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Crystalline Heart

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           Buildup. Certainly an important step to any event. 

           Exhales before a kiss. Long-lost souls running into a great, needed embrace. Weapons lifting for a final blow.

           Veins humming. Blood pumping to the heart. Muscles tensed to flex my gloved fingers.

           A whistle sounded behind me. Yes, the buildup was everything. Foreplay.

           I could increase. I hoped. Buildup had to mean something. I pictured a wheel spinning forth, trepidation about where it could land. What it would throw out of its path and which hands could still it.

           “Plant your feet.” Came a deep order. Instantly, my boots wiggled into the dirt. One breath. I took the staff in my hands. Charged forth. A steady blow sent vibrations up my arms. “Good. Keep it up.”

           Face warping into a steely snarl, I tried to hide my budding frustration with drive and ferocity. A need to win. Just once. Sif matched another blow, body twisting to jab the third toward me. I kicked back and evaded, earning a nod from her. Impressed.

           No pride found me. I had to do better. I came at her, both of us lunging dancerly and hard into a spar. Warriors around us in their own bouts and conversations became silent upon my ears. Sif reeled up with a shout.

           Kicked me square in the chest. A puffed cry sent dirt up into the air as I skidded back. Sif’s wooden staff rose and I rolled over to evade it. Faster than the last time. Harder. 

           “Good.” Thor was perched a few steps above us leaning over a stone rail to observe me. I’d gotten better. Still too far to go. Especially if I wanted to match Sif. My friends. 

           Sweat dripped from my brow. I advanced again with filth scuffed down my clothing, spinning around in the hopes I could knock Sif back. She skidded, found her easy footing, and swung. The blow burst red from my nose. Down my mouth as I hit the wall. Sif brought the blunt end to my neck and I growled to sweep it aside. 

           I got up again. Came at her with red teeth-baring. 

           “Hold.” Thor pressed at the sight of blood on my chin.

           “I’m still in it.” I jumped off the stone wall to come down hard, missing Sif before she kicked my legs out from under me. 

           “You’re finished.” She came in for the killing blow and I jerked up, leg out to send her backward. Sif held her ribs, lips twitching with her usual spirited fury. A call of valor erupted from my lips before I charged her. 

           Harder. Faster. Get up. Come on. Get up! Stay in this!

           Every order sent my blood in a righteous ferocity through vessels that sweltered. Hot irons charged back and forth between us. I swiped, faked right, and went left. Lifted to strike when her staff whirled back to jab me direct in the heart. Air punched from my lungs as I hit the ground that time.

           “Dead.” Sif turned and hit her staff against the ground. Blood and dirt misted my throat. I coughed and groaned. Red auburn curls fell to cloak my face from the high sun. “You’ve made a lot of progress this year. Maybe one day, you’ll beat me. Don’t hold your breath.” 

           She smiled though. Glittering. It was true. I’d keep playing the game of catch-up with my friends until I was there. Marching into a real battle with them. Growing in rank and gaining the love and respect of our people. I’d get there. I had to.

           I had to.

           Sif extended a hand and winced upon seeing my face. 

           “Apologies for that one.” She tilted my chin, standing a few inches taller than I. Thor stepped down toward us.

           “Footwork is good, little nervous still.” He tossed a rag into my hand, ruffling my curls per his usual friendly habit. “You prepare yourself for the worst hit when you should be blocking to protect yourself. Break that habit.”

           “Story of my life.” I flashed a smile and Thor paused to chuckle. Beyond the rows of fellow warriors, I caught a glimmer and dropped my shoulders. Fandral entered the ranks behind Hogun and Volstagg. He caught my eyes, tried to lock in before I was facing away. Panning back to Thor as he filled a basin. “I can give and take hard hits.”

           “Spoken like a true punching bag. Come, wash your nose.” Thor beckoned with two fingers. Huge arms crossing. “I think you’ve had enough today.”

           “What, is Sif getting tired of knocking me over? I lost count.” I caught my reflection and winced. Blood swiped down my lips. “Ugh.” I splashed cold water down my expression, casting ripples through the girl frowning there. Big eyes wide with the tremor. Not good enough. Not yet.

