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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."

Chapter Text

Over the next half an hour they flesh out the specifics of the cooking schedule and the other points on the list, assigning dates and times for them. Loki's informed of the recipe database and the movie and games index, so he can make suggestions/state preferences. "And please do," Pepper takes care to encourage him. "We all know each other pretty well, so it's good to have someone new come in and shake things up a bit." There also is a mid-point meeting; Loki is told that it's basically a coming together and acknowledging that they've finally made it past the point of no return. Apparently the judicious application of alcohol is involved.

By the end of the meeting Loki feels claustrophobic and like someone's restraining him, caged in by all the meetings. Nearly every day of the week there's at least one in addition to dinner, and he and Tony haven't even set their schedule. When the meeting concludes Loki nearly catapults out of his chair and leaves, not caring that they're probably staring at him, that he's not making his usual quiet exit. He needs out, he needs to be alone. Clearly, that's something he's going to miss over the next few weeks. He hasn't been around people this much since he moved out of the orphanage at thirteen; after that, it had always been his choice to be in company. Sometimes not much of one, he'd had to huddle up with others and share warmth by necessity, but still. He could've chosen to be cold, he wouldn't have died, that much he's sure of. Not of low temperature.

His quarters don't really feel like home but he does feel safer there, knowing nobody can come in just like that without his permission. Arms wrapped around his pulled-up knees, he huddles in the corner and breathes into the space his body forms.

When he's moderately calm again he takes his tablet with trembling fingers and pulls up the book again. Once more, he gets lost in the words and knowledge and the fireworks both cause in his brain.

Some hours later, there's a knock on his door.

"Mr. Tony for you," JARVIS says. By this point Loki's back enough to normal to feel chagrined about his display of near-panic when it's possible he might be monitored, if not by a person then at least by the A.I. Inwardly berating himself he almost doesn't open the door, but he has to; if he doesn't he'll only make his earlier flight (and it can't have been mistaken for anything but that) seem even more emotional.

"Hey," Tony says, looking surprised and pleased and a little worried when Loki opens the door. "You alright?"

Raising one eyebrow, Loki leaves it at a one word answer. "Fine."

Tony obviously doesn't believe it, but he doesn't say anything. "Okay. So, I was thinking we could make our schedule? Routine will start tomorrow, the sooner we get it out of the way the better."

Loki shrugs. "Fine."

Biting his lip, Tony's eyes flick from Loki to the room behind him. After a short pause, he says, "Okay, we can go to my lab."

Belatedly Loki realizes that that was his cue to invite Tony in, but he missed the moment; Tony's already heading down the corridor, so Loki follows him. He's more comfortable with that anyway, he isn't too keen on having a stranger in his space. Even if it's not really his space, and even if Tony isn't quite a stranger anymore. In all the ways that matter he is.

"So," Tony says once they've both sat down in the same chairs they occupied in the morning. "I figured, we should meet four times a week at the beginning, I don't know how much is necessary, but just to be on the safe side. If you take to things quickly, great, we can do fewer meetings eventually."

Loki has no idea why so many meetings but he decides to go with it for now. He also decides, though, to show Tony that he isn't stupid, that he's allowing Tony to make the decisions for now but isn't acquiescent by nature, won't let himself be pushed around. "How many other candidates did you have before me?"

"Other candidates?" Tony repeats, confused. Honestly so, too.

"How many other Lokis," Loki elaborates, impatient. Tony's supposed to be smart – he might possibly be exaggerating his abilities, but to pretend to be smarter than you are one still needs a certain level of intelligence.

Tony's face clears. "Oh! Oh. How did you know?" There's no guilt in his face, no apology, just calm observation.

Loki rolls his eyes. "It's obvious. This isn't a spontaneous idea of yours; you must have been looking for a way to get into the palace for years now. This con is an opportunity you couldn't plan for years in advance, but you did have some time to plan, as the announcement was made two months before the doors were opened to candidates. It's been two months since then. You took me in very spontaneously, which is reckless, even stupid considering you don't know me at all. Ergo, you must have had at least one other candidate, one who abandoned you very abruptly, probably just days before you found me, if that."

Tony smiles brightly; a genuine smile of admiration and budding respect. "You're good. Also right. Yeah, we've had somebody else – two, actually, we took the first one in before we came to Hel, but it turned out that he wasn't made for this sort of thing. He wouldn't have made it past the first test, he was too nervous, not too smart either. The other we found on Hel, but he decided within the week that he'd rather be a surrogate. That was the morning of the same day I saw you."

"So I'm the third," Loki concludes.

"But you're the best," Tony says. He believes it; even without his ability to know lies Loki would be able to tell by the absolute surety in his voice.

Loki is intrigued. "What makes you think that? You don't know me."

Tony grimaces, then narrows his eyes. His next words almost have a challenge to them, like a test. "It's not just the way you look – looks can be changed, adapted, it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. It's your... aura, let's say." It's clear he isn't happy with that word, but he continues, hands waving to underline his points. "You have this air about you. Vulnerable, but not in the way a makes you seem weak but in a way that makes you dangerous. Like you've been through crap and you're not going to take shit from anyone."

"And that makes me a good candidate." Loki isn't sure what to make of that. He knows how he comes across; it's something he uses to earn money or get himself out of situations, after all. Still, it's never comfortable to have himself analyzed like that, especially not by a virtual stranger.

"It makes you a perfect candidate," Tony emphasizes. "It's going to make Thor want to protect you, which is good, but that's an angle everybody's going to pull. But it will also make him aware that you can take care of yourself. You have this I-don't-give-a-fuck attitude, like you're mildly interested in things, but you have your own stuff going on and in the grand scheme of things you don't care about anything that doesn't directly impact your own agenda. It will set you apart from the other candidates, and believe me, with the fuckton of assholes that have popped up we need that. They want to win; you don't. You get what you want just by participating."

"One would think that makes me the opposite of an ideal candidate," Loki says dryly. "Am I not supposed to be eager to want to prove to my "brother" that I'm the real Prince Loki?"

"Yeah, but you were right earlier, if you really were Loki, why show up only now? It gives you an angle to work with. Maybe you're pissed off at your brother for never having found you, or you're happy with the life you have and aren't interested in being a Prince of Asgard, something like that. Something that makes more sense than just the amnesia angle everyone's pulling."

Loki holds Tony's gaze for a moment before he inclines his head. "Four days a week is fine." It's not, part of him is hyperventilating at the prospect of even more interaction with people, but he can't show that sort of weakness again, not after earlier today. He's going to hold it together and adapt. He's good at at least the latter, well-practiced in the former.

They make up the details and then Loki leaves, heading back to his quarters. Today, it seems, is his grace period; tomorrow he'll have only the meeting with Tony and dinner, but the day after that there's sparring and cooking, and two days after that Tony, gardening and cooking on top of dinner. Loki is not looking forward to that day.

It's not that he isn't used to being around people, because he is – he's used to putting up with a lot more than he'll have to face here, but it's different. He always had the choice to leave and all he'd have lost was money. Here he can't really leave, he's locked up in relatively small space with these people with no way out, for two months.

Possibly he underestimated the strain this would put on him. Loki's never liked being locked up.

But he can adapt, he tells himself firmly. This still is luxury compared to some other of his living situations. To remind himself of that, he visualizes all the things he doesn't have to put up with that he had no choice about in the past. Nobody's touching him in any way, he doesn't have to share his bed or his space, he at least has the illusion of privacy, he's dry and not cold, he doesn't have to fear for his possessions being stolen, the water is clean (cleaner than he's ever seen except for in movies) and there's plenty of food, he's clean and he doesn't have to worry about things going rapidly downhill for himself if he steps out of line. He's warm and comfortable and well-fed, not to mention he has a vast library at his fingertips, available for his perusal at any time.

For that, for all that knowledge, Loki can deal with a lot worse than this. Things he wouldn't put up with even for the money he'll be paid, he would endure for the library. Besides, all evidence to the contrary, Loki doesn't actually enjoy being lonely. He isn't usually in personal contact with people and that's something he'll have to get used to, but being alone scares him for some reason. So this is, while not ideal, actually an okay way to live.

After reminding himself of that, he feels a little better. He speeds through the rest of the book and goes to the library to get another, this one from the biology section on bionanotechnology. For a couple of hours he reads, until the A.I. reminds him that it's time for dinner, in time for Loki to go and watch the food preparation. This time he doesn't take the tablet with him to the dining room, though it's a conflict.

He's hesitant and a bit worried because of his near-scene earlier, when he had fled the room after the meeting, but nobody comments upon it or even looks at him askance, except for Clint, who's done it from the beginning. The food that's been made is a bit strange to him, just as it had been the day before, but it was made with fresh vegetables acquired from Hel so it's not too weird. He's both curious and worried about how that will change in a week, when all the fresh food has been eaten; he hadn't recognized any of the plants in the garden. Then again, he's no expert in plants, so they might actually yield familiar fruits for all he knows.

Loki stays up for hours reading the book. Everything that happened during the day whirls around in his head once he finally puts it down so it takes him a long time to fall asleep.

The A.I. wakes him up once more, reminding him of the meeting with Tony that apparently is in half an hour. Loki grimaces but gets up. Unabashedly, he takes a shower, because nobody had told him to preserve water and not shower too often. He's never been this clean for such an extended period of time, and he revels in it.

"There you are," Tony says when Loki enters his lab, as if he's been waiting when Loki knows for a fact that he's even two minutes early. "Slept alright?"

Loki shrugs. "Fine."

"Okay. You want a donut?" Tony offers him a plateful of pastries. They look like simple wheels, hole in the middle included, with icing slathered thick and inexpertly on top. "I made them myself," Tony explains proudly when Loki just stares at them. "Well, I made the machine myself that makes them. I've been working on it for a while now, I think we've finally perfected it."

"You made a machine to make... these pastries?" Loki inquires. All he can think is, why? It seems excessive and unnecessary. Why not make something with more practical appliance?

"Donuts," Tony supplies. "You don't have them on Hel?"

"No."

"Wow, that's horrible," Tony says cheerfully. He takes one of the pastries and bites into it, showing Loki the insides. From the outside the pastry is light brown, but the inside is nearly white. "Just dough fried in oil and then you put icing on top. I still have to practice the icing part, but I'm getting better, if I do say so myself. Try one."

After some hesitation, Loki does. It's sweet, unsurprisingly, nearly cloyingly so, but after Loki gets over the first shock of just how sweet it is (he just isn't used to this much sugar – to this much taste, there's so much taste on this ship) he starts to like it.

"Do you like it?" Tony asks eagerly, watching Loki chew like a hawk.

"Yes," Loki admits. "It's good."

He's not particularly hungry but he likes sugar and it actually is good, so he takes another. Tony looks incredibly proud of himself and takes another as well, and together, they eat the whole plate. They're addictive, these donuts, Loki realizes while he's nibbling his third one, gnawing off the brown skin except for the icing before biting into the donut, testing how that changes the taste.

"We can't tell Pepper," Tony says a bit later, sighing and patting his belly. "She disapproves of everything that's fun. Well, not really, but she has opinions about the things that she finds unhealthy, and donuts definitely are it."

Loki tilts his head. He's not used to people having such opinions about food. Nobody he's ever met (not counting people he's conned or clients, but they don't count, living in an entirely different world than Loki) cares about something like that. All that matters is having enough food to begin with, it's not important just how healthy it is. These donuts probably are rather expensive (especially the icing, Loki hasn't had icing often in his life and when he had it, it was always a lot more diluted and a lot thinner), as pastries go.

"So they're good?" Tony asks as they're eating the last two donuts.

"I said they were, didn't I?" Loki returns dryly.

Somehow, that makes Tony smile at him sweetly. "You're the first to try these, apart from me. Took me a while to perfect the machine, the dough kept coming out wrong and then it deformed the donuts and seriously, it sounded much easier than it turned out to be."

Loki is a bit confused as Tony continues to tell him all about the machine and about the many mishaps he had with it, but it is entertaining, especially when Tony starts bringing up photos of the deformed dough monsters the machine produced at the beginning. After the donut maker, Tony moves on to talking about other machines he attempted to make that went wrong; a fair number of them seem to involve explosions where there shouldn't be any. Also, it seems Tony has the tendency to make machines that don't have much of a practical application. Loki wonders at that, and eventually he points it out.

Tony blinks. "It seems that way, doesn't it? Well actually I made everything that is electronic or vaguely automatic on this ship. Including the ship."

When Loki raises a skeptical eyebrow – it feels like truth but it seems outrageous – Tony says, "No, really, I'm serious. I'm a genius, and, well, I'm paranoid, though I'm not sure if it's paranoia if they're actually out to get you. Nothing that is programmable that I haven't made is allowed onto this ship."

"How do you know I didn't bring anything?" Loki asks.

Tony bites his lower lip. "Well, for one, Hel isn't exactly an electronic heaven, if you know what I mean." Does Loki ever. "There's not exactly high-tech in abundance lying around, most people don't even seem to know how to operate most things, and everything's like, fifteen years behind everybody else. And, well. JARVIS scanned your luggage."

Loki freezes. "What?"

Tony ducks his head. "I'm sorry, it was totally non-invasive, I promise. He just checked for electronic stuff, and you don't have any, so."

"I have metal boxes," Loki says stiffly. He's not sure whether to be furious or panicked; probably he's a bit of both. "Did you open those to check?"

"No! Nobody touched anything, I promise. JARVIS didn't tell me what's in there either, as far as I know he didn't even take care to find out. Electronic stuff emits a certain wavelength, and you didn't have any of that, so. With your metal boxes... well, that's not really. A problem." Tony looks both apologetic and not. "Look, I'm sorry, I understand that it's invasive, but I promise, it's just a normal scan, the same type of scan that looks for weapons, and you must have expected us to have those, haven't you?"

Loki had – they're everywhere, nearly every public venue that can afford it has those scans built into its doorwells. It's just common sense and not something Loki wastes any time thinking about.

"We scan everything that comes aboard. I do have enemies, so it's a necessary precaution. JARVIS monitors the scanners, but they didn't detect anything, and that's all he told me. He didn't tell me what's in your luggage, he didn't even try to find out himself, I promise. Tell him, JARVIS."

"Mr. Tony is correct," the A.I. says. As if the A.I.'s word could mean more than its creator.

"What do you mean, enemies?" Loki asks stiffly.

Licking his lips, Tony tabs his fingers on the table for a moment before sitting up abruptly. "Okay. You know the story of the assassination of the Odin family, right?"

Impatiently, Loki nods. "I don't see what that has to do with anything. You're not trying to claim that you are Loki, are you?"

Tony snorts inelegantly. "Yeah, no. But what few people know or talk about is the other victims of that assassination. It's not just the ambassador and his family that got murdered, there were a number of casualties. Among them my parents. Howard and Maria Stark, you might have heard of that."

Loki hasn't, but he knows the name Stark. Stark Industries is one of the greatest technological companies in the realm; eight years ago it had brought robots onto the market, saving itself from the brink of bankruptcy.

"My father had this friend and partner, Obadiah Stane who took the company over after his death. People thought I was dead too, it doesn't matter why, but a couple of years ago I made it into the palace and talked to him." Tony trails off, eyes far away. He's clearly lost in memories, and his voice is sober. Until now Loki hadn't realized it, but he's used to Tony being – not cheerful, but upbeat, active, animated. Not still like this.

There's a bitter twist to Tony's mouth when he finally continues. "He was nice and everything, but he said he couldn't just believe any fifteen-years-old who comes along claiming to be Anthony Stark, did I have anything to prove my identity. I didn't – all I had was my skills. I never got training, at least not after the assassination, but I've always been able to figure out how things work, machines, electronics, you name it, give me five minutes to take it apart and I can make it from scratch. And I'd been working on this thing... well, I showed him my designs as proof that I was who I claimed to be. He got super friendly afterwards, said he believed me, that it was great I had come back, and he offers me a drink to celebrate. Next thing I wake up in a cave full of terrorists who want me to make weapons for them, and they weren't shy about trying to make me."

There's another pause. Loki can see the memories behind Tony's eyes, and he suddenly realizes that he and Tony have more in common than he would have thought. "How did you get out of there?" Loki eventually asks, when it doesn't seem like Tony's going to start talking again on his own.

Tony starts as if he's forgotten that he's not alone. He looks at Loki for a moment, licking his lips, and then he says, "I made a weapon and used it on them." They stare at each other, communicating something Loki can't explain. Perhaps it's that Loki has the same attitude – throw shit at him and he's going to make you eat it. Tony clearly did just that.

"Stane knows I'm still out there," Tony eventually continues. "And he's trying to find me. I'm a threat to him, but right now he has the upper hand because he has Stark Industries under his control. I'm careful, but I've been recognized a couple of times, which is why I can't go places where they have facial recognition." That explains what he was doing on Hel. The legal authorities don't even try to pretend they have any type of control there. "But there are other ways to find someone, which is why I don't let foreign programs onto my ship."

Loki nods slowly. The invasion of having his luggage scanned still infuriates him, but he understands. Tony spoke the complete truth, and while Loki doesn't understand how he can do that, tell something like that to a stranger he hasn't even known for a week, it has the intended effect. "Are you going to kill him when you get into the palace?"

Tony looks at him freely, not hiding anything. "Maybe. But I'm definitely going to take my company back if it's the last thing I do. I will not let that motherfucker make off with what is rightfully mine."

An involuntary smile makes it onto Loki's lips. Tony frowns, clearly puzzled, so Loki says, "Looks like somebody else has been through crap and isn't going to take shit from anyone." No wonder Tony could see through him so easily.

They share a grin that lasts for much longer than can be excused as casual. Eventually Tony clears his throat and breaks their eye-contact, casting his eyes about the room before reaching for his tablet. Loki feels confused and strangely breathless; he doesn't know what's happening. He doesn't usually get along so quickly with people, even if they've shared bad experiences. There's a sort of camaraderie that comes with something like that, but this feels different than that. He doesn't trust Tony, not by a long shot, but he knows some rather intimate, delicate things about him now, and that makes him feel a bit safer.

"Okay," Tony says, glancing towards Loki's tablet and flicking something from his own over. It's a folder full of pictures. "This is the royal family, you'll probably recognize them from that family picture people keep showing whenever the anniversary rolls around. There are also non-immediate members of the family, but there aren't actually any pictures of them around because they don't live on Midgard." Tony grimaces. "That's real unfortunate, but hopefully if necessary we can excuse those with the fact that Loki was quite young the last time he met them. The last documented visit of the Ambassador's family to Asgard was nine months before the assassination."

Loki flicks through the pictures quickly, seeing Thor, Baldr, Váli, Vidar, Höd and even pictures of little Loki. Tony was right; there really is some similarity between Prince Loki and him. Though Loki doubts he looked that well-fed and happy when he was that age (though mathematically, the time the picture was taken might fall into the time before Loki's memory sets in, but he doesn't care much about that).

Tony gives him a moment and then sends something else over to his tablet. "You probably know this already – it's pretty difficult to miss with the story getting dragged up every year again on the anniversary – but here's the story."

It's a text file; Loki reads through it carefully. Prince Thor was appointed an ambassador to Midgard when he was nineteen, and he brought his youngest brother Loki, four years old at the time, to live with him. About a year later, their four other brothers, Baldr, Vidar, Höd and Váli, came to visit the two. Somebody must have tipped them off and must also have led them into the palace, because the first night of their stay there the Jotunn came and tried to slaughter the whole family – only it just so happened that Thor wasn't there because that evening his girlfriend was admitted to the hospital with appendicitis. He survived by pure chance. The rest of Odin's sons were slaughtered, among with a couple of other people, and it was incredibly gruesome, which is why nobody was too surprised that they didn't find Loki's corpse – or at least not enough of him to put him back together. Loki was the only one, but there were quite a few other people that they didn't find most pieces of. But naturally, immediately rumors branded up that Loki survived somehow and is still out there.

That's the story; the rest is information on the two Princes. Apparently Loki and Thor got on extremely well, Loki clearly adored his older brother. Immediately after the assassination Thor vanished for a couple of months; when he came back, he immediately banned any rumors of Loki's survival. He even went so far as to outlaw them and anybody who claimed to be or have found Loki got punished, until a couple of months ago. Nobody really knows why, but of course there are a lot of rumors, the favorite one being that Thor's terminally ill, but there is a note by Tony that says that personally, Tony thinks he's just trying to put this whole thing to rest once and for all.

That makes sense to Loki. Nobody of sound mind can reasonably expect this whole thing from turning out with the real Loki showing up.

"So…" Tony flicks another document over to Loki's tablet. "Here's a brief summary of the history of Asgard, as much as is publicly available anyway, which isn't much. There's books in the library that go deeper into the whole topic, analysis and such, and stuff on the Jotunn and really just about anything there is to know about either. I'd suggest you read at least some of that, but you don't need to know it all by heart; there won't be a quiz or anything anyway." He grimaces. "It's really a gamble, because we don't know how much you'll need to know in the end, if anything. So I guess we concentrate on the other stuff first."

"What other stuff?" Loki asks, making a note for himself to check the library for all available material.

Tony's grin is wide, making Loki instantly suspicious. "Manners."

"Manners." That doesn't sound all that helpful. Loki knows what manners are, of course, but it's a rather woolly concept that could mean just about anything and is rather hard to teach.

Tony nods. "All kinds of them too. The others will be happy to tell you that I don't have any, but actually I do." He shrugs. "So I'll teach you some stuff, but I think we should do that tomorrow, it's enough for now. What do you think?"

Loki thinks yes. He wants to go back to the library.

"Come by later, I'll have some more donuts!" Tony calls after him when Loki is almost out the door. Pretending he hasn't heard isn't possible, there's way too little space between them and no background noise, but Loki still doesn't react, unwilling to do anything that might be held against him later, if he doesn't. He doesn't know yet if he will; the donuts were great, but still. He'd probably just stand in front of the lab door and hesitate.

As it turns out, he doesn't actually have that option. Loki is in the library, downloading the texts Tony had mentioned to him onto his tablet (and he's completely over the moon at the fact that such a thing is even possible; he hadn't know that, he'd thought he needed to keep the disk in his tablet at all times, but JARVIS had informed him that he could save the texts instead) after having just finished his other book when he gets a message from Tony. "come by, i made something almost as cool as donuts :)" it reads. Loki hesitates but eventually gets up and heads over to Tony's lab. He would've gone immediately for donuts; he's not sure about something else, but he'll just have to find out. Hunger has been gnawing at him anyway – it wasn't quite yet distracting, but it would have gotten there soon, and it's still three hours before dinner. That's the downside to eating regularly; perversely, one is more hungry. Or possibly just notices hunger more, Loki is not sure which.

"Hey!" Tony says when Loki enters his lab, sounding rather happy. He immediately starts talking. "So, I thought, donuts, right, pretty awesome. But what if it could make some other things as well? Almost the same principle, only slightly different? So, Berliner." Proudly, Tony presents a plate filled with pastry in the shape of flattened balls, darker than the donuts, with a pale line where the oil didn't reach from either side, no holes and once again topped with icing. "I considered malasadas, but they're smaller than donuts or Berliner and I wasn't sure how the machine would take the flipping them around, but that's up next."

Stepping closer, Loki takes one. "They look like donuts without the holes."

Tony's already chewing, voice muffled by his full mouth, "Those exist too, and they're still called donuts. I guess these are donuts too, but my mom used to call them Berliner. Where she's from that's what they were called, and it sort of stuck." Tony shrugs. "They generally have a filling, jam or something else, but I figured that's too much adventure for now. Maybe I'll add that function later."

"You could just do it yourself," Loki suggests, finally taking a bite. It tastes pretty much like the donut, incredibly sweet, but the dough is a little softer, fluffier in the middle, the taste of the oil not as strong.

Tony laughs. "Right, no, I totally suck at cooking. Or baking. Or generally anything involving the preparation of food."

Both eyebrows raised, Loki sends a meaningful glance at the Berliner.

"That doesn't count," Tony claims decisively. "I make a machine, and the machine makes the food for me. And you know how long it took me to get it right."

"So you make a machine that does the baking for you," Loki says. "Still sounds like it's effectively you doing the baking."

The look Tony sends him is thoughtful, unduly so considering the topic of conversation. "Some would say that it's cheating."

Loki shrugs. "I really don't see how. And this is so much more efficient; while the machine bakes, you can do something else."

Tony points at him. "Exactly! What I've been saying all this time." He looks very satisfied to have been validated and takes a big bite out of a pastry.

Feeling a bit awkward, Loki takes one as well. He wonders whether that's all and if he can leave, but before he can make any overtures to do just that Tony asks him what he's been reading. This time he doesn't make a surprised face when Loki tells him. Instead he first asks how he liked it, and then they actually have a conversation about it. At first Loki is taken completely off-guard; he isn't used to having intellectual equals who aren't out to get him. And yes, he doesn't know for sure Tony doesn't mean him any harm, but it doesn't seem particularly probable at this point. Which doesn't mean Loki's going to let his guard down completely anytime soon of course, but he does relax enough to forget the time. His only consolation is that Tony seems equally surprised when JARVIS tells both of them that it's time for dinner.

"Wow," Tony says, glancing guiltily at the empty plate of Berliner. "I'm not even hungry, but Pepper's going to kill us if we don't eat anything."

Loki doesn't comment on Tony's assumption that Loki isn't hungry as well (he is correct, yes, but still) and allows Tony to herd him over into the dining room. The positive side-effect is that Tony sort of shields Loki from the attention of the others by drawing it all onto himself, giving Loki something of a break which is a very good thing as he doesn't eat anything. He isn't completely ignored, Pepper continues making an effort to not make him feel left out by asking him harmless questions. At least it doesn't feel quite as awkward to him anymore, he's slowly getting used to being asked questions and answering them smoothly.

Nevertheless, he's rather relieved when the meal is over and he can go be alone in his room.

The following day his grace period is over once and for all; he's woken up incredibly early by JARVIS reminding him that he has to attend the sparring session. He contemplates skipping but while nobody has explicitly said so, it's obvious that there will be consequences to someone not attending the mandatory sessions. So Loki reluctantly gets dressed and heads over to the gym.

He's early, because JARVIS for some reason assumed that he'd need half an hour to get ready when he needed barely ten minutes. Pepper is there already, doing slow stretches on a mat, but she's the only one.

"Morning," she says when she spots Loki. "You're a bit early. Want to do some yoga with me? It's great for warming up."

Why not, thinks Loki. He has no idea what she's talking about but it doesn't look violent. Following Pepper's instruction he gets a mat and takes off his shoes, and then the she guides him through a couple of stretches. After that they get started, at first with simple poses but when she realizes that Loki is both bored and unchallenged they get a little more complicated.

Loki is in the middle of a pose Pepper calls Parsvottanasana, or "pyramid", where he has to position his feet like he's walking and then bend over until his upper body is as aligned as possible with his leg. At first she had him keep his hands on the floor for balance, but when he didn't have any problems with it she demonstrated how to put them on his back, palms aligned and fingertips pointing down towards his neck, heels of his hands between his shoulder blades. To help him with that – because honestly, the hands are more complicated than the whole rest of the pose – she has risen to help him, one hand on his lower arm. That's when Tony walks in.

At first Loki doesn't even notice, Pepper is saying something about all the anatomical areas he's stretching right now, but then Tony says "Oh", sounding stunned. Loki wants to turn to see his face but all he can move right now is his head and Pepper's hand on him is preventing him from getting out of the pose. Pepper says Tony's name in a chiding tone of voice, and that's the last straw; Loki has to know what Tony looks like. Smoothly he rises, stretching his arms and stepping back until he's standing normally, but by the time he has a clear view of Tony's expression Tony's face is blank.

"Yoga," Tony says. "Not really my sort of thing. You like it?"

Loki shrugs, irked at having missed something – and it's clear he did, Pepper is throwing glances at Tony Loki can't interpret and that Tony is studiously ignoring. "It's alright." A bit boring, not conductive to calming his brain at all as opposed to what Pepper told him. He doesn't quite see the point in doing something complicated with ones body and then staying that way for however many minutes. The getting there is interesting, Loki didn't know his body could bend and stretch that way, but there's way too many still periods for his taste.

"You're surprisingly good at it," Pepper says. Flushing as her brain catches up with her mouth, she hastens to add, "For someone who's never done it before, I mean. I didn't mean to imply you'd be bad at it, just… most people who don't regularly do anything similar aren't that bendy."

Tony doesn't make a sound but for some reason she still sends him a quick narrow-eyed glare. Loki would really like to know what's going on. Unfortunately, before he or anybody else can say or do anything, Clint and Natasha enter the room.

The next twenty minutes are spent doing various warming up exercises Loki and Pepper don't need because of the yoga. It's all very boring, but that rapidly changes when they're done and Natasha turns to Loki, asking, "So, what sort of experience do you have?"

When Loki just raises an eyebrow she clarifies, "Have you been trained formally in anything?"

"No," Loki negates simply. He is physically strong, but he doesn't at all look like it and he never made the mistake of letting the wrong people see just how strong he is or what he's truly capable of. Thus, the sort of business he was put into didn't involve that sort of training. It doesn't at all mean that he's defenseless, he's actually quite the opposite, but that goes without saying. He's still alive, after all.

