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The Star Kingdom of Arendelle

Chapter Text

Elsa turned away from the armorplast window to the woman who entered her office, pushing a service tray in front of her. Gerda had been her majordomo for as long as she could remember yet age seemed to barely bow the woman. Elsa had been a queen for only three years and already she felt the responsibilities of her office bent her toward breaking. "Gerda, thank you. The weather today looks beautiful. I can even see the Space Elevator."

"Then your eyes are better than mine, My Queen," Gerda said. Elsa gratefully took the offered cup of tea. Once upon a time she might have added sugar and milk, and eagerly taken the biscuit Gerda always put on the side. Today, black and bitter felt just about right. Gerda watched and said, "I hope the tea helps. You seem so exhausted."

"I am," Elsa said. "Worn out." She gestured toward her temple, where her perfectly set hair seated the Crown of Arendelle. Her fingers brushed against it, she flinched, and withdrew the hand.

"I thought these were your friends."

Elsa contemplated the door where her eight most reliable dukes and duchesses had assembled to discuss a forthcoming All Duchies meeting. "Even my friend exhaust me." She glanced at the door and dreaded the moment when the Master of Chambers would ring a chime to resume the session.

Exhaustion was an old companion for Elsa, a result of the internal battle as she forced herself to assume the face and poise, the pose of a queen. She looked up at the painting hung to the right of her desk. Her parents peered down out of that painting toward her, smiling, benevolent. Her father had been so tall, so charismatic, so much in control. He had used the family power with grace and wisdom, with reserve and foresight. Her father had always shown great fortitude when dealing with those bickering men in the District Council. "I miss you," she whispered.

The other door opened and her secretary entered. A big man, given to smiling more than frowning, Kai had been her parent's secretary, and now he was hers. He wasn't smiling. "A problem?"

"More a matter of logistics, My Queen. Duke Meinard is asking for privilege, for his son, but you indicated Lady Guiliel should sit at your right hand for tonight's dinner."

Elsa let her brows knit together as she contemplated this reminder. She had promised Meinard's son a seat at her table, but that had been some time ago. Then again, her last dinner with any of her nobles had also been some time ago. She sighed. "Yes, I remember. Do I have to go?" Kai looked at her from under his eyebrows. "Fine. Tell Meinard his privilege is extended, this time. Give Meke my apologies, tell her I will see her at the ball afterward."

"I expected as much."

"Kai, if you knew what I was going to say, why did you even ask?" He gave her an old-fashioned look. "Fine. Do you need me to write it out?"

"If you would be so kind."

Elsa put down her tea and moved to pick up her pen. "You were there, Kai. Was the dance that brought my mother and father together this tedious and this clashing, all at once?"

Kai opened his mouth to answer when a rare buzzer went off at one corner of her desk. Kai leaned over the desk and pushed a button. The sharp features of her Captain of the Guard appeared on the embedded video panel. "Yes, Captain Calhoun?"

"Secretary Kai, is the Queen with you?"

"Right here, Captain," Elsa said.

"Your highness! Your highness, something... I..." Captain Tamora Jean Calhoun was the soul of professional calm, a woman for whom duty came before aught else. Elsa could not imagine anything that could possibly make her so flustered. If they were under attack, Calhoun would have been barking orders at her, where to go, who would take her, whom to trust. If they weren't, she wouldn't have called at all. "Your highness," she said, taking a deep breath. "A message has just come in to Arendelle Space Traffic Control, and... I think you should listen to it for yourself."

"Captain, if you feel that's necessary, please."

Calhoun touched something off-camera. "Arendelle Space Traffic Control," said someone Elsa had never heard before, someone with a sweet, confident voice that filled the room, "This is Captain Anna DuVar of the Royal Manticoran Navy Long Range Exploratory Cruiser Winterkiss. My ship is now twenty light-hours out from Arendelle space, although by the time you receive this we should be down to 14 hours. Since we don't know your procedures, we are formally requesting parking orbit instructions around Arendelle and formal contact with your government. Please be advised that my ship's drives require a cubical space approximately forty-two kilometers on a side to provide standard margins of safety. It looks to us that you have a great deal going on in low orbit, so a high orbit is acceptable and requested." The woman at the other end of the recording took a deep breath. "We're very glad to have found you, Arendelle. This message repeats. Arendelle Space Traffic Control... "

Elsa looked up sharply. Kai was staring at her. "A starship?" she said.

"That's what it looks like, Your Majesty," Calhoun said. "I don't know my stars from my bars, but the eggheads are saying this thing is real, they can see it on their telescopes, and it's heading this way. They also tell me that whatever it's using for propulsion it ain't a fusion drive, and it's moving darn fast."

"Blunt as always. Thank you, Captain," Elsa said. She looked up at Kai, grinned and said, "Well, I think state priorities have been re-arranged. I won't have to sit next to Hans Meinard after all." She glanced toward the door leading to the parliamentary chamber, where she'd been in an attenuated conclave with eight of her nobles. "Kai, call an emergency conclave."


The chamber received the announcement with shock. The eight who had agreed to meet with her at the castle were newly joined by the images of twelve others, all looking down from life-sized video screens that had emerged from the floor behind each noble's official chair. "It's a trick!" the Duke of Carrington said when he came to his senses. He pounded his desk, and Elsa flinched as the speakers boomed out each thud. "Vesselton is up to something."

"Don't be ridiculous," Duke Chandrabahna said, also speaking without the permission of the Master of the Chamber. "Vesselton has nothing to gain from something like this. Vesselton and Arendelle have had a stable treaty for over fifty years, they contributed material and cargo to the last three starships we launched. We've managed to establish a decent trade relationship. They've even started trade with Corona! Why would they risk anything like that now?"

"Your Majesty," Carrington said as he gestured with something out of sight of his camera. "Vesselton is a closed state and a mystery. But we know well enough that they dislike the monarchy intently and have rebuffed every attempt by your noble family to reach out and give them a voice at the table." He gestured toward his right, where the one screen of the Vesselton Ambassador remained impassively dark. "You can't trust those machines."

"They're not machines, my Duke," Elsa said softly. "They're still as much flesh and blood where it counts as you are. We all share a common origin. They are our relatives and our family, and we owe them gratitude and respect for building our world."

"That was generations ago! I don't care if they are the original terraformers, we've taken on responsibility for maintaining this world without them. Their program of transferring human consciousness to a machine is still underway, and they still resent us for our 'romantic notions of organic supremacy.'" His voice was ripe with sarcasm. "For all we know, they've foisted off talking to us on some lousy artificial intelligence."

"I know," Elsa said, her eyes on the table, looking at her gloves. Her hands. She made a fist with one hand, and saw Carrington try and fail to suppress a flinch. "But they haven't made that leap."

"Yet!"

"Your Highness," Duchesses Guiliel said. Elsa turned toward. Adelista Guiliel was one of Elsa's distant relatives, and her daughter was Elsa's closest friend., "They called their ship a 'long range exploratory cruiser.' Perhaps they spend a lot of time in cryogenic suspension. Perhaps there really is a sphere of human influence, and we just haven't been able to hear it. We are quite far out on the rim, thousands of light years from Sol, God only knows how, so maybe only now are they reaching us. We don't know who these strangers are."

Strangers. From afar. People who could come and go if and when they pleased. People who owed her no fealty, who shared with her no history, who looked upon her not as a Queen to be loved, feared, conspired against, opposed, honored, thwarted, or competed. And that voice, that sweet mezzo soprano that kept running through her mind.

"My noble men and women," she said, "I welcome your opinions, as well as the voice of any other in this chamber." She looked over the expectant faces, twelve men and eight women who ruled their districts with authority derived from Elsa's and the exigencies of history. "I don't see how we have a choice. The Royal Space Service has detected something heading our way from the direction from which the message came, on a direct line from Thorin, and that something isn't a fusion drive and it isn't something Vesselton has ever put into space. While we should certainly concentrate our forces to prepare for the worst, if these people are from a human civilization other than our own, they'll have technologies we can't begin to imagine, nor at this moment should we try. They're asking for a parking orbit and formal contact with my government." She smiled. "At the very least, we can give them those. I look forward to it."

Chapter Text

Lieutenant VonSchweetz had put the shuttle down precisely on the landing pad indicated by Arendelle Airspace Control. VonSchweetz seemed to regard any light aircraft as her personal plaything and took great pleasure in the way the Navy supplied her with the ships and fuel necessary to indulge herself, but she was also the most natural pilot Anna had ever known and her landing was as smooth and professional as any Anna could have done herself. "Well done, Lieutenant." She nodded toward VonSchweetz as she exited the spacecraft.

She stepped out onto the cold, sunlit tarmac of Arendelle's capital city airport and inhaled deeply as she helped her treecat, Olaf, onto her shoulder. The facility spread out in a concrete apron in every direction. The roaring engines of modest-sized civilian aircraft indicated both a thriving economy and complete lack of gravitic technology. The deliciously chill air was full of pine and ozone, a heady mixture of mountain air and aviation fuel mixing with the salt tang of a nearby ocean and the metallic dust of civilization. It reminded her so much of the smell of Copperwell she fought off a surge of nostalgia. "Now, this is a planet."

"Huh," Kristoff said. "Noisy, though. What do you think, Sven?"

The lanky, brown-furred treecat wrapped around the back of Kristoff's neck gave a cheerful 'bleek' and nodded in Anna's direction. He approved of her assessment. "He seems to like it here," Kristoff said.

Unlike Sven, Olaf chose to ride Anna's shoulder in the more traditional treecat pose. That gave him the free truehands necessary to gesture as he willed. He gave a simple thumbs-up with his four-fingered truehand. "Oh, good," Anna said, "I think that makes three of us."

"Oh, I like it too," Kristoff said. "It does remind me of home."

"That it does," Anna said, sighing. She and Kristoff exchanged grins. She supposed that she should have been more professional toward her chief executive officer, but he was Kristoff, her best friend from their days together on Saganami Island and the only other cadet who had had a treecat. They were of different ages and classes but being part of the adopted overrode such petty considerations.

They'd been given a large aircraft VTOL pad for landing. Arendelle apparently had few viable surface-to-orbit shuttlecraft and none of them were VTOL. Their main technology for getting things into space was the massive space elevator that rose thousands of kilometers from an anchor on the equator. Nobody in human space used such ancient technology anymore. Even Terra had dismantled theirs a thousand years ago. Approaching Arendelle had felt like entering a fairyland description of a space-capable civilization.

Doctors Flynn Fitzhubert and Donald Pine followed them out the hatch. Flynn was still babbling. "It's incredible," he said, shading his eyes from the sun to have a look around. "I can barely see the space elevator from here. Just imagine it, Captain DuVar. These people don't have gravitics or hyperdrive, but they're still significant steps further along the Kardashev scale than we are!"

"What's the Kardashev scale?" Kristoff said.

Flynn crossed his arms and said, "It's the measure of how much power a civilization uses, Commander. A 'one' uses a whole planet. A 'two' uses a whole star. On that scale, these people are much closer to two than we are."

"Huh," Kristoff said. "Just because of those lasers."

"Those lasers are something, aren't they?" Flynn said. "I wonder what they're for. And the solettas," he said, pointing up at the broad minature suns that hung in the sky. "Those are really cool, let me tell you. That's the smartest thing I've ever seen for warming up regions of a biosphere, just hang a few really big mirrors in space! So much cheaper and safer than trying it with chemistry. This place would be a frozen wasteland without them; with them, summers are warm and crops can grow. It's brilliant! I imagine these people have a lot to teach us."

"I'm sure, Flynn," said Flynn's civilian superior, Doctor Donald Pine. "I'll just be happy when we get home so we can tell Manticore about what we have learned. Eh?" Anna held her face as still as she could.

Pine was technically in charge of all the scientists currently infesting her ship, and she was glad for every one of them. Their quick work in identifying and isolating this end of the wormhole junction meant that their four-month tour could have been over in as few as four hours. Then Flynn had spotted the strange "scintillations" seventy light-years away from the brown dwarf whose gravity well anchored this end of the terminus. They had been so clearly artificial that Anna had felt compelled to investigate. This far from Sol everyone had been sure they were coming on one of the first technological alien races. They had been ever more surprised to learn the world was populated by humans.

Pine had stressed his objections in every possible way to a delay in returning to the host ships back at Lynx. Anna reminded him that Winterkiss had as much responsibility to scout the local area as Harvest Joy had been given. The three-week transit time between the brown dwarf and the system they now knew as Arendelle was much greater than Harvest Joy's experience at Lynx, which was only a half day's travel to the nearest inhabitable world, but that didn't mean Anna could neglect the responsibility.

Pine was still grumbling about it.

At the edge of the landing circle stood four long ground cars, wheeled, all painted dark green. Flags of white with a green stylized logo Anna didn't recognize adorned the hoods of each one, fluttering actively on the windy concrete platform. The men standing at each car wore professional uniforms, some in a dark green, some in a lighter green. Standing closest to the circle were two people, a short, stout man in the light green uniform, and a tall, blonde woman in the dark green. She stood with that still reserve Anna recognized on a professional soldier, one who'd been at her duty a long time. She was standing tall, one hand on her chin, regarding the pinnace carefully, one finger tapping idly. The man spoke first. "Welcome to Arendelle, Captain DuVar. I am Kai, Senior Secretary to the Queen." He eyed the treecats with wary curiosity.

Anna bowed. "Thank you, Kai." She introduced the other five members of her party by name, and mentioned that Lieutenant VonSchweetz and a Marine would be remaining with the shuttlecraft.

"And Olaf and Sven are also members of your crew?" He indicated the two stretches of ten-plus kilos of treecat, each riding their adopted humans' shoulder.

"Yes," Anna said. "Olaf and Sven score quite high on the sentience scale. They're crewmembers with all the rights and responsibilities thereof. Don't underestimate them."

Kai looked at Olaf. Anna couldn't see what Olaf did, only feel him shift against her shoulder, but Kai smiled and said, "Understood, Mr. Olaf. I won't make that mistake again." He bowed a sweeping gesture toward the third car. "Right this way, please."

Flynn had first theorized that Arendelle and its neighbor might be at war with one another. The scintillations had been lasers, each one more massive than the combined weight of the entire Manticore Navy's laser broadside, reaching out from one star to the other. As they'd approached Arendelle, the lasers' origins had resolved into a collection of massive platforms in close orbit around the star, solar collectors that transmuted the sun's energy into coherent beams of light poured toward the neighboring star system.

The neighboring star system was shooting back.

The drive from the airport to the city proper revealed a beautiful countryside so naturally peaceful it seemed impossible that Arendelle was a country at war. They were driven along a gently winding road that wrapped around a ridge of hills and broke open onto a vast bowl of a city that edged right up to the sea. Chantel, Arendelle's capital city, looked northward from the edge of an equatorial continent, and Anna could see to the west a vast port with ships moving in and out. "Hmm," Flynn said. "Mixed-purpose zoning, but with some moderate industrial segregated to the west, but I'm also seeing a very good transit system." He rubbed his goatee thoughtfully. "Mostly low buildings, lovely standards of architecture. Lots of trees, mostly narrow roads, no more than one-fifth intended for lorries. Standard Alexandrian." He looked up. "No aircraft."

"Chantel is a royal residence," Kristoff said. "It's likely they require all aircraft be routed far away."

"There is plenty of shipping with which to sneak in an attack," Pine said.

Kristoff said, "Doctor Pine, ships don't come in at multiples of the speed of sound. It's easy to intercept and scan a ship. An airplane by itself can be a hurtling missile."

"What's to stop them from a fractional-c bombardment from space then?"

Kai stiffened. Anna tightened her mouth. This was not the time or place to be discussing how a military force might attack or occupy Arendelle's royal palace. Flynn said, "That seems unlikely. The economy here is definitely one where access to space is something only governments can provide. So far as we've been able to tell, there's only one government. Aircraft, however, are probably within the reach of civilian actors. I think Arendelle is demonstrating a great deal of prudence in keeping the airspace around Chantel clear. What do you think of prudence, Captain?"

"Oh, prudence is really important, in lots of ways," she said, staring at Pine, her lips thin with tension.

The sea beyond Chantel was even more blue than Anna's beloved Iron Fjord's, blown by the cold, light wind so that it glinted like hammered steel. Aside from container cargo ships, only a few pleasure craft dared the chill wind to play in the bay.

Anna turned to the secretary. "Kai, who are we to see first?"

"I thought we'd made that clear, Captain. Your first audience will be with The Queen."

Anna froze. She'd never met Queen Elizabeth. She'd seen her, once, from far away, on a high dias, at a ceremony honoring her graduation from the Advanced Tactical Course and her advancement to the rank of Senior Commander, the last rank one could hold before Captain. She had come down to visit the government of Arendelle. She didn't have the first notion on how to act in front of a Queen. Especially not a foreign one! "I hope we get along, then," she said, as inept as a freshie. She sank back into her chair.

Kristoff chuckled. "You'll be fine," he said.

"Is the queen a busy woman?" Anna asked. "I wouldn't want to take up too much of her time. I know how hard it is running a starship. I can't imagine what running an entire starsystem must be like." Anna clenched her fists. Her tendency to ramble always broke out when she was stressed. Or happy, but this wasn't one of those occasions.

"Her Majesty has office hours that she keeps with great discipline, and a reliable bureaucracy," Kai said, grinning much like a treecat. Anna could see how he earned his position. Just listening to his voice opened up entire images in her head of people working efficiently at desks, and at the center a woman of calm poise, turning pages, dispatching memos. She wasn't sure what the woman looked like. The only template she had for a queen was Elizabeth Winton.

The convoy turned left around a tight bend and into the city proper. Few buildings were more than two or three stories tall. The facades used glass and hand-painted signs and brick. The sidewalks were decorated in myriad ways: patterns of glass, swirls of copper, and in a few places illuminated strips animated storefronts. The roads were paved with dark green interlocking hexagons, a strange cobblestone that she couldn't feel at all beneath the tires. The people of the city were mostly short, mostly stocky like Kai was stocky, and going about their business as if the frigid temperature was only a minor nuisance. They waved cheerfully at the ground car as it passed and Kai waved back. Anna saw men, women and children in the recognizeable configurations of human beings and felt relief. This wasn't a planet like Sharpton, where having prominent cyborg implants was a badge of honor.

The cars crossed a broad, short bridge to a palace which sat on a pier over the water, separate from the city. It was a broad construction, beautiful and soaring, with a single spire reaching heavenwards topped by the odd, swirling logo. They passed through gates with only the lightest of honor guards and then through a heavy door into a much more heavily defended inner yard. The cars pulled up to a portico.

Kai led the Manticorans into a vast hallway of wood flooring lined with dark-green banners. The architecture was broad and breezy, conveying a sense of light and joy. The materials were first-rate and hand-crafted. Whoever had built this place had loved doing so.

Kai listened to something in an earbug, then nodded. "Follow me, please." He led them deeper into the building, around a corner, and into a smaller reception room. The walls were light wood hung with banners. A tall, narrow window framed one woman standing at the opposite end of the room. "Your Majesty, may I present Captain Anna DuVar and Olaf, and Chief Executive Officer Commandor Kristoff Bjorgman and Sven, Doctor Donald Pine and Doctor Flynn Fitzhubert, of the Royal Manticoran Navy Light Exploratory Cruiser Winterkiss." Anna delighted in how competently he'd said that even without notes.

"Captain, Commander, gentlemen, I present to you Queen Elsa of Arendelle."

Chapter Text

Anna gasped silently. She had seen many beautiful women in her years. Elsa was beyond all of them. Elsa was a dream from another life, an alternate universe, a fairy tale legend. Tall, taller than Anna with skin the color inside a pear and hair so blonde that it looked like silver. Anna was sure that was its natural color. She was a radiant counterpoint to the magnificent dark skin of House Winton. She wore a black, silken blouse under a turquoise jumpdress that did not hide her curves. Her face was impassive, her lips drawn tight, and Anna couldn't tell if that tightness was worry, stress, anger, or fear. But it was her eyes, those pale blue eyes, eyes with vast, deep irises, that Anna suddenly wanted to fall forever into. "Welcome," Elsa said. Her soft, husky, precise voice went deep into Anna's belly. "Welcome to Arendelle."

Anna managed to find her own voice soon enough to say, "Thank you, Your Majesty." She curtsied deeply, emulating the Grayson dip as best as she could. It seemed appropriate, somehow. She stood and regarded the Queen.

Each looked at the other for far longer than was necessary before Elsa said, "Is this something I can expect to have happen frequently? Commander Buzz's report indicates he believes your report of faster-than-light travel."

Commander Adolph Buzz had been Arendelle's military officer in charge of assessing Winterkiss when it had first arrived. He'd arrived in the most delicate shuttle Anna had ever seen, but he'd had the body of a marine and the mind of an engineer, and he'd had a very long conversation with Chief Engineer Ficksit. The feel of artificial gravity had almost overwhelmed him. Anna had liked him and, like Kai, he no longer underestimated treecats. "I hope so. You are the nearest inhabited star system to the far end of a hyperspace wormhole junction to which Manticore has now officially laid territorial claim." Anna took a deep breath, surprised she'd gotten that right. "Manticore is always pleased to have good neighbors and trading partners. Especially peaceful ones."

Elsa was still staring at her, and her eyes had gone huge. Although Olaf was on her shoulder, Anna was sure Elsa was looking at her. Anna felt like she was being analyzed. Scanned. As if someone had finally seen all the way through her, someone other than Olaf. Elsa shook her head gently, and when she did her voice sounded distant and nervous. "I see. We aren't used to having neighbors. Other than Corona, of course. I hope we learn how to do that successfully."

Anna's conversations with Commander Buzz had been gracious and calm. He didn't seem like the kind of man prosecuting an ongoing war. But that still begged the question of the massive solar laser installations. "Your Majesty, we haven't been in your space long enough for details, but I must ask: Are you at war with your neighbor? The one you're shooting those lasers at?"

"At war with Corona?" Elsa laughed. "No, of course not!"

"Your Majesty," Flynn said. Anna admired the modulation in his voice. "I didn't believe you were. But then, what are the laser beams for? From the solar orbital platforms. Forgive me for speaking out of turn."

Elsa's smile at him was a kilometer of pure mercy. "Those are our starships drives, Doctor," she said.

"Wait," Doctor Pine cried as something clicked. "You mean to tell me you have ongoing trade with your stellar neighbor using slower-than-light transportation? Using beamed laser sails?"

Elsa smiled, and now she seemed genuinely pleased. "Yes. It's one of our most proud achievements."

"It's... " Pine clamped his teeth together to avoid saying anything that might further upset the meeting.

"It's amazing!" Flynn said.

"We think so," Elsa said, her eyes flashing. She caressed the back of her wrist, and Anna saw a small wristcomp attached to her glove. Elsa's face took on the impassive look it had had when they'd first entered. It was a face that Anna could stared at for hours. "We aren't sure how to proceed. We understand you've offered your publicly available encyclopedia, with its history and science of the Diaspora. That will prove invaluable to us. Rumors about your presence here on Arendelle have already begun to appear on our news networks, and I will be making a public statement about Manticore tomorrow. I'd like to know what I'll be making a statement about. To that end, I've asked Admiral Prost to brief you and your scientists on the public face of Arendelle's situation to the best of his ability, in a fair trade of information. I believe you'll find him a competent man."

Anna recognized the end of an audience, yet she didn't want it to end. She had so much more to ask. Olaf's claws dug into the reinforced, armored padding of Anna's flight tunic, and Anna reached up to stroke him. He purred reassuringly. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

"Kai will take you to the conference center. Feel free to ask anything. Is there something special you need?"

"Cocoa or, I suppose if it's all you have, coffee," Anna blurted. Elsa smiled at her, the first honest smile she'd had. "A small plate of meat, chicken or duck, cooked, is fine for our treecats. And a few celery sticks for them, too, if you have any?"

Elsa managed a small, uncomfortable smile. "I think the kitchen can manage that."

"Yes, your majesty," Kai said in that magnificent voice. "We certainly can."

The next several hours slid by Anna in a blur. She absorbed as much information as she could, continuing to be impressed with Arendelle and Corona and an interstellar trade in actual, physical goods and people over two light years at fractional C speeds. Pine and Fitzhubert immersed themselves in the Castle library and disappeared, as far as she could tell. She let Kristoff take the lead in questioning the military people Arendelle provided, since he was always good about asking the right questions and finding the right answers. Arendelle wasn't entirely idyllic. There were factions, there were Dukes and duchies that engaged in passive defiance of Elsa's rule, and there was that strange, silent outpost orbiting out by Arendelle's sole moon, a ball of rock smaller than Thorson or Luna, and even further away. In Arendelle's night sky it would be a tiny, indistinct circle of light. Anna heard the name "Vesselton," and the implication that it was an independent state of its own. Arendelle even a few violent extremist groups. Anna had the nastiest sensation that her very presence was going to upset a lot of people, but someone else's domestic politics weren't her concern.

Elsa. God, she'd never seen anyone that struck her so... so... Anna didn't have a word for it. It wasn't infatuation. Anna knew what that felt like, she'd been through it several times. This didn't feel like infatuation. She wanted to write it down to mere power, but she'd never felt like this when she'd met the Duke of Sphinx, and he'd certainly been both handsome and powerful. Anna had never been impressed with power.

Olaf's claws dug into her tunic and he chittered in her ear. "I know, snowball, I know. I'm sorry." She reached up to stroke his chin, and he buried his cool nose in the hair behind her right ear, making her smile.

Everyone who had a treecat used the word "love" to describe their feelings for that fluffy source of joy and security in their lives. Everyone except Captain Anna DuVar. She had had a few lovers in the physical sense in that brief rush of adolescent hormones at the Academy on Saganmi Island, most but not all men, and fewer still in the twenty-five years of her career since. Her friends had often-- unfairly!-- compared her romantic history to that of the legendary Admiral of the Green. Unfairly because Anna, at least, had romantic and sexual attractions that came first, whereas the Admiral seemed to be one of those whose physical interest came only after emotional attachment.

"Captain?" Kristoff's voice broke her reverie.

"Yes? What is it?"

"Admiral Prost and and DIO Favier were just finishing up. Is there anything you wanted to add?"

"No, thank you. I'm sorry, I was thinking of something else. I'm afraid I'm much more of a reader than a listener. When it comes to large infodumps."

Favier, who was Elsa's domestic intelligence officer, nodded. "I understand completely, Ma'am. I am too. Your communications officer was kind enough to help us create a protocol layer for transferring data back and forth, so all of this material should already be available on your readers."

"Thank you. Kristoff, remind me to thank Lieutenant Metzinger when we get back."

"Done," Kristoff said, his burly arms folded over his chest. Anna looked up and noticed that it had grown dark outside. Snow was blowing gently against the windows. "Hmm. Ship time, it would be almost midnight." He gestured to the tray of sandwiches that had been brought in. Anna had found them reliably familiar. Across time and space, some things never changed. Like a ham sandwich. "When was the last time you had a real meal, Captain?"

"Sandwiches are a real meal," Anna said. Kristoff lowered his eyebrows at her. "Okay, okay. Hours ago."

The door opened and let in a short woman in the lighter green uniform Anna was starting to recognize as indicating palace staff, rather than palace security. "Captain DuVar?"

"Yes?"

"Forgive me for the intrusion. My timing seems to be fortunate. Queen Elsa would like to know if you would care to join her for a late supper?"

"Wait, what?"

"Her Majesty asked me to ask you, personally, if you and your furry friend would care to have supper with her in fifteen minutes."

"Well then, I guess your needs are met," Kristoff said. He grabbed another sandwich off the tray. Sven was munching on a carrot. Anna shook her head. Sven was weird, even for a treecat.

"I can't just go to dinner with a Queen, dressed like this."

Kristoff tilted his head toward the servant. "She seems to think you can."

"What about you? Are you going to be okay?"

"I'm sure we can offer your XO something," Prost said. "In fact, Commander, would you like to join my staff in a late working dinner of our own?"

"Love to," Kristoff said through a mouthful of bread and whatever had been stuffed into it. "With your permission, Captain?"

"Granted, Commander," Anna said distantly. Kristoff's salute was sloppy, but Anna forgave him. Her mother had always liked Kristoff, and took every opportunity to remind her how much she liked Kristoff. Then again, her mother had been a commoner, and her father had married for love, and look how well that worked out. Anna paused to push all the romantic and emotional messes in her life down into the depths where she could safely ignore them.

She stood, checked her space-black formals, flicked away an invisible and possibly imaginary fleck of lint. "Yes, I guess I can. What's your name? Have you known the Queen long?" she gently asked the servant.

"I'm Gerda, Captain. Kai and I have been Queen Elsa's senior secretary and majordomo since she was born."

"Oh. I'm pleased to meet you, then," she said, bowing briefly. "Is there something I should know before meeting the queen once more?"

Gerda paused, one finger pressed to her jawline in thought. "No, I don't think so. It's most unusual. She doesn't have guests often."

"How many guests will be there?"

"Oh, just you, Captain. And Olaf."

Anna gave Kristoff a harried glance. He shrugged. "What do I know what it means to meet a queen? For that matter, what does this 'queen' do? What's her role and responsibilities, compared to the prime minister? There is one, you know. There's a lot of intelligence to gather here."

"Meaning, I should go gather some," Anna said.

"We're going to." He indicated Prost. Prost had been looking at Anna with careful introspection. He bowed with understanding self-deprecation at Kristoff's comment.

Anna turned back to Gerda, straightening herself taller. "We'd be delighted to join your Queen at dinner." She swallowed and hoped she wasn't lying.

Chapter Text

"Why am I doing this again?" Elsa said, looking at the window on her tablet where cameras tracked Gerda and Captain DuVar's progress through the castle.

Kai's broad smile softened with understanding. "Because you said you 'needed a better grip on what these "Manticorans" offer.' I believe that was a direct quote, Your Majesty."

Elsa rubbed her hands together nervously. "But she's a stranger!" She was also, Elsa admitted, exquisitely beautiful in a way Elsa had never felt before, a thought she crushed ruthlessly. This was not the time to let her mind go down that track. There was never a time.

"And to her, so are you. Her ship belongs to the Royal Manticoran Navy. She has a Queen of her own. She understands protocol." He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. It was the most human touch Elsa ever experienced these day, and only because he'd been one of the few authorized to change her diapers half his lifetime ago, and he'd been the one to hold her the few times her facade had cracked. "Elsa..." She looked up. She felt tears in her eyes. "I know this can't be easy. You've never been good with people. But you must learn." He glanced down at the tablet. "Gerda is bringing her into the dining room."

"Do I have to?" Kai stared at her. "Fine," Elsa said, drawing herself up even as Kai retracted his hand. He reached into a pocket and handed her a handkerchief. She wiped her eyes and handed it back to him. "Thank you."

"You're always welcome."

The room to which Gerda had led Anna and her strange creature was a vast hall with a large table suitable to sit twenty people. The ceiling was at least eight meters away, with a massive crystalline chandelier of modern geometric precision hanging directly above the table. There were three settings, one at the head and to the immediate right and an elegant wooden high chair to the right of that. One of the "librarians" had engaged Doctor Pine on the treecats and he had held forth at appreciable length about the protocol, including the "ridiculous need" for them to sit at the table next to "their person."

As she entered the room on her quiet, soft shoes, Captain DuVar was facing away from her saying, "Remember, snowball, look but don't touch it, okay?"

"Bleek!" the white-furred beast responded before gleefully dancing in front of the fireplace.

Despite her apprehension, Elsa giggled at the beast's antics. "Well, he seems sprightly. Does he like fireplaces?"

"Your Majesty!" Captain DuVar turned and bowed deeply. "I didn't hear you enter. Forgive me." She was blushing. Even within her honey-dark skin, the blush added a bright, illumning glow to her already stunning appearance. She bowed.

Elsa smiled, her hand covering her mouth again as if to hide it. "There's no need. The court's formality is one thing, but let's not need it in here, Captain. There will be time for that later, when your government's formal representatives arrive. May I call you Anna?"

"Yes, of course, Your Majesty." Anna straightened. "He has manners but no respect for them. He's always loved fireplaces. Our homeworld, Sphinx, his and mine, is similar to Arendelle, but our winters are much, much longer. Treecats have a kind of hibernation to get through the winter, but when Olaf learned that moving in with humans meant he could play in the snow and hunt as much as he wanted and come inside and curl up by the fire, he was in ecstasy. He's loved fireplaces ever since." She sighed. "Sometimes I feel bad taking him so far from his home and his family and the weather he knew and the foods he loves."

Elsa had no idea how Anna knew Olaf wanted her attention, but Anna turned. Olaf stood up on his hindquarters, his true hands tracing signs and symbols in the air. Anna smiled back at him, shyly.

"What was that?" Elsa said. "Is that how he talks?"

Anna nodded. "He can't speak human languages with his mouth shaped like that, so we have a sign language."

"And what did he say?"

Anna blushed. "'Some people are worth leaving home for.'"

Olaf chittered at her from his warm curl before the fireplace. "I know, Olaf, I know. I'm sorry."

"Please," Elsa said, "Come eat." She was glad to have a reason to tear her eyes away from Anna. The RMN Naval uniform of black and gold fit snugly about Anna's body, showing off every line and curve. Only below the calves and the wrists did there seem to be any give at all to the outfit. Even Anna's jacket was closely tailored. Anna's warm auburn hair was tightly fit about her head and held down with twin braids. "Who braids your hair?" She felt her face flush. Why had she asked that?

"Oh, Claire does it," Anna said as she waited for Elsa to sit. Elsa did, and Anna followed. "My steward. She looks after me. I think she's afraid if she weren't there I would forget to eat, or bathe, or remember how to button my own uniform. Every captain above a tin-can-- a destroyer, sorry-- gets a steward, and I think they all go through some kind of training with a professional mother hen, because my last steward, James, was the same way. My mother was never this obsessed with keeping up my appearances." Anna abruptly clamped her mouth shut. "Sorry. I ramble. Nervousness."

"That quite all right," Elsa said, relaxing slightly. If Anna was comfortable enough to admit she was nervous, Elsa could do the same. She glanced over at the fireplace. "Will Olaf join us?"

Olaf galloped over to the table and scrambled up into the chair, sat with precision, and with one true hand and excessive airs drank from a tall, crystal goblet of water. He nodded a thanks to Elsa. "I see," Elsa said, pleasantly surprised by the clear intelligence in those eyes. "Yes, Kai warned me that Olaf, and your executive officer's treecat, Sven?" Anna nodded. "They were not to be underestimated." Elsa raised a glass and briefly tilted it back toward Olaf in a toast.

Servants brought plates of food, in a classical order any diner on Manticore would have recognized: soup, salad, roasted poultry and vegetables with a rich mushroom gravy. And wine. "Do you like the wine?" Elsa asked as Anna sipped it.

"Oh, it's very good," Anna said. "A little sharper than a lot of what I've had on Manticore. A lot like Sphinx wines. It's nice." They ate in silence. Olaf disdained the soup and salad, but he sliced into the meats using a knife and fork. He exhibited exemplary table manners. "Oh!" Anna said. "You're left-handed. So am I."

Elsa nodded. "Is it as rare on Manticore as it is here?"

"It's not common, no." She made a show of looking around the room. "Your city is so pretty. Your palace is as beautiful as you are," Anna said. "Wait, what? I'm sorry, that was... awkward. I'm not used to, I mean, I'm awkward."

"Thank you," Elsa said, and laughed, holding her hand over her mouth and looking away for a moment and taking a deep breath before turning back. "Yes, it's beautiful. My father loved it. It was built shortly after, the, well, what do you know of the history of Arendelle, Anna?"

"Well, nothing," Anna said. "It wasn't something your intelligence people covered."

Elsa glanced up at the ceiling. "Arendelle was originally a corporatism colony, but only a few generations after we arrived a fungus struck our farms. Starvation broke out. And the people who held the most stock used their power to hoard as much as they could. My ancestor, Anton the First, led an insurgency that took control of the cybernetic infrastructure of Arendelle. Communications, the space elevator, the solettas, the automated farms. Especially the island farms, the ones isolated from the mainland. A quarter of the population died of starvation. Half of what was left died in the war."

"I'm sorry," Anna said. "For your suffering."

"It's history," Elsa said. "Almost eight hundred years ago, now. Anton organized the surviving biologists into a crash program to fight the fungus. They succeeded, but only because he made sure they had enough food and the military to protect them had enough food, at the cost of, well." Anna nodded. "After the war, Anton restructured the corporations into entailments, reparcelling the land, and created the firsts Dukes and duchies, and himself as Anton the First, Monarch of Arendelle. History records that he was brutal in war, and wise in peace. He built this place. It's been rebuilt several times. But we've have eight centuries of peace and relative prosperity."

"Manticore isn't going to do anything to upset that."

"But you already have, Anna," Elsa said. "After all, what did Anton really control? Farms and communication gear can be replicated. But access to space, and the solettas that double the amount of sunlight a duchy receives, those are the sole province of the crown."

"Oh. Dr. Fitzhubert and I were discussing how access to space is probably a government prerogative. Without gravitics, it's..." Elsa could see the wheels clicking. "Oh. Oh, I'm sorry, Elsa. It didn't occur to me, that when we arrived..." Anna put her hand to her mouth. "I'm so sorry. Forgive me. I meant, Your Majesty, not..."

"You can call me 'Elsa' here. Please, I'd prefer it if you did." Elsa looked at Anna now and saw the earnest woman behind the Captain's facade, the decent, worried professional and her humane counterpart. Elsa realized she could watch Anna's mouth move all day long. "My domestic concerns can't be yours, Anna."

"Still," Anna said. "I'm sorry. About that."

"So, Manticore has a queen. Are monarchies common, where you're from?"

"There are a few. Manticore, Andermann. Republics are more common among the wealthy states, and dictatorships are terribly common among the less economically developed colonies."

"How does your monarchy work?"

Anna rambled for a bit, describing what sounded like an incredibly arcane arrangement of a government, a state, a military, and a populace, with both written laws and unwritten rules about how they interacted. "The main point," Anna said, "Is that within a star system's hyperlimit, there has to be a single, legal authority responsible for space, to defend the commerce from raiders and enforce tariff, trade, and quarantine."

"Quarantine? For diseases?"

"Well, mostly animal pests. There was an outbreak of this disgusting strawberry maggot on Sphinx when I was young. They finally figured out a topical immunization program, but I never got to have fresh strawberries as a kid. It wasn't nearly as bad as your fungus, though. And we could always get bags of frozen strawberries shipped over from farms on Manticore. So there was always strawberry puree for banana splits."

"A single legal authority." Elsa drummed her fingers on the table momentarily. "We might have a problem. We have Vesselton. They might argue."

"Admiral Prost mentioned them. What are they?"

"The Vessel-- Vesselton-- was, or is, part of the colony ship that reached Arendelle. Some of the original terraformers were heavily cyborgized for zero-g survival. When they were done, some of the ones that didn't move on to Corona didn't want to land, either. They remained in space, and moved their ship into an orbit around Arendelle's moon. They're still out there. There were only a few thousand when they left. I don't know how many there are now."

"They must be centuries old!"

"I've spoken with a few of them. We have contact, still, and a sort of trade. My scientists tell me the images we're seeing are animations, digitally produced. We have no idea what they're really like now. For all we know, they're just brains in jars."

Anna shuddered. "That sort of technology is possible. I've heard some Sollies had gone that way. I can't imagine how hard it must be. Admiral Prost said they were difficult?"

"They have grown more difficult as the years have passed." She kept her eyes off Anna. She wanted to look at the other woman all night, but that would have been rude. "They resented Anton's restructuring of the government into a kingdom. It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that we've had a succession of successful kings and queens and a working legislative House of Commons, while Garrit Petrona has been 'captain' and 'mayor' of the Vessel for all that time.

"But they do trade with us. They have a lunar mining facility, and it's easier for them to send ore down the gravity well than for us to send it up the Elevator. We provide them with fresh food and water. They helped build the starship lasers and the laser focusing rings, and our communications laser station at the edge of the solar system that listens to Corona without interference from our star or our gas giants. They were our friends and family once. Now they're..." She sighed. "They're angry that they haven't succeeded in their final project, and they're angry that we won't help them. It's sad how they seem to be slipping away." She looked down at her gloved hands.

Elsa told the tale as she'd heard it thousands of times. "That's horrible," Anna said.

Elsa shrugged. "Yes, well, it's my 'horrible' to deal with."

"What is their 'final project?' If you're free to tell me."

"They call it 'substrate independence.' It means that they want to be able to transfer their consciousness to something other than, well, a human brain." Elsa put her fingers to her gloved forehead momentarily. "I don't suppose...?"

"Gross," Anna said. "I don't think anyone's tried that in human space in a long time."

"'Human space?' Is there some other? Aliens?"

Anna said, "No. I mean, there are a few other alien species that we know are sentient, and we've found a lot of alien biospheres, but humanity is the only spacefaring species that we know of."

"Oh."

"Where are you parents?"

"Oh," Elsa said, a wave of sadness washing over her. She should have known the question would come up. "They... died. In a boating accident. Six years ago."

"I'm so sorry."

Anna looked like she'd kicked someone's puppy. Elsa tried to be understanding, but every time she thought about that day the pain was nearly overwhelming. "I am too. I miss them. I had a regency for three years, and I've been Queen for three since then."

"How old are you?" Anna said suddenly. "I'm sorry, forgive me. That's just me being awkward again."

"I'm twenty-one Arendelle years old. Twenty-four Terran."

"You're half my age."

"You're forty-eight Terran?"

"Forty-seven," Anna said.

"You don't look it," Elsa said.

"We have Prolong. It extends the lifespan."

"I see. Is it something you can take? Or does it have to be done in vitro?"

"No, the initial treatment can be done after you're born. The earlier you start, the longer it lasts, and every generation lives a little longer. If you're twenty-four, you can probably expect to live to be almost a hundred and sixty if you got it soon."

"I see." Elsa didn't know how to pursue the conversation further. It seemed impossible to imagine that they'd run out of things to say to one another. She wanted to hear more of Anna's voice, listen to more of Anna's tales.

Anna said, "Where does Corona fit in?"

Elsa was grateful for the change of subject. She knew her citizens would clamor for this Prolong procedure when they learned of it. She would never do it, herself. "Oh, Corona. After the terraformers were done here, some went on to Corona, including Captain Gothel. All we had were a few much smaller laser platforms then, so the trip took almost a century. The ship was heavier, too, because it had laser sails for acceleration and electrical sails for brakes. After the war, though, there weren't enough manufactories, skilled engineers, or even colonists to build a new sleeper ship and send colonists across deep space. The engineers' ship we'd already sent didn't even know what had happened. They just kept doing their jobs. Three centuries ago, my great-great-grandfather, Anton the Sixth, announced that it was time to finish the Corona mission. He convinced Parliament to give him the funds, and they built the first set of heavy solar orbit arrays and the Arendelle Humbled, and sent 120,000 people across the gap, including his own second son, Errol. They arrived after a 24-year voyage and successfully set up a new colony. The population now is about a million." She grinned. "They've been busy over there. Not that we've been slacking here. Our initial population was almost 300,000 people, and we're up to fourteen million now. Some of them emigrate to Corona. And a few Coronas have even come here." She shook her head, and her voice became soft and distant. "I have a cousin there. A second cousin. Her name is Rapunzel. I never thought I'd have a chance to meet her. Not until now." She favored Anna with a smile.

"We'll do what we can," Anna said.

A servant place a small round cake just big enough for two in front of them, and sliced out a quarter for each woman. Under the intense, rich smell of chocolate Elsa tasted raspberries and a hint of coffee in the mix. It was insanely dark and dense. Anna let out a small moan of appreciation, and Elsa felt that sound deep inside herself. She shook her head briefly as if shooing away a bug. "Tell me about Sphinx."

Anna did. She avoided anything of a military nature, but clearly she felt comfortable telling Elsa a lot of personal details besides. She'd grown up in Iron Fjord, near the foot of the Black Rock Mountains. She'd been hiking there just before taking up her commission at the academy when she'd met Olaf.

"Does it normally happen in childhood? That adoption? Is it common?"

"It's very rare, actually," Anna said. "And it usually happens in the late teens. I had Olaf when I was eighteen. Kristoff had his when he was seven, which people tell me almost never happens. My parents couldn't believe it when it happened to me. I was such a... a flight. I talk too much, I ramble, I'm hyper, I'm too positive, so I'm told. When we bonded, it was that something-- he can't put a name to it, and neither can I-- that made us whole. Whatever it was, it gave me the strength to finish the academy. People say it made me be a good starship captain, too."

Elsa breathed deep. "I'm envious of you both."

"I dunno," Anna said. "The bond is strange. It's an empathy bond that makes both the human and the treecat emotionally stronger. And emotionally more distant from both other treecats, and other humans. I've never felt 'normal.'"

"Neither have I," Elsa said with a sigh. She traded back with stories from her own childhood. She had a few childhood friends, but everyone knew she was destined to be queen and arranged their prejudices accordingly. That loneliness had been brutally punctuated by the disappearance of wonderfully loving parents.

Their conversation moved on. Arendelle's music had the advantage of knowing all the styles Earth had had to offer in the third century Post- Diaspora, styles which had more or less completely mapped out the genres of music the human ear enjoyed. Anna defended Manticore's own musical traditions even though she said they had grown staid and local. Elsa hardly cared. She could have listened Anna for hours. Even if the woman was doing nothing more than a rambling monologue of the deciannual census report, Elsa would have been enraptured.

The only question Elsa really had was why.

"Oh, my goodness," Anna said, looking down at her watch. "We've talked all evening! I'm so sorry, Your Highness, you must have better things to do than listen to me prattle on. Kristoff says I prattle. Actually, all of my commanders have said I tend to talk too much. Oops, I'm doing it, aren't I?"

"Anna, it's fine," Elsa said, and laughed, covering her mouth again with her hand. Elsa found it more than fine, she found it adorable. "I've never had an opportunity like this. It's unlikely I will have another very soon. You were certainly a more interesting dinner companion than Hans Meinard would have been."

"Who?"

"Please, never mind. I shouldn't have said that. It was inappropriate."

"But you have a Hans problem too?"

"Wait, what? A 'Hans' problem?"

Anna giggled and nodded. "Tell me about yours."

Elsa shrugged. "There's not much to tell. Hans Meinard is the son of Duke Brecht Meinard. The Meinard have one of the most distant duchies and one of the most conservative. Their loyalty to the crown is highly contingent on our playing nice." Elsa paused. "They seem to think that it would be politically beneficial to the crown if I married a man from the opposition. Hans Meinard is a fine man, or so I'm told. Not like his father at all. Studious, polite, and entirely without any reputation of any kind." She sighed. "But he's just one of many. My nobles seem to think it's time I settled down, married, and started on the great project of providing the kingdom with heirs. I'm just not..." She tore her eyes away from Anna's open, wistful face to look down the length of the dining room. "I'm just not ready to marry yet. I don't know if I ever will." Anna had leaned forward, her chin in her hand, her attention rapt on Elsa's words. "So, that's all there is to it. I take it from your comment that you have a 'Hans' in your life too?"

"Oh, Hans." Anna waved the suggestion away, the sighed. "Captain Hans Westergaard of her Majesty's Heavy Cruiser Rune. I'm still not sure what to make of the situation. We had been dating for about a year. He's in the Navy of the Red, and I'm in the Navy of the Green, so technically we can date each other. Sometimes I think the point of having two whole command structures is to provide a pool of officers we can date, not just the redundancy. Anyway, three weeks before I headed out on this expedition, he proposed marriage."

"What did you tell him?"

"I told him I would think about it. I also told my father. He thinks it's a great idea. Hans is the seventh son of the Earl of Summerisle, so he doesn't stand to inherit anything except maybe a stipend. I don't care. I want something more." Anna smiled, but Elsa could see her wrestling with unhappiness. "Hans said he loved me."

Anna straightened in her chair, and Elsa could see it almost as a force of will. "He said he loved me. But it's all a mess. My parents are separated and have filed for divorce. If they're not going to be together forever, what chance do I have? I still don't know what made them... I'm sorry. I'm rambling, and you probably don't want to hear all these painful little details. The point is, I like Hans, but marrying him feels like it would be settling, not winning. I have not been dealt a winning Hans."

Elsa laughed. "Anna, that was a terrible! But thank you for telling me." She rose, and Anna automatically rose in response. Elsa reached out one hand. "Thank you for coming to dinner."

Anna seemed to still be getting used to a queen's informal use of her common name, but she recovered enough to take Elsa's hand and close on it with a gentle, professional handshake. "Your Highness."

"Elsa."

"'Elsa,'" Anna said, with that same breathy pleasure she'd expressed over the dessert.

Elsa's heart beat louder in her heart. She swallowed. An impulse came over her. "Anna, can I ask one more favor of you? On behalf of your Queen?"

"Of course. I'll do what I can."

"Does your navy have a way to allow visitors on board?"

"Of course! We have a dining room for honored guests, and a tradition of courtesy calls with friendly-- and potentially friendly-- star nations wherever we go. It's all very important that we let our friends know what our ships can do for them, and listen to what needs they might have, and... sorry, I'm rambling again."

Elsa's couldn't help herself and laughed again. "I think it's charming. Anna, I've been able to visit most of my kingdom here, on the ground, but my security team has always told me that the elevator would be too dangerous, even for the four-hour trip to low orbit, much less a full trip up to the Anchor, which takes days. I'd like to visit your ship and, with your help, the furthest reach of my kingdom."

Elsa watched, impressed as Anna's professional face fell into place. The woman before her had just transitioned from guest to soldier in less than a heartbeat. "Is there really that much domestic unrest?"

"About a quarter of the people here dislike the policies of what is called 'my' government. A small fraction of that are always willing to be demonstrative. There are always a few."

"That sounds like Manticore. Elizabeth has a lot of security."

"So do I," Elsa said, her eyes momentarily hesitating at the corners of the room, where cameras watched over her every waking moment.

"Kristoff can work with your security. We'll make your visit one to remember, I'm sure. Thank you again, Your Highness." She bowed.

"Thank you, Captain," Elsa said. She watched Anna go, and then turned back toward her own door, her fists clenched with an emotion she couldn't name, directed at herself.

Chapter Text

Kristoff had negotiated with Elsa's security detail, and the arrangement reached was suitable to Anna. There would be a total of twelve armsmen: four shifts of three, all but the active shift to be housed in guest staterooms near the pinnace docking bay, and to be accompanied by Anna's own small detail of Marines. To Anna's pleasure, Kristoff had also managed to get Commander Buzz to join them. Anna was left to abuse poor Claire with details for the dinner, all the while listening to Claire say, "Yes, Ma'am," and "It's a state dinner, Ma'am," and "It's what I'm trained for, Ma'am."

There was something about stewards. Claire was newly assigned to her this mission, but James had been more or less the same way. Then again, had Anna been allowed to choose her own meals, she'd probably eat sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner. With a dozen of those wicked chocolate-cream sandwich cookies for dessert.

Lieutenant Commander VonSchweetz piloted directly up to Winterkiss, nose to the aft quarter of the boat bay, and rotated the entire pinnace into the bay without a moment's hesitation. Anna loved great ship handling and VonSchweetz made it look easy. She had the attitude of a daredevil but she kept it reined in. Anna had sat in the center of the pinnace, Kristoff across from her, beside each the two treecats buckled into their restraining chairs and staring at each other with that look. Elsa had sat on the other side of the VIP row, her active duty security surrounding her and looking serious.

The head of Elsa's security detail was the tall, muscular woman Anna had met at the landing pad: severe with a brief, informal cut of light brown hair and a face that would have been beautiful if it hadn't been so intent. She'd been introduced as "Captain Tamora Jean Calhoun," and they'd exchanged looks that Anna read as "I won't hurt your ship if you don't hurt my Queen." Anna could keep her part of that bargain.

But ever since that dinner yesterday, she'd felt off-balance whenever she regarded Elsa. She couldn't even say why. The woman was always calm, always cool. Always achingly beautiful.

Once in a while, Anna would look up to find Elsa looking back at her. Their eyes would meet, and Anna would be unable to look away. Just looking into Elsa's eyes made her heart beat faster. Stop it. She's not Lucy or Mai. She's not even in the same class as any of the men or women you've known. She's the ruler of an entire world. She's probably straight. Hans is waiting for your answer. And she has no interest in you.

Anna wasn't sure any of that constituted telling herself the truth.

The RMN's electronic whistle hailing the return of a ship's captain signaled through the boat bay, and Anna was relieved to see that her first tier command staff were in line, as perfectly turned out for the Queen of Arendelle as they might have been for the Queen of Manticore. She stifled a further quiver of pleasure as Elsa allowed her to guide the small party down the line, giving introductions to her crew.

"This is Lt. Commander Ficksit, my chief of engineering, and Lieutenant Rekkit, my tactical officer. And yes, everyone has made that joke already." Ficksit was a Grayson: short, wiry, with a squashed nose and Grayson's religion-tinged tendency to swear in only the most mild of euphemisms. Rekkit, on the other hand, was a San Martino, a world so large and heavy that oxygen levels on the surface were toxic. Only a few high plateaus could support human life. The heavy gravity consequently produced people squat, broad, and heavily muscled. Rekkit also had a reputation for taking on Marines for recreation, although he'd recently channelled that effort into learning savate in the gym rather than practicing in bars. His dossier said his real name was Raoul, but everyone called him Ralph. If there was a story there, Anna hadn't heard it.

The Queen gave Anna a quick grin, and the two of them moved on down the line, all the way to Ensign Robin, Anna's junior staff secretary and her youngest officer, who looked appropriately gobsmacked to be greeting a queen.

They moved on to dinner. Claire had prepared beef with a savory jus, roasted asparagus and sliced, roasted potatoes with gravy. Ensign Robin remembered to lead the opening toast to "The Queen", and Anna rose in response. "This is a great honor," she said. "Lowly light cruisers of the Royal Manticoran Navy don't get to host a queen every day. We hope that Winterkiss is a good example of what our star kingdom can provide, and that the relationship between Manticore and Arendelle is a provident one."

"Here, here," Kristoff said, raising his glass at his cue. Even Sven and Olaf raised glasses at that.

"Thank you," Elsa said. "Your ship is beautiful, and my people are already envious of your artificial gravity. I pray we discover Arendelle has something to trade with Manticore, and that our relationship is a productful and provident one."

Dinner resumed. After a few minutes of considered eating, Elsa said, "I have one question, A-- Captain."

"Yes, Your Highness?"

"Winterkiss is not the sort of name I would expect on an... exploratory vessel."

"That's because Winterkiss didn't start out as an exploratory vessel." Anna hesitated, trying to word it so that it didn't sound alarming. "She was launched as a very deep penetration first-strike cruiser. Manticore recently fought a war with its neighbor, and we needed to innovate our military mix. Winterkiss was one of those. She was never used in her designed role, and after the war she was scheduled to be mothballed. Then the Lynx II Terminus was discovered. Winterkiss, which had already been gutted of most of her offensive arms, was refit with all sorts of sensors and exploratory gear instead. She received a larger boat bay and more bunkerage, too. The idea was that if she ended up five hundred light years away from Manticore and couldn't find the way home, at least she'll be able to sail home under her own power."

"I see. So your ship is unarmed?"

"Oh, I wouldn't say that. She has a few missile bays remaining, plus a lot of countermissle space, and there was no need to remove her point defenses. I don't think the RMN would ever field a ship that couldn't defend herself. Even hospital ships have defense arrays. I hope we never have to engage in any sort of battle while we're here, your highness."

Dinner had been scheduled early, as Elsa was due to go over to Anchor afterward. It ended on a high note, with Claire working some of the local chocolates into an exquisite whipped glaceau.

"How will we all fit into the elevators?" Anna asked. It looked a bit silly, all of them trooping down to the boat bay together after dinner: Anna and Kristoff, the two treecats, Ensign Robin at their heels, proceeding Queen Elsa and her royal secretary Kai, as well as her three security officers.

"Take shifts," Kristoff said. "We'll go up in one, then you lead Queen Elsa and two armsmen up in the second."

"Right," Anna said. It was a small personnel lift, one of the RMN's newest indulgences for good captains, and Anna appreciated it, but it barely had room for four. She spent the ride uncomfortably close to Elsa. "Sorry," she said.

"There is nothing to apologize for, Captain," Elsa said. Anna could swear she heard her own name in the way Elsa said 'Captain.' She could have listened to Elsa's voice for... for a long time. "I have learned that we must all make allowances for necessity."

When they got off, the shuttlecraft was waiting on the other side of the scarlet warning line. Elsa turned and said, "Thank you for your hospitality, Captain." Her eyes sparkled. "I hope we have a chance to talk at length again. Soon?"

"I do too, Your Majesty." She reached out a hand, and if Elsa's green-gloved clasp in response lasted a little too long, Anna wasn't prepared to judge. "Take care of my executive. I need him back."

Elsa laughed in a tossed-off manner. "I'm sure you do. We'll bring him back in one piece. Ready, Commander Bjorgmann?"

"Whenever you are, Your Majesty." Anna grinned. Kristoff's usual tone of voice was one shade south of insolent, but this time he sounded earnest. Oddly, she'd never heard him actually be insolent, except perhaps with Sven.

"Let's go, then." Captain Calhoun led Elsa across the barrier, and then guided her with expert kicks toward the waiting shuttlecraft. Anna tried not to look up Elsa's skirt as they crossed, and she mostly succeeded. Captain, you have to get your hormones under control.

