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we may be better strangers

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As their feet touch solid ground the all-but-blinding light of the Bifröst gives way to other, minor lights. There is the diminishing crackle of lightning all around them, and the ember-glowing eyes of the enormous man who bows his head in welcome. There is the unbelievable glitter of the bridge to the city and, when Freyja has recovered enough to raise her gaze from it, the light of Asgard itself: bright and sallow, and cold.

The two of them shrink backwards as one to huddle against the bulk of their father's body.

"I told you we'd have to pack warmly," he says.

"So much sea," says Freyr, craning his neck to look.

"Come on," their father says, and takes them each by the hand. They set off across the bridge of wonders towards the golden pipes that soar into the sky.


The Allfather's voice booms out across the hall, so loudly that Freyja has to wonder if there is power behind the noise.

"We give hearty welcome to our cousins from the realm of Vanaheim, who come to us bringing their great knowledge of all things that grow."

Freyja presses her chilly hands together between her knees and shifts on her seat so that one of her goosebumped bare arms is tilted closer to the nearest fire. Her dress is of a thick fabric, soft and a deep green trimmed with white, but it has no sleeves.

"Njorth of the Vanir, you have our thanks and our kinship," Odin says, and lifts his tankard.

Their father stands, bent at the waist and awkward, to accept the toast. It seems to be a signal of some kind, because all around them people reach for food and conversation rises in a friendly roar. Freyr, who has fast hands, leans over and starts putting things onto their plates: thick coarse bread that's still warm, white meat with a charred and greasy skin, a dark meat that comes with an even darker sauce, and a mound of what is recognisably mashed root vegetables, flecked with green.

"I wonder what they'd have done if we didn't eat meat," Freyr whispers, and Freyja giggles.

"No wonder they need Father."

The food is rich and sits heavily in her stomach, which isn't accustomed to digesting so much meat in one meal, but all of it is delicious except for a bowl of what looks like smoked dip but turns out to be over-salted fish. Freyja makes a face and shakes it off her spoon.

"Not to your liking?" The queen has a warm smile. "Freyja, wasn't it? What a lovely necklace you're wearing, my dear. Sif, see, here's another girl for you to play with."

Sif has a smudge on her cheek and an argument in her eyes. "I don't want to play with the other girls."

Frigg sighs. "I'm sure you'll make her feel welcome, all the same."

"Sif!" calls a boy with red curls on his head and laughter all over his face, and Sif gives a brief but flawless curtsey before she runs back to her own table.

"You look cold," says a voice. Freyja turns and sees Odin's dark-haired boy, the one who was introduced second. My sons: Thor, and Loki.

"It's a lot colder here than on Vanaheim," she says. "But I suppose I'll get used to it."

Loki looks at her, then at Freyr. He looks at them for much longer than anyone else has yet bothered to.

"You don't look much like your father," he says.

The obvious comeback is so very obvious that Freyja, nonplussed, glances at her brother. He shrugs.

"We take after our mother," she says.


In a particular hall of the city grows a modest tree, barely past sapling size, but guarded almost as carefully as any other treasure.

"Ours was bigger," Freyr says.

Their father lays a hand on his shoulder. "Ours is nearing the end of its current life. The Yggdrasil of the Aenir is still young, in this form."

The Yggdrasil is no real tree, of course, but each of the Nine Realms can claim it as their own; and so they do, if they know how to. It's more than symbolism. How much more, Freyja isn't sure, but they were brought here for a more complex reason than a crop problem -- more than just a change of scenery to distract them from their mother's absence -- and this tree is part of it.

Freyja reaches out with one hand, experimenting. A bud twitches beneath her fingers and splits; by the time she pulls her hand away entirely, a small leaf has formed. Freyr grins at her above the tiny tree and strokes another bud into life.

The guard, a young man with a reddish beard and a bored way of fiddling with his sword hilt, looks first at the twins and then at their father. His face says he doesn't know whether to ask a question or issue a command.

