The first day shooting on the Helicarrier set Tom feels a little claustrophobic in his glass cage, the length of which he can comfortably cover in four long strides. He tugs at his collar as he watches Edna touch up Scarlett’s makeup. His patience is normally, infamously inexhaustible but he feels it waning now, irritation creeping in along with something he can’t place his finger on. A insistent itch along his spine that makes him leap from the seat and pace within his confines.
“Okay, everyone, take two.”
Joss’s voice usually has a magical way of instilling composure, particularly in grown men bent on play-fighting with props until something breaks, but Tom finds no relief.
Instead he feels the onslaught of Loki’s unique brand of psychosis before he’s even taken two breaths, and he staggers towards the glass, watching Scarlett’s lips move as the roaring in his ears submerges her words. The rage is immense yet contained, pulsating evenly through his awareness. His chest heaves and burns with a glorious purpose.
“Can you? Can you wipe out that much red?” His tongue is thick with poison, fingers cold and hard. Romanov’s eyes are defensive, fearful, and in that moment he makes pain his endgame. “He'll have just enough time to see the work he's done, and when he screams, I'll break his skull. This is my bargain, you mewling quim.”
He spits the last words through his teeth and brings his fist and forearm down against the glass, like it’s her will he’s seeking to grind into dust.
He sucks in a breath and sways on the exhale, barely registering Joss’s praise. The rage subsides and leaves him a little desolate, unsure of the space he’s occupying. Scarlett stares, and then laughs as she steps closer towards the cage.
“That was pretty terrifying, Hiddleston. Sharing your head with Loki for eight straight hours must be a mindtrip, huh?"
Tom leans a shoulder against the glass and drags a hand over his face. His skin still feels cold, stretched thinly over his bones, and he tries to remember the last time he touched another person.
"I really, really need a mental health day."
Scarlett's eyes and mouth soften around the edges and she lays a palm against the glass.
"Let's crash Rob's trailer later. There's nothing a few shots of tequila can't fix."
True to her word, they're banging on Rob's door with Chris, Jeremy, and Mark in tow after Joss calls it a wrap. Rob opens it with a bottle of Johnnie Walker in one hand and Patrón in the other, arms spread wide.
"Let's get this party started."
Evans is already sprawled on the couch, glass tumbler in hand, feet bare, and greets them with a dramatic salute.
"How are you all this fine evening?"
"Is he drunk already?" Jeremy jerks a thumb in his direction while Tom collapses onto the couch beside him.
"No, he gets way more touchy when he's drunk. Not that I know anything about that, you know, on a personal level or anything."
Everyone including Evans shoots Rob an odd look and for a moment Tom thinks he sounds like Tony, or more like Tony than usual, then chalks the idea up to exhaustion. He's still not sure his brain is operating the right gears, or that it's even wholly his, whatever that could mean. (There's chaos lingering in the corners, whisperings of havoc seeking to pull him under.)
"A drink, if you please. Anything." He closes his eyes and lets his head loll back. A warm weight settles firmly beside him and he can tell it’s Chris by the sheer heat and solidity of it.
"Everything all right, mate? You look bloody exhausted. I hope you're not trying to get by on tea and biscuits again."
Tom finds Chris's tendency to mother him both baffling and endearing, and he's said as much, to Chris's embarrassment and swift denial.
"But I like tea and biscuits." Rob hands him a glass of amber liquid and he takes an eager swallow, relishing in the slow sweet burn of it down his throat. "Oh, yes. Whiskey. I like that too."
Chris chuckles, a sound that rolls through his chest like oncoming thunder. Tom turns and the blue of Chris's eyes is startling, more so than usual (a color that should only exist in some distant realm, spun from myths and magic).
"I'll have to keep an eye on you tonight." There's a deep-seated affection in his tone that speaks of bonds thicker even than blood, and Tom shudders slightly against the effort to keep from recoiling and reaching out all at once. Whiskey sloshes over his fingers.
"Tom? What is it?" Chris's eyebrows furrow a little, a hand settling heavily on his shoulder.
"Twenty bucks says you can't make one bullseye. Anyone else in? We'll pool our winnings and go out to the Olive Garden down the street. Unlimited breadsticks. You really can't go wrong. Anyone?"
Tom jerks slightly at the volume of Rob's voice and gives Chris a faint smile.
"I'm fine. Really," he assures and evades another question by turning to the sight of a not-so-sober Rob turning slowly in a circle and then swaying precariously on his feet.
"Twenty bucks says he makes it," Evans counters, clearly taking a jab at Rob, who rolls his eyes.
"Don't be an idiot. No one can make a bullseye this far out. Renner's trying to be Hawkeye. And don’t get me wrong, I'm all for method acting, but you don't see me trying to jump off a building in a metal suit."
"I'd pay twenty bucks to see that." Mark grins and manages to look nice saying it.
"Okay, okay, everybody shut up. I need to get my chi flowing." Jeremy jumps in place a couple times and takes a few sharp breaths while rolling his shoulders and then shaking his arms out.
"What is this? The Olympics?" Rob raises his eyebrows. Scarlett lets out an unladylike snort.
Jeremy ignores him and picks up the first dart, taking aim slowly, body entirely still. And then he lets it fly.
"Holy shit." Evans walks over and inspects the dartboard. "Clean bullseye."
Rob blinks. "Okay, fifty says that was sheer dumb luck."
Without missing a beat Jeremy throws another, and then one more for good measure while keeping his eyes on Rob.
