It doesn’t feel like falling, at first - it feels like drifting, like floating, and only Thor’s anguished face and the shattered edge of the Bifrost receding into the vast distance give him any real feeling of motion. It’s surprisingly gentle, or would be if his heart weren’t in such turmoil.
Then the tendrils of the universe wrap around him and oh, Loki falls.
It is a feeling as inside of him as it is outside. Celestial winds tear at his clothing and hair, stinging his face, knocking him about until he has lost all sense of direction or time. Fingers of energy rip at his body, right through the surface of his skin and into the heart of him. His bones shatter and regrow with each thunderous reverberation. He screams, and it is soundless and hurts his ears at the same. He is bleeding, he is broken, he is whole. No time has passed and the universe has died around him, leaving him in agony.
The blows become sharper, pummeling him in quick succession. There is the sound of things breaking over the ever-present roar of motion and then one last tremendous impact and silence.
Loki sobs into whatever solid surface he has stopped against. It is musty and cold and tries to choke him. He coughs painfully and manages to turn his head to the side. Frigid air rushes into his lungs and he coughs again.
Everything hurts. Loki wants to run, to get away from the pain, and he wants to lie still and finally die. He cannot go home - he does not have a home, nor family - what reason could there possibly be to live?
The angry, stubborn core of him, the part that raged at Odin and taunted Thor and tried to destroy all of Jotunheim for the crime of existence, says No. I will not die here.
Loki moves one arm, and manages to roll himself onto his back. It is dark, wherever he is, and everything wavers in and out of focus. Something arches up above him, nearly obscuring the blurred half-circle of moon overhead, and after a moment Loki tentatively identifies it as a stand of trees.
When the agony of rolling over has subsided a little, Loki attempts to sit up. He manages this with difficulty - his right arm will not work and his chest and ribs are a fiery mass of pain and do not want to be moved. He makes it to his knees before the sickeningly wobbly in-and-out of his surroundings is too much and then he is ill.
He spits blood and bile weakly onto the ground between his knees, trying very hard not to black out, and gets to his feet. The ground lurches and tosses him against the trunk of one of the nearby trees, but he hits it with his good shoulder and saves himself some agony. He straightens as much as possible and begins to walk, waveringly, in no particular direction.
I’ve survived worse than this, he tells himself dizzily. There was the time on Muspelheim when he was separated from Thor and his companions and had wandered, parched and overheated, that had surely been worse...
No. Thor had searched for him then, because the embarrassment of losing a brother was greater than the irritation of putting up with him, and in any case that had been very hot. This is cold and Thor will only search for him to exact retribution.
A branch snatches at his feet and he falls heavily to his knees, retching with vertigo and pain. The ground is solid beneath him and it would feel so much better to lie down, to let himself pass out -
No. No. He will not let this realm, Vanaheim or Alfheim or whatever it is, have the satisfaction. He staggers to his feet and keeps going. He kept going on Svartalfheim, blood dripping down his chin from his stitched-shut mouth and he is older and more stubborn now. Then he had the promise of healers and his mother’s sympathy and oh, Frigga must despise him now but he doesn’t care because he has stubbornness and anger and... and...
The night air is chillingly cold through the rips in his clothing - a Jotun shivering! he thinks half-hysterically - and he can feel his consciousness narrowing down to the placement of one foot in front of the other even as his left eye swells shut. The ground changes texture under his feet, becomes hard and smooth and he is grateful for that except that there are bright lights now that hurt his eye.
At least he is not on Jotunheim. There is some small mercy left in the universe if he is not on Jotunheim.
“Oh my God - are you all right?”
If there is a Jotunheim. How much of it had he destroyed? How many Jotuns? He killed his father on Asgard - not his father, no, his pretend father; his father is Odin, he is, although Odin may have disowned him now so he has no father. Had he a Jotun mother? Had she missed him? Had he killed her unknowing on Jotunheim?
Warm hands take his good arm and a face wavers into focus in front of him.
“Sir? Hey - hey, it’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you.”
It is a mortal woman, of middling height and greying hair. He blinks at her in confusion, swaying. A mortal woman? No. No no no. He cannot be on Midgard, he cannot, it is ridiculous and cruel and - no. No. Not Midgard. He cannot. No.
“Oh, God, did someone do this to you? Are they still here?”
Belatedly, Loki grabs for his magic - he must get out of here, he must become invisible. At minimum he must cloak himself, Heimdall will see him on Midgard and he will tell Thor and Odin and they will be so very angry -
His magic slips from his grasp. Frantically he grabs for it again - he can sense it, dissipated by injury and his long fall from Asgard but he can sense it, why can’t he use it?
“Oh God. Okay, here, get in the car. I’ll get you out of here, okay? Please stop hyperventilating. It’s going to be all right.”
A blast of warm air hits his face and he stumbles against the side of a... it is one of the Midgardian conveyances. An automobile. A car. He has seen illustrations in the libraries at Asgard. This is sleeker, more modern, but he recognizes it and clings to that even as the realm roils around him. The mortal woman struggles to help him into the conveyance - he is tall and uncoordinated and even in his panic and confusion Loki can recognize that she is trying not to hurt him further.
She leans across him and he recoils instinctively.
“No, it’s okay - I’m just trying to fasten the seatbelt. See? It’s all right. I’m going to get you out of here.”
Loki grabs again for his magic, and again it slips through his fingers. His eyes sting. Is it not enough that he has lost his home, his family, his very being, he must have no magic as well? He is to be left with nothing?
The conveyance moves. Loki hears a whimper as it lurches. He closes his good eye.
The woman reaches over and takes his good hand. She is on the other side of him now, seated. He did not notice her moving. “I’m taking you someplace safe.”
The seatbelt hurts his chest and hips and the movement of the conveyance makes illness a very real possibility. He is sore and more afraid than he can remember feeling in centuries. The woman’s hand tightens on his.
“Hey, can you tell me your name?”
She seems calmer now that they are in motion. Loki risks opening his eye and looking at her.
“Who are you?” she prompts.
He is Aesir. He is Jotun. He is a son and a prince and a foundling and unwanted and a liar and a genocide and a murderer. He is insane and an outcast. He hurts.
Her face twists in sympathy. “Can’t you remember?”
Loki shakes his head. There is nothing to remember. He never knew.
“Can you remember who hurt you?”
Loki swallows painfully and tries to speak. He swallows and tries again.
“Fell,” he manages, finally. His voice is cracked and hoarse. It doesn’t sound like him. “I fell.”
Her mouth tightens. “Well, you’re safe now, okay?” she says, her voice choked. She squeezes his hand. “I’m not going to let anyone else hurt you. Do you hear me?”
His breath locks. She sounds so fierce, so determined. If Thor comes for him he will knock her aside without even noticing.
No. Thor is different now. Is he? He said he was. He is worthy of Mjolnir again.
Thor was worthy of Mjolnir before his banishment, and he used it to level a goodly percentage of Jotunheim, nearly killing his own companions in the process. It means nothing. She will mean nothing to him.
The woman’s hand pulls free of his and he startles badly, half-expecting to see that Thor has arrived. But the conveyance has stopped and the woman is outside it, calling for someone.
The door next to Loki opens and hands pull him out, laying him down on a cot of some kind. There are many people, moving too quickly for his scattered senses to follow. They are touching him, prodding him. It hurts. He tries to push them away but they hold him down. His magic still won’t respond to him.
“Shh, shh,” the woman says, appearing above him. “I know it’s scary but they’re trying to help you. I’m not going to let anyone hurt you, remember?”
She cannot protect him, not really, but her hand in his gives him something to focus on as the cot moves and the people above him speak in urgent voices. They cut away the sad remains of his clothing and attach wires and needles to him, and it is confusing and humiliating and it is easier to close his good eye and pretend it isn’t happening. The woman holds his hand throughout, following him to other rooms for further tests and procedures.
Finally all the activity calms, and Loki is left in a room with her. The pain is better now and there are warm knitted blankets and something cold on the side of his face. To take the swelling down, the woman explains.
“Hey,” she says, rubbing the back of his hand with her thumb. “Better?”
Loki nods, dislodging the cold thing. His bad arm is bound to him to immobilise his shoulder and the good one is in her hand, so she resettles it for him.
“What is your name?” he asks. His voice sounds a little clearer now, although his words still slur.
“Poppy,” she says, smiling gently. “Like the flower. Go ahead and get some rest, okay? I’ll keep watch.”
“Okay,” Loki agrees. Now that the pain has mostly dulled and the terror has eased somewhat, he feels very tired. Perhaps rest will clear his head. Perhaps then he will be able to find his magic again. “Thank you, Poppy.”
“Sure thing, kiddo,” she says, rubbing his hand again.
It feels... nice. Loki allows himself to sleep.
He is running down a long, bright hallway. He was told to stay in the nursery, but the nursery is boring now that Thor has outgrown it. He has decided to find his brother.
His small boots patter against the polished marble. He is being as quiet as he possibly can, but Odin hears him from the council chambers anyway.
Loki ducks behind a column, stifling his giggles. He could not find Thor, but Father is much better!
“Why Loki!” Father booms, crossing the hallway to stand above him. “You have turned into a pillar! Alas, my little boy has become stone.”
Loki’s laughter escapes him. He claps his hand back over his mouth.
“At least you still have the ability to laugh, my son. Do not worry, I shall free you!” Father swoops down behind the column and gathers Loki up, tickling him. Loki shrieks and squirms.
“You are supposed to be in the nursery, I am sure of it,” Father says, stern expression spoiled by the twinkle in his eye.
Loki throws his arms around Odin’s neck. “Too dull. This is better.”
Odin laughs. “Very well, my little scrap of mischief. Let us walk together, hm?”
Odin carries him out into the gardens and walks with him until sunset. Loki falls asleep in his arms, content and safe.
Loki awakens slowly some time later. He is warm, and there is little pain, and someone is holding his hand. He can hear the woman’s - Poppy’s - voice, but she is speaking quietly. There seems to be little reason for alarm.
“...No internal damage,” someone else is saying. “Which is a miracle, frankly, considering the broken ribs and the extent of the bruising. No sign of sexual assault either. We’ll have to keep an eye on that head wound but his skull’s intact. He didn’t say who did this to him?”
“He said he fell.” That’s Poppy. She sounds sad.
The other person snorts. “Hell of a fall.”
Poppy pets his arm absently. In his drifting state, Loki feels comforted. “He was really scared,” she says softly. “Could you figure anything out about him?”
The other person - Loki thinks it might be a woman with a low voice, as opposed to a man with a light one - hums thoughtfully. “He’s a bit of a puzzle, actually. Looks to be in his mid to late twenties. Healthy, I’d say middle class upbringing at least, but he’s got weird calluses and some childhood injuries I can’t explain.”
“Abuse?” Poppy asks.
“Maybe. Some of the healed fractures are consistent with a fighter - a martial artist or maybe a boxer - but he’s missing a lot of the other signs I usually expect with that. His hands should be more messed up, for one thing. And that faint scarring around his mouth - I have no idea what caused that.”
Loki frowns reflexively, and the women fall silent for a moment. When he gives no other signs of waking they continue, voices quieter.
“His accent sounded British,” Poppy says. “Upper class. I mean, not that he talked very much before passing out.”
There’s a sound that Loki drowsily identifies as paper being shuffled. “His bloodwork might tell us more, when we get it - Memorial’s pretty backed up and we don’t have the facilities here for much beyond the basics. Oscar’s going to come over and take his prints when he’s done at the courthouse.”
“Thanks, Eleanor,” Poppy says.
“Sure.” The other woman moves away.
Poppy is silent for a while, then Loki feels her stroke his hair. “You really found yourself in some trouble, didn’t you, kid?” she says softly.
Loki doesn’t want to think about trouble. He wants to stay like this, peacefully half-conscious with someone nearby who is kind and treats him gently, but Loki’s life has never been like that before and there’s little reason to expect it to start now.
The swelling in his face has gone down while he slept and he is able to open both of his eyes, albeit with a little difficulty. That is a pleasant surprise.
“Hey,” Poppy says. “How are you feeling, kiddo? I’m sorry if we woke you.”
“I awoke on my own,” Loki assures her. “Have I been asleep for very long?”
She smiles. In the stronger light of the room, and with his perceptions clearer, Loki can see that she is an older woman with a pleasantly lined face. The smile makes her look... he doesn’t quite have a word for it. Warm, perhaps. Reassuring. “A few hours. You sound a lot better.”
“I feel much improved, thank you.” The room is still wobbly in places thanks to the lingering effects of the head injury, and he suspects that it will hurt a great deal as soon as he moves, but ‘much improved’ is accurate enough.
“I’m glad to hear that.” She tucks her hand back into his. “I don’t want to freak you out, sweetie, but can you remember what happened at all? Who you are?”
He remembers pain. Anger. Thor and Odin at the edge of the Bifrost staring down at him, the disappointment in Odin’s eyes and the confusion in Thor’s. He remembers falling and the horrible landing. He is on... Midgard.
He swore never to come here.
He reaches reflexively for his magic. He is better now, it should work, but it slips away just as it did before.
“Hey. Hey. Focus on me, okay?”
He takes a breath, a little too deep, and pain lances through his chest. He lost access to his magic once before, when he played a trick on Sif and she handed him a beating in retaliation. It came back after some rest, once sitting up no longer made him ill and he was allowed out of bed. That is all this is. It will come back, and it will come back before Thor and Odin find him. It has to.
“It’s okay. You’re safe here, it’s okay. They can’t hurt you.”
Poppy is half-sitting on the edge of his bed, leaning over him with one hand on the uninjured side of his face. Her expression relaxes a little bit when he is able to meet her eyes.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean to set that off.”
He breathes carefully and forces himself to think. Thor destroyed the Bifrost, so that should buy him some time. Even though Heimdall will be able to find him until his magic recovers and he is able to cloak himself, the guardian cannot communicate with anyone on Midgard. The only Midgardians who would know - who would even believe - Loki’s true identity are Thor’s erstwhile companions, in the desert, and Loki is in the forest. He will be safe as long as he draws no attention to himself until his magic returns.
“I am sorry. I cannot remember.” Although claiming total memory loss will likely attract curiosity, Loki knows he is not well-versed enough in Midgardian customs to pass himself off as one of them. The amnesia, hopefully, will be a broad enough excuse to cover the gaps in his knowledge until he has a chance to acclimate to his surroundings.
“Okay, honey,” Poppy says, giving him a sad smile. She slides back off the bed. “How about we come up with a name for you in the meantime? Robbie - he’s one of the nurses - his wife’s expecting, so he might have a book of baby names we can borrow.”
