His mind buzzing, Tom doesn’t recognize the confusion marring Chris’ face. They’re in a hotel somewhere—London premiere, Moscow was a huge success. It’s just Chris and himself in the room. Celebrating together. Alone. Sitting so very tightly on the sofa...
The Aussie’s face is awfully close, and it takes a second more for Tom to feel the peeling away of lips from his and the ghost of breath across them. Oh, that’s right. A little—a lot—of inebriation gifted him with the courage to delicately press a chaste kiss to Chris’ lips.
Give us a kiss purrs in his ear.
Chris attempts to flash a smile at him, but it fails and comes out as a grimace. The blond rubs the back of his neck and stands from the sofa in a rush. He grabs the light jacket he’d earlier discarded on a chair. Quickly shrugging it on, he dares a glance back at Tom.
‘Night, mate. See you in tonight.’
In a swift flutter of motion, Chris exits the room and shuts the door with a soft snick. Tom nervously swallows, his head clearing, and he slowly reclines full out on the sofa. Throwing an arm over his eyes, the actor groans in remorse.
Stop. The order is not a chuckle, this time.
Elsa’s coming, Tom thinks as he slides his leather jacket onto his shoulders.
He’s heard the whisperings, by now. He feels numb at the moment, the high before the press conference having begun to crumble away last night. Tom’s fantasy dried up, like a withered sand castle. Reality is the water evaporating from the fort he’s built with Chris. Elsa is that water, that reality.
Tom tries to rationalise the situation. They’re in London, and Elsa is expecting soon, so why would Chris drag her through the event? Objectively, Tom thinks it’s a bit cruel. Subjectively, he thinks Chris wants to make a statement. Stand proudly by his wife, displaying to all—to him—that they’re together. She’s his. He’s hers.
But it was only a kiss! One glorious, too shortly lived kiss...
Tom’s mobile buzzing across the hotel room shakes him from his thoughts. Strolling over to it, he picks the device up and reads the message on the screen.
Opening the message, Tom reads: What hotel are you in?
Why? Sending me flowers, are you?
Benedict Cumberbatch: One better, I’ll bring you flowers.
Tom snorts sarcastically, but his smile splits his face. Not busy enough in America?
Benedict Cumberbatch: Excruciatingly, and don’t bother with irrelevancies. Your hotel and room number, please.
Tom attempts to fight his friend off. Are you really going to fly all the way to London? For one night?
After waiting five minutes, Ben’s reply never arrives. Sighing, Tom sends the name of the hotel and his room number. He enjoys Ben’s friendship, really he does, but Tom’s not confident on his ability to hide the truth. Only Chris and he know about what happened. Tom wishes to keep it that way, but the urge to tell Ben, to confess, rages war with his natural instinct to remain passive. He’s always kept to himself before, remained happily detached.
Too deep, Tom thinks as he leaves his room. In far too deep. Hopefully, whatever happens or doesn’t happen tonight, he’ll be able to cope.
Ah, and so it begins. Normally, he and Chris sit next to or within arms stretch of each other. Now, Tom is between Mark and Robert. He has been cast to the opposite end of the press table. Tom takes his seat, resisting the call to stare at Chris, as he usually does. Even though Jeremy, Scarlett, and Robert only separate them, Tom feels very much further away from Chris than normal. And it hurts.
‘Feel good to be home for a while?’
Mark’s voice shakes Tom from his reprieve. The scruffy American gently perches on his chair, maintaining a solid, resolute bubble of personal space between them. A space Tom is used to invading, welcoming a retaliating invasion. Oh, it hurts.
Smiling and straighten up, Tom inhales deeply to centre himself. ‘Yea, yea, it a—. “No place like home,” is the saying.’
Mark smiles back at him and nods his head to the cast further down the line. ‘We’re in for a treat tonight. Did you hear Chris’ wife is here?’
Tom dramatically nods his head, making a show of his projected enthusiasm. ‘Oh yes. It will be a—an interesting sight to see, yea.’
Besides the brief, violent scene between Mark and himself and general conversation, Tom has spent little time with the actor. He still guards himself, however. Mark is a very shy, kind person. It would be unwise to assume he might observe Tom’s downcast attitude.
Too late to draw up his mask, Tom realises, when Mark continues to stares at him after his reply.
‘Are you alright? Feeling jet lag, huh?’ Mark’s enunciation is his typical meander, as if he’s unsure.
Tom grasps at the thread of an excuse. ‘A bit, yea. Get a long night’s rest and I’ll be right as rain.’
It sounds forced, even to Tom’s ears, but the cast settles as the mediator begins. During the questions, most directed at Robert and Scarlett, Tom draws closer to Mark and flashes the man the toothy grins usually reserved for another. They bond a little, over the twenty minutes, and by the end, Tom’s spirit has lightened.
That is, right up until the moment he stands with everyone to trail out and makes scorching, obscenely delicious eye contact with Chris. The Aussie is holding up the rest of the queue, but he heeds it no mind. Even though Chris’ face is lined with frown lines and his brow furrowed, he is still remarkably breath taking. It’s refreshing, possessing Chris’ full attention. It reminds Tom of the endless supply of fluids given to them in New Mexico while shooting Thor.