           “Nonsense, you put up a better fight than anyone in this vicinity.” Sif settled our staffs back on the rack. One hand came to rest on her belt. “Keep it up, you’ll be tested formally and join our ranks in no time. It's overdue.”

           “Getting tired of the close to home squabbles, are you? Simple bandits boring you.” Thor observed as I wiped my face clean, exhaling. Brown eyes lifted to see him soaking the sun into his gold locks. One broad hand pushed them back with ease. They joked the elder prince was made of it. Chiseled and pretty. Pure sunlight.

           “Tired of the taste of dirt.” I joked again. Out of my peripherals, I caught Fandral edging toward me. “I do have to go. Get cleaned up before-”

           “Do not be late. Palace courtyard, near mother’s rose garden.” Thor gave my arm this affectionate bump with his fist. “One hour.”

           "I'll be there." My steps picked up at the same time Fandral closed in. I hurried around other spars and merry warriors. Through the dirt and grass to leave the training grounds until I saw the shine of the palace in the distance atop the hill. 

           Asgard.

           Glittering gold crown hanging from the high branches of Yggdrasil. Miles of gods ready to pick up arms against what threats may come for these nine realms. Looked rosier today with the sky blushing like that. Utter perfection by jeweled design. Home. Just another day of endless sun. The moons and stars would bloom to further remind me that I was small here. Lost in cosmos among the great planets in my orbit. 

           One utter of my name had me hurrying.

           “Wait one moment.” Fandral picked up his steps behind me. Citizens wove around us and I cringed, spinning to face him. Heels skidded in front of me once I’d turned between two buildings. A pleasant smile masked nothing.

           “I have-”

           “We need to talk about it.” Fandral decided when we were alone there. Shadows crept and a coldness spread.

           “No, we don’t. Fandral, I’m okay.”

           “Have you done it again?” He uttered.

           “It hasn’t even been a week.” I got lower too, drawing close to touch his wrist. One caress. “I told you not to bring it up.”

           “I can’t stop thinking about it. You with your-”

           “Fandral!” I quieted him, hands lifted to rub my eyes. Peering around him, I steered us closer to the wall. A breath left. “Look, I’m...working on this. I don’t have anything to tell you. I can’t explain it.”

           “Do you feel the need to do it again?”

           “Not this second, it doesn’t work like that.” I huffed and shrugged to turn. One hand latched around my wrist, gently tugging my back.

           “Listen, I know you need space, but I walked in on my friend opening wounds on herself and I don’t know how to help her.” It piled out in one gasp. Fandral with his too kind eyes. Suave and beautiful. Terrified for me.

           “It’s not on you.” I hushed him again. Hands flat on Fandral’s chest.

           “I didn’t know.” His eyes glimmered with a flood of something rare in Fandral the Dashing. Guilt. “I’ve known you since we were children. We grew up in that same, dingy village. You stopped opening up.”

           “I’m just distracted, I-”

           “You’re my lady. My favorite one.” His lips cocked into a more familiar default. Charm. Fingers clasped around my elbows and I peered aside again because shame was a bottomless pit. “You’re dependent on this. What I saw, it looked part of your routine.”

           “I said I’d come to you if I felt the urge. It just...happens.” My eyes darted for an escape because the guilt and shame festered hot under my skin. “It’s like I’m drowning some days. I have to save myself.”

           “I realize this is your struggle, but you’re not alone. That doesn’t just happen.” Fandral looked too wounded. He always worried too much about me, but I’d never seen this on his face. 

           And I'd been content to hide from my friends, even if it was in their shadows. They cast so large here in Asgard.

           “I know making it a part of my routine is horrible. I know it’s serious, I’ve been trying to unmake it for years and I slipped up.” Fingers poked at my chest before I gasped on air. Tried not to break but Fandral’s face still blurred. “No one’s ever known. Not my parents. Not anyone. Just you. Even if I never do it again, it’s a part of me. It’s my fight. I made that choice the moment I put blade on skin. I just need to breathe again.”

           I broke the one rule of being a god. I fell from my opulent cloud. I displayed a flaw. An ugly underbelly we never faced. Those weren't allowed. Not in the highest power. We set the example and it was supposed to be pristine. Perfect.

