John Egbert watches the rain pour outside.
Moxie is lying down on his lap, asleep, although her ears occasionally flick sometimes, maybe from dreaming, maybe from phantom droplets landing on them through the minute crack between the glass and the frame. He has a hand buried in her fur, forgotten, as he’s more focused on the patterns the water tracks leave.
He’s decidedly trying not to think about what everything they’ve just talked about means.
There was the part with Loki destroying an entire town, and he’d immediately thought Vriska and then shoved that thought away. It’s not the same, not exactly, even if it does remind him of her. For one, there’s their place in the hierarchy and how they’ve taken to it - both up high, but Vriska seems to love her place, and Loki, if him letting go was any indication, seems to just abhor it (and John thinks, wonders why that is).
And it shows. He never flaunts it around the Safehouse. He just goes through his days, reading and studying and researching, occasionally starting a prank war, but he doesn’t rub it in the other tenants’ noses that he runs the place, and if John is being honest, he does. He plans everything, makes sure everything is going smoothly, sets up systems. Yes, he promotes silly stuff sometimes, but he never resorts to violence to settle petty fights about mutants and non-mutant around the Safehouse either.
Although, that might just be because his ire is nothing compared to Mrs. Harrison’s. John can swear the woman can set a sword on fire just out of rage if she set her mind to it.
John laughs at the thought for a moment. Moxie stirs in her sleep.
“Heya. Go back to sleep, girl,” he cooes, petting her head softly. She just licks his hand. He sighs.
He’s about to tell her to go to sleep again when her ears suddenly stand on alert, and she looks towards the stairs. He follows, and Rose is standing there, looking deep in thought.
“Hey,” he greets.
She waves a hand back before she fiddles with her arm warmers, pulling them over her hands as best as she can.
“Cecil’s awake,” she says, “He says his head feels like someone hijacked into it and ran a program and then just ripped out the flash drive without safely removing it.”
“Yikes.” John winces. “That’s one hell of a headache for that sort of metaphor.”
“Yeah.” Rose chuckles a little. “James says he saw two of Cecil for a moment.”
John raises an eyebrow. “Yeah?”
“Mm.” Rose sits down on the stairs and rests her elbows on her knees, staring at the floor, frowning. “It was like looking at a fractured mirror, apparently. One of them was Cecil and the other was also…Cecil, but not.”
John pauses for a moment. “He said the same thing about – ”
“The pool master.” She nods, then, “And me.”
John frowns and adjusts his glasses when they almost slip with how fast he turns. “What?”
“He told me that, once. I told Loki. I think I forgot to tell you, and I think Loki thought it required further investigation before presenting you with half-baked theories and insufficient information.” A pause. “I think he said the same thing about Jade once.”
“Oh,” he says, trying to process it for a moment. “Do you know what it is?”
“I suspect it’s horrorterrors,” she says. “I don’t remember how we got rid of it. I don’t even know if they ever leave completely.”
That’s a reasonable assumption. He nods. “You think it’s horrorterrors with Cecil?”
She laughs, a little louder this time. “They have a Seer of Light, why not a Seer of Void? Complete the set.”
“But is it?”
“I don’t know,” she admits. “You’d think I’d recognize whoever gets possessed by horrorterrors, but there’s the fact that I’ve never met anyone else possessed by horrorterrors, and I don’t think I even can recognize it if it happens.”
“So we have no idea?”
Damn. John leans back in his seat a little. Moxie shifts and buries her snout into his stomach and huffs. Her breath tickles and he giggles. He moves her back a little and ignores the way she somehow seems to pout.
“What about the pool master?” he asks.
“I don’t know about that either, they’ve seemed uninvolved so far,” she says, “Although if they’ve grown up with the Palmers, I’d say psychic abilities aren’t a stretch.”
“Do they have abilities?”
“No,” she says, and the admission seems to take years off of her. “That’s what baffles me. They’re clean. I can’t sense anything from them and I’ve been sensing – no, seeing a lot since we got here.”
“More than what you usually did in….” He trails off. His aversion to the game is getting ridiculous.
“Yes. It’s like everything’s been turned on and put into overdrive.”
“Oh,” John says, “Can you control it?”
“Yes, if I focus.”
