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Journey To The Past

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Nose curled up delicately, Loki wanders through the ship port. It's dirty, messy, loud and disorganized, full of people yelling and shoving and pushing, ships being loaded and unloaded, deals being made, passengers being taken on. It doesn't alleviate the chaos any that the port is half market, tiny stalls jealously guarded by hawk-eyed, desperate owners, trying to praise their wares ranging from cold-eyed prostitutes over deep-fried food to essentials like clothes, spare parts, entertainment and soap. A crewmember wouldn't even have to leave the port to get everything they need, if they didn't care too much about quality or hygiene – which, unsurprisingly, most don't, high on being out of a ship for the first time in months, pockets heavy with their crew share.

It's an excellent place to pickpocket, especially if you don't look like the type. Loki is skinny from insufficient nourishment he was subjected to all his life, but he's tall and has regal cheekbones, the sneering curl of his mouth and arrogant curve of his eyelashes to go with it. Combined with clothes clean and fine enough one wouldn't expect from a street rat, people don't sidestep him when he walks by or check their pockets in time if he bumps into them. Loki has earned part of his living this way on and off since he was nine; it's not luxurious, but it's enough to get by.

The problem is, Loki doesn't want to get by. Growing up in an orphanage and half on the street beat all illusions of grandeur out of him really quickly, but it doesn't mean he's going to fold his hands in his lap, sigh and accept his fate.

No. Loki has a goal; he wants to get to Midgard. He's always wanted to go there, for as long as he can remember, though he's never been quite able to explain why. He dreams of golden halls and light, but it's only that; the dreams of a child. It's stupid because it's not like things will actually be better once he gets there, he'll still be down at the bottom of the food chain, always on the brink between starvation and prostitution, but the dream is all he has. Sometimes he wants to keep it just for the sake of it because he fears once he gets there his life will be pointless, like a male spider who has impregnated the female and all that's left for him to do is get eaten.

Every time his thoughts wander down that road Loki goes to the port to look at the ships and imagine what if. It's enough to rekindle him, keep his desire afloat for another couple of weeks and that's all he wants from it by this point. The debate is moot anyway; Loki will never earn enough money in his life to be able to afford the passage unless he reconsiders his career path, and he's too slender for physical labor. He already tried and quit cashing out on that and he's not desperate enough to earn his keep on his back with his legs spread.

No. His life is okay; the only thing he's truly lacking is a goal, a reason not to throw himself into the red hot garbage disposal fires, and if he needs to dream of going to Midgard every now and then despite all logic and reason, then he will do that.

"Hey!" someone calls out loudly; it takes another two calls before Loki registers that he is the one being addressed.

Eyebrows raised Loki turns around. A man is weaving his way through the crowd towards him, young, messy and with an outgrown beard. Loki didn't pickpocket him, and he anyway doesn't look like someone here to reclaim their liberated possessions; his expression is not hostile.

"Would you be interested in a job?" the guy proposes breathlessly once he stands in front of Loki. "It'll pay off nicely."

"I don't do that sort of thing," Loki refuses, not at all offended (it's by far not his first proposition) but also really not interested. Even if he were, he'd never go with some random stranger who picked him up at the shipyard; he isn't naïve.

The guy winces. "That's not what I meant. Look, I… uh, could we talk somewhere?"

Loki really isn't that stupid. "No, thank you." He makes as if to walk away. The guy reaches out to grab him and Loki twists out of the way, coming out tense and ready to fight or flight, to vanish into the crowd of people pushing by all around them. This is an idiotic location for a fight, there isn't any space, but that'll work to Loki's advantage. He's used to the ebb and flow of the crowd and familiar with the location, unlike the guy, who clearly isn't a local. He practically reeks of ship rat.

"Whoa." The guy raises both hands in the universal "I come unarmed and mean no harm" gesture. "I'm sorry, don't run away. Look, this is really important and really lucrative and I think you're perfect for the job. I'd like to talk to you about it before you say no, you just have to listen, okay? We can go anywhere you want."

Clearly, the guy is desperate or nuts or both. Loki could lead him anywhere and rob and kill him, or worse. Does he have no sense of self-preservation?

It's intriguing, and Loki's bored, and he has a secret ace up his sleeve. He's not as vulnerable as he appears.

"Fine." Turning around, Loki starts to weave his way through the crowd, having to pause every now and then because the guy's about to lose him. Definitely not familiar with Hel, or any port similar.

Nevertheless, Loki leads him around in circles a bit to ensure he'll get lost, because he isn't any more reckless than he's naïve. Eventually he stops at a corner food place, out of the way of the port enough to come both comparably cheap and non-dirty. They let people watch as they prepare the food.

"He's paying," Loki informs the door guard. The guy doesn't protest, sealing his fate; now he's got to pay or they'll cut it out of his skin.

Loki picks two seats a little out of the way and orders chicken stir-fry, the guy tagging along.

"So, talk," Loki orders curtly, watching as the cook starts to cut up their vegetables.

The guy clears his throat. "My name's Tony." There's an awkward pause as he waits for Loki's name. When none is forthcoming he awkwardly clears his throat and continues. "I'm heading for Midgard, and I need somebody for a con."

Only in Hel would you pick up a random person off the street and suggest illegal deals in a public venue without any fear of consequences.

"Details," Loki demands, voice clipped. He ran with some people in his early teens and did some cons with them, usually involving dressing Loki as a girl. It's entertaining, Loki enjoys how easy it can be to manipulate people, but he'd be a fool to jump into it with perfect strangers, especially such unprofessional ones. Despite it not being uncommon to pick up strangers on the street, it is still rather reckless and stupid.

"Have you heard of Prince Thor's search?"

Who hasn't? People still speak in scandalized, exhilarated whispers about the assassination of all the siblings of the Aesir ambassador stationed on Midgard. It had been a complete diplomatic disaster that led to the full closing down of all Aesir embassies and, rumor has it, even caused a war. Not that anyone truly knows if it did because Asgard and Jotunheim are too far away for anyone but their inhabitants to ever have been there. The mystery of those two places and their means of transportation (there's an endless supply of rumors about it; Loki's favorite is the one where you have to step outside and yell for somebody to come pick you up and it'll miraculously happen) to other planets are legendary, all of which has only fueled the scandal of the assassination. Sure is only this: all of Asgard's royal children, five of them, came to visit Ambassador Thor and were murdered by a group of Jotunn. The only sure survivor is Thor, the second eldest son who happened to be away from the palace at the time. However, there have been persistent rumors from the beginning that Thor's youngest brother, Loki, supposedly got away as well. Around four months ago, Thor called for his brother to be found and invited all potential candidates to be vetted at the Palace, Midgard's center of government.

He might as well have written a personal invitation to all conmen anywhere, in Loki's opinion. And this guy here apparently wants a piece of the pie, how positively dull.

"Let me guess, you want me to play the amnesiac brother," Loki says dryly. Tony's actually not the first one to suggest it, though the other suggestions had been more in jest and not directly related to the search. Loki knows he falls into the parameters of how Prince Loki is supposed to look: he's of the appropriate age and coloring and even has the right name, but he's not the only one, and it's completely impossible that he is a prince.

Tony nods animatedly. "Yes! I have a ship and the means to train you in all you need to know while we get to Midgard."

"Cute. And what happens when the king realizes I'm not his brother? You'll be gone and I'll be stuck, and there won't be any reward."

"He might not find out, if you're good." Tony winks, like a bit of flirting and a half-hearted challenge will lure Loki into participating in this ridiculous plan.

Loki is naturally unimpressed. "What is your real goal?"

Tony hesitates.

Annoyed to be considered that dumb, Loki presses, "You're not a professional con man. Otherwise you'd never put it all on a potential amateur, somebody you don't even know. I'll ask you one last time, what do you really want?"

"I need access to the palace," Tony relents. "They don't let anyone without a pass within seventy miles of the thing, and the closer you want the higher a pass you need." He pauses.

"Go on," Loki pushes. This isn't enough for him by far, though it is the truth, he knows that much.

"Somebody is keeping me out on purpose," Tony grits out, knuckles turning white as he clenches his fingers around the counter. "I need to get in and prove that he's a thief and a liar and took what is rightfully mine."

"And getting in will be enough for you to do that?" Loki asks neutrally. He can smell a lie a mile off, but this seems highly fantastical, and even if Tony truly believes it doesn't make it true. Loki can taste self-denial, but it's difficult to figure out which part that relates to.

Tony turns his head to look at him, face dead serious. "Yes."

The truth, unequivocally. Not a hint of self-denial. Intriguing, to say the least. What business could Tony have in the palace?

"How will having me play Prince Loki gain you access?"

"I'll be in your entourage under a false identity."

Sounds legit enough a plan. "What will I get out of all of this?"

"I'll pay you handsomely, and as I said, you might get to spend your life as an Aesir Prince."