"Okay, then the others will get on with things and I'll test you to figure out what sort of training you need," she decides. Nobody protests, marking the gym as primarily her territory, and Clint, Pepper and Tony retreat to one side of the room while Natasha and Loki take the other.

"How exactly will you test me?" Loki asks carefully, eyes never leaving hers.

She bares her teeth at him. "We'll fight. Have you sparred before?" Loki has no idea what she means, so she elaborates, "Fought without intending to do harm?"

Loki considers the question carefully. He has fought without the intention to kill and he's also fought without something important being at stake. He only tells her the latter, deciding that if she doesn't figure the rest out she doesn't deserve to know.

Natasha nods. "Make no effort to hold back, then. If you actually manage to harm me, you won't be held accountable for it, and I'll do my utmost not to hurt you." She grins, the bit of anticipation softening the aggressive gesture from before. "The rules are no weapons, and if either of us says stop we have to stop immediately. Clear?"

He isn't stupid.

He really isn't, so he has no problems abiding the rules and some of his own as well – no magic, of course, nothing too demonstrative. He has to keep some aces up his sleeve, and he's well aware that as much as he'll be assessing her, she'll be assessing him, and with much more expertise at her back. It's clear she, as opposed to him, didn't manage to not get involved in that sort of business.

Natasha counts down from three, and then she attacks.

Loki parries the fist she aims straight at his face and barely manages to duck out of the way of the leg she swings at him. She jumps over his leg when he attempts to swipe her off her feet but doesn't expect for him to jackknife up and ram his head into her belly. With a quiet "oof" she steps back, catching herself, giving him enough time to get up again.

She grins at him again, a truly exhilarated expression now with just a hint of aggression at the edges. Loki returns the grin, aware that it's a lot like hers, joyful in the face of impending violence for just the sake of it.

Done testing, they both move for each other at the same time.

Loki really is no stranger to physical violence. Growing up in various orphanages, the street and other sorts of hostile environments taught him both how to be on the receiving and the giving end of it. He knows how to defend himself, but he knows much more than that; he knows how to show his opponent that he won't be messed with, that if necessary he can fuck them up, and fuck them up good. By the time Tony picked him up he had carved himself his niche and hadn't needed to fight daily, but he's had to claw his way from the bottom to vague safety too many times to count.

To say Loki enjoys it would be stretching the truth, but it's not far from it either. Loki doesn't enjoy physical alterations for the sake of them, but he does enjoy beating his opponent, loves the feeling of proving that he comes out on top. Of course, there are always people Loki couldn't beat, physically as well as in other areas, but that's life, and he knows other ways to fight than physical.

That's not what this is about, anyway. He and Natasha aren't fighting for a rank in the pecking order or for something more material, but over the next half an hour it becomes clear to both of them that if he were, she'd be the one who came out on top. Neither of them are fighting at full strength, Loki quickly gets the hang of moderating the force of his blows, but she's much better trained than he. Loki is good, yes, but she's better. Things might be different if he'd also involve his magic – he knows for a fact that with magic, he wouldn't even have to fight her at all – but he's not that reckless.

Eventually, Natasha dances back on her toes and calls out, "Stop!"

Loki straightens from his half-crouch and wipes at his forehead with his shirt. They're both sweaty and out of breath, though he more than she.

"You're good," Natasha says, without a hint of begrudging in her voice. "Are you sure you haven't been trained? You're far less blunt than one would expect."

Deciding to take that as a compliment, Loki shrugs. "I learned from various sources, but nobody ever took the effort of showing me on purpose."

Clearly, she understands. "You pick things up quickly, I saw a couple of my moves in there at the end. With a bit of real training you might actually become dangerous." She winks. Then she looks to the side, where Clint, Pepper and Tony are sitting on the floor, not even pretending to be doing their own training. Tony's face is red and he has his knees pulled up to his chest, Pepper is smiling, and Clint is looking at Loki with narrowed eyes, but there's something like respect in there now.

"If you're done with your break," Natasha drawls dryly, "He's better than both of you," she adds while the three of them get up, "but not as trained, so at the beginning there shouldn't be any problems training you all together."

What follows is about half an hour of drills, as Natasha calls them. "The theory is that if you do something so often it'll become an ingrained response and you won't have to think about doing it because you're already doing it by the time your brain consciously registers you're in danger," Tony explains as he moves to once more pin Loki's arm behind his back. It's sort of pointless for Loki; he has to force himself to keep his ingrained response to the move in check every time Tony does it. Tony notices and with a grimace suggests something else, but they end up still doing it, only with Loki being the one to pin Tony's arm. Tony clearly is familiar with the exercise but he isn't entirely smooth getting out yet so there is at least some use to the whole thing.

About half an hour later of similar simple exercises the whole session seems to be finished. "Don't worry, that was just warm up," Tony tells him. "The first session after a break we always revise old stuff, but we'll move on to more complicated things next time."

There was at least one positive side-effect to the whole thing; Loki is now more used to non-aggressive physical contact. It's perhaps a little ironic considering it was a sparring session, but he doesn't flinch anymore every time someone brushes by him, which he figures is a good thing. He has to learn to be smooth and comfortable even when surrounded by strangers if he wants to pull this whole con off relatively successfully.

After a much needed shower, Loki doesn't give himself time to dither and heads straight for the kitchen; he's hungry. It's the first time he goes there without having been summoned somehow, but it turns out he isn't the only one. Tony and Pepper are there as well, squabbling over some fruit. This, fighting over food, Loki is very familiar with, though there's a playful note to it all that was definitely absent those other times Loki remembers. Also it turns out that they're not fighting over who gets the fruit but over Pepper wanting Tony to eat the fruit and Tony wanting something else instead. "You can't live off donuts!" she exclaims, exasperated.

"I can and I have," Tony returns stubbornly.

Pepper proceeds to stare him down. Within a minute Tony sighs loudly and gives in, taking the fruit and starting to peel it. "You want some?" he offers Loki.

Loki glances at Pepper and raises an eyebrow. "I think not."

"Oh, there's more," Pepper pipes up, opening a cupboard and taking a box out, offering it to Loki. "I just want Tony to consume some vitamins instead of the junk he usually prefers."

"I have vitamins," Tony protests, "I have more than enough, don't I, JARVIS?"

"That is correct, Mr. Tony," JARVIS agrees smoothly.

"Vitamins not from a bottle," Pepper emphasizes with narrowed eyes. "Eat the damn papple, Tony." With a huff, she storms off.

"She's got a short fuse today," Tony comments, but only after Pepper is gone. "That time of the month, I suspect." He sends Loki a significant look.

Loki just shrugs, taking one of the papples and starting to peel it in the same manner as Tony. He's seen them before, but they were always too expensive for him to consider buying one, especially not without knowing whether he'd even like them.

"Soooooooooo," Tony breaks the silence starting to stretch out. "You're good at fighting, you're good at yoga, you're smart, and you're handsome. What's your flaw?"

Both of Loki's eyebrows fly up and he only barely manages to keep an incredulous snort in check. Blinking, he replays in his head what Tony just said, but it still sounds the same the second time around. He has no idea where to even begin with that, but suddenly it occurs to him that it's a joke – Tony's joking. Of course. He's witnessed the way these people like to tease each other; this must be the same.

Relieved at having figured out what's going on, he rolls his eyes. "There are none, I'm perfect, clearly," he retorts, voice as dry as he can make it.

Tony looks at him strangely for a moment, and his smile when it finally comes is a little strange too, almost sad, as wistful as his voice when he says, "Of course." Lowering his gaze to his hands, Tony pulls the papple apart and stares at it for a moment. "So," he says a moment later, tone final as he clearly changes the topic. "Cooking duty, the two of us, today, nineteen hundred. Do you cook?"

"Yes." Never mind that the most Loki knows of cooking is those times he had duty in the orphanages' kitchens or from the rather bland meals he prepares for himself.

"Oh good, because as I said, I'm not really good at it. I usually make a stir-fry or something and aim for not burning the vegetables. Or leaving them raw."

Ah. That, Loki probably can do, if he reads up a bit on it. "I'm not intimately familiar with the cooking process, though I have done it before," he admits, not knowing why he's doing it. Normally he doesn't expose his weaknesses. This seems a trivial one, but still. It makes him feel strangely naked, but it doesn't make him nearly as nervous as he would have thought it would. Especially not when Tony grins at him with delight.

"Great!" Tony says, though it's clearly not. "We'll figure something out."

"Do you not have books in the library?" Loki asks. Actually he's fairly sure there had been.

Tony tilts his head. "That's what you do, right, when you don't know something? You read a book."

"Of course I do," Loki snaps, vaguely irritated. Tony makes it sound as if he's peculiar, and while it's unusual among some company, it certainly is a perfectly logical and sensible thing to do.

"That's probably smarter than what I do," Tony admits, not reacting to the bristle in Loki's voice. "I usually pretend I know what's going on and muddle my way through."

Loki only does that when he has no other choice, and he hates it. He prefers knowing what he's doing, naturally.

Tony smiles at him. "So you think we should go check out some books on the whole thing in the library? I'm all for that, I probably should've done it a long time ago, but honestly, nobody expects much from me anyway."

"Don't they?" Loki inquires absently, puzzled over where Tony's going with this. At no point did Loki suggest the two of them read books on cooking.

"Nah." Tony waves his hand. "It's a great joke, how much I suck at cooking. Everybody likes to comment on it." There's a sharpness to Tony's smile that tells Loki that Tony doesn't find it quite as funny. It's strange that Tony didn't try to make it stop on his own by getting better if it bothers him.

"We will learn how to prepare a proper meal," Loki says. The second the words are out of his mouth he realizes that he's comforting Tony. He has no idea how that happened. He didn't mean to do that.

Tony's smile is sweet and placates his startled reaction. "Let's do that."

Thus, once they're finished with the fruit, they each get their tablets and meet in the library to pick a couple of books on cooking for beginners. "I don't even need to make a library – I mean, have a room for it," Tony tells Loki absently as they browse through the catalog, each on his tablet. "But there's something... I just wanted to have a room where the only thing you do is read, you know? And since I could afford to have one, I made one."

Clearly there's something more to it (you don't waste precious space when it is so limited on a whimsy), but Loki doesn't ask.

About two hours they both read some texts on basic advice for cooking – "it should've been obvious," Tony at one point says with chagrin, "if everything's chopped to the same size that solves the charring/raw problem, I don't know why I never thought of that, I'm supposed to be a genius" – but then Tony clearly loses patience with the topic. "Well," he says abruptly, "that's enough for now, don't you think? We won't burn anything and the rest is learning what herbs go with which foods, and we can look that sort of thing up just as well if we need to. Let's pick a recipe for what we'll make today."

Due to his own relative inexperience and Tony's inability, Loki wants for them to pick something simple. It's a bit difficult convincing Tony of that fact because he, overconfidently, wants to go for something more complicated, but Loki manages to convince Tony to keep with something easy for now. "Next time we'll be better prepared," he argues. It's what makes Tony finally cave and agree to the stir-fry Loki suggests.

After that Tony runs off into his lab to "do something with my hands, I'm getting antsy in here", leaving Loki to continue reading through the cooking books. There aren't all that many and most of them are recipes, so by the time Tony comes back he's read through most of them. "Are you still here or again?" Tony asks incredulously. "Please tell me it's the latter."

Loki just raises an eyebrow, because of course it's not. Where else would he go, what would he do?

"Seriously?" Tony prods, disbelieving. "How do you do that? I'd go nuts if I had to keep still for so long."

When he was younger, Loki used to as well. But he quickly learned the merits of remaining as still and quiet as possible. Not drawing any attention is a very good skill to have in the environment Loki grew up in. He trained his body to focus his excess energy on his mind, his brain; in his head he can soar and go wild while on the outside he remains perfectly unmoving.

"Well. I guess everybody is different, huh?" Tony says when Loki doesn't reply. And then he for some reason puts his arm around Loki's shoulder and squeezes. "Ready to roll?"

"Yes." Loki throws Tony a narrow-eyed glance and rises from his chair, dislodging his arm in the process. Tony steps back and smiles, making the whole thing seem natural and not like a gesture that might be interpreted as hostile. Not that it was meant that way, but Loki doesn't like to be touched. He might be getting used to it, but that doesn't mean he likes it.

"So I played around a bit with the donut machine," Tony starts as they both leave the library, and he continues babbling about the things he did with it all the way to the kitchen. Apparently he realized it really needs an option for self-cleaning, because all that oil gets everywhere and he finds it disgusting and annoying, "but the thing would end up as big as a table or something", so Tony instead started building another machine that would do the cleaning instead. "I mean I already have a couple who do that sort of thing – that's why we don't have cleaning duties here, I have robots for that – but most of them aren't equipped to deal with that much dirt – not that oil is dirt but to them it would be – and those that are aren't configured for the sort of delicacy the donut maker needs, which is a terrible failure in engineering if you ask me, that's what I get for being lazy, remind me of that next time I decide to skip steps because I'm impatient please."

And then he actually pauses and waits for Loki to verbally acknowledge that when before he's been perfectly content to continue nattering on without any input from Loki whatsoever. It takes Loki a moment to realize this, but when he does, he shrugs. "If I'm still around when that happens and if you let me know that that's what you're doing, I shall." As far as promises go, it's not much of one. Loki never promises anything he can't keep – not that promises are binding, but Loki makes two kinds of promises; false ones that have no stipulations whatsoever and real ones that have to be worded very carefully for obvious reasons. He doesn't find it necessary to give a false one in this occasion, even if only to placate Tony. It would be the beginning of a web of lies, and Loki isn't interested in establishing and maintaining something like that. He'd much rather focus all his energy on the library and the knowledge it's giving him.

"Cool," Tony says and grins at him. Then he starts talking again.

He keeps it up all through the cooking, only interrupting for instructions or questions; he quickly realizes that Loki paid much better attention to the books on meal preparation and defers to him where spices and herbs and really anything is concerned. Loki is pleasantly surprised; he would have thought, with how much Tony likes to control and dominate a situation and even a conversation, it would bother him. But clearly it doesn't because Tony seems utterly relaxed and keeps chatting about his machines.

It makes Loki wonder. "If you can make robots easily and have also successfully made an A.I.," he says when Tony falls silent for a moment, concentrating fully on peeling a crenzt which is more difficult than one might think, "how come you haven't made an intelligent robot yet?"

"Why would I do that?" Tony deflects. Unimpressed, Loki raises an eyebrow. "Well, all those movies taught me that that's not a smart idea. It's actually the first step towards slavery, apparently." Loki narrows his eyes, and Tony sighs. "Okay, I don't really believe that, I think it's idiotic and uninformed. Truth is... well, the truth is, I'm not overly fond of robots that pretend to be humans. You know, with the humanoid shapes and all. And actually, I do have a couple of robots with limited intelligence and the ability to learn."

Loki tilts his head. "Why do you not like robots with humanoid shapes?"

"I generally don't like anthropomorphisms. I think it creates a false idea in people's minds. They start to look at robots the way they'd look at other humans, but robots have absolutely none of the rights humans have. It's rather creepy, actually, if you think about it." At Loki's puzzled frown, he explains, "So you got a robot. Perhaps even one of those that aren't just humanoid, they're actually meant to look like a human, maybe a pretty little child. Think of all the things a person would and could do to that robot with absolutely no consequences. And honestly, nobody knows what exactly goes on in a robot's circuitry – mechanically, we know, yes, just like we know mechanically (or biologically, however you want to look at it, though I believe there isn't actually a difference if you get down to it) what goes on in a human's brain. But the programming is incredibly complex. They do have a limited ability to learn. Not actual intelligence, not the ones out there, or at least they're not supposed to. Because intelligence is another of those concepts that are difficult to define once you think about it. So how can we be really sure those robots aren't just- very complicated microwaves? They can learn. And isn't the ability to learn intelligence? To extrapolate from past experience and calculate a possible outcome based on that?"

"I don't know."

Tony shrugs. "I don't either. Fact is, nobody really knows. They've been debating the matter philosophically for centuries, and they'll continue debating it. Personally, I find it creepy and scary to think of what some incredibly sick people out there might be doing to robots, imagining – or perhaps actually considering them to be humans. It makes me sick, and not just because of what it could mean in terms of if they ever move on from robots to humans – it makes me sick even if all their lives they'll keep doing it to robots. Because it's fine in the eyes of society, it's not wrong, because a robot in the end is just a complicated microwave."

"And robots not having humanoid shapes makes that different?"

"It doesn't, not really. People will still kick a robot, even more than they'll kick a pet and never even consider doing the same to a human. But it makes it a lot less likely. A humanoid robot isn't humanoid because it wants to be that way; it was created that way. The creator sells not just the machinery, he sells an illusion, a promise, an idea, something that should never be projected onto a robot."

"You didn't mean for them to be humanoid-shaped when you created them," Loki realizes.

"No." There's a bitter twist to Tony's mouth, and he's staring at the knife in his hands with unseeing eyes. "I meant for them to be nothing what they are now. But they were taken from me and twisted into this warped, human fantasy. It's slavery without the slavery."

Loki doesn't say anything, gives Tony a moment to recover himself. It's clear this bothers Tony a lot and it's an incredibly difficult subject. "If you're done peeling the crentz, it needs to be diced and added to the rice before anything else."

Tony starts. He sends Loki a look that's difficult to define – somewhere between grateful and self-deprecating – before concentrating on chopping vegetables again.

The meal is a success. The vegetables are crunchy but not raw, the rice is good (and it's easier to get rice wrong than most people would have you believe) and everything is seasoned well. In Loki's opinion there's still room for improvement, especially where the vegetables are concerned (some of them are meant to be softer than they are, and others less soft) but it's good enough for a first attempt. Tony seems very satisfied with it and the others seem pleasantly surprised. They make jokes about Loki being a good influence and that Loki should teach Tony, because apparently when he's teamed up with one of the others for cooking they simply delegate him to chopping duty. Loki notes the way Tony jokes along with them and how nobody notices the tightening around his eyes that means he isn't entirely sincere and makes a mental note to pass along his reading materials to Tony so he can learn to do more.

The following three weeks pass moderately fast with Loki spending most of his time in the library and, surprisingly, not rarely with Tony in his lab. He's getting used to living on a ship and being in so much company, and he also gets used to how Tony keeps finding reasons to invite Loki over, going so far as to pick him up if Loki doesn't come on his own. Loki turns him down just on principle a couple of times, but after a couple of days they establish something where Loki just sits quietly, eats whatever the donut/Berliner/masalada machine has produced and reads while Tony buzzes around the lab. It works surprisingly well, he really wouldn't have thought he'd be at all comfortable with another person in his space, but Tony can be surprisingly unobtrusive. Not in the way that makes it feel like he isn't there but as in that Loki gets used to him being there and moving around and breathing and occasionally talking without it bothering him.

Loki learns how to take care of the green room – he won't have to do it often, apparently Natasha checks on it daily with it being one of her main responsibilities, but once a week one of the others has to weed and just generally make sure everything is alright. Natasha shows him how the second week, when it's Loki's turn, and then leaves him to it. It turns out to be surprisingly non-frustrating – Loki's never really been surrounded by plants and he wouldn't say it's something he actually likes, but he isn't completely bored.

In his lessons with Tony they discuss everything from history to politics to the proper way to use the unreasonably high number of silverware royals seem to require to consume their meals. Loki can learn most of it from texts in the library but Tony has a surprising amount of insight born from personal experience, which is entirely different than just learning from books. It doesn't matter that it's been over a decade since Tony lived in an environment that necessitated that sort of knowledge; apparently most of it is still fresh enough and he tends to remember things he thought he had long forgotten during their conversations.

With the others he grows more comfortable with as well, though to a lesser degree than with Tony. He starts making a habit out of doing some yoga with Pepper before their twice weekly sparring session and every now and then she manages to convince him to come even when he doesn't have to. It's calming once she learns to adjust the pace to Loki's low tolerance for too long periods of stillness and he learns to concentrate on his breathing and calming his mind. The whole sort of rivalry he has going on with Natasha doesn't stop but they adjust to each other and it has more of a playful edge to it instead of being on the brink of turning into true aggression. Even Clint gets used to Loki – according to Tony he's incredibly territorial and doesn't like having strangers invade his space, Loki shouldn't take it personal. He doesn't; he wouldn't even if he cared, which he doesn't.

Three weeks aboard the ship, and Loki feels as comfortable as he ever does, which is considerably more than he had expected. It worries him at first, how he doesn't feel threatened or wary with these people in this environment, but he spends a lot of time thinking about it and eventually he decides that it's only logical. It's a small ship, yes, but that's actually a reason for him to relax instead of the other way around because it means a very limited amount of people he has to account for and very few unexpected things happening. Nobody comes to threaten him or his space or his possession or his food and he doesn't have to pay to be left alone by various gangs and criminal organizations, not to mention the government. Of course this doesn't mean Loki completely relaxes; he still assumes he's being watched in his room, though by this point it's more a maintaining of his natural paranoia than the actual belief that Tony or the others (even Clint) feel the need to keep an eye on him. Still, he figures out how to ward his room while having it look like he's meditating, which is actually very complicated and takes him several hours in several sittings (he has to spread them out because he can't interrupt the schedule without drawing attention) because he can't draw the runes or do any of the other things that make casting spells easier. It is possible to enchant with nothing but words, but the more complicated the spell, the longer it takes to weave if one's only tool is sound.

But he manages, and as a result relaxes some more. He's as content as he's ever been and he feels like he actually has something closer to friends than allies in at least Tony and maybe even Pepper. They respect his boundaries – something Loki has never experienced before, that somebody not only takes the time to learn them but to then take care not to cross them – and seem genuinely pleased when he spends time in their company.

Which is why he's taken completely off-guard when Pepper corners him one day.

Cornering is perhaps not the correct word because no actual corners are involved, but it definitely feels like it when Pepper grabs Loki's wrist one morning after their non-pre-sparring yoga sessions and says, voice hard, "We need to talk."

All session she's been silent but she hadn't seemed angry or anything else so Loki is very taken aback, especially since she won't let go of his wrist even though she knows that he doesn't like to be grabbed like that. It took him a long time to learn not to react with flinches at best, violence at worst, to unexpected, purposeful touches – and incidentally, how fast he learned coincides with how fast Tony learned to telegraph his moves when he's about to touch Loki. Tony is a very tactile person, Loki has learned, once he's comfortable with someone, which hadn't been too conductive with Loki's aversion to touch. By this point he's used to it, but only from Tony.

"It's about Tony," Pepper says as if hearing his thoughts, which of course isn't possible.

"Tony is fine," Loki says, growing irritated. He pointedly looks down at her hand on his wrist and finally she lets go.

"Tony is..." She looks at him, frowns, and shakes her head. "You honestly don't realize, do you?"

"What?" Loki asks sharply. "Tony is fine." Isn't he?

"Well, yeah." With a sigh Pepper deflates, the spark of aggression gone. "Sorry about that. You always seem so confident and in control, I thought you knew."

"Know what?" Loki snaps, out of patience. "Tell me."

Pepper bites her lip. "I'm not sure I should." Shaking her head, she pushes her fringe away from her forehead. "Damn it. I shouldn't have said anything, Natasha told me not to interfere, but I thought maybe you were playing with him, stringing him along because he's- because he is who he is. But he's not just my best friend, he's like a brother to me, the only family I have."

Loki is this close to grabbing her shoulders and shaking her, demanding that she just tell him what the fuck she's talking about. Clearly seeing his frustrated anger plain on his face – seeing as he makes no effort to hide it – Pepper grimaces. "I'm sorry. I screwed this up." She takes a deep breath. "Tony's head over heels in love with you. I shouldn't have told you, but I sort of had to now, didn't I?"

Loki is gaping, he's aware of that, but he's much too busy trying to process what she's just told him. "He- what?"

"He's spoony," Pepper says bluntly. "Completely off his rocker for you. You're all he talks about. I've never known him to spend this much time with anybody. Hell, even half that much time with another person and he'd go crazy – he lets you stay in his lab over an extended period of time. Without supervision, even. He doesn't let anybody do that, not even me." She pauses to look at his face. Loki doesn't know what she sees there – he honestly doesn't know, and that would alarm him if he had the capacity to be alarmed right now. As it is, he's much too busy being stunned and completely confused. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to spring this on you at all, much less like that, but I suppose it's good you know since you really didn't notice. You don't have to- I don't expect you to do anything, really, but I would appreciate it if you could figure out how you feel about the whole thing and tell Tony before he falls even deeper. It's just been three weeks and he's this far gone already, and I know it's not your fault, but I'd rather he be hurt as little as possible, if he has to be hurt." With that, she turns around and leaves Loki alone, standing in the empty training room, thoughts whirling dizzyingly.

This is not a sort of situation Loki has ever had to deal with before. He's never even come close. Of course there have been people who meant something to him and who he meant something to, but they never talked about it and they were never obvious about it. In the world Loki grew up in you don't let others know your weaknesses. You keep them close and never expose them, even – especially – to the people who are your weakness.

Tony isn't like that, this whole environment isn't like that; Loki knew this. He himself still is mostly the result of his upbringing, but even he has relaxed somewhat in that aspect. Tony knows that the library and the knowledge it offers means a lot to him.

Tony. Apparently, Tony wants something from him Loki would never have thought anybody would even consider desirable. The logical explanation would be that Tony doesn't know who Loki truly is and while that's true in some aspects, in others it isn't. Tony knows Loki is much more damaged than he isn't, not so much because Loki told him but because Loki didn't take great care to hide it. He knows that Loki doesn't like to be touched and he's smart, he can draw his own conclusions. And look why Loki's here; to pull a con on somebody, and he honestly doesn't have any qualms about it. How does Tony know that Loki won't feel the same way about pulling a con on him? Loki could use the knowledge he's just gained, could use Tony, could gain his trust and extract all his secrets from him, all his technology, all his knowledge, and then he could make off with it all and sell it to the highest bidder.

Never mind that the thought makes Loki feel nauseous (and he doesn't know why that is, but he resolutely pushes any speculations in that direction aside for more important matters); Tony doesn't know that. Can't know that. He can't know how honest Loki has been with him and his friends (more honest than not, but that doesn't mean much). But still, he feels that way about Loki – Loki, of all the people on this ship to fall for. And that Pepper is right Loki doesn't doubt; even if he hadn't felt the truth of it, Pepper isn't the sort of person to be wrong about things. For her to have approached Loki like she has, she has to have been completely, absolutely sure. Maybe she even talked to Tony about it.

Tony.

Loki doesn't understand. He just doesn't understand why Tony would want to risk so much, risk himself like that for someone like Loki. It's not something Tony has chosen, but he clearly hasn't made any effort to put a stop to things before it's too late; they see each other as often as ever. At least once a day, now that Loki comes to think of it, and that's not counting the mandatory dinners.

What's the protocol for situations like these? Loki has no idea. Sure, he isn't unfamiliar with love and how normal people handle it, he's seen a number of movies, but the whole concept had always been far removed from Loki's life. In the stories, usually the people were in love with each other but didn't know it until somebody pointed it out to them or one of them confessed, but Tony hadn't confessed. Will Pepper tell Tony that she told Loki? Does Tony even know that Pepper knows? Will he be angry at Loki for the invasion of privacy? He might, or maybe being in love with him means he won't, Loki is fuzzy on the details.

He doesn't know what to do.

So Loki does something he usually wouldn't, if only to save face (and that sort of thing is still important here, if not as necessary for survival as it was on Hel); he hides in his room.

It's not the logical thing to do, he knows this. He's exposing himself, showing that something disturbed him enough for him to avoid the others, but he can't- the idea of going to dinner and facing Tony makes him vaguely panicky. He doesn't know what to do. Should he pretend he doesn't know? He could, but most likely it would be difficult to make it so even Tony doesn't realize something is off, Loki has been perhaps a little too open with him. But if that's not an option, what else is there to do? He could talk to Tony, but what would he say?

If Tony had come to him, maybe it would have been easier. If Loki knew what exactly it is that Tony wants and why he wants it from Loki of all people, he would feel a little more secure, perhaps. Knowing the parameters at least would make this whole thing seem less daunting, less completely out of control.

But Loki doesn't know anything, and so he stays in his room and reads. He doesn't react to the messages Tony sends him, asking him to come over and getting increasingly more worried when Loki doesn't reply. When Tony eventually comes to Loki's room, he pretends he isn't there, doesn't open the door. He's well aware JARVIS will tell Tony he's in, but he just can't face him right now.

As the day progresses, Loki thinks and thinks about the whole thing, trying to break it down, to make it seem less big, but he fails. Tony is in love with me, he thinks and he can't make that smaller. He thinks about their interactions, but he isn't sure if that's love in Tony's face when Tony looks at him, doesn't know if that's what makes Tony touch him so casually. He touches the others as well, looks at them as well, and Loki just doesn't know what it looks like when someone is in love. In the movies there's endless staring at each other, soft music playing in the background, but Tony doesn't stare at him, Loki is sure of that. He would have noticed, he thinks.