“Good. It’s not tiring, is it?”
“It was, at the beginning. I’m mostly used to it now, and looking after James is easier than being around so many people all the time,” she says, “Reminds me of home, somewhat.”
Ah. John remembers he grew up in a regular suburban neighborhood; Rose grew up mostly isolated in a fancy house by a waterfall.
“Did you miss New York though?”
“I always miss New York,” she says, smiling a little.
John smiles back. “Welcome home, then.”
“Good to be home.”
The air lightens for a moment, and John can imagine for a brief while that they’re not on the brink of something that might be dangerous, something that might tip over the scales of an unseen background war, something that might destroy whatever precious fragile thing they’ve built here.
John’s still out of place, but he’s starting to carve a life out for himself in this wrong, wrong, wrong universe, at least.
It’s not such a crime to want, is it? People wanted all the time. They want fame and money and love and lust, but John – everyone here, really – they just wants some peace and quiet and maybe a little place they can play pranks and take care of dogs and binge X-files in. It’s a bit of a mockery, he thinks, that the universe does love to take the most mundane dreams away. Aspiring singers and performers get more of a shot, but there’s people sitting out in decrepit homes suffering when all they want is a good meal. It’s basic human right. It’s such a simple thing, a bit like a breath of air, but too often neglected.
You’re a funny dreamer aren’t you, boy?
John sniffs, and frowns because the air smells like blood. He sneezes. It might be that his nose is a little stuffy, but the next time he tries to sniff, that scent of blood is gone.
Rose frowns, as if sensing his unease. “John?”
“Nothing,” he says, looking around a bit, letting the breeze waft around the room to see if he can feel anyone. There’s no one there that shouldn’t be. “Nothing,” he repeats.
He stares at the floor for a moment, deep in thought.
And then Moxie stirs, and he sighs and resumes carding his hand through her fur.
Loki sends Sapphrel and Ruben back to Saph’s bedroom miles off across the country, but not before convincing a very confused Sapphrel to lie to their friend that they’re not in New York. With the whole debacle of the green sparks and Cecil having a fugue and collapsing (Loki thinks the term that should be used here is possession, given that Cecil didn’t appear to be in control of himself when he spoke, unlike all the other times, but there’s two types of possession – that of a medium’s, in which someone channels another being into them; and, well, actual possession, and since Cecil’s said, the second he’d woken up, that it felt like his brain was hijacked, Loki’s betting on the second sort – which also unfortunately means someone got past his shields, and he’s getting rather annoyed of all his precautions being torn down effortlessly; if he’d been younger, he would have loved the challenge, but other things are at stake here, sadly), he’s not keen on trusting anyone and anything outside the Safehouse, especially not if he hasn’t had a chance to review them himself.
And with the timing of Saph’s ‘friends’ suddenly visiting, Cecil’s possession, and the mention that Loki already knew ‘them’, clearly plural…well, this is either a very clever set up to make it seem like there’s a threat but it’s actually a red herring, or Saph’s friends are traitors all along.
Not that Loki blames the kid since he’d made the choice to alienate them from the War Council despite them being his secretary, essentially. And they never asked questions either. He wonders, for a moment, if it’s somewhat related to how he and the others couldn’t remember the name of their visitor. Out of sight, and out of mind. An easy working, given that he’d used it on Tony Stark when he’d visited.
He shouldn’t keep Saph and Ruben too far away either, just in case, but if Saph’s family found them missing, there’d be trouble and questions, and no one wants to deal with it, so he’s had to return them. Aside from James’ stray comment, there’s not really concern for either of them.
Loki’s more concerned about everyone in the Safehouse. They’re obviously agitated. Dave is letting off steam in the training room, Rose had gone downstairs a while ago, Jade is with James and the rest of the dogs, since Moxie, as always, has decided to go to John, who’s just thinking blankly while looking out at the rain. Loki knows the feeling of having the rug pulled out from under you – when you think you’ve got everything understood and you’re fine, but it turns out all your nightmares have arrived to bite you in the ass.
Cecil’s gone back to sleep, Kevin is stress-sewing, Elizabeth is out to pick up her husband from the airport (she’d called him Anthony, if Loki remembers correctly), and Graham’s gotten food duty since everyone else is either too shaken to. Not that Loki is shaken. He’s just theorizing, and it needs all of his focus and brainpower. He’s rarely shaken.
