So.

Gosh, this is late. First my very sensitive, Bipolar ass had a freak-out and threw in the towel for a couple of weeks over some ding-dong giving me a not-so-nice review (long story), then, while I was a mere two paragraphs away from finishing the chapter, my laptop ate it and didn't leave a single crumb. I had to rewrite the chapter from memory. After all that, I hope you actually enjoy it. It might be a bit of a mess because my memory isn't what it once was. I'm sure I'll be fixing little things here and there through obsessive rereads, but if you see something glaringly awful, please don't hesitate to let me know. :)

And as always, thanks for your readership. I'm endlessly grateful for that.

ssg.x.

CHAPTER 33
THIS WAR'S NOT OVER

"…and so you see, Kristoff, I really am sorry for the way I spoke to you. I know you love me and care a great deal for Elsa. I was being stubborn. It's just that I love my sister so much, and – "

Exasperated, Anna shook an admonishing finger at the reflection in her bedroom's full-length mirror. He already knows that, dumbbell. Keep this about you and him.

Tonight was going to be a special night, and not just because it was going to be her first time attending an opera. Tonight, Anna was going to apologize to Kristoff for speaking so harshly to him and storming off that day on the docks. All afternoon she'd been practicing what she was going to say, but she was having trouble giving an unqualified apology. An "although…" here, a "but you know…" there, and more than once a "…however" somehow managed to creep into each one.

Anna took a few steps back to see how "Plan B" was progressing. Plan B, of course, was to make herself look so utterly beguiling that Kristoff would forget that they had ever fought at all. She wore a long, ivory gown and bodice with a black tulle overlay and a high, scalloped neckline. It was the first dress she'd ever worn that had a train, and at first she wondered if she'd end up spending the entire evening tripping over it, but after foregoing heels for a pair of black satin slippers, she felt a lot more confident. The dress was far too beautiful to sacrifice to what could pan out to be little more than a brief bout of anxiety.

Anna's red hair was done up in a side-swept chignon, and though it took several tries before she and Gerda were able to get it just right, their combined efforts were well worth the sweat and tears (the tears were mostly Anna's) because the finished product was just stunning. She'd expressed her guilt over monopolizing Gerda's time on such an important day – after all, technically she was Elsa's lady-in-waiting - but Gerda dispelled it with a wave of her hand.

"Your sister hasn't stopped for breath since she finished breakfast this morning. I've barely been able to keep track of her."

You and me both, Anna thought sullenly.

"I put Kai in charge of enlisting someone to personally attend to Kristoff this evening. I don't trust that he won't show up in mittens and those big, clunky winter boots of his if someone isn't keeping an eye on him," Gerda said. "Tonight is a special night for the both of you, and I won't have him not looking his absolute best."

Ah, that's right. I'd almost forgotten.

While pretty much all of Arendelle was aware that she and Kristoff were a couple, he had never been formally introduced to court and kingdom as a royal suitor. As far as Anna was concerned, the whole thing was silly. But she had to remind herself that the burden of tradition had a much lighter hand on her shoulder than the one that leaned on her sister's. God knows what flaming hoops Elsa will have to backflip through when she finally shows a romantic interest in someone.

Okay, maybe a teensy-tiny part of Anna thrilled with the anticipation of hearing her name announced alongside Kristoff's. It wasn't quite like the announcement of an engagement, but still.

"Presenting Princess Anna of Arendelle, accompanied by Kristoff Bjorgman, Ice Master of Arendelle."

Oh, God…he'd absolutely hate that, she thought, a devilish smile practically splitting her face in two as she crossed the room to her vanity where the tiara she'd chosen for the evening waited – an inky silver adorned with gold-sheen obsidian. She wondered if she should wait for Gerda to return before attempting to put it on. She was afraid even just touching her hair would cause the entire updo to fall apart like a sandcastle hit by a wave. And when Anna was nervous, she had enough waves in her to beach a ship. Best to just wait for Gerda.

She reached for the long black gloves slung over the back of her chair then returned to her place in front of the full-length mirror and struck some poses, jutting her hips this way and that, poking her shoulders and elbows out at different angles. She giggled at how silly she looked, sucked in her cheeks, puffed out her lips then laughed some more. She practiced taking the brass and porcelain opera glasses that had belonged to her mother out of their velvet case and bringing them to her eyes without dropping them.

The knock on her bedroom door almost had her losing her grip on them, and she breathed thanks to God she managed to hold onto them despite the slippery satin of her gloves.

