Chapter 19: Breathless
Anna stood on the balcony of the room she'd been granted in the Palace of Corona. Even in the setting sun the seas of Corona's capitol were far more blue than the deep, cold green of Iron Fjord or Chantel. All three had been built with the assumption that access to water was an important part of a kingdom's seat of power. As Elsa was now learning in the hardest way possible, access to space mattered more. Maybe the shore was one of those things buried deep in the human genome, a kind of recognition that seafront property was a challenge and a blessing, the ever-present threat of the greatest storms any planet could deliver combined with access to the seemingly endless sea, to distant shores and constant harvests. Corona didn't call to Anna the way Arendelle or Sphinx did-- it was too warm, too seasonal, too perfect in its own way. She liked it here, she could vacation here, but she would never have wanted to live here. Give her mountains covered in ice, give her snow, give her winter. Give her cold Arendelle, give her rugged Sphinx.
Give her Olaf.
Her hands tightened on the balustrade. In the days since her resurrection, since her discovery of Olaf's bond with Elsa, she had tried not to be selfish, had tried to live up to her word and her reputation. There was nothing she wouldn't do for Olaf's happiness, for her crew's success, for her kingdom's well-being. Yet she wanted him back. And she wanted the woman to whom he was now bonded.
Elsa burned in her imagination, a sweet, difficult trial for which she had nothing to offer. Elsa lived in Anna's imagination and invaded Anna's dreams and Anna had no way to respond. She wondered sometimes it was Olaf doing that. Maybe the bond had not been broken but reforged, like a sword might be reforged, its mettle untested, its new alloys in the mix, its fragility or strength yet to be revealed. She had to hope. As much as she put on her brave face, her principled face, the idea of losing Olaf gnawed at her. At least, if it had to be someone, it had to be someone good. Elsa was good.
Anna wasn't much for diplomacy but so far this state affair was going well. Yet the security threat made clear by the quantum bottle was still unaddressed. King John had been reluctant even to address it. He seemed to think it fantastical that someone could conduct a terrorist attack on Arendelle from Corona in real-time, despite the physical evidence. He wasn't a stupid man, but he was driven by his heart as much as his head. He had always been two years apart from Arendelle. An attack in real-time from two light years was fantastical. That didn't mean it was impossible. The enemy was here. The threat to Elsa's long-term survival was here. Whoever had ordered the attack was here. Anna could feel it. If only she knew what it looked like.
A knock at the door distracted her. "Yes?"
"Dinner, Lady DuVar."
Anna stared at the door. She was "Lady DuVar" on Iron Fjord, and she was Lady Captain Annastasia Christabelle DuVar when she received her official orders. But she was always "Captain" here when on duty. Or "Anna" to her friends. And she hadn't ordered any dinner.
She also recognized the voice. "Gerda?"
"Yes, Lady DuVar."
Anna opened the door to find Gerda standing behind a serving cart. Even more surprising, beautiful Elsa stood behind Gerda, hands clasped in front, Olaf on her shoulders. Behind them all stood Captain Calhoun. "May we come in, Lady DuVar?"
"Um, yeah. Sure." Anna didn't know what to make of this still-baroque but now-familiar entourage, but she was intrigued enough to let them enter. She wore only the foundation of her Naval formals: White blouse and undershirt, black slacks, socks. She cast a glimpse at her shoes and jacket, both on a wooden valet by the door before deciding it was too late to struggle them on.
The cart passed in a wake of magnificent, savory smells. Anna inhaled deeply. Elsa took small, mousy steps as she entered. Calhoun closed the door, exiling herself to the hallway. "What's this about?"
"I talked to my cousin," Elsa said. "She suggested that you and I have dinner. Alone." The last word quavered, and Elsa glanced away, not meeting Anna's eyes. "And try to complete whatever it was we were discussing the night you were--" Elsa hesitated.
"Shot," Elsa said.