"That's a talent I haven't seen before," he says.

Freyja is curious at once, and wonders why she wasn't before, just what kinds of magic are grown in this water-washed place.


Sif's best pair of boots goes missing and the first anyone hears of it is when she storms into the library and shatters its peace. Freyja has two books open in front of her and is not paying much attention to either of them; her mind is in other places until Sif bumps the corner of the table with her hip in her rush to stand in front of Loki's chair, arms akimbo, breathless from running.

"Give them back," Sif says.

"Noisy," says Loki, with a twitch of his lips. He's reading a book; Sif snatches it from under his nose.

"I know it was you," she says. "I suppose you think this new hobby of yours is hilarious."

"Is something wrong?" Loki asks, his eyes wide and voice composed. Sif jabs him hard in the ribs with the book's spine and he starts to laugh.

Freyja doesn't think of it again until one afternoon when she returns from the baths and her necklace is gone from its box. She doesn't bother to look anywhere else; it lives in that box or around her neck, nowhere else. She doesn't bother to ask questions, either: by now Hogun's leather gloves have been stolen and returned, and almost anything that Thor leaves unguarded will disappear for at least a day.

Loki is making himself difficult to find, at which he excels; besides which, she has far less enthusiasm for confrontation than Sif. Freyja thinks for a while, wraps herself in her warmest cloak, and goes walking.

The bridge is much longer than she remembers it; this is the first time she's walked its entire distance since she first arrived in Asgard, over a year ago now. Memory removes the tint of familiarity from her eyes and she sees the city once again as a strange, yellowed place, sculpted, beautiful in harshness. The Freyja of that arrival would see even her present self as a foreign being, taller and fairer, with fur-lined boots protecting her feet and an emptiness between her collarbones where her mother's necklace should lie.

"Greetings, little Vanir," says Heimdall.

Freyja has to tilt her head back quite a way to look him in the eye. She's distracted from her original purpose by wondering how long he's been here, standing in the same place.

"Don't you ever get bored?" she says.

Heimdall doesn't smile, but beneath the jutting helmet his face softens. "Given all of the Nine Realms, I am seldom lacking in things to observe."

"Right." She seizes on that. "Could you find something small? Something in particular, like a necklace?"

"Only if you gave me a good idea of where to look."

"Then can you find Loki?"

"Ah," says Heimdall. "The mischief-maker strikes again."

Freyja sighs and sits down, because the walk was long and she isn't going to make the return trip without resting her legs. Everything seems pointless. "He only does it because he thinks it's clever."

"Perhaps he was pulling your plait," Heimdall says, more loudly.

Freyja frowns. Her plait is now so long that it has to be twisted into a knot at the back of her head every morning. But -- Heimdall probably didn't mean that at all.

"I was not," says Loki, suddenly there and indignant, crouched at her shoulder. She hadn't heard footsteps.

"I don't care about your stupid -- I don't -- it's so cold here," Freyja says, and her face goes hot and full and horrible and then she bursts into tears. She doesn't feel bad about it. She might, if Freyr or her father were here to see it and feel guilty. But Loki's opinion of her doesn't have to mean anything, and Heimdall is the best kind of grown-up. He doesn't try to say anything cheerful, and he doesn't go stiff and helpless. He kneels down and strokes the top of her head, once, with a wide palm.

Which is how Freyja finds herself sitting on the edge of the sparkling bridge, legs dangling over the fretting waves, sobbing into her hands, "I miss -- I miss grass," all wet and snotty and pathetic, while the Gatekeeper sits on her left and a prince of Asgard sits, at a warier distance, on her right.


"This looks wonderful," their father says, not quite managing to sound unsurprised.

Frigg catches Freyja's eye and gives her a sedate wink. The royal family has had them to dinner every few months, but this is the first time the menu hasn't been predominated by meat.

"We have only you to thank for the success of the hydroponics," Frigg says.

