floor negotiating with Sven over cutting the dog's nails.

If she tells him now though, will she lose him? Will she lose everything they've been building?

Some days she looks at him and how much she loves him just leaves her stunned and staggering. Can she risk losing him, now, by telling him the truth?

{ - }

Anna has to take a summer class. Just one. Kristoff's kind of bummed about it, this has been the best time in his recent memory, but he obviously gets she has to stay on track for her Certificate.

They're working more and more with the actual shorthand machines now. Kristoff ends up carrying the bulky thing more often that not. It's fucking heavy.

More partner work, she tells him, practice depositions and transcriptions, so they'll swap back and forth which partner keeps the machine for practice over the week.

"You and Olga gonna team up again then?" He asks, lifting the weighty thing up into his truck.

No," says Anna, chewing her lip, "No more Olga. My partner is - actually a guy this time. I know him from a few of my classes before."

Kristoff frowns, "Oh, did something happen with Olga?" He realizes he hasn't heard anything about her since their movie.

"No," she says. "She's just not taking any summer classes, and she won't be in my classes moving forward."

"That sucks," he says, he knows she liked having a friend in her classes, "but you still have her number at least."

She peers up at him. "You don't - care that my partner is a guy?"

Ah, there it is. He knew she was being weird about something.

"No, Anna." He doesn't want her worrying about the jealous boyfriend bullshit. "As long as he's not tall with a dog anyway," he gives her a quick kiss and a smile and heads around to the driver's side.

Chapter Text

Well he can't just sit here, parked outside and staring at the house. She'll call the fucking police eventually.

He drags himself up to the front door. Maybe she isn't home. He can give it up as Well, I tried...

And risk Anna having a shit birthday, sure.

He knocks. Rocks on his heels, hunching slightly.

Elsa is visibly surprised to see him.

"Hi," he says, "can I come in?"

She still doesn't actually say anything, just opens her door and steps away. She's got her hair down and no shoes on - her bare feet make him feel like an intrusion. 

He follows her through to her kitchen, just as awkward as the last time they were alone here.

"I just saw Anna at work," he says by way of explanation, "and I thought you might be home, since it's a weekend."

"How can I help?" she asks. Straight to the point, watching him closely.

"Anna's birthday-" he sees her relax, allows himself to match it, leaning on their countertop. "I didn't have any way of checking in with you, if we're making separate plans or what."

"I'm glad you came by, actually," she says, open and relieved, "I was getting ready to ask Anna if you had spoken about it yet. I was thinking about trying to organize a dinner. Maybe some friends from the store, and you, of course."

Of course. Kristoff can't help it, he grins at her.

"I can help with the work people, just let me know. Kat has everyone's number, I can put you in touch. Oh, hey, you should invite Olga, too," He says.

Elsa frowns and tilts her head a little, like birds do.

"Olga?" She asks. He's surprised - he had the impression that she and Anna were much more in each other's pockets than that.

"Yeah, she was Anna's stenography partner...?"

Understanding dawns across Elsa's face. She nods to herself.

"Olga. Anna's stenography partner… No, I imagine Anna would prefer not to mix work people and school people. But thank you for the suggestion."

Kristoff bristles slightly. If it were him planning the party he would make sure Olga was there, but it's Elsa's deal, he supposes.

Kristoff 's got his own idea for her birthday.

"I was going to invite Anna out to the national park," he says, self-conscious and highly aware that this stranger, effectively, is probably very well informed of the various details of his and Anna's relationship. "A stay overnight deal. I didn't talk to her about it yet, I just needed to check in what days wouldn't interfere with your plans."

"I appreciate that. I imagine we will try and do her dinner on the night of her actual birthday. It's a weekday, though for once I imagine that's preferable, more people from the store will be able to come."

"I'll request it off as well," he promises, "then maybe she and I will head out the day after. If she wants to go."

"I'm sure she will be very excited to go on a road trip with you," says Elsa, with a genuine smile.

They exchange numbers, to keep in touch as birthday plans evolve. That's all he came for, so he says goodbye and starts to head out.

"Was there something else?" She asks, when he lingers obviously in her entryway.

He lets go of the doorknob. There isn't really going to be a better chance, is there?

"What do you do?" He asks, "When she - says things or gets scared and you know it's that fucking bastard again and you can't let on how pissed off you are or she'll worry and there's just nowhere for it all to go?"

Elsa melts somewhat, looking softer than he's ever seen her.

"Have you ever had anything like therapy, Kristoff?" She asks with so much pity written across her face it's almost enough to send him out the door.

Harried social workers reading from a script and checking boxes, he thinks. Concerned school guidance counselors, easily, laughably flustered by references needles and rubber tubing. The Do We Need To Confiscate Your Shoelaces intake survey at the shelter.

"Not really," he says. Quickly adding, "insurance through the store is shit," before she can start The Speech.

"Well, I saw a therapist, for a while. The first few months of having her here were... fraught with opportunities to do accidental harm, and I was glad of professional guidance. Otherwise, exercise, I suppose. She and I took a women's self-defense course. Some days hitting things helped us both, I think. More recently, yoga. I run, in the mornings." She's watching him closely, so he keeps his face blank. "You have to find an outlet, or else it'll just sit there and get heavier and heavier."

Would he rather she start in on the healing power of yoga, he wonders, or talk therapy?

Problem is, it's all sitting pretty fucking heavy in his bones already.

"Is he in jail? Is he at least in fucking jail?" He asks, pointlessly.

Elsa shakes her head. Kristoff wishes he was surprised. Those men are never in fucking jail, are they.

"No, he is not. It's very hard to get charges brought after the fact, and at the time, Anna was very certain she did not want to pursue. I didn't... press the issue. Perhaps I should have, but..." she trails off.

"You can't make someone press charges," he says. He knows. There's no point feeling bad about not being convincing enough.

They stand together in the hall sharing a moment of quiet understanding. 

Elsa's a fancy lawyer with a big house from a rich family, and Kristoff was homeless, from druggie parents. The only reason they've met is because Anna's life took a terrible turn, once. 

They'll always have this in common, though, he realizes. The desperate failure to convince someone you love to act in their own self-interest. 

At least Kristoff never had to meet that version of Anna. 

For a moment, wildly, Kristoff wants to tell Elsa how much it means that she brought Anna here. But he knows he won't. 

He's finally going to actually leave when Elsa touches his arm. He turns, surprised, and sees her holding her lower lip between her teeth, just like Anna does sometimes.

It's gone, almost immediately, and Anna's older sister addresses him.

"Kristoff? Anna still makes decisions, sometimes, based on irrational assumptions. It can be - hurtful, when it happens. But it's important not to take it personally."

He nods, embarrassed, and gets the fuck out of there. He had figured Anna and her sister would have talked about the sex thing, but he hadn't expected Elsa to actually bring it up. 

-

Kristoff spends a lot of time thinking about Anna's birthday. He wants to capture what she was able to give him, but they stay in and watch movies all the time now.

He's never been very good at gift-giving. He can't think of an object Anna wants or needs that she wouldn't be more qualified to just get for herself.

There's chocolate, obviously, but he can't just keep getting her chocolate. Not only chocolate anyway.

He wants to do something big. Something real. He wants to make sure she knows he values her, make sure she knows she's special.

Kristoff typically wouldn't get a hotel. He only goes in the summer when it's warm enough to sleep by the fire in a sleeping bag. It rained one time and he just moved him and Sven into the truck. Nice and easy. 

He can't afford, and doesn't particularly want, two rooms, so if it becomes a problem he's perfectly happy to go sleep in the truck again.

Getting the time off won't be an issue, he knows. It'll be a relief for HR to have an excuse to shaft them both on hours.

So he's got the national park entrance fee, the hotel, gas, and food.

Food's the one that could fuck him, but he figures he can cover the rest of it for less than two hundred.

Is it a grand gesture, he wonders, or is he imposing his favorite hobby onto Anna and writing it off as a birthday gift?

He checks his bank balance. Then the hotel's website. Then his bank balance again.

Calls to confirm the cancellation and refund policy.

Fucking books it.

Takes a second to absorb the fact that he fucking booked it.

Checks the time - he has to get moving if he wants to have time to do the card properly.

Shit - he really fucking booked it. His stomach twists nervously. He'll cancel it if she wants, no hard feelings (ish), but mostly he hopes she doesn't think it's a gross overstep or him pressuring her or something like that.

He'll sleep in the truck, really. He just wants to show her the waterfall.

{ - }

Kristoff seems almost bashful, when he awkwardly hands her a light green envelope.

"How did you know?" She asks,  confused. Does he think it's today, she wonders. Hopefully he won't feel silly about it.

"Elsa told me, way back." He says, still looking distinctly embarrassed.

Huh, well Elsa definitely knows the right day.

"I know it's not today. Just- read it."

He watches her closely as she breaks into the envelope. The card is pretty, covered in vibrant and sparkly balloons. She smiles at him.

Inside is more travel itinerary than birthday message.

"So I booked a room," he says, "out in the National Park north of the valley. It's got two beds, you can check the reservation if you want. I don't want you to think I'm making a fucking move or something."

It's embarrassing - he references it with much more ease than she can, though it does feel like he's reading her mind.

"I just - I think it would be a lot of fun to go somewhere together. And I think you would really like this spot Sven and I found. But it's your birthday, so obviously no worries, I can cancel without any issue, promise."

Hans used to bring me on business trips, she wants to say.

But he looks so earnest and sincere and hopeful. He compromises on so many things for Anna. If he wants this…

It's one night, it's pretty local, and it's Kristoff - he's talked about the national park before. He loves it, and she had imagined going with him one day.

"Thank you, that sounds great," she says, willing herself to feel it.

And it makes him so happy he almost glows. She leans over to kiss him.

That's how these things work. You decide to trust, then sort of just… push through the rest.

Right?

-

Anna is lying on her bed thinking about if she's finally going to bother painting her nails, when Elsa knocks on her open doorframe.

"Come in," Anna calls, though she can see her sister already. But Elsa always knocks.

It's immedietly clear Elsa has Serious Business to discuss. Anna sits up. She wants to tease her sister about her expression, but Elsa sits on the edge of the bed (Kristoff's side), takes a deep breath, and comes out swinging. 

"Anna - do you mind telling me why Kristoff thinks your class partner is a girl called Olga?"

Anna blanches, shocked and upset. 

"Oh God what did you say? You didn't tell him did you? Elsa!"

"I didn't think it was my place to tell him. It should come from you, Anna. And a long time ago. I think you know that."

"How do you even - I mean did he ask you for some reason? He doesn't believe me? Why were you guys even-"

"Your birthday is coming up, Anna," Elsa fairly snaps, clearly frustrated. "We were discussing that. It's beside the point. You told me that you told him the truth."

Anna ducks her head. It makes her very anxious, to be caught out in a lie like this. It's a horrible churning in her stomach - Anna is wrong here, they both known it, and she can't change it.

"I'm sorry. I didn't want you to know - that I couldn't tell him."

"But why, Anna? It's pretty clear at this point that Kristoff isn't- I mean, I'll believe you if you say otherwise, I promise, but from what I can-"

"No, it's not because of that," Anna rushes to say. "I just - he would break up with me, if he knew I lied. He doesn't like liars. It would be a really big deal if he found out. I don't want him to be angry." She ends on a whisper, near tears at the thought of losing him like that. 

Elsa reaches for Anna's hand, looking very sad. 

"Anna, I'm sorry, but you can't keep a secret because you think he might break up with you over it."

"But I lied. I lied a lot. He won't-"

"I'm sure if you tell him, if you explain-"

"No! I don't have to tell him. It works like this. I fixed it already, I told him I have a new partner this semester. A guy."

And the worst part is he hadn't cared at all. 

Well, that had been a relief, obviously. But she's confident, now, that he wouldn't have cared if she had said Olaf right from the start and the reality of it stings. 

But Elsa is relentless.

"So he's never going to meet Olaf? What is your best case scenario here, Anna? Really? You realize Olaf can't come to your birthday?"

Anna shrugs, dejected and overwhelmed. She would like to have Olaf at whatever they end up doing for her birthday. It just - isn't going to work out like that.

Olaf doesn't know it's her birthday, so he won't be upset, at least.

Though, she knows he would be if he did know. Knows he will be, when he eventually asks about her birthday and finds out she hid it from him.

She could do a seperate birthday with Olaf, maybe?

And have to keep it secret from Kristoff?

Elsa cuts into her admittedly spiraling thoughts.

"Anna you're preparing to cut a good friend out of your life in order to avoid upsetting the man you claim to love and trust! You know as well as I do that isolating you from your loved ones is-"

Anna scoffs, turning away. "Kristoff is not isolating me!"

"I know, Anna! Don't you see how that's worse? You're making these harmful decisions by yourself because you won't consider the perfectly reasonable solution!"

Anna's angry, defensive, and upset. Elsa doesn't know anything about it.

"It's nothing to do with you, Elsa! Okay? What I tell Kristoff is my business!"

"It becomes my business when you start lying to my face about it!" Elsa yells.

They sit in a shocked, unhappy silence for a moment.

"Anna, I'm sorry, I don’t want to fight -"

"I don’t want to fight either!"

Elsa holds both her hands out now, a calming gesture. Anna deflates.

"You're right that it’s not really my business, but - I can’t help but feel like that’s what I did wrong last time. I convinced myself that you were an adult making your own decisions and I didn’t agree with them, but it wasn’t my business. And I -” Elsa’s actually choking up, one hand up across her mouth, "I will never forgive myself for not pushing harder, then. So, when I see these - these patterns, Anna, You have to understand-”

Anna throws herself into her sister’s arms, and they both hold on tight.

“It wasn’t your fault, Elsa. And I’m sorry I lied to you again. I hated it. It was horrible, having a secret from you.”

They sit together, for some time. Once they're both feeling calmer, they seperate.

“Listen Anna," Elsa says, holding tight to Anna's hands, "I don’t want to make you feel like you have to agree in order to appease me or like you can’t disagree here, but please, just spend some time thinking about if going back to therapy might be beneficial. Don't answer me, okay? Just think about it.”

Anna nods. It's not going to come to that, she has this all under control, but she can think about it, if it'll make Elsa happy.

Chapter Text

Anna had picked the fight. So it was her fault, really.

But Hans' Mother had been so rude, and all Anna wanted was for Hans to acknowledge it. Take her side, just this once, on their wedding day.

They were supposed to be husband and wife, now. United.

If it was a betrayal for Anna to even suggest sending her sister an invitation, then why was Hans' family allowed to be so awful to Anna's face, on her wedding day?

They fought almost the whole day after the wedding. Anna would spend a few hours constructing her argument, muster the courage to open that door again and Hans would snap, or be offended, or brush her off.

Then they were on the plane, and Hans was right, it was hardly an appropriate place for her to be picking fights. 

But, once they were settled in their beautiful hotel in the middle of Florence, Anna couldn't leave it alone.

They stood on the balcony together, looking out over the rooftops, and Anna ventured again.

"Hans, I do know how much your family means to you-"

"Anna," he said, with a warning note to his voice.

"I just wish -"

She knew immedietly - she should have stopped pushing. 

He dragged her inside, ranting about her ungratefulness. His family had done their best to accept Anna. Where was Anna's family, on the day of their wedding? Did Anna not realize that the bride's family typically pays for the wedding? But one comment from his Mother, despite all her generosity-

"No, no, that's not what I meant-" she insisted.

"I don't understand why you have to make everything so difficult!" He hissed, gathering his coat and wallet and phone.

"What are you…?"

But the door slammed closed behind him.

She didn't chase after him. Initially, it was a relief.

She lay in the bed and cried for a while. Lunch time came and went. She got a little restless. But she didn't want to be in the middle of something when he came back. Eating dinner or napping or having a bath or watching TV. That wouldn't set the right tone - carrying on with their honeymoon without him. She'd just wait. Then they would talk.

He would be back any minute now.

Any minute now.

-

"He left me there for a day and a night. I woke up to him coming back at something like five the next morning."

The room stayed quiet. No interruptions or condolences, just a pen gliding across paper. 

Anna took a deep breath and went on. 

"We hadn't activated my cell phone to work internationally. I didn't have a credit card anymore. We exchanged a bunch of cash before the trip, but it was all with him. He spoke the language, at least a little, but I didn't. But, I mean, what would I have said, really?"

She didn't even have a room key. If she'd ventured out into the hallway the door would have locked behind her.

"What happened when he came back?"

Anna wiped tears away and blew her nose. Shrugged. "He just - wanted to go back to our honeymoon. Like nothing happened. He thought I was overreacting. He acted like he didn't do anything wrong."

Gerda waited, patiently. Not writing any notes or anything, she just watched Anna.

Anna continued, after a moment. "We had these big conversations, before we got married about how angry he could get. He said he was going to go to anger management once things were less crazy at his work. He still apologized when - stuff happened..."

"Stuff, Anna?" Gerda nudged.

Anna started wringing her hands, "When he would yell at me or call me names or, sometimes - he had already started hitting me, then. We had discussed stuff like him removing himself from the situation, stopping it from escalating, you know? So he said - he said I was sending him mixed signals. Did I want him to remove himself from the situation, or did I want to be around him when he was angry like that?"

You can't have it both ways, Anna. I can't be expected to read your mind, Anna. I was just trying to do what you said you wanted, Anna.

Gerda tried the waiting again. But Anna wasn't paying enough attention.

"What did you say, then?"

"Me?" Anna ducked her head, embarrassed, "I said that I was sorry."

-

Hans started taking her with him on business trips, once they were married. Anna was lucky, they agreed, she got to see lots of interesting places. They even went to South Korea, once.

Anna was so worried, the whole time, terrified he was going to leave her again.

Dr. Gerda had explained what Hans was really doing. Anna had challenged him, convinced that a wife should be more equal than a girlfriend. Hans needed to reset their status quo, punish her and make her feel isolated beyond anything she'd felt before.

It was a calculated move. Then, every trip after that reinforced it. Leaving her in the room while he went on a day of meetings. Making her happy to see him whenever he did come back to the room. Releived. Compliant. Grateful.

Sometimes he gave her money and guidebooks, hired tour guides. Didn't she want to go? Why was she being so clingy?

Eventually he started taking his secretary on trips instead. If Anna wasn't going to be appreciative, why should he waste his money?

-

Therapy is hard. Anna knows she had needed it, back then, to untangle all the mess in her head. Gerda had showed her what Hans was really doing, how deliberate it had all been. He wasn't insecure, he was possessive. He wasn't dealing with issues from being the youngest, he was manipulative and abusive. He didn't love Anna, but Anna wasn't stupid for thinking he did.

Anna knows, now, that Elsa would have bought her a plane ticket even from Italy. But, back then, it almost didn't feel real. Like she'd made up that they had ever been close, or that Elsa had ever loved Anna like that.

Anna knows she couldn't have done all that work by herself. She had needed Gerda to get to where she is now. 

But things are better now. In fact, this is the best time of Anna's life, since her parents died. And Elsa is wrong - Anna doesn't need any more therapy.

{ - }

Anna is spending the day with Elsa, and Kristoff has the whole day off, so he uses the time to get everything ready. He checks the supplies in his truck - first aid kit, roadside repair kit, all that. Changes his oil, checks the tire pressure, engine fluids. It's only four hours out to the park, but it's a good excuse to go through and take stock.

He runs out, hits a dollar store for snacks and a gallon of water, regular grocery store for sandwich stuff.

Takes Sven out for a bit, gets some of his energy out.

Types out a message to Kat asking what kind of thing she's wearing to the dinner.

Deletes it because he's perfectly capable of fucking dressing himself. Showers, shaves. 

Then fucking types it out again and sends it anyway. Because what the fuck is he even supposed to wear?

Kristoff's never done anything quite like this.

Sushi Elsa had said, then, concerned, Is that going to be okay? as if Kristoff hasn't picked a half-eaten hamburger out of the trash once.

He doesn't say that to Elsa, obviously. Just that he's never had sushi before but he's not a picky eater.

Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Kat, Allison, Ellen, Ellen's husband, and some other girls from the front end and clothes department.

Honestly, Kristoff's bracing for a fucking nightmare evening.

But, Anna wants him there. That makes all the difference, these days.

He'll get through the dinner, making sure Anna has a good night. Then, tomorrow afternoon, after her class, they'll head out for the national park.

That part, Kristoff is very much looking forward to.

He endures Kat's first three rounds of responses, before finally she gives him some useful fucking guidance.

So, wearing the darkest pair of pants he has and, as Kat had put it, any shirt you have with fucking buttons, with his scuffed-to-shit-but-at-least-they're-black work shoes, Kristoff sits in his truck at the back of the parking lot, waiting.

He isn't going to be late or anything, but he's sure as shit not going in until he knows either Kat or Anna are there.

Christ, if he's going to make it through this whole thing, he can't start out sitting alone with those fucking girls from Clothes. 

He hasn't heard from Anna much today. She called him this morning so he could wish her a happy birthday, but then Elsa had a whole day planned, so since then only a few messages.

It's odd how quickly a person can get used to not feeling alone.

He's squinting around the parking lot trying to decide if he recognizes any of the other vehicles when his phone goes off.

we r just pulling in. Are you here yet?

And then,

I missed you today!

And just like that he's in a good mood.

He gets out and moves slowly across the parking lot. It doesn't take very long.

"Kristoff!" She calls from behind him. He turns, ready with a hug and a kiss and a happy birthday, but he is stopped short by the sight of her.

She's hurrying toward him in a bluey-greeny kind of dress and her hair's all done up and she's got the biggest shining smile and she's fucking beautiful and he's so happy to see her.

"I love you," he says, when she catches up to him. Then, having startled himself, "oh, shit. I mean, I do-"

He has a moment of uncertainty, almost time to think Should I- before she throws herself at him. He catches her and swings her around.

"I love you, too," she says, before he can even set her down on the ground again.

Elsa interrupts their kissing with a small cough and an arched eyebrow. They're still in the parking lot outside Anna's birthday dinner.

Kristoff has to go eat fish and rice for like an hour surrounded by coworkers.

Fuck.

It's one of the best moments of his life, of course - she loves him, Anna loves him - but talk about peaks and valleys. Goddamn.

Anna doesn't want to let go of his hand, but the birthday girl is quickly sucked into the celebratory vortex. There are important selfies to be taken in front of the exotic fish tank, for example. 

Only Anna's cautionary, "Okay, but remember not to put pictures of me online!" can bring Kristoff down off cloud nine.

Kat materializes next to him.

"You look like you finally got laid," she says.

"Fuck off," he snaps, with more feeling than usual.

-

He ends up seated between Kat and Ellen's husband, who's name Kristoff immediately forgets.

Kat, he thinks, is a pissed at him. Once they've all ordered drinks and the menus have been collected he leans her way a little and thanks her for her help earlier, and after that she unsticks.

Most of the people here have had sushi before. It's really only Kristoff, Ellen, and Ellen's husband that haven't. Everyone delights in trying to trick them into trying something outlandish, but Kristoff isn't exaggerating when he says there's pretty much nothing he won't eat.

Ellen's husband seems to feel very aware that they're the only two men at the table, so making conversation is easy on that side. Kristoff's been fishing a few times, but all wrong, apparently. Kat has Allison and all the cashier girls to talk to anyway.

Elsa's gone all out. The table is decorated with sunflowers and the restaurant has hung a banner and all the waitstaff come out to sing around an enormous chocolate cake.

Anna's visibly delighted - happily showing off the bracelet her sister gave her, sharing her favorite dishes, chatting animatedly with her friends.

Kristoff certainly feels drained by the evening, but watching her enjoy herself so fully makes it easier.

She catches his eye and smiles at him, waving. He smiles back. Settles into his seat and pops another mini whatever-the-fuck into his mouth.

He's happy here as long as she likes.

-

They're all standing in a loose circle outside the restaurant - Elsa bought everyone's food, didn't even wince at the fucking check, Kristoff can't even imagine - and Anna is accepting final hugs from everyone. Kristoff's lurking awkwardly, determined to go last, sneak a few seconds more with her. See if she'll say it to him again.

She finds her way over to him and he gets his hug.

"What do you want to do now?" She asks, without letting go. "I hardly got to see you!"

"Oh, uh," Kristoff's eyes go to Elsa across the group, who had staked a pretty clear claim on Anna's actual birth day.

"We talked about it," says Anna, stepping back, "I was thinking it makes sense if - I can go get my bag then I can sleep at yours? If you don't mind taking me to school in the morning? Then we can go from there, nice and easy!"

"Uh, yeah. Yeah - totally!"

She beams at him.

"Okay, great! I have my bag in Elsa's car, let me just go get it, I'll be right back!"

And she runs off with Elsa's keys, leaving him struck dumb with surprise.

The group has mostly dispersed. Elsa, smirking up a fucking storm, reaches up and brushes her thumb along Kristoff's cheek by his mouth.

"You had some rice," she explains. Then she wishes him a safe trip and follows after Anna.

Chapter Text

Anna looks at him across the truck.

"I love you," she says, an experiment - are they going to be a couple who says it all the time, or is it going to be special and rare? He hasn't said it again, maybe he didn't mean to say it at all.

But his whole face opens wide. "I love you," he says back.

Only time will really answer her question. But Anna's feeling good tonight.

"I didn't tell you earlier," he says, "but your dress - you look really pretty."

Anna smooths out the fabric of her skirt. "Thank you. Elsa helped me pick it out."

"You guys have a fun day?"

"The best!"

He listens attentively and asks questions while she tells him all about her day.

"I love you," she interrupts herself to say.

His face does it again. How many repetitions until he stops looking so stunned, she wonders.

"I love you too," he says.

-

Anna changes out of her dress pretty much as soon as they get inside - not that Sven doesn't get the chance to put his fuzzy, beige stamp on it first.

Kristoff says to use whatever hanger she finds, so she takes her bag to his room and gets into her pajamas, leaving her fancy dress hanging in his almost bare closet.

He's settled on the couch when she comes out, still in his nice clothes, shoes flung toward the door.

"Wanna watch something?" He asks, holding up the remote.

"Sea Turtles?" She asks. He grins. Sea Turtles has become their secret makeout code.

He looks good all dressed up and she tells him so.

Anna gets to muss his hair, and undo one of his buttons, fingers snaking through to brush warm skin underneath. Kristoff hooks his thumbs around the front of her waist and moves upward, resting large and solid hands against her ribcage.

They're almost lying down across his couch now.

"I love you," he says, breathing right into her ear. His weight shifts the couch when he moves and the bulk of his chest and shoulders are above her now.

Anna's warm fuzzies ebb away. Does he think..?

It would make sense. If they were waiting for her to feel comfortable - wouldn't I love you be a good sign?

"I love you," she says back, because it's still true, no matter what.

Then, "Oh, look at the babies hatching!"

She taps him on the arm that's bracketing her in, keeps her eyes focused on the TV, as if enthralled by the fracturing skin of the tiny egg. He'll move. She knows he'll move.

She breathes more freely when he shifts back, sitting up properly again.

He opens his mouth, like he's going to say something.

"The birds," she says, gesturing at the screen, "it's so sad."

He smiles at her. "We've seen this before. The beach has volunteers."

He doesn't sound mad, but Anna hunches as if rebuked.

"I know," she says, "I just like this bit."

"Okay," he says, and lifts his arm so she can lean against him again.

They snuggle together and watch the sea turtles.

-

Kristoff has to dig his pajamas out of his bag. He changes in the bathroom, but opens the door so they brush their teeth together. He helps Anna get the rest of her hair down - he's got a good vantage point for some of the bobby pins hidden at the top.

"What is even fun about doing it up like this?" He asks, "it must have taken ages."

"Elsa and I did it together!" She explains, holding out her hand for the pins he has collected in his fist.

He runs his hand through her free hair.

"It's so much longer now," he observes. She can see him in the mirror, watching the ends fall out from between his fingers.

"They cut it, in the hospital," she explains, not really sure what drives her to say it. "Normally it's not as short as it was when we met."

She's expecting more questions, like, why were you in hospital? for a start, but he just gathers her close and kisses the top of her head.

"I love you," he tells her, making eye contact through the mirror. Tall and broad and warm and safe.

She smiles back at him. "I love you too."

They don't really cuddle this time, in bed. But Anna falls asleep quickly.

Kristoff pulls pulled a thin blanket over them, but his body's a furnace in the summer night so by the time Anna wakes she's burrowed out.

It'll be a gift in the winter though, she thinks.

It's lovely, getting ready for the day alongside him. He's quicker to start than her, a morning person, she thinks, distastefully. Anna, bleary-eyed and frizzy-haired, makes her way into the shower, and when she emerges, to her surprise, he's made eggs and ham.

They eat together and then take Sven for his morning walk. They repack their bags and load up the truck.

He lists all the supplies he's already collected. Anna wouldn't have thought of half that stuff.

"Think of anything else we'll need? I can get it while you're in class."

"No, nothing," she says, he seems very prepared. "You have to let me get gas and food on the way back though!"

-

They exchange kisses and I love yous and Anna hops out of the truck.

Class goes slowly. Anna's restless. The excitement has crept up on her. It's a lovely day and she wants to be on her way North, not stuck indoors like this.

It's her week to take the shorthand machine - she'd forgotten about it completely. They'll have to either drop it off at home which will eat up all the time they saved, or drive the weight up to the national park and back, which seems silly. She'll worry about it the whole time. They're expensive, she knows, and they signed a waiver at the beginning of the semester agreeing to cover any damages.

"Oh right," Olaf says, "the big romantic trip! I can take it for now then we can swap before next class? I don't mind the extra practice."

Anna hugs him, and heads off, unburdened, to meet Kristoff out in the parking lot.

-

"I've got a game for us to play," she says, waving a little notebook at him.

They're just at the edge of the city now, starting to climb into the mountains. Anna's got her shoes off, snacks and sodas arranged, and Sven's finally given up on them opening a window, so he's gone to sleep across the back bench. 

"Oh yeah?" asks Kristoff, reaching to turn down the radio.

"It's a quiz, kind of." She got it online - a road trip relationship quiz. She's determined not to be a boring passenger while he drives. She especially can't risk the rudeness of falling asleep!

She opens the page with a flourish.

"What was the first time you knew you like-liked me?"

He startles. Maybe he was expecting a fifty-states quiz or something. She thought that would be too childish. "What? Come on, Anna."

"It's only a few questions!"

"It's embarrassing!"

A hint of uncertainty - is he embarrassed by her? - but she pushes through.

"What you love me but you won't admit you liked me?"

He scoffs, chews on his tounge.

"When you took the shift for Sven," he says.

"What! That was like immediately! Why did that make you like me?"

"It was nice. You didn't have to do it. People I knew for years didn't help and all you knew was I was some asshole with a dog and," he shrugs, "you took the shift."

Anna smiles at him soppily. It's nice to think he had a crush on her so quickly. Nicer, even, that he played it cool for so long. 

"When did you know you loved me?" She reads next.

"The butterfly area of the botanical gardens."

"When you went in?" That was pretty recent. 

"No," he looks at her like she's said something silly, "the first time we went. I was watching you - shit do I really have to - alright, I was watching you from outside. And you just - you were really enjoying it and it was just really... nice. To watch you enjoy something. To show you something that made you happy like that."

Anna's melting into a puddle. 

"I love you," she tells him, squeezing his arm. He takes his eyes off the road to smile back at her.

"I love you, too." Then he returns to his grumbling, "Obviously. Doing the fucking quiz apparently..."

"What was the first time you thought about kissing me?"

"Nope. Listen Anna this quiz -"

"Oh go on! Please…"

"No, it's your turn. You answer one! I'm not just gonna be out here all by myself giving dorky answers to stupid questions -"

Anna has had the quiz for days. She knows all her answers.

"When you got Richard fired - I realized I liked you. I think I liked you earlier than that, but I didn't let myself think about it until the Richard thing."

He's quiet.

"Now you!" She prompts.

"I didn't freak you out?" He asks, instead, "with the whole bus stop shitshow?"

She watches the side of his face - eyes tight, mouth thin.

"No," she says, softly. "I was very glad to see you."

"Yeah?"

"Mhmm."

"Even when I stuck around and got all fucking gushy at you?"

"That was the best bit." She says, smiling at him. "You were so nice."

He goes hurmph, but his hands relax on the steering wheel.

Elsa thought you were stalking me, she remembers. But she keeps it to herself. 

"So... when did you first think about kissing me?" She prods. 

"I don't like this quiz. I've been thinking about kissing you a long fucking time, Anna."

She hesitates. Should she leave it? Or is it a fun joke and she can push harder?

"Black Friday," he admits, after a few seconds of uncertain quiet. 

"What! No!" She says, disbelieving. "Properly thinking about it?"

He shrugs like what do you want from me?

"Are you serious?"

"I don't like this quiz" he says, again. 

That's a very long time, she thinks.

Are you sure you're okay we haven't had sex still? She almost asks. But she can't get up the nerve to broach the topic. He's been waiting longer than she realized.

"What about you?" He asks, after a moment

"Hmm? Oh, botanical gardens. You didn't kiss me when you dropped me off, and I kept thinking about what it would have been like if you did."

He hits his palm lightly against the curve of his steering wheel.

"Damn. Didn't read that one right at all."

"No... I think you did. I was worried, I think, about kissing. Then when it didn't happen, that's when I realised I was disappointed."

