Loki sleeps badly that night, partly due to the afternoon’s upsetting events and partly due to the healers’ frequent insistence on coming to check on him. Every time he closes his eyes he is horribly aware of how vulnerable he is, physically and mentally. There is no barrier between him and the world, and no distraction from the endless repetition of his thoughts. Half-sleeping he dreams that Odin is sitting in the chair by his bed, that the Jotuns have frozen the hospital solid, that the universe has slipped beneath him and cast him into the aether. He startles himself awake expecting to see frost on his bedclothes and violence in the offering, only to find empty silence and dark shadows.
It is not a good night. By the time Poppy shows up the next day Loki is hollow-eyed and exhausted, a dull headache pounding against his temples. Poppy has to argue with Eleanor to secure his release.
“He needs peace and quiet, Eleanor,” Poppy says firmly. “Nobody sleeps well in a hospital, of course he looks tired. The library is the perfect place for him.”
Eleanor relents, finally, with the promise that Poppy will call upon her if there is any change in Loki’s condition and the reassurance that they will follow every instruction she gives them as to his care. Loki clings to his temper by a narrow margin; he feels invisible and incompetent, an invalid in mind and body. It is only the conspiratorial wink Poppy gives him when Eleanor’s back is turned that allows him to keep his composure.
“All right,” Poppy says briskly once Eleanor has departed. She upends a bag of clothing on the foot of the bed. “There’s a thrift store next to the hospital and we can come back later when you’re feeling better to find some actual clothes for you, but these should do for now. They belong to my - my friend, Tom, so they won’t be a perfect fit.” She blushes and starts fussing with a shirt.
Despite himself, Loki smiles a little. A friend? Is that what Midgardians call it?
On Asgard, Loki’s clothing had been sturdy and designed for protection and long service, whether it was intended for battle or merely everyday wear. He had hoped that standard Midgardian clothing would be similar, and is dismayed to find that it is just as flimsy as his hospital smock. Out of deference for the limited mobility of his injured shoulder and the complicated sling Eleanor insists he must wear, Poppy has brought him a shirt that fastens up the front and a pair of trousers held up with elastic. The friendly Tom is evidently both shorter and broader than Loki, and the end result emphasizes Loki’s height and lack of musculature to a lamentably comical degree.
Poppy purses her lips. “Hm. Well, at least the sneakers fit.”
That was indeed a welcome discovery - there are few things less comfortable than ill-fitting footwear. Nevertheless, Loki is dismayed to find that his new garb makes him feel no more clothed than his hospital smock and blanket.
“Might we stop by this thrift store as we depart?” he asks hesitantly. “I feel steady enough for that, I think, and I would not deprive your friend of his clothing.”
“Plus I bet your ankles are getting cold,” Poppy says, suppressing a smile. “All right, we’ll give it a shot, but don’t push yourself, okay? Let me know if you start feeling bad. If we have to bring you right back to the hospital Eleanor will never let you leave again.”
Loki winces and promises to be forthcoming. The people at the hospital have been kind and far more understanding than he would have expected, but he will be glad to depart.
He is pleased to find, when they finally collect Eleanor’s instruction sheet and a paper bag of medicines, that his legs are reasonably steady. Poppy keeps their pace slow, which he is grateful for as the blow to his head is still causing him some dizziness and he knows from experience that the increased respiration of exertion will make his broken ribs extremely painful.
Once outside the confines of his room he discovers that the hospital is quite small, consisting of but a few corridors lined with rooms and waiting areas. Poppy keeps up a running stream of commentary as they proceed, and by the time they reach the exit Loki has learned that there is a much larger hospital in a nearby town, that a man referred to as Joan’s Frank is in charge of the ambulance service that ferries patients from one facility to the other, and that Oscar once arrested his youngest for stealing a case full of lottery tickets from the general store, which of course was locked shut so that even if it was successfully stolen it couldn’t be opened.
