Elsa hates that she remembers what it's like to feel.
Each knock on the door thudded dully against her heart, pressing and cracking on her chest. It was only one more burden against that which she already carried, but with every breath, her ribs steadily collapsed under the very weight of air. Anna had always stolen her breath away, nothing ever changed that. Part of Elsa was grateful for the pain; it meant somewhere, she was still able to feel things, underneath the gloves.
Every footstep she heard in the hall was a cruel reminder of steps she'd never be able to take. Living in a cage within a prison was a life sentence but it didn't - shouldn't - be for both of them. Even safely apart, Elsa knew she was bad for her sister. She could tell it in the way Anna's voice got more listless as the years went on, as if the very life inside of her was ebbing. Elsa was afraid Anna would all but fade away after their parents died.
She spent the funeral beating the walls until she could no longer clench her fists against the bruises. It didn't matter anyway. The gloves would cover them. Sobs echoed in the corridors, the castle empty while the hill where their parents were buried was full of mourners.
In her room, Elsa cried for her parents. She cried for herself.
For the kingdom, stuck with such a weak heir.
For Anna, who she left to face it all alone.
What kind of monster did that?
Their stones were barely inscribed before Elsa came up with her plan. Everything had changed. It was the only way to free her and it would take time, but it still gave her three years to plan.
Three years to write letters - communication was easy behind the safety of pen and paper. Words could cut, Elsa knew, ("Go away, Anna" ) but at least she wasn't a danger to others through them, and sure enough by the time her coronation was near, there was extensive correspondence and research of possible candidates. Anna deserved nothing but the best and Elsa spared no resource to find the most eligible, kind, and best fits for Arendelle's most precious export.
Anna chose a fiance within the day. Elsa was relieved, then disgusted with herself for feeling disappointed her plan had been so successful. It was further proof it had been the right thing, getting Anna as far from her as possible. Who was Elsa to keep her locked in a cage? She'd already stolen so much of her sister's life. Even Anna had her limits.
Elsa couldn't bear to attend the wedding, knowing that her presence would only sour Anna's moment. She tried to rip herself from the fabric of Anna's life as cleanly as possible, ignoring the tearing of her own frayed soul, freeing Anna to weave a new future for herself, full of color, movement, and vivacity. Everything Elsa no longer was or was capable of.
Things were much the same and altogether different afterwards.
There was less fear once Anna left. The castle had already operated for years on a skeleton staff, all already sworn to secrecy during her father's reign. Elsa still stayed inside of course, the gates closed immediately after the coronation.
The hallways echoed a stillness that sometimes scared her. Elsa was certain most mornings she woke the castle was abandoned, a nightmare of unending time that stretched but never broke. She took her meals alone at the head of a long, empty table that seemed to go on forever with nothing but the occasional clinking of china or flatware against each other. She never had much of an appetite even though there wasn't much of her to begin with. Yes, there was less fear, once Anna was gone, but so much loneliness it threatened to swallow her whole.
The pain of that was far preferable to the alternative.
Anna's first child was a boy, named after their father. The second, a girl, after their mother. Elsa cried, grateful her parents' legacy would continue and that somewhere, her family would live on happily, unburdened by her existence.
Days were quiet and still, spent focusing on what she could control. She had a kingdom to rule, people to nurture from afar, and she’d be as involved as possible without being part of it. There might have been some good she could still do after all. Trade continued, treaties renewed, allies strengthened, laws passed, councils discussed, and Arendelle grew, remaining stable and peaceful even if the opposite befell its queen.
Years passed in a routine numbness but in her dreams, there was sunshine. Some nights they were little girls again, oblivious to the future that awaited them. In others, life passed differently, where there were no Accidents, no separation, and they grew up together, two parts of a whole. Sometimes Elsa dreamed of Anna's new family, of what the balcony in their home looked like glowing in the morning, as she laughed with Anna over pastries while the children danced around their feet.
Other mornings she woke in a cocoon of ice, certain she'd buried her kingdom in snow, her people frozen mid-escape, glittering screaming ice sculptures where they last stood. There was no sleep for Elsa those nights. Instead she watched the stars, wondering what Anna saw when she closed her eyes.
There were a lot of things Elsa wished for.
To have never gotten out of bed that night.
To have been better and never struck Anna with her powers.
To have never been born with powers.
To have never been born.
But that would have meant never knowing Anna, and despite everything, that's something Elsa could never bring herself to wish. It's the one selfish thing she allowed herself, the joy of having loved.
But mostly she just wished Anna was happy. That her life was now full of all the light and love she deserved but was starved of in this castle, held prisoner by the ghost of a past she was never allowed to understand.
And on the nights when the ache of loving becomes too much, when she feels so cold in her sparse and lonely existence, sometimes Elsa rests in front of the hearth to keep her warm and thinks any magic in her left with Anna. Elsa wonders if she was never bothered by cold or if she's just been numb for so long she doesn't remember what warmth feels like.
The fire was an accident. She never meant to fall asleep so close to it.
She's sorry Anna had to return to Arendelle at all, especially under such circumstances, and regrets burdening her sister with the consequences of yet another one of her mistakes.
Her parents are waiting for her, once she arrives. Even though time doesn't mean much anymore, for the first time in almost thirty years, Elsa knows what the touch of another person feels like and allows herself the comfort of being hugged.
It had been so long, Elsa had forgotten she'd written that letter, the night before Anna's wedding. It wasn't ever supposed to be opened, let alone read, and from beyond, Elsa clenches in fear that the truth will finally claim Anna the way it threatened to the night the trolls took it away.
Instead it does something that pulls the world from under Elsa's feet: Anna reads. Anna cries. Anna's….okay. Too relieved to grieve, Elsa finds a measure of peace that in the end, the truth has set them both free. In the stories Anna tells her children - of two little girls, of love and sacrifice and magic, of understanding and forgiveness, of coming home and family - Elsa finally rests.
In the meantime, she'll spend the rest of forever waiting for Anna.
It isn't nearly as painful or long as the living had been.
She makes sure a snowman is waiting to greet her.