Or would he? Maybe, if this had been happening from the start, he would have considered it a part of Tony's personality and thus never realized there's something more at play.

But trying to remember, trying to figure it out just gives him a headache. He just doesn't know. Knows even less why. Loki isn't ugly, he knows that, but he isn't overly attractive either. The majority of his clients back when he worked at the club were attracted to him because of his tragic aura, because of the mystery and the fantasy that he's someone high and mighty who fell far down. It's an image he and his boss cultivated, but it's not something that would attract anyone to him permanently. The thoughts on his clients faces every time he danced for them weren't the pleasant kind.

And anyways, Pepper said love, not sex. Sex Loki can quantify, sex he is familiar with, it wouldn't disquiet him so much if Tony just wanted to have sex with him, but she said love. Love is something entirely different, something he cannot calculate or quantify.

Missing dinner almost doesn't register. JARVIS reminds him, of course, but Loki doesn't react, and JARVIS doesn't remind him more than once.

Of course things aren't that simple. After the meal his door alarm sounds and the A.I. informs him that it's Pepper. Loki hesitates, he hesitates for a long moment, but in the end he decides to maintain his silence. She couldn't clear anything up for him and most likely she'll only confuse him more right now. She already nearly threatened him without having any evidence that Loki even knew what she was speaking of (and she was wrong).

Half an hour after Pepper, Tony sounds his alarm.

"It's Mr. Tony," JARVIS informs him, "He wishes for me to tell you that Pepper talked to him and he wishes to speak to you."

Loki hesitates again, but he can't hide in his room forever and Tony really is the only person who can clear things up for him. If he knows what's going on Loki won't have to explain either, and perhaps Pepper was wrong after all.

He opens the door.

"Wow, you look completely frazzled," Tony says, but his eyes aren't as bright as they normally are, and he hesitates in the doorway. "May I come in? I think we need to talk about something." He winces.

Wordlessly, Loki steps aside and lets him in.

The personal rooms are small, a bed, a wardrobe, a shelf, a chair and a small table are all they contain, but Tony clearly doesn't intend to sit down anyway. Immediately after entering the room he starts pacing, walking back and forth a couple of times, wringing his hands.

"Okay," he finally says, coming to an abrupt halt, facing Loki. "So, Pepper told me what happened this morning."

Loki swallows and nods. He doesn't know where to look, where to put his hands, what to say. "She told me you..." He can't finish the sentence.

Tony winces. "Yeah, she said."

"Is it true?" Loki takes care to keep his voice carefully neutral, his face perfectly blank.

"Yeah." Tony isn't looking at him anymore. "Look, I understand if it makes you uncomfortable, and I'm sorry, I never-"

"Why?" Loki interrupts. It just bursts out of him, he didn't mean to, but he needs to know.

Tony frowns. "What do you mean, why?"

Loki digs his thumbnails into his fingertips, the faint pain helping him focus. "I don't understand. What do you want?"

There's a brief pause and then Tony finally looks at him. His face is soft. "Nothing," he says. "I don't want anything from you."

Lie. Loki would have known that even without his abilities. He might not know much about love, but he knows this much; you don't want nothing from someone you love. "Do not lie to me," he snaps.

Tony grimaces and turns away. "Fine," he murmurs, and again, louder, "fine." Turning back to face Loki, his face is more honest now, frustrated. "I want you to love me back, okay? I want you to- I want us to do things together, and not just in bed, and fuck, I understand it about just as well as you seem to, but I can't help it, okay?" This, Loki can deal with. Finally, there's something concrete he can understand and maybe he would say something, perhaps even apologize, but Tony isn't finished. "But what I don't want is to put pressure on you. Hell, I'm not even sure I actually want anything to happen. Right now, I'm perfectly fine just spending time with you and trying to figure this shit out. I never meant for you to find out now and I'm seriously pissed at Pepper."

Truth.

"She meant to protect you," Loki points out, not quite sure why he's trying to excuse her. He's been so busy thinking about Tony he hadn't even thought about thinking about how he feels about Pepper's involvement in the whole thing.

"Yeah, and in the process she completely freaked you out, don't deny it."

Loki doesn't; it's pretty obvious, after all.

Blowing out a breath, Tony runs a hand through his hair and rubs the back of his neck. "Look, I don't want anything to change between us." Half truth. "I really don't want for you to feel like you have to change or do anything." Truth. "I... well, I'm not even sure myself what exactly I want; I've never had to deal with anything like this. This really is the worst possible time for something like this, we're... you're... I'm about to reclaim what is rightfully mine and I'm using you to get there. I don't even know what you truly want."

It's half a question; it's not dressed like one but Loki recognizes it. He doesn't know why, but he answers. "I don't really want anything," he says quietly. What he wants most of all is to want something, if he's honest with himself. All he has is things he's scared of, things he doesn't want, and so far he's operated his life trying to reduce the possibility of these things happening. Even this dream, the dream he has of Midgard, is nothing but blown up desire. It's not Midgard he wants, it's wanting something.

"That's okay," Tony says.

"It's not," Loki returns before he can stop himself.

For a moment they just look at each other. It's difficult for both of them not to look away, to not hide at least a little, but if Tony doesn't, then Loki won't avoid his gaze either.

"Can we just... pretend this didn't happen?" Tony eventually asks, voice pleading. "Go on like before? Can we do that?"

There's a choice; Loki could either lie and build a construct – the safer option, most likely, in terms of situations Loki knows how to deal with – or he could tell the truth. "I don't know," he eventually answers.

Tony twitches and turns away, his back to Loki. His shoulders are tense.

Loki didn't mean for this to happen, he didn't mean for any of this to happen. He doesn't even know what is actually happening. "I've never... nobody has ever..." he trails off, because talking just isn't something he does. Explaining himself.

"Can we just. Can we still be friends?" Tony's voice is rough.

Is that what they were? Loki didn't know that. He's had allies before, but he isn't sure if any of them truly fit the definition of friendship he has learned is commonly accepted. Trust is a very precious good, and very rare. Loki isn't sure he has enough of it to give away, but he thinks that maybe if he had, Tony might be the only person he'd give it to. At least some of it.

"I." He clears his throat. "Doesn't something have to change?"

"Maybe," Tony whispers. "I don't know. I really don't."

"Maybe if you explain," Loki offers hesitantly. "I just don't know how to understand this."

Abruptly, Tony turns around. "You asked me why," he says. "Earlier. You asked why. Is that what you want to know?"

"Maybe... well, yes, but how. How, too." Loki's never been so incoherent, and he hates it.

Eyes narrowed, Tony takes a step closer. "You aren't scared of me, are you?"

"Not of you, no," Loki replies truthfully. Not of Tony. But of the things Tony feels, maybe. Of what they mean.

Tony takes a breath. "That's good. I'm not scared of you either." A bit of a lie, that. Just of his feelings, maybe, if Loki interprets his expression correctly.

"Good," Loki whispers.

They look at each other.

"I don't really know," Tony eventually admits after a brief moment of silence. "Why or how, I mean. I mean, I've never really... I was perfectly fine having sex without any attachments, and being cooped up together on an enclosed space for months at a time makes for vaguely polyamorous relationships anyway, but I never... it never bugged me like you do. I know it's not, I know you don't do it on purpose, but you... you're just. I want you there all the time, in my space, I want you as an audience and even worse, I want to be your audience. I'm the first to admit that I'm a narcissist, I'm just not overly interested in other people, but I am. In you, I mean. I want to know what you think. You're so funny, once you let yourself go a little, sharp and sarcastic. You don't hold back for politeness – at first I thought that's what it was, that you're so quiet because you're polite, but you're generally not. You can be, but it's not who you are, and that's another thing – I want to know all the things you are, beneath the things you just seem to be. I thought maybe that's it, at first, that you're a puzzle, something for me to figure out, but that's not it either, it's just one facet. And there's so many of those, I have no idea what the fuck is going on, what I'm doing, Loki." Tony's voice is pleading, but Loki doesn't have anything to offer either, he can't explain.

"I never meant for this to happen," Loki whispers. He's completely out of his depth. He meant to enjoy the library, spend two months on the ship, then play a bit at being a Prince and prove to himself that Midgard isn't anything like in his dreams.

"I'm sorry." Tony is clearly miserable, and Loki can't let that stand just like that.

"It's not your fault," he replies forcefully. "Stop apologizing. I'm not even sure this is something one needs to apologize for." Actually, Loki is fairly sure that it isn't. It's not like such a thing is supposed to make Loki feel this frazzled; the fault is, if anywhere, at Loki's. He's broken, he knows this.

Tony shrugs. "Maybe not." But he doesn't believe it.

"No," Loki says sharply, taking hold of Tony's shoulders and catching his eyes. "It's not a bad thing. It's not something you need to apologize for."

"But you're all…" Tony waves his hand towards him, apparently referring to Loki's holing up in his room. "I didn't want to make you so uncomfortable."

"You didn't make me uncomfortable," Loki returns. It's even the truth, Tony didn't. Doesn't. "I just don't know how to deal with this."

"Me neither," Tony admits.

"But we can figure it out," Loki tells him firmly. No hiding in his room any longer. It's ridiculous, and it won't do. Loki doesn't hide. He panicked briefly but that's over now. Yes, this is completely foreign territory to him, but he knows the scope a little better now, and he knows that he doesn't want to use this for his own gain, nor is he willing to avoid Tony so as to avoid the situation, in any of the ways possible. That doesn't leave many options of what he can do.

Tony seems skeptical. "Can we?"

"Yes." Loki squeezes Tony's shoulders and narrows his eyes at him. "Stop freaking out." Because of course Loki isn't the only one who's freaking out, he doesn't know why he's only realizing this now. This must be even harder for Tony; after all, he's the one being laid bare. So Loki's order is not just aimed at himself but also at Tony.

Tony blinks and stares at him for a moment. Then he huffs a laugh. "You," is all he says, and he looks at Loki with an expression Loki recognizes – and that he suddenly recognizes. He's seen it before on Tony, just little glances here and there that he'd never known how to interpret. So that's what they mean.

He flushes and doesn't quite know where to look. But he doesn't drop his hands from Tony's shoulders; by the time he thinks of it Tony's already grinning at him, a cheeky twinkle in his eyes.

"Okay," Tony then says. "We good, then?"

Loki nods, and suddenly, Tony moves in to hug him, squeezing him tight for just a moment before he lets go and steps back. "I'll go yell a bit at Pepper now for getting involved in what's none of her business. See you tomorrow."

Then he's gone, leaving Loki to blink at his automatically shutting door.

Despite all his good intentions Loki is filled with apprehension when he enters Tony's lab the next day. It's unnecessary because they had sparring just an hour ago and everything was perfectly fine, but it's different because they weren't alone. They will be now, and if he reasonably could have, Loki might have tried to stall a little. However, today they have one of their appointments, though they hardly bother with the formality anymore because they see each other every day anyway. By this point the appointments more pose a reminder that they are to talk about con business (as Tony's taken to calling it) than anything else. But it turns out he needn't have worried; Tony acts like usual, if a little nervous as well. They quickly find their usual rhythm of bantering back and forth between just being in companionable silence, Loki reading on his tablet and Tony playing around with one of his inventions.

Loki relaxes. It turns out not to be a good idea.

It's Loki's turn to cook, this time with Natasha; it'll be the third time the two of them cook together. The other two times had gone okay, they hadn't talked much, which had suited both of them fine.

"What's going on with you, Tony and Pepper?" Natasha asks as soon as Loki is stirring the roux, meaning he can't leave without risking to burn it. No doubt that she timed it like that on purpose.

"What did you notice?" Loki returns; he doesn't insult her by pretending nothing is going on. Of course she'd notice; even Clint must have noticed. Such a shift in dynamics between three of five members of a crew is impossible not to notice.

She sends him a dry smile. "She feels guilty for something. Tony is pissed with her, and you try to act like you normally do with her but you didn't do yoga with her this morning. You were stiffer during sparring."

The yoga makes enough of a difference for her to notice? Maybe Loki will have to do it more often then. One day it might make the difference between getting away unscathed, you never know.

"She meddled," he settles on putting it. He doesn't feel like discussing this with another person.

Unfortunately, Natasha doesn't let him get rid of her that easily. "Is this about what's going on between you and Tony?"

That stops Loki short – mentally, physically he's still stirring the roux. "What do you mean?" he asks sharply.

She raises an eyebrow at this clear loss of his cool, but Loki doesn't care. How can she know, when he himself didn't even have any idea?

"Please, Tony's been making googly eyes at you from the beginning," she says. The words sound derisive but her voice is fondly amused. "At first I thought hey, a little hero worship, Tony's been known to flail a bit over hot people. But it's only gotten worse the longer you've been here. By this point I wouldn't be surprised if he started throwing his panties at you and begging to have your baby. Keep stirring."

Loki would really have preferred if not everybody knew how Tony might or might not be feeling (after all, Tony himself isn't even sure, how can they be?) before him. He had thought he was keeping a close eye on his surroundings, but clearly he'd been not as attentive as he had thought. Is this because he made the mistake of relaxing too much, or simply the fact that he doesn't know these people so well as to reasonably expect to know everything about them within just three weeks? Probably the latter, but Loki doesn't let himself off the hook so easily and inwardly reprimands himself sharply for getting so lax. That simply won't do.

"You probably didn't notice because he's not the most demonstrative guy," Natasha says, stirring the milk she's just made. As usual, she hits the nail on the head. By this point Loki doesn't bother wondering whether he's that transparent (because he isn't) or whether she's just that good (the more likely option, no matter how much it galls him to have met someone as skilled in analyzing people as he). "He always gets excited about just about everything, so it's hard to tell whether there's more than one thing he's getting starry-eyed about."

"Tony is not that ridiculous," he says eventually, for lack of having anything else to say. What would one say to something like that?

"Of course he isn't," she snorts. "And of course he is. He's a complicated one. Most people would never think so, but most people don't know him as well as we do." Stepping up to Loki, she starts slowly pouring the milk into the roux. "Don't let him fool you. He can live with a person on a ship for six months and they'll come out by the end of it thinking he's a superficial idiot savant with attention deficit disorder. Sometimes he slips up, but he always, always can make you think that that's all he is if he truly wants to. Well, not you, not anymore, but people he hasn't consciously let in."

Loki had suspected as much. Tony isn't as skilled as Loki is at hiding but he's deceptive because of how completely transparent he seems. There's incredibly many facets to him; Loki isn't sure he'd have found them all in three years, much less after just three months.

"And you clearly like him as well," Natasha states. It feels like someone's poured ice into Loki's stomach. Seemingly oblivious (though she certainly must be aware of just how many of his boundaries she's overstepping right now), Natasha continues, "You don't let anybody get as close to you as him. And considering how generally distant you are it's clear he's special. I don't know you as well as Tony," she says blithely, "but I can tell that much. Which is why I'm not keeping a close eye on you and what you do with Tony, and why I'm not threatening you with bodily harm should you hurt him. Which is what I'm assuming Pepper did, am I right?"

A little dazed, Loki nods. What does she think Tony means to him? Loki hadn't even known they were friends. Yes, he enjoys talking to Tony and even just spending time in his company without them even doing anything together, and yes, he maybe even feels comfortable with him. But what she's implying... what is she implying?

He almost asks, but Loki isn't that far gone. It might be a little different with Tony (but only a little), but he's exposed himself far enough in front of her, he's not going to give her any more to hold over him. "That's what Pepper did, yes," he says, managing to keep his voice smooth.

"And clearly, Tony is completely pissed off." Natasha nods as if all her suspicions have been confirmed – most likely, they have. "I thought they were over these boundary issues."

Loki wonders at how chatty Natasha is being; he has never heard her talk so much. He decides to use the opportunity while it presents itself to him, even if it'll show her that he's curious. That much is certainly obvious by this point, that he's somewhat interested in Tony, though Loki hopes she's fuzzy on the details. He certainly is. "What do you mean?"

"They went through this horrible phase where all they did was fight, after their break-up," Natasha tells him. Thankfully she doesn't act like she's doing him a favor by telling him, instead just calmly dices the cheese to be added to the sauce Loki is stirring.

"Break-up?" Loki repeats sharply. Tony and Pepper were together? Loki hadn't known that. He had suspected it at the beginning, but it had quickly turned out not to be the case. Though Tony had said something about relationships on the ship being vaguely polyamorous... Loki had been too occupied with other matters to pay much attention then. He should have been more attentive.

The glance Natasha sends him is pointedly unconcerned. "They used to be together for a while. Broke up over a year ago, though."

Loki sends her a sharp look when she doesn't continue; she's doing that on purpose, making him ask all the question. At his expression the corners of her mouth tilt up, but she explains the rest without any prompting on his part. "There were some problems at first, after they broke up. Boundary issues. From what I understand, neither of them were very good in minding their own business, but I had thought they had sorted it all out. Clearly, that's not the case, if Pepper got involved in all this."

Clearly.

"But they broke up," Loki confirms, not caring that it might betray something about him. He's too annoyed with this whole topic and how complicated everything's getting.

"I should hope so. Pepper's seeing someone else. Make room."

Loki steps aside and lets Natasha take the pasta off the stove. He eyes the sauce and decides it'll be fine on its own for a couple of minutes and starts setting the table.

They don't talk any more until the others trudge in.

Of course, the day isn't over yet. After dinner, Pepper pointedly joins him when Loki makes his way back to his room. She doesn't say anything while they're still in the corridor to the kitchen but once they're out of earshot she turns to face him with a determined expression and says, "I'm sorry."

Loki raises both eyebrows. "For what?"

"Stop pretending to be stupid," she snaps. Loki is mildly taken aback; the only person she's snapped at so far is Tony. She takes a deep breath to calm herself before continuing, "I shouldn't have talked to you about Tony. It's not really any of my business." Crossing her arms, she raises her chin. "Though I stand by what I said. Don't hurt him or you'll regret it."

Loki has to admit, he likes that. Tony is clearly pissed with her, he had ignored her all day, but she isn't backing down even while admitting that she's made a mistake.

That and the fact that he's generally vaguely fond of her – she's precise and predictable, he appreciates that – makes him throw her a bone. "I have absolutely no intention of doing so."

Pursing her lips, Pepper looks at him for a moment before her body posture relaxes and she nods. "Good. That's all I wanted."

"Great. Can we please not ever talk about this again?" It breaks out of Loki without a conscious decision, but he is honestly exhausted and fed up with this topic. He'd rather nobody else but Tony get involved with it all from now on. Not Pepper, certainly not Natasha, definitely not Clint, nobody. And he'd much prefer if he and Tony don't talk about it for a while either, because Loki is still trying to figure things out and all this talking just confuses him.

Pepper blows out a noisy breath and laughs. "Yes, please, let's do that." And then she hugs him. Much like with Tony, Loki is completely taken aback and before he can gather his wits enough to react, she's already pulling away again. "You're coming to yoga tomorrow morning, right?"

It sounds more like a demand than a question, but she's tense. People aren't suddenly okay again after a fight, Loki knows, and if nothing else, this morning taught him that one needs to interact with each other as before the conflict for them to relax. So, even though he'd rather have some peace and quiet, he nods and tells her he'll be there in the hope that they can finally leave this whole topic behind.

Chapter Text

Over the following week, things go back to normal. Loki deliberately doesn't think about anything relating to what's going on between him and Tony, mostly because it doesn't seem necessary. They're fine, there's nothing strange in their interaction, and if Loki now knows a little better what it means when Tony looks at him like that, well, that doesn't have any impact on how they behave with each other.

When Loki lies in bed and tries to sleep, it's a little less simple. There's not really a point to it; once they arrive Tony is going to reclaim his business and live at the palace, or at least on Midgard. Loki is going to dupe the Ambassador of Asgard, and he's going to be good enough at it to give Tony however much time he needs. It's doubtful people will be too happy with him afterwards and rather impossible that they'd allow him to be living at the palace.

If that's even what's going to happen, because really. Once Tony has everything he rightfully owns, money, fame, his father's company and really everything he could want, he'll probably not want to have much to do with Loki anymore. Maybe right now, Loki seems to Tony for some inexplicable reason like a good… boyfriend, or whatever it is he wants, but that will probably change quickly. After all, they're cooped up in a tight space with a small number of people. Once Tony has more options and not just that, people that would suit him much better, he's likely to forget Loki quickly. Who would want someone as fractured and strange as him if they could have perfectly normal, healthy, beautiful people instead?

But all that doesn't mean Tony doesn't want him now, and Loki becomes abruptly aware of that about a week after the whole topic was put to rest.

Instead of meeting at Tony's lab as usual, Tony had sent him a message that he should come to the gym, it's time for the next step in Loki's education. Loki is a bit irritated with both the secrecy and the choice of words, but he does go to the gym. He finds Tony and, surprisingly, Natasha present.

Tony's grin is wide. "Dancing lessons!" he exclaims as soon as he sees Loki. "Natasha agreed to train you. I could do it, but she's much better, and I'm not sure I could manage to not lead, because that's all I was taught." His smile dims a little at that and Loki realizes that the assassination must have happened before Tony got too far in learning how to dance.

By now used to the way Tony lets him see glimpses of himself but hates for anything he doesn't say to be acknowledged, Loki just raises an eyebrow and nods. Dancing, fine. He can do that.

"Do you have any experience dancing?" Tony asks, showing just how oblivious he is to what growing up in an orphanage is like. Though Loki wonders; he was a child when his parents died, and the ship didn't come into existence out of nowhere. Somewhere Tony must have gotten the funds, and somehow he must have earned his living.

"I did tell you I was one of the luckier ones," Loki reminds dryly. He and Natasha share a look; she raises an eyebrow. They both know what that means.

"Okay." Tony is visibly confused. "So... does that mean you do?"

"It means I was sold to a strip club when I was twelve and earned my keep with various kinds of dancing for several years," Loki clarifies.

"Pair?" Natasha asks before Tony can say anything.

Loki nods. "Solo too. I'm good at either."

"Presenting or presented? Which style?"

"Both. Mostly Aiyankayar, though also some Krschno and a couple of others."

Natasha smiles. "Good. Let's try this then. JARVIS?"

The beginning notes of a song accompany her as she moves into position, holding out her hands. Loki takes them. The tilt of her hips indicates that he'll be the lead, and her stance tells him that they'll do a pair dance in Aiyankayar style, meaning lot of twirls and dips, a couple dance that is in sync instead of a fight, as it is with Krschno. At the club where Loki used to work they would use the pair dances to present both participants; then the clients would bid on both of them an whoever won would have a private dancer for the night. Sometimes the dancing included something of a happy ending, but Loki was lucky enough to end up in a club where the owner had recognized that happy employers earn more money and produce happier clients. She hadn't forced her workers to provide happy endings, but they had been required to at least endure being touched, and those who had refused to provide happy endings had earned considerably less.

All of that isn't burdening Loki now, of course; all he has to do is dance with Natasha. Their sparring sessions have taught both of them some familiarity with each other's bodies and the way they move, which is a good thing because normally Aiyankayar dances are more choreographed than not. They'll have to improvise, which means it'll look less smooth than it should, but Loki is good, and she's at least good at reading body cues, so they should manage.

Actually, they do a bit better than that. At first Loki is tentative but it turns out she's very familiar with the style as well and after a brief period of getting to know each other's ways with the dance, they both get more daring. A small tilt up of her chin means she wants to get dipped, if she tilts her head either left or right means she wants to get twirled either way, and he adapts the same tells. There are others, of course, as they move apart and back together, roll their hips at nearly the same time to the rhythm of the music, and not having choreographed the dance turns out to be surprisingly exhilarating. Loki wouldn't have thought he'd enjoy it so much – he always had, of course, he likes dancing, but it had become cumbersome over time, with him being too familiar with all dancers and growing weary of his boss. With Natasha, he finds the enjoyment of it again. It's a bit like sparring, only completely different in the sense that it's not a fight; they move in tandem, they're a unit, and perhaps he shouldn't be so surprised that it goes so well. They have a lot in common, after all.

By the time the song ends – it was one of minor length, only six minutes, barely long enough for them to get into the rhythm – they're both smiling. Loki doesn't think he has seen her smile like that before; carefree without the aggression that is usually in her expression when they spar. Perhaps it's the physical exertion; the gym is the only place at all where he's seen her really smile. His own smile is easily explained – he had forgotten how much he enjoys dancing and she reminded him.

They bow and step apart, the traditional parting gesture of the song, but they don't stop looking at each other. "You're good," Natasha says, which is the greatest compliment he's ever heard her give.

"You as well," he returns smoothly. "It was a pleasure."

She grins and winks – she actually winks at him, dancing must really have loosened her up, he's never seen her this relaxed – and turns to Tony. Loki completely forgot he was even in the room, and he follows her gaze.

Something is off, he knows this immediately, even though Tony's face is perfectly blank. "Wow," Tony says, "That was brilliant." His smile is wide, but it doesn't reach his eyes and his hands are tense, even though they're carefully not curled into fists.

"Thanks," Natasha says, back to her normal, sober self. Loki kind of regrets the change. Maybe they can dance again sometime so she'll relax again.

"So, you got this dance lesson thing, right?" Tony addresses Natasha. Come to think of it, he hasn't properly looked at Loki even once after the dance.

Natasha frowns. "Of course."

"Great, then you don't need me, I have something to do in the lab, important science and all that. Have fun!" With that, Tony is off.

Loki is confused; this is untypical behavior for Tony. It reminds him of Tony's quick exit during their talk a week ago, but it's strange how Tony wouldn't look at him. He shares a look with Natasha, who seems confused as well, but her eyes are narrowed and thoughtful. Clearly she has her own suspicions as to Tony's behavior.

"What was that?" Loki asks her. Maybe Tony said something to her before Loki joined them.

She raises an eyebrow. "Maybe after this lesson you should go to Tony and tell him that you are not romantically or sexually interested in me."

Loki can't help it, his mouth drops open. But the idea of him and Natasha – he had never even thought about it. She's physically attractive, yes, and maybe something could actually develop between them, but not until Loki knows more about her. They need to build up a lot of trust between them before they can even relax with each other, they just know too much about the world they both grew up in.

At his reaction, Natasha laughs. "I know," she says knowingly. Then she stands in front of him and takes his hands, placing one on her back just under the shoulder blade so she can rest her arm on his. The other, she continues on holding at a slight angle away from their bodies. "This is the standard position for most dances," she starts the lesson.

Around an hour later, Loki can do waltz; it's rather boring all things considered but she assures him it's the standard dance. More interesting dances are to follow, though; she says he'll enjoy tango. He's doubtful, ballroom dances – as she calls them – seem to be rather restricted, with very little room for improvisation or creativity. Though according to Natasha that's subject to change if he knows some more dances and the more complicated steps.

Later, though. They make an appointment for the next lesson and then, after a quick shower, Loki goes to talk to Tony. He's not even reluctant at having another conversation about... things again; the idea of him with Natasha is so absurd he just has to clear it up. Tony can't honestly believe that. Loki has barely even interacted with Natasha outside of the times when the whole group meets – meals, sparring sessions and the three evenings a week where they are social together.

Tony is in his lab, of course, and he doesn't look up when Loki enters. "Sorry, I'm a little busy right now," he says, and he certainly looks like it.

Loki frowns. He is not impressed by this avoidant behavior. "I am not interested in Natasha."

The screwdriver Tony's been holding clatters to the floor, but Tony still doesn't look up. He appears to be frozen, though, staring down at the machine he's been taking apart. "That's... okay," he murmurs after a moment.

This isn't how Loki had imagined this would go. He had thought Tony would stop his ridiculous behavior and be at least relieved that Loki isn't interested in Natasha. He was supposed to go back to acting like normal, but he's still avoiding looking at Loki.

"What else is bothering you?" Loki demands.

"I, uh." Tony pushes the machine out of the way and presses his hands to the table. "It's. Not really your problem, a little miscalculation on my part, it's okay."

"Clearly, it is not," Loki bristles, taking several steps towards Tony despite the way Tony tenses up. This whole conversation is very annoying. Tony is annoying with how he won't look at him or talk to him or act like he normally does. "What is it, Tony? That miscalculation of yours."

Tony shrugs and doesn't say anything for a while. Loki is just about to run out of patience and demand an answer when Tony shrugs again and explains, "I just realized I've been rather self-centered, haven't I? I mean it was all about me, me and my feelings, me, me, me. When actually it should be about you."

"Are you talking about... what are you talking about?"

With a frustrated noise, Tony sits back in his chair and runs both hands through his hair. "When Pepper told you a week ago, and when I talked to you about what's going on with me... that's just it, it was all just about me, not you."

"You did talk about me," Loki reminds him quietly. He's still not sure what to make of that. He's not the person Tony described – he is, in part, but it's not as great as Tony had made it seem. Tony had made it sound like Loki isn't as damaged as he is.

"But only in relation to me. It's okay if you don't feel that way about me, Loki. I won't bother you with my... feelings anymore."

