The second time that Chris Evans saw Tom Hiddleston, he was late, latelatelatelatelate; and Jess was really going to kill him this time, despite the fact that this was the fourth time she'd moved in two months and she surely had other friends with more reliable forms of transport than his beaten-up, -down and –three-ways-past-Sunday Toyota that hated the cold air of Massachusetts no matter what time of year it was.
It was because he was late (latelatelatelatelate), Chris wasn't entirely looking where he was going when he stepped out to cross the street, which was the most likely explanation for the shriek of brakes and the sudden white fog against the side of his head.
"Oh my God," someone was saying, high and panicky. "Oh my God, Tom, you hit him!"
"He just stepped out in front of me! What was I supposed to do?"
"Hey," said a third voice, accompanied by large, steady hands on either side of his face. "This guy's cut. Hey, Tom, he could be a model. You could've ruined his entire career."
"Not helping, Renner," barked the first voice, and Chris made a valiant attempt to open his eyes.
"Hey, buddy," said the third voice, and a blurry, very square head came into view. It was upside down, which was a little disconcerting. "How're you doing?"
Chris thought about it. "Ow," he said, after a moment. Square Head grinned.
"'Ow' sounds about right," he said. "Hey, Tom; come here and hold his head, yeah? I'll call the ambulance."
Square Head disappeared; Chris blinked, and then saw a worried expression surrounded by a lot of curly hair that looked like it belonged to Gene Wilder. "I'm sorry," Gene Wilder's Hair was saying, "I'm so sorry, I didn't see you, I'm sorry –"
"Tom, stop apologising," First Voice snapped. "You're going to panic him."
"Shut up, Emma, I hit him with my car – are you stealing his phone?"
"No, idiot, I'm calling someone for him."
"Seriously, though," Square Head said, "you really should calm down."
"Read him some Ovid, or something," First Voice said. "That should send him right off." Gene Wilder's Hair shot a dirty look somewhere to his left.
"Cingere litorea flaventia tempora myrto," Chris said, "Musa per undenos emodulanda pedes."
Three astonished faces stared down at him. "Oh my God, Tom," Square Head said. "He's your soul mate."
When Chris opened his eyes again, he was lying in a hospital bed. He had forgotten how uncomfortable hospital gowns were - it probably had a lot to do with the fact that he was mostly naked in a public place, and that the second tie always caught in places it didn't belong, something that was made infinitely worse, somehow, by the 'being naked in a public place' thing. Adding to this, undoubtedly, was the hot press of embarrassment as he realised that someone must have stripped and redressed him whilst he was unconscious. He had seen videos of himself sleeping (Scott had strange ideas of what constituted blackmail material); it wasn't a pretty sight.
"You're lucky it's me they called, and not Carly."
He turned his head, carefully when he pulled stitches, and saw Shanna sitting at the side of the bed, one eyebrow raised.
"Shanna?" Chris was more than a little dazed-and-confused, a feeling that was only encouraged by the blank spot in his memory and the IV dripping steadily into his arm. "What're you doing here?"
Shanna rolled her eyes at him, which was a small dose of normalcy in Chris' day. "Looking after you, dumbass," she said. "What on Earth possessed you to step in front of someone's car?"
Chris frowned. "I was going to help Jess," he said. "Oh, God, I should call her; she's expecting me to help –"
"Relax, Lancelot," Shanna said. "I've sent Scott to help her move. Someone should really talk that girl into staying in one apartment for longer than three weeks."
"She's just looking for somewhere that fits," Chris said.
"Whatever," Shanna said, checking her watch. "Look, I haven't told Mom or Carly that you're in here – again – but I've really got to go to work. Are you going to be okay to get home?"
Chris felt a flush of guilt. "I'll be fine," he said. "You just go – I can get the bus, or something."
The look she gave him was almost painfully exasperated, tempered slightly by fond amusement, but Chris was saved her response by the sudden whisking back of the curtain and the appearance of a dark-haired woman who, if her white coat was anything to go by, was the doctor.
"Ah," she said. "You're awake, good; I'm Doctor Dennings," she added. "How're you doing, then? Any nausea, dizziness?"
Chris shook his head, which sent a spasm of pain through his skull.
"Easy, champ," the doctor said. "You hit your head pretty hard when you made friends with the sidewalk."
"Lucky I was on the scene." A man appeared, grinning at the doctor. Chris recognised him, vaguely, as one of the fuzzy faces from before he passed out: 'Square Head' flashed across his memory, and he prayed that he wouldn't accidentally refer to him as that. Doctor Dennings rolled her eyes at him.
"This is Doctor Renner," Shanna said. "He's the one that called the ambulance."
"And despite what he might tell you," Dennings said, "he's not a real doctor."
"I'm a paediatrician!" Doctor Renner objected. "I have a degree and everything."
Dennings smirked sideways at Chris and Shanna. "In handing out lollipops and head pats?" she said. "Sure, you're totally a real doctor."
"And you're not getting the bus anywhere today," Renner said.
"We're keeping you in overnight for observation," Dennings added. "You have a concussion, but otherwise you were pretty lucky."
Shanna stood, and kissed Chris on the cheek. "I really have to go," she said, "but I'll stop by tomorrow to pick you up, okay?"
Chris suffered silently as Doctor Dennings checked him over, passing a penlight to and fro in front of his eyes. Renner leant against the end of his bed, watching.
"Is there something you wanted, Renner?" she asked, without looking at him. "Or have you run out of children to terrify into taking their shots?"
Renner grinned, open and innocent. "Hey, I just want to check on the patient," he said. "I was there, you know. I have a vested interest in his welfare."
