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The Fragile Substance of the Soul

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He is sitting in a dark chair, the material unlike anything he knows. The whole planet is not like Alfheim, and he wants to go home. There are no trees here, no magic, no other elves. The entirety of Midgard is filled with humans, and he is afraid of them.

A woman walks into the white and sterile room. ‘’Do you remember me?’’ she asks kindly. He does, actually. She is the first female human being he ever saw, and he doesn’t think he’ll ever forget. She is kind, he thinks, and she isn’t such a bad person to be around, but she’s not an elf.

He nods curtly, not daring to say anything. ‘’What did you think of the tests we gave you?’’ she then asks, crouching in front of him. ‘’You seemed to like them.’’

He remembers those, the machines. They don’t have anything like it in Alfheim – they don’t need to, because they have magic. But he is not very good at spells, unable to concentrate on the desired effect for very long. The human male that was with this woman at the time seemed delighted at his interest in them. He just thought that maybe these machines make a lot more sense than spells, to him. During the tests, he’d hand to stand still and shapeshift while the man scanned him with something, and he’d asked unending questions. Maybe he can learn to make machines and then go back to Alfheim to show to all other elves.

‘’I like the machines,’’ is the only thing he says, pensively, and the woman smiles at him.

‘’I bet you do. Howard can show you a lot more; he is very smart, you know. And I think you are very smart too.’’

The man in question enters, and he makes sure to sit very still. For all the man has shown him some machines, there is an air about him that he does not like. Howard looks at him for a split second and then turns his gaze to the woman. ‘’Peggy. I need to talk to you. Alone.’’

The woman smiles at him before standing up, and then he is alone again.

~*~

Tony, when waking up, usually does not flail around and fall of the couch he slept on.

He does do this when stared in the face by an elf, this time sporting a dark skin and silver hair, with eyes to match. ‘’Please don’t do that,’’ he says as he gets up, running a hand through his own hair.

Birger smiles – he does that a lot, Tony notices, no matter what skin he takes on. His natural form, Tony knows now, is that of a fit middle-aged man that would’ve passed as albino on Earth, and he usually wears some semblance of that form in the many skins he changes into on a daily basis. He quips a lot, doesn’t ask too much questions, and seems to have a slight obsession with Tony, considering how he woke up this morning.

‘’You are definitely the weirdest elf I’ve ever seen, and I’ve dealt with a lot of people,’’ Birger says good-humouredly. ‘’You keep on your natural form at all times, you seem to be surprised by the local life, even if you hide it, and from what you’ve told me, you seem to be quite capable with mechanics that don’t even exist here. Where’re you from, gold-eye?’’

Okay, so maybe Tony has refused to give Birger a name, and Birger retaliated by giving him multiple nicknames. He just thought it’d be for the best, at the moment.

Just to prove him wrong, Tony shifts his eyes to a dark blue and his hair a tint lighter. Birger just raises his eyebrows. ‘’You’re not even trying, pal. You’re too attached to one appearance, I’m telling you. I’m not judging here, just noting some stuff. Just saying that it’s clear that you’re not from around here.’’

Tony sighs. ‘’I’ve done some travelling,’’ he says vaguely. Birger shakes his head, amused.

‘’I see how it is. Well, if you want help with that bridge, we have to leave now. These things don’t do themselves.’’

Tony nods, slipping out of the borrowed pyjamas and putting on other borrowed stuff. If he wants to fit in, he desperately needs elven clothing.

‘’Do you have that location artefact with you?’’ he asks, putting on a shirt. It’s better than his own clothing, really, a durable sort of material with a tight fit, protecting both against cold and some minor spells.

Birger waggles it into the air, and throws the small yellow cube to him when he’s finished clothing himself.

Tony shifts to his natural appearance again, not really at ease in many different skins after being in the same one for so long. Then he follows Birger out of the door.

He’s coming for Loki, and whoever stands in his way will burn.

~*~

One. Two. Three.

One. Two. Three.