That immediately makes him bristle. "You're not bothering me," Loki says forcefully. "You're puzzling me, because I'm not... I'm not someone someone like you should fall in love with. I'm not really how you see me. I have more secrets than you can even imagine, and I'm not... however you see me, I'm not that way. I'm... worried, because I'm bound to disappoint you. But I'm not bothered." He sneers. "Stop it this instance. Self-pity does not suit you, Tony."

And finally Tony looks at him, frowning, eyes narrowed. "Self-pity does not suit you either, Loki. Stop that. And stop worrying about me. I may not know what I'm doing, but I know what I'm doing." He grimaces. "And that actually made sense in my head." He shakes his head and looks at Loki again, and Loki is struck with the thought that he doesn't want him to stop. Tony avoiding looking at him... he hadn't liked how that had made him feel. Awful, like something was wrong when Tony didn't look back when Loki looked at him. It should scare him, but it doesn't, because Tony's looking back now, and he only stopped out of stupidity. "I know what I'm doing. I don't know what you think I think about you, but I'm not an idiot, Loki. I don't idolize or idealize people. I see you just the way you are."

Loki shakes his head. "You do not. You can't." And if he would, Tony would want nothing to do with him, Loki knows that.

"So what if you have secrets?" Tony snaps. "Everybody does. I do. I haven't told you everything about me, and I doubt I ever will. I don't need to know everything you've done, I don't need to know everything that happened to you to know you. And maybe I'm not there yet, but I don't think it actually matters all that much because I'm on my way, and I'm falling for you anyway, and there's nothing either of us can do about that." He rubs his face with both hands. "And again we're only talking about me and my feelings." His hands drop and he looks at Loki seriously. "Just tell me if you want me to stop and I will. Tell me if you want nothing to do with any of it and I'll never bother you with it again."

"I never said that," Loki bristles. "Stop putting words in my mouth. I never said anything of that. Why do you-" Frustrated, he throws his hands in the air and strides up to Tony. Fisting his collar he pulls Tony up at the same time as he leans down, which results in more of a clash of lips than an actual kiss. But it hurts only a little, and Tony makes a noise low in his throat that makes Loki shiver. Tony's eyes are wide with surprise but he reacts fast, taking hold of Loki's shoulders and surging up, making it a real kiss.

It's not the sort of kiss Loki is used to; Tony barely uses his teeth and he doesn't push his tongue into Loki's mouth, doesn't try to take control, to dominate. Instead he just presses their lips together again and again, slowly moving the kiss from almost violent to so soft it almost hurts. His hands move to cup Loki's face, incredibly careful like Loki is fragile, thumbs brushing over his jawline. The noise he makes is somewhere between longing and release, like he had bottled it all up inside and it's only coming out now

Loki's head is chaos. He's breathless, his heart is pounding in his ears and he feels almost dizzy, light and heavy at the same time. Part of him is terrified of just how much he feels all of a sudden, only because of one kiss, but the rest of him is too busy with Tony, Tony, Tony, to pay much attention.

Tony's breath fans warm over his face, his hands are clammy, and they're almost pressed chest to chest, bodies brushing with every little twitch they make. Loki's hand has uncurled on its own, is resting on Tony's collarbone, the fingers of his other hand twisted helplessly in the hem of Tony's shirt. He wants to push, he wants more, closer, but before he can do anything to achieve that Tony pulls away. For a second Loki's heart seems to stop, but Tony just leans their foreheads together and breathes heavily. He doesn't mean for them to stop, then; they're just taking a break.

He'd been scared, Loki realizes, scared that Tony didn't want it after all. It's ridiculous, but only now that he has it Loki is becoming aware of just how much he'd wanted it himself. This is a mistake, a voice whispers in the back of his head, but he pushes it away. He knows that already anyway. He's going to be hurt one way or another, this will never work out but, with uncharacteristic carelessness, Loki decides he's just going to not care. He's on a trip to destroy his dreams; what's one more disappointment by the end of it?

Tony makes a small noise and moves in again, but instead of joining their mouths again he presses his lips to Loki's cheek, kisses down towards his ear. "Why didn't you say," he whispers, but it doesn't sound like an accusation, which Loki had been half expecting.

Because I didn't know, Loki thinks, but he doesn't say it. He just breaches the last inch of distance between them and presses his body to Tony's, one arm wrapped around his shoulder, the other around his waist. Tony immediately slings his arms around Loki as well and squeezes. It's strange, Loki doesn't feel trapped. Instead he feels warm, comfortable even, which doesn't happen often with other people in his personal space.

They stand like that for a while, until Tony clears his throat and pulls away. "So. Can we do that again?"

Loki affects a skeptical frown. "Which part of it?"

"The kissing, not the me acting like an idiot," Tony says, taking him entirely serious. It's such a surprise (because usually when Loki jokes like that Tony gets either overly dramatic or incredibly sarcastic, spinning a bantering conversation) Loki smiles before he knows it.

"The former, yes. The latter is as impossible to prevent as the expansion of the universe, I'm afraid," he teases.

With a delighted grin Tony leans in to kiss him again but it's gone as soon as it starts, not even long enough for Loki to capture it. "You're probably right about that." Stepping back, Tony looks at him. "So, did you learn dancing?"

"Waltz. It was rather boring," Loki lets him change the topic. Some lighter conversation will certainly do them both some good now. Already he feels jittery, wondering what the hell he's doing, just how much of a mistake it is – that it is one he doesn't even bother to dispute.

"I can imagine." Tony raises an eyebrow and looks him up and down. "I've seen the way the two of you dance."

And he'd gotten rather jealous because of it too, but if Tony's going to ignore it, Loki is as well.

"Natasha informed me that ballroom dance can be interesting in its own way once one is more familiar with the steps," Loki relays. Tony is for some reason staring at his hips.

And he keeps on staring, a peculiar expression on his face; he doesn't react even when Loki calls his name questioningly. Only when Loki calls him a second time, a bit louder, does he finally snap out of it, meeting Loki's eyes and flushing.

"Uh, sorry. I just..." He waves a hand towards Loki's body. "The way you danced with Natasha was..."

"Sensual?" Loki suggests, suppressing a smile. Normally Tony isn't so hesitant with his language.

"I was gonna say damn hot, but that fits as well, yes." And there it is again, Tony's bluntness.

"That is the point," Loki informs him. He raises an eyebrow. "Are you done being jealous then?"

Tony flushes and sputters. "I wasn't… I wouldn't… that's not…" At Loki's unimpressed expression he deflates. "Yes?"

He doesn't sound too sure. Loki huffs. "I am not interested in Natasha. She is not interested in me."

"Okay." Embarrassed, Tony ducks his head.

Loki gives him a moment before he decides to take mercy on him. "What are you doing?" He gestures towards the machine Tony had been fiddling with when Loki had come in.

Tony's face immediately changes as he starts babbling away, eyes bright.

Nothing much changes between their interaction, surprisingly. They still do basically the same things as before, except every now and then Tony will stop talking or buzzing around the lab and just look at Loki, sometimes incredulous, sometimes surprised, sometimes with wonder. Loki really doesn't know what to do with that, so he ignores it, except for those times where he kisses Tony so he'll stop. Which works, but Tony gets the impression that it's okay to kiss Loki a lot in return so they end up kissing a lot. It's a good thing, yes, Loki enjoys it, rather a lot actually. But he can't help being terrified, because things are changing in small ways he can't quantify and he's getting used to being allowed to kiss Tony, to feeling... good. He's getting too comfortable, and experience tells him that isn't a good thing.

When nothing bad happens for several days Loki relaxes a bit, but of course he immediately finds something else to fret over; it's like his brain can't deal with him relaxing.

It's got a point, though. Because Tony will kiss him – rather a lot, actually – and he'll touch him, but even when he gets really worked up he will stop things before they can go further. Neither of them has lost a single piece of clothing yet, and Tony will immediately pull back if either of them comes into contact with the others' erection. It's ridiculous because he clearly struggles with his control sometimes, but when Loki gets impatient with his evasion he'll say no, and there's not much Loki can do after that, is there?

Except worry, of course. He just doesn't understand it; he's not the most beautiful person around, actually even the people on this ship are more attractive than he is, but that doesn't mean he's unattractive. He knows for a fact that his body shape is attractive to some people, and he had assumed Tony to be one of them, especially since Tony had called him hot several times. But as he looks back on those situations, it turns out to always have been rather ambiguous; did Tony mean him when he said the dancing was hot or did he mean Natasha? Or even just the way they moved, without any correlation to them as people?

It's frustrating, because Loki likes sex. He doesn't need to have it all the time, but when the opportunity presents itself he rather enjoys it. And from what he has heard in terms of gossip relating to Tony, Tony likes sex as well. Apparently, when Tony had said that relationships on the ship were rather polyamorous he'd really meant it, and Tony doesn't habitually turn down offers when on shore leave either. The latter Loki knows not just from gossip but also from Tony himself, who has never outright said anything but, as usual, has dropped random comments here and there that make up a picture if put together correctly.

After about a week of Tony going hot and cold on him, Loki loses all patience. It's evening, and Tony walked Loki to his room after games night – something he doesn't do out of misplaced gentlemanly feelings but to snag a few good night kisses. This time, those kisses result in Loki pressing Tony into the wall, one leg between his. Things are going really well until Tony pulls back abruptly, a tortured expression on his face that pisses Loki off. "What?" he snaps, seriously annoyed.

"I'm sorry," Tony says, and then he runs off. There's really no other way to put it, he ran away, leaving Loki in front of his quarters with a raging hard-on and a temper.

Loki went to his room and jerked off, but that only made him angrier. Spending an hour trying to read hadn't calmed him down significantly either. Eventually Loki drops the tablet on his bed and decides that that's enough of that, thank you, he's going to go to Tony and demand an explanation.

It takes Tony a minute to get to his door, and he looks disheveled and bleary-eyed; clearly, he had no problems falling asleep. This does not please Loki.

"I demand to know what's going on," he growls, arms crossed.

Tony blinks at him, blinks again and steps aside to let him in. Once the door is closed, he turns around to face Loki and asks, clearly confused, "What are you talking about?"

"Why do you not want to have sex with me?"

That definitely wakes him up quickly. Alarmed, Tony straightens. "I don't know what you-" Seeing the fury increasing on Loki's face, Tony quickly backpedals, "I mean, it's not, we don't have to... it's still early?"

"If you don't want to have sex with me, just say it," Loki grinds out. "Though I wouldn't believe you if you tried to tell me that you're just not into sex. Even discounting anything you have said, you clearly weren't uninterested earlier."

Tony shifts guiltily. "Yeah, I know, sorry about that. You're just so..." Helplessly he gestures towards Loki's body, apparently expecting him to understand wordlessly.

Which he doesn't, not really, but he's getting an inkling. Arms tightening until he's more hugging himself than crossing them, Loki takes a breath – none too deep, because that wouldn't be good right now – and says, very slowly, "I don't understand why you want to be with me if you find me that displeasing." Unless it's a recent development, which might be the case. Except it doesn't make sense, because Tony seems definitely interested until he pulls away, but maybe he's just interested in the physical contact itself, not in who he's having it with.

Except Tony looks stricken now and hastily tries to disarm him of that idea. "No! No, that's not it at all! You're... Loki, you're damn hot, okay. It's the first thing I noticed about you, you were striding along the port as if you owned it, and all I wanted to do was..." He clears his throat. "I find you attractive, okay."

Truth. "Then what is it?" Loki snaps. "I'm quickly running out of patience, so better tell me right now, Tony." Loki doesn't know what he'll do if Tony doesn't. Scream, very likely. There's not much else he can do on the ship; people would probably notice if he started burning things. Not that there's anything around available to be burnt anyway.

"Ah." Tony shifts. "So. I know you've... gone through some bad stuff and I guess I didn't want to... well. That's not why I want to be with you, sex, I mean, and it's okay with me if we don't have sex immediately."

"Well it's not okay with me," Loki barks. Tony seems rather taken aback, but Loki isn't finished yet. "I like sex, and if you find me so attractive I don't understand why you don't want to have it." This is circular, and Loki is really fed up with it all. If it were just about Tony not wanting to have it, that would be different, Loki can live with that, but Tony is very obviously keeping something from him, hiding, and that Loki cannot live with under any circumstances. "You have one minute to tell me in as small words as possible what is going on. JARVIS, a countdown, please."

JARVIS obeys, calling out one minute.

"Loki-" Tony starts, but JARVIS says "Fifty-five seconds" and Loki's face hardens, so he abandons that track. He was just going to whaffle again anyway, Loki could see it.

"Okay." Tony takes a deep breath. "Okay. I don't want to pressure you to do anything you don't want."

That just about takes the cake, Loki is one more idiotic idea way from screaming; his voice is already rather loud. "What gives you the right to decide what I want or not?"

"Nothing!" Tony says hastily.

"Forty-five seconds, Tony," Loki repeats JARVIS. "I'm still waiting for something that actually makes sense."

Tony looks completely pained. Thirty-five seconds. Thirty.

Loki growls. Tony shifts.

Twenty-five.

Tony turns away and says very quietly, "I know what happened to you. And I don't want to do anything to add to that – I'm scared, okay?"

"Stop the countdown," Loki orders. He's still pissed, but he's also mightily confused now. "What do you mean, what happened to me?"

"You said you were sold to a club when you were twelve," Tony tells him. At least he turns around to look at Loki again. "And I'm not stupid. I know that those clubs never are just strictly for watching dancers, not on Hel. So I know you were forced to have sex with people." It's technically not true, but "technically" doesn't mean much in this context, Loki knows. It had certainly been the case at the beginning, but he's had years to come to terms with it – and with what happened before.

"And, what, you think I feel forced to have sex with you?" That really makes little sense.

"No – well, yes, partly." Tony runs a hand through his hair. It's trembling.

This is really bothering him, Loki realizes. Shaking his head, he says, "Do you really think my enthusiastic participation in our relations is due to me feeling forced?"

"No." Tony looks tortured. "I just… I just really don't want you to be reminded of that when we. Have sex."

Loki narrows his eyes. "That won't happen."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. There actually is a big difference between that and sex." Loki shrugs. "I've never actually had flashbacks." Sometimes he loses track of his thoughts, but that's entirely different. And it doesn't happen when he has sex.

Silently, Tony stares at him.

"That's your only problem?" Loki clarifies. "It's not because you don't want to have sex with me."

"No!" Tony hastily shakes his head and takes a step towards him. Then he falls silent again. "I just. Is it really okay?"

Loki doesn't refrain from rolling his eyes anymore. "Yes. Don't you think I would have said something otherwise?"

"Maybe." Tony shrugs apologetically. "You aren't exactly the most forthcoming when it comes to your past. I didn't even know for sure until you told Natasha where you had worked."

"It's been ages," Loki explains. "And I really didn't think it was necessary. It happens to everybody."

Tony just looks at him for a moment. "No. No, it doesn't."

Once more, Loki is reminded that he and Tony grew up in entirely different circumstances. "On Hel, it does. Can we have sex now or what?"

A quip is visibly on the tip of Tony's tongue but he swallows it at the last moment. Instead he moves towards Loki, but Loki stops him by holding up his hand. "Just to make that clear, you don't presume what I can or can't deal with, what I think, feel, want or believe. Anything involving me, don't assume. Talk to me. Even if you think I won't be comfortable, because I can assure you that no matter what you could ask or talk to me about, it won't make me more uncomfortable than you presuming would."

Halted in his track, Tony nods. "Yeah. Okay. I promise. I'm sorry." Then he actually thinks about it and adds, "I'll try not to do it, but you have to talk a bit more about yourself, okay? Because otherwise all I can do is extrapolate."

Reluctantly, Loki nods. He's not too happy about that, but Tony has a point. "Alright."

Lips curving into a weak smile, Tony says, "Okay, good. Can we just... can we just sleep for now? I'm sorry, but I can't just switch it off."

"Switch what off?" With a frown, Loki looks at the bed behind Tony. It's big enough, not gigantic, but sufficient. Certainly it's more luxurious than his bed on Hel had been. Any bed he'd seen on Hel, actually, excepting the ones at the club, but those were not really for sleeping.

"The, ah, worrying." Tony shrugs and ducks his head in embarrassment. "It's. I'm working on it? I really want to but just when things get interesting I think... and I can't."

"Think what?" Loki asks, voice a little muffled because he's taking his shirt off.

"Uh." Tony stares at his chest distractedly. Then he clears his throat and looks away. "How horrible it must've been. And the last thing I want to do is remind you of that."

Loki can sympathize a bit, he supposes; he's had friends who had much more of a problem with it than he. One girl would start trembling every time a guy came near her; the only one she'd felt vaguely safe with had been Loki, and only because they had shared a room at the club and she'd known he was safe. Needless to say, she hadn't stayed at the club for long after it happened.

"Uhm, okay," Tony says when Loki takes his pants off.

He raises an eyebrow. "I thought we were sleeping." He's still frustrated but it's simmering lowly now and that's nothing unusual, he's learned to find sleep through that. And he figures he can't really be angry with Tony for anything but the fact that he hadn't talked to Loki. He would never have guessed on his own because it really is just normal on Hel, nothing anybody thought about much; he wouldn't even have thought it could be an issue. It's just not something he is used to, and he doesn't quite know what to make of Tony being this bothered on his behalf; it almost makes him feel bad. Things would be easier if Tony just didn't know.

"Yes, of course. Do you want a t-shirt?"

Loki shrugs. He's in his underwear which is what he normally sleeps in if he doesn't do it naked to begin with. He's never really seen the point in sleepwear, he doesn't get cold and it's just a waste of money in his opinion. When Tony offers him a t-shirt he takes it, but he figures he'll lose either that or the blanket in the course of the night. Sleeping with another person is rather warm.

They are a bit awkward when they get into bed; at first there's the negotiation of sides and then there's how each of them prefers to sleep. But once they've managed to find comfortable positions with both of them lying on their sides, Tony curled around Loki's back, they fall quiet. Tony drifts off to sleep pretty quickly but Loki stays awake for a bit, listening to him breathe and thinking about what just happened.

Loki doesn't sleep for long, just a couple of hours. He wakes to complete darkness, which he still can't quite get used to; it's never perfectly dark on Hel, especially not if one doesn't have good window covers. It's also never this quiet on Hel, which at first took some getting used to as well. But it isn't as quiet as in Loki's quarters now; Tony is breathing and somehow just the presence of another living being makes it less silent. Or maybe it just makes the silence less oppressive.

They've moved around a bit while asleep; right now Loki is lying on his back with Tony lying half on top of him, face pressed into his neck, breath fanning warmly over his collarbone, hair tickling behind his ear.

"Why are you up?" Tony whispers. Loki isn't startled to find him awake.

"I just am. You?"

Tony shrugs. "I guess I wanted to tell you something."

That captures Loki's attention. "Tell me what?"

"You know how I told you that you need to tell me more? Well, I thought about it, and I think I should tell you something."

Well, if that doesn't sound ominous. "Okay. Tell me then."

Tony sits up. He keeps the light off; Loki thinks about turning it on himself but he figures Tony has a reason. They can talk just as well in the dark. Loki doesn't need facial cues.

Clothes rustle; it sounds like Tony's taking his shirt off, and then some noises Loki can't pinpoint. He's just about to ask what's going on when he suddenly sees a faint light emitting from where Tony's chest must be, just a strip from where Tony must be taking off a bandage.

He is; the more comes off, the better Loki sees. The light gets brighter, going from shimmering faintly through the cloth to lighting the entire room in a blue, eerie glow. It's not enough to read by comfortably, but more than enough to see.

"What is that?" Loki asks very quietly, staring at the glowing circle embedded in Tony's chest. He's well-aware that Tony can see his face perfectly while he can only see the most distinctive features of Tony's; his beard, his shadowed eyes, his dark hair.

"This is the arc reactor," Tony tells him. His voice is very sober and very detached. "It's keeping me alive."

Loki takes a breath. Sometime while Tony was taking off the bandage he sat up, captivated by the secret being literally unraveled to him; now he reaches out, fingers hovering just above the reactor. It doesn't emit any temperature, neither warmth nor cold.

"Tell me," he whispers.

Tony takes a breath. "I told you that I was captured and forced to make weapons for a bunch of terrorists. What I didn't tell you is that I was injured, and that they had captured somebody else. I had shrapnel in my chest, and he saved my life by building a magnet that keeps it away from my heart. The arc reactor... I built that after I got free, it powers the magnet. Take it out, I die." He clears his throat. "That's why I didn't tell you. I don't tell anyone. My crew knows, and a few others know – most of them former crew members – but that's it."

Loki looks up. He can't see Tony's expression well enough, but that doesn't matter. "But you trust me?"

"I do."

Loki has to close his eyes. He tastes truth on his tongue and it almost makes him cry. "You don't even... how can you trust me with this? I could kill you so easily now."

Tony shrugs. "You could kill me easily even if I were perfectly healthy." He smiles crookedly and leans a little closer. "Don't need to unplug me for that."

"I can do magic," Loki whispers. Then he nearly has a heart attack, because he didn't mean to say that, he didn't even think about saying that, why did he-

"Magic?" Tony repeats. It's not the shocked reaction Loki expected, but Tony is surprised – of course he is – and surely it can't be far off, and if not that, the disgust and fear certainly will come.

Breathe, he tells himself. Breathe.

"Loki?" Tony leans in even further and grabs his shoulders, steadies him. Loki didn't even notice he was swaying. "Hey, hey, it's okay. Relax, babe. It's okay."

"I never told anyone," Loki whimpers. He really hasn't. A few people found out, but that's usually because Loki had to use it in self-defense, and seeing as it's his very last resort they didn't live to tell anyone.

Tony pulls him into his chest and holds him tightly. The arc reactor is hard against his skin; Loki doesn't know how he never noticed it. He had noticed that Tony was wearing several layers of clothing, but he had always thought it was just for keeping warm or something. "It's okay. I won't tell anyone. It's okay."

It's not, it's really, really not; Loki might just have ruined his entire life. If he were smart, he'd pull that reactor out of Tony's chest and disable the A.I. with a pulse of magic so it can't tell anyone what happened. He'll wait until Tony's dead and put it back in and pretend not to know what's going on the next day, when Tony will be found.

But Tony's holding him, and he trusts Loki, he truly does even though he really shouldn't, even though it's madness, they've known each other for just a month, and he's telling Loki that it's okay, that he won't tell anyone, and he means it. Means it as unambiguously as the trust he put in Loki.

That's no guarantee, a voice whispers in the back of Loki's mind. Other people truly meant something and they still went against it. Promises can be broken even if they're heartfelt at the time. He knows this, he's seen it, that Tony means it can't be a factor in his decision on what to do next.

"It's alright, babe," Tony murmurs. His hand is cupping Loki's head, fingers tangled in his hair, while the other is rubbing up and down Loki's back. His mouth is on Loki's temple, lips warm as he brushes kisses to Loki's skin.

Eventually Loki calms down, at least somewhat. He isn't hyperventilating anymore, but he keeps completely still, pressed against Tony's chest, sheltered in his arms.

He doesn't know what to do. No, that's not right, he knows what he should do, what he has to do, but he can't, he just can't, not with Tony murmuring in his ear, telling him that it's okay. Not with him meaning it.

He still has time, he tells himself. He has time. Communication isn't actually possible while in hyperspace, and it's not like they're going anywhere Loki isn't going as well.

It's still over five weeks before he actually has to do anything about it. He has time.

That thought isn't actually calming but the fact that it's not urgent, that he doesn't have to take any action right now is. Actually, he realizes upon some deliberation, this is a good thing; it's something of a test run. He can test how people will react knowing some of what he can do, that he can do magic. He can see how the knowledge will change Tony. This is a good thing. A trial. He'll see how things go and by the end of it he'll get rid of the whole ship, because Tony might have told someone by then. A stellar opportunity that won't present itself to him again like this, not with the opportunity to wipe the slate entirely clean afterwards, not leave any traces.

It's a good thing Loki can't actually detect lies in his own head.

"What do you mean by magic?" Tony asks some indefinite time later. Loki honestly doesn't know how long it's been; all he knows is that it's been a long time. Long enough for him to reach some resemblance of calm again.

Loki takes a deep breath and forces himself to stay that way. It's okay to talk about it, it won't matter in the long run. "That question is incredibly vague."

Tony squeezes him briefly. "Okay. Do you remember why?"

"I don't actually have any memories before I was five." It's the first time Loki tells anyone; anybody else he might have told knew not to ask questions about the past. People who have grown up in the milieu Loki grew up in know that it's just not a good idea, no matter whether there actually lie some happy memories in the past or not – it's actually worse if someone has happy memories, because that means that happy time has come to a terrible end for them to have ended up there.

Loki doesn't actually want to know whether he used to be happy or not, he really doesn't.

"Oh." Tony slides his hand up Loki's spine. "How did you find out, then?"

He hadn't until he was seven, but it's not the sort of thing Loki should tell Tony. "I used it accidentally to defend myself." That's a nice way to put it. Truthful, but not enough detail, and thankfully, Tony does know when not to ask any questions. He pushes – he always pushes – but some areas concerning Loki's past he's always stayed clear of, thankfully.

Or perhaps not; he should have talked to Loki about the sex thing. Maybe this whole conversation wouldn't have happened then- though of course Loki would have noticed the arc reactor then.

With the intention of taking a good look at the thing, Loki pushes away from Tony and stares at the round, glowing circle on Tony's chest, right where his heart is. Reaching out, he slowly runs his index finger along the skin around it. Tony keeps perfectly still.

"How deep does it go?"

"Deep," is all Tony says. Fair enough, he's probably reluctant to divulge anything technical about the thing that's keeping him alive. Loki will give him that in exchange for Tony not asking any more questions about when he first learned he could do magic.

"They must have cracked your ribs open," Loki says absently. He's fascinated by it, by the blue glow, by this piece of machinery embedded in a human body – in a chest, Tony's chest, keeping him alive through circumstances that would have killed almost anybody else.

"He did," Tony croaks. The roughness of his voice reminds Loki that this isn't just a fascinating piece of technology, it's also bad memories for Tony.

He looks up and leans in to kiss Tony on the lips. "Would you like to tell me about it?"

"I'd really rather not."

"Okay." Loki pulls his hand away and then hesitates, frowning. "But I can touch it?"

Tony nods. "Yeah, go on. It's not fragile, and not particularly sensitive either."

With a thoughtful hum, Loki leans in to get a closer look, his finger tracing the patterns in the light. "What would you have told me if we had sex?" He wants to know how it tastes, so he leans in and licks it. Tony freezes and Loki knows he doesn't feel anything, but it feels strange on his tongue. The energy underneath the glass – is it glass? Metal? Plastic? – is palpable, and Loki finds it strangely thrilling.

"Y-yeah," Tony stutters. "Maybe? Though usually I keep my shirt on, so I don't know."

Loki glances up. "It's alright. I probably wouldn't have told you about my magic either."

Tony huffs a breathless laugh. "We're both insane."

"Completely mad," Loki agrees, flicking his tongue out again, tracing the line between skin and reactor. This time Tony gives an audible gasp.

"What are you-"

Loki pushes him flat on his back, straddles his hips and leans over Tony to kiss him. After a brief moment of surprise Tony immediately gets with the program, hands sliding up Loki's back as he participates enthusiastically in the kiss. They're good at kissing, have found a rhythm that works well for both of them, a giving and taking. When they need to breathe Loki pulls away but he can't take his mouth off Tony for long. He licks along his jaw, the stubble rasping deliciously across his tongue. Tony's hands are warm and heavy in the small of his back, toying with the temptation of sliding lower; Loki rolls his hips to encourage them.

They both moan because that move was a really good one, proving that they both are getting hard, and this time Loki won't have to worry about Tony stopping just when things are getting really good. The knowledge excites him and he presses his teeth against Tony's neck which has Tony moan and tilt his head away, making room. Tony had liked it when Loki had used his teeth before so Loki doesn't need to test how far he can go. Without hesitation, he bites the muscle above Tony's collarbone, not hard enough to leave a bruise but enough to leave something of a mark. Tony whines and writhes under him and one of his hands finally slides lower, cups Loki's ass and squeezes. The other stays stubbornly on his hips, but that's okay with him for now.

"Loki," Tony gasps when he finally lets off his neck, and Loki hums and scratches his fingernails along Tony's ribs. Goosebumps break out all over Tony's skin, making Loki smile.

"Yes, Tony," he murmurs, pressing his lips to Tony's breastbone. He avoids the arc reactor for now even though he'd like to taste it again. The energy is humming along the edges of his senses as he licks across Tony's chest towards one nipple, and that's good enough for him for now.

He's distracted from all thoughts of it when he licks across Tony's nipple, making Tony hum with approval and push his hips up. Clearly that was good but could have been better. Time to use teeth again.

And yes, Tony likes that, Tony likes that a lot if the way he gasps and whines and arches up is any indication. Tony's turning out to be quite in favor of biting. Even when Loki skirts along the border of pain by biting harder, pulling a little, Tony only gets more excited, whimpering and gasping his name. It sends shivers down Loki's back to hear him like that, to know that it's his doing.