Chris’ stare turns a shade ferocious in an instant, though, when Mark’s hands find their way to Tom’s hips. During their short bonding, Tom has bolstered Mark’s camaraderie with devoted attention and friendly, physical attention. The same affection he’d shone Chris.
The pack mentality forces Chris behind the stage, however. In reality, the glance barely lasts a second. The second is enough to undo all the superficial healing Tom had done, and just when he thinks Mark is pulling away, he grabs the other man’s wrists. Firmly, he wraps Mark’s hands around him and covers them. His fingers tremble on the backs of Mark’s hands, and suddenly the actor’s body is fully behind him, cradling him, rocking them back and forth.
‘That was mean,’ he says in jest, referring to the question asked about his favourite scene. In his head, however, Tom almost convinces himself that maybe Mark knows. Perhaps he puzzled together the truth, why Tom looks weary, why he was so far from Chris. But he can’t. He couldn’t have figured it out.
Crab-walking a few paces, Tom smiles through the sorrow. Mark’s laughter is sweet, twinkling behind him. It feels good, to be wanted again, to be touched by a comforting hand. When Mark releases him, Tom’s back to grinning and they walk behind stage, still close together. Tom quickly parts from the actor, however, in order to make a quick escape back to his hotel room. He needs time to mentally prepare for the premiere. He has not yet reached the bottom of suffering.
‘I am trying to get ready, you know.’
Benedict’s laugh spears through Tom’s jitters. His fellow actor watches Tom carefully, noticing the nervousness.
‘Yes, I can see that. Not doing a very good job, either.’
Ben stands from the hotel room’s sofa to help Tom tie his bow tie. He gently smacks Tom’s shaking fingers away from his neck and quickly ties the knot. So close, Ben can hear Tom’s shuttering breath.
‘What are you thinking in there, Tom? Something’s going to happen.’
Tom hears the statement and chances a glance at his friend. Dark rimmed irises stare at him, waiting patiently for a response. Tom clears his throat and his eyes flit around the room, looking at anything but Ben.
The actor sighs and turns away to where his suit jacket hands nearby.
‘I’ve really gone and made a right mess of things, this time. It’s gone past the point of no return, so suddenly, and I—I’m not sure what to do, now. I was... planning on confessing to Chris. Tonight. Sometime, I haven’t quite narrowed down a time frame. Good a time as any, really, what with all the damage I’ve already done. Anything could happen really, I’m preparing for the worse, though. As if this little dilemma of mine could ever possibly turn out in my favour. In fact—‘
Tom’s rambling comes to a halt when he feels Ben’s large hands grip his shoulders. The tension seeps out of Tom and he fists his hands in the material of his jacket. Thick, friendly quiet envelops the actors before Benedict speaks.
‘ Tom, whatever happens... Even if Chris doesn’t feel the way you do, it won’t matter. From everything you’ve told me, he’s a very kind person. You’ll still be mates, in the end.’
Tom clears his throat again and shrugs Ben’s hand off him.
‘Sure you don’t want to come?’
Benedict’s moved back to flop onto the sofa, turning the telly on.
‘Positive. I’m leaving London before the festivities will ever begin to wind down. Long enough to hopefully call and say goodbye, but not long enough.’
Tom nods once, staring at Ben’s profile. The colours from the flat screen cast shadows on the man’s face, and suddenly Tom is overcome with the ravenous desire to have Ben look at him. To show him that open face and see hope there. Ben is always very optimistic, almost to a pessimistic point. Tom leaves, however, without another glance from Ben.
It’s show time.
It really shouldn’t hurt so much, Tom decides. The reality of Elsa’s presence, rather than what he’d imagined, is so much worse. She’s so heavy with child that she lovingly grasps Chris the whole time. Fans are watching them. Not just Chris and his wife, but Tom, too. Tom can feel their eyes run over him, inspecting and criticizing every stitch of him. He knows Ben did a pants job of tying his bow, but he can’t bring himself to care. Not about the bow or anything, really. Westfield Shopping Centre is all dressed up for the red carpet, but pales in comparison to the beauty of the couple before him. His whole perception, the entirety of his world, boils down to their smiling faces, her glow, Chris golden beside her, shining.
Tom knew before this star of doomed love ever twinkled to life that nothing would ever come of his adore. He doesn’t feel a shred, a morsel of ill-being towards the loving wife. How can he, when he was never part of their world to begin with? She is beautiful, perfect for Chris. Their daughter will be gorgeous, just as her parents. Tom feels happy for them, knowing they have each other.
Standing amongst thousands of people, Tom has never felt so isolated. A few girls behind him squeal his name, begging for his attention. In his peripheral vision, he spots the green sign emblazoned with ‘Loki’s Army London HQ.’ He should enjoy this night, the fame. He doesn’t want this right now. The rasping of many voices speaking at once sound as an echo in his ears. The peering gazes pour buckets of icy water on him. Blackness seeps down his throat every time he tries to smile, so eventually he stops.
