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The Clean Flame

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Blood did not compensate for time.

                This lesson Anna learned painfully.

                Her sister was now once again eagerly and frequently a part of her life, but the intervening decade meant they could not simply re-submerge themselves in the easy, unassuming camaraderie of friends, much less that of sisters. Immediately after the Great Thaw, both siblings were so overwhelmed with love and relief that it was fine to be together; it was more than sufficient just to rejoice in the other’s company. Anna had only to look upon her sister’s face when they sat next to each other at the dinner table, and she would burst into a beaming smile; Elsa woke her early just to say hello, just to see her face, before running off to her study. Anna went back to sleep curled tight with a happy glow in her chest.

                Then, time wore on. Anna began to realize that she knew almost nothing about this girl, this woman and her sovereign, who was the most important person in her life. She loved her. But she did not know her; and love, though unconditional, did not fill in the gaps.

                The honeymoon period came to a disappointing close. Their dinner table was silent when the royal ladies, as they rarely did, dined alone. They did not know what to say to each other or where to look when they did not speak. Life with Elsa became ordinary, and once Anna’s heart did not fill with a flood of happiness simply by looking upon her, she became aware of the emptiness hanging wearily between them.

                Elsa rose much earlier than she, and Anna began to grow annoyed at being woken every morning by that pattern of quiet, measured footsteps on her floors as her sister came to just say hello. But she dared not complain, because the presence of the older girl was still invaluable to her, and she liked to be reminded every morning (even be it ungodly early) that this was her New Life and nothing like the old one of closed doors and unreturned knocks. But Elsa either noticed her grumpy sighs or grew bored of the practice, and stopped coming.

                There was something wrong in their conversations, but it took Anna a long time to pinpoint it. They were not painfully, awkwardly silent. Each both contributed and gave space for the other to do the same. But there was something familiar, something formal and predictable about the way Elsa engaged with her, and vice versa. It was all how do you like dinner and I had a lovely morning and other sweet fluffy phrases devoid of substance.

                One day when emptying a chest of old schoolwork, it came to her. Priesly’s Guide for a Young Noblewoman clattered from her hand to the floor. Anna swore and picked it up, then smiled fondly at the cover when she recalled how many pages in that particular tome were dedicated to emphasizing the importance of refraining from letting anything slip past your lips that could be interpreted as even a distant relation of profanity. The princess flipped idly through the pages, thinking of how much she would relish throwing it into the stack of useless things to be given away or burned.

Priesly’s was full of trite, roundabout sayings about proper behavior and presentation, diagrams of table arrangements from all around the world (which were sort of interesting, Anna thought, but not when you had to memorize and reproduce fifty of them), and illustrations of noble-born girls and young women who looked so prim and proper that Anna could not imagine them ever having even considered the idea of having fun. She could remember thinking, when she’d done the lessons before their parents’ death, that Elsa would have gotten on fine with the ladies in those drawings. Elsa didn’t want to play or talk or even sit together dreaming aloud of faraway places. She was too busy, little Anna had once thought meanly, sipping tea with her pinky finger out and memorizing the correct polite phrases for use when conversing with an unknown of lower rank versus one of similar standing…

And, my, eighteen-year-old Anna realized, had she memorized them well, because now every night at dinner, they spilled out of her mouth as easily as inappropriate comments came from Anna’s. Their every conversation, at least since the excitement had died down, had its backbone formed of stock phrases and recommended topics learned from a tutor or a workbook. Anna had stopped her etiquette lessons after her parents had died – first out of a grief too powerful to make herself do anything so tedious, and then because no one was around to force her. But the workbooks were meant to continue until one was sixteen years old, so Elsa had probably completed the curriculum.

Damn her, Anna thought, striding purposefully through the marble-columned hall that led to the castle gardens. Growing bored with the majestic but inconvenient length of the hall, she gathered her skirts in her hands and took off. She always wore full skirts, not for fashion’s sake but so that she could run if the urge overtook her (as it often did); and she often put on breeches underneath, which may not have been quite textbook but had spared her many embarrassing moments. The younger sister was prone to finding herself upside down, flying through the air, in an impossibly tangled position – or some combination of the three, and it was to her advantage to put a layer of completely opaque fabric between her skirt and her hose.

The princess skidded out of the grand garden doors and made her way down the steps at breakneck speed, in a manner that could have either been falling or leaping. With the gates open, some parts of the garden were now available for reservation and currently in progress amidst the decoratively trimmed firs and pots of imported flowers was a reception for a duke and his soon-to-be duchess. Many of the guests were familiar with Anna, and only waved at her as she dashed past.

“Hi, Mr. Moustache!” she shouted at the duke, slowing her hustle for a moment. He beamed, being on good terms with her and finding her nickname endearing. “Congrats on the wife!”

“Good day to you, Princess Pigtails!” he said, cheeks tinted red by wine. “A slice of cake for you?”

“Thanks but no thanks, I’ve got to run. Gotta get across the garden by two!”

Across the garden was a silvery trellis of sorts, draped in vines that sprouted little yellow-and-orange flowers in the late spring. It was tucked away among the labyrinthine hedges, and just beyond it there was a corner blocked in by high hedges which, once turned, revealed an intricately-carved wooden bench that looked out onto the fjord. There was a railing, but one with a gap so wide, one so filled with the sight of the glimmering blue water beyond, that it might call to a bored little girl who wanted to go swimming in the sun of summer’s high noon.

All of it was perfectly hidden from the castle’s view by the hedges. Across the fjord there was an uninhabitable cliff topped with sparse forest. Most interesting of all, it was not on any of the castle or garden maps, for visitors or for officials.

Anna was pretty sure she had been conceived on that bench.

She would never tell her sister that, since Elsa liked to go out there to read at two o’ clock on the dot, every Tuesday afternoon. The Queen was meticulous about her schedule.

Which was precisely why the Princess was running.

Chest heaving, she arrived near the fjord arch with her etiquette book tucked under her arm. Removing it, she grimaced at the sweat stain now gracing the bottom of the volume; but then she shrugged and stuck the book lengthwise between her teeth. Anna thanked God that Lady Priesly, whomever she was, had tried to wrangle a larger profit margin by writing the guide in a series of successive thin volumes rather than one heavy and unbiteable tome. Then, with the ease of a panther, Anna scaled a nearby fir and stretched herself out over several thin, swaying branches to wait. She reveled in the cool sea breeze wicking away the sweat on her brow, and peered through the overlapping branches and sweet-smelling needles to try to catch sight of her sister.

Anna wasn’t even perched too high, the better to sight the ground; her feet dangled only a few feet above a man’s height. But she knew she was safe. No one ever thought to look up.

At two o’ clock on the dot, the princess heard the paired click-clack of heeled shoes on the walkway; they were careful, rhythmic, the steps of a woman who could walk quietly in any footwear if she wished but instead chose to declare her presence with the utmost self-assurance. Those footsteps were inevitable, almost mechanic in their regularity; they approached click-clack, click-clack, unchanging and steadily growing louder.

Then the Queen came into sight among the needles. Her blonde hair wrapped around her head in a single seamless braid which had neither beginning nor end; she wore a dress high at the neck and completely sleeveless, almost Chinese in style, though accompanied by a blue silk shawl for modesty’s sake. It was utterly unadorned and would have been equally unremarkable, unfit for royalty, were it not for the material, which was composed of a single, thick sheet of glimmering ice. Underneath, a simple white shift provided opacity.

The older sister stopped, nearly under the tree that housed the princess. Anna bit back the curse that fought to rise to her lips, fearing she would be heard. Just a little closer, she urged silently. Come on.

Elsa’s shoes were as impressive as her dress, if for the height of their heels rather than their material. Anna was in awe of any woman who could strut about daily in such footwear; one of her closest-kept secrets was that she loved the look of high-heeled shoes but never donned them herself given that ten minutes after stepping into them, her back and feet would begin to ache intolerably. It seemed far too prissy a trait to admit too; besides, she refused to wear them and would rather have been thought tomboyish than sensitive to pain.

Elsa, however, looked perhaps more comfortable in impossible heels and elegant dresses than in her dressing gown and slippers. You had to be a sorceress, Anna surmised, to withstand such discomfort.

Far below the princess, said sorceress looked about herself, finding no one – and not looking up. On her face rested an expression quite familiar to Anna; it was the hesitantly eager look of someone about to misbehave. Swaddled among the fir needles, Anna grinned and anticipated.

The Queen unceremoniously kicked off her shoes, one after the other. Immediately the rigid set of her back softened, and Anna could practically hear the accompanying relieved sigh; free of her magical touch, the ice-shoes began to melt into the sun-warmed cobblestones. She advanced, closer to the trunk Anna’s tree.

Human, after all, Anna thought with a silent giggle, and let her fingers slide along the spine of the etiquette book.

It hit the cobblestones with a cacophonous smack, dust fleeing from the hardly-opened pages in an ill-smelling cloud. The Snow Queen, sovereign of the land, let out a girlish shriek and jumped in her bare feet away from the falling primer.

“Sorry!” cried Anna as she swung herself down from the tree. “I meant to drop it behind you, but I missed!”

Anna?” her sister gasped, mouth gaping open like a fish. She had been taken completely by surprise by the falling book and the sudden appearance of another person; she clutched at her heart and staggered backwards.

Anna’s face took on a sheepish expression. She presented herself before her sister with shoulders bent forward in embarrassment; to absolutely no effect she began to reconsider her grand plan post-implementation. “Last I checked, yup.”

“You – what –“ Elsa’s breathing was rapid and shallow. Anna began to fear that she would faint.

“I, uh, wanted to talk to you about that,” confessed Anna, pointing to the cloud of dust and the workbook.

“So you dropped it on my head?” the Queen demanded incredulously after taking in several deep breaths of flowery garden air. In her excitement wisps of white-blonde hair had begun to unfurl from her braid. “Instead of walking up to me and asking about it like a normal person?”

“In retrospect,” said Anna. “I suppose I could have done it that way.”

Now that she had verified her life was not in danger, Elsa began to relax, and a twitchy smile spread slowly across her face. “You don’t change,” she said fondly. “Never do something the sensible way if it’s possible to nearly get someone killed, that’s your motto.”

“That’s the thing,” Anna said slowly, tentatively, egging the words on in their journey out of her mouth. It would be so easy, she felt, to fall into the easy, joking manner her elder sister had established and forget that they were supposed to have A Talk. “I have changed. And you have too.”

“I don’t –“

And,” Anna declared, cutting off her sister. “We don’t really know each other. Like, as adults. And relying on Priesley’s Topics of Conversation for Any Situation isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

That made Elsa go quiet, her eyes fixed on the fallen book upon which dust began to settle once more. She thought for a long moment, then, wearing an expression of the utmost blandness, she said, “She does say for Any Situation.”

Anna snorted, surprised; a pause settled over the two as they stood, hands clasped in front of their bodies, gazing down at the book.

“I guess,” said Elsa, finally, quietly. “I, well – I’m sorry.”

Anna looked expectantly at her normally articulate sister, but the other girl seemed either unwilling or plainly incapable of bringing her thoughts to her lips. Several long moments passed, but the Queen did not continue, simply looking helplessly at her younger sister until Anna finally suggested, “You don’t know how to talk to me anymore?”

Elsa considered, then, her lips forming the words carefully and judiciously, admitted, “To anyone, really.”

The frustration and disappointment Anna had felt at realizing the source of her sister’s trite phrases melted into pity. Pity was a degrading emotion, she knew, but could not extinguish the warm, aching feeling in her stomach that compelled her to throw her arms around Elsa. Anna resisted the urge, fearing the Queen would run away like a rabbit approached too soon and without a treat in hand.

“Sit with me,” Anna said instead, grabbing Elsa’s hand and leading her to the bench where she was not one hundred percent, but at least fairly sure, she had been conceived. There they sat, Elsa’s back ramrod straight and Anna slouched down so far in her seat she appeared to be in danger of sliding off the wooden seat and onto the stones.

“This place isn’t on the maps, you know,” said Elsa, gazing out over the water. Light refracted off the rolling surface, making it look like a sheet of blue silk studded with diamonds. “I think Mama had it built that way to have a secret reading spot.”

“Something like that,” Anna said, her voice strained, thinking of the purpose she had imagined for the niche. Their clashing assumptions, she mused, perfectly illustrated the chasm of differences between the two sisters. How funny that two girls born of the same parents, raised in the same castle on the same bread and butter, could be so dissimilar.

                The breeze off the fjord was salty and sharp. Anna took a long inhale, relishing the burn in her nose. “So,” she suggested after a fashion, only half-ironic in her forwardness. “Tell me about yourself.”

                Elsa blinked big blue eyes. Her eyelids, the princess noticed, were painted in a pale orangey color. It looked nice with the cold shades of her clothing. “Come again?” asked the older sister.

                “We’re playing getting to know you,” said the younger, playfully poking Elsa’s arm. “Tell me about yourself. Tell me what you’ve done in the last ten years. Tell me what I missed. Be honest.”

                Elsa sighed. “Do I have to?”

                “Three minutes. Go.” Anna looked up at her, smiling widely, with an eagerness that suggested she might cry if her request were denied. It was carefully calculated, and obviously so, but still effective.

                “Okay,” relented the Queen. “I, uh…I didn’t do much.”

                Anna was unblinking, immobile, gazing at her sister with those waiting eyes. She did not even breathe.

                “I…did my tutoring,” continued Elsa, her voice as stiff as her posture. “I read a lot of books. I ate a lot of chocolate. That’s basically it.”

                “Boring,” Anna yawned.

                “Well, you asked.”

                “That’s not all you did! In ten years!”

                “I’m a boring person.”

                 “Fine,” sighed Anna. But she peered sidelong at her sister with a little frown on her face, and eventually Elsa continued her story when she could find nothing more of interest in the details of her own bare feet.

                “I did read a lot. Whenever my room got too stifling, I’d go to the library since I knew you wouldn’t be in there.”

                “Hey –“

                “Don’t start, Anna,” Elsa said loftily, sounding very much like an older sister. “Mama and Papa couldn’t get you to stay in there for lessons with all the gold in the treasury, for goodness’s sake.”