Anna returned to the bridge and watched the agonizingly slow progress of the shuttle on the holosphere. "Call Dr. Fitzhubert. I want him to keep a close eye on... everything."

"Aye, Ma'am."

Chapter Text

Naylia runs through Asgard, her feet carrying her along the cobblestone road inlaid with glittering flakes of silver, gold, and diamond. She passes her favorite fountain, the broad one with the tile mosaic depicting a gaily colored orange octopus swimming in a bright blue sea. A single arc of water shoots up from the edge of the fountain to cross three-quarters of the broad, five-meter wide circle and fall into the water, creating ripples that seemed to animate the beast without ever obscuring it.

She reaches the palace, a magnificent construction of columns and gold, the two lions that guard its gates turning their majestic golden heads to watch her as she passes. "What is the matter?" she demands as she enteres.

Vili bows as she enters. Her clothes transform around her, enrobing her in the white of her office, the staff of her authority appearing in her hand. "My Queen, it is as bad as we had feared. The Muspeli have acquired a dragon."

"A dragon?" Naylia feels stunned. In all the years she's been in Asgard, the dragons have belonged to Asgard. The great beasts live under the city, and if the night is very quiet and the wind is still, one can hear them snoring in the deep and stony distance. She had ridden them a few times, but flight wasn't the sort of thrill for which she had chosen to live in Asgard. It was the quiet, the food, and the peace of the libraries that she loved. The people of Asgard were charming and humane.

The universe is still prone to mischief. She's dealt with an earthquake a decade ago, and storms swept through once every other year or so, just to keep things interesting. And that sea monster last year had a been a fun distraction.

"What's the recommended course of action?"

Vili gestures toward Ve. Her Commander of Civil Authority says, "My Queen, the best course of event is to unleash as many dragons as we can awaken to kill the alien."

"Kill?" Naylia is horrified. The dragons had succeeded in harrying and driving off the sea monster. They hadn't had to kill it. "Is that necessary?"

"It must be," Ve says. "There is a strong risk of sacrifice. Many of the dragons may not come back." He looks determined, and not distressed at all. Something is wrong. "We need your decision quickly, your highness. There isn't time."

"There is always time," she argues. Maybe that's what's in play. The dragons unbalance the universe. The universe has figured that out and wants to take them away.

"Not this time! A dragon in the hands of the Muspeli could wreak havoc. If they choose to unleash it now, it could destroy all of Asgard!"

Naylia doesn't understand that. Nor does she like it. The universe is off kilter. But the game has rules, and so she plays. "Fine. If the threat is that dire, have your men unleash the dragons." Maybe it's just for a light show. She hopes it's just for the light show.

Ve bows. "It will be done."

"And find me Heimdall! He and I are going to have words."


Duke is listening to the city. He has listened to it for centuries, heard the voies as the superheroes do their business. Blackjacks and Jokers outpace each other down on the streets below, and in the air Supermen and Spidermen zoom past in different generations of tights and capes, some with the yellow pants on, some with the black.

Duke started out here as a barbarian, an overmuscled freak with an axe and an attitude. He had traded in the axe for a couple of rings of power, a kind of Green-Lantern-meets-Mandarin mix that goes well with his blow-dried hair and a comfortably fitted pin-striped suit draped over his still-barbaric frame. He's stopped playing for keeps and now just wants to have fun with the crazy, hazy world of Gothamopolis. It's a bad mix of everything and he knows it, but in the daytime the restaurants are fantastic.

He feels a wind at his back. He knows who it is, turns and looks. The man standing behind him is small and pale and youthful and beautiful. His long hair streams behind him, his smile so lovely Duke already wants to kiss him. Angel used to run with this blond-furred gorilla chick, but it turned out guys are more his thing and so now he's with Duke, who's mostly hairless but also kinda gorilla-shaped. "Up for a game tonight?" Angel asks.

"What kind?" Duke asks, his deep voice grating. He'd been going for sexy. His voice doesn't quite make it.

"I hear there's an alien incursion underway."

"Huh," Duke says. He can stand a little play before the play. "Hadn't heard that."

"You aren't paying attention." Angel points upward. Duke's eyes follow and he finds himself staring into a horde already blocking out the atmosphere. Tonight's game is black-clad supersoldiers on surfboards all kitted in armor and dripping with guns, ready for mayhem. "That doesn't look challenging."

"We'll find out," Angel say. "Race ya!" He kneels downward and suddenly launches himself into the air, his wings spreading out like a kestrel's, barely moving even as he rockets upward. The laws of physics don't apply in Gothamopolis the way they do elsewhere.

Duke points his hands at the ground and is launched into the air by his ring of flight courtesy of the Legion. He can't catch Angel, but that doesn't matter. He'll catch up. Angel is already among the supersoldiers, bouncing off them like a pinball, knocking them off their surfboards to fall to their deaths.

Then the impossible happens. The soldiers get a bead on Angel and one of them manages to put a bullet through his head. Brains spray into the atmosphere, a fine mist of that part of Angel that truly loved Duke.

Duke stares in a horror he's never felt before. The universe couldn't do this to him. It wouldn't! It just had. He puts his fists in front of himself, willing to full power two rings he has never used in conjunction. "I am going to kill you all!" he shouts. The rings are unleashed. Beams of light flicker from Duke's fists. Ichor rains from the sky.


In sixty-three different worlds, similar battles are enjoined, and similar decisions are made. The votes are tallied, but the conclusion was never in doubt.

Deep inside what was once the Arendelle Colony Mission Personnel Module Number Two, power is applied to hardware that hasn't seen activatation in centuries. Codes are unlocked. Signals are sent. Hell is unleashed.

Chapter Text

The first 2400 kilometers of Arendelle's Space Elevator were forty meters thick, suitable to hauling the heavy lift elevator to low orbit. Once clear of atmosphere fusion drives could quickly give any ship orbital velocity and the materials platform there had accelerators to do just that. The rest of it, all 34000 kilometers, was only four meters across. It didn't have to be heavy, just strong enough to hold up the rest of the Elevator and make access to space possible. At the very end of that cable lay Anchor, the furthest reach of Elsa's domain, a lonely maintenance outpost that looked out to the rest of the universe.

Kristoff thought it was still a pretty nice place.

Sven definitely enjoyed the lack of gravity. He didn't enjoy the skinsuit, at least not with its "plumbing" adapter, but he loved zero-g, especially since he had complete control of the reaction thrusters that let him zip around the station with ease. He made that delighted weird honking sound he emitted when he was happy. Kristoff watched him go with a wave. "Don't get lost, Sven. Stick to the party."

Anchor was a marvel of engineering the likes of which Manticore had long ago abandoned. Arendelle had gone their own way, working with zero-g materials sciences to create perfect femtotech boron-fullerene hybrids with tensile strengths that bordered on miraculous, and Kristoff had said so.

"Thank you," Commander Crosby had said with complete sincerity. "If we begin trading with Manticore, might I assume that you have had your own progress in the materials department?"

That was a common theme of every conversation. "If-or-when we begin trading with Manticore..." These people were anxious to be trade partners, to get to know the greater universe. This was no hidden colony put away to avoid the rest of humanity, as Grayson had been. Arendelle had meant to be a part of human space. It had just gotten lost somewhere along the way.

Anna and Kristoff had actually found Arendelle's founding in Winterkiss's library. The Arendelle TransEuro Colonial Corporation had sponsored one of the very earliest slower-than-light sleeper convoys, a luxurious high-automation effort mostly for upper-class Terrans who had the prescience to foresee the coming economic catastrophe. Their leader had been Doctor Josef Arendelle, a multinational financier who had invested heavily in Earth's first successful space elevator. Four ships had broken out of Mars orbit in 241PD and disappeared into the void, headed for the general direction of Lynx. How they had accidentally stumbled upon a wormhole, much less navigated it safely without a modern starship's instrumentation, still remained a great mystery.

Kristoff had made reassuring noises at all the inquiries. At least he hoped so. He'd watched Elsa out of the corner of his eye, and he liked what he saw, at least professionally. She made a good enough Queen when she wasn't being so twitchy, and maybe he could see what was making Anna act so twitterpated around her. It wasn't a healthy state of mind; she had a boyfriend back home, apparently getting serious. Kristoff had met Hans and didn't understand the attraction. He thought Hans was a bit of an arrogant ass himself, but then Kristoff wasn't a noble and didn't share the nobility's odd ideas about effective marriages.

Kristoff snorted. "Effective" wasn't what Anna wanted. She was romantic to her core. Kristoff had always been more than content to have Sven at his side. He didn't want, or need, romantic entanglements. If he had to choose, he'd have said he was interested in women, but he just didn't have that drive that so many of his peers seemed to have. It just didn't seem to matter to him, much to the eternal regret of his parents.

So what was it about Elsa that made Anna get so flustered and talky? She'd always been talky, rambling on and on when her mind got going, almost as if she were afraid the air might feel uncomfortable being empty and naked of words, but whenever the topic of Arendelle's Queen came around, Anna spoke even faster and more circuitously, trying hard to address the subject and avoid it at the same time.

Sven chittered at him, snarling slightly. Kristoff scowled. "Stop it, Sven. You know I can't understand you when you talk like that."

Sven signed something, and Kristoff nodded. "She needs friends, Sven." Sven gave him a look. "All right, she needs more. This is the wrong place--"

"Is something wrong, Commander?" Captain Calhoun asked.

"No. Me and my buddy here are having a... discussion."

Sven's look deepened. "We'll talk about this later, okay?" Sven's honking reply was almost an obscenity before he jetted down the hallway.

"He is a creature of few words, which like snowflakes the wind carries away. Come on, Commander. Dawdling time is over."

"Uh, yes. Ma'am."

He floated down a main corridor, spotting one of the Queen's other security guards. He was guided into the first truly luxurious room he had seen on the otherwise spartan Anchor. Even with a travel time measured in days, Anchor was that furthest outpost of Arendelle and it did get the odd, adventuresome tourist. The officer in charge had even boasted of a waiting list. There was a tiny bed-and-breakfast penthouse garden with a domed view of half the universe, the half that faced away from Arendelle. The last couple to visit were currently on their way down, so Elsa's party had the garden to themselves. The plants were all bedded down with a fine mesh netting that also kept the moisture in with the soil. It actually looked like a garden with gravity, flowers and shrubs reaching up to Arendelle's sun, clearly visible through the LCD-darkened glass of half the dome. The illusion lasted only as long as he didn't glance at the other visitors floating around the hexagonal arrangement of guide ropes, or examine the stars of the greater universe clear and untwinkling in the other half of the dome. The air of the garden smelled a heady mix of recycled air perfumed with roses and gardenias. "Wow," Kristoff breathed.

Calhoun slammed past him, flying into the room. "Code Nine!" she shouted.

The other guard stiffened. "Your majesty-- " He stopped, and so did Calhoun. Commander Buzz said, "We have nowhere to go."

"The shuttle?" Calhoun asked. "We can make it to the shuttle."

Buzz shook his head. "Not from here. Not in time."

"What is it, Captain?" Elsa demanded, appearing in the hatchway.

Calhoun looked stricken. "Your majesty, I'm sorry. We... ASTC is reporting that we've lost control of the solar laser platforms. They're turning toward us."


"They what?" Anna said.

"All communication with Anchor just stopped, Captain!"

"Captain DuVar!" A new voice broke through her comm channels.

Anna looked down at the civilian feed on her tactical display. "Not now, Flynn. I'm busy."

"Then you'll want to know this, Captain!" His image split. "The laser platforms in solar orbit are turning toward Arendelle. They're preparing to fire."

"What?" Anna stared at the display. "Is there any way to stop them? Could they be taking hostages?"

"Captain, these aren't FTL transmissions. Those lasers could have fired as long ago as eight minutes and there isn't a thing we could do about it. Well, not eight minutes, the beams would be here already. But you can't take hostages in situations like this. The timing doesn't work. If those things are being aimed, they are going to be fired. They may have already been fired."

Anna stared at the screen, trying to find a way around Flynn's reasoning. He wasn't trained as a sailor, but he understood the physics all right. A beam of light couldn't be recalled like a missile. Kristoff and Sven were on Anchor. Elsa was on Anchor. That settled it. "Lieutenant Ibanez, make like an eclipse. Plot a course that'll put the belly wedge between the sun and Anchor, and execute when you have it."

"Aye, Ma'am!" Carmen Ibanez grinned. She treated Winterkiss the way VonSchweets treated small craft: a hot-shot with a toy. Anna had seen her maneuvering skills and trusted her to get it right the first time. Without hesitation or permission, Winterkiss shot out of its orbit and streaked downward toward Anchor at almost 250Gs, turning over only eleven seconds later, coming to a halt twelve seconds after that.

"Raise Anchor, if you can," Anna said. "Let them know we're here." She punched a button on the arm of her chair. "Engineering."

"Captain?"

"Felix, we might be about to take the worst laserhead in history. Can they hit us? Can we take it?"

She heard Felix audibly swallow. "Can they hit us? Ma'am, they routinely hit a 3 kilometer-wide target at a distance of a light year. They'll hit anything they want at eight light-minutes. But I think we could survive it on the belly," he said. "Doctor Fitzhubert showed me the numbers. It'll be a near thing, but by golly I think we can take it. Once."

"Once?"

"The capacitors will have to take some of the bleed, Ma'am, and there's no guarantee they'll all survive. We'll probably have to take time to repair them all between blasts. Arendelle told me all about how they work, they're very proud of their achievements. They take time to recharge and they have limited aim rate capability. Arendelle's starships don't have independent maneuvering, after all, so it's not like they need to be quick on the helm. If we have to take a second hit, Ma'am, I suggest we think of something else."

"Got it. Thanks, Felix."

"I'll do what I can."


"What is God's name is that?" Captain Calhoun said, looking at the place where the sun had been. Now it was a deep, black hole, and long lines of light like frozen meteor streaks colored the universe all around it.

"Anna, no!" Kristoff said. He raised his wristcomm to his lips. "Winterkiss, come in, Winterkiss."

"Commander!" Anna's voice sounded relieved.

"Captain, what are you doing?"

"Saving your life."

"You could die!"

The tinny chuckle told him he shouldn't even bother. "Felix says we probably won't. And Felix knows his ship. You know this ship. You know we'll probably take it."

Anna was more nervous that she was willing to admit. "Probably isn't great odds, Captain."

"Then consider this some kind of crazy trust exercise in BuShips."

Kristoff started to reply, but the universe interrupted him.


Tactical alarms with nowhere to direct their fury screamed uselessly aboard Winterkiss's bridge before Lieutenant Rekkit shut them down with one bulky finger to his controls. "Sorry," he muttered.

Nobody heard him. They were staring at the engineering displays already needling into the red. There were hundreds of load-bearing capacitors all up and down the reinforced spine of Winterkiss reporting heavy strains. The firing time for a single laser was barely three minutes. The belly bands of a hyper-capable warship were supposed to be impenetrable to even the worst laser fire; it was supposed to bleed off the sides in a spray of photons whipped to even higher energies by the fusion-powered gravitic skew of a ship's wedge. Belly bands shrugged off nuclear-pumped laser heads. But this wasn't a weapon of war, this was a laser of an entirely different caliber. Violet beams slammed into Winterkiss and sprayed across her. For two kilometers to either side of Winterkiss, four trapezoidal sheets of immense gravitational gradient sheered the power of the laser up and away like some strange cosmic mirror.

Anna heard the voice of damage control as reports of fires and explosions echoed through her ship. Those were merely secondary damage from components of the ship doing too much, taking too much. It was her ship, and those were her crew. The beam hadn't gotten though, and Felix had warned people to stay away from the buffering components, but there would be wounded. There might even be dead. Anna's teeth hurt, and she forced her clenched jaw to relax. "Hold steady, Carmen," she said.

"Aye, Ma'am. Holding steady."

Even Winterkiss's gravitic nodes weren't enough to track everything. The beam cut diagonally across the upper wedge in less than fifteen seconds in a fast, linear streak for the bulk of its passage, and when it reached the bottom of the wedge it was free to space once more. Anna had saved Anchor, but now the beam cut down and traversed the Elevator directly, deliberately targeting a spot two-thirds of its length. One-third of the Elevator started to float away. The rest began an agonizingly slow collapse.

"Beam clear. Ma'am, it's Anchor!"


On Anchor, Captain Calhoun was hovering near Elsa, who had curled up into a fetal position. "Your majesty, we have radio." Elsa looked up, her eyes hollow. "You have to do something."

"Me?"

Calhoun eased closer to Elsa and said softly, "Your majesty. The gloves."

Elsa looked down at her hands. "I can't." Calhoun only stared at her. "I can't!"

"Your Majesty, you have to. Or they will fire again. It only takes a few hours. And I don't know if Captain DuVar's ship can take a second hit. I don't know if they survived the first one."

Elsa's head whipped up to where she thought she'd seen Anna's ship. "Anna?" Something was still there, but it was no longer just a black hole in space. It was glowing, as if it had absorbed all the light thrown at it and was bleeding it off in controlled amounts. Maybe that's exactly what it was doing.

The Manticorans had risked their lives to save her. Anna had risked her life, and the lives of everyone aboard Winterkiss, to save her. Captain DuVar, beautiful, lovely Anna, who had only yesterday become the one friend Elsa had who... who could leave. Trembling, she reached down and pulled off her gloves.

Her hands looked normal, but suddenly the world became brighter, took on a sheen of meaning and purpose as a second suite of data poured into her mind. Tenuously, trembling, she reached through Anchor's communications systems, communicated with the world. Everything on Arendelle greeted her touch with greedy eagerness. Everything bent to her will. Everything said they had missed her touch, would give her power, give her pleasure, if only she would give them meaning in return. She could rule all of Arendelle with the power restrained within her hands. Her power, her father's power, her family power.

Stop. I'm doing this for Anna. No, I'm doing this for Arendelle. There was more than one cache, more than one base station, more than one satellite. There had to be redundancies. With a simple thought, she sent a command. Forgive me, Corona. Protocol demands this.

She pulled the gloves back on hurriedly. That world, the one where her power spoke to her, disappeared into the background again, and Elsa curled up gratefully as it did.

"My Queen!" Hands were touching her person. Tamora's hands. Tamora turned her over. In times of crisis, medical and security personnel were allowed. They were the only ones who were allowed. "Are you all right?"

Elsa shook her head, and tears coursed over her temples and into her hair. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."


Anna looked up an the main display to watch in horror as the space station, now cut loose from its mooring, began floating away. "Metzinger, get me the XO, now!"

She was relieved when she heard Kristoff's voice over the radio. "Captain?"

"Kristoff! What's your situation? How's Elsa?"

"We're alive. I wouldn't say we're fine, but we're, uh, we have power, food and water. There's a very slow tumble. Did they... did they cut it?"

"Yes."

"Damn." His voice receded into the distance as he shouted to someone else. "Commander Crosby! Winterkiss is confirming that the Elevator is cut."

A distant voice shouted, "Shit. Understood."

Anna said, "Kristoff, we're coming for you."

Lieutenant Rekkit said, "Uh, ma'am. You want to see this." She nodded, and he touched a button on his console. The screen came to life.

The Elevator was disintegrating. Self-destruct charges were going off all along its length, blowing it into pieces sufficiently small to disintegrate in the atmosphere. Anna cringed inside. The Elevator was a monumental achievement, an engineering masterpiece and Arendelle's only access into space. Without it, they were at the mercy of chemical rockets. Their space-based personnel couldn't go home; their groundside personnel couldn't go up.

That first two hundred kilometers of the Elevator couldn't self-destruct; it was the thickest part, the base that reached above the atmosphere, the segment that led to Low Orbit One, where it was safe to light off fusion drives and avoid falling back into the atmosphere, and nuking it would have done more damage than letting it fall. It was falling toward Arendelle. Each kilometer was several kilotons of densely-woven borocarbon fiber strong enough to survive re-entry.

The base fell with a mighty crash, devastating everything in its path and kicking up a dust storm that would linger for years. Every farm town, every agricultural center, every maintenance outpost within a blast zone eight hundred kilometers long and five hundred kilometers on a side was destroyed. Almost a quarter of Arendelle's wheat and corn production was wiped out in less than an hour. Thousands were killed.

Anna could only watch the devastation unfold. She turned to her tractor tactical station. "Vanellope, once we've put Anchor into a safe orbit I want you to take the pinnace and evacuate all non-essential personnel. We'll ferry everyone we can groundside as soon as possible." She punched a familiar button. "Felix, what's our status?"

"We won't be able to do that again, Ma'am. That beam overloaded several major breakers and capacitors. We have casualties, Ma'am, but I don't think any of them are fatal." Felix sounded worried. Anna waited for the worst. "We've lost our Warsharski sails, Ma'am."

"Permanently?"

"I think so, Ma'am. The capacitors for forward Alpha Ring number two were right next to the Warsharski coil, and they blew hard enough to destroy the containment vessel."

"Great. Just great." Without her sails, Anna would be forced to wait until Manticore sent a second expedition out to find her. She could theoretically go into hyper but without the sails she couldn't detect the dangerous gravity waves that might shred a ship in seconds, and in the absolutely uncharted and probably dangerous space between two binary stars and an anomalous brown dwarf, the last thing she wanted was to risk it. She couldn't go through a wormhole junction at all.

"Thanks, Felix. You kept us alive. Do what you can. I'll call you back." She toggled another station. "DC, tell me about our wounded."

"Six injured, no deaths, Captain," came the damage control officer's report. "Lieutenant Keane is going to lose his leg, but Doctor Whelan says he's on the regen list."

"And the others?" Anna said softly.

"Burns, mostly. Lt. Commander Dutta took it to the back of the head, and she's on the no-regen list. Some concussion but nothing major. Doc reports she'll live, but there'll be reconstructive surgery, and external transplantation therapy to grow her hair back."

"Understood." She looked up, and Olaf was staring back at her. She gathered him in her arms and held him, still eschewing the command chair she almost never sat in. "But Arendelle...." In Rekkit's tactical display, the Elevator was still crashing to the ground with such agonizing slowness Anna felt surely, surely there was something she could do. But there wasn't. It would take hours to complete its devastation, and there was nothing Anna or anyone else could do to stop fourteen megatons of destruction from scarring the equator of Arendelle forever. "All those people."

Anna listened as the toll rolled in. Groundside reports of wreck and ruin tugged at her, and she tried to steady herself. Olaf hopped up onto the chair and looked at her. She gave him a nod. "Captain," Lieutenant Metzinger said, "Boat Bay One reports Queen Elsa and party on board."

"Good," Anna said. "Is the XO among them?" He nodded. "Get him up here."

"Captain!"

"Talk to me, Mr. Rekkit."

"Incoming fire, Ma'am! Large slugs. They look unguided. They're headed for the solettas!"

Anna gulped. Arendelle's solettas were vast, often 20 kilometers across, but they were nothing more than a strong, light framework across which stretched vast circular sheets of reflective mylar. They doubled the sunlight that reached each duchy. Without that sunlight, the city-states of Arendelle would be frozen wastelands. They were another marvel of colonial engineering, and she couldn't allow them to be destroyed. "Point of origin? ETA?"

"Arendelle's moon. ETA, six minutes."

Anna did some numbers in her head. Those slugs weren't moving very fast, not for a Queen's vessel. "Carmen, do we need to do anything to intercept?"

"We could be someplace further out, for ASTC's comfort."

"Do it." Although no one on the ship felt a thing, on the big screen the stars turned as the Winterkiss rolled to meet the new fire. "Ralph, get on a solution. Not one of those slugs hits home, you got me?"

"Aye aye, Captain." Anna shot him a look but chose not to interrupt. Ralph's tendency to descend to an almost piratical San Martino accent at moments of stress bordered on the unprofessional, but the man had been a member of the resistance during San Martin's occupation by the People's Republic of Haven. For a rebel, insubordination was just a game to be played. "Ready."

"Fire!"

Coherent laser light flickered out from Winterkiss. Anna's ship wasn't meant to go into combat, but the anti-missile systems onboard were surely the equal of unguided rocks. Each slug, little more than a machined barrel of ore that in better days would have been destined for one of Arendelle's orbital refineries, disappeared under the withering fire.

The door to the bridge opened as Anna took in the battle reports. She saw Kristoff take up his station. Behind him, Elsa and Calhoun tumbled onto the bridge. Elsa looked wrecked, but Anna was glad to see her. So much she almost ran to the other woman before she remembered her place. "Your Majesty, you shouldn't..."

"I invited them," Kristoff said. "There's no place safer in the galaxy right now than this bridge."

"Oh." Anna stood upright, straightening the top of her uniform. "Good point. Welcome, then, your Majesty, Captain Calhoun." Elsa nodded. "Did Buzz come with you?"

Calhoun growled, "Yeah, he went and found Doctor Flynn."

"Oh, good. Comm, get me Flynn." He nodded. "Flynn, you and Buzz need to put your heads together. Is there any way anyone other than Vesselton could have fired those slugs from Arendelle's moon?"

"Not that I can think of," said the now familiar voice of Adolph Buzz. "Someone would have to break through two cryptosystems to make that possible."

This wasn't her war, but she had an enemy. The rules of engagement in peacetime defined a box around a starship, and any aggressive fire within that box gave the captain licence to return fire and neutralize the threat to her vessel. That box was far larger than anyone on Arendelle would have thought reasonable, but no ship on Arendelle remotely pulled tens, much less hundreds, of Gs of acceleration. A Queen's ship did. "Carmen. Direct course for Vesselton. Eighty-percent power with a zero-zero intercept. Time?"

Lieutenant Ibanez didn't hesitate. She had those numbers ready. "Eighteen minutes."

"Execute!" She turned to Calhoun. "One way or another, we're going to get to the bottom of this."

Chapter Text

Anna should have returned to Arendelle and dropped Elsa off. As she hadn't, Elsa had ensconced herself in Anna's smallest conference room and was trying to run the groundside disaster from two light-seconds away. Anna told herself that Arendelle's prime minister had all the authority he needed to handle the emergency, and Elsa was safest on the fastest mobile platform in the solar system, not to mention the one with the best shields, armor, and weapons. She told herself that, and she didn't believe it. She just wanted the woman close right now. Wanted to make sure she was being cared for, wanted to keep her away from the horror that awaited her when she got groundside.

The bridge felt empty and quiet. Twenty minutes shouldn't have felt so long. Only the quiet hum of the ship's life support and the occasional beep of attention distracted her. "Anything?" she asked Lieutenant Metzinger.

"Nothing, Captain. Not a signal from the Vessel since we started."

"They have to know we're on our way. They have to respond somehow. Don't they, Major?"

Buzz stroked his amazing chin. The temporary bump in rank had been explained to him as a courtesy of RMN starships, a way of making sure there really was only one person on the bridge who answered to the call of "captain." "I don't know, Captain DuVar. There hasn't been real-time communication with them in decades, I believe. It's always packeted, often just text. The messages we do get from them seem a bit... off. Animated, if you understand."

"Orbital insertion at Agdar in five minutes." Lieutnenat Ibanez' voice called from her station.

As Arendelle's only moon, Agdar was nothing to look at. Smaller than Luna or Thorson, but also significantly more dense, it was a classically battered reddish-yellow ball of rock. Tactical wasn't tagging any significant activity down there at all.

On the main viewscreen, the Vessel was growing. It was an elongated latticework of white-painted frames holding together an odd assortment of fattened cylinders. Tactical painted the display with best guesses as to what each equipment piece was.

"Ingresses here, here, and here," she heard Buzz say as he pointed at a small display next to Rekkit's station. "Still no communications, though. This is very strange."

"Ralph, call Major Camran to your station. If they won't talk to us, we're going to have a boarding party."

"Yes, Ma'am."


Elsa joined Anna on the bridge as they watched Buzz and four of Winterkiss's marines, including Major Camran, enter what seemed to be the largest and most central construction on the Vessel. Buzz had identified it as part of the original equipment, the crew's quarters. Heavily protected against radation poisoning and with multiple immediate power supplies, it seemed the best place to look for people.

Buzz kept up a monologue about what he was seeing that did not reassure Anna at all. "The construction has changed a lot from what was described in the original blueprints, and I've been through those in sim a thousand times," he muttered. "I shouldn't be surprised, but this is all very peculiar. Whoa, robot." His helmet camera focussed on a spindly multi-legged thing attached to the ceiling. It appeared to be using a static mop to dust. "This is where the main cabins were, but there's... huh." Buzz led her marines down a long corridor. He seemed much more at home in zero-G than her marines did, but he lived in it every day; they only practiced with it. "This corridor is a lot shorter than the simulation. The door is... locked. Well, this shouldn't be too hard."

Anna could only hear the sounds as he monkeyed with the controls. "Viola." His helmet cam shot up into a room. "What in the blazes is... Great God. Captain, I think we've found the crew."


"That has to be the creepiest ship I've ever been on," Flynn said. "Not that I've been on many creepy ships, but that one takes the cake." Anna was in full agreement. One or two pirate vessels in her experience had defined the term "creepy" for her, but Vesselton took creepy to an entirely different plane.

Elsa sat at the other end of the conference room, her elbows on the table, burying her head in her arms. Flynn, Anna, Kristoff, Buzz, and several other scientists and engineers watched her.

Anna struggled to keep her feeling professional and controlled. It was clear the woman was hurting, and possibly out of her depth. Anna had seen people shocked out of their depth before and her native empathy, much enhanced by her years with Olaf, made her ache to reach out and embrace the amazing blonde. She resorted to, "Your Majesty?"

"They're mad. They're all mad over there. Not a single one of them believed I was here. They all interpreted me through... whatever it was they were doing. They're stuck in simulations, virtual realities, video games! We've been negotiating with their automatic response system for fifty years?" She looked up. If she'd looked tired before, now the term "harried" didn't begin to describe her. "I knew their physical condition had deteriorated, it had to have after centuries, but I couldn't imagine they'd let their mental condition fall so far. I thought they'd be more like The Mother."

"Who?" Anna said.

"The Mother. Captain Gothel. She's on Corona."

"The captain of the colony expedition is still alive?" Anna said.

Elsa nodded. She pointed vaguely behind herself, as if she could see The Vessel through the ship's hull. "The people on the Vessel were her crew, Captain. If they're still alive-- if you can call that living-- she can be as well. But I understand that she's still walking around, talking with my family, advising them. She's been a confident to four generations of my family's branch over there. My cousin speaks fondly of her."

"Captain," Flynn said, "There's no reason to believe the Vessel here, and what remains of the crew on Corona, took the same path, culturally. Maybe Corona was more welcoming than the original colonists. The three-way split between Arendelle, the Vessel, and those who went off to Corona happened before the agro-plague and the Constitution of Monarchy." Anna nodded. "Anyway, Buzz has control of the transmission system, at least. He's been tickling the logs to see if he can find out what happened." Flynn sat back, his legs crossed. "We know about the crew. But what about the girl?"

Anna made a face. The 'girl' was the least significant of their problems, but for some reason everyone else had fixated on her. Probably because the rest of the crew were so damned disturbing.

Anna had thought Elsa joking when she described the crew as "brains in jars." She hadn't been. Of the eight thousand members of the crew who had chosen exile on The Vessel after the Arendelle Establishment of Monarchy, only 63 survived, and all of them were exactly as Elsa had described them. The jars were not, thankfully, transparent, or even really just jars; they were medically closed, surgically clean life-support systems with their own power sources, cleaning and recycling systems, and a nutritional reserve. Each system consisted of a coffin the size of a small two-man groundcar. "How did the crew end up like that?"

Buzz shrugged. "They always said they wanted to be freed of the limitations of the flesh. From time to time they would proseletyze, telling us down here of the wonderful freedom that came from giving up the limitations of our bodies. They never got any adherents that I know of." He looked down at his hands, as if seeing them in a new light. "I suspect that in their wait, their technology outstripped their maturity."

Flynn said. "If I didn't have to eat or sleep or chase after girls, what would I do with myself?" He sat back, legs crossed in a way to take up more space than was necessary, and ignored Elsa's flush. "Their brains were still telling them to do those things, or whatever their personal equivalents were. They went into simulations and... stayed there."

"But why won't they believe Queen Elsa when she tells them she's not part of the sim?" Anna said.

"Think of it this way, Captain. You know how to fly a fixed-wing, right?" Flynn said. Anna nodded. "You probably have something called competence transparency. Your tools are invisible, you no longer think about how to fly the aircraft. You just think about what you want it to do, and your hands and feet do the how by themselves. You've built a lot of brain matter to do that and acheive that competence. The Vessel crew are still humans, with human brains. They've spent so long in simulations their brains have built up a massive collection of hows about relating to that world. Eventually, it's all they know."

"And... the girl?"

"We have no idea. She's in cryo, not in sim. There are no marking or labels indicating who she might be, and the computers are refusing to acknowledge she even exists. Even though some of them are obviously caring for her. She even had a separate hydroponics fab attached to her side of the facility, where the algae is exposed to sunlight to filter any toxic buildups in her blood. It's amazing." Flynn shook his head. "There's some lost Terran tech there Manticore could really learn from."

Anna nodded. The survivors had been found in one long bay, serviced by clever machines that hovered over each station and monitored it. In a separate room, locked with a different keycode from the one Buzz had hacked to access the main medical bay, there had been a single cryogenic chamber, and inside it a young woman. Just using the equipment on board they had been able to show that her body and brain was similarly wired to the rest of the crew, but whereas they were hundreds of years old, the scanners had shown her to have been frozen somewhere around sixteen years of age.

"If she's remotely related to anyone on Arendelle, we'll figure out who she is," Buzz said. "Arendelle's tissue matching library is comprehensive and complete. Patients in cryo aren't really frozen, and cryofluids always have enough loose DNA to provide samples for testing."

That was good enough for Anna. "Your Majesty," Anna said. Elsa looked up. "We must get you back to Arendelle. I'm sorry, but you have a to-do list a light-year long, and so do I. Buzz, call ahead and assemble a team of... psychologists, I guess. And physicians. And engineers. And a long-duration habitable ship. We'll drag you all out to Agdar immediately, and then you can begin trying to get through to those crazies, and make sure they're not a threat to any of us anymore." She had spotted the wedding ring on his hand earlier. He wasn't her type but he was handsome in a lot of ways. "Sorry to keep you away from your wife."

"Good idea. I'll even sign off on it." He tapped his chin idly. "Oh, and it's husband, actually. Sure hope Oaken doesn't mind having to watch the kids by himself for too long." He noticed Anna's startlement and laughed. "Oh, it's all right, it's the less likely possibility."

Anna stared. Husband. Back on Manticore, homosexual encounters were regarded as just one of those things that happened, but nobody treated them with the significance and dignity of marriage. She'd even heard of church services for same-sex couples, in those churches that tolerated such things, but there was no civil recognition of them. Few even cared, but everyone understood that the purpose of marriage was to guarantee the lineage going forward, especially in the case of nobility and gentry. Regardless of one's personal indescretions, the obligation to family and line and heredity were everything. Biological heritage is the only wealth that matters. That distinction had always made Anna feel something like an outsider. Manticore had always been oh, so accepting of her consensual peccadilloes as long as she wasn't about to be derelict of duty.

Anna had always wondered if she would end up married to some nobleman for reasons of pure economy and heritage-- someone like Hans, maybe-- and then find romantic pleasures in her life elsewhere. It felt like a desolate compromise. When she'd told her father, he'd shrugged and said that life was compromise.

She shook herself. She had responsibilities, and tasks, an after-action report to dictate, a ship to repair. Now was not the time to be thinking about Elsa. Elsa? She hadn't been thinking about Elsa at all. She glanced at the Queen, who was now looking up at Captain Calhoun and talking, slowly, making plans. She turned back to Buzz and smiled. "Thank you. My crew will make sure you get about safely."

He grinned. "And thank you, Captain."

She glanced back toward the Queen again, trying to keep the roiling thoughts in her head from showing on her face. Elsa looked like a mess. Anna wanted to hug her, to hold her and tell her it would be all right. But that wasn't true, and hugging wasn't permitted. Anna only hoped that by the time they all got back to Arendelle, the proper courses of action would be underway.

Chapter Text

Looking out the porthole, Anna watched the ground grow closer as Vanellope once again piloted the pinnace to a picture perfect landing at Arendelle's largest airport. She sighed. "I wonder if I'll have time go hiking."

"In the snow?" her seatmate said.

"Sure," she said, giving Flynn a broad grin. "I did it all the time in Iron Fjord. On Sphinx. We're not like you wimpy Manticorans who do nothing but lounge about in your tropical paradises."

"Hey!" Flynn said, holding up his hands to ward off the accusation. "That's fair, I suppose. You're hard-core, Captain."

"That's what Captains are for," Anna said. She felt a bit guilty leaving Kristoff to command Winterkiss, but someone had to and it was definitely her turn for a little shore leave. She'd been going non-stop for a week, getting Elsa home, getting Buzz's crew out to Vesselton, conversing with the materials specialists groundside and in orbit.

She worried about Arendelle, and Elsa. Arendelle's weather was going to undergo a massive reconfiguration, and unfortunately for the colder. With both the space elevator's heavy lift capability gone and The Vessel's material contributions to Arendelle's orbital economy on hold, building new solettas to increase surface temperatures in compensation was going to be much more difficult. Winterkiss could help with personnel but raw materials lift was far beyond her heaviest shuttle's capabilities, nor was Anna authorized by her orders to help much in that regard.

In the meantime, one-fifth of her crew was on shore leave at any given time, given the freedom to visit Chantel and enjoy the pleasures that Arendelle offered. Anna hadn't begun to figure out the crediting system, only that one of Queen Elsa's secretaries had assured her that food, drink, clothes, hoteling and the like were being provided "at the pleasure of the Queen."

The very phrase made Anna blush inappropriately before she crammed those thoughts down. She had a life to return to, back on Manticore. Of a sort.

"You look like a women engaged in some deep philosophizing, Captain."

She regarded Flynn Fitzhubert with a half-grin and a shrug. "I guess I am." She did not want to discuss with him her discomfort with her Manticoran predicament. She definitely did not want to discuss the way she felt whenever she came within line of sight of Queen Elsa. "What do you think of Arendelle, Flynn?"

"A man could get use to it," Flynn said. "It's a very luxurious place. Without a real war effort, they've had plenty of economic slack to deal with. Some of the efforts here have been wild. The progressive tax rate and the enforced multi-owner liquidity pools are both interesting. Both prevent the hoarding of money, so despite all the free cash floating around the velocity of money is still high enough to prevent recessions." He shook his head. "There's no reason Manticore couldn't be like this. None at all."

"Are you an economist along with everything else?" She smiled at him. He was very handsome in a relaxed and rakish sort of way that appealed deeply to her, but it was a learned rakishness, as if someone had taught him how to dress. His clothes fit him so well it came off as a kind of costume. She suspected he was the sort who hired a stylist once every five years to pick out a wardrobe for him.

"Oh, no. My PhD. is in materials science, you know, but I've always been a generalist. Jack of all trades, master of none. I'm very good at the math, and all these disciplines are math at the heart. I just need to load the terminology into my head with a few textbooks, make the right connections, and figure out who to talk to." He waved away the question. "If people think you're speak their language, they'll give you the answers you're looking for just like that." He snapped his fingers gently.

A chime rang out indicating they would be landing soon. Anna checked her and Flynn's belts. She'd left Olaf on board with Winterkiss. He'd nuzzled her and assured her she needed to get out on her own. She was grateful to him, as she'd have much less trouble being incognito without a treecat on her shoulders.

A taxi cab driven by a member of the palace staff in civilian clothing carried them into Chantel and dropped them off at a street in front of a hotel. Felix had been the only other officer on the shuttle and Anna had hoped he would join them, but he had an appointment at the Queen's College. The rest of the shuttle's passengers had been enlisted men and scientists she didn't know, so that left her with Flynn. He'd been fine company on the flight down. She preferred not to be alone at the moment.

"So," she said, "Even if you're not an economist, you seem to understand how it all works. How are we paying for our downtime?"

"We aren't. We don't have to. Look, money is how people figure out how to allocate and distribute stuff that an economy is short of. It's how we reward people for having a scarce something that other people want-- skill, savvy, muscle, talent, beauty, whatever. But what if something so abundant it wouldn't make sense to allocate it?"

"Like what?"

"Like air." He gestured up the narrow street with its perfectly seamed cobblestones, its colorfully painted storefronts, its artfully snowed-over rooftops. "Or water." He gestured to the bottle of water she held in her gloved hand. "Or what it takes to create that, or transport it here, or recycle that when you're done with it. You only have to pay people for the one thing they don't want to spend: their time. Someone has to be the last check, and the holder of the responsibility, over the automation. Those people get rewarded in what Arendelle calls real money. But that," he said, pointing to the water bottle, "can be bought with cash. Which isn't real money."

"What is real money, then?"

"Money you can buy real estate with. Land. Material capital. Mineral or forest or water rights. The time of other human beings. Oh, and there's one other kind of money they have here. Interstellar money, which is how they exchange value with Corona over the radio, to negotiate what goes into their starships and what its value will be when it arrives. Because the value of real estate fluctuates at a slow pace-- say annually-- but the value of interstellar trade is really slow, 22 years slow."

They walked up the street. Anna took a deep breath and smelled coffee coming from a dark-green shop ahead of them. When they reached it, it looked like a cozy cafe. "Stop here?" she said.

"Anything the lady likes," Flynn said, making a little bow and gesture toward the door. Anna giggled.

Inside reminded of Anna of every coffee shop she'd ever been in, from the hissing espresso machine that looked like a cross between a chrome grasshopper and a gleaming locomotive, to the tiny tables with men and women reading, writing in notebooks, hammering away at clamshell computers of various sizes, or looking into each other's eyes with fondness. One couple in the corner was clearly and blatantly into some new stage of romance, unable to keep their hands off each other as they gazed across the table. Anna sighed and turned away. Young love was supposed to feel like that. What wasn't fair was how love at fifty didn't feel that way. "Hey," Flynn said, his voice softening. "You're fading out. He asked what you want."

"Oh!" Anna said. "Sorry. Can you make a mocha?" The man behind the counter, an older man with a shock of white hair, nodded. "One, please. With whipped cream. And sprinkles if you've got 'em."

"Anything for the pretty lady," the barista said, his accent heavy.

When they had their drinks, Flynn and Anna took a table near the window. Chantel may have been deep into late winter but the streets were remarkably clear of snow. People walked back and forth, a panoply of humanity. Like Manticore, the most common skin color was a simple light brown similar to Anna's or Flynn's, the result of generations of genetic averaging. Most of them were heavyset. It made Elsa's tall, thin, startlingly pale appearance all the more exotic.

Anna shook her head. She had to stop thinking of Elsa. "What do they do all day?" she said to Flynn.

"What did human do before crowding and agriculture made things like fertile real estate and resource hoarding a thing we even cared about? Nap, mostly. Screw a lot. We have books and movies and socializing with a much wider circle than our hundred-or-so tribe-and-family now. Substitutes."

"Elsa doesn't seem to get a lot of 'free time.'"

"No," Flynn said. "Maybe that's a price to be paid. Rulers don't get a break. Which might explain why it's a kingdom, like Manticore. At least you get to feel important. Unlike old Rob Pierre. 'President' doesn't sound like a job title worth the stress, especially since at the end you go back to being just plain 'citizen.' Provided you don't get shot in the head, like Pierre." He frowned for a moment. "I heard the Queen invited you to dinner."

"Oh." Anna froze for a moment, then waved it away. "That. She wanted to sound me out. Get a feel for how Manticore might approach Arendelle more permanently."

"I see," Flynn said, tapping his chin rhythmically with one hand.

"Although I could tell that she's lonely. It must be really lonely, being Queen and all. Maybe she goes for the handsome scientist type?" Anna eyed Flynn, one eyebrow raised.

"No," Flynn said firmly. "No, no, no, no, no. No thank you at all. My life is simple and uncomplicated. I'm not going to get involved in anything entailed, Lady Captain DuVar. No baronesses, no duchesses, no countesses, no princesses."

"But a queen is okay?"

"It didn't rhyme. Or fit the meter."

Anna laughed. "That's a shame. I'm sure you could charm her in no time flat, Flynn Fitzhubert. Just don't wear those cargo pants if you do."

"And be somewhere without my gadgets?" Flynn mimed apall.

"You know, Doctor Fitzhubert, for a boffin you're pretty good company."

"And for a Lady and a Captain, you are as well," Flynn admitted. He raised his coffee cup. "To good company."

"To good company," Anna replied in kind.

They sat quietly for a moment. The cafe was busy with people coming and going, so Anna hadn't noticed the tall, intense man when he'd first entered, but now he was making a beeline for their table. He leaned over said softly, "Captain DuVar?"

Anna looked up, startled. "Yes?"

He reached into his pocket. Anna stiffened until she saw it was just a leather billfold. He showed her an identity card. In a very low voice he said, "Her Majesty requests that you have tea with her this afternoon at 1pm." Anna checked her watch. That was two hours from now, local time. "Would you care to be escorted?"

"No, thank you." The man looked startled. "It's not that far," she said. "I'll walk."

He smiled. "As you wish." In a louder voice he said, "My apologies. I seem to have mistaken you for someone else. Good day, sir. And you, madam." With a much more relaxed look, he turned and left.

"Well, that was certainly odd," Flynn said. "Professionally odd but still, odd."

"Yeah, but--" Anna took a deep breath. "Time for me to go. I'll catch up when we're done."

"I'll be around." He made a broad gesture toward the window. "It's a lovely city."

Anna rose, walked out of the cafe, and made her way toward the waterfront. It didn't seem as if anyone was following her. She'd heard the harrowing tales of how the Admiral had been stalked by one of her enemies, complete with an actual assassination attempt in a crowded restaurant, and now wondered if Elsa's enemies, of which there were more than a few on Arendelle, might try to kill her as an indirect attack on the royal family. The palace officer may have been legitimate, but Anna had no idea what an official palace ID card looked like.

The city seemed safe. Arendelle felt safe. Arendelle would recover from the loss of the Elevator; already, the manufactories in orbit were spinning out the first lengths of cable, no thicker than her thumb, to be stretched from Midpoint outward in both directions, toward the new Anchor and toward the ground. Anna hoped Arendelle stayed safe. It deserved it. Elsa deserved it.

Chapter Text

Kai led a short, rounded woman in an elegantly cut dress and a giant smile past Gerda and into the winter sunroom. The day outside hovered barely below freezing and not even a breeze blew, the perfect weather for being outdoors. Hot tea in a self-warming pot sat on the tiny table and warm breads waited on a tray nearby. "Your Majesty, Lady Meke Guiliel."

"Meke," Elsa said, rising to stand before the other woman. "I'm so glad."

"Your Majesty. Are you sure you have time for this?"

"I have to make time. Or so Kai reminds me. And please, don't be so formal."

"I'm sorry, My Queen. I don't feel comfortable calling you 'Elsa.' Not since..." She sighed, but her eyes lighted on Elsa's tiny day-crown.

"You did when we were children."

"That was when we were children. Before you received the throne. And the Keys." Elsa looked down at her gloved hands and nodded. "I sometimes wonder what that was like."

"It was... frightening," Elsa said. "Kai helped me find the gloves, and` there were a few weeks when..." She sighed. "Every generation since Anton the Great has dealt with the Keys. It's the only way to maintain order, Meke. In a situation like this, a democracy would eat itself alive." Elsa gestured toward the chairs. "Come. Sit."

"I'm not so sure. Leto's The Timeless Way Of Governing says we're still small enough that accountability would be possible. But I'm not going to disagree; your family has done Arendelle great service over the years. But you, you look exhausted." Meke said.

"I am." When they were both situated around the table, Gerda poured Meke a cup of tea and withdrew. Elsa's serious look softened as she regarded Meke. Like most of her subjects, Meke was shorter and darker-skinned than Elsa's line and slightly plump. Meke's over-endowed chest preceded her like the prow of an icebreaker. Her dark, straight hair and wide eyes helped accentuate her beauty, and Elsa's eyes spent a little too long lingering over her friend's fortunate figure. "Actually, I asked you here for two reasons. I may be stuck as the Queen of Arendelle, but you've had the freedom to visit many of the districts. You've had time to build up an impression of all of them. I want to talk about... " Her finger tapped the thick folder on her table. The folder was real paper, hand-written in many cases. There would be no inadvertent leakage of her security staff's unguarded opinions. She took a deep breath. Sighing was all the rage these days, she noted.

Gerda raised a hand to her ear, then nodded to Elsa. "Oh, good. Before we get into that," she said, tapping the folder again, "I want you to meet someone and assess her for me. Get a feel for her. You've got the best lie-detecting equipment I've ever known between your ears, Meke, and I want you to tell me if I'm dealing with someone trustworthy here."

Meke's eyes furrowed, but she only nodded. Kai re-entered the room. "Your Majesty, as requested, Lady Captain Anna DuVar."

"Here?" Anna said. Kai put his hand to Anna's back and guided her toward the table. "Oh. Um. Hi." Anna seemed to remember herself, bowed. "Your Majesty."

"Captain," Elsa said. "I would like you to meet Lady Meke Guiliel. She's an old friend. I highly recommend you one to another." Meke's eyebrows rose at the coded message. Anna's face was still, but it was clear she hadn't missed the implications either. "Anna, Meke is second in line to inherit the Duchy of Guiliel. Meke, Anna is the Captain of the Royal Manticoran Naval Exploratory Cruiser Winterkiss."

Meke's eyes widened. "I... I'm very pleased to meet you, Captain. I understand that Manticore isn't Earth, but... there still is an Earth?"

"Oh, yes, Your Ladyship," Anna said. "I've even been there. I went there on a diplomatic tour as a new lieutenant. We hit all the high spots, you know: London, Paris, New York, Alpha, Olympus and New Clarke."

"New Clarke?"

"It's an orbital station around Jupiter. Refuelling stop. Of course, it's very touristy, because everyone wants to see Jupiter. The glass is thick and there's a layer of water to prevent all the radiation from seeping through. It's much safer to see it through a camera, although once through the glass has its own romance--" She caught herself short. She'd been bouncing.

Elsa smiled. She'd read Commander Buzz's after-action report. Captain Anna DuVar and Lady Anna DuVar seemed to be two utterly different people. Elsa had had a chance to see Captain DuVar, and Commander Buzz's report had reinforced Elsa's impression of a woman of action, toughness, reserve, and a sense of justice. Anna without the white beret was a different creature: flustered, chatty, social, and hedonistic. If both of them had anything in common, it was a deep reserve of commitment toward the people who depended upon her. Elsa could only admire her more.

"You're missing your famous companion."

"Oh, Olaf? He wanted to stay on the ship and hang out with Sven. I want them to come down here and get a good look at your forests, but we don't know what kind of predators you have loose in there, so of course until one of us does the research, he's either with me or upstairs. I like it. It gave me a chance to walk around Chantel without anyone recognizing me. It's a beautiful place, so fairy-tale and everything."

Elsa said, "My ancestor had a soft spot for ancient castles and primary colors. Other cities on Arendelle are much more... modern-looking."

"More's the pity," Meke said. "It's not like we have a good reason for them all to look like steam and steel towers. Captain, you've had a good look at Chantel. Tell me about Manticore."

Anna's eyes narrowed, but she obviously understood the appeal Meke was making. She told. Prost and Favier had met with Kristoff and Anna in the guise of professional soldiers, assessing each other's potential risks and benefits. Elsa's people knew Manticore hopelessly outclassed Arendelle militarily, but they were good professionals who had looked upon the imbalance as an opportunity to learn, not a reason to overreact, run or hide. Meke wanted something different. Elsa watched her best friend extract secrets Anna would never have revealed in a professional sense. Anna talked about growing up in Iron Fjord, visiting places named Copperwall and Jason Bay, about a middle school trip to Landing to visit the Royal Museum of Art and History . Meke was steering Anna around much personal history, although Elsa learned Anna had a mother and a father, they were separated, her father had the title and everything that went with it, and that she had at least one younger sibling.

Meke listened with stillness and attentiveness. Sometimes, when Anna ran down, the silence would seem to stretch out for painfully long moments, and then Meke would ask a question. Anna seemed all too eager to keep the awkward silence from recurring, so she would talk and talk to fill it. Elsa admired the technique, but was sure she could never use it herself. On the other hand, when the silence stretched long, it gave her a chance to watch Anna's face in stillness and concentration, and the flutters in her own belly were impossible to deny.

Meke traded back a few details from her own life. Her parents were still together, her brother Heul was due to inherit their seat, and she had no particular paramours at the moment. The mention of paramours made Anna close up momentarily, but Meke dodged the obstruction with a mention of a childhood pet, a horse. "I love horses!" Anna said, and the room again filled with her voice.

Elsa thought she could listen to Anna for hours. Such nattering should have driven her to distraction, but from Anna it was all so different, all so new.

After only half an hour, Kai entered and said, "Your Majesty, we have an appointment at two."

"Of course, Kai." She rose, and the two women rose with her. "If you would escort Captain DuVar back to her party?"

"Of course, Your Majesty. Captain?"

Anna rose, as did Elsa. Anna bowed, and Elsa nodded. Anna said, "It was a pleasure to meet you, Lady Guiliel. I hope we meet again."

"Of that, I'm certain," Meke said, holding out a hand. Anna shook, and Kai guided her away. When the door closed, she said, "Well, that was an interesting interview." She was staring at Elsa intently.

"What do you think?" Elsa said as they sat back down.

"I like her. And I think she's telling the truth. I don't have a handle on Manticoran politics yet... hundreds of nobles, of different rank, oh my God, Elsa, it must be very confusing! But I think we're dealing with a fair dealer. She means what she says. Manticore's main power is economic with a military to back it up, not the other way around."

Elsa sagged. "Good. I don't know what we can do economically, but at least I don't have to worry about them coming in as an invading army."

"That doesn't seem their style, no." Meke was still looking Elsa over. She looked at the massive green folder on the table. "What's that, now?"

"Oh, this." Elsa sighed. "It's all the eligible male dukes and their heirs. I was hoping you might have a good idea..."

Meke grimaced. "Elsa--"

"They're pressuring me, Meke."

Meke's eyes went to the door through which Anna and Kai had exited. "Are you sure you didn't want me here to vet Captain DuVar for other reasons?"

Elsa's eyes narrowed. "What are you saying, Meke?"

Meke leaned back in her chair, put her cup down. Her insufferable silence trick stretched much longer than any time she'd spoken with Anna, but both of them knew Elsa had the patience to wait Meke out. Finally she said, "Okay. Elsa, I've known you my whole life. I know for a fact there isn't a man on this planet who attracts your eye. If you want my assessment of the nobility around here, you shouldn't ask your intelligence team to be assessing your dukes and their sons. You should ask them about your duchesses and their daughters."

Elsa felt herself go still, and down inside the flutters were replaced with a chill as deep as Arendelle's coldest night. Most of her "secrets" were publicly known. The Power of the Family of Anton, the Keys, the symbols of her authority real or imagined, were the fodder of the press and the public networks. Her people monitored the public 'net for signs of threat. This... this was never... "You know?"

"Pffft, My Queen. I've known since you were twelve. My only regret is that, well, I don't follow you that way. I would have leaped at the chance. I'm glad I didn't. It must be a terrible affliction, to go from having half the population available to you to having, what, one percent?"

"'Affliction?'" Elsa cried. Then she deflated. "That is one way to look at it. I suppose. But it's not fair, Meke! And how will my dukes react? They've been courting me with favored sons for awhile already. I wish you could accept."

"My Queen, my beloved friend," Meke said, "I would do anything for you. But I can't be that for you. You'll just have to tell them the truth, and have them start sending you their favored daughters instead. I'm afraid that, while you can have your staff go through the list, I don't know of any single Duchesses or Lady who I think would both suit you and would, um, suit you." She glanced back at the door. "Are you sure you're not looking to the good Captain DuVar?"

"What? No, of course not."

"Does she favor women?"

"I don't know. She's dealing with a 'situation'-- that's her word-- with a man right now, but it seems to be... unstable."

"Maybe because men aren't suitable to her, either?" Meke said.

"I have no idea. Meke," Elsa said, leaning forward fiercely, "It would be inappropriate of me to contemplate a relationship with someone not of Arendelle. It would certainly be inappropriate of me to, to, to glom onto the first woman from outer space that comes into my cham... my throne room."

Meke grinned but didn't say a word.

Elsa deflated. "She is very pretty."

"That she is," Meke said softly. Elsa cocked an eyebrow. "Oh, come off it, Elsa, just because I'm straight doesn't mean I lack in my ability to assess a woman's beauty. In other circumstances, Anna DuVar would count as the competition. Especially with that hair! You two would make an adorable couple."

Elsa laughed behind her hand. "True. Too true. What if I were courting her?"

Meke regarded her seriously. "Elsa, you have to rule Arendelle as best you can. Manticore's population is much greater than Arendelle's, and I'm sure there'll be lots of opportunities for you to find a lover here, or there, or Corona." She shook her head. "I still can't imagine having trade with Corona that isn't measured in years. But if Captain DuVar is available, and a good one... " Meke let it trail off. "There aren't many bargaining chips better than ruler of a whole world."

"I don't want to bribe anyone. I want a relationship based on, on merit."

Meke nodded. "Then don't bribe. I like her. I like Anna. If I were interested in women, I'd be interested in her, too. But I can't advise you in this, Elsa. You're going to have to find out if she's available, and then you're going to have to find your own way."

