Loki finds his mother in the gardens. She is frail and tired, well-wrapped against the gentle breeze, but she looks up and smiles when she hears him approach.
“My son, you have returned! Did your research trip go well?”
Loki kneels down beside her so she can clasp his hand and touch his face without exerting herself.
“I do not wish to speak of it. It did not go as planned.”
“I am sure it was not so bad,” she says, smiling. “Your brother beat you back by a day. It is very good to have my children - to have you both back.”
Loki catches the slip and frowns a little, worried, but Frigga smiles determinedly.
“Now, tell me all about your - do you hear that?”
Loki cocks his head, listening. “It sounds like the Bifrost,” he says, uncertainly, because what it really sounds like is the Bifrost as it touches down on another realm.
Sure enough, the clouds over the garden begin to boil and swirl.
“Someone else must have built one!” Loki says, shocked. “Come, mother, let us make haste...” He helps his mother to her feet and supports her as they hurry away from the arrival of whatever is controlling this new device.
They are met at the garden gates by Thor, swinging Mjolnir.
“Get Mother to safety,” he says, clasping Loki’s shoulder briefly in greeting. “The Warriors come shortly - we will deal with whatever comes through.”
Loki nods and turns away. Behind them, the Bifrost touches down and Thor tenses in preparation.
Nothing comes through. The Bifrost does not shut off. It takes Loki a moment to realise what is taking so long, what must be happening, and then he whirls around, heart in his mouth.
“Thor!” he cries. “It is not an invasion, it is a strike! You must come to safety - they mean to bring the realm down around us!”
Thor does not hear him; he is already charging away with Mjolnir held high. Loki watches in horror as the ground cracks beneath him and then disintegrates, sucking his brother into the seething maelstrom of destruction that is the uncontained Bifrost. He sees Thor reappear briefly high above as he struggles to fly free with Mjolnir, and then his brother is torn apart by the competing forces.
Loki screams in denial. Frigga breaks free of his shocked hold and runs toward her child, casting magic as she goes, but she is still too weak and there is nothing to be done in the face of such fury. Before she is more than a few steps away from him the garden wall crumbles and crushes her.
Loki is barely aware of the arrival of the Warriors. Sif’s face hovers in front of him; she is yelling something but he cannot hear her.
“I must protect the others,” he gasps, and runs, stumbling, around the corner of the palace wall and down the main street.
Poppy is coming out of the library as he nears, stopping in the street to stare open-mouthed at the angry sky. Beyond her Loki can see the others coming from the general store to huddle together, terrified and confused. Oscar is trying to herd them all to safety but they are too stunned to listen.
“John!” Poppy reaches for him. “Are you okay? What’s happening?”
“It is an attack,” Loki says numbly. “I am sorry - I did not mean - this is my fault, I never thought he’d be so angry, I only wanted someplace to stay - “
Poppy screams and shoves him behind her. “John, look out - “
The library shatters and bursts apart above them, showering the crowd with debris. Poppy cries out and stumbles against him, a large shard of wood protruding from her chest. Loki catches her automatically, lowering her to the ground; she gives one last hitching breath and stills, her eyes fixed on his face.
Stunned, Loki can only kneel there and hold her. Across the street he can see Oscar desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood from the gaping hole in Rick’s abdomen. His eyes flick over the crowd, marking each lifeless body as he recognizes it: Beverly, Tom, Robert, Jess, a tangle of small limbs and white-blonde hair and a tiny blanket-wrapped bundle that he cannot, cannot think about lest he go mad. Even as his disbelieving brain marks each corpse the maelstrom claims them, roaring and rushing until all that is left is Loki and Poppy, and then the forces of the storm drag Poppy from his arms and all that is left is Loki, untouched.
He rises to his feet, fists clenched, horror and grief rising in his chest until he cannot breathe for screaming.
“An entire realm!” he cries into the uncaring storm. “An entire realm to punish one man? Destroy me, destroy me, there is no call for this! I will leave if you want me to, I will turn my back, I will submit to your laws and your punishments and you anger, only leave my ho-”
Something cold and wet strikes him in the face. He gasps, choking, and flings himself back against the headboard of the bed, instinctively scrabbling for a defensible position -
Warm hands grab his wrists, strong and calloused but gentle. Loki recoils, head banging painfully against the wall, and then reason sets in.
