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Sardines

CHAPTER FIVE

When Tony was a child, he learned things so quickly and so completely that he could scarcely remember a time when he didn’t know them. Machines and circuits he understood far faster and sooner than he understood people. They fit together like music. There was an order, a simplicity to the things he made, and he could remember the thrill of discovery far better than he could remember learning the actual steps of creation and assembly.

What happens beneath the tree is like that. One moment they are just two guys with a random bunch of objects like the world’s most mundane scavenger hunt, and the next they are Tony, Steve, Bruce, Thor, Natasha and Clint, sprawled on the soft grass in the planter. Tony knows that he knows them — and from their faces he knows they know him, too — though he isn’t still quite certain how they came to be this oddball group and what they experienced together.

But he also knows that a love for them, fierce and big, takes hold in his chest. They’d been gone from him for so long, and he’d been missing them so much, that the rest of his life felt undone without them. They’re his family. He’s going to keep them.

They are all still holding hands as they look around, stunned and blinking, and then Steve takes off his plaid overshirt and gives it to Natasha. She looks amused as she takes it, as if her nakedness doesn’t bother her a bit but she’ll concede to Steve’s sense of modesty, and shrugs it on.

“So,” she says as she buttons, “who do we punish for this?”

“I’m still not certain,” Tony says. “We have theories. We’ll have to talk about them later, though — let’s get some clothes on you guys and Steve to a safe place. If the spell’s not completely broken he’s going to transform into a statue any minute now.”

“Of course he is,” says Clint, and Natasha slides an arm around his shoulders in a brief moment of affection.

“Spell,” says Thor as they walk to the elevators. He, too, is unconcerned by his nudity, while Bruce looks like he’s one wrong look from grabbing a fire extinguisher to cover himself. “It sounds like Loki’s doing.” He pauses. “I have a brother named Loki, yes?”

“Yes,” Steve tells him, and holds the elevator doors open until they’re all aboard. “Your parents are here, too, looking for the two of you.”

“That is… not as good news as it should be,” says Thor.

The doors slide closed and the elevator begins its climb. Bruce still hasn’t said a word, and Tony nudges him. “Bruce? You okay, buddy?”

“I was a tree,” Bruce replies.

“Is that a yes or a no?” Bruce looks at him, wry, and Tony grins in response. “A shower and some food and you’ll be right as rain. Cross my heart.”

The elevator stops and the doors open to reveal several researchers in white lab coats. Both groups stare at each other for a beat or two, then Tony says, “You folks probably want to wait for the next one,” as one of the researchers says, “Maybe we should wait for the next one.”

***

Tony’s clothes are too small for Thor and too big for Natasha, so Thor has to make do with sweat pants and Natasha rolls up the cuffs of a pair of jeans and ties the tails of Steve’s shirt around her waist. Once they’re all showered and dressed they gather in the main room of Tony’s penthouse to eat delivery pizzas and keep Steve company until the sun goes down.

They talk as they eat, about what they remember, what they don’t. They know each other’s names — they know the closeness that exists between them, if the comfort they have in leaning against each other and reaching over each other for another slice is anything to go by. But none of them really remember what happened, though they agree with Tony that the last thing before the long blankness begins is a flash of green light. Huginn hops around the living room, pecking at the crusts the humans break off for him, contributing little — at least, not that Tony can hear.

Finally Steve murmurs to Tony, “It’s that time,” and they slip outside.

“Do you want to sit or stand? I think if you want to stand, you should be at the end of the landing pad, there. It’ll look cool.”

Steve leans against a concrete planter instead and smiles at Tony, his gaze affectionate. “I feel a lot better, knowing they’re okay. Don’t you?”

“Considering I had no idea any of them existed this morning, God, yes, do I ever.” He leans against the planter too, gazing back at Steve. “The only thing that would make this better is knowing you’re okay, too.”

“I will be,” Steve says. “I bet when our memories are restored, that’ll break the spell entirely.” A beat passes as they gaze at each other, and then he adds, “I want to kiss you but I’m afraid I’ll change in the middle of it and hurt you somehow.”

“I want to kiss you too,” Tony confesses. “If I kiss you while you’re stone, would that be weird?”

“Yes, Tony,” Steve says gently.

“Guess it can wait until morning, then.” He drags his gaze away from Steve to look out at the city, and the sun sinking beyond the horizon. “I’ll come out here at sunrise with coffee for you. I’ll make breakfast, too. It won’t be as grand as Frigga’s spread, but I do sometimes manage to make bacon without burning it, and toast is easy. I can do toast.”

