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Sardines

CHAPTER TWO

When he refuses the tests, Pepper’s lips go thin and she says she won’t stay and watch him drink himself to death. He waves a hand to her. “Go on, then. Leave me,” and cradles his forehead in his head when she does just that.

She’ll be back. She always is.

Tony goes out. Why not? He’s dying. Must be. Might as well make the most of his last days.

It’s late enough, or early enough, that New York City, the city that never sleeps, is at least dozing, and he wanders unhindered from Stark Tower toward the East River. He could walk to Brooklyn, if he wanted.

Or he could walk onto the Bridge, stop in the middle, and never reach the other side.

At least then the pain would stop.

He wanders to the park instead, bottle in hand, the pain receding enough that he feels almost happy. Almost like himself, or what he thinks himself was like, once. He used to be something more, didn’t he? More than this pale, shaking invalid.

He sings, his voice quivering, “‘I love Paris in the springtime. I love Paris in the fall.'” His voice gains volume and strength as he makes his way through the park. “‘I love Paris in the springtime when it drizzles, I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.'”

He knows of a good view of the river. He used to come here with Maria, long ago. She’d let him play on the grass but always stopped him before he got too close to the river.

Well, he can go all the way to the river now.

He sings, “‘I love Paris every moment, every moment of the year. I love Paris and why do I love Paris? Because my lo–‘”

There’s a figure in the empty park, stock-still against the railing. Someone tall and broad.

Tony inhales as a throbbing takes hold in his left temple. Still he steps forward and says, “Hello?” as his heart pounds and the throbbing deepens along with it. “Hello?”

The figure doesn’t move. Tony takes another step, and another, and lays a cautious hand on the broad back.

It’s cool and firm. Stone.

It leaves him reeling.

Nothing hurts.

Not his head, not his chest around the cylinder and the disc, not in his tired feet. Not in … not in what other people likely call a soul, that inner part that he’s never closely questioned.

Tony puts his arm around the statue’s neck, leans his head against the statue’s shoulder. Asks a question he’s never had to ask. “Can I take you home with me?”

Art by VerilyVexed
Art by VerilyVexed

***

Happy finds him before dawn. Coaxes him into the car, drives him home, and doesn’t even make a face when Tony starts humming, “‘I love Paris in the springtime, I love Paris in the fall…'”

***

Tony contacts everyone he can find in the Parks department to ask about buying a statue. He’s sent from person to person, put on hold for hours.

He takes heart in the fact the hold music includes “I Love Paris.” It feels like a sign.

Still, no one in the Parks department knows anything about a statue of a tall, broad man in the Brooklyn Bridge Park, not on the Brooklyn side, not on the Manhattan side, not anywhere. It doesn’t matter how much money he offers, they can’t sell him something that doesn’t exist.

“Isn’t that a Brooklyn Bridge tradition?” he snaps at one of them, and then apologizes. It’s not her fault there are no records of the statue. She offers the notion that it might be the work of a folk artist, left in the park until the artist moves it someplace else, “Like they do by the Golden Gate, with all the garbage that comes through.”

But the statue isn’t garbage. He is beautiful. And he’s the only thing to stop Tony’s pain.

***

Tony braces himself outside the door of the workshop. Today. Today’s the day. He hasn’t worked for … since … well, never mind how long it’s been, he’s lost track of time anyway. He only knows it’s springtime because the snow has melted. He hasn’t worked since before it snowed.

He opens the workshop door.

Mistake.

He tells Happy, as Happy is half-carrying, half-leading him back to bed, “I think I’m gonna program JARVIS to play ‘Oops I did it again’ the next time I go near there. Then you can come stop me.”

“Funny plan, boss,” Happy says, not laughing.

Hours later, when he can focus his eyes again, there’s Rhodey at his bedside, looking at him sorrowfully. “Hey,” Tony says with all the energy he can muster, which isn’t much.

“Don’t ‘hey’ me, Tony.”

“I could say ‘hidey hidey hidey hey,'” Tony offers. “But I think it would be in bad taste.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Forever?” Tony sits up carefully, in stages, waiting for the migraine to reemerge from where it’s lurking in his synapses. He can feel it like the witch in the gingerbread house, just waiting for the children to come and nibble so she can pounce. “I don’t know. Since last fall, at least.”

“Tony,” Rhodey says, stunned. “Geez, Tony. What can I do to help?”

“Nothing,” Tony says and gets carefully out of bed. “But thanks. Let’s eat something. I think I should eat.”

They go to the kitchen. Tony wants to make them BLTs, but the thought of bacon turns his stomach. Tea and toast it is. Again. At least it’s something masculine like Earl Grey and not emasculating like chamomile, and someday he maybe can even have butter.

Sitting at the curving bar, looking out at the lights of Manhattan, Tony says casually, “So I think I’m going crazy.”

Rhodey puts down his mug.

“They want to run an MRI on me, to see if I had a stroke.”

Gently, “Why don’t you let them?”

“Because that’s not it,” Tony says, tearing apart his toast. “Except for the migraines, there’s nothing wrong with my body. It’s my mind that isn’t working right. What year is it?”

“2013,” says Rhodey cautiously.

“Right. So how come the last thing I remember clearly happened in 2008?”

“The last thing you remember?” Rhodey says cautiously.