                “It’s too quiet in the library,” complained the princess. “I can’t breathe.”

                “Anyway. I went to the library all the time and I swear by now I must have read half of it. I learned embroidery –“

                “You would,” scoffed Anna. Her sister ignored her.

                “—I learned embroidery and a bit of calligraphy and to play the harpsichord…well, sort of. I can’t keep time,” Elsa confessed, looking thoughtfully out to where the fjord cliffs seemed to converge in the distance. Hesitantly, with a destination in mind, she said softly, “The thing about the books in the library is, there are a lot of fairy tales.”

                Anna sighed happily. “I love fairy tales.”

                “I know you do. You always liked the dashing princes and brave knights and true love and all of that. But what I noticed, as a little girl reading all those fairy tales, was the complete lack of positive representations of witches and sorceresses. I wrote a letter to complain. Many letters, actually.”

                “You did? That’s so cute!” cried Anna, thinking of a younger Elsa indignantly putting pen to paper and scrawling a scathing critique about unfair portrayals and their psychological effects in a child’s vocabulary and hand.

                “I thought,” Elsa began to admit, grinning sheepishly. “Well, no…”

                “Yes! Tell me!”

                “I thought someday I would write and illustrate a series of children’s books about a good sorceress who used her magic to help her people,” said the Queen, pressing her hands to pink cheeks. “But I couldn’t draw to save my life, no matter how much I practiced. So I gave up.”

                “We should do it,” Anna encouraged, beaming at the thought. “You do the story, I’ll do the pictures.”

                “Maybe someday,” Elsa laughed, finally relaxing into the backrest of the bench. Her legs uncrossed, and her bare feet flopped happily and dirtily against the warm cobblestones. “I guess that was when I started writing in to things. I didn’t have anyone else to talk to, so I wrote a lot of letters of admiration or critique to authors, and letters-to-the-editor to some weeklies.”

                “Did anyone ever write back?”

                “Yes, actually,” said Elsa, smiling down at her sister, who had somehow shifted to sprawl across the bench like an unusually large cat. The younger girl gazed up at Elsa, apparently enthralled by the conversation, which was, as far as the Queen could assess, of no interest whatsoever to anyone. “I wrote in so much to one weekly that they actually gave me a column.”

                “You’re syndicated?” gasped Anna. “How come I never knew?”

                “Anna, I didn’t use my real name. Or titles!” Elsa said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Anna felt her cheeks color, and remembered one drawback of having an older sister with the brainpower of four men. “I’ve been writing under a nom de plume once a week for, oh, two years.”

                “What’s your pen name? Which weekly?”

                “Not saying,” said Elsa, calmly but too quickly, her head hastily turning away from Anna’s searching gaze.

                “Oh my God,” Anna breathed. “It’s a ladies’ magazine. It is, isn’t it?”

                “No,” gasped Elsa, aghast. “It most certainly is not!”

                “The lady doth protest too much,” sang Anna, horribly. “It’s totally a ladies’ magazine. The Queen, sovereign of the land—”

                “It actually isn’t, Anna,” Elsa groaned, covering her face with one disdainful gloved hand. “And I’ll let you see my column if you’ll shut up about this preposterous ladies’ magazine business.”

                Sad to depart from the idyllic little bench overlooking the fjord, the girls made their way into the castle, which seemed cold and dark after the splendor of the garden. Blinking rapidly, they made their way up a spiraling staircase, Anna tripping as her eyes adjusted. Elsa, in newly-frozen heels, stepped as daintily as a doe.

                “Here,” breathed Elsa, a little out-of-breath from the rushed climb. She threw open the door to her room, entering without a thought while Anna looked around. The younger girl had not been in her sister’s chambers for what seemed like an eternity. It was different, probably, but she could not remember what it had looked like the last time. Now it just looked perfectly Elsa.

                The Queen’s bedroom was the one she had inhabited as a child, bedecked in shades of dark purple and blue. Her furniture was replete with gothic angles and sparklingly clean, every fold of fabric perfectly smooth and every object making neat angles with the others. She did all that herself, Anna was sure, not the staff. Because she would. Anna liked to throw her windows open wide as long as the temperature was tolerable; Elsa’s were shut airtight. A memory tickled at the edge of Anna’s consciousness, something about Elsa being annoyed by the little whistles of wind that sneaked in through cracked-open windows and doors.

                Elsa crossed to a chest of drawers and pulled out cleanly-folded newspaper. She tossed it with affected uncaring at her sister, who caught it messily and shook it open.

                Modern Mathematics, Anna read, disappointed. No sordid tales after all. The date was more than a year ago, but the paper smelled new and the ink had stayed in strict lines and curves. Probably the Queen had frightened it into place with her scowl.

                “There,” said Elsa, peering over Anna’s shoulder and placing an ungloved finger on a boldfaced heading.

                Algebraic Topology: New Applications and Why They Concern You

                “Here’s another,” the Queen said in a voice of the utmost disinterest, handing her younger sister another paper and noting a column.

                Theoretical Explorations of Frictionless Architecture: Versailles in Ice

                “And this.”

                Madame Mathematician: Contributions by Women of the Eighteenth Century

                Elsa held her sister’s gaze for a long moment, expression as smooth and unengaged as a mask. “You wouldn’t be interested in any of this, of course,” she said neutrally.

                “Well, I’m not really one for this kind of thing,” Anna admitted. The older sister was very carefully inspecting her own fingernails. She had her arms crossed closely over her abdomen, appearing to fold in on herself as the princess read the words she had so painstakingly put to paper. Hundreds of people must have read her articles, but that thought did not make her insides curl into tiny knots the way the sight of her column in her sister’s hand did. Anna continued, “But, wow, Elsa, you really put your free time to good use!”

                “Thanks,” said Elsa, sounding glum despite her efforts to the contrary. As if unable to stop herself she said, “Don’t tell anyone, please. Don’t show these to anyone.”

                “Why?”

                “It’s so – unbecoming.” The Queen’s face was red and wrinkly with embarrassment.

                “What?” asked Anna, not to reassure her sister but out of a plain deficit of understanding. “Is academia unbecoming these days?”

                “For a woman to pursue that kind of thing. For royalty…” Elsa trailed off, grimacing grotesquely. “A queen.”

                “Yeah, but Elsa,” Anna protested with a glimmer in her eye, taking gentle but insistent hold of her sister’s forearm. The older girl looked into her eyes, seeking reassurance. “What isn’t unbecoming to a queen?”

                Elsa grinned and laughed; the angle created by the difference in height between the two young women meant her head bent forward such that her sweeping white-blonde bangs dangled precariously off of her forehead, almost brushing Anna’s. She found herself wanting to brush them back, but Anna had ahold of her crossed arms and she was loathe to jostle them apart in this moment of tenderness, when Anna’s blue-green eyes took on that soft quality like fading afternoon sunlight.

                “What isn’t unbecoming to a queen?” mimicked the blonde. “Etiquette, embroidery, harpsichord…”

                Anna giggled ruefully, giving the other girl a light push. “You’re perfect, then,” said she. “All the right credentials and everything.”

                “Don’t start,” Elsa cautioned, rolling her eyes at the mention of duty. “I don’t want to talk about – oh!”

                “Oh?”

                “I’m late! Actually, you’re late too – cabinet meeting, remember?”

                Anna glanced at the handsome grandfather clock standing proud in the corner of Elsa’s room. So they were. The Queen liked attending these meetings only a hair more than her sister, since the weekly reports were full of so much jargon that they were nearly useless without extensive follow-up consultations with advisors. The unnecessarily complex presentations of the ministers was, in fact, intentional – the more confused the royal house was by day-to-day affairs, the more autonomy the government had.

                The practice was long-rooted in tradition and ultimately harmless. Yet Elsa found it subversive, and had been trying to brainstorm ways to put it out of use for far too long. It was difficult because there was no concrete crime to identify; accusing a minister of being overly roundabout and technical in his reports was far less sound than, say, an accusation of embezzlement. Furthermore, such protestations on the Queen’s part could be construed as a confession to stupidity.

                But they had to be there. They had to sit and look pretty while each wheezy, white-bearded man recounted in twenty minutes what could have been said in five. Elsa considered herself quite accomplished for having achieved the feat of staying awake during all of these meetings such far. Anna was more used to such affairs, having attended them in her teenage years while Elsa was shut away in her room.

                Halfway through the Minister of Finance’s tabulations of the most expensive public works projects scheduled to be begun in the next quarter, the Queen’s chin sank onto the upturned heel of her hand, her braid toppling over her shoulder and dangling down onto the table. She blinked slowly, feeling as if she should at least seem like she was paying attention but at a loss as to where to find the motivation to construct such an illusion.

                That was precisely when a leather-soled shoe made square contact with Elsa’s calf underneath the grand mahogany table. She jerked to attention, shoulders snapping violently back and eyes opening so far they were nearly round.  A muffled giggle emanated from the right; without turning, Elsa caught the shine of auburn hair as her sister adjusted her seat.

`               The Queen took fountain pen into hand and began to jot down some item of vital importance; then she casually turned the pad of paper at an angle, moving her arm out of the way. Princess Anna spiraled her gaze toward the message, which read in ornate and flowing script:

                Behave.

                Grinning secretively, Anna replied silently in kind.

                So says Queen Sleepyhead.

                At that, even Elsa’s composure broke, and she lifted a white-gloved hand to her mouth to cover her smile. At that moment she looked across the table and her gaze locked onto Kai’s, the castle’s Chief of Staff. He scowled lovingly at her, and she turned pink, embarrassed to have been caught goofing off during such an ostensibly important meeting.

                The event dragged on, though Elsa entertained herself by crafting the ideal comeback to throw in her sister’s face when it finally finished. The Minister of War became engaged with the Minister of Trade in an argument so civil it did not appear to be an argument to anyone who was not closely tracking their statements and did not have an ear for the falseness of the Minister of War’s laugh. It concerned the importation of arms: the Minister of War wanted to buy them from the Kholodnian Empire to the east, whose military manufacturing sector did shoddy but low-risk work, while the Minister of Trade favored the greater security risk and more skilled manufacturers of the Confederation of Kramer States to the south.

                Queen Elsa tried not to grit her teeth, but it seemed she had forgotten how to make the muscles in her jaw relax. Everyone knew the Confederation was too much of a mess to go to war with anybody these days. Besides, Arendelle was low on anyone’s list of “places to attack” – it was a small, peaceable kingdom that was not in a strategic location and had no mineral wealth. The argument was pointless.

                “Gentlemen,” she said aloud, clearing her throat. Silence reigned immediately; the Queen rarely participated in these meetings with more than courtesy. “Pardon my intrusion into this conversation, but may I suggest we favor whichever producer is more cost-effective and disregard all other considerations as impossible to predict and likely to cancel out, anyway?”

                The two men bowed, almost in unison, and declared that they would run through the numbers and notify her of the decisions by the end of the week. The Queen rarely intervened directly in these microscopic decisions, so when she did, her royal suggestions were taken with all the weight of her throne. Elsa sighed silently; she did not care what conclusion they reached but wanted only to prevent the meeting from stalling longer than necessary. Already she could feel the rustling of skirts beside her as Anna began to restlessly tap her foot.

                “Adjourned,” cried the Prime Minister at long last, and the men in their stuffy suits rose with the choral creaking of old knees and wooden chairs.

                “Thank God,” breathed Princess Anna quietly. The corner of the Queen’s mouth quirked upward, but returned to its stiff hard-line set when she saw Kai’s fingers subtly beckoning her over behind his back.

                “Princess, you are dismissed,” Elsa said with fond, excessive airs, gathering her skirts and making her way around the corner of the table to greet her Chief of Staff. But Anna’s hand wrapped around her wrist with gentle yet surprising strength, and the Queen turned involuntarily on one heel to face her sister. The younger girl, still seated, pulled Elsa’s hands down to her shoulders and grinned when the usually-poised queen nearly tripped.

                “You’re not dismissed,” she declared, eyes alight. Anna was loathe to let go of the afternoon of camaraderie they so rarely enjoyed, particularly given she’d had to orchestrate it herself. “The Queen’s presence is requested in the Oak Room, by royal decree, for a very important dinner with a very important member of a very important royal family.”

                “Who is this oh-so-important diplomat?” asked Elsa, playing along, though she knew the answer.

                “Me, of course!”

                Elsa’s smile faded, the lines in her forehead reappearing. The younger girl could sense that her sister was slipping away from her, the Queen’s mind once again wrapped up in official duties and paperwork and her tightly-managed schedule; Anna’s grip on the other’s wrist tightened painfully, as if she could physically pull the witty, mischievous girl to the surface again. But Elsa only frowned and snatched her hand away.

                “Quit it, Anna,” she said abruptly, straightening. “My presence is actually requested with the panel of advisors. I already wasted the entire afternoon with you; I can’t dally about anymore.”

                “It wasn’t wasted!” protested Anna as Elsa straightened and began to depart, but the ramrod set of her sister’s retreating back gave no indication that she had heard. She had pushed too far – but, Anna reminded herself with Elsa’s shy, twinkling smile playing on repeat in the back of her mind, at least she had made some headway.

Chapter Text

The meeting with Kai turned out to be a brief and easily-resolvable matter. He was getting too old to be bustling about the castle as Chief of Staff; Elsa politely demoted him (with no cut in pay) to an assistant’s position and promised him a bright and energetic upstart to train as soon as one could be procured. Best of all, he had no scolding words for her un-queenly behavior during the cabinet meeting; in fact, his courteous and conspicuous lack of comment rang out as clearly as a joyous declaration of approval that, for once, the Queen was acting her age. So Kai was no problem.

                However, the Queen did have a problem— a big problem.

                Her name was Johanna.

                She was the royal legal advisor, the only woman on the advisory panel, and she possessed not one remarkable quality. She was a young thirty-something with curly, chestnut-brown hair that she tied back in a neat bun. Her nose was hawkish, and her eyes sharp. She was intelligent but not extraordinarily so; her skill lay in a minute attention to detail and an ability to keep fourteen different expenses separate in her head. She wore a pair of severe glasses low on her nose and high-collared dresses in varying uninteresting shades of blue and gray. Johanna was an accountant and nothing more nor less.

