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Sardines

CHAPTER FOUR

They find Odin the garden, his rough warrior fingers gentle as he picks enormous red strawberries from the low-lying plants. Huginn hops among the mounds of soft topsoil, and gives a chirp when he sees Tony and Steve.

Odin looks up as well, and brushes dirt from his hands. “You have found me in meditation, gentlemen.”

“It looks more like you’re picking strawberries,” observes Tony.

“One and the same. What can I do for you?”

“We’d like to talk to Huginn about what happened to Muninn,” says Steve. Huginn flits up from the strawberry patch to perch on Steve’s shoulder. “Oh — hello,” says Steve, looking startled but pleased, and Huginn nips at a lock of his hair.

“So,” says Tony, “does he understand us?”

“Of course,” says Odin mildly. “Speak to him as you would any intelligent creature.”

Tony steps closer to where Huginn sits on Steve’s shoulder. He ducks his head to peer into the bird’s bright black eye, and Huginn tilts his head and gazes back.

“Tell me what happened,” Tony says simply.

We were stolen, says a voice in his head — croaky but gentle, less piercing than a chirp or scold. Stolen by Loki the silver-tongued, and used to subdue his enemies.

Tony jolts, startled, but nods. “Are we his enemies? How? Why?”

You are the Avengers, says Huginn, sounding incredulous. You have thwarted his plans for conquest and revenge, again and again. He hates you all with a pure and burning rage. That is why he stole what is most precious to you — each other.

“Each other?” Tony whispers.

“What is he saying?” murmurs Steve.

Tony’s breath hitches and his eyes sting. He tells Steve, “Loki stole us from each other. All of us.” He asks Huginn, “How many of us are there?”

Six. The Captain. The Man of Iron. The Other. The Widow. The Archer. The Son of Odin.

There’s a twinge in Tony’s temple, and he rubs the pulsing blood vessel with his fingertips. Steve reaches for his hand and the throb recedes at his touch.

“So small,” Tony murmurs. “Yet we keep defeating a god.”

Small but mighty, Huginn tells him. But two have found each other, the Captain and the Man of Iron. It remains only to find the rest.

“How? How do we find them? Where do we find them?”

Ah. The raven spreads his wings. There is the riddle. He gives a beat of his wings and takes to the air.

The three of them stand watching, until Huginn circles above them and the thought is put in Tony’s mind: To the hunt, Man of Iron!

He gives Steve’s hand a tug. “Come on, Captain. To the hunt!”

***

At the tower, Stark Tower, Huginn leads them through the lobby to the elevators with nary a pause. The lobby is frenetic with activity, as suits a crowded workplace during business hours, but still a few people stop to marvel at the raven flying freely through the pristine atrium. A few more also stop to marvel at the sight of their CEO, but as if they all got the memo none of them try to stop him for a chat.

Tony glances at his companion. Must be Steve’s doing — big, blond, and broad doesn’t exactly spell intimidating, but there’s a determination in his face that says anyone who attempts to stop them will get plowed under.

As they hurry, Steve says softly to Tony, “You called me Captain.”

“Huginn said the Captain and the Man of Iron had found each other. If I’m the Man of Iron — and I have no idea what that means — then you must be the Captain.”

“Captain of what?”

Tony grins at him. “Ah,” he says in a lofty tone like the one Huginn had used. “There’s the riddle.” He pauses, struck suddenly by the unseasonal decorations in the vast atrium, centered around an enormous evergreen as if it were still Christmas. “Steve. What do you make of that?”

Steve pauses to look at the tree. “It’s a strange choice.”

“Very strange,” Tony murmurs, and then Huginn gives an impatient chirp and they catch up to him.

Huginn leads them to the penthouse, Tony’s private apartment, and perches on the bar. He tilts his head to fix them with one bright black eye, then the other.

“Steve and I found each other purely by chance,” Tony says. “We’ll never find them if we rely on that.”

“What were you doing when you found me?” says Steve.

“Wandering in the park.” He pauses, embarrassed. “Singing.”

Steve smiles, looking surprised and touched. “Singing?”

“Sometimes I sing.” Tony gazes at him — a challenge.

Steve crosses the room and takes Tony’s face in his hands. He kisses Tony soundly. “When this is over,” he whispers, “I want to hear you sing, just for me.”

Tony nods, aware that he’s gone starry-eyed and moony-faced as Steve gazes at him with fondness and affection, and Huginn gives a chirp. No time for play, Man of Iron!

Where Tasha came from, Tony has no idea, but suddenly there’s a streak of ginger cat on the bar and Huginn squawks as her silky white paws pin him to the carpet. Her tail twitches and her ears are alert as Huginn thrashes, to no avail.

“Bad Tasha!” Tony scolds and approaches them carefully, worried she’ll sink her claws into Huginn’s breast, magical raven or no. “Bad cat!” He picks up Tasha and she hisses, and he scratches her head as she flails. Huginn hops to his feet and glares at her from one eye.

“Poor puss,” says Steve and joins Tony in stroking her soft ginger fur. “No hunting the–”

It hits them at the same time — Tony can see it in Steve’s wide eyes and the look of shock on his face, which he knows must be mirrored on his own, as the knowledge hits them.