“Everything after is a blur. We were in Las Vegas. You were giving me — I don’t remember, some useless piece of plastic or another. And then after that–” He spreads his hands, utterly perplexed. “Where’s Obie? What’s happened with Stark Industries? What’s happened to the last five years? Why doesn’t anything make sense?

Still cautious, “Pepper said we can’t talk about that. The migraines–”

“Right!” Tony exclaims. “Explain to me how migraines are triggered by a subject!”

“I can’t.”

“Damn right you can’t! And you know the only thing that’s helped me? The only thing? A statue that disappeared the next day.”

Rhodey pushes the mugs out of the way so he can lean closer too. “I know it’s confusing and I know things it’s unsettling, but we can solve this. You’re not in this alone, Tony.”

“Thanks,” Tony mutters, and leaves out the part where he’s never felt so alone in his life, and that includes the night his parents died.

Tasha hops onto Tony’s knee and he scratches her chin absently. Well, he has her, and that’s a start, right?

Rhodey frowns. “When did you get a cat?”

“I don’t know,” Tony says cheerfully. “Remember how I said nothing makes sense anymore?”

“Right, right,” says Rhodey, thoughtful. When he reaches over to pet Tasha too she nips at him with a soft, cautionary hiss. “Okay, okay, little lady,” he says, holding up his hands with a slight smile. “This statue. Where was it?”

“Brooklyn Bridge Park, but don’t bother to see it for yourself. Like I said, it disappeared the next day.”

“And what would you have done if it hadn’t?”

“Brought it home with me,” says Tony promptly. Tasha rubs her head insistently against his hand and he resumes petting her as she commands. “Put it in the garden or something. Admired the… craftsmanship.”

“So that’s what objectophilia looks like,” says Rhodey, and Tony throws the remains of his toast at him.

***

Two more times that week, Tony returns to the park, to the railing by the water. The first time he has Happy with him, and a vague idea that he’ll just take the statue and find the artist later to pay them the vast amount he’s sure to owe. (And will gladly pay. Gladly.)

They search for hours.

The statue is nowhere to be found.

Finally Happy says, “Maybe it’s time to go home, Tony,” and Tony admits he has a point. “Don’t tell Pepper,” he says in reply, because news of him wandering around in the dark won’t ease her mind about his health.

The second time, he goes alone, in the daytime. He dresses down — T-shirt, jeans, leather jacket, sunglasses — and is able to amble through the park like he’s just another fella — fella, what the hell? — out for a morning constitutional in a beautiful place. Nature is good for you. Sunshine. Fresh air. Other things that, to him, exist more in rumor than experience.

He doesn’t find the statue then, either, and by the time he catches a cab to take him home — he could call Happy, but he doesn’t want Happy to worry, not any more than he already does — the headache is back, throbbing between his eyes like someone is tapping on his brain with a hammer.

Resigned, he lies down in a dark room with a cold pack over his eyes to wait the headache out. At least it’s not one of those brain-busters that make him want to die. Bonus, Tasha decides to be sociable and hops onto the bed with him, and curls against his side, purring like a tiny ginger motorboat. Petting her is as soothing as her purr, especially when she pushes her head against his hand.

Not so much when she sinks her claws into his side or her teeth into his wrist, but that’s the peril of cat ownership.

***

He’s always been restless, he knows that. Used to be, that restlessness was channeled into creation, inventions, making things that were gobbled up by the aggressors of the world. With his lab denied him, Tony tries at first to occupy himself with television, but the flickering images trigger the migraine — he’s started to think of them as a single entity, a monster that resides in his brain — and so that experiment doesn’t last long. He tries reading. Knitting. Playing Solitaire.

He ends up wandering around Manhattan in the small hours of the morning, humming show tunes to himself and wondering where the fork in the road lay. To one side, the charmed, enchanted life of Tony Stark, where he could have any lover he desired, was admired and respected, was a golden boy; to the other, this life, a rambling shell of a former genius, the family fortune the only barrier between him and every other sweaty-toothed madman in New York.

What happened? No one can tell him.

Two weeks after the first time he saw the statue, he’s passing by the garden to some little brownstone when he sees a familiar, longed-for — yearned-for — shape. This is someone’s house and the gate is locked, but since when has a locked gate prevented Tony Stark from getting to something that he wants?

He climbs the wall, makes his way to the broad-shouldered shape, seated on a sandstone bench in front of a little pond, and lays his hand on the cool marble back.

Relief surrounds him like diving into a swimming pool in the hottest day of the summer. He almost weeps. “I’ve been looking for you. Oh, how I’ve been looking.”

There’s only one thing to do if he’s going to get any relief tonight. He crawls onto the bench and lays his head on the statue’s stone lap. It’s hard and cold — of course, how would it be anything else? — but it keeps the pain away, and that’s all he wants.

He vaguely remembers laying his head in Pepper’s lap like this, her fingers gently stroking through his hair to soothe him, but he can’t remember when or why. It must have been during a migraine — she’d never be so familiar if he weren’t in terrible pain.

The statue can’t stroke his hair but his fevered, throbbing brain is finally at peace, and he’s not going to ask for the moon when he already has the stars.

Statue by VerilyVexed
Art by VerilyVexed

***

The light is warming from gray to golden, birds are chirping in the trees lining the garden walls, and Tony’s skin feels tight and rough from sleeping in his clothes, when he realizes that he’s still in the garden and that his head is no longer cold.

He blinks, looking up.

“Hi,” says the statue. “How’d you sleep?”

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