"Come in, Gerda," she called. Instead of the door flying open and Gerda breezing through it already halfway through a sentence that started in the hall, the door opened just a crack, slowly. Anna stared at it curiously.

"Hello?"

Elsa poked her head in. "It's me. May I come in?"

Anna rested a hand on her hip and smiled. "Depends. How good are you with a tiara?"

"Been putting them on all by myself since I was thirteen," Elsa replied.

"Then by all means, come right in."

Elsa's eyes widened and she gasped as she closed the door behind her. "Anna, you look stunning!"

Anna blushed and quickly tucked the opera glasses back in their carrying case. "Oh, come on," she replied bashfully.

"I mean it. Beautiful enough to launch an entire fleet of ships."

Anna laughed. "Okay, okay. Enough." Noticing Elsa still in a slate grey day dress, hair in a bun on the verge of falling apart, she yelped, "How come you're not dressed yet? I hope it isn't because I've had Gerda tied up all afternoon."

Elsa shrugged her shoulders. "No, no. I've been playing queen all day. I've barely had time to stop for a cup of tea, let alone get washed and dressed. I'm only just heading to my room now."

Anna watched guiltily as her sister flopped inelegantly onto the linen chest at the foot of her bed with a huge sigh. Here she was playing dress-up all day while Elsa was running around like a chicken with its head cut off getting things ready for tonight.

Anna often wondered if, when the time came, she'd be able to remain as unflappable in the face of a hundred stresses as Elsa was able to. The social aspect of her duties often rattled Elsa - Anna knew tonight would be strenuous for her even if the aim of the evening was to have a good time - but when it came right down to it, Elsa could handle all the less-than-glamourous behind the scenes stuff standing on her head. It was one of the reasons it had been so hard to see Elsa breaking down after that infamous slap during the open house – Anna knew her sister had been trying so hard to prove to the kingdom that she wasn't going to run off to the nearest mountaintop the next time she lost her grip on things again. That slap could have set Elsa back about a dozen steps, but in the end that didn't appear to be the case. Elsa had been tackling her duties this past week with fire in her veins. Or ice. Anna still wasn't sure how that worked.

"Hey," Anna laughed. "Don't fall asleep!"

Elsa groaned, dragging herself to her feet. "Alright, alright. I'm getting up. Here, let me help you with that tiara."

"I was just kidding. You don't have to do that," Anna replied. Elsa took her shoulders in her hands and steered her to the chair at her vanity.

"Don't be silly. This might be the only chance I get to talk to you all night."

Anna frowned. "You're kidding. Don't we at least get to sit together?"

Elsa pinched her cheek and grinned. "I meant that Kristoff might want to keep you all to himself."

"Oh!" Anna giggled, rolling her eyes. "Right."

"I'm serious!" Elsa insisted. "I spoke with Kai and he told me Kristoff was actually being obedient. He didn't kick up even a little dust over having to dress up."

Anna's eyes widened. "No way!"

"Yes! I couldn't believe it either!"

Elsa nestled the tiara on Anna's head, fastening it to her hair in less time than it took for Anna to sit down.

"Voila!" Elsa beamed. "Helen of Troy, eat your wooden, water-logged heart out."

Anna smiled, eyes meeting Elsa's in the mirror. A lump grew in her throat and she felt her eyes beginning to well up with tears she couldn't afford to cry lest they leave tracks in the powder Gerda had applied to her face. God, how she'd missed this.

"Elsa…"

"Hm?"

"I'm glad we're okay. Like…I'm happy we're getting along again."

Elsa cocked her head to one side. "Of course we're okay. We're always okay, Anna. I'm just doing the big sister thing."

"There's a big sister thing?"

"Yes. Apparently big sisters can sometimes be very moody."

"Really."

"Yes. And sometimes they think they're more than capable of handling everything themselves without a lick of help."

"You don't say."

"It's true," Elsa replied, smirking.

"I've heard a thing or two about younger sisters, you know," Anna offered lightly.

"Oh?"

"Yup. Like that younger sisters can sometimes be brats. And sometimes they think they know everything."

"I've heard the same thing about older sisters."

"Is that right?"

They both burst into laughter and Elsa, minding Anna's hair, wrapped her arms around her shoulders and hugged her gently. Anna leaned back into her embrace and sighed contentedly. "You should probably start getting ready for tonight."