Her name is Natasha Romanov.

Code name: Black Widow.

As dangerous as she is beautiful, a woman of mystery and silence, with a wry sense of humor and a rarely-seen smile, and Tony always feels like a champion for the day whenever he coaxes her into showing it.

Huginn’s voice in Tony’s head is peevish. The Widow is cunningly disguised.

“The Widow,” Steve murmurs.

“She beat up Happy once in the boxing ring.”

“No! Who’s Happy?”

“My bodyguard.” He looks down at Tasha, who is serenely grooming a paw. “If he were transformed into something, it would probably be a VW Bug.” He looks up at Huginn, who flits up the bar again and preens his feathers. “What just happened?”

You completed a circle. The greater the circle becomes, the more your knowledge of each other will grow.

“So once we’re all together, we’ll remember everything?” He looks down at Tasha again, as she makes herself comfortable in the crook of his arm. Her claws lightly poke his skin, as if to remind him that she’s a hunter and not just something small and cuddly. “I hope you remember all the times you bit me once you’re human again, kid.”

“I think,” says Steve, a smile lurking on his mouth, “that she bites you when she’s human, too.”

“Shut it,” Tony says and stalks to Huginn on the bar. The bird takes a hop back and Tasha perks up, her nose twitching. “Information,” Tony demands, and Steve says, “Tony,” in a warning tone. “Information, Huggy Bear, or I’m putting her down.”

Huginn hops back, and a rumble starts in Tasha’s tiny frame. Loki Silver-Tongue hid your friends where they could be found, he tells Tony, and Tony relates his words to Steve. Even Muninn is hidden in plain sight. They are here, in your tower, hidden like princesses behind a wall of thorns. But how they can be found is known only to Loki. But you and the Captain, it is within your means to locate them.

“But we don’t know anything,” says Steve. “We didn’t even know the cat is one of us until you said so.”

Natasha Romanov is clever and quick, responds Huginn. Very like a cat.

“So we need to find critters like our friends,” muses Tony.

Not only creatures. Objects. Loki robbed you all not only of your memories, but of your thoughts, as well.

“I can think,” murmurs Steve.

“Only half the time,” Tony reminds him. “The rest of the time you’re basically an oversized garden gnome. And I’ve been barely been able to string two thoughts together for months, thank you, migraines.”

Thought and memory. Huginn tilts his head, black eyes sparkling. The difference between intelligent creatures and mindless beasts.

“Mindless beasts,” murmurs Tony, and lifts up Tasha by the scruff to look into her eyes. They are cat eyes, no mistaking them for human. She even relaxes like a kitten in its mother’s mouth as he holds her. “How do we cure them?”

I know not, Man of Iron.

“Maybe we need to be together,” says Steve. “We collect everyone into one room. Maybe being together will break the spell completely.”

“It’s worth a try.” Tony asks Tasha, “Is there any point in asking you to stay put?”

She blinks sleepy eyes at him. Her tail twitches.

“Huginn, you’re coming with us,” says Steve, and the raven flits to his shoulder. “Where should we start?”

***

They decide to start at the bottom of the Tower, in the parking garage. “It’s like a scavenger hunt,” Tony says to Steve as they wander among the cars. “Only we don’t have a list.”

“I think it’s more like Sardines,” Steve replies. “We’re hunting each other and we’ll all be together in the end.”

Tony smiles at him fondly. “You’re the sentimental one, I see.”

“And you’re the pragmatic one,” Steve says. “I think that’s why we work.”

Your friends are not here, says Huginn, and they get on the elevator to try the next floor.

Several levels of garages and HVAC, and they reach the lobby. It’s pulsing with life as only suits a busy workplace at lunchtime, and several people stop and stare — at Tony, at Steve, at the raven who hops between Tony’s shoulder and Steve’s — as they wander past the water features, planters, and the big evergreen tree.

Tony stops at the tree. There are other trees, of course, most far more exotic than an evergreen, and Tony knows he has botanists on his payroll whose sole responsibility is to keep this little ecosystem running. So why an evergreen — why a decorated evergreen when it’s not Christmas for months?

“It smells good,” Steve remarks. “It smells like the redwood forests.”

“What do you say, bird?” Tony asks Huginn, who lifts off from Tony’s shoulder and flies around the tree. People nearby stop their hurrying to watch the bird in flight, and Steve slides a hand across Tony’s lower back as they watch in silence.

Huginn completes his inspection and lands in front of Tony, his claws clicking on the stone lip of the planter. It is the Other.

“The Other,” says Tony. He climbs into the planter and lays his hand on the rust-colored trunk. Steve climbs in after him and lays a hand on the trunk, too, and Huginn flies through the branches and lands on Tony’s shoulder.

It hits Tony like the migraine, but instead of pain it’s — it’s knowledge, that this person, the man transformed into this tree, is his friend, his comrade, his brother in the exploration of truth and discovery. When he’s the Other Guy he’s big and green and terrifying, but when he’s not, he’s as steadfast as an evergreen.