"Oh, that's right," Dennings said. "You were in the car that hit him."
"Not the driver," Renner said.
"Because that makes a difference."
"Oh, Kitty-Kat," Renner said, pressing a hand to his heart, "do I detect a note of hostility?"
Dennings tried, and failed, to smother her smile. "Run along, kiddy doctor," she said. "Some of us have actual work to do."
Renner winked at Chris. "I'll let Tom know you're going to be fine," he said. "He's been legitimately out of his mind about it. Hey, Tom!"
Dennings put her penlight away, and patted Chris on the shoulder. "Welcome to the nut house," she said. "I'll stop by later to see how you're doing."
Feeling slightly overwhelmed, Chris watched as Renner sat on the edge of his bed and Gene Wilder's Hair walked in.
"Oh my God," he said. "I am so sorry."
He seemed so genuinely distressed by it that Chris couldn't help but smile. "Don't worry about it," he said. "I mean, you saved me a day of helping my friend move, so…"
Gene Wilder's Hair beamed at him, and stepped forward with his hand out. "Tom Hiddleston," he said. "It would've been nice to meet you under less unfortunate circumstances," he added, "but it's a pleasure nonetheless."
"Chris Evans," Chris said, shaking his hand.
"Mum wants to know if you killed him," a voice called through the curtain. Tom grinned.
"My sister," he said, in an aside to Chris. Raising his voice, he added: "no, Emma; he's going to be fine."
A pause, and then: "she says to tell him that she apologises for her son's inability to drive on the right side of the road, and that she's disappointed your life isn't going to take a more exciting turn."
Renner burst into laughter, whilst Tom lifted his gaze to the ceiling. Chris could relate; he didn't want to think about what reaction was awaiting him when Carly and his mom found out about the accident.
He blinked when Tom laid a hand on his arm, looking at him apologetically. "I really am sorry," he said. Chris smiled at him, attempting reassuring; it felt more surprised and self-conscious on his face.
When Shanna came to collect him the following afternoon, he was almost disappointed that Tom wasn't there.
"See you, Ovid!" Renner called, as they passed the main desk.
"What's he talking about?" Shanna said, as she clicked the automatic locking on her car. Chris shrugged.
"I honestly have no idea."
Robert lived in the apartment below Chris, and was subsequently just as sleep-deprived as him in the morning. Which was why Chris wasn't even going to bother pretending that Robert was going to pay for his coffee, mostly because Robert was his landlord and his good-natured allowance for Chris' rocky finances could only hold out so far.
"Only you two," Mark declared, sliding onto the stool next to Robert and leaning across the counter to steal a donut ("You are going to pay for that," Chris told him, firmly, but Mark grinned back at him as he bit into it and Chris knew that he was never going to see that dollar-sixty), "only you two could look as if you didn't sleep at all and still manage awesome."
"Hey!" Scarlett slid the tray she was carrying back through into the kitchen. "Are you saying that I don't look gorgeous without sleep?"
"You always look gorgeous," Robert said.
"Yeah, it's terrible," Mark added. "I mean, most people can pull off bedhead and dishevelled, sure, but only on a full eight hours. You're offensive to the natural laws of the universe."
"Aw, thanks," Scarlett said, mock-spiteful and grinning. "I'm guessing that you two didn't actually get any sleep, though, right?" she added, glancing over at Chris, who was draining his third cup of coffee in ten minutes.
"You try sleeping with Vaughn Williams playing over your head all night," Robert groused. "Not even an entire piece, I might add. Just one minute-long solo."
"Sorry," Chris mumbled into his mug. "I just – I really want this job."
Scarlett patted his shoulder. "I know, sweetie. We know," she said. "Bob knows," she added, looking pointedly at Robert. "And you are so going to get it."
"They're still auditioning in alphabetised sessions," Chris said, only a little hysterically. "Alphabetised sessions."
"We know," Robert said, waspish. "The entire city's auditioning, remember?"
"I'm not," Clark reminded him, stopping next to them to refill the sauce bottles.
"That's because a jazz pianist doesn't belong in a Whedon orchestra," Robert said, smirking.
"Jazz doesn't belong in an orchestra at all," Clark said. "I'm a lone wolf, playing my music alone and unaccompanied -"
"Because pianists are the accompanists," Scarlett interrupted. Clark shot her a dirty look that was spoiled rather spectactularly by the tug of amusement around his mouth and eyes, and continued as if she hadn't spoken.
"Pushing the boundaries of musical -"
"Taste," said Robert.
"- understanding, and raising the entire industry into a new level of awesome."
"A simple plan," Scarlett said.
"So well thought-out," Mark agreed.
"No need for sense or logic or actual talent at all," Robert added, and ducked the napkin ball that Clark threw at his head.
Chris tipped his head back to catch the last drops of coffee and rubbed the scar behind his ear absent-mindedly. It had been almost eight months since his head had introduced itself so enthusiastically to the sidewalk, but he still wasn't entirely used to the thin ridge that sliced neatly into his hair line. His mom had taken to looking at it and bemoaning how she had almost lost her eldest son, which, if Chris was entirely truthful with himself, had been the major reason behind him growing his hair out.
Besides, as Shanna had said, the fact that he could now put a parting in it meant that he looked far less like the gay member of a boyband.
The second time Tom saw him was at an audition: at the E-Is for the new Whedon orchestra (because Joss Whedon was a fucking legend, and so many people applied to join that each audition was still held over multiple days, even after the second round), sitting opposite him as they waited backstage to be called. It wasn't really a backstage, because the audition was being held in a church and they were waiting in the vestry, and Tom really should have been concentrating on the piece he was about to perform, but the violinist was twitching his fingers across the fingerboard, marking out the positions for the piece he was going to play.
