Wild Nights--Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
To a Heart in port--
Done with the Compass--
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor--Tonight--
In Thee! (Emily Dickinson)
The cold, dark depths of the North Atlantic hide a wealth of mysteries. Nearing the treacherous waters off of Sable Island, a host of shipwrecks have scattered debris across the ocean bottom. Lengths of wood and brittle bits of iron mingle with the sand and ground-down shells, rolling against the rocks.
As the tides shifted the sands, they revealed treasures. Heavier storms scoured much of the sea bottom close to the island, turning up driftwood to fill the beach and smooth pieces of beachglass to charm collectors.
Much more lay hidden by the furious winds and tides. Still trapped under the water, an artifact nestled in the sand flickered green and unearthly flashes of light. A rainbow flare across the sky shimmered and wavered in response, warped by forces invisible to the mortal eye.
"It's not good," Jane admitted to her former assistant over the flickering Skype connection. Darcy, hundreds of miles away in her studio apartment for her final semester at Culver, grimaced in sympathy.
"Do you have any ideas?" the younger woman asked, leaning forward so that her face nearly filled the pixelated screen.
Jane laughed with a slightly bitter edge. "If I did, it would be good. This is not good."
"I get it," Darcy replied. "Does Erik have any ideas?"
Jane shook her head in sharp negation at the mention of her old mentor. "No, although he's promised to go back through some of his old research notes from the 80s. He says there was something about wandering stellar phenomena that might be useful but I'm not so sure. Anyway, since they resolved that whole Loki-possession, he’s a bit careful about getting too involved in my crazy stuff.”
She looked down at Erik Selvig’s shakily scrawled notes on the margins of one of her worksheets, tracing the faltering letters with a regretful touch of her own fingers. Her friend had been badly shaken by that supernatural event. Even though the newly-formed Avengers team had blocked Loki’s bid to steal the Cosmic Cube, Erik had been collateral damage. The aging physicist now sought to steer clear of SHIELD, even if it meant withdrawing from the research he’d so eagerly supported Jane in pursuing just months before.
When Jane lifted her head to meet Darcy’s gaze via the webcam, she suspected her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. Smiling brightly to counter that betrayal, Jane shoved the papers to one side. “Anyway, there’s a whole team of SHIELD scientists working on this, too. I’m hardly alone in wanting to figure out why the Asgard landing site has started shifting again. After all, with all that work that went into building the SHIELD security annex, there, it’s more than a little embarrassing to have visiting Asgardians show up fifty or more miles away from where Director Fury and his team are waiting to greet them!”
Darcy barked out a disbelieving laugh. “You’re kidding me! That far, really?”
Jane nodded. “It wasn’t so funny at the time but the Warriors Three took it as a bit of a joke. Fandral was telling Volstagg it was because his ‘massive center of gravity’ warped the Bifrost or something. But we were all a little bit shocked and worried. What's worse is that these deviations are growing and what if they drop someone into a mountain range, all of a sudden? It could be bad.”
Darcy’s laughed faded off. “Yeah, I see what you mean.”
“So there’s talk that unless we can figure out what’s causing the problem in bringing people in from the wormhole, we might have to end travel for at least a little while. And you know what that means: Thor would be called back to Asgard, at least for the foreseeable future.”
Darcy boggled and reached forward instinctively, her fingers coming close to the webcam on her side. “Oh, no! Jane. . . . Could you go with him?”
Jane shook her head again, fiercely. “No, my work’s here. Thor has said that he could petition Odin to permit me to visit Asgard, but that's unprecedented. And, anyway, who do you think is going to solve this problem if I’m on the other side of the galaxy?”
“Not me,” Darcy admitted. “And probably not anyone else, despite all those fancy-pants SHIELD scientists.”
Jane grinned, pleased that her former intern still had a clear sense of loyalty. “You’re right. So, if you’ll excuse me? I need to get back to running some calculations. Thor and the others are off on another mission-”
“Again?” Darcy asked incredulously. “They never stop!”
“And a good thing, too,” the older woman insisted. “You don’t want to know what they saved us from last week.”
Darcy’s eyes widened then suddenly closed as she leaned precariously back in her chair. “Whoa. Stop right there: I’m pretty sure that this secure channel isn’t secure enough for that information.”
Jane looked around the quiet lab that Nick Fury's staff had provided her when the Avengers had established their New York City headquarters. She was pretty sure that every bit of electronics was routed through something the taciturn Phil Coulson and his team monitored. “You’re right, of course,” Jane admitted.
“Always am,” Darcy cheerfully replied, “and so I’m especially right when I say that I won’t be graduating in May if I don’t finish preparing for my seminar presentation tomorrow morning and I don't line up another research internship!”
Jane winced. “I’d hardly be a good academic if I kept you from your work. Talk to you soon!”
The computer window faded out and Jane leaned back contemplatively in her own chair. The lab that SHIELD had provided her gave her so many resources and tools she’d only dreamed of as a poor post-doc. Heck, she even had a Manhattan parking space for her disreputable wreck of a van, not that she got to use it very much.
That was especially the case in the last few months as the wormhole had revealed a new instability. No one had much cared about the minor shifts from the landing site that Jane had originally discovered when a handsome, half-dressed Thor had dazedly landed in front of their careening research vehicle. A few yards here, a hundred metres there, these were all well within a margin of error, or so Jane and the others had assured themselves, until one trip by Sif had ended up with her three miles from the prepared site. Further landings had only gone further and further astray.
What was most alarming was that none of their other-worldly visitors could supply any suggestions for why the Bifrost they so routinely travelled had suddenly become unreliable. Thor returned from Asgard no wiser for seeking interviews with soothsayers and the archivists who kept records. Consultation with Heimdall, he reported, was equally disappointing. The other seven worlds of Yggdrasil showed no similar problems. This was a crisis affecting Midgard and Midgard alone, he concluded.
Implicit in his explanation was Odin's disinterest in the problem. Thor's ongoing absense from Asgard strained the king's patience and anything that interfered with free transit between the realms only concerned the Asgardian ruler insofar as he could convince Thor to give up his connections to Earth. The only way a solution would be found was through the ingenuity of the Avengers Initiative and their friends.
Five meetings had been held among the SHIELD scientists and administrators, the last chaired by Director Fury himself who’d stood up after half an hour of fruitless speculation to loom over the assembled scientists. “Look, I don’t care if it’s the Loch Ness Monster at work, but you all need to get working on a solution to this problem. We don’t want our next distinguished visitor from Asgard to end up at the bottom of the Marinas Trench or in an active volcano. Figure out what’s the problem and fix it - NOW!”
Jane and the others had nodded their understanding but Jane, alone, heard the rest of Nick Fury’s unspoken warning as he levelled a worried look in her direction. They both knew that Thor wouldn't be able to stay on Earth if this problem went unresolved.
That worry kept her working almost nonstop in her lab, commandeering hours on a number of wildly expensive telescopic arrays, searching deep into the heavens in hopes of finding a solution. Thor and the other Avengers were kept busy travelling the globe, battling menaces that Jane didn’t even want to know about, especially after seeing Captain America come back bloodied and supported by two of his comrades after a fight that the others refused to discuss.
Whatever she did back in her lab, whatever the Avengers did out in the world, none of it seemed to offer the faintest hope that it would solve the problem that threatened the fragile link that the Bifrost bridge made between Asgard and Earth, allowing Jane and Thor to be together. And whether or not the feeling was selfish, it was that fear, in particular, that kept Jane pushing relentlessly to solve this mystery.
Late one night in the Avengers' midtown headquarters, Jane’s lab door opened with a bang. It was a testament to how focused or possibly, how weary, the young physicist was, that she didn’t even turn to look at who’d entered. Of course, if it were Thor, he’d have already called out her name as he loped across the crowded research space. Given the high level of security, it wouldn’t be anyone who wasn’t cleared six ways from Sunday by Phil Coulson and the other SHIELD agents who maintained a constant watch on the site. That left only the other Avengers or people like Jane, who’d somehow attached themselves to one individual or the other.
Jane thought about looking up from her calculations but decided against it. Her search continued to come up against one dead end after another. If it was some sort of ninja infiltrator, at least it’d be a change from hours spent trying to discover a solution to the wandering wormhole egress, or so she said to herself.
But the very silence after the door clattered open was a sign in and of itself. Only one person in the Avengers Initiative was capable of such stealth: Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow. The superlative spy could have entered without a sound, just as she crossed the room without a whisper. Tony Stark might bluster in or even zoom into the room with whistling jets powering his armor as he’d done one slightly crazy Friday evening after a big ‘do at Stark Industries. Captain America and Hawkeye were quiet but never silent, both stopping to knock at the closed door in studied courtesy, and Bruce Banner, when he was himself, was given away by his eagerness to discuss whatever scientific thoughts he’d wanted to share with Jane. Thor could never enter without calling out to her. Banging the door open, then silently entering, was Natasha’s way of letting Jane know it was her and only her.
Jane's thought processes were confirmed when Natasha dropped wearily into the leather lounger parked next to Jane's radio telescope control center. The seat made it possible for Jane to grab a few hours of shut-eye during a long set of remote observations. A staggering array of images and data points scrolled across the multiple screens while Jane’s fingers flew across the keyboard, programming in a new series of inquiries for far-flung observatories to run. "Ugh," was all the intruder said as her auburn curls splayed out against the soft headrest of the chair.
Jane looked up from sheets of printouts she’d consulted in order to set up the latest set of observations, a smile dancing on her lips. "That bad?" the physicist asked.
"Worse," the Black Widow replied, rolling her eyes. "I came ahead of the boys since I finished my part of the mission early: my job was to get the coordinates out of some megalomaniac's secure facility. They're off to scout out whatever his goons are guarding there."
Jane glanced at the monitor and saw that it was well past eleven, New York time. "They've been gone awhile. Where are they?"
Natasha waved one hand airily. "It's off in the Caribbean. Steve reported in that they'd landed a couple of hours ago so hopefully they'll be done soon."
She bit her lip and Jane resisted the urge to simply turn back to her work. Whatever it was that had brought Natasha in here wasn't just friendship, however slowly that had grown between the physicist and the super-spy.
Jane's patience was rewarded when Natasha exhaled gustily. "I wanted to tell you, Jane, that Thor's not himself. I don't know if you've seen the same things. He seems almost desperate these days to do good, somewhere. Anywhere! He never stops bugging us, all of us! It's like he has a doomsday clock, ticking somewhere, driving him on and, well, let's face it: there's no keeping up with a Norse god on a normal day. When he's driven? It's impossible. I'm good, but not that good!"
Jane rolled her chair obliquely away from the desk full of papers, monitors and controls. With her hands on her knees, the petite brunette regarded the other woman with something approaching compassion. "You know I don't have any standing with the team, Natasha. And I'm sure that the Captain or Colonel Fury would have me 'confined to quarters' if I tried something to slow Thor down or distract him."
Natasha snorted with depressing elegance. "I'd like to see them try. Now Phil Coulson? He'd be more likely to set up a few roadblocks if you were deemed a problem, but I don't think they'd be able to keep you down for long, especially if Thor got wind. But they might try and cut back on your research funding, that's true. Not that that'd go anywhere: you'd show 'em!"
She settled her shoulders into the soft lounger as if to say that was that. Natasha, like Pepper, possessed boundless self-confidence. A little setback like losing a research stipend wouldn't slow those women down but Jane had been working for years to pursue her research into wormholes. Now that it was deemed "vital to national security", the funds were flowing, but she knew it was utterly dependent on the Avengers Initiative's backing. It wasn't easy for her to dismiss a possible threat to her studies as Natasha seemed to suggest.
Jane paused to regard her cluttered observatory with a mix of fierce possessiveness and weariness. "I think I'd die if I had to stop my research, even for a little while, although I am a bit stir-crazy staying here. There's only so much I can do in a lab, to be honest. I want to be here so that I can make the most of the time that Thor's here between missions, but I really need to get back to field work and my own observations-"
Natasha's eyes, which had drifted shut during Jane's rambling, snapped open and the lone female Avenger shot upright with a speed that was positively inhuman. "That's it," she breathed.
"What's it?" a startled Jane asked, clearly unnerved by Natasha's sudden shift from utter relaxation to perfect alert.
"You're going to take Thor on a road trip."
"Jane!" Thor exclaimed joyfully as he strode across the hanger, having leaped out of the Avengers' Quinjet with a jaunty ease that even Tony didn't try to emulate in his power-driven suit. Helmet removed, the billionaire inventor simply clattered down the steps at lightning speed while the rest of the team followed more sedately. They were all exhausted: their mission in the Caribbean having dragged on almost twenty hours longer than Natasha's blithe prediction.
Thor paid his weary teammates no heed. He was already level with Jane and picked her up in an exuberant hug, letting Mjolnir drop beside him on the metallic floor of the enclosed flight deck without a thought for the muted thunder that resulted.
"Hey, big guy, careful," Clint advised, as he walked past them toward the stairs, wending down to the living quarters that all of the Avengers enjoyed at the base. "The suits will crawl all over us if you make another hole in the flight deck."
Thor frowned thoughtfully, glancing down to ensure that his hammer had done no harm and then lifting it easily. The deck appeared slightly dented, but otherwise intact, so his brow quickly unfurrowed. "Thank you for the reminder, friend Clint, and goodnight!"
"No debriefing?" Jane asked as Thor cupped her elbow with one hand and led her toward the same staircase that had already swallowed Hawkeye.
"No, Colonel Fury was on the flight with us. I believe he has only Natasha to speak with tonight since she came back on her own, but the rest of us are clear for the evening," Thor advised with a relaxed smile. "I battled some strange beasts today - what did the Captain call them? - I can’t remember the word, but Tony said it meant ‘Thunder Lizards’?"
Jane stopped in her tracks. Thor considerately stopped as well so he didn’t pull her off her feet as she stared, gape-mouthed at him. "You mean dinosaurs?"
Thor nodded proudly. "They were mighty foes, worthy of the skalds. Bruce stayed behind with some of the SHIELD agents. He said he wanted to know more of how they made these mighty creatures!"
Jane regained her balance and her forward momentum with a bemused shake of her head. Dinosaurs! Superhero scientists. All in a day's work for the Avengers.
"Are you heading back to Asgard anytime soon?" Jane essayed carefully as they made their way around another been in the staircase.
Thor shook his head as he clattered down a few steps ahead of her and waited on the landing. "No, I have no need to visit any time soon. Why do you ask?"
Jane made her way down the steps to join him on the quiet, dimly-lit landing. "Because I'm afraid if you return to Asgard, you might never return to earth. The wormhole, it's destabilizing and becoming unpredictable. You could be hurt or die, torn apart by the forces of the Einstein-Rosen bridge if it collapses."
Thor laughed, utterly relaxed. He put his free hand on her cheek in fond indulgence. "Do not waste your time in worry! I tell you, Jane, I am in no danger."
She tilted her head doubtfully at this claim "That's not what Sif said when we picked her up in Mexico. She said that Bifrost had never been this unstable in all the annals of Asgard. She said that even with Loki's magic or your strength, there was no saying that the passage would be safe."
Thor's brow darkened as he shoved the door labeled '90'. "She said that, did she?" He seemed less intimidated by the pronouncement than irked that his friend would doubt his fortitude, Jane noted with some amusement but also with a tinge of fear. Her beloved might be a god, but she'd seen him die once and she never wanted to see anything half as terrifying again.
They were in the lower corridor now where several apartments were set aside for the team members. The suite that Thor and Jane shared opened as they came within the range of the ever-present sensors. Thor placed his hammer on a specially reinforced stand near the entrance after the doors closed smoothly behind them.
As Thor pulled her close for a passionate kiss, she thanked the heavens and Pepper Potts that Tony had helped all the Avengers find a modicum of privacy in their personal apartments. All of the monitoring and listening devices stopped at the door, so Jane could return her lover’s embrace without fear that some SHIELD agent was watching in a fit of voyeurism.
Before she gave herself over entirely to his eager attentions and made a few demands herself, Jane made a mental note to ask Pepper if Tony had a mobile version of the device. If she was going to be taking Thor on the road, she doubted he’d forego any personal ‘fun and games’ for however long it took to solve the Bifrost problem and give the rest of his teammates a break. He certainly wasn’t above giving any of the SHIELD bigwigs a piece of his mind about the whole invasion of privacy that such oversight occasioned.
But further thought of technology or the other Avengers went out of her head as Thor lifted her into his arms, cradling her easily against his chest. "Missed you," she whispered huskily as she laid her hands on either side of his face, staring searchingly into his eyes that regarded her with a seriousness she rarely saw.
"I would go to Hel and back for you, Jane Foster," Thor vowed with an intensity that shook her to the core, not just because of the emotions it stirred, but because of the fear it suggested.
He's as afraid as I am of the Bifrost becoming unusable, of having to return to Asgard forever, Jane realized.
"I hope you never have to," she breathed, before kissing him fiercely, seeking to drive all their fears far away as they focused on each other.
Manhattan's night sky was never dark but as a heavy storm broke over the city, the driving rain dimmed even the brightest of neon signs. It was some point in the middle of the night when thunder began to rumble an ominous counterpoint to the staccato beat of the rain.
Thor lazily blinked his eyes open as a flash of electricity shot out of the heavens to the streets below. A car alarm beeped a distant and plaintive lament as the god of thunder levered himself off the bed and strode to the broad plates of glass at the balcony window.
Again, lightning shot out of the sky in a dazzling display of raw power and linked the street far below to the lowering clouds. The crack of thunder that followed immediately after was enough to disturb Jane, who rolled over, mumbling in her sleep. Thor, seeing her slip back into deeper sleep, sighed to himself.
As the clouds roiled high above the city, Thor placed one hand against the glass. The lightning flared once more only this time it seemed to be pulled into his open hand as he absorbed the powerful forces of nature. In that moment, the storm suddenly slackened.
As a gentle rain rushed against the window, he dropped his forehead until it touched the cool glass. "I understand," Thor whispered. With a heavy heart, Thor turned away from the window and the grey night sky.
Jane woke up to an empty bed bathed in bright sunlight. She sighed in resignation as she rolled herself out from under the comforter and sheets.
The clock on the bedside table told her it was mid-morning. Jane sighed as she made her way to the bathroom. Her obsessive work in the lab had led her to a crazy sleep schedule. Likely, Thor had simply let her sleep in when duty had called.
Once she'd showered, dressed and considered, before dismissing, breakfast, Jane logged into the terminal to check on her ongoing data collection and catch up on her communications. While Jane was still plowing through her research information, a video chat request popped up onscreen. She fired up the program and opened the communication from another power-user of SHIELD's research network: Bruce.
Jane smiled as she waited for the software to load: although her studies and Bruce Banner's interests weren't even slightly related, they still shared the common language of academic physics in a way that not even Tony was fluent. The familiar, lean face of the Avengers' powerhouse's alter ego appeared on screen. "Bruce, you're back from Dinosaur Island!" she said cheerily.
He nodded wearily. "I don't much recommend it for a vacation site. I was just checking to see how you're doing."
Jane looked around herself in confusion, wondering if she was looking really worn out from her night-owl schedule in the lab. "How I'm doing? My research's chugging along. A bit frustrating, but fine."
Bruce's brow knit slightly as he leaned closer to the computer screen. "No, I mean you. What with Thor and all."
Jane sucked in her breath, feeling the emptiness of the apartment as not mere brief absence but something more ominous. "Are you saying?"
Bruce ducked his head until his forehead touched his fingers, as if in hopes of draining away his frustration. "I'm sorry, Jane. I thought he told you."
Jane blinked back tears, feeling her heartbeat thundering through her body as her adrenaline levels spiked. With her hands planted heavily on the desk to either side of her keyboard, she managed to choke out a fatalistic question. "Told me what?"