Okay, so maybe he’s a little pissed that someone can one-up him in terms of spells and stealth and keeping everyone in the dark. Maybe he’s tired of constantly having his efforts undermined. Maybe he’s also sick of having his wards being poked around and thus having it rubbed in his face that he can’t take care of what little he has even if he’s capable of it.
But he’s not shaken.
And anyone with a flair of dramatics is bound to mess up sooner or later. There is a wisdom in the quiet, in the simple and in secrets.
There’s also two ways it could go – either the dramatics goes wrong and it’s also dramatically noticeable, or it’s so surprising that everyone’s too focused on being shocked at the fire and the explosion, and the mistake is shoved away into the deepest recesses of sensory input.
Dramatics has its pros, but Loki’s sharp enough to notice the cons.
He finds James in the solarium, looking out at the pouring rain, one hand on the glass. It’s the flesh hand, he notices. He makes sure his footsteps are audible when he enters the room.
James turns, curious, and greets him with a slight nod.
“What did you mean,” Loki starts, “When you said you could see two of Rose?”
“Ah,” James says, metal arm coming up to scratch the back of his head, “It’s probably just leftovers from whatever HYDRA did to my head.”
“Perhaps,” Loki says, “But enlighten me. You saw what happened earlier today, and you said you saw two of Sapphrel as well.”
James looks like he’s deliberating whether to tell Loki whatever he knows, judging from the set of his jaw and the sudden tenseness of his shoulders. Rose would have been better suited to this, then.
Loki watches as James turns to look at the rain again. “Rose is a good kid, you know.” His fingers start tapping on the glass softly. One, two, three. Nervous habit.
“Yes,” Loki says, “She’s a bright girl.”
“Also likes to psychoanalyze people within an inch of their dreams,” James says, smiling for a moment, clearly fond, “But, she just does that to deflect things. To hide. You know how it is.”
Loki thinks for a moment that, yes, he does, and then thinks James has never really spent that much time in his presence just talking, but he’s picked up on it anyway. Observer’s advantage, perhaps.
“We go out a lot so I can jog with the dog sometimes,” James continues, “She’s made a few friends, and it’s funny to see how she runs circles around them when she thinks they remind her of herself.”
“Is it really?”
“No,” James says, “Kinda sad. Kinda like you, I guess.”
Loki says nothing, but slowly nods.
“Look after her, okay?” James says, “I don’t really know a lot about whatever bullshit is up with magic and mutants, but something’s going on and there’s not really a lot a guy with a metal arm can do against it.”
“You’re the Winter Soldier,” Loki says.
James winces a little. “Was. Not really anymore and I – don’t really like that name.”
“What do you prefer?”
“James,” he says, “I don’t remember Bucky Barnes. I don’t want to be the Winter Soldier. James is…good for now. It’s where I feel like I am, you know. Kind of like how you feel like you’re Luke Winters instead of Loki of Sassgard or whatever the hell you call it.”
Loki’s lips quirk up for a moment. “Asgard.”
James waves a hand, and seeing someone just dismiss the Realm Eternal with such casualness makes Loki laugh.
“Sometimes people have to do what they have to, to figure out who they are,” he says, “Leave home, maybe.”
“I didn’t leave home.”
“Yeah, you dropped from it dramatically.” When Loki looks unamused, the man snickers. “I guess I’m just kind of there too. I didn’t run away or shit, but definitely had to start from scratch. I’m doing pretty well for a guy who sees in twos sometimes.”
“That might not be anything wrong with you,” Loki says, “Perhaps it’s something HYDRA awakened when they converted you into the Winter Soldier. Do you remember if the Winter Soldier saw in twos?”
James frowns, and then shakes his head. “No, I don’t. Guess you have a point there.”
“What is it, specifically, that you see?” Loki asks.
“Uh.” Scratching the back of his neck again. “It’s like – mirror shards. Like you’re looking at the same person, but there’s just fractures of them. Only normally, you know it’s just the same person since they’re looking at you with the same expression, the same movement, the same clothes, but the mirror shards just displace them a little, yeah? This one’s different.”
