Jane looked up from where she was curled up on the beaten up old sofa in her New York apartment, notepad on her knees and favorite sweater wrapped around her shoulders. When nothing actually broke through the wall, she shrugged and turned back to her notebook. Boxes and crates littered the floor, everything half-packed and ready to be shipped to Avengers Tower. Piles of books and scientific journal made leaning, sometimes destroyed, towers along the edge of the walls. A box of pizza took up the small folding table that stood in for a dining room, the only food that didn't need the dishes or flatware Jane had already packed.
In less than a week she'd be married to Thor, and some very serious people in very serious black suits had informed her that a royal couple of Asgard couldn't be allowed to live in an unguarded studio apartment. Thor's promise that Asgardian warriors would be protecting Jane's home probably only made it worse.
Outside the door, whatever it was went thud again. Hard. Jane just turned the page and kept working, inured to unexpected noises after a year of being engaged to Thor and two years working with Tony. It took a second thunk and the cry of "Mother, I beg you, do not undertake this folly" before she finally looked up.
"Thor Odinson," Frigga's voice rang loud and clear, cutting through the thin walls like paper. "This is a matter of grave importance, a sacred trust I undertake in the name of my future daughter and all womanhood. I shall not be barred from my duty. Stand aside." The front door was straining against the frame, as if someone had thrown all their weight against it. Jane's head rocked in sympathy as the door thunked twice more.
Before her future husband could be beaten up any more, Jane set aside her notebook and went to the door. When she opened it, she found herself staring at Thor's shoulder blades. He'd thrown himself across the doorway, apparently intending to act as a one-man barrier. It was one of the days he'd decided to put on Earth clothing rather than his usual armor, and the black t-shirt stretched gloriously over muscles she really didn't have time to properly appreciate. Just beyond him, his mother stood in her regal finest, taking up most of the narrow hall. Sif stood guard behind her, one hand on her sword and her expression stony.
That probably wasn't a good sign.
When the door opened, Frigga looked up and smiled. "Daughter, your assistance, if you please? My son seems intent on causing me difficulty this day."
Attack of the in-laws. She should have known this was coming. And of course everything was packed, she couldn’t even offer anything to drink that didn't come in a can. What did you offer the queen of the gods to drink? Somehow, Jane didn't think coke would cut it. "I—of course, Your Majesty, I— Thor, move!" Pressing her hands to Thor's wide shoulders, Jane did her best to shove him out of the way. She'd have had better luck trying to move the building around him. He didn't even sway, much less move. "Let her in! We can't leave her standing out there!"
Thor looked over his shoulder and gave her the most wide-eyed, puppy dog stare she'd ever seen on a human being. "Jane, my love, you do not know what she is here for."
Well, that wasn't ominous at all. "She's your mother." A few more pushes and Thor finally allowed himself to be forced off to the side, and Jane was left facing Frigga without a handy wall of muscle between them. She swallowed nervously and pushed her hair back from her face. "Frigga— Sif! Please come in. It's kind of a mess, but maybe I can get you a coke?"
Thor stayed close by Jane's elbow, fidgeting like a sugar-high toddler. His eyes darted between her and Frigga, with the occasional worried glance at Sif for good measure. "Mother, please— Sif, you are to stand by me. Do not let this happen."
"No, my friend."Sif's hand on her sword tightened threateningly. She'd worn full battle armor and had an array of spiky, probably painful things tucked into her belt and on her back. "Your 'best man' I may be, but a woman also, and this is my duty as much as that of my queen. Know your place and be silent."
Really not good.
Stepping forward, Frigga took Jane's hands between hers and smiled. Every inch of her was perfect, gorgeous and elegant, from the draping folds of her golden gown to the crown that held back her hair. "Thank you, but that will not be necessary. I need only a moment of your time."
Instantly Jane remembered how her favorite sweater was badly patched in three places, her socks were more grey than white and she hadn't brushed her hair when she woke up that morning. Next to Frigga's elegance, she felt about three inches tall. Doing her best to stand up straight and not look like someone wearing the same thing she'd had on the day before, Jane smiled brightly. "What can I do for you, then?"
"There are certain sacred rites, mysteries at the heart of Asgardian womanhood which must be undertaken in the days before the union of man and maid." The warm, soft hands around Jane's tightened in a comforting squeeze, while Frigga looked at her with all the solemnity of a funeral in progress. "Hallowed tradition states that it is my honor and duty to guide you, my new daughter, through these mysteries, these solemn rituals of womanhood which will prepare you for your new place at my son's side."
Jane nodded blankly, not sure how to explain that she filled out the religion part of the census with a firm "meh". It didn't seem like the sort of thing that you said to a goddess. "I see. And you want me to do these... rites? I'm not sure I—you don't need to go through all that trouble..."
Frigga let go of Jane's hand to cup her cheek. "As I said, it is my honor to guide you in his. Fear not, I shall allow no harm to come to you, no matter how fearsome the mysteries may be."
Cultural differences. Compromise. Preparing for the difficulties of an inter-religious marriage. Jane had made herself a mental checklist of all those things and made sure she was absolutely okay with all of them before taking the step of asking Thor to marry her.
No amount of lists could have prepared her for something that sounded like it might kill her.
As if she could see Jane's thoughts, Frigga's smile started to fade. "You will come, will you not?"
Sif started to look worried, glaring at Thor as if it were entirely his fault that Jane was having doubts. There was a heavy suggestion in the air that if Jane refused, someone was going to get his ass kicked.
Doubts wiggled around in Jane's mind like slimy, disgusting earthworms, trying to burrow in and make their homes. If she didn't do it, she'd never fit in with Thor's people, with his family. Frigga would be disappointed, and everything she'd been told said that good relations with the mother in law were critical. Even worse, everything they had done over the past year to try and make the marriage go smoothly would be ruined.
When she thought of it that way, there didn't seem to be any choice at all. Biting her lip, Jane nodded slowly. "Yes—yes of course I will. I'm honored that you would—" She groped for words, finally settling on a limp, "—that you would guide me in these.... mysteries."
Thor made a protesting noise, but it became suddenly unimportant as Jane found herself engulfed in Frigga's embrace. Her eyes bulged and her ribs creaked as she was clutched close—it clearly wasn't Odin that gave Thor his talent for bear hugs. "Thank you, my daughter," Frigga whispered fiercely in her ear. "Thank you."
With a loud, smacking kiss to Jane's cheek, Frigga stepped back, beaming like an on-coming semi-truck to Jane's concussed deer. "Collect your ladies and tell them to be prepared to attend you at sunset in two days. Heimdall shall collect you. I warn you that no men may witness or know of these rites, saving those of the holy order which shall attend us."
Jane nodded and smiled, having decided that was the best way to get through the conversation. Death. I'm going to die. "Great. That's just... great. Fantastic."
Sif cleared her throat, bringing Jane's attention the fact that she was still holding the hilt of her sword like she'd draw it and chop Thor down at any second. "My queen, we should be gone. Idunn must be contacted for the ceremonies with all due haste."
"Of course, thank you. Good-bye, Jane, Thor." Giving Jane one last kiss on the cheek—kiss of death, Jane thought uncharitably—Frigga turned and made her way down the hall, Sif as her escort.
Somehow, Jane managed to wait until the top of Frigga's head vanished from sight before sagging backwards against the door of her apartment. Almost before her back touched it, Thor had an arm wrapped around her waist, guiding her inside. Jane let him do it, ready to be pampered a bit after having had the culture clash bomb dropped on her head.
"I am sorry, my love," Thor murmured against her hair as he pulled her into a hug that was only a little bit less strangling than Frigga's had been. "I had hoped that since you are not of Asgardian origin you might be spared."
Letting herself sink into him, Jane buried her face in Thor's chest, hands sliding deep into the hip pockets of his jeans. For once, it was more to cling to him than to feel him up. "It can't be that bad, right?" she tried, working to keep her voice light against the slow, sinking rock in her stomach. "I mean, Asgardian women do it all the time."
"I have seen many a bride after her rites," Thor confessed, his voice low and rough, muffled where he'd pressed his lips to her hair. "Shaken and pale, brought low by whatever they had learned of those mysteries held in sacred trust. Never have the mysteries of men had such an effect on the groomsmen."
"So you have to do it, too?" Strangely, that made her feel better. It wasn't just some ghastly horror forced on the bride—it was a couple's thing.
"I do. My rites are to be the same night as yours."
Compromise. If Thor had to do it, she wasn't going to drop her side of the bucket. Thor might say he'd rather she stayed safe, but it was his culture that she was thinking of flouting. Jane took a deep, calming breath and then released it. Pulling away, she put on a brave smile. "If you're going to do it, then so can I."
Heads turned and the streets of Asgard glittered elegantly as Thor strode through them, still clad in his mortal attire of blue jeans and a shirt made of material called 'flannel'. He'd grown fond of it, as the outfit had been chosen for him at the last solstice by his darling Jane. It brought him some small comfort to wear her gift, when doom lurked only a single day away. For this occasion, he had left Mjolnir with his father—the mighty hammer would do him little good for the task he was to undertake.
The path he had chosen was a long, winding one, which ended at a golden gate that guarded an elegant tower surrounded by rolling fields of green. Two guards of Asgard's finest warriors, clad in uru armor and trained by Heimdall himself stood before the massive gates that separated the tower from the rest of Asgard. Thor halted before them, chin lifted, and waited as they turned their golden eyes upon him.
After a long moment, the two inclined their heads, the one on the left reaching forward to open the gate. "Welcome, Thor, Prince of Asgard," he intoned, in the hollow voice of one who has seen through the ages. "The one you seek may be found in the blue room, with the Grand Lady Eirny."
Thor inclined his head to them as he stepped past. "Thank you."
Small groups of Aesir were collected on the lawn under the starry sky, grouped in sacred circles and clusters surrounding those who would guide them. Some eyes watched him malevolently as he walked the path to the main tower, and once he heard a threatening snarl, but in this place no attack would come. Though little love the residence had for him, or indeed for the house of Odin in its entirety, few would be so foolhardy as to attack him in this place.
Inside the tower was not an elegant place, for the strictures kept by the holy order which kept the lands were stern and not to be crossed. There were no marble floors, no statues or decorative vases, none of the gilding that made the palace glisten. In fact, the only decorations were painted directly onto the walls. Men and women in simple brown garb smiled at him as they went about their duties.
The blue room was, appropriately, done all in shades of blue, from the deep sapphire rugs which hung from the walls to the enormous pale cushions that were scattered about in lieu of chairs. Only two people were present, one an elderly woman wearing the same simple robes of the rest of the order, and the other...
"I do not want to draw you a picture, you shriveled crone!"
"Now, Loki, we have spoken about your temper," the woman, who must have been the Grand Lady Eirny, said soothingly. Loki's insult seemed to flow past her without touching, and rightly so. Though her intricately plaited hair was the purest of white that came with the touch of age, her face and form bore no sign of time's passage. "Lashing out will resolve nothing."
Across from the lady was Thor's dear brother, wearing the same plain robes of the rest of the guests. Lank black hair fell around his face in long curls, a result of no edged objects being allowed in his vicinity. Thick pieces of paper and sticks of colored wax spread out before him in a rainbow of color. Only one mark was on the paper, a deep red smear where Loki had attempted to stab it. Restraints held him bound to the table, of dwarven make and carved with runes of power to block Loki's magicks.