Bruce raised his eyes to meet her sorrowful gaze. "Thor left Avengers HQ this morning and didn't tell any of us where he was going until it was too late. We got word from New Mexico that he showed up at the site, called out to Heimdall and disappeared into the wormhole. He's gone."
"I'm sorry, Dr. Foster," Agent Coulson repeated, as he sat down across the table from Jane, minutely adjusting the cuffs of his dress shirt. That small motion was the closest to a fidget the cool-headed operative had betrayed in all the months Jane had known him: she understood it as a sign that he was as thrown by Thor's unpredictable action as anyone. "We had no idea what he was doing until it was too late."
The bright New Mexico sunlight penetrated the wide windows of the SHIELD observation post overlooking the Bifrost site where Thor had first landed and which had, for a period, been restored by the diligence of the SHIELD team that had worked with Jane, Darcy and Erik to rebuild the link from earth after Thor had destroyed the bridge.
Jane stared blankly out the window at the quiet desert landscape. Puente Antiguo had been her home for almost two years and the pale golds of the vista should have been comforting. Instead, the quiet scene left her feeling empty. "He just called out to Heimdall, you say, and was gone?"
Coulson nodded. "When he showed up here, we didn't think anything about it. He stopped by the facility, spoke to a few of the staff members, then out to the site and was gone before anyone could intervene."
Jane forcefully brought her attention back to the quiet SHIELD operative in the room with her. "Did he say anything to the people here?"
"Nothing outside of the ordinary," he answered, a hint of sympathy softening the stern, quiet tones of his voice.
Jane blindly rose from the table. "I need some fresh air."
"Of course," Agent Coulson said, "We'll have the jet ready to take you back to New York and we'll keep you posted."
Jane opened and closed her mouth without being able to formulate any reply. Her instincts shouted for her to stay in New Mexico but the truth was that they didn't know when or if Thor would return, although she refused to entertain the latter idea. And until she could come up with a workable theory to test for, her plans of a road trip weren't any help, either.
"Right," Jane finally managed, heading for the exit and refusing to look back, knowing that she'd see a sort of pity in the quiet man's eye.
The lightning flares that accompanied his landing in the rebuilt Observatory hadn't stilled before Heimdall was stepping aside to let an impatient prince of Asgard make his way back to the city. When Thor found his father, standing quietly on one of the balconies just off of the feasting hall of Asgard, he was greeted before he could say a word.
"My son, I trust I find you well?" Odin turned slowly to face his son. The two Asgardians regarded each other levelly. Thor's throat worked, once, twice, against words he swallowed down. The prince still struggled with the art of self-control but his father proudly noted that his tall, blond son could master himself if given the opportunity.
"Yes, father, I am well," Thor finally managed. He stepped forward onto the balcony so that he could lean against the sturdy railing and look out over the vistas of the realm, still, in part, rebuilding from the catastrophes of the Bifrost backlash. These were scars in the city that Thor keenly felt because he had inflicted them and even though many of them had been rectified by his own hand, still much remained to be done.
"You, father?" Thor asked, as he regarded the unearthly vista before him. "All is not well with you, I assume."
Odin joined him with forearms braced against the broad balcony rail. His one eye followed Thor's quick-moving gaze across the quiet cityscape. "Why?" Odin asked.
Thor faced his father directly. "In the storm you brought down upon Midgard, I heard your call. You summoned me home to Asgard. I can only assume you needed me. Must you lie in the Odinsleep again?"
Odin smiled without shifting his gaze from the buildings of Asgard. "You think like a king: strategically. But, no, I am not yet in need of the Odinsleep. Asgard rebuilds apace but all contribute to the task, especially your brother-"
Thor moved sharply at the last and Odin turned slowly to regard the younger man who glowered but held his tongue.
"As I was saying, especially your brother, under the terms of our agreement for his return. No, I called you here because of the problems with the Bifrost." The king of Asgard flexed his hands carefully on the railings of his balcony, then turned to walk back into the great hall. Thor quietly followed as Odin led the way to a great fire blazing in a grand hearth, somewhat isolated from the crowds gathering in preparation for the evening's feast.
Thor waited until they had greeted and passed all of the Asgardians. "What problems?" he asked in a carefully measured voice, once they stood on the flagstones.
Odin sighed. "Sif came to me upon her return from Midgard. She explained how far afield she had landed. She also said that this was a problem with the Bifrost more serious than you had suggested in the past. Heimdall confirmed her words. The connection with Midgard is in jeopardy."
The king steeled his shoulders. Appearing all affability outwardly, he nevertheless radiated firm decision and command. "Such an instability is dangerous, Thor, you know it. Very likely, the repairs made to the Bifrost were inadequate and the link between the realms is faltering. We must stop all travel to this realm of the humans until the problem can be studied and stabilized."
Thor shifted impatiently, running one hand along the polished stonework surrounding the great fireplace while the other rested on Mjolnir's haft. "Fine! I will return to Midgard after I have assisted further with the rebuilding here. You can have the seers and crafters working on the Bifrost. It might even been resolved before I leave!"
Odin rested one hand on Thor's shoulder. "My son, you do not understand. I would not have you travel to Midgard while the Bifrost's link there is so uncertain. You must remain here until we can be assured that Yggdrasil is truly restored in all her parts. This problem could spread and affect all the realms if we are not careful!"
Thor spun on his heel. "Father," he protested, "I cannot. I have made commitments, promises, to the people of Midgard. There are dangers there, many that we unleashed when the links between the realms were reforged during the time of my banishment and as a result of my brother's intervention. I owe it to them and to my honour to return."
Odin had let his hand drop when Thor turned to confront him. With perfect composure, the one-eyed king folded his hands before him and matched his son's impassioned regard with studied calm. "And so you shall, in good time. But you are my heir and Asgard is your primary responsibility. We cannot risk you being lost between the realms should something go awry. You have not your brother's way with magic, after all."
"Father!" Thor exclaimed angrily but before a conflict could begin, Frigga was there, to lay one hand on her husband's arm and the other on her son's chest. Her intervention diminished, if not dissipated, the tension between the two.
"My son, it is good to have you back in Asgard again," Frigga said, stepping forward to leave a gentle, cool kiss on Thor's jawline before stepping back to slip her hand into the crook of Odin's elbow.
"Mother," Thor replied with a genuine, relaxed smile directed at the elegant queen. She extended her free hand for his chaste salute, then turned to regard her husband. "It is time for us to greet our people, my husband."
"So it is," Odin agreed. Father and son parted ways, Frigga's intervention preserving the fragile peace.
With the sounds of the gathering crowds echoing in his ears, Thor turned to join his friends already waiting by one of the great tables in the dining hall. "Volstagg feared the food would all be gone if we weren't here first," Fandral loudly proclaimed, then had to duck as the other Asgardian tried to clout him for his impudence.
Hogun sighed wearily as he sidestepped his friends' slapstick scuffle to grab a tankard. Thor joined him several steps back from the table which appeared in imminent danger from Fandral and Volstagg's mock scuffle until Sif strolled by and loudly cleared her throat. Fandral disengaged, all chivalric attention while Volstagg turned to the table already groaning with food. He picked up a joint of meat and bit in happily before stepping over to wave it at Thor, "Fighting's hungry work, you know!"
It was Thor's turn to sigh at Volstagg's antics. As Sif deftly rebuffed Fandral's advances, the blond dandy soon joined his friends to the one side of the feasting hall, watching the rest of Asgard's many residents and visitors who were enjoying royal hospitality. "One day that'll be you," Fandral warned with a casual wave to where Odin and Frigga were engaging the visitors from Alfheim.
Thor nodded glumly and his friends regarded each other with some concern. Fandral tilted his head significantly at Hogun's tankard and the silent warrior slipped away from their small group. Volstagg gnawed the last of the meat off of the joint and swallowed it quickly.
"So, Thor, how have the folk of Midgard treated you?" Volstagg winced when Fandral backhanded him for asking precisely the wrong question.
"Never mind our fat friend," Fandral interjected, "I want to know if you'll go hunting with us tomorrow!"
Thor lifted his gaze from his clasped hands to soberly consider his friend's request. "Forgive me," he said, "I had not thought on staying here past the feast or, in any case, long enough to join you hunting."
Volstagg and Fandral shared surprised looks. "But Heimdall has already been ordered to close down the access to Midgard and let no one travel to there until the problems," Fandral waved his hands expressively and expansively, "have been addressed."
It was a sign of their boon companion's recent maturation that Thor's only response to what was clearly unexpected and undesirable news was a wordless clenching and unclenching of his fists and a dark look directed at his father. Hogun's silent return with a tankard of mead for the prince was a welcome distraction.
Jane found comfort in neither the lab nor their apartment when she was back in New York. Ignoring concerned messages and rebuffing chat requests, she paused only long enough to snag a warmer jacket and made her way out into the city streets. It was evening rush hour in Manhattan and nearby Times Square was buzzing with shoppers, tourists and show-goers.
Jane shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her tan jacket and concentrated only on navigating the hustle and bustle of the crowds.
When she came out of her funk, Jane was on a slightly quieter street and, spotting a couple exiting a bar, ducked in there herself. Pausing to let her eyes adjust to the dim lighting, Jane clambered onto a stool.
"Whaddall ya have?" asked the grim-faced, flinty-looking bartender, barely lifting his eyes from the till where he was sorting out the change.
"Um, how about a boilermaker?" Jane responded uncertainly.
That got the burly man's attention. "You sure? You don't look like the kind o' gal who drinks boilermakers."
Jane laughed involuntarily, settling onto the stool with a wiggle. "I guess not, but it's my boyfriend's drink and I'm kind of missing him."
The grey-haired bartender nodded with sudden understanding. "We get that with the deployments. This place is as busy after Fleet Week as durin', only it's the girlfriends and boyfriends. Your guy off to Iraq?"
As she took the stein and shot glass, Jane sighed. "Even farther away," she answered.
"That's too bad," the barkeep commiserated. "Just watch it. These things pack a wallop and you don't look like you can take too many."
Jane ruefully shook her head as she poured the shot into the beer. She'd fled the Avengers' building in hopes of losing herself in the soulless city only to remind herself that it really wasn't. New York might still be more noise and light pollution than she appreciated, but the people were just as kind as her friends in Culver City or away in Puente Antiguo.
She took a swig of the boilermaker and frowned in distaste. It was a mystery to her what Erik and Thor had found so appealing about the mix of beer and hard liquor, but it was, right now, the only link she could feel with the man she loved. Bravely lifting the mug to her lips, she swallowed another mouthful, then placed the glass back on the stained bar top. With a free finger, Jane traced a complicated pattern in the condensation collecting around the cold glass.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
Jane sighed. It hadn't taken long for one of the team to find her. "Hey there, Clint," she said, looking up to see the dark-haired man grab the stool beside her, point to her glass and slide some money across the bar.
The sceptical bartender drew his beer, poured the whiskey shot and slid the glasses over to Clint's perch. "You're not her boyfriend," the suddenly protective stranger announced, then shot a glance at Jane. "You know this guy?"
Jane smiled lightly at Hawkeye's assumed look of chastised alarm. "Yeah, he's a friend of ours. I expect he's come to make sure I don't drink myself under the table."
"Kind of hard to do when you're not sitting at one," Clint pointed out drily. "But it does make my job easier."
"Sure does," the barkeep agreed. "How's about some food for the little lady? I don't think she's gonna be able to walk out of here after that if she's on an empty stomach."
Jane stared indignantly at the two men, suddenly deciding matters for her. "Excuse me! Don't I have a say?"
"Not when it comes between my stomach and dinner," Clint answered. "I come here for lunch sometimes. Grub's pretty good."
"Ah, you're one of Michael's regulars, are you?" The bartender leaned one elbow on the scarred wooden bar surface and fished a couple of laminated menus from underneath. "Lemme know what you want and I'll get the cook on it. But, word to the wise?, the salads are all crap."
With that, he was off to draw a couple of more beers for one of the waitresses. Clint shoved a menu over to Jane. "I always get the roast beef sandwich. Don't know what you'll want but he's right, you should eat something."
"I thought Steve was the mother hen," Jane commented as she reluctantly accepted the menu. Clint just angled one eyebrow ironically and sipped his beer, turning to watch the rugby highlights on the nearby flatscreen.
Jane scanned the offerings. Nothing looked particularly appealing but she realized she'd eaten nothing since getting the news about Thor's disappearance, so she ended up ordering the same as Clint. They spoke only occasionally and of nothing much - traffic, the weather, the latest sports scandal - while they waited for the food. Then when the heavy china plates, loaded with thick sandwiches and fries, were laid before them, they dropped all pretense at conversation.
Clint finished his beer and the whiskey chaser. He ordered another beer for him and a water for Jane who demurred with a renewed flare of annoyance. "Okay," her companion conceded with an aggravated roll of his eyes, "make it two."
He turned to face Jane directly, slouching against the bar. "Don't blame me if you wake up with a hangover. More importantly, don't let your assistant blame me, either. She's scary."
Jane chuckled and agreed. "Lucky for you, Darcy's still off at school. But thanks for not being a pain about this."
Clint regarded her steadily. "I've had worse work and, really, you're almost family."
Their beers were served up and he took a long swig of his. Jane made a face as she tried to do the same and settled for a small sip.
"What's important," Clint said, out of nowhere, "is not to give up hope." His gaze never moved from the glass before him. After a long, wordless contemplation, he lifted it to his lips and finished it off.
Jane shot a glance over to her taciturn companion who put the mug back down on the bar and seemed to be looking into some impossible distance ahead of them. "I'm not," she said. "I'm not giving up hope."
"That's good," Hawkeye observed, "because you gotta know a guy like that won't give up." The smile that followed that pronouncement was startlingly brilliant.
Jane couldn't help smiling in return. Clint's comments reminded her of how hard it had been the first time she'd thought she'd lost Thor. She'd thrown herself into her work to cope with the uncertainty and to give her purpose. But, truth be told, it was also what she was here to do. The others might fight their wars in unearthly combat. Jane Foster fought with her brain and her hands-on fieldwork.
"You're right about that," she said grimly. "Thor doesn't give up and I don't give up either."
Jane tapped Clint's glass with her own, still half-full. "Time to wrap it up. Looks like I've got to fix that damned bridge again."
Clint grinned as he followed Jane's orders. "Yes, ma'am." Slapping some money on the bar, he sketched a salute to the bartender and scrambled to join Jane, already halfway out the door.
It took a long time after the feast had ended before Thor felt he'd mastered his anger sufficiently to think about confronting his father over his unilateral decision to close the Bifrost access to Midgard. He hoped that his discontent hadn't been apparent to many beyond his closest friends. Sif, certainly, had recognized the signs of his seething temper and had done her best to deflect the discussion at the table the five friends shared with a few other Asgardians. When the prince had risen from the table several times to seek out a quiet balcony, Fandral and Volstagg launched into noisy conversations that deflected any attention. Thor did his part to ensure that all went smoothly at the feast honouring the noble elf visitors from their sister realm of Alfheim but, all the while, a sense of urgency and anger roiled inside him.
From across the great hall, Loki arched one eyebrow enquiringly, sensing his brother's dark mood. Watchful in her seat beside him, Sif reached out to place a warning hand upon his forearm and the two dark heads inclined toward each other. Thor noted and then dismissed any thought of his brother: their dreadful clashes in Asgard and on Midgard had driven a wedge between the two men that Thor was in no hurry to address. Sif had become the one link between the two men: even more so now that Loki was confined to Asgard and stripped of his magical powers by the Allfather, himself, as partial punishment for his rampage that had threatened all of the nine realms.
As the crowds made their way from the feast hall and the dignitaries were properly seen off by the king and his family, the tense environment enduring between Odin and Thor was finally broken by Frigga's actions. "Here," the queen of Asgard commanded, leading the men of her family down the long, golden hallways of Asgard to end up at the royal apartments. "Now, you will speak and mindfully so that you do not rain fire and destruction down upon my home."
With one last twitch of her green-gold skirt, the queen made her way past the seats in their receiving room and sequestered herself in the bedroom. One heavy, gold-decorated door delicately but definitively shut behind her and Loki winced theatrically. "Now you've done it," he commented with a mocking bow directed at his brother and father. "There will be no peace in our family for months to come."
Thor spun on his heels, ready to unleash a furious torrent of words upon his brother when his father's upraised hand was almost in his face. "Silence," commanded Odin in a voice of command. "Both of you."
Turning to face Thor, the one-eyed king of Asgard seemed to swell in size and grandeur. "Do not pretend to be surprised that I ordered the Observatory closed. I told you of my decision before the feast began-"
Thor interrupted, "-your decision. You may be king but it is not yours to make alone. If I am your heir, if I 'think like a king' then why am I still treated as if I were a boy to be ordered about and matters decided behind my back?"
Loki draped himself across a large settee, putting his feet up on an ornately carved stool. "He's got you there, father!"
Odin spun to stare down his adopted son with a fierce glare but, even stripped of his powers, nothing seemed to intimidate Loki who cheekily grinned at the king of Asgard before rummaging in a golden bowl on the table beside him to grab a handful of nuts. He popped one in his mouth and chewed with gusto while his brother and father returned to their heated, hushed dispute.
"Oh, really," Loki grumbled eventually and rose from his comfortable seat to insinuate himself between the two tense men. "Much as it might amuse me to see this end up in a repeat of the argument that I instigated, I find repetition tiresome."
The god of mischief tapped his brother on the chest. "You are determined that you should have the freedom of action that a prince of Asgard deserves, not that I enjoy that at present but that's beside the point."
Turning to Odin, Loki stood with moderately more circumspection. "You seek to ensure that your heir is not lost to all time through some malfunction of the Bifrost and so you make him as much a captive of Asgard as I am. Ah, what irony!, particularly when neither of you are clear-headed enough to see the obvious solution."
Now that both his father and brother had abandoned their conflict to regard him with ire, Loki appeared only the more energized. He perched on the back of a massive, carved chair with a self-satisfied smirk dancing on his face.
Sparing a quick glance for his grim-faced father, Thor asked the question Loki was obviously waiting for. "What obvious solution?"
Loki clapped his hands once in seeming glee. "I thought you'd never ask!"
He strode across the room to open the grand door leading to Frigga's chamber and peeked around the corner. "Mother! I'm taking them to see the Norns!"
"I'm so sorry, Jane," Erik repeated. His tired image, projected larger than life on the main screen of Jane's lab revealed the familiar clutter of his university office surrounding him. Precarious stacks of papers and books vied with multiple computers for desk space. A few further computer parts were scattered on top of one case and from that selection, Erik picked up a defunct hard drive and waved it around.
He brandished the bits of metal and plastic at the screen. "All the observations I'd made on the localization of aurora borealis in the 1980s? They were in this old computer. I was hoping that I'd find an answer here but now I can't even look. The data's all gone and the drive's corrupted. Just old age, the technicians say. Kind of like me?"
Jane smiled bleakly. "It's okay. I'm pretty sure that old data wouldn't have been very useful to us, anyway. You were only recording the ionospheric data and we're interested more in the geomagnetic interactions."
"You're right," the older physicist admitted. "It was a long shot, but I was hoping I could contribute something to the brilliant young Dr. Foster's research scheme."
Jane ducked her head, smiling slightly at his extravagant description. "If anyone's to be flattered, it's me. You're the distinguished professor of physics and I'm still the lowly research fellow, on leave, even, mind you!"
"But your research has come so far," Erik objected, "and it's had a far greater impact on the world than mine. Not that anyone's likely to know this as long as SHIELD keeps the lid on all of what you're doing!" The last was said in a grumbling tone and Jane quickly moved to smooth over his upset.
