Anna drums her fingers on her knees. She's taking her time to rearrange her thoughts, to build a solid foundation for her questions. It's a once in a lifetime thing – Elsa's giving her this precious, precious opportunity to untangle her past, and she really doubts she will get a second chance at this. Not in this lifetime, most certainly.
Three questions. That's all she gets.
"Take you time, Anna," Elsa says. "I understand this is very important to you. I don't mind waiting, should you need more time to cherry-pick your questions."
"Yeah… nah. It's not that. It's just that. Well." Anna pauses. "I'm just running through them now, I guess. I'm kinda afraid I'd choose the wrong one because then I would've already wasted one. You're right about it being important though. Not just to me, but to us. Two-way street, remember? If we're stuck together for life, might as well get to know each other as best as we can."
"Stuck together for the duration of your life; not mine," is Elsa's reply to that. Gosh. What a downer. Way to rub one's mortality in. "And it's not a game of chess, Anna. There's no rigid rule to this."
"I'm starting to think that everything that has something to do with you is like chess, honestly." It's not like Anna's sulking, but it's just the truth. It's worse than chess. It's like being plopped down in the middle of a game of chess to replace a player, then being blindfolded, then having her arms tied up, then being told to follow rules that changes every time she moves a piece.
Elsa defining the rules upfront will be a huge boon. And it'll be very nice if that couple can politely drown in the fountain, too. Now they're—oh god; tongue. Where is it go—is that even allowed in public? Think of the children! Someone! Oh good. They're finally packing up. Farewell and good riddance.
Anyway. Where is she?
"So yeah, it'll be nice if you can clarify some things. An example: if I ask a question that you absolutely refuse to answer, do I get another pass or is that it? One down, two to go?"
"No; I promised you I will answer each question to best of my ability. There will be no refusal on my part." Despite addressing Anna, Elsa isn't looking Anna's way. Instead she's staring right ahead, doing that thing where she takes every minute detail of her surroundings, seeing only what she can see. What is she so afraid of?
The sun is low in the sky and the crowd is starting to clear up. As much as Anna hates to admit it, Corona isn't what it once was. Nightfall is synonymous to danger now. Muggings. Robberies. Pick pockets. Small crimes still, but how long will it take before it escalates? More patrol routes? More pipe dreams.
"Okay then," Anna says. "What about giving me an extra question as a token of good-will?"
Oh well. It doesn't hurt to try. There's no more rule that Anna wants clarified. But like every unexpected good fortune, there's a slight foreboding that follows. What if she asks the wrong questions? What if she doesn't like the answer? What if this negatively impacts their already strenuous relationship?
But honestly, that's fine. Fear is much better still than ignorance, and she mentally fortifies herself to step over that precipice. One step closer to the edge.
She draws a long, deep breath, and Elsa takes it as a signal. She's giving Anna her full attention now, angling herself sideways, dress draped primly over her knees down to her ankles. Her wimple ripples in the gentle breeze. Anna wonders if she's afraid at all, baring her soul like this.
Anna stops her drumming and moves her body to mimic Elsa. Nervous as Elsa's gaze makes her, she wants to have the front seat to everything. Subtle facial cues, nervous tics, minute movements of Elsa's hands. Everything.
"Ready?" she asks.
"All right. First question: who was this woman that I keep reminding you of?"
And is she the reason why you're so afraid of being near me? Of touching me? Because we happen to share the same name? Similar enough that you called me by her name? Those are the questions she really wants to ask – but it's three too many. It's selfish that she's asking this question instead of a thousand other better ones, but she has to. It's been eating Anna alive ever since Elsa called her (not Anna's, hers) name on that day they first met. It's stupid and it's driven by partial jealousy, but Anna needs the answers like she needs air.
She needs to know.
As expected, Elsa takes her time to answer. Anna watches Elsa like a hawk. The parted lips, the soft, airy sigh, the downturned brows. How for a moment Elsa closes her eyes and swallows hard, like how Anna does when she's trying desperately to hold back tears.
And she regrets, regrets, regrets asking.
Elsa's smile takes a few seconds to form. "Starting with the hard questions, are we?"
