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A Billion Miles of Darkness

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‘’Freya is not going to be pleased to see me,’’ Loki says. His mouth is tense and he doesn’t look directly at Tony, but at the endless sea of trees they can see from the window of Loki’s room.

Tony remembers climbing them, when he was a child, in search of a rare dragon or collecting wood for the fire. Sometimes, when he wanted wood or leaves to make a small artefact for himself, he went into the highest tree he could find and collected everything from there.

He doesn’t recall climbing trees on Earth. He thinks that Howard didn’t like it.

Tony joins Loki by the window, hips bumping together. ‘’Why are you on such bad terms with these guys, anyway? I thought they were friends of Thor.’’

Loki huffs. ‘’Friends of Thor, usually, are not people I would consider friends, or they me.’’

‘’I’m the obvious exception,’’ Tony grins. Loki elbows him and he nearly falls, but remains upright through sheer stubbornness.

‘’Well, you may be, but Freya is definitely not. Frey and Thor were closest, but Freya has had a crush on Thor since the day they met. She is the goddess of love, you know, but I imagine she was very peeved to find that Thor had little interest in her.’’

‘’So, she’s what, exactly? Angry? Naïve? The popular kid?’’

Loki’s hand absentmindedly begins stroking through Tony’s hair. ‘’Perhaps a bit of all three. Freya is not to be underestimated, however. She is quite the sorceress, and has a combination of elven magic and her own. Frey may be King, but Freya is Queen, and that counts for quite a bit in Alfheim.’’

Tony, of course, is aware. He has never seen Frey or Freya before he left Alfheim, but they are practically worshipped among the elves as the peace-makers. Half the artefacts made are for them; their safety, their happiness. There is nothing elves like quite so much as peace; a bit ironic, Tony considers, seeing what he’s done for the better part of his life on Earth.

Well, Tony considers himself more human than elven these days, so maybe it’s not that much of a surprise.

‘’Freya and I got into a bit of a fight when we were children. I had a pet snake, you see; Freya thought this was all very dreadful and made a potion to kill it. We’ve been… hostile, one could say, ever since.’’

‘’Of course you had a pet snake,’’ Tony sniggers. Loki gives him a look.

‘’It was very dear to me.’’

‘’Sorry, darling.’’

Tony gets a whack on the back of his head for his trouble, but gets Loki to kiss him after some pouting. He counts it as a win.

~*~

It is an odd thing, for Tony, to see Alfheim again. When he left, he did not think it would be for very long. He thought he’d be back within a short time.

It took nearly fifty years, it turns out.

Loki’s status as prince makes sure they are treated well while in Frey’s Palace, even if Tony is kind of afraid that Loki and Frey will get into a fight the next time they talk. Well, afraid is not the word; seeing Loki fight is one of the few joys in life, graceful and lethal, but diplomacy will definitely be the sore loser at the end of the day.

And they still need Frey to get to Freya, who, apparently, is the maker of the magical necklace they’ve spent weeks researching. Frey assured them it will do them no harm, but Loki seems mistrustful of it. Tony is going to bank on Loki’s instincts, but at least they are a step closer to figuring out the magical object.

He would never admit it, but he hopes they can go home soon.

~*~

Come with me, darling. We have to leave.

Right now?

Yes, sweetheart. Right now.

~*~

Tony wakes up sweating, dream leaving as he sits up in the bed. Loki is sleeping beside him; Tony takes a minute to study his face, the dark strings of hair across his pale face. There is something about Loki that is not present when he sleeps.

They all have their demons, but Tony sometimes thinks he doesn’t even want to imagine Loki’s.

Loki breathes evenly, a sign that Tony’s nightmare has not woken him. Tony, however, doesn’t think he can go to sleep again, not even with Loki beside him.

There’s too much running in his mind.

Tony, silent like a mouse, creeps out of the bed. The wood does not creak, fortunately, and he makes his way to the adjoining bathroom, closing the door softly behind him. As he enters, a candle slowly starts burning far brighter than any candle has a right to burn.

The tiles are warm to his feet, but Tony shivers all the same. There is a giant mirror hanging on the wall, and Tony looks at himself, leaning against the locked door. There are bruises beneath his eyes, and his dark hair looks ragged.