"It was just a longshot, anyway, Erik. And the rest of my research might turn up something useful. Who knows? Maybe Thor will come back from Asgard with the solution, even." Jane said the last with the desperate hope that ran beneath her increasingly fruitless research schemes.
"He didn't the last time," Erik observed dourly, then blanched. "I'm sorry. Not helpful."
"Not really," Jane sighed. "I keep feeling that there's got to be something that's happened before like this to the bridge. After all, why isn't it still somewhere in Scandinavia? We need a way to find a dataset to search for reasons behind the instability. I know the answer's there, I just have to take the time to find it. History will bear me out!" Jane's cheeks flushed with her emphatic flourish on the last bit.
"Not if you're buried in the history books," Erik glumly replied, then paused, seeming to ponder his words. Wordlessly, he spun his office chair and wheeled it over to a nearby bookshelf. The castors complained at the unaccustomed movement. Erik bent down, almost out of view of the webcam, then emerged, triumphant.
"Agnes Mary Clerke," he said excitedly, waving an old blue-bound book.
"Who?" Jane asked in puzzlement. "I don't know that name."
"You should," Erik retorted. "She's one of the great figures of nineteenth century astronomy. It was her accounts that had me interested in the aurora localization hypothesis."
He opened the book and then flipped that around so a title page was visible, albeit slightly shaky, for the webcam. "It's her History of Astrophysics."
Jane pursed her lips dubiously. "I'm not sure what some outdated textbook is going to do for our attempt to fix the Einstein-Rosen bridge. Anyway, they only thought about auroras as results of heightened sunspot activity, so what would their explanations do for me?"
"Don't think of it as a textbook, think of it as a set of historic data points," Erik countered. "Look, these old books has some of our first recorded scientific observations of aurora borealis. There were so many of these sightings in the late Victorian period and researchers like Clerke gathered them all together, and preserved them in amazing detail."
Jane leaned her forearms on her desk in sudden hope. "So, you're saying that we have a whole bunch of data just waiting to be mined from old books?"
Erik nodded eagerly. "Journals, too. As I recall, the mid to late nineteenth century was a gold mine for the start of a new era of aurora sightings."
Jane bit her lip thoughtfully. "Okay, but how am I going to figure out how to find all that data? I'm not exactly trained in textual studies."
Erik smiled broadly. "You need someone who has an arts background for researching in old books and journals but also appreciates something of the science you're pursuing. Oh, and who'll put up with your late hours and insane demands. Probably best to get someone who needs one more internship experience for her degree, while you're at it!"
Jane laughed breathlessly as she followed her old mentor's train of thought. "Darcy!"
"I'll put the book in my office mailbox," Erik advised, equally cheery. "You tell our Ms. Lewis she can pick it up in the morning and get cracking on her new research assignment!"
The trip to the roots of Yggdrasil went smoothly: the Bifrost flickering in rainbow pulses around them until they set foot on the home of the Norns. Thor refused to concede anything in comparison with his recent landings on Midgard, preferring to instead be quietly watchful of both his brother and the three women he'd brought them to consult. The three Norns had little love for the ruler of Asgard and his heir: the two had thwarted their fates too many times for the speakers of destiny to be content.
One of the Norns, Verdandi, to judge by the cask of water she balanced against one hip, stepped forward from her sisters. "What would you have of us, Asgardians?"
Loki, not his father, was the one prepared with the confident answer. "We have a stalemate between father and son that can only be resolved by consulting those who see the fates. Will you not agree?"
With a slow turn of her head left and right, the suspicious giantess received the grudging assent of her companions. "The Allfather and the wielder of Mjolnir surprise us with their wisdom in this."
Loki shrugged. "Don't give them too much credit. Coming to speak to you was my idea. And I will pose the questions for you."
With a suddenly vicious look, the god of mischief pinned each of the otherworldly figures in turn. "And tempt me not with misleading words. My magic may be contained, but my wits have lost nothing."
"One question for each petitioner, you know the rules, Loki," the shadowed figure to the left warned. At his nod, the three Norns put down their tools and patiently awaited his two requests.
"First, for Odin, the question he would ask is this: can the Bifrost's fault be corrected from Asgard?" Loki glanced over the women's head as if he cared nothing about their response. For all that Thor could tell, that indifference was genuine.
The Norns clasped hands together and from their mouths, in unison, came their answer. "Only in Midgard can the fault be found and remedied."
Loki shot a quick glance over at Odin, whose pursed lips suggested a temper held barely in check. Thor attempted to stifle his triumphant smile at the Norns' words but Loki was already forging ahead with the second question.
"For Thor, the question is simpler, befitting his simpler mind." Loki smirked again at that barb, then sighed as his brother glared at him. "All right, he would ask you this: will not the mighty Thor be the hero destined to repair the broken Bifrost?"
Again, the Norns seemed to silent confer before mystically intoning their words. "Thor Odinsson will not be the one to find the fault nor mend the Bifrost."
Now it was Odin's turn to smile in satisfaction while Loki sketched a mockingly, courtly bow to the three Norns. "We thank you, gracious ladies, for your clear and lucid counsel!"
"See how useful I am to the family," the dark-haired god commented as he looped one arm each with his father and brother. "What would you do without me?"
Thor wrenched his arm out of his brother's light clasp and angrily strode away. Odin simply pursed his lips and lengthened his stride. With a light sigh of disappointment, Loki turned to wink at the Norns then joined them as they readied to return to Asgard.
Once all three visitors were swept up in the rainbow light of the bridge, Urdr turned to her sisters. "Why would Loki query us when it was his actions set this all in motion?"
Skuld bared her teeth in something passing for a grin, her farseeing eyes focused endlessly on the future. "Even gods can be blind, sisters."
A wild storm raged along the northeast coast, whipping up waves that threatened to swamp fishing boats and coastal villages. Heroic acts of ordinary women and men prevented any deaths from the toppled trees and flood waters. The superheroes of the Avengers Initiative rescued a Coast Guard vessel run aground off the Maine coast before heading north, along with the stormfront.
Thor would have been in his element, with thunder and lightning raging around them. The team felt his absence acutely. Iron Man did his best to fill the gap, securing loose fishing vessels and once even diving deep into the frothing water of the Newfoundland bay where a quay had broken free, threatening to lodge itself beneath a bridge across the inner bay. On land, the other team members stopped a dam break from flooding the town below.
After working long through the night, until the remnants of the storm broke up and veered off with the Gulf current, the team regrouped. As they sailed over the rough waters of the Atlantic, somewhere not so deep under the water, an unearthly artifact glimmered and glowed, fully freed of the sandy silt that had long been its cradle.
Natasha, at the controls, raised one perfectly groomed eyebrow at the fluctuating instrument readings as they raced high across the southern coast of Nova Scotia. From the co-pilot's seat, Clint pointed to the manual compass with an arrow rapidly spinning.
"Magnetic anomaly," Bruce said from directly behind them. The physicist leaned his hands on the seats and watched the slowly subsiding compass arrow return to normal. "I'm not up at all on geomagnetic studies, but I'd guess there's some subsurface feature that's causing a localized magnetic disturbance: maybe a massive iron-rich outcrop. Less likely, an active igneous intrusion. Possibly a massively dense alien vessel but that's remote beyond reason."
Pilot and co-pilot shared an alarmed look at Bruce Banner's clinical listing of possibilities, particularly the last. Clint began to punch in queries to his console while Natasha started a slow curve to retrace their path.
As the plane started to pitch eastward, Tony joined his teammates in the cockpit area. "Relax! JARVIS tied into some satellites. Unless it's a teeny-tiny alien invasion, we don't have anything to worry about. There's nothing showing up underwater on any of the real-time scans of the area beyond the size of a basketball. And given that there are probably as many shipwrecks here as boutiques on Fifth Avenue, I think we're pretty safe with those statistics."
JARVIS's voice issued from the jet's speakers. "Mr. Stark is correct. A survey of military and civilian data would rule out any threat of the type that Dr. Banner posited." One screen to Clint's right flashed with a series of reassuringly normal satellite images.
The human aspect of the Hulk peered at the images and then raised his hands in innocent repudiation. "Like I said, I'm no specialist in geophysics. I suspect we just got to experience the mysteries of Mother Nature on that fly-through."
From the rear of the plane, Steve Rogers stepped forward to sternly regard his team members. "Colonel Fury would like to know why we're off the flight plan. Apparently the pilot and co-pilot aren't answering any hails from headquarters."
Clint and Natasha eyed him blandly. "The magnetic anomaly we flew over caused a slight instrument malfunction," Natasha finally explained. "We considered turning around to explore further but JARVIS investigated and we've concluded there was no threat."
Captain America leaned against the jet's curved side. "So, we're back on course then? Would someone like to get back in touch with the colonel and let them know so that we look a bit less like rudderless greenhorns?"
Natasha rolled her eyes but was already adjusting their course as Hawkeye thumbed a button on his headset and began to soothe their director's frayed nerves.
The staccato knock on her lab door was insistent and annoying. Jane frowned as she looked up from the calculations she was reviewing, wondering who'd be banging at her lab door this late on a Friday. Most of the team had called it a night, having been up straight through the night before with the rescues further north. Secure in the knowledge that no one else in the Avengers headquarters was likely to wander by the research sector, she'd let herself get lost in her studies. Now she started with a touch of guilt, wondering if she'd been ignoring a visitor. Given the rapid rhythm and high intensity of the banging, it sure seemed so.
She uncurled herself from the ball she'd wrapped herself into as she flipped through pages of print-outs and scribbled diagrams in her ever-present notebook. One foot was almost asleep and Jane lurched the first few steps as she stumbled toward the door.
"Darcy!" Jane's surprise was evident as she stood, slack-jawed for a moment, barring the threshold before which Darcy bounced impatiently.
"Yeah, it's me," her former intern said, "now let me in before Agent Scary comes along and threatens the integrity of my iPod again."
Jane belatedly stepped aside so that Darcy could enter the lab. "I'm sure that Agent Coulson's off duty by now. But what are you doing here? I thought you were just going to do some research for me down at the U-"
"Bag that," Darcy answered, dropping her hefty satchel on the floor beside the lounger she appropriated. "It's study week and Erik got the SHIELD guys to fly me up, saying that I'd be of more use here than there."
She scrunched her nose thoughtfully. "Or maybe that should be there instead of here. Oh, god, I'm turning into a post-modernist, aren't I? Or maybe just a seriously sleep-deprived mess. Senior year is kicking my butt."
Jane laid a reassuring hand on Darcy's hunched shoulder. "It's okay. I was just about to call it a night. Let's get you down to the apartment and you can sleep for a week or at least a weekend."
While Jane tidied her papers and picked up her notebook, Darcy slowly rolled off the lounger and hauled her bag back over her shoulder. "Lead on. You know, I haven't seen your place yet. I hope it's better than the trailer! At the very least, it'd better have more room. This place could swallow a dozen mansions and still have room for more."
"It's big enough and there's even a guest room," Jane said and headed to the door with Darcy close behind her. The two women stopped at the exit while Jane turned off the lights and then indicated, with a beckoning flick of her fingers, that Darcy should turn left and follow her to the dimly-lit elevator bank just down the hall.
They paused in front of the elevator and Jane pushed the 'Up' button. Then the two waited for it to arrive and whisk them up to the residential floor. Darcy yawned and pushed her glasses up her nose with one finger. "I got some good information out of that book that Erik gave me, you know," she said.
Jane quelled the rush of excitement that fired through her at Darcy's words. It was late and the younger woman was clearly exhausted. "That's good," Jane managed decorously, leading the way into the elevator as the doors slid smoothly open after a sprightly chime. "We'll talk about it after you've gotten some sleep."
Darcy blinked widely, trying to feign alertness. Her efforts foundered as she let loose with another ear-splitting yawn. "Okay," she said. "I had the SHIELD guys take my suitcase to your place. It's got Erik's book and some others I found in the library."
"Later," Jane reiterated. Shepherding Darcy into their suite, she got her younger friend settled, bid her goodnight with a heartfelt hug and then went into her own bedroom. Depositing her notebook on the nightstand beside their large, empty bed, Jane felt Thor's absence acutely. She stretched one hand out to stroke the smooth coverlet draped across the side of the bed he normally occupied. After a long moment, she forced herself to her feet and off to the bathroom to wash her face, brush her teeth and then change for bed.
One part of her wanted to do nothing more than run into Darcy's room and start pumping the no-doubt sleeping woman for details about what she'd found in her readings. But Jane had learned some modicum of wisdom about pushing others too hard in the long search for a way to restore the Bifrost after Thor had severed the bridge in Asgard. She sat on her hands in her lonely bed until the urge had passed, then curled herself up around Thor's pillow as she willed herself to sleep.
Down the back hall to one of the royal sanctums, the heavy heels of Thor's boots rang in a thunderous rhythm. The guards who waited outside the private wing straightened hurriedly as he rounded the corner and strode past them, straight into the rooms where Odin sat, staring out the window into infinity.
"Father." Thor said as he joined the Allfather at the far end of the room. "You must know that I-"
"You will not abide by my decree forbidding travel to Midgard," Odin finished blandly. He then pivoted on his heel to regard his son with his one remaining eye.
Thor stammered, taken aback by the king's response. He refocused on his determination and let a sense of righteous anger imbue his words. "Yes, I will not. I can not."
Odin clasped his hands in front of him, rocking back and forth on his heels. "Despite the fact that defying my will could earn you exile or worse?"
"Aye, even that," Thor answered, fixing his gaze firmly on his father's stern expression. "I gave my word that I would serve with the Avengers to protect the people of Midgard. While I understand your concern on my behalf, I would not be a worthy heir if I went back on my oath."
Odin dropped his head for a moment, sighing deeply. "I must be proud that my heir has learned the lessons of responsibility so well. But you are not considering the words of the Norns. You are not the one to whom the burden falls, here."
Thor drew in a deep breath. "Nor am I one to leave this to some slow hand of fate. If I am not the one to mend the Bifrost single-handedly, that may be. But I still have my duty to both Midgard and Asgard. Penning me here at home will not forward the cause of justice. I will be as a falcon in the mews, yearning to fly free yet hampered by jesses held by an over-zealous master."
Odin let a bark of a laugh escape him at his son's pointed comment. "Think you, son, that I do not see how this chafes at you? But I would not throw your life away, either!"
Seeing Thor open his mouth to press his case again, Odin raised one hand to forestall the words. "No, I will give you leave to return to Midgard but unless this is fixed within a circuit of that realm's satellite, I believe you cannot linger safely. While returns are as yet unaffected, that may well change. I fear that the Bifrost will be utterly impassable if matters are not mended soon."
"One month?" Thor exclaimed angrily. "It took Jane nigh unto a dozen to make the repairs on their end of the Bifrost when I destroyed the bridge from Asgard! One month would be impossible!"
Odin smiled slightly and tapped his son on the chest. "That was with the two of you separated. If you joined forces together, if your bond is as strong as you suggest and with relying on the help of your comrades, surely this can be solved in short order?"
Thor opened his mouth to utter some intemperate retort but the Allfather forestalled him. "You may return to Midgard and carry on this quest. But before you depart, I would charge you to speak with the two here in Asgard who know the dangers of the Bifrost best of all. You must consult with Heimdall and Loki and seek their wisdom ere you leave."
Thor flushed angrily and stepped back. "After what Loki did, to our family, to our realm, to the people of Midgard, I do not think I can forgive him."
Odin moved forward and clasped one hand firmly on his son's shoulder. "If you are to be a king, you cannot simply deal with those who are your friends. You must find a way to work with your brother. If you cannot do this, how can you hope to be king for all of Asgard?"
Thor let his head drop until it almost touched his chest. The truth of his father's words was undeniable but he had no desire to seek out his brother's company or, worse yet, be forced to ask for his advice. The feeling seemed mutual: Loki and Thor only approached each other with the buffering force of their parents or in the almost anonymous space of the feast hall. No brotherly tussles or wild adventures to mend their strained relationship: just silent stares on the one side and pointed barbs from the other.
Finally, he raised his head and met his father's steady regard. "If I must do this for Jane and my friends-"
"No, Thor, you must not put this on others. You must accept this of yourself," Odin corrected.
"Aye, father," Thor answered, using all of his control to eliminate the rank resentment from his voice. He spun on his heel and marched out of the room, needing to blow off some steam before he faced Loki.
"Good morning, or should I say good afternoon, sleepyhead?" Jane peered at Darcy from over a mug of coffee.
Darcy blinked helplessly. "Coffee?" she croaked.
"Let me pour it for you," Jane offered wisely, seeing Darcy struggle to turn the corner from the spare bedroom to the kitchen counter. Within a minute, both women had their steaming mugs and were seated on the stools at the counter.
"I could get used to this," Darcy sighed, several wordless minutes later. She appeared much more awake and alert as she cradled her half-full cup of coffee with both hands. "I had a big research paper due yesterday in history and the all-nighter just about killed me."
Jane shook her head in disapproval. "As a Ph.D., I have to tell you that putting your assignments off until the night before is not the way to go!"
Darcy adopted a pose of insouciant innocence. "Really, Jane, I wasn't this time. At least not completely. I had to turn in a paper on the battle of Fredericksbury, during the Civil War, and in the research I was doing for you, I found some interesting information that totally changed my approach. So I had to, you see?"
Jane leaned forward abruptly. "I don't see, so show me!"
Darcy hopped off her stool and fetched her bag which turned out to contain as much in books and folders of notes as it did clothing. "Here," she abruptly announced as she pulled a folder of print-outs and photocopies from the mess.
She thumbed through the papers and shoved one under Jane's nose. While the older woman let her eyes skim over the old-fashioned print, Darcy dove into her own version. "So, it turns out that one of the famous auroras mentioned in the book Erik gave me happened over the Battle of Fredericksburg. I was doing my history paper on the battle so this was cool to find out. It made my seminar presentation pretty cool, too, so that was a bonus."
Jane raised her eyes from the paper. "Focus, Darcy. So, you say there was an aurora over the battlefield?"
Darcy nodded. "And like thousands of people saw it and wrote about it. There's one mention there." She pointed helpful about halfway down the page.
Jane refocused her gaze and read the indicated passage. "'On the night of the second day of the battle there was a singular appearance in the elements, the most singular that I ever saw in my life. Some said it was an Aurora Borealis, or Northern Light, but if it was it was a little different from any I ever saw before. It rose on the side of the enemy and came up very near parallel with our line of battle, and right over us. It turned as red as blood, but when it commenced rising it looked more like the appearance of the moon rising than anything else I know to compare it to.'"
"Cool, huh?" Darcy asked. She flipped through some of the other sheets in her folder. Another guy described it as lasting for half an hour in shades of red and yellow and I found another lady writing about the aurora, writing that when she saw the lights, an older woman from Scotland had said it was a bad omen."
"Here!" Darcy read from the passage she briefly hoisted. "'O, child, it is a terrible omen; such lights never burn, save for kings' and heroes' deaths.'"
Jane shivered at the last words. Darcy glanced up, shamefaced. "Oh, god, sorry, Jane."
The scientist waved one hand dismissively. "Don't worry. I know that's not going to happen. We won't let it happen."
"Damn right we won't," Darcy agreed. "Anyway, these tidbits helped me to ace my essay presentation about the battle so thank you very much."
"You're welcome," Jane laughed, lighter of heart than she thought she could ever feel thanks to her young friend's presence.
"And I've got lots of information, like almost a hundred sighting stories we can go through this week and see if they work for what you need. Erik said you're looking for evidence that the whole "wormhole to Asgard" has happened before?"
