Posted on Leave a comment

Sardines

CHAPTER THREE

Tony falls off the bench, it’s such a shock, and the statue kneels on the grass to help him up. “Slow, careful,” he says, and his voice is warm against Tony’s ears. “Careful. You’ll be okay. You’re safe here.”

“You were in the park,” Tony says stupidly. The statue’s fingers are clasped around his arm, and they’re warm and humanly soft, even though his arms are capped with bulging muscles and his broad chest and slim waist speak of hours spent with weights and running laps.

Or not. Some bastards are just that lucky.

“I know,” the statue says. “I wasn’t paying attention to the time and sundown caught me by surprise. Um,” he adds after a moment, “I’ve … got a condition.”

“No kidding,” says Tony, still blinking at the statue. His skin is warm, a peachy sort of tone, and he’s square-jawed and blue-eyed, impossibly beautiful. Tony would think he’s dreaming except he can feel that hand clasped around his arm, the damp grass soaking through the knees of his trousers, the warm rising sun on his skin. No dream is this vivid.

But he has seen this face in his dreams. He’s certain of that.

“Come on,” the statue says gently and helps Tony stand. “My friends are awake and they want to meet you.”

“Friends?” Tony says. He expects to stumble through the garden, with the statue’s hand still wrapped around his arm, but they move smoothly as if the statue is just guiding him along instead of tugging him to his doom. “Are they going to call the cops on me? I trespassed. This is trespassing.”

“They’re not going to call the cops. Frigga told me they’ve been wanting to meet you for a while. There they are,” the statue adds as they approach the house. Funny thing about this garden — he remembers it from the night before, it was just the little postage stamp of a back yard that most houses have in the city, but once you’re inside, it seems vast, lush, overflowing with unseasonal abundance. There’s a peach tree, branches heavy with ripe peaches hanging over the breakfast table, and there are strawberry plants, dotted with ruby red fruit and white blossoms, lining the gravel path. Beyond that are roses, lilies, tulips, more flowers than he can name, a jumble of color framed by deep, silvery greens.

At the table are a couple old enough to be Tony’s parents, the woman lovely as a screen goddess from another era, the man gray-haired and dignified with one eye covered by a golden patch. There’s a black bird on the table, and the man feeds the bird breadcrumbs as Tony and the statue approach. “Ah,” says the man in a warm, rich, voice. “There you are, Steven.”

“Good morning, Odin. This is him.”

“So it is.” He rises and embraces Tony, a strong warrior’s hug. “Welcome. I am Odin and this is my wife, Frigga.”

“Ma’am,” says Tony, bashful. The breakfast table is as overflowing with food as the garden is with flowers, and set for four. Tony realizes abruptly that he’s starving, that he hasn’t eaten anything more substantial than dry toast for days because nothing else would stay down. Everything on the table looks so delicious that Tony clenches a hand to keep himself from falling onto it and stuffing his mouth with eggs and pastries and apples dripping with juice. He licks his lips, remembering the sweet-tangy taste.

“Please, sit,” says Frigga. “Eat. You must be hungry after your ordeal.”

Tony sits. The statue — Steven, it’s ridiculous to keep calling him ‘the statue’ when he’s clearly a man — sits too, and begins filling his plate. Tony takes that to mean he can, too, and does, trying not to rush it. “My ordeal?”

“Don’t push him, my love,” Odin says softly to Frigga, who nods. “Muninn hasn’t returned.”

“Who?” Tony picks up a cinnamon roll as big as his head, cream cheese frosting spread thickly over the top. The scent is so tempting his stomach growls. “Um, sorry. Excuse me.”

“Eat,” says Frigga, amused. Her own meal is much smaller, though no less varied, her plate piled with berries and cream, warm scones dripping with melting butter and honey. “No one goes hungry in this house.”

“Good philosophy,” says Tony. Steven chuckles, and they both fall to eating.

As they eat, Odin says, “We came to New York City to find our missing son. It is a difficult task, made no easier by the strange events that have surrounded your ordeal and Steven’s, too.”

“What strange events?” There is coffee, so black he can taste the heat of the land in which it grew.

“Have you noticed things missing?” says Frigga. “Not physical objects, but people, events, that should be there and are not.”