"Oh," he says. Then, "what about - when you knew you, uh, loved me?"

She smiles another big soppy smile at him.

"The morning after you slept over at my house."

"Oh yeah? Uh, why?"

"Because you slept in your jeans. And you offered to drive me to school, even though I didn't want to - do stuff."

He frowns. She sees him swallow.

"Those are - pretty low fucking bar there, Anna."

Her stomach sinks. She doesn't want him to be offended. 

"No! You had just told me all the stuff about your family, and then... I was nervous about sleeping over, but I didn't need to be. And you are always really good about my school getting in the way, and I can tell you about - stuff with Hans. Those things are big. And they're important," she insists, willing him to see. 

"Okay," he says, after a moment's quiet, "I mean I'll take the win, you know." But he smiles at her again, and she thinks he understands.

"I know I should tell you more stuff about him," she says, not long after, "but it's hard. I don't know how or what to even say."

He doesn't say anything for a little while.

"I don't know, Anna. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. But I'm here, for any of it, if you do. I get it - it feels like, if someone knows some stuff, they'll think about you differently."

"Yes!" She agrees, immediately, "like, why you would let something happen or why you couldn't see it properly at the time."

"Right," he says. "Like, I don't like people knowing I was - homeless. I don't enjoy talking about it or thinking about it. But I don't feel embarrassed, not the same way as I was before. Some stuff that happened wasn't my fault and I was doing the best I could. Elsa mentioned - she asked if I would eat sushi. And the first thought I had was the first time I ate something out of the garbage." He glances at her, "but people gotta eat. I think it's just time. And your stuff was still really recent."

Anna doesn't know what to say to that.

"I wish we knew each other before." She says instead. She's been thinking about it a lot recently. "Like ten years ago. I wouldn't have gotten with Hans and you wouldn't have had to go through all that."

He laughs. "Anna you would have just had your fifteenth birthday yesterday. But I guess you're right - I'd get fed in jail."

You're twenty-eight and we still haven't had sex, she thinks. Anna at fifteen would have been safer with homeless Kristoff than Anna at twenty was in her husband's home.

"You could have taken me to Prom! Met my parents!" She exclaims, a whole alternate universe dropping fully-formed into her brain.

"Oh your parents would have loved ten years ago me," he laughs, but less amused now. Anna should stop. "High school drop-out on the fast track to a homeless shelter. We could have introduced our families, maybe. My Mom's boyfriend would have robbed your fucking house."

She didn't mean to make him mad.

"My parents were good people," she says to her lap, "if we were friends then, they would have helped." She looks up again, "I know it doesn't change anything. But they would have liked you, and they would have helped."

"Sorry," he says, as the truck eats away more road, "I'm not trying to be shitty here. It's hard for me to imagine - even today, I can't picture your parents being exactly pleased to meet me."

Handholding is a complicated thing on a road trip. They'd given it up when the beef jerky needed opening. But Anna reaches back now and takes his hand in both of her own and stares hard at the side of his face so he knows she's serious.

"I won't ever get to prove you wrong. But I know they would have been very happy. Besides. You won Elsa over, and that's probably harder."

"I did?" He asks.

She laughs - how can he not realize? "Of course!"

-

They stop for dinner at a diner in a truck stop. Kristoff must have planned it, because Sven's allowed to sit at their feet while they eat.

Anna finds a hair in her burger. It's long enough to make her gag, and they both know there's not much point in asking for a replacement. So Kristoff swaps their plates and she gets to eat the burger with at least the illusion of sanitary food preparation.

"Bjorgman iron stomach," he says, tapping his abdomen and taking a large bite over her protests. 

Anna has a moment of wondering - how much hungrier would she have to be to eat it anyway? Not today, too many road trip snacks and a hearty breakfast. But tomorrow? If there were no ordering a fresh meal, or stopping somewhere else along the way?

She's pleasantly distracted by him making some comment to Sven, and she doesn't circle back to dwell on it.

They take Sven on a little walk to stretch his legs and go to the bathroom before the final leg of their journey.

"About forty minutes to the hotel," Kristoff announces as they settle back into the truck.

Anna's having so much fun, really, just the best day. So why does her stomach still squeeze like that when he says it?

Chapter Text

There is something electric about being inside a hotel room with Kristoff. Not the fun kind of electricity, more like - lightning at sea.

The room is small. Two beds facing a TV on a dresser. A small table in the corner and a bathroom door.

There's nowhere really to go except the one of the beds.

Sven bounds past her, nearly sending her sprawling. Poor guy has spent the better part of the day all cooped up in the truck, then kept on his leash whenever they stopped. Released now, the freedom to explore a new space overwhelms the enormous puppy.

"Hey!" Kristoff calls, dropping his duffel bag onto the other bed, "Sven! Hey!" He claps his hands once, sharp and loud, not noticing Anna's startle.

He's caught Sven's attention finally.

"We are on the second fucking floor, bud. You can't-" but he gestures with one of his hands and Sven twirls, looking for whatever he thinks Kristoff threw.

Sven rushes past Anna, landing on the bed claimed by Kristoff's duffel.

Kristoff rolls his eyes and throws his head back in utter despair.

"Fine. Fine! Anna, you feeling like a W-A-L-K?"

"I think I'll stay here. Settle in," she says, not quite looking at him.

"Oh," he says, surprised, "alright. Well, we're gonna go, before I bother taking my shoes off or anything. See you, uh, see you in a few then."

He wrangles Sven back into his harness, and they head out.

The door clicks behind him. The lock slides shut.

That's how hotel doors work. They lock automatically.

Anna has a key. Kristoff gave her one back in the lobby, right after the front desk person handed them over.

-

Hans was a controlling person. Controlling and possessive. Almost to the point, Anna thought, where his main issue with Anna was that she was wandering around in what he saw as his body.

It was a body he saw defects in, absolutely, but though she inhabited it, he owned it.

That was just as true when she was being polite to grocery store clerks as it was when they were having sex.

She wasn't a virgin when she started having sex with Hans. And it didn't start out bad, necessarily. She was just - younger than him and less experienced, nervous and eager to please.

She had quickly convinced herself that this was what having sex with a man was, as opposed to fumbling immature boys her own age.

The idea of it being rape still feels confusing. How can she be a person who was raped hundreds of times? She would have noticed, surely?

But, when you stop bothering to say no because it's not worth the fight, or it'll just make things worse, or it won't make a difference -

What other word is there?

She had kind of turned it on him, eventually. Acting interested, initiating. She could use it to conceal, distract, or even get her way on something, sometimes.

So, it's weird, to consider having sex with Kristoff.

She knows that it wouldn't go the same, as an experience. Kristoff is nice, he's gentle, and he cares about her and he stops when she says stop. Every single time they've been kissing it's been her to break away first, and every single time he's listened. With not a word said about it.

So, if she knows that then why is it so hard to make the decision?

He'll be back any minute now.

The way she sees it - there's only one real option here.

They've said they love each other. Been together for months. What's her deal, really? She should be able to just - do it, right? What's the point of having him wait? What'll be different three weeks or two months from now?

Except, potentially, the wearing thin of his patience.

Better for her to initiate, have it be fun and spontaneous and her somewhat in the lead, right? They love each other, they're on their first trip, staying overnight in a hotel he paid for - it makes sense.

Maybe that's what she needs? Once they've done it the first time - it'll be less scary, going forward.

Yes. Just get through it this time, then she'll know.

She sits on a hotel bed, folding and unfolding along the seam of the bedspread, certain of her conclusions. He'll be back any minute now.

-

She changes into her pajamas, and sits cross-legged on the end of her bed, idly flipping through static-ridden channels.

Grizzly murder show? No thank you.

Some kind of romcom? Pass for today.

Reality show contestants screaming at each other across a parking lot? Nope, nope, nope.

She's settled on a quiz show when he returns. She startles badly when the door beeps, but she's recovered by the time Sven rushes in to greet her.

Kristoff moves around the room and Anna is reminded of her first day with him training in the backroom. He had felt eight feet tall to her then, and it's uncomfortable to have that feeling back after so much time.

He emerges from the bathroom dressed in the same pajamas as last night. He hesitates, slightly, before moving past her onto the other bed.

The game show blurs. Anna feels stupid. Here she is sitting on the second bed in a hotel her boyfriend paid for and she really thought they weren't going to have sex. Stupid.

"Alright?" He asks, uncertain. 

"Yup," she chirps. Blinks any sign out of her face and gets to her feet, padding over to join him on his bed.

"Hi," he says, smiling at her when she settles herself next to him.

"Hi," she says, tucking herself in close, bracing somewhat. 

He doesn't leap on her or anything.

She tries to remember the growing confidence with which she's been draping herself over him in recent weeks. Teasing. Writing checks that've now come due.

It's no challenge to get Kristoff kissing her. Familiar patterns with none of their old ease, for Anna anyway. She feels torn with every movement of his hand, between ten more seconds I just need ten more seconds and an urge to move forward and get on with it, be done.

They're still sitting up, kissing at the leisurely place she has come to relish on his couch. She runs her nails through his hair, hesitantly starts to arch herself against him. His breathing begins to stutter and, for the first time he's wearing his soft cotton pajamas, so the full extent of his interest becomes more obvious than ever before.

Anna steels herself and drops her hand into his lap, expecting things to move fairly quickly from there.

Kristoff's whole body jerks, then he grasps her by the wrist and holds her hand up and away.

"What?" He asks, looking at her in confusion.

"I thought we could - you know," she says.

"I just... I thought we would talk about it, I guess, before anything else happened?"

"We don't have to talk about it," she says, leaning in again.

He draws away, suspicious, easily holding her at a distance. 

"You had said like six months..."

"Maybe I'm being spontaneous," she says in a strained attempt at a sexy drawl. Then, self-conscious, "don't you want to?" She draws in on herself, he releases her wrist. 

He does something like a laugh and drops his head back against the headboard hard enough for it to thump loudly.

She's kept him waiting a long time. He's been so patient and she loves him.

"I know we don't have - you know," she blushes, "protection, but we can be careful. Unless, did you bring-?"

If he brought condoms, Anna realizes, then Elsa won't like him anymore. Elsa would want Anna to say no. To be angry, even. It would mean he planned it.

Anna feels like she's been struck by lighting. If he brought condoms -

If he brought condoms, it isn't spontaneous.

If he brought condoms, he lied. He was making a move. It isn't Anna's idea.

If he brought condoms -

If he brought condoms Anna has to say no.

A terrified shudder lurches it's way up her spine.

She can't let him tell her he has condoms.

"Nevermind," she says, seizing his arm and leaning in, "that doesn't matter. We can just-"

"Anna what the fuck is happening right now?" He asks, pulling his arm free and scooting away.

She winces. The swearing is a bad sign. She's missed her window. This is no longer fun and spontaneous. She messed it up.

"I'm sorry," she says, wilting.

"Look. Maybe - maybe I should go sleep in the truck-"

"No no no! Don't go! Kristoff!" She hears her voice break, desperately.

She reaches out and grasps a handful of his shirt. As if she could physically keep him here. As if he couldn't throw her off with thoughtless ease.

Instead he covers her hand with his own.

"Anna," he says, ducking his head to make her look at his face. "Tell me what's happening?"

She swallows, tearing up.

This is not sexy. This is high maintenance.

"Sorry," she says.

"Anna?" He repeats, "I don't -"

"I don't want you to leave. And I know-" she takes a deep shuddering breath.

I know how to make sure you stay.

She can't say that. Men don't want to know that. It's not attractive to say it out loud.

"I love you." She says - apology, explanation, permission.

His face wrinkles up.

"Don't - look, I love you, too. Alright? But, don't say it like that when you think I'm mad, okay?"

"Sorry," she says, again, ducking further to avoid his eye.

She can feel him watching her, for a moment. Then he surprises her, moving away so he's reclining against the headboard of the bed. He lifts his arm and gestures her over.

She's confused. They're still going to-?

She moves in and lets him position her as he likes. Ends up tucked in under his arm against his side, laying with her head pillowed on his shoulder.

They lay quietly for a while. Anna listens to the thunk-thunk of his heartbeat, feels the steady rise and fall of his chest. His one hand stays on her shoulder. His other resting on his stomach.

Bit by bit, she relaxes. The muted TV flashes obnoxiously. Neither of them reach for the remote. 

She doesn't know how much time passes before she speaks.

"Hans used to take me on his business trips. I should have told you." She traces her fingers lightly along the ripples of his shirt. "The hotel thing. It's been making me nervous."

She concentrates on his shirt. It's one of his white ones. His pajama pants are a muted plaid. His toes bare and a little hairy - no socks today.

"I didn't know," he says.

"I didn't tell you," she returns. She doesn't want him feeling guilty on top of everything else.

"This was a pretty shitty idea then, huh?"

"No," she objects, pushing on his chest to sit herself up and look down at him. "I really wanted to come. I just - I wanted the hotel thing to not bother me. I thought… I could just make it happen."

She remembers countless conversations with Gerda on this topic. But she's stubborn and she tried anyway. And oh hey look - it didn't work.

"Okay," he says, tugging her back into place. She folds willingly against him, glad he seems to believe her. She had such a good day, right up until the hotel lobby. She doesn't want him to doubt that.

"I'm worried you're going to get bored or - or annoyed, about the sex thing," she blurts in an anxious rush of air.

They haven't talked about it since the Waffle Hut, what, three months ago now? It's scary to bring it up. But no longer more scary than not knowing. Trying to guess.

He goes still under her. Her breath catches. There is a worst case scenario here, and she doesn't know if she's ready.

If he brought condoms-

She feels the ripple of him moving, he shifts her away and sits up, forcing them to face each other again.

"I'm not," he promises. "Do I seem like I am? Are you feeling - am I rushing you?"

She shakes her head. Bites her lip. She's going to cry again, she knows it.

"I just don't want to wait too long and-"

"Hey, hey," he catches her hands in his, rests them on the bedspread between them. "Look… listen, I don't want you to think - I can't handle it, Anna. If something happened, if we had sex or something and it was because you were feeling pressure or nervous or scared - I couldn't deal with that. With what that would make me. Do you understand? There's no waiting too long. That's like the worst thing I can think of, okay? You being uncomfortable because you were too scared to be honest with me. Alright? I don't want to be like him."

His voice cracks at the end. She looks up at Kristoff's face and for the first time he's almost crying.

She reaches across the gap and holds his face, wiping her thumb along under his eye.

"You're nothing like Hans."

She's known for a long time. Been able to list endlessly, if asked for proof. But as she says it outloud, looking into kind, watery brown eyes, it clicks differently in her chest.

He's the one who breaks away this time. Shifting uncomfortably.

"My Dad - Mom's boyfriend. Your ex, he's another one. But it's been important to me for a long time, not being that kind of man."

"You're not," she reassures him, "not at all."

He smiles at her. Leans in so their foreheads are touching. 

There's not much to say, after that. Anna believes him. If she tries to make herself have sex with him again - she'd be doing something terrible to Kristoff. Something he doesn't want. She hadn't thought of it like that before. 

They settle back down, arranging the blankets over their legs. Anna doesn't want to seperate, she wants to stay glued to his side permanently. 

Kristoff reaches across her to get the remote and turn the volume back up. They make a few comments about obscure bits of trivia the contestants have picked up, the host's tie, the taxable status of the prize winnings, until Anna begins to fall asleep, drained now of adrenaline and stress, warm weight of him against her side lulling her into drowsiness.

"Hey, do you want me to move to the other one?"

"Hmm?"

He gives her a little shake.

"Do you want me to go sleep in the other bed?" He asks, a little firmer.

Her fist closes on the fabric of his shirt. She wants him right where he is. 

-

Anna wakes to the rustle of him extracting himself from the bed.

She drifts again.

Wakes a second time to a whispered, "Shhh, Sven! Shut it!"

She blearlily opens her eyes, turns to find him, dressed and standing in the aisle next to her portion of the bed.

"Wha-?" She starts to ask.

He leans down and smooths a big hand over her hair. Gives her forehead a quick kiss and says, "Gotta get Sven out for a minute. I'll grab you breakfast from downstairs. Then it's time to get up, okay? We gotta get moving."

"Mmkay," she says, snuggling deeper into warm covers.

The click of the door closing startles her into proper wakefulness.

He'll be back in just a minute though. He isn't annoyed. Sven has to use the bathroom. She sits up to look - her purse is where she left it, she still has her room key. 

Well, now that she's up, Anna may as well be ready when he does get back.

-

His duffel sits alongside her backpack on the unused second bed, open.

She doesn't slow down to think about it. He won't be gone long. And she needs to know. Won't get another chance to check.

She's careful, digging through his bag, to preserve his particular approach to folding. She runs her hands under each layer and checks down each corner. Unzips the side pockets and finds them mostly empty. Spare socks, toiletries, deodorant.

No condoms, or anything like that.

Of course not, she thinks. She smoothes her hands along the top layer of his stuff. She just got confused. It's the hotel, messing with her head. She's fine.

Chapter Text

Kristoff breathes deeply. Mountain air fills his lungs. He loves it up here. Crisp, cool, quiet.

Well.

He turns to smile at Anna behind him. Normally Kristoff's time up here is spent in almost complete silence, alone aside from Sven or the occasional passer-by.

"So I said to Elsa," she is saying, pausing more frequently than usual to keep her breath, "what's with the gloves? Turns out - she has this major thing about dirt!"

"Huh," says Kristoff from a little further ahead, hoping he sounds even slightly surprised.

"Yeah!" Anna continues, "She puts filtered water in her ice maker. I mean you just can't live like that, you know?"

Kristoff absolutely thinks of Elsa as quite a highly strung person. His brief brushes with her during the birthday planning proved it beyond any doubt. But he knows two things - first, that the sisters tell each other pretty much everything, and second, Elsa apparently likes him. So he's not going to take any risks here.

"Some people like filtered water, I guess," he offers, feeling very diplomatic. "Living with your big sister getting on your nerves, then?"

Anna breathes deeply, not just exertion now. He stops walking. 

"No," she says, catching up to him and leaning her forehead on his back, "it's just nice to have someone to talk to about stuff like that." Draws away and moves past him, swiping at her forehead. "Your back is super sweaty, by the way."

"Hey!"

-

As the sun climbs, the light coming down through the trees makes keyhole impressions all over the shadowy floor. Kristoff remembers trying to stamp on them, when he was a kid. 

They're getting close now. She's a little winded, and they're making far slower progress than usual, but he thinks it's been good so far. Relaxing.

Better than last night. Christ. After she fell asleep he stayed up almost half the night turning it all over in his mind, trying to find where he had fucked it all up.

Couldn't really come up with much. But the shadow of the night sits uncomfortably in his chest. He imagines she feels similarly awkward. 

"My Grandpa brought me up here a couple times," he tells her, when they're taking a rest. They're still on the trail, so there's benches and mile markers and map stations scattered around.

She's leaning dramatically on his shoulder, dead, she claims. But every time he checks in if she's good to keep going or wants to slow down he gets a very stern look, like he's ruining the game. So he's been teasing back now, asking if she needs to be carried or should he skip straight to calling mountain rescue.

She perks right up when he speaks though. He knows he doesn't talk about his family much.

"Oh?" She prods, he can see she's being careful.

"Yeah, before he got sick, we came up here pretty often in the summer. We'd go camping and fishing - there's a lake further in. I like it here. A lot."

"I like it too," she says. "It's so pretty."

They sit for a moment, silence around them unlike anything down in the valley. The wind picks up and the trees rustle. Sven breaks the quiet by throwing himself through the underbrush, very probably ruining some small animal's day.

"You don't mind the hiking?" He asks, a little unsure of himself.

He has been operating under the assumption she would tell him, if she wasn't having fun or feeling stressed or something, but that's been shaken now.

He wants to believe she would have called it off, if he hadn't hesitated, questioned her. She wouldn't have really gone through with it. But he suspects that is not the case.

The question that's been raised, really, is if she's going along with other stuff she doesn't want, to make him happy.

There is obviously a certain amount of doing things you don't want when you're in a relationship. Shit, Kristoff would have gone to see that singing movie with her if Olga hadn't. But that's little shit - tiny. He wants to believe that if she was actually uncomfortable or nervous - she'd speak up.

She was going to keep quiet about the hotel bothering her. Hell, she was going to have sex with him for Christ's sake.

It's enough to make him nauseous.

How can he know that she's enjoying the hike? Her word? She could be having an awful time. It's supposed to be for her birthday!

She leans in for a kiss - to distract him? He worries, briefly, No - and tells him, "It's great. Sorry I'm a little slow."

He slings his arm around her, pulling her close.

"You're doing great. I never brought anyone here. It's nice - showing you."

"I love you," she says, kissing him again.

"I love you," he replies.

He said it first. She wouldn't have - she must mean it. She does.

"You just - you can tell me. If you don't want to keep going."

She's embarrassed. Probably doesn't want him to bring last night up, even indirectly.

He puts it out of his mind. He has known manipulators and liars, most of his childhood visits up here were connected to some shitstorm his Grandpa was trying to get him away from. Anna's not like that. He's letting himself get paranoid, and he needs to cut it out.

-

The waterfall isn't big enough to make it onto park maps or recommendations or anything like that. It's not signposted and it's a little ways off a secondary trail. That's why Kristoff likes it. He doesn't delude himself into thinking nobody else knows it's here, but the people who find it don't leave trash or graffiti or any of that shit.

The stream is big and quick enough to have dug itself a shallow channel in the earth. The banks are fine sand and smoothed stone, dotted with prickly bushes. In some places trees seem to bend in and down, dropping leaves and crunchy seed pods to be carried away by the current.

It's not so much a waterfall, really, as a water-falling-over-the-edge-of-a-rock-at-the-crest-of-a-steep-downward-slope. So, he's feeling a little insecure as they enter the clearing. Worried he oversold it. He doesn't wring his hands, exactly, but he adjusts the straps on his bag, fiddling needlessly for a moment.

"Oh wow, Kristoff!" She exclaims, and relief surges through him. "Look! It's so pretty!"

She rushes over to the outcropping of rock, leaning out over the edge. Gets down on her knees and sticks her hand into the water, disrupting and directing the flow.

"What happened to the trees?" She asks, looking back at him.

The sun lights the grassy hill and the water sparkles and her hair and her eyes and her smile. Beautiful.

"I think there was a wildfire," he says. The whole side of the hill is empty of trees. It's been like that as long as he's known about this place.

She turns back to her survey.

Kristoff gives a sharp whistle to remind Sven that they, you know, exist, but he's not worried. Sven knows this area, and he'll show up as soon as lunch gets going.

Anna is sitting with her feet over the edge, now. She's clearly a little out of her element hiking around in the middle of nowhere like this, but she's got no fear or hesitance at all. He likes seeing this adventurous side of her. Maybe a camping trip one day isn't off the table, like he had assumed.

The rock she's on isn't really big enough for him to join her, not without crowding her against the edge of what's technically a small cliff, anyway. He settles a little further down, watching her look around.

It's June so the flowers are blooming down the hill. The grass is criss-crossed with pathways, animal or ranger, only Sven can tell, probably.

"Must have been a bad fire," she says.

"I really don't know, honestly. Just a guess."

"It's amazing, though." She says, trailing her fingers again in the water. "Everything growing back."

"There'll be trees again, eventually," he says, "take some time, but…"

Things heal, he wants to say. But it's too fucking cheesy. And she knows.

"We should take a picture!" She announces, scooting so she has her legs under her and the cliff is to her back.

"Uh, okay," he says, not really sure what she's looking for. "You want one of just you, or-?"

She tuts at him. Scoots forward slightly.

"Here, you go behind me, and put your legs like this and I'll sit in front of you and we can get the hill and the treeline and maybe some of the stream!"

Kristoff's got his doubts about any phone capturing that angle, but Anna's apparently planning on sitting in his lap, and he's not about to try argue his way out of it.

They shuffle awkwardly into place, too many legs and not enough rock, but they manage, and Kristoff braces on his palms, only slightly feeling like he might fall backward over the edge.

It wouldn't kill him. And Anna's sitting between his legs, leaning back against his chest, top of her head tucked under his chin. She holds the phone out, screen facing them so they can see the picture.

The angle's not working.

She moves her arm around like someone in an old movie trying to get signal off an antenna. Strains her arm out, holds the phone in her fingertips, and it drops with a soft plunk into the water.

"Oh no!" She cries, fishing it out quickly. The screen flashes bright white. Just once.

It isn't turning on.

"Shit," he says, unhelpfully, sitting forward. "Sorry, Anna."

She wipes at the screen with the edge of her shirt. No difference.

She sighs, slumping.

"That was really dumb of me," she says.

"No," he argues, pulling her back into her spot against him, "you wanted a good picture and you dropped your phone. Happens to everybody. Did you have like, insurance on it or something?"

"I don't know," she says, "that all goes through Elsa."

"Well you can call her on mine if you like."

"Thanks," she says, twisting around to kiss him.

"Just maybe not so close to the water," he says, grinning.

She hits his arm, and calls him a jerk, but with a secret smile and a small laugh.

-

She likes the waterfall. She's had a good day. It's that face again - like the butterfly enclosure. He gave her something, again, that she loves.

He shouldn't worry so much. He can trust her. He can trust Anna.

"Time for lunch, you think?" He asks. Anna's onboard.

They have bread rolls, lunch meat, cheese and a chocolate bar all wrapped up and packed in ice at the bottom of his bag. It's a nice little lunch, spent together in one of his favorite places.

Kristoff has the errant thought, suddenly, that if he was ever going to propose... he could see himself doing it here.

The thought itself hits like someone's thrown a small rock at the back of his head. He shakes it off. He needs more fucking sleep.

"Time to head back, you think?"

-

Once they get back to the truck and load up, Kristoff tosses his phone onto her lap.

She looks at him, blank.

"You wanted to call Elsa?"

"Oh," she says. "Yeah, I'll text her if you don't mind?"

Kristoff gestures for her to go ahead. He doesn't have a password or anything so he isn't paying much attention. He focuses more on the way the recent summer rain has made deep craters in his side of the dirt road.

"You guys sure talked a lot before my birthday," she says.

He hadn't thought of that. The text-history is a little embarrassing.

She's watching him, surprised.

"What? We had a lot to work out, " He says.

"You're not annoyed I'm going through your phone?" She asks.

He rolls his eyes. Maneuvers around a particularly uneven section of road.

"No. What am I hiding on my phone?"

He erased his internet search history before the trip. He's almost thirty, after all, not fourteen.

"Huh," she says. "So I can look at your other messages?"

"Go for it," he says. The only potential embarrassment there is the fucking lack.

"What about your pictures?"

He laughs. Trying to keep it casual, but he thinks he has realized what's happening here.

"Sure, if you forgot what Sven looks like he's right behind you though."

Sven perks up at his name, tail going thump-thump-thump.

She spends a few minutes presumably rummaging through his phone.

Then, without looking up at him, "You could have asked me what to wear for the dinner. Or Elsa."

He's not irritated, exactly. She's too hesitant for the question to irritate him. But he's also not really willing to go down this road.

"You guys were busy. Kat's been the one I ask about stuff like that for kind of a while now." She shrinks slightly, so he softens and adds, "Does that bother you?"

Anna fiddles with the phone for a moment. Places it gently in the cupholder.

"I guess a little. When you have a girlfriend, she's the one who's supposed to help with that stuff. But it was my birthday dinner. It makes sense, not wanting to ask me." She makes a visible effort to grin at him, joking, "I'd be nicer than she was, if you needed advice again."

She looks very nervous. Correcting his behavior like this. He feels the weight of it, getting his answer right. But at the same time, it's just the tiniest bit stifling. Answering to someone. He hasn't had to do it much at all in his life.

"I get where you're coming from," he says, "I can definitely keep that in mind."

He offers his hand across the middle of the seats. She takes it.

"My phone's not a secret," he tells her. "I don't care if you sometimes feel like you want to check it."

He doesn't have any secrets from Anna. 

She gives his arm a squeeze and leans across to put her head against his shoulder.

"Is there somewhere we can get a chocolate milkshake, you think?"

He laughs. "Probably, let's see."

-

They find milkshakes for the road, Anna fills up the truck with gas, and Kristofff points them southward and down the mountain they go, ending their first trip together. 

It's the longest he has spent with another person in years and years. And he knows he will be very disappointed to drop her off and  sleep in his own bed tonight.

It's late in the day when he pulls up outside her house. She lingers in the car, finishing her story and then starting a new tangent about how much she enjoyed the trip.

"I'll text you on Elsa's phone!" She promises. 

"Uh.. " he says, not having considered this complication. 

They kiss and exchange I love yous, then she says goodbye to Sven, and Kristoff watches her go until she's safely inside her house.

Shit. He already misses her.

Chapter Text

When Anna left her therapist, Gerda gave her a booklet of resources; book recommendations and support groups, both online and in person. It takes Anna a minute to find it - buried on the top shelf in the back of her closet. She hasn't touched the thing in a very long time.

It's close to eleven at night when she tentatively begins to venture out.

There are a lot of websites with Survivor in the heading. It takes her some time to work up the nerve. Mostly people like her, telling their stories. Some of them Anna can read all the way through. Some of them she can't. It's awful and it hurts and it helps, a bit.

She notices how these people talk about their own therapy; like it's a normal thing to do. Like it was the right thing - a turning point. An ongoing process.

Anna chews her lip.

She is dealing with her stuff though. The websites and maybe she'll order a book. That will help.

Things feel different, for Anna, since the hotel. She no longer feels like she's alone on the defensive wall of their abstinence, facing him - however patient and friendly, on the outside waiting to breach.

Instead, it's been re-framed as something they're doing together. She believes him, about waiting. That he would rather she was comfortable than he get laid.

She wrinkles her nose. When it's put like that - it sounds fairly basic, actually.

Ironically, that seems to be what she needed, and she begins to be able to see a path forward.

She bookmarks the page and lies in her bed. The dark is receding. She's been up all night. Luckily she doesn't work tomorrow. Well, today now.

She's spent her night reading horrible, hopeful stories. But as her eyes drift closed she's thinking about how it could be. Things she could probably take off the table without explaining why. The fact that he wants it to be that way. Stuff they could start to try.

-

Anna texts Kristoff a few times from Elsa's phone, but he's clearly uncomfortable texting the contact named Elsa - his messages are all stilted and typed out properly, so she doesn't push. Her new phone will arrive soon, and besides, it's the weekend now, so they'll see each other at work.

Anna is closing on Saturday, but his shift starts earlier. She stops by the backroom to say hi before she goes to clock in.

"Hi," she says, arms around his neck, weight supported against his chest, "I missed you!"

There is something about seeing him today that's making her giddy. It's light and bubbling in her chest. 

"Hi," he returns, both hands coming around to rest on the small of her back, "I missed you."

Maybe the decision she's made? The (mostly) easy way they spent almost three full days together? The time she's since spent trying to remember the day they went swimming? She'd been embarrassed, then, by his shirtlessness. She thinks she'll suggest they go again, next time she's at his place.

They're at work though, so she steps away. She has to go clock in.

She pulls a sad face at him as she leaves. He laughs.

"I'll stick around for your lunch," he says, waving her off, "Four hours."

"I love you," she tells him, because it didn't take much time to realize this is the kind of couple they are.

"I love you," he says, and kisses her again before she has to go.

-

He comes by her register on his way to clock out. Kat waves Anna away, so they'll get a full half hour together before she needs to be back. 

Anna feels bad, everyone is stressed about the hours, the store hasn't been busy at all. But it's been nice, for her, to have so much flexibility in the schedule.

They sit at their table and Anna eats her lunch. She's surprised when Kristoff is the one with news to share. 

"I've been looking at this, uh, boxing gym thing, near my place."

"Oh?" Says Anna, interested.

"Yeah, there's a class being offered through the city, so it's pretty cheap. Like an intro, 'try this out,' type of deal."

"Elsa and I did something like that last year," she tells him, "It was really good!"

"Yeah? I feel kinda dumb, doing it. And at the end it'll just be this big pitch to sign up for the expensive membership and all that."

"Maybe," she allows, "but that's no reason not to try it."

She wants to be encouraging without being too obvious. But she's never heard Kristoff talk about joining something like this before! She's pleased for him, and she wants him to try it.

"I - there are other classes in the catalog," he says, eyeing her, "if it's too-"

"No, I think you should do it," she says, with finality.

She's unlikely to come watch him or anything, of course. But if he's interested, she's not going to be the reason he doesn't sign up.

"The city does classes every summer," he says, "maybe, next year, when you're not in school, we can have a look and see if there's anything we could try together."

Anna beams at him.

"Yeah, okay!"

That reminds her, actually. She needs to call Olaf about the shorthand machine.

-

Kristoff offers to come back and give her a ride home, but she doesn't mind taking the bus. They both close tomorrow, so she'll see him then, and hopefully make plan to hang out soon.

And they have to talk, she knows. About what happened in the hotel. And then, other stuff. It'll be stressful - the talking. But she has things she needs to say to him. The websites have a lot of tips for talking to potential partners.

Anna takes the bus home, has a nice dinner with Elsa, spends some time on the lighter, more hopeful shade of online support forum, falls asleep daydreaming of Kristoff again, and does not remember to call Olaf.

-

They're eating lunch in the breakroom again when it happens.