Tom watched his fingers move, trying to work out what the piece was going to be; because he was having a minor freak out listening to all the other people go on first (Whedon changed the order each time, apparently: today, they were going in alphabetical order, but last time they had gone – as far as Tom could tell – in order of the size of their instrument, smallest to largest. Hemsworth had told him that, at his audition, they had been called in order of playing range, which was, like, what the fuck?) and knowing that they were better than him, and because it was more polite to stare at the guy's fingers than to stare at him chewing his lip. Tom had it on good authority that people tended to get the wrong idea when they caught someone staring at their mouth.
It's rude to stare, said a small voice in Tom's head that sounded suspiciously like his mother, and he flicked his gaze guiltily up to the violinist's face. He had, apparently, noticed Tom watching him, because there was a stripe of pink across his cheekbones (which Tom thought might just be the single most adorable thing ever, and made him want to check to see if the blush spread further beneath his hoodie, and map its path with his fingers and). Tom smiled, apologetically, but the violinist had ducked his head to avoid Tom's gaze and either didn't see or wouldn't acknowledge it. He couldn't seem to keep his fingers still though, and they still flickered through the positions.
Tom wanted to ask his name, but they had been asked not to talk, and he couldn't catch his eye. He wanted to apologise for embarrassing him, and that he really didn't have anything to be embarrassed about, because Tom thought he had very nice fingers. He wanted to offer to take him out for coffee, or something, but the assistant opened the door and called,
and the violinist stood.
Evans, Tom thought, committing the name to memory. It struck a bell with him, somewhere, but he reasoned that it was hardly an uncommon surname; he could always ask him whether they'd met at a previous audition, or something. And then remembered that he hadn't actually asked him out, and didn't even know his first name.
He slid closer to the door, surrepticiously (and all the people in the vestry were just freakishly observant, because at least three people gave him knowing looks and several others just looked at him like he was weird), straining to hear whatever his Evans was going to play. The church had been chosen because of the acoustics permitted by the architecture of the hall, but it also meant that the doors were irritatingly thick. Tom only caught the very edge of sound as it filtered through wood and stone, but he recognised the piece even so. The solo from The Lark Ascending. Even Tom knew not to play that at an audition unless you knew you could nail it, because it might sound impressive even if you didn't get it quite right, but Whedon was a genius and he would know -
But he didn't drop a single note, from what Tom could hear, and that made the tight knot of anxiety ease in his chest, a little, because Evans was good and gorgeous and embarrassed that Tom had been staring at his hands and Tom wanted him to get this part, even if he didn't, especially if he did.
There was a moment of sheer panic as Tom's name was called, when he thought that he had forgotten his sheet music (not that he really needed it, because he had practised the damn piece all night and it was only a minute and a quarter, Jesus Christ; but it was his safety net, and the feel of the worn paper beneath his fingertips as he groped blindly in his satchel calmed him), but then he was out on the stage and a quick tee-tee-kee to warm up. Nodding to the assistant to start his recorded accompaniment, he raised the trumpet to his mouth, took a deep breath, and began to play.
"Well?" demanded Scarlett, as soon as Chris arrived back in the diner for his second shift. "How'd it go?"
"Excellent," Chris said, breathless and beaming at her. "I mean, I think," he corrected, his smile faltering somewhat. "I guess the audition could've been better. I mean, I'm sure I ran a couple of pauses and then bled some others a little too long, but – yeah. It was good."
Scarlett eyed him, suspiciously. "You met someone," she accused, pointing at him. "I know that look."
Chris just bit down on the inside of his mouth in an attempt to kill his smile. Scarlett raised an eyebrow.
"Wow. Seriously? What's his name? Did you get his number?"
"Get whose number?"
Clark slumped down into his usual seat, still wearing his uniform. Chris wrinkled his nose at him.
"You stink of grease."
"Yeah, well, that's kinda what I do with my day," Clark said. "Now, whose number did you get?"
"Some guy Chris met at his audition," Scarlett said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
"Really?" Clark accepted the coffee Scarlett handed him without comment. "What's his name?"
"I didn't get his number," Chris said, definitely not pouting. At all. Scarlett patted his hair.
"Name?" she prompted.
"I don't know," Chris said, and put his head on the counter at the expression on Clark's face. "We were auditioning in alphabetical order and he kept staring at me and I went first so I didn't hear his name."
"Well," said Clark, after a moment, "at least he's interested. Or disturbed, but we'll discount that theory for the moment. What did you talk about?"
"I didn't actually talk to him," Chris admitted, reluctantly. Clark was startled into laughter.
"Why am I not surprised?" he said, not unkindly. "You're such a teenage girl. What did you do, stare at the back of his head with your big, Bambi eyes and dream that he'd notice you?"
"We weren't allowed to talk!" Chris said, defensively – although, thinking about it, that wouldn't really count as a defence to Clark. Indeed, Clark simply quirked an eyebrow and continued to laugh into his coffee. Scarlett patted his hand sympathetically, and Chris groaned into the table, despairing at the utter lack of quality that was his life.
The second time Chris saw Rachel, she was buying coffee.
Chris came back from his lunch break, which he had taken in the kitchen with Camilla, the chef, to find Sam flirting outrageously with a brunette with possibly the largest eyes that Chris had ever seen. She didn't look too impressed about it, which Sam didn't seem to have noticed, despite the fact than Chris could see the exasperated tilt of her head and the impatient tap of her fingers against the counter as Sam took his time making her "latte, extra cream, to go".
Normally, Chris would be more than happy to step back and watch Sam score – or, as was more than likely to happen in this case, strike out – but the woman caught his eye with a look that had him moving forward without really any conscious decision from his brain.
