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Darkness, Flooded in Light

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Given the size of the village and the easy familiarity of its people, Loki had expected to become an object of curiosity once news of his arrival had time to spread. There are indeed several people who clearly come by the library just to get a look at him, and Loki harbors deep suspicions about the sudden increase in story-time attendance, but in general the curiosity of the townspeople is expressed subtly and with a conscientious eye to Loki’s privacy.

He spends the first several days watching his surroundings vigilantly, alert for any sign of resentment or displeasure with his presence. It is deeply strange to him that Poppy is so unhesitatingly welcoming, and he initially suspects that Tom’s silence must be concealing distrust - it does not seem plausible that he would accept an intruder into the most private part of his life with so little resentment.

As the days pass, however, Loki is forced to conclude that the people of the town are simply very easy-going. Poppy’s smile every time she sees him is unguarded and happy. Tom quietly invites Loki to come to his mechanics shop and spends an afternoon explaining the internal combustion engine to him with what seems like genuine - if somewhat shy - enjoyment. Oscar does come by the library occasionally in full uniform, but he seems to have far more interest in gossiping with Poppy than in making sure Loki isn’t up to anything suspicious.

As he gains more confidence in his reception, Loki begins venturing out into the town a little. The general store is close by and is run by Oscar’s friend Rick, a round-faced giant with a cheerful disposition and an admirable talent for constructing sandwiches. Oscar is usually there as well, as the Sheriff’s Department is just next door.

“Is it true that you named the cat ‘Hairball Poirot’, Oscar?” Loki asks slyly one day, and is amused when Oscar immediately dissolves into helpless giggles.

Rick rolls his eyes fondly. “Oh, Oscar,” he says in a booming, melodramatic tone, “You try so hard to be a good role model to the young people of this township and to comport yourself in a dignified manner. But the puns! The puns, my friend, they are your weakness!”

Oscar laughs so hard he starts crying. Rick grins, triumphant. “And this man was voted Best Deputy twice!” he says, mock-shocked.

It is... normal. Guileless. Loki finds himself slipping into the rhythm of the town in a way he would not have thought possible. He likes it, which he is fairly certain is not supposed to happen. He is a prince of Asgard, a sorcerer of no small amount of skill who has spent centuries traveling the most exotic and dangerous corners of the nine realms and here, in this sleepy little town, he feels... at ease.

It is, frankly, a little disturbing. He should not like reading children’s stories. He should not enjoy sitting on the library’s porch chatting with Poppy and Beverly. There should be claustrophobia, not peace, in the idea that tomorrow will proceed in much the same way that today has.

Somewhat reassuringly, there are things he does not like. His interactions with Jess’s beloved computing device are best cut as short as possible, and he is more than happy to leave the high schoolers and their homework questions to Poppy. He tends to prefer the smaller children, whose sense of wonder about the world has not yet turned to the pretense of cynicism and the desire to grow up too quickly.

“That’s okay, I’m better with the teenagers,” Poppy says, shrugging. “And you are really good with the little ones. Do you... think maybe you had kids before?”

Loki holds back a snort of derision with considerable effort. Given the amount of time he had always spent in the company of golden Thor and gallant Fandral, he has always been extremely easy to overlook when it comes to matters of romance. He might have fared better on his own, but Loki has never been Asgard’s ideal specimen of manhood so he tends to doubt it.

“I don’t think that’s likely,” he says lightly instead. “Perhaps it is just a knack.” He had always been a favourite of Volstagg’s children, much to their father’s consternation.

Overall, his life in New Stebbinsville makes for a strange existence - pleasant, for the most part, although he sometimes feels as if he has split into several people. There is the Loki who is John, who is unassuming and helpful and grateful for his new life and the people in it. Then there is the Loki who fell, who is terrified and sick with apprehension and mostly just wants everything to stop and leave him in peace. Underneath all of that, more buried than the other two, is the Loki who is the Prince of Asgard, who is bemused and faintly incredulous at the bucolic existence going on around him.

