“Bill, junk, scam, scam, bill, junk...coupons.” Jane relegated each piece of mail to the appropriate pile while Thor watched the ritual with open curiosity. Once she’d sorted it all she began opening the bills, and he took up a square, heavy, dark blue and silver envelope from the collection doomed to the shredder.
“What defines this one as ‘junk’?” He turned it over in his hands and ran his fingers along the embossed design. “Its make is finer than the rest.”
“That, is an invitation to my high school reunion.” She was ready to launch into an explanation, but he had a thoughtful look, and so she waited.
After a moment, he guessed, “A gathering among those who have attended lessons together?” He used that tone of his which had 'Earth customs sound weird when I describe them out loud' stamped all over it. She nodded.
“Yep. To see how everyone’s turned out all these years later, catch up with old friends, that kind of thing. It’s crazy how much some people change.” She thought of her last year of high school, and sighed. “And how little others do.”
Thor raised his eyebrows and held up the envelope, and she dismissed it with a wave. “Yeah, go ahead.” Something was wrong with her phone bill again. “I have to get Darcy to look at this, I swear they’re overcharging me.”
After a few minutes his voice drew her attention from the fine print of texting charges. “You do not wish to attend this gathering?" He'd used the letter opener rather than tear into it, and was examining the neatly printed pages of the invitation.
"Not particularly. They're basically just a wake for your childhood."
He glanced up at her. "You did not enjoy your schooling?"
"Oh, I liked learning with my friends just fine. The various jerks I had to put up with, not so much." Also, the biggest jerk of all, the high school sweetheart who broke up with me in the worst possible way. (She didn’t say that part though.) To distract herself from the unwelcome memory, she said, “You show up and engage in the pointless act of assigning one another to an adult life category. The One Who Got Rich, the One Who Became a Teacher, the One Who Became a Starving Artist in a Beach Community, the One Who Had Five Kids, the One Who Had Crazy Adventures.”
Titles were right up Thor’s alley, so he was immediately interested. “And what would be your title?”
Jane considered that, and said, “The One Who Got Too Many PhDs.” Thor laughed.
“There is not such a thing as too much learning, only not enough.” He gave her an appraising look. “‘The One Who Has The Most’ would be better.”
Jane rolled her eyes. “Oh, I’m sure there’d be someone there with four. Probably someone I can’t stand and who’d lord it over me, too.”
“Their accomplishments would not diminish yours. And it was you who used your science to defeat Malekith, something they would not be able to claim.” He tipped his head, and suggested, “Perhaps ‘The One Who Saved the Nine Realms’.”
Jane took to studying the counter top, feeling embarrassed for no good reason. “I had some help.”
“A little,” Thor said. He became quiet, and when she stole a look at him she saw he’d gone back to the invitation. She was just about to resume her battle of wits with the phone bill when Thor asked, "Will none of your friends be attending?"
Jane hadn't really thought of that. Tiffany might be there, or Rob, or maybe Catarina, even Eugene or Wenying—she hadn't spoken to any of them beyond the occasional email in years. If some of them were going, it would be nice to see them again.
Jane flicked the edge of her phone bill. "I, ah, don't know if they are."
Thor folded the invitation and tucked it back into the envelope, and without an ounce of subtlety, placed it under the bills instead of with the shredding. The faux innocence he was trying to project looked wholly ridiculous on him, though he also might not have been trying too hard.
He said, "Perhaps you should ask.”
She could ask. It couldn’t hurt.
"Maybe I will,” Jane said, and went back to her bills.
As it turned out, they were all going. Some of them were bringing their families, others a friend who wasn’t from the school, but everyone was bringing someone, and that begged the question of who Jane should take. Or maybe it didn't, because when she asked Darcy, Darcy just gave her a long-suffering look.
"Are you seriously even asking me who you should take?" she said, and cast a pointed glance in Thor's direction. He was having some sort of deep and meaningful conversation with Tony on the other end of the lab, in which his brow was furrowed and his arms were folded in counterpoint to Tony's wild gestures and animated expression.
Jane winced. "I'm not sure that would be a good idea."