He’s got himself back together a bit when Elsa picks him out of the background. She beckons him to her with an energized wave. Chris turns to see what’s causing the commotion. Tom avoids his penetrating stare and saunters towards the couple. Tom’s usually passiveness has been peeled away by that wave. A little showing off is in order.
Greeting Elsa with kisses on both cheeks, Tom banters with her for a while. Camera’s flash and fans roar, and Tom only spares the Aussie a brief glance before ignoring him entirely. Tom’s biding his time, piecing together an innocent way to retaliate. Nothing untoward to Elsa, but something Chris would perhaps jealously ponder over. Tom settles a warm palm over the squirming life inside her, and suddenly, it comes to him.
Smoothly, the actor moves his hand to cradle Elsa’s back. Nodding down, he stares deeply into her eyes and purrs, “May I?”
Without confirmation, Tom bends as if to press an ear to where the baby is. Elsa explodes with laughter and the flick of lenses shuttering grows. The ear-to-ear grin is still plastered on Tom’s face, and he’d give anything to see Chris’ expression: whether it is schooled into happiness or if some hungry, negative emotion is trying to claw its way around the edges of his face. Tom doesn’t get a chance, however. When he rights himself, Chris is already pulling her away. Elsa blows him a kiss over her shoulder, and her twinkling laughter sings in his ears.
When Chris and Elsa finally disappear from his sight, Tom decides to withhold his confession. He’s unsure whether or not he’s made an arse of himself, making such gestures of affection with the wife of a man he’s not on speaking terms. Ben’s optimism whispers in his ear, however, and Tom attempts to convince himself that it’s just for tonight. He’ll open himself later. But the lie tastes wet, spicy in the back of his mouth. He knows better. Not this night, or any night in the future, will he speak his true feelings. Tonight, he’ll begin the process of wrapping the delicate ornaments of his affection and hiding them in newspaper lined boxes. He’ll seek the highest shelf and place them at the back. No one will find them there, and in time, Tom will forget where he tucked the box away.
Tom returns to his room much earlier than he’s expected. Robert eagerly insisted he join the after party, but he’d declined. Making a brief scene on the carpet with Elsa was enough for him. He shutters at the thought of having to ghost around their joyful bubble while trying to remain social and happy. A bit like avoiding the awkward stares while fighting a chip and PIN machine and retain your dignity at the same time. Everyone knows you’re struggling, but no one wants to point it out. And in the off chance someone does try to help, you have to gently turn them down and carry on. Tom did not want Mark or Robert or anyone else to coddle him.
Battling with his indecisive emotions, Tom sighs in exhaustion and runs a hand through his hair. The telly is on, turned to some animated movie. Judging by the voices, it’s an American movie. Two silhouettes argue behind a door as a young chicken sits on a bench. Tom smirks at the screen and wanders into the large bedroom. The actor tosses his suit jacket onto the bed and turns towards the en suite when he notices the shower is running. Tom is back even earlier than he thought, if Ben is still there.
Tom raps the door a few times and Ben’s voice rings out, muffled by the rush of water. “You’re back already? How’d it go?”
Tom leans against the door jam and crosses his arms. “It didn’t. I couldn’t tell him.”
Ben hums, barely audible, and replies, “Don’t worry about it. There will be other times.”
Tom sniffs at that and shrugs himself away from the door. He’s never been one to wallow in hopelessness or defeat, but... It’s different this time. He feels the difference. Re-entering the sitting room, he picks at the knot in the bow and stares out the sliding door to the darkened sky outside.
‘What have I done?’ Tom asks the room.
The scene on the telly has changed, and piano is playing over the animation. Tom casually watches as a blue automobile stops in front of a house and two characters climb out. Turning back to the door, Tom struggles with the buttons on his shirt. The piano softens and a man begins to sing.
‘I bruise you.’ Tom stops his shaky unbuttoning.
‘You bruise me.’ He looks up from his shirt to his reflection in the glass.
‘We both bruise so easily. Too easily to let it show.’ Tom’s hands fist in his shirt and he distantly hears Ben call his name from the en suite. He’s rooted to the spot in front of the balcony, though.
‘I love you, and that’s all I know.’ Tom continues to ignore Ben’s calling, his questions. Emotion builds in the back of his throat, fighting for release, and he smothers his mouth with a hand. The other further twists his shirt as the singing continues.
‘And all my plans keep falling through. All my plans they depend on you. Depend on you to help them grow.’ Tom can see tears in his reflection’s eyes. He gasps for breath behind his hand while his chest constricts. The crescendo is coming.
‘I love you, and that’s all... It’s really all I know! It’s all I know.’ Suddenly, there are hands on his shoulders and Tom’s knees finally buckle. He collapses and his legs fold under him as the tears breech the insufficient dam of his self control. All I need is a chance. Every shared smile, every harmonious laugh he’s had with Chris flashes in his mind, stuck on repeat. His love aches, burns him, slices him to shreds. The castle finally tumbles down, the sands flowing between his hands to be washed out by his tears. Over his sobs, he barely hears Ben yelling his name. What he does hear, though, is the song finish with one final, moaning lyric.
‘It’s all... I know.’