"Mother of God."
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph."
This time everyone's vying to personally determine the quality of the throws. Tom ducks to avoid an elbow to the face. Jeremy looks a little blank.
"There's no way the human eye could calibrate the range of a dart with that much precision. And even if it could, it'd be impossible for your arm to execute it. Unless you're actually a machine in disguise. Don't lie to us."
"I don't know," and somehow, Tom believes him. "It just—happened." In fact, Jeremy looks a bit like the ground's been taken out from under him.
"Right, and I'm a social drinker. C'mon, what was that?"
"Hey, how about you back off?" Evans draws himself up to his full height. "You never like it when you don't get your way, do you? When something doesn't fit into your worldview."
"I'm talking about the laws of physics here. Pretty sure there's only one view."
Tom looks from one man to the other and feels like he's back on set, watching Tony and Steve goad each other until they lose the thread of their argument, reduced to children scuffling in the dirt. He wonders if after two months of shooting they're all going a little stir crazy, a little mad.
"I think you should both take it easy. I thought this was supposed to be a relaxing night in."
"I think you should stay out of this, Mr. I-never-raise-my-voice-above-a-whisper-to-pretend-I-don't-have-anger-issues."
Mark's smile is thinly tolerant. "That was a mouthful. And yes, I try to be a decent human being, so sue me."
"Don't let him get to you, he still thinks his father didn't love him enough as a child."
"Yes, they're called daddy issues. And, for the record—"
Chris's voice booms through the trailer and there's enough power behind the word to halt an invading army. His glass shatters in his hand and Tom stares. Everyone stares. He towers over them, harnessing a force that feels entirely inhuman, immune to the petty concerns of men. Tom quakes and marvels at the sight as memories surface beyond his comprehension that span centuries of war and death, life and loss. He's barely conscious of the single word that falls from his lips.
They're all a little tight-lipped in the morning and pass it off as sleep deprivation to Joss, who can never be anything other than good-natured so it works. Rob hides behind his sunglasses when he's idling, Evans pulls a baseball cap over his face, and the rest of them try their best to avoid eye contact.
Tom remembers isolated incidents surrounded by a whole lot of nothing, and he's contemplative, maybe disquieted, but not terrified. He's a sensible man. He figures characters bleed all the time. Boundaries tend to blur months into shooting and fantasy starts to trump reality. It's how the human psyche works. Bottom line is, they're all willing to give up peace of mind for a chance to make their own little piece of movie history.
He's picking at his lunch when Evans sidles over, cap still shielding his eyes, looking ridiculous because how can he even see where he's going.
"Do you remember anything? From, you know. Last night?"
"Not much. Probably a freakish one-time occurrence, though. Like a lightning strike or the apocalypse."
"You think this is funny?" Evans hisses. "I was Captain America last night, Tom. Fucking Captain America, and I'm not speaking figuratively. I had these memories taking over my head, memories of World War II, which I'm pretty sure is impossible because I wasn't even born yet."
The memories. He'd nearly forgotten, or perhaps conveniently repressed them. And like the entirety of last night, he's willing to justify them with a little psychobabble, an overworked mind paired with an overactive imagination, but Chris's distress makes him pause.
"God, I feel so pumped up right now. I need to run a marathon or wrestle a shark or something. What is wrong with me?" Evans tries to breathe through his nose and out his mouth, but it just sounds like he's hyperventilating. He's looking desperately at Tom like he's got all the answers, but besides being eerily calm, Tom has no fucking clue.
"Okay, all right, let's stay calm, we'll figure it out." The thing is, he feels perfectly normal, which theoretically is preferred but in the current situation is oddly worrisome.
"Tom." He turns around to see Chris, who's mostly hid in his trailer all morning, looking vaguely disturbed and a little uncomfortable as he clears his throat. "Got a minute?"
Tom's not sure if the trigger is the sound of Chris's voice or just his looming presence, but suddenly he's clamping a hand down onto Evans' shoulder and squeezing because all the normalcy he had a firm grip on five seconds ago implodes. It's Loki's rage all over again, Loki's grief, hatred, vengeance, his tragedy and his disgrace rushing outward from the crater in his chest. He is a god. The rightful king of Asgard and he will have his way. If he must raze Earth to the ground, so be it.
"No," he rasps, bringing his fist down onto the table. The tumult surges once, and then ebbs.
"Tom? What the hell just happened? Are you okay?"
It sounds like Scarlett and it doesn't. He thinks he's Tom again and yet he feels the burden of a hundred lifetimes on his shoulders, the knowledge that he'll last beyond this world to watch his friends ascend to Valhalla.
When he finally picks his head up, he's surrounded by concern and fear in equal measures.
"Can someone please explain what's going on." Jeremy's voice is carefully, dangerously contained.
"We all know what's going on, we're just too scared to say it." Scarlett's eyes are dark and shuttered, as if secrets might leak out that she would have to kill for.
"Why is everyone being so cryptic? If this is a plot to take over the world and instate me as supreme leader, I'm in." Rob glances from side to side, sunglasses slipping down his face.
"This can't be possible. How is this even possible?"
"I don't believe it. We're all going crazy. Maybe Joss drugged our drinking water with dopamine."
Scarlett turns to Jeremy. "Hit me."
"Come on. Afraid you'll get your ass kicked like a little girl?"
Jeremy's hand shoots out and Scarlett stops it neatly within an inch of her temple. They stare at each other and smile, like it's a game they've played a hundred times and they're still keeping score. And then she moves.
