Thor says, “Are you ready?”
The first pull of the Bifrost is disconcerting, and the momentary darkness that greets them after the initial burst of light even more so, but then Jane is tumbling head over heel inside twisting, ludicrously bright colour. Her hair streams behind her and out of the corner of her eye she can make out Thor’s cloak flapping in a breeze that might only exist in a dimension somewhere beyond the third. When she manages to straighten herself out, she turns her head to find Thor staring at her, grinning hugely, and Jane opens her eyes wide, throws her arms wider, and hurtles directly at a set of bright alien stars --
-- and then she slams to the floor of Asgard, feet first. Staying upright is hardly even a struggle. Heimdall, subject of many of Thor’s more epic stories, gazes down at her, tall and omniscient and gorgeous. She beams at him.
This is the most ambitious expedition to parts unknown in human history. It’s also a preliminary diplomatic mission, so SHIELD kept the landing party small: just Jane, Captain Rogers, Dr. Banner, and Agent Romanoff.
Jane’s brought enough computing power to record and process terabytes of raw data (except really, absolutely, extremely not enough, but SHIELD is out to get her), and if she starts right now then phase one can be all set up while she steals away Captain America to show him how to babysit diagnostic modules. If there was any justice she’d have a small army of astrophysicists behind her -- and Darcy -- but at least Bruce is here, which will be great when they start getting some preliminary digital feedback, and also when Jane feels the need to talk loud and fast about the incredible, mind blowing nature of the universe.
“-celebrate immediately,” Thor is saying, “and late into the night.”
“What,” says Jane.
First, Thor explains, there is going to be a feast in their honour. Actually, a series of feasts.
“Of course,” says Jane. “That sounds. Really great. Yes.”
“And science to follow,” Thor adds quickly, slipping his hand into hers. “We must first show you a proper Asgardian welcome. There shall be food and fellowship, and fancy dress.”
Jane’s own motivations aside, this is technically a mission to make nice. They even have universal translators put together by SHIELD’s tech department using some blend of Earth-level hardware and Asgardian-level allspeak software. It’s basically magic inside a black plastic earbud.
“We have fancy dress,” Bruce says, mouth quirking up a little.
Black suits and dresses are not exactly what Thor has in mind.
“Oh yes, I see what you mean,” says Bruce, faintly, when they summon the royal tailor. He makes something that sounds suspiciously like a giggle.
Well, that part is fine. Jane always suspected she could rock a cape.
Fancy Asgardian parties feature three major components: meat-and-drink, heroic battle stories, and a never-ending meet and greet circuit that means Jane has talked to approximately every person on this planet. Some of them twice. Her neck is getting a little sore.
Jane finds herself clinking glasses with Sif, as they stand on the fringes of a gripping tale of heroism and perseverance. She becomes periodically aware of a red-caped, hulking blond Asgardian presence in various locations of reasonably close proximity. Thor glances over, casually sipping on his ale. He casually strikes up a conversation with Natasha, who was standing within earshot. He announces he requires an umpteenth helping of the stringy bird thing that is sitting at the next table, and wanders over to help himself, casually.
Sif rolls her eyes. “I believe Thor would like us to bond as sisters,” she says.
“I- oh,” says Jane. Thor has vanished. The entire platter of stringy bird thing is also missing. “That sounds like a great idea,” she adds, absolutely serious. Sif grins.
Jane also notices that her goblet is empty. Er, again. This is the first Earth-Asgard bonding opportunity since that time Loki punched interstellar relations in the face, twice, and the king and queen of Asgard are here, and they are her boyfriend’s parents.
Jane is absolutely not going to get drunk at this party, is the point.
So, Jane gets a little drunk. Sort of. Slightly.
Jane also takes the liberty of adding a fourth feast category, which she is calling “making suggestive eyes at Thor.” And a fifth: “surreptitious photo documentation.”
Number of Avengers-dressed-in-Asgardian-finery photos Jane has taken: 23.
Avengers-dressed-in-Asgardian-finery photos photobombed by actual Asgardians: 19.