‘’Damn it,’’ he mutters to himself. Going to Alfheim was a mistake, one he shouldn’t have made. He has everything he could ever want for on Midgard. He has far too much work for a trip, especially an interplanetary one with no fixed return date. Loki is restricted by his presence, and Tony let his curiosity run away with him. There is nothing for him on Alfheim but memories, and Tony is a futurist. He doesn’t feel like an elf, and he doesn’t want to be one.

And yet.

He can pretend all he wants, but he is. He was born in an alley in Alfheim, to a mother he can barely remember and a father he never knew, raised with magic and nine realms and the Vanir for rulers and scraped knees and shapeshifters as family. He had this, before he had Howard and robots and Jarvis and school and loneliness.

Tony doesn’t know why, but for one moment, a single moment, he shifts back.

He sees the gradual flow in the mirror he is looking into. A nearly fifty year old human with dark hair and eyes to match changes, changes, changes… - until it’s not him in the mirror anymore.

And yet, it is. It’s not quite Tony Stark standing in front of him, but it’s something that is recognizable. His hair remains the same colour and mess it was; his eyes have lightened to a lighter brown, nearly golden hue. His skin is as tan as he remembers, but the age lines have disappeared. For an elf, Tony is not nearly so old as to have them. He looks alien to himself, but he recognizes his own face, and that’s more than he could have hoped for.

Apparently, he has not designed his entire appearance on a lie, but has gradually adapted to become, well, the closest thing to himself he could become.

Tony closes his eyes and breathes, in, out, in, out.

When he opens them, Tony Stark stands in front of him again, unreadable mask on his face.

~*~

Frey has given them, in a show of diplomacy, two horses to get to Freya, a day’s ride from his own Palace. He has told them that she dwells in the elven city, and they don’t have much else to go on than what Frey is saying, for now.

Tony doesn’t like horses, really. They’re uncomfortable and smelly, but there is no other way of getting there except walking, and that will take far too long.

Loki is remarkably silent. Tony tries to make conversation by asking stuff about elves that he already knows. Loki responds to his questions, of course, but only barely. Tony is just in the process of asking about why the elves don’t have All-Speak (he already knows it’s only for the gods, but come on, pretending to be a vanilla human here!) when he comes to a realization.

‘’Loki?’’ No verbal response, but Loki gives him a glance. He’s also aware of what he’s doing, Tony expects, but perhaps he simply doesn’t care.

‘’You don’t like elves, do you?’’

Loki huffs. ‘’Elves are shapeshifters, but let’s say that doesn’t stop them from shifting loyalties as well.’’

Tony raises his eyebrows. It’s true, he knows, that elves don’t quite care about consequences or, for that matter, about people who are no elves themselves, but they are usually quite upfront about that. Besides, it’s not like Loki has never shifted loyalties.

Loki seems to notice the way his thoughts are going, and sighs. ‘’I’m aware it sounds hypocritical, Tony. But whereas I am not quite loyal, I certainly do have motives, don’t I? The elves don’t betray you for a reason, but because they think it’s funny. If there is one thing I know, it is to not trust elves.’’

The only thing that goes through Tony’s head is that he certainly has to make sure Loki never figures out his little secret, and at the same time his heart breaks.

~*~

They are riding and following Frey’s directions, helped by Loki’s own knowledge of the general area. But once they reach a village, all houses with dark wood and purple roofs and filled with the scent of magic, Loki calls them to a halt.

‘’Where are we?’’ Tony asks. He really doesn’t know.

The tiles light up slightly where they walk, and Tony remembers how they lit up when the sky was darker and you could see the light more clearly.

Loki seems to be thinking. ‘’According to what Frey told us, Freya is in the village besides this one. It’s a place where the higher elves live, those who are high in class and the best sorcerers among the elves. They call it Alverbyen. However, it’s very hard to reach. Especially if they’ve closed the damn bridge.’’

Tony looks in the same direction Loki does. There’s no stream of water, so he’s not sure where the bridge is supposed to be. But then he looks up and focuses his eyes on the top of the trees. There are actual buildings there, interwoven in the branches of a giant tree, an entire city built above this one.