Anna steals a sip of his soda. Steals in the sense that he offers her the second sip and she puts it down on the table where he'll have to reach slightly further than her for it - but his arms are longer than hers, so he'll manage.

The pallet-jack has finally become inoperable, making everything about Kristoff's day a little harder to manage.

"So this pallet, couple hundred pounds, easy, got placed over the line when they ran the truck on Friday," he is explaining, impassioned, "first of all, that's OSHA, but never-fucking-mind those guys, I guess? But it being over at an angle like that, also means it's eating into the next footprint -"

"Hey Kris?" The walkie-talkie at his waist interrupts.

He sighs and responds, "On lunch," then turns the volume down.

"That's why people think you're rude," Anna says, smiling at him.

"Rude would be ignoring her," he argues.

Kat calls for him again. Anna gives him a look. He pulls a face and unclips the walkie.

"What's up?" He asks.

Anna grins at him, taking another small sip of soda.

"You got Anna with you?" Kat asks.

Anna frowns. "I'm still under on lunch. Does she need me back?"

Kristoff presses the talk button again and says, "Yeah, she's here. You need her back?"

"No, she's got a call at guest services."

"Oh my stupid phone," says Anna, "Is it Elsa?"

"Is it Elsa?" Kristoff repeats into the microphone.

"No, some guy from her school. Olaf. He says he needs to know if he should bring 'the machine' down here or come by her house later? He said she would know what machine."

Anna's wide, panicked eyes lock onto Kristoff's face. He's only a second behind, and she watches it click into place.

"Your partner," he says, "Olaf. The whole fucking time. Jesus."

"It's not like that-" she starts to say.

"Oh you have a pair of fraternal fucking stenography twins at your school?"

"Kris?" Kat calls again, "You copy?"

Kristoff raises the walkie and snaps, "Tell him he can bring it down here for her." Then he sends the thing skittering across the tabletop.

"Please," she whispers, "it isn't his fault."

"What do you think I'm gonna do?" Anna is silent, she can't find her voice or meet his eye. "Jesus, good to fucking know, Anna. Are you fuc-"

'Are you fucking him, Anna!'

'No! Hans, no, I wouldn't, I swear-'

And the slam of her body, the weeks of wheezing and pain...

"-king serious, with this?"

He stands suddenly and she flinches badly enough to end up on her hands and knees beside her chair.

He takes a step toward her, his hand moving out in the space between them, and later she'll know, later, that he was going to help her up, but instead she throws her arms up to cover her head, releasing an awful, familiar, helpless, begging type of noise.

When she opens her eyes Kristoff stands before her, utterly stricken.

"Still," he chokes out, "after all of it?"

Anna doesn't have any words. Her eyes aren't working right. Everything is bright and blurry and warped.

He stumbles from the room leaving Anna alone, hunching on the linoleum floor.

The sound of him fades away down the stairwell and deep within Anna, a dusty old subroutine clicks back to life.

She's still in the breakroom. Anyone could come by. She doesn't want anyone to see. Can't let them know.

She stands on jittery legs and rights the chair. Straightens a few others so they are at nice right angles. Wraps the remains of Kristoff's sandwich in his cellophane and puts it back in the fridge.

His open soda she dithers over, unsure. She doesn't want him to come back and find it warm, or worse, gone entirely. She obviously can't pour it out. But if she just puts the open can into the fridge it will go flat.

Depending on how long before he comes back, anyway.

She balances a napkin over the top and moves it into the fridge, next to his lunch. It might not help, but it's better than nothing. She straightens the pile of napkins on the counter.

Anna sits, closes her eyes for a moment and feels the shake of her limbs.

Adrenaline, she knows. People think it's fear, or shock, when they shake like this. Gerda explained that it's adrenaline. Your body, preparing to fight a woolly mammoth. The excess flows through your body, no outlet, just vibrating potential.

Pick an object in the room. The remote. The remote is real. Solid. Think about the remote for twenty seconds.

The volume buttons are worn and people have to stand up to go adjust it. No one knows what some of the buttons are for - so many mystery buttons. The back panel that holds the batteries in is missing, and the batteries fall out whenever it gets dropped.

Kristoff asks her before he turns the TV on or off, when they're sitting together. Left on his own he'd watch the weather report and that's it. Except one time he had to go clock in and then came back to sit with her, on company time, because the Ancient Aliens guy really brought his A-Game that day.

She holds her head in her hands. It doesn't feel better, being anchored in this moment. It's worse, it's awful, it's real.

More time has passed than she realized. If Kristoff doesn't clock back in in the next few minutes, he is going to be late.

Should she be following him? Or is giving him space better?

The idea of following him - he was so upset. Her body reacts to the thought of going out there like it's a new woolly mammoth.

Can't face the idea of what he might say. Kristoff - her Kristoff - making accusations. She's a whore, slut, she's cheating, she betrayed him. And he won't listen, if she tries to explain. She missed her chance for that.

He wouldn't say those things. Hans says those things. Not Kristoff.

Everyone has a line though. Where they get angry enough. Anna has said some horrible things to Elsa, when she was angry enough.

She's never seen him angry before. Not really. She feels like she might throw up.

He is late now. She doesn't want to get him in trouble over this. What's worse? Do nothing and maybe they don't notice, maybe they do - it'll depend on how long he is gone. But if they come looking for him?

She calls over the walkie-talkie for the closing manager. Asks for them to switch to the private channel.

"Kristoff had a family emergency. He had to leave." She says in her strongest possible voice.

"He left?" The manager repeats, incredulous, "without asking?"

"I'm sorry," she says, easily, "it's my fault. I said he should go and I would talk to you."

"That's not how that works."

"I'm sorry," she says again.

"Well is he coming back?" Asks the manager, clearly annoyed.

"I don't know," she says.

She doesn't know.

Chapter Text

Anna comes down the staircase on unsteady legs, clutching the handrail tightly. 

She stops in the women's bathroom to splash water on her face. 

She's looked worse, certainly. Her eyes are red and her face is kind of blotchy, but she's done a good job of calming down, so people probably won't be able to tell anything is wrong. 

Kat is on her almost as soon as she comes around the corner from the stairwell.

"Hey, the manager said Kristoff had a family emergency? But Kris doesn't - woah, are you okay?"

"Did Olaf leave a phone number?" Anna asks, with some urgency, walking toward the guest services desk.

Kat frowns, confused. "Um, no? The system keeps the incoming numbers though. Why?"

"Can you show me - I just need to call him back. Please."

"...Okay. Did you and Kris fight or something?"

"Can you please just show me on the phone, Kat?" Anna doesn't want to sound rude, but she's not holding on by much and she isn't going to be able to chat about this. 

Kat hits Redial and hands the phone over the counter. Anna hopes she isn't badly annoyed. 

It rings a few times. Anna's starting to get nervous - what if he's already on his way here? - when he answers.

Kat has moved away, she's taken a customer on Anna's lane actually. Not good - if a manager sees, with Anna on a personal call...

Anna needs to get it together.

"Olaf? It's Anna. Sorry I missed your call, I was on lunch. No, I'm fine, just, can I get the machine from you at school instead? You don't have to bring it down here."

"I don't mind, Anna. I have it in the car already," he cheerfully assures her.

No no no no... "That's okay, thanks though. I think this is best." She tries to sound confident, casual, hard to argue against.

Olaf's a good friend though and he keeps pushing, increasingly concerned. "But… how are you going to do the assignment?"

"I don't know, I guess I'll just miss one. It's not a big deal." She swivels around, checking for the manager. 

"Anna, what's wrong? You still have two days, if I bring it you have time still, for sure."

Another customer gets in line at Anna's lane. Kat looks over her shoulder toward the guest services desk.

"Listen, Olaf, Kristoff and I had a - a fight and I don't - " she takes a deep breath, she can't get upset, "I'm not going to do the homework even if I had the machine. I appreciate it though."

"Oh, what happened? Is that why you haven't been answering your phone?"

"I'm really sorry, Olaf, I'm at work still, I can't talk. I'll see you in class though. Thanks again."

"Okay, um, well, love you, let me know if I can-"

"Thanks, sorry, bye!" And Anna hangs up, hustling over to Kat so she can take over between customers.

"I'm so sorry," she tells Kat, then turns to the customer, "Sorry, hi, how are you?"

The anxiety of it - getting in trouble at work - helps actually. Sharpens her focus, pushes other things away.

Kat hovers for a moment, but Anna determinedly ignores her, so after a minute she drifts away.

-

Every time the automatic doors go, Anna whips her head around - Kristoff? - She waves hello to the customers, welcoming them in.

What would she even say, if it was Kristoff? Shout at him across the entryway? Ditch the register and run over to him?

But the idea of him coming back and seeing the back of Anna's head, of her not acknowledging him at all - he might think she doesn't care. That she just went back to work, unfeeling.

The gnawing pit in her stomach lurches up her throat for a moment. She purses her lips and breathes deeply through her nose. She'll get the chance to talk to him. She'll make this right.

-

"I'm sorry?" Anna asks.

The customer gives her an exasperated look.

"I said I need a gift receipt."

"Oh, sorry," she says, and turns to hit the button.

"No, not for all of it. I don't need the tissue paper or any of that on the gift receipt receipt! Just the candles and the dish."

"Oh," she says, "sorry," and hits BACK so she can make the adjustments.

"Do you have a rewards card?" Anna asks.

"Oh, no, no. I don't have time now."

"Okay," says Anna, and she hands over their bag and receipt. "Have a good night."

Kat appears over Anna's shoulder, invading her small space in the body of the register.

"Oh!" Says Anna, startled, "Oh, I'm sorry, I should have pushed on the card, I know-"

"Manager says Kristoff's in the back," Kat says. "Apparently he seems pretty upset, but he says he's going to finish the shift. Do you know what happened?"

"He's back? I didn't see him come in." Anna cranes her neck toward the back of the store, as if she's going to be able to see some kind of evidence.

"Backroom has their own entrance. Was it - his Mom or something? Is she finally dead or what?" 

"Wait, what?" Asks Anna, startled, "No, nothing happened. When did he come back in?"

"Manager didn't say, I think recently though. What do you mean nothing happened? You said it was a family emergency."

"Can you just - please leave it, Kat?"

She frowns.

"Please?" Anna repeats.

"Alright," she agrees with a sigh, "but, you know, let me know, if I can-"

"Thanks," says Anna, trying to turn away, end this before she starts getting upset again.

Kristoff is back. He didn't come through the front. He didn't want to see her? Didn't want her to see him? He seems upset? Upset like angry, she wonders? 

-

Anna sits on the curb between the main entrance and the employee parking, chewing on her fingernails. She's nervous. She'd started out standing, but her legs were shaking so she decided to sit until she sees him.

She never did this, with Hans. It was a relief, if he left when he was angry. She'd never have sought him out. She'd just wait, hope he was calmer when he came back. If he was, they'd just move past whatever it was, as if the fight never happened.

Anna has to talk to Kristoff before he makes any decisions. Even if he is mad. Anna deserves it this time.

Customers trickle out as the store edges closer to closing time. Kristoff must be staying late. Probably to make up for the time he was gone? She hopes she didn't get him in trouble.

Anna waits for a while.

She feels - a lot. She can't parse it all out. Is she waiting for him for him? Because Hans taught her to wait? Because she always needed to be available, especially when he might be angry. Any extra effort Hans had to spend finding her made everything worse. Exponentially.

Anna shuts down that train of thought.

She thinks… she thinks she's out here, waiting for him in a darkened, empty parking lot, because she can trust him. Does trust him.

He didn't do anything upstairs. He found out Anna has been lying for months to hide another man in her life, and Kristoff was upset, he was swearing and angry and he stood up and then he left. He left because Anna was scared.

So, she thinks she's here because she wants to be. Because she wants to talk to him. Tell him she overreacted. Make sure he knows.

It's embarrassing - how quickly and fully she went Mrs. Westergaard. Cleaning the breakroom like he was going to come back and be angry his soda had warmed. At least he didn't see all that. Compounded years of shame crawl across Anna's skin. Why does she have to be like this? Why won't it all just go away? Why couldn't she just leave it behind, in Hans' house - why did it have to follow her into her new life? It isn't fair.

She checked his schedule when she clocked out - they don't overlap again until after her class this week. So tonight she has to wait.

-

She sees him before he sees her. His shoulders are hunched and his head angled down, hands in his pockets. It's too dark to see his expression.

She stands and he startles out of his thoughts.

"Anna?" He says, surprised, "what are you doing here?" He stops walking, won't come any closer to her. He's doing that thing where he tries to shrink himself down.

"I wanted to talk to you." But the words don't come. She holds her breath for a moment, twisting her fingers around. For all that she's been sitting here deliberately waiting for him to show up, her heart's beating wildly in her chest at his arrival.

"I had to stay late," he explains.

"I know," she says.

They stand for a moment, both only looking in the general vicinity of the other.

Anna remembers hugging him, yesterday. Hanging her weight off his neck and giggling. She wants that feeling back. But he hasn't moved closer, and all her muscles are tense, bracing for a mammoth.

"I wasn't gonna-" he starts.

"I didn't really think-" she says, at the same time.

"You did." He corrects her, looking out into the parking lot.

"No, not really. I'm not lying, Kristoff, I didn't-"

He interrupts her in a low voice. She almost wouldn't have heard him, except what he says is so obvious.

"About this."

Anna goes silent, all her breath rushing out, tears creeping in. She drops her gaze down to the ground, reducing Kristoff to a pair of planted feet at the edge of her sight.

"It's not a good night, Anna. We'll talk - some other time. If you want."

Kristoff moves off the curb into the parking lot, skirting around her like she's in the center of a fifteen-foot bubble.

She's wrecked this. She knows she has.

But she desperately doesn't want it to be wrecked. She doesn't know what to do or say or offer to make it better. Better enough, even.

That desperation drives her - she can't lose Kristoff. Can't as in can not. She can not lose Kristoff.

"I'm sorry," she calls, "I love you!"

"Don't!" He twirls toward her, closes his hand into a fist in the air. Doesn't swing, he hasn't come any closer, just clenches it tightly. His face matches. "Don't say it like that when I'm angry, Anna. For fuck's sake..." he takes a deep breath. "I know - what you're doing. Stop. Please."

He takes a step toward her and she takes one back.

He laughs. Kind of. He starts to walk away.

"It's not fair," she calls after him, taking a few wobbly steps after him, brushing sad, frustrated tears out of her face. "I can't help it-"

"I'm not being fair!" He snaps, twirling to face her again, anger in his voice, "Me? I'm out of line?" She's got tears running down her face now. He must see because he sighs and slumps, "Look - goodnight, Anna."

And for the second time this evening, he walks away.

-

Anna retreats back to the wall. She sits on cold concrete, sniffling quietly. 

Everything was going so well. But she ruined it. She tries to be a considerate person, she works hard for other people - Anna's not used to people being mad at her for good reasons. It's worse, somehow. Kristoff isn't mad because he had a bad day or work or she made dinner wrong or she offended his parents somehow. He's mad because Anna lied. And how does she make this better? If he won't talk to her, doesn't like when she's scared, isn't interested in hearing how she's sorry. 

Anna jumps when arms come around her shoulders. But she recognizes her sister's embrace quickly. 

"Elsa! What - how…?"

Elsa's crouched on the ground beside her, her face close, eyes wide and concerned. 

"Kristoff texted me. He said you needed a ride home. Come on, let's go." She helps Anna to her feet. The car is idling at the curb. Anna hadn't noticed at all.

"What happened?" Asks Elsa. She holds Anna's hands - her thumb is bleeding slightly, she's bitten too deeply. She didn't notice that either. 

Safely ensconced in Elsa's car, Anna allows herself to cry properly.

{ - }

Kristoff digs out the old letter his Mom sent him when he first got taken into care. Unfolds it in his lap and smoothes over the worn creases.

It's not easy keeping something like this for over a decade. He had it with his birth certificate in a ziplock bag while he was sleeping rough.

Sometimes he doesn't know why he bothers keeping it. 

Maybe this can be a good thing, she'd written, I'm finally getting my act together, just like your Grandpa always wanted.

And:

You'll be home soon, I promise.

He keeps it because sometimes he needs the reminder. Just because you want the lie, doesn't make it real.

He leans his head against the dresser and sighs. Sven shuffles so more of his bulk is across Kristoff's legs.

"Thanks, buddy," he says, stroking his fingers through his friend's fur, "Why is it dogs are so much better than people?"

Chapter Text

Olaf's at their spot already and he's been watching for her, because he starts waving immediately. He's snagged a booth in the lounge area under the Student Union, which is no small feat.

"Hi," he says, as soon as she sits down, "how are you? What happened? You look awful!"

"Oh thanks," she says, like things are fun and casual.

He's not having it, giving her a serious look up and down.

"Anna, I haven't heard from you all week!"

She ducks her head, ashamed. She hasn't been a good friend to Olaf recently.

"I know, I'm sorry," she explains, "my phone broke on our trip. I dropped it in some water and we had to send it away for the phone insurance and they're sending me a new one."

"Okay," he says, "and how did the trip go?"

"It was good," she answers, something weepy seeping through her voice, "it was really good. So pretty. And fun."

"Anna…" he says, reaching across the table.

"We have class." She says, "I can't - I don't want to start crying before class"

"We'll skip," he says, waving a hand like the class they've both been working really hard in doesn't matter at all, "you don't have the homework anyways. Tell me what's up."

Anna starts ugly crying, spit hanging from her teeth, face all scrunched up, eyes immediately red, she's sure. She's spent some time in this state since she last saw Kristoff.

"I haven't been a good friend to you, Olaf. I'm really, really sorry."

"What?" He says, not seeing the connection, "You're fine, Anna. Everyone gets busy, your phone was broken-"

"I told Kristoff, way back when we first met, I told Kristoff that you were a girl. I said you were Olga, because I was worried he would be upset you were a guy." Both Olaf's eyebrows climb, his mouth falls open. "I didn't invite you to my birthday last week, that's what the trip was for, it was a birthday trip. We had a big dinner and I wanted you to be there but then Kristoff would have known, so I couldn't invite you. I'm so sorry, Olaf." She reaches across the table for him, desperately hoping he'll understand.

Olaf's never induced the same kind of fear reaction she gets from Kristoff. She knows why. It's a normal fear, today - she's risked this friendship too, with her lying.

"And then I called the store," he breathes, "I didn't know."

He reaches out to take her hand. Relief washes over Anna. With her other hand she wipes snot and spit and tears from her face. Pushes her hair back behind her ears.

"I'm sorry," she says again, "you're my best friend, Olaf, and I've been really awful. I love you, really."

"Okay, first, I love you back. Second, as a gay guy, not super cool that you've been calling me a feminized version of my name behind my back for like six months, honestly."

He gives her a stern look, but doesn't pull back his hand.

Anna drops her head. "I didn't think about it like that."

"I mean you did though," he says, sounding a little uncertain, "that was the whole point. You're just not actually a homophobe, so it didn't feel like a homophobic thing to do."

Anna nods seriously. "You're right. I'm really sorry."

He waves her off again. "Just don't do it again. But, listen, if Kristoff was this upset about you knowing another dude, I mean, Anna…? That's really intense, right?"

Anna collapses under a fresh wave of misery.

"He didn't care at all. I told him I had a guy partner in the summer class and he was completely fine. I just chickened out too bad to tell him the truth and I missed my chance!"

"But you said you had a big fight?"

"Oh, it was awful, Olaf-"

He interrupts her with a finger. "This is where the story gets long?"

She nods. "I guess?"

"Okay," he rustles around in his bag for a second. "I did your assignment. Let me go turn them in real quick, tell the Professor we're not coming, then I'll be right back and we can go through the whole thing, okay?"

Anna wants Kristoff. It's been keeping her awake at night, stopping her from concentrating on anything. She wants to talk to Kristoff. But she knows she's so, so lucky to have people like Elsa and Olaf in her life as well.

-

Not every relationship works out, Elsa had said.

Maybe you take what was good and move forward.

Elsa has never had a breakup. And it shows in the awkward way she delivers her advice.

We didn't break up. Anna had insisted. I can fix it.

Olaf has dated, but nothing serious. He agrees that Anna can fix it. They just have to talk. If she can prove she can be properly honest with him, it'll be okay. 

It's hard to believe that a week ago they were on their way up to the national park.

Anna's appointment with Dr. Gerda isn't until after the weekend. She can't wait that long. 

Her new phone comes in the next day. She gets the number off Elsa and texts Kristoff.

We should talk. Can I come over?

{ - }

Kristoff's phone goes again, and he ignores it, assuming it's Kat.

He's let things get pretty bad in the last few days. He's showered a couple of times. Probably more than he would have normally. He's come over all numb and showering feels like something to do. Hasn't bothered shaving though. Keeps putting the same sweatpants back on. He's been eating through his stockpile of microwave meals. Called out of his shift yesterday. Combined with his little AWOL stunt the other night - he's very probably going to get written up next time he goes in.

That's enough to stir the numbness. Write-ups affect performance reviews, which give them an excuse to avoid giving raises. Too many write-ups and he'll get fucking fired. So he's going to wallow for one more day and show up early for his next shift. Stay late off the clock or something if there's anything that needs doing in the back. It's summer though, they will have managed without him.

He heats two portions of frozen fettuccine and sits at his rickety table. He's not thinking about making pasta with Anna. That was yesterday. Today he reads the story of the old Italian immigrant lady who founded the company with her homemade secret sauce. She passed the recipe on when she died. And her kids sold it, apparently.

He startles when there's a knock at his front door, slopping a forkful of tasteless fettuccini across his table. 

Sven hauls ass across the apartment, but Kristoff stays seated. They can leave their fucking religious pamphlet or whatever behind if they really want.

Another knock. Kristoff rolls his eyes. Sven whines.

His phone lights up - someone's calling him.

"Kristoff?" Anna calls through the door, "are you home?"

Oh fuck. Shit shit shit fuck. He's a goddamn mess, his place is a mess. Fucking microwave meal containers spilling out of his trash, soda cans, laundry. She came here, what the fuck is she doing here, why did she come here. How?

He's standing uselessly, just fucking panicking. Absolutely losing it, what the fuck - does he go answer the door?

He can't leave her out there. He doesn't want her to think - whatever she'll think if he blatantly ignores her like that.

"One second!" He calls, "Just a minute!"

He smooths down his hair, and rushes into his bedroom to dig out fresh pants. Hops from one leg to the next and sweeps some trash into his arms, throws it onto his bed, then closes the bedroom door on the worst of the mess.

He stands before the door, hand on the knob, and breathes.

What is she doing here?

He twists the knob and steps back to allow the door to swing open.

The first thing that hits him is how her hair is down. He loves it when she leaves it loose.

She's fiddling with the strap on her purse, nervous.

God but something about seeing her hurts, sharp and low in his chest.

"Hi," she says, after a moment, "can I come in?'

It's the least he's ever wanted her in his place.

"Yeah," he says, stepping aside, "sure."

It's weirdly like the first time she came here. He's nervous, doesn't know where to put himself, doesn't know if she's alright being here. Doesn't know if she'd tell him if she wasn't.

She avoids him by spending some time rubbing Sven's belly. She's crouched down by Sven, who's comically flopping around, legs waiving in the air.

Standing above them Kristoff feels enormous. He moves further into the apartment, sits on the armrest of his couch.

"So... How'd you get here?"

"I took a cab," she explains, seeming a little embarrassed. "I just wanted us to talk. I hope you don't mind that I just showed up."

"No, it's probably good," he tells her. Otherwise they would have just seen each other at work. Kristoff nods a few times, hands braced on his knees.

How do they do this?

It becomes clear she's got no fucking clue either.

"Look," he says, "with this other guy. If it's... Just, now's when you tell me, if it's like that."

She hurries to get to her feet." It's not! I promise, really!"

He's watching for it today, so he sees when her breath is starting to pick up.

"Okay," he says. He hadn't really thought so, except late yesterday he remembered the movie he'd been too much of a dick to go see with her.

She double-takes at him, open astonishment across her face. "You believe me?"

"Is that a mistake?" He asks, only slightly snide. 

"No - no, I just. I'm sorry. I should have told you about Olaf."

Kristoff can't keep his seat. He rises again, pacing and agitated.

"You didn't lie to me one time six months ago, you've been lying to me almost every time we talked ever since then! You're a good fucking liar, Anna. I thought you felt awkward talking about your classes because of my fucking GED or something."

"Please stop swearing at me," she says quietly, to her hands.

Kristoff paces another lap. "I'm not swearing at you - I'm just..."

But when he looks at her she's taught, jaw clenched, head bowed. He drops into the far end of his couch, head in hands.

"Sorry," he grits out between clenched teeth, "I don't want to be - like that. I just. I don't know, I get to be angry about this, Anna, but I don't know how to do it."

"I don't know either," she says. "I don't know how to convince myself that there's a - a normal angry, you know? I know it's fair that you're mad at me. But it just - it grows, in my head."

Kristoff feels himself flinch. He shuffles down the couch a little further, almost pressing himself into the armrest.

"Look - whatever I did or said that made you think - I promise I wouldn't ever hurt you, Anna."

Isn't that what they all say, though? Do those men believe it, when they make these promises? Kristoff always thought you'd know, if you were one of them.

He's beginning to feel dizzy.

Anna watches him seriously for a moment. She leans across the divide and puts her hand on his forearm. "I know," she promises back, "I do know, Kristoff. I'm not scared of you."

He snorts. Kind of gestures, unsettling her grip, both his eyes a little wild.

"No," she insists, "I - will you listen? I broke my phone a four hour drive from the city and a two hour hike from the ranger station and I barely even noticed!"

He opens his mouth to argue, but she barrels on.

"I asked you out for lunch the first time, after the volunteer thing, remember? I asked you to sleep over in my room, on your birthday, Kristoff, I've slept in your bed! Remember that day, when Richard was following me? I knew that I could have gone back to see you and you'd run him off for me. And when you did come - I was so relieved to see you! We didn't know each other very well, but already I knew I was safe because you were there."

He lets it penetrate. Her words lighten him. Maybe he hasn't been unwittingly terrorizing her. It isn't in his blood, leeching out of him on whatever frequency she learned to pick up from her ex.

But if all that is really true, then it makes less sense that she'd lie. If he doesn't scare her, not really, "then why? Why Olga?"

It's her turn, apparently, to retreat into herself. She curls her hand around her wrist and hugs herself close.

"Sometimes," she starts, "sometimes it's like I'm standing next to you, but it's still Hans that's scaring me. That's what happened in the breakroom, and it's why I'm - I'm going go back to therapy. I have an appointment next week. I shouldn't have lied to you, about Olaf. I'm sorry, I know it was hurtful, and I understand why, really."

Kristoff watches her curl tighter, turning her head down and away.

"Hans - well, I don't know for sure. He - I was trying to get away, but he caught me halfway up the stairs. He was trying to sit on my legs, but with the stairs it was all... slippy. But he hit the back of my head on the step and I was so dizzy, I couldn't see properly, I had to get stitches, and he was -" she brings her hands up to rub at her neck and Kristoff could bite through solid steel in that moment, he just knows he could.

He doesn't interrupt though, and she keeps talking.

"It was because - he had this friend. He invited this guy over and he was talking to me and Hans thought we were having an affair." She looks back up at him finally, "It was the first time I met the man, I wouldn't've - I was terrified of Hans on a good day, you know? But he threw his friend out and... came after me."

Her hands drop back down. Sven's come up close and she pets the top of his head.

"When I first told you Olga - I was thinking about that day. Not because I thought you would. Anything like that. Ever. It's weird though, it's like... every time I tried to say Olaf to you it just - I couldn't."

They're quiet for a moment. Kristoff doesn't know what he could possibly say. He wants her ex to be dead. Would do the job himself if he ever had the chance. But the echoing flex in his muscles, the strength he knows himself capable of, the churning certainty that he could strangle a grown man to death - that's more of the problem than anything else right now.

At the same time he wants to draw her close. Hold her until it's better.

But these things don't work like that.

He slowly reaches his hand out across the couch. She takes it, smiling tearfully at him. He's struck, once again, by the size of her hand in his. How someone could fail to treasure her, when they had the chance.

After a while he says, "I don't know, Anna. I don't know where we go from here."

"Kristoff - are we breaking up?" She whispers.

He closes his eyes, slumping further. "Is that what you want?"

"No! No, why would you think that?" She asks, gripping his hand with urgency. 

"Why would I think that? Anna, you were going to sleep with me even though the idea of it made you cry, you were too scared to say another man's name in front of me this whole time, and you fucking dodge when I -"

He cuts off, takes a deep breath.

"If we don't break up, and six months from now or whenever, if you're not happy - how do I know you'd tell me? Hell, would you tell me? Because I - Anna I'm not trying to be shitty here, but I feel like both our happiness matters the same. And I'm worried you think mine matters more. So, I can't take your word on stuff when it lines up with what I want."

The reality of it has morphed the things that Kristoff wants into terrifying prospects. A whole imagined future gone to ashes, poisoned by the idea that she would go along with almost anything, submit to the will of his potential happiness. Would he have ever noticed?

"So you... you want to break up?"

He almost laughs. She doesn't get it. "Anna, please, you've got to stop asking me what I want."

"I don't want to break up. I mean it, I don't want that, really!" She insists, turning fully to face him on the couch, tugging on his arm. 

"You think - what - we can just go get dinner next week? Come back here and put the fucking documentary on again? Jesus, Anna. I don't think it works like that."

"Sure it can," she insists with some desperation.

He sighs. "I don't think it works like that for me," he tells her, blinking rapidly.

"Oh," she says, sagging under the weight of her own shoulders. "So - that's it?"

He shakes his head, sadly. "I think it has to be…"

"Do you need me to go?" She asks, with a wobbling lip.

"What do you mean?"

"Can I stay for a bit? And we can be broken up when I go?"

Kristoff's lived his life as the kind of person who rips a bandaid right off. But he thinks of tomorrow-Kristoff, who has to go back to living without her - that Kristoff will need to look back on this and know he took every second he was offered.

He gestures her over, a familiar motion, one they both know is about to go stale.

She curls up against him on the couch.

"I do love you," she says.

He kisses the top of her head. It's a nice idea. One he can hold onto from here - at least she believes it. 

Kristoff holds her close. They sit together for a long time. They don't talk anymore. What's left unsaid, now? He kisses her hairline and breathes deep. And, eventually, she goes.

Chapter Text

Their breaks don’t line up anymore.

Anna sits, alone, chewing silently on her bagel.

He is here today, she knows. Two peanutbutter sandwiches and a soda tucked away in the back of the fridge. As if he just left.

-

She feels hollowed out. Empty and alone and broken. 

She sleeps in Elsa's bed, worries desperately that she'll do something to drive Elsa away too. 

She feels - like Hans was right. About a lot of things. 

If she hadn't tried to make herself sleep with him, if she hadn't agreed to be partners with Olaf, if she hadn't been so stupid as to flinch like that - of course he was offended. If she wasn't clumsy enough to drop her phone, or if she'd apologized better or sooner. If she hadn't gone to his house like that, some kind of needy, desperate stalker-girlfriend. If she had only trusted him enough to be honest. 

No wonder, she thinks. No wonder he doesn't want to try and move past it. 

-

The first appointment with Gerda hurts. Badly. Anna cries the whole way through. But it's a different hurt than she's been feeling the last few days. 

A few days after her second session Elsa drops her pinched, worried look.

Anna works on her Gerda-homework. Folds a load of laundry. Thinks about what she wants for dinner. 

-

Anna goes to Olaf’s house for the first time. He has invited her a bunch of times before, but - tangled web of lies and all.

Olaf promises her a traditional American breakup-fest: ice cream, Molly Ringwald, and cozy blankets.

Anna tells Gerda she doesn’t think she deserves his friendship.

Gerda says, “tell me more about that.”

-

Anna passes Kristoff in the hallway between the time clock and the bathroom.

Contradictory impulses well up. She aches, aches for a Kristoff-hug. She’s so happy, just to catch sight of him, like a high schooler’s crush. She’s devastated, embarrassed. She’d teleport, if she could. Melt into a puddle and sink through the floor.

She manages a twitchy wave, ducking eye contact. Her shoulder brushes along the opposite wall.

Past him she chews her lip, clutching her hands to her chest. He must think -

No. Gerda gave her the notebook for moments like this. Don’t dwell. Breath. Don’t let it take root. Write it out, and they can talk about it next time.

-

Elsa latches hard onto one of Gerda’s suggestions in particular. So now they’re members in a local yoga studio, promising to go together at least once a week. Anna’s not super into the chakras and all that, but she keeps it to herself - she suspects Elsa’s a little more on-board than she lets on. It’s nice to get to spend some time with her sister without the evaluating glances, or stilted inquiries.

-

Kat sends Rebecca to the Backroom with the returns cart. Anna knows why. She's grateful, actually, while it still burns.

Rebecca's upset when she comes back.

"So rude," she exclaims, "I mean he's always been-" but Kat cuts her off, eyes darting Anna's way.

-

Gerda doesn’t make Anna talk about Kristoff when she doesn’t want to. Even if she’s written about him in her journal.

They’re going to have to get there, eventually. But, for now, she’s allowed to say not yet.

-

They’re walking the same way one day, leaving the store at the same time.

They aren’t really about to pretend not to see each other, both about to walk out the same automatic door as if the other isn’t there?