"Or something like that," Jane agreed, accepting the folder that Darcy passed her way before hopping back off her stool. "Why don't you go get washed up and dressed and I'll start looking through the material you've got on Fredericksburg. That was, what, 1862?"
Darcy stopped dead in her tracks to stare, open-mouthed at Jane. "You know that and you're not even a historian? So unfair. Until last week I had no idea when it was and I'm taking a course on the Civil War!"
Jane laughed again as Darcy huffed slightly and headed off to the guest room. A little over half an hour later, Darcy rejoined her hostess who seemingly hadn't moved from the kitchen counter.
"Had any breakfast?" she asked before getting a distracted shake of Jane's head as her answer.
Darcy opened the fridge door to peer inside. "Not a lot," she whined, before turning to the cupboard. There a staggering array of Pop-tarts occupied the lowest shelf. "In business!"
Dropping two in the toaster, Darcy leaned over the counter to grab some of the papers Jane had laid aside and whistled lightly. Jane had already gone through the thick folder of photocopies Darcy had made from some of the Victorian books. Beside her, the ever-present notebook lay open with a fresh page of notes.
"What else do have?" Jane asked distractedly.
Darcy chuckled and brought a stack of books and folders over to the counter. "I can go through all of this with you, I put together a spreadsheet so we have all the sightings from 1859 up to the 1940s. That's as far as I got."
Jane raised her eyebrows in surprise as she picked up the first book from the pile. "That's more than I knew about. I did a little reading after Erik and I talked but I had no idea there were so many events. Even if only one in ten or one in a hundred is linked to the Einstein-Rosen bridge? That could be the break we need."
The toaster dinged as the Pop-tarts finished toasting. "Ouch, ouch," Darcy exclaimed after grabbing the hot pastries incautiously and started scrambling furiously to get them deposited on a plate.
Refilling their mugs from the coffee pot, Darcy brought her breakfast back over to the other side of the counter. "Let's get cracking," she said to Jane, "but you have to promise to take me out to a genuine diner for a real lunch. And then? We shop. I'm going to take advantage of being in the Big Apple and make my bank account cry for mercy before I'm done."
In the royal library there were volumes ancient and arcane, scrolls carefully boxed and codices piled high, one upon the other, on shelves that seemed to disappear into some misty heights. A trestle table was piled high with books that rose almost tall enough to obscure their reader. Just over the top of the pile could a familiar dark head be glimpsed.
Thor stood in the library's doorway, shifting unhappily from one foot to another. His father's order to seek Loki's counsel, the further implication to mend fences with his brother: both of these directives sat uneasily on the warrior's shoulders.
"Don't you think you've been standing there long enough, brother?" Loki asked mockingly.
Chagrined, Thor stepped forward into the library, rounding the table to regard the one person in Asgard who always knew how to needle him. "Loki," he growled.
"Brother," Loki drawled as he pushed his chair back and rose from the table. Stretching extravagantly, the dark-haired prince spun on his heel and strode away from the table, heading toward a sheltered balcony at the other end of the large bookroom. "Join me!"
Resentfully, Thor did just that, knowing that if he opened his mouth to speak, Loki would seize upon his anger and provoke him to something undesirable. By the time they'd both reached their destination, Thor had mastered his impulses but still preferred to stand at some distance from Loki who casually leaned back with his elbows supported by a delicate balustrade, his head tilted upwards and his eyes closed.
"You know why I'm here," Thor began abruptly. "It is no work of my desiring."
Loki blinked lazily and turned his gaze toward Thor. "If you had your desire, I'd be locked up somewhere never to see the light of day, Asgardian or Midgard. Forgive me if I say that your desire is not a priority of mine."
Before Thor could expostulate, Loki delicately lifted one finger to forestall the torrent of abuse. "Fortunately for you, our desires coincide on some fronts, including a wish to see the Bifrost restored to its glory."
Thor glared suspiciously at Loki. "Why do you wish this?"
Loki let his gaze casually drop to inspect the line of his fingernails. "Sif, in all of her energetic glory, has taken quite a shine to the people of Midgard. She feels the loss almost acute as you, I daresay. I cannot bear the constant interruptions, the calls to sword practice, that trouble my days of peaceful study, when Sif lacks occupation."
"So," he continued, lifting his guileless gaze to meet his brother's eyes, "it is for my own peace of mind that I offer you this advice."
Suddenly levering himself off of the balustrade, Loki took the steps down to the garden two at a time. Thor, perforce followed.
"The path to Midgard has become even more dangerous than our father suspects. You cannot find the answer by flinging Mjolnir about. The powers that warp the Bifrost will not answer to force, only cunning and wisdom. Since you have little of those qualities, it may truly be a fool's errand on which you embark," Loki smirked slightly at the last, ducking effortlessly out of reach of Thor's half-raised hand.
"Now, now," the dark-haired Asgardian cautioned. "Father will know if you raise your arm against me. I hardly think now is the time for another lesson in humility for you, much as it might be instructive."
Thor breathed deeply, turning his head so that he looked at the flowers and lush greenery instead of Loki's maddening expression. "I am my own master and I am fit for the task. I must be. There is no one else!"
Loki pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I believe the Norns said that you would not be the one. Forgetful, brother?"
Thor glared at Loki's bright smile. "I remember all their words and much more but with my allies on Midgard, I am sure I will find the assistance to prevail. You are not the only one here who plans, Loki!"
"Then take that wisdom back to Midgard. Speak to your Jane Foster, who might have the cunning to solve this problem. And do it quickly. Sif's annoyance tasks all of us."
Thor tilted his head slightly. "Since when have you been so much a slave to that lady's interests?"
Loki turned away, loftily lifting his eyes to a nearby flowering tree. "You forget, brother, that I was much enamoured of Sif when I was young."
Thor's laugh was sharp and abrupt. "No one can forget your ill-fated fascination with Sif, Loki. We are daily reminded of it by her dark hair."
"I had hoped," Loki said airily, "that by cutting some of her fair hair for a keepsake, I would understand her charms. Instead, I earned her ire, seemingly endless."
Plucking a flower from the tree, he spun the blossom between his long fingers. "So saddened by her enmity, I redoubled my efforts to win her regard with great feats. I stole, er, I mean I found great treasures to give to her, only to be rejected out of hand. Can you believe that?"
Thor nodded in satisfaction. "Aye, I can. Sif holds a grudge!"
Loki shook his head mournfully, crushing the blossom between his fingers and scattering the petals to the ground. "So many rare and beauteous items I had gathered for her approval. I would have been better to offer her a sword with which to beat me. Chastised, I cast those gifts away and nursed my broken dreams for a time."
Thor grinned at the picture his brother painted. "She taught you a lesson, Loki. A pity you are slow to learn from such endeavours."
Loki shot him a glance from under a lowered brow. "There's a lesson for you, there, too, brother, but I doubt you have the wits to learn from it."
Thor opened his mouth to object but Loki overrode him. "I have cautioned you and advised you, as our father wished. Go and prepare for your transit back to Midgard but if you do not heed my words, it may well be your last."
He moved to mount the stairs back to the library balcony. "Sif would never let me hear the end of that, so attempt to exercise your mind in the resolution of this problem and not simply your weapon."
Thor watched Loki disappear back into the library. Part of him wished to respond to Loki's barbs but the other part, eager to be reunited with Jane urged him to push forward on his return to Midgard.
Darcy's week in New York was almost at an end. The apartment was cluttered with bags and boxes: the fruit of Darcy's shopping excursions. The lab was similarly littered with stacks of old books and photocopies from which the two women were organizing the data.
Jane had set her notebook aside for a moment to concentrate on a large monitor where a global satellite image was peppered with a dozen or so markers. At the table behind her, Darcy was paging through the books and printouts.
"Do we have Cleveland?" Darcy asked, looking up from a fragile nineteenth century book she had propped up against a stack of mechanical parts.
Jane rolled her finger over the trackpad and the worldmap spun and recalibrated. "Yes, yes we do," she confirmed.
Darcy frowned in concentration, slamming the book closed so that the brittle edges of the page shattered slightly. "Oops," she said with little seeming regret. "There's not too many more possibilities. Between the newspaper accounts, the scientific reports and these books, that's, what?, fourteen possible sites for you to check out."
Jane smiled with bright determination. "That's fourteen more than I had before we started this."
"True," Darcy conceded, scrunching her nose at the obvious statement. "But let's have one last kick at the can before the jack-booted thugs come to take me away."
"Sure," Jane agreed. "Why don't you go through the prewar records we just got access to online while I go back to working on my detector?" The last was said with a gesture pointing to the parts Darcy's books were clustered around.
"Sure," her assistant said as she switched places with the astrophysicist. Jane's lab resembled a junkyard with electronics in various states of assembly covering most of the flat surfaces. Even the lounger beside her workspace served as a staging platform for a specialized radiometric detector in progress or so she'd explained to Darcy when she'd stopped and stared in confusion at the components.
It's not like Thor was in any position to demand the return of his favorite chair, Jane admitted to herself, then shook off the gloom that threatened, turning to the problem of building specialized equipment from scratch.
"So, when we get all these sites lined up, what next?" Darcy asked.
Jane didn't lift her eyes from the careful threading of wires to an indicator. "I test my equipment and then I test my hypothesis. Something, there at these sites should show what's going on. Maybe they're chunks of Asgardian meteorites distorting the wormhole."
Darcy chuckled lightly. "Like "Asgardite"? Hey, don't look so angry at me. It was a joke!. So you're sniffing out data? Classic scientific method?"
Jane nodded as she painstakingly completed the connection. "You've learned enough from hanging around with me to recognize that, at least."
Darcy sniffed in mock indignation. "Lots more than that, you know!"
Jane softened slightly and shot a look at the other woman over the detector she was assembling. "I know and I appreciate all you've done."
Darcy spun around in the chair she'd commandeered, waiting until she had Jane's attention. "You know, if you need me to stay longer, I totally will."
Jane straightened up, shoving a stray strand of hair back over her ear. Regarding Darcy with a combination of friendship and exasperation, she shook her head helplessly. "Don't be silly! You'd put your semester at jeopardy. I want you to finish up and graduate, then we can exploit you full-time."
Darcy's eyes widened dramatically. "You think I should get mixed up in this?" With a sweep of her hand, she took in the lab, the building, the Avengers Initiative.
"Most definitely!" Jane tilted her head. "How about we ask Agent Coulson for an application?"
"All is ready," Heimdall intoned steadily as he stared steadily ahead, beyond the shining form of the newly rebuilt observatory.
"What do you see?" Thor asked as he slowed to stand beside Asgard's vigilant watchman.
"Everything," Heimdall replied. Never moving his eyes, he elaborated. "I see the world of Midgard. I see her, searching for answers. She has been searching for some time now."
Thor clenched one fist, then consciously relaxed. "I have taken too long."
"Time moves differently between our worlds," Heimdall observed. "That is only augmented by whatever has disturbed the unity of Yggdrasil."
Thor spun on his heel to stare at Heimdall. "So she has been waiting for word of me for some long time?"
"Time moves differently," Heimdall repeated. "When you last were separated, there was some small difference. Now that is greater."
"Why did you not tell me?" Thor asked impatiently.
"You did not ask," Heimdall answered.
Already, Thor was striding past him, heading for the observatory. "Open the Bifrost. I must go to Midgard now, without delay."
"You know the risks," Heimdall said as he followed in a stately pace. "You know the All-Father's conditions?"
"Aye," Thor responded bitterly, "I do. One month, as the people of Midgard mark their time. It will be but little by our standards."
Heimdall nodded as he raised his sword above the activator. "I can do little to aid your cause from Asgard. Only know this, that to the Guardian of the bridge belongs the power to return you whenever and wherever he sees fit."
He plunged the sword into the observatory's control sphere and a crackle of lightning traced around the outer surface, followed by another and then several more.
Thor narrowed his eyes and then shifted closer to Heimdall. "You are saying that I might have more time?"
Heimdall betrayed no emotion as Thor waited, tense as coiled steel beside him. "I will await your call to return and only then will I open the portal. From anywhere on Midgard, I can summon the portal to bring you home. But choose your moment wisely. If you have not found the answer you seek, it may well be the last passage you make."
Thor smiled fiercely as a thrill of hope coursed through him. "I will not return until I have the answer, of that you can be sure."
The lightning became a near constant force in the confined space of the observatory. "The portal is ready," Heimdall said. "I will watch for your signal."
With that, Thor took a step into infinity, engulfed in the iridescent power of the Bifrost.
"It's good to be back," Jane said as a couple of SHIELD operatives unloaded her equipment beside the maze-like marker burned into the New Mexico desert.
"If you say so," the Black Widow replied doubtfully, looking out across the arid landscape. "Remind me again of why I'm here?"
"Because Director Fury wants someone to report back on whether or not my ‘cockamamie idea’ has any merit? And you said you wanted to help, especially if it meant a chance to get out of headquarters for a while," Jane answered drily.
Turning to the black-suited agents, she raised her voice. "Thanks guys, I'll take it from here!"
Jane pulled out a small electronic device, about as long as her forearm and not quite as thick. Holding it in one hand, she adjusted some slider bars with the other. A small screen, mounted near the top, came to life, showing a ghostly miniature image of the pattern they stood beside.
"Perfect," Jane pronounced. "Now I need you to help me calibrate these detectors by pulling it back and forth over the entire pattern until we have that fully recorded in the system."
Hands on her hips, Natasha glared down at the smaller woman. "You want me to do what?"
"You said you wanted to help," Jane repeated, clearly amused. "And after this, we have to do the same thing at the other recorded landing sites to incorporate that data."
Poking at the handheld unit, Jane frowned minutely, running her thumb across one of the sliders. The screen flared slightly brighter. "And don't move them too quickly. They're delicate instruments and if they get roughed up too much, they'll stop working and we'll have to start all over again."
Thor plunged across the galaxy riding the inexorable flow of the Bifrost. Grinning at the heady sensation of speed, he let Mjolnir, held before him, blaze the path. As the blue, green and white sphere of Midgard hove into view, his smile widened.
Then, with a sudden crack, the Bifrost seemed to shift wildly to one side and then the other. Flung like a leaf, Thor's head snapped up and down. Mjolnir remained tethered to him only by the wrist strap as the rainbow effect dissipated with a catastrophic wave of unseen force rising up from Midgard to envelop Thor.
In the sudden darkness, a silent and unmoving figure began the long fall to earth.
"It didn't look like this," Steve said sadly as they walked up Sullivan Place closing in on a group of high-rise apartment buildings. The blustery late October day blew bits of newspaper violently around the telephone pole and, in the distance, a fire engine's warning siren signaled.
He wore civilian clothes with a military man's unease. A leather bomber jacket was all the protection he conceded to the weather, while both his hands were full with heavy bags of Jane's scientific equipment.
Jane trotted alongside him, carrying one bag with her laptop and the handheld detector wand. Unlike her superhero escort, the scientist was bundled against the cold from wool knit hat on her head to insulated boots on her feet. The days since Thor had left for Asgard had been long for her: only by burying herself in her work had Jane been able to keep herself from fretting endlessly about Thor's absence. Now she was following up a lead and that sense of purpose was even more energizing than pouring through her astrophysical data had been. The whole scheme was a long shot, sure, but anything was better than punching in endless series of numbers back in the lab or twiddling her fingers in the too-empty apartment.
Jane had thought she'd have everything ready in just a few minutes but the reality of managing her field equipment by herself was more daunting than she'd expected. Steve had appeared beside her van as she struggled to load up the equipment and immediately offered to help her. Jane wasn't sure if she should be happy for the assistance or annoyed at being managed but it was hard to get up any ire against the original Avenger, she had to admit.
Right not, it looked as if this outing was a bit of a challenge to him. The neighborhoods of New York had obviously changed a lot since he'd known them as a young man. This part of Brooklyn had been built up at least once or twice over since World War II. A lot had to have changed and the memories couldn't all be easy to dismiss.
Steve's eyes narrowed as he took in the addresses on the street signs. "That would have been Ebbets Field, over there," he advised, pointing to the stretch of apartment buildings bounded by some sad trees and a bit of anemic turf. "I used to get seats so high they'd give you a nose bleed, not that that was hard for me back in the day."
Jane shot her companion an assessing look. "Hard to believe," she commented, taking in his tall, powerful form, on a par with Thor's. The thought gave her a pang. He'd been gone for weeks, now, with no word. She glanced up skywards, hoping that, as Thor had promised, Heimdall could still see all of them down here, even if no one on earth could contact Thor or the other Asgardians.
"Believe it," Steve said with a self-deprecating shrug. He glanced up and down the streets to get his bearings. "You wanted to know where the radio announcer's box was?"
"Yes," Jane agreed, "since the major report we have of this was the radio outage, I thought I'd start there."
Steve looked assessingly at the radically changed landscape. "Well, that would've been over here," he said, sweeping one arm out to the right. "But I think you'd be better off to start over there." His other arm, still holding the heavy equipment, pointed straight down the street.
"Why's that?" Jane asked.
Steve glanced down at the petite woman. "Because I was there at the game that night against the Pirates. I saw the lightstorm in the sky that the newspapers told us the next day caused the radios to go out. I guess that was the magnetic effect you were talking about. But I saw something more: a strike, like lightning, but not so bright, just over the wall. It may have been what you were looking for."
"Sir, there's something of interest coming in on the satellites I customarily monitor," JARVIS reported.
Tony glanced up from the bank of computer screens where he was working on a new iteration of the Quinjet's engine design. "Well? What?"
"I'm not sure," JARVIS continued delicately, "It appeared above our satellite's range shortly ago and I've tracked it on several. Possibly some space debris heading to earth."
Tony frowned. "Not a junked satellite if it's up above ours since they're in pretty high orbit. Maybe a near-earth asteroid that's not yet been recorded?"
"I don't think that's possible," JARVIS's voice conveyed doubt in the most polite manner. "The readings are. . . unusual."
"Let me see," the industrialist demanded and instantly several of the computer banks before him flashed with trajectory information and other details about this plunging object.
Tony levered himself away from the table. "Let's suit up," he commanded. "And get Fury on the line!"
As gyros whined, lifting the red and gold suit into place, JARVIS asked "What should I tell him?"
Tony's voice boomed through the speaker system as his helmet snapped into position. "Tell him I think Thor's coming back and he may make a big splash, like right into the Pacific."
With that, Iron Man roared out of the workshop and heavenward.
"So that's where the scoreboard was," Jane repeated, as Steve set her equipment down on the bleak bit of turf beside one of the apartment buildings. A security guard had strolled over to enquire about the two strangers but the IDs that SHIELD had provided them substantiated their cover of environmental researchers.
Jane took over from Steve once he put the heavy cases on the ground. She pulled back the covers, flicking a couple of switches on one of the machines and extending a long handle, then plugging her handheld detector into a port on the second.
"This one is a variant on ground-penetrating radar," Jane explained, patting the first box. "I need you to drag it across this open area so we can get some better readings. This other allows me record the different intensities from the first, putting them together for a three-dimensional picture."
Steve smiled politely. "Just tell me what to do, Dr. Foster. I want to get this solved as much as you do."
Jane looked up from her perch, crouching over the heavy cases. "Really, Steve, after all this time, you keep calling me Dr. Foster? Jane, please!"
"Jane," he corrected, a bit awkwardly. "And I need to?"
She straightened. "Pull this on a line along the ground where you think you saw the strike."
"Yes, ma'am," Steve said, grabbing the handle with one hand and pulling it across the unyielding ground. "But won't all the construction, you know, since, won't that have destroyed any data?"
Jane shook her head as Steve continued to walk easily backwards, pulling the equipment. "No, these strikes go deep. Back in New Mexico, we found traces going down about six hundred feet."