"Yes, I guess I should," Elsa said resignedly. But instead of heading for the door, she silently dithered behind Anna's chair for a minute, gnawing at the corner of her mouth – a tell-tale sign that Elsa was thinking about keeping something to herself.

"Out with it," Anna ordered. "I don't think my hair can survive a flurry right now."

Elsa glanced wryly at Anna. "Very funny."

"What's worrying you? Is it about tonight?" Anna asked, standing and making an attempt at gently coaxing Elsa to sit down in her place. Elsa wriggled free and, crossing her arms, she moved swiftly towards the door.

"It's nothing, Anna. I should really head to my room and get the bath running."

Anna frowned. "Big sister stuff?"

Elsa sighed and looked back over her shoulder at her. She smiled. "Honestly, it can wait. Let's just concentrate on having fun tonight, okay? We can be grownups again tomorrow."

Anna was still concerned, but she let it go and returned Elsa's smile. Elsa's right. She's going to tell me what's worrying her. Just not now. I have to trust her.

Elsa swung the bedroom door open to leave, but once again she couldn't bring herself to walk through it.

Anna's brows knitted together in confusion. "Elsa?"

Elsa closed her eyes and clenched her fists.

"I'm not being fair. Not even two minutes ago we were making jokes about my trying to do everything alone, and here I am about to do it again. I…I didn't want to bother you with this – at least not tonight, but it wouldn't be fair to spring it on you tomorrow and – "

Anna frowned. "I want to have fun tonight, but I want you to enjoy the evening, too. I don't want you worrying about something all by yourself."

Elsa nodded, resting her tightly woven fingers in her lap. "I know."

"The truth is that the reason I was doing so much running around today is because I'm…this morning the court and I discussed…we decided…Well, I decided…"

"Shh…" Anna whispered, reaching out to stroke Elsa's hair. "Take a deep breath before you try to — "

"I'm going to release Hans."

She blinked and let out a short laugh.

It sounded like she said she was going to release Hans.

"You're…what?"

"I'm going to release Hans."

Anna's stomach dropped. She was suddenly sorry she wasn't still sitting down.

I feel dizzy…

Elsa was eyeing her carefully, shoulders still curled around her crossed arms. Anna stared back at her, jaw lax, puzzled by her sister's announcement.

"You mean you're releasing him to his family, right? You're sending him back home?"

"No, Anna. I mean I'm releasing him. Pardoning him."

Anna was flummoxed.

How…?

"There's…there's no way the court agreed to that. Not after the mayhem his return caused. Not with those new powers of his. There's no way they – "

Elsa nodded, exhaling slowly. "They weren't happy, of course, but when it comes down to it, my decision is final. I'm offering Hans a prerogative of mercy."

"I don't know what that is," Anna said, loosening the tight grip on the skirt of her dress when it became too painful to maintain.

"It means…" Elsa hesitated to finish the sentence, but the look on Anna's face must have warned her that she was short on patience.

"It means that what I say goes," Elsa finally replied.

"I see," Anna said icily.

Elsa's expression softened. "Anna, I know this is hard to understand. It's why I wanted to wait until tomorrow, so we'd have the entire afternoon to talk about it."

"Talk about what? According to you it's already been decided."

"I know, but – "

"He tried to kill you, Elsa. He tried to kill us both."

"I know that. Of course I know that."

"He came back here and threatened to freeze Arendelle unless you agreed to speak with him."

"I know it looks bad, but if you'd – "

"Are you kidding? It doesn't just look bad. It's bad."

See, Kristoff? This is where trusting Elsa to take care of things on her own gets us. How can you expect me to respect her as more than just my sister? How can you expect me to respect her as a queen when –

"I know it looks bad," Elsa began again, desperate then to capture Anna's withering stare and keep it this time, "but there are so many details I need to fill you in on. We just need time to talk, and you'll see that I'm right in letting Hans go."

Tears spilled from her eyes, thin and angry against her ruddy skin. She wanted to keep this about Elsa and her foolish belief that a dangerous sociopath like Hans could ever deserve in a thousand years to have any sort of future after almost destroying theirs. She wanted to keep the heart Hans broke by pretending to understand her loneliness out of this. She didn't want anyone to know it still hurt her - that even though he never cared for her, even though she was crazy about Kristoff, she still felt as though Hans had rejected her.

Until now, she had let Elsa believe that she had been losing sleep at night because she was afraid he'd physically harm them. And, yes - that was a part of it. But the larger part of it was that she would lie awake wondering if there was a way things could have panned out differently – if she were prettier, smarter…

"For God's sake, Elsa! He broke my heart! Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

Way to go, Anna thought abysmally.