“All right.” He tries to give her a reassuring smile, as best he can with the side of his face still swollen and painful, but from the suddenly wobbly quality of her expression it’s not much of a success. It doesn’t look like he’s going to be able to rely on his charm for a little bit, which is unfortunate. He dislikes playing the vulnerable card, especially when it’s so close to the truth, but it’s probably the best option available to him for the time being.
They’re interrupted by a quiet knock on the doorway. Loki turns too quickly to look and has to close his eyes against the dizzying swoosh of the room. He feels a moment of panic, blinded and unable to assess the new entrant into their moment of quiet, and then Poppy says “Hey, Oscar, thanks for coming.”
He vaguely remembers hearing that name before, when Poppy and the woman healer had been talking. He blinks, and the room resettles.
Oscar turns out to be a thin man with receding hair and a polite, deferential manner. He is dressed in a sandy-colored uniform with a belt of weapons and strange implements; Loki recognizes it as a variation of Midgardian peacekeeper garb and suffers a moment of cognitive disconnect. Guards on Asgard are chosen for their size and physical ability - this man looks more like a councilor or scholar than a warrior.
The presence of weapons is nevertheless unsettling. Loki is suddenly very aware of his vulnerable position and the extremely limited protection that his blanket and infirmary smock will provide. For all that Oscar looks to be physically harmless, Loki knows better than most that appearances should not be trusted.
“Hi Poppy,” Oscar says. “Mr. Doe. How are you feeling? I’m Oscar Macklin. I’m a deputy for the Sheriff’s department.”
Loki blinks. “Mr. Doe?” he asks Poppy, momentarily thrown.
“Oh!” Poppy looks a little embarrassed. “John Doe. It’s the name we use for people who don’t have identification of some kind and can’t tell us their names for whatever reason. It’s mostly for paperwork.”
John, Loki thinks. Unclaimed. “I like ‘John’,” he says.
“It’s a little generic, but it could be worse,” Poppy says, shrugging. “John it is. Nice to meet you, John!”
Oscar nods gravely. “Well, I’m glad that’s decided. Now, John, do you remember what fingerprinting is?”
“I don’t think so,” Loki hedges.
“All right.” Oscar smiles reassuringly. “What it means is that I’ll take this pad of ink and use it to get impressions from your fingers. We’ll run those through our database, and see if they match any records. If we’re lucky, you’ve been fingerprinted somewhere before and we’ll be able to find out who you are and where you came from.”
Loki nods. He is certainly not in this database, and as soon as he has his magic back he can alter his fingerprints, so there seems to be little harm in this exercise. “I understand.”
“Great,” Oscar says. “Now, I’m going to need to come over and take your hand. Is that okay with you?”
Loki nods. “Yes.”
Oscar and Poppy stand and switch places so Oscar can have easy access to Loki’s good left hand and Poppy can hover anxiously by the foot of the bed. Loki is faintly amused by their delicate treatment of him right up until he realises Oscar is, for all intents and purposes, looming over him. He tenses, but Oscar sits quickly, deliberately putting himself in a much less threatening position.
“Okay?” he asks. Loki nods, unsettled.
Oscar keeps up a quiet stream of commentary while he proceeds with the fingerprinting, telling Loki what he’s going to do ahead of time and then telegraphing his movements so Loki won’t be startled. It’s oddly endearing, and Loki is horrified to realise his eyes are starting to sting a little. Poppy squeezes his knee, and Loki focuses desperately on the fingerprinting process before he can embarrass himself further.
“There we go,” Oscar says, carefully cleaning Loki’s fingertips with a pungent white cloth. “I think we should wait on your right hand until your arm’s better - Eleanor will yell at me if I mess up your bandaging any. I’ll run these and see if we get anything back.”
“Thanks, Oscar,” Poppy says. “He’s going to stay at the library for the time being, so he’ll be easy to find.”
Oscar pauses halfway through switching places with Poppy. “Are you sure?” he asks pointedly.
“Yes, Oscar,” Poppy says firmly.
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Oscar repeats.
They stare each other down for a moment. Oscar gives a tight little smile.
“Well, we can discuss it later,” he says. “I’ll go check in with Eleanor and let Robbie know we’re done here.”
Loki watches this exchange, fascinated. “Do you mind me asking - “ he begins, and then a far more important piece of the conversation lodges in his mind. “Did you just say I would be staying at a library?”
Poppy blinks. “Yes. I’m the librarian, I live above it. Is that all right? I’ve got a spare room you can have.”
A genuine smile crosses Loki’s face before he has a chance to temper it. “I love libraries.” Asgard’s libraries had been vast, and cold, but most importantly they had been underused. Loki had spent much time taking refuge there, in his boyhood and after. The silence and austerity did not bother him and there were such things to be learned... If he is going to make his way amongst these mortals, a library is a fortuitous place for him indeed.
Poppy beams at him. “I knew you were a person of good character.”
Loki blinks at the non-sequitur. “Well. Thank you.” He thinks he understands Oscar’s strange reaction before, now - Poppy is clearly far too trusting. “I am... very grateful for all your help.”
Poppy smiles. “Of course, sweetheart. We’ll get you back on your feet in no time.” She glances up past him towards the door. “Ah - John, this - “
Loki glances up, and sees broad shoulders and fair hair towering over him.
His feeling of well-being vanishes as if it had never been. Far more time must have passed than he had thought - the Bifrost has been repaired already, and the time he’d thought he had to heal and be safe has evaporated. For how long had he fallen? Panic locks his breath in his chest even as his instincts kick in and he rolls quickly out of bed and away from his brother. The agony of moving is drowned out by adrenaline - he cannot get Poppy out of harm’s way if Thor is standing in the doorway, and even if he surrenders quickly there is no guarantee his brother will not subdue him forcefully anyway.
He pushes Poppy behind him and puts their backs to the wall - the room is small, and Thor will not heed walls or furniture or mortals that happen to get in his way. Loki’s only chance is to use himself as a barrier between Poppy and his brother for as long as possible, and pray that the altercation is over before Oscar’s duty as a peacekeeper draws him into the fray.
Thor has stopped in the doorway, hands out to show he’s unarmed, but Loki knows that -
Loki knows -
He blinks. Thor is... a little shorter, and his hair is slightly darker, and the beard is different...
“John. John.” That’s Poppy, voice strained and anxious. “John, it’s okay, that’s just Robbie, he isn’t going to hurt anyone - ”
Oscar skids into the room. “Robbie, go back to the desk.”
The man backs up into the hallway, face contorted with distress. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to startle him.”
“It’s okay, Robbie,” Oscar says reassuringly. “Just give us a minute, all right?”
Loki’s heart pounds. “That... that wasn’t... I don’t know him.” He hates the way his voice sounds, uncertain and worried. His own reaction frightens him - he misjudged the situation so completely, leapt so quickly to the wrong conclusion. This is not the way to seem harmless and unnoticeable, this is... this is madness. Again. He doesn’t - he isn’t - what is he doing? Poppy doesn’t need his protection. Thor may be heedless but he is not a villain, he would not kill a mortal woman for no reason -
“John, I’m going to come over there, okay?” Oscar is saying. “I’m just going to help you back to the bed, you don’t look too steady...”
He - he isn’t. The adrenaline is wearing off, leaving him sick and shaken. His legs are trembling badly, and he’s beginning to feel the protestations of his injuries. Poppy is nearly holding him up on one side - quite a change from his dramatic and inexplicable impulse to fling himself between her and imagined danger.
“Poppy - “
“Shh,” she says. “It’s okay, John.”
“Did I hurt you?”
“Oh, no, sweetie,” she says quickly. “No - I’m fine. Did you see how he protected me from Robbie?” she asks Oscar pointedly as they maneuver Loki back to the bed.
Oscar sighs. “A golden retriever with a suitably adorable expression could have protected you from Robbie,” he says, “but I take your point. I withdraw my objection, go ahead and take him in.”
Poppy gives Loki a triumphant smile. “See what a good job you did?” she says, rubbing his back.
“What is wrong with me?” Loki chokes out.
Poppy’s eyes widen. She tips his chin up until he’s meeting her gaze “Hey. Nothing is wrong with you. You’ve been through something really awful and your instincts are still trying to catch up to the idea that you’re safe again but that’s normal. Do you understand?”
No. Loki does not understand. What has he been through? Nothing so awful as these mortals seem to think, and nothing he has not survived before. He has been in pain. He has been injured. He is more alone than usual, it is true, and there is his - his heritage which was a blow that he cannot, cannot think about but that is not - it isn’t -
This is not the way he reacts to things. This is not the way the Aesir react to things. He has never seen Odin this disoriented and Thor has never been this troubled. Even the... even the Jotuns are fearless warriors; Odin himself has acknowledged it. This is not their way either. This is... shameful. Weak.
I am not Aesir, nor Jotun, he thinks, eyes burning. I am... something else, and it is damaged.
What is wrong with me?
”Loki,” Thor whines. “Brother, this is dull. Come outdoors with me! I’ll let you use my new practice sword.” He holds it up proudly. He is still a boy and so it is not yet a full-size practice sword, but someone has taken the time to paint the wood silver and add scrollwork to the hilt. Thor has been carrying it around with him for days, even though by all rights he should be too old for such behavior.
Loki peers at his brother over the top of his book. “Thor, you know you aren’t allowed to bring that into the library.”
Thor rolls his eyes and flops down dramatically in a chair. “Another reason why the library is a terrible place, brother. It is a fine day outside, I don’t know how you can stand it in here. It smells strange.”
His voice is so petulant it makes Loki smile. “I like the way it smells.”
“Fine,” Thor grumbles. “Then I shall sit here and die of boredom, and you will be forced outside when you must attend my funeral.”
Loki laughs. “Very well. I will bargain with you, brother - if you use your superior height to get Aerinmund’s Compendium from that shelf, then I will come outside with you until dinner.”
Thor brightens immediately. “Will you spar with me?”
“You know I am useless in a fight,” Loki says. “But I will sit nearby and say complimentary things while you practice.”
Thor considers this. “Will you be reading the whole time?”
Loki sighs. “I will leave my books behind.” The practice yards are dirty in any case.
Thor beams. “It is a deal, brother. Which one is Aerinmund’s Compendium?”
“The red one, just there. With the gold lettering.”
Thor makes adventurous work of scaling the bookshelf, which Loki had anticipated, and is duly made much of when he returns triumphantly from his quest. As a reward Loki shows him the pictures in the Compendium; they are full-color painstaking illustrations of monstrous beasts and are impressive even to a grudging reader like Thor.
When the book has been suitably admired the two boys make their way out to the practice yard. Thor was truthful when he said the weather was fine; there is sunlight and a warm breeze and Loki is able to find a soft patch of grass to occupy while he watches his brother.
They stay there until the sun has gone from afternoon gold to evening bronze, Thor tumbling about the packed dirt of the practice yard with his mighty silver sword while Loki narrates adventures for him and creates beasts for him to fight. He is new to magic and while he has a natural talent for shape-shifting his illusions are shaky at best, but Thor still pronounces each one a valiant foe after he has vanquished it. When Frigga comes to collect them for dinner, they are both sorry to cut the afternoon short.
Loki sleeps badly that night, partly due to the afternoon’s upsetting events and partly due to the healers’ frequent insistence on coming to check on him. Every time he closes his eyes he is horribly aware of how vulnerable he is, physically and mentally. There is no barrier between him and the world, and no distraction from the endless repetition of his thoughts. Half-sleeping he dreams that Odin is sitting in the chair by his bed, that the Jotuns have frozen the hospital solid, that the universe has slipped beneath him and cast him into the aether. He startles himself awake expecting to see frost on his bedclothes and violence in the offering, only to find empty silence and dark shadows.
It is not a good night. By the time Poppy shows up the next day Loki is hollow-eyed and exhausted, a dull headache pounding against his temples. Poppy has to argue with Eleanor to secure his release.
“He needs peace and quiet, Eleanor,” Poppy says firmly. “Nobody sleeps well in a hospital, of course he looks tired. The library is the perfect place for him.”
Eleanor relents, finally, with the promise that Poppy will call upon her if there is any change in Loki’s condition and the reassurance that they will follow every instruction she gives them as to his care. Loki clings to his temper by a narrow margin; he feels invisible and incompetent, an invalid in mind and body. It is only the conspiratorial wink Poppy gives him when Eleanor’s back is turned that allows him to keep his composure.
“All right,” Poppy says briskly once Eleanor has departed. She upends a bag of clothing on the foot of the bed. “There’s a thrift store next to the hospital and we can come back later when you’re feeling better to find some actual clothes for you, but these should do for now. They belong to my - my friend, Tom, so they won’t be a perfect fit.” She blushes and starts fussing with a shirt.
Despite himself, Loki smiles a little. A friend? Is that what Midgardians call it?
On Asgard, Loki’s clothing had been sturdy and designed for protection and long service, whether it was intended for battle or merely everyday wear. He had hoped that standard Midgardian clothing would be similar, and is dismayed to find that it is just as flimsy as his hospital smock. Out of deference for the limited mobility of his injured shoulder and the complicated sling Eleanor insists he must wear, Poppy has brought him a shirt that fastens up the front and a pair of trousers held up with elastic. The friendly Tom is evidently both shorter and broader than Loki, and the end result emphasizes Loki’s height and lack of musculature to a lamentably comical degree.
Poppy purses her lips. “Hm. Well, at least the sneakers fit.”
That was indeed a welcome discovery - there are few things less comfortable than ill-fitting footwear. Nevertheless, Loki is dismayed to find that his new garb makes him feel no more clothed than his hospital smock and blanket.
“Might we stop by this thrift store as we depart?” he asks hesitantly. “I feel steady enough for that, I think, and I would not deprive your friend of his clothing.”
“Plus I bet your ankles are getting cold,” Poppy says, suppressing a smile. “All right, we’ll give it a shot, but don’t push yourself, okay? Let me know if you start feeling bad. If we have to bring you right back to the hospital Eleanor will never let you leave again.”
Loki winces and promises to be forthcoming. The people at the hospital have been kind and far more understanding than he would have expected, but he will be glad to depart.
He is pleased to find, when they finally collect Eleanor’s instruction sheet and a paper bag of medicines, that his legs are reasonably steady. Poppy keeps their pace slow, which he is grateful for as the blow to his head is still causing him some dizziness and he knows from experience that the increased respiration of exertion will make his broken ribs extremely painful.
Once outside the confines of his room he discovers that the hospital is quite small, consisting of but a few corridors lined with rooms and waiting areas. Poppy keeps up a running stream of commentary as they proceed, and by the time they reach the exit Loki has learned that there is a much larger hospital in a nearby town, that a man referred to as Joan’s Frank is in charge of the ambulance service that ferries patients from one facility to the other, and that Oscar once arrested his youngest for stealing a case full of lottery tickets from the general store, which of course was locked shut so that even if it was successfully stolen it couldn’t be opened.