Steve opened his mouth to say something but Jane interrupted. "Stop," she ordered as a high-pitched squeal came from the detector she held.
Obediently, Captain America stood stock still. Jane twisted a knob on her device. "Hold it there for a bit. . . okay, can you take it about twenty feet to your left, right up to the sidewalk?"
"Sure thing," he offered easily. For the next half hour, he moved the heavy detector back and forth across the narrow strips of open land.
"Okay, that's it," Jane finally advised. "Let's pack up and head back in."
Steve hefted the heavy mechanism back over to where Jane had crouched over the second device. The wind had picked up and she shivered.
"You're hypothermic," Steve said with worry as he watched her stiff fingers struggle to fasten the case closed. "Let me help you with that."
Jane looked up and fell back on her haunches. "Um, sure, thanks," she agreed. Steve gallantly helped her to her feet, then hefted the rest of the equipment.
"Was it worthwhile?" Steve slowed his pace down to match Jane's stiff strides as they turned down Bedford Avenue.
"Most definitely," Jane answered between breaths directed at her gloved hands. "The pattern we mapped? It's identical to the runic circle from down at Puente Antiguo, at least a quarter of the same before we lose it under these apartment building. I can still get a faint trace there, so we know it extends farther, but this is good enough."
"So," Steve said, "all you have to do is figure out why the Bifrost showed up here, in Brooklyn, in 1941."
"Yeah," Jane agreed drily. "That's all."
Steve's communicator flashed a single alert. He placed Jane's equipment on the sidewalk and flipped open the device. "Yes, Colonel?"
Jane stomped in place, quietly, beside Steve while he finished his conversation, conducted all in quiet monosyllables against the other New Yorkers passing by.
"Yes, sir," he finished, ending the call and turning to face Jane.
"There's a car coming to pick us up and take us to HQ. There's a Quinjet waiting," Steve said. Over his shoulder, Jane saw a black SUV racing their way.
"That's okay," Jane offered. "You have a mission, I'll just load my equipment up and take it back to the lab."
"No," said Steve, as the SUV pulled up alongside them. "It's not for me. It's for you. Thor's returned, but nowhere near Puente Antiguo and he's a bit beaten up by the experience. They said he wasn't conscious when he hit a bluff in Malibu not far from Tony's place and left a crater sixty feet across."
Jane was grateful that Steve rode with her on the frantic transcontinental flight. The Quinjet went supersonic as soon as it rose high enough but time still moved too slowly for her to endure. Throwing off her seatbelt, she paced the small passenger area impatiently.
"No news," Steve advised when she paused briefly to stare his way.
Jane resumed her pacing, rubbing her hands against each other in a kind of involuntary reaction.
"Are you cold?" The captain moved to shed his leather jacket.
Jane focused on him briefly, just enough time to shake her head. "No," she managed, "I'm fine. I'll be okay."
Steve shook his head sadly. "No, you're not. You're in shock."
"Of course I am," Jane said in exasperation, "my boyfriend, who took off across the galaxy weeks ago has just returned but we don't know if he's dead or alive."
Steve grabbed her hands and pulled her back down to her seat where he helped her to fasten her seatbelt. "He's unconscious, Tony said. Not dead. Just unresponsive. We don't know what happened."
Jane stared off vacantly at the Quinjet's prosaic interior.
Captain America sighed. "Our ETA is five minutes. Going subsonic to make our descent shortly," he advised. He doubted the physicist heard a word he said, consumed with worries as she was. He had to admit, he was worried, too.
"Jane," Thor said, his voice uncharacteristically weak. But he was clearly gaining strength as he sought to rise from the poolside recliner which he more than filled up. Jane rushed to perch on the edge of the frame, picking up one hand to lift it to her lips.
Beside them, Iron Man stood, his helmet lifted to reveal a worried expression.
"Stay down for a minute there, bud," the dark-haired man advised. "Let JARVIS finish checking you out."
"Report," Captain America commanded tersely as he took in the scene.
Tony stared at him in confusion. "You mean me, right? Because until just a minute ago, Blond Boy here, was out for the count."
Steve sighed. "Right."
"Okay," Tony grinned. "So we figured out this mystery bit of debris was the original fighting Viking, I suited up and tried to give him a hand. Got him as he was entering the atmosphere and I was able to slow him down and direct him."
Crossing his arms, he stared down at the couple, engrossed in each other's whispered words. "If he didn't have that wrist strap on him, I'd have figured he was a goner. That hammer? It was like it was directing him as much as it could. Thank god that wrist-strap worked so I could fly him back to the house, here."
"Interesting," Steve said. "So you were able to intercept and assist?"
"Yeah, after we really pissed off the Malibu Nature Conservancy by leaving a crater as big as a bus just a mile further north. We avoided all the populated areas, though."
"Good," Steve said. As he spoke, Thor levered himself slowly off of the seat and stood. It was clear that his strength was returning.
"Thor?" the Avenger's leader waited for his newly returned team-member to speak.
"What Tony here said is true far as I know. The Bifrost failed while I was yet far from Midgard. The last I remember was as if some great force jerked me first one way and then flung me the other. I have not felt such a mighty blow from any battle foe," Thor exclaimed.
Jane intervened. "I suspect it was the bridge, itself. I've been studying it since you left and we think there's something causing interference with the connection. It appears to be gaining power, somehow, and that's what made this failure so catastrophic."
Thor's brow knit with concern as he leaned forward to lift Mjolnir from where it had rested on the concrete pool deck beside the recliner.
"I understand my absence was prolonged here on Midgard," he said. "I returned to Asgard and my time there was not more than two days, to my reckoning."
"It's been, what?, five weeks," Tony interrupted. Steve's confirming nod made Thor's expression cloud further.
"That might be the bridge, as well," Jane explained. "Wormholes change the laws of space and time and a distorted wormhole could affect both factors in unpredictable ways."
"But more, ere I forget," Thor said, forestalling the rest of Jane's assessment. "We consulted the Norns-"
"The wha?" Tony asked, plopping himself down on another poolside lounger with a clank.
Jane sighed. Time spent with Erik and Thor has brought her up to speed on the stories of old Scandinavia and Asgard's culture. "They're like the fates, Tony."
"Cool, so did they tell you your destiny?" Tony turned his head to ask Thor.
Thor arched one eyebrow in amused consideration. "No, but they did reveal that the problem lies here on Midgard."
He sighed. "Further, I have but one month as Midgard time is reckoned, to see this solved or return to Asgard, permanently."
Jane felt her breath catch in her throat. "One month?"
Thor nodded. "My father fears the Bifrost will be unusable if the problems continue to mount."
Steve crossed his arms. "I don't want to lose you and I can tell you don't want to go back. So we're going to get behind this 100%."
He nodded impatiently toward the front of Tony's mansion where the Quinjet sat waiting with the SHIELD pilots on standby. "Come on, let's head back to New York. Colonel Fury will want to debrief you and I'm pretty sure he'll call a team meeting after."
"JARVIS?" Tony called.
"Yes sir?" the AI responded.
"Tell Pepper I'll be home late. Guess she'll have to cancel that meeting with finance, again," Tony's grin conveyed mischief and satisfaction as he followed Steve toward the waiting jet.
"I will tell her you were devastated, sir," JARVIS replied as Jane and Thor followed the rest of his teammates past the pool entrance and toward the waiting transport.
Jane wound herself tightly against Thor. She felt more than saw the smile that creased his face as he tightened his arm wrapped around her shoulders. It was so good, so unbelievably good, to have him back with her in their bed.
With her free hand, Jane skimmed her fingers over Thor's shoulder and over his chest, reassuring herself that this wasn't a dream by the warm skin that she lightly touched.
He chuckled, vibrations coursing through his chest strong enough that Jane could feel them.
"Are you ticklish?" she asked in astonishment.
"Would the god of thunder be ticklish?" Thor responded, rolling over in the bed so that he loomed over Jane. She stretched on the tangled sheets with a smug smile and wiggled her fingers warningly.
Thor moved, ever so slightly.
"You are!" Jane triumphantly declared.
In a moment, her wrists were pinned to the bed on either side of her and Thor loomed above her with one eyebrow arched in warning. "Do not challenge a warrior," he intoned fiercely. His threat was belied by a cautious shifting of grip as her fingers flexed repeatedly.
"Or you'll what?" Jane replied sassily, twitching her hips beneath him as her wrists rolled against his hold.
"I'll do this," Thor said, lowering his lips to hers for a lingering kiss. He ducked one shoulder to the bed and rolled so that Jane suddenly loomed over him, drawing her wrists over their heads so that she had no choice but to relax against him.
"I could get to like the way you think," Jane whispered. She tried not to dwell on how limited their time together might be if no solution could be found in time to stabilize the bridge and chose instead to lose herself in the moment.
Director Fury turned away from his desk. His tall, dark form was especially intimidating, lit as it was by the early light pouring in from the wall of windows, looking eastward from high above Times Square. With his hands clasped behind him, the man who had brought the Avengers into existence considered Jane’s request.
"You believe you can solve the problem that’s currently occupying the minds of dozens of the brightest scientists in the world by going on a road trip?" The ironic inflection of the last two words made Jane wince and wish that she’d been able to bring Natasha or Darcy or even Thor into this meeting she’d privately requested with Director Fury. But Thor was still sprawled on his stomach, contentedly sleeping in the king-sized bed she’d quietly slipped out of mere hours before, punching in a silent request for a meeting on the terminal in their living room that was answered with frightening speed for four in the morning.
Jane dressed hastily and dashed off to her lab, printing out files for her own consultation and forwarding all of them via the encrypted servers to the director’s attention. By the time she was ushered into his quarters, his own screens were filled with copies of her observations and data.
Turning from the window, Nick Fury regarded the information from her studies displayed on a wall of monitors with an implacable glare. "Normally, I wouldn’t even consider it but the variations in the Asgard link are. . . troubling to all of us. If we can’t resolve the problem all contact is in jeopardy and, more than that, Thor’s stay on Earth will come to an end. That concerns all of us very much."
The last was said with a searching look directed at Jane, who returned the director’s gaze with equal conviction. "I have as much at stake as you, if not more. Furthermore, I’m the one who discovered the wormhole and also reconnected it after Thor had to destroy the first Bifrost. There’s no one better placed and more concerned with solving this problem, sir."
She paused to refocus her thoughts. "And I need to ask for Thor to accompany me. He understands the bridge phenomenon from a different perspective but, again, he's motivated to solve the problem. Plus, if there are different types of signs we uncover, he might be able to interpret what they mean. So I'm hoping you'll be okay with both of us heading off to figure this problem out."
The last words came out in a rush and Jane found herself perched awkwardly on her seat with her fingers pulling nervously at the hem of her shirt. She blushed at the evidence of her nerves and settled herself more deeply in the chair, all the while searching the colonel's expression that gave nothing away.
He sat down in his chair and quietly contemplated her for what seemed like an eternity. "Captain Rogers spoke to me earlier. He told me about your visit to the old Ebbets Field site and what you'd detected. He says that you believe this problem's happened before and that if you track the historic variations-"
Jane interrupted, "I can map the past variance and get an idea of what's happening today. What we are seeing could be related to sunspots, for instance. If so, we'll restrict use of the bridge when sunspot activity is high. Or it could be something else: dark matter interference or even a third party factor we don't know of yet. . . ."
Jane's voice trailed off as she realized she was rambling. Across the table, Director Fury had his fingers steepled against each other, patiently waiting for her storm of words to subside.
With one raised eyebrow, the SHIELD director made Jane feel like she was seven again but she sat perfectly still in her chair, upright, strong and serious. Finally, he turned away from her, returning his gaze to the pale morning light wakening Manhattan.
"We agree on that, Dr. Foster. Agent Coulson’s team has spent the evening preparing your van for travels as well as preparing an expense account in the names of Jane Fielding and Tom Thorson. A cover is necessary or I’m sure that every super-villain on the east coast will try to target you two, so don't be stupid." Fury sighed, lifting one hand to pinch the bridge of his nose between his eyebrows as if the thought of such stupidity was paining him.
With a forbearing sigh, he turned to face Jane, who sat especially straight and attempted to convey an air of responsibility that would ensure no stupid risks would ever be taken on her watch.
Director Fury regarded her doubtfully. "Documentation’s been dropped off at your quarters along with a few other necessities so that you can carry this out quickly and safely. All I ask is that Thor return for any emergency missions and that you both report in daily on the progress of your work. Oh," he added, rotating his chair to regard Jane directly, while a small smile dancing on his lips, "don’t disable the monitors inside the van. Agent Coulson’s only willing to stretch so far."
Jane’s mouth stretched into an ear-splitting grin. It was clear that SHIELD and the entire Avengers team was at least one step ahead of her in this scheme. She restrained herself from breaking into a victory dance as she rose from her chair. "We’ll be good with that, sir, but, please, I just have to ask, how did you know I was going to ask for permission to bring Thor along on at least some of the trip?"
His smile was suddenly as broad as hers. "You think Natasha’s the only one who finds Thor a bit too much, especially when he’s worried he’s going to have to leave Earth forever? Frankly, everyone here is happy he has you to occupy at least some of his time or who knows what’d have happened by now. But enough’s enough. Go! Fix the problem and give me a way to keep Thor part of the Avengers. That’s an order, doctor!"
Jane blushed and ducked her head as she left his office, rushing headlong to their apartment, two floors above. She couldn’t wait to tell Thor about the giddy sense of hope that filled her with the prospect of doing something to resolve the crisis. Jane didn’t stop to think that an equally impetuous prince of Asgard might not agree with the path she’d planned for the two of them.
Her first hint of trouble was to see Thor awaiting her, not in the kitchen, but formally waiting in the living room. He hadn’t donned the armor he wore with the team but his controlled stance and grim expression was warning enough to Jane that something was wrong.
She slowed her pace, closing the door, feeling the smile of excitement slip from her lips. "Thor? What’s the matter?"
Thor raised one eyebrow as he crossed the floor to close the distance between the two of them. "“We had pledged to be honest and open with each other, Jane Foster. Yet I awakened this morning to hear that you were in conference with Director Fury and that all of the Avengers were preparing matters for the two of us to head out on an expedition I knew nothing of."
He finished his mildly-voiced comment with a sweeping gesture that brought Jane’s attention to passports, licenses, credit cards and phones neatly arranged on their kitchen counter. "Oh,”"she managed.
"The son of Coul brought them by this morning," Thor explained.
Jane leafed through the papers, then looked up at Thor, shamefacedly. "I didn’t mean to shut you out of the loop," she began.
At his confused reaction to her phrasing, Jane shook her head, then tried again. "I mean that I didn’t intend for you to not know. The idea just started coming together a while back when Natasha stopped by the lab and really only came clear while you were away in Asgard. There’s a question I’ve been working on, ever since the wormhole became unstable-"
"You mean because the Bifrost no longer brought us to the site where we first met?" Thor asked, the furrow on his brow clearing as Jane continued.
"Yes. I’ve been worried sick about it, especially since Sif showed up all the way out in Hermosillo, instead of a ways west of Puente Antiguo," Jane said. She extended one of her hands towards Thor, interlacing their fingers together. "And then you ended up in Malibu or near enough. What if it had been farther? What if it had been somewhere inside the earth, under the ocean or even out in space? You came so close to not making it back at all."
Thor snorted but didn’t resist her gentle touch. "Asgardians are tough. It would take more than that to stop one of us."
"Maybe," Jane allowed doubtfully. "You might be right. But what if your landing endangered people of earth? Midgardians are not as tough as your people and the storms that accompany the landings can do damage to us, even if we aren't the ones travelling. The last one was pretty violent. They're going to be talking about this in Malibu for decades to come."
"Ah," Thor breathed. He lifted their intertwined fingers to his lips and gently kissed Jane’s knuckles. "I would never allow such a dangerous event to occur. The prophecy from the Norns was clear: there is a solution to the problem and it lies here in Midgard. With what I've learned from Heimdall and Loki, I'm sure it won't be hard to find. And all the Avengers will aid me in this quest!"
Jane pulled her hand out of his light grasp, feeling more than a little annoyed. "Isn't that just as bad as what you said I did? Making some plan without consulting me? Without thinking that maybe we need to figure out what's wrong, together? The bridge wasn't restored just by Asgard's efforts. Our research, here in earth, was the key to restoring the link. Am I right or not?"
Thor nodded his head, conceding Jane's case with obvious reluctance. She arched her eyebrows pointedly and he sighed deeply. "You tell the truth."
Biting her cheek to keep from smiling, Jane nodded firmly. "I don't need you to be a lone gunman any more than you need me to run off on my own. We need to figure this out, together."
Thor deftly reclaimed her hand, lifting it for a kiss that was half affection, half salute. "You are as wise as you are fair, Jane Foster. I should not have attempted to address the issue on my own if I would not accept that from you."
She let her own smile blaze forth, stepping forward and raising herself on her toes to press a kiss against Thor's lightly bearded cheek. "Apology accepted! I owe you the same for leaving you in the dark this morning so please accept my apologies, too."
Thor put his hands to Jane's waist and lifted her off her feet. Pressed against his torso with her head level with his, their gazes met before his lips met hers in a leisurely kiss that left them both gasping. "I could grow to like these apologies," Thor confessed as he put Jane back on her feet.
"Me, too," Jane said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and grateful that no one else from the Avengers was able to see her all out of breath and starry-eyed from his embrace, not that they fooled anyone, she knew. Still, as Pepper had said over coffee, one day, it was nice to preserve appearances.
With an effort, Jane yanked her shirt back into place over the waistband of her jeans and strode to the terminal in their living room. "You need to see this. I want to show you what I want us to do and know that I wouldn't have thought of doing this without consulting you. You know the wormhole better than anyone else on earth excepting me, of course."
Jane smiled impishly over her shoulder at the last. Thor laughed heartily as he pulled up another chair beside her while her fingers nimbly typed out commands, accessing a series of image files from her research databank.
Jane tapped one finger against the screen as a black and white image of a starry night sky marked by a wavering mass appeared on the screen. "I think we can figure out what's been going on by getting back out into the field. I want to look at some old sites I've uncovered in my research: aurora reports that sound a lot like earlier versions of the Bifrost."
Thor bit his lip as he leaned forward in his chair to see the several images she called up. "The Bifrost is very old. Older than Steve, even," he said with a broad grin, inviting Jane to join in on the joke. "The stories you have shared with me from the Norse, of Asgardians as gods, those tell of a time a thousand years ago in your history, do they not?"
"Probably a few centuries more than that," Jane agreed. "But our records for that far past aren't reliable. However, aurora effects have been thoroughly documented for more than a hundred years and some of them, very localized, might be earlier sites of the wormhole making brief contact, just as I saw in the weeks before you arrived. Thanks to Darcy and Erik, I have "
"So you hope to travel to these other locations and find some more signs of long past linkages?" Thor asked.
"There are characteristic elements left behind when the bridge makes first contact: high energy plasma doesn't leave a calling card, but it's still pretty easy to see the results in low-level radioactivity in rare elements as well as an enduring magnetic resonance. Ferrous metals react to the energies and lose their normal magnetic alignment. If we map enough of these sites, we might be able to see what's linking them all together," Jane said.
"It's a starting place," Thor agreed, rising from his chair and heading into their bedroom. After a few moments, he popped his head around the doorway, one hand brandishing an empty duffel bag. "Aren't you going to pack?"
Jane smiled as she turned off the computer and pushed back her own chair. "Well," she allowed, "I was figuring we didn't have to rush getting on the road. Manhattan traffic is a bitch during rush hour so maybe we could leave a little bit later?"
As Jane sashayed across the room, her hands went to the hem of her t-shirt and, with a twist, she pulled it over her head and tossed it to one side. Thor obligingly dropped the duffel and pulled her close.