He is not on Asgard. There is no Bifrost. The library is intact, Tom is alive and half-kneeling on the bed in front of him, and Poppy is picking herself up on the far side of the room.
“It’s okay, John,” Tom says, his eyes boring into Loki’s. “It was just a nightmare. You’re safe, it’s all okay.”
“I - “ his face is wet. There is an empty water glass on its side on the cheerful rag rug; Tom must have dashed its contents in Loki’s face to wake him. Poppy is upright now, holding one arm carefully... his breath locks in his throat. “Did I hurt you?”
“I’m fine, John,” Poppy says, guiltily letting go of her arm.
He can’t - he can’t breathe. The weight of his own chest is crushing him. The room is too small, the air too thick. He twists free of Tom’s grip and flees.
He makes it but a few paces from the library’s front door before falling to his knees to vomit into the snow. It is dark out now - he must have been sleeping for a while - and as he spits bile and tries to stop shaking he scans the quiet town in front of him. The buildings are intact. There are no bodies in the street, there is no cracked earth. The Bifrost strike did not happen.
No, that is untrue, he realises with a resurgence of horror. Even the Jotun must have had children, old people. They could not have all been warriors; there must have been tradespeople and artisans as well.
How many of them had he killed? Had they tried to comfort each other as the destruction rained down on them? Had brothers tried to fight it? Had mothers attempted to stand between their children and the danger moving ever closer?
He dry-heaves and scrambles back, not stopping until he is on the porch steps and clear of the snow. The air outside is cold and thin but he still seems to have trouble getting it into his lungs. His teeth are chattering with the strength of his trembling.
A warm weight descends on his shoulders. He flinches, but it is just the purple quilt from his bed. Tom sits down next to him and pulls a pocket knife and a knot of wood out of his coat pocket.
“Is Poppy - “
“She’s fine,” Tom says, eyes on his work. “She wanted to come out and check on you but I thought you might appreciate a minute to think first.”
Loki watches the sure movements of Tom’s knife on the wood and hugs the quilt closer. A minute to think? A minute is no time at all to think, and far too much. He thinks he is a murderer, he thinks he is frightened, he thinks he has felt more at home in this place than he has felt anywhere for centuries and he doesn’t know why and he thinks he might die if he has to face what he’s done.
Tom waits patiently, using the point of the knife to dig out a precise crevice at one end of the wood. Loki swallows and tries again.
“I think I’m dangerous. To all of you.”
Tom hums thoughtfully. “Might be. Hard to say. You remember something?”
Loki closes his eyes. “I think I did something terrible,” he whispers.
The sound of Tom’s knife against the wood does not falter. He considers this statement for a little while.
“You know why Oscar hasn’t been trying to find out where you came from?”
Loki blinks. “What?”
“You must have wondered. Internet, news - he could have put your picture out there, asked for information, and he hasn’t. Know why?”
Loki sighs. He hadn’t even thought of that. “I do not. Why?”
“Thinks you’re still in danger. You might remember something, you might not, but when you’re not paying attention you react to things in a way that says you’re scared of someone. And if there’s someone out there who still has it in for you, it’s safest for you to be here.”
Loki swallows hard. “But what if I’m putting you in danger?”
Tom shrugs. “Going okay so far.”
“What if... I’m actually the dangerous one?”
Tom blows wood shavings off his creation and fixes Loki with a look. “In the hospital you thought you were under attack. The first thing you did was stand in front of Poppy. That’s all I need to know.”
Loki stares. “You can’t possibly place the safety of everyone you love on such a flimsy assumption,” he says desperately. “You know nothing about me! I might be - I might be a killer, a murderer, a - a monster - “ he cuts himself off, choking on it. He is all of those things. He would not harm anyone here, but what can that possibly matter? Is it not something inherent, twisted, broken in his very being? The Jotuns are monsters, and despite his upbringing and his desperate, crazed attempts at negating this it is clear that he is a monster as well, whatever his outward appearance might be. Surely the only thing he can bring to these people is pain and torment. It is the only thing he has ever brought anywhere.
Tom carves for another few minutes in silence. “You ever wonder about that room you’re staying in?” he says finally.