As she helps him on with his borrowed coat (mercifully thick but still far too short in the sleeves) she explains that Tom is a mechanic and that’s why the coat smells like engine oil, and she’s tried to get the smell out but it’s proven impossible so far -
And then they walk out the door, and Loki stops hearing anything she says.
The hospital, it turns out, is in a tidy little valley. Rising up around it are several small, rounded mountains. They hem it in protectively, guarding rather than looming, and every last inch of their steep slopes is covered with a riot of color ranging from deep red to nearly translucent orange. It is joyful, overwhelming, uninhibited - a celebration of brilliance for no reason other than to be. The mountains look like they are covered in fire, frozen in time so that only the beauty and none of the destruction is preserved.
“It’s beautiful,” Loki breathes, heart aching. At its best, Asgard had been like this - eternal and glorious, incandescent and awe-inspiring. Even in his most despairing moments Loki had taken comfort from the beauty around him.
Poppy slips her hand into his and stands quietly until he has to look away or risk being overcome. “There’s a nice view of the mountains from your room at the library,” she says softly. “We can set up a chair by the window so you can sit and look.”
Loki nods jerkily. “I would like that.”
She squeezes his hand. “Thrift store?”
“Thrift store,” Loki agrees.
The thrift store occupies a small clapboard building across the parking lot from the hospital. Loki’s first impression upon seeing it is that it is a dwelling, not a place of business - only the cheerfully painted wooden sign and the colorful array of clothing hanging temptingly in the windows give it away.
The inside of the store is cluttered and riotous. Racks of clothing are crammed into every available space so that it is impossible to move in any direction without brushing up against something. Nearly buried in the chaos is a sprightly elderly woman with short white hair seated behind a glass counter littered with baskets of items for sale.
“Hello, Poppy!” she says, putting down a battered paperback book. “And you must be John. It’s very nice to meet - “ she stops, horrified. “Poppy, dear, are those Tom’s clothes? He looks like a scarecrow! You could have at least asked Rick, he’s much taller.”
Poppy sighs. “I know, but Rick’s in Makers Falls visiting his mother for the weekend. John, this is Beverly.”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Loki says.
“Oh, charmed,” Beverly says, giggling a little. “You are adorable, aren’t you? Well, let’s find you something more suitable to wear!”
Beverly sends him off into the sea of clothing with stern orders to report back whenever he finds something that he likes. With some trepidation Loki sets off.
He is relieved to discover that, while leather is in short supply, Midgardians do in fact make clothes out of thick, sturdy fabrics. They will still be less substantial than what he is accustomed to, but he thinks that when layered they will be adequate for his purposes. He chooses a few examples in unassuming shades rather than his usual dramatic blacks and emerald greens and dutifully picks his way back to the two women.
Beverly appraises his choices, humming under her breath. “Let’s see... yes, I think I see what you’re looking for. Now, sizes...” she walks around him once, eyeing him critically, and then nods sharply. “All right - Poppy, come with me, dear. I’ll need you to hold what I find. You stay here and rest, John.”
They leave Loki standing by the counter. At loose ends, he studies the displays before him; assorted jewelry, battered books, a collection of old keys. There is a pile of small clear cases at one end with labels like ‘Queen’ and ‘Metallica’ which Loki is momentarily puzzled by until he realises they must contain information of some sort on royalty and metallurgy.
At the other end of the counter is a stand containing what Loki recognizes as spectacles, traditionally worn by Midgardian scholars. He chooses a pair and puts them on. The room blurs around him, but he blinks and everything sharpens again.
“Very nice,” Poppy says, grinning, as she and Beverly return laden down with several more articles of clothing. “Very intellectual.”
“Thank you,” Loki says. The spectacles press painfully against his bruised face but he likes the way they provide a barrier between himself and the world. It may be an illusion but he feels as if he has more space in which to think, and decides that this is probably why Midgardian scholars wear them.
“Can you actually see through those?”
“Yes,” Loki says, surprised. “Should I not?”
Beverly snorts. “My prescription’s never right when I go to the doctor and let them do all their tests, and you pick up a pair of glasses at a thrift store and they clear up your vision right off the bat? It’s not impossible, but I wish I had your luck!”
Loki frowns, and tips his head until he can look over the top edge of the spectacles. The room is blurry for a moment, and then sharpens. When he looks back through the lenses, the same thing happens again.
“If you like them, you should get them,” Poppy says, amused. “It’s not surprising you lost your old pair. If they give you a headache or eye strain we should take you to an optometrist to check the prescription, though. The concussion might still be messing with your vision.”
“All right,” Loki says, frowning thoughtfully. If he understands correctly, spectacles are not simply a mark of status but intended to correct visual deficiencies. This makes sense; scholars would be more likely to be bothered by improper eyesight, and would be clever enough to find a way to compensate for it.
It also means that his eyes are adjusting automatically to the distortions in the lenses to provide him with unimpaired vision. He reaches tentatively for his magic; it slips away, again... and yet his eyes were still able to adjust, past the point of what is apparently considered normal.
His mind is so busy evaluating the implications of this that he has difficulty concentrating as Poppy and Beverly tidy the new clothing into bundles for transportation. Poppy offers Beverly some paper - Loki remembers belatedly that Midgardian currency is symbolic rather than inherently valuable - and is refused.
“You just get him into clothes that fit right as soon as possible, that’s all I’m saying,” Beverly says, winking at him.
“He’s young enough to be your grandson,” Poppy says admonishingly.
Beverly grins. “I’m not that old, sweetheart.”
“Never mind,” Poppy says when Loki gives her a confused look. “Just thank the nice crazy woman and we’ll head home.”
“Thank you very much for all your help,” Loki says obediently. He will think through this conversation later, when he has time - for now his mind is occupied with more important things.
“Any time, honey,” Beverly says.
“The road’s pretty winding,” Poppy says apologetically as she places the bags in the seats furthest to the back and Loki fumbles with his seat belt. “It’s the downside of living in the Northeast - there’s no straight line between anything, here. Let me know if you start feeling car sick, okay?”
“Okay,” Loki agrees. He has a very strong stomach, head injury or not - the secret paths between the worlds play tricks with the senses, and to walk them successfully takes a certain kind of fortitude.
Ten minutes into the journey, Loki is re-evaluating his capabilities. He had intended to use the ride to get a better sense for his surroundings and environment - as well as to take in more of the striking scenery - but the road is indeed winding, and for someone accustomed to either the slower rhythm of horseback or the punishing speed of the Bifrost the smooth motion of the car is incredibly disconcerting. In addition the terrain is mostly forested with single dwellings dotted here and there, so there is not a great deal of information to be gleaned.
He finds that he must breathe shallowly through his mouth to avoid illness, and resolutely turns his mind towards his recent discovery in the hopes that it will provide a sufficient distraction from his discomfort.
He has always had an innate knack for shape-shifting, back even before he was schooled in magical theory. He has vague memories of being punished for badly frightening his nurse as a small child; at the time he had not entirely understood what he had done wrong, but knew that it had been upsetting to the adults around him. For most of his life he had assumed that he had become something half-changed and unnatural, but now he has to wonder if it had simply been a case of resuming his natu- his, his other form, the less-used one.
It makes him wonder, as well, whether the assumption of his Aesir appearance had been Odin’s magic or his own doing. A deliberate change of appearance as an infant should have been impossible - children so young have neither the mental discipline nor the situational awareness for such an act - and so he had initially assumed that it was Odin’s will, another step in his grand plan.
Now that he is here, stripped of magic and presumably outside of Odin’s sphere of influence, he has to question this. Perhaps the shape-shifting ability is something instinctual, innate - so part of him that it lies separately from his Aesir magical ability and thus remains untouched.
He lets his hand fall out of Poppy’s sight and concentrates hard. After a moment, his fingertips turn Jotun-blue and then fade, slowly, back to normal pink.
Loki’s breath catches in his chest. It is a small thing, and has taken more effort than it should have, but it cheers him greatly to see that he has some small amount of control left over himself.
Healing magic is the purview of women only and he has never had the desire or the need to trespass there, but in the past he has managed to repair himself enough for survival by essentially shape-shifting parts of his anatomy back to an uninjured state. Regardless of what Thor and his companions may have occasionally implied, it is not healing - it is merely taking advantage of his own natural talents. He concentrates on the gnawing ache in his shoulder and, after a moment, feels it ease. Although it makes his head pound and his vision darken a little it is all he can do to turn towards the window in an attempt to hide his smile.
“You look happy,” Poppy says, pleased.
“It is very nice to be out of the hospital,” Loki says quickly. “They were very kind, but...”
“No, I know what you mean,” Poppy says. “Everybody feels that way, trust me. Want to hear a little bit about where we’re going?”
“Very much,” Loki says.
Poppy explains that her town is named New Stebbinsville and contains about four hundred people, which seems small to Loki but Poppy proudly explains that they have both the sheriff’s department headquarters and the county courthouse. There is also a post office, a general store run by a man named Rick who is friends with Oscar, Tom’s mechanic’s shop, a ‘bed and breakfast’ which Loki surmises is an inn of some description, and of course the library.
“Pike Free,” Poppy says. “Founded by old man Pike in the early nineteen hundreds when Carnegie was all gung-ho about free libraries for the masses. It’s not much but it’s very well-used - we do a story time for the little ones and a lot of the older kids stop by for homework help after school. I think you’ll like it - it’s busy but not too overwhelming and you can always go upstairs and be alone. Oh - and I’ve got a cat. Any idea if you’re allergic?”
“I - don’t think so,” Loki says.
“Well, if you are we can foist him off on Oscar. He named the thing, he can take care of him if it’s a problem.” The tone of her voice is exasperated rather than fond. Loki raises an eyebrow. Poppy sighs. “I like him, really - he’s old and fat and doesn’t cause much trouble. The problem is that Oscar has an unfortunate taste in punny names.”
“‘Punny’?” Loki repeats. As in ‘a play on words’, he assumes.
“Yeah,” Poppy says reluctantly. “Black-and-white cat, and it sort of looks like he’s got a mustache, so Oscar took one look at him and named him Hairball Poirot.”
Loki stares blankly.
“I know, it’s not funny at all,” Poppy groans. “But if you ever want to see a grown man giggle like a four-year-old, use his full name in front of Oscar. It’s embarrassing.”
“I think I shall,” Loki says decisively. Poppy grins.
“Boy after my own heart. We’re coming in to the town now - that’s Tom’s shop up on the right.”
The village is centered loosely around a large green and, like the hospital, nestled between the lovely, ever-present mountains. The courthouse - wooden and unimpressive to Loki’s eyes but with a nice set of pillars out front - is to the right of the road, across the street from the general store and a building that appears to be the sheriff’s headquarters. A man waves to Poppy from the parking lot; Poppy waves back and then proceeds to circle around the back of the courthouse. The new street is lined mostly with what Loki would unhesitatingly have called houses before his introduction to the thrift store. True to form, one of them has ‘Pike Free Library’ above the front porch in neatly painted black letters. Poppy pulls to a stop in front of it.
“Well, there we have it,” she says. “Home sweet home.”
Loki eyes the building with no little amount of curiosity. It is pleasant enough from the outside, but drastically smaller than the libraries in Asgard. If the second floor is a living area, as Poppy said, the available space for books is even less than it appears from the street. Loki reminds himself firmly that he is fortunate to have a place to stay and a source of information to hand; a library is a library, and beggars can’t be choosers.
He turns his attention to the dratted seat belt as Poppy collects the items from the back of the car, then fumbles with the door and stands up.
His vision greys dramatically as soon as he is upright. The small amount of healing he had done in the car, no matter how beneficial it had been for his shoulder and his spirits, had apparently been too much for his strength. His legs give out beneath him.
Strong hands catch him even as Poppy calls out his name in alarm. Loki blinks the dark spots from his vision and tries to focus.
A stocky, broad-shouldered man with a comfortably plain face and a tidy potbelly is leaning over him, having apparently eased him back down onto the car’s seat. Loki flinches automatically but is relieved to keep control of his senses - the man is clean-shaven and bears no resemblance to anyone he had known in Asgard, which appears to help his lately unreliable grasp of reality remain tethered.
“I am all right. Thank you,” Loki mumbles.
“We shouldn’t have stopped at the thrift store,” Poppy says anxiously from somewhere outside the car. “I’m sorry, John - this is my fault for pushing you too hard.”
“Nonsense,” Loki says, willing his head to clear. “It is no fault of yours if I am unable to mind my own weaknesses.” Poppy’s hand is resting on the stocky man’s shoulder. Loki smiles. “Tom, I presume?”
The man nods and shakes Loki’s good hand. His grip is strong and his palm is rough. “Good to meet you, John,” he says quietly.
“Likewise,” Loki says honestly. “I am fortunate indeed that you have fast reflexes.” Much as he dislikes the idea of being rescued like some swooning maiden, he certainly would have disliked hitting the ground a great deal more.
Poppy makes Loki sit and catch his breath for a few minutes before trying to stand again. It turns out to have been a good idea - he makes it up the front steps and into the library under his own power, but is forced to ask for a place to rest before tackling the steep staircase up to the second floor.
While it is frustrating to be so weak, the interlude provides him with the opportunity to study his new surroundings. The first floor of the library is very reminiscent of the dwelling it once was - instead of vaulted ceilings and imposing pillars, it is comprised of several small rooms, lined with bookcases and furnished with comfortably shabby upholstered chairs and padded window seats. Loki is placed in a wooden chair next to the door, which while less comfortable than the soft reading chairs will be considerably easier to get up from when the time comes.
As they enter, a heavily pregnant young woman stands up from a desk in the room to the left and comes out to check on them.
“Ah!” Poppy says. “John, this is Jess. She’s been keeping an eye on the library while I’ve been at the hospital.”
“Jess Nguyen,” she says, holding out her hand to shake with a sly little smile. “I’m just volunteering here to keep from going stir-crazy until the baby’s born. I think you already know my husband.”
“Robbie?” Loki guesses. “Oh... yes, I’m afraid I badly startled him yesterday. Please give him my apologies.”
Jess waves this off. “Oh, he’ll be fine. Don’t worry about him.”
Poppy brings Loki a glass of some type of fruit juice to drink while he gets his strength back, and chats amiably with Jess. Tom vanishes into the room with the desk, which Loki can’t quite see from his position, re-appearing as if by magic as soon as Loki starts to feel he might be ready to give the stairs a try. He is disappointed that he didn’t get a chance to look at the library more thoroughly, but he has overextended himself enough for the time being.
Tom and Poppy help him up the stairs, letting him pause for breath on the landing, and guide him carefully past a small kitchen and sitting room and down a short hall.
The guest room is small but comfortable, with a desk, a chest of drawers, and a narrow bed covered in a faded purple quilt. The walls are painted a cheerful yellow and there is a colorful rag rug on the floor. Loki sits on the edge of the bed and is pleased to find it quite comfortable.