"Wise and exceedingly fair," he said as his hands dropped to the small of her back, holding her closely against him. Jane stretched up on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on his mouth, then gently urged him back into the bedroom.
They shamefacedly made it out of the city when the sun was high in the sky.
"Where are we headed? Puente Antiguo?," Thor asked as the van rocked and rolled over the rough pavement of the busy highway heading north through the Bronx.
Jane spared a quick glance for her passenger as she steered the top-heavy research vehicle through the heavy traffic. "No, that'd be south and west. A long ways west! We're heading to Hartford or just a bit outside of the city."
"Oh," Thor said blankly, leaning back in the passenger seat as Jane accelerated into the passing lane. "This is one of the aurora sites?"
Jane grinned. "I think it's a good one to start with. In 1880, the telegraph lines in the city powered up without any current being fed into the system. This lasted for several hours before it faded. A similar occurrence happened two years later with an aurora 'in the shape of a boreal crown'. Or so the reports say."
Thor raised an eyebrow, "You think these were sites where we had a connection for the Bifrost, then?"
The van lurched as Jane steered them back across the highway, aiming for the exit that would take them out of the city and up across New England. "I'm hoping we'll find some proof of it. The old telegraph paths are still being used, though for telephones these days. We should be able to track along the path near the city and try to get some readings. If this was a place where the wormhole linked up, even briefly, we should find traces."
Thor smiled broadly as he surveyed the road rolling out in front of them. "It will be good to do something about this."
Jane nodded agreement. "It feels good to get out on the road. I could like New York but the city isn't a great place for astronomers. Too much light pollution and too many people."
She shot a glance over at Thor. "Not that I mind the Avengers, really. Steve's so earnest, nobody could hold a grudge against him. And Tony's a great inventor, even if he's like a squirrel on Ritalin some days."
Thor's brow furrowed in puzzlement at the description of Iron Man.
Jane laughed again and apologized, offering a better explanation. "Sorry! I mean that Tony's sometime crazy and unpredictable, like a small rodent who's been fed a stimulant."
Thor's look of confusion fell away with a shouted laugh. "Like Hammy from Over the Hedge! I see what you mean, although if you were on a surveillance mission with Tony, you'd see that he's not all get up and go. Steve despairs of him."
"Who doesn't?" Jane quipped. "Hey, speaking of them, you're good with the team, right?"
Thor touched the bulky case resting beside his seat in the research vehicle. "Mjolnir's here and the telephone device they game me doubles as a secure communicator. If I am needed, I can be there quickly. I'm just worried about you if I get called away."
Jane sighed. "We've gone over this. I'm fine. This is the stuff that I'm good at. Anyway, Agent Coulson has my van tracked and bugged every way possible as well as the fact that there's at least two vehicles shadowing us, right, Phil?" The last was said on a rising intonation as Jane double-clicked the radio volume button on the dashboard, activating one of the communications channels.
"We hear you loud and clear, Dr. Foster," Phil Coulson answered instantly. "And you're pretty observant. I only thought you'd see one of the four SHIELD details keeping an eye on you."
"Practice makes perfect," Jane answered, just a bit shortly. "I'd appreciate it if you'd not monitor us too closely."
"I, too," Thor added darkly.
"We'll keep to the parameters you set out with Director Fury. Oh, and don't worry," the transmitted voice assured smoothly, "Mr. Stark isn't anywhere near our monitoring center."
Before Jane or Thor could respond, the static cut out, signalling that Agent Coulson had terminated their conversation.
Jane glanced over at Thor, annoyance clear on her face. His expression seemed thunderous, a thought which made Jane snort with laughter. The van lurched a bit before she refocused herself on the road in front of them.
"What?" Thor asked with some concern, leaning across the space between them. "Is there a problem?"
"No, Jane answered, still laughing a bit to herself. "I'm just thinking back to a talk I had with Natasha before this all blew up. She told me I needed to take you on a road trip when I said I needed to get out and do some field research. And, look!, that's exactly what we're doing!"
Thor didn't laugh. "Is this all some set-up to get the two of us away? Is SHIELD seeking to hide us from Heimdall's regard and render me forsworn on my promise to my father?"
"No, no, no," Jane quickly said. "It's just a fun coincidence that Natasha said that. As for the rest, well, let's not let SHIELD and all that ruin this, okay? We have something to do, something important. And Director Fury promised me that they'd confine their surveillance to the van and, I expect, our phones."
Thor scowled, clearly unimpressed by those promises.
Jane tilted her chin a bit higher and tipped open the pocket of her vest just enough to show the top of a small version of the device familiar to all of the Avengers. "Pepper came through," she said with a grin. "Tony's been preparing for just such an occasion."
Thor relaxed in his seat. "You know," he confided, "Hammy was my favorite character in that movie."
"Mine, too," Jane agreed.
In other circumstances, Jane might have enjoyed lingering in Hartford. They'd checked into an anonymous but easily secured hotel that Coulson's agents had scouted ahead of them. An equally unremarkable chain restaurant had sufficed for dinner but they had better luck in the morning, finding a small diner that evoked some of the homey atmosphere they'd both enjoyed at Izzy's back in New Mexico. Thor worked his way through a veritable mountain of food and even Jane cleaned her plate, enjoying the hearty, simple breakfast the cook served up from the grill behind the counter.
With a bright blue sky overhead, the autumn morning was brisk and invigorating. Jane parked the research vehicle near the historic city center. She paused for a few minutes to get her bearings: historic data overlaid on the current GPS map, allowing her to confirm that they were on the right track. With a quick glance around, they set off on foot, Thor carrying the two heavy scanning devices with Mjolnir in another sack over his shoulder while Jane slung hers into a canvas bag.
"We're going to track the original telegraph line as far as we can on foot," Jane directed. "Fortunately, Darcy did a bit of research and confirmed that the sighting matched up with this set of utilities, here. II should be able to pick up some low-level traces with my handheld. Then we can put the big boys to work."
From under the brim of his baseball cap, Thor assessed the busy cityscape. "These buildings, were they in place when the aurora was observed?"
"Good question," Jane said. "Some of them were but not all. The aurora happened over a hundred years ago. These glass-sided buildings" - Jane swept her hand to one side, indicating a couple of modern skyscrapers - "are all much more recent."
"Would their construction have destroyed the signs you seek?"
Jane shook her head sharply as they walked side by side. "No, but they certainly could have distorted them or partially obscured them. Just before you returned, Steve helped me to map out part of a runic mark near Ebbet's Field. It happened back in the 40s and he even saw it!"
Thor squinted toward the sun as they continued their walk along the busy city street. "That would be, what seventy years ago? I'm still not accustomed to how Midgard reckons time."
Jane shot a quick glance at her endlessly energetic companion. "That's about right. I know that you guys are always joking about how Steve's so 'well-preserved' but he grew up in a different time and that was pretty helpful. Nobody younger than ninety would likely remember that aurora event!"
Thor nodded. Jane led them around a street corner and towards an alley where the utility lines were clearly visible. "This is part of the old telegraph corridor. It should open up a little further along, but let's start walking along here and see what we see, okay?"
She pulled out her handheld scanner and thumbed a knob on the side that fired up the screen. A steady pulse cleared the screen as some sort of signal refreshed every second or so. Excepting for a few ghostly green markings, clearly signs of the metal framework in parts of the larger buildings, the screen remained disappointingly empty as they made their way along the alley.
"What do we say if someone stops us and enquires as to our purpose?" Thor asked after they crossed one street and continued the survey.
"I've got the documentation here that Colonel Fury provided. We're contract workers for an environmental agency, checking for buried fuel oil tanks that pose a threat to public health." Jane patted her bag absently as she continued to watch the screen held out just before her. "Your cap and my jacket have the agency logo so I doubt anyone will suspect anything."
Thor shot a glance right and left but the cityscape seemed blandly incurious. He shrugged slightly and followed Jane in her dogged survey.
Four miles along, as the city streets around them changed dramatically, opening up to an older urban residential neighbourhood, Jane bounced excitedly. "Up ahead," she directed, "looks like just past that school!"
Almost jogging, she walked along the right-of-way underneath the looming utility towers. Thor could see that her scanner was filling with a bright green glow in the upper right-hand quadrant. He quickened his step and they were soon on the back edge of a fenced parking lot beside a boxy brick school complex. The parking lot was half full of cars but empty of people. Jane pointed over the fence.
Without effort, Thor vaulted the six-foot barrier and put the equipment down on the asphalt. He reached over a hand to help Jane. She put one foot in the chain-link and then was lightly pulled up in the air and over.
"Oof!" Jane blinked up at Thor who smiled broadly at the woman he loved, held close in his arms.
Jane blushed. "So unprofessional!" She clambered out of his arms but, seeing his hurt expression, took pity on Thor. "It would look strange to be some sort of government investigators mooning over each other in the middle of the work-day, that's all."
Thor's look of hurt faded. "Ah, I see," he replied. "The customs of Midgard seem less enjoyable than those of Asgard. There, a man and woman may be close and also carry on their duties without it causing comment."
"I'd better not hear tell of you and some Asgard maiden 'being close'," Jane began heatedly before losing her assumed anger at Thor's look of shock. "Kidding, sorry! Okay, could you take those two rigs out of their bags? They'll need to be pulled across the open sections. Pity the cars are parked over there but we might get lucky and not need to go that far."
Thor effortlessly pulled the heavy equipment out of the bag. Jane telescoped out the long handle and indicated how he should pull it. "Slowly," she repeated as he started off with a quick step, "it needs to send a signal down into the earth and back to my recorder!"
They hadn't been at the process long before an officious looking woman approached from the school. "I'm May Wesson, principal of North Hartford Secondary. We're wondering what you're doing on our school property?"
Thor halted at Jane's raised hand. Jane smiled brightly and stepped up to offer her hand to the older woman. "Oh, I'm sorry! I'm Jane Fielding and this is Tom Thorson. We're with the urban remediation team of the EPA. There are reports of buried oil tanks on this site. We need to scan with this ground-penetrating radar to see if they're here and then the agency will figure out a strategy to remove them. Wouldn't want them to leak and contaminate the soil, here."
The white-haired woman raised a hand to her throat in seeming shock. "Buried oil tank? Heavens no! You can find them with those devices? And get them out?"
Jane shot a warning look to Thor who widened his eyes innocently. He knew enough not to open his mouth and blow their cover and let Jane carry on. "We can't remove them by ourselves if they're here, but we can find out if the reports are substantiated. It might be nothing: maybe the crews who built this school actually dug down deep enough to remove them. You never know! Just let us carry on our survey and, if we need to, we'll ask you to clear the western side of the parking lot so we can scan there."
"Oh certainly, certainly," the flustered woman agreed. "Oil tanks! Contamination! I hope not. The parents would be all over this! Just come by my office there, just inside the blue door up there, if you need us to arrange to move the cars or if you have any news."
"No problem, ma'am," Jane answered smoothly, "we'll do that." She watched as the older woman whirled and strode quickly to the office, muttering under her breath about parents and risk.
Jane reached into her pocket and pulled out a sleek cellular device, putting it to her ear. In a few seconds, she'd checked to see that their SHIELD handlers were already on the job. Ending the call, she smiled wryly and filled Thor in. "Those guys are good. Apparently they're filing review paperwork now and it's already uploaded into the local school board's database of ongoing projects. So let's get back to work!"
Thor grinned and continued to pull the scanners, one after another, across the open area. They broke for lunch, pulling store-bought sandwiches, bags of chips and drinks out of Jane's canvas satchel. When they returned to the job, the cars had been moved from one side of the parking lot to the other, courtesy of Principal Wesson's efficient staff. By one o'clock they had completed the readings and were packing up Jane's equipment.
"So," the worried principal asked when they stopped by the office on their way out, "what's the verdict."
"No oil tanks or any signs of contaminants under the soil," Jane said reassuringly. "It's all good!"
The seated woman almost melted into her chair with an audible sigh of relief. "That's such good news. I was terrified I'd have to circulate a letter to the parents and there'd be such a ruckus at the PTA. I called the board and they sounded surprised we were being surveyed but then they confirmed there was an agency request on the books. I guess you were just faster than the paperwork."
Jane smiled perkily. "Sometimes the government's almost a step ahead! Well, we've got to go and check other risk sites. Have a good day!"
Thor and Jane made their way out of the school and threaded their way through the streets toward the long-parked research van. "You're very good at this," Thor observed.
"Impersonating a federal agent and terrifying innocent people with imaginary threats? Yeah," Jane chuckled, "I should ask Natasha to train me as an agent!"
"No," Thor corrected as they walked along the quiet sidewalk, "I mean that you're good at the research and the puzzling matters out. If you and I had never met, I expect you'd be a prominent scientist, just like Erik."
Jane rolled her eyes. "Not likely in today's market. You could discover a whole new solar system or prove a new theory and still not be able to do better than adjuncting at a community college. I'm lucky that SHIELD funds my research."
Thor stopped in his tracks and put down his burdens. Staring intently into Jane's eyes, the sheer force of his regard stopped her, too. "They, and I, are fortunate to have benefited from your studies. I owe my life to you, nay, my redemption. And so many others would have fared far worse had you not enabled my return, not least of all myself."
"Shush," Jane said, blushing, tangling one finger in her hair. She turned away from Thor's steady contemplation. "We're both lucky, let's put it that way. And maybe we're extra-lucky with this data. From what I saw, there's a pretty clear pattern available and I'd like to review the data back at the hotel."
Thor nodded agreement and they made their way quickly back to the van and onto the downtown streets already filling up with afternoon traffic heading out from the city core.
"Take-out," Thor proclaimed happily around a mouthful of roast chicken, "is a marvelous idea. I'm only glad that Volstagg isn't around or I'd never get a bite." The small table near the window of their hotel room barely offered enough room for the two to set out their food, especially with all that Thor had deemed necessary to satisfy his hunger. The Asgardian overwhelmed the small upholstered chair he'd pulled up to the table while Jane perched on the comparatively dainty desk chair across from him.
Jane chuckled as she ate her own portion with a bit more decorum. "I don't know, big guy, I think you could hold your own."
She made a feint over her cardboard container as if to threaten his whole roasted chicken and fries. Thor playfully growled as he swatted her hand away.
"So," Thor said as he swallowed his next bite, "has our work born fruit today? How are the readings that you took?"
"Good," Jane answered brightly as she stabbed her plastic fork into the tub of salad, spearing some lettuce and a bit of cheese, "really good, even, but a bit interesting. I'll show you after we've finished and tidied up since this table's the closest thing to a desk we have."
"Mayhaps we could sit on the bed," Thor suggested with a sidelong look at the king-sized bed that dominated the main part of the hotel room. "I'm afraid this chair won't hold me for long!"
Jane arched an eyebrow incredulously. "Don't I know what you'll start thinking of as soon as we're there," she responded. "We need to get some work done, first."
Thor grinned cheekily as he went back to devouring his dinner. "When that's done?"
"Early to bed, early to rise," Jane promised throatily. Thor finished his meal in short order and did the clean-up by himself, freeing Jane to pull her computer out and show Thor the image she'd pulled together from the scanners' recordings.
"It's the Bifrost pattern, almost," Thor said thoughtfully, "but it's missing a section here-" one finger rose to trace a section, almost a quarter of the circle that was utterly blank.
He stared at it for a while. "And something else. . . ."
Jane looked up from her notebook to type a couple of quick strokes on the keyboard. Another scanner image appeared, similar to the first, and then a photographic image of a sandy landing site with another partial pattern. "This is what I got with Steve, the day you returned. It's also missing a section, but a different orientation and piece of the pattern. And I got this picture from where Sif came down before you in Mexico."
Thor leaned back in his chair, which groaned alarmingly. "I see. It's the same pattern but with even more missing."
Jane nodded soberly. "At first I thought that the missing section of the resonating pattern was the result of disturbance after the fact. They built some pretty big buildings, dug pretty deep!, when they tore down the old Dodgers' stadium. But here? It's the same kind of partial pattern and it doesn't look like the school went down too deep. When you put that up against the third version. . . . Augh! I don't know!"
Thor put one hand over Jane's which had been worriedly picking at the seam on her jeans. "Do not, what is the expression Clint uses?, 'borrow trouble'."
Jane sourly regarded the cryptic images, then tapped the keyboard a few more times. "You're right. I need more data. Tomorrow, we'll head to another aurora site. It's only a few hours drive away. If we collect enough data, a pattern should be clear."
She powered down the laptop and then shut the lid firmly before turning to Thor with a pleading expression. "I'm sorry, it's just that I'm so frustrated with this. I want the research to go faster!"
"We could ask SHIELD for a Quinjet," Thor suggested. "That way we would travel very quickly."
Jane bit her lip. "I don't think the time we'd save would be worth the hassle. All the newspapers, wanting to know why the Avengers are showing up in all these small towns. Right now, travel time isn't slowing me down, so much as I'm just not 'seeing' what I need to see. Darcy and Erik are also working on this, so I'll touch base with them tomorrow and maybe we can put our heads together."
"It's just," she sighed gustily, "we're running out of time. How I wish I could harness that wormhole effect and stuff some extra hours into each day."
Thor nodded. "Heimdall said that time moves differently between the realms. I have always known this. My father, for instance, was last here on Midgard over a thousand of your years ago."
Jane dropped her gaze to her fingers, stroking the lid of her laptop. "You know, I haven't really thought about it, but your life and mine, they're very different."
Thor leaned closer. "But we have bridged that distance, more than once, Jane."
She laughed, but not lightly. The sound had a bitter edge. "You're a god, Thor. Your father's lived for at least a millennium. I don't even have a clue how old you are compared to me, but I'm pretty sure that you'd have a lot more candles on your cake than the one everyone got for Steve last year."
The memory of a cake topped with dozens of candles brought a smile to Thor's lips, quickly extinguished when he saw how worried Jane appeared. "I have not counted the years of my existence in any way that relates to those here on Midgard. I was but an infant when my father made his last trip to Midgard."
Jane regarded him gloomily. "So you're at least a thousand years old, yourself?"
Thor shook his head. "As I said, time passes differently. We may age more slowly than the people of Midgard, but I don't have the memory of a thousand years of passing time, although my brother and I had a long childhood, filled with escapades that would have horrified my mother if she ever knew of them."
Jane allowed herself to be distracted by Thor's change of subject. "Like what?"
Thor leaned back on his elbows, staring off into empty space. "There was the time Loki and I moved all the books from the library into our tutor's chamber. He woke up literally surrounded by thousands of volumes and could not move out of his bed until help arrived!"
Jane chuckled at the image. "You hated reading?"
Thor nodded. "I preferred swordplay. Sif would join us at practice and Loki would tease her. You know he was the one to cut off all her hair?"
Jane's eyes widened as she pictured the beautiful warrior with shorn hair. "I bet she was mad!"
Thor laughed loudly. "She was furious! Before that day, her hair was more fair than mine in hue. After Loki sheared it, her hair grew in black as night. He tried to apologize to her but I remember she threw the offerings in his face and he had to hide his face for months from fighting practce, ere she cut him down where he stood."
Jane put her laptop over on the nightstand and curled up against Thor's warm, solid length.
"I want to hear every story of your childhood," she said, trying her best to keep the tone of fear and desperation out of her voice.
"And so you shall," Thor promised indulgently.
They spent three days kicking around Winchester, New Hampshire. Somewhere near the the town, an aurora sighting had been made but the data was elusive. After a day in the historical society's reference room, Jane had some possibilities dug out of local diaries and accounts. She rubbed her eyes, seeking to dispell the exhaustion and strain she felt as she met up with Thor, back from another outing with the Avengers, on the wraparound porch of the old building.
