In the several days since the spring fair, news of Loki’s ‘ice powers’ have spread throughout the town - although, everyone assures him earnestly, no farther than that. The townspeople have taken on the notion of Loki as a kindhearted alien fugitive just looking for somewhere nice to live and run with it, much to Oscar’s amusement and Loki’s bewilderment. Consequently, Loki has learned more about Roswell and Area 51 than he ever thought could be known about an allegedly secret government installation.
It is bewildering, touching, and a little annoying, particularly when Jess discovers he can chill a drink just by touching the glass. Summer, he suspects, may be very trying.
He had been a little worried that Poppy would be offended by his secrecy, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. He is still working up the nerve to ask her directly about it, but she has treated him as normally as ever and has even joined Oscar in making terrible ice puns.
Loki is relieved by the nonchalance his greatest secret has prompted, of course - but distantly, and largely because it is something he no longer needs to be upset about. Mostly he settles for a vague puzzlement. His brain is still too occupied by other things. He still wakes up at odd hours of the night, adrenaline pounding through his veins, entirely consumed by the need to find his children before Odin does. Emmett crying still makes him break out into a cold sweat. He cannot be left alone in charge of Meggie because he stops breathing if she walks out of his sight and cannot remember how to start again.
“That never really goes away, I’m afraid,” Poppy tells him sadly. His head is in her lap and she is running her fingers through his hair. “I still wake up sometimes thinking that I’ve heard Daisy in the night and I make it halfway out of bed to check on her before I remember she’s not here anymore.”
“Do you know where she is now?” Loki asks, and immediately feels terrible. “I’m sorry, Poppy - “
“It’s all right.” She pets his hair until he settles back down. “She still keeps in touch with my brother, so I hear things from him sometimes. She’s in college now. She can’t decide on her major but he says she’s a good student.”
“It may be selfish of me,” Loki says quietly, “But I’m glad for my own sake that you were here.”
“I miss my daughter so much I think my heart’s going to break,” Poppy says. “But I can still be glad I was here too.”
Some days are better than others. Some days he feels almost normal again, and then the next day he feels like he wants to die. Sometimes he thinks he already has and this is some kind of cruelly protracted afterlife, but fortunately those moments usually pass quickly. He exists in a strange sort of half-awareness. He knows what he is doing, who he is talking to, where he is, but there is always a part of his mind replaying memories of his former life. There is always a voice whispering in his head, This sky looks just like that sky. This food tastes like that food. The weather rages here just like it did there.
He did not feel this disconnect from Asgard when he had first arrived here. He is not sure why, anymore.
He is having one of his middling-better days when Oscar calls the library. This in itself is unusual - the town is small enough that people will frequently just stop by instead of bothering with the phone - although Oscar’s job does sometimes require him to remain at the station. He tends to avoid this to a nearly comical degree, claiming that the station is boring, depressing, and smells strange.
“Hi, Oscar,” Loki says, smiling a little as he imagines what Oscar might have been doing at his desk to amuse himself. “Have you heard of this? Stacy tells me there’s a modern-day Sherlock H-”
“John,” Oscar interrupts, his voice grim. “I need you to listen to me. Thor’s in town and he’s passing around a picture of you.”
The sounds of the library suddenly seem very loud in Loki’s ears. He can hear the quiet murmur of conversation in the high school homework room, the scratch of pencils on paper, the hum of the boiler in the basement and outside, on the path, is that the crunch of a footstep on gravel? Can he hear the quiet scrape of well-made Asgardian boots moving stealthily on the worn wood of the porch?
“ - one’s saying anything, of course.” Oscar is still talking. Loki makes an effort to listen. “But he’s been here and to the general store and Elliot from the post office just called to say he was outside. It’s only a matter of time before he makes it to the library. John?”
“Yes,” Loki says. “I am still here. I - please, a moment. I must think.”