                Elsa was three years older than her sister, but in many respects, she was much, much younger. Her life had for so long been four walls and a billion dog-eared pages; she could not, unlike Anna, ride a bike or talk easily with strangers or hold her liquor. But another consequence of Elsa’s strange and sequestered adolescence was beginning to make itself known to her in the most inconvenient ways.

                The Queen was a frustratingly unimaginative person. For years, she had been so frightened of anything that might provoke a strong emotion and cause her to lose control of her ice powers that she had hidden herself away not only from people but from heady, emotive things such as drink and dancing – and, to even her own bemusement, from experiences even more basic than those (and, in fact, experiences that seemed to often follow causally from drink and dancing).

                At twenty-one years of age, Elsa had no personal experience with sex, nor even the idea of sex, nor the bodily needs that sometimes precipitated sex. The first of those conditions was required of royal women, the second formally enforced but in practice usually ignored (as Anna had proven just earlier that day with her apparent knowledge of ladies’ magazines) – and the third preposterously unimaginable to almost any other young man or lady, royal or common, at her age.

                She had, of course, on occasion felt the stirrings of adulthood deep in her abdomen, but had never connected them to other people nor their logical consequence. And they were few and far between, brought on by hidden reams of poetry she’d had to translate herself, and more often precluded by the bouts of loneliness and despair that characterized her formative years. Since the death of the king and queen, those brief moments had subsided nearly altogether; and Elsa took a secret and quite unfair pride in the fact that she, unlike light-headed maidens such as her sister, could not be deceived by a cloud of butterflies and weak knees brought on by a handsome man with magnificent sideburns.

                So it had been quite a shock when, not even a week prior, a dream of the least cerebral sort had come to the Queen in the depths of her sleep.

                She was walking along a marble-laid hallway. She had somewhere very important to go – Anna’s birthday, maybe, or perhaps she was supposed to receive an ambassador? It didn’t matter. What mattered was that she had to get there now; she walked as quickly as she could without picking up her feet and running.

                With a start, she whirled about, a foreign hand grasping at her bare arm. “In here,” came the muffled, dry voice of her legal advisor, and Elsa found herself being pulled bodily into a nook she had not known existed. It was a linen cupboard. She was crouched in a linen cupboard with Johanna the legal advisor, breathing hard and eyes as round as china plates. But in the puzzling manner of dream-logic, she was not surprised at all. Of course she was stuffed into a tiny closet with her legal advisor; where else would she be?

                The linen cupboard was draped in black silk; there was a bed of sorts, or perhaps a couch – at any rate, some sort of cushioned surface covered in the soft, delicate stuff. The secluded cranny was as dark as the silk they perched upon, but there must have been a light source somewhere, because she could dimly see Johanna’s face, approaching hers.

                And it did not stop. The advisor’s lips crashed briefly into Elsa’s, soft and flat and polite.

                “I’m not like that,” said Elsa, apologetically, looking into Johanna’s disappointed brown eyes. Then the sovereign, contrary to her words, pounced onto her advisor, pressing her mouth needily into the older woman’s as if attempting to suck the lifeblood out of her. Thank goodness the black silk couch was there, because it gave them a place to topple onto. Elsa’s subconscious had no detail, no experience, to draw upon, so there was none; just a feeling of warmth everywhere but particularly in unusual places, and a faint but growing beat like a drum, and not being able to stop, but pressing forward, pressing together…

                Her eyes had snapped open in the darkness, the covers twisted around her legs in an impossible knot. She hadn’t been writhing around like some peasant girl having her first in a haystack? Oh, she had – how coarse of her! What’s more, the dream had not entirely faded – there, the drumbeat, still thrummed inside of her; and once awake there was no reality to escape to with the blessed ringing of her clock. Elsa had squeezed her eyes shut and tried to will the memory away. Perhaps, she had thought to herself/prayed vehemently, it would be that kind of dream that faded within moments of wakening.

                It was not, to her great dismay. Nearly a week hence, Elsa sat primly, legs crossed at the ankle, across from her legal advisor, and looked into those unremarkable brown eyes. She heard I’m not like that, and felt black silk rippling under her knees, and to her great dismay she felt also the echoes of the incessant pressing and the strange drumbeat.

                The Queen heard faintly, as if through gallons of water, her commerce advisor opening the meeting with, “First, allow me to present some numbers concerning the matter just raised about arms purchases…”; the words seemed to float right through her grey matter, which was otherwise preoccupied in an increasingly futile effort to forget the bizarre things her subconscious imagined and quell the rapidity of her breath brought on by such delusions.

                If Elsa’s womanhood had been dormant in some regard, in hibernation until her powers and familial situation stabilized, it had awoken along with her on that fitful night. Now it was berating her, incessantly and with the most rude urgency, for its long neglect; its proprietor, however, had little more than zero idea how to take its reigns. And so it continued, making her face red and her heart fast so that at the end of each day she fell into bed exhausted. But she did not sleep; no, she turned about herself in her massive down bed, staring at the ceiling and praying for a miracle to descend from the heavens and provide her relief. It did not come; her body was newly alive and, like an overly energetic puppy, demanded to be taken out on a walk Elsa did not know how to give it.

                Across the table, Johanna’s hand absentmindedly stroked the length of the fountain pen in her hand as she waited for her turn to give counsel. Elsa’s ice-blue eyes followed every twitch and smooth lengthening of the older woman’s digits, giving rise to the catching of breath in her throat and a deep-seated discomfort. Her legs crossed tighter, hidden beneath gown and table, but this failed to in any way to ease her predicament.

                “Your Majesty, might you be ill?” inquired her financial minister under his breath, seated to her right. “It seems you have a fever.” He, realized the Queen, must have noted from his close position her reddened face and labored breathing.

                “Thankfully not,” whispered Elsa, blushing more deeply if that were possible, though she thought privately yes, I’m quite ill – it’s terminal, in fact. “It’s merely to do with the change of the seasons.”

                The meeting progressed in such a fashion. Elsa’s gaze dawdled on the high collar of Johanna’s proper court dress, and her mind sketched a million scenarios in which it might be erased. Perhaps after the meeting, as she was about to leave, the legal advisor would call her back for a moment to consult papers; the papers would be cast aside and the Queen would be backed into the table, hands not her own undoing her hair and Johanna’s lips making love to the tender skin at the juncture of her jaw and neck…

                “Let’s adjourn early,” called the finance advisor, though all matters were far from settled; he sensed that Elsa was not truly present and saw no need to prolong the pointlessness. Perhaps he put her mindlessness, too, up to a change in the seasons. “And reconvene early tomorrow.”

                Elsa breathed a sigh of relief. She roused herself eagerly from her chair but dawdled in leaving the boardroom; there was a tingle of hope at the back of her mind that one of the million scenarios she imagined might come to fruition, that a dry staccato voice would call out for her to stay. But every second that passed moved reality further and further from her fantasies, and with each passing second a leaden weight grew in the pit of her stomach.

                So she removed herself to her room, planning to dine alone and then read until the sky began to grow light around the edges, when she would finally be exhausted enough to fall into a fitful sleep for a few hours until she was roused by a servant bringing breakfast, along with a quantity of coffee that she ordered increased every subsequent day. A shame Elsa had allowed herself to snap at Anna; the princess would have dined without her and probably retreat from her company out of fear for at least a few days. She did not mean to be so brusque with her dear sister, but she was tired, so tired, and Anna’s energy could either inspire her to activity or provoke a pounding headache. Today it had first been the former, then the latter – and she had snapped.   

                The Queen collapsed into her bed, drawing a pillow and a book near to herself. She rang for supper and pressed the downy surface of the pillow to her face, allowing her eyes to go vacant and her body to still, with the frightening completeness of a person quite exhausted. But when she closed her eyes and quieted her mind, her heartbeat reawakened and vague images flashed on the dark theater wall of her eyelids – sweat and skin and lips all jumbled into something cubist and bizarre, something that was not arousing so much as a ridiculous byproduct of a distended, tired mind.

                She had not spoken to Anna, nor anyone else, about her predicament. Why would she? After so long spent on her own, Elsa rarely thought to approach anyone about something that was troubling her, much less something so embarrassingly personal. Furthermore, while the fact that she seemed for the first time to be experiencing desire at all was troubling to the young queen, Elsa knew that the object of her fixation was likely to be problematic were anything, unlikely as it was, ever to come of it.  It was unnatural, they said. An ill omen for the friends and family. People had these ideas about witches, and Elsa was ashamed to be proving them true.

                Elsa did what she had always done when in dire straits; she retreated to the library. There she pored over dusty volumes, dictionaries piled high at her side, and did her research. She read about the cut-sleeve boys in the east and the jungle women across the ocean; she read cohabitation contracts and furious essays brimming with condemnation. Walt and William wrote in styles so different, the latter with precise meter and rhyme and the former with no rules at all, but both about a subject which suddenly interested her with the utmost intensity. Her eyes grew heavy late into the night as she read histories, mostly contemptuous, of James and of Alexander. Biblical texts and analyses spoke of fire and brimstone.

                When she came across passages that proclaimed evil was woven immitigably into her very soul, the pages beneath her fingers grew heavier and heavier with ribbons of frost until she could barely turn them. The Queen had to pause, breathe deeply, and let the book rest by the fire. In the mornings there lay a puddle on her reading table that the cleaning staff mopped up without asking; water and ice in strange places, they assumed, was an inescapable part of being in the employ of a sorceress.

                She emerged late in the mornings, smelling of old parchment and ink, no less enlightened than the previous night. Words tumbled about in her head but seemed to have no relationship with the world of physical objects and too-bright sunshine. Lines of tiny, wiggly ink letters with far too many curly descenders made her vision swim; she tuned in and out of meetings and wished vehemently to return to the heavenly state of only a week prior, which she certainly had not valued before she had known the alternative.

                Her health was suffering, it had been noted by all but the least astute residents of the castle (the Princess Anna was counted among this latter category, unfortunately). Elsa had so long believed herself to be a devilish abomination doomed to cause woe, on account of her powers, that discovering a new category in which she was damned did not too greatly upset her. But that holiday – that period after she had opened the gates and before her adulthood had awakened – made returning to despair and self-hatred all the harder.

                Summer is short, thought Elsa after the advisory meeting, as she paged idly through a legal agreement she was supposed to sign. She was in the library, as always, documents spread across the table and her lap. Beneath a kindly happy-coronation-sorry-this-is-late letter from one duke and family friend rested a copy of a copy of a poem she was laboriously translating; to her left lay both a report detailing the genesis of new political movements in the Kramer States and a half-finished article for that magazine that was due by the end of the week.

                Then, suddenly, the reams of paper disappeared. Her candle had burnt out – and she, never noticing the dwindling of the light, never noticing the lateness of the night.

Chapter Text

Midnight was Princess Anna’s favorite genre of snack. She would routinely sneak out of her bedroom once the castle had fallen asleep and tiptoe up to the pantry, more out of boredom and the desire to be rebellious than any real hunger. Sometimes servants were there when she arrived, sweeping up after supper or preparing the next day’s repast; there were exponentially more castle staff since the opening of the gates, so more and more Anna’s nocturnal feasts were dampened by the presence of bowing servants and pairs of watchful eyes. Once she had walked in on a serving boy, no older than herself, shoveling dried meats into a burlap sack in the dead of the night. Her sister would have had his head, but Anna only asked him his name; he told her much more. He was Alexei, he said, and his father was ill. He had come here to work, to send money home so his family could eat, but his swollen, inviting packages kept getting intercepted by hungry, underpaid soldiers in his native land. Anna almost cried, thinking of his mother and sisters and brothers waiting for food that never came, and had written into his contract increased wages on the condition of good behavior, and visa expedition for his family members in five years’ time should they like to come work alongside him in Arendelle.

                Whenever the staff were in the pantry, Anna nibbled delicately on a slice of bread while eyeing the leftover pudding and goose in the icebox. There was something freeing about being alone, about her heartbeat being the only one in a reasonable distance; being alone by choice was not the same as being lonely, she had come to realize – and that choice was one she treasured when she felt inclined to make it, given all of the occasions on which it hadn’t been her decision to make.

                It was not often that she rounded the stone corner into the well-lit and warm pantry to find not a servant interrupting her candlelit peace, but a queen.

                Elsa blinked, caught in the act of licking something off her fingers, as Anna entered the room with her trademark unmitigated, undisguised footsteps. She looked like a child, thought Anna fondly, with wide eyes and roses blooming in her cheeks, and her pointer finger stuck statuelike in her mouth. Rare it was, to witness the queen doing anything that was not scripted precisely to uphold her pristine image. Like kicking off her shoes in the garden, Anna reminded herself, grinning.

                “I was just –“ stammered the monarch.

                “Midnight binging,” supplied her little sister knowingly.

                “Not binging,” the elder sister qualified. “Just – having tea a little late.”

                Anna snorted. She peered around Elsa to survey little bowls of melted butter, sugar, and something mealy and off-white.

                “Ground almonds,” said Elsa, noting her gaze lingering on the last bowl.

                “Wait,” cried Anna. “I used to get little almond cookies with breakfast sometimes. When I prayed before bed, I used to ask God to make sure they came the next morning.”

                “You rascal,” Elsa admonished warmly, without a smile though her eyes were soft and kind. “Not a very good use of prayer.”

                “But you –“

                “Guilty as charged,” the queen admitted, returning to her attention to the yet-unformed dough awaiting her careful fingers. “I used to sometimes come here and make cookies when I couldn’t sleep. If there were any extra, I had them sent out to you the next day.”

