This one is for stardustandstrawberries, on the occasion of reblogging a post about the Yule Cat on tumblr and bringing it to my attention. I'd been wanting something seasonal to write, and this was perfect.
Although I've filed this under Thor, it's really an 'Avengers' story, but since you can't select two of the principles-Jane and Darcy-under the Avengers cateogory, I put it here.
By Darcy's estimation Jane's lab was one of the best places in the whole Tower to slog through the frustrating necessity that was administrative work. The rush of the HVAC and the hum and whir of the computers and their various parent instruments blended together into a constant stream of white noise that helped her stay focused in a way music really couldn't match. It was also blissfully low traffic, particularly when Jane was off helping someone like she was today. Darcy could ignore everything else and knuckle down on whatever lab-related office work required her attention.
Thus there was no telling how much time had passed before she finally realized someone was quietly standing on the other side of her desk. She was too immersed in her work to really be startled, and anyways only one person fit the profile filling her peripheral vision. So she kept at the grant proposal and said, "Hey Thor."
"Darcy. I hope I am not interrupting you."
"Not in a bad way." One more paragraph down, who knew how many to go. (Judging by the page counts she was half way there.) "What's up?"
"There is a matter I must attend to, and I would be grateful if you could lend me your assistance."
She looked up at him, happy to escape the spreadsheets and biosketches and project planning grids that had dominated her life for the last few weeks. He had his outdoor-gear in hand (pea coat, knit hat, leather gloves) and was dressed in jeans and a gray and red sweatshirt.
Darcy arched an eyebrow. "You look like you're going out."
She glanced pointedly out the windows, where it was snowing gently but steadily. "In that?"
"The storm will not worsen until later this evening."
Since this was Thor, Darcy could be reasonably sure that's what would happen. She leaned back in her chair. "What exactly do you need help with?"
"It is tradition on Asgard to gift one another with items of clothing in the winter season, and I understand Midgard's north winter solstice is soon."
Darcy thought back to the previous winter, when Thor had bought them all something (a warm hat for Jane, shearling gloves for Darcy, wool socks for Erik). They'd observed Hanukkah and St. Lucia's (with Erik), but not Christmas, and since Thor hadn't explained why he'd bought gifts Darcy had assumed he'd just picked up on the usual Christmas madness that boiled up in December. "Is that why you got us those things last year?" she asked, and he nodded. She frowned at him. "That seems weird. I mean, aren't your world's seasons artificial anyways?"
"They are, but it is a custom which the first Æsir brought with them when they founded Asgard, and we have always kept to it."
"Huh." Darcy checked her watch. "Well, I'd only have until two. I have a conference call at three and I'll need some time to prep for it."
"I believe I can find suitable items for everyone in that time, provided I have your help."
She eyed the snow again and bit her lip. "Are you stopping for lunch on this excursion?"
Thor could always be relied upon to eat somewhere good if he went out. Darcy slid off her chair and put on her jacket. "In that case you can count me in."
They spent the first hour window-shopping with coffee. Thor scrutinized the displays as they made their way down the sidewalk and noted what seemed promising and what didn't. Eventually they ducked into an indoor mall and chose a department store which won Thor over with its low-key decorations. Thankfully no one had recognized him yet, though bundled up as he was he looked more like your average tall blond guy than a hammer-wielding weather-controlling space alien.
While Thor perused a rack of sweatshirts, Darcy said, "So, why clothes? I mean, just so you know, for Americans there's a joke about always getting socks from your relatives. And as a kid you hate to get clothes but as an adult you think it's the best thing ever because they're actually useful. You know, assuming they fit."
Thor made a low sound. "Perhaps my people left this tradition among yours when they visited Midgard." He considered a black cashmere V-neck, then moved on. "A new piece of clothing in the winter months is said to keep the Jólakötturinn at bay."
"The Jólakötturinn." He paused in his examination of a dark blue, merino wool top, looking thoughtful, and said, "I believe you might call it the Yule Cat."
"And this...Yule Cat...is a problem?"
"It is a great and vicious beast." There was a sign over the rack which showed a young family camping somewhere in the mountains with their minivan; the sort of ad meant to suggest it was totally reasonable to car camp in your camel hair coat and rabbit fur-lined gloves. Thor gestured at the van in the picture. "Perhaps that large, or a little larger. It hunts all those who do not have a new piece of clothing when winter comes."
Darcy was mostly used to Thor saying things which seemed at first blush to be utterly ludicrous, because he did it about four times a day, yet this was a little beyond the pale. She had trouble deciding what she wanted to ask first. She settled on, "How can it tell?"
Thor tapped his nose. "All cats possess a very keen sense of smell."
"So, your people believe an enormous cat comes around in winter and hunts anyone who doesn't smell like they have new clothes, and, we're really gift shopping so you can make sure this doesn't happen to your friends."
