Everyone spent a few minutes fruitlessly searching for the Natasha-cat, which distracted them all so thoroughly that when Duchess Loki arrived, she was free to take Darcy’s arm and walk off as if they were old friends.
“I’m so glad to see you again, my dear,” the Duchess said.
Darcy’s skin crawled, but she didn’t quite dare pull away. She looked around for help.
“You’re thinking about something, my dear, and that makes you forget to talk.” The Loki-Duchess frowned thoughtfully. “I can’t tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit.”
“Perhaps it hasn’t got one,” Darcy said, wondering how to get out of this conversation safely.
“Tut, tut, child!” said the Duchess. “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” And she squeezed Darcy close to her side.
Darcy considered whether the satisfaction of punching her would be worth the risk of whatever Loki’s magic would do to her. Before she decided, the Duchess stopped suddenly. In front of them stood Queen Pepper, arms folded, frowning like a thunderstorm.
“Either you or your head must be off at once,” Pepper said. “Take your choice.”
Duchess Loki let go of Darcy and was gone in a moment.
“Thank you, your Majesty,” Darcy said sincerely.
“Have you been to see the Mock Turtle yet?”
“No.” Darcy looked at the croquet chaos, and at the terrifying Queen of Hearts. “I was looking for Betty. The, ah, white rabbit.”
“Let the Mock Turtle tell you his history,” Pepper ordered.
Darcy followed her over to a sunny spot, where a lump of blankets and feathers was snoring.
“Get up, Gryphon,” the Queen snapped, “and take this young lady to hear the Mock Turtle’s history.”
The heap untangled itself to reveal a rather handsome man. He sat up, rubbed his eyes, and nodded obediently.
As the Queen headed back toward the croquet game, the man settled a pair of high-tech wings comfortably on his back. There were brown turkey feathers glued to them. Darcy asked, “Aren’t you called the Falcon?”
“Gryphon today,” he said, and yawned. “Come on.”
The Gryphon led her down a path to the seaside. Darcy longed to stop and take off her shoes, to feel the sand between her toes, but the Gryphon led her over to a cluster of rocks, where the Mock Turtle was sitting with his back to them. His shell was painted in concentric circles. Familiar-looking red and blue circles.
“Steve?” Darcy asked.
“Um, I’m supposed to ask you for your story or something.” Darcy hadn’t been too clear on why.
“Yeah.” Steve rubbed the back of his neck uncertainly. “I’m supposed to get all nostalgic and moan about my long-lost past. But seriously? So many things are better now. No one gets polio, or tuberculosis. Should we just skip that part of the script?”
“Fine by me,” Darcy said.
“What’s up next, Sam?”
“I’m called the Gryphon. And what’s up next is you singing some shit about dancing lobsters. No way am I gonna let you skip that.” The Gryphon leaned back, folded his arms, and smirked.
Steve sighed, and cleared his throat. “‘Will you walk a little faster?’ said a whiting to a snail,” he sang.
“‘There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle--will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance? Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?’”
Darcy stood up and imagined herself in a ball gown like she was in a BBC costume drama. She smoothed invisible skirts, curtseyed in her jeans and T-shirt, and held out a hand to the Gryphon. He rolled his eyes, but took it. The two of them stepped through a faked-up version of one of those Jane Austen-adaptation dances.
“‘You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!’
But the snail replied ‘Too far, too far!’ and gave a look askance--
Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance. Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance.”
An awkward move clunked Sam’s high-tech wing into Darcy’s shin. “Ow.” She let go of his hand and sat down to rub her bruise.
“Enough?” Steve asked hopefully.
Sam glared at him. “Not a chance. Finish your song, superhero.”
“ ‘What matters it how far we go?’ his scaly friend replied.
‘There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England the nearer is to France—
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance? Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?’ ”
Sam cackled. “I wish I had my phone with me to record that.”
“I feel like I should punch an actor made up like Hitler now,” Steve commented.
“Can I go now?” Darcy wasn’t sure she had a grasp of the rules around here.
Steve and Sam shrugged.
“I’m looking for Betty,” she explained.
“Oh, she’s sure to be at the trial,” Steve said.
“Come to think of it, you should probably be there too, just in case,” Sam said.
“I’ll show you where. Come on.” Sam grabbed her arm.
“ ‘Where’ is the one question I didn’t ask,” Darcy said, as he dragged her off.
Darcy and the Gryphon found seats in the crowded courtroom. The Queen and King of Hearts were sitting on raised thrones at the front, ready to preside over the trial. The Knave was in manacles, with his back to Darcy, but she recognized his armor.
“That’s that guy,” she said. “The one who’s like Iron Man. What’s-his-name.”
“Rhodey,” the Gryphon supplied. “I mean, the Knave of Hearts. Obviously.”