                Anna looked her elder sister up and down. It was rare to see Elsa like this, clad only in a simple white silk nightgown, her hair free and unpinned around her shoulders, bangs making a nuisance of themselves about her eyelashes. At midnight she had no kohl around her eyes or berry-colored stain on her lips, no queenly bearing except that which must have been intrinsic to her person. She looked small, thought Anna, in her bare feet and absent all the affectations of the monarchy that she usually bore. Now Elsa had only her wide, expressive eyes and the tense purse of her lips, only the fragile, narrow bones of her shoulders without padding or embroidery. Like this, she could have been any young woman, were it not for the finery of the silk that made up her shift. It, Anna realized when the queen bent over to grab a smaller spoon, was quite thin – and Elsa wore no brassiere. She averted her eyes uncomfortably.

                There was something exciting about midnight, about baking cookies in the candlelight. While not expressly forbidden, it was the kind of thing princesses and queens were not supposed to do, and certainly not together. Anna had a rebellious streak that lit up at things like drinking and smoking, sneaking out, partaking in peasants’ music and dancing.

                There was something exciting, too, about the fact that Elsa was unclothed under her shift.

                Her older sister – her kind, distant, self-conscious older sister who had, for multiple years sent a tiny, anonymous token of love despite their separation. The Princess felt blessed to be in her presence, much less her relation, and felt a warmth swelling up in her heart, filling her chest cavity with something sweeter and softer than the dough Elsa formed expertly with her elegant, dexterous hands. She watched as her sister worked, seeing the sincere set of her mouth as she worked, the delicate line of her back bent over the table, the way her white-blonde hair seemed to glow in the dim light – and Anna loved all of these components, individually and both as a cause of and because of the person they comprised.

                Elsa gasped, finding foreign freckled arms wrapped tight around her waist.

                “Anna?” she said. “What are you doing? I’m trying to –“she gestured to the cookies just then beginning to take shape on a baking tray.

                “I just love you, that’s all,” murmured Anna against her sister’s silky shoulder in a voice that seemed to come from deep in her chest, a soft, intimate voice she had never heard herself use before.

                The Queen did not know how to respond, her hands sticky and full of kitchen utensils. She did not seem to breathe for a long moment; then she said, stiltedly, “I love you, too, Anna”, and the younger sister felt the words vibrate into her being through the connection of her chest with Elsa’s back. Anna let loose a contented half-sigh, allowing her head to collapse against the face of her sister’s shoulder, until the elder demanded, “Do you intend to hang off me like a giant sloth for the entirety of the night? Or can I finish these cookies?”

                Anna grinned, twirling about to stand against the adjacent edge of the table. “The dough’s better raw anyway,” she asserted, swiping a teaspoonful with the tip of her finger and popping into her mouth. Elsa quirked an accusatory eyebrow at her, but she dutifully ignored the look, instead favoring a gleeful double-dip with the same, now saliva-coated finger, making its heralded reentry into the bowl of yet un-formed dough.

                “She doesn’t even have the sense / to hitch her rags above her feet,” intoned Elsa, looking at her younger sister with a warm mixture of disgust and fondness.

                “What’s that?” inquired Anna, leaning against her elbows flat on the unoccupied surface of the table.

                “Oh, I –“ Elsa grew flustered, to the Princess’s surprise. “I thought that was in the canon, but now that I recall – I guess not. I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently, haven’t been sleeping well –“

                “Whatever,” Anna said, growing bored. “I’ve forgotten all my literature anyway. But what does it mean?”

                “Well, it’s sort of,” began Elsa. Red tinted her cheeks. It occurred to Anna that though her sister tried to give off the air of stoicism – and likely conceived of herself in the same vein – her expressive skin and eyes, not to mention her inadvertent summons of snow and ice, betrayed her. “It’s sort of - we fall in love with the most ridiculous people.”

                “Yep,” Anna said dully. “Power-hungry assholes we’ve only known half a day, for instance.”

                Elsa, who clearly did not know how to respond, offered, “Have a cookie.”

                “It hasn’t been baked yet.”

                “They’re better raw,” said Elsa tonelessly, for all the world as if she were issuing a royal decree or summoning a lawyer, and swiped a piece of sweet dough with her finger. Then she met Anna’s eyes and the two burst simultaneously into giggles, growing boneless while the piles of yet-uncooked rounds softened into the sheets. To hold their shape they were chilled before entering the oven; usually this process took several hours and ample fridge space, but one of the boons of baking with an ice sorceress was that the chilling time was eliminated with a wave of Elsa’s hand and the congregation of tiny patterns of frost on the sheet.

                “Oops,” said she. “I think I overdid it.”

                While the cookies were drying and hardening into tight little balls of sugary delight in the oven, the girls took their slumping seats around the long table, clustered near one corner so that they could talk. Elsa heated a cup of hot apple cider for her sister and took chamomile herself. In the warmth of the oven and with hot liquid in her belly, Elsa’s eyelids finally began to droop, and she permitted herself to lean rudely on her bare elbows against the table.

                She debated with herself for a long minute about whether to bring it up again, but she thought of Anna in the garden imploring her (with falling projectiles, but it was the idea that counted) to open herself up. She thought of Anna teasing her and prodding her awake during long meetings, and imagined that such a cheerful presence in her life could make a world of difference; and to keep Anna by her side, she would have to speak her mind.

                “I didn’t mean him,” confessed Elsa softly, nervously carding one hand through her platinum hair. “Er – remember that thing about the ridiculous people we love?”

                “Yeah?” Anna encouraged kindly, as if enticing a wild animal to come to her.

                “I meant you,” The Queen said, very intently investigating a point far over Anna’s head. She added as an afterthought, more gruffly, “You preposterous creature.”

                “Awww!” The younger sister broke out into a cheek-stretching grin. She clasped one of Elsa’s delicate hands between both of hers and pulled the entire bundle to her heart, her innards brimming with a glowing warmth that reminded her of sitting peacefully around a fireplace. “You’re preposterous!” she announced. “And I love you, too!”

                To Anna’s surprise and delight, her sister did not pull away her hand or try vainly to take back her heartfelt statement, as she might have done another day or another time, when the candlelight was not so flickering and the castle not so silent. No; she just smiled tentatively back and allowed the capture of her hand. It occurred to Anna that the older girl had very sorrowful eyes; even when she smiled genuinely, as she did now, her eyes bore the mark of everything she had been through, and always looked as if they were only barely holding back tears.

                The Princess was not sure if she ought to push her luck or not. Perhaps the conversation had already been too intimate for her withdrawn sister; perhaps it was best to exploit what seemed to be a fortuitous day. But Anna’s tendency was to push people, to talk loudly at them and run circles around them until they gave her what she wanted. So onward she went.

                “Speaking of love…” Anna said, looking with great importance at Elsa.

                “Hm?” Elsa rose to remove one batch of cookies from the oven and replace them with another. She insta-cooled the steaming tray with a flick of a finger, a ssshhhing sound escaping as steam condensed, and removed one for herself and one for her sister. However, the Queen did not touch her treat, fixated instead on what Anna had just begun to say.

                Anna quirked an eyebrow and stuffed half her cookie into her mouth in one bite. “Who’s the lucky gent?” she asked around the pastry.

                “What?”

                “Don’t think I didn’t notice,” said Anna knowingly, leaning forward to rest her chin on raised knees. It was not a question. “You’ve traipsing about the castle all week with clouds in your eyes, not sleeping, not eating well. I know all the signs – I hereby diagnose you lovestruck.”

                For a long moment, the Queen just sat there and blinked, staring befuddled at her younger sister. When she finally collected herself, she pronounced, “You’re wrong.”

                “I am –“

                “No, really,” Elsa continued, unamused. The gravity of her expression, more so than her words, made Anna’s mouth close in one sharp motion, like a puppet’s. “I’m not in love,” she clarified, pronouncing the final word with an almost derisive emphasis. Her mouth twisted into a scowl. “Not really. I – if this is the appropriate way to define it – am in all the vile parts of love and none of the good.”

                “There are no vile parts of love!” exclaimed the younger sister, as expected. Her senior just continued to look at her, raising an eyebrow, with an undecipherable look something like disbelief, or perhaps despair. Anna threw herself forward on the table to gaze more deeply into her sibling’s troubled eyes; but Elsa turned away.

                “There’s nothing bad about love,” Anna repeated.

                “Call it not love, then,” said Elsa softly, grimacing down at her hands. A tickle in Anna’s chest hinted to her that she might have begun to have an inkling as to the reason for Elsa’s discomfort, but onward she pressed, unable to put her brakes on once she had begun to roll.

                “What, pray tell,” Anna demanded, rising out of her chair and advancing to crouch next to her sister, who still did not look up from the extremely fascinating floorboards. “Shall I call it then, Your Majesty?” finished the Princess mockingly.

                “Infatuation,” Elsa said, shifting her gaze from her feet to the ceiling, without looking at Anna even for a second in the passing. She crossed her legs and arms, tapping her fingers rhythmically against the bare skin of her forearm – seemingly aware that she would be there, under interrogation, until Anna had her way. The warm kitchen air prickled with anticipation.

                “Merely the first stage of love,” proclaimed the younger sister, voice filled to the brim with delight. She could sense that the chase was not only hot but drawing to its close; soon she would have her sibling spilling her secrets into the dead air of the night. “Not infatuation, then.”

                “Fancy,” Elsa amended.

                “A synonym for your first attempt.”

                “Boredom.”

                “I think not, sister dear.”

                “…desire,” admitted the Queen, turning pink.

                “Aha,” crowed Anna, lunging forward to wrap her arms around both the chair and the monarch who sat upon it, giggling into her sister’s ear. Beneath her, Elsa’s body quaked – at first, the younger girl was afraid she had pushed so hard as to make her sister weep of embarrassment, but pulled away to find the blonde laughing as well. “And who,” said Anna, slowly, lovingly, as if enjoying a delectable treat. “Might the object of this desire be?”

                Elsa looked up at her. Her face was flushed, her hair lacking its usual sleekness to frizz out from around her head; her eyes were wide and sleepless. The Queen looked a little mad – ravaged by a week of little rest and much fretting, brimming with feverish embarrassment mixed headily with the delight of telling a secret. And there was so very much of her here tonight. Glimmering silk blended seamlessly into expanses of ivory skin – the skin of her birdlike arms extending from mid-bicep down to curled fingers, the skin of her crossed legs and bare feet highlighting the way her posture made her thin skirt rise up along the thigh. And then the hint of a collarbone peeking through the neckline of her shift; the silver-gray shadows on her billowing nightgown hinting at her womanly figure only barely obscured through the thin fabric.

                Desire was the topic of conversation. Anna found herself red in the face too, though normally she was (sometimes unfortunately) immune to the emotion of embarrassment.

                “There is none,” Elsa said. The Princess came to the realization that her eyes had been straying – only for a moment, but one that felt like an eon, and still not long enough – and tore them back to her sister’s face, hoping the girl would not notice. “No object of my…desire.”

                “A bald-faced lie,” cackled the younger sister. “Who is he? Councilman Erik?”

                “He’s, like, fifty!”

                “But that strong jaw, yeah?” Anna grinned devilishly. “Oh, I know. That stableboy you always request.”

                Elsa’s nose curled upward in disgust. “Every time I have made his acquaintance, he has been covered in some sort of foul substance, the character of which I do not wish to investigate any further. Not particularly attractive.”

                “Elsa,” whined the Princess. “C’mon. Tell me who your Prince Charming is.”

                “I’m not lying,” said Elsa. “There is no one. Only – an individual, who, shall we say, instigated my enlightenment.” She said it mockingly, but her dry tone was belied by the blush that spread across her face at the words. “But following that event, it has become apparent that there is, in fact, nothing attractive about the aforementioned person. Take the example of a match, which can strike a flame, but, after ignition, has no fire itself.”

                “God, you get eloquent when you’re embarrassed,” Anna remarked, poking one finger into her sister’s pink cheek. Elsa only blushed more deeply (knowing that the reason for her flowery language was to avoid the use of the third-person pronoun). “So. This event,” continued the Princess, using air quotes. “You and the mysterious guy who isn’t that attractive after all. You –“ she made an abstract twisting and fluttering motion with her hand.

                “No!” cried the Queen, aghast. “I would never – not in a – Anna!”

                Anna only giggled, and took nothing back.

                “I won’t discuss it anymore,” huffed Elsa when she regained the capacity for speech. “This conversation. Did. Not. Happen.”

                “Aye aye, captain!” Anna saluted, only to have her hand knocked away by her sister’s hand.

                “It’s getting late,” sighed the older girl, beginning to line up the almond cookies on a tray. Anna rose to assist her. They covered their bounty with a cloth to keep them til morning, and went amicably, silently, back to the wing where their rooms were. They came to Elsa’s first, and stood outside awkwardly for a long moment, looking at one another. Anna was loathe to say goodbye, but simultaneously longed for the peace and quiet of her own bed.

                “Thanks,” said Anna. She stepped forward and wrapped her sister in a big hug, one so complete that no inch of huggable surface could escape. Elsa was at first taken aback, but then softened into it and let her own arms swing, more loosely, around the shorter girl’s shoulders. It was very, very nice to have a hug – she thought – and she might like a few more, if she could ever overcome her timidities enough to instigate them.

                “What for?” mumbled the elder into her sister’s hair.

                “For cookies,” Anna said softly, and they both knew she did not just mean the ones tonight. “For being my sister. For talking to me.”

                “We should do this again.”

                When at long last they parted, Elsa fell into her covers with a contented sigh. Telling someone at least part of her secret, it appeared, had lessened its constriction on her heart. And for the first time in a week, with the warmth and pressure of her sister’s arms still imprinted around her waist, with her stomach full of sugar and almonds, she fell asleep quickly, easily, and deeply – and slept the whole night through.

                Anna, on the other hand, lay awake.

Chapter Text

                Anna, on the other hand, lay awake.

She was a hopeless romantic, as was widely known. As a consequence of that, the Princess did not distinguish personally between the noble type of love that might inspire her to throw herself in front of a blade for someone else, and the not-so-gallant genre Elsa had only just confessed to be grappling with. For Anna, the two went hand in hand. She loved completely, with all of the faculties available to her, and with abandon – and, she had come to realize, sometimes too quickly.

