The panel was an unqualified success; Clark wasn't exactly used to screaming fans, but they were the same people who had practically willed his character back to life and raised him to the next level of famous. The fact that he was having fun, working with friends and good people, only made the whole experience better. Hell, doing Shakespeare and superheroes? Who'd have thought he'd end up at Comic-con, in one of the big halls, the lead in a television show?
He entered the back hallway, waving to Ming, heading to the stairway and out to the car. He had plans later, meeting up with friends for dinner, so a stop back at his hotel room sounded good. Pressing the bar, he pushed the door open and stepped through.
Loki stood in the plaza, the spell prepared and ready to go. Thanos' agents swarmed the plaza, and Loki sought to find the right target; they were controlled by a central brain. Find that, take it out, and they would fall.
"Whatever you are doing, Thanos, know you will not prevail." That was Thor. Same sentiment, same warning. Every time. Thor was gathering lightning for a strike, but he would be too late, Loki could tell from his vantage point.
"Oh, for Odin's sake, can we drop the theatrics?" Loki sighed. Helping the Avengers wasn't what he wanted to be doing, but Thanos had betrayed Loki and taken Amora, scooping out the woman Loki loved to hate and pouring himself into her empty shell. While Loki might gladly send Amora into another dimension, he would brook no one else to bother her.
He saw the opening and loosed the spell with a flick of his hand; at the exact same time, a repulsor blast blew past him followed by one of Barton's trick arrows, all of them – magical energy and weapons – thrown into the path of Thor's lightning. He tried to call the magic back, to redirect it, but the spell had a life of its own now that it was formed. A cloud of sparkles grew, a sonic boom knocked Thor backwards and propelled the God of Mischief directly into the cloud's path.
For a second, the sunlight blinded Clark, and he put his hand up to shade his eyes. Wind tugged at the hem of his leather jacket, and why the hell was it so bright in the stairwell? The smell of ozone tickled his nose and the sound of … jets? Engines? What the fuck?
"Agent Coulson?" The voice was familiar, probably a fan he'd talked to earlier today. Blinking, he could make out the blonde hair, red cape … a Thor cosplayer. Decent one at that. "What manner of magic is this?"
"No magic, just a wrong turn," he answered. "Could you point me to the stairs?" A blur of red and gold to his left, scattered screaming, and the sound of rending metal; men in uniforms surrounded him, and then a tall man in an eye patch and a long black leather coat was next to him, sun glinting off his bald head. "Sam? What's up? Am I being punked or something?"
The dead ringer for Samuel L. Jackson gave him a look that would quell a lesser man, but Clark had seen Sam work before and knew he was just as likely to wear a wig and sing Nikki Minaj songs as be threatening. If this guy was a cosplayer, he was a damn good one.
"Best take this off the street," Sam said. He motioned towards a nondescript blue box van. "Before this gets even more fucked up than it already is."
As he got in the back of the van, an explosion rocked the road in front of them accompanied with a roar and a large green pair of arms emerged from the dust. Clark strained to see, but Sam slid the door shut in his face.
First thing he heard were women's squeals of delight. He spun, brought his hands up, preparing to fight; he saw a long hallway and a group of four women dressed like … what? One was wearing a tight black cat suit that showed off her curves and a red curly wig. Another wore a blue jumpsuit with a yellow star on her chest, a red sash around her waist, and had spiked up blonde hair. The third was mostly naked, only a metal bikini with a drape of white material hanging from her hips, her hair a long braid swinging from the top of her head. The final woman was in a near perfect copy of Barton's uniform; she had her arm around the woman in the bikini's waist.
"Where am I?" he demanded. More giggles and blushes, then the bikini woman spoke.
"Behind Hall H." Her Hawkeye friend nudged her. "What? Maybe he's lost."
"Would you mind if we took pictures?" The Black Widow woman asked, hesitant and shy. Why were these people dressed up in costumes? And why weren't they afraid of him? It didn't make any sense. Before he could think it through, the Hawkeye woman grabbed the Black Widow's arm, and they stepped up on either side. "Is a pose okay?"
"Pose? Why would I pose for you?" He gave them his best glare; they both grinned happily and the Black Widow put her fists up while the Hawkeye woman took her bow and pulled it back, aiming the child's toy at him. Lights flashed from the small device the bikini woman held in her hand.
"That was perfect! One more?" They switched places, everyone but Black Widow gathered around him. He glowered, the light flashed and then they were all talking at once.
"You look just like him."
"Wow, that was great, thanks!"
"Did you do your own leatherwork?"
"Wait!" He commanded as they turned to leave. "I am looking for my brother …"
"Oh, that panel starts in about 10 minutes in Hall H." The Captain Marvel woman laughed. "May I say, your costume is fabulous and you're wonderful at staying in character. I'm so glad we ran into you."
Panel? Character? What had happened with that spell?
"Look, if I stumbled onto a publicity stunt, I'm sorry," Clark was saying as he was hustled down a hallway of what looked like an elaborate stationary set. "I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere."
"Not a problem," Sam … well, maybe not Sam now that Clark was closer … said. "Let's just step in here and I'll fill you in." He opened a door into a small room and Clark preceded him inside. There was a table and a chair, a mirror on the wall, and not much else; obviously an interrogation room set. Maybe this was part of the filming of Thor 2? Or Guardians had just started rolling, but he didn't think Nick Fury was making an appearance in that one.
"So this is pretty awkward …" he trailed off as two uniformed men took his arms and sat him down in the seat. A white coated doctor type appeared with a needle, and he felt a bit of panic rise up in his throat. "Hey, what are you …." The needle sank into a vein and he was being held down, only able to watch as a glass tube filled with dark red blood. "Sam? What the fuck?"
"Just a precaution, you understand. We need to make sure who you are. Too many goddamn magic users and mad scientists around, but my money is on Loki. We'll get this straightened out." Sam gave a terse nod and the other three people left the room, shutting the door behind them. "I know this is difficult for you; the specialists say you'll get your memory back eventually, but when I find out who dropped the ball and let you get out by yourself, I'm going to rip them a new one. Stay here. I need to contain the damage."