“I... no,” Loki says. He is exhausted, trembling with adrenaline, sick with hatred and fear and feeling uncomfortably close to tears. He cannot see what his room could possibly have to do with anything and he is too wound up to even try.
“Did you know Poppy was married? Years ago. Had a husband, a little girl. They lived over in Paris - not the one in France, it’s pronounced differently.”
“Oh?” Loki asks dully, resting his head on his knees.
“Yep. Poppy taught at the high school - social studies. She loved her family, but she had a bit of a drinking problem. Her husband begged her to get cleaned up and she promised she would, but it never seemed to work out. There were fights, she was arrested for drunk driving, lost her job. Didn’t manage to kick the habit until she came home to find her husband had taken her daughter and left. She sobered up after that but it was too late. Too much damage, too little trust. So she came down here. Oscar got her the library job, she fixed up that room for her little girl, and every year on Christmas she calls her daughter and her husband. Her husband’ll talk to her now, a little, but her daughter refuses. Can’t really blame her - it made for a rough childhood.”
Loki twists Poppy’s daughter’s quilt in one hand, then realises what he’s done and smooths it out guiltily. “I had no idea.” He thinks of the soft yellow paint, the cheerful rug, the pressed daisies on the wall, all lovingly and carefully laid out. “Was her name Daisy?”
Tom nods. “Mm-hm. Remembering her little girl’s probably why Poppy took you in so fast, so I guess something good’s come of it. Can’t be much younger than you are, now.” He studies his project for a moment. “Lots of people in this town have something they want to keep behind them. Robert was a soldier, you can bet he did things he doesn’t want to think about. Jess and her sister got into a lot of trouble as teenagers - they’ve survived it pretty well but they aren’t all good memories. When Rick was younger he hit his mother for calling Oscar a - a very rude name. He goes and visits her once a month to apologize, she tells him he’s going to hell, he comes back home and does it again a month later.”
Loki presses his face against his knees. He can barely hold up under the weight of his own transgressions; he cannot bear the pressure of anyone else’s. He wants, he needs this town and these people to be free of his despairs. Untouched. Innocent.
“Please stop,” he begs.
Tom stills, and a moment later Loki feels a warm hand on the back of his neck, squeezing gently. “Sorry,” Tom says softly. “Didn’t mean to pile it on so much. Point I was trying to make was that sometimes all you can do is keep going. Making amends is all well and good, but sometimes you’ve got to do what you have to in order to keep from drowning.”
Loki turns his face a little. “Do you think amends are possible?”
Tom considers this, absently rubbing the back of Loki’s neck with his thumb. “Sometimes,” he says finally. “But I think more often than not amends turn out to be more about the person who feels guilty than the person who was hurt.”
Loki’s vision blurs. “So there is nothing to be done?” his voice cracks. “There is nothing to - “ make me feel better. He stops. “Surely feeling awful is not enough to balance the scales.”
Tom sighs and pulls him into an awkward, one-armed hug. “I don’t know, John. I think it depends on who you think the forgiveness will be coming from.”
They sit there for a long time. Tom doesn’t try to speak any more, and Loki asks no questions. Finally, Tom straightens with a groan.
“My butt’s going numb,” he says. “I think it’s time to go back in. Come on, John.”
Loki allows himself to be pulled upright, but balks once he’s inside.
“I think I would like to stay downstairs for a little longer,” he says.
Tom nods. “Suit yourself. Keep the quilt - you don’t want to get cold. Do you want to talk to Poppy? I’m sure she’s still up.”
“I - no,” Loki says. “I would like another minute to think. Please tell her again that I am sorry.”
Once Tom has gone, Loki wanders back through the darkened library to the children’s room and the old claw-footed bathtub full of pillows. He curls up in it, pulling the quilt over his head and burrowing down into the cushions. Inside the tub it is quieter, somehow - his thoughts are eaten up by the silence instead of magnified by it. The shelter provided by the metal walls and the warm quilt are an illusion, but potent enough for all that.
His head is buzzing with the events of the last few hours. He lays them out in his mind, imagining them as books that must be shelved.
Thor is on Midgard.
Thor is not looking for him.
Loki is staying in Poppy’s daughter’s room.
Poppy is just as broken as he is, if in smaller and more finely-calibrated ways.
So is Robert.