Anna smiles back, but she knows they're both just putting on a show. Let's pretend this isn't hurting you. Let's pretend seeing you pretend isn't hurting me. "'course. Isn't that the point of this? Rather not waste a one in a lifetime opportunity like this eh?"
She throws in a chuckle, just for good measure. Might even slap her knee, but even theatrics has its limits.
"So?" she prods, ripping the bandage away.
"She's my sister." That's… unexpected. But she stays silent; waits for Elsa to gather her thoughts and continue. "I love her dearly."
The present tense doesn't escape Anna. She knows it's not a slip, because Elsa is a pedant for words: her sentences always so prepared, so precisely honed that it's impossible for it to be a mistake.
So she asks the obvious. It's another question, but she thinks Elsa doesn't mind anymore. They're past counting grains. "Is she… did she die?"
"She died on her twenty-fifth birthday."
"How long ago was this?"
"A long time."
"And you still love her."
It's a long time to still love someone, even if that someone is your sister. A long, long time.
"It's a long time to love someone," Anna says. She's reiterating her thoughts, for a lack of anything better.
She knows she should show more sympathy, say something about how sorry she is, how she wishes it hadn't happened. How terribly sorry she is for bringing this up. She should say all that, but she won't. She can't.
Maybe she's not as nice of a person she thinks she is. Because she knows that the love Elsa felt—feels for that sister of hers called Anna isn't. Isn't the kind of love you should feel towards a sibling. It's perverted and unnatural and—and she's just a terrible person, isn't she?
She looks down at her hands, at the bracelet, and wonders exactly how much she resembles this long dead sister of Elsa's. "You didn't love her as a sister."
"No. Much more than that."
"Is that why you're so afraid of touching me?"
"Yeah. Yeah I did."
Elsa's answers are that of a well-rehearsed speech. There's no pause, no stutter. It's as if she's mentally prepared herself for this, rehearsing this conversation with herself time and time again. There's an air of resignation. Anna realises that Elsa's preparing herself for whatever she imagines Anna will leash unto her.
What is she expecting? Anger? A tirade against the perverseness of loving your own blood and kin? An admonishment for dragging Anna into this thing she never wanted? How can you compete against a person whose qualities are forever captured in rose-stained glass? How can you compete against the bond created from being together since birth?
How can she?
And less resigned, more pleading, Elsa very timidly asks: "…do you find the thought of it perverse?"
This, is Elsa. She realises she's seeing Elsa, the real Elsa for the first time. And beneath all those layers of ice, callousness, tender moments, murderous rampages, bad humour, what's left is just someone so wrong, so broken fixing it will be like bending brittle steel.
She's not sure she can.
"Yes," Anna says, looking away from her hands, meeting Elsa's (downcast) eyes. "But it's not my place to tell you what's right and what's wrong, is it?" Because she has a crush on a woman, out of all things. A woman still so dearly in love with her sister. Anna has no right; none at all. "I do have the right to tell you that I'm not her, though. No matter how you wish for it to be, I'm not her. I can't be. I'm my own person, Elsa. Us sharing the same name and the same physical traits don't mean anything. So please. Stop comparing us to one another. I'm not her. I will never be her."
When Elsa says her name, is it her or that woman she's calling to?
The bazaar is eerily quiet now. She can hear the distant sound of crickets, and the humdrum of carts being pulled and the distant neighs of horses. It's quiet, and lonely, and it feels like there are only her and Elsa in this world right now. Them and their messed up, tangled thoughts.
"I know that." And then Elsa utters the four most innocuous, hurtful words ever said to Anna: "you'll never replace her."
As best as Anna tries to hide it, Elsa must have seen her expression.
Holding a hand up, Anna shakes her head. Stop. She just wants Elsa to stop before any more damage can be done. "No—it's fine. I get it. You're just doing what you promised you'd do. You're just answering the best you can and I appreciate the honesty. I really do." What does she expect? Elsa telling her that she's so over her dearly beloved sister? To stop seeing that phantom haunting her for god knows how long? It's another thing she adds to her list of why her crush will bear no fruition. She won't allow it to. She won't allow herself to just be a replacement for someone else. "You were right; there are right and wrong questions to ask, and I might have asked the wrong one."
"You're adamant at not allowing me to explain."
"Just like how I have the right to ask questions, I think I also have the right to refuse hearing the answer. Let's just—let's just leave this be."