(Buried even beneath that Loki is - must be - the Loki who is the monster, but Loki does not, cannot think about this.)

He finds that as long as he can remember which person he is supposed to be he can maintain his equilibrium reasonably well. It is most difficult at night, when fatigue lowers his defenses and there are few distractions available.

The days slowly turn into weeks. Jess has her baby, a boy named Emmett, and comes by the library with him looking hollow-eyed and exhausted when she can’t stand being at home any more. Eleanor allows Loki to stop wearing his sling, and once he has two good hands Rick hires him part-time to help at the general store deli counter with the lunch crowd. It is not long before Loki is reasonably certain that he knows every person in the township, by sight if not by name. Between the library, the general store, and Oscar, it is also not long before he knows all of their life stories, shopping habits, and reading preferences as well.

It is comforting to have such easy access to information about the people he is surrounded by, particularly when he accidentally overhears the ladies of the Quilting Club deeming him to be “such a sweet young man, it’s so good that he managed to find his way here” before going on to discuss Cynthia’s oldest’s layoff from the nuclear plant in Makers Falls. Loki has never been averse to having more accurate information than those around him.

His ribs heal, too quickly, leaving him with nothing left to exhaust himself with before sleep. It is all right, though - he can survive on the short bursts of rest he does get, and he discovers that the board outside of Poppy’s bedroom creaks so he is able to quickly douse his light before she notices it when she gets up during the night. He catches her frowning at him once or twice, and she starts making him soothing tea before bed, but she doesn’t make a fuss.

It is an uneasy kind of truce, this one he has forged with himself, but it holds. His magic has still not returned to him, although he fancies that as the days pass it becomes a little more present than it had been. Soon, he thinks, he should be able to tell for sure - and if everything falls apart, and the worst should happen, it’s possible that his... other talents, the latent ones, may yet give him a slight advantage, even though he has never dared to test his control over them. It is strange to comfort himself with the existence of his other heritage, and it sits uneasily on him.

The days are getting shorter and colder. It is not a time for ice.

The glorious leaves fade to brown and fall from the trees, much to Loki’s sadness. There are enough evergreens on the mountains to keep the view from being utterly dismal, but it is still disheartening. It cheers him a little to see that the children of New Stebbinsville enjoy piling the dead leaves up and then frolicking in them - it seems a fittingly joyful eulogy for such splendour. There is a large garden behind the library and Loki spends a fine afternoon with Meggie and a few of his other story-time children playing in the leaves.

It feels surprisingly good to abandon his dignity, even for just a short while. More and more, he finds himself deferring to Loki-as-John and consigning his customary suspicion and apprehension to the back of his head. It is just so exhausting to keep it all going at once.

It is nearing the feast-day of Thanksgiving at the end of November when Loki wakes up one morning to find the town blanketed in snow. He stares out in horror at a pure-white world and feels the moment that Loki-who-fell panics completely.

He flees to the bathroom and stands under the hottest water he can bear. Snow is a natural thing. Midgard has variable seasons, he knew this, just as he knew one day the winter would come. It is not the same as eternally temperate Asgard, where one must travel to Muspelheim for heat and Jo- and elsewhere for cold.

This is still Midgard, still New Stebbinsville, still the Pike Free Library. There is no hot water on... other places. There are no heavy clothes that button up securely. No fragrant tea, no number puzzles, no silent old man in a thick sweater and heavy boots reading a newspaper.

By the time Poppy comes downstairs Loki’s hands have stopped trembling although he is certain he is still quite pale. He hides himself in the children’s room and pretends to be deeply engrossed in reshelving the picture books. It allows him to sit cross-legged on the floor, where he can reasonably avoid looking out the windows.

The front door opens, letting in a burst of cold air, and Loki hears Beverly greet Poppy. They chat for a few minutes, and then Beverly comes into the children’s room to find him.