"Why not? Why not take the alien demigod to my high school reunion?"
"He's also your boyfriend, and last I checked taking your squeeze to a high school reunion is perfectly normal."
"I'm pretty sure the rest of my graduating class isn't dating alien demigods."
"You never know. And if one of them is and shows up with them, won't you feel dumb for not bringing yours."
A flash of light caught their attention. Thor was holding out one of his hands, palm up, and thin strands of lightning were threading between his fingers. Tony was poking at the electricity with a pen-sized device; when they connected, there was a bright flash of orange, and Tony exclaimed something Jane couldn’t make out through the lab’s clear and sound-muffling partitions. Thor looked curious and turned his hand over, scrutinizing it.
Darcy said, “Just saying.”
She hemmed and hawed over it for most of a week before deciding it would actually be nice to have Thor there. He was no more likely to engender chaos than Darcy, and unlike Darcy having him around calmed her down. She sprung the idea on him over dinner one night.
"So, listen, about that reunion. The school gathering. I can take a guest, and if I'm going to this thing there is no way I'm going stag, and if you don't want to I'm sure Darcy won't mi—"
Thor set his fork aside and took one of her hands in his. "Of course I will attend with you."
Jane hesitated. He might not know what he was in for. "Really? Because Tiffany and Wenying are great and I'm dying to see them but there will also be not-great people I will mostly be trying to avoid, and if I’m not successful at that it’s going to be awkward."
"I would be honored to meet your friends, and happy to assist you in avoiding anyone you do not wish to interact with."
Something in his tone made Jane suspicious, and she narrowed her eyes. "You sound like you've had practice at that."
Thor looked down at their hands and smiled in that quiet way he did when he was thinking of Loki. Jane gave herself a mental kick; she tried to avoid bringing up Loki at all, and regretted it even when she couldn't have been expected to know.
"As the sons of the Allfather, Loki and I were often called upon to attend feasts and gatherings we did not care for in the least, and to entertain dignitaries whose company was quite undesirable." His eyes met hers again, and his expression cleared. “This gathering cannot possibly be worse than any of those, not the least because you will be there."
Jane heaved a sigh of relief. “Okay. Just to warn you, though, the food will be sub-par compared to,” she gestured in the direction of her kitchen. “And the alcohol is sure to be watered down.”
“I am certain the fare will be sufficient.”
“We’ll see about that.”
A handful of days later she was going over firmware revisions on the latest prototype of Stark Industries’ current government contract—a probe meant for interstellar exploration—while Tony pulled it apart, when he said, “So, Foster. I hear you’ve got a high school reunion to go to.”
“How were you planning on getting there?”
It took a minute for his question to filter into her perception as something she couldn't respond to with 'yes' or 'no'. “Fly, I guess. I don’t really like multi-day train trips.”
“That mean you haven’t booked the flight yet?”
Jane shook her head, then noticed in her peripheral vision that Tony was waist-deep in the probe housing and couldn’t see her, and said, “No, not yet.”
“Well, don’t bother. You can take the jet, and Happy can drive you to and from the airport.”
Jane slowly turned in her chair to face Tony. “What?”
Tony was walking his fingers through the rat's nest of wires and circuit boards lining the squat, cylindrical interior. “You weren’t actually thinking of taking Thor on a commercial flight, were you? He probably won’t even fit in one of the seats. To say nothing of,” he paused as he yanked a wiring harness out, “what would happen if Homeland Security ‘randomly’ selected him for a pat-down or put him through a backscatter machine.”
Jane hadn’t thought of any of those things. Tony continued talking as he resumed his hunt through the cables. “And if you’re taking the jet I might as well provide ground transportation. What’s better than showing up to a high school reunion in a company car with an alien boyfriend on your arm?”
Jane bit her lip. “I wasn’t planning on bringing up that last part.”
Tony backed out of the probe and gave her a look of disbelief. “You weren’t going to mention he’s an alien?” He gestured towards the briefing room table, where Thor was going over something with Clint and Natasha. They were all in their sparring clothes, which in Thor’s case was a plain set of S.H.I.E.L.D.-branded sweats. “You can tell just by looking at him.”