           “You are one of my closest friends. My oldest in fact. You always will be. You have been there for me, now simply allow me to do the same.” Fandral cooed that and wiped my tears aside. “I just need to beg you not to shut down on me. I realize your feelings about this are complicated. Maybe I don’t understand it all, I’m willing to try because I care for you.”

           “Everything is just...so loud here. I can’t find balance. I feel too much,” curls shook out, “or nothing at all. It’s water filling my lungs. Filling the space around me. When I do it, I feel real again. It’s that first inhale when coming to the surface.”

           “You and I will just keep finding pockets of air until you’re out of those depths.” Fandral cradled my face. Smiled his most dashing grin. Blinding me with how lovely he could be. “You’re real. I’m in this with you now. I don’t mind, I’m a rather good swimmer so the court ladies say.”

           My lips twitched when I pulled away from him only to smile. Sniffling as I wiped my eyes.

           “That’s your dashing side talking, Fandral.”

           “Aye, might be. That side never lies.” He tipped my chin. “We’re going to have a good day today as we used you. Don’t think we haven’t noticed you dipping out lately to avoid social occasions. Loki’s been pulling that off and on all year. Thor said he was in a good enough mood this morning to convince him to relax this evening.”

           I perked. Rose petals dusted my cheeks.

           “I’ll be there. Promise.” I slipped from him. “Fandral? Ah, thank you.”

           “Just take care of yourself,” he replied, beaming, “as best you can.”

           A carriage pulled me the rest of the way home. Lights flickered in the window. My little house in our tiny village. Well removed from the royal province. My heart picked up when I pushed to go inside, steadily creeping down the hall to slide around the corner.

           The sharp rasp of my name brought shivers.

           “Yes?” I pressed all the way to the wall. Tried not to close my eyes tight.

           “Come in here.” My father reclined against the couch seated next to an empty bottle. Sinking like vinegar. “Mother’s working late.”

           Again.

           “What happened to you?” His eyes like two straight pins shot through me.

           “Training with Sif this morning.” My hands clasped, fingers weaving tight. Near contorting. Thankful there was a low table between us. I knew not to ask him about his work or how long he’d been sitting here drinking our money. “And Prince Thor.”

           The addition piqued his interest.

           “And did you learn anything? I hope so with the state of you.” He lifted the bottle and gestured. “Go get me another.” Obedient, I was gone and back with two shakes of a rabbit’s tail. Easing the bottle of mead out, his hand snatched my wrist instead.

           “Did the Prince watch you closely?” A cruel hum as he laughed at me. “Bet you enjoyed that.”

           “He just gave instruction. We're friends. It’s valuable.” I wiggled, eyes anywhere else. On the cracks and scrapes in our wood floors. On a spider spinning a web in the corner, hoping to catch a juicy treat for itself.

           “You’re lucky he bothered to glance looking like that.” Father took the bottle, head shaking while he faced away. I just stood there shuffling my feet. The prickle under my flesh became a burn. Thighs and forearms pulsing.

           “I’m meeting the warriors again later. The princes will be there.”

           He drank in response, reddened eyes lingering to see me so I pressed my lips. More of a twitch.

           “Wear something presentable. Don’t embarrass us.” The saying was familiar. His mantra.

           “I won’t.” Not waiting to be dismissed, I turned to follow the hallway back toward my room. A crash sent me cringing aside. His empty bottle shattered against the wall. Violence for the sake of it. A way to make me kneel.

           “Clean that up first. Show me what you’re wearing before you leave this house.” He grumbled something else but showed himself out the back door. Shaken hands gathered the fragments so I didn’t have to see myself in them. 

           The urge to clench shards between my fists swept nausea up my throat. I stole the biggest piece, curved like a dagger. Pulled up a floorboard in my room and stuck it into the decorated box I hid there.

           Just in case, I told myself. I thought of Fandral’s eyes when he walked in. Found me with calculated flesh sliced open upon my upper thighs. The fresh cuts twitched and I inhaled nothing but bloodied water. Eyes shut tight. Block it out so I could paddle my way through another day. Just one more. Get up. Same way I was aching and pushing myself up from the training grounds.