"No." Loki shakes his head. "I'll be able to fool them enough to get us into an audience, perhaps a bit longer, but they're bound to figure out I'm not the Prince eventually." Rumor has it Aesir are immortal, though that clearly doesn't include invulnerability.

Tony shrugs. "Who knows? Loki was four when the whole thing happened."

"No. They'll have a sure way to find out if I'm real or not; otherwise they would not have called this search. It will all fall apart sooner or later."

The look Tony sends him is weird, but really. It's naïve to truly believe that someone who is not the real thing is actually going to make it.

"Fine." Tony shrugs. "I just need a way in. You'll get free passage to Midgard and 20k."

"25k and free passage to and off Midgard, if I wish or require it. No leaving me behind before making sure I'm not coming with you."

"20k and free passage to and from Midgard."

"25."

"Don't be greedy. There's no way you'll get that and free passage off."

"I'm not asking you to chauffeur me to wherever I want to go after. I'll stay on your ship until you land somewhere I like. And this might potentially ruin all my chances at a respectable future employment. 25k. I'm not going lower."

Tony stares at him with narrowed eyes. "You drive a hard bargain."

Loki shrugs. "I'm not the one who needs to get into the palace." Though he is the one who has a strong wish to get to Midgard, but Tony doesn't know that. He's well enough on Hel, and he still isn't sure he'd go even if Tony agrees.

Tony blows out a breath. "Fine. 25k, free passage to and from Midgard, provided you get off my ship within three months after departure from Midgard."

"Provided you don't try to throw me out at a total shithole."

Anybody else would be mad to do this; Tony has countless opportunities to cheat him out of his payment and free ride and Loki would have no recourse. But in this case Tony is the one who is reckless because Loki has the means to enforce he'll be paid. Tony doesn't know it, though, or he'd never let Loki onto his ship. Loki is dangerous.

Tony nods, entirely oblivious. "Deal." He holds out a hand.

"Deal," Loki echoes, shaking it.

They seize each other up for a moment, interrupted by their food being ready.

"So," Tony says, poking at a slice of meat quizzically. He'd be right to be cautious about it just about anywhere else, but chicken is hard to disguise and they saw it come off the leg. "You gonna tell me your name?"

"Loki."

Tony huffs and laughs. "Getting into the role already, are you?"

"No, my name is Loki," Loki growls. It's not that unusual; there are countless children born before the assassination carrying the names of the royal Aesir family. Nowadays it's considered bad luck, but Loki knows a bunch of Lokis, Thors, Baldrs and so on of around his age or older.

"Really?" Tony laughs. "How about that! What a coincidence."

They eat and Tony does indeed pay afterwards. "Are you going to come check out my ship?"

"No. You'll tell me where it is and when you're shipping out and I'll come the evening before with my things."

Tony shrugs. "Suit yourself. We're in port A.11, section D4.7b, shipping next Wednesday at the deadline. You need to be there at least an hour before liftoff."

"See you Tuesday evening, then," Loki says impassively. He waits until Tony is out of sight before heading home. He has a room and he paid the most recent rate upfront, so he has to get it back.

Naturally it takes some forceful persuasion, but his landlady knows when to give up. She hates Loki fiercely now and if he had to stay here he'd be worried, but he'll be leaving either way, the offer giving him the nudge he needed to finally do something to get out of this shithole. With the leftover money he goes to the orphanage, picking some of his old acquaintances to spy on the comings and goings of the ship, possibly shade the crew.

They report back to him that the ship looks sturdy enough and isn't being repaired from the outside, but they do carry spare parts inside. This suggests that the ship wasn't involved in heavy battles but perhaps mild fights or some daring maneuvers, though the repairs might be just maintenance. Neither Loki nor the kids know enough about engines and ships to tell either way.

Also being loaded onto the ship are the usual things; crates of preserved and compressed food, other necessities, some mysterious crates that might be smuggled goods; Loki doesn't care much about that sort of thing. He's more interested in the crew.

There's Tony; the kids don't have much to say about him, he doesn't go out much and when he does he usually comes back with spare parts. Then there's a blond man; he's strong but kind, throwing the kids sweets when nobody's watching, but there's something about him that prevents the usually natural result of such kindness of the kids hounding his every step. They can't quite name it but that's not important; what matters is that Loki can infer what they mean. He grew up on the streets as well. There are some people whose kindness you gladly take, but that doesn't mean you feel at all encouraged to go and ask for more.

Somebody else who makes the kids pause is a red-headed woman. As far as Loki can tell she didn't do anything to deserve it, but they're terrified of her. He trusts their instincts, one of the first things you learn on the streets is how to recognize who to avoid and who to run away from – if you don't, you don't survive unscathed for long.

The last member of the crew is the second red-headed woman who is very different from the first; her hair is lighter but, much more important, she is not dangerous. The kids unanimously agree that she's the captain because she clearly oversees and controls everything and appears to give orders to the others.

It's a relatively small crew but Loki knows of smaller; you don't actually need many if you stay on the legal side and avoid dangerous territory on top of having a more modern, automated ship. You won't get rich that way (though really, having such a ship means you already are) but you also won't get dead.

Considering the two dangerous members of his crew, this probably means that Tony and his crew at least skirt the borders of legal, but that much was a given already. No respectable ship would be caught dead in Hel. Most likely Tony is just starting in on his criminal career, a few smuggling jobs under his belt, maybe some stealing and kidnapping as well. Or perhaps he's kept his nose clean, focusing completely on the man on Midgard he means to dismantle and the con he's using as a cover. Though he certainly didn't plan it well, all things considered; Loki's a complete stranger to the crew and the whole plan hinges on him. Reckless to the point of stupidity.

Well, it's not Loki's problem. This is most likely the only opportunity he'll ever get to get to Midgard this easily. He'll go there, look around some to prove to himself once and for all that it's no more a place for him than Hel. Maybe then he'll stop this silly pining for a place to call home and get on with his life.

So Loki packs all his things – not that he has a great number of possessions anyway – and heads over to the ship on Tuesday. The children throw him furtive glances when he gets there; he's not paying them anymore but it seems they found the task interesting enough to keep at it (no wonder, what with the sweets they get every now and then). Loki knows better than to pay them to keep silent or to give them his left-over money. He'll make Tony pay what he is owed if Tony tries to cheat him somehow so he won't need the scraps he has on his person now, but charity is not something that exists on Hel, and for a reason. No matter how much Loki does not want to, there is still a chance that one day he'll end up back here, and he doesn't want to have a reputation for throwing money around.

Tony is standing outside with the blond man and the red-headed woman; Loki wouldn't know which one if his instincts didn't tell him it's not the dangerous one. Oh, this one might be dangerous in her own right, but by far not enough to scare children who have grown up in the street milieu of Hel.

Tony spots him first. "Loki!" he exclaims, throwing his arms wide and advancing as if to hug him; Loki glares and steps out of the way. As if the byplay didn't happen Tony lets his arms drop and grins at him. "I wasn't sure you'd come."

"Today's your lucky day then," Loki drawls, focusing on Tony's companions who are staring at him.

"Geez, overdo it much?" the blond man gripes rudely.

"No, no, his name really is Loki." Tony beams as if that's his own achievement and puts a hand on Loki's shoulder.

"I thought you were exaggerating as usual when you said he's perfect," the woman says, eyebrows raised in surprise, "but this we can really work with."

"Now, be nice," Tony chastises. "Loki, these are Pepper and Clint. Guys, this is Loki."

"Pleasure, touch my stuff and I'll end you," Clint rattles off.

"Same to you," Loki returns. As far as posturing goes, this is completely harmless; it might go further though once they're locked up with each other in an enclosed space for two months.

"Nice to meet you," Pepper pushes between them, holding out her hand for Loki to shake. "I'm Pepper, I basically organize everything on the ship. Is that all your luggage?" She eyes his backpack.

Loki has shrunk his most prized possessions – mostly books, a couple of finer clothes, some trinkets; most of it is stolen but it's nothing anybody would track him for or steal from him. She doesn't know that, of course. As far as everybody knows, only women of generally Aesir roots can practice magic, and only those very rich can purchase enchanted goods. It's more than enough reason for Loki to hide, so he has sealed his tin box with enchantments one can buy for lots of money. Money Loki doesn't have, but he might have inherited or stolen them for all they know. They'll never consider that he might have enchanted them himself, even if they somehow get into a situation where they can figure out that his box is enchanted – it's not an opportunity Loki intends to give them.

"Yes."

"Okay. Follow me then, I'll show you to your room."

"Pepper, Pepper," Tony interrupts, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and gifting her with a charming smile. Loki knows the sort, and Pepper looks smart enough not to trust it going by the way she narrows her eyes. "You're a busy woman," Tony continues magnanimously. "Let me take care of that."

Pepper looks surprised, even dubious. Still, she gives in. "If you say so…" She watches with narrowed eyes as Tony throws his arm around Loki's shoulders instead, completely ignoring the way Loki stiffens.

