Chapter Twenty-Six

Deal

Andromeda Galaxy

Bawa Kawa System

Open Space

'I'll clean it up,' Juyu said after Stark managed to spill something bright and sticky all over the kitchen floor. Loki just put his legs up to the chair next to him to avoid getting his boots dirty.

'Really?' Stark asked. He was a mess, his clothes looking only slightly better than the floor. 'That would be great. You'd be better at it. Not that I think cleaning is a woman's job or anything. Not at all, but I wouldn't know where to start.'

Juyu just shrugged and started searching in the kitchen. 'You took us in. We have beds to sleep on and plenty to eat. I might as well help and earn my keep,' she answered.

'Well, thanks then. If I tried I think I would just make it worse,' Stark said. Loki could very well believe that.

'It's just mopping up a floor. I'm sure you've done it before,' the girl said after she found said mop.

'Uhh… not really,' Stark shrugged as he carefully went to the sink to wash his hands and clean up his shirt.

The Skrull stopped and looked at him. 'What do you mean not really?' she asked.

'Hey! I'm not the only one,' Stark said right away. 'Loki, have you ever mopped a floor?' he asked. Loki snorted derisively and went back to eat his fruit. Even the idea was ludicrous. 'See?' Stark shrugged.

'How could you have never cleaned before?' the girl asked, quite shocked, if here tone was anything to go by.

'Well, you know… he's a prince, I'm a billionaire, which means I'm disgustingly rich… at home at least.'

'Stark!' Loki scowled.

'What?'

'Risks of voluntarily spilling out personal information,' Loki reminded him. Stark was chatty. Loki assumed that he was used to everyone knowing everything about him and his life, so he never bothered with hiding much. Well, only certain topics. As time passed he was more and more willing to casually talk about them to the girls. Loki gave up on stopping him after a while, because at least it was always superficial information. He still did not want others to know who he really was, so Stark should learn to keep his mouth shut.

'You've always had servants then,' Juyu concluded.

'Yeah, not that you're a servant, you've been totally freed from servitude,' Stark insisted.

'I know, Stark. I do not mind. I will go mad if I can't do anything,' she said. 'I am not used to being idle.'

'You could clean up the bridge too,' Loki suggested. 'Or the bathrooms.'

'Loki,' Stark chided.

'What? She just said she was bored,' he pointed out.

'Juyu, do whatever you want. If you feel like helping out, thanks, but it's not mandatory.'

'Go clean up, Stark,' Juyu said. 'I don't mind.'

'Thanks,' Stark said again and left. Juyu was silent for a while, cleaning up the mess the human made.

'So…' she spoke then. 'Prince, huh?'

'It's none of your business,' Loki told her firmly.

'There are no princes around here,' she said. 'There's only the Royal Family of the Skrull Empire, and you are not a Skrull.'

Loki looked up at her and narrowed his eyes, but she was not looking at him.

'And?' Loki prompted.

'Nothing,' she said. 'I already knew that you have to be from somewhere very far away. Only someone who's not from here would know so very little about the Skrulls. Even those who live in the nearby satellite galaxies know plenty about us.'

Loki looked at her silently. They already asked the girl about all the abilities the Skrulls possessed a few days prior. It was enlightening. Loki was a natural shapeshifter as well, not that he felt like sharing that piece of information, but the way the Skrulls could manipulate their bodies was something completely different. Loki could change into animal shapes, mimic faces and voices, change his skin colour or even gender, but he could not shift into objects, not could he simply grow extra limbs. A small curious part of him could not wait to see the rest of their shifting powers, it was fascinating and not magical in nature at all. He would've felt if either of the girls had a speck of magic in them, but there was none. However they shifted it was a physical ability, something in their very bodies, in their flesh and bones, allowing them to be so very fluid in their shapes.

'You're from the Silver Galaxy, aren't you?' Juyu asked and finally looked at him. Loki was wondering how their home was called in this part of the universe. He assumed right as it looked like. They used a very similar name in the Nine Realms, Silfrám, the Silver River that birthed the Yggdrasil. The girl was more perceptive than he gave her credit for.

'You won't be here long enough for that to matter,' Loki told her.

'It is good to know regardless,' Juyu said and went back to cleaning. Loki left when he finished his fruit.

x-x-x

It was only a few hours later when Juyu found them in Stark's workshop. The human was working on his suit while Loki was finishing up the half-done engraving on his own armour. She strode up to them and stopped right before the workbench. Stark did not bother to look up or did not notice her entering. He was quite engrossed in this work. So Loki shoved at him a little to get his attention, Stark looked up at him questioningly. Loki slid his eyes in Juyu's direction, that was when the human finally noticed her.

'Hey! Is something the matter?' Stark asked. The girl stared at them for a moment before her face turned resolute and she crossed her arms.

'I have a deal to offer,' she said. Stark put his tools down with a frown.

'And what deal is that supposed to be?' Stark asked. Loki turned around fully as well to look at her.