As she helps him on with his borrowed coat (mercifully thick but still far too short in the sleeves) she explains that Tom is a mechanic and that’s why the coat smells like engine oil, and she’s tried to get the smell out but it’s proven impossible so far -
And then they walk out the door, and Loki stops hearing anything she says.
The hospital, it turns out, is in a tidy little valley. Rising up around it are several small, rounded mountains. They hem it in protectively, guarding rather than looming, and every last inch of their steep slopes is covered with a riot of color ranging from deep red to nearly translucent orange. It is joyful, overwhelming, uninhibited - a celebration of brilliance for no reason other than to be. The mountains look like they are covered in fire, frozen in time so that only the beauty and none of the destruction is preserved.
“It’s beautiful,” Loki breathes, heart aching. At its best, Asgard had been like this - eternal and glorious, incandescent and awe-inspiring. Even in his most despairing moments Loki had taken comfort from the beauty around him.
Poppy slips her hand into his and stands quietly until he has to look away or risk being overcome. “There’s a nice view of the mountains from your room at the library,” she says softly. “We can set up a chair by the window so you can sit and look.”
Loki nods jerkily. “I would like that.”
She squeezes his hand. “Thrift store?”
“Thrift store,” Loki agrees.
The thrift store occupies a small clapboard building across the parking lot from the hospital. Loki’s first impression upon seeing it is that it is a dwelling, not a place of business - only the cheerfully painted wooden sign and the colorful array of clothing hanging temptingly in the windows give it away.
The inside of the store is cluttered and riotous. Racks of clothing are crammed into every available space so that it is impossible to move in any direction without brushing up against something. Nearly buried in the chaos is a sprightly elderly woman with short white hair seated behind a glass counter littered with baskets of items for sale.
“Hello, Poppy!” she says, putting down a battered paperback book. “And you must be John. It’s very nice to meet - “ she stops, horrified. “Poppy, dear, are those Tom’s clothes? He looks like a scarecrow! You could have at least asked Rick, he’s much taller.”
Poppy sighs. “I know, but Rick’s in Makers Falls visiting his mother for the weekend. John, this is Beverly.”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Loki says.
“Oh, charmed,” Beverly says, giggling a little. “You are adorable, aren’t you? Well, let’s find you something more suitable to wear!”
Beverly sends him off into the sea of clothing with stern orders to report back whenever he finds something that he likes. With some trepidation Loki sets off.
He is relieved to discover that, while leather is in short supply, Midgardians do in fact make clothes out of thick, sturdy fabrics. They will still be less substantial than what he is accustomed to, but he thinks that when layered they will be adequate for his purposes. He chooses a few examples in unassuming shades rather than his usual dramatic blacks and emerald greens and dutifully picks his way back to the two women.
Beverly appraises his choices, humming under her breath. “Let’s see... yes, I think I see what you’re looking for. Now, sizes...” she walks around him once, eyeing him critically, and then nods sharply. “All right - Poppy, come with me, dear. I’ll need you to hold what I find. You stay here and rest, John.”
They leave Loki standing by the counter. At loose ends, he studies the displays before him; assorted jewelry, battered books, a collection of old keys. There is a pile of small clear cases at one end with labels like ‘Queen’ and ‘Metallica’ which Loki is momentarily puzzled by until he realises they must contain information of some sort on royalty and metallurgy.
At the other end of the counter is a stand containing what Loki recognizes as spectacles, traditionally worn by Midgardian scholars. He chooses a pair and puts them on. The room blurs around him, but he blinks and everything sharpens again.
“Very nice,” Poppy says, grinning, as she and Beverly return laden down with several more articles of clothing. “Very intellectual.”
“Thank you,” Loki says. The spectacles press painfully against his bruised face but he likes the way they provide a barrier between himself and the world. It may be an illusion but he feels as if he has more space in which to think, and decides that this is probably why Midgardian scholars wear them.
“Can you actually see through those?”
“Yes,” Loki says, surprised. “Should I not?”
Beverly snorts. “My prescription’s never right when I go to the doctor and let them do all their tests, and you pick up a pair of glasses at a thrift store and they clear up your vision right off the bat? It’s not impossible, but I wish I had your luck!”