Chapter Text

"All right, Felix, what's this all about?" Anna asked as she entered Engineering Tool Room #2. To be sure, she'd been grateful for the distraction from the mountains of paperwork that threatened to overwhelm her command, but as long as it could hold atmosphere and the Lords of Admiralty deemed it, Winterkiss was her ship, and her responsibility, and so was the paperwork that went with it. A lot of paperwork.

"Well, Ma'am, it's this." He gestured at a cylinder, not much larger than a full-sized fire extinguisher. Wisps of white vapor fell away from it, signs of cryogenic cooling. "We found it during an inventory of Vesselton and... Well, I don't believe it, but Flynn here thinks that the attack on Anchor wasn't conducted by the Vessel at all. It came from the Vessel, but it originated elsewhere."

"Okay. That's certainly possible. How does this thing fit in?"

Flynn said, "What you're looking at, Captain, is another of those technologies that those of us with gravitics abandoned centuries ago. This is a faster-than-light communications device."

"You mean like our gravitic pulse units."

"Oh, no, this thing is much more impressive than that. It can transmit at rates of megabytes a second. And its range is infinite."

"Infinite?" Anna said. Manticore's gravitic communications devices were slow, low-rate devices with a reach of a few light-hours. "But... How? Why don't we use this?"

"Because we can't," Flynn said. "This is a quantum entanglement device. It's actually fairly easy to create quantities of quantum-entangled particles, separate and store them, and then use one set to disentangle the other, sending a binary signal instantly across any distance. Any distance, Captain. Twelve grams of carbon contains absolutely zetabytes of potential signal. But for it to work, both containers have to stay inside a frame of reference that respects the other." He waved a hand. "When one of our ships uses an impeller drive, we're engaging in something called 'frame dragging', which disassociates our ship with the local frame of reference. A greater frame, one with respect to hyperspace, comes into play, and that's why all the worlds of human space are associated in space and time." He pointed at the container. "For something like this to matter, we would have to drop down to using only slower-than-light technologies. Which is where Arendelle is right now. There's only one reason for this thing to exist. The attack on Queen Elsa was conducted and coordinated from somewhere other than the Vessel."

Buzz inhaled deeply before adding. "Actually, we believe it's more significant than that. We know that Vesselton has been in communication with someone on Corona. A lot of the cyborg crew went there. And the last three ships we sent to Corona, and the last two that came from Corona, contained cargo supplied by and delivered to the Vessel. I'm confident that--" he said, pointing to the cylinder-- "was manufactured on Corona and shipped over here."

Anna looked at the cylinder. "Then someone on Vesselton knows why. Someone had to install it. Someone had to maintain it, right?"

Felix said, "I don't know about that, Ma'am. Vesselton was even more automated than we originally thought. For all we know, that was installed according to some coordinated, long-range plans that involved exploiting that automation. Those poor saps in the Vessel's crew may not even have known it was there."

"We have to find out," Anna said. "Buzz might be confident, but I'm not. Can we know for sure?"

"We can," Buzz said. "The stars of Gothel-A and Gothel-B are different, and their radiation can cause small but measurable differences in isotope formation. We may be separated by two light years, but the scientists of both worlds regularly exchange everything they know about their local astronomy, biology, and geology. We have data on isotope formation profiles. A few grams of metal off that cryobottle run through a particle analysis and we would know."

"Do it," Anna said. "Could there be more than one?"

"Easily," Buzz said. "There would have to be a corresponding container jar at the far end for each one, but there could be one hiding anywhere on Agdar. It would be easier to hide one there than somewhere loose in the solar system. There or on the surface of Arendelle."

"Hmm," Anna said unhappily. "Is there any chance we can communicate through it?"

"I'm afraid not, Ma'am," Felix said. "Once we took it on board and put up the wedge..." He looked miserably apologetic. "I'm sorry, Ma'am. We didn't know what it was."

"It's not your fault, Felix. How would any of us recognize this for what it is, or was? My commendations to all of you for your fine work. But test it. Tell me where it came from. And I'll talk to Calhoun about the Vessel's crew? Passengers? Residents? What do we even call them?" She sighed. "We'll find out what they knew."

"Yes, Ma'am." Felix said.

Anna left the engineering room now more perplexed than before. Vesselton had seemed like a perfect foil for their problems, and now it seemed that the real enemy was further away. She had no intention of going to Corona anytime soon. Once her ship was fixed, they were heading back to Thorin, as the locals called the brown dwarf, and waiting for the relief ship from Lynx. This was a problem for Arendelle to solve, when Arendelle had the hyperspace resources necessary to get to Corona and pursue the matter.

She reached her cabin, sat back down at her desk and regarded the queue of reports and requisitions. She sighed. She loved being a starship captain. It validated her own self-image, she was not just a pretty bauble to be had by some noble son, she was someone Her Majesty had entrusted as mistress before God, with the moral authority to risk the lives of others to ensure the integrity and honor of her Queen and Country. It still came with paperwork. She picked up a stylus and leaned forward.

The communications buzzer went off. Not the emergency buzzer, either. She scowled at the unseeing camera. She had work to do, darnit. She pressed the button. "Yes, Lieutenant?"

"Communication for you, Captain. It's Queen Elsa."

"Oh!" Anna said, quickly checking to make sure her uniform didn't look a complete shambles. "Put her through."

That beautiful, pale face even more magnified than usual came on the camera and screen. Anna felt her heart beat faster. "Your Majesty, this is a pleasant surprise. What can I do for you?"

"Captain DuVar, I have received a bit of news that, I'm sure, you'll be receiving soon, but it's important enough that I wanted to deliver it myself. Doctor Thatch and Engineer Fiksit agree that we have both the materials and the capability to manufacture a new hyperspace coil for your ship, and it'll only take two weeks."

"Really?" Anna said, stunned. Coils were finicky things, although Manticore did seem to build them in bulk. "That's amazing." And while it may have been amazing, it didn't justify the queen of an entire world calling her. Felix or Doctor Thatch could have delivered the news.

Anna paused. The economic ramifications of what Elsa had just told her started seeping past her elation. Arendelle would soon be manufacturing hyperdrives, and their prototypes would be rolling off the assembly line in weeks. Not years, not even months, weeks. She shook her head. Alpha and beta nodes were public domain technologies. If Arendelle could manufacture them, it should. "Thank you, your Majesty. I think I understand."

"I thought you would. But that isn't the only reason I chose to call you. Captain, when your ship first arrived I told you I wished to make a public announcement from the Anchor regarding your arrival. It was important that everyone see just how significant contact with Manticore-- and with Earth-- really is. The very idea that I could get to Anchor in less than a day would be a sign of that significance. The attack took that away from me." Elsa shrugged in that wing-like gesture Anna had seen before. "The official period of mourning for those killed in the attack ends next Monday. While we bury our dead, we have you and your ship to thank for keeping the damage to a minimum."

Anna swallowed. Only a narrow belt at Arendelle's equator was warm enough to grow food year-round; that same narrow belt was the only smart place to put the space elevator. The crash of the elevator's base had destroyed almost a fifth of Arendelle's agricultural output. Anna had saved the space-based resources, but over two thousand farmers and maintenance people working within and around agrobelt had been killed or injured. Clean-up was still ongoing.

But she had saved the solettas, so the individual duchies of Arendelle were still warm enough to be comfortable and human-habitable. If she hadn't saved those, the death toll could have been much, much higher.

Elsa continued, "At the end of that mourning period I would like to host a dinner and reception for you and, at your discretion, select members of your crew. While it would be a much more somber occasion than I'd originally hoped, please say you will come, please, do bring Olaf with you."

"Of course, your Majesty. I'll have to leave Kristoff behind again. Someone has to take care of my ship. But I'll be there. May I bring a civilian as well? Doctor Flynn has been very helpful."

Elsa smiled. Why did her smiles never seem completely happy? She always had a pall of sadness around her eyes. "Of course! Commander Buzz has had nothing but good to say of him and all of your engineering staff."

Anna nodded and said, "Of course I agree! Please have your secretary contact my steward with details. I can't wait to finally meet everyone."

"I will. And Anna? Thank you."

"You're welcome." The screen went dark. Anna reached out and stroked it gently with her fingertips. "She called me 'Anna.' What did she mean by that?"

Olaf, who'd spent the entire conversation draped over his fuzzy perch, cocked his head and bleeked at her. "No, Olaf, I don't think I do." He murred at her. "That's crazy. Just because I have hormones doesn't mean she does. I mean, sure, she has hormones, she's only human, everyone has hormones. But not like that. Not like girl hormones or whatever they are. I'm so bad with metaphor. You know what I mean." He tilted his head. "God, I'm talking to you like Kristoff talks to Sven." She tossed her stylus into the cup on her desk. It spun and rattled. "I don't have enough brain cells left for this. I'm going to sleep." She got up and walked over to him, leaning over until they butted heads gently. "Coming?"

Olaf stretched himself upwards, then clambered onto the offered shoulder. She scratched at his chin as she carried him off to bed.

Chapter Text

Elsa had told her it would be a dinner. She hadn't said how large. Over a hundred people in elegant, fancy dress were served in the enormous room where Elsa had first invited Anna to dinner just a few weeks ago. The lighting was turned up, beautiful banners suggesting the four seasons, each with both a sun and a soletta at the top shining down onto the land,, hung along the four walls. There were nine tables, each seating twelve. Anna and Olaf had privileged seats at Elsa's right hand, and at her left sat Lady Meke Guiliel again. Flynn had also been given a place of privilege at Elsa's table, along with Captain Buzz. The other six spots were occupied by noble "Friends of the Crown," Anna noted carefully, mostly older gentlemen with a decidedly academic air. She and Flynn were now Friends of the Crown; the term obviously meant something.

Elsa had given a short introductory speech, welcoming Manticore and Winterkiss specifically, and discussing the "recent and tragic attempts by others to use this joyous occasion as reason to overturn centuries of peace and justice." There were rounds of hearty "Here here!" from the assembled guests.

Dinner consisted of some of the finest roast pork Anna had ever tasted. There were hints of port and clove in the marinade, rosemary and caramel in the rind. Anna loved to cook, and lived with the regret that she had so little time to indulge, but she truly appreciated the art in others. She looked up to see Meke's eyes on something over her shoulder. The woman leaned over and whispered something in Elsa's ear, and Elsa quickly looked in the same direction then looked away. "Is something the matter, your highness?" she asked.

"Only politically," Elsa said. She gestured with her head. "That's Hans Meinard's father, the duke. He wanted me to give his son the privilege of that chair for weeks now." She pointed toward Anna. "Tonight would have been one of those opportunities, but I much prefer that you be here, Captain."

"Thanks. I think."

Elsa laughed. "Meke and I have been discussing the matter of my... suitors." Meke suddenly looked up. The grin on her face was radiant, like that of a treecat with a celery patch. "We are coming up with a strategy. It shouldn't be your concern, Captain."

"No, probably not," Anna said. Should she be worried about this Meinard guy? It was obvious Elsa wasn't interested in him. Some Duke's son. She frowned. An Arendelle duchy was about the same size an a Manticore earldom, and Anna knew a lot of earl's sons who thought they were God's gift to anyone and everyone who crossed their paths. That thought connected directly to Hans, and she tried not to let it linger on him too long. She looked up at Elsa. "I'm sorry if it's a bother."

"It's not your bother," Elsa said.

"Still..." Anna said.

"Anna," Elsa said, and her hand seemed to reach toward Anna's, hestitated, then fell back. "I appreciate your warrior spirit, but this is a political issue, and an internal matter. For now."

"I understand, your highness." She looked up to see Meke's smile broaden until it looked almost painful.

One of the older men at that table said, "So, are we to understand that the gravity drive designs you've provided us are free for us to use?"

"Of course," Anna said, grateful for the distraction. Her hormones did not need this kind of abuse. Fifty-to-one odds Elsa was straight. Right? "It's an old technology by this time. Everyone uses it, and while there are always improvements that some design shops might want to keep secret for a while, the basic design has been around for hundreds of years."

"So, if we figure out how to make them, we could be crossing the Arendelle starsystem in a matter of days, not months?"

"Yes," Anna said. That Arendelle was already manufacturing hypercores was apparently not yet public information.

"And faster than light travel?"

"The same. Oh, you'll need a fast primer on the hazardous of interstellar travel, things like hyper limits and grav sheer and how to detect it, but I'm sure Manticore would be willing to provide the requisite technical expertise. We'd have to figure out an exchange rate, or how to trade Arendelle's krones with Manticoran dollars, but that's something for bankers and traders." Anna could have burbled on. "In fact, that's one of the things that Doctor Fitzhubert and I were discussing. We don't know much about your relationship with Corona, but you might be able to rent some large freighters and arrange for Corona to supply your food needs for the next few years, until your farms are back on-line. The geography of Corona has many more fertile zones than Arendelle, and is way underutilized. If you could tool up their farms, you could stave off even the small reduction in food resource."

"I see..." He drummed his fingers on the table, but seemed to have run out of questions.

Dessert was served, an exquisite little custard crusted on top with melted sugar glass and a mint leaf. Anna left none on her plate. "I'm going to regret that later," she mumbled to Olaf. He responded by pressing his nose against her arm briefly.

"Is it true he can talk?" asked one of the others.

Anna understood "Not with his mouth. We have a sign language. But we rarely need it."

"But he's a member of your crew?"

"Officially, yes," Anna said. "A member of the medical crew."

"Fascinating." Anna nodded, looking up. She locked eyes with Elsa. For a moment, each was unwilling to be the first to look away. They settled on turning away simultaneously. Anna swallowed.

It reminded Anna of the flight up to Winterkiss, that fateful day. Every time she looked up, Elsa was looking at her. Anna had entertained the fantasy that Elsa might be queer, might be interested in her, but those had just been fantasies. But at that first dinner, there had been more than just a casual exchange of pleasantries and a trade of information. She had been aware of Elsa's loneliness. She had wanted to share her own.

Anna glanced over at Meke, Elsa's strategist in finding a suitable partner, it seemed. When Anna caught Meke looking at her, it was some sort of intense examination. She would smile at Anna a little too broadly. Anna turned to Olaf. "Are you doing that?"

He gave her his best enigmatic grin. Anna went back to doing what she had been doing for two weeks: trying to ignore the curiosity lurking in the back of her head. Trying, and failing.

Dinner ended. Elsa rose, as did everyone else. "Forgive me," she murmured to the table. "I have to attend to a small detail. I'll meet you all in the reception area shortly."

The rest began a casual shuffle toward the broad, twin doors leading to the reception ballroom. Olaf took her place on Anna's shoulder. Anna moved with the crowd toward the larger ballroom. Before she passed the doors someone tapped her on the arm. She turned. "Oh! Gerda, right?"

"Yes, Miss. Could you come this way?"

Anna looked at her, puzzled. "Sure," she said.

Gerda led her out of the crowd toward a small door. Inside was a side sitting room with a small, elegant yellow couch flanked by tiny tables suitable to tea and biscuits. Gerda closed the door, leaving Anna alone.

She turned as a section of wall slid open, revealing a passageway. "Elsa... Queen." Anna's heart beat louder against her chest. She was alone with Elsa. Well, not alone. She was sure that somewhere nearby Captain Calhoun or one of her trusted subordinates was ensuring Elsa's safety. She bowed. Olaf bleeked in amusement.

The beautiful woman in blue laughed. "'Elsa' is fine in here, Anna," she gesturing to the room with that tiny shrug of hers. She peered at Olaf momentarily. "Tell me, with claws like those why doesn't he destroy your clothes?"

Anna brushed some loose fur off one shoulder. "One of the privileges of military life. I can order all of my jackets with reinforced armor-weave. Most people who've been adopted by a treecat get the shoulders done, but he likes to crawl all over me like a squirrel, so my entire jacket is armored."

"I see. Thank you for coming. Don't worry, there's no crisis."

"I wondered about that," Anna said.

"I asked Gerda to bring you here because, before the full reception starts-- I can't really call them 'festivities,' although I can name a duke or two who would-- I wanted to thank you personally for your role in saving my world. I haven't said it enough. I don't know that I can."

Anna said, "Your Majesty, I was only doing my job."

Elsa took a deep breath, let it out. "That's what Captain Calhoun says, too." She turned to the couch. "Please, take a seat. We have a few minutes." Anna looked at the couch dubiously, then toward Elsa, then sat. Olaf climbed off her shoulder onto the back of the couch. Anna registered his purring as gently pleased. "Anna, I also called you here because I believe I owe you an apology."

Anna was surprised, and a little worried. She was unable to imagine what Elsa might have done, or not done, that necessitated an apology. Elsa put one hand down on the couch to shift herself, turning her body toward Anna's. "Everyone here in the kingdom knows me in some way. My servants have known me since I was a child. The guards' role is set in their oath, their loyalty to the royal family, and they would give their lives to protect me. My subjects are my subjects. My nobles are my nobles, and while they mean well, they've also been a constant in my life since I was born. You're the only person in Arendelle right now for whom the rules don't exist."

"I have a queen!" Anna said quickly.

"Yes, but I am not she." Anna giggled. "What?" Elsa said.

"Of course, a queen would always pick the right tense. No, that's not right. What is that called, when you have to choose... You know, of course a queen's English would be perfect."

Elsa's eyes narrowed, but then she hid her smile behind her hand again. "Declension. I suppose that's true. What I mean, Anna, is that I invited you down here the first time, and asked for this privacy this time too, because I, because I don't have, because... "

Anna took a deep inward breath, filling her lungs with the way understanding filled her heart. She reached out and hovered her hand over Elsa's on the couch. "Elsa? May I?"

Elsa looked at Anna's hand, and nodded. Anna reached down and closed her fingers around Elsa's gloved hand hand. The touch was electric. Through the thin material Elsa's hand was cool but alive, the muscles twitching like a small, frightened animal against Anna's palm. Elsa's entire body jumped a little bit, and Anna held on tighter, and as they looked at one another an emotion neither of them was willing to yet name surrounded them. Elsa finally nodded toward their mutual grip, and smiled. "Did you ask because I'm a queen?"

"No," Anna said. "It's a kind of training we get. Some of us. I asked because, it's the right thing to do before you touch someone like that."

"Oh." Elsa grinned. "Really? That must make courting complicated."

"When you're courting, it can. But it also makes everything more explicit. Honest. You learn to ask, to respect the other person's body and space. It doesn't have to be with words, but it does have to be clear. I mean... sorry, I'm rambling."

"You have to ask every time?" Elsa said.

"At first. Eventually, you get comfortable with one another, and you build up a lot of trust, and then you reach a place where you can agree, but it has to be explict, you have to talk about it, you have to say it out loud, that instead of asking for each other's 'yes', you believe the other person's intentions are good, you agree instead to hear and honor each other's 'no.'"

"I see," said Elsa. "You said some get this training, but not everyone? Who gets this training?"

Anna hesitated before answering. She had been dreading this moment. But she also had wanted to tell Elsa how she felt. "People who aren't heterosexual. It's because we have to work harder not to be misunderstood. We've learned to teach it to each other."

Elsa jerked her eyes back down to their hands, and then to Anna, and now it was her turn for understanding to fall into place, and her eyes went very wide and her voice went very soft. "Oh," she said.

They were both silent, staring at each other. Anna felt something inside her pushing her toward Elsa, and was sure the other woman felt the same, but she didn't want to start it, she didn't want it to be her responsibility if she was wrong, or if she was right, and she knew, she knew, that Elsa was dealing with the exact same thoughts in her head.

Anna said, "We should head back out. They're probably wondering--" A loud popping sound, like a large vacuum light bursting in the far distance, caught their attention and shattered the moment. Olaf suddenly reared up from his drape along the couch, snarling. More pops, louder, more booming, more powerful, came closer, and then one exploded overhead. Plaster from the ceiling showered the room. "We have to get out of here," Anna said, leaping up and shoving open the door leading back to the ballroom. "Where's your security?"

"I don't know!"

Through the doorway leading to the reception area Anna heard gunshots and screams. "Get back," she hissed. "We might be safer in here." She held the door open just enough to peek through, ready to slam it closed if necessary, but watched the dining area and hoped that, whatever was happening, Calhoun's men would close it down.

The hidden door opened again and three men in Palace security livery came through it. Anna relaxed, but then one drew up a gun. "The Eight Day Queen!" he yelled even as his voice was drowned out by the ripping warcry of an enraged treecat. Olaf leapt off the couch and hit the front man with his full eight kilograms. The man screamed as he went down, blood streaking from where his eyes had been. Olaf leapt to a second man. The third had time to recover and and rasied his weapon. "OUT!" Anna shouted, shoving Elsa through the door into the dining room.

Olaf's impact on the gunman sent his aim wide and bullets spalled plaster off the ceiling. Anna hurled herself out of the doorway as three more men in security livery came through a serving door. She didn't need Olaf's empathy to see the murder in their eyes, and threw herself into the midst of them. "Elsa, run!"

One man pulled out something that looked like a fat pen and threw it. Anna more felt than heard what happened next as it went off-- and every bulb in that beautiful chandelier suddenly exploded at once. The chandelier came crashing down, shattering glass everywhere in the dining room, a crystalline bomb almost musical in its destruction.

Anna barely had time to recover. She was no marine trained in hand-to-hand combat. She had only ever had basic training, but it would have to do. She was a Sphinxian, at least half again as strong as a Terran of her size and build, and she hoped her attackers mistook her for the small woman she appeared to be. She hurled herself upward at the lead man, getting inside his gun arm and smashing the palm of her hand into his chin. Their momentum carried them into the second man, who tripped and fell.

More men came through the door. Olaf was among them, a buzzsaw of claws and teeth and rage, and now men who seemed to be part of the palace's real security detail joined the fray.

The man she struck grunted and turned, trying to point the gun at her, at Elsa, at any meaningful target at all. The gun roared, and Anna hoped it hadn't hit anything. Desperate, she kneed him in the crotch. He went down with a scream. Anna kicked another crushing blow to his face with the heel of her boot. The gun in his hand went off.

Anna heard a scream behind her. "Elsa!" She turned.

Elsa was holding her arm, her eyes wide with panic, but she was also running toward Anna. "Watch out!"

Anna heard a gunshot behind her, loud and very close, and the world contracted, thudded with an enormous final heartbeat. Pain, the coldest pain Anna had ever felt, flared in her chest as she looked up. Elsa's pale face, her magnificent turquoise blouse, were suddenly spattered with bright red blood. Who's blood?

Oh, Anna thought. My blood. Mine. No! She touched her chest, felt the huge, wet, ragged hole at the center of it. She looked up into beautiful, blue, horrified eyes. "Elsa..." she tried to say, but her lungs no longer held air. Distantly she heard Olaf's own terrified scream, heard the frenzy building, heard more voices, more footsteps, heard the man behind her shriek in agony.

Elsa grabbed her, wrapped her arms around her. "It's okay, Anna. I've got you." Anna began to slip from Elsa's grip and sink toward the ground. No!, Anna thought. No, not now. I've haven't said 'I love you' yet. Not to anyone. Not to Olaf. Not to... Anna fell down a deep, deep, deep, deep hole, and the only light she saw came from the shining, glistening tears in Elsa's eyes above her.

Hold me.

Chapter Text

It hurt to breathe. She had to breathe, the dead didn't breathe. As long as she kept breathing, she wasn't dead. Being not dead hurt, but the alternative was worse. She tried opening her eyes. The lights were down low. She tried to say something, managed a grunt. "Anna?"

She'd heard that voice before. A face hovered into view in front of her, a familiar face, pale, with platinum white hair and pale blue eyes. A beautiful face, one that made her chest feel warm and strange and congested. Maybe that was just the hospital equipment she heard hissing and beeping around her. "Are you... "

Oh. Elsa. She looked up, but Elsa looked odd. Fuzzier than she should have. The odd look on Elsa's shoulders resolved into a beautiful, white-furred treecat. Olaf. Oh, Olaf! Olaf was riding on Elsa's shoulders. Olaf was either being very careful, or Elsa had gotten reinforced armored jackets like her own. It was all right if Olaf was with Elsa. That was good. Something told her that was as it should be. "Elsa," Anna whispered.

"Anna?"

"You must have a very good tailor."

Elsa made a sound, half-sob, half-laugh. "Oh, Anna." She reached down. Anna felt Elsa's cool, dry fingers touch her forehead gently. "The doctors said you weren't supposed to wake up yet."

Anna agreed with the doctors. She thought she shouldn't have been awake yet either. "Elsa... Queen...." She tried to reach up with one hand, but it fell back to the bed with a thump. Elsa was fading away. There was something new about Elsa. A scar, on her cheek, bright white and fresh. She tried to form a thought about it. Exhaustion pulled her down again. "Wait," Anna sighed.

"What?" Elsa said, but then she was gone.


When she awoke a second time, the lights were brighter and the face hovering before her head was that of Flynn Fitzhubert. She was in a sitting position and breathing felt easier than... than when? "Hey, you're awake. Captain? Can you hear me?"

She managed a groan. "Flynn. Where are we?"

"I'm afraid you're in The Royal Hospital of Arendelle. It's a pretty nice place, all things considered. Better than jail." She looked up at the ceiling, then to the space around Flynn. The room was big compared to a naval bed, painted calming beige and blue. It looked more like a luxury hotel room. Only the beeping devices overhead and three trolley stations for diagnosis and treatment gave away its true purpose.

"You didn't take me back to the ship?" she asked. Part of her was horrified at the breach of protocol, but the secret part of her was glad she hadn't left Arendelle. She might get to see Elsa again.

"We couldn't. Your injuries were so severe, the Arendelle medical corp put you into cryo. We didn't have the equipment to deal with your body in that state, so... " He shrugged. "Kristoff was livid, let me tell you, but the Queen assured him everything would be done to restore you. Given the nature of your injury, there wasn't anything else he could do."

"The Winterkiss?"

A new voice said, "Your ship is in orbit, Captain, waiting to take you home."

Anna tried to sit up, but pains shot through her back when she tried to make herself move. She managed to turn her head instead and took in the tall, thin figure of Admiral Pyre Becker, her fleet officer. If he was here then either the rescue ship had found them, or she'd been out for a lot longer than she thought. "Sorry, sir. Excuse me for not rising and saluting."

"Forgiven, of course." He looked grave, but there was a twinkle in his eye, as if he were secretly very pleased with his errant captain. Next to him Kristoff stood, Sven on his shoulder, both of them looking equally relieved. "It's understandable, given the extent of your injuries, although Doctor Whelan assures me you'll be able to get out of bed soon."

"Oh," Anna said. She felt strangely empty and hollow. "Izik's with you? Good. How bad was it?"

Flynn answered. "As bad as it could possibly have been. Their weapons were modern and meant to handle light-armored targets. The bullet bruised your spine and tore completely through your heart. Arendelle has the most amazing tissue typing technology. It's beyond anything we have on Manticore. They have an entire catalog of body parts in low-cryogenic suspension, and a fascinating mechanism for growing new parts as needed. They found a heart that closely matched yours for tissue typing, tuned it with a retrovirus to prevent rejection, and implanted it into you. I watched the surgery. The Queen's official surgeon, Doctor Perkhurei, is one of the most professional women I've ever met."

Panic gripped her, but she was able to wiggle her toes and move her knees. "So I should be completely healed eventually, right?"

"That's what Doc Perkhurei said. Even if the Arendelle's couldn't do it, Manticore could fix you right up. Arendelle's technique is faster and more precise, but it took some invasive surgery to get the repair framework into place."

"Sir," she said to Admiral Becker, "What happened?"

"I wasn't there. Doctor Fitzhubert was a better witness."

"You saw?" Anna said, turning to Flynn.

"Everything," Flynn said. "It was bloody. Everywhere."

"Everywhere?" Anna said.

"You don't know?"

"Flynn, this is my first moment of consciousness since the fight." She had a distant dream, just on the edge of memory, of another moment, but she couldn't recall it.

Flynn nodded. "Well, Captain, the bullet that killed you made a hole as big as my fist. Your treecat tore the hell out of the attackers, and most of them were still alive. Then Olaf was standing on top of you, keening in a really strange way..." Anna nodded. "But then Queen Elsa grabbed him and hauled him away, and he was fighting and scratching her. I don't think he wanted to hurt her but he didn't want to leave you. She was shouting at him that you'd be saved, you'd be rescued, and the palace medicals were going to do everything they could to save her, right?" He raised his voice to emphasize the quote. "Olaf scratched her up pretty badly, too, and then there was that crazy guardswoman who was approaching Olaf with a big knife, and the Queen pointed a huge gun at her, and everyone's eyes were big and scary. I have no idea where the gun came from.

"Gotta say this for the medicals, they didn't even notice." Flynn made a chopping motion. He liked to use his hands for emphasis. "I've never seen a rescue procedure like that! They cut open your neck and attached hoses to the veins and arteries and pumped you full of cryofluid so fast there wasn't time for brain damage, then tubed you and had you frozen solid and hustled you out of there and I didn't even have time to register it all." He was breathing hard and talking rapidly.

Anna blanched, putting her hand to her throat. She hadn't even noticed the scars there, so small and inconsequential compared to the surgical marks all over her chest, but she felt them now. Flynn briefly mimicked her gesture, his own hand to his throat for a moment. "Oh. Sorry, Anna."

"I'm an officer of Her Majesty's Navy," Anna said. "I think I can take a little gore. Even my own. Where is Olaf?"

"That's the other thing," Kristoff said, his voice going deep and quiet. "We don't know."

"You don't know? Was he hurt? Oh, my god, Kristoff, he can't be, I mean, I just saw him, I know he's still there, I know he is, Kristoff..."

"Calm down, Anna. He's alive. We think. Anna, the battle was over two months ago. Elsa had a bullet wound in her arm, and Olaf scratched her pretty badly before she got through to him and broke his hysterics. I read Fitzhubert's report, the battle was a real mess. After she got patched up Elsa disappeared and Olaf went with her. Nobody knows where Olaf is. Or the Queen."

"Then who's running Arendelle?"

Admiral Becker said, "Prime Minister Dellaroy still has the authority to run the day-to-day business of Arendelle. There's no order of succession, and Elsa doesn't have any other relatives here on Arendelle that are as close as her second cousin on Corona. But Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth's directives on the matter of naval treecats is also clear: we are not leaving Arendelle until we locate treecat Olaf DuVar."

"Olaf..." Anna groaned. She didn't know how, but she knew he was alive. He was still here, on Arendelle, on the planet, and alive and healthy. She sagged against the bed. "What's the status of the Vessel?"

"Captain, you may not be aware of this, but it has been two months since your injury. Arendelle repaired Winterkiss-- and that was an amazing piece of work all by itself-- and sent her home. Manticore has officially arrived in force. We have entered into a short-term mutual defense pact with Arendelle to help her assess her military position within her own solar system. After Commander Bjorgman's debriefing and a review of the expedition, we have brought several civilian ship construction rigs from Grayson, as well as our own force of two battlecruisers and screening elements. We have some indication that Dellaroy is in contact with the Queen, as he has requested that we are not to contact Corona until several matters are resolved. I have to say that when I sent your ship and all my boffins down an uncharted wormhole, I didn't expect you to find a fairy-tale kingdom thousands of light years from all known civilization at the other end.

"In the meantime, the Vessel remains in orbit. It is an Arendelle matter. Their major weapons platforms are now either destroyed or in Arendelle's hands, and we have been providing security updates to Arendelle as fast as we can.

"The bigger problems remains the local unrest. The arrival of Manticore, the the interference of the Vessel, rumors of outsider influence, and of course the destruction of the laser platforms and the space elevator have driven deep into Arendelle's psyche and morale. Chantel and its immediate neighboring duchies are loyal, but several further on are much less so. The most daring is the Duchy of Mestalt. Duke Herbert Sezima, Duke of Mestalt, is openly refusing to pay his election, arguing that with the coming of Manticore the Royal Family of Anton and its monopoly on space will soon end, and with it any need for the Keys. Needless to say, the Foreign Office, in the guise of Ambassador Hellenola, has countered with a sanction to any Manticoran trader who buys or sells with Mestalt until the duke recognizes a central, planetary authority, and Manticore is choosing the Keys."

"The Keys?" Anna said.

"The local equivalent of The Crown."

"Which you can't find."

"Which we can't find." Admiral Becker took a deep breath. "There have been attacks on royal facilities, and counter attacks on those of the more rebellious duchies. The crime rate is higher, and there have been cases of hoarding. Totally unnecessary; Arendelle was over-producing when you arrived, and they will get through this, although it'll be at least a decade until the weather pattern returns to something normal. In the meantime, people are panicking."

Anna snorted. "That's not very rational."

Kristoff said, "Nobody is rational, Anna. If we were all rational, you and I would be out of a job."

Anna grinned. "That wouldn't be so rough now, would it?"

Becker cleared his throat and said, "Captain, I'm afraid Intelligence still has to debrief you about your actions, as well as the other officers left behind to care for you. However, you are still the listed commander of the Winterkiss, and will be for the foreseeable future, and Her Majesty's Navy will be grateful when you finally get this mess sorted out."

"Thank you, sir. Do we know who shot me?"

"You would hope it would be something dramatic, a Duke's crack assault team, or maybe coordination from whoever's controlling the Vessel. No, it was a domestic anti-monarchist group. There's some evidence that they got access to the castle through keycodes and hardware passed to them by someone on Vesselton, but it's not beyond the shadow of doubt." Anna nodded.

Flynn said, "As for the how, they had two tricks. The first was a hand-held key emitter that let them through most of the security doors in the palace. The second was this." He reached into one of the many oversized pockets on his vest and pulled out a cylinder similar to the one Anna had seen one of the attackers throw. "Oh, don't worry, this one's deactivated. I took it up to the ship to have it analyzed. It's an EMP grenade. Zaps everything in about 20 meters. It's really a good thing one didn't go off anywhere near me." Anna raised an inquiring eyebrow. He thumped his chest. "Artificial heart. The one I was born with wasn't very effective. And I don't regen very effectively either, so it's myomer and metal for me." He tossed the object idly in his hand. "Which is why I'm very sure this one is deactivated. I just brought it for show and tell."

"Oh," Anna said.

"Captain, you have to rest," Admiral Becker said. "Doctor Whelan has recommended bedrest followed by mild rehabilitation. He says you can do the latter on the ship. But for now, you're to stay dirtside. I have as much faith as you that Commander Bjorgmann can handle matters until you're well."

"And I'll bring you all the paperwork you can handle," Kristoff said.

Anna stuck her tongue out at him, then yawned. "Yeah. Rest. Probably a good idea."

"We'll leave you to it," Becker said.

Chapter Text

"Captain, wake up." Anna sighed in her sleep, turned over. Someone shook her. "Wake up, curse you. This is important!"

"Ungh," Anna groaned. "Elsa?"

"You wish," said a deeper, more authoritative voice. It was still female but it wasn't that of the queen. It wasn't a voice she'd heard much recently. "Get up, Captain. This pajama party is over as of right now."

Anna opened her eyes and found the Queen's Captain of the Guard leaning over her, still dressed in her gleaming black and green armored uniform. "Captain Calhoun? What's going on?"

"I'm kidnapping you, what does it look like?" It didn't look like a kidnapping. Calhoun had both her service pistol and that strange curved knife with her, but neither was in her hand. Anna looked around and saw Claire standing behind Calhoun holding one of her service uniforms. Claire looked calm. "I have strict orders to keep this as quiet as possible. The only people who know are you, me, and your steward, and I'm told she can be trusted."

"By who?" Anna said. "Who ordered you?"

"Your friend. Olaf."

"Olaf!" Streaks of pain shot through Anna's back as she tried to sit up in bed. "Ow!"

"Careful, Captain. You're not entirely a whole woman."

"Whole enough!" Anna snapped. She sighed. "You're right. What is going on?"

"All I know is, your friend is right now with my queen and he's worried. Really worried. About her. And about you. He called me on her private line, which tells me he knows much more about how to work the controls than I expected. He's one dangerous creature, Captain DuVar."

"It's kept us both alive."

"That's why I have to respect him. And why I have to trust him. He seems to be the only person who's had any regular contact with her in two and a half months."

Anna looked away, hiding the anguish on her face. Olaf should have been here, with her, while she recovered from surgery. What was he doing with Elsa? Why did Anna dream of her every night, and why did she seem to be a part now of every thought she had of him? She hoped he was happy and safe. She would give anything to ensure he was. But Calhoun had said he was worried. "He called you?"

"Yes. I called your steward and she interpreted for him. He told us where Elsa was, not that it was actually a mystery, and said that I had to bring you. Just you, only you. I don't know what's going on here, but when someone calls me on that line, I don't have much of a choice, now, do I?"

"Is Elsa... safe?"

"She's alive. She's as safe as she could be, physically, where she is right now. The rest... that's why I'm here."

"Claire," Anna said. "Please help me dress. I have to go."

"Yes, Ma'am. Shall I inform--"

"No," Anna said. "Don't tell anyone. When someone asks, tell them Captain Calhoun and I are out discussing security matters related to the attack."

"Yes, Ma'am." Getting her arm through the left sleeve of her dress blouse caused pains to shoot from her ear to her elbow. Claire tended to her with the utmost delicacy, but once the shirt was over her wrists Anna could hardly notice. She was already trying seeking Olaf within her, trying to find that protected, sweet shell within which were her love and affection, her heart, against which the shell had always deflected the pains of the world. Olaf was the one who had given her the security to risk everything.

"Captain Calhoun, I'm ready."

"Then let's go." Calhoun led her to the back of the Palace, to a part of the building she'd never visited. The walls were heavier, made of concrete and iron, and most of them painted military grey. Her heart was still too small in her chest, and she had to pause from time to time for breath. They exited through a steel door and onto a landing pad. The vehicle in front of them was a boxy, wingless rounded rectangle with a lowered nose for the cockpit and a raised tail for a ramp. "An aerodyne? You still use them?"

"You might come from a place where you get to ignore the laws of physics, Captain, but until recently we didn't have those kinds of luxuries here. We use our fusion reactors to beat the air into submission," Calhoun said with the growl of an amused she-wolf. "Come on."

The cockpit, at least, was familiar, although without practicing the power curves on those turbines Anna would never have dared to try to fly it herself. Calhoun gestured to a headset, which Anna gratefully put on, recognizing the strange auditory pressure of noise-canceling algorithms. Calhoun ran through a simple checklist of settings and interactions. The engines roared and shoved the aerodyne up into the sky on four tall pillars of turbine-powered violence. Calhoun rotated the turbines back until they were rocketing through the sky at almost the speed of sound. Anna keyed her mic. "Can you tell me where we're going now, Captain?"

"The Winter Palace."

"The Winter Palace," Anna repeated softly.

"It's where the royal family goes to be away from everyone else. There's nothing for a hundred kilometers in every direction, and the royal guard makes sure it stays that way. We've known she was there, naturally. It's our job to take care of her. Problem is, I'm no longer sure she can take care of herself. Your friend seems to think you can."

Anna smiled. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For not referring to him as a pet."

"Nobody on Arendelle is ever going to make that mistake, Captain. Not after seeing what he did to the enemy."

"You'd be surprised," Anna said. "People are good at forgetting."

Calhoun kept her hands on the controls even after turning on the autopilot. She was quiet for a while. Anna watched her, trying to understand the burning anger in her eyes. Finally, Calhoun turned back to Anna sand said, "Captain, do you know who shot you?"

"I was told a domestic terrorist group was responsible for the attack."

"'Terrorist group.'" She snorted. "They were part of the Eight Day Queen, a tiny reactionary cell that believes the family of Anton the Great has been murdered and replaced with a weak-willed duplicate, that The Keys are in the hand of someone illegitimate." She snorted. "They think Kai-- Kai, of all people, he loves her more than his own life-- replaced her with an actress duplicate, and we're all in on the conspiracy." Calhoun never raised her voice, but the lines of tension in her body radiated a growling, terrifying fury.

The console beeped. Calhoun paused to scan the terrain through the window, looked down at her navigation screen, then nodded. "We're about to land, Captain. Before we do, I need to ask you a question, and I need a straight answer. My Queen's been hurt enough. Do you intend to add to Elsa's hurt in any way?"

Anna turned to her, breath caught in her throat for a moment. "No! Of course not. Why would you even think so?"

"Elsa is a young woman, and she was a younger woman when her parents were killed. No ruler is loved by everyone, and the House of Anton has a long and dark history. She's survived more than one assassination attempt, and now the Eight Day Queen scum has actually tried something this brazen. You were nearly killed, and that seems to have upset her more than I would think it warrants, no offense, and then there's this weird business with Olaf." Calhoun's hands tightened on the controls briefly. "Although he was very effective in taking down that wave of fools. We're still tracking down all the compromises they used to get through, so I'm glad he's with her." Calhoun turned to Anna, her eyes so intense they seemed to barely move. "Don't you hurt her. Ever. Understood?"

Anna wanted to sink into her seat at Calhoun's ferocity and her earnestness. "I promise with all my heart-- my Arendellian heart, now that I think about it-- that hurting Elsa is the last thing I would want."

"The heart is a lonely hunter that can't aim and wears no safety vest," Calhoun said.

"Wait, what?"

"Nevermind," Calhoun said, turning her attention back to the controls. "We're landing."

"Calhoun?" Calhoun grunted. Anna said, "No offense taken. I understand."

The snow around the Winter Palace absorbed sound to make the world stand still. As Anna and Calhoun walked away from the landing pad only a few metallic pings and creaks from the cooling aerodyne told Anna she'd removed the noise-cancelling headphones. The Palace itself was a small building, as Palaces go, a two-storey affair painted blue-white to match its surroundings, but the soaring decorative spires at each corner, with flags at each apex, echoed the fairy-tale appearance of the Palace at Chantel. A short, narrow bridge crossed a deep chasm between the landing field and the palace proper, and like the palace it was painted crystalline blue-white to look like the icy ground.

Wordlessly, Calhoun led Anna across a snow-dusted bridge and up to a side door, then ushered her inside to the receiving room. Another of those crystalline chandeliers Anna had started to recognize dimly lit the middle of the room. The interior was of the same light woods as the Palace at the Capital, but none of the usual banners and flags hung around the edges. They climbed one set of curving stairs to the second floor, and down a hallway with windows set on one side and doors on the other. Calhoun stopped in front of a door, then looked back at Anna. "They're in there, Captain. Olaf says it should be only you." She hesitated, put one hand on Anna's shoulder. "Be good to them."

Anna slowly raised her gaze to meet Calhoun's. "I will. I promise."

"Okay, then." Calhoun turned and walked away, disappearing around the corner.

Anna hesitated. Now that she was this close, the spark in her soul where Olaf lived and played seemed to be there, quiet and still but assured and healthy. "C'mon, Anna," she breathed quietly. "You know how to knock."

She knocked. There was no answer. She knocked again. "Elsa? Please, I know you're in there. With Olaf? Captain Calhoun brought me. We're all wondering where you've been."

There was silence from the other side. Anna knocked again. She raised her voice. "I'm not leaving until you open this door."

The lights flickered in the hallway. Anna heard something groan mechanically. The lights went out, and the windows opened, as if ghostly hands had pushed them aside, letting the frigid air from outside invade the hallway. "Elsa, whatever you're doing, you're scaring me! Open this door. Please. I just want to talk to Olaf. I just... I just want to see you."

The windows silently closed. The lights guttered and turned bright. The floor creaked somewhere on the other side of the door, the latch thunked mechanically. The door opened.

It wasn't Elsa. It was Olaf, stretched to his maximal height to reach the doorknob and turn it. He'd known how to do that since she was a teenager. "Olaf?"

Olaf padded out on all six limbs. His eyes were read and puffy, his fur ragged and unkempt. He moved slowly. "Olaf!" She reached out, and he swarmed up her clothes, but without his usual grace. "Oh, Olaf! I love you, Olaf." She gasped, even as Olaf spoke a soft, amused "bleek" into her hair.

The word. She had banished it from her tongue. Her father had said she should do so, that she should accept her role, born to be one of the sinews of the kingdom. She had to put aside the word, the terrifying word that she had eventually pressed down because she no longer trusted it not to betray her.

But Olaf couldn't betray her.

Olaf tapped her on the shoulder, to say that he had to tell her something. She held out her arm to get a good look at him, sobbing and laughing through her tears, and he nodded and looked at her. And she stared, and stared...

And she didn't feel him.

"Olaf?" she said, her new heart almost stopping in terror. She reached forward, nervously, leaned against the door. Inside looked like a sitting room. She found a chair, sat down. Her body was trembling. She recognized the symptoms of adrenaline and other fight-or-flight hormones; at Saganami Island her mentors had trained her to tamp these, direct them, use them to focus her energies on the enemy, to fight more effectively. There was nothing here to fight, just her beloved friend, her anchor, her lifeline.

No more.

Olaf reached up and touched her cheek, his eyes narrowed in concentration, and Anna felt something. But it wasn't the same. He wasn't the same. Olaf wrapped his arms around her neck, chittered in her ear softly, then fell away from her, landing on the floor with a thump. "I'm sorry," he signed.

"No," Anna said softly. "How?"

"I don't know," he signed.

"We'll make it right. We will. We'll make it okay. I know we can, I'm sure we can. We have to. Where's Elsa?"

Olaf pointed toward an inner door. Anna rose, strode to it, knocked hard. There was no answer. She tried the door. It was locked. "Elsa, you have to come out of there." There was no response. "Please, open the door. You can't let this go without... without..." Still silence. "Please, Elsa. Please." She put her hand on the door, felt her knees buckle. She was slipping downward, collapsing to the floor, crying. "Elsa, I'm not leaving here."

The lights went low. She heard the windows bang open again, and doors flew open of their own volition. "You can try to frighten me, Elsa. I don't care! I don't know what this is, but I'm not leaving!" The winter chill invaded the room. The temperature dropped. "I'm also not afraid of the cold. In case you missed it, I'm from Iron Fjord, which is as cold as a penguin's third nipple on Christmas Eve! God, I'm terrible with metaphors. What I mean is, it's one of the coldest places in all of Manticore. I love summer, but I'm not going to be driven away by this little bit of snow!"

"You have to go!" It wasn't Elsa's voice. It was a deep, artificial voice that growled from every corner of the room.

"No, I won't! In case you missed something, Your Majesty, I'm a starship captain, and I gained my captaincy in the middle of a war. People have been shooting at me for the last decade. Threats don't frighten me. Not even backed up with silly special effects! Especially not from you!" She leaned against the door, its wood cool against her cheek. In a lower voice she pleaded. "Please, Elsa, talk to me. I thought we were... were making progress."

The silence grew. The temperature fell, but Anna didn't care. Olaf stood next to her, his quiet physical presence still reassuring for all the terror and loneliness she felt now that she no longer felt him within her heart. Was that it, her new heart? She wanted to talk to him, but those words wouldn't come out. Anna could feel her body wanting to rest, to stop, to let this cold take her back to being frozen. Very few people sleep well in a hospital bed, and the toll of healing, flying, and now this wore her down.

She was jolted awake when the door opened, sending her sprawling against the floor. "Anna?" Olaf had been resting next to her, and he grunted gently and looked up. His eyes were sparkling with forgiveness and regret.

"Elsa. Queen. Sorry." She turned over, pushed herself up to a kneeling position, then levered herself upright. "I was taking a nap."

"Anna, you could freeze to death like that. I can't believe you're still here."

Anna stood, sniffed, rubbed her nose with a finger. "Where would I go? I mean, I... I need you to come back. We have to explain this. Or understand it. Or something. I promised Calhoun I wouldn't come back without you." Anna watched, heartbroken, as Olaf swarmed up Elsa's body and took a place on her shoulder, a familiar place. "No. It can't be. It... Is that... is that what happened?"

Elsa nodded. "It... yes."

Anna felt dizzy. "Can we... can we sit down?"

"Oh! Yes, of course." Anna turned and let Elsa lead her back into the sitting room. Anna took the couch. She though she would need it. Olaf thumped down onto the floor between them.

Elsa said, "When you were shot, he was scared, Anna, so scared. I'm so sorry. If I could undo it all, I would. It really is miraculous, isn't it?"

Anna nodded quietly. "It really is." Tears filled her eyes. "I'm sorry, your highness. I'm so sorry."

Elsa didn't interrupt as she sobbed, her face in her arms. The crying had an infinite well of tears to tap, fear of death, fear of losing Olaf, fear of losing her career all pushing the water down her cheeks. Elsa sat next to her until the crying subsided. After the tears had drained her completely, after her back started to complain from the sobbing, after all that remained was hollow, Anna managed to look up and wipe her eyes. "Sorry."

"You have nothing to apologize for, Captain. You've been brave and resourceful, you've sacrificed more than anyone should have asked of you, and you've shown your willingness to sacrifice everything for your Queen's honor. Arendelle owes you, Captain. It will never forget what it owes you."

Anna sniffed. "Just doing my job."

Elsa shook hear head. "No, you did so much more than that. You have earned everything I could possibly give you. You should take Olaf and... go."

"Maybe. Admiral Becker is going to be furious when he hears about this! But, Elsa, I can't take Olaf from you. You'd both go crazy for each other in less than a month. And... it's your kingdom, Elsa, that needs you now. It needs you. It's your duty to be the guidance your people want."

Elsa shook her head. "I can't go back. People will get hurt. You could get hurt. Again. Worse."

Anna looked up at Elsa, trying to give her the best grin she could. Even on her worst day Elsa could never not be beautiful. Her hair was loose and flowing, a cascade of white that fell around her shoulders. Her eyes were red from lack of sleep. "Elsa, what could be worse than dead, or losing Olaf? I'm used to people using me for target practice. I accepted that every time I went into action, the other side were going to do their damndest to kill me, to kill Olaf, to kill every single member of my crew, to try and make the price too high for Manticore to keep fighting according to some incredibly stupid ideas of honor and valor, and we were going to do the same thing to them. Don't tell me to run away from danger, Elsa. That's the one thing I'll never do. I don't know how." Words piled up in the back of Anna's mind, words about other things that would never scare her away. Words like "Elsa." Words like... She shook her head.

"Anyway, how could this possibly get worse? You disappeared and now your Kingdom has no idea what to do. Prime Minister Dellaroy has told me three times this week that 'without direction from the Queen, the Kingdom is on autopilot. And we can't afford autopilot when we're heading into such unknown territory.'"

Elsa barked a laugh at Anna's mocking tone of her Prime Minister's officious voice. "Elsa, your nobles are revolting, your government is falling apart, there could still be moles infiltrating your planetary network, and your kingdom needs you to sign treaties and make decisions and get yourselves a proper system-wide guard force and prepare to head an interstellar navy. They need you."

"No, Anna, they don't," Elsa said. "They need someone better than me. I should stay here, where I belong, where I can't be hurt and where I can't hurt anyone else. You shouldn't be here."

"Well, why not?"

"Because, Anna, I'm what's wrong with Arendelle." She held up her hands as if she held something in them. "I don't know how to use the power I've been given. I don't know how to use The Keys. The one time I exercised it fully, it was to destroy our commerce with Corona."

"The Vessel was using those satellites to shoot at you! You're lucky they just shot at things in orbit close to the planet. They could have shot at the ground and killed millions!"

"That's just it! It's the only power I have! Everything I do turns to ashes, Anna. Ashes and ice. Everything I've ever done ends up hurting and destroying. Like Tamora. And Brad."

"Brad?"

"Tamora's husband. Late husband." Elsa took a deep breath. "They met when she joined the Palace Guard from the Domestic Guard; he'd been my personal bodyguard for years by then. Three weeks after they married, an assassin killled him." Elsa looked away, but there were tears on her cheeks. "It was two months after my coronation."

"Why? Why him?"

"Anna, has anyone told you about the Eight Day Queen?"

"Calhoun told me. They were some crazy terrorist group who thought you weren't the legitimate queen."

"It's worse than that. The night I was coronated, I had a nervous breakdown. Right at the coronation party. My tutors had given me all the lessons and taught me how to work the levers, but... I was terrified. I didn't have the courage. I ran away, to here, and I hid. A week later, Kai coaxed me out. He convinced me that being queen would be... manageable. A then just a few months later a madman calling himself the Eight Day Queen tried to kill me. Brad tackled the man and covered the assassin's body with his own. The man had an explosive. It killed both him and Brad."

"The Eight Day Queen is convinced that no daughter of Anton the Sixth would ever had broken down like I did at that party, shouted hysterically and run away. In their imagination Kai is supposed to be this sinister mastermind who replaced me with a double. You should see the opinion sites on our network where they've documented every freckle I've ever had."

"I'm sorry," Anna said. "But that doesn't change the fact that you are queen, Elsa. Besides," Anna said as she bent down and offered her hands to Olaf, who clambered into them gratefully and took his place on Anna's shoulder. "You and he have to learn to live with each other. And I could never run away from him." She stroked Olaf's back. "Can you tell me how it happened?"

Elsa was silent for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was far away. "When those men attacked and you were injured, Olaf was going crazy. He stood on your body and wouldn't let the medics take care of you, but I had to get him away. I had to let them save you. I grabbed him and he fought me. That's how I got this." She pointed to the fresh, fine white scar on her left cheek just along the jawline. "I don't think he wanted to hurt me, but he didn't want to be taken away from you. I shouted at him that the medics would save you, that you would be okay, that you would live, and I stared into his eyes. He was scared, Anna, so scared. And then suddenly, he was here." Elsa touched her chest over her own heart. Anna's eyes widened in her own familiar, terrified understanding. "Is that... what it feels like?"

"Yes," Anna said, and tears started to form in her eyes again. Anna couldn't even hate them. It wasn't their fault. She'd been dead. In their grief over her they'd found each other. Wasn't that how love was supposed to work? When someone Adopted died the treecat frequently went into catatonic shock, stopped eating, and died as well. That could have been Olaf's fate. Elsa had saved Olaf. Elsa had earned Olaf. Knowing that didn't stop the tears.

Anna felt a tap on her shoulder, and in habit held Olaf far enough away to see his hands. "Flame," Olaf gestured. It was the word he used when he wanted to talk to her, get her attention. "I love you."

"I love you, too, Olaf," she said softly. And the word, that word, the one she'd been holding down in her chest, in her belly, where it never came up and bothered her, was back out in the open. She was still hurt, still reeling. Tears came to her eyes. She took a step back to sit in chair and hid her face to hide her hurt. "I love you too."

Anna heard footsteps coming close, felt Elsa's arms hesitantly wrap around her, felt the woman kneel down to be next to the chair. Elsa choked on a laugh, or a sob, or something in between. "I'm the queen. Nobody ever gets to touch me. I never get to touch anyone."

Anna nodded and fresh sobs wracked her. She buried her face in Elsa's shoulder, felt Olaf climb up the two of them. Anna held onto Elsa, awkwardly at first, but somehow Olaf's presence, his affirmation that they were both worthy of him, made her grip the other woman tightly, holding her, feeling her sobs convulse through her.

"I'm sorry, Anna, I'm so sorry."

"For what?" Anna's voice was little more than a hoarse whisper.

"For being so weak. So awkward. For getting you shot. For taking Olaf from you. For... everything."

Anna pulled away enough to see the other woman's eyes once more. "You're not weak, Elsa. You're... stressed. Scared. And probably angry. People make bad choices under those circumstances." Anna held her. "But we can learn to work with the stress. Manticore taught me. I can teach you. Come here." She moved aside and made room for Elsa on the couch. Above it hung a painting of a bucolic summer picnic. Anna had no doubt it was a masterpiece. "Elsa, Arendelle needs you. They've never needed you more than now. You're the only one with the authority to help them through this terrible season."

"I know," Elsa said. "I wish my father were still alive. He would know what to do. My father died before he could fully teach me how to use The Keys."

"Elsa, what are The Keys?"

Elsa held up her hand. Anna saw the gloves Elsa always seemed to be wearing. "Anton the Great... he knew, that to control Arendelle, he would have to control its networks. So he controls the processor factories. Every processor is built with cryptographic locks. And he needed a very personal and direct way to lock or unlock those processors at will." She looked up at Anna. "So, like the Vessel, I have... cyberwear. In my head. And my hands. The transmitters and cryptographic key systems, The Keys, are here." She pointed to the backs of her hands. "Exposed. So they can be controlled if they have to, but..."

Anna's eyes went down to Elsa's hands. "That's why you wear the gloves."

Elsa nodded. "They're Faraday cages. When I take these off, the whole world changes into something I command, every device is ready to act out my whim, every speaker will say what I want, every plane would fall from the sky. Sometimes I think I'm more like the Vessel than I am like my own subjects. I see and hear so much more, so much you can't. If I wanted, every soletta would turn away from its duchy. Arendelle is only habitable because the solettas reflect extra sunlight down here. Anna, when one of my ancestors had a troublesome duke, all he had to do was turn off the sun." She paused, staring at her hands as if each palm itself was the traitor. "When I wear my gloves, I feel.. human. I don't want them. I don't want this curse. I don't want to feel like a god. I want to be human."

"But you are human," Anna said. "And I want to help you. We can work it out together. We can head down this mountain together, Elsa, you don't have to be afraid."

"I... I know. Thank you, Anna."

They were quiet for a few minutes, their breaths misting in the still frigid air. "We should go," Anna said, hinting gently.

"Yes," Elsa said. "Yes. I think I'm ready now." She took a deep breath, sat up straight, looked around as if only now seeing her own palace. "Two weeks this time. I thought panic attacks were supposed to last only a few hours.