"Oh god," Tony gasps when Loki pulls back. His right nipple shines in the blue light of the arc reactor but Loki can't see enough for his taste.

"JARVIS, lights," he orders.

"No," Tony protests before JARVIS can obey.

Loki frowns down at him. "I want to see you." He has no idea why Tony wouldn't want there to be light.

Tony licks his lips. His breath is going fast as he stares at Loki for a long moment. "Okay, JARVIS," he eventually permits. Immediately the lights turn on, not abruptly but gradually growing brighter, allowing Loki a good view of Tony underneath him.

He looks wrecked, lips swollen, a mark on his neck and his right nipple is red, the skin around it showing teeth marks where Loki pushed in. His hair is a mess, his pupils are blown wide and he's staring up at Loki with an expression like… Loki can't even discern it, but it makes heat rush to his face.

Suddenly Tony cups his face, and the expression his face takes on then Loki can interpret more easily. It makes his heart skip a beat and he's scared to think what his own face is telling Tony right now. To cover it up, Loki leans in and kisses Tony again, pushes his tongue into his mouth. Tony immediately sucks on it, making Loki shudder and moan low in his throat. He lets Tony turn them around and push him on his back, spreads his legs wide and wraps them around Tony's waist. They both moan when the different angle brings their erections together and for a moment they lose track of the kiss and everything else, just thrust against each other mindlessly and shudder with the pleasure of it. But eventually Tony stops and pulls his hips back a little, buries his face in Loki's neck and pants heavily. "Fuck," he curses roughly.

"Yes," Loki hisses, tilts his head back and tangles his fingers in Tony's hair. He pulls a little, just because he can. Tony follows the pull and pushes himself up, looking down on Loki. Brushing the hair clinging to Loki's temples away, he smiles self-deprecatingly.

"Sorry, babe, I'm afraid I won't last long enough for that right now."

Loki sniffs. "I'll fuck you then."

Tony shivers. Eyes half-lidded, he licks his lips. "Yes." The next moment he's gone, leaving Loki behind to fish lube and condom out of a slide that pulls out of the wall next to the bed. Loki takes the opportunity to finally get rid of his underwear. When Tony turns back to him he halts mid-movement and stares, pure lust on his face.

"Yes," he says again, dropping the lube and condom and shimmying out of his own boxers. Loki picks up the foil packet and quickly rolls the condom on before he grabs the bottle and squeezes some on his fingers, raising an eyebrow at Tony.

Tony grins, leans in for a quick kiss and then flips onto his stomach. He stuffs a pillow under his hips and spreads his legs wide without an ounce of shame. Loki is a bit disappointed he doesn't get to see Tony's face, but he figures this is as good as he'll get for now; Tony didn't even want the light turned on, after all. He's going to ask him what that was about later.

With his free hand Loki pats Tony's ass; it's a nice one, he'd noticed that before, but it's even nicer naked. He's going to have to do something about that one day. Right now he wouldn't even if he had the stamina; he's not as far gone as Tony is but he's very impatient. He's been wanting to do this for a while and over the past week Tony's been a spectacular cock tease.

Tony twitches when Loki puts his wet fingers between his cheeks unceremoniously, even though Loki waited a bit for the lube to warm up. Loki doesn't immediately go for the price, instead slides them up and down a little, teasing and spreading the lube. He doesn't avoid Tony's hole but he doesn't pay special attention to it either. It's very enjoyable having Tony spread out for him like a feast and it doesn't hurt knowing that Tony wants it so much he can't fuck Loki because he'd come too soon.

"Loki," Tony whines, clearly impatient.

Loki affects a sigh. "I can't help that you're so delectable." But he stops teasing and circles around the rim before slightly pushing one finger in. When it turns out that Tony really is as ready as he seems he doesn't hesitate any more, pushing the finger in as far as possible. Tony gasps and starts to moan when Loki presses the knuckles of his other hand into his perineum.

Loki plays around a little, thrusting his finger in and out while playing with Tony's balls. As he adds a second finger he starts exploring Tony's cock; it occurs to him he's never really touched it, at least not naked. And every time he'd grabbed it when Tony had still been dressed Tony had pulled away immediately. Now he knows why, not that he truly understands.

"Loki," Tony whines. He's moving his hips in the rhythm Loki's taken on, thrusting two fingers in and out steadily, in and out. "Come on."

Deciding to follow the request, Loki pulls his fingers back and lets a third join on his next push in. It goes in with a little more resistance; Tony hisses and Loki is careful, but Tony adjusts quickly.

"How long has it been?" Loki asks thoughtfully.

Tony curses. It takes him a couple of tries and only when Loki stills his fingers and takes his other hand off his cock does he manage to reply. "F-fingers, yesterday. The day before? I dunno, fuck. Toys every now and then. A cock... months. I don't actually count, fuck, Loki, move!"

Oh, Loki enjoys this a lot. He starts thrusting his fingers again. Tony is all loose around him now, nearly ready; Loki considers adding a fourth finger but from what it sounds like Tony practices often enough so it's not really necessary. "You like this a lot, don't you?" He asks idly. Tony gasps out a "yes", making him smile. "Do you think about this when you do yourself? My fingers up your ass, making you ready for my cock?"

Tony whimpers. "Fuck, yes!"

"I can tell," Loki hums happily. "You're all ready and loose for me." He takes both his hands off Tony's body at the same time, takes the bottle of lube and coats his cock. He has to bite his lower lip and concentrate in order not to just jerk off right then and there, come all over Tony's ass and back. Or he could put his fingers back in his ass and tease him with what he isn't getting until Tony's pleading... but he's too impatient for the latter and too proud for the former, not to mention that he just really, really needs to fuck Tony now.

A shiver runs visibly down Tony's body when Loki moves on top of him, guides his cock to his entrance. "Wait," he gasps, puts his knees under himself, giving Loki more leverage to move later. Loki still would like to see Tony's face but this is good too, Tony on his hands and knees for him, clearly needing it.

They're both still and silent when Loki pushes in, slow and careful. Once he's in to the hilt he stops, no matter how difficult it is because all he wants to do is fuck, Tony is hot and and tight around him, but it'll make it easier on both of them if he shows a little patience now. He runs one hand down Tony's back, enjoying the curve of it, making him shudder again.

"Okay," Tony pants eventually. "Now."

Loki doesn't waste any time after that. He grips Tony's hip with one hand and pulls back until he almost slips out, pushes back in. They both moan and Loki really, really wants to get to it now, but he's searching for the right angle to make Tony scream. He really wants to make Tony scream.

After a couple of experimental thrusts he clearly finds it; Tony shivers and groans, the noise startled and unbridled. Loki keeps the angle and does it again, getting the same reaction only this time Tony's groan is more sinful, deep enjoyment. There's no stopping Loki after that; taking hold of Tony's hips with both hands he starts to thrust faster, picking up a steady, fast pace. Every time he pushes in Tony makes a noise, every time, and Loki doesn't even know what noises he himself is making. All he knows is that orgasm is approaching fast and so he reaches around Tony, grabs his cock and starts to jack him in time with his thrusts. Tony is loud, so loud now, but not loud enough for Loki; he leans in and growls directly into Tony's ear, "Scream for me, Tony."

"Oh fuck," Tony grunts. "Loki, I'm-"

"Scream!" Loki snaps and Tony does, he does, whole body going tight around Loki as he comes. Loki can't hold on a second longer after that and comes as well, hips snapping forward and stilling as pleasure crests.

Panting heavily, Loki leans onto Tony's body for a few moments before he manages to gather enough strength to push himself up and off Tony. They both hiss as his cock slips out of Tony's hole. Tony can barely keep himself up, whole body trembling, and he drops to his side inelegantly as soon as Loki is off. He's languid and completely relaxed, rolling onto his back and sighing happily. He blinks up at Loki and manages a smile that speaks of pure, sensual aftermath. Loki would love to lie down with him, but first he has to do a little clean-up. Leaning over the bed's side, he fishes a shirt and a pair of boxers off the floor, handing Tony the boxers to wipe himself off and putting the shirt on the wet spot next to Tony, tying the condom off and carelessly throwing it away with the soiled boxers Tony hands to him.

"That was definitely worth the wait," Tony pants once he's a little less out of breath. When Loki narrows his eyes and glares at him he hastily adds, "But we won't wait anymore."

"No," Loki agrees archly. While Tony gets a little more comfortable Loki pulls the sheet up from where it's crumbled at the foot of the bed. Pulling it over both of them, Loki lies down next to Tony.

Tony huffs and rolls onto his side, sliding an arm around Loki and pulling him closer. They kiss softly, languidly, Tony breathing into his mouth, whole body warm and soft against his excepting the hardness of the arc reactor. It suddenly occurs to Loki that it might hurt and he makes a note to ask Tony about that – but later, right now probably is not a good moment. Not just because they're both languid and relaxed right now, but also because Tony is clearly drifting off to sleep. "Gotta do that again soon," he mumbles, pressing his face into Loki's neck and sighing deeply. The relaxed rhythm of his breath and the combined warmth of their bodies lulls Loki to sleep pretty quickly as well.

A few hours later Loki wakes up to fingers sliding up and down his back, drawing lazy patterns. He's lying on his belly and Tony is sitting up, fingertips following the curve of Loki's spine before straightening a few strands of Loki's tangled hair. "Did you know," Tony says quietly, "You really look elegant, no matter what you do."

"I wear "haughty member of the middle class" really well," Loki mumbles into the mattress.

Tony huffs a laugh. "Did you con all the idiots with that?"

"Nobody suspects someone they assume is already rich of stealing all their money," Loki replies. He'd only come into being able to utilize that image recently; for the longest time he had looked too wide-eyed for that. That had also had its uses, but this Loki likes better.

"So you used to dance and to con people to get money," Tony summarizes. "If you can do magic, why didn't you sell spells? You could earn a fuckton with that."

Loki has to force himself to relax, instinctively tensing up at the reference to his ability to do magic. It will take a lot of getting used to someone knowing this about him. "Do you know what would have happened if anyone had found out what I can do?" he asks very quietly.

Tony thinks about that for a moment. "Not really," he eventually admits sheepishly.

"One of the clans would have gotten involved," Loki tells him. "Some might even have made an alliance in order to have the resources to capture me. They would have chained me up somewhere and I would never have gotten out again." Or at least in theory. Loki is fairly sure nobody would be able to keep him for long, but even so, for the rest of his life he would be hunted. He would never be left in peace again.

"Damn," Tony murmurs. "I mean, I knew it would be better if people didn't know but… wow. That's… bad."

"There's also the question of how I gained the ability," Loki reminds him. It's generally assumed that a normal human doesn't have magical abilities, and if they do (which they never do, to anybody's knowledge, but there are always rumors) it must be because they've made a deal with the Frost Giants.

"You don't know where you got yours," Tony infers.

Wordlessly, Loki shakes his head. He doesn't. He has his suspicions – very strong ones, yes, but they've never been confirmed, and he's quite happy about that, thank you.

"You're not comfortable talking about this," Tony says after a moment.

Loki shakes his head. Of course not. "Nobody has ever known before." He's still thinking about scenarios of what could happen if Tony told someone and making escape plans. He's about as far from comfortable as one can get without being actively threatened and while being physically comfortable.

"Okay." Leaning in, Tony presses a kiss to the middle of Loki's back. "We don't have to talk about it anymore. Though I am very curious," he can't help but add. True to his word, though, he molds himself to Loki's back, wrapping his arms around his torso and throwing one leg over his and starts talking about today's plan.

Tony doesn't tell anybody. Not that day, not the day after, nor any other day of the following week. He acts the same way around Loki – truly the same way, not an ounce of pretense about him. Loki is astonished and also suspicious, because it can't have been that easy. It just can't. He knows he hasn't tried so hard to keep this a secret all these years out of paranoia; he was legitimately worried about his life. That hasn't changed, nothing is different about what would happen to Loki if anybody found out, only... maybe the factor of who finds out is of greater importance than he had thought. Maybe the reason why nothing he had thought might happen isn't happening is due to Tony, not to Loki having miscalculated.

It's not as strange a thought as he would like for it to be. Tony is- Tony is different to any other person Loki has ever met. Not just because of his circumstances, because of his past and because of what he owns, all of which are unique to only him. They play a factor, yes, but they're not actually the reason. Loki doesn't know the reason, he just knows that Tony is... strange.

He's very intelligent. It's truly he who made the machines, who invented the A.I. It's not much of a stretch to believe that he invented robots as well, as he claimed, even if one didn't have the ability to tell truth from lies. Over the past weeks Loki has seen him make and repair countless machines, technology, draft plans and ideas on one of the big screens in his lab, work with holograms on big inventions he can't implement while on the ship. And not just that; Tony is able to talk with Loki about everything. They have this routine where Loki finishes a book from the library and then they talk about it, the implications of the knowledge gained, the field, how it can be applied to what. Tony knows a lot, but not just that; he's able to apply that knowledge, to transfer and interpret it creatively. Loki has never met a person who can do that, and he knows he himself is similar, so of course it delights him to have finally found a true equal intellectually.

And Tony isn't just different intellectually. He's also funny, very sarcastic and witty; Loki loves bantering back and forth with him, being able to be as sharp as he likes without having to self-censor. Not everything Tony says has to be taken seriously, which is relaxing, but sometimes Tony disguises something important with a joke, which keeps Loki on his toes, keeps him guessing. Tony isn't as easy to figure out as he had thought at first, and it's facinating.

But it's dangerous, he reminds himself. It's dangerous to be this captivated by Tony. He shouldn't be doing this, shouldn't be starting a relationship with Tony, shouldn't allow himself to get involved at all. And he could stop, could put an end to it before he loses himself completely, but he doesn't want to. There's a stubborn part of his that refuses to. For once in his life he's enjoying himself. He's relaxed in another person's presence which is novel, and Tony can be both entertaining and unobtrusive. Not at the same time and sometimes Loki has to tell him to shut up, but it's very rare for Loki to be able to just sit with someone and not have to pay attention to them at all – at least not in the sense of being on his guard. Because, he finds, he actually likes paying attention to Tony. Sometimes instead of reading he'll just sit there and watch Tony work. Lately, as the knowledge he's gaining from the library has increased and reached deeper levels, he's found he's even able to participate, to truly understand what Tony is doing, and instead of feeling threatened or wary Tony reacts with utter delight.

I can have this, Loki tells himself. He can have this. At least for now.

And he does. He has Tony in all the ways he can, in all the ways Tony offers himself; as a friend, as an intellectual equal, as a partner, and of course sexually. He lets Tony touch him in front of his friends, even though they'll know what it means, know that Loki has a weakness in the form of Tony, which he would never have let happen on Hel. Then again, he wouldn't have had Tony on Hel either, so the point is moot.

For weeks Loki revels in this, the joy and safety of it. Of course he's aware that it's false, that it's borrowed and that it will be taken from him eventually, but he stubbornly refuses to think about it. He wraps himself in the cocoon the ship builds cut off from the rest of the universe and comforts himself with the knowledge that if need be, he can put an end to it all. He can destroy everything and nobody will be the wiser, nobody will ever know or be able to find out what happened.

But the time of arrival approaches. The midpoint party is long past and Tony is getting noticeably tense. Frantically he keeps checking whether Loki will be able to pass the first couple of tests or not, even though Loki's been ready for them weeks ago. They even have a couple of fights about it because Loki can only muster so much sympathy for Tony's situation. Yes, he understands that the culmination of all of Tony's plans of the past eight years, of his dreams and wishes of the past fifteen is approaching rapidly. He understands that it all depends on him. But he would have been able to make his way into the palace even without any training at all; he's very good at fooling people.

Pepper sends him a lot of sympathetic looks and does her best to calm Tony down by keeping him busy. Apparently, Midgard's harbors are much better vetted and protected than Hel's – no surprise there – and they have to disguise the ship carefully. Not because they're transporting anything illegal but because they'd like to keep the fact that the ship is essentially being maintained, monitored and flown by an artificial intelligence secret, not to mention all the high technology all over the ship. That is the ship.

From the outside JARVIS is disguised perfectly; he doesn't look like anything much, really. But as opposed to Hel, Midgard will pay attention to more than just the exterior. As a result, the crew spends a lot of time cleaning up or doing the opposite of that, putting up fake covers of technology Tony built to cover the actual technology. The ship suddenly seems a lot more crowded and a lot more dirty, something which makes Tony scrunch up his nose and grumble. He also seems to pat JARVIS' walls a lot and mumble apologies, but they all let that slip.

"So you haven't been to Midgard since that time eight years ago?" Loki asks curiously one evening about a week out. He's just spent two hours exhausting Tony physically (three times), but for some reason Tony doesn't fall asleep immediately as he usually tends to after sex, so he decides to distract him. With past traumas. Probably not a good plan, now that he thinks about it.

"Yeah," Tony says soberly. "A couple of past crewmembers are located here, but they all got here on their own, not on JARVIS."

Loki's heard the mysterious "past crewmembers" referred to a couple of times already, and every now and then someone will drop a name or an anecdote, but so far nobody's really told him about them. Deciding that that's a better topic of conversation than the other thing he asks, "Who are those past crewmembers? You mention them sometimes but you've never really talked about them. Did you part in anger?"

"Not really." Tony pulls out of Loki's arms and turns around to face him, supporting his head on his hand. "They just left. Most people aren't really cut out for ship life, you know." He grimaces. "If things don't go well and we have to leave on the ship again, I suspect Natasha won't stay on for much longer, and Clint will go stir-crazy without her, so they both will leave. To be honest, I'm surprised they stayed this long, they're both not the type for being stationary." Loki's noticed and wondered about that. However, it's not what he wants to know about, so he just hums noncommittally and raises one questioning eyebrow.

"Right." Tony purses his lips. "I'm not sure where to start. We had a couple of crew members that were only temporary, for one trip, and a bunch of passengers, of course. Some of them were okay, and some were memorable. One of them is Steve Rogers. He was on a trip around the universe because apparently he spent the past hundred years or so frozen in ice. He actually fought in the Great War." Loki raises both eyebrows. That is actually rather fascinating, he'd like to have a chance to talk to this Steve Rogers. "Yeah, I know. Naturally he was rather old fashioned, but actually we got along great. He's head of the Prince's security detail now, so you'll hopefully meet him."

"You like him," Loki states, taking in Tony's fond expression. He's not sure how that makes him feel.

Tony smiles. "Yeah. He's almost too nice for me, you know, but you can't help but like him once you get used to him. He's just so nice. A great fighter too, though – unsurprisingly. Though if you don't know that about him you'd never guess. If it weren't for the muscles." Okay, no, Loki definitely doesn't like the dreamy look in Tony's eyes.

He narrows his eyes and says flatly, "You like him a lot." He's careful not to make it sound like an accusation, but of course Tony notices that he's none too pleased. He's annoyingly perceptive sometimes.

Tony blinks. "Yeah," he says soberly. "But not..." Leaning in he presses a kiss to Loki's lips. "...not like I like you, darling. He's really too nice for me. I'd feel like I'm sullying him with my dirty mind and curse words and not really caring about other people or the law." Tony does care about the law and other people, more than Loki does, certainly more than most people on Hel do, but Loki can imagine what he means. He's seen the type in movies, he just hadn't even considered the possibility of that sort of person actually existing. "Besides, Steve had a girlfriend before he got accidentally frozen, and he's still getting over her. Though who knows, he might have by now, it's been a year since he left us." A thoughtful expression appears on Tony's face. Loki wants to bite him, and not in a nice way. This time Tony doesn't notice. Oblivious to Loki's annoyance Tony continues, "You'll get to meet him, so you'll see what I mean about us not really fitting together." Tony kisses him again, not really appeasing him – not in the way his next words do. "You and I are a much better match. Steve knows bad things happen, but they don't change him, and he doesn't understand how they can change other people. He's not the type to bend, whereas you and I are rather bendy." He winks, making Loki laugh reluctantly. He wouldn't admit it, but he's appeased.

"So Steve is important," Loki surmises. "Who else?"

Tony hums thoughtfully. "There's Bruce. He never stays for long, he has a problem with being locked in an enclosed space over an extended period of time, but we see each other every now and then. He's a scientist, really nice guy once he comes out of his shell. Shy," he explains at Loki's questioning look. "Very reserved. We left him on Hel, actually."

Loki raises both eyebrows. From Tony's description it doesn't sound like Bruce is the sort of person who'll make it on Hel.

Interpreting Loki's skeptical expression correctly, Tony shakes his head. "No, he's no kitten, not at all. I have no doubt that he'll do fine."

"Still, not exactly the place anyone lives out of their own free will," Loki comments.

"Yeah, but he has to. He's in hiding."

That makes sense, then. For that, Hel is the perfect place. Chaotic, criminal, nearly completely out of control.

"Those are the only two important people I can think of right now." Tony tightens his grip on Loki, pulls him in to kiss him casually. "There were a couple of others, of course, but nobody as important. Steve you'll meet in the palace, and you might meet Bruce if-" Tony halts mid-sentence, face turning completely blank.

It's obvious why. They have never talked about what will come after – they've talked about the con, about getting Tony into the palace, but Loki doesn't actually know what Tony plans to do then. He thinks Tony himself doesn't even know. Even more in the balance is Loki's fate; Tony keeps telling him that nobody will prosecute or persecute him but Loki is skeptical. It is a con, after all, and that's not exactly legal.

Loki takes a breath and decides to tackle one of the elephants in the room. "What are you going to do once you have your company back?"

"I don't know," Tony admits very quietly, eyes troubled. "I really, really don't. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother. I mean, I'm happy, right? I could just keep on doing this. But then I remember what that bastard did to me and I can barely wait to get there. If I punch him in the face it'll be the nicest thing I'm capable of doing."

"Making him pay is different from keeping the company, though," Loki points out.

Tony takes a breath. "I've been groomed all my life for that. All I was ever told was that I'd take over Stark Industries one day. My education, who I interacted with, my whole life was geared for one single goal."

"But it wasn't." Loki frowns. This sounds very weird to him, and he explains when Tony blinks in confusion, "Your whole life until you were eight. After that it all went to shit. And now you're twenty-three years old. You've made your own life. Your parents are dead. You don't have to do what you think they'd want – especially since you don't know what they'd want; it's impossible for you to know, because it's impossible for them to have foreseen these circumstances and form any sort of opinion about it."

"You know, I've never thought about it like that before." Tony sounds dazed.

"It's not being disrespectful of them," Loki continues, watching Tony carefully. "You can acknowledge what you assume they would have wanted without actually doing it. Even if they were still alive, you're your own person."

Tony nods minisculely. "Pepper says I can't hide on the ship forever."

That makes Loki angry. "It's not hiding if there's nothing to hide from. And you weren't hiding, you were biding your time while you prepared and waited for an opportunity to attack."

"I think she has a point, though," Tony says seriously. "I've made myself this nice little place, my own personal safe house, and I fly through space and play with technology. I can't keep doing that for the rest of my life."

"Whyever not?" Loki nearly snaps. "It's certainly a lot more sensible and useful than some other professions. A lot more legal, too."

"But it's pointless," Tony argues. "It's not going anywhere."

Loki huffs. "If that bothers you so, find a compromise. But don't act like there are only two options, and neither of them are good."

Pursing his lips Tony soothingly slides his hand up and down Loki's back. "Why are you getting so angry?"

"Because you're limiting yourself," Loki says a bit more calmly. "Your outlook is very negative. Maybe you'll actually like having the company. Maybe after a week of having it you will never want to leave again." And that's getting a bit close to Loki's very private, personal fears. The ones where Tony flits off into the high life he deserves, the upper classes where he rightfully belongs, and forgets all about Loki.

"Would you like it on Midgard? Staying there, I mean?" Tony knows by this point that Loki doesn't actually have a goal; he took the opportunity of getting off Hel, but that's it. Loki told him as much, though he didn't mention the dreams, embarrassed at his own sentimentality.

Brows furrowed, Loki shrugs. "How would I know? I've never been there. I have never seen the place except for in movies." Then he decides to be a bit more honest. "Though I suspect it's not for me. It's too... shiny. I don't have any talents that could be of use there." Someone like him belongs in a place like Hel – dirty, corrupted, dangerous, almost comforting in its predictability. Who knows, Loki might even go back there once this whole thing is over, if only because it's familiar.

"What?" Tony is gaping. "Are you kidding me? You're supposed to be smart."

Loki scowls at the insult. "Stop with the posturing and tell me what you're talking about."

Shaking his head in disbelief, Tony sits up. Unwilling to give Tony the opportunity to look down on him Loki sits up as well, brows furrowed.

"Loki, you're... okay, to begin with, you're incredibly smart, and coming from me, that has to mean something. You're handsome, you're an incredibly smooth talker, a good actor, you learn very fast, and I have yet to find something you aren't brilliant at – or that you don't turn out to excel at if you've never done it before. Seriously, you can do anything you put your mind to. What the hell makes you think Midgard wouldn't be the place for you?"

All Loki can do is stare at him for a moment. Had those words come from anybody else, Loki would have scoffed and discarded them as flattery, but Tony... Tony doesn't do that. He throws off-hand compliments or overenthused praise, neither of which one can ever be sure he really means. Or means for longer than just the moment in which they're said.

He can't mean that. Loki isn't all those things. Or rather, he is some of them, but Tony is blowing them completely out of proportions. Is that what love does?, he wonders. Does it make people completely blind to someone? But Tony hadn't seemed like he was blind to Loki's faults. In fact, they had had fights about them, and Tony hadn't seemed particularly smitten then. Besides, it's preposterous to think that Tony feels that way about Loki, even if love actually makes people idolize someone.

"Loki." Tony leans in. His hands frame Loki's face and his expression is intense. "I can see that you don't believe me, but look at the facts. For the past eight weeks you've worked your way through my library at incredible speed, and you understood everything you've read. Some things not immediately but that only if there was a piece of information missing and as soon as you got that you figured things out. And not only that, you can use that knowledge, you can apply it – Loki, you understand what I do. I can't tell you how rare that is. Nobody here on the ship does, and nobody else I've met does, not even Bruce, and Bruce is a certified genius. My robot plans? I had to dumb them down because the first time I showed them to Obie's scientists they scoffed and told him that it's impossible. I'm running off on a tangent here, but my point is, I'm incredibly smart. It's not hubris, it's a fact. And you? You can keep up with me. Not with everything but I have no doubt that, given the opportunity to gain the knowledge you're missing, you'll soon be able to work alongside me."

Loki swallows. His voice is scratchy when he says, "That's not a fact." Inside his thoughts are whirling – does Tony really think that? It sounds... incredible. Loki just likes knowing things, likes understanding them. He's not... all that.

Growling impatiently, Tony shakes Loki gently. "That you've understood every book you've read is a fact. That you've read them at incredible speed is a fact. And considering how complicated and technical some of them are – how varied and wide-spread the topics – Loki, that's pretty fucking incredible, okay?"

Slowly, Loki nods. Facts, yes, those are facts. The truth. Loki isn't sure if he believes it's as incredible as Tony says, but why would Tony exaggerate?

"Now tell me, do you honestly believe that that would be of no use to you on Midgard? The center of the galaxy? Where all the important science happens?" Tony's tone of voice is lighter now but there's no doubting that he's very serious.

Nervous and not really knowing why, Loki licks his lips. It feels like he's making a concession when he admits, "Perhaps I could find something."

Tony breathes a sigh of relief. With a smile, he draws Loki into his arms. "I am absolutely certain that you could, and that you'd excel at it."

Allowing himself to relax against Tony, Loki asks, "Why is it so important to you?"

"I guess I don't like it either when you limit yourself. Your outlook is very negative," Tony teases. Sobering up, he adds, "But I really, really hate it when you put yourself down like that."

"Ditto," Loki returns. They both chuckle tiredly.

Tony sinks down back into the mattress, pulling Loki with him. They get comfortable once more, this time with Tony on his back and Loki curved into his side, one arm thrown across Tony's chest, head resting on his shoulder.

After a long silence in which Loki almost drifts off, Tony whispers, "Maybe you being on Midgard is the only thing that makes the idea of staying there bearable."

Loki swallows. So that's why Tony said all those nice things, a voice in the back of his head whispers. He's not sure whether to believe it; it makes sense. But for the first time in his life, he's willing to believe that maybe it's not entirely correct. There had been no deception in Tony's voice. The facts he had laid out for Loki had made sense, no matter from which angle one looked at them. Maybe, maybe Tony truly thinks that Loki is... not just something broken. That he's more than just someone useful and convenient, maybe even comfortable. Maybe.

"Pepper and everybody else would be there as well, though," he whispers back. Because it's the truth; he knows for a fact that Pepper vowed to stay with Tony because he'd be – in her own words – completely lost without her. Natasha and Clint said more than once that they'd stay around as personal security to make sure nobody would assassinate Tony in those first couple of weeks, until everything had calmed down. Tony had never said anything, even though they'd all simply assumed he'd stay on Midgard after taking his company back from Stane.