"Wait!" Clark called as Sam started to leave the room. "If this is some big joke and Joss is going to jump out, tell him I'm starting to move past the 'this is funny' stage to the 'pissed off' one. I'd really like to know what's going on."
"You'll know when I do," Sam said as a parting shot. The door swung soundly shut; Clark got up to try the handle and it was, of course, locked. Nothing made sense. He had been inside the conference center of the hotel, nowhere near an exit; logically, he couldn't have missed the stairs and ended up outside without wandering through a number of hallways. And he knew nothing was filming in San Diego – they almost always shot in Cleveland.
Loki was frustrated, bordering on angry when he spotted the door marked Hall H; he'd been stopped too many times for photos, and why would anyone want his name on a piece of paper – although signing for that lovely woman had been quite nice – and why was everyone in lines, hot and sweaty and in such damn good moods to see him? He'd tried to take over this world and these people were treating him like, like … a god or something. It made no sense. Pushing open the door, he walked into a darkened area, curtains obstructing his view. He could hear screaming and someone talking, and there was a man with a shirt that proclaimed he was security standing by the drapes to open them for another man in a dark cap and dark shirt.
"… Mr. Kevin Feige!" the voice announced. The man with the cap ducked through the opening; light spilled in and Loki caught a glimpse of a larger room beyond. Still, he didn't see his brother at all, scanning the area for the familiar blonde hair.
"… on a movie called Thor: The Dark World, right now …"
His patience ended and he flexed his fingers, sparks of magic flowing between them; the power flickered, electric lights went off, and he strode to the curtain, the security man hurriedly parting the opening for him. He walked in the darkness to the center of the stage. Even without light, he could see them, the mass of humanity crammed into the large space, seated so close together, their energy filling the room.
"Lining up in the sweltering heat for hours," he spat out. A smattering of terrified screams. "Huddling together in the dark like beasts!"
Unleashing the magic he held ready, he lit up the stage with blue light, let them see him. They sat stunned for a few seconds and his anger built. Then … screams and clapping and cries of adoration slammed into him like a wall of sound, washing past him, feeding the darkness inside of him in a way he'd never felt before. Power unlike any he'd known, he opened his arms wide and welcomed it, pointing at them; it felt good and he had to smile, to wonder if his brother knew this feeling when the crowds called his name and lined up to see him. Then he heard it, a low chant at first, hard to make out, but the words became clearer as he listened.
"We love, we love, we love …"
He put a finger to his lips, and the room fell silent as if he'd willed it so.
"I am Loki." Screams responded to his declaration.
"Of Asgard." Women reached their arms towards him.
"And I am burdened with glorious purpose." Men stared adoringly as the room erupted.
"Stand back, you mewling quim!" The man with the cap on the stage moved; Loki walked towards him. No one was going to interrupt him, take away this amazing feeling.
"The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for a place in this chamber." He meant to insult them, to show them how wrong they were to come here, to glorify his brother and the other Avengers. He held the power here, the whole room in his sway; this, this was what he wanted. A smile kept appearing as he took in their freely offered love.
"In this …" he looked around at the fake walls and shabby table "… meager hall of Midgard. The area they call Hall H."
Laughter at that, as if they understood the joke he was making at their expense, as if they agreed with him, as if he was right.
"You should have let me rule you when you had the chance. Yet here you are."
Screams, one louder than the others – a woman, her eyes glazed, hands held out in supplication. "With a quick motion, he quieted her with a finger to his lips. "Kneel," he commanded, and she complied with a look of rapture on her face.
"Your ears yearn for untold stories, your eyes crave unseen sights, your imaginations ache and hunger." Each cry, each laugh, each scream satisfied him as they reacted to his every whim.
"Where are your Avengers now?" He asked into the quiet of the room. They went wild, not in anger, but in worship to him, and he felt joy, real joy, a laugh escaping his lips.
"Claim loyalty to me and I will give you what you need." He had to calm them again, their frenzy of excitement running over. "Say my name."
"Loki." He heard it, half of them said it, but it wasn't enough.
"Say my name," he demanded, more authority now.
"Loki." This time louder, more distinct.
"Say my name!" He waved them with his hands, needing more.
"SAY MY NAME!" He screamed.
"LOKI!" They responded.
"My wife loves you!" A lone man shouted, pride of the fact resonating in his voice.
These people loved him. Truly and honestly adored him. The darkness in him receded in the face of such reverence, confusing him.
"Well," he mused aloud. "It seems I have an army."
He left the stage, wondering exactly what was happening; he felt … warm and content, having forgotten his brother completely for the last few minutes.
"Tom! I didn't think you were arriving until later." The woman laid a hand on his arm, a happy smile on her face. It took a few seconds to register who she was … or who she might be. Long hair was blonde, her floral dress bright and form fitting. She couldn't be Black Widow, even though she looked just like her; she felt different, lighter, and more open. "Should have guessed it was you out there whipping up that frenzy."
"Yeah, thanks," the man beside her said, smacking Loki on his shoulder. "Stealing all the thunder, eh?" Hair too dark, tight t-shirt, dark sweater … not that sickeningly sweet Captain America, this man's smile was infectious, his humor evident. "Now we'll have to be at the top of our game. Seb, Tony, have you met Tom?"
"Oh, hey. I keep hearing all these stories about Cleveland." Loki recognized the person with the long brown locks hanging over his face as he shook the outstretched hand anyway, even if The Winter Soldier had much shorter hair now.
"Dude, you're amazing," the other young man with skin the color of chocolate and an unguarded smile said. Another hand to shake, but Loki didn't recognize this Avenger look-a-like.
"Mr. Hiddleston," a young man with a badge said. "I'm sorry about the miscommunication, sir. We thought you were coming in on a later flight. I'm Jeff, your PA for the weekend. Your suite is ready; we can transfer any luggage from the front desk. I'll be glad to take you up the back way when you're ready."