A role reversal. That's what they're doing. It should be Elsa who's refusing to talk, but Anna's taking her mantle now, and she's starting to know why it's so hard to get Elsa to open up. Sometimes it's just hard. It might be easier to clamp up, suffer in silence than to hear words. Speak words. Because words can hurt just as much as a sword to the gut does.
What's the point? She's just a replacement. She'll never be the replacement. Same thing, different wording. What do motives matter? They're still stuck together until Anna dies. That's all there is to know.
Elsa tries to take her hand, get her attention, but Anna bats it away.
She regrets, regrets, regrets asking.
She's behaving like a sulky, petulant child. She wishes Elsa will just—shut up. Her stomach's doing wild tumbles and her heart's beating too fast, but it isn't because of that stupid, stupid crush. It's another matter entirely. She feels like she's mourning, she feels like cursing up a storm.
Why is it so quiet?
Her ears ring.
It's so quiet. Where are the crickets?
Elsa's trying. By god, she's trying. "Please; if you would just lis—"
Ringing. Her ears are ringing.
She looks down. Up. At her hands. At Elsa. The bolt. No blood. No blood. Elsa gags and sputters and she slumps forward, elbow on her knee, hand on her chest, blindly groping for the—she's coughing blood. First a spittle down her chin, then a full wheeze and there are splatters on the cobblestone, down her dress.
As Anna's mouth opens to form the first syllable of Elsa's name, a breeze and a sting stops her short. Reflexively, she cups her hand on the side of her throat and withdraws it. It's slick and red and she smears it between her index finger and her thumb. She's hearing the wheeze of Elsa's breathing and her own panting and her mind goes whiter than the jagged walls of ice shooting up, up, up around them.
Somewhere far away a man is shouting. Commotion. Sound of boots thumping. Running.
Her ears ring, and she looks up at the sky – a hole in wall. A beat. Two beats. Something is pounding on the wall and she casts a glance at Elsa, still slumped, still wheezing. High pitched, strangled, and it reminds Anna of the sound of the man whose larynx she'd crushed with the sole of her boot – when was that? The beach? She's not a killer. It was a necessity because he'd tried to—what happened after?
Elsa? She met Elsa. Elsa Elsa. Elsa. "Elsa!"
It's as if Elsa's name is an incantation, because suddenly there's clarity, and the direness of their situation strikes her like hammer on anvil. She scrambles off the bench, drops to her knees in front of Elsa, hand trying to find the sword on her hip that isn't there. She's smearing blood everywhere. Hers. Elsa's. She doesn't care.
"Elsa, look at me. Look at me! Come on, get your hand—let me take a look… oh god." She has to wrench Elsa's hand away from the crossbow bolt protruding from her chest and it's so much worse than she thinks. It's missed Elsa's heart, but it's gone straight through the lungs and Elsa's—Elsa's trying to pull it out.
Like a poorly constructed automation, Elsa makes a clumsy attempt to grab the shaft. Over and over again. Miss. Catches air. Miss. She's too far gone and the shaft too slick for it to work. The image of a toddler playing with fire burns bright and Anna catches Elsa's wrists before she makes another attempt. She pins them down onto Elsa's sides, using the brunt of her shoulders and triceps to make them stay—because despite her wounds and her fluttering eyelids and delirious darting gaze, Elsa is strong.
More pounding. More voices.
It doesn't matter. None of it matters. The only thing that matters in Anna's world is here, coughing her lungs out. Bile rises up Anna's throat, and it takes everything in her to force it down—to not, to not break down into a pile of mess. She's seen injuries like this. It's not survivable. You suffocate from blood flooding your lungs and then—
—then you die.
Her world is falling under her feet and THE GODDAMNED POUNDING WON'T STOP.
"STOP! Stop this! Stop it… please…" One moment she's screaming, the next she's resting her forehead on Elsa's knee. The collar of her dress is damp. Her arms are tired from pinning Elsa's wrists.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
She focuses on the pounding. Tries to ignore the fact that Elsa isn't struggling anymore, or how the bracelet burns cold on her wrists—so cold she's afraid her hand is going to shatter into pieces.
Elsa's still. So very still.
