16: Warm Hugs
Elsa watched as the door to the shuttle opened, letting in the light of the landing bay. Ever since Anna and Olaf had dragged her from the Winter Palace she had dreaded this moment. Anna had coaxed her out of her hiding place, but nothing and everything could coax Elsa into wanting to be in Anna's company. The woman was so strong, so beautiful, so assured, so... lovely. So very, very lovely. Every time she was in Anna's presence, the generous warmth within the redheaded woman only reminded her further of how right Meke had been, and how wrong it was for the broken Queen of Arendelle to think so. Elsa took a deep breath, straightened her back and said, "Go first, Olaf. Anna misses you." Olaf nodded, and the two of them walked down the aisle and out into the boat bay.
A high-pitched whistle sounded and Elsa looked up to see Anna at the end of a gleaming row of soldiers and sailors, all turned out in perfect formality. She looked beautiful. It looked perfectly civil and correct and Elsa quivered inside. This was easy. This was supposed to be easy. Kai, Gerda, Tamora, and two other security officers followed. Behind them, nine security officers of the Arendelle Palace Guard waited their turn to be escorted by Manticoran Marines to their quarters. Behind them, a small phalanx of Arendelle's civil goverment would be taking over the spaces vacated by Anna's previous horde of astrophysicists.
She walked down the short row, thankfully no more than ten officers on a side, up to where Anna and her executive officer, Kristoff, stood waiting for her. Olaf had clambered up Anna's body to take his place on her shoulders, and Anna was stifling a giggle even as Olaf poked his nose into her auburn tresses and did something, Elsa wasn't sure what, that made Anna clamp her mouth over her hand and give Olaf a withering glare and a whispered warning. Elsa, who had come to appreciate Olaf's capabilities and humor, didn't even have to know exactly what the two had exchanged to know it had to be funny, and hid her own mouth behind one hand. Which only made Anna work even harder to keep from bursting out with the giggles.
Only Anna's eyes betrayed the pain and the hollow feeling Elsa knew Anna would have to be feeling somewhere inside. She knew there would probably be pain in her own eyes. She hoped Anna couldn't see it.
Elsa drew herself up straight and took a breath. "Captain DuVar," she said. "Arendelle thanks you for giving us this unique opportunity."
"Queen Elsa," Anna said, her voice ending on an upnote, making it something of a question, "Manticore is extremely grateful to have this opportunity to give to you and your kingdom." She was glad Anna didn't offer a hand, although according to the protocols that was the expected formal gesture. Elsa was now far away from Arendelle's network but she had still worn her gloves; she didn't think she could have kept her face calm and collected if she had actually touched Anna's skin. "If you would allow, may I escort you to your quarters?"
"Thank you, I would appreciate that, Captain."
Anna gestured toward the elevator. They were silent as they rode it down into Anna's ship.
A sentry stood at Elsa's door. Anna said, "Thank you, corporal. Arendelle's Own will be also standing here for the forseeable future."
"Yes, Ma'am," he said, saluted, and shifted to one side. One man behind Tamora mirrored the marine on the other side of the door. Elsa strode through.
It was a suitable stateroom. Gerda had arranged with Claire to ensure the belongings the queen needed for the trip were already in place on board Winterkiss, and evidently she had already dressed the table with the correct cloth and dishware. Elsa took a deep breath and detected a faint, sharp tang in the air, like that of a changing room for athletics, but it was faint, very faint. As well as far more pleasant than such a comparison would have suggested.
"Something wrong, Your Highness?" Anna asked.
"No. It's fine. I was just wondering..."
"It's a general purpose room, fully transformable into a luxury stateroom for honored guests with a few fixture replacements. Before that, we were using it as a gymnasium with a variable gravity feature. Well, I was. Me and Kristoff. Sphinx has a higher gravity, so when I wanted to use the treadmills, I..."
"It's fine, Captain," Elsa said. She surprised herself by laughing freely. What she really wanted she hid deep down. "I'm quite sure I can make allowances for what has to be the finest taxi I've ever ridden." Anna nodded, returning her amusement with a smile of her own. "Captain Calhoun, would you please give the Captain and I some privacy?"
"With all due respect, your Majesty, I can't monitor you here the way I can down there. Your authority doesn't work on something not manufactured in Arendelle. It's not safe for you to be alone."
"Captain," Elsa said softly, "Anna is not a threat to me." Calhoun glanced down at Olaf, uncomfortably. Elsa's eyes narrowed. "You must be joking."
"Fine, fine," Calhoun said, flailing her arms in the air. "By your leave, Your Majesty." Calhoun turned and walked smartly out of the stateroom. The door hissed closed behind her.
"She's a handful, isn't she?" Anna asked.
"I know she means well," Elsa said, taking a deep breath, then letting herself sag. "Everyone around me means well."
"I don't," Anna said, and smiled.
"You!" Elsa said. "You're the worst of all of them. You give and you give and you don't seem to expect anything at all in return."
"But that's just it, I get plenty!" Anna said. Admiral Becker had just recently said something similar. "I've always had the respect of my peers, and I've always had my health, and my parents still love me to pieces, even if..." She broke off.
Anna sighed. "Even if they're not in love with each other anymore." Elsa nodded. She had reviewed tapes of their conversation that first dinner to make sure she recalled every nuance. "That's beside the point. I get plenty, Elsa. What is life for? Not these bits of ribbon." She gestured toward her chest and the decorations there, an array of rewards for a light cruiser captain, with a few more than most in her class for conspicuous courage and the Monarch's Thanks. Elsa had been briefed. "Not the privileges. Certainly not to collect a lot of 'stuff'. Not to gather power for power's sake; I can't buy more life, or more time, or more happiness." Anna snorted. "I'm happy enough. Despite my voluntary demotion."