Unfortunately, no sigils were capable of blocking his sharpened tongue.
"And I have told you that I shall not be treated as some madman, some villain, capable of being taught the better of his ways," Loki sneered, lip curling in disdain. "You are nothing to me! Nothing!"
Eirny's smile didn't waver. "Perhaps we should practice breathing instead. Would you like that?"
"Pardon me, my lady," Thor interrupted, then flinched when the lady's pale green eyes turned on him. Her gaze bored through his very soul, as if she could lay out his every secret without judgment or pain. "I have come to speak with my brother, if I may."
"Lord Thor, of course." Pressing her hands to the low table, the lady rose from her cushion. For having the appearance of great age, she moved with the ease of a gazelle. With the familiarity of a grandmother, she patted Loki's head, ignored his flinch, and let herself out a door that seemed to lead to a small garden. Certainly the flash of it that Thor saw seemed filled with flowers, and the tinkling of some sort of fountain.
Loki slouched back on his oversized cushion, expression set in a sneer. It was the exact one that graced his face at every visit, though Thor fancied that it was dimming over time. Aesir who were bound to the holy order for rehabilitation sometimes needed centuries before they were truly repentant for their crimes. As broken as Loki's mind had been, Thor feared he would be one of those unhappy few.
For lack of a better seat, Thor lowered himself to the pillow vacated by Eirny. It all but collapsed under him, soft as a cloud and thick as a man's arm was long. There was no grace to the thing, only comfort, which might have been the point. "Loki, my brother—"
"We are not brothers," Loki interrupted, as was his habit. And, as was his habit, Thor continued on, ignoring the words of hate.
"—it's been too long since my last visit. How fare you? Do they treat you well?"
"They treat me with softest touch and whispers of scorn, as you well know." The curl stayed permanently on Loki's lips as he leaned forward, chains clinking musically. "I understand you're to be congratulated on your up-coming nuptials. You have finally found a woman so base as to consent to wed you. Bravo."
No matter how firm he held himself, Thor couldn't pretend his eyes didn't burn at the lash of Loki's words. A century before, he would have thought it was only the mockery a younger brother heaped upon his elder, given with love and kinship. Since Loki's fall, it was difficult not to recall those past conversations, testing to see if the loving brother in them was false, if the hateful creature before him was the true face of their childhood.
Silence may have been a small triumph, but Loki's lips curled into a victorious smile when it went on for more than a few moments. "It's the mortal woman, isn't it? The one you've been enamored of—a low choice, even for you. I should warn the overseer to guard the sheep from your predations."
Patience. Loki would not be helped by giving into his prodding, Thor had been told that many times. Still he winced, but forced himself to smile and meet his brother's gaze. "Yes, it is Jane Foster I plan to marry in four days time, and a blessed man I consider myself to have her regard."
"Then why are you here?" Loki gestured around, arm sweeping as well as it could with the chains that bound him. "Clearly, there are no mortal sheep here to bear up under your affections. You should be with your family, preparing."
"I am with my family." The table was small enough that Thor was able to lean over and clasp Loki's hand between his. "I would like for you to stand with me as I prepare for the ceremony, in your place as my brother."
His brother actually reeled back as though struck, eyes wide. He yanked his hand from Thor's. "Are you insane?" he demanded in a low hiss. "I tried to kill you, you blubbering buffoon, you putrescent infant, and yet you invite me to that?"
Tears stung Thor's eyes. In truth, he'd expected Loki's refusal. It would have been accepting a bond of kinship that his brother was all too eager to cast off, and that Loki would never do. Still it hurt, more than any wound ever had. "I do, for you are my brother, and I would like you to take your place."
White teeth flashed behind thin lips as Loki bared them in a snarl. "My place is with your neck under the heel of my boot."
"We shall see about that." Weary to the depths of his soul, Thor still found strength to continue. "As you have refused my request to stand with me, I now may have a boon from you as my wedding gift. It is the tradition." One that was almost never invoked, because who wanted a favor from someone who needed to be forced to it? But Thor was desperate.
"Aesir tradition, which you know I am not one," Loki sneered, but a contemplative expression had settled over his face. "Make your request, so I can refuse and send you on your way."
Keeping his eyes firm on Loki's, Thor thought back to his carefully planned questions. "You have been inducted into the grand mysteries. Like our father, you lived among women, learning the sacred rites and secrets that they keep. My beloved faces—"
One of Loki's palms rose, cutting Thor off. "No, I am not attending the bridal ceremonies. Mother would never permit it, even were I willing, which I am not."
"You hold the mysteries—"
"And due to mother's presence, I must not attend." Loki's voice started to rise. "It would be foul—indecent for the son of one of the attendants to participate in those rites. Have you no shame?"
Lunging over the table, Thor grabbed his brother's face, holding it so that Loki had no choice but to meet his eyes. "Jane might die," he pled, emotion thick in his chest and throat. "I cannot protect her from this, but you—"
"It is impossible to protect someone from themselves." The green of Loki's eyes was sharp as a knife, and sparkling with grim fire.
Thor's grip tightened, as if he could force Loki to see reason by main force. It was all too easy to picture his beloved, facing down wild beasts, or walking down halls lined with shadows that bore madness in their hands. "Brother—"
Loki bit him.
With a shout, Thor yanked his thumb free of Loki's teeth. They were not sharp enough to do great damage, but reddened scrapes were already blossoming across the pad and knuckle.
From nowhere at all, Lady Eirny appeared at Loki's shoulder, one hand cupped under his jaw while the other pressed him downward. He managed to get a single good snap in at Thor before she was able to force him back to his cushion, mouth tightly closed. She looked up, ice-green eyes turning soft and apologetic. "Forgive us, Lord Thor. He's been a bit bitey of late.
Then Eirny turned her formidable attention to her patient. "Now Loki, you know that biting is strictly not allowed," she scolded, mouth twisted into a deep frown. "I'm going to have to take away your craft time today."
Everything about Loki's expression said that he thought it was worth the loss.
Thor rubbed his hand, finding the pad of his thumb oddly numb from having been chewed on. "It's quite alright, my lady. I should be taking my leave."
Eirny didn't remove her hands, but she beamed. "Thank you for visiting, my Lord, and best wishes for your wedding!"
"Please let me come. Please, please pleeeeeeease. I'm begging you—I'll clean out your office, I'll make you coffee, I'll write up all your reports for a month pleeeeeeeeease."
Contrary to everything Jane ever thought she knew about adulthood, Darcy had wrapped herself around Jane's leg, forcing her to drag her across the floor as she tried to organize boxes. Her sneakers squeaked on the tile every time they moved, which was frequently because Jane refused to acknowledge Darcy's dead weight.
"No," she insisted as firmly as she could, shifting aside a box of bathroom supplies that had somehow gotten mixed with some lab equipment. Her toothbrush was in there somewhere, she just had to find the thing. "This is a major thing—a major dangerous thing! I'm not putting your life at risk just because you want to kick it around Asgard for a while."
"I'm a poli-sci major," Darcy whined, clutching high enough on Jane's thigh that it might have doubled as sexual harassment in some states. "Do you have any idea how good that would look on my resume? That I participated in ancient Asgardian rites of passage? Asgard is the up and coming thing in the field. You have to let me be there. Pleaaaaaaaaase—"
"I'll bring my tazer!"
Jane paused, box of tampons in one hand and an aging Rubik's cube in the other. Darcy's tazer had taken down Thor once. Even if he'd been without Mjolnir, he'd still been a god. Every little bit helped. "Sold. Sundown tomorrow. Be there."
Thor stood in a corner of his sitting room in the Avengers Tower, watching as delivery men moved Jane's things into the room on his floor that had been designated as hers. It wasn't a bedchamber, for all that it contained a bed. Instead it was a workroom, for the keeping of her books and equipment, all of which would stay packed until after the wedding celebrations had completed. His bride to be supervised the movement of everything, hovering over uniformed men as a mother watching her young.
In one day's time, she would be undergoing a rite of passage that few mortals had faced before. Not for all his pleading would any of his womanly companions give him knowledge of what went on in those sacred hours. Even Sif, the most loyal of friends and a warrior besides, refused to help. His Jane would enter the evening unprepared as a maid, emerge a woman, and there was naught he could do prepare her.
But he could ensure that she did not face the gauntlet alone.
Leaving Jane to her work, he turned to the elevator that ran the length of the ten floors the Avengers used for their own. With only a moment hesitation, he pressed the button with the stylized hourglass. A chime sounded as the elevator moved between floors, opening a second later into the elegant abode of the Black Widow. Taking a step out onto the polished wooden floors, Thor took one look and froze.
At the table in the middle of the receiving room, Natasha and Clint were in the middle of some sort of game of chance, cards strewn between them. They were locked together, one of Natasha's hands pinning Clint's to the table while the other was drawn back with a card held up between two fingers, ready to throw. For his part, Clint had grabbed a sofa cushion and was holding it up as a form of shield to block Natasha's projectile.
Both of them looked up awkwardly, Clint's angle made difficult by the way Natasha had his hand trapped. "Hi, Thor," Natasha smiled, twisting her elbow to grind her palm into Clint's knuckles. By the way he winced, she'd found a sensitive joint to crush. "Looking for us?"
While they didn't look like they were free for conversation, they also didn't look put out by his intrusion. Best to ignore them, Thor decided, after spending a second pondering the strangeness of their game. Over the years Clint and Natasha had been his shieldmates, he had learned that occasionally they had moments when even others of Earth could find no logic in their actions. This seemed to be one of those times. "I apologize for interrupting, my friends, but I must have a word with you."
"Is this about that thing you have?" Clint asked. Under the coffee table, he snaked out a leg to twist around Natasha's balancing knee. She wavered, but didn't fall. "It's still on, right? Bruce was talking about how he used to be in some sort of history recreation thing, and I think he's really looking forward to it. A chance to let go, you know?"
"It is still planned, but that is not why I have come." Folding his hands before him, Thor adopted his most grave expression, hoping to impress upon them the seriousness of the situation. "My mother has arranged for Jane to attend the rites of womanhood, I fear for her safety in a ceremony that has brought low many an Asgardian woman in her prime of life."
"So you want me to go with her?" The two of them wavered and twisted for a moment, seemingly incomprehensibly at first. Then Thor realized that by some feat of flexibility, Natasha had turned the tables on Clint's trick with his leg and had connived to pin it beneath her weight. "Sure. I'll keep her safe. No problem. Might want to check with Jane first though."
Relief lifted the weight off of Thor's heart. "I will do that. Thank you."
Clint tensed, and apparently it was the signal Natasha had been waiting for. She threw the card, which forced him to bring his shield up to defend his precious eyeballs. Before Clint could recover, Natasha launched herself over the table, twisting them about until Clint was pinned to the floor under her, his arm twisted up behind his back, held only by his pinkie finger. She gripped it until Clint's back arched and his free hand pounded the floor three times.
Sniffing derisively, Natasha ground her knee into Clint's back before standing and brushing off her pants. "I said, go fish."
"Don't you dare take that tone with me, young lady." Dr. Alice Foster had her no-nonsense tone on, the one Jane most recognized from childhood. It was usually accompanied by stern warnings to put on a coat or, in the most extreme cases, go to family dinners. "This is a big occasion, and I won't have you snubbing your little sister."