"Freyr here has some exciting new ideas about nutrient delivery that we're going to start working on next year," says their father.

"So you both want to be gardeners when you grow up?" says Thor, in the blank tones of one to whom the word 'exciting' could never, ever be associated with vegetables.

"Well...yes?" says Freyr.

Odin laughs. "My friend, I cannot imagine what it must be like to have such biddable children."

Njorth gives them a fond glance. "There's no secret to it, I'm afraid. Just luck."

Across the table Thor rolls his eyes at Loki, who gives him a secretive smile in return.


Mornings are for classes and afternoons for training, which means that Freyja has a certain amount of freedom. She spends her afternoons leaning against the trunk of the Yggdrasil and talking to the guard, or wandering through the gallery above the training arenas and listening to the ring of metal and battle cries, or finding ancient books in the library and poring through their stories.

"You're in my seat." She pauses. "You're in -- both of my seats."

"Don't be absurd," says Loki. One of the Lokis. The speaking one is indeed seated in the most comfortable armchair, a thick book open on his lap. The other Loki is sitting in the window seat nearby, the one that gets the most sun; as Freyja stares, he lifts a hand and waves.

"That's amazing," says Freyja. She sets her pile of books down on the table and walks across to the window seat. The second Loki puts out a polite hand, but when she goes to shake it her own hand falls through nothing. It's unsettling. "Can you make it talk?"

The real Loki slams the book shut; a miniature fountain of dust puffs upwards from the pages. "Not yet."

"You should come by here more often. It's nice to have company."

"Well," says Loki. His double makes a swift slashing motion with an invisible sword.

"You don't have to be a warrior," Freyja says, and the illusion disappears.

"I am Odinsson," Loki says. "What else can I possibly be?"

"That's a stupid question."

"Is it?" Loki folds his hands in his lap, on top of the book, and leans back in the chair. He looks, she realises, more dangerous than she's ever seen him before. More dangerous than when there's a sword in his hand. "What good would you be, you gardeners, if we were at war? What would you do?"

She's taken aback for a moment, teetering on the edge of shame, but it doesn't matter that her answer isn't glamorous. All that matters is that she has an answer.

"Feed the living," says Freyja. "And gather the dead."


"So," Freyr says. "I hear my sister is being called the fairest maiden in the realm. Poor Sif will be devastated."

Freyja laughs. "I hear Sif defeated four men in training yesterday and wasn't so much as scratched. I doubt she cares a whit."

She thought she'd get used to the climate after a while, but six years on she and Freyr are still wearing more layers than anyone else, still the last people to fold away their heavy winter clothes and push the chest under the bed for another year. They're still making people jump with the unexpected coolness of their pale skin, the only sensible indication of what the healers describe as a lower set point. They don't make as much heat, because the people of Vanaheim have never had to.

On the other hand, Asgard's warmth, so lacking in the water and the air, is in its people. Freyja spends her days teaching things to have life and sometimes she's drunk with it, craving sunshine, her whole body searching for the spark that flies between her fingers and the Yggdrasil. People's eyes follow her, in these moods, and she follows them back. She brushes out her hair, which falls in gentle kinks a long way past her waist, and she walks among the warriors of the city seeking their summer hands and their hot mouths.

"How many marriage proposals this week, Freyja?" says Iounn. "Here, hold this back."

Freyja pulls a small apple tree fully upright so that Iounn can tie it to the stake. "Two," she says. "But nobody's written me any poems."

Iounn flushes. "Bragi mistakes length for artistic merit. But one has to admire his sincerity."

"You haven't accepted him yet?"

"We're young," says Iounn, with a smile. "Let's leave the weddings to those a little older."

Yes: Freyja is young, she is enjoying her life, and while she loves the games and the sex and the simple fact of being desired, she can't quite connect it, in her mind, to the love that tied her parents together; the love that passes between Odin and Frigg with no more than a briefly pressed hand.