Oscar falls silent, although Loki can hear the agitated tap of a pen on paper over the phone. It is clear that Thor has at least a strong suspicion that Loki is in the area, if he doesn’t know it for a fact. The townspeople can deny it all they like, but it is an unfortunate fact of Loki’s life that Thor is not actually that dimwitted. He is also extremely stubborn - if he thinks that Loki is in the town, he will do what he has to to find him. It is only questions now, but it will escalate if he feels thwarted.
Sooner or later, Loki will have to face him. He has always known this. It is not fair of him to hide behind the people who have done so much to shelter him and make him welcome.
“Oscar,” he says, slowly. “Do you know the clearing on the far side of the mountain behind the library?”
“Yes,” Oscar says reluctantly.
“Ask him to meet me there, please. He will need aerial directions.” The clearing is as removed from the town as Loki can manage, and the bulk of the mountain should prevent the town from being affected by any battle that commences. Loki’s magic is nowhere near strong enough to stand against Thor and Mjolnir, but he has his... other talents. Thor probably will not be expecting those.
He does not want to fight, but he will. It may be unjust of him to evade capture, but this - this is his home.
Loki is sick to death of losing his homes.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Oscar says. “You have time to hide. We’re not going to tell him anything.”
“I know,” Loki says. “And I know what I’m doing.”
“At least let me deputize some people, back you up - “
“No, Oscar. I won’t get anyone else involved in this.”
Loki freezes. His name - his true name - sounds false in Oscar’s voice.
“Please trust me, Oscar,” he says quietly.
Oscar sighs. “You know I do.”
“Then please. Keep anyone else from following me.”
“Fine,” Oscar says, his voice muffled. “We’ll - we’ll watch that Sherlock thing when you get back, how about that?”
“I look forward to it,” Loki says gravely.
He hangs up the phone and sits for a moment. There is a stack of books on the desk that he hasn’t shelved yet. He has cataloging to do. He - he left his mug of tea from this morning sitting in the sink, he should at least wash it before he -
Lokis stops. He closes his eyes.
This is the price, he tells himself. For all those things you did and all the things you received, undeserving. This is the price. You never really thought the loss of your family washed those sins clean.
He stands, calmly, and pokes his head into the homework room. Poppy is helping Stacy with her French homework.
“Poppy, would it be alright if I stepped out for a little air?”
Poppy smiles at him. “Of course, sweetie. Take all the time you need.”
Stacy gives him a despairing look. “Take me with you?”
Loki makes himself smile. “Maybe next time, if you can ask me in French.”
The hike up the mountain seems to take forever and no time at all. The path is rough, pitted by springtime runoff and the icy remains of snowdrifts, but the trees are beautiful - jubilant, even, with their bright green springtime leaves. Everywhere Loki looks there seems to be life, exploding unrestrained from plants, earth, undergrowth. He sees beetles in the dirt, birds in the trees. There is even a rustle of undergrowth that hints of the presence of something a little larger.
At least the weather is fine, Loki thinks. A thunderstorm, while appropriate on a number of levels, would be a little too excessive even for his occasionally melodramatic sense of style.
Thor is already in the clearing when Loki steps out from the shadows under the trees, backed by the limitless splendor of the valley. His very being seems to come to attention when he spots Loki.
“Brother,” he exclaims, starting forward.
Loki takes an automatic step backwards. Thor halts, confused, and then spreads his hands to show he is unarmed. He will be able to call Mjolnir to him in an instant, of course, but the gesture is not entirely unwelcome.
“Forgive me,” he says, his booming voice gentled. “I did not mean to startle you. You must have fallen a long way, to land here - do you remember me?”
“Yes, Thor,” Loki says, and then has to repeat it when little sound escapes him. “Yes. I remember you.”
Thor smiles. “That is very good, Loki,” he says, as if Loki is a frightened child in need of reassurance. “I have missed you very much. You are well?”
“Yes. Yes, I am fine,” Loki says slowly. “Thor, why have you come?”