Thor shrugged. "It is a tale told to children to make them obey their parents and attend to their studies and chores at a time when there are many other distractions. But even as adults we observe the tradition." He gave her one of his sly, sideways looks. "After all, one can never be sure. Better to be safe than have the Jólakötturinn arrive in the night, where it has the advantage of stealth and clear vision." He pulled a long-sleeved, v-neck sweatshirt shirt in pale blue off the rack. "Do you think Sam Wilson would approve of this?"
Thor didn't hem and haw over his purchases, for which Darcy was eternally thankful. He also didn't seem to mind that Darcy was there to help him choose something for her, and when she asked, he indicated that surprise wasn't really a necessity. He just had to make sure the homicidal clothes-obsessed cat smelled a new wardrobe item on everyone. And, fortunately, accessories like ties, shoes, and gloves counted. They were done in just over two hours, which left them a comfortable hour and a half for lunch and a wrap-up trip to a drug store for some holiday cards to send out under Jane's name to her various collaborators.
Darcy cleared off a table in Jane's lab so they'd have somewhere to wrap. She had a little leftover paper and ribbon and a few boxes from previous events, all generically themed, and got to wrapping what she could with it while Thor went to ask Pepper where he could get more. Darcy was struggling with putting ribbon around a box when Sam wandered into the room holding two mugs of truly divine-smelling cocoa. He set one down in front of Darcy and said, "Compliments of Dr. Banner and Natasha."
Darcy abandoned her wrapping fiasco to cradle the mug and take a sip. It was spiced and spiked, with cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, and Frangelico if she wasn't mistaken. "This, is, amazing, thank you."
"Sure thing." He peered into a bag. "What's all this?"
Darcy took a few more sips and scowled at her failed ribbon job. It gapped and twisted and wasn't really crossing the box right. "Thor's Clothes-Cat gifts for everyone."
"Asgardians think that if you don't get some new clothes in winter a big cat will show up and eat you. So he's making sure we're all getting at least one piece of new clothing."
Sam gave Darcy a dubious look. She said, "Hey, I'm just repeating what he told me." She set her cocoa aside and cut the ribbon free, and went for one of the last sticky-backed bows instead. She slapped it on and called it done.
Sam started to say something, but Thor came in just then with an armload of wrapping materials, among which were Darcy's absolute favorite: gift bags.
"Finally." She grabbed a handful of them as soon as they were within reach. "Bags are the best."
Thor carefully put everything down. In addition to the gift bags he had some decorative boxes, a few rolls of ribbon, a half-dozen colors of tissue paper, another bag of bows in varying sizes, and a pamphlet of tags. "I have it from Stark that using these bags is cheating."
Darcy rolled her eyes. "Whatever. He's not wrapping two dozen talismans to ward off killer Christmas Cats, he can deal."
Thor took a seat and pulled a fine tie in red and gold from one of the bags. Sam leaned against the table and watched, nursing his mug.
"So Asgardians give one another ties and," he eyed the pack of colorful turquoise, purple, and blue paisley socks Darcy was concealing in tissue, "socks to keep monster cats away?"
"It is an old custom from before my people built Asgard," Thor said. He got the ribboning for the tie's box right on the first try. Darcy tried not to hate him too much.
"Your people's home world was full of cats that hated old clothes?"
Thor had moved on to a pair of trim, white and black, leather gloves lined with red wool. Those he opted to put in a bag decorated with an oak tree and birds. (He seemed to be avoiding the obviously Christmas-themed materials, preferring solid colors in abstract patterns or basic nature themes.) "I imagine the original tale was somewhat different. Perhaps old clothes smelled too strongly of their bearers and the soaps they used for cleaning, and made my people's ancestors easier for the Jólakötturinn to hunt. This might have been used to urge them to complete the harvest in a timely manner, so they could make new clothing for themselves and their families before winter arrived."
Sam squinted at him. "And wearing new clothes is the only way to fool this thing?"
"The tale is not entirely clear on the matter."
Sam's scrutiny shifted to the rapidly growing collection of gifts. "I think I like Santa and his reindeer better."
As the solstice approached, Darcy realized that there wasn't anything for Thor in the collection of cat-warding gifts. Since she had no plans to do battle with a feline the size of a car, she and Jane would need to get him something.
During a quiet moment in the lab, when it was just her and Jane tapping away on their keyboards, she said, "You need to get Thor a new piece of clothing, by the way. Probably some time before the solstice."
In that distracted tone which indicated she'd absorbed at most half of Darcy's statement, Jane said, "Why?"
"Because if you don't, the Yola—Yule—the Christmas Cat is going to hunt him down and kill him."
That got her attention. Jane looked over her shoulder and frowned. "What?"
"It's an Asgardian thing. They give one another a piece of clothing in winter so a cat doesn't try to eat them."