"I don't know. Maybe," Anna said, understanding better Elsa's predicament. "Sometimes, though, just not knowing what to do next is crippling enough. We have our duties. I have mine. You have yours." She turned her attention back to the large, muscular ball of fluff staring up at the two of them. "And you, Snowball, what are we going to do with you?"

Olaf only grinned and cast his gaze between the two of them.

Anna stood and took Elsa's hand. She looked over the beautiful white-haired woman and something down inside her quivered. For the longest time, she'd thought it had just been some flavor of irresponsible desire, the kind of playfulness she'd so enjoyed when she'd been young, a fresh adult, learning all the ways adults could play. But there was more to it now. She should have resented Elsa utterly, but instead she felt admiration, respect, and yearning. And something else, too. There was a world weighing down this woman, and she may have been terrified of the responsibility, but she was about to put it all back onto her shoulders. "Calhoun is waiting for us."

Elsa nodded. They stood face to face, Anna holding Elsa's hand in hers. Elsa's face was less than a handspan away, her eyes so blue and beautiful. Anna hesitated, then turned away. "Let's go." Olaf, to Anna's great pleasure, swarmed up onto her padded shoulder.

They met Calhoun at the door leading to the landing pad. Calhoun rushed to Elsa's side. "You sure did a number on yourself this time, My Queen."

Elsa smirked. "Is Kai with you, Captain?"

"No, My Queen."

"Good. I don't want him to see me like this." She stood up and brushed the hair out of her face. Anna's heart gave one massive thud and a warmth pooled somewhere south of there. She turned away, but she could feel Olaf snickering in her ear.

"Then let's get you back to Chantel and call your maids and get you prettied right up, Your Majesty. If you would both come this way?"

Chapter Text

"Captain," Admiral Becker said as he shook Anna's hand and guided her into his office. He gestured toward a chair. The HMS Brass was an older dreadnought, perfectly suitable to a case like this where modern vessels like Medusas and Harringtons would be overkill, but his office was still typically sized for a flagship Admiral's vessel. "So glad you could make it."

"I didn't get to be a captain by unnecessarily annoying my admirals, sir."

"Indeed." He smiled. "I wanted to talk to you about several things, Captain. I don't know where you went the day Queen Elsa came back to the capitol, but I have a working suspicion you had something to do with her return. I need to ask you a few questions before I deliver our next assignment."

Anna nodded. "I had a feeling you were going to put it all together."

"So, can you tell me what happened? And can you swear under oath that, whatever happened, it does not involve your subordination to a foreign power?"

"About the last, yes, sir, I will so swear, if the fleet requires it. About the first..." Anna sighed. She had rehearsed this moment, but the words came out in a rush. "Sir, when we return to Manticore I respectfully request that I be allowed a leave of absence while I turn myself over to BuMed for psychiatric evalutation to determine if I am still fit for duty in Her Majesty's Navy."

Becker went very still. A captain who called her own fitness for command into question was one who forever after could expect to receive letters informing her that the Admiralty had no ships suitable to her skills. "I was led to understand you were to make a full recovery, and that there wasn't any brain damage from your, um, ressurection."

"No, sir, it was my heart." Anna touched her chest with an open hand as she leaned forward. This was harder than she'd imagined. "Quite literally." Tears formed in her eyes, and one streaked down her right cheek. "You may have noticed, Olaf isn't with me today."

"Yes. I was surprised, and gratified, that you recovered him, although I haven't been told the details on quite where you found him, or how. And I don't understand why ONI has recorded seeing him several times in Queen Elsa's presence. Can you explain why you seem to be sharing him with a foreign queen?"

Anna took a deep breath. "Admiral, sir, that day, he contacted me. He told me where he was, and how to meet up with him. Sir, after I was shot, I was dead. I don't care about the legal or ethical ramifications of saying so, but for all intents and purposes I had zero brain activity, and I was in that state for six weeks. But when a treecat goes six weeks without any contact from his person, knowing that their person is dead--" She let the words hang in the air.

"He looks healthy..." Becker suddenly slapped the desk. "Your bond with him is gone? And, that means, my God." He looked past Anna. It was his turn to take a breath. "My God. He bonded with Queen Elsa, didn't he?"

"Yes, sir."

"Are they compatible?"

"They seem to be doing all right with each other. Elsa is enjoying this part, as far as she can. But I don't think she's the sort of woman who gets many chances to enjoy herself. I don't think she knows how."

"An understatement," Becker said. "I've been told Elizabeth makes the same point on a fairly regular basis. To the Admiral." No need to specify which Admiral. Right. "And that explains why she's suddenly so much more effective as Queen. With a treecat's stabilizing influence and his own empathetic abilities, he'd certainly be as helpful to her as Ariel is to Elizabeth, wouldn't he?"

"Yes, sir," Anna said. She paused to gather her thoughts. She tucked that errant strand of hair back behind her ear again. "What I'm saying, Admiral, is that my psych profile was always dependent upon Olaf being a part of my life. And now he's not. I need to find out what that's done to me before I can take another ship out at the Queen's pleasure."

Becker was still for a moment as he tried to think of a way around her predicament. But the regulations were clear. "As much as I don't want to, I can understand that. I'm so sorry, Captain. I know how much a career in the Navy means." His eyes took in the award board on her chest insignia, the list of commands and kills and honors and lost souls. She'd never see that fourth ring now. "I will write the recommendation, along with a commendation for your bravery and insight in bringing it to me, and we shall let the chips fall where they may."

Anna listened to a man praise her even as he agreed that it was possible her career should end. "Thank you, sir."

"Don't."

"But I must. You understand."

"I do," Becker said. "God bless you, Captain." He smiled grimly. "However, for the moment, you are still a Queen's officer, you are still in my command, and I have a very specific request to make of you."

"Of me, sir?"

"Yes. Or, rather, Her Majesty Queen Elsa of Arendelle has asked me for a favor. Queen Elsa has asked that I convey her and a party of Arendelle's government to Corona, to make initial contact with the government of Corona and begin negotiations to form a commonwealth. She has also asked that Winterkiss provide the initial contact. I have seen fit to grant these requests. I'm sorry, Captain, I know it's never fun being reduced to a glorified bus driver, and with your own circumstances with Olaf-- how is he taking it, by the way?"

"Hard. He says he still loves me, but he knows there's something there that's broken, something that we lost. I miss him every day he's not with me. He does spend time with me when I'm groundside, but..."

"My God. I'm sorry, Captain. If you want, I can find another ship--"

"No, that's fine," Anna said. "If he's on the same ship with me, we'll get more time together. Who knows? If BuMed beaches me, maybe I'll move to Arendelle. Become a part of the Foreign Office, or an advisor to the Queen. God knows they're going to need more than one." The idea of moving to Arendelle hadn't occurred to her before, and for a moment the cold knife of losing Olaf and the hotter, stranger knife she felt every time she saw Elsa, both twisted inside her simultaneously. She looked away from Becker.

"Is it bad?"

"I was dead, sir. Being alive is better. That Olaf didn't die with me is better. That he's with someone like Elsa, and helping her be as excellent as she can be, is better. She will take care of him. It's all right, sir."

He shook his head. "You know, when they assigned you to my command, I was surprised but also very pleased to get you."

She looked up, surprised. "I would have thought, after all the mess I made here..."

"Oh, that. There'll be inquiries. Doctor Pine is going to raise one heck of a ruckus, and of course he has is patrons among the liberals. But don't worry. When you exited the wormhole, your schedule gave you plenty of time to look around, and you were within your mandate to follow Dr. Fitzhubert's request to investigate this very peculiar binary starsystem. Up until the moment the Vessel shot at you, you were well within your duties as a representative of Queen and Kingdom. Once they were shooting at you, you were free to defend yourself. Your choice of action was unorthodox but certainly won the hearts and minds of what looks to be a very interesting ally. And this is an area of space that, as far as we know, has never been explored. Doctor Pine is wrong and you were right: that first shot was well within an armed response zone under the Rules of Engagement."

"With all due respect, sir, we know the Vessel was constrained by their technology. I could have pulled out and nobody would ever have been the wiser."

"So Dr. Pine has argued. But he's simply wrong, Captain. We do not leave innocents behind, not when we know tragedy awaits them that we can, in all probability, avert. You made the right and honorable call. You have the head for command, Captain. The Lords of the Admiralty gave you this ship in all good trust. Don't second-guess that."

"No, sir. Thank you, sir."

"Your record is exemplary, Captain. You're probably one of the most generous officers it has, and I mean that in the best way possible. You give everything of yourself, and you get it all back." He looked down at his desk momentarily. "And, from what I've just heard, so you have done with Olaf and Elsa. I don't know what to tell you, Captain, other than I believe that the best will come out of this, and you will get it all back, whatever it really is."

"I hope so, sir."

"You have a ship to prepare, Captain, for a royal passenger. I won't hold you any longer." She rose. "And captain?"

"Sir?"

"Even without your treecat, I believe you'll continue to be a damn fine leader, wherever you land." He held out a hand.

Anna could feel tears in her eyes, but she ignored them as she took his hand and shook. "Thank you sir."

"Godspeed, Captain."

Anna nodded and left his office.

Chapter Text

Elsa watched as the door to the shuttle opened, letting in the light of the landing bay. Ever since Anna and Olaf had dragged her from the Winter Palace she had dreaded this moment. Anna had coaxed her out of her hiding place, but nothing and everything could coax Elsa into wanting to be in Anna's company. The woman was so strong, so beautiful, so assured, so... lovely. So very, very lovely. Every time she was in Anna's presence, the generous warmth within the redheaded woman only reminded her further of how right Meke had been, and how wrong it was for the broken Queen of Arendelle to think so. Elsa took a deep breath, straightened her back and said, "Go first, Olaf. Anna misses you." Olaf nodded, and the two of them walked down the aisle and out into the boat bay.

A high-pitched whistle sounded and Elsa looked up to see Anna at the end of a gleaming row of soldiers and sailors, all turned out in perfect formality. She looked beautiful. It looked perfectly civil and correct and Elsa quivered inside. This was easy. This was supposed to be easy. Kai, Gerda, Tamora, and two other security officers followed. Behind them, nine security officers of the Arendelle Palace Guard waited their turn to be escorted by Manticoran Marines to their quarters. Behind them, a small phalanx of Arendelle's civil goverment would be taking over the spaces vacated by Anna's previous horde of astrophysicists.

She walked down the short row, thankfully no more than ten officers on a side, up to where Anna and her executive officer, Kristoff, stood waiting for her. Olaf had clambered up Anna's body to take his place on her shoulders, and Anna was stifling a giggle even as Olaf poked his nose into her auburn tresses and did something, Elsa wasn't sure what, that made Anna clamp her mouth over her hand and give Olaf a withering glare and a whispered warning. Elsa, who had come to appreciate Olaf's capabilities and humor, didn't even have to know exactly what the two had exchanged to know it had to be funny, and hid her own mouth behind one hand. Which only made Anna work even harder to keep from bursting out with the giggles.

Only Anna's eyes betrayed the pain and the hollow feeling Elsa knew Anna would have to be feeling somewhere inside. She knew there would probably be pain in her own eyes. She hoped Anna couldn't see it.

Elsa drew herself up straight and took a breath. "Captain DuVar," she said. "Arendelle thanks you for giving us this unique opportunity."

"Queen Elsa," Anna said, her voice ending on an upnote, making it something of a question, "Manticore is extremely grateful to have this opportunity to give to you and your kingdom." She was glad Anna didn't offer a hand, although according to the protocols that was the expected formal gesture. Elsa was now far away from Arendelle's network but she had still worn her gloves; she didn't think she could have kept her face calm and collected if she had actually touched Anna's skin. "If you would allow, may I escort you to your quarters?"

"Thank you, I would appreciate that, Captain."

Anna gestured toward the elevator. They were silent as they rode it down into Anna's ship.

A sentry stood at Elsa's door. Anna said, "Thank you, corporal. Arendelle's Own will be also standing here for the forseeable future."

"Yes, Ma'am," he said, saluted, and shifted to one side. One man behind Tamora mirrored the marine on the other side of the door. Elsa strode through.

It was a suitable stateroom. Gerda had arranged with Claire to ensure the belongings the queen needed for the trip were already in place on board Winterkiss, and evidently she had already dressed the table with the correct cloth and dishware. Elsa took a deep breath and detected a faint, sharp tang in the air, like that of a changing room for athletics, but it was faint, very faint. As well as far more pleasant than such a comparison would have suggested.

"Something wrong, Your Highness?" Anna asked.

"No. It's fine. I was just wondering..."

"It's a general purpose room, fully transformable into a luxury stateroom for honored guests with a few fixture replacements. Before that, we were using it as a gymnasium with a variable gravity feature. Well, I was. Me and Kristoff. Sphinx has a higher gravity, so when I wanted to use the treadmills, I..."

"It's fine, Captain," Elsa said. She surprised herself by laughing freely. What she really wanted she hid deep down. "I'm quite sure I can make allowances for what has to be the finest taxi I've ever ridden." Anna nodded, returning her amusement with a smile of her own. "Captain Calhoun, would you please give the Captain and I some privacy?"

"With all due respect, your Majesty, I can't monitor you here the way I can down there. Your authority doesn't work on something not manufactured in Arendelle. It's not safe for you to be alone."

"Captain," Elsa said softly, "Anna is not a threat to me." Calhoun glanced down at Olaf, uncomfortably. Elsa's eyes narrowed. "You must be joking."

"Fine, fine," Calhoun said, flailing her arms in the air. "By your leave, Your Majesty." Calhoun turned and walked smartly out of the stateroom. The door hissed closed behind her.

"She's a handful, isn't she?" Anna asked.

"I know she means well," Elsa said, taking a deep breath, then letting herself sag. "Everyone around me means well."

"I don't," Anna said, and smiled.

"You!" Elsa said. "You're the worst of all of them. You give and you give and you don't seem to expect anything at all in return."

"But that's just it, I get plenty!" Anna said. Admiral Becker had just recently said something similar. "I've always had the respect of my peers, and I've always had my health, and my parents still love me to pieces, even if..." She broke off.

"Even if?"

Anna sighed. "Even if they're not in love with each other anymore." Elsa nodded. She had reviewed tapes of their conversation that first dinner to make sure she recalled every nuance. "That's beside the point. I get plenty, Elsa. What is life for? Not these bits of ribbon." She gestured toward her chest and the decorations there, an array of rewards for a light cruiser captain, with a few more than most in her class for conspicuous courage and the Monarch's Thanks. Elsa had been briefed. "Not the privileges. Certainly not to collect a lot of 'stuff'. Not to gather power for power's sake; I can't buy more life, or more time, or more happiness." Anna snorted. "I'm happy enough. Despite my voluntary demotion."

"Wait, I'm confused. How did you get demoted?"

"I'm supposed to be commanding a heavy cruiser or possibly even an older battlecruiser at this point in my career, but I volunteered to command Winterkiss instead." She reached out and touched a wall. "I put my name in a hat and the Lords of the Admiralty took it. I wasn't the only one, but they chose me. Maybe they thought, if the other end of the wormhole exited inside a star, I wouldn't be a great loss. I look amazing on paper, but my upper peers seem to believe I'm about as necessary as a spare button on a coat." Elsa watched as she tucked that strand of hair behind her ear again. Anna seemed to be unaware of her own cuteness, but she was definitely working on Elsa. "Still, my crews are happy. And my last two XOs went on to independent commands of their own. So I'm happy. That's what I want."

Elsa nodded. She was still frightened, but being around Anna made her feel less so. The woman hadn't gone mad with rage or crumbled with anxiety, not the way Elsa might have expected or done herself, when she'd learned the full range of the catastrophe caused by that bullet. Anna hadn't lost her life, but she'd lost almost everything else.

"Elsa?"

"I'm sorry, Anna," Elsa said, her voice heavy and her throat tight. Tears came to her eyes. "I just can't imagine how you bear it. How you bear... now that I know, now that I know what it's like to have him in my life, I don't understand how you just go on. You don't even seem to blame me."

"I can't do that!" Anna said, her voice shocked at the suggestion. "I've had a lot of time to think about it. Being stuck in a hospital bed will do that. Elsa, I was dead. I accept that. You saved him. He needed you. I can't imagine anything more wonderful than that."

"But you lost your heart, Anna, the one your parents gave you."

"And Arendelle gave me a new one." She stepped closer. "You gave me a new one."

"Is it enough?" Elsa asked. She felt awed at the way Anna framed the circumstances, and somehow she took Anna's positive outlook into herself, breathed it in and embraced it.

"It will be. It has to be. The alternative is... nothing. Literally nothing. I'd rather be alive than dead. I'd rather be happy than sad. And I'd rather Olaf be alive and have your light in it, than have no life or light at all." She smiled up at Elsa, and Elsa felt that familiar pang, and that unfamiliar feeling for which she yet had no name. "You have a lot of light, Elsa. Don't discount it."

"I feel like we're two parents discussing who gets to keep the kids during a divorce." The words came to Elsa out of nowhere, and now that she thought them, she wondered how true they were. She didn't want a separation and divorce from Anna. They'd never been intimates in the first place, and the idea of intimacy with anyone had always made Elsa anxious. Elsa had spent her whole life knowing she wasn't cut out for courtship the way the majority did it. Was Meke right? Was it the love of a good woman she needed? Was Anna...

"Maybe," Anna said. "How does a Queen know about such things?"

"I read a lot. It's my only real source of comfort, my way of escaping from this." She gestured down the long, blue formal gown she wore, and ended with her gloves.

"I'm glad you had somewhere to go," Anna said softly. They looked at each other, and Elsa could feel that something crackling between them, an electricity that needed only an excuse.

Elsa heard a soft buzz. Anna sighed. and looked at the chrono on her wrist. "Damn. Well," Anna said, "If you'll excuse me, Your Highness, I have a ship to sail. Because the crossing between here and Corona is unfamiliar, and we don't know any of the geometry of hyperspace this far out from the galactic core, we'll be taking it very slow and going only as high as the Gamma band. That means the crossing will take a little over seventy-two hours."

"That's 'very slow?'" Elsa said. "Anna, prior to this it took eleven years for us to cross that distance!"

"I know," Anna said. "But that's still slow for us. Once your people have gotten up to speed on manufacturing alpha nodes and sails, and once we've finished a comprehensive map of any gravitic shear risks in this region of space, your people will be travelling back and forth overnight."

"It's hard to believe," Elsa said. "At your meeting with Meke you described a school outing to another planet around another star, and I couldn't wrap my head around the idea." She shook her head. "What does it mean to have a kingdom right next door?"

"You'll figure it out." Anna bowed. "With your leave, Your Highness?"

"Of course," Elsa said. "It's your ship."

"I'll see you at dinner."

"Dinner," Elsa said, and watched Anna go. When the door closed, she fell down into a convenient chair and put her face in her hands. Olaf padded over to her, and Elsa felt his warm, reassuring love through their link together. "I know, Olaf, I know."

Olaf tried his hand signals, but Elsa didn't know them yet. He grimaced, then put one finger up in a gesture of waiting and walked out of the stateroom. He came back a few minutes later, carrying a special communications pad. With his true hand he punched chords into a five-by-five square of buttons on the bottom, then handed it to Elsa. Dark-Bright-Flame hurts as big as you.

"Dark bright flame? Is that what you call Anna?" Olaf nodded. He held out his hand for the pad, and Elsa handed it to him. You would play well together.

"Oh, Olaf, that can't be true." She knew he would never, possibly could never lie to her. But Anna had to be hurting, had to be resentful of what was happening between Elsa and Olaf. If someone had ripped Olaf from Elsa she felt sure she'd have died from the shock. Anna did die. Olaf should have died.

And if Elsa was honest with herself, she had held him, despite the scratches and the new scar, because she had wanted two things at the same time: she wanted him away from Anna so the medicos could save the desperately wounded woman, and if they couldn't, she wanted him to live, so that one tiny part of the only person who'd ever moved Elsa that way would live on.

Olaf typed again. What you want is good.

"I wish I felt the same way," Elsa said. "I really wish that were true."

Chapter Text

She could hardly believe it.

The ship that arced down through the atmosphere was no ordinary aircraft. The bright trail as it burned through the air had been evidence enough that it was an authentic re-entry vehicle, but then it had floated onto the palace's largest helipad while making barely a hum, then touched down with featherlight precision. A door in the side of the shuttlecraft opened and deployed downward, revealing steps on the interior of the door. Two people, a man and a woman, both in different but still recognizably military outfits, emerged and trooped down to the foot, taking up positions at either side of the steps.

"Well, that was certainly impressive!"

She smiled tolerantly at the tall robotic figure that had spoken, then turned her attention back to the shuttlecraft. It was still radiating waves of attention-seeking re-entry heat, but the two soldiers didn't seem to notice it at all.

Then she stepped out. Radiant, tall, her pale skin and blue dress exactly as she had appeared in the holovids from a few weeks ago, holovids already two years out of date, overdressed with a huge, white fluffy stole around her neck that heralded her duties as Queen over an ice world. "Elsa!" She couldn't restrain herself. She ran across the tarmac and ran up to the other woman, hugging her. "Is it really you? Are you really here?" She realized there was something else on Elsa's shoulders, something big, and bulky, and warm.

Elsa stiffened, but then she laughed and pushed back. "Rapunzel! Yes, I am! Oh, it's good to see you, Rapunzel. Goodness, your hair is even longer than the last time you sent me a message!"

The stole moved, and Rapunzel saw that it wasn't a pelt of any kind. "What is that?" she said slowly, pointing to the strange, six-limbed animal on her cousin's shoulders.

Elsa laughed. "Rapunzel, meet Olaf. Olaf, this is my cousin Rapunzel." The beast stood up on Elsa's shoulder. He used one mid-hand to steady himself against her head, and with the left hand made a very elaborate and deliberate bow, complete with a counter-clockwise whirling gesture of his free hand.

"Is he... intelligent? When did you get him?"

Olaf gave her a thumbs up gesture. Rapunzel giggled. "Yes, very. It's also a, a story. A long story. That you need to hear. But not now. You have to meet my other friends, first." She gestured into the ship. Four people descended the stairs. Two men and one woman wore uniforms similar to the man who had taken up a guard position at the end of the stairs; the other woman wore a civilian suit. None of the styles were at all familiar to Rapunzel. One of the military men had another beast like Olaf on his shoulders, but it was a dark brown color with streaks of black going down the length of its back. "May I present Admiral Pyre Becker, Captain Lady Anna DuVar, Commander Kristoff Bjorgmann and Sven of the Royal Manticoran Navy, and Lady Ambassador Dorothy Hellenola of the Foreign Office of The Star Kingdom of Manticore. Ambassador, Admiral, Captain, may I present to you my loud and wonderful cousin, Princess Rapunzel of Corona."

Elsa glanced up as three more figures approached. "What is that?" she said in the same slow cadence with which Rapunzel had addressed Olaf.

Rapunzel grinned, glad she had her own surprise. "Don't you know? Queen Elsa, assembled Manti... uh--"

"'Manticorans'," Elsa provided.

"Manticorans, may I present my parents, King John and Queen Kimberlyn of Corona, and Lady Captain Simone Jessicornelia Gothel."

"Captain Gothel?" Elsa said.

"Yes, yes, of course!" the tall machine said. Rapunzel could understand the surprise. There were robots on Corona and Arendelle alike, but most of them were industrial, agricultural, or used for orbital maintenance. Neither planet routinely deployed humanoid machines. But Gothel was clearly something else: two meters tall, she towered over everyone else on the landing pad. Her body suggested a humanoid, even feminine shape, but its gleaming chrome and pearl white paint job, with exposed industrial joints wrapped in neat spiral-bound cabling along shoulders, elbows, and knees, emphasized its mechanical nature. Even the head, little more than an inverted pyramid of a single, massive glass camera flanked by two smaller lenses above a triangular speaker grille, suggested more a machine than a human being. "I'm not like those fools around Agdar. They should have come with me! Instead, they're fit to play their videogames and pretend that one day they'll all uplift out of their flesh. Such a fantasy! Such a waste." The machine shook its-- her-- head. "I knew that the secret to staying young was to stick around and be with people. To change my mind now and then." She touched her chestplate. "Oh, Elsa, dear, it's so good to see you." Her voice purred. "But really, dear, pay attention to your family."

Elsa wasn't the only one gawking. The newcomers on the landing pad were clearly uncomfortable with Gothel's appearance. Rapunzel was used to it. Mother Gothel had been around forever. "Elsa, come meet my Mom and Dad."

Rapunzel's father laughed as he stepped forward and offered his hand to Elsa. He had a deep, magnificent, familiar laugh. "You are as beautiful as your holovids, dearest niece. I never thought I'd get a chance to meet you in the flesh, not unless I chose to abdicate to my own little one here." He reached out and tousled Rapunzel's hair. She tolerated it with affection. "To see you here is quite amazing. Am I to understand that the Manticorans have faster than light travel?"

"Yes, Uncle," Elsa said. "And they say it is an old technology that doesn't require exotic materials. It was just something humanity hadn't discovered before our ancestors headed out. Arendelle has already started manufacturing the gravitic control systems that allow them to navigate hyperspace."

"Already?" He looked surprised. "How long have you had these Manticorans in your space?"

"Perhaps three months? Much has happened. Uncle, I need to discuss something of grave import. Arendelle's lasers and its space elevator have been destroyed." King John sucked in his breath, his eyes stricken. For a moment it seemed he would turn to make sure his kingdom's own was still there, but it was far over the horizon. "It was not their doing, but they were the catalyst for an attempted coup. There is more. May I speak with you? Alone?"

John thought for a moment. "A coup? Soon. Yes. Yes." He paused to collect himself. "Before we do that, you must greet your aunt first."

Elsa turned to Queen Kimberlyn and bowed. "My Lady."

"Oh, come here," Kimberlyn said, opening her arms. Elsa hesitated, then fell into them, allowing Kimberlyn to envelope her in an embrace Elsa returned with fervor. "I'm so sorry about Anton and Elizabeth," she said.

"Me, too," Elsa said, her voice going low. "Me too." She picked up her head and looked at King John. "Sire, I have a lot to ask of you. And, there are matters I and my allies wish to discuss with you, personally. These things can't be delayed. May we?"

He looked grave. "Of course, Queen Elsa. Let us take to a conference room."


Corona had never had to host a state dinner for one of its important dukes, as it simply didn't have any. The population wasn't big enough for John to have devolved any authority yet, and the kingdom barely counted as a princedom in the way the old manuals calculated such things. Tonight was its first.

Rapunzel stood outside the dining hall, rocking on her heels, frustrated that she had been excluded from the conference while those strangers, from Manticore, whatever that was, had been invited. She had fished her terminal out of her pocket and looked it up, and discovered to her dismay that it was some kind of fantastic creature from the fevered imaginings of Earth's pre-space, even pre-electricity times, a thing with a lion's head, bat's wings, and a scorpion's tail. Meanwhile, she continued to rock, waiting.

"Oh, here you are, Rapunzel, I've been looking all over for you."

"Aunt Gothel," she said, looking up and up at the gleaming metallic cyborg. She was a cyborg, despite not having a square centimeter of exposed flesh. At its core, Gothel's mobile suit was life support for a brilliant brain hidden deep inside its chest. "Isn't it exciting? Strangers! From... from human space. I've talked to a few of Elsa's staff and they say they have trade with Earth!"

"Yes, well, imagine what it must be like, Rapunzel. I'm sure it'll all be very exciting for a while. But, really, you can count me out of the people thrilled to think about it. Earth was a dark and repressive place, Rapunzel. The colony effort meant to get away from Earth. Why would we want to go back?"

"Because... well, it's been a long time. Maybe things are better."

"I very much doubt it."

"Princess, my lady," said a staff member as she walked by. "You are invited to enter."

Rapunzel was not seated as close to her parents as usual. Her mother and father sat at the head and left hand of the table. At the right sat Queen Elsa, and next to Elsa that Manticoran Captain, the pretty one with the auburn hair and honey-dark skin. The Manticoran Admiral sat next to her mother. A very serious-looking woman stood behind Elsa. Rapunzel was further down the line, set next to a handsome man in a well-trimmed scrap of a goatee, wearing a white dinner jacket over a light-blue vest and white shirt. He seemed to be trying very hard not to look at anyone in particular. "Um," she said, "Hello?"

"Hi," he said, his mouth twitching with wry discomfort. "You're the princess."

"That's right, I am," she said, smiling. "I keep forgetting. And who might you be?"

"Flynn," he said. "Doctor Flynn Fitzhubert, at your service. I'm part of the science team." He thought for a moment. "So, what do I call you? Is it 'Your Highness' or 'Your Ladyship' or 'Princess'?"

"'Princess' will do fine," she said. "Unless you want to just go with 'Rapunzel.'" Why had she offered that? She didn't usually give just anyone casual permission to use her name. Still, he was handsome. "So, tell me, Flynn Fitzhubert, ever been to Earth?"

He brightened. She was glad; she'd found a topic he felt comfortable discussing. "A couple of times. I went to school there."

"You did? When? Where?"

"Oh, for my graduate studies. University of Paris."

"Paris?" Rapunzel didn't try to restrain herself. She grabbed his collar. "You've been to Paris? It still exists?"

"It, uh, it did ten years ago, when I was there. I don't see why things might have changed."

"The city of lights? Really?"

"Really. Um, Rapunzel." He looked down at her hands, then over her shoulder. Guards were watching them warily.

She released him. "Sorry. It's just that... oh, I've always wanted to visit Paris. I've always wanted to visit Earth! I've read so much about it, I must have re-read all the books I could find about Earth a million times. I want to visit everywhere on Earth, like Tokyo, and New York, and London, and Beijing, and Ida, but I've always wanted to visit Paris first. Has it changed much?"

"Uh, no. I mean, sure, yes, but there's a Commission to Preserve Historical Landmarks, and Paris is one of those places that, well, it's pretty much all a historical landmark." He looked puzzled for a moment. "Where is Ida?"

"It's an island in Greece, where the Trojan War started. According to mythology."

"Never heard of it," Flynn said.

"Tell me about Paris. Is there an Eiffel Tower?"

"The old one finally rusted away, but they built a new one, and sprayed it with something to keep it from happening again. It's not really that impressive. If you want impressive, the Lourve is impressive. Don't go to Euro Disney, though. Save your money and go to the one in Florida."

"I wish I could go."

"You could. It's only a few weeks from here."

"Really? Your ships are that fast? How long did it take you to get from Arendelle to here?"

"Two days," Flynn said. "I heard the Captain say that they were taking the trip very cautiously and slow, because this area of space is unfamiliar to them. When it gets fully mapped you'll be able to get from here to Arendelle in less than a day. The trip from Arendelle to the wormhole is a few days, then..." He thought for a moment. "Lynx 2 to Lynx 1 is just a traffic stop, Manticore to Medusa, then eight days into Solarian space, and another six from the borderworlds to Earth itself. I guess it would take about three weeks to get to Earth."

"Three weeks!" Rapunzel's eyes went wide with excitement. "That's incredible!"

"Once you've done it a few times, it gets to be a little boring, you know. Unless you book a room in a really fancy spaceliner. Then again, Corona and Arendelle are both new territory. I'm sure you could get tourists coming out this way in no time."

Rapunzel tried to imagine Corona with tourists. That would be truly strange. Tourists. Expats. Emigrants. Words that had been in all her history books, words found in Leto's A Pattern Language of Polities: City-States, Nation-States, and Worlds. Corona got tourists, of course: a few dozen every decade, and fewer still from Corona went to Arendelle, but the idea of whole capital ships full of strangers overwhelmed her. What a great world Corona could become. Its terraforming was nearly perfect.

"What about Manticore?" she asked.

"What about it?"

"What's it like?"

Flynn described his own small town and the big lake nearby in which he'd learn to swim, and fish. He liked to climb trees. He'd gone to a specialized professional high school, then to Valasakis University, then to the French College of Materials Sciences In Paris on Earth for his graduate degree. Rapunzel returned the favor with a description of the Corona Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences. "And what do you do for Admiral Becker?" she finally asked him.

"I keep an eye on things."

"Oh?"

He shrugged. "A wormhole expedition doesn't really need a materials scientist. Her Majesty's Government is in a bit of... disagreement with the crown over certain financial disarrangements." He took a deep breath. "I'm here to make sure representatives of the government behave themselves."

"Was that a problem?"

"Nope, everything's been above-board. Which is not the same as unexciting! But no, my job so far has been easy." He frowned. He seemed ready to say more, but then stopped. "So, Princess, what are you doing now?"

"Studying. Reading, mostly. Some painting. Getting ready to be Queen and Sovereign, someday. Someday far, far in the future, may it be fate's design. So, Doctor Fitzhubert, any girls at home waiting for you?"

"No, not at the moment."

"Boys?"

"No, none of those either. Not my thing. Yours?"

"Men, not boys."

"Excellent nuance, Princess."

She reached out and stroked the back of his hand. "So, if you don't have anyone waiting back home, how long are you here?"

Flynn glanced down at his hand, a little surprised. "Admiral Becker has us scheduled for ten days, then back to Arendelle. Elsa can't really be gone for more than two weeks before things start to get difficult back on Arendelle."

"Is it really that bad?"

"It's... messy. I really shouldn't talk about it. You can discuss it with her."

"I'll do that." She continued to pet the back of his hand. "Do you have any assigned duties on this trip, or are you just... observing?"

He glanced down where she was still tickling the back of her hand with delicate fingertips. "My observing requires I attend a lot of meetings, Princess."

"No time to talk to pretty girls?"

She smiled at the way he swallowed. "I'm sure I could find time. I mean, they can't fill my every night with endless meetings. Can they?"

Rapunzel wrinkled her nose. "They sure can try."

"Where there's a will, Princess, I'm sure there's a way."

A waiter intervened between the two of them. "My lady. Honored sir. Deserts and coffee will be in the reception room," he said as he took their plates.

"Oh, dessert! Let's go." Rapunzel said, nearly leaping out of her chair.


Somehow, she'd gotten separated from Flynn and could no longer find him in a room packed with functionaries, bureaucrats, and high-powered mercantile interests. There were a lot of people here, and to her surprise she found that she didn't know many of them. It felt as if Elsa had brought nearly half her own government with her, but then Elsa's government was several times larger than her father's, and naturally would require more managerial staff.

"Rapunzel?" said the sharp, burring voice of Captain Gothel. "Are you enjoying yourself?"

"Oh, yes, Captain," she said. "Can you imagine it? Flynn says it would take three weeks to get from here to Earth, and their starships can be as luxurious as our royal yacht."

"Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Rapunzel," Gothel said, leaning closer to her. "Why would you want to do that? You have to understand why the colony left Earth in the first place. Earth was a ruin, a wreck, a disaster area. The seas were vast dead zones, the air was thick with hothouse gas. The governments of the world separated people into the productive and the unproductive, and tried to enslave the productive ones so they wouldn't feel guilty letting the unproductive wallow in poverty, starve, or die. It was terrible, Rapunzel, truly terrible. I was there. I saw it all. Go ahead, don't believe me. But I was there."

"But Flynn says..."

"Yes, I'm sure he says lots of pretty things. But he's one of them, Rapunzel, and from the looks of him he's part of the system. But you seem to be sweet on him."

Rapunzel grinned and blushed. "I think he likes me."

"Well, of course he likes you, Rapunzel. Why wouldn't he? Look at you. You're young. Beautiful. Fresh. Unspoiled. Why, you're positively a treat to a manipulative old boar like the good Doctor Flynn Fitzhubert. Come on, now, really, think about what you're getting into. He's twice your age. He comes from a complex and decadent civilization of billions of people. He's had to fight and claw his way into his current position. Competition in those circumstances is fierce, Rapunzel. Captain knows best. Governments like that--" Gothel pointed one triangular steel finger in the general direction of the crowd, although she seemed to be indicating the Manticorans-- "have so many channels and backchannels, cadres and coteries, favors and debts, sometimes paid for with your body. I'm sure the good Doctor Flynn has backers and patrons playing their own game, securing sincures and sans-portfolios."

Gothel shook her mechanical head in a mocking simulation of sad sympathy. "Think of it, Rapunzel. You're the Princess of a tiny colony that, to Doctor Flynn, looks positively grubby! Our main city is barely a medium-sized town to him, Rapunzel. Our farming and mining towns must look like something out of pre-space fantasies. You would be a notch on his belt, Rapunzel, hardly worth remembering in his doting old age."

"But you said you loved Corona!"

"I do, Rapunzel, oh, I do! But I love it because it's almost exactly what I want it to be. It's lovely and special in its own way, far, far from that civilization. Contact with a faster-than-light-capable human sphere will only destroy its beauty, Rapunzel. Like it reduces you. You are beautiful and sensational because you shine all by yourself in a velvet box. But if we're just one 'star-nation' among many, Rapnuzel, well, you'll just be yet another pretty girl in the upper crust of society. One among thousands, dearie." Gothel made a flicking gesture with one hand that would have made more sense if she'd had a head of hair to brush away.

Rapunzel looked back at the crowd. "But, like it or not, Captain, change is coming. You might be right, but think of all the exciting things we'll be able to see and do! We have to learn to live with it."

"We'll see about that, Rapunzel," Gothel said, her voice low. "We'll see."

Chapter Text

"Wow, am I glad that's over," Rapunzel said as she threw open the double doors and led her cousin into a sun-light tearoom. Elsa agreed. It seemed that there was a manual on how to receive a foreign noble, and another on how to deal with a planetary security crisis, and the two had collided, generating meetings. Lots of meetings. Rapunzel passed by a table and casually dropped her crown onto it with a metal-on-glass thunk, then crossed to the tea cart and opened herself an unmarked bottle of some kind of soda pop.

"I hope you're not upset that your father won't invite you."

"Oh, no. Well, maybe. Just a little. I suppose I should be grateful that he doesn't think I need to be involved in the security stuff, but if it's really as important as it seems to be...?" Elsa smiled at her attempt to get more details, but didn't rise to the bait. "Oh, what the hey. It's so good to see you, Elsa! I can't believe you're here! I can't believe I finally have time to talk to you!"

Elsa smiled. Rapunzel was just a year younger than she, yet somehow she had managed to be both more experienced and more innocent. "I'm glad, too. I just wish there were better news."

"We'll rescue the ship, Elsa. We will. Your friends will help. I mean, will they? Are they trustworthy?"

"I think they are."

"That will have to be good enough for me," Rapunzel said. "So, you said you wanted to talk. About what?"

Elsa remained silent and regarded the crown for a moment. Rapunzel followed her glance and said, "Oh, that. It's beautiful, but wow, does it get heavy sometimes."

"I think that's part of the point."

"Says the queen whose full crown is barely, barely a tiara."

Elsa grinned. "You might have a point there, cousin. Aunt Kimberlyn's crown doesn't look much heavier than the one you wear to those formal events."

"No, it doesn't. And I hope I don't have to wear it for a long, long time." She raised her fizzing glass. "Oop. Can I get you one?" Without waiting for an answer, she turned back to the table, poured the contents of two different bottles into a glass, and handed it to Else. "Here. French lemonade with crushed mint."

Elsa took a sip. It was not too sweet, slightly bubbly, and definitely lemonade. "That's delicious. So if being queen doesn't work out, you're ready to become a bartender?"

"Ha! No, I have a lot of different talents. Mother thinks I'd make a great artist, if I didn't have to be a Queen someday. I'm pretty good with pencils, oils, and acrylics, but I can work with almost anything. I've done a few sculptures, too. I recently started doing computer art."

Elsa smiled at her and hoped that was true. She envied Rapunzel's ability to look so beautiful despite the sun-warmed heat. Elsa felt like she was melting here in Corona's capitol city. She'd left late winter two days ago only to land in a perfect, cloudless, tropical summer. "Let's take a walk. My father used to say that every problem can be solved by walking." She pointed out the door toward a large, brightly-tiled courtyard. Rapunzel nodded, and the two of them went together out onto the terrace.

The kingdom of Corona seemed to spread out below them, a single city-state of less than a quarter million people. The streets were narrow, but that kept the people close to each other, kept the communities vibrant and alive. Chantel followed a similar design. The kingdom of Corona was beautiful, bright, even noisy.

For a moment, Elsa envied them their eternal summer. But without the cold and even the rain, would anyone on Arendelle remember how beautiful the bright summer days could be? She turned to regard her cousin. Rapunzel was perfect for Corona. Her incredibly long bright hair, her bright eyes, the way she dressed, was entirely light and lovely. Summer. That was Rapunzel.

Rapunzel returned the regard, her eyes narrow and curious. "Okay, Elsa. You said you wanted to talk about something?"

Elsa took a deep breath. "Fine. Rapunzel, despite how far away you were, I've always felt close to you. I hope you feel the same way." Rapunzel's eyebrows rose slowly in acknowledgement, and she nodded. "I was reviewing the last message I sent you that you might have received, which has to be two years old. And the one I got from you, that has to be four years old."

"Four years," Rapunzel said. "Four years."

"You were on your second boyfriend."

"Oh! Max!" Rapunzel's eyes seem to fade with memory. "Max. God, what a... He was going through security school. Big, tall, strong. Serious, very serious. Not very creative in bed. Not very creative period. But he was hung like a--"

"I do not need to know that," Elsa said quickly.

"No, I guess you don't," Rapunzel said, giggling. "C'mon. Out with it."

"Rapunzel, I want your advice. I... I've met someone."

"Oh? Oh! Oh, good! Who is she? Is she here? With you? Can I meet her? Is it Meke? Tell me it's Meke, you were always so fond of her."

"Wait, what? 'She?' Don't I even have to get to the part where I tell you I'm a lesbian?"

"Nope," Rapunzel said, grinning. "Known that since you were twelve."

"What?" Elsa cried. "That's exactly what Meke said. If everyone knew I was attracted to girls when I was twelve, why for God's sake do my dukes insist on sending me their sons?"

"Because you told us, Elsa. Not in so many words, but it was just the way you talked to the people you trust made it clear. You didn't tell your dukes. From what other people have told me, you did a pretty good job of putting on a show for them. How were they supposed to know?"

Elsa blew out a long breath. "I suppose that's true," she said. "Damn. And no, it isn't Meke. She's not, she doesn't turn that way. She loves me, and wished me luck, but even she called it 'an affliction' because it cut down my possibilities. A lot." Elsa looked down into the glass in her hands and wished it held wine. "A hundred and forty thousand is still a lot of people."

Rapunzel did a quick calculation on her fingers. "I think that would mean there are twelve thousand lesbians on Corona. Twelve thousand would still be a lot of women to check out," Rapunzel said, grinning. "Oh, Elsa, it's still a haystack you're searching through. So, who is she?"

"Anna."

"Anna?" Rapunzel's brow furrowed. Then her eyes widened. "Wait, you mean the starship captain? From Manti-whatever?"

"Manticore. Yes."

"Oh. Oh! Yes, I've met her. I like her. Actually I like a lot of the Manticorans."

Elsa wondered how much Rapunzel actually knew about the attempt on her life, or what came afterward. If Rapunzel really understood what Olaf and Anna had been-- and maybe still were-- would she still have such enthusiasm? "Do you think it would work?"

"Does it matter?" Rapunzel asked. "Do you trust her?"

Elsa smiled. "Anna is one of the most trustworthy and generous people I've ever met. I trust her completely."

Rapunzel paused. "Wow. Coming from you, that's... that's something I have to take seriously. Really, Elsa, what matters more than that you and she would be happy together?"

Elsa looked out the window. "My people would have to accept her."

"Do you mean your subjects, or your nobles?"

Elsa thought about it for a moment. "Both, preferably."

"Oh, forget about your nobles. You know, the ones that matter are the ones that don't mind."

"I know," Elsa said. She looked at her hands, lifted them to make the point to Rapunzel. "But it's the Curse of Anton, Rapunzel. I want to be trusted, not feared. I want what your father has. I don't need to be loved, just... trusted." She raised her eyes, met Rapunzel's. "It would be nice to be loved."

Rapunzel smiled slowly. "I love you. Not like that, though, but that would be a heck of an arrangement, wouldn't it? Would Anna love you?"

"I wish she would. She can. She's had girlfriends before."

"A lot?" Rapunzel asked.

"A... a few, I'm led to understand."

"Then maybe she won't compare you too much to the others." Rapunzel leaned forward. "Elsa, don't be shy. Go for it. Nothing else is more important." She leaned back and sighed. "I wish I had someone."

"You don't?"

"No," Rapunzel said, almost growling. "I mean, you know I've had a few, oh, I can't even call them 'romances.' Dalliances. But everyone on Corona is boring, and everyone on Arendelle is too far away!"

Elsa laughed. "Weren't you just saying something about having a lot of people to look through?"

"Yes, I was," Rapunzel said. "But..."

They were silent for a time. Elsa said, "Rapunzel? I understand."

"Although, that Flynn man is very handsome."

"Doctor Fitzhubert?" Elsa sighed. "Yes. He is. That's the problem. I look at him and I understand-- I do!-- but I don't feel it." She looked down at her glass.

"I do!" Elsa glared at her, and it was Rapunzel's turn to smile at someone who was essentially her life-long pen-pal. "Elsa, let me help you. Tonight, you should totally go to Anna and propose."

"Propose? Like marriage? No, no, no, no, no."

"No, not marriage, silly. Dinner. Romance. Maybe sex. S. E. X. There've been a lot of happy lesbians in history, so that has to work somehow." Rapunzel stepped forward and put her hands over Elsa's. Elsa noticed they both wore gloves, although Rapunzel's were small, cream-colored and very fine. Almost not there at all. Elsa thought her own gloves were dramatic. They were colorful and went halfway up her forearm. "And no wine."

"But, Rapunzel, I've never... I mean...."

"Really?" Rapunzel's eyes widened. "Not even with men?" Elsa shook her head, her face bright and blushing with the agony of this revelation. Rapunzel barrelled on, ignoring her cousin's discomfort. "Oh. Well, Anna has. So you said. And it'll be a good test. Either you work well together, or there's no chemistry. May as well find out now."

"You're serious, aren't you?"

"Yup." Rapunzel touched the back of her wristcomp. "Let me make some arrangements with my staff."

"Are you sure?"

"Elsa," Rapunzel said firmly. "You have to do it someday, with someone. Don't die wondering. If you like this Anna, ask her. What can it hurt?"

Elsa almost told her.

Chapter Text

Anna stood on the balcony of the room she'd been granted in the Palace of Corona. Even in the setting sun the seas of Corona's capitol were far more blue than the deep, cold green of Iron Fjord or Chantel. All three had been built with the assumption that access to water was an important part of a kingdom's seat of power. As Elsa was now learning in the hardest way possible, access to space mattered more. Maybe the shore was one of those things buried deep in the human genome, a kind of recognition that seafront property was a challenge and a blessing, the ever-present threat of the greatest storms any planet could deliver combined with access to the seemingly endless sea, to distant shores and constant harvests. Corona didn't call to Anna the way Arendelle or Sphinx did-- it was too warm, too seasonal, too perfect in its own way. She liked it here, she could vacation here, but she would never have wanted to live here. Give her mountains covered in ice, give her snow, give her winter. Give her cold Arendelle, give her rugged Sphinx.

Give her Olaf.

Her hands tightened on the balustrade. In the days since her resurrection, since her discovery of Olaf's bond with Elsa, she had tried not to be selfish, had tried to live up to her word and her reputation. There was nothing she wouldn't do for Olaf's happiness, for her crew's success, for her kingdom's well-being. Yet she wanted him back. And she wanted the woman to whom he was now bonded.

Elsa burned in her imagination, a sweet, difficult trial for which she had nothing to offer. Elsa lived in Anna's imagination and invaded Anna's dreams and Anna had no way to respond. She wondered sometimes it was Olaf doing that. Maybe the bond had not been broken but reforged, like a sword might be reforged, its mettle untested, its new alloys in the mix, its fragility or strength yet to be revealed. She had to hope. As much as she put on her brave face, her principled face, the idea of losing Olaf gnawed at her. At least, if it had to be someone, it had to be someone good. Elsa was good.

Anna wasn't much for diplomacy but so far this state affair was going well. Yet the security threat made clear by the quantum bottle was still unaddressed. King John had been reluctant even to address it. He seemed to think it fantastical that someone could conduct a terrorist attack on Arendelle from Corona in real-time, despite the physical evidence. He wasn't a stupid man, but he was driven by his heart as much as his head. He had always been two years apart from Arendelle. An attack in real-time from two light years was fantastical. That didn't mean it was impossible. The enemy was here. The threat to Elsa's long-term survival was here. Whoever had ordered the attack was here. Anna could feel it. If only she knew what it looked like.

A knock at the door distracted her. "Yes?"

"Dinner, Lady DuVar."

Anna stared at the door. She was "Lady DuVar" on Iron Fjord, and she was Lady Captain Annastasia Christabelle DuVar when she received her official orders. But she was always "Captain" here when on duty. Or "Anna" to her friends. And she hadn't ordered any dinner.

She also recognized the voice. "Gerda?"

"Yes, Lady DuVar."

Anna opened the door to find Gerda standing behind a serving cart. Even more surprising, beautiful Elsa stood behind Gerda, hands clasped in front, Olaf on her shoulders. Behind them all stood Captain Calhoun. "May we come in, Lady DuVar?"

"Um, yeah. Sure." Anna didn't know what to make of this still-baroque but now-familiar entourage, but she was intrigued enough to let them enter. She wore only the foundation of her Naval formals: White blouse and undershirt, black slacks, socks. She cast a glimpse at her shoes and jacket, both on a wooden valet by the door before deciding it was too late to struggle them on.

The cart passed in a wake of magnificent, savory smells. Anna inhaled deeply. Elsa took small, mousy steps as she entered. Calhoun closed the door, exiling herself to the hallway. "What's this about?"

"I talked to my cousin," Elsa said. "She suggested that you and I have dinner. Alone." The last word quavered, and Elsa glanced away, not meeting Anna's eyes. "And try to complete whatever it was we were discussing the night you were--" Elsa hesitated.

"Killed."

"Shot," Elsa said.

"Injured. And it was not your fault. None of this was ever your fault." Anna looked up at Olaf, and Olaf nodded back to her. You were always my best friend, she tried to send to him. He tilted his head, and she smiled. He still felt her. But he felt everyone. Empathy was part of a treecat's standard arsenal, allowing them to pick up on all strong emotions around them. Anna had very strong emotions indeed about Olaf.

The rooms she'd been given befit an Earl, which technically Anna would someday be, in some kingdom far, far away. The rooms were large, with hand-fitted grey flagstones and beautifully red-brown brick walls, decorated further with tastefully chosen flags and tapestries. The tapestries depicted three generations of Corona's kings, of the voyage between the stars, and of the terraforming of Corona. Lady Gothel figured as a character everywhere. The tables were wrought of oak and cherry, the chairs were beautifully upholstered in hand-tack and needle, painted or dyed that soft pink the Coronas seemed to favor. Elsa looked right and proper within this setting. So did Olaf. It was Anna who felt out of place.

"Rapunzel and Gerda had the cooks prepare a meal for us," Elsa said, her voice still strained. "Captain Calhoun vouches for its safety. Won't you join me?"

Gerda had already laid out places at the small, round table for the two of them, complete with full plates, dessert dishes with glass coverings, small bowls of a cool soup, larger bowls of a salad, three dressings, a basket of bread that still steamed, and three different wineglasses each of which she filled with a different wine.

"And Captain Calhoun will stand guard all night outside that door if she has to, right? To ensure we're not interrupted. That's just the sort of thing she would do, and you would never be able to talk her out of it."

"That's so," Elsa said. "Let her take her professional satisfaction where she can, Anna. We all get so little of it these days."

"Oh, I'm not at all critical of it, You Majesty, its--"

"'Elsa.'"

"Wait, what?"

"Anna, please. Please. Call me 'Elsa.' You were willing to, that night we had dinner together. You did again at the reception. It's the least you can do to tell me... to tell me... that I'm somebody who's not always the Queen of Arendelle."

"Elsa," Anna said. Her name was still sweet. The way her tongue spread across her teeth to pronounce the "el" even as the sweet hiss of air and muscles of her jaw pulled her mouth open to breath the "Aaahhhh...." part. She'd never given much thought to the beauty of a name before, but Elsa's was worthy of attention and consideration, a sensuous celebration that ended with a sigh. It made her feel warm inside, deep inside, deep where it shouldn't have. "I'll do that."

"Thank you," Elsa said.

"My Ladies, your meal is ready." Gerda gestured. Elsa gestured. Anna smiled awkwardly and took her seat.

Gerda went through the motions of indicating every course at once in the sort of sequence even a child could recognize, then discreetly left them alone. Olaf took to Gerda's shoulders, saluting a bright sort of "cheery-o" wave that only gave Anna a tiny pang of heartsick, and then the two of them closed the suite's door behind with a prominent click, leaving Anna and Elsa alone.

They were halfway through the meal when Anna took her second glass of wine. Elsa abruptly finished her first off with a gulp, picked up the second, and held it up. "Wait. I have something to say. To Lady Anna DuVar. There are too many good things about her to list. Her selflessness, her courage, her strength, her love."

Anna startled. She hadn't expected that last part. She hadn't been expecting this evening at all. It wasn't quite what one heard from a queen. Then again, even Elizabeth had to be human sometime. Did a queen have to be human in order to reproduce? Anna rather believed she did. She wondered if maybe Elsa was sensitive to alcohol. She was young, and she didn't seem the type to drink often, to have built up a tolerance. Then again, neither was Anna. "T--" Anna cut herself off. She'd been about to say "The Queen," which was the traditional toast on an RMN ship. But that wasn't why she was here, or fitting for the circumstances. "To Elsa, who has given over everything she can to see justice and honor done, who's shown mercy and restraint, and... who deserves better."

"Better?" Elsa said, pulling back slightly.

"Yes, better. You love Arendelle," Anna said. "I've seen it when you talk about Arendelle. When you talk about your people. But you don't love being queen. You love your parents, but not the power they gave you. You love so much, but the burden hurts so badly. And there's nothing anyone can do to relieve you." She locked eyes with Elsa, challenging the other woman to tell the truth.

"It's not even that," Elsa said, turning aside to stare out over the ocean. "Yes, I love Arendelle. I want everything to go right for my people. We have-- had-- so much prosperity, and so much restlessness. We could have fed the Vessel freely if they hadn't been so factionally maddening all the time. But idle hands do not always want to take up painting, or writing, or acting for their neighbors." Elsa sighed. "I thought a lot about what you said, and I spent some time with Father Norgaard. I want to believe him, that this is the work God has brought me." Elsa gestured around her. "Not Corona, of course, but Arendelle. But sometimes doing His work isn't enough."

Anna held out her hand, this time offering Elsa to make the first move, to be the one to put her hand down on top of Anna's. "Oh. Anna... may I?"

"You may," Anna said, and smiled. Elsa brought her bare hand down, and their fingers closed together. The touch that went up Anna's hand and into her brain reminded her of Lucy, although Elsa was nothing like that dangerous redhead. For the first time in forever, Anna felt that special something that might blossom into more. They sat across from each other at the tiny table, the bread basket pushed aside so that Anna and Elsa could hold each other's hands, right hand to right hand, freeing their left hands to handle the dense, tiny chocolate cakes that had come with the meal. Like everything Corona's chefs had prepared, the dessert was exquisite.

But not as precious to Anna as Elsa's eyes. She would look up now and then, to seek out those beautiful eyes. She had felt warmed through each time to find them looking back at her. She wanted nothing more, now, than to kiss those eyes, those blushing cheeks, that warm, coral-colored mouth. Anna couldn't believe she was thinking those things of a queen. And yet, and yet. She wanted to kiss away every moment of Elsa's unendurable sadness.

They both waited. Anna recalled the last time they'd been together privately, and she'd been sure that she'd been waiting for Elsa to make the first move, to take the responsibility for jumping over that line, for taking the two of them into the uncharted territory of fresh lovers. She made a harsh laugh so suddenly Elsa's eyes narrowed. "Mai used to call this 'lesbian sheep syndrome.'"

"Lesbian sheep syndrome? And what, may I ask, is that?"

"I know you have sheep on Arendelle. I even saw some on the hills above Chantel." Elsa nodded. "So, once upon a time, the trade in rams for breeding had a problem: some rams were androsexual. They would only ever attempt to mate other male rams. This didn't make them very good breeding partners, as you can imagine. So, a lot of scientists got involved in trying to figure out what made some rams fancy only other rams and maybe cure it. They never did, obviously, but some other scientists wondered if there were lesbian sheep, too.

"There were! They were harder to find, though, because... when a ram wants to mount something, it moves in and, uh, does it." Anna made a vigorous motion with a clenched fist, but she blushed as she did it. Elsa hid an embarrassed smile behind her hand. "When a sheep doesn't want to be done, she moves out of the way. When she does want sex..."

Anna raised her eyebrows to indicate that Elsa should figure out the answer for herself. Elsa grinned and said, "When she does want sex, she holds still and doesn't move."

"Yup. Perfectly still. So two lesbian sheep who want each other's attention will just stand there, not moving at all. I don't know what lesbian sheep lust feels like, but it must be awfully frustrating."

"And... 'Mai?'"

"Mai was my first girlfriend. Back on Saganami Island. That's where the Manticoran Naval Academy is. Anyway, Mai was a second-year, like me, when we finally met in a course on navigational mechanics. Neither one of was sure we were into women, then, we just knew that we were into each other, pretty heavily. She was a serious woman, but always laughed when it was right. We were so nervous about doing it, though. There were nights we would lie together, and I just lay there wishing, wishing she would make the first move, let me know it was okay to want her that much. God, I burned on some those nights, I wanted it so badly. We drifted apart. We talked about it later."