“I brought you a better coat and some snow boots from the store,” she says, holding the items out. “Put them on and let’s see how they fit.”

Loki obligingly stands and does as requested, angling himself so that his gaze falls safely away from the windows. When he is done Beverly studies him carefully, then produces a woollen hat and tugs it down snugly over his ears.

“Well, that should do it. Let’s give them a test drive.” She heads towards the library’s back door.

“What? No!” Loki blurts. “I can’t. I, I have to finish here. I can’t.”

She stops and stares at him, then grins mischievously. “You’re from somewhere southerly, aren’t you? Well. I’m going to go outside. I’m going to go up that lovely trail on the mountain and look at the view, and you are welcome to stay here. Hopefully I won’t slip and fall - I’m an old lady, you know.” She winks at him and vanishes through the door.

Loki stands for a moment, trembling indecisively. His very being rebels at the idea of going out in the snow, but even though it is blatantly manipulative of her to mention it Beverly is right. She could slip and injure herself quite badly. Loki has read about hypothermia - hurt and alone, it would not take long for the elements to take their toll.

He glances about desperately, but Poppy is nowhere in sight. There is nothing for it - he will have to go after her.

Heart in his mouth, Loki goes through the door.

Beverly is waiting for him at the edge of the garden, smiling. “Knew you wouldn’t let a lady down. Come on, handsome, let’s go.”

Loki tentatively steps down off the back porch and into the snow, and immediately checks his hands. His skin remains pink, and he breathes a sigh of relief, immediately feeling foolish. It was not the snow on - it was not the snow, before, that had caused the great secret of his birth to come out, but the mon- the, the creature who tried to harm him.

There was never anything to fear.

He takes a deep breath and hurries to catch up with Beverly. The snow is only about four inches deep, just enough to pile up on the toes of his boots as he walks, but it moves strangely under his feet and throws him off-balance. It is oddly fluffy, not frozen hard like - like other snow he’s seen. It is Midgardian snow, and unique to this realm.

The climb is not, technically, a difficult one, but the snow and the cold air combine to have Loki panting for breath not long after they’ve breached the treeline and started their ascent. Beverly seems to be having no difficulties whatsoever - she charges gamely ahead, chattering about the trees and the mountain and the history of the town as she goes. Loki himself is far too winded to reply.

“‘Old lady’ my ass,” he wheezes, and Beverly laughs so hard she actually slows down for a moment.

“Come on, young ‘un!” She goads. “In my day we built them tougher than you!”

Loki glares half-heartedly and keeps climbing. In Beverly’s day he was essentially the exact same age as he is now, which following her argument to its logical end means that he must be exponentially tougher than anyone ever was in ‘her day’, and he feels a moment of regret that he cannot use this as a retort.

The trail winds around the side of the mountain and up, reaching its end in a small field overlooking the valley on the far side. Loki stops and stares.

It is an impressive view. This valley is much less settled than the one they just left; here and there he can see a roof or smoke from a chimney, but for the most part there is no break in the trees. At the very bottom of the valley is a stream, standing out blackly against the sharp white of the snow.

But it is the trees themselves that really catch Loki’s attention. The recently-fallen snow still clings to even the thinnest branches, and the resulting tracery of white on dark tree bark makes the mountains look as if they are covered in a delicate network of intricately frozen lace.

“A lot of people think winter here is bleak and depressing,” Beverly says quietly. “They say it’s the price you pay for the pretty leaves and the pleasant summers. I like it, though. The snow is beautiful too.”

“Yes,” Loki breathes. “Yes, it is very beautiful.”

They stand and watch for quite some time. Eventually Beverly tucks her mittened hand into the crook of his arm and says, “Okay, handsome, if we stay much longer you’ll be late for work. You can come back tomorrow now that you know how to find it.”

“Thank you for showing me this,” Loki says as they turn and get ready to descend.