A dance is how Tom is inclined to describe it even though the word doesn't do them justice. Their sparring is fluid, ruthless, and intimate, perfectly matched until somewhere along the way Jeremy falters a half step and Scarlett has him in a stranglehold without hesitation.
He lays his palms against her forearm and for a moment they're motionless, twisted in an embrace that neither feels like a triumph nor a surrender, before she lets go.
"Jesus Christ." Mark exhales and looks impressed against his better judgment.
Rob draws his eyebrows together, pressing his lips into a thin line before opening his mouth.
"This is bullshit. I'm out."
There's no longer a justification. Tom now accepts he can rationalize all he wants and still reach the same irrational conclusion. Loki's taken up permanent residence in his head, like a Vulcan mind meld gone horribly wrong. A Loki who exists in space and time, made of flesh and bone rather than paper and ink. A phenomenon neither Bruce Banner nor Tony Stark can reduce to a science.
It makes him itch for a smoke even though he kicked the habit five years ago. Underneath Tom he can feel Loki's madness festering, the violence of Loki's twisted machinations born of self-doubt and self-loathing, and a wretched sort of glory, won only when there's nothing left to lose. He's been silent for a better part of the afternoon if only because it's proved mentally exhausting, guarding his conscience from Loki's utter lack of one (convincing himself that he isn't the one with blood on his hands). And still he can't help assessing the state of Loki's heart, prodding the damage and wondering if it's beyond repair.
He's seated in a folding chair, staring at the ground with his elbows on his knees, when he hears footsteps, then sees the tips of Mark's shoes.
"This is a hell of a thing, huh?" It's their way of talking about it without talking about it.
He looks up. Mark's hands are fidgeting with a pen.
"A hell of a thing. How are you holding up?"
"Well." Mark rubs the back of his neck. "I now know more about gamma radiation than I ever cared to know. I think I'm more qualified to be a nuclear physicist than an actor at this point, my parents would be so excited. Did you know that radioactive gamma decay occurs when an excited nucleus emits a gamma ray almost immediately upon formation, or in approximately ten to the negative twelve seconds, but isomeric transition can produce inhibited gamma decay with a measurable and much longer half-life?"
Tom stares and Mark looks unnerved, as if he’s just realizing the words came out of his own mouth and he understands precisely what they mean.
"Ah, no, but thank you for that."
"I'm just worried because what if. You know." Mark hunches his shoulders and contorts his face into an impression of an angry Hulk. "I can't even believe I'm entertaining the possibility. I really am losing it."
"We'll sort this out." He thinks he might start getting good at giving non-responses. "You're still Mark Ruffalo, the nicest guy on the planet. Just hang on to that, yeah?"
And he lets the implication hang between them that he's entertained the possibility. That sooner or later they'll all have their demons to contend with.
"Rob's still holed up in his trailer. We should probably make sure he hasn't doused himself in tequila and accidentally set himself on fire."
And Tom gets the hint that, by we, Mark means Tom, because apparently being possessed by a Hulk with anger issues doesn't qualify a person to be the group therapist, but being possessed by a Norse god with anger issues does.
So he finds himself knocking on Rob's door, feeling a little déjà-vu and hoping this time will go better than the last.
"Rob, are you all right in there? Rob?" He knocks a second, then a third time. "I'll ram the door down in an impressive and intimidating display of strength if I have to."
He jiggles the knob and the door pops open. The living area is still a mess of glass shards and half-drunk whiskey. He pulls the darts from the dartboard and rolls them in his hands, imagining the night could've gone differently if Jeremy hadn't thrown them, surrendering for a moment to wishful thinking before he continues towards the bedroom.
"Remind me to recalibrate the thermocouple, Jarvis, I think I can improve the accuracy of the temperature sensor by at least ten percent in either direction."
Tom stops dead in his tracks. Rob's seated in one chair, feet propped up onto another, scribbling furiously in a sketch pad. The blinds are shut securely over the windows.
"Did you just call me Jarvis?"
Rob's head snaps up, eyes bleary and unfocused like he hasn't seen the light of day since God knows when. And then he blinks.
"Jarvis? Who's Jarvis? How did you get in here?"
"Your door's unlocked," and then Tom's train of thought abruptly derails as he looks around and sees paper, everywhere, reams of it tacked to the walls without rhyme or reason. He takes a slow step to the left and peers at the shapes. Blueprints, he realizes, drawn meticulously by hand, the linearity, symmetry, and detail of them astounding. And in the bottom right corner of every page is the name Tony Stark in the half-print half-scribble of a tortured artist.
"Okay, so I got a little overexcited. Don't worry, all these trees were killed in the name of science." Rob makes the drawings sound harmless when in fact they're damning.
"I think the new Helicarrier prototype will be my greatest invention to date. The current one lacks style, don't you think? It needs better aerodynamics, more weapons capabilities, and a new paint job. Definitely a new paint job. I'm thinking red and gold."
Rob's a ball of raw energy on the verge of self-destructing and taking Tom out with him, but before Tom can grab him by the shoulders and contain him, another design catches his eye. An Iron Man suit, slightly bulkier than the original, patterned in stars and stripes with a shield propped at its feet.
"This one needs some color." He hazards a guess. "It'll look fantastic on him."
There's dead silence, but he just stares at the drawing and waits. Eventually Rob moves closer and smoothes down a corner of it with two fingertips, before withdrawing them sharply, as if he realizes he might be giving away something he's made it his job to protect.
