December 10th, 2014. Stockholm.
The ball gown’s corset-like top half was cutting into the flesh of her back in what Darcy was sure was a most unflattering way. Her neck chafed from the heavy jewelry (some sort of opals, and probably worth more than she had earned in total as Jane’s assistant), her hair was swaying dangerously atop her head each time she turned around, and her glasses kept sliding down on her nose. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat and wafted herself with the pamphlet that had been lying on her chair.
“How much longer do you think they’ll be?” she asked Thor, avoiding looking straight at him. In a black tailcoat with his mane of blonde hair swept back into a ponytail he looked... Like a god and a half. At least.
“You would know better than me the customs of Midgardians, Lady Darcy,” he said, “but on Asgard celebrations of noble deeds can go on for days, sometimes weeks.”
“Nobel, not noble. And these are your people, remember?”
Thor’s arrival at Arlanda International Airport last weekend had triggered quite the reaction with the Swedes. They had spent the last couple of years attempting to adjust to the fact that many of the fairy tales they told their children at bedtime were actually, well, based on a true story. The church was in upheaval and the left wing working class were demanding paid leave on Thursdays while the Twitter elite was bending over backwards to try and outdo one another in pretending they couldn’t care less.
All five Nordic countries were trying to cope with the onslaught of tourists that were suddenly extremely interested in anything from rune stones to rituals from the Viking age, and even though Stockholm was three foot deep in snow and freezing, things had reached boiling point when Thor touched down on the tarmac on Saturday, leaving behind a sizable crack in the heated runway. The passport control procedure had been... interesting, and the last few days had been frantic to say the least. Here, in the Stockholm Concert Hall, they were almost but not quite left in peace. Security was rigorous (not that it needed to be with a demigod, a superhero, a number of S.H.I.E.L.D agents and - she swallowed hard at the thought - her date present), but some of the other guests were downright staring, and in the constant light of the TV cameras, Darcy was sweating profusely.
“Are you okay?” It was Pepper, Tony Stark’s brilliant girlfriend, leaning over from the other side of the imposing Norse legend between them.
“I’m fine,” said Darcy with a weak smile. “Although I was under the impression saunas came with beer and schnapps, not fancy dress and a bunch of wrinkly old fossils.”
“I could conjure up a breeze if it would ease your discomfort,” said Thor, and Darcy pulled a horrified face. Thor laughed, a deep rumble that practically shook the floor. “A jest, Lady Darcy. You need not worry - I have promised Jane to be on my best behavior tonight.”
She laughed uncertainly and breathed a sigh of relief. One could never be sure with Thor. He had his own ideas of what ‘good behavior’ entailed. A sudden blast of trumpets snapped her attention to the centre stage where a number of important-looking people gracefully entered from the wings to sit down in a row of stuffed chairs. Darcy glanced at Thor who looked unimpressed.
“Who are they?” she whispered to the woman on her left. If Thor didn’t know, then a Russian spy surely would.
“It’s the royal family,” said Natasha Romanov. “The king presents the laureates with their prizes.”
“I take it he’s the balding one.”
Natasha inclined her head. “And the waxy-faced one is queen Silvia.”
“Addicted to botox?”
“It’s not entirely unlikely.”
Darcy scanned the other royals. Aside from the king and queen there was a handsome man in his thirties and two women, the older of them very obviously pregnant. “Who’s the one who’ll be lucky if she makes it through the night without her water breaking?”
“That’s Victoria, the crown princess and heiress to the throne. She’s expecting her second child.”
“Where’s the first one?”
“At home with her father, prince Daniel. He’s on paternity leave.”
Darcy raised her eyebrows. “Progressive.”
Natasha snorted softly. “If you can call having a royal family in the first place progressive.”
The enigmatic redhead leaned back in her chair as if to signal that their conversation was over. Darcy glanced at her. Her gown was black, the bodice made from some sort of lustrous kevlar sprinkled with rhinestones, and the skirts a mass of ruffles and lace. She looked infinitely cooler than Darcy, and not uncomfortable in the slightest. With a sigh, she fanned herself some more and wriggled in her dress, causing the corset to poke her in five or six new places.