"Sam," he said, unable to keep the smirk off his face. "Stop harrassing the customers."
"I'm not harrassing anyone!" Sam said, mock-offended. "I'm just doing my job: getting lovely Rachel her drink."
"Did you tell him your name?" Chris asked her, wondering if, maybe, he had misread her expression and she was interested, after all.
"He said he needed it, to write on the cup." Chris rolled his eyes at Sam.
"Seriously?" Sam grinned at him, unapologetic. "You used that excuse? We're not a Starbucks, Sam. Do you have no shame?"
"Wait." Rachel leant forward, one eyebrow raised incredulously. "Are you saying that that was a line?" She stared at Sam. "Oh my God. I don't believe you."
"But I bet that I can make you believe," Sam said, moving over to her with what Chris could only describe as a shimmy, "in love and sex and magic."
"Oh my God," Rachel said again, looking torn between horror and amusement.
"Rockwell," Sam said, smacking his shoulder, "stop losing us custom."
"You know what, it's fine," Rachel said, appearing to have settled on 'amused'. "I've never heard that line before, anyway. And you do make an awesome latte."
"So," Sam said, "no lost custom?"
"No lost custom," Rachel agreed, firmly.
"Hah!" Sam crowed, before Rachel was even out the door. "Told you."
"Oh, please," Chris said, rolling his eyes. "I don't think you could've been floundering any more if you were in The Little Mermaid. Didn't you hear her?"
"What you talking about, boy?" Sam said. "I got skills. Girls only talk to you because you have a flashing neon sign screaming GAYGAYGAY."
"Thus they feel safe from your verbal molesting," Chris said. Sam hit him.
Joe worked in a video-rental store about an hour's walk away from the diner, so Tom and Hemsworth took the bus. Whedon held all the percussion auditions together, and Joe's had been that morning; Tom couldn't see an awful lot of competetion for him, considering most percussionists nowadays didn't play classical and were only interested in joining a band and scoring (he'd asked Joe about that: "been there, done that. Hardly a stable career. And not exactly hygenic, either.").
Joe was reading, leaning against the counter; the store didn't tend to get much custom, nowadays, because no one bothered to rent movies when they had the Internet, but Joe had been working there since he was sixteen, and they hadn't bothered to fire him yet. A cat was eating his sandwich, but Joe didn't seem to have noticed.
"How'd it go?" Tom rubbed a thumb behind the cat's ears, and it purred and pushed itself into his touch, but didn't move away from the sandwich.
"Fine, I guess." Joe shrugged, folding down the corner of his page. "We weren't auditioning for Whedon; Donner and Feige, apparently, are the guys to go for with unpitched."
"No one auditions for Whedon the first rounds," Tom reminded him. "I've had Favreau twice, remember?"
Hemsworth made a face. "So you were just making a loud noise, then?"
Tom elbowed him, and Joe smirked good-naturedly. "Sure," he said. "We made lots of loud noise on timpanis. So, reallly, I have no idea whether I did good or not."
"Come on." Tom rolled his eyes. "I mean, seriously: child prodigy."
Joe shrugged. "Donner's worked with Dakota Fanning," he said. "She's better than I was, at her age."
Tom pulled a face, because he'd seen videos of Joe playing when he was a child, and didn't really believe him. Besides, he was five when he started, which had to count for something. Although he wasn't playing the piano anymore, having graduated away, now onto hand-held mallets.
(The first time Tom saw Joe was on television. His parents had videotaped his performance in Carnegie Hall some months before, but had taped The Animals of Farthing Wood for Tom over the first half hour. In the manner of VHS, the tape had cut straight through to the concert once the credits had rolled, and Tom had been far too enamoured to turn it off.
"He's your age," his mother had told him, when he had finished raving about it.
"I could never play like that," Tom had said, honest and blunt as only a seven-year-old can.
"You can do anything you want," his mother said, firmly, fixing him in her gaze over the top of her newspaper.
When he had met Joe, many years later, he had asked him why he had given up on the piano.
"Moved on," Joe had corrected him. "Piano's great for when you're a kid, because you can sit on a high stool and slide about to reach the keys; and my dad was a piano teacher, so it made sense. But I got bored. I wanted to try something new."
They had played together, a few times, Tom on his grandfather's trumpet and Joe on the trombone, which was how they met Hemsworth.)
"What happens if you get through?" he asked.
"We have to play on pitched. But I don't know whether there's going to be a requirement, or whatever. Apparently, Whedon is only after percussionists who're, like, able to play both equally. I guess it saves him from getting someone for each. We're not being paid, after all."
"We're not being paid?" Hemsworth clutched at his chest. "Oh, the horror! This has never happened before! How can we suffer this upon ourselves? Ow!" as Joe's book smacked his arm.
"The chicks really dig the whole 'starving artist' thing," he said, grinning.
"Really?" Hemsworth said. "Is before or after they find out you hit dead animal skins and blocks of wood for a living?"
"Ooh," said Joe. "Burned. What about you, Hiddleston?" he added. "Any clue what your next audition is going to be like?"
"I don't even know if I'm getting another audition," Tom said.
"You'll get another audition," Joe and Hemsworth said, simultaneously.
"And Favreau only gave us a minute and half the first time round," Tom added, a little desperately. "A minute and a half! How'm I supposed to convince anyone that I'm good enough in a minute and a half?"
The door chimed, as one of the few customers walked it. Joe pushed the cat off the counter (still chewing his sandwich) and made flapping motions at Hemsworth and Tom.
"Shove off," he said. "You'll scare away all my regulars."