“Sorry it’s a little girly,” Poppy says sheepishly. Tom has vanished once again. “It was supposed to be... well, we can fix it up later, make it look a little more personalized.”
There is a framed collection of dried wildflowers across from him - possibly daisies, Loki thinks, straining to remember what little he has read about Midgardian botany. They make the room feel warm, as if no matter what the view from the window might show him spring is still just about to arrive.
“No,” he says quietly, “I like it very much. Thank you, Poppy.”
Poppy smiles. “Well, I’ll let you get some rest. The bathroom is right next door and there are some pjs on the chair there - do you need help changing?”
“No, thank you, I can manage,” Loki says.
“All right.” She smiles at him again, then leans down and kisses him on the top of his head. “Sleep well. I’ll be right downstairs.”
Loki does not respond - fatigue is making his chest feel oddly tight, and for a moment it is difficult to swallow.
Then Poppy is gone, closing the door softly behind her, and Loki is left alone.
”What will his name be, Mother?” Loki asks, seated contentedly at his mother’s feet. They are in her workroom, just the two of them; Loki is home from one of his many travels, and Frigga has turned away from her loom to show him welcome. The room is still and peacefully quiet; while Loki has always loved the bustle and hum of his mother’s work he enjoys these moments with her just as much.
“He will be Balder,” Frigga says, one hand against her stomach. “Are you looking forward to being an elder brother, Loki?”
Loki smiles. “Very much. I will bring him wondrous artifacts from my journeys and teach him all he needs to know about the world. Can you feel him growing inside you?”
Frigga smiles. “He grows too slowly for me to notice, but I do feel him when he moves.”
Loki’s eyes widen. “Really? Can you feel what kind of a child he will be?”
Frigga considers this. “It is always difficult to say. When I was carrying Thor it was wartime and I spent much of my time armed and vigilant, and he has now grown into a promising warrior. With Balder I have found I spend much of my time in silence, appreciating the day’s light. I think he will be a calm child.”
“What about when you carried me?” Loki asks.
Frigga smiles reminiscently. “When you were small I spent a great deal of time reading. I wished to know all about those things in other realms the Aesir do not find curious.”
Loki smiles back. He has most certainly inherited his mother’s interest in unusual things; where Thor spends his time adventuring with friends and coming home to tell tales of mighty battles and daring escapes, Loki prefers to travel alone. He often disappears for long stretches of time, only returning when he has discovered some wondrous piece of knowledge or brought back a new curiosity for Asgard’s libraries. Thor finds his interests dull and more than a little embarrassing, but Frigga and Odin both support him.
“A good ruler must be wise and learned as well as strong, Thor,” the Allfather says, resting his broad hand on Loki’s shoulder. “Your brother’s knowledge will be of great help to all of us someday.”
“Will you be in Asgard for long, Loki?” Frigga asks, breaking his reverie.
“I will stay until Balder is born, Mother,” Loki promises. “I would not miss his arrival for all the wonders in all the realms.”
Frigga smiles, content. “It will be good to have you close at hand, my son. Now, I must finish this before Balder’s birth - I will see you at dinner.”
Loki bids his mother farewell and returns to his room. Once inside, he draws the heavy drapes and makes sure the door is firmly latched. When he is certain that his privacy is assured, he closes his eyes and concentrates fiercely.
When he opens them, he has changed. Gone is the narrow chest and gangly limbs that belong to not-quite-a-man but definitely-not-a-boy Loki; in their place are soft skin and gentle curves. Loki runs his hands over his body, pressing against his stomach. What would it feel like to carry a baby here? What would it feel like to give birth to one?
A clamor in the hallway announces Thor’s return from his hunt. Loki shifts hastily back to his male form; the locked door will only prompt Thor to try harder to get in and Loki has no desire to explain his strange behavior. His parents encourage his exploration of magic and his talent at shape-shifting, but even they might be taken aback to find that their son has become a daughter.
Once more presentable, Loki unlocks the door and goes out to hear his brother’s stories of glorious combat.
Loki awakens the next morning sore but refreshed. He woke once or twice during the night, disoriented and alarmed, but the moments passed quickly and he was eventually able to get a decent amount of rest. The bed is comfortable, and the quilt warm and reassuringly heavy, and he finds that he is reluctant to leave this cozy haven for the uncertainty of the day.
He stretches carefully - his shoulder and ribs are still painful, but the lesser bruises on his back and sides seem a little less sensitive today. The reminder of his injuries does not damage his good spirits any - many were the mornings on Asgard when he opened his eyes to similar pain. Between Thor’s numerous and frequently ill-advised adventures and the rigorous combat training sessions that even Loki was not exempt from, he has become accustomed to injury.
He frowns, contentment dimming a little. Besides dissipating his magic, his unprotected tumble through the universe was both disorienting enough and agonizing enough that he cannot trust his own perceptions. He has no clear idea how much time has passed on Asgard since his fall, but he thinks it cannot have been too long since the Bifrost has clearly not yet been repaired. His family must still be reeling in the aftermath of his departure. Thor will be angry, he is sure - by destroying the Bifrost Loki has cut him off from both his newfound love and the possibility of distracting himself with fresh adventures. Sif and the Warriors Three will likely be bearing the brunt of that displeasure on the training grounds, and Loki feels a surge of vindictive pleasure at that thought.
Frigga... Loki is honestly not sure what his mother will be doing. Oh, she will be in her workroom, he is certain, weaving gentle strands of magic into the cloth of the universe - but he cannot say what she is thinking. His mother has ever been a mystery to him - she is so calm, so otherworldly that even he, a master of discerning others’ intentions, has always found her to be strangely opaque. He likes to think that she misses him; there were times when her absent-minded affection was the only kindness he could be sure of.
It is not outside the realm of possibility that she had seen this entire situation coming and resigned herself to it years ago. Loki knows much about forms of magic both obscure and secret, but Frigga’s abilities seem to shift like the wind. At one moment she may see into the future; the next the past.
It is also possible - likely - that she despises him. She accepted his discovery of his changeling nature as calmly as ever, with barely a flicker of strong emotion in response to his bewilderment, but now that she knows the extent of what he has done he must disgust her. She must think of him in her home, in her arms, and shudder with revulsion.
Odin will doubtless be angry. Odin will be furious, so thunderous in his rage that he puts even Thor to shame, and just the thought of it makes Loki’s muscles tense in anticipation of violence. Odin’s anger is a cold, deadly thing - wielded with the precision of a well-flung throwing knife and the sheer power of unmitigated destruction. Odin was angry enough to cast out Thor, the favorite, for childish disobedience and high spirits. Loki has shattered the hard-fought peace Odin forged when he brought Jotunheim to his knees, he has forced the destruction of one of Asgard’s mightiest artifacts leaving the Aesir stranded and crippled - and it will not take long for the other realms to notice the blow that has been dealt to shining Asgard. Odin’s displeasure with Loki will be - will be -
Loki gasps into the cool stillness of the room and tries to force his thoughts back under control, but it is no use. The warmth of his sanctuary crumbles in the face of Asgard’s mighty displeasure with its least-favorite son and his imagination fails in the face of such utter calamity. Death will be too good for him. Odin will surpass himself in thinking of a suitable punishment for his former child; it will be at minimum painful, humiliating, and extremely public. All the realms will know what the Allfather does to those who seek to undermine him. At best Loki faces an eternity of subterfuge, of hiding and secrecy; at worst he will be caught and returned to Asgard.
And he can do nothing until his magic has recovered. Anything he does now will be seen by Heimdall and reported. He can make no plans, lay no schemes in motion until he is certain he can cloak himself. Even if he were in perfect physical condition the most he could do is wait.
Loki does not know how long he lies there, trembling; when he dares to open his eyes the foot of his bed is warm from the sun shining through his window. He glances around the cheerful, homely little room and the sense of disconnect is so strong it gives him vertigo.
He breathes, carefully. He is a survivor. He will survive this too. All he must do is blend in here, be harmless and unobtrusive for as long as he can. If his magic recovers before the Bifrost is repaired he will make a show of leaving and then cloak himself and hide. If the Bifrost is repaired before then, well... he will simply have to make it as far away from here as possible and hope that Odin’s wrath is targeted rather than indiscriminate. It would be a poor repayment for all of Poppy’s kindness if he left her unprotected in the path of the storm.
The gentle morning now thoroughly ruined, Loki eases himself out of bed. He is stiff and achy but able to move freely, and so he makes his way to the washroom next door. There is no sign of Poppy - she must be downstairs or not yet risen - but there is a clean green towel folded neatly on the bathroom counter next to a selection of his new clothing. He takes a deep breath, forces himself to focus on the present instead of the always-untrustworthy future, and sets himself to his morning ablutions.
With a little trial and error and the application of a portion of his intelligence Loki is able to divine the workings of the bathing-chamber and he steps gratefully into the warm gush of water. His mobility is still limited but he manages to wash himself thoroughly nonetheless, and feels a good deal better for having the smell of soap in his nose instead of the tang of medicine and stale desperation. He stands under the water until his legs begin to tremble from fatigue instead of terror, and then continues with his tasks.
He dresses carefully, assembling his many layers of clothing slowly and with deliberation, and by the time he has securely fastened the last button he feels more like himself. It is not as good as Asgardian armor, but even that would likely be as effective as paper in the face of -
No. He shuts that thought down firmly. If he allows himself to sink too often into fear and despair it will become obvious to those around him that something is amiss, and that will not help him. He must focus on the present and only the present. This clothing pleases him not because it is a weak facsimile of what he is accustomed to but because it is sturdy and comfortable and warm. That is what a Midgardian would think and so that is what Loki thinks now.
Despite his current - if precarious - equilibrium he does not feel up to deciphering the sling on his own, so he collects it from his room and proceeds downstairs to find Poppy with his bad arm held gingerly against his side.
“Morning, John,” Jess calls from the desk. “Feeling any better this morning?”
“Sore, but much improved for a good night’s rest,” Loki says, making his way into the room. “Have you seen Poppy?”
“She’s in the children’s room, doing story-time for the kidlets. Need help getting that on?”
“Thank you, yes,” Loki says, handing it over. He does not particularly want to allow a stranger so close into his personal space, but he cannot situate the sling on his own and in her pregnant condition Jess probably does not pose much of a threat to him.
Jess sets her attention to untangling the contraption’s straps. “Are you hungry? I picked up some breakfast for you at the general store on my way over. It should still be warm.”
“Thank you,” Loki says, surprised. “That was very kind.”
Jess waves this off. “Whatever, it was an excuse to get myself a stupid amount of food too. Go sit down by Robert - you’re not technically allowed to eat in the library but you look pathetic enough right now that nobody’s going to say anything.”
“Ah. Thank you,” Loki says, deciding it’s probably the safest response.
Robert turns out to be an ancient old man in a worn shirt and suspenders, sitting at a table by the window with a pencil and what Loki recognizes as a newspaper. He glances up as Loki sits down across from him, nods once, and goes back to his work.
Loki nods back, reassured by the silence, and turns his attention to Jess’ paper bag. It contains a sandwich with cheese and cooked egg on it, which is messy to eat with one hand but tasty, and a pastry ring covered in sugar and spice which is fantastic. There is a bottle of juice as well, and a stack of paper napkins.
Despite the knots in his stomach the food goes a long way towards making Loki feel more sanguine about his situation. He cannot tell what the future holds - divination has never been one of his areas of expertise - but the present is survivable enough for the time being. It may go against his nature to simply let events take their course, but he is flexible enough to adapt. He is not Thor, after all, with his absolute view of the world and rock-hard certainty in his own might.
He cuts that thought off fast. Thor is not here; only Loki is. Therefore only Loki matters, and Loki is well-fed and safe for all that the door to his back makes his shoulderblades itch. That is the important thing.
He is startled out of his reverie when Robert pushes a section of newspaper across the table along with a battered extra pencil.
Loki eyes the paper. It appears to be a puzzle of some sort, distributed along with the news for intellectual stimulation. He dutifully picks up the pencil and sets to work, a little awkwardly since his dominant hand is unavailable to him. It takes more concentration, which is welcome.
Robert finishes his own puzzle before Loki does, and gives him another nod before getting to his feet and going on his way. Jess catches Loki’s expression and grins.
“He must like you,” she says, looking up from her intense scrutiny of what Loki recognizes as a primitive Midgardian computing device. “He’s usually not that talkative.” Loki rolls his eyes at her before he can stop himself, but she snickers instead of being offended.
Once the puzzle is complete, Loki gets up to explore the library. It is just as small as he had feared the day before, taking up but four rooms, but when he closes his eyes the smell of the books is just right. There is the room with the desk, one with a large table in the center, one with armchairs and a padded window seat, and one that Loki only pokes his head into before realising it is full of very small children and, bizarrely, an old claw-footed bathtub full of pillows. Poppy, wearing a ridiculous hat and reading aloud from a thin volume, catches his eye and smiles at him. Loki waves back and withdraws to the room with the armchairs.
He spends a few moments determining where the exits are and exploring the system by which the books are organized, and then the story-time apparently ends and he is forced to take refuge on the windowseat lest he be accidentally overset by heedless and excited youngsters. It is not so bad - there is a nice view of the fiery mountains from the window even if it is partially blocked by the corner of the courthouse.
The flood of children through the room eases, and Loki turns to find himself the object of intense scrutiny. There is a small girl standing a few feet away, mussed and sticky, with white-blond hair and one finger in her mouth. In her unoccupied hand she has a book.
“Hi,” she says finally.
“My mommy’s talking to Poppy.”
“I see,” Loki says, not entirely sure what else is called for.
“What happened to your face?”
“I was struck repeatedly,” Loki says, a dry tone creeping in unbidden.
The girl frowns and wipes her nose on her sleeve. Loki winces. “Does it hurt?”
She takes the finger out of her mouth and offers it to him. He inspects it dutifully. “I hurt my finger. It’s better now.”
“I’m very glad to hear that,” Loki says seriously.
She nods, apparently satisfied by this. “I’m bored. Will you read to me?”
Well, it’s as good a diversion as he is likely to find, anyway - looking out the window will only hold his attention for so long before his thoughts begin to wander. And this is what one does with children, is it not?
“Very well. Come sit.”
She hands over the book and clambers up onto the windowseat, settling unselfconsciously next to him and leaning over his good arm to get a decent look at the pictures. Loki obligingly begins to read.
It is a simplistic tale, appropriate for young children, but the use of rhymes is clever and at times they are tangled enough that Loki’s silver tongue is required to keep pace. When the story is over and Sam has gotten his friend to eat the dubiously colored eggs and ham, the girl heaves a satisfied sigh.
“Will you read me another one?”
The girl’s mother is not back yet, and the book had been reasonably entertaining. There seems to be little harm in it.