Jane cradled the phone against her ear and propped her elbow on the desk in her new workshop, rubbing her forehead in a desperate attempt to stave off a headache. "Mom, this isn't a joke." she groaned. "What part of 'I might die' isn't connecting here?"
"Don't be ridiculous," her mother scoffed. "You're being too dramatic about this whole alien prince thing. You really need to learn to relax, sweetheart."
Originally, Jane had only called to talk with her mother one last time before she went incommunicado in Asgard—if something permanent happened, she didn't want to leave her family out of the loop. Normally anything having to do with Asgard was top secret, but Fury could suck on his eye patch if he thought Jane wasn't going to say goodbye. Thor had encouraged it, which was really all the excuse she needed.
But instead of goodbye, she was being saddled with another potential civilian casualty. Peachy. "This isn't relaxing. This is probably fighting some bilgesnipe to the death while wearing a chainmail bikini. And you really want Andrea to be there?"
"It'll be good life experience for her," Alice said, implacably calm. "Build character. And she's already in New York, so there's really no excuse for not inviting her. I'd come along, but there's just no way I can have my flight changed at this point, so I'll just have to see you on Thursday."
"No buts. I'll call Andrea and tell her to text you." A loud, smacking kiss was pressed to the receiver. "We'll talk more later. Give Frigga my love."
The call clicked over, and Jane dropped the phone and her head to the glass-and-chrome desktop.
"That sounded painful." A cup of steaming hot cocoa was set down by Jane's head. Jan turned her head to see Pepper smiling in the sweet, in-control way she had. "Betty and I are having cocoa and thought you might want some. Come tell us about it."
Cradling her oversized mug to her breast, Jane trailed after Pepper like a duckling, following her to the breakfast nook on Tony's floor. Unlike her own comfortable level, Tony's floor was all marble and chrome, carefully placed lights shining from every angle. Logically, Jane knew that it only looked expensive, but it still made her want to wipe her feet on a mat somewhere.
In the closest corner of the nook, Betty was curled up with her cocoa cuddled close, watching as the lights on nearby buildings started to turn on. When Pepper's heels clicked on the floor, she turned, a smile brightening her face. She patted the spot beside her, shifting over to make space. "There's the bride to be."
Jane smiled weakly and took the offered spot, leaving Pepper to the end of the bench. Betty and she had been roommates back in college, when they'd bother attended Culver-U, and since Bruce had settled down in Avenger's Tower they'd taken to seeing each other for weekly coffee and sympathy. Pepper, after having played PA, CEO, girlfriend, ex-girlfriend and now CEO again for Tony, fit right in.
Superhero Girlfriends had to stick together.
Wiggling into the cushions to get comfortable, Pepper wedged herself against Jane's side. "Why the head-slamming?" she asked, sipping her cocoa. Now that she was closer, Jane thought she detected a hint of Bailey's in it. Not that she could blame Pepper; putting up with Tony for so many years would drive anyone to drink. "Wedding day nerves?"
"I wish," Jane groaned, slumping forward to stick her face in the cocoa. It was thick and dark, just sweet enough without being cloying—Tony only stocked the good stuff. And yes, just under the chocolate was the bite of alcohol. "If nerves were my only problem, I'd be in heaven. No, it's Frigga."
"Future mother-in-law blues?" Betty's eyebrows arched, her sweet voice rising in concern. "But she seemed so nice when we met for the Bifrost opening."
The alcohol must have been strong, because every sip Jane took made her shoulders relax a little more. Or maybe that was just the effect of the cocoa. "She is," she hurried to say, before Betty got any bad ideas about bad-mouthing a goddess, "but she's decided I'm going to do some... weird ritual thing, and it has Thor really worried. He thinks it might be dangerous."
"I'm sure it can't be that dangerous." Pepper's manicured hand settled on her shoulder, patting soothingly. "Doesn't Thor know what it is? It's his weird alien culture."
"It's 'women's mysteries'," Jane air-quoted, leaning over so Pepper's pats could turn into pets. "No boys allowed. Frigga said to get my bridesmaids together at sundown tomorrow night." Hopefully, she looked up at Pepper. Capable, hard-core, kick-ass Pepper, who'd faced down a ton of villains and an entire board of directors.
If she'd had any hopes, they were dashed when Pepper said, "Count me out. I'll wear the ugly dress, but ancient Norse rituals are a little too much."
"You're a spoilsport, Pep," Betty accused, as darkly as someone with her voice could. She joined in Pepper's petting, their hands rotating their way across Jane's head. "I'll go with you and keep you safe from the big bad whatevers."
Immediately, Jane started to protest. "I couldn't ask that—it might be dangerous—"
Betty cut her off with a gentle palm to her mouth and a smile. "I date the Hulk. Ancient dangers and fertility rites are nothing compared to that."
"Fertility rites?" Jane squeaked under Betty's palm. Just the thought made her head swim a little. She was way, way, way too young for kids, and Thor's would probably be huge if they were anything like him. Under the table, she crossed her legs. "No. No no no no—"
Even though Jane was muffled, Betty didn't seem to have any problem understanding her. "What else would an ancient culture do for a bride before her wedding?" she asked brightly. "It should be fascinating."
Hurriedly, Jane pushed aside the blocking hand and took a long pull of her spiked cocoa. Kindly, Pepper and Betty didn't laugh too loudly.
The day of Thor and Jane's rites, Thor's anxiety finally reached critical levels. Jane insisted that she would be fine, but Thor had seen how she attacked the boxes in her new workshop with fervor undue ancient collections of photographs. When lightning began to crackle beyond the walls of the Tower, he sought refuge in the one place it was most guaranteed.
Planted in the exact center of the collective Avenger's floor of the tower, the sofa was massive, plush, and nearly always occupied. It was a gathering spot where they collected when in need of companionship without the difficulty of asking for it. A waterfall behind glass played in the back of the room, providing a soothing background after even the longest of days, and the grand windows provided a clear view of the city of New York in its glory. Gentle pastels and tans graced the walls and floor, peaceful colors to set the soul at ease.
On that day, Steve had taken the far corner of the sofa, slouched sideways across the broad and well-padded arm to watch television. Tony, in his inevitable gravitation to any surface occupied by Steve, had taken the place under Steve's arm as he tapped away at some sort of device, leaning at a sharp angle to accommodate the slouch. They had linked their hands between them, though there was scarce little room. Not to be outdone, Bruce was pressed to Tony's side, matching his angle in order to use Tony's shoulder as a pillow. Of everyone in the den, the only person sitting upright was Pepper in her armchair, and she had taken liberty of using Steve's knees as a footrest.
With the ease that came only with years spent living and fighting side by side, Thor took his place at Bruce's free side. With a sigh, he dropped his temple down to Bruce's shoulder.
The soft noise of the television flicked off, though the picture remained. Silently, the original three shifted over, and Thor found himself pulled over to all but drape across Bruce and Tony's thighs, with Bruce's book and Tony's touch-pad balanced on his hip and shoulder, respectively.
Using his free hand, Bruce patted Thor's knee. "It'll be okay, buddy."
Just before sundown,those of the groom and bridal parties collected on the roof of Stark Tower, which had become the hub for the rebuilt Bifrost. Jane and Heimdall had been able to make the new model more navigable; though it was still locked to specific points around the globe, it was no longer single-service to each realm. Which was the best they could have, until they figured out how to get precision at any such distance.
One thing was sure, it was better than traveling to New Mexico every time she turned around.
The Avengers were all dressed in their Saving the World gear, loaded for bear and ready to fight. Tony was carrying his suitcase armor, one of the latest versions that was as close to magic-proof as he could get it. Since no one else had anything comparable, Jane and her group had settled on comfortable jeans and good running shoes. Thick coats kept the late autumn wind from biting too deeply, but those would be abandoned once they reached Asgard and its constantly temperate climate.
At the edge of the horizon, the sun was setting much, much too fast for Jane's nerves. She mentally ordered it to stay, but the thing just kept sinking. And she wasn't the only one feeling the pressure. Darcy checked and rechecked her tazer in its case, while Natasha, Betty and Bruce spoke in low tones that might have been reassuringly calm for any other people. Tony and Steve stayed close together, practically attached at the hip, though neither of them said a word. At Jane's side, Thor's expression was the closest to impassive, and he still kept switching his weight around. The only person not visibly worried was Andrea, who was playing a flash game on her phone. Every now and then Jane snuck a glare at her sister, who didn't even bother to notice.
Just as the sun touched the edge of the horizon, clouds sparked overhead. Thor's hand tightened in Jane's as the glittering, rainbow-hued arc of the Bifrost sliced out of the sky. Clint jumped, and Tony might have if Steve hadn't had a hand on his elbow. The tower shook under their feet, but good quality Stark construction kept it from doing anything really dangerous, like collapsing. All around them, the sigils built into the roof started to glow, creating the stable connection that the new bridge required.
Wind whipped Andrea's brown ponytail, and nearly stole her phone before she shoved it into her pocket. "You didn't tell me it's a reject prop from a Disney movie!" she yelled, chin tilted up as if she could follow the bridge to Asgard just by looking.
In her position as elder sister, Jane did the responsible thing and rolled her eyes rather than anything that might have been a bad example. "Shut up and ride the rainbow!"
"Bride and groom first!" Andrea shouted back. Almost, almost Jane accused her of trying to skip out, but then she remembered looming death and decided to keep it to herself. If Andrea happened to miss their ride and survived as a result, it would probably be a good thing.
"Any time, Janey!"
Probably a good thing.
Keeping her hand in Thor's, Jane stepped forward. Walking into the Einstein-Rosen Bridge was like sinking into a bubble bath filled with champagne (something she only knew about thanks to Tony's extravagant taste in engagement gifts). At least, it was at first. Then it was like being on a roller coaster without a safety rail, car or even the coaster, the fabric of space-time warping and flying past in the space of exactly three seconds. Then blessedly secure and safe floor was under her feet, and the shimmer of rainbows was overlaying an entirely new landscape.
As soon as she could feel her knees again, Jane staggered forward, towing Thor along to make space for Natasha. The rest of them followed quickly behind, Andrea arriving sandwiched between Betty and Darcy.
Heimdall bowed his head in greeting as he pulled the Twilight Sword from its place in the center pedestal. "Welcome back. The King and Queen await you on the bridge."
As always, he was massive, armor gleaming as golden as the rest of Asgard. Even though she was very definitely in love with Thor, Jane couldn't help the little flutter in her stomach. If she hadn't met Thor first, it would have been very, very easy to spend all her free time helping Heimdall on the Bifrost. Heimdall's eyes glittered as if he knew exactly what she was thinking. Knowing his abilities, he probably did.
Jane couldn't even find it in her to be embarrassed. Down girl, you already have one. "Thanks."
Taste in men must have been genetic. Darcy and Betty had to keep Andrea trapped between them as they dragged her out of the Observatory; she was nearly drooling. Behind them, there was definitely a hint of chuckle, though when Jane glanced back Heimdall's expression was impassive as ever.
As the stepped out of the Observatory, the first thing Jane noticed was that Asgard was still glorious, but no longer breathtakingly so. Like everything, exposure wore away at the wonderment and left comfortable familiarity. Other than the gold plated, sparkle-filtered, lens-flared, gem-encrusted everything, it wasn't very that different than being on Earth.