"Because you get so much custom," Hemsworth said, as they headed out the door.
"Precisely," Joe said. "Now, scat."
As a rule, Chris didn't get mail, apart from bills and letters from his mother. So, when Robert dropped off a brown paper envelope one morning, he didn't bother to leave, because it could only be one thing.
"The audition," Chris breathed, staring at the letter like it might explode. "Oh my God, what if I didn't make it? Oh my God, what if I did?"
"Open the fucking envelope, Evans," Robert said, flicking it towards him. "I want to know just as much as you." Chris looked at him, wide-eyed. "Okay," Robert conceeded. "Maybe not quite as much as you. But still."
He took the envelope in quivering fingers, and fumbled it open.
"Mr Evans," he read aloud. "Thank you for attending the audition blah blah we would like to invite you to a third audition -"
"Fuck yeah!" interrupted Robert, punching the air. "Told you so."
Chris beamed, giddy, still skimming the letter. "You will need to prepare a solo piece of no more than two minutes in length, to be performed without accompaniment. Oh. Shit."
"You'll be fine," Robert said, breezily, knocking Chris shin with his toe. "Just don't practise all night again, yeah? I could really use my sleep, this time."
Chris nodded, distractedly, already running over all the pieces in his mind that he owned which had a solo that could be performed satisfactorily without an accompaniment. Of course, most of them could be, but this was for the Whedon-fucking-orchestra and he couldn't afford to mess it up.
He ran his thumb along the edge of the letter, wondering if the trumpet player from before would be there as well.
Still, even with that one Damacles sword gone from above his head, Chris had current, pressing life matters to be attending to. Such as the small matter of his unpaid bills because he'd had to pay backrent with his last three months worth of wages, and the onimous letter from the gas company politely informing him that they would be shutting off his heating if he didn't pay within the fortnight. And, seeing as he couldn't afford to spend the winter nursing a cold, he went to an audition for a couple of nights' work at the jazz bar where Clark moonlighted.
It had gone well, and they had agreed to give Chris the job with provision for increase depending on his reception, and the only thing that could ruin Chris' night was the fact that he had missed the last bus home, and now had to walk all the way back across town to his apartment.
It was bitterly cold, but Chris had his trusty woollen overcoat and his scarf wrapped multiple times around his neck; so as long as he kept the collar turned up and his hands in his pockets, he didn't really mind. It wasn't far, and he felt antsy from his audition. The walk would help clear his head and, if that wasn't enough, he could always practise.
If it had been warmer, than there would have been mist – there was low cloud hovering over the city, but it was too cold for it to appear visually. Instead, the air felt crystalline and sharp as Tom breathed, in through his nose because that protected his throat against the ice molecules that could gather in his lungs. What would have been moisture collected on his hair and eyelashes and the strands of his coat, twinkling in the sulphur streetlights, and he looked up at the glowing bulbs, smiling as he blinked tiny rainbows.
His feet stopped of their own accord, trumpet case knocking against his hip from where he had it slung over his shoulder; and it took Tom a few seconds to realise why. He was facing one of the terraced buildings that lined the street, which had a single lit window on the upper floor. Music was leaking through the glass (later, Tom would recognise that the window had been open, if only a little, but for now he couldn't help but construe romantic imaginings) and twirling, light and estactic, through the frozen mist to join the rainbows in Tom's eyes.
It was only when he blinked that he registered he was staring, but he couldn't seem to drag himself away – didn't want to move away. The piano accompaniment was clearly recorded, Tom could recognise the scratching of vinyl even from the street, but the violin was light and elegant and so, so sad. It was all Tom wanted, right in that moment, to go to the musician and hug them, shake them, make them laugh – anything to stop them from feeling as disconsolate and melancholic as their music prescribed; but he couldn't make himself move, because that would mean making the music stop. He stared at the lit window, at the shadow of the violinist that played out on the wall, and breathed in the music as it wrapped its mournful staves around him.
He only remembered that he was standing in the cold when the music finished, and he felt the tendrils of the frozen air creeping underneath his jacket and pricking against exposed skin. Still, he hesitated, considering whether to actually knock on the door; but the light flicked off, and he was left alone, with only the streetlights and the empty air for company.
When he arrived back at the flat, Elsa let him in because his fingers were numb and he couldn't get his key in the lock.
"A good audition?" she said, smiling at the look on his face.
"Yeah," he breathed, feeling the ache in his jaw from smiling too hard, still remembering clair de lune and fleeting, frosted rainbows.
"You are a cartoon animal," Scarlett insisted. "Like, an actual cartoon animal. How are you even real? I mean, seriously?"
"Do you bleed unicorns and rainbows?" Clark asked. Chris moved the cutlery surrepticiously out of his reach, just in case he decided to test his theory. "I mean, come on, Evans! Who. The fuck. Music? Seriously?"
"Cartoon animal," Scarlett repeated. "This is proof. Undeniable, irrefutable proof. Only cartoon animals can fall in love with music."
"I never said I was in love -" Chris began, possibly over-defensive.
"Scarlett, you're a fucking Disney princess," Clark interrupted. "You have no standing in this argument. You both belong in a fairy tale."
"You spent the past two days making gooey eyes at the wall and humming Torelli," Scarlett said, ignoring Clark. "You are a ridiculous, cavity-inducing cliché."
"Oh my God," Clark said. "It could be a girl. Chris Evans could be in love with a girl."
"Horror of horrors," Rachel said, from behind them (Chris was never going to let Scarlett live down the yelping noise she made, or that she practically fell off her stool).
"Mon cherie," Sam exclaimed, sweeping out from the kitchen, ignoring Chris' wince at his absolute failure at French grammar. "You have returned to me!"