"We need to head out into the park north of town," Jane advised as the walked to where she'd parked the van this morning. "I got a copy of the map and, best as I can tell, the location was probably somewhere in the northern reaches of the park, in some pretty remote land."
Thor nodded happily, clearly energized by the chance to finally get some data from another site. It'd been a week and a half since they'd left Hartford. A few stops in Massachusetts and one in Maine had brought less detailed and useful readings: the heavy rocks of the region didn't retain as many signs of the wormhole's energies as the softer soil around Hartford.
As they made their way into the quiet, nearly deserted parking lot of the state park, Jane shot an assessing look around. "Let's haul our equipment up that trail, there, just far enough to be out of sight if anyone's looking. Then we can-" she made a soaring gesture with her free hand "-zip up thataway."
Thor grinned brightly. "Aye, and from above, we might have a better hope of spotting any visible signs!"
Jane sighed a little bit. "Good thing I don't have a fear of heights but I still don't like all the hovering involved in something like this," she grumbled as they made their way past the trail head.
Within a few minutes, they were airborne and soaring north under the grey skies. Jane kept one arm firmly locked around Thor's neck while the other clutched her portable detector.
"Keep going, let's try just past that lake, there," she directed.
With a shift in his grip on Mjolnir, Thor shifted their flight, gaining speed as they soared high above the wind-whipped waters.
"Here," she shouted just as Thor tilted his hammer down to a stunted section of trees running up from the lakeshore.
In a flash, they were earthbound. Thor dropped the detector bags off of one shoulder while Jane assessed the area with her handheld device.
"This sure looks like the spot," she exclaimed brightly. "Won't be easy to get the readings with the trees and undergrowth, but let's see what we can do."
Thor set up the machines with the ease of long practice. Turning around to eye the lay of the land, he opted to start down near the water's edge. Jane directed him steadily north and east so that, within a few minutes, they were over the pattern which ran almost precisely under the shorter, sickly trees.
"Bingo!" Jane announced and began to correlate the data on her small handheld while Thor dragged first one detector and then the other across the rough terrain.
It was coming on dark when they were both satisfied with the mapping results. A chill wind scudded across the shoreline as they packed up the equipment. Thor hoisted the straps of the larger pieces over his shoulder and Jane tucked her precious handheld device inside her down vest, which she then zipped up.
"Are you ready?" Thor asked, extending one hand to take hers.
Jane smiled at his courtly manner. "Thank you, yes," she replied. "I'm more than ready to see if we have enough information to solve this puzzle. Let's get back to the van, get some dinner and get cracking!"
Pulled close against each other, the pair soared into the darkening sky, following the trail that only Mjolnir could trace.
"That felt so good to sit down somewhere that wasn't moving," Jane groaned as she rolled her shoulders. Her arms were clutching the van's steering wheel as she directed it out of the restaurant's parking lot and down the quiet Virginia road. It was another week since their sojourn in New Hampshire. She had ten data sets recorded but, as of yet, no idea of how to use them.
She groaned again at the sensation of fear and despair roiling her stomach.
"I am sure I could take a turn with the driving, Jane," Thor said, obviously for not the first time.
"No way," she chided, relieved that he hadn't sensed her discomfort came more from worry about their project than the strain of long hours behind the wheel. "Not until you get a license and that means convincing Colonel Fury you should be behind the wheel."
Thor leaned back in the passenger seat and adopted a look of heartfelt hurt. "He is far too cautious for anyone with a true warrior's heart."
"Better watch what you say," Jane advised, pointing toward the dash where she was sure was planted at least one of the monitoring devices SHIELD used to track their activities.
Thor glared at the harmless array of plastic and gauges but quieted his complaint.
"We should be seeing Darcy's car soon," Jane said as she steered off the main road and onto a track carved lightly into the reddish dirt. They slowed to a halt as Jane made out a familiar shape ahead.
The van's engine quit with a knock as Jane shoved open the driver's side door. Darcy smiled as her one-time boss piled out of the van and enveloped her in a hug.
"So good to see you!" Jane exclaimed.
"You, too," Darcy answered. "And you as well, big guy. Heard you made it back in one piece! And it's kind of cool that you're checking things out here, not far from the university. I don't even have to miss a class to help you guys."
Thor swept a bow that went strangely with his favourite wool plaid shirt. "Darcy! At your service," he intoned.
"I wish," Darcy said under her breath. At Jane's shocked lock, she rolled her eyes. "Can't blame a girl for looking!"
Before Jane could offer a dissenting opinion, Darcy was heading to the back of the van. "Let's get going here. It's off-season so nobody from the parks service should be around, but I don't want to be here long enough for that to be a problem."
"Agreed," said Jane. Thor unloaded the detectors and they set off on the trail that ran not too far from a rail line.
Darcy pulled a small flashlight out of her bag and shone it ahead. "We just have to get through this wooded area and then we'll be on the edge of Prospect Hill. Near as I could tell from all those accounts, this is where the aurora was brightest so it stands to reason that this is where the landing site was if there was one."
She led them through the last bit of wooded ground to the edge of a field covered with long grass and decorated by a few large park service markers as well as an aged stone pyramid.
"Let's get cracking," Jane said. Soon the three were quietly collecting data on the famed Civil War battlefield. It seemed sacrilegious, Jane felt, to speak loudly as well as a touch dangerous to draw any possible attention to their surreptitious visit, although SHIELD would bail the out if the authorities discovered their trespass.
But the recording went smoothly, except for Darcy's occasional jokes about leaving a crop circle for the park staffers to discover the next day. Their equipment was safely stowed back in the van just a few hours later.
"So what'd that show?" Darcy asked after Thor closed the van doors.
Jane shrugged her shoulders. "I won't know until we review the data on my computer. We'll go back to the hotel and see what's what."
"Expense account a bottle of Jack Daniels while you're at it and have some fun," Darcy suggested. She sighed in clear disappointment at Jane's glare of disapproval. "Want I should come and hang out with you for a bit? I don't have a class tomorrow until 11:30 and it's only a half hour drive back to Culver!"
Thor smiled. "We should do that, Jane!"
"Okay," the beleaguered physicist conceded, "but no alcohol."
A bottle of Jack Daniels and another of Coke sat on the bathroom counter. Three flimsy plastic glasses, mostly drained, sat on the small end table beside the lone chair. Three figures crowded around the laptop occupying the chair while the people were forced to settle on the floor where they helped themselves from the bags of potato chips and pretzels Darcy had insisted they stock up on at the Wawa after grabbing some booze from the local control board's shop..
"So this is what we found at Fredericksburg," Jane announced, letting a slightly grainy image fill almost all of the screen. "This is the best one yet so thanks, Darcy, for finding the site for us!"
"No problem," her assistant cheekily replied, sucking down the last of her Jack and Coke. "That's it for me, by the way. Gotta drive back to campus and don't want to get pulled!"
"A good thing, too," Jane said primly. "Thor can finish the rest. It doesn't seem to have any effect on him."
Her subject levered himself off of the floor. "Your wish is my command, Jane," he explained as he poured himself another mixed drink. "I could grow to like these 'cocktails' as you say?"
"Just avoid the ones with the little umbrellas, big guy," Darcy advised drily. "So, Jane, you've got a good picture. What does it tell you?"
Jane frowned as she considered the screen before them. "Well, all of the sites we've found show incomplete patterns. I think that's part of the issue. If I map them, the missing sections are all in the southwest part of the pattern, like something's interfered or diffused the link so much as to destroy it."
"So," Darcy said dubiously, "you're looking for some secret alien tower over Arizona that's blocking the Einstein-Rosen whatsie?"
Jane shook her head. "No, I'm actually expecting our problem's in the opposite direction. It might make sense that something's interfering with the link between Asgard and Earth, something that started doing this around 1859 and has been a problem on and off, since. Just since no one's been travelling much by wormhole, nobody's noticed. It could be sunspots, a near-earth object or something else, though. That's where I'm stumped."
She sighed deeply and Darcy placed a reassuring hand on the back of her shoulder.
Thor stepped back from the bathroom counter with his freshly filled drink in hand. "Wait," he said suddenly, stepping forward to lean in and examine the pattern they'd recovered from the battlefield survey. "Can you show that with the pattern we first recorded, from the original site?"
"Sure," Jane answered with a hint of confusion in her voice, "what are you looking for?"
She shifted the one image over and beside it, the dusty landscape of New Mexico appeared with the familiar knotwork marking.
"They're mirrors," Thor said, touching the screen lightly with one finger at each image. "See?"
Jane's eyes widened. "You're right! Omigod, that could change everything!"
Pulling the computer down into her lap, Jane opened up a spreadsheet and began to type furiously. An arcane equation unrolled in the top bar of the program. She highlighted some fields and hit "ENTER". In a left-hand column, series of numbers blossomed.
"Omigod, that might be what we need," Jane repeated to herself as she continued to type in at lightning speed.
"Which is, what?" Darcy finally asked after about five minutes of Jane's focused work.
"The key to coming up with an explanation. If all of these other sites are mirrors of the first, that's because something, somewhere, and I think I can start to pinpoint the general location where, is intercepting the bridge energies and reflecting them back to these alternate sites," Jane said.
Thor nodded approvingly but Darcy still appeared shell-shocked. "Explain to me like you would to a fifth-grader," the younger woman demanded, "because I don't get it."
"Thor does," Jane said brightly. When Darcy reached over to the bed to grab a pillow and brandish it threateningly, Jane complied. She pulled out her notebook and sketched out several diagrams while Darcy leaned over her shoulder.
"You see, here," Jane indicated, "how we can take the data and start cross-correlating it with the dates and the energy-readings to get a suggestion of where the interference originates?"
"No," Darcy answered baldly. At Jane's hurt expression, she elaborated, "but that's why I'm a social scientist and not a physicist like you. I trust you, I just don't understand you."
"That's okay," Jane chuckled, "I get that a lot."
Thor leaned over to examine her sketch in the notebook. "Do you have a precise location of where we might look for this source of interference?"
At that question, Jane frowned. "The good news is that it's on earth. The bad news is that I'm still not much more certain than that as to the location. I mean, I can rule out about seven-eighths of the earth's surface but that's still a lot of ground to cover for who knows what's doing this."
Darcy put her head on her knees, trying to picture the magnitude of the task. "That sucks! Anyway to improve your chances?"
Jane shot a glance back at Thor. "The more data points we add, the better the definition will be. Thor and I'll head off to Cleveland tomorrow and there's a site in Chicago, next. But can you go back through some of those old periodicals and see if there are any other sightings we've missed?"
"Sure," Darcy promised, levering herself off the hotel room floor after giving Jane a quick hug. "Speaking of research, I'd better head back to campus. Going to go over some articles on redistricting before tomorrow's seminar on political management."
"Just in time research?" Jane teased. "Drive safe, Darcy!"
"Will do," her friend promised. She grabbed her satchel and stepped toward the hotel room door.
"Farewell, Darcy Lewis," Thor said as he bestowed a chaste kiss on the back of her hand.
"Farewell, Thor Odinsson," Darcy giggled slightly in return. "See you and Mew-mew soon!"
With that, the young woman was gone.
Thor turned to Jane and asked plaintively, "Will she ever learn how to say 'Mjolnir'?"
Jane had to laugh at his pained expression, despite the worry that gripped her heart. "I'll get Erik to coach her pronunciation, I promise."
Accepting his pro-offered hand, she got up from the floor, putting the laptop away in its case before grabbing her small duffel bag. "I'm going to get washed up," she announced.
At Thor's hopeful expression, she snorted. "Have you seen the size of that shower? I'm doing it alone, but last one in bed is a rotten egg!"
Fortunately for Jane's sense of competition, Thor's unfamiliarity with the expression allowed her to get past him and take control of the pint-sized hotel bathroom. But she had to pay by teaching him all the "Midgard slang" he wanted to know the next day as they set off for the Midwest.
Cleveland had been frustrating, they both agreed. They'd gotten some pattern readings but very disturbed since the aurora sighting there had happened near the salt mines. The work since had all but obliterated much of the traces they'd normally uncover. Jane persevered and managed to incorporate some data into her equations, but that only narrowed the target area by a further four percent.
"The aurora here came in 1898, a few years after their World's Fair," Jane explained as they packed up the sensors. "So we're lucky since some of these structures were preserved since the fair and that included our site."
"Aye," Thor agreed as he put first one and then the other in the back of the van. "But is this going to be enough?"
Jane bit her lip as she carefully closed the van's rear door. "We'll see. I think Darcy might be able to find one or two more sites for us-"
"No," Thor interrupted, laying one of his large hands down over her slender wrist. "What I mean is that were almost out of time. Tomorrow will be the full month allotted to me. I can, perhaps, stretch it by one or two days further, but no more without being foresworn."
Jane turned stricken eyes to his. "You think I don't know?" she bit out. "It's all I think about."
Thor wrapped her up, tightly in his arms. "I'm sorry, Jane, I know this weighs on you as well. We will find a way, I know it!"
Jane's arms crept around Thor's waist, prolonging the embrace. "I'm sorry, too, Thor. I'm starting to lose hope. . . ."
Thor levered himself back slightly. "Never give up hope, Jane. It's a powerful force!"
She nodded wordlessly.
"Come, let us retire to our 'Knight's Inn' after finding some place that serves something other than hamburgers or fried chicken," Thor suggested. "Then we will apply ourselves, refreshed, to the task at hand."
"I think we should head back to New York tomorrow," Thor said while Jane continued to type at her keyboard.
She shot a quick glance in his direction. "But maybe Darcy will still find another location we can investigate!"
"All of this," Thor said, gesturing with one hand to take in the computer screen and Jane's homemade detector she'd interfaced with the laptop, "all of this is good only so far. We need to reach out to our friends and seek their wisdom."
Jane sighed. "I wish Erik would do more than consult by video-chat," she said sadly, "but I suppose that Tony and Bruce, especially, might have some good ideas to help us narrow the search."
Thor slapped one hand to his denim-clad knee. "That’s a great plan!"
Jane bit her lip as she opened up the communications software. "I’ll check the secure channel to see if one of them is available."
She tapped at the keyboard, establishing the link with the SHIELD systems and then searching the available links. "Bruce isn't online but Tony is," she said, "trying to get his attention!"
"Hey there, you crazy kids," Tony commented once he'd accepted her request to open a line, "how's it going?"
"Not so good," Jane admitted. "We have a good lead but we're running out of time. Hey, where are you anyway?"
The last was inspired by the bright blue waters glistening behind Tony's figure. "Back in Malibu," he said. "There's only so long I can stand it in that glorified dormitory you call the Avengers Tower."
"But isn't that your building?" Jane asked in confusion. At Tony's genial nod, she rolled her eyes. "Okay, well, that's not important but Thor and I, we're having trouble narrowing down the area we're searching in or even figuring out what we're searching for. I wish Erik was here to help some more."
Thor nodded beside Jane and Tony's eyes flicked toward his teammate. "I believe it must be something of Asgardian origin," the god of thunder said, "only that would have the power to warp the Bifrost. But it could be as large as the Tower or something incredibly small."
Jane interrupted. "The only clues we have are the radiometric and magnetic readings that point to a site somewhere between New England and Iceland."
Tony raised his hand and she stopped her words. "An alien device capable of generating huge magnetic distortions that could be as big as a battleship or as small as a breadbox?"
"Maybe smaller," Jane clarified, her brow creased in a frown of confusion. "Why?"
"Maybe nothing," Tony said, but his excited tone suggested otherwise. "Look, it's got to be late in your local, what?, Chicago time. And I've got a little project to get off the ground, I think."
"Okay," Jane allowed with a small tinge of disappointment evident in her voice.
"Don't give up," Tony commanded. "You've got a whole team of superheroes behind you as well as that big guy and his hammer. We'll figure this out!"
Thor's Avengers-issued communicator buzzed, vibrating the nightstand. Both Thor and Jane were instantly awake, Thor sweeping back the covers to rise from the bed with one hand while he summoned Mjolnir with the other. With a quick glance down at the screen of the small communicator, Thor frowned. "A spacecraft has crashed in Colorado. Unknown origin. We are called to investigate and defend. I will rendezvous with the Avengers' helicarrier."
Jane rose to her knees for a hurried kiss. "See you soon," she whispered against his throat as he hugged her close.
"I promise," Thor said, then with two strides, he was sliding the balcony door open.The quiet, isolated hotel, backing up to a deserted industrial building was a perfect space for Thor to quickly launch himself into flight without any witnesses. Outside, a storm was gathering and it was an easy task for the god of thunder to whip his hammer once, twice, thrice overhead and be lifted aloft on the winds, disappearing into the dark night.
Jane lingered on the threshold of the balcony for long minutes after Thor had departed, waiting until the rain began in earnest to close the glass door against the coming storm.
"I didn't think you should be alone," Pepper said matter-of-factly as she entered the hotel room the next morning.
"Um, thanks," Jane said, hastily shuffling the pile of printouts off of the one chair in the room. Since she'd been unable to go back to sleep last night, she'd fired up her computer and gone trawling through the research, trying to map out patterns and failing. Right now, she'd overlaid the pattern tracings with a magnetic variance map of the northern hemisphere and her laptop struggled valiantly to render the images smoothly on the screen.
The television news played silently in the background, showing a cable news anchor gesturing expansively beside a graphic of the Avengers team. Underneath, a ticker told of an ongoing battle, running through the night, out in the Rocky Mountains.
Jane fumbled for the TV remote and the screen went blessedly black.
Pepper raised an eyebrow. "Really, you know you can push the expense accounts for a place with a bit more room," she advised, taking in the small dimensions of the room, big enough for a king-sized bed, a small desk and a dresser that doubled as a TV stand.
Jane looked around blankly. "But why? It's just a place," she said a bit helplessly.
"So it is," Pepper sighed. "But it isn't your place. Tony told me what you said about not getting anywhere with the field work. So, while the team is still off saving the world, again, you and I have some things to do. Like get you packed up and hand your van over to SHIELD agents to get it back to New York."
Jane sat down abruptly on the foot of the bed. "What?" she managed. "Why?"
Pepper crossed her arms and stared down at Jane, who had the strange feeling she was being managed. "Because after you confided in Tony, the other night, about how you felt you were at a dead end, he made some calls. He's convinced your mentor, Dr. Selvig, to come to New York and meet with you. Apparently, he's found something that might help your problem so since I was on my way from L.A to New York to manage something for Stark Industries, I said I'd pick you up along the way."
"Erik?" Jane gasped, almost falling off the bed. "He's here? I mean, there?"
Scrambling with her piles of paper, Jane hastily packed her research up while Pepper watched in some amusement. "What about your clothes?" the redhead asked as Jane looked around the room.
"They're all in here," Jane said, hefting a duffle bag out of the small closet.
"Jane, we have got to get you shopping after all this is over," was all Pepper said as she followed the other woman out of the room, down the hall and off to where her SHIELD escort waited.
Pepper and Jane made their way down the hallway leading to Jane's SHIELD lab. The door was open and a familiar silhouette lurked just inside the doorway.
"Erik," Jane exclaimed as she raced forward and wrapped her arms around the older man's shoulder in a heartfelt hug. "I've missed you so much."
"Little Jane," Erik said fondly, hugging her close before setting back on his heels to regard her carefully.
"You've been burning the candle at both ends," he diagnosed, seeing the dark circles under her eyes. "You should rest."
"There's time for that later," Jane said dismissively. "Right now, there's work to be done if we're to fix the Bifrost before. . . ."
Erik sighed. "All right, Jane, but you must listen to me. You're no good to anyone if you burn out, so take some care."