“No problem,” Beverly says, shrugging. “Poppy said you could do with some cheering up, and it’s something I like to share.”

It was foolish of him to connect this place so firmly in his head with Jotunheim this morning, Loki decides as he walks. Jotunheim was dark as well as cold, and the only change to the scenery was smashed ice and treacherous cliffs. The town here - and the land - is still alive under the snow, still warm and comforting. The mountains are the same as ever, and the people as well. His reaction should not have been so extreme and illogical. He must remain focused.

Despite his efforts over the next few days he is unable to banish his worries completely. As soon as he manages to suppress any thoughts of potential mental instability, the terror of being found and brought back to Asgard rises up to strike him. When he controls that, a strange, unreasoning sense of rage takes over and he narrowly avoids putting his fist through the screen of the misbehaving computing device.

The arrival of the feast-day of Thanksgiving is a welcome distraction. He and Poppy are invited to join Jess and Robbie’s families in their celebration, which is apparently a very lively affair. Indeed, they are barely through the front door and halfway out of their boots and outdoor clothes when Jess marches up to them, a drowsy Emmett against one shoulder, and grabs Poppy by the arm.

“Thank God you’ve come,” she says. “You have to be the voice of reason. Please come talk to my Mom, she’s driving us crazy - hey, John, take Emmett for a moment? If I bring him into the kitchen he’ll start crying, there’s too much going on. Just be sure to support his - oh, you’ve got it. Poppy, come on, in another minute my sister’s going to kick off Nguyen Family Thanksgiving Disaster Part Six...”

Loki stares at Emmett. Emmett stares back and then, slowly, his tiny face begins to scrunch up. Desperately, Loki puts his weight forward on the balls of his feet and starts to bounce a little. “It’s okay,” he croons. “It’s no problem, there’s no reason to cry...”

Emmett whimpers a little but doesn’t seem to get more upset. What else do babies like? He’s certain he remembers seeing Volstagg’s wife sing to their children. Loki doesn’t have a spectacular singing voice, but it’s probably good enough for a baby. He dredges up a lullaby from somewhere and starts to sing softly.

Emmett blinks at him, either soothed by the song or bewildered by how badly it’s being performed. Regardless, the crying seems to have been averted. Loki adds a bit of a sway to his bouncing and feels the tiny body begin to relax a little.

Now, if only he could figure out a way to get his second boot off without disturbing the child again...

He still has not solved this particular problem when Poppy comes back to find him, flour smudged on one cheek. She puts a hand over her mouth to hide her smile.

“Well, you seem to be managing well,” she says. “That’s a lovely lullaby - what language is it?”

“Language?” Loki asks blankly, before his brain catches up with his mouth. He winces - their nurses were supposed to communicate with them in the Alltongue when they were young, which Poppy’s brain should have interpreted as English, but apparently one of the old songs slipped in somewhere. “I don’t know. Perhaps someone sung it to me when I was small.”

“Maybe your mother was from somewhere overseas,” Poppy suggests, easing Emmett out of his arms so he can finish taking off his outdoor wear. “Want me to keep him? You don’t have to be on baby-duty.”

“No, it’s fine,” Loki says, taking him back. The weight of the child is oddly comforting in his arms, and guardianship of him will give Loki an excuse to be preoccupied.

“All right, suit yourself,” Poppy says, giving him a little sideways hug and bopping Emmett gently on the nose. “Everybody who’s been kicked out of the kitchen is in the living room. Let’s go mingle.”

Loki expects to see the living room occupied by all the men of the family, but it turns out to be a fairly even mix. He is surprised to see Robert is sitting quietly in a corner, watching the antics of the family with a small smile and a glass of something in his hand, but when he stops to consider the situation it makes sense. ‘Robbie’ is short for ‘Robert’, after all, and they do share the same calm, gentle personality. When Loki catches his eye Robert nods at the empty chair next to him in invitation.