Their father retires and the twins make a bargain. For a stretch of six months, Freyr is the Yggdrasil's guardian; he coaxes it, guides it, and obliquely ensures that the place of Asgard in the fabric of the universe is secure.

Freyja leaves the city and works further afield, on barely fertile islands and in brilliant greenhouses staffed mainly by those too old, or too female, or too otherwise unsuitable, to be of much use as warriors. Even in these out-of-the-way places -- especially in these places -- people talk, politics and gossip bleeding into one another at the edges. The Warriors Three have gained their popular title, and Sif's existence is a matter of some controversy. Thor's exploits are marvelled at, chuckled over, but never dwelled upon too long. As for Loki: his knowledge is respected. His magic is ill-understood. His tongue is...untrusted.

Odin's sons, people say. Thor and Loki. Thor, and Loki; still and always the second-named son.

Freyja was born after, but in the same hour as, her brother. If anyone puts them in any order, it's purely by accident.

She's overseeing the first laying-out of plots for a new season's crop when she sees Loki, sitting atop a low storage area that juts out from the wall.

She pauses with a sack full of seed in her hands. He's a prince. There is no reason why he shouldn't be interested in the grubbier workings of Asgard; even Odin visits here sometimes, to hear their reports and to commend their work. But he's looking at Freyja, whose hair is braided back from her face and pinned in tight swirls and whose boots are muddy, her arms dirt-covered past the elbows.

"What can I do for you, my lord Odinsson?"

They aren't friends. Not exactly. And she, who has an eye for details, didn't see him arrive. Loki looks down at her with the tiniest of smiles on his face, silent, and she's certain that she's seeing him now only because he's made the decision that she should.

She changes questions. "How long have you been up there?"

"Your brother sends his regards," Loki says, and climbs down. His feet are soft, only whispering against the rough ground. Either he's really here or his illusions have gained subtlety beyond measure. But she doesn't have to guess at it; Loki puts out a polite hand to steer her sideways so that Oswin can walk past, unsteady under an armload of irrigation tubing; and his touch is solid.

"How is he?"

"Occupied," Loki says, lightly.

"A little more detail wouldn't --"

Loki has put three fingers to the side of her face and is looking at her as though he might kiss her, as though he has the right to, as though he already knows what it would feel like. She allows it for the tingle it sends to her stomach, but before their lips can make contact she takes a step backwards.

"This isn't about me," Freyja says. "Is it?"

Loki laughs, low and dry. "You're too smart for this pit of warmongers, Vanir. What are you still doing here?"

She waits for his desperate eyes to find hers, and she holds firm. "Still not about me."

He frowns. "Whatever you take me for, I'm not a deserter."

"And I am not as biddable as my brother," she says.

The frown freezes and tightens and she thinks: got you. He's never much of a liar except in words.


"Freyja!" cries Thor, and enfolds her in a forceful hug.

Thor is always happy to see her, but his happiness has a surprise to it that makes Freyja suspect he forgets her existence when she isn't directly in front of him. She's long stopped taking it personally, and she hasn't the heart to tell him that it's not an attractive quality in royalty.

"You will drink with us!" he announces. "And you!" in Freyr's direction.

She can feel that her smile has a wary edge to it. Thor and his friends, amiable and intimidating when sober, can become caricatures of themselves when they indulge too far. But none of them have ever been anything but civil to her; more than civil, some of them, on a few occasions that they had the sense not to presume upon afterwards. The men are uncomplicated, by and large. As for Sif, she and Freyja have never gained much understanding of one another, but respect does well enough in its place.

"Your health," Fandral says, toasting her. His smile makes her feel gently aware of her own mouth as the wine touches it, and aware of the plunging back of her dress that exposes the undulation of her spine to the firelight. "Your face has been much missed in the city."

"How kind," she says. The wine is rich and leaves her mouth chasing the taste of berries; she sips slowly, not quite enough at ease in the company to allow herself intoxication, and enjoys the internal warmth of it, complementing the wamth of the huge fireplace.