She's afraid of looking up. Afraid that the last words she will be an argument… about what? Something so utterly inconsequential. So what if she's just a replacement? Why does it matter? She can still see Elsa, hear her talk, feel her. Being just a replacement is still much, much better than a world where they can no longer argue, laugh, banter.
And the sound of something cracking.
She shifts her head sideways and exhales. Her breath comes out white, fluttering up in a puff before dissipating. A crack is forming on the wall. The thin lines are spreading with each thud and pound, and she thinks: maybe I'll just stay here with Elsa.
And finally, she lifts her head and wills herself to look. Elsa appears as if she's sleeping. Long lashes, faint freckles, white breath. Thin. Slow. Irregular. Strained. A whistle for each breath. Gently letting go of Elsa's wrists, Anna reaches up and unties the wimple's knot and lets it flutter down to the ground as Elsa's hair comes loose in a flurry of locks. It reminds her of the avalanche she'd seen when she was a child, during that one freak winter in Corona. It's beautiful, Elsa's hair. Everything about her is beautiful.
Of course there's no reply. She doesn't expect Elsa to. Taking Elsa's hand in hers, she lifts it up to her cheek, taking in the warmth and the feel of Elsa against her.
Chunks of ice are falling from the wall. She ignores it.
She can stay like this forever. Snowflakes are starting to fall around them. Slowly. Gently. Drifting down and down. One lands on her nose, and she blows it away.
It's a bit like the dream she had, this bench and the ice surrounding them. It's like they're existing on a world of their own. It's dreamy and surreal and somewhat comforting, like she's been through this before. She'd like to see Elsa walking in the sun again, laughing. Talking. She'd like Elsa to call her name, just one more time.
Elsa's voice is small and weak, but it feels like a jolt of lightning, and Anna snaps her gaze toward Elsa. Elsa's eyes are open. Something about her eyes stops Anna's cry of jubilation dead in her throat. There's something so very wrong with them. The pinprick pupils, the blue that's so light it's almost translucent.
The chill running down Anna's spine. She wants to say something, but a voice tells her to keep quiet. You don't want to wake the beast, it says. Run and hide. Run and hide.
White mist curling from her mouth, Elsa withdraws her hand and says: "run."
The ground rises up from under her in a tremor and Anna lets out an involuntary shriek. It's as if the ground has exploded upwards, and all she can see is white. Up down left right everywhere. She tries to turn, to call Elsa's name but she loses her footing and tumbles down, outstretched palms hitting the ground. It's frozen solid and she nearly splays forward, hands and knees skidding on ice.
Once again she tries to call out, say something, but then she realises that she's breathing ice, and her body is screaming at her, telling her she's drowning. She gasps and hacks for air against the warning siren as the ground rises and rises and ice starts creeping up her arms, encasing it with thick, jagged ice up to her elbows.
She looks down at her hands, at the ripples forming into scales underneath. There are no feelings on her legs either. The only things she can feel are her lungs gasping for air and the frost starting to form on her eyebrows. She's seen this before. She knows what's happening. She looks down and to the right. Straight at Elsa. She can't see Elsa from the curtain of blizzard, but she knows Elsa's there, looking at her with that cold, calculating
She feels like she's drowning, but still, she manages a "don't you dare, Elsa. Don't. You. Dare."
But Elsa dares. Of course she does. First the elongated neck. Then the tail. Then the massive, massive head. Then the roar so loud and so deep Anna feels the rumble in her chest and the hair on her neck rising up, up, up.
She feels the dragon dipping – lowering itself into its hind legs like a predator about to pounce. The blizzard has dissipated and she gives Elsa one last, lingering look, then closes her eyes and bends her elbows out. She's assuming a stance akin to racing a horse, trying to flatten herself as much as possible.
She knows what's coming next.
There's silence, and then a jolt and—
And they burst out into the open. Ice rains around her and a chunk hits her square on the back, but only when the dragon roars for the second time does she open her eyes. The metallic smell of blood hits her first of all, then the sight. She opens her eyes just as the dragon flings something from its mouth with a powerful arc of its head. Following its trajectory, she sees half a man hit another, sending him tumbling down.
Half a man. Just the torso, arms and head.