"Tony!" she calls after them just as they're about to board the ship. "Behave!"

Not turning around, Tony waves a hand in the air and calls back, "I always do!"

Loki isn't sure what to make of the whole thing. It's ominous and if he didn't have his magic he'd be worried. "I'll have you know, I'm perfectly capable of defending myself," he informs Tony nevertheless. Even if a group came at him, if worst came to worst he could teleport away. He's never had to resort to that, discovery will be the end of his relatively unmolested life and teleportation is not exactly inconspicuous, but he's always kept it in mind as a last resort.

Tony seems puzzled, then honestly shocked; he quickly takes his arm off Loki's shoulders and puts some distance between them. "I would never!" he exclaims, genuinely disturbed; it's the truth, the full truth, not just what he believes the truth to be. Loki's met people who consider themselves one thing but are another. There's a difference between lying and being untruthful. Loki prefers self-awareness, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter; he can tell either way, the flavor of lies subtly different on his tongue depending what kind of lies they are. This is not one.

"This is JARVIS," Tony says after a brief moment of silence, still looking a little thrown but quickly finding his stride back.

"Welcome aboard, Sir," a disembodied voice says. Loki looks around. They're standing in the cargo bay, having entered through a side-entrance. The wide backdoors are firmly closed. It's loaded with crates to half-capacity, orderly and secure.

"Hello," Loki replies, unsure. The kids didn't mention a fifth crew member and he can't see anyone either, which he finds genuinely unsettling.

Tony laughs. "JARVIS is the ship," he imparts like he's giving away a great secret – and he is, because it's the truth. "I built it. Him. He's an A.I."

Loki stares at the man. He built an A.I.? Such a thing is still considered impossible. "You built an A.I. into your ship?" All the movies suggest that's suicide, but they say that about robots too, and those have been available to the public for about eight years now without any of the feared incidents of murders or bids for world domination occurring.

"Yes," Tony confirms proudly. "He controls everything, though if you want him in your private quarters I'll have to give him access first. Anywhere else, you want something – change of temperature, travel information, music – just ask him."

That sounds rather daring and reckless, but also fantastical. Loki would be more worried about his safety and privacy if he didn't know that he can teleport anywhere, from anywhere. It might not be pleasant and he might be exhausted afterwards, but he can do it. And that privacy is a luxury he has learned long ago.

"So, as you can see, this is the cargo bay. Come, I'll show you the rest."

So Loki gets a tour. Tony shows him around, clearly proud of the ship, and he can be; it's high tech in a way Loki has never seen or even heard of, not even in movies. He doesn’t get to see the engine room or some private areas, but Tony shows him the kitchen and dinging slash living room; "We generally spend at least one meal a day together, so dinner is mandatory for all aboard the ship." There's also a green room filled with pretty, edible things they grow themselves as well as a viewing room just to stare outside (not of much use right now, Hel isn't the sort of place to offer a good view, but in hyperspace the long windows must be gorgeous), and even an extensive library full of data crystals; all of it the height of luxury. There's also a training room with exercising machines, and this is where Loki meets the other red-headed woman.

They recognize each other. Not because they've met before; they both recognize someone who's had to do things to survive they'd rather not think about. There's an expression on her face, a certain sheen on it that tells Loki clearly that this is not a woman who is going to let anyone push her around. The kids were right to be scared of her.

"Loki," she murmurs after Tony has introduced them. Her voice is smooth and satiny and somebody who can't see through her calm, pleasant veneer would mistake it for friendly, perhaps even welcoming.

Loki smiles, a similarly baring of the teeth under a friendly cover. "Miss Romanov."

"Call me Natasha," a challenge dressed up as an invitation.

"Natasha." Loki lowers his eyelashes, an acknowledging that this is her home turf, but no backing away; he is no intruder. He has right to be here.

"Right, why do I get the feeling there's something else going on here?" Tony asks, puzzlement shattering the tension that's racked up between them. "Do you know each other?"

"We know of each other," Natasha says, walking past them in the direction they've come from.

Tony stares after her. "Right. That was weird. I don't suppose you'll tell me what just happened?"

Loki smiles. "I believe you were about to show me the training room."

Tony's stare transfers onto Loki for a moment before Tony visibly shakes it off. "Right. I'll get to the bottom of this eventually, but okay. The training room."

After Tony has shown Loki everything he is to know about the ship he tells him to make himself at home, "I don't know, unpack your stuff or something," and vanishes. Loki heads back to his room and immediately sets to modifying the lock. The Artificial Intelligence whines at him and says things like "you shouldn't be doing this" and "Mr. Stark will not be pleased", but Loki could care less. They're his quarters, he's damn well going to make sure nobody else can enter at will. And if he adds some traces of magic that will alert him if anyone tries to enter despite his efforts, the machine doesn't notice, and nobody else will either. Loki has long learned how to skirt the line between magic that people will notice and that they can detect. And yeah, he can't keep people out of his room indefinitely, but he'll at least have enough warning to make sure his property is safe.

He doesn't unpack. This is not a home; never mind that Loki's never had a home to begin with, he'd be foolish to spread his possessions all over the place. If he has to leave quickly he'd have to leave some, if not everything, behind. Besides, he just feels better knowing all his stuff is in one place, neatly contained, quickly obtained, less easy for the picking. Instead he roams the halls, familiarizing himself with the distances and the exact locations of everything. Very tentatively, he stretches out his magic senses; he doesn't know what sort of detection systems JARVIS has. Everything Loki knows of (hasn't necessarily come into contact with; that sort of high-tech doesn't really make it onto Hel) wouldn't be able to detect what Loki is doing even if he explored a bit more, but he'd rather be cautious. This ship's tech is clearly not anything commercially available, so Loki has no idea what it actually can do.

He puzzles over that; the dichotomy of it. This is not a ship that belongs on Hel. From the outside it looks normal, none too shiny but not like a wreck either, but from the inside it's more than highly modern – it's unreal. Loki might have gotten himself into more than he calculated; an unpleasant thought considering how paranoid he is. But he shakes off the trace of disquiet he feels – as of yet nobody has been able to do much more than detect strong magic. Nobody is even close to having developed the ability to restrict magic with magic, much less with technology. He'll be fine.

Loki manages to avoid running into anybody for about an hour, but then his luck and stealth abilities run out and he comes upon Natasha. It's no accident, Loki isn't stupid enough to believe that; he is rather stealthy after all. He isn't surprised either, he expected a confrontation sooner rather than later. Not entirely unlike Clint, Natasha has to mark her territory, but where Clint did the equivalent to a neethra peeing on its territory to mark its ownership, she is merely here to assess her potential opponent and stake some lines.

"You're native to Hel?" she asks softly.

Loki isn't. "Inasmuch as it counts," he replies. "Where did you grow up?"

Her smile is sharp. "Russia."

Ah. A place about as nice as Hel, then. "Cankid?" Meaning, a child having grown up in an orphanage from a very early age on, like Loki.

"Inasmuch as it counts."

They smile as each other, eyes attentive, assessing.

Natasha comes to a decision. "Dinner is in an hour. You should come." She walks past him, heading back into the gym.

Loki hadn't really planned on going; neither had he planned on not going, but he isn't comfortable in groups, especially not with so many strangers. His vague idea had been to get acquaintanced to the individual residents of the ship first before actually joining them as a group. But he can't really do that; Natasha challenged him as much as she invited him. It's a sign that she's willing to tolerate him in her territory but also a clear statement that it's her territory. Ballsy, since Loki had been under the impression that it was Tony's territory, but he isn't at all aware yet of the true ranking on this ship as opposed to the official chain of command. In that sense, getting to observe everybody in a group is a good opportunity to find out.

So Loki heads into the room Tony introduced as a dining area slash living room with adjoined kitchen. There's a table and chairs, of course, and the cupboards are filled with things like cards and board games and other sorts of things to waste time in a group, as well as a number of tablets that JARVIS informs him are for playing video games in a group.

It's not like Loki forgot, but it brings to the forefront of his mind again that he's being watched whenever he steps out of his room, possibly also inside; it's not a nice feeling, but it's not unfamiliar. Loki's always felt vaguely paranoid, like someone was watching his every move, out to get him. It's even true in a sense, though the feeling of paranoia hadn't been directly connected to the things he had reason to be paranoid about, ironically.

Voices approach before Loki can leave and the only other exit apart from the kitchen is closed to Loki. So all Loki can do is stand there and try not to look like he was snooping.

It's Clint and Pepper, in deep conversation. They seem surprised to see him; Clint challengingly raises one eyebrow but Pepper quickly gets over it and welcomes him warmly. "We're about to make dinner," she informs him. "There's a schedule, you'll be added to that as well, we'll be having a meeting to discuss this sort of thing tomorrow after take-off."

"Everybody here pulls his weight," Clint adds, a bit abruptly.

