1. This was definitely the New Year's Eve party to be at, Tony thought happily. The buffet table stretched the length of one wall of the recently rebuilt Stark Tower, while the cocktail bar took up almost as much space on the other side. Streamers and balloons hung from the ceiling in lazy curves, spangles of light flickering over them from the giant disco ball in the centre. JARVIS had been carefully loaded up with enough music for the entire evening, all of it guaranteed to keep people up and dancing.
An outstanding effort, even if he did say so himself. Add in the Avengers and several dozen actually interesting people from the enormous list in his contact book, and things should roll along nicely.
And they did, until Thor came up and slapped him on the back.
"A wonderful feast, Man of Iron! Please, pass me the salted cat!"
Silence fell. If there were crickets on the 75th floor of skyscrapers, one would have chirped.
"Um, Thor..." Bruce started, trying to smooth over the gaffe. "We don't eat cats. Salted or otherwise."
"You think we do?" Thor scowled.
"Well, you just asked for some."
"Oh!" Thor laughed. "I am sorry, I forgot you would not know. It is a compliment, suggesting that there are so many different dishes available that anything that can be imagined must be here."
"Hey, Stark!" Clint chimed in. "Bet even you can't convince Kellogg's to launch 'salted cat' as a new PopTart flavour."
"Man of Iron!" Thor seemed incapable of greeting anyone with less than a bellow. "Are you free?"
"Normally I'm quite expensive, but for you I'll make an exception," Tony replied, then thought better of it as Thor stopped to process the statement. "Don't worry about it. What do you want?"
"Ah! I was thinking of getting a new cloak, since I have been on Midgard long enough for the seasons to change. Would you like to come and help me with the task?"
Wonderful. Clothes shopping, way down on the list of "fun things Tony liked to do". But he could hardly turn Thor loose with a credit card in the middle of Manhattan. "I don't normally do my own shopping; Pepper takes care of all that for me. And I am a bit busy here." Thor's shoulders slumped, an awesome sight given their size. "If you gave her a call I'm sure she could set something up for you."
"There is no need to disturb the Lady Pepper with my request," Thor said. "All is well." The blond giant withdrew hurriedly.
Tony frowned, thinking that Thor's manner had been slightly odd. Then his monitor beeped, and he forgot the exchange entirely.
Thor sat slumped in a sofa in the lounge, positively radiating misery. A small rainstorm had started up outside the nearest window, but not any of the others, a weather pattern that anyone who had grown up with a Thunder God could recognise.
Loki strolled up and slouched elegantly against the doorway. "Tony refused you, did he?" he asked, somewhat unkindly.
"He was polite, but reminded me that he has the Lady Pepper for his needs. I had thought their relationship over, or else I would not have mentioned it."
Loki looked thoughtful. "You didn't use discretion and subtlety, did you?"
Thor nodded. Loki rolled his eyes.
"Tony Stark is used to having complete strangers throw themselves at his feet to offer sexual services. I don't think he does subtlety." Loki sighed. "Go back down to the lab, pick him up in both hands, pin him against the wall and kiss him for several minutes. Then ask if he wants to spend the rest of the night in your bed. That is what I recommend as a suitable approach."
In the morning Thor appeared at breakfast with his trademark beaming smile back in place. Tony, however, was definitely walking funny.
"So help me, Stark, if you don't do something about my room I will do a complete Heliodene on your ass - even if I have to dig the cave myself!"
Loki stormed out, leaving several human Avengers both wary and somewhat baffled.
"Did any of you get that?" Tony asked, getting a series of negatives. "JARVIS?"
"No 'Heliodene' in my database, sir. I suggest asking Thor. Unless you want to ask Loki to explain?"
"Heliodene?" Thor laughed. "That's a children's story!"
"I'm not surprised to hear that, but what is it? I mean, what is it about, and where does a cave come into it?" Tony had his teeth into the puzzle now, and was not about to let go.
"She was a princess of Aelfheim. She was blessed, or cursed, with the most acute hearing of any being. The story goes that she moved to a deserted island, but was kept awake by the waves; then to a mountaintop, but was kept awake by the wind; and finally she moved into a deep cave in order to get rest."
"So, if someone compared themselves to Heliodene, it would mean they can't sleep because of noise?"
"That is one way to summarise the story, yes."
"JARVIS! Get Housekeeping to open up one of guest suites on, oh, about the 60th floor. Then ask Loki, politely, if it is acceptable as new quarters." Fifteen empty floors between him and the rest of the Avengers should be about right, Tony thought.
Clint snickered. "Never thought of Loki as a delicate Elfish princess."
"Delicate?" Thor looked surprised. "I would not describe the Aelfheimer so. One reason Heliodene's story has been remembered is because she used to kill any and all who set foot within the valley holding her cave's entrance. It is said that, by the time she died, you could walk from one end of the valley to the other without touching the ground."
Hmm. "JARVIS? Addition to the above instruction. Set all other quarters on that floor to unavailable until further notice."
It had been a mighty battle, and a hell of a party afterwards to celebrate. People had begun to crawl off to bed about an hour ago, and now it was down to Thor, Steve, and Clint trading jokes in the kitchen. It was hard work trying to find jokes that made sense to all parties, until Clint had hit on 'Polish jokes'.