"I was doodling." He shrugs. "Why they haven't upgraded his suit is beyond me. It's flimsy and it's stupid. You don't send one of your own to fight a war in that suit. You just don't."
This time Tom's voice makes him deflate a little, rub a hand across his face and relent to reality. He sounds bone-tired when he replies, like he's been fighting a war of his own, stuck in the trenches with no reprieve.
"I can add genius billionaire playboy philanthropist to my CV, right?"
Tom finds that in sleep he loses himself most easily. That night he dreams of palaces spun of gold, wide cavernous halls, and feasts fit for kings. He dreams that he holds greatness in the palm of his hand, an inextinguishable flame, and then he dreams of thunder rumbling, rain thick as blood filling his mouth. When he wakes he chokes on the taste before remembering where he is, and stays awake until dawn with his eyes closed, fingers anchored in the sheets.
He's barely conscious when they go through the grueling process of strapping him into his suit, which he figures is one upside to sleep deprivation. The other, he discovers, is that Loki's subdued, if only for the time being, and he relishes in the brief respite, unconcerned for once about long-term consequences.
Chris is already on set when he walks in. They've spoken little in the last twenty-four hours, partly, or mostly, because Tom's been hellbent on avoiding him, wary of the responses Chris might provoke in him. He hates unknowns, and he especially hates feeling out of control. He can't even say for sure if it's his instinct or Loki's to keep Chris at arm's length.
"Tom." Chris nods when he approaches.
It sounds like a cordial greeting between colleagues but Tom knows better. He can see the restraint in the taut lines of Chris's shoulders, the agitation in the set of his eyebrows, and braces himself for an upheaval, but nothing comes.
"We should—talk." His own voice sounds flat and uninspired, and he winces. He hates that it's come to this, this impasse that makes them feel like strangers, and the irony of it doesn’t escape him.
Still, Chris's eyes soften, shoulders sagging a little like Tom's just halved the weight they've been carrying, and somehow Tom feels worse. Yet he can't bring himself to offer the reassurances he's handed freely to everyone else because he really has no idea if they'll be all right and he can't as easily lie to Chris.
Then Joss swoops in and unwittingly saves him from his predicament. The scene atop Stark tower is sufficiently physically demanding that it washes out his anxiety for a while. They go through five takes and a debacle involving a near broken nose that makes them laugh so hard he gets a stitch in his side and needs to take a breather, hunched over with his hands on his thighs.
"Cheater. I would've won that round if I had fair warning, you ass," he rasps, feeling a little lightheaded and better than he's felt in days.
"Says the man who tripped over his own scepter." Chris's eyes are gleaming with mischief, making him look even younger than his twenty-seven years.
"That's because you were in my way. Brute."
"All right, guys, one more take and we should be good to go. Let's keep this injury free. I don't want to build a reputation for being a slave driver." Joss grins and doesn't look the least bit concerned.
"Too late," Chris shouts, earning a raised eyebrow.
"Ooh, you're gonna pay for that." Tom dances out of the way before Chris can reach over and poke him in the ribs, then tugs at his robes.
They pick up in the middle of the scene, both unarmed and at each other's throats, grappling for dominance. This time Joss doesn't yell cut and Tom's hands are tangled in Chris's cape, chest heaving, sweat trickling down his spine, with Chris's hand a little too tight around his throat, their faces a little too close for comfort.
Chris's eyes are impossibly bright, and so guileless that his own flutter shut. And in that moment something wicked and treacherous seeps from the depth of his heart, a poison clouding his blood. He wants Chris to hurt him, bring tears to his eyes, and whisper truths into his ear that would send him to his knees. He wants Chris to show him the beauty of salvation and then take it away without compunction.
"Look at this. Look around you. You think this madness will end with your rule?"
His eyes fly open and he takes a shuddering breath, remembering vaguely that they have a script to follow. Chris's words beseech him, demand from him everything he can't give.
"It's too late. It's too late to stop it."
The fingers circling his throat tighten and he turns pliant underneath them, knowing his struggling would be in vain. He's too far lost to be found, still caught in the abyss that surrounds him, smothers him in its darkness, black as pitch.
"No. We can." Chris's eyes burn with conviction. "Together."
Tom draws out the small blade, preparing to plunge it into Chris's side, but he finds that he can't. He imagines skin tearing, blood welling thickly, sticky and warm on his fingers, and his stomach roils sickly. The blade slips from his hand, making a tinny sound as it hits the ground.
He gives a minute shake of his head. "We were never meant to stand together. We were fools to believe it so."
Chris abruptly lets go and he stumbles a little, rubbing his fingers across the heated imprint of Chris's palm around his throat.
"Then I will gladly play the fool."
It's not brotherly affection coloring Chris's tone, but a sentiment far darker and more dangerous, wearing down Tom's resistance and leaving him exposed.
"Cut!" They remain in place as Joss walks over, looking contemplative. "I admit the improv was unexpected, but I like it. The characters really shined through, it was fantastic actually. We'll keep it. Maybe we'll even rework the script."
It’s a minute before Tom can find his voice again as he lets his hand fall limply to his side.
“We were just having a bit of fun.”
He watches Chris stoop down to pick the blade off the ground and rub it between his fingers, as if to wipe away the blood that should’ve been there.