‘’They’re building cities in trees on top of other cities?’’ he asks warily. He’s sure he would’ve remembered this from his childhood, but maybe not. There’s a lot of stuff that he remembers seemed normal to him back then, but are not so logical to him now. Children have a different way of looking at the world than adults, after all, and Tony’s lived half a century among humans since then.

Loki scowls at it. ‘’There is one other way to get there,’’ he says, but he sounds hesitant.

Tony sighs. ‘’I am not going to like this, am I?’’

~*~

Another thing Tony does find vaguely discomforting at present is the continuous Shapeshifting the elves in the village are doing. Some glance at Loki, and a few raise their eyebrows at Tony, but they’re not making any moves. Their hair goes from black to white to purple in a matter of seconds, and Tony knows how easy it is to change your appearance. Shapeshifting is second nature to elves, but Tony has been going on only one appearance for so long now that it seems rather tedious to him to shift so often.

And even while they’re shifting, Tony recognizes them. He’s not sure why: a lady walks past him with shining golden hair and a few minutes later she’s unrecognizable with a short white hairdo, a few inches taller and freckles. He just knows that it’s the same person, and wonders if he knows because of his heritage, or if it’s just a thing that is.

Loki knocks on the greatest tree Tony has ever seen. It’s not dark like the others, but almost shining, golden and purple mixed together. Tony immediately knows it’s the centre that the village above, Alverbyen, was built on.

‘’Are we sure we can’t use my suit to get up?’’ Tony asks again.

Loki shrugs. ‘’If you want a hundred elves to put a spell on it, you could. They are curious creatures and will probably bring down your suit at first sight, just to see if they can.’’

Tony knows this. He still hates it.

~*~

So, they are climbing up the tree. Tony is done with this shit.

Loki managed to get two climbing hooks for them, but it is probably his magic that helps the most. He makes sure Tony doesn't fall down and break his neck, grinning at him knowingly (Tony should be cursing him for that grin, but damn, he loves Loki when he’s like this), making sure neither of them fall.

It’s late afternoon, and they’re halfway there. Tony wouldn’t call himself afraid of heights, but resting on a branch high above a city, and sheltered underneath another one, he can’t help but looking down. It won’t be a soft fall, and the regular human being surely won’t survive it. The view is spectacular, though.

The latter half of the climb goes quicker, as they are both getting used to it, though Tony is getting really tired from all this climbing. His arms and legs are heavy, and he’s certain he is going to have cramps everywhere later.

Loki helps him up the last few minutes, while the sun has already set, and Tony collapses against him. ‘’This went surprisingly well,’’ Loki says brightly.

‘’You’ll jinx it,’’ Tony says, eyes closing.

‘’Don’t be ridiculous,’’ Loki scoffs, and yanks him up. When he feels Loki stiffen, Tony opens his eyes again.

They are surrounded by eight elves with shining blades and magic in their palms, and they don’t look friendly.

Tony grimaces. ‘’You just had to say it.’’

‘’Throw the mortal off,’’ a woman voice says.

Loki steps in front of Tony. Then Tony feels something cold sliding into his pocket, and a second later Loki holds up his palms in surrender. ‘’Freya, don’t,’’ he warns, an edge to his voice. Tony activates his gauntlet silently, but he hears a sputter coming from it and turns around. One of the elves is staring at him impassively, hand stretched towards the gauntlet. Well, Tony’s suit is not going to be of help here, then.

‘’I’m afraid you don’t really get a say in it, Trickster,’’ the voice repeats. Tony still can’t see her, only the unmoving elves.

Well, unmoving until three of them reach forward with a speed that surprises Tony. They grab his arms, and he knows elves are more resilient than his human form, but he can’t help fighting it. One, he manages to kick down, but the other two hold him there, unfaltering in their strength.

‘’Don’t harm him, Freya, I’m warning you,’’ Loki hisses. He turns around to assist Tony, and he can see the worry in his eyes. It sends a thrill to him, even in this moment, that Loki cares. For a moment, he is absolutely sure Loki is going to make a deal, like he always does. It seems absolutely clear that Loki can talk himself out of anything.

The moment after that, the elves throw him off the platform, and Tony plummets to the ground.