The second thing she noticed was the horses. What seemed like a whole herd of them crowded the bridge, blocking it off in a sea of stomping hooves and long flowing manes. They were chestnut, bay, buckskin, black, grey, bridled, saddled and as terrifying as they'd ever been at summer camp when Jane was ten. One of them even had eight legs, which meant that at any given time there were six free to kick with. The Warriors Three, Odin, Frigga and Sif were there as well, holding the reins that kept the things in check, but they were unimportant in comparison. Jane froze, knees locking in place so suddenly that Thor's ended up yanking on her arm before he realized she'd stopped.
"My love?" Thor asked, confused and big and gorgeous as ever, but beyond him were the monsters. Maybe they weren't twenty feet tall and didn't shoot fire from their nostrils, but they were stampy, bitey, run-offy menaces.
From behind, two people scooped her up by the elbows and seat, taking her entirely off the ground in a double-man carry. "Don't mind her," Betty explained breezily. "She has a thing."
"One time we had to ride donkeys down a canyon and we had to blindfold her and the donkey," Darcy, the other traitor, added in.
"Oh no," she whimpered, digging in her heels against the air as if it would do any good. "No, no, no, no—can we just kill me now? Please? Don't make me get on one of them, please don't."
"I apologize, Jane, but the bride must begin her journey on horseback, to put behind her the follies and freedoms of youth." Frigga, who was holding the reins of two of them, hid her smile behind her hand. For whatever they were doing, she'd dressed in a long, flowing pair of pants that almost looked like a skirt until she moved. Her hair had been bound up around her head in a pile of curls and braids. Any other time, Jane might have been delighted to see her, but she was holding a horse. That immediately made her suspect. "Had I known it would cause concern, I might have warned you."
"Please don't do this," Jane pled, twisting and fighting in Darcy and Betty's hold. Volstagg took over when her two ex-friends started to fumble, lifting her as easy as if she were made of feathers. "I've changed my mind! Just toss me off the bridge, I'll find my own way back to Earth!"
Even Odin was smiling, the one-eyed old jerk. "It is too late now," he told her, actually patting her head. She took a snap at him, missing by only an inch, but he only smiled wider. "Tie her to the saddle," he ordered, gesturing at what might have been a pretty dappled grey if it hadn't been the one she was going to be put on.
"Worry not, my Lady Jane," Volstagg soothed, lifting her up. Darcy and Betty—again!—held her legs still to keep her from kicking Hogun as he tied her wrists to the saddle. Sif had dug through one of the saddlebags and was attaching a lead line to the bridle. "This mare is from the royal stable, hand-raised by my own wife and gentle as a lamb."
"I've been bitten by a lamb!" No matter how hard Jane twisted and yanked she couldn't find an inch of give in Hogun's bindings. The saddle was old, and the leather soft, which meant that tugging just made the ropes dig in rather than slide. No one moved to help her, not even Steve, who at least looked concerned. Tony was snickering into Steve's shoulder, and Bruce was pointedly not looking at her. Clint wasn't even paying attention, leaning over the edge of the bridge and sighting down an arrow as if he could shoot a planet. That left..."Natasha! You told Thor you'd protect me!"
Natasha looked at her, then at the horses, and then back to Jane with a smile as cruel as the rest. "You don't look like you're in danger to me."
Jane's cry of rage was loud enough that it echoed, making the mare under her prance in a nervous circle. In her one, last-ditch effort, Jane twisted around to give her little sister a mournful stare. "Andrea, please— we're sisters."
Andrea looked up from pulling her hair back with an oversized claw-clip, eyebrows raised politely. "Do you remember my Barbie Dreamhouse? The one with the toy Jacuzzi? The one that you ripped the roof off of to make it into an astronomy station?" Jane winced, which must have been enough acknowledgement, because Andrea nodded and finished twisting up her hair. "Payback."
"As good a reason as any," Frigga approved, swinging up onto her ridiculously tall palomino. Somehow she made it look like she wasn't sitting atop a ton of hoofed death. "Come, ladies. We ride."
Volstagg held Jane's horse while the rest of her party swung up into the saddle. Sif, mounted on a slim bay, ended up being the one to take Jane's lead. The men just stood around, letting the women collect her up and force her down along the bridge.
"Please no, please please please let me go let me off please—" Jane babbled, twisting to keep Thor in sight as they walked. He watched her with his arms crossed, worry plain on his face. "Thor! Thor, save me from your mother! Thor!"
"My friends!" Frigga called back from her place in the lead. "If we are to arrive in time, we must travel at speed!"
The horror of realization dropped Jane's heart to her stomach. "No no no no—"
Jane's fading scream echoed off the spires of Asgard, and all Thor could do was watch as the ladies rode off on their steeds. The fear in his beloved's voice wore heavy on his soul, but he couldn't deny his mother her due. In any case, it was not the ride that worried him.
When he could no longer see Jane, though her screams and colorful imprecations were still thick in the air, Thor turned to the only man present who might answer him. Back when the realms were young, and Yggdrasil only a sprout, Odin had spent time learning the great mysteries, as Loki had after him, even going so far as to become one of those few men privy to the secrets of womanhood. Understanding his father's unique wealth of wisdom for the blessing it was, it was to him that Thor turned for hope. "She will be safe, will she not, Father?"
Odin inclined his head, an odd smile playing at the corner of his mouth. "The mysteries of women are not inherently dangerous. If she keeps her wits about her and trusts the judgment of her allies, she will be protected."
Bruce reached up to pat Thor's shoulder. "Sif and Natasha are with her," he said, in a voice as gentle as that a mother might use to soothe her children when the nightmares came. "They'll protect her."
"And I modified Darcy's tazer," Tony added in. "They're loaded for bear—or troll or whatever it is you have down here."
"Wise precautions, all." Inexplicably, Odin's mouth twitched, as if he would hold back a chuckle. Next to him, the great stallion Slephnir shifting anxiously, three feet pawing the bridge. Attendants passed among Thor's shield brothers, giving them their mount. "Come, gentlemen, as with fair Jane our time is short. We must undertake the first step of the groom's journey. I will be guide, and companion, but the quest is my son's to lead. "
"Thank you, Father." Thor's horse, a faithful friend of many years and many quests, stood stock still as he rose to his place. It was good to be back in a saddle, good to be riding out in the company of friends, once more in search of adventure. Mjolnir was a comforting weight at his hip, a constant reminder of what he earned, as surely he would earn Jane's hand.
"What are we doing?" Steve asked, as Hogun handed him the reins of a stout chestnut. He eyed it without a horseman's appreciation, but was able to swing himself up into the saddle with only a minimum of difficulty. "You were awfully tight lipped."
Next to Steve, Tony handled his bay with much more grace, settling onto its back easily. The gelding fussed at the weight of the suitcase armor Tony strapped behind him, but was soothed with an expert hand. "What he said. I get not telling us back on Earth, but since we're here I'd kind of like to know what we're getting into."
"I must retrieve our ancestral sword from my grandsire, Bor," Thor explained, turning his steed in a tight circle to be able to see the faces of all his companions. The Warriors Three were staunch allies, as always, their expressions reflecting the gravity of the quest they were about to undertake. "And then win his blessing, as the sire of my line."
Atop a stout little sorrel mare, with his bow and arrows stored for quick access at need, Clint perked up. "That doesn't sound too bad. Where is he?"
"Turned to snow in a mighty battle with the Frost Giants."
"Oh." Clint tilted his head thoughtfully. "Always have to be difficult, don't you?"
The trip to wherever they were going only felt like an eternity in hell, Jane was sure. She ran out of curse words pretty quickly, and after breath about five minutes after, leaving most of the rest of the hour-long ride to pass in whimpering silence, and then not even that when terror got too exhausting.
Asgard's golden towers gave way to thick forests, and then to stretches of snowy winter hills. Night had fallen, but the sky provided plenty of light by way of the stars and the arching aurora that shimmered its way from horizon to horizon. There was no telling how far they'd gone, though Jane tried calculating it a few times just to distract herself from the bumps and shudders of the beast under her. In Asgard, time and space didn't play together as nice as they did in the rest of the three dimensional universe; they might have gone ten miles or ten thousand. Jane just kept her head down and concentrated on not falling off and being dragged to her death under steel-shod hooves.
After they'd been in the snow for about ten minutes, Jane felt her horse start to slow. Hoping that the trip was over, she looked up hopefully—
A massive door loomed in front of them, set into a freestanding boulder smack dab in the middle of the snow. Jane leaned back in her saddle, neck craning as she followed it up, up and up. It had to be at least ten stories tall, made out of wooden planks that had to have been cut from something the size of one of the redwoods in Yellowstone. The wood had been burnished to a warm, golden brown, and was carved with scenes that she couldn't quite make out.
More important was what it didn't have. Specifically, a doorknob.
"The Door of the Aesir, the bride's first challenge," Frigga declared, sliding off her horse with more grace than anyone had a right to after an hour-long ride. "We leave the horses here. They will be guarded by the spirits of this place."
Jane could have kissed her.
Sif untied her wrists and was nice enough to act as a landing pad when Jane's knees gave out on her half-way off the horse. It was like landing on a pile of metal pointy bits, but it kept her from ending up face-first in the snow. Andrea snickered, but Sif just gave her a kind smile and an arm to hold while she got feeling back in her knees.
The horses milled around aimlessly, but didn't immediately run off. Not that Jane would have cared if they had—less of the things around the better, as far as she was concerned—but Frigga might have been annoyed. Even after the whole tied to the saddle incident, Jane wasn't in a rush to annoy her future mother-in-law.
Darcy circled around the boulder, peering at the doorframe with an expression of deep concentration. "So we have to get through this?" she asked, running her fingers over the runes carved into the wood. "Did anyone bring an axe?"
"I have some C4 and fuses." Everyone paused to stare at Natasha, who just shrugged and lifted her knapsack, flipping open the top to show suspiciously shapeless bundles, a first aid kit and bottles that looked suspiciously alcoholic. "What? I always come prepared."
"The bride must find a way through," Frigga folded her hands in front of her placidly. "Preferably without explosives, if you please."
"Great. No explosives. I can do that." Using Sif's help, Jane crunched through the ankle-high snow to inspect the door. It was two doors, really, meeting in the center with just enough space to slide her hand through before it caught on her forearm. An experimental push didn't have any result, not even a hair's breadth of movement. "I don't think an axe would help much anyway," she decided, knocking on one of the planks with her knuckles. "Too thick. We'd be here all day."
"Then how will we get through?" Betty had knelt down in the snow, twisting herself around to look at the hinges. The gap under the doors was about the same as the one between them, just enough to get a hand under. "It must swing toward us, so a battering ram would probably be useless, even if we could get our hands on one."
"I don't..." Jane squinted at the crack between the doors." Golden light shone through, a thin beam that seemed to have no specific source. The planks were wider than she was tall, and probably thick as her arm, going by the way the light came through in a clear beam, only broken in one place just above her head. "Can anyone give me a leg up?"
"Aye." Sif bent her knees and laced her fingers together.
Natasha took the spot next to her, in a matching pose and an expectant expression. "Come on, this is your party."