He looks at her, brings his nervous hand up to his hairline and asks, “How’s uh, school?”

“It’s good,” she says, fiddling with the end of her braid.

Getting so long now, she remembers him saying. 

“How’s Sven?” She asks, as he starts to veer away.

He stops, surprised. “He’s good.”

They stand for a moment. He gives her a little wave and then heads off to his truck. Anna keeps walking straight across toward the bus stop.

She brings a hand up to brush her mouth. How much longer until she stops expecting a goodbye-kiss?

-

An eight-foot long cardboard cut-out of a yellow pencil appears over the entrance.

BACK TO SCHOOL!

Anna’s life starts to get busy.

-

She and Elsa are reading one of Gerda’s mindfulness books together for their bookclub.

Every night before bed Anna sets the timer on her phone and does her exercises.

Exist in the present moment. It’s harder than it sounds. But she’s up to three minutes now.

She doesn’t get any goodnight texts anymore. No silly pictures of Sven waiting for her in the morning.

-

Hans used to tell people stories about Anna. Anna was stupid, Anna was plain, Anna couldn't cook. In front of people, in front of Anna, he would say these things.

Can't take a joke, he'd dismiss, if she didn't laugh.

Honey, you don’t have to laugh at yourself, if she did.

Anna used to dread the idea of what he must say when she wasn't there.

She's in the middle of explaining all this to Gerda when she realizes why it's come to mind in the first place.

She hasn't heard a piece of gossip about herself. And she isn't expecting any.

Kristoff isn't going to call her stupid or anything like that, not even behind her back.

He must be getting as many questions as she is. And he's just - refusing to answer?

Well, she smiles, laughing slightly as she tells Gerda, he's probably swearing more than Anna does.

-

Anna’s workiversary shows up on the billboard.

No one reads the fucking billboard, Kristoff had always insisted when she wanted to stop and look.

Ellen brings in chocolate cupcakes decorated with sprinkles and frosting A’s.

-

Anna’s new semester starts up. She and Olaf coordinated their schedules this time, so everything matches up perfectly.

She's taking Machine Shorthand II, Medical Process and Terminology, and Professional Development this semester.

She and Olaf arrive early and find seats together, playing tic-tac-toe in the margins of their notebooks while their ancient professor fusses with the powerpoint.

She feels like a Senior again, navigating the campus with comfort, waving back at people she knows.

-

She walks into the breakroom one afternoon and Kristoff’s at a table over to the left.

He’s not sitting at their old table either, she thinks.

She says hello to some sales floor people, but doesn't join them. She can't pretend he's not there. Not in the breakroom. So she makes her way over to him. He’s watching her approach with wide eyes, frozen mid-chew.

“Do you mind if I sit with you?” she asks, proud of herself for how the words come out. Casual and friendly and self-assured.

He gestures for her to sit and audibly swallows around too much food, wincing slightly.

They sit for a moment, the air heavy and awkward.

Anna links her hands together on the table top and asks, “So... did they ever fix the pallet-jack?”

“What?” he asks, confused.

“The pallet-jack,” she repeats, nervous now. Maybe he doesn’t want to talk to her? “It was broken. You couldn’t move anything around.”

“Oh, yeah. They replaced it, actually. Ages ago.”

He goes quiet. Anxiety begins to creep up Anna’s chest. This was a mistake, what a stupid-

“It was a funny story, actually,” he continues, haltingly, “when they delivered the new one, it was in pieces, palletized and all wrapped up. But we didn’t have a working jack to move the pallet the new one came on.”

He talks for a minute or so, about the driver’s irritation, Dan’s failure to communicate. It’s not a terribly interesting story, and they’re both excruciatingly aware of it.

She misses talking to him. She would have heard all this on the day it happened - if.

He wraps up the story and says he has to get back. Maybe he’s just escaping, but Anna can’t know for sure and he gets to leave, if he’s uncomfortable.

She tips her head back slightly as he passes behind her.

That absent goodbye-kiss again.

-

Kat is training Anna on Guest Services officially now. Anna suspects this is just so there is an extra voice to join the chorus.

“Ma’am, we cannot accept returns on open Halloween costumes.”

“I’m sorry, but we cannot accept returns on Halloween costumes that have been opened.”

“Our policy states that we cannot accept any returns on open Halloween costumes.”

-

Professional Development is an easy class, assignment-wise. But the long-term goal is for everyone to get set up with a professional internship for next semester.

Elsa’s company has one, but Anna feels weird applying, as much as she’d love to work with Elsa.

She talks to Gerda about it. She’s got the idea in her mind that she might reach out to the domestic violence shelter she used to volunteer at, see if they need any transcription services. But she isn’t sure if she could make it count for the requirements of the internship. Maybe the homeless shelter?

She’s been so lucky, she knows. So many people in positions like she was, just two years ago, but if you don’t have an Elsa, how are you supposed to pull yourself up to where Anna is now? Anna wants to find a way to pay it forward, at least a little, if she can.

She’ll have to talk to Professor Mattias about it, but she needs Gerda’s help preparing for the meeting. See if she thinks Anna might be pushing herself a little too far. 

-

She’s sitting at a table with Ellen eating lunch while Ellen waits to clock in. They’re just idly chatting, when Kristoff comes over and asks if they mind if he sits with them.

The breakroom’s pretty full, but not so much that he couldn’t sit alone, if he really wanted.

He sits, and Ellen continues with her story - a customer caught her in uniform, shopping before her shift.

“Oh nooo!” says Anna, dramatically.

“That’s the worst,” adds Kristoff.

“I tried to just give him directions,” Ellen goes on, “but he wanted me to walk him all the way over there. Like, I’m not some super-enthusiastic volunteer here, you know? Just wandering the aisles waiting for someone to give my life purpose!”

“Did you tell him you weren’t clocked in?” Anna asks, always a little more willing to give the customers the benefit of doubt.

Ellen nods, “Of course I did! Didn’t matter to him at all!”

“They never listen,” Kristoff agrees, popping the top on his soda. “I keep a spare shirt here, so I don’t have to go down there in the uniform.”

Anna laughs, “You would!”

“What?” He defends with a big gesture, “I don’t have to help them with shit!”

Story wrapped up, eyes darting between the two of them, Ellen remembers a sudden and urgent need to be elsewhere for the remainder of the time before she’s due to clock in, and makes a hasty escape.

Anna turns to Kristoff with a fond roll of her eyes - he’ll have noticed what Ellen’s doing, and she absent-mindedly reaches for his soda.

She doesn't even realize what she’s doing until she catches the weird look he’s giving her.

“Oh, God,” she says, pushing it back across the table toward him, “sorry, that’s so weird, sorry…”

He watches her for a moment. Anna’s getting ready to flee, find Ellen and explode into embarrassed, goopy, Anna-splatter, when he surprises her with a soft-spoken, “It’s weird, isn’t it? Those muscle memory moments.”

“It’s happening to you, too?”

He snorts, leaning back in his chair, going yeah with his face.

“Like what?” she asks, desperate suddenly.

He misses her. Right? That’s what that means?

He hunches in though, and waves her off, frowning. “Ah, c’mon.”

She wants to push. Push push pushpushpush - get him to admit it, he misses her like she misses him.

She doesn’t want to make him mad.

Doesn’t want him to be uncomfortable. Risk him putting a cooler in his truck and never setting foot in the breakroom again.

She wants to apologize for asking. Bites her tounge to keep it in. Catches herself looking down at clenched hands.

Looks back up and he’s still watching her.

“I gotta go back,” he says, making to stand. They both know it’s been nowhere near long enough for his break to be over. “You can finish that, if you like,” he says, gesturing at the soda.

“Do you think we can be friends?” She blurts, before he can get away.

He sits again, dropping into the seat. “I don’t know,” he says.

She bites her lip. “Can we try? I miss - talking to you.”

He looks into her face for a moment, expression serious. She wants to look away, but she knows he’ll say no if she does.

“Okay,” he says, eventually, “if you want.”

She smiles at him, wide. He grins back, smaller.

They were friends before. She misses him, and they can be friends again, now.

-

Kristoff doesn’t text his friends. Anna doesn’t have the nerve to text him first. But she asks him, one day, if he has any new pictures of Sven, and he seems happy to show her.

-

Anna is put in charge of training new hires for front end on days Kat isn’t here. She’s giving a first-day tour, and when they get to the backroom she sees Kristoff and announces, “This is Kristoff, he’s been here for a few years, and he knows almost everything. He’s a really good resource if you have any questions!”

He glares down at her across the newbies’ heads, and Anna smiles innocently back at him.

“You realize they won’t get it was a joke,” he says, later, from the other side of the Guest Services desk. “They’re actually going to try ask me shit.”

She hands him the Returns bin.

“I’m sure you’ll know the answer!” 

“That’s not the point!” He insists, but his eyes are smiling.

She’s very pleased with her little joke, at least until the first new hire asks her for clarification on the Identity Theft Disclaimer they're apparently supposed to be giving to each customer with a rewards card.

-

“Do you think flirting with him is a good idea?” Elsa asks, cutting right into Anna’s energetic retelling.

“I’m not flirting with Kristoff,” Anna insists.

Elsa gives her a look.

Anna takes herself to bed. She doesn’t feel like doing her exercises tonight.

-

Gerda says, “How did that make you feel?” Pen ready.

Anna could scream.

This is why she quit therapy last time. She just wants to live her life, she doesn’t want to stop and analyze every single thing to death like this. Explaining herself to everyone, constantly.

The journal is stupid - sunlight is a terrible disinfectant. It just makes the ugly stuff brighter.

“What could you maybe have said,” suggests Gerda, gently, “to help Elsa understand how you’re feeling?”

Anna breathes hard through her nose. Sits forward to think, re-engaging.

-

It’s busy at the store and it’s busy at school. Anna and Olaf run practice depositions, quiz each other on medical terminology flashcards, and slowly make their way down a list of internship applications.

Their professor says if Anna can get a certain number of volunteer hours, she can count it toward her internship, but he still wants her to get the application and interview experience.

Olaf, Anna insists, should apply for the internship at Elsa’s firm.

“I don’t know,” he hedges, “I wouldn’t get it…”

“Of course you would - you’re amazing! They’d be so lucky to have you!” She insists.

She writes the firm’s name at the top of all his Development notes, and spams him the application link.

-

HR pulls Anna into his office a few weeks ahead of Black Friday. He wants to talk about her schedule.

“Your school is very important to us,” he says, “but we are short-staffed, and any extra flexibility you can open up in your schedule would be a big help to the team.”

She wilts, slightly. She knows Kat is stressed. Rebecca is great, but not as quick as Anna at processing returns.

“Oh,” she says, dodging eye contact, “I'm sorry, I really can’t…”

“It would also reflect well on your performance evaluation matrix,” he says, pushing a printed calendar toward her.

“I just - I’ll have my finals coming up soon,” she says, peering down at the calendar, “the semester doesn’t end until the week before Christmas. I can’t change that.”

She could offer to come in some mornings, before class? But with the bus ride, it would be tight…

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he says, “but the reality is that if we need coverage, we may need to schedule you, and I do want to remind you that you are expected to be here for all of your scheduled shifts.”

She remembers, suddenly, Kristoff’s desperate search for anyone to take his shift last year when Sven needed a vet appointment.

She bites down hard on the inside of her lip, and looks back up at him, “I’m sorry too. I’d really hate to have to quit, it’s just really stressful with managing school and homework already…”

He pulls the paper away with a whoosh, backpedaling quickly.

Anna smiles at him, and assures him she loves it here and she doesn’t want to go anywhere.

She leaves his office feeling light - like she could run into a mean girl from middle school and come up with something absolutely perfect to say, right on the spot. 

She’s going to get such a proud And how did that make you feel for this!

Chapter Text

Before Anna, Sven was all Kristoff had needed.

Adopting a dog had been a rare act of impulse. The first night in his tiny, cavernously-empty apartment, Kristoff had slept huddled in the corner of the room. He got up several times in the night to alternate opening and closing the bedroom door. He checked his locks over and over. Adjusted his blinds. 

It was a quiet, still night. Coming from the barrack-like shelter dormitory, quick naps on cold park benches, and crowded foster homes before that, the apartment, for all it was safe and warm and his - Kristoff could hardly bear to be there. He had never lived alone before. The idea of roommates, though, chilled his blood. He had relied on other people to secure his housing for almost all his life, and never would again. 

His twelve month lease loomed and a shit minimum wage job hung like a millstone around his neck.

In the morning he had showered without waiting in line and walked almost three miles to the animal rescue.

Sven was just a little guy, then, scrambling around with the other puppies. He had to rear back on his hind-legs just to paw at Kristoff's knees.

There was a sign hooked to the wire front of the concrete kennel.

MY NEW FAMILY SHOULD KNOW,

I MAY BE SMALL NOW BUT I WILL GROW BIG BIG BIG

And there was a picture of a horse below.

The apartment had felt better, once Sven came home. Some of Kristoff's first household purchases were for Sven; he had a dog bed before he got his futon, even. 

His bullshit job had meaning, now.  Sven was depending on him, and Kristoff had someone to take care of. Sven wouldn't be homeless. Sven wouldn't depend on a shelter for his survival.

Sven bounced around the apartment demanding walks, chewing shoes, begging for treats, and napping inconveniently. Kristoff put real time and effort into research and training. They went on mini-adventures, exploring the city together and then, once he got his truck, venturing out beyond into the mountains. Together he and Sven breathed life into Kristoff's routine.

Or, at least that's how it had felt at the time.

In the absence of Anna, Kristoff's Sven-voice echoes uncomfortably in the quiet, no lightly giggling audience, no one refereeing their imaginary disputes.

Just some sad, lonely fuck talking to his dog because there isn't anyone else.

-

The birthday dress hangs in his closet still. Finding it, almost two weeks on, brings him to his knees. He reaches out with lightly trembling hands to feel the softness of the fabric.

Thoughtlessly left behind by an Anna who assumed she’d be back soon enough.

Kristoff had always known that there was no going back. On the surface, his life Post-Anna looks almost exactly like it had before her. But he feels her absence far more keenly than even he expected.

The day comes where he doesn’t speak a word outside of work.

And then another one after that.

He had known he wouldn’t be able to go back. But he hadn’t known it would be this.

-

Kristoff's angry - too angry.

Kat's stopped texting him, which is good, which is what he wanted.

None of the other guys'll talk to him outside of work stuff. A few rebuffed check-ins then that fucking shitshow over Anna being available now.

"Christ man," someone says, sick of Kristoff's apparent sulking, "just find someone else to suck your dick already…" and a manager has to send Kristoff outside to cool off.

Dan's gentle threats - HR asked me to talk to you...

It's just him and Sven, again, as it should be. Kristoff can't rely on people. And people can't rely on Kristoff.

-

The first thing Pabbie says when he sees Kristoff is, “Right, I heard you were in a mood.”

Kristoff's not in a fucking mood, and he almost says so, except he doesn't actually give a shit what Pabbie thinks of his mood, so he just rolls his eyes and turns back to his handheld.

Pabbie waits, watching Kristoff ignore him.

Kristoff turns back, annoyed. “What?”

Pabbie sucks his teeth for a moment. "Heard you and your girl broke up."

Every muscle in Kristoff's body tightens. He breathes heavily through his nose and rolls his shoulders once. He doesn't look up, tapping aimlessly at his handheld.

"Yeah."

"How're you doing?" Asks Pabbie, something like humor in his voice.

Kristoff grits his teeth, "I'm fine."

"Oh good," says Pabbie. "Because you seem a little tense."

"No," he says between clenched teeth.

Pabbie watches him for a moment longer. “You’ve got expired product on a pallet down in C.”

Kristoff sighs, relieved and disappointed and aggravated. “I’ll get to it.”

“Company policy is to make sure the issue is addressed immediately,” says Pabbie.

Kristoff finally looks up at him. “You’re serious?”

Pabbie gestures toward C.

Kristoff looks to the ceiling for some comfort, or maybe a falling piano or an anvil or something, sighs deeply, and follows Pabbie to the offending pallet.

“This is all expired,” he says, gesturing, “and it’s blocking in non-expired product that'll need to go out.”

“Fine,” Kristoff agrees, crouching to check the labels himself. “I’ll swap them out.”

“Now?” Asks Pabbie.

“Seriously you need me to do it right now? Yes, fine, sure, now,” and with a little flourish Kristoff stomps away to find the forklift keys.

"Wait," Pabbie calls before he can get far. "Where are you going to put it?"

They had a truck this morning, the warehouse is chock full, aisles lined with towering stacks of Halloween bullshit.

"I'll just move it out into the walkway for a minute," he says.

“You know you can’t put it there,” says Pabbie, “OSHA violation."

“Just for a second, I’m gonna swap them right out.”

“I'd have to put it in my report,” says Pabbie, dead fucking serious.

Kristoff blows his lid.

"What the fuck is your problem today! Where the fucking Hell do you want me to put the fucking thing, then, since it's so fucking urgent I drop everything and do it right fucking now?"

Kristoff feels himself gesturing wildly, he's standing close, leaning down so he's right up in Pabbie's face, and yelling like some fucking animal.

Pabbie meets his gaze evenly, doesn't even lean away. "You want to try that again, son?"

Kristoff deflates, stepping away. Pacing the aisle, breathing heavily still, hand up to his hair. He'll get fucking fired for this. He was already on a warning. The panic starts to set in.

"Look - sorry, alright? I'll make space to move the -"

"You done anything about the breakup?" Pabbie asks, cutting Kristoff off.

"What?" He asks, stopping short and staring at the older man in confused shock.

"Since the break up. You done anything about it, aside from acting like a jackass?"

Kristoff looks away, hanging his head. "It's not the kind of breakup that can be fixed," he says.

Pabbie rolls his eyes. "I didn't mean what have you done to get her back. Leave the poor girl be - you're a mess right now!" He gestures up and down encompassing all of Kristoff in a single motion.

"Then wha-"

"I meant what have you done for yourself, since it happened?"

Kristoff shrugs, scuffing his toe along a stain in the floor.

"Nothing, then?" Pabbie says.

Kristoff's caught. It feels incredibly awkward, talking about self-care like he thinks he's in some fucking lifestyle magazine or something, but the way Pabbie says it makes it sound like Kristoff's being unbearably stupid.

"I went to a boxing class," he says, begrudgingly.

"And how was that?"

"It was - good. I liked it. But. It ended. And it's expensive, to keep doing."

Pabbie unfolds his arms, cocking his head slightly. "You're a gym man then? Physical outlet, all that?"

Kristoff shrugs. "I guess."

Pabbie hmms, thoughtfully.

"Alright. You ever talk to me like that again I'm going to have you fired, got it? I'm here doing my job, and you aren't gonna go yelling at me even if I'm being a bit of a tight-ass about it." Kristoff nods, deeply relieved and embarrassed. "And you're gonna stop being so miserable to all the other poor sods you work with."

They're all morons, so this one hurts more, but Kristoff nods again. Pabbie isn't going to get him fired. Kristoff can try harder.

"Good," he says, "now, I think I can help you, so long as you don't need nothing fancy outta your gym…"

-

Pabbie's daughter runs a gym with her husband. He thinks it'd be good for Kristoff to go. Thinks it might be Kristoff's kind of place. 

Oh, you think it would be good for me? Kristoff wants to sneer, Thank you so much.

But Pabbie didn't get him fired, so he keeps his mouth shut, and promises to check the place out. 

It becomes easier, though. Talking to people. 

He begins to make small talk again. Just little things - How was your daughter's birthday? kind of shit. But  begrudgingly, he feels it start to make a difference.

-

Kristoff knows he can't be a real friend to Anna.

You left your dress, he would say, if he were capable of being her friend. The half-dozen times he's caught himself a heartbeat away from kissing her or reaching for her…

No good friend would dream of her the way he does. Hope the way that Kristoff hopes.

Why haven't you asked for your dress back? Did you leave it on purpose?

But she asks if they can be friends, leaning toward him with tentative eyes - half-dozen and one - and he isn't strong enough to deny her.

So they're friends now. Or trying, anyway. It's worse - deeply worse. Gone is the awkward avoidance, rapidly replaced with familiar teasing from an unbearable distance. But he can't resist the pull of her. He takes every minute he can get in her presence. His count skyrockets - a half-dozen near misses suddenly become dozens of moments where the vibrant sparkle in her eyes almost drives him to act on madness.

If they are going to be friends at all, it can only be work-friends. He has to draw lines, keep the boundaries, or he'll do something unthinkably stupid. 

He can be many things, to Anna, if he tries hard enough. 

He's her ex, the one who loves her, the one who didn't accidentally rape her when they were together. 

He's the coworker she sits with on the rare occasion their breaks actually happen to line up. 

He's the peripheral acquaintance who dreams of her skin, the lightness of her breath when they kissed, the shy curl of her smile whenever she suggested Sea Turtles. 

The first time she mentions Olaf in front of him her eyes cut sideways, her fingers curl in toward her palms, and she finishes the story quickly. There are other people at the table, none of whom seem to notice, and she sucks in a heavy, bracing breath.

It's a jarring reminder. Why they can only be friends right now. The power he still wields in her mind. The months of seamless dishonesty. The moment it all came to a head, just two tables over. The spot on the floor where, for the first time in Kristoff's life, a woman cowered at his fucking feet.

He has to swallow all of it.

Kristoff laughs along. It was a funny story. And they move on.

-

Black Friday comes and goes, and the hours really start to pick up. Kristoff works almost eighty hours that week. He's grateful for the distraction. Anna is busy with her school so he rarely sees her.

Slowly, slowly, he gets out of the habit of checking her schedule. 

And the dress hangs in his open closet. 

-

"Are you going to the volunteer thing this year?" She asks, a few weeks before Christmas, with a very deliberate-seeming casualness.

Kristoff's gut clenches. "No," he says, more forcefully than he meant. She doesn't retreat though.

"Oh," she says regretful, "I'm signed up to go…" she pauses for a long time before adding, "Elsa can probably give me a ride this year."

Kristoff swallows. What does she want from him? He has no idea. He doesn't take people places, as a rule, and the idea of Anna climbing into her old spot in his truck…

Last year he was desperate to spend time with her. This year - this year he can't face it. He isn't strong enough, for that.

"Have a good time," he says, then cringes. Have a good time. Fucking stupid goddamn thing to say…

She smiles at him weakly, "thanks."

-

She does go to the Volunteer Day. Kristoff stands in front of the notice board, and looks at the picture they've put up. All the volunteers, the shelter coordinators, a few of the residents, standing together, arms linked, faces smiling, below an offensively large logo.

Kristoff looks hard at Anna in the picture. He can so easily envision a universe where they went together. Where she might have slept at his place the night before and they made hot chocolate in the morning. Maybe he would have been brave enough, this time, to stand next to her and help serve lunch. And they'd ditch the picture again, just to piss off HR.

But Kristoff isn't in the picture. He tried as hard as he could, and he lost her anyway.

Chapter Text

"Happy New Year's, Kristoff!" Anna chirps when she sees him at the time clock.

"Oh, hey, you too," he says, surprised and flustered enough by her appearance that the fucks up his employee ID.

She smiles as passes him toward the hallway.

"Out with the old, and in with the new, right?" He says, cursing himself immediately - way to sound bitter as shit.

She stops and turns back to face him. He cringes, should he apologize? He didn't think it came out sounding passive-aggressive and shitty, but-

She smiles at him and brings her hands up to her chest, "aww, I can't believe you remembered that!"

Ah shit, he thinks, this is worse.

"Oh, no-" he starts, not sure how, or really why, he should go about convincing her that actually he doesn't listen when she speaks or remember conversations they had a year ago.

"My Mom's game," she says, still looking moved, which is better than creeped out, he supposes.

They've been broken up for almost as long as they were dating. He has to get his fucking head on straight and give it the fuck up.

But it's Anna and he can't.

So he takes the only reasonable option and flees down the stairs with a wave.

The awful pain of her absence has faded. When he isn't around her, he's pretty much back to normal. It's only when he's reminded that the tide of it swells. In those moments he feels as though the door has just clicked shut behind her, leaving him alone on his couch in bereft silence.

Anna's dress hangs, still, in his closet. He closed the door, finally, concealing it. But he knows it's there. Wonders ceaselessly why she hasn't asked for it. She must know, by now, that it's missing. Is it supposed to be a sign?

-

Roughly half way through his shift he parks the forklift and considers his progress. He can finish the rest of this shit after his lunch. Kristoff calls out over the walkie-talkie that Backroom is going on break and starts to head up toward the front.

Anna surprises him about halfway there. She's quite noticeably holding a sandwich baggie and she has a soda tucked into her elbow. In her other hand is a brown paper Starbucks bag.

She looks nervous, but she smiles at him.

"Hi," she says, flustered.

"Hi," he says, bemused. Is she… bringing him his lunch?

A customer visibly spots them in the aisle and heads over, relieved. Kristoff huffs, crossing his arms. Never stop moving on the sales floor. If you stop for a goddamn second they're on you. Like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie, for Christ's sake.

The customer waves them down and asks if they know where Q-Tips are. Kristoff looks around - they're over by the fucking women's clothing section, how fucking stupid do you have to be to come here looking for Q-Tips?

"We're on lunch," he says, "but it's over in A," he says, and points across the store.

"Oh, I'm sorry," says the customer, looking awkward enough that Kristoff uncrosses his arms.

Anna spares him a glare then turns to the customer, going full Customer Service Voice. "Middle of the A aisles. Just past the make-up, with the other first-aid stuff. A-12, or around there."

"A-16," says Kristoff, but he isn't happy about it.

The customer thanks them and moves away.

"You know you're not technically on lunch," Anna says, "you haven't clocked out."

"I'll submit a correction," he counters, "and they saw you with an armful of food, obviously on lunch and still came up! Besides, neither of us is sales floor today."

Anna kind of tuts and rolls her eyes, but it seems fond, to Kristoff.

"So," he says, after a moment spent staring at each other, "did I catch you stealing my lunch or what?"

"Oh!" She say, blushing now, "oh, no. I was, uh, I heard you say, and I was upstairs already, and I thought…" she ducks her head, shifting her weight, Kristoff holds a deep breath, smashing butterflies taking flight in his abdomen. "I thought it would be fun to try Out With the Old and In With the New?" She admits, finally, peaking up at him. "If you want?"

"What?" He asks, confused, "it's like seven-thirty?"

"Oh it's midnight somewhere," she says, shrugging enough to dislodge the soda can from her elbow. It looks, for a moment, like it's going to topple out of her arms and down to the floor, so Kristoff takes two quick steps toward her, arms outstretched, but she catches it against her chin. Her two hands are occupied already, so he awkwardly reaches out and gently disentangles the soda, careful not to touch her.

She smiles at him, "thanks."

It's the closest he's been to her since -

"Yeah," he says, stepping away. "So, you were, uh, coming to the backroom, then?"

"Mhmm," she says, striding forward now like he agreed to anything, "we can go out the back door, eat lunch out there, and then walk around and come in through the front!"

The butterflies again.

"O-okay," he says, following her.

He slips the soda can into his pocket and Anna erupts, her description of how unfair it is that men's pants come with such big pockets carries them through to the backdoor.

The door is heavy, so he holds it for her as she passes by.

"Thanks," she says, smiling at him. It's dark out, but not black. The area behind the store is lit by tall street lamps, dotted with maintenance equipment and lawn furniture where the guys take smoke breaks while unloading the trucks.

They're going back through the front so Kristoff doesn't bother to prop the door open. He hears the heavy lock click as it slides closed.

Anna has settled herself under a well-lit bench and laid his sandwich out on the seat beside her.

Kristoff swallows, once, then goes to join her.

"So," he says, "out with the old, then."

It sounds more like a question than he intended.

She smiles at him in the half-light. Fidgets with her croissant, takes a bite and chews slowly, eyes taking in the surrounding area.

Kristoff leans away. He's making her uncomfortable. He doesn't know what the fuck she wants him to do, then? He can move, go sit somewhere else? He assumed she put his sandwich out like that as an invitation, but maybe he was wrong?

She's not scared of him though, or she'd never have suggested this. A darkened concrete pad on the wrong side of a door that only opens from the inside, looking out at a chain link fence and a collection of dumpsters.

So, he thinks, maybe...?

They chat, for a few minutes, while they eat, talking about the store, and Sven, and Elsa. She seems like she's gearing herself up for something. Kristoff can hardly stand it. 

"Kristoff," says Anna, eventually, "can I ask you a question?"

"Sure," he croaks, eager, "course."

"Gerda and I, we have been talking about - about if I made you an authority figure, when we were together."

Kristoff snaps his gaze out into the familiar empty lot. He's disappointed, which is stupid, because what the fuck did he think she was going to say? He sneers at himself, quietly.

She hasn't asked him a question yet, so he takes a sip of his drink, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.

"I don't remember feeling like that was how it was," she says, hesitant, "did, um, did you?"

He looks up, now, into the cloudy night. Not a single star.

He hates this self-reflective shit.

"I don't know, Anna," he says, making an effort not to sound frustrated.

He really isn't frustrated. It just hurts. But she has asked him and it's for her therapy.

"I remember feeling… pressure, I guess? Like I had to make sure I was making the right decisions for us. But I feel like I tried hard to make sure you could decide stuff too."

She huffs a soft laugh and looks down at her hands. She's wringing them together in her lap again. She seems to realize and presses her palms flat into her knees, grimacing slightly.

"Yeah," he agrees, "I heard it when I said it right there."

A breeze picks up, shifting some of the hair at the end of her braids. It's well past her shoulder now, and Kristoff wishes he could tell her how pretty it is long like this.

"I can be kind of a control freak," he says instead. "Sorry, if - if it felt like you couldn't tell me."

"No," she says, "it wasn't that. I mean, it wasn't you. I didn't want to make decisions. It stressed me out, when you would try make sure I said my opinion."

Kristoff's not really sure what to say. He knows he doesn't need to apologize for that, but it makes him uneasy to discover new depths of stress he unknowingly caused for her.

"I didn't realize," he says. It's half true, at least. He knew when Anna was uncomfortable. He thought coaxing it out of her, pushing and wheedling with a smile was the right way to go. He thought she was reluctant, though, reserved rather than genuinely stressed.

"Lots of relationships fall into that dynamic," she allows, "but Gerda, she says that..." a deep breath in and then all the words come out in a rush. "She says I found a benevolent authority figure this time, but it doesn't change that it was still me replicating what I had with - before. Even though you wouldn't have, ever. I do know that, Kristoff. But benevolent authority is still authority, right? That's what we've been talking about, anyway. And I can't - that can't be what it looks like for me, you know? Not again."

He's confused now. Not by what she's saying - that all makes a certain kind of therapist-sense. But when she says again... he can't help the well of anticipation that begins to mercilessly tug the edges of his lips up.

"I get that," he tells her, not sure what else she wants from him, worried about saying the wrong thing and shattering whatever this is. Whatever might be happening. "You seem... like it's helping." 

"I really think it is," she says. He takes a second to be so fucking proud of her. 

Anna shifts sideways over the divide and rests the side of her head against his shoulder. Kristoff sucks in a surprised breath. Everything freezes. He wants to close his eyes, let things stay frozen, but he knows it'll be so, so much worse if he's wrong.

"We could… try again?" He offers, almost whispering.

He knows immediately that he's fucked it up. Her shoulders bunch up and she pulls away quick and stiff.

"Oh, God - sorry, Kristoff, I didn't mean - I can't, I'm so sorry. I get that this was confusing, I didn't mean for you to get the wrong idea."

Fuck. Shit shit shit fuck. What's that thing Samurai used to do, where they ran a sword through their own fucking chest out of humiliation?

"Sorry," he says, standing, "shit, Christ, sorry."

He wheels around in a bit of a circle - fuck the fucking door's fucking locked from fucking inside, goddamnit.

"It's just, it's only been six months," Anna says, twisting her hair in between her fingers, looking up at him, eyes full of pity and regret.

He's standing and pacing, she's sitting and shrinking and he knows, he sees it fucking happening, but embarrassment and rejection sharpen him.

"Only six months?" He repeats, with too much incredulous derision, "fuck, Anna, I don't-"

She interrupts him.

"I asked you before, not to swear when you're mad."

Her voice is soft, she hasn't stood up, she's not even looking at him, just down at her lap, but her words stop him dead all the same.

"You did," he says, everything draining away, "I'm sorry."

Well, this has become thoroughly fucked up. Top three terrible lunch breaks together, easy.

"We should go back," he says.

Anna ignores him. "Kristoff," she says, "I'm really sorry. This was-"

"Nah," he says, cutting her off with a manic casualness, "you're good. I get it. No worries. We'll forget about it."

"I don't like to think you're mad at me," she admits, looking up at him.

"I'm not," he says, quickly. Then, the weight of Benevolent Authority heavy in his mind, "Are you? Mad at me."

"I'm not mad either,'" she assures him, a happy kind of sadness in her smile. "Still friends then?" She checks, tentative.

And it fucking hurts him, but, "yeah," he says, "friends. We should go in though. We're gonna be cutting it close..."

She stands, finally, and gathers their trash. They stop by the garbage container and then head around the store toward the parking lot.

"Are you doing anything fun to celebrate the new year?" She asks. 