"Hey, let us know your plans. Drinks? Dinner? It will be good to catch up," Not Black Widow asked.
He thought about the offer; it would be a good way to learn even more about the lay of this strange land. "Sounds delightful. I'll see you then."
He followed the young man who babbled on about this thing called a Con and what all was planned for the Mr. Hiddleston he seemed to think Loki was. Interviews and panels and shows and a 'signing,' whatever that entailed.
"Don't worry, we'll avoid the Exhibition Hall and the more crowded hallways," Jeff promised.
"Oh, I find I do not mind the crowds; I rather like them," he said. "Lead away. I would see this Hall of Exhibition."
Clark was losing his patience. Almost two hours had passed, sitting in this room, alone, sure that someone was observing him from the other side of the mirrored window. He tried his phone; none of the calls seemed to get through. Pacing helped for a time, but only for so long. The situation was getting ridiculous.
The door cracked open and two men slipped inside.
"Robert?" He asked. But, wait, he knew Robert was out of the country. "What the fuck?"
"Good god, Agent, it is you. Thor swore he saw you. We don't have much time …" he looked at the other man who was definitely not Mark Ruffalo despite the fact they could be identical twins. Mark had shaved his head for a role just a few weeks ago; this man's curly hair was longer.
"Four minutes left." Not Mark said.
"We're here to spring you from Fury's clutches." Fury. Agent. Thor. A Tony Stark and Bruce Banner look-a-like? "Let's go."
"Look, I'm not …" he barely started speaking when the Stark look-a-like caught his arm and urged him out of the chair.
"You know Tony doesn't trust SHIELD and neither do I." The Banner look-a-like was sincere, his eyes caring. "They'll bury you deep and we'll never get to the bottom of this."
If this was some kind of trick, Clark had had enough. He was done with waiting; he was getting out of this room if nothing else. Checking the hall, Stark turned back and motioned them forward; he kept a small device in his hand, constantly checking the readouts. They turned a different direction from the way Clark came in, entering a small service hallway that lead to concrete stairs; two flights down, another hallway with pipes and conduits along the concrete block walls, and they exited through a fire door onto a loading dock. Clark intended to ditch them as soon as they hit the street, catch a taxi and make his way back to the hotel, but he drew up short as they came out onto the main road. The Chrysler building rose out of the New York skyline, taxis crowded the street, and two hot dog carts blocked the sidewalk. This wasn't San Diego.
"Coulson?" Banner asked. Clark couldn't answer; the sight before him was overwhelming. "We need to get in the car."
"This is New York." The flight between the cities was at a minimum four hours. He had walked out of a door on the West Coast and onto a street on the East Coast.
"The city that never sleeps." Stark opened the door of a limo. "Now get in."
He wasn't thinking clearly; he got in the car, his brain still reeling. He knew Sam was in San Diego; they'd had coffee this morning, or at least he thought it was this morning. Now, he was questioning everything. So lost in thought, he barely noticed the car moving through traffic, looking up only when Banner touched his arm. They had stopped in an underground garage; dazed, he followed them into the nearby elevator and stayed quiet as Stark babbled about a hundred different topics. Banner stood quietly by him … it couldn't be Bruce Banner, Clark wasn't crazy, but he didn't know what else to call them … as the car ascended. Doors slid open and he ground to another halt. He knew this room, had walked into a mock-up of it, delivered his lines: Tony Stark's penthouse. But this place had four walls, no cameras and a view of the New York skyline that was real.
"Oh, fuck me." That was all he could think. He was so screwed. "This is real."
"You need a drink," Stark said, walking to the bar. Now that Clark looked, there were differences in the room, minor ones, things that would have changed with updates and rehab. He took the tumbler as soon as it was within reach and downed the finger of scotch, the burning telling him he wasn't dreaming. "What's going on, Phil?"
"I'm not Phil Coulson." He gave a dry laugh. "My name is Clark Gregg. I'm an actor."
"Annnnnnnd that calls for alcohol for everyone." Stark went back to the bar. "Fury's really fucked with us this time, hasn't he? Son of a Bitch's going to pay."
"No. Listen to me. I was in San Diego this morning at a panel at Comic Con. I went down the hall, through a door and I was here in New York. There was a Thor cosplayer … oh, god, maybe not … and then Sam was there, and I thought it was a publicity stunt, for the show and the upcoming Cap 2 and Thor 2, but this is New Fucking York. Tell me how I got from San Diego to NYC in seconds." His voice was rising as the hysteria set in. No way in hell this was real. "Maybe I'm in a coma? Got hit by a car and am in the hospital somewhere, just dreaming this up?"
Banner flashed a look at Stark. "Loki's spell was disrupted, and he disappeared. You showed up in his place. Maybe you switched places?"
"Or maybe Phil lost his memory and thinks he's an actor now?" Even Stark didn't believe that one.
"Phil Coulson is a fictional character. So are you. And S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury. Comic books. Not real." Clark was talking mostly to himself at this point. "This tower doesn't exist except as a movie set."
"Hey, cool, they made a movie about us? Steve has two and so does Goldilocks? What about me? No Iron Man movies?"
"Three so far. Iron Man was the first of the series. Then Captain America, Thor, Iron Man 2, The Avengers, Iron Man 3. Lots of people think you … Robert Downey Jr, the actor who plays you … is really Tony Stark." Clark sank down onto the couch, holding his empty glass out. "I think I need another drink."
"There is always the multiverse," Banner offered. "Wouldn't be the first time someone has come through; Loki's magic has opened portals before."
"True." Tony agreed, pouring more scotch into Clark's glass. "A world where we're actors? Not that far-fetched. Remember the one with the giant bunnies?"
"Sir, the others are arriving." JARVIS's voice cut in, and Clark started; Paul always did his voice work later, was never in the scene, so it was odd to hear the familiar British accent echo in the room.