"Of course," Loki says smoothly. Clint isn't being completely hostile, but he's nowhere near as friendly and welcoming as Pepper is. Though that doesn't mean that she's truly happy to have him here, Loki isn't that stupid.

With a scowl aimed at Clint, Pepper says, "I'm sure it'll all be fine. Would you like to help tonight? We could show you where everything is."

Loki doesn't really want to, he isn't interested, but it'd probably better. It will give the impression that he's motivated to socialize or something like that. Also, it will be way less awkward than having to make up an excuse for staying nevertheless as well as being an easy way to be integrated once the others start to arrive. Loki isn't fond of groups, especially not with him being the only one not familiar with the others; he'll take anything to make it easier on himself.

So he nods and goes into the kitchen with them and lends a hand for small jobs like stirring as they prepare food – fresh, as of yet, though in a week all the fresh food will have run out, excepting the food they get from the greenroom. Loki still isn't over the greenroom, it's incredibly rare for a ship to have something like that. Pure luxury.

Pepper asks him safe questions – what is Loki's favorite food, has he ever cooked for such a relatively large group of people, has he ever lived on a ship for an extended period of time – and tells him harmless stories about life on a ship when he negates the last question. She seems concerned with ridding him of the prejudices connected to ship life – that there's no actual water shortage, though there is a restriction to how long he can shower if he takes longer than fifteen minutes, or that people don't actually go crazy if they stare into hyperspace for too long. Loki hadn't cared about the former (if need be, he can make his own water) and had known about the latter (and even if he hadn't, the viewing room would've been a great indication), but he acknowledges the effort she's trying to make.

It has an immediate, positive effect too; Clint's manner starts to thaw a little as he warms up to Loki. Loki can't really determine how or why, but something he's doing must be right. It's far from enough for Loki to relax as well, but it's a step in the right direction.

After about half an hour, just when Loki is about to get overwhelmed with being at the center of attention, Tony joins them. "Getting along well?" he asks, beaming at all three of them.

"Sweet Jesus," Clint mumbles, clearly sharing Loki's opinion of Tony's exaggerated good mien.

"Tony," Pepper says sweetly. "You're just in time to set the table."

To Loki's surprise, Tony immediately goes about doing just that. Not without complaint, but it's clearly good-humored – Loki would have expected him to consider himself above such things, what with how he's the owner of the ship, but clearly that is not the case.

While Tony sets the table he keeps up a constant stream of chatter, mostly about the last minute deals he made when he realized that they're going to ship out tomorrow and that he doesn't have any time to waste anymore, from what Loki can glean. It seems like Tony likes to procrastinate and dawdle and waste time; Pepper is clearly exasperated, but also fond of him. Their dynamic is very puzzling and Loki mulls over it, keeping silent and staying in the background, observing. He had been under the impression that Pepper was the Captain; it had been what the kids had reported to him and he could see where they'd been coming from. Pepper clearly keeps the ship in order, which appears to include keeping Tony in line. However, ever since boarding the ship Loki had started to doubt that initial assessment.

It's not just the way Tony spoke of the ship, in a possessive, almost paternal manner, definitely proud, but with the hint of personal achievement behind it that doesn't quite fit a person who merely bought something this magnificent. Loki has started to consider that Tony actually built the ship himself, or at least customized it; it would explain the A.I., certainly. Though what a person as intelligent and skilled as Tony is doing on a ship instead of earning a lot of money by booting Stark Industries off the market (and he'd be capable of that, clearly; Stark Industries hasn't brought any new, revolutionizing technology onto the market since the introduction of the robots eight years ago, discounting upgrades or new versions of already existing technology) remains a mystery. It might simply be that Tony is eccentric – not that unlikely, going from the way he acts and the way he hired Loki – but Loki doesn't think that, even if it is the case, is all there is to it. Tony told him about the man who is keeping him out of the palace and he spoke the truth. No, there is something more going on, on a deeper level. Loki is very curious, and not just because he needs to know as much as possible about these people to keep himself safe.

The other occupants of the ship are both more and less of a mystery; Pepper Loki knows next to nothing about, why she's here and what she's doing with this crew, but it's clear she's the organizer, the one who keeps everything in order. It's something she seems to excel at and that she obviously enjoys, and while her connection with Tony and why exactly this ship (that it ported in Hel is not a sign of its high integrity, this is a simple fact) are unclear to Loki, she herself isn't that hard to figure out.

Clint isn't that difficult either. He's possessive and protective of the ship he considers his home, of the crew that is clearly important to him and he views Loki as an intruder, but he doesn't have the deeply ingrained, nearly paranoid suspicion one who grew up the way Loki and Natasha did possesses. His growing up might possibly not have been ideal, Loki can't tell yet either way, but he isn't as affected by his past as Loki and Natasha are. Loki is fairly sure that once he gets used to Loki and as long as Loki doesn't harm any members of the crew, he'll become relatively amicable.

Natasha is a much harder nut to crack. On the other hand, she grew up the way Loki did, in orphanage after orphanage, always having to fight tooth and nail for everything she possessed and wanted to keep and wanted to gain, and then there are all the other things that includes. Orphans aren't really valued members of society – rather, they're an exploitable resource. Like Loki, she learned early on to protect herself in any way available to her – which sometimes isn't much at all, but it's clear she persevered in the end. He can see it in her eyes, the same way he can see it in the mirror.

She's the most dangerous. He sees himself when he looks at her, and while also creating a false feeling of camaraderie, mostly it makes him feel defensive, almost hostile. Same with the way she can see through him, at least partially so, as he can see through her. As she told Tony, they know of each other. They don't even need to know each other's particular circumstances; just having grown up similarly makes them aware of too many things possibly (likely) lurking in each others' pasts.

But Loki is determined not to let that unsettle him. Just two months, he tells himself; he has to live here with these people for two months. Then he'll get off the ship in Midgard and perhaps he'll go through with the con. Or maybe he'll just disappear as soon as they land, he hasn't decided yet. If he does the former he still will likely not see any of them again once he has gained Tony access to the palace – despite the negotiations, he highly doubts he'll get passage off Midgard with these people, whether by his or their design. They have absolutely no obligation to stay and wait for him, excepting an oral contract Loki made with Tony, who might or might not be the ship's Captain but is likely the ship's owner.

Not that it matters. Loki can't get onto Midgard with his powers, they've outlawed teleportation since the assassination and teleportation leaves a very distinct energy signature. It's possible to do it, of course, but Loki would be weakened upon arrival, and from what he's heard the response team to illegal (meaning all) teleportation is very fast, and very deadly. That's a risk Loki's never been willing to take, not for a silly dream. But that doesn't mean he can't teleport off Midgard if he needs to.

Dinner commences with everybody sitting down and dishing out food before they start to talk about things like whether they got everything they needed or wanted from Hel, what they plan to do over the course of the trip, what they'll do once they reach Midgard. They don't purposefully exclude Loki but it's a natural progression since he isn't familiar with them or anything they're talking about. Every once in a while somebody will explain something to Loki (such as when they speak about meeting up with some friends on Midgard they haven't seen in a while; while the others keep chatting Tony informs Loki that they were in the passenger transport business for a while) or even ask him an awkward question in an attempt to draw him into the conversation (mostly Tony and Pepper), but generally all there is to do for Loki is to observe.

Which suits him perfectly fine; it's ideal, even. Natasha is well-aware of this, of course, and Loki knows that as he observes them that he's being observed as well, but there isn't anything to be done about that.

Long after everybody has finished eating Tony and Natasha start clearing up. The duties are clearly separated into teams of two; Loki's curious how they'll integrate him in the rotation schedule. Pepper said they'd do that tomorrow after taking off, which Loki finds a bit problematic – not for him personally, he isn't happy about having to cook for other people but accepts it as something there is nothing to be done about, and it actually is a convenient opportunity to control the food preparation process – what if somebody turned out to be absolutely uncooperative? They'd have no recourse, there'd be no way to throw the person off the ship once they've started on their journey. Well, technically they could turn around again, but that'd be a ridiculous waste of resources and time. But, well, they've been at this for way longer than Loki; he figures they know what they're doing. It's sink or swim in pretty much any business, including shipping; they wouldn't still be afloat if they didn't know how to handle uncooperative passengers.

Loki slinks off when everybody makes motions to break up. He feels exhausted when he gets to his room, all the new information to take in and the unfamiliar surroundings he has to adapt to gnawing at his energy reserves. That of course doesn't stop him from making sure his door won't at all be opened without his waking up.

Rest doesn't come easy, however. It never does, Loki is a light sleeper by necessity – nowhere is truly safe, nowhere can be truly safe, not for him – but the unfamiliar surroundings as well as the unknown territory (in more than one sense) he's about to veer off into get to him. This isn't entirely unexpected, not that Loki is at all happy about it.