The awards ceremony started, and after a glance at the pamphlet Darcy realized that the physics prize was the last one to be presented, slid down a little further in her chair and fiddled with her bracelet, doing her best to keep her eyes open as one greying old man after another was called forward to receive what looked like an oversized chocolate coin from the hands of the king. At least the lectures had been dealt with over the last few days. She’d barely been able to sit through Jane’s. The only event of note came as a security guard sidled up to the younger of the two princesses, spoke a word in her ear and led her out, causing a slight murmur to pass through the crowd.
“What’s happening?” hissed Darcy to Natasha.
The agent held up her hand, then touched her ear as if listening to something. Then, she smiled. “She’s nursing her baby.”
Darcy frowned. “You mean... She’s off breastfeeding?” Natasha nodded, then pressed a finger to her lips and winked. Darcy shook her head. “Swedes,” she muttered with a little laugh.
At long last, the master of ceremonies presented the prize they’d all been waiting for, and Darcy sat up a little straighter in her chair as she listened to the melodic intonation and strange accent of the speaker as he first read the rationale in Swedish. After some applause came the same short speech again, this time in English.
“For their ground-breaking discoveries in the field of astrophysics, the Committee this year awards the Noble Prize in physics to Dr. Bruce Banner, Dr. Jane Foster and Dr. Anthony Stark.”
“I didn’t know Stark was a doctor,” said Darcy while applauding.
“He has multiple doctorates, but he doesn't talk about it,” said Natasha Romanov with a smirk. "I guess it spoils the playboy persona."
Jane looked lovely and awkward in her cream gown at the arm of Tony Stark. Darcy could feel Thor shifting next to her and hoped he was able to tell that Tony was trying to keep Jane on her feet rather than steal her off. Her friend looked equal parts dazzled and distraught, and Darcy had to swallow a little lump in her throat as she shuffled across the floor towards the Swedish king to accept her award. Don’t do a Jennifer Lawrence now, she thought, and thankfully nothing untoward happened. Tony looked like a cat in a dairy farm and Bruce seemed calm and collected. Darcy could only hope he’d stay that way through the dinner and the dance.
Once the ceremony was over they were showed to cabs that took them the short ride to the City Hall where the banquet was held. Through the tinted windows she could glimpse Swedes going about their Christmas shopping. Although not half of them were as blonde as she might have expected, they all looked tall, thin and freakishly stylish, pulling off bulky jackets and heavy boots as if the sidewalks of Stockholm were runways and not ice-paved death traps; Darcy had a large bruise on her left buttock to testify to their lethality. Glancing over at Thor where he was sitting, talking quietly with Jane, she glumly suspected that the Aesir might have left one or two pregnant women behind when they’d last walked the Earth.
At the City Hall they were ushered into a large chamber where a stressed out man with a clipboard went about making sure the laureates were all paired up with the correct partner for the descent into the banquet hall. Darcy hitched her bodice up for the umpteenth time and pushed her way through the crowds towards Bruce Banner, only to find him arm in arm with Pepper Potts.
“The winners traditionally sit with the partners of other winners,” Pepper explained.
Darcy wrinkled her brow and turned to Bruce. “So... I don’t sit with you at the ceremony, or at the table. How exactly am I your date?”
“I needed a name to put on that RSVP,” he said with an apologetic shrug. “Besides, Jane asked me to.”
“Miss Lewis?” She spun around to find the man with the clipboard. “Miss Lewis, please.” He took her arm firmly but gently and led her through the crowd towards...
“Oh, man. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Come on, I’m not that bad,” said Tony Stark, slipping his arm into hers.
“Uh, firstly, yes you are, and secondly I had not planned on having my face all over the tabloids tomorrow morning.” Second only to Thor, Tony Stark was definitely the star of the show tonight.
“Don’t worry kid, it’ll be half your face at best.”
As Tony whisked her towards the stairs leading to the top floor, she looked around for Jane. She spotted her together with a familiar man with a light blue ribbon across his chest. “Is that the Swedish prince with Jane?” she asked.