"And I'll take my time if I want to." Keeping one hand on Sif's shoulder for balance, Jane put her booted foot in Sif's cupped hands and pushed, then carefully used Natasha's other to stay stable. With the extra height, she was able to make out the cause of the break in the light—a latch. Wood scraped her knuckles as she wiggled her hand into the gap, stretching it as far as it could go. Icy cold metal brushed along her fingertips, then the side of her hand. When she thought she'd gotten it far enough in, Jane twisted it downward. She felt the moment the latch started to give way, pushing back into the door. "I think I have it! Someone pull!"
Betty and Darcy leaped forward, grabbing the edge of the door Sif and Jane weren't blocking, throwing their weight against it. Reluctantly, Andrea added her own hands, and even Frigga took a corner. It groaned, the hinges creaking like trees in a heavy gale, but slowly the door started to move. Jane kept the latch pressed as long as she could, but eventually the door started to scrape her forearm, forcing her to pull free before she got stuck. She dropped down from Sif's grip, landing on her hands and knees in the snow and scrambling out of the way.
The others stopped pulling when the door was opened wide enough to slip through. Through the doors, in blatant disregard for all the laws of physics, a huge field of wheat stretched on for what was probably forever, shining under a sun that definitely wasn't present on the other side.
Frigga wrapped her arm through Jane's, tugging her through the door. Everyone else trailed after them, shedding their extra layers as the warm sun started to hit them. "The Path of the Vanir," Frigga explained with a grand gesture that belonged more on the stage than in the middle of nowhere, "which goes on as far as the eye can see."
"The eye can only see about four miles, but that's on Earth." Jane pressed her lips together, eying the rolling fields of wheat. It wasn't that she was against wheat in general, but the uniformity made it hard to estimate distance. "It can't be that far, can it?"
Frigga just smiled.
Nothing lived in the great snowy wastes. It was a dead land, inhabited only by the souls of those who had perished there in battles many eons past. Wind howled with the mournful echo of starving wolves, blowing great flurries all about them. Thor's horse danced under him, snorting a challenge to the spirits of the place.
One spirit in particular weighed heavy in the air, its presence writ large in the frost the rimmed the boulders, in the fog that every breath formed. Up ahead of them, the storm grew thick, a wall of white blocking the horizon. It was a storm with the teeth and cruelty of a demon. Brutal experience had taught Thor that not only the best trained horse would brave it, and fewer warriors.
Steve brought his horse up beside Thor's, though it refused to settle. "This is it?" he asked, raising his voice over the cries of the wind.
"My grandsire's final resting place!" Thor confirmed, letting his steed slide back a few steps before putting a stop to it.
"I'm not sure a snow storm is going to have a sword, Cap!" Bruce yelled. Blue tinted his skin more than the ever-worrying green—cold had not been kind to him.
Odin laughed, a hearty sound that seemed to make the storm about them rage ever stronger. Of all their mounts, Slephnir stood stock still, unconcerned by something so simple as weather. "It is here, I can feel it."
"Have you never heard of a storm that has an edge, doctor?" Fandral asked, showing all his teeth in a hungry grin. He'd loosened his blade in its sheath, but had yet to draw it. "Cold that cuts through to the bone?"
"That's only a metaphor!"
"There is no such thing as only a metaphor in Asgard."
"Enough!" When his horse would back away, Thor forced forward, into the teeth of the storm. "For Asgard!"
"Maybe it can be that far."
Jane stared at the dirt path under her feet, as if it had done her a personal, terrible injustice. Which in a way, it had, though to three-dimensional geography rather than to her. It had only taken walking for a few minutes before they'd realized that the door wasn't getting any farther away, and the next hill wasn't getting closer. The ground definitely moved—she'd passed three different pebble "markers" as they went—but the act of walking might as well have been a null for all the good it did.
Frigga and Sif both had suspiciously blank expressions on. Jane pressed her lips together, looking between them and the dirt. Natasha had stopped walking, while Betty and Darcy kept trying to out-do each other with giant leaps to nowhere. Just looking at them made Jane's eyes water; she could actually feel her brain trying to fold in on itself when Betty made a running jump past Darcy and landed in exactly the same place. Somehow, Andrea had made her way to the front, though she'd pulled out a book and spent as much time looking at it as she did where she was walking.
"Obviously an optical illusion of some sort," Jane muttered to herself, toeing two lines in the dirt and stepping across them, then back. "But how..."
Okay, so it's a test. That wasn't so bad. Nothing was trying to eat her, at least, so other than the horses the whole experience had been a lot better than she'd anticipated. A couple of riddles or trick doors were at the top of the list of trials she didn't mind dealing with. It would have been nice to know if the rest of it was going to be the same. Jane doubted it; Thor never seemed to see why dangerous wasn't analogous to fun, and she didn't see any sign of that being anything but cultural.
Nothing at all had changed in Darcy and Betty's game—maybe an inch of difference, but nothing that was really a victory. They hadn't moved at all in relation to the calmly walking Frigga, or Natasha, who was still standing in one place, or Andrea who—
—had gotten a good ten feet ahead, with her nose still firmly plastered in a book.
Genius struck. Jane threw up her arms. "No one move!"
Darcy yelped as she mistimed her landing, skidding a good three feet and landing flat on her back. Groaning, she curled in on herself, clutching her chest and wheezing. "Oh ow... I think I have my wallet embedded in my butt now. You couldn't have waited a second?"
"Sorry!" Jane hurried back to help Darcy up, and that she could hurry back just made her solution that much more obvious. She made a quick effort at dusting Darcy off, but there really hadn't been that much damage done. A little dirt didn't hurt anyone—they'd gotten worse chasing storms across Iowa. "Sorry, I just—I think I know how to end this thing. I was thinking logically, but geographically logically, when I needed to be thinking logically."
"Because that makes perfect sense." Darcy's whole face closed in on itself as she squinted at Jane. "Have you been drinking?"
"Just a shot before we left—" Natasha didn't stifle her laugh in time, and Jane shot her a dirty look. "I was nervous!"
Like the perfectly annoying little sister she was, Andrea held up a hand. "I'm nervous right now, can I have a shot?"
"No." Jane ignored the raspberry she got in response. Duty as a sister. Or something. Their mother would never forgive her if she left Andrea stranded on an endless road in the literal middle of nowhere. "Look, Frigga said the path goes as far as the eye can see, right? So let's just close our eyes or walk backwards or—or something." As long as she didn't let herself think scientifically about it, she couldn't find fault in the logic.
Darcy's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I thought you didn't believe in magic."
"I don't!" Jane protested automatically, with the innate instincts necessary for a scientist marrying a Norse God. "Magic is just science—"
"Science we haven't discovered yet," Darcy finished, in the tone of someone who'd seen exactly that line coming. "And you're going to discover it?"
No one said anything at first, but Jane thought she saw Sif's lips twitch. That was a good sign.
Betty looked down at the ground, then up at the sky. "Why not?" she decided with nod. "Land of legends, land of really bad puns. It can't hurt to try. Let's do some discovering."
Just in case it did work they linked hands, Jane taking the far left and Frigga the far right. Andrea tried to edge away, but Jane got a good grip on her before she could slip off. Betty and Darcy were still bright-eyed and looked like they were having the time of their lives, which considering their lives said a lot. It was easy for them to find it all fun and games when they weren't the ones with a wedding on the line.
"Everyone ready?" she called, looking down the line. "Okay, close your eyes and step on three. One..." Jane closed her eyes. Immediately the little things that marked out the environment vanished, as if the act of not looking made the rustle of wheat in the breeze vanish and the scent of growing things evaporate. "Two." She felt like an idiot, holding onto Andrea's hand with her eyes squinched tight like a kid pretending she could fly. "Three!" With various levels of awkward timing, they stepped forward.
Winter wrapped its arms around Thor's groomsman party, holding them tight in its embrace. They had been forced to abandon the horses after less than a half hour, when the drifts grew too high for safe riding and the beasts would go no farther. White snow obscured all but the closest of landmarks and forced them to stay close to one another or else lose all contact. There was no sound other than the screech and moan of the wind through the trees, no scent but the crisp clarity of cold death. Each step grew more difficult, the drifts of snow piling up about their calves, the gale pushing them back, and all they could do was put their heads down and press onward.
After an amount of time impossible to tell, Bruce pulled up short. "We're lost!" he yelled, voice nearly consumed by the howl of the storm. "We should turn back while we can!" Through the blanketing snow it was difficult to be sure, but something strange had taken over Bruce's expression. The usual control, the serenity he cultivated so desperately had been overtaken. Color flushed his cheeks and his eyes were fever-bright.
"Never!" Thor planted his feet, turning to his friends as they gathered around, turning their backs to the wind. "I shall not abandon this quest—shall not abandon my bride!"
The Warriors Three stayed close, but Thor could see by the way they stood that something was affecting them. Even Steve, ever solid and dependable, was gripping his shield tight. In Odin's grip his famed spear Gungnir was held tight in both his hands, glowing with a power that did nothing to dispel the storm. The light from Iron Man's breast was the only thing clearly visible, cutting through the gloom as a knife.
Clint ducked his head, pressing his palm to his forehead. "I'm with Bruce. In this sort of weather, we'll never make it through, and you won't be any good to Jane if you die. Trust me, it's worse to be the one leaving than the one left behind."
"Come, Thor, there surely is another way!" Volstagg boomed, his great beard whipping around him, a splash of color in the dark. "This is madness!"
"No, it's Sparta—" Steve beat Thor to applying a light knock to the back of Iron Man's helmet. "What? How was I supposed to ignore a line like that?"
"Father?" Thor turned his eyes to the one voice who always spoke sense, even when Thor didn't want to hear it. "What say you?"
Odin's single good eye looked on Thor, worry writ large in his expression. Frost had collected in his beard, glittering in the light of Iron Man's reactor. "Only you may declare the depth of your devotion, my son. Is your love for her deep, true enough to risk death?"
Disquiet hung heavy on Thor's heart, turning it heavy as the rains in spring that flooded low valleys. But in that alarm, there was truth, glowing bright and warm against the cold. "It is. For Jane, I would overturn mountains—I would cheat Hel if need be to stand by her side. Such is my love for her." One by one, he looked at his friends through the blur of snow and wind, from the uncommon solemnity of Fandral to the blank visage of the Iron Man. "And faith, also. Faith in my friends—in my brothers, in my father. Faith that together, this shall not stop us."
The others shared glances that spoke of their unease, but Steve's hand came down on Thor's shoulder, a firm weight of support. "Then we'll keep going," he declared, having to raise his voice to shout over the wind. "For Thor and Jane!"
Grass crunched under Jane's feet, fresh and sweet and smelling like spring more than the late autumn of the Path of the Vanir. Birds sang overhead, their songs as unrecognizable as they were suspiciously cliché. Carefully, Jane cracked her eyes.
With a single step, they'd moved into a grassy field, spotted with well-grown trees heavy with shining golden fruit. The field was dwarfed by an even bigger tree that sat directly in its center. Larger than a skyscraper, it rose up from the ground as if punching a hole through it rather than growing, faintly dappled sunlight streaming through its branches. The little cottage nestled at its base looked like a toy by comparison.
"The last leg of the bride's journey," Frigga announced with a smile, and Jane was completely unable to dispel the flush of pride it gave her. "One trial remains until the sacred rites may begin, but first..." She gestured Sif forward. "You each must receive the Helm of the Vanir, so that the guardian of this place will know you for your purpose. Kneel, all."