'I know you want to go home, and I know that your home is in the Silver Galaxy,' she started.

Stark looked confused not recognizing the name, but he did not interrupt.

'And I know that you are running from something,' Juyu continued. 'I know not what, but you are.'

'I would be very careful about what you say next,' Stark said, his voice suddenly hard, his face even more so. Juyu fell silent for a moment, then she took a breath and raised her chin stubbornly.

'You need a map, am I right?' she asked. 'This is a Cassiopeian ship, so it cannot have a map to the Silver Galaxy. Not even the traders of Andromeda travel that far.'

'Your point is?' Stark asked.

'You won't be able to get a map that goes further than the satellite galaxies from the streets,' she said. Loki glanced at Stark to see what he thought about that. From his expression it seemed like he was contemplating whether to believe that.

'Let's say that's true,' Stark said. 'Why are you telling us this right now?'

'I could help you get one.'

'And why would a little slave like you know where to get something like that?' Loki asked. Juyu clenched her jaw.

'The Empire fought wars in the Kree Galaxy. It orbits the Silver Galaxy, your home, it is one of its satellites, like the Cassiopeia is to the Andromeda. So obviously the Skrulls have maps there, since they sent armies one after another. Once you're in Kree territory, you can easily find a way to the main Galaxy,' she explained.

Loki shared a look with Stark again, who looked intrigued now. Loki was ready to admit that his interest was sparked as well.

'Let me guess,' Stark said after some silence. 'The Skrulls don't just give out their maps to anyone.'

It was the logical conclusion, Loki thought the same.

'No, but they would be willing to give it to other Skrulls,' she answered meaningfully.

'You said you are offering a deal,' Loki said. 'So I assume that means you would be willing to help get our hands on a Skrull map.'

'Yes,' she nodded firmly.

'And what do you want in return?' Stark asked.

'I want you to take me and my sister out of the Andromeda,' she said. 'Away from the Empire.'

Loki narrowed his eyes.

'Now why would a Skrull want to be away form the Skrull Empire?' Loki asked.

Juyu fell silent again for a few moments, obviously contemplating the answer, or deciding how to put her reasons into words.

'I worry that being on Imperial territory would not be good for Bee,' she said finally.

'Why?' Stark asked.

'The Empire is not the oldest and largest interstellar empire without a reason. We are a warrior race, born and raised to serve the Empire and fight its wars. And there are many wars to be fought. I did not have to live in the Empire to hear plenty about it on the many planets I have lived on. You are to fearlessly and loyally execute any duties the Empire bestows upon you. Maybe we would be expected to join the ranks of the army. I'm young yet, healthy, I can still be trained, but Bee… she's strong and a great shapeshifter, but she would not bow down and follow orders. She would not. And I don't know what they would do to someone who's… not completely sound in mind,' she clenched her jaw tight and her fists clenched. It looked like saying that last part left a bitter taste in her mouth.

'I do not know what would happen, but I do think they would want to separate us. I won't abandon her, so I rather not go to the Empire.'

She was wound tight like a bow when she finished talking, her whole body tense. Her voice lost its firm tone and in the end she sounded like the almost child she was. Stubbornly trying to look brave, gown up too soon and afraid to act like anything else but an adult.

'And where would you want to go?'

'I don't know,' she shrugged. 'Somewhere far. It doesn't have to be the Silver Galaxy,' she added quickly. 'I'm sure there are enough planets on the way. I just want it to be far enough from the Empire, somewhere where Skrulls are not the menace children are frightened with.'

Loki felt his breath get stuck in his throat for a moment, before he was able to relax again. It did not look like either Stark or Juyu noticed.

'We would not be a burden,' Juyu started again. 'I can help get the maps you need, but even after I can help… on the ship. I can work, I can do anything. I can fight too, I will fight if you want me to, against whoever's chasing you… I'm useful,' she ended with. 'Stark, it's… it's a good deal for you too.'

Loki turned to look at the human who was leaning on his workbench looking at the girl.

'Yeah, I get that,' Stark said before he rubbed at his neck. He took a breath and stood up straight. 'It's up to Loki,' he said.

Loki felt his eyebrows rising while Juyu let out a breathless, 'What?'

'I brought you on the ship without his consent and I promised we would only take you to the next system. It's his ship too, it's not just me calling the shots,' Stark told her, then he turned to him.

Loki was staring at him with a slightly surprised expression. He expected Stark to agree and argue if he had to, he was always so intent on getting his way so far. He looked like he meant it now though, which was a pleasant change. He was sure that Stark had an opinion as well, but he kept his mouth shut and just looked at Loki. Pleasant surprise indeed. Loki felt a coil of satisfaction in his chest at the way the decision was handed over to him so easily. Someone so stubborn and head-strong like Stark giving away control like this, looking for all intents and purposes like he was ready to accept whatever decision Loki made. Very-very pleasant indeed. He did not try to stop the small smile that curled up his lips.