"You make a good latte," Rachel said. "And seem to have the most amusing conversations. Coffee plus gossip central: how could I turn it down?"
"Gossip?" Sam said, over the rattle of the coffee machine.
"Chris' a cartoon animal," Clark said.
"He's in loooove," Scarlett said, grinning.
"The trumpet guy?" Sam asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Trumpet guy?" Rachel said. "Seriously, if you want to keep my custom, you're going to have to catch me up on the gossip, here."
Clark filled her in, rapidly – because he clearly wanted Chris to shrivel up and die, because he had no idea who Rachel was and still felt it was okay to tell her random stories about Chris' life. It was far too similar to his mother whipping out the baby photos for comfort. "Chris crushed on a trumpetter that he saw at his audition, and is actually mooning over someone he heard playing the other day." Chris felt that it was probably quite pathetic that his current life drama could be summed up in a single sentence that made him come off pretty poorly, and that he should, probably, do something to rectify that fact.
Rachel tilted her head, her mouth pulling in an interested, amused smile. "Does this trumpetter have a name?" she asked, taking her coffee from Sam.
"No," Sam said.
"Just a lot of curly hair," Clark said.
"And cheekbones," Scarlett added, illustrating with her fingers against her face. Chris let his head fall onto the countertop. Rachel made a strange, stifled sound.
"Um, was this at the Whedon audition?" she asked. Chris looked up.
"Yeah," he said. "Why?"
"Curly hair?" she repeated, mouth doing something strange, like it was trying to smile but couldn't quite settle on a single expression. "Strange disregard for personal boundaries? Torelli?"
"Oh my God," Sam said, taking in the look on Chris' face. "You know him."
"His name is Tom," Rachel said, patting Chris' arm. "Hiddleston. And I've gotta dash."
"Tom?" Scarlett said, frowning. "Tom Hiddles – hey, wait! Doesn't that make you Rachel Weisz?"
Rachel bowed, fluttering her hand on her way out of the door. "The one and only," she called, over her shoulder. "Always nice to meet a fan!"
"Oh my God," Scarlett said, after a moment. "We just met Rachel Weisz!"
"Obviously," Clark said, waving his arm in whatever. "Evans, you're crushing on Tom Hiddleston?"
Chris' forehead thudded against the countertop again. "I hate my life," he mumbled at the linoleum.
"Don't lie," Sam said, poking his shoulder. "I can see your shit-eating grin from here."
"Your vision lies to you. You cannot know the truth of what you are seeing because you're not wearing your glasses," Chris protested into the counter.
"Guys?" Scarlett said. "Rachel Weisz? Anyone else remotely excited by that?"
"We saw her last year," Clark said, "remember? With the Davies trio that Sam blagged us into."
"Wait." Wait because Chris remembered that concert, with the snub-nosed woman next to him making pointed remarks about their state of dress and
(The first time Chris saw Tom Hiddleston was the fourteenth of October, from a distance in an overcrowded concert hall in Michigan. Sam was sleeping with one of the ushers (Michelle, which Chris only knew because she had her name embroidered into her underwear and he was living with Sam because his apartment was flooded due to his somewhat over-exuberant attempts at plumbing – although not if his landlord asked), and she had got them tickets in order to persuade Sam to come over to Illinois rather than her having to make the weekend trip all the time.
Of course, Michelle wasn't too keen on the idea of them crashing on her floor whilst her and Sam did the dirty (and, to be fair, neither were they, because Michelle's walls were as thin as paper: Mark swore that he could see through them when they were backlit), so they had driven over in Mark's delivery van, commandeered from his sister's floristry business.
"It's fine for you," Clark said, poking Scarlett's ribs. "There's nothing of you. And you can warp yourself into corners and stuff. I'm the one who's going to have to deal with Ruffalo's massive bulk."
"I hear he's a cuddly sleeper," Chris said, grinning.
"Don't say stuff like that," Clark said, sotto voce. "You'll give him ideas!"
"I can hear you, you know," Mark said, from the passenger seat. He swivelled around to look at them. "Besides, Clark, you know you love your Care Bear hugs."
"Downey's the physically affectionate one," Clark said, leaning away from Mark's borderline-lecherous grin.
"Threesome!" Sam yelled, pumping his fist in the air.
"Eyes on the road!" Mark barked, grabbing for the wheel, as Clark said, "Ten and two, Rockwell!" and Scarlett said, "Gross, Sam."
"Shut up," Sam said, good-humouredly, swerving the van recklessly through the Interstate traffic. "You're all just jealous of my driving brilliance."
"My transport," Mark reminded him. "My sister'll have a fit if you crash it. I don't know why I let you try and kill us."
"Too awesome to die!" Sam said. "Too awesome to die in a delivery truck, anyway. A Mazerati, maybe."
Scarlett rolled his eyes. "Sure, because zooming through the pearly gates in a ball of fire is totally the coolest way to die."
"St Peter needs to trim his beard anyway," Sam said. "He won't mind if it's a little singed."
"So much blasphemy," Chris said, putting his head in his hands, "so little time."
"Whatever," said Sam, grinning as he yanked the wheel and sent them careering onto the slip road. "We're almost there, now."
"I hope you get some serious sex, Sam," Clark said. "Because this trip had better be worth it."
"Okay, you may be Clark Gregg, and therefore automatically weird, but even you should not want to know the details of Sam's sex life," Scarlett said. "Even more so, having children. Live up to the stereotype, Gregg! Embrace your inherent prude."
"Yeah," said Chris. "We so do not need to know. And we're not getting laid, anyway. All we've got is a concert."