This isn't the first time he's been in a situation like this, he tells himself, recalling the many times he'd been shipped off to a different orphanage, or all the times he'd simply been put in a transport vehicle along with some other children and sent off into the unknown. Nobody ever took the trouble of informing them what was happening to them but Loki quickly learned that usually this sort of thing meant they were being lent out to work somewhere, usually factories – if they were lucky. There were much darker place that appreciated child labor, in various ways. Loki hadn't been lucky often, his wiry frame and delicate features not making him an attractive candidate for factory work, but all the more for the other thing.

This isn't like that, of course, he reminds himself. He isn't a child anymore either, unable to defend himself – though he'd never really been that. Early on he'd learned that he could, if he so wished, control his surroundings; it was just very, very dangerous, usually much more dangerous than the other option. Over time he learned to thread the line between either, use just enough magic to get around or through relatively unscathed whatever was happening to him, but he had had a couple of slip-ups along the way.

Those accidents aren't the sort of thing Loki usually takes care to remember because they represent a loss of control for him – something which he both fears and revels in, the destruction he can wreak if he lets go is delicious but the consequences are insanely dangerous, magic being a force highly valued and thus closely monitored. But they're also a reminder that he can take care of himself. He's learned from each time he lost control, whether it be something about his magic and how he wields or about the limits of what he can bear.

He should try not to recall the things he did and that happened, he knows that, and he doesn't intend to. But if he's backed into a corner he can and will take all measures, fight or flight, often one and the same for him.

It's not the kind of thing that puts a person to sleep, isn't soothing or calming; instead, it sends his heart racing with both fear and excitement, the idea of what he could do with this ship if he took control. And he could, despite the A.I.; it would perhaps be more difficult than other ships (and Loki's been there, and it wasn't easy, but it was also far from overly difficult), but he could do it.

Loki plans, calling up what-if scenarios and making up responses, plans, contingency plans, contingency plans for the contingency plans, always in mind the one last thing he can do if all else fails: flee. Teleportation from outer space isn't something he's done before, he doesn't know in what condition he'll arrive wherever he'll arrive, but it stands to reason that he'll be in better health than the one time he'd teleported from one planet to the next. The distance is what matters and a few thousand lightyears don't make much of a difference in the end, but being halfway to a planet should make one.

That's what finally lulls Loki into a light slumber, the knowledge that he's not trapped, that he won't ever be trapped.

The next morning, he's woken up by the A.I.'s voice sounding from the door.

"If you are up and ready, Mr. Tony requests your presence at your convenience, Mr. Loki."

It makes Loki suspicious; if he were being monitored both Tony and the A.I. would have known he's still asleep, but it might very well just be a trick. He determines that he'll keep operating under the assumption that he's being monitored and won't do any visible magic.

This means he has to get clean the slow way, which he often is a bit too lazy for. His room on Hel had highly effective wards in place that shielded any traces of magic from being detected, which had been necessary because Loki starts feeling sick if he doesn't use his magic regularly. He'll have to figure out a way to put such wards in place in this room as well, and also one that will end all monitoring without anybody noticing. The former is more important than the latter, but doing the latter first would make the former much easier; if nobody can see him Loki can draw the wards and chant the spells without worry. But if he does it that way around the probability is high that he'll be detected, and then all anti-monitoring won't help him. Yes, anti-magic detection protection is much more important than anti-monitoring. Now he only has to figure out how to achieve the wards without being detected; what could he do so he won't look like he's obviously doing magic?

He mulls this over while he showers – and this is already more luxury than he used to have in his humble abode on Hel, his own shower, not that he ever used the communal one – and gets dressed. He could pretend to meditate; with a little bit of thinking he can mask the spells he needs to cast in ritual chants. He'll just have to change the cadence and rhythm and drown the actual spells in enough meaningless words that they won't be detected unless somebody who knows what he's doing watches, and that's incredibly unlikely.

The written spells pose a bit more of a problem, one he can't solve yet; he puts it in the back of his mind as he leaves his quarters. The A.I. informs him that Tony is waiting in the kitchen, so that's where he goes.

"I do not appreciate being summoned," he informs Tony archly.

Tony blinks. "I didn't- did I summon you? I just asked you to come over when you have the time, and we do need to discuss a lot, don't we?" He sounds a bit perplexed, breakfast (cereal, as far as Loki can tell) forgotten.

"We do. But not this early." Loki crosses his arms. The A.I. has informed him that it's barely eight in the morning; ungodly early. Loki usually sleeps at least three hours more before he gets up and spends a couple of hours reading or calculating spells. When the docks on Hel start to fill up in the afternoon Loki heads out to go about his pickpocketing business for a couple of hours, and then he'll do whatever he feels like. Before this, he used to be "between jobs", as they say; he'd quit his previous occupation and hadn't found a new one yet. One can't live completely off pickpocketing, but Loki had just grown sick of getting naked for money, even though by the end of it he'd been rather high up in the hierarchy with the sort of job where he didn't have to tolerate being touched. He hadn't intended to go back anytime soon though; this con business had come just at the right time.

Tony blinks again. "Coffee?" he then offers tentatively.

"Tea." Loki lives off tea. It's boiled water, thus likely not going to kill him, and it's flavored, masking the fact that it's neigh to impossible to get clean water on Hel if one isn't willing or able to pay exorbitant sums. Here on the ship the water is much cleaner than anything he's used to, he'd found this out when at dinner they had drank water from a carafe. It had been perfectly clear, like glass – Loki had never before seen water this clean.

"Okay, tea, I can do that. Did anyone show you yet where things are in here?" Tony gets up and moves towards the cupboards. A machine on the counter switches itself on without any prompting from anybody, starting to boil water.

"To a point," Loki grants, watching attentively. He's never had anyone make him tea before.

"Okay." Tony puts the teabag into a mug and gets sweetener and milk powder out before stepping back. "You probably better do the rest for yourself, I know some people steep it for like three seconds before they take the bag out."

Right. Loki does that, but it's because tea doesn't come cheap even if it is the cheapest kind available. He uses one tea bag for the whole day, and if he does it right the tea will always be of the same strength no matter if it's from the morning or the evening. He's never added milk powder or sweetener, though, so he's unsure about doing that today. In the end he decides to leave the experimentation for when he doesn't have an audience and does his tea like he usually does, leaving the bag in the spoon lying on the counter for later.

Tony's gone back to his chair, somewhat pointedly chewing his cereal, though he doesn't pretend not to be watching. After some hesitation, Loki sits down opposite him.

"Right," Tony says, looking at Loki's hand wrapped around the mug, absorbing the heat. "So. Not that I'm telling you what to do or anything, but we sorta have a schedule here on the ship. You don't need to adhere to it if you don't want to or anything, and I have no idea what your schedule is usually anyway, but we have a lot of stuff to do as preparation, apart from other duties around the ship, many of which have a time restriction as well. Dinner, for example," he adds when Loki raises an eyebrow. "I don't know. You'll have to fit in a little. Not telling you you can't sleep in, hell, I'd be hell of a hypocrite if I were because my sleeping schedule is fucked up like anything, but you'll have to get up early once in a while."

Loki keeps an impassive face. He's somewhat amused with how diplomatic Tony's trying to be; he could just tell Loki to suck it up, fit in or get off the ship, but he's going out of his way to be accommodating instead. Loki doesn't know what his angle and purpose is – maybe Tony will only be this nice while Loki still has the opportunity to leave the ship. It remains to be seen how Loki will be treated once they've shipped out.

When Loki doesn't reply, Tony clears his throat and shifts awkwardly in his chair. "So. Right. How do you imagine this whole thing will pan out?"

Loki shrugs. "We will travel to Midgard, I will pretend to be Prince Loki, at one point they will realize that I am just another of the many imposters and send me away, the end." He's done a bit of research; apparently the Palace has developed a bit of a routine with the influx of fake Lokis and their entourages. It's a bit funny and a lot ridiculous; Loki has no idea what Prince Thor is trying to achieve. If the real Prince Loki were out there somewhere, by this point he surely would have made his way back to his family without any need for an invitation.

"Yes, right, that's the gist of it. But you'll have to con your way through the security rings and get at least to the blue level, because that's where I need to be. It shouldn't be too difficult, with a bit of training."

Both of Loki's eyebrows fly up. "Training." Somehow, he hadn't expected that, though now that he thinks about it, he probably should have.

Tony grins. "Training. Don't worry, I have a plan."

Somehow, that sounds ominous instead of encouraging, as it might be meant. Loki ask what exactly it means but Tony won't tell him, just keeps grinning and saying "you'll find out soon enough"; after a while it truly starts to bother Loki. He doesn't like not knowing what's going to happen to him and he doesn't understand why Tony won't tell him, no matter how often Loki asks.

When Tony eventually notices, the grin drops off his face and he sits up straight. He takes in the way Loki sits, shoulders hunched and hands clenched around the tea cup, whole body tense with one look, and says, "Hey." His voice is sober, a soft note to it Loki can't place. "Relax. It's mostly history lessons on the Odinsons, etiquette, that sort of thing."