Tony followed her gaze. “I don’t know. He kind of looks like the guy who plays Legolas, doesn’t he?”
“Uh-huh.” She scanned the room desperately for Thor, then noticed he was standing at the top of the stairs together with a pretty brunette who was tentatively grasping the arm of the demigod, looking starstruck. Thor, however, was staring right past her, down the stairs. “Shit,” she muttered.
“Oh, her I know,” said Tony as they approached the pair. “She used to be a glamour model.”
“Don’t ask,” he said through his teeth, smiling, then nodded to the woman as they passed. “Hi, Sofia. Long time no see.” She barely shot him a glance and Tony gave a surprised huff and muttered something inaudible.
“Wait,” said Darcy, disentangled herself from his arm and turned back to grab Thor’s wrist sharply. “Hey.”
He half turned towards her, his eyes never leaving Jane. “No one told me Jane would be seated with a prince.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t worry about it, Goldilocks. Your hammer is most likely bigger than his. Remember your promise not to be an overprotective jealous jerk.”
“That wasn’t what–”
“Trust me, it’s included in being on ones best behavior.”
Reluctantly, Thor allowed himself to be led away by the woman who Darcy could only assume was the prince’s girlfriend. Or perhaps betrothed, seeing as he was royalty. Hurrying after Tony, she felt certain that this evening’s troubles had barely even begun. From the look of Thor’s dinner date, Jane wouldn’t exactly be over the moon about the seating arrangement either.
After the long (and, for someone who wasn’t used to either heels or a floor-length gown, rather frightening) walk down the stairs to the enormous hall where the dinner was held, Darcy found herself seated between Tony and an elderly Swedish gentleman whose name she forgot not two seconds after she had shook his hand. She grabbed the menu card in front of her and eyed it eagerly.
“I’m starving,” she said to the old man. “You’d think they’d at least put out bread baskets or something. Do you know if the food here is any good?”
“It is acceptable,” said the man in a sing-song Swedish accent that reminded her of Erik. “Often it is already a bit cold, you know. They have to carry it all the way from the kitchen.” He waved his hand indistinctly.
“Not your first Nobel dinner then, huh?”
The elderly man laughed. “I have been to so many I have lost count.”
Darcy turned her attention to the menu again. Apparently it was set. It was also in French. “Hey,” she said, turning to the old man again. “Do you speak French?”
The dinner lasted several hours, and once the dessert plates had been cleared away, the guests filed into the ballroom for the dance. Tony had disappeared sometime during the main course (to indignant tutting from the elderly man) and feeling rather lost and alone, Darcy looked around for Jane.
“Can I have the honor of the first dance?” It was Bruce Banner, stepping into her path and offering his arm. "As your date and everything."
“Sure,” said Darcy, relieved to see a somewhat familiar face. Then she eyed him suspiciously. He looked a bit uncomfortable. “How are you, Dr. Banner?”
“Wishing I’d eaten a bit less,” he said with a grimace. “Don’t worry. Any hint of green will be the pickled herring, nothing else.”
The band started playing a waltz, and Darcy found herself leading as they danced stiffly.
“I’m sorry, I’m not a great dancer,” said Bruce.
“Hey, I’d rather you step on my toes than me on yours,” said Darcy, and the look he gave her in response was less than amused. Shit. Better smooth that one over quickly. “That was rude of me. Um, congratulations by the way. Nobel Prize, yay. It’s like the Oscars of science, right?”
“Yeah, that’s not... No. Not really.”
She spent the next couple of minutes avoiding his gaze and trying to scout for her friends. Thor was easy enough to spot, dancing with infuriating grace, his presence dominating the room. His partner was the queen of Sweden, who looked suitably flustered in the arms of the myth come to life. Jane had retreated to the wall with a glass of champagne and appeared to be deep in conversation with - of all people - the elderly man who had been seated with Darcy. Not far away, the Swedish prince and his fiancé were dancing and having a discussion that was, from the look of their strained smiles, not the sort of Talk you’d ideally have at a public event.