“I dunno, different clothes, different movements, different expressions, but the same person. It’s like the mirror was broken and then halved, and on one side you see what you should be seeing and on the other, you see what you shouldn’t.”
“How do you see Rose?”
“One is her,” James says, “The other is…colder. Darker. She’s got weird light around her but she looks like a black hole.”
Loki can feel the way the piece clicks in his head. It was night, and they were talking, and he asked her where she’d found the power running under her veins, power that once upon a time he would have killed her for to steal. She’d told him she was desperate and that someone had killed her mother.
(“Wherever did you find it?”)
It’s still under her skin, so it’s no surprise James can see it. Rose and…whatever’s inside her that’s already a part of her.
“You too, actually,” James says, and Loki frowns further.
“There’s you and then there’s…also you. You’re quite similar but not really,” James says, and then makes a vague gesture, “It’s hard to explain.”
“And why have you never told us this?” Loki asks, and then tries to backtrack, since he’s not trying to scare James off here, and the man is new to the War Council. “You did point out Sapphrel’s.”
James pauses, looks over Loki’s shoulder, and says, “Because this is the first time you’re doing it right now.”
“You’re stressed,” John helpfully points out, when he comes back to the council room to find a good place to think quietly.
Loki’s already there, leaning back in his seat, boots (who the fuck wears heeled leather boots indoors? Loki, that’s who, and John’s long stopped questioning that when he saw the guy with boots that looked like it had actual gold on it) up on the table, elbows propped up on the chair’s arms, hands steepled as he was deep in thought.
John’s got Moxie excitedly trotting behind him as he enters, stump tail trying to wag and tongue out. She briefly greets Loki by jumping up and nipping at his tailcoats spilling over the edge of his seat and Loki absentmindedly pats her head before returning to his original position.
“Mm,” he says, then, “Excuse me, John, what were you saying?”
“You look stressed,” John repeats, floating over to sit on the table, right across him. Moxie settles down at his feet, happily flopping down on the carpet.
John snickers. “Sure thing, Loki. What’s wrong?”
Loki sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “You know I tend to keep things in another fold of space, yes?”
John blinks. Fold of space? He’s probably talking about all the times he keeps throwing things in the air and it disappears in a flash of green light. Talk about dramatic. “Yeah? I guess?”
“Mm. I found and made myself a way to access that place, and made sure that I, and only I, would be able to get things in and out of it,” Loki says, and then...steels his jaw. He looks pissed. John feels the air crackle.
“…And? You kinda lost me there a little.” He chuckles, nervous, “I’m not used to space magic and all that.”
“Right.” That seems to calm him down a little, at least. “Well, that very space that should only be accessible to me has been broken into.”
John shifts. Not really knowing what to say to that, other than the fact that it confirms that someone really is messing with them, and someone who goes as far as breaking into Loki’s pocket space. “Oh,” John says, carefully. And then something clicks. “Didn’t you make notes and everything? And threw it there?”
“Yes,” Loki says, “And when I went to check those notes, they weren’t there.”
John feels a cold settle in his gut. “Oh,” he says, again. “It’s whoever’s doing this, isn’t it? The memory loss. Cecil.”
Loki nods and sighs. “There’s too many threads and while I can and will connect them all, I’m getting rather irritated at people trying to get in the way every time.”
“Yeah, and it sounded like they were targeting you somewhat,” John says, playing with the hem of his jacket. “Or, I dunno, it just sounded like it, the way they phrased it. You already know us.”
“That was certainly addressed to me, yes, but I wouldn’t say targeted.”
Loki looks hunted, John thinks, for the brief moment the man entertains the thought and then banishes it away just as quickly.
“Had the All-father found me, I suspect punishment would have been something more – what would be the appropriate word for it – dramatic? Drawn-out? Story-driven? He does love narratives with lessons at the end, but sadly life doesn’t work that way at all.”
“People don’t have character arcs,” John quotes, smiling, remembering. Loki raises an eyebrow but doesn’t ask.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he went for a quiet approach, and involve Midgar – humans along for the ride, but I doubt he would have been able to override something across universes. At least not without access to it in the first place,” Loki says, and then sighs.