Loki counts silently, rubbing his icy cold hands against the bars of his cell. They’re made of wood, albeit very strong wood, and he hopes the ice will be enough to break it. Elven guards walk past all the time, giving him wary looks, but Loki just insults them so they will not notice the ice that is creeping up into the place that is keeping him from freedom. Besides, the elves are visibly fearful of the wizard Jotun that’s been locked into their prison.

Freya hasn’t been by for some time, so Loki is relatively left alone. He’s not sure what it is that she’s doing, but he isn’t going to wait for her to tell him.

One, two, three.

The wood snaps, and Loki stills for a few seconds. No one is near, and he’s the only one they have in this cell block, presumably of Freya’s interest in him. She doesn’t have the necklace yet, Loki thinks, because she would have come to gloat about it. Which implies that they haven’t found Tony’s body yet. The more time passes, the more Loki is filled with hope. But the more time passes, the more danger Tony is in, if he’s indeed still alive. A Midgardian wandering alone around Alfheim, unable to speak the language, will definitely be an easy target for any heinous acts.

He eyes the broken wood. It’s glinting blue with ice. It will still take some time for it to break enough for him to get through, and keeping it hidden will be harder now.

Well, it’s his only way out, so Loki will have to take the risk and deal with the consequences.

He’s coming for Tony, and everyone who stands in his way will learn to deal with his icy wrath.

~*~

‘’You just have to concentrate,’’ Birger remarks, ‘’Every elf has an equal part of magic in them. You’re just not thinking of it properly.’’

Tony sighs. Ever since Birger figured out that Tony’s not exactly adroit in the magic category, he’s been taking it upon himself to direct him. For nearly three hours now, he’s had to endure an explanation of how to focus properly to channel his powers. If he’d wanted to hear it, he could have gone to some sort of hipster fest on Earth.

‘’If you’re so skilled in magic and artefacts, why don’t you live up there?’’ he comments, and points up to Alverbyen. ‘’That’s the place for all pros, right?’’

Birger huffs. ‘’I used to live there,’’ he says then, and for a moment, his enthusiasm deflates. Then the elf smiles again, but there’s something melancholic about it, and Tony feels guilty for a moment. ‘’I would tell you, but you’re keeping quite some secrets yourself,’’ he continues, ‘’So I’m taking a page out of your book. Keep pushing that lever, boy.’’

Tony pushes, but it’s not coming along easily. They’re at the end of the village, in an dead-end alley that has yet to see any company but theirs. The lever is pitch-black. Tony would have liked to have his armour, so the lever would move a lot easier. Birger is looking through a book full of runes that stood on a sort of mix between a stairs to the wooden roofs and a bookcase, in between of other books. Birger didn’t doubt to choose this one, though.

Tony grits his teeth and pushes, moving the lever another inch. ‘’It’d go faster if you do it with magic,’’ Birger remarks casually.

‘’Why don’t you show me, then?’’ Tony snaps. Birger snaps his fingers and the lever moves effortlessly. Tony groans. ‘’Then why am I doing this?’’

Birger smiles. ‘’If you don’t want to use magic, it’ll have to happen another way, gold-eye.’’

‘’Tony. My name is Tony.’’

‘’Well, then, Tony. I am looking through this manual to find the way to make the bridge concrete. The lever puts the bridge in the direction of Alverbyen, but it does not yet have a form. I can’t do both at the same time.’’

A page is turned over and Tony puts his hands in his middle. He doesn’t have any desire to learn any kind of magic, but not learning will only prove a disadvantage. He turns Birger’s monologue on magic over in his head. Trying will not hurt anything; pushing that lever with muscles any further will only drain his strength and energy, which he probably will need if he is to find Loki.

He focuses in his mind. His mind works differently than others, that he knows, and while that gives him the advantage over others during engineering, he has always lagged behind in learning magic.

He thinks of raw power, and doesn’t give himself the time to picture it in his mind, doesn’t give himself the time to make it concrete, and pushes.