So is Rick, and by extension Oscar.
Loki killed Jotuns. He did it for no good reason.
He breathes, carefully, and feels the air beneath the quilt grow stuffy and hot. Why did Loki kill the Jotuns? Loki killed them because... because...
Why did Loki kill the Jotuns?
Loki... had to prove his loyalty. Loki... had to prove he was Aesir, in thought and deed if not blood.
He shakes his head. It was not even so rational as all that, although those reasons make a kind of sense now.
Why did Loki kill the Jotuns? Was it to finish what Thor had started?
Was it because that was as close as he could come to killing that part of himself? Was it because Jotuns are monsters, and it does not matter if monsters die?
He shudders. Was it because he is a monster, and monsters don’t need reasons?
It is too hot now; he works his hand up and pushes a fold of the quilt aside, enough to let in air but not enough to uncover himself.
Why had he done any of the things he had done? Oh, to embarrass Thor, certainly. He was a younger brother, or he’d thought he was, and younger brothers, especially mischievous ones, are always looking for a way to disrupt their elder siblings.
Loki has never felt much like a younger brother, though, to be truthful. Younger in status, perhaps, and age, but he has always felt smarter. Wiser. More experienced. He had ruined Thor’s coronation because his brother wasn’t ready to be king, and he had goaded him to attack Jotunheim because he needed his brother’s immaturity to be obvious to others.
And because it does not matter if monsters die.
He had not intended them to actually land on Jotunheim. He had intended them to be stopped, but of course the one time Loki had actually wanted to be caught he got away with it. Even on Jotunheim, his concern had been for his own safety and the safety of Thor and his companions. The monsters dying around them did not matter, because they were fighting back.
There is no way to fight back against a Bifrost attack. It may have been a nightmare that showed Loki this, but it is no less true.
Loki shoves back the quilt and struggles out of the bathtub, suddenly claustrophobic. Whether he is a monster or not, hiding under his bedclothes like a child is unbecoming. The Aesir, the Jotun - they would both agree. Thor would laugh at him. He must... he must face this, somehow, like a man if not a warrior. Resolutely, he pushes his confusion into the part of his mind occupied by Loki-who-fell, gives the frustration to Loki-the-Prince, and lets Loki-the-monster have the guilt. Loki-as-John has work to do.
Poppy comes down to find him in the wee hours of the morning, long before she usually rises but late enough that they can both cling to the pretense that he has not kept her up all night worrying. She finds him seated cross-legged on the center of the large table in the high school homework room-slash-local history room, surrounded by open books.
“John?” she says cautiously.
“Yes?” Loki says. “Yes. Right. Yes. I, I am sorry about last night. Did I hurt you? Tom said I did not, but I think he was trying to make me feel better. He is surprisingly talkative, did you know that? He had a lot to say. It was good to hear. I mean, it wasn’t good, it was terrible and I am sorry for all of it, but good. I, he gave me a lot to think about.”
“I can see that,” Poppy says, walking slowly closer. She moves strangely... no, that is just Loki. He is rocking himself a little bit, and it makes the rest of the room wobble. He stops and runs his hands through his hair. His eyes feel gritty and sore, but he ignores this. He has more research to do.
What was he doing? Yes. Right. Buchenwald. He pulls a book over.
“What are you reading?” Poppy asks, reaching for one of his books. He lets her take it, he’s finished with it already. Khmer Rouge. She is still moving in that slow, cautious way. At first he thought she was in pain, but now he’s sure that is incorrect. If anything, she reminds him of the stable hands on Asgard when they approach a skittish horse, which is a strange comparison under the circumstances but there you have it.
He turns back to his book. The words blur in front of his eyes, but the pictures are still visible. Mortals, skeletal from starvation and despair. Liquid dark eyes stare out at him, resigned and stoic and hard. Loki never starved anyone; not personally, anyway. What Asgard did to Jotunheim is still up for debate. What do Jotun eat, anyway?
“You’re... researching genocide?” Poppy asks.
“Monsters,” Loki corrects, pointing to a copy of Frankenstein. That one had been particularly upsetting. Loki had not liked it at all. “I am researching monsters.”
Poppy puts the Khmer Rouge book on top of a history of Rwanda and edges around the table, putting one tentative hand on his knee. “Tom told me a little about what you two talked about,” she says. “Why are you researching monsters, sweetie?”
