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Darkness, Flooded in Light

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Loki awakens the next morning sore but refreshed. He woke once or twice during the night, disoriented and alarmed, but the moments passed quickly and he was eventually able to get a decent amount of rest. The bed is comfortable, and the quilt warm and reassuringly heavy, and he finds that he is reluctant to leave this cozy haven for the uncertainty of the day.

He stretches carefully - his shoulder and ribs are still painful, but the lesser bruises on his back and sides seem a little less sensitive today. The reminder of his injuries does not damage his good spirits any - many were the mornings on Asgard when he opened his eyes to similar pain. Between Thor’s numerous and frequently ill-advised adventures and the rigorous combat training sessions that even Loki was not exempt from, he has become accustomed to injury.

He frowns, contentment dimming a little. Besides dissipating his magic, his unprotected tumble through the universe was both disorienting enough and agonizing enough that he cannot trust his own perceptions. He has no clear idea how much time has passed on Asgard since his fall, but he thinks it cannot have been too long since the Bifrost has clearly not yet been repaired. His family must still be reeling in the aftermath of his departure. Thor will be angry, he is sure - by destroying the Bifrost Loki has cut him off from both his newfound love and the possibility of distracting himself with fresh adventures. Sif and the Warriors Three will likely be bearing the brunt of that displeasure on the training grounds, and Loki feels a surge of vindictive pleasure at that thought.

Frigga... Loki is honestly not sure what his mother will be doing. Oh, she will be in her workroom, he is certain, weaving gentle strands of magic into the cloth of the universe - but he cannot say what she is thinking. His mother has ever been a mystery to him - she is so calm, so otherworldly that even he, a master of discerning others’ intentions, has always found her to be strangely opaque. He likes to think that she misses him; there were times when her absent-minded affection was the only kindness he could be sure of.

It is not outside the realm of possibility that she had seen this entire situation coming and resigned herself to it years ago. Loki knows much about forms of magic both obscure and secret, but Frigga’s abilities seem to shift like the wind. At one moment she may see into the future; the next the past.

It is also possible - likely - that she despises him. She accepted his discovery of his changeling nature as calmly as ever, with barely a flicker of strong emotion in response to his bewilderment, but now that she knows the extent of what he has done he must disgust her. She must think of him in her home, in her arms, and shudder with revulsion.

Odin will doubtless be angry. Odin will be furious, so thunderous in his rage that he puts even Thor to shame, and just the thought of it makes Loki’s muscles tense in anticipation of violence. Odin’s anger is a cold, deadly thing - wielded with the precision of a well-flung throwing knife and the sheer power of unmitigated destruction. Odin was angry enough to cast out Thor, the favorite, for childish disobedience and high spirits. Loki has shattered the hard-fought peace Odin forged when he brought Jotunheim to his knees, he has forced the destruction of one of Asgard’s mightiest artifacts leaving the Aesir stranded and crippled - and it will not take long for the other realms to notice the blow that has been dealt to shining Asgard. Odin’s displeasure with Loki will be - will be -

Loki gasps into the cool stillness of the room and tries to force his thoughts back under control, but it is no use. The warmth of his sanctuary crumbles in the face of Asgard’s mighty displeasure with its least-favorite son and his imagination fails in the face of such utter calamity. Death will be too good for him. Odin will surpass himself in thinking of a suitable punishment for his former child; it will be at minimum painful, humiliating, and extremely public. All the realms will know what the Allfather does to those who seek to undermine him. At best Loki faces an eternity of subterfuge, of hiding and secrecy; at worst he will be caught and returned to Asgard.

And he can do nothing until his magic has recovered. Anything he does now will be seen by Heimdall and reported. He can make no plans, lay no schemes in motion until he is certain he can cloak himself. Even if he were in perfect physical condition the most he could do is wait.

Loki does not know how long he lies there, trembling; when he dares to open his eyes the foot of his bed is warm from the sun shining through his window. He glances around the cheerful, homely little room and the sense of disconnect is so strong it gives him vertigo.

He breathes, carefully. He is a survivor. He will survive this too. All he must do is blend in here, be harmless and unobtrusive for as long as he can. If his magic recovers before the Bifrost is repaired he will make a show of leaving and then cloak himself and hide. If the Bifrost is repaired before then, well... he will simply have to make it as far away from here as possible and hope that Odin’s wrath is targeted rather than indiscriminate. It would be a poor repayment for all of Poppy’s kindness if he left her unprotected in the path of the storm.

The gentle morning now thoroughly ruined, Loki eases himself out of bed. He is stiff and achy but able to move freely, and so he makes his way to the washroom next door. There is no sign of Poppy - she must be downstairs or not yet risen - but there is a clean green towel folded neatly on the bathroom counter next to a selection of his new clothing. He takes a deep breath, forces himself to focus on the present instead of the always-untrustworthy future, and sets himself to his morning ablutions.