Actual Asgardians here meaning Fandral, Sif, or Volstagg: 17.
Strategic self-portraits featuring Jane’s fancy wine connoisseur face, accidentally-on-purpose also including, er, certain Asgardians in the background, absolutely taken only for Darcy, because Jane is a good friend: 3.
Look, Asgardians are all tall, fit, paragons of godlike beauty, but some of them have taken this rule to especially to heart. And the gym. One guy even misplaced his tunic, or was way too warm, or something.
Jane is not certain about the particulars as to why this picture of misplaced-shirt-god doubles as a rude gesture in the direction of SHIELD, but she is absolutely sure that it does.
Take that, SHIELD!
The aliens show up just before what may or may not be the second round of desserts. (Asgardian dinner courses are unexpectedly complicated. As far as Jane can tell, they happen in a very specific order, but also all at once. It’s like the time continuum, except with space duck.)
A dark-haired woman Jane has met at least three times makes ahem noises, and informs the hall, “Presenting: the Ratakraka!”
The, uh, “Ratakraka” burst through the hall’s ceiling-high double doors, cloaks swirling dramatically. They are humanoid and very tall, with bird-like faces and black feathered wings.
Once inside they pause and, as a unit, strike a pose.
(Shots of photogenic winged aliens, pouting like they’re trapped in a teenager’s Facebook profile picture: 1.)
“Syrupy greetings, Asgardians,” drawls one near the front. Her voice is high-pitched and nasally, and resonates strangely in Jane’s ear where the universal translator has been resting uncomfortably all night. “We are returning from a quick trip to Ego the Living Planet, and on the adventure home decided to pay a visit to our dear allies in Asgard. But I see you are having a great feast.”
Thor says, “Greetings! Yes. We are indeed, er, feasting.”
“I just said that I see that you are feasting.”
The alien inspects her fingernails. “What a musical spread of food and drink you have.”
“And what volume!” pipes up another.
“Unfortunately, my friends, this is-” says Thor.
“Such volume,” the first alien agrees. “Unless, are you already entertaining?”
Thor explains that oh no, this is a party full of just Asgardians, celebrating only Asgardian things. But he can also clearly not think of any good reasons to tell them to go away.
And so the bird people are welcomed to the party. The party of - and here Thor pointedly turns to the watching crowd - just Asgardians.
Natasha appears at Jane’s elbow, fresh from a brief, hushed conversation with Lady Sif.
“The syrup thing,” says Jane, “that was the universal translator, right?”
Natasha says, “Yeah, Sif mentioned these guys use a lot of food metaphors. This will be fine. Undercover gigs are great. And when there’s a chance to slip out, we move.”
“Oh yes,” says Jane. “That sounds wonderful. Did she say how important the undercover part was?”
“At stake is the continuing future of Earth, relatively undisturbed. Apparently these guys are on Asgard’s naughty list.”
“Yeah, mhmm, this will be fine,” Jane says. “We’ve already got the getup. We’ll blend right in.” The corners of Natasha’s mouth quirk upward.
Bruce is the first to escape, slipping out like the exit professional he probably is by now.
Natasha and Jane are not far behind. They have been slowly moving toward the nearest door, and now there is a lull between courses. Someone suggests a livelier tune from the evening’s musicians, which is met with cheers of agreement. Guests rise to their feet and begin to mercilessly tease one another about their dancing skills.
Natasha gives Jane a nudge with her shoulder. “Now we go,” she says, voice low.
Jane glances back at Steve, trapped across the room with two of the birds, and Sif. He laughs heartily, baring his teeth. In response Sif socks him in the shoulder in a way that looks like it should hurt, but either he’s got an arm made of metal or she pulled it, because nobody goes flying.
Adequately covered by the commotion, Jane follows Natasha to the edge of the room and through the side exit. The banquet hall is surrounded by more halls. Still breathtaking architectural achievements, of course, but of the more utilitarian, full-of-doors and leading-to-other-places variety. “Back to our chambers?” Jane wonders. Natasha shrugs a yes.