"They have their own lives," Tony replies. "Pepper is nursing a crush on Steve – she thinks I don't know, but they've been sending emails back and forth for a while. And Steve said he'll have a job for Clint and Natasha anytime, no matter what they want to do. They'll make badass spies."

"So if you left Midgard, it would be alone?" There's something sad about that; Tony thrives in company. No wonder he's been so stressed lately; he must be feeling like he has no other choice but to stay, no matter what he wants. It makes no sense that he'd convince Loki to stay there as well, though, making the decision even harder for himself. Unless... unless he assumes Loki won't be with him. "You wouldn't take me with you if you left?" Nevermind that it's part of the contract.

There's a beat of silence. "Of course I'd take you with me! I just thought you wouldn't... well, you got all this money, and all your talent. You can do whatever you want. You don't need me."

"No, I don't," Loki agrees. Tony flinches, making Loki tighten his grip on him, because he hadn't meant it like that. "That doesn't mean I don't want you, though." And being wanted is worlds better than being needed; Loki has learned that over the past couple of weeks. Though he still isn't quite sure where he stands with Tony.

"Oh," Tony makes, sounding stunned and a bit lost. "You'd stay with me, then?"

"I'm sure we could work something out, even if I miraculously found something that made me want to stay." Loki can't imagine what that could be, but his imagination is limited, even if he doesn't like to admit it. "You could stay without keeping your company, as well."

"Right." Tony relaxes under him. "It'll work out, won't it?"

If everything goes well with this whole con and with the demontaging of Stane. Loki doesn't point that out though, he's sure Tony knows. So he just says "Yes" and presses a kiss to Tony's shoulder, and maybe he actually believes it.

He pretends to forget that he had meant to get rid of Tony and the whole crew – the whole ship, in fact. Tony didn't say anything to anyone, Loki is sure of that because he's been paying close attention to how the others behave around him and it's highly improbable that all of them are such good actors that he wouldn't notice some difference. It's no guarantee that Tony didn't tell at least one of them but Loki tells himself he wouldn't. Tony himself hasn't treated him differently; he hasn't even talked about it much. In turn Loki hadn't brought up the arc reactor.

It's fine, he tells the panicking corner of his mind. Even if Tony told people, there are things that Loki can do that not even most people with magical abilities are able to do. Worst case scenario, Loki will kill himself and everybody along with him, and that's only if he can't fight his way out and flee. But Tony wouldn't tell anybody. They traded secrets, life-threatening secrets. Tony wouldn't.

When they arrive on Midgard they don't immediately dock in a port and head over to the palace. Instead the plan is for Pepper to help Loki acquire the right sort of wardrobe first while they update on all the news that couldn't reach them while they were in hyperspace. Tony can't leave the ship because of facial recognition – he'll only leave once the plan will be set in motion, and he's prepared himself carefully for it. There's a chance he won't be recognized because he's changed a fair bit since he was fifteen and also it's not very likely Stane will order a hit on Tony if Tony is actually part of Loki's entourage and will be missed when he vanishes, but it's not as unlikely as all of them would prefer. Because in the end Midgard is like any other place in the galaxy in that aspect; people die. Some of them get murdered. Not many of their murderers are brought to justice.

As soon as they have permission they dock in a port. Pepper engages a program that will download all news while she's out and then she collects Loki for their shopping tour. Loki can't help but be excited for that moment when he finally steps out of the ship – not because he is getting restless from having been kept in such an enclosed space for so long (actually he was mostly fine – of course it bothered him sometimes but he never really got bored because of the library, and Tony can be rather distracting) but because he still has the memory of the dreams.

It's strange. He hasn't really thought about them in a while, even after Midgard had suddenly been much more in his reach than expected. And even before then he had never examined them too closely, just remembered that he had them as a sort of reminder to himself that there are good things, even if it's only the fact that he isn't that warped that he can't dream of beauty anymore. But a day before their arrival he had woken up in the middle of the night because Tony had sneaked off, clearly unable to sleep. He'd lain in bed and deliberately thought of the dreams for the first time in a long time, examined them closely.

The thing is, he doesn't remember when he dreamt them, nor why they still stay so close – usually his dreams slip away from him like fishes in water the moment he awakes. But they're there, so clearly there are exceptions.

They're not too detailed, everything is sort of blurry, out of focus, but there are long, bright corridors, wide golden halls with high ceilings, and it fills Loki with an inexplicable warmth every time he thinks of it. Maybe he saw a place like this in a movie once at an impressionable age and wished to live there, it wouldn't be surprising, but if that's the case (and it must be, it's the most logical explanation) then Loki doesn't remember which movie or any other detail. It's a shame, he'd like to see it again, cover the blurry memories with sharp pictures that surely will be less bright, less warming, but real even if completely out of reach.

The actual place Midgard is nothing like that, of course. In fact it looks pretty normal – different from Hel, of course, much cleaner, inhabited by people much less distrustful and criminal, but altogether not that different. They're just people in the end, some rich, some poor, most of them with a purpose.

Pepper leads him to a public transport train, and wow, that looks like straight out of a movie, high-tech and efficient and very clean compared to anything similar on Hel. It's strange, Loki feels vaguely displaced, like he should wake up now.

Apparently sharing the feeling, Pepper looks around with a frown of confusion and mutters, "Everything looks so different."

"Have you been here before?" Loki asks curiously.

"I grew up here," she replies. Then she blinks at him. "Wow, I never actually told you how I got to be with the T-man, did I?"

Loki scrunches up his nose at that horrible nickname, but Clint had insisted Tony be called that in public. It had become a matter of pride for Loki not to protest because Tony disliked the nickname and Clint had proclaimed Loki whipped when Loki hadn't liked it much either. "No, you did not," he answers Pepper's question.

"Well. He told you about that time a couple of years ago when he came here?" Loki nods. "The Hawkeye was working for the Monger at the time – not in the way you're thinking, he wasn't on his side, it's... complicated. But anyways, when the whole thing went down, Hawkeye ended up breaking ties with everyone here because nobody was willing to support T-man. I went with him."

"With Hawkeye," Loki clarifies. "You knew each other even then?"

"Well, I was working at a coffee shop that he frequented, and we were sort of... going out. I know what you're thinking, that I was a smitten teenager who followed her boyfriend everywhere, and I guess it's partially true, but my home situation wasn't that ideal so I actually had a bit more of a motive."

Loki wonders how bad it must have been for Pepper to leave and venture out into the great unknown. She must have at least heard of how dangerous the solar system is, but she still had done it. "Do you regret it?"

She thinks about that for a moment. "Not really," she eventually replies. "Not in any way that counts. I had plans, I was ambitious, but... I was at something of a crossroads, you know? I had to decide whether I wanted to follow my human side or shut all that off in favor of my career, and I never regretted that I chose this side. This is our stop."

They get off the train and step into what has to be a shopping mile, only it's nothing like the shopping miles Loki is used to. The shops are neat and ordered, a lot of glass and white, and when one walks in a clerk immediately shows up, offering assistance. Over the next three hours, Loki grows more and more annoyed. It's logical that Pepper take control of the situation, she's considerably more familiar with everything than Loki is, but he does not like the way she and the clerks talk about him as if he isn't even there. Or worse, as if he were a mannequin, something someone owns. Loki's spent most of his childhood and all of his teenage years being talked about like that and he's always hated it.

He keeps silent as they discuss his merits and the right cut and the right colors and the right materials and a lot of other things Loki has never even thought to think about. When they give him something to put on he does so quietly, but if one of the clerks touches him he takes a sharp step back and sends them a cold look. None of them makes the same mistake twice, which is something of a comfort.

It's practice, he tells himself as he pulls a cloak of haughty demeanor around himself. He's going to pretend to be a Prince, so he can allow himself to act arrogant – it might very well be expected of him. Additionally, the coverage of the search for Prince Loki has been extensive as far as Loki can tell, so it's inevitable people will start paying attention to him pretty soon. He'll be discussed like this more often in the future, of that much he is sure.

The thought doesn't exactly please him, so by the time Pepper finally decides Loki owns enough clothing – things ranging from what they call "casual wear" to formal suits, including things like underwear and socks – Loki is fed up. All he wants is to get back to the ship and to be finally treated like a person again. Or be alone.

Tony's lab sounds like heaven right now, because there he'll have both – Tony won't pay attention to him if he doesn't want it, but he also won't act like Loki is an object.

Then Pepper says, "Great, that went quick, so we still have time for a hair cut."

"No," Loki says sharply. Surprised she blinks at him, but he doesn't care.

"This is somewhat time sensitive," Pepper argues, frowning a little. "We should make use of the time we have."

"If another stranger touches me today, I will cut their hand off," Loki informs her forcefully.

She blinks again but she doesn't say anything else but a clipped "Fine" and leads him back to the ship.

Chapter Text

Tony takes one look at Loki's face and swallows whatever he's been about to say. Wordlessly he turns back to the small device he's been fiddling with, using a magnifying glass and tiny tools.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Loki collapses into what has long since become his personal chair and closes his eyes.

He gets three hours worth of a grace period during which Tony feeds him heavily frosted donuts and otherwise ignores him. Loki is almost back to relaxed when Pepper enters the lab, a troubled expression on her face. "I have... news," she says.

"News?" Tony repeats. "What is that supposed to mean, Pep? Good news, bad news, news news?"

"It could go either way, depending on what we do with it," she replies mysteriously. Then she sighs and takes one one of the free chairs. "So I was reading through updates on the Search. They still haven't found him, of course, but apparently they got such an influx of potential candidates – no doubt also due to the heavy news coverage, one feeding off the other, it's disgusting – that they set up a couple of stipulations."

"What does that mean?" Tony demands. "Are we out?"

"No, no. We're fine. And even if we weren't, I'm sure Steve could help us. What they've done is made the entry tests more difficult, which shouldn't be a problem because Loki is a genius with photogenic memory," – Loki blinks at that, he had never heard himself described like that and he really doesn't know what to make of it, or of the fact that she says it matter-of-factly like it's something everybody knows to be fact – "but they have also banned everyone but the candidates that make it that far from the palace. The only people allowed to accompany a candidate – I should say person, they're only allowed to have one person with them – are spouses and certified relatives, by which they mean adopted family who the candidate has been adopted by longer than eight years ago. Proof is required."

They're all quiet for a moment.

"So, what – I'll only get into the palace if I adopt Loki?" Tony snaps. "How is that potentially good news? It's not that easy to get good false papers, and I'm sure the price must be astronomical right now."

"Definitely," Pepper agrees. "But adoption isn't really a good option anyway. The easiest solution would be for you to marry Loki."

"What?" Tony asks flatly. "How would that be easy? A good false marriage certificate has to be as difficult to get by as adoption papers right now."

"I didn't mean false papers, god, Tony, you're so dense sometimes," Pepper snaps back, annoyed. "What I mean is for the two of you to legitimately get married. You don't have to stay that way, you can just dissolve it afterwards, but right now it's perfect."

"How," Tony asks. "You do know that there's a hit on my name, right? Using my real, actual name to get married would be as good as putting a big sign to please kill me around my neck."

"But not if you're married to Loki," Pepper states triumphantly. "Because that way, if you're killed all you own goes to Loki, which includes Stark Industries. Killing you won't actually erase the fact that you have existed. So you both would have to get killed, and that would gain way too much attention. People would automatically assume that you'd been killed because Loki is the real Prince Loki, and Prince Thor would put all his resources towards finding out the truth. That's way too much spotlight for Stane."

There's a beat of silence as they all think it over.

"That... actually sounds good," Tony eventually says, a bit reluctantly.

"Good?" Pepper scoffs. "It's brilliant! Don't you get it? It means you can legitimately and freely enter the palace, no gray areas! And you'd be safe as long as Loki is still considered a viable candidate as Prince Loki, which should give you enough time to get rid of Stane once and for all."

Tony is visibly warming to the idea. "You're right, Pep, that's actually great." He turns to Loki with a wide grin. "Want to get hitched, darling?"

Loki can't believe they're both serious. "You two are..." He shakes his head, unable to find the right words for a moment. "You do realize that if we marry, even when we divorce afterwards, half of everything you own rightfully belongs to me?" Then he frowns. "Unless we do one of these contracts that keeps our belongings separate."

"No can do," Pepper immediately pipes up. "There's no way such a thing wouldn't become public knowledge, not if you want to make it actually legal. It would give Stane the perfect opportunity to kill Tony, if there's no danger of you inheriting Stark Industries."

Right. Loki should have thought of that himself, but he's not thinking very clearly right now. Not with Tony and Pepper being so... trusting. Annulment isn't an option either, because that would be as good as publicly announcing they'd scammed the palace. "How can you seriously consider this?" He turns to Tony. "You're effectively giving me half of everything you own. Just like that."

Tony shrugs. "I don't mind. I'm rich already, and that's all by my doing. I don't actually need the money that comes with my inheritance, and believe me, once I have Stark Industries I'll easily triple its worth within two years, if at all that long. And it's worth a lot right now. We're talking about a fuckton of money, darling, I probably wouldn't even notice if you took half." He pauses, looking at Loki seriously. "I admit, I would never have considered marriage without this, at least not this early. But we don't even have to divorce immediately afterwards, you know? We could just try it out, who knows, maybe we'll never get tired of each other." The smile he offers tells Loki that Tony doesn't entirely believe himself, but he's hopeful.

Loki really doesn't have a response to that. Tony is fine with Loki gaining half of everything he owns in the event of a divorce, which is already absolutely stunning. But Tony is actually offering to stay married to Loki even afterwards, when they don't need to anymore, when he can easily drop Loki because he doesn't need him anymore. That has much more of an impact on Loki than the money. For the first time, he considers that Tony maybe isn't just smitten with him because of a lack of other opportunities and because Loki is convenient. Of course, it's still possible that once Tony is free to be in public again he'll quickly realize how flawed Loki is and that he wants nothing to do with it, but Tony isn't irrational, he knows his own mind. He must have considered the possibility. If he were just using Loki or if he weren't absolutely sure that his feelings for Loki reach deeper than just convenience and opportunity, he would never have offered to stay married after the fact. Besides, it's not like Tony isn't aware that Loki is broken.

Pepper clears her throat. "It also gives us the perfect opening. There's no doubt it would quickly become public knowledge that Tony Stark, heir of Howard Stark and rightful owner of Stark Industries, married potential Prince Loki. Stane would have no other choice but to step aside and hand the company over in the resulting media coverage."

"There's no way he'd just roll over like that," Tony points out.

"Yes, but here's the thing – there's nothing he can do about it. He has to give you the company. He can't kill you. He'll have to think very carefully about what he does." Pepper grins evilly. "And while he does that, you take all of his resources and a big chunk of his influence away, and he won't be able to do anything to stop it."

"I don't think it'll be that easy," Tony cautions.

Pepper scoffs. "Don't be such a pessimist, Tony. This is brilliant for us!"

Tony glances at Loki who is watching the whole conversation helplessly, still trying to grasp the meaning of it all. "Yeah, maybe," he agrees cautiously.

With an exasperated sigh Pepper stands. "Fine. You two talk about your feelings or something, I'll sort this whole thing which is brilliant for us out. No need to thank me."

"Thanks Pepper," Tony offers feebly as she strides out.

Silence descends between them after the door slides shut after her, but naturally, Tony can't deal with that for long. "Does it bother you?" He cautiously asks. "I mean, I know I'm not exactly a great catch under all the cover up, but we can just get divorced afterwards. And meanwhile nothing would have to change."

"It's not-" Helplessly, Loki gestures towards Tony. "You are a great catch, and soon everybody is going to realize it." That's as close as he can get to actually voicing his insecurities, something which he has never, ever done before. But Tony looks so honest and he genuinely believes he's not a "great catch". There was no lie in his words.

Tony scoffs. "They're going to realize that my money is a great catch, and if Pepper is right – which she probably is, let's be honest here – then I'll soon also have some sort of fame, and that attracts people as well. It's not about me." He tilts his head. "Is that what this is about? You think I'm going to find somebody else?" Damn him and his inconvenient shrewdness. Tony can be really oblivious at times, but sometimes he's scarily insightful.

When Loki doesn't reply Tony puts his hand on the table behind him and pushes with enough force to roll across the lab towards Loki, but when his knees bump into Loki most of his momentum has been spent. Leaning forwards, Tony catches his eyes. "I gotta be honest here, darling, that might happen. There's no way to guarantee it won't. But I honestly can't imagine being interested in somebody else, at least in any other way but sexually. That's got to account for something, right?"

A little hesitant, Loki nods. Because it does. It's not great reassurance – which, Loki has to give Tony that, is mostly due to the fact that Loki hasn't revealed the full extent of the problem to him.

Tony nods. "What else bothers you about this? If it's not me."

"You-" Loki blows out a breath. "All that money, Tony? You're effectively throwing it away."

"I'm throwing it at you," Tony corrects. "And hey, I'm not denying that money is great and I enjoy spending it. Unnecessarily, if one listens to Pepper, which one should not always do, even if it generally is the smarter course of action. But I already have a lot of it, and you know what I've learned the past couple of years?" He waits for Loki to shake his head before he leans in closer, face very earnest. "There are some situations where all the money in the world cannot help you. There are some things you can't buy, some places money can't reach, and you're fucked if all you have is money. As sappy as it sounds, what really counts is friends – having a support network, someone you can fall back on, someone you can always trust. So yeah, I like my money and I'll like having more of it – though I won't like that half as much as sticking it to Stane, taking back what is rightfully mine and not having to hide my face anymore every time I step outside – but losing half of it won't hurt me. Not now, and especially not then, when I'll have like fifty times as much as right now." He hesitates, licks his lips. "You have to tell me if I'm going too far now, I promise I'll never mention it again, but to be honest? I like the idea of being married to you."

"Why?" Loki asks when Tony visibly loses his nerve.

Swallowing, Tony looks away for a moment before meeting Loki's eyes again. "It increases the probability of you staying with me, okay. When everything has calmed down and the others have buggered off to build their own lives – and they deserve to, after all the shit they went through because of me – you'll stay if we're still married."

And Loki allows himself to think about that for a moment. He can't even encompass what he would do if he had an unimaginable amount of money, but he can picture himself with Tony, just like this, some indefinite time in the future. But that is about all he can imagine; there's just too many uncertain factors to picture anything else.

"But how can this work out?" he whispers. "How can I stay here after it has become public that I claimed to be Prince Loki and have been proven to be lying?"

"Then don't claim to be the Prince," Tony says. "Just lay it down like it is – where you grew up, that you don't have any memories of the first five years of your life. You heard of the Search and thought that it might be you. You're just as curious to know whether it's possible or not as the palace. You thought there'd be no harm in trying." Tony's face suddenly brightens. "And you met me and I had a ship and I was going there anyway, so I took you on as a passenger. That's how we met."

It's fairly devious, Loki has to admit. It's lies mixed with enough truth it will be very difficult for anyone to figure out what really happened, much less find proof. It protects both of them, both in the past and in the future. "That's ingenious, Tony."

Tony grins. "I know. Aren't you glad you're engaged to me?" He pauses, face falling. "Except if you don't want to get married to me? I mean, yeah, it's ridiculous if you look at it rationally, and the actual reason why isn't exactly noble, but… to me, at least, it's a bit of both. It's okay if it's not the same for you-"

Loki puts a finger on Tony's mouth to shush him. "Hush, Tony. Yes, I do want to get married." As if he could say no, not if doing so would mean all of Tony's plans are down the toilet. And Tony doesn't even seem to have realized that, the trusting idiot. "And I don't need to get divorced immediately after."

Tony smiles.

Thus, the following day Loki not only gets a haircut – an experience he could have done without, thank you, half an hour of a stranger touching his head and trying to make smalltalk are rather low on his list of enjoyable pastimes – but he also gets his first first-hand experience at Midgardian bureaucracy. He and Pepper head to the registry office with the necessary paperwork, and Loki is allowed to witness as Pepper bribes their way to getting an immediate appointment to register and from there a date for the wedding in two days. Unsurprisingly Loki is not the first Loki feeling the sudden urge to get married, but apparently very few of them actually bear the same name as the Prince. But what makes the registrar's eyes go really wide is Tony's name.

"He will have to have a proof of identity, of course," the registrar says nervously. "You understand."

It's not a question, but Pepper still nods. "Of course," she says. "We can do that here as well, yes?"

The registrar looks at her. "It would require much more of an effort," he says. "More preparation, and a genealogist, of course."

Pepper smiles serenely. "Of course. We are sorry for the circumstances and of course offer a recompensation."

Ah, corruption. The same on every planet. All of a sudden, Loki feels a lot less out of place, the glamor of Midgard rapidly wearing off.

When they leave the office the smooth smile drops off Pepper's lips and she starts to frown. "Two days, I don't like that."

"It leaves too much time for... accidents?" Loki guesses delicately.

She nods. "Yes. Ah well, there isn't anything we can do about it, I suppose we're lucky we got so early an appointment."

"He was lying about there not being any openings within the next three months," Loki offers.

Pepper throws him a look. "Of course he was. That's how bribery works."

Except they had deliberately kept the schedule spread out so they had room to be bribed which is not so much bribery as it is organized crime, but Loki decides not to tell her. She'd just want to know how he knows and he doesn't fancy explaining to her.

After the registrar's office they head to a different registry to register Loki as a potential Loki. A very bored looking official takes a picture, a brief statement, scans all Loki's paperwork of his origins and tells him dispassionately that he'll be contacted within the week. If he isn't contacted, he hasn't passed the background check and need not come back. There's no reason to be worried, of course; there is no way Loki won't pass the background check. He is of the right age and his background – a string of orphanages – and the documented fact that Loki had been picked up at five years old with no memory of his past make him a perfect possible candidate. It's almost too good to be true, so Loki figures they'll also check his paperwork for tampering. It's all correct and untampered with though, so there won't be any problems.

The following day Loki spends with Tony being coached on the tests. Tony had spent the time Loki and Pepper had been out to hack into the palace's database without leaving a trace – he had taken great care to explain to Loki that he could had done it in under an hour, but he had had to be very careful so nobody would notice, so it had taken a bit longer. Not that it turns out to have been necessary, because the tests are easy, simple stuff about his background, why he's only coming now, who if anyone he has brought and why, psychological and medical tests, that sort of thing. The palace records are a bit hazy on the later stages of testing but they're not really important anyway. All they need is official access to the palace so Tony can do his take-over.

It occurs to Loki that, now that Tony's life is temporarily secured by this marriage he actually doesn't need to get into the palace anymore, but when he brings it up Tony clenches his jaw and says, "I'm going to go there personally to kick that bastard out of my company."

Having grown up in a world where everything that matters is image and staying even, Loki can understand the sentiment. Besides, it's sort of circular – if Tony doesn't need to get into the palace he doesn't need to marry Loki, but if he doesn't marry Loki he will need to get into the palace.

The day of their wedding starts much earlier than Loki prefers and than Tony likes. They have an early appointment and Pepper wakes them up even earlier, saying they need to get ready. When Tony grumbles and tells her jeans are fine, what getting ready is she speaking of, she scowls at him and says, "You're getting married, Tony." Tony opens his mouth as if to reply but closes it again after looking at her. Once she leaves them alone with the two freshly pressed suits she brought, Tony says something about women and weddings that Loki doesn't listen to because that suit.

It's the finest piece of clothing Loki has ever worn, discounting the shopping day and even then he hadn't had something like this.

It fits perfectly – no surprise, seeing as his measurements had been taken, though Loki hadn't really known at the time why and after he'd been informed by Pepper he hadn't really known why people would waste their money on tailored clothing when they didn't have special needs. But now he puts the suit on and looks at himself in the mirror and he understands.

It's black, made of very fine material Loki doesn't recognize (no surprise there either), worn on top of a white shirt. Tony has to tie the tie for him, something which he doesn't seem to be able to do without lots of groping, which is fine with Loki. Altogether Tony seems very fond of the suit – or perhaps of Loki in the suit. He compliments Loki with words but much more meaningful to Loki is the way Tony can't seem to drag his eyes off Loki, and his hands wander equally freely.

Tony cuts a very fine figure in his own suit as well, Loki has to admit. He's a very handsome man, Loki rather appreciates it. It doesn't hurt that Tony is naturally charismatic and can be incredibly charming when he wants to.

When they're both dressed Tony hooks their arms together and drags Loki in front of the mirror. "Look at that," he says, tone very satisfied. "We look good together, don't we?"

Loki blinks because he hadn't thought to look at it like that, but he does now and has to agree. Tony is shorter than him, but not so much so that it looks silly. It's just... strange, almost like Loki is a different person, with the haircut and the fine clothes. His face looks different too, but he can't quite put his finger down on why.

"Good," Pepper says, satisfied, when they meet up in the living room. In the time they got dressed she herself got ready as well, having put on a dark blue dress and silver jewelery. Clint and Natasha are equally dressed up, though Loki detects a few hidden weapons upon their persons and doesn't doubt that there are quite a few more he doesn't see.

"Don't we all look fine today," Clint comments, faintly sarcastic. He's wearing a black suit with a bow tie.

Natasha, clad in a figure-hugging red dress with slits to the sides reaching up to her thighs, giving her free leg movement, wordlessly walks up to Loki and slings a green silk scarf around his neck. Nobody comments upon it so Loki, despite being a bit confused, doesn't say anything either, just tugs it a bit under the lapel of his jacket.

Pepper insists on a group picture being taken before they leave and nobody dares protest. After that's taken care of Tony distributes small, faintly green glowing brooches to each of them, giving absolutely no explanation except for, "you can thank me later". Then he insists they all pin them on their clothing, going so far as to refuse to leave the ship until they have done so. Not that they protest much, apart from Natasha making her displeasure at not knowing what it does clear.

They're all a bit on edge, aware that on the way from the ship to the registrar's office Tony will be at his most vulnerable. They're all armed and the probability isn't very high that Stane will order a hit on Tony to be executed in public, but depending on how desperate he is, it's not as unlikely as they would like. Consequently, Loki sticks close to Tony's side, all but clinging to his arm. Clint and Natasha flank them like bodyguards, half a step behind, followed by Pepper. At first she had walked in front but nobody had liked that; a sharpshooter might very well just shoot through her to get to Tony, Clint had said, and after that Tony had refused to let her walk in front any longer. Loki thinks to himself that if they can shoot through Pepper they can also shoot through Tony even if they don't mean to, but he doesn't point it out. They're all tense enough already.

Thankfully, nothing happens. This is probably mostly due to the fact that they carefully choose a complicated route; it takes no genius to figure out that they'll try to get from the port to the registrar's office, so at first they head vaguely into the opposite direction and then go through a complicated public transport trip where they switch lines every stop. Of course Tony carries a broadcaster in his pocket that will blur anybody's features within a radius of about ten meters, which isn't the most subtle, but they avoid crowds and just hope that none of the security cameras they do encounter have a wide enough range to make it obvious. And even then, they don't enter the registrar's office directly; instead, they enter a building at the end of the street and make their way through the basements, which isn't kind to anybody's shoes.

After all this, the wedding itself seems sort of anticlimactic. At first, of course, there's the DNA test where the genealogist tests Tony's blood to verify his identity – when the needle goes in Tony makes jokes about how everything could have been so much easier for everyone involved if only the Aesir would consent to being medically examined or to have their genetic material be entered into some sort of database, but the fingers of his free hand are clenched tightly around Loki's. Loki remembers how once Tony had made an off-hand comment about not being too fond of medical examinations or really anything metal being inserted into his body and tries to distract Tony with some sarcastic comment. Tony latches on immediately and they're off, bantering back and forth and generally annoying everybody until the genealogist confirms Tony's identity and lets them out again.

"Let's get this show on the road then, darling," Tony winks at Loki while rolling his shirt sleeve down. Wordlessly, Loki offers his free arm and they all head over to the registrar's office.

The registrar has them sit down together in front of his desk while their friends have to stand behind them and asks them whether they have been informed of the legal consequences of their union. They both say they have – it's not even untrue, Loki had read up a bit on marriage law the previous evening, but it's a hugely complicated field with each planet having slightly different laws and accepting unions from other planets to varying degrees, everything getting more complicated if the couple are from two different planets – and then only have to sign the contract, with Clint and Natasha being their witnesses. Then follow the pupil and handprint scans to go on record, and all of a sudden Loki has a last name that does not translate to "of Hel" and broadcast clearly to everyone that he is an orphan without origin. Pepper takes a couple of pictures, and then they're off again – the whole thing took maybe thirty minutes, and that's mostly due to the waiting period while the genealogist had traced Tony's DNA.

"Well," Tony says as they step out of the building into the sun. Just to be on the safe side they went through the basements again, but into the other direction. The news of their marriage – mostly due to the reappearance of Tony Stark, son of Howard Stark – are undoubtedly making the rounds now, with the registrar having sold them to the news, most likely with a few pictures made via security cam on top. Stane should be hearing about it any moment, but they're all more comfortable waiting a couple of hours before they drop the caution, just to be on the safe side.

"How does it feel to be a married man?" Clint asks, pounding Tony on the back.

Tony grins at him. "Not much different." But he's a little off, and they all know him well enough to notice.

"Why the face, then?" Natasha demands.