By the time they wrap up and Tom goes through the grueling process of shedding his suit, Chris is nowhere to be found, so he wanders aimlessly until he reaches a clearing that offers him a generous view of the horizon, unobscured by the cityscape. He stands perfectly still and stares at the sinking sun for a while, wondering about this thing they're still afraid to name, if it has a name at all. A part of him is still convinced that it'll end as abruptly as it began when they finish filming and reenter the real world. He imagines they've created a bubble around themselves; that's how it always is in their line of work. It's less acting and more living and breathing, day in and day out until they lose track of where one existence ends and the other begins.
And suddenly he misses England, the idyllic countryside of his childhood, the spectacle of the West End, and city lights reflected on the Thames. He senses with growing conviction that whatever he's lost he's bound to find there, and takes solace in the memories that remain irrevocably his.
When the sun reduces to a pale gold thread stretched along the horizon, he leaves the clearing and takes a different route with the intention of finding Chris. Instead, he stumbles across Evans sitting on a curb with his elbows on his knees and three bottles of liquor standing in a neat line at his feet, two mostly emptied.
"I wasn't invited to the party?"
Evans looks up and smiles humorlessly. "If you can call wallowing in self-pity a party, then you're welcome to join."
There's defeat in the slump of his shoulders, like he's taken too many punches to pick himself off the ground. Tom sits down beside him and thinks he looks like someone else entirely.
He offers Tom a drink and when Tom declines, takes a swig from the bottle and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Two and a half bottles of this stuff in an hour and I'm still sober."
He weighs the scotch in his hand like he's about to hurl it as far as he can, and then sets it down next to him.
"Now that's just a waste. Maybe I will have a drink then." Tom picks it up and pours enough down his throat to feel the burn long after he stops swallowing.
"There's a nice old man who runs the liquor store down the street. He said I was the spitting image of his son who died in the war. IED, took him out and five other men."
Tom studies Chris's profile, the angle of his cheekbone and the dip of his nose shaded in dusk, and thinks it looks a little like loneliness.
"I imagine that's one of life's worst tragedies."
"His son died for his country. He should be proud." There's a certain bitterness in the sentiment, as if he feels betrayed by his own convictions.
"I'm sure he is. We all grieve in our own way."
Chris looks over suddenly, mouth vulnerable and eyes haunted by a past that isn't his to bear.
"I remember all the men I lost. Not their names, but all their faces. A lot of them younger than I was. I wrote a few of the letters to the families, and I just remember feeling relieved that I didn't have to look into their faces because I wouldn't have been able to tell them what they wanted to hear. That their sons, husbands, fathers, didn't die for nothing."
Tom imagines this is the true distinction between heroes and villains. That Loki would wage a selfish, deluded war without remorse while Steve Rogers still carries the grief of a generation whose sacrifices have been all but forgotten.
"You're a good man."
Chris is silent as he picks up a small rock and uses it to scribble on the concrete, then throws it into the air. Tom watches it fly until disappears from sight with no intention of falling to the ground.
"Half the time it's not my men I think about. It's her."
Peggy Carter. Someone else he had to bury without even saying goodbye. Tom thinks they're all guilty of underestimating the extent of his tragedy.
"I don't know if I loved her. I didn't even get the chance to try." Chris heaves in a breath, eyes unfocused like he's imagining what it might've been like, to have met her the way they planned, danced with her to a slow, sweet song with their hands clasped between them and their foreheads close. "I miss her. I felt like she really cared about me, you know?"
In that moment there's barely anything in front of him that resembles Chris, and he throws caution to the wind.
"Tony cares about you."
Chris is caught off guard for a second, and then shakes his head.
"I don't get him. He acts like he doesn't give a shit and then he tries to save the world. Half the time he's just like his dad, and half the time he's nothing like him. I don't know which side I like better, or hate more."
"I admit, he's a frustrating human being. But his heart's in the right place."
"I just get the feeling he's never honest with me. He's always hiding something, maybe something genuine, behind that stupid smirk. Too bad all I want to do when I see it is wipe it off with my fist."
He already looks worked up, and Tom has to stifle a laugh.
"He designed a new suit for you, you know. All stars and stripes and gleaming metal."
Chris stares, then blinks slowly, raising the heel of his hand to his temple and shaking his head like he's just woken up from being knocked unconscious.
"Rob did what?" He looks sufficiently disoriented that Tom doesn't pursue it.
"He's picked up drawing as a new hobby, apparently."
"Sounds like something he would do."
Then they sit in silence and Tom closes his eyes, feeling the strain of the day settling deep into his bones, throbbing at his temples.
"You don't look too good." He opens his eyes and Chris is peering at him with concern. "I guess you got the worst deal out of all of us, huh?"
For a moment his sympathy makes Tom want to lie down on the concrete and try his hand at wallowing in self-pity.
Instead he rubs the back of his neck and smiles, feeling a brief flare of Loki's discontent.
"If I start plotting to take over the world, please stop me."
When Tom returns to his trailer Chris, his Chris, is standing at his door, hands stuck his pockets looking a little forlorn.
"I guess we should talk."
"Yeah. Yeah, we should."
Tom settles down on the steps and Chris follows suit, their shoulders bumping, sharing body heat. Tom shivers. He would've invited Chris in if he weren't so wary of how their alternate temperaments might clash in an enclosed space. Clearly there's enough history, wounded pride, and guilt between them to raze an entire city; he can only imagine what they would do to his trailer.
"I didn't hurt you earlier, did I?" Chris flexes his hand, eyes dark and still so open, recklessly, or maybe unintentionally, unafraid to lay himself bare.