"Tony, maybe this isn't a good idea," Banner glanced at the elevator doors. "If he isn't Phil …"
"Oh shit. JARVIS can you …" Stark started to say, but the doors opened and three more people piled out. Steve Rogers strode across the floor, a wide smile on his face. (Not Chris who had dark hair right now and was going to meet Clark later for drinks - if he had still been at the Con) Behind him, Natasha Romanov glared at Clark, a hard look that Scarlet had perfected for the part, but wasn't really part of her sunny disposition. Hesitantly, Clint Barton stepped out, his eyes hooded and filled with distrust locked in. He took one look at Clark and, he arranged his visage into Jeremy's resting face, a mask that hid his every emotion.
"Phil!" Rogers said. "Is it really you?"
"Um, guys, maybe we should all slow down a bit," Stark tried to intervene, but Rogers was already shaking Clark's hand, hauling him up into a bear hug.
"I agree with Tony." Black Widow was leery, her body tense and ready to spring. "This is too easy and could be a trick; Loki loves to play with our heads."
"One way to find out," Barton said. He pulled up the hem of Clark's t-shirt; startled, Clark didn't stop him. For a second, he ran his hand over Clark's chest and around to the small of his back, keeping his face carefully neutral. He dropped his hand and sighed, a flash of some emotion in his blue-grey eyes. "Not Phil."
"You sure?" Widow asked.
"No scar from the knife in Budapest or the bullet in Calcutta." Barton turned his back on Clark and walked away, over to the bank of windows where he stood, staring out over the city.
"I'm sorry," Clark felt he had to say.
"It is I who should apologize." The cosplayer he saw earlier, Thor he guessed, was coming in from the balcony. "My brother has wrought a spell that went awry, bringing you here. I must speak to my mother to determine how to undo what Loki has done. Not only for your sake, Not Son of Coul, but for your world. Loki may be there even now. He will be angry with the situation."
That was what did it, not the scotch or the Tower or being locked in a room; he started laughing, the absurdity of the whole day finally catching up to him. He doubled up, holding his stomach as he tipped over into hysteria. Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes as he dropped down onto the couch.
"Hey, it's okay, um, Clark," Banner sat beside him, patting his leg awkwardly. "We'll get this worked out."
"Oh, God. Loki. At Comic Con?" Another gale of laughter until he was hiccupping and trying to breathe. "The cosplayers? And the fans. Tom's fans? Oh, my God, I wish I could see it."
The room was adequate, nothing in the realm of his dwelling on Asgard or even Stark's Penthouse, but there were views of the harbor and the young Jeff had been useful, helping 'Tom' gain some clothes when his bags turned up missing, ordering delightful food – sushi from someone called Ota – and providing Loki with a schedule of the weekend's events. The trip through the Exhibition Hall had been more than enlightening; costumes and entertainment, that was what was happening here. Fans, as they called themselves, came to pay homage to their heroes. He understood acting – he had a soft spot for the human bard William Shakespeare, a man who knew the dynamics of fathers and sons well – and, turns out, Tom Hiddleston, the actor who portrayed Loki in this dimension, had legions of supporters. It took an hour to cross from one door to another; a mob surrounded him as he moved, and there were so many sights to see. Fake Captain America shields, amazing artwork, flashing screens at every turn showing images (he stood for a good ten minutes watching a stylized version of his own getaway from the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility with the Tesseract), even a large life-size figure of himself with a line of fans waiting to take pictures with it. Along the way, he'd met many fans including a very luscious young woman in star-spangled suit that showed her legs off to great advantage in her red boots; she'd offered him her room number and quoted Henry V for him. He'd been tempted by the image of a few hours of pleasure, but then he remembered his need to return and defeat Thanos. As soon as he was alone in his room, he tried to recast the spell, but it didn't work. Something must have happened between the repulsor blast, the arrow, and the lightening. To recreate those specific circumstances, he needed to find an equivalency. Maybe the actors or the writers knew more; at least that's what he told himself. If he was honest, the idea of meeting the Avengers' counterparts in this universe was appealing. Imagine how easy they would be to manipulate, how much fun it would be to confuse them. Really, it had nothing to do with the way he'd felt in front of that crowd or among the adoring fans on the floor. Nothing at all.
That's how he found himself wedged between Scarlett on one side and a man named Joss on the other, Chris and Sebastian and an affable young man named Tony across from them. His wagyu beef was gone, the servers were clearing the table, and his glass of dark red wine had been kept full the whole time. He'd played his part impeccably, laughing and pretending to enjoy the stories and friendships of the people in the chairs around him. They were a companionable lot, much like Thor and Sif and the Warriors three, but in this universe, he was a part of the inner circle, or at least Tom was.
"I thought Clark was coming," Chris was saying. "I was looking forward to hearing more about this Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. project. Like how Coulson lived."
"No spoilers," Joss laughed. "I left Clark messages, but he didn't respond. I imagine we'll catch up later."
"How is that project going?" Loki asked; he was beginning to wonder if the movies of this universe held the answer. He'd gleaned the plot of the next Thor movie and he'd been amazed at the Asgardian secrets revealed; having lived through the events, he knew exactly how close to the truth the writers had come. He'd already faced Bucky Barnes in a number of battles, but not this new Falcon, so whatever was happening with this S.H.I.E.L.D. show was likely happening right now in his universe.
"Great!" Joss forked up a bite of his cheesecake and waved it as punctuation. "It's a great way to introduce smaller heroes from the Marvel 'Verse, but it focuses on the people who don't have powers. Clark's amazing and the rest of the actors are perfect."
"Ming and I have met; she's wonderful," Scarlett said, sipping her wine. Her eyes were sparkling, her face flushed, happy in a way Loki had never seen in the Black Widow. "We both did voices on Robot Chicken; we were in the studio at the same time."
"You did Robot Chicken? So did I!" Chris exclaimed. "Didn't you have a guest appearance too, Tom? I think you told me that once."