Okay. That's okay. Loki can do that.

There's a moment of awkward silence during which Tony doctors himself another bowl of cereal – apparently he prefers his cereal extra soggy (his words, spoken self-deprecatingly like it's a bad habit) and his milk on the thick side (that, he does not comment upon), using at least twice as much milk powder as Loki would, even during the times where he actually could afford to use milk powder generously. "You want any?" Tony offers for the third time.

Loki's never head cereal before; it always looked sort of flimsy a meal to him, not to mention expensive. When he buys food he buys filling stuff, and he doesn't usually eat breakfast anyway. He's refused Tony's offer so far for that reason, so he doesn't really know why he doesn't do it again. But he's a little curious and he tells himself that since he doesn't have to pay he might as well make use of that while he can. It's unlikely he's ever going to be able to afford this sort of living standard on his own.

Tony beams when Loki finally nods like he agreed to something much more than just cereal. Jumping up, he gets a bowl and spoon for Loki, putting them down in front of him.

"You don't have to keep doing that," Loki says, nonplussed.

"Doing what?" Tony sits back down and blinks at him in confusion.

Loki motions towards the bowl and spoon, trying to think of how to put it without implying that Tony's acting like a servant, even though he sort of is. "Getting things for me."

"Oh, that." Tony's face clears as he shrugs. "It's no big deal, you probably don't know where anything is right now anyway."

And Loki's not going to learn if Tony doesn't let him, but it's not worth arguing over. Wordlessly Loki takes the milk powder and water carafe (more perfectly clear, clean water) and makes himself milk before he adds the cereal much like he'd seen Tony do. Carefully, he then takes a spoonful and tries it.

It's crunchy, and Loki isn't sure he likes the difference between liquid milk and hard cereal, but a couple of spoonfuls later it turns out the cereal goes soft and after that, Loki likes it a lot better.

"You look like you've never eaten cereal before," Tony comments after a moment, apparently having watched Loki closely.

"That would be because I have not," Loki replies archly. Tony looks honestly shocked, which annoys Loki. He always gets annoyed when privileged people aren't aware of their privilege; few things piss him off quicker than obliviousness. It's like they live in their own happy little bubble, separate from everybody around them, unaware of just how lucky they are. The worst is when they then whine about how unfortunate they are. Self-pity pisses Loki off even quicker than obliviousness, especially if the two are combined, which they usually are.

After a brief moment of silence during which Tony clearly swallows a few things he wants to say, he finally settles on, "Well, do you like it?"

Loki shrugs. "It's alright." Not filling, just like he had thought, but he usually doesn't eat in the mornings anyway, so he couldn't deal with anything heavy right now either way.

"Okay, cool." Tony bobs his head awkwardly and concentrates on his own bowl again. They eat for a moment before he looks up again and says, "So, wanna come with me to talk about the schedule after breakfast? I can give you your tablet then."

"Tablet?"

"Yeah, I mean, you're going to need one. I can embed a big one into your wall if you like, it's pretty easy actually, but we don't usually do that with the guest quarters unless upon request because people usually assume that means they're being monitored or something." Tony shrugs as if he has no idea how they might come to that conclusion. Who knows, he actually might not.

Loki shakes his head, because that wasn't what he wanted to know. "Why do you want to give me a tablet?"

It earns him a puzzled frown. "Because you're going to need one? It has the schedules on it and really, the same things JARVIS could tell you if you asked him, but you might just want to look them up yourself. Also, direct access to the library." He wriggles his eyebrows like that's the best part, which, as far as Loki is concerned, it actually is. The library. Loki is quite looking forward to delving into its depths and he doesn't even care much that his reading choices might be monitored. There likely isn't going to be anything dangerous available anyway, and he's simply interested in everything.

Still, it wouldn't do to seem too eager. If someone knows that you value something, they can withhold it to get you to do something, or they can take it away as punishment. "Fine."

Tony looks at him searchingly. He opens his mouth, but just at that moment Pepper enters the room, interrupting whatever he meant to say. Pretty soon the two of them are involved in a conversation, giving Loki the opportunity to clean his used dishes quickly before leaving. But unlike yesterday, he's aware that his exit doesn't go unnoticed; he feels like Tony's eyes remain on him as he moves through the kitchen, only breaking off once Loki has left.

He really doesn't know what to make of that, or of how Tony takes care to engage him. It feels different to the way Pepper does it; she's friendly and accommodating, but also personally uninvolved. With Tony, there's something different. Loki can't put his finger on it, but he tries to figure it out for a long time, analyzing all their interactions and conversations. He doesn't arrive at any conclusions.

Not that he has much time anyway, because about half an hour after he left the kitchen (he has spent it sitting cross-legged on his floor, pretending to meditate while he thinks deeply, humming nonsense as preparation for his guise for the spells) there's a knock on his door.

"Mr. Tony for you, Mr. Loki," JARVIS' disembodied voice sounds.

With a sigh, because he does not like interacting with him while not knowing what Tony's play is – and there must be one, Loki just has to figure it out – Loki gets up and opens his door. "What is it?"

Tony smiles at him widely. "The schedule? Wanna come talk about it now?" He frowns. "Unless you're busy, did I interrupt?"

"No." Loki steps out of his room and follows as Tony leads him down the corridor and into an area Loki hadn't been shown on his tour. Tony had gestured towards it and said that it's the residential area for permanent residents, meaning everyone but Loki. He hadn't explicitly forbidden Loki from going there, but it would've looked suspicious if he had extended his explorations towards that area because he had no reason to be there. Now that he does, he takes great care to not miss any details. It looks pretty much like the other corridors, but still.

Tony leads him into a room about the same size as Loki's quarters, filled with a number of screens and electronic things scattered around on various tables. "This is my lab," Tony introduces, spreading his arms. "Well, one of them. You'll usually- well, no, you won't usually find me here, but you also won't unusually find me there. Honestly, if you're looking for me, it's probably best just asking JARVIS where I am, he'll lead you to me."

Loki has no idea why he'd ever need to find Tony, but good to know.

"Okay!" Gesturing towards a chair, Tony throws himself into a similar one. Apparently it rolls, even though it doesn't actually have wheels; it seems attached to the floor with flat arms spreading out from the supporting leg in the middle.

Noticing Loki's gaze, Tony explains, "Magnetic. I designed it myself. The labs have separate gravity manipulators, just in case the general gravity on the ship fails, because some of these things are delicate and just in general, it'd be insanely messy." It already is, in Loki's opinion. Clearly reading that on his face, Tony gives a small laugh. "In a way not caused by me. I'm a genius, but even I'd have problems sorting through all this if it got jumbled up." He gestures towards the table. "They have separate gravity too, with their own energy sources, just in case energy levels get so low the gravity in even high-priority areas has to be switched off."

That's impressive. Loki doesn't know much about technology – by lack of opportunity to learn, not ignorance, and he intends to rectify this as soon as possible with help of the library – but he knows that much. Also, it's good to know that the labs are considered high-priority.

Tony doesn't act like it, though; his tone is off-hand. Proud, yes, but also matter of fact, like it's all just par of the course. It's puzzling. Loki isn't sure he likes puzzles.

"This is your tablet," Tony continues, fishing something off a table and handing the tablet to Loki. "It connects to the mainframe and everything available to someone with your security level. Which, well, isn't high, though I'm not sure yet whether you're crew or passenger, because you're not really either."

"I'm not a passenger," Loki says carefully. "Seeing as I don't pay for passage."

"Yes, but you're also not crew, because you're... well, because you're not. You're a team member, but we have a couple of team members who aren't crew, so I'm not really sure where to put you."

Team. With members not on the ship. Loki files that away for future reference. He isn't sure how it makes him feel to be included in the team part – he doesn't know any of these people, and he wasn't asked. It might mean he's expected to act in a certain way or do certain things, and he didn't consent to any of that.

"So. Do you know how to handle a tablet?" Tony looks down at the tablet Loki holds in his lap, hands careful.

"I have handled tablets before," Loki says carefully. At Hel's library, for those few weeks where he could afford the membership, though he hadn't been able to pay for more than the most basic of accesses, which means the tablets available weren't wireless and they were also very old, clunky, and prone to crashing.

"Right, okay. Well, if you have any questions, just ask JARVIS, or come to me. If you have problems with the thing, definitely come to me, I'll fix it, or give you a new one." Rubbing his hands together, Tony casts his eyes around the lab. He seems nervous, which confuses Loki.

After a brief moment of increasingly awkward silence during which Tony tries to look like he's looking anywhere but at Loki even though he's actually watching him from the corners of his eyes, Loki clears his throat. Staring at him doesn't come free and if Tony doesn't stop soon Loki's going to have to start charging him. "The schedule?"

Tony starts. "Right, of course, sorry." He gets his own tablet and gestures towards Loki's. For a second Loki is confused; then he realizes that Tony means for him to activate the tablet. Of course.