Thor blinks at him. “Because... why would I not have come, brother?”
“You know I’m not actually your brother, Thor.”
Thor stares at him. Loki’s heart sinks. “Did Fa- did Odin explain my parentage to you?”
“Yes,” Thor says slowly. “But we were raised as brothers. Surely that does not actually matter?”
Now it is Loki’s turn to stare. “Thor, you - of course it matters! I - our whole childhood was a lie, surely you see that? And yet you would stand there, you who have killed countless Jotuns, and tell me it does not matter?”
Thor’s face twists in distress. “You - you speak the truth, Loki, I have done those things and Odin was wrong, very wrong to keep the truth from you. I do not deny this but - but you are still my brother, I still love you -”
“You do?” Loki demands, anger and bitterness washing away his caution. “You love this?”
Thor controls his flinch almost completely, but the sight of Loki turned Jotun-blue is obviously still shocking for him.
Abstract concepts are much easier to stomach than concrete ones. This is something Loki knows well.
“I - I do not deny that it is a bit, a bit upsetting to see your - your other form,” Thor says. He sounds... worried. He sounds desperate. “And I can only imagine how upsetting it was to you, but please, Loki - brother - I did not come here to fight. I only wished to see you and be sure that you were well. On the Bifrost, you were - you were so hurt, so undone, and I have worried so.”
The anger drains out of Loki, taking his Jotun appearance with it. Thor relaxes infinitesimally.
“If you did not come here to fight, then why have you come?” Loki asks wearily. “Surely Odin has charged you with my capture. Or are you to bring me news of my banishment?”
“Odin does not know my mission,” Thor says quickly. “He does not even know I have found you. Heimdall thought it best.”
Loki’s mouth drops open. “What?” Heimdall’s motives have always been his own, it is true, but he takes his obligation to the King very seriously. For him to withhold such information from him is - well. ‘Unexpected’ is far too mild a phrase.
For Thor to conceal his actions from Odin is also bizarre. If he does not tell Odin he has discovered Loki’s whereabouts, how will anyone praise him for it?
“Yes,” Thor says, taking an anxious half-step forward. “After you fell, he would tell us that you had survived and nothing more. Father threatened, he even pleaded, but Heimdall remained firm. He would not even say if you were well or injured, if you had fallen into danger or if you had found somewhere safe. All he would say was that you survived. We have speculated endlessly and come up with the most terrible possibilities but he has refused to confirm or deny any of it.”
“That is... unexpected,” Loki manages. “I had always thought he disliked me.”
Thor smiles, inviting Loki to share a moment of humor. “Well, that may still be true. With Heimdall, as you know, it is always difficult to tell. I blame the helmet, personally.”
Unbidden, Loki smiles. He and Thor had spent quite some time as children scheming to remove the Guardian’s helmet and speculating upon what might lie beneath it. Looking back now, as an adult, he suspects that it had probably been a very trying time for Heimdall, although Loki maintains that his idea of magnetising the observatory would have worked if only the spell hadn’t gone somewhat hilariously awry.
“So how did you find me, if not with Heimdall’s aid?”
“Ah!” Thor smiles proudly. “I have been to this town before, did you know? In the winter. We stopped at your general store and I saw a likeness of you on the wall. You were putting snow down the back of a mortal child’s garments.”
“Really?” Loki blurts, a little appalled that he hadn’t even remembered the picture hanging there in plain sight. “Why didn’t you say anything then?”
“It was not that I did not wish to,” Thor says anxiously. “But Heimdall had been so insistent on concealing your whereabouts that I thought it prudent to consult him first. He confirmed that I had located you and was most insistent that you still required solitude. It was clear that he understood more of the situation than I did and so I acceded to his wish. A few days ago he told me that you would now be more receptive to my arrival, so I described you to my teammate and had him make a likeness of you. And then I came here. I told no one but Heimdall of my plans. I did not even tell my teammates.”