"Yes. Small world." What the hell was a robotic chicken and why did it matter? Could they get back to the Agent being alive? Loki absolutely remembered his spear plunging in the man's chest. Of course, the Tesseract did have a number of strange powers, so it wasn't out of the realm of possibilities that the man had lived. From the corner of his eye, he noticed someone taking pictures of them at another table; with a wave of his hand, he sent a pulse and the man dropped the tiny device as if it burned his hand.
"Bucky, Jane's kidnapping, we know about those, but who are these Guardians?" Steve asked; he insisted Phil call him by his first name, and so did the others. All but Barton. "And you … excuse me … Coulson is alive and working with a new team?"
Natasha walked away at that, her shoulders set; she stopped next to Barton and stood silently with him as he sipped his drink. Clark could sense the frustration rolling off of the man, along with something else that he couldn't figure out. Obviously, neither one of them were happy with his appearance.
"Shepherding people with superpowers," Clark explained.
"Well, Phil's dead here." That was the first Barton had spoken since he'd declared Clark wasn't Phil. "Actors move on to other jobs and people can be resurrected in comic books. That's not life."
"This is hard for us," Steve said, glancing over to where Natasha was still standing. "We're all still dealing with the death."
"Exactly how did they explain Coulson not dying in your 'show'?" Natasha asked. God but she was so different from Scarlett, the hard scars of her past a constant presence.
"Bait and switch. Coulson was wounded, his heart stopped, but they were able to resuscitate him; long coma, rehabilitation, and then back to work. So Fury didn't lie, he was dead for a short time." The more he explained, the tighter the look on Natasha's face, and the darker the thundercloud over Barton's head.
"The money question is where would Fury being keeping Coulson if he's recuperating?" Tony threw out; he'd been pacing back and forth the whole time, nervous energy coursing through him. "Let's go with the assumption that Clark's movies are his universe's version of our lives. JARVIS, start looking for outlays of expenses for long term medical, any records of facilities that could handle that specific type of injury."
"Tony," Bruce warned, but Stark was on a roll and not paying attention.
"You know the names of the other SHIELD agents in the show, right?" Tony asked. Clark nodded; Tony handed him a tablet and a stylus. "Write them down and JARVIS will search their service records, see if they're real in our universe."
"Tony." Bruce was more insistent; he punched Tony in the arm as he passed.
"Ouch. What?" Tony stopped and turned; his gaze fell on Natasha and Barton. "I can't let this go, Bruce. I need to know for sure and so do they. Right, Clint?" Barton glared at him and stormed off to the elevator, punching the button hard until the doors opened.
"God, Tony, you are an ass," Natasha practically growled. "I should break your neck and put us out of our misery."
"Come on, Natasha. It's better to know for sure. I wouldn't put it past Fury." Tony was unrepentant.
"Fury, yes. But why wouldn't Phil tell us? That would be cruel." She turned her back and walked to the bar to pour her a drink.
"For what it's worth, the scripts haven't said you don't know," Clark offered. "Just that Coulson is working with a new team because you're Avengers."
"See? So maybe our Coulson isn't awake yet or able to contact us," Tony argued. "We find out for sure and go get him if he's out there." He looked at the others.
"Despite Tony's usual lack of empathy, I do think we should check it out," Bruce said.
"Agreed," Steve spoke up. "I understand Clint's position, believe me, but we need to find out the truth. Just like with Bucky." He looked at Natasha, eyes filled with sympathy. After a second, she gave a quick nod of acceptance.
"Actually, Sam … Fury said something about me getting my memory back and ripping a new one for the person who let me get out by myself."
"See! Damn it. Phil is somewhere under guard with amnesia. That explains everything!" Tony crowed.
Clark wondered just what he'd started … and why Clint Barton was more upset than the others.
"Okay, who the hell are you?"
Loki paused just inside the entryway of his suite; standing in the middle of the living room was a man who looked so much like him that he had to do a double take. Okay, the man's hair was curlier, and he was wearing a white button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, but, damn, it was like looking in a mirror, and Loki knew all about having doppelgangers. There could be only one answer.
"Ah, the elusive Tom, I imagine." Strolling in the room, he stopped at the bar and picked a small bottle of whiskey to open and pour. "Nice to finally come face-to-face. I must say, you have an enviable life here."
"Look, I'm flattered by the attention, but this crosses the border into stalking. If you don't leave, I'm afraid I'll have to call security." Tom moved to the phone on the table; it was easy to make the small plastic handset skitter away from the outstretched hand.
"Now, now, I mean you no harm. I just need to borrow your identify for a day or two until I can ascertain the answer to my little dilemma. Then I will leave you to your adoring crowds and interesting friends." He sat down, propping his feet on an ottoman. "Have a drink. Sit. I would be interested in hearing your insight into my psyche. After all, you've portrayed me so well."
"You think you're Loki?" Tom began to edge to the doorway, his intent easily discernible. Ah, he thought Loki was a crazy fan who had left reality behind. Not a bad guess, considering the alternative truth of the situation.
"I am Loki, and I find myself here in your universe by accident. Shall I prove it to you?"
Tom stopped when multiple Lokis appeared around the room, all dressed in the same trim grey pants and purple shirt. "See? Were I simply an insane follower, I would not be able to do this, would I?"
"Ah, well, there are cameras and mirrors …" Tom seemed at a loss for words. "You were in the room before me; you could have set it up."
"Oh, for the love of … I have forgotten how stubborn you humans are." He changed his clothes, energy coalescing and shifting into his new armor, not the one he'd worn earlier for the crowd, but the one he'd taken to wearing after gaining his freedom by aiding his brother. "As I understand it, no one on this Earth has seen the film of the rescue of Jane Foster, correct? How then do I know this?" He shifted again to his prison garb, long unruly hair, then back to his first clothing. The clones staid static, not changing as he did.
"But … but …" Tom stared at him. "I need a drink."