                Like most people, Anna had never thought of her elder sister as subject to the universal tempest that struck upon adolescence and appeared only to dim but never fade as one grew older. Elsa was perfect. She was always put-together, incredibly intelligent, walked like a ballerina and sung like a bird. When that snowflake door had shut upon her, Anna had never possessed one doubt in her mind that Elsa no longer wanted her because Anna was too juvenile, too rowdy, too uncouth for Her Soon-to-Be Majesty. And as they had grown into adolescence, Anna similarly had no doubt that her sister was the fairer of the two. The older girl was every damned thing a princess should be - that incredible mane of hair, those eyes as blue as the fjord, the trim body of a dancer – even the way every word popped, chiseled into shape, out of her mouth...

                It came as quite the shock to realize that the Queen, the ice sorceress, her big sister was human after all.

                There was something about seeing her out of her regal garb, barefoot, practically undressed that made Anna want to soak in the image of her for hours. And Elsa had bared herself quite daringly, thought the Princess, with her words as well as attire. Desire, she had said. It was a comfort to know that the Queen, too, felt those basest of emotions.

                Anna was not so inexperienced as her sibling. At fourteen she had taken to kissing a cook’s apprentice in darkened corners until he had reached for the clasp of her gown and, young and unready, she had run away never to approach him again. At sixteen she had taken up a similar endeavor with one of her handmaids and, after the intervening years, had begun to think she might like to bed the girl someday soon, since there was no concern about pregnancy. But someone had caught wind, and the maid disappeared from the castle. Then there was Hans, for whom Anna had opened a few doors but left a few closed. Kristoff – well. She hadn’t had the chance, had she?

                It was a relief to know that her perfect older sister might have done those disallowed things, too, if she had possessed the opportunity or the courage.

                Desire, Elsa had said. Anna replayed her sister’s husky voice saying that word, again and again, and thought, desire.

                Anna had known for a long time that she could not lust without loving. In that sense they were one and the same to her. She thought so highly of people, and was so trusting, that she could easily fall in love based on very little merit. Sparkling white teeth had once stupefied her; she swore never to make the same mistake again.

                Now she began to worry that she could not also love without lusting. Because Elsa was her gorgeous, vulnerable, withdrawn yet big-hearted Queen and elder sister. Anna loved her with all her heart. And she was starting to fear that it was more than her heart.

                “Elsa,” Anna said softly, aloud, to her ceiling. She knew that their rooms were too far apart to hear speech from one to the other. “Are you awake, too?”

                It was a little humorous, at first, to think of poised, pristine Elsa lying awake at night with a stableboy (Anna was still convinced it was the stableboy) running through her head and no idea, for all her brainpower, what to do about it. Elsa was never at a loss for what to do or say – but here, she was helpless. Anna stifled an avalanche of giggles.

                At first the thought had been humorous, vindicating, equalizing.

                Then it was something else entirely.

                Some thoughts came entirely unbidden. There was really nothing one could do about it – how could you beat back a thought you did not foresee coming? But once they came to your mind, you could do nothing to erase it. Anna had been party to some fairly insane thoughts – she should run away and join the circus instead of being a princess? what if she had been born a cat instead of a person? did Kai and Gerda still get it on at their age? – but this was one of the weirder.

                It was funny to think of Elsa lusting after a stableboy, for all the world as lost and frustrated as a thirteen-year-old. It was not really funny to think of what it meant after a fashion, what Elsa might like to do about it.

                Anna buried her face in her pillow, wishing away the image fruitlessly even as it surfaced in her mind. The Queen in her thin nightgown, laid back against the headboard with her hair in glorious disarray. Eyes lazily, luxuriously half-closed. No, thought the Princess. She, not quite a novice like her sister, recognized her own racing heartbeat and agitated mood, the single electric pulse in her abdomen, for what it was – an entirely inappropriate reaction to an embarrassing confession by Elsa of all people – and forcefully pushed the idea out of her head. She trusts you so much, to tell you this, Anna reminded herself.

It lingered only a moment; as Anna fell asleep she prayed that she would forget.

                And forget she did, as one does forget those thoughts that float to the forefront of one’s brain in the last moments before sleep. If Anna had chased after the memory of that brief moment - an image flashing through her mind, the idea of her sister’s sultry voice rough and dark, saying her name, the rippling of muscles in her most uncharted region - she would have uncovered it, intact; but with no desire to relive it, the Princess shied away and left it packaged up neatly behind rows of other memories gathering dust in her mind.

                But their discussion had raised another idea, one revisited the next day at breakfast when the Queen said, “I’ve been thinking about reinstating the Winter Ball. What say you, Anna?”

                The Winter Ball was a long-standing Arendellan tradition that had fallen by the wayside since the closing of the gates. Anna must have attended as a very young child, but she remembered very little aside from not being allowed to eat her fill at the dessert table; however she had heard tales, from long-employed and trusted servants – tales of shimmering gowns, handsome suits, dancing all night to the tune of a talented pianist brought in from abroad at an incredibly exorbitant rate.

                Anna sighed happily at the thought. Balls were really her thing. “Next year? December-ish?” she asked her sister. “It’s so far away!”

                “I was thinking more like in a few weeks,” said Elsa, casually taking a bite of her crumpet. Though it was early, she was already done up for her appearances later, and looked nothing like the half-naked, disheveled girl baking cookies at midnight only a handful of hours ago. Her eyelids were painted mauve, her lips cherry red. It suited her, Anna supposed, and enhanced her features, but it could not compare to the beautiful intimacy of seeing the Queen as scruffy as any other girl hauling buckets up the street.

                “A few weeks? But it’s already almost summer!”

                Elsa looked at her as if she were an imbecile. “I’m an ice sorceress, remember?” she reminded her sister, rolling her eyes. The serving girl, who had just come in to refill their glasses of water and coffee, appeared to start a little at the Queen’s words. She must have known, working here – but it was one thing to know and another to hear the topic discussed blatantly at the breakfast table. Elsa continued, “It’s winter when I say it is.”

                “You can’t really make it winter,” protested the younger girl weakly. “All you can do is make it snow, or make it cold. You can’t make it be December.”

                “True, but,” the Queen said wickedly. “I can make it be Christmas.”

                “Can’t!”

                “Can!” she retorted. “Still believe in Santa Claus?”

                “Elsa, I’m not a –“

                “Stuffed reindeer toy when you were ten. New bicycle when you were twelve because you crashed the old one. Art history guide when you were fifteen and,” Elsa paused to let the list sink in. “A bottle of incredibly overpriced imported whisky when you came of age.”

                “Looking back,” Anna said, grinning. “I probably should have thought it was a bit odd that Santa Claus kept sending me presents after Mama and Papa passed.”

                That warm, almond-cookie feeling filled her stomach again. Elsa had been thinking of her, not only on sleepless cookie-baking nights but on all those Christmases when Anna had walked sadly down the hallway, staring at the snowflake door and wondering why her sister didn’t want to celebrate the holiday with her.

For the first few years, big family occasions like Christmas and birthdays had been a stab in the side. The girls used to always sit as far away from each other as possible; Anna would make preposterous faces to try to catch her sister’s attention, but Elsa averted her eyes and barely spoke to her. The older girl left as soon as it was acceptable, silent and ghostly in her too-big gowns and white gloves that were inappropriately formal for such a young child. Then Anna gave up trying to close the gap between them, and the dead weight hanging between them became not a sharp, stabbing pain but a dull ache, a way of life.

But those gifts, that loved, much-snot-upon reindeer toy and the bike (which, like its predecessor, had wound up so badly damaged it resembled a knot of steel more than a vehicle) – they, like the cookies, had been Elsa’s way of silently, anonymously saying I love you through the heavy door that separated them. The art history book Anna had read a billion times (it was mostly photographs), while the whisky she had not yet touched, not having much of a taste for alcohol, but she had set it away for a special occasion.

Anna’s heart fluttered so much she thought it might take wing. Every year, those little presents marked with a card (Greetings from the North Pole! and so on)…every week, those little almond cookies. Anna had so selfishly assumed she was the only one of the pair attempting to connect from the other side of the door; whereas she did so through cajoling words and ever-less-frequent knocks, her sister silently slipped unsigned tokens of love to her, little trinkets that had, over the years, brought her so much joy. The warmth, the painful fluttering of Anna’s heart and stomach grew so intense that it seemed the sensation must soon take physical form and burst from her body.

Only when Elsa began to closely scrutinize her face did Anna realize she had begun to cry.

“Don’t do that,” said the Queen in a voice that might have seemed terse, scolding. Her sister, however, was familiar with the tightness around her jaw that indicated the older girl had found herself in an uncomfortable situation and did not know what to do.

“I never got you anything!” Anna cried, and began to bawl in earnest. Elsa rose from her seat and turned the corner of the table, enveloping Anna in a stiff, anxious hug full of angles and elbows and tightly held breath. Stiff and anxious – but well-meant. The younger girl softened as best she could into her sister’s awkward arms; the elder slowly, tentatively, began to rub concentric circles into the tense, quaking muscles of Anna’s back.

Of course Elsa was uncertain about physical displays of affection, thought Anna. I’d be too if my hands went all freezy every time I coughed.

“Seriously, don’t do that. There’s no reason for it,” said Elsa in her weird, icy version of comfort. “I’ll stop getting you presents if it makes you cry.”

“Sorry,” sniffed Anna, wiping her face. “It’s my time of the month.”

“It’s alright,” the older girl sighed, sinking into the embrace and resting her face in Anna’s shoulder. That was more natural; softness enveloped her and she found that, though this whole hugging business had been intended to comfort Anna, it was leeching tension away from her own jaw and shoulders as well. Elsa continued, voice vibrating through Anna’s shoulder in spite of the thick fabric barrier. “So – Winter Ball? Yes?”

“Yes!” Anna cried, tears evaporating on her cheeks and she shot upright in her seat. The Queen was knocked back by the suddenness of her movement, clutching at the girl’s chair to right herself; she overcompensated just as Anna began to settle back again, and their skulls collided with a resounding crack. Pain bloomed outward from the point of collision, both young women clutching at their heads.

“I don’t have a skull,” Anna heard replaying in the back of her head, and smiled bitterly. She missed that voice, that sometimes-annoying constant cheer. They had said March, hadn’t they? And already it was mid-May. Weeks ago she’d discarded the calendar and its count-down to their return.

“Sorry,” said each sister simultaneously.

“No it’s –“ Anna started.

“It was all my –“ Elsa continued.

“Is everything alright?” came the soft, stuttering voice of a serving girl whose head poked around the corner. “I heard someone scream – and –“ The girl, dressed in solemn blues and grays and a neat cap, appeared to be trying to hide herself behind the doorframe. Her wide eyes took in the sight of all two members of the royal family wincing, hands to heads, embarrassed reds and pinks spreading across their cheeks.

“Sorry for intruding,” said the girl. “I’ll get you some ice.”

“No need,” said Elsa, and conjured two thin rectangular blocks out thin air with no flourish, no indication that there was anything special about defying all laws of reason, as mundanely as an ordinary woman might have poured herself a glass of water. She wrapped one ice pack in a napkin and handed it to her sister, holding the other to the burgeoning bruise on her skull with no barrier, no cloth necessary to mitigate the chill she did not feel.

The serving girl looked as if she were about to faint.

Instead, her already-wide eyes grew even wider, and she dashed out of the room with a hand over her mouth.

“Rude,” Elsa said, fiddling with her spoon, defensive in her self-consciousness. She tried not to use her powers in public so as not to remind people of the strangeness of the creature who ruled their nation, but in the privacy of her own home, at breakfast with her sister! – she should not have to hide whom she was (at least, Elsa revised, thinking of black silk and linen closets, not the least unsavory aspect of her character). And, she thought pettily, I was trying to save that ungrateful girl a trip upstairs!

“Els, I think she’s…” Anna was cut off by the unpleasant sound of retching from the next room over.

The Queen whispered, not so much for the benefit of her sister as herself, “She’s that scared of me?”

Elsa advanced slowly through the doorway, unresponsive to the cautionary calls of her sister, hand gliding along the wallpaper-laid wall with its tall rose-and-white stripes drawing together like guiding arrows to point at the form huddled over a bucket in the corner. The serving girl was red with humiliation, glancing fearfully up at the Queen as she entered. A deer, caught in the hunter’s sights.

“Ma’am,” said Elsa with a great quiet calm. She would have preferred to use the girl’s given name, but she did not know it. “You are afraid of my magic.”

The girl hung her head over the bucket, tears seeping from under heavy eyelids, mortified, unable to answer her sovereign.

                “I would tell you that you had nothing to fear,” Elsa went on, her voice growing strained and brittle as she spoke. To her horror, ice began to pool in the cupped palms of her hands. “But I feel certain that you have learned upon your arrival here that, unfortunately, that is not the case.”

                “Elsa,” breathed Anna, appearing at her sister’s elbow and wrapping an arm around it. “Shut up and let the poor girl talk. Go on - ?”

                “Maria,” supplied Maria. Then, looking between the two sisters’ waiting faces, she drew in a deep breath and began: “Your Majesty, Your Highness, I confess I am wary of Her Majesty’s powers.” Elsa’s grimace tightened one notch further, but on went Maria. “I was raised to believe…well, anyway, I am incredibly grateful to be able to work for the royal family, regardless. This” she glanced at the bucket and its contents, reddening “actually has nothing to do with my silly superstitions.”

                “Oh?” said Anna.

                “I’ve been ill,” Maria explained. “I apologize – I suppose I should have stayed in bed, but they had no one else able to fill this shift on short notice.”

                I’ve been ill, Maria said. But Elsa’s searching, curious eyes caught the way the serving girl’s hand twitched infinitesimally toward her abdomen at the confession; how she blinked; the crease in her brow that appeared suddenly. The Queen surveyed the girl; she could not have been more than a hair older than Anna, judging by her unlined face and her figure, which still retained traces of girlishness. But old enough, certainly.

                Anna dismissed the serving girl, imploring her to retire for the day and get some rest. While Anna assured her that all the day’s tasks would be completed without her capable hands, Elsa examined Maria’s grateful curtsy, her clasped hands, and felt her heart grow weary though her morning had barely begun.

