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.