Jane couldn’t be sure Tony was joking. In fact, the odds were good he wasn’t. “I was kind of hoping to stay under the radar.”
Tony raised his eyebrows. “You are a world-renowned astrophysicist who recently helped save the universe from total annihilation. Never mind that S.H.I.E.L.D. managed to keep your name out of it. You are also dating an alien who wields a magic space hammer and can control the weather, and who has been seen on international television—plus all of the Internet—doing both.” He leaned in and put his hands on her shoulders. “It is fundamentally impossible for you to stay under radar of any sort at this point.”
She took up her tablet so she wouldn’t wring her hands. “Tony, I really appreciate the offer, I just, don’t want to make a scene.”
He pulled away and made a vague gesture. “I’ll tell Happy to get a boring car.”
It would be nice to avoid all the bullshit that was associated with air travel. And Tony was right—if Thor was selected for a screening, the trip could get complicated and problematic in nothing flat.
“As long as it’s a boring car,” Jane said.
Tony nodded. “The most boring car we can find.”
The most boring car Tony could find—by Tony’s estimation, and Jane had failed to take into account that Tony’s idea of boring was not going to be remotely like her own—which was available at their destination and would comfortably seat the two of them in the back turned out to be a Rolls-Royce.
“Just like old times,” Happy said as he ushered them off the plane and into the dark gray vehicle. “I kind of miss Tony’s Phantom.”
Jane smiled and hoped it didn’t reveal her anxiety, which had been on a slow ramp up ever since the plane had taken off. Thor squeezed her hand, though true to form he didn’t interrogate her, for which she was grateful.
The anxiety continued to build until they reached the school, where the fancy car drew a few interested looks and whispered comments, but nothing out of the ordinary. Thor’s simple outfit of black slacks, white dress shirt, and black jacket (Jane owed Pepper at least six months of free IT favors for helping her pick it out) was no more remarkable than Jane’s black, lace and silk dress, and neither of them were adorned with trappings of their nonexistent fortunes. As soon as the car was gone they were just another couple wandering among the arrivals. Once they made it to the registration table without any incidents, Jane allowed herself to breathe, and there to meet them were Tiffany and Catarina.
Her friends were politely curious about Thor, but Catarina’s seven year old daughter Lupita gazed up at him in naked amazement.
“You’re huge,” she said.
“No, it is merely that you are young and still small.” Thor crouched down, which still left the little girl looking up at him, if no longer craning her neck. “See? Once you are fully grown I am sure I will not seem so large.”
Fat chance of that, Jane thought.
Lupita stuck out her hand at Thor. “Lupita.”
“I am honored to meet you, Lupita,” he said, accepting the handshake with a solemn formality that could only be real. “I am Thor.”
Lupita’s eyes went saucer-wide. “Really?”
“That’s just his name, honey," Catarina said.
Thor glanced up at Jane and gave her an amused look, and she glared at him, doing her best to telegraph, Don’t, you, dare. His smile turned rueful, and he told Lupita, “It is, as your mother says, only my name.” Then he winked at Lupita and stood. Lupita gaped at Thor, looking ready to burst, though thankfully that same excitement had also rendered her mute.
Jane prayed no one else recognized him. “Shall we?”
Thor nodded and lead the way onto the gym floor. Tiffany fell in next to Jane and asked under her breath, "Where is he from?"
Jane sighed. "It's complicated."
The food was, as she’d warned Thor, just this side of edible. He assured her he’d had worse, and she remembered catching the tail-end of a story he’d told Erik about eating organ meat from something disgusting on a dare from Volstagg, and figured he wasn’t just being polite.