And at the mention of earlier Tom feels the heat around his throat again, the raw power of Chris's grip, and his blood starts to burn, Loki's masochism twisting perversely around his heart.
"No. Not at all." He manages a smile and hopes it looks reassuring. "I'm not as fragile as I look."
He means it as a joke but Chris just frowns and stares down at his feet.
"All I know is I have this overwhelming urge to—"
"To what?" Tom's voice is soft even though his head is raging, revolting against his better half.
"To protect you." Chris sounds unsure, but when he looks up he's no longer Chris. He's a god, a king unaccustomed to yielding to the whims of lesser beings. His eyes speak of an unrelenting determination to save Tom from himself, to repair the bond between them, no matter how wide and deep the rift may be.
Tom's about to lash out, ridicule Chris's naivety and deluded sense of chivalry, when Jeremy's voice interrupts them.
"Tom, Chris." His eyes are a little wild. "Scarlett's gone."
They round up Mark and Evans, and between the five of them they question the entire cast and crew, finally discovering a missing motorcycle.
"She knows how to drive a motorcycle?" Mark's expression is troubled.
"She doesn't, no," Jeremy clarifies with a pointed look.
"Ah," is all Mark says, and Tom can’t blame him for looking less than reassured.
"All right, if we break up into two or three groups we'll cover more ground. There's only abandoned warehouses to the south, so Tom and Chris, you two go east, Mark and I will head west, and Jeremy, you go north." Evans sounds increasingly like a captain giving orders to his squadron with the single-minded purpose to rescue one of his own from behind enemy lines. "We keep lines of communication open at all times, got that?"
They're about to head off to their assigned directions when Rob shows up, looking mortally offended.
"You're leaving to go save the world without me? I'm a vital part of the team. In fact, if the team were a human body, I'd be the brain. Or the heart." He considers it for a second and then shrugs. "Either one works for me."
"Okay, Rob's with me. Mark, you're with Jeremy." Evans swings a leg over his borrowed motorcycle and hands Rob a helmet. "Safety first."
Tom and Chris leave to the sound of Rob anguishing over the unsightliness of helmet hair.
"Scarlett's a smart girl. I'm sure she's all right." Chris unlocks their car and slides into the driver's seat with an ease that belies his six foot four frame.
Tom buckles his seatbelt, recalling the way she sparred with Jeremy, all controlled aggression and deadly accuracy.
"I don't know if she's the one we should be worried about."
Almost an hour later Evans and Rob spot the motorcycle parked outside a bar, in a part of town with cracked streets and squat, dilapidated buildings. When Tom steps out of the car, he thinks it must be the seediest place in Cleveland, where a person might go if he doesn't want to be found.
"Trashy, I like it," Rob says when they walk inside. The tables and bartop look like they're covered with permanent coat of grime, the walls decorated with pictures of women in provocative poses, heavy lipstick, and not much else. "The décor really speaks to the repressed, unfulfilled yearnings of middle America. Chris, stop gawking, you're making us look like tourists."
Tom's pretty sure he's already sticking out like a sore thumb next to the big, burly men with tattoos on their necks and tobacco staining their teeth, but he keeps quiet, figuring a confrontation wouldn't end well for either party.
They find Scarlett in the back playing pool with two of the clientele, chewing gum, smiling. And speaking Russian.
One of the men makes a comment, seemingly crude, and she laughs and lets the language roll off her tongue like it's in her blood.
"Is anyone else scandalized?" Rob asks, and then Scarlett looks over and sees them, standing there awkwardly with the foolish notion that they were rescuing her from some terrible fate.
"Hey guys." She walks over and sits on the edge of the pool table. "I hope you weren't worried about me. Just catching up with a couple buddies of mine."
"Buddies?" Jeremy sounds deeply skeptical.
"Kidding. I just met them, but they're cool. That's Igor over there, and Vanya."
Rob gives a little wave before Evans pulls his hand down. The Russians stare and smirk. Chris crosses his arms in front of his chest and widens his stance.
“Come on, let’s get out here.” Jeremy looks at Scarlett, who doesn’t make a move. “You’re not seriously thinking about staying?”
“Look, I appreciate the concern, but I can take care of myself. I understand if this isn’t your scene. You’re all free to leave.”
She turns around and Jeremy grabs her wrist, keeping her in place. She’s smiling when she looks over her shoulder.
“You want me to kick your ass again, Barton?”
The name and the curve of Scarlett’s mouth trigger an unease in the pit of Tom’s stomach. And then all hell breaks loose.
Jeremy and Scarlett start exchanging blows, prompting Igor to move forward, more swiftly than Tom thought possible for a man his weight, and attempt to club Jeremy over the head with his cue stick. Evans reaches out with one hand and stops it before it makes contact, wrenching it from Igor’s grasp.
“You want to fight with Igor?” The man’s accent is so thick the words are nearly unintelligible. “Igor will make you cry.”
“Oh, how stereotypical. A brutish thug who speaks Russian and refers to himself in the third person,” Rob says, taking a side step to avoid Igor’s fist directed at Evans’ jaw.
Tom sees Vanya moving in out of the corner of his eye and narrowly avoids another flying cue stick before Chris flattens the guy with a single punch to the stomach. Evans and Igor are still going toe to toe, hands gripping each other’s shoulders, while Rob pretends to be the emcee.