“Oh,” Loki says, honestly shocked. “I - that was very... smart of you, Thor. I appreciate it.”
Thor beams at him. “I shall remember that you said that, brother,” he teases. “You cannot take it back now.”
“One instance of cleverness does not translate to an entire lifetime of it,” Loki says automatically, but Thor’s smile only widens.
“Thor,” Loki says hesitantly, and Thor sobers quickly. “Thor, can you tell me - can you tell me how Asgard’s relationship with Jotunheim has fared?”
It is not what he intended to ask, not what he wants (doesn’t want) to know, but. Well. It is what he is capable of asking, at the moment.
Thor nods knowingly. “I have taken over negotiations with them,” he says. “I can answer any questions you might ask.”
“How many of them did I kill?” he says, mouth numb.
“Not as many as I did,” Thor says gravely.
Loki sucks in a breath. “You sound...”
“Remorseful,” Thor says quietly. “I am. Truly. You remember that the area around the Bifrost site is uninhabited? I will not lie and say that no destruction was wrought, but I do not think it was as terrible as you have suspected. There was damage done to buildings and some Jotuns were killed, but the attack was not long enough to eclipse the repercussions of my own.”
“Only because you stopped it,” Loki points out. Regardless of the results, his intentions had been far more murderous than Thor’s own. The comparison only flatters him so much.
Thor shrugs. “Father halted mine,” he points out. “With one strike I called down enough destruction to level a goodly percentage of the city. It would have only been a matter of minutes before I did so again.”
“Have you...” Loki stops, and then forces himself to continue. “Have you made amends? Is there something I -”
“No,” Thor says firmly. “Brother, do not torment yourself with thoughts of repayment. It is not something they want. When I first arrived as Odin’s emissary I attempted to offer reparations. They called me weak and required me to fight one of their warriors to the death before they would accept me as a representative of Asgard. I won the fight but spared his life, and they killed him as punishment for losing. They killed his family as well.”
Loki flinches. Thor sighs. “Brother,” he says gently. “I understand your guilt - truly I do. And I wish I could tell you that there was a way to expiate it, but forgiveness is not something you will find on Jotunheim. They respect the acts of war we brought upon them far more than they respect apologies. They are...” he struggles momentarily. “I volunteered to go to Jotunheim because I wanted to force myself to see them as beings. A great many of our troubles came because we thought them - worthless, only creatures -”
“Monsters,” Loki whispers.
“ - monsters, yes. I thought if I could bring news of them to Asgard that was not so disparaging, if I could relate their stories and speak of their culture, it might help. But, brother... I am sorry to say that I found them to be... unworthy. Barbaric. Even with all the sorrow it has caused, I am more glad than I can say that you did not grow up there and have become utterly your own person.”
Loki closes his eyes. Is it so simple to cease to be a monster? Does it take only Thor’s words, unexpected and far more insightful than Loki would have ever thought possible?
No. Of course not.
But it is something.
“Brother?” Thor asks uncertainly. “I wish to respect your sensitivities and I do not want you to be uncomfortable, but I have been very worried about you and I have missed you very much. Would it be permissable for me to embrace you? I will not if it would cause you distress. I know you do not always welcome touch.”
Loki opens his eyes. “That would be fine, Thor. I have... I have missed you as well.” He has, actually. He has missed the boy that Thor used to be, before Loki started seeing only parts of Odin in him. He has missed the brother he had when he was a child.
The embrace is quite tender, to Loki’s surprise. Thor’s methods of affection tend to be exuberant, full force, and frequently bruising. Now he holds Loki like he is fragile. Precious. It is... nice.
“It is very good to see you well,” Thor says, stepping back enough to give Loki space but keeping one hand on Loki’s bicep. “You look much better than last I saw you. Your muscle tone is not as good, it is true, but you seem much more confident.”
Loki smiles. “I think I am, Thor. This place has been good for me.”
