Loki is in the back of the store restocking the drinks when Oscar comes in looking haggard. He pauses to greet Stacy and then circles the chips display to come over to where Loki is crouched down next to a box of Nantucket Nectars.
“Hey, John,” he says. “Sorry to bother you, but the coffee’s out up front and Stacy’s coffee is... well...”
“Say no more, I know what you mean,” Loki says hastily. He has cleaned up from several of Stacy’s efforts to make coffee and Rick has quietly taken him aside and let him know that it is entirely permissible to forcibly restrain Stacy from attempting it again if he has to. Loki is not sure what is so difficult about remembering the order of the filter, coffee, water process, but it is apparently more complicated than it appears.
He stands and begins to push the remaining unpacked boxes back out of the way. “You look very tired, my friend.”
Oscar sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “I look like I feel, then. There was some hubbub over by the nuclear plant last night - they’ve had all the emergency services personnel in the area on standby. I just got off a double shift and I have to go right back and sort out some paperwork before I can go home and sleep.”
Loki nods. “I had wondered about Rick’s absence.”
“It seems to be over now, though, so that’s good.”
There is the jingle of the bell over the front door. “Well,” Loki says. “I had better go see to the coffee before Stacy gets desperate - “
“Holy crap!” Stacy says, shocked. Loki cannot see her or the door from where he is standing; he moves quickly to make sure she is all right but her next words, said much too loudly to be casual, stop him in his tracks. “Holy crap, you’re the Avengers!”
Loki sucks in a breath, rooted to the spot. The Avengers, here? Why come for him now?
No - of course. The trouble at the nuclear plant - it must have had something to do with them. This is just a coincidence. Makers Falls is quite near New Stebbinsville, and the road to the interstate passes right through town. They must have just stopped for something - refreshments, directions, it matters not.
He clenches his hands. Now is the time - now is the time to decide, should he turn himself in and face what he has done? It would be the just thing to do, would it not? Hadn’t he decided that? Hadn’t he decided that he must pay for his actions, that he must be punished?
All he must do is walk forward. All he must do is walk forward and reveal himself, and it will all be over.
“Our greetings to you, fair maiden!” Thor’s voice booms cheerfully, and every nerve ending in Loki’s body freezes up completely. He is dimly aware of Oscar taking hold of him and pushing him back out of sight, of Thor’s voice and others continuing to talk, but he cannot seem to hear clearly past the rushing sound in his ears.
Loki forces himself to focus. Oscar is holding his chin tightly in one hand.
“John. Stay here. I’m going to cause a distraction, and then you get out the back door and go to Tom’s to hide. Do you understand me? Go to Tom’s and stay there.”
Numbly, Loki nods, and Oscar lets go and moves off through the store. Loki’s face feels cold where Oscar’s hand had been. He tries to breathe. This is foolish, to let Oscar and Stacy stand between him and justice. He does not deserve this. He deserves to be found, punished. Exposed.
There is a crash up front, and Oscar’s voice saying, “Oh, my gosh. Oh my gosh, you’re the Avengers. Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, let me just get that - “ and Loki runs.
He has just enough presence of mind to close the door softly behind him and then sheer terror takes over. The road up the hill to Tom’s house comes past the back of the store, shielding him from sight of the parking lot and anyone who might be left there and he sprints up it, staying instinctively to the hard-packed snow where his footprints will be less noticeable.
The journey seems to take forever and no time at all; every step up the road is made with itching shoulderblades and the conviction that he is seconds away from discovery but the next thing he knows he is turning off the road and down Tom’s driveway. He dismisses the house as too obvious a hiding place and instead makes for the shed out back where Tom keeps his woodworking tools. It is cold and dimly lit, but cluttered enough to provide cover. Loki slips past the pile of lumber stacked against the wall and the table saw in the center and presses himself up against the workbench at the back. There is a set of chisels nearby; he grabs one and holds it in front of him. It is weighted all wrong for throwing but he can cause a good deal of damage with it hand-to-hand if he must.
He is just starting to shiver from the cold and what he suspects might be shock when the crunch of heavy footsteps on snow echoes through the workshop. He grabs a second chisel, blood pounding loudly in his ears. He cannot do this. He cannot face Thor. Odin will be so angry, and such bad things happen when Odin is angry -
The door opens. Loki flinches and, for the first time in quite a long time, reaches automatically for his magic.
The pile of lumber tips improbably past its balance point and comes crashing down. It is only very fast reflexes that save Tom from being brained by it as it falls.
“John? John, it’s okay, it’s just me.”
Loki stares, stunned. He had moved that lumber. He had moved the lumber.
Tom climbs over the fallen wood and picks his way through the workshop. “John. Look at me, it’s okay.” He tries to take the chisel out of Loki’s hand but can’t budge Loki’s fingers, so he shrugs out of his jacket and puts it around Loki’s shoulders instead.
“Deep breaths, John. They’re gone. Oscar followed them out of town to make sure.”
The warmth of the jacket registers where Tom’s words did not; Loki abruptly realises he is shaking quite badly and cannot breathe. He gasps and stumbles, light-headed; Tom catches him and holds him firmly.
“It’s okay. You’re safe, they didn’t find you.”
Loki closes his eyes in despair and feels his face heat with shame where it is pressed against Tom’s shoulder. That particular secret is out - and if Tom has figured it out then Oscar probably has too. Never mind that - Stacy was the one who warned him of his brother’s presence back at the store when she spoke too loudly. At the very least they know that he is hiding from the Avengers, and the Avengers are representatives of good in this realm. Why would they ever trust someone who is frightened of them? Even if he were in his element it would be hard now to cover up the fact that he is frightened of discovery.