“I don’t know,” says Tony and looks at Steven. “There are missing pieces. There are blurs.”

“Steven can’t remember a thing.” She looks at Steven sympathetically, and he smiles a little and butters a biscuit. “We only know his name because of our son’s stories of him, as we know yours, Anthony.”

Something whispers in his mind, Magic. There’s magic here. Well, it makes as much sense as anything else, as this enormous garden where it should be tiny, as the man who turns to stone when the sun goes down.

“What is your son’s name?” he asks Frigga.

She says, after a glance to her husband, “Thor.”

The pain hits Tony at once, hard enough to make him hiss with the force of it, and he presses his fingers between his eyebrows. Odin murmurs something to the bird, and the bird flutters across the table and lands on Tony’s shoulder.

“Huginn,” says Odin. “Thought. Though what we truly need is Muninn, memory. Muninn can help break the spell and restore what has been stolen away.”

“Stolen is a harsh term,” Frigga murmurs.

“Loki’s magic deserves a harsh response,” Odin replies.

The name Loki intensifies the pain from a mere headache to a full-blown migraine, pain so intense that Tony curls forward, clutching his head. The bird, Huginn, chirps softly in his ear but the tiny sound does nothing to pierce the pain.

“Anthony,” says Frigga, distressed. “What can we do to help you?”

“I don’t know,” Tony says. His fingers dig into his temples, as he tries to distract himself from one pain with another.

“You were looking for me,” says Steven and lays a hand on Tony’s back. “There must be a reason.”

As suddenly as the pain arrived with the names, it flees with Steven’s touch. Tony exhales and turns toward him, longing to bury himself in that broad chest. He manages a smile. “You’re the first good thing to happen to me in I don’t know how long.”

“Tony,” Steve whispers and strokes his back. “I’m here, Tony. I’ve got you. I’m here.”

***

Tony showers, spending blissful minutes under the hot water as it pounds his tense shoulders and neck into relaxation, and when he emerges his rumpled suit has been removed and there are fresh clothes waiting for him. He puts them on, jeans and a white T-shirt, and as he stretches he realizes he feels more like himself than he has for weeks. Months. Years, he suspects.

Frigga told him to rest and recover from the migraine, but he wants to dance instead, and eat and drink. He wants to bounce on the balls of his feet and spin around with his arms out like a kid playing helicopter.

He wants to talk to Steve. He doesn’t know what he will say, but it doesn’t matter — the words will come.

He has a feeling that he and Steve will never run out of things to say to each other. It’s as comforting a feeling as the clean clothes, the hot shower, and the firm bed where Frigga bade him rest — and where Steve is waiting for him, denim-covered legs crossed, a smile on his lips when he sees Tony.

“Frigga sent me to make sure you rest,” says Steve, leaning back on his hands. He looks like every All-American poster boy that was ever committed to film, like he should be selling anything from Coke to US savings bonds; so wholesome and pure that Tony knows that normally he would be mocking him.

Abruptly Tony knows he has mocked him, though it’s usually been more like affectionate ribbing than actual cruelty. He knows, too, that Steve has a certain smile for just those occasions, one he never hesitates to let Tony see.

Tony sits on the bed, gazing at Steve. “Tell me the last thing you remember.”

“Coming to in Central Park,” Steve says without hesitation. “It was dawn, and there was no one around but a few joggers, and even though I knew where I was in an instant, I didn’t know how I got there or anything about myself.”

“Nothing before that?”

Steve shakes his head. “Nothing.”

Tony sighs and shoves a hand through his hair. “The last thing I remember,” he says slowly, “before everything goes blurry and weird, is a flash of green light. After that, that’s when things stopped making sense.”

Steve frowns, brows furrowing in thought. Tony supposes he ought to be annoyed with how handsome Steve is even when he’s serious, but he wasn’t — he finds it as charming as Steve’s smile. “Sometimes when I’m changing, I see that, too,” he says in a tone of wonder. “It happens so fast, though, I can’t describe it in any more detail.”

It’s a wonder talking about this doesn’t have him curled in a ball on the floor, Tony thinks — and then looks down to see that their knees are touching. So that’s all it takes, a touch that small, and somehow he’s under whatever protection Steve gives him.