Jane grudging nodded in agreement while Pepper smiled widely behind her. "I'll leave you two scientists to work on your project and drop by later, after I've taken care of some business for Stark Industries."
Jane spared a heartfelt smile for the other woman. "Thanks, Pepper," she offered, before hauling her laptop bag and research satchel onto one of the long desks in her lab.
It took about fifteen minutes to unpack all of her material and bring Erik up-to-date on their findings. Happy to take advantage of the multiple screens and massive computing power of her dedicated research facility, Jane called up the runic images from Ebbets Field, Hartford, Fredericksburg and Chicago. All of them showed the same, partial runic pattern lurking in the elemental signatures, deep underground.
"Now, here's where it gets interesting," Erik said, leaning over one of the keyboards to call up a few more images, that appeared on the third screen. "I asked your fellow at SHIELD, Agent Coulson, to send me the data you'd collected these last few weeks. It's clearly degrading. The wormhole's being called into being from some power other than Asgard and that power's also distorting the bridge. That much is absolutely clear."
Jane dropped down in a chair, feeling suddenly hopeless. "So what you're saying is that this is jut getting worse. That we're just mapping the inevitable end of it all."
"No," Erik corrected sharply. "Not at all. Yes, things are getting bad, but we need to stop looking at that as if it's beyond our power. Instead of banging your head against the wall, look for a door."
Jane eyed her mentor suspiciously. "Since when did you become such an optimist?" she asked.
Erik laughed sharply. "Fair enough. I am not an optimist, but I thought, after what happened the first time we met up with such strange things, that maybe what worked then might work now. So I stopped spending so much time in the lab and went instead to the library."
Erik rose from the stool he'd been perched on to head over to a satchel he'd deposited on another lab table and began rummaging around inside. "Here it is," he announced triumphantly as he turned around with a book in his hands which he presented to Jane with a flourish.
"The Great Book of Norse Mythology," Jane read doubtfully from the colourful title page. "Erik, is this another children's book?"
"Yes, yes," Erik said impatiently, flipping past a few dozen pages to identify a passage with one emphatic finger. "Read this."
Jane complied. "Freya had a marvellous necklace called Brísingamen which wreathed the sky around her in flames. Controlling the power of the northern lights, the necklace was coveted by many, including Loki, who many say sought to steal this rare treasure. But woe betide the thief! All knew that if any took Brísingamen from its rightful owner, the flames of heaven would pour forth, bringing chaos to travellers until the treasure was returned."
"See," Erik added eagerly after she'd read the passage. "It all fits! 'Chaos to travellers' and 'the power of the northern lights' - somehow, this story must be based on real Asgardian technology. What do you bet that Loki did steal the damned thing and stowed it somewhere here on earth, causing this whole sorry problem to emerge?"
Jane gaped a few times. "That's a bit of a leap, Erik," she cautioned. "These stories are hundreds of years old but there's no evidence before, oh, 1859, of any great problems with solar storms and the northern lights!"
Erik resumed his perch on the chair, taking the book out of Jane's loose hold. "Nowhere in here did it say that the medieval people believed Loki had stolen the necklace, only that he coveted it. But what if he finally gave in and did so? We know that the Asgardians are long-lived. A century and a half is well within their lifetimes."
Jane pursed her lips, still doubtful. "I suppose it could be but, Erik, this sounds like just a wild theory."
Erik leaned back slightly on his stool. "Now that's where you're wrong," he said as he commandeered the keyboard and started typing.
"Along with all the other data they sent, I got related information from recent Avengers' surveillance. The other month, when Thor was gone, they went on a rescue mission up the east coast and into Canada, right?"
Jane nodded cautiously. "Yes, I remember, but what does that have to do with our work? Did they run across another pattern-marked site?"
Erik grinned. "Better than that, though no one knew it until that clever Mr. Stark and I put the pieces together. He called me at the university late last night and I took the opportunity to ask him about this data."
With a tap of his fingers, he brought up a detailed magnetic map of the coastline of southern Nova Scotia. "Apparently, when they flew over the region near Sable Island, they crossed a strange magnetic anomaly. One whose properties line up with the trace readings you've found at the localization sites."
"What?" Jane shoved Erik out of the way as she leaned over the desk to scrutinize the monitor. "You're kidding!"
"Now," he cautioned, "it's still just a theory, but after talking with him, I thought about what was in this old book and I did a bit of research on the internet."
Jane shot him a disbelieving glance and he shrugged. "Okay, I called up Darcy and she did it for me. I asked her to search for mention, sometime around 1859, of a Norse artifact. She found an archaeological report out of Bergen that mentioned a beautiful medieval necklace found at what they described as 'cultic site, a circular area on the rock still marked by knotwork.' This happened the same day as the first great aurora! I have a feeling that was the original Bifrost site and that, maybe, this necklace had the power to break the old gate, laying way for all the aurora activity to follow."
"Really?" Jane responded. "But Bergen's a long way from North America and the Atlantic where we know we need to look!"
"It gets better," Erik advised. He commandeered the keyboard and navigated to another document, blowing up an image from a Victorian newspaper. "The necklace was sold at auction to a wealthy American collector. His agent was transporting it on board the S.S. Hungarian, bound for Maine. That ship went down, all hands lost, in February, 1860, just off Cape Sable."
Jane gaped. "So you're saying that some sort of alien necklace, brought to earth over a hundred years ago and lost under the Atlantic coast, is behind all of these problems?"
"It's worth a try, don't you think?" Erik responded.
Jane enveloped him in a fierce hug and then kissed him soundly on the cheek. "If this pans out, you're my hero!"
Erik shrugged modestly but a rosy blush rose up his cheeks. "I simply put together some more pieces of the puzzle you'd already almost solved. If it hadn't been for the information from the Avengers' fly-over, I never would have thought to ask this question. And you have to give credit to Darcy as well as Tony Stark."
Jane was already whirling away to tap into the Avengers' tracking system. "This says they're on their way home from Colorado. I'll call them up and let everyone know!" She couldn't suppress a tone of giddy excitement as she hailed the superhero team to share their exciting news.
In the meeting room of Avengers headquarters, Colonel Fury dominated the far end of the room while the rest of the team clustered in seats around the gleaming table. Behind him and beside him, from multiple projectors, images drawn from Jane's research and Erik's additions filled the walls.
"We're up against the wall, here, people," the director intoned. "Jane's research has paid off but we're out of time. In fact, we're past time by my reckoning." Nick Fury shot a glance Thor's way and the blond Avenger nodded in confirmation.
"All right, we need to locate this artifact and retrieve it immediately, if not sooner. Thor, you've reviewed all the information. Do you think we're on the right track?"
Thor stroked his chin thoughtfully. "That image from the old account, it's not precise but it certainly looks like Brisingamen. When we were youngsters, my mother always wore the necklace. I remember it well and I also remember it disappearing when we were only little older. From what he's said and from what I now know, I suspect he stole the necklace thinking to gift it to a friend but ended up hiding the crime by tossing it into the Bifrost."
Erik chimed in. "Given the stories of its powers, it's not implausible to think that such a powerful item, brought to earth, could have affected the wormhole in such a chaotic fashion."
Fury nodded. "Dr. Foster? What are your thoughts?"
She looked up from her notebook where she'd been rapidly making notes. "This has to be it. There are no other options and no more time. I've called in some favours with an old friend at Woods Hole, the oceanographic institute. He hooked me into an ongoing project to map the wrecks of Cape Sable."
She rose from her seat and went to one of the terminals along the near wall. "If we deploy some sonar buoys in this area-" a satellite image of the perilous coastal region came into effect, "-we should be able to confirm the wreckage site though, in a hundred and fifty years, things can move around a lot! Still, tie that in with the magnetic anomaly that I'm sure we can track with my own equipment and we should be able to pinpoint the site to within a hundred meters. Then all we need to do is find a way to locate and recover a tiny item from the ocean floor."
"Piece of cake for the Avengers," Clint said drily, but, like the rest of his teammates, the bowman was up and ready for action as Colonel Fury ushered them out the door.
"The things I do for the team," Tony said as he slowly worked his way up from the wreckage. Iron Man had prevailed as the most logical choice to do the underwater recovery. This didn't stop the rest of the Avengers as well as Jane and Erik from closely monitoring the feed emanating from his suit's sensors as he'd made the foray under the cold Atlantic waters just off of the southern tip of Nova Scotia, the same area they'd experienced the strange magnetic anomaly weeks ago.
"Really, sir, I believe I've done most of the work here," JARVIS primly corrected. "I've channeled the data for satellites and the sonar buoys that allowed us to pinpoint the shipwreck site and the necklace's location. I also did the modifications that allowed your suit to continue to perform at optimal levels necessary for this underwater expedition."
Tony snorted, an explosive blast of sound from the speakers on the helicarrier that made most of the listeners laugh. "You wouldn't be able to do a thing if I hadn't programmed you in the first place, you know," Tony retorted.
Director Fury tabbed the speaker with one hand. "Quit your lollygagging around and get on with it," he advised impatiently.
"Aw, you ruin all my fun," Iron Man complained, but within a few minutes, a familiar whine heralded his arrival on top of the windy helicarrier deck. With a jaunty step, he soon entered the command centre where everyone waited.
His armour slipped away from face as he strode up to Director Fury and uncurled one hand to release its small burden into the waiting man's hand. "Mission accomplished," Tony barked, then laughed. "I always wanted to say that."
Director Fury let the necklace unfurl from his hands. Seeming silver flashed through with opalescent gleaming that intensified in a thick pendant which seemed to pulse in a green glow.
In an instant, the Asgardian was there to accept the proffered necklace. He stared at it closely. "It's Brisingamen! I remember this," he offered by way of explanation. "My mother wore it constantly when we were children, my brother and I, but then, one day, it wasn't there. I knew my brother was fascinated with it. I even suspected he might have stolen it but I never said anything. I suppose I should have."
Steve clapped him on the shoulder. "It would have been better to have spoken up, but few kids are that sure about what's right and wrong. Your parents will understand."
Thor's expression gained in intensity. "I must make amends, in any case, for the ill this has done to Midgard as well as in Asgard" He closed his fist around the necklace and in two strides, was at Jane's side.
"Please understand, Jane Foster," he said quietly. "I must return to Asgard and I must see if my father will exact a price for my misdeeds. But know that I will return."
Jane bit her lip. "I understand, Thor. Go, with my blessing but," she ended fiercely, "come back as soon as you can." She reached up on her tiptoes to cup his cheeks and plant a kiss on his lips.
Thor leaned his forehead against hers after they finally broke off their kiss. Reluctantly, he lifted his head, nodded intently at his fellow Avengers, then strode out on the helicarrier deck, shouting into the sky for Heimdall to open a passage that flared brightly as it took him up into the sky. The rest of the group that had trailed behind him stared up into the engulfing clouds.
Jane stood, numbly, as Natasha put a comforting arm around her shoulder. "I'm sure he'll be back soon," the other woman said bracingly.
Jane nodded, not trusting her voice as she struggled with her fears and finally allowed Natasha and Erik to lead her back inside the carrier as it returned to New York.
As soon as SHIELD could make it happen, Jane was on the ground in New Mexico. The old auto-dealership she'd used as her research base was now a thriving coffee shop. The steady stream of locals and off-duty techs that patronized the coffee shop kept the staff hopping and the tables filled. Jane had taken to camping out at the shop when waiting at the landing site got too crazy-making. Thus, she was seated in one of the overstuffed chair, trying to read a scholarly report on quantum theory when her cell rang.
Fumbling for the phone, she managed to lift it to her ear. "We're picking up energy readings," Agent Coulson calmly reported. Jane was already out the door, her half-finished coffee left on the arm of the chair as she raced for her van.
Peering out into the twilight sky through her windshield, Jane spotted tell-tale swirls of green and blue coalescing overhead. "Oh god, oh god," she breathed as she steered the van cross-country over a track she optimistically considered a workable alternative to the unpaved road that ran less directly there.
Like a bucking bronco, the van lurched and swerved unexpectedly over ridges and washes but it held together. As the landing site, with its monitoring building beside became visible, Jane could see the wormhole forming directly above. She gunned the engine heedlessly, and the van careened wildly the last quarter of a mile before she screeched to a halt not ten feet from Agent Coulson.
As she threw the door open and half-fell out of the van, he turned to inspect her with his usual imperturbable expression. "Glad you could make it, Dr. Foster," he said with that maddening deadpan expression he never seemed to alter.
Jane nodded awkwardly, unwilling to drag her eyes away from the whirlwind as it touched down to earth exactly in the spot where Thor had first come to earth. Unconsciously, she sighed: for the first time in months, the Einstein-Rosen bridge was materializing according to parameters. Now if only it brought back-
There. With a flash of lightning and thunder, the funnel dissipated, revealing a familiar blond figure, grinning widely.
"Jane!" Thor shouted as he closed the distance between them. He lifted her in his arms and spun her around before pausing to kiss her heartily.
"Ahem," Colonel Fury interjected after a long minute. Shamefacedly, Jane broke away but Thor only let her feet touch the ground, holding the rest of her close against him.
"Colonel, Son of Coul! All is well with the Bifrost and with Asgard!" Thor's booming voice carried across the space between the landing site and the monitoring building where a small crowd of SHIELD employees were gathering.
"That's good to know," Colonel Fury said. "So you're back with the team?"
"Assuredly so," the god of thunder replied.
Jane regarded him quizzically. "He's not mad at you for stretching the terms of your stay here to find the solution? That was a bit beyond a month."
Thor gazed down at her with a satisfied grin. "Actually, I confessed my fault upon my return. My father accepted my reasons and said that my doing so was a sign of maturity."
"Really?" Jane couldn't help the tone of surprise that crept into her voice.
Thor looked off into the distance, as if conjuring a memory. "His exact words were, 'A good king is harder on himself than on those around him. I think you will make a good king when it is time.'"
"And hopefully not for some time," SHIELD's director proclaimed. "I'll pass the word onto the rest of the team that you're back. Be ready to depart for the tower in ten."
With that order, he headed back off to the station, presumably to prepare for the trip back to New York. Agent Coulson stepped forward to smile at the two of them. "It's good to have you back, Donald," he said in a deadpan tone.
"Agent Coulson," Thor acknowledged with only a slight dimming of his broad smile. He hugged Jane even closer. "If we are all to share the jet, might I beg a boon of some privacy to speak with Jane?"
"Certainly," the SHIELD agent replied with a touch of sympathy. "Why don't you head on over to the jet? I'll make sure that Colonel Fury takes his time getting ready for departure."
Thor and Jane shared a look of surprise as he left them. "I didn't know he had that much of a heart," Jane confessed.
"He has always been more kind than you were willing to credit, Jane," Thor said. Shifting his arm to her shoulders, he led her along the darkening path toward the Avengers' Quinjet, warming up for their return flight.
They climbed the steps and made for the passenger seats behind the pilot's area, pulling the door closed behind him. "There," he said with some satisfaction. Before he could say more, Jane pulled him in close for a kiss.
When she pulled back, it was with a smile of satisfaction. "You missed me," she stated with certainty.
"I missed you every moment of our separation. I hope that by returning Brisingamen to Asgard, we have ended some of the time distortion," Thor stated anxiously. "You did not wait on my return for very long?"
Jane shrugged with a semblance of carelessness. "Four days," she said. "They don't matter now that you're back."
Jane leaned into his embrace and, when he took a seat, fell comfortably into Thor's lap. He stroked her hair with one hand while, with the other, he twined their fingers together.
"After I spoke with my father," Thor began quietly, "I hastened to return Brisingamen to my mother. She was filled with joy but I was surprised to hear she bore no ill will toward my brother."
Jane curled her fingers tightly against his. "Do you?"
Thor dropped his head on top of hers. "I do not know. I have tried to put aside my anger with him for all the harm he did here on Midgard. When I learned that his carelessness had been the cause of all this disaster? I was filled with rage."
"But you're not, now," Jane observed.
"No," Thor agreed, a clear note of surprise in his voice.
"Maybe you'll be able to mend fences with Loki someday," Jane said. "It would be nice to meet someone of your family!"
Thor's head lifted abruptly. "That reminds me! My mother wanted to thank you for your part in returning Brisingamen and restoring the Bifrost."
Jane leaned back in his arms to meet his gaze. "That's sweet. Tell her she's welcome."
Thor chuckled. "You fail to understand me, Jane. She asks that you come to Asgard so that she may personally thank you for the service you have rendered."
With a jolt, Jane's heart seemed to stop and then restart. "Come to Asgard? What? How? When? Are you sure?"
Thor squeezed her hand reassuringly. "I thought you might fret at this request. Yes, she meant the invitation and it is with my father's assent. He also wants to thank you for your diligent efforts. But I begged the indulgence of some time for us to be together here on Midgard. Some 'alone time' as you say?"
Before Jane could offer her enthusiastic agreement, the jet's hatch opened and Colonel Fury stormed inside, followed by Agent Coulson.
"Strap yourselves in," the director snapped. "We're taking off now and changing course for the helicarrier. Apparently there's some sort of mutant walking weed that's taking over part of Milwaukee. You'll manage with the detour, Dr. Foster?"
Jane was in the next seat and still fastening her belt when the jet rose dizzyingly quickly into the evening sky. Thor reached out to reclaim her hand and she couldn't help but smile giddily at him. "As long as I get him after Milwaukee's safe, colonel, I'm good with that."
From the pilot's seat, SHIELD's director laughingly agreed to her terms as the jet went supersonic.
"Coward!" Sif's growled words only minutely preceded the slam of her hand into Loki's shoulder, pinning him to the wall of the corridor.
Loki's wide eyes met the warrior woman's steely gaze.
"Milady Sif," he acknowledged before shifting his frame minutely and somehow slipping like quicksilver out of her grasp.
Sif simply growled again, leaning in forcefully to pin him with the power of her regard more securely than she could by force of arms.
"You thief!" Sif intoned. "You maligner of a lady's reputation! You coward!"
Loki let one elegant hand lightly touch his collarbone. "Why am I so accused?"
Sif snorted, her expression at odds with her formal dress. "I have come from the banquet where Fandral is retelling the story of how you-" she jabbed a finger at Loki "-stole Frigga's necklace, seeking to somehow put the blame on me! All Asgard has heard tell of your childish plan and I will have satisfaction."
Loki laughed but at Sif's dark look, he hastened to explain. "Sif, my dear, you know I have only the highest regard for you. I took Mother's necklace, yes, that is true but-" he hastened to explain as she glowered in his direction "-I was only a child, then. And I sought not to frame you, on this Fandral is wrong. No, I sought to court you."
"To . . . court me?" Sif responded, shocked so deeply that her voice was almost inaudible.
Loki let his gaze dance away. "You may remember your anger at my cutting of your hair," he commented and, seeing her fiery expression return, raised one hand lightly to forestall her angry confirmation. "It was wrong, I admit now. I knew that then and sought to make amends."
Sif raised one eyebrow in eloquent disbelief.
"Truly," Loki responded, "and even something more. I was always your greatest admirer, Lady Sif. But I lacked the wisdom to know how to best express it and when I realized that gifting you with Brisingamen would only increase your ire, I panicked and tossed it into the Bifrost."
While she stood in wary consideration, Loki greatly dared to lift one of her hands to his lips.
"Forgive me?" he asked.
Sif jerked her fingers away but only after a long moment.
"Perhaps," she finally conceded. "But if you would court me, now, Loki Odinsson, be brave enough to do it in the open and with all honesty."
Loki bowed his head and then smiled suddenly. "It will be a challenge, milady."
Sif's smile was even more brilliant. "It most certainly will, milord." And with that enigmatic response, the goddess of war returned to the feast hall on the arm of the god of mischief as all Asgard watched.