"Have you always been interested mostly in women?"

"Oh, no, not at all," Anna said. "There have been more men than women in my life. But I think that's an accident of the way the social world works. More men are coming up to me than women. More men make romantic moves than women." Anna looked at her glass of wine. "Which is pretty sad. I like women. Have you seen women? Sexy as hell." She glanced at Elsa, who fit that description beyond all expression.

Elsa considered this. "How many?" she said.

"Nine," Anna said. "Seven men, two women. Those are the successes, but if you want, I could tell you about some of the spectacular failures, too. Yeesh! The other successful woman was Lucy. She was amazing. I couldn't keep up with her. She had no sheep in her at all. When she wanted it, she wanted it. When I told her about the lesbian sheep thing, she would sometimes 'Baa' at me when she was, um, feeling randy." Anna giggled. "A lot of the time, I think she just wanted to see how far she could push me. She was good at it."

"Push you? Like..."

"My father says that if you can still blush then your immortal soul is in no particular danger. Tonight proves I'm still safe. Elsa, I didn't expect to come to Corona to describe the history of my sex life with a Queen."

Elsa's eyes shown bright with a kind of defiance. "Fine. You deserve the truth, Anna. I'm asking because I want to be a part of that history."

Anna's eyes widened. Her stomach trembled so much she felt on the verge of barfing butterflies. "Whoa, Elsa. I thought that's where we might be going, but I didn't expect you to say so, at least not so directly! You don't even pause when you've made a decision, do you?"

"I can't, Anna. I'm Queen. I have to decide, and follow through, and see what happens. I can always decide something else later."

Although she had been expecting it, Elsa's bluntness gave Anna pause. "O...kay. My turn, then. 'How many?'"

Elsa's hand shook as she carried the wineglass to her lips. Her eyes were still defiant, but they softened as she said, "You'd be the first, Anna."

Anna had half-expected that to be the answer, but confirmation meant a lot more than conjecture. "Oh. You mean, like the first woman? Or the first... ever?"

Elsa's face blazed with embarrassment. She said slowly, "The first ever."

Anna gasped softly. She hoped her loss of words didn't register as anything other than wonder. "Oh. Geez. I can't make any promises, Elsa. I mean, I can make some promises, like I'll definitely hear you if you say 'stop', and..."

"Anna," Elsa said, but she had a tiny smile as she said it, "I recognize that as the start of a ramble."

Anna nodded, hurriedly. "That's just it. I'm supposed to ask you what you want, and you're supposed to ask me, and we're supposed to go over column A and column B and hint about all the weird stuff in C, not that I have anything I think is particularly weird, you understand, but you probably don't have any lists at all in your head for any column, so how are we supposed to, um, ask?" She hesitated. "Never mind. Are you done with dessert?"

"Yes?"

"Then... " Anna made a decision. She stood up, picked up her chair and carried it around the table, placing it down next to Elsa's. She sat in it and held out her hands invitingly. Elsa took them. Anna looked into the other woman's pale blue eyes, saw the confusion, the worry, and the longing within them, and wondered how much of that was mirrored in her own. "May I kiss you?"

Elsa's eyes flickered toward the door, outside of which Calhoun, and probably Olaf, waited to learn of their fate. "Yes."

Anna leaned forward and kissed Elsa gently. The other woman smelled of clean soaps and fine hair oils, her breath in her nostrils loud with worry, her lips warm and soft. There would be no turning back. She pulled away, looked up at Elsa's face. "More?"

"Yes. In there?" Elsa said, pointing to the bedroom.

"Are you sure about this?" Elsa nodded, her eyes never leaving Anna's. "Then, will you come with me?" Anna stood up, not wanting to let go of Elsa's right hand.

"I will," said Elsa, rising.

At that moment Anna would rather have walked backwards than ever let go, but Elsa saved her by transferring her grip to other hand so they could walk side-by-side. Only they didn't walk. Anna and Elsa both nearly ran to the bedroom, the doors closing behind them with a heavy thud.

Chapter Text

It couldn't possibly have been the bed's fault.

Flynn put the book he'd been reading onto the small table next to him, tossing the reading glasses he didn't really need on top of it. He glared at the book, Economic Intersectionality: Common Conditions That Lead To Market Lockup, and wished he had something better to do.

It wasn't the book's fault, or the bed's, or the room's. Flynn had been a guest at many a hotel in his day, and none beat the Palace of Corona for comfort or service. The bed's warmth and comfort were like a gravity well from which he could barely climb. He wasn't too sure about the color scheme: cream and ocher, gold and violet seemed to predominate everywhere, but that wasn't his call to make.

Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he stood up as if to pace. His course was already taking him toward the desk, palace service, and a nice bottle of bourbon when a knock at the door diverted him. "Yes?"

"Doctor Fitzhubert?" The voice was deep, masculine, and rough, easily capable of threatening. Not yet, though.

"Yes?" he said.

"My lady, the Princess Rapunzel, has asked me to ask you if you would be so kind as to join her for dinner."

"What?" Flynn glanced at the clock. It was later than he'd expected. "Isn't there... some kind of state dinner? Or a time of day when dinner is served?"

"There is no official dinnertime tonight. The royal family eats when it wishes, often in private. The Princess has asked for you... ?"

"Oh. Right. Yes, of course. Sure." Flynn tosseed the door open. "When? Should I get dressed up? I can't go like this."

The man standing opposite Flynn was tall and broad, and while the white uniform said he was Palace Service, Flynn suspected more than that. "I don't believe the lady quite cares at this point, Doctor Fitzhubert," the man said.

"Well, I suppose I shouldn't disappoint a princess." He scowled. He grabbed his blazer and pulled it over his shoulders, checked his hair in the mirror. Hadn't it been only a few weeks ago he'd been telling Captain DuVar-- no, Anna-- that he wasn't about to get involved with nobility? It wasn't as if he were chasing after Rapunzel himself. She had asked for him, and it would be unseemly if he ignored her or disappointed her. He was a guest in her father's house, after all. "Right."

The servant led him to an elevator, up two floors, and into the personal residence of the palace. "Over here," the man said. "I'll leave you to her."

"Thanks." The servant walked down the broad hallway and turned a corner out of sight. Flynn looked around for cameras. He didn't find any, but that didn't mean they weren't there. Flynn took a deep breath, knocked loudly.

"Who is it?" sang Rapunzel's voice from the other side.

"Doctor Fitzhubert, Princess. At your service."

She opened the door, already bouncing on her toes. "Flynn!" she said cheerfully. "It was so nice of you to accept my invitation!"

"Yes, well, couldn't disappoint a lady, don't you know. I have duty and reputation to uphold."

"Oh, of course any stories that happen in here are bound to get out. And we have to think about your reputation."

"Sometimes, your grace, duty and reputation are all a man has." She gestured rapidly for him to come in, closing the door behind him as he did.

She held up a finger, her mouth open to respond, stopped, looked puzzled, started to speak again, stopped. "'Your grace'?"

"Well, you're not my Lady, after all. You come from a completely different line of nobility. You're not a king or queen yet. 'Your ladyship' was too much of a mouthful. 'Your grace' seemed... right."

"Rapunzel."

"Excuse me?"

"Rapunzel. Just say, 'Rapunzel.'"

"Rapunzel," Flynn said, and he smiled. "I've never met someone with that name before, but... I like it." He spoke more slowly, savoring it. "'Rapunzel.'"

She giggled. "Come eat, Doctor." She indicated the table, where two settings awaited them both. Corona's culinary traditions had followed Arendelle's, which in turn had followed ancient Europe's, which in turn reassured Flynn. Salad with vinagrette, a warm and well-seasoned bacon potato soup, and a lovely plate of duck, spicy herbed rice, and steamed mixed vegetables with drawn butter all made his stomach growl with desire.

The wineglasses were huge, and Rapunzel had filled both of them two-thirds full with a dark red. Flynn sipped from his once or twice throughout the meal. Whenever he glanced at Rapunzel she was looking back, studying him. He took a slip, looked deeply at the wineglass. "That's delicious."

"I'm really glad you like it."

He swirled the wine in his glass for a moment, glanced at the almost completed meal on his table, then look back at Rapunzel. "I appreciate the distraction from my work, Rapunzel, but why did you invite me here?"

Rapunzel grinned at him. "Oh, I have my reasons." Her expression softened into worry. "And... I need your advice, Flynn."

"My advice?"

"Have I made a mistake?"

"You've already lost me. Back up."

Rapunzel sat back in her chair, brushing some of that long blond hair away from her face. "My cousin, Elsa, came to me this afternoon and told me she has a... a crush on someone, and she'd never had one before, so what should she do? I told her she should go to this person and propose a, um, a night together. Romantically. With dinner and wine first, like we're having. They're having. Tonight. Right now."

"I see." It had to be someone on the embassy team. It wasn't him, thank God, he was here with Rapunzel. Someone on her own team? God, what if it was Admiral Becker?

Rapnuzel said, "And since you know her, I figured you'd be just the right person to tell me if I've, um, made a terrible mistake?"

"What? I'm afraid you have the wrong idea, Rapunzel. I don't know Queen Elsa at all."

"No, not Elsa, silly. Anna. Captain DuVar."

"Oh." Flynn put an elbow on the table and rested his chin in his hand, his eyebrows furrowing together. "Anna and Elsa? I didn't think of that. Why didn't I think of that?"

"Does it really seem all that unlikely?" Rapunzel used both hands to imitate his gesture, folding them into a chinrest of her own. "I bet you're thinking about it now," she said, her voice taking on a hint of a purr.

Flynn paused for a moment. "No, not really."

Rapunzel seemed to deflate. "I guess I did make a mistake."

"No, I don't think so." He leaned back and picked up the wineglass again. "In fact, I think they'll be great together."

"But you're not trying to imagine what they'd look like... together?"

"Nope."

"I thought you weren't into men, Flynn Fitzhubert."

"Oh, I definitely prefer women. Exclusively, in fact. But Anna and I are friends. She didn't seem the romantic type when we met, and thinking of her that way, especially when she's with someone else-- Queen Elsa, my God-- just seems a little disrespectful, you know?"

"Disrespectful? How?"

Flynnn shrugged. "They're real people. I know Captain Anna. I've met Queen Elsa. It's not like they're professional entertainers doing it on my behalf." Rapunzel just stared at him like he'd come from another planet. Well, he had. "Hey, it's not like I wouldn't mind watching if they invited me, but that doesn't seem like their style. Don't you think it would be a little awkward to meet them later and have to think, 'I fantasized about you?'"

"Maybe," Rapunzel said slowly. "Let's have the dessert."

A pair of light cupcakes with white frosting artistically swirled and topped with a single, perfect blackberry disappeared quickly. Flynn sat back from the table, looked up and found Rapunzel staring back at him again, her eyebrows bent down in deep concentration. "Rapunzel?" She bit her lip. "Hey, you invited me, remember?"

"Do you like me, Flynn?"

"I like you as much as I like any young and beautiful woman who hasn't given me a reason to dislike her. You've been wonderful. But are you heading where I think you're heading, Rapunzel? Because I barely know you."

"Yes, but..." She smiled weakly. "It isn't supposed to be difficult. I want you, Flynn. But you're not acting at any other man I've known in the past. You're... It's hard to describe it. I like how you put it. 'Respectful.'"

Flynn grinned. "You make me wonder if I should challenge them on the field of honor or something. Were there a lot of them?"

"Oh, we don't do that here, silly," she said. "But, I had hoped I could keep you around for a while, and you could tell me a lot more stories about Earth. Paris, and London, and anyplace else you've ever visited. We could talk for a little while. And maybe... ?" Her eyes flicked to a pair of doors Flynn assumed led to the bedroom, then back to him.

"Rapunzel, I'd be willing to talk all night if it made you smile. If you want more, I'd be willing to do my level best to give you that too. After all, imagine how badly my reputation would suffer if I declined to help an ally's royal family in such a straightforward manner?" He held down his hand. She took it, smiled and stood up. "But you'll have to show me the way."

"Ah," Rapunzel said, standing. "Then, come this way."

Chapter Text

Elsa's heart was racing as Anna led her into the bedroom. She hadn't expected it to be this easy. Or this hard.

There had never been anyone on Arendelle toward whom she felt the kind of desires she felt toward Anna. On Arendelle, she'd always been Princess Elsa, and then Queen Elsa in Regency, and then she'd been Queen Elsa of Arendelle, Defender of the Faith, Overseer of the Lands, The Sustenance of all Civilization. She grimaced. First Anton had really been into the whole titles thing. Only Kai, Gerda and her parents had ever just called her "Elsa" with comfort and love in their voice. Even Meke, whom Elsa had privileged to use her Christian name without prompting, did so knowing the privilege could be revoked. She could revoke the privilege from Anna, too. But then Anna would just... leave.

Her stomach flopped. Were you supposed to feel so nervous it verged on nausea your first time? "Elsa?"

"I'm sorry," she said. She lifted her eyes to look into Anna's. "I just haven't ever done anything like this before. I didn't know how. Every love story I've ever read said there had to be this kind of communion between people, some intimate communication that told the lovers they were right for each other. But none of them ever showed how it's done. None, until you did."

"I did?" Anna said.

"Yes. You do it with your mouth."

"Oh!" Anna approached, reached up and put her hand next to Elsa's cheek. "May I?" Elsa nodded slowly, and then she felt Anna's fingertips on her face and her heartbeat grew impossibly louder. Anna had touched her face. Her face. It was so intimate, so precious, so lovely, those warm hands so close to her eyes, her lips. Doctors had probed her, maids had decorated her, but nothing could have prepared her for the feel of a lover's hands. Could either heart stand this much abuse? Anna said, "Like this." She closed the distance between them.

Elsa felt the touch of Anna's lips against hers and that touch drove any other thought from her mind. Anna was pressing herself up against Elsa, gently, demandingly, one arm easing around Elsa's back to pull her closer, one knee sliding between Elsa's legs, not even obviously, immediately sexual but just seeking out a few more square millimeters of contact. Elsa's queasy feeling spiked into trembling, delirious tension. She sighed into Anna's pull, their lips gliding hers against Anna's, and then Anna opened her mouth slightly and Elsa felt Anna's tongue against her lips. Her body knew how to kiss, her body enjoyed kissing, her whole self loved kissing Anna.

Elsa's face flushed as she realized that whimper had come from her. Her body felt airy, light, full of a new and beautiful energy. She gently pushed Anna far enough away to look down into Anna's glistening hazel eyes. "No, I mean with your voice."

With little more than a breath Anna said, "That too. Elsa, you can say what you want with more than words. Right now, I'm going to use my words because, because I can, and because I've wanted you since the moment I saw you. I didn't want to go there, I really didn't want to go there, I had too much to do, and my loyalty to my queen and my kingdom mean so much to me, but you haunted me, Elsa, a vision of you followed me around whenever I closed my eyes. It wasn't because you were a Queen, I mean, really, Arendelle is a small place compared to Manticore or Earth, but, God, something about you..." She trailed off as if pleading Elsa to understand.

"And something about you," Elsa said. "I was lonely. I treasured you. A stranger from afar, who's professional and personal care of my person were so different, it was so new. I wanted you, too."

They were still standing, still holding one another, still close. Anna had to crane her neck to look into Elsa's eyes. "If you know me for a long time, will it stop being new and fresh?"

"I don't know. Maybe." She shrugged, spreading her arms at her side like small wings. "Does it matter?"

"Not right now, it doesn't," Anna said. "I want it to." She grabbed Elsa's hand again and pulled the other woman along again. Elsa let herself be taken easily, and Anna laughed as they fell side-by-side onto the massive bed with its coral sheets and red foot sash. "Oh, Elsa, I..."

"What?"

Anna kissed her instead.

Elsa soon immersed herself in the study of lips and teeth and tongues. She thought she was starting to understand it-- she certainly enjoyed it!-- when Anna's strong hand on her shoulder pushed her over onto her back, and Anna's body rested on top of hers, holding her down. Anna's left knee was between her legs, stretching the material of her dress, and this time Anna was deliberately pressing that knee against her sex. Anna said, "This is so much better. I don't have to stand on my tiptoes to kiss you."

Elsa's eyes widened, but then she smiled. "Kiss me all you want." She wasn't prepared for how she felt when Anna's body lay entirely atop hers. She'd never felt the full weight of a human being pressed against her like this. Olaf had walked across her a few times but she hadn't paid him much mind. That was just Olaf being Olaf. She'd read that cats did that, apparently treecats did the same. Anna was a different experience entirely, a lusty, desiring woman holding her down, kissing her, touching her body with license and licentiousness. Anna's hair swirled against Elsa's cheeks as it fell around the two of them. Anna moved to brush it back behind her ear but Elsa reached up and stopped her wrist. "Leave it," she said. "I want everything."

"Even my hair in your eyes?" Anna's voice was breathless.

"Everything," Elsa said. "Because if I don't get everything tonight, I'll... I'll probably never trust myself to ask for anything ever again."

"Oh, Elsa." Anna kissed Elsa's chin, her throat, kissing along the stretch of Elsa's jaw until it reached her earlobe. Elsa had never considered ears sexy, but Anna's mouth on hers made her reconsider. Elsa couldn't imagine how all those sensations from Anna's teeth running along the rim of her ear seemed to reach down to her thighs, how the strange, how loud sounds of Anna's wet tongue in the nooks and crannies of her earlobe could possibly be so bewitching, and when Anna closed her lips around her earlobe Elsa's sex convulsed and gushed forth a wetness that should have embarrassed her.

Anna kissed everywhere she could reach with Elsa's dress still on: ears, forehead, lips, chin, neck, shoulders, lips again. Elsa soaked in every moment of Anna's attention. She realized guiltily that she wasn't doing anything but soaking and let her hands roam Anna's back and arms. "Anna."

"Yes?"

"Take this off." She tugged at one of Anna's sleeves.

Anna hestitated, then grinned. She pushed herself up until she was kneeling, finally brushed the hair back, unbuttoned the first few buttons before tossing both the blouse and fine, silken undershirt over her head and onto the floor. "Claire will kill me."

Elsa's eyes drank in Anna's almost bare torso. Anna's breasts were not large, and her fleshtone bra was only slightly more than a formality. Her belly was flat and athletic, as were her arms. Elsa said, "I won't tell her."

"She'll know anyway. She always does." Anna started to fall forward, but caught herself with her arm and pushed back up. "Wait."

Elsa almost protested as Anna rose and walked toward the door, but Anna only orbited the room once, turning off all the lights except the one on her bedstand, and that last one she turned down low. It gave Elsa an eyefull of Anna's lean, toned body with its butterscotch skin and long auburn hair. The way her heart pounded, the way her breath caught was the final confirmation of everything she had ever suspected: women were what aroused her. It didn't confirm Anna's rightness as a partner in life, but at that moment Anna was exactly what Elsa wanted in bed. Anna still had her pants on, and Elsa yearned to see what else was hidden under that fabric. Anna said, "That's better. Too much light."

"I still want to be able to see you," Elsa said.

"Can you?"

"Yes."

"Good." Anna returned to the bed, lying down next to Elsa, snuggling close to her, one hand loosely running over Elsa's belly and chest. "You still have your dress on."

"I can't take it off if you don't let me up."

Anna rolled half-away, then got back onto her knees. "Let me help you," she said, and Elsa heard in Anna's voice notes of desire she'd never before known or believed she would comprehend. She hiked the dress up to her waist, and then knelt in front of Anna, and the other woman's fingers curled under the edge of the dress and lifted it, up over her belly, her breasts, her arms, her head. Elsa had servants who had helped her dress time and again, but never had anyone been this close to her, this meaningfully radiant in her presence.

And then she was, well, not naked, but close. She still had her few underclothes on. Anna faced her, reached behind herself and with almost contemptuous ease snapped off her bra and tossed it aside. Anna's breasts weren't very large at all but they were beautiful, and now that Elsa could see Anna's body from her forehead to her underwear, she felt herself cringe inwardly. The scars from her injuries were still prominent, a white map of pain and tragedy spidering out from between Anna's breasts. "Sorry." She looked away.

"For what?" Anna said, reaching up. Her fingers caressed Elsa's chin. "I shouldn't have... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have pulled you in here like that."

"I wanted this. I didn't say 'no,'" Elsa said, turning back to look at Anna. "Did I say 'no?'"

"You didn't say 'yes,' either."

"Anna, I trust you to hear my 'no' if I have to say it." Even as Anna's eyes widened with delight Elsa leaned forward, playfully tackling the other woman and sending the two of them across the bed again. They giggled together and Elsa said, "I promise I'll hear yours if you need it."

"Elsa..." Anna sighed. "Wow. You get it. I believe you."

Elsa stopped and touched Anna's chest, between her breasts. She touched the ragged central scar, as big around as a teacup, surrounded by the starburst of new skin. "Does it hurt?"

"Not anymore," Anna said. "Your people do good work. Doctor Whelan says I can do regen when I get back home. A couple months of it, and I'll have my normal skin tone back."

"It's very beautiful," Elsa said. "Your skin, I mean. Not the scar. But... Every other redhead I know is so light-skinned."

Anna smiled. "My maternal grandmother is from Cinnamon. It's a colony on the other side of Solarian space. It's not part of the League, though. She says they had to do a little gene therapy to adapt to the world, something about the star's frequency. I never bothered to look it up. But everyone got red hair no matter what their skin color." She pulled on a soft curl of it. "It's pretty dominant now."

"I still think you're beautiful." It was Elsa's turn to kiss Anna, to figure out how to kiss, where to kiss, what to kiss. Anna's skin was soft and pliant and it was a privilege to be allowed to kiss this beautiful woman all over. She smelled wonderful, a little like strawberries and cinnamon herself, and she tasted-- Elsa couldn't put a world to it. It wasn't a taste so much as a texture. Smooth, delightful, filling her soul. She returned again and again to Anna's lips, their tongues touching, their mouths caressing one to another.

"Are you sure you've never done this before?" Anna said. "Because you kiss really well."

"I do?"

"Yes. Some people just stick their tongue in, like they own the place and want to look around. You... you mean it."

"As do you," Elsa said. She felt a hand reach around her back, and with a simple twist of her wrist Anna unhooked her bra. "Let me," Elsa said, straightening up to pull the thing off her arms. The bra joined all their other clothes on the floor.

"Elsa, wow," Anna breathed. "If you think I'm beautiful, you're beautifuller. I mean, not fuller, you don't look...."

Elsa laughed. "I think I understand." She looked down "I... I never knew what that meant before."

"How could you possibly not know?"

Elsa pitched forward, one hand next to Anna's head, holding herself up to look down at Anna's wondering expression. "Everyone wants something from me, Anna. Everyone I know. You... you don't."

"But I do," Anna said, reaching up to touch Elsa's face again, her fingers tickling the superfine hairs of Elsa's cheek. "I want you to be happy."

Elsa wasn't sure how Anna shifted her weight to make her fall over, or how she again found herself lying on her back with Anna on top, but when Anna's lips touched hers and started to make their slow journey down her neck, kissing her left shoulder and following the curve of her breast around until she was curling inward toward one nipple, it ceased to matter anymore. Anna's mouth closed on that nipple, sucked and nibbled gently, and Elsa fell further. "I never knew it could be this good."

Anna giggled and pushed herself up until Elsa was looking up at her, staring at her with a stunned, worshipful gaze. "Didn't you say you'd read a lot of romance novels?"

"I thought they were... exaggerating."

"Depends on who you are," Anna said, kissing Elsa's long neck, retracing her earlier attack on Elsa's ears, then back down her shoulders. Anna said, "Stories aren't the best way to learn about lovemaking either," leaving kisses on her chest, "I mean, they always show a straight line, the same routine," kisses on her belly, "but real love isn't like that," kisses just above her mound in the tangle of her pubic hair, "cause you don't only just have one bite of dessert, right," as Anna's mouth dodged to put kisses on her thigh, "and hey, that's not a bad metaphor for me," nibbles at Elsa's knee.

Elsa giggled. Anna's clumsy attempt at metaphor earlier came to mind, and she giggled even louder. "Anna DuVar, stop it. You're making me laugh."

"Yup. Did you think this was supposed to be serious?" Anna's hands encased one of Elsa's feet and picked it up, carrying it to her lips like a delicate glass slipper. "Now, if I do this," she said, and raked her teeth gently across the sole of Elsa's foot. Bolts of sensation, stronger than anything she'd experienced yet, shot up Elsa's body into her mind. She gasped, her body twisting as if trying to get away. "Oh, good," Anna's voice came, muffled from Elsa's foot. "Let me try that again."

Anna's tongue and teeth played with Elsa's foot and then up her toes. Elsa could only writhe and gasp at the intense sensations, laughing even as tears filled her eyes. "Anna, stop! That tickles!"

Anna let her foot go immediately and it fell onto the soft comforter with an audible poof. "Was that too much?"

"I don't, I don't know," Elsa said. "It was a lot. It was... I don't know."

"You said 'stop.' So I did." She cuddled up next to Elsa. "You're very communicative, Elsa. You tell me exactly what you want."

"I don't see how that's possible. I don't know what I want."

"Maybe you don't up here." Anna said, touching Elsa's forehead gently with one finger, "But you do in here." She touched the space between Elsa's breasts. "You know how to tell me you like something, and you know when to tell me to stop. That's all you really need." She kissed Elsa's cheek softly.

"I like you," Elsa said. She cringed. She sounded like the was twelve again.

"Mmmm. I'm glad." Anna kissed Elsa. "But it's okay to laugh, Elsa. It's important. There's nothing sillier than two naked people laying naked and vulnerable next to each other, trying to get past all this, you know, skin and stuff," as Anna gestured down the length of their entwined bodies, "to get inside each other's souls." Elsa's eyes met Anna's, and she felt Anna shiver slightly. "God, you really are good at the eye sex thing."

"'Eye sex thing?'" Elsa said, giggling. "Is that some weird practice too filthy to cover in a romance novel?"

"No, it's just the way you, um, the way you look at me. I swear, after the first or second meeting with you, every time we locked eyes I got a little wet in the underwear department." Anna's hands started to trace new, arcane patterns on Elsa's belly and chest.

"Me too. I thought it was just me," Elsa breathed.

"Definitely not," Anna said, kissing Elsa's shoulder, one knee sliding over Elsa's leg until it was resting against Elsa's sex as Anna rose up once more to kiss Elsa's chest, exploring down the sweet valley between her breasts and dipping her tongue into the dry hollow of her navel. Elsa knew beyond any doubt where Anna was going now.

Before she knew what she was doing, Elsa was biting on her own hand. She was terrified of what Anna might find down there, if there was anything wrong or strange or just unattractive. Anna's mouth eased down over her mound and into the fine hairs that covered her nether lips, Her tongue poked and slipped between them, sliding over Elsa's clitoris so quickly Elsa gasped. "Sorry," Anna said. "Too strong?"

"Just... surprising."

"Mmm," was all Anna said. Her hands pressed against Elsa's thighs, pushing them apart. Elsa bit on her finger harder, but Anna only sighed contentedly, kissing Elsa's thighs, her cheeks brushing against Elsa's sex. Elsa held her bearth. She had dreamed of this moment for weeks, ever since she'd met Anna. Now she was almost embarassed about it. What if she was weird down there? "How do you get your pubic hair so soft?" Anna murmured.

"It was always like this?" Elsa squeaked. "Is it... wrong?"

"It's wonderful," Anna said, kissing at her Elsa's lower lips. Elsa thought she was gushing with wetness, but Anna only dipped her tongue down low, startling Elsa as she felt something probe under her sex, halfway between her one opening and that darker orifice. Then the tongue slid up anong her slit, parting her lips and exposing every last of Elsa's pink secrets to Anna's eyes. But Anna wasn't looking anymore. Her mouth was fully on Elsa's sex, her tongue deep into the crevice, sliding up and up until it hovered over Elsa's clitoris, then circling it with lazy, delicate, expert strokes that never quite got too close, until finally she did.

Elsa wasn't sure how it happened. Anna's tongue simply seemed to be on her clitoris when it had to be, feather-light and so skilled, circling gently, incessantly. Anna always seemed to know when to stop, to kiss her elsewhere, down low, or on her thigh, or in that delicate juncture between her leg and her sex, before sliding back up and circling her clit again. Elsa heard whimpering sounds before she realized she was making them. Anna's tongue was everywhere, her mouth was everywhere.

"Elsa?" Elsa could barely think straight. "Elsa," Anna said, more insistently.

"Uh... yes?"

"Can I put a finger inside you?"

"Wait... what... yes, yes..." And then she felt it, the touch of Anna's firm fingers on her lower lips, seeking deeper and deeper into her opening, then inside her, an invasion of pleasure that only heightened as Anna's tongue went back to its insistent play over her clitoris. Anna wasn't just touching her anymore, Anna was inside her. It was too much, too much. Her pleasure rose up to overwhelm her, her whole body grew tense, muscles pulling against each other, desperate for release but with nowhere to go. In any other setting this would have been agony. Not with Anna. When Anna's finger pressed up inside her, Elsa's whole belly was aglow with ecstasy.

Elsa's mind went white, went blind, went away as she came, her body shuddering and shivering. Animal whines escaped her lips as she came. She thrashed against the bed until every muscle was exhausted, until her body was paralyzed with the shock of pleasure, until Anna backed away, slipped that one finger out of her, and slid back up the bed to nuzzle Elsa's neck and cuddle against her.

"Elsa," Anna whispered softly. "Are you okay?"

"Oh, Anna, I'm going to be more than okay. That was so good."

"I should go slower next time?"

Elsa looked up at the ceiling. Like the rest of Anna's apartment, it was painted in a soft pink color. She closed her eyes. "I hope there is a next time."

"I do too. You are so... so communicative!"

Elsa giggled. It seemed a strange compliment, but the way Anna said it, it was definitely a compliment. She blushed and turned away. "But I didn't say anything."

"Sure you did," Anna said, still kissing her neck and shoulder. It felt a little like Anna was being possessive. If it was Anna, Elsa was willing to be possessed. "You said yes when I asked you, and you promised me you would say 'no' if you had to, and of course I'd have honored it if you had to, like when I was tickling your foot, and you moaned so well, you moved so well, you told me everything I needed to know, and... " She snuggled closer. "You're amazing."

Elsa pushed herself up. She look down at the incredible woman now lying next to her, that magnificent red hair now splayed about her pillow like a halo. "No, I have an amazing teacher. Who has to teach me more. Whoa." She felt light-headed, and lay down next to Anna. "Sorry. I... I guess the wine, and what you just did to me, and the heat, maybe..."

"Maybe we should just cuddle for a while?"

"But I might fall asleep! You--"

"Will still be here in the morning," Anna said. "I promise."

"Very well," Elsa said. "If you say so."

Anna kissed Elsa's cheek. Elsa wanted to turn her head and get more of those kisses, but she was tired enough not to protest when Anna cuddled up next to her. "You're already falling, Elsa," Anna whispered. "I can see it. Goodnight, beautiful."

Falling, yes. "Mmm. Goodnight, Anna."

Chapter Text

Flynn had only a momentary glance around Rapunzel's lantern-lit bedroom before she hauled him in and threw him down onto the bed. "Whoa... ulp!"

She giggled and sat down next to him. "That's better," she said, her voice cheerful.

"Rapunzel, are you sure you want to do this?" Flynn said. She had changed radiantly in the moments as they had walked toward the bedroom, as if they were moving from a realm she didn't understand into one that she did.

"Now that you've said yes?" She reached over and put a hand on his stomach. "Yes."

He had to admire that kind of forthrightness. He pushed himself up onto his elbows. "Then come here." She did, leaning down to kiss him, and the two of them flumped down onto the bed, his hands around her back, her hands around his head, their lips meeting in an early and enthusiastic kiss. She was certainly one of the smallest women he'd ever held. Maybe that was a factor of how his own love life had progressed; he'd mostly dated women well within his age range, and everyone seemed to thicken out a little as they got older. He mused that Rapunzel was barely within his so-called 'creep rule' range, as his peers so tactlessly put it during his college years, but if Anna felt okay seducing (or was she being seduced by?) Elsa, he should have felt comfortable with the worldly, charming, youthful Rapunzel. Then again, maybe the 'creep rule' was different for lesbians.

His mind was wandering. Bad sign this early in the evening. He doubled his efforts toward kissing Rapunzel, to let his hands roam her body, at least the safe parts for now: her head, her shoulders, her back. All the way down to just where he guessed her tailbone might be. God, she was beautiful even through all that clothing.

His brain told him about a lack of oxygen. He broke away, gasping, and Rapunzel took a huge breath of her own. "Wow," she said. "You're good at that. Wait." She reached over to the edge of her bed. On the wall was a large switch that reminded Flynn of a heavy circuit breaker. She flipped it. "There," she said.

"Security?" he asked.

"Something like that." She sighed and took off her gloves, fiddling with a dial to drop the lantern lights low. She lay back down next to him, looking into his eyes. "Where were we? Oh yes. The kissing part. I liked that."

"Then let's do more." He rolled over until he was on top of her, their lips crushed together. Her little tongue flickered against his like a flame, and he tasted some of her more tender flesh under his tongue. She was so delightful he hoped he was worthy of her. A partner as fine as Rapunzel deserved all the attention and reverence he could muster.

His hands found the strings of her broad corset. It didn't bind her curves, but then it didn't need to for a women of such proportions. The pink wrap over the white blouse was just for decoration. The strings that held it together were hooked, not looped; once he had one worked free, the corset fell apart and they rolled briefly to take it off. Rapunzel started to take off her blouse but Flynn stopped her with one hand. "Not yet," he said.

"No?" Her eyes lifted to his, wondering. "Is something wrong?"

"What? No. I just... want us to enjoy this." He put his hand against her cheek and guided the two of them together. She shivered under his hand, and her kisses were filled with sighs of pleasure. His hand left her cheek and trailed down her neck as he listened to her, read her pleasure and memorized where his hands touched when she shook, or moaned, or sighed. "You do seem to enjoy it."

She pulled back, her expression puzzled. "Aren't you... excited, Flynn?"

"What? Very!"

"But..." Her face grew even more confused as she sat back up. "You're going so slowly."

"Is that bad?" He sat up next to her.

"No, no, it's... it's amazing! It's wonderful!"

"Now I really do think I should challenge your previous paramours to some kind of brawl." He reached out his left hand to touch her face, and she tilted her head against his hand, just to feel the pressure more directly. "Rapunzel" he said, gesturing with his right in a loop to indicate the whole room, "Tonight will end. These pleasures don't last forever. The more time we take the longer we hold off the bitter that always comes with the sweet. This might be our only night together. We should make it last. You deserve that."

"Oh, Flynn!" she said, throwing herself into his arms and hugging him. "It will not be our last night together. Not if you think that way." Her kiss was impassioned, her weight something he could easily handle. Her hands were creeping into his shirt, touching and sampling his skin, and he liked that. The quality of women he'd dated had improved as he'd gotten older of course, but many were still passive, still expecting him to know all the tricks and do all the work. That Rapunzel was already after him, that she had her own curiosity and desire to slake, was a good sign.

But if she was after his body, he ought to let her have more of it. He wriggled free of her until he could push up and kneel over her, pulling the shirt over his head and dropping it over the side of the bed. "Better?" he asked.

"Much," she said. "You're a good-looking man, Flynn."

"Well, you're a gorgeous woman, Rapunzel. No one could deny that."

Her hands reached up to touch his trousers, his prominent bulge already apparent through the thin, formal material. "I see that you are quite excited. I wonder what we'll do with this, hmm?"

"Oh, we'll get to it eventually."

"Well, if you're half-naked, then..." This time he didn't move to stop her as she took the blouse off. Like the corset, it was tied in the back and slipped off her shoulders easily. He admired her. Her breasts were small and symmetrical, lovely champagne cups that cried out for his touch. The sprinkling of freckles across her nose-- a characteristic she shared with her cousin, he noted-- was mirrored by a similar light dusting right across her collarbones, a constellation of orange-brown stars on a pale pink sky.

It took a lot of willpower not to reach out and caress her directly. He sidled up next to her, their torsos meeting side-to-side, sharing their body heat directly for the first time as they resumed their kisses. "God, Flynn, you are the most patient man."

"Mmm," he said as he pushed her down. "You're going to make me lose..."

"Ouch!"

"Ouch?"

"My hair."

"Oh." He shifted and let her push those insanely long tresses out from underneath herself. "I guess we should be careful. You have habits for dealing with it. I don't." She nodded. "As I was saying, your beauty is going to make me lose my patience fast."

She giggled as he kissed her chin, her neck, her breast. He closed on one nipple using his upper teeth and lower lip, nipping gently, and Rapunzel gasped, her hands in his hair. "Oh, Flynn, you do that good." Correcting her grammar would have ruined the mood, so instead he nipped her again. She moaned softly. "God, that goes right between my legs," she said.

He kissed her ribs, her belly, enjoying every taste of her as he got down to her waistline. "I think it's time we took this off," he said.

"Yes." She helped him push off the skirt, underwear and socks going with it. His eyes followed the retreating clothes off her dainty feet, then ran back up the length of her long legs to the junction of her hips and her pubic hair. It was a very dark brown. He resisted commenting. Rapunzel looked great, and if he wasn't automatically attracted to blondes, he was definitely attracted to Rapunzel. Her pubic hair was also quite soft, softer perhaps than the blonde, heavy strands strewn across the bed, a reversal from the usual pattern. It was delightful. "Nothing wrong, I hope?" she said.

"Oh, no. I'm just admiring." He inhaled deeply. "You smell delicious."

"Are you going to eat me, Doctor Fitzhubert?"

"Only in the best way possible." He kissed her mound, his tongue reaching out to flick at her warm, lust-heavy lips, and she moaned as she opened her legs slightly. "Thank you," he said as he settled down between her legs.

Rapunzel's outer lips had swelled with lust, and a thin, glistening stream that dribbled from the lower half and down the beautiful curves of her buttocks greeted his eye. "In the best way possible," he said, before reaching in and licking her sweetness. His tongue parted her lips, found her clit. She trembled slightly, her hands still in his hair, and she seemed to be guiding him into place.

"Oh, yes," she moaned. "So much better."

"Better," he said as he kissed and licked. He hadn't done this in a while, but it wasn't a skill he was likely to forget. He licked and nuzzled at her clitoris until she was gasping, her body winding tighter. One hand slipped out of his hair and reached down between her legs, holding her inner lips apart and her hood up. "There," she said.

"Ah." He licked directly at her little nub, his tongue flickering back and forth. Her legs trembled, little body-quakes that heralded the coming explosion, and then her whole body went rigid and she shook, once, hard, as loud explosive gasps told him everything was all right. Her hands were both back in his hair, holding him in place, demanding that he finish the job, give her another one. Well, he was a gentlemen and he did his best until she said, "Stop... too much. Too sensitive."

"Sorry."

"You have nothing to be sorry about, Flynn." She was staring at him, her expression wild, her body covered in a fine sheen of lust-scented sweat. "Right now, anything you did to me would be... perfect. Get inside me."

"I have to finish..." He shut up and shucked his own clothes, his cock springing out like a wild animal released from a cage. Her eyes took it in, widening slightly, but then she smiled. "I hope you're not disappointed, princess."

"In this?" she said, grabbing it with her hands.

"Whoa."

"Nope. It looks like it's exactly the right size."

"Then..." He knelt between her legs. "Let's see if it's a good fit." He slipped into her already wet sex, and the two of them sighed together. Then giggled together.

"Like a glass slipper," she said.

Flynn didn't know that expression, but it didn't seem to matter. She was warm and willing, and when he moved her eyes lit up and she smiled, throwing her arms around his neck. "Oh, Flynn."

Flynn had the curse of being self-conscious about his bedroom skills. As he made love to the incredibly giving woman underneath him, he tried not to monitor his own reactions too closely, but it still seemed to take him a long time for his body to wind up, for the pleasure to finally reach out and snuff self-doubt. He and Rapunzel locked eyes more than once during their impassioned moments. Her face was aglow with pleasure, her eyes wide and welcoming. Then the moments came where the pressure is his groin became too much to ignore, and he thrust hard inside her, striving for that moment. When he reached it he was rolled into his own ecstasy as he finally came inside Rapunzel's welcoming body, his own loud, satisfied groan ringing in his own ears.

"Oh, god, Flynn, oh, god..." Rapunzel was whispering, loudly, in his ear as he lay down beside her. He imagined he could see the heat rising off their, visible as steam in the air conditioned coolth of the palace. She rolled up close to him, her body against his, and he managed to place one climax-weakened paw on her waist.

"Rapunzel?"

"So much, so good, so much..." She kissed his shoulder, then his neck, then her lips found his and this time the kiss was almost better than anything before. "So want you again."

Flynn didn't ask what she had experienced while he'd been inside her. He was old enough to know that it didn't matter as long as the woman said she was satisfied. If Rapunzel wanted a repeat engagement, she was clearly satisfied. "I'm afraid, my princess, that we may have to wait until I recharge. Men are like that, you know."

"I know," she said. She giggled. "In the morning?"

"You really like me that much?"

"You have no idea, Flynn Fitzhubert." Her eyes were wide, and he should have been alarmed at the predatory, possessive gleam in them. He wasn't. He could stand to look at Rapunzel's face wanting him that much. "You have no idea."

"Maybe I do." He reached up and kissed her again.

Chapter Text

Rising from sleep to memory of the sweetest, most awkward sensations she had experienced in all her young life, Elsa turned over in the silken sheets and reached out with one hand. The space next to her was empty and cool. The room was still dark and quiet, still smelled of love and lust.

The dim light of stars and moon glowing through the vast crystalline window provided just enough light to outline the objects in the room, the shapes and angles of furniture: chairs, the desk, the corner leading to the bathroom. And at the foot of the bed, just out of Elsa's reach, the rounded shape of a woman, bent over. "Anna?" Anna didn't move at first, and Elsa heard her take a deep, wet breath. "Are you crying?"

Anna took another deep breath, and nodded. "Uh-huh."

Elsa's put her hand on her chest and tried to control her breathing. She couldn't think of a single thing she'd said or done the night before that might have saddened Anna. She'd been smiling and happy when Elsa had last seen her, lying in the bed next to her, her auburn hair splayed around her in a soft halo. Now Anna sat with her back to Elsa, hunched over, hands around her knees. "I'm sorry, Anna. If I could give him to you, I would."

Anna's half-laughed snort was thick with snot. "Meh. Maybe I don't want him anymore."

"But I thought he was everything to you."

"What? No. Not ever close." Anna's head bowed lower. "He was just, I don't know, something that happened in my life when people thought my life should go a certain way, and I went with it because I was so tired of fighting them all."

"Are you out of your mind, Anna? I would go insane if he was a part of my life and I couldn't have him. I don't know how you do it."

"He's not that big a deal."

"Just a few weeks ago you were telling me you couldn't live without him!"

"What?" Anna shouted, turning to look at her. "When did I say that?"

"Shhh," Elsa said, her eyes darting to the door. "He'll hear us arguing."

"What? Oh, oh, oh my god." Anna started laughing, gasping for air as she tried to laugh and breathe and swear at the same time. "Oh, my, god! Elsa-- did you think-- I was talking-- about Olaf?"

"Yes. Who were you thinking of?"

"Hans!" Anna said.

"Oh," Elsa said, and briefly laughed herself. "Anna, come up here?"

Anna nodded, crawled back into bed and sat next to Elsa, cross-legged. She looked around at the bedstand, found a box of tissues, and made drama out of blowing her nose. Elsa giggled, hiding behind her hand.

"You weren't wearing your gloves tonight," Anna said. "I can't imagine having to sleep with them on all the time. It must have been brutal in summer."

"My bedroom was shielded the way the gloves are. And I don't have to wear them here on Corona. I have to be invited to use the main protocols here, so all I get when I'm not wearing them is the sense of a lot of closed portals. I've kept them on in public. I'm so used to them I feel naked without them."

"You are naked. Right now, I mean." Elsa blushed. "That must be so weird, to have that whole extra set of senses. I wonder if you understand Olaf's empathy better than I do, having all those extra inputs."

"Maybe," Elsa said. "I doubt it. But I wanted to be naked around you, Anna." She reached down and pulled the bed sheets up and wrapped them under her arms, hiding her breasts from Anna's gaze.

Anna didn't make a comment. She also didn't move to emulate Elsa's modesty. "About Olaf," Anna said. Elsa looked up sharply. "I love him. I always have. He's not mine anymore, in the sense that he used to be. I'm going to be okay with that. I'm trying to be okay with that. It's hard. It'll hurt for a long time, maybe forever, but that's what life is supposed to be, a mixture of pleasure and pain and sometimes you're supposed to be bored. Sometimes, relationships end. I've had a few relationships end. I'm okay with it, Elsa. I really am."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why do relationships end? Tell me about them. You've had... "

"Nine relationshps. Ten, if I count you. Should I count you yet? Anyway." Anna told Elsa about them all. Mai and Lucy, Robert and Ahmed, Marco and Fred and the rest. Hans. Last of all Hans. She took a deep breath and said, "I guess they end because people are going their separate ways. I wanted to be a starship captain. Lucy wanted to be a writer. Mai did her eight years and was out as a Lieutenant, on to being some manager in a construction corporation. Ahmed was a marine, Robert was a yard dog, Fred was a musician. It might sound like a lot of Navy people, but when you're in you don't get much chance to socialize outside. Each time, I liked him or her, and they liked me back. When I was younger we said we loved each other. Each time, we explored each other until we... ran out."

"Ran out of what?"

"I don't know," Anna said. "Each other, I guess. Interest. Curiosity. The will to keep going, to make a life together. I think maybe that's what death is. You run out of yourself." She took a deep breath. "Elsa, when I woke up, I could smell you. You smell like, like fresh snow. I know that's weird, but women have odd smells. Lucy always reminded me of these really expensive art pencils I had. She smelled like cedar, cedar shavings. It was so good. But you, you were so warm, like the heat that keeps the cold away, like a campfire in the middle of a still, snowy night. God, I'm bad at metaphor. What I mean is, I looked down at you and saw you with your hair all shining and your shoulders and your breathing, and I thought..." She put her elbows on her knees and clasped her hands together, leaning forward to press her lips against her fists.

"Anna, what did you think?"

"I thought, maybe, I could make a life together with you. I know, it was such an irresponsible thing to say. I mean, I'm just a lowly starship captain and you're a Queen, for God's sake. You could never leave Arendelle, and while I could always give my inheritance to Rolf, he would be so much better as Earl than I ever will as Countess, that would be abdicating my responsibility to my Queen and my Kingdom and my father, and it's a selfish dream, because you don't know me at all and you deserve as much of a chance to have other loves and other experiences as I did and..."

"Anna DuVar," Elsa said. "You're rambling."

"You're right," Anna said, sitting up straight. "I'm sorry."

Elsa's hand stroked Anna's cheek softly. "It's a beautiful dream, Anna. But I don't know anything about where you are right now. I don't know anything about Manticore. And then there's your Hans."

Anna sniffed. "For a while he seemed so perfect. We went to the ballet and the symphony and the shows, he bought me flowers, he brought Olaf flowering celery and cleaned celeriac! I didn't know celery had flowers, and Olaf loved celeriac almost more than celery itself. But it all felt so... surface. You know that feeling when you're drunk, and you feel like you're really smart and clever and witty, but you also know that your brain is all shallow and if there's anything going on deeper inside you can't get to it and you can't use it?"

"I've never been drunk," Elsa said. "Sorry."

"Oh, we have to get you drunk. Just to see. But Hans, Hans feels like that all the time."

"Like you're drunk?"

"Well, not like I'm drunk. But like, the opposite of being in love. When I've felt like I was in love, it's like, it's like the relationship is this whole other thing two people share, and it has its own thoughts, like two people would feel if they could share a treecat, except with Hans, it doesn't." She took a deep breath. "I don't know how to explain it. All of my 'successful' relationships always felt that way, like we were sharing a brain that made both of us smarter and happier. But I'm the same whether I'm with Hans or without.

"My father says that's good, that I'm finally getting over my puppy love stage and figuring out what it means to be in a 'real' relationship." She pitched her voice lower. "'Real relationships don't feel like that, Anna. You respect that the other person has their own life, and both of you have to compromise.' Lucy and Marco were the longest ones, almost three years each, and I'm pretty sure they were 'real' relationships too."

"But they ended."

Anna shrugged. "Like I said. For the longest time, I thought my father was right. The word 'love' had started to feel... wrong. Toxic. I didn't have to love Hans to be a great Marquessa. We could have 'great executive function.'" She snorted. "After all, how can you have a relationship end if it never even starts?" She sighed. "I relied on Olaf. Olaf was always a good judge of my loves, and knew the good ones from the bad ones. The thing about Hans was that, he was never sure. He couldn't tell. Olaf said Hans wanted to be a good husband because he wanted to be a good husband, but he couldn't tell if that meant Hans would be a good husband to me, if that makes sense?"

"Lots," Elsa said. "I know a few of my dukes are like that."

"Yeah, now that you say it that way. Starship captains too. They go through the motions but never connect with their crew. Some of them really try, but they just... just don't have it. I don't think Hans has it. Not for me."

"Then why are you thinking about marrying him?"

"Because someone has to. Father says it'll be a good match, two entailments at opposite ends of the planet. Although Hans is way too far down the line to ever get the seat, he's never going to see an entailment. Still, it would make for good allies. We can make it a two-family resort: a cold respite in the summer, a warm respite in the winter. I think Dad wants to retire, too, so someone has to take over, and the pairing is good. And I'm almost fifty, Elsa, well past the time when I should be thinking about settling down and doing something serious, or so everyone says. Why are you smiling like that?"

Elsa shook her head. "Because, you. It's the way you give, and give. I wanted to be like that, when my dukes were sending me all their sons, but I couldn't. I couldn't give that much of myself away. Not to them. I was selfish, but... You want to give your father his dream. You want to give Hans his. Do they deserve it, Anna? Do you have to be the one to give it to them?"

"Yes, they deserve it!" She made her hands into fists, but then rested them in her lap. "But, no, I guess I don't have to be the one to give it to them. Well, maybe not to Hans." Anna looked away again, this time out the window.

"Anna, will you... at least stay with me, here, while we're on Corona?"

"Yes! I mean, if you want," Anna said.

"I do," Elsa said. "I have to learn how to do this." She reached out and touched Anna's knee. "Like you said, someone has to teach you. I want you to teach me." Memories of what happened shortly after Anna had first said that flooded her, and she looked away. "Although maybe that's not such a good idea. Not after that." Her gaze fell on the scar decorating Anna's chest.

"Also like I said, I'm used to people trying to kill me. It's an occupational hazard."

"It shouldn't be a romantic one!"

"No, but... I can live with it. For now."

"And if I do fall in love? With you?" Elsa said. "Or what if you fall in love with me? What if we decide to turn that into something 'real,' going from this wild infatuation to actually loving each other?"

"I'll have to talk to Hans. He... He'll understand. Maybe he'll even wait to see if it's just a phase, or a thing, or a misunderstanding. But it's something that we can do, Elsa. We're grown-ups. We can talk about these things." She giggled. "Wow. I've never negotiated falling in love before."

"Just sex?" Elsa said.

"Just the sex. The falling in love part was always allowed to be just a happy accident." They were silent for a time. Anna slowly raised her eyes. "Elsa? I could love you."

"You could love almost anyone," Elsa said. "If you were wrong, you'd martyr yourself giving yourself away just to keep your promises." She looked away, out the window to the moonlit sea. "If we do fall in love, I would want to protect you from your better self. I'm the one who has the problems."

She felt the bed shift, felt Anna scoot closer to her, felt the other woman's body against hers. Anna lay her head on Elsa's shoulder, stretched an arm around Elsa's torso, held her and kissed her neck. Elsa had never known just how heavy another body could feel. Anna was so warm, so wonderfully solid. It was as if everything else in her life had ever been a dream, and only Anna was real. Living, breathing Anna.

"Elsa, everyone has problems. God, I love your name. Elsa. I could say it all day. Elsa, Elsa, Elllssssaaaaaahhhh," she said, stretching the last syllable out as long as she had breath. She giggled.

"Annastasia Christabelle DuVar," Elsa said. "You have a very beautiful name yourself."

"Thanks." Elsa watched as Anna smiled, then frowned, then held her face very still. Then she yawned. "Elsa, it's..." She checked her watch. "My God. It's almost five. Let's go back to sleep."

The suggestion of time and rest worked on Elsa, and she collapsed against the bed. "You're right. John and Kimball will keep us going all week long."

"I hope not," Anna said, laying down beside her. "I need time to think about..." She reached out and put a hand on Elsa's belly. "This."

"Yes," Elsa said.

Chapter Text

Elsa was startled awake when the curtains covering her bedroom window were flung open. The full glare of Corona's sun seared through her eyelids with blithe ferocity. She turned over in her bed. "What?"

"Wake up, sleepyheads!" Rapunzel cheerfully sang, her body a black silhouette against the brilliant sunlight. Her hair, loose and flowing about her until it reached her hips, glowed like a river of gold. Her hands were on those hips and she was leaning forward slightly. "I'm going to guess last night was a success."

"Yes," Anna said, opening one immiserated eye. "It could have been. Until someone interrupted it." Elsa could hear the gritty resentment in her voice. "What are you doing here, Princess Rapunzel?"

"Hello, Captain Anna. I'm very sorry, your Admiral sent me to find you. He didn't send me, exactly. But I intercepted Sigrit before she got to you. I figured you'd be happier being awakened by someone other than a stranger. Oh, hello Olaf." The treecat 'bleeked' at her before hopping up on the bed and plunking himself down between the two women, both of whom were covering themselves with the bedclothes. Elsa had never slept next to anyone ever before. She had hoped to wake up to sweetness and kisses, not the rough call of duty. Maybe it was for the best; Anna's hair was frightfully disheveled, standing up, defying gravity.

"Cousin, I suspect a member of your staff would have been more discreet. And gentle."

"Possibly. But they wouldn't have had nearly as much fun. Now, get dressed. Captain, your steward left you a fresh uniform. Elsa, Gerda's waiting for you in the dressing room. Oh, here." She held out a bathrobe. Elsa pulled it on. "Come on."

Elsa tried to glower at her with the same passion Anna seemed to hold. She failed. It was hard to be angry at Rapunzel in the midst of such innocent glee. There was no hiding her lover. She cast one last, longing glance over her shoulder at Anna's retreating backside while Rapunzel urged her toward the dressing room. Anna was looking at her with a forlorn expression as deep as Elsa's heart. "See you later," Anna said.

"You too.".

"Now," Rapunzel said as the door closed. "So? How did it go?"

"I don't really think that's any of your business," Elsa said. "If you must know, we were highly compatible."

"I knew it!" Rapunzl said, jumping up and down. "So, will it last? Will it? Will it?"

"Rapunzel, I only just met the woman." She sagged forward slightly. "It does confirm what I always knew. What you always knew." Rapunzel nodded, but the smile wouldn't leave her face. "I do wish you'd given us more time."

"Sorry, duty really does call, Elsa. I really wish I had more time to spend with Flynn. What a man." She sighed, even as Elsa hid a smile behind her hand. "But Father wants to talk with you as soon as you're available, and Anna is a military woman. Her responsibilities don't wait."

"I know," Elsa said, casting a long, yearning glance at the door.

"There'll be more time after lunch. For us to talk. I have to tell you about... Meet me on the terrace." She tapped her wrist, and the other door opened. "Gerda, I have your queen." Rapunzel leaned forward and made a show of sniffing. "I think she needs a shower first." Then she scooted around the older woman, giggling, her hair bouncing behind her like a wave.

"Rapunzel!" Elsa sputtered. She regained her composure. "She's right. Let me take a quick shower."

Gerda nodded, but she was smiling gently. "Of course, Your Majesty."


After a business-filled lunch with her uncle, Elsa managed to get free enough to make her rendezvous with Rapunzel on the terrace where they had conversed the day before. The weather was still beautiful, the day bright. The breeze from the sea cooled Elsa, and she appreciated it. Olaf put his face to the wind and sniffed, sighing with pleasure. The city of Corona jutted out into the sea, a spit of land forming a curved jetty that protected Corona's few seagoing vessels. Elsa knew on the other side of the city a broad highway of road, rail, and foot connected the city to a fecund mainland of towns, farms, forests, orchards, and mines.

The city itself looked young and bright and clean, like its princess. It had the light mixed look of a city that took a lot of sun: matte textures to keep the glare down, bright, cheery yellows and adobe browns to keep the heat from penetrating too deeply, the red tiled roofs that helped shed the occasional but ferocious rain. Rapunzel had sent Elsa videos of storms moving in. The Castle was on the highest spit of its island abode, but the hillsides of the mainland rose up to both sides. It look idyllic.

Rapunzel leaned against the railing, her hair blowing behind her in the breeze. "How does it feel?" she said.

Elsa didn't need the treecat to know what Rapunzel was talking about. "I feel as if everyone knows. And I feel as if everyone ought to know, as if it were written on my face. As if I had been transformed somehow. I'm one of you now: someone who's had sex. I liked it."

"I know that feeling," Rapunzel said.

"With Mr. Flynn?"