"Yes, yes, you do, although this pales in comparison to fine Asgardian wine. Perhaps we ask young Jeff to procure better? We have much to discuss, you and I."
Clark sank down on the edge of the bed in the guest room; the enormity of the situation was almost too much to comprehend. Okay, he was a nerd fighter himself, but to find out that the Avengers were real in another universe no less? Stronger men would buckle under that reality. A part of him was still going with the coma explanation. Made a lot more sense.
"So, Clark, right?" Barton was leaning against the doorframe of the bathroom, and Clark whipped his head around. He hadn't heard the man come in at all. Before he could form a coherent response beyond a nod of agreement, Barton crossed the room and sat down next to him. "You're not really like him, are you?"
"No. Not really. I mean, a little part of the actor goes into each role – I'm a bit of a goof so Joss wrote in the dry sense of humor for Phil – and, with a good director, I get to fill out the character, add little things, but it's mostly working with what's on the page." For the first time, Clark got a good look at the man; he was tired, dark shadows haunting his eyes, a sag in his shoulders.
"Joss? As in Joss Whedon?" Clint – Clark wanted to think of him that way – asked. "As in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Firefly?"
"Yes. Joss directed Avengers and is writing and directing of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He's working on Avengers 2 now," Clark answered.
"Oh, God, Phil would be so excited. He's a big Buffy fan. Was. Was a big fan." There'd been a spark for a second there in Clint's eyes, some sign of life, but it went out quickly, lost in a sea of darkness.
"Browncoat fans here, but not Avengers movies?" He mused. "Yeah, it would be poetic justice for Phil to have been a fan. After all, the fans saved his life."
"What?" Clint cocked his head and his stare turned serious.
"When the movie came out, there was this big uproar from the fans; turns out they'd become fond of Phil even though he had only small parts in the other movies, a very supporting type of role. They started a campaign, called it #COULSONLIVES, all caps, and basically made a lot of noise. Fan art, blogs, tweets … hell, Phil ended up as half of the second most popular couple in Avengers fan fiction." It hit him then, and he couldn't think of anything to say but, "Oh. Oh. Oh, hell, I'm sorry. You. And Phil. Just like the stories?"
Clint's face softened with a quiet smile. "Imagine that. Phil was always invisible, kept out of the spotlight. Being that famous, enough to get brought back to life. Yeah, I can see the appeal." He stood up. "Thanks for that."
"For what it's worth," Clark called as Clint headed to the doorway. "Phil was a hell of a man."
Dropping a quick nod of agreement, Clint turned to go then stopped. "The second most popular? Who was number one?"
"Steve and Tony."
Laughter, raspy from disuse, spilled out of Clint's mouth. "Fuck! That's perfect. Don't tell them, okay? I want to be the one to break the news. Pepper and Sharon will have a field day … oh, no, wait. Natasha. She's got to know first. Steve and Tony. Shit." His laughter lingered even after he left the room.
"That's when he realized it wasn't an Ambien, but a Viagara, a pill for men who need suffer from erectile dysfunction. And there were hours left on the flight." Tom finished his story, and Loki wiped tears from the edges of his eyes, laughing as he pour more of the delicious nectar that Jeff had delivered along with a platter of more of the delightful sushi.
"And he told this story on television? To be broadcast around the world?" Loki was learning a lot about this world's Avengers or at least the actors who looked like them. A motley bunch of jesters, it seemed, who relished each other's company and the adulation of the fans, but took their work seriously. Tom? Well, Loki had wondered more than once if, roles reversed, he might have become as affably pleasant a person as his actor.
"Indeed. You'd be amazed how easy it is to tell the most embarrassing stories in interviews," Tom laughed; he'd done his part in drinking a whole bottle of whiskey and eating the little bites. "It's a strange life we live. Why, I had to wear a Jango Fett costume to get here. If anyone had seen me, they'd know I was going to make an appearance. Sneaking around as a Star Wars character."
"I do understand the need for secrecy; it is much easier when you can simply use magic." He suddenly looked like Chris Evans from earlier that day then shifted back. "But why hide? You could avail yourself of the offers, live like a king. I was in the Hall earlier; it is a heady brew."
"Ah, yes, it is easy to succumb and I admit to taking some of what was freely given along the way. But then you want more than one night stands, and I find that women expect you to be faithful to them. Worth it, in the end," Tom explained.
"Ah, a good woman. I find her to be elusive although I must say that fair Scarlett might be worth the effort." Loki swirled his whiskey in his glass, remembering the way she turned her head and the lights caught in the blonde tresses.
"So, neither Chris nor any of the others knew it wasn't me?" Tom found that quite funny. "I'm not sure how they'd handle the truth."
"They remain blissfully unaware, as is probably for the best. Soon as I can determine how to return, I will be gone."
"And if I believe that, will you then sell me a bridge in Arizona?" Tom leaned forward in his chair. "If you are Loki – and I still have my doubts – playing games and manipulating people are your favorite past times. What greater fun than pretending to be someone else?"
"You think to know me because you have played at being me?" Loki demanded. "You know nothing."
"I do research for my parts, and I have read the stories of Loki. This is more than likely one big trick with cameras hidden somewhere to record everything. It will be on YouTube by the morning and gifs will be all over Tumblr ten minutes later." Tom stretched his legs and stood, leaving his glass on the table.
"I think I could grow fond of this world," Loki sighed. "So many ways to make mischief."
"Before you do your worst, I have a party to go to. One of the burdens I must bear. Since we can't have two of us there …" Tom began; Loki immediately changed his visage.
"This will do?" he said. He chose the form of his brother Baldur; the man was an inveterate flirt and the women loved him.
"Actually, I was going to suggest you look like this and go as my stunt double, Paul," Tom said, showing him a picture on his phone as he shook his head. "Oh, I'm think I'm going to regret this in the morning."
That one word from Clint, and Clark knew he was well and truly screwed; he was going to do this. Tugging his jacket sleeves down, he tamped down the little squalls of doubt and put on his best Coulson no nonsense face. Four breaths, circle on the back of his hand with a finger, tap three times, and he dropped into character.