After dinner, Jane armed herself with Thor and mingled through the crowd, arranging him this way and that when she needed to avoid someone. They came across Rob, who was now a math teacher at a high school in Norfolk, making him the One Who Became a Teacher. They bonded over undergraduate math course horror stories, and he dubbed her the Incredibly Smart One. Next she found Eugene, who was a not-completely-starving artist in La Jolla working in print making, and thus the One Who Became an Artist in California. He declared Jane to be the One Who Kicked Academic Ass, which she decided went well with ‘Incredibly Smart’. Wenying regaled them with tales of searching for rare and sometimes newly discovered plants in Central America and the Caribbean while dodging dangerous fauna of every stripe, which Thor could have listened to all night since that was just the sort of thing he’d grown up doing; this made her the One Who Had Crazy Life Adventures. (Jane had chosen to disqualify herself from this category by not talking about the big events of the last two years, because it seemed like cheating; after all, she hadn’t sought craziness as a career, she’d just run into it with her van.)
The band started up, and Wenying went to go find her girlfriend for a dance. Thor looked around them at the change in lighting. “You dance in near-darkness, though we are inside,” he commented, sounding confused.
“Yeah. I mean not always, it just depends on the kind of dance. Some dances we do with everything lit up.”
“Ah,” Thor said, clearly filing this away as another bizarre Earth custom. He nodded at the dance floor. “Did you wish to?”
Jane tilted her head at him. “Do you know how? Wait, that’s a dumb question, you said you had to do parties.”
Thor laughed and shook his head. “It is not a foolish question, because there are a good many in Asgard who cannot dance in the least. I am acquainted with our styles of dance, though you would need to show me yours.”
“Wow, me leading. That’s going to be a first.” Jane took a deep breath and nodded. “Just don’t step on my feet.”
“That, I believe I can manage.”
She was just starting to direct him to the dance floor when a deeper version of voice she had once known all too well said, “Jane Foster.”
Jane swallowed, then turned, and Thor turned with her.
“Jerry,” she said, trying to mask her overwhelming desire to flee.
Jeremiah Holdt. The boy who’d sworn they’d be together forever in that way so many teen-aged boys do, and Jane had believed him because that’s the bill of goods you’re sold as a teen-aged girl. The boy who she’d found with someone else about three months before graduation, which had already been weighing on her, what with applying to MIT and CalTech and Oxford and the very real prospect of them not seeing much of each other once they chose their college paths, after over two years of being inseparable. Of course there’d been a lot of wild claims it was a total misunderstanding and a one-time thing and he was so very sorry, but Jane had simply turned around and driven home, and proceeded to cry herself to sleep after a long talk with her father.
In retrospect she should have expected it, because the previous half a year of their relationship had been volatile at best, but at the time her eighteen-year-old self couldn’t really think about life without him. She’d gone to college in a daze, unsure of what to do regarding any kind of relationship. She'd toyed with the idea of blowing some of her student loan money to go see him, because he’d made overtures and seemed interested, but her dorm-mate at the time—a computer science major named Julie—talked her out of it.
“Screw that guy,” she’d said. “I mean, figuratively, screw him. There’s bound to be someone here who won’t cheat on you and then claim it was all a ‘huge misunderstanding’, or whatever bullshit he was peddling. Besides—did you really want to be with only him in your whole life?”
A few weeks of moping later, Jane had reluctantly come to the same conclusion, and a few weeks after that she ran into someone who made her stop thinking of Jerry. When everything with Donald went to hell, she thought of him again, but stopped short of looking him up, and then didn’t think of him again until the invitation to the reunion arrived in the mail.
He was dressed to the nines in a gray suit Tony might have grudgingly approved of (especially the way it screamed ‘I did so much better with myself than anyone else here’), and age had only improved what had, at eighteen, been boyish good looks and charisma in the form of a lanky build, dark brown eyes, and dark, auburn hair. He’d gained enough height to put him at six feet or so, filled out enough to not qualify as ‘scrawny’ anymore, and carried himself with an adult’s confidence rather than a boy’s swagger. He was most definitely the One Who Did Really Well For Himself.
Though Jerry had addressed Jane, it was Thor whom he was trying to place. He seemed to give it some thought, then pointed at Thor with his glass of punch. “Football team?”
“I did not attend your school. I am merely here with Jane.”
“Ah.” Jane didn’t miss the way Jerry’s eyes darted her left hand and then Thor’s. She also didn’t miss that his left hand, although bearing no ring, had a conspicuous dent on the ring-finger. He offered that same hand to Thor. “Jeremiah Holdt.”