Cradled in Sif's arms was one of the saddlebags that had been brought along. Jane eyed it as Frigga flipped open the flap, but she knelt down along with the others. It was hard to see what the 'Helm of the Vanir' looked like, other than someone's weekend knitting. Frigga moved from between them with gentle grace, placing each helmet with grand gestures and a kiss to the brow. Jane kept her eyes locked forward, and silently prayed that it wasn't going to have some sort of mind-control gem in it. Again. Asgard seemed to have a thing for ridiculously powerful fashion accessories. The glove thing had been bad enough without finding out it had a matching hat.
Warm, soft hands cupped Jane's cheeks, forcing her to look up into Frigga's eyes. "And finally, our celebrant. A most special helm for you, my dear."
Looking up the way Jane was, the connection between Thor and his mother was impossible to miss. He'd inherited his father's godly proportions, but everything else was Frigga's, from the shining gold of her hair to the odd little tilt to her smile. Leaning down, she kissed Jane's forehead, and then her lips as she crowned her.The helm snugged down over her forehead and across her cheeks, a hard band that held it in place, silver gleaming in the corner of her eye.
Someone behind her—it sounded like Betty—giggled.
"There," Frigga murmured, pulling away to beam at her. Jane's heart gave an odd, confusing little lurch, swallowing hard and trying to ignore the memory of Frigga's lips. Future mother-in-law! Future mother-in-law! Was it incest? She and Betty had fooled around a little back in college, but there was Thor...
Jane's panic was violently derailed as Frigga reached into the saddlebags and pulled out one last helm, settling it atop her own head. It was shining gold, dripping with gems, cheek plates sweeping down to emphasize her strong brow and jaw. The band that held it across her forehead was a line of diamonds, arching up over her head to form...
Or rather, a crown with a penis on top. The testicles sat right on top of Frigga's head like the world's most disturbing Mickey Mouse ears, while the shaft rose high and proud on top, curved just a little and sporting a ruby-studded cock ring. For being made out of gold, it was amazingly life-like. The longer Jane stared, the more detail she could pick out, even the main vein that ran along the bottom of the penis.
Sif had one too, knitted out of a metallic grey yarn with a green knitted cock ring. Looking around, Jane confirmed that yes, they all had dicks on their heads. That was enough to keep her from groping her own "helm"—if the rest of them were in penis hats, then the chances that her dignity had escaped were nil.
Somehow, some way, Frigga made her hat look almost regal. Whether it was a trick of posture or just experience from being a queen for over a thousand years, Jane couldn't say, but whatever it was worked. She did her best to emulate Frigga's chin-raised, shoulders-back example as she scrambled to her feet. There was nothing she could do about her expression—it was hard enough to hold back her mortified giggles as it was; maintaining a straight face just was not going to happen.
Other than Frigga, no one else managed to pull it off. Even Sif, who presumably knew what was coming, looked a little embarrassed, and Andrea was about three seconds from melting into the sod.
Natasha looked around, arms crossed and lips pursed and jaw tight. After a minute, she nodded to herself and reached into her own bag. What she pulled out was an unlabeled bottle of clear liquid. She popped off the lid, and Jane could have sworn that the first fumes from it were visible. "I think we could all use some of this. I brew it in the labs when Banner isn't looking."
The bottle went to Frigga first, who showed off an amazing skill in swigging back hard liquor before passing it along. By the time it reached Jane, the bottle was down by a quarter. After everything they'd gone through, she didn't even think before taking a long pull. Whatever Natasha had made it from it was sweet, and so strong it tasted more like fire than alcohol, burning from her lips down to her stomach with a brief pass through her sinuses where it immediately floated her head an extra foot off her shoulders.
"Oh my God," Betty muttered, blinking rapidly and leaning against a tree for balance after taking her drink. "How strong is that?"
"That's classified." The bottle reached Natasha a little less than half-full. She held it up to measure with a careful eye. "Just don't drink more than—"
A sharp, echoing chitter overhead bounced off of their eardrums. Something bounced through the tree branches, blurred with speed. Claws the length of a car left furrows in the bark, and its eyes glowed red.
A giant squirrel, Jane thought to herself numbly. She couldn't even find it in her to be surprised.
Sif unsheathed her sword and leapt in front of Frigga as the monster crashed down in front of them, great teeth bared and fluffy tail lashing. "Ratatosk!" she shouted, knitted penis bobbing. "The Squirrel of Mischief!"
"The final barrier to Idunn's cottage!" Frigga added, voice remarkably calm for being faced with a hundred foot rodent.
Ratatosk screeched and lashed out, claws barely missing their group. Darcy, Andrea and Betty all fell back, scrambling out of the way as best they could with moonshine-blurred balance. Jane let out a yelp and hopped backward, falling into Natasha and making her fumble her gun.
"Oh for the love of—" Natasha snarled, stepping in front of Jane like a bodyguard. The bottle of moonshine whirled over her head, two rotations before she let it fly. It arced across the field to be snapped out of the air.
The squirrel reeled back, nostrils flaring. Slowly, Ratatosk sat up on its haunches, swaying very gently. Then, like a mighty sequoia meeting its end, it toppled over and curled up into a ball, fluffy tail flopped over its eyes.
Jane gaped, but it was Andrea that said, "How strong is that shit?"
Natasha rolled her shoulders, cracked her neck and smirked. "I'm Russian. We don't screw around when it comes to booze."
"You know the holy rites!" Frigga clasped her hands to her breast—she would have been a picture perfect romance novel cover if it hadn't been for the hat. "Though in truth it should have been my daughter's to solve, I cannot frown upon a job well done."
"You mean the answer to a giant squirrel attack was get it drunk?" Betty—sweet, quiet Betty, who barely raised her voice even in a crisis—sounded close to throwing something more lethal than a bottle of liquor. Her penis hat was askew and her hair was a mess, falling into her eyes where it had escaped her clip. "What kind of challenge is that?"
The Queen of Asgard laughed and clasped Betty's shoulder. "A challenge of sacred knowledge. Only when wearing the Helm of the Vanir can the squirrel be so subdued."
"Next time, I'm borrowing Director Fury's bazooka," Darcy muttered.
"Pay no mind. The squirrel is vanquished." Sif put her sword away and adjusted her hat, which had started to droop forward a little. "Onward, to Idunn's cottage, and the final step of Jane's journey."
The blizzard had become so thick around Thor's troop that they were forced to use some of Hogun's rope to keep themselves linked. Visibility was no longer a matter of reality; all the world was a symphony of white, and all that could be done was to shield their eyes from the sting of the wind. By some miracle, they'd not walked off the edge of a cliff, nor into a tree or some other hazard which Asgard had in droves.
And as sight had vanished, so had the hope which for that small second had taken seed in Thor's soul. There was no hope, no end, only the endless trudge forward. Surely they had walked for days, months, years, all without the event of anything beyond the bounds of the cold. At times, he wondered if they had died, frozen to death long ago, and this was some new form of punishment visited on the souls of failed bridegrooms.
So lost in despair was he that the sudden yanking on the rope that bound him to Iron Man near sent him to his knees. "Okay, this is ridiculous," Iron Man's deep, mechanized boom overrode even the loudest howling of the storm.
Thor turned back to look at him, but could see only a shadow of a man, the light on his chest a mere glimmer of something more. Any words he tried to say were snatched away by the wind, stolen down to even the barest of whispers.
It didn't matter that Thor couldn't make himself heard, because Iron Man was well able to. "According to JARVIS, the temperature's been exactly negative twelve kelvin for the last hour! There's no way that's natural!"
Of course it is not, Thor tried to say, though the effort was in vain. The storm was his grandfather, Bor Burison bespelled and alone for all eternity, as they would be—
Thor went still. He thought back over the journey, the hopelessness in his friend's faces, his father's lack of certainty. Of all of them, only Iron Man remaining unbothered, locked away in his suit of metal where the cold could not reach him.
"I see it now," he whispered, and though still snow stung his eyes and stole his breath, his voice rang clear over the noise. "I quest for my grandfather, but do so in his very heart, blind by my own despair. It is not our bodies only which freeze, but also our spirits, and thus would he take us." Reaching down, he gripped the trailing edge of the rope that bound him to his friends and released the knot.
Then he stepped forth, unhindered by a storm that had near bowled him over seconds before. "Grandfather! You shall not stop me! Show yourself!"
In the space between two heartbeats, the wind faded away and the snow drifted to the ground, a final powder to vanish their footsteps. Before them a mound rose taller than a Frost Giant, covered all in snow and surrounded by a circle of perfectly placed stones. A squared-off hole was the only entrance, leading down into depths only nightmares knew.
Bundled in his winter gear, Bruce stepped up beside Thor. Never tall, he seemed somehow even smaller next to the burial mound. "What do we do now?"
"Now?" Thor took a slow breath, steadying his spirit after the damnation of the snows. "What else? We keep on."
Idunn's cottage was tiny, picturesque and thatched with thick golden straw. Perfect pink roses bloomed around it in a thick border, and matching paint colored the shutters and the door frame. Even the little path in front of it was pristine, without a single blade of grass poking through the stones.
Jane had never seen anything more suspicious in her life.
Betty seemed to agree. She'd tilted her head back, and was eying the gently smoking chimney with the same purse-lipped expression she used on mail from the General. Natasha had drawn a gun that Jane hadn't realized she had, and Darcy's suped-up tazer had come out of its holster.
"It's just a house, Janey," Andrea, who Jane had thought was the one who'd been born with the lion's share of preservation instincts, was already halfway down the path with Sif and Frigga. They'd only stopped when they'd realized that everyone else had stopped. "Come on, we're almost there! We've been walking for hours and I'm tired."
Mom and Dad will yell if I kill her. Planting her fists on her hips, Jane took a stand. "I don't care if you're dying of acute hangnail. A squirrel just tried to eat us. Pardon me for being skeptical."
"My daughter." Frigga held out her hands, palms up. Her penis hat shone in the sunlight that streamed down between the branches of what had to be Yggdrasil, the World's Tree. "No more trials, I promise you."
Jane wavered. They'd already made it so far; it seemed silly to back out now. But she'd had it with impossible geography and attack squirrels. "No more?"
"None," Frigga promised, voice thick with sincerity. "After this, there remains only the rites, and the feast."
"Food?" Natasha—Natasha of all people, the one person Jane thought was guaranteed to make a cool and calculated decision—perked up. She clicked her safety on and stowed the gun. "Anything that has food, I'm in."
"Tasha!" Betty hissed, scandalized.
Natasha was already sashaying her way down the gently winding path, hips swaying seductively. Jane, being a faithful, devoted bride-to-be, did her best not to look. "I already gave up my vodka for the cause. If there's a giant fire-breathing can-opener in there, I can take it down as long as there's a sandwich after."
And there were three. Jane glanced between Betty and Darcy. They looked back, waiting for her decision. "We might as well," she finally admitted, shoulders slumping as she stepped onto the stone-paved path. Frigga's smile turned just a little smug, as if she'd known Jane would give in all along. Thor, I hope you know what I do for you.
As they got closer, the cottage didn't manage to look any less perfect. There were no chinks between the wood, no sign that the paint was anything but newly applied. It looked more like something out of a magazine than something that should be real. On the other hand, there didn't seem to be any boobytraps.
The door was made of some sort of lovely, dark wood that nearly glowed where the sunlight touched it, with a brass knocker that looked like half an apple. "Here goes everything..." Bypassing the knocker, Jane rapped her knuckles against the door.