“I am very glad of it,” Thor says sincerely. “You have always seemed somewhat displaced. It is good to see you have found a somewhere to belong, although it pains me that it is not in Asgard.”
Loki’s smile vanishes. “Thor. I need you to promise me something.”
Thor’s hand tightens on Loki’s arm. “Of course, brother.”
“You cannot tell Odin where I am. Not ever. Not for any reason.”
Thor blinks. “But Loki, he has been so worried -”
“No,” Loki says harshly. Thor’s eyes narrow.
“There is something that you are not telling me,” he says. “You fear something. What is it? I will protect you - I know I have failed you in the past but you cannot doubt my might and I assure you my resolve is sincere. Tell me what threatens you and I will rend the very heavens themselves to make you safe.”
“No, I - “ Loki stops. Thor has come far - unbelievably far - from that callous, spoiled boy who dragged his brother and best friends into war for the fun of it, but he is still a warrior. Telling him what Odin did - what Loki has suffered - will break his heart, and he will want to right the wrong. Thor is powerful, but he is not powerful enough to survive battle with Odin although the realms would fracture from the heat of his attempt.
“I cannot tell you,” Loki says slowly. “I know that is unfair, but I assure you it is necessary. I have - I do have something I fear, but I must ask you to fight a different kind of battle to protect me from it. I must ask you to keep my whereabouts a secret.”
Thor studies him carefully. “I do not like it,” he says finally. “It is not the kind of battle I am accustomed to, but I will honor your wishes. You have nothing to fear from me.”
Loki exhales. “Thank you, Thor. Brother.”
“If I make a show of traveling elsewhere, may I tell Mother I have seen you and that you are well? It would bring her much relief.”
Loki considers this, and nods. “That would be acceptable, and I have something for you to bring back. I should return the Casket of Ancient Winters.”
Thor shakes his head. “When Heimdall told us you were alive, Father made it very clear that should anyone ever come across you the Casket was not to be retrieved. He said it was yours by right and that it would ease his mind greatly to know that you had a means to defend yourself.”
Well, that is - unexpected, and not. It is strange that Odin would leave it with him, but at the same time it keeps it out of the hands of Jotunheim and Loki has no doubt that should he ever use it Odin will be able to pinpoint its location immediately. A double-edged sword, then, to borrow a Midgardian phrase.
“Very well,” he says. “I shall be its custodian, I suppose.”
Thor smiles and squeezes his arm again. “I must tell you, Brother -”
“Hey!” a voice says across the clearing. “Hey, you!”
Loki and Thor turn as one, Thor pushing Loki slightly behind him, and Loki watches in shock as Poppy charges out of the forest wielding a baseball bat.
“Get the hell away from him!” Poppy shouts, swinging the bat.
There is a very confused moment in which Thor tries to stand in front of Loki, Loki tries to get in between them, and Poppy lands a solid hit on Thor’s chest with the bat. There is a faint clang - Thor must be wearing his breastplate under his Midgardian street clothes - but Poppy, undeterred, gets ready to swing again.
“Poppy!” Loki exclaims, shocked. “It’s all right, he’s not an enemy!”
Poppy hesitates just long enough for Loki to slide past Thor’s restraining arm and get a hand on the bat. She darts a suspicious look at Thor. For his part, Thor looks caught between amusement and consternation.
“Are you sure?” she demands.
“Yes, I - I will not deny that I was frightened of him in the past, but we have smoothed that over now. He was never the enemy.”
“You were frightened of me?” Thor says, sounding honestly hurt.
“Only briefly,” Loki lies, not taking his eyes away from Poppy and her bat. Good lord, he doesn’t even know where it came from. “Poppy, please?”
She lowers it slowly. “Are you all right, John?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Loki says, just loudly enough to cover Thor’s confused John?
A rustle at the edge of the clearing announces Oscar’s breathless arrival. He takes in the scene before him and comes to a wary stop, one hand on his gun.
“I apologize for scaring you,” Loki says, giving Oscar a pointed glance. “You were not supposed to know.”