It is over, then. It must be. Oscar is probably telling Poppy now that Loki is dangerous and must be abandoned. At best he will be forced to leave. At worst they will betray him and hand him over themselves. Perhaps this is why Tom is holding him so - he seeks to restrain Loki while Oscar brings the others to capture him.
There is a sharp pain in Loki’s chest. He can bear punishment. He can bear pain and imprisonment and humiliation. He has before. He cannot bear this.
He pushes himself away from Tom - the gesture is weak but Tom allows it and steps back.
“Please,” Loki says, his voice thin and broken. “Please. I will leave. Do not turn me out.”
Tom stares at him, speechless. There are more footsteps on the snow outside. Loki quails - they are coming for him. Will it be Thor, to subdue him and bring him back to Asgard? Or will it be... will it be...
He cannot even finish that thought. It is too painful.
“Please!” he says again, but it is too late. Poppy bursts through the door.
“John!” She kicks lumber out of her way and hurries towards him. He closes his eyes - she is still in her shirtsleeves, her haste to come face him so great she did not even bother with her coat. He braces himself - for a blow, for restraints, he does not know which.
Her arms settle gently around him and a hand on the back of his neck guides his head down to her shoulder, mirroring his position with Tom earlier.
“Shh, baby,” she croons. “It’s all right. You’re safe.”
Air whooshes into Loki’s lungs. “W-what?”
“You’re safe,” Poppy repeats. “We’re not going to let them get you.”
The chisels fall from Loki’s suddenly nerveless hands. “But - “
“He thinks we’re going to turn him in,” Tom says quietly. “Or make him leave.”
“Oh, baby, no,” Poppy says, embracing him more tightly. “Never. You’re ours, do you hear me? And we protect our own, no matter what and no matter who comes for them.”
Loki chokes and clings to her, burying his face in her hair. He can’t seem to stop shaking. He feels like he is coming apart inside, like something has shifted internally that he had never realised was hurting him.
“You cannot fight them,” he says. “I would not ask you to.”
“Oh, just watch me,” Poppy says grimly. “You might learn a few things.”
Loki finds himself laughing, half-hysterically, as his mind presents him with the image of Poppy bearing down on cowering superheroes and demanding they pay late fees for their overdue library books.
“There you go,” Poppy says soothingly. “You’re okay now. Want to go back to the library and get some tea?”
Loki nods, reluctantly disentangling himself from Poppy’s embrace. Tea sounds wonderful. Calm. Safe.
They make their way back to the library, Loki firmly flanked by Tom and Poppy. He tries to be a gentleman and surrender Tom’s coat, but Poppy zips it up for him instead and then wraps her arm around his waist.
He tenses up hard as they pass the store and the front door bangs open, but it is only Stacy. “Are you okay?” she asks breathlessly. “I wasn’t sure you’d be able to hide so I just kept talking to them and asking them for autographs - I got them all except the Hulk, even Hawkeye, and all the blogs say he doesn’t like to sign autographs but I think he was kind of concussed, they were really nice about it but I don’t want to keep them if they’re actually bad guys. Are they actually bad guys?” She looks up at him anxiously.
“They are good guys,” Loki assures her, momentarily dizzied by the fact that this is probably the only town in the entire realm in which the Avengers are distrusted and the villain is welcomed. “You should be proud of them. It is... it is complicated.”
She nods. “Oh. Okay. You’re okay, though, right?”
“I am fine,” Loki says, with what he hopes is a reassuring smile. It appears to work, because she nods and gives him an awkward smile in return before retreating to the warmth of the store. Poppy tightens the arm around him comfortingly and turns him gently towards the library.
Once inside, she settles him carefully on the couch in the sitting room, tucking him in with a lap blanket as if he is in danger of illness. Tom retreats to the kitchen to start the tea. Loki closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. His mind is in such turmoil that he cannot actually discern individual thoughts - they have all jumbled into a cacophany of half-formed impressions and random words.
Thor was here, he thinks, and the spike of fear that results from that thought throws everything back into turmoil. I did not surrender, he tries again, and the wave of guilt and disgust unbalances him once more.
My magic is back. He reaches for it, tentatively, afraid of disappointment. It answers his call sluggishly and at a fraction of its usual strength, still suffering from the effects of the disparate energies he was subjected to during his fall through oblivion, but it is there and responsive and measurably recovering, and the giddy swing of elation this prompts makes him tremble.
“John?” Poppy says quietly. “Can you tell me how you’re doing in there, kiddo?”
They all tried to protect me. He opens his eyes.
“I - I do not know,” he says softly.
“I bet.” She smiles sympathetically and rubs his shoulder. “Want me to go get your notebook?”
He nods jerkily. “Yes, please.”
He waits until she has gone, and then takes a deep breath and gestures sharply.
Magic flows under his hands; the opening to the dimensional pocket he created as a child to hide his treasures blossoms in front of him. The relief of seeing it is almost too much to bear - when he was young it represented his accomplishments and abilities, when he was older it was the one thing he had that Odin could not influence and Thor could not accidentally ruin. Writing in Poppy’s notebook may be an exercise in futility and he is more than prepared for that, but at least now he has a secure place to hide it.
His smile fades. There are things in the pocket, of course; projects he was working on, artifacts he did not trust to anyone else, a present for Frigga he never got to give her. Relics of his life on Asgard.
All that, and the Casket of Ancient Winters.
The floorboard in the hallway creaks as Poppy returns. Loki closes the pocket sharply and is once more sitting innocuously under his blanket when she enters.
“Here you go, sweetheart,” she says, handing the notebook over. “Tom’s almost done with the tea. Do you object to some quiet company?”
He is unsure if he will be able to write anything in the notebook or what will happen if he does. He will have to find a moment of privacy in order to hide it without raising suspicions. It is far more practical - it is far safer - to seek solitude.
“No. Company would be... nice.”