He held Stark's steady gaze for another moment before he turned and looked at Juyu. She looked like she already lost a battle. Loki was never quiet about his dislike after all. He contemplated the advantages and disadvantages of agreeing for a few moments, this was not something to be hasty about.

'Well,' he started. 'I doubt this far away anyone would be pursuing you two,' he started. 'So let us put it like this. It you can really aid us in acquiring one of these Skrull maps, you are allowed to stay longer. However, I want more details about how exactly you can help us. Once I made sure that you are not lying, that the Skrulls are truly the only ones in possession of such maps, you have yourself a deal, but not sooner than that.'

Juyu looked surprised for a split second then she nodded, her shoulders visibly relaxing a bit. The girl had a lot to learn about hiding her emotions. She clearly tried her best, but she was obvious like an open book.

'We'll talk about it again before we reach our next destination,' Loki told her.

'That's still gonna be at least a few weeks,' Stark added. 'So no need to get into details just yet.'

Juyu nodded. 'Thank you.'

'Don't thank us yet,' Stark answered. She just nodded again and left without any other word.

'Are we from the Silver Galaxy?' Stark asked once she was gone.

'Yes, Stark, that is indeed how they call your "Milky Way" around here.' Stark hummed in a contemplating manner, obviously trying to decide whether he liked the name or not.

'How long do you think she was gathering courage to have this discussion?' he asked next after some pause.

'A few days I would assume,' Loki shrugged. 'Maybe more. She's been quite overly curious and fidgety.'

'Yeah, she kind of really wears her heart on her sleeve,' Stark agreed.

'And you still spill too much personal information around others,' Loki told him.

'But since we established that they're not spies, or if they are, they are really horrible at it, I don't see why I need to be careful,' he explained. Loki huffed out a small laugh.

'Your big mouth will get you in trouble one day… well, more trouble that is.'

Stark grinned, 'But I'm gonna have you to pull me out of it.'

'Yes, you're lucky you're so useful,' Loki chuckled.

'Careful, you're smothering me with affection,' Stark smirked as he went back to tinker on his armour.

Loki turned on the laser chisel again as well to continue with his engraving.

'I was not sure you would say yes,' Stark said after a while.

'The advantages this could give us outweighed the possible dangers,' Loki explained. 'You wanted to say yes, didn't you?'

'Yeah, I kinda did,' Stark shrugged.

'And would you have argued if I'd said no?' Loki asked. Stark stayed silent for a few moments before he cleared his throat.

'No,' he said.

'Really? I would have told you that we're kicking them out at the next planet and you would have not said a word?'

'I would not have been too happy about it, but yeah, I would've shut up,' Stark said. Loki frowned.

'Why?'

Stark looked up at him again.

'That's the thing about partnership,' Stark told him. 'It's you and me, we're a team. I'm not saying that I won't ever do something you do not agree with, because I totally will, but when it comes to things that concern you as much as they concern me, I will try to not do that.'

'And I assume you expect me to do the same,' Loki said.

'Yeah, that would be nice. I could appreciate that.'

Loki looked at him again for a moment. He couldn't remember anyone who ever tried to keep up equality this much. He did not seem to want to lead, but Loki knew he also refused to follow. It was something he could actually understand. The one who leads is the one carrying the weight of responsibility, which was a heavy burden. While following meant bowing down to another's will and that was something every fibre of Loki's being rebelled against. He did not like to lead, but he hated to follow. What was left? To walk side-by-side, only most refused to allow that, or were not capable to do so. The either took control or surrendered to others, they either forced others to bow or were born to bow down. Loki tried to take the place of the one in control, but it suited him ill, the weight of those who needed to be led chained him down. He spent most of his life bowing to the will of others and his very spirit revolted against it until one day he snapped free and tried to burn everything in his way in his newfound freedom. Could he walk beside someone? He hoped for too long to walk beside Thor instead of behind him, but all his hopes were for naught, he was never allowed to step up next to him.

Thor followed a path that was set by others, the road of honour and valour and battle. He was order, the one who was meant to lead, the one others willingly bowed to, the one they looked up to, and the one who proudly wore its weight like he wore his scarlet cape. Loki was chaos, he walked paths no one ever walked before, the road of shadows and fire and destruction.

Stark was a child of chaos, he walked the road of fire, the burning flame of life and creation. There was destruction in him in the purest form of revenge and there were shadows of death trailing behind him to taint the perfection. Create and destroy, destroy and create.

'It's you and me,' Loki said in the end. 'We do walk this road together.'

'Aw, I knew you liked me, Reindeer Games,' Stark told him. Loki did not have to look up to know how the smirk on his face looked like.

'You wish, Stark. You wish,' Loki replied in a similar tone. Child of Chaos, a little Phoenix burning in the heart of a mortal man. Maybe he could truly walk the road of fire beside him. Loki would have to wait and see.

x-x-x