                As soon as Maria’s gray skirt disappeared from sight, Elsa remarked, flatly, “She’s with child.”

                Anna gasped and turned to her sister. “How do you know?”

                “I just do. It’s – a feeling. The way the carries herself, the shape of her.”

                “She’s unmarried, isn’t she?”

                “I would wager so,” the Queen said, biting her lip to avoid any emotion making itself known on her face at the topic. Neutrality, neutrality, she thought. It was disheartening to see a girl as young as her sister burdened with a baby, and out of wedlock – but that was how things sometimes were, especially outside of the court. Fire and brimstone, some would say; Elsa thought herself unqualified to make the slightest judgment on the topic of unprotected heterosexual intercourse among commoners, seeing as she herself had personal experience with exactly zero of those things. But she was unsure how Anna would see it, and thought expressing her opinion on that matter was too heavy an endeavor for so early in the morning.

                The Princess turned to gaze in the direction of the servant’s exit, her lower lip caught between her teeth in thought. “She’s so young,” said she.

                “She’s your age. It’s not that uncommon, really.”

                “I suppose not,” agreed Anna, eyes distant. She folded her arms across her abdomen, thinking of the unsprung potential inside, the function of her womanhood that had not yet been used but likely would someday, probably multiple times. Most of the time the Princess did not feel much like a grown woman – she didn’t like to sit about in fancy garb, enjoying top-notch teas and wines and music like her sister. She still often felt like a child – how could someone her age bear one?

                Elsa’s eyes widened, almost comically, as she synthesized the focal point of Anna’s pose with the words they had just exchanged. “Not that I’m saying – that you should –“

                “No, of course not!”

                “I mean, if you wanted to – “

                “I don’t!”

                “Good!”

                The sisters stood, both red in the face, glaring at each other; it felt as if they had just fought, though every word passed between them had been one of agreement, of concession. Emotions were running high; it was the spring weather, surely.

                “Elsa,” said Anna slowly, forcing her shoulders to soften downwards, commanding her muscles to relax. She unwound her arms and breathed deeply. “Elsa, what about you?”

                The Queen went even pinker, as she did whenever directly addressed about something touchier than the weather (although – with Elsa, the weather could also be a very personal topic). “Anna –“

                “You’re older than me.”

                The blonde took a decade to respond, it seemed. She was glad that, because of their early dismissal of Maria, there were no servants around to bear witness to this most I personal, most overwrought of discussions. “I,” she said, haltingly, stiltedly. “I – well - I don’t think ever will.”

                “Oh,” said Anna, unsurprised. “Because of your powers?”

                “Yes!” Elsa exclaimed, eager to latch on to the handily provided justification. “Because of my powers. Could be hereditary, you never know.”

                That left Anna in silence, swirling the last dregs of her morning tea and picturing a tiny child with Elsa’s impeccable hair and the stableboy’s generous nose gallivanting about the castle with energy equal to the Princess’s own boundless store, shooting flat sheets of ice onto the floor as she ran so that her feet slipped and slid and never succumbed to friction. What her sister’s childhood could have been like, Anna thought wistfully, if fear had never germinated in her innocent soul.

                But, Anna reminded herself – Elsa was the Queen. She could not go about extending the family line just to fulfill her own lost youth, nor because her juvenile younger sister thought it would be fun to have a playmate – and certainly not if there was a risk the infant would grow up to endure the same hardships the Queen had defeated.

                Besides, she’d said she didn’t want to. So that was that.

                All the same, Anna found her vision very, very cute. She didn’t dare voice it to her sister.

                But – Anna could not help the thought rising to the surface of her mind. But if Elsa ever got up the courage to breach the distance with her mysterious beau, one thing might need to another, and – well, Anna loved weddings (she had never attended one, but knew as easily as the wolf knows how to track deer that she loved weddings). What was that the Queen had said about the match and the flame? Nonsense, surely. Soon enough her affections, once wakened, would settle again on someone, if not their original inspiration.

                Anna stared broodily into her now-empty mug while, across the table, the Queen said her goodbyes and left to prepare for a meeting; the Princess hardly heard her sister’s words. Maria, along with the conversation of the night before, had made her think of love, of marriage, of children. Anna knew her sister deserved someone to keep her warm at night, someone to listen to her anxious tirades, someone to hold her hand while the sinking sun made the gardens glow otherworldly. Elsa had been lonely for so long, and in many ways, still was. But, the Princess thought, a man would have to be as gentle as a doe and as good as a saint for her prickly sister to open up to him. And, if they ever found such a man, it would mean Anna relinquishing her #1 spot in the Queen’s heart – one she had only just come to realize she’d held for all her life, and cherished all the more deeply for it. Anna was not sure how to feel about that, and only knew that her stomach hardened into a rock at the thought.

                Maybe at the Winter Ball…

Chapter Text

“Elsa, don’t put your hand there!” Anna looked down at her sister with wide eyes.

                “Don’t harp at me! I don’t know what I’m doing!” the panted older girl.

                “You should,” the Princess reprimanded. “I’ve been doing this since I was twelve.”

                “Well, forgive me,” Elsa choked out heatedly, fingers scrabbling at her hold on the slanted, shingled side of the roof. Anna had shimmied out of her window and bounded, hand over foot over hand, up the narrow stretch of roof before the Queen had time to blink, much less study her path so that she might replicate it. “For not – “ she huffed, trying to shift her weight so that she could grab another handhold. “Spending my formative years – crawling all over the castle – like – some kind of – outlandish simian hybrid!”

                “You’re a cutie,” Anna said, beaming down from her perch at the crest of the castle roof. Her sister immediately went pink in the face, her hands even more slick with nervous sweat than a moment before; her fingers began to lose purchase.

                “This is idiotic,” growled the Queen. To Anna’s shock, she neglected her ascent and, loosening the white-knuckled fingers that pressed primly, ineffectually against the tiles, sank deeply into a curtsy - no, not a curtsy. Elsa folded her long white legs underneath herself, Indian style, with the grace of a long-legged doe laying itself to sleep on the grassy forest floor; but with neither grass nor wood nor floor of any kind to support her, the Queen tumbled off the side of the castle into the darkness, to her death thirty feet below.

                Well, she should have. Instead she sat daintily in thin air, gazing up at Anna with eyes that glowed almost white in the dim starlight. Levitating. No, not levitating – as Elsa slowly rose to the height of the peak of the roof, Anna’s eyes registered a flat block of ice beneath her, mostly covered by her draping skirts and shimmering black in the darkness.

                “So majestic,” teased the Princess, holding out a hand to support her sister as she slipped effortlessly from her seat to stand, like a carved woman of myth on a ship’s prow, on the apex of the tile roof section. She was still wearing heels (albeit heels of this world, made of some matte beige material rather than ice), realized Anna – no wonder she’d had difficulty conquering the incline with only her mundane bodily power. “Why didn’t you just float up here on a cloud, like in the books?”

                “Clouds are just concentrated water vapor, Anna,” Elsa said snidely, still miffed about her failure to climb the castle wall without making use of her handicap. “You can’t stand on them.”

                “Aw, c’mon, Els,” implored the younger girl, gathering up Elsa’s hand in hers again, despite the twinge of annoyance that ran through her chest. She looked at the taller girl with honey-sweetened eyes, mouth drawn together in a pout. “Let’s not fight tonight. We’re both up here now, right? That’s all that matters.”

                “Correct you are,” concurred the Queen glumly. Anna sighed, finding herself irked by her sister’s insistence on being grumpy. They were entirely different people, she knew, who navigated vastly different emotional landscapes even in lives that were, at a basic and logistic level, peculiarly similar. But she pushed aside her annoyance and went forth, determined to do the same for whatever dark cloud (which no one could stand on) hung over Elsa’s head.

                Anna inquired, “Work got you riled up again?”  

                “Mhm,” her sister affirmed. When Anna looked at her expectantly, she sighed and went on. The ease with which the sisters read each other, wordlessly as well as verbally, had increased exponentially since that day only a few months ago when Anna had nearly struck her in the head with that book falling out of the garden sky like an apocalyptic omen. And their growing intimacy had not gone unnoticed by either party – the thought of it made Elsa’s mood brighten a watt or two. She explained to her sister, who clearly was putting a great deal of effort into not only appearing, but actually being interested, “Arms shipments from Kholodnia are delayed a week and more; probably pirates, but their embassy is being positively snaillike in answering our missives, so we can’t be sure if the obstruction is in our waters or theirs. And we’re almost certain it’s the same crew as last time. If we must cleanse our territory of those awful creatures yet again, I swear to God I will personally take their captain’s gold-plated travesty of an earring, shove it down his throat, and freeze it to his uvula until he prays to me for mercy.”

                Anna giggled. “Uvula,” she said.

                “Ha, ha,” said Elsa, stone-faced.

                “I know what you need!” exclaimed the younger girl, scampering down the incline of the roof with not a care in the world to its preposterous steepness and the deathly drop that lay below.

                The older sister gasped, “Anna!” when she disappeared over the edge.

                “I’m fine,” called back the other girl, faintly, from inside her room. Then, reappearing in a flash of cream-colored skirts setting off copper braids, she cried, “Catch!” without a moment’s notice. Something, rectangular-ish and glimmering in the moonlight, flashed past Elsa’s eye, and, relying on reflex more than thought, she shot out a cushion of snow to catch it in mid-air. Oof, she breathed, feeling the effort of keeping the projectile aloft. It sang deep in her chest, like a weight, like the opposite reaction to an aberration against gravity. Within a moment, her sister had climbed the roof again with impossible ease, her skirts fluttering about her like a huge, graceless bird’s tail feathers in the still night air.

                “This is…” said Elsa thoughtfully, turning the object over in her hands with the utmost gentleness.

                “The whisky, yeah,” Anna supplied. “That you gave me last year.”

                “I don’t drink,” said Elsa. “Especially not on the roof.”

                “Somebody orders that bottle of wine to be on the table at every single palace event, and it’s neither me nor the head cook,” Anna pointed out, grinning. She clasped her sister’s hand in hers and stroked at its back reassuringly; her thumb relished every centimeter of its smoothness, so unlike her own hands hardened by the rough branches of trees. “Don’t be embarrassed. You take after Papa.”

                The Queen’s face grew red, even before the whisky had been opened. She did not like to admit to partaking in any vice, particularly alcohol – it seemed something that could be done with little impropriety by a man, someone older, someone more raucous and congenial than she -  a king of the people, a gruff monarch who rubbed elbows with men playing dice in taverns. For all that Elsa loved her people and swore to protect them at the expense of all else, she found that she could quite happily go her entire reign without rubbing anything with the type of ruffian who might be found playing dice, for fear that something unsavory might contaminate the dresses she so meticulously kept spotless.

                Although, it occurred to her, perhaps her fondness for drink ought not to bother her, when weighed against the ice in her veins and that abominable way her eye luxuriated in the apexes and valleys of the female figure. Relatively speaking, a glass of wine here and there was not so terrible.

                “Oh, alright, alright,” Elsa sighed. “But – this was a gift to you.”

                “So I’ll have some, too.” The Princess squeezed her sister’s hand a hair tighter.

                Elsa looked down into the depths of the bottle, indistinguishable from any other liquid in the dim light. If she should dive in, she thought, there was a chance she might not surface again – not because of some dependency on the substance, which she was far too cautious in her habits to develop, but because drinking on a roof with her beautiful and reckless sister seemed like traveling a road destined to lead off a cliff eventually.

                But the last few weeks had been so wretchedly trying, and her feet hurt from standing in heels all day.

                “Alright,” said Elsa. She took a sip of the whisky, letting it slide smoothly down her throat before passing it to her sister. Anna drank and coughed, unused to the fire of hard alcohol.

                “Why do you like this stuff?” she spluttered, managing to swallow at length.

                “Some people drink to forget,” mused the Queen, resting her chin on her hand. Her eyes reached far into the distance as she pondered the question. “Some people drink to remember. Some for courage, but out of cowardice. Hopefully I’ll never get to that.”

                “So why - ?”

                Elsa grinned; for the first time her sister noticed the gleam of her incisors making the barest indent against her lower lip. “You’ll see,” she assured the Princess, taking another draught of the substance, longer and rougher than her first. Anna’s eyes were wide and colorless in the dim light; yet for all that they lost that blue-green shimmer in the moonlight (which, Elsa had been told, was a trait of the royal family) the Queen felt her own gaze flickering back to her sister’s, try as she might to look away. Wide and colorless and searching – as if they could find some pigment to restore their hue before the sun came up.

                Then those forcefield eyes, that drew her to them just as the rotation of the Earth kept them adhered to it, those eyes disappeared for a moment under the skin of Anna’s eyelids.

                “Why’re you looking at me like that?” demanded the younger girl. “What’d I do?”

                “You didn’t do anything,” Elsa reassured her softly, her voice quiet and dark to match the silence of the night around them.

                Anna blinked again, and shrugged, and it seemed the Queen was released from the spell that had fallen over her. The leaves of the trees moved again; she once again felt the slight breeze tickle her skin through the thin flannel of her dress; she could operate her own limbs, and did, so crossing her arms over her body and curling in on herself as if she were chilly.

                The Princess, noticing her movement, removed her woolen shawl and offered it to her sister.

                Elsa was nonplussed. “Why are you giving this to me?”

                “You looked – “ Anna’s words fell flat in her mouth as, even mid-sentence, she realized her error. “— cold.”

                It was awkward, she knew. The pace and crescendo of conversation and angle of body to body between the two sisters did not synch tonight; yet somehow the fact that they were so ill-coordinated at the moment seemed only to reveal to Anna how well they usually paired - a surprising thing, considering how long they had spent growing up alone, it seemed, but not, miraculously, growing apart.