"Injured. And it was not your fault. None of this was ever your fault." Anna looked up at Olaf, and Olaf nodded back to her. You were always my best friend, she tried to send to him. He tilted his head, and she smiled. He still felt her. But he felt everyone. Empathy was part of a treecat's standard arsenal, allowing them to pick up on all strong emotions around them. Anna had very strong emotions indeed about Olaf.
The rooms she'd been given befit an Earl, which technically Anna would someday be, in some kingdom far, far away. The rooms were large, with hand-fitted grey flagstones and beautifully red-brown brick walls, decorated further with tastefully chosen flags and tapestries. The tapestries depicted three generations of Corona's kings, of the voyage between the stars, and of the terraforming of Corona. Lady Gothel figured as a character everywhere. The tables were wrought of oak and cherry, the chairs were beautifully upholstered in hand-tack and needle, painted or dyed that soft pink the Coronas seemed to favor. Elsa looked right and proper within this setting. So did Olaf. It was Anna who felt out of place.
"Rapunzel and Gerda had the cooks prepare a meal for us," Elsa said, her voice still strained. "Captain Calhoun vouches for its safety. Won't you join me?"
Gerda had already laid out places at the small, round table for the two of them, complete with full plates, dessert dishes with glass coverings, small bowls of a cool soup, larger bowls of a salad, three dressings, a basket of bread that still steamed, and three different wineglasses each of which she filled with a different wine.
"And Captain Calhoun will stand guard all night outside that door if she has to, right? To ensure we're not interrupted. That's just the sort of thing she would do, and you would never be able to talk her out of it."
"That's so," Elsa said. "Let her take her professional satisfaction where she can, Anna. We all get so little of it these days."
"Oh, I'm not at all critical of it, You Majesty, its--"
"Anna, please. Please. Call me 'Elsa.' You were willing to, that night we had dinner together. You did again at the reception. It's the least you can do to tell me... to tell me... that I'm somebody who's not always the Queen of Arendelle."
"Elsa," Anna said. Her name was still sweet. The way her tongue spread across her teeth to pronounce the "el" even as the sweet hiss of air and muscles of her jaw pulled her mouth open to breath the "Aaahhhh...." part. She'd never given much thought to the beauty of a name before, but Elsa's was worthy of attention and consideration, a sensuous celebration that ended with a sigh. It made her feel warm inside, deep inside, deep where it shouldn't have. "I'll do that."
"Thank you," Elsa said.
"My Ladies, your meal is ready." Gerda gestured. Elsa gestured. Anna smiled awkwardly and took her seat.
Gerda went through the motions of indicating every course at once in the sort of sequence even a child could recognize, then discreetly left them alone. Olaf took to Gerda's shoulders, saluting a bright sort of "cheery-o" wave that only gave Anna a tiny pang of heartsick, and then the two of them closed the suite's door behind with a prominent click, leaving Anna and Elsa alone.
They were halfway through the meal when Anna took her second glass of wine. Elsa abruptly finished her first off with a gulp, picked up the second, and held it up. "Wait. I have something to say. To Lady Anna DuVar. There are too many good things about her to list. Her selflessness, her courage, her strength, her love."
Anna startled. She hadn't expected that last part. She hadn't been expecting this evening at all. It wasn't quite what one heard from a queen. Then again, even Elizabeth had to be human sometime. Did a queen have to be human in order to reproduce? Anna rather believed she did. She wondered if maybe Elsa was sensitive to alcohol. She was young, and she didn't seem the type to drink often, to have built up a tolerance. Then again, neither was Anna. "T--" Anna cut herself off. She'd been about to say "The Queen," which was the traditional toast on an RMN ship. But that wasn't why she was here, or fitting for the circumstances. "To Elsa, who has given over everything she can to see justice and honor done, who's shown mercy and restraint, and... who deserves better."
"Better?" Elsa said, pulling back slightly.