"Let's do this," he said in Phil's voice.
"Damn. That's kind of scary," Tony stage whispered for everyone to hear.
"Tony," Steve hissed.
They were on the landing pad of a S.H.I.E.L.D. medical facility in the middle of Pennsylvania inside the quinnjet Natasha had commandeered for a fake mission; Tony being Tony, it hadn't taken long for him to trace Phil's location now that he knew what he was looking for. Everything had checked out – all of the characters from Clark's new show were current agents (except the computer guru who Phil explained was going to be recruited in the pilot) but had yet to be put together as a team. The trail led right to this place and that's when they'd come to Clark and asked him to bluff his way in. The first line of security, people who wouldn't know that Phil was locked deep in the basement in a special room, would give way to the agent who was still listed as an active level seven; he could walk right in and open the door for them.
Before the others could say anything, Clark walked briskly to the rear door and opened it, thankful the mechanics of were similar to the mockup. Natasha and Clint stepped up behind him, wearing S.H.I.E.L.D. uniforms, caps, and sunglasses to downplay their identities. Clark didn't look back, just strode off the ramp and up to the guard's booth. He showed the badge Tony had given him and stood with his hands clasped, daring the guard to challenge him. The older man in an ill-fitting uniform looked it over, ran it through a swipe card reader, and waited; Clark saw Tony's dummy info appear on the screen.
"Of course, Agent Coulson. Have a good flight out?" The man was chatty, smiling now.
"Not too bumpy." Clark walked on past, keeping his eyes on the doorway that was sliding open as they neared. Get inside, get to the elevator; Natasha had the badge with the virus. One swipe and the whole place belonged to JARVIS.
"May I help you?" The male nurse at the first station asked.
Clark gave him the look he'd perfected for Phil, the one that brooked no arguments. "Take care of this; we're on the clock," he shot back at Natasha. She peeled off as Clark and Clint kept moving; he saw her place a hand on the nurse's shoulder and offer the badge for him to check. The elevator was sitting empty as if waiting for them. Once inside, Clark swiped again ,and they began moving downward. In the quiet of the car, he noticed Clint's breathing, ragged and heavy.
"Keep it together, Agent," he said, still in character. He saw Clint straighten and let out a long breath just before the elevator glided to a stop and the door opened onto a sterile hallway. Stepping out, he waited for someone to emerge, and the nurse didn't leave them there long; she was a tall woman with a short haircut, white pants and her scrubs decked out with Eeyore. She stormed out, ready to do battle and came to a quick halt, staring.
"What the hell?" Her voice rose as she looked at Clark. "How?"
"We'll take it from here, Dolores," Clark said the line they'd agreed upon to buy time. "We appreciate your discretion, but this operation is over."
"Coulson? So that's not …" She drew up, training kicking in. Deal with it; that was the first thing S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were taught. "What are the orders, sir?"
"You're dismissed and thank you for your hard work." They'd prepared for this as well. "We have a transport team on the way."
"Of course." She nodded and immediately headed for the stairwell as protocol demanded; Clark resisted the urge to wipe his sweaty palms on his pants. If he was nervous, Clint had to be worse off, but he didn't turn to look at the man until the door clicked shut behind her.
"Do you want to go in first?" He shifted into what he called Phil as opposed to Agent Coulson. "Have a few minutes?"
"No." Clint shook his head and offered no further explanation.
The doors opened behind them and the rest of the team … oh, god did he just think that? … spilled out. Tony didn't hesitate, diving into Coulson's room before the others could even blink; Steve was right on his heels, ready for damage control. Bruce waited, looking to Natasha and Clint; Thor wasn't there, gone to Asgard to try to determine the mechanics of the spell.
"Clint." Natasha pushed him, hard enough to make him shuffle forward. "Get your ass in there before I kick it."
"Nat, what if …" He stared at the room.
"What if he does?" She returned. "You won't know if you don't go."
Clark hung back, staying out in the hall, but the door was open, and he could see the man in the bed and hear the conversation.
"Who are you again?" Phil said confusion evident on his face.
"The man you threatened to taser and watch Super Nanny over my drooling body. Malibu? Big party? Pain in the ass? Good looking?" Tony joked.
"Tony, tone it down. He has amnesia, and, no, you can't hit him in the head," Steve said.
"Cap?" Phil looked at Steve. "Captain America? Did we find you?"
"Yes, Phil, you found me." Steve's voice was soft and gentle as Phil's eyes roved over the other faces, passing over Bruce; he scrunched up his forehead as he came to rest on Natasha's face, frustration making him clench his fists. Then he spied Clint who had hung back by the doorway, half-hiding behind the others. Phil's eyes narrowed, he squinted (probably needed glasses just like Clark), and then an amazing smile blossomed across his face.
"Clint? Is that you?" Hand reached out and Phil sat up further. When Clint didn't move, Phil swung his feet over the edge of the bed, pulling on the various wires attached in his struggle to get to Clint. "Are you okay? Loki had you. Natasha, get him over here."
That broke the damn, and Clint was by the bedside in a blink, a death grip on Phil's hand. "God, Phil, I thought … we all thought you were dead. Don't ever do that again." Phil pulled him down and kissed him as Tony groaned and covered his eyes in mock horror.
"TMI, people. TMI," he complained, but he was grinning like a loon. "Okay, let's get this little show on the road before they figure out we're not supposed to be here."
"Is this an unauthorized removal?" Phil asked when his lips were free; he was still holding onto Clint like a lifeline.
"Yes, sir," Clint answered with a grin.
"Good. Take me home." His eyes shone with humor and something akin to relief; just then, he looked into the hallway and spotted Clark. "Who the hell is that?"