“If you go get another book then yes, I shall read it to you.”
A moment later she’s back, thrusting a new volume into his hands. This one is prose, and the artwork is in a markedly different style. She raises her arm to wipe her nose again.
“Stop,” Loki says and digs one of the paper napkins from breakfast out of his pocket. He holds it to her face. “Blow.”
She complies obediently and he tucks the dirtied napkin away. “Very well. ‘Elizabeth was a beautiful princess...’”
By the end of the second page Loki realises they have an audience, but as neither Poppy nor the child’s mother looks upset or tries to interrupt them he continues with his reading.
Finally the protagonist of the story dances off into the setting sun, and Loki closes the book.
“Another!” the girl says, clapping.
“I think we’ve taken up enough of John’s time, Meggie,” her mother says, amused. “Thank you for being so patient with her - I know she can be a handful.”
“Not at all,” Loki says. “I found it to be quite entertaining.”
Meggie heaves a long-suffering sigh and allows herself to be taken off. When they’re gone, Poppy sits down next to him and gives him a careful hug.
“How’re you doing today, kiddo? I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you woke up.”
Loki forces a smile, discomfited by her kindness but relieved that she still seems to be happy to see him. “I am much improved after a good night’s rest, thank you.”
“Were you warm enough?”
“Yes, I was very cozy,” Loki assures her. “I have also broken my fast and made two new friends this morning, so I think I am doing quite well. Meggie and a gentleman named Robert,” he elaborates at her inquisitive look.
She smiles. “I’m glad to hear that! Do you have any idea what you want to do today? There’s a nice trail out back that goes up the mountain if you want a little fresh air, and of course you’re welcome to any of the books here.”
Loki feels his smile become a little more genuine. “I thought I might take a look at some of the books you have to determine what I can and cannot remember. Is there anything detailing the history of this place or perhaps current events?”
Poppy agrees with this idea enthusiastically, and gives him a thorough introduction to the library and its inner workings. First she shows him where to find the nonfiction section, and then she takes him to a little wooden stand full of drawers in the corner (“Hardly anyone has these any more,” she says, patting it fondly. “Someday I’ll probably have to automate, but until then I can keep feeling sentimental.” Loki nods as if this makes sense) and teaches him how to find other books by subject. Together they choose several volumes on history, politics, culture, and science for him to look at.
“You know,” Poppy says thoughtfully as she settles him in one of the armchairs with slightly more fuss than is necessary, “You have a very nice reading voice. Do you think you’d enjoy doing one of the story times for the kids?”
Loki blinks. It is a far cry from the elaborate epics told in Asgardian mead halls, but it is something he is capable of and it may provide him with yet another perspective on life here. Having set tasks to accomplish will also help keep him from becoming an unwanted burden.
“Is the cunning hat mandatory?”
Poppy laughs. “No. You can keep your dignity intact on that front.”
“Then certainly - I think it would be most amusing.”
It is a quiet, oddly pleasant day, all in all - Loki reads for a while and then tries another round of healing on his shoulder followed by a nap upstairs. In the afternoon Oscar comes by to check on him and gossip with Poppy; after he leaves Beverly arrives to pick up several books from the ‘romance’ section and say hello. Curious, Loki opens one after she leaves to a random page and then puts it down hastily, eyebrows raised.
That night Poppy makes a meal of noodles and flavorful red sauce and then they sit for a time in companionable silence in the sitting room, Loki reading and Poppy doing paperwork. Loki finally meets the elusive Hairball Poirot, who eyes him distrustfully from the doorway for a time before deigning to come lurk beneath Poppy’s chair.
Despite his concerns the day manages to be weirdly peaceful, which is a feeling Loki does not have much experience with and would not have expected to come across in this time and in this place. After he takes himself off to bed he lies awake for some time, watching the stars out his bedroom window, reluctant to let the feeling go.
The books Loki reads are Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss and The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch. I say this partly because I am a sucker for citations but mostly because I am a sucker for books.
Before Balder is born, Svartalfheim makes war on Asgard. It is a fight championed by but a few and ultimately doomed to fail, but before Asgard’s victory is complete a Dark Elf assassin penetrates the defences and strikes a blow against the Queen.
It is a wicked little thing - a dart fashioned from mistletoe and spelled with dark magic. Loki works with Eir and her healers to end the sickness assaulting Frigga in such a way as to save her pregnancy, but while Loki knows much of magic he knows little of a healing and although Eir is a skilled midwife her knowledge of more obscure magic is limited. It takes several days for them to find success.
Loki is sitting with his brother when Odin comes to tell them the news: the Queen lives but Balder has perished.
“May we see her?” Thor asks immediately, standing as if ready to fight.
“She is very ill and it will be some time before she is strong enough for visitors,” Odin says heavily. “For now it is best if you both try to continue as you have before this - this tragedy.”
“Is there something you would have me do? Some task you would have me accomplish?” Thor begs.
“No, my son,” Odin says. “Just go - go and find something to bring you happiness. These are dark days and I would not have you trapped here in them. I will send word if I have need of you.”
His voice cracks. Loki rises, concerned, and reaches for his normally implacable father, but Odin pulls away before he can come close.
“I must see to the affairs of the realm,” he says in a strangled voice before he leaves.
Thor shouts with rage and strikes a wall. “I cannot bear this!” he rages. “I cannot sit here and do nothing!”
“Take your friends and go,” Loki suggests. “Find glory and treasures untold - you know how it cheers Father to hear of your adventures. You can bring back something nice for Mother.”
Thor considers this. “Yes,” he says, relieved. “Yes, you are right, brother. I will do as you say. Will you come with us?”
Loki shakes his head. “I have other paths to travel. Be strong, brother.”
Thor leaves, glancing back at Loki in concern as he does so. Loki smiles at him reassuringly.
As soon as his brother has left, Loki retreats to his chambers. Like his brother he desires action; his knowledge fell horrifyingly short and he must rectify his short-sightedness. The healing arts are to be practiced by women, especially when it comes to the issues particular to them, but it is clear that Loki cannot allow this gap in his knowledge to stand.
Research is called for. He must understand what his mother has gone through in order to understand how to prevent this from ever happening again.
A male healer will surely cause an uproar but Loki does not care. He takes a deep breath and prepares to leave.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
The idea of DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder, which used to be referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder) is kind of a controversial one in the field of psychology. There are some who think it’s a made-up disorder, and some who think it’s real. Those who think it’s real generally agree that true split personalities occur when young children have been traumatised, usually repeatedly, often sexually, and the condition may not come to light until adulthood. What Loki has done here by deliberately sectioning his mind off and giving each section an emotion to be in charge of is dissociation, certainly, but he has not technically developed multiple personalities.
Odin’s hand is hard on Loki’s arm as he pushes his son into the training area. Thor, practicing alone today, looks up at them in surprise.
Loki does not blame his brother for his trepidation, for Odin’s face is thunderous. He shoves his youngest son towards his eldest. Loki stumbles but does not fall, and Thor reaches out automatically to help him.
“Thor. I want you to train your brother to fight like an Aesir.”
Thor’s eyes widen. “Father, Loki is not a warrior. He would probably do well with some of the tactics Mother uses but he is not - “
“Do not defy me!” Odin roars. They both shrink back. “It is past time your brother learned to defend himself. I will return at the end of the week to check your progress. Do not disappoint me.”
“Brother?” Thor says in a shocked voice once Odin has left. “Brother, why is he angry with you? Did something happen on your research trip?”
“No!” Loki snaps, shoving Thor’s hand away. “I did nothing. I do not know why he is acting this way. Nothing happened on my research trip.”
Thor bites his lip. “You were gone for a very long time, brother,” he says hesitantly.
“Because it was fruitless!” Loki shouts. “Nothing happened! Stop interrogating me about my actions!”
“All right, brother,” Thor says, eyes wide. “All right. I will cease my questioning. Perhaps... perhaps he is merely worried? Perhaps this is merely a new stage in your education? I am sure he will see reason soon, and you can go back to your dusty tomes.” He offers Loki a pleading smile.
Loki scowls, finding his brother’s desperate attempts at optimism irksome. “Does it matter?” he snarls. “You must teach me to be a warrior. I am sorry for both of us.”
Thor tries hard to be patient, and even harder to be understanding, but it is not a situation conducive to either of those things. Loki’s instinct is always to hide behind illusions instead of facing his enemies head-on; his body and his mind want to run and strike from a distance instead of matching strength with strength. Thor borrows many tactics from the lessons the court ladies take, reasoning that they will be better suited to his brother’s lean frame and tendency towards grace and movement instead of sheer might and unyielding force, but Loki finds this insulting and pointless.
Loki is right. When Odin returns at the end of the week, he disarms Loki in seconds and lands him flat on his back, Gugnir at his throat. Odin’s displeasure is lengthy and loud. Caught between his father’s fury and his brother’s sharp tongue, Thor is forced to use the more rigorous regimen of the Einherjar.
Loki grows used to bruises; he comes to expect to be dirty and exhausted and miserable. Thor helps him up at the end of each session, large hands ill-suited to attempts at gentleness, and quietly suggests ice and hot baths. Loki ignores this; there is a certain vindictive satisfaction to making this disastrous idea of his father’s go just as badly as it possibly can, even if he is the one being hurt the most by it.
“There is one good thing, brother,” Thor says bracingly as they sit and drink water for a moment in between sparring sessions. “Now you will be able to come with me on my adventures. That will be good fun, won’t it?”
Loki is tired and sore and couldn’t care less about his brother’s adventures, but Thor’s big honest face is worried and pleading. He sighs.
“Yes, that will be very nice, Thor. I am looking forward to it.”
The relief in Thor’s expression makes him feel a little guilty, but pole-arms practice soon vanquishes the emotion.
He goes once to his mother, reasoning that she has always been a tempering influence on Odin’s cold rages, but there is no help to be had there. She is still very weak, mind softened by illness and strong medicines, and as he sits by her he realises that the flow of her magic has been altered by the attack as well. He holds her frail hand in his own and assures her that he is just fine and is very glad to be home again.
Eir says she will recover in time, but for now it is clear that Loki is on his own.
Loki wakes to afternoon sun through his windows, Oscar in the chair by his bed, and Hairball Poirot seated belligerently on his chest. He blinks at the cat for a moment before Oscar notices his predicament and cheerfully bids him “Good morning, sleepyhead!”
Loki gingerly persuades the cat to relocate to somewhere more southerly and sits up, propping himself up against the headboard. He feels groggy but strangely clear-headed, as if he has woken from a long convalescence and is still weakened by it. “Good afternoon, I think. What time is it?”
Oscar sticks a placeholder in his book and sets it on Loki’s desk. “About two thirty. How are you feeling?”
“I feel confused,” Loki says automatically, and then frowns at his honesty. “Um. Not that it isn’t always lovely to see you, Oscar, but why are you in my bedroom?”
Oscar grins at him. “I’m the PM edition of John Watch. I think I win something since you woke up on my shift. Are you hungry? I’ve got some food.”
“Not really,” Loki says, but accepts the package anyway. One bite in he discovers that he is in fact starving. “Have you been watching me long?”
Oscar shrugs. “I took over for Jess - she had midday - and she took over for Tom, who kicked Poppy out this morning, so no. Not too long.”
Loki blinks, mouth full of cooked egg. It is unnerving to think of half the town in his bedroom while he slept unawares, but probably for the best. He is dangerous, after all.
He frowns as a sudden thought occurs to him. “Is Jess a capable fighter?” She seems an odd choice, should it have been necessary to subdue him.
Oscar raises his eyebrows. “No? I mean, she’s got a good set of lungs and I’d probably want to stay out of the range of those fingernails, but I don’t think she’s trained or anything. Why?”
Loki stares at him, nonplussed. Why had they been watching him, if not for security?
Understanding dawns on Oscar’s face. “Oh - Poppy said you were feeling kind of unmoored. We just didn’t want you to wake up without somebody nearby.” He nods at a glass of water on the desk. “She was worried you’d have another nightmare.”
It is suddenly difficult to swallow. Their worries are misguided, of course, but oddly... endearing. He puts down his sandwich. “Oscar, do you think a person’s family determines who he is?”
“No,” Oscar says. “I mean, how you’re raised does have a lot to do with who you turn out to be, but it’s not everything. Not by a long shot. Some of the sweetest, smartest kids I’ve ever met came from awful families, and some of the worst troublemakers came from good ones. It’s an influence, sure, but a person’s personality counts for a lot, too.”
“I mean...” Loki takes a deep breath. “What I mean is, let us say a person is adopted. Do you think he owes more of himself to his original family or the one he were raised by?”
Oscar shrugs. “Same answer. Adopted kids have their own things to work through, of course, but if you’re asking if a person is doomed by his birth, I’d say no. Not in my experience.”
Loki nods, thinking this over. He is not certain that Midgardian social dynamics have any correlation whatsoever to his own situation, but it is worth considering.
Oscar interrupts his train of thought by clapping loudly. “All right, enough heavy stuff. I’ve got a present. Scootch over.”
Bemused, Loki obligingly wedges himself against the wall to make room on the bed for Oscar, who flops down contentedly and sets a mobile computing device on their laps. “This is one of my favourites,” he explains. “It’s my go-to thing when I need cheering up. You’ll love it.”
The film begins to play. Loki watches for a moment. “What is this detective’s name?”
“Hercule Poirot,” Oscar says with relish.
Loki looks at him.
Then he looks at Hairball Poirot, sitting fussily on the end of the bed, and bursts out laughing.
They entertain themselves with detective stories until Poppy comes to displace Oscar in the early evening. Loki finds he has trouble looking Poppy in the eye; she must think him foolish and unstable, and weak for spending the entire day in bed like an invalid. It is a little surprising how much that thought bothers him.
Poppy claims the side of the bed vacated by Oscar and takes Loki’s hand in hers. “How are you feeling, kiddo?”
Loki winces. “A little embarrassed,” he admits.
She squeezes his hand reassuringly. “And?”
“And... foolish,” he tries. She waits patiently, and he gives an explosive sigh. “And angry, and frightened, and guilty, but I always feel those things.”
She kisses him on the side of the head. “I’m proud of you, kiddo.”
His throat grows tight. “It is just... there is too much to feel. I cannot think for the pressure of it. It is easier - it is better if there is some way for me to, to distribute the responsibility for it.”
“Maybe it is right now,” Poppy says, worried, “but I think that’s really going to hurt you later. I hate to say it, but you don’t know what kind of memories are going to come back. It’s probably a good idea if you can find a healthy way to... process stuff now, while it’s manageable.”
Loki can think of nothing to say to that. Besides the fact that he has all of his memories, there is the problem that he has no guarantee that his life is ever going to get better. Even with Thor on Midgard and apparently uninterested in him, the threat of discovery and retribution still hangs over him. What does it matter if he employs a few mental tricks to keep himself going?