Excellent, he thinks, awkward small talk

"No," he says, "not really." Which she definitely probably knew already.

"Elsa and I are having some friends over," she says.

"Have fun."

The turn the first corner, following the wall.

She looks at him for a moment longer, then asks, "So do you have a resolution?"

His usual answer is no. No, because you can start a new diet any day of the year. No, because it's meaningless - what is the difference, really between yesterday and tomorrow?

But he's been an ass tonight, and she's just trying to make conversation. It's this or the fucking weather, at this point. 

"I, uh, I actually heard about this gym, from the Quality Assurance guy, and I told him I'd check it out. I haven't gone yet, and his daughter runs it, so I probably should."

Anna laughs. It's a beautiful sound, even when he's the stupid thing she's laughing at.

"Your New Year's resolution is to go to the gym?" She keeps giggling, "that's like the number one most stereotypical resolution there is!"

Kristoff loves her. Her smile, her eyes, her laugh. 

They turn the second corner, they're at the front of the building now, back on the sidewalk.

"It's not a stereotype," he corrects, "it's a classic. What are yours anyway, then?"

"Eat more chocolate," she says, immediately. "That's the one I always tell people. But more seriously, I'm starting my last semester this month. I want to keep my grades up, get a letter of reference, do well at my internship, save up for a car, move out of Elsa's… It's overwhelming!"

"That is a lot," he agrees, "but you can do it. You're gonna have a great year, Anna. Really."

That's something a friend would say, right? Nice and casual and supportive, as long as she can't hear the solid block of desperation in his throat.

She's moving on. She's almost done.

It's over.

She thanks him, sounding so sincere and grateful that he feels dirty, almost.

Fluorescent light spills out through the front doors, illuminating the entrance way. She stops just outside the door and closes her eyes, breathing deeply in and out.

"And in with the new," she says woth a smile, as they cross the threshold and the automatic doors hiss closed behind them. "Happy New Year, Kristoff. Thanks for doing this with me!"

"Happy New Year," he returns. 

He can see so clearly, suddenly. It was always going to come to this. 

Next New Year, he will still be here. And Anna will be living in her new life.

He never clocked out properly, so he's just going to head straight to the backroom, while she veers away toward the time clock.

"Hey, listen," he says, right before they part, "I keep forgetting to mention, but, uh, your dress? From your birthday? It's still at my place. So - I'll put it in my truck and you can get it next time we're both in. If you want?"

"Oh!" She says, visibly surprised, "I'm so sorry, I had forgotten all about it! Thank you!"

God, he really is pathetic. Fucking months of convincing himself it was a symbol - that the dress in his closet was a code, that it meant something.

"No big deal," he lies, "I forgot too."

-

Just a few minutes before midnight, Kristoff pulls on his shoes, clips Sven into his leash, and heads out through his only door.

The dress is in his truck already, he moved it as soon as he got home.

He leaves behind the old hope, the waiting, the unspoken, one-sided assumption he was operating under, and walks with Sven around the building. He hears muffled cheering, distant fireworks, and he re-enters his apartment with new resolve.

Chapter Text

Professor Mattias agrees to sponsor Anna's volunteering as an internship. He wants her to keep logs of time spent and she'll have to write up weekly reports about what she's working on, plus they'll meet up every other week to discuss it all. It's a lot of work, obviously, but she's excited. Last time she was in school she felt very aimless, but not so this time around, she's got her eyes on the prize!

And so, her final semester begins.

Olaf starts his intern position at Elsa's firm, which keeps him just as busy. He starts to come over for dinner a few nights a week. Anna is grateful - otherwise she might not see him outside of school at all.

Between work, her volunteering contract with the women's shelter, and her regular class schedule - Anna becomes a little overwhelmed. Gerda agrees that they can start to meet for their sessions less frequently.

Professor Mattias had initially worried that the shelter wouldn't be able to provide her enough transcription hours. This is quickly proven unfounded. Almost every woman there would benefit from free transcription services.

Anna only helps with the depositions for the people being helped by the shelter. Their various husbands and boyfriends and even a few fathers - they all have to pay someone else, and she doesn't want to hear their sides of the stories anyway.

Anna quickly begins to rack up deposition experience. She learns to talk with the lawyers and the caseworkers, to keep her face impassive, to bring stickers for the kids, to format her reports how each agency prefers, to keep her eyes down during the deposition but to always smile before and after. To wait to cry until she's safely home again. She gets faster and more accurate. She's no longer worried about passing the Certification exam, that's for sure.

Within a few weeks Professor Mattias tells her not to worry about the extra reports he had been asking for. He says she is doing excellently, and that he hopes she is taking care of herself too.

She is. She and Gerda talk about the stories Anna hears almost as much as Anna's own story.

Gerda sounds almost smug, one day, when she oh-so-casually posits that, "it sounds like you don't think any of these women should have known better…?"

Anna pulls a face. But she doesn't argue.

-

She misses Kristoff, still. She wants to tell him about her day - it sits there like an itch on her face, constant and distracting. They've barely seen each other since New Years.

She has a lot of things she regrets. Things she wishes she had told him. She doesn't know if that's a sign of progress or not - regretting things. Wanting to go over them, dissect it all. Pick their relationship to pieces and show him that she's not that Anna anymore.

She worries though - are things better because she's alone now? It makes a certain kind of dull sense, that Mrs. Westergaard cannot exist where there is no man.

Instead of giving her a proper answer, Gerda asks Anna how that is making her feel. It's annoying - Gerda definitely knows the real answer.

The date that would have been their anniversary comes and goes. Anna misses him - deeply. She misses that version of her life, the one where they got to celebrate. Maybe they would have gone back to the botanical gardens?

Or maybe he would have booked another hotel.

She wonders about that version of Anna, who has been with Kristoff for a year, now. How does she feel about a hotel-anniversary?

Not long after, her school sends out an email about applying for graduation.

Anna stares at it for a little while, overcome.

Two years ago she never could have imagined this moment. But, here it is.

She has a future. A future she chose. One she earned.

Wondering won't help anything. What if her parents were still here. What if she never left Hans. What if she still had Kristoff. She's on a path now, she's working hard on her own happiness, and that's all she can do.

-

Ordering a graduation gown doesn't do anything to slow down the pace of her semester though. Elsa finds her, one evening, asleep at the kitchen table, surrounded by notes and textbooks.

"You're overextending yourself, Anna," she scolds, gently.

Anna bristles, "no, I'm not."

Elsa purses her lips thin and raises an eyebrow. Anna begins to gather her papers - she isn't going to be allowed to return to her work.

This is not their first iteration of this conversation. Elsa and Olaf are getting along really well, which Anna adores, but they're really starting to gang up on her, especially when they think it's an issue of Anna's wellbeing.

"The whole point of you staying here -"

Anna's gut clenches.

Elsa isn't threatening her place here. Anna knows that. She doesn't mean for it to sound that way. It just - sounds that way, is all.

Elsa can read it on Anna's face. She reaches out to place a soft hand on Anna's shoulder.

"I just mean, you don't have to worry about money while you finish up school. So there is an easy solution..."

"I'm not going to quit, Elsa."

"You're exhausted Anna. This keeps happening. Olaf says you're falling asleep in class too. You're doing too many many things and one of them is cashiering just because you're still hung up on him. It's detrimental, at this point, to keep it up like this..."

Elsa has come into Gerda Sessions on multiple occasions. They've talked - a lot. Anna knows, now, that Elsa wants them to have a sisterhood again, an equal footing on each side of their relationship. They've role-played and written hypothetical scripts and letters and talked about their parents and conflict avoidance until Anna's eyes crossed.

Today, Anna sucks in a quiet breath through her teeth, squares her shoulders, and looks into her sister's eyes.

"Elsa - you've made your opinion really clear," she recites, "and I think you'll agree that I've heard you. But it's my decision and I don't want to talk about it anymore."

Elsa looks struck for a moment, but then her face relaxes into a soft, loving expression.

"I'm sorry, Anna, you're right, of course."

She opens her arms and Anna leans in. She rests against her sister and closes her eyes, breathing deeply.

-

It's not just Kristoff, she thinks, looking around from her post at guest services. Kat would be lost without Anna, at this point. And Ellen, she knows they wouldn't keep in touch, not really, if Anna left. And there's everyone else - all the other cashiers, all the people she's trained.

Kristoff swings by the front on his way to the equipment closet. He gives her a little smile and he waves over a customer's head. It's not the smile he used to have when he saw her, that big, wide, joyous thing. She worries she will never see that smile again - the one he never seems to have for anyone else.

If she quits, she won't see any of them again. Except maybe as a customer, but she knows how he feels about customers...

-

Anna and Olaf eat lunch in the lower level of the college library. She tells him about her little argument with Elsa, and thanks him for ratting her out. But Olaf adores Elsa, and he is unapologetic.

She tells him about seeing Kristoff at work, how she probably won't see him again this whole week. She can admit, to him, how sad that makes her.

"I miss him," she confides, "I miss seeing him. I thought - being friends was supposed to mean I got to see him more than this, you know?"

Olaf chews, considering. Anna will be grateful to Olaf for the rest of her life - the sheer number of hours he has spent listening to Anna verbalize missing Kristoff. She tries hard to keep it to a minimum, to ask about Olaf every day, but Anna suspects a lesser friendship would have broken.

"Have you ever thought," he begins, "that maybe it's not about him?"

"What do you mean?"

"Just that, well you were married to like the worst man who ever lived, right? So then, maybe, you baby ducked onto the the next guy who was decent to you? Maybe you just miss having a nice boyfriend?"

"I baby ducked?" She repeats. 

"Yeah," he says, "like baby ducks, when they come out of the egg, they imprint. You should look it up, baby ducks make friends with all kinds of animals, and like follow them around everywhere. It's super cute."

Anna takes a moment to be offended. She crosses her arms and leans away, eyebrow raised.

Internally she shudders - did Kristoff think she was that pathetic?

She's going to have to write that one down…

"I just meant," he goes on, "maybe what you need is to try dating again? Get dressed up all cute and go out with some guy where there's no history or anything, and you never have to see him again, if you don't want. No pressure, just low-key and fun, you know?"

Her gut reaction is a hard no. But she has been in therapy long enough, by now, to know she needs to interrogate those impulses.

"I don't know," she says, instead. "I mean, who would I even - ?"

"Well, maybe there's someone else at the store?" Anna recoils at the idea of it, dating one of the cashiers or something and Kristoff having to hear about it all. Olaf reads the room and marches quickly onward, "or maybe we find someone in our classes? Or I can have a look around the firm for you?"

"uh, I really don't feel up to a blind date, Olaf…"

She can just picture it with awful clarify. Olaf doing her the favor of explaining to whoever he thought best - Anna's great but you have to be careful...

He is not deterred.

"Well - we'll make you a profile on one of those apps!"

People looking for one night stands, putting her face and location on the internet, the sheer risk of it brings goosebumps to her skin.

She doesn't want to explain, but Olaf is really attached to the idea, he's clearly put some thought into it, which is very sweet.

"I can't do the online dating thing." She makes herself say, "I mean you have to put all that personal information online, with like pictures, and the location information… like I just actually can't do that."

"No," he says, immediately, "I looked it all up. They have ones with really high privacy settings now, or ones where they can't even see your profile until you swipe on them. They're really focused on safety, these days."

Anna hesitates.

"Don't men send like really awful messages?"

"Okay, yes," he admits, "but we can put the app on my phone and that way you don't have to deal with it at all - I'll filter them out! No creeps, I swear." 

She has to smile at his sheer enthusiasm. 

"Why does this matter to you so much?" She asks. 

He softens. "I love you, Anna. I just want to make sure you know that he wasn't the only decent man in this city. There are others."

"I know," she says, and it's even true. She knows there are good men out there. That's not where her doubts come in. 

"Anna," Olaf says, serious and careful, "it's been a year."

Anna crosses her arms. "It has not been a year." It's been eight months.

"Well never mind then," he counters, sarcasm slipping back into his voice.

"Listen, I can't just - I'm not being difficult, okay. There are things - it might not be a good idea, for me."

He backs off quickly, as Anna knew he would, at the suggestion of her particular psychological delicacy. It grates, as much as she has used it to her advantage just now. Ever since he grasped the depth of Anna's situation with Hans, the period where she was meeting with a therapist twice a week and writing in her Gerda Homework Journal after almost every interaction - Olaf is easily convinced of her fragility, and it makes him reluctant to push.

"Look," she says, apologetic, though she has specifically not apologized, "I appreciate it, okay? Let me talk to Gerda. See what she thinks."

He brightens again, happily moving along to their homework. 

-

Gerda says, "and how do you feel about that?"

Anna wants to roll her eyes, but Gerda will just say, Frustrated, then?  So instead she takes a moment to think.

How does the idea of dating someone make her feel?

"Scared." She admits. Gerda writes it down.

Anna knows Gerda well enough now to recognize the sympathetic eyes behind a neutral mask.

"Can you tell me a little more about that?"

"Uh..." she has to think again. "I guess like - a bunch of reasons."

Gerda writes something down again, but Anna suspects it isn't a bunch of reasons.

She waits, like Anna must have more to say.

Anna twists the tips of her fingers together, gathering her thoughts. "I don't know. It's not like that I'll get murdered or whatever. I guess, I worry that I'm not ready still. Like maybe that I should just stay on my own? What if I made all this progress but the second I'm on a date… What if I find someone that says oh why are you so reliant on your sister? Or why are you bothering so much with your school, you don't need a job... and - if I believe them, again? I could be right back there."

Gerda watches her for a moment, plotting her response. 

"If that did happen, is there anything you can think of that would counteract it?" 

Anna bites her lip. 

"Well, there's you. I would tell you, I guess, if I was thinking that way." 

"That's good. Anything else?" 

Anna catches on pretty quick these days, when Gerda starts leading her around by the nose like this.

"Elsa," she says, "Elsa and I are close, this time. I think I would listen, if she was worried." 

Gerda smiles. 

"And Olaf," Anna adds. "Olaf would tell me, if he thought I was making a mistake with a guy. They wouldn't let me mess up my school." 

"That's good," Gerda agrees, "anyone else?" 

"Well, we talk about dating and my school and stuff at work. Kat and Ellen and everyone else - they would yell at me." 

"It sounds like you have built a solid support network, and you didn't have that when you met Hans. Do you agree?" 

Anna agrees, tearily. 

"I do think you're missing someone, though. Someone important," Gerda prompts. 

Anna frowns. 

"I don't think Kristoff would talk to me about a guy..."

"Anna, you have put so much time and effort into your education. You have a plan, you've built a solid foundation for yourself - do you not think that you would be able to reject such a person, if one came into your life?" 

Anna bites her nail. 

Actually - yes. She would. 

She wouldn't let another person compromise the things that are important to her. All the things she has worked for. And she has people, now, in case she stumbles. 

The realization drives her to tears, utterly overwhelmed. 

Gerda smiles, softly. 

Chapter Text

Kristoff never bothered before with the New Year's resolution bullshit. It aggravates him, really. It's one thing, in the reflective quiet of the night to decide to change his life all around. It's another thing entirely to get home from work and, instead of collapsing in front of the television, or taking Sven out, make the decision to get changed and drive out to the fucking gym for the first time.

He does it anyway though. The only thing more stereotypical than saying he's going to start going to the gym is not following through.

It's a bit of a drive. The place Pabbie's sending him to is in the older, more rundown part of town. Kristoff knows the area, his old school is down here, and it's not very far from the shelter either.

He sits in his truck outside a building called The Living Rock. It’s all tinted glass along the front, but he can see a sturdy lock and an alarm system around the door.

It’s probably some fucking yoga thing, he thinks. The name sounds like one of those - healing crystals and the healing power of moss. Or, worse, a room full of university jocks and MTV on the flatscreen TV. He mostly only goes in to discover the full depth of Pabbie’s lapse in judgement.

The space is wide and open, divided down the middle with a waist-high brick wall. On one side is the traditional gym equipment he was expecting, weights and treadmills and all that. There are a few people occupying the machines, but it’s quiet, sedate, almost.

On the other side he is surprised to find an area of wall-to-wall floor mats, a group of kids fucking around in bare feet and white ninja robes.

The adult supervising them spots Kristoff and begins to head his way.

Kristoff almost turns right around to leave, except she’s a woman, older than him by quite a bit, and unmistakably Pabbie’s daughter.

“Hi,” he says, awkwardly, when she reaches him. “I work with Pabbie, he told me about-”

Her whole face changes from Are you lost, sir?  to, confusingly, an expression of surprised pleasure.

"You must be Kristoff then! I'm Bulda, and over there's Cliff! Cliff!" She calls back to a man who waves and begins to make his way over. "We were expecting you sooner, you know," she tells Kristoff. 

"Um, what? How do you know -?"

"Oh, Dad said he was sending you our way, and to look out for an eight-foot blonde kid with a ten-foot scowl.”

What the fuck?

"Oh," he says, stupidly. He was kind of expecting a gym membership pitch or some customer service-y shit, but she's just watching him now, staring up into his face.

He looks around. There’s a desk up front, a bunch of cubbies and backpacks and shoes, but he doesn’t see anything like a membership signup form, or charges or anything.

“Do you have a sheet with like, your member rates or -”

"You're in luck," she says, without blinking, "we're doing a special discount membership."

Kristoff thinks she's full of shit.

"I can pay," he says, defensive.

"Take it up with the BBB," says a man, coming up behind her and reaching over, clapping Kristoff on the arm with a cheerful laugh.

Kristoff shrugs him off, agitated, “No look - listen, I’m not looking for charity!”

The pair share a look between themselves for a moment.

“Well we could really use some help around here,” Pabbie's daughter says, “But we can’t afford to hire anyone. Dad thought you might be willing to do some work around here and we’ll let you use the equipment, join any of the groups, no charge.”

Kristoff chews it over, looking for the angle. He strongly feels that he should be offended. They’ve clearly discussed him - Kristoff from Pabbie’s work, really needs something to fill his empty days since his breakup…

The fucking worst part is that it’s goddamn true.

"I can't - have a schedule, really." He explains, awkward. It feels uncomfortable; he hates asking people for favors, exceptions like this, "with my job, especially during the summer, I have to be able to pick up shifts, it would be different every week."

Bulda waves his concerns away, "We'll take things one week at a time. Let us know when you're available and we can figure out a few days for you to come down. No pressure, just when you can make it."

It feels - like pity. Like waiting in line for a free meal. But unlike then, this is optional. He could very easily say no thank you, or insist on paying monthly dues for as long as he can then give up coming once the summer hours really set in…

Anna highlighted and then filled the lonely voids in his life. But she's gone, leaving those empty places exposed. It's been months but the feeling hasn't worn off. That sense of absence.

If these people are willing to take a chance on him, then - maybe he should try.

"Okay," he says, and she grins at him, giving him a heavy slap to the shoulder. "But - tell me, if I'm not helping enough."

He doesn't want to take advantage. He can make this work, if he's really actually helping them.

Her face has gone all terribly soft, it's almost enough to send him out the door. But it passes, morphing into something gleeful and anticipatory.

"We've got a class coming up, eighth graders, girls, sweet bunch. You want to stick around, help out with the class? Then we can show you around, check out the equipment. Maybe get the old bag and gloves a try?"

"Oh," he says surprised, he had been kind of expecting to be told to come back next week. He shrugs though, he's already here isn't he. "Sure, why not?"

-

He's taller than both Cliff and Bulda, but the kids, fuck - kids are goddamn small! Kristoff had forgotten. He sees them around sometimes obviously, at the store or in parks. They want to come up and say hi to Sven a lot, but with an individual kid, it's easy to just assume that's a small kid, but twelve eight graders - shit they're all just scrawny.

He wasn't that fucking small. No way

Cliff settles them down and starts the class, briefly introducing Kristoff in a fairly ominous way.

"This is Kristoff, proof that a volunteer is someone who doesn't understand the question."

The girls giggle.

"Kristoff has been kind enough to agree to let us practice on him..."

"Wait, what?" Kristoff snaps his attention away from the tiny people and back toward Cliff. "I can't, what if I hurt one by accident?"

The smile grows across Cliff's face, all teeth.

"Hear that ladies?" More giggling. Cackling, actually. One girl with pink bows in her hair cracks her knuckles. "Form a line, we'll go one at a time."

Kristoff gulps.

-

Bulda spends some time talking with the parents that have been trickling in for the last ten minutes of the class. Kristoff doesn't get up off the mat. He just lies there. Some of the girls have stuck around to observe him, admiring their handiwork. He throws his arm over his eyes, so he can pretend they're not there. Playing dead.

Eventually Cliff holds out a hand to help him up.

"You up for a bit of a work out then?"

Kristoff swallows a groan. That's what he came here for, afterall.

-

An hour or two later, sore as hell, he's one his way out when Bulda stops him and reaches up to deliver two solid slaps to his cheek.

"You don't mind if we keep you, honey?" She asks.

Kristoff bristles. He's not a fucking pet.

But he knows he'll come back.

-

It’s oddly like breaking through the ice. It happens all in a rush, followed by a slow warming.

He starts to go out and about with Sven again, like they used to. They aren’t hiking in the botanical gardens or anything - that’ll need another fucking minute or two, shit, but they hit a few of their old haunts. Sven’s friends at the big dog park are excited to see him, and some of their associated people give Kristoff an acknowledging wave.

-

His schedule is irregular, but slowly he begins to pick up the rhythms of the place. They run kids classes in the mornings on weekends, and an after-school program on weekdays. Adult classes are in the evenings, and Bulda does personal training by appointment.

Kristoff starts to learn the personalities of the different class groups. He only helps out with the kids - he has no actual expertise to help with the adults and he’d rather just use the equipment himself then, anyway.

He starts to relax around the kids though. They want to practice their moves on him before class starts, hang from his bicep and see who can drag his arm down.

On those days, he does not hit the equipment, after.

They want to tell him about their day, show him pictures of their pets, ask him incredibly detailed questions about which type of animal he thinks would beat another type in a fight.

He learns about them in turn. Xander, for instance, is the ringleader from the younger boy’s set. One day all the boys are sitting quietly, lined up in a perfect row, just how Cliff wants. Kristoff is suspicious, even before he sees the mischievous smile on Xander’s face. Turns out they’ve snuck a fucking frog in.

The riotous giggling spreads and Cliff’s impressed, wants to inspect the animal, help them set it free safely, rather than being angry at the disruption.

-

A chorus of low oooooh-ing. Shocked and appalled giggles.

"Kristoff said a swear!"

Ah shit. He forgot. Another whole ocean of behavior to navigate.

-

Kat had invited him over a few times, back in the summer mostly. He always blew her off, he didn't want her fucking pity he didn't want to talk, to reveal the fucking depth of it, peel back the raw scab and let her poke about in the cavernous abscess. No fucking thank you.

Then the store got busy with the holiday season, and she stopped asking.

When the hours begin to dry up again, Kristoff finds himself with a free Friday. He arranges to help out at the gym until close, but still, a whole evening stretches out in front of him. Empty and quiet.

He could watch something. Lose some time online. Clean his place. Sven needs to get out.

But it doesn't sit right, for some reason - the prospect of his usual solitary routine has him gritting his teeth.

He texts Kat, on a whim.

You working?

She replies, after a bit. He's taken Sven out around the complex, and left his phone behind, so he's not fucking checking it like he cares if or what her response is.

All she's offered is,


Till 830

He huffs. Rolls his eyes to Sven. She can't let anything be fucking easy.

plans after?

She makes him come right out and ask, naturally, but he ends up in their apartment, eating more than his fair share of a pizza and learning a very complicated new card game.

He's met Allison a handful of times, he's even been to their place before. He nurses his single beer and no one mentions Anna or college or cares if he swears. They talk shit about coworkers and Allison has stories about her work too.

It feels - oddly like a weight has lifted. Something's shifted.

-

The first time Cliff tells him the kids asked after him during a lesson, Kristoff thinks he must be bullshitting.

“Sure,” he scoffs, “where’s our big, pissy punching bag…”

But the next time he’s there for the lesson, the whole group of them launch at him, burying him under an avalanche of bare feet and sticky fingers.

-

Bulda asks if he will be free to help on Valentine's Day.

"You'll have time after for a hot date," she assures him, "hit the clubs…"

She and Cliff begin moving simultaneously, synchronized dancing to imagined music. Cliff swings his hips from side to side, Bulda drags two fingers horizontally across her eyes.

Kristoff watches, dumbfounded.

"What the fuck are you two doing?"

"Disco, baby!"

-

The place gets all decorated in pink hearts. Kristoff checks the system at work and tells Bulda which Valentine's shit will be going on clearance ahead of the actual day, so hopefully they save some money there.

They get a bunch of candy set out for the kids. Bulda writes a nice note for each of the students individually.

It's mostly bullshit when adults do it, but Kristoff finds that, in the face of extreme childish excitement and gratitude, the day may not be an entire waste.

-

Bulda - it’s weird, with Bulda. He isn’t comparing her to his Mom, that would be fucked up. But there’s a strength to her that he catches himself almost wishing his Mom had.

When he was little, everything was someone else’s fault. Mom thought the electric company would send another notice, she thought the school would send a reminder about Parent’s Night, she thought the social worker would reschedule.

If Kristoff would quit bugging them, then maybe Jim wouldn’t get so angry and...

If Kristoff’s Grandpa would get off Jim’s back about work, then…

If her life had turned out more how she wanted, then maybe she wouldn’t need the extra to make it through a day…

But Bulda moves around the gym space with a sure-footed presence, Cliff’s equal in every way that Kristoff has seen. She’s loud with a quick sarcastic tongue, but, at the same time, she radiates warmth, she laughs often, and crying children cling to her pants without a second’s hesitation. She hugs like a force of nature, Kristoff occasionally feels like she might actually be on the cusp of lifting him from the ground.

The gym is struggling, he comes to know. They make their monthly payments, but with barely enough left over. But Kristoff never sees them argue about it. No blaming, caustic glares erupting into something worse. No frosty silences spanning days, swept away seemingly at random, as if nothing happened.

He catches himself wondering, sometimes. Stupid shit. If Bulda’s gym was open when he was younger. If he ever walked past it, unaware. What would have happened if it’d caught his eye.

-

Kat’s never been terribly subtle. It suits Kristoff, typically. He doesn’t tend to get along with people otherwise.

But when she opens one day with, “Anna is dating again. She's got a profile on an app," Kristoff’s got to wonder if it’d kill her to have some tact.

Fucking men swiping left and right over a picture of Anna. His Anna.

His soda can creaks in his tightening fist. He puts it down. Nothing to do with him anymore.

Out loud he groans, scrubbing two hands over his face roughly. "You have got to realize I don't want to hear about that shit."

"No, no, no,” she insists, leaning toward him across the breakroom table, “it's perfect!"

Kristoff scoffs. "Yeah, whoopie. I know what you're going to saw - I need to move the fuck on. I'm working on it, okay?”

"What - no! You need to make a profile on this fucking app. I'll help you, you know, so it's not complete trash, and the algorithm will match you guys up and it'll-"

"No." He says with force.

"No? Come on, it's-"

"Kat," he says, dead serious, "if you make me a fucking profile on that app it will be a serious problem, okay? I'm not fucking stalking her across dating websites, Jesus."

"But - she said you guys broke up because she wasn't ready. So if she's dating again..." Why isn't she dating you?

"Thanks," he says, with a sarcastic smile, and gets up from his seat. He can’t be in this fucking room.

“Allison is expecting you for games again on Thursday,” she calls down the hallway after him, “I know you’re off!”

“Yeah, alright,” he calls back, with only a little hesitation.

-

Kristoff has access to all the equipment, they gave him a key and everything. But he has gotten into a pleasant routine of partnering with Cliff on the heavy punching bag at the end of a day.

Usually it’s spontaneous - lessons are finished up, gym’s closed down, Cliff says, Hey, you wanna stick around get a few rounds in?

Kristoff texts Cliff as soon as he leaves his annual performance review.

Hang the bag.

-

Thirteen cents.

One-two-punch.

Thirteen cents.

One-two-punch.

"I mean it's fucking insulting!" He says, during a rest.

One-two-punch.

"Less than cost of living," Cliff agrees.

One-two-punch.

"Fucking assholes," Kristoff huffs.

"So technically, they’re paying you less than they were last year. With inflation and all."

On-two-punch.

Three-four-punch.

Five-six-punch.

"Oof!" Cliff staggers back behind the bag.

-

"So what's the plan then?" Cliff asks as they're packing the equipment away.

"The plan?" Kristoff repeats.

"For your career? Shit pay, irregular hours, you don't like it..."

Kristoff hitches his shoulders. He hates having this fucking conversation - why does everybody assume he's going to leave the store one day?

"What - like I should quit?" He asks, sarcastic.

"Yeah," Cliff responds, easily, sounding like one of his students, like what he means is duh.

"I can't fucking quit," Kristoff counters, annoyed now.

"Right," Cliff agrees, slowly, "and why was that again?"

Kristoff rolls his eyes and stomps away to start collecting the mats from the other side of the room.

-

When the kids find out Kristoff not only has a dog, but a big dog, the demanding clamor is almost overwhelming.

"Alright! Alright!" He concedes, almost immediately, "I'll bring him one day, shi-oot."

With assurances to Bulda and Cliff that Sven is well behaved, and promises to Sven that he had better not fuck this up, Sven spends an afternoon lazing around the front desk. They set up a blanket for him and a bowl of water, and the kids feed him all sorts of garbage. He soaks in the attention, licking little faces and hands and feet.

Bulda says Kristoff should bring Sven more often. It's a nice idea - both she and Cliff seem to really like Kristoff's best friend. 

Sven becomes a regular fixture of the place.

-

"What would I even do?" Kristoff asks, almost rhetorically, as though it hasn't been almost two weeks since their last conversation on the topic.

"Well," Cliff says, picking back up the thread as if it had only been a handful of minutes. "You considered going back to school?"

Kristoff scoffs, aggressively.

"Fuck that," he says.

Cliff shrugs agreeably. "Never one for college myself."

Kristoff un-bristles, ever-so-slightly.

He thinks it's been dropped. They're on the same page now. Kristoff isn't qualified for a better job, and he isn't going after those fucking expensive, empty qualifications.

-

He has seen Bulda dead-lift two-hundred pounds, no sweat. But she wants his help rearranging the back office, naturally.

Kristoff can smell a set-up - as if Cliff wouldn’t move the whole wall over six inches if she asked him - but he's game, all the same. He's here to be helpful, after all. 

She spends a good hour working up to it - debating if the desk should go by the window and should the filing cabinet block the outlet like that.

Kristoff dutifully hefts the shit back and forth in a deranged real-life game of tetris, until Bulda decides she's ready.

"So, Dad didn't have a name…?"

Kristoff is confused for a moment. Pabbie didn't have a name? But it clicks, luckily before he can say something so fucking stupid to a non-Sven.

"Anna," he offers, tersely.

"Oh Anna," she repeats, "that's very pretty."

He doesn't really see what he's supposed to say back to that, so he doesn't say anything at all.

"Do you have a picture?" She asks.

He startles, looking down at her, flustered suddenly.

Isn't that creepy? Of course he has pictures of Anna. Selfies she'd send him, pictures they took together - but showing someone his pictures of Anna, his ex-girlfriend? It's weird, right? So, what, Bulda can agree that Anna was beautiful and then what?

"Yeah," he says, because it's true.

She's looking at him now, clear expectation across her slightly smiling face, on the outer edge of laughing at him.

He digs out his phone and expertly navigates to the last photo he has of her.

Anna took a selfie of them standing in front of his truck, right before they drove home from the National Park. They're sweaty and flushed or maybe just sunburned, but smiling widely, and pressing close.

He thinks it was already too late by then.

Maybe if he'd called her on the shit at the hotel. Told her that he needed to know she was being honest - if he had communicated - maybe she would have felt able to tell him the truth about her partner, about Olga...

"You look very happy," says Bulda, watching him.

He closes the app and turns off his screen, returning the phone to his back pocket.

"Yeah," he says, "well."

She's watching him, considering. He feels the muscles in his shoulders tightening, bracing.

"If we're moving the cabinet, the files'll need to come out. I have moves we can keep them in, I think. In the closet."

"Oh," he says, wrong-footed. "Okay. I'll take care of that."

The activity helps. Working, being in motion. He's always been able to concentrate better when he was moving, going through the motions of some task like this.

When Bulda offers, "if you ever want to tell me about it…" and leaves the words hanging, no pressure or judgement - Kristoff is surprised to find himself, for the first time, telling the story of himself and Anna.

"My mom had this - well he was my Dad. And he was shit. To her. And to me. And then Anna, she had gotten divorced from this absolute fucking shitstain of a man. So it was just - this weird cycle."

He looks at Bulda's sorrowful face. "I love her - I do. It just - wasn't gonna work."

"Plenty of me overcome their fathers, Kristoff," she says softly, "you don't have to be alone just because-"

"No, it's not that." He interrupts, "not really. I just -" he takes a deep breath, "looking back, I worked really hard at not being that, all the time, I was watching out for it, being careful. And then, I found out she was treating me like that anyway. She was lying to me and hiding shit, stupid stuff, little shit, you know? And then," he blushes, focusing on the stacks of paper, "we had this big conversation about like - physical stuff, you know? And she told me how bad it had been for her, in her marriage and she wanted to wait, and I thought… it was hard to talk about, but we were communicating, right? And you always hear that, you know? Communication is the main thing. But then I had this idea for her birthday, and she didn't tell me that it made her feel - pressured. I didn't mean it like that! But basically she thought I was done waiting and she was gonna just… fake it I guess. And then I found out about this lie, and she fucking flinched like she thought I…" he finds himself standing, hunched, looking at his own empty hands, "that fucked me up, for like weeks that shit was in my head. I was dreaming about - old shit."