Gratefully, Loki sinks into it. Robert will make no demands on him and his presence may keep the others from becoming too exuberant. Emmett is evidently pleased as well - he waves one hand and latches on to Loki’s chin, gurgling happily. Loki beams at him and collects a wide, toothless baby-smile in return.

“Guh,” Jess’s sister says.

“I know, right?” Jess says with feeling.

Loki looks up to find them both staring at him. “What?”

“You have a very nice smile, sweetheart,” Poppy tells him apologetically.

“When you actually smile,” Jess adds.

Loki frowns at her. “I smile all the time.” It would be unusual, after all, to never smile, and Loki-who-is-John is carefully not unusual.

“Not real smiles,” Jess says.

“Now I understand why your storytime is so popular,” Jess’s sister says speculatively. “Emmett’s not too young for that, is he? I could totally bring him.”

Jess snickers. Loki blinks at them, feeling adrift. “What has my smile to do with story-time being popular?”

“Well, to be fair, that’s mostly your reading voice,” Jess concedes, then takes in his confused expression. “Look, John... you do know most of those parents bring their kids to story-time because they think you’re hot, don’t you?”

Loki’s jaw drops. “Hot as in attractive?” He shoots Poppy a pleading look. “The children like it when I do the voices.”

She shrugs, looking embarrassed. “You’re too young for me, kiddo, but I have to agree that a lot of those parents probably do come for the, uh... scenery. The voices are very good, though,” she adds supportively.

Loki’s brain feels like it’s stuttering, which is not something that he was previously aware his brain could do. “Even the fathers?” he blurts.

“Possibly some of them,” Poppy concedes, just as Jess says Hell yes. “Is that a problem?”

“No, no, it’s rather flattering,” Loki says. The Aesir do tend to be fairly hidebound when it comes to such relations, but Loki has always privately thought it a pointless issue to get so worked up about. So many Aesir over the years have taken in his scrawny stature and predilection for magic and assumed he played the woman in romantic situations as well that he has always felt a sort of clandestine sympathy for those who actually do.

He tries a laugh - it doesn’t quite come out right, but it’s better than nothing. “I worry a bit about your standards, though.”

Their expressions soften a little, and Jess miraculously takes pity on him. “Well, what can I say? An air of mystery and a nice accent does wonders for a boy. How’re you doing with Junior, there?”

Loki seizes on the topic change with no small amount of gratitude. “He’s fine. He’s very well-behaved for a child so small.”

“Do you want to keep him?” Jess asks, absolutely straight-faced.

Loki considers this. “No, but I would be willing to trade you babysitting services in return for a small favor.”

Jess rests her chin in her hand, regarding him narrowly. “Intriguing. What kind of favor?”

Loki smiles, feeling much more sure of himself, and then starts wondering if it is a ‘real’ smile or not and falters a little. From the way Poppy’s hiding her mouth behind her hand she knows exactly what’s going through his mind. “Poppy said you are a web designer. I will trade you babysitting in return for a website for the library.”

Jess grins. “Deal! No take-backs.”

The conversation mercifully moves on from there to Jess’s sister’s near-arrest after masterminding a protest at the small nuclear plant outside of Makers Falls, and Loki can sit back and entertain Emmett without feeling un-sociable. Robert gives him a sympathetic look and the rest of his drink, which turns out to be happily alcoholic. Loki has never been much of a drinker - he has seen the foolishness Thor and his friends get up to while inebriated and has never needed a further deterrent - but the slight tingle the drink leaves him with is a welcome distraction from the unsettling conversation about his attractiveness. It’s a good thing Thor has never come to New Stebbinsville - if the people here think Loki to be attractive they would lose all reason upon meeting his golden brother.