“The Captain is gaining the upper hand. His tactic seems to be slowly but surely wearing down his opponent. But wait! Russian Thug Number One is shifting the momentum now through sheer determination. Don’t give up, Captain. Just remember, you’re fighting for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!”
“Is this,” Igor says with some effort, sweat beading on his forehead, “your boyfriend? Tell him to shut his mouth.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Evans and Rob say simultaneously before Evans flips Igor to the ground, punching him in the face for good measure and knocking him out cold.
“Well. I was absolutely useless.” They all turn and see Mark standing there unscathed with a huge smile on his face, clearly relieved that he didn’t Hulk out and break Cleveland.
“It’s okay, you’re our secret weapon. So secret, in fact, that we don’t even know what you do.” Rob gestures vaguely.
“Okay, where are Jeremy and Scarlett?” Tom drags a hand across his face and wonders if they’re all a little useless.
This time they find her sitting on the floor of the bar’s dingy bathroom with Jeremy kneeling next to her, hands curling and uncurling like he’s weighing the sense of punching through a wall.
“You two okay?” Mark asks as they crowd inside, the space suddenly tiny with the addition of five grown men.
Tom sees no cuts or bruises, only emotional wreckage, a desolation that speaks of sins committed and debts unpaid. He senses the demons swarming, raising hell, and imagines they’ll all need a little rescuing in the end.
He wants to say, I understand, but instead he sticks to, “let’s go home.”
They relocate to New York the next day, early enough that Tom feels hungover from last night’s debacle, still playing through his head like a b-rated movie. That and the dreams that haven’t gotten any better or worse, and linger in a way that his childhood nightmares never did, a shadowy menace at the edge of his awareness.
Even so he feels invigorated when he steps out into the city and cranes his neck to study the towering skyline. No matter the exoticism, the extravagance, and the beauty of the places he’s seen, for him, New York City remains in a class of its own.
The crew’s setting up in Central Park so he takes the time to roam the paths, people watch behind his sunglasses and appreciate that, out of his costume, he’s no one of particular interest. In fact he relishes in the anonymity, stopping every so often to pet the dogs and coo at the babies.
When he gets to the Great Lawn he stares at the cityscape adorning the horizon in all its glory. He knows why Loki chose this place out of all places, feels the perverse satisfaction of his other half in envisioning the triumph of bringing such a city to its knees, hand curled around its beating heart.
He spots Jeremy on the way back to set, equally broody behind his sunglasses on a bench off the beaten path.
“It’s nice to get away for a while, isn’t it?” He plops down and inhales deeply.
“Yeah, makes it easier to deal with all the racket in my head.” Jeremy rubs his fingers against his forehead. “How are you holding up with your bag of crazy?"
"I haven't attempted to torture, kill, or subjugate the human race yet, so I consider that a win."
Jeremy looks over and shoots him a smile, as real as it can get under the circumstances.
"He's probably melting like the wicked witch of the west under all your niceness."
"I'm not that nice. You haven't seen my mean streak."
"I'll believe it when I see it."
It's Tom who smiles this time. "We all have our vices and virtues."
Jeremy takes of his sunglasses and raises his eyebrows. "That's letting him off a little too easy, isn't it?"
Tom pauses and wonders about the centuries of Loki's life weighed against his present sins, the red dripping from his ledger and how many lifetimes of penance it would take to wipe it all off.
"It's not my place to pass judgment."
"The fuck it isn't." At the sudden, subtle shift in Jeremy's voice Tom feels Loki baring his teeth in a feral smile. "I consider it my goddamn right to make sure he pays for what he's done."
There's a fury and a vengeance in Clint Barton, but also an irrational, implacable fear that even in the last circle of Hell Loki will still have him by the throat.
And then just as quickly Barton retreats, leaving Jeremy looking worse for wear as he closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose.
"Sorry. Still haven't gotten a handle on—"
"I know." Tom feels his hands shaking.
"We should probably head back." Jeremy slips on his sunglasses and waits for Tom to stand up before he follows.
When they return to set Edna ushers Tom off to wardrobe for the final scene. He reemerges two hours later and makes his way to props for Paul to snap on the handcuffs and secure the muzzle.
"Tell me if this is too tight. We don't want your wrists to chafe." Paul's popping open the locking mechanism when they hear Chris's voice.
"No, let me." Tom looks up to witness Chris bearing down on them like a force of nature, in full costume with his hammer at his hip, words sounding more like a decree than a request.
Paul stands startled for a moment before he hands over the props.
"All right, but no horsing around on my watch. Joss wants you guys on set in five. And don't break anything."
"Relax, Paul. We'll be good." Chris keeps his eyes on Tom as he walks forward, stopping only when the tips of their boots meet.
The chains rattle in his hands as he cuffs one of Tom's wrists, and then the other, the heat of his palms engulfing the coolness of the metal. Tom's limbs are pliant as he lets Chris push his hands down, watches Chris's fingers mimic his bonds and encircle his wrists for a moment, fingertips pressing down on his pulse. Then Chris picks up the muzzle and weighs it in his hand with a frown before looking at Tom.
"I'm sorry," he murmurs, voice laden with regret, eyes seeking forgiveness (when Tom should be the one prostrate at his feet).
He settles the contraption gently over Tom's mouth, thumbs brushing across his cheeks as if he trusts, in spite of Loki's cruelty and deceit, that his brother weeps for all he has lost and shunned. And in that moment a sob rises through Tom's chest that he traps in his throat, the pitiful, ruined sound of a creature as lost as the rest of them.