And is it really just of him to hide himself? Does he not deserve to be punished?
“Here,” Poppy says. “I asked Rick to bring this over. I thought it might help.”
It is a notebook - cheap, currently selling for $1.39 at the general store. There is a pen as well, marked with the name and logo of Tom’s mechanic shop. Loki gives her a puzzled look.
“I thought it might help if you could write things down,” Poppy explains. “You’re a word person, just like I am. When I’m all knotted up inside it can be really helpful to write down what I’m feeling. It gives me some distance.”
All of Loki’s instincts rebel against revealing so much of himself in such an easily accessible medium, but he can recognize the spirit in which the gift was given. “Thank you, Poppy. I will give it a try.”
“We also might be able to find someone for you to talk to,” Poppy offers. “There’s a psychiatrist up north in Paris who does marriage counseling - he might be able to recommend someone who knows a little more about trauma.”
Trauma. Loki flinches. “No. Thank you, but no.” It is tiring enough to keep so much of himself hidden everyday around people he likes. He simply does not have the energy to do it in front of someone who is trained to spot such things. “I apologize for neglecting my duties today. Was Rick greatly inconvenienced by it?”
“Oh, no, honey, don’t worry about it,” Poppy says, successfully distracted. “Oscar helped during the lunch rush, they had a great time. And I ran this library solo for years, I can certainly do it again. I just left all the cataloging for you.”
Loki smiles. “I shall accept my punishment with good grace,” he says, “although I am very disappointed to have missed seeing Oscar and Rick handling the lunch rush.”
Poppy grins. “I missed it too, but Amy’s Frank came by to read the gas meter and he said they created two new sandwiches and accidentally scandalized some poor couple from out-of-town who were looking for directions.”
Loki laughs despite himself; he can well imagine both of those things, and it is a safe bet that at least one of those sandwiches sports a ridiculous name.
Poppy squeezes his hand. “Okay, I’m going to make some dinner. Do you feel up to eating? I can bring it to you in here.”
Loki winces. “That is unnecessary. Despite my behavior I am not actually an invalid.”
Poppy gives him a concerned look. “There’s nothing wrong with needing a little time to yourself, John,” she says earnestly. “But if you’re sure, I can set us up in the sitting room.”
Loki nods. “I will be out shortly.”
“Okay.” She kisses the top of his head before she leaves.
Loki pulls his knees up and rests his chin on them, granting himself a moment to stare out the window. Despite what he said to Poppy, he is ashamed to admit that he would like to stay in bed. He feels... raw, exposed, as if even an unkind glance or a sharp word would cause him great pain. He knows he has nothing to fear from Poppy, despite the discomfort that may sometimes ensue from her well-meaning attempts to help him, but he is excruciatingly aware that the rest of the world is not nearly so predictable.
This over-sensitive feeling persists over the next few days. Suddenly things that previously brought him comfort seem to force him to the edge of insanity; Robert’s silence feels accusatory, the daily running of the library tedious, and the antics of the story time children grate on his last nerve. Hearing Emmet cry nearly brings him to the point of violence twice.
It takes him almost a week, past the midwinter celebration of Christmas, to realise that everyone around him is treating him with a peculiar blend of cautiously concerned delicacy. Ashamed, he immediately sets himself to controlling his temper more thoroughly. He winds up with a near-permanent headache from gritting his teeth, but everyone around him begins to relax a little.
He wakes frequently during the night, startled to consciousness by vague dreams he cannot fully remember later. He finds himself panic-stricken and cannot remember why, or near-tears with no explanation for it. On the night before the new year he makes it all the way downstairs, convinced he can hear Meggie crying somewhere, before he realises it must have been just another dream.
Once, only once, he uses the internet to look Thor up. There are a lot of pictures: Thor in battle, with that achingly familiar look of concentration and joy, Thor greeting people (his fans, probably, and Loki is so tired of the bitterness that comes with that thought) with his big stupid smile. He looks like Thor. He looks... well. Healthy.
One of the pictures comes attached to an article about how Thor is fitting in on Earth. There’s a bolded quote in the middle, impossible to overlook, and Loki reads it before he can help himself. “‘There are many things to miss about Asgard, of course,’ Thor says, his normally cheerful expression becoming serious. ‘But I think I miss my brother the most.’”
Loki stops looking Thor up after that.
His emotional control and ability to conceal his nightmares are put to the test shortly after the new year has begun. New Stebbinsville experiences its first ‘proper’ snowstorm of the winter and for nearly two days is blanketed in thick, silently falling snow. The power goes out partway through the first day and the houses of those who still provide heat from burning wood open to those who rely on electricity. Loki and Poppy decamp to Tom’s house, just up the hill from the general store, and spend the rest of the storm huddled around the squat little cast-iron stove in his living room. Tom is frequently absent; he, along with Rick, is a member of the local volunteer rescue-and-fire station and they are called out several times to give aid to beleaguered motorists and those who exercised improper control over their wood-burning.
Aware of the constant presence of his friends, Loki makes a sincere effort to write in Poppy’s little notebook; he gets as far as ‘I am frustrated’ before his natural sense of self-protection asserts itself and he cannot bring himself to add anything further. Poppy spots him at it and gives him an encouragingly relieved smile, though, so the exercise accomplishes at least one of its goals.
The village, when the storm finally ends, is completely buried in snow. It takes Loki and Poppy nearly two hours of work to clear a usable path from the street - kept clear by the long-suffering and sleep-deprived road crew - to the porch. In places the drifts are so high that Loki almost cannot see over them.
The inhospitable conditions barely slow the inhabitants of the town down at all. As soon as the snow has stopped falling they are once again to be seen out and about, dropping by the library for entertainment and the general store for everything else. In less than a day Loki knows the conditions of everyone in New Stebbinsville - whose house lost power (everyone’s), who went above and beyond to help the neighbors (old Mrs. Nau with her extra rooms and excellent chili), and who disgraced himself by being no help whatsoever (Elliot from the post office, who got rascally drunk and used language unbefitting a public servant when the Morse boy tried to borrow his roof rake). New Stebbinsville was fortunately spared any fires or roof collapses; Makers Falls was not so lucky, but Loki is assured by several people that Makers Falls has a large population of recently relocated out-of-towners and they don’t tend to know what to do in a snowstorm anyway.
“Aren’t I an out-of-towner?” Loki asks Stacy in an undertone when Meggie’s mother has departed with a quart of Rick’s minestrone, a puzzle for Meggie, and a sizeable bottle of wine for herself.
“Maybe, but you’re ours,” Stacy says, shrugging. “That’s different. The people in Makers Falls just come to work at the nuclear plant because they’re like, scientists or something. They don’t really mingle. You help out, so you belong.”
“I see,” Loki says, filing this away for future consideration.
Stacy smiles at him, apparently relieved he’s gotten over his irritable mood long enough to be civil again. “I love it when it snows this much. I mean, sure, snow day and all, but I still like playing in it too. My brother and I used to build awesome snow forts until he decided it was for babies.”
“Snow forts?” Loki leans forward to eye the snow-covered green speculatively through the front window. He supposes the large drifts of snow kicked up by the snow plows would make for good retaining walls, and he discovered while shoveling that the snow is of a reasonably moldable consistency. The resulting structure would not be defensible against heavy artillery or even a determined infantry charge, however. “Forts to defend against what?”
Stacy’s whole face lights up. “Against snowballs. Oh my god, you’ve never had a snowball fight! I mean, maybe you have, but you don’t remember. Oh my god, John, we have to have a snowball fight!”
Loki blinks. A mock battle with snow as the method of both defense and offense sounds extremely silly. It would provide no useful training for real battle, as handfuls of snow resemble no existing weapons that Loki is aware of, and since no true stronghold could be soundly constructed of the stuff it is not useful as an engineering lesson either.
“Well,” he says slowly. “The late afternoon is usually fairly slow, and the green is within sight of the door. We could hang a sign.”
Stacy stares at him in slowly dawning glee. “I’ll make the sign, you find shovels.”
It is ridiculous, juvenile, and beneath him. Loki finds three shovels, several empty pails, and a milk crate. Stacy tapes her sign to the front door (‘Gone to have snowball fight. Stand outside and yell if you want to buy something!’) and they make for the battleground.
Loki claims one corner and Stacy the other - far enough apart to allow room for construction but close enough to still be in striking range - and lob snowballs at each other as they build in an attempt to disrupt each other’s concentration.
“Come on, out-of-towner,” Stacy taunts. “Step it up - a wall that short’s never going to keep me out!”
“Even I can see that your outer wall is structurally unsound!” Loki shoots back, ducking behind his pail for cover.
“Your mother was a hamster and your father smells of elderberries!”
“Yours reads romance novels!”
One of Stacy’s snowballs goes astray and splatters against the side window of a passing truck. She shrieks and hides behind her wall. Loki feels a moment of foreboding - he is the adult here, he should not have let this situation get so out of hand - and then the truck stops and Robbie jumps out.
“Snow forts?” he asks breathlessly, tumbling over the snow bank. “Give me a shovel!”
“Hey, I’m the youngest!” Stacy protests as Robbie sets to helping Loki with his wall. “No fair!”
“John doesn’t know what to do,” Robbie yells back. “You’re just nervous because now you’ve actually got a fight on your hands!”
Stacy is soon rescued by Oscar, who comes out of the sheriff’s department at a dead run and starts proving that he does actually have a grasp of strategy as befitting a law enforcement professional by providing Stacy with cover fire as she darts out close to the enemy fort to pelt them with snowballs. Loki uses his pail as cover again and proves why he was the most feared distance-weapons user in Asgard by nailing Oscar directly in the chest. Oscar dutifully performs a suitably dramatic death scene and then miraculously rises from the dead to keep fighting.
It is not long before they attract the attention of other members of the town. Jess and Poppy arrive with Emmett, who is quickly handed off to Poppy so Jess can join Stacy in attempting to bury her husband in snow. Oscar strikes off on his own to found a new fort with Rick, which is quickly set upon by the others and provides for several more enthusiastic death scenes.
As night begins to fall word of the battle spreads and soon a good number of the town is present, either as combatants or hecklers. Oscar departs for long enough to point the floodlights from his squad car at the field, providing them with illumination, and then wades back into the fray. He is forced to trade Rick for Eleanor, who turns out to have devastating aim, when Rick ducks back into the general store for long enough to make hot chocolate and start passing it around.
Eventually Loki’s superior experience with siege warfare and battle tactics wins out; his team successfully invades Stacy’s fort and plants a hastily-constructed flag atop her ramparts. Stacy gives a very impressive speech that Loki suspects is cribbed from several movies and possibly a television show (the accidental reference to spaceships gives it away) about how she may have lost the battle but will never lose the war, and everyone applauds.
Before they go their separate ways, cold and exhausted and exhilarated, Jess lines them all up and takes a picture. Everyone is grinning broadly, Rick is giving Oscar bunny ears, and Stacy’s mouth is open in shock as Loki shoves a handful of snow down the back of her coat.
Rick has it framed and hangs it up in the store. Jess gives Loki a copy too, which he props up on his desk so he can see it when he wakes up.
Looking back much later on the winter and the events that followed it, that afternoon stands out for Loki as a shining beacon in a sea of confusion and fear. At the time he may have been cold and wet and tired, but later all he can remember is the warmth of happiness and the security of good companions. For one beautiful afternoon he did not think on his tentative position, on the turmoil in his mind, or the looming danger of Asgard’s anger. There was no uncertainty, no need to guard himself so fiercely against doubt or attack. All that was important was the wet slap of snow against outdoor wear and the laughter and good humor of those around him.
Loki learns quickly.
He learns that what Thor does is right and what he does is suspect. He learns that accompanying Thor on his adventures, however tedious they might be, gets him out of Asgard and away from Odin’s hard stare, and that when they return Thor’s bright presence and glorious tales of bravery and valiant battle allow him to go unnoticed.
He learns that if he uses his magic for warfare it does not arouse Odin’s suspicions, and that if he uses it to play tricks he can make Thor laugh and keep him from worrying. He learns that as long as he supports his brother he is safe, that as long as he does not act too much like himself he does not have to worry about Odin’s mercurial temper or the extra training sessions he might demand.
He learns that most of the court does not like him, does not trust him. This cannot be a recent development; the distrust is deep-seated and comfortable for those who practice it. They have disliked his un-Aesir actions for some time but have been unable to express it until Loki’s sudden fall from grace. Now that he is no longer protected by Odin’s approval the court is free to let him know how unwelcome and unnatural his interests have always been.
Loki learns that his idyllic childhood must have been an illusion. How could it have been so happy, so carefree, and turned so easily to this miasma of acrimony and bitterness if it had not always been a lie? He learns that it is less painful to go back and edit his childhood memories to include this new reality than it is to sit and wonder what went wrong, what he did wrong, what is wrong with him.
Clearly he has always been the less-favored child. Clearly he has always been tolerated rather than loved, ignored rather than indulged, included as an afterthought to his brother’s rightful glory.
What use is a second son, anyway? What possible use is a creature so ill-fitted to life in shining Asgard?
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.”
”Brother, guess what?” Thor says, barging happily into Loki’s bedchamber.
Loki sighs and vanishes the project he was working on; there will be no time to himself today, he can tell, and likely no peace for the foreseeable future. He recognizes the look on Thor’s face. It’s the look that heralded the expedition to Muspelheim that ended with Loki stranded in a desert, and the adventure to Svartalfheim that culminated in Loki having his mouth sewn shut, and the trip to Vanaheim that fortunately none of the others seem to remember at all.
“What, Thor?” he asks obediently.
Thor throws himself down in one of Loki’s chairs. It creaks alarmingly and Loki hastily reinforces it with magic. While it would undoubtedly be amusing to watch Thor fall on his backside, the resulting fit of anger would not do the structural integrity of Loki’s furnishings any good whatsoever.
“It has finally happened, brother,” Thor says, beaming. “Father has set a date for my coronation!”
Loki’s stomach goes cold with foreboding. “Oh?” he says, as neutrally as possible. “And when is that?”
“But a fortnight!” Thor says, jumping up from his seat. “Is it not wonderful, brother?” he claps Loki on the shoulder hard enough to send him stumbling. “We must celebrate!”
“I will join you shortly,” Loki says, forcing a smile. “Truly, it is wonderful news.”
The door slams jubilantly after Thor’s retreating back and Loki allows himself to slump.
Thor crowned prince. He closes his eyes in dread. His brother has inherited their father’s valor and prowess in battle, but he has also gotten the vengeful temper and received none of Odin’s mitigating canniness. When Thor is angry he reacts immediately, without thought or attention paid to consequences or collateral damage. As crown prince he will wield the full power of the throne when Odin goes into the Odinsleep, as he must soon do.