Thor’s smile was friendly and unassuming, and his handshake seemed the same. Jane took several slow breaths. “I am glad to meet you, Jeremiah. I am Thor.”
"Thor," Jerry repeated, and Jane could see him trying to choose the best angle from which to approach the name. "So you're Scandinavian, I'm guessing?"
"In a manner of speaking," Thor replied. Jerry blinked at him, then smiled.
"Oh, I gotcha. Army kid? Parents were on assignment somewhere? Hey," he gestured towards Jane with his wineglass, cutting off whatever reply Thor had been about to give, "are you still a citizen when that happens? When you're not born on a military base?"
Jane found herself falling into an old pattern, and answered automatically. "It’s pretty complicated. They passed a law in 2001 that changed some of the requirements, but it depends on when you were born and if your parents were married and if they were both citizens. If only one of them was a citizen when you were born, how long they were a citizen before you were born also matters."
“Oh, right, your dad was, yeah.”
Something inside of Jane twinged. “Yeah.” She felt Thor’s hand tighten on hers very briefly.
Jerry cleared his throat. “So, what've you been up to? Did you make it through the whole science thing?”
‘The whole science thing’ echoed in Jane’s head until the anxiety that had been fluttering in her chest was snuffed out. Something new settled in her, something that made her feel calm and certain and razor sharp.
“Yeah. Yeah, I made it through.”
She felt Thor shift next to her. Jerry, however, either hadn’t noticed the change in her tone, or didn’t care. Armed with hindsight as she now was, she suspected it was some of both.
“Then I guess you’re just teaching now? Junior High or Elementary?”
Just? “Research, actually.”
“Research?” Jerry looked genuinely surprised. “What, like in someone’s lab?”
How, she wondered, had she been the least bit worried about running across him? She’d helped Erik Selvig improve the angular resolution of radio telescopes. She’d debated quantum wave function theory with Tony Stark until the sun rose. She’d written software for surgical nanites with Bruce Banner.
Jerry wasn’t the One Who’d Done Well For Himself, he was the No One, and Jane was—in addition to the Incredibly Smart One Who Kicked Academic Ass—the One Who Got Away.
She felt simultaneously giddy and furious. “My own work. Some non-profit contracts, a few grants from NASA and the ESA when they can find the money—”
“Government funding, good luck with that in—”
“—and a project on the side with Stark Industries.”
That shut him up. He stared at her, looking confused, and she continued, “They’re helping the US government get started with deep space probes. And they’re interested in my work on generating and maintaining stable Einstein-Rosen bridges.”
Jerry blinked, then tried to recover. “Ah, wow. So you’re an astrologer?” He shook his head. “I mean, uh, astronomer?”
Jane bit her answer out. “Astrophysicist.”
Jerry looked from her to Thor and frowned, clearly trying to place him in this new and unexpected paradigm. Jane realized that Thor’s demeanor had gone from polite interest to a level of foreboding that would have cleared the room if he were wearing his armor. His smile was decidedly unfriendly as he explained, “I work with the weather.”
“Ah, right,” Jerry said, and chased it with a nervous laugh. He looked past the two of them and indicated someone in the crowd with his drink. “I’m gonna go say hi to, uh—to Leo. Catch you later, Jane. Nice to ah, meet you, Thor.”
“And you, Jeremiah.” There was nothing nice about the way Thor said his name.
As soon as Jerry was lost to sight Jane hissed through clenched teeth, “I cannot believe I was heartbroken over him for even a second.”
Thor said, “Nor can I.”
“Did you hear that bullshit? Oh, did you make it through your ‘science thing’? Talking about teaching science to kids like it’s a, a bench warmer job and not the most important thing in all of education? Surprised I’m doing my own research? An astrologer?”
“He was quite dismissive. And insincere.”