She looks away. Tries to find Elsa, but her world's gone wonky from all the movements and the sudden brightness of the stars and the lamp posts. How many are there? It's like they're ants, swarming from all sides into the heart of the bazaar. Straight into her.
Where is Elsa?
She needs to—goddamnit! She's still immobile, limbs attached to the dragon like a horrible mutation fused together. Woman and beast. The dragon takes a swipe at a group of men and once again her world tumbles. Topsy-turvy. Elsa is—where is she?!
She needs to get off this dragon and go and rescue Elsa. Fight by her side. Anything. Anything besides this, stuck like a useless puppet and its toy dragon. Through the corner of her eyes, she sees the shadow of a man inching closer, and closer. He's carrying a spear, held up high. He's going to throw it. He's going to throw it straight at her and there's nothing she can do. Once again she struggles, trying to pull her arms out from the ice. She pulls and pulls but they won't budge and her shoulders are starting to feel like fire.
As if emboldened, she sees several men joining the spear-wielder. They're drawn to blood and she's the wounded prey. That's what you get for conjuring a dragon so massive. Blindspots. While it's busy tearing limbs off men left and right, she's stuck here, just waiting for a spear straight at her heart.
Dodging a stray flick of tail, the man takes another step forward, and another. Until he's but a few feet away – just enough for his aim to hit true to its target.
And her arms still. Won't. Budge.
Out of any alternatives, she cranes her neck up, opens her mouth, and yells with all her might: "Elsaaa!"
And just like that, the man with the spear crumbles: a spike. Two. Three shoot from the ground, through him. The same thing happens to the men near him. They crumble like dominoes in a stack, one by one. All at once. Anna doesn't know.
All she knows is that Elsa's there, standing half-way across the bazaar. Gore streaks run down her dress and her hair is matted with dried blood, and the bolt that was in her chest is nowhere to be seen, just a big, dark stain where it used to be.
She looks like a monster conjured by nightmares, but Anna only feels relief upon her sight. Three questions. Three wishes. It's as if she's Anna's djinn, summoned by a near death plight.
"Elsa," Anna says, almost a whisper, a breath of relief. Then louder: "thank god! I thought—watch out!"
It's a futile warning. With a flick of the wrist, the man trying to sneak behind Elsa finds himself missing both arms and he falls, screaming and screaming and then silenced by a blade to the throat. Have they not learned? Have they not learned at all?
Poor, wretched fools.
There's no sympathy on Anna's side, no recoil at the carnage and the bloodshed. This she knows: they nearly killed someone so very dear to her, and so they deserve whatever is coming for them. It's so unlike her, so unlike the tender characteristic always likened to her father, but she realises something then. For Elsa, she will do anything. She will move mountains, worlds. Anything.
So free me. Let me go. Let me stand by your side and fight.
She wants to convey all that – tame the anger surging strong in her veins, but before she can, Elsa crumples onto the floor like a bad dream. The only thing holding her up is her blade wedged into a crack in the cobblestone. She's a wounded prey, and they're circling, seizing the opportunity like a pack of hyenas. It's a chance they won't let go and Anna finds herself shouting something like gibberish. She's all but forgotten—why should they bother? She's helpless, trapped like this. All that matters is the threat. Elsa.
"No no nonono no!" And Anna struggles like she's never done before. She struggles until she feels the strain in her neck muscles and there's no more strength in her arms, but she's not going to relent. "Let me go! Elsa! Let me go goddamnit you stupid—let me off this thing!"
Just like Anna, Elsa doesn't relent. She's still on the ground, still panting, and at that brief second before the first man descends his blade, she mouths a sentence Anna can't comprehend.
And once again, her world tumbles. The dragon takes a lunge. Two three four five a dozen and just before they barrel into a house, they're up in the air.
She's abandoning Elsa.
She sees her city down below, getting smaller and smaller with each beat of the dragon's wings. She's abandoning Elsa.
Those words run through her mind again and again. Maybe she's just in shock, or maybe it's the headache taking over. The pounding in her head. The blurry vision. She's abandoning Elsa. Maybe it's just the adrenaline and the rage, but her right hand is free and ice shatters around her as she beats on the dragon over and over, knuckle against ice.
She punches until she hears a crack and feels something broken. Punches until her mind screams and her vision goes dark.