They get twenty feet, and then encounter another large posse of winged aliens, coming from the opposite direction. This group features helmets and axes. Upon realizing they have been discovered, they are also suspiciously sheepish.
“Oh um,” says one of them. “We were told Asgard was baking a great pancake to honour us?”
Natasha and Jane regard the latest round of garbled party crashers with an Asgardian confidence and enthusiasm. Maybe disdain? She doesn’t know about Natasha, but Jane is going for what-a-nice-surprise, with a side of warrior’s seriousness. They are 5.4 and 5.5 feet of success, respectively.
Except the leader’s axe is dripping. There is a little trail of blood winding its sporadic way out of sight down the hallway, Jane notes, with a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach. God, this is where Bruce slipped out a few minutes ago-
“Of course!” Jane says, loudly. “I will announce you!”
“Oh that is not necessary,” says the one with the broadsword, but Jane is already briskly walking back to the banquet hall. She throws open the door with a crash, but the closest Asgardian is at least two axe-to-Jane’s-head time lengths away. She does not like subtlety’s odds, here.
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN,” Jane shouts, “ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE EVEN MORE DISTINGUISHED GUESTS.”
Clearly visible through the doorway, the one with the axe reluctantly waves hello.
“Welcome... friends,” Thor grits out. “As you can see, there is food enough for all.”
She half-expects them to come to blows right there, but the second round of party crashers only files into the banquet hall. Is this still a party? If it’s an actual invasion, it has to be the most ill-advised one ever. This is Asgard. It is full of Asgardians.
Hogun is seated a few tables over; Natasha catches his eye, and they engage in a brief, silent conversation using raised eyebrows and pointed glances. A plan is unfurling. Jane looks back and forth between them, immensely relieved. That’s exactly the kind of cool shit they need right now, she thinks. It’s like they speak a universal language of strong silent badass.
Hogun lifts a nearby plate of chicken and points at it.
Natasha stares at him, expressionless. “Just a moment,” she tells Jane, and walks over. They proceed to have a hushed conversation using actual words. This is not as badass, Jane decides, a little wildly, but it is also less likely to end with key points of information being: “and then chicken.”
“Yeah, we still need to go,” Natasha says, upon return. “We need to go right now."
“What about Steve?”
“He’s with Sif. Let’s go find Banner.”
Once again they make for the exit. The door swings closed behind them, and a moment later they hear the banquet hall hurled into chaos. Invasion, then. Even Asgardian parties usually don’t feature that much screaming.
Several expansive rooms away, the battle becomes a terrible kind of background noise; muffled, it’s a baseline hum, frequently interrupted with staccato clashes of iron or strangled shouts. And then there is another sound. A great roar, inhuman and uncontrollable, echoes around them.
They stop, listening.
Jane clutches at the smooth, expensive fabric of her skirts, until Natasha notices and takes her hand. “Shh,” Jane says, to herself, and to the source of the noise. Neither of them listen. “The Hulk?” she asks.
Natasha purses her lips, and doesn’t answer. The roaring stops; nothing bursts through walls to eat or smash them. Gamma-induced lapses into a giant monster is a fascinating, shouldn’t-be-possible phenomenon, but one that Jane does not particularly feel the need to see firsthand. Especially when the guy rattling around inside somewhere is a friend of hers.
“Hello,” says Natasha. She’s staring over Jane’s shoulder, to a puddle just past one of the hall’s gold arches.
After that, Bruce is not difficult to find.
“Follow the yellow brick road,” Natasha mutters, and she’s right, the trail of blood droplets leads them straight to a little blue door across from of a great, winding staircase. Natasha clears her throat and taps politely. The door swings open.
“Hi,” says Bruce, from inside the linen closet. The Hulk, thankfully, has not made an appearance yet. Not for lack of trying, looks like - Bruce is gripping his left arm tight, eyes screwed shut in concentration.
“Oh my god,” Jane says, dropping down beside him. Natasha stays in the doorway. “Did one of those guys take a swing at you?”
“With an axe,” Bruce mutters. “I know, right?”