"Davies had better be fucking worth it," Mark growled, gripping onto the dash as Sam weaved through intercity traffic.
They left Sam at the ticket booth with Michelle; she hadn't been able to get them fantastically good seats, but they were free and Chris hadn't seen any live music in an actual concert hall for what felt like far too long. None of them wanted to stick around to watch Sam play tonsil-hockey, so they left him to it, heading inside with the necessary protection warnings, which got them the finger from Sam.
Back when he had been a theatre goer (which was an awful long time ago, considering the sad, sorry state of his finances), Chris would have bemoaned sitting in the upper circle, but for music it wasn't too bad a position. They hadn't come to see the musicians, after all, and sitting back from the stage offered better acoustics, as a rule. Of course, the lower circle would have been better, but Chris wasn't particularly fussy.
Most of the audience were reasonably young, but Scarlett, Clark, Chris and Mark still stuck out, mostly due to their decidedly less formal apparel; despite their youth, everyone still seemed to be in dress trousers and shirts, even if they were lacking a tie. Chris only owned one suit, and he saved that for weddings, funerals and job interviews. Also, when afflicted with passenger status to Sam's driving, it wasn't particularly practical to dress smartly, seeing as there was more than likely a chance that their last meal would have ended up on the floor. So, they had gone for clean and ironed, which had been a stretch (luckily, Chris' mother had been in town the previous weekend, and had agreed – long-suffering, but good-humoured – to do their laundry).
Clark stared down a couple of yuppies who were looking down their noses at them, until they shuffled in their seats and moved their gaze fixedly to the stage. Davies was arriving on stage, the musicians already seated. He tuned them with a flick of his baton, and they opened the performance with Debussy.
He couldn't help it – despite his initial misgivings, because the Davies trio was a strange combination of talents and, whilst Chris could only ever imagine Beale as the leggy fiddler he had seen with his parents in a stage production of The Fiddler On The Roof, they were actually, surprisingly brilliant. Chris shuffled forward in his seat, bracing his arms against the rails in front of him and squinting down at the figures on the stage, tiny even though his glasses.
Beale was obvious, his white-grey hair shining in the harsh stage lighting in stark contrast to the dark wood of the grand piano he was sitting at; he knew Davies, because everyone knew Davies, not purely because of his auspicious talent but also because there were so few openly gay people in their industry. But the dark-haired woman, who looked familiar enough but Chris couldn't place and, damn it, Mark had the programme, and the blond on the trumpet were unknown to him. The mass of curly hair caught the light and shattered through his shadow as he talked animatedly with the woman, who was sorting through their sheet music with her violin balanced on her lap.
Chris watched him, wished that they were closer because he wanted to see how his playing method compared to Branagh, and because he had looked so delightfully cheerful on stage before they had started playing.
Now, though, he seemed completely keyed in to the piece, because Chris could sense no hesitation or shyness in his playing. And with the virtuoso flourishes that Davies wove through the Debussy (he never could just follow the score, something that had annoyed several of Chris' music teachers) it was evident, immediately, that he very good.
He mentioned this, out of the corner of his mouth, to Scarlett, who hummed in agreement. "You'd've thought it'd make Weisz second fiddle, though," she said, leaning forward until she was next to Chris. "But she doesn't sound it, does she?"
"Weisz's a miniture genius, though," Mark murmured, joining them and ignoring the pointed looks of their neighbours. "I don't think she could second fiddle even if she wanted to.")
Clark had known that it was Rachel Weisz when he had told her about Chris' ridiculous infatuation. He'd known.
"You knew!" he said, accusingly. "You knew that she knew Hiddleston, and you told her anyway."
Clark shrugged, tilting his head as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. It did, with a thud that jolted Chris forward on the counter.
"You knew it was Tom Hiddleston all along?"
He smiled, now, gently amused. "Chris," he said, "so did you."
Chris blinked, because no, he didn't, but then his fingers caught on the scar behind his ear and his eyes went wide.
"Oh my God," he said, feeling ever so slightly hysterical. "Oh my God."
"What?" Sam asked, looking from one to the other. "What did I miss?"
"Chris met Hiddleston last year," Clark said, now looking at Scarlett as she slowly breached realistion as well.
"Oh my God," Scarlett said.
"Seriously!" Sam said. "Someone clue me in!"
"Chris met Hiddleston," Clark said, "when Hiddleston hit Chris with his car."
"Oh my God," Sam said. Chris dropped his face into his hands.
Tom groaned, and rolled over so he could press his face into the pillow. Not that it did him any good, because in the next moment a cold hand forced its way beneath the collar of his t-shirt and pressed up against his spine. He jerked away from it with a yelp, and was faced with the unimpressed expression on his sister's face.
He scowled at her. "Who let you in?" he said, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyes and trying to calculate the chances that Emma would leave so that he could go back to sleep.
"Elsa," Emma said, her tone dashing all of Tom's hopes for continuing his lie-in.
"Traitors," he said. "What's the point of living with your friends if they let you in?"
Emma drew herself up, and glowered down at him. "Thomas William Hiddleston," she said. "I have it on excellent authority that you haven't left this room for almost two days. Living with friends means that I have the right to be informed when you're being entirely ridiculous."
"Ugh," Tom said, glaring at her, blearily, from between his fingers. "I hate you."
"Get dressed," Emma said. Tom flapped his arm at her.
"Go away," he said. Emma arched an eyebrow. "So I can change," Tom said. "I thought you'd had enough of my naked arse before I moved out of home."
Emma rolled her eyes, but left. Tom went to faceplant back into his mattress, when Emma called, "you have five minutes, or I'm coming in to dress you myself."
