Does Ares know what he’s doing? Is he projecting visuals of his memories in my head on purpose?
I doubt he meant for me to see him doubled up in pain, or to know how desperate and helpless he felt—both while he traipsed around New York on his own and while he tried to carve his own space in a family thrust upon him.
Does that mean I’m reading his mind? How?
I squeeze his fingers once more. Such a small, stupid gesture. But what can I say? It’s okay, will sound idiotic, because it’s really not okay that his parents abandoned him. It can never be okay. I don’t have parents either, but I never felt alone. Unwanted. Was never left wondering why the people supposed to love me more than life would desert me in a foreign country, with no money and no way to fend for myself.
His pain squeezes my lungs, stealing my breath. He won’t even admit it to himself, but every moment of his life since that day, he’s felt not enough. Less than. Unworthy.
I want to prove him wrong. To take away the hurt, and soothe the fears he won’t admit to out loud.
How can I, when I can’t afford to be in his life—not without sacrificing mine?
I hold his arm across my chest, the weight crushing me and making me feel safe at the same time. I should be making him feel safe instead. He needs it.
Letting go of his hand, I turn in his arms and hug him tight. My tunic may be long, but it’s loose enough to allow me to drape a leg across his thighs. His heart is thudding beneath my ear.
“I’m here,” I whisper.
He lets out a long sigh and kisses the crown of my head. Caresses my back and holds me to him.
Soon, his breathing slows, and the vice around my lungs eases. He’s asleep.
I stay in place, awake. I’m here when the nightmares come. I see his dream, even with my eyes open.
The terror in fourteen-year-old Ares’s gaze when two of the men immobilize him slices through my heart. In this version, there’s no C, so I’m forced to use my sword. And I use it a lot. Blood splashes across Ares’ face. I expect him to recoil. To scream. To wake up.
He doesn’t. In front of my eyes, he grows until he’s the man I know. He jumps to his feet and crushes me in a hug. “You drive away the darkness.” His voice is pure gravel. “Never leave me.”
I don’t know how I’m sharing his dream or what this means, but I don’t leave his side. I won’t abandon him in the night.
I feel the morning in my cells, energizing my body, moments before Ares stirs. He opens his gorgeous green eyes, but when he looks at me, I can tell what made him open up before is gone. His gaze is hard. Shattered.
“How are you feeling?” I ask. “Are you completely healed?” He seemed to be, when he dropped onto his knees before me last night.
The memory has my cheeks burning again.
“I think I need to stay in bed one more day.” The arch of his eyebrow is a challenge I need to ignore.
When I sit up, he snatches my wrist, quick as a snake. “Where are you going? Aren’t you supposed to stay with me?”
“I must update Odin on your progress,” I say. Anything to put some distance between us, because the mental images rolling my way from his wicked brain are of ways he can make my body sing.
Freya, he could make me feel so good…
He arches his second eyebrow too, and I leap off the bed. I grab my breastplate from the floor and Ratatoskrfrom the wish-table, and I’m at the door before he can kick free from the covers. I make my way out of his cabin barefoot and with my hair undone, and still feel less exposed than when I look into his eyes.
Until Brynhildr’s voice comes from my right. “Seriously? You slept with the Olympian?”
“Serð mik,” I mutter under my breath.
The woman who’s been a mother to me since I first gained form in Odin’s hands catches up with me and uses the flat of her blade to stop me in my tracks. “Don’t use that language with me, insolent girl. Besides, you look like you’ve done enough fucking. You don’t need me to add to that.”
Okay, so I shouldn’t have said fuck me to the Head Valkyrie, but in my defense, she wasn’t supposed to hear it. “There was no fucking. I spent the night with Ares because he was hurt and Odin told me to look after him.” I busy myself with strapping on my breastplate. I can do it one-handed—Hel, I can do it one-handed and blindfolded—but I take my time. If I meet her gaze, I may catch on fire. Well, not really. Though I’d rather not risk it.
Brynhildr spits on the ground before me. “Do not lie. And be careful with the sex. You do it enough with the same male, and you forget who you are and what your purpose is. Men tie you to them with their masculine wiles. When you give up your sense of self and become their property, you forfeit eternity. You should know that by now.”
I stomp my foot like a child. “I do.” Wait. Pause. Back up. “You don’t lose your immortality because of the sex?”
Brynhildr’s eyes widen comically. “Of course not.”
“But you said I’m supposed to remain a maiden, or I get kicked out of Valhalla and lose all my Valkyrie memories.” Wither away in Midgard, forgotten and alone, were her actual words, every. Single. Time.
She nods furiously, thick brows knotting together and blond braids swaying. “Yes. A maiden. Unattached.”
Like… unmarried? Not unfucked? I’m not stupid enough to phrase it that way. “Not… Not a virgin?”
Brynhildr doesn’t laugh often, but when she does, it looks like sunshine and sounds like thunder, and I’m a witness to such a unique event as she folds in half and slaps her thighs. “You mean, you’ve been turning down the approaches of virile warriors because you thought you should remain a virgin?”
I plant my fists on my hips and glower. “This isn’t funny.”
She straightens and clears her throat. “It is. A little bit. Didn’t you see the rest of us choose a different bedmate every night?”
“No.” Because I’d rather go to my cabin and read than drink the night away. “Didn’t you notice I was always going to bed alone?”