Loki is not frightened of much, but his father’s wrath has the power to utterly undo him. The thought of Thor as acting King, with all of their father’s lesser qualities and none of his greater -
No. No. Loki gasps through the instinctual panic clawing at his chest. That cannot be allowed. Through a lifetime of subtle manipulations he has learned to impose control on Thor from the outside. He knows his brother well, and he knows that the throne will go to Thor’s head. Loki’s control will no longer be enough.
He forces his heart to slow, his hands to steady. He can show no sign of his fear. He has time to plan and as long as he has time to plan he has time to avert disaster. It will be all right as long as he has a plan. He just has to remain calm.
Something must be done. If he is the only one who can see this disaster looming, then he must be the one to act. He must show Odin that Thor is not ready to rule.
He must show everyone. If he shows everyone, he can survive this.
It is with a certain amount of relief that Loki sees the library clock tick ever closer to closing time. It has been a difficult day. He slept poorly the night before and woke with a headache that he has not been able to shake. The children were fractious and disagreeable during story time, and all day Loki has been distracted by the sound of a baby crying. Logically he knows that he must be hearing Hairball Poirot upstairs or possibly a bird outside, but pragmatism does not help his already raw nerves from being irritated further.
The one bright spot during the day had been the arrival of Meggie for story time. Before departing for the library that morning she had apparently been left unattended with a set of markers, and as a result she presented herself in the children’s room sporting brightly colored patches in her normally white-blond hair. The look of resignation on her mother’s face when combined with the expression of pride on Meggie’s had been enough to startle a laugh out of Loki and keep him levelheaded throughout the difficult morning.
He has just bidden the last few patrons good night and is about to shut off the lights and go upstairs when Oscar lets himself in through the front door. He smiles apologetically when he sees the irritation that Loki is not quite fast enough to hide.
“I’m sorry, I know it’s the end of the day,” he says, pulling the wooden chair from the entryway over to the desk and sitting down. “I brought you a present.”
“Oh?” Loki says, intrigued despite himself.
With a flourish, Oscar removes a file folder from his bag and lays it down on the desk. At his encouraging nod Loki opens it.
Inside is a small plastic card and two sheets of paper which turn out to be, upon closer inspection, a driver’s license, birth certificate, and social security card all made out to ‘John Bookman’. The license has Loki’s picture on it.
“This is... me?” Loki asks, unexpectedly touched.
Oscar nods. “I, um, asked around to see what people thought would be a good last name for you. ‘Bookman’ was Meggie’s suggestion and, well, it seemed to fit.”
“Yes,” Loki says, voice hushed. “Yes, it does. Thank you, Oscar.”
Oscar shrugs, the tips of his ears going pink. “Well. I know a few people.”
Loki smiles, turning the license over in his hands. “I feel obliged to point out, though, that I don’t actually know how to drive.”
“Really?” Oscar says, taken aback. “Oh. Well, I trust you to be responsible with it. I’m sure Tom will teach you when the weather gets a bit better and if he says you can drive then you can drive.”
“Yes, he is very sensible,” Loki agrees. “Really, Oscar - thank you. This was very thoughtful. It is... nice to have a name.”
Oscar smiles, still looking somewhat apprehensive. “Did you know I went to college out of the state?” he says abruptly.
“I did not,” Loki says cautiously. It would seem that Oscar has another item on his mind tonight.
“Yep. It’s pretty rare for a kid from New Stebbinsville. Not to go to college, but to leave the state for it. We tend to stick close to home.”
Loki nods. If he had grown up here he would try to stay as well.
“I studied criminology, of course, but I minored in mythology. Not too many people realise that. I specialised in Scandinavia.”
“Oh?” Loki manages.
“Mm. For my final paper I actually put the two together - I used everything I’d learned in criminology to prove that the trickster god Loki had been unjustly persecuted and unfairly convicted of his crimes. My criminology professor wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, although the mythology professor didn’t seem too surprised.”
He takes a book out of his bag and lays it on the desk in front of Loki, open to a bookmarked page. ‘Loki, the God of Mischief’, the heading reads. There is an illustration as well. It is not a good likeness, although they got the helmet right.
Loki stares at it.
“It’s just. It’s Thor that you react to the most,” Oscar goes on, speaking quickly as if he is afraid he will lose his nerve or Loki will attempt to shut him up before he is finished. “Robbie scared you before Thor even showed up, and they look a lot alike. When you saw the picture of the Avengers in the paper you asked ‘when did he land?’ And the lullaby you sing to Emmett is in Old Norse. I, I had to look it up, I still have some of my textbooks, but I’m sure.”
For one of the first times in his long life Loki cannot think of anything to say. How is it that in all of his fretting and overthinking it never occurred to him that someone would figure out who he was? No. From the very beginning he had discounted that as a possibility out of hand. Such arrogance.
“You don’t - you don’t have to say anything one way or the other,” Oscar says, desperation creeping into his voice. “I just thought it might be helpful to you if someone else knew. I thought it might - might be a relief if there was someone you didn’t have to hide that around. I don’t know how many of the stories in that book are true - the ones about Thor seem to be fifty-fifty, from what I can tell - but, but I know who my friend John is, and he’s a good man. I like having him around and I’d like him to stay. I don’t need to know the details.”
Loki swallows hard, and then places his hand over the picture in the book. There is a brief green glow and when he removes it the likeness is accurate.
Oscar makes a strangled noise. “Oh. Oh wow.”
“Does anyone else know?” Loki forces himself to ask. His voice sounds rusty.
“No,” Oscar says. “Stacy might suspect a little but I had a stern talk with her about respecting people’s privacy after the Avengers were here. If she figures anything out she won’t say. I haven’t told Rick or Poppy.”
Loki rubs the bridge of his nose. His head is pounding. “Thank you. I may... I may tell them, but I do not - “
“There’s no rush,” Oscar says quickly. “Honestly. You don’t ever have to tell them. It’s not - look, we love you, okay? We all know there are secrets in your past. Hell, we’ve got secrets too. It doesn’t matter who you were, we only care who you are now.”
Loki nods jerkily. “May I borrow this book?”
“Sure,” Oscar says, surprised.
“Thank you. And... thank you. For your delicacy.”
He sits downstairs for a long time after Oscar has left. Eventually he pages through the book, glancing over the myths included. They are not reassuring. If Loki thought he had a bad reputation on Asgard it is nothing to the one he enjoys on Midgard.
He slams the book shut and stalks upstairs, leaving it on the desk. Poppy is out with Tom - they are going to dinner and a movie in Makers Falls and he has the house to himself for the evening. He goes into the kitchen and tries to prepare for dinner, but he is too angry.
The story about Sleipnir, he is certain, came from Fandral. There had been a tavern on Midgard he favored, Loki remembers now, and it is just the sort of story he would tell: humiliating, obsessed with sex, and resolutely uncouth. Loki had never liked Fandral much.
Thor in the wedding dress probably came from Sif. That one had not been completely awful.
The stories about Loki’s children, though... those had been - they had been -
He presses his hands against his head. His fury is making his head throb so, it is difficult to think and that damned animal that sounds like a baby crying has started up again outside. Who would think up such unkind stories about children? What possible entertainment could it have provided to tell stories about children who were - who were - even if their father was despised, what possible wrong could children have committed? Thinking of Meggie or Emmett being treated so makes bile rise in his throat. What pleasure could their punishment ever cause?
Irritably, he straightens up and
reaches for the dishcloth next to the washbasin. It is rare to have the kitchen to herself for even a moment in the winter - even if her husband is gone the children are always underfoot, and she takes a moment to enjoy the quiet. Her family is just outside, safely within calling distance, and all is right with her world.
It has been several Midgardian years since Loki came to this place in search of knowledge about his mother’s pregnancy and the problems she had encountered during it. At the time it had seemed most sensible to understand the process from the inside, as it were, so he had set out in the form of a woman.
He had not expected to like the form so much, or to gain such pleasure from what had been intended to be just an experiment. The man she had found was a good one, kind and hardworking, and their first child brought a joy Loki had never anticipated. The first pregnancy, she had told herself, was for research; the second was because with some idea of what to expect she would be better able to pay attention to the nuances of the process. Now, she thinks a third might be necessary. For research, and also for children. Loki loves her children very much.
A faint rumble of thunder in the distance shakes her out of her reverie and she laughs at herself, bending once more to her task. Her husband has taken the children out for some fresh air and to give the eldest a chance to run and play; she can hear them calling and shrieking as they enjoy the day. The youngest is but a babe in arms still, but he looks about at the world with his mother’s bright curiosity and Loki is already certain he will be clever when he is grown. The girl has her father’s white-blond hair and her uncle’s love of activity. Loki dreams sometimes of introducing her to Thor.
She knows that this life cannot last forever, and has made a kind of peace with that. Time passes differently amongst mortals than it does amongst the Aesir; years to one feel like but a brief time to the other. Sooner or later, though, Loki’s presence will be required home, and even if she stays here for quite some time it will eventually become clear that she is not aging properly. When it comes time she will use her magic to simulate an illness or possibly an accident and then depart. There is no rush, though - she has plenty of time to settle on the right plan.
It will be very hard to leave this small, peaceful life she has built, but she comforts herself with the fact that it is a long way off and she will be able to return in disguise to watch over her children and her children’s children forever after.
The door scrapes open behind her. She smiles, anticipating a bearded kiss and a hug from small, exuberant arms, but there is only silence and a cold draft. Confused, she turns to remind her husband to close the door properly.
It is not her husband in the doorway, it is Odin. For a moment Loki’s mind skitters with surprise and then she smiles. She likes the idea of introducing Odin to his grandchildren.
“Father!” She says happily. “I was not expecting you. Please, come warm yourself by the fire.”
“Loki, what have you done?” Odin demands, his face thunderous.
Loki feels her heart sink. “I - I wished to understand,” she stammers. “Mother’s illness, I might have prevented it if I understood better, and I thought - this was the best way - “
“So you decided to debase yourself?” Odin roars. “It makes me sick to look at you! Have you no pride?”
Loki shrinks back against the washbasin, bewildered and hurt. “Father - it is only temporary - “
“That does not matter!” Odin shouts. “Do you not realise what shame you have brought on your family with this behavior? You will return home immediately and you will think long and hard about what you have done.”
“It is not shameful,” Loki protests, pleading. “I have brought you grandchildren, All-Father. Do you not wish to meet them?”
Odin’s gaze flickers, just a little, and oh, Loki knows. Her husband was not so far away. He should have heard Odin’s rage and come.
Odin reaches for her but Loki has always been fast. She is out the door and halfway down the path before his hand closes on her arm.
“Loki, no - don’t look - “
But Loki has already seen. She has seen the still bodies and sightless eyes, the tangle of white-blond hair against the snow.
“Loki - “
Loki screams her rage, wordless and beyond reason, and flings herself at Odin. She claws at his face, seeking to remove his last eye. She hurls her magic at him but her strengths lie in scholarship and illusion instead of battle, and she is too slight to have a chance against Odin’s bulk. The fabric of her simple dress tears as Loki shifts, using Odin’s surprise against him. He lands a blow to the weak spot in Odin’s armor at the crook of his elbow and rakes his fingernails down Odin’s neck.
“Loki, stop!” Odin shouts, struggling to restrain his son. “It had to be done!”
“They were children!” Loki shrieks. “My children! You monster!”
“It had to be done!” Odin repeats, finally managing to pin Loki’s arms to his sides. Loki writhes and twists, screaming and sobbing. Odin works one hand free and clamps it over Loki’s eyes.
“I am sorry, my son,” he says. “I am. It had to be done.
“Now sleep. Forget.”
Loki opens his eyes.
It is dark. He is in the kitchen, sitting against the sink cabinets.
That’s Poppy’s face, hovering in front of his. It must be late if she is back from dinner.
She is touching him now.
“John, sweetie, I need you to let me know that you can hear me, okay?”
Of course he can hear her.
She sounds worried. What did she want from him? Oh.
She shifts closer. “John, thank God. Can you tell me what happened?”
Can he? No. There are no words for what has happened.
“Did you remember something?”
She pulls him close. “Can you tell me what you remembered?”
His head is on her shoulder. He remembers this. This is comfort.
“He killed them.”
Was that his voice?
“My husband and my children. He killed them.”
Poppy makes a distressed noise. “Oh God. Who did, John?”
“My - my father.” Odin had been his father, then. Maybe for the last time.
“Oh God,” Poppy says again quietly.
“He said. He said I debased myself. He said it had to be done.”
Poppy’s hands are very tight on him now. It hurts. That’s good.
“I think he thought they would be monsters because they came from me. Unnatural.” That - that has to be it. Half-Jotun children. Someone would have noticed. Loki would have noticed. “They were just children. A baby and a girl with white-blond hair. They were so small. They weren’t monsters.”
“Oh, baby,” Poppy says. It sounds like she’s crying. Loki isn’t. “Oh, baby, of course they weren’t. I’m so sorry.”
“I tried to fight. I tried. It was too late.”
Poppy rocks him a little. “I must have found you right after,” she says, her voice thick. “How did you get away?”
“No,” Loki says. “Then I forgot. I forgot it all. I was angry, I was so angry but I didn’t know why, and he was so angry with me and I didn’t - I tried, I tried to make him proud of me, and it never worked, and then - and then I found out I wasn’t his son at all, it was a lie, and I was so angry. I did, I did terrible things in my anger. And then I ran. And I fell. And then you found me.”
“I am so glad I found you,” Poppy says fiercely. “I am so glad you aren’t there any more. You never have to go back, do you hear me? You’re safe now.”
Loki’s body spasms. “They were my children,” he says. His chest hurts. It feels like something is trying to get out of it. “How could I forget my children?”
“Shh,” Poppy says. “Don’t blame yourself for that, okay? You did what you had to to survive. You remember them now. You loved them. You were a good dad.”
The thing in Loki’s chest rips free. He feels like he is coming apart at every seam, every molecule. He feels like he did when he fell through the void except this is so, so much worse.
“I don’t remember their names,” he chokes, and the anguish overtakes him. He cannot breathe, cannot speak. Poppy holds him up and holds him together. If it weren’t for her arms he is certain that he would no longer exist, scattered by agony and grief and betrayal. He can hear an animal wailing somewhere, a pathetic creature in torment, and he feels sorry for it. He cannot breathe.
Poppy rocks him gently, crying, and finally there is darkness. Finally, there is nothingness.
Loki sinks into it gratefully.
Time ceases to have all meaning.
Sometimes Loki is awake. Sometimes he sleeps. It is dark and it is light. Poppy talks to him. He may answer back or he may not. He is not really sure.
From time to time he probably eats. That seems likely. It doesn’t matter, though.
Others come and go. Eleanor appears. Beverly, too. Oscar comes once and talks to Poppy, then stands over him looking anguished. Tom is a silent shadow in the background.