"You're not making any sense."
"Don't judge another race's customs just because they're not yours."
Jane sighed and swiveled around in her chair. "Okay. Let's start over."
"You're saying that Æsir have a tradition of giving one another clothes at the start of winter."
Darcy tried to memorize exactly how Jane had pronounced the name of Thor's people. It frustrated her that Jane had finally started to pick up some of Thor's native pronunciations while she still couldn't even say the hammer's name. "Right."
"And they give them to one another because if they don't, a cat will kill them?"
"Something like that."
"Why do I get the feeling that's not exactly how this story goes?"
"Look, are you going to buy him something or wait and see if a van-sized cat really does show up and carry him off?"
Jane rubbed her eyes.
Darcy didn't think Thor was all that hard to shop for. He had a very distinct style of dress which she'd kept a close eye on during his stay on Earth (in part because she liked to compare what she saw to what the media wrote about), and she was sure she could pick out something which he would appreciate and use. The moment she mentioned this Jane's eyes lit up, and that was how she found herself diving into the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy for the second time in under a week.
Unlike Thor, who was decisive in the extreme, Jane fretted and went back and forth and had trouble narrowing her choices down. She finally settled after almost two hours, and they came back to the Tower triumphant. They even managed to get the gift bagged and added to the pile on the coffee table without Thor seeing them. (They would later learn this was because a molten metal monster had exploded to life at a smelting plant in Texas.)
As Jane buried Thor's gift among the heap of bags, Darcy reminded her, "He said it doesn't need to be a surprise."
"Of course he said that, he wants you to tell him if we're getting him anything," Jane said.
Darcy blinked. It hadn't occurred to her Thor might try that kind of tactic in order to tease any plans out of her. "Do you really think he'd do something like that?"
"Prey on your lack of Æsir cultural knowledge?"
Darcy nodded. Jane took the last two mint double chocolate chip cookies from the treat tray and offered one to Darcy.
Thor decided to give out his cat-repellent presents during Tony and Pepper's Winter Party, tentatively scheduled for 'somewhere around the solstice', which was to say on a day when the Avengers were not out managing a crisis and Stark Industries wasn't in a larger whirlwind of corporate business than usual. This wound up being the day before solstice, so Darcy made a point to save some eggnog and bourbon for her and Jane and Thor to break out on the actual day and time (something Jane liked to do).
Darcy thought Tony and Pepper did a fair job of keeping the celebration non-denominational. The decorations were varied and largely winter-themed: candles; holly and ivy; mistletoe; floral arrangements with evergreen sprigs and pine cones; snowflakes and icicles in glass and brilliant, gleaming metals. The food was a mix of options to make sure everyone was covered. In a quick glance at the enormous buffet, Darcy spied game hens, prime rib, roasted pumpkins stuffed with balsamic-glazed vegetables and wild rice, candied yams, steamed vegetables and cheese sauce, collard greens, stuffed and roasted portobello mushrooms, latkes (Darcy heard Jane admit to Bruce that Thor helped her make them), sage and blue corn bread muffins with honey, and cheese blintzes and sufganiyot from a local deli.
To the surprise of no one, Tony was dying to see what was in the various packages, but Pepper insisted they eat first. Thor sided with her since she was (as far as he was concerned) the one actually hosting the party. And so dinner moved along at a comfortable pace, with everyone making a minimum of two trips to the serving table and several bottles of wine going empty. Only after they'd all had a serving of dessert was Tony allowed to herd everyone into the great room.
As Tony gave packages and bags out, Pepper said, "Thor, I heard there was a story behind these gifts."
"Yes, indeed there is." He stood, glass of sherry in hand, and since that made him tower over just about everyone in the room they all fell quiet save for a murmur here and there. "This is my second winter among your people, and I am very grateful for the hospitality you have shown me. I am told some of your cultures exchange gifts at this time. My people have a similar custom, though it is specifically an article of clothing or attire we give one another."
"Clothing?" Clint said. He gave his bag a wary look.
"Yes. The oldest stories say we must do this to ensure one another's safety and health in the coming year. And so we wear our gifts as protection against the capricious nature of Fate, and hope they will see us safely through another turning of the seasons."
"Okay, wait, hang on," Sam said. "What about the cat? You can't not tell them about the cat."
Rhodey raised his eyebrows. "Cat?"
"The Christmas Cat," Darcy said with a nod. Thor grinned.
"It is true my ancestors told of a cat which would hunt them if they did not receive new clothing." He had a drink of sherry while almost everyone laughed at the idea. "And this may have been meant to motivate them as the year turned cold and dark. But does Midgard not have similar stories? Some of your people tell of a kindly old man who arrives in a sled drawn by deer which fly, and gives gifts to children who have minded their parents and seen to their duties."