When the party went on into the wee hours of the morning, Loki began to believe these humans could teach the Asgardians a thing or two about having fun. At some point, he'd lost Tom and fell in with a very funny dark haired man who insisted they do jello shots (wiggly green stuff) with PGA (which was as close to straight Asgardian liquor as he'd seen on Earth); his friends, a male model with gorgeous green eyes and another good looking man who was taller than Loki and had hair just as long, joined them. All three were on some TV show about ghosts or something that he never quite got straight except to remember they all had kids and were constantly talking about their crying offspring between shots and some over-the-top stories about naked photos on horses and rug burns. Then he stumbled upon a small man who could put away more alcohol than Volstagg; another TV person but a prince or advisor or something of the sort, he was a delightful companion (they would have called him a dwarf in Asgard, but here, Loki wasn't sure what the term was). And gorgeous women everywhere he looked, so much laughter and examples of beauty that could put Freya to shame (on her bad days, and, no, Loki would never tell her that). For the longest time, he forgot about getting home and just worked the room; this was different than the fans in the Hall, but just as gratifying, to mix with the hoi polloi, the royalty of Hollywood, as if he were one of them.
"I'm thinking of heading out. Not that I feel I have to babysit you or anything, but are you going to try to take over the world if I leave you here?" Tom asked.
"I'll look out for Paul," Michael … Marvin … Misha said. "The karaoke is just starting. Time to take it over, right?" His two friends agreed.
Loki raised an eyebrow at Tom; what was this carry a yokey?
"Trust me, you're going to love it," Tom said, slapping Mark on the back. "I just wish Jeremy were here."
"So you play me on TV?" Phil asked. He was ensconced on a big bed in the Tower, Clint sitting next to him. "And the fans saved me?"
"Plus we're fan fiction porn favorites, dude. That was on my bucket list, you know," Clint nudged him gently with his shoulder. He looked so much better now, a bit of Jeremy's mischievous sparkle back in his eyes.
"What? You and Phil? Vanilla sex do it for the women in your world, Clark?" Tony strolled into the room.
"Actually, bondage stories are pretty popular for Phlint, all that dom and sub stuff from Fifty Shades," Clark offered, exchanging a smile with Phil and Clint, who'd yet to drop the bomb about Stony.
"Oh, now my ears are bleeding. Stop! I don't want to hear anymore," Tony flailed a little, the big faker, but he was grinning the whole time. "Anyway, we heard back from Thor. Frigga knows a way to get you back to your home. Got to keep that series going so Phil here can be even more famous."
"Really? That's great!" Clark hopped up. "Not that this hasn't been … surreal … but Comic Con sounds wonderful right now. First thing I do, I'm going to call my wife and then talk to my daughter."
"You're married?" Clint sounded surprised, looking over at him.
"Happily." Clark shrugged. "Actor, remember? But I do think I'll put a different spin on Coulson now that I know the truth of things. Nothing obvious, just a few tweaks. Maybe his love for Lola is transference or something."
Both Phil and Clint laughed at that. "I gave him Lola, you know," Clint said. "Long story but it involved a gun runner, some bad guys, and a giant vat of marshmallow cream. Don't ask, Tony. You can read the file."
"Already have, Locksley. Quite a tale," Tony poked back. "Whenever you're ready, Clark?"
"Oh, yeah, um … you guys ought to find Peter Quill so he can fill you in on the Guardians. And Tony, whatever you do, do NOT build an artificial intelligence or anything that can go Ultron on you."
"Ultron?" Phil asked, his focus completely on Clark now.
"Yeah, robot, super intelligent, takes over the Earth and kills a whole bunch of people, how many and who depends upon which comic you read. Joss doesn't have the story written yet, but I think Tony's going to create it – or a guy named Hank Pym. Just don't if you can help it," Clark offered.
"Should you be telling us this?" Bruce asked; he had come in behind Tony. "Messing with the timeline and all that?"
"Screw the prime directive," Clark said. "I'm more of a Kirk type when it comes to that. Besides, I've read the Age of Ultron, and I wouldn't wish that on anybody."
The sun was rising as Loki stood on the roof top terrace overlooking the San Diego bay; a mist was suspended across the water, obscuring Coronado. He was winding down, everyone else either gone to their rooms or sleeping on the lounge chairs around the pool; they'd done humankind proud, lasting as long as they did. Tom had gone to his room a few hours into the singing, and then there had been more drinking and dancing and swimming – without suits and with. Now, he was alone, tucked into a corner to contemplate his next move. He thought of the fans downstairs, about wandering again in his true visage and basking a little more in the glow. New friends had invited him to brunch later before their panel; they'd need food soon based upon the amount of alcohol they'd consumed last night. Peter had been the only one who matched Loki drink for drink, a herculean task that made Loki wish he could take him to Asgard to meet Thor and the others.
"Brother," Thor spoke quietly. He was wearing human clothes, his hair tucked back with a leather thong, sunglasses shading his face. "If you are ready, I can take you home."
"How long have you been here?" Loki turned away from the view.
"Just an hour or so. I saw the end of your revels. It must have been an epic party to last so long." Thor searched Loki's face, and he knew his brother was looking for a hint to how he was feeling.
"It rivaled one of our own," he said with pride. "But I am ready to go. There is still Amora and Thanos to think of. As pleasant as this world is, it is, in the end, only make believe."
"I do not agree," Thor said, his eyes surveying the people asleep. "You were having a good time with people who could become friends."
"Do not mistake me, brother. I have no friends." Loki fell back into his old persona so easily, protecting the precious thing he'd found here. "I might, however, visit again to give my fandom a reason to continue living. They worship me here."
"Of course," Thor agreed. "Only for that." He ignored the last look Loki gave before they stepped through the portal and back into their universe.
"Seriously, Clark, you missed a hell of a party," Chris was saying. "Tom brought Paul and that man can put away the whiskey. And Tom as Loki whipping up the crowd? Wicked good."
Clark caught Tom's eye; the man knew something, Clark would bet anything. Catching Joss by the arm, Clark steered him away from the others for a quiet word in his ear.
"So, I was thinking … Cellists use bows right?"