The lever moves, less than when Birger did it, but infinitely more than when Tony tried.

Tony looks at it with some surprise. Of course magic is in his blood, a vital part to his heritage, but he didn’t expect it to come that easily to him.

Birger smirks. ‘’See, you’re a natural! Now, let’s make this bridge complete, so we can find whoever you’re looking for.’’ He says only one word, one that Tony doesn’t know the connotation of, and a shimmering stairways to the highest branches of the tree come into existence.

Tony eyes the elf warily. ‘’How do you know I’m looking for someone?’’

‘’Boy, you’ve asked me for a way up to a place you’ve got no business and for a tracking artefact. It’s obvious you’re looking for someone, and the King and Queen don’t want you to, or have no idea of it.’’

‘’You’re going against the Queen? Knowingly?’’ Tony asks, stunned. The elves’ loyalty is unparalleled, and if Birger has guessed Tony’s business in Alverbyen correctly, he is going against his leaders. That’s not anything he would’ve asked any elf to do, because Tony knows his kind well enough to know that they’d probably bind him and return him to Frey’s Palace in chains.

His answer is a shrug. ‘’Let’s say the Queen isn’t what she used to be.’’

Tony is going to answer, when a magic blast hits the wall next to him. The ground trembles and Tony falls.

Birger helps him up, his eyes wide. He isn’t looking at Tony, but at the place where the blast came from.

Two elves, clad in golden armour, are at the end of the alley. One has a black staff that sucks all light away, save for a bright golden trail that leads right to Tony. ‘’Run!’’ Birger yells. Tony finds his feet and starts running up on the winding stairs, a breeze of wind the only thing alerting him to the sudden transparent shield that appears around him and Birger, who follows him closely.

He runs, away from danger and to it at the same time, trapped.

~*~

‘’This is taking too long,’’ Birger pants behind Tony. ‘’They’re gaining on us.’’

They’ve been sprinting up the stairs for fifteen minutes already, and Tony is so exhausted that he thinks he may pass out. His suit requires energy as well, but in a very different way, and running up to stairs for so long while being chased by elves that keep trying to hit you with their spells is a tiring affair.

‘’What do you suggest?’’ he asks, after Birger fires a spell of his own to their followers.

Birger looks at him grimly. ‘’We have to get rid of them before we’re in Alverbyen. Use your magic, the same thing that you did with the lever. I’ll put my energy in keeping the shield up, and I’ll try a little something of my own in the meantime.’’

Tony nods curtly, and at once he drops to his knee and focuses on blowing the two elves off the bridge.

The shield shimmers in front of him as it wands off another one of their attackers’ spells.

‘’Do it!’’ Birger yells, and Tony –

can’t.

He curses, looking at his own hands in desperation. ‘’Tony,’’ Birger says, and then his hand is on Tony’s shoulder, and his voice is soft. ‘’Tony, don’t think too deeply about it. Just imagine them away.’’

And he tries, but nothing comes out. Birger mutters something he can’t hear, and then is pulling at him. ‘’We need to run,’’ he says, and Tony shivers, because he can’t, and drops his hands into his pocket, his fingers gliding over a cold metal.

The necklace, he thinks, realizing at the same time it’s probably the reason the elves are after him in the first place.

‘’Tony!’’ Birger yells and then Tony feels a shock coming from it as their shield slips away, Birger falling down, and Tony is just able to prevent him falling down from the stairs. The two elves stand above them, palms raised toward him, and Tony closes his eyes, feeling a hatred of these two elves that he doesn’t even know rise in him. They are after him for no apparent reason, they tried to kill him and they took Loki away from him.

There is a second of nothing, and then a blast takes the elves off balance. Tony opens his eyes just in time to see the surprised looks on their faces as their own spells turn to dust in their palms, and as Tony’s hit home. Then they’re gone, and it’s just Tony and Birger, panting on a stairs, Tony still clutching the necklace in his pocket.

‘’What the heck?’’ Tony says, bewildered.