                Elsa returned the shawl and forced herself to unwind her arms and legs into a more relaxed posture. She tossed her braid over one shoulder, tilting her head back and looking up at the sky, where intermittent clouds obscured the tails and extremities of constellations she had once studied extensively, having nothing else to do and no one else to share the night sky with. It was far more pleasant, she thought, to take in the expanse of blue and black and pinpoints of white as a whole, as a tapestry, than to examine each constellation individually with a textbook on her lap. Breaking it up into pieces disguised the titanic enormity of it, mitigated the swooping sensation in the pit of her stomach that turned and tilted when she thought of herself, so small as to be approximately nothing, a queen but yet just another ant.

                Or maybe that was the whisky.

                “How does it feel?” Anna asked with a soft curiosity.

                “Hm?” responded the Queen, turning her head so that it mirrored her sister’s, flat against the slant of the roof. A jolt shivered through her stomach as her vision traded blue-black nothingness for the color and nearness and vivacity of the other girl. As she would not have done in daylight, without the heat of the alcohol in her stomach, Elsa smiled a smile that was neither polite nor calculated, but broad and canine and boundless; then, to Anna’s disappointment, it disappeared as suddenly as it had come, sucked away into the vacuum by a thrum of fear that whispered things like control and behave.

                “The cold,” she expanded. “How does it feel? To you?”

                Elsa raised her hands above her, as if pressing them flat against the smooth surface of the sky. She twitched her fingers, running them like rivulets of water between the knobs of stars. Thoughtfully, slowly, searching for the words to match feelings that had no words built for them, she said, "I am aware of it. I know the difference between thirty-degree water and ten-degree water. I would probably know that the latter would be too cold for you to swim in.”

                “So you feel it,” said the Princess. “But how does it feel?”

                “You have, I suppose, something of a boundary. An upper and a lower boundary of the range of temperatures you can tolerate without feeling pain,” Elsa began, trying to expedite her thought processeven as she spoke, but the whisky dulled any sense of urgency that might normally have compelled her to stay silent until all her thoughts were in order. “And those boundaries correlate with temperatures that are safe for our bodies.”

                “Mmmmhm,” Anna drawled, waiting for the good bit.

                “We have the same upper boundary, more or less,” continued the Queen. “I can’t touch hot iron or boiling water, and neither can you.”

                Anna whispered, “Watch me.” It went unacknowledged, though the right corner of her sister’s mouth quirked upward even mid-spiel.

                “But my lower boundary is much, much lower,” Elsa explained. “Around zero degrees, the temperature at which water freezes. So I can feel the temperature of something at, say, five degrees, but it doesn’t cause me discomfort. It’s just - there.”

                “Wait!” cried Anna. “What about below zero?”

                “I don’t have much occasion to experiment far below zero,” the older girl said. “I can stand outside in the middle of a snowstorm in thin clothing and not be bothered. Exhibit A, last summer. But below zero I do start feeling discomfort. Probably pain, eventually.”

                “Woah,” said Anna reverently. Unthinkingly she reached one hand across the tiny and somehow simultaneously infinite gap between their faced, and laid it gently in the hollow between her sister’s jaw and neck. “Sometimes I forget…”

                “Hm?” Elsa felt the weight, the gentle warmth and the roughness of callus but most of all the weight and undeniable realness, of her sister’s palm pressing into her skin. Eagerly, it seemed, her heartbeat leapt to the outmost layer of her skin to tap, both friendly and impatient, against Anna’s hand. The Queen felt like an animal at the mercy of a butcher, throat laid out to be slit, pulse presenting itself handily for the knife; and at the same time, like a baby with its head cradled in its caretaker’s hand to support the neck yet too weak to take on the task so intrinsic to its being. At once loved and threatened, cornered and cared for, her head spun wildly.

                “Sometimes I forget you’re just a person,” whispered Anna, now ducking her head so all Elsa could see were the vibrant strands of varied reds and browns blooming outward from her part. Affection turned the Princess’s voice shades of rose and amber. “Just a person, like me. Flesh and blood.”

                In an unprecedented show of agency, Elsa placed her hand over the foreign one on her throat, and lifted the pair of them into the air. Anna’s head turned, eyes following the engineered path of her own hand. There, hanging unsteadily by a thread against the night sky, Elsa turned her bare palm to face her sister’s and pressed them flat together so that they matched, give or take the peeping of the tips of the Queen’s longer fingers over Anna’s. The same, she said silently with those eloquent hands, now wrapped not in silk gloves but in her own skin. The same, Anna’s glimmering eyes echoed, as she relished the feeling of Elsa against her nerves.

                “Don’t be stupid,” said Elsa, the grand gesture of their mirrored hands calling out to her for earthly counterbalance. “Of course I’m a person.”

                “A really annoying person,” Anna responded with love.

                Anna had held the hands of many a lucky young lad, not to mention a few young ladies. She had held hands at various ages with her mother, her father, all manner of relatives - and even a talking, walking, hand-holding snowman (made all the more difficult because he only had three-and-a-half fingers). And a sweaty palm had been the worst to come out of all those events. So her foresight, stunted though it was at the best of times, failed to flash red with warning when the Princess slipped her fingers through the cracks of her sister’s, interlocking their raised hands.

                There was something off about the slide of knuckle against knuckle, the purposeful gravity with which Anna’s fingers moved. An air of intimacy sparked a feeling like the beginning of a cough in Anna’s throat as she pushed through the widening gaps between the Queen’s fingers, tearing into a barrier that wasn’t meant to be breached; but stop she did not. From inside the cage of Anna’s digits, Elsa’s hand twitched, then replicated the motion so that the two girls’ hands locked together, secure, the pulse of blood conducting easily from palm to palm and back again, bouncing back and forth so as to get faster and faster. When the Princess felt the five little loci of light, squeezing pressure against the back of her hand, her breath stopped in her throat like the corking of a wine bottle.

                It should not have done what it did. But somehow the innocent connection of skin to skin, finger to finger, pulse to pulse - somehow it whispered darkly in Anna’s mind a slew of everyday words that had no place there, suggested an inkling of an alternate harbor for Elsa’s long pianist fingers. Because it was not just one hand holding another, it was not just fingers between her knuckles, it was the whole and complete and multichromatic, living, breathing, whirlwind of her sweet, beautiful sister lying next to her, drunk on a rooftop, reassuring her so gently. And it should not have what it did.

                Elsa shifted uncomfortably, and for a long, quivering, hopefully distraught moment Anna thought -

                “Too tight,” said her sister, and Anna released both her hand and her breath. She fought the urge to scamper down the rooftop and away, only stayed in her place by the knowledge that the alcohol swirling through her veins would make navigating the drop from roof to balcony difficult.

                So there they lay, looking up at the sky; Anna remarked on the stars’ beauty while Elsa detailed their names and stories. Affecting normalcy would help her return to it, Anna told herself. It was her sister’s magic hands, Anna told herself.

                “That one!” the Princess called out, pointing.

                “Orion.”

                “That!”

                “The North Star.”

                “That!”

                “That’s my favorite,” said Elsa fondly, as one might remark on a favored puppy of a litter. Her hand moved in the air as if to caress the conglomeration of stars; her sister looked on, the tinge of something like jealousy making the whisky thrum metallic in her stomach. “Andromeda,” the Queen remarked. Her lips caressed the name. “The daughter of King Cepheus. Her mother boasted of her beauty, claiming that she was even fairer than the sea nymphs. This incited Poseidon to order a sea monster to punish the girl; she was stripped and chained to a rock for the monster to attack, but Perseus saved her.”

                Elsa grew aware of how Anna’s eyes focused on her, pupils expanded to their fullest capacity in order to absorb every glimmer of faint moonlight. Moving on, quickly, she added, “The constellation – that tiny glimmer you see, there – contains an entire galaxy.”

                “Woah,” remarked the Princess, thankfully shifting her attention back to the sky. She reached up two fingers to the sky, fingers spread a bare inch apart, as if to pinch the galaxy between them. “I’d believe it, if you say so, Elsa.

                A twinge of something that felt sharp and salty, like the sea breeze that blew in off the fjords in an especially strong wind, went through the older girl as her sister’s mouth formed and ejected her name. The edge of the roof, feet below, loomed sharp and dangerous in the Queen’s eyes; and the gentle line of Anna’s knee and calf, peeping out from under her skirt, made her just as wary, made the impression of just as dangerous an edge.

                “We shouldn’t have stayed up so late,” sighed Elsa, to ignore the nonsensical impulse to once more wrap her arms around a body that did not get cold. “You have that fitting tomorrow.”

                “You’re not getting fitted, too?”

                The Queen only looked snidely down her nose at her younger sibling, as if her question had been among the stupidest of the stupid. Anna stuck out her tongue; and Elsa could not help the wordless wish that bubbled up deep inside her, the feeling like thick black tar in her stomach, that compelled her to watch the flicker of tongue and the ripple in the girl’s throat like a hunter stalking his prey.

                “I won’t have my dress made,” Elsa said. “I’ll make it myself.”

                “Ooooh, my mistake,” Anna retorted, not without sarcasm.

                Tossing aside her sister’s rudeness, Elsa turned back to the sky and lay back. She reached up one hand towards the heavens and twirled her fingers, elegantly, like the world’s most poised electrician screwing in a lightbulb. Watching her, Anna felt something like an invisible bubblebath submerge her; filled with warm fondness and whisky, her limbs felt weightless and seemed to float about her body; and bubbles formed in the pit of her stomach and the cavity of her chest. Anna’s eyes, unasked, made scientific inquiry of the bones of her sister’s face and her long, white neck, the swelling and dipping of her form, stationary, underneath the fabric of her dress.

                Then, suddenly, the Queen sat up and knew immediately she had drunk too much. Her belly was warm and her head seemed no longer attached to its base; most tellingly of all, the entire situation -  being the sovereign of the land, stuck drunk on a roof with her teenage sister - filled her chest not with horror but with giggles.

                “Oh, they had a little party down in Lista,” Elsa murmured to a tune, her glassy voice soft but cracking with tiredness and drink. Its roughness appealed to Anna in a way that was not aesthetic but instinctive. It was the voice of a woman just got up by sunlight barging unwelcome into her bedroom, or a woman beckoning her lover to her in the shadows of their bed.

                “You know that song?” gasped Anna, incredulous. “How do you know that song? They sing it at pubs and stuff.”

                “Everyone knows that song,” said Elsa, not angry, and repeated, “Oh, they had a little party down in Lista -

                “There was Jan, there was Ester, there was Bjorn,” Anna cut her off in her own more accurate but less stylish soprano.

                Together, then, “Oh, they had a little party down in Lista / and they had to push on Jan til the morn.”

                The sisters’ voices twirled together like silk ribbons, without friction or bump or merging. On they went, laughing, belting into the night from the roof the world, from the roof of their kingdom -

Oh, they had to push on Jan to the horse

Whereupon there was Jan and three more

And the reason that they had to push on Jan to the horse

Was that Jan had been gone long before

For Arendelle, for Arendelle

The fjord reflects our cry

We’re out to do or die

For Arendelle, for Arendelle

We will triumph or we’ll know the reason why

And when the war is over

We will get some akavit

And we’ll drink to Arendelle

‘til we can’t remember it

So drink, tra la la

Drink, tra la la

                On the first tra la la, Elsa’s memory of the tune wavered, and on the second, Anna corrected her. On they went as the notes went, up, down, up to go with the stomping of feet they could not now stand on, dizzy as they were - 

Drink, drank, drunk last night

Drunk the night before;

And tonight we’re gonna drink

Like we’ve never drunk before

For when I’m smashed, I’m as happy as can be

For I am a member of the royal family

Now the royal family is the best family

That’s ever been descended from old Haraldy

There’s the Islanders, the Suomi

And the Western Rudsi, and the Kholods

Sing o - the bold, o - the cold

One handle for the four of us

Sing glory be to God that there are no goddamn more of us,

For one of us could drink it all alone. Damn near!

Here’s to the Kholods

                “Dead drunk!” Anna interjected in a shout, as tradition called for. They sang on, slower now, drawing out the notes and the last of the whisky night pressed up against the stars.

The lucky beaters, they had four litres

And a goblet, too, of fine Kholodni brew

And there was the queen swingin on the palace gates

Without her gown and the king yelling

More more more, for she was nude.

                “Hurrah!” cried Elsa, raising a fist into the air.

                “The queen, that’s you,” giggled Anna, poking her sister in the ribs, who then yelped and curled away. “Swingin’ on the palace gates.”

                “You want me to swing on the palace gates?” Elsa asked, daring both herself and her sister; Anna nodded emphatically. Then, with more fire, “Without my gown?” and up Anna’s head bobbed again, twice, thrice, each nod feeding the energy whirling inside the Queen. Hungry, she felt. Hungry and tipsy, Elsa she knew she was alive because the rough slates of the roof pressed into her bottom with a dull, scratchy kind of pain that she relished because it was so, so much better than pain’s opposite.

                Then, the voice of a night guard, muffled by his visor, unsure how to proceed with respect to this rooftop imbibing which was definitely not covered by his training, “Uh - your majesty, your highness? We really can’t have you up there, if you will forgive my rudeness.” The top of a ladder peeked over the dangerous edge of the roof, and the dangerous edge of Anna’s skirt disappeared over it as she descended.

                Elsa breathed a long quaff of air, looking up at the stars and feeling the faint breeze tickle her arms. She would not sleep tonight, she knew. Something had happened - some fusing of everything that was wrong with her and everything that had finally been right with her relationship with her sister. It was all cloudy with the drink and the hour. Tomorrow, maybe, she could think through it.

Chapter Text

The Princess Anna twirled gleefully, in an impossibly widening circle, a marionette with her string tied to a ceiling fan; her skirts flew every which way. One of her partner’s strong, muscular hands held fast around her slender waist, one pressed into the gentle muscle of her shoulder. He stepped forward and she back; he turned and she followed. As easily as you or I might pick up a flute of champagne, so he lifted her proudly into the air, where she dangled proudly as a swan. What grace, cried the crowd. What musicality! What a couple! An elderly woman in a maroon shawl was moved to tears by the display of perfection which she, never having coveted in her youth, now wished she could have been party to all those years ago so that it might have inspired her to dance while her legs were still strong.