A latch clicked, and slowly the door swung open by itself. The room beyond was lit dimly by the windows and nothing else. Two barrels were stacked against one wall, while another wall had a table piled with food—a roast bird of some sort, slices of apples arranged for dipping, even a cake. A set of stairs led up to what looked like a loft. Jane stared in, then back at Frigga, who did Mysterious and Silent better than anyone. Fury could have picked up a lesson from her.
"That's not creepy at all," Darcy decided. She grabbed Jane's arm, dragging her in. "Come on, giant fire-breathing can-opener awaits."
They all trooped in, Betty and Darcy hanging close. Natasha stayed back near the door, but her shoulders relaxed subtly. Everything seemed to be exactly what it looked like, which was... nice. "Hello?" Jane yelled, as loudly as seemed polite. "Is anyone here?"
"I'm here!" Something crashed, and the stairs shuddered. At the top of them, a tall, blond woman with braids down to her ankles appeared. A third barrel balanced on her shoulder, and a smile wide that stretched as wide as her face would allow. She flicked her finger, and the door creaked shut.
A giant, woven penis sat atop her head.
"Frigga! Sif! You came! The Holy Ones will arrive shortly." With a bound, she leapt down the stairs, taking them two at a time while still holding the barrel. She put it down at the bottom of the stairs and bounded over to wrap Sif and Frigga up in a hug. "Did Ratatosk give you trouble? He's so very protective of me, silly boy."
"Oh, no, not at all," Sif replied, just a little breathless from the squeeze she was trapped in. "He went right to sleep."
On ground-level, it was obvious that the woman was as tall as Thor, big enough that she dwarfed everyone else in the room. But there was something about her smile Jane liked; it had the same big-hearted quality that she loved about Thor.
Frigga and Sif were released from their embrace, and the woman turned on Jane. "And you must be our future princess," she beamed, wrapping her arms around Jane's ribs and picking her up. "It is an honor to host you and your companions, Lady Jane. I'm Idunn, keeper of the Golden Apples."
"Nice to meet you?" Jane squeaked, fighting to breathe. Her hat tilted to the side as she struggled to free up her lungs for air. "Frigga, what's going on?"
"Everything I have said." Gently, Frigga touched Idunn's shoulder, making her drop Jane. "Come. We must be ready, before the Holy Ones arrive."
Inside the tomb the cold wind no longer tugged at Thor's heart, but instead the freezing rocks pierced him like a sword. Breath froze in clouds about them, thick white fog that only made the temperature more apparent. Their path led down, down, down, to the very heart of the earth, lit only by Iron Man's light and a single torch. Frost glittered over everything, thick layers like a crust of diamonds. Nothing moved, not so much as a single rodent dared to set foot inside. It was a ghost of a place, nothing else.
Steve bumped Thor's elbow. "I'm sorry we got so weird back there," he said in a low voice. "I don't know what got into me."
"My grandfather." Thor clasped his friend's shoulder reassuringly. "His spirit lingers in this place as the storm. No one wrapped in so much anger could remain untouched, not even you."
"Iron Man did."
"Iron Man—Tony is encased in armor," Odin interrupted unexpectedly from behind. "He was untouched by the storm, and so saved from my father's wrath."
They ducked through a door made for smaller people than they, entering a chamber that might have been a great hall once. Why such a thing would exist so deep down, in the tomb of a fallen king who had left no body was a mystery to Thor. By any rights, they should have reached the end of the path long before.
Thor paused, looking around. A hearth big enough to roast a team of oxen sat cold, without sign that it might have ever been in use. No tables or chairs filled the hall, and the walls were bare of any decoration. Only a single item was out of place, a low stone stool on a raised dais, all of it carved from one single piece of rock.
There was no exit.
Welcome, Thor, son of Odin, Grandson of Bor.
Frost writhed, flakes of it breaking off with the sound of shattering crystal. They rose in a blur of white, swirling around the dais in a small, contained blizzard. The storm grew taller and denser, compacting itself in to the shape of a man. He was burly, wider at the shoulders than Thor, thick in the waist, and his beard bristled with ice. Two flecks of glowing blue marked out his eyes. At his left hip hung an axe made of ice, its blade agleam with deadly promise. And at his right...
A sword. Rusted iron, pitted and dull-looking, but a sword. The sword.
Stepping forward, Thor placed his hand over his heart and bowed low as he would to his father on the throne of Asgard. Without lifting his head, he kept his eyes fixed on the figure that occupied the dais. "King Bor—Grandfather. Thank you for your kind welcome. I am indeed Thor, and I have come to meet with you."
I know why you have come. The apparition didn't move its lips, but its voice rang off the icicled rafters, making some of the more delicate fall to shatter against the flagstones. You mean to wed a daughter of Earth, and for that you must have my sword.
"I would rather your blessing come with it, Grandsire."
More icicles crashed down, spreading a thick layer of crushed ice across the floor. For the House of Odin and a woman of Earth, I have no blessings, Bor snarled. The fallen pieces of ice swirled together, forming an army of men stretched between Thor and his grandsire. If you wish to see through such a monstrosity, you shall have to win the right. To arms!
Preparing for the arrival of the Holy Ones—whoever they were—apparently involved a quick wash and putting on a dress that only avoided being a long shirt by a few inches. Jane's was just a few shades off from being a perfect gold, and made of some sort of material that hugged everything. Everyone else was wore white, even Frigga. Ponytails and braids were removed, leaving their hair free, and Frigga forced all of them to rub sweet apple scented oil to the major pulse points. Then they were bundled back into the main room, where Idunn had set up a long table and eight chairs.
Inexplicably, the penis hats stayed. Jane tried once to set hers aside, and got such an unhappy frown from Sif that she'd put it back on immediately.
While they'd been washing up, the sun had set. It hadn't been anywhere near the horizon when they'd arrived, and bathing hadn't taken that long, but the only light coming in through the windows was from the lamp hanging by the door. Glass lanterns lined the walls, filling the room with a gentle golden glow.
Jane had thought she'd reached the point where impossible stopped bothering her, but a suddenly vanishing sun still made her twitch. She did her best to ignore it. "Now what?" she asked, taking the chair that Frigga shoved her at. Betty and Andrea flanked her. "There's a... ritual thing, right? Shouldn't there be candles or something?"
"Now, we drink." Idunn, still smiling like it was her day job, set a deep bowl of light brown liquid on the table. One part of the edge as flattened out, and there were handles. Beautifully depicted figures lined the edges, men and women twining about each other without a stitch of drawn clothing on. "The first to the bride, of course."
Tentatively, Jane sniffed the bowl, then reeled back, eyes watering. "What is that?" she demanded.
"Applejack," Frigga explained, putting more bowls on the table. "Made by Idunn herself from the Golden Apples of youth. It's tradition for a young bride to drink it before her wedding, and during the month of celebrating after."
Liquor. Funny hats. Only women. Jane rubbed her eyes free of tears so she could give Frigga a long, hard look. "Is this a bachelorette party?"
"A what?" Either Frigga had the best poker face Jane had ever seen, or she was being honest. Her head tilted, long curls falling down her shoulder and barely missing being dunked in the next bowl of hard cider. "This is the sacred rite of Asgardian Womanhood, undertaken by all new brides. You and your ladies are to drink of the golden apples, feast and celebrate the bonds of sisterhood while attended by the Holy Men who are privy to the great mysteries. Nothing else."
"But—but—" Jane grabbed the handles of her drinking vessel. "But what about the deep secrets of womanhood? Fearsome mysteries? Danger? I remember a distinct hint of danger."
The table creaked as Sif settled her hip on it. With a dress on and her hair falling across her shoulders, she looked like a different person almost. "I recall when Hilda wed her Brede," she reminisced. "No head for liquor, that one. Fell off a table early in the night, and we spent the rest of the evening making sure she healed up in time for her wedding."
"Did you think we'd pit you against some beast in dark woods?" Frigga's eyebrows lifted in surprised. "That's just what we tell the men, so they'll keep their noses out of it. Now, drink up. The evenings here are long, and we've only begun."
Jane felt like she should protest some more, but everyone was watching her expectantly, waiting. Already here, may as well. Grimacing to herself, Jane lifted the vessel and took a deep, long drink, not stopping until the last dreg was gone. The cider tasted like apples laced through with a touch of cinnamon and some other spices she couldn't name, without any of the burn she would have expected from homemade applejack. The liquor buzzed around her head and between her ears, giving everything a wonderful glow.
The others finished a moment after she did. Natasha was still clear-eyed, but Betty and Andrea leaned against each other, and Darcy was licking her lips suspiciously. Jane started to twist, looking for the Asgardian women.
Just as she did, someone knocked on the door. Jane startled back in her chair, bumping into someone soft and warm who wrapped her arms around her to keep them both balanced. Looking up, she met Frigga's fond smile with one of her own.
"Thank you," she said, reaching up to wrap her arms around Frigga's neck. It arched her back and practically buried the back of her head in Frigga's breasts, but she got a wonderful hug out of it. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Idunn letting in a troupe of cloaked men, but that barely seemed to matter next to how nice it felt to hug Frigga. "I've been a grouch. I'm sorry. This is wonderful."
"I suppose I should have told you what to expect," Frigga replied, straightening Jane's hat. Her fingers traced down her cheek, ending in a gentle pat. "I apologize for that."
A musical chord and a cleared throat broke into Jane's thoughts midway through a seriously contemplation on how pretty Frigga was. She looked down and blinked. A trio of the cloaked men had taken up residence on a set of low stools back in the corner, set up with some sort of musical instruments. The other five had lined up, hoods still up but cloaks pushed back over their shoulders, revealing their clothing underneath.
That is, if a very, very short skirt could be considered clothing.
Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. If this was the women's ceremony, Thor was probably off downing beers with the boys and stuffing dollars into G-strings. There were worse ways to be tricked.
Thor learned quickly that smashing the ice demons did little good. They only reformed and came back, often from behind. Iron Man attempted once to melt one, but it had caused the whole mound to shake over their heads, deadly icicles raining down from above. The groomsmen collected in a circle, back to back, holding off the demons by brute strength.
"We have to get through!" Clint yelled over the sound of Hulk's roars. "They're going to wear us down if we let them!"
"The sword is the key, right?" Iron Man asked, blasting chunks off the nearest adversary. "Keep me covered, I'll fly over and—"
"Nay!" Odin ducked low to allow Steve's shield to slice the head off the demon he faced. "My son must be the one to lay hands on the sword, or else the trial is forfeit!"
The floor shook as Hulk's great palm smashed down, crumbling an attacker into bits. Hogun had climbed his shoulder and clung there, yelling targets in Hulk's ear.
"Ware above!" Volstagg and Fandral shoved everyone closer together as a rain of icicles sheeted down, Steve's shield doing a small job in covering them. Still, one blade of ice sliced open Thor's cheek, splattering the frost beneath him with red. Like a machine made for battle, they sprang apart, back into the fray.
"Whatever we're doing, we have to do it soon," Steve called. "Thor, this is your party!"
Mjolnir crushed the ribcage of one of the icy warriors, and Thor kicked the rest out of his way until it regenerated. "Hulk! Throw me!"
There was no sign of Banner's usual intelligence in Hulk's brutish eyes, but still Thor's meaning came through clearly enough. He seized Thor in one mighty hand, heaving him across the room with only a fraction of his strength. Thor held Mjolnir before him, breaking apart any demons in his way.