Bulda waits a moment before breaking into his thoughts. "It sounds like she needs to talk to somebody...?"

"She's in therapy again." He says, starting the next box, "It's been months now." He sniffs. From the dust. "She seems like she's doing a lot better."

"Oh!" Bulda exclaims, latching hard onto good news in the way people do, "maybe you two can-"

"I don't think so." He says, cutting her off before she can say it. "We're friends, now, she says. And I guess she started dating again…"

"Ah," she says, softly. "Well. Onward and upward then."

He's staggeringly glad Bulda isn't going to argue with him on this. But, to hear it out loud like that, from another person - there's a new finality there. It hangs for a moment.

"So, you're not worried about screen glare, if you have the desk there?" He says, hoping she'll just let it go.

She turns her head, looking.

"Ah, crap."

-

The next time he sees Cliff, the job thing comes up again. But it isn't the college isn't impossible for you condescending social worker speech Kristoff has been braced for.

"You know how much a guy can make working in a warehouse, outside retail?"

"No," Kristoff admits, begrudgingly curious.

Cliff shoots him a grin, and shrugs.

"Me either. Could be worth a look."

-

Kristoff doesn't look it up.

He is secure, at the store. He knows the process, the rhythms of the place. The managers trust him, they leave him to it. He wouldn't get that anywhere else. He has security, where he is. It wouldn't make any sense for him to risk that.

Becoming homeless is technically something that happens overnight - one night you are home and the next you are less. But the long, slow slide proceeding that first cold night… that starts with risks like the one Cliff is suggesting.

And Kristoff won't.

-

There's a woman who comes to the dog park closest to him.

She's short, shorter even than Anna. She's blonde and she keeps her hair pulled back in a long ponytail that bounces around when she moves.

Lots of things bounce when she moves.

He sees more skin in her regular clothes than he saw in a weekend away with Anna. She touches his arm when she talks.

Does Kristoff want to take the dogs up South Mountain together next weekend?

Kristoff works next weekend.

And Sven likes the big dog park better anyway.

-

Inevitably, Kristoff caves to curiosity. It's hard to find because he doesn't know shit about job hunting anymore. The counselor at the shelter helped him get his current spot at the store, and before that it was still the fucking classifieds.

It's all online now, of course. And when he finds the answer…

He closes the window.

No one is going to pay him that. Not for the shit he already does. He's fucked up the search, somehow.

Besides - Anna graduates this summer. She'll probably stick around until her real job starts.

They're friends, she says. But he won't leave while she's still there. Risk missing out on even a single friendly lunch, where he gets to see her, hear her - no. He's deluding himself anyway. He worked at the store long before Anna, and he will for long after, too.

-

"And you'll be in tomorrow?" Bulda prompts, as he's getting ready to leave.

"Yeah, sure," he agrees. "I close, but I can do the morning set."

"Perfect!" She says, "we'll expect you bright and early then!"

She gives him a hug as he goes. The hugs aren't a new thing - she grabs him pretty much every time he comes or goes these days, but today she holds on for a moment longer.

It'll be good, he thinks. He isn't much of one for sleeping in, even on his birthday.

Maybe this'll keep him busy. Maybe he'll be tired enough, by the end of a long day, maybe he'll just fall asleep.

Not have to deal with the fucking searing memory of it. Close his eyes and dream of himself comfortable and content sleeping alongside -

When instead it'll be him and Sven, same as any other night. Any other year.

He remembers so very clearly, releasing her from his arms, watching her scoot away and instead of reading the writing on the fucking wall - She's terrified, dumbass - he instead bought his own crock of shit; we'll have time, he had thought. We'll practice.

Like two rocks in a river, he had thought time was on their side.

Now I know for next year! Anna had written. He's still got the card, tucked away in his draw...

Fuck.

He's not going to sleep tonight either.

Chapter Text

As expected, Kristoff doesn't sleep well, so it's not much of a waking up when his alarm goes. He's got that burning ache behind his eyes pulsing from deep in his skull.

He doesn't work until two, and he'd like to lie in, try get some proper fucking sleep, but they're expecting him at the gym. He takes a second to close his eyes again and breath in before he forces himself to get up.

It's for the best. He'd just stay here, lazing and wallowing otherwise.

Kristoff hauls himself up and under the spray of the shower. He watches some bullshit videos online while his cereal goes soggy. He takes Sven for a quick walk around the complex - Sven's coming along to the gym today, so he doesn't need a long one anyway. Kristoff ushers Sven into the front passenger seat of the truck and they head out just about in time.

He uses his key to let himself in the front door. There's a little fold-out table in the corner that he hasn't seen since Valentine's Day, which means Cliff and Bulda are here already, somewhere. He unclips Sven and heads deeper into the space.

Kristoff finds them in the mini-kitchenette, crowded close and stooping to peer into the refrigerator together.

"Hey guys," he says, to their backs, knocking lightly on the door frame, "...what're you doing?"

Bulda spins and gathers Kristoff up into a crushing hug - he actually feels himself being tipped forward onto his toes. Once he's released, Cliff delivers a bracing slap to the back of his shoulder.

"Happy birthday, dear!" She says, smiling widely at him. Cliff echoes her.

Kristoff shakes his head, perplexed.

"How the fuck-?"

"You gave us your license for the background check, honey," Bulda explains, like this is an obvious explanation.

"Oh," he replies, still off-balance.

"Well, come on then," says Cliff, gesturing past Kristoff into the main space, "Still set-up to do."

Kristoff follows him out. He can see Bulda in his periphery, already turning back to the refrigerator.

Kristoff goes through the now-familiar motions of setting up - arranging the mats, getting the various materials and sign-in sheets. Cliff props open the front door and kids and parents start to filter in, stopping by the little table up front before dropping their shit at the cubbies like normal and congregating around a delighted Sven.

One of the parents calls out, "Happy birthday, Christopher," and waves in Kristoff's direction before leaving.

Oh - fuck!

Kristoff rounds on Cliff, who, with a shit-eating grin, gestures grandly back toward the kitchenette. Bulda.

Well the train's left the fucking station now. Kristoff resigns himself, with a pleasant flutter, to having his fucking birthday acknowledged.

Before long, Bulda emerges with a tray of food; looks like muffins and bread-rolls and fruit.

"Well we know you're not much of a sweet-tooth," she explains, setting the tray down. The kids, who had been craning their necks to see, exchange disgruntled glances. "And it's a bit early for cake, anyway, so we went with pastries!"

Up close Kristoff can see cherry-filled flakey pastries and a dark coffee.

"Thank you," he says, moved. Bulda smiles at him.

The rest of the table is littered with envelopes and brightly-colored paper.

Oh, shit, he realizes, what the fuck.

The kids begin to jostle impatiently arranging themselves around him and the table, pressing in.

Kristoff has amassed about a dozen cards. Some are homemade - a folded piece of printer paper with hand-drawn decoration. Some are embellished with glitter or tiny fuzzy balls or stickers. One drew a frog, many drew Sven. Only a few have spelled his name right. Some of the store bought cards contain cash, or gift cards. Several parents have added well-wishes and gratitude in scribbled, adult handwriting.

He makes his way through the cards methodically, uncomfortable under the gaze of his audience.

Cliff gives him a nudge and a leading nod. Kristoff glances up from the final card to a swarm of hopeful faces teetering on the edge of disappointment. All of them still so fucking low to the ground, he hasn't gotten used to it still.

He's uncomfortable being watched like this - they're all waiting, and for what, he doesn't quite know.

Kristoff has to deliberately unclench his jaw and clear his throat to speak.

"Thanks, you guys," he manages around something like a lump, "it's all great."

He catches one of the more boisterous kids around the shoulders with disguised gentleness and hefts her up into the air. As expected, the observant semi-circle dissolves into chaos, they launch themselves at him and he is soon buried.

-

He drops Sven off home and has a shower before work. He's grinning to himself, still, when he pulls into his parking space. The kids are a fucking riot, and he's had a fun morning.

It's comfortable, here, no one says shit about his birthday, and it relaxes him.

Of course he shouldn't have bothered relaxing, because Anna finds him in the breakroom today.

"Big plans tonight?" She asks, hovering in the doorway.

Did she remember, he wonders, or is this just strike two for that fucking bulliten board?

"No, not really," he says, eyes darting around a bit, unwilling to settle on her. 

"Great!" She says, shining brightly. "I still owe you a birthday BigMac!"

There's something hopeful in her face. Hesitant.

"Anna..." he starts.

"We're friends, right? Friends celebrate each other's birthdays!" She insists, edging toward desperate.

Kristoff watches her for a moment. In the end, though, he can't deny her.

He clears his throat. "You're just saying that so I have to get your chocolate on yours."

She laughs. He loves to make her laugh.

"I'll borrow Elsa's car, we can meet there after you're done here?"

At least he doesn't have to drive her anywhere. Shit.

"Sure," he agrees. Why whywhywhy...

Well, he knows why.

It's the push-and-pull of it that haunts him. The cover of friendship that brings him close, but not so close as to truly feel her warmth, not any more, not ever again. All the same he soaks in these offered scraps, guilty and wanting.

She smiles wide. "Okay, great. I'll see you when your shift ends! You, uh, still have my number, right?"

Should he not?

"Yeah, Anna. I still have your number."

"Okay," she smiles, pleased, "text me when you're leaving here."

"I will," he promises, and she dances happily away.

Fuck.

He pulls uselessly at his hair. Why does he do this to himself? Why is he letting her do this to him?

The only answers are the obvious ones.

{ - }

Kristoff's still in his uniform, he didn't have time to go home, and she thinks it's probably adding to the air of stiffness around him.

Anna wishes, now, that she hadn't put so much effort into her own dress. It feels obvious, silly and attention-seeking.

No, she corrects herself, if she wants to wear makeup and a dress she can - how people choose to interpret it is not something Anna can control.

Her mantra doesn't help much.

It's really not fair at all, how Kristoff specifically seems to bring it out in her like this. Probably because she cares, still, so much about what he thinks of her.

They stand together, unbearably awkward, neither reaching out. Anna had thought she might go in for a friendly birthday hug, but she looks at the distance between them that she'd have to cross to get there and - no.

This may have been a mistake.

"Inside?" She asks, drawing on a long history of injecting cheer into her voice.

"Oh, yeah, sure" he agrees, and they move in unison to the door.

"Sorry," she says, drawing back.

"No, no," he says, waving her forward.

They hover ridiculously for a moment. Then Anna takes the door handle and pushes through.

As expected in a McDonalds in the late evening, it's dingy and brightly lit. Anna marches right up to the counter and orders, hesitating only to check for him over her shoulder.

"Just a BigMac or did you want something else?"

"What?" He asks from far enough behind her that he's clearly forming a line.

Anna huffs.

"I'm buying - it's your birthday, that's the point! Did you just want a BigMac, or-?"

He kind of frowns, then smiles at the same time.

"Yeah, that's fine. Thanks."

Anna turns back and orders two birthday BigMacs, two large fries, and two sodas. She takes her ticket and steps back to hover awkwardly again alongside Kristoff.

"Thanks," he says, "you really didn't have to."

She smiles up at him and shrugs.

"Happy birthday!"

She wants to hug him. She wants to lay her head against his chest and synchronize their breathing.

Instead she says, "I'll go get ketchup, you pick a table!" And darts away.

Kristoff kind of turns, observing the very empty McDonalds dining area. He shrugs slightly and moves toward a booth seemingly at random.

Anna fills a few paper cups of ketchup and then both of their sodas, before slipping into the seat across from him. He thanks her and they both sip on their drinks for a moment, avoiding eye contact.

It's a weird place to be. She knows so much about him, but at the same time, she knows nothing useful; not what shows he's watching, what Sven's been up to, nothing.

She can't even ask him how his birthday has been. Because, she knows. It's been this. 

She's still casting her mind about for conversational topics when he speaks.

"How's school?"

It hurts, and she feels terrible. She was telling him about her classes just the other day. He always asks, always listens, but Anna doesn't know what to ask him in return.

She walks a fine line between blathering on just to fill the silence and giving too short an answer and seeming rude.

"And how's Olaf doing?" He asks, shuffling the condiments around in the center of the table.

Does that mean he wants to talk about it, she wonders, how is she supposed to know? He wouldn't tell her, if he did. 

She's quiet too long so he frowns at her, cocking his head slightly.

"You still see him, right?"

"He's gay," she says, cringing slightly. You're not supposed to out people, she knows, but Olaf doesn't keep it a secret, and besides, it has suddenly occurred to her that Kristoff might not know.

He barks a bit of a laugh. "Okay."

Anna rewinds, reevaluates, realizes with sinking horror that she's made it worse.

"Yes, I am still seeing him. I didn't stop or anything because he's gay. I knew he was gay the whole time. I didn't know if you knew I knew he was gay. Or - when I knew."

"Anna," he says, looking concerned and reaching abortively across the table, "I'm not mad, or whatever."

He's hunching in that way of his. Like those shoulders can be tucked away.

"I know," she says, but it comes out too quick, too defensive. She can tell when he’s angry, but she doesn’t want him to assume she’s always going to think he’s angry. 

The overhead speaker calls for guest twelve and Anna launches to her feet.

"Be right back!" She calls, and hurries away.

-

“Olaf and I are just friends,” she clarifies, setting the tray of food down on the table. “I just - it’s important to me that you know.”

He’s visibly uncomfortable, shifting around on the plastic bench.

“I didn’t - that wasn’t -” She can see the moment he gives up the struggle. “Yeah, Anna,” he says, pulling one of the burgers toward himself, “I get it.”

They eat quietly for a few moments. Anna is reminded that she never actually wants a burger from here as much as she thinks she does. But the fries - it’s a good batch, and she says so. Kristoff agrees.

It’s like an itch under her skin. The awkwardness. She has so many things she wants to ask him, real proper things, and here they are unable to even manage small talk!

Obviously she can’t come straight out and imply that their whole relationship may have been founded on the same guiding principle that gets baby ducks waddling in a line behind their mother, but she wants to know.

More than that, before she starts trying to date again, she wants to know if he’s dating. If he’s dating again, she won’t feel like she’s doing something wrong every time Olaf opens that app.

Maybe, she thinks, maybe he isn't. Maybe he'll say he misses her...

She wants to be casual about it, two friends chatting about their lives, but he’s eating quickly, his burger is gone and he’s on to his fries already and she’s out of time.

"So,” she says, popping a fry into her mouth for added casual affect, “have you been dating, or anything?"

His head shoots up and he coughs a few times, looking like he might choke.

“What?” he says, sounding almost indignant. “No!”

Anna frowns, shooting him a searching look.

“Kristoff, it’s been almost a year. It wouldn’t be weird…”

He gives her a funny look. "No."

"Wow," she says, with a little bit of a laugh, "you really meant it, about - " her eyes go wide in embarrassment, she sucks her lips in between her teeth, mortified.

He huffs, looking away.

They sit, stewing in the moment.

TV shows and other people and stuff - they all joke about how awkward it is to be friends with someone who you’ve seen naked. Anna thinks this might be worse. 

"Is this how long it would have taken for you to believe me, then?" He asks, sounding annoyed, now.

She goes somber, looking up at the side of his face.

Well, this is what she wanted, right? For them to talk about it.

"I believed you,” she admits. “Not until after… at the hotel."

He clenches his jaw, she sees the twitching muscle.

He doesn't have anything to say, or, at least, he keeps it to himself.

"Do you think…" she starts, hesitant, "it would have been different? If-"

"Look, Anna," he says, gently but deliberately cutting her off. "I… really can't do this. Conversations like this, they are - hard. For me.”

“Oh,” she says, quietly. “Sorry, I… didn’t know.”

She did though. She knows when he’s uncomfortable, but she pushes anyway because she wants to talk about it. Anna wants to sift through their wreckage and pick apart the details. But he doesn’t.

He's fidgeting, talking more to his soda straw than to her directly. "Anna, being your friend, I - care about you. I want to be - to be what you need from me. But this - it's so much harder, Anna. I'm sorry. I can't."

It's like breaking up all over again. She feels the sting of tears. Just like last time, she's pushed him to this.

She takes a deep steadying breath. She won’t make him comfort her this time.

A decision which has been looming these past few weeks suddenly becomes clear. She drags her eyes up from her lap and looks squarely into his face. He looks back, waiting unhappily. 

"I have been thinking about putting in my two weeks. I'm graduating in May. I could really use the extra time for my internship, and my projects."

"Why haven't you?"

She gives him a sharp look. His mouth falls open in a little oh.

"Gerda and Elsa keep asking me that too," she says, blushing. "But if I'm - I don't want to be making things harder, for you."

“I don’t want to be the thing keeping you at the store,” he tells her, eyes gone all soft, lips downturned and sad.

Anna swallows, ducking his gaze. If she speaks she’ll cry.

He leans in, chasing her as she retreats, one of his large hands landing palm down on her side of the table. Anna misses his hands. "Hey," he says, "for whatever it's worth, I'm really proud of you. I knew you could do it."

She smiles at him, and her voice wavers when she tells him, "I know. You said it at the bus stop, ages ago. That you... believed in me."

"I do,” he says, leaning back and shrugging lightly, “So, go finish it off strong, and get the best job and meet great people. It's all up from here, Anna."

It feels like being let go. She's unmoored, suddenly, facing what it means to quit the store. To take that first real step toward a new life, away from the sheltered place Elsa helped her carve out. Away from Kristoff.

But sometimes the things that scare us are what we need, and the things that give us comfort are holding us back. She was scared to leave Hans, so long ago now. Leave those small comforts she had used to disguise the nightmare, keep herself trapped, for so, so long.

Quit her job, leave Kristoff behind... Focus on school, give online dating a shot, then graduation, a career spent helping people.

Her lip wobbles.

“I should go make sure Sven’s not eating through the walls,” he says, after they’ve spent some time staring at each other. “Thank you, for the-” he waves at the table, the greasy paper wrappings, but he says it with too much sincerity to just mean thank you for spending four dollars ninety-nine.

She wants her birthday hug. A second goodbye-hug. But he gathers all their trash and leaves.

All of the scary changes coming in her life - she’s convinced she could face them each with a smile if she were only crossing the parking lot with him, getting into his truck and driving away to check on Sven, together.

But she knows now. She knows that her parents died when she was young, and Elsa withdrew, and she sought comfort in a singular person - the wrong singular person at that. Hans encouraged it, he reveled in it, as Anna became more and more dependent on him to guide her into adulthood.

She’s so close now. She has so many voices chanting in her ear, her own among them - it will be hard but she can do this. She can manage this on her own. That gut wrenching urge to chase him out into the night - it means she needs to put in her two weeks.

-

Elsa has waited up. She probably suspected Anna might come home crying. Anna tells her sister about her decision, how sweet Kristoff was and about what she has realized. Not even a ghost of a dreaded I told you so flickers across Elsa’s face.

Just, “I think you’re right, Anna, really,” and a soft hug.

Chapter Text

Anna's final customer doesn't seem to appreciate the enormity of the moment.

"Do you need a gift receipt for anything today, ma'am?" Anna asks, bagging a standard fare of groceries.

"Uh, no, thanks," says the woman, briefly looking up from her phone.

"And did you want to sign up for a rewards card with us?" Anna asks, moving to the Payment screen.

"I have one," the woman says, flashing it between her fingers.

"Great! Would you like to donate to the local homeless shelter? The store collects donations all year and -"

The customer slides her card and skips over the Donation Amount screen.

"Have a nice day," Anna tells her.

Anna turns and logs out of the register. Gathers up her water bottle and her phone, the partial chocolate bar she has in the draw.

She goes around the other cashiers and gets hugs, promises to visit.

Anna tries to go hug Kat, but she's aggressively ducked.

"No sappy shit 'till we're good and drunk!" She says, making a little cross with her two index fingers. "I'll see you later, alright?"

Anna laughs. Kat talks a big game, but she's the one who organized Anna's whole goodbye night.

"Okay," Anna agrees, surrendering, "but drunk-Kat hugs, then?"

"Oh yeah," Kat promises. "Absolutely."

Anna clocks out and pops her head into the breakroom. A few people are scattered about, so she says goodbye to them all.

She's a little hurt, if she's being honest with herself. But they haven't spoken in two weeks now, he's got no obligation to come and see her off.

Anna talked to Gerda about it. About how she pushed Kristoff on his birthday, how he doesn't want to be friends. How that has to be okay.

She wants to go and say goodbye. It's hard - leaving without seeing him one last time. But he asked for space. And Anna can respect that.

He won't come to her goodbye thing tonight either. She knows Kat invited him, but Kat doesn't really understand what happened. 

{ - }

"What?" Kristoff near-shrieks, taking two quick steps toward Kat, "you were supposed to tell me!"

Kat shrugs, unconcerned, "I guess you're gonna have to go to the thing tonight then…"

He slumps, grumbling. But she's won.

{ - }

The bar closest to the store is a long rectangular space mostly decorated in dark wood and bright neon lights. It's not necessarily where Anna would have picked, but Kat says it's tradition - whenever someone leaves ("someone we like, anyway,") they have a send-off here. People come by as they get off work, have a drink, say their goodbyes, and stay as long or little as they like.

Aside from birthdays, Anna's never had anything like this in her honor before. The sheer idea of it makes her eyes misty.

There's going to be a live band later, according to the posters anyway, but for now it's a fairly quiet at atmosphere. Anna doesn't expect she and Elsa will stay long enough for the band, at any rate. They've got an appointment with their couch and a few old episodes of Friends.

Kat and Allison are already here, Ellen gets off work in about an hour and she'll be heading over then. Olaf is coming too, he turned twenty-one a few months back and while they celebrated at home, he won't miss this opportunity to be carded by a real-life bartender.

Anna is handed something lightly alcoholic, and in the warm glow of the bar, surrounded by her friends and loved ones, being gently mocked for her watery eyes - it's a bitter-sweet victory, that she may never have to cashier again.

-

Anna doesn't run over when she sees Kristoff. She's sure she doesn't.

She's surprised to see him, lurking somewhat by the entrance, and she kind of just finds herself heading over to greet him.

She doesn't waste any energy worrying if it's a coincidence - he doesn't just hang out at the local work-bar. Kristoff has come to her goodbye party and she's thrilled.

She stands in front of him, looking up into his face and coming over all awkward suddenly, brushing her hair behind her ears. 

"Hi," she says.

"Hi," he returns, also awkward.

It feels like a decision point - it can be awkward or it can not. Anna pushes through, determined.

"We're all over here!"

She leads him a little way through the crowd, only to run into Olaf, which is no coincidence, Anna knows. Olaf has been itching to meet Kristoff. Market research, he insists, for Anna's online dating profile.

Anna gives him a cross look - Olaf knows, he knows she's nervous of this.

"Kristoff, this is, uh, this is Olaf..."

Both Kristoff's eyebrows go right up, but not into any expression that really helps her figure out what he's thinking.

Anna laughs nervously while Kristoff silently processes, looking Olaf up and down.

It only takes a beat though for him to recover, sticking out his hand and saying, "Hi. Nice to meet you."

Nothing hinting or mean or sarcastic. Anna floods with guilty relief. She should have known it would be okay.

It's Olaf, of course, who she should have worried about.

"You know, I always wondered why Anna didn't want to introduce us," he says, not letting go of Kristoff's hand, "and I thought maybe it meant you were a jerk!"

Anna winces, but Kristoff cracks a tight smile.

"Well, she's seen me with customers, and that's a best effort, so..." Kristoff shrugs uncomfortably. "Well, uh, here we are…"

Anna scowls at the side of Olaf's face, trying her best to melt it right off.

"Yeah," Olaf agrees, "well, I'm sensing a little hostility, so I'm gonna -" he points bar-ward and makes his escape.

Anna glares after him.

Just his style. Make it awkward and then crumple under the pressure.

Anna shoots Kristoff an apologetic look.

"Sorry, I didn't know you would be coming, so I invited him, I didn't mean for it to be weird-"

He frowns at her.

"No, no, it's your thing. Did you - not want me to come? Kat said-"

"Oh no! I'm just surprised. I know it's not your kind of, uh, deal."

He laughs self-consciously, shuffling his feet a little.

"Well I didn't get a chance to catch you on your way out earlier, so…"

She smiles at him, moved.

"Thank you for coming."

He blushes. But she can feel the same on her face.

"Kat and everyone are this way," she says.

-

Anna flits around saying hello to people, they reminisce about customers, old coworkers who already left, ask about Anna's plans for the future. It's nice.

Elsa arrives not long after Olaf, so Anna doesn't feel like she has to look after her friend. She visits with a lot of people, but Kristoff stays constant by her side.

She smiles up at him, wondering if he realizes he's shadowing her. It's really not like him to come to a work social event like this. Almost unprecedented, actually, and people are clearly surprised to see him.

"Are you guys… back together?" Stage-whispers Rebecca.

Anna shakes her head vigorously.

"No," she whispers back, "he just came to - say goodbye."

Rebecca scoffs. But Anna knows most of the people from work don't really understand.

It's just nice to have him here. She thinks they're on the same page - one last night in each other's company.

-

She doesn't know when chatting with everyone became chatting with Kristoff alone. The rest of the group kind of reformed elsewhere.

She doesn't mind though. There's something different about him, relaxed in a way she hasn't seen for a long time now.

They stand together leaning on a tall, skinny bar table, flipping coasters and catching up, relieved of the ocean of pressure she's felt with him before.

It's a while before he admits, "Cliff says I could probably find a better job. Even without going back to school."

Anna's heart leaps and she rushes to encourage him.

"You could absolutely! I mean they're just terrible to you there!"

"I don't know," he says, "just - job hunting, you know?"

"I know," Anna sympathizes, "it's so stressful. Elsa is helping me, though, and I bet she'd help you too!"

Kristoff scoffs, and before Anna can insist, he goes on, "Bulda said she'd write me a reference…"

"Wait, wait," Anna says, holding up a hand to stop him, "who are you talking about?"

"Oh," he says, sheepish, "uh, Bulda and Cliff? They run the gym I've been - helping out at?"

He looks embarrassed. Anna grins.

"What? Wait, what is it? You never mentioned this! When did that start?"

He grumbles and groans but she pries it out of him.

"Well, they keep the class fees low because they don't want anyone to be excluded, so they couldn't afford to hire someone. So… I guess I started helping out…"

"Wait, wait, so you're volunteering with low-income kids now?"

"I mean I wouldn't exactly put it like that," he says, slotting his coaster through veins in the wood.

"No," she smiles at him, "you wouldn't, would you."

He bristles under her fond smile.

"I'm not a volunteer," he insists, "they let me use the equipment for free."

"Oh, well that's good," she says, with a carefree laugh, "cuz you really needed the muscle mass."

He hesitates for a second.

"You wanna go there? Really?" He asks, reaching out slowly, deliberately to take her hand in his. He shifts so he's got her wrist encircled between his pinkie finger and thumb with room to spare.

He's watching her closely, but he raises an eyebrow. "Who needs to hit the gym, huh?"

Anna pulls her wrist away, but there's no urgency there. No bloom of panic in her chest. Just an old middle-schooler moment of he touched me and the remnant of soft warmth.

Aloud she says, "that's not muscle. That's just - hand circumference."

He draws away, back to his side of the table, chuckling.

"Oh, my mistake."

Anna narrows her eyes at him, blurts unthinkingly, "I could kick your ass, Bjorgman."

It sits between them for a moment, the stupidest thing Anna ever said. She's put him in a corner: he can outright lie or acknowledge what they both know. Neither will settle well, that's for sure.

But he surprises her, again.

"I've seen that mace you keep - I'd go down like a ton of fucking bricks. You'd just have to hope I didn't land on you."

It's not terribly funny, really, but Anna laughs and laughs, wheezing and slapping the table. wild relief bubbling up.

-

"Anna!" Rebecca calls, waving and weaving through the light crowd, "I've hardly seen you all night! Where have you been?"

"Oh," says Anna, feeling awkward all of a sudden, "I, uh…"

"Becca!" Kat appears, catching Rebecca by the elbow, "pee with me?"

"I don't need to- " but she's dragged away.

There's a fleeting awkwardness when Anna's eyes meet Kristoff's again, but he gives a soft sort of eye roll and it passes.

"Well," he says, "since you're stuck with me for company, apparently, we can try snag a table for pool? Unless- or I could fuck off. Kat'd relax then, at least."

"No, no," Anna says, standing, "pool sounds great!"

They get up from their table and Kristoff leads the way through the middling-crowd toward the tables.

"They had a pool table in my old dorm," she tells him, when he asks about her level of experience with the game, "but I didn't play often. One guy was teaching me, but he was like looking down my shirt or standing behind me whenever it was my go."

She wrinkles her nose. Her and the roommates had not been fond of creepy George.

Kristoff pulls a face back, "I'll stay where you can keep an eye on me."

"Oh, no," she starts, worried she's offended him. Lots of men get defensive over that type of thing, right? "I didn't mean-"

He turns so she can fully see his face and he's smirking at her.

She waves him off, flustered but laughing.

Behind her, the live band starts up, but Anna doesn't even notice.

-

Elsa finds them in the growing crowd. Anna feels a swell of disappointment at the sight of her sister's pinched and slightly overwhelmed expression.

Anna shoulders her purse, trying to smile cheerfully. Elsa has already stayed longer than they originally planned.

"Anna," she says, "I'm so sorry, I think I need us to get going. It's already nine-thirty and I-"

"I can give you a lift home," Kristoff offers, with a shrug, "I mean, if you want."

"Really?" Anna turns bright, hopeful eyes on him, already sliding her bag down her arm, "I don't want to put you out… How long were you planning on staying?"

He waves her off. "No worries, I'll take you."

Elsa seems relieved too, Anna knows she didn't want to tear Anna away from her own party.

They exchange hugs, and Elsa leaves.

Anna's at a bar with her friends, learning pool from Kristoff and judging the cover band. Her face aches from smiling, and she gets to stay a little longer.

-

"Anna!" Someone calls over the din, "Anna!" She looks up, beside her Kristoff rises to his full height, more easily looking through the crowd. Anna shifts guiltily, she almost forgot she was here with a group.

Ellen appears with a slight stagger and a small tray of shot glasses.

"Anna!" She gushes, "we haven't done a single shot tonight!"

"Oh," says Anna, who has been nursing her soda, "I don't know if -"

Her eyes cut to Kristoff, but she drags them back.

"No, we'll get everybody, it'll be great," Ellen enthuses, "Kristoff - wave your arms!" He does not, "We'll do a toast!"

Through sheer force of drunken will, Ellen assembles the main group: Olaf, Kat, Allison, and Rebecca.

Her brain slips into old math like sliding into a comfortable bath.

She shouldn't really take it. He's bigger than her and today that means he would stay more sober than her even if he matched her one for one the whole night.

But beyond that, he's not even drinking really - he's a designated driver. More specifically he's her ride. If he does decide to drink, Anna will be stranded and drunk. If he stays sober, Anna will be drunk and reliant on him.

Ellen tries to hand a shot to Kristoff, but he waves her off.

Anna is next in the loose semicircle they've formed.

She hesitates a moment longer. Ellen starts to droop, "if you don't want-"

Anna twists slightly and looks up into Kristoff's face. His perpetually mussed hair, his big nose and kind brown eyes.

And she takes the shot.

Trust is a decision, she knows this. But does it still count as a decision when she feels certain like this?

There's a chorus of cheers, the sound of four other shot glasses hitting the wooden table in quick succession.

Ellen woo-hoo's, Kristoff winces.

Gradually, Anna goes warm and fuzzy.

{ - }

Anna sips on something fruity through a novelty straw. She laughs more loudly and freely than he has ever seen. She starts to lean dramatically against furniture and friends. Kristoff recedes into the background, observing.

He will miss her. But it's good to see her like this, at least, at the end.

-

The bar empties and then closes. The remainders of the group shuffles out into the parking lot.

The thought almost buckles him - that he's never going to see her again after this.

Olaf announces his intention to give everyone warm hugs. Kristoff doesn't want to look like an asshole, so he holds still and gives Olaf a few brusque pats on the back.

Anna is last, Olaf and Anna kind of nuzzle each other for a moment, giggling to themselves.

Kristoff's not jealous of Anna's gay best friend, for Christ's sake, but there's something about seeing it. He's caught between watching too closely or turning away too obviously. She was never that comfortable with Kristoff, and she hid it from him, worked so hard to make sure Kristoff didn't know she had a friend like this.

A year on, past the anger and the hurt - that's the piece that still fucks with him.

Allison waves goodbye, Kat in tow. Ellen's husband picked her up a while ago. Kristoff hasn't kept track of that other cashier, but he hasn't seen her in a while now.

Anna heaves herself up into the front passenger side of his truck without assistance, though he stands in range incase she topples back. Kristoff looks back just as Olaf pulls out his phone and sits on the curb.

"What are you doing?"