"Yes!" Rapunzel's eyes grew momentarily misty. "He was so patient. He took his time. He paid attention to me afteward. You don't know what it's like, sometimes, they're all in such a rush to get it over with. Flynn wasn't. I hear it's different with girls." Rapunzel clearly saw the look on her face. "Oh, Elsa, I'm not holed up in some monstrous tower. My parents have let me have a few boyfriends now and then. They were okay. But they were so, I don't know how to put this, Corona-ish. Provincial."

"I wish I'd had my parents to help me through that. After they died..." Elsa sighed. "I wish I had known them more."

"I wish you had too," Rapunzel said. "But that's what I mean. I mean, how does this Elsa-and-Anna thing feel to you?"

"I don't know, yet. It feels so new, so precious. But it could also just be an illusion. And I have never been one to tolerate illusion."

"I don't think you can, when you become Queen. God knows my parents drill into me lessons about digging for the truth, for motive, for incentive. All that stuff about uncovering biases, drilling down to principles." She sighed. "Everyone's allowed to have some illusions, huh? Everyone except us."

Elsa nodded. "I hope it's real. With Anna. Anna-- " She didn't know how much she could reveal of Anna's conversation about Hans, about her father, about her relationships. "Anna told me that relationships sometimes-- often-- 'run out.'" Rapunzel nodded. "She hopes it won't happen to us, but we only just started."

"I'll be rooting for you."

"Thank you," Elsa said. They were quiet for a moment, standing and facing each other.

Suddenly Rapunzel shouted, "Oh, shit! Elsa! Duck!" She grabbed the other woman and threw her to the ground, even as Olaf twisted out of the way. Rapunzel's golden hair seemed to come to life of its own violition, throwing itself into the air in a fan around Rapunzel's head. A small explosion blasted on the other side of the golden fan, buffeting Elsa and Rapunzel in a hot shockwave. Rapunzel screamed.

"Rapunzel!"

Alarms rang. Armed guards boiled out of every door, pistols and rifles at the ready. Rapunzel's hair collapsed to the ground around them, still attached to her head, seemingly hair once again. Rapunzel scooped up a handful and looked at it, her eyes almost crossed. "That hurt! And dammit, my hair is burned!"

A man grabbed Rapunzel by the arm. Another grabbed Elsa. They were hustled indoors as aerodynes shot out from the castle. Olaf ran after them, ran up into Elsa's arms. She held him tightly, burying her face in his body. "What was that?"

"Someone shot at me. Elsa, someone shot at me!" Rapunzel collapsed onto the floor, her hands over her face. "I can't believe it. Someone shot at me! Oh my God. Oh my God!"

"Your Majesties, are you all right?" a guard with a medical case said as she ran into the room.

"Yes," Rapunzel said. "Yes. I'm unhurt."

"And you, Queen Elsa?"

"Fine." She looked down at her cousin. "Maybe they weren't shooting at you at all," Elsa said, shivering. Olaf slithered up her body as she put her arms around herself, the adrenaline flooding her body with nowhere to go. "Maybe they were after me."

"Or... both of us." She grabbed Elsa's hand. Elsa helped her to her feet. "Do you think it could have been either one of us? I mean, why would they shoot at you?"

"Because someone tried to kill me while I was on Arendelle. Twice. Someone did almost kill Anna."

"What is going on here?" Rapunzel's father strode into the room. "Rapunzel! Are you okay?"

"Yes, father. My hair saved me. Again."

"That was a bit of luck!"

"Her hair?" Elsa said.

"It's not... hair." Rapunzel blushed as she brushed the hair-- it certainly looked like hair-- away from her head. "I mean, it's my hair, but it's also laced with an exotic weave of doped carbon that gives in some computational power and mobility. Gothel gave it to me as a gift, and it's really cool. I can unlock doors, analyze computers, detect poisons, even diagnose diseases if I have to. And it can detect an incoming bullet and put up an energy-absorbing net to catch it before it hits me." She held the strands in her hand. "It's damaged, but it'll self-repair. Father, did they catch him?"

He listened to an earbug for a moment, then shook his head. "No, my child, they have not."

Rapunzel's mother came in, accompanied by Anna and Flynn. Rapunzel repeated she was unhurt, and Elsa seconded. Rapunzel had to repeat her explanation of her hair, and Elsa noticed Flynn's eyes widened to the point where she worried they might fall out of his eyesockets.

The King said, "Elsa, this is unacceptable. You are my guest. We must do something to protect you while you're on Corona. And you, Rapunzel, must not go outside unprotected, either."

"I'm so glad my gift saved you, Rapunzel! John, I have a suggestion. Why don't you send Elsa and Rapunzel to the summer palace?" Gothel said as she strode in.

Elsa found Gothel's appearance shocking, but since the Coronas treated her as normal, Elsa struggled to do the same. She could feel uncertainty and unease flowing into her from Olaf. "Shh," she told him. "It's okay. She's not a monster." Olaf's hiss told her he didn't quite believe her. Well, acceptance would come in time.

John mused. "That's an excellent suggestion. With my best security team."

"And every watchful eye in the Kingdom on me," Rapunzel said, her teeth clenched. "Satellites, balloons, drones, even manned copters." She looked up at her father. "Can I ask a favor, Father?"

"That depends."

"Can I take Doctor Fitzhubert with me? If he wishes."

Flynn looked thoughtful for a moment. "Sure, if Captain DuVar approves."

Her father's smile was knowing. Elsa could see it. He listened again to something in his earbug, then said, "I don't see why not. Citron has vetted him. At least he'll keep you busy, and hopefully out of trouble." Flynn had the decency to turn away. "And an older gentleman like him might teach you a thing or two about etiquette."

"Father!" Rapunzel said, stamping her foot. Elsa blushed, covering her laugh with one hand.

"And you, cousin, my security team says you'd do very well if you had more than one experienced soldier by your side. Perhaps the good Captain DuVar?"

"I don't know," Anna said. "I have a starship to run. I can't be assigned to..."

"Captain," Admiral Becker was standing behind Anna. Elsa wasn't sure when he'd come in, but it certainly reflected his naval training to always run toward the crisis. "You and your crew brought Queen Elsa here to Corona. I insist, for all our sakes, that you stay close to her and keep her safe." His smile was as knowing as the king's. Elsa's face flushed brighter. She'd just been shot at, and now everyone in Corona seemed to be conspiring to get her into the same room with Anna as often as possible. "Your Majesty, with your permission?"

Elsa nodded. "I would appreciate an extra pair of eyes. For my own safety."

"Then its decided," King John said. "I will have my personal pilots fly you to the Summer Palace immediately. Go and gather your belongings. It will not take long to prep an aerodyne."

Chapter Text

Captain Anna DuVar muttered, only to herself, "C'mon, Anna, this isn't supposed to be a vacation." Maybe not, but it felt like one. Her Admiral had dispatched her to the Summer Palace of Corona obstensibly to be additional security for the Queen of Arendelle, but since the Queen now had a treecat (her treecat, Anna thought with a pang of wistful sadness) and the palace had satellite and airborne coverage for a hundred kilometers in every direction, the excuse wore thin. For two days, she'd done nothing but sit on the back porch of the summer palace and look out over the royal family's private lake. The air was crisp, cool and clean, the sky clear. Anna loved it like the best summer days of Iron Fjord. She wore short sleeves and luxuriated in the contrast of bright sun and chill breeze. Rapunzel and Flynn dressed sensibly in sweaters and heavier cotton pants.

The few times she'd seen Elsa, the woman had been dressed in the same formals her maid always brought to her. Being shot at had changed Elsa again. She was once more reserved. She hadn't invited Anna to a repeat of their night three days ago. Every time Anna saw her, an ache set up in her bones, an aspiring desire to hold the woman again, kiss her, love her. Every time they locked eyes, Elsa looked wistful, then sad, then looked away. Anna would start to reach out, hesitate, stop, take her hand back, close her eyes, stand there, shiver inside.

Later, there were her hormones. Anna hadn't gotten laid in months and, frankly, the moments with Hans had been physically skilled and emotionally unfulfilling. Elsa may not have had skills, but Anna had gratefully taken the lead there, and that one night something had awakened within her, something more. She had lain in bed, staring up at the ceiling, and wishing she'd remembered to pack her little egg-shaped vibrator.

That one night with Elsa had been awkward, endearing and... Anna sighed. She really could fall in love with that woman. She worried it was the wrong kind of love, the way one loved a pet. Anna wrinkled her nose. That was not a metaphor she needed to contemplate.

She needed more time with Elsa. To figure all this out. To see if there was more under the lust and affection.

Olaf chittered at her. He loved the weather, too, and after being briefed by a member of the scant on-site staff about the local flora and fauna, he'd gone gallivanting off into the woods. He had no need to hunt, not when his own staff supplied all the fresh rabbit and deer and turkey he could stuff into himself, but he loved the practice of it, the pouncing from trees, the sneaking up on squirrels, the batting harassment of field mice. Now he luxuriated on a padded outdoor chaise, body and tail stretched to its full length. He was not about to let his person-- his former person, and still his beloved-- get mopey. Act, he signed to her.

Treecats were blunt and uncomplicated. If Anna wanted Elsa, and Elsa wanted Anna, Olaf naturally wanted them to just get on with it. He would be tired of their moping. He never did understand the way humans could strangle themselves with their own confusion. "It's not that easy."

Anna knew, from Gerda's description, that Elsa had little to do. She spent a few hours in the morning discussing matters of state with her prime minister, her newly-appointed ambassador, and assorted staff negotiating the actual capital arrangements between Corona, Arendelle, and Manticore, but that was it. She stayed in her own suite and avoided everyone. Anna included.

Anna's pensive reverie was interrupted. "Good morning, Captain."

"Doctor Fitzhubert. You're looking exercised today."

"Am I?" he said. "I supposed that's true."

"The Princess keeping you up at night?" Flynn had the good grace to blush. "I thought you had a strict rule against nobility."

"Ah, that. Yes. Things have gotten a bit complex."

"Have they now?"

"Yes," Flynn said. "Very, very complex. The sort of complex it takes a scientist to sort out. Not me, of course. I'm bad at figuring out these sorts of things."

"The Princess disagrees."

"The Princess is very convincing when she wants to be," he said. He took a deep breath and sighed. "Is it bad to hope I'm just a boytoy? Listen to me! A 'boytoy.' At my age. Ridiculous." He pressed his palms to his eyes as if wiping away sleep. "Still, she's enthusiastic. Thumbs up for that."

Anna nodded. "Thumbs up for enthusiasm.".

"Say, after lunch Rapunzel and I are taking an aerodyne to a place nearby. We have clearance for it, or rather, Rapunzel does. It's another royal property and it's in the security zone. She says it was a favorite place of hers. I didn't know the girl could fly. Did you?"

"I could fly helos and soarplanes when I was fourteen, Flynn. I did a stint as pilot on a superdreadnaught. I can fly almost anything the navy gives me. I'm no Vanellope VonSchweetz, but I manage."

"Why am I not surprised?" He grinned. "Anyway, she promised her father she wouldn't leave the zone, but we're not, so we're going." Anna nodded again, understanding. "Say, Captain, since you're both perverse enough to enjoy this weather, why don't you and Elsa take a walk? Go hiking or something?"

"Hiking?" Anna's brow wrinkled. Why hadn't she thought of that? A hike would be perfect for the two of them. It would give her a chance to get away from the mansion, to get the lay of the land, to be alone with Elsa. She hadn't been allowed to go hiking on Arendelle-- now that would be something, and she looked forward to the opportunity-- but if the royal family of Corona had granted her access to their own private pine forest and well-maintained trails, she wasn't going to complain. "I don't know if hiking is her thing." She felt her heart beat louder. Why would she turn down an opportunity to be with Elsa? "Then again, I think my new heart might need the exercise."

"Well, if they'd given you one like mine, you wouldn't have that problem," Flynn said. "Well, maybe. But it can keep up with that girl."

"'Girl,' huh?"

"Rapunzel!" Flynn stood hurriedly. "I'm sorry. I didn't know you were there."

"You keep up pretty well, actually, Doctor Fitzhubert," she said, grinning at him. Anna liked Rapunzel; there didn't seem to be an ounce of guile on her. She just liked Flynn, and she liked sex, and combining the two was just her way of showing it. She may have been pumping him for every detail of his life back on Manticore or his time on Earth, but she wasn't sleeping with him as an excuse to hear more. "But what was this about your heart?"

Flynn hemmed for a moment before explaining about his artificial heart. Rapunzel's eyes widened. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"It wasn't important. It's not like I'm in any danger here, is there?"

"No, but... I would rather have known!"

"Do you want my vaccination records too?" Anna laughed. "Is it really important to you, Rapunzel?"

"No, I guess not." She sat down and snabbled a cookie from the plate on the little table. "Are you sure you're up for a little excitement?"

"So far, Princess, I have shown a remarkable capacity to handle anything you have thrown at me."

"And you've been such a gentleman about it, too." A bell rang from somewhere inside the mansion. Rapunzel gave Flynn a quick kiss on the cheek. "Oh, good. Lunch. Let's go."


Anna hadn't heard the aerodyne land, so she wasn't aware that her chief engineer had arrived at the mansion until she nearly tripped over him on the way to lunch. "Sorry, Ma,am," he said, "but Admiral Becker wanted someone to give this to you, and I was convenient."

She smiled down at Ficksit. He was still as soft-spoken as ever. "It seems a bit much to use a chief engineer to deliver courier service," Anna told the short, soft-spoken man, taking the secured pouch and signing for it.

"Maybe, Ma'am, but I wasn't doing much in orbit. Between Arendelle and Manticore, Winterkiss is in tip-top shape. I've been planetside for the past few days discussing technology transfer details with Corona's elevator people. I guess I was handy."

"Well, you're just in time for lunch. Why don't you join us, Felix?"

"I'd... " He hesitated. "I'd like that, Ma'am."

Anna wondered when Captain Calhoun ate. The woman was always hovering over every dinner, a palling reminder of the threat against the royal presences in the room. Here at the Summer Palace every human being had been fully cleared, and there weren't that many people around. Even the security people seemed light on the ground, but there were always two, somewhere nearby. Anna supposed she should be used to it. She had come in following Elsa, who'd looked nervous and quiet. Everyone had waited until Elsa and Rapunzel sat, more or less simultaneously. There were still forms to honor, even here at the Summer Palace.

Anna was glad lunch consisted of sandwiches. They weren't the simple things she was used to; the rolls were fresh from baking, the fillings sloshed in an au jus that Anna swore contained cinnamon, and she would never have put bean sprouts in anything she ate but they worked pretty well with the weird mix.

Elsa ate hers with a fork. Anna tried, but gave up and emulated Rapunzel, who used her hands like a normal person. Lunch was silent for the most part aside from the usual murmurings about salt and spices.

"Queen Elsa?" Anna said. Elsa looked up, startled to be addressed at all. "I don't have much to do while I'm waiting for Admiral Becker and the Corona Royal Security forces to conclude their business. I'd like to go hiking out around the mansion today. Would you like to come along?" She cringed inwardly. That was no way to invite a Queen to something. How did someone invite a Queen to... to anything? Did Queens get invitations? They must. Maybe they just demanded them and expected them to be honored or something. Not all the etiquette classes at Saganami island had trained her for this.

Elsa's brows furrowed in that adorable way Anna had come to recognize as being puzzled with an offer her heart wanted but her head didn't yet understand. "A hike? I've never, I don't know that I've ever been on one."

"All it takes is a good pair of sport shoes and a water bottle. Oh, and a commlink would be a good idea in our case," Anna said.

"I, I don't know." Elsa said. "Maybe?"

Anna had to throw her a lifeline. She said, "'Yes?'"

"Yes." Elsa relaxed, relieved almost. Anna smiled. Elsa was staring at her again and this time, when their eyes met, Anna felt it. That spark they'd shown each other just days before. It was still there, and with some love and care it could be blown back to a roaring blaze.

Chapter Text

"I look ridiculous."

"Oh, no, Your Majesty, you look just fine." Elsa wasn't sure where Gerda had found the clothes. She suspected they were Rapunzel's since she and her cousin shared similar hips and the purple "shorts" didn't need to be lengthed correctly to her longer legs. "You're supposed to be going hiking, not getting ready for a state engagement. Just take a few snacks with you and let the line of Anton keep you warm."

Elsa sighed. Gerda had found a good pair of boots that actually fit her– this time, she was sure they were Rapunzel's– and a flannel shirt to go along with the shorts.

She'd checked with security one more time. They assured her there was no one within a hundred miles that wasn't authorized to be here. She had examined the threat board herself despite not having any familiarity with it. Calhoun apparently felt secure. She told Elsa, "Go on your own. You'll be safer if I monitor for airborne threats from here."

Which meant Elsa was going to be out in the woods. Alone.

No, not alone. With Anna.

She found Anna leaning against the frame of a small door that led through a laundry room and out the back of the house, her hands crossed under her breasts, her face animated with thought. She was wearing clothes similar to Elsa's: A long-sleeved soft flannel top, not tucked in, and cargo shorts that reached down to just above her knees. The pockets looked packed. A gravel-laden path wandered away from the door and up a gentle slope, reaching up toward the hills overlooking the lake before it disappeared behind the trees. Anna's eyes widened as she approached. "Elsa..." she said. "I mean, Your Majesty."

Elsa grinned. "No pretenses now, Anna. 'Elsa' will do fine."

"Oh. Right." Anna returned the grin with enthusiasm. "Elsa. Elsa. God, Elssssaaahhhh. Your name really is so beautiful."

"Thank you," Elsa said, and blushed this time. "What's this?" She pointed to the satchel over Anna's shoulder.

"Stuff. Food, water, a sweater for me, a blanket if we want to sit down for a while. Won't you get cold? It's barely 15 outside, although it's supposed to get warmer."

"No, I'll be fine," Elsa said.

"Okay," Anna said, her tone indicating she wasn't so sure. "At least bring a sweater." Gerda seemed to materialize one out of thin air, a heavy cotton knit.

"I'll get hot wearing that," Elsa said. "I'd rather not."

"Bring it with you." Anna took the sweater from Gerda and dragged it around Elsa's waist, tying the arms in front with a quick knot. "We're going hiking. No sense in being stupid and getting cold. There."

Elsa had to stifle an objection as Anna's deft hands fluttered about her waist. She'd also had to stifle a completely opposing reaction, as she'd suddenly wanted to grab the other woman and... what? She had no idea what to do with a woman. Kiss her, certainly, but not here, not in front of Gerda.

Anna slipped the satchel's single shoulderstrap diagonally over her shoulder so that it ran between her breasts and then back behind her waist. "Let's go." They walked out into the cool, sunlit afternoon. "Your cousin's park has a lot of trails. I picked a pretty easy one," Anna said. "It'll only take about two hours. We're going to loop up along that ridgeline, then come back down by the landing pads and take the service road back. That part's flat, so if you're tired by the time we get done with the main part, coming back won't be too hard."

Elsa nodded as Anna headed off. Anna's long auburn hair hung in a braid that ended in a fan at the small of her back, bundled together with elastic.

Below that fan Anna's cargo pants did nothing to obscure the beautiful roundness of her butt. Anna had invited Elsa to enjoy looking, as well as hearing, touching, and everything else, so Elsa looked. She gazed, and she grinned as she thought it. She could gaze at Anna all day. One part at a time or the whole package at once.

Anna was pulling away from her. Elsa hurried to catch up, the unfamiliar heavy boots quickly becoming reassuring in their heft and authority with the ground. Her legs burned briefly with the unaccustomed exercise but she soon warmed up and seemed to take on a new energy of her own, as if she hadn't been using her body in the manner nature intended. Maybe she hadn't.

She wasn't sure how far she'd walked when they broke out onto a ridge along a hilltop. Anna was leaning against a tree, slightly bent over. "Anna? Are you okay?"

"I think so. This new heart... it isn't as strong as my old one. Yet. But it will be. A few days of this and I'll be running along these ridges like they were nothing!" She straightened up, pointed outward. "Wow."

Elsa's gaze followed Anna's arm. Down the hillside the bowl of the lake stretched out before them. At the far end it disappeared in the haze of a waterfall cascading over a steep cliff that had to be at least thirty meters high. It had been years since Elsa had been out in the woods like this, and with her adult eyes she picked out details the teenage Elsa would never have: the fallen trees piled up as the water tried to escape the lake, the green patches of algae along one side where the lake was entirely shielded from the sun by trees and terrain, the stillness, the loveliness. A single thread of smoke rose from the Coronas' mansion. "This is so beautiful."

"Wow." Anna seemed to be a woman of few words said often, all of them either encouraging or admiring. "Snack?" Elsa's eyes returned to Anna, followed the line of her body down from her chin to her arm. Anna held out the most unappetizing-looking bar of candy Elsa had ever seen, a mashed-together agglomeration of different foodstuffs held together apparently by sheer mechanical violence.

"What is that?"

"Nutrition bar. Dense calories, protein and fat, micronutrients. This is a sports version. We have military versions if we have to be on station for long engagements, but this is much better. Rapunzel got these for me." Anna pulled a piece off with her fingers and ate it. "I wonder if we can get the RMN to buy some off Corona. These are a lot tastier. Have a piece." She held it out.

Elsa tore off a small corner, hesitated, and then put in her mouth. It had density, and a slight crunch, and sweetness. "It's fine."

"'Fine'?" Anna said. "'Fine?' Compared to e-rats, it's a four-course meal with all the trimmings!" She giggled. Elsa gave her a tolerant smile. "Ready?" Elsa nodded.

The trail wandered on, descending through the woods. "Are you okay back there?"

"I think so," Elsa said. She took a deep breath, filled her lungs with the sweet, clean air, and let it out. "This is all so, so wonderful, Anna. I haven't been outside like this since, since..." She hesitated as memories of that day, the day she'd been told, the day she'd sat in her room with the door locked and the chair under the doorknob, and sat on the floor next to the chair, blocking the door with her own body, and cried and cried and cried.

"Since your parents..." Anna couldn't finish it either.

"I'm sorry, Anna. I really am. Every sweet experience shouldn't lead me back to that day."

"Elsa. It's okay. You have a lot to get over. You have a world to come out to." Anna put her hand on Elsa's shoulder. "And you can."

"I hope so," Elsa said, looking away. "I really hope so."

They walked along the ridge, and then back down toward the lake again. Elsa had never before appreciated how hard it was to discern distances through the trees, but as they walked along the trail the forest seemed to crowd in around them, obscuring any sense of distance or progress.

"That's interesting," Anna said. "And convenient." She pointed. Elsa looked up. A log had fallen alongside the path, and someone had carved a bench into the wood. It was just big enough to hold two people. "Wanna take a break?"

"I would appreciate one."

They sat, both emitting the same sigh, then looking at each other, and both broke out in giggles. Elsa kept her eyes on Anna, then scooted closer to the shorter woman. Anna looked up.

Elsa gave in to herself. Anna was simply too adorable, too desirable, too much. She had tried not to think about the dusky redhead, she had wanted to keep the starship captain out of the line of fire, but it wasn't possible. Anna insisted on staying. Anna was here now. She looked into Anna's eyes, and Anna took a deep breath. They leaned closer, until Elsa lips were almost to Anna's, and Anna nodded.

Elsa kissed Anna. In the heat of their last encounter Elsa had had few chances to really pay attention to what she'd been doing. It had been all new. In the rush of fresh sensations. she'd been overwhelmed. She was still overwhelmed, but she determined now to pay attention, to listen to her feelings, to listen to Anna. The feel of Anna's full lips against hers, the wet touch of tongue on tongue, the sharp solid sensation when Anna's teeth brushed her lips. She could kiss Anna for hours. They had hours.

Elsa felt Anna shift and heard a soft thud as the satchel Anna had been carrying fell to the ground. The two women eased closer on the bench. Elsa's body was heated from all the exercise, and although the temperature hovered barely above 20C, she felt as if she could have stripped down naked and been entirely comfortable. Cold never bothered her anyway.

Anna's hand covered hers, pulled it towards her body, placed it on her belly. Elsa's hands touched Anna through the cloth, felt Anna's body underneath the thin layer of cloth. She slipped her hand down to the waistband. Anna's kisses grew more insistent as Elsa's hand slipped under the shirt and touched Anna's skin directly. Elsa's body trembled with the admixture of hormones and emotions, a trembling that went all the way into her hands.

A moment of self doubt rippled through Elsa as she realized Anna probably thought her no more prepared for this than a schoolgirl on her first night with a lover. As her fingers felt over the skin of Anna's body, she couldn't help herself. She wanted more, and she was terrified that she was going to mess it up every second, reveal some massive dysfunction in her nature, confess her failure to be a whole human being.

Anna used one hand to keep them upright, the other on Elsa's torso, just holding the other woman as each turned further toward the other. Elsa was almost in Anna's lap, her arm awkwardly bent as their mouths continuted the slow, unsteadily orbiting kisses. Anna moaned softly as Elsa tried to replicate Anna's exploration of her ears. Anna's ear was a funny, complicated thing under Elsa's tongue, and she wouldn't have taken playing with it seriously at all if not for the gasping, shuddering response she heard from the redhead, a powerful feedback that made Elsa's belly tighten with desire. She wanted so much to explore it more. The upper curve of Anna's ear was amazing, and there was this one spot just behind the ear, right along the hair line, that made Anna seem to collapse in on herself, breathing hard, mumbling things that weren't even words anymore, just mumbled pleadings for Elsa to do more.

Anna was letting Elsa explore. Anna's wordless acknowledgements were a form of permission, a way of letting Elsa figure her out.

Elsa returned to Anna's lips, still reveling in the small, complicated feel of Anna's mouth and lips and tongue. Her mischievous hand slipped up Anna's torso. Her fingertips felt the delicate change of angle and the soft swell of new flesh as Elsa discovered Anna wasn't wearing a bra. One less complication: she doubted she could get one off with quite the same facility Anna had shown last time. She had chambermaids for that.

Her fingers trembling even harder, she slipped up over the skin of Anna's breast. Anna's body surged with new energy and a gasp escaped her mouth.

Elsa's body buzzed with a strange sensation, and when she recognized it she laughed suddenly and withdrew her hand a little, not quite leaving Anna's shirt. "Sorry," she said. "Sorry. I'm... I'm hyperventilating. I feel so strange! Is it supposed to be like this?"

"Yes. Yes it is." Anna placed one hand on her shirt, covering Elsa's hand through the material. "You should do more of this."

"Not now," Elsa said, carefully slowing her breath and letting her mind calm down. She slipped her hand completely out of Anna's shirt. "Not right this moment. Goodness. But... we should move on. We shouldn't keep the guards wondering where we are." She surged as if to get up.

"They know where we are," Anna said. "Elsa..."

Elsa settled. "I'm sorry. I'm still getting used to this."

"And I'll give you all the time you need." Anna snuggled closer and put her head on Elsa's shoulders. "I like that you're taller than me."

"'Than I.'"

"Whatever." Both giggled. "Elsa? Tonight?"

"Yes," Elsa said. "Tonight."

"Good. Because one way or another, we have to know if you like, um... if you're like Sam."

"Sam?"

"Samantha. One of my not-relationships. She chased me all through the crusher– uh, captaincy training. She said she was bi, but..." Anna giggled. "She'd never done it with a girl. She wanted me to be the one."

Elsa gazed at Anna's eyes, intrigued. "Were you?"

"Yes. Sort-of." Anna blushed. It was very becoming, especially when she gave that quick, tight smile that made her dimples appear. "Sam was really romantic, like really into the whole flowers and cards and making out. Wow, could she could kiss, too! But when we finally got into bed, she discovered–" Anna giggled like a madwoman. "She told me, 'Damn. I guess vagina's not my thing.'"

Elsa tried not to let the horror show on her face, which only made Anna laugh even harder. "Oh, it wasn't that bad, Elsa," Anna said, waving her hand to dismiss it away. "Everyone has to figure it out one way or another. You didn't seem to have any trouble being naked with me last time."

"No," Elsa said, "No, I had no trouble at all. Yes, tonight. I'm looking forward to it."

"Yay," Anna said very softly, her lips brushing Elsa's cheek and making her shiver. Then Anna was standing, holding out a hand to help Elsa to her feet. "Let's go. I think the landing pad is just about a half-klick further, and then it's a quick walk back to the mansion."

"After all this walking, I think I'll need another shower."

"We could take one together," Anna said.

"Let me think about that, Captain."

"Of course, Your Majesty." They both giggled again. Anna gestured with her head, shouldered her pack, and continued down the trail. Elsa eagerly rose and followed.

Chapter Text

Flynn admired the calm seriousness with which Rapunzel operated the two-seater aerodyne. The tiny, snub-nosed lozenge of an aircraft had intimidated him much more than the large, military-style vessel that had brought them here, which in turn had been quite more worrying than the military shuttlecraft that had carried him from Winterkiss to the palace. Each vehicle had offered progressively fewer protections in case of misadventure, and Flynn wasn't particularly fond of misadventures. He trusted Captain DuVar's judgment; she'd survived the most massive laser hit a naval vessel had ever taken, gone into combat with no idea what she was facing and prevailed, and survived at least one assassination attempt. Her injuries had been severe, and every time he tried not to think of her lying on the ground like that he rubbed his own chest, recalled his own surgical history, and thanked his lucky stars that he hadn't been shot by either side and hadn't been hit by one of those EMP grenades.

He snorted. He still had his show-and-tell piece in one of his many pockets. It was fairly small, the size of a fat pen. He had disconnected the battery so it was safe and inert. He meant to analyze it someday, try to see if there was a defense against the thing going off. It might take an EMP blast to disable its internal electronics, which made the cure just as bad as the disease.

His mind was rambling. He looked instead at Rapunzel and a surge of new fondness swept through him. So much for the "no nobles" pledge he'd given Lady Captain DuVar. He snorted. There was another beautiful woman, but he hadn't been at all attracted to her, and it was clear her eyes were firmly on Queen Elsa. Now there was a beautiful woman. Flynn could admit that. When she was happy and she turned those eyes on him something in his throat constricted with an aesthetic reaction far beyond the bounds of propriety. But it was strictly an aesthetic reaction. With Rapunzel, it was something else.

"Well, yeah," Flynn said to himself. "You've kissed her."

"Flynn?"

"What? Sorry, I was just, um, talking to myself." They weren't wearing either headphones or helmets; the cabin had excellent sound-cancelling software that mitigated the roar of the turbines and the rush of the wind to little more than a deep, rumbling hum. He had to watch his tendency to narrate his own story out loud. "Bad habit."

She smiled, flipped a switch, then reached out to caress his cheek. "Well, if you have only one bad habit, I think I can live with that one."

"I, ah, I mean, I'm sure I have others. Everyone does." Grief, how did she fluster him so? It wasn't like either of them were blushing virgins. Flynn had managed a few casual flings and even a decent relationship here and there in his thirty-odd years. Rapunzel had admitted to dallying with several men in her past, all of them commoners and none of them seriously. Flynn wondered which side had ended the relationships. It had probably been mutual. Possibly contractual, but Rapunzel hadn't actually given Flynn a deadline and Flynn hadn't asked for one.

He'd done much more than kiss her. Rapunzel didn't quite qualify as a full-on man-eater, but she was short of inhibitions, long on desires. She was also a delight to the senses. He couldn't help but remember last night with anything except fondness. Sleeping with a princess was certainly a memory worth keeping. Sleeping with one that was so damned energetic, well, he had memories of the things she did with her mouth that he would keep forever. All he had to do now was fight the impression that the princess herself could be kept. That would have been ridiculous.

"If you're not buckled, lock in," she said. "I'm putting this thing down."

The warning was entirely unnecessary. Rapunzel may have thrown the aerodyne into the sky with nuclear-powered defiance of the laws of gravity, but her skills with the aircraft were on par with that maniacally-grinning Von Schweetz woman and the touchdown was so gentle only the trees outside and the powering down of the turbines told him the flight was over. Rapunzel let out the sort of sigh Flynn had heard a few times last night. "That good, huh?"

"Oh, I love flying," she said. She unbuckled in a flurry of hands and clicks, and then leaned over to kiss him. She had the softest lips he'd ever encountered and was far and away the best kisser he'd ever met. "But it's not as good as kissing."

"You have such a way with words, princess."

"Flatterer," she said, grinning at him. "I like you, Doctor Flynn."

"I'm glad you do," he said. "But there's even less room in this thing than the traditional groundcar with a back seat, and you did promise to show me this tower."

She giggled. "Okay, Doctor Fitzhubert. I'll show it to you." She pushed a few more buttons and the cockpit's gull-wing doors opened. Flynn spent a minute figuring out where all the buckles were on his restraint harness, then stepped out into cool mountain air.

"Whoa," he said. The "tower" wasn't that tall. It was barely ten stories, but it erupted out of a ground-based facility that occupied a healthy chunk of a narrow valley and seemed to dive into the very heart of the mountain on either side. "Where are we? What is this place?"

"The Crew Quarters."

"Excuse me?"

"The Crew Quarters. The crew of the terraforming effort. This was their home." He looked skeptical. "I thought a man of science like yourself might be interested to see it."

Flynn swallowed. "Is anyone here... now?"

"Well, Gothel comes here now and then. It's her home as much as it was theirs. But they all died, eventually. There weren't as many of them as there were that remained behind on Arendelle. Only Mother Gothel really had the force of will to stay, well, animated all this time."

Flynn looked up. He had to admit that if there was one place he wanted to see more than any other, it was the Corona equivalent of Module Two. He just didn't know if he wanted to see it without backup. The Crew Quarters was within the Royal Family's vacation zone, safety range of Corona's Royal Security as mandated by the Crown, so supposedly this was some of the safest, most heavily monitored territory on the planet. "Okay," he said, putting on his most confident voice. "Lead the way, Princess."

She palmed the lock and it let her in without complaint. Lights flickered as they entered the front hallway. To Flynn, it looked like little more than any other industrial science facility: clean walls, gleaming chrome near the egress, exposed steel, concrete, HVAC, power and water lines further in. Everything had to be accessible in case of an emergency. Every duct had to be exposed for rapid repair.

His eyes were drawn to several of the lines threading overhead. Rapunzel may not have known what they were, but he recognized airborne biohazard management lines when he saw them. That made a sort of sense; a lot of early-stage terraforming involved releasing anaerobic reducing bacteria and fungi, which had to be replaced a few decades later with more robust oxygen-managing varieties. Still, it surprised him to consider that those sort of experiments had been conducted at a ground-based facility; that was the sort of thing where orbital bombardment was suited for seeding and robotic probes were used for sampling. Coming groundside to do the work was curiously superfluous.

"What sort of attraction does this place have for you, Rapunzel?"

"Oh, Flynn, it's so romantic, don't you think? Going off into space, taking such marvelous risks, never knowing if you'll actually get to your destination or what you'll find there, working so hard, and all of it a sacrifice for generations that will be, I don't know, nothing like you." She pointed. "Most of the rooms are sealed, old experiments in terraforming. But I used to go up into the tower and spend all day reading, and dreaming, and looking out the window wondering if I'd ever see anyplace other than Corona. I wondered if a light would appear in the sky, a sign that Earth had found us. I guess it has." They reached an elevator which opened at her touch. It went up.

The door opened onto the observation deck of the tower. The outer rim was lined with glass, as was the outermost tier of ceiling tile, giving them a full view of the sky and mountains in every direction. Although the deck was fairly large the only furniture was a large conference table in the center of the room, surrounded by a ring of comfortable-looking couches, half of which had backs, half of which didn't. On a raised dais in the center of the table was a rock about the size of Flynn's fist. "This was why I would come up here. To look at this. I suppose it's almost the same view as the one I have back home, but here... here I felt like I was close to those ancestors. The ones who gave up their humanity to give me a home. Does that make sense?"

"Plenty," he said, reaching out and taking her hand. "I hope you don't have romantic ideas of giving up your humanity, though. I pretty much like your body the way it is."

"You're a sly one, Doctor Flynn."

"So the ladies tell me."

She giggled and turned toward him. "I don't think there have been that many ladies in your life."

"No, not that many. Enough so I'm not a completely blithering idiot when a beautiful woman asks me what I want, but not so many I'm jaded. Or immune to someone as beautiful as you." He extended his arms toward her.

She fell into them, her head on his chest, and gave a deep, happy sigh. "This is nice," she said. "I don't know why I feel so good with you. Everyone else was fun, you know, but they didn't really end up as my friends. I feel like... like I could be friends with you."

Flynn didn't have the words to express how he felt so he just held her. He felt her head shift, looking up, so he looked down. She smiled at him. He led her to one of the backless couches and they sat down, side by side. "So, tell me, uh, how many of your previous boytoys have you brought here?

"You're the first. I've never brought anyone else here ever. A few times security had to come in and get me when I stayed too long, but they haven't dared to do that in a long, long time."

"Oh." He looked at her wide, expectant eyes and the slight pout of her lips, and leaned over to erase that pout, putting one hand to her cheek as if to guide her to him. Rapunzel's forceful response kiss nearly bowled him over onto the couch, but he instead guided them down until he was lying face-up and she was on top, kissing him hard. The couch was yielding but industrially firm against his back, Rapunzel was unyielding but angelically soft against his chest. Her hair naturally draped against his cheek but he didn't care.

Flynn could have made out with Rapunzel for hours. Flynn thought he'd long since gotten past the "making out" part of life. It wasn't that he was a cad or rake, but at his age his most recent partners knew what they wanted. Rapunzel obviously knew what she wanted too, but it involved a lot of kissing ahead of time. Flynn could happily live with that.

Not to say his hands were idle. He caressed her small back, his hands roaming her slim body. She gasped aloud as he caressed the twin curves of her ass. He was glad neither one of them had worn anything extravagant. The tight black jeans and tailless pink shirt perfect for her, and for him, as he could feel every millimeter of her through the fabric. Even if he'd had his hands all over her every night for the past three nights, well, he would gladly trade one more experience for all the memories he already possessed.

Well, maybe not. He had to be honest with himself.

Where were her hands going? It was a bad sign when a man started woolgathering in the middle of a kiss. He turned his attention back her lips, her tongue, God what she could do with that adorable little tongue of hers. Flynn shifted. They rolled off the couch and onto the floor.

"Ouch!" Flynn said as he landed on an elbow.

"Did you hurt yourself?"

"Mostly my dignity," he said, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Rapunzel rolled over to kneel next to him. "I think I'll be fine."

"I think we should wait until we have a bed."

"Hey, Rapunzel," he said. "Kissing you is sexy enough."

"Well, I want more of you," she said. "But it can wait."

"Good to know," he said. They picked themselves up off the floor.

"Come see," Rapunzel said. She led him toward the glass, and he looked out. The valley stretched in both directions, a stream running through the center of it, an idyll of verdant green and growing things.

The only place in the 360-degree view where there was any blockage was where the elevator rose from the ground floor to deliver people to the tower. Flynn stood a little to one side of it and looked out at what his brain thought of as the "back" of the facility, and his eyes were drawn to a narrow network of green pipes that covered one part of the building. He had seen something like them before, and not too long ago. "Hey, Rapunzel?"

"Yes?"

"What's down at that end of the building?" He pointed.

"I don't know. Mother Gothel says that a lot of the building is closed off. No power, no maintenance, and there might be some biohazards."

"If that's true, why are there hydroponics..." He broke off as he remembered. "Rapunzel, are you sure the rest of the crew is, you know, dead?"

"As sure as I can be. Nobody's ever seen any others of them, and as far as I know nobody from Corona has joined them. I mean, some people might be tempted by the idea of living for four hundred years, but we already live half that and what Gothel's had to do to make it this far is really, um, I'm not going to make any excuses for her but she's, um..."

"She's a little creepy," Flynn said quietly. Rapunzel nodded, blushing with the admission. "The reason I ask is because those pipes over there, see them? The green ones." Rapunzel squinted to see, then nodded. "I've seen them before. On Vesselton. They're part of the blood purification and nutrition recycling system for the crew. For both the conscious ones, and the ones in semi-permanent suspension. There aren't as many here as there were there, but if what you're telling me is true there shouldn't be any."

"Do you think she might be hiding something?"

"I think it's possible," Flynn said. "And I think I want to know."

"Let's go find out!" Rapunzel said, heading toward the elevator.

"Rapunzel, wait! What if it's dangerous?"

Rapunzel's hair, to his amazement, glowed briefly. "Nothing is dangerous to this," she said, pointing to her head. "There isn't a lock I can't pick, or a computer I can't suborn, on all of Corona." She held up a hand. "The machines of Corona do I what I tell them to."

"I hope you're right," Flynn said. The elevator took them down a floor, and then Flynn led them in the direction he thought he'd seen the pipes. The doors opened for Rapunzel as they made their way. And then one door... didn't.

It wasn't marked as dangerous. It wasn't marked at all. It was a plain, metallic door, much like the one behind which Vesselton's "mystery girl" had been hidden, the one who was still in cryogenic suspension back on Arendelle. "End of the line?" Flynn said.

"No," Rapunzel said. "Not yet." She took off her glove and put her hand on the lock. She frowned briefly, and then her hair came to life, tiny tendrils that slithered into the lock. She frowned more, then took off the other glove with her teeth and held her left hand high in the air while her right continued to feel around the lock. "Ah!" she said. The door opened.

"How did you do that?"

"It's all in the hair," Rapunzel said, brushing it back as she slipped the gloves back on. "I just looked inside until I found the paths that actually activated the door mechanism. I routed around the lock completely."

"That is really useful, Princess. You shouldn't let people know you have that power. They might find it, and you, really useful."

Rapunzel frowned. "You're not freaked out by it, are you, Flynn?"

"I'm not freaked out by it. I'm just surprised by the technological qualities of your hair. Where did it come from?"

"It doesn't grow out of my head, if that's what you're wondering. It's a self-maintaining net that resides along the shafts. I have to feed it a repair goo, but that's just part of washing it. Gothel designed it for me. She thought it would be something fun. It inter-operates with the Anton cybernetics."

"I see," Flynn said.

"Well, shall we see what's behind the door?"

"By all means," he said.

The room beyond lit up. It looked like a storage corridor, but it was much cleaner, and made to be easy to clean, than the hallways he'd seen already. It looked like a medical facility. The next door opened with a simple touch.

There was one cryogenics chamber inside. "What the?" Flynn walked over and looked down into the small glass portal over the face. It looked exactly like... "Her!"

"Who?"

"The one person on Vesselton who was in cryogenic suspension. We couldn't get a tissue type off her. We got a DNA sample, but we never matched her with anyone in the Arendelle DNA tissue banks. Which seems almost impossible. Buzz told me there isn't anyone on Arendelle, living or dead, who hasn't been typed and recorded. So who the heck is she?" Flynn looked around. Just like the facility on Vesselton, this room lacked any labels whatsoever. The monitors were silent. Only the hissing of pumps, the soft hum of electricity, and the coolness of the suspension tube itself indicated that anything here was working at all.

The door to the room opened. Flynn turned to confront the tall, mechanical figure of Mother Gothel. "Well, what have we here? Getting a little too curious for your own good, are we now, Rapunzel?"

"Mm... mm.. Mother Gothel."

"Don't stutter, Rapunzel. You know how much I hate the stuttering. I thought we'd broken you of that." The cyborg stalked into the room, one hand gesturing dismissively.

Rapunzel's eyes darted to the cryogenics chamber, then back to Gothel's gleaming figure. "But... who? You told me no one was left."

"No one is left, Rapunzel."

"Then who's that?" Rapunzel asked, pointing to the cryogenics tube.

"Oh, her. That's me."

"Excuse me?"

"Me, Rapunzel." Gothel tapped on the chamber with one claw. "Me. My body. My DNA. A new host body for this brain in here." Gothel tapped on the metal shell of its chest. "I created it out of my own eggs and embryos, tuned it with my own DNA, and grew it here. I had a couple of false starts, but this one is perfect. It won't reject my brain upon transplantation."

"But if you want the body... won't you kill... her?"

"Oh, she's never had a real life, Rapunzel. Much like you! So coddled and protected from the real world, both of you. Her entire existence has been in simulations since birth. The only reason to give her an existence at all was to make sure the body had the right mix of hormones, which can only really be done with an active brain. I think you understand, Rapunzel. You have a brain. I know you do. I've seen pictures of it. I've written AIs to coordinate with it."

"But, that's horrible," Flynn said.

"Of course it is." Gothel's voice lowered down to a menacing purr as she turned toward the couple. "Nothing worth having in life is won by being good. Behind every great history is a megadeath, give or take a few." Gothel gestured off-handedly. "Take a look at your own line, Rapunzel! The House of Anton. The House of Anton. Your family took sides in the Famine War, virtually started the actual shooting part of it. Your family murdered poor Josef Arendelle's descendents, and what of his entire line they didn't shoot they left to starve to death. Your ancestors rewrote the corporate charter into a monarchy. A monarchy! And now another monarchy is going to come in and give the whole idea of monarchy some legitimacy? I don't think so!" Gothel lunged forward faster than Flynn could have imagined to grab Rapunzel by the wrists. "This whole colony should have been mine. Mine! Arendelle for Josef, and this, this Corona should have been named after me."

"Both stars are named after you! What more do you want?" Rapunzel gasped.

"Justice," Gothel hissed. "Justice and life. I want my body back! I want my youth back. I want justice for Josef. Justice for me. It was convenient that you accepted the hair I made for you. So close to the Keys, it had all the time in the world! I had hoped it would crack all the Keys for me by now, but its processors just weren't powerful enough. I've cracked some of them-- enough to shut this planet down if I have to, but not enough to turn it back on again." Gothel's mechanical head leaned forward menacingly. "And now I'm going to get them all, even if I have to rip that chip out of your hand."

"No!" Rapunzel's hair glowed and lunged forward into the crevices around Gothel's joints.

Gothel shrieked. "Rapunzel, what are you doing?"

"What I have to! I'm shutting you down!"

"No!" Gothel threw Rapunzel away from her. Rapunzel hit the wall and grunted once before she fell to the ground. Gothel staggered and fell over. "No!" the mechanical voice blurted, then only garbled noises came from it. The robotic body continued to twitch.

"Rapunzel! Are you okay?" Flynn leaned down next to her.

Rapunzel nodded. "I think so. Are you?" Rapunzel gasped.

He nodded. "We have to get out of here." He took her hand, mindful of the wince. Gothel must have crushed her wrists. They fled back out into the corridor. "Did you disable her? I mean, permanently?" he said.

"I don't know. I don't know."

Flynn couldn't remember his way back through the facility. Some of the doors were closed and locked, and he didn't know if he could rely on Rapunzel's hair to unlock them quickly. "Your wristcomm!" he said.

"What?"

"Your wristcomm. Can't you call for your security?"

"Oh my god! You're right!" Rapunzel pulled back the sleeve of her windbreaker and tapped on it. "It's not working. No signal."

He looked up. "Wait. That's the elevator to the tower. If we go up there, it'll work."

Rapunzel nodded. The elevator still operated, and the two of them took it. Flynn said, "I'm not comfortable being in a small box, knowing that there might be a killer cyborg after us."

Rapunzel gasped, her eyes wide with terror as the full effect of Gothel's betrayal hit her. "I can't believe it. It was Gothel all along?"

Flynn shrugged and tried to be nonchalant. "Who knows what happens to someone who's been in that kind of body for years and years and years? People with implants change. Maybe with enough of them, you... you lose touch with who you were."

The elevator opened. "Signal!" Rapunzel said, and jabbed a finger at the black surface of her wristcomm. "Corona Security! Code Blonde! Code Blonde! Code Blonde!"

"Code Blonde?" Flynn said.

"Nobody was gonna forget that one, huh?" Rapunzel said, giggling.

"Princess!" said a tinny voice through the wristcomm. "Are you hurt?"

"I'm at the Crew Quarters! It's Mother Gothel. She's out to kill me. Help!"

"We're on our way! Stay--" The wristcomm suddenly cut out. The reliable hum of electricity in the tower died, the lights flickered, and went out.

"Oh no." Rapunzel shook her wrist. "What do we do now?"

"We wait," Flynn said. "And we hope."

Chapter Text

Anna couldn't keep her eyes off Elsa as they walked down the slowly widening trail. It led down a dip that was slightly marshy, their boots squelching over a mud-covered bridge with handrails crudely carved out of a few skinny logs assembled with tongue-and-eye roped together. "Now that's a metaphor," Anna said to herself.

But Elsa, she couldn't help but watch Elsa as they walked. She shouldn't be thinking in terms of physicality, that was so crude and unfair to do to a queen. Anna bit her lip. It wasn't unfair when she did it to other people. It wasn't unfair when a lover did it to her. Admiring the other person's body was part of admiring the other person, a few of the many threads that bound people together. Yet, if all her previous relationships had run out, as she had told Elsa, did that mean that the spool of thread that held a relationship ran out as well?

She had to get her metaphors under control. Maybe she'd get better with practice.

To her right, a large concrete platform surrounded with gravel drainage came into view as they cleared the trees. Two aerodynes sat on the platform, power and fuel lines attached to maintenance ports. Elsa gave the landing pad a single glance before starting toward the packed gravel road that went off to their left and up to the mansion. Anna hurried to follow her.

The air erupted with a loud attention-getting siren followed by a mechanical voice saying, "Code Blonde. Code Blonde. Code Blonde at the Crew's Quarters. The Princess's location is in all navigation devices. Code Blonde. Code Blonde..." The message repeated.

Elsa looked at Anna, then both watched as four security officers ran to one of the two big aerodynes parked on the edge of the tarmac. What Anna expected next didn't happen: the door to the aerodyne never closed. The engines didn't roar. Instead, the officers got out and ran to the other big aerodyne. It likewise refused to fly. "Come on," Anna said, and began heading toward the emergency.

Elsa followed. "Officer!" Anna shouted. "What's happening?"

"The ships are locked down!" one of the soldiers. He gestured. "I can't get it to fly. All the main command screens show is the royal crest and 'access denied!'"

"But.. .what's the emergency?"

"Code Blonde!" he said. "Princess Rapunzel is in danger." He looked closer at her.

"What?" Elsa said. Then she looked at Anna. "It can't be a coincidence. This is what the Vessel did when it used the laser platforms. They had to have a few of the Royal Keys to order the attack, which means that whoever did it is here and has those same keys." Elsa looked up at the soldier. "Follow me."

"Yes, er, Your Majesty." Elsa ducked her head into the aircraft, walked forward to the flight deck, and placed her hands on the controls. She had a look of concentration on her face, then smiled. The turbines started.

Anna stared at her. "Elsa! How are you..."

"I have a copy of the Keys, Anna. I may not be invited to use them, but I can override a local lockout of almost anything within my reach. The protocols on Corona feel different but they're still descended from the original Keys."

"But if you don't have permission from the central computers, we won't have autopilot," the security officer replied. "None of us knows how to fly."

"What?" Anna said. "But we know where we're going?"

"Sure. It's right there on the navigation map." He pointed to a screen that had come to life under Elsas' touch.

Anna shouldered her way past them and sat down in the seat next to Elsa. "Strap yourselves in."

"Anna," Elsa said as she took the co-pilot's chair, "Are you sure you know how to fly one of these?"

"Elsa, I've flown VTOL, uni and multi helo, and fixed wing, along with all the gravitics Manticore has ever given me. I'm pretty sure I can fly this thing."

"Pretty sure and very sure aren't the same thing, Anna."

"Then you'll have to hope they're close enough." She looked down. She'd watched Calhoun closely on the two flights she'd taken with the other woman. The controls really were familiar. "Okay, here goes." The turbines whined, and she quickly learned how to read the vector indicators, which were similar to those on a jump jet. The controls were forgiving, too; even without autopilot, this thing was designed to compensate for an inexperienced pilot. The aerodyne lifted slowly until Anna felt confident in its power, then she swung the blunt, boxy lifting body toward the spot on the map and tilted the thrusters back. The aircraft shot forward.


"What in the blue blazes is Code Blonde?" Calhoun said, looking up from her monitoring chair in the comfortably apportioned security annex.

The other man, one of Corona's palace security technicians, said, "It's the code for when Princess Rapunzel is in... oh no." All the screens went dark to be replaced with the Corona sun-seal and a text message: "By order of His Majesty the King, this facility is on lock-down pending investigation."

"And what is that?"

"I... I don't know." He stared at it, then tapped his wrist comm. "Field report. Everyone, check in." There was no reply.

"My Queen is out there and you don't have any coverage right now?" Calhoun snarled.

"My Princess is at the Crew Quarters and she's in trouble!"

"Well then, you'd better come with me to the landing pads so we can go rescue them both." Calhoun kicked away from her station and ran for the door.

As she passed through the mansion proper she passed the short engineer guy that spent his days holding Captain DuVar's ship together. He said, "Ma'am! What's happening?"

"I don't know."

"Where are you going?"

"Landing pad. Keep up with me if you can." To her surprise, the engineer did manage to keep up, even though his legs were much shorter than her own. The rest of the mansion's security squad, six men total, followed behind them. The pad was only five hundred meters from the mansion, down a bend in the road and a thick stand of trees that dulled the sound of the turbines from disturbing any royal guests. She arrived just as one of the aerodynes took to the skies. "What the hell? Who's in that?"

"Queen Elsa, a redheaded woman who was with her, and a four-man security squad," said a woman in a red maintenance jumpsuit at the edge of the platform. "I don't know how they got it to fly, though. They were talking about a lock-down."

"They shouldn't have gone at all. Damn it!" Calhoun watched the aerodyne disappear over the lake with furious frustration. "Let's see if the other one will fly." The hatch was open, the seats clear. The security people followed behind her. "Locked. Damn it, damn it, damn it!"

"Ma'am, if you'd mind your potty mouth, I'd very much appreciate it."

"Felix, right?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"What are you doing?"

Felix ran his hands over a panel on the wall above and slightly behind the co-pilot's chair. "Ma'am, that's my captain in that craft. If you think I'm going to abandon her when she's about to go into battle, you are out of your mind." He glanced at the device on his wrist, which seemed to be much bigger and more complex than a standard wristcomm. "Ah!" He pulled open a small latch, reached in and pulled something out. The screens all went blank. Fumbling about in his pockets, he came up with a multitool, flipped it to be a pair of pliers, reached into the panel and twisted something. The screens came up, with the lock-down notice missing. "And there is not an aircraft in the universe I cannot hotwire." He touched the co-pilot's panel, and the turbines whined with new power, the entire aerodyne shuddering back to life.

"Say," Calhoun said, looking at Felix with new and appreciative eyes. "You're a very handy guy to have around. Can you fly?"

"Many things, Ma'am, but I've never flown one of these."

"Sit down and get a lesson."

"Yes, Ma'am. Word of advice?" Calhoun regarded him. "Try not to fly too high. I think I, ah, took out some of the life support controls getting to the wires."

Calhoun's eyes narrowed with appreciation of the problem. "Treetops it is. Everyone back there secure?" She didn't wait for an answer. She opened the throttle wide and the second aerodyne vaulted into the sky.


The intercom crackled. Flynn looked up hopefully but the purring menace of Gothel's voice poured from the speaker. "Oh, Rapunnnnnzel! Where are you, little mouse? Come out, come out."

"She wants the Keys," Rapunzel said, holding her wrist.

"Can you delete them?"

"No," Rapunzel said. "They're in here." She pointed to the back of her left hand. "I'm supposed to have access to them all the time. Not that I can do much in here with... nothing."

"Now I see why Elsa calls it a curse," Flynn said. Rapunzel's mouth tightened. "If Gothel wants them, we have to find a way to keep them away from her. There has to be some way to delete them. Or destroy them. Could we--" He tapped around his pockets. They rattled. "Multimeter. Knife. Toolkit. Wait!" He pulled out the slim cylinder that had been resting in a zipped bottom pocket. "I don't clean this jacket out enough. Will this work? It's an EMP grenade. It's one of the ones the attackers used to get into Elsa's palace." He pulled the cap open, began reassembling it. It took only a minute. "There."

"But Flynn, your heart--"

"You'll set it off, Rapunzel. I'll be over here on this side of the room. That should be far enough away. It won't even hurt you. It didn't hurt Elsa when one went off next to her." He hesitated. "Damn. It didn't hurt Elsa. It didn't damage her Keys, either. Right after the battle she disappeared. She was able to commandeer the surveillance system and hide her tracks. The chips must be heavily shielded."

"They're supposed to be. Gothel explained to me how they're encased in a shield of gold. Then--" Rapunzel reached up, pulled off the glove. "It has to go. Before she can get to them, you have to. I heard you say you have a knife. You have to take it out. Cut it out of me."

Flynn felt his eyes widen as he looked at the pale back of her slim, delicate hand, where a slight, square rise of skin no bigger than his fingernail showed the location of the chip. His stomach flopped as he considered what she was asking for. "Rapunzel! I, I couldn't!"

"You have to," Rapunzel said. Tears filled her eyes. "This is one of those things, I guess, that it means about being a Princess. I can't let Gothel have the Keys. She... she would be able to rule all of Corona. There's no limit to what she could do."

"But--"

"We have to hurry. Before she finds us."

Flynn took her hand. "Follow me."


Anna kept her eyes on the navigation tracker. It led over the lake to a spot less than twenty kilometers from the mansion. The controls felt natural in her hands. Vanellope would have the time of her life flying one of these. Flynn had said that the economic slack in Arendelle, and presumably in Corona too, meant they had more time and money to put to the better things, like highly responsive and compensatory flight controls.