Tom flipped the door off, aiming it at both his sister and Chris, whom he could hear sniggering from the kitchen; dragging himself out of bed, he tugged off his t-shirt and boxers and dug around for a pair of jeans.
Four and a half minutes later, he opened the door to slouch out into the living room, jacket in one hand and shoes in the other. Emma, Chris and Elsa were standing in the kitchenette, drinking coffee and smirking at him. Tom shot them the filthiest look he could manage.
"Come on," Emma said, setting down her mug. "We're going outside."
"Outside?" Tom said, blinking at her. "Why?"
"Because fresh air is good for you," Emma said, "and it's high time you took your little sister shopping."
Tom scowled and shoved his feet into his shoes, shrugging on his jacket as he let Emma pull him out the door. "Judas," he hissed at Chris and Elsa; Chris, to his credit, looked marginally contrite, but Elsa grinned and waved.
"Have fun!" she called after them, and Tom swore in every language he knew. Internally, of course, because Emma had inherited their mother's ability to stab you in the face with her eyes.
"Oh, baby," Emma said, smiling and taking his arm as they walked down the stairs. "You really aren't a morning person, are you?"
"Shut up," Tom said. "I'm going to need coffee if you're dragging me around town."
Emma laughed, and patted his arm with her free hand. "Oh, don't worry," she said, "you're not actually taking me shopping. What, like you think I have the spare cash? No, this was just a clever ruse to get you to leave the squalor of your bedroom."
"Wait," Tom said. "Hang on. Teenage flashback."
Emma shoved him sideways, making him stagger but also pull her with him. Grinning, they leant into each other as they fell into step, Tom letting Emma lead the way down the street.
"So," he said. "Where are we going, then?"
"For coffee," Emma said. "I hope you brought your wallet, big brother. We're meeting Rachel at this diner that, apparently, serves the best caffeine."
"Everything my heart desires," Tom said.
"You're such a cheap date," Emma said, grinning.
Rachel was already waiting for them at the diner (named, perfunctorily and somewhat hilariously to Tom, Clark's, if the block text painted across the front was any indication), and had ordered for them. Emma and Tom tried to protest, but she waved them off with smile and a pointed look at the seats opposite her.
"You're insulting me," she said with a smile, when Tom tried to push the issue. "Seriously, just drink your fucking coffee."
"He's such a baby in the morning," Emma said, smirking over the rim of her mug at Rachel. Tom sighed.
"I hate it when you two team-up."
Nudging his shin with her toe, Rachel smiled at him. "Oh, hush, baby boy," she said. "I haven't seen you for ages. If I wanted to hear you bitch over coffee, I'd Skype you at 3AM again." When Tom made a disgruntled noise, nose buried in his mug, Rachel added. "So, tell me everything." She settled back in her chair. "I hear that there's a boy."
Tom almost choked on his coffee. "What?" he said, staring at her. "Where on Earth did you hear that?"
Rachel glanced at Emma, who looked innocently at the ceiling. "What?" she said, unable to hold back her smirk when Tom turned his gaze on her. "I have the right to be informed when you're being ridiculous, remember?"
"I'm not being ridiculous -"
The three of them looked up with a harrassed-looking waitress stopped by their table, slipping on the profession's trademark easy smile; she took one look at Tom and made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a squeak before disappearing behind the counter. The girls turned to Tom, identical accusatory expressions on their faces.
"Hey, no," Tom said, spreading his hands, "I swear I haven't done anything. I've never even been here before!"
"Maybe she's a fan," Emma drawled. Rachel giggled, attempting to hide it with her cup, as Tom rolled his eyes at his sister.
Scarlett caught Sam by the arm in the entrance to the store room and dragged him inside. "Oh my God, Sam, you have to cover my table."
Sam raised his eyebrows at her. "Hey, what, no," he said, backing away, "I don't think so - every time you get me to do you a favour it ends up with me getting my ass kicked by Cam for potential harrassment charges."
"Please, Sam." Scarlett followed him as he stepped backwards into the shelves, grabbing his hands and staring up into his face. "Please. Just number four - just see if they need refills, you don't have to take an order or anything. I really need to talk to Clark, like, right now."
Sam squirmed, and sagged. "I can never resist those baby blues of yours," he said, sighing. "But you better keep the dragon lady off my back," he added.
"Sam, you're perfect," Scarlett said, beaming and kissing him on the cheek, her smile spreading as he rolled his eyes and pretended to blush. "Where's Clark?"
"Arguing with Cam over the menu again," he said, looping his apron tie around to knot at the front. "Have fun."
Scarlett pushed open the door into the kitchen and immediately spotted them, bickering good-naturedly over some minor quibble on the menu. She stepped quickly over to them.
"Clark," she said, and then flashed an apologetic glance between the two of them. "Seriously, you will never believe who's sitting at table four."
They peered through the hatch, watching as Sam resumed his flirtation with Rachel (they could hear him from the kitchen: "You want the moon, Rachel? I'll give you the moon. I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down to you.").
"That's Chris' boy?" Clark said, smirking as Hiddleston and the blonde woman attempted to smother their laughter at Sam's Wonderful Life speech.
"He's not 'Chris' boy'," Camilla said.
"Not yet," Clark countered. Camilla looked at him, and shook her head.
"No," she said. "No, Clark, I know that look. You can't just, I don't know, shove Chris into his lap, or whatever. The boy's sensitive. He'd go all red and nauseous and die."
Clark nodded. "We must be cunning," he said, dramatic and mock-serious. "We must formulate a plan. For the sake of Christopher's happiness! We cannot fail."
Scarlett giggled, and then, "shit, quick, they're looking!" ducked back into the kitchen.