Olaf waves his phone, "Waiting for Marco, in a blue Nissan!"

Kristoff takes a second to be aggravated by everything in the world.

"Do you live far?"

Olaf shakes his head.

"Fine," Kristoff huffs, "Get in the fucking truck."

-

"You live around here?" He asks, sure Olaf is directing him wrong. He knows this place pretty well, and there's not much housing in this area. 

"Oh yeah," Olaf assures him, "another right up here. Then turn right before the next light."

It's late and the streets are empty, so Kristoff comes to a complete stop rather than pulling into the drive-through as directed.

"It's a fucking Taco Shack," he says, through gritted teeth.

"Tacos?" Says Anna, scrabbling at her seatbelt, "I want a taco!"

-

Kristoff buys three tacos - Olaf's right, they're good here - and then finally gets some actual directions to Olaf's parents house. It's not as nice a neighborhood as Elsa's, but it's not where Kristoff grew up either.

Olaf and Anna strain over the seat to give more goodbye hugs, and then Kristoff sends him on his way with a, "good to meet you too, man."

He tries not to let it smolder in his abdomen - see, Anna? See! But there's no point in that now.

Anna works diligently on finishing her taco, tipping it too far and losing a full layer of lettuce and tomato. Sven'll be pleased.

Kristoff doesn't need directions to her house, so he heads back toward the freeway.

"Kristoff," she asks, deeply intent, "do you believe in lobsters?"

"Do I believe in lobsters?" He parrots back.

She nods vigorously.

"Yeah, Anna," he agrees, "of course I believe in lobsters."

"You do!?" She repeats, full of drunken incredulity. "I didn't think you would."

He frowns at her.

"How much did you have tonight?"

She flops back in her seat dramatically.

"It's just so confusing. Because there's lobsters and there's ducks." She raises a palm for each and studies them, "And how are you supposed to know the difference?"

"Feathers," Kristoff offers, as she seems to be looking for an actual answer of some kind.

She looks at him like he's out of his fucking mind.

"That's not helpful." She tells him, dead serious.

She yawns widely, nestling visibly into the worn fabric of the seat, alarming Kristoff - is he going to have to fucking carry her in?

"Hey, hey," he says, "what's the difference then? If it's not feathers."

Her mood has turned, in the way of drunk people being driven home, and she's come over all maudlin, "Lobsters get old." She explains with a sigh, "Ducks just follow bigger ducks around."

Kristoff glances at her, she's definetly going to fucking fall asleep.

"Anna?" He says, "Anna, don't go to sleep."

She makes sleepy little claws out of the tips of her fingers and gives a little "Pinch-pinch."

Ah, fuck.

-

He had hoped that when the engine stopped she might wake up. But he isn't that lucky.

"Anna?" He calls. Then again, louder.

He looks around, helplessly. There's not even Sven here to offer moral support.

"Anna?" He tries again, reaching out to give her shoulder a bit of a nudge with the tips of his finders.

He doesn't want to freak her out. But, what the fuck does he do here?

He takes hold of her shoulder properly - he remembers the way it fits, so small in his hand - and gives her a solid shake.

"Anna? We're here."

"Mmkay," she agrees, leaning her head against the glass and returning to unconsciousness.

He watches her for a second. She looks very peaceful, in the way only a drunk person could manage sleeping upright in a car seat like this.

Fuck it, he thinks. He slams his door for good measure, the truck rocks with the force of it but he has no luck at all and she's still asleep when he reaches her side.

He opens her door slowly and uses one hand to hold her in place before gathering her into both of his arms.

She's light, he doesn't struggle to maneuver her - one arm under her knees and the other across her back, it's not a particularly awkward position.

Her eyes flutter open and she smiles at him blearily before putting her head back against his chest and falling back to sleep.

He holds her tighter, after that.

It's weird, being here again. More so for the unconscious Anna in his arms.

Luckily the front door is unlocked. There's a note taped to the inside asking Anna to remember to lock it when she gets home.

Not something Kristoff would have risked in his neighborhood, but that's not his business.

He remembers the route to her room, and anticipates the mess spread across her floor. He carefully deposits her on the bed - the side closest to the door, where he had slept, over a year ago now. Her sheets have changed. 

She barely stirs, through the shuffle. He takes her by the arm and pulls her so she's laying on her side. He doesn't think she's drunk enough for that, really, but why risk it.

She's going to need some water in the morning too.

-

It's dark, and the house is silent and still while he rummages through kitchen cabinets he didn't have the chance to learn. He hears someone behind him and he swivels, expecting a swaying and potentially hungry Anna.

Instead he is caught by Elsa in a long, lacy, red nightgown. Kristoff tries to look in her direction but slightly up.

"Oh, it's you," she says, rubbing her eyes, as though it's not almost two in the morning and her sister's ex is standing in her kitchen getting a drink.

He holds up the glass of water.

"I just dropped Anna off," he explains in a rush, "I was just gonna put this out for her. Unless you -?" Mind? Want to instead?

"Okay," Elsa agrees, yawning again and starting to turn back to her room. "There's a key under the mat, if you don't mind..."

"Uh, okay," he offers, "night."

"Oh, and Kristoff? Anna texted me about the job change. If I can help at all, I hope you'll let me know. I do mean it, sincerely."

"Okay," he says, thickly, "uh, thanks."

He's obviously not going to ask Anna's sister for help or anything,  but it's nice of her to say.

He's left alone and surprised in the darkened kitchen.

-

He knocks on the door first, just in case. Drops the glass on her bedide table and takes a second to check on her.

Anna's still right where he put her, and he doesn't really think about it before he rearranges things so she'll be more comfortable. He pulls off her shoes - there were no straps to undo or anything, so he doesn't feel weird about that. He pulls the blanket at the end of the bed up to her shoulders, and brushes her hair back, just once. That, he does feel weird about.

Kristoff watches her for a moment.

He wishes he had seen her this peaceful more often. He's glad she's found it, now, even if it has to be without him.

It would have been - the idea of it, the potential - indescribable.

But this is okay too. He didn't know how stagnant his life had become until Anna passed through, leaving waves in her wake.

She stirs slightly and he startles.

Shit he's just fucking standing here, in her bedroom, staring at her while she sleeps.

It's the end, now. But, that's no excuse. It's time to go.

He lets himself out of the house, puts the key back under the mat, and doesn't allow himself to linger further. Bulda is expecting him in the morning, and it's late already.

Chapter Text

Gerda's office has become a harbor for Anna, safe and familiar and attended. She no longer even fully remembers the convoluted mess of thought which lead her to quit last time, and, though things would be different for Anna if she had stuck with it, worked harder from the start - she knows,  now, that there is a difference between holding yourself accountable and dwelling on things that cannot be changed. 

Today, they're talking about Olaf's Grand Plan - though Gerda says this is Anna deflecting responsibility for the decision onto her friend. 

"Fine," Anna acknowledges, as though Gerda is being unreasonable. It is a struggle to properly enunciate the words, "my idea for a - dating again." 

Gerda smiles, but leaves it lie. 

"So," she says, shifting gears slightly, "If nonthreatening and respectful are our non-negitioables, then what kinds of traits would you value in a prospective partner?"

This was Anna's homework - two columns, one for 'Unacceptable/Concerning Behavior' and another for 'Attractive/Encouraging Behavior'.

It took Anna - a while, to feel like she had a solid list. Now though, she's feeling self-conscious about it. 

"I just want to find someone kind. Not even like just kind to me - though obviously they have to be kind to me," she hurries to clarify before Gerda's eyebrow can climb above the rim of her glasses, "but like someone who chooses to be nice, you know? Just generally. A helper. I want someone with..." She glances down at the list for the word she chose, "drive, you know. Not like the way Hans was, where it was all competitive and horrible, but just someone who has goals for themselves and - and who supports that I have goals for myself too."

It's hard to say out loud, still. A dark, shadowy corner of her mind whispers at her - it's too much to ask. Better to be alone, not risk it.

The list goes on: good with kids, funny, active... but Anna's too overwhelmed.

Aloud she says, "it still... it feels like a big list. I don't - I don't know how to make it less. What bits to compromise, what's unreasonable… on top of everything else too - all the non-negotiables and everything, I don't - "

Who, her mind insists, in a hated, familiar tone, who would put up with such a list of demands?

"Anna," Gerda interjects, "breathe with me, okay? Let's breathe. We'll take it one step at a time. In," Anna matches Gerda's breath, "and out…"

"Now," says Gerda when Anna's got herself back under control. "What was it there that made you upset?"

Anna takes one more deep breath. And the session goes on.

-

After much analysis, Olaf and Anna pick Todd, who seems nice enough. Anna feels very aware of the way she’s sizing him up - he’s only very slightly taller than she is, and he’s slender, to the point where Olaf makes a distasteful joke about Todd being more at risk of Anna murdering him than the other way around.

They meet in a coffee shop over by the University. Olaf gives Anna a ride and they arrive early, Olaf setting himself up with a laptop, baseball cap, and sunglasses over in the corner.

Anna had told him she didn’t need him to come, but he insisted that this was more fun than staying home waiting for her text.

Todd who was perfectly nice and polite and funny in the chat continues to be nice and polite and funny as they awkwardly shuffle along in line for their drinks and agree on a table. They go over stuff they already know from each other’s profiles - Anna has one sibling, Todd has two, and he was close with his cousins growing up as well. Todd is in his final year at the university, he’s studying secondary education and he wants to teach high school chemistry.

“Ooh,” Anna winces, “Bad news - I swore never to even speak with a high school chem teacher again after Mr. Lilliard.”

Todd laughs, then says a lot of people have that one science teacher who turned them off the whole subject, and he wants to do the opposite.

“That’s so great,” says Anna, leaning in.

He asks more about Anna’s school and what her plans are once she graduates. She tells him she’s been interning with the women’s shelter and that she wants to get a job at the courthouse once she’s certified.

“Wow,” he says, “Those poor women. I bet the stories you hear are just crazy!”

He sounds appropriately sympathetic and everything, but once she’s agreed they hit their longest silence so far.

She unclenches her jaw to ask him if he’s explored much of the city since he’s been here.

“No,” he says, “I’m kind of a homebody, and I’m from a way bigger city originally.”

“There’s a lot of stuff here worth seeing,” she says, feeling inexplicably defensive.

He gives her kind of an uncertain look.

“Hey, sorry,” he offers, “I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s a cool town.”

“No, no,” she says, “no worries, of course.”

There’s a bit of a lull until one of them comments on some art for sale on the wall nearest them.

They talk about movies and TV shows, favorite late-night hosts, bands they’ve each seen. He has been to more live shows than Anna has, so he tells her a bit about those.

Olaf makes an unncesessarily wide circle around to the trash can in order to pass directly behind Todd’s chair. Anna pointedly ignores his blatant eavesdropping.

When it’s time to say goodbye the awkwardness descends ike a heavy mist.

“This was fun,” he says, “Maybe we could do it again some time?”

Anna doesn’t even really know if he means it or not. But Gerda has Anna looking out for opportunities to practice emotional honesty.

“I just got out of a relationship,” she blurts, “I’m sorry, I should have said something before. I just - It’s not about you, but I don’t-”

“No, yeah,” he says, quickly, “I get it.”

He holds out a hand for her to shake. It’s the first time they’ve actually touched. His hand is smooth and not as warm as she’d expected. Chilled from the coffee, she supposes.

He tells her good luck before he goes.

“You too,” she says, sincerely.

She hasn’t imprinted on Kristoff like a baby duck. He wasn’t just the first man she came across since her divorce. Kristoff is someone Anna has a connection with, even from the beginning. When she was scared, he stepped away. He liked her because he saw that she was nice to people and he told her so just to make her feel better, not because he had any kind of expectation. Anna felt safe with him, and he proved her right over and over and over again. He slept in his jeans and it was real.

Olaf slides into Todd’s vacated seat.

“So?” He prompts, excited, “What are you thinking?”

Anna smiles. “I’m wondering if you bought that hat for today, or if you’ve had it all along and wear it when I’m not around....”

He pulls a face and lifts the cap, pointing to the side of his head.

“It’s my Dad’s - look, it’s given me hat-hair! So now I have to keep it on. But I’m getting us a matching set for graduation, so get excited. What was wrong with Todd?”

Anna knows it’s too dramatic to sigh and look across the coffee shop toward the window and lament, he isn’t Kristoff, so she holds it in.

“We didn’t click,” she says instead, with a shrug. It’s also true.

“He was a little bland, for sure,” Olaf agrees. “Well, we’ll find someone else! You can’t resign yourself to spinsterhood after just one.”

Anna supposes that’s fair.

{ - }

 

Mr. Bjorgman,

Thank you for your interest in joining our team! This message is to inform you that although our hiring manager reviewed your application, you have not been selected for further consideration at this time.

Have a nice day,

 

Kristoff deletes the email. At least that company fucking replied though.

Fuck this. He's a good goddamn worker - once he worked himself up enough to actually sit down and start applying to places, he thought… well he thought it wouldn't be this shitty.

It makes him want to be done. Maybe he is lucky to just have the job at the store. If this is what looking for a new job looks like- maybe is is stupid for risking it.

But… he hasn't exhausted all his options yet.

Kristoff's phone doesn't have a lot of contacts saved, he doesn't even have to scroll.

He takes almost as long typing out the message as he did writing his sad little resume.

He doesn't want to hit send. It's humiliating. But the idea has taken root - leaving the store. He wants that. He has started to daydream about putting in his two weeks notice. He'll be worse than just disappointed, if that has to stop. 

So, he takes a small risk in service of a much bigger one, and hits fucking send.

Elsa's reply comes mercifully fast.

Chapter Text

Kristoff is right on time, small stack of crumple-edged papers under his arm. He and Elsa never spent much time together, but he is grateful to her for helping him, and determined to leave a good impression.

She's dressed like normal today, which is a relief. Not like he thought she'd be in her fucking nightgown or some shit, but it's a relief to reset, seeing her again in a long braid and dressed up like a lawyer. He's glad he wore his nice shirt.

"How's, uh, hows Anna?" he asks, almost immediately, like a dumbass.

Elsa smiles widely, happiness and excitement radiating through her usually reserved expression. Good, he thinks. It's how Anna should make people look.

"She's good," says Elsa, adding, with an awkward twist of her hands, "she graduated, actually. Last weekend."

"Oh," he says. He doesn't know a lot about graduations, never been to one, there's no ceremony or anything like that for a GED, but he knows a boyfriend would have been there and it twists unhappily in his gut, even after all this time. Aloud he says, "That's great."

She leads him into the house and through the kitchen. It's all pretty much exactly as he remembers it.

Elsa is expecting someone to come by and pick up her car, she explains, apologizing for the apparent rudeness of leaving her phone on loud while he is there.

Kristoff wonders if it's rude to pull his phone out and turn it off. He decides it's pointless - he isn't going to get a call.

"No worries," he assures her. He doesn't even slightly give a fuck. "Something up with your car?"

He follows her down a short hallway, past a closed door he assumes to be her bedroom. Anna's room is on the other side of the house.

"Not really," she explains, "I'm going to be driving it more regularly in the next few months, and I don't like to leave the oil change light on for too long."

She's not facing him, so Kristoff lets a little smirk show on his face. He has seen Elsa's car - it was brand new maybe three years ago, and she drives it primarily in the city. But the oil change light….

She leads him into her office, a bright, light room with a white desk and pencils and paper and a calendar all set up at right angles, arranged around a very thin and shiny-looking laptop.

They arrange themselves around the desk, Kristoff feeling even more over-sized than usual perched in her delicate office space, and get started.

-

He feels bad for laughing earlier when she gets a call canceling the car appointment.

"They're overbooked," she explains, biting her lip and fiddling with the phone, "I suppose somebody must have called out and left them shorthanded."

She seems - actually fairly agitated.

"Well," he offers, hesitant, "you can reschedule, right?"

"Oh, yes, I'm sure. Hopefully they will have a slot open in time. Or maybe a different dealership?" She grimaces, "oh but the warranty… "

He frowns. Kristoff saved up and bought his own piece of shit first car for a little less than a grand. Kept it running almost three years on sweat, duct tape, and a constant stream of fresh radiator fluid. He does not get people like this, who go to dealerships for maintenance and worry about voiding overpriced warranties.

"What do you mean 'in time'?" he asks, "What kind of driving are you gonna be doing?"

"Oh just - work," she says. "There's a land dispute over a rental contract between the local reservation and a strip mall, and I'll be making the three hour trip out there several times a week for the foreseeable future."

Kristoff grimaces sympathetically.

"Well - at least you'll be able to tell them to get fucked."

Elsa flutters unhappily.

"Actually my firm has been retained on behalf of the mall…"

"Ah. Shit. Well - " Kristoff knows he's not a particularly comforting presence. He never knows what to say, or when to leave it alone. "Gotta pay the mortgage, right?"

Elsa looks around the office, which is separate from the guest bedroom, which is separate from Anna's room, none of which, obviously, includes Elsa's own master bedroom. There's a distinct down-turn to her expression.

He's shit at comforting people, but basic car maintenance, on the other hand. 

"I'll change your oil," he offers, "if you want."

"Oh, no," she says, immediately, shaking her head. "That's not necessary. I will be able to get it taken care of before the trip, I'm sure…" but she frowns, bringing the tips of her fingers up to press against her chin.

"Okay," he shrugs, "but it wouldn't be hard. Just draining it, then go pick up some oil and y'know, pour."

"I'm sure there is more involved than that," she says, suspicious.

"Well," he says, "you have a jack, right?"

She looks blank. A faintly embarrassed flush spreading across her face. "I have Triple-A," she says with a laugh.

"Well if you bought the car new you definitely have a jack in the trunk."

"How long would it take?"

Probably Anna is coming back later today, and Elsa wants to avoid awkwardness. That's fine - Krisotff doesn't particularly want to have that run in either.

Well. He does. He wants to see Anna, badly. But he doesn't want the awkward meeting in Anna's own house.

He shrugs, "less than two hours. It's no big deal. Do you know what oil you take?"

She's embarrassed when she admits, "I'm a little out of my depth, I'm afraid. I really don't know anything about..."

"It'll say in the manual. I do most of the maintenance on my truck," he explains, "it's easy. I'd just have to run to the store and get some supplies, but even with all that you'd save money for sure."

She seems flustered, unsure, so he backs off.

"No worries, just thought because you're doing me a favor with all this shit," he gestures toward the computer.

"Right," Elsa agrees, "I appreciate you offering."

She jumps on the segue back to the resume, and turns her attention back to the screen.

-

"See this line up top?" She points, "you want to change this for any future applications. If the ad says they're looking for an experienced self-motivated individual, for example, then you'd describe yourself as an experienced, self-motivated individual here."

"Doesn't that just make me look like a humongous kiss-ass?" he asks, doubtfully.

"No," she explains without taking her eyes off the screen, "most hiring managers these days use software to filter applicants - that's why they're so specific about formatting. The software ranks applicants by compatibility, using keyword comparisons. Reflecting their language back just moves you up the stack."

"Oh," he says, dumbly, watching her.

Elsa doesn't explain what she's doing any further, just moving clumps of text around and changing the font-size and making certain things bold.

"Okay," she turns to him eventually, hands poised over her notebook, expectant. Kristoff can't imagine what for. "Tell me about your job, specifically the skills you've developed there."

"Uh," he says, entirely unable to come up with a single skill, "I've been there eight years, now." She writes only the number 8. "Uh, I'm in the backroom mostly now, but I've trained on almost everything."

She looks up at him, "like what?"

"Uh, I mean like, the whole store?"

"Well, did you ever train anybody else in any of those other areas?"

"Oh, sure," he says, "loads."

"Alright - give me just those then."

It's easier, after that. Elsa starts to interview him, asking targeted questions and rearranging his answers.

Krisotff says things like, "I input stock and stuff on the handheld."

And Elsa writes, "Navigate proprietary inventory management software."

It goes on for a little while. She does not ask him for any clarification about his educational background, just deletes the line that says GED and the year he got it, saying, "nothing more than ten years old needs to be in a resume."

Well, he supposes that'll work in his favor at least.

Kristoff shifts uneasily in his borrowed kitchen chair. His skin starts to crawl as Elsa rearranges everything he says to be more palatable, more hirable, less honest. His answers get shorter, he stops looking at the screen over her shoulder.

She saves the document and turns to Kristoff with a soft, pleased smile.

"There," she says, "a perfectly hireable candidate."

Kristoff feels almost dizzy - an awful seeping cold leaves his hands tingling.

The name at the top of the page says Bjorgman and it has all his contact information laid out nice and clear, but that's the end of the resemblance. Sure, it might get him hired, but -

"But they'll get me," he fairly gasps.

A small crease appears between Elsa's eyebrows.

Kristoff stands, running his hand through his hair, and she frowns properly, rising to match him.

"I'm sorry," he says, "this was a waste of your time, I didn't mean - but, I can't-"

He's heading for her door, kind of blind and stupid and embaressed. She catches him by the arm and, though she obviously isn't actually able to stop him, Kristoff halts. He owes her whatever it is she wants to say, not least because he's wasted her time today.

"Kristoff? I don't understand?" she prompts.

"I was homeless," he says, and it feels like vomiting, to admit it to this person in particular. Maybe she knew, maybe Anna told her, but there's no fucking doubt now.

She pulls back her hand, her expression going all full of pity in that excruciatingly familiar way.

"I only got the job I have because the store had a partnership with the fucking homeless shelter I was at." He laughs, it doesn't sound right, he feels massive in Elsa's narrow hall, fucking family photos lining the walls, smiling out at him, sincere and loving. She's still watching him, tipping her head like she's confused.

She doesn't seem intimidated by his outburst though, thank fuck for small favors.

"Kristoff," she says, "you're not going to be homeless again."

She says it like it's fact - like a person who's never written Anything Helps on a piece of fucking scrap cardboard.

He laughs again. It sounds too much like a sob. what the fuck is this - what the fuck is happening in his chest? He's leaning on the fucking wall - when did that happen?

Elsa takes his arm and tugs him along to the wider kitchen space. Sets him down in a chair with a nudge and brings him a glass of water.

Fucking humiliating. Somehow worse because it's so obvious - she's treating him like he's Anna, old Anna, who needed careful handling and clear direction.

Elsa sits across from him and fucking looks at him and he wants to throw himself out the window over her kitchen sink.

He avoids her eye and drinks his water, itching to leave.

"Did you read the letter of reference you got for volunteering at that gym?" she asks, quietly.

He's surprised enough that he answers.

"Yeah."

His ears burn. Bulda wrote a good letter. She said - nice things. He has read it several times since she handed it to him.

Elsa tilts her head, considering him.

"Do you really think they would allow you to become homeless again? That they wouldn't step in?"

Kristoff shuffles his feet, his chest's gone all tight and full again.

Elsa goes on. "I've met both Kat and Allison twice now," she adds, "do you think they would stand for it?"

Kristoff frowns. The idea of it turns unpleasantly in his stomach.

"For that matter," Elsa continues, leaning in toward him across the table, "do you think I would?"

That shocks Kristoff into looking at her face, meeting wide sincere eyes.

"Kristoff - you will never understand the debt I owe you. If I were ever able to help you with something as simple as a room? Without question."

He frowns at her. "You don't owe me anything."

"You brought my sister back to life," she almost whispers at him.

"She did," he argues, shaking his head. "She did that."

Elsa smiles. "Yes, she did. But you helped. Enormously."

"No," he counters, "you - you brought her here. Having someone help, an older sister - Anna is lucky."

Elsa shrug-smiles, conceding the point. But he realizes she's lawyer trapped him.

"You are lucky too, now. You have plenty of people you could turn to, if you really needed them."

"It's not their job," he insists, "it's not anyone else's job - to take care of me like that." He grimaces around the words, fairly spitting them out in derision.

No," she agrees, easily, "it's yours. To get a job that's fulfilling and enjoyable and allows you to provide for yourself, and to put in effort and hard work there. But you're already doing those things - only, for a company that isn't compensating you anywhere near adequately."

Kristoff grumbles. He's lost the thread of the argument, doesn't really remember what his point was. He puts his glass down on the table, looks around their tidy kitchen, thinking of his options to get the fuck out of here without seeming rude and ungrateful.

Elsa visibly pulls back.

"All I'm saying is this - a new job is a risk you can afford to take. Maybe… maybe that wasn't always true, but evidence suggests otherwise now. Besides - give two weeks notice and you'll be able to get rehired at the store no problem at all, right?"

That actually is comforting.

"Yeah," he agrees. It's pretty much all he's got.

"If you're still willing - you could have a look at my car while I draft a cover letter? They're not always required, but it never hurts!"

Kristoff agrees immediately. The idea of getting to do something with his hands, even something as simple as an oil change, and repay Elsa at the same time, while avoiding sitting behind her uselessly in that office again? Abso-fucking-lutely.

{ - }

There is a pair of long legs sticking out from under Elsa's car. Anna notices immediately, because Elsa keeps her car in the garage usually. She thinks she knows those shoes, and the shabby jeans, and the swearing.

"Kristoff?" she asks, feeling slightly silly. Elsa told her he was coming over today, but they were going to be working in the office…?

The legs jerk in surprise and under the car Kristoff goes silent. Two large, dirty hands appear on the base and he scoots himself along the concrete until he's free.

"Hey, Anna," he says, when he can see her. His face is flushed, either embarrassment or exertion.

He gets to his feet and Anna smiles at him. He's wearing his nice blue shirt that Anna remembers fondly - he always insisted on dressing up around Elsa. Her sister probably thinks he only owns the one. But he hasn't hesitated to lie down on the ground in it.

His sleeves are rolled up over his forearms, his hairline slicked with sweat and he's got black grimey smudges up his arms and on his forehead.

It takes her breath away.

He smiles at her, easy and light, but his awkward hand goes up to scratch the back of his head.

"Elsa's oil change fell through," he explains, "I, uh, just finishing up. She seemed nervous about it, so I figured…"

Anna's chest swells. "That's really nice of you. She has been worrying, and this will help."

"Yeah, no, I just - I'm not like, lurking outside your house or whatever."

"No," she says, easily, "I didn't think you were."

He smiles, relieved. "Hey, uh, congratulations, by the way. Elsa told me about your graduation."

She blushes, "oh, thank you! Yeah, it's weird, but really nice to be done."

"I bet," he says.

Kristoff turns and starts to pick up little bits and pieces scattered around that Anna associates with car maintenance. He has a light coating of dirty dust on his back where he was laying down, and without thought Anna steps forward and brushes her hand down his back a few times.

He twists, confused, and she steps away.

"You had dirt on your nice shirt," she explains.

"Oh," he says, "thanks. Yeah, it's messy." He gestures with oil stained hands at the smudges on his jeans where he's obviously been wiping them.

She doesn't want to go inside. She doesn't want to leave him.

"Do you mind if I sit here with you?" she asks.

His eyes go all wide for a moment and he blushes, now, for certain.

"Yeah, I'm just wrapping up, but go for it."

Anna sits on the warm concrete a few feet back from the car. She doesn't want to be in the way. They chat about how stressful job searching is, and how helpful Elsa has been to them both. Anna asks him about the gym and he asks her about Olaf. She tries to pry any good gossip from him about the people at the store but he hasn't been paying attention, so she teases him about that for a bit.

She thinks he has slowed down, drawing out their time. She knows him to be a quick and efficient worker, but he's languid, now. Relaxed.

He gets the jack out from under the car and Anna helps him find homes for all their new car equipment in the garage. Apparently the old oil has to get dropped off somewhere special, but he says he can take care of it, even though Anna says he shouldn't worry about it.

Anna fetches a towel Elsa doesn't care about as much as the others while he scrubs oil from his hands and arms.

They say good luck and goodbye and it feels for a moment like they might hug, but they don't.

He goes to check in with Elsa. Anna has to go take a proficiency test in preparation for an interview she has coming up. She checks the calendar before she starts, makes a note of her next appointment with Gerda.

Chapter Text

Anna sits in the waiting area. She keeps her phone in her bag, like Elsa suggested, no matter how badly she wants to fiddle with it, so she clutches at her portfolio binder instead to keep her hands still.

She flips it open again, after a few minutes, worried suddenly that something may have gone missing. Double-checks that her name and contact information is correct on every page. It still is. 

She's got a Letter of Reference from Professor Mattias and another from the head volunteer coordinatior at the Domestic Violence Shelter, as well as two copies of her resume, which Elsa had helped her trim down to fit on one page, and a copy of her license and certificate - fresh off the website where the result had posted only a few days ago.

It's all there.

She takes a deep breath and smoothes down crisp edges before closing the binder back up for safekeeping.

"Anna?" the receptionist calls in a soft professional tone, "The director will see you now."

Anna gulps and stands, adjusting her blouse and tugging at the hem of her skirt.

"Thank you," she says, and follows her potential coworker down a wood-panneled hallway.

A heavyset man in a suit is waiting for them outside a double-doored office. He takes a few steps forward with a welcoming smile and a hand outstretched. Anna has been practicing her Interview Handshake, and she thinks she pulls it off.

"Anna, then!" He says, "thank you for coming in. I'm Director Kai, I supervise the transcription team, and I'll be conducting your interview."

Anna gives her best customer service smile and follows him into the office. "Thank you for giving me the opportunity to interview!"

"Oh, no, it's always a pleasure to sit down with qualified candidates" he gestures her into a seat across large desk. "Now… let's get started, shall we?"

-

The group chat with Elsa and Olaf has been silently blowing up.

I think it went really well!!!

she sends, giddy with excitement and pride. She could squeal, except she isn't alone waiting for the bus.

A rush of new congratulatory measages, but Anna doesn't respond. She opens a blank message, types and deletes, types and deletes. Closes the message.

She wants to tell Kristoff about her interview. She wants to ask how his job hunt is going. It feels like he is missing in this moment. But - best to wait, still, she knows. Check in with Gerda before she does anything rash.

-

"Anna," says Gerda in That Tone, "you know you don't need my permission to make this decision."

Anna looks down at her hands. It is odd now, how essential Gerda has become to her decision making. But she just wants to check. It's not something she can do lightly. 

"I know. I just - don't want to make a mistake."

"Mistakes aren't necessarily a bad thing, or indicative of unhealthy behaviors. We learn from mistakes. Grow."

Anna goes silent considering. She doesn't want it to be a mistake though. Gerda is watching her closely, but Anna hardly notices anymore. 

"What was that saying of your mother's that we both liked so much?"

Anna huffs. Gerda remembers it just fine and they both know it. 

"Trust is a decision you make not a thing that can break," she recites. "But I trust Kristoff - that's not the issue!"

"I'm glad," says Gerda, smiling. "But what about applying the idea inward?"

Anna frowns, confused. "What do you mean?"

"Is it time, now, for you to decide to trust Anna?"

It's an unusually dramatic end to today's session, but Gerda's query sits with Anna for the rest of the day. 

{ - }

Kristoff is surprised when he sees the message.

Hey! Do you have time to talk?

He puts his phone back in his pocket, swallows, and keeps walking to the time clock.

now?

he sends back.

She sends him a picture of a sub, wrapped in branded paper, sitting on a shiny plastic table in front of an empty chair.

no pressure. You can take it and go. But I don't eat meatball subs, so…

There is something very like hope bundling and twisting in his stomach. Dread, maybe?

omw

There aren't a lot of reasons for her to reach out like this, out of the blue.

Not many. But not none either. More than one, certainly.

As he crosses the parking lot, he thinks it could be some awful therapist-requisioned conversation, dredging up old fuckups.

It could be worse than that, even. It could be she's seeing someone new and she wants closure, or she wants to try being friends again.

Or, he can't help but think. Or… it could be -

She's beautiful, his breath catches at the sight of her. She's in a brightly colored dress, with her hair pulled back at the top but down, tumbling well past her shoulders now. She smiles at him and waves him over, none of the hunching hesitance he remembers from their first meal here.

Kristoff joins her at the table.

"So, how'd you get the timing right?" he asks, "I literally was just on my way out."

She giggles, "I may have a source on the inside."

He scoffs and starts to unwrap his sandwich. He's not going to just take it and run. What an asshole move, first of all, but he'll stay for whatever it is she needs.

She grins, then watches him eat for a few bites. She has unwrapped her sandwich, but doesn't touch it.

"So," he says, around a mouthful, "what's up?"

"Oh!" She startles, "I, uh, okay," she takes a deep breath and brings her two hands out from where they had been hidden in her lap. She very deliberately places two rectangular strips of glossy paper face up on the table between them.

Kristoff knows the logo. He swallows too much unchewed bread, and puts the sandwich down. He shifts in his seat, looking at her with hesitant, wide-eyed shock.

Entrance tickets. Two of them. The botanical gardens.

"If we're not on the same page," she says, picking at the corner of one of the tickets with the edge of her nail, "I hope you'll tell me before I give my speech…"

She's blushing furiously, darting glances at him.

Kristoff has to clear his throat to speak. "There's a speech?"

She launches into it without further prompting. "I've been looking at apartments. With Olaf. We are planning on being roommates for two years. That -" she takes a breath and meets his eye solidly, "that has to be okay. I know you've only met him once and I've given you reason in the past to-"

"I don't care," he says, and he means it. The old anger, the will to insist I never would have cared, has dissolved in the intervening year.