The meal is slow, enlivened by stories, ale and wine. Thor gives an embellished bard's version of their latest tournament, suffering yelled interruption and the occasional pelting with bread rolls. Freyr, who has always been the brighter and louder of the two of them, has plenty of anecdotes about horse-breaking. Freyja knows the etiquette of these evenings, but she can't imagine anything from her own life would count as entertainment.

"How did you find life away from the city?" asks Sif.

"Yes, Freyja, how have you been amusing yourself?" says Loki, before she can speak. He hasn't said her name aloud before, that she can remember; he pronounces the second syllable with more force than he should. "It must have been hard, to be so far from your dear brother, for so long. And with the nights so cold, as well."

"Loki," says Freyr. She hears the note in his voice, the familiarity and the anger; so this is what it's about, then.

"I've missed the joke," Thor says, slow and bold. He hasn't grasped the insinuation yet, but it's rising in the silence that’s fallen over the table. Loki continues before anyone else's tongue, slow with drink, can catch up to the speed of his own.

"And why not? Between them, they've worked through everyone else."

Freyja sets down her fork. "I don't think any of this is your business."

Loki looks her right in the eyes. "Cold-blooded whore," he says, almost as though he means it.

"Loki." Sif is on her feet, hands clenched.

"Second son," says Freyja.

Loki's face twists. He makes almost no sound, no fuss, as he pushes back his chair and leaves the room.

"Wonderful," Thor mumbles into his tankard. He clangs it unsteadily down. "I suppose I should --"

"No," says Freyr. The twins exchange a glance; Freyja nods and they stand. "Were you the one insulted? We'll handle it. He's drunk. I'm sure he didn't mean it."

They leave the warriors at the table. A guffaw of awkward laughter, someone trying to lighten the mood, rises behind their backs as they walk away. The blood, belated, floods Freyja's cheeks. She takes her brother's hand for a quick, defiant moment, and he squeezes her fingers.

"I'm sure he didn't mean it," he says again.

Loki is in his study, sitting on the stairs. They sit down, one on either side of him: bracketing and easy, but inexorable. Loki is so tense that Freyja doesn't touch him for fear of losing a hand. He stares straight ahead and says, finally: "Stupid of me."

"By which you mean..." says Freyr.

"I'm sorry."

"Brother," Freyja says.

Freyr claps a gentle, warning hand against Loki's bowstring shoulder and hoists himself to his feet. He's a little the worse for ale himself, but it only shows when he moves.

"What?" she says, when they're alone and the silence is too heavy. "I've heard the apology. Now I want the reason."

Loki leans back on his hands. His voice is bitter. "It isn't a very good reason."

"I can't think of any reasons," she says, "that I would have accepted as good."

"Thor will be king."

It's too abrupt. She doesn't know what to say.

"I heard him say it, our father. It's certain -- oh, I know, everyone has always been certain. But he was supposed to be the one person who hadn't made his mind up yet, and I was in the mirror, and I heard him say it and I thought, there. That's his mind made up, at last. But he kept talking." A slow breath, too loud. "Apparently I wasn't ever in the running."

Freyja's anger is still there, fighting to be appropriate, confusing her. She shouldn't be the one hearing this. But she's always been cursed with an abundance of understanding. She remembers Freyr's hand and lifts her own, careful, to touch Loki's arm. She can feel the effort it takes him not to flinch away.

"It was always going to be him, and he will ruin it. He won't mean to, but he will."

So this isn't about Freyr either, not really. The shape of Loki's malice arises from the assumption that when Freyja says brother she assigns the same meanings to the word that he does. That she also hungrily inhabits her brother's golden insufficiencies. That she also can only define herself by comparison, by temperance, and by a love that rages helplessly in the shadow and will not be quenched.

Freyja would do anything to protect her brother, but that is as far as she'll allow the two of them, her and Loki, to be the same.

"We will not become the laughing-stock of the Nine Realms," Loki says.