There were hearts painted on the armor, incongruous next to the cannons.
“What did he do?” Darcy asked. “He’s a good guy.”
“Silence in the court!” a voice bellowed.
“Betty!” Darcy spotted her standing at the front of the room, near the thrones.
“Herald, read the accusation,” said King Coulson.
Betty unrolled a scroll and read, “The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts, All on a summer day: The Knave of Hearts, he stole those tarts, And took them quite away!”
Darcy rolled her eyes. “Oh please. Since when does Pepper like baking? And if anyone stole food, it was Clint, not Rhodey.”
“Consider your verdict,” the King said to the jury. They looked like a bunch of nervous rookie SHIELD agents.
“Not yet,” Betty said. “We must call the first witness!”
“Call the Mad Hatter!” someone shouted, and Tony ambled down the aisle with a sandwich in one hand and a coffee cup in the other hand. He sat in the witness box.
“Take off your hat in the courtroom,” the King said.
“It isn’t mine,” Tony said.
“Stolen?” The King looked at the jury meaningfully. The rookie agents all tried to look busy.
“I keep them to sell. I’m a hatter.” Tony took a swig of coffee. “At least, one of the subsidiaries of Stark Enterprises owns a hat shop, so indirectly, I’m sort of in the hat business.”
Queen Pepper narrowed her eyes at him. “Don’t get off topic, Tony. Give your evidence, or I’ll have your head cut off.”
“I’m a poor man, Your Majesties,” Tony began piteously.
“Tony, please try to stay somewhere in the neighborhood of the truth,” said Queen Pepper.
“I don’t know anything about the tart theft,” Tony said.
“Then you may go,” said the King.
“Cut his head off outside,” Pepper said to the guards, but Tony was gone before they could.
“Call the next witness!” the King ordered.
The next witness was Jane. Darcy was glad to see she was all right. She was still wearing her chef’s hat and apron, and she still seemed just as angry. She’d brought the pepper grinder too. People started sneezing all over the courtroom.
“Give your evidence,” said the King.
“I don’t answer to you,” said Jane.
“Cross-examine her,” Betty told the King.
Coulson regarded Jane from the height of his throne. “What are tarts made of?”
“Dark matter,” Jane said.
“Einstein-Rosenberg particles,” the JarMouse piped up. The Hatter had left the little speaker behind in his hurry to escape.
“Have the Dormouse removed from the court,” the Queen snapped.
The guards hastened to obey, and Jane took the opportunity to leave.
“Never mind,” said Coulson, “call the next witness.”
“Darcy!” called Betty the White Rabbit.
Darcy jumped up, startled. Everyone was looking at her. “I don’t know anything about this at all!”
“Write that down,” Coulson told the jury, who scribbled obediently.
“Then there’s one more piece of evidence,” Betty said. “This is a set of verses written by the Knave.”
“Who was it sent to?” Pepper asked.
“Nobody,” Betty said. “It was found.”
“I didn’t write that,” Knave Rhodey protested. “It’s not in my handwriting, and it’s not signed.”
“Aha!” said Coulson. “You disguised your handwriting and didn’t sign your name! You must have been up to no good!”
“That proves his guilt,” Pepper agreed.
“It does not,” Darcy said. “That’s just stupid. What’s the matter with you people?”
“Remove her from the court!” Pepper ordered.
The guards surrounded Darcy.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Darcy told the courtroom at large. “Even if you are a bunch of superheroes, super-scientists, and CEOs. You still need someone around with common sense.”
And she woke up.
“Darcy!” Betty was calling down to her. Darcy was lying at the bottom of the pit she’d fallen into.
“Betty! What happened to your rabbit ears?”
“Darcy, just hold still and I’ll try to get down there.” Betty sounded worried.
“I’m fine.” Darcy tested her arms and legs to see if this was true. “Are you okay?”
“Am I okay?” Betty laughed wildly. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. You were right behind me, and then you were gone. You had quite a fall.”
“Nothing’s broken,” Darcy decided.
Betty breathed a sigh of relief. “Jane would kill me if I let anything happen to you. Hang on, I’ll call for help.”
Betty whipped out her cell phone. Darcy took hers out to look at it. Now she had a god-damned signal. She put the phone away, listening to Betty talk. She felt vaguely like it should be embarrassing. Betty was probably calling the fucking Avengers because Darcy fell in a hole. Somehow she just didn’t give a shit, after seeing Captain America sing about dancing fish. The Winter Soldier getting high. Bruce Banner in bunny ears. Coulson and Pepper forgetting how to think.
“They’re just people,” she said.
“What was that?” Betty’s worried face appeared at the top of the pit.
“Nothing,” said Darcy. “I’m fine.”