Oscar sighs. “Yes, well, Poppy’s ability to see through bullshit has always been a sad fact of my existence. Is everything okay here?” He gives Thor a narrow look.
“Yes, everything is fine. We have aired our differences and there is no threat to my wellbeing.”
“Brother, what have you told these people about me?” Thor says, a little reproachfully. “I am feeling much maligned, I will not lie.”
“Brother?” Poppy says, raising the bat again.
“He didn’t know,” Loki says hastily, and tosses a “Thor, let it go, please,” over his shoulder.
“Brother, I respect your privacy, but I feel I should know this thing you are not telling me,” Thor says, sounding worried.
“Thor, please,” Loki begs, turning away from Poppy to look him in the eye. “It broke my heart to find out. Do not make me break yours, I couldn’t bear it.”
Thor stares at him for a long moment. “I - very well. I do not like it, but I will respect your wishes. I know I have been a poor sibling to you but I would change that if given the chance.”
“I know,” Loki reassures him. “That particular fault lies with both of us. I may tell you someday, but I cannot right now. Please understand.”
“... I do.” He brightens suddenly and pulls a cell phone out of his pocket. “In fact, should you ever wish to contact me, I have this device that would allow us to speak over - oh. It does not appear to be working.”
Despite the gravity of the situation, Poppy smiles. “That’s the mountains - they kill the signal. It’ll start working again when you’re back home.”
“That is good to hear,” Thor says. “It is most useful.”
“We can still exchange numbers,” Loki says. “And... maybe, if you like, you could come down to the town some time. I think you would very much enjoy the sandwiches Rick makes.”
Thor’s entire being seems to light up, despite the clear implication that Loki is not currently comfortable with the idea of him down there. “I would enjoy that very much, brother!” he says. “It is very kind of you to invite me and I await your word with great anticipation. I confess it would ease my mind to know that your accommodations are satisfactory.” He gives Poppy a courtly bow. “It is already clear that you are well looked-after and admirably defended. I thank you, good lady, for protecting my sibling.”
Loki watches with a certain amount of amused resignation as Poppy wavers and melts in the face of Thor’s charm. It used to annoy him endlessly, but he can’t say that Poppy doesn’t deserve such courtesies.
“Poppy, could you give us a moment?”
“Sure thing, sweetie,” Poppy says, handing him the baseball bat and heading over to stand by Oscar.
“She is very wary,” Thor says approvingly. “Although I would take it as a kindness if you did not use that on me. I fear your swing might be a little more mighty than a mortal’s.”
“Only a little?” Loki says, mock-offended.
“Well, your muscle tone is deplorable, brother,” Thor says, slinging an arm around his shoulders. “But your mind more than makes up for that. I take back the jest.”
“I think that’s the first time you’ve ever said anything like that to me,” Loki blurts, startled.
Thor winces. “Yes, I am sure it is. It is another item on the long list of ways in which I have failed you as a brother.”
“The failure is mutual, Thor,” Loki says. “I have committed my share of wrongs against you as well, lest we forget my role in your banishment and nearly a lifetime of unkind practical jokes.”
“Actually, I did enjoy most of those jokes,” Thor admits. “But it seemed to make you happier if I was discomfited by them. We can start over now, though can we not? Or at least continue in a new spirit?”
“Yes, I think we can,” Loki says, digging a pen and a discarded card catalog card out of one pocket. He rips it in half and hands it to Thor. “Now, give me your phone number so we can stay in touch. I’m sure you have many more exciting tales to relate now that you have taken up guardianship of this realm.”
“Oh, I do!” Thor says happily, scrawling his number on the paper and exchanging it for Loki’s. “It has been most adventurous.”
“I am sure,” Loki says fondly. “Safe travels, brother. Watch out for birds.”
“It is the birds that must watch out for me,” Thor laughs, summoning Mjolnir. “Be well, Loki. I will have words with you later.”