He lays a hand lightly on Steve’s shoulder, just as a precaution. “Does it hurt? The change?”

“No,” Steve says. “It’s like falling asleep. One moment you’re awake, the next you’re not.”

“Good,” says Tony. “Bad enough that this happens to you at all.” They sit, looking at each other a moment, then Tony says, “We knew each other before this started.”

“I think so, too.”

“I don’t know about our hosts, though.”

Steve shakes his head. “Odin told me, when they first started looking after me, that he’d only heard me from their son’s description and stories, and found me because of Huginn.”

“The bird?”

“The bird,” Steve confirms. “Huginn and Muninn disappeared not long before Thor did, but Huginn found his way back to Odin. He’s been looking for Muninn, and the trail led here — which caused Odin and Frigga to realize Thor isn’t just extending his visit, he’s actually missing. And no one can tell them what happened, because it’s like nothing happened — like Thor has never come here at all.”

“The missing pieces,” Tony murmurs. “Thor is missing. Other people are, too, and we need to find them as much as Frigga and Odin need to find Thor.”

“And Loki, their other son.”

Tony feels a shudder go through him, and a twinge at the base of his skull. “Loki,” he mutters and presses his hand to his eyes a moment, trying to focus, to fight the pain. Steve covers his other hand with his own, and like that, Tony can breathe more easily, can bear the light. He smiles at Steve gratefully. “Odin and Frigga think he did this.”

“As I understand it, yes.”

“How?”

“Magic,” Steve says simply. “I’m more interested in figuring out why. I want my life back, Tony. I know I had one. I must have. Frigga and Odin haven’t told me much — I think they’re afraid of overwhelming me — but from what I’ve gathered so far, our lives were far from ordinary.”

“I can believe yours is.” His gaze sweeps over Steve, and he smiles when Steve blushes.

“Tell me who you are,” Steve says, looking away. “All I know about you is what Huginn has told me, which isn’t much beyond your name.”

“I used to invent things,” Tony says. “I used to be brilliant, according to everything I’ve seen about myself. Used to solve problems before other people even noticed they existed. I used to be–”

“Tony,” Steve says. “Stop saying you used to be. You still are. You just have to find it again, like me and the rest of my life. It’s not gone forever.”

“You,” Tony begins, but he has no idea how to finish that thought.

Not in words, anyway.

Steve tastes like berries and cream. He smells like outdoors, like water running over stones, like the first grass of spring. He feels solid under Tony’s hands, and his arms go around Tony without hesitation, as if they know exactly where they’ll fit. Tony tries to pull Steve to him but it’s like tugging a tree, and so Tony is content to stay close to that broad chest and keep tasting him.

“Tony,” Steve whispers when they part, and they lean their foreheads together, and Steve’s eyes are so, so blue, and Tony knows he’s held Steve this closely and looked into his eyes and he doesn’t remember when or how and it hurts to know they had something wonderful and it was stolen, it was taken from them. He wants it back so much, so badly, that his body aches with the need to feel it again.

He holds Steve by the back of his neck, and Steve grunts a little under the pressure of Tony’s fingers. “Our friends,” Tony says. “He took away our friends. Worse than that, he took you away from me.”

“You’re just getting agitated.”

“Damn right I’m agitated! You and me — try and tell me we’re not more to each other than friends. Try and tell me that.”

“I can’t,” Steve says simply. “I don’t know what we were to each other, Tony. All I know is that I cure you of the pain this spell puts you under, and you — you feel like –”

“Like what?” Tony demands when Steve hesitates.

“Home,” Steve says softly, meeting Tony’s eyes, and Tony releases his grip on Steve’s neck and lays his head on Steve’s shoulder.

“Whatever we had, I want that back.”

“We’ll find it, Tony.” He lies back, bringing Tony with him, and Tony thinks he should act shocked, shocked, that Steve would be so depraved as to want sex right after breakfast, but Steve is kissing him again and it feels too good to tease him.

In what he suspects is far, far too long, Tony thinks, I’m the luckiest guy alive.