Carefully copying where Tony touched the thing – the upper right corner, though Loki can't actually see a difference to the other corners; everything's just clear material with rounded corners – Loki switches the tablet on. Or he thinks that's what he does, because nothing actually happens until Tony touches something on his own tablet and flicks it towards Loki's. Then he suddenly has a timetable on it, dark outlines on opaque background. It's a week separated by hours, with nothing in the schedule excepting dinner every evening.

"I only put dinner in there because that's mandatory. We'll have a meeting later today to discuss duties like making food and so on, but there's not all that much, most of it's taken care of by robots, so no worries, you won't have to clean anything."

Tony stares at Loki expectantly, so eventually Loki nods. It confuses him how often Tony seems to be expecting his input – seems to actually require it, like it will change anything at all if Loki doesn't want to make food for other people. He doesn't quite know what to do with that, what it means, but it's another piece in the puzzle that Tony is turning out to be. A puzzle that becomes more and more complicated and confounding the more time Loki spends in the man's presence.

"Okay." Tony clears his throat. "So what I was thinking you'd need is lessons about the members of the Odin family, history, that sort of thing, but most of all etiquette lessons, for proper palace manners, that sort of thing. Not that your manners aren't perfectly fine, but, well. Royals do everything more complicated and elaborate than necessary."

"Wasn't Loki just five years old when the massacre happened?" Loki points out. "It would not make sense for him, if he were to appear now, to know proper etiquette as if he had been raised in the palace all his life."

Tony blinks but doesn't reply, so Loki continues, "Furthermore, wouldn't it make more sense to feign amnesia? Because otherwise, if I as Loki had known all my life that I am a Prince, why would I have waited for an invitation to return to Midgard to reunite with my brother?"

"Because until then they treated people who claimed to be Loki very harshly," Tony explains immediately. "There were very high penalties on Loki impersonation. But you make a fair point." Frowning, he rubs his chin, beard bristling. "I don't know. Yeah, you're right, but on the other hand, they have this vetting process where they test this sort of thing, so you probably won't get very far if you don't know anything."

Loki frowns. "That seems highly illogical."

"Yeah, buddy, preaching to the choir here." Tony shrugs. "I think the whole endeavor is a bunch of crap. It's illusory to think the real Prince Loki is still somewhere out there. Even if he had escaped, he'd be long dead by now. Statistically, around forty percent of all orphans die before reaching ten years of age, and that's just the known numbers, the dark figures must be considerably higher."

"I know that," Loki returns very dryly.

Wincing, Tony ducks his head. "Right, of course, sorry. Anyways, what I was saying is that it's a pipe dream."

"Perhaps the intent is not to find Prince Loki, but to put an end once and for all to all rumors that the prince is still alive," Loki suggests. He's done some research before boarding the ship; the rumors that Prince Thor's youngest brother is still alive have been damaging politically. They've made it impossible for Prince Thor to close the Midgard Embassy, or for him to leave without gaining a reputation of being callous. He's stationary, and that, for a soon-to-be-king, is always bad.

Tony raises both eyebrows. "Good point. I actually consider that more likely than anything else."

"Which is why you have no moral qualms about doing this con," Loki infers.

"Exactly." Tony points at him. "What about you? No bad conscience?"

Loki shrugs. Conscience has no place where survival is concerned, but this strictly speaking isn't about survival. He survived just fine on Hel. This is an endeavor to rid him of this ridiculous dream of a better life on Midgard, because if he can finally let go of that, maybe he won't be so stalled in his life anymore. He can let go of his scruples and stop living in fear. "No."

For a minute Tony seems to be waiting for Loki to elaborate, but when he doesn't he shrugs. "Fine. So, training schedule. We probably shouldn't do one yet, actually, because we haven't gotten our duty schedule yet, but we could talk about the skills you already have. The speech you already have mostly down to pat, though you probably could refine your vocabulary a bit, but that's brilliant, because that's one of the most difficult things to get rid of. How come you don't speak in that infernal dialect most people on Hel cultivate?"

There are actually several native dialects in addition to brought-in languages on Hel, but Loki doesn't see the point in explaining that. "People suspect you much less and expect far less from you if you talk like you don't belong." That's not really why he speaks like that, though; he just always has, he doesn't know where it's coming from. He's never thought about it much, though, instead has found reason after reason to not adapt his speech unless necessary. He has a perfect hold of the dialects and a couple of other languages – somehow, languages have always come very easy to him; perhaps because the lies always taste the same – but he always preferred speaking the way he's always spoken. Perhaps he doesn't remember where he comes from and where he learned – and he has several suspicions on that front that he mostly keeps because he doesn't want to acknowledge the truth; that he was abandoned, and for very valid reasons – but he clings to that remembrance of where he's from, that little root of his past. It's sentimental and foolish and makes him feel silly, which is why he only upholds his speech patterns because it truly does earn him more money. His patrons like the fantasy of Loki being upper class and it additionally makes him seem more harmless in the eyes of others, resulting in him being threatened less often than others. Though the robbery attempts on him are of higher frequency than normal, which is one of the downsides.

"Okay, cool." Tony nods. "So, what else? Etiquette, which means manners and all that, we have programs for that. History, which we have in the library, and then you should probably learn some other stuff if there's the time; we'll see how quickly you take to the etiquette and history, I think that's the most important parts."

Loki shrugs. "Fine." He's certainly not going to complain. The skills he'll learn will be easily applicable in other areas; maybe Loki will stay in the con business after this one. He's a good actor but he's always lacked the resources to do it on his own. After this, that won't be a problem.

Tony stares at him for a moment. "Okay, that's all for now, I think. We should meet up again after the meeting later."

Loki takes that as his cue to leave.

He goes to the library because he can't stand not to go there for one moment longer; yesterday, only his need for safety had kept him from going there immediately. Also the fact that he doesn't want for them to realize how much he treasures the opportunity. Now he has the excuse of wanting to start in on his history lessons on his own or at least of wanting to prepare for that. They won't realize just how important this is for him. If Tony had told him about the library and that he has relatively free access to it, he would have come with for free.

He realizes how dangerous that is, so in an attempt to temper himself, Loki keeps his expectations low. He can't prevent his hopes from being high, but he tells himself that the library can't possibly be as extensive as it had seemed the previous day, when Tony had made an offhand comment about what all can be found here. Why would a ship need such a library, after all?

Only it turns out he's wrong. He's right as well, but it's his expectations that are too low while his high hopes are exactly met. Upon entering, Loki requests a catalog, and it turns out that not only does the library truly contain all the thematic areas Tony had claimed – ranging from various sciences to entertainment – but it's actually vast. It doesn't just have the three most common books about a topic; it offers a vast array of different texts and videos in all areas Loki checks. Loki's never been so positively overwhelmed in all his life; it makes him giddy.

And that scares him. He's just spent fifteen minutes in this room, doing nothing more but check the opportunities he has, much less actually taking them, and already he doesn't want to ever leave. Already, the worst thing anyone could do to him (at least as far as they're capable) would be taking his access to the library from him. Loki suspects that after spending two months with these resources at his fingertips, he won't ever want to leave.

It's absolutely terrifying and so he shoves the thought far away, tells himself that he can find something like this again. Calmly, he analyzes his feelings one after the other until he arrives at the conclusion that while he'll value this room a lot, there are other libraries, and once he's received his payment gaining access to one will be child's play. Yes, this library seems absolutely wonderful and amazing now, but it's still nothing but a ship's library. There are bound to be much greater libraries in the capitals.

Thus calmed down, he continues exploring the index. He's utterly and completely spoiled for choices, wants to know everything, and so he eventually decides to proceed logically; he'll read one book of each genre in alphabetical order, and after he's been through them all he'll go back to the beginning and read a different book. Probably it would make more sense to focus on one area before moving on to the next, but maybe he can do that after he knows a little more about the genres. Right now, he's simply not capable of making such a choice.

So Loki picks the first genre – Aeronautics – and chooses the first book it suggests. But instead of leading him to a shelf – not that there are any shelves, but Loki had expected for them to slide out of the wall as they do in Hel's central library – the computer in the wall opens a slot that presents him with a round, small, shiny see-through disk. Loki frowns at it because it looks entirely different than anything Hel's library has to offer, but the principle should be the same – data disks that are to be inserted into the data pad. After some exploration of the pad Tony has given him Loki quickly finds the small slit at the side, and he pushes the disk in. Because both the data pad and the disc are see-through he can only barely see it going in, but the next moment the screen turns opaque and the text is available to Loki – in several languages even.

Settling down in one of the chairs, Loki starts to read.

He doesn't mean to, actually he has the firm intention for it not to happen, but he completely loses track of time to the point where he's completely startled when JARVIS suddenly announces, "Taking off Hel in 1 minute." Loki almost drops the tablet, and wouldn't that be brilliant? Breaking the tablet after it's been in his possession for less than four hours.