                With one last flourish, kick of the feet, and spin, Anna fell, flat as a board, bouncingly onto the soft surface of her bed. “I love parties,” she sighed to herself, looking dreamily up at nothing at all. And when the day was done, when the guests had left and Anna herself had comforted the elderly woman in the maroon shawl and offered her handkerchief, the Princess would slip off through the servants’ door, past the kitchens, and hear the thud-thud of her partner’s dancing shoes. Oh, no, she would sigh! I can’t stay up any longer - so he would follow her back to her chambers, Anna protesting all the way.

                At the door he would kiss her cheek goodbye, like a gentleman. And not at all like a gentlewoman, she would pull him through the doorway and double-lock it behind her - and not be very gentle at all -

                The only detail Anna had left to decide upon was the identity of the man so deft in his dancing shoes. He would be strong, like Kristoff, she thought. He would be tall, like Kristoff, but he would match her stride. His chest would be wide and proud like a knight’s, his chin dusted with the roughness of a man who has to shave every day. He would dance like he was born to it, and be quiet when Anna wanted to talk (which was always); he would love gaiety and late nights and improper music - and best of all he would not love her, so he would not come back the next evening, and she would not have to worry about What To Do and His Identity and The Family From Which He Comes.

                Not one lick of it was ever going to happen. The dancing would be fun, the dessert would be tasty, and the wine would make all of it funner and tastier and softer around the edges. But the court didn’t dance like hooligans and no sane man in the realm would ever have the impropriety to follow her back to her chambers. If Anna was to be honest, even she would not have the impropriety to let him.

                But she wanted to. She laid back on her bed and looked up into nothing and felt the closeness of the castle walls, the weight of her heavy embroidered gown.

                Her gown - but today - she had forgotten -

                And exactly then came Kai’s call through the door.

                “Princess Anna? Are you awake and decent?”

                She called, cheery as a swallow, “Actually yes, thank you!”

                The door opened, and Kai’s steady arm led her down one hallway and up another, in through a pair of elegant double doors in gold leaf and out a grand single one carved of mahogany so well-bossed it shone like brass. They passed busts and paintings and tapestries worth thousands; the Princess’s shoe scuffed a tile worth more than the livelihood of the man who would have to polish it. All of it was invisible to the young woman who had grown up in the lap and cage of luxury; she thought only of the coughing trickle in her chest demanding that she dance - and soon. While her legs were still strong, while her head was unimpaired by the binding fabric of a maroon headscarf.

                At last they came to the seamstress, who draped swaths of silk and velvet over her hand, comparing the opacity and shimmer and weight of all the samples. In her shadow stood a mannequin with yet more cloth, along with all manner of needles and pins and clips ready to keep each fold where it was meant to go. Silently and inconspicuously, there sat in the corner a Queen, a Queen slouched over tightly folded arms and high-crossed knees, unmoving except for the occasional sip of tea that rolled through her thin chest; she dressed in her most imposing royal-blue gown with its high collar, full skirt, and black-laced bodice, but perhaps yet more imposing were the matching, striking, blue-black bags under her eyes.

                “You look -“ Anna started, hesitant. Then she thought better of what she had been about to say; subsequently she thought better of it twice, thinking worse, and said it anyway, with a note of concern: “You look like you fell four stories out of bed, Els.”

                Her sister’s glare threatened to turn her blood to ice. “Thanks,” said she, darkly, as if every syllable was too great an effort. “Don’t mind me.”

                “Her Majesty - “ said the seamstress, then turned to the seated monarch. She began to kneel, thinking of the formalities that held one ought not to sit in the presence of a member of the royal family, and growing confused. “Your Majesty -“ Then, giving up and put off by the gloomy set of the Queen’s brows, she turned back to Anna and said, “Your Highness, your sister -“ before realizing that was entirely the wrong way to go about it, and stuttering, “The Queen - “ Finally her feet managed to stop turning and forced her knees to curtsy in the right direction, and she found herself able to address both young women at once.

                “Your Highness,” the seamstress said to Anna, curtsying and inclining her head. “Her Majesty the Queen has requested to be party to this fitting, in order to develop a more thorough - “ she pronounced thorough loftily, then realized it was too transparent an affectation, and repeated herself in her natural accent, “thorough understanding of the craft of tailoring, so that Her Majesty the Queen may better use her natural gifts to the same end, i.e., that is to say, dressmaking. And,” she amended, “I do apologize deeply for my mis-address, earlier.”

                “It’s perfectly okay,” Anna reassured her. “We don’t care about all that nonsense anyway.”

                Elsa glowered pointedly at her.

                “Royal we,” the Princess clarified.

                The seamstress, whose name was Lise (not that anyone ever though to ask - it was always, “You just poked me with a pin!” and “I think it needs to be taken in around the waist” [it did not] and never “How are you, dearie?” or “I have all this extra money just waiting to be tipped to a young and talented seamstress”) stood still until she got over her bemusement, then ushering Princess Anna onto a raised platform where the seamstress Lise could get at the hem of the gown properly.

                She had never worked with royalty before. In fact, the only reason she was doing this fitting was that her mentor, the most acclaimed seamstress in the land, had come down sick late last night and the senior apprentice had just had a child. She had imagined something grander (not that the castle itself was anything less than spectacular, but Princess Anna’s hair was the least tidy thing she had ever seen [and that was including the parlor after her husband’s latest boys’ night] and the Queen did, indeed, for all her lovely clothes, look like a rat just dragged out of a sewer) and she had never thought that the royal siblings would bicker so much.

                One couldn’t really call it bickering, though, if the Queen did not say a word.

                “Hungover?” the Princess Anna stage-whispered out of the corner of her mouth, to the sullen monarch seated in the corner. The seamstress Lise blinked, fumbling a pin between her fingers, certain she had not heard correctly.

                The Queen was silent, and glared.

                The seamstress Lise held a swath of violet fabric against Anna’s neck, before attempting to quickly pull it away; it looked garish against the Princess’s sunny coloring and ruddy hair. “Wait,” Her Royal Highness requested, staying the seamstress’s hand. “I think it looks nice!” said she. For a moment, the seamstress Lise considered the possibility that the Princess was, in fact, hid a secret blindness (as her sister had hid the secret of her magic for so many years [but that was neither here nor there, and the seamstress Lise had the personal but never-expressed opinion that what folks did, was what folks did and there was nothing you could say about it either way]). Then the seamstress realized that the Princess was attempting to goad her sullen sovereign into speech.

                The Queen was silent, and glared.

                At a moment’s length, Lise whisked away the ugly fabric and replaced it first with one of shimmering emerald, then sky blue. “A shawl,” she murmured to herself. “A train, a train…but pinned! ah, yes, in the front but off-center…” So absorbed was she in the storyboarding of her masterpiece (and, too, how relieved was she that she did not have to take on the task of making a dress for the Queen!) that she heard only barely, as if through feet of water, the Princess’s speech:

                “And we’ll have that tenor who sang for Fibretti, and the violinist with the really oily hair who plays so sweetly - and I’ve been back to studying my dances, so I probably won’t step on anyone’s toes this time - and if the Duke of Weselton even bothers coming - did we invite him? I imagine we had to - he’ll be so embarrassed about the toupee incident that he won’t ask to dance with me and - why aren’t you excited?” demanded the Princess, her torso bobbing so enthusiastically with her speech that Lise had trouble keeping her lines straight. “Why aren’t you excited?” she cried.

                The Queen said, “I am excited,” and glared.

                “I know, I know,” said the Princess, now softly, now choosing her words. The seamstress Lise began to feel as if she should not be present for the conversation (more like a soliloquy, though it was), but of course she had to be present for no one else would do the job if she were not. And it would look nice on her resume, wouldn’t it? The Princess’s gown for the first Winter Ball after its reinstatement! (“Sorry, sir, I just don’t think that’s a fair price for my skills considering…I did make a gown for the Princess Anna…not to brag, sir, but it was for the very first Winter Ball after its reinstatement…so, yes, double that number there and I’d like two full days off a week, if you don’t mind, thank you very much!”)

                The Princess was now speaking with such care that the seamstress Lise fought the urge to pull the fabric that would one day be Anna’s shawl over her own head and pretend not to exist. “I know, I know,” said the Princess. “You don’t care to dance. But there’s so much else to enjoy, still…”

                The Queen was unmoved - almost. She blinked, and rubbed at one un-lined eye with the back of her hand. For the ever-so-briefest second, the seamstress Lise thought she saw one ocean-blue eye flicker toward her own person, and it occurred to her that, however freely the Princess’s mouth ran, the Queen’s was more well-tied in front of the help.

                “Later, Anna,” breathed the Queen. Lise thought, oddly, that though everything about the Princess (including her name) was beautiful any way you looked at it, the Queen pronounced it with a kind of wary reverence, in a way that both worshipped and admonished (but that was absurd!), that made those two little syllables sparkle. Anna, thought Lise, and was unable to reproduce the effect.

                On it went; gradually (and thankfully) the Princess Anna’s chatter slowed, though it never ceased. Lise found her charming, thoughtful, and a little bizarre (if in a good way) - and liked her immediately. Why, she thought, what a misfortune it was to have that skinny, dour thing on the throne instead of this young poppy! (But, no, she would never think such a thing - for it was treason. And for all her faults she was a loyal citizen, notwithstanding all the poppycock in the succession last year [her grandfather was a Kramer before the Kramer States were one, and came North for a better life, and a better life they had found, and even two generations hence she was grateful, mark her words.])

                Finally enough fabric was pinned and marked to see the shape of the eventual dress. It was the precise blue-green of the fjord at high noon (or the Princess’s eyes), fabric as thin as a farmer in drought and as fine as a baby’s hair; it pulled close to the Princess’s bosom, saved only from salaciousness by a tufted cloud of white fabric that made a loose and abstract collar. Thence it followed the curve of her body to the waist, which was so well-formed that it needed no decoration to enhance its shape save a thick tie of white, and flared out into a tempered skirt like an overturned flute of champagne. A shawl of a paler, bluer blue-green made Anna’s slim shoulders stand out proudly, and gave her ever-animated arms something to entangle themselves in that was neither the curtains nor her suitors.

                 “And, you see,” the seamstress Lise was unable to keep herself from blurting, “All this white trim will itself be trimmed in soft gold when the fabric comes in, and I and my best embroiderers” (again, an affectation, as she [being the junior apprentice] was more the embroiderer’s seamstress than the other way around) “I and my best embroiderers will set to the design, here, and here, of forest green and, again, gold, to effect leaves and other - woodland - things…” she trailed off lamely, out of breath.

                Lise heard the incredible volume of her own harried breathing in the long pause that followed.

                “I love it!” pronounced the Princess Anna, spinning on her heel. The seamstress was unable to fight back the sneaking suspicion that Anna would have said that to any sample gown she’d produced.

                If she’d doubted the quality of her product, Lise had only to turn to the Queen to assuage her worries. Still, the Queen was silent and motionless, slouched over crossed legs draped in thick navy brocade; but now her silence not glumness but reverence in the face of something holy, her stillness born of awe rather than fatigue. Her complexion had brightened and warmed; the contrast of pink in her cheeks made her pale complexion seem glowing rather than pallid. Her eyes, though still bruised beneath, were half-lidded the lazy yet intense interest of a cat tracking the motion of a string. And totally unaware was she of Lise’s attention on her, for her own was directed unerringly, like the most well-trained crossbow in the land, at the mock-up gown Lise’s own hands had made.

                The seamstress’s chest rose proudly, like a bird attracting a mate. Then -

                “It’s horrid,” said the Queen. “Raise the neckline, if you would.”

                Lise’s heart sank; she felt sure she had misunderstood something along the way. It was not horrid - that she knew. And the neckline was not tacky (for a pretty young lady such as the Princess Anna, who really ought to make use of the royal treasury, so to speak); she was skilled in her craft and had made sure of it. But the seamstress (hired help as she was) did as she was told, and raised the neckline as much as she thought it would do to retain the counterbalance against the bulky shawl.

                “Again,” the Queen demanded. “Still higher, please.”

                Once more Lise set forth to ruin her gown at the Queen’s behest.

                “Again,” said the Queen. And, finally, once white fabric covered the Princess Anna’s collarbone and blended with the shawl so as to nearly effect a color-blocked version of a high-collared dress (so very out of fashion these days, the seamstress grumbled to herself), the sovereign of the land pronounced her work “Acceptable.”

                The seamstress sighed, thinking of her now-gilded resumé, and began to take down measurements.

                The Queen herself had personally requested to sit in. It would inform her own craft, she had thought. It might even be fun, she had thought, to prepare for the celebration with her sister in recognition of all the years they had never traded clothes or braided each other’s hair.

                The seamstress did good work, and Anna did her best to stay still; it was indeed educational, and it might indeed have been fun. But all the while there Elsa sat, silent as could be, hating every minute of it.

The dress might have indeed been ugly; it might have been astoundingly gorgeous - and Elsa would not have known, for all she knew - and it seemed to her all she had ever known and all she ever would know, in the foggy and ever-changing perdition that was the life of the highest secular authority in the land - was that the body inhabiting the dress was the latter. And how!

She wanted to say there was something inside her, compelling her, some alien bellows breathing heat into her stomach - for that was how it felt - but Elsa knew that there was no creature buried in her heart. It was only her; it made sense, didn’t it? Always there had been something wrong with her. Always she had thought darkness wrapped itself around her soul, but no, she had finally begun to realize - the darkness was not in the wrapping but in the very interior, not an infection but a quality of being, an existential wrongness that would not go away, but would only manifest itself in stranger and stranger ways. And what it wanted - no, what she wanted - was to knock aside the seamstress’s deft hands and take hold of the draping folds in the fabric that would be done away with once the gown was finished, to pull the Princess close, to feel; it was a kind of triangular magnetism, a force that compelled contact between bodies that were identical not only in their sex but in the royal blood that beat through them - and how it beat! - and moreover it was a kind of hunger, to devour and lick and bite but not to consume.

Elsa sighed, and sipped her tea. Life was looking dull, except for the glimmer of her sister’s glossy head. And that was whence precisely the bleakness came.