Loki frowns, and tips his head until he can look over the top edge of the spectacles. The room is blurry for a moment, and then sharpens. When he looks back through the lenses, the same thing happens again.
“If you like them, you should get them,” Poppy says, amused. “It’s not surprising you lost your old pair. If they give you a headache or eye strain we should take you to an optometrist to check the prescription, though. The concussion might still be messing with your vision.”
“All right,” Loki says, frowning thoughtfully. If he understands correctly, spectacles are not simply a mark of status but intended to correct visual deficiencies. This makes sense; scholars would be more likely to be bothered by improper eyesight, and would be clever enough to find a way to compensate for it.
It also means that his eyes are adjusting automatically to the distortions in the lenses to provide him with unimpaired vision. He reaches tentatively for his magic; it slips away, again... and yet his eyes were still able to adjust, past the point of what is apparently considered normal.
His mind is so busy evaluating the implications of this that he has difficulty concentrating as Poppy and Beverly tidy the new clothing into bundles for transportation. Poppy offers Beverly some paper - Loki remembers belatedly that Midgardian currency is symbolic rather than inherently valuable - and is refused.
“You just get him into clothes that fit right as soon as possible, that’s all I’m saying,” Beverly says, winking at him.
“He’s young enough to be your grandson,” Poppy says admonishingly.
Beverly grins. “I’m not that old, sweetheart.”
“Never mind,” Poppy says when Loki gives her a confused look. “Just thank the nice crazy woman and we’ll head home.”
“Thank you very much for all your help,” Loki says obediently. He will think through this conversation later, when he has time - for now his mind is occupied with more important things.
“Any time, honey,” Beverly says.
“The road’s pretty winding,” Poppy says apologetically as she places the bags in the seats furthest to the back and Loki fumbles with his seat belt. “It’s the downside of living in the Northeast - there’s no straight line between anything, here. Let me know if you start feeling car sick, okay?”
“Okay,” Loki agrees. He has a very strong stomach, head injury or not - the secret paths between the worlds play tricks with the senses, and to walk them successfully takes a certain kind of fortitude.
Ten minutes into the journey, Loki is re-evaluating his capabilities. He had intended to use the ride to get a better sense for his surroundings and environment - as well as to take in more of the striking scenery - but the road is indeed winding, and for someone accustomed to either the slower rhythm of horseback or the punishing speed of the Bifrost the smooth motion of the car is incredibly disconcerting. In addition the terrain is mostly forested with single dwellings dotted here and there, so there is not a great deal of information to be gleaned.
He finds that he must breathe shallowly through his mouth to avoid illness, and resolutely turns his mind towards his recent discovery in the hopes that it will provide a sufficient distraction from his discomfort.
He has always had an innate knack for shape-shifting, back even before he was schooled in magical theory. He has vague memories of being punished for badly frightening his nurse as a small child; at the time he had not entirely understood what he had done wrong, but knew that it had been upsetting to the adults around him. For most of his life he had assumed that he had become something half-changed and unnatural, but now he has to wonder if it had simply been a case of resuming his natu- his, his other form, the less-used one.
It makes him wonder, as well, whether the assumption of his Aesir appearance had been Odin’s magic or his own doing. A deliberate change of appearance as an infant should have been impossible - children so young have neither the mental discipline nor the situational awareness for such an act - and so he had initially assumed that it was Odin’s will, another step in his grand plan.
Now that he is here, stripped of magic and presumably outside of Odin’s sphere of influence, he has to question this. Perhaps the shape-shifting ability is something instinctual, innate - so part of him that it lies separately from his Aesir magical ability and thus remains untouched.
He lets his hand fall out of Poppy’s sight and concentrates hard. After a moment, his fingertips turn Jotun-blue and then fade, slowly, back to normal pink.
Loki’s breath catches in his chest. It is a small thing, and has taken more effort than it should have, but it cheers him greatly to see that he has some small amount of control left over himself.