Looking pained, Elsa reached out for her, but she recoiled from her touch.

"Anna, of course it does. I hate what he did to you. But we can't hold him prisoner because he hurt your feelings."

"Wow. That's some impressive over-simplifying," Anna replied tightly.

Tension pulled at Elsa's face. One hand went to her temple. "Do you really think I'd risk you hating me if I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing?"

"I'm not answering that question. It's a stupid question. What about Fru Nyström?"

Elsa's brows knitted together. "Who?"

Anna's jaw dropped. She was incredulous. "The mother of the soldier who died after following Hans up the North Mountain? The soldier who thought he was off to rescue his queen's sister? The soldier who swore his life to protecting his country? Remember him?"

Elsa bit her lip, looking so dreadfully ashamed of herself. Anna was surprised to find herself darkly satisfied by that.

"I – I'm sorry. I just – "

Anna's eyes narrowed unsympathetically at her. "You should go and run that bath. Wash all that blood off your hands."

Anna winced inwardly at her own unforgiving words. Those were going to be hard to come back from.

Elsa paled, looking as though Anna had just thrust a knife between her ribs. "Anna, how can you say such a th – "

Anna clenched her jaw. "I almost died twice that day, Elsa! If Olaf hadn't unlocked that door, if he hadn't come looking for me…"

"I know," Elsa moaned. "I'm sorry. But I'm not doing this to hurt you, Anna. I'm doing what I think – no - what I know is right. And you'll see that in time."

"Right for whom? Right for you, the woman who almost lost her head to him? Right for me, the person who hasn't slept a full night since you brought him into our home? Right for Fru Nystrom, the woman who lost her son after Hans dragged him out in the snow to – "

"To rescue you, Anna!" Elsa exploded. "That poor soldier thought he was going up to the North Mountain to bring you safely back to Arendelle after you went after me! Me, the woman who abandoned the throne, ran off and almost froze the entire kingdom to death! None of us is innocent here, Anna! Not one of us is innocent! Is that the position you want to take? Because it's yours if you want it. If I can be forgiven for my sins - mistakes I made that put so many lives in danger - why shouldn't I pardon Hans? I would be a hypocrite if I didn't."

"Elsa, are you kidding?" Anna shouted, forgetting herself. "It's not the same thing!"

Elsa held her hands up and closed her eyes, taking a few steps back. Anna removed one of her gloves, bunching it into one fist as she ran her other hand across her tear-stained cheeks.

I spent all day trying to look gorgeous for Kristoff and now it's all gone to pot in less than five minutes.

"Please, Anna…" Elsa entreated hoarsely. "Please can we discuss this tomorrow?"

Anna shrugged her shoulders. "What's to discuss? Your mind is made up, isn't it?" she said grimly.

"Yes, it is." Elsa replied steadily. "But I want things to be okay between us."

"I do, too," Anna admitted sadly, almost all the anger gone out of her now. She could barely look at Elsa. "But that isn't going to happen tonight."

Elsa pressed her lips together and nodded. "I understand."

Anna squeezed her eyes shut, swallowing the lump in her throat. "I'd like you to leave now," she said with such an eerie calmness that she scarcely recognized her own voice.

"O-okay."

She didn't open her eyes again until she heard the soft click of her bedroom door closing. When she opened them she could see her breath hanging in the air. She rubbed her arms to quell the goosebumps that had risen on her exposed skin, then turned to look at herself in the floor-length mirror to see how much damage all the tears and screaming had done to her face. The glass was covered with a thick coating of frost. She glanced at her vanity and saw that it was also glazed with rime.

Their argument felt almost surreal to Anna. What just happened? Everything was fine until…

Everything was fine until…

"That letter." Anna whispered.

Everything was going splendidly until Elsa received that letter from Hans. Elsa wouldn't answer her questions about what had happened during her visit to the Southern Isles, but maybe…

She thought back to how cruel Hans had been to her as he took it upon himself to snuff out any source of warmth or light in that sitting room. She remembered how indifferent he was to her pain. But she also remembered how eager he was to reveal his plan. She remembered how he couldn't stop boasting, puffing out his chest and chuckling, so terribly pleased with himself.

He was an arrogant creep that liked to talk, and past encounters highly suggested that, for whatever reason, he liked to talk to Anna. If Elsa wasn't ever going to answer her questions, maybe Hans would.