Just as the last notes of the waltz rang out, there was a flicker in the chandeliers above, and a loud rumble that made the floor shake.
“I wasn’t aware Sweden was earthquake country,” said Darcy, grabbing a hold of Bruce’s arm and glancing up to make sure she wasn’t at risk of accidentally adding a 200 pound crystal tiara to her collection of borrowed jewelry.
“It’s not,” said Bruce. “The nearest tectonic plate boundary is in Iceland.”
The lights went out, leaving only the candles lining the walls to light the room, and there were cries of alarm all through the crowd as the floor shook again, more violently this time. Dr. Banner was pinching the bridge of his nose and shaking his head, muttering to himself.
Darcy gently touched his shoulder. “Are you going to be okay?” she asked.
“Yep,” said Bruce in a short voice.
“Right. No sudden urge to turn into a huge, green–”
“You’re not helping,” he said, shooting her a tired glance.
“Sorry. Sorry. I’ll just...” she jutted a thumb towards Jane who was crouching beside a table. On unsteady legs she ran the short distance. “Hey, wanna get under there?” Jane nodded and they scrambled beneath the tassels of the tablecloth, peeking out at the ensuing panic in the ballroom.
“What’s going on?” Darcy asked.
“I have no idea, but I’m fairly certain it’s related to them.”
Darcy didn’t need to ask who she meant. As the lights flickered back on briefly, she could see Thor and Tony Stark back to back in the middle of the room, the latter flicking his wrists artfully to reveal some sort of glowing contraptions that smoothly settled in his palms. Thor held out his hand and with an imminent crash, Mjölnir came bursting through a wall, causing plaster to rain down over the Swedish royal family who were huddling nearby. Natasha Romanov emerged from a side passage, in the process of ripping the voluminous skirt off her gown, revealing tight black pants, knee-high boots and plenty of weapons.
“Badass,” murmured Darcy, then found herself clinging to Jane as the floor heaved and rolled once more.
“Are you holding up all right?” Tony Stark shouted over his shoulder to Bruce.
“So far so good,” said Dr. Banner in a strained voice.
“Just keep it together, big man. Whatever this is, we’ve got–”
And then, the floor collapsed. Darcy watched as Natasha unbelievably, impossibly, launched herself off the crumbling stones, landing safely right next to her and Jane’s hiding place as the ground opened up, leaving a twenty foot wide, gaping hole in the middle of the room. Tony hovered above the abyss, his palms glowing, but Thor and Bruce were gone.
“No!” shouted Jane and lunged forward.
Natasha grabbed a hold of her. “Wait,” she said, and moments later Thor emerged, slamming into the ceiling above them and dropping onto the floor.
“Do we have a situation?” asked Tony.
“Yes,” groaned Thor.
“Incoming!” shouted Natasha, peering over the edge of the gaping maw, and there was no mistaking the roar or the flash of green as the Hulk hurled himself up over the edge, tearing out chunks of floor as he went.
“Come on, come on,” said Darcy, grabbing Jane’s hand, dragging her out from under the table and along the wall. “Let the boys handle this one.”
Natasha followed them like a moving shield, her eyes and guns on the monster who was well on his way to punching another hole in the floor. Thor was hammering uselessly at him with Mjölnir while Tony buzzed around like a bee, trying to get his attention. When he finally turned, it wasn’t them he set his eyes on, but Darcy.
“Well shit,” she said, glancing down on her dress. “I knew red was a bad choice.”
The Hulk roared, leapt, and in the space of a heartbeat he had grabbed a hold of Darcy and swept Natasha and Jane out of the way, sending them flying.
“Jane!” shouted Darcy and Thor at the same time, and the tightening hold on her waist suddenly mattered very little to Darcy as she watched her friend flail helplessly and fall into the abyss along with Natasha Romanov. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t sigh with relief as she saw Thor and Tony go after them as one. Just before she blacked out, she heard a terrible wail, a wail that seemed to pierce her heart and soul with the wrath and sadness of a thousand years or more. And then, so very distant, the commanding voice of Thor rang out, shouting a single word.