Brynhildr shrugs. “While time was unmoving, we woke up to the same day time and again. I didn’t know you always did anything. Since things started changing, the girls and I thought you maybe weren’t into men. We did not wish to pry.”
Why am I still here, talking to her, instead of going back to that cabin and riding Ares like a Pegasus?
Because I’m falling in love with him, and if we do have sex, I will lose myself to him. I know with bone-chilling certainty that truly being with him will alter my life in ways I’m not prepared to face.
Which is why I will go to Odin and request to be replaced as Ares’ caregiver.
I have time to steel my resolution, as I stride to the root of the Allfather’s throne. I look up, and like he always does, he knows to meet my gaze with his single eye.
“I was expecting you,” he says.
Of course he was, because he could see me coming, literally and figuratively. I wait for him to lower his throne to the ground and raise the usual golden walls around us, before I say, “I need to—”
“I know.” His smile is indulgent. Fatherly. “You were always my favorite, ever since you were a little girl.”
The words startle me more in how right they feel. Still, I state the truth I know. “I was never a little girl.”
Odin flicks his wrist, and something pushes at the backs of my knees.
I let my body fall back, knowing the seat he fashioned for me will cushion the fall. I don’t expect it to be a golden throne, slightly smaller than his, that curves around my body like a cupped hand. Why is the Allfather doing this? We’re not allowed to sit in his presence.
“You were a gorgeous little girl,” he says. “Made of sunshine and happiness. You just do not remember yet.”
“You created me as I am now,” I persist.
Odin leans back and trains his gaze to the sky. “This time around, I did. I did not know how to restore you to your full glory, so I have been protecting you from all knowledge of what you lost. But now… It is time you remember, child.”
I blink, and he’s looming over me, his palms pressed to my temples. “Remember.” His voice booms, making my bones vibrate.
My eyelids feel impossible to keep open, so I let them slide shut.
I’m no longer in a throne, but lying on fresh, crisp blades of grass, and it’s not Odin above me, but Loki.
“Come with me,” he pleads.
Shaking my head makes me dizzy. Why am I so frail? Even the grass hurts against my skin. “There’s no time.” It comes out a rasp, in a voice I don’t recognize. There’s a lot in the world I don’t recognize anymore. Because this world has passed me by, like Odin warned me it would.
From a hidden fold in his robes, Loki produces a vial. It’s the blue of the open skies—the last thing I’ll witness as I fade from creation. I regret nothing. I lived a long, full life I wouldn’t trade for the safety that came with being essentially imprisoned in Valhalla.
“Here.” Loki forces my gaze from the wide expanse above to the vial he holds in front of my lips. “Breathe.”
I inhale the air and the scent of flowers and the spring that’s always been my season, and then exhale it all and myself into the small, glass container.
And I fade away.
“Welcome back.” Odin’s voice wedges my eyes open.
I focus on his face, which is solid as ever. I raise my hand between us and wiggle my fingers. I’m all here. Not gone. In a new body.
“I’m… Freya?” This voice I recognize. It’s the one I’ve had for as long as I remember myself. Only now I remember more. I commanded armies and enjoyed lovers. The weather changed to suit my whims, and gods and mortals alike were mesmerized by my beauty and wit.
But I didn’t follow Odin into the time-bubble he created around Valhalla, and as the years passed, I was forgotten. And then I was no longer. I breathed my last on a cloudless day, looking at the sky and Loki.
“You used my final breath to form a Valkyrie?” I know the answer, but I need to hear him say it.
Odin nods. “I could not let you go. Not when there was hope.”
My heart stammers. I claw at the breastplate that’s become too constricting, as what feels like two separate people vie for dominance in my head. “Is that why you did it? Not to tell me you won? That you were right? Not to have me do your bidding for the past two hundred years?” Ballpark figure, going by my estimates on how long a time I’ve been visiting Midgard for.
The room darkens, and the sound of thunder in the distance reaches my ears. But it never rains in Valhalla. Is Odin doing this, or am I?
“I saved you because losing you broke my heart. All our hearts.” Odin furrows his thick, white eyebrows, and a second, haggard face flickers over the unlined one I’ve always seen when I look at him. He backtracks to his throne and sinks in it slowly, as if his joints hurt. “You were our golden child, and after Baldr’s disappearance”—his pause feels wrong, like it’s more for effect, rather than pain—“we could not take the loss. Frigg withered away in what should be our safe haven, because she believed you gone forever. Hate me if you will, but when Loki presented me with the opportunity to bring you back, I did.”
“Back? Bring me back?” Where is this wrath roiling inside me coming from? I hop on my feet. “You gave me no powers. You condemned me to the very existence I forfeited my life to avoid. Powerless. Static.” The thunder booms closer. My hair swirls around my head, and I hate how girly that must look. I’m supposed to be composed. A warrior.
But I’m also a goddess known for her fiery passion, and this god—this man—stole that from me.
“I told you I did not know how to fully restore you. But Ares has the power to make you whole.”
I’ve heard enough. No male will ever have that much power over me again. “Drop the walls.” It’s an order, and part of me cringes that I’d speak like that to the father of gods, but Odin obeys.
As I turn to leave, to run from him and this place that isn’t my home but my prison, I hear him say, “I foresaw how this conversation would end, and yet I chose to have it. Think of what that means.”
“I honestly don’t care,” I throw over my shoulder.
I close my fingers around the hilt of my sword. I need something to stab. And I need to forget what he said about Ares, before I make the mistake to end all mistakes.