"Is that okay?" Chris's fingers linger uneasily around his face, and he nods to say yes, but mostly to say, we'll be all right.
It's close to sundown when they wrap up for the day, and instead of joining the group for Rob's pre-celebration celebration, Tom heads the other direction, away from the city and the commotion. It's always been his coping mechanism to seek seclusion, escape all the extraneous noise so he can think at his own pace.
He's nearing the edge of the park when he hears Chris's voice behind him.
And he says nothing, just slows his feet until Chris falls in step. It's a rhythm they don't break until they get on the subway.
He takes them to the Brooklyn Bridge because Chris has never been and he thinks it's one of the most underappreciated parts of the city at night. They take their time down the walkway, pausing every so often to observe the rush of traffic below their feet and look out across the dark water at the asymmetric sprawl of the cityscape.
"Hard to believe it'll all be over tomorrow."
They stop at the first tower and lean against the rail. Chris looks down and scuffs his shoe against the wood.
"There's still the premiere, the interviews, the adoring fans." Tom turns to Chris and smiles even though he knows it's not the same.
They fall into silence for a moment with their eyes on the lights amassed along the horizon, their brightness peaking now that the evening's fully set in. It's a dense, self-contained chaos that makes Tom imagine he could siphon off all that energy with his hands outstretched and feel it pooling in his chest like a second life.
"You think we'll—go back to being ourselves after tomorrow?" There's guarded anticipation in Chris's voice as he sets his forearms against the rail and clasps his hands.
"I don't know. I guess we'll find out soon enough." It's after the words are out that Tom wonders which path he would take if he were given the choice, if he could so easily forfeit Loki's existence now that he's felt the immense weight of it bearing down on his heart.
"You know, I've been wondering, and don't laugh," Chris glances sideways at Tom, "let's say we're actually turning into our characters. I have inhuman strength, Mark can make nuclear bombs. Whatever. Shouldn't you be able to, you know, perform magic or something?"
"Loki's a Norse god, not David Copperfield."
"I told you not to laugh." Chris elbows him, lips twitching.
"Okay, okay. I don't know, I haven't tried it I suppose. I'm not sure how I'd go about testing the theory to be honest." He thinks that even with the newly-found perspective of the last few days the idea sounds too far removed from reality. The eight-year-old boy in him begs to differ.
"Maybe you need to summon the energy or something." Chris pauses, and then grins with some embarrassment. "That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it. Forget I asked."
Tom just frowns and lays out his right hand, fingers gently curled. He inhales with purpose and for the first time lets his mind travel at will through the depths of Loki's memories, across barren wastelands, gleaming meccas, and battlefields strewn with the dead. And at the center of it all he finds power unearthed from the farthest reaches of Yggdrasil, and blood staining the hands that carried it home as a testament of their worth.
His eyes fly open and he stares at the faint blue tendrils unfurling from the center of his palm, deepening and multiplying as they travel down the length of his fingers.
Chris reaches out and stretches a hand above his, lowering it only after he gives a slight nod and tracing his glowing lifeline with one finger, from one edge of his palm to the other, with a reverence that makes his skin ache.
“It’s beautiful,” Chris murmurs gently, as if it’s not the first time he’s witnessed the sight and it’ll still be long before he tires of it.
“Look at you two, all lovey-dovey.”
Tom starts at the sound of Rob’s voice behind him and watches the magic recoil and fade, leaving remnants of heat behind. They turn to find everyone gathered, Rob still in his gray suit and the others in sensible street clothes, Scarlett’s hair in disarray from the wind that’s picked up its pace since nightfall.
“The party’s over already?”
“We,” Rob spreads his arms out wide, “brought the party to you.”
Mark walks up to Tom’s other side and settles against the rail. “I’ve always loved the view from here. Looks like a million bucks.”
“It feels right to end up here, doesn’t it?” Evans stands next to Mark and watches the city as if from a distance he can allow himself to imagine an older, more familiar time.
“So what do we do now?” Scarlett speaks quietly but there’s no mistaking her intent. Tom figures it’s the question everyone wants to ask that no one can answer.
“I’m thinking Mark and I should invest in a start-up, sketch out a few ideas for sustainable energy, it’s all the rage nowadays. Geothermal, fusion power. Pair a genius with a nuclear physicist, you really can’t go wrong.”
“We should probably keep a low profile, don’t you think? Go about our lives like nothing’s changed.”
“Easy for you to say, you have zero marketable skills. Unless World War III happens, which we probably all want to avoid until the ozone disappears or the sun explodes.”
Tom interrupts before Rob’s lack of brain-to-mouth filter sends them hurtling towards another disaster. “I think Chris is right. It’s probably not a good idea to draw attention to—this, whatever it is. We’ll just have to live with it.”
“Fine, fine,” Rob yields easily, clearly not as attached to the idea of sustainable energy as he led them to believe.
Two seconds tick by.
“Can I at least say ‘Avengers, assemble!’?” Everyone groans. “I’ll take that as a no then.”
“At the risk of sounding equally cheesy, I have to admit,” Scarlett takes a breath, “I’m glad we’re all in this together.”
Tom finds comfort in the silence that ensues, and in the thought that this is the kind of sentimentality Natasha Romanov would never risk.
“I bet the view of the sunrise from here is something else,” Jeremy says before digging out a cigarette and lighting it with one hand cupped around the flame.
And as they wait for morning, passing the time with stories about the lives they could’ve led, Tom thinks that this story might just have an ending better than all the rest.