"We have ones like that!" Thor announced. "Why do Jotunn women have no breasts?"
Steve and Clint grinned. "Why?"
Thor opened his mouth, and only then realised that Loki was standing in the archway. Even as Thor focused on him, his face took on a haughty sneer, but Thor had seen the initial flash of pain. The pain of a little brother who had been the butt of altogether too many jokes, targeting aspects of himself that he had no control over. Loki vanished.
"Thor? Thor! What's the punchline?"
"Please excuse me, shieldbrothers. I have to go, now." He walked out of the kitchen, and then stopped. He'd never find Loki, not until Loki wanted to be found. Meanwhile the apology he needed to deliver would hang around his neck like a stone.
Back in the kitchen, Steve turned to Clint. "Why do Jotunn women have no breasts?"
The archer shrugged. "Fuck if I know."
Thor's rumbling voice could be heard before he came into view. Clint, Natasha and Steve merely glanced up in acknowledgement as he entered the Avengers' common room, but looked twice when they saw he was not alone. A strange woman, dark-haired, athletic, and beautiful, was with him. The resident Avengers stood as Thor took her hand and drew her forwards.
"My friends! I am delighted to present to you the Lady Sif. One of my closest friends from Asgard, and a mighty warrior as well." Thor beamed on his teammates. "Sif, this is Natasha Romanov, perhaps the most deadly lady on Midgard."
Sif inclined her head. "Pleased to meet you." Before the two men could be introduced, Sif flicked a dagger into her hand and threw it directly at Natasha's head.
Several things happened in quick succession. Natasha dropped to the floor, landing not flat on her stomach but poised on fingers and toes. Clint, not having to spend time dodging, pulled out a knife of his own and sent it flying towards Sif. Steve jerked forwards, but then froze, uncertain whether to attack the visitor - a lady, and Thor's friend - or Clint.
Sif flicked Clint's knife aside, looking startled, and addressed him. "Sir! I do not yet know your name. This is very -"
The rest of the sentence was lost when Natasha sprang forward, staying low and ramming Sif in the shins with her shoulder. Sif went down rolling, and blocked an elbow strike coming towards her face. Natasha bared her teeth.
"Thor! What is going on?" Steve demanded, as the god seemed content to simply watch as the two women grappled.
Thor smiled even wider. "The Lady Sif was delighted to learn one of my friends on Midgard was a fighting woman. I promised she could meet the Lady Natasha, as I knew they would be firm friends."
"But Sif threw a knife at her!"
"Yes. Sif is most courteous. She knows that Natasha is skilled, and gives her the chance to display that skill by avoiding the throw."
Thor stepped nimbly aside as the women on the floor rolled through the coffee table.
"You throw knives at people you like?" Steve seemed to be having some trouble coming to terms with the concept.
"Certainly. Would you throw one at a stranger who might not be able to dodge? Sif shows that she has the utmost respect for Natasha."
Clint had at least worked out they weren't trying to kill each other. "Ten bucks on Nat!"
That was something the soldier in Steve could understand. "Done!"
"So when I threw one at her..." Clint started, trying to work out what message he'd sent.
Thor laughed. "Oh, the Lady Sif was surprised that you would be so forward as to attack before a formal exchange of names. But she never stays angry long - at least not when an ardent male is concerned."
SIf lunged up momentarily, all slim, muscular limbs and dark eyes. She winked at Clint, absently deflecting a sidekick that would have broken her jaw. Two hands locked in her long flowing hair and yanked her down.
"Spawn of an abomination!"
"Ardent male, hey?" Clint said.
"Forget it," advised Steve. "If she didn't kill you overnight, Nat would in the morning. Besides, I'm planning to tell her you bet against."
Tony came running into the room, obviously drawn by the noise. He looked at the two women trading blows on the floor, the broken furniture and loose bits of clothing, and the three males standing around watching. "JARVIS, are you getting this on tape?"
"Of course, sir."
"What is 'this', anyway?" Tony asked.
"It's an Asgardian custom," Steve supplied helpfully. "Showing respect for each other's ability, although I'm not sure Natasha knows that. Maybe we should tell her?"
"Na kaleni, suka!"
"Pyes yob tvoyu mat!"
"No," Clint said. "I think she's enjoying herself."
"JARVIS! Status report! Everybody in?" Tony sauntered over to the coffee maker and started running off a new batch. Steve knew a master at work when he saw one, and was happy to sit down and watch.
"Yes, sir. Doctor Banner is in the laboratory, and Natasha and Clint are in the armoury."
"Thor? Loki? I thought they came back first?"
"Yes, Thor left me with a message; he said he and Loki were going to check each other's weapons for damage."
"I didn't know Mjolnir could be damaged," Steve said, instantly going all Captain American-y in concern.
"I didn't think Loki used a weapon," Tony commented.
JARVIS coughed pointedly.
Tony and Steve looked at each other, and then started snickering.
"Checking their weapons?" Tony choked out between snorts. "That's the lousiest euphemism I've ever heard."
"Each other's weapons," Steve corrected. "Look close, there might be some damage juuuuust there!" and adding: "Yes! There!" in a falsetto squeak before putting his head down on his arms and laughing until the tears ran.