"Oh," she says, smiling, "okay. I just, I want to make the point that… I take it seriously. If we try again. I want to be, I feel like - like it would be serious, you know? And so, it's not just about Olaf. I've never lived on my own before. And it has to be two years because I want that experience."

Kristoff feels his heart hammering away in his throat. He nods at her, like a wobbly bobble-head.

Yes. Yes to all of that. Yes.

Somewhat haltingly, he reaches out and places his hand palm up on the table between them.

"I want that," he says, "I want you to have that."

She takes his hand, smiling shyly. The tips of her fingers brush along the sensitive skin inside his wrist. He encloses her much smaller hand within his, squeezing lightly.

"There's more," she says. He nods her on. She speaks more confidently, now.

"Gerda would like to meet you. She wants you to come in one session. You know, if you're comfortable-"

"I can do that," he says, easily. "It's probably a good idea. I've been thinking, anyway," for the first time he takes his own eyes off he rface, "it's probably something I should look into anyway, if I can find a job with benefits and all that."

Anna beams at him. She's smiling more easily now, a confidence he doesn't entirely recognize in the set of her shoulders, her eyes, the upward tick of even her resting lips.

"I'd want us to be exclusive," she says, "and the sex thing - is still a thing. Gerda thinks we should talk about it in session, if you're-"

"All good," he assures her. She squeezes his hand, tight as he imagines she can.

Her mandates are nothing, easy, insignificant, except for their obvious importance to Anna. But for Kristoff, against the prospect of Anna - Anna, who he had been prepared to live without?

Her eyes are wet and her lip wobbles. Kristoff feels it too.

She wipes at her face with her other sleeve, gives a gasping laugh, and pulls both her hands back.

"I know I kind of sprung this on you," she says, "I had all this time and actual professional counsel to prepare. But if you can think of anything?"

Kristoff has had plenty of time to consider - what went wrong, what could have been different. He didn't know he was preparing for this, he thought it was just futile self-torment, but he is ready now, all the same.

"I need to know we can communicate better. I can't - I don't want to have to guess if you're okay or freaked out or upset. I need you to ask if you think I am, rather than assuming, and same goes for me, obviously, I have to tell you if something's bothering me, only I-"

"No, I get it," she says, blushing slightly but not seeming upset by what he had said. "You're right. We can't read each other's mind. I've been working on it. I'll still have…moments, obviously, but if you can get into the habit of being honest when things are bothering you, then it will be easier for me to not feel like I have to guess, like you said."

Kristoff latches onto one word in particular.

"Okay, and you don't have to tell me like everything about your life or whatever," he says, as carefully as he can. He desperately doesn't want to rock this boat - risk everything she's offering. But she is right, there are things that need to be said aloud first. So he does. "But I do need you to be honest with me."

She ducks her eyes, dragging them quickly back up.

"I know," she says. He can see her eyes and he believes her.

"You were right, to break us up. It sucked, obviously," Kristoff laughs with her, but his eyes are glued to her, drinking in her words, "I thought it was like a punishment for a long time. Like I failed at being a girlfriend because I lied and the hotel and I couldn't make myself trust you. It's annoying, actually, the first time I admitted to Elsa that I had invented Olga she made me so mad, saying it meant I wasn't ready to be dating." She rolls her eyes theatrically, "it's hard to explain, but I - see things differently now."

She's expressive as she speaks, in a way he has really only seen glimpses of before. She contorts her face and throws her hands about in expansive gestures. Kristoff isn't going to miss the old wilting hesitance he always felt like he was trying to see past. And he cannot believe he has the chance to get to know her anew.

"Can we kiss?" he blurts.

She snorts and flushes red all over and smiles and leans in to meet him, close enough he can almost feel her breath on his own lips as she speaks.

"We may."

Kissing Anna again is like scratching an itch, a bone-deep itch. He brings his hand up into her hair, ignores the table-edge pressing into his chest, and relishes her breathy giggles against his mouth.

They pull back, eventually. The sub shop rematerializes around them. Anna giggles, looking around to see how much attention they've drawn. Kristoff can't take his eyes off her.

"What are you up to now?" she asks.

"Oh, fuck, I dunno." He says, laughing, "I was going to pick up some dog food for Sven then just go home..."

She hitches one shoulder in a cheerful shrug and cocks her head to one side.

"Sounds like fun. Can I come?"

"Yeah, course, great," he splutters, "we can, uh, get dinner or something, later, if you're not busy?"

She smiles at him again, happy and shining. "Well you didn't even finish your sub, but I am totally free for dinner," she assures him.

Chapter Text

It's very strange, the way Kristoff can feel his perspective changing on a place where he spent the better part of a very static decade. 

His first day of work, a very long time ago, he woke up on a borrowed bunk and spent almost an hour split between two buses to get here. His early days were mostly fetching carts from the parking lot, carrying other people's bags, unclogging the toilets. Minimum wage was a little over six dollars an hour back then. 

Recently, he has begun telling his coworkers about job hunting tips he has discovered. Websites that cater to people without degrees, the program at the library where you can practice interview techniques. He can see in their eyes, though - they won't go. Kristoff remembers being on that side of this conversation. A self-assigned lifer, rolling their eyes at the chance to move on. 

Kristoff waits until the end of his shift to break the news upstairs. 

He can’t tell, honestly, if it’s nerves - if it scares him or excites him - as he climbs numbingly familiar stairs.

He clocks out and doesn’t give himself time to hesitate.

Anna’s not here, hasn’t been for months, but he’s following her down this hallway all the same.

He knocks twice on HR’s doorframe and sits himself in the same chair as always, blood thump-thump-thumping. Hands the sealed envelope across the desk. HR takes it, confused. Kristoff watches him open it, scan the first few lines, and frown at Kristoff over the top of the paper.

“You’re putting in your two weeks?” he says, with blatant disbelief.

“Yeah, it says in the handbook to do it in writing, so…”

“You’re quitting? Really?” he repeats. Kristoff clenches his jaw and nods.

The lines around HR’s eyes deepen. “Did something happen? Is there anything we can do to change your mind?”

“No, nothing happened. Just, you know, it’s not personal. I’ve been looking for a better job, and-”

“If this is about the raise, Kristoff, these things are purely budgetary. We have a set amount allocated, and we distribute it based on transparent performance metrics…”

Kristoff makes a fist below the line of the desk. The fucking thirteen cent raise. Fuck these people.

“No,” he says, aloud, “it’s not about the raise.” Though he'll be starting at Oaken's almost two dollars an hour ahead. 

“Well, I’m afraid I won’t be able to provide you with a reference, since you’d be leaving us understaffed at an inconvenient time.”

“What? It’s summer!” Kristoff objects.

“With Back to School right around the corner,” HR replies, almost absently.

Kristoff laughs, short and low. “You seriously want me to stay ‘till, what, January then? Holding the reference over my head every time you need a shift covered? Not happening.”

HR cocks his head, reevaluating. “Well, he who dares, wins, eh? Brave man, going job hunting in this economy…”

Kristoff gets a vicious rush of joy at being able to say, “I found a job. I start in fifteen days. This is my fourteen days’ notice. Is there anything else you need from me?”

HR finally sits forward with his arms against the desk again, examining Kristoff’s letter more closely.

“What if I told you we were considering putting you forward for a management-in-training program? Assistant warehouse lead? It would be-”

Kristoff cuts him off with a genuine laugh. Only now that he’s truly begun the process of leaving can he laugh at the bullshit they spew in these back offices.

“Listen man, I’ve been here eight years, okay? Longer than you, longer than Dan. I can’t carry keys in this building without a degree and we both know it. So, you can move my schedule around however you want, I’ll train every day if you need me to. I have this Saturday off though, and I won’t be here. Otherwise – this is my two weeks.”

He stands, and reaches across the fake-wood desk for a handshake. For all that HR has been a somewhat intimidating figure in Kristoff’s life these past few years, suddenly he seems unsettled in Kristoff’s presence. But, this is the man who hired Anna, so, in a bizarre way, Kristoff feels he owes an unfathomable debt. They shake, and Kristoff leaves, feeling taller than he can remember. 

-

Kat accosts him at the bottom of the stairs.

“How did it go?” she asks, buzzing. Everybody loves a quitting story.

He shrugs, casually, but grins widely back. “I fucking quit.”

“Holy shit!” she punches him, “holy shit!”

“Yeah,” he agrees. It doesn’t feel real. It’s fucking scary and exciting and shit, he hadn’t ever thought – “I don’t work here anymore.”

 

{ - }

 

Huge swaths of Anna's life have been spent waiting. Some of that’s normal – when you’re a kid you’re endlessly waiting, on grownups mostly. Waiting to be one yourself.

Anna spent years, wasted years, waiting with Hans. Waiting for him to come home. Waiting for him to apologize. Waiting for him to work on his anger.

Then, she was waiting for herself. Waiting to get better, waiting for something to snap back into place.

Turns out, things may snap when they break, but fixing them is a rather longer, more deliberate process.

These days, Anna doesn’t find herself waiting. There's no time for it. She’s at the lowest rung on the ladder, but she’s in a courtroom, transcribing traffic court Monday through Friday. She’s started to meet the rest of the team, she can find the vending machines in the building now. She's keeping in touch with the shelter where she did her volunteer work, they're still sending people her way if she can help. 

She and Olaf have signed a twelve-month lease at an apartment complex downtown. She and Elsa are planning weekly lunches, but there’s a rain-check system on the books too, especially as Elsa’s been assigned lead on her current case with that stupid mall.

Kristoff is helping Anna look for a used car in good enough condition to last her the next few years, which is currently occupying a lot of their time together. Even at the dog park they’re walking circles comparing different cars or texting private sellers. They hold hands while he drives though, and that makes all the difference. He’s going to have a set, predictable schedule for the first time ever when his new job starts up, so it’ll be a lot easier to plan regular visits.

All-in-all, it’s a lot to manage. Luckily, one thing she has picked up from Elsa over the last two years is list writing and diligent, color-coded calendar-keeping.

Tonight, it’s not a list of prospective low-mileage sedans though.

“So,” she drags her pilfered yellow legal pad across the bed and points with the tip of the pen as she goes. “We disassemble the bed and get it all set up the night before. Then we pick up the truck at nine on Saturday morning, load up, and meet Olaf at the new complex!” She gives an excited shoulder wiggle. “Unload there, hopefully done by eleven?” He shrugs, wiggles his hand uncertainly, so Anna adds a question mark, “Then, lunch break, head to Olaf's place, get all his stuff loaded up, then back to the apartment to unload again. Then, we have to go to Olaf’s Aunt’s house across town, remember I told you she is giving us her old couch?”

They go on for a little while - how long certain tasks will take, what time Kristoff estimates they’ll have the truck back at the rental place. Lots of little details to work out, always easier when there's someone else around who's willing to discuss. 

She’s glad he’s here, for this. Not just the easy and obvious one – he will lift more things with more ease than she will. In fact, they’d been discussing hiring movers, before he offered to spend his whole day helping – but beyond that, it’s nice to have him on the team again. It’s been going well. Really well.

Anna shifts so she’s leaning more fully on his arm. He’s debating with himself now over whether or not Anna should pay extra to get the hand dolly, and since Anna doesn’t really know what that is, she decides she’ll defer to him and just focuses on the solid feel of him against her back. He leans around to look over her shoulder at the list, and she can feel the warmth of his breathing over her bare shoulder. It’s a new sensation, for her, and it’s pleasant.  

It’s hard for her to explain, even to Gerda, still. Certainly it’s not disbelief, exactly. In the same way that it’s not trust, not anymore. She has ample evidence that Kristoff isn’t going to push the physical side of things. It’s more that – there’s a weird electricity, now, having him in her room. Sitting on her bed, his long legs all stretched out because he can’t fold them under himself the way she can. His jeans are in a heap over by his backpack and he’s in the one pair of pajama pants he seems to own.

She has mostly slept beside him in too-warm winter pajamas. Long sleeves and baggy fleece. He’s a serious heat source though, and it’s midsummer now. So today, she’s sitting on her bed barefoot, in cotton shorts with a fun pattern and a tank top. Sven's curled up alongside her, and his fur tickles her bare legs when he moves. 

Kristoff has not commented on the change.

He says that he thinks they can have the truck back before five – as long as everything big gets moved in the rental, smaller stuff can get hauled over later on in Kristoff’s truck as needed.

“Olaf’s getting the fucking tacos this round though,” he grumbles.

She giggles and gives him a little shove, the effect mostly just pushing herself away more than anything, and he laughs back, swiping her arms away and gathering her close.

With her face smooshed against his chest she can smell his distinctive mix of sweat from their busy day and the dinner they ate together, she can hear him laughing, feel it in his chest, but she can’t move her own arms, and she’s got so much more skin out tonight, so she says, “Yellow,” before any of it becomes stressful and the weighty press of his arms vanishes.

Anna thought it would be awkward initially, but Kristoff touches her much more frequently and easily since Gerda suggested Green, Yellow, Red.

She doesn’t pull away from him entirely, just tucks herself in against his side and brings her own arm up to hug across his soft middle.

“Good?” he asks, as he brings his hand lightly around her waist, petting at Sven to calm him down. She nods. “Good,” he says, and kisses the top of her head. 

They both worked today, then he came over to help pack, so they call it a night earlier than they usually would. He has a toothbrush in her bathroom these days - it's going to be packed up in her bag of toiletries and moved along with everything else.

Anna has long-since traded her fluffy duvet for a light sheet, and she snuggles in close, pressing her nose against Kristoff’s chest and hooking an arm around his shoulder. He settles his hand over the curve of her waist and they lay together, breathing in tandem. They don’t bother shifting Sven anymore, he sleeps at their feet no matter how much Kristoff grumbles about it. 

When she starts to feel sleep truly settling in, she gives him a final squeeze and he kisses somewhat vaguely, hitting the top of her ear tonight, and rolls away onto his back. She turns away too, relaxed and cozy with him snoring lightly at her back.

-

It's moving day, and the morning air is cool, but it won't last, there's a hot summer afternoon coming, and Anna wishes Kristoff would stop staring into the back of the half-packed truck like that. 

As she approaches, he says, “I just think if the boxes go up on top at the back, and we move your desk onto the side-”

"It won’t fit," she says, for probably the third time.

"Of course it will."

“You haven’t even seen the couch, Kristoff,” she argues with a forced laugh to cover her mounting irritation.

He’s still staring intently into the truck, “I pack trucks five times this size, I can make it fit.”

Anna clenches her jaw behind his back. “We made a plan though, I’m not sure why we can’t just stick to it…?”

He turns then, gesturing at the empty space where he thinks the couch should go.

“I’m just trying to save a trip,” he says, like it should be obvious.

“We have the truck all day,” Anna reminds him, “so, we don’t really need to save a trip…”

“Yeah,” he agrees, “but you’re still paying by the mile on these things.”

“Okay," Anna crosses her arms over her chest, "The thing is, Olaf’s Aunt is actually doing us a huge favor, and she’s expecting us at a specific time and I’m not going to change that just to save fifty cents a mile!”

They stand for a moment, staring at each other.

She’s still annoyed with him. He’s being annoying. But she doesn’t want to be a snappy, mean girlfriend, just because she’s not a flinching mess anymore. Is she being snappy and mean? Will that matter?

He's watching her, shocked. Not angry, and he hasn't moved. Just, clear surprise across his face. Anna's never snapped at him like that before.

She doesn’t brace, but she – girds, somewhat. He can go home, if he’s going to make this whole thing harder.

“Sorry,” she says, then grimaces, because she hadn’t wanted to apologize off the bat like that. “Not – just – " she sighs, uncrosses her arms, and looks into his face, "I appreciate your help, but I would rather stick to the plan. Does that work?”

“I’m being a dick,” he says, “I’m sorry. It’s not a fucking work truck, it’s fine if there’s empty space. Obviously.”

He’s come over all sheepish and Anna feels the overwhelming urge to tell him it's okay. Apologize again, thank him for being here, ask him for his advice on something, be grateful.

She doesn't though. She watches him make another trip into the house, he comes out with one of her boxes. Sets it on the lip of the truck and smiles at her very deliberately. Watching her closely he asks, "all good?"

She shakes herself and steps forward to get the box. It's heavy, so she has to lean down to get a better angle and push it.

"Yeah," she tells him, "all good."

Is this brushing something under the rug, she wonders? Would it be blowing the whole thing out of proportion to stop everything and have a whole big conversation? Is it just okay, already? Just like that? Are they actually all good or is this going to come up later?

They're too busy for her to get particularly wrapped up in it. Kristoff doesn't appear mad and Anna doesn't think she's actually mad at him either. He doesn't say anything further about the schedule and he isn't directing her about how to pack up the truck. So the weirdness of the moment just kind of… passes.

They meet Olaf at the office of their new complex and sign for their keys.

Anna lets Olaf and Kristoff go on ahead and takes a moment, the cold metal of the key's jagged edge biting into her palm.

She has her own place.

She stands in the parking lot with her face turned to the sky. She wishes there was a way to go back - to take the soon-to-be Mrs. Westergaard by the shoulders and heave. You can do better than this. You deserve better. This is not what your life needs to look like! You can make friends, get a job, go back to school… Get your own place with your own key!

But, there's no going back in time. All you can do is seize the moment you're in.

She rushes to catch up with the other two. Olaf makes a big production of opening their new front door and they look around the empty apartment for a minute, before Kristoff goes to get the truck unlocked.

Anna takes Olaf's hand and squeezes.

"I'm really excited," she says.

"It's gonna be great," he agrees.

-

The day passes in a blur. Anna is a sweaty, sore mess by the end of it. The living room is piled with boxes and haphazardly dumped furniture. Nothing has made its way into the bedrooms yet. The shower in their shared bathroom has a sliding glass panel, so they won't need a shower curtain, and Olaf has called first.
Kristoff finds Anna sprawled out like she's trying to make a snow angel on the carpet in her room. He smiles at the sight of her and obligingly joins her on the floor.

The quiet stillness of the room doesn't bother her like it once would have, and they lay in contented silence for a moment. Kristoff's staring up at the ceiling, hands clasped on his chest. Anna feels the pulsing echo of all her muscles thrumming from a hard day's work. She can't imagine Kristoff isn't feeling it worse - and he has to work tomorrow, too.

“Thank you for your help today," she tells him. It would have been a much longer day without him.

“You didn’t yellow,” he says, “earlier, about the couch.”

She knows what he’s asking.

“I wasn’t yellow,” she clarifies, turning back to the popcorn-textured ceiling, “I don’t, you know, love the idea of you being mad at me, but I don’t want to just agree with you if I don't. I guess I don’t know what arguing looks like? What it’s supposed to look like. And I don’t like saying sorry, but I don’t really know when I’m actually supposed to or not. Does that make sense?”

He looks at her across the floor.

“I know exactly what you mean. All I know is we are supposed to disagree about stuff. I've just got no fucking idea how.”

“Yeah!” says Anna, sitting up, renewed by a rush of connection, “like what do people do when neither one of them is right, and it’s not just something little like ‘oh, what do you want for dinner?’”

He mirrors her, so they're sitting up and facing one another. “Your parents didn’t fight properly?” he asks, with a frown.

“I don’t know, they didn’t fight in front of us.”

He laughs, like that had not occurred to him. “Well - good thing we have a shrink on standby, I guess.”

“We could look it up,” she says, excited again, she can find a fun blog about it maybe, “Gerda likes when I work on stuff like this before I see her.”

He reaches out a hand for hers. She takes it and squeezes.

“We’ll get it,” he says, looking into her face with enough calm certainty that she starts to tear up. “We got the important stuff worked out, the rest’s just practice.”
Anna shuffles closer so she’s cuddled against the long line of him. She looks down at the clasp of their hands together. She believes him.

-

Anna would honestly rather have passed out, or gotten started on her unpacking, or the apartment checklist, but Elsa was very enthusiastic about taking them out to dinner to celebrate the big move. So she showers and digs out a change of clothes and off they go.

Anna slips into the booth beside Kristoff and he startles slightly, before grinning widely at her and dipping to give her a quick kiss on the shoulder.

They talk about Anna’s first unsupervised deposition and how Olaf’s liking not being an intern at the firm anymore. Kristoff gets to tell Elsa about putting in his two weeks’ notice. Anna regales the table with stories about Kristoff being beaten into the mat by a series of pre-teens. Elsa asks how the car hunt is going. Kat wants to do a board game night to celebrate Kristoff quitting, since he's refusing to attend the more standard get together at the bar. Elsa’s invited too, so they spend some time looking at schedules.

It’s been a long day and Anna eats a big dinner and drinks half a glass of wine and ends up leaning heavily on Kristoff’s shoulder.

While Elsa settles their bill, he leans down to ask, “Time to get you home, then?”

She nods against his shoulder. “Yes, please.”

“Want me to come over after work tomorrow? Help you get it all set up?”

Anna tries to shake herself out of the stupor that’s rapidly descending.

“I think Olaf and I are going to spend the day getting it all arranged how we want. Thanks though. I really appreciate all your help.”

“No worries,” he says, “Let me know when I can come get the full tour.”

“Maybe one day you don’t close – you can bring Sven and sleep over?”

“Perfect,” he says.

Anna hugs her sister tight when they part and settles into her place across from Kristoff in the cab of his truck.

“Do you think you’ll miss the store?” she asks.

“No,” he says, nice and easy and sure. She laughs.

“You will,” she argues, “you love it, really.”

“Anna, the only good thing that ever came out of that place is you,” he says with burning sincerity. 

Anna’s face crumples. She clutches her hands to her heart.

“That is so sweet,” says Olaf from the back. Kristoff jumps, hitting the horn with his elbow in his rush to turn around.

“What the fuck?!”

“What?” says Olaf, blithely closing his door and reaching for his seatbelt. “You were going to make Elsa buy us dinner then drive me back to the same place where you were already taking Anna?”

“No,” Kristoff insists, still visibly flustered, “I just didn’t know you were back there!”

Olaf reaches forward to pet the back of Kristoff’s head, but he dodges, swatting Olaf’s hand away.

“Aw, that’s okay big guy. She already tells me all that cutesy stuff. Really just saves a text message.”

Anna pulls out her phone. “No,” she says, “Elsa missed it.”

Kristoff puts the truck in reverse and points a finger at Anna.

“You laugh all you like, but you live up stairs now, and see if I’m carrying you in this time if you fall asleep.”

Anna laughs and reaches out to take his hand. 

Chapter Text

New Year’s Eve, Five Years Later

 

Sven grumbles as they start to put on shoes, getting to his feet and watching them with a very put-upon sigh.  

“Sorry bud,” Kristoff offers, “you don’t have to come.” 

Sven huffs. Obviously he is going to come. 

Kristoff makes a point of going to their front door and unlocking it from the inside. Anna puts on a very innocent expression, as though she has absolutely no idea what he's giving her that look for. 

The apartment they live in together is on the ground floor and it has a patio off their bedroom. They go out through the sliding glass door and climb over the half-wall. Kristoff goes first and holds out a hand to help Anna. She probably doesn't need help, but he doesn't want her to strain or fall, not in her condition. She laughs at him for his caution but takes his hand for the descent all the same. 

Sven is starting to slow down these days, but he's not so old he can't haul himself over as well. He trots along, sniffing around his bushes posessively, pleased now that they're outside.

"I told you about the time I did this by myself, right?" says Kristoff, as they walk. 

"Yeah," she says, squeezing his hand.  "I used to do it by myself, too. I wanted things to be different, but I wasn't ready to make the obvious change."

He squeezes her hand back. They made it eventually, together. 

The disbelief has faded, by now. Replaced with a comfortable ease between himself and Anna as they go about intertwining their two lives for good. 

"What about now?" he asks. 

"I guess don't think about what I want to leave behind, anymore," she says, "I think about the future, now. What I want next year to look like. How I can get there."

Next year, he thinks. He doesn't really have enough information to imagine even imagine it clearly. 

Instead, Kristoff thinks of the house they're saving up to buy, the yard his child will play in, that Sven will finally have to himself, unleashed. He thinks of painting the rooms whatever color Anna wants, and having a garage so he doesn't have to keep all his tools stuffed in a closet.

Next year won’t look anything like this one did. But he’s ready for the change - as ready as he can be anyway. 

She stops him before they can go through the door, and gets her phone out to take their annual In With the New picture together. Kristoff hooks his arms over her shoulders and tucks her head under his chin. He drops a surprise kiss on the top of her head right as she's taking the picture, so the camera catches her smile.  

Anna leads him through their front door into their next year together. Kristoff gathers her close once again and kisses her soundly, closing the door behind them with his foot.

"I love you," he says, "happy New Year."

"Happy New Year," she says, leaning in and smiling back against his lips, "I love you, too."

{ - }

Olaf stands, wobbling somewhat, on the cluttered coffee table, pushing a few empty red plastic cups off the edge. 

“Hey, hey!” he shouts over the noise of the party, and people turn, watching him. 

“Listen!” he says, “my best friend in the whole world has this New Year’s tradition and it’s the cutest thing you’ve ever heard of!” Behind the crowd, the television announcers are getting excited, “we go out the back,” he points. The door is open, the party already spilling out into the back yard, “then you come back in by the front door. And you leave behind all the bad shit from last year - like that Research Methods class!” He raises his drink in memory of fallen comrades, and the crowd cheers. “So you can stay here and be boring losers who watch the ball drop, or you can come with me!” 

He hops down from the table and leads a pretty decent sized group out the back door. Stephen catches up, slinging an arm around Olaf’s shoulders. 

“This is such a cute idea,” he gushes, bringing his mouth up to Olaf’s ear to be heard properly. “So fun!” 

They pick up a few more people from the yard laughing as they make their way around the house. Olaf steps to the side so he won’t have to be first through the front. People inside the house cheer and shout. 

Before he crosses the threshold, Olaf closes his eyes for a second and spares a moment, My last semester goes well, he puts into the universe. I pass the Bar

When he opens his eyes, Stephen is watching him, smiling. 

What the hell, Olaf thinks, In With the New, and kisses him. 

{ - }

It’s just Burt and Ellen tonight. They’ve only got the one grandchild living with them these days, but she’s at a friend’s house for a sleepover tonight. 

Ellen cuts a glance away from the TV to check on Burt in his armchair. Things have been a little strained recently, but they’ve had rough patches before. He doesn’t look back at her. But they’ll work through it. 

The concrete slab under their garage cracked a few months ago. It would be thousands of dollars to fix - tens of thousands… So Burt had tried to apply for a Home Equity Loan. They were denied because of bad credit in Ellen’s name which Burt hadn’t known about. 

Her phone dings again - Happy New Year messages have been coming in all evening. She checks it and smiles at the picture. 

Ellen clears her throat, “You remember the other cashier from when I first started at the store?” she asks, “Anna?”

Burt turns, “Yeah? How’s she doing?” 

“Really good, I think,” says Ellen, with sincere affection. “Apparently she’s pregnant.” 

Burt snorts, “Good luck to ‘em.” 

They’re going to settle back into uncomfortable silence, Ellen can feel it. She makes an impulsive decision. 

“She had this family tradition for New Year's,” she says, “Out with the Old and In With The New, she called it. You go out your back door and come in through the front and leave behind all the negative energies from the previous year.”

Ellen is a big believer in emotional energies - the way they can cling and drag you down. Burt rolls his eyes. 

“Will you come with me?” she asks, feeling oddly vulnerable as she rises and holds out a hand. 

Burt won’t take it seriously, she knows, but maybe the ritual can help, maybe they can leave behind the negativity and the mistrust, and start to move forward without it. 

He takes her hand - a shock runs through her, suddenly she can’t remember why they stopped holding hands like this? - and she doesn’t let go once he’s standing. 

“Alright,” he says, gentle and indulgent and gruff as ever, “off we go then.”

{ - }

Kat and Allison are squished up against the bar when their phones buzz simultaneously. 

Kat ignores hers, but Allison checks, then smiling, turns her phone so Kat can see. Anna and Kristoff squished into the frame, looking cute as shit and deliriously happy. 

Kat can’t help but smile, too. 

“I take full fucking credit for that,” says Kat, for the millionth time. 

“I know,” teases Allison, “I helped you write your speech.” 

Around them the people all start counting down. 

“Hey,” Kat takes Allison by the hand, leading her through the crowd. They’ve been coming to this bar for a while now, so she’s quickly able to get them out into the alley through the back. 

It’s cool in the night, and much quieter, though this city is always bustling. They moved here when Kat got the job at corporate two years ago, but Kat doesn’t think she could have built a life here properly if Allison hadn’t come. 

Kat tugs her in for a backalley New Year’s Eve kiss. They break apart when a drunk guy starts pissing behind the garbage can. 

“You’re a sappy drunk,” says Allison with a sharp grin. 

Kat rolls her eyes. 

“Come on,” she gestures, “In With the New, then we can get the fuck out of here.”

{ - }

The guys had invited Ryder out with them, but he doesn’t feel right leaving Yelena home alone on New Year's, so he’s sitting on the couch next to his sleeping grandmother eating snacks with the television on low volume while he watches videos online. 

They’d chatted with Maren and Elsa a few hours earlier. It’s good to see his sister looking so bright and happy. She’s better off, away from here. Saving the planet, he snorts to himself. For most kids it’s a dream you grow out of, but once Honey gets an idea in her head… 

He’s scrolling around on his phone when the notification pops up. Super weird still that his boss’s wife texts him, but he’s family, apparently. They even invited Yelena and him for Christmas dinner. Uncle Ryder, the message says...

Ryder’s only been at Oaken’s for a few months now, but it’s the best job he’s ever had. Kristoff is a good boss, he started on pulls same as Ryder, but these days he runs the whole warehouse. Ryder had been worried it’d be weird, especially with the other guys, he only got the job because Maren knows Elsa, after all, but it hasn’t been an issue. It’s amazing the difference it makes in your life when your job makes you feel good about yourself. 

Out with the Old and In with the New... Twice now tonight, Maren and Elsa had done their walk a few hours ago because of the time difference, and now Anna and Kristoff. A family tradition, apparently.

Ryder shuts off the TV and gives his grandmother a soft shake. 

“Gramma?” he asks, as her eyes flit open. “You wanna go for a quick walk before bed?” 

{ - }

Bulda and Cliff are outside already when Anna’s message comes through. They pause on the other side of their door, hands held, and step, synchronized, across the threshold. 

Bulda wishes for good health for herself and Cliff, all their students and families, and especially for Anna and Kristoff. 

They had no children of their own, not traditionally, anyway, but what had threatened to become a gap in their life has been more than filled these last few years. Bulda's got her fingers crossed for a grandchild soon - but she's been subtle about it, no matter how Cliff teases.

“Text,” says Cliff, holding out the phone so Bulda can take it. 

“Just lovely,” she says, staring down at the picture. "Anna's absolutely glowing, look!"

Happy New Year you two, she types, See you both on Wednesday!

{ - }

It’s a real proper winter, here. Just like when she was a child. Elsa had missed it, but its totally new to poor Maren who still hasn’t quite adjusted. 

“We don’t have to,” Elsa offers, as Maren struggles to put her second glove on. 

Maren tuts. 

“El, we are obviously doing your Mom’s tradition. Shush.” 

Elsa reaches out to help Maren get her glove tucked into her sleeve. 

They don’t have a back door here. Elsa’s lucrative days of for-profit lawyering are a thing of the past, and Maren works in climate which isn’t exactly a gold mine industry either. 

Instead, they take the elevator down to the lobby and exit out into the cold city night. They’ve agreed it counts if they circle the block, maybe stop for a hot chocolate en route. The city does a good job of clearing the roads, but it’s snowing and the puddles have frozen, so they link arms and pick their way along the sidewalk, chatting about what they hope for the upcoming year. The shouts from nearby businesses let them know it’s officially midnight. 

Maren sets her feet and tugs Elsa down. For a moment their crystalline breath mingles in the air between them before Maren fully closes the gap. The kiss still sends an electric zing down Elsa’s spine. 

Someone whistles passing them on the sidewalk. They break apart and Elsa feels herself giggling like a teenager. 

As they round the final corner in their walk Elsa pulls back, fumbling in her pocket. 

“Selfie for Anna?” she says. 

Maren shuffles in close, tucking her face against Elsa’s. Elsa angles the camera so the bright lights of the taller buildings can be seen rising up above them in the background. 

Once they’re back in the heated lobby, she types out a quick message and sends the picture. She breathes deep and releases. 

Maren’s smiling, watching her fondly.

Sometimes, it feels unbearably selfish, to have moved away again. Whenever Elsa voices the feeling, Anna is always the strongest voice arguing in dissent.  

Elsa has long since learned that distance and closeness are relative. 

Out with the old and in with the new, she thinks, and lets it all go. 

 

Elsa is asleep by the time Anna’s midnight comes around, but she wakes to a New Year’s selfie and a request to video chat sometime today - Anna has news to share, apparently. 

{ - }

Anna is cozy and warm in her bed, Kristoff tucked closely behind her. His warm breath brushing over her ear and tickling down her neck. One of his hands is tucked under her shirt, resting over the light swell of her stomach. She rests her smaller hand on his and traces the familiar lines of his hand in the dark. Her eyes flutter and she feels herself starting to drift again. 

She’s always so tired, sometimes it feels like all she can do is sleep. But when she does, she dreams of good things still to come.