“I’m sure you make great toast.”

“You’re just humoring me, Rogers.”

“Yes, I am,” Steve says cheerfully. “Because out of all of this, I’m absolutely sure of one thing, and that’s that I’m crazy about you and you’re crazy about me. So I figure that gives me some license to not always take you seriously.”

“I think very few people take me seriously unless I’m being serious.” He taps his foot against the planter. “Is this how you want to spend the night? Perched next to the azaleas?”

“I think so,” says Steve. “Perched next to the azaleas and looking at you. Please be the last thing I see tonight, Tony.”

“That sounds strangely morbid,” Tony says but stays put. Darkness is falling, and he knows it’s going to happen any moment now, any moment he’s going to have eight hours without Steve. He hates it already. “You’re right,” he says rapidly, hoping to beat the approaching night, “I am crazy about you, I don’t remember why exactly yet but I know that you’re–”

“Sh, Tony,” Steve says, raising a hand to press a finger to Tony’s lips. “It’s okay. It can wait.” His hand drops and Tony’s breath catches as the sun sinks completely and they’re enveloped in full night.

He doesn’t know what he expects to happen, but it’s not Steve’s skin remaining peachy and soft, and not for Steve to blink with surprise and press his hands to his body, with an awestruck, “Tony? Am I dreaming?”

“You’re okay,” Tony says, grabbing him by the front of his shirt. “You’re okay, Steve. You’re okay.”

Steve kisses him, arms going around his neck. Tony’s sure they’re kissed each other a hundred times before, a thousand, maybe, but still it feels like something new and delicious and wonderful.

They’re tangled up in arms and tongues, trying to grip each other tighter, hold each other closer, when there’s lazy applause from the landing pad. Tony looks up, his arms still protectively around Steve, and sees a dark-haired man in a hand-spun green shirt and black leather pants, outlined against the lights of the city.

“So touching,” the man drawls. “I had no idea. Gives all of this a delicious–” He shivers, inhaling with a hiss. “Frisson.

“Dr. Lucas?” Of course he isn’t, Tony realizes — if course the Trickster was keeping a close eye on the victims of his tricks.

“Loki,” says Steve flatly.

You’re behind all of this?” Tony takes a step toward him but Steve hangs on to him with a soft, “Don’t, Tony.”

Before Loki can make a move the doors slide open and everyone else piles out, with beers and slices in their hands. “We thought we’d keep you company, Tony,” says Clint, his arm around Bruce’s neck, “since you’re keeping Steve company — oh.” He stops short, as they all do, when they see Loki. Even Huginn on Thor’s shoulder perks up his head.

“Who are you?” says Thor.

“Oh, my dear brother,” says Loki. “The spell isn’t entirely broken, is it?” His eyes flick to Steve. “Only halfway. I was so looking forward to seeing you as a work of art, Captain Rogers.”

“I like him human,” Tony growls, but then he notices that Natasha is stroking Bruce’s back, and Bruce is breathing very slowly and deeply. It’s not the time for fighting, not when they have no weapons and the only thing the only thing they know about this man is his name.

“So I see,” drawls Loki, and then strides from the landing pad to face them, his boots soundless on the concrete. He’s angular and pale, his eyes piercing, his smile nearly a snarl. “What an interesting wrinkle. Yet it still took you months to find him, and all your lost friends as well. So much for true love.”

“You took our memories,” spits Steve. “You took our thoughts.”

“Such a wonderful game it was, too. Deciding on the perfect punishment. Hiding you away.” He rubs his hands together. “Waiting for the one remaining player to even realize he was in the game.”

Natasha crosses her arms. “You immobilized all of us except me and Steve. Why?”

“You don’t remember?”

Natasha stares at him.

“Him,” Loki jerks his head to Steve, “I can only now explain. Our dear Tony kept him halfway human. While you,” he smiles at Natasha, close enough to her that her eyes follow him as he begins to slowly circle her, “well, I’ve always liked you best.”

Natasha’s lips twitch. Tony suspects it’s as close as she gets to a smile.

“Steven says our parents are here,” says Thor, and Loki’s attention shifts to him. “Huginn will summon them.”

“Oh, but the game isn’t over yet. Not until you release Muninn.”

Huginn gives an impatient flap of his wings.

“How do we do that?” Tony demands.