“I need to understand them,” Loki explains. “To repress it.”
Poppy’s face twists. “You think you’re a monster, John?” she asks, very quietly.
“Yes,” Loki says. “No. Sometimes. Some parts. Mostly, mostly it is the me who is John, and then there is nothing to worry about. But there is a me who is angry, so angry, and he is a monster. I think, I think maybe if I can get rid of the monster, understand it, then everything will be fine. I think it will hurt less, and an eye for an eye, is that not correct? If the monster dies, then, then perhaps that is amends. Life for life. It is a warrior culture, after all.”
Poppy is looking... horrified, is the only word. She reaches up and puts a hand on each side of his face, holding him still and forcing his eyes away from the book in front of him.
“Hey,” she says. “Hey. Look at me. Pay attention. This is really important, okay? You’re not a monster. Hey! I said look at me. You’re not a monster. I don’t know what you’ve been through and I don’t think you do either, but being angry is okay. Being scared is okay.”
“There’s a me that’s scared, too,” Loki whispers, ashamed. “The me who fell.”
“Yeah, I’d be scared, too,” Poppy says. “Sweetie... do you understand that these people who are feeling things are all you?”
Loki bites his lip. Everything around him blurs. “I don’t want to hurt anyone,” he chokes. “Or get them hurt. I don’t want to.”
“I know, baby. I know,” Poppy croons. “Come on. Let’s go upstairs, okay? I think you need to lie down for a little bit.”
Loki allows himself to be helped off the table and guided gently up the stairs. His head feels full to bursting - the things Tom said, the things he’s been thinking, the things he’s read. They’re all jumbled up. He’s not really sure which is which any more.
“I never burned anyone in an oven,” he says. This he at least knows with certainty. “They did that in Auschwitz. I didn’t do that.”
“That’s good,” Poppy says encouragingly. “Top of the stairs, almost there...”
Loki hits level ground and stumbles. Poppy keeps him upright. There is a shower running; that must be where Tom is.
“I never put anyone in a poisoned shower, either,” Loki says. “They did that in Auschwitz too. Really they were gas chambers, but the people going into them thought they were showers.” He had, at least, committed his atrocities cleanly. Or had he? He had not been on the ground. He does not know what a sustained Bifrost strike actually entails. And does it matter how sadistically the blow was dealt if the end result was the same?
“Yeah, I know,” Poppy says, looking distressed. “Watch the doorframe - good. Okay, lie down...”
Loki lies down obediently, then sits up again. “The purple quilt! I left the purple quilt downstairs.”
“That’s okay, sweetie,” Poppy says. “There’s a spare one in the closet.”
“It’s not okay,” Loki says, upset. “It’s your daughter’s quilt. It belongs in your daughter’s room.”
Poppy stills for a moment. “Well,” she says finally, with a tremulous smile, “the spare one in the closet is also hers, and it belongs here too, so that’s okay.”
“Oh.” Loki lies back down and watches as she gets another quilt, this one pink, and spreads it gently over him. “Thank you.”
“Sure.” She sits down next to him and rubs his back. “Do you think you can get some sleep?”
He feels heavy, fuzzy-headed, un-centered in a way he is not comfortable with. He recognizes, dimly, that his mind is not working correctly but is also working too fast.
“I don’t think so,” he says slowly. “Perhaps if I had another one of those pills?”
“No, honey,” Poppy says gently. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’ll just sit here and keep you company, okay? Just close your eyes. You don’t have to sleep.”
Loki complies. It feels... nice. Reassuring. He’s not entirely certain he’s allowed to feel those things.
“What are you feeling right now?” Poppy asks, as if she is reading his mind.
“I...” Loki frowns. “The me who - “
“Just you,” Poppy interrupts, gentle but firm. “Tell me what you are feeling.”
There is a lot to feel, but he is warm and Poppy has been so kind to him and her hand on his back is very soothing. “I feel... tired,” he says. “I feel frightened, and comforted, and a little sick.” His voice is so slow. Is his voice slow? He’s not sure. It is very difficult to think. “I feel angry, and apprehensive. I am... I am all alone.”
“Not alone,” Poppy whispers. “I’m right here, sweetheart.”