Tony gestured with his wineglass. "Yeah but if they're bad, they just get coal. The reindeer don't eat them."
Thor hmmmmm'd. "Are you certain they do not? Have no ill-behaved children gone missing on the night the gift-giver comes?"
"Well," Clint said, "Stark's still here, so..."
Tony rolled his eyes, and Rhodey laughed and patted him on the back. Pepper didn't laugh, though it looked like a near thing, and raised her glass of wine. "Thank you, Thor."
Everyone joined her in thanking him, and he nodded and said, "You are most welcome. I wish to thank Darcy for aiding me in obtaining them." Darcy beamed, because how often did the Avengers all give you a nod and a smile. "Now," Thor continued, raising his free arm, "open them, and we shall see if she and I have chosen well."
The tearing into gifts commenced (though since Darcy had shunned the boxes and paper it was less 'tearing' and more 'intense rustling of tissue paper'), and in a few minutes almost everything was out and being presented to the party. Natasha slid on her brown leather boots and walked around in them, and nodded her approval at Thor. Sam and Steve compared their merino sweatshirts, Sam's light blue and Steve's dark gray. Clint swapped from his current threadbare, white socks to the thick, garish, merino wool pair he'd received and propped his feet up on the coffee table in a show of approval. Tony admired Bruce's crisp, white dress shirt while Rhodey, already wearing his black-striped vest, helped Tony put on an eye-catching, red and gold tie. Pepper's white gloves flashed in the room lighting as she pulled them on, and Maria's devoré velvet shrug in dark bronze with hints of red and blue was the perfect match for her outfit. Fury helped Jane into her floor-length, dark emerald, wool coat, then put on his pale gray, angora knit hat.
Darcy already knew what was in her box, but since Thor had insisted he at least be the one to wrap it she made a show of opening the gift. She held up the dusty rose hoodie so Thor could see it from where he was sitting on the sectional, and he grinned and raised his glass to her. She tugged it on without hesitation, and was satisfied to find it warm and soft and comfortable, just as she'd suspected when Thor had pointed it out to her.
There was still one lonely gift bag on the coffee table, and as everyone chatted about their presents and whether or not they wanted more dessert or eggnog, Bruce picked it up and read the tag. "Looks like this is yours," he said to Thor, and leaned across the table to hand it to him. The bag's design was a trio of goats prancing in snow (that had been Jane's idea), and there was a bow of silver-and-rainbow colored ribbon tied to the handle (which Darcy had suggested).
Thor took the bag and gave it a quizzical look. He caught Darcy watching him and raised his eyebrows at her, and she pointed at Jane. Jane saw Thor holding his gift and left off chatting with Fury to join him. She slid out of her coat first; it was probably too warm inside the Tower to wear it for long, but outdoors it would be perfect.
Thor tipped his head at Jane, and Darcy thought she said something like, "You should open it." He narrowed his eyes in amusement and did just that. He took the ribbon off carefully, felt around in the tissue paper, and presently pulled out a black and white, cashmere scarf. It wasn't a particularly fancy one by any means, but the sharp, geometric pattern was the perfect sort of look for him, particularly since he favored clothes which were blocks of strong colors.
Thor ran a hand over the scarf. Through the din of Trans-Siberian Orchestra and party conversation, Darcy heard Jane tell him, "Darcy said if I didn't buy you something new to wear a cat was going to come and eat you."
Thor smiled and said something Darcy didn't catch. Jane took the scarf and looped it around his neck, using it as leverage to drag him into a kiss. Darcy looked around the room and, feeling incredibly pleased with herself, decided it was time for some more eggnog.
As she passed the deck windows she caught sight of something on the roof of one of the neighboring buildings; something as white as the snow falling outside but clearly outlined by a series of dark gray and brown flecks that suggested a hunched shape. Or maybe it was a rooftop storage shed, covered in snow and speckled with shadows.
She stopped and peered into the dark. The form seemed to move (but that could be snow billowing in the wind), and two luminous, blue eyes with black, slit pupils turned towards her.
Darcy glanced over her shoulder. No one else was paying attention (especially not Thor and Jane). She bit her lip and looked again, and the blue eyes were still there. Of course the eggnog might just be getting to her (it was more bourbon than eggnog if she was being honest with herself), and the eyes were actually someone's Christmas lights reflecting off another building's windows. And yet she was almost sure she could discern a lynx-like head, complete with tall, tufted ears and black-barred neck ruff, staring straight at her.
She tugged on the hem of her hoodie, as if to display it. The bright blue eyes flickered, and the form seemed to turn its head away from her in that disdainful, dismissive, 'I didn't care anyways' manner all cats, from small to large, share. Then the wind gusted and the snow swirled, and it was gone.
"Better luck next year, kitty," Darcy murmured, and went to get herself that eggnog.