Dimly he knows that he must be frightening everyone. Poppy must be beside herself with worry. Those thoughts register on the same level as the weather or the color of his shirt.
Sometimes he cries. Occasionally someone holds him. He still cannot remember his children’s names.
Most of the time it hurts too much for tears. From time to time a memory floats to the top of his brain, newly significant with his recovered memories. He remembers the sting when one of the Warriors mockingly referred to him as a woman. Odin’s voice says It is past time your brother learned to defend himself. He remembers Thor not understanding what was so terrifying about Odin’s anger.
Such bad things happen when Odin is angry.
He remembers the incandescent fury when he found out he was not Odin’s son at all and the fear when he realised it meant he was expendable. It all makes a lot more sense now. Everything does.
Slowly, slowly, the world comes back.
He notices food. He remembers eating. He starts to realise when it is day and when it is night. People touch him, gently, and he turns into it, seeking comfort. He registers the feel of Poppy’s sweater, the smell of sawdust and engine grease on Tom, the look of sun glancing off Beverly’s silver hair.
He is rarely alone. Sometimes he sits in the clearing on top of the mountain and watches the valley below and there is always someone else sitting a few feet away. It is not obtrusive. It is comfort, concern.
Poppy places notebooks in front of him. He stares at them at first but slowly he begins to write. He fills up page after page and new notebooks appear as if by magic. He fills them too. Sometimes he writes good things, memories, and sometimes he is so angry the page rips under his pen.
Jess marches up to him one day and deposits her son in his arms. He takes the baby automatically and then stills, staring at him, while everyone around holds their breath. He sees his son, he sees his daughter, he remembers the baby smell of them and the conversations he had with his husband about what they might grow to be.
Emmett reaches up and grabs his chin, kicking his little legs. I will protect you, Loki thinks, and wants to throw up.
Poppy sits with him often, stroking his hair or rubbing his back. She has an uncanny knack for knowing when he wants silence and when he needs distraction. She reads out loud to him sometimes, and sometimes they just sit together.
We both lost our children to our own foolishness, Loki thinks, but he does not say it. He is many things but he is not pointlessly cruel.
He writes Odin endless letters. He blames, he begs, he accuses, he cries. He wonders sometimes if Heimdall is watching and repeating what he reads. Sometimes he hopes this is true, sometimes not.
“Can you tell me about them?” Poppy asks him one day.
Loki leans his head against her shoulder. He cannot. He places his hand over a page in his notebook instead and concentrates. There is a green glow and his family’s faces appear.
I just did magic in front of Poppy, he thinks dully, but Poppy does not seem surprised.
“They’re gorgeous, John,” she says softly. He agrees.
Slowly, slowly, Loki begins to re-enter the world.
Hours spent writing in his notebooks become careful, tentative conversations. Tears turn into anger, and Robbie obligingly takes him to a gym with an apparently unlimited supply of punching bags. He calmly reads a book while Loki utterly destroys several of them. Anger turns into tears again. Robbie gives very good hugs, and takes him out for ice cream when he is done.
“I feel as if I am doing a lifetime’s worth of mourning all at once,” Loki says, staring down into rainbow-colored sprinkles.
“That sounds like grief, all right,” Robbie says, handing him fudge sauce.
Oscar keeps his distance. Poppy says it is because he feels that he has brought all of this on by their conversation before Loki reclaimed his memories. She does not say whether she knows the topic of their discussion or not, but Loki is unconcerned. Even with everything that has happened he does not think Oscar would betray such a confidence, and in any case he does not mind if Poppy knows.
Grief allows one to be a little selfish, Loki learns. He calls Oscar up and tells him to come over and bring some Hercule Poirot with him. Oscar is there in ten minutes. It is enjoyable until the episode with the dead child, and then Oscar has to go find Poppy. But he seems a little more sure in Loki’s presence, so that is good.
“I did not read all the myths,” Loki tells him one day. “Is there one about my children? Do they have names?”
Oscar looks like he would rather be anywhere else answering any kind of question but this. “There are a couple,” he admits. “It’s... kind of a theme. There isn’t one that exactly fits what you’ve told me. Hel, Fenrir, and Jormungandr are probably the most well-known of - of the mythical Loki’s kids, and Sleipnir next. I think if any of them fit it might be Vali and Narfi. They were both boys, though.”
“Did they die?” Loki asks.
Oscar’s expression twists. “Yes,” he says, very quietly. “But not... not how you described to me.”
The names do not sound familiar, at any rate. “I see,” Loki says. He decides to never read up on the unfortunate Vali and Narfi.
Sometimes in his notebook he makes charts. He lines up the slights against him on one side and the wrongs that he committed on the other. Does the slaughter of his family justify the attack on Jotunheim? Do Odin’s lies justify Loki’s own? By the numbers Loki is still at fault. Three people, only one of them grown, do not stack up against an entire realm.
But his family was his entire realm. Does that matter? Their deaths, forgotten though they were, set him on the course to Jotunheim and informed his every decision afterwards. Does that make it all Odin’s fault?
Does it matter? One wrong does not justify a greater wrong in return.
It occurs to Loki that he is the child of monsters on both sides. Would it have been possible for him to bear innocent beings at all? Would his children have been monsters too, as Odin seemed to think? They had their father’s blood in them too, after all, and he was a good man.
When Loki asks Oscar, he admits that most of Loki’s children were considered monstrous. This could be truth. It could be lies. Loki cannot tell, which is an irony he feels somewhat offended by.
Slowly, slowly, Loki resumes his place in the town’s daily activities. It takes him a few tries to be able to bear doing story-time again, and it is traumatic for all parties involved until he gets the hang of it, but work at the general store resumes easily. Loki is surprised by this. He had expected to feel more nervous about returning to the place that Thor had appeared so suddenly, but it would seem that Thor has faded as a threat in light of Loki’s new truths.
Thor was impulsive, self-centered, and too prone to rages, it is true. But he had treated Loki as kindly as he knew how, and had done what he could to stand between Loki and Odin even though he understood nothing of the circumstances. It would be hypocrisy of the highest order for Loki to condemn him for being imperfect. Loki does not so much forgive him for their childhood and the events on the Bifrost as he simply ceases to care about it.
Somehow, winter passes into spring. The days become longer and brighter. The snow melts, leaving the sad iced-over remains of drifts in their wake, and everyone goes from shaking snow off their shoes to tracking mud everywhere. Poppy talks Loki into helping with the traditional New Stebbinsville spring celebration, which involves a fair on the green complete with unhealthy food and games for the children. Loki is to be in charge of painting faces, which allows him to participate but to avoid excessive conversation on the pretext of concentration.
The day dawns rainy and cold, which Poppy tells him is also traditional, but they are spared the equally traditional last-minute relocation to the bingo hall of the volunteer fire station when the weather clears and warms in the afternoon. Loki’s station is set up next to the street, between the ball-toss and a game that involves striking a platform with a large hammer in an attempt to make a bell ring, which causes Loki no small amount of wry amusement. He is just putting the finishing touches on a balloon on the side of Emmett’s tiny, sleeping face when one of the ball-toss balls misses its target and bounces away.
Meggie chases after it, laughing, right through two parked cars and out into the street. Loki has just enough time to remember white-blonde hair spread against the snow and then there is a screech, a thump, and he is staring over the tips of his Jotun-blue fingers at a wall of ice between a bewildered Meggie and the crumpled remains of Joan’s Frank’s front bumper.
There is a moment of complete silence, broken only by the sound of Meggie’s mother rushing to check on her daughter.
That’s it, then, Loki thinks dully. That’s the end. He is still Jotun-blue - his hands won’t change back, no matter how hard he stares at them, and he knows, he can feel that he is the same all over. Even if he could change back he has already been seen.
“Oh,” Stacy says, as if everything has been explained. “You’re an illegal alien.”
“Explains a helluva lot about his bloodwork,” Eleanor says drily.
Beverly immediately rounds on Oscar. “Don’t you dare arrest him, Oscar Macklin,” she says sternly.
Loki stares at them.
“Arrest him, hell,” Oscar says, grinning. “My jurisdiction doesn’t extend to outer space.”
“What the hell just happened?” Joan’s Frank demands, finally managing to pry his door open. “Crap, John, was that you? Is Meggie okay?”
“She’s fine,” Meggie’s mother says, standing up with her daughter in her arms. “She’s about to learn a very firm lesson about traffic safety.”
“John,” Jess’s sister says urgently. “Have you ever played hockey? I coach the high school team and I think we could really use you - “
“Forget about hockey,” Rick says. “We need him for the fire department.”
“Can you get rid of ice as well as make it?” Joan’s Frank asks, slithering over the remains of Loki’s barrier. “Because if you can get rid of it the road crew could definitely use some help next winter and we pay a lot better than the fire department.”
“Hey!” Jess yells. “Cut it out, creeps! John wants to be loved for his mind, not his awesome alien ice powers. You’re freaking him out!”
A chorus of sheepish Sorry, Johns greets this statement. Loki stares at them all and thinks I am blue. I am a blue monster standing in the middle of your tiny sleepy town. What is wrong with you people?
“John?” Poppy says. “John, it’s okay. Really.”
“Here.” Meggie’s mother pushes her way through the crowd and deposits her child into Loki’s arms. Meggie immediately wraps her arms around his neck, and the blue begins to recede.
“That is so cool,” Stacy breathes.
“Isn’t it a pretty color?” Poppy agrees admiringly. “Do the lines mean something?”
“I - I don’t know,” Loki admits. “I’ve never really been sure.”
“Rick, your stew’s boiling over,” someone calls from the refreshment table, and the normal activity of the fair begins to assert itself.
“Quick thinking,” Robert says approvingly, pausing to shake Loki’s hand before wandering off into the crowd.
“Is that why those Avengers were here?” old Mrs. Nau asks.
“Oh, no, that was completely unrelated,” Poppy assures her.
“Good,” Mrs. Nau says. “They can’t have our John.”
Poppy pushes the folding chair from Loki’s station into place just in time to catch him as his knees give out. “Okay, John?”
“Yes,” Loki says numbly. “Yes, I - you have to understand, this - the way I look - where I came from I would have been killed on sight.”
“Kind of a shock to have people not care that much about it?” Poppy says sympathetically, smiling down at him.
“Yes.” Loki says. “Yes, that’s it exactly.”
Meggie raises her head. “Blue’s my favorite color,” she tells him solemnly. “Can you draw a snowflake on my face?”
“I think that would look lovely,” Poppy approves.
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.”
Loki stands for quite some time after Thor is gone, staring out over the valley. The conversation with his brother has left him... settled, and confused, and oddly grateful. He had never allowed himself to speculate on what their eventual reunion might be like, but he certainly would not have expected it to turn out this way if he had. It is... something of a relief to realise that the Thor who tried to teach him their mother’s fighting style, who looked at pictures in books he wasn’t interested in solely because Loki liked them, who dragged him along on adventures because he liked having everyone he loved with him, is the true Thor. He has grown out of the spoiled, wrathful creature he had been and, following the cyclical nature of all things, has become the boy he once was, tempered by experience and wisdom.
Loki hopes the same can be said to be true for himself. He thinks it can. He is, after all, once more living in a library, if on a slightly more permanent basis than was true when he was a boy. He is certainly wiser. He does have more experience, and he supposes that the hard knot of grief in his chest counts as tempering.
He breathes carefully around it. He does not think that Thor will betray his whereabouts, and having a link to his old life is... not necessarily a bad thing. He does still think fondly of Frigga, and while he and Thor’s companions have certainly had their differences he has some good memories of them as well. For all that they betrayed him to go find Thor, with the clarity of hindsight Loki can admit that he wasn’t a very good king. Not that Thor would have been better, at that point, but then Asgard does not necessarily have a tradition of good kings.
Odin’s decision to leave the Casket with him is a surprising one. Although it probably gives him a way to find Loki should he ever use it, he will still then be finding a Loki armed with the Casket of Ancient Winters, which as a reasonably powerful sorcerer he would be very adept at using. He is too angry, too betrayed by Odin to forgive him for what he did to Loki’s family, and maybe Odin does not deserve forgiveness, but it strikes him that giving Loki the means to defend his new home might possibly be a particularly All-Father form of apology.
Loki closes his eyes.
It is rare for the All-Father to visit one of his sons in their chambers, and Odin looks duly discomfited by it now. Loki stands warily in the center as Odin paces awkwardly past the bookshelf.
“You are well?”
“Yes, Father,” Loki says. His ribs ache from that morning’s practice and he can barely move one of his shoulders, but he is well enough and bitterly aware that complaining will not do anything to make the situation better.
“And your rest, you sleep well?”
“Yes, Father.” It does no good to complain of nightmares. They are in Loki’s head, and his to deal with. Odin would only be disappointed if he knew Loki could not handle them, and Odin’s disappointment is something Loki takes a great deal of care to avoid. It is almost as bad as Odin’s anger.
Odin pauses to pluck an artifact from the bookshelf. “Thor tells me your progress is satisfactory.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Well.” He puts the artifact back down. “That is all good. I will leave you to your studies.”
“Father.” The words slips out before Loki can call it back. He winces but hides it quickly when Odin turns back to look at him.
Loki wavers. On the one hand, the question might anger his father. On the other it might provide him with information that he desperately needs.
“Have I done something wrong? To displease you?”
A strange mix of emotions crosses Odin’s face, quickly buried.
“No, Loki. You have done nothing wrong. I will see you at dinner.”
Loki opens his eyes, and breathes. There is much about the conversation with Thor that he must think over. Odin is but a small part of it. There are so many tangles in his life, in his past, things that he cannot categorise and dissect. He could be a lifetime sorting it all out, and Loki’s lifetime has the potential to be very long indeed.
There is a rustle of grass behind him as Poppy steps closer.
“How are you doing, kiddo?”
“I am... fine,” Loki says. “It was good to see Thor. Better than I expected, although I confess that I am not sure where to go from here.”
Poppy slips an arm around his waist. “Who says you have to go anywhere?”
In many ways, this story is my fannish love letter to the town where I grew up. Several of the characters are composites of or inspired by people I knew when I was a kid, lo these many years ago; the Pike Free Library was given a name-change but is otherwise pretty much identical to the one I frequented (including the bathtub in the children’s room, which I have never grown out of wanting for my very own). If by some chance you recognized yourself or your library when you read this, a) I’m sorry, and b) wow, what are the odds!
On a totally other note, dear lord this was an exhausting story to write. I think next I’m going to have to write something that’s so fluffy it sheds.
ETA: kalirush has written a staggeringly amazing companion story to this, linked below, and you should absolutely go check it out and tell her how lovely it is.
Son of ETA: JM wrote an awesome missing scene for Chapter 16 in the comments - you can find it here.