"Yes, better. You love Arendelle," Anna said. "I've seen it when you talk about Arendelle. When you talk about your people. But you don't love being queen. You love your parents, but not the power they gave you. You love so much, but the burden hurts so badly. And there's nothing anyone can do to relieve you." She locked eyes with Elsa, challenging the other woman to tell the truth.
"It's not even that," Elsa said, turning aside to stare out over the ocean. "Yes, I love Arendelle. I want everything to go right for my people. We have-- had-- so much prosperity, and so much restlessness. We could have fed the Vessel freely if they hadn't been so factionally maddening all the time. But idle hands do not always want to take up painting, or writing, or acting for their neighbors." Elsa sighed. "I thought a lot about what you said, and I spent some time with Father Norgaard. I want to believe him, that this is the work God has brought me." Elsa gestured around her. "Not Corona, of course, but Arendelle. But sometimes doing His work isn't enough."
Anna held out her hand, this time offering Elsa to make the first move, to be the one to put her hand down on top of Anna's. "Oh. Anna... may I?"
"You may," Anna said, and smiled. Elsa brought her bare hand down, and their fingers closed together. The touch that went up Anna's hand and into her brain reminded her of Lucy, although Elsa was nothing like that dangerous redhead. For the first time in forever, Anna felt that special something that might blossom into more. They sat across from each other at the tiny table, the bread basket pushed aside so that Anna and Elsa could hold each other's hands, right hand to right hand, freeing their left hands to handle the dense, tiny chocolate cakes that had come with the meal. Like everything Corona's chefs had prepared, the dessert was exquisite.
But not as precious to Anna as Elsa's eyes. She would look up now and then, to seek out those beautiful eyes. She had felt warmed through each time to find them looking back at her. She wanted nothing more, now, than to kiss those eyes, those blushing cheeks, that warm, coral-colored mouth. Anna couldn't believe she was thinking those things of a queen. And yet, and yet. She wanted to kiss away every moment of Elsa's unendurable sadness.
They both waited. Anna recalled the last time they'd been together privately, and she'd been sure that she'd been waiting for Elsa to make the first move, to take the responsibility for jumping over that line, for taking the two of them into the uncharted territory of fresh lovers. She made a harsh laugh so suddenly Elsa's eyes narrowed. "Mai used to call this 'lesbian sheep syndrome.'"
"Lesbian sheep syndrome? And what, may I ask, is that?"
"I know you have sheep on Arendelle. I even saw some on the hills above Chantel." Elsa nodded. "So, once upon a time, the trade in rams for breeding had a problem: some rams were androsexual. They would only ever attempt to mate other male rams. This didn't make them very good breeding partners, as you can imagine. So, a lot of scientists got involved in trying to figure out what made some rams fancy only other rams and maybe cure it. They never did, obviously, but some other scientists wondered if there were lesbian sheep, too.
"There were! They were harder to find, though, because... when a ram wants to mount something, it moves in and, uh, does it." Anna made a vigorous motion with a clenched fist, but she blushed as she did it. Elsa hid an embarrassed smile behind her hand. "When a sheep doesn't want to be done, she moves out of the way. When she does want sex..."
Anna raised her eyebrows to indicate that Elsa should figure out the answer for herself. Elsa grinned and said, "When she does want sex, she holds still and doesn't move."
"Yup. Perfectly still. So two lesbian sheep who want each other's attention will just stand there, not moving at all. I don't know what lesbian sheep lust feels like, but it must be awfully frustrating."
"Mai was my first girlfriend. Back on Saganami Island. That's where the Manticoran Naval Academy is. Anyway, Mai was a second-year, like me, when we finally met in a course on navigational mechanics. Neither one of was sure we were into women, then, we just knew that we were into each other, pretty heavily. She was a serious woman, but always laughed when it was right. We were so nervous about doing it, though. There were nights we would lie together, and I just lay there wishing, wishing she would make the first move, let me know it was okay to want her that much. God, I burned on some those nights, I wanted it so badly. We drifted apart. We talked about it later."
"Have you always been interested mostly in women?"