John wants to pat his shoulder, because he’s clearly overthinking a few things, and Loki just proves it when he says, “Although, just because I’ve never seen anything about SBURB in the library archives, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Father kept the secret of my lineage for years, so this wouldn’t be the only thing he’s kept in the dark. And there’s also the possibility of SBURB hiding under another name. You said it was SGRUB for the trolls, yes?”
“Yeah,” John says.
“Too many variables and possibilities,” Loki says.
“Cecil having a vision couldn’t have stirred you up that much,” John says, “You’ve been looking after him for weeks.”
“Yes,” Loki says, “And then whoever got into his head addressed me personally.”
“Loki, what’s really wrong here?” John asks.
He watches Loki frown at the table, waits to see if it bursts into flames and then counts the seconds before Loki gives up on incinerating wood via vision alone and says, “I talked to James about him seeing in two.”
“Oh. Okay,” John says, “Maybe it’s a Seer thing.”
“Another völva?” Loki tilts his head a little.
“Might be.” John shrugs. “Rose said Kevin would have been a Knight of Light, and Cecil would have been a Seer of Void. Cecil’s the one who’s shown a lot of vision-y things so far.”
“I’ll need to talk to Rose about the structure of your – what did you call it? Classes?”
“Well, roles, really. Dave and Rose are the ones who understand a lot of this. Rose because she just really studied into SBURB, Dave because he’s had this creepy ass puppet all his life and because his alternate self was his sprite.”
Loki takes a second to remember information. In the mess that is SBURB, that recall time is impressive. “Spirit guides, yes? The game gives you some sort of programmable energy orb?”
John giggles at this. “Kinda, I guess. I didn’t really stop to study how it worked, but that’s a cool way of seeing it. Ghost orbs. But anyway, yeah, his alternate self – well, at that time I guess, just his regular self – jumped back in time to warn him and let him make other choices, and then merged with his sprite.”
“And I suppose Dave made different decisions leading to your current timeline, and thus the timeline where the other Dave came from became an alternate one instead, but became obsolete and closed to his present reality since he was stuck in the sprite; and since he’s made sure the choices this time were different, that timeline technically never happened?”
John blinks. “You’re fast.”
“I try. But that’s the case, yes? Time travel to undo mistakes, and the creation of another timeline in the process, but erasing your own timeline.”
“And that also proves that two of one person is plausible at the same time.”
“Well, two versions of them, yeah, but not necessarily that they’re the same, I guess,” John says. “Davesprite always felt like he wasn’t really Dave, even if I guess, he was originally the Alpha Dave, but since he made sure our timeline would happen, he forfeited being Alpha Dave? It’s all confusing.”
“A noble sacrifice,” Loki says, “He forfeited his place to make sure another version of him and his friends would live despite if his relevance would be seen as lesser to theirs.”
John’s never really thought about it like that, but he supposes it makes sense, if the universe had decided that there should only ever be one of one person in it. Except SBURB does love to break the rules, especially when it glitches out.
The light is back in Loki’s eyes though, and he’s probably theorizing faster than John can keep up already.
“James said he saw two of Rose, but the other self was probably whatever dark magic she’s got inside of her that has birthed another personality entirely.”
“Oh, that,” John says, “Yeah, that was bad.”
“You saw it happen?”
“Walked right beside her and talked to her about marriage, haha,” John says, “She has a girlfriend so that’s just awkward to remember, to be honest.”
“Oh? I didn’t know Rose had a girlfriend.”
“Ah, yeah, Kanaya didn’t…drop here with us. At least, I don’t think she did,” John says, feeling sorry for Rose for a moment, “I hope she does eventually. I can tell Rose misses her.”
“We’ll keep an eye out then,” Loki says. “Thank you for talking with me about this, John, it helps.”
“What? Rose’s girlfriend?”
Loki laughs, and it’s still such a strange sound, but it’s not unpleasant. “No, about the game. I don’t quite understand a few things since it’s rather extensive, but I’m getting there. Do fetch Rose if you’re going to go out later.”
“Will do,” John says, hopping off the table. Moxie stands, alert, and they’re both about to leave when Cecil staggers into the room, holding his head and focusing on the floor, wide-eyed.