Affecting a wounded look Tony starts to protest, "What do you mean, face? My face always looks like this, and I'll have you know-"

"Tony," Loki interrupts quietly.

Tony deflates. Looking around – they stand in the middle of a street, people passing by – he waves his hand and says quietly, "It's just weird, being outside and not having to worry."

Of course. Tony's had to spend the past eight years being extra careful not to show his face anywhere where there might be security cameras due to facial recognition, and if there had been no other way he'd had to be heavily covered up. As a result, he's spent most of his time either on the ship or in very dangerous places where there were no security cameras such as Hel. It will take some time for him to get used to having the freedom to walk anywhere freely, something most people – Loki included – take for granted.

Pulling him in at the elbow, Loki presses a kiss to Tony's temple. He doesn't know what to say that won't be pointless because Tony knows it already anyway, so he just says nothing.

Clint pats Tony on the back again. "We're going to stick it to that asshole," he offers quietly.

Tony nods and lets Pepper hug him before he suggests they all go eat somewhere, because he hasn't had breakfast and he's starving.

Loki has never been in a restaurant on Midgard. Naturally, seeing as he's never been on Midgard before. But Loki has been on other planets than Hel, and he's never eaten at a place where he couldn't see his food get prepared from his table, or where there were more than five meal options on the menu. Suffice to say, this what Tony calls their "wedding meal" proves to be intensely confusing to him.

First of all, the restaurant they enter after some searching consists of a wide, long room filled with tables of varying size. There is no long counter – in fact, there is nothing resembling a counter – and there is no way to observe the cook. In fact, Loki doesn't even see any cook. The other diners seem not fazed by this, nor do Tony, Natasha, Clint or Pepper, so Loki doesn't say anything. Maybe it's a sort of restaurant where one person from the table enters a different room to observe the meal preparation? This would mean the other people at the table would have to trust that person with their lives, but Loki knows that some people do that sort of thing to demonstrate their power, so it's not that unusual.

A waiter comes and brings the menus and takes drink orders, if they have any yet, which it seems they do. Loki marvels at the fact that there actually is a waiter – he knows them from movies, but he's never seen one in person. There are some on Hel, of course, but only in the high-end places, and they're highly sought-after jobs. Loki never even got close to acquiring such a position.

"It's been way too long since I had a meal like this," Clint comments as he opens the menu. The others murmur their assent while Loki can't do anything but stare at the very long list of different meals, with different meats and different vegetables and just... a lot of variety. Many things Loki has never heard of before, too, though that's to be expected. But how can they afford to have all these different foods on hand? And they must, because Loki can detect no system to limit the choices – such as, the meals on this page are only available on Tuesdays or something alike.

Loki decides to go with the familiar and picks chicken when the waiter returns with their drinks and to take their orders. The others choose different meals, making various comments on how much they have missed this or that, and then the waiter leaves again. Loki expects her to come back soon to have one of them come witness the meal preparation, but it doesn't happen. It starts to make him very uncomfortable but he doesn't know how to bring it up; the others are deeply immersed in a conversation about foods Loki has never heard of and their various memories attached to them. So Loki instead pays closer attention to the other tables, and soon his suspicions are confirmed; nobody watches their meals being prepared.

That's not something that is done on Hel. Nobody would eat a meal they haven't seen being prepared; some people do that if someone they trust very much has witnessed the preparation for them instead, but that's usually clan bosses or other people of power who want to demonstrate just how tightly in control they are of their underlings. It's just not something anybody else does, not in restaurants, not in private settings. On the ship, Loki always witnessed the meal preparation if he could, and if he couldn't he did not eat, at least not at the beginning. After a couple of weeks he trusted the others enough to be able to overcome that, but that's very different to this scenario.

When their plates arrive Loki can't do anything but stare at his. It looks delicious and Loki can identify some vegetables but he hasn't seen them being prepared, and he certainly hasn't seen whether the meat really comes from chicken or not.

"You don't like it?" Tony asks, pulling Loki out of his thoughts.

Helplessly, Loki turns his head to look at him. Everybody acts like this is normal procedure so it clearly is on Midgard, but it's not for Loki and he just can't bring himself to eating it. He just can't. But he doesn't know how to explain without making it very obvious just how different they are. He's supposed to be blending in, in about a week he'll have to pretend to be a Prince for however long it takes to get into the palace and for Tony to complete his plan, but nobody explained this to him. There must be other things nobody had thought to mention and it should annoy him, but all it does is make Loki's chest tighten with something akin to panic because clearly, he isn't as cut out for this as he had thought.

"Loki?" Tony has put his fork down and puts a hand on Loki's leg, giving him his full attention. "Are you alright?"

Loki swallows compulsively. He can't tell Tony that he's doubting himself, he can't. Tony relies on him. Tony just married him with the belief that Loki will get him into the palace; Loki can't tell him that he might not be able to do it. So he looks back at his plate and says, "Everybody here is so trusting."

Understanding floods Tony's face. "Listen, it's fine," he murmurs, leaning in close so the others can't hear him, for which Loki is insanely grateful. They don't need to know what exactly Loki is freaking out about, it's bad enough that Tony knows. "Nobody has tampered with it, I promise. It's exactly what it said on the menu."

Loki gives a small laugh. He hadn't really understood the menu, with all its foreign words and fancy descriptions.

"Trust me, there's nothing fishy in there. You can eat it, darling," Tony says.

"I trust you," Loki snaps quietly, impatient with himself and also with Tony for understanding, but not understanding. "But you did not prepare this meal for me, did you?"

Suddenly Natasha leans in from across the table. Clearly she has noticed what the issue is, as if this couldn't have gotten any more mortifying. At least Pepper and Clint seem oblivious, happily chattering about something and picking things off each other's plates.

"You see this certificate there?" Natasha murmurs, gesturing over to a print hanging on the wall near the entrance. "It certifies that this restaurant serves exactly what it says on the tin. To get the level that is certified here, restaurants have to undergo a lot of tests, regularly. At least once a week, a anonymous testers come in and test all the meals. If they aren't up to par, the restaurant is closed down for a thorough inspection. Having something like that happen is suicide for restaurants here."

This reassures Loki a little, at least they're not complete idiots here, but testers can be paid off. He just can't eat this.

Tony's hand on his thigh squeezes gently. "You don't have to eat it if you don't want to, darling," he says, kissing Loki on the temple. "It's okay."

Loki doesn't agree, but he says nothing. He also doesn't eat, but nobody says a word about it (which obviously means they have noticed, realized that something is going on and decided not to comment, which is vaguely humiliating). Tony keeps his hand on his thigh, making it look casual even though it means he has to eat exclusively with his left hand. It shouldn't be but it's reassuring, making Loki feel that even if Tony doesn't really understand, he accepts and supports him. He even almost forgets to be scared about that, or about how it makes him feel.

After they've eaten they leave the restaurant and casually head to the subway. Or at least that's what they look like; actually everybody is tense, uncomfortable, not trusting the peace. Until Tony spots a jeweler and spontaneously decide that they just got married, they need rings.

"It's an archaic tradition," Natasha comments.

"I don't care, I want rings," Tony returns stubbornly and drags them all into the establishment.

There are a few jewelers on Hel but they're arranged very differently, with a lot more security glass and a lot fewer stealing opportunities, and also with a lot of threats behind them due to the fact that they're all clan-owned. Even so, not many people can afford to spend money on jewelry, and even fewer are willing to do so. It's very easy to lose things on Hel.

Suffice to say, Loki has never been surrounded by this much precious metal and gems. He can almost taste it on the back of his tongue, making him hungry for something, he knows not what.

Gold is the first thing the jeweler suggests, simple gold bands, because Tony wanted something simple and Loki has no opinion either way. He's still a little blindsided by Tony's wish for rings; it speaks of a commitment they didn't really discuss. Or at least only in the vaguest terms. Not many people these days choose rings; Loki had never even thought about it.

"What do you think, darling?" Tony asks. He and the jeweler had been talking about color, silver or gold or something in between. "You're more the silver type, I think," Tony says, running his fingers down Loki's cheek, making him blush stupidly.

"Which would you prefer?" he asks to cover it up.

Tony looks at him searchingly for a moment, likely trying to figure out whether Loki has an opinion and just doesn't voice it for some reason or whether he doesn't know yet. It's the latter, of course. If Loki had ever even considered the matter of which metal he wants his wedding band to be of before he might have had something to say, but he truly hasn't.

"I don't know, I like both." Tony turns back to the jeweler to look thoughtfully down at the display.

"How about both, then?" The jeweler suggests, offering a pair of silver rings framed by gold strips. Or perhaps it's gold rings with silver rings embedded in the middle, Loki isn't at all familiar with ring forgery. "We have a wide range of two or even tri-colored wedding bands. Would you like for me to bring out a selection?"

They share a glance. Loki raises an eyebrow and Tony widens his eyes in reply. Turning to the jeweler, Loki says, "Yes, please, if you would be so kind?"

Loki might previously not have been familiar with wedding bands, but over the next twenty minutes he becomes increasingly so as the jeweler informs him about this metal and that tradition, this trend and that style. She suggests a couple of rings that are "simple but not plain", meaning there aren't any stones on them but they're ornamental. "Lately, Celtic style rings have become very fashionable," she says, "What with recent events. A Celtic knot pattern is understated but beautiful and sends a powerful message."

And it looks nice and all, but Loki can tell that it's too fancy for Tony's taste and he himself isn't overly fond of it either, feeling it goes too far into demonstratively romantic, kitschy territory.

Then the jeweler suggests a pair of rings that are simple but beautiful; made of two halves, one silver, one gold, joined in the middle in a gentle wave pattern to form one ring. There's a couple of different styles to that as well, but Loki likes the first pair best; understated and yet elegant. They're not too big, but not too delicate either.

"Good choice, darling," Tony says with a smile.

Loki furrows his brows. "We haven't chosen yet."

"I like these best, and you clearly do too," Tony disagrees, gesturing towards the pair Loki has been eying. The jeweler immediately starts her spiel of what kind of metal they're made of – not silver after all but complete 18k gold, white and yellow – and offers for them to try them on. It turns out that rings have different sizes – Loki really should have figured that out on his own, it's only logical after all, but he really never thought about it – and after both their sizes have been ascertained, they try them on.

"What do you think, darling?" Tony asks, holding his hand up and wriggling his fingers. He's been calling Loki that a lot since they came here – not that he never has before, they had a whole… discussion about how Loki doesn't appreciate being called any variation of "baby" or anything relating to food. It had involved gags and handcuffs. Darling is pretty much the only pet name Tony is allowed to use, but he doesn't usually do it this excessively. Belatedly, Loki realizes that he might be trying not to use Loki's name in front of the jeweler; she's been responding well to them, but had a few choice comments to offer about the Search. It has been good for business, but she felt it desecrated "the sanctity of marriage", whatever that means.

Tony wriggles his fingers again, making Loki refocus. He looks at Tony's hand, then at his own – it looks strange, it feels strange, but not… bad. And he does like the rings. "I like them," he decides.

With a grin, Tony turns back to the jeweler. "We'll take them."

She smiles widely and tells them the price. Loki feels his eyes turn wide but Tony doesn't bat an eyelash, just pulls out his card and pays. The jeweler offers to get them engraved for them, it'll take just a couple of minutes she says, but Tony says they'll need some time to think about what to engrave them with and will come back some other time to take care of that. They show the rings off to Pepper, who's been perusing the back of the shop filled with earrings. "Nice," she comments with a smile and insists on taking pictures. Natasha and Clint, who have been waiting outside unsubtly standing bodyguard, nod approvingly. "I would've expected for you to pick something flashier," Natasha comments dryly, but the teasing twinkle in her eyes tells them she's just joking.

"Okay, now that you've gotten properly hitched, where to?" Clint asks. "You got the freedom to go anywhere you want."

"Home," Tony says decisively. Clint raises both eyebrows but an unsubtle nudge from Natasha shuts him up before he can say anything.

So they all go home. The first thing Tony does when back on the ship is drag Loki to the kitchen to feed him. He makes it totally non-awkward, babbling away about nothing of consequence, and then he even eats a bit of the stir-fry he made together with Loki.

As soon as they're both done Tony puts away the dishes and declares it time to consummate their marriage.

Loki raises an eyebrow. "Is that so?"

Tony widens his eyes. "Definitely! The marriage won't be legal if we don't."

That isn't true. Loki has recently become somewhat versed in marriage law and theirs is as legal as it could possibly be.

Nevertheless deciding to play along, he widens his eyes. "Really?"

With a sage nod Tony takes Loki by the elbow and leads him out of the kitchen in the direction of their quarters. "Yes. It's the law."

"My, I suppose you better fuck me soon and hard then," Loki returns.

Tony stumbles and sends him a delighted look that doesn't cover the heat in his gaze. "Hard, you say? To be on the safe side?"

"We better do it twice too," Loki confirms. He almost twitches in surprise when Tony suddenly palms his ass and leans in to murmur hotly, "I was planning on not doing anything else for the rest of the day."

Loki smiles. "I like that idea. Though we do have to eat eventually."

"That's why I had Clint bring the donut machine to my quarters," Tony tells him smugly, gesturing Loki through the door with a flourish. Loki immediately spots the donut machine sitting on the table and smiles.

He doesn't get the chance to comment upon it because the next moment Tony moves right into his personal space, chest to chest, and slides his hands up and down Loki's body. "You look really hot in this, darling," he breathes, pulling the silk scarf off.

"You cut a rather fine figure yourself," Loki returns. "Formal wear suits you. But I'm much more interested in getting you out of it."

With a heated look, Tony steps away and starts pulling at his tie. "I planned to take this slow, peel you out of that suit slowly, but I don't think I have the patience right now."

Tony rarely has patience. Loki chooses to take it as a compliment and employs handcuffs and cockrings when he wants to take his time.

Now isn't the time for that, though, he agrees with Tony on that. "I can put it on again later," he offers, opening his own tie with much more care. Tony is already down to pants and undershirt, toeing off his shoes. Loki couldn't be that careless with the suit if he wanted to, and he really doesn't; he doesn't quite takes his time but he doesn't hasten unduly either as he undoes the buttons of his shirt. As a result, Tony is naked much sooner than Loki. Loki expects him to come help but instead Tony steps back and crosses his arms, watching with heated eyes as Loki pulls the undershirt over his head. Unlike Tony Loki doesn't drop everything carelessly to the floor but hangs it over the chair. By the time he's naked Tony is balling his fist and biting his lower lip, staring at him hungrily.

"I'll never get enough of this," Tony breathes as he steps up to him, sending a shiver down Loki's back. Warm hands settle on his hips as Tony captures his mouth in a hot kiss, pace more languid than Loki would have expected.

He lets Tony guide him backwards to the bed, their mouths on each other distracting Loki enough that he stumbles when he bumps into the mattress and inelegantly falls down on it. Tony is immediately on him, straddling his thighs and licking a stripe up his throat. Loki isn't as much a fan of being bitten as Tony is – he likes biting much better, which makes them fit together extraordinarily well in that aspect – but he does enjoy it when Tony nibbles down the delicate skin of his neck, right above his pulse point.

While Tony his busy laving at his throat Loki lets his hands wander across Tony's body, down his back and over his ass across his hipbones up his ribcage, pinching his nipples before sliding back down to take hold of Tony's hard cock. Muffling a groan in Loki's collarbone Tony pulls back. "Up, up," he orders, helping Loki further up the mattress.

"So," Loki says, stretching his arms over his head with false nonchalance. "Ready to consummate this marriage?"

Tony grins and fishes the lube out from under the pillows. "Always, darling. You?"

In lieu of a verbal reply Loki takes the lube from him and squeezes some on his fingers, guiding them between his spread legs. Eyes intense Tony sits back and watches as Loki slides two of them into his hole. He won't need much preparation, they do this too often, but Tony loves to watch, he's learned. A few choice times Loki had reduced Tony to begging without even touching him merely by pleasuring himself in front of him, not permitting him to help.

It seems this time Tony doesn't have the patience for that; he watches as Loki stretches himself but pretty soon his hands are back on Loki's body, apparently incapable of staying away. He runs his hands up the insides of Loki's thighs, lightly scratching with his fingernails, making Loki shiver. Then he licks up along the same path his hands have taken, up one thigh, pressing a kiss to Loki's wrist and then down the other. "Love seeing you like this," he murmurs into Loki's knee. By this point Loki is biting his lower lip and breathing fast, three fingers in; it's taken up a lot of self-restraint for him not to push his fingers into that spot that will make him see stars. But he wants to come only from Tony's cock; the thought alone makes a pleasurable shiver run down his back.

Pulling his fingers out he waves Tony up with the other hand. "Come, come," he orders impatiently, squeezing some more lube into his palm while unwrapping a condom with the other. As soon as Tony is within reach he rolls the condom down then wraps his slick hand around his cock, coats it thoroughly before lying back, wrapping both knees around Tony's waist. "Now."

Tony grins at him wildly and guides his cock to his entrance, starting to push in tortuously slow.

That is not what Loki had planned. He had taken care to prepare himself thoroughly so Tony could fuck him hard and fast, and now Tony is doing the exact opposite, pushing in slowly and stilling.

"Tony!" Loki whines, wrapping both arms around his husband's shoulders. "Come on!"

"Patience-" Tony pants, face twisted; it clearly takes all of his for him to tease Loki so.

Well, two can play that game.

Loki moans, letting his eyes roll back and squeezing around Tony. "Oh, god," he pants. "I love having you in me."

Tony whimpers and pulls back, still way too slow, before pushing back in. Loki lets his breath hitch and licks his lips, blinking up at Tony through his eyelashes. "Please, I need your cock."

That's it. With a groan Tony abandons all pretense and thrusts in fast and hard, picks up rhythm that makes their bed shake. "Hard and fast, darling?" he gasps.

"Fuck me into the mattress," Loki replies hotly. "Hard and fast."

If there is any place Tony is good following orders, it's in bed. He practically jackhammers into Loki, making him see stars, dizzy with pleasure. Pretty soon Loki can't even tell who is making which noise, it all comes together as a mix of sounds echoing in his ears, the slap-slap-slap of flesh on flesh, the noise of the bed, their pants and groans, his own rapid heartbeat in his ears.

"Shit," someone says, "shit, shit darling, I can't-" and it's Tony, Loki is fairly sure it's Tony, and suddenly there is a hand on his cock and before he knows it he's coming, his throat hurting because he screams.

"Holy fuck," Tony pants sometime later, voice muffled against Loki's ribs. They haven't moved a muscle since they came, just worked at getting the oxygen back into their lungs.

"I hope our marriage has been properly consummated," Loki replies, carding his fingers through Tony's sweaty hair.

Tony lifts his head, chin digging into Loki's side. "You tell me."

Loki affects a thoughtful expression. "You were indeed very thorough."

"Was I?" Tony grins smugly; it should be annoying but the only thing annoying about it is how charming Loki finds it.

He pats Tony on the head. "Yes, dear. Though I do remember you saying something about doing it more than once just to be on the safe side."

Tony doesn't need to be told twice.

Several hours later they're sitting in bed, thoroughly exhausted and just having woken up from a nap. Tony has turned on the donut machine and is trying to decide what sort of icing they want; Loki wants the normal icing but Tony wants chocolate.

"You can lick the chocolate off me if we can put the normal icing on the donuts," Loki suggests.

An hour later they're eating donuts dipped into normal icing, not even bothering not leaving any crumbs because everything is sticky by this point anyway. Which of course means they have to clean themselves up thoroughly afterwards. By the time they're fit for company again it's nearly time for dinner.

It's Pepper and Clint's turn to cook; Clint rolls his eyes when they come in to watch the food preparation and can't hold back a few choice comments. While he and Tony start to playfully exchange derisive comments about each other Pepper gets a tablet and opens a news website, wordlessly handing it over to Loki. The headline reads, "Tony Stark alive!" with the subtitle "marries Prince Loki?" and a security camera picture of Tony and Loki standing next to each other in front of the registrar.

"So wait, they're actually thinking I'm the real Prince already?" Loki asks with a frown, skimming through the article. It doesn't hold any actual information apart from a report on the event of their marriage.

"Evidently," Pepper says. "They clearly don't know what they find more exciting, that Tony is alive, that he married you, or that your real name actually is Loki, no last name. They figured out the part with you potentially being the Prince on their own – though honestly that's not a difficult connection to make, there's a whole news website just reporting on the Search. They already have an article focusing on you, inasmuch as they can that is."

"Hm. Where?" Loki lets Pepper show him and then starts looking through websites on his own. They really don't know much, it's mostly speculation.

"This is good," Pepper tells him, "it means the palace will become active soon to call you in for the test. There is no way they will deny you, not after this."

That's good. Despite his earlier spell of worry Loki isn't nervous about the whole thing; he has no doubt he can get Tony into the required area. "How likely is it Stane will make an attempt on Tony's life?"

"That depends entirely on whether he panics or not," Pepper admits. "I don't know him, but personally... I think it's not unlikely. Caution is certainly required." She hesitates for a moment. "He might make an attempt on yours as well, though the higher you get in the tests, the less likely it is, and altogether it's less likely with you because of the publicity surrounding you and the Search. The consequences are too far-reaching an unpredictable for him, I think. He might end up accused of working with the Jotunn."

Loki nods, it being no news to him. Then he tilts his head towards where Tony is chasing Clint around the room, Clint trying to flee from the "sex smell". "Would you like some help preparing dinner?"

Pepper sighs and rolls her eyes. "Yes, please."

Two days later Loki receives a message from the palace, inviting him to a test early the following day. Tony looks conflicted about it, managing a weak smile but unable to keep the worried frown from his forehead. "Nothing will happen to me," Loki tries to assure him.

Biting his lower lip Tony nods. "Do you still have the brooch I gave you on the day of our wedding?"

"Of course."

"Wear it," Tony says abruptly.

Loki tilts his head. "Alright. What is it?"

"A personal shield." Tony grins weakly. "It will deflect anything above a certain speed – which is anything above a half-hearted slap, really."

Both of Loki's eyebrows fly up. "Really? That's amazing."

"I know." Tony shrugs modestly.

"But even without that, there is no need to worry," Loki informs him. "I am hard to kill."

Tony frowns. "Are you?"

"I am." Loki won't explain further, letting Tony infer that it's about his magic – which isn't entirely untrue anyway.

The following day Clint and Natasha accompany Loki to the most outer ring of the palace; Loki has an orange pass which allows him to go inside but they don't, which means he has to go in alone. Having Tony accompany him at this stage would be too dangerous, which is the biggest downside to the whole marriage thing: Stane knows Tony is coming.

A guy in a black suit introducing himself as "Agent Fritz from SHIELD" waits for Loki at the gate, first proving Loki's identity and then accompanying him into a waiting car. Loki is driven to a building and led into a sort of office, where a guy introduced as "Agent Coulson from SHIELD" is waiting for him. He involves Loki in a conversation first, asking about Hel and how he finds Midgard, subtly drawing information out of him. They will have proven the originality of his papers and the truthfulness of his origins by this point but clearly that's not enough.

Mid-morning somebody brings in tea and pastries, an unsubtle test of Loki's manners, and then Coulson tries to ask Loki about politics. Loki demurs a lot, stating that he has little grounds to base an opinion on as Hel isn't exactly a political hotspot; he has learned a lot about politics over the past couple of weeks but it's a hugely complicated area and he figures he'll need years to catch up before he can make informed statements.

The conversation continues on until lunch; Loki tries, he honestly does, but he can't force himself to eat. He's annoyed with himself but he just can't, the mere thought makes him nauseous. Coulson acts understanding and orders for a fruit basked, and Loki can't at all tell whether this is bad for him or not.

After lunch Loki has to go through a medical test, which he was told nothing about. He submits to it with as much grace as he can manage but refuses to take his clothes off, or let a stranger touch him. He might have been able to allow it had they tested him at the beginning of the day, but by this point his nerves are frazzled and he honestly doesn't know what he'll do if strangers touch him now while other people watch.

He does submit to a full-body scan, despite how much he doesn't want to, but doesn't let them take a sample of his blood. When he was nine a certain place took a sample of his blood to test for diseases. Loki had had to burn the building down when the results had yielded something nobody had expected. If the palace finds the truth in his blood something a lot worse would happen than just Loki failing the test. He feels guilty for refusing but there are no genetic tests done on Aesir anyway, and any diseases and illnesses they can find through other means.

It's mid-afternoon by the time he's finally allowed to go home. A car brings him back to the gate, where Natasha and Clint are either still or again waiting. They don't ask him any questions, just accompany him back to the ship, where Loki locks himself into his room because he desperately needs some privacy.

A couple of hours of quiet reading Loki re-emerges and goes to watch Tony and Natasha prepare dinner. Vaguely he recalls that it might have been his turn but Tony apparently took over for him. "Hey darling," he says when Loki enters, pressing a quick kiss to Loki's lips after carefully telegraphing his intention.

"Hello," Loki replies tiredly, watching as Tony's agile hands cut vegetables into even stripes.

"You alright?" Tony asks purposefully broadly, giving Loki the option to decide for himself how he wants to take the question and how much he wants to reply.

Loki waves is carefulness away tiredly. "Yeah, just tired. They were very thorough." He waits a bit, watching as Tony throws the vegetables into the pan where Natasha is frying meat. "They asked for a medical test," he reveals finally. "And they tried to feed me lunch."

Tony pauses. "How did it go?"

"I didn't eat the food, I couldn't." Loki grimaces, still annoyed with himself. "I let them do a body scan, but no blood test."

Putting the cutting board and knife down Tony moves to sit down next to Loki, taking his hand while still carefully telegraphing his movements. "It's alright," he says quietly. "Don't be so hard on yourself. You can't help it."

"But I want to," Loki growls. He hates that he has no control over himself where this is concerned. It doesn't help that he considers it common sense to watch strangers prepare one's meal.

"Have a little more patience." Tony gently kisses Loki on the forehead. "You won't be able to for quite a while yet. It's okay."

Loki doesn't think it is, but he doesn't protest any more. He tilts his face towards Tony and receives a couple more kisses, small ones that are somehow comforting.

"Why didn't you want the blood test?" Tony asks some time later when they're in bed, both reading on their tablets. "Because of DNA tests?" There are no records of the royal family but it stands to reason that they'll make tests once a candidate gets close, compare Prince Thor's genetic material to potential Loki's.

Loki hesitates. "Yes," he says slowly, really not sure whether he should explain exactly why.

Tony eyes him shrewdly. "Is magic traceable in the blood?"

He's so smart sometimes. "I'm not actually sure if it is in general, but for me it is." He looks at Tony and he wants to tell him but he's too scared, too terrified; he just can't do it.

Tony looks at him calmly for a moment, definitely knowing there's more to it, but eventually he just nods. Leaning over Tony presses a kiss to Loki's temple before quietly going back to his reading.

Loki doesn't sleep well that night, wondering just how far he's gone that he wants to tell Tony about this. He's told him about his magic and that went well, but clearly it went to his head. There's only so much a person can deal with, even Tony, who is rather extraordinary, all things considered. Especially Tony, perhaps, considering his history.

Three days later Loki receives a message from Agent Coulson asking him to make a video of himself explaining why he thinks he's the real Prince Loki, what he's going to do if he truly is the Prince, and who he's going to bring should he be invited into the palace. To be submitted before noon the following day.

"Okay, we can do this," Tony says, but he can't hide the slight nervous tremble to his fingers.

Loki takes his hand and squeezes. "This is nothing we are not prepared for."

With Pepper's help Loki prepares what to say on each question; no actual speeches, just notes. This is the final hurdle, they need to pass this for Tony to get access to Stane, so it's understandable that Tony is a bit of a wreck even if it's less than helpful.

The actual video is anticlimactic; Loki explains that he has no memories earlier than five years of age and that he himself isn't sure whether he's the Prince or not, but considers the possibility. "I'm not sure I ever would have done anything about it, but then I met Tony and things sort of spun from there." Which segues nicely into how he met Tony and why he's bringing him. "I just never had a partner," Loki says. "I think we sort of helped each other do something we've been thinking about for years but never really had the courage to do." And because that's not enough kitsch yet Loki then explains that why he's here isn't actually about being the Prince but about knowing where he belongs, knowing his origins. "I think people who never had to think about that really underestimate how important just knowing your parents' names can be," he says. The best part is, he doesn't lie at any point. Stretch the truth a bit, yes, exaggerate here and there, certainly, but no lie.

"This is good," Pepper says after they've watched the video.

"Are you sure?" Tony asks hesitantly. "It's not exactly professional is it."

"That's the good part," Pepper reassures him. "It's not supposed to look professional. It's supposed like a lost orphan trying to find his origins. Sorry," she adds, throwing Loki an apologetic glance. Loki just shrugs; it's true after all.

"If you say so." Tony bites his lower lip and watches as they send it off.

And it's waiting again. For about a week they don't hear anything which strains all their nerves; Tony is an easily irritated mess who spends his time alternately buried in the lab, snapping at everybody, and being terribly clingy. They have a couple of screaming matches that generally end in bed with them not even remembering why they fought to begin with.