"Oh, no, not at all," Anna said. "There have been more men than women in my life. But I think that's an accident of the way the social world works. More men are coming up to me than women. More men make romantic moves than women." Anna looked at her glass of wine. "Which is pretty sad. I like women. Have you seen women? Sexy as hell." She glanced at Elsa, who fit that description beyond all expression.
Elsa considered this. "How many?" she said.
"Nine," Anna said. "Seven men, two women. Those are the successes, but if you want, I could tell you about some of the spectacular failures, too. Yeesh! The other successful woman was Lucy. She was amazing. I couldn't keep up with her. She had no sheep in her at all. When she wanted it, she wanted it. When I told her about the lesbian sheep thing, she would sometimes 'Baa' at me when she was, um, feeling randy." Anna giggled. "A lot of the time, I think she just wanted to see how far she could push me. She was good at it."
"Push you? Like..."
"My father says that if you can still blush then your immortal soul is in no particular danger. Tonight proves I'm still safe. Elsa, I didn't expect to come to Corona to describe the history of my sex life with a Queen."
Elsa's eyes shown bright with a kind of defiance. "Fine. You deserve the truth, Anna. I'm asking because I want to be a part of that history."
Anna's eyes widened. Her stomach trembled so much she felt on the verge of barfing butterflies. "Whoa, Elsa. I thought that's where we might be going, but I didn't expect you to say so, at least not so directly! You don't even pause when you've made a decision, do you?"
"I can't, Anna. I'm Queen. I have to decide, and follow through, and see what happens. I can always decide something else later."
Although she had been expecting it, Elsa's bluntness gave Anna pause. "O...kay. My turn, then. 'How many?'"
Elsa's hand shook as she carried the wineglass to her lips. Her eyes were still defiant, but they softened as she said, "You'd be the first, Anna."
Anna had half-expected that to be the answer, but confirmation meant a lot more than conjecture. "Oh. You mean, like the first woman? Or the first... ever?"
Elsa's face blazed with embarrassment. She said slowly, "The first ever."
Anna gasped softly. She hoped her loss of words didn't register as anything other than wonder. "Oh. Geez. I can't make any promises, Elsa. I mean, I can make some promises, like I'll definitely hear you if you say 'stop', and..."
"Anna," Elsa said, but she had a tiny smile as she said it, "I recognize that as the start of a ramble."
Anna nodded, hurriedly. "That's just it. I'm supposed to ask you what you want, and you're supposed to ask me, and we're supposed to go over column A and column B and hint about all the weird stuff in C, not that I have anything I think is particularly weird, you understand, but you probably don't have any lists at all in your head for any column, so how are we supposed to, um, ask?" She hesitated. "Never mind. Are you done with dessert?"
"Then... " Anna made a decision. She stood up, picked up her chair and carried it around the table, placing it down next to Elsa's. She sat in it and held out her hands invitingly. Elsa took them. Anna looked into the other woman's pale blue eyes, saw the confusion, the worry, and the longing within them, and wondered how much of that was mirrored in her own. "May I kiss you?"
Elsa's eyes flickered toward the door, outside of which Calhoun, and probably Olaf, waited to learn of their fate. "Yes."
Anna leaned forward and kissed Elsa gently. The other woman smelled of clean soaps and fine hair oils, her breath in her nostrils loud with worry, her lips warm and soft. There would be no turning back. She pulled away, looked up at Elsa's face. "More?"
"Yes. In there?" Elsa said, pointing to the bedroom.
"Are you sure about this?" Elsa nodded, her eyes never leaving Anna's. "Then, will you come with me?" Anna stood up, not wanting to let go of Elsa's right hand.
"I will," said Elsa, rising.
At that moment Anna would rather have walked backwards than ever let go, but Elsa saved her by transferring her grip to other hand so they could walk side-by-side. Only they didn't walk. Anna and Elsa both nearly ran to the bedroom, the doors closing behind them with a heavy thud.