           That’s what I always tried to tell myself.

** ** **

           The sun sprinkled warmth back into my cheeks as I hopped off the back of a carriage and shook the wind from my curls. Bounding forth toward the tall grass, I skidded up behind Volstagg waiting. One arm swept me into his broad frame. 

           “Just in time! Thor’s waiting for us.” He tugged me along as I smiled, glancing at Fandral on the way. His own amusement picked up wordlessly. Hogun, mild as can be, followed behind and addressed me.

           “Sif tells us you almost had her today.”

           “Sif’s being too kind on my behalf.” I fell into stride between her and Hogun, treading beyond the golden arches. Passing guards and attendants into the gleam of the palace. Court ladies giggled and went around us like flighty nymphs. Dresses fluttering.

           “No, I mean it, you’ve done well.” Sif defended, nudging my side. I opened my mouth when a hiss and a wave called us to hurry. Thor’s buff arm at the door to the palace kitchens. 

           “Come. Come in, they’ll be starting soon.” Thor was bent over baskets of fresh fruit, tossing shiny colors over his shoulders for Volstagg to catch. Comically, he managed to snatch each one before Sif saved an orange from nailing him in the nose. “Figure a snack will do us good while we watch.”

           The warriors spread to steal pieces of bread and cheeses as I came to the center counter. Miles of food and fancy dishes with gleaming cutlery before me. The palace kitchens alone were larger and finer than my house. Thor spotted me and smiled bright, plucking up a red apple to cross. 

           An arm extended before me over my shoulder at the same time. Elegant pale fingers. Black nails. Offering the shiniest green apple I’d ever laid eyes on.

           “She prefers the greens and gold to reds, Thor.” Loki. Deep and smooth. Soft in my ear. The low baritone had me seizing. I didn’t jump at his appearance. For once. Thor gave his grin and wink, bowing.

           “Way to wound my pride.”

           My hands came up to cup the juicy, lush fruit in my palms. Fingers brushing the warmth of Loki’s as he slipped away and came around me. Glittering greens and blues in his eyes. Ink black hair smoothed back. Sharp angles softening to smile at me. It actually reached the edges of his face. My nose crinkled when I returned it. The reds certainly lifted to my cheekbones. 

           “Thank you.”

           “Thank you for not raiding the kitchen like an animal. This lot.” He tsked, standing a good head taller. The heat of his shadow crept over me sweetly. A gentle shroud. “Ah, you had one of those days, I see.” Lovely fingers extended to my face. Too quick. The flash of them made me cringe subtly. Eyes widening before he tipped my chin up to angle my face and see my lip. “Which one of these brutes clipped you across the mouth?”

           The smooth pad of his thumb swept under a cut that was swelled. I stopped my tongue from jolting out to feel the rustic twang.

           “I didn’t hit you in the mouth,” Sif remarked upon turning, “must have been that rough landing.”

           “R-Right.” I lied. So easily too. Loki held me for observation. Seeming to enjoy the way he made me quiver. Standing so close. “I didn’t notice it.”

           “Let’s see. It’s small, I’m sure I can remedy that.” A glimmer sparked as his thumb lifted higher to caress the swell of my plump mouth. Every beat ceased. I forgot the others there. “Good as new.” 

           Loki pulled from me and I gained the ability to breathe again.

           “Thank you,” I glanced aside and back. He'd turned from me already. I spent a lot of time trying to read Prince Loki’s back. Apple clutched in hand, I didn’t grab for anything else. Too shy. Fingers exploring the sleek fruit. I twisted the stem around several times. 

           “Let’s get going.” Thor bounced with budding excitement, leading us out with his usual fervor. Loki’s eyes cast toward me at the same time the stem popped off. His head cocked so I smile lighter and found my place to his right. 

           “Haven’t seen you these days.”

           “Could say the same for you.” He remarked. “It’s not the nickname, is it, sweetheart?”

           “Oh, it might be.” Half serious, I gave his arm a push as we strolled along. It seemed too easy to fall back into the stride of this friendship even after long days apart. Loki and his eyes that weakened me. “I still loathe it.”

           “Was that argument meant to convince me to stop? Not very compelling.” He teased, eyes flickering to my curls when the sun caught them. Shining a bloodied red. Wind picked up and I smiled there in the light.