He's calmer now, purposed, in a way that reminds her of Frigg. Freyja wonders for the first time what the queen thinks of her two sons, how well she loves them, how she weighs their talents and worths; she's kept that secret well.

Odin's sons, people say.


There's a scar on the side of Freyja's calf, long and thread-thin, pale as cloud against her already pale skin. The story is a dull one -- clumsiness on slippery ground, the keen edge of a shovel biting her flesh -- but when she stands in front of the mirror she will always lift her skirt high enough to expose it, and smile. It's the only remarkable thing on her body, beyond some freckles that have adorned the bridge of her nose since childhood

She could invent other stories for the scar, but Asgard is not the place for that. Amongst the Aenir there is nothing but pride in war-marks, each bespeaking a battle survived. Freyja, the fair one, the cool-handed gardener from elsewhere in the universe, has no glory to her name. Only love.

After all she's learned, growing up here and living here but never managing to internalise the society, she counts it lucky that the Vanir and Aenir have only been at war once in their history, and that a long time ago. This planet seething with trained warriors who lack the cohesive force of their parents' war reminds her sometimes of a creature in hibernation, curled up tight, waiting for the spring to awaken it and dreaming restless dreams.

If we were at war, what would you do?

Today her answer would be less defensive. Today she might say:

But we are not at war, my lord Odinsson.

So what do you do?


A tree can tremble only in its leaves, but the bark of the Yggdrasil has a new roughness to it that feels for all the world as though it's trying to shiver. Freyja runs her palm up and down the trunk, curious, and whispers it calm with poetry: children's songs that her mother used to sing, the words almost forgotten but the tunes still fresh, and the dutifully memorised sagas of Asgard's history. Apropos, considering the occasion.

There's a grand and soft belligerence in the air that sits uneasily in her lungs, so she takes a walk, relearning the sharpness and the fabricated beauty of the place. Tonight's celebration will stretch on a long time and the noise will be near impossible to escape, so she's decided to embrace it, but for now she skulks and gathers her energy in the shade cast by tall pillars below the main hall. And she's not the only skulker; she sees the distorted silhouette of Loki's helmet before she sees the man himself. She pauses, almost ready to turn and leave.

"Don't bother," he says, not looking at her. "You're here now."

"Shouldn't you be --" she was going to say with your family, but cuts it off.

"Oh, probably," Loki says anyway, and goes on after a pause: "Imagine how much worse he'd have been without a little brotherly competition. Even if the competition was an illusion, and not even a good one. Not nearly as good as mine. What do you think?"

This is, apparently, what they are. Not friends, just people who talk. Cry once in front of a strange boy prince who’s stolen your necklace, and you're stuck with the ugliness that he won't inflict upon the rest of the world. It's probably a lot easier, Freyja thinks, to do this without friendship getting in the way.

Loki looks at her and something in his face bespeaks the first frost of winter, tipping each blade of grass in a white warning of the long cold nights to come. Cold-blooded whore he called her, Loki who sees and names his own faults in the world, and she thought it was the noun that was important.

She weighs up how much to give him, and decides on the truth.

"He's not ready," she says.

Now it's just the same amused stare as ever; the ice has fled. "Obviously."

"He --"

"I said that to my mother," Loki says. "Do you know what she said? Your father wasn't ready either, when he became king. But he rose to what was required of him."

"Do you think Thor will rise?"

"I hope so," Loki says. "I really do. But I shouldn't have to hope."

A bell starts to ring, somewhere high and distant, and Freyja looks up. "Those of us who belong in the cheaper seats should be getting ready for the ceremony."

"Who knows," Loki says. "Maybe it won't be quite as interminably dull as it promises to be."

She smiles her goodbye. "Be well."

Loki looks as though he might laugh at her, but instead he bows his head. "Be well."

Freyja leaves him standing in the shadows and pulls her cloak futher forward to quell the treebark-shiver that runs down her back. She walks up the stairs, in search of the sun.