John immediately helps keep him upright when he almost falls. “Ceec? You oka – ”
“P-paper,” he mumbles. Then, louder: “Paper. I need paper. Quick, before I forget.”
John just stares. So does Loki, and Cecil yells, “Paper, please.”
Loki stands and waves a hand in the air, a pad of paper dropping into his palm – probably teleported from somewhere in the house, with blue borders and watercolor sunflowers on it – as John guides Cecil to one of the seats.
Cecil grabs the pad immediately, then lets out a groan of frustration when he realizes he has no pen. Loki waves a hand again and drops a glitter purple pen onto the table. Someone was going to have to mourn their stationery after this.
But it’s enough, and Cecil seizes the pen, rips off the cap violently and tosses it across the room, where it hits the wall and rolls under the table from the rebound. He writes, stabbing into the paper, and John’s confusion grows and grows as he scribbles down numbers and more numbers and more numbers. When John steps away for a moment, he can see that Cecil’s eyes are glowing a little, but with a malicious dark red tint. There’s a bit of blood pooling at the edges of his eyes and under his nose.
“Shit.” Loki puts a hand on Cecil’s shoulder, quickly drawing runes in the air. He turns to John, expression tight. “Go get Graham and a medicine kit. Cecil’s going to hemorrhage at this point.”
Shit. John nods, snatches one last look at the paper where Cecil’s writing and crying blood onto now, before taking off in a gust of wind, Moxie at his heels. He thinks, for a brief moment as he runs the numbers through his head again, that they look like a pattern, repeating over and over and over, looking more frantic and deranged.
Sapphrel stares at their phone, kicking their feet back and forth, heels hitting the bed in a rhythm. Ruben is plucking his guitar to it as he waits for his laptop to finish getting itself out of loading hell and finally save his assignment. He’d have to do it all over again if the thing crashed, and Sapphrel winces in sympathy at the thought. Coding is a bitch.
Their best friend is relaxed, at least, probably forcing himself not to go off the handle worrying since he’s already lost time (fucking Loki, Saph swears to – fuck Odin too – whoever was listening) and is just keeping his frustration at bay with mindless music.
“Something wrong?” Ruben asks, when they’ve been staring at the phone for around ten minutes without blinking.
“Nothing,” they say, “Just a glitch, I guess.”
“What is it?”
Saph snorts, fond. Overachieving IT students. Go figure.
“Chat client’s also frozen in loading hell.”
“Aww shit, that sucks,” Ruben says, spinning his chair to face them, “There’s a bug going around, maybe.”
Saph wrinkles their nose. “That was awful.”
“You love it.”
“Nah,” they say, “It’s gonna take longer to unfreeze itself at this point with your puns.”
“Stone cold, Saph.”
“I hate this.” Sapphrel sticks out their tongue at him. “My puns are way better.”
“You got those from me, how dare you.”
“A hundred percent original, how dare you,” they laugh, and then flop back onto the bed, raising their phone up. Their hand slips and the phone hits their face.
They pick the thing up, pouting. “Rude.”
“Please, that was funny.”
“Rude,” they repeat, and are dismayed when the chat client appears to have been exited when they’d magnificently dropped their phone onto their nose. They sigh and navigate to reopen it again, and then another chat client pings. What’s it called – Pesterchum. Or something. It’s a funny name but Saph’s not gonna complain about the other Safehouse residents’ choices. Especially not when John loves to purchase kigurumis from them to prank Loki with.
It’s a message from archimageChaos.
They sigh, louder this time.
“What is it?” Ruben asks again, already strumming something up since he’s lost his metronome. Saph relaxes a little. What a catch, Donnie.
“Loki messaged. On that app you made,” they say.
Ruben preens, and spins around in a full circle in his chair.
“You should seriously get an account here, dude. Get in on the gossip.”
Ruben laughs. “There’s no gossip.”
“Yeah, well, suffer with me,” Saph says. They open up the message and blink. “Huh.”
“What’s the gossip?”
“Oh, plenty. And nasty, nasty stuff. Don’t wanna corrupt your innocent ears, Ruby.”
“Shush, just spill,” he says.
Saph giggles and rereads the message. “He wants to know if either of us are well-versed with number ciphers.”