A buzzer began screaming. Anna looked at the main display: Missile Alert. She looked out and saw the track coming right at her. "Missile! Hang on!" she shouted even as she banked the aerodyne leftward, into what she guessed might be the turn space of the missile. If she could dodge it and make the turn tighter than it could handle, it might overcompensate and miss on the turnaround.

The missile was fast. Anna was faster, and that was her first mistake. The agile aerodyne suddenly became as frenzied as a ferret. Aerodynamics didn't really apply to an aerodyne; it was entirely about shoving force around with turbines. The aerodyne flipped over in a barrel roll even as she vectored out of the way of the missile, a move so wild the missile's on-board computers had no scenario for it. It shot past them, its exhaust trail disintegrating in the whirling windstorm created by the aerodyne's roaring thrusters.

Anna's naval training kept her brain on keel even as the world spun before her eyes and in her ears. She swore as she underflew the roll controls and the aerodyne righted itself. She checked the radar. "It's coming back!" she said. Would chaff or flares matter, or did it have visual matching and prediction? Did this aerodyne have any defensive points? "Elsa, look for some defense controls!"

The other woman was frantically scanning the controls. "I don't know how!"

The missile came streaking back from above. Anna watched it and made a split-second decision, pitching the nose down to present the smallest possible target and yawing to port. It almost worked.

The missile clipped the tail of the aerodyne and exploded. Turbine eight disintegrated in an ear-shattering explosion that ripped through the aerodyne with more violence than the missile itself. The screams of machine and man pierced Anna's attention. "We're going down! Brace yourselves!"

The aerodyne's computers worked with Anna to keep the ship upright, but one turbine was completely gone and two more were blinking bright faults. Anna saw a building up ahead. Well, I got us here. She struggled with the machine. "Come on!" she shouted as it pitched hard. Anna knew the poor flight systems were trying to figure out its new configuration, but it didn't have time. The ground was coming up awfully fast.


Flynn led Rapunzel to the couch. "Don't sit on it, just next to it, so you can put your hand on it. God, I can't believe we were making out in here less than an hour ago and now we're running for our lives from a killer cyborg." He pulled out his pocket knife, and a pair of tweezers. "It's a good thing I keep this sharp. Rapunzel, are you sure about this?"

"There's no other way. Not in the time we have."

"I wish there were."

"Flynn..."

"Eugene," he said.

"What?"

"It's Eugene," he said softly. "Flynn is my middle name. I tell people to use it because, well, because Eugene isn't very sexy."

She looked into his eyes, and he shivered. "I think you're very sexy, regardless of your name. And I think I like Eugene better."

"Well, you'd be the first. I hope you still like me after I've cut open the back of your hand." He looked down. He held her hand tightly in his, and it looked so delicate. His knife hand trembled.

"Do it," she said.

"I can't."

"Do it," she said, narrowing her eyes in determination.

He lowered the blade. The knife bit easily into the back of her hand, and she jerked hard, but he held tight and wouldn't let her go. She whimpered. "Hurts, oh God, Eugene, it hurts!"

He dropped the blade. With his thumb he pulled the wound open, and with the tweezers fished under it, found the golden chip in its setting, tugged. "Deep breath," he said, and pulled hard. Rapunzel screamed as the chip came free. "Got it."

He dropped it on the couch, pulled off his shirt and wrapped one long sleeve over her hand. "Put pressure on it. Stop the bleeding. We have to hope the rescue team finds us before she does." A loud "whump!" outside the building caught his attention, and he saw a trail of smoke in the air. "Oh, no."


Elsa momentarily lost consciousness. The impact had been brutal, but the seats of a modern warcraft were designed to keep the occupants alive and unhurt if at all possible. When she came to, she smelled burned talcum powder and saw a white, mesh-covered bag deflating in front of her eyes. "Elsa! Elsa, are you okay?"

"I... I think so. I feel strange, as if my muscles are buzzing." She looked up. Anna's face was hard in a way that reminded Elsa all too well of Calhoun at her most professional.

"Oh, good," Anna said. "That's fear. That's power. Use it. I am." She reached down and started unlatching Elsa's belts. "We're down, but I got us close to the building. Can you move?"

Elsa flexed her arms and legs. "Yes. I think so. You're bleeding." She reached up to touch Anna's forehead.

Anna followed her. "It can't be a big cut. Real head wounds bleed like a fountain. I'll be okay. Come on. Your neck is going to hurt, but that'll come later. The doctors can fix you up, too." She reached out a hand. Elsa took it and Anna helped her up.

In the crew compartment, two officers were kneeling over a third. The fourth officer, standing next to them, shook his head. "Hal's not going to make it."

"We can't just leave him here."

"Go," said the man on the ground. Elsa blanched as she saw a pool of blood underneath him, growing ever wider. "Go save the Princess."

"You heard him," said the standing security man, his teeth grinding in frustration. "Alec, stay here with Hal. Don't lose him. Don't leave him."

"Let's go," Anna said to the two officers remaining. "Elsa, you should stay here."

"No," Elsa said. "I'm not leaving my cousin."

"But if you're both killed..."

"If we lose the Keys, there's no kingdom worth returning to," Elsa said. "As Buzz said, there's no promise there isn't a second entanglement capsule plugged in somewhere on Arendelle."

"I guess I can't override a queen. Come on."

The day was still bright and cool as Anna and Elsa left the crippled aerodyne, the security guards sprinting after them. Elsa could feel the energy of the accident in her veins, pushing her, pumping her forward. The building they were near was a kind of bridge filling the narrow valley from side-to-side, four stories tall, with glassed walls and green, growing terraces on the outside. A fluted tower rose up from the middle of the building into the sky, topped with an observation disc. As they ran, they heard a woman scream. It sounded like it came from the tower. "I'm coming, Rapunzel," she gasped as they ran.


A banging sound from the floor caught Flynn's attention. A segment of the rug parted and a trap door flew open. The metallic bulk of Gothel's body heaved itself through the doorway. "There you are!" she said. "Did you think I didn't put stairs in my own tower?"

Flynn scooped up the chip into his hand. Gothel pounded toward them, her hands reaching out for Rapunzel as Flynn ducked out of her way. The machine leaned over the princess. "Enough with the games, Rapunzel. Now you're going to give me the Keys."

"Hey!" Flynn said. "Hey, Mother!"

Gothel's head turned. "What do you want, Flynn?"

Flynn held the bloody chip out between his fingers. "Leave her alone! This is what you want, isn't it?"

Gothel looked down at Rapunzel, who was still lying on the floor next to the couch, holding her hand, whimpering. "No!" she said.

"Yes! Come and get them, you monster."

"So I'm a monster now? Fine." Gothel's whole body pivoted toward him, stalking across the floor. "Now I'm a monster." It reached for his left hand.

With his right he thumbed the safety cap off the grenade. "Good. Because monsters rot in hell," he said. He jammed it up against her shoulder and pushed the trigger.

Gothel didn't even scream. The robot body just collapsed in front of him, falling over like a store mannequin.

His human and ordinary brain was, like every brain, an electrochemical miracle. The electromagnetic pulse momentarily disrupted the electrical part, giving him a blinding flash and a tingling numbness throughout his body. It didn't matter; his artificial heart was dependent upon the kinds of electronics the EMP grenade was designed to disrupt. Even as his vision cleared he was already experiencing the panic that comes with a lack of blood flow. He was dying. Technically, I might already be dead. He had one last look at Rapunzel, staring at him across the room, running toward him. "Eugene!" And then there was nothing.


Every door in the facility was wide open. Anna ran as if she knew where she was going, and maybe she did. Elsa followed her, her heart pounding in her chest, her body on fire. Anna led them to the center of the building, found an open door with stairs going up. "This way!" she shouted. "I hope." They went up.

She had no idea how Anna kept moving. Her heart must be on the verge of exploding, but they kept going, floor after floor, the security guards fighting to keep up with Anna's relentless, fury-driven strength. Anna vaulted through the trap door, the guards next, Elsa last.

Gothel lay on the ground, unmoving. Rapunzel lay over Flynn's body, crying. "No, Eugene, no. Why?"

"What happened?"

"Eugene... Flynn, he had an EMP thing with him. He let Gothel grab him and then set it off. His heart..."

A wave of anguish hit Elsa. She reached down to touch Rapunzel... and felt something. "Can you save him?"

"I could, if I had my Keys!" Rapunzel held up her hand. "We had to destroy it to keep it away from... her."

Elsa swallowed at the still-bleeding gash on the back of her cousin's hand.. "You cut the Keys out? I... I don't know if I could do that." She knelt next to her cousin, put her hand on Rapunzel's back. "I'm so sorry... what?" Rapunzel's hair had begun to glow. Elsa felt feedback through her hands, unfamiliar telemetry that was soon eagerly incorporating authorized protocols. It felt much like the interface she'd had with the aerodyne. Permission.

"Your Keys," Rapunzel said. "It's responding to your Keys! You can save him!"

"But... how?"

"Tell it, you want to find his heart. Think about the direction you want it to go, and move it." Elsa nodded. She could feel something in her hands, something weird and alien as the hair wriggled then plunged toward Flynn's body. Each strand became needle-sharp at the tip and slipped into his flesh, going deeper. Rapunzel leaned down toward the body. "Find his heart. Give it power. Give... Please, Elsa!"

"I'm trying! I've never done anything like this!"

"The hair has some AI. Let it. Just, just tell it. Before it's too late."

"Live," Elsa whispered. She clenched her fist in Rapunzel's hair. The loose strands dug into Flynn's body, found metal, invaded it. Elsa hated the cybernetic mind's eye of Anton's Curse, but the list of options included "Attempt restart" and "Emergency power." "Emergency power," she whispered.

The hair surged; the glow faded, but Flynn body jerked and took a deep breath. He groaned hard, and his eyes opened. He looked up at the shocked faces around him. "Oh, Eugene!"

"Your hair," he said, touching his chest. "How are you doing this? It's, but, your Keys--"

"Elsa's here. Her Keys are doing it."

"Oh," he said. "Not much power in that hair. I don't feel right."

"Don't move," Anna said. "You, officer, go find us a way home. Find us communication. Get an ambulance with cardiac support, possibly heart/lung, and a full security detail immediately. You," she said to the other man as she walked toward Gothel's body, "I want you to shoot that glass out, and then you and I are going to heave this machine over the side. Got it?"

"Yes, Ma'am," the man said.

The command steel in Anna's voice made Elsa smile. I could so love you. Flynn coughed, and Elsa turned her attention back to keeping him alive even as bullets broke through a pane of safety glass. The glass was tough; bullets weakened its matrix but Anna and the squad man had to kick it out with their boots. Elsa barely heard the thud of Gothel's steel body hitting the grass far, far below.

Minutes later, Calhoun and a squad of security men burst through the trapdoor. Anna converted them all into a rescue team on the spot. "Felix!" she said. "I'm glad to see you. I need a read on how much power Rapunzel's hair has left, and if you can rig up an alternative power source."

"Will do, Ma'am!" Felix said, fumbling about with the tool on his wrist. "I wish I had a real multimeter."

"Jacket... pocket..." Flynn gasped. Felix found it.

"Ma,am, I can't raise anything," said the officer she'd tasked with finding them a way home.

"Then we have to go. Is your aerodyne functional, Captain Calhoun?"

"Yes, Captain DuVar."

"Then let's go. You two, hospital carry the wounded man. Those two women are both his life support, and their range is the length of the Princess's hair. Got it?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

Flynn, Rapunzel, and Elsa all had to be moved down the stairs as one. It was an awkward maneuver, but they eventually got out to the working aerodyne. Calhoun took the pilot's seat, Anna the co-pilot's. "Our life support's shot, so we're going in low and fast. This ain't no rowboat on a placid lake," Calhoun shouted. "Hold on tight!"

As a royal security vehicle, the aerodyne was equipped with twin fold-out medical bays including stretchers. Flynn lay on one, Rapunzel holding onto him, Elsa holding onto Rapunzel, a guard firmly behind both to make sure they didn't lose contact. Felix stood nearby, the closest thing they had to a doctor.

There was a body in the other stretcher, the cloth covering the face. Hal hadn't made it.

The aerodyne powered up and clawed its way into the sky

Chapter Text

"Ouch," Anna said as Dr. Whelan ran the scanner over her forehead. "I'm fine, Izik."

Chief Medical Officer Commander Izik Whelan gave her a critical eye. "Captain, You've got a half-healed heart transplant after being shot in the back with a large-caliber handgun. You then go into combat in a aircraft you don't know how to fly, which you manage to get shot down, and then you run into a building secured by an unknown enemy. You're lucky I'm not ordering you back into the hospital." He regarded the scanner. "But you don't seem to have a concussion." He returned the device to its case on the wheeled tray next to the infirmary bed on which she sat.

Anna looked up at him, carefully tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear and out of her face. "Then I'm fine, right?"

"No, you are not 'fine.' Your cortisol levers are absolutely through the roof. You've still pushed yourself too hard." He handed her a small plastic cup with pills in it. "I know you won't take opiates, Captain, but for God's sake will you at least accept some anti-inflammatories and get some sleep?"

"Yes, doctor," she said sheepishly, accepting the smaller cup. He handed her a water bottle as well and she downed the pills under his watchful eye. She hated having to take medicine in any form; it made her feel weak and not entirely herself. When she'd had Olaf...

She sighed. When she'd had Olaf, she hadn't needed sleeping pills. Or reminders from her stress management classes.

Outside the infirmary bedroom the roar of aerodynes coming and going rocked the Summer Palace almost constantly as security details poured into the security zone, obstensibly to take both Gothel's body and the Crew Quarters apart piece by piece and ensure there were no spoilsport plans in place. Anna had no idea where they'd taken Elsa, Rapunzel or Flynn. "Can I go?"

"If you go back to your room and go right to bed, yes."

Admiral Becker's voice interrupted her response. "I'm afraid that may not be possible."

Anna started to get up to salute, but he waved her to sit back down on the hospital bed. "Sit, Captain. You've had a hard day. And I'm afraid it's not going to get any easier."

"Sir?"

He paused, softly rapping his knuckles gently on the plastic countertop of the washbasin stand. "Did you have a chance to read the documents I'd sent with your Chief Engineer, Captain?"

Anna shook her head. "No, sir. He arrived just in time for lunch. I had... plans after that. They weren't marked urgent, so I put them off until my afternoon appointment was ended."

"Understandable. I suppose I should have marked them urgent. Captain, you've been recalled."

"Sir?" Anna winced at the dismay in her own voice. She was more professional than that. She should have known this was coming.

"It wasn't my choice. But the Lords of Admiralty, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that you are to take Winterkiss and return to Manticore immediately for an assessment of your injuries."

Anna froze momentarily, then turned her head away. Tears came to her eyes. "They'll take her away from me, Sir."

"Unfortunately, I believe you're right. You don't deserve it, Captain, and I have included a letter of protest in my response, but the orders I've received do not give me much leeway."

Anna sighed. "I understand, sir. I take it the orders are upon receipt?"

"Yes, Captain, they are."

"May I... Do I have time to say goodbye?"

"Have you opened the attache I sent you?"

Anna smiled grimly. "I left it in my room."

"In all the excitement today, I think it's understandable if you don't get around to opening it for a day or two. And I'll probably forget to mention it while you're under assessment for your injuries. You didn't hear any of that, did you, Izik?"

Doctor Whelan briefly stuck a finger in his ear and dramatically scratched at it. "Sorry, sir, I'm sometimes selectively hard of hearing. Were you saying something?"

"Nothing important, Izik. Nothing important."

Dr. Whelan nodded. "Admiral, the captain needs rest. I recommend she spend the night here for observation. If she's fit to travel, in the morning she should return to the Palace at Corona. Our hosts can gather her luggage and deliver them to her steward there."

"Good thinking, Doctor."

"And I mean it, Captain," Dr. Whelan said firmly. "You need rest. If you need to stay away from your room for... personal reasons, you're still going to sleep until you've rebuilt your energy levels. Clear?"

Anna sighed. "Clear, Doctor." Calling him by his title rather than his rank was a clear indication she was willing to take his orders. She outranked him, but a good doctor could sideline a particularly stubborn captain if he thought he could justify it as good for the ship. She lay down on the bed, unwilling to admit that she was exhausted. She wasn't sure when they turned out the lights.


Elsa had been able to close her eyes but not her ears. Or her nose. She had needed her hands to keep steady against Rapunzel's back as she provided sentience to her cousin's cybernetic hair. The cartoonish unreality presented to her cybernetic vision showing her what Rapunzel's hair had been doing inside Doctor Fitzhubert's body had been replaced in her other senses by the horrific reality of the operating room. The smell of open-heart surgery had battered at her, along with the dozen or so sounds that kept the surgeon informed of the patient's condition: the hiss of the suction tube, the buzz of the bone saw, the whir of the robots doing the actual cutting and sewing, and over it all the doctor's low murmur of conversation with his staff.

She stared blankly at the wall of the Royal Hospital's high security waiting room now. The horror of the day, the betrayal of The Mother, what she had had to do to save poor Doctor Fitzhubert, the madness of her rush to save them. She put her head into her hands and sobbed, quietly.

The doctor who had examined her had found no lasting injuries, but Elsa didn't believe him. She was broken inside. Still broken, forever broken. Inadequate. The Eight Day Queen was half right: she was an imposter, not because she wasn't a descendent of Anton The First, but because she would never ascend to the confidence and assurance a queen truly needed. Olaf, clearly concerned with the direction of his person's thinking, padded over and touched her thigh with his hand, asking for her lap. Elsa picked him up and wrapped her arms protectively around him, but she didn't know if she was protecting him from her or using him as a shield to protect herself.

"Niece." She heard a deep, rumbling voice above her.

"Uncle John," she said, starting to stand. Olaf clung tight in her arms.

"Sit, sit." She did, grateful. She didn't know if she could stand reliably for much longer. "You look exhausted, Elsa."

Elsa sighed. "I am. I have no idea how Calhoun just keeps moving in these circumstances. Or Anna."

"When the moment is right, we all find the reserves we need. Or, we die." John, Elsa had learned, did not have a sense of humor. He had a sense of joy, which was an entirely different thing.

"And Flynn? Did he find his reserves?"

"He did. I understand my daughter is calling him Eugene, which is his Christian name. 'Flynn' is a patronymic of some kind." Elsa nodded. "In any event, I have already written out a full pardon for his assault on my daughter."

"He saved her life, John!"

"I know," he said, chuckling deeply. "But he did draw the Princess's blood while doing so, so... there must be a trial. Or a pardon. I provided the latter, as well as the King's Voice that he be provided every medical necessity. They are both-- you are all-- heroes today."

"Except that one man."

"Halford Ianthina was a hero. He will be givin a hero's funeral."

"Just like Bradon."

"Yes. You were brave today, niece."

"I was lucky," Elsa said fiercely. "I was lucky to be at the right place, with the right set of Keys, to get that aerodyne in motion. I was lucky to have someone as strong-willed and capable as Anna with me. I was lucky to arrive after Flynn-- I mean Eugene-- had done the hard part already." She sagged back into her chair. "I cannot rely on luck to be a good queen, John, and yet it feels like it's all I ever have."

"Hmmm," John said. "Elsa, you have had more than luck. You have tradition, authority, and training. Training no one else has. Every one of your dukes probably envies you your throne, but if they knew you well they would not envy your inbox."

Elsa laughed darkly. "That's true. But I'm not up to being the queen. Not when the crisis hits."

"You were today!"

"I..." Elsa ddn't want to admit that the alternative would have been showing her weakness in front of Anna. Again. This time the crisis hadn't been about her, hadn't been an attack on her. Elsa had ridden to the rescue of someone else. That was as it should have been. Good rulers lived to serve their people and, when the necessary time came, to ride to the rescue.

"Elsa," he said gently. "We must learn from the Manticorans how to live without the Keys." Elsa's eyes widened as he held out to her one of her deepest wishes. He held up his hand, showing Elsa the same kinds of gloves, only on much bigger hands, as she and Rapunzel wore. "The Keys dehumanize us. You and me. And Rapunzel. They separate us from our subjects. They separate me from my wife. They were an inhuman solution to an inhuman situation, but we must not allow that inhumanity in our past to continue to poison our position with respect to our people." He gestured toward the door. "They need to know that there is no absolute power, corrupting absolutely. Or, as we saw today, failing absolutely. There must be men and women of good quality capable of taking the reins if you or I cannot. People like your Captain DuVar, your Eugene Fitzhubert. Calhoun. Citron. People who have dedication, training, and the moral fiber to do good."

Elsa stood suddenly, unable to stay still any longer. She paced the floor nervously. "When do we start?"

"We start immediately. But this is a many-years process, Elsa. I have spoken in depth with Ambassador Hellenola, and you must join us. We must send our own scholars and ambassadors to Manticore, and to Earth, and to every other nation that will allow us to study their means and their methods, and we must learn how to create a government balanced between the civilian and the military, the courts and the Keys. You and I must be the ultimate power, but we must devolve the day-to-day decisions over everything to a working executive government. We will need advisors, and we will need people we can trust to help us find them."

Elsa stopped. "I think I know where I can find one."

"Yes, I think you do." Elsa gave him a surprised look. "It would be a very baroque plot indeed if the treecats were well-trained animals to lull us into a sense of security. Olaf is a bright fellow, in his own way. If you trust him--"

"I really don't believe I have a choice."

"So I've read. If you trust him, Elsa, he will be a good guide to start."

Elsa grinned. It hadn't been Olaf who had first come to mind.


"Unh. Boy, it's bright in here."

"Eugene!" Rapunzel hovered over him, taking his hand and holding it. It was still too cold for her comfort. "Eugene, are you there?"

"Hey, Rapunzel," he said. "I'm still here." He tried to move his shoulders, found that they were belted down. "External heart machine again, huh?" He let his muscles relax, sagging back against the life support bed. "I don't suppose they have another spare for me."

"They do," Rapunzel said. "They're tissue typing it right now."

"Oh, good. A real one this time, huh?"

"My father said you get the best of everything."

"I bet the best of hospital food is still terrible."

Rapunzel half-laughed, half-sobbed. "I thought, for a moment-- Eugene."

"Hey," he said. "Don't cry. But... what happened to your hair?"

"Oh." Rapunzel reached to brush back the medium-brown sheaf of what was left of her hair. "They had to cut it. And remove all the rest. Since we know that Gothel was using it to snoop on my telemetry, we didn't know what other surprises might be in there. Father thought it would be safer if we just stripped it out."

He nodded. "He's a smart guy. And... I think I prefer you as a brunette."

Rapunzel giggled. "Then you'd better get used to it, Eugene Fitzhubert."

"Gonna keep me around?"

"As long as you'll stay."

He nodded. "That might be a while."

"We have all the time in the world."


"You're leaving?" Elsa said as Anna told her the news. Anna braced herself against the table and she would not meet Elsa's eyes.

"I have to. My Queen has ordered me back."

"But you can't just leave me. We... we just started, Anna."

"And until I get settled with my Navy, Elsa, we'll just have to put everything on hold. Here." She turned her attention. "And you, Snowball. Will you be okay while I'm gone?"

Olaf gave her a salute, then ran to her and clambered up her uniform until he was perched on her shoulder. Anna seemed to recognize the gesture and held her arms in a loop in front of her. He fell into it easily, in a position where he could sign to her. "I love you."

"I love you too," she said.

He signed, "We will be fine. You must care for you."

"I will. Are you going to teach her sign?"

He nodded, then squirmed to drop.

"Just like this?" Elsa said.

"It's what has to happen. Afterward-- we can see. Things will change." Elsa's lips trembled. Anna wanted to kiss those lips, to tell the Navy to go drop down a black hole, but she was too good a woman, and too good a sailor, to betray her history like that. "Elsa, we will make things change." Anna glanced around the brightly lit tea-room. "I have to go. They say the reward for a job well done is a harder job. I wonder what they'll give me for this?"

"If it were up to me, I'd give you an entire world of your own."

Anna snorted. "And I'd probably run it into the ground, just like my career."

Elsa stepped up to stand before her. "May I?"

Anna nodded. In a sad voice she said, "You may." Elsa hugged her. Anna returned the embrace with fervor. "Take care of Doctor Fitzhubert for me, huh? He's a good man."

"Yes, he is," Elsa said.

"Goodbye, Queen."

"Goodbye, Captain." Elsa watched as Anna walked off the balcony and back into the palace. The doors closed behind her with the smallest of clicks.

"There goes a brave woman who doesn't deserve what her kingdom is about to do to her."

Elsa glanced up. Calhoun never offered her opinion on matters of state. Elsa said, "When she first arrived, I told her that I valued her friendship. If she were my friend, it would be because we had something in common, not because I was a queen. She was precious to me because she was the one person I could really lose. She could leave."

Calhoun spent almost a minute forming a response. "Well, then. We'll just have to figure out how to get her back, won't we? Among all the politicking."

Elsa nodded. "Yes, we do. I don't know how yet. But yes, we will."

Chapter Text

"Anna! Breakfast is ready!"

Anna groaned as she pushed herself up, smacking her tongue against the persistently awful taste in her mouth. "I'm awake, I'm awake," she said to no one in particular. Up the stairs and down the hall, the strains of a symphony reached her ears. Anna sighed. Dear God, her father was listening to Hammerwell again. Hammerwell may have been Sphinx's most famous composer, but Anna had never enjoyed all that "vast emptiness of winter" emphasized with minor key woodwinds and generous helpings of synthesizers.

Anna rolled out of bed. Whoever had invented mornings needed to be tied upon the captain's mast and thrashed to within inches of their lives. The only thing that made mornings in Iron Fjord humanly possible was the invention of hot cocoa. She might even enjoy a little coffee in it. She sighed and went down to the family dining room.

"Good morning, Dad." Her father looked tired but that wasn't unusual. He took the duties of his Earldom seriously and was often out late into the night. As she looked around the slate-floored room with its Sphinxian cherrywood table and chairs, the display pantry with its rare Terran crystal, she wondered if she would ever feel the same way he did. She loved Iron Fjord with all her heart, but she didn't feel it the way her father seem to.

He smiled at her, broad with welcome. "Good morning, Anna. Sleep well?"

She shrugged. "Back to being a surly fifteen year-old, I see," he said. She shrugged again. One of the staff, a new person she didn't recognize, brought out a plate with one large waffle on it, topped with strawberries and whipped cream. On the side was a hard-boiled egg, a concession to morning protein. The waffle was fluffy all the way through and she appreciated her father's chef yet again. He was far better than even the chefs on board her last starship. She frowned. Food like this couldn't begin to tempt her away from wishing she were on a starship deck again.

"Anna, I think it's time we discussed your future. The navy has beached you, and you need to accept that this time it looks to be permanent. Four months is more than enough time for you to realize this and start to plan on what to do with the rest of your life." Her father always had a knack for reading her mind.

Anna scowled, holding back the deep depression that his words welled up inside her. "It hasn't been four months."

"It has. You got back in late March, and it is now August. Both your mother and your brother's birthdays have gone by, and yours is coming up soon. Hans's ship is in port and you haven't even tried to contact him. You must stop pining over your career, Anna."

"It's not just my career, Dad!" Anna said hotly. "I mean, sure, that hurts, but..."

"I'm sorry you lost Olaf." He reached out across the table, offering his hand. Anna took it. "And I'm very glad you didn't get killed. I knew every time I let you go out that was a risk we were both taking. Unlike certain nobility that somehow or other achieved the rank of Captain, you performed your duty to Queen and Country with bravery and skill, Anna, and you earned that stripe and every medal. I have the deepest respect for that. But you have to move forward."

"I will. I promise." It had not been Olaf that had been topmost of Anna's mind.

"Then you'll contact Hans and move forward with that arrangement?"

Anna puttered with her fork in the lake of maple syrup she'd poured under the waffle. "I guess. Hey, where is Rolf these days?"

"Your brother is currently at the Manticore Colonial Institute." Anna furrowed her brow, unable to recall if the MCI was positive or negative on the recent wave of kingdom acquisitions. It would probably be positive, knowing Rolf. Like most of his family, Rolf was a crown loyalist of a fairly progressive flavor: in favor of change if it enriched Manticore and didn't threaten the authority of the Crown.

"But your brother is well-ensconced with his career, his wife and his child, Anna. You need to settle down as well. You're the eldest, and it's time, and Captain Westergaard is a fine catch for any earl's daughter. I'd be proud of you both."

Anna sighed. They'd had this conversation several times since... She sighed. "Father."

"Forward, Anna," he said firmly. "Take whatever romantic notions you have about what life should be and put them aside. It's time you took up your duties again. Your are the Countess Heir of Iron Fjord. You survived your injuries because you have a strong will and a loyalty to duty." He squeezed her hand. "And you're famous. You navigated a new wormhole and found an isolated kingdom with enormous economic potential. You should enjoy it, and bank on it."

"I will," she said. "I promise."

"Good," he said, putting his hands down on the table. "In that case, I have a surprise for you. I've invited Hans to lunch today at The Club."

"You what?" Anna said.

"You don't sound pleased."

"You said it was a surprise. Well, I'm surprised," Anna said. Hans, coming here. What was she going to do? She wasn't ready to answer him. She wasn't even ready to talk to him. "I didn't know."

"Well," he said, "You do now. You should get ready. It's Saturday. I figured I'd take you both out."

Anna fumed as she returned to her bedroom after dinner. It wasn't fair. Dad was fond of repeating that life wasn't fair. Life was pain, and anyone who said otherwise was selling something. Anna had had enough pain.

She hesitated in front of the mirror before unbuttoning the shirt on her nightclothes. The soft flannel parted to reveal the still-prominent scars on her chest. She'd flatly refused to let BuMed do anything about them. A brief procedure with a mild irritant to "reset" her skin and then twin doses of both topical and sub-dermal Regen and her skin would be completely healed. The doctor had insisted it would only feel warm and itchy; a look on-line had told her that it could be downright painful but it wasn't the threat of pain that stopped her. That broad circle between her breasts laying on her honey-colored skin in a web of white scars laid by some meth-addled spider stayed to remind her of what she had lost.

"Everything," she sighed. Career. Treecat. Respect. Love.

Love especially.

Traffic between Manticore and the Gothel systems was on track to match that to Talbott or San Martin. She noted wryly that they'd kept the name. News about Elsa had become her one minor obsession, and she'd continued to read the screamstreams daily, tracking the economic and political maneuverings.

Flynn had been right and Anna had been wrong. Economically, Arendelle and Corona were small players in the scheme of all things Manticore; pocket kingdoms at the far-flung edges of human space. But they were kingdoms with vast potential as launching platforms for the exploration of an entire new sector of the galaxy, they had their own innovations in material and medical sciences that Manticore lacked, and they had economic policies of material extraction and development that had allowed them to tool up to be a starfaring civilization almost as soon as they'd discovered gravitic technologies.

And yet, in all these months there had been not one letter, not one note. Anna had sent Elsa one letter and received no reply. She had imagined sending one a day, but that was impossible, as if someone might just send a flurry of missives to the Queen of Manticore that wouldn't be intercepted by some secretary and round-filed, another batch of crazed letters from yet another love-sick obsessive who needed to be placed on a watch list, not granted an audience.

Audience. Anna frowned again as she dressed. That had been no audience. As she pulled a blouse across her back, the silky fabric felt just like Elsa's skin, only cooler and less reactive. Anna grimaced. She was a starship captain. She had been trained in how to remember the important things, how to recognize when desire was rewriting memory.

Elsa's skin was one of the important things. Elsa's voice. Her smell. Anna closed her eyes and held on to the smell of skin, of snow, of an aroused woman with skin the color inside a pear and pubic hair as soft and fluffy as... as a certain treecat.

Dammit, Elsa and Olaf deserved each other.

She could spend the entire day just watching the networks. She'd done it for weeks now, just watching the networks, avoiding her message queue, ignoring her friends. If she didn't see her friends, well, she could always tell Hans she wasn't seeing anyone. Post-treecat depression. Or something.

She settled down into her favorite comfy chair and picked up her slate. She could have watched on the big screen in the family sitting room. She could have pulled it up on the home theater in the basement. But most of what she was wanted involved reading rather than watching. Her newsfeed bobbled onto the screen. She quickly swept away the various doings and announcements of the Navy, of the Sphinx nobility, until finally she dropped down to the open-search headlines with the keywords "Corona," "Arendelle," "Queen Elsa," or "Gothel."

The top headline immediately caught her attention. "Queen Elsa of Arendelle to meet with Queen Elizabeth." Anna nearly broke the screen stabbing it with her finger to bring up the article.


Sources within the Palace say that Queen Elsa of Arendelle and Princess Rapunzel of Corona will be visiting Manticore sometime in the following week. A private ceremony at the Palace will be held next Monday, followed by a state dinner and reception.

Anna groaned. Elsa was here. Well, not here. Manticore. Sphinx was a little off the beaten path. There was a reason the Navy put its test-beds way out this way, far from the prying eyes of interstellar merchant shipping. Only Manticoran-flagged vessels were allowed to ply the routes between Manticore, Sphinx, and Gryphon.

She could go to Manticore. She wondered if there would be a point.

When her father gathered her near noontime, she had wound herself into a fundamentally deep funk. "Anna, it's time to go." She looked up at him and gave him her best sullen glare. "Oh, no you don't. You're a grown woman, you're a starship captain. You don't get to go back to being a surly teenager on me."

"Fine," she said, pushing herself out of her chair. "Let's go." The Earl of Iron Fjord shook his head. Anna, the Heir of Iron Fjord, didn't push him. She put on a brown leather jacket and low-heeled boots.

"The Club" was an exclusive country club and fitness facility for the wealthy denizens of Iron Fjord, of which there were plenty. Iron Fjord's mountains were rich with mineral and lumber. Automated recovery of both had made dozens of its citizens wealthy and thousands more comfortable. The comfortable ones sometimes mortgaged their childrens' futures for memberships at the Club just so they could rub elbows and possibly close deals with the wealthy, to claw their way one further step up the ladder of class.

Anna would never have set foot in the place if its restaurant's food didn't fill her with a deep and abiding nostalgia for a better time when her mother and father had been together, when she had learned the joys of soda pop and the best club sandwich on three planets and even learned to appreciate the crisp pickles that filled the ice-jacketed stainless steel buckets at each table. Broad windows looked eastward onto fields that in Sphinx's long, hot summers became one of the most demanding golf courses in all of the Manticore Binary System; those same courses became the bunny slopes and landing fields for Iron Fjord's ski resorts.

Hans was sitting at one of the tables. He rose, perfect in his posture, perfect in his white House uniform, perfect in his closely shaved muttonchops and precisely formed hair. Anna and her father approached and he bowed. "Earl Iron Fjord. Captain Lady Anna."

"Hans," she said, knowing fully what was expected of her. "Come here." He smiled and gave her a hug, and if he felt the stiffness in her embrace his own was warm and unstinting. He must have practiced.

"Have you ordered?" her father said.

"I only just got here," Hans said. "The menu doesn't look difficult."

"No," her father said. "It isn't."

"Are you in-system long, Hans?" Anna said.

"A few weeks. Minor retrofit. I had a beta node go weird on me in that way that makes everyone nervous. Especially with the new Grayson compensators." Anna grimaced. Inertial compensators were the defining technology of modern, high-acceleration gravitics; a failed compensator meant the entire crew of a starship would wind up a thin pink paste splattered across the rear bulkheads. Nobody wanted to make a mistake with one. "Ah, it'll be okay. Rune will be back in service in no time." He grinned. "And it gives me time to pursue you." Anna laughed. "I see I still have the magic."

"Yes," she said. "You always could make me laugh." Her face fell.

"What?"

"That's just it, Hans. That's... " She slowly raised her eyes to meet his. "When I was on my last mission, I didn't miss you." Hans's face darkened, and Anna braced herself. She moved to explain. "I was too busy with other things. The discovery of Arendelle, and then my damaged ship, and then getting shot. Losing Olaf." She sighed, but then her smiled flourished. "Rescuing the princess, who didn't need nearly as much rescuing as her hero." She blushed softly as she remembered the one event in the middle there she hadn't said out loud.

"Well, of course you wouldn't have much time to think about anything that was going on back home," Hans said. "You're not supposed to." A waiter came and took their orders. Anna ordered her favorite club sandwich, as did Hans. Her father had the soup of the day.

They made political small talk. Hans pointed out several other people among Iron Fjord's elite in the restaurant, making snide comments to show his knowledge of local politics was current and prodigious. He seemed to take exceptionally grim delight in the recent scandal involving a local lumber magnate who'd been caught keeping an underage lover. Anna didn't think the matter was funny. "It's a scandal, Anna. And right now, with not one but two sex scandals in the House of Lords, any small local scandals are giving the newsies plenty to talk about."

"Two?" Anna didn't keep up on politics as much as she should have. At least not local politics.

"At its heart, the genetic slavery thing is a sex scandal, Anna. And now there are accusations that the head of Home Security was shielding several Lords who were known to be abusing young orphan boys and girls for years and years years." Hans shook his head. "Power is so corrupting."

Anna didn't comment. Her father's expression was grim and withdrawn. Anna pushed her plate aside. "Tell me, Hans, do you think of me when you've taken your ship out?"

"Of course I do!" Hans said. "But a routine patrol in Silesia isn't anything like a once-in-a-lifetime exploration of a new wormhole, Anna. I understand completely."

"You do?"

"Yes!" he insisted. He reached across the table and took her hand so quickly she didn't have time to react, or assent. "We can make this work, Anna. We can. We'll make a great couple, the Countess Iron Fjord and her Summerisle consort. This earldom will be perfect." He settled back against his chair.

Her father nodded. "I concur. This is in the best interest of Iron Fjord."

Anna sighed. They were right. There was no bright future with a certain blonde-haired queen, no going back to the life she'd led with the deck of a starship under her feet. Not as long as she was without her treecat, without her crew, without her navy's confidence. "Okay. I'll put the ring on when I get home."

"That's it?" her father said.

"Yes," she said, looking up. "Do you want me to be happy? Fine." Anna grinned, her face taking on an almost painful rictus. "We'll make a fine and powerful couple for Iron Fjord, Hans. It's the right thing to do."

"You don't seem happy. I want you to be happy!" Hans said.

"I will be," Anna said. "Someday. But I need some time. Time to mourn the woman I used to be."

Her father grimaced. "'When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; when I became an adult, I put away the childish thing.'" He always resorted to the Good Book when he needed a final way to persuade her. She had found comfort in those passages, but her father knew how to turn any parable into a red hot poker with which to hurry her decisions along.

"I know, Dad. I know," she groused. She had been-- no, she was-- a starship captain, Mistress after God and her Queen before her crew. To call her to a child was blindingly unfair, and yet his needling was also alarmingly effective. "Forward."

"Exactly so." Her father paid the bill and the three of them stepped out into the late, long Sphinxian spring. It was still cool this far north. Anna glanced back at the rising ridge of snow-capped mountains that defined the geography of her youth. "When I was a child..." she sighed. She looked up at those places where she'd frolicked as a kid, tested herself as a teenager, and escaped to as a young adult. Those mountains where she'd met Olaf, and that day when she'd felt him in her heart. Her old heart. She smiled briefly, and wondered where she'd misplaced the love she had once felt. The heart, with its powerful beating, was a metaphor for feelings and emotions that started deep within her whole body, and ended... where? She was still bad at metaphor. "When I was a child."

His father waved his hand at a valet who took the information from his pocketcomm and went to fetch the car. The two men talked in low, professional tones about the business prospects of a merger between the two entailments. Anna stood apart from them and took the opportunity to just stand and breathe.

The purring of a powerful hydrogen motor caught her attention. Anna looked up to see a woman in tight-fitting riding armor drive a motorcycle into the covered carport. The armor was strangely familiar, its dark green coloration and the tessellated plates delineating the long, muscular curves of the rider. Anna's heart thudded in her chest as the woman turned toward her and took off the helmet.

"Cap..." Anna started to blurt, but the woman put a finger to her own lips in a 'shushing' gesture.

"Well, Anna," she said with a casual purr. "You look good."

"Tamora?" she said, first name basis and all. "Wow, it's great to see you too. It's been too long. You look good!"

"Have you got time?"

"I don't have anything calendared," Anna said, smiling so hard it made her mouth hurt.

"Would you like a ride?" Anna hadn't known this woman could do sultry. She did sultry very well. Those heavy eyes, that blond hair. It wasn't fair for a straight woman to wear her hair that way.

"That would be lovely." Anna accepted the helmet she held out. Before either of the men could react Anna had straddled the back of the motorcycle.

"Anna!" her father called. "Who is that?"

"Dad, this is my friend, Tamora."

"What are you doing?"

"She's kidnapping me! What does it look like?" Anna could feel Captain Tamora Jean Calhoun's body convulse in a snort. "Unless I get a better offer, I'll be back before dinner!" She laughed like a loon as she pulled on the helmet, and the laughter turned into a delighted whoop as Calhoun gunned the engine and they shot out of the driveway, leaving Hans and her father to gawk at their hasty exit.

Chapter Text

Elsa jumped slightly when she heard the lock on the hotel door clack. She watched the door open to reveal the tall, blonde form of Captain Calhoun and the short, inescapably lovely shape of... "Anna!" She ran to the other woman, grabbed her, held her. Without even asking. "Oh, god, Anna, I've been waiting to see you! Why didn't you write me? Why didn't I hear from you? I sent you all those letters."

"Elsa, Elsa..." Anna's hands gripped back, but Elsa could feel tension and insecurity in Anna's strong arms. "You dyed your hair?"

Elsa pushed back so she could watch Anna's face. "Calhoun said it would be a good idea."

"But all the way black? Wow, that's dramatic! But, Elsa, I did write you."

"You did?"

"Yes," Anna said, nodding, her eyes wide with excitement. "Just once. I mean, I thought about sending you a lot of letters, every week or maybe even every day! But I didn't want your secretary to think I was some kind of crazy obsessive person."

"Anna, you could never be-- well, you're not a crazy obsessive person. You're my friend, and the savior of Arendelle, and the woman who came to Rapunzel's rescue when no one else could, and... " Elsa blushed.

"Ladies," Calhoun growled. "Whatever you're about to say to each other next, you should probably go inside and close the door before it gets said."

"Oh!" Anna said. "Right." Elsa nodded and pulled Anna into the hotel room. The door closed, leaving them alone. Anna looked up at her and said, "And ... ?"

She reached out a hand for Anna's jacket, but stopped short. "May I?" Anna's eyes widened, and she nodded. Elsa grabbed the lapel, pulled the other woman close. "My first and only lover." She kissed Anna.

The great dam of frustration in Elsa's heart burst forth in a torrent of kisses and whimpers and a surge of desire that welled up from that warm, liquid secret heart into her chest and down her arms, into her eyes, pushing out tears even as her mouth crushed against Anna's and their tongues met in the first passionate taste they'd had of each other in months.

She felt Anna relax against her, then tense, then... "Elsa. Elsa!"

"Anna?"

"I... "

"What is it?"

Anna swallowed, then looked down at the floor, trying not to meet Elsa's eyes. "When Calhoun picked me up, I'd just promised Hans... " Her shoulders sagged. "I'd just promised Hans that I'd put the ring on when I got home."

"Oh. I see." Elsa grinned. "Have you been home yet?"

"Well, no... " Anna giggled. "A certain dangerously blond woman kidnapped me and took me to her even more sinister not-currently-blond queen." Her face turned serious. "But I can't let a technicality like this..." She looked up. "Can I say something crazy?"

"You may," Elsa said.

Anna smiled. "All my life has been a single rut. That's the problem with honor. Once you've decided you're going to live your life with honor, the only choice you have is to pick the most honorable path or make a mistake. It was honorable to serve my queen. It was honorable to do so well I became a starship captain. It was honorable to rescue the Peeps at Second Basilisk. It was honorable to jump at a wormhole mission. It was honorable to save my gracious host." Anna's smile widened, and Elsa nodded. "If you live your life responsibly and honorably, they give you more responsibility, and more, and more, until you're suffocating in it." Anna sighed. "The next honorable thing on my plate is a boring, stuffy, suffocating marriage to a nice man."

"Anna, surely you don't think all marriage is suffocating." Elsa said. She reached out a hand and led Anna to the bed. They sat down on the edge, together. "Do you?"

"No!" Anna said. "No, I don't. I just... It's not what's in the cards. Not for me. Not a winning Hans, you see."

Elsa smiled, again, at Anna's terrible pun. "Anna," she said, looking into the other woman's face and hoping to meet her eyes. "Anna, I've been thinking a lot about what Gothel said to Rapunzel and Eugene, and... Anna, Gothel wasn't completely wrong. My ancestors did terrible things. They saved the colony, but they destroyed so much in order to save it and cement their power over it, to make Arendelle a constitutional monarchy. The corporatists who sided with Anton were well-rewarded. There's a reason each of the the original fourteen Duchies have a specialty, they were the company towns near specific natural resources. The ones who didn't join him were slaughtered." Elsa looked down at her gloved hands. "We're generations past that now. My parents, and their parents, each saw expansions of the population, the establishment of new duchies, the rising of new solettas. I hope I've been honorable. I've tried to keep my population healthy and happy, fed, sheltered and educated, while making sure that my police and my courts are just." Elsa suddenly giggled.

"What?"

"I just remembered, I had to sign off on the removal of a judge from the Queen's Bench just a few days ago. He..." Elsa giggled, and blushed, remembering. "He was caught wearing a device in his pants that would pleasure him during hearings." Anna's eyes goggled, then she clamped her hands over her mouth. "I'm quite sure it was of Manticoran manufacture, although the technology was easily available to even hobbyist builders on Arendelle. But apparently--" Elsa giggled, unable to contain her mirth-- "Apparently, the reason it came to anyone's attention was because it made this pumping, hissing sound with every cycle."

Anna returned her grin. "A kind of shoonk-hiss, shoonk-hiss, I bet."

Elsa's smile went all the way to her eyes. "Yes! Terrible, thinking about it."

"Terrible." Anna reached out one hand, hesitated until Elsa nodded. then grasped Elsa's fingers in her own. "But I would think he needs counseling, not firing. He's a pervert, but I don't think that qualifies as corruption."

"I wouldn't have thought so, but he was overseeing domestic disturbance cases. Spousal rape. Child abuse. That sort of thing."

"Oh. Eww," Anna said. "Eww. Now that you put that way, that's... Ew! That's very disturbing."

Elsa shrugged. "He may have been a pervert, but he thought his position and his cleverness protected him from censure. He acquired a little power, and it corrupted him. Money and power corrupt, Anna. You have to start by assuming corruption will happen to you, and try to build in reminders, cutouts, and firewalls to protect your honor and your duty. That's why I still go to church. I don't know how much I believe, but I respect its mission to remind me. That why I have Kai and Gerda. That's why I want..." She searched Anna's face. "That's why I want you."

"You want me?"

"Yes, I want you." Elsa blushed. "You have character, and duty, and honor. Those are rare qualities for someone to have consistently." She reached up, her hand trembling, and trailed the back of her fingers along Anna's cheek. "And I thought we connected."

"I thought we did too." She shook herself. "But what will happen to my Earldom if I move to Arendelle? What will happen to my father, or my people?" Elsa's hands clenched in frustration. Anna saw the little fists she made. "What is it?"

"Youthful indiscretion," Elsa said. "The corruption issue. That's the other thing about you that I need, Anna. You need to be able to walk away from me if things get bad. You need to be able to leave."

"But I wouldn't leave. If I did move to Arendelle, if things did get that bad, Elsa, I'd need to do what I could to protect your people from whatever the badness was. That's part of what honor and duty is about. There are always people in power, and there are always people with their hands on the levers and the triggers. Transparency, honor, duty, and presence are necessary to fight back corruption. If you sent me away... You're not going to send me away. But what's this about corruption?"

Elsa smiled. "You deserve so much better than me, Anna. I'm wicked, Part of that's your fault. I suppose I started it. Now that I know what... what you're like, I'm having trouble keeping my hands to myself."

Anna reached out her hands, and Elsa took them. "Then don't." Anna leaned in, and Elsa mirrored her gesture until the two of them met, lips pressing against one another. "God, Elsa, I have missed you."

"You missed me?" Elsa said, gasping. "I don't know how I lasted four months without you, Anna. I swear, it wasn't until I'd met you that I figured out how... how... " She blushed. "How the shower massage really works."

She expected Anna to giggle, but Anna instead closed her eyes and sighed. "Tell me about it."

Elsa was silent. She looked up and said, "Hmm?"

"Tell me about it. How you use your shower." Anna's hand touched Elsa's lips. "With your voice."

Elsa blushed, hesitated. But then she looked up, and Anna's face was open, trusting, interested. "I, um, that is..." She blushed again. "I couldn't stay standing. It didn't work that way. But the hose wasn't long enough. It didn't go all the way, um... so I had to back up and the tub spout was rubbing against my side." She reached over and rubbed her left flank, right below her armpit. "I took the shower head and dialed it all the way down, and played it over my, um..." Anna nodded. "It was too strong directly on my clitoris, so I played around it. I was thinking of you the whole time." She shuddered with the memory, and although she was blushing, she felt a sweetness in her belly where she thought about how she would say more. "While you were gone, I read a lot of stories that were racier. You were right, they don't really show it the way you did, not most of them anyway. I still tried a lot of the acts that seemed, um, reasonable. Possible. I never knew what my body was capable of, what it could do." She lifted her eyes to meet Anna's wondering gaze. "I wished so hard for you to write me. To come back. I wanted your hands--" She grabbed Anna's hand and pulled it toward her breast. Anna went willingly. "Everywhere."

"Everywhere?"

"I'm not afraid anymore." She took a deep breath. "I also never knew what it felt like to say it like that. To just tell someone, to have her listen, to have her know that I needed to be, to be touched. It's amazing, isn't it? When you realize that being sexual isn't strange."

Anna nodded, blushing, then leaned in again. Elsa welcomed her approach, and the two of them fell onto the hotel bed comforter, kisses tumbling out of Elsa, kissing Anna's lips, her cheeks, her earlobe. Anna had taught her all about how sexy ears could be. Elsa's lips nibbled Anna's, and Anna turned out to be just as sensitive, responded just as strong, as the other way around.

Piece by piece, their clothes fell away. Shoes hit the floor with trebly thumps, followed by the silence of socks. Elsa kissed Anna's neck, then one by one she opened the buttons on Anna's blouse, exposing the skin underneath, kissing the space between her breasts, down to her belly, until Anna sat up and shrugged it off, her bra going with it. "There."

"Help me?" Elsa said, turning her back. Anna knelt and unzipped the dress, letting it puddle to the bed around them. Elsa pushed up to ease it off her hips, but as soon as it was down her thighs Anna's hands came around Elsa's back as her lips came down on the back of Elsa's neck. Elsa collapsed into a sit. "Ooh, you tricked me."

"I did," Anna said, her voice a husky murmur of desire. "You said 'everywhere.' You have the most beautiful shoulders, Elsa."

"That's another thing you taught me. Beauty isn't just in faces or boobs or whatever."

"I think we need a repeat lesson." Anna's hands reached around to cup Elsa's breasts as her mouth slipped down Elsa's back.

Elsa's body shuddered and trembled as Anna's lips kissed her waistline, evoking powerful and strangely tickling sensations. "Too much. It... tickles."

"Further down, then," Anna murmured, skipping past the small of Elsa's back until her kisses were right on the top of Elsa's butt. Anna's hands slipped down, too, and then Anna pushed Elsa over until she flopped onto the bed face down.

"Anna!"

"Wow," Anna said. Elsa had no idea what she was admiring, and then Anna kissed Elsa's exposed left cheek directly. "You have an amazing butt, your highness."

"I guess telling you to 'kiss my ass' wouldn't work as an insult, then?"

Anna kissed the other globe, then said, "Elsa don't ever use that as an insult. Your ass is gorgeous. Kissing it is a privilege." She peppered Elsa's butt with a few more kisses, then relented and lay down beside Elsa.

Elsa almost missed Anna's kisses, but then Anna's lips were right in front of her. "It's nice to know I'm appreciated."

"I will always appreciate you, Elsa."

Elsa rolled onto her side to kiss Anna again. She didn't know if she believed Anna when she said something like that. Elsa had read that things said in the bedroom weren't always to be believed. Sometimes, passion pushed words past one's lips that weren't meant completely.

It was past time Elsa took the initiative. She wasn't sure she had the will to kiss all of Anna with quite the same fervor, but there was one thing she had to know. "Let's get the rest of us naked."

Anna tossed off her pants while Elsa peeled her dress the rest of the way down past her knees. She giggled. "I wanted to ask you last time if what we did was normal."

Anna's eyebrows flickered down, then up. "Yes!" she said, crawling toward across the bed to where Elsa sat. "Yes, we haven't done a single abnormal thing." She reached up and kissed Elsa, and Elsa leaned into it, her heart beating loud enough for them both to hear. "Why? Is there something you want that you think is abnormal?"

Elsa shook her head. "I don't think so. I just want... to taste you."

Anna grinned and pushed herself onto the bed, laying down on her back. "Taste away, your highness," she said, gesturing down the length of her body.

"You're terrible," Elsa said. "You make me laugh when I'm trying to be serious." She lay down next to Anna, kissing the other woman's shoulder, kissing the hollow of her collarbones, kissing the rising swell of her breast.

"I told you, this isn't serious. Two of the best feelings in the universe are orgasms and laughter, and I want to give you both, Elsa. Lots and lots of both."

Elsa hovered over Anna, kissing her breast, taking a nipple into her mouth and testing its firm texture with her tongue. Anna's breasts were small but her nipples were substantial, and when they stood up the dark pink skin around them crinkled beautifully. "Right now," she said, her voice muffled by Anna's flesh, "I want to give them to you."

Anna squirmed at her tongue's attack. "Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Elsa," Anna said. "It's not just the person on the receiving end who gets to say 'no' and be heard."

"I know," Elsa said, and she kissed Anna's scar. "You taught me." She kissed Anna's belly. The skin was so soft there, so round and smooth. Anna's muscles fluttered, her breath quickening as Elsa moved southward, kissing Anna's mound. Elsa paused and inhaled deeply though her nose.

Anna smelled like... nothing she'd ever experienced before. Slightly acetic, maybe, but sweet, like.... like...

Anna said, "Is it okay?"

"Yes, it's fine."

"Really? I mean, I just finished my period a day or two ago, and I might still spot once in a while even when I think I'm done, and I didn't expect to be taken away by Calhoun. I'm sure I took a shower this morning, but ...."

"Anna," Elsa said firmly, looking up the inescapably beautiful length of the redhead's honey-dark body. "It's fine." She grinned. "Remember when you said I smelled like snow?" Anna nodded. "You smell like oranges."

"Oranges?"

"I know, it's hard to explain. You don't smell anything like oranges, but it's the only thing I can come up with. It's very sweet and it has a little tang, too. I don't know if that makes sense. It doesn't sound very tantalizing said that way. Sorry."

Anna reached up and ran her fingers through Elsa's hair. "No, I get it. I do. God, I love your hair. Even when you've dyed it, it's so soft."

"Let's see how I feel about yours." Elsa bent down and kissed the dip between Anna's belly and her thigh. Anna's pubic hair, dark and heavier than on her head, tickled Elsa's chin as she approached the full, heady lips of Anna's sex. She had dreamed about this moment, wondered about it, masturbated to it, and told Anna how she had. Her own wetness pooled between her thighs, but she ignored it. This was Anna's turn.

She pushed on Anna's thigh, and Anna accommodated her by opening her legs further, exposing herself to Elsa's spellbound eyes. This was no dry anatomy textbook; this was Anna, waiting, wondering. Elsa could name every body part she saw, and the better words flitted through her mind: labia, clitoris, mons. She bent down and kissed Anna's mons, the padded mound above her clit. Anna sighed. "Yes."

"Yes?"

"Yes," Anna said as Elsa eased herself further down between Anna's thighs, down into the shadowed places now in full sight. They should have dimmed the lights. At least she'd had the sense to draw the privacy curtains. But the illumination let her see as she eased forward.

Anna tasted sweeter and heavier than she smelled. The skin was soft, slippery. Elsa quickly learned that she could mat down Anna's hair with her tongue and spit. Elsa's face was soon covered with Anna's juices and her own saliva, and she instantly learned not to care.

Anna's breathing quickened as Elsa's tongue learned the geography of Anna's most secret places, figured out by rise and texture and shape the size of the redhead's clitoris, the different resilience of her hood, and as she pressed in she learned how much pressure Anna wanted, how fast, how firm. "Oh, yes, god, Elsa, god, yes, god... more... "

Elsa's mind was filled with a hunger that she had once known only theoretically, a hunger for a kind of power she could only exercise on the completely willing, only on Anna. Her tongue flickered hard over Anna's clit until her whole jaw ached. Anna's hands were in her hair, and she wouldn't stop until Anna told her to.

"Fingers, Elsa, god, put your fingers inside me!" Elsa squirmed her left hand under herself; it was awkward, but she managed, and as she slipped one and then two fingers into Anna's willing body, she felt the powerful muscular texture of Anna's sex close around her as she kissed and licked and made love to this incredible woman. She turned her palm upward and curled her fingers against Anna's pubic bone almost instinctively, pressing against the rest of the nerves that led to the clit, and Anna's back arched. "Yes, a little more, god, don't stop, don't stop, Elsa, don't... yes! yes! Oh god! Oh god!" Anna's body heaved as she took deep sea breaths of air, ragged gasps of ecstasy as she almost seemed to levitate off the bed in sheer pleasure. She collapsed into a sodden, exhausted heap, slowly curling up into a ball, one knee almost knocking Elsa in the head as she did so.