Something in Thor's voice caught Jane's attention, and she saw that, although he was listening to her, his eyes hadn’t strayed from wherever Jerry had wandered off to. While she didn’t mind adding the revelation that her stupid high school boyfriend wasn’t worth worrying about to the list of outcomes for the evening, she definitely didn’t want to tack on Thor doing anything crazy on her behalf right after it. She took his hand and laced her fingers in his, and he looked down at her.
“You know what? I’m really glad we came,” she said, and dragged him to the dance floor.
Several dances and turns around the room talking to everyone later, Jane found herself yawning every other sentence, and when Tiffany came by to say goodbye Jane took it as an opportunity for them to go as well. The crowd was thinning out, and outside they came across Jerry again, who avoided eye contact and skittered aside when they came too close.
“Hey,” Tiffany said, frowning in Jerry’s direction, “isn’t that the guy you were with junior and senior year?”
Without an ounce of remorse, Jane said, “Yep.”
“Trolling for someone to take to a hotel, I see.”
Sure enough, Jerry was hitting on various women who wandered by. Jane groaned and rolled her eyes. “Good riddance.”
“Amen.” Tiffany gave Jane a tight hug. “It was good to see you. Next time you’re in LA let me know, we can have lunch.”
Tiffany offered Thor her hand. “And it was very nice to meet you, Thor.”
Because he was Thor, he raised her hand and did that sort of half-bow thing instead of just shaking it, and said, “The pleasure was mine, Tiffany Sherman. Best wishes to your family.”
Tiffany blinked, then leaned close to Jane and murmured under her breath, “Sounds like a keeper.”
“Maybe,” Jane said, and Thor bobbed his eyebrows at them. With a last squeeze for Jane, Tiffany pulled away and made for the parking lot. Happy drove up in the Phantom, and Thor helped Jane inside.
“Have a good time?” Happy asked over his shoulder.
Jane stared out at the school, remembering a lot of things from her last few days on the campus that seemed to have happened to another person. She shook herself out. “Yeah. Yeah, it was really good.” She turned to face Happy. “Thank you so much for driving us, Happy.”
“My pleasure. It’s nice to get away from the security gig once in a while and let someone else run things.” He coughed, suddenly looking embarrassed. “But, ah, don’t tell Pepper I said that.”
“My lips are sealed.”
There was a line for cars leaving through the circle drive, so when Thor climbed in and shut the door they found themselves sitting. Jane watched various other people walk out to their cars or duck into cabs. She spied Catarina and Lupita, who waved at them on the way to their truck, and they waved back. As soon as mother and daughter were both inside, Jane saw the sycamore trees lining the school entrance shudder in a sudden, stiff wind. Several people stopped to stare at the unexpected clouds which were gathering above, just visible in the city's reflected light.
Lupita craned her head out of the truck’s window, then stared at them, or rather stared at Thor, because he was watching her through the window. He winked at her, and lightning flickered in the distance, chased by thunder that rolled overhead. She bounced and clapped, overjoyed.
Jane looked over at Thor. "Are you done?"
Thor gave Lupita a final wave, then eased back against his seat and reached an arm around Jane's shoulders, urging her over gently. "I have no idea of what you speak," he said, and she could have sworn he was trying to sound wounded by her accusation.
She said, "Sure you don't," and leaned into him. It had been a long night, and she was tired. "Thanks for coming with me," she mumbled into his shirt.
Thor’s response stirred her hair. “You are quite welcome. Thank you for inviting me to escort you.”
As they waited to pull out into traffic, Jane spied Jerry leering at a woman getting into a cab. The woman shut the door firmly in Jerry’s face, and he continued to call after the cab as it drove away.
“How are you with hail,” she murmured.
She thought she felt Thor smile against her hair, and a heavy rattling set in on the roof of the Phantom. Jerry fled back under the school’s overhang, cursing and brushing the chips of ice off his suit. Some people opened umbrellas, while others marveled at the strange weather and caught the unseasonal hail in their hands, only to throw it at one another in a mockery of a snowball fight.
Jane sighed and listened to the sound of the hail overhead in counterpoint to Thor’s heartbeat under her ear, and decided being the Incredibly Smart One Who Got Away and Kicked Academic Ass had worked out pretty well for her.