The arch of his flight might have ended badly, as a bloody mess against the far wall, had Thor not been prepared. He caught himself with his hands and knees, rebounding neatly to kneel on the dais before his grandfather.
Bor rose from his stool, drawing his axe made of eyes. The two of us, then, he declared, voice licked with disdain. Come at me, Grandson, and claim your prize.
With a yell, Thor lifted Mjolnir and lunged.
It occurred to Jane that she was probably already drunk, only three drinks in. Maybe she had been since that first one, it was hard to tell. It was also hard to care, with Frigga still holding on to her from behind while an extremely well-crafted man rolled his hips over her lap and bent over backwards.
Holy Strippers were the best.
On her left, Natasha had crawled into Sif's lap and was watching the stripper with a critical eye. Sif didn't seem to mind being used as a chair; every now and then she petted Natasha's hair, as if soothing her. Hers was the third lap Natasha had laid claim to in the name of the motherland, after Darcy and Idunn's.
Betty had the same expression on as Natasha. "These are nice," she said slowly, thinking out every word as she said it. "But what if the bride doesn't like men?"
"If there are two brides!" Darcy chimed in. "Does Asgard even do gay marriage?" She'd corralled one of the holy men into showing her and Andrea a specific dance move. It involved a lot of grabbing hips and didn't seem to work with the gravity of her generous breasts, but Jane thought she looked like she was having fun.
Frigga's arms tightened around Jane, nestling her closer between her breasts. "If two maids are to wed, the Helm of the Vanir are changed, to resemble the cup of a woman rather than the staff of a man, and a different chapter of the holy order is summoned. I was once a member of that chapter, back when I was a maid, and then Odin came to us seeking enlightenment."
Vulva hats and women strippers, Jane translated mentally, and then giggled physically. "That sounds like it would have been nice." She tilted her head back to look up at Frigga. Gorgeous Frigga, who must have been a breathtaking stripper, what with how graceful she was. Some small shred of decency tried to remind Jane that it was her future mother-in-law she was mildly perving on, but it was drowned in the buzz of the applejack. "I bet you were amazing."
"I was somewhat accomplished, yes." Something lit up Frigga's eyes. Her arms around Jane shifted subtly, so her hands were resting low on Jane's stomach. "Would you like to see?"
Bor was light on his feet, and the blows he landed were fierce. But Thor was faster, his arm stronger. Had his grandsire been yet living, Thor might have faced serious challenge, but the shade held only a fraction of the living man's power. They grappled, Mjolnir meeting Bor's axe blows and turning them aside.
Thor kept the fight in close, keeping Bor from using the worst of the blade against him. Always keeping one eye on the sword, Thor led his grandfather in a tight circle, growing ever tighter. Overhead blows were turned aside, side-swings blocked in their tracks. A knee to the ribs stole Thor's breath, but only for a moment before he threw himself back into the fray.
It was a patch of smooth ice that was traitor to Thor's cause. It slipped under his boot just as he stepped forward to grab Bor's axe by the haft and wrench it away. The world tilted under him, and in a blink the wind was stolen from Thor's lungs as his back crashed to the ground, Mjolnir skittering away across the floor. Black swirled behind his eyes, and his head rang as if from a mighty blow.
Ha, laid low so easily? The house of Odin is soft. Ice flew up in jagged shards as Bor knelt down, axe held aloft. So ends your quest, boy.
Just as the axe started to come down, Thor dived forward in a last, desperate attempt. His seeking hand wrapped around the hilt of his grandfather's sword. Before the spirit could react, he'd drawn it and brought the blade around in his own blow. It cut through the icy body of Bor without notice, without resistance or even a shudder of impact. Bor's glowing blue eyes blinked, and then faded. His body collapsed in, spreading out into snow.
The sounds of battle vanished with Bor. Thor pushed himself to his feet, body aching from the strain of battle, and turned. The ice demos that had filled the hall had vanished with their maker, leaving only little piles of ice chips and snow.
Quiet as a whisper, the lingering spirit of Bor spoke. A fair victory, Grandson, and for that you may have my blessing.
Thor looked upward, though there was nothing to see. "Thank you, Grandfather."
He got the feeling the Bor might have smiled. Go now, and leave me to my peace, lest you join me in it.
"Join him in it?" Fandral pushed back the fur-edged hood of his cape, frowning. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Somewhere deep in the mound, something rumbled. Thor took the hint and shoved the sword into his belt. "It means let us not try his patience. We must make haste, to meet Jane on her return."
Jane groaned. Sunlight was coming in from somewhere, sticking hot pokers into the corners of her eyes. She hissed and flinched, making whoever was spooning her growl a curse in Russian and wiggle closer, jostling Jane's delicate stomach. Working purely on defense, Jane twisted until her head was buried deeper in Frigga's breasts, blocking the sun that was tormenting her.
There were definitely breasts acting as her pillow. Bare breasts that were ever so slightly sticky, with Frigga's equally bare thighs curled up to cradle her. Jane swallowed and closed her eyes tighter, fighting not to hyperventilate.
Idunn hadn't been joking when she'd said that nights lasted long there. She'd counted a full sixteen hours before she'd lost track of time and, apparently, her good sense. There was probably some sort of temporal distortion effect from being so close to Yggdrasil, which explained why that much heavy drinking hadn't killed her. She remembered—
Drinking apple cider on warm, soft skin, her tongue swirling around a peaked nipple on her way up to the first splash point, and then Frigga's lips on hers, demanding and—
"Oh God," Jane groaned under her breath. I made out with my future mother-in-law! Did that count as cheating? It had to, right? It might even be almost-incest.
At least she was still dressed. It didn't necessarily mean anything more than kisses had happened, but it made Jane feel better. Moving carefully to keep from waking anyone, Jane dislodged herself from Frigga, Natasha and the surprise of Betty, who'd been sleeping between Jane's legs. Without her there, they all just curled up closer and kept sleeping. Sif was propped up against the wall, the top of her dress falling down around her waist, while Darcy curled up around her.
The logical conclusion of bridal orgy wasn't one Jane really wanted to come to, but there was only so much evidence she could refute. At least the penis hats were missing—Frigga's was the only one in sight.
A noise in the back made Jane turn. "My lady," Idunn, who somehow looked fresh and awake even though she'd been just as far gone as the rest of them, whispered to her from the doorway that led to the kitchen area. She followed her, finding a low table laid out with little cups and a kettle. Idunn poured a cup of tea and pressed it into Jane's hands. "Sit and drink. It will take away the effects of the evening."
Jane sat, or tried to. The moment her ass touched the seat, bruises she hadn't realized were there throbbed, making her jump back to her feet. As if joining a chorus, other aches and pains made themselves known, from a sharp sting on her neck to a general soreness in her back and feet. She tried to sit again, finding that as long as she stayed on the very edge she could ignore the bruises.
"I'm sorry," Jane mumbled, blowing on her drink. "You didn't sign up for this."
Idunn blinked and lowered herself into the seat across from Jane, eyebrows furrowing in confusion. "I beg your pardon?"
"The..." Jane groped for a way to delicately ask if they'd had an orgy on Idunn's floor, but there really wasn't one. "The... sex? All over?" Once the word was out, more memories helpfully pressed forward, letting Jane know where the bruises on her ass had come from. "It's not normal to sleep with your bridal party."
"It isn't?" Long blond hair framed Idunn's face as she stared at Jane, as if expecting a joke to appear. "Is that an Earth tradition?"
"Who else to spend your last evening in revelry with?" Shrugging delicately, Idunn picked up her tea and took a sip. Hastily, Jane hurried to follow suit, but she kept watching Idunn over the rim of the cup.
When she put the cup down, her headache had improved and her stomach settled, but nothing had changed in her other aches. Which seemed reasonable to Jane—those hadn't been caused by over-imbibing.
"But what about Frigga? She's going to be my mother-in-law," Jane pressed. "And she's married."
"And who else will you turn to if your husband proves unsatisfying?" Idunn sipped her tea and hummed. "The queen has suffered for having neither mother, nor sisters by marriage to turn to when her king was recalcitrant in the marriage bed. I believe she will find great joy in providing for you as she never had." Blood ran out of Jane's face as she tried to wrap her mind around that. Her expression made Idunn smile widely and reached over to pat Jane's cheek.
"You are quite a lucky woman, Jane Foster."
A thousand thoughts swirled inside Jane's head, starting with why didn't Thor tell me and ending with a small, tiny bit of glee that she got to sleep with Frigga too. There was really only one answer to having so many conflicting emotions.
"Do you have any more of that applejack?"
Thor and his companions waited at the end of the bridge which led to the observatory. It was as good a meeting place as any—Pepper had already sent along the bags they had packed for the coming month, and Heimdall had reported that the wedding guests were arriving safely and being escorted to the palace. Therefore there was no need for Thor and Jane to return back to Earth; they could go directly to the bath houses to prepare for the ceremony coming. But first, Thor wanted to see his beloved, and be sure she had come through her trials intact.
His wait was not long. The bridal party arrived shortly after the grooms, their horses keeping to a smooth trot rather than the speed they had commanded before. And rightly so. No woman in the group was untouched by the rigors of whatever trials had overtaken them the night before. Sif, grand Sif, who had bested the greatest of Odin's guards, hung in her saddle as though stricken by Hel herself. Darcy and Natasha rode double, keeping each other upright, though a bruise colored Darcy's chin and Natasha's hair had once again been shorn from its luxurious red curls. Betty, sweet Betty whose strength and love tamed the Hulk, was conscious but tied to the saddle, her face pale as that of the moon.
And, finally, Thor's beloved Jane rode side-saddle, perched on a pillow between his mother's arms. She was faint as Betty, wobbling dangerously even with Frigga's firm hands holding her in place. Deep purple bruises bloomed like roses across her neck, vanishing down into her collar as if she had been pelted by rocks. Dabs of dried blood were smeared across one ear, as if an effort had been made to wipe it away. Most damning, her clothes had been changed for a short robe of gold and nothing else, not even a pair of shoes.
Hurriedly, Thor abandoned his mount and rushed forward to claim his bride, cradling her to his chest. "My love, are you injured? What horrors have been wrought upon you?"
Fair Jane's head lolled against his shoulder, red-shot eyes opening as she smiled up at him. "I'm good—I'm good, I passed. It's all good." Wrapping her arms around his neck, she pulled herself up enough to plant a kiss to his lips. "Your mother told me everything about Asgardian marriages," she murmured, without breaking the kiss. "You have some explaining to do, Thor Odinson."
Thor's heart nearly stopped. He hadn't thought his mother would tell her, had assumed that since Jane was an outsider it would all pass unnoticed. "Jane, I—"
"Shh," she whispered, kissing him again. "It's okay. I'm not mad anymore. But you're going to tell me why you didn't say anything, and then you're going to make it up to me. Extensively."
"Um," Tony interrupted, standing up in his stirrups to stare into the distance. "Welcome back, nice to see you survived and all. But wasn't there more of you?"
Ending the kiss, Thor looked over the returning bridal party. Each of them were doing the same, dawning realization rising in their faces. "Tony is right. Jane, where's your sister?"
There was no color in Jane's face to lose, but her eyes went large and she twisted around, counting heads once, and then again. "Mom's going to kill me."