Healing magic is the purview of women only and he has never had the desire or the need to trespass there, but in the past he has managed to repair himself enough for survival by essentially shape-shifting parts of his anatomy back to an uninjured state. Regardless of what Thor and his companions may have occasionally implied, it is not healing - it is merely taking advantage of his own natural talents. He concentrates on the gnawing ache in his shoulder and, after a moment, feels it ease. Although it makes his head pound and his vision darken a little it is all he can do to turn towards the window in an attempt to hide his smile.
“You look happy,” Poppy says, pleased.
“It is very nice to be out of the hospital,” Loki says quickly. “They were very kind, but...”
“No, I know what you mean,” Poppy says. “Everybody feels that way, trust me. Want to hear a little bit about where we’re going?”
“Very much,” Loki says.
Poppy explains that her town is named New Stebbinsville and contains about four hundred people, which seems small to Loki but Poppy proudly explains that they have both the sheriff’s department headquarters and the county courthouse. There is also a post office, a general store run by a man named Rick who is friends with Oscar, Tom’s mechanic’s shop, a ‘bed and breakfast’ which Loki surmises is an inn of some description, and of course the library.
“Pike Free,” Poppy says. “Founded by old man Pike in the early nineteen hundreds when Carnegie was all gung-ho about free libraries for the masses. It’s not much but it’s very well-used - we do a story time for the little ones and a lot of the older kids stop by for homework help after school. I think you’ll like it - it’s busy but not too overwhelming and you can always go upstairs and be alone. Oh - and I’ve got a cat. Any idea if you’re allergic?”
“I - don’t think so,” Loki says.
“Well, if you are we can foist him off on Oscar. He named the thing, he can take care of him if it’s a problem.” The tone of her voice is exasperated rather than fond. Loki raises an eyebrow. Poppy sighs. “I like him, really - he’s old and fat and doesn’t cause much trouble. The problem is that Oscar has an unfortunate taste in punny names.”
“‘Punny’?” Loki repeats. As in ‘a play on words’, he assumes.
“Yeah,” Poppy says reluctantly. “Black-and-white cat, and it sort of looks like he’s got a mustache, so Oscar took one look at him and named him Hairball Poirot.”
Loki stares blankly.
“I know, it’s not funny at all,” Poppy groans. “But if you ever want to see a grown man giggle like a four-year-old, use his full name in front of Oscar. It’s embarrassing.”
“I think I shall,” Loki says decisively. Poppy grins.
“Boy after my own heart. We’re coming in to the town now - that’s Tom’s shop up on the right.”
The village is centered loosely around a large green and, like the hospital, nestled between the lovely, ever-present mountains. The courthouse - wooden and unimpressive to Loki’s eyes but with a nice set of pillars out front - is to the right of the road, across the street from the general store and a building that appears to be the sheriff’s headquarters. A man waves to Poppy from the parking lot; Poppy waves back and then proceeds to circle around the back of the courthouse. The new street is lined mostly with what Loki would unhesitatingly have called houses before his introduction to the thrift store. True to form, one of them has ‘Pike Free Library’ above the front porch in neatly painted black letters. Poppy pulls to a stop in front of it.
“Well, there we have it,” she says. “Home sweet home.”
Loki eyes the building with no little amount of curiosity. It is pleasant enough from the outside, but drastically smaller than the libraries in Asgard. If the second floor is a living area, as Poppy said, the available space for books is even less than it appears from the street. Loki reminds himself firmly that he is fortunate to have a place to stay and a source of information to hand; a library is a library, and beggars can’t be choosers.
He turns his attention to the dratted seat belt as Poppy collects the items from the back of the car, then fumbles with the door and stands up.
His vision greys dramatically as soon as he is upright. The small amount of healing he had done in the car, no matter how beneficial it had been for his shoulder and his spirits, had apparently been too much for his strength. His legs give out beneath him.
Strong hands catch him even as Poppy calls out his name in alarm. Loki blinks the dark spots from his vision and tries to focus.