***

When Tony was a boy, his parents used to summer at Cape Cod. The beach house — a six-bedroom “cottage” — was one of his favorite places to be, because it meant no interruptions of phone calls and tobacco-smelling men demanding time with his father, no nights of his mother anxiously watching the drive for the line of black cars to return, no murmured conversations behind closed doors ending with “Howard!” as his father fixed himself another scotch.

He had a nanny in those days; that year she was a young woman from the Netherlands who was as austerely beautiful as a Hitchcock blond. They went to the beach daily, since it was mere steps away, but Griet never went into the water and tried to keep Tony from swimming far from the shore.

One afternoon he teased her, running into the surf and then out again, while she called fretfully, “Tony, Tony, it is too far, come back!” and he laughed and danced at the water’s edge. His parents were closer to the house, sheltered by a red-and-white striped beach umbrella, and there had been a lunch of hot dogs and potato salad earlier. He felt happy. He felt like other boys.

He ran back out into the water, shouting, “Mother! Griet! Look at me!” as he went out beyond where the waves broke against his knees, against his thighs, against his chest.

And then he did go too far.

He could remember the sensation of the water closing over his head as something pulled him down like an invisible hand.

He could also remember a hand, a real one, closing around his wrist and yanking him out of the dark.

When they were sure he was still breathing, his father shouted at him never to be so reckless again and his mother kissed him over and over, running her hands over his hair and his face, and Griet sobbed in Dutch. (She didn’t last beyond the summer, but Tony often thought he owed his preference to tall blonds to that very formative year.) And Tony clung to his father that night like he rarely had before and never did after, and thought, Daddy saved me. Daddy saved me.

Lying in bed with Steve feels like that. Not like drowning, but like being pulled out, like being able to breathe again.

Steve dozes on his chest. His blond hair is tousled, his face is still flushed. Tony traces his cheekbone and his solid jaw, and knows, knows like he knows breathing in will fill his lungs, that they were everything to each other.

“Is that why you can protect me?” he whispers, and Steve rubs his cheek against Tony’s chest with a soft wordless murmur. “Through all of this, you knew you could take care of me?”

“Maybe I was your nanny,” Steve murmurs, and gives him a sleepy smile.

“I stopped having a nanny when I went to college at fourteen,” Tony says primly. “And you’re not my bodyguard — I already have one. You’re my live-in lover. Betcha.”

“No bet.” He kisses Tony’s neck. “I know you’re right. You and me, we lost a lot when we lost each other. But we’ll find it again. I know it.”

“First we have to find that bird. Muninn. And we have to find our friends.”

Steve leans on his elbow and gazes at Tony. “Thor, and the others we don’t remember yet we know they exist. This isn’t just a needle in a haystack, Tony, this is — this is setting sail without a star chart and a map.”

“If I recall my history,” says Tony, “that’s how they discovered everything interesting.”

Steve chuckles and kisses his forehead. “I love this mind.”

“Mm,” Tony murmurs, closing his eyes — and then they pop open and he says, “Say that again.”

“I love your mind,” Steve says uncertainly, though he’s smiling. “What is it?”

“Pain,” Tony says. “And the absence of pain. Steve.” He sits up and Steve sits back, watching him closely. “I haven’t been able to think for months. I’ve been in so much pain I haven’t been able to do the one thing I’ve always been able to do — think. I’m an inventor, Steve, I’m an engineer. I make things. But it all starts up here.” He taps his forehead, between his brows.

“And that was taken away,” Steve says, eyes growing wide in understanding. “When I’m a statue I don’t think, I don’t even dream — it’s like I don’t exist. And without a past, I may as well not exist at all.”

“I’ll bring you back,” Tony promises and holds Steve’s face to kiss him fiercely. “I’ll bring you all back.”

“We’ll bring each other back,” Steve says and kisses him. “We need to find Muninn. We need to find our friends. If our thought and memories were stolen, you know theirs have been, too. But how, Tony? How do we find them in a city of millions — in a world of billions? We don’t know anything about them, not even their names.”

“We have one name. We start there. We need to talk to Huginn.” He gives Steve a lopsided smile. “Ever had a conversation with a raven?”

“Only this one,” says Steve and grabs his pants.

Leave a Reply