Now Natasha joins them on the floor, and commences a business-like prodding and wrapping of Bruce’s arm. Which is just as well, because it’s been probably eight years since Jane has taken a first aid course. The blood doesn’t particularly bother her, but her first instinct is to cover the bits that look like the most trouble with towels and then ignore them, like she does with household mess.
“This will be fine,” Natasha says. And then, in the same voice, “How’s the other guy.”
“Standing by,” Bruce says, through clenched teeth. “But I’ve got it.”
He doesn’t sound as sure as Jane would like. Natasha does not visibly react to this, which might actually be a reaction? Natasha has an articulate, expressive face, but only when she wants to. This does not seem to be one of those times.
“Should I have it?” Bruce adds, looking almost hopeful.
“Stealth counts on this one, Banner,” says Natasha. Her voice is flat. Jane looks back and forth between them. “Like we were never here.”
Bruce locks eyes with Natasha a moment, and then nods.
There is a dull thud from the other side of the wall, followed by suspicious noises that sound a lot like a couple of people having enthusiastic sex in the next room. Jane gives Bruce a questioning look.
“Everything is completely fine,” he says. Bruce is a sport, except he also makes vaguely positive statements like that when Tony and Jane have amazing ideas re: applied physics, so maybe he’s just been humouring them all along.
In all fairness, Bruce doesn’t have the best experiences with applied science.
A muffled shout, and another thud. A stack of fur blankets topples onto Jane’s head.
“Okay, yes, I would like to leave now,” says Bruce, once Natasha has extracted her. He’s making a face where he’s sort of smiling but sort of really not, so Jane hustles to her feet -- HEADRUSH -- sits down again, and then industriously works her way back to standing. The wall is very helpful. So is Natasha’s shoulder.
“Okay,” she says. “Problem-solving time.” It is not quite the marathon data gathering session she has been aching for since she arrived, but it’s problem-solving in Asgard, so that’s close enough to give her a little thrill anyway.
“Outside” and “alone” is the wish list. The three of them work their way stealthily down the hallway, opening and closing doors; after the fifth cavernous ballroom with no windows, and, magically, zero corners, they come at last upon a balcony overlooking some gardens, lit up with twinkling silver lights. There are frog noises.
“Are frogs really any better,” Natasha says, but Bruce is already outside, settling in against the wall.
“Um,” says Jane. “Yes. And I mean, they sell that stuff on tape! The frogs, the running water.”
Natasha smirks. “In or out, Doc?”
“Out for now, please.”
There’s no patio door or anything - Natasha just moves a few steps further down the wall and slides down to sit against it, and Jane follows suit.
“Should we sing a song or something?” Jane wonders. Natasha gives her a sidelong look, but there’s a little huff of laughter from around the corner.
“Absolutely you should,” says Bruce, apparently only after the kind of alone time where a) you can see the stars and b) no one is watching you try really hard not to turn into the Incredible Hulk. “I suggest a duet.”
“No,” says Natasha.
“In the interests of staying undercover we should probably stick to Asgardian epics,” says Jane. “But I never got around to memorizing any of them. Hey what do you think that roar was, before?”
“There was a roar,” says Natasha. She doesn’t elaborate, so Jane says,
“It sounded like something from hell. That had taken a wrong turn. And was upset about it.”
“A wrong turn on its way to...”
“More hell,” Jane says.
“Ah,” says Bruce. “Of course.”
“Maybe it was Bilgesnipe,” says Jane. Because they have those here.
“Maybe it was Bilgesnipe” is immediately accepted as, if not the most likely possibility, then certainly the most comforting one. Jane is all set to adopt Asgard as the best ever summer home, and still gets chills just thinking about conducting a proper interview with Heimdall, but she also has late-night talks with Thor and story-time with Erik and knows that this is a kingdom built on thousands of years of warrior culture. Asgard is not a fairytale place of any variety other than Grimm, for all that its talk is fair and half its architecture looks like something out of a Disney movie.
Eventually Jane’s head starts to gently pound, which indicates that she did not drink enough out of her fancy water goblet during the feast, but also says promising things about her ongoing sobriety levels. Not long after that, Bruce pokes his head through the doorway.