“Don’t you remember?” Loki gives a feral grin, as if he enjoys this game far more than he knows he should. They all watch him stonily, and he sighs. “Oh, very well. You are all more fun as inanimate objects.” His gaze shifts to Tony, his piercing eyes shining in the night.

The migraine grips Tony, so abrupt and heavy that he cries out and takes a step back, his hand over his eyes to block out the lights of Manhattan. His friends start for him, saying, “Tony, Tony, what’s wrong?” their hands reaching out in protection and support.

Loki’s voice cuts through them all, sharp and domineering. “Stay away from him! Tony Stark alone was left to wander the city and search for you, and yet he did nothing for months for this very reason. It hurt too much,” he says in a voice like a whiny child, his lips turning down in a pout.

“Stop hurting him!” Steve orders, his hand gripping for Tony’s shoulder. Instead of the same wave of comfort he has always brought, the touch only increases the pain and Tony drops to his knees. Steve lets him go with a soft, “Oh, God, Tony, I’m sorry.”

“You want me to release Muninn and restore your memories, restore the memories of your deeds and times?” Loki jerks his chin toward Tony. “It depends on him.”

“What does he have to do?” Steve demands, kneeling near Tony, his hands clenched as if to keep himself from touching Tony again.

“He has to give me a memory.” Loki smiles as if he already knows he’s won.

The others start to protest — what Loki’s asking is impossible, they don’t remember anything — and Tony staggers to his feet. “Is that what this pain is?” he says to Loki, taking a step toward him. “My memories trying to restore themselves?”

“Sometimes magic does what it wishes,” Loki says with a shrug. “Well, Man of Iron? What memories can slip through my barrier?”

Tony starts a cutting retort, but then only closes his eyes. He has memories. He’s had them all along.

A pair of glasses laid in his palm.

“Trust,” he murmurs.

A cascade of red curls sweeping over a shoulder.

“Strength.”

A pair of blue eyes and a hearty laugh.

“Joy.”

A figure beside him in comfortable silence.

“Companionship.”

A warm smile. Gentle hands on his skin. A soft laugh against his neck.

Steve.

“Love,” says Tony and opens his eyes.

There’s a flash of green light and the necklace around Loki’s neck gives an impatient tug, its force jerking Loki’s entire body. Loki rips off the necklace with a disgusted snort, and the little ebony carving starts to fall to the ground. Halfway, it twists and grows in the air, until it’s a full-grown raven rising in the air, his wings spread wide.

“Muninn,” whispers Thor. “Go to your friend,” he tells Huginn, who hardly waits for permission — he alights from Thor’s shoulder and they circle around each other, joyously squawking, before zipping away from the tower and down into the city.

Loki rubs his neck, scowling.

“I’m guessing the magic did what it wanted to then, didn’t it?” Tony says to him and offers a hand to Steve to help him up. Steve looks a bit stunned, but puts his hand in Tony’s.

“I remember you,” he says softly as he rises.

“Me too, Cap,” Tony says, and for a few minutes they all touch each other, lightly, calling each other by their many names, as if to reassure themselves that all is well.

Finally Thor turns to Loki, who is scowling still as he leans against the azalea planter. “Would you like to wait for Mother and Father to arrive or should we meet them halfway?”

“As ever,” says Loki in an annoyed tone, “I suspect I have little say in the matter.”

“You have none,” affirms Thor.

“Wait, wait,” Tony says, holding up his hands. “Before we break up this party, there’s still the matter of my stuff.” Clint’s bow and arrows, Natasha’s guns, Thor’s hammer, Steve’s shield, the suits. “Where are they?”

“Locked away in your work room,” says Loki with a sigh. “That was why I kept you out.”

“Of course. C’mon, kids.” He jerks his head to the elevator. “We aren’t us until we’ve got all that back.” He holds the door open for everyone to troop through, but says, “Go on, I’ll be along in the next elevator,” as he waves them ahead. Steve looks like he’d rather stay, but he goes down to Tony’s workshop with the rest.

When the elevator door closes, Tony leans against the wall and covers his eyes once more. The pain is gone — forever, he hopes — but no matter how he searches his memories he can’t find what he’s most desperate for: Steve, falling in love with Steve, those hundreds of kisses he was so certain they’ve shared, the first time they fell into bed together, the life he was certain they had built. It was so easy — surely they’ve done it before, surely they’ve been deeply in love for years?

Otherwise, where did this come from?

“They’re waiting for you,” Tony mutters and gets on the elevator.

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