A stocky, broad-shouldered man with a comfortably plain face and a tidy potbelly is leaning over him, having apparently eased him back down onto the car’s seat. Loki flinches automatically but is relieved to keep control of his senses - the man is clean-shaven and bears no resemblance to anyone he had known in Asgard, which appears to help his lately unreliable grasp of reality remain tethered.
“I am all right. Thank you,” Loki mumbles.
“We shouldn’t have stopped at the thrift store,” Poppy says anxiously from somewhere outside the car. “I’m sorry, John - this is my fault for pushing you too hard.”
“Nonsense,” Loki says, willing his head to clear. “It is no fault of yours if I am unable to mind my own weaknesses.” Poppy’s hand is resting on the stocky man’s shoulder. Loki smiles. “Tom, I presume?”
The man nods and shakes Loki’s good hand. His grip is strong and his palm is rough. “Good to meet you, John,” he says quietly.
“Likewise,” Loki says honestly. “I am fortunate indeed that you have fast reflexes.” Much as he dislikes the idea of being rescued like some swooning maiden, he certainly would have disliked hitting the ground a great deal more.
Poppy makes Loki sit and catch his breath for a few minutes before trying to stand again. It turns out to have been a good idea - he makes it up the front steps and into the library under his own power, but is forced to ask for a place to rest before tackling the steep staircase up to the second floor.
While it is frustrating to be so weak, the interlude provides him with the opportunity to study his new surroundings. The first floor of the library is very reminiscent of the dwelling it once was - instead of vaulted ceilings and imposing pillars, it is comprised of several small rooms, lined with bookcases and furnished with comfortably shabby upholstered chairs and padded window seats. Loki is placed in a wooden chair next to the door, which while less comfortable than the soft reading chairs will be considerably easier to get up from when the time comes.
As they enter, a heavily pregnant young woman stands up from a desk in the room to the left and comes out to check on them.
“Ah!” Poppy says. “John, this is Jess. She’s been keeping an eye on the library while I’ve been at the hospital.”
“Jess Nguyen,” she says, holding out her hand to shake with a sly little smile. “I’m just volunteering here to keep from going stir-crazy until the baby’s born. I think you already know my husband.”
“Robbie?” Loki guesses. “Oh... yes, I’m afraid I badly startled him yesterday. Please give him my apologies.”
Jess waves this off. “Oh, he’ll be fine. Don’t worry about him.”
Poppy brings Loki a glass of some type of fruit juice to drink while he gets his strength back, and chats amiably with Jess. Tom vanishes into the room with the desk, which Loki can’t quite see from his position, re-appearing as if by magic as soon as Loki starts to feel he might be ready to give the stairs a try. He is disappointed that he didn’t get a chance to look at the library more thoroughly, but he has overextended himself enough for the time being.
Tom and Poppy help him up the stairs, letting him pause for breath on the landing, and guide him carefully past a small kitchen and sitting room and down a short hall.
The guest room is small but comfortable, with a desk, a chest of drawers, and a narrow bed covered in a faded purple quilt. The walls are painted a cheerful yellow and there is a colorful rag rug on the floor. Loki sits on the edge of the bed and is pleased to find it quite comfortable.
“Sorry it’s a little girly,” Poppy says sheepishly. Tom has vanished once again. “It was supposed to be... well, we can fix it up later, make it look a little more personalized.”
There is a framed collection of dried wildflowers across from him - possibly daisies, Loki thinks, straining to remember what little he has read about Midgardian botany. They make the room feel warm, as if no matter what the view from the window might show him spring is still just about to arrive.
“No,” he says quietly, “I like it very much. Thank you, Poppy.”
Poppy smiles. “Well, I’ll let you get some rest. The bathroom is right next door and there are some pjs on the chair there - do you need help changing?”
“No, thank you, I can manage,” Loki says.
“All right.” She smiles at him again, then leans down and kisses him on the top of his head. “Sleep well. I’ll be right downstairs.”
Loki does not respond - fatigue is making his chest feel oddly tight, and for a moment it is difficult to swallow.
Then Poppy is gone, closing the door softly behind her, and Loki is left alone.