After the announcement he feels uncomfortable going back to his reading, guilty because he shouldn't have done that, shouldn't have gotten lost like that. Yes, it's absolutely fascinating and his mind is racing, making connections to other things Loki knows (wondering how his newly gained knowledge could be applied to his teleportation, even though he knows he likely won't ever get to explore that), but he isn't safe here. Maybe he isn't not safe, but the location is far from secure.

The barely noticeable tilt of the ship as it takes off distracts him from his self-admonishing. Taking hold of the chair's armrests he waits until they've left natural gravity – it goes much smoother than he's been led to believe, but he doesn't know if that's due to the ship's high modernity or just his being less than up to date on new technology in about any field – before rising. He hesitates for a moment, but in the end he decides to take the data chip with him; if he isn't allowed, surely the A.I. will tell him. It keeps quiet, though, and Loki makes it back to his quarters unbothered.

Once there, he still doesn't feel completely safe or comfortable to go back reading, but it's at least somewhat more secure than the library.

It turns out he doesn't have long to get lost, though; not even an hour later, the A.I. pulls him out of his reading once more. "Mr. Loki, Ms. Pepper wishes for me to inform you that the team meeting will commence in an hour in the living room. Your presence is mandatory."

That's an hour more of reading for Loki; he's almost through the book by the time he has to leave. Despite his better judgment – he's revealing too much of himself a voice whispers in the back of his mind, but Loki bristles at that, because there's a reasonable, logical explanation – he takes the tablet with him. He'll need it to put in the schedule, he tells himself. And if he sits down and immediately starts reading again, well, there's a reason for that as well. He's a little early to the meeting, finding only Pepper in the living room when he gets there. Her greeting his friendly enough, but she's clearly busy with her own tablet, frowning and tapping away, so Loki has no qualms about immediately going back to his reading.

He doesn't understand everything, of course. In fact, he barely understands anything; he needs a lot more background knowledge, but he's confident he'll gain that over the next couple of weeks. And until then he'll file away everything he's read, and once he gains the required knowledge to be able to do so he'll take it out again and he'll understand.

It's partly a curse, because there are some things he'd prefer not to remember, but Loki never forgets anything. He's painstakingly trained himself to forget the little things – what he ate on a particular day ten years ago, when he used the toilet the day after – but he knows that it hasn't truly worked. If he needs the knowledge, he can dig it out again, but at least it's not clogging up his mind with completely irrelevant, useless crap. His head is painstakingly ordered because he's had to learn in order to not get lost in the whirl of everything, everything he knows and has seen about everything and everyone he comes into contact with, but it's ordered. A part of him puts that down to his not remembering the first five years of his life; the trauma of losing that made him hyperaware of everything that happened thereafter, but he doesn't care why. All he cares about is that he's controlling it, he isn't being controlled. That's what he's most proud of, the greatest thing he's ever done, greater than controlling his peers, greater than teleporting from one planet to the next. He controls his mind. He wields it like a weapon, because that's what it is.

Out in public and, more importantly, in company, Loki doesn't get lost in the book's information anymore; he's just filing it away now, perfectly aware of Tony when he enters. "Hi!" he greets brigthly but Pepper doesn't reply and all Loki does is glance up briefly to acknowledge his presence.

For some reason he's even more alert now that Tony is here, which he puts down to the fact that Tony sits down next to him. Being excruciatingly aware of every time Tony fidgets and twitches is incredibly annoying, and incredibly confusing. He doesn't know why he pays this close attention; if it were Natasha he would understand because he considers her the most dangerous on the ship, in more than one way. But Tony? It's not impossible he's dangerous as well (in fact, Loki never considers anyone not dangerous, that would be being idiotically complacent) but definitely not warranting the close attention Loki is giving him.

For two minutes – Loki pays attention – there is silence, but that apparently is the extent of the time Tony can stay still (or rather, silent; still he definitely is not). "What are you reading?" he asks, leaning into Loki's space. Loki has to fight the impulse to withdraw and pull the tablet to his chest because that would be ridiculous and would also betray his being uncomfortable with Tony knowing, which implies it's important to him. To spite that instinct, he instead actually tilts the tablet towards Tony so he can see better.

"Libration Point Orbits and Applications?" Tony reads the title off the top of the page, sounding completely surprised and intrigued. "I just got that, I put it at the top of the list. Are you interested in Aeronautics?"

"Would I be reading this otherwise?" Loki asks dryly.

"I had no idea." Now Tony sounds impressed. "Is it good? Do you understand it?"

Loki would like to be insulted by that last question but Tony's tone of voice is completely non-judgmental, merely curious, perhaps a bit enthusiastic. Normally Loki would bristle, and he does, a little, but something makes him reply with a bit of honesty. "Not yet."

He feels Tony muster him, but doesn't look up from the tablet. "If you'd like to discuss it at any point, you're very welcome to come to me," Tony finally offers.

"Don't let him suck you into his lab," Pepper suddenly speaks up, putting her tablet away with a decisive gesture. "If you let him get started, he won't shut up, ever. Save yourself while you still can. As soon as he thinks you're interested he won't leave you alone for weeks." She's teasing, clearly, but Loki notes a miniscule tensing in Tony's shoulders. It's there and gone in the blink of an eye but Loki has noticed, and he files it away for future reference.

"Aw, Pepper, you wound me," Tony says, adapting the same tone of voice Pepper used. "I'm perfectly harmless. I only bite a little."

She rolls her eyes but before she can reply Clint and Natasha enter the room, Clint clapping into his hands and saying, "Everything's safe and sound and peachy, we're ready to party."

Satisfied, Pepper nods approvingly. "Great, we can get started then." She waits until the two have sat down and have started their tablets. Then she tabs something on her own tablet and, flicking all her fingers out, she flings it onto all their tablets.

It's a list of tasks, among them cooking, gardening and something called "the rounds" as well as several other things that don't look much like tasks.

"Loki, you're new, so let me explain briefly: once a day we all have dinner together, it's mandatory unless you're mortally wounded or contagiously ill. That meal is prepared by two of us, and we're paired in rotation so everybody cooks with everybody at one point. The rounds is a walk through the ship's key engineering points; they're monitored by JARVIS and other programs, but nothing beats the human eye to check whether any screws are loose."

Tony makes an offended noise and opens his mouth, but Pepper just continues talking. "Gardening is fairly self-explanatory, we need to keep green room in order, and that's usually done in pairs as well. Whoever will be paired with you will show you the ropes, don't worry. The rest is stuff we do together so we won't go insane."

"She means that," Tony injects blithely. "Space madness. Most people don't believe it, but the boredom and lack of clear schedule except the self-maintained one really can get to you."

Loki can't imagine ever getting bored with that library available, but perhaps he might after a couple of years. Or, no. He's as of yet always found a way to occupy himself, and the things he could do with all the knowledge he'll gain... no, boredom isn't something Loki is overly familiar with. Rather the opposite, actually.

"Right. So we do some things together, like sparring that we do twice a week in the morning, and I do yoga every morning, everybody's welcome to join me if they feel like it. Twice a week we spend the evening together; one is movie night, the other is game night, but sometimes one of them is a free-for-all random evening. We'll eventually start to get on each other's nerves, but that's bound to happen. It's okay to skip out once, but more would be problematic, especially in a row. It's better we're at each other's throats than all locked up alone in our rooms climbing the walls."

"Trust me, we've tried," Tony interrupts once more. "We've tried it all. This might seem excessive and annoying and controlling and we'll likely all end up hating each other by the time we arrive, but this is the best method. Unless you want to go into cryo, which we could do if all else fails."

"No," Loki says quickly. It would likely not work anyway, or it would go horribly wrong, considering all the things they don't know about him that might affect the chemicals. He's never reacted to drugs the way normal humans react, which has been a good thing in some instances but it can backlash horribly as well. He nearly died from being given a normal flu medicine at one of the orphanages, and it had even been the proper medication (if very diluted), not some horribly concocted fake product.

"Okay, good. Now for the free-for-all evening, well. Everybody can suggest stuff we do, so if you have any ideas, please come forwards. I'm sure we'd all appreciate some change," Tony jokes.

Clint groans. "Fuck, yeah, we would."

"Shush, Clint," Pepper says mildly. She focuses on Loki and leans in, face earnest. "This seems probably horrible and constricting to you now, but it really is necessary, believe me. We don't have to get along, but we need to have something to focus on, something to get up for and something to maintain something of a rhythm for. It's important. If you ever have any problems, you can come talk to any of us, we help each other out – also if you want to spend time with any of us, whoever feels like company will hang out in the living room. We're stuck together for two months now, for better or worse. Okay?"

What does she expect Loki to do? Protest? He doesn't have the authority to do so, no matter what he thinks or how he feels about this. Right now he feels suffocated just at the thought of spending so much time with other people, but there is little he can do about it. Cryo is not an option.

Loki nods and says, "Very well." His voice is perfectly calm.

Pepper nods and sits back. "Good. Let's talk details then."