The rest of the feast-day passes merrily without further incident; Poppy and Loki are sent home feeling pleasantly full and carrying what Loki judges to be enough leftovers to feed themselves throughout the winter. They spend the evening watching an old black and white film on Poppy’s television - a wartime story about a mighty soldier with a formidable round shield - which Poppy explains is traditional Thanksgiving-day post-feast entertainment. As a mark of the day, Hairball Poirot condescends to walk across Loki’s stomach on his way to curl up in Poppy’s lap.

The next day Jess shows up to trade custody of Emmett for a website; Loki spends the afternoon shelving books with the baby on his hip while Jess swears at the computer. The time he spent learning to run the library with one arm in a sling has evidently been good training - he already has a good idea of how to do everything one-handed. Emmett shows a precocious interest in extracting cards from the card catalog but the afternoon passes without mishap, aside from Oscar catching Loki singing that lullaby and incorporating a few dance steps into his shelving, which is deeply embarrassing for both of them.

A few days later Jess’s sister follows through on her own threat and comes to story-time with Emmett, where she grins at Loki unnervingly throughout Skippyjon Jones and Make Way For Ducklings. Afterwards, Loki walks her to the door, partly to be polite and partly to make sure she leaves.

“That woman frightens me,” he says to the air in general.

Poppy snickers. “The Nguyen girls are firecrackers, I’ll give you that,” she concedes.

Oscar shudders and clutches his usual stack of crime novels to his chest. “Please don’t mention ‘Nguyen girls’ and ‘firecrackers’ in the same sentence, Poppy.”

Before Loki can request the tale that must lie behind that statement the front door of the library bangs open to admit Stacy, one of Poppy’s high school kids. Loki actually quite likes Stacy - she displays a defiant interest in things her classmates couldn’t care less about which he finds very familiar. She also works after school some days in the general store and is much more responsible than most of the other teenagers Rick hires.

“Mind the door, Stacy,” he says.

“Right, sorry.” She pushes the door shut and makes her way to the circulation desk, shedding outerwear as she goes. “Hey, Poppy! Have you seen this?” She deposits a newspaper on the desk between Poppy and Oscar. “It’s a new superhero team in New York City. I know technically the Fantastic Four are the first team and whatever, but look at these guys! They’ve got Tony Stark and Captain freaking America. Henry says he died in the forties and this one must be a double made by the government to cash in on the legacy but I say superheroes are superheroes and how can he say this isn’t the real one?”

Poppy and Oscar both lean over to admire the picture.

“Do you still have your Captain America shield, Oscar?” Poppy asks teasingly.

“You know I don’t,” Oscar complains. “You stole it from me when we were seven and tried to use it as a sled.”

Poppy laughs. Intrigued despite himself, Loki angles for a look at the picture. Superheroes seem to him to be basically the Midgardian equivalent of the Warriors Three and are therefore boorish and interminably dull, but there’s no harm in curiosity.

Thor’s face stares back at him from the right-hand side of the picture, and Loki feels his whole body go numb with shock.

“John?”

He should run. He knows he should. If Thor is on Midgard then the Bifrost has been repaired. The plan was to run if his magic had not returned by the time Thor came for him and his magic has not returned so he should run, he should get as far away from this place and these people as he possibly can and find somewhere deserted and remote to meet his fate but he can’t, he can’t seem to feel his legs, and he can’t breathe, and he cannot run if he can’t breathe and has no legs, and Thor will come for him and take down anything in his path. His time has run out - how could his time have run out when he still has so much to do? He must finish shelving the True Crime section and thank Beverly properly for showing him the clearing on the mountain and Tom promised to teach him to drive and Jess has not finished the website yet, their contract is still unfulfilled, and he’s supposed to work at the general store tomorrow and Poppy - oh, Poppy, how could he ever make her understand this, she will be so worried if he just leaves without a word -

“John, it’s okay, just take deep breaths...”

And... and there is a warm hand on the back of his neck, and he’s sitting in the wooden chair from the entryway, and he’s probably scaring everyone very badly, and he needs to get control over himself. Thor is not here. Thor has arrived on Midgard but joined a band of superheroes, so Loki either isn’t a high priority for him or he feels he needs companions to track Loki down and bring him back...