"Wait, I'm confused. How did you get demoted?"
"I'm supposed to be commanding a heavy cruiser or possibly even an older battlecruiser at this point in my career, but I volunteered to command Winterkiss instead." She reached out and touched a wall. "I put my name in a hat and the Lords of the Admiralty took it. I wasn't the only one, but they chose me. Maybe they thought, if the other end of the wormhole exited inside a star, I wouldn't be a great loss. I look amazing on paper, but my upper peers seem to believe I'm about as necessary as a spare button on a coat." Elsa watched as she tucked that strand of hair behind her ear again. Anna seemed to be unaware of her own cuteness, but she was definitely working on Elsa. "Still, my crews are happy. And my last two XOs went on to independent commands of their own. So I'm happy. That's what I want."
Elsa nodded. She was still frightened, but being around Anna made her feel less so. The woman hadn't gone mad with rage or crumbled with anxiety, not the way Elsa might have expected or done herself, when she'd learned the full range of the catastrophe caused by that bullet. Anna hadn't lost her life, but she'd lost almost everything else.
"I'm sorry, Anna," Elsa said, her voice heavy and her throat tight. Tears came to her eyes. "I just can't imagine how you bear it. How you bear... now that I know, now that I know what it's like to have him in my life, I don't understand how you just go on. You don't even seem to blame me."
"I can't do that!" Anna said, her voice shocked at the suggestion. "I've had a lot of time to think about it. Being stuck in a hospital bed will do that. Elsa, I was dead. I accept that. You saved him. He needed you. I can't imagine anything more wonderful than that."
"But you lost your heart, Anna, the one your parents gave you."
"And Arendelle gave me a new one." She stepped closer. "You gave me a new one."
"Is it enough?" Elsa asked. She felt awed at the way Anna framed the circumstances, and somehow she took Anna's positive outlook into herself, breathed it in and embraced it.
"It will be. It has to be. The alternative is... nothing. Literally nothing. I'd rather be alive than dead. I'd rather be happy than sad. And I'd rather Olaf be alive and have your light in it, than have no life or light at all." She smiled up at Elsa, and Elsa felt that familiar pang, and that unfamiliar feeling for which she yet had no name. "You have a lot of light, Elsa. Don't discount it."
"I feel like we're two parents discussing who gets to keep the kids during a divorce." The words came to Elsa out of nowhere, and now that she thought them, she wondered how true they were. She didn't want a separation and divorce from Anna. They'd never been intimates in the first place, and the idea of intimacy with anyone had always made Elsa anxious. Elsa had spent her whole life knowing she wasn't cut out for courtship the way the majority did it. Was Meke right? Was it the love of a good woman she needed? Was Anna...
"Maybe," Anna said. "How does a Queen know about such things?"
"I read a lot. It's my only real source of comfort, my way of escaping from this." She gestured down the long, blue formal gown she wore, and ended with her gloves.
"I'm glad you had somewhere to go," Anna said softly. They looked at each other, and Elsa could feel that something crackling between them, an electricity that needed only an excuse.
Elsa heard a soft buzz. Anna sighed. and looked at the chrono on her wrist. "Damn. Well," Anna said, "If you'll excuse me, Your Highness, I have a ship to sail. Because the crossing between here and Corona is unfamiliar, and we don't know any of the geometry of hyperspace this far out from the galactic core, we'll be taking it very slow and going only as high as the Gamma band. That means the crossing will take a little over seventy-two hours."
"That's 'very slow?'" Elsa said. "Anna, prior to this it took eleven years for us to cross that distance!"
"I know," Anna said. "But that's still slow for us. Once your people have gotten up to speed on manufacturing alpha nodes and sails, and once we've finished a comprehensive map of any gravitic shear risks in this region of space, your people will be travelling back and forth overnight."
"It's hard to believe," Elsa said. "At your meeting with Meke you described a school outing to another planet around another star, and I couldn't wrap my head around the idea." She shook her head. "What does it mean to have a kingdom right next door?"
"You'll figure it out." Anna bowed. "With your leave, Your Highness?"
"Of course," Elsa said. "It's your ship."
"I'll see you at dinner."
"Dinner," Elsa said, and watched Anna go. When the door closed, she fell down into a convenient chair and put her face in her hands. Olaf padded over to her, and Elsa felt his warm, reassuring love through their link together. "I know, Olaf, I know."
Olaf tried his hand signals, but Elsa didn't know them yet. He grimaced, then put one finger up in a gesture of waiting and walked out of the stateroom. He came back a few minutes later, carrying a special communications pad. With his true hand he punched chords into a five-by-five square of buttons on the bottom, then handed it to Elsa. Dark-Bright-Flame hurts as big as you.
"Dark bright flame? Is that what you call Anna?" Olaf nodded. He held out his hand for the pad, and Elsa handed it to him. You would play well together.
"Oh, Olaf, that can't be true." She knew he would never, possibly could never lie to her. But Anna had to be hurting, had to be resentful of what was happening between Elsa and Olaf. If someone had ripped Olaf from Elsa she felt sure she'd have died from the shock. Anna did die. Olaf should have died.
And if Elsa was honest with herself, she had held him, despite the scratches and the new scar, because she had wanted two things at the same time: she wanted him away from Anna so the medicos could save the desperately wounded woman, and if they couldn't, she wanted him to live, so that one tiny part of the only person who'd ever moved Elsa that way would live on.
Olaf typed again. What you want is good.
"I wish I felt the same way," Elsa said. "I really wish that were true."