~*~

His mother smiles down at him. ‘’You should be glad, Egil,’’ she says, trying for a stern look. He knows her better than to know she means it, though. She’s the only family he has.

‘’You’re ill,’’ he says, taking her hand. ‘’And I’m going to be all alone.’’

She shakes her head. ‘’No, no, darling boy. You met Howard, you did. He promised to take care of you. We have a deal, me and him, and it’s going to involve you being happy. Here on Midgard.’’

‘’But I don’t want to pretend to be human,’’ he says miserably. ‘’I just want to go home.’’

His mother strokes his hair. ‘’This will be your home,’’ she says. ‘’I can feel it.’’

~*~
One, two, three.

Loki grits his teeth. Hiding the broken spot is becoming increasingly difficult, and he wants to get out already. Leaning against the bars, he moves his hand against the spot again, trying to get an opening big enough for him to fit into.

How fortunate he is a Jotun runt. Saves so much effort, really.

One, two, three.

The wood creaks and snaps. Loki would smile, were he not so frustrated with the entire situation at hand. But maybe he will fit through the gap, now, if he squeezes. He chances a look at it. It should do well enough. It will definitely be noticed if anyone passed by now, anyway. He’ll have to take the risk.

Loki goes through with his head first, trying to balance himself while having his hands tied. It’s no easy task, but he manages somewhat to squeeze his body through. It takes a few minutes though, just enough apparently, because as he helps himself up off the ground, an elf appears.

Just as his eyes widen in shock, Loki touches the elf’s arm. His Jotun skin is cold enough that the elf goes down, immediately. Loki crouches down to search his body for a knife, to cut his rope and finally get his magic back. He is just rising again as the door falls open. Loki raises his palms to the intruder, nearly attacking, when he realizes –

It’s Tony, looking a little worse for the wear with a jagged wound running from his shoulder to his elbow, wearing torn elven clothes, but it’s definitely his Tony, dark eyes determined, alive.

His mortal is holding a glowing yellow artefact, staring at him with widened eyes. ‘’Loki?’’ he says. ‘’Why are you blue?’’

‘’I’ll explain later,’’ Loki says. ‘’We need to get off this rope. I don’t have magic. Don’t touch me, Tony, it’ll hurt you.’’

Tony hurries to him, unreadable expression as he looks Loki over, but after a second, he nods. ‘’Are you alright?’’ he asks then, a tender look on his face. ‘’Did they hurt you?’’

‘’Nothing I can’t handle,’’ Loki answers, ‘’How did you get here? How did you get that artefact?’’

Tony grimaces. ‘’I’ll explain later,’’ he says with a wave of the hand. ‘’Now, for that rope –‘’ but then Freya enters, her expression enraged.

As she sees the two of them, however, her face smoothens out. ‘’What do we have here,’’ she remarks coolly. ‘’My favourite Jotun, a very fascinating Midgardian and with him, my necklace. You should do well to give it back, youngling, or I will not be able to ensure your lives.’’

‘’Don’t give it to her,’’ Loki snarls, looking over at Tony.

‘’Why don’t you try and stop me,’’ Freya shouts, and she raises her hands. Loki is prepared for the blow to come: he doesn’t have the power to stop it, and Tony won’t be able to help.

But then Tony’s hands are in the air and he pushes and then a shield appears, weak but enough to return Freya’s blast. She is thrown in the air by her own spell returned, flung so far as to exit the edifice that they’re in.

The silence that follows in the cell blocks are deafening; outside people are shouting, but all Loki does is stare at Tony, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Tony is the first to speak. ‘’We need to leave.’’ And then Tony shifts, until there’s something that is Tony, but it’s not, his eyes glowing golden and his face smooth. Loki can see his mortal lover, however, in the tightening of his mouth, the determined gaze, the form of his face, the line of his eyebrows, the tip of his nose.

There is no time to talk about it. Not now. But underneath the surprise, Loki feels the undercurrents of anger and betrayal rising.