No. No, that doesn’t make any sense either. If Thor was planning to come for Loki in force he would have brought Sif and the Warriors Three. Sif and the Warriors Three would have insisted on it, in fact - they have no love for Loki, not before the disaster on Jotunheim and certainly not after Thor’s banishment.

So what is this? Why is Thor here, if not for Loki? There was the Midgardian woman he was fond of, and Loki would not put it past his brother to stop for romance before collecting his wayward younger brother for justice on Asgard, but it makes no sense for him to also detour to join a superhero team and defend New York City of all places if he is here on a mission from Odin.

Is it possible that Thor... does not realise Loki is here at all? How could this be so? Heimdall can see him, and Heimdall has never done Loki any favors. Quite the opposite, in fact. Why would the Guardian conceal Loki’s presence?

The warm hand moves a little on the back of Loki’s neck, and Loki abruptly becomes aware of the fact that it’s too large to be Poppy’s and must therefore belong to Oscar, and that the hand is holding his head between his knees, presumably to keep him from passing out. Now that he has noticed it, it is fairly uncomfortable.

He raises his head a little, waving Oscar off with one hand. “I am fine. I apologize. I - I have a headache.”

It is a terrible excuse but Oscar obligingly retreats a little. Loki pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs. He is seated on the wooden chair from the entryway, which has been hastily dragged halfway into the room to give him somewhere quick to sit. Stacy is backed up against the desk, wide-eyed and pale, the newspaper in one hand. There is no sign of Poppy but just as he notices this she comes down the stairs at great speed, carrying a glass of water.

“I am fine,” he repeats. “A sudden headache. I apologize for frightening everyone.”

From the look on her face Poppy believes this excuse about as much as Oscar did, but she allows him the pleasant fiction.

“All right, honey.” She gives him a forced, tremulous smile. “Here. Take this and drink some water.”

She presses a small white pill into his hand. He scowls at it but obliges - he has worried her enough already and if he is to insist on the headache as an excuse then he must abide by the Midgardian solutions for it. He sips his water slowly, and turns his attention to Stacy.

“Stacy, I apologize,” he says, forcing a smile. “I believe I interrupted you. What were you saying about the superhero team? When did he land?”

“What?” she says blankly, and he winces. He is more rattled than he had thought to make such a slip.

“When did they land on the front pages?” he improvises.

She swallows. “Oh. Um. They made their big battle debut yesterday, but one of the articles says they’ve probably been training together for a couple of weeks, at least.”

“And how many are there?”

“Six?” she says, still uncertain but warming slowly to her topic. “Um. Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye, and the Black Widow. They call themselves the Avengers.”

Rated fourth, brother, Loki thinks half-hysterically. How terrible for you. “And which one is your favorite, do you think?”

“Well, Captain America has the history thing, so that’s pretty cool, but I think the Black Widow, because she’s a girl. Woman. And that’s cool, too.”

“Yes, I can see that,” Loki says gravely. “Well. My headache is a little better, but I think I should probably go lie down for a bit. If you’ll all excuse me?”

They hover and fuss, but eventually Loki manages to make it upstairs with only Poppy as an escort. She settles him on the bed, which has started spinning strangely.

“That pill...”

“Tranquiliser,” Poppy says guiltily. “Sorry, John. Eleanor gave them to me when you left the hospital - she thought you might have a panic attack or trouble sleeping. I should have told you before I gave it to you.”

“That’s all right,” Loki says woozily. A good sleep will clear his head and when he rises he can make an actual plan. He does not like the idea of being forcefully asleep, but Poppy meant well and it isn’t like he’d be able to sleep naturally after such a shock...

“Sleep well, John,” Poppy says, and the last thing he feels before drifting off is her gentle, worried kiss on his forehead.