           “I don’t see the correlation.” I shrugged. “I’m...tough.” I played up a glare, face scrunching as I puffed up for effect. “And I’m a great punching bag according to Thor.”

           “I’m near ready to make her pick up a shield,” Thor remarked with his larger strides ahead of us, “a big shield and broad sword.”

           “Ugh, I enjoy my free range of movement in battle, thank you. I may have curves, but I like to move.” I clicked my tongue, eyes turned to Loki again as Thor waved me off with a huff. “Heavy-handed warriors, they never understand.”

           “Certainly not.” Loki agreed. “Although, I’d rather you didn’t get stabbed when you’re in the official ranks. We can chat about defense at another time.”

           “And I’m the sweet one? That was all icing from Loki. In your way.” I touched my lips to laugh softer. “Seriously, where have you been this month? I haven't seen you on the training grounds.” My smile faltered when his hands clasped behind his back.

           “Just busy. You've not been around the palace like you used to if we're comparing schedules.” Loki picked up his steps to leave me staring at his back again. I smoothed my fingers over the fruit wondering if I’d said the wrong thing.

           We played this game often over the last year. Pulling away. Reeling back. Orbiting in peace. I was a moon in his life. Hopefully one he looked on to admire once in a while for comfort. The thought warmed my stomach.

           Our group hurried toward a drop of cliffs outlined in twisting trees and a light waterfall draining over the side. Grass swayed into the wind. I came to the shade of a tree and leaned there as they looked over the edge. Asgard still glittering endlessly before us.

           “I can see them readying the vehicles.” Hogun gestured out. Volstagg plopped into the grass to enjoy a grapefruit, offering slices to Sif standing next to him. I admired my friends. Odin’s mightiest. Nestling the apple into my teeth, I hiked and pulled up into the rich branches of the tree. Perching myself higher to get comfortable.

           A buzzing vibrated below. Thor seated himself at the edge of the cliff, dangerously over the drop and Loki rolled his eyes. Spotting me, he came back. Lighter. 

           “You haven’t been to the library in a while. Strange.”

           “Training. Thor and Sif have been overseeing me personally,” I replied, covering my lips after a crunch of tart apple. Sweet upon my tongue. 

           “Of course they are. You have my book still too.” He peered up.

           “I can grab it tomorrow. Bring it to you. Meet you by our willow tree.” It felt so intimate. Our willow tree. As if we had a secret place. Loki’s lips twitched up at me. Harder to read his mood today, but I’d gotten used to that this year. One nod before he was crossing his arms to lean back into the tree. Sharing the space in silence. Couldn’t ask for more. 

           The buzzing became a reverberating hum. I felt it in the bark. Cries of delight sounded before a set of sleek golden barges reared up above us and dipped back down. Warriors waved and shouted in excitement. Wind cast that had me gripping the tree. Fingers shifted rhythmically over a leaf, feeling the supple veins under my touch. 

           Mesmerized, I watched the vehicles turn and spin. Testing their range and limits. Flying in and out of formation. Thor was jumping up and down now, wind casting his blond locks in all directions. 

           Laughter pulled up my throat. One barge charged close overhead and I curled up, dropping my apple core aside. Loki’s eyes lifted to watch too, fingers pushing his loose locks back. Caressed utterly, we enjoyed the show for as long as it lasted. Until the sun began to dip and paint Asgard in fresh watercolors. Dotting jewel-toned stars with the moons unveiling. 

           I admired every piece of it. This place. My home. Deftly, I swung down to touch the earth. Caught Loki’s eyes again next to me.

           “Better and better every time we see them.” Lashes batted at him before I was pulling a brighter smile.

           Loki stood taller, head tilting to narrow as he moved to pass me. The crisp scent of him tinged in leather and whatever ingredients he must have been working with recently in his studies wafted. Something lush. Utterly wooden and smoky under it like the sparks I saw that cast magic up his fingertips. Signature to Loki.

           And then he smiled at me, too. Stunning and hushed. Intent. Always lighting questions inside of me. Where his mind was. If I crossed it often. 

           “I couldn’t agree more.”