“Bruce,” Tony whispers, “his name is Bruce.”

“I,” Steve begins. “I don’t remember, not exactly, but I know him. I know that I know him. We’ll get you out of there,” he promises as he runs his hand over the bark.

“We can’t take this up to the penthouse, says Tony with a frown.

“Once we’ve found the others we’ll bring everyone here.” He grins at Tony. “That was kind of neat, wasn’t it? Like completing a circuit.”

Tony makes a smoochy face at him. “You complete me,” he coos, and Steve blushes, still grinning.

They continue the search, startling Tony’s employees as they pop into the various departments. It’s even more like a game now — if three of them were a statue, a cat, and a tree, what could the others be?

“The son of Odin,” says Tony as they take the stairs further up. “The Archer.”

“Frigga and Odin said Thor is the god of thunder. If Natasha Romanov is quick and clever like a cat, and Bruce is a big and solid as a redwood, then what would Thor be?”

“Loud?” Tony suggests and pulls open the glass door to a gleaming reception area.

The receptionist gets to her feet with a startled, “Mr. Stark!”

Tony waves her off. “We won’t be long. We’re looking for something.”

“Of course, Mr. Stark. How can I help you?”

“We might be looking for something that sparkles, something loud, or something long and pointy.”

Her face solemn, the receptionist holds out a silver-plated letter opener.

Not the Archer, Huginn informs him. Nor is it the son of Odin.

Tony focuses on the girl’s jewelry instead. “Where did you get that?” he says, pointing to the silver bird’s wing pendant hanging around her neck.

She put a hand on it a moment. “It was left on my desk a few months ago. There was a bow around it, so I’ve always thought it was a secret admirer. There’s an inscription, too.”

“May I see it?” Tony asks and she unclasps the silver chain and gives him the necklace. Inscribed in tiny letters along one edge, it reads, “I see better from a distance.”

Steve gives him a hopeful look, then lays his hand on top of Tony’s.

And Tony knows he is the Archer, the Hawk, calm and lethal, whip-smart, street-smart, the only person Natasha relaxed around until the rest of them came along.

“Clint,” Steve murmurs. “Hawkeye. Like a sharp-shooter.”

“Can I have this?” Tony says and drops the necklace into his pocket. “It’s not from a secret admirer, I’m afraid, honey — just someone with a terrible sense of irony.”

“Of course, Mr. Stark,” the receptionist says, still looking starry-eyed, and Tony makes a mental note to send her something tasteful to replace it.

***

They continue the search, but by the time they reach Tony’s penthouse they’re out of ideas, and sunset is approaching.

Tony scoops up Tasha. “Will you stay here tonight?” he asks Steve. “You’ll be as safe here as you would be in Frigga’s garden, and we can keep on looking in the morning.”

“I’ll stay,” Steve says, with a look in his eye that makes Tony shiver in anticipation. “I’d rather sleep next to you than spend one more night as a statue, though.”

Huginn’s claws dig into Tony’s shoulder, and he yelps in protest. The hunt is not over yet!

“Then tell us where to look, smart guy,” Tony says. He’d laid the necklace carefully on top of the bar, and tried setting Tasha beside it to see if that made anything happen. She only sniffed it a few times and then hopped down again, far more interested in Huginn — who was careful to stay far away from anything Tasha could jump off to chase him.

“Clint was a wing,” Steve murmurs, picking up the necklace. “Bruce is a tree. I was a statue. Men of action, made as still as toy soldiers.”

“Thor would be reduced to stillness, too,” Tony says.

“And like you said — it would ironic, somehow. Loki is Thor’s brother, but they’re enemies.” Steve’s expression sobers. “His transformation would be worst of all.”

Tony looks at Steve a moment, and then leaves the penthouse for the landing pad outside. He had no idea what it’s for — it’s too small for a helicopter, and and even he has yet to perfect the hovercar. If Steve is right, if they’re all men of action, he doesn’t know what sort of action he does. His own past, what he knows about himself, still isn’t clear — the bits and pieces are still scattered — but he hopes that once they’re all together, his past will fit together, too.

Steve follows him outside. “Tony? Are you okay?”

Tony squint up at the top of the tower and shields his eyes from the sun. “Can you see up there?”

Steve squints at it, too. “Yeah. What are you looking for?”

Tony looks at him. “If Thor is the god of thunder, what would piss him off most?”

“Not being able to control the thunder anymore?”

Tony points at him, and then at the roof. Steve’s gaze follows his finger. “Lightning rod.”

“Son of a gun,” says Steve. “How do we get up there?”

***

After five p.m., Stark Tower clears out. It’s not entirely empty, of course — there are cleaning crews, R&D developers working late, security guards — but enough people are gone that Tony feels no shyness about bringing the necklace, lightning rod, and cat to the tree in the lobby, Tasha in a satchel, her head and paws poking out of the slit and her nose twitching with interest.

He and Steve climb into the planter. Steve holds the necklace in one hand and the lightning rod in the other, and Tony takes Tasha out of the satchel. They look at each other, and then each place a hand on the tree.

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