“Well, kids,” says Bruce, and looks past them, back the way they came. It might be a little batty, as far as ideas go, but present company is two-thirds Avengers, and Jane was never really one for hiding under the covers, anyway.
On the way back to the banquet hall they encounter Fandral jogging the other way. He sports a bloody nose and an air of general enthusiasm. When he opens his mouth to speak, they are all accosted by terrible howling again, even louder than before.
“At last!” he says, once the noise has stopped. “I was beginning to fear I might never find you. I shall escort you safely to-”
“That vile beast,” Fandral says, after.
“What is it?” Jane says. “Bilgesnipe?”
“Bilgesnipe?” says Fandral. “We do not keep such brutes in the castle! No, that is foul Grendel, kept by the young warrior Hrothgar. Would you like to look upon its gleaming claws? Its cage is nearby.”
The names ring some distant bell connected to the stack of books Jane borrowed from the library for late-night Thor-related information-gathering. They’re all overdue because she keeps getting distracted by actual Thor and also science. “Grendel. Like in that poem? Beowulf?” says Jane.
Fandral looks politely confused, but then they round the corner and the thing in the magically-enforced room before them does not resemble the description of Grendel-from-Beowulf at all. It’s extremely fluffy, for one thing, and as soon as it spots them it bounces once or twice on all six of its feet, playful.
“Do not approach,” Fandral recommends. “Its display of pleasure at our presence is a lie. Except, perhaps, its most happy anticipation of our eventual demise.”
Almost as though it understands what Fandral’s said, the thing immediately drops the playful stance and makes the horrifying howling noise again. Jane claps her hand over her ears.
Fandral fixes the thing with a thousand-yard stare. It stares back. “How I loathe that wretched creature,” he says.
There is a story there, Jane is sure, and not asking Fandral to elaborate is probably totally rude, by Asgardian standards, but frankly this is not the time. Fandral’s “my arch-nemesis, the cat” story is going to have to wait.
“Does it bite like it howls?” Natasha says.
“Oh yes,” says Fandral, thoughtful. “Facing this monster requires a warrior’s cunning and stout heart’s mettle.”
“All right, good,” says Natasha, approvingly. “Can you outrun it?”
Fandral’s face splits into a gleaming, toothy grin. “Let us see,” he says.
Oh god, thinks Jane.
The thing about engaging in a bloody, close-quarters battle in the middle of a crowded banquet hall is that you are not necessarily going to notice when, say, Fandral sprints through, particularly when some of the combatants are seven feet tall and/or possess eight-foot wingspans. And if you do notice, you are not necessarily going to take the time to wonder whether he is in a tearing hurry to be somewhere, or rather a tearing hurry to be elsewhere.
Not at first, anyway.
Jane, Bruce, and Natasha watch from the doorway leading in from the kitchens as fighting tactics on both sides are quickly reevaluated.
“Curses, Hrothgar!” someone cries, amid a chorus of alarmed shouting.
“Anyone see Steve?” Bruce wonders. Jane scans the crowd, but it’s only a flurry of thrashing arms and swooshing capes. She does spot Thor, spinning Mjolnir while nearby invaders dive for cover.
Grendel hops into view atop a dinner table, stalking toward a winged man with cat-like focus. The man scrambles backward, but not quickly enough; Grendel is nearly upon him, and opens a gaping mouth full of several rows of sharp, spine-like teeth. The man opens his own mouth to- sneeze?
He proceeds to convulse in the throes of an epic sneezing fit, and then collapses, unmoving. Grendel and Jane both cock their heads to the side. In the next five minutes, Grendel fells three more winged opponents, all without laying a paw on them.
The bird-people look like they might be kind of embarrassed, and then into the sudden hush Sif shouts, “Ha! These are your mighty warriors?”
“And this ball of cake is yours?” a bird shoots back, but the lot of them are already rushing for the door, muttering about indignity. They begin to vanish before they reach it, turning translucent and vaguely green. In the next moment, they are all gone. An Asgardian that Jane can only assume is the aforementioned Hrothgar rushes forward and throws his arms around Grendel, who looks disappointed at this turn of events.