Six days after they sent the video they finally hear back from the palace, inviting Loki and his "plus one" for an interview. They get a temporary joint black pass, eligible only the day of their appointment. This will hopefully be enough time.

Their appointment is just after lunch so they leave in the early morning, again with Clint and Natasha as their unsubtle bodyguards. The guards let them (minus bodyguards) through easily, and Tony and Loki get on one of the transport trains and travel to the Stark Industries main office.

The palace safety zones, Tony explains to Loki (needlessly, Loki has read up all about it already, but he lets Tony babble) are a bit of a separating system as well; every company that has anything to say has an office within the safety rings. The more important the company, the closer to the palace it is; Stark Industries is in the highest level available going up to ten miles to the palace and requiring a blue pass. Tony and Loki can with their black pass even get inside the actual palace, so that's absolutely no problem for them.

Stark Industries has a whole office building which is hugely expensive not only because of the very high property prices within the palace security system but also because each worker needs to be vetted regularly, and seasonal (three months' worth) security passes cost money as well. All in all it's excess for the sake of it instead of for any actual reason. Loki doesn't approve much and Tony doesn't seem at all impressed either.

The receptionist, when they enter the building, recognizes them immediately. Her eyes widen and she swallows. "Mr. Stark-" she starts, fumbling with her comm system.

Tony smiles widely. "Just tell Obie I'm here, would you, I'm sure he's been waiting for me."

"You do need an appointment-"

"Does he really?" Loki interrupts snidely. "Are you absolutely, one hundred percent sure?"

Wide-eyed she looks back and forth between the two of them. "Uhm."

"Thought so," Loki says and pushes Tony past her into the lift.

"You are terrible." Tony hides his amused smile in the side of Loki's neck.

"We couldn't let her send us away," Loki replies, settling his hand in the small of Tony's back. Tony is nervous but he doesn't allow himself to show it now, well-aware that they're under security surveillance right now.

Obadiah Stane is waiting for them when the elevator doors open for them. "Tony!" he exclaims, arms spread and a wide grin on his face. There are a couple of people around, putting up only a token effort to hide how closely they're watching.

"Hey Obie!" Tony replies with an equally wide grin and they hug with some manly pats and all.

"So nice to see you, why didn't you ever contact me to let me know you're alive?" Stane says, putting a broad hand on Tony's back and making as if to lead him away. Loki refuses to let go of his hand though, which makes Stane halt awkwardly and then add a hasty, falsely happy greeting. "I was so happy for you when I heard of your marriage," he tells Tony.

"Oh, I'm sure you were." Tony smiles. "Should we go into your office?"

"Certainly, certainly." Stane leads them into the office, maintaining a fake smile even once they're away from curious eyes. He gestures them towards a seating area and offers them drinks which they refuse. "How are you, Tony?"

"Oh, brilliant." Tony smiles widely and puts a hand on Loki's knee. "What about you?"

"All the better now, knowing that you're safe. How did you survive?"

Tony shrugs modestly. "Oh, you know, some creativity. I tend to exceed expectations."

"It's one of your best features." Stane smiles widely. "I remember when you built your first motherboard when you were four."

The hand on Loki's knee tightens. "Yes, me too. So, listen, I came to talk to you about the company."

Stane smiles. "I'll be happy continuing to head it for you, Tony."

"Oh?" Tony tilts his head.

Finally the facade starts to crack a little, that smile dripping off Stane's face as he says, "Surely you understand that with absolutely no previous knowledge, I cannot let you take over the company just like that."

"I appreciate how you feel," Tony says sweetly, "but I'm sure you understand that I cannot wait to take over my legacy. It's what my parents would have wanted."

"Certainly." Stane smiles again. "Listen, I don't have much time right now, how about we discuss this some time else?"

"Sure, how about later today? We can catch up a little, hammer out the details of the takeover then." Tony smiles sweetly.

"Of course, of course, Tony." Stane ushers them out again and towards the elvator. "Lovely to see you."

"See you later today then," Tony says within earshot of curious onlookers.

"Well, that was nice," he says a moment later after the elevator doors closed behind them.

"Heart-warming," Loki replies dryly. They're likely being monitored still so they don't say anything else; Tony waves cheekily at the receptionist and then they're out again, heading back to the public transport system.

Because they came so early and the meeting with Stane went so quickly they're early for Loki's appointment; they consider eating something (having been way too nervous to do that earlier in the day) but the only food places they see aren't ones that let you watch your food being prepared, so they ditch that and just head into the next safety ring, the palace's purple area. It's the most inside ring without being inside the palace and a non-public area, meaning there are no office buildings. Instead it's more like a nice green ring of garden giving the palace some resemblance of privacy.

Tony and Loki take a little stroll around that garden, taking care not to get out of view of anyone just to be on the safe side. It should be relaxing but it's not really – the meeting later today is what everything hinges on. Loki wants to know what exactly is going to happen then but he figures Tony doesn't know either and anyway, asking is just going to make him more nervous.

When the time for Loki's appointment draws near they head to the last security checkpoint they're going to have to pass, getting them into the official areas of the palace. Agent Coulson is waiting for them, giving them a bland smile. "Did you enjoy the garden?"

"It was very... green," Loki says. To be honest, he'd found it sort of boring. When he had read about nature he had expected it to be more... just more, considering how highly people spoke of it. But it had just been, well, green. Sort of quiet, apart from when a gust of wind made the trees' leaves rustle.

"Indeed. If you'll follow me..." Coulson leads them deeper into the palace into an opulent room. Nothing looks like in Loki's dreams; he doesn't know how that makes him feel and decides on satisfaction that his silly childhood dream has finally been disarmed.

"If you wait here, Prince Thor will be right with you." With that Coulson leaves them to their heart attacks.

"Prince Thor?!" Tony repeats in a shocked whisper. "We're going to actually meet him?!"

"It looks like it," Loki replies, squeezing Tony's hand. He has to remind himself that it's okay, he's not doing anything wrong, he's been ninety percent honest in the interviews and the video; a hundred percent, even, depending on how you look at it.

Tony finally seems to notice that he's not the only one freaking out and wraps one arm around Loki's shoulders, presses a kiss to his temple. "It's going to be fine."

Right. Somehow, pulling a con on someone seemed a lot easier when he didn't have to face the prospect of meeting them in person.

They don't have much more time to calm each other down (or at least try not to completely freak out) because the door opens to admit Prince Thor and his wife Jane. Loki's read up all about the protocol but that doesn't help him at all right now; he still has no idea how to act. He and Tony rise awkwardly and everybody shakes hands, Thor introducing himself and his wife and Tony introducing himself and Loki when Loki can't find his voice in time.

"So, uh," Tony says once they're all sitting. He doesn't get any further than that because a servant enters to offer refreshments – ranging from coffee and tea over fruit juices to simple water. Loki sticks to tea.

"I must be honest," Thor says once they're all settled. "I have been through many of these meetings and I have yet to find my brother. I grow weary of meeting person after person claiming to be him."

Jane puts a tempering hand on Thor's arm. "Though of course we never give up hope."

"Do you really expect to find the real Loki this way?" Tony asks, not hiding his skepticism. "I mean we discussed this and we figured the chance is really incredibly low. If the real Loki remembered, he would have long since gotten into contact with you, wouldn't he?"

"It is to be expected," Thor agrees. "However, there did use to be a heavy ban on impersonating my brother. And there is always a chance that he does not remember, like you."

Loki pulls his shoulders up stiffly. He knows he should say something but he has trouble breathing.

"You alright, darling?" Tony asks, a worried frown crinkling his forehead.

Closing his eyes Loki tries to take a deep breath, made difficult by the iron bands that seem to be wrapped around his chest.

"Hey." Tony presses his mouth to Loki's cheek, breath fanning warm over his face. "Just breathe with me, okay?"

Loki does and slowly the world stops whirling around him; finally he can breathe normally again. Now he has to face the fact that he freaked out in front of Prince Thor for no discernible reason.

"Are you alright?" Thor asks, frowning as well. Jane hands him a glass of water, looking worried as well, and Loki takes a sip to gather his wits.

"Yes. I'm sorry. I don't know what..." what just happened, or what he's going to say now. Loki takes another sip of the water.

Thor keeps frowning at him; not angrily but speculatively. "You have no memories before you were five years old, correct?"

"Yeah," Tony replies for him. He's practically welded to Loki's side, pressed up close from hip to shoulder with one arm wrapped around Loki. Somehow it makes him feel better. "He really doesn't, but it's documented too, so."

"Yes, we contacted your first orphanage on China," Thor says.

"China?" Tony echoes, starting to frown.

Thor glances at him but when Tony doesn't say anything else he continues, "We spoke to someone who remembers you. A woman named Seraphina Meyers? She is the one who found you and housed you for a couple of days before she brought you to the orphanage."

That's interesting, Loki doesn't remember that.

"You are in the top five most likely candidates, according to Agent Coulson," Jane tells them.

"Of course, all of them turned out to be not my brother in the end," Thor adds.

"So, how are you going to find out?" Tony asks. "DNA test?" They could do that – blood isn't required for a DNA test, it's merely the quickest way. And since they don't rely on the Search anymore now that they have spoken to Stane in front of witnesses it's okay for the whole thing to blow over.

"Something like it," Thor confirms. "We have a technology that will prove without doubt whether you are my brother or not. It is non-invasive. We are just waiting for it to be brought here."

"Awesome," Tony says.

They're saved from an awkward silence by a knock on the door. Unfortunately it's some servant, and he's asking for Tony – apparently Stane wishes to speak with Tony. Which means that Tony has to leave Loki alone.

It shouldn't be a problem and Loki hates how uncomfortable it makes him; maybe that's why he's so insistent on Tony going as opposed to waiting until after the appointment. Tony is reluctant but doesn't patronize Loki by staying against his wishes.

This leaves Loki alone with Thor and Jane.

"What would you do if it turns out you're Thor's brother?" Jane asks. Needlessly, Loki thinks, because he's sure they have seen the video he had to make.

He shrugs. "Find out about my origins."

"Would you want to come with us to Asgard?"

Loki frowns. "I do not think so. Perhaps for a visit? But I'm not going to leave Tony." Sure, it would be interesting, but it's too much of an unknown for Loki to know either way whether he actually wants to go or not. Nobody has ever been to Asgard except members of the family – or those married into it.

"It would be nice to know one way or the other," Jane says. "Most people don't pass the background check, I don't know why they even bother trying."

"So is it rare for you to meet with applicants in person?"

"We have met with seven so far," Thor replies. "None of them have passed the last test."

"Naturally, if you're still searching," Loki says dryly. Then he bites his tongue because being a sarcastic asshole probably isn't too helpful. On the other hand, it doesn't matter anymore now. Pretty soon they're going to prove that he isn't the prince and then this whole thing will be over. Then he can start to worry about Tony and what's going to happen to them.

"How did you and Tony meet?" Jane asks after another brief, awkward silence.

"We ran across each other in Hel's harbor," Loki replies. "I did say that in the video though."

"Oh, yes." Jane nods. "What I have been wondering though... how did it happen? In the video it didn't really explain why you... well, why you talked to each other, why you went with him to begin with."

"I almost didn't," Loki tells her. "I mean, it seemed pretty insane, very reckless. I didn't even know him. Hel is not the sort of place where you trust strangers." Or even friends. "But I..." He shrugs, tells the truth. "I wanted to leave. So I did." He furrows his brows and rubs his chest.

"And fell in love along the way?" Jane smiles.

Loki flushes and ducks his head. "Something like it, yes."

Without any warning the door opens, submitting three guys and one woman, certainly Aesir going by the type of their clothing.

"No," Loki says, then winces and ducks his head. He doesn't know why he did that.

It earns him strange looks by everybody, and then they sort of exchange glances among themselves.

"Well, he certainly looks like Loki," the woman says.

"Sounds like him too," the guy with the wild beard adds. He and the tall blond guy are carrying a casket that looks like it's made of wood between them, bringing it into the room.

"Hello, my friends," Thor greets them. "How fare you?"

"We fare well, old friend," the woman says. "How are you?"

"I will be much better once this issue has been put to rest," Thor says earnestly. Loki can sort of understand him but really, he could try to be a bit nicer about it.

He frowns and rubs at his chest again; he feels strange, sort of hollow. Something is wrong.

This inexplicable feeling distracts him so much that he can only pay half attention as the casket is put onto the table between them. Thor opens it to reveal a glowing die, blue light whirling underneath the surface.

"If you would touch this," he says. "It will do you no harm." To demonstrate, he touches it himself.

Loki reaches out. His fingertips touch the surface but he has only the briefest of moments to feel it – it's sort of hot in a cold way, if that makes any sense – because almost immediately his mind is transported somewhere else. He sees Tony in Stane's office, slumped in the corner of the very same armchair he sat in earlier today. He seems frozen, his shirt open and his chest – the arc reactor isn't there. Above him stands Stane, holding a device and grinning maliciously.

"No!" Loki exclaims, jumps up and pulls. The next moment he's standing in Stane's office. Stane whirls around, utter surprise on his face; Loki doesn't give him a chance to recover from that. He flicks his hand and flings Stane across the room, not paying attention as he slams into a wall and slumps to the ground because he's already striding up to Tony. He reaches out to touch him and suddenly notices that one of his hands – the one he touched the blue die with – is of a dark blue color. As soon as he realizes what's going on he can feel it, like a cool wave swiping across his skin up his arm, over his shoulder and down his chest. His breath stutters to a halt.

Tony makes a strangled noise. His face is sheet white, veins unusually dark and his eyes are wide and shocked, terrified as they stare at Loki.

No matter that his glamour's being stripped away; Tony is dying. He told Loki that he can't survive without the arc reactor and it's too late, it's too late for anything, so Loki throws away all precaution, just opens his mind and searches for the familiar hum of energy. He finds it in Stane's pocket, holds out his hand and pulls it to him.

The door to the office flings open at the same time as the windows burst when black-clad figures crash through them from the outside. Loki puts the arc reactor into Tony's chest and clicks it into place just as something pinches him in the neck; he loses conscience with the sound of Tony taking a gasping breath echoing in his ears.

Loki wakes up to a hand carding through his hair and breath on his face. Two months ago that would have made him startle and pull back violently but he's woken up like this most mornings since then.

"Hey," Tony says when Loki opens his eyes.

Confused, Loki looks at him. Something feels off, something he-

"Oh." Loki scrambles to sit up, looks around, but the room he's in seems perfectly normal. He and Tony are on a big bed in the middle of the room; the windows two both sides of the bed are open, pastel yellow curtains billowing in the light breeze. There is a table with two chairs, a wardrobe, a shelf half filled with books and two doors.

"Loki," Tony says from below him, voice muffled. "I'm flattered but could you let me breathe?"

Slightly surprised that he protectively pulled Tony to his chest and didn't even notice, Loki lets go of him. "What-" He would have expected a prison, guards at the very least, and certainly not Tony. But it looks like they're in a normal guest room with nobody else around. Loki's skin is of a perfectly normal color, not a trace of blue in sight.

"It's okay," Tony hastens to assure him, wrapping both arms around Loki and pulling him into a hug. "We're fine. Everything's okay."

Loki tries to breathe normally while Tony murmurs soothingly in his ear. No visible guards doesn't mean there aren't any, and they're most certainly under surveillance. "What happened?"

Tony pulls back and cups Loki's face, presses a lingering kiss to his lips. "From the beginning?" When Loki nods mutely he takes a deep breath. "Okay. So I had to leave because Stane wanted to meet me. They put me in a car and take me over to the Stark Industries office; they put me in an elevator right from the car park below, which should have made me suspicious right there. So I come out of the elevator and there's Stane, acting all friendly, taking me to his office to discuss crap and the next moment he paralyzes me with this thing and tells me they did a full body scan on me in the elevator, interesting thing I have there in my chest. He takes it out, blathers some crap about how he's going to get rid of me and what he's going to do with the arc reactor – apparently he drove Stark Industries into the ditch again and was going to use me again to get him out of there – and just when he's about to kill me you show up out of nowhere. I'm a little fuzzy on the particulars but you saved my life, Loki."

"I remember- some people-"

"The first response team to teleportation on Midgard," Tony explains when Loki trails off. "Apparently the closer to the palace the teleportation, the faster the response. You were damn close to the palace."

Loki closes his eyes. "Why am I not locked up?"

"Uh, it turns out... Thor's brother Loki is actually adopted and a Jotunn," Tony says. Loki's heart stops; he had hoped fiercely that that part had been just a dream, something his mind had made up.

"When you touched the Casket of Winters – the blue thing Thor had you touch – it lifted the enchantment Odin put on you."

"On me," Loki repeats.

"Yeah." Tony leans his forehead against Loki's. "Turns out you're actually Prince Loki. Who would've thought?"

Loki takes a deep, shaky breath. "Say that again."

"You're Prince Loki."

There's no other way to respond; Loki starts to laugh.

"Hey," Tony says when the noise Loki makes turns into something entirely different form laughter, "hey. It's okay."

"Do you know-" Loki gasps, somewhere between laughing and crying. "Do you know-" He doesn't even know what he wants to say; how terrified he's been of anybody finding out that he's a Jotunn, even before he knew for sure what he himself was? How much time as a child he spent dreaming his family would come and save him, before he realized what he was? How long it nevertheless took him to get over those childish fantasies? How worried he was that they would find out, that Tony would find out, and hate him – punish him for being of the same race as the creatures that assassinated the royal family and Tony's parents.

"No, hey," Tony murmurs, pushing Loki's face into his neck and rubbing his hands soothingly up and down his back. "It's okay. Everything's okay."

"What's going to happen now?" Loki manages to ask some indefinite time later, after he's calmed down a little. Tony smells of comfort and strange laundry detergent. Absently Loki notices that Tony is wearing a white t-shirt and dark blue pajama pants, definitely not his own clothes. Loki is similarly clad.

"Uh, I don't know, we didn't get that far." Tony shrugs the shoulder Loki isn't using to hide his face.

Eyes widening, Loki abruptly pulls back as he realizes how selfish he's being. Here he is having a stupid break-down and some indefinite time ago somebody tried to kill Tony by taking the arc reactor out, which is practically his worst nightmare. "Are you alright?" He cups Tony's face and looks at him closely, notices the shadows under his eyes. At least he isn't so awfully white anymore, his veins back to their normal, near-invisible state.

Tony manages a weak smile. "Yeah. Mostly." He rubs at the skin around the arc reactor. "How did you know?"

Helplessly pulling up his shoulders Loki tries to explain, "I suddenly saw you and Stane." He frowns. "The moment I touched that... Casket of Winters?"

Tony nods. "From how Thor explained it, it lifts the enchantment Odin put on you. I don't actually know which enchantment, but it obviously did something more than just change your colors." He touches Loki's cheekbone and smiles.

"It... mutes me," Loki says, closing his eyes because even now that the truth is out he still can't face it. Nobody has ever known before – at least nobody who lived to tell the tale. "I... feel the world, I always did, but it's much clearer when I'm- when the enchantment is off."

"It happened before?" Tony frowns, carding his fingers through Loki's hair.

"Only once. I was eight." Loki pulls up his shoulders. "I do not want to remember."

"I'm not asking." Pressing another lingering kiss to Loki's lips, Tony changes topics. "So. Everything's good now. Stane is going to be prosecuted and I'll get my company back; you have found your family."

Loki frowns. "I haven't found my family. I have found my origins." And he's not sure what to make of that yet.

"Yeah, that." Tony lowers his gaze. "So... what are you going to do now?"

"What do you mean?" Loki's frown deepens. Tony won't even look at him, just stares down at the space between them.

Tony shrugs with fake nonchalance. "Well, Thor wants to take you home to your parents."

Oh, so that's what's going on. With a huff Loki rolls his eyes. "I'm not going to go to Asgard. I already told him that. I'm not going to leave you."

Finally Tony looks up, a smile blooming on his face. "You're not? I figured..."

"What, now that I have better options I'll go seek them out?" Loki jokes but it falls flat when Tony lowers his gaze again with a grimace. "You idiot." Loki shakes his head, tilts Tony's face up. "I don't have better options now. I already have my best option right here."

Tony ducks his head, a sweet smile spreading on his face. "Good." He kisses Loki on the forehead then pulls him close for a hug.

"So," Tony says a bit later. "Thor sort of wants to talk to you. It's fine if you're not up for that, we can just stay here." He leans in conspiratorially close and whispers, "There are servants. They bring us anything we want."

Loki is grateful for the respite and just nods; he has way too much to cope with right now, he's really not up for meeting some guy who is apparently his brother. Who had him touch something that would reveal his true nature without warning.

No, Loki really is not ready for that meeting.

So he stays in bed with Tony, napping a little before ordering dinner – rather, Tony orders for them, having great fun requesting way too much outlandish food. While they wait for their food to arrive they call Pepper.

"Oh my god Tony!" she yells. She looks frazzled, her hair a mess. "Why are you only calling now! Do you know how worried we've been?!"

Tony winces and ducks his head. "Sorry, I was a little... preoccupied."

"Yeah, I heard," Pepper huffs and crosses her arms. She appears to be sitting at the table in the living room, the noise of dinner being made in the background.

"What did you hear?" Tony asks curiously. "They just told me that they had notified you."

"Well apparently somebody," Pepper pointedly narrows her eyes at Tony, "got himself almost assassinated."

"Uh, yeah, that." Tony ducks his head. "As you can see, I'm fine. Did they tell you about Loki?"

Pepper shakes his head, expression turning disappointed. "No. I was just about to get to that, you could have contacted us to let us know you two are alright, Loki."

"He was a bit busy," Tony excuses. "Turns out he actually is Prince Loki?"

Pepper stares. Out of view of the tablet camera somebody noisily drops something to the floor. "Come again?"

"Uh, yeah. They have a foolproof test, as we found out, and hey! What are the odds?"

"Bloody hell," Clint curses. His head pops into view of the camera, partly obscuring Pepper's shocked face. "Are you fucking serious?"

"I am seriously not fucking," Tony says earnestly.

A knock on the door hails the arrival of their food; Loki leaves Tony to it and goes to open. A servant pushes a tray in and makes as if to serve them, but Loki sends him out again. They're perfectly capable of putting food on their own plates, thank you very much.

"So, what do you think?" Tony asks, wandering up to Loki, who is perusing the offerings of the tray.

"Are these fruits?" There are some big, dark, oval-shaped plants that look like a cross between fruit and nut.

"Avocados. Wait, let me show you." Tony takes one and cuts it in half, the knife gliding smoothly through the soft flesh. He removes the round stone in the center and hands Loki one half. "You put salt in them and balsamic vinegar and spoon them out. It tastes brilliant."

The most brilliant part about it is that Loki can eat it. Tony introduces him to the rest of the tray; there are a number of fruits and vegetables that are eaten raw, some of them pre-cut for a salad. "You mix it yourself," Tony says, getting a plate and starting to assemble stuff. "I was thinking maybe that's okay for you. What do you think?"

Carefully Loki starts to assemble his own salad, sniffing each bowl of prepared ingredient. It's mostly cut vegetables, some cheese, some meats. He won't be able to eat the meat and he feels a little hesitant about the cheese but this is a big step up from only having fruits available to eat. Even when it turns out he's not going to be able to eat any of the dressings, vinegar and salt are a perfectly suitable substitute. The avocados turn out to taste pretty good too, so with the fruits Loki in the end has a pretty nice meal that barely makes him nervous. Tony is almost more happy about it than he is.

After dinner they troll around on news websites for a while, trying to find out what they say about them. There is of course the official statement by the palace that the real Prince Loki has been found, and it naturally spawned a ton of speculations. Tony and Loki are fairly amused about it all.

"Did it hurt much?" Loki asks late in the evening, after they have turned off the lights and lay down to sleep. One of his fingers is very carefully circling around the arc reactor. Even now the memory of it not being in Tony's chest makes his heart skip a beat.

"Yeah," Tony says quietly, catching Loki's hand and bringing it to his lips. "It did. Even more with that thing he used to paralyze me."

Loki scowls. "What's going to happen to him now?"

"He's going to be prosecuted for attempted murder," Tony replies with a light shrug. "In at least one case. Depending on how much evidence they get... another. And possibly three cases of assistance in attempted murder and eight cases of assistance to murder."

Loki lifts his head to stare down at him. "Eight cases of- what?"

"They're considering the possibility that he was the one who let the Jotunn in sixteen years ago," Tony explains soberly.

"Bloody hell," Loki curses. Lying back down he curls his arm around Tony and pulls him close. Tony has long since gotten over the fact that Stane tried to kill him eight years ago, but he was his father's best friend and used to be like an uncle to Tony. From what Loki gathers, sometimes more of a father figure than his actual father, at least until Tony was fifteen.

Tony says nothing, just tangles his fingers in Loki's shirt and closes his eyes.

The next morning a servant brings them some nice clothes that fit perfectly; Loki is not going to think about that. Tony reassures him that he was the one who dressed Loki, nobody examined him or really did anything to his body but lift him places while he was out of it. They were separated for a short while but as soon as the teleportation first response team was informed of who Loki was he was brought into the room with Tony.

They get dressed and then go out to find the kitchen, where they watch as their breakfast is being made. After they've eaten they go and meet up with Thor.

Loki is not looking forward to that meeting. He grows even less fond of it when Thor tearfully tries to hug him.

"I must apologize for my behavior yesterday," Thor says a little later, after Tony has aborted the hug and they have sat down with a table between them. "This whole process has been very painful and I must admit, I had long since given up hope of ever finding you."

Loki shrugs awkwardly. "I really didn't expect it to be me."

"We are very lucky then that you still came here," Thor says earnestly.

"Right." Loki frowns. "So, I'm very angry about the thing yesterday. Couldn't you at least have warned me?"

Thor grimaces. "I am sorry about that. I honestly did not expect there to be any sort of reaction. Father told me what would happen but I have never had the chance to witness it personally. And the fact that you are a Jotunn is not public knowledge and is not meant to become so; thus, I could not have warned you, considering that I did not know you were really you."

Yeah, Loki had figured as much, but that doesn't mean he's any happier about it. "What's up with that anyway?" He hugs himself tightly, thankful for Tony's hand in the small of his back. "The Jotunn thing."

"As you are probably aware, Asgard is- used to be at war with Jotunheim. A little over twenty years ago, father won a great war in Jotunheim. As he was about to leave he found a baby, having been abandoned to the wilderness to die. He took you with him. To protect you – I'm afraid prejudice is not an unknown thing in Asgard – he put an enchantment on you to hide your heritage."

"But why?" Loki narrows his eyes. "What was the purpose behind taking me? If my real parents didn't want me, why did he not just leave me to die?"

Thor shrugs apologetically. "I'm afraid I do not know. But you should know that we never saw you as anything but a member of our family. You were our youngest brother and we loved you the same as any other sibling."

"Okay." Really uncomfortable with that line of conversation Loki glances at Tony. "What's going to happen now? With me, I mean. You did make the announcement about me already." A subtle criticism; Loki would have preferred to be asked. Not that he could have prevented it, but still. It would have been nice to at least pretend Loki has any sort of influence over proceedings.

"I am going to return to Asgard," Thor informs him. "You are welcome... I would- well. Our parents would love to meet you so you are welcome anytime for a visit. If you wish you can accompany me."

"That depends on when," Loki says. "We are going to be very busy in the nearest future, with Tony taking over the company."

Thor looks at him curiously. "Of course. May I ask... why are you so angry?"

"Uh, I don't know. Maybe because you clearly didn't try all that hard to find me?" Loki scowls and rises, pulling Tony up with him. "I was right there in the records this whole time. If you could track down the person who found me now you certainly could have done so then." Yeah, there is a fuckton of Lokis out there, a fair number of which must be in the system somehow, but still. If they had tried a little harder, they might have found Loki. The worst part is, Loki isn't even sure he wants for that to have happened because then he wouldn't have met Tony and couldn't have helped him gain back what rightfully belongs to him, but it nevertheless would have saved him a lot of grief and trauma and he doesn't think he'll ever be okay with the fact that there was a possibility he could have been spared all that.

Without another word Loki leaves the room, pulling Tony along with him and not listening to Thor's cries for him to wait.

"That went well," Tony says as they stride down the corridor.

"I want to go home," Loki replies. "I don't want to be here anymore."

"Okay, darling. Let's go."

Back at the ship they manage to avoid everybody on the way to Tony's room; they lock themselves in and pretend they aren't in for a couple of hours.

"What's going to happen now?" Loki eventually asks, when he can no longer pretend the world isn't there.

"Hm." Tony shifts and tilts his head up, supporting his chin on Loki's breastbone. "I'm going to take my company back and we're going to figure out what we want to do with it. We're going to have to make statements in court. We're going to sell everything Stane owned and buy everything we want. Maybe we'll become mad scientists. Maybe we'll travel the galaxy, but this time with style. I don't know, darling. Only one thing is for sure."

Loki raises an eyebrow. "Which would be?"

Tony grins. "We'll have lots of sex."

Sounds like a plan.