Concerned, Elsa scooted up toward Anna's head and sat down cross-legged on the bed next to her. Anna, with one trembling hand, pulled herself so that her head rested in Elsa's lap, her whole body still shaking. "Oh, god, so good, oh god," she whispered softly.

"Anna?"

"Elsa?"

"Are you okay?"

"Oh, yes, oh yes. God, I haven't felt anything like that in... in years. What did you do to me?"

"Just... what you asked me for. Was it okay?"

"Oh, god, it was more than okay." She turned and looked up. "Are you sure you've never done anything like that before?"

"I just tried something I read about." Elsa bent over Anna's head, stroking her hair gently. Anna's eyes were closed in contented meditation. Minutes passed, the two of them wrapped in the cooling energies of recent lovemaking. Elsa giggled.

"What?"

"Anna? I have something very important to tell you."

"Hmm?" Anna murmured.

"Yes. Vagina is very definitely my thing."

Anna giggled. In a soft whisper she said, "I was pretty sure it would be."

She sighed, and Elsa knew it wasn't entirely a happy sound. "Hmm?"

"Honor," Anna said, her head still in Elsa's lap, her eyes still distant and unfocused. "Every time I acted with honor, it felt like a reward. I didn't get a reward, you understand. I mean, I did, I guess, when the Queen gave me her formal Thanks for my actions at Second Basilisk, while everyone else thought I was an idiot for risking my ship and crew that way. But it wasn't her award, and it wasn't their disapproval, it was that I'd done the right thing before God and Kingdom. Every time, except this time. This time, if I act with honor, it feels like I'll be entering a cage." She turned her head up. Her face was beautiful. The Prolong Treatment had preserved her, suspended with the face of youth, but the experience in her eyes was real and gave her a depth Elsa wanted to sink into. "If I want to keep my heart, I may have to do something dishonorable."

"Anna," Elsa said gently, "One thing I've learned being Anton's descendant is that the choice between death or dishonor is a false one. Eventually everyone is dead or, if you're still alive, you live among the damned."

Anna nodded. The wristcomm on the bed stand breeped. Elsa glared at it. Anna sighed. "That kind of timing only means that she was listening." She wrinkled her nose. "Security."

Elsa nodded, picked up the watch. "Yes, Captain Calhoun?"

The graveled voice of her senior bodyguard was still a growl through the tiny speaker. "Your majesty, you have one more appointment, and if we're to make our departure, now would be a good time to suspend negotiations with Captain DuVar and head out within fifteen minutes."

Elsa smiled. "Understood, Captain. We'll be ready." She put the wristcomm back on the tabletop. "Shall we end 'negotiations?'"

"We'll have to," Anna said, pushing herself up into a sitting position with satiated exhaustion. "Whoo. Dizzy." She put her hand to Elsa's cheek and kissed the other woman deeply. "You taste like me." She inhaled. "I'm not sure I get the 'oranges' part, but then you probably don't think you smell like a forest in winter."

Elsa nodded. "But I understand it now."

"I'm glad. Wow, I can barely move. But I suppose we have to take a shower."

"Yes. Especially where we're going next."

"Where are we going?"

Elsa grinned. "After our shower."

Chapter Text

Anna still hadn't had a chance to change into anything nicer. The shower with Elsa had been all too brief. In the full light of the bathroom her eyes had drunk in every square millimeter of Elsa's naked body, and she felt sure Elsa had been doing the same to her. They had been so straightforward as they shared the narrow stall, but she hadn't been able to put what Elsa had just done to her out of her head. She had had two lovers in the past who'd done that to her reliably, one woman and one man; the others had all tried, but they had lacked that something, that je ne sais quoi, that had so reliably unlocked her trust and desire enough to give her such uncomplicated and astonishing ecstasy.

Even as she zipped up the back of Elsa's dress, she couldn't help but wonder: why this woman? It wasn't her exalted position; pocket monarchies were a dime a dozen in Silesia, and Anna had spent four years in Silesian space hunting pirates for her Navy. The official government of Silesia could barely afford a Navy strong enough to keep its borders intact, internal piracy was rampant, and Silesia was all to happy to let Manticore "practice" naval maneuvers on its criminal class. Manticore was equally happy to have a place where it could legitimately blood its commanders on how to kill bad guys and accept the responsibility for doing so.

It wasn't just Elsa's beauty. It wasn't Olaf. "Olaf!"

"Hmm?"

"Where's Olaf?" Anna said, suddenly.

"He's on Manticore. He said he didn't want to be there for our reunion, not yet. He said we had matters to work out on our own. He'd catch up with us. He's with Eugene and Rapunzel right now."

"They're still together?" Anna liked Eugene, and Rapunzel, but trying to picture the two of them making a reliable couple was a bit beyond her imagination.

"Yes," Elsa said, with a smile that said she wasn't sure she believed it, either. "Apparently, Olaf has some... friends? Family? I'm not sure what to make of the hand signs he gave me. Anyway, he has some relations at Queen's College, and since that's where Rapunzel is going for her advanced degree in political science and interstellar relations, he thought he'd go with her."

"I see," Anna said slowly. "Well, she's very safe with him." Elsa nodded. Anna couldn't help but see the thin while scar that curled up just above Elsa's left cheek just above the jaw toward her ear. God forbid, if either of them ever got hurt again Olaf would become a danger to everyone.

She finished buttoning her blouse and pushed her feet back into her low-heeled ankle boots. If she was going to be dragged to her father's Club, she'd be damned to do it in high heels. "Ready. Now, you said you'd tell me after our shower. Where are we going?"

Elsa smiled. "Your mother's."

"Wait, what?"

The door opened. Calhoun was grinning at them. "Ready to go, ladies?"

"Yes." "No." Elsa and Anna looked at each other. "Elsa, tell me what's going on."

"When we get to your mother's house. Really, Anna, it's a surprise. Trust me?"

Anna looked into those soft, winsome eyes. "Oh, what the heck. Let's go. Mom will be thrilled to see me." She looked across at Elsa. "And she'll be even more thrilled to meet you."


Anna wasn't sure how Calhoun managed to switch out the motorcycle for a town car, but she wasn't complaining if it meant she got to sit in the back cuddled next to Elsa, sharing the other woman's body heat. She was still flying from the incredible sex, remembering that less than an hour ago they'd been in the heat of lovemaking, and Elsa... "God."

"Hmm?"

"You're amazing," Anna said, trying to repeat every memory of the last hours in her mind, from the thrilling motorcycle ride-- Anna hadn't ridden a motorbike since her Saganami Island days-- to just seeing Elsa again, through that... that... She sighed. "You're just amazing."

"I wonder if you'll still think that after this afternoon, or... later."

"I will," Anna said. "At this point, there's no way I could think otherwise."

Elsa smiled tolerantly at her, then grinned and said, "We're at your mother's."

"Great." Calhoun had parked, and the three of them had been waved through when the concierge recognized Anna. On the elevator ride up, Anna looked at Elsa and wondered at the thoughts bubbling in the back of her mind, the things she hadn't yet said to Elsa, or to anyone, or even coherently formed in the privacy of her own mind. She was still mulling when they reached the door. Anna knocked. "I'm not even sure she's home," she said to her companions.

"Who's there?" came a voice through the door.

"Well," Anna said. "It's me, Mom!"

The door clicked open. The woman standing there was short, stout, dark-skinned and dressed in a bathrobe. "Anna, dearie! You didn't tell me you were coming over!" She lunged out of the door and grabbed Anna in a powerful hug, lifting her daughter off the ground before noticing there were other people in the hallway. "You brought guests!"

"Um, yeah. Sort of."

"You really should have called, dear. I would have liked some warning before greeting your friends in nothing but a bathrobe. I don't think they're those kind of friends!" Her bright and cheerful laugh was one of those infectious things. "Come in, come in! Give them seats while I go get changed into something better!" She disappeared into the apartment, leaving the door open.

Anna shrugged. "I didn't even get a chance to introduce you."

"You'll get that chance." Elsa's eyes were twinkling. Anna didn't think that brightness was entirely joy.

Anna's mother returned, dressed in a slate pantsuit with an untucked blouse, to find Anna and Elsa sitting on the two couches set a-corner in the living room. Calhoun stood by the large glass doors that looked out over the fjord. "Now, what's the issue, dear? You didn't come give me a surprise visit, with friends you haven't even introduced yet, unless there's something up."

"No. Mom, I'd like you to meet my, um, friend, Elsa." Anna introduced the currently black-haired woman. "And Tamora Jean."

"Ma'am," Calhoun said gently.

"Anyway, Tamora, Elsa, this is my mother, Cassidy Cinnamon DuVar."

"I'm very pleased to meet you," Elsa said. "You're not at all what I expected."

Cassidy's laugh rang sourly. "Nobody in this family is what we expected. But Elsa, why does that name sound familiar? I don't think we've met, so you're not one of Anna's friends from around here. You weren't at the launching party. Did she meet you..." Cassidy's eyes went enormous as she stared at Elsa. "You dyed your hair!" She turned to Anna. "You always were crazy, Anna, but this is crazier than ever! You brought the Queen of Arendelle here? Why? Where's your security detail, your highness?"

Elsa waved a hand dismissively. "This 'incognito' seems to be holding up well. Security Captain Calhoun there is a terror to behold when..." Her face fell. "Well. I hope her services won't be necessary."

"I hope not as well. But why are you here? Aside from the obvious, I mean." She shot a glance at Anna. "For that, you could have sent a courier."

"As you probably know, Ms. DuVar, this Monday your queen and I will meet to sign the Understanding of Commonwealth. Compared to Manticore we're not much of an economic powerhouse, but the introduction of gravitics has given my people something to do, and the once bored and dissolute have found new passions to indulge." She grinned at Anna. In the few hours they'd had when they weren't desperately tearing each other's clothes off, they'd talked a lot about how Arendelle's people were stymied, bored and looking for direction. "Your daughter was responsible for much of that, and I want her at the signing ceremony. I sent several letters to Anna that she says never arrived, and she says she sent me at least one letter that I never received."

"She better have sent you a letter!" Cassidy said. "The way that girls was pining about you, I would have expected her to send more than one."

"Mom!" Anna said with all the dignity she could muster. "I was not pining. And I couldn't send more than one. I didn't want to seem like some kind of psycho stalker."

"You were so pining, dear. It was in your eyes. You could tell the story just fine, but every time you said her name--" Cassidy pointed a finger at Elsa-- "It was plain as day. 'Elsaaaah.'" She ended with an exaggerated sigh and the kind of grin of which only mothers seem capable. Anna blushed.

Elsa grinned. Anna settled, but when she glanced at Elsa, was that a wink? That was totally a wink. Anna blushed harder. Her dignity was taking a lot of abuse these days. Sure, she had told Elsa how much she loved the name, but that didn't mean she always said it as if she were on the verge of ecstasy.

Elsa went on. "I sent Anna an invitation. Last week, Elizabeth sent Anna a request-but-not-require invitation that she attend the ceremony, state dinner and reception for the signing. Anna never RSVPed."

"I never got an invitation," Anna said. "And you sent... no, this isn't an accident." She looked up at her mother. "I bet Dad had something to do with this."

"Why?" Elsa said.

"Because he heard the rumors too. About me and you. Everyone did. Doctor Pine even tried to have them introduced into evidence at my Inquiry. They got quashed even before they were voiced in the open, but by then everyone knew that something had gone down between you and me." She blushed at her unintended double entendre. Elsa seemed to miss it entirely. "He wants to make sure that any 'inappropriate impulses' I might have toward you aren't allowed to gain in strength, because he wants me to marry Hans."

"That stick?" her mother said. "Still?"

"They haven't given up, Mom. And..." Anna sighed.

"Were you serious about accepting?"

Anna said. "I accepted his ring. I haven't put it on yet. Like I told Elsa, it really did seem like a good idea once upon a time. Look, Mom, all the email to the house goes through the household servers in the basement because Dad likes it that way. Physical security and all that. I bet he has some of the best filtering and management software in the world, and he has people who'll do his work for him. I bet he has a lawyer who checks every piece of email sent to me. He's filtering Elsa out of my life."

"Well, he can't do it if she's right here," Cassidy said, pointing to Elsa.

"And as the official guest of Monday's event," Elsa said, "I have certain discretion as to who is invited. Ms. DuVar, would you be willing to accompany your daughter to Manticore?"

Anna's mother grinned. "Absolutely."


When the phone beeped, Robert DuVar, Earl Iron Fjord, nearly leaped out his chair to push the 'accept' button. Anna's face materialized on the screen. "Anna, where are you?"

Anna looked calm. The background looked familiar. "I'm at Mom's, Dad." She smiled.

"And your friend?"

"Tamora and I went to a cafe to get caught up, and then she dropped me off here. Mom and I going to have dinner together, so don't wait up, okay?"

He bit back a reply. The connection was to his ex-wife's home, so he could hardly order his adult daughter to stop visiting her mother. Anna continued, "Dad, it's okay. I'm sorry if it caught you off guard. Tamora's just a friend, service and all that. I'll see you soon."

He nodded. "Just do the right thing, Anna."

She nodded and the connection went dark. He looked up into the clouded face of the man sitting across the desk from him. "'Tamora,'" Hans said, "is Captain Tamora Jean Calhoun of Her Majesty's Palace Security on Arendelle." Every word was bitten off with cold fury. "Your simple ruse has failed, Earl Iron Fjord. What are you going to do to make sure I marry your daughter?"

Robert DuVar swallowed his own roiling bile, most of which he'd have gratefully projectiled onto Hans's perfect uniform if it would just make the last leap into his throat. He sighed and reached for the phone. "Book me an express flight to Landing on Manticore. I have to be there by Monday afternoon. If you need a charter, book it. I don't care. Get me that flight." He closed the connection again, then pulled up a spreadsheet and prepared to cash in too many favors.

Chapter Text

Eugene Fitzhubert couldn't help but be amused, pleased, and just plain happy to watch Rapunzel meander through Queen's College campus. The pale cream blouse and purple jeans suit her, as did the white treecat riding on her shoulder. Only the massive presence of Armsman Citron a few steps back betrayed her noble origins. The summer weather was as brutally hot as those days he'd spent on Corona, so she was probably loving every minute of it. But she loved the campus even more. "Oh, Eugene, isn't it all wonderful?"

"Of course it is." There was something about walking around the dear old campus with a beautiful woman and a treecat to re-open his eyes and make him remember his own experiences here as an undergraduate. He'd been deeply jealous of those with any sort of privilege: the sons and daughters of nobility, the lucky few with treecats, the ones whose parents hadn't had to think twice about writing a check for the whole thing. Eugene had come through the ranks the hard way, riding a wave of lucky scholarships, lottery draws and student loans to make his way into Queen's College, post-graduate work on Earth, and ultimately back into the Queen's service on Manticore. "But it's also going to be a lot of hard work, you know."

"Oh, I know," Rapunzel said. "I've never been afraid of hard work. I saw my class list, and the amount of catching up I have to do. But I'm not worried. There's so much to learn, and I'm so ready!"

"I believe you," he said. She looked up at him, and he laughed. "You're unstoppable when you want to be, Princess."

"Mmm," she said, acknowledging the compliment. She reached up and scratched at Olaf's chin. "I don't know how Elsa stands to have you on her shoulder all day long, Olaf. You're pretty heavy."

Olaf chittered at her, then leaped off to the ground. He signed, "Better?"

"I didn't say you had to leave, Olaf!"

"You deserve comfortable."

"I guess so," Rapunzel said. "But we're here for you too, Olaf. Where did you want to go?"

He gestured, then bounded off in a direction that led down a gentle slope between two brick-red buildings. Eugene smiled. "You're getting pretty good at reading the signs, Rapunzel."

"Oh, you know. Practice makes perfect. Let's go." They followed him toward a low building with a curved, glassed-in section that reminded him of a greenhouse.

As they walked, Eugene said, "Given any thought to taking classes in something else? What about your minor? Or your electives?"

"Well," Rapunzel said musingly, "Political science is considered a humanity, so technically my minor should be a humanity and my electives should be science. I was thinking about an art minor and programming as my elective."

"Programming? Like, computers?"

"Yes! Math was always my hardest subject, and I wanted to do something near it that would help me learn. I was studying computer art before we uncovered Gothel's treachery, and I'd like to get back into it." They ascended the red brick steps of the odd building. "Why, don't think I can hack it?"

"What? No, I'm pretty sure you could hack anything you put your mind to, Princess. That just seems like a pretty far-out subject for someone who's going to be a queen someday." He took a deep breath. "You're always bursting with energy, Rapunzel. I worry that someday you're going to be queen and it's going to start crushing you the way it seems to get to Elsa."

"It's not crushing my parents," Rapunzel said.

"Maybe not. Their kingdom is smaller than Elsa's. I have to wonder what will happen when it's much, much bigger. When you have to think about the economy of an entire star system, or even an interstellar empire." He gestured widely, encompassing the sky even as they entered the building. He reached out and touched her cheek. "You're so vibrant, Rapunzel, so beautiful and energetic. What will happen..."

She smiled at him, but they could both see the reserve behind it. "We'll find out when the time comes, won't we?" She grabbed his hand, kissed it. Her large eyes looked at him over his own knuckles.

"I guess we will. After you?" He gestured toward the door. She giggled. They both ignored the bodyguard behind them.

Inside, the building smelled of paper and old books, but also of dander and fur and the evident residence of dozens of tree cats. "Hello?" Rapunzel called.

"Hi." A man rushed out from an open door. Citron was giving the place nervous glances and Eugene realized there were no doors on any of the doorways. "Hi. Doctor Spiner." He had the oddest little laugh, more of a cough than anything else.

"Um, Hi! Rapunzel. Princess Rapunzel of Corona."

"Oh! Yes, we don't get many royals down this way. People want to visit the treecats all the time, hoping they'll be one of the lucky ones, but that cats have been very clear about their wish for privacy recently. Heh."

"Privacy?" Rapunzel's eyebrows narrowed. "We were following Olaf."

"Oh, you must mean the treecat who just wandered in. Well, I guess he came to visit my charges. Are you and he...?"

"No, no. He's, um, he's my cousins'. She's... she's not here today, and since I'm here on campus, Olaf decided to go with me."

"Fascinating." Doctor Spiner was only as tall as Rapunzel, aged and stooped with a fan of hair that seemed glued to his head. He looked rumpled and sun-worn.

Olaf appeared at the door, beckoning to Rapunzel and Eugene. "Well, I think he wants you to join them. Interesting. They've been refusing guests ever since one of them got sick."

"Sick? Is it dangerous?" Eugene said.

"Oh, no, no, not at all. There's one, he's a bit of a runt. Caught a virus of some kind that weakened his immune system, and while he was fighting that off he caught a fungal infection in his fur. It's harmless, but... well... you'll see." He led them into a sun-lit room filled with shrubs. It was larger than it looked from the outside, and there were several hutches and shelves built around the perimeter. Almost two dozen treecats occupied the space in various poses of relaxation. They all perked up when Rapunzel and Eugene entered the room, glancing at one another, then back to the new humans. Olaf bounded into the room and gestured to the three of them.

Eugene said, "That's a lot of treecats."

Rapunzel nodded, then gestured quickly with her hands. Olaf replied. "Wow," said Dr. Spiner. "You do that pretty well. I couldn't get the hang of it. What did you say?"

"I asked if this was his clan. He said 'part of it. The parts that wants to go...'" She shook her head. "I can't read the rest of that. That can't be right."

"What can't?"

"I would swear he wants this part of his clan to... to move to Corona."

"What?"

Spiner made a snort. "That would be keeping with their behavior." He looked up. "Treecats score much higher on the sentience scale than we originally thought. They've started to figure out that we humans have the power to blow Sphinx up, and there were some serious threats to the homeworlds during the war with the People's Republic of Haven. They've been looking for suitable colonies ever since."

"But why Corona? Why not Arendelle?" Eugene asked.

Rapunzel said, "I don't know. Fewer people? More fertile land? From what I've seen of Olaf and Sven, treecats make up their own minds, and know a lot more, than we expect them to." She glanced around, then started walking toward a wicker basket left on a gridded shelf near the greenhouse window. The sun blazed directly down upon it. Eugene saw a green blanket resting in the basket, and a mass of differently shaded green inside it. Rapunzel's smiled beamed down at the basket. "Hey, there, little guy. Are you the sick one?"

A furry head poked up. "He's green!" Eugene said.

Spiner said, "I'm afraid so. The pelt of some treecat breeds has a hollow hair shaft. It's surprising how well it helps insulation. But if their immune system is weakened, they stop emitting an oil that keeps the shafts clean, and sometimes a fungal infection starts in. That one seems to have the problem a lot. He goes back and forth between green and white as the seasons go. Right now he's green again. Poor guy."

"He's not poor," Rapunzel said softly. "Hey, would you like a ride?" The treecat, barely 50cm long, swarmed up Rapunzel's sleeve with all the delicacy a treecat could muster. "There," she said with finality. "Can you see all right?" The treecat nodded. "Good."

"Is that..." Eugene began.

"I don't know," Dr. Spiner said. "Your highness, do you feel anything?"

"I have a treecat on my shoulder," she said, pointing. "I feel him." She flexed her shoulder to make her point. The treecat held on.

"No, I mean, emotionally?"

Rapunzel looked puzzled. "Not really. I mean, I've always gotten along with people and animals. He just seemed like he needed someone to be nice to him." She cast a wary eye at the other treecats, who seemed as confused as Dr. Spiner. "Have you been bullying him because he's green?" Several of the treecats looked away, ashamed.

"So they're not some kind of utopian telepathic society," Eugene said.

"Oh, no, of course not, they have their own personalities, and there are cruel and foolish ones among them," Dr. Spiner said. "Your highness, I mean, how would you feel if I suggested he stay here tonight?"

"He can if he wants. What do you think?" She cocked her head to take in the treecat. He shook his head. "There, see? I think he'd rather stay somewhere else. How about with me?" The treecat nodded. "Dr. Spiner, does he have a name?"

"We... we haven't named all of them. I don't have a name for him." Eugene got the impression that he did, he just didn't want to say it out loud in front of the princess.

"Oh. Well, he needs a name. How about... 'Pascal?'" The green treecat seemed to consider this, then smiled and nodded.

"Pascal?" Eugene said.

"Yes. Like the programming language." She grinned and scratched under his chin. He seemed to like that. "Olaf, do you mind if I don't carry both of you?" Olaf clamshelled his right truehand, then splayed open his fingers and waved the suggestion away: Nope. "Thanks. Dr. Spiner, if the other treecats in this clan want to emigrate to Corona, how do I go about making that happen?"

"Well, you'll need to talk to the treecat division of the Royal Forestry Service on Sphinx, but even they can't stop the treecats themselves from leaving. You'll have to book safe passage, and the services is deadly serious about that, but there have been ways to arrange that."

"I see. Olaf, would you introduce me, please? Especially to the, um, miscreants." Rapunzel started moving around the room.

Spiner said softly, "Remarkable."

"That was a treecat pairing I just saw, right?" Eugene said.

"I think so. But if it was, it was the gentlest, quietest pairing I've ever witnessed. Usually they're tumultuous, with the two being physically inseparable for the first few days, or weeks even. Those two seem completely at ease already. I don't believe in reincarnation, but that looked more like a... a reunion than an introduction."

Eugene watched Rapunzel continue her clear rapport with the treecats and sighed. "Right."


Four individuals filled the hotel room when they got back. Pascal was content to be dropped off onto the spare bed, and Olaf was equally content to share the space with him. "You be nice to Pascal," Rapunzel told him.

Olaf signed something and Rapunzel giggled. "I'm pretty sure the Eight Day Queen disagrees with you." Olaf's next sign made her puzzled. "Maybe you're right." Olaf nodded.

"What was that?" Eugene said.

"He said he didn't know how not to be nice. When I pointed out his skill it taking down the terrorists, he said they made themselves prey and he didn't have to be nice to them. They weren't people."

"Well, that's certainly one way to look at it."

He smiled as he said it, but the melancholic fear that gripped him must have shown in his face, because Rapunzel tilted her head to the side, her eyes soft and compassionate. "You've been very quiet this afternoon, Eugene."

"I have? Maybe." He glanced over at Pascal. "Doctor Spiner said that if you just had a bonding with Pascal, it was the quietest bonding he'd ever seen. And you and he seem like... old hands already, not people in the grip of a new relationship with all the special energies that... that we had." He reached up to touch her medium-length sheaf of brown hair. "Treecats change the people they adopt, Rapunzel. I just wonder if, between Pascal, your education, and your duties, if you'll have time for me."

"I'll always have time for you, Eugene." She glanced back at the bed, where the two treecats had rolled onto their backs and were buzzing contentedly at one another. "Pascal and I already understand each other. I don't know how, but we do. And he understands that you belong here as much as he does."

"Really?"

She stepped forward until he was enveloped in her perfumes, until her warmth registered against his skin and her breath against his face. "Really. Let me show you."

He kissed her, their lips meeting and opening, tongues touching in the enclosed space they created. It always seemed to him that the world contracted until it was just him and Rapunzel, a world where nothing else could possibly matter. Rapunzel's body eased in his arms, and he relaxed into her until the two of them were swaying as they stood, stoking the fires of a now-familiar, still-astounding desire.

"Bleek!"

His attention was shattered by a loud treecat objection from the other end of the room. "What is it, Olaf?" Rapunzel said.

He made a series of complex hand gestures. Rapunzel laughed, signed back. Olaf repeated the gestures, including one even Eugene could read: the room number. He and Pascal flowed off the bed and to the door, closing it behind them. "What was that?"

"He was just telling me that he and Pascal were going to leave and give us room to do our boring, overly complicated mating rituals. I think he was telling me they were going to the restaurant."

"That's why the room number."

"Exactly." She turned to him. "Now, Eugene, where were we?" She reached up and held her arms toward him, and he bent toward her and kissed her. She sighed, kissed his well-trimmed goatee, kissed his neck. One hand was already caressing back and forth over the material of his trousers, and he hissed gently. She wasn't shy at all. Once she knew how much he appreciated her she was first to suggest they show their appreciation. "Rapunzel... what?"

Her hand pulled down his zipper quickly and efficiently, reaching through the convenience gap in his boxers to pull out the object of her quest. "Wow," he gasped. "I love the way you do that."

"I know," she said. "And I love how much you love it. Let's see how much you love this." She kneeled down before him, her eyes affixed on his cock, then eased forward with her eyes closed in a kind of benediction.

The warmth of her mouth enveloped him and he sighed in deep pleasure. "God, you are very good at that."

She giggled, and he felt every tremble of her laugh through the underside of his cock. She was stroking back and forth with determination and verve. He'd learned that she actually liked having his hands on her head, in her hair, sometimes even providing the motion himself. If he pushed her a little bit and "made" her hold it a few seconds longer her eyes would water and then she'd stare up at him with the most amazed, most worshipful eyes. She genuinely loved it when he was strong.

He pulled his cock out of her mouth. "Up, princess," he said. She grinned and stood, and he pushed her onto the bed. He quickly unbuttoned her pants and peeled off those lovely jeans, looking at her lovely, soft-furred sex. He pushed her completely onto the bed, still wearing her shirt, then manhandled her over onto her belly with one hand while trying to push down his pants with the other. He stepped out of them. "Now then, Rapunzel..." he grinned as he pounced on her, his cock nosing between her thighs, down into the already wet furrow.

She giggled. "What?"

"This position is called 'the amplex.' I looked it up."

"I'm not surprised, given how much you like it."

"Yes," she sighed as his cock slipped inside her. Her ass made a wonderful fulcrum for his own hips to rock against as he drove himself in and out of her. "It's a lazy position for me. You're so good at that."

"And you feel wonderful." He kissed her hair, the back of her neck, her cheek, as he made love to her. He'd gotten over the fresh relationship energy, but still they enjoyed each other and the act. Rapunzel didn't climax from intercourse but she loved it, and Eugene was old enough he'd learned that she didn't have to have an orgasm to really enjoy herself, that lots of women just liked sex, climax or not. He took his time, and when his own climax finally washed over him it was with a few hard thrusts that pulled gleeful groans and broad smiles out of her before he filled her. "Wow," he said.

He rolled over and looked at her. She was still lying face down, her eyes closed in a kind of shivering bliss that made him smile. When her eyelids finally fluttered open, she grinned and lunged at him and kissed him. "I always wondered, though... don't you have to pee afterward? I read that men do. Some of my old boyfriends did."

"Most men do," he said. "And yeah, sometimes I do. But it can wait. I hate being rude."

"Oh, go pee, Eugene. I understand." She bapped him playfully on the arm.

He did his toilet, catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror on the way out. "Not bad, Doctor Fitzhubert," he said to his reflection. He sat down on the bed next to Rapunzel. He was naked; she still had her blouse on, although all the buttons were open, revealing her lovely skin. "Rapunzel..." She giggled. "What?"

"I love how you say all of my name. You don't shorten it like some guys. No 'Punz', no 'Punzie' or whatever." She rolled her eyes. "You don't minimize me."

"You're a lot of woman to keep up with," he said. "Minimizing you wouldn't be fair."

"Although," she said teasingly, "You do get a little... plosive with my name. Some of the time."

"Plosive?" Eugene said. "I don't know what that means."

"Oh, you know. 'Rapunzel! Rapunzel! Rapunzel!'" she said, making the 'p' sound as hard as she could. Eugene blushed mightily. She put her arm around his back and pulled the two of them closer. "It's all right."

She seemed about to say more, but hesitated. Eugene said, "Rapunzel, when you said Pascal understood that I belonged here, did you mean, I mean, just for now, right?"

She looked into his face, and he could see worry and sadness. "Yes, but, do you not like me that much?"

"God, no. I mean yes. I mean, I like you very much. You're smart, and witty, and amazing. You're hard to keep up with, but I do my best, and I enjoy keeping up with you. And in bed, good god-- why do you like going down on me so much?"

Her fingers reached down and found his cock, now soft and unlikely to resurrect so readily. "I just fits. It's the perfect size. It fits in my mouth, and down there, and," she raised her eyes to his, "it fits like your body fits. And your voice. And you. You, all of you, makes me incredibly happy, Eugene. If you like me so much, why do you think this won't last?" She made a gesture with one raised finger, encircling the room.

"Because you're a princess, and you're so much younger, and I'm just this guy. A member of the Queen's Private Auditors, sure, but that's hardly a glamorous job. An adjunct professor at King's College, a nobody."

"A nobody who saved my life, Eugene. My schooling here is for two years, but then I'm going back to Corona. I wanted to know if, if we're still together then, if you'd like to come with me and--" She hesitated. "If you'd like to come and be my consort."

"Consort? You're serious," he said softly.

"Yes. I think you belong in my life as much as Pascal does. And as long as he does."

"Two years is a long time. But if we're still together, well, I think that's a fine idea. I can hardly turn down an offer like that from a princess." He turned over onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. "I thought that it would be a nice story someday for my grandkids. I could call up pictures of you and say 'See that fairy princess? I dated her once upon a time.'" Rapunzel giggled. He turned his head. "You really want them to be our grandkids?"

"I do," Rapunzel said.

"Then let's see if we've got what it takes." He rolled closer to her, kissed her gently. Their legs intertwined, and for that evening Eugene Fitzhubert had a world in his hands.

Chapter Text

Among the loud background of murmuring voices herding toward the outdoor reception, her attention picked out a voice addressing her. "Captain DuVar, is it? Lady Iron Fjord?"

Anna looked up and found herself face to face with the broad, smiling face of Admiral of the Green Hamish Alexander, Earl White Haven, the man who had been her most senior commander at Second Basilisk. Tactically brilliant and politically connected, he was a man to admire from afar. "Sir," she said, reaching for the black beret she wore and scrabbling it to her chest.

"At ease, Captain. I'm not your admiral at the moment." His voice was a well-crafted tool, and now he used it for calm. He glanced as if to ensure no one was listening. "Her Majesty has asked me to convey to you that her words at the signing ceremony were sincere and heartfelt. It is among her deepest regrets that what is called 'her navy' is unable to find you a vessel, any vessel, much less one commensurate with your experience and skill. Your decisions and actions on your last mission were exemplary. Your personal life is your own, and there's no indication you allowed it to intefere in your professional decisions. You're a fine starship commander, and I'm proud to have had you under my command."

"Thank you, sir," Anna said, startled, sweeping in a bow of gratitude even as her brain started to unpack his words. The Queen approved of her. The current government wouldn't stand forever, and when the Crown had a reliable ally in the House of Lords, she could count on being taken off the beach. "I appreciate all that you've said."

"Yes, you seem like the sort who would."

"Sir, if I may ask you a difficult question? Of course, you can always decline to answer it, I understand that." He gestured for her to go on. "Captain Hans Westergaard of Her Majesty's Heavy Cruiser Rune? Well, he's asked for my hand in marriage. I wonder if you might, if you might know, I mean, is he a good man?"

White Haven thought for a moment. "There are many captains in our Navy, Captain DuVar, but I have had the opportunity to meet with Captain Westergaard. His career is exemplary. He has no stains on his record. His accomplishments have been in line with his advancement in rank."

"But is he a good man?"

White Haven's reply was a long time coming. "The Navy continues to give him ships, and his record is spotless. Still, I must admit that the Navy has been known to beach excellent officers while allowing wretched ones to grind out their days. Most people think 'the beach' is where the Navy puts its troubles too important to outright cashier, but in many cases, the truth is, 'the beach' is where you keep the people you know you will need."

Anna decided that not-an-answer said a lot about Hans.

She nodded her thanks again as they were allowed out onto the grass-covered fields of the Palace garden at night. A tent sized for a circus had been set up, complete with tables and a dance floor. Decorative paper-like lanterns were strung from the poles. A small band played music in one corner. Here and there waited stands of champagne and wine. A buffet table of desserts near the band tempted Anna. She lost sight of White Haven.

Anna felt a growing tension gripping at her new heart as she hoped to bump into Elsa again. They had been unable during the signing ceremony to do any more than smile at one another, yet the memories of their entire day on board Elsa's rental yacht between Sphinx and Manticore still shimmered in her mind and on her skin. The evening they had spent in the shower as Anna had washed the dye out of Elsa's hair, had been both exasperating and wonderful. Elsa had alternately growled and purred at Anna's ministrations, and the lovemaking afterward with that bright-haired woman of her dreams had left Anna feeling as accomplished and happy as she'd ever been. She was getting a real feel for the woman underneath that royal exterior.

But now that they were on Manticore developments had pushed Anna a bit off-kilter. She needed the story about Rapunzel and she needed it fast. She needed to know where the Princess had found that treecat, and she wanted to know why he was bright green. Olaf and Ariel had greeted each other like old friends and had seemed genuinely pleased to meet with the green-furred one. Anna had barely been able to contain herself during the signing ritual, watching the three women with their bright, beautiful contrasts: Elizabeth, Elsa and Rapunzel had all been stunningly beautiful, but Anna had only eyes for Elsa.

She resisted the impulse to sniff at her own fingers, hoping a few molecules of Elsa's richest scents still harbored there after the long, slow shower they'd taken together that morning. The kisses. The whispers.

The word.

Anna still hadn't used it.

She picked up a second glass of champagne and eased out of the tent and into the darkness. Feeling heady from the first glass, from memory and desire, she wanted a place to sit and breathe. Most of her crew had been reassigned to other ships already, but Felix was here and seemed to be chatting up Captain Calhoun something fierce. Anna grinned and tried to imagine that as a romance.

The garden was bordered with a shoulder-high hedge, but not as a wall. The hedge followed a winding path that created occluded, somewhat private green spaces, many inset with low concrete seats. As Anna sought one out as a shadowed refuge she felt a familiar weight bump her leg. "Olaf!" she said as she hoisted the happy treecat up onto her shoulder. The nook she found had a half-moon bench big enough to hold four. She sat down and put her wineglass and the treecat down next to her. "Good to see you."

He buzzed happily. She could barely see his truehands in the dark. Before he could respond another voice said, "Anna."

"Father?" She rose, her body suddenly feeling tight around her bones. "What are you doing here?"

"I called in a few favors. I wanted to be here when my daughter's contribution to the Kingdom's great economic future was recognized." He smiled but Anna could see an unfamiliar rigidity in his body. "I don't know what you think you were doing running away like that..."

"Running away?" Anna said, snorting a laugh. "In case you missed it, Dad, I'm 48 years old. My 'contribution' to the Kingdom involved commanding four hundred people and one of Her Majesty's best naval vessels. I don't 'run away.'"

"You went your own way, then. I understand. But you are also heir to Iron Fjord, and you have promised to Hans--"

Olaf hissed. Anna looked up, and at the edge of the circle, just beyond the mouth of the cul-de-sac, stood another figure, his back to the lighted tent, his face in shadow. Anna returned her gaze to her father. "I don't want to disappoint you, father. Truly I don't."

"Then don't. You're marrying Hans."

"No," she said, sadly. "No, I'm not. I was in doubt before my mission. I'm no longer in doubt. I know. It would be a marriage of... of... of nobility. A marriage where we would never really learn to cleave, to be of one flesh." She shook her head. "I'm sorry, Dad. I am. But it can't be Hans."

"Anna, remember, when I was a child..."

"Don't," Anna said, holding up one finger. "Don't. You always give me that. But I had time to read on the trip between Sphinx and Manticore. What does it say around that text, Dad? 'Love suffers, and is kind. Love does not brag, love is not provoked, love thinks no evil. Love does not rejoice in iniquity, love rejoices in the truth. Believe everything, bear everything, hope everything, endure everything ... now abides faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.'" Anna shook her head. "I don't love Hans. I could endure him. I could endure anything honor demanded I endure. But I don't love him."

Her father looked away. "Nonetheless, Anna, you have to marry him," her father said. "There is no one else. It has to be him."

"What? Why?"

"It just has to be."

"No," she said. "No, it doesn't."

"Oh, Anna." The shadowed figure moved out from behind the hedge. She had always known it was Hans. "I didn't want to have to do this. I wanted you to think of me as the man you married because the chance of love was there. But now I see that I have no choice."

Anna stared up at his shadowed face. "Hans? What are you saying?"

"Let's just say that the apple never does fall from the tree, does it? Where do you think your inclination toward women comes from?" Hans stepped forward, and Anna could see him clearly now, his handsomely manicured muttonchops, his perfectly curved eyebrows. His face had always looked open and caring. Not now.

"I did tell you a few days ago that our House of Lords is currently in the middle of not just one but two scandals. On the one hand, we have the genetic slavery trade, which is always a trade in bodies, and is always about sex. On the other, we have the head of Manticoran Civil Security Service being a child molester who regularly protected other child molesters, turning the CSS into a giant abuse ring."

Anna stared at her father. "You're not... you're not involved in any of those, are you?"

"No, he's not," Hans said. "But you father is a homosexual, and he always has been. More to the point, he's a bit of libertine who takes the passive role with men. And if you don't agree to our marriage, Anna, I'll release to the sleaziest screamnet 'journalists' I know a video of your father at an orgy, gleefully taking on eight, nine, ten men, each one drawing a new line on his buttocks with a felt marker when they were done using him."

Anna was repulsed by Han's cruelty, and even Hans looked genuinely hurt by his revelation. Hans continued in that oh-so-smooth voice of his, "It doesn't rise to a criminal scandal. But every member of the House of Lords is on his best behavior right now, trying to prove to the Kingdom that he's not one of them, not in thrall to his piggish nature.

"Your father would become a laughingstock of the Lords, and the faint reek of sex scandal would haunt him for the rest of his days. His alliances would wither. He'd only ever have a voice again when someone needed a desperation vote." Hans's shoulders sagged. "I wanted to win your heart and trust, and make a good marriage with you. I understand if there isn't love, but surely there could have been mutual respect. I'm sorry if I can't even get that from you, but I am not going to let your inclinations ruin my chance at being the great Earl I know I can be."

"No," Anna said softly. "You can't. Your... your honor..."

"Honor," Hans said. "Anna, honor is an award for doing well by the Kingdom. It's a currency and you cash it in when the time comes. It's an ephemeral value counted only in the minds of those who know. The only people who need to know about this are you and your father, Anna. Keep your mouth shut and you can keep your honor, and mine, by agreeing to our marriage without a fuss." Hans waved one white-gloved hand in the air casually. "After you've given us an heir, you can have the dalliances you want, as long as you do so privately, quietly. I won't stop you."

Anna was too stunned to respond. A minute passed. Then another voice broke the silence. "Were I you, I would reconsider your request, Captain Westergaard."

Three figures stood behind Hans, two carrying treecats on their shoulders. Anna hadn't even noticed Olaf leaving. "Your Majesty!" Hans dropped to one knee out of reflex, and so did Anna and her father.

Elizabeth Winton, the Queen of Manticore, waited three seconds, then said, "Rise, all of you." She stepped forward, a very worried Elsa standing behind her, and regarded Anna with warmth. "Lady DuVar, I'm glad my friend was able to convey my message to you, and I'm glad your friend was able to convey his message to me." She regarded Hans. "Captain Westergaard, how does the expression go? 'Honor is what you are when no one is watching?'"

Hans stared at her, his jaw clenched, one muscle in his cheek twitching. Queen Elizabeth continued, "It's true that I don't have much control over the day-to-day operations of my navy, and if your petition to Lady DuVar should fail I wouldn't have much say over your role in the Lords, since you wouldn't have one. But I do not take threats against my recently favored subjects lightly, and we both know how I feel about grudges, don't we? I could make it very clear to the Navy that I think your best use would be on beacon duty along the Western Arc."

Hans gulped. Beacon duty was scutwork, the kind crews hated because it involved long hours stooging about mostly untraveled paths, ending in the heavy and tedious labor of extravehicular activities on large, automatic installations. With little shoreleave, no bloodings and even less chance for a prize than escort duty, it was among the worst informal punishments a navy could hand out.

He turned to Anna and said, "Anna, please. We would make a great couple."

"I could never love you, Hans. Not after that." She turned and looked at where she knew Elsa was standing, then back to him. Only now did she register that the third figure was her mother. "And I could never want to marry you. Not if we were the last living souls in all the universe."

"You want to marry Elsa? Is that it?" He laughed harshly. "You can't marry her. You're both women. The law would never recognize it!"

"That's where you're wrong, Captain Westergaard," Elsa said softly, her eyes narrowing with the steel Anna knew hid down in Elsa's soul. It gave that soft, thin voice a rapier-like quality. "It may not be legal here in Manticore, but it's perfectly legal on Arendelle, and Manticore is now treaty-bound to recognize Arendellian marriage contracts, regardless of arrangements."

"Which is going to make for some interesting case law," Elizabeth muttered.

"You're not even of the same faith! Whatever that thing is on their churches." Hans snarled.

Anna smiled weakly. Now he was getting desperate, looking for any lever to keep her and Elsa apart, as if there were any chance that would drive her into his arms. She'd sooner kiss a Gryphon Kodiak Max than ever again kiss Hans Westergaard. Elsa and Anna hadn't even talked about religion except in the most oblique terms, but Anna had studied up. "That 'thing' is an alpine crocus, Hans. It blooms very early in spring, pushing little blue flowers up through the snow. It's a symbol of the resurrection." She giggled and looked at Elsa. "I'm pretty sure I could be married in one of Arendelle's churches without committing heresy."

Elsa nodded. "Anton adopted it because we were a cold world and had survived the plague. We poked our heads up through the snow and thrived. I don't know when the churches picked it up, but yes, my advisors tell me there's no conflict there." She stood forward. Anna looked up at Olaf, who was grinning at her madly. Anna could feel him, and she gazed at him in wonder. The link was there again, reforged, but precious, and through it Anna felt Elsa down deep, down into her soul. Before she could even begin to explore it, Elsa's hands reached out. She said, "Would you?"

Anna took Elsa's hands. Elsa said, "And so, let me say it. Lady Annastasia Christabelle DuVar-- Anna. I love you. Would you marry me in my church?"

Anna blushed, and tears filled her eyes. "Elsa, I do love you. But... no."

"No?" Elsa sounded stunned, hurt. Hans snorted.

"No. I have to tell the truth, Elsa. We've only spent a few days in each other's company. We only know a little bit about each other. On the other hand, I will move to Arendelle, since your signing the treaty obligates you to treat my treecat with a certain amount of respect." Elsa smiled widely at her. "If my Navy sees fit to reinstate me, I'm sure they can find me at the end of a wormhole inside the Commonwealth. And while we're having lunch over Olaf..." Her fingers squeezed Elsa's gently. "We'll see if my love for you means more than, well..." She blushed hard, and so did Elsa.

"Anna?" Elsa said gently. "This is why I love you. You have a way of creating very wise plans."

"Your Majesty," Elizabeth said, interrupting anything Anna may have said, "Your government will need advisors to help you assess the technological impact of our agreement." She regarded Anna directly. "I believe I know of someone who my Navy would gladly loan to yours, and who you would find quite suitable."

Elsa grinned. "I believe you're quite right, Your Majesty."

Elizabeth nodded. "Well, this seems to conclude a matter that required my attention. Unless Captain Westergaard is considering pursuing his suit?"

Hans looked away. "No, Your Majesty."

"Good. There will be other opportunities, Captain Westergaard. Pursue them, with honor." She left, and only now did Anna see the two bodyguards that had hovered at the other side of the hedges. Hans took the opportunity to flee in the opposite direction from his queen.

"Oh, Anna, did you mean it?" Elsa said.

Anna resisted razzing at his back. She only glanced at him, then turned to Elsa, saying, "I did. But I still need to know so many things. Can I keep my Earldom if I marry a Queen in a distant realm? Or does Rolf want it? What happens if he doesn't? What happens if we decide we're not...." She grinned. "I love what I've seen of you. I want to see more, so much more."

"Me too," Elsa said simply. She turned. "Forgive me, Earl Iron Fjord. We don't mean to ignore you."

He nodded. "Anna," he said, and his voice creaked with an age he rarely seemed to show.

"Dad?"

He wouldn't meet her eyes, and his face was ablaze with shame. "I don't want you to think less of me."

"Well, no, Dad, nobody wants to think about what their parents do in bed. Eww. But, as long as you're not diddling little boys?" He shook his head firmly. "Good. I suppose it's all out in the open now. At least among family." She looked up at her mother. "Did you know?"

Her mother sighed, then said, "Only after we were married. After you left for the service, actually. We kept it together." She slipped up next to Anna's father, put her hand on his shoulder. "We did love each other. I think we still do. But we're better as friends than we are sharing a mansion."

Her father looked at her mother, and he nodded, his eyes soft. They were so tender with each other, after a heartbreak Anna could barely imagine, the revelation, the fights, the compromises, the understanding. She shook her head. "Dad? Are you upset?"

"Oh, hell, no," he said, his voice suddenly as strong as a moose. "I'm glad you have friends to come to your rescue. I didn't imagine you'd need The Queen herself to make it stick, but I'm glad she did. You and Hans would have been terrible for each other."

"Saying 'no' to him was still honorable only by coincidence," Anna said. "I was being led by my hormones."

A sharp nudge in her ribs caught her attention. Elsa said, "Annastasia DuVar, stop that right now. I told John that I had only succeeded as Queen by coincidence, but he showed me otherwise. You have been honorable all your life, and you must learn to trust the instincts trained into you by these two good people." Elsa gestured at Anna's parents. "Your promises to Hans were being undermined by those instincts all the time. You should listen to your heart more often."

"The heart you gave me?" Anna said, grinning.

"You know what I mean," Elsa said.

Anna grinned. "I've seen a lot of queens do a lot of rescuing this year."

"Anna, dear," her mother said, interrupting both of them while they stood still, staring into each other's eyes, "There are people out at the party looking for you. We have to go say hello to them, too!"

"Okay, Mom." The band played a trill of flutes and oboes, and Anna recognized the music as a waltz from Rodgers & Hammerstein. "Elsa, will you dance with me?" She reached out for Elsa's hand.

Elsa looked down at Anna's offered hand, took it. "Are you sure about this?"

"Let them talk," Anna said, jabbing her chin in the direction of the brightly-lit central tent. "It's the honorable thing to do."

Chapter Text

Anna sighed as she closed the doors behind her. She loved parties, but this one had gone on for far longer than it deserved. The second anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Commonwealth didn't seem like the sort of thing that required a state dinner but her parents had come, the Manticoran and Grayson ambassadors had come, even Cornelia was in-system from Corona this week. All of whom wanted her opinion on one matter or another. The only person who hadn't wanted a piece of her was Admiral Naismith, which was a shame because Anna liked talking shop.

Now the castle lay dark and quiet. Outside the windows, the still-falling snow blanketed Chantel in peace. Anna loved Arendelle, her adoptive home, and its winters were so much like those of Sphinx, her birthworld, that she rarely missed it. She strode down the corridor. "Oh, Captain Anna, there you are."

Anna turned. "Gerda?"

"Yes, Captain. Captain Calhoun told me I might find you here. The Ladies Gothel and Her Majesty are waiting for you in the tea room."

"In the tea room? Why?"

"It's... important, or so I'm told."

Anna looked down. "I wanted to change out of my gown, but I guess I'll go right now." She reached in her pocket, found the box, nodded that it was still there.

Gerda gave her an approving look. Anna turned and walked back toward the tea room. Anna had fondness for the room where Meke had once performed that amazing interview. She and Elsa had spent hours there over the past two years, holding hands, talking, even arguing now and then. And kissing, lots of kissing. She was past fifty now, and kissing was still super important. Anyone who thought kissing was for finishing schoolers was an idiot. She opened the door without waiting. The light was low.

Elsa was seated at the small desk she kept in the corner, her greenshade desklamp casting a soft glow across the oaken surface. There was a small cardboard box on the table next to three cream envelopes. Anna tried to hide her surprise. That combination of box and envelope often came with an increase in rank, but usually she only saw it on the desk of a superior officer.

Elsa didn't count as an officer.

Jessica was lying on a couch, arms clamping a throw pillow over her face. Cornelia sat reading in an overstuffed chair, tablet in hand. Anna could tell them apart only by their outfits. "Everything all right?" she said, trying to sound normal. The air in the room did not feel normal.

"Anna," Elsa said, rising from the desk and rushing to hug her. "I'm so glad Gerda found you. It's been a very intriguing evening."

"Oh? What happened?" A reception was always a place for political intrigue, but Anna hadn't heard anything unusual. Just the usual jockeying for position, favor and impression. "Good intrigue, or bad intrigue?"

"Both," came the muffled voice from underneath the pillow. Jessica pulled the pillow aside, revealing her lovely features. "Today sucked."

Elsa looked up. "Meinhard had a proposal for Jessica today."

Anna gasped. "Hans Meihnard proposed to you?"

"No," Jessica said, and she pulled the pillow back onto her face. Cornelia scowled.

"Brecht?" Anna swallowed. Brecht Meinhardt, Duke Meinhard, was the sort of aging debauch who plowed through women. The idea that he would try to add any of Anna's friends repulsed her, but Jessica and Cornelia were in a special category all their own. Lady Gothel's daughters may have been clones raised in biecybernetic creches, but they had assimilated and adopted the real world with open arms and a kind of disciplined enthusiasm that must have been innate. That sort of relentless exploration of what made the world interesting must have served the cryogenically extended captain of a slower-than-light starship very well, and as long as they held onto their humanity, Anna predicted it would serve them greatly.

Elsa said, "Not in marriage. Brecht Meinhard asked Jessica to join him in an alliance to reduce my power-- further-- and make the duchies individual agents. He tried to convince her that her name had, um, weight."

Jessica pulled the pillow aside again. "I hate this. I am not my damn mother. I am not The Mother and I don't want to be! I can't wait to get off this rock."

"And away from your relatives," Cornelia said.

"You don't have to deal with them, all the way at Corona. For me, they're still in orbit above Arendelle," she said, pointing up at the ceiling. "At least Duke and Naylia finally came around, but some of them really are crazy."

Anna suppressed a giggle, but she appreciated the sentiment. Elsa said, "Brecht made two important mistakes, though. He used the word 'overthrow,' so I have a reasonable charge of treason I could make against him. And he did it where microphones could pick it up. Which means the charge would stick if I used it against him. I think I'll ask him to retire. Hans is easier to, shall we say, keep in line?"

Anna nodded. She had met Hans Meinhardt. He seemed like a nice boy, but he was at best a boy and always would be, not really equipped to play the game the way his father did. Or, for that matter, the Westergaards. It was too bad for them Elsa and Elizabeth played at an even higher level. "This will affect the balance of power."

"Maybe," Elsa said. "He still has a cache of secrets and lies. I doubt he could ruin me, but I'm sure even my allies have things to hide. Not necessarily legal things, but shameful."

Anna nodded. "We both know how that works."

"Indeed. But I'm glad Gerda found you, Anna. Today has been busy in other ways." She tapped on the envelopes on the table.

"Oh?"

"Yes. Aside from the event this evening, these came. This," she said dramatically, picking up the first envelope, "Is actually addressed to Jessica. And the other is for Cornelia."

"It is?" Jessica fell of the couch in her hurry to get up. Both women scrambled to their feet, reaching out as Elsa handed the envelopes to them.

Cornelia was first. "'Lady Cornelia Simone Gothel, you are hereby accepted to the Royal Manticoran Service. Report to cadet's training on Saganami Island no later than March 12th, 1918PD. Fail not at your peril.'" Her eyes widened. "I made it! Did you?"

"Yes!" Jessica said, holding up her own copy and embracing her sister. They both jumped up and down together. "We did it, we did it!" Jessica took a deep breath. "Thank you, Elsa. Thank you so much."

"It wasn't all my doing," Elsa said. "I'm sure for both of you, your grades mattered just as much."

"I know, I know, but with the wind-down they're not taking any cadets who aren't... You know." Jessica looked up. "I'm going to make it. I'm going to command my own starship someday."

"Yes," Cornelia said.

Elsa said, "I believe both of you."

Cornelia giggled. "Explaining to the Manticorans how we're twins but we didn't really grow up together... it'll be fun."

"Thinking it will be 'fun' is better than thinking it will be 'weird,'" Anna said.

"And with that," Elsa said, holding up the cardboard box. "This came from the same address." She opened it and held out two small velvet boxes. "I imagine these are your cadet... pips?" She looked at Anna, who nodded. "But you need a uniform to go with them."

"They give you one on the island. Showing up with your pips is your first test of responsibility."

Jessica held the box to her chest. "That's marvelous!" She looked down at the desk and the third envelope. It was different from the other two. "So, what's that?"

"This," Elsa said, tapping on the envelope, which was already opened, "Is a letter from Rapunzel." She held it out to Anna.

Anna read it. "Well," she said, grinning at Elsa. "The only surprise there is how long it took." She turned to Jessica and said, "Rapunzel proposed!"

"Took her bloody long enough," Jessica said, laughing. "I bet it was terribly romantic."

"Eiffel Tower, Night of the Moons. Eugene said yes."

Cornelia laughed. "Well, of course he did! Those two have been gooey for each other all the time I've known them." She sighed. "Some day, my prince will come."

"Not if I get him first," Jessica teased.

Anna laughed. "Well, it looks like everyone's getting married. I heard a rumor that Felix and Tamora are trying to find a wedding date."

"I hadn't heard that," Elsa said.

"That's because you're too busy to pay attention," Anna said. "You'll get an invitation once they've figured out when on their calendar. Maybe we should tell them that Eugene and Rapunzel are also looking for a date. And... speaking of dates." Anna hesitated, but Elsa raised her eyes in that beseeching way Anna could never resist. "Today was the two year anniversary of the signing."

"Yes?" Elsa said.

"Which means it's also the two year anniversary of the day I turned you down."

The room seemed to freeze. The twins held their breaths. "And what do you mean by bringing this up, Anna?"

Anna reached into her pocket, fumbling for the small box she had carried in there all evening long. Waiting for just the right moment. "Hold on," she said. She found it, fished it out. "There."

"What's that?" Elsa said.

"Like you can't guess?"

"I'm going to make you go all the way through with it," Elsa said, smirking.

Anna took a deep breath, raising herself to her full height, which still wasn't nearly as tall as Elsa. "If you want to be that way, then..." She grinned. "God, I'm nervous. Okay." She opened the box, revealing two platinum-alloy gold rings, thick and strong, but without any diamonds. "Elsa, you and I agreed two years ago that we could wait until we saw how well we fit. Two years is long enough. I think we do. If you think we do, then... will you marry me?"

Elsa's face was blazing with light and love. "Jessica, Cornelia, you're my witneses." The twins giggled. "Annastasia Christabelle DuVar, two years is more than enough. I was ready then to marry you. I'm ready now. Yes."

"Really?" Anna said, her voice squeaking.

"Yes. Yes, yes, yes! A thousand times, yes, Anna, I will."

Anna grabbed Elsa and kissed her, hard, her hands wrapped around the other woman. Their bodies molded joyfully together, and when she finally broke off for air they looked at one another and giggled. "We should call Calhoun, and King John, and coordinate."

"We will, we will," Elsa said. She looked at the twins. "You heard her, ladies. She proposed to me. She can't back out this one."

"She didn't back out last time, Elsa. She turned you down."

"And with good reason," Elsa said. "But she doesn't have a good reason this time."

Anna knew her smile probably looked insane, but she couldn't help it. "This time, I know I'm doing the right thing." She sighed. "I love you, Elsa."

"And I love you."

THE END