The hall fills with cheering, at which point picking out Steve becomes much easier; he is the only one not beaming or raising an arm in victory, just leaning back against a table, looking a little worse for wear and quietly pleased that he can’t see anyone missing a limb.
Jane sags against the doorframe, a little, and Natasha slides past her into the hall, making a beeline for him. Bruce and Jane follow, although halfway there Jane is intercepted by Thor.
“You are well?” he says.
“Totally fine,” she says. “You?”
Thor laughs in response, picking her up to spin in an enormous happy circle.
When they rejoin the others, Thor claps Steve on the shoulder. “My friends, this has been a most eventful evening. Do you wish to retire until the morrow?”
It is a near unanimous yes. “There are just a couple pieces of equipment I’d like to set up...” says Jane. “And, you know. Night owl.”
“I shall support you in your work,” Thor says. “All through the night, if need be.” He waves at Sif across the room. She seems to be in the middle of forcing one of Fandral’s legs above his head in some sort of re-enactment while Volstagg and Hogun watch, but she pushes him over into Volstagg’s arms and jogs their way when Thor catches her eye.
“Well fought,” she says, indicating everyone present. Jane feels an unexpected swell of pride when Sif claps her on the back in a chummy fashion. Jane beams wildly at Natasha, who happens to be standing across from her in their little circle. She gives Jane a little thumbs up.
“You require healing,” Sif says, pointing at Bruce.
“I- yes?” says Bruce.
“Volstagg!” shouts Thor. “Set Fandral down and come escort Dr Banner to the healers.” The Warriors Three in their entirety come over to collect him, Volstagg leading the way. Before they go, Thor raises an eyebrow at Steve, who waves him off. “Nothing a good nap won’t fix,” he says. Bruce is led out of the hall, amid the Warriors Three and Sif, who’s launched into another story. Hogun glances back and waves a chicken leg in salute at Natasha, who nods her head at him.
“C’mon, then, Cap,” Natasha says, tugging Steve to his feet. “Bedtime.”
Jane and Thor wish them a good night.
“The Bifrost?” Thor guesses, when they’re alone.
“Yes, the Bifrost,” says Jane, and kisses him.
(Tony marches down to Fury’s office. He drops his bag dramatically in front of the desk, and pulls off his shades.
“This is low, even for you.”
Fury folds his hands in his lap, like he is not trying to ruin Tony’s life, even though he totally is. The man probably has late-night strategy sessions with Agent Hill, and they video conference with Tony-haters from around the world, and at the end everyone laughs maniacally and says, same time next week? “I am sure I told you the departure date for Asgard was Tuesday, not Thursday, Mr Stark. If it is any consolation, I feel terrible.”
“This is insulting.”
“Agent Barton did not get to go along either.”
Clint, paging through a dossier by the bookshelf, nods. “Yes,” he says, serious. “I feel so disappointed right now.”
“Don’t even with me, Barton!”
“But there might be a very important mission to complete here in New York,” says Clint.
“There is not,” snaps Tony. “You are a lying liar who lies. You just don’t think I can build diplomatic-"
Clint says, “A very special mission, requiring your very special skill set. Don’t you want to help New York, Stark? Don’t you like New York anymore?”
Tony glowers at them. They stare impassively back.
“It is going to take,” Tony announces, “so many extravagant science-related favours to make this up to me. Do you know how many? So many. And new toys. And SHIELD secrets.”
Clint shrugs. “We kind of figured,” he says, and hands Tony a dossier.
“This is a takeout menu,” says Tony.
“Fresh out of toys, favours, and secrets,” Fury says, deadpan.
“Ha ha,” says Tony. He consoles himself by mentally flagging various projects around the tower to work on this week, at all hours of the night, that would probably benefit from using unwilling SHIELD personnel as a sounding board. Fury is untouchable, but Tony has at least thirteen other agents on speed dial, plus Barton, plus the 1-800 helpline.
But mostly Barton.)