With a little trial and error and the application of a portion of his intelligence Loki is able to divine the workings of the bathing-chamber and he steps gratefully into the warm gush of water. His mobility is still limited but he manages to wash himself thoroughly nonetheless, and feels a good deal better for having the smell of soap in his nose instead of the tang of medicine and stale desperation. He stands under the water until his legs begin to tremble from fatigue instead of terror, and then continues with his tasks.

He dresses carefully, assembling his many layers of clothing slowly and with deliberation, and by the time he has securely fastened the last button he feels more like himself. It is not as good as Asgardian armor, but even that would likely be as effective as paper in the face of -

No. He shuts that thought down firmly. If he allows himself to sink too often into fear and despair it will become obvious to those around him that something is amiss, and that will not help him. He must focus on the present and only the present. This clothing pleases him not because it is a weak facsimile of what he is accustomed to but because it is sturdy and comfortable and warm. That is what a Midgardian would think and so that is what Loki thinks now.

Despite his current - if precarious - equilibrium he does not feel up to deciphering the sling on his own, so he collects it from his room and proceeds downstairs to find Poppy with his bad arm held gingerly against his side.

“Morning, John,” Jess calls from the desk. “Feeling any better this morning?”

“Sore, but much improved for a good night’s rest,” Loki says, making his way into the room. “Have you seen Poppy?”

“She’s in the children’s room, doing story-time for the kidlets. Need help getting that on?”

“Thank you, yes,” Loki says, handing it over. He does not particularly want to allow a stranger so close into his personal space, but he cannot situate the sling on his own and in her pregnant condition Jess probably does not pose much of a threat to him.

Jess sets her attention to untangling the contraption’s straps. “Are you hungry? I picked up some breakfast for you at the general store on my way over. It should still be warm.”

“Thank you,” Loki says, surprised. “That was very kind.”

Jess waves this off. “Whatever, it was an excuse to get myself a stupid amount of food too. Go sit down by Robert - you’re not technically allowed to eat in the library but you look pathetic enough right now that nobody’s going to say anything.”

“Ah. Thank you,” Loki says, deciding it’s probably the safest response.

Robert turns out to be an ancient old man in a worn shirt and suspenders, sitting at a table by the window with a pencil and what Loki recognizes as a newspaper. He glances up as Loki sits down across from him, nods once, and goes back to his work.

Loki nods back, reassured by the silence, and turns his attention to Jess’ paper bag. It contains a sandwich with cheese and cooked egg on it, which is messy to eat with one hand but tasty, and a pastry ring covered in sugar and spice which is fantastic. There is a bottle of juice as well, and a stack of paper napkins.

Despite the knots in his stomach the food goes a long way towards making Loki feel more sanguine about his situation. He cannot tell what the future holds - divination has never been one of his areas of expertise - but the present is survivable enough for the time being. It may go against his nature to simply let events take their course, but he is flexible enough to adapt. He is not Thor, after all, with his absolute view of the world and rock-hard certainty in his own might.

He cuts that thought off fast. Thor is not here; only Loki is. Therefore only Loki matters, and Loki is well-fed and safe for all that the door to his back makes his shoulderblades itch. That is the important thing.

He is startled out of his reverie when Robert pushes a section of newspaper across the table along with a battered extra pencil.

Loki eyes the paper. It appears to be a puzzle of some sort, distributed along with the news for intellectual stimulation. He dutifully picks up the pencil and sets to work, a little awkwardly since his dominant hand is unavailable to him. It takes more concentration, which is welcome.

Robert finishes his own puzzle before Loki does, and gives him another nod before getting to his feet and going on his way. Jess catches Loki’s expression and grins.

“He must like you,” she says, looking up from her intense scrutiny of what Loki recognizes as a primitive Midgardian computing device. “He’s usually not that talkative.” Loki rolls his eyes at her before he can stop himself, but she snickers instead of being offended.

Once the puzzle is complete, Loki gets up to explore the library. It is just as small as he had feared the day before, taking up but four rooms, but when he closes his eyes the smell of the books is just right. There is the room with the desk, one with a large table in the center, one with armchairs and a padded window seat, and one that Loki only pokes his head into before realising it is full of very small children and, bizarrely, an old claw-footed bathtub full of pillows. Poppy, wearing a ridiculous hat and reading aloud from a thin volume, catches his eye and smiles at him. Loki waves back and withdraws to the room with the armchairs.

He spends a few moments determining where the exits are and exploring the system by which the books are organized, and then the story-time apparently ends and he is forced to take refuge on the windowseat lest he be accidentally overset by heedless and excited youngsters. It is not so bad - there is a nice view of the fiery mountains from the window even if it is partially blocked by the corner of the courthouse.

The flood of children through the room eases, and Loki turns to find himself the object of intense scrutiny. There is a small girl standing a few feet away, mussed and sticky, with white-blond hair and one finger in her mouth. In her unoccupied hand she has a book.

“Hi,” she says finally.

“Hi yourself.”

“My mommy’s talking to Poppy.”

“I see,” Loki says, not entirely sure what else is called for.

“What happened to your face?”

“I was struck repeatedly,” Loki says, a dry tone creeping in unbidden.

The girl frowns and wipes her nose on her sleeve. Loki winces. “Does it hurt?”

“Sometimes.”

She takes the finger out of her mouth and offers it to him. He inspects it dutifully. “I hurt my finger. It’s better now.”

“I’m very glad to hear that,” Loki says seriously.

She nods, apparently satisfied by this. “I’m bored. Will you read to me?”

Well, it’s as good a diversion as he is likely to find, anyway - looking out the window will only hold his attention for so long before his thoughts begin to wander. And this is what one does with children, is it not?

“Very well. Come sit.”

She hands over the book and clambers up onto the windowseat, settling unselfconsciously next to him and leaning over his good arm to get a decent look at the pictures. Loki obligingly begins to read.

It is a simplistic tale, appropriate for young children, but the use of rhymes is clever and at times they are tangled enough that Loki’s silver tongue is required to keep pace. When the story is over and Sam has gotten his friend to eat the dubiously colored eggs and ham, the girl heaves a satisfied sigh.

“Will you read me another one?”

The girl’s mother is not back yet, and the book had been reasonably entertaining. There seems to be little harm in it.

“If you go get another book then yes, I shall read it to you.”

A moment later she’s back, thrusting a new volume into his hands. This one is prose, and the artwork is in a markedly different style. She raises her arm to wipe her nose again.

“Stop,” Loki says and digs one of the paper napkins from breakfast out of his pocket. He holds it to her face. “Blow.”

She complies obediently and he tucks the dirtied napkin away. “Very well. ‘Elizabeth was a beautiful princess...’”

By the end of the second page Loki realises they have an audience, but as neither Poppy nor the child’s mother looks upset or tries to interrupt them he continues with his reading.

Finally the protagonist of the story dances off into the setting sun, and Loki closes the book.

“Another!” the girl says, clapping.

“I think we’ve taken up enough of John’s time, Meggie,” her mother says, amused. “Thank you for being so patient with her - I know she can be a handful.”

“Not at all,” Loki says. “I found it to be quite entertaining.”

Meggie heaves a long-suffering sigh and allows herself to be taken off. When they’re gone, Poppy sits down next to him and gives him a careful hug.

“How’re you doing today, kiddo? I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you woke up.”

Loki forces a smile, discomfited by her kindness but relieved that she still seems to be happy to see him. “I am much improved after a good night’s rest, thank you.”

“Were you warm enough?”

“Yes, I was very cozy,” Loki assures her. “I have also broken my fast and made two new friends this morning, so I think I am doing quite well. Meggie and a gentleman named Robert,” he elaborates at her inquisitive look.

She smiles. “I’m glad to hear that! Do you have any idea what you want to do today? There’s a nice trail out back that goes up the mountain if you want a little fresh air, and of course you’re welcome to any of the books here.”

Loki feels his smile become a little more genuine. “I thought I might take a look at some of the books you have to determine what I can and cannot remember. Is there anything detailing the history of this place or perhaps current events?”

Poppy agrees with this idea enthusiastically, and gives him a thorough introduction to the library and its inner workings. First she shows him where to find the nonfiction section, and then she takes him to a little wooden stand full of drawers in the corner (“Hardly anyone has these any more,” she says, patting it fondly. “Someday I’ll probably have to automate, but until then I can keep feeling sentimental.” Loki nods as if this makes sense) and teaches him how to find other books by subject. Together they choose several volumes on history, politics, culture, and science for him to look at.

“You know,” Poppy says thoughtfully as she settles him in one of the armchairs with slightly more fuss than is necessary, “You have a very nice reading voice. Do you think you’d enjoy doing one of the story times for the kids?”

Loki blinks. It is a far cry from the elaborate epics told in Asgardian mead halls, but it is something he is capable of and it may provide him with yet another perspective on life here. Having set tasks to accomplish will also help keep him from becoming an unwanted burden.

“Is the cunning hat mandatory?”

Poppy laughs. “No. You can keep your dignity intact on that front.”

“Then certainly - I think it would be most amusing.”

It is a quiet, oddly pleasant day, all in all - Loki reads for a while and then tries another round of healing on his shoulder followed by a nap upstairs. In the afternoon Oscar comes by to check on him and gossip with Poppy; after he leaves Beverly arrives to pick up several books from the ‘romance’ section and say hello. Curious, Loki opens one after she leaves to a random page and then puts it down hastily, eyebrows raised.

That night Poppy makes a meal of noodles and flavorful red sauce and then they sit for a time in companionable silence in the sitting room, Loki reading and Poppy doing paperwork. Loki finally meets the elusive Hairball Poirot, who eyes him distrustfully from the doorway for a time before deigning to come lurk beneath Poppy’s chair.

Despite his concerns the day manages to be weirdly peaceful, which is a feeling Loki does not have much experience with and would not have expected to come across in this time and in this place. After he takes